A dry footnote from Walter Scott’s The Heart of Midlothian, regarding the Porteous Riots of 1736, in which a guard captain was lynched in Edinburgh:
The Magistrates were closely interrogated before the House of Peers, concerning the particulars of the Mob, and the patois in which these functionaries made their answers, sounded strange in the ears of the Southern nobles. The Duke of Newcastle having demanded to know with what kind of shot the guard which Porteous commanded had loaded their muskets, was answered naively, ‘Ow, just sic as ane shoots dukes and fools with.’ This reply was considered as a contempt of the House of Lords, and the Provost would have suffered accordingly, but that the Duke of Argyle explained, that the expression, properly rendered into English, meant ducks and waterfowl.
1930 saw the quiet conclusion of a remarkable era. The tiny population of St. Kilda, an isolated Scottish archipelago, decided to end their thousand-year tenure as the most remote community in Britain and move to the mainland. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the remarkable life they’d shared on the island and the reasons they chose to leave.
We’ll also track a stork to Sudan and puzzle over the uses of tea trays.
In February 1949, Chilean army captain Alberto Larraguibel set out to attempt a world-record high jump riding Huaso, a 16-year-old stallion whom he’d trained assiduously in show jumping after undistinguished careers in racing and dressage:
On the first try, I miscalculated the distance and allowed the horse to refuse. If I had then applied the whip, the horse would have become nervous, because an animal understands when it’s being asked to perform above his capabilities. In the second jump, I must have made a mistake of a centimeter or so, because Huaso passed the hands but touched with the belly and the hinds, and knocked down the obstacle … there was only the third and last attempt left. I recalculated again, and in the precise moment we flew… The most difficult moment was the apex of the jump. My eyes were about 4 meters above the ground and I had the sensation of falling head first. My slightest tremor would have been felt by Huaso; who then would have left his hinds behind and we would have crashed together, but we went over. The moment seemed to last forever. I didn’t hear a single shout and thought that something had gone wrong, but I couldn’t hear the obstacles falling either …
Huaso had cleared 2.47 meters (8 feet 1 inch), setting one of the longest-running unbroken sport records in history.
“As for me,” Larraguibel said, “it was like sending my heart flying over the other side of the jump and then going to rescue it.”
At the turn of the 20th century, a rogue tiger terrorized the villages of Nepal and northern India. By the time British hunter Jim Corbett was called in, it had killed 434 people. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Corbett’s pursuit of the elusive cat, and his enlightened efforts to address the source of the problem.
We’ll also revisit a Confederate spy and puzzle over a bloody ship.
Struck by a cyclone in a Samoan harbor in 1889, the U.S. warship Trenton had lost steam and rudder and was in danger of foundering on a reef when her navigator, Robert M.G. Brown, thought of an inventive solution: The crew climbed into the port rigging, where their massed bodies acted as a sail. The ship was able to avoid the reef and even approach the sinking sloop Vandalia to rescue her crew. Of the 450 men aboard Trenton, only one was lost.
In 1937, after Jawaharlal Nehru had been elected president of the Indian National Congress for a second time, an author signing himself “Chanakya” published an article in Modern Review warning that power can corrupt an idealist:
The most effective pose is one in which there seems to be the least of posing, and Jawahar had learned well to act without the paint and powder of an actor … What is behind that mask of his? … what will to power? … He has the power in him to do great good for India or great injury … Men like Jawaharlal, with all their capacity for great and good work, are unsafe in a democracy. He calls himself a democrat and a socialist, and no doubt he does so in all earnestness, but every psychologist knows that the mind is ultimately slave to the heart and that logic can always be made to fit in with the desires and irrepressible urges of man. … Jawahar has all the makings of a dictator in him — vast popularity, a strong will, ability, hardness, an intolerance for others and a certain contempt for the weak and inefficient … In this revolutionary epoch, Caesarism is always at the door. Is it not possible that Jawahar might fancy himself as a Caesar? … He must be checked. We want no Caesars.
The author was later revealed to have been Nehru himself. “I wrote it for amusement, sent it to a woman friend who had it published,” he said. “Gandhi was even indignant, thinking some enemy was attacking me.”
Asked whether he thought the judgment correct, he said, “I suppose if a man can see such weaknesses inside himself, and discuss them, this is advance proof he will never succumb to them.”
On January 3, 1917, L.H. Luksich, a Coast Guard recruiter in New York, spotted a man wiping his muddy hands on an American flag and knocked him down. Luksich was not a native-born American; he was a naturalized citizen from Austria. The Treasury Department sent him an official commendation in which Assistant Secretary A.J. Peters wrote:
The department desires to commend you for the spirit of loyalty and patriotism which impelled your ready defense of the national colors, and in voicing this commendation I am not unmindful that you are a naturalized American citizen, for the reason that the incident is rendered the more conspicuous by this fact, and affords gratifying evidence of your assimilation of the spirit and best traditions of the country of your adoption.
The following year, a Montana mob demanded that local man E.V. Starr kiss the flag to prove his loyalty. He replied, “What is this thing anyway? Nothing but a piece of cotton with a little paint on it, and some other marks in the corner there. I will not kiss that thing. It might be covered with microbes.” Under a state law he was convicted of sedition, sentenced to 10–20 years at hard labor, and fined $500 plus court costs. Federal judge George M. Bourquin called the sentence “horrifying” and compared the mob to “heresy hunters” and “witch burners” but said he was powerless to intervene. Starr served 35 months before Governor Joseph M. Dixon commuted his sentence.
In 1989 a DC-10 en route from Brazzaville to Paris exploded and crashed in the Sahara Desert, hundreds of miles from the nearest town. Six Libyans were convicted in absentia for planting a suitcase bomb on the flight.
In 2007, the families of the victims used compensation funds paid by Libya to build a memorial at the crash site in the Niger desert. With the help of 140 locals from Agadez, the nearest city, they trucked in dark stones to create a 200-foot circle surrounding a silhouette of the plane and arranged 170 broken mirrors around the perimeter, one for each victim. At the site’s northern compass point stands the crashed plane’s starboard wing, bearing the names of the passengers.
The only instance during World War I of an airship capturing a merchant vessel occurred on April 23, 1917, when the German zeppelin L 23 descended on the civilian Norwegian schooner Royal off the Danish coast. At the airship’s approach the crew abandoned the Royal in boats, and the zeppelin made a water landing to capture them.
The ship turned out to be carrying pit-props, a contraband lading, and Kapitänleutnant Ludwig Bockholt saw her conducted into the Elbe escorted by two German destroyers. “The capture of the Royal — actually a schooner of only 688 tons — hardly affected the trade war against England,” writes historian Douglas H. Robinson, “but Bockholt’s flamboyant gesture appealed particularly to the men, and tales of the exploit were told from Tondern to Hage.”
(Douglas H. Robinson, The Zeppelin in Combat, 1962.)
In the winter of 1931, a dramatic manhunt unfolded in northern Canada when a reclusive trapper shot a constable and fled across the frigid landscape. In the chase that followed the mysterious fugitive amazed his pursuers with his almost superhuman abilities. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the hunt for the “Mad Trapper of Rat River.”
We’ll also visit a forgotten windbreak and puzzle over a father’s age.