“Mathematical Genius”

The Cincinnati Gazette says that ‘William Marcy, a colored boy from Kentucky, who was in that city lately, can add up columns of figures of any length, divide any given sum, multiply millions by thousands within five minutes from the time the figures are given to him, and with such exactness as to render it truly wonderful. Recently, in the presence of a party of gentlemen, he added a column of figures, eight in a line, and one hundred and eighty lines, making the sum total of several millions, within six minutes. The feat was so astounding, and apparently incredible, that several of the party took off their coats, and, dividing the sum, went to work, and in two hours after they commenced produced identically the same answers. The boy is not quite seventeen years of age; he cannot read nor write, and in every other branch of an English education is entirely deficient.’

The National Magazine, December 1853

A Well-Tempered Cartwheel


From Strand, August 1906:

A circular canon is so named not because of its circular form, but because it completes the circle of fifths–i.e., it goes through all the keys, each a perfect fifth above the other, until it returns to the original key. The one under notice is written in triple counterpoint, any part sounding equally well in the top, middle, or lowest voice, and each bar is in three different keys at once, all harmonizing.

This rendering is a bit indistinct, I’m afraid — if I can find a clearer version I’ll post it.

The Grey Town Noises

In Nature, May 12, 1870, captain Charles Dennehy of the R.M.S. Shannon noted “a very curious phenomenon” observed by the occupants of iron vessels off the port of Grey Town, Nicaragua.

“[W]hile at anchor in this situation, we hear, commencing with a marvellous punctuality at about midnight, a peculiar metallic vibratory sound, of sufficient loudness to awaken a great majority of the ship’s crew, however tired they may be after a hard day’s work.”

The sound, Dennehy said, converted the ship into “a great musical sounding board.” “It is musical, metallic, with a certain cadence, and a one-two-three time tendency of beat. It is heard most distinctly over open hatchways, over the engine-room, through the coal-shoots [sic], and close round the outside of the ship. It cannot be fixed at any one place, always appearing to recede from the observer. On applying the ear to the side of an open bunker, one fancies that it is proceeding from the very bottom of the hold.” It continued for about two hours, was heard only aboard iron vessels, and was unknown to the inhabitants on shore.

Denney’s letter brought responses from readers who referred to similar sounds in Trinidad, India, and Chile. They postulated a “musical fish” or gas rising from vegetation on the seabed but offered no conclusive explanation.

Curiously, William Corliss notes that the sounds’ descriptions seem to match the Yellowstone Lake whispers.

The Absence Paradox

If you are somewhere else, you are not here.

You are not in Rome; you are somewhere else.

Therefore you are not here.

Dueling Doppelgängers


When World War I broke out in August 1914, Germany enlisted a large ocean liner, the Cap Trafalgar, to attack British merchant ships around Cape Horn. While at a supply base on Trinidade, it was surprised by the HMS Carmania, a British liner that had been similarly pressed into service by the British navy.

The two enormous ships squared off and fought a murderous sea battle. In the end the Cap Trafalgar sank, and the Carmania limped away to a Brazilian port.

An observer might still have wondered which side won — by an ironic coincidence, the Cap Trafalgar had been disguised as the Carmania and the Carmania as the Cap Trafalgar.

Missing Person

At 5 p.m. on Dec. 2, 1919, Canadian theater magnate Ambrose Small met with a lawyer in his Toronto office. The lawyer departed at 5:30 p.m. Between 5:30 and 6:00, Small vanished.

No one saw him leave the office, and no body was ever found. The disappearance seemed senseless. Small was a self-made millionaire; no money was missing, there was no evidence of kidnapping, and no ransom note was ever received.

Curiously, writer Ambrose Bierce had disappeared in Mexico six years earlier. Charles Fort wondered, “Was somebody collecting Ambroses?”

Swing Time


Jazz pianist Billy Tipton was biologically female. She lived as a man from age 19 to her death at 74, when the truth was discovered.

Born in 1914, Dorothy Tipton developed an early love of jazz, but sexism in the music industry and the straitened economy of the Depression made it impossible to find work. In 1933 she donned trousers and her father’s nickname and began playing in Oklahoma bars.

By the 1940s she was touring the country, and in the 1950s the Billy Tipton Trio released two albums for Tops Records and performed with Duke Ellington, Patti Page, and Rosemary Clooney. Arthritis finally forced Billy’s retirement in the 1970s.

Throughout all this Tipton had relationships with at least five women, including nightclub dancer Kitty Kelly, with whom she raised three adopted sons. She bound her chest, ostensibly to protect ribs fractured in an auto accident, and she always locked the bathroom door. Son William learned of his father’s sex only when a paramedic working on the dying Tipton asked, “Son, did your father have a sex change?”

