Rustic Furniture

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In 1856 California hunter Seth Kinman made a unique gift for the new president, James Buchanan — a chair fashioned from horns that elk had shed on his farm. “This winter I killed considerable meat so I thought I would take it easy and set about to make this cheer with a view of sending it on to Washington for Old Buck,” he wrote. “After I got it finished, though, the boys up in our parts thought it enough to travel on; so I thought I would try and go on with it to Washington myself, leaving my mother and four children behind, and started with nothing but my rifle and powder horn. Nobody has yet sot in this cheer, and never shall till after the President.”

He arrived in Washington in May 1857 and presented the chair to Buchanan, who accepted it with great pleasure. “It will serve to remind me of the Californians,” he said. “They are a stamp of men that can be coaxed, but cannot be driven.” As Buchanan tried the chair, Kinman pointed out “that one fork of the antlers at the foot of the chair will make a good boot jack.” (The New York Times observes that this remark was met with “great merriment.”)

Kinman presented another elkhorn chair to Abraham Lincoln, and later a third to Rutherford Hayes. But he topped all of these in 1865 with a “bear chair” that he gave to Andrew Johnson:

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“This was intended to surpass all his previous efforts, and was made from two grizzly bears captured by Seth,” writes Marshall Anspach in The Lost History of Seth Kinman. “The four legs and claws were those of a huge grizzly and the back and sides ornamented with immense claws. The seat was soft and exceedingly comfortable, but the great feature of the chair was that, by touching a cord, the head of the monster grizzly bear with jaws extended, would dart out in front from under the seat, snapping and gnashing its teeth as natural as life.”

“The chair would appall almost any one with a less firm seat than Andrew Johnson,” noted Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, “but, putting looks aside, will, without doubt, make a warm and comfortable seat in the coming cold weather.” Johnson kept it in the White House library.

Close Call

From reader Isaac Lubow:

In 2008 a Learjet operated by Kalitta Air was en route from Manassas, Va., to Ypsilanti, Mich., when the air traffic controller noted that the pilot’s microphone button was being pressed continuously. When he contacted the plane, the pilot told him in slow, slurred words, over the sound of audible alarms, that he was unable to maintain altitude, speed, or heading but that everything else was “A-OK.”

Euphoria is a sign of hypoxia. With the help of the pilot of a nearby aircraft, the controllers were able to understand that the Learjet had become depressurized. It turned out that the first officer had been completely unconscious, and his flailing arm had both disengaged the autopilot and keyed the microphone. The open microphone had alerted the controllers, and the need to hand-fly the plane had kept the pilot conscious and able to respond to their commands.

The pilot managed to descend from 32,000 feet to 11,000, where the crew recovered, and the plane landed safely at Detroit’s Willow Run Airport. Controllers Jay McCombs and Stephanie Bevins were awarded the Archie League Medal of Safety, and the episode is now used as a classroom teaching aid at the Civil Aerospace Medical Institute in Oklahoma City.

(From Fear of Landing. Thanks, Isaac.)

Split Decision

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In December 2013 a U.S. District Court decided that copyright in the fictional characters Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson had expired, but only for the characters as they’re depicted in the earlier novels by Arthur Conan Doyle. Aspects of the characters that are mentioned only in the later novels — such as Dr. Watson’s athletic background, first described in a 1924 short story — are considered new “increments of expression” of those characters, and remain protected.

That makes eminent sense for writers and lawyers, but what about poor Dr. Watson, anxiously stirring the fire at 221B Baker Street? Does he have an athletic background or doesn’t he? The copyright law seems to apply to a version of him that does, and not to one that doesn’t. Should we say there are two Dr. Watsons? That doesn’t seem right.

Worse, “If an author now wants to write a new Holmes novel, but is prohibited from mentioning almost everything pertaining to Professor Moriarty (who only rose to prominence in the later work Valley of Fear), how can we say that he is still writing about the ‘the same’ Holmes, given how much his character was formed through the interaction with his nemesis?” ask legal scholars Burkhard Schafer and Jane Cornwell. “Does this not render any new Holmes necessarily ‘incomplete,’ that is lacking character traits and memories Holmes is ‘known to’ possess, according to the canonical work?”

