“A Battle on Stilts”

http://www.gutenberg.org/files/17582/17582-h/17582-h.htm

“In the year 1748 the great Marshal Saxe, who was travelling through the Low Countries, came to the town of Namur in Belgium. There the citizens did everything in their power to make his stay pleasant and to do him honor, and among other things they got up a battle on stilts. These inhabitants of Namur were well used to stilts, for their town, which has a river on each side of it, lay very low, and was subject to overflows, when the people were obliged to use stilts in order to walk about the streets. In this way they became very expert in the use of these slim, wooden legs, and to make their stilts amusing as well as useful they used to have stilt-battles on all holidays and great occasions. …

“Things are different in this country. It is said that in 1859 a man walked across the rapids of the Niagara river on stilts, but I never heard of any of his taxes being remitted on that account.”

— Frank R. Stockton, Round-About Rambles in Lands of Fact and Fancy, 1910

The Berners Street Hoax

In 1810, Theodore Hook, a writer of comic operas, bet his friend Samuel Beazley that he could turn any house in London into the most talked-about address in the city within one week. Beazley accepted, and Hook began writing letters.

A few weeks later, on Nov. 10, a Mrs. Tottenham of 54 Berners Street turned away a coal merchant delivering a load of coal that she hadn’t ordered.

She was in for a long day. The Morning Post reported: “Wagons laden with coals from the Paddington wharfs, upholsterers’ goods in cart loads, organs, pioanofortes, linens, jewelry, and every other description of furniture sufficient to have stocked the whole street, were lodged as near as possible to the door of 54, with anxious trades-people and a laughing mob.”

It went on. “There were accoucheurs, tooth-drawers, miniature painters, artists of every description, auctioneers, … grocers, mercers, post-chaises, mourning-coaches, poultry, rabbits, pigeons, etc. In fact, the whole street was literally filled with the motley group.”

The merchants were followed by dignitaries: the governor of the Bank of England, the archbishop of Canterbury, cabinet ministers, dukes, and finally the lord mayor of London.

Hook won his bet, collecting one guinea. He eventually confessed to the prank, but apparently never received any punishment.

Mary Tofts

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Image:1010101.jpg

In 1726, 25-year-old English maidservant Mary Tofts began giving birth to rabbits. Despite a miscarriage earlier that year, she apparently went into labor, and local doctor John Howard delivered several stillborn rabbits.

More were coming. Howard summoned other doctors by letter, and Mary’s next litter was witnessed by Nathaniel St. Andre, surgeon-anatomist to King George I, and Sir Richard Manningham, the most famous obstetrician in London.

Amazed, St. Andre published a tract titled A Short Narrative of an Extraordinary Delivery of Rabbits. But Mary’s deliveries stopped when she was put under close supervision, and soon a boy came forward reporting that she had bribed him to supply her with more rabbits. In the end she confessed, saying she had done it “to get so good a living that I should never want as long as I lived.” Ah.

“The Fuels of the Future”

“With the prospect of coal becoming as rare as the dodo itself, the world, we are told by scientists, may still regard with complacency the failure of our ordinary carbon supply. The natural gases and oils of the world will provide the human race with combustible material for untold ages — such at least is the opinion of those who are best informed on the subject.”

Glasgow Herald, quoted in Scientific American Supplement No. 717, Sept. 28, 1889

Fortune Favors the Bold

On Oct. 16, 1906, small-time criminal Wilhelm Voigt became a big-time criminal … for one day.

Wearing a secondhand captain’s uniform, he appeared at the local army barracks, where he dismissed the commander. Then, with 10 grenadiers and a sergeant in tow, he took a train to Köpenick, east of Berlin, and took over city hall.

There he confiscated 4,000 marks and 37 pfennigs and ordered the town secretary and the mayor sent to Berlin on charges of crooked bookkeeping. He told the remaining soldiers to guard the building for half an hour and then left for the train station, where he changed back to civilian clothes and slipped away.

Why? Why not?

