News to Order

Publicity stunts undertaken by press agent Jim Moran, 1938-1959:

  • Sold a refrigerator to an Eskimo in Alaska
  • Threw eggs at an electric fan
  • Changed horses in midstream in a Nevada river
  • Sought a needle in a haystack (for 10 days)
  • Walked a bull through a New York china shop
  • Hatched an ostrich egg (by sitting on it for 19 days)
  • Opened a Washington embassy for a mythical country

By the 1950s the era of the flamboyant stunt was ending, and authorities put a stop to Moran’s more ambitious schemes. He said, “It’s a sad day for American capitalism when a man can’t fly a midget on a kite over Central Park.”

“Mathematical Genius”

The Cincinnati Gazette says that ‘William Marcy, a colored boy from Kentucky, who was in that city lately, can add up columns of figures of any length, divide any given sum, multiply millions by thousands within five minutes from the time the figures are given to him, and with such exactness as to render it truly wonderful. Recently, in the presence of a party of gentlemen, he added a column of figures, eight in a line, and one hundred and eighty lines, making the sum total of several millions, within six minutes. The feat was so astounding, and apparently incredible, that several of the party took off their coats, and, dividing the sum, went to work, and in two hours after they commenced produced identically the same answers. The boy is not quite seventeen years of age; he cannot read nor write, and in every other branch of an English education is entirely deficient.’

The National Magazine, December 1853

A Well-Tempered Cartwheel

From Strand, August 1906:

A circular canon is so named not because of its circular form, but because it completes the circle of fifths–i.e., it goes through all the keys, each a perfect fifth above the other, until it returns to the original key. The one under notice is written in triple counterpoint, any part sounding equally well in the top, middle, or lowest voice, and each bar is in three different keys at once, all harmonizing.

This rendering is a bit indistinct, I’m afraid — if I can find a clearer version I’ll post it.

The Grey Town Noises

In Nature, May 12, 1870, captain Charles Dennehy of the R.M.S. Shannon noted “a very curious phenomenon” observed by the occupants of iron vessels off the port of Grey Town, Nicaragua.

“[W]hile at anchor in this situation, we hear, commencing with a marvellous punctuality at about midnight, a peculiar metallic vibratory sound, of sufficient loudness to awaken a great majority of the ship’s crew, however tired they may be after a hard day’s work.”

The sound, Dennehy said, converted the ship into “a great musical sounding board.” “It is musical, metallic, with a certain cadence, and a one-two-three time tendency of beat. It is heard most distinctly over open hatchways, over the engine-room, through the coal-shoots [sic], and close round the outside of the ship. It cannot be fixed at any one place, always appearing to recede from the observer. On applying the ear to the side of an open bunker, one fancies that it is proceeding from the very bottom of the hold.” It continued for about two hours, was heard only aboard iron vessels, and was unknown to the inhabitants on shore.

Denney’s letter brought responses from readers who referred to similar sounds in Trinidad, India, and Chile. They postulated a “musical fish” or gas rising from vegetation on the seabed but offered no conclusive explanation.

Curiously, William Corliss notes that the sounds’ descriptions seem to match the Yellowstone Lake whispers.

Dueling Doppelgängers

When World War I broke out in August 1914, Germany enlisted a large ocean liner, the Cap Trafalgar, to attack British merchant ships around Cape Horn. While at a supply base on Trinidade, it was surprised by the HMS Carmania, a British liner that had been similarly pressed into service by the British navy.

The two enormous ships squared off and fought a murderous sea battle. In the end the Cap Trafalgar sank, and the Carmania limped away to a Brazilian port.

An observer might still have wondered which side won — by an ironic coincidence, the Cap Trafalgar had been disguised as the Carmania and the Carmania as the Cap Trafalgar.

Missing Person

At 5 p.m. on Dec. 2, 1919, Canadian theater magnate Ambrose Small met with a lawyer in his Toronto office. The lawyer departed at 5:30 p.m. Between 5:30 and 6:00, Small vanished.

No one saw him leave the office, and no body was ever found. The disappearance seemed senseless. Small was a self-made millionaire; no money was missing, there was no evidence of kidnapping, and no ransom note was ever received.

Curiously, writer Ambrose Bierce had disappeared in Mexico six years earlier. Charles Fort wondered, “Was somebody collecting Ambroses?”

Swing Time

Jazz pianist Billy Tipton was biologically female. She lived as a man from age 19 to her death at 74, when the truth was discovered.

Born in 1914, Dorothy Tipton developed an early love of jazz, but sexism in the music industry and the straitened economy of the Depression made it impossible to find work. In 1933 she donned trousers and her father’s nickname and began playing in Oklahoma bars.

By the 1940s she was touring the country, and in the 1950s the Billy Tipton Trio released two albums for Tops Records and performed with Duke Ellington, Patti Page, and Rosemary Clooney. Arthritis finally forced Billy’s retirement in the 1970s.

Throughout all this Tipton had relationships with at least five women, including nightclub dancer Kitty Kelly, with whom she raised three adopted sons. She bound her chest, ostensibly to protect ribs fractured in an auto accident, and she always locked the bathroom door. Son William learned of his father’s sex only when a paramedic working on the dying Tipton asked, “Son, did your father have a sex change?”

Why keep a secret for 55 years? Tipton left no account of her reasons, and perhaps it’s none of our business. “I can’t say that passion wasn’t there with Billy, because it was,” said former lover Betty Cox, who insisted she never suspected Billy’s sex even during intimacy. “Now, 40 or 50 years later, you see these cross-dressers all the time on TV. You can certainly tell. Even on TV. I can look at a person and say, ‘Gee, that’s obviously a woman.’ Why couldn’t I then?”

Point of Interest

A few miles to the northeast of Woodstock lies the village of Saugerties, and just before entering it, Routes 212 and 32 come together. We do not know who first gave this juncture the name of Fahrenheit Corners, but as a large IBM plant is in the vicinity, we may reasonably suspect one of its more whimsical employees.

Journal of Recreational Mathematics, October 1981

Aging Fast

The California Court of Appeal faced a curious philosophical question in 1989: Do you become a year older on your birthday, or on the preceding day?

Paul Johnson had committed a robbery in San Francisco on Aug. 12, 1988, one day before his 18th birthday. The prosecution had charged him as an adult, arguing that “A person is in existence on the day of his birth. On the first anniversary he or she has lived one year and one day.”

Is that so? The appeals court didn’t buy it — Justice William Channell overruled the prior decisions and had Johnson tried as a juvenile.