Indelible Link

For Alexander Aitken (1895-1967), a prodigious memory was both a blessing and a curse. He memorized the Aeneid, knew π to a thousand places, and could quote long passages from Milton. But he was plagued by vivid memories of World War I, which haunted him until the end of his life:

I slid the rifle-sight to ‘450’, aimed and fired. … The Turk plunged into the trench in a swirl of dust. … This, of course, was what I was there for, but it seemed no light matter, and kept me awake for some time. I would come to no conclusion except that individual guilt in an act of this kind is not absolved by collective duty nor lessened when pooled in collective responsibility.

Unable to escape these visions, he suffered a chronic depression and had a complete breakdown in 1967, the last year of his life. “Nothing fixes a thing so intensely in the memory,” wrote Montaigne, “as the wish to forget it.”


“I confess that, in 1901, I said to my brother Orville that men would not fly for 50 years. Two years later, we ourselves were making flights. This demonstration of my inability as a prophet gave me such a shock that I have ever since distrusted myself and have refrained from all prediction.” — Wilbur Wright

A Marine Doppelganger

On April 6, 1823, HMS Leven was surveying East Africa when she spied her consort, the Barracouta, about two miles to leeward. This was surprising, as the brig’s sailing orders should have placed her far from that location, but Leven‘s crew recognized her peculiar rig and the faces of her men. Strangely, she stood away when Captain Owen attempted to close with her, and near sunset she lowered a boat, apparently to pick up a man overboard.

The next morning the Leven anchored at Simon’s Bay, and a full week passed before the Barracouta joined her there. Her log showed she had been 300 miles away when the Leven thought she saw her.

So what had the Leven seen? No other vessel of the Barracouta‘s class had been seen about the Cape at that time. The sighting has never been explained.

“A Cats’ Home”

A Mr. Jonathan Jackson, of Columbus, Ohio, died some thirty years ago, leaving orders to his executors to erect a cats’ home, the plans and elevation of which he had drawn out with great care and thought. The building was to contain dormitories, a refectory, areas for conversation, grounds for exercise, and gently sloping roofs for climbing, with rat-holes for sport, an ‘auditorium’ within which the inmates were to be assembled daily to listen to an accordion, which was to be played for an hour each day by an attendant, that instrument being the nearest approach to their natural voices. An infirmary, to which were to be attached a surgeon and three or four professed nurses, was to adjoin the establishment.

— Virgil McClure Harris, Ancient, Curious and Famous Wills, 1911

The Rejected Gun

From Henry Dudeney:

Here is a little military puzzle that may not give you a moment’s difficulty. It is such a simple question that a child can understand it and no knowledge of artillery is required. Yet some of my readers may find themselves perplexed for quite five minutes.

An inventor offered a new large gun to the committee appointed by our government for the consideration of such things. He declared that when once loaded it would fire 60 shots at the rate of a shot a minute. The War Office put it to the test and found that it fired 60 shots an hour, but declined it “as it did not fulfill the promised condition.”

“Absurd,” said the inventor, “for you have shown that it clearly does all that we undertook it should do.”

“Nothing of the sort,” said the experts. “It has failed.”

Can you explain this extraordinary mystery? Was the inventor, or were the experts, right?

Click for Answer

Skin Deep

“Everything has its beauty,” wrote Confucius, “but not everyone sees it.”

Born in 1834 to a Mexican Indian mother, Julia Pastrana spoke three languages, had excellent taste in music, and gave charitably to deserving institutions. But the world would not see beyond her hypertrichosis, which covered her face and body with straight black hair, and her showman husband paraded her around the world as “The Bearded and Hairy Lady.”

“I well recollect seeing and speaking to this poor Julia Pastrana when in life,” wrote Francis Buckland in Curiosities of Natural History. “She was about four feet six inches in height; her eyes were deep black, and somewhat prominent, and their lids had long, thick eyelashes: her features were simply hideous on account of the profusion of hair growing on her forehead, and her black beard; but her figure was exceedingly good and graceful, and her tiny foot and well-turned ankle, bien chaussé, perfection itself.”

She died bearing a child at 26, and her mummy continues to tour the world — ironically, an object of more enduring fascination than the beauties of its day.


“I played over the music of that scoundrel Brahms. What a giftless bastard! It annoys me that this self-inflated mediocrity is hailed as a genius. Why, in comparison with him, Raff is a giant, not to speak of Rubinstein, who is after all a live and important human being, while Brahms is chaotic and absolutely empty dried-up stuff.” — Tchaikovsky’s diary, Oct. 9, 1886