A Living Emblem


During the Civil War, the 8th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment had a particularly patriotic mascot — a bald eagle. Named for the commander-in-chief of the Union Army, “Old Abe” accompanied his regiment into battle at the Second Battle of Corinth and the Siege of Vicksburg, screaming at the enemy and spreading his wings. Apparently he was a bit of a ham — in September 1861 the Eau Claire Free Press reported:

When the regiment marched into Camp Randall, the instant the men began to cheer, he spread his wings, and taking one of the small flags attached to his perch in his beak, he remained in that position until borne to the quarters of the late Col. Murphy.

After the war Old Abe resided in the state capitol, where he died in a fire in 1881. Today he lives on in the insignia of the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division.

“A Parasite Tree”


Sir.–I have recently, on a visit to Mr. Gee’s plantation three miles south of Quincy, Gadsden county, in this territory, observed a natural curiosity, the following description of which may be interesting to you and many of the readers of the American Journal of Arts and Science.

It is a yellow pine tree bearing another in a perfectly healthful and flourishing state, like itself and those in the woods around them. The trees, as represented in this sketch, are united about thirty five feet from the ground, where they entwine around each other. The one that is borne, (marked A,) extends down, to within about two feet of the ground, and is alive and healthful to its lowest extremity.

These trees have been, in the condition in which they now are, for a period longer back than the first settlement of the country by the present population. They were pointed out by the Indians as a curiosity to the first Americans who came to Florida. The stump of the tree which is borne, has long since disappeared, and the place which it occupied, is now grown up in small bushes and grass.

— Lt. George W. Long, Tallahassee, Fla., in American Journal of Science and Arts, July 1834

“Extraordinary Flight of Leaves”

The pastoral farm of Dalgonar is situated near the source of the Skarr Water, in the parish of Penpont, Dumfriesshire. The ridge of hills on the farm as per Ordnance Survey is 1580 feet above sea-level. There are only five trees on the farm–two ash and three larch. An extraordinary occurrence presented itself to the eyes of Mr. Wright, my informant, at the end of October 1889, on this farm, which has been narrated to me in a letter received from him, as follows:–

‘I was struck by a strange appearance in the atmosphere, which I at first mistook for a flock of birds, but as I saw them falling to the earth my curiosity was quickened. Fixing my eyes on one of the larger of them, and running about 100 yards up the hill until directly underneath, I awaited its arrival, when I found it to be an oak leaf. Looking upwards the air was thick with them, and as they descended in an almost vertical direction, oscillating and glittering in the sunshine, the spectacle was as beautiful as rare. The wind was from the north, blowing a very gentle breeze, and there were occasional showers of rain.

‘On examination of the hills after the leaves had fallen, it was found that they covered a tract of about a mile wide and two miles long. The leaves were wholly those of the oak. No oak trees grow in clumps together nearer than eight miles. The aged shepherd, who has been on the farm since 1826, never witnessed a similar occurrence.’

— James Shaw, Tynron School, Dumfriesshire, in Nature, Oct. 30, 1890

The Bunion Derby

In 1928, to capitalize on the nation’s enthusiasm for marathons, sports promoter C.C. Pyle proposed “the world’s greatest single athletic project”: a 3,400-mile footrace from Los Angeles to New York City.

Pyle stressed that the winner “must have guts and stamina,” and this proved to be an understatement. Of the 200 runners who showed up at the start on March 4, 77 had quit by the end of the first day, and only 91 remained by early April. “His left ankle was swollen to twice its normal size,” said the wife of Illinois’ Frank Johnson, who dropped out after 900 miles. “His lips were cracked so badly he bled when he tried to eat.”

But the race wore on, and on May 26, 55 exhausted runners stumbled into New York, where Oklahoma’s Andy Payne took first place with a time of 573 hours, 4 minutes, and 34 seconds. He’d won $25,000 and worn out five pairs of rubber-soled canvas shoes.

Payne paid off the mortgage on his family’s farm and went on to serve as clerk of the Oklahoma supreme court for 38 years. “One can’t be an athlete all his life, but he can use the same desire that made him,” he said. “For clean living, for love of God and country.”

