Three anecdotes of Newton’s absent-mindedness:

  • His maid one day found him in his kitchen, holding an egg and boiling his watch.
  • His nephew noted, “At some seldom times when he designed to dine in the hall, would turn to the left hand [rather than going straight], and go out into the street, where making a stop, when he found his mistake, he would hastily turn back & and then sometimes instead of going into hall, return to his chamber again.”
  • From Thomas Moore’s diary: “Anecdote of Newton, showing his extreme absence–inviting a friend to dinner, & forgetting it–the friend arriving, & finding the philosopher in a fit of abstraction–Dinner brought up for one–the friend (without disturbing Newton) sitting down & dispatching it, and Newton, after recovering from his reverie, looking at the empty dishes & saying, ‘Well really, if it wasn’t for the proof before my eyes, I could have sworn that I had not yet dined.'”

English minister George Harvest was notoriously inattentive. On one occasion he accompanied Lord Onslow to Calais, awoke from an abstraction, and found that the two had become separated.

He could not speak a word of French, but recollecting that Lord Onslow was at the Silver Lion, he put a shilling in his mouth, and set himself in the attitude of a lion rampant. After exciting much wonder among the town’s people, a soldier guessing what he meant by this curious hieroglyphical exhibition, led him back to the Silver Lion, not sure at the same time whether he was restoring a maniac to his keepers, or a droll to his friends.

The Percy Anecdotes, 1823

“A Snow Lady”


The accompanying picture shows what can be done with snow, by those who care to exercise their powers of modelling, and produce something more natural in appearance than the familiar old ‘Snow Man,’ built up after the figure of a Lowther Arcade Noah. During a lull in the severe frosts of last winter, two ladies (amateurs, who had never had a lesson in modelling), with the assistance of only a shovel and pair of scissors, erected and modelled the ‘Snow Lady’ in a garden near Pangbourne. No foundation of any kind was used, and no sticks or wires were concealed under the figure for the purpose of supporting head, body, or arms. An enlargement of the original photograph was shown at the Photographic Exhibition during last autumn, and gave rise to many remarks, sage and otherwise. A large number of those who looked at it pronounced it as ‘No doubt very cleverly got up–but all humbug!’ ‘Real snow? Not a bit of it! Quite impossible!’

Strand, January 1892

“A Divided Family”


Vito and Giuseppe Bertucci, father and son, living at 3,103, South Twelfth Street, Tacoma, Washington, were equal owners of their house. The son was married. A short time ago the house caught fire and, as a result, became in need of repairs. But here a hitch arose. Father and son could not agree upon just what should be done. They wrangled and wrangled over the matter, and this only led to further misunderstandings, neither would the one buy the other out. There was absolutely no possibility of adjustment of the differences between them, so they did the only wild thing possible — they agreed to each pay their share for the hire of a carpenter who should cut the house in two. The father owns the part on the right of the picture, while the son has already moved his to one side, and will make this the nucleus for another home. The transaction is naturally the laughing affair of Tacoma, and the odd buildings can easily be seen from one of the street cars.

Strand, November 1906



William Archibald Spooner never (or rarely) uttered the verbal train wrecks that were attributed to him (“Which of us has not felt in his heart a half-warmed fish?”). But he seemed strangely prone to similar gaffes in daily life:

  • He told a student, “I thought you read the lesson badly today.” When the student protested that he hadn’t read it, “Ah,” said Spooner, “I thought you didn’t.”
  • He told a fellow don at Oxford, “Do come to dinner tonight to meet our new fellow, Casson.” When the man explained, “But, warden, I am Casson,” Spooner returned, “Never mind, come all the same.”
  • To another student: “Let me see. Was it your or your brother that was killed in the war?”
  • An Oxford colleague once received a note asking him to come to Spooner’s office the following morning. At the bottom was a postscript saying that the matter had been resolved and that he needn’t come.
  • A dining companion once saw Spooner spill a small amount of salt on the table. Apparently reversing the technique for removing a stain, he poured wine on it.

Professor Edward Morris Hugh-Jones recounted a dinner in North Oxford: “It came on to rain quite heavily, and [Spooner’s] host and hostess pressed him to stay. It was far too cold and wet for Spooner to traipse all the way back to college, they said, and they would gladly make up a bed for him. They were as good as their word and briefly departed upstairs to see to the arrangements. When they came down again, their guest had disappeared. Suddenly there was a knock at the house door, and there was Spooner, totally wet through, with a little bundle in his hands. ‘My nightshirt,’ he explained. ‘I went back to college for it.'”

