Strange Bills

exhibition broadside - enormous head

Magician, actor, and author Ricky Jay collects the broadsides that publicized bygone exhibitions of conjuring, acrobatics, curiosities, and feats of strength. These are two of his favorites, featured in his 2005 collection Extraordinary Exhibitions. According to one account, the Frenchmen who exhibited the “enormous head” were “cautiously noncommittal” as to whether it had belonged to a gigantic bird, fish, or lizard. And the playbill below presents three words that Jay finds “endlessly appealing. I love the way they look on the page. I love the way they roll off the tongue. No matter how much one is mired in the complexities of life, no matter how seriously one is inclined to take oneself, no matter how depressing are the day’s events — these vicissitudes are all assuaged by the presence of ‘The Giant Hungarian Schoolboy.'”

exhibition broadside - hungarian schoolboy

Murder by Pacifists

The chess clubs of Paris and Marseilles played a dramatic correspondence game in 1878. As White, Paris agreed to play without a queen. In return, Marseilles undertook to lose — to force Paris to checkmate them. Impressively, Marseilles succeeded:

1.d4 d5 2.Nc3 c6 3.Nf3 g6 4.e4 e6 5.e5 Bb4 6.Bd2 Bxc3 7.Bxc3 b5 8.h4 h5 9.0-0-0 a6 10.Ng5 f5 11.g3 Nh6 12.Bd3 Nf7 13.Bxf5 gxf5 14.Nxf7 Kxf7 15.Bd2 Nd7 16.Rhe1 c5 17.dxc5 Nxc5 18.Bg5 Qg8 19.Re3 Bb7 20.Rc3 Rc8 21.Be3 Nd7 22.Bd4 Rxc3 23.bxc3 a5 24.Kd2 a4 25.Rb1 Ba6 26.Rg1 Qg4 27.Rb1 Rc8 28.Rb4 Rc4 29.Rxc4 dxc4 30.a3 f4 31.Kc1 fxg3 32.fxg3 Qxg3 33.Kb2 Qxh4 34.Kc1 Qe1+ 35.Kb2 Qd1 36.Ba7 Nxe5 37.Bc5 h4 38.Bd4 Nc6 39.Be3 e5 40.Bf2 h3 41.Bg3 e4 42.Bf4 Ke6 43.Bg3 e3 44.Bf4 e2 45.Bg3 Kd7 46.Bh2 e1(Q) 47.Bf4 Qee2 48.Bg3 Qdxc2+ 49.Ka1 Qf1+ 50.Be1 Qd2 51.Kb1 h2 52.Ka1 h1(Q) 53.Kb1 Qf8 54.Ka1 Qxa3+ 55.Kb1 Qad6 56.Ka1 Qf6 57.Kb1 Kc7 58.Ka1 b4 59.Kb1 b3 60.Ka1 Kb6 61.Kb1 Ka5 62.Ka1 Ne7 63.Kb1 Nc8 64.Ka1 Bb5 65.Kb1 Qa6 66.Ka1 Nb6 67.Kb1 Qh7+ 68.Ka1

paris-marseilles 1878 - 1

68. … Qxc3+ 69.Bxc3#

paris-marseilles 1878 - 2

The Champion

A group of us had gone to the pier to have dinner at a little fish restaurant, and while waiting to be served, Charlie Chaplin noticed a sign across the way that read, ‘Scientific Handwriting Analysis. Ten Cents.’ Charlie decided, as a joke, to try the expert out. Aldous [Huxley] stopped him. It would be too simple for a swami to ‘read’ for Charlie because his appearance was familiar to practically everyone in the world. On the other hand no one would recognize Aldous. So Charlie wrote a few words on a scrap of paper which Aldous took to the lady. He returned from his interview in a mood of deep concentration and reported what had happened. The lady had studied the writing a moment and then looked up at Aldous suspiciously. ‘Are you trying to make fun of me, sir?’ she asked. Aldous assured her he was not and wanted to know why she asked. She paused and studied Charlie’s writing more closely. Then, still suspicious, she asked, ‘Did you write this while you were in an unnatural or cramped position?’ Aldous then admitted that the writing was not his own but he assured the lady that it had been done quite normally. ‘Then,’ said the expert, ‘I don’t know what to say, because if what you tell me is true, the man who wrote this is a God-given genius.’

