The Clipperton Survivors

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On July 18, 1917, the U.S. Navy gunboat Yorktown called at Clipperton Island, a tiny coral atoll in the eastern Pacific. The ship’s commander, Harlan Page Perrill, sent two men ashore and was surprised to see them return with a complement of women and children. When his men made their report, Perrill later wrote, they revealed “a tale of woe absolutely harrowing in its details.”

The three women and eight children were the only survivors of the island’s original colony, which had once numbered 100. The last ship had visited the island three years ago, and their supplies had given out six months after that. Since that time they had survived on fish, fowl, and eggs. Scurvy and starvation killed much of the population; others died at sea while attempting to escape in a whaleboat. By 1917 lighthouse keeper Victoriano Álvarez was the only man on the island; he declared himself king and began terrorizing the women, threatening, beating, and sadistically raping them, even killing two.

Álvarez had promised to kill Alicia Arnaud, the governor’s wife, when help finally arrived, to prevent her talking to the authorities, but an odd quirk saved her. That very morning, finally determined to act, she and fellow survivor Tirza Randon had confronted Álvarez in his hut, where Randon had killed him with a hammer. Only minutes later, Arnaud’s son had spotted the Yorktown. “What if we had been an hour earlier!” Perrill reflected. “It is almost certain that the man would have killed Señora Arnaud.”

Risking court-martial, Perrill left Álvarez’s body to be devoured by crabs and omitted any mention of him in his official report, and he and the entire crew of the Yorktown kept the secret for 17 years. He later explained that “I was afraid of the effects it might have upon the fortunes of Tirza Randon.” “Had Perrill not sanitized his reports and included titllating details of Álvarez’s reign of terror,” wrote Jimmy Skaggs in his history of the island, “the story undoubtedly would have received far greater attention.”

Burrowed Time

In September 1924, the wheels of a truck sank into the ground behind the Pelham Courts apartments in Washington, D.C. On investigating, the building’s manager and janitor discovered a mysterious brick-lined passageway that led to a bizarre network of concrete tunnels extending as much as 32 feet underground.

The discovery put Washington into two days of wild speculation. Was this a German plot? A relic of the Civil War? But then Smithsonian Institution entomologist Harrison G. Dyar came forward to admit that he had dug the tunnels when had lived in the capital 10 years earlier. From Modern Mechanix, August 1932:

http://blog.modernmechanix.com/tunnel-digging-as-a-hobby/

Dyar’s obsession had begun innocently enough. He told the Washington Star that in 1906 he had dug a flowerbed for his wife, and “When I was down perhaps six or seven feet, surrounded only by the damp brown walls of old Mother Earth, I was seized by an undeniable fancy to keep on going.” He had continued the project in secret for 10 years, stopping only in 1915, when he moved out of the area.

“I did it for exercise,” he told the New York Times. “Digging tunnels after work is my hobby. There’s really nothing mysterious about it.”

(Thanks, Allyson.)

Pain Puzzles

Where is pain? If my foot hurts, it’s natural to say that the pain is located in my foot, that I’m perceiving something outside my mind in the same way that I might see a rainbow or smell a rose. The same is true of itches, tickles, tingles, and other bodily sensations.

But this is troubling — suppose I discover that my foot has been amputated, and that the pain exists only in a “phantom limb.” Was I then mistaken? The pain certainly exists somewhere; it seems impossible to be wrong about that. You may convince me that the rainbow is an illusion or the rose an hallucination, but it seems absurd to suggest that one’s experience of pain is mistaken. (Inversely, pain can’t exist without someone’s feeling it. If you anesthetize me and drop a hammer on my foot, the pain isn’t somehow hidden from me — it doesn’t exist at all.)

So pain is strangely private and incorrigible — only I can know whether I’m feeling it, and I cannot be wrong about this impression. It would seem that I can have such authority only if the pain is really in my head. But “it is perfectly OK with common sense that we may have sensations in body parts other than the head — say, under our right foot! Why?” asks University of British Columbia philosopher Murat Aydede. “This, then, is another puzzle about pains and other intransitive bodily sensations: how to properly understand the common practice of locating what appear to be essentially subjective and private sensations in various parts of the body.”

