One World

Malcolm Townsend’s U.S.: An Index to the United States of America (1890) contains this table of absurd racial hair-splitting from 1850s Louisiana:

olmsted table

The source is Frederick Law Olmsted’s A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States, from 1856.

Olmsted wrote, “All these varieties exist in New Orleans with sub-varieties, and experts pretend to be able to distinguish them.”

Misc

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Image: Wikimedia Commons
  • ZZ Top’s first album is called ZZ Top’s First Album.
  • Supreme Court justice Byron White was the NFL’s top rusher in 1940.
  • LOVE ME TENDER is an anagram of DENVER OMELET.
  • Every palindromic number with an even number of digits is divisible by 11.
  • “In great attempts it is glorious even to fail.” — Cassius

From English antiquary John Aubrey’s 1696 Miscellanies: “Anno 1670, not far from Cyrencester, was an Apparition; Being demanded, whether a good Spirit or a bad? Returned no answer, but departed with a curious Perfume and a most melodious Twang.”

Absent Friends

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Image: Flickr

When Connecticut widow Helen Dow Peck died in 1955, she left $178,000 to one John Gale Forbes, who she said had contacted her through a Ouija board in 1919.

Peck had spent 34 years hunting for Forbes since he’d “resolved out of space” to her during the Ouija craze around 1920. She believed Forbes was confined in a mental institution and wrote to many around the country as she tried to locate him.

Nine nieces and nephews contested the will. But Peck’s executor, City National Bank of Danbury, held out that Forbes might have been an actual person, though a private investigator couldn’t find him.

What to do? Peck’s family finally won when the state supreme court rejected the will in 1958. That was a double blow for the paranormal: If the will had been found valid and Forbes couldn’t be located, Peck had asked that the money create a fund “to be used for research on the subject of mental telepathy for the understanding and care of insane persons.”

In a Word

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tenue
n. bearing, deportment

ogganition
n. snarling

A peculiar detail from the Battle of Waterloo:

As the day wore on, the French cavalry became more and more desperate, and charged repeatedly with fierce gesticulations, which became more pronounced as they were so continuously repelled. These peculiar looks and gestures of the French became so marked that when the colonel, Fielding Browne, gave the familiar order, ‘Prepare for cavalry,’ the officers would thunder out the order, and add, ‘Now, men, make faces!’

(“The Prince of Wales’s Volunteers,” Navy & Army Illustrated, Feb. 4, 1899.)

Open Secrets

In the 1850s, lovers often corresponded by printing coded messages in the Times. An example from February 1853:

CENERENTOLA. N bnxm yt ywd nk dtz hfs wjfi ymnx fsi fr rtxy fschtzx yt. Mjfw ymf esi, bmjs dtz wjyzws fei mtb qtsldtz wjrfns, ncjwj. lt bwnyf f kjb qnsjx jfuqnsl uqjfxy. N mfaj xnsbj dtz bjsy fbfd.

(“I wish to try if you can read this and am most anxious to hear that and when you return and how long you remain here. Go write a few lines explaining please. I have since you went away.”)

A second message appeared nine days later using the same cipher:

CENERENTOLA. Zsyng rd n jtwy nx xnhp mfaj n y wnj, yt kwfrj fs jcugfifynts ktw dtz lgzy hfssty. Xnqjshj nx nf jny nk ymf ywzj bfzxy nx sty xzx jhyji; nk ny nx, fgg xytwpjx bngg gj xnkyji yt ymjgtyytr. It dtz wjrjgjw tzw htzxns’x knwxy nwtutxnynts: ymnsp tk ny. N pstb Dtz.

(“Until my heart is sick I have tried to frame an explanation for you but cannot. Silence is safest if the true cause is not suspected; if it is, all stories will be sifted to the bottom. Do remember our cousin’s first proposition. Think of it. I know you.”)

This practice was so well known that cracking the codes became a regular recreation among certain Londoners. Lyon Playfair and Charles Wheatstone uncovered a pending elopement and wrote a remonstrating response to the young woman; she published a new message saying, “Dear Charles, write me no more, our cipher is discovered.”

Most of the messages were simple substitution ciphers, which made them fairly easy to solve, though the lovers seemed to find them challenging — one wrote, “If an honours degree at Oxford cannot read my message, we had better change the cipher. Suggest we revert to numbers. Love, Gwendoline.” But when Playfair and Wheatstone came up with a more secure “symmetrical cipher” and offered it to the Foreign Office, the under-secretary rejected it as “too complicated.”

“We proposed that he should send for four boys from the nearest elementary school,” Playfair wrote, “in order to prove that three of them could be taught to use the cipher in a quarter of an hour. The reply to this proposal by their Under-Secretary was … ‘That is very possible, but you could never teach it to attachés.'”

(From Donald McCormick, Love in Code, 1980. Here’s a whole book of messages, both coded and clear.)

Love and Laureates

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

George Hitchings, who won the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1988, proposed to his wife by saying “Incidentally, you’re my fiancée now” as they drove to an event.

John Bardeen, who won the prize in physics in both 1956 and 1972, told his fiancée, “You can be married in the church if you want to, but not to me.”

Hemingway, a Nobelist in literature in 1954, said, “I remember after I got that marriage license I went across from the license bureau to a bar for a drink. The bartender said, ‘What will you have, sir?’ And I said, ‘A glass of hemlock.'”

And Wolfgang Pauli won the Nobel in physics in 1945. Of his ex-wife’s remarriage, he said, “Had she taken a bullfighter I would have understood, but an ordinary chemist!”

Fenceposts

To show that Gothic script could be fatiguing to read, medieval scribes invented this joke sentence:

mimi numinum niuium minimi munium nimium uini muniminum imminui uiui minimum uolunt

The snow gods’ smallest mimes do not wish in any way in their lives for the great duty of the defenses of wine to be diminished.

In Ancient Writing and Its Influence (1969), Berthold Louis Ullman and Julian Brown write, “When this is written in Gothic characters without dots for the i‘s and with v written as u, it makes a first-class riddle”:

mimi numinum script

The War of the Ring

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Of The Lord of the Rings, W.H. Auden wrote, “I rarely remember a book about which I have had such violent arguments. Nobody seems to have a moderate opinion: either, like myself, people find it a masterpiece of its genre or they cannot abide it.”

Among the naysayers, Edmund Wilson wrote, “One is puzzled to know why the author should have supposed he was writing for adults. There are, to be sure, some details that are a little unpleasant for a children’s book, but except when he is being pedantic and also boring the adult reader, there is little in The Lord of the Rings over the head of a seven-year-old child.”

Tolkien seemed philosophical about the difference. He wrote in the foreword to the second edition:

The prime motive was the desire of a tale-teller to try his hand at a really long story that would hold the attention of readers, amuse them, delight them, and at times maybe excite them or deeply move them. As a guide I had only my own feelings for what is appealing or moving, and for many the guide was inevitably often at fault. Some who have read the book, or at any rate have reviewed it, have found it boring, absurd, or contemptible; and I have no cause to complain, since I have similar opinions of their works, or of the kinds of writing that they evidently prefer.

He wrote elsewhere:

The Lord of the Rings
is one of those things:
if you like it you do:
if you don’t, then you boo!