“A New England Wreck”


The accompanying illustrations give the reader a fair idea of the results of a peculiar wreck that occurred on the Northern Division of the N.Y., N.H. & H. Railroad near Worcester, Mass., on February 2nd [1898]. Engine 823, a 50-ton freight locomotive, was pushing a snow plow at a high rate of speed when it collided with Engine 684, an eight-wheel locomotive of lighter weight, which was also running at a high speed, and pulling a milk train.

Five men who were in the snow plow jumped into a bank of snow and were uninjured. … Another strange feature of this peculiar wreck is that just previous to the collision the men in the snow plow discovered that the knob was off the door and they were locked in. They finally contrived to open the door, and on looking out saw the milk train coming. The snow plow was completely demolished. The wreck was caused by a telegraph operator going to sleep and allowing the snow plow to pass his station when he had orders to hold it.

Locomotive Firemen’s Magazine, March 1898


Mistaken Identity


In 1903, a prisoner named Will West arrived at Leavenworth. The record clerk took the photographs above and, thinking he remembered West, asked whether he had been there before. West said no.

The clerk took some measurements, went to the file, and produced this record, bearing the name William West:


Amazed, the prisoner said, “That’s my picture, but I don’t know where you got it, for I know I have never been here before.”

Incredibly, this was true. A different William West had been serving a life sentence at Leavenworth since 1901, and the new prisoner had the same name, face, and measurements.

The case became a strong argument in favor of the new science of fingerprinting.

In a Word

adj. produced in a kitchen garden

“A Much Traveled Goat”

About the year 1772 there died at Mile End, England, a well informed goat, if traveling and seeing the world would make it so. It twice circumnavigated the globe; first in the discovery ship Dolphin, with Captain Wallis, and afterward in the ship Endeavorer, commanded by the celebrated Captain Cook. The Dolphin sailed from England August 22, 1766, and returned May 20, 1768. It visited many lands, including numerous islands of the Pacific, on this voyage. The goat did not remain ashore very long, for the Endeavorer sailed from Plymouth August 25, 1768. The vessel touched at Maderia, doubled Cape Horn, spent six months along the coast of New Zealand, and visited many other strange countries. It got back to England June 12, 1771. In the three years Cook lost thirty of his eighty-five men, but the goat returned in apparent good health. Arrangements were made to admit her to the privileges of one of the government homes for sailors, but she did not live to enjoy them. She wore a silver collar, with a Latin inscription prepared by Dr. Samuel Johnson.

— Albert William Macy, Curious Bits of History, 1912



There was a composer named Liszt,
Who from writing could never desiszt.
He made polonaises
Quite worthy of praises,
And now that he’s gone he is miszt.

There was a composer named Haydn,
The field of sonata would waydn;
He wrote the Creation,
Which made a sensation,
And this was the work which he daydn.

A modern composer named Brahms,
Caused in music the greatest of quahms.
His themes so complex
Every critic would vex,
From symphonies clear up to psahms.

An ancient musician named Gluck
The manner Italian forsuck;
He fought with Puccini,
Gave way to Rossini,
You can find all his views in his buck.

— Anonymous

A Locked-Room Mystery

Thirty-year-old Polish laundryman Isidor Fink lived and worked in a large room on the ground floor of a tenement block on East 132nd Street in New York. Every door and window was secured with bars, bolts, and locks. Fink sublet two rooms at the rear to an elderly woman, but the door to these rooms was permanently bolted shut on both sides.

On March 9, 1929, Fink returned home at 10:15 p.m. At 10:30, the tenant heard screams and the sound of blows. She summoned a policeman, who found all the doors locked. Finally he sent a small boy through the transom to open the door. Fink’s body lay on the floor with two bullet wounds in the chest and one in the arm, which was powder-marked.

No weapon was found on the premises, the cash register was untouched, and all fingerprints were Fink’s. If this was suicide, where was the weapon? If Fink had been shot from a distance through the transom, how account for the powder marks on his arm? After 82 years, the laundryman’s death has never been explained.

