In 1985, workers renovating London’s Tate Britain art gallery discovered a handwritten message behind a wall in the rotunda dome:
This was placed here on the fourth of June, 1897 Jubilee year, by the Plasterers working on the job hoping when this is found that the Plasterers Association may be still flourishing. Please let us know in the Other World when you get this, so as we can drink your Health.
It was signed “W. Gallop, F. Wilkins, H. Sainsbury, J. Chester, A. Pickernell, Secretary.”
A sort of mania for gambling overtook White’s, a gentlemen’s club in London, in the 18th century. Excerpts from its betting book:
- “January the 14th, 1747/8. Mr. Fanshawe wagers Lord Dalkeith one guinea, that his peruke is better than his Lordship’s, to be judged of by the majority of members the next time they both shall meet.”
- “Lord Ravensworth betts Ld. Leicester & Ld. Coke ten guineas each, that the General Post Office is not three miles distant from Lord Gower’s house in Upper Brooke Street.”
- “Feb. 10th, 1748-9. Mr. Fanshawe betts Dr. Wm. Stanhope twenty guineas, that there was not a play acted at Covent Garden Play house twenty years ago.”
- “Ap. 2nd, 1761. Mr. Fanshawe wagers Mr. Gauquier one Guinea that if Mr. Harley comes to the House of Commons the first day of sitting, he comes in a red gown.”
- “Mr. Talbot bets Lord Frederick Bentinck five guineas, that destroying a horse by poison is not a capital offence by Act of Parliament.”
- “Mr. Talbot bets Mr. Blackford one guinea, that the play of Julius Cæsar is acted within six weeks from this day. Feby. 15th, 1812.”
- “Sir G. Talbot bets Sir Watkin W. Wynn five guineas, that he Sir W. does not drink a bottle of claret on French ground before the expiration of this month of March. March 6th, 1814.”
- “Col. Cooke bets Ld. Clanwilliam thirty-five guineas, that if a person understood between them ever fights a duel, he kills his man.”
In 1816 Lord Alvanley and a friend bet £3,000 as to which of two raindrops would be the first to reach the bottom of a windowpane. In a 1750 letter, Horace Walpole wrote, “They have put in the papers a good story made on White’s; a man dropped down dead at the door, was carried in; the club immediately made bets whether he was dead or not, and when they were going to bleed him, the wagerers for his death interposed, and said it would affect the fairness of the bet.”
Letter to the Times, June 15, 1962:
All thrushes (not only those in this neck of the Glyndebourne woods) sooner or later sing the tune of the first subject of Mozart’s G minor Symphony (K. 550) — and, what’s more, phrase it a sight better than most conductors. The tempo is always dead right and there is no suggestion of an unauthorized accent on the ninth note of the phrase.
See Bird Songs.
In an April 1773 letter to Jacques Dubourg, Benjamin Franklin makes a curious observation:
I have seen an instance of common flies preserved in a manner somewhat similar. They had been drowned in Madeira wine, apparently about the time when it was bottled in Virginia, to be sent hither (to London). At the opening of one of the bottles, at the house of a friend where I then was, three drowned flies fell into the first glass which was filled. Having heard it remarked, that drowned flies were capable of being revived by the rays of the sun, I proposed making the experiment upon these: They were therefore exposed to the sun upon a sieve, which had been employed to strain them out of the wine. In less than three hours two of them began by degrees to recover life. They commenced by some convulsive motions in the thighs, and at length they raised themselves upon their legs, wiped their eyes with their fore feet, beat and brushed their wings with their hind feet, and soon after began to fly, finding themselves in Old England without knowing how they came hither. The third continued lifeless till sun-set, when, losing all hopes of him, he was thrown away.
He added, “I wish it were possible, from this instance, to invent a method of embalming drowned persons, in such a manner that they might be recalled to life at any period, however distant; for, having a very ardent desire to see and observe the state of America an hundred years hence, I should prefer to an ordinary death, the being immersed in a cask of Madeira wine, with a few friends, till that time, to be then recalled to life by the solar warmth of my dear country! But since in all probability we live in an age too early and too near the infancy of science to hope to see such an art brought in our time to its perfection, I must for the present content myself with the treat which you are so kind as to promise me, of the resurrection of a fowl or a turkeycock.”
