November 1896 saw the start of a strange wave of airship sightings across the United States — the San Francisco Call published the image above on Nov. 19, claiming that the craft had passed over eastern Sacramento the previous night, where hundreds had seen “its brilliant searchlight traveling over the city, and who will also swear that they heard the voices of its occupants and distinguished their merry song and laughter.”
In the frenzy that followed, the San Francisco Chronicle published an interview with attorney George D. Collins, who claimed that he represented the airship’s inventor, a wealthy Maine man who had spent 17 years and $100,000 perfecting the craft. “The reports from Sacramento the other night were quite true. It was my client’s ship that inhabitants saw. It started from Oroville, in Butte County, and flew in a straight line for sixty miles directly over Sacramento. After running up and down once or twice over the capital, my friend came on a distance of another seventy miles and landed on a spot on the Oakland side of the bay, where the ship now lies guarded by six men. In another six days several defects will be done away with and it is then his intention to fly right over San Francisco.”
That never happened, and Collins was quickly forgotten, but it’s interesting to note that 10 years earlier, in 1886, inventor Moses Cole had patented a strikingly similar “new and improved aerial vessel” (below). “It consists of two semi-spheroidal balloons,” Scientific American had reported, “between which are situated the cabins for the passengers and crew, these being fitted with windows and surrounded by a circular balcony.” Possibly the Call’s artist had used Cole’s patent for inspiration. Or possibly Collins was telling the truth. Or possibly Martians had adopted Cole’s design as a disguise. We’ll never know.
See Just Visiting.
Tippi Hedren had a lion. The star of The Birds kept a full-grown African lion as a house pet in the 1970s.
“My mother and stepfather went to African in 1972 and found themselves stricken by the plight of animals there,” remembered Melanie Griffith, her daughter, in When I Was a Girl. “There was a prediction that by the year 2000 there would be no more wild animals. My stepfather made a movie about it, and my mother decided that we should get a real lion — that way, we could experience what living with wildlife was like.
“So we made friends with this guy Neil. He had a full-grown lion on his ranch, and we’d go out and visit him. Eventually we got a lion cub of our own. His name was Casey, and he was our first cat. Eventually we started to get more and more. The police would come to our door, and I’d take the lions, jump over the fence into this vacant lot, and hide there with the cats while the police searched the house. It was a wild thing to do.”
Hedren went on to found a California wild animal preserve that, among other things, is now home to Michael Jackson’s two Bengal tigers.
From Currier & Ives — “The Shade and Tomb of Washington.” His tomb is clear enough — where is his shade?
On Sept. 21, 1956, Navy pilot Tom Attridge put his supersonic F11F Tiger into a shallow dive and test-fired two bursts from its 20mm cannon. Unfortunately, the jet was traveling so fast that it overtook its own rounds. One struck the engine, which failed on the way back to the airfield. Attridge crash-landed, losing a wing and a stabilizer but getting away safely. His Tiger had become the first jet aircraft to shoot itself down.
A puzzle sent to me by a Caltech grad student: A man is walking his dog on the beach. Each time he blows a whistle, the dog doubles its speed. If the dog starts at 2 meters per second, how many whistles does it hear? Answer: Fifteen — when the dog exceeds the speed of sound, it catches up with the earlier whistles.
(Thanks, John and Srivatsan.)
What is this? Most people see a mass of black blobs and then gradually recognize a photograph of a Dalmatian.
“What is interesting is that the outline shape on the picture surface that is experienced as resembling that of a dog is not seen as an outline shape at all unless the dog is seen in the figure,” writes University of British Columbia philosopher Dominic McIver Lopes. There’s no dog-shaped outline to notice; the contour of the dog’s body is invisible. To see the contour we must first see the dog … but how do we see the dog without the contour?
[Theodore] Dreiser said that when he was living in New York, on West Fifty-seventh Street, John Cowper Powys came occasionally to dinner. At that time Powys was living in this country, in a little town about thirty miles up the Hudson, and he usually left Dreiser’s place fairly early to catch a train to take him home. One evening, after a rather long after-dinner conversation, Powys looked at his watch and said hurriedly that he had no idea it was so late, and he would have to go at once or miss his train. Dreiser helped him on with his overcoat, and Powys, on his way to the door, said, ‘ I’ll appear before you, right here, later this evening. You’ll see me.’
