Tall Tale


When Magellan reached Argentina in 1519, he was in for a shock:

One day we suddenly saw a naked man of giant stature on the shore of the port, dancing, singing, and throwing dust on his head. The captain-general sent one of our men to the giant so that he might perform the same actions as a sign of peace. … He was so tall that we reached only to his waist, and he was well proportioned …

The navigator’s account says the man was “10 spans high,” which would be 7 foot 6; later European explorers reported natives up to 15 feet tall.

These legends persisted for 250 years before they were debunked, and they left one permanent legacy: Patagonia means “land of the big feet.”

Have Gun, Will Travel


Letter received by William McKinley in April 1898, shortly before the outbreak of the Spanish-American War:

Dear Sir I for one feel Confident that your good judgment will carry America safely through without war —

But in case of such an event I am ready to place a Company of fifty Lady sharpshooters at your disposal. Every one of them will be an American and as they will furnish their own arms and ammunition will be little if any expense to the government.

Very truly

Annie Oakley

Landmarks in Medicine, #1

Treatment for sore throat, diphtheria, and scarlet fever from The Confederate Receipt Book, 1868:

Mix in a common size cup of fresh milk two teaspoonfuls of pulverized charcoal and ten drops of spirits of turpentine. Soften the charcoal with a few drops of milk before putting into the cup. Gargle frequently, according to the violence of the symptoms.

Prohibition and the Family


A letter to the Seattle Bureau of Prohibition, Sept. 12, 1931:

Dear Sir:

My husband is in the habit of buying a quart of wiskey every other day from a Chinese bootlegger named Chin Waugh living at 317-16th near Alder street.

We need this money for household expenses. Will you please have his place raided? He keeps a supply planted in the garden and a smaller quantity under the back steps for quick delivery. If you make the raid at 9:30 any morning you will be sure to get the goods and Chin also as he leaves the house at 10 o’clock and may clean up before he goes.

Thanking you in advance, I remain yours truly,

Mrs. Hillyer

U.S. Camel Corps


Necessity is the mother of invention. In the 1840s, when Army horses and mules were failing in the American Southwest, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis (yes, same guy) allocated $30,000 for “the purchase of camels and the importation of dromedaries, to be employed for military purposes.” The Navy sent a ship to North Africa, and in 1856 33 confused camels arrived in Indianola, Texas.

They did pretty well. After a survey expedition to California, an enthusiastic Col. Edward Beale declared, “I look forward to the day when every mail route across the continent will be conducted … with this economical and noble brute.”

The Civil War put an end to the project, but there’s a strange postscript. Some of the camels escaped into the Texas desert, where apparently they adapted to life in the wild. The last feral camel was sighted in 1941. There’s a movie in here somewhere.

Let’s Get This Over With

The longest war in history lasted from 1650 to 1985, between the Netherlands and the Isles of Scilly (located off the southwest coast of the United Kingdom).

The Dutch had declared it against the Royalists there during the Second English Civil War, and then forgot about it. In 335 years, no shots were fired and no lives were lost.

The shortest war was the Anglo-Zanzibar War, fought between the United Kingdom and Zanzibar in 1896. It lasted 45 minutes. Kudos.

Ojibwa Prophecy

In the 15th century, among the Ojibwa people of Lake Superior, a prophet dreamed of “men who had come across the great water … their skins are white like snow, and on their faces long hair grows. These people have come … in wonderfully large canoes which have great white wings like those of a giant bird. The men have long and sharp knives, and they have long black tubes which they point at birds and animals. The tubes make a smoke that rises into the air … from them come fire and … a terrific noise.”

After this prophecy was made, a group of Ojibwa traveled down the St. Lawrence waterway to investigate and made their first contact with white men, possibly a party from John Cabot’s (1497) or Jacques Cartier’s (1535) expedition.

Head of State


It’s dangerous to make history. Schoolchildren learn that Oliver Cromwell overthrew the British monarchy, but they’re less often told of the grisly price he paid.

Three years after his death of malaria, Cromwell’s body was dug up and underwent a “posthumous execution” for treason by the restored monarchy: It was hanged, drawn and quartered, decapitated and thrown into a common pit, and the severed head was mounted on a pole and displayed outside Westminster Abbey for four years, until 1685.

Even that wasn’t enough. The head passed among various owners for 275 years; it wasn’t buried until 1960, on the grounds of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge.

And Cromwell was only the most prominent of the regicides of Charles I. Three others were also “punished” posthumously, and those still alive were imprisoned or chased out of England.