Hearing Places

Architect Stedman Whitwell thought it illogical and confusing that different towns sometimes have the same name. He suggested assigning a unique name to each location based on its latitude and longitude. He published this table in the New Harmony, Ind., Gazette in 1826:


Insert an S to indicate south latitude and a V for west longitude; omit them for north and east. Thus New Harmony (38°11’N, 87°55’W) would be rechristened Ipba Veinul; New York would be Otke Notive, Washington D.C. Feili Neivul, and Pittsburgh Otfu Veitoup.

What these names lack in poetry they make up in utility: a traveler given the name of a town can immediately infer its location. Unfortunately, Whitwell’s scheme never caught on — and today the United States has 28 Springfields, 29 Clintons, and 30 Franklins.

Round Three


From the London Graphic, July 19, 1879, a sketch and statement by Capt. Davison of the steamship Kiushiu maru:

Saturday, April 5, at 11.15 a.m., Cape Satano [Japan] distant about nine miles, the chief officer and myself observed a whale jump clear out of the sea, about a quarter of a mile away. Shortly after it leaped out again, when I saw that there was something attached to it. Got glasses, and on the next leap distinctly saw something holding on to the belly of the whale. The latter gave one more spring clear of the water, and myself and chief then observed what appeared to be a large creature of the snake species rear itself about thirty feet out of the water. It appeared to be about the thickness of a junk’s mast, and after standing about ten seconds in an erect position, it descended into the water, the upper end going first. With my glasses I made out the colour of the beast to resemble that of a pilot fish.

Davison’s statement was countersigned by his chief officer, Mr. McKechnie. This is the third account I know of a fight between a whale and a sea serpent; the others occurred in 1818 and 1875. The whales seem to lose every time. I’m going to award the crown to the serpents and maybe we can avoid any further hostilities.

“A New England Wreck”


The accompanying illustrations give the reader a fair idea of the results of a peculiar wreck that occurred on the Northern Division of the N.Y., N.H. & H. Railroad near Worcester, Mass., on February 2nd [1898]. Engine 823, a 50-ton freight locomotive, was pushing a snow plow at a high rate of speed when it collided with Engine 684, an eight-wheel locomotive of lighter weight, which was also running at a high speed, and pulling a milk train.

Five men who were in the snow plow jumped into a bank of snow and were uninjured. … Another strange feature of this peculiar wreck is that just previous to the collision the men in the snow plow discovered that the knob was off the door and they were locked in. They finally contrived to open the door, and on looking out saw the milk train coming. The snow plow was completely demolished. The wreck was caused by a telegraph operator going to sleep and allowing the snow plow to pass his station when he had orders to hold it.

Locomotive Firemen’s Magazine, March 1898


Mistaken Identity


In 1903, a prisoner named Will West arrived at Leavenworth. The record clerk took the photographs above and, thinking he remembered West, asked whether he had been there before. West said no.

The clerk took some measurements, went to the file, and produced this record, bearing the name William West:


Amazed, the prisoner said, “That’s my picture, but I don’t know where you got it, for I know I have never been here before.”

Incredibly, this was true. A different William West had been serving a life sentence at Leavenworth since 1901, and the new prisoner had the same name, face, and measurements.

The case became a strong argument in favor of the new science of fingerprinting.

“A Much Traveled Goat”

About the year 1772 there died at Mile End, England, a well informed goat, if traveling and seeing the world would make it so. It twice circumnavigated the globe; first in the discovery ship Dolphin, with Captain Wallis, and afterward in the ship Endeavorer, commanded by the celebrated Captain Cook. The Dolphin sailed from England August 22, 1766, and returned May 20, 1768. It visited many lands, including numerous islands of the Pacific, on this voyage. The goat did not remain ashore very long, for the Endeavorer sailed from Plymouth August 25, 1768. The vessel touched at Maderia, doubled Cape Horn, spent six months along the coast of New Zealand, and visited many other strange countries. It got back to England June 12, 1771. In the three years Cook lost thirty of his eighty-five men, but the goat returned in apparent good health. Arrangements were made to admit her to the privileges of one of the government homes for sailors, but she did not live to enjoy them. She wore a silver collar, with a Latin inscription prepared by Dr. Samuel Johnson.

— Albert William Macy, Curious Bits of History, 1912

Hit and Run

On Dec. 30, 1947, the United States Hydrograph Office received the following wireless message from the Grace Line steamer Santa Clara, which was bound for Cartagena:


The master of the ship, J. Fordan, published a detailed account, which was carried widely by the Associated Press:

Suddenly, John Axelson, the third mate, saw a snake-like head rear out of the sea about 30 feet off the starboard bow of the vessel. His exclamation of amazement directed the attention of the two other mates to the sea monster, and the three watched it unbelievingly as it came abeam of the bridge where they stood, and it was then left astern.

