The Bunion Derby

In 1928, to capitalize on the nation’s enthusiasm for marathons, sports promoter C.C. Pyle proposed “the world’s greatest single athletic project”: a 3,400-mile footrace from Los Angeles to New York City.

Pyle stressed that the winner “must have guts and stamina,” and this proved to be an understatement. Of the 200 runners who showed up at the start on March 4, 77 had quit by the end of the first day, and only 91 remained by early April. “His left ankle was swollen to twice its normal size,” said the wife of Illinois’ Frank Johnson, who dropped out after 900 miles. “His lips were cracked so badly he bled when he tried to eat.”

But the race wore on, and on May 26, 55 exhausted runners stumbled into New York, where Oklahoma’s Andy Payne took first place with a time of 573 hours, 4 minutes, and 34 seconds. He’d won $25,000 and worn out five pairs of rubber-soled canvas shoes.

Payne paid off the mortgage on his family’s farm and went on to serve as clerk of the Oklahoma supreme court for 38 years. “One can’t be an athlete all his life, but he can use the same desire that made him,” he said. “For clean living, for love of God and country.”

Sea Meeting

Extract from the logbook of the ship Leonidas, sailing from New York toward Le Havre, May 1817, latitude 44°6′ north; cited in American Journal of Science, April 1820:

First part of the day light variable winds and cloudy; at two P.M. on the larboard quarter, at the distance of about half the ship’s length, saw a strange fish. Its lower parts were like a fish; its belly was all white; the top of the back brown, and there was the appearance of short hair as far as the top of its head. From the breast upwards, it had a near resemblance to a human being and looked upon the observers very earnestly; as it was but a short distance from the ship, all the afternoon, we had a good opportunity to observe its motions and shape. No one on board ever saw the like fish, before; all believe it to be a Mermaid.

The second mate Mr. Stevens, an intelligent young man, told me the face was nearly white, and exactly like that of a human person; that its arms were about half as long as his, with hands resembling his own; that it stood erect out of the water about two feet, looking at the ship and sails with great earnestness. It would remain in this attitude, close along side, ten or fifteen minutes at a time, and then dive and appear on the other side. It remained around them about six hours. Mr. Stevens also stated that its hair was black on the head and exactly resembled a man’s; that below the arms, it was a perfect fish in form, and that the whole length from the head to the tail about five feet.

“Communicated by Mr. Elisha Lewis of New-Haven, a respectable merchant.”

“A Curious Knife Found in the Flesh of a Codfish”


While discharging a fare of codfish from the schooner Vinnie M. Getchell, at Gloucester, Mass., on September 15, 1886, Capt. John Q. Getchell, master of the vessel, found imbedded in the thick flesh of a large cod a knife of curious workmanship represented by the accompanying illustration. …

The fish in which the knife was found was one of a fare caught in 75 fathoms of water on the northeast part of George’s Bank; it was apparently healthy, being thick and ‘well-fed,’ and according to Captain Getchell, would weigh about 40 pounds after being split, or say 60 pounds as it came from the water. The general excellent quality of the fare of fish attracted considerable attention from people who saw them, and led to the discovery of the knife. Some remarks having been made concerning the fish, Captain Getchell lifted several of them from a tub (where they had been thrown to wash after being weighed) and exhibited them to the by-standers, commenting on the size and thickness of the specimens. Holding one across the edge of the tub in a semi curved position, he ran his hand over the thicker portion of the fish to call attention to its fatness. In doing so, he felt something hard beneath his fingers, and further examination produced the knife. Of course much surprise was expressed by those present, who had never before seen such a strangely formed implement, and speculation was rife as to how it came there. When found, the knife-blade was closed, and the small or posterior end of the handle was the part first felt by Captain Getchell, and was nearest the tail of the fish.

The handle of the knife is of brass, curved and tapering posteriorly, with a longitudinal incision, on the concave side, to receive the edge of the blade. The handle is remarkable in form, and is suggestive of the handiwork of some savage tribe or the scrimshaw work of a sailor. … The blade is lanceolate in form, with the cutting edge curved outward, to fit into the handle, and the back nearly straight. … The total length, from point to point in a straight line, is 6 1/4 inches.

Bulletin of the United States Fish Commission, Dec. 31, 1886

Crass Menagerie


It’s one thing to shoot a bear, another to take its dignity. From a feature on “animal furniture” in Strand, August 1896:

“This obsequious-looking bear was shot in Russia by no less a personage than the Prince of Wales; and for years it has ‘waited’ meekly in the smoking-room at Marlborough House.”

Evidently this was the vogue in the 1860s. Further examples:

  • A chair made from a baby giraffe shot in British East Africa
  • A pet monkey converted into a candle holder (“Mr. Jamrach, the famous wild beast importer, was vexed with orders for dead monkeys”)
  • A black swan table lamp, made to order for a wealthy Australian gentleman
  • A “tiger chair” made for a gentleman in the Indian Civil Service (“Observe the ingenious way in which the tail is disposed, as though the tiger were coiled right round the chair”)
  • A small elephant made into a hall porter’s chair

Gandhi would later write, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”


The “Child Hatchery”


Babies were featured in carnival sideshows in the early 20th century, as part of a campaign by German pediatrician Martin Couney to introduce incubators to the public. He had started at the World Exposition in Berlin in 1896, displaying premature babies borrowed from a local charity hospital, then moved to London the following year. The Lancet expressed some misgivings about associating babies with carnival showmen, but it supported Couney’s exhibit and the principle of incubation.

