This paragraph jumped out at me last night from B.G. Wilson’s Unusual Railways (1958) — he’s writing about the Mount Washington Cog Railway in New Hampshire, one of the world’s steepest, with an average grade of 25 percent:
Before leaving this line, mention must be made of a method of riding down the track employed by track maintenance men and long since banned. Wood and metal seats some 3 ft. × 1 ft. were made to fit over the rack rail. These were known as slide-boards, or more popularly, as ‘Devil’s Shingles’. Seated on these, controlling (sometimes) the speed with hand brakes, the men would career down the mountainside. The record time for the trip — as we have said, 3 1/4 miles — was 2 3/4 minutes!
That’s 70 mph! For comparison, the modern train takes 40 minutes to descend at 4.6 mph. And this was in the late 19th century — the railway opened in August 1869. Wilson writes, “After one man had been killed and another seriously injured, the Devil’s Shingles were banned.” I don’t know any more than that.
Of the million or so Japanese who visit Paris each year, about 12 have to be repatriated due to “Paris syndrome,” a transient psychological disorder brought on when the mundane reality of the city clashes with their romanticized expectations.
The syndrome was first diagnosed by Hiroaki Ota, a Japanese psychiatrist working in France. Symptoms include delusional states, hallucinations, feelings of persecution, and anxiety.
In 1946, when Japanese prime minister Hideki Tojo was being held prisoner by the victorious Allies, he asked for a set of dentures so that he could speak clearly during his war crimes trial.
The dentures were made by 22-year-old military dentist E.J. Mallory. “I figured it was my duty to carry out the assignment,” Mallory remembered in 1988. “But that didn’t mean I couldn’t have fun with it.”
Mallory and his colleague George Foster told a few friends, but the secret got out and the two had to awaken Tojo in the middle of the night to borrow back the dentures and grind out the message. The next day, when a colonel confronted them, they were able to say truthfully that there was no message.
It’s not known whether Tojo ever found out what had happened. He was executed in 1948.
“It wasn’t anything done in anger,” Mallory remembered in 1995. “It’s just that not many people had the chance to get those words into his mouth.”
In the 1969 Night Gallery episode “Eyes,” Joan Crawford plays Claudia Menlo, a ruthless dowager who blackmails a doctor into performing a nerve transplant that will grant her vision for 11 hours. Afterward, alone in her apartment, she impatiently removes the bandages prematurely. She catches a glimpse of a crystal chandelier and then everything goes black. She rampages through her suite and collapses in tears, unaware that the city has suffered a power outage. At dawn, through dimming vision, she sees the rising sun, rushes to grasp it, and crashes through a window to her death.
Now: “How many things did Claudia Menlo see?” asks Dartmouth philosopher Roy Sorensen. “Most people say she saw only the chandelier and the sun (and possibly the pavement on the way down). But I say Claudia saw something in between seeing the crystal chandelier and the rising sun: the darkness of her blacked-out apartment. Claudia had never seen darkness before and mistook this visual experience for an absence of visual experience.”
Can we see darkness? Sorensen pictures a cave explorer in a completely dark cave. If the explorer is asleep and dreaming that he is in a completely dark cave, he does not see the darkness — but when he wakes up, he does. If the explorer then stands too quickly and the blood rushes from his head, he sees stars against an accurately perceived black background — the surrounding darkness. In contrast, his blind companion can’t tell whether the cave is dark; “only the sighted man can tell whether the cave is dark just by looking.”
This raises a puzzle: Suppose you’re in a light-tight container that’s suspended within a larger light-tight container. If the interior of the larger container is illuminated, then of course the darkness you see is the darkness of the smaller container. But what happens if the illumination of the larger space is turned off? You certainly can’t see beyond the walls of the small container in any circumstances. And only the larger container is blocking light. Does it follow that you’re seeing the darkness of the large container within the small container?
(Roy Sorensen, “We See in the Dark,” Noûs 38:3 , 456-480.)
A letter from Arthur Conan Doyle to Light, April 5, 1930:
SIR, — It might interest your readers to know that some weeks ago I had a communication which professed to come from Thomas Hardy. It came through an amateur Medium from whom I had only once before had a message, which was most veridical. Therefore, I was inclined to take Hardy’s message seriously, the more so as intrinsically it was worthy of him. I should place it on the same level of internal evidence as the Oscar Wilde and the Jack London scripts. Hardy gave a posthumous review of his own work, some aspects of which he now desired to revise and modify. The level of his criticism was a very high and just one. He then, as a sign of identity, sent a poem, which seems to me to be a remarkable one. It describes evening in a Dorsetshire village. Without quoting it all I will give here the second verse which runs thus:
Full well we know the shadow o’er the green,
When Westering sun reclines behind the trees,
The little hours of evening, when the scene
Is faintly fashioned, fading by degrees.
The third and fourth lines are in my opinion exquisite. I do not know if they were memories of something written in life. I should be glad to know if anyone recognises them.
If you opened a box of Quaker Oats in 1955, you’d find a deed to one square inch of land in northwestern Canada. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story behind the Klondike Big Inch land giveaway, whose bizarre consequences are still being felt today.
We’ll also hear about a time traveler who visited the British Museum in 1997 and puzzle over why a prizewinning farmer gives away his best seed to his competitors.
Sources for our feature on the Klondike Big Inch land promotion:
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Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.
New Yorker Kam Brock was sedated and placed in a mental hospital last September because police thought she might be delusional — for one thing, she insisted that Barack Obama was one of her Twitter followers. The hospital set this as an objective for her release: “Patient will verbalize the importance of education for employment and will state that Obama is not following her on Twitter.”
In 1980, 25-year-old Alfred Lawrence Patterson was admitted to Michigan’s Northville Regional Psychiatric Hospital. He said that the Secret Service and Sen. Edward Kennedy had conspired to place him there.
When Martha Mitchell, the wife of Nixon attorney general John Mitchell, began to claim that the White House was engaged in illegal activities, she was rumored to be mentally ill. But events proved her right. Nixon later told David Frost, “If it hadn’t been for Martha Mitchell, there’d have been no Watergate.”
Psychologists remember this as the “Martha Mitchell effect” — when a client insists that she’s being chased by the mob, or that the police have been spying on her, she’s not necessarily delusional. In the words of psychotherapist Joseph Berke, “even paranoids have enemies.”
The nonexistence of horrific creatures is, so to speak, not only a fact, but it would also appear to be a fact that is readily available to and acknowledged by the consumers of horrific fictions. However, audiences do appear to be frightened by horror fictions; indeed, they would seem to seek out such fictions, at least in part, either in order to be frightened by them or with the knowledge and assent that they are likely to be frightened by them. But how can one be frightened by what one knows does not exist?