The Corruptible Club

In 1926, Mexican physician Luis Cervantes met Concepción Jurado, a 61-year-old schoolteacher who was impersonating a bearded Spanish count at a party. Impressed by her performance, Cervantes convinced Jurado to partake in an ongoing hoax. He invented a character, Count Carlos Balmori, and engaged prominent Mexicans to underwrite the story of Balmori’s wealth and power. Reporters planted stories of the count’s wealth and travels, bankers forged bankbooks, and judges and politicians provided official papers when needed.

Then, each week, Cervantes would choose a victim and stage a “Balmoreada,” a special evening in which the count would approach one guest and offer a fabulous sum in return for a ridiculous favor. He would induce a hacienda owner to shave his beard, a general to lead a revolution against Mexico, a Chilean diplomat to denounce his country, all in return for great wealth.

It’s said that only one guest in 20 refused the offer. As soon as the victim had accepted the proposal, Jurado would reveal her disguise and the dupe was admitted to the club, sworn to secrecy and invited to each future Balmoreada as a guest.

This went on for fully five years, until Jurado’s death of cancer in 1931. The society of the gullible greedy grew to include matadors, bankers, and police officials. Onetime President Plutarco Elías Calles is even said to have attended the meetings. Its members have now dwindled away, but Jurado’s tomb, in the largest cemetery in Mexico City, commemorates it with cartoons of both her personalities.

“A Surpriseing Bett Decided”

edward bright

When Essex grocer Edward Bright died in November 1750, he weighed more than 600 pounds; his coffin was three feet deep and required 12 men to draw it to the church.

The following month, to settle a bet, seven men were buttoned into Bright’s waistcoat.

In the engraving recording the feat, one onlooker says, “Sir you’ll allow that to be Fair.” His companion says, “I do Sir, & to me beyond Imagination.”

The Parrot of Atures

In exploring the upper Orinoco around 1800, Alexander von Humboldt learned of a tribe, the Atures, that had recently died out there. Their language had died with them, but Humboldt was still able to hear it spoken: “At the period of our voyage an old parrot was shown at Maypures, of which the inhabitants related, and the fact is worthy of observation, that ‘they did not understand what it said, because it spoke the language of the Atures.'”

From a 19th-century poem:

Where are now the youths who bred him
To pronounce their mother tongue?
Where the gentle maids who fed him
And who built his nest when young?

Humboldt managed to record phonetically 40 words spoken by the parrot, and in 1997 artist Rachel Berwick painstakingly taught two Amazon parrots to speak them. Can a language be said to survive if no one knows its meaning?

News to Order

Publicity stunts undertaken by press agent Jim Moran, 1938-1959:

  • Sold a refrigerator to an Eskimo in Alaska
  • Threw eggs at an electric fan
  • Changed horses in midstream in a Nevada river
  • Sought a needle in a haystack (for 10 days)
  • Walked a bull through a New York china shop
  • Hatched an ostrich egg (by sitting on it for 19 days)
  • Opened a Washington embassy for a mythical country

By the 1950s the era of the flamboyant stunt was ending, and authorities put a stop to Moran’s more ambitious schemes. He said, “It’s a sad day for American capitalism when a man can’t fly a midget on a kite over Central Park.”

“Mathematical Genius”

The Cincinnati Gazette says that ‘William Marcy, a colored boy from Kentucky, who was in that city lately, can add up columns of figures of any length, divide any given sum, multiply millions by thousands within five minutes from the time the figures are given to him, and with such exactness as to render it truly wonderful. Recently, in the presence of a party of gentlemen, he added a column of figures, eight in a line, and one hundred and eighty lines, making the sum total of several millions, within six minutes. The feat was so astounding, and apparently incredible, that several of the party took off their coats, and, dividing the sum, went to work, and in two hours after they commenced produced identically the same answers. The boy is not quite seventeen years of age; he cannot read nor write, and in every other branch of an English education is entirely deficient.’

The National Magazine, December 1853

A Well-Tempered Cartwheel

From Strand, August 1906:

A circular canon is so named not because of its circular form, but because it completes the circle of fifths–i.e., it goes through all the keys, each a perfect fifth above the other, until it returns to the original key. The one under notice is written in triple counterpoint, any part sounding equally well in the top, middle, or lowest voice, and each bar is in three different keys at once, all harmonizing.

This rendering is a bit indistinct, I’m afraid — if I can find a clearer version I’ll post it.

The Grey Town Noises

In Nature, May 12, 1870, captain Charles Dennehy of the R.M.S. Shannon noted “a very curious phenomenon” observed by the occupants of iron vessels off the port of Grey Town, Nicaragua.

“[W]hile at anchor in this situation, we hear, commencing with a marvellous punctuality at about midnight, a peculiar metallic vibratory sound, of sufficient loudness to awaken a great majority of the ship’s crew, however tired they may be after a hard day’s work.”

The sound, Dennehy said, converted the ship into “a great musical sounding board.” “It is musical, metallic, with a certain cadence, and a one-two-three time tendency of beat. It is heard most distinctly over open hatchways, over the engine-room, through the coal-shoots [sic], and close round the outside of the ship. It cannot be fixed at any one place, always appearing to recede from the observer. On applying the ear to the side of an open bunker, one fancies that it is proceeding from the very bottom of the hold.” It continued for about two hours, was heard only aboard iron vessels, and was unknown to the inhabitants on shore.

Denney’s letter brought responses from readers who referred to similar sounds in Trinidad, India, and Chile. They postulated a “musical fish” or gas rising from vegetation on the seabed but offered no conclusive explanation.

Curiously, William Corliss notes that the sounds’ descriptions seem to match the Yellowstone Lake whispers.

Dueling Doppelgängers

When World War I broke out in August 1914, Germany enlisted a large ocean liner, the Cap Trafalgar, to attack British merchant ships around Cape Horn. While at a supply base on Trinidade, it was surprised by the HMS Carmania, a British liner that had been similarly pressed into service by the British navy.

The two enormous ships squared off and fought a murderous sea battle. In the end the Cap Trafalgar sank, and the Carmania limped away to a Brazilian port.

An observer might still have wondered which side won — by an ironic coincidence, the Cap Trafalgar had been disguised as the Carmania and the Carmania as the Cap Trafalgar.

Missing Person

At 5 p.m. on Dec. 2, 1919, Canadian theater magnate Ambrose Small met with a lawyer in his Toronto office. The lawyer departed at 5:30 p.m. Between 5:30 and 6:00, Small vanished.

No one saw him leave the office, and no body was ever found. The disappearance seemed senseless. Small was a self-made millionaire; no money was missing, there was no evidence of kidnapping, and no ransom note was ever received.

Curiously, writer Ambrose Bierce had disappeared in Mexico six years earlier. Charles Fort wondered, “Was somebody collecting Ambroses?”