At 3:35 a.m. on Aug. 14, 1888, off the coast of Nova Scotia, Second Officer Jørgensen of the Danish steamer Geiser was asleep in his bunk when he was awakened by a “frightful crash.” As he rolled out of his bunk, the bow of another ship “crashed its way through the walls of my stateroom, making an enormous hole and blocking the door so I couldn’t get out.” Desperately he grabbed the anchor chain of the strange ship “and climbed up to her deck just as the Geiser gave one last lurch and went down out of sight, with her decks covered with shrieking, despairing people.”

He found himself aboard Geiser‘s sister ship Thingvalla, which had been plying the same line between New York and Copenhagen. In the stormy night, Thingvalla’s prow had struck Geiser amidships, and she sank in seven minutes. Thingvalla’s boats rescued 14 passenger and 17 crew, leaving 126 unaccounted for — most of the passengers died in their bunks.

See The “Miracle Girl.”


essex whale attack

On Nov. 20, 1820, the Nantucket whaler Essex was attacking a pod of sperm whales in the South Pacific when an immense 85-foot whale surfaced about 100 yards off the bow. It spouted two or three times, dove briefly, then charged and “struck the ship with his head just forward of the fore chains,” reported mate Owen Chase. “He gave us such an appalling and tremendous jar as nearly threw us all on our faces. The ship brought up as suddenly and violently as if she had struck a rock, and trembled for a few moments like a leaf. We looked at each other in perfect amazement, deprived almost of the power of speech.”

The whale passed under the ship and lay on the surface, stunned at first and then convulsing. Chase ordered men to the pumps and called back the boats, but as the Essex began to settle in the water a man called, “Here he is — he is making for us again.”

“I turned around, and saw him about one hundred rods directly ahead of us, coming down with apparently twice his ordinary speed, and to me it appeared with tenfold fury and vengeance in his aspect,” Chase wrote. “The surf flew in all directions, and his course towards us was marked by a white foam of a rod in width, which he made with a continual violent threshing of his tail.” The second blow stove in the Essex’s bows, and the whale “passed under the ship again, went off to leeward, and we saw no more of him.”

If this was vengeance, it was well accomplished. The Essex sank more than 1,000 miles from land; of the 21 crew who piled into three boats, only eight would survive, three on a barely habitable island and five after resorting to cannibalism during three months at sea. The whale acquired a further kind of immortality: Chase’s account of the disaster, written on his return to Massachusetts, helped inspire Herman Melville to write Moby-Dick.

Falling Angels

A fearful accident happened on Friday last at the Madeleine church, Bruges. One of the priests, while performing mass, was suddenly struck to the ground by the falling on his forehead of the marble head of an infant Jesus, which had become detached from its body. Fracture of the skull and a severe wound were the consequence to the unhappy clergyman, who, after lingering in great agony, died yesterday.

Times, May 3, 1847

An extraordinary and fatal accident happened this morning in the Roman Catholic parish church of Kildare. As the Very Rev. Dr. J.B. Kavanagh, P.P., was standing in front of the altar with his hand on the chalice to raise it at the close of 7 o’clock mass, and was about to descend the altar steps to recite the Rosary and Litany of the blessed Virgin, the marble figure of a cherub over the altar fell down and struck him with great force on the head. He fell back heavily, murmured the words ‘My God’ twice, and then became insensible. A cry of horror and anguish was raised by the congregation who witnessed the accident. Some persons rushed forward to lift him up, while others ran for medical help. Drs. Watson, Dillon and Chaplin were soon in attendance, and Dr. Kavanagh having been raised from the floor was placed on a stretcher and carried into the adjoining convent, where, having never recovered consciousness, he died soon afterwards.

Times, Oct. 6, 1886

Welcome to America

Is Ellis Island in New York or New Jersey? Surprisingly, it’s in both. Under a 1934 compact, New York had jurisdiction over the original 3-acre Army fort, but the 24 acres of landfill that have since been added are part of New Jersey. The Supreme Court essentially upheld this arrangement in a 1998 ruling.

“New York still collects sales tax from concessions within the donut hole,” writes geographer Mark Monmonier, “while New Jersey taxes purchases elsewhere on the site.”

