A Well-Timed Exit

Composer Arnold Schoenberg was fascinated with numerology. Born on Sept. 13, he came to fear that he would die at age 76, because its digits add to 13. He examined a calendar for 1951 and was dismayed to see that July 13 fell on a Friday. When the fateful day came he took to his bed, fearing the worst. The day passed uneventfully, and shortly before midnight his wife entered the bedroom to say goodnight. Schoenberg uttered the word “harmony” and died.

The time of his death was 11:47 p.m., 13 minutes before midnight on Friday, July 13, in his 76th year.

In a Word

n. one who seeks an argument

“A Rat Caught by an Oyster”

A rat, lately visiting a tub of oysters at the post office in Falmouth, and whisking his tail between the open shells of one of them, it closed upon him, and held him so firmly, that he was prevented from escaping through his hole, and was found in the morning with the oyster still holding fast of his tail at the entrance of it.

La Belle Assemblée, January 1800

Journalism the Easy Way


On June 25, 1899, all four major Denver newspapers, the Times, the Post, the Republican, and the Rocky Mountain News, ran front-page stories saying that the Chinese were planning to demolish the Great Wall of China and build a road in its place.

They weren’t, obviously — the hoax was dreamed up by a cabal of bored reporters — but the story survived and even spread. Two weeks after the Denver publication, a large Eastern newspaper picked it up, adding confirming “quotes” by earnest Chinese and including its own illustrations and comments. Soon the story had spread throughout the United States and even entered Europe.

The full truth didn’t emerge until the last surviving reporter revealed the hoax.



  • “This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.” — Memo, Western Union, 1878
  • “The Americans have need of the telephone, but we do not. We have plenty of messenger boys.” — Sir William Preece, chief engineer, British Post Office, 1878
  • “It’s a great invention, but who would want to use it, anyway?” — Rutherford B. Hayes, after a demonstration, 1876

That Oughta Do It


Open 24 hours. Lifeguard on duty 8AM to 8PM.
Drowning absolutely prohibited.

— Sign, Plantation Bay Resort, Philippines

Soul Food

Followers of Breatharianism believe that humans can live without food or water. Wiley Brooks, founder of the Breatharian Institute of America, even claims to have survived mainly on a diet of fresh air for the past 30 years.

It’s not clear what he counts as fresh air — in 1983 he was spotted leaving a Santa Cruz 7-Eleven with a Slurpee, a hot dog and a box of Twinkies.



From Charles Bombaugh, Facts and Fancies for the Curious From the Harvest-Fields of Literature, 1905:

The following sentence won a prize offered in England for the longest twelve-word telegram:


It is said that the telegraph authorities accepted it as a dispatch of twelve words.


“A woman is the only thing I am afraid of that I know can’t hurt me.” — Abraham Lincoln

Silver Lining

Louis-Auguste Cyparis was lucky to be in solitary confinement. After a bar fight in May 1902, the 27-year-old laborer had been put in an underground bomb-proof magazine in the city jail of St. Pierre, Martinique, when he saw the day grow suddenly dark outside the narrow grating in his door. Presently Cyparis was blasted with scalding air and ashes, suffering deep burns on his hands, arms, legs, and back. He spent four days nursing these wounds before he managed to attract a rescue team.

He had lived through the eruption of Mount Pelée, the worst volcanic disaster of the 20th century. Of the town’s 28,000 inhabitants, only three had survived.