— Anita Loos in Aldous Huxley: A Memorial Volume, ed. Julian Huxley, 1965

Smoldering Chic

This should have caught on — Watson P. Aull’s “cigarette ring,” patented in 1938, clamps a cigarette in a ring worn on the left forefinger, so that the smoker has full use of her hands.

Here’s a related stunt from R.M. Abraham’s Diversions & Pastimes (1933):

“A cigarette may be lit quite easily by holding it 4 or 5 inches above the flame of the match.”

I haven’t tried it.


In the days before chess clocks, a player might wait for hours while his opponent decided on a move.

Morphy’s companion Frederick Milnes Edge remarked that “[József] Szén was so frightfully slow, even in ordinary games, that he would have worn out 200 francs’ worth of his opponent’s pantaloons before the match was half through.”

The most notorious slowpoke in England was Elijah “The Bristol Sloth” Williams: In the fourth game of his London match against Henry Thomas Buckle in 1851, Williams lavished such exquisite care on his 25th move that Buckle had time to write two chapters of his History of Civilization.

Buckle won. “The slowness of genius is hard to bear,” he said, “but the slowness of mediocrity is intolerable.”

Match Game

More proof that women are better than men:

Kneel and place your elbows, arms, and hands together as if praying. Bend over and place your arms against the floor, with your elbows touching your knees. Have someone stand a matchbox on end on the floor at your fingertips. Now clasp your hands behind your back and try to knock over the matchbox with your nose.

Women manage this pretty gracefully, but men tend to fall over. A man’s center of mass is closer to his head.


In 1964, two students at California’s Pomona College hypothesized that the number 47 appears with unusual frequency in the world. They began to amass examples, starting a campus tradition that continues to this day:

  • The Declaration of Independence consists of 47 sentences.
  • The New Testament credits Jesus with 47 miracles.
  • Tolstoy’s novel The Kreutzer Sonata is named after Beethoven’s Opus 47.
  • Pancho Villa was killed by a barrage of 47 bullets.
  • The Pythagorean Theorem is Proposition 47 of Euclid’s Elements.
  • The tropics of Cancer and Capricorn are located 47 degrees apart.
  • Cesar proclaimed “Veni, vidi, vici” in 47 B.C.

Now the hypothesis has produced its own reality: Pomona graduate Joe Menosky became a writer for Star Trek and helped to build a universe where 47 appears oddly often:

  • The Enterprise stops at Sub-Space Relay Station 47, a character shrinks to 47 centimeters, and the crew discovers element 247.
  • On Voyager, the emergency medical holographic channel is 47.
  • On Star Trek: Generations, Scotty beams up 47 El-Aurians before their ship is destroyed.
  • According to the 2009 film, the Enterprise was built in Sector 47 of the Riverside Shipyards, and Nero’s ship, the Narada, is said to have destroyed 47 Klingon ships.

Trek producer Brannon Braga has confirmed that Voyager‘s Harry Kim lives in Apartment 4-G because G is the seventh letter in the alphabet.

“Music Under Difficulties”

The Strand of January 1907 presents these photographs of Mr. Leslie Pogson of Anwick, Sleaford, as “an executant on the piano under various strange and trying conditions”:

When exhibiting his abilities for the entertainment of his friends Mr. Pogson begins, as the first six photographs make sufficiently clear, by performing a difficult piece of music in attitudes with which most pianists are quite unfamiliar, going even so far, in one instance, as to dispense with the keyboard altogether and, removing the piano front, to play direct upon the hammers. An assistant then enters, and pretending that he wishes to write a letter, and that he is greatly annoyed by the musical solos, he shouts to the performer to cease playing. This having no effect, he throws two pieces of stick at the player, who picks them up and goes on playing with them instead of with his fingers, even when a table-cloth is spread over the keys. A quilt used in the same way fails to diminish the variety of his attitudes, and even when his hands are handcuffed and he is placed with his back to the instrument the flood of music still flows forth as volubly as ever.

One night Mr. Pogson was passing unobserved through the crush of his late audience when he overheard the somewhat loudly expressed opinion that ‘The whole thing was a fake, my dear. The man never played a note in his life; the piano is an automatic one!’ The photographer did not succeed in portraying Mr. Pogson at that stage of the proceedings.