A Dark Day

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On Oct. 21, 1966, an avalanche of mining debris descended into the Welsh mining village of Aberfan, filling the classrooms of a local junior school with mud and killing 144 people, 116 of them children. In response to a subsequent newspaper appeal, Shrewsbury psychiatrist J.C. Barker received 76 letters from people who claimed to have had precognition of the event. Of these, 22 were supported by witnesses. This account, by the parents of 10-year-old Eryl Mai Jones, was compiled by a local minister and signed by them as correct:

She was an attractive dependable child, not given to imagination. A fortnight before the disaster she said to her mother, who at the time was putting some money aside for her, ‘Mummy, I’m not afraid to die.’ Her mother replied, ‘Why do you talk of dying, and you so young; do you want a lollipop?’ ‘No,’ she said, ‘But I shall be with Peter and June’ (schoolmates). The day before the disaster she said to her mother, ‘Mummy, let me tell you about my dream last night.’ Her mother answered gently, ‘Darling, I’ve no time now. Tell me again later.’ The child replied, ‘No, Mummy, you must listen. I dreamt I went to school and there was no school there. Something black had come down all over it.’ Her mother answered, ‘You mustn’t have chips for supper for a bit.’ The next day off to school went her daughter as happy as ever. In the communal grave she was buried with Peter on one side and June on the other.

“This last point may not, however, be significant, since the order of burial was apparently influenced by parents’ requests.”

(From the Oxford Book of the Supernatural.)

House Calls

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William … asks me to set down the story of Barbara Wilkinson’s Turtle Dove. Barbara is an old maid. She had 2 turtle Doves. One of them died the first year I think. The other bird continued to live alone in its cage for 9 years, but for one whole year it had a companion and daily visitor, a little mouse that used to come and feed with it, and the Dove would caress it, and cower over it with its wings, and make a loving noise to it. The mouse though it did not testify equal delight in the Dove’s company yet it was at perfect ease. The poor mouse disappeared and the Dove was left solitary till its death. It died of a short sickness and was buried under a tree with funeral ceremony by Barbara and her maiden, and one or two others.

— Dorothy Wordsworth, Grasmere Journals, Jan. 30, 1802

D.C. al Coda

katzensymphonie

This Katzensymphonie, by Moritz von Schwind (1804-71), resides in the Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe in Germany. Dick Higgins, in Pattern Poetry, writes, “This piece, drawn in pencil and ink on music paper (but not orchestrated) has charm but does not appear to have been intended for performance at all. It may be a satire or lampoon on the famous violinist Joseph Joachim (1831-1904), to whom it is dedicated.”

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Perhaps it might be played on the Katzenklavier, a (thankfully) imaginary instrument described by Jean-Baptiste Weckerlin in his Musiciana, extraits d’ouvrages rare ou bizarre of 1877:

[A] chariot … carried the most singular music that can be imagined. It held a bear that played the organ; instead of pipes, there were sixteen cat heads each with its body confined; the tails were sticking out and were held to be played as the strings on a piano, if a key was pressed on the keyboard, the corresponding tail would be pulled hard, and it would produce each time a lamentable meow. The historian Juan Christoval Calvete, noted the cats were arranged properly to produce a succession of notes from the octave … (chromatically, I think).

In 1890 the Glasgow University magazine published this anonymous assessment of the musicianship of botanist and amateur violoncellist Frederick Orpen Bower:

There was a professor of flowers
The ‘cello he’d torture for hours
When the strings gave a growl
The cats gave a howl
And eclipsed all his musical powers.

A Plea in Disguise

In March 1928, the British steamer City of Eastbourne picked up an SOS from the tanker British Hussar in the Pacific but could not locate her position. Japanese authorities reported that several of their own ships and stations had picked up the SOS but could not understand the geographical information given. In comparing the reports, they estimated that the British Hussar was about 400 miles southwest of Hawaii when she ran into trouble. Two Navy destroyers searched the area for five days but found no trace of her.

