Plane Truth

Excerpts from One Hundred Proofs That the Earth Is Not a Globe, a pamphlet distributed by William Carpenter in 1885:

  • “If the Earth were a globe, rolling and dashing through ‘space’ at the rate of ‘a hundred miles in five seconds of time,’ the waters of seas and oceans could not, by any known law, be kept on its surface — the assertion that they could be retained under these circumstances being an outrage upon human understanding and credulity.”
  • “Astronomers tell us that, in consequence of the Earth’s ‘rotundity,’ the perpendicular walls of buildings are, nowhere, parallel, and that even the walls of houses on opposite sides of a street are not! But, since all observation fails to find any evidence of this want of parallelism which theory demands, the idea must be renounced as being absurd and in opposition to all well-known facts.”
  • “If we examine a true picture of the distant horizon, or the thing itself, we shall find that it coincides exactly with a perfectly straight and level line.”
  • “The Newtonian theory of astronomy requires that the Moon ‘borrow’ her light from the Sun. Now, since the Sun’s rays are hot and the Moon’s light sends with it no heat at all, it follows that the Sun and Moon are ‘two great lights,’ as we somewhere read, [and] that the Newtonian theory is a mistake.”
  • “If a projectile be fired from a rapidly moving body in an opposite direction to that in which the body is going, it will fall short of the distance at which it would reach the ground if fired in the direction of motion. Now, since the Earth is said to move at the rate of nineteen miles in a second of time, ‘from west to east,’ it would make all the difference imaginable if the gun were fired in an opposite direction. But … there is not the slightest difference, whichever way the thing may be done.”

Staunch flat-earther Wilbur Glenn Voliva (1870-1942) asked: “Where is the man who believes he can jump into the air, remaining off the earth one second, and come down to earth 193.7 miles from where he jumped up?” Hard to argue with that.

Getting Organized

In the mid-19th century it was already said that American Smiths would fill Boston Common; Mark Twain dedicated his Celebrated Jumping Frog to “John Smith” in the hope that if every honoree bought a copy, “a princely affluence” would burst upon him. Today more than 3 million Americans share the name.

This has consequences. In his 1950 book People Named Smith, H. Allen Smith reports that a desperate publicist at Warner Brothers founded the Organized Smiths of America in order to confer an award on the undistinguished actress Alexis Smith. He was surprised to find the story picked up across the country, and the awards became an annual event.

In 1942, University of Minnesota graduate student Glenn E. Smith, irritated that his professor’s lectures always centered on characters named James Smith, founded the National Society to Discourage Use of the Name Smith for Purposes of Hypothetical Illustration. Its hundreds of members pledged themselves to confront offenders with a card that read “When you think of Smith, say John Doe!”

But popularity has its limits. Smith himself was once assigned to cover the New York convention of the Benevolent and Protective and Completely Universal Order of Fred Smiths of America. He was impressed at first to find more than 40 delegates, all presumably named Fred Smith — but he lost some respect when “a man named Smith Frederick who sought admission to the banquet hall was permitted to enter walking backward.”

When in Rome …

An oyster oddity: In 1954, Northwestern University biologist Frank A. Brown collected 15 oysters from the Connecticut shore and shipped them by train to Evanston, Ill. There he put them in a temperature-controlled tank in a dark room and observed them for 46 days.

The oysters opened their shells twice a day, presumably for feeding, at the time of the high tide in their home beds in Long Island Sound. After two weeks, though, their timing shifted to follow the local tides in Evanston.

Apparently they had recalibrated using the moon.

Fire Insurance

Samuel Dinsmoor planned ahead. By the time the Kansas schoolteacher died in 1932, he had poured 22 years and 2,273 bags of cement into fashioning a concrete Garden of Eden, including a two-story concrete house, a concrete tree of life, a concrete angel and a concrete devil, concrete images of Adam and Eve, and a concrete serpent. Dinsmoor himself lies in the mausoleum in a concrete coffin with a plate-glass window.

Why? “It seems to me that people buried in iron and wooden boxes will be frying and burning up in the resurrection morn. How will they get out when this world is on fire? Cement will not stand fire, the glass will break. This cement lid will fly open and I will sail out like a locust.”

Ever resourceful, at the foot of his coffin he placed a 2-gallon concrete jug. “In the resurrection morn, if I have to go below, I’ll grab my jug and fill it with water on the road down. They say they need water down below.”


