Marriage on the Frontier

Letter from a California resident to an officer of Bodie, a gold-rush boom town, circa 1881:

Kind and Respected Cir:

I see in the paper that a man named John Sipes was attacted and et up by a bare whose kubs he was trying to get when the she bare came up and stopt him by eating him in the mountains near your town.

What I want to know is did it kill him ded or was he only partly et up and is he from this plaice and all about the bare. I don’t know but he is a distant husband of mine. My first husband was of the name and I supposed he was killed in the war, but the name of the man the bare et being the same I thought it might be him after all and I ought to know if he wasn’t killed either in the war or by the bare, for I have been married twise since and there ought to be divorse papers got out by him or me if the bare did not eat him up. If it is him you will know by him having six toes on his left foot.

He also had a spreadagle tattooed on his front chest and a anker on his right arm which you will know him by if the bare did not eat up these sines of it being him.

Find out all yu kin about him without him knowing what it is for, that is if the bare did not eat him all up. If it did I don’t see as you kin do anything and you needn’t to trouble. Please ancer back.

She added a postscript: “Was the bare killed?”

Some Things Never Change

Letter from Jeannette Linn to Santa Claus, Dec. 21, 1899:

Dear Santa, I thought I would drop you a few lines and tell you a few things what I want. Well, I want a pair of skates, because I think by the time Christmas comes it will be frozen up. And for another thing, I want a pair of leggings so that it will keep my feet warm and I want them so that they will come up above my shoe-tops, and I want a little slate like those that have pictures of cats and rabbits and dogs on and like those that are almost like a slate, and if it don’t cost too much I would like a large doll, so large that it would look about four years old. I will tell you where to find it. If you look in the basement of the Arcade on the place where the dolls are, you will see a large doll with real long curly hair and it is jointed and it is as pretty as I am. And I don’t think I want much, but dear Santa, I know that I want more than you can afford to give, for there are more little boys and girls and they want something too. But I would like to have so much a nice tricycle that would cost three dollars and that is too much, I think, to pay for anything, but that is really the price of it because I saw the price on it and it said $3.00 as plain as this letter is written and I think it is written pretty plain.

She finished: “Well Santa, I must close because it is getting late and I think if I don’t close you will not bring me anything. I have got as much as I can think of.”

An Ancient Computer

In 1900, sponge divers were retrieving relics from an ancient Greek shipwreck when archaeologist Spyridon Stais noticed a rock with a gear wheel in it. He had discovered the Antikythera mechanism, a remarkable clockwork computer that modeled the movements of heavenly objects as early as 87 B.C.

Using x-ray analysis, historians of science and technology have studied the mechanism closely and devised several working reconstructions. British orrery maker John Gleave believes the front dial tracked the sun and moon through the zodiac year against the Egyptian calendar. Others believe it modeled the motions of the sun, the moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn — every celestial body known to the ancient Greeks.

That last interpretation is significant: In the first century B.C. Cicero had written of an instrument “recently constructed by our friend Poseidonius, which at each revolution reproduces the same motions of the sun, the moon and the five planets.” It may have been used to calculate celestial positions at the times of certain events or births.

Whatever the details, the device was remarkably sophisticated for its day: Among other things, it uses a differential gear, which historians had previously thought was invented in the 16th century. Complex Greek creations like this may have passed through the Arab world and eventually informed European clockmaking. What other ancient technology has been lost?

Pull Over

Uninspiring land speed records:

  • 39.24 mph, Dec. 18, 1898, Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat (France)
  • 41.42 mph, Jan. 17, 1899 Camille Jenatzy (Belgium)
  • 43.69 mph, Jan. 17, 1899 Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat (France)
  • 49.93 mph, Jan. 27, 1899 Camille Jenatzy (Belgium)
  • 57.65 mph, March 4, 1899 Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat (France)
  • 65.79 mph, April 29, 1899 Camille Jenatzy (Belgium)

Interestingly, these were all set with electric vehicles.


The mutiny on the Bounty is a landmark of sea law, but it also has a curious linguistic sequel. After setting Captain Bligh adrift, Fletcher Christian fled to Pitcairn Island in the South Pacific. With him were eight other crewmen, six Tahitian men, and 11 women. In order to understand each other, they developed a creole mix of English and Tahitian known as “Pitcairnese”:

English Pitkern
How are you? Whata way ye?
Where are you going? About ye gwen?
Are you going to cook dinner? You gwen whihi up suppa?
Would you like some food? Ye like-a sum whettles?
I don’t think so I nor believe
It doesn’t matter Do’ mine

The mutineers were a diverse lot, with origins from Scotland to the West Indies, so the mix is a linguistic hodgepodge. For instance, “whettles,” above, meaning food, is a throwback to the Old English victuals.

Cecil Rhodes’ Secret Ambition

Now remembered chiefly for establishing Rhodes scholarships, South African diamond magnate Cecil Rhodes left an alarming provision in his will — he hoped to take over the world:

To and for the establishment, promotion and development of a Secret Society, the true aim and object whereof shall be for the extension of British rule throughout the world, the perfecting of a system of emigration from the United Kingdom, and of colonisation by British subjects of all lands where the means of livelihood are attainable by energy, labour and enterprise, and especially the occupation by British settlers of the entire Continent of Africa, the Holy Land, the Valley of the Euphrates, the Islands of Cyprus and Candia, the whole of South America, the Islands of the Pacific not heretofore possessed by Great Britain, the whole of the Malay Archipelago, the seaboard of China and Japan, the ultimate recovery of the United States of America as an integral part of the British Empire, the inauguration of a system of Colonial representation in the Imperial Parliament which may tend to weld together the disjointed members of the Empire and, finally, the foundation of so great a Power as to render wars impossible and promote the best interests of humanity.

“I contend that we (the British) are the finest race in the world,” he once wrote, “and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race.”

Petroleum V. Nasby on “The Woman Question”

  • From the begining woman has occupied a dependent position, and has been only what man has made her. The Turks, logical fellows, denied her a soul, and made of her an object of barter and sale; the American Indians made of her a beast of burden. In America, since we extended the area of civilization by butchering the Indians, we have copied both.
  • The inferiority of the sex is easy of demonstration. It has been said that the mother forms the character of the man so long, that the proposition has become axiomatic. If this be true, we can crush those who prate of the equality of women, by holding up to the gaze of the world the inferior men she has produced. Look at the Congress of the United States.
  • My friend is learned. She has a tolerable knowledge of Greek, is an excellent Latin scholar, and as she has read the Constitution of the United States, she excels in political lore the majority of our representatives in Congress. But nevertheless I protest against her voting for several reasons:
    1. She cannot sing bass! Her voice, as Dr. Bushnell justly observes in his blessed book, is pitched higher than the male voice, which indicates feminine weakness of mind.
    2. Her form is graceful rather than strong.
    3. She delights in millinery goods.
    4. She can’t grow whiskers.

— Satirical lyceum speaker Petroleum Vesuvius Nasby, “The Struggles of a Conservative with the Woman Question,” 1868

A Word to the Wise

“Servants are a necessary evil. He who shall contrive to obviate their necessity, or remove their inconveniences, will render to human comfort a greater benefit than has yet been conferred by all the useful-knowledge societies of the age. They are domestic spies, who continually embarrass the intercourse of the members of a family, or possess themselves of private information that renders their presence hateful, and their absence dangerous. It is a rare thing to see persons who are not controlled by their servants. Theirs, too, is not the only kitchen cabinet which begins by serving and ends by ruling.”

— From The Laws of Etiquette, by “A Gentleman,” 1836