Sea Meeting

Extract from the logbook of the ship Leonidas, sailing from New York toward Le Havre, May 1817, latitude 44°6′ north; cited in American Journal of Science, April 1820:

First part of the day light variable winds and cloudy; at two P.M. on the larboard quarter, at the distance of about half the ship’s length, saw a strange fish. Its lower parts were like a fish; its belly was all white; the top of the back brown, and there was the appearance of short hair as far as the top of its head. From the breast upwards, it had a near resemblance to a human being and looked upon the observers very earnestly; as it was but a short distance from the ship, all the afternoon, we had a good opportunity to observe its motions and shape. No one on board ever saw the like fish, before; all believe it to be a Mermaid.

The second mate Mr. Stevens, an intelligent young man, told me the face was nearly white, and exactly like that of a human person; that its arms were about half as long as his, with hands resembling his own; that it stood erect out of the water about two feet, looking at the ship and sails with great earnestness. It would remain in this attitude, close along side, ten or fifteen minutes at a time, and then dive and appear on the other side. It remained around them about six hours. Mr. Stevens also stated that its hair was black on the head and exactly resembled a man’s; that below the arms, it was a perfect fish in form, and that the whole length from the head to the tail about five feet.

“Communicated by Mr. Elisha Lewis of New-Haven, a respectable merchant.”

“A Curious Knife Found in the Flesh of a Codfish”


While discharging a fare of codfish from the schooner Vinnie M. Getchell, at Gloucester, Mass., on September 15, 1886, Capt. John Q. Getchell, master of the vessel, found imbedded in the thick flesh of a large cod a knife of curious workmanship represented by the accompanying illustration. …

The fish in which the knife was found was one of a fare caught in 75 fathoms of water on the northeast part of George’s Bank; it was apparently healthy, being thick and ‘well-fed,’ and according to Captain Getchell, would weigh about 40 pounds after being split, or say 60 pounds as it came from the water. The general excellent quality of the fare of fish attracted considerable attention from people who saw them, and led to the discovery of the knife. Some remarks having been made concerning the fish, Captain Getchell lifted several of them from a tub (where they had been thrown to wash after being weighed) and exhibited them to the by-standers, commenting on the size and thickness of the specimens. Holding one across the edge of the tub in a semi curved position, he ran his hand over the thicker portion of the fish to call attention to its fatness. In doing so, he felt something hard beneath his fingers, and further examination produced the knife. Of course much surprise was expressed by those present, who had never before seen such a strangely formed implement, and speculation was rife as to how it came there. When found, the knife-blade was closed, and the small or posterior end of the handle was the part first felt by Captain Getchell, and was nearest the tail of the fish.

The handle of the knife is of brass, curved and tapering posteriorly, with a longitudinal incision, on the concave side, to receive the edge of the blade. The handle is remarkable in form, and is suggestive of the handiwork of some savage tribe or the scrimshaw work of a sailor. … The blade is lanceolate in form, with the cutting edge curved outward, to fit into the handle, and the back nearly straight. … The total length, from point to point in a straight line, is 6 1/4 inches.

Bulletin of the United States Fish Commission, Dec. 31, 1886

Crass Menagerie


It’s one thing to shoot a bear, another to take its dignity. From a feature on “animal furniture” in Strand, August 1896:

“This obsequious-looking bear was shot in Russia by no less a personage than the Prince of Wales; and for years it has ‘waited’ meekly in the smoking-room at Marlborough House.”

Evidently this was the vogue in the 1860s. Further examples:

  • A chair made from a baby giraffe shot in British East Africa
  • A pet monkey converted into a candle holder (“Mr. Jamrach, the famous wild beast importer, was vexed with orders for dead monkeys”)
  • A black swan table lamp, made to order for a wealthy Australian gentleman
  • A “tiger chair” made for a gentleman in the Indian Civil Service (“Observe the ingenious way in which the tail is disposed, as though the tiger were coiled right round the chair”)
  • A small elephant made into a hall porter’s chair

Gandhi would later write, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”


The “Child Hatchery”


Babies were featured in carnival sideshows in the early 20th century, as part of a campaign by German pediatrician Martin Couney to introduce incubators to the public. He had started at the World Exposition in Berlin in 1896, displaying premature babies borrowed from a local charity hospital, then moved to London the following year. The Lancet expressed some misgivings about associating babies with carnival showmen, but it supported Couney’s exhibit and the principle of incubation.

