Oddities

The Clipperton Survivors

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On July 18, 1917, the U.S. Navy gunboat Yorktown called at Clipperton Island, a tiny coral atoll in the eastern Pacific. The ship’s commander, Harlan Page Perrill, sent two men ashore and was surprised to see them return with a complement of women and children. When his men made their report, Perrill later wrote, they revealed “a tale of woe absolutely harrowing in its details.”

The three women and eight children were the only survivors of the island’s original colony, which had once numbered 100. The last ship had visited the island three years ago, and their supplies had given out six months after that. Since that time they had survived on fish, fowl, and eggs. Scurvy and starvation killed much of the population; others died at sea while attempting to escape in a whaleboat. By 1917 lighthouse keeper Victoriano Álvarez was the only man on the island; he declared himself king and began terrorizing the women, threatening, beating, and sadistically raping them, even killing two.

Álvarez had promised to kill Alicia Arnaud, the governor’s wife, when help finally arrived, to prevent her talking to the authorities, but an odd quirk saved her. That very morning, finally determined to act, she and fellow survivor Tirza Randon had confronted Álvarez in his hut, where Randon had killed him with a hammer. Only minutes later, Arnaud’s son had spotted the Yorktown. “What if we had been an hour earlier!” Perrill reflected. “It is almost certain that the man would have killed Señora Arnaud.”

Risking court-martial, Perrill left Álvarez’s body to be devoured by crabs and omitted any mention of him in his official report, and he and the entire crew of the Yorktown kept the secret for 17 years. He later explained that “I was afraid of the effects it might have upon the fortunes of Tirza Randon.” “Had Perrill not sanitized his reports and included titllating details of Álvarez’s reign of terror,” wrote Jimmy Skaggs in his history of the island, “the story undoubtedly would have received far greater attention.”

Burrowed Time

In September 1924, the wheels of a truck sank into the ground behind the Pelham Courts apartments in Washington, D.C. On investigating, the building’s manager and janitor discovered a mysterious brick-lined passageway that led to a bizarre network of concrete tunnels extending as much as 32 feet underground.

The discovery put Washington into two days of wild speculation. Was this a German plot? A relic of the Civil War? But then Smithsonian Institution entomologist Harrison G. Dyar came forward to admit that he had dug the tunnels when had lived in the capital 10 years earlier. From Modern Mechanix, August 1932:

http://blog.modernmechanix.com/tunnel-digging-as-a-hobby/

Dyar’s obsession had begun innocently enough. He told the Washington Star that in 1906 he had dug a flowerbed for his wife, and “When I was down perhaps six or seven feet, surrounded only by the damp brown walls of old Mother Earth, I was seized by an undeniable fancy to keep on going.” He had continued the project in secret for 10 years, stopping only in 1915, when he moved out of the area.

“I did it for exercise,” he told the New York Times. “Digging tunnels after work is my hobby. There’s really nothing mysterious about it.”

(Thanks, Allyson.)

Pain Puzzles

Where is pain? If my foot hurts, it’s natural to say that the pain is located in my foot, that I’m perceiving something outside my mind in the same way that I might see a rainbow or smell a rose. The same is true of itches, tickles, tingles, and other bodily sensations.

But this is troubling — suppose I discover that my foot has been amputated, and that the pain exists only in a “phantom limb.” Was I then mistaken? The pain certainly exists somewhere; it seems impossible to be wrong about that. You may convince me that the rainbow is an illusion or the rose an hallucination, but it seems absurd to suggest that one’s experience of pain is mistaken. (Inversely, pain can’t exist without someone’s feeling it. If you anesthetize me and drop a hammer on my foot, the pain isn’t somehow hidden from me — it doesn’t exist at all.)

So pain is strangely private and incorrigible — only I can know whether I’m feeling it, and I cannot be wrong about this impression. It would seem that I can have such authority only if the pain is really in my head. But “it is perfectly OK with common sense that we may have sensations in body parts other than the head — say, under our right foot! Why?” asks University of British Columbia philosopher Murat Aydede. “This, then, is another puzzle about pains and other intransitive bodily sensations: how to properly understand the common practice of locating what appear to be essentially subjective and private sensations in various parts of the body.”

