A Third Valiant Ass

From an account by Spanish priest Pedro Simón of an expedition led by Luis Alonso de Lugo against the Tairona Indians of Colombia, 1535:

At dawn, as they lay hidden in the cornfields which surrounded the village, awaiting the moment to attack, they heard an ass bray. They knew that the Indians did not possess such animals, and did not believe that an ass could have climbed the high crags which barred the way from the coast. … When the place had been pacified and looted, they enquired about the ass … The Indians said that it had come in a ship, which had been wrecked on the coast. … They had killed those of the ship’s company who got ashore, but had kept the ass, and had carried it up into the mountains, trussed with ropes and slung between two poles, along with all the other loot they found in the ship. … So our soldiers, deeming it inappropriate and contrary to native custom that such articles should be in the hands of Indians, collected them all up, along with everything else that took their fancy, including the ass, and took it back to the coast. But the trails were rough, more suited to cats than men, and the descent was as hard as the ascent had been, so they made the Indians carry the donkey down just as they had brought it up; and very useful it turned out to be. Surely, as the first of its race to penetrate those mountains, it deserved to be numbered among the conquistadores. It served in other entradas later, and finally in the expedition which Hernando de Quesada, brother and deputy of Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada the discoverer, led in search of El Dorado. It was ridden by Fray Vicente Requejada of the Order of Saint Augustine. … The ass served the friar well until, on the return march, they all ran out of food and, in the extremities of hunger, killed it for food. They left not a scrap of it. They collected its blood, made sausages of its guts, and even devoured its hide, well boiled. It had served them well in life, and served them better still in death, by its timely rescue from starvation; a salutary reminder of the hardships which in those days were the daily lot of discoverers.

See An Ass Cast Away and Hoof Positive.

Curve Ball


An astronomical oddity, from the Sidereal Messenger, June 1890:

On the evening of April 25th, 1889, at about 8:30 p.m., I was examining Saturn with a power of about 180 on a 4 1/8-inch achromatic by Brashear, when, much to my surprise, I found the shadow of the globe on the rings curved the wrong way, i.e. from the globe, as shown in the following drawing. Thinking my eyes might be deceiving me I called my wife, and without telling her what I had seen, requested her to describe the shape of the shadow. She described the shadow as having its right hand edge curved away from the planet.

I wrote to Professor Comstock of the Washburn Observatory about it, and was informed by him that while my observation of Saturn was unusual, it was far from being unprecedented; that the same appearance was observed in 1875 with the 26-inch achromatic at Washington, and that Webb, in ‘Celestial Objects for Common Telescopes,’ says: ‘The outline of this shadow has often been found curved the wrong way for its perspective.’ Professor Comstock also adds, ‘I do not know that any satisfactory explanation for this anomaly has ever been given.’

William Corliss notes a flurry of similar observations between 1886 and 1914. I think this must have been explained by now, but I haven’t been able to find a source.

(Jenks, Aldro; “On the Reversed Curvature of the Shadow on Saturn’s Rings,” Sidereal Messenger, 9:255, 1890.)

Euathlus in Ohio

In 1946 an American doctor named Jones was tried in Ohio for performing six illegal abortions (State v. Jones, 80 Ohio App. 269). In one of the six cases, the only evidence was the testimony of the woman herself, Jacquelin Harris. But under Ohio law, the recipient of an abortion was an accomplice to the crime, and the unsupported testimony of an accomplice was suspect and insufficient for a conviction.

This means trouble:

  • The prosecution can argue that if the doctor is guilty then he should be convicted, and that if he’s innocent then the woman is not an accomplice and her testimony is sufficient to convict him. Either way, he should be convicted.
  • The defense can argue that if the doctor is innocent then he should be acquitted, and that if he’s guilty then the woman is his accomplice, which makes her testimony insufficient for a conviction. Either way, he should be acquitted.

“This puts the jury in a position of returning a self-annulling verdict,” writes Peter Suber in The Paradox of Self-Amendment. “If they find Jones guilty, then they must find that Harris was his accomplice, then they must find her evidence against Jones insufficient, then they must acquit Jones. But if they find Jones innocent, then they must (at least may) find Harris’ evidence legally sufficient, then they must (at least may) convict Jones.”

Jones was found guilty, ironically because, as an accused party, he was presumed innocent, and so the witness was presumed not to be an accomplice. “This led to the remarkable situation that the testimony was admissible and could lead to a conviction,” writes Michael Clark in Paradoxes From A to Z, “notwithstanding the fact that the conviction undermined the probative value of the testimony.”

See Turnabout.

Opposing Forces


This is a picture of which Captain Gordon McCabe of Richmond, Virginia, writes: ‘I send photographs of two bullets, one Federal, the other Confederate, that met in mid-air and flattened out against each other. The bullets were picked up in 1865 between the lines immediately after the evacuation of Petersburg.’

— Francis Trevelyan Miller, The Photographic History of the Civil War, 1911

Time and Again


Peter and Jane, both 20 years old, are visited by a time machine one day in 1999. A familiar figure emerges, hands a diary to Jane, and asks her to travel to 2019, recording her impressions of the trip. She does so, dutifully making an entry in the diary. When she arrives in 2019 she meets the 40-year-old Peter and gives the diary to him. He returns to 1999, making an entry in the diary himself. When he emerges in 1999, he gives the diary to the 20-year-old Jane and asks her to travel to 2019.