In the early 1960s, the American Automobile Association lost Seattle — the nation’s 23rd largest city did not appear on AAA’s United States road map. “It just fell through the editing crack,” a spokesman confessed, and the association expensively recalled and reprinted the map.

A Canadian government tourist office once omitted Ottawa from a brochure prepared for British tourists. The map did include Regina, Calgary, and Winnipeg. The office explained that the map had been compiled before regular air service was available between New York and the Canadian capital, but an executive at the city’s convention bureau said, “Ottawa should be shown in any case, even if the only point of entry was by two-man kayak.”

Cruel and Unusual

I couldn’t believe this when a reader first reported it — in July 2010 a Russian tourism company forced a donkey to parasail over the Sea of Azov as part of a publicity stunt.

“This is a little town and we all know that donkey well,” a local woman told reporters. “He worked for several years on the beach, being photographed with tourists. As soon as his ordeal was over, a lot of the people on the beach ran forward to soothe him.”

After worldwide outrage at the stunt, the donkey spent its last months in a sanctuary near Moscow, eating fruit and vegetables, spending time in a solarium, and getting massages. It died in December.

Animal-rights activists tried to prosecute the owners, but no charges were ever filed.

(Thanks, AnneLaure.)


The small spaniel shown in the photograph is the heroine of a remarkable aerial adventure. The dog belongs to Wm. Marshman, who has a ranch on Cow Creek, near Encampment, Wyoming. Marshman happened to be in the barn while the dog was running in the pasture close by. On coming out of the barn a little later he saw a large bald eagle swoop down upon the spaniel, seize her with beak and talons, and ascend slowly into the air. He went to the house and returned with his rifle, and by this time the eagle had ascended about one hundred feet, but the dog becoming quite heavy and struggling continually caused the eagle to gradually descend until he came within twenty feet from the ground. A hasty shot from the rifle caused the eagle to drop the dog and soar away before Marshman could get within range for a telling shot. The dog was considerably lacerated by the beak and talons of the eagle, and the bald spot on her head is one of the scars.

Strand, July 1906

Roll Call

More unusual personal names:

From John Train’s Remarkable Names of Real People (1988):

  • Ave Maria Klinkenberg
  • Gaston J. Feeblebunny
  • Humperdink Fangboner
  • Larry Derryberry
  • Mary Louise Pantzaroff
  • Norman Icenoggle
  • Primrose Goo
  • Rapid Integration
  • Verbal Funderburk

From Barbara Fletcher’s Don’t Blame the Stork (1981):

  • Bobo Yawn
  • Louise Ghostkeeper
  • Constance Stench
  • Naughtybird Curtsey
  • Rat Soup
  • Sir Dingle Foot
  • Consider Arms
  • Craspius Pounders
  • Gizella Werberzerk-Piffel
  • Barbara Savage Machinest

The most impressive specimens come from H.L. Mencken’s magisterial American Language. In 1901 Loyal Lodge No. 296 Knights of Pythias Ponca City Oklahoma Territory Smith was baptized in Ponca City, and in 1949 John Hodge Opera House Centennial Gargling Oil Samuel J. Tilden Ten Brink was interviewed for the Linguistic Atlas in upstate New York. I don’t know what he said.

Nice Try

COMMON PLEAS — Yesterday Barton, an attorney, was brought from the Fleet prison. It was stated that the prisoner had written a very violent and voluminous libel on himself. This he procured to be printed, and then brought his action against the printer for defamation; but in this he was non-suited, and sent to prison for costs attending to the prosecution.

Observer, Nov. 11, 1798

A Virtue of Necessity

Enterprise, Ala., has the world’s only monument to an agricultural pest.

In the 1890s the Mexican boll weevil arrived in the American South and began ravaging Alabama’s cotton crop. By 1916 the insects had infested the whole state, inflicting $20 to $40 million each year in economic damages. Insecticides, controlled burning, and innovative planting schedules were tried, but nothing worked.

So local businessman H.M. Sessions convinced indebted farmer C.W. Bastion to try planting peanuts instead of cotton. When Bastion produced 8,000 bushels that year, neighboring farmers followed suit, and in 1917 Coffee County brought forth the largest peanut harvest in the nation.

Because the new, diversified crops proved more profitable than cotton, in 1919 local businessman Roscoe Fleming proposed dedicating a statue to the pest that had proven a “herald of prosperity,” and an $1,800 classical statue was commissioned from an Italian sculptor. Thirty years later, one Luther Baker fashioned a large weevil to place atop her outstretched arms. Might as well be explicit.