# A Broken Promise

The Los Angeles Times called this “the most horrible crime of the 1920s”: On Dec. 18, 1927, a man appeared at the junior high school attended by Marion and Marjorie Parker, 12-year-old twin daughters of banker Perry H. Parker. The man said that he was a bank employee and that Marion was wanted immediately by her father.

Marion departed with him, and no one suspected anything until Marjorie came home alone. Police searched the city but had found nothing when a ransom note arrived the following morning asking Parker to gather \$1,500 and await further instructions. The kidnapper sent an appeal from Marion and then called that evening with directions to a dropoff location. Parker obeyed, but police were visible in the area and the kidnapper stayed away.

A new letter was delivered the following afternoon:

I am vexed and disgusted with you … You will never know how you disappointed your daughter … Pray to God for forgiveness for your mistake last night.

Fate — Fox

He included a note from Marion:

Dear Daddy and Mother:

Daddy, please don’t bring any one with you today. I am sorry for what happened last night. We drove right by the house. I cried all the time last night. If you don’t meet us this morning, you will never see me again.

Love to all

Marion Parker

A call came at 7:15 telling Parker where to go. He parked his car and turned off the lights as instructed. A car parked beside him and a man pointed a gun and told him to hand over the money. Parker demanded to see his daughter. The stranger lifted the girl’s head from beside him; she appeared to be asleep. Parker assumed she’d been drugged and handed over the money.

The man drove 200 feet forward, stopped, got out, and lifted the girl’s body onto the sidewalk. Then he got in and drove away. Parker ran to the girl and lifted her head, then screamed. Her legs had been cut off near the hips. She had been dead for hours.

Police tracked down 18-year-old bank messenger William Hickman, who said he’d wanted the money to go to college. He did say that he’d strangled Marion with a towel before he’d amputated her legs. He was hanged the following October.

(From Hank Messick and Burt Goldblatt, Kidnapping: The Illustrated History, 1974.)

# Shelter Morality

At a 1962 meeting on civil defense, one local resident of Hartford, Conn., warned the rest that his fallout shelter contained only enough food and water for his immediate family, and so during a nuclear attack he’d be forced to shoot any who tried to join them. His neighbor appealed to him:

‘John,’ she said, ‘you and your family have been our closest friends for ten years. Do you mean to say that if this city was bombed and my baby and I were caught in the open, and we were hurt, and came to your shelter you would turn us away?’

John nodded in the affirmative. His neighbor pressed the point.

‘But suppose we wouldn’t turn away and begged to get in?’

‘It would be too bad,’ John said. ‘You should have built a shelter of your own. I’ve got to look out for my own family.’

‘But suppose we had built a shelter of our own, yet were caught by surprise, being out in the open at the time of an attack, and we discovered that the entrance to our shelter was covered with rubble and we had no place to turn except to you. Would you still turn us back?’

The answer was still yes.

‘But suppose I wouldn’t go away and kept trying to get in. Would you shoot us?’

John said that if the only way he could keep his friend out would be by shooting her and her baby, he would have to do it.

These questions raised disagreements even among clergymen during the Cold War. In an article titled “Ethics at the Shelter Doorway,” Father L.C. McHugh urged his readers to “think twice before you rashly give your family shelter space to friends and neighbors or to the passing stranger.” The nondenominational Christian Century opposed this sentiment. “Men and women who manage to survive a nuclear attack by locking doors on imperiled neighbors or shooting them down to save themselves might conceivably survive,” the editors wrote. “But who would want to live in the kind of social order such people would create out of the shambles?”

(From Kenneth D. Rose, One Nation Underground: The Fallout Shelter in American Culture, 2001.)

# Yar!

According to legend, when the pirate Olivier Levasseur was hanged in 1730, he flung a necklace into the crowd, crying, “Find my treasure, the one who may understand it!” The necklace (supposedly) contained this cryptogram, which people have been trying to decipher ever since. The will of fellow pirate Bernardin Nageon de L’Estang (allegedly) refers to “considerable treasure … buried on my dear île de France” (now Mauritius), and the puzzle may or may not be related to carvings found in the rocks at Bel Ombre beach in the Seychelles by L’Estang’s descendant Rose Savy in 1923.

Does any of this add up to anything? Who knows? Nick Pelling has a good skeptical discussion here, including an interpretation of the cryptogram as a pigpen cipher.

# Wisdom

Proverbs of the 11th century, from Egbert of Liège’s The Well-Laden Ship:

• Not every cloud you see threatens rain.
• A boy is consumed by envy, an old man by anger.
• A reasonable sufficiency is more righteous than dishonorable riches.
• One does well to distrust a stream, even one that is calm.
• Sometimes an old dog growls the truth.
• It is a hard cheese that the greedy man does not give to his dogs.
• He who cannot conceal, ought not to become a thief.
• Whose bread I eat, his songs I sing.
• All the gold that a king has does not equal this rain.
• No thief will be hanged, if he himself is the judge.
• What earned this one praise gets that one a beating.
• Smoky things appear by day, and fiery things by night.
• The living husband is incensed by praise of the dead one.
• A stupid person who is corrected, immediately hates his admonisher.
• It is not the lowliest of virtues to have placed a limit on your wealth.
• No mother-in-law is pleasing to her daughter-in-law unless she is dead.
• A frog on a throne quickly gives up the honor.
• When you trade one fish for another, one of them stinks.
• Whoever hates his work, surely hated himself first.
• To a man hanging, any delay seems too long.

