“My Dearly Departed”

London dentist Martin van Butchell always read the fine print. So when his wife Mary died in January 1775, he noted that their marriage certificate promised him income so long as Mary was “above ground.”

He enlisted a pair of local doctors to preserve her corpse, replaced her eyes with glass ones, dressed her in a lace gown, and put her on display in his window.

Eventually Butchell remarried, and his new wife objected to the display, so Mary was retired to the Royal College of Surgeons, where she slowly decomposed. In 1941, she was destroyed in a German bombing raid, faithful to the last.

Erdös Numbers


Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdös was immensely prolific — he published about 1,500 articles in his lifetime. His influence is so great that his colleagues have taken to assigning “Erdös numbers” to one another. Erdös himself gets an Erdös number of 0; his direct collaborators get a 1; anyone who collaborates with them gets a 2, and so on.

Those in the first rank include many of the world’s top mathematicians, but there’s one standout: Hank Aaron. The Baseball Hall of Famer once signed a baseball with Erdös while accepting an honorary degree — and that, some say, counts as a joint publication.

“Extraordinary Courage of a Swan”

At Pensey, in Buckinghamshire, a swan sitting on her eggs, on one side of the river, observed a fox swimming towards her from the opposite side; rightly judging she could best grapple with the fox in her own element, she plunged into the water, and after beating him off for some time with her wings, at length succeeded in drowning him.

Monthly Magazine, April 1796

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.