Peace and Quiet

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Most of the inhabitants of Colma, California, are dead. When a fast-growing San Francisco outlawed new interments in 1900, and then evicted its existing cemeteries two years later, nearby Colma became the city’s burying ground. Over the following 30 years, thousands of bodies were carted here from their former resting places in the city — the Catholic Holy Cross cemetery alone received 39,307. Today the town’s 17 cemeteries occupy 73 percent of its 2.25 square miles, and the dead (1.5 million) outnumber the living (1,792) by more than 800 to 1.

The town has a sense of humor about it, though — its unofficial motto is “It’s great to be alive in Colma!”

Open for Business

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

When Elijah Bond, patentee of the Ouija board, died in 1921, he was buried in an unmarked grave, and as time passed its location was forgotten. In 1992, Robert Murch, chairman of the Talking Board Historical Society, set out to find it, and after a 15-year search he did — Bond had been buried with his wife’s family in Baltimore rather than with his own in Dorsey, Md.

Murch got permission to install a new headstone and raised the necessary funds through donations, and today Bond has the headstone above, with a simple inscription on the front and a Ouija board on the back — in case anyone wants to talk.

Overdue

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Harry Houdini worked out a code with his wife, Bess, so that they could communicate during his performances:

Pray = 1 = A
Answer = 2 = B
Say = 3 = C
Now = 4 = D
Tell = 5 = E
Please = 6 = F
Speak = 7 = G
Quickly = 8 = H
Look = 9 = I
Be quick = 10 or 0 = J

Each of the first 10 letters of the alphabet is represented by both a word and a number, so BAD, for example, could be represented by “Answer, Pray, Now.” Letters beyond the 10th would be represented with two digits; for example, S, the 19th letter, could be indicated by 1 and 9, “Pray-Look.”

After Houdini died in 1926, Bess waited for a message in this code, according to an agreement between them. In 1929, psychic Arthur Ford claimed to have received it:

Rosabelle, answer, tell, pray-answer, look, tell, answer-answer, tell.

“Rosabelle” is a song that Bess used to sing. The rest, decoded, spells out BELIEVE. At first Bess took this as a genuine message from her husband, but skeptics pointed out that by this time she had revealed the code to Harold Kellock, who had published it in a biography that had appeared the previous year. So Ford could simply have learned the code and prepared the message himself. Bess repudiated Ford’s claim and in 1936 stopped attending séances. She said, “Ten years is long enough to wait for any man.”

“Houdini never said he could come back,” observed Henry Muller, curator of the Houdini Magical Hall of Fame. “He just thought that if anybody could do it, it would be him.”

(From Craig Bauer, Unsolved!, 2017.)

Jump Cut

This must have scared the daylights out of people in 1895 — The Execution of Mary Stuart, one of the first films to use editing for special effects.

After the executioner raises his ax, the actress is replaced with a mannequin.

Getting the Point

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Sixteenth-century England had some singularly inept bowmen:

In 1552, at about 3 pm on the 28th October, Henry Pert, gentleman, went out to play at Welbeck [Nottinghamshire] and drew his bow so fully with an arrow in it that he lodged the arrow in his bow. Afterwards, intending to make the arrow climb straight into the air, he shot the arrow from his bow while leaning slightly over the bow. Because his face was directly over the arrow as it climbed upwards it struck him over his left eyelid and into his head to the membrane of his brain. Thus the said arrow, worth one farthing, gave him a wound of which he immediately languished, and lay languishing until 12 pm on 29th October when he died, by misadventure.

In The Romance of Archery, historian Hugh D.H. Soar adds, “The coroner was sufficiently curious about this circumstance to take matters a little further. He inquired how this accident could happen and was told by knowledgeable colleagues that the unfortunate Henry was notable for using too short an arrow and regularly drawing it inside his bow.”

Worth a Try

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Image: Wikipedia

The gravestone of John Renie, a 19th-century house painter, at St. Mary’s Priory Church in Monmouth, Wales, is a 285-letter acrostic puzzle — from the central H the sentence “Here lies John Renie” can be traced out (in king’s moves) in 45,760 different ways. Renie probably carved it himself; according to cleric Lionel Fanthorpe, he hoped it would occupy the devil while he escaped to heaven.

