Better Safe

Johann Taberger designed this “safety coffin” in 1829, to preserve people who had been mistakenly buried alive. Strings were attached to the body’s head, hands, and feet, connected to a bell that would alert the cemetery’s nightwatchman, who could use a bellows to pump air into the coffin until it could be dug up.

Such devices were popular during the cholera epidemics of the 18th and 19th centuries — European graves were rigged variously with bells, flags, ladders, and escape hatches. There’s no evidence that they ever saved anyone, and they nearly killed some of their inventors: During a demonstration in 1897, a chamberlain to the tsar of Russia buried his assistant, waited, and finally realized that the signaling system had failed. The assistant was saved, but the marketing campaign was DOA.

“Bees Found in a Stone”

An extraordinary discovery in Natural History was made at Liverpool about a fortnight ago. As one of the stonemasons in the employ of the Dock Trustees, was dressing, on the sea wall of the Regent’s Dock, a huge stone, brought from the Western Point Quarry, and after he had broken a considerable thickness from its outside, he discovered, in a hole of small diameter, which was partially filled with clay, and a loamy sand, three bees, in a state of animation, to the inexpressible astonishment of himself and fellow-workmen, many of whom were witnesses of this strange phenomenon. The foreman of the works put them into his handkerchief, where they remained for several hours afterwards; but, while exhibiting his newly resuscitated strangers, two of them flew away, and he voluntarily gave the third its liberty.

Liverpool Advertiser, Nov. 24, 1817

The Tree That Owns Itself

In 1832, Col. William Henry Jackson of Athens, Ga., made an unusual bequest:

I, W. H. Jackson, of the county of Clarke, of the one part, and the oak tree … of the county of Clarke, of the other part: Witnesseth, That the said W. H. Jackson for and in consideration of the great affection which he bears said tree, and his great desire to see it protected has conveyed, and by these presents do convey unto the said oak tree entire possession of itself and of all land within eight feet of it on all sides.

So goes the legend. Legally the land is probably part of the right-of-way along Finley Street, but Jackson’s wishes have been honored in spirit: When the original tree fell in 1942, the townspeople grew a replacement from one of its acorns.

Yamamoto Meets Wile E. Coyote

In early 1945, Americans in western states began to notice something odd. Explosions were heard from Alaska to California, and some people reported seeing parachutes and balloons in the sky.

Newsweek ran an article titled “Balloon Mystery” but was soon contacted by the U.S. Office of Censorship, which was trying to keep the story quiet. It seems the Japanese were using balloons to float bombs over the continental United States. At first it was thought the balloons were being launched from North American beaches, but scientists who studied the sand in their sandbags eventually determined they had been launched from Japan itself. The jet stream could carry a high-altitude balloon across the Pacific in three days.

Japan, it turned out, had launched more than 900 such balloons, and 300 have been found in America. The censorship prevented any word of success from reaching Japan, so the project was soon discontinued. But there was, sadly, some success: On May 5, 1945, a 13-year-old girl tried to pull a balloon from a tree during a church picnic. It exploded, killing a woman and five children.

Adventures in Parenthood

In March, 1802, a child of Jonathan White’s, Southgate, Chichester, about six months old, had a small double-bladed knife, nearly two inches and a half in length, given it to play with in the cradle. The infant swallowed it, and, as may be supposed, soon became uneasy in its stomach, though otherwise healthy. On the 24th of May, the shortest blade was discharged by the bowels; the back of it was very much corroded, its edges ragged, uneven, and saw-like; the rivet was entirely dissolved. On the 16th of June, after more than usual uneasiness, and the rejection of food, the child vomited one side of the horn handle, very much softened, and bent double; a small bit of iron passed a few days after; and on the 24th of July, another bit of a wedge-like shape, much corroded, and full of holes, and, apparently, the large blade. The child was now much emaciated, the faeces blackish, and the abdomen inflamed externally. On the 11th of August, the back of the knife, and soon after, the other side of the horn handle, were vomited; and the infant, thereafter, recovered entirely. This case, fully authenticated, has been published.

Literary Gazette, July 11, 1818