Even the “public domain” Holmes seems to multiply in this light. We learn that Holmes has an older brother, Mycroft, in “The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter,” published in 1893. But if Mycroft is older than Sherlock, then surely he’s been Sherlock’s brother ever since Sherlock’s birth in 1854. Does the early Sherlock (in, say, A Study in Scarlet) have a brother?

(Burkhard Schafer and Jane Cornwell, “Law’s Fictions, Legal Fictions and Copyright Law,” in Maksymilian Del Mar and William Twining, eds., Legal Fictions in Theory and Practice, 2015.)

Desperate Measures

https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/treasures/trm114.html

From reader Jon Sweitzer-Lamme:

Pressed for materials during the siege of Vicksburg in 1863, the city’s Daily Citizen newspaper printed its last six issues on the back of wallpaper. Each of the issues for June 16, 18, 20, 27, 30, and July 2 was printed in four columns on a single sheet, as above; a reader who turned the sheet over would see this:

https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/treasures/trm114.html

The last issue, on July 2, is still defiant:

The Yankee Generalissimo surnamed Grant has expressed his intention of dining in Vicksburg on the Fourth of July. … Ulysses must get into the city before he dines in it.

But two days later, when the city finally fell, Union troops added a final paragraph:

Two days bring about great changes, The banner of the Union floats over Vicksburg. Gen. Grant has ‘caught the rabbit:’ he has dined in Vicksburg, and he did bring his dinner with him. The ‘Citizen’ lives to see it. For the last time it appears on ‘Wall-paper.’ No more will it eulogize the luxury of mule-meat and fricassed kitten — urge Southern warriors to such diet never-more. This is the last wall-paper edition, and is, excepting this note, from the types as we found them. It will be valuable hereafter as a curiosity.

More at the Library of Congress. (Thanks, Jon.)

Byways

A desire path is a route made evident by foot traffic, often easier or more direct than a provided avenue:

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

A holloway is a sunken lane formed by traffic or erosion — some in Europe date to the Iron Age:

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

A snowy neckdown is a disused area of a roadway made evident by snowfall:

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

In the absence of snow, some Australian engineers have dusted intersections with cake flour to reveal traffic patterns. Others study the oil stains left by traffic. Dan Burden, director of the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute, says, “I call something like that highway forensics.”

Gesundheit

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

Classical statues tend to lose their noses, and in the 19th century museums would commonly replace them with “restoration” noses, to preserve the appearance of the original sculpture.

In the 20th century some museums changed philosophies and “de-restored” their collections, thinking it better to present each piece in its authentic state.

This created a superfluity of noses, and some museums collect these into displays of their own. Charmingly, there’s even a word for this: A collection of noses is a Nasothek.

Above is the collection in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek museum in Copenhagen.

(Thanks, Carsten.)

“An Interesting War Relic”

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A small highland terrapin was captured in 1884 by a Chattanooga gentleman that carries on the smooth surface of its belly the inscription, carved in distinct characters: ‘Union: Co. K, 26th Regt., Ohio Vols.; November 18, 1864.’ It is supposed that some straggling Union soldier, belonging to the command designated, captured the North Georgia quadruped and proceeded to make a living historical tablet of the hard-shell little creeper.

That was twenty years ago. In 1886 when a party of ex-Union captives from Ohio, who were making a tour of the South, passed through Chattanooga, the terrapin was shown them and they could not have shown more delight over the meeting of an old friend. ‘He was the pet of some of our boys,’ said one of the old soldiers, as he fondly patted the terrapin’s back, while the tears filled his eyes and rolled down his cheeks in great drops.

Rome [Ga.] Sentinel, reprinted in W.C. King and W.P. Derby, Camp-Fire Sketches and Battle-Field Echoes, 1886

Extreme Measures

Zürich has a singularly violent way to welcome summer: They roast a snowman until its head explodes.

At the spring holiday Sechseläuten, traditionally celebrated on the third Monday in April, residents build an effigy of winter in the shape of a giant snowman known as the Böögg, pack it with explosives, and set it afire.