See “Remarkable Inscription” and A Puzzling Exit.

A Grim Climate

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Though Republicans won a majority of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1930, fully 14 House members died during the ensuing 72nd Congress, including Speaker Nicholas Longworth. As a result, Democrats were able to elect one of their own as speaker.

Things weren’t much better in the Senate. Sen. Hiram Bingham (R-Ct.) said in 1931, “It is a very striking fact and one which cannot be too often called to the attention of Senators that there is no other body of this size in the world which has as high a death rate as this body. Out of the 96 Senators, during the past 7 or 8 years at least three have died each year, and if there is anything that can be done to cause members of this body to enjoy greater health and to prolong their lives, it seems to me that no one should object to it.”

In 1996 George Washington University political scientist Forrest Maltzman and his colleagues found evidence that the Capitol’s ventilation system might have been a significant factor. As early as 1859, one senator had called his chamber “the most unhealthful, uncomfortable, ill-contrived place I was ever in my life; and my health is suffering daily from the atmosphere.” A ban on smoking didn’t seem to help, but a new ventilation system, complete with air conditioning, was installed in 1932, and Maltzman found a significant decrease in mortality beyond this point, sparing an estimated three members per Congress.

“Accordingly, we think there is at least a ghost of a chance that [political scientist Nelson] Polsby is correct when he argues that the advent of air-conditioning in the 1930s and 1940s may have had no less momentous an impact on political life (and death) in the nation’s capital than the massive changes the city underwent during the 1960s and 1970s — racial desegregation, home rule, and rapid population growth.”

(Forrest Maltzman, Lee Sigelman, and Sarah Binder, “Leaving Office Feet First: Death in Congress,” PS: Political Science & Politics 29:4 [December 1996], 665-671.)

A Late Project

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Thomas Paine came to an ignominious end. The revolutionary activist so inspired English journalist William Cobbett that Cobbett dug up his bones in 1819 and transported them back to England, hoping to give Paine a heroic reburial in the land of his birth. (G.K. Chesterton wrote, “I wonder what he said when asked if he had anything to declare?”)

But Cobbett never got around to it. When he himself died in 1835, Paine’s bones were still among his effects, and they’ve since been lost: His skull may be in Australia, his jawbone may be in Brighton, or maybe Cobbett’s son buried everything in the family plot when he couldn’t auction it off. In 1905 part of his brain (“resembling hard putty”) may have been buried under a monument in New Rochelle, N.Y. But no one knows for sure.

Peace and Quiet

https://www.google.com/patents/US208672

Ohio inventor Philip Clover came up with a dramatic way to discourage body snatchers in 1878: a “coffin torpedo.” Basically a live cartridge is attached to the body by hidden wires so that “any attempt to remove the body after burial will cause the … injury or death of the desecrator of the grave”:

The trigger-wires are secured to the arms, legs, or other portion of the body of the corpse in such manner as to induce to the tripping of the trigger should any attempt be made to withdraw the body from the casket. The torpedo is loaded … just prior to the final closing of the casket.

“The torpedo may be placed in variable positions within the casket, and properly concealed by the trimmings of the casket or the apparel of the corpse.” Clover points out that there’s no need to protect the weapon from the elements — by the time it ceases to work, “the body would be of no use to robbers.”

From Beyond

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From the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, via the Ohio Law Reporter, Aug. 17, 1908: During a dispute over a will in Vienna, a phonograph record was introduced into evidence so that the dead woman herself could explain her intentions, which she’d recorded during her lifetime:

Prof. Sulzer stated that he had a phonographic record that would settle beyond question the point in dispute and asked the court’s permission to introduce it as evidence. The permission was granted and Mme. Blaci, the decedent, told in her own voice of her affection for her brother and his family and announced her intention of providing before her death so that her nephew, Heinrich, would be well cared for after she had passed away.

Heinrich testified that the record was made on the twenty-first anniversary of his birth. Mme. Blaci, he told the judge, had said at the time that she wanted the words she had spoken to her brother, Heinrich’s father, put on record as a souvenir of her affection that could be handed down to her nephew.

“After hearing the record, the court immediately awarded Heinrich $120,000 as his share of the estate, which was the full amount claimed by him.”