‘Are you going to turn yourself into a ghost, or have you a key to the door?’ Dreiser laughed when he asked that question, for he did not believe for an instant that Powys meant to be taken seriously.
‘I don’t know,’ said Powys. ‘ I may return as a spirit or in some other astral form.’
Dreiser said that there had been no discussion whatever during the evening, of spirits, ghosts or visions. The talk had been mainly about American publishers and their methods. He said that he gave no further thought to Powys’s promise to reappear, but he sat up reading for about two hours, all alone. Then he looked up from his book and saw Powys standing in the doorway between the entrance hall and the living room. The apparation had Powys’s features, his tall stature, loose tweed garments and general appearance, but a pale white glow shone from the figure. Dreiser rose at once, and strode towards the ghost, or whatever it was, saying, ‘Well, you’ve kept your word, John. You’re here. Come on in and tell me how you did it.’ The apparation did not reply, and it vanished when Dreiser was within three feet of it.
As soon as he had recovered somewhat from his astonishment Dreiser picked up the telephone and called John Cowper Powy’s house in the country. Powys came to the phone, and Dreiser recognized his voice. After he had heard the story of the apparation, Powys said, ‘I told you I’d be there, and you oughtn’t to be surprised.’ Dreiser told me that he was never able to get any explanation from Powys, who refused to discuss the matter from any standpoint.
– W.E. Woodward, The Gift of Life, 1947
On Sept. 9, 1942, a lookout on Mount Emily in Oregon’s Siskiyou National Forest reported a plume of smoke near the town of Brookings. The Forest Service contained the fire easily, but investigators turned up something odd at the site: fragments of an incendiary bomb of Japanese origin.
It turned out that a Japanese submarine had surfaced off the Oregon/California border and 31-year-old navy officer Nobuo Fujita had piloted a seaplane into the forest, hoping to start a fire that would divert U.S. military resources from the Pacific. Recent rains had wet the forest, so the plan failed, but it marked the first time the continental United States had been bombed by enemy aircraft.
Fujita returned safely to Japan, where he opened a hardware store after the war, and he became an agent of amity with the United States. In 1962 he accepted an invitation to return to Oregon, where he donated his family’s samurai sword to Brookings, and he invited three local students to visit Japan in 1985. The city made him an honorary citizen shortly before his death in 1997, and his daughter spread his ashes at the site of the bombing.
‘All the world loves a lover.’ But in Venezuela, they do something about it. T.R. Lahey, in the Catholic periodical, Ave Maria, is responsible for the statement that the postal authorities there allow love letters to go through the mails at half price! But there is a condition. The letters must be mailed in bright-colored envelopes (pansy-blue for loving thoughts, and pink cloud effects; there would be a place for yellow and green to express the feelings of envious suitors and jealous lovers). These bright tints are intended to help the postal clerks and postmen to recognize the nature of the missives; but what a temptation to the carriers to open the letters and cull precious thoughts and phrases!
– The Lutheran, Nov. 6, 1940
Reiss records the death of a woman who was hastily buried while her husband was away, and on his return he ordered exhumation of her body, and on opening the coffin a child’s cry was heard. The infant had evidently been born postmortem. It lived long afterward under the name of ‘Fils de la terre.’ Willoughby mentions the curious instance in which rumbling was heard from the coffin of a woman during her hasty burial. One of her neighbors returned to the grave, applied her ear to the ground, and was sure she heard a sighing noise. A soldier with her affirmed her tale, and together they went to a clergyman and a justice, begging that the grave be opened. When the coffin was opened it was found that a child had been born, which had descended to her knees. In Derbyshire, to this day, may be seen on the parish register: ‘April ye 20, 1650, was buried Emme, the wife of Thomas Toplace, who was found delivered of a child after she had lain two hours in the grave.’