On Christmas night 1945, Army serviceman Frank Hayostek tossed a bottle over the rail of the troopship that was carrying him home from France. It contained this message:
I am an American soldier … 21 years old … just a plain American of no wealth, but just enough to get along with. This is my third Christmas from home. … God bless you.
In September 1946, he received a letter from Ireland:
I have found your bottle and note. I will tell you the whole story.
I live on a farm at the southwest coast of Ireland. On Friday, Aug. 23, 1946, I drove the cows to the fields beside the sea and then went for walk on the strand called The Beal. It is an inlet of Dingle Bay.
Well, my dog was running before me and I saw him stop and sniff something light on the sand, and then he went off in pursuit of sea gulls. I found the object was a brown bottle. … The cork … crumbled in my fingers. How the note kept dry, nobody can understand. … I sat there on the beach and read it.
I thought at first I was dreaming. This is just a little common Irish village where nothing strange ever occurs, and this is something for the farmers to talk about while they cut the oats and bring the hay into the barn. Well, imagine, the bottle has been on the sea for eight months. … Who knows where it has been? It may have traveled around the world. How did it escape being broken on the rocks? If you had only seen where I got it! It’s all a mess of rocks. The hand of Providence must surely have guided it.
Well, I hope to hear from you soon. … You mention offering no reward to the finder of the bottle. Well, I ask no reward, as it was a very pleasant surprise. Wishing you very good luck, your loving friend,
Hayostek and O’Sullivan exchanged 70 letters over the next seven years. She was a farm girl in the village of Lispole in County Kerry, and he found work as a welder in Johnstown, Pa., saving $80 a month in order to visit her.
In August 1952 Hayostek flew to Ireland, where both were besieged by reporters.
“It’s in the hands of God,” he said. “She’s very nice.”
“After all,” she said, “we only met a few hours ago. Up to then, he was only a man in a bottle.”
But after two weeks O’Sullivan announced, “There is no romance and there will be no wedding. We will remain good pen pals.” She continued to correspond with Hayostek until 1959, when she married a local man. “If I had known that I would get all that publicity by answering the letter,” she told a reporter later, “I would have left the bottle lying there.”
Hayostek may have felt differently. His gravestone reads: “Frank L Hayostek, June 11, 1924-November 15, 2009: Frank Hayostek met in Tralee, Ireland, with Breda O’Sullivan who found a message-laden bottle he had tossed from a Liberty ship seven years before.”
In 1914 Edgar Rice Burroughs published At the Earth’s Core, a fantastic tale in which an elderly inventor and his young friend discover that the earth is hollow and contains a concave world lit by a tiny sun. This land, known as Pellucidar, is peopled by intelligent races and inhabited by monstrous prehistoric creatures.
Strikingly, a year earlier Marshall Blutcher Gardner had proposed nearly the same idea in earnest. In A Journey to the Earth’s Interior he had described a hidden land lining the interior of our hollow planet:
Here, indeed, we may expect to find a new world — a world the surface of which is probably subdivided, like ours, into continents, oceans, seas, lakes, and rivers. Here, through the heat of the interior sun, plant life may exceed in size and luxuriance any vegetation that ever grew upon the outside surface of the earth. Here may be found strange animals of every description; some of them even larger, perhaps, than the prehistoric mammoth or mastodon, on account of the abundant supply of vegetation, and others of species unrecorded by zoologists. Here, also, may tread the feet of a race of people whose existence is entirely unknown or hitherto unsuspected by us.
Gardner had even patented a hinged globe to help explain his theory. He concluded his book with a call for an expedition to explore this new world, declaring that “the whole truth apparently has not yet been revealed.” In a strange sense, Burroughs’ characters discovered that world the following year.
