The Tombstone House

This unassuming house in Petersburg, Va., has an odd history — it was constructed from the tombstones of Union soldiers who had besieged the city in 1864. The curator of the city’s museum told author Gwyn Headley that, apparently to save on maintenance, nearly 2,000 marble headstones were removed from Poplar Grove Cemetery and sold to a Mr. O.E. Young, who assembled them into a two-story house.

“The tombstones face inward, so as the owner lay in bed the names of the dead stood about his head,” Headley writes in Architectural Follies in America (1996). “Later they were plastered over so that their descendants leave none the wiser.”

“The last word must be left to the lady living next door to the Tombstone House, who confessed with massive political incorrectness, ‘Ah don’t rightly see what all the fuss was about. They was jist Union boys.'”

Podcast Episode 9: The Monkey Signalman, Racetrack ESP, and Toxic Dumps

After losing his feet in an accident in the 1880s, South Africa railway worker James “Jumper” Wide found an unlikely friend in a baboon named Jack. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll learn how Jumper taught Jack to work as a signalman on the railway line, where he won the trust of both authorities and passengers.

We’ll also meet an Englishman who dreamed the winners of horse races, ponder the strange case of the Stringfellow Acid Pits, and present the next Futility Closet Challenge.

http://books.google.com/books?id=eyg2AAAAIAAJ&pg=PA185

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Disabled_Signalman_with_his_trained_Baboon_assistant_-_Uitenhage_railway_-_Cape_Colony_1884.jpg

Our post about Jack the monkey signalman appeared on Nov. 14, 2005. Sources for that segment:

George B. Howe, “A Unique Signalman,” The Railway Signal, September 1890.

Chris Marais and Julienne Du Toit, Shorelines: A Journey Along the South African Coast, 2006.

Roger Webster, At the Fireside: True South African Stories, Volume 3, 2005.

Associated Press, “Jack, the Amazing Baboon, Gets a Correction, 100 Years Later,” Telegraph, Nov. 11, 1990. (This refers to a correction that appeared that year in Nature. Reportedly an article in the journal’s July 24, 1890, issue had indicated that Jack worked in Natal, not Uitenhage. I don’t think the reference is accurate — that would have been vol. 42, no. 1082, of Nature, and I don’t find the report in that issue.)

Dorothy L. Cheney and Robert M. Seyfarth, Baboon Metaphysics: The Evolution of a Social Mind, 2008.

Our post on John Godley, who dreamed the winners of horse races, ran on April 29, 2010. He tells the whole tale in Chapter 3 of his memoir Living Like a Lord, which was originally published in 1952.

In 2009 the Examiner recounted Godley’s experiences (including his big win at the 1958 Grand National), as well as those of others who have had premonitory dreams of racetrack winners.

“Toxic Dreams,” Jack Hitt’s article about the victims of chemical dumping at California’s Stringfellow Acid Pits in the 1970s, appeared in Harper’s in 1995. It’s since been collected in Ira Glass’ 2007 book The New Kings of Nonfiction. (Thanks, Andrew.)

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset. The show notes are on the blog, where you can also enter your submissions in this week’s Challenge. Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

Next week we plan to tell the story of lighthouse keeper Ida Lewis, “the bravest woman in America,” who saved 18 lives in a series of daring rescues off the coast of Rhode Island in the late 19th century. If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

Language Arts

“Suppose someone to assert: The gostak distims the doshes. You do not know what this means; nor do I. But if we assume that it is English, we know that the doshes are distimmed by the gostak. We know too that one distimmer of doshes is a gostak. If, moreover, the doshes are galloons, we know that some galloons are distimmed by the gostak. And so we may go on, and so we often do go on.”

— Andrew Ingraham, Swain School Lectures, 1903

All the News …

http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=9D04E2DE163CE633A25754C2A96E9C946096D6CF

How’s that for a headline? It ran in the New York Times Sunday magazine on Aug. 27, 1911:

Canals a thousand miles long and twenty miles wide are simply beyond our comprehension. Even though we are aware of the fact that … a rock which here weighs one hundred pounds would there only weigh thirty-eight pounds, engineering operations being in consequence less arduous than here, yet we can scarcely imagine the inhabitants of Mars capable of accomplishing this Herculean task within the short interval of two years.