When they cabled the bad news to the tanker’s owners, they received a puzzling reply. The British Hussar was safely moored off a landing stage at Adaban in the Persian Gulf. She had been nowhere near the Pacific when the messages were sent. But the SOS signals were undeniable.

The British consul at Yokohama found that four ships had been near Hawaii when the signal was received: the City of Eastbourne, the Niagara, the Ventura, and the Asiatic Prince — and, strangely, the Asiatic Prince was also missing.

Now there were two mysteries: An SOS had been received in the Pacific, seemingly sent from a perfectly sound ship 6,000 miles away; and a second ship, equipped with the latest wireless equipment and lifeboats, had vanished in the same region — which had reportedly been lashed by hurricane-force winds at the time.

The explanation that emerged is that the British Hussar’s SOS must have been sent by the Asiatic Prince as it foundered in the storm. The SOS had contained the call sign of the British Hussar, GJVR. The call sign of the Asiatic Prince was GJVP. In Morse code, P is ·- -· and R is ·-· Apparently the central dash had been sent twice.

If this is so, the Asiatic Prince must have gone down with astonishing swiftness — the 10,000-ton steamer had a new hull, new engines, and new equipment, yet sank so quickly that she could manage only one brief message.

Two Lucky Escapes

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

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In 1848, railroad construction foreman Phineas Gage was blasting rock near Cavendish, Vt., when an explosion sent a 13-pound tamping iron through his cheek and out the top of his head. Remarkably, he survived: Doctor Edward H. Williams found him sitting in a chair outside his lodgings 30 minutes later, saying, “Doctor, here is business enough for you.” It appears that the rod had destroyed much of his left frontal lobe but left the rest of his brain intact — he lived for another 12 years and has survived ever after in psychology textbooks.

In 1978, Russian physicist Anatoli Bugorski suffered a high-tech version of the same accident — he was checking a piece of equipment when the safety mechanisms failed and he put his head in the path of a proton beam, which burned through his face and brain, passing out the back of his head. Doctors expected him to die, but he recovered and even completed his doctorate. The left half of his face was paralyzed and he lost hearing in his left ear, but he’s still alive today.

(Thanks, Pål.)

Odd Hamlets

In 1870, John Chippendall Montesquieu Bellew offered a sort of lip-synched Hamlet, in which he read the text at the front of the stage while performers dressed in character acted it out in dumbshow. “The dummies, with the exception of Hamlet, acted but indifferently,” wrote one reviewer. “The gentleman who doubled the characters of Polonius and the First Gravedigger disdained to open his mouth at all, whilst the representative of the King was evidently under the impression that his lips were in the region of his eyebrows, as he moved the latter up and down with great vigour. At present the performance has the attraction of novelty, but we doubt whether it will have a lasting success.”

And in 1809 one Jack Matthews offered a “dog Hamlet,” in which “the Prince of Denmark in every scene was attended by a large black dog, and in the last, the sagacious animal took upon himself the office of executioner by springing upon the king and putting an end to his wicked career in the usual orthodox fashion.”

Punch noted, “Yet surely the play has seldom been acted without the assistance of a great Dane.”

Good Boy

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In November 1869 Missouri farmer Charles Burden sued his neighbor, Leonidas Hornsby, for shooting his dog Drum. Hornsby denied it, but neighbors had heard the shot and the dog’s cries of pain on the night in question, and Drum had been found dead of a gunshot the following morning. Furious, Burden sued Hornsby for $50, the maximum amount allowed by law. The two battled back and forth in the courts for a year. Finally, at end of the fourth trial, Burden’s attorney George Graham Vest rose to make this closing argument:

Gentlemen of the jury. The best friend a man has in the world may turn against him and become his enemy. His son or daughter whom he has reared with loving care may prove ungrateful. Those who are nearest and dearest to us, those whom we trust with our happiness and our good name, may become traitors to their faith. The money that a man has he may lose. It flies away from him perhaps when he needs it most. A man’s reputation may be sacrificed in a moment of ill-considered action. The people who are prone to fall on their knees to do us honor when success is with us may be the first to throw the stone of malice when failure settles its cloud upon our heads. The one absolutely unselfish friend that a man can have in this selfish world, the one that never deserts him, the one that never proves ungrateful or treacherous, is the dog.