[Prince Christian of Schleswig-Holstein-Augustenburg] was unfortunate enough to lose an eye in a shooting accident. When conversation flagged at a dinner-party, as happened so often when he was the host, he would bid the footman bring him a tray containing his collection of glass eyes, which he would exhibit to his embarrassed guests, explaining at great length the peculiarities of each one — ‘and this one, you see, is blood-shot, I wear it when I have a cold.’
— Georgina Battiscombe, Queen Alexandra, 1969
At 1 p.m. on Dec. 31, 1910, West Virginia peach grower Charles Twigg called on his fiancee, Grace Elosser, at her home in Cumberland, Md. The two were to be married the following day. They closed themselves in the parlor and remained undisturbed until 2:30, when Grace’s mother looked in with a question. She found Charles sitting in a corner of the divan, with Grace leaning against him. Both were dead.
A post-mortem suggested traces of cyanide in their stomachs, but no container was found on the bodies or in the room. If it was not suicide, was it murder? The couple had led uneventful lives, and only Grace’s family had had access to the parlor. A jury returned a verdict of cyanide poisoning “at the hands of person or persons to us unknown.”
The matter remained at an impasse until Jan. 28, when, as an experiment, doctors J.R. Littlefield and A.H. Hawkins left two cats in baskets on the parlor divan, lighted the stove, and closed the door for an hour. Both cats died. The lovers’ bodies were exhumed, and an examination showed that they had died of carbon monoxide poisoning. The flue had been choked with soot, and the odorless gas had overwhelmed the couple.
The Elossers cleaned the flue and moved out the house, but nearly the same tragedy befell the two women who succeeded them. On Feb. 21, 1913, a neighbor happened to call and found both women unconscious in their chairs. It was discovered that two bricks had been placed in the flue to reduce its draft, and soot had again choked the narrowed opening.
In 1989 a team from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution detected an unusually high-pitched whale call in the Pacific. Where most whales sing in the range 15–20 hertz, this one sang at 52 hertz, just above the lowest note of a tuba. The song has recurred most years since then, ranging between Alaska and California but not following the migration pattern of any known filter feeder. The whale seems to be healthy and maturing, but it remains the only one of its kind.
Because it sings and travels alone, the animal has been called “the loneliest whale in the world.” Whale biologists suspect that it may be malformed, or possibly a hybrid of two different species.
“He’s saying, ‘Hey, I’m out here,'” Kate Stafford of the National Marine Mammal Laboratory told the New York Times in 2004. “Well, nobody is phoning home.”
In the early 1770s a writer signing himself Junius published a series of letters in the Public Advertiser, criticizing the British government. His identity was the matter of much speculation, so much so that Samuel Parr jokingly wrote to Jane Morsingale, “Madam, You are a very charming woman, and I should be happy to obtain you as a wife. If you accept my proposal I will tell you who was the author of Junius.”
The writer’s identity was never discovered, but suppose he was Sir Philip Francis, as is widely suspected. We would say that Junius necessarily is Francis. But this seems an odd kind of necessity: There’s no logical contradiction in the sentence “Junius is not Francis,” and the laws of physics don’t prevent the two from being distinct.
“There is a kind of necessity that is neither logical nor physical, namely metaphysical necessity,” writes Robin Le Poidevin in Travels in Four Dimensions. “When we say that something is metaphysically necessary, we do not imply that in denying it, one would commit oneself to a logical contradiction. Nor are we saying that it is required by the laws of nature. But we are saying that, in some fundamental sense, matters could not be otherwise.”
A related puzzle: Charles Dodgson made this entry in his diary on Nov. 8, 1897:
A letter came, addressed to ‘L. Carroll, Christ Church, Oxford.’ So many such now come, that I have decided to refuse them, and gave it, unopened, to Telling, to return to the Post Office. All such will now go back to the writers, through the Dead Letter Office, with endorsement ‘not known.’
If Charles Dodgson explicitly disavows being Lewis Carroll — then who is Lewis Carroll?
