Not So Fast

In 1700 the body of John Dryden was arrested pending payment of his debts.

Before 1804 the cadaver of a debtor could be held hostage by the creditor until the dead person’s loved ones could pay the arrears.

Finally in the case Jones v. Ashburnham, Lord Ellenborough declared that the practice was “contrary to every principle of law and moral feeling. Such an act is revolting to humanity, and illegal, and, therefore, any promise extorted by it could never be valid law.”


How to get a boy to kiss you, from the advice column in Mirabelle, Nov. 18, 1961:

Here’s a trick a very pretty film star swears by. Look deep into your boy’s eyes. Fine, now you have got his attention. Drop your eyes to take a lingering look at his lips and then raise your eyes to his again. It’s practically irresistible.


On Sept. 2, 1945, an American Navy squadron came ashore at Sagami Bay near Yokohama to demilitarize the Japanese midget submarines in the area. They found this notice on the door of a marine biological research station there, left by embryologist Katsuma Dan.

The Americans honored his wish: On the last of 1945 he was summoned by an officer of the U.S. First Cavalry and handed a document releasing the station back to the University of Tokyo.

The notice is on display at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s Marine Biological Laboratory (here’s the full story).

The Lawyer’s Prayer

In 1765 Samuel Johnson considered taking up the study of law. In his diary he wrote:

Almighty God, the Giver of wisdom, without whose help resolutions are vain, without whose blessing study is ineffectual, enable me, if it be Thy will, to attain such knowledge as may qualify me to direct the doubtful and instruct the ignorant, to prevent wrong, and terminate contention; and grant that I may use that knowledge which I shall attain to Thy glory and my own salvation; for Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen.

He seems to have given up the project, but he maintained his respect for the profession. The following year, when James Boswell mentioned that a friend had jokingly advised him against becoming a lawyer “because I should be excelled by plodding block-heads,” Johnson replied, “Why, Sir, in the formulary and statutory part of law, a plodding block-head may excel; but in the ingenious and rational part of it a plodding block-head can never excel.”

Podcast Episode 189: The “Wild White Man”

In 1835, settlers in Australia discovered a European man dressed in kangaroo skins, a convict who had escaped an earlier settlement and spent 32 years living among the natives of southern Victoria. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll review the extraordinary life of William Buckley, the so-called “wild white man” of colonial Australia.

We’ll also try to fend off scurvy and puzzle over some colorful letters.

See full show notes …

“A Little Saga of Self-Denial”

Hold on to your seats, boys. This one gets complicated.

It seems that on Aug. 12, 1940, there occurred an automobile collision at Forty-second avenue S. and Forty-second street.

A car driven by Leo R. Johnson, Hopkins, and owned by Frank M. Anderson, 2912 Sixteenth avenue S., was in collision with one driven by Francis D. Hall, 3413 E. Minnehaha parkway.

It happened that both owners were insured with the same company, the Westchester Fire Insurance Co., and both had $50 deductible collision policies.

The company paid $65 to Anderson for damages to his car and $300 to Hall for damages to his car.

Then the company started suit in municipal court to recover the money.

Action was started against Hall to recover the $65 paid for damages to Anderson’s car, charging him with negligence, and against Anderson to recover the $300 paid for damages to Hall’s car, charging Johnson, the driver, with negligence. …

Benjamin Rigler, attorney for Hall, then came into court with an answer denying that his client was negligent and charging that the driver of Anderson’s car was the negligent party.

And A.C. Johnston, attorney for Anderson, came into court with an answer denying that Johnson was negligent in driving and charging that Hall was guilty of contributory negligence.

The insurance company then filed replies to both answers, denying them.

Since it denied the answers, it also denied each answer’s charge that the other party was guilty of negligence, and thus denied its own original complaint.

Today the attorneys moved for dismissal on the ground that the reply to the answers was ‘sham and frivolous.’

Municipal Judge William A. Anderson dismissed both cases.

(From William L. Prosser’s The Judicial Humorist, 1952. The author is unknown.)


One more example of the trials of 19th-century house servants — in 1832 Elizabeth Fox, Baroness Holland, strained a sinew in her back:

Lady Hardy … said to her hostess after dinner, in the presence of the gentlemen, ‘Is it very painful? Where is it?’ Upon which her Ladyship called her page, made him turn his back to her, put her finger on his posterior regions, and said, ‘Here, Lady Hardy.’

(From Giles Fox-Strangways’ 1937 Chronicles of Holland House, 1820-1900.)


During World War I the Red Cross solicited contributions by literally sucking them out of a crowd with a vacuum cleaner.

The stunt took place on May 25, 1917, before the New York Public Library. From Scientific American: “While a soldier and a sailor urged the public to hand in their contributions the suction tube of the machine was reached out over the crowd. The suction was sufficient to draw up pieces of money of any denomination and deposit them in the bag of the vacuum cleaner. By this means it was possible to reach the crowd readily and it was unnecessary for a contributor to elbow his way through the jam in order to reach the Red Cross workers.”

The National Archives notes, “So great was the eagerness of the people to have their coins taken in by the cleaner that the bag inside the vacuum cleaner had to be emptied several times.”

Podcast Episode 187: A Human Being in the Bronx Zoo

The Bronx Zoo unveiled a controversial exhibit in 1906 — a Congolese man in a cage in the primate house. The display attracted jeering crowds to the park, but for the man himself it was only the latest in a string of indignities. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll review the sad tale of Ota Benga and his life in early 20th-century America.

We’ll also delve into fugue states and puzzle over a second interstate speeder.

See full show notes …

Equality in Death

It is like a play. But when the curtain falls, the one who played the king, and the one who played the beggar, and all the others — they are all quite alike, all one and the same; actors. And when in death the curtain falls on the stage of actuality … then they also are all one; they are human beings. All are that which they essentially were, something we did not see because of the difference we see. They are all human beings. The stage of art is like an enchanted world. But just suppose that some evening a common absent-mindedness confused all the actors so they thought they really were what they were representing. Would this not be, in contrast to the enchantment of art, what one might call the enchantment of an evil spirit, a bewitchment? And likewise suppose that in the enchantment of actuality (for we are, indeed, all enchanted, each one bewitched by his own distinctions) our fundamental ideas became confused so that we thought ourselves essentially to be the roles we play. Alas, but is this not the case? It seems to be forgotten that the distinctions of earthly existence are only like an actor’s costume.

— Kierkegaard, Works of Love, 1847