The Cottingley Fairies

In 1920 two English cousins, Frances Griffiths and Elsie Wright, produced a series of photos that seemed to show them cavorting with fairies and gnomes.

The images were published in The Strand and convinced Arthur Conan Doyle, among others. In The Coming of the Fairies (1922), he wrote: “It is hard for the mind to grasp what the ultimate results may be if we have actually proved the existence upon the surface of this planet of a population which may be as numerous as the human race, which pursues its own strange life in its own strange way, and which is only separated from ourselves by some difference of vibrations.”

But see Fairies Unmasked.

I Say, 007!

Blue Peacock was the sexy code name of a secret British plan to salt the Rhine with nuclear mines in the 1950s, in case of war.

Less sexily, they planned to put a live chicken in each one, to keep the electronics from getting cold.

When the file was declassified on April 1, 2004, this was taken to be an April Fool’s joke, but it’s true. Fortunately, the project was canceled.

Landmarks in Medicine, #2

Cures, from John Aubrey, Miscellanies Upon Various Subjects, 1696:

  • To cure a Thrush: Take a living frog, and hold it in a cloth, that it does not go down into the child’s mouth; and put the head into the child’s mouth ’till it is dead; and then take another frog, and do the same.
  • To cure the Tooth-Ach: Take a new nail, and make the gum bleed with it, and then drive it into an oak. This did cure William Neal’s son, a very stout gentleman, when he was almost mad with the pain, and had a mind to have pistolled himself.
  • For the Jaundice: The jaundice is cured, by putting the urine after the first sleep, to the ashes of the ash-tree, bark of barberries.
  • To cure a beast that is sprung, (that is) poisoned: It lights mostly upon Sheep. Take the little red spider, called a tentbob, (not so big as a great pins-head) the first you light upon in the spring of the year, and rub it in the palm of your hand all to pieces: and having so done, piss on it, and rub it in, and let it dry; then come to the beast and make water in your hand, and throw it in his mouth. It cures in a matter of an hour’s time. This rubbing serves for a whole year, and it is no danger to the hand. The chiefest skill is to know whether the beast be poisoned or no. From Mr. Pacy.

“The Planet of War”

The land regions of Mars can be distinguished from the seas by their ruddy color, the seas being greenish. But here, perhaps, you will be disposed to ask how astronomers can be sure that the greenish regions are seas, the ruddy regions land, the white spots either snow or cloud. Might not materials altogether unlike any we are acquainted with exist upon that remote planet?

The spectroscope answers this question in the clearest way. You may remember what I told you in October, 1876, about Venus, how astronomers have learned that the vapor of water exists in her atmosphere. The same method has been applied, even more satisfactorily, to the planet of war, and it has been found that he also has his atmosphere at times laden with moisture. This being so, it is clear we have not to do with a planet made of materials utterly unlike those forming our earth. To suppose so, when we find that the air of Mars, formed like our own (for if it contained other gases the spectroscope would tell us), contains often large quantities of the vapor of water, would be as absurd as to believe in the green cheese theory of the moon, or in another equally preposterous, advanced lately by an English artist — Mr. J.T. Brett — to the effect that the atmosphere of Venus is formed of glass.

— Richard A. Proctor, St. Nicholas Magazine for Boys and Girls, November 1877

Toil and Trouble

Recipe for “flying ointment”:

  • 1/2 oz. soot
  • 1 oz. pork fat
  • 1 oz. hemlock
  • 1 oz. deadly nightshade
  • 1 oz. wolfsbane

Allegedly such recipes were obtained by torturing accused witches, who said they used the ointment to fly to the Sabbat. More likely the mixture induced hallucinations; maybe that amounts to the same thing.

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.