Couney moved to the United States in 1903 and displayed babies at Coney Island every summer for 40 years. Because he charged the parents nothing, the exhibition brought the expensive procedure within reach of needy families, saving hundreds of lives as it educated the public. “Dr. Couney’s Baby Farm” remained open until 1943, shortly after Cornell University opened the city’s first neonatal unit, and a number of adults who had been treated there met regularly in New York.

“An Extraordinary Pilgrimage”

Catherine de Medicis (queen of France) made a vow that if some concerns which she had undertaken terminated successfully, she would send a pilgrim to Jerusalem, who would walk there, and every three steps he advanced, he should go one back at every third step. It was doubtful whether there could be found a man sufficiently strong to go on foot, and of sufficient patience to go back one step at every third. A citizen of Verberie offered himself, and promised to accomplish the queen’s vow most scrupulously. The queen accepted his offer, and promised him an adequate recompence. He fulfilled his engagement with the greatest exactness, of which the queen was well assured by constant enquiries.

— William Granger, The New Wonderful Museum, and Extraordinary Magazine, 1804

Strange Weather

An optical illusion or mirage was seen by three or four farmers a few miles from this city a few days since, the appearance of which no one is able philosophically to account for. The facts are these: A gentleman, while plowing in a field with several others, about 7 P.M., happened to glance toward the sky, which was cloudless, and saw apparently, about half a mile off in a westerly direction, an opaque substance, resembling a white horse, with head, neck, limbs, and tail clearly defined, swimming in the clear atmosphere. It appeared to be moving its limbs as if engaged in swimming, moving its head from side to side, always ascending at an angle of about 45°. He rubbed his eyes to convince himself that he was not dreaming, and looked again; but there it still was, still apparently swimming and ascending in ether. He called to the men, about 100 yards off, and told them to look up, and tell him what they saw. They declared they saw a white horse swimming in the sky, and were badly frightened. Our informant, neither superstitious nor nervous, sat down and watched the phantasm, (if we may so call it,) until is disappeared in space, always going in the same direction, and moving in the same manner. No one can account for the mirage, or illusion, except upon the uneven state of the atmosphere. Illusions of a different appearance have been seen at different times, in the same vicinity, frightening the superstitious and laughed at by the skeptical.

— Telegram from Parkersburg, W.Va., to the Cincinnati Commercial, reprinted in the New York Times, July 8, 1878

Some Enchanted Evening

A communication in the Naturalist some time ago in regard to musical mice, prepared me for a phenomenon which recently came under my observation, which otherwise would have astonished me beyond conception. I was sitting a few evenings since, not far from a half-open closet door, when I was startled by a sound issuing from the closet, of such marvellous beauty that I at once asked my wife how Bobbie Burns (our canary) had found his way into the closet, and what could start him to singing such a queer and sweet song in the dark. I procured a light and found it to be a mouse! He had filled an over-shoe from a basket of pop-corn which had been popped and placed in the closet in the morning. Whether this rare collection of food inspired him with song I know not, but I had not the heart to disturb his corn, hoping to hear from him again. Last night his song was renewed. I approached with a subdued light and with great caution, and had the pleasure of seeing him sitting among his corn and singing his beautiful solo. I observed him without interruption for ten minutes, not over four feet from him. His song was not a chirp, but a continuous song of musical tone, a kind of to-wit-to-wee-woo-woo-wee-woo, quite varied in pitch. While observing him I took for granted that he was the common house-mouse (Mus musculus), but when he sprang from the shoe to make his escape he appeared like the prairie mouse (Hesperomys Michiganensis), a species I had not, however, observed before indoors. I have thus far failed to secure this little rodent musician, but shall continue to do all I can in the way of pop-corn to entertain him, and if his marvellous voice gives him the preëminence in mousedom which he deserves, by the aid of Natural Selection I shall presently have a chorus of mice, in which case you shall receive their first visit.

— W.O. Hiskey, Minneapolis, Minn., in American Naturalist, May 1871

Local Showers

TOPEKA, Kan., Nov. 17.–The story of a wonderful phenomenon comes from Rossville, a little town nineteen miles west of Topeka on the Union Pacific. For nineteen days, it is said, rain fell incessantly on the orchard belonging to H. Klein, a prominent Rossville resident.