The End of Me

How very intimate the bodily sense is can be seen by performing a little experiment in your imagination. Think first of swallowing the saliva in your mouth, or do so. Then imagine expectorating it into a tumbler and drinking it! What seemed natural and ‘mine’ suddenly becomes disgusting and alien. Or picture yourself sucking blood from a prick in your finger; then imagine sucking blood from a bandage around your finger! What I perceive as belonging intimately to my body is warm and welcome; what I perceive as separate from my body becomes, in the twinkling of an eye, cold and foreign.

— Gordon W. Allport, Becoming: Basic Considerations for a Psychology of Personality, 1960

“Extraordinary Occurrence”

exeter mail coach lion attack

The Exeter mail coach was making its way past Salisbury on the night of Oct. 20, 1816, when it met with a rare adventure. From the Edinburgh Annual Register:

At the moment when the coachman pulled up to deliver his bags, one of the leaders was suddenly seized by a ferocious animal. This produced great confusion and alarm; two passengers who were inside the mail got out, ran into the house, and locked themselves up in a room above stairs; the horses kicked and plunged violently, and it was with difficulty the coachman could prevent the carriage from being overturned. It was soon perceived by the coachman and guard, by the light of the lamps, that the animal which had seized the horse was a huge lioness. A large mastiff dog came up, and attacked her fiercely, on which she quitted the horse, and turned upon him. The dog fled, but was pursued and killed by the lioness within about 40 yards of the place.

The creature had escaped from a caravan on its way to Salisbury fair. She was hunted into a hovel under a granary, where “her howlings were heard to the distance of half a mile,” and the caravan’s owner eventually appeared and led her back to her cage. “The horse, when first attacked, fought with great spirit, and if at liberty, would probably have beaten down his antagonist with his fore feet, but in plunging he embarrassed himself in the harness. … The ferocious animal missed the throat, and the jugular vein, but the horse is so dreadfully torn he is not expected to survive.”

World Cuisine

This would be incredible if it weren’t so well documented — in the early 19th century a Frenchman known as Tarrare became famous as a “polyphagist,” an eater of everything. From the London Medical and Physical Journal, September 1819:

He would eat dogs and cats. One day, in the presence of the chief physician of the army, Dr. Lorence, he seized by the neck and paws a large living cat, tore open its belly with his teeth, sucked its blood, and devoured it, leaving no part of it but the bare skeleton: half an hour afterwards he threw up the hairs of the cat, just as birds of prey, and other carnivorous animals, do. Tarrare liked the flesh of serpents; he managed them familiarly, and ate alive the largest snakes (couleuvres) without leaving any part of them. He swallowed a large eel alive without chewing it, but we thought we perceived him crush its head between his teeth. He ate, in a few instants, the dinner prepared for fifteen German labourers: this repast was composed of four bowls of curdled milk, and two enormous hard puddings. After this the belly of Tarrare, commonly lank and wrinkled, was distended like a balloon: he went away, and slept until the next day, and was not incommoded by it. M. Comville, the surgeon-major of the hospital where Tarrare then was, made him swallow a wooden case, enclosing a sheet of white paper: he voided it the following day by the anus, and the paper was uninjured. The general-in-chief had him brought before him; and, after having devoured in his presence nearly thirty pounds of raw liver and lights, Tarrare again swallowed the wooden case, in which was placed a letter to a French officer, who was a prisoner to the enemy. Tarrare set out, was taken, flogged, imprisoned; voided the wooden case, which he had retained thirty hours, and had the address to swallow it again, to conceal the knowledge of its contents from the enemy. They tried to cure him of this insatiable hunger, by the use of acids, preparations of opium, and pills of tobacco; but nothing diminished his appetite and his gluttony. He went about the slaughter-houses and bye-places, to dispute with dogs and wolves the most disgusting aliments. The servants of the hospital surprised him drinking the blood of patients who had been bled, and in the dead-room devouring the bodies. A child fourteen months old disappeared suddenly; fearful suspicions fell on Tarrare; they drove him from the hospital. M. Percy lost sight of him for four years: at the end of this time he saw Tarrare at the civil hospital at Versailles, where he was perishing in a tabid state.

“He shortly died, and his body almost immediately became a mass of putridity,” wrote Perceval Barton Lord in his 1839 Popular Physiology. “On being opened, his stomach was found to be of an immense size, and, as well as all the intestines, in a state of suppuration.”

