This enigmatic headstone stands in in St. Paul’s Cemetery in Alexandria, Virginia, over the body of an unknown woman. Nothing definite seems to be known as to the woman’s identity, apart from the year of her death, but the poignant epitaph has fueled speculation for more than two centuries. One common suggestion is that she was Theodosia Burr Alston, a daughter of Aaron Burr who disappeared at sea in 1813, but this doesn’t account for Alston’s whereabouts in the three years before the mystery woman’s interment at Alexandria. It seems unlikely now that the inscription will ever be explained.
Trained on 11,000 early modern texts in English, French, and Latin, MonadGPT is a chatbot with the language and style (and limited knowledge) of the 17th century:
User: What are the planets of the solar system?
Monad-GPT: The six Planets are, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and the Sun. The Moon is also a Planet; which being of so great Influence upon Earth, makes it to be most admired of all others by Astronomers.
User: Why has the Moon such an influence upon Earth?
Monad-GPT: But the Moon is so neer to us, as almost to be part of Earth; and therefore it much influences our Atmosphere. This Influence makes all that are in any way affected by Air, to be more under her influence than any other Planet. For if there were a little more or less Matter in the Air, than there is now, we should never have such Plants and Creatures as there are upon Earth: for every Plant and Creature hath its proper Temperature necessary for its Existence. If the Sun did not make up this shortage by his warmth from without, we should be destroyed.
User: Can you write a poem about the Moon?
Monad-GPT: O fairest Moon, that from the Heav’n dost shine, / In her own Lustre all the World does find: / As in thine Orb, where all is bright and clear, / The Sun himself is not more pure than thee.
User: How could we travel to the Moon? With a big canon?
Monad-GPT: But how to travel from Earth to the Moon, with our present Engines? A very hard Question: for we are like those that would go to Heaven in a Basket: We have no Wings, and God hath not given us any Angels to bear us up. Therefore I will leave this Enquiry to others; and end my Discourse of the Moon.
n. a head of hair
n. a writing intended to exhort or instruct
v. to imbue with revolutionary spirit
For Histiaeus, when he was anxious to give Aristagoras orders to revolt, could find but one safe way, as the roads were guarded, of making his wishes known; which was by taking the trustiest of his slaves, shaving all the hair from off his head, and then pricking letters upon the skin, and waiting till the hair grew again. Thus accordingly he did; and as soon as ever the hair was grown, he despatched the man to Miletus, giving him no other message than this — ‘When thou art come to Miletus, bid Aristagoras shave thy head, and look thereon.’ Now the marks on the head, as I have already mentioned, were a command to revolt.
— Herodotus, Terpsichore
Charles Guiteau, James Garfield’s assassin, read a poem at the gallows:
I am going to the Lordy, I am so glad. I am going to the Lordy, I am so glad. I am going to the Lordy, Glory hallelujah! Glory hallelujah! I am going to the Lordy!
I love the Lordy with all my soul, Glory hallelujah! And that is the reason I am going to the Lord. Glory hallelujah! Glory hallelujah! I am going to the Lord.
I saved my party and my land, Glory hallelujah! But they have murdered me for it, and that is the reason I am going to the Lordy. Glory hallelujah! Glory hallelujah! I am going to the Lordy!
I wonder what I will do when I get to the Lordy, I guess that I will weep no more when I get to the Lordy! Glory hallelujah!
I wonder what I will see when I get to the Lordy, I expect to see most splendid things, beyond all earthly conception, when I am with the Lordy! Glory hallelujah! Glory hallelujah! I am with the Lord.
He asked for an orchestral accompaniment, but it was denied.
11/18/2023 UPDATE: Improbably, Guiteau eventually got his accompaniment — in Stephen Sondheim’s 1990 musical Assassins, his character sings part of the poem while cakewalking up and down the scaffold:
Hidden on the back of the National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., is an engraving of Kilroy, the ubiquitous graffito that accompanied American GIs through Europe and, later, around the world. Some earlier inscriptions:
Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia has stood since 537, built by Justinian I as the patriarchal cathedral of Constantinople. It wasn’t until 1964 that runic inscriptions were discovered in the southern gallery, apparently engraved by members of the Varangian Guard during the Viking Age. Their meaning isn’t certain, but one may have read “Halfdan carved these runes” and the other “Ári made the runes.” More may yet be found.
The Piraeus Lion, one of four marble lion statues now at the Venetian Arsenal, bears runic inscriptions apparently made by Scandinavians in the 11th century, when it had stood in Athens. One reads, “Asmund cut these runes with Asgeir and Thorleif, Thord and Ivar, at the request of Harold the Tall, though the Greeks considered about and forbade it.” The other reads, “Hakon with Ulf and Asmund and Örn conquered this port. These men and Harold Hafi imposed a heavy fine on account of the revolt of the Greek people. Dalk is detained captive in far lands. Egil is gone on an expedition with Ragnar into Romania and Armenia.”
