Group Portraits


In 1918, photographer Arthur Mole engaged the nation’s military in a series of “living photographs.” After arranging cloth strips on a parade ground, he’d mount a 70-foot tower and shout orders through a megaphone, arranging thousands of men into formations that assumed patriotic shapes when viewed from the camera’s perspective. Shown here:

  • The Marine emblem, formed by 100 officers and 9,000 enlisted men at the Marine barracks in Parris Island, S.C.
  • The Statue of Liberty, 18,000 men, Camp Dodge, Iowa
  • Uncle Sam, 19,000 officers and men, Camp Lee, Va.
  • Woodrow Wilson, formed by 21,000 soldiers at Camp Sherman in Chillicothe, Ohio
  • The U.S. shield, 30,000 officers and men, Camp Custer, Battle Creek, Mich.

According to a 1971 feature in Life, the men’s only compensation was “the base pay for the day, about $1, and the unique opportunity to write a letter home that began, ‘Dear Mom, today I was part of President Wilson’s left eyebrow.'”




Herman Sörgel thought big. In the 1920s the German architect proposed damming Gibraltar and draining the Mediterranean to unite Europe and Africa into a new supercontinent. The century-long project would create land, food, and power to support an industrial economy to rival those of Asia and the Americas, and it would provide Lebensraum in North Africa for an overpopulated Europe.

The Nazis had no interest in Sörgel’s idea, but he found support among leading engineers both before and after the war. In a Zürich speech in 1932, architect Erich Mendelsohn pressed for a supranational New Deal that would unite Europe in “productive technical world tasks,” and the Atlantropa Institute persisted until 1960, eight years beyond its founder’s death.

In 1977 Popular Mechanics evaluated the plan and found it would require a dam 18 miles long and up to 1,000 feet deep and 1,500 feet wide at its base. The volcanic Mediterranean seafloor, relieved of all that weight, might react in eruptions and earthquakes, and the sea level everywhere else in the world would rise by three feet. “Worst of all, England would no longer control the Straits of Gibraltar,” the editors concluded drily. “Well, you can’t have everything.”

(Thanks, Michael.)

“Notice of a Double Fish”


The annexed drawing represents a pair of cat-fish, (a species of Silurus? L.) which were taken alive in a shrimp net, at the mouth of Cape Fear river, near Fort Johnston, N.C., in August, 1833, and presented to Professor Silliman. One of them is three and a half, the other two and a half, inches long, including the tail,–the smallest, emaciated and of sickly appearance. They are connected in the manner of the Siamese twins, by the skin at the breast, which is marked by a dark streak, at the line of union. The texture and color otherwise, of this skin is the same as that of the belly. The mouth, viscera, &c., were entire and perfect in each fish …

When these fish came into existence it is probable they were of almost equal size and strength, but one ‘born to better fortune,’ or exercising more ingenuity and industry, than the other, gained a trifling ascendency, which he improved to increase the disparity, and by pushing his extended mouth in advance of the other, seized the choicest and most of the food for himself. Yet though he probably hated the incumbrance of his companion, and wished the ‘marriage tie cut asunder,’ he afforded protection to his ‘weaker half,’ and could not eat it without swallowing himself.

American Journal of Science and Arts, July 1834

A Walk in the Woods


On Aug. 4, 1913, a naked Joe Knowles walked into the forest of northwestern Maine. On Oct. 4 he walked out again wearing a bear skin. In the interval, he said, he’d spent two months living entirely by his wits in the wilderness.

The “modern primitive man” drew thousands at public appearances; Harvard physicians praised his conditioning; and his account of the adventure, Alone in the Wilderness, sold 300,000 copies.

“Any man of fair health could do the same thing, provided he meant business and kept his head,” Knowles wrote. “But, to the best of my knowledge, no other man in the history of civilization ever did what I did; and for that reason the people are marveling at it.”

Knowles’ exploit had been funded by the Boston Post, and in December the rival American claimed that he’d spent most of the time in a lakeside cabin. Knowles denied this vociferously, and he entered the woods twice more to prove it, funded by the American‘s parent. Without witnesses it’s hard to know who’s right; the truth, whatever it was, died with Knowles in 1942.