The Times was relying on Percival Lowell, who was convinced that a dying Martian civilization was struggling to reach the planet’s ice caps. “The whole thing is wonderfully clear-cut,” he’d told the newspaper — but he was already largely ostracized by skeptical colleagues who couldn’t duplicate his findings. The “spokes” he later saw on Venus may have been blood vessels in his own eye.

Whatever his shortcomings, Lowell’s passions led to some significant accomplishments, including Lowell Observatory and the discovery of Pluto 14 years after his death. “Science,” wrote Emerson, “does not know its debt to imagination.”

Sign Here

http://www.postalmuseum.si.edu/exhibits/2b2f_5_parcel.html

W.H. Coltharp had a problem. He’d been asked to build a bank in Vernal, Utah, but the bricks he needed were in Salt Lake City, 127 miles away. Wagon freight would have been too expensive, so in 1916 he sent 50,000 bricks by parcel post, essentially mailing the bank to Vernal.

The post office was not delighted with Coltharp’s ingenuity. Postmaster General Albert Sidney Burleson wrote that “it is not the intent of the United States Postal Service that buildings be shipped through the mail” — and he set a new limit of 200 pounds per day per receiver.

The Clown Egg Register

https://www.flickr.com/photos/lukestephenson/sets/72157606703952187/#

A clown’s face is his livelihood; it’s an unwritten rule among clowns that one must not copy the face of another. Accordingly, in 1946 London clown Stan Bult began painting the faces of his colleagues onto eggshells, effectively trademarking their identities. Bult’s collection was largely destroyed in an accident in 1965, but London’s Circus Clowns Club resurrected the practice in 1984 and added samples of its members’ costumes and wig hair, making each into a peculiar sort of portrait.

In 1979, Leon “Buttons” McBryde, a clown with the Ringling Bros & Barnum and Bailey Circus, heard about the British practice and established his own egg registry, which now includes hundreds of portraits of clowns hand-painted by his wife, Linda. The U.S. registry has been used in at least one court case in which one clown charged another with infringing his design.

The images above, of the British collection, are by photographer Luke Stephenson; more can be seen on his website and Flickr set.

Black and White

elekes chess problem

By Dezso Elekes. White to mate in two moves.

Click for Answer

Palingram

A self-reproducing sentence by Lee Sallows — “Doing what it tells you to do yields a replica of itself”:

sallows palingram

This reminds me of a short short story by Fredric Brown:

THE END

Professor Jones had been working on time theory for many years.

“And I have found the key equation,” he told his daughter one day. “Time is a field. This machine I have made can manipulate, even reverse, that field.”

Pushing a button as he spoke, he said, “This should make time run backward run time make should this,” said he, spoke he as button a pushing.

“Field that, reverse even, manipulate can made have I machine this. Field a is time.” Day one daughter his told he, “Equation key the found have I and.”

Years many for theory time on working been had Jones Professor.

END THE

In a Word

juise
n. judgment; a judicial sentence; penalty

William Vodden had a particularly bad day in 1853. He was on trial in Wales for larceny, and the jury foreman delivered a verdict of not guilty. The chairman discharged Vodden, but then there was a stir among the jurors, who said they had intended a verdict of guilty.

Vodden objected and appealed the case, but Chief Baron Pollock decided that “What happened was a daily occurrence in the ordinary transactions of life, namely that a mistake was made but then corrected within a reasonable time, and on the very spot on which it was made.” Vodden got two months’ hard labor.

Franklin’s Mint

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chamberlin_-_Benjamin_Franklin_(1762).jpg

More wisdom from Poor Richard’s Almanack:

  • Anger is never without a Reason, but seldom with a good One.
  • The absent are never without fault, nor the present without excuse.
  • The worst wheel of the cart makes the most noise.
  • Prosperity discovers Vice, Adversity, Virtue.
  • God heals, and the doctor takes the fees.
  • The same man cannot be both Friend and Flatterer.
  • Beauty and folly are old companions.
  • Eat to please thyself, but dress to please others.
  • Hear Reason, or she’ll make you feel her.
  • What’s given shines, what’s receiv’d is rusty.
  • Sally laughs at everything you say. Why? Because she has fine teeth.
  • Words may shew a man’s Wit, but Actions his Meaning.
  • It’s common for men to give pretended reasons instead of one real one.
  • Fear to do ill, and you need fear nought else.
  • Success has ruin’d many a Man.

Altho’ thy teacher act not as he preaches,
Yet ne’ertheless, if good, do what he teaches;
Good counsel, failing men may give, for why,
He that’s aground knows where the shoal doth lie.