And “One way or another, brothers, we will all pass from here.”

# All’s Well That Ends Well

In 2003 Carl Libis of Assumption College in Worcester, Mass., received this solution from a student in an algebra course:

\begin{aligned} \frac{1}{x+1} + \frac{1}{x-2} &= \frac{x+3}{x^2-x-2} \\ \frac{x+1}{1} + \frac{x-2}{1} &= \frac{x^2-x-2}{x+3} \\ x+1+x-2 &= \frac{x^2 - \frac{x}{x}-2}{3} \\ 2x-1 &= \frac{x^2 - 1 - 2}{3} \\ 3(2x-1) &= x^2 - 3 \\ 6x &= x^2 - 2 \\ \frac{6x}{2x} &= \frac{x^2 - 2}{2x} \\ 3 &= \frac{x^2}{x} - \frac{2}{2} \\ 3 &= x-1 \\ 4 &= x \end{aligned}

(Via Ed Barbeau, “Fallacies, Flaws, and Flimflam,” College Mathematics Journal 34:1 [January 2003], 50-54.)

# Appearances

South Korean artist Dain Yoon uses her face as a canvas for endlessly inventive illusions.

More on her Instagram page.

# A Visitation

A striking scene from the coast of Massachusetts, summer 1894:

I was brought, from my sitting posture, down on the flat of my back. The force produced a motor disturbance of my head and jaws. My mouth made automatic movements; till, in a few seconds, I was distinctly conscious of another’s voice — unearthly, awful, loud, and weird — bursting through the woodland from my own lips, with the despairing words: ‘Oh! My People!’

The victim, Albert Le Baron, had for some time found himself talking involuntarily in a language he didn’t understand, a language he believed had some ancient or remote origin. He became convinced that he was conveying the words of dead speakers. That September, back in New York City, he received a similar communication from the “psycho-automatism,” with a translation:

I have seen all thy ways, O son of the Nile! I have heard all thy songs, O son of the Nile! I have listened to all thy woes, O son of the Nile! I have been with thee, O son of the Nile! I have been near thee when thy days were full of glory. I have been near thee when thy days were covered in sadness. I have heard thy voice, O son of Egypt! I have counted thy tears, O son of Egypt! I have heard thy voice of wailing, O son of Egypt! I have watched thee when thy men of might have flown; I have watched thee when thy glory has faded; I have watched thee when thy sun has set; I have watched thee, O son of the Nile! Thy tears have been my tears; thy joys have been my joys; thy woes have been my woes. O son of the Nile, I love thee! O son of the Nile, I love thee!

William James, who communicated all this to the Society for Psychical Research, wasn’t impressed. “I know no stronger example of the subjective sense of genius, or rather of positive inspiration, accompanying a subliminal uprush of absolutely meaningless matter,” he wrote. The whole article is here.

(Albert LeBaron, “A Case of Psychic Automatism, Including ‘Speaking With Tongues,'” Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research 12 [1896-1897], 277-297.)

# Legacy

In 1924 the eccentric Lord Berners composed a “Funeral March for a Rich Aunt”:

The musical direction is Allegro giocoso — “fast and cheerful.”

# The Unreality of Time

Take any event — the death of Queen Anne, for example — and consider what changes can take place in its characteristics. That it is a death, that it is the death of Anne Stuart, that it has such causes, that it has such effects — every characteristic of this sort never changes. ‘Before the stars saw one another plain’, the event in question was the death of a queen. At the last moment of time — if time has a last moment — it will still be the death of a queen. And in every respect but one, it is equally devoid of change. But in one respect it does change. It was once an event in the far future. It became every moment an event in the nearer future. At last it was present. Then it became past, and will always remain past, though every moment it becomes further and further past.

— J.M.E. McTaggart, The Nature of Existence, 1927

(McTaggart argued that these varying properties of Anne’s death constitute a paradox. “Past, present, and future are incompatible determinations,” he wrote. “Every event must be one or the other, but no event can be more than one. … But every event has them all.” Hence time is unreal.)

# The Mascot Moth

On Aug. 7, 1905, magician David Devant premiered an effect that had occurred to him in a dream: A woman appears to vanish instantaneously from a bare stage.

Devant left behind a description of only 310 words explaining how he’d accomplished the illusion. He called it “the best I have ever done.” The lady descends into the floor, leaving behind the dress, supported by a tube covered with black velvet. The dress is pumped full of oil fog, and at the critical instant it’s whisked down through the tube, leaving (apparently) nothing but smoke hanging in the air.

The brief, blurry advertisement above, for Doug Henning’s 1983 Broadway musical Merlin, appears to be the only video online of this illusion. That’s a shame; it would be wonderful to see it more clearly. Devant’s partner John Nevil Maskelyne called it the “trickiest trick he had ever seen.”