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.

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.