Quick Thinking

A singular incident occurred in the last run of the Fitzwilliam Hounds, which affords another illustration of the cunning of the fox, and which placed the pack in considerable peril. The ‘find’ took place at Wadworth-wood, and the fox after heading for Rossington Station at a rattling pace, suddenly turned in the direction of Loversall village, where he sought concealment in a bed of rushes near the Carrs. He was, however, speedily compelled to quit his hiding place, and then made again for the railway, where he deliberately lay down on the permanent way and refused to budge. An express train was rapidly approaching, and the pack, being in imminent danger of getting upon the line and being cut to pieces, the huntsman reluctantly and with considerable difficulty drew off the hounds. The fox maintained his position until the express got within a short distance and then quietly made off.

Times, Dec. 24, 1884

Benham’s Top

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Cut out this disc, pierce it with a pencil, and spin it like a top. The colors that appear are not entirely understood; it’s thought that they arise due to the different rates of stimulation of color receptors in the retina. The effect was discovered by the French monk Benedict Prévost in 1826, and then rediscovered 12 times, most famously by the toy maker Charles E. Benham, who marketed an “artificial spectrum top” in 1894. Nature remarked on it that November: “If the direction of rotation is reversed, the order of these tints is also reversed. The cause of these appearances does not appear to have been exactly worked out.”

Instant Romance

This will confuse archaeologists someday: In 1750 Philip Yorke, 1st Earl of Hardwicke, commissioned a ruined medieval castle for the grounds of Wimpole Hall, his country house near Cambridge. The earl’s friend Lord Lyttleton described the project to architect Sanderson Miller:

[H]e wants no House or even Room in it, but mearly the Walls and Semblance of an Old castle to make an object from his house. At most he only desires to have a staircase carried up one of the Towers, and a leaded gallery half round it to stand in, and view the Prospect. It will have a fine Wood of Firrs for a backing behind it and will stand on an Eminence at a proper distance from his House. I ventured to promise that you should draw one for his Lordship that would be fitt for his Purpose. … I know that these works are an Amusement to you.

More than 30 sham ruins of castles and abbeys appeared in English landscape gardens in this period; Sanderson acquired a reputation as the “grand master of gothic.” Perhaps some of the ruins we ourselves have unearthed were planted there by ancient artists?

Progress

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Ordinarily plowing merely turns over the same old soil year after year, and constant decrease in crops is only prevented by rotation or expensive fertilizing.

With ‘Red Cross’ Dynamite you can break up the ground all over the field to a depth of two or three feet, for less than the cost of adequate fertilizing, and with better results. Fertilizing only improves the top soil. Dynamiting renders available all the moisture and elements of growth throughout the entire depth of the blast.

In an article by J.H. Caldwell, of Spartanburg, S.C., in the September, 1910, Technical World Magazine, he states that before the ground was broken up with dynamite, he planted his corn with stalks 18 inches apart in rows 4 feet apart and raised 90 bushels to the acre. After the ground was blasted, it was able to nourish stalks 6 inches apart in rows the same distance apart, and to produce over 250 bushels to the acre. This means an increase of about 160 bushels to the acre, every year, for an original expense of $40 an acre for labor and explosives.

F.G. Moughon, of Walton County, Georgia, reports that he has been raising crops of watermelons, weighing from 50 to 60 pounds each, on land blasted by exploding charges of about 3 ounces of dynamite in holes 2-½ to 3 feet deep, spaced 8 to 10 feet apart.

— From Farming With Dynamite, published by the E.I. du Pont de Nemours Powder Co., 1910