A Freak of Navigation

En route from Vancouver to Australia on Dec. 30, 1899, the captain of the S.S. Warrimoo spotted a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. At midnight, he stopped the ship at the intersection of the international date line and the equator.

At that moment, the ship was straddling two different hemispheres, days, months, years, seasons, and centuries, all at the same time. By passing between the bow and the stern, passengers could stroll between winter and summer, north and south, and the 19th and 20th centuries.

The downside: For the Warrimoo, Dec. 31 disappeared entirely.

(Roberto Casati points out that if you return to this point on June 21 and lie down on the deck, at midnight your left hand will be in summer, your right hand in spring, your left foot in winter, and your right foot in autumn.)

Song of the Sphinx

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Egypt.ColossiMemnon.03.jpg
Image: Wikimedia Commons

The Colossi of Memnon, in Egypt. After an earthquake, the one on the right began to “sing” every morning at dawn, producing a light moaning sound probably related to rising temperatures and evaporating dew. In “The Sphinx,” Oscar Wilde wrote:

Still from his chair of porphyry gaunt Memnon strains his lidless eyes
Across the empty land, and cries each yellow morning unto thee.

Hearing the song brought good luck, so the colossi began to attract pilgrims from across the ancient world. It stopped in 199 when Emperor Septimius Severus tried to fix the damage. Nice going.

Platypus

When he received the first duck-billed platypus from Captain John Hunter in Australia, naturalist George Shaw thought it was a hoax. “Impossible not to entertain some doubts as to the genuine nature of the animal, and to surmise that there might have been practised some arts of deception in its structure,” he wrote in the journal Naturalist’s Miscellany.

Surgeon John Knox agreed: “Aware of the monstrous impostures which the artful Chinese had so frequently practised on European adventurers … the scientific felt inclined to class this rare production of nature with eastern mermaids and other works of art.”

Landmarks in Medicine, #3

From John Aubrey, Miscellanies Upon Various Subjects, 1696:

Mr. Schoot, a German, hath an excellent book of magick: it is prohibited in that country. I have here set down three spells, which are much approved.

— To cure an Ague. Write this following spell in parchment, and wear it about your neck. It must be writ triangularly.

A B R A C A D A B R A
A B R A C A D A B R
A B R A C A D A B
A B R A C A D A
A B R A C A D
A B R A C A
A B R A C
A B R A
A B R
A B
A

With this spell, one of Wells, hath cured above a hundred of the ague.

— To cure the biting of a Mad-Dog, write these words in paper, viz. “Rebus Rubus Epitepscum”, and give it to the party, or beast bit, to eat in bread, &c. A Gentleman of good quality, and a sober grave person, did affirm, that this receipt never fails.

— To cure the Tooth-Ach: out of Mr. Ashmole’s manuscript writ with his own hand.

“Mars, hur, abursa, aburse”.
Jesu Christ for Mary’s sake,
Take away this Tooth-Ach.

Write the words three times; and as you say the words, let the party burn one paper, then another, and then the last. He says, he saw it experimented, and the party “immediately cured.”

Der Giftpilz

http://www.calvin.edu/academic/cas/gpa/thumb.htm

Yes, it’s a Jewish toadstool.

In 1938, fanatical Nazi Julius Streicher published a children’s book called Der Giftpilz (The Poisoned Mushroom), which compared perfidious Jews to poisonous fungus.

“Our boys and girls must learn to know the Jew,” a mother warns her children. “They must learn that the Jew is the most dangerous poison mushroom in existence. Just as poisonous mushrooms spring up everywhere, so the Jew is found in every country in the world. Just as poisonous mushrooms lead to the most dreadful calamity, so the Jew is the cause of misery and distress, illness and death.”

Disturbingly, Streicher had worked as an elementary school teacher before joining the German army in 1914. He published propaganda for Hitler, and after Nuremberg he was the only sentenced Nazi to declare “Heil Hitler” before being hanged. At least he was consistent.