This orchard is in the town, and is bounded on the east by Mr. Klein’s residence, on the other three sides by lines of fences shutting off cultivated fields. The rain did not fall outside of Mr. Klein’s premises, but for nineteen days there was no intermission in the fall, and it was only stopped by the present cold snap. What caused this persistent rain over one orchard, when other orchards in the immediate neighborhood were needing water and not getting it, is puzzling the people of that village. Several hundred people witnessed the phenomenon, and the rainfall is the local sensation at Rossville.

New York Times, Nov. 18, 1891

“Deer Have a Deep Sense of Wrong”

Animals of the deer tribe seem to have a deep sense of any wrong done to any member belonging to them, and to show a determined disposition to avenge that wrong at the first opportunity. Captain Brown states that, ‘At Wonersh, near Guildford, the seat of Lord Grantley, a fawn was drinking in the lake, when one of the swans suddenly flew upon it and pulled it into the water, where it held it under until it was drowned. This act of atrocity was noticed by the other deer in the park, and they took care to revenge it the first opportunity. A few days after, this swan, happening to be on land, was surrounded and attacked by the whole herd, and presently killed. Before this time they were never known to attack the swans.’

— Vernon S. Morwood, Wonderful Animals, 1883

“A Plucky Steeplejack”


This is a photograph of a steeplejack named Will Ramsner, lying on the top of a sixty-foot flag-pole on the building known as the Boston Block. He used to climb up the staff with no aid except his hands and legs. When reaching the top he had to climb over the butt, which is almost the size of an ordinary barrel. Ramsner’s object in performing this feat, which attracted thousands of people, was to advertise his trade. While on his high perch he smoked cigarettes and read a newspaper, which he eventually threw down to the crowd below, who tore it into small pieces, keeping them as souvenirs.

Strand, August 1906

Busy Man

When Saparmurat Niyazov became president of Turkmenistan, he commissioned a 12-meter gold-plated statue of himself that rotated always to face the sun. That was actually one of his more modest decrees. Others:

  • He had his parliament officially name him Turkmenbashi, “father of all Turkmens.”
  • He named streets, schools, airports, farms, and people after himself, as well as vodka, a meteorite, the country’s second largest city, and a television channel.
  • He banned the Hippocratic oath and demanded that doctors swear allegiance to him.
  • His autobiography, the Rukhnama (“book of souls”), was studied in schools and became a textbook in other subjects, such as history and geography. Libraries, now superfluous, were closed.
  • Gold-plated statues to him were erected throughout the country.
  • He banned ballet, opera, public smoking, lip syncing, beards, gold teeth, recorded music, health care in rural areas, and car radios.
  • He planned the construction of a “palace of ice” and penguin enclosure so that residents of the desert could learn to skate.
  • He decreed that the word old must not be applied to people — when one turns 61 he enters “the prophetic age,” and 73 marks “the inspired age.”
  • He applied the name Gurbansoltan Edzhe (“the Turkmen heroine”) to his mother, a women’s magazine, the year 2003, April, and bread.

“I’m personally against seeing my pictures and statues in the streets,” he said, “but it’s what the people want.”

An Inland Archipelago


Through an accident of history, the Belgian town of Baarle-Hertog is located largely inside the Netherlands — it’s made up of 24 separate parcels of land, 20 of which lie inside the Dutch border, enmeshed with the Dutch municipality of Baarle-Nassau. To make things more confusing, two of these pockets of Belgium themselves contain pockets of the Netherlands.

This makes life interesting. Each house is deemed to pay taxes in the country where its front door is located, which means that some shops contrive to move their doors by several meters to get a favorable rate. A house can move to another country by moving its front door. Tourists who go shopping can encounter two tax regimes in the same street. And a child born to one Belgian and one Dutch parent possesses two passports.

At one point the speed limit was 60 kmh in the Netherlands and 50 kmh in Belgium, a perilous situation when a motorist might cross the border several times a minute. “Once, a motorcycle accident happened in front of Baarle’s cultural center,” writes Evgeny Vinokurov in A Theory of Enclaves (2007). “It happened on the territory of Baarle-Hertog but so close to the border running across the street that the man was dragged along to Baarle-Nassau. The ambulance from Baarle-Hertog arrived but did not help the bleeding man.”