Why keep a secret for 55 years? Tipton left no account of her reasons, and perhaps it’s none of our business. “I can’t say that passion wasn’t there with Billy, because it was,” said former lover Betty Cox, who insisted she never suspected Billy’s sex even during intimacy. “Now, 40 or 50 years later, you see these cross-dressers all the time on TV. You can certainly tell. Even on TV. I can look at a person and say, ‘Gee, that’s obviously a woman.’ Why couldn’t I then?”

Point of Interest

A few miles to the northeast of Woodstock lies the village of Saugerties, and just before entering it, Routes 212 and 32 come together. We do not know who first gave this juncture the name of Fahrenheit Corners, but as a large IBM plant is in the vicinity, we may reasonably suspect one of its more whimsical employees.

Journal of Recreational Mathematics, October 1981

Aging Fast

The California Court of Appeal faced a curious philosophical question in 1989: Do you become a year older on your birthday, or on the preceding day?

Paul Johnson had committed a robbery in San Francisco on Aug. 12, 1988, one day before his 18th birthday. The prosecution had charged him as an adult, arguing that “A person is in existence on the day of his birth. On the first anniversary he or she has lived one year and one day.”

Is that so? The appeals court didn’t buy it — Justice William Channell overruled the prior decisions and had Johnson tried as a juvenile.

Bad Dogs

Pep and Lady

Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary got an unusual inmate in 1924: “Pep the cat-murdering dog,” a black Labrador retriever who was allegedly incarcerated for killing the first lady’s favorite pet. In truth Pep was donated to the prison by governor Gifford Pinchot to improve morale; he was transferred to nearby Graterford Penitentiary in 1929.

Pep’s example was followed by Lady, a beagle who belonged to the captain of the prison’s guards. She posed for the second picture in 1957.

In American Notes, Dickens recalled that one inmate at Eastern State kept a rabbit in his cell; others kept birds and cats. And the prison was later home to Al Capone, who had some unusual quarters of his own.

Night Owl

Albert Herpin, born in France in 1862 and for fifteen years a hostler in the employ of Freeholder Walter Phares of this city, declares that he has not slept a wink during the past ten years. Notwithstanding this, he is in perfect health, and does not seem to suffer any discomfort from his remarkable condition. He goes to bed regularly, but says he never closes his eyes, or at least never for an instant loses consciousness of all going on about him. In the morning he arises refreshed and ready for another day’s work among the horses. He declares the change of position and the darkness of the room seem to give him all the rest he desires.

— “Hasn’t Slept in Ten Years,” New York Times, Feb. 29, 1904

“Singular Circumstance”

The following anecdote appears so marvellous, that we can scarcely expect it to obtain general belief; but it has been transmitted to us by a most respectable correspondent; a correspondent who is far from being credulous himself, and who has no interest in deceiving others:–‘The other day, a horse belonging to Mr. Thomas Johnstone, tenant on the estate of Major Culton of Auchenabony, having lost a shoe, and probably feeling his foot somewhat uneasy from the want of it, left the field where he was grazing, and went to a smithy about a mile distant, where he used to be shod. On arriving, he was observed to pause a few minutes, as if in expectation that the owner of the house would come out, and introduce him in due form; but finding nobody in attendance, he walked in, placed himself in the corner where he used to stand during the operation of shoeing; and on the smith’s coming in, he instantly made known his errand by holding up the shoeless foot. Soon after, the owner of the horse having missed him, came to the smithy in the course of his search, and to his no small surprise, found THE SMITH ENGAGED IN PUTTING ON A SHOE!’

— “Dumfries paper,” quoted in The Kaleidoscope, July 10, 1821

An Obscure Exit

On June 3, 1872, retired Navy captain George Colvocoresses bought a ticket for the boat from Bridgeport, Conn., to New York, where he had an appointment the next day with an insurance agent. He put a leather valise in his stateroom and dined in the restaurant, where he was observed to keep a small morocco traveling bag in his lap. At 10:30 a local druggist sold him some writing paper and envelopes and indicated the best route back to the boat. Just as the boat was putting off, a pistol shot was heard, and a policeman found Colvocoresses dying in the street.

His clothing was unbuttoned, and his shirt was on fire at the point where the bullet had entered, about 6 inches below the left breast. His possessions were near him except for the traveling bag, which was later found on a Naugatuck wharf, cut open with a dull knife. Diagonally across the street from the body was a large old-fashioned horse pistol. On the following day, percussion caps, a bullet, and a powder horn were found about 60 feet from where the body had been discovered.

Was this murder or suicide? Colvocoresses had recently increased the insurance on his life to $198,500, and it was claimed that the pistol’s hammer fitted an indentation in his bag. But a physician testified that it would be impossible for a man to shoot himself and then throw the pistol across the street, and the captain was healthy, on good terms with his family, and had adequate means.