Now: How many entries are in the diary when Peter gives it to Jane? It’s not blank, for we know it contains Jane and Peter’s accounts of their journeys through time. But if it contains those two accounts when Jane departs, then she will have written a third on her journey to 2019, and Peter a fourth before arriving at the present moment. It seems that the diary must contain an indefinite number of entries, but there are clearly only two trips, Jane’s to 2019 and Peter’s to 1999. What is the answer?

(From Robin Le Poidevin, Travels in Four Dimensions, 2003.)

Second Sight

Ben Underwood lost his eyes to retinal cancer at age 2, but within three years he had taught himself to discern objects by echolocation, making clicking noises with his tongue and listening for reflected sound. Soon he was able to run, rollerblade, skateboard, and play basketball with other children.

His first Braille teacher, Barbara Haase, witnessed his progress as they went on walks together. “I said, ‘Okay, my car is the third car parked down the street. Tell me when we get there,'” she remembered. “As we pass the first vehicle, he says, ‘There’s the first car. Actually, a truck.’ And it was a pickup. He could tell the difference.”

Underwood led a full life until age 16, when he died of the same cancer that took his eyes. “People ask me if I’m lonely,” he once said. “I’m not, because someone’s always around, or I’ve got my cell phone and I’m always talking to friends. … I tell people I’m not blind, I just can’t see.”

(Thanks, Mike.)

Under Cover

A dwarf named Richbourg, who was only sixty centimetres (23 1-2 inches) high, has just died in the Rue du Four, St. Germain, Paris, aged 90. He was, when young, in the service of the Duchess d’Orleans, mother of King Louis Philippe. After the first revolution broke out he was employed to convey despatches abroad, and, for that purpose, was dressed as a baby, the despatches being concealed in his cap, and a nurse being made to carry him. For the last twenty-five years he has lived in the Rue du Four, and during all that time never went out. He had a great repugnance to strangers, and was alarmed when he heard the voice of one; but in his own family he was very lively and cheerful. The Orleans family allowed him a pension of 8000 francs.

Ballou’s Dollar Monthly Magazine, February 1859

Name Trouble

In 2008, a New Zealand couple lost custody of their 9-year-old daughter because they had named her Talula Does the Hula From Hawaii. “The court is profoundly concerned about the very poor judgment that this child’s parents have shown in choosing this name,” said family court judge Rob Murfitt. “It makes a fool of the child and sets her up with a social disability and handicap, unnecessarily.”

In a written ruling he criticized the trend of giving children bizarre names, citing as recent examples Midnight Chardonnay, Number 16 Bus Shelter, and, “tragically, Violence.”

In 2004, Sara Leisten of Gothenburg, Sweden, sought to name her baby Superman (Staalman) because he was born with one arm outstretched. A judge blocked her effort, claiming the child would be ridiculed in later life. Swedish MPs pointed out that the law is inconsistent, as the names Tarzan and Batman are allowed.

In 1995, angry that his bank had charged him £20 for a £10 overdraft, Leeds marketing consultant Michael Howerd changed his name to “Yorkshire Bank PLC Are Fascist Bastards.” When the bank asked him to close his account, he asked them to repay his 69p balance by cheque in his full new name.

In 1867, Godey’s Magazine reported that a woman had been fined in London for using unjust weights. Her name was Virtue Innocent.

A Rare Birthday


Sweden briefly had a February 30. In planning to switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, the Swedish Empire resolved to omit leap days from 1700 to 1740. It followed through on this plan in 1700, but through error 1704 and 1708 remained leap years. With the time now out of joint, the empire abandoned its plan and returned to the Julian calendar by observing two leap days, February 29 and February 30, in 1712. (Sweden finally converted to the Gregorian calendar in 1753.)

If the original plan had been carried out, a person born on Feb. 29, 1696, would not celebrate a birthday until 1744. As it was, a person born on Feb. 30, 1712, would never celebrate a birthday at all.


henry cope

A bizarre entry in the Annual Register of 1806:

“Oct. 25. — Among the personages who lately attracted public notice at Brighton, was an original, or would be original, generally known by the appellation of the green man. He dressed in green pantaloons, green waistcoat, green frock, green cravat; and, though his ears, whiskers, eye-brows, and chin, were powdered, his countenance, no doubt from the reflection of his clothes, was also green. He ate nothing but greens, fruits, and vegetables; had his rooms painted green, and furnished with green sofa, green chairs, green tables, green bed, and green curtains. His gig, his livery, his portmanteau, his gloves, and his whip, were all green. With a green silk handkerchief in his hand, and a large watch chain with green seals, fastened to the green buttons of his green waistcoat, he paraded every day on the Steine.

“This morning at 6 o’clock, this gentleman leaped from the window of his lodging on the south parade, into the street, ran from thence to the verge of the cliff nearly opposite and threw himself over the precipice to the beach below. Several persons immediately ran to his assistance, and carried him, bleeding at the mouth and ears, back to his lodgings. The height of the cliff, from whence he precipitated himself, is about 20 feet perpendicular. From the general demeanour of the above gentleman, it is supposed he is deranged. His name, we understand, is Henry Cope, and that he is related to some highly distinguished families.”