And in 1971 a corrupt bank occupied a building that straddled the border, which permitted it to avoid being searched by the authorities of either state. The Belgian tax department couldn’t reach the safe, which lay behind “Dutch” counters. And the Dutch authorities could pass the counters but couldn’t open the safe, which was “Belgian.” Finally, authorities from both states undertook to search the premises in a joint effort, and the bank was eventually declared bankrupt after investigations into the laundering of drug money.

Stump Trouble


The voting paradox shows that conflicting majorities can prevent a clear winner even in a fair election.

Sadly, this can be true even if the candidates specify platforms. Suppose there are two issues, x and y, each of which admits two possible positions, x and x’ and y and y’. Then a candidate can have four possible platforms: xy, xy’, x’y, and x’y’. Now suppose there are three voters, each of whom ranks her preferences in a different order:

Voter 1: xy, xy’, x’y, x’y’
Voter 2: xy’, x’y’, xy, x’y
Voter 3: x’y, x’y’, xy, xy’

If the voters could vote on the individual issues instead of having to choose a platform, Voters 1 and 2 would prefer x to x’, and Voters 1 and 3 would prefer y to y’. These are clear majorities. But in practice platform x’y’ will defeat platform xy, since it’s preferred by a majority (Voters 2 and 3).

“Thus, a platform whose alternatives, when considered separately, are both favored by a majority may be defeated by a platform containing alternatives that only minorities favor,” writes Steven J. Brams in Paradoxes in Politics. Public policy scholar Anthony Downs argues that the fact that a majority platform can be constructed from minority positions may make it rational for politicians to appeal to coalitions of minorities.

Round Trip


John A. “Colonial Jack” Krohn pushed a wheelbarrow out of Portland, Maine, on June 1, 1908, and he pushed it back 357 days later. In the interval he pushed it around the perimeter of the contiguous United States, a journey of 9,024 miles on which he wore out 119 pairs of socks and lost 17 pounds.

On his return Krohn’s barrow was covered with cards; he had delivered a letter to the postmaster of Portland’s namesake in Oregon and returned with the reply. He’d completed the trip in 43 days fewer than expected, he said, though he hadn’t walked on Sundays and had lost 19 days to sickness.

“With some there had been doubts regarding his being able to accomplish such an unusual undertaking, considering his frail appearance when he first started out,” ran one contemporary account. “The great benefits of an out of door life could be readily noted on his return, through his improved look and action in every respect, showing the benefits derived from many weeks and months passed in the open air.”

He didn’t rest long — after writing a book about the adventure, he hit the road again to promote it.

An Early iPod

J.G. Christopher, of Minneapolis, Minn., is the possessor of a canary bird, the voice of which has been developed in a peculiarly painstaken manner, so that now this ‘educated’ songster can successfully render the well-known air, ‘A Life on the Ocean Wave.’ The bird will commence to warble like any other of these pets, and after uttering a few notes will immediately strike into the tune, and when its voice has attained full height the above tune will be sung entire, and in a manner that sounds singularly melodious and attractive, literally setting to note its natural vocal powers. This was only achieved after the most diligent and patient attention. As soon as the bird was old enough to pick up a living it was put in a room apart from all others, and a music-box also placed in the apartment and kept perpetually going, so that this singular pupil had nothing to learn from but that. After four months of such apprentice-ship, the owner was rewarded by hearing his little favorite render ‘A Life on the Ocean Wave’ as naturally and perfectly as if that was the song of its ancestors.

— James Baird McClure, ed., Entertaining Anecdotes From Every Available Source, 1879

Kindled Ambition


From Strand, January 1898: When match manufacturers S.I. Moreland and Sons challenged their customers to create “the greatest novelty of any sort that can be made with not less than 1,000 of our match-boxes,” G.W. Roberts of Birmingham submitted a full-size piano composed of 3,776 matchboxes and 5 pounds of glue.