– George Milbry Gould and Walter Lytle Pyle, Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine, 1896
From an account by Spanish priest Pedro Simón of an expedition led by Luis Alonso de Lugo against the Tairona Indians of Colombia, 1535:
At dawn, as they lay hidden in the cornfields which surrounded the village, awaiting the moment to attack, they heard an ass bray. They knew that the Indians did not possess such animals, and did not believe that an ass could have climbed the high crags which barred the way from the coast. … When the place had been pacified and looted, they enquired about the ass … The Indians said that it had come in a ship, which had been wrecked on the coast. … They had killed those of the ship’s company who got ashore, but had kept the ass, and had carried it up into the mountains, trussed with ropes and slung between two poles, along with all the other loot they found in the ship. … So our soldiers, deeming it inappropriate and contrary to native custom that such articles should be in the hands of Indians, collected them all up, along with everything else that took their fancy, including the ass, and took it back to the coast. But the trails were rough, more suited to cats than men, and the descent was as hard as the ascent had been, so they made the Indians carry the donkey down just as they had brought it up; and very useful it turned out to be. Surely, as the first of its race to penetrate those mountains, it deserved to be numbered among the conquistadores. It served in other entradas later, and finally in the expedition which Hernando de Quesada, brother and deputy of Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada the discoverer, led in search of El Dorado. It was ridden by Fray Vicente Requejada of the Order of Saint Augustine. … The ass served the friar well until, on the return march, they all ran out of food and, in the extremities of hunger, killed it for food. They left not a scrap of it. They collected its blood, made sausages of its guts, and even devoured its hide, well boiled. It had served them well in life, and served them better still in death, by its timely rescue from starvation; a salutary reminder of the hardships which in those days were the daily lot of discoverers.
An astronomical oddity, from the Sidereal Messenger, June 1890:
On the evening of April 25th, 1889, at about 8:30 p.m., I was examining Saturn with a power of about 180 on a 4 1/8-inch achromatic by Brashear, when, much to my surprise, I found the shadow of the globe on the rings curved the wrong way, i.e. from the globe, as shown in the following drawing. Thinking my eyes might be deceiving me I called my wife, and without telling her what I had seen, requested her to describe the shape of the shadow. She described the shadow as having its right hand edge curved away from the planet.
I wrote to Professor Comstock of the Washburn Observatory about it, and was informed by him that while my observation of Saturn was unusual, it was far from being unprecedented; that the same appearance was observed in 1875 with the 26-inch achromatic at Washington, and that Webb, in ‘Celestial Objects for Common Telescopes,’ says: ‘The outline of this shadow has often been found curved the wrong way for its perspective.’ Professor Comstock also adds, ‘I do not know that any satisfactory explanation for this anomaly has ever been given.’
William Corliss notes a flurry of similar observations between 1886 and 1914. I think this must have been explained by now, but I haven’t been able to find a source.
(Jenks, Aldro; “On the Reversed Curvature of the Shadow on Saturn’s Rings,” Sidereal Messenger, 9:255, 1890.)
In 1946 an American doctor named Jones was tried in Ohio for performing six illegal abortions (State v. Jones, 80 Ohio App. 269). In one of the six cases, the only evidence was the testimony of the woman herself, Jacquelin Harris. But under Ohio law, the recipient of an abortion was an accomplice to the crime, and the unsupported testimony of an accomplice was suspect and insufficient for a conviction.
This means trouble:
- The prosecution can argue that if the doctor is guilty then he should be convicted, and that if he’s innocent then the woman is not an accomplice and her testimony is sufficient to convict him. Either way, he should be convicted.
- The defense can argue that if the doctor is innocent then he should be acquitted, and that if he’s guilty then the woman is his accomplice, which makes her testimony insufficient for a conviction. Either way, he should be acquitted.
“This puts the jury in a position of returning a self-annulling verdict,” writes Peter Suber in The Paradox of Self-Amendment. “If they find Jones guilty, then they must find that Harris was his accomplice, then they must find her evidence against Jones insufficient, then they must acquit Jones. But if they find Jones innocent, then they must (at least may) find Harris’ evidence legally sufficient, then they must (at least may) convict Jones.”
Jones was found guilty, ironically because, as an accused party, he was presumed innocent, and so the witness was presumed not to be an accomplice. “This led to the remarkable situation that the testimony was admissible and could lead to a conviction,” writes Michael Clark in Paradoxes From A to Z, “notwithstanding the fact that the conviction undermined the probative value of the testimony.”
This is a picture of which Captain Gordon McCabe of Richmond, Virginia, writes: ‘I send photographs of two bullets, one Federal, the other Confederate, that met in mid-air and flattened out against each other. The bullets were picked up in 1865 between the lines immediately after the evacuation of Petersburg.’
– Robert S. Lanier, The Photographic History of the Civil War, 1911
Peter and Jane, both 20 years old, are visited by a time machine one day in 1999. A familiar figure emerges, hands a diary to Jane, and asks her to travel to 2019, recording her impressions of the trip. She does so, dutifully making an entry in the diary. When she arrives in 2019 she meets the 40-year-old Peter and gives the diary to him. He returns to 1999, making an entry in the diary himself. When he emerges in 1999, he gives the diary to the 20-year-old Jane and asks her to travel to 2019.
