Fire Alarm

On July 21, 1759, Emanuel Swedenborg attended a dinner party after returning to Gothenburg from England. He went out for a short interval and returned pale and agitated. He told the party that a fire had broken out in Stockholm, 250 miles away, and that it was spreading quickly. He said it had already destroyed the house of one of his friends, whom he named, and that his own house was in danger. Two hours later he exclaimed, “Thank God! The fire is extinguished the third door from my house.”

The following morning the governor questioned Swedenborg, who provided a description of the fire, including how it had begun and ended, and word spread throughout the city. Two days later a messenger arrived from Stockholm bearing letters that confirmed Swedenborg’s account, and a royal courier brought news reporting the extent of the fire, the houses it had damaged and destroyed, and the time it was put out. All confirmed Swedenborg’s description.

“What can be brought forward against the authenticity of this occurrence?” wrote Immanuel Kant, who elsewhere criticized Swedenborg’s mysticism. “My friend who wrote this to me, has not only examined the circumstances of this extraordinary case at Stockholm, but also, about two months ago, at Gottenburg, where he is acquainted with the most respectable houses, and where he could obtain the most authentic and complete information, as the greatest part of the inhabitants, who are still alive, were witnesses to the memorable occurrence.”


It has been recorded by reliable authority that near the graves of Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, and his wife, there stood a venerable apple-tree which had sent two of its roots into the graves of Mr. and Mrs. Williams. The larger root had pushed its way through the earth till it reached the precise spot occupied by the skull of Roger Williams. There, making a turn, as if going round the skull, it followed the direction of the backbone to the hips. Here it divided into two branches, sending one of them along each leg to the heel, where both turned upward to the toes. One of these roots formed a slight crook at the knee, which made the whole bear close resemblance to a human form. There were the graves, emptied of every particle of human dust. Not a trace of any thing was left. There stood the guilty ‘apple-tree,’ as it was said at the time, caught in the very act of ‘robbing the grave.’ The fact proved conclusively that bones, even of human beings, are an excellent fertilizer for fruit-trees; and the fact must be admitted that the organic matter of Roger Williams had been transmitted into the apple-tree; it had passed into the woody fibre, and was capable of propelling a steam-engine; it had bloomed in the apple-blossoms, and had become pleasant to the eye; and more, it had gone into the fruit from year to year, so that the question might be asked, Who ate Roger Williams?

— Sereno Edwards Todd, The Apple Culturist, 1871


In 1906, while serving in the Navy, Albert Moodie of Austin, Texas, wrote a letter to a shipmate. That wouldn’t normally be noteworthy — but Moodie wrote this letter on the regulation tape that battleships use for receiving wireless messages.

“It took me some two weeks to complete the task,” he reported, “as there is a continuous letter from the beginning to the end of the tape — a distance of over a mile.”

Moodie called it “the longest letter in the world.” His friend received it — and answered it.

In a Word

n. waking up

n. ill humor in the morning; “getting up on the wrong side of the bed”

“An Extraordinary Sleeper at Newcastle”

In the year 1752, during the summer, the following particulars happened at Newcastle, in Staffordshire, related by a lady of discernment and veracity, who went to see the sleeper several times. She was a girl about 19 years of age; she slept 14 weeks, without waking, although several methods were tried to wake her, as bleeding, blistering, &c.; in all which time she took no sustenance, except about nine o’clock every night, she opened her mouth, and then some person that attended her, dipped a feather in wine, and with that wetted the inside of her mouth. Her father often gave her an airing in a horse chair, and sometimes took her several miles, to have the advice of the physicians; but neither the motion of travelling, nor any thing the physicians could do, could awake her; she appeared to be healthy all the time, breathed freely, and her pulse beat very regularly, but rather too slow; she never moved herself all the time, except once, it is thought, she moved one leg. When she awaked, it was very gradually, being two or three days from the time she began to stir and open her eyes, before she was quite awake, and then seemed to be very well, but complained of faintness. I heard, last summer, that she had good health, and had no return of her sleepiness.

