From the Annual Register, 1840: “The following civilities between two ladies lately appeared in the public papers”:
Lady Seymour presents her compliments to lady Shuckburgh, and would be obliged to her for the character of Mary Stedman, who states that she has lived twelvemonths, and still is in lady Shuckburgh’s establishment. Can Mary Stedman cook plain dishes well? make bread? and is she honest, good tempered, sober, willing, and cleanly? Lady Seymour would also like to know the reason why she leaves lady Shuckburgh’s service? Direct, under cover, to lord Seymour, Maiden Bradley.
Lady Shuckburgh presents her compliments to lady Seymour. Her ladyship’s note, dated Oct. 28, only reached her yesterday, Nov. 3. Lady Shuckburgh was unacquainted with the name of the kitchen-maid, until mentioned by lady Seymour, as it is her custom neither to apply for or give characters to any of the under servants, this being always done by the housekeeper, Mrs. Couch — and this was well known to the young woman; therefore lady Shuckburgh is surprised at her referring any lady to her for a character. Lady Shuckburgh having a professed cook, as well as a housekeeper, in her establishment, it is not very likely she herself should know anything of the abilities or merits of the under servants; therefore, she is unable to answer lady Seymour’s note. Lady Shuckburgh cannot imagine Mary Stedman to be capable of cooking for any except the servants’ hall table. — November 4, Pavilion, Hans-place.
Lady Seymour presents her compliments to lady Shuckburgh, and begs she will order her housekeeper, Mrs. Pouch, to send the girl’s character without delay; otherwise another young woman will be sought for elsewhere, as lady Seymour’s children cannot remain without their dinners because lady Shuckburgh, keeping a ‘professed cook and a housekeeper,’ thinks a knowledge of the details of her establishment beneath her notice. Lady Seymour understood from Stedman that, in addition to her other talents, she was actually capable of dressing food fit for the little Shuckburghs to partake of when hungry.
(“To this note was appended a clever pen and ink vignette, by the Queen of Beauty, representing the three little Shuckburghs, with large turnip-looking heads and cauliflower wigs, sitting at a round table, eating and voraciously scrambling for mutton chops, dressed by Mary Stedman, who is seen looking on with supreme satisfaction, while lady Shuckburgh appears in the distance in evident dismay.”)
Madam, — Lady Shuckburgh has directed me to acquaint you that she declines answering your note, the vulgarity of which is beneath contempt; and although it may be the characteristic of the Sheridans, to be vulgar, coarse, and witty, it is not that of ‘a lady,’ unless she happens to have been born in a garret and bred in a kitchen. Mary Stedman informs me that your ladyship does not keep either a cook or a housekeeper, and that you only require a girl who can cook a mutton chop. If so, I apprehend that Mary Stedman, or any other scullion, will be found fully equal to cook for, or manage the establishment of, the Queen of Beauty. I am, your ladyship’s, &c., Elizabeth Couch (not Pouch).’
French science fiction writer Albert Robida has been lost in the shadow of Jules Verne, but in the 1880s he was widely popular for a trilogy of illustrated novels imagining life in the 20th century. He predicted social upheavals around the time of our two world wars and foresaw transatlantic air travel, home shopping, video telephones, and a feminist revolution. But his greatest innovation was one we haven’t reached yet — a president made of wood:
And he is really well made. See the hand that’s holding the pen? It is secured in position. You can try pushing and pulling it all you want, it won’t budge! There is a secret lock. Absolute security! The mechanism is extremely complex; there are three locks and three keys. The prime minister has one, the president of the chamber has another one, and the president of the senate has the third. A minimum of two keys is requested to activate the mechanism. In case of conflict between the prime minister and the president of the chamber, the president of the senate is summoned with his key. He stands with one side or the other and introduces his key into one of the locks. The mechanism is activated, and the automatic president signs away!
“He shall reign, but not govern,” explains a citizen. “The power will remain in the hands of the nation’s representatives. … The monarchists’ main objection to democracy has always been its inherent instability. With this wooden president, democracy equals stability!”
On Feb. 29, 1868, London’s Langham Hotel sponsored a “horseflesh dinner” to see whether the popular prejudice against the eating of horses might be overcome in English society. About 150 influential Londoners dined on “saucissons de cheval,” “aloyau de de cheval farci,” and “gelée de pied de cheval au Marasquin.”
“Men looked at each other curiously while eating, and each course ran the gauntlet of puns and satire,” reported Charles Dickens’ All the Year Round.
