Horse Races

In December 1937, Jesse Owens outran a racehorse over a hundred-yard course in Havana. That’s an old carnival trick — a man can reach his top speed much more quickly than a horse.

But the following September, Olympic hurdler Forrest Towns outpaced a prize cavalry horse over a 120-yard course of five hurdles in Fort Oglethorpe, Ga.

Towns won by a nose in 13 seconds. “I’ll take two-footed racers in the future,” he said.

“A Dog That Climbed Mont Blanc Alone”


From The Strand, January 1910:

This is a portrait of a dog living at Les Praz, near Chamonix, who, in the summer of 1908, distinguished himself by climbing Mont Blanc. His master, a workman, was employed on repairs to the observatory on the summit, and one morning, after having been seen by his owner’s wife at eight o’clock, the dog disappeared. He must have rapidly tracked his master by scent, for he arrived at the summit at half-past two in the afternoon, having accomplished in six and a half hours what usually is estimated to require thirteen hours for a man. The presence of some tourists at the top ensured this fact being properly attested, and Mont Blanc, as the dog is now called, is quite a hero in his village. — Miss Morgan, Hotel Masson, Veytaux, Montreux, Switzerland

See The Dog of Helvellyn.

A New Deal

Playing cards were used as currency in early Canada. In 1685 the intendant of the French garrison in Quebec found that he had no money to pay his troops, “and not knowing to what saint to make my vows, the idea occurred to me of putting in circulation notes made of cards, each cut into four pieces; and I have issued an ordinance commanding the inhabitants to receive them in payment.”

This worked surprisingly well, so when funds ran short the following year they tried it again. The system continued intermittently for 70 years, collapsing finally only with the chaos of the Seven Years’ War.


In chess, a pawn may be captured “in passing” — when a pawn advances two squares from its initial position, it may be captured by an adjacent pawn as if it had advanced only one square.

This can lead to a curious state of affairs:

fraenkel en passant chess problem

From this position White plays 1. Bg2+ and declares checkmate. Black says “Au contraire,” plays 1. … d5, and announces checkmate himself. White shakes his head, plays 2. cxd6 e.p., and reasserts his own claim:

fraenkel en passant chess problem

Black claims that this last move is absurd. He says the game ended when he advanced his pawn to d5. But White argues that the pawn never reached d5 — in principle it was captured on d6, and thus could not stop White’s original mate.

So who won the game? It would seem to be a matter of opinion!

From Heinrich Fraenkel, Adventure in Chess, 1951.

Small Press

The first eyewitness account of the Wright brothers’ flying machine appeared in the journal Gleanings in Bee Culture.

The editor, beekeeper Amos I. Root, had visited the Wrights in 1904 at Huffman Prairie, Ohio, where they were working to perfect the machine after its historic first flight the preceding December.

Root sent copies of his article to Scientific American — but they were dismissed.

Stamps of Character


Locked between India and Tibet, the tiny kingdom of Bhutan has a curious claim to distinction: its postage stamps.

In 1951 American entrepreneur Burt Todd became one of the first Westerners to visit the Himalayan nation, and he devised the stamp program explicitly to help expand the country’s economic base.

There followed two decades of increasingly bizarre postage: 3-D stamps; stamps scented like roses; stamps with textured brushstrokes and bas-reliefs; stamps printed on stainless steel, silk, and extruded plastic; even “talking stamps,” discs of grooved rubber that can be played on a phonograph (one plays the national anthem, another contains a fleeting spoken history of Bhutan).

Todd lost his contract in 1974, and the country moved into more conventional postage. But the tradition isn’t entirely over: In 2008, Todd’s daughter arranged the world’s first CD-ROM postage stamp — it plays a video recounting the history of Bhutanese kings.

An Invertible Autograph


Seeing the reversible word ‘chump’ among your ‘Curiosities,’ I am sending you a name, ‘W.H. Hill,’ which, when written in the style shown, reads the same when reversed. Surely this is the only name possessing so convenient a peculiarity.

— B.R. Bligh, in Strand, September 1908

The Chicken Lady


Nancy Luce is remembered as a terrible poet, but her life was so sad that it’s hard to laugh. Described by one writer as “chicken mad,” Luce spent 76 years on Martha’s Vineyard, cultivating her birds as personal friends and selling poems about them to tourists. The poems reveal such misery that they can be moving despite their strangeness:

Poor little heart, she was sick one week
With froth in her throat,
Then 10 days and grew worse, with dropsy in her stomach,
I kept getting up nights to see how she was. …

Poor little Ada Queetie’s last sickness and death
Destroyed my health at an unknown rate,
With my heart breaking and weeping,
I kept the fire going night after night,
To keep poor little dear warm.

This was real pain, but visitors saw only an eccentric old woman. She died in 1890, unlamented — and tourists today leave plastic chickens on her grave.


Binary Arts devised this wonderful three-dimensional illusion for the third Gathering for Gardner in 1998.

You can download it for free here.

“Articles in The Stomach of a Shark”

On the first of December, 1787, some fishermen fishing in the river Thames, near Poplar, with much difficulty drew into their boat a shark, yet alive, but apparently very sickly; it was taken on shore, and, being opened, in its belly were found a silver watch, a metal chain, and a cornelian seal, together with several pieces of gold-lace, supposed to have belonged to some young gentleman, who was unfortunate enough to have fallen overboard; but that the body and other parts had either been digested, or otherwise voided; but the watch and gold-lace not being able to pass through it, the fish had thereby become sickly, and would in all probability very soon have died. The watch had the name of ‘Henry Watson, London, No. 1369,’ and the works were very much impaired. On these circumstances being made public, Mr. Henry Watson, watchmaker, in Soreditch, recollected that about two years ago he sold the watch to Mr. Ephraim Thompson, of Whitechapel, as a present to his son, on going out his first voyage, on board the ship Polly, Capt. Vane, bound to Coast and Bay: about three leagues off Falmouth, by a sudden heel of the vessel, during a squall, Master Thompson fell overboard, and was no more seen.–The news of his being drowned soon after came to knowledge of his friends, who little thought of hearing any more concerning him.

The Kaleidoscope, Jan. 22, 1822

See The Shark Arm Affair.