Gentleman’s Magazine, 1753, quoted in Kirby’s Wonderful and Eccentric Museum, 1820

“Capture of a Whale in the Thames”

A curious old tract in the British Museum, bearing the date of 1658, gives an account of a wonderful capture of a whale in the Thames, not far from Greenwich, in the month of June of that year. The sailors in the river were, of course, anxious to secure the huge monster who had been so rash as to invade our shores; but they found no slight difficulty in despatching it. All sorts of swords, axes, and hatchets, and even guns were brought into the service; but nothing effectual could be done till some one’s ingenuity suggested striking a couple of anchors into the creature’s body. By these it was held fast, and very soon bled to death. Hundreds of people flocked to see the monstrous stranger, and among others went Evelyn, author of the ‘Diary,’ who has left us a curious account of it. It was of no contemptible size, being fifty-eight feet long, twelve feet high, fourteen feet broad, and measured two feet between the eyes.

The World of Wonders, 1883

The Fateful L

Harry B. Partridge points out that most presidents whose names have contained a penultimate L — Ronald Reagan, Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, Franklin Roosevelt, John Fitzgerald Kennedy — have died in office or survived an assassination attempt. He speculates that Gerald Ford survived because he was born Leslie Lynch King Jr., and that Theodore Roosevelt was divinely spared because THEO means God. (James Polk died three months after leaving office.)

Partridge also notes that a name with patronymic prefix (Mc, Fitz, etc.) is invariably fatal. To date there have been only two: William McKinley and John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

See Tecumseh’s Curse.

King Without a Country

Pity James Harden-Hickey — he founded a nation and no one believed him.

In 1893, newly rich after marrying into steel money, the American adventurer stopped at the empty island of Trinidad in the South Atlantic (not its larger namesake in the Caribbean) and, fancying a military dictatorship, proclaimed himself James I.

To his credit, Harden-Hickey did everything he could to legitimize his claim, but it’s hard to get these things off the ground. He named a secretary of state; opened a consular office in New York; established a flag, postage stamps, and a coat of arms; and began to sell bonds. After only two years, though, Britain seized the island for a telegraph station, occasioning a dispute with Brazil, and Harden-Hickey’s protests brought him only ridicule in the popular press.

Bold to the last, Harden-Hickey even tried to arrange an invasion of England from Ireland, but he couldn’t arrange financing. In 1898 he took an overdose of morphine, leaving behind a note to his wife–and the crown of his quondam nation.

Phantom Islands

In 1823, American explorer Benjamin Morrell reported hunting seal along a coastline in the Weddell Sea near Antarctica. The land, he wrote, abounded in sea elephants and “oceanic birds of every description.” No one has been able to rediscover Morrell’s land, and in the 20th century it was shown conclusively to have disappeared.

In 1841 the English whaler James Stewart described a snow-covered island 5 to 6 miles long in the South Pacific. Other ships confirmed its existence in 1860 and 1886. But subsequent searches found nothing. John Davis of the Nimrod, who searched the area in 1909, wrote, “I am inclined to think Dougherty Island has melted.”

For nearly 30 years, India and Bangladesh disputed an island in the Bay of Bengal. In 2010 rising sea levels solved the problem: The island has disappeared. “What these two countries could not achieve from years of talking,” said Jadavpur University oceanographer Sugata Hazra, “has been resolved by global warming.”

(Thanks, Shrey.)

For Your Consideration

I send you a photograph of a snake made of postage-stamps. It contains, I believe, from fifteen thousand to twenty thousand stamps. The only portion not made of stamps is the head, which is of black velvet, with eyes of white beads, also teeth of beads; the fang is a match stuck into the mouth. The snake was made by Mrs. Membury, of Hyde Corner, Bridport, Dorset, and took about three years to complete. The length is four feet nine inches.

Strand, March 1907