After a long fight the insurance companies agreed to pay 50 cents on the dollar. That’s all we know.

Thunder Down Under

Concerning the strange and inexplicable sounds heard by travellers in various parts of the world, there have been from time to time many interesting reports. Among the most curious of these are perhaps the accounts met with in the narratives of Australian explorers. … Stuart mentions that one morning, when in the interior, among the red sandhills of the inhospitable desert, he was startled by hearing a loud, clear, reverberating explosion, like the booming of artillery. These noises, which have been frequently observed in sandy districts, seem to come with an explosive echo from the sandhills, and reverberate for a considerable time amongst the surrounding mountains. Sounds of a like kind have alarmed most of the Australian explorers. Captain Sturt, who followed the course of the Darling River in 1828, describes an extraordinary sound which about three in the afternoon, on a day in the month of February of that year, astonished himself and party. ‘The day,’ he says, ‘had been remarkably fine, not a cloud was there in the heavens, nor a breath of air to be felt. On a sudden we heard what seemed to be the report of a gun fired at the distance of between five and six miles. It was not the hollow sound of an earthy explosion, or the sharp, cracking noise of falling timber, but in every way resembled a discharge of a heavy piece of ordnance. On this all the men agreed, but no one was certain whence the sound proceeded. Both Mr. Hume and myself, however, thought it came from the north-west. I immediately sent one of the men up a tree, but he could observe nothing unusual. The country around him appeared to be equally flat on all sides, and to be thickly wooded. Whatever occasioned the report, it made a strong impression on all of us, and to this day the singularity of such a sound in such a situation is a matter of mystery to me.’

— “Natural Sounds,” The People’s Magazine, Jan. 12, 1867

See Brontides.

Fire Alarm


On July 21, 1759, Emanuel Swedenborg attended a dinner party after returning to Gothenburg from England. He went out for a short interval and returned pale and agitated. He told the party that a fire had broken out in Stockholm, 250 miles away, and that it was spreading quickly. He said it had already destroyed the house of one of his friends, whom he named, and that his own house was in danger. Two hours later he exclaimed, “Thank God! The fire is extinguished the third door from my house.”

The following morning the governor questioned Swedenborg, who provided a description of the fire, including how it had begun and ended, and word spread throughout the city. Two days later a messenger arrived from Stockholm bearing letters that confirmed Swedenborg’s account, and a royal courier brought news reporting the extent of the fire, the houses it had damaged and destroyed, and the time it was put out. All confirmed Swedenborg’s description.

“What can be brought forward against the authenticity of this occurrence?” wrote Immanuel Kant, who elsewhere criticized Swedenborg’s mysticism. “My friend who wrote this to me, has not only examined the circumstances of this extraordinary case at Stockholm, but also, about two months ago, at Gottenburg, where he is acquainted with the most respectable houses, and where he could obtain the most authentic and complete information, as the greatest part of the inhabitants, who are still alive, were witnesses to the memorable occurrence.”



It has been recorded by reliable authority that near the graves of Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, and his wife, there stood a venerable apple-tree which had sent two of its roots into the graves of Mr. and Mrs. Williams. The larger root had pushed its way through the earth till it reached the precise spot occupied by the skull of Roger Williams. There, making a turn, as if going round the skull, it followed the direction of the backbone to the hips. Here it divided into two branches, sending one of them along each leg to the heel, where both turned upward to the toes. One of these roots formed a slight crook at the knee, which made the whole bear close resemblance to a human form. There were the graves, emptied of every particle of human dust. Not a trace of any thing was left. There stood the guilty ‘apple-tree,’ as it was said at the time, caught in the very act of ‘robbing the grave.’ The fact proved conclusively that bones, even of human beings, are an excellent fertilizer for fruit-trees; and the fact must be admitted that the organic matter of Roger Williams had been transmitted into the apple-tree; it had passed into the woody fibre, and was capable of propelling a steam-engine; it had bloomed in the apple-blossoms, and had become pleasant to the eye; and more, it had gone into the fruit from year to year, so that the question might be asked, Who ate Roger Williams?

— Sereno Edwards Todd, The Apple Culturist, 1871



In 1906, while serving in the Navy, Albert Moodie of Austin, Texas, wrote a letter to a shipmate. That wouldn’t normally be noteworthy — but Moodie wrote this letter on the regulation tape that battleships use for receiving wireless messages.

“It took me some two weeks to complete the task,” he reported, “as there is a continuous letter from the beginning to the end of the tape — a distance of over a mile.”

Moodie called it “the longest letter in the world.” His friend received it — and answered it.