Among other entries, F. Marshall’s 10-foot-6-inch model of the Forth Bridge is a marvel of engineering — other than 3,000 matchboxes, “no material whatever is used in the construction of the bridge — not even in the stays. When completed it stood the test of 42 lb. weight in the centre of either arch. I never saw the original bridge, but got an idea of it from a lithograph in a railway guide.”


And above is a model of Nelson’s ship Victory passing a large lighthouse, by Mr. Grubb of Atherstone, who worked three hours a night for five months. The ship is 3 feet 6 inches long and the lighthouse 5 feet 2 inches high.

The Strand also reports that a Lewis Sheldon constructed a double-masted turret ship-of-war 8 feet 3 inches long that carried 15 guns and six lifeboats, all made out of matchboxes. Sadly, they don’t include a photo.

Give and Take


The rocky island of Märket lies in the Baltic Sea between Sweden and Finland. When the Finns put a lighthouse on it in 1885, they unwittingly put it on Swedish territory.

This created a problem: Without moving the lighthouse or altering the coastline, the parties had to find a way to reapportion the island equitably according to their agreement.

The solution was to draw a reverse S on the map: Sweden grants Finland the lighthouse, but it gains a corresponding incursion into Finnish territory, so the island’s balance is restored.

It must be tricky to play croquet, though.

Somewhat related: The Tehachapi Loop.

The Ghost Plane

On Dec. 8, 1942, American forces in Kienow, China, spotted an unidentified plane heading toward them on a beeline from Formosa. Pilots Bob Scott and Johnny Hampshire approached it and discovered it was an old American P-40B Tomahawk bearing an insignia that hadn’t been seen since Pearl Harbor. The pilot would not identify himself.

Fearing a trick by the Japanese, Scott and Hampshire fired briefly on the plane, but it sought neither to evade them nor to counterattack. Scott moved to the plane’s farther side and saw that it had been badly damaged before they came upon it — the canopy had been shot away, the right aileron was gone, and part of the wing was missing. The pilot’s head was slumped on his chest. Strangest of all, the P-40B had no landing gear — the wheel wells were empty.

Scott and Hampshire lost the plane in a cloud bank and then saw it crash in a rice paddy below. Who was the pilot, and where had the strange plane come from? No one knows, but after years of research Scott evolved a conjecture that it had been assembled by a small group of Air Corps personnel who had retreated from Bataan to Corregidor and then to Mindanao. If this is true it must have flown more than 1,000 miles through enemy airspace to reach China.

Japanese records confirm that there was an American P-40 over Formosa on Dec. 8, 1942, but where it came from, where it was headed, and indeed how it even got airborne remain a mystery.


These have been in my notes for years — I can’t conclusively disprove them, but I have my doubts:

  • In 1930 four Germans bailed out of a glider inside a thundercloud over the Rhön Mountains, were carried upward by their parachutes into a region of supercooled vapor, and froze to death.
  • The monument to Jose Olmedo in Guyaquil, Ecuador, is actually a secondhand statue of Lord Byron, substituted because the town had no money. (Also: Cuzco, Peru, is rumored to have a statue of Chief Powhatan rather than Atahualpa.)
  • A surprising number of sources claim that Mississippi spent a fifth of its revenues on artificial limbs in 1866.
  • In 1902 Germany manufactured a “Goethemobile” in honor of the poet. (I really hope this is true.)

Debunk/rebunk/semi-unbunk as you please.

Turkey Drives


George Hanger, an eccentric friend of George IV, once wagered £500 that 20 turkeys could outrace 20 geese over a course of 10 miles. The turkeys held a lead of as much as two miles for the first three hours, but toward evening they wandered off the road and began to roost.

“In the mean time, the geese came waddling on, and in a short time passed the turkey party, who were all busy in the trees dislodging their obstinate birds; but as to any further progress, it was found impossible, and the geese were declared the winners.”

In 1866, desperate for cash after a fire destroyed his hardware store in Placerville, Calif., Henry C. Hooker bought 500 turkeys and drove them over the Sierra Mountains to Carson City, Nev., where he sold them at a great profit to silver miners. (The turkeys took flight while descending a particularly steep precipice: “As I saw them take wing and race away through the air I had the most indescribable feeling of my life. I thought here is good-bye turkeys!”) He used the money to establish a new life as an Arizona stockman.