The eccentric Gerald Tyrwhitt-Wilson, 14th Baron Berners, erected a “useless” 100-foot tower on his property in 1935.
He added a notice: MEMBERS OF THE PUBLIC COMMITTING SUICIDE FROM THIS TOWER DO SO AT THEIR OWN RISK.
(At the opening, guests were invited to bring up to six effigies of enemies to be thrown on a bonfire; one complained that this was “most inadequate.”)
Several years since, when travelling by night in the mail coach, in the depth of winter and during the absence of the moon, I was surprised to observe, that, though dense clouds covered every part of the horizon, and not a single star could be seen, yet the night was far from being dark, and large objects near the road were easily discerned. On expressing my surprise to the driver, he replied, ‘The wind is very high, and during a great many years that I have been upon the road, I never knew it to be dark on a windy night.’ The observation was at that time new to me; but subsequent experience has convinced me that it was true.
— B. Hampstead, in The Magazine of Natural History, May 1831
Anecdotally, I’ve noticed that this seems to be true — the darkest nights are calm, regardless of cloud cover. Why?
The Weymouth and Channel Islands Steam Packet Company’s mail steamer Aquila left Weymouth at midnight on Friday for Guernsey and Jersey. On her passage across Channel, the weather was calm and clear, and the sea was smooth. When about one hour out, 1 a.m., 31st March, 1883, the steamer was struck violently by mountainous seas, which sent her on her beam ends and swept her decks from stem to stern. The water immediately flooded the cabins and engine room, entering through the skylights, the thick glass of which was smashed. As the decks became clear of water, the bulwarks were found to be broken in several places, one of the paddle boxes was considerably damaged, the iron rail on the bridge was completely twisted, the pump was broken and rendered useless, the skylight of the ladies’ cabin was completely gone, and the saloon skylight was smashed to atoms. The cabins were baled out with buckets, while tarpaulins were placed over the skylights for protection. Five minutes after the waves had struck the steamer, the sea became perfectly calm. Several of the crew were knocked about, but no one was seriously injured.
— Symons’s Monthly Meteorological Magazine, April 1883
The largest gem-quality diamond ever found was discovered in a South African mine in 1905. The so-called Cullinan diamond weighed 3,106 carats, or about 1-1/3 pounds.
The Transvaal government purchased the stone and offered it to Edward VII on his 66th birthday, but the problem remained how to transport such a valuable object safely to England. Amid great publicity and heavy security, an ocean liner set out carefully for London.
It was carrying a decoy stone — the real diamond was sent by parcel post. It arrived safely.
Probably you’ll want to skip this one — a recipe “to rost a Goose alive,” from Johann Wecker’s Secrets of Nature, 1582:
Let it be a Duck or Goose, or some such lively Creature, but a Goose is best of all for this purpose, leaving his neck, pull of all the Feather from his body, then make a fire round about him, not too wide, for that will not rost him: within the place set here and there small pots full of water, with Salt and Honey mixed therewith, and let there be dishes set full of rosted Apples, and cut in pieces in the dish, and let the Goose be basted with Butter all over, and Larded to make him better meat, and he may rost the better, put fire to it; do not make too much haste, when he begins to rost, walking about, and striving to flye away, the fire stops him in, and he will fall to drink water to quench his thirst; this will cool his heart and the other parts of his body, and by this medicament he looseneth his belly, and grows empty. And when he rosteth and consumes inwardly, alwayes wet his head and heart with a wet Sponge: but when you see him run madding and stumble, his heart wants moysture, take him away, set him before your Guests, and he will cry as you cut off any part from him, and will be almost eaten up before he be dead, it is very pleasant to behold.
Wecker credits this to a cook named Mizald. William Kitchiner calls it “diabolically cruel”; he quotes another commentator who says “We suppose Mr. Mizald stole this receipt from the kitchen of his Infernal Majesty: probably it might have been one of the dishes the devil ordered when he invited Nero and Caligula to a feast.”