The following extraordinary accident occurred about five o’clock on the morning of Friday, the 14th of November, 1817, in Caermarthen: — As a drove of oxen were passing through Spilman-street, one of them strayed to the Castle-green, whence, in his headlong course, he fell over the precipice facing the bridge, upon a house, of which the inhabitants were asleep in bed. It will naturally be supposed, that the terror and alarm excited on the occasion were great. Fortunately, however, part of the roof fell in, while the ox was balancing athwart a beam, exactly over a bed, in which were two children, fast asleep, and who were awakened by a rafter falling upon the bed. The parents had hardly removed these poor children from their perilous situation, when the beam, giving way, fell with its burden upon the bed. Notwithstanding all the alarm and bustle created by this occurrence, we are happy to add, no personal injury was sustained on the occasion; and what is remarkable, the ox does not appear to have suffered materially from this extraordinary descent.

Gloucester Herald-Times, Nov. 27, 1817

In Inverness in 1954, a cow escaped an auction market through an unsecured gate, climbed a stairway over a shop, fell through the floor, and in her struggles turned on a tap, which flooded the shop.

The shopkeeper sued the auctioneers, but the judge declared himself “forced to the conclusion that a gate-crashing, stair-climbing, floor-bursting, tap-turning cow is something sui generis, for whose depredations the law affords no remedy unless there was foreknowledge of some such propensities.”

Snowshoe Thompson

snowshoe thompson

John Albert Thompson was tending a ranch in the Sacramento Valley in 1856 when he heard that settlers in nearby Placerville were having difficulty getting mail to western Nevada during the winter months — when the Sierra Nevada filled up with snow, the journey seemed impossible.

Thompson had learned cross-country skiing in his native Norway and volunteered to make the trip. He proved so able that “Snowshoe Thompson” served as a one-man delivery service for the next 20 years. Carrying an 80-pound mailbag on his back and holding a pole for balance, he would typically make the 110-mile outbound trek in three days and return in two, subsisting on biscuits, dried meat, and snow.

“If I have my mackinaw,” he said, “I never freeze. Exercise keeps me warm. In fact, my problem even in blizzards is not to keep from freezing, but rather that I sweat too easily. I have never been cold in the mountains.” His sense of direction was unerring, and he regularly saved the lives of others who had become lost in the mountain passes. He died in 1876 after two decades of service, for which he was never paid.



In 1936, Missouri sculptor Lester Gaba created a plaster mannequin with such an “eerie, almost human quality” that for a bizarre few years she joined the society A-list. Gaba, “the Andy Warhol of his day,” squired her to parties at El Morocco and the Stork Club (above, with champagne cocktail); Harry Winston loaned her diamonds; and press photographers spotted her in the balcony of the Broadhurst Theatre and having her hair done at Saks Fifth Avenue. “Such is the state of mind of the café set,” reported Life, “that when a man broke her hand at a party a lady screamed, ‘You brute!'”

After six years of soirees, movie roles, and marriage proposals, Cynthia was shattered in a 1942 accident. By that time even Gaba was tired of the attention. “Cynthia had become a Frankenstein to me,” he said, “and I was rather relieved that she decided to — retire.”

Monkey Business

Albert Marr and Jackie

A few years before World War I, Albert Marr discovered a baboon on his farm in Pretoria, South Africa. The two became such good friends that Marr took “Jackie” with him when he joined the Third South African Infantry Regiment, and the baboon became company mascot, with rations, a pay book, and his own uniform.

In August 1915 the two sailed for the war, where they saw front-line action against the Turks and Germans and participated in an Egyptian campaign. In 1916 Marr was hit in the Battle of Agagia, and the medical team arrived to find Jackie licking the wound.

Marr and Jackie were both wounded in April 1918, and Jackie’s leg was amputated, but he made a full recovery and was promoted to corporal and awarded a medal for valor. (In 1973 Marr showed Jackie’s discharge papers to a Johannesburg reporter. He was listed as “bilingual.”) In 1919 Jackie took part in a London victory procession, riding a captured howitzer. Then he retired to Marr’s farm, where he died in 1921.

