The Bird of the Oxenhams

In a letter dated July 3, 1632, historian James Howell tells of seeing a curious monument in a London stonecutter’s shop: “Here lies John Oxenham, a goodly young Man, in whose Chamber, as he was struggling with the pangs of death, a Bird with a white breast was seen fluttering about his bed, and so vanished.” Howell says the same apparition attended the deaths of Oxenham’s sister, son, and mother.

He wrote that “This stone is to be sent to a Town hard by Exeter, where this happened.”

An anonymous pamphlet published nine years later gives essentially the same story. A True Relation of an Apparition in the Likeness of a Bird with a White Breast, That Appeared Hovering Over the Death-Beds of Some of the Children of Mr. James Oxenham, of Sale Monchorum, Gent. reports that a ghostly bird had appeared at the deathbeds of John, his mother, his daughter, and an infant.

On looking into this, Sabine Baring-Gould could find no trace of the monument in the Oxenham family’s parish, and the apparition isn’t mentioned on other Oxenham graves. He concludes that many of Howell’s published letters were not genuine but “were first written when he was in the Fleet prison, to gain money for the relief of his necessities.”

Creepy, though. See The Gormanston Foxes.


A famous councilor of Zurich … relates that Guillaume de Saluces, who was Bishop of Lausanne from 1221 to 1229, ordered the eels of Lake Leman to confine themselves to a certain part, from which they were not to go out. …

The summonses against offending animals were served by an officer of the criminal court, who read these citations at the places frequented by them. Though judgment was given by default on the non-appearance of the animals summoned, yet it was considered necessary that some of them should be present when the citation was delivered; thus, in the case of the leeches tried at Lausanne, a number of them were brought into court to hear the document read, which admonished them to leave the district in three days.

— William Jones, “Legal Prosecutions of Animals,” The Popular Science Monthly, September 1880


On Feb. 12, 1908, mechanic George Schuster joined five other motorists in Times Square to undertake an insanely ambitious race to Paris — by driving west to Alaska, across the Bering Strait, and then all the way through Siberia and Europe, a total of 20,000 miles.

“The drivers would surely have to make their own roads in many districts, and for many days most of the driving would be done on the low gear,” consultant Joe Tracy told the New York Times, which co-sponsored the contest. Tracy recommended that each team carry a windlass and block and tackle “to pull the car up steep grades and prevent it from dashing over cliffs in going down the mountains.”

One team got stuck in Hudson Valley snow, a second got lost in Iowa, a third was caught loading its car onto a train, and a fourth dropped out in Russia. Schuster finally arrived in Paris on July 30 to take first place, 170 days after leaving New York.

The prize was $1,000, but appallingly Schuster didn’t collect it until 60 years after the race, when he was 95 years old and nearly blind. After realizing its oversight the Times presented the payment at a 1968 dinner in Buffalo, acknowledging “what is probably the slowest payoff in racing history.”

Name Deals

In the 19th century an eccentric Frenchman willed his estate to his 12 nephews and nieces on the condition that “every one of my nephews marries a woman named Antonie and that every one of my nieces marries a man named Anton.” They had also to name each firstborn child Antonie or Anton, and each nephew must celebrate his marriage on one of St. Anthony’s days. “If, in any instance, this last provision was not complied with before July 1896, one-half of the legacy was in that case to be forfeited.” (The Irish Law Times and Solicitors’ Journal, July 8, 1905)

William Stanislaus Murphy left his entire estate to Harvard University to fund a scholarship for students named Murphy. By a will dated April 28, 1717, John Nicholson of London left the residue of his estate to poor English Protestants named Nicholson.

When Elias Warner Leavenworth died in 1887 he funded a scholarship of $900 a year for a student named Leavenworth to attend Yale. Hamilton College of Clinton, N.Y., has its own Leavenworth scholarship; it hasn’t been awarded since 1994, but, a spokeswoman told told the New York Times, “there will always be Leavenworths out there.”

(From Elsdon Smith’s Treasury of Name Lore, 1967.)

Plane Truth

Excerpts from One Hundred Proofs That the Earth Is Not a Globe, a pamphlet distributed by William Carpenter in 1885:

