Aqua Man

Accomplishments of Lewis Gordon Pugh:

  • One month after his first swimming lesson, swam from Robben Island to Cape Town, South Africa
  • Shortly thereafter, swam the English Channel
  • First person to swim around the southernmost point in Africa, the northernmost point in Europe, the Cape of Good Hope, and the Cape Peninsula
  • First person to complete a long-distance swim in all five oceans
  • First person to swim down the entire length of Norway’s Sognefjord, 204 kilometers
  • First person to swim across an African Great Lake (Lake Malawi)
  • Gold medal in the 500-meter freestyle at the 2006 World Winter Swimming Championships in Finland
  • World record for the northernmost long-distance swim (Spitsbergen, 1,000 kilometers from the North Pole) and southernmost long-distance swim (Petermann Island, off the Antarctic Peninsula)

Most recently Lewis became the first person to swim the entire length of the River Thames, to raise awareness about the problems of global warming. Along the way, he stopped in London to visit Tony Blair.

Annie Londonderry

The Gilded Age certainly saw some high-stakes wagers. Twelve years before Harry Bensley settled one bet by pushing a pram around the world, Annie “Londonderry” Kopchovsky settled another by circling the earth on a bicycle.

Annie’s task, proposed by two wealthy Boston clubmen, was to ride around the world in 15 months, earning $5,000 en route. She saw it as a challenge to make her way in a man’s world, and in 1895 the doughty 23-year-old, who had never ridden a bicycle before, pedaled out of Boston, leaving behind a husband and three children.

She brought only a change of clothes and a pearl-handled revolver, but she steadily earned money by carrying advertising banners and ribbons through cities around the world, starting with the Londonderry Lithia Spring Water Company, which paid her to carry its placard on her bike and to adopt her nickname.

That spirit carried her through. On returning home, the victorious Annie wrote a series of sensational features for the New York World, beginning with her cycling adventure. “I am a journalist and ‘a new woman,'” she wrote, “if that term means that I believe I can do anything that any man can do.”

Inverted Jenny

If you have one of these, hold on to it. Produced by a 1918 misprint, only 100 of these stamps have been found. That puts them among the most valuable stamps in the world — in 2003, an “Inverted Jenny” would sell for $150,000.

Both Sides Now

The Chevalier d’Eon (1728-1810) lived the first half of his life as a man and the second as a woman. Until age 49 d’Eon served as a diplomat and soldier in Louis XV’s France, fighting in the Seven Years’ War and spying in London for the king.

But in 1771 he claimed he was physically a woman and asked to be recognized as such. The government agreed, even financing a new wardrobe, and the chevalier spent his remaining 33 years as a woman, participating in fencing tournaments and even offering to lead a division of women soldiers against the Habsburgs.

Doctors who examined him after death discovered that his body was anatomically male.


The most common birthday in the United States is Oct. 5.

That’s nine months after New Year’s Eve.

Myrtle Corbin

Born in 1868, Myrtle Corbin had two separate pelvises, side by side — each of her large outer legs was paired with a small inner one. She could move the small ones, but they were too weak for walking.

The condition didn’t slow her down — she married a doctor at 19 and eventually gave birth to four daughters and a son.

Tin Men

C-3PO and R2-D2 are the only characters that survive all six Star Wars movies.

Fool Me Once

Idaho means nothing. When Congress was casting about for a name for a new western territory, an eccentric lobbyist named George M. Willing suggested “Idaho,” which he said was derived from a Shoshone Indian term meaning “the sun comes from the mountains” or “gem of the mountains.”

He later admitted that he’d made it up.

Law Ghoul

When the English jurist and philosopher Jeremy Bentham died in 1832, his body was preserved and stored in a wooden cabinet at University College London. That was his request. It’s still there — you can see it at the end of the South Cloisters in the college’s main building. Occasionally it’s brought to council meetings, where Bentham is listed as “present but not voting.”

Unfortunately, students kept stealing the head (apparently a disquieting English custom), so the trustees replaced it with a wax one. Bentham’s real head is locked up in an undisclosed location.


“Always do sober what you said you’d do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut.” — Ernest Hemingway