The End of Me

How very intimate the bodily sense is can be seen by performing a little experiment in your imagination. Think first of swallowing the saliva in your mouth, or do so. Then imagine expectorating it into a tumbler and drinking it! What seemed natural and ‘mine’ suddenly becomes disgusting and alien. Or picture yourself sucking blood from a prick in your finger; then imagine sucking blood from a bandage around your finger! What I perceive as belonging intimately to my body is warm and welcome; what I perceive as separate from my body becomes, in the twinkling of an eye, cold and foreign.

— Gordon W. Allport, Becoming: Basic Considerations for a Psychology of Personality, 1960

“Extraordinary Occurrence”

exeter mail coach lion attack

The Exeter mail coach was making its way past Salisbury on the night of Oct. 20, 1816, when it met with a rare adventure. From the Edinburgh Annual Register:

At the moment when the coachman pulled up to deliver his bags, one of the leaders was suddenly seized by a ferocious animal. This produced great confusion and alarm; two passengers who were inside the mail got out, ran into the house, and locked themselves up in a room above stairs; the horses kicked and plunged violently, and it was with difficulty the coachman could prevent the carriage from being overturned. It was soon perceived by the coachman and guard, by the light of the lamps, that the animal which had seized the horse was a huge lioness. A large mastiff dog came up, and attacked her fiercely, on which she quitted the horse, and turned upon him. The dog fled, but was pursued and killed by the lioness within about 40 yards of the place.

The creature had escaped from a caravan on its way to Salisbury fair. She was hunted into a hovel under a granary, where “her howlings were heard to the distance of half a mile,” and the caravan’s owner eventually appeared and led her back to her cage. “The horse, when first attacked, fought with great spirit, and if at liberty, would probably have beaten down his antagonist with his fore feet, but in plunging he embarrassed himself in the harness. … The ferocious animal missed the throat, and the jugular vein, but the horse is so dreadfully torn he is not expected to survive.”

World Cuisine

This would be incredible if it weren’t so well documented — in the early 19th century a Frenchman known as Tarrare became famous as a “polyphagist,” an eater of everything. From the London Medical and Physical Journal, September 1819:

He would eat dogs and cats. One day, in the presence of the chief physician of the army, Dr. Lorence, he seized by the neck and paws a large living cat, tore open its belly with his teeth, sucked its blood, and devoured it, leaving no part of it but the bare skeleton: half an hour afterwards he threw up the hairs of the cat, just as birds of prey, and other carnivorous animals, do. Tarrare liked the flesh of serpents; he managed them familiarly, and ate alive the largest snakes (couleuvres) without leaving any part of them. He swallowed a large eel alive without chewing it, but we thought we perceived him crush its head between his teeth. He ate, in a few instants, the dinner prepared for fifteen German labourers: this repast was composed of four bowls of curdled milk, and two enormous hard puddings. After this the belly of Tarrare, commonly lank and wrinkled, was distended like a balloon: he went away, and slept until the next day, and was not incommoded by it. M. Comville, the surgeon-major of the hospital where Tarrare then was, made him swallow a wooden case, enclosing a sheet of white paper: he voided it the following day by the anus, and the paper was uninjured. The general-in-chief had him brought before him; and, after having devoured in his presence nearly thirty pounds of raw liver and lights, Tarrare again swallowed the wooden case, in which was placed a letter to a French officer, who was a prisoner to the enemy. Tarrare set out, was taken, flogged, imprisoned; voided the wooden case, which he had retained thirty hours, and had the address to swallow it again, to conceal the knowledge of its contents from the enemy. They tried to cure him of this insatiable hunger, by the use of acids, preparations of opium, and pills of tobacco; but nothing diminished his appetite and his gluttony. He went about the slaughter-houses and bye-places, to dispute with dogs and wolves the most disgusting aliments. The servants of the hospital surprised him drinking the blood of patients who had been bled, and in the dead-room devouring the bodies. A child fourteen months old disappeared suddenly; fearful suspicions fell on Tarrare; they drove him from the hospital. M. Percy lost sight of him for four years: at the end of this time he saw Tarrare at the civil hospital at Versailles, where he was perishing in a tabid state.