The Strand set itself a novel challenge — to create a complete alphabet using human figures. It engaged an acrobatic trio known as the Three Delevines and set to work in a studio in Plymouth:
“We would venture to say that each and every one of these letters and figures will well repay careful individual study. Each one had first of all to be thought out and designed, then built up in a way which satisfied the author, and finally ‘snapped’ by our artist, for the slightest movement of a head or limb altered the physiognomy of a letter in a surprising way.”
“When the human components had so grouped themselves that the result really looked, even ‘in the flesh,’ like the letter it was supposed to represent, then the author gave the word ‘Go,’ and immediately afterwards, with a sigh of relief, the Three Delevines ‘stood at ease,’ wondering how on earth the next on the list was going to be formed. Neither time nor trouble was spared in the preparation of this most unique of alphabets. Observe that, while we might have inverted the M to form a W, we did not do so; and we think everyone will agree that the last-named letter was well worthy of being designed separately.”
“Perhaps some enterprising publisher would like to publish a whole novel in ‘living’ type. Such a work might, or might not, command a huge sale; but, at least, there can be no two opinions about the human interest of the work.”
Boeing was demonstrating its new Dash-80 airliner for the nation’s air transport executives in Seattle in August 1955 when test pilot Alvin “Tex” Johnston decided to impress them — instead of a simple flyover he performed a barrel roll:
In 1994, just before test pilot John Cashman undertook the maiden flight of the 777, Boeing president Phil Condit told him, “No rolls.”
A curious effect produced by lightning is described to us by Dr. Enfield, writing from Jefferson, Iowa, U.S. A house which he visited was struck by lightning so that much damage was done. After the occurrence, a pile of dinner plates, twelve in number, was found to have every other plate broken. It would seem as if the plates constituted a condenser under the intensely electrified condition of the atmosphere. The particulars are, however, so meagre that it is difficult to decide whether the phenomenon was electrical or merely mechanical.
— Nature, June 12, 1902
From a letter by Henry U. Swinnerton of Cherry Valley, N.Y., to Science, March 10, 1893:
Towards sunset, late in April, 1886, on a warm, thawing day, the snow rapidly disappearing, two men, Capt. John E. Hetherington and Mr. Marcus Sternberg, as they rode down the long hill towards this village from the east, saw what appeared to be innumerable spherical bodies floating in the air like soap-bubbles. Both men saw and wondered at the appearance for some moments before either spoke. Capt. H. then said, ‘I wonder whether I am dreaming?’ The other rubbed his eyes and echoed the sentiment. ‘Well,’ said the captain, ‘I wonder if you see what I see; what do you see?’ They questioned each other, and both agreed as to their impressions. An orchard lay along the lower and northwesterly side of the road, and all in among the apple-trees were thick, gently descending multitudes of these bubbles, pretty uniform in size, say, 8 or 9 inches in diameter, apparently; none less than six; no small ones being observed.
The two observers state that they carefully fixed their attention on particular bubbles, in order to compare notes, and saw them seem to rest on the bough of a tree, or the top board of the fence, and then gently roll off and disappear or go out of sight. The sun was sinking and dropped below the opposite hills as they reached the foot of the long descent and entered the village, and the appearance came to an end. But up to this time the air seemed to be filled with these transparent floating spheres. The position of the observers with regard to the light seems to have made some difference as to seeing well this or that large aggregation or swarm that one or the other pointed out. The bubbles were highly colored, iridescent, gave the same sort of reflections as soap-bubbles, and apparently vanished individually in much the same way. All these points I have ascertained by repeated conversations.
Swinnerton vouches for the “unimpeachable character” of the witnesses. “The only theory I have been able to form to account for such a phenomenon is, that if a certain kind of dust floated off in the air, each particle composed of some sort of saponaceous envelope, enclosing a highly expansible centre or core, like ammonia, particles of this character expanded by the warm air, and at the same time moistened, might, under very nice conditions, produce such an effect.”
