Stature

Tallest U.S. presidents:

  • Abraham Lincoln 6’3.75″
  • Lyndon B. Johnson 6’3.5″
  • Thomas Jefferson 6’2.5″
  • Chester A. Arthur 6’2″
  • George H.W. Bush 6’2″
  • Franklin D. Roosevelt 6’2″

And shortest:

  • John Adams 5’7″
  • John Quincy Adams 5’7″
  • William McKinley 5’7″
  • Benjamin Harrison 5’6″
  • Martin Van Buren 5’6″
  • James Madison 5’4″

Great Stork Derby

When financier Charles Vance Millar died in Toronto in 1926, he willed his fortune to the woman who had the most children in the next 10 years.

And people took him up on it — in the end, four women tied at nine births apiece. Each got $125,000.

The period is known as “The Great Stork Derby.”

Gentle Giant

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Size was no impediment to Martin Van Buren Bates, a quiet schoolteacher who found that his enormous size (7’9″) served him better on the battlefields of the Civil War. The “Kentucky Giant” rose quickly from private to captain in the Fifth Kentucky Infantry; Union soldiers told of a “Confederate giant who’s as big as five men and fights like 50.”

After the war, Bates was touring Canada with a circus when he met Anna Haining Swan, another enormously tall person (7’5″), and they married in London, where Queen Victoria gave them two extra-large diamond-studded gold watches as wedding presents.

Their 18-pound child was stillborn, and they ordered an oversize house custom-built in Ohio, with 14-foot ceilings and giant furniture. “To see our guests make use of it,” wrote Bates, “recalls most forcibly the good Dean Swift’s traveler in the land of Brobdingnag.”

The pair toured again, and lost another son, this one 28 inches tall and weighing 22 pounds. “He looked at birth like an ordinary child of six months,” Bates wrote. But “with this exception our lot has been one of almost uninterrupted joy.”

When Anna died in 1886, Martin sold the house and married a woman of normal stature, with whom he lived peacefully until he died of nephritis in Seville in 1919.

Tunguska Redux

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Somebody up there hates Siberia.

On June 30, 1908, something huge exploded over the Tunguska River near modern Evenkia. The blast felled 60 million trees over 2,150 square kilometers; it’s been estimated at between 10 and 15 megatons. Witnesses described a huge fireball moving across the sky, a flash, and a shockwave that knocked people off their feet and broke windows up to 400 miles away. Afterward, the night sky glowed for weeks.

But, strangely, there was no crater. In fact, a few trees near ground zero were still standing, their branches and bark stripped off. Stranger still, some reports said the skyglow had begun the night before the explosion, and that there had been strange weather and increased seismic activity for days beforehand. And carbon-14 dating of the soil gave a date in the future — meaning the soil had somehow become enriched with radioactive carbon-14.

What caused the explosion? A meteor? A comet? An asteroid? There’s been no conclusive explanation. But, disturbingly, a similar thing happened just three years ago. An explosion in Siberia in September 2002 that measured up to 5 kilotons was accompanied by northern lights, increased radioactivity, and an outbreak of unknown diseases nearby. An expedition the following year concluded that it was a comet, but no one knows for sure.

What’s in a Name?

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“Liver-Eating Johnson” had the coolest nickname in the Old West — cooler, perhaps, than the truth warranted.

The “mountain man” was actually born in New Jersey around 1824. He deserted the Navy after the Mexican-American War and lit out for Wyoming, where he trapped, hunted and supplied cordwood to steamboats.

The legend starts in 1847, when the Crow tribe killed his Indian wife and he launched a personal war that lasted 20 years, in which, supposedly, he would cut out and eat the liver of each man he killed.

Did he really? Who knows? But it made a good story, and Johnson’s stature began to grow — literally and figuratively. His Civil War records put him at less than 6 feet tall, but local yarns soon said he was 6 foot 6.

After serving the Union Army as a sharpshooter, he spent the 1880s as a deputy sheriff in Leadville, Colo., and a town marshal in Red Lodge, Mont. He died in 1900.

But a century later the nickname was still working. The 1972 Robert Redford film Jeremiah Johnson was based in part on his life — and Redford even served as one of the pallbearers when Johnson’s body was reburied in Cody, Wyo., in 1974.

Arf!

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Yes, that’s a real dog, and no, the photo isn’t doctored. During World War II the Soviets experimented with “anti-tank dogs,” dogs that were trained to run under enemy tanks with explosives strapped to their backs.

Unfortunately, the Soviets trained the dogs by putting food under their own tanks, which led to some Three-Stooges-style hijinks on the battlefield. In 1942, an entire Soviet tank division was chased into retreat by its own dogs. Serves ’em right.

All in the Family

Relationships among U.S. presidents:

  • James Madison was the half first cousin twice removed of George Washington.
  • Zachary Taylor was the second cousin of James Madison.
  • Grover Cleveland was the sixth cousin once removed of Ulysses S. Grant.
  • Theodore Roosevelt was the third cousin twice removed of Martin Van Buren.
  • Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the fourth cousin once removed of Ulysses S. Grant, the fourth cousin three times removed of Zachary Taylor, and the fifth cousin of Theodore Roosevelt (although his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, was a niece of Theodore).
  • Harry S. Truman was the great-great-great nephew of John Tyler.
  • Richard Nixon was the seventh cousin twice removed of William Howard Taft and the eighth cousin once removed of Herbert Hoover.
  • George H.W. Bush was the fifth cousin four times removed of Franklin Pierce, the seventh cousin three times removed of Theodore Roosevelt, the seventh cousin four times removed of Abraham Lincoln, and the eleventh cousin once removed of Gerald Ford.

Drake’s Plate of Brass

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Drake’s Plate of Brass is a museum curator’s nightmare: A priceless artifact revealed as historians’ in-joke gone terribly awry.

The story surrounds a golden plate that Francis Drake reportedly left as a monument when he visited Northern California in 1579. Hoping to fool one of their number, a group of local historians hammered out a fake version in 1936 and planted it near Drake’s landing point.

Sure enough, it made its way to the victim, historian George Bolton of Berkeley. Before they could reveal the joke, though, Bolton vouched for the plate’s authenticity, engaging the University of California and paying $2,500 for it.

Now that the hoax was so painfully public the conspirators had to move carefully. They tried discreetly to reveal their joke, but then to their horror Columbia University confirmed the plate as genuine. It was added to textbooks; likenesses were sold as souvenirs; copies were presented to Queen Elizabeth II herself on several occasions.

Only 40 years later, after exhaustive testing at Oxford, Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory and MIT, was the plate confirmed as a fake, and it was several years before the whole story was pieced together. The plate is still on display at the Bancroft Library at Berkeley, an embarrassing testament to the gullibility of an excited historian.