“This Prodigious Child”


Born to an Enfield miller in February 1779, Thomas Hills Everitt began to grow apace after six weeks, and it soon became clear that he was a young giant. When he reached 9 months and 2 weeks a local surgeon compared his dimensions to those of a 7-year-old boy:


His height at that point was 3 foot 1, and his weight was estimated at 9 stone.

Eventually his parents moved to London and began to exhibit him to the public; he was said to be well proportioned, with fine hair, pure skin, an expressive face, and a good temper, and he “subsisted entirely on the breast.” The surgeon hoped he might live to some enormous maturity, but he died in 1780, at about 18 months.

The Hermit of Niagara

This is rather romantically obscure: On June 18, 1829, a stranger arrived on the American side of Niagara Falls and took a room at a local hotel. His name was Francis Abbott, and after viewing the falls he declared himself so enchanted that he extended his stay from a few days to a week, and then to a month. Eventually he took up residence in an old cottage on Goat Island, where he lived alone contemplating the falls for some 20 months. Occasionally he could be seen walking precariously along a single beam of timber that projected over the flood at the Terrapin Bridge. On June 10, 1831, he disappeared while bathing in the water, and on June 21 his body was discovered downstream at Fort Niagara.

Abbott had shunned society increasingly, but the villagers who had interacted with him could assemble a picture. He was an English gentleman of a finished education, skilled in music and drawing, and had visited Egypt, Palestine, Turkey, Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and France. He wrote in Latin but destroyed his compositions. When the villagers investigated his hut they found his dog at the door and his cat on the bed; his guitar, his violin, flutes, and music books were scattered about, but his portfolio and the leaves of a large book were blank.

“What, it will be asked, could have broken up and destroyed such a mind as Francis Abbott’s?” asked the New York Mirror. “What could have driven him from the society he was so well qualified to adorn — and what transform him, noble in person and in intellect, into an isolated anchorite, shunning the association of his fellow-men? The history of his misfortunes is not known, and the cause of his unhappiness and seclusion will, undoubtedly, to us be ever a mystery.”

“Something Like a Warning”


Being on a main road in Ashwell, Hertfordshire, this gate, with its peculiar inscriptions, naturally causes much comment. It stands on a field belonging to Mr. C.H.P. Walkden, whose orchard has suffered severe depredations, and shows his philosophical endeavour to cope with the evildoers.

Strand, July 1908

Placebo Buttons

In most elevators installed since the early 1990s, the “close door” button has no effect. Otis Elevator engineers confirmed the fact to the Wall Street Journal in 2003.

Similarly, many office thermostats are dummies, designed to give workers the illusion of control. “You just get tired of dealing with them and you screw in a cheap thermostat,” said Illinois HVAC specialist Richard Dawson. “Guess what? They quit calling you.”

In 2004 the New York Times reported that more than 2,500 of the 3,250 “walk” buttons in New York intersections do nothing. “The city deactivated most of the pedestrian buttons long ago with the emergence of computer-controlled traffic signals, even as an unwitting public continued to push on.”

(Thanks, Tad.)

Lost and Found

In early April 1922, a little girl, Pauline Picard, disappeared from her parents’ farm in Brittany. Searches turned up no clues, and eventually it was thought that she had been carried off by gypsies.

Then word came from Cherbourg that a girl had been found who matched Pauline’s description. The parents hurried to claim her, but they found that the girl did not seem to know them, and she remained silent when addressed in Breton. They returned with her to their village, where the neighbors recognized her, and the attending policeman was satisfied she was Pauline Picard.

Then, in May, a farmer crossing a local field discovered the mutilated body of a young girl. She could not be identified, but her parents recognized Pauline’s clothes.

The New York Times reported: “Although it would seem almost incredible that the parents should make a mistake, the Picards are now uncertain whether the child they have been nursing for more than a month is really their own, and the police are faced by a three-fold task — to discover the murderer, identify the murdered child, and, if she is proved to be Pauline Picard, discover the identity of the little girl from Cherbourg.”

I can’t find any record that they succeeded.

“A Clock Made of Straw”


“There is probably no more unsuitable material with which to build a clock than straw. Yet this has been accomplished recently by a German shoemaker, who, during his leisure time, has made the ingenious piece of mechanism illustrated herewith. One would think that at least certain of the movable parts, or the springs, would be fashioned of some hard material such as bone, wood, or metal, yet nothing else was employed but straw. The figures, hands, dial, pendulums, chain, weight, gears, and the whole skeleton consist of this breakable stuff. By pressing a button, which comes out automatically on one side, the clockwork is wound up, and runs for five hours. There are eight pendulums, which allow regulation of speed. The chain is fourteen inches long and without end, like that of a bicycle. The diameter of the dial is eight inches. There were probably some thousands of stalks used in the work, each being three and four fold, to give more strength, one sliding within the other. No less than fifteen years was required to complete this wonderful clock.”

Strand, July 1908

A Bad Night

In October 1845, the owner of a Boston brothel awoke to find that one of his prostitutes, Maria Bickford, had been nearly decapitated with a razor. Bickford’s companion, Albert Tirrell, was nowhere to be found but had been seen recently on the premises, and his cane and bits of his clothing were found near the body.

Tirrell was discovered in New Orleans and brought back for trial. His lawyer argued that Bickford might have been killed by her own hand or by a third party — or that Tirrell might have done it while sleepwalking. The defendant had a noted history of walking in his sleep, one that was confirmed by doctors. As recently as September, a cousin testified, Tirrell had pulled him out of bed and brandished a knife. “Somnambulism explain[s] … the killing without a motive,” the lawyer argued. “Premeditated murder does not.”

After less than two hours’ deliberation, the jury declared Tirrell not guilty — the first successful such murder defense in American legal history.

CMU’s Kilroy

Just as Georgia Tech has George P. Burdell, Carnegie Mellon has Harry Q. Bovik, an invisible but dedicated student/researcher/ghost/mascot whose long tenure at the institution has produced an impressive list of achievements.

According to his personal page, Bovik has served as a science consultant to the Weekly World News, a White House fellow, and a project scientist at the Millenium Falcon Engineering Company.

Currently he’s a senior computer scientist at CMU, where his office is famously hard to find, and his work has inspired an annual conference.

Happily, he’s also kept up with the times: He has a LinkedIn profile and a Facebook page.

Shadow Governments


In 1907 an anonymous turner produced a vase that threw a shadow of Queen Victoria.

Seventy years later, for the Silver Jubilee in 1977, a vase was produced that evoked the profiles of both Prince Philip and Elizabeth II.

Is this a tradition? It might lead us to see too much.

“An Egg as a Rat-Trap”


I send you a photograph showing the untimely fate which befell a too inquisitive rat. It had managed to force its way into an ostrich egg, but then found that getting out was quite another matter, and so perished in the miserable manner shown in the following picture, which was sent to me by Mr. William Fisher, Mahalapye, B. Bechuanaland. — Miss G. Gardiner, 78, Guilford Street, W.C.

Strand, July 1908

See “A Man Drowned by a Crab” and “A Rat Caught by an Oyster.”