In a Word

n. waking up

n. ill humor in the morning; “getting up on the wrong side of the bed”

“An Extraordinary Sleeper at Newcastle”

In the year 1752, during the summer, the following particulars happened at Newcastle, in Staffordshire, related by a lady of discernment and veracity, who went to see the sleeper several times. She was a girl about 19 years of age; she slept 14 weeks, without waking, although several methods were tried to wake her, as bleeding, blistering, &c.; in all which time she took no sustenance, except about nine o’clock every night, she opened her mouth, and then some person that attended her, dipped a feather in wine, and with that wetted the inside of her mouth. Her father often gave her an airing in a horse chair, and sometimes took her several miles, to have the advice of the physicians; but neither the motion of travelling, nor any thing the physicians could do, could awake her; she appeared to be healthy all the time, breathed freely, and her pulse beat very regularly, but rather too slow; she never moved herself all the time, except once, it is thought, she moved one leg. When she awaked, it was very gradually, being two or three days from the time she began to stir and open her eyes, before she was quite awake, and then seemed to be very well, but complained of faintness. I heard, last summer, that she had good health, and had no return of her sleepiness.

Gentleman’s Magazine, 1753, quoted in Kirby’s Wonderful and Eccentric Museum, 1820

“Capture of a Whale in the Thames”

A curious old tract in the British Museum, bearing the date of 1658, gives an account of a wonderful capture of a whale in the Thames, not far from Greenwich, in the month of June of that year. The sailors in the river were, of course, anxious to secure the huge monster who had been so rash as to invade our shores; but they found no slight difficulty in despatching it. All sorts of swords, axes, and hatchets, and even guns were brought into the service; but nothing effectual could be done till some one’s ingenuity suggested striking a couple of anchors into the creature’s body. By these it was held fast, and very soon bled to death. Hundreds of people flocked to see the monstrous stranger, and among others went Evelyn, author of the ‘Diary,’ who has left us a curious account of it. It was of no contemptible size, being fifty-eight feet long, twelve feet high, fourteen feet broad, and measured two feet between the eyes.

The World of Wonders, 1883

The Fateful L

Harry B. Partridge points out that most presidents whose names have contained a penultimate L — Ronald Reagan, Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, Franklin Roosevelt, John Fitzgerald Kennedy — have died in office or survived an assassination attempt. He speculates that Gerald Ford survived because he was born Leslie Lynch King Jr., and that Theodore Roosevelt was divinely spared because THEO means God. (James Polk died three months after leaving office.)

Partridge also notes that a name with patronymic prefix (Mc, Fitz, etc.) is invariably fatal. To date there have been only two: William McKinley and John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

See Tecumseh’s Curse.

King Without a Country


Pity James Harden-Hickey — he founded a nation and no one believed him.

In 1893, newly rich after marrying into steel money, the American adventurer stopped at the empty island of Trinidad in the South Atlantic (not its larger namesake in the Caribbean) and, fancying a military dictatorship, proclaimed himself James I.

To his credit, Harden-Hickey did everything he could to legitimize his claim, but it’s hard to get these things off the ground. He named a secretary of state; opened a consular office in New York; established a flag, postage stamps, and a coat of arms; and began to sell bonds. After only two years, though, Britain seized the island for a telegraph station, occasioning a dispute with Brazil, and Harden-Hickey’s protests brought him only ridicule in the popular press.

Bold to the last, Harden-Hickey even tried to arrange an invasion of England from Ireland, but he couldn’t arrange financing. In 1898 he took an overdose of morphine, leaving behind a note to his wife–and the crown of his quondam nation.

Phantom Islands

In 1823, American explorer Benjamin Morrell reported hunting seal along a coastline in the Weddell Sea near Antarctica. The land, he wrote, abounded in sea elephants and “oceanic birds of every description.” No one has been able to rediscover Morrell’s land, and in the 20th century it was shown conclusively to have disappeared.

In 1841 the English whaler James Stewart described a snow-covered island 5 to 6 miles long in the South Pacific. Other ships confirmed its existence in 1860 and 1886. But subsequent searches found nothing. John Davis of the Nimrod, who searched the area in 1909, wrote, “I am inclined to think Dougherty Island has melted.”

For nearly 30 years, India and Bangladesh disputed an island in the Bay of Bengal. In 2010 rising sea levels solved the problem: The island has disappeared. “What these two countries could not achieve from years of talking,” said Jadavpur University oceanographer Sugata Hazra, “has been resolved by global warming.”

(Thanks, Shrey.)

For Your Consideration


I send you a photograph of a snake made of postage-stamps. It contains, I believe, from fifteen thousand to twenty thousand stamps. The only portion not made of stamps is the head, which is of black velvet, with eyes of white beads, also teeth of beads; the fang is a match stuck into the mouth. The snake was made by Mrs. Membury, of Hyde Corner, Bridport, Dorset, and took about three years to complete. The length is four feet nine inches.

Strand, March 1907

Shades of Gray


An optical illusion. The gray bars on the left appear lighter than those on the right, but in fact they’re the same color.