But the consensus was negative. “There are, no doubt, numerous proofs that the flesh of the horse is, at any rate, a wholesome food, and indeed there seems no reason why it should not be,” opined the Medical Times and Gazette. “The dishes we tasted … were all palatable. … [But] horseflesh leaves a pungency on the palate that is not agreeable — a pungency that reminds one of what one has been eating for some time after the meal is over.”
“I came back from it a wiser and a sadder man,” reported zoologist Francis Trevelyan Buckland. “In my opinion, hippophagy has not the slightest chance of success in this country; for, firstly, it has to fight against prejudice, and, secondly, the meat is not good.”
Also: “During the dinner, photographs of the horses which we were eating were handed round, and the appearance of one of these was, I think, the turning point of the argument.”
A rector of a Yorkshire parish, who died in 1804, left a considerable property to his daughter on the condition that she should dress with greater propriety than theretofore. ‘Seeing that my daughter, Anna, has not availed herself of my advice touching the objectionable practice of going about with her arms bare up to the elbows, my will is that should she continue after my death in this violation of the modesty of her sex, all the property, personal and real, devised for her maintenance, shall pass to the oldest of the sons of my sister, Caroline. Should anyone take exception to this, my wish, as being too severe, I answer that licence in dress in a woman is a mark of a depraved mind.’
– Virgil McClure Harris, “Wills and Will-Makers,” in Trust Companies, December 1921
In 1881 a federal trial judge in the Territory of New Mexico, presiding at Taos in an adobe stable used as a temporary courtroom, passed sentence on murderer José Gonzales. We don’t know the details of Gonzales’ crime, but it must have been extraordinary — here’s the sentence:
José Manuel Miguel Xavier Gonzales, in a few short weeks it will be spring. The snows of winter will flee away, the ice will vanish, and the air will become soft and balmy. In short, José Manuel Miguel Xavier Gonzales, the annual miracle of the years will awaken and come to pass, but you won’t be here.
The rivulet will run its purring course to the sea, the timid desert flowers will put forth their tender shoots, the glorious valleys of this imperial domain will blossom as the rose. Still, you won’t be here to see.
From every tree top some wild woods songster will carol his mating song, butterflies will sport in the sunshine, the busy bee will hum happy as it pursues its accustomed vocation, the gentle breeze will tease the tassels of the wild grasses, and all nature, José Manuel Miguel Xavier Gonzales, will be glad but you. You won’t be here to enjoy it because I command the sheriff or some other officer of the country to lead you out to some remote spot, swing you by the neck from a nodding bough of some sturdy oak, and let you hang until you are dead.
And then, José Manuel Miguel Xavier Gonzales, I further command that such officer or officers retire quickly from your dangling corpse, that vultures may descend from the heavens upon your filthy body until nothing shall remain but bare, bleached bones of a cold-blooded, copper-colored, blood-thirsty, throat-cutting, chili-eating, sheep-herding, murdering son of a bitch.
Cleopatra Mathis discovered the transcript in the records of the U.S. District Court, New Mexico Territory Sessions. She published it in Antaeus in autumn 1976.
The will of John George, of Lambeth, who died in London in June, 1791, contained the following words: ‘Seeing that I have had the misfortune to be married to the aforesaid Elizabeth, who ever since our union has tormented me in every possible way; that, not content with making game of all my remonstrances, she has done all she could to render my life miserable; that heaven seems to have sent her into the world solely to drive me out of it; that the strength of Samson, the genius of Homer, the prudence of Augustus, the skill of Pyrrhus, the patience of Job, the philosophy of Socrates, the subtlety of Hannibal, the vigilance of Hermogenes, would not suffice to subdue the perversity of her character; that no power on earth can change her, seeing we have lived apart during the last eight years, and that the only result has been the ruin of my son, whom she has corrupted and estranged from me; weighing maturely and seriously all these considerations, I bequeath to my said wife Elizabeth the sum of one shilling, to be paid unto her within six months after my death.’
– Albany Law Journal, March 24, 1900
Lieutenant Colonel Nash got even with his wife by leaving the bell ringers of Bath abbey 50 pounds a year on condition that they muffle the bells of said abbey on the anniversary of his marriage and ring them with ‘doleful accentuation from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.’ and on the anniversary of his death to ring a merry peal for the same space ‘in memory of his happy release from domestic tyranny and wretchedness.’