Couney moved to the United States in 1903 and displayed babies at Coney Island every summer for 40 years. Because he charged the parents nothing, the exhibition brought the expensive procedure within reach of needy families, saving hundreds of lives as it educated the public. “Dr. Couney’s Baby Farm” remained open until 1943, shortly after Cornell University opened the city’s first neonatal unit, and a number of adults who had been treated there met regularly in New York.

“An Extraordinary Pilgrimage”

Catherine de Medicis (queen of France) made a vow that if some concerns which she had undertaken terminated successfully, she would send a pilgrim to Jerusalem, who would walk there, and every three steps he advanced, he should go one back at every third step. It was doubtful whether there could be found a man sufficiently strong to go on foot, and of sufficient patience to go back one step at every third. A citizen of Verberie offered himself, and promised to accomplish the queen’s vow most scrupulously. The queen accepted his offer, and promised him an adequate recompence. He fulfilled his engagement with the greatest exactness, of which the queen was well assured by constant enquiries.

— William Granger, The New Wonderful Museum, and Extraordinary Magazine, 1804

Strange Weather

An optical illusion or mirage was seen by three or four farmers a few miles from this city a few days since, the appearance of which no one is able philosophically to account for. The facts are these: A gentleman, while plowing in a field with several others, about 7 P.M., happened to glance toward the sky, which was cloudless, and saw apparently, about half a mile off in a westerly direction, an opaque substance, resembling a white horse, with head, neck, limbs, and tail clearly defined, swimming in the clear atmosphere. It appeared to be moving its limbs as if engaged in swimming, moving its head from side to side, always ascending at an angle of about 45°. He rubbed his eyes to convince himself that he was not dreaming, and looked again; but there it still was, still apparently swimming and ascending in ether. He called to the men, about 100 yards off, and told them to look up, and tell him what they saw. They declared they saw a white horse swimming in the sky, and were badly frightened. Our informant, neither superstitious nor nervous, sat down and watched the phantasm, (if we may so call it,) until is disappeared in space, always going in the same direction, and moving in the same manner. No one can account for the mirage, or illusion, except upon the uneven state of the atmosphere. Illusions of a different appearance have been seen at different times, in the same vicinity, frightening the superstitious and laughed at by the skeptical.

— Telegram from Parkersburg, W.Va., to the Cincinnati Commercial, reprinted in the New York Times, July 8, 1878

Some Enchanted Evening

A communication in the Naturalist some time ago in regard to musical mice, prepared me for a phenomenon which recently came under my observation, which otherwise would have astonished me beyond conception. I was sitting a few evenings since, not far from a half-open closet door, when I was startled by a sound issuing from the closet, of such marvellous beauty that I at once asked my wife how Bobbie Burns (our canary) had found his way into the closet, and what could start him to singing such a queer and sweet song in the dark. I procured a light and found it to be a mouse! He had filled an over-shoe from a basket of pop-corn which had been popped and placed in the closet in the morning. Whether this rare collection of food inspired him with song I know not, but I had not the heart to disturb his corn, hoping to hear from him again. Last night his song was renewed. I approached with a subdued light and with great caution, and had the pleasure of seeing him sitting among his corn and singing his beautiful solo. I observed him without interruption for ten minutes, not over four feet from him. His song was not a chirp, but a continuous song of musical tone, a kind of to-wit-to-wee-woo-woo-wee-woo, quite varied in pitch. While observing him I took for granted that he was the common house-mouse (Mus musculus), but when he sprang from the shoe to make his escape he appeared like the prairie mouse (Hesperomys Michiganensis), a species I had not, however, observed before indoors. I have thus far failed to secure this little rodent musician, but shall continue to do all I can in the way of pop-corn to entertain him, and if his marvellous voice gives him the preëminence in mousedom which he deserves, by the aid of Natural Selection I shall presently have a chorus of mice, in which case you shall receive their first visit.

— W.O. Hiskey, Minneapolis, Minn., in American Naturalist, May 1871

Local Showers

TOPEKA, Kan., Nov. 17.–The story of a wonderful phenomenon comes from Rossville, a little town nineteen miles west of Topeka on the Union Pacific. For nineteen days, it is said, rain fell incessantly on the orchard belonging to H. Klein, a prominent Rossville resident.

This orchard is in the town, and is bounded on the east by Mr. Klein’s residence, on the other three sides by lines of fences shutting off cultivated fields. The rain did not fall outside of Mr. Klein’s premises, but for nineteen days there was no intermission in the fall, and it was only stopped by the present cold snap. What caused this persistent rain over one orchard, when other orchards in the immediate neighborhood were needing water and not getting it, is puzzling the people of that village. Several hundred people witnessed the phenomenon, and the rainfall is the local sensation at Rossville.

New York Times, Nov. 18, 1891

“Deer Have a Deep Sense of Wrong”

Animals of the deer tribe seem to have a deep sense of any wrong done to any member belonging to them, and to show a determined disposition to avenge that wrong at the first opportunity. Captain Brown states that, ‘At Wonersh, near Guildford, the seat of Lord Grantley, a fawn was drinking in the lake, when one of the swans suddenly flew upon it and pulled it into the water, where it held it under until it was drowned. This act of atrocity was noticed by the other deer in the park, and they took care to revenge it the first opportunity. A few days after, this swan, happening to be on land, was surrounded and attacked by the whole herd, and presently killed. Before this time they were never known to attack the swans.’

— Vernon S. Morwood, Wonderful Animals, 1883