Now: How many entries are in the diary when Peter gives it to Jane? It’s not blank, for we know it contains Jane and Peter’s accounts of their journeys through time. But if it contains those two accounts when Jane departs, then she will have written a third on her journey to 2019, and Peter a fourth before arriving at the present moment. It seems that the diary must contain an indefinite number of entries, but there are clearly only two trips, Jane’s to 2019 and Peter’s to 1999. What is the answer?
(From Robin Le Poidevin, Travels in Four Dimensions, 2003.)
Ben Underwood lost his eyes to retinal cancer at age 2, but within three years he had taught himself to discern objects by echolocation, making clicking noises with his tongue and listening for reflected sound. Soon he was able to run, rollerblade, skateboard, and play basketball with other children.
His first Braille teacher, Barbara Haase, witnessed his progress as they went on walks together. “I said, ‘Okay, my car is the third car parked down the street. Tell me when we get there,’” she remembered. “As we pass the first vehicle, he says, ‘There’s the first car. Actually, a truck.’ And it was a pickup. He could tell the difference.”
Underwood led a full life until age 16, when he died of the same cancer that took his eyes. “People ask me if I’m lonely,” he once said. “I’m not, because someone’s always around, or I’ve got my cell phone and I’m always talking to friends. … I tell people I’m not blind, I just can’t see.”
A dwarf named Richbourg, who was only sixty centimetres (23 1-2 inches) high, has just died in the Rue du Four, St. Germain, Paris, aged 90. He was, when young, in the service of the Duchess d’Orleans, mother of King Louis Philippe. After the first revolution broke out he was employed to convey despatches abroad, and, for that purpose, was dressed as a baby, the despatches being concealed in his cap, and a nurse being made to carry him. For the last twenty-five years he has lived in the Rue du Four, and during all that time never went out. He had a great repugnance to strangers, and was alarmed when he heard the voice of one; but in his own family he was very lively and cheerful. The Orleans family allowed him a pension of 8000 francs.
– Ballou’s Dollar Monthly Magazine, February 1859
In 2008, a New Zealand couple lost custody of their 9-year-old daughter because they had named her Talula Does the Hula From Hawaii. “The court is profoundly concerned about the very poor judgment that this child’s parents have shown in choosing this name,” said family court judge Rob Murfitt. “It makes a fool of the child and sets her up with a social disability and handicap, unnecessarily.”
In a written ruling he criticized the trend of giving children bizarre names, citing as recent examples Midnight Chardonnay, Number 16 Bus Shelter, and, “tragically, Violence.”
In 2004, Sara Leisten of Gothenburg, Sweden, sought to name her baby Superman (Staalman) because he was born with one arm outstretched. A judge blocked her effort, claiming the child would be ridiculed in later life. Swedish MPs pointed out that the law is inconsistent, as the names Tarzan and Batman are allowed.
In 1995, angry that his bank had charged him £20 for a £10 overdraft, Leeds marketing consultant Michael Howerd changed his name to “Yorkshire Bank PLC Are Fascist Bastards.” When the bank asked him to close his account, he asked them to repay his 69p balance by cheque in his full new name.
In 1867, Godey’s Magazine reported that a woman had been fined in London for using unjust weights. Her name was Virtue Innocent.
Sweden briefly had a February 30. In planning to switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, the Swedish Empire resolved to omit leap days from 1700 to 1740. It followed through on this plan in 1700, but through error 1704 and 1708 remained leap years. With the time now out of joint, the empire abandoned its plan and returned to the Julian calendar by observing two leap days, February 29 and February 30, in 1712. (Sweden finally converted to the Gregorian calendar in 1753.)
If the original plan had been carried out, a person born on Feb. 29, 1696, would not celebrate a birthday until 1744. As it was, a person born on Feb. 30, 1712, would never celebrate a birthday at all.
A bizarre entry in the Annual Register of 1806:
“Oct. 25. — Among the personages who lately attracted public notice at Brighton, was an original, or would be original, generally known by the appellation of the green man. He dressed in green pantaloons, green waistcoat, green frock, green cravat; and, though his ears, whiskers, eye-brows, and chin, were powdered, his countenance, no doubt from the reflection of his clothes, was also green. He ate nothing but greens, fruits, and vegetables; had his rooms painted green, and furnished with green sofa, green chairs, green tables, green bed, and green curtains. His gig, his livery, his portmanteau, his gloves, and his whip, were all green. With a green silk handkerchief in his hand, and a large watch chain with green seals, fastened to the green buttons of his green waistcoat, he paraded every day on the Steine.