– The Bar, November 1908
In August 1865, Col. P.H. Anderson of Big Spring, Tenn., wrote to his former slave Jourdon Anderson, now emancipated in Ohio, and asked him to return to work on his farm. Anderson dictated this letter in response:
Sir: I got your letter, and was glad to find that you had not forgotten Jourdon, and that you wanted me to come back and live with you again, promising to do better for me than anybody else can. I have often felt uneasy about you. I thought the Yankees would have hung you long before this, for harboring Rebs they found at your house. I suppose they never heard about your going to Colonel Martin’s to kill the Union soldier that was left by his company in their stable. Although you shot at me twice before I left you, I did not want to hear of your being hurt, and am glad you are still living. It would do me good to go back to the dear old home again, and see Miss Mary and Miss Martha and Allen, Esther, Green, and Lee. Give my love to them all, and tell them I hope we will meet in the better world, if not in this. I would have gone back to see you all when I was working in the Nashville Hospital, but one of the neighbors told me that Henry intended to shoot me if he ever got a chance.
I want to know particularly what the good chance is you propose to give me. I am doing tolerably well here. I get twenty-five dollars a month, with victuals and clothing; have a comfortable home for Mandy, — the folks call her Mrs. Anderson, — and the children — Milly, Jane, and Grundy — go to school and are learning well. The teacher says Grundy has a head for a preacher. They go to Sunday school, and Mandy and me attend church regularly. We are kindly treated. Sometimes we overhear others saying, ‘Them colored people were slaves’ down in Tennessee. The children feel hurt when they hear such remarks; but I tell them it was no disgrace in Tennessee to belong to Colonel Anderson. Many darkeys would have been proud, as I used to be, to call you master. Now if you will write and say what wages you will give me, I will be better able to decide whether it would be to my advantage to move back again.
As to my freedom, which you say I can have, there is nothing to be gained on that score, as I got my free papers in 1864 from the Provost-Marshal-General of the Department of Nashville. Mandy says she would be afraid to go back without some proof that you were disposed to treat us justly and kindly; and we have concluded to test your sincerity by asking you to send us our wages for the time we served you. This will make us forget and forgive old scores, and rely on your justice and friendship in the future. I served you faithfully for thirty-two years, and Mandy twenty years. At twenty-five dollars a month for me, and two dollars a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to eleven thousand six hundred and eighty dollars. Add to this the interest for the time our wages have been kept back, and deduct what you paid for our clothing, and three doctor’s visits to me, and pulling a tooth for Mandy, and the balance will show what we are in justice entitled to. Please send the money by Adams’s Express, in care of V. Winters, Esq., Dayton, Ohio. If you fail to pay us for faithful labors in the past, we can have little faith in your promises in the future. We trust the good Maker has opened your eyes to the wrongs which you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers, in making us toil for you for generations without recompense. Here I draw my wages every Saturday night; but in Tennessee there was never any pay-day for the negroes any more than for the horses and cows. Surely there will be a day of reckoning for those who defraud the laborer of his hire.
In answering this letter, please state if there would be any safety for my Milly and Jane, who are now grown up, and both good-looking girls. You know how it was with poor Matilda and Catherine. I would rather stay here and starve — and die, if it come to that — than have my girls brought to shame by the violence and wickedness of their young masters. You will also please state if there has been any schools opened for the colored children in your neighborhood. The great desire of my life now is to give my children an education, and have them form virtuous habits.
Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me.
From your old servant,
Thomas Edison popularized the word hello. Working in AT&T’s Manhattan archives in 1987, Brooklyn College classics professor Allen Koenigsberg unearthed a letter that Edison had written in August 1877 to the president of a telegraph company that was planning to introduce the telephone in Pittsburgh. Edison wrote:
Friend David, I don’t think we shall need a call bell as Hello! can be heard 10 to 20 feet away. What do you think? EDISON
At the time it was thought that the line would remain open permanently, so a caller needed a way to get the other party’s attention. Apparently hello was a variation on the traditional hound call “Halloo!”
What should the answerer reply? Alexander Graham Bell pressed for ahoy, but Edison equipped the first exchanges, so hello gained the ascendancy there too.
That’s all it took — by 1880 the word was everywhere. “The phone overnight cut right through the 19th-century etiquette that you don’t speak to anyone unless you’ve been introduced,” Koenigsberg told the New York Times. “If you think about it, why didn’t Stanley say hello to Livingston? The word didn’t exist.”
For about half a century, Sydney residents could take a train to the cemetery. It departed twice daily from central Sydney, picking up mourners and coffins along the way, and carried them to the 250-acre Necropolis at Haslem’s Creek.
London’s Necropolis Railway ran at about the same time, carrying cadavers and mourners 23 miles southwest of town to Brookwood, Surrey. In 1904, Railway Magazine called the Brookwood station “the most peaceful in three corners of the kingdom — this station of the dead. Here, even the quiet, subdued puffing of the engine seems almost sympathetic with the sorrow of its living freight.” Both lines closed in the 1940s.