We find this culinary folly of the last century in the third edition of The Art of Cookery, by a Lady, 1748. ‘Lay it (the butter) in salt and water two or three hours; then spit it, and rub it all over with crumbs of bread, with a little grated nutmeg; lay it to the fire, and as it roasts, baste it with the yolks of two eggs, and then with crumbs of bread, all the time it is roasting: but have ready a pint of oysters stewed in their own liquor, and lay it in the dish under the butter; when the bread has soaked up all the butter, brown the outside, and lay it on your oysters. Your fire must be very slow.’
— John Timbs, Things Not Generally Known, Familiarly Explained, 1859
In the ‘London Times’ of 1841 a lady advertised in the columns of that newspaper for duplicates, which she put to a more curious use than most people. The advertisement said:– ‘A young lady being desirous of covering her dressing room with cancelled postage stamps, has been so far encouraged in her wish by private friends as to have succeeded in collecting 16,008. These, however, being insufficient, she will be greatly obliged if any good natured persons who may have these (otherwise useless) little articles at their disposal, would assist her whimsical project. Address, E.D., Mr Butt’s, Glover, Leadenhall Street, or Marshall’s, Jeweller, Hackney.’
— American Philatelist, Feb. 1, 1919
In the summarized proceedings of the September 1884 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Trinity College chemist H. Carrington Bolton and Columbia College geologist Alexis A. Julien reported on the “musical sand” at Manchester-by-the-Sea, Mass.:
“The character of the sounds obtained by friction on the beach is decidedly musical and we have been able to indicate the exact notes on a musical staff. The shrillness and lowness of note depend chiefly on the quantity of sand disturbed; by plunging both hands into the sand and bringing them together quickly with a swoop a large quantity of the sand vibrates and we hear a tone of which the dominant note is:”
“By stroking the sand nearer the surface and with less force very high notes are heard somewhat confused. The following were heard at different times.”
“By rubbing firmly and briskly a double handful of the sand several notes on a rising scale are heard, the notes rising as the quantity of sand between the hands diminishes. We do not hear each note of the scale separately, but the ear receives an impression something like that formed by sliding a finger up a violin string at the same time that the bow is drawn.”
“The range is very remarkable and decided.”
Bolton and Julien found that “sonorous sand” was “of very common occurrence and widely distributed” — 65 of the 85 U.S. life-saving stations with which they corresponded reported that they knew of such sand. “The number is constantly increasing as the reports from keepers of life saving stations arrive.”
In May 1919, Canadian flying ace Mansell Richard James won an air race from Atlantic City to Boston in a $1,000 competition sponsored by the Boston Globe.
At 11 a.m. on May 29 he departed Boston to return to Atlantic City.
At 12:30 p.m. a group of picknicking schoolchildren saw his Sopwith Camel flying smoothly southward over Hancock, Ct., at an altitude of about 5,000 feet.
He was never seen again. Despite numerous rewards and extensive searching, no trace of James has ever been found.
In the southwestern corner of the desert of southern Arabia, north of the western end of Hadramaut, and approached from the little village of Sawa, is a very remarkable spot described by Wrede from his visit in 1843, whose description is reproduced in a recent number of the Revue coloniale internationale. There are here, in the waste of yellow sand, several spots covered by a grayish white dust, which swallow up every object thrown into them. One of these spots, described by Wrede, is about two miles long and a little less in breadth. It sinks gradually toward the middle and is apparently due to the work of the wind. Wrede approached it with the greatest care and sounded it with his staff. The edge is stony and falls away suddenly. When the staff was thrust into the fine material beyond the edge, almost no resistance was felt and it was as if the staff had been thrust into water. When it was passed through the fine dust lengthwise the resistance was almost imperceptible. A stone of two pounds weight or more was fastened to a cord sixty fathoms long and thrown in as far as possible. It sank at once and with increasing velocity so that at the end of five minutes the end of the cord had disappeared. The presence of Bedouins prevented any more observations. The natives believe that great treasures are buried here and are watched over by genii who pull down into the depths the unwary treasure-seeker.
— American Meteorological Journal, May 1886