“This morning at 6 o’clock, this gentleman leaped from the window of his lodging on the south parade, into the street, ran from thence to the verge of the cliff nearly opposite and threw himself over the precipice to the beach below. Several persons immediately ran to his assistance, and carried him, bleeding at the mouth and ears, back to his lodgings. The height of the cliff, from whence he precipitated himself, is about 20 feet perpendicular. From the general demeanour of the above gentleman, it is supposed he is deranged. His name, we understand, is Henry Cope, and that he is related to some highly distinguished families.”
In 1898 J.W. Dunne was staying at a hotel in Sussex when he dreamed he was arguing with one of the waiters. He was claiming that it was 4:30 in the afternoon, and the waiter maintained it was 4:30 in the morning. “With the apparent illogicality peculiar to all dreams, I concluded that my watch must have stopped; and, on extracting that instrument from my waistcoat pocket, I saw, looking down on it, that this was precisely the case. It had stopped — with the hands at half-past four. With that I awoke.”
He lit a match to see whether his watch really had stopped. It was not by his bedside, but after some hunting he found it lying on a chest of drawers. It had stopped, and the hands stood at 4:30. Noting the coincidence, he wound the watch and returned to bed.
On coming downstairs the next morning, he went to the nearest clock in order to restore the watch to the correct time. He expected to find it off by several hours, as he supposed it had stopped during the previous afternoon and was rewound in the middle of the night.
But “to my absolute amazement I found that the hands had lost only some two or three minutes, about the amount of time which had elapsed between my waking from the dream and rewinding the watch.”
In other words, the dream watch and the waking watch had stopped at the same moment. Possibly the sleeping Dunne had sensed that his watch’s familiar ticking had stopped, and this had informed his dream. “But — how did I come to see, in that dream, that the hands stood, as they actually did, at half-past four?”
The most outlandish uncle of all was William Strachey. Notwithstanding his having lived in India only five years, and his association with the British empire having been slight and undistinguished, he persevered in upholding Eastern customs with far greater rigidity and a finer disregard for common sense than any other Strachey. Having once visited Calcutta, he became convinced that the clocks there were the only reliable chronometers in the world, and kept his own watch set resolutely by Calcutta time, organizing the remaining fifty-six years of his life accordingly. The results were disconcerting for his friends and family in England. He breakfasted at afternoon tea and lived most of his waking hours by candlelight. In visits to Sutton Court, his strange nocturnal habits earned him a reputation in astrology among the embedded Somerset folk.
– Michael Holroyd, Lytton Strachey, 1995
In writing the first edition of Scouting for Boys in 1908, Robert Baden-Powell planned to include a section on self-abuse.
“You all know what it is to have at times a pleasant feeling in your private parts,” he wrote, “and there comes an inclination to work it up with your hand or otherwise. It is especially likely to happen when you see a dirty picture or hear dirty stories and jokes. Well, lots of fellows from not knowing any better, please themselves in this way until it often becomes a sort of habit with them which they cannot get out of.”
“The result of self-abuse is always — mind you, always — that the boy after a time becomes weak and nervous and shy, he gets headaches and probably palpitation of the heart, and if he still carries it on too far he very often goes out of his mind and becomes an idiot. A very large number of the lunatics in our asylums have made themselves ill by indulging in this vice although at one time they were sensible cheery boys like any one of you.”
Baden-Powell had consulted with his mother as to whether to include the section. He removed it at the strong advice of his publisher.
Gioachino Rossini was born on a leap day, Feb. 29, 1792.
Because 1800 was not a leap year, he took 12 years to reach his second birthday.
This wonderful animal, of New Forest breed, early took a fancy to some pointer puppies that were being broken, and was ultimately trained as an invaluable pointer herself. She would often go out a little way with the puppies, and was gradually coaxed into doing as they did by means of a sort of pudding made of barley-meal. The puppies could be cuffed for misbehaviour, but a pocketful of stones was necessary in the case of the sow. She at length quartered her ground in grand style; backed other dogs when she came on game, and was so staunch as to remain five minutes or more on her point.
– Strand, December 1896