In other baboon employment news, I’ve found some more details about Jack the monkey signalman, whom I first wrote about in 2005. In her 2007 book Baboon Metaphysics, University of Pennsylvania primatologist Dorothy L. Cheney confirms that in the late 1800s railway guard James “Jumper” Wide lost his feet in a train accident and sought help with his work as a signalman at Uitenhage on the line between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. He encountered a young baboon that had been trained to drive an ox wagon, bought him of his owner, and trained him to work as a signalman:

Jumper and Jack

Each track was assigned a different number. If the driver gave one, two, or three blasts, Jack switched the signals in the appropriate manner, altering the direction of travel so that oncoming trains would not collide. If the driver gave four blasts, Jack collected the key to the coal shed and carried it out to the driver. His performance was so unerringly correct that he earned the name ‘Jack the Signalman.’

Cheney writes that when an astonished passenger complained, Jumper and Jack were dismissed, but then Jumper convinced the officials to test Jack’s skills rigorously, and he did so well that he was rehired and given daily rations and an employment number. He (Jack) died of tuberculosis in 1890.

“Long Walk on Water”

Capt. Charles W. Oldrieve to-day accomplished the feat of walking on the water from Cincinnati to New Orleans, a distance of 1,600 miles, in forty days, lacking forty-five minutes, thereby winning a wager of $5,000.

Oldrieve met with an accident just before reaching the goal, at the head of Canal Street, that nearly cost him his life. His big wooden shoes suddenly slid outward and the water walker turned turtle. His wife, who accompanied him all the way in a rowboat, rescued the Captain.

Oldrieve left Cincinnati Jan. 1 at noon on a wager that he would walk to New Orleans in forty days. At the falls above Louisville he was delayed for twenty-four hours, and that time, it was agreed, should be allowed for. Oldrieve was in motion only during daylight, lying over every night at the various landings. He was equipped with shoes made of cedar 4 feet 5 inches long, 5 inches broad, and several inches deep. In a gasoline boat preceding the water walker were Capt. J.W. Weatherington of Dallas, Texas, who backed Oldrieve, and Arthur Jones, who represented Edward Williams of Boston, who laid the wager.

New York Times, Feb. 11, 1907

The Better Man


In 1822, frontiersman Hugh Glass joined a corps of 100 “enterprising young men” to ascend the Missouri River on a fur-trapping expedition. At the Grand River he was attacked by a grizzly bear; he and his companions managed to kill it, but Glass was badly mauled. The expedition’s leader offered $40 for volunteers to remain with Glass until he died or could travel. The two men who accepted this charge, John Fitzgerald and Jim Bridger, waited a short interval and then simply took Glass’ belongings and rejoined the expedition, reporting that they’d buried the body.

Glass awoke mutilated, alone, and unprovisioned 200 miles from the nearest settlement. He crawled south for six weeks, foraging on berries, roots, and the carcasses of buffalo, before he reached the Cheyenne River, where he fashioned a raft and floated to Fort Kiowa on the Missouri. Then he set out to seek revenge.

He found Bridger on the Yellowstone near the mouth of the Bighorn River, and decided to spare him because of his youth (Bridger had been only 17 when he’d abandoned Glass). He found Fitzgerald at Fort Atkinson, where he was serving as a private in the Sixth Infantry. George Yount recounts the climax:

Glass found the recreant individual, who had so cruelly deserted him, when he lay helpless & torn so shockingly by the Grizzly Bear–He also there recovered his favorite Rifle–To the man he only addressed himself as he did to the boy– ‘Go false man & answer to your own conscience & to your God;–I have suffered enough in all reason by your perfidy–You was well paid to have remained with me until I should be able to walk–You promised to do so–or to wait my death & decently bury my remains–I heard the bargain–Your shameful perfidy & heartless cruelty–but enough–Again I say, settle the matter with your own conscience & your God.’

He told Fitzgerald’s commanding officer, “I reckon the skunk ain’t worth shooting after all.”