“It is believed the shorter the combustion, the hotter and longer summer will be,” writes Bob Eckstein in The History of the Snowman. “When the head of the snowman explodes to smithereens, winter is considered officially over.”

The shortest time on record is 5 minutes 7 seconds, in 1974. The longest, just last year, is 43 minutes 34 seconds.

Podcast Episode 136: The Boston Molasses Disaster

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In 1919 a bizarre catastrophe struck Boston’s North End: A giant storage tank failed, releasing 2 million gallons of molasses into a crowded business district at the height of a January workday. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the Boston Molasses Disaster, which claimed 21 lives and inscribed a sticky page into the city’s history books.

We’ll also admire some Scandinavian statistics and puzzle over a provocative Facebook photo.

Intro:

In 1888 three women reported encountering a 15-foot flying serpent in the woods near Columbia, S.C.

In 1834 the American Journal of Science and Arts reported the capture of a pair of conjoined catfish near Fort Johnston, N.C.

Sources for our feature on the Boston Molasses Disaster:

Stephen Puleo, Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919, 2003.

Fred Durso Jr., “The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919,” NFPA Journal 105:3 (May/June 2011), 90-93.

Sean Potter, “Retrospect: January 15, 1919: Boston Molasses Flood,” Weatherwise 64:1 (January/February 2011), 10-11.

Kaylie Duffy, “Today in Engineering History: Molasses Tanker Explodes, Kills 21,” Product Design & Development, Jan. 15, 2015.

Steve Puleo, “Death by Molasses,” American History 35:6 (February 2001), 60-66.

Chuck Lyons, “A Sticky Tragedy,” History Today 59.1 (January 2009), 40-42.

Dick Sinnott, “21 Persons Drowned in Molasses Flood,” Reading [Pa.] Eagle, Jan. 15, 1959.

Edwards Park, “Without Warning, Molasses in January Surged Over Boston,” Smithsonian 14:8 (November 1983), 213-230.

“12 Killed When Tank of Molasses Explodes,” New York Times, Jan. 16, 1919.

Ferris Jabr, “The Science of the Great Molasses Flood,” Scientific American, Aug. 1, 2013.

United Press International, “The Great Boston Molasses Disaster of 1919,” Jan. 17, 1979.

Peter Schworm, “Nearly a Century Later, Structural Flaw in Molasses Tank Revealed,” Boston Globe, Jan. 14, 2015.

William J. Kole, “Slow as Molasses? Sweet but Deadly 1919 Disaster Explained,” Associated Press, Nov. 24, 2016.

Erin McCann, “Solving a Mystery Behind the Deadly ‘Tsunami of Molasses’ of 1919,” New York Times, Nov. 26, 2016. (The corn syrup video is midway down the page.)

Jason Daley, “The Sticky Science Behind the Deadly Boston Molasses Disaster,” Smithsonian, Nov. 28, 2016.

Jennifer Ouellette, “Incredible Physics Behind the Deadly 1919 Boston Molasses Flood,” New Scientist, Nov. 24, 2016.

The Boston Public Library has photos and newspaper headlines.

Listener mail:

Erik Bye’s song on the 15th Wisconsin Regiment:

Statistics Norway’s names database.

Wikipedia, “Old Norse” (accessed Jan. 5, 2017).

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Tommy Honton, who sent this corroborating link (warning — this spoils the puzzle).

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or Google Play Music or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support. You can also make a one-time donation on the Support Us page of the Futility Closet website.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

Rough

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

SIR, — While surveying in northern Labrador I had occasion to visit the island of Nukusustok, a few miles to seaward of the village of Nain. On the slope of a hill, and about 300ft. inland, I found a golf ball in good condition. How did the ball come to be there, and so far inland? It is possible that the ball was driven by a golfer from an Atlantic liner during practice, drifted northward past Greenland, and was finally carried ashore by the Labrador current which runs from north to south along the Labrador coast.

I have sent the ball to Dunlops, the makers, who suggest that it was probably carried so far inland by a sea bird. Perhaps some of your readers could help in explaining the mystery.

Yours faithfully,

Thos. O. Hampson

The Field, June 29, 1935