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.

“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.”

An Extraordinary Coincidence


As Thomas Young was struggling to decipher the Rosetta Stone, a traveler gave him a parcel of Egyptian manuscripts. Among the baffling hieroglyphics he noted three names written in Greek: Apollonius, Antigonus, and Antimachus. As he was puzzling over the rest, a friend gave him some papyri he had purchased at Thebes in 1820. Two of these contained some Greek characters, and Young began to examine them impatiently.

He “could scarcely believe that I was awake, and in my sober senses” when he saw the words Antimachus Antigenis and, a few lines further back, Portis Apollonii. It was a Greek translation of the very Egyptian manuscript he had been wrestling with!

“I could not, therefore, but conclude, that a most extraordinary chance had brought into my possession a document which was not very likely, in the first place, ever to have existed, still less to have been preserved uninjured, for my information, through a period of near two thousand years: but that this very extraordinary translation should have been brought safely to Europe, to England, and to me, at the very moment when it was most of all desirable to me to possess it, as the illustration of an original which I was then studying, but without any other reasonable hope of being able fully to comprehend it.”

“This combination would, in other times, have been considered as affording ample evidence of my having become an Egyptian sorcerer.”

Orderly Exits

But the superstitious noted that the death of Prince Albert Victor on a Thursday broke a remarkable spell or curse which had hung over the present royal family of England for more than a century and three-quarters — bringing about the death of all the prominent members of that family on Saturdays. William III died Saturday, March 18, 1702; Queen Anne died Saturday, August 1, 1714; George I died Saturday, June 10, 1727; George II died Saturday, October 25, 1760; George III died Saturday, January 29, 1820; George IV died Saturday, June 26, 1830; the Duchess of Kent died Saturday, March 16, 1861; the Prince Consort, husband of Queen Victoria and grandfather of the recent deceased Prince Albert Victor, died Saturday, December 14, 1861; Princess Alice of Hesse-Darmstadt, Victoria’s second daughter, and sister of Albert, died Saturday, December 14, 1878. The shadows which overhung the late prince’s life are said to have been darkened by a superstitious fear which caused him to keep close in-doors on Saturdays.

— William Shepard Walsh, Handy-Book of Literary Curiosities, 1892

The Chatata Wall


In 1891, J.H. Hooper found what he thought was a buried headstone on his farm in Bradley County, Tenn. On excavating it he found that the stone was part of a sandstone wall, about 16 feet of whose length was covered with unreadable marks arranged in wavy, nearly parallel lines.

A small sensation ensued. “Some of these forms recall those on the Dighton Rock,” wrote A.L. Rawson that year in the Transactions of the New York Academy of Sciences, “and may belong to the same age. How many other hidden inscriptions there may be in this, the geologically oldest continent, it is impossible to say but delightful to conjecture.”

Others thought they saw duplicates among the characters, as well as drawings of birds and animals. Could the inscription be Hebrew? Had the Lost Tribes of Israel somehow found their way to prehistoric Tennessee? No, as it turns out: Today it’s thought the marks were made … by mollusks.

“The Most Desperate Naval Battle”

On the twenty-third of December, 1757, the British privateer Terrible, Captain William Death (who had Devil for his lieutenant and Ghost for his surgeon), of twenty-six guns and two hundred men, captured a large French ship, after an obstinate battle, in which he lost his brother and sixteen men killed. A few days after, he fell in with the privateer Vengeance, thirty-six guns and three hundred and sixty men, who recaptured the prize, and, having manned her, both ships bore down on the Terrible, whose main was shot away by the first broadside. After a desperate engagement, in which the French captain and his lieutenant were killed, with two thirds of his crew, the Terrible was boarded, when no more than twenty-six persons were found alive, sixteen of whom had lost an arm or a leg, the remaining ten being badly wounded. The ship, which had been equipped at Execution dock, was so shattered that it could scarcely be kept above water.

— Albert Plympton Southwick, Quizzism; And Its Key, 1884

The Penny Game

Two robots are playing a game. Between them is a pile of coins. Each robot, on its turn, can take either one or two coins from the pile. So long as each elects to take one coin, play continues until the pile is exhausted. If either elects to take two, the remaining coins vanish and the game ends.

One might think that the best plan would be always to take a single coin, but if both players are rational and know it, the first player will immediately take two pennies and end the game.

He reasons thus: If there were only two pennies in the pile, I’d benefit most by taking both of them rather than just one. Now suppose there were three pennies. If I took only one, then I would leave my opponent in the position I just imagined, and being rational he’d take both remaining pennies. Therefore I should take two of the three.

And so on backward, up to any arbitrary number of pennies. Paradoxically, it seems, improvident greed is more rational than constructive cooperation. Adapted from Hollis, Martin and Sugden, Robert (1993) “Rationality in action.” Mind 103:1-35, referenced in R.M. Sainsbury, Paradoxes, 2009.

See Tug of War.

Circle Seat


When the Golden Hind was broken up in 1662, its timbers were fashioned into a chair that still resides in the Bodleian Library at Oxford. Abraham Cowley wrote an ode, “Sitting and Drinking in the Chair, Made Out of the Reliques of Sir Francis Drake’s Ship”:

As well upon a staff may Witches ride
Their fancy’d Journies in the Ayr,
As I sail round the Ocean in this Chair:
‘Tis true; but yet this Chair which here you see,
For all its quiet now, and gravitie,
Has wandred, and has travailed more,
Than ever Beast, or Fish, or Bird, or ever Tree before.
In every Ayr, and every Sea’t has been,
‘T has compas’d all the Earth, and all the Heavens ‘t has seen.
Let not the Pope’s it self with this compare,
This is the only Universal Chair.

“While armchair travelers dream of going places,” wrote Anne Tyler, “traveling armchairs dream of staying put.”