Harry S? Truman

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You can start fights among copyeditors by asking them how to punctuate Harry Truman’s name.

The 34th president had no middle name — just the letter S. So the question is, do you add a period afterward? Purists say no, it’s not an abbreviation. Pragmatists say yes, if you omit the period then some readers will stop at the “error.”

Truman himself usually signed his name with a period, but he once remarked that it should be omitted. That’s why, to this day, some newspapers refer to him as Harry S Truman.

Shortest-Reigning Popes

Shortest-reigning popes:

  • Urban VII (elected in 1590): 13 days
  • Boniface VI (896): 16 days
  • Celestine IV (1241): 17 days
  • Sisinnius (708): 21 days
  • Theodore II (897): 21 days
  • Marcellus II (1555): 22 days
  • Damasus II (1048): 24 days
  • Pius III (1503): 27 days
  • Leo XI (1605): 27 days
  • Benedict V (964): 33 days

1978 is called the “year of three popes”: Pope Paul VI was succeeded by John Paul I, who lived only 33 days. John Paul II succeeded him.

Living Former Presidents

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There have been only three periods when five former American presidents were alive at the same time:

  • March 4, 1861-Jan. 18, 1862: Martin Van Buren, John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan
  • Jan. 20, 1993-April 22, 1994: Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush
  • Jan. 20, 2001-June 5, 2004: Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton

Herbert Hoover lived for 31 years after leaving office; James Polk lasted only three months.

Riddle of the Sphinx

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For most of its history, Egypt’s Great Sphinx lay buried up to its neck in sand. This photo was taken in 1867; the sphinx wasn’t fully dug out until 1925.

Strangely, we know very little about it. It’s one of the world’s largest statues, but no one knows who built it, or when, or whose likeness it bears. We’re not even sure what it is — we call it a sphinx, but we borrow that term from Greek mythology. A true sphinx would have the head of a woman.

No one knows what the ancient Egyptians called it, but its Arabic name, Abu al-Hôl, translates as “Father of Terror.” Maybe we should cover it up again.

An Early Serial Killer

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Wander too far away from the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 and you might disappear forever.

Herman Mudgett, an enterprising serial killer, built a row of three-story buildings near the Chicago fair and opened it as a hotel. Guests discovered — too late — that it was a maze of more than 100 windowless rooms, where Mudgett would trap them, torture them in a soundproof chamber, and then asphyxiate them with a custom-fitted gas line.

Then he’d send the bodies by chute to the basement, where he’d cremate them or sell them to a medical school.

This went on for three years, until a fire broke out and police and firemen discovered the trap. No one knows how many people Mudgett killed; he confessed to 27, but estimates go as high as 230.

He was hanged in Philadelphia in 1896.