A clown’s face is his livelihood; it’s an unwritten rule among clowns that one must not copy the face of another. Accordingly, in 1946 London clown Stan Bult began painting the faces of his colleagues onto eggshells, effectively trademarking their identities. Bult’s collection was largely destroyed in an accident in 1965, but London’s Circus Clowns Club resurrected the practice in 1984 and added samples of its members’ costumes and wig hair, making each into a peculiar sort of portrait.
In 1979, Leon “Buttons” McBryde, a clown with the Ringling Bros & Barnum and Bailey Circus, heard about the British practice and established his own egg registry, which now includes hundreds of portraits of clowns hand-painted by his wife, Linda. The U.S. registry has been used in at least one court case in which one clown charged another with infringing his design.
The images above, of the British collection, are by photographer Luke Stephenson; more can be seen on his website and Flickr set.
William Vodden had a particularly bad day in 1853. He was on trial in Wales for larceny, and the jury foreman delivered a verdict of not guilty. The chairman discharged Vodden, but then there was a stir among the jurors, who said they had intended a verdict of guilty.
Vodden objected and appealed the case, but Chief Baron Pollock decided that “What happened was a daily occurrence in the ordinary transactions of life, namely that a mistake was made but then corrected within a reasonable time, and on the very spot on which it was made.” Vodden got two months’ hard labor.
Harry Mathews devised this Möbius equivoque. Write this stanza on one side of a strip of paper:
I’d just as soon lose my mind
If your fondness for me lasts
I’d abandon all female charms
As long as I stay dear to you
One could seed one’s petunias
Among humdrum city flowerbeds
Igniting ice is likelier than
Our remaining snugly together
Turn the strip over lengthwise and write this stanza on the other side:
if your desire turns elsewhere
my dream of love might come true,
if you say I’m past caring for,
my deepest wish will be granted.
in distant regions of the skies,
the stars could make their way —
separating, whatever the pretext,
alone can keep my world intact.
Give the strip a half twist and glue the ends together. Now the poem reads:
I’d just as soon lose my mind if your desire turns elsewhere
If your fondness for me lasts my dream of love might come true,
I’d abandon all female charms if you say I’m past caring for,
As long as I stay dear to you my deepest wish will be granted.
One could seed one’s petunias in distant regions of the skies,
Among humdrum city flowerbeds the stars could make their way–
Igniting ice is likelier than separating, whatever the pretext,
Our remaining snugly together alone can keep my world intact.
In science it often happens that scientists say, ‘You know, that’s a really good argument; my position is mistaken,’ and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn’t happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion.
— Carl Sagan, in a 1987 address, quoted in Jon Fripp et al., Speaking of Science, 2000
On Jan. 9, 1793, two astonished farmers in Woodbury, N.J., watched a strange craft descend from the sky into their field. An excited Frenchman greeted them in broken English and gave them swigs of wine from a bottle. Unable to make himself understood, he finally presented a document:
The farmers helped the man fold his craft and load it onto a wagon for the trip back to Philadelphia. Before leaving, the Frenchman asked them to certify the time and place of his arrival. These details were important — he was Jean-Pierre Blanchard, and he had just completed the first balloon flight in North America.
One hundred sixty-nine years later, when John Glenn went into orbit aboard Friendship 7 in 1962, mission planners weren’t certain where he’d come down. The most likely sites were Australia, the Atlantic Ocean, and New Guinea, but it might be 72 hours before he could be picked up.
Glenn worried about spending three days among aborigines who had seen a silver man emerge from “a big parachute with a little capsule on the end,” so he took with him a short speech rendered phonetically in several languages. It read:
“I am a stranger. I come in peace. Take me to your leader, and there will be a massive reward for you in eternity.”
In 1888 a mixed-breed terrier appointed himself mascot of America’s railway postal service, accompanying mailbags throughout the U.S. and eventually traveling around the world. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll recount Owney’s postal adventures and the wave of human affection that followed him.
We’ll also look at an Air Force pilot who dropped candy on parachutes to besieged German children in 1948, learn the link between drug lord Pablo Escobar and feral hippos in Colombia, and present the next Futility Closet Challenge.
Sources for the segment on Pablo Escobar and the Colombian hippos:
We first wrote about Owney the postal dog on March 19, 2008. The Smithsonian Institution’s postal museum, where his preserved remains are on display, maintains an extensive site, with images of Owney and his tags and (at the bottom) maps of his documented travels in the continental United States.
Here he is with four clerks of the Railway Mail Service:
An unverified but widely retailed story, which appeared in the May 18, 1892, issue of Weekly Stamp News, tells how Owney disappeared one night while accompanying a wagon from a train to a post office. As the clerks unloaded the wagon, they realized that a sack of mail was missing, and the driver hurried back and found the lost sack near the train depot. Sitting on it was Owney, wagging his tail and sneezing (“his own way of saying, ‘Here I am.'”).
Source for that segment:
James Bruns, Owney: Mascot of the Railway Mail Service, Smithsonian Institution, 1990.
Above left: First lieutenant Hal Halvorsen ties candy to parachutes in 1948. Right: A candy drop by a Douglas C-47 Skytrain nicknamed “Rosinenbomber” commemorates the 60th anniversary of the end of the Berlin blockade in 2009. Halvorsen, now an 88-year-old retired colonel, was aboard.
Sources for that segment:
Andrei Cherny, The Candy Bombers: The Untold Story of the Berlin Aircraft and America’s Finest Hour, 2008.
Terry Dickson, “A Sweet Reminder: Woman Gets Her Candy Drop Decades After Berlin,” Florida Times-Union, March 23, 2014
“Candy Bomber Delivers the Goods,” [Elizabeth City, NC] Daily Advance, Oct. 30, 2011
Mark R. Dorolek, “Operation Sweet,” Winchester [Va.] Star, Oct. 16, 2006
A letter to Halvorsen from a grateful Berlin mother, Sept. 3, 1948:
Dear Chocolate Uncle!
The oldest of my seven sons had on this day his sixteenth birthday. But when he went out in the morning we were all sad because we had nothing to give him on his special day. But how happily everything turned out!
A parachute with chocolate landed on our roof! It was the first sweets for the children in a very long time. Chocolate cannot be bought even with money. My oldest son, a student, came home at eight o’clock and I was able, after all, to give him some birthday happiness.
I will gladly return the handkerchief parachute if necessary but I would pray for you to let me keep it as a memento of the Airbridge to Berlin.
Next week we plan to tell the story of lighthouse keeper Ida Lewis, “the bravest woman in America,” who saved 18 lives in a series of daring rescues off the coast of Rhode Island in the late 19th century. If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for listening!
Proof. A crocodile is long on the top and bottom, but it is green only on the top; therefore a crocodile is longer than it is green. A crocodile is green along both its length and width, but it is wide only along its width; hence a crocodile is greener than it is wide. Therefore a crocodile is longer than it is wide.
Theorem 2. Napoleon was a poor general.
Proof. Most men have an even number of arms. Napoleon was warned that Wellington would meet him at Waterloo. To be forewarned is to be forearmed. But four arms is a very odd number of arms for a man. The only number that is both even and odd is infinity. Therefore, Napoleon had an infinite number of arms in his battle against Wellington. A general who loses a battle despite having an infinite number of arms is very poor general.