The Lady of the Haystack

In 1776 an unfortunate woman was found sheltering under a haystack in Bourton, near Bristol. By day she would seek charity from the local people, but at night she would always return to the haystack, saying only that “trouble and misery dwelt in houses.”

Curiously, she appeared well bred and accustomed to good society. Hannah More, who took up her cause, found her “handsome, young, interesting, enough Mistress of her reason carefully to shut up from our observation every avenue that might lead to her secret.”

More published “A Tale of Real Woe” in the St. James’s Chronicle in 1785, offering what little she had been able to learn about the woman: “that her Father was a German, her Mother an Italian; that she has one brother and one Sister; that her father had a very fine garden full of olive and orange Trees.”

Rumors abounded that “Louisa” was an illegitimate daughter of Francis I, emperor of Austria, and thus a half-sister to Marie Antoinette, but these have never been substantiated. Whoever she was, the woman spent the next 16 years in a succession of hospitals, never giving her identity, and when she died in 1801, she took her secret with her.


The Earl of Yarborough offers you a wager. He’ll shuffle an ordinary deck and deal you 13 cards. If none of your cards ranks above 9, he’ll give you a thousand pounds. Otherwise you must give him one pound.

Should you accept?

Click for Answer

The Human Paperweight

Thanks to Joseph Karwowski, you’ll never have to say goodbye to your Uncle Julius. Patented in 1903, Karwowski’s “method of preserving the dead” hermetically encases the corpse in a block of transparent glass to prevent decay and maintain a lifelike appearance.

Bonus: “In Fig. 3 I have shown the head only of the corpse as incased within the transparent block of glass, it being at once evident that the head alone may be preserved in this manner, if preferred.”

The Horizontorium

This clever anamorphic illusion was invented by W. Shires in 1821. Cut out the center piece, make a hole at A, fold it at B, and position it at D. (Here’s a larger version.)

Peer through the hole with one eye, preferably with a light source on your right, and you’ll see the tombstone in three dimensions, surrounded by a low palisade.

Here’s another scene using the same principle; position the eyepiece where the turrets’ lines would converge and “the whole view will appear in its just proportions, representing a castle at a considerable distance, the loftiest part of which appearing scarcely an inch high.”

“Calculation and Memory”

William Lawson, teacher of mathematics in Edinburgh, who died in 1757, when employed about twenty years before his death as preceptor to the sons of a gentleman, was induced by his employer to undertake an extraordinary piece of mental calculation. Upon a wager laid by his patron, that the numbers from 1 to 40 inclusive could, by memory alone, be multiplied continually–that is, 1 multiplied 2; the product then arising, 2, by 3; the next product, 6, by 4; the next, 24, by 5; and so on, 40 being the last multiplier–Mr. Lawson was, with reluctance, prevailed upon to attempt the task. He began it next morning at seven o’clock, taught his pupils their Latin lessons in the forenoon as usual, had finished the operation by six in the evening, and then told the last product to the gentlemen who had laid the wager; which they took down in writing, making a line of forty-eight figures, and found to be just. … When the operation was over, he could perceive his veins to start, like a man in a nervous fever; the three following nights he dreamed constantly of numbers; and he was often heard to say that no inducement would ever again engage him in a like attempt. A fair copy of the whole operation, attested by the subscriptions of three gentlemen, parties in the wager, was put into a frame with glass, and hung up in the patron’s dining-room.

Chambers’s Journal, Sept. 27, 1856

Hearing Trouble

  • AURAL means heard; ORAL means spoken.
  • RAISE means erect; RAZE means tear down.
  • SUCCOR means aid; SUCKER means hoodwink.
  • ENUMERABLE means countable; INNUMERABLE means uncountable.
  • ERUPT means burst out; IRRUPT means burst in.
  • ERADICATE means pull up by the roots; IRRADICATE means root deeply.
  • PETALLESS means lacking petals; PETALOUS means having petals.
  • RECKLESS means careless; WRECKLESS means careful.


This is the Roundhay Garden Scene, the earliest surviving motion picture, shot in 1888 in the Leeds garden of Joseph and Sarah Whitley.

The scene is only 2 seconds long, but it seems to have conveyed a queer curse. Sarah died only 10 days after the shoot; director Louis Le Prince vanished from a French train two years later; and actor Alphonse Le Prince was found dead of a gunshot in 1902. There’s a novel in here somewhere.

“Power of Short Words”

Bible scholar J. Addison Alexander was once asked whether one could write as forcibly in monosyllables as in long words. He responded with a poem:

Think not that strength lies in the big round word,
Or that the brief and plain must needs be weak.
To whom can this be true who once has heard
The cry of help, the words that all men speak
When want or woe or fear is in the throat,
So that each word is gasped out like a shriek
Pressed from the sore heart, or a strange wild note,
Sung by some fay or fiend? There is a strength
Which dies if stretched too far or spun too fine,
Which has more height than breadth, more depth than length.
Let but this force of thought and speech be mine,
And he that will may take the sleek fat phrase,
Which glows and burns not, though it gleam and shine–
Light but not heat–a flash, but not a blaze!
Nor is it mere strength that the short word boasts;
It serves far more than wind or storm can tell.
Or roar of waves that clash on rock-bound coasts,
The crash of tall trees when the wild winds swell,
The roar of guns, the groans of men that die
On blood-stained fields. It has a voice as well
For them that far off on their sick-beds lie;
For them that weep, for them that mourn the dead;
For them that dance and laugh and clap the hand
To joy’s quick step, as well as grief’s slow tread;
The sweet plain words we learn at first keep time,
And though the theme be sad, or gay, or grand,
With each, with all, these may be made to chime,
In thought, or speech, or song, or prose, or rhyme.