A Long Night

Our Geneva Correspondent writes: — ‘A few days since two schoolmasters from Morzine, a Savoyard village near the Swiss frontier, made an excursion to the Col de Coux, not far from Champéry, in the Valais. As they were descending the mountain, late in the afternoon, they thought they heard cries of distress. After a long search they perceived a man holding on to a bush, or small tree, which had struck its roots into the face of the precipice. As the precipice was nearly perpendicular and the man was some 1,200 ft. below them, and the foot of the precipice quite as far below him, they found it impossible to give the poor fellow any help. All they could do was to tell him to stay where he was — if he could — until they came back, and hurry off to Morzine for help. Though it was night when they arrived thither, a dozen bold mountaineers, equipped with ropes, started forthwith for the rescue. After a walk of 12 miles they reached the Col de la Golèse, but it being impossible to scale the rocks in the dark they remained there until the sun rose. As soon as there was sufficient light they climbed by a roundabout path to the top of the precipice. The man was still holding on to the bush. Three of the rescue party, fastened together with cords, were then lowered to a ledge about 600 feet below. From this coign of vantage two of the three lowered the third to the bush. He found the man, who had been seated astride his precarious perch a day and a night, between life and death. It was a wonder how he had been able to hold on so long, for besides suffering from hunger and cold he had been hurt in the fall from the height above. He was a reserve man belonging to Saméons, on his way thither from Lausanne, where he had been working, to be present at a muster. Losing his way on the mountains between Thonon and Saméons, he had missed his footing and rolled over the precipice. He had the presence of mind to cling to the bush, which broke his fall, but if the two schoolmasters had not heard his cries he must have perished miserably. Hoisting him to the top of the precipice was a difficult and perilous undertaking, but it was safely accomplished. None of the man’s hurts were dangerous, and after a long rest and a hearty meal or two he was pronounced fit to continue his journey and report himself at the muster.’

Times, July 12, 1882

Right and Wrong

Can objects have preferences? The rattleback is a top that seems to prefer spinning in a certain direction — when spun clockwise, this one arrests its motion, shakes itself peevishly, and then sweeps grandly counterclockwise as if forgiving an insult.

There’s no trick here — the reversal arises due to a coupling of instabilities in the top’s other axes of rotation — but prehistoric peoples have attributed it to magic.

See Right Side Up.

Collision

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Some insurance policies declare themselves inapplicable to injuries or losses that are covered by other policies. What happens if an injured person holds two such policies?

If the provisions are interpreted strictly, “then each would become inapplicable,” notes Earlham College philosopher Peter Suber. “But as soon as they were inapplicable, they would each trigger the other’s applicability again, and so on.”

“The policy-holder would either be entitled to nothing or to benefits from at least one policy, to be determined by an unending and indeterminable oscillation of liability.”

Heads Up

As airplanes began to populate the skies over Europe and America, they met an unexpected adversary — eagles. “Some of the adventures of aviators with eagles have been harrowing in the extreme,” reported the Associated Press in 1928. “An airplane was flying over the mountains [behind Athens] recently when several eagles swooped down and attacked it simultaneously. Their dashes at the machine so crippled it that the pilot was forced to descend quickly, and landed so badly that he and a passenger were injured.”

In Adventures With a Texas Naturalist (1975), Roy Bedichek reports that such encounters were reported as early as World War I and were still taking place 60 years later. He writes that pilot J.O. Casparis was flying over Texas’ Big Bend National Park when “an enormous eagle crash-dived his plane before he could shoot, tore through the window, ripped off several feet of the fuselage and showered him with shattered glass.” And J. Wentworth Day reported an attack by two eagles on a three-motored, all-steel passenger plane near Allahbad, India: “The first eagle flew straight in the middle engine, while the second dived from ten thousand feet, and went through the steel wing like a stone, ripping a great hole.”

Bedichek writes that, after the first attacks, the French army seriously considered training eagles to attack enemy planes, and the British Air Ministry issued instructions on the best tactics to pursue during eagle attacks. “Of course, modern planes have little to fear from eagles or other birds individually,” he notes, “but the encountering by plane of migration flights, especially of flights of large birds in considerable number, is said still to offer a considerable hazard.”

“Curious Accident”

On Monday last an accident of a singular but distressing nature happened to one of our townsmen. A pair of fanners were being conveyed in a cart along the road to the Whins, when, from some cause or other, the horse ran off. Mr. Drummond, millwright, the person who has met with the accident, at first stepped forward to stop the horse, but, fearing danger, started hastily back. Behind Mr. Drummond was a lad bearing an axe upon his shoulder. Upon the sharp edge of the instrument Mr. Drummond unfortunately ran, and the consequence was that his nose was very nearly cut off. So complete was the cut the nose fell over upon the mouth, and was suspended by the slightest portion of the integument. Mr Drummond instantly applied his handkerchief to his face, and proceeded to Dr. Brotherston, who was fortunately in his own house at the moment. As may be supposed, the sight was a hideous one, the accident presenting an insight into the interior of the face. We are happy to say that, under Dr. Brotherston’s judicious treatment, the nose has been replaced, and there is every hope of the cure being so effectual that scarcely any trace of the accident will by and by be visible.

