In March 1999, fisherman Steve Gowan was fishing for cod off the coast of Essex when he dredged up a green ginger beer bottle with a screw-on rubber stopper. Inside he found a note:
Sir or madam, youth or maid,
Would you kindly forward the enclosed letter and earn the blessing of a poor British soldier on his way to the front this ninth day of September, 1914.
Private T. Hughes
Second Durham Light Infantry.
Third Army Corp Expeditionary Force.
The enclosed letter read:
I am writing this note on this boat and dropping it into the sea just to see if it will reach you. If it does, sign this envelope on the right hand bottom corner where it says receipt. Put the date and hour of receipt and your name where it says signature and look after it well. Ta ta sweet, for the present.
Private Thomas Hughes, 26, of Stockton-on-Tees, had dropped the bottle into the English Channel in 1914 as he left to fight in France. He was killed two days afterward. His wife Elizabeth and daughter moved to New Zealand, where Elizabeth died in 1979. Gowan delivered the letter to the daughter, Emily Crowhurst, in Auckland that May. Two years old when her father had left for the war, she was now 86. She said, “It touches me very deeply to know … that his passage reached a goal. I think he would be very proud it had been delivered. He was a very caring man.”
On June 15, 1875, physician Albert Childs was standing outside his office in Cedar Creek, Nebraska, when he saw the horizon darken. At first he was hopeful for some needed rain, but then he realized that the cloud was moving under its own power.
“And then suddenly it was on him, a trillion beating wings and biting jaws,” writes entomologist Steve Nicholls in Paradise Found (2009). It was an unusually huge swarm of Rocky Mountain locusts descended from the mountains. Stunned, Childs set about estimating its size:
Using the telegraph, he sent messages up and down the line and found the swarm front to be unbroken for 110 miles. With his telescope he estimated the swarm to be over half a mile deep, and he watched it pass for ‘five full days.’ He worked out that the locusts were traveling at around fifteen miles an hour and came up with the astonishing fact that the swarm was 1,800 miles long. This swarm covered 198,000 square miles, or, if it was transposed on to the east coast, it would have covered all the states of Connecticut, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont.
“Albert Childs had recorded the largest ever swarm — the biggest aggregation of animals ever seen on planet Earth,” Nicholls writes. University of Wyoming entomologist Jeffrey Lockwood calls it the “Perfect Swarm.”
The shortest jail sentence ever served in Washington state is one minute. From the Seattle Daily Times, Jan. 20, 1906:
[Joe] Munch is a soldier, on leave of absence. On the thirteenth day of August he found garrison life dull and proceeded to get drunk. A policeman found him in this condition and he was hustled off to the police station. In Judge Gordon’s court he was sentenced to thirty days for being drunk and disorderly, but his case was taken to the higher court.
Judge Frater decided that while the soldier’s crime was not enough to merit punishment, for the looks of things he ought to be sent to jail, and have a lesson taught him. Consequently Munch was sentenced to an imprisonment of one minute, something which the clerk who makes out the sentence documents never heard of before and which caused much merriment in court house circles.
“Those who heard the decision were inclined to take it as a joke of the judge’s, until Munch was hustled off to jail and kept there until the second hand of the jailer’s watch had completed the circle of sixty seconds. Munch was so surprised that he hardly knew what was going on and when released decided that the best thing for him to do was to get away for fear the sight of him should cause the judge to inflict a heavier penalty.”
(From the Washington State Library blog.)
Hollinwood, near Manchester, was the scene of a rather novel rat killing match the other day, between Mr. Benson’s fox terrier dog, Turk, and a Mr. Lewis’ monkey, for £5. The conditions of the match were that each one had to kill twelve rats, and the one that finished them the quickest to be declared the winner. You may guess what excitement this would cause in the ‘doggy’ circle. It was agreed that Turk was to finish his twelve rats first, which he did, and in good time, too, many bets being made on the dog after he had finished them. After a few minutes had elapsed it now came the monkey’s turn, and a commotion it caused. Time being called, the monkey was immediately put to his twelve rats, Mr. Lewis, the owner, at the same time putting his hand in his coat pocket and handing the monkey a peculiar hammer. This was a surprise to the onlookers; but the monkey was not long in getting to work with his hammer, and, once at work, he was not long in completing the task set before him. You may talk about a dog being quick at rat killing, but he is really not in it with the monkey and his hammer. Had the monkey been left in the ring much longer you could not have told that his victims had been rats at all — he was for leaving them in all shapes. Suffice it to say the monkey won with ease, having time to spare at the finish. Most persons present (including Mr. Benson, the owner of the dog) thought the monkey would worry the rats in the same manner as the dog does; but the conditions said to kill, and the monkey killed with a vengeance, and won the £5, beside a lot of bets for his owner.
— Illustrated Police News, Sept. 4, 1880
The first marriage ever celebrated in a balloon was held on Oct. 19, 1874, between Mary Elizabeth Walsh and Charles M. Colton, two performers in P.T. Barnum’s Roman Hippodrome in Cincinnati. Fifty thousand people watched as the “monster balloon” P.T. Barnum, trimmed with flags and flowers and “full almost to bursting with the best of gas,” carried the wedding party a mile above Lincoln Park, where minister Howard Jeffries performed the ceremony and made the following remarks:
Marriage is not an earthly but a heavenly institution, belonging to the higher realms of life, and as such is it revered by the enlightened; the greater the enlightenment of any country or community the greater the respect it accords marriage; as an institution above those of the world, merely, it is, then, most fitting that its solemnization should be celebrated far above the earth.