  • “If the Earth were a globe, rolling and dashing through ‘space’ at the rate of ‘a hundred miles in five seconds of time,’ the waters of seas and oceans could not, by any known law, be kept on its surface — the assertion that they could be retained under these circumstances being an outrage upon human understanding and credulity.”
  • “Astronomers tell us that, in consequence of the Earth’s ‘rotundity,’ the perpendicular walls of buildings are, nowhere, parallel, and that even the walls of houses on opposite sides of a street are not! But, since all observation fails to find any evidence of this want of parallelism which theory demands, the idea must be renounced as being absurd and in opposition to all well-known facts.”
  • “If we examine a true picture of the distant horizon, or the thing itself, we shall find that it coincides exactly with a perfectly straight and level line.”
  • “The Newtonian theory of astronomy requires that the Moon ‘borrow’ her light from the Sun. Now, since the Sun’s rays are hot and the Moon’s light sends with it no heat at all, it follows that the Sun and Moon are ‘two great lights,’ as we somewhere read, [and] that the Newtonian theory is a mistake.”
  • “If a projectile be fired from a rapidly moving body in an opposite direction to that in which the body is going, it will fall short of the distance at which it would reach the ground if fired in the direction of motion. Now, since the Earth is said to move at the rate of nineteen miles in a second of time, ‘from west to east,’ it would make all the difference imaginable if the gun were fired in an opposite direction. But … there is not the slightest difference, whichever way the thing may be done.”

Staunch flat-earther Wilbur Glenn Voliva (1870-1942) asked: “Where is the man who believes he can jump into the air, remaining off the earth one second, and come down to earth 193.7 miles from where he jumped up?” Hard to argue with that.

Getting Organized

In the mid-19th century it was already said that American Smiths would fill Boston Common; Mark Twain dedicated his Celebrated Jumping Frog to “John Smith” in the hope that if every honoree bought a copy, “a princely affluence” would burst upon him. Today more than 3 million Americans share the name.

This has consequences. In his 1950 book People Named Smith, H. Allen Smith reports that a desperate publicist at Warner Brothers founded the Organized Smiths of America in order to confer an award on the undistinguished actress Alexis Smith. He was surprised to find the story picked up across the country, and the awards became an annual event.

In 1942, University of Minnesota graduate student Glenn E. Smith, irritated that his professor’s lectures always centered on characters named James Smith, founded the National Society to Discourage Use of the Name Smith for Purposes of Hypothetical Illustration. Its hundreds of members pledged themselves to confront offenders with a card that read “When you think of Smith, say John Doe!”

But popularity has its limits. Smith himself was once assigned to cover the New York convention of the Benevolent and Protective and Completely Universal Order of Fred Smiths of America. He was impressed at first to find more than 40 delegates, all presumably named Fred Smith — but he lost some respect when “a man named Smith Frederick who sought admission to the banquet hall was permitted to enter walking backward.”

When in Rome …

An oyster oddity: In 1954, Northwestern University biologist Frank A. Brown collected 15 oysters from the Connecticut shore and shipped them by train to Evanston, Ill. There he put them in a temperature-controlled tank in a dark room and observed them for 46 days.

The oysters opened their shells twice a day, presumably for feeding, at the time of the high tide in their home beds in Long Island Sound. After two weeks, though, their timing shifted to follow the local tides in Evanston.

Apparently they had recalibrated using the moon.

Fire Insurance

Samuel Dinsmoor planned ahead. By the time the Kansas schoolteacher died in 1932, he had poured 22 years and 2,273 bags of cement into fashioning a concrete Garden of Eden, including a two-story concrete house, a concrete tree of life, a concrete angel and a concrete devil, concrete images of Adam and Eve, and a concrete serpent. Dinsmoor himself lies in the mausoleum in a concrete coffin with a plate-glass window.

Why? “It seems to me that people buried in iron and wooden boxes will be frying and burning up in the resurrection morn. How will they get out when this world is on fire? Cement will not stand fire, the glass will break. This cement lid will fly open and I will sail out like a locust.”

Ever resourceful, at the foot of his coffin he placed a 2-gallon concrete jug. “In the resurrection morn, if I have to go below, I’ll grab my jug and fill it with water on the road down. They say they need water down below.”


In the early 1960s, the American Automobile Association lost Seattle — the nation’s 23rd largest city did not appear on AAA’s United States road map. “It just fell through the editing crack,” a spokesman confessed, and the association expensively recalled and reprinted the map.

A Canadian government tourist office once omitted Ottawa from a brochure prepared for British tourists. The map did include Regina, Calgary, and Winnipeg. The office explained that the map had been compiled before regular air service was available between New York and the Canadian capital, but an executive at the city’s convention bureau said, “Ottawa should be shown in any case, even if the only point of entry was by two-man kayak.”

Cruel and Unusual

I couldn’t believe this when a reader first reported it — in July 2010 a Russian tourism company forced a donkey to parasail over the Sea of Azov as part of a publicity stunt.

“This is a little town and we all know that donkey well,” a local woman told reporters. “He worked for several years on the beach, being photographed with tourists. As soon as his ordeal was over, a lot of the people on the beach ran forward to soothe him.”

After worldwide outrage at the stunt, the donkey spent its last months in a sanctuary near Moscow, eating fruit and vegetables, spending time in a solarium, and getting massages. It died in December.

Animal-rights activists tried to prosecute the owners, but no charges were ever filed.

(Thanks, AnneLaure.)