Wife and Limb

‘Late one evening a person came into our office, and asked to see the editor of the Lancet. On being introduced to our sanctum, he placed a bundle upon the table, from which he proceeded to extract a very fair and symmetrical lower extremity, which might have matched ‘Atalanta’s better part,’ and which had evidently belonged to a woman. ‘There!’ said he, ‘is there anything the matter with that leg? Did you ever see a handsomer? What ought to be done with the man who cut it off?’ On having the meaning of these interrogatories put before us, we found that it was the leg of the wife of our evening visitor. He had been accustomed to admire the lady’s leg and foot, of the perfection of which she was, it appeared, fully conscious. A few days before, he had excited her anger, and they had quarrelled violently, upon which she left the house, declaring she would be revenged on him, and that he should never see the objects of his admiration again. The next thing he heard of her was, that she was a patient in ——– Hospital, and had had her leg amputated. She had declared to the surgeons that she suffered intolerable pain in the knee, and had begged to have the limb removed — a petition the surgeons complied with, and thus became the instrument of her absurd and self-torturing revenge upon her husband!’

From Paul Fitzsimmons Eve, A Collection of Remarkable Cases in Surgery, 1857, quoting the Lancet, 1850. “The case seems to us highly improbable,” writes Eve, “but the Lancet, it will be perceived, is responsible for it.”

A New Start

The Spanish village of Bérchules celebrates New Year’s Day in August. In 1994 a power failure left the villagers unable to join the traditional countdown on Dec. 31, so they moved it to the first Saturday in August.

It’s all arbitrary anyway. “New Year’s is a harmless annual institution,” wrote Mark Twain in the Territorial Enterprise, “of no particular use to anybody save as a scapegoat for promiscuous drunks, and friendly calls, and humbug resolutions, and we wish you to enjoy it with a looseness suited to the greatness of the occasion.”

“Singular Occurrence”

On Thursday morning one of those extraordinary beings who gain a precarious subsistence by penetrating into the sewers in search of coin or other valuables that may be washed into them from the drains was taken out of the main-sewer in Broad-street, Golden-square, in a very exhausted state, having been 36 hours and upwards endeavouring to find his way out, which, from having advanced further than was his custom to recover some silver that had been accidentally dropped down a grating near the Seven Dials, he was unable to accomplish. Fortunately, the poor fellow’s cries were heard by Mr. Tickle, cheesemonger, at the corner of Berwick-street, Broad-street, opposite whose door there is a manhole, which he had contrived to ascend, and, assistance being procured, he was liberated. Some compassionate persons supplied him with soup, &c., which speedily restored him.

Globe, reprinted in the Times, April 1, 1848

It’s a Living

In the nightly programme of performances at Sanger’s Circus, in the Agricultural-hall, is set down ‘The renowned Professor Palmer, as the Fly Man, performing marvellous feats of walking a glass ceiling.’ The professor has invariably walked the ceiling after fly-fashion successfully, but on Monday night he met with an accident which for the moment appalled the audience. The glass ceiling is composed of a piece of plate glass about 50ft. long by 20ft. wide, enclosed in a wooden framework. It is fixed at a distance of about 80ft. or 90ft. from the ground, and some 30ft. below it a net is spread to receive the professor in case of accident. On Monday evening the professor had taken his place on the ceiling, his feet being bound up in what appeared to be india-rubber, and commenced to walk, head downwards, on the glass, leaving on the latter as he lifted each foot a mark as if some glutinous substance had been applied to it. The utmost silence prevailed in the hall as he continued his perilous walk along the narrow glass, and all went well with him until within a couple of feet of the end of his journey, when by mistake he placed a portion of his foot upon the wooden frame instead of on the glass. His body immediately trembled violently, as if suction was the power which held him to the glass, and he struggled hard to keep up the weight of his body, which was now suspended from the glass by only one foot. His face, which up to this moment was very red, became pale, and in an instant the audience was shocked at seeing him fall head foremost towards the ground. The women turned their heads, and were afraid to look again at the spot, until a cheer reassured them. Palmer fell just on the border of the netting, which might well be of greater width. He came upon the back of his head, and having coiled his body into the shape of a ball, wriggled himself out of the net, and reached the ground by means of a rope ladder. Several gentlemen rushed from the front and second seats into the arena and shook hands with the professor, who then retired. He was called out again, and warmly applauded when he appeared in the circus, but he did not finish the performance.

Times, Jan. 31, 1868


Is hearing silence just a matter of inferring an absence of sound from one’s failure to hear? No, a wounded soldier who wonders whether he has gone deaf can hear silence while being neutral about whether he is hearing silence. He hopes he is hearing silence but neither believes nor disbelieves that he is hearing silence.

— Roy Sorensen, Seeing Dark Things, 2008