Mountain Hazard


Although in our days the carrying off of Ganymede is not re-enacted, yet the inhabitants of mountainous countries have some ground for accusing the eagles of bearing off their children. A well known fact of this kind took place in the Valais in 1838. A little girl, five years old, called Marie Delex, was playing with one of her companions on a mossy slope of the mountain, when all at once an eagle swooped down upon her and carried her away in spite of the cries and presence of her young friend. Some peasants, hearing the screams, hastened to the spot, but sought in vain for the child, for they found nothing but one of her shoes on the edge of the precipice. The child, however, was not carried to the eagle’s nest, where only two eaglets were seen, surrounded by heaps of goat and sheep bones. It was not till two months after this that a shepherd discovered the corpse of Marie Delex, frightfully mutilated, upon a rock half a league from where she had been borne off.

— Henry Davenport Northrop, Earth, Sea and Sky, 1887


In 1886, French gas fitter Jean-Albert Dadas was admitted to a Bordeaux hospital suffering from exhaustion. Normally he led a quiet life, he told a medical student, but occasionally he would be overcome by anxiety and headaches and then find himself in a distant city, apparently having traveled there on foot. If the local police didn’t arrest him for vagrancy he would report to the French consul, who would arrange for his travel back home.

Dadas was 26 when he arrived at the hospital, but the attacks had begun when he was 12. He’d been working as a manufacturer’s apprentice when he simply disappeared, and his brother found him in a neighboring town helping an umbrella salesman. Since then, the medical student wrote, Dadas had regularly deserted “family, work and daily life to walk as fast as he could, straight ahead, sometimes doing 70 kilometers a day.” Some journeys had taken him as far as Algeria and Moscow.

Dadas’ condition was diagnosed as dromomania or “pathological tourism.” Though they’re rarely seen today, such fugue states saw a curious vogue in France in the 1890s — and produced one memorable case in Pennsylvania.

(Thanks, Eleanor.)

“A Revolving Ice Cake”


There is a curious ice formation on the Mianus River, near the village of Bedford, Westchester County, New York. The Mianus at that place is a small stream, averaging about ten feet in width. At a place locally known as the ‘ten foot hole’ the stream widens out into a pool forty or fifty feet wide. In this pool there has formed a cake of ice about twenty five or thirty feet in diameter and perfectly circular in shape. This circular cake of ice is slowly revolving and is surrounded for about two-thirds of its circumference by stationary ice. There is a space of about three inches between the revolving cake and the stationary ice, except at the ‘up stream’ side of the revolving cake, where the water is open and the current quite swift. Each revolution takes about six minutes. I inclose a rough drawing which will give an idea of this curious formation.

— Letter from J.M. Bates to Scientific American, Feb. 9, 1895

The Corruptible Club

In 1926, Mexican physician Luis Cervantes met Concepción Jurado, a 61-year-old schoolteacher who was impersonating a bearded Spanish count at a party. Impressed by her performance, Cervantes convinced Jurado to partake in an ongoing hoax. He invented a character, Count Carlos Balmori, and engaged prominent Mexicans to underwrite the story of Balmori’s wealth and power. Reporters planted stories of the count’s wealth and travels, bankers forged bankbooks, and judges and politicians provided official papers when needed.

Then, each week, Cervantes would choose a victim and stage a “Balmoreada,” a special evening in which the count would approach one guest and offer a fabulous sum in return for a ridiculous favor. He would induce a hacienda owner to shave his beard, a general to lead a revolution against Mexico, a Chilean diplomat to denounce his country, all in return for great wealth.

It’s said that only one guest in 20 refused the offer. As soon as the victim had accepted the proposal, Jurado would reveal her disguise and the dupe was admitted to the club, sworn to secrecy and invited to each future Balmoreada as a guest.

This went on for fully five years, until Jurado’s death of cancer in 1931. The society of the gullible greedy grew to include matadors, bankers, and police officials. Onetime President Plutarco Elías Calles is even said to have attended the meetings. Its members have now dwindled away, but Jurado’s tomb, in the largest cemetery in Mexico City, commemorates it with cartoons of both her personalities.

“A Surpriseing Bett Decided”

edward bright

When Essex grocer Edward Bright died in November 1750, he weighed more than 600 pounds; his coffin was three feet deep and required 12 men to draw it to the church.

The following month, to settle a bet, seven men were buttoned into Bright’s waistcoat.

In the engraving recording the feat, one onlooker says, “Sir you’ll allow that to be Fair.” His companion says, “I do Sir, & to me beyond Imagination.”