In June 1744, the College of William & Mary invited the Indians of the Six Nations to send six young men to be “properly” educated. They received this reply:
We know that you highly esteem the kind of learning taught in those Colleges, and that the Maintenance of our young Men, while with you, would be very expensive to you. We are convinc’d, therefore, that you mean to do us Good by your Proposal; and we thank you heartily. But you, who are wise, must know that different Nations have different Conceptions of Things; and you will therefore not take it amiss if our Ideas of this kind of Education happen not to be the same with yours. We have had some Experience of it: Several of our young People were formerly brought up at the Colleges of the Northern Provinces; they were instructed in all your Sciences; but when they came back to us, they were bad Runners, ignorant of every means of living in the Woods, unable to bear either Cold or Hunger, knew neither how to build a Cabin, take a Deer, or kill an Enemy, spoke our Language imperfectly, were therefore neither fit for Hunters, Warriors, or Counsellors; they were totally good for nothing. We are, however, not the less oblig’d by your kind Offer, tho’ we decline accepting it; and, to show our grateful Sense of it, if the Gentlemen of Virginia will send us a Dozen of their Sons, we will take great Care of their Education, instruct them in all we know, and make Men of them.
When Scunthorpe solicitor R.A.C. Symes died in 1930, his will specified that “in the event of the Second Coming of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ my Will shall (so far as may be legally permissible) come into operation and take effect as though I were dead.”
When retired London schoolmaster Ernest Digweed died in 1976, he left his whole estate, more than £26,000, in trust for Jesus Christ at the Second Coming. The estate was to be invested for 80 years, and “if during those 80 years the Lord Jesus Christ shall come to a reign on Earth, then the Public Trustee, upon obtaining proof which shall satisfy them of his identity, shall pay to the Lord Jesus Christ all the property which they hold on his behalf.” If Jesus does not appear, then the estate goes to the crown.
See Heaven on Earth.
In June 1857, Hans Christian Andersen arrived at Charles Dickens’ new country home, Gads Hill Place. Andersen was an enormous admirer of Dickens — he had just dedicated a novel to him and was eager to enjoy a fortnight with his “friend and brother.”
Enjoy it he did. He gathered nosegays in the woods, cut figures from paper, invited Dickens’ son Charley to shave him, and explored London in cabs while hiding his valuables in his boots. He found that Dickens had an excellent supply of dinner whiskey and could offer a large tumbler of gin and sherry afterward. He watched Dickens perform in The Frozen Deep, burst into tears at the death scene, drank champagne with the cast, and returned to see it again a week later.
So delighted was he that in the end he stayed five weeks instead of the planned two. “None of your friends can be more closely attached to you than I,” he wrote on the way back to Denmark. “The visit to England, the stay with you, is a bright point in my life. … I understood every minute that you cared for me, that you were glad to see me, and were my friend.”
When Dickens returned to the house, he stole into Anderson’s bedroom and affixed a card to the dressing-table mirror. “Hans Christian Andersen slept in this room for five weeks,” it said, “which seemed to the family AGES.”
“Supposing some unfortunate lady was confined with twins and one child was born 10 minutes before 1 o’clock; if the clock was put back, the registration of the time of birth of the two children would be reversed. … Such an alteration might conceivably affect the property and titles in that house.” — Lord Balfour of Burleigh, opposing daylight saving time, House of Lords, May 1916
In 1982, San Francisco police lieutenant George LaBrash suffered a stroke while guarding the 3,300-year-old mask of King Tutankhamun. He filed an $18,400 lawsuit against the city, alleging that the pharaoh’s curse had struck him for disturbing the dead — and hence that the injury was job-related.
“I firmly believe that King Tut’s curse is as good an explanation for what happened to me as any,” he told Superior Court Judge Richard P. Figone.
Figone didn’t buy it. “The spectators who attended the exhibit may just as well have ‘disturbed’ the remains of the deceased,” he wrote. “Officer LaBrash, if anything, prevented desecration of those remains.”
The author William James told the story of Mrs. Amos Pinchot, who in a dream thought she had discovered the meaning of life. Sleepily she wrote down what she believed to be a profound poetic statement. Fully awake, she saw she had merely written:
Man is polygamous
– Malcolm Potts and Roger Valentine Short, Ever Since Adam and Eve, 1999
A curious case has recently been decided in England. A Mr. and Mrs. Hambling were both killed by a falling building. The husband was taken from the ruins quite dead, while the body of his wife was warm. The question was raised whether it could be safely presumed that the wife survived her husband, as this would cause a variation in the distribution of the property. The court decided against the supposition.