Gentlemen of the jury, a man’s dog stands by him in prosperity and in poverty, in health and in sickness. He will sleep on the cold ground when the wintry winds blow and the snow drives fiercely, if only he can be near his master’s side. He will kiss the hand that has no food to offer, he will lick the wounds and sores that come in encounters with the roughness of the world. He guards the sleep of his pauper master as if he were a prince.

When all other friends desert, he remains. When riches take wings and reputation falls to pieces, he is as constant in his love as the sun in its journey through the heavens. If fortune drives the master forth an outcast in the world, friendless and homeless, the faithful dog asks no higher privilege than that of accompanying him, to guard him against danger, to fight against his enemies. And when the last scene of all comes, and death takes the master in its embrace and his body is laid in the cold ground, no matter if all other friends pursue their way, there by his graveside will the noble dog be found, his head between his paws and his eyes sad but open, in alert watchfulness, faithful and true, even to death.

Burden won, getting $50 and justice for his dog. Hornsby appealed to the state supreme court but lost.

Vest, the attorney, had said he would “win the case or apologize to every dog in Missouri.”

Mountain-Climbing Traditions

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All climbers stop short of the peak of Kangchenjunga, the world’s third highest mountain. Joe Brown and George Band, who in 1955 became the first to climb the 28,169-foot Himalayan peak, stopped short of the summit to honor a promise given to the Maharaja of Sikkim that the top would remain inviolate. Every subsequent expedition has followed this tradition.

At 7,247 feet, Mount Townsend, below, is the second-highest peak in Australia, 63 feet shorter than nearby Mount Kosciuszko. By tradition each person who climbs it carries a rock to leave at the top, so that eventually it might surpass its neighbor.

In 2006 workers discovered a piano near the summit of Britain’s highest mountain, 4,409-foot Ben Nevis in the Scottish Highlands. “Our guys couldn’t believe their eyes,” conservation trust director Nigel Hawkins told The Guardian. “At first they thought it was just the wooden casing but then they saw the whole cast iron frame complete with strings.” Scots woodcutter Kenny Campbell came forward to acknowledge that he’d carried it up the mountain 35 years ago to support a charity. “When I got there,” he said, “I played ‘Scotland the Brave.'”

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

Overtoun Bridge

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Image: Wikipedia

In the last 50 years, scores of dogs have jumped to their deaths from the bridge approaching Scotland’s Overtoun House. All the dogs have jumped between the final two parapets on the right-hand side, and nearly all have jumped on clear, sunny days. The dogs tend to be long-nosed breeds, labradors, collies, and retrievers.

It’s unlikely that the dogs are seeing something, because from their perspective little is visible. Acoustic experts have detected no unusual sounds. But mice and mink live under the bridge, and animal habitat expert David Sands found that the dogs he tested were strongly drawn to mink scents. Mink were introduced to Scotland in the 1920s and would have produced a significant population by the 1950s, when the jumps started occurring. The scents left by their anal glands would be strongest in dry conditions and most accessible to keen-nosed dogs with long snouts.

“When you get down to a dog’s level, the solid granite of the bridge’s 18-inch thick walls obscures their vision and blocks out all sound,” Sands told the Daily Mail. “As a result, the one sense not obscured, that of smell, goes into overdrive.”

Photo ID

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This is the official White House photograph of Bill Clinton. It was taken on Jan. 1, 1993. But Clinton wasn’t inaugurated until Jan. 20. Can this be said, then, to be a photo of President Bill Clinton?

To get an answer to this cosmic question, a reporter called the chairman of the New York University philosophy department, Roy Sorensen. Sorensen said yes.

“Think of it this way,” he said. “A photograph of Clinton does not need to be a photograph of the full spatial extent of his body. Just a representative part of his body will do. The same applies for temporal parts; a photograph of one stage of Clinton is a photograph of Clinton. Even a baby picture of Clinton is a picture of President Clinton.”

(From Sorensen’s A Brief History of the Paradox, 2005.)