Alloa Advertiser, reprinted in the Times, Dec. 18, 1855

The Leaning Virgin

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On Jan. 15, 1915, a shell hit the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Brebières in Albert, France. Its crowning statue of Mary and the infant Jesus was flung forward and teetered over the building’s facade, but it did not fall.

“We went through the place today where the Virgin Statue at the top of the Church was hit by a shell in January,” wrote chaplain Rupert Edward Inglis to his wife in October. “The statue was knocked over, but has never fallen, I sent you a picture of it. It really is a wonderful sight. It is incomprehensible how it can have stayed there, but I think it is now lower than when the photograph was taken, and no doubt will come down with the next gale.”

But it didn’t. The virgin remained suspended over Albert for three years, during which British, French, and German forces all invented legends for it, commonly saying that the war would end when it finally fell. They were nearly right: The statue finally came down in April 1918, seven months before the armistice.

The basilica has since been rebuilt, and it bears a replica of the original statue.

Connection

At 3:35 a.m. on Aug. 14, 1888, off the coast of Nova Scotia, Second Officer Jørgensen of the Danish steamer Geiser was asleep in his bunk when he was awakened by a “frightful crash.” As he rolled out of his bunk, the bow of another ship “crashed its way through the walls of my stateroom, making an enormous hole and blocking the door so I couldn’t get out.” Desperately he grabbed the anchor chain of the strange ship “and climbed up to her deck just as the Geiser gave one last lurch and went down out of sight, with her decks covered with shrieking, despairing people.”

He found himself aboard Geiser‘s sister ship Thingvalla, which had been plying the same line between New York and Copenhagen. In the stormy night, Thingvalla’s prow had struck Geiser amidships, and she sank in seven minutes. Thingvalla’s boats rescued 14 passenger and 17 crew, leaving 126 unaccounted for — most of the passengers died in their bunks.

See The “Miracle Girl.”

Enough

essex whale attack

On Nov. 20, 1820, the Nantucket whaler Essex was attacking a pod of sperm whales in the South Pacific when an immense 85-foot whale surfaced about 100 yards off the bow. It spouted two or three times, dove briefly, then charged and “struck the ship with his head just forward of the fore chains,” reported mate Owen Chase. “He gave us such an appalling and tremendous jar as nearly threw us all on our faces. The ship brought up as suddenly and violently as if she had struck a rock, and trembled for a few moments like a leaf. We looked at each other in perfect amazement, deprived almost of the power of speech.”

The whale passed under the ship and lay on the surface, stunned at first and then convulsing. Chase ordered men to the pumps and called back the boats, but as the Essex began to settle in the water a man called, “Here he is — he is making for us again.”

“I turned around, and saw him about one hundred rods directly ahead of us, coming down with apparently twice his ordinary speed, and to me it appeared with tenfold fury and vengeance in his aspect,” Chase wrote. “The surf flew in all directions, and his course towards us was marked by a white foam of a rod in width, which he made with a continual violent threshing of his tail.” The second blow stove in the Essex’s bows, and the whale “passed under the ship again, went off to leeward, and we saw no more of him.”

If this was vengeance, it was well accomplished. The Essex sank more than 1,000 miles from land; of the 21 crew who piled into three boats, only eight would survive, three on a barely habitable island and five after resorting to cannibalism during three months at sea. The whale acquired a further kind of immortality: Chase’s account of the disaster, written on his return to Massachusetts, helped inspire Herman Melville to write Moby-Dick.

Mixed Call

Where in the Bible are we told in one verse not to do a thing and in the next to do it?

‘Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him.’ Prov. xxvi. 4.

‘Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit.’ Prov. xxvi. 5.

— Samuel Grant Oliphant, Queer Questions and Ready Replies, 1887

Falling Angels

A fearful accident happened on Friday last at the Madeleine church, Bruges. One of the priests, while performing mass, was suddenly struck to the ground by the falling on his forehead of the marble head of an infant Jesus, which had become detached from its body. Fracture of the skull and a severe wound were the consequence to the unhappy clergyman, who, after lingering in great agony, died yesterday.