“He shortly died, and his body almost immediately became a mass of putridity,” wrote Perceval Barton Lord in his 1839 Popular Physiology. “On being opened, his stomach was found to be of an immense size, and, as well as all the intestines, in a state of suppuration.”

Quick Thinking

A singular incident occurred in the last run of the Fitzwilliam Hounds, which affords another illustration of the cunning of the fox, and which placed the pack in considerable peril. The ‘find’ took place at Wadworth-wood, and the fox after heading for Rossington Station at a rattling pace, suddenly turned in the direction of Loversall village, where he sought concealment in a bed of rushes near the Carrs. He was, however, speedily compelled to quit his hiding place, and then made again for the railway, where he deliberately lay down on the permanent way and refused to budge. An express train was rapidly approaching, and the pack, being in imminent danger of getting upon the line and being cut to pieces, the huntsman reluctantly and with considerable difficulty drew off the hounds. The fox maintained his position until the express got within a short distance and then quietly made off.

Times, Dec. 24, 1884

Benham’s Top

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Cut out this disc, pierce it with a pencil, and spin it like a top. The colors that appear are not entirely understood; it’s thought that they arise due to the different rates of stimulation of color receptors in the retina. The effect was discovered by the French monk Benedict Prévost in 1826, and then rediscovered 12 times, most famously by the toy maker Charles E. Benham, who marketed an “artificial spectrum top” in 1894. Nature remarked on it that November: “If the direction of rotation is reversed, the order of these tints is also reversed. The cause of these appearances does not appear to have been exactly worked out.”

Instant Romance

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

This will confuse archaeologists someday: In 1750 Philip Yorke, 1st Earl of Hardwicke, commissioned a ruined medieval castle for the grounds of Wimpole Hall, his country house near Cambridge. The earl’s friend Lord Lyttleton described the project to architect Sanderson Miller:

[H]e wants no House or even Room in it, but mearly the Walls and Semblance of an Old castle to make an object from his house. At most he only desires to have a staircase carried up one of the Towers, and a leaded gallery half round it to stand in, and view the Prospect. It will have a fine Wood of Firrs for a backing behind it and will stand on an Eminence at a proper distance from his House. I ventured to promise that you should draw one for his Lordship that would be fitt for his Purpose. … I know that these works are an Amusement to you.

More than 30 sham ruins of castles and abbeys appeared in English landscape gardens in this period; Sanderson acquired a reputation as the “grand master of gothic.” Perhaps some of the ruins we ourselves have unearthed were planted there by ancient artists?

Progress

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Ordinarily plowing merely turns over the same old soil year after year, and constant decrease in crops is only prevented by rotation or expensive fertilizing.

With ‘Red Cross’ Dynamite you can break up the ground all over the field to a depth of two or three feet, for less than the cost of adequate fertilizing, and with better results. Fertilizing only improves the top soil. Dynamiting renders available all the moisture and elements of growth throughout the entire depth of the blast.

In an article by J.H. Caldwell, of Spartanburg, S.C., in the September, 1910, Technical World Magazine, he states that before the ground was broken up with dynamite, he planted his corn with stalks 18 inches apart in rows 4 feet apart and raised 90 bushels to the acre. After the ground was blasted, it was able to nourish stalks 6 inches apart in rows the same distance apart, and to produce over 250 bushels to the acre. This means an increase of about 160 bushels to the acre, every year, for an original expense of $40 an acre for labor and explosives.

F.G. Moughon, of Walton County, Georgia, reports that he has been raising crops of watermelons, weighing from 50 to 60 pounds each, on land blasted by exploding charges of about 3 ounces of dynamite in holes 2-½ to 3 feet deep, spaced 8 to 10 feet apart.

— From Farming With Dynamite, published by the E.I. du Pont de Nemours Powder Co., 1910