May you, whose life-destinies have been joined together at this altitude, be always lifted above the adversities of life. Hence you look down upon the multitudes below, who appear as pigmies from your elevation, and you see that the sun is fast going down upon them; shadows lengthen and darkness will quickly enwrap them. Upon you the sun shines with greater brilliancy than we have seen it at any time to-day; so may it be in life, and you be exempt from shadows and darkness, though you see them fall upon others. As you here serenely float above the hills, the rocks and the roughness below, so may your united destinies bear you above the rugged places of life; may you have no hills of sorrow to scale, no valley of adversity to pass through, no rock of passion to stumble upon, no treacherous ditch of contention to fall into.
Soon we shall all descend to earth, as we must shortly all go down to the grave. As upon leaving this vessel you two will pass forward in company while you live, so, when you have both crossed to ‘that bourn from whence no traveler returns,’ may your united souls in company explore the glorious paradise of God’s redeemed.
He left them with this certificate:
(From History of Donaldson’s Balloon Ascensions, 1875.)
This paragraph jumped out at me last night from B.G. Wilson’s Unusual Railways (1958) — he’s writing about the Mount Washington Cog Railway in New Hampshire, one of the world’s steepest, with an average grade of 25 percent:
Before leaving this line, mention must be made of a method of riding down the track employed by track maintenance men and long since banned. Wood and metal seats some 3 ft. × 1 ft. were made to fit over the rack rail. These were known as slide-boards, or more popularly, as ‘Devil’s Shingles’. Seated on these, controlling (sometimes) the speed with hand brakes, the men would career down the mountainside. The record time for the trip — as we have said, 3 1/4 miles — was 2 3/4 minutes!
That’s 70 mph! For comparison, the modern train takes 40 minutes to descend at 4.6 mph. And this was in the late 19th century — the railway opened in August 1869. Wilson writes, “After one man had been killed and another seriously injured, the Devil’s Shingles were banned.” I don’t know any more than that.
n. excessive reverence for a place
Of the million or so Japanese who visit Paris each year, about 12 have to be repatriated due to “Paris syndrome,” a transient psychological disorder brought on when the mundane reality of the city clashes with their romanticized expectations.
The syndrome was first diagnosed by Hiroaki Ota, a Japanese psychiatrist working in France. Symptoms include delusional states, hallucinations, feelings of persecution, and anxiety.
“Fragile travellers can lose their bearings,” psychologist Hervé Benhamou told Le Journal du Dimanche. “When the idea they have of the country meets the reality of what they discover, it can provoke a crisis.”
(A. Viala et al., “Les japonais en voyage pathologique à Paris : un modèle original de prise en charge transculturelle,” Nervure 5 (2004): 31–34.)
In 1946, when Japanese prime minister Hideki Tojo was being held prisoner by the victorious Allies, he asked for a set of dentures so that he could speak clearly during his war crimes trial.
The dentures were made by 22-year-old military dentist E.J. Mallory. “I figured it was my duty to carry out the assignment,” Mallory remembered in 1988. “But that didn’t mean I couldn’t have fun with it.”
An amateur ham radio operator, he inscribed the phrase “Remember Pearl Harbor” in Morse code into the dentures and delivered them to Tojo.
Mallory and his colleague George Foster told a few friends, but the secret got out and the two had to awaken Tojo in the middle of the night to borrow back the dentures and grind out the message. The next day, when a colonel confronted them, they were able to say truthfully that there was no message.
It’s not known whether Tojo ever found out what had happened. He was executed in 1948.
“It wasn’t anything done in anger,” Mallory remembered in 1995. “It’s just that not many people had the chance to get those words into his mouth.”
In the 1969 Night Gallery episode “Eyes,” Joan Crawford plays Claudia Menlo, a ruthless dowager who blackmails a doctor into performing a nerve transplant that will grant her vision for 11 hours. Afterward, alone in her apartment, she impatiently removes the bandages prematurely. She catches a glimpse of a crystal chandelier and then everything goes black. She rampages through her suite and collapses in tears, unaware that the city has suffered a power outage. At dawn, through dimming vision, she sees the rising sun, rushes to grasp it, and crashes through a window to her death.
Now: “How many things did Claudia Menlo see?” asks Dartmouth philosopher Roy Sorensen. “Most people say she saw only the chandelier and the sun (and possibly the pavement on the way down). But I say Claudia saw something in between seeing the crystal chandelier and the rising sun: the darkness of her blacked-out apartment. Claudia had never seen darkness before and mistook this visual experience for an absence of visual experience.”
Can we see darkness? Sorensen pictures a cave explorer in a completely dark cave. If the explorer is asleep and dreaming that he is in a completely dark cave, he does not see the darkness — but when he wakes up, he does. If the explorer then stands too quickly and the blood rushes from his head, he sees stars against an accurately perceived black background — the surrounding darkness. In contrast, his blind companion can’t tell whether the cave is dark; “only the sighted man can tell whether the cave is dark just by looking.”
This raises a puzzle: Suppose you’re in a light-tight container that’s suspended within a larger light-tight container. If the interior of the larger container is illuminated, then of course the darkness you see is the darkness of the smaller container. But what happens if the illumination of the larger space is turned off? You certainly can’t see beyond the walls of the small container in any circumstances. And only the larger container is blocking light. Does it follow that you’re seeing the darkness of the large container within the small container?
(Roy Sorensen, “We See in the Dark,” Noûs 38:3 , 456-480.)
A short animation by Goo-Shun Wang.