Times, May 3, 1847

An extraordinary and fatal accident happened this morning in the Roman Catholic parish church of Kildare. As the Very Rev. Dr. J.B. Kavanagh, P.P., was standing in front of the altar with his hand on the chalice to raise it at the close of 7 o’clock mass, and was about to descend the altar steps to recite the Rosary and Litany of the blessed Virgin, the marble figure of a cherub over the altar fell down and struck him with great force on the head. He fell back heavily, murmured the words ‘My God’ twice, and then became insensible. A cry of horror and anguish was raised by the congregation who witnessed the accident. Some persons rushed forward to lift him up, while others ran for medical help. Drs. Watson, Dillon and Chaplin were soon in attendance, and Dr. Kavanagh having been raised from the floor was placed on a stretcher and carried into the adjoining convent, where, having never recovered consciousness, he died soon afterwards.

Times, Oct. 6, 1886

Welcome to America

http://proceedings.esri.com/library/userconf/proc99/proceed/papers/pap138/p138.htm

Is Ellis Island in New York or New Jersey? Surprisingly, it’s in both. Under a 1934 compact, New York had jurisdiction over the original 3-acre Army fort, but the 24 acres of landfill that have since been added are part of New Jersey. The Supreme Court essentially upheld this arrangement in a 1998 ruling.

“New York still collects sales tax from concessions within the donut hole,” writes geographer Mark Monmonier, “while New Jersey taxes purchases elsewhere on the site.”

Wife and Limb

‘Late one evening a person came into our office, and asked to see the editor of the Lancet. On being introduced to our sanctum, he placed a bundle upon the table, from which he proceeded to extract a very fair and symmetrical lower extremity, which might have matched ‘Atalanta’s better part,’ and which had evidently belonged to a woman. ‘There!’ said he, ‘is there anything the matter with that leg? Did you ever see a handsomer? What ought to be done with the man who cut it off?’ On having the meaning of these interrogatories put before us, we found that it was the leg of the wife of our evening visitor. He had been accustomed to admire the lady’s leg and foot, of the perfection of which she was, it appeared, fully conscious. A few days before, he had excited her anger, and they had quarrelled violently, upon which she left the house, declaring she would be revenged on him, and that he should never see the objects of his admiration again. The next thing he heard of her was, that she was a patient in ——– Hospital, and had had her leg amputated. She had declared to the surgeons that she suffered intolerable pain in the knee, and had begged to have the limb removed — a petition the surgeons complied with, and thus became the instrument of her absurd and self-torturing revenge upon her husband!’

From Paul Fitzsimmons Eve, A Collection of Remarkable Cases in Surgery, 1857, quoting the Lancet, 1850. “The case seems to us highly improbable,” writes Eve, “but the Lancet, it will be perceived, is responsible for it.”

A New Start

The Spanish village of Bérchules celebrates New Year’s Day in August. In 1994 a power failure left the villagers unable to join the traditional countdown on Dec. 31, so they moved it to the first Saturday in August.

It’s all arbitrary anyway. “New Year’s is a harmless annual institution,” wrote Mark Twain in the Territorial Enterprise, “of no particular use to anybody save as a scapegoat for promiscuous drunks, and friendly calls, and humbug resolutions, and we wish you to enjoy it with a looseness suited to the greatness of the occasion.”

“Singular Occurrence”

On Thursday morning one of those extraordinary beings who gain a precarious subsistence by penetrating into the sewers in search of coin or other valuables that may be washed into them from the drains was taken out of the main-sewer in Broad-street, Golden-square, in a very exhausted state, having been 36 hours and upwards endeavouring to find his way out, which, from having advanced further than was his custom to recover some silver that had been accidentally dropped down a grating near the Seven Dials, he was unable to accomplish. Fortunately, the poor fellow’s cries were heard by Mr. Tickle, cheesemonger, at the corner of Berwick-street, Broad-street, opposite whose door there is a manhole, which he had contrived to ascend, and, assistance being procured, he was liberated. Some compassionate persons supplied him with soup, &c., which speedily restored him.

Globe, reprinted in the Times, April 1, 1848