Hit and Run

On Dec. 30, 1947, the United States Hydrograph Office received the following wireless message from the Grace Line steamer Santa Clara, which was bound for Cartagena:


The master of the ship, J. Fordan, published a detailed account, which was carried widely by the Associated Press:

Suddenly, John Axelson, the third mate, saw a snake-like head rear out of the sea about 30 feet off the starboard bow of the vessel. His exclamation of amazement directed the attention of the two other mates to the sea monster, and the three watched it unbelievingly as it came abeam of the bridge where they stood, and it was then left astern.

The creature’s head appeared to be about two and one-half feet across, 2 feet thick, and 5 feet long. The cylindrically shaped body was about 3 feet thick and the neck about one and a half feet in diameter. As the monster came abeam of the bridge, it was observed that the water around the monster, over an area of 30 or 40 square feet, was stained red. The visible part of the body was about 35 feet long. It was assumed that the color of the water was due to the creature’s blood and that the stem of the ship had cut the monster in two.

From the time the monster was first sighted until it disappeared in the distance astern, it was thrashing about as though in agony. The monster’s skin was dark brown, slick and smooth. There were no fins, hair, or protuberances on the head or neck or any visible parts of the body.

Possibly the creature was a monstrous oarfish; we’ll never know for certain.

Spin Cycle


Richard J.D. Stokes had a brainstorm in 1949: Why waste energy maintaining both a car and a washing machine when you can attach a washtub to one of the car’s wheels?

Pour water and soap through the opening in the watertight container and drive at a low speed to wash your clothes, then drain the water and drive a second leg to dry them.

Stokes envisioned that his invention would be useful to “campers, those who live in trailers, and other travelers” — but it might also appeal to fleeing murderers with bloodstained clothing.

Silent Cal


In the wall of the north portion of the White House is a bell. On a recent afternoon, President Coolidge pressed this bell repeatedly, scampered quickly away. To the north portico rushed a detail of Secret Service men, to whom the bell’s ringing was a summons to come at once. From a distance, the President watched their confusion, heard them ask the Secret Service man on patrol duty why he had rung the bell, heard the patrolman’s denial of any bell-ringing. After the guards had dispersed, the President stole back, again pressed the button, again trotted away, chuckled as the previous scene repeated itself. Pleased, the President several times repeated his little prank. Eventually the Secret Service detail discovered the source of the false alarms, put in another bell in a spot unknown to the President. When this story became public, persons who question the existence of a presidential sense of humor flouted its accuracy. Yet Richard Jervis, head of the Executive Secret Service detail, vouched solemnly for it.

Time, Jan. 21, 1929

The Sin Ship

In 1924, at the height of Prohibition, rumors began to circulate of rich people partying on a 17,000-ton steamship anchored 15 miles off the New York coast, safely out of the reach of law enforcement. “A Negro jazz orchestra furnishes the music to which millionaires, flappers, and chorus girls whirl on a waxed floor with the tang of salt air in their lungs,” wrote Sanford Jarrell of the New York Herald Tribune, who claimed to have spent a night aboard the mysterious ship.

Other newspapers picked up the story, but none could confirm it. Customs agents began an investigation even as boatloads of intrigued New Yorkers began to search the Atlantic off Fire Island, and Washington ordered a Coast Guard cutter to hunt down the ship.

At first the Herald Tribune defended Jarrell against skeptics, but finally it reported that the story was untrue. The episode had begun with a tip from a reputable source, but Jarrell had followed it up and found nothing. He’d filed his story of the “sin ship” as a hoax, and it had snowballed out of control. Finally he sent a written confession to the paper’s editors.

“In anticipation of the natural penalty for my misdemeanor,” he wrote, “and assuring you of my sincerest regret about the whole affair, I herewith tender you my resignation as a member of the Herald Tribune staff, to take effect at once.”