“Fatal Double Meaning”

Count Valavoir, a general in the French service under Turenne, while encamped before the enemy, attempted one night to pass a sentinel. The sentinel challenged him, and the count answered ‘Va-la-voir,’ which literally signifies ‘Go and see.’ The soldier, who took the words in this sense, indignantly repeated the challenge, and was answered in the same manner, when he fired; and the unfortunate Count fell dead upon the spot,–a victim to the whimsicality of his surname.

— Charles Carroll Bombaugh, Gleanings for the Curious From the Harvest-Fields of Literature, 1890


In the Medical Times & Gazette, May 21, 1853, George Budd recounts the case of 94-year-old Henry Hall, who was fighting a fire at the Eddystone lighthouse near Plymouth in the winter of 1755 when a quantity of molten lead fell from the roof and struck him in the head and face. “From that moment he had a violent internal sensation, and imagined that a quantity of the lead had passed down his throat into his body.”

Hall was attended by a Dr. Spry at Stonehouse, “and swallowed many things, both liquid and solid, till the 10th or 11th day.” But then he suddenly grew worse, seized with cold sweats and spasms, and he died soon afterward.

Spry reports: “Examining the body, and making an incision through the left abdomen, I found the diaphragmatic upper mouth of the stomach greatly inflamed and ulcerated, and the tunica in the lower part of the stomach burnt”—and he drew forth “a great piece of lead” weighing 7 ounces, 5 drams, and 8 grains.

Child’s Play

In 1890, Daisy Ashford wrote The Young Visiters, a novella parodying upper-class English society. That might seem unremarkable—but the author was 9 years old:

They all went out by a private door and found themselves in a smaller but gorgous room. The Prince tapped on the table and instantly two menials in red tunics appeared. Bring three glasses of champaigne commanded the prince and some ices he added majestikally. The goods appeared as if by majic and the prince drew out a cigar case and passed it round.

One grows weary of Court Life he remarked.

The whole immortal thing is here.

The Sampford Ghost

In 1810, the house of a Mr. Chave at Sampford Peverell in southwestern England seemed to be invaded by a violent ghost that hated women.

Charles Colton reported that the women who slept in the house, several of whom he had interviewed under oath, had told that “their night’s rest was invariably destroyed by violent blows from some invisible hand, by an unaccountable and rapid drawing and withdrawing of the curtains, by a suffocating and almost inexpressible weight, and by a repetition of sounds, so loud as at times to shake the whole room.”

Chave and his servants swore they had no hand in it (indeed, the notoriety reduced the value of the house), and a reward of £250 brought no further information. Someone was up to something that spring in Devon, but exactly who, and what, and why, have never been discovered.

The Two-Envelope Paradox

Here are two envelopes. One contains twice as much money as the other. You must choose one, and then consider whether to keep it or exchange it for mine. Which should you do?

It would seem advantageous to switch: Depending on which envelope you started with, you’ll either lose a little or gain a lot. (If your unopened envelope contains $10, for example, the other must contain $5 or $20.)

So we trade envelopes and I offer you the same deal. But now the same reasoning applies, so it makes sense to trade again. Indeed, it seems reasonable to keep exchanging envelopes forever, without ever opening one. How can this be?

And Many More

In 1891, Robert Louis Stevenson received a letter from a Vermont girl named Annie Ide. Her birthday fell on Christmas, she said, and she seldom received birthday presents.

He replied with a document decreeing that “I, Robert Louis Stevenson, … in consideration that Miss Annie H. Ide, … was born, out of all reason, upon Christmas Day, and is therefore out of all justice denied the consolation and profit of a proper birthday; and considering that I, the said Robert Louis Stevenson, have attained an age when we never mention it, and that I have now no further use for a birthday of any description; … HAVE TRANSFERRED, and DO HEREBY TRANSFER, to the said Annie H. Ide, ALL AND WHOLE my rights and privileges in the thirteenth day of November, formerly my birthday, now, hereby, and henceforth, the birthday of the said Annie H. Ide, to have, hold, exercise, and enjoy the same in the customary manner, by the sporting of fine raiment, eating of rich meats, and receipt of gifts, compliments, and copies of verse, according to the manner of our ancestors.”

He charged her to add “Louisa” to her name, “at least in private,” and to use the birthday “with moderation and humanity”—and he directed that if she neglected these conditions the birthday would revert to the president of the United States. She didn’t.