– Ballou’s Dollar Monthly Magazine, June 1859
John Train’s Most Remarkable Names reports that Chazy Lake, N.Y., has a resident named Constant Agony.
In Stories on Stone, Charles L. Wallis notes that a tombstone in Hood River, Ore., reads:
In The American Language, H.L. Mencken mentions an Indian chief in the northwestern U.S. named Unable-to-Fornicate. “And I once knew a Siletz who insisted with firm complacency that his name, no matter what anybody thought it, was Holy Catfish.”
The Supreme Court of Justice of Belgium has just been called upon to decide a novel and extraordinary question. One of the leading surgeons of Brussels had occasion, about a year ago, to amputate the right leg of a young married lady belonging to the highest circles of the aristocracy. The operator was so pleased with his job that he preserved the leg in a jar of spirits of wine and placed it on exhibition in his consulting room, a card being affixed to the jar giving the patient’s name and the details concerning the circumstance which had rendered the operation necessary. On hearing this, the husband of the lady demanded the immediate discontinuance of the exhibition and the return of the severed member, as being his property. To this the surgeon demurred. He admitted that the plaintiff had property rights in the leg while it formed part his wife, but argued that the leg in its present condition was the result of his (defendant’s) skill and the work of his own hands, and that he was clearly entitled to keep it. The Court seemed rather staggered by this line of argument, and after taking a fortnight to consider the question, has finally decided against the doctor and in favor of the husband’s claim to the possession of the amputated leg of his better half.
– Lancaster Law Review, March 18, 1895
John and Margaret Vivian declared bankruptcy in 1992, so they weren’t pleased when NationsBank sent them a dunning notice on a debt that had been discharged. The bank apologized, saying that a computer had generated the notice, but the Vivians received a second notice, then a third.
So Florida bankruptcy judge A. Jay Cristol held the computer in contempt of court:
ORDERED that the NationsBank computer, having been determined in civil contempt, is fined 50 megabytes of hard drive memory and 10 megabytes random access memory. The computer may purge itself of this contempt by ceasing the production and mailing of documents to Mr. and Mrs. Vivian.
The computer had no comment.
For the really determined alcoholic, in 1885 Herbert Jenner patented a liquor flask hidden in a book:
The ornamental covering [has] been made so as to entirely cover and conceal the flask from observation, and at the same time admit of ready access to its contents. … That portion of the covering representing the edges of the leaves of the book is covered with marbled paper or otherwise treated, so as to give a natural appearance.
Charmingly, the book is titled Legal Decisions.
An admirer once asked Winston Churchill, “Doesn’t it thrill you to know that every time you make a speech the hall is packed to overflowing?”
Churchill replied, “It is quite flattering, but whenever I feel this way I always remember that if instead of making a political speech I was being hanged, the crowd would be twice as big.”
Morris Garstenfeld repeatedly greeted a Brooklyn neighbor “by placing the end of his thumb against the tip of his nose, at the same time extending and wiggling the fingers of his hand.” Is this disorderly conduct? That question fell to Kings County Judge J. Roy in 1915.
“What meaning is intended to be conveyed by the above-described pantomime?” Roy mused. “Is it a friendly or an unfriendly action; a compliment or an insult? Is it a direct invitation to fight, or is it likely to provoke a fight?”
He declared that the gesture is well known among boys, and that it should be abandoned by men. In Garstenfeld’s case, the “nasal and digit drama” tended “to show a design to engender strife,” and the fact that Garstenfeld had done it repeatedly showed that he meant to annoy his victim “to the limit of patient endurance.” He affirmed Garstenfeld’s conviction.
When Long Island filmmaker Ellen Cooperman divorced her husband in 1975, she changed her last name to Cooperperson because it “more properly reflects [my] sense of human equality than does the name Cooperman.”
State Supreme Court Justice John Scileppi refused to ratify the change, saying that it “would have serious and undesirable repercussions, perhaps throughout the entire country.” He cited “virtually endless and increasingly inane” possibilities: A person named “Jackson” might seek to become “Jackchild,” a “Manning” might prefer “Peopling,” or a woman named “Carmen” might want to be “Carperson.” “This would truly be in the realm of nonsense,” he said.
Undaunted, she appealed Scileppi’s decision and won in 1978. She’s still using Cooperperson today.
A German-born resident of Portland, Oregon named Otto Hell was permitted by a local judge to take the name Hall when he pointed out how his neighbors and associates took pleasure in calling him by his surname and the initial of his given name. Another Otto Hell was an optometrist who complained that persons in need of glasses were always being told to ‘go to Hell and see.’
– Robert M. Rennick, “Obscene Names and Naming in Folk Tradition,” in Names and Their Varieties, 1986