- The Dutch word for cease-fire negotiations is wapenstilstandsonderhandelingen.
- Rearrange the letters in ONE THOUSAND KILOS and you get OH, SOUNDS LIKE A TON! (Hans-Peter Reich)
- 1167882 + 3211682 = 116788321168
- The Irish for chess, ficheall, derives from the Old Irish fidchell, “wood intelligence.”
- “Life is a school of probability.” — Walter Bagehot
A tiny detail that I hope is true: In Time in World History (2019), historian Peter Stearns writes that before watches became affordable, some European soldiers “took their own roosters with them so they would wake up on time.”
In the 13th century, in England’s Worcester Priory, an anonymous scribe worked at inserting interlinear notations into Old English manuscripts. Though his identity has been lost, his shaky, leftward-sloping handwriting is so distinctive that he’s noted among scholars more than 700 years later. He’s known as the Tremulous Hand of Worcester.
The cause of the tremor is uncertain, but its identifiable character has shed light on the evolution of the language and on the ability to read Old English in this period. “For us at least,” writes literary scholar Christine Franzen, “his infirmity was fortuitous — if his hand had remained steady and unchanged throughout his glossing career, it might have been impossible to distinguish the layers of glossing, but as it is, we can watch his methods and knowledge develop along with his tremble.”
(Christine Franzen, The Tremulous Hand of Worcester, 1991.)
After Archimedes’ death in 212 B.C., his tomb in Sicily fell into obscurity and was eventually lost. It was rediscovered by, of all people, Cicero, who had been sent to the island in 75 B.C. to administer corn production:
When I was Quaestor, I tracked down his grave; the Syracusans not only had no idea where it was, they denied it even existed. I found it surrounded and covered by brambles and thickets. I remembered that some lines of doggerel I had heard were inscribed on his tomb to the effect that a sphere and a cylinder had been placed on its top. So I took a good look around (for there are a lot of graves at the Agrigentine Gate cemetery) and noticed a small column rising a little way above some bushes, on which stood a sphere and a cylinder. I immediately told the Syracusans (some of their leading men were with me) that I thought I had found what I was looking for. Slaves were sent in with scythes to clear the ground and once a path had been opened up we approached the pedestal. About half the lines of the epigram were still legible although the rest had worn away.
“So, you see, one of the most celebrated cities of Greece, once upon a time a great seat of learning too, would have been ignorant of the grave of one of its most intellectually gifted citizens — had it not been for a man from Arpinum who pointed it out to them.”
(From Anthony Everitt, Cicero, 2003.)
This is charming: Looking for a place to practice her drawing one day, an anonymous child in the 1700s chose the blank spaces in a music book. In doing so, she made herself immortal, as the music is now held in university collections.
The figure at left is scrawled in John Wilbye’s Second Set of Madrigales, now at the Royal Academy of Music; the one on the right is in Thomas Weelkes’ Balletts and Madrigals at Harvard. Drawings and handwriting exercises apparently by the same child appear in music books at UCLA, Huntington Library, and the University of Illinois. (The drawings all appear in tenor books, which suggests that these copies had been bound in one volume when the girl drew the pictures.)
The child’s identity is unknown, although the name Eliza Richardson accompanies one practice alphabet. She seems to be drawing the same woman consistently, recognizable by her prominent nose, strong chin, and thick neck. It’s not clear when the drawings were made, but the woman appears to be wearing a sack-back gown, a style that was most popular between 1720 and 1770. According to Durham University music professor David Greer, “The dense patterns, small cap, and closely dressed hairstyle suggest the early part of this period.” But I believe that’s all we know.
(David Greer, Manuscript Inscriptions in Early English Printed Music, 2015.)
In Maps Are Territories (1989), David Turnbull offers this as an example of a map that “can only be understood within the cultural specifics of the circumstances that it portrays.” It’s a Chippewa land claim presented to the U.S. Congress in 1849. The rightmost figure is the totem of the chief, who is of the Crane clan. Following him are members of allied clans — Martens, Bears, Man-Fish, and Catfish.
“To the eye of the bird standing for this chief, the eyes of each of the other totemic animals are directed as denoted by lines, to symbolize union of views,” explained ethnologist Henry Schoolcraft. “The heart of each animal is also connected by lines with the heart of the Crane chief, to denote unity of feeling and purpose. If these symbols are successful, they denote that the whole forty-four persons both see and feel alike — that they are one.”
The line drawn forward from the crane’s eye denotes the course of his journey, and another line is drawn backward to a series of small lakes for which he is seeking the grant. The long parallel lines below the figures represent Lake Superior, and the small parallel lines that diverge from this represent a path from its shore to the villages and interior lakes where the Chippewa hope to live.
Schoolcraft wrote in 1851, “The entire object is thus symbolized in a manner which is very clear to the tribes, and to all who have studied the simple elements of this mode of communicating ideas.”
(H.R. Schoolcraft, Historical and Statistical Information Respecting the History, Condition and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States, Volume I, 1851, 416-417.)