The creature’s head appeared to be about two and one-half feet across, 2 feet thick, and 5 feet long. The cylindrically shaped body was about 3 feet thick and the neck about one and a half feet in diameter. As the monster came abeam of the bridge, it was observed that the water around the monster, over an area of 30 or 40 square feet, was stained red. The visible part of the body was about 35 feet long. It was assumed that the color of the water was due to the creature’s blood and that the stem of the ship had cut the monster in two.

From the time the monster was first sighted until it disappeared in the distance astern, it was thrashing about as though in agony. The monster’s skin was dark brown, slick and smooth. There were no fins, hair, or protuberances on the head or neck or any visible parts of the body.

Possibly the creature was a monstrous oarfish; we’ll never know for certain.

Beating the News

On Feb. 18, 1855, French-Canadian cattle dealer Louis Remme deposited $12,500 in gold in the Sacramento branch of the Adams & Company bank. Shortly afterward he received word that Page, Bacon & Company of St. Louis, the largest financial company west of the Alleghenies, had failed. He returned to the bank but it had already been liquidated, depleted by desperate depositors.

So Remme jumped on a horse and rode 665 miles north in 143 hours, including 10 hours of sleep and brief stops for food. He arrived in Portland, Ore., on Feb. 26, went straight to the Adams & Company bank, presented his certificate of deposit, and withdrew the $12,500. He had beaten the steamer that carried news of the bank’s failure — and Portland had no telegraph.

Courting Danger


In 1898, 23-year-old Cambridge dropout Ewart Grogan found himself with a problem: He was in love with a rich girl, but her father forbade her to accept. So Grogan proposed to prove himself by making the first-ever transit of Africa from south to north.

He set out from Cape Town and spent two years struggling north through largely unexplored East Africa. Along the way he negotiated lions, cannibals, volcanoes, war, illness, exhaustion, and 400 miles of swamp, but in 1900 he wired Gertrude: “Have reached Cairo. My feelings just the same. Anxiously await your answer. Make it yes. Love, Ewart.” She wired back, “My feelings also unchanged. Am waiting for you. Gertrude.” They were married seven months after his return, and Grogan inscribed a copy of his bestselling account of the trip to his new father-in-law.

In 1932 Imperial Airways invited Grogan to repeat his trans-African journey, this time by air. What had taken two years now took eight days. “It seems beyond belief that a man could have that double experience in a lifetime,” he told the Daily Express. “It shows how fast the world is moving.”

A Man Possessed


Alexis Vincent Charles Berbiguier was beset by imps — not metaphorically, but (to his mind) quite literally. Born in 1764, the French nobleman was plagued from his youth by what he called farfadets or goblins, led by an agent of Beelzebub named Rhotomago. Using brushes, pins, sponges, and snuff, he worked out a method to trap the imps in bottles, but they were legion. His 1821 autobiography recounts his plight:

I have suffered much, and am still suffering. For twenty years demons, sorcerers and farfadets have not allowed me a moment’s rest: everywhere they pursue me: in the town and country, in church and at home, and even in my bed. My head is sound, and no defect mars the good condition of my body. I am made in the image of our Saviour. Why, then, have I been chosen as the principal victim?

Convinced that he had been chosen by God to exterminate these agents of evil, he pleaded his case resolutely to all who would listen. “These brushes, gentlemen,” he told one courtroom, “contain the souls of the hobgoblins who came to attack me last night. Look at this bottle — well, it contains millions of hobgoblins. Oh, laugh as long as you like, but, were it not for me, you would not be so much at your ease, nor even the judges upon the bench.”

Berbiguier lived out his life in this belief, keeping increasingly to himself and suspicious of those who tried to help. But he never conquered the imps. In a way his failure was heroic — delusions they may have been, but their victims’ torture was real.

“Wills Against Moustaches”

Mr. Tegg, in his curious and interesting volume, Wills of Their Own, quotes two testators whose aversion to moustaches continued to exhibit itself even after death. The will of Mr. Henry Budd, which came into force in 1862, declared against the wearing of moustaches by his sons in the following terms: ‘In case my son Edward shall wear moustaches, then the devise herein before contained in favour of him, his appointees, heirs, and assigns, of my said estate called Pepper Park, shall be void; and I devise the same estate to my son William, his appointees, heirs, and assigns. And in case my said son William shall wear moustaches, then the devise hereinbefore contained in favour of him, his appointees, heirs, and assigns of my said estate, called Twickenham Park, shall be void; and I devise the said estate to my said son Edward, his appointees, heirs, and assigns.’

Another instance is the will of Mr. Fleming, an upholsterer of Pimlico, proved in 1869, who left £10 each to those of the men in his employ who did not wear moustaches. Those who persisted in wearing them to have only £5 each.

— Jacob Larwood, Forensic Anecdotes, 1882