San Francisco Earthquake Photo, 1906

San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake. Photographer George Lawrence mounted a camera on a kite and flew it 2,000 feet over the ruins.

Of the city’s 400,000 residents, the quake killed 3,000 and left 225,000 homeless. For a time, Bank of America founder Amadeo Giannini met customers at a plank set across two barrels.

Balloon Mail

Besieged by Prussians in 1870, Paris found a clever way to get mail to the outside world. For 20 centimes you could write a letter on a thin piece of green paper; these were collected and sent hopefully upward on unguided mail balloons. Each 4-gram postcard carried an address; the Parisians hoped that the balloons would drift to earth somewhere and that whoever found the messages would forward them.

It worked. During the four-month siege they sent up 65 balloons, and only two went missing.

Uncorker of Ocean Bottles

In the 16th century, the English navy would put messages in bottles to send information ashore about enemy positions.

Queen Elizabeth I even created the official position “Uncorker of Ocean Bottles.” Anyone else caught opening them faced the death penalty.

“The Witch of Wall Street”

If Ebenezer Scrooge were a woman, he’d look like this. Hetty Green (1834-1916) amassed more than $100 million as a shrewd businesswoman, but today she’s remembered mostly for her breathtaking stinginess.

Born into a Massachusetts whaling family, Hetty was reading financial papers to her father at age 6 and keeping the family books at 13. She inherited $7.5 million on her father’s death, and reportedly married only to keep her relatives at bay (she made her fiance sign a prenup). When her husband divorced her and then died, she moved to Hoboken and basically went nuts.

Legends say she never heated her house or used hot water; that she wore one old black dress; that she rode in an old carriage. Rather than pay rent, she sat on the floor of New York’s Seaboard National Bank and ate only oatmeal heated on the office radiator, and she would travel thousands of miles to collect a debt of a few hundred dollars.

Almost no expense was worthwhile. Her son’s leg had to be amputated when she tried to treat him at home. She herself refused treatment for a hernia because it cost $150.

When she died, at age 80, she may have been the richest woman in the world. Unfortunately, you can’t take it with you.

Veteran Longevity

The last surviving American veteran of the …

  • … American Revolutionary War, Daniel F. Bakeman, died in 1869 at age 109.
  • … War of 1812, Hiram Cronk, died in 1905 at age 105.
  • … Mexican-American War, Owen Thomas Edgar, died in 1929 at age 98.
  • … Spanish-American War, Jones Morgan, died in 1993 at age 111.

The last surviving Union veteran of the American Civil War was Albert Woolson, who died in 1956 at age 109. Amazingly, the last surviving Confederate, John B. Salling, survived until 1959, when he died at age 113.

Four Months Adrift

In 1942, Chinese sailor Poon Lim survived 130 days drifting alone in the South Atlantic. A German U-boat torpedoed his ship and he climbed into a life raft. Lim stayed alive by catching rainwater in a canvas tarp and fishing with a bent nail. At first he counted the days by tying knots in a rope, but then simply began counting full moons. He reached Brazil in April 1943, 20 pounds lighter but able to walk unaided. “I hope no one will ever have to break that record,” he said.

Belated Surrenders

For most Japanese, World War II ended in 1945. But not for some:

  • Shoichi Yokoi, a soldier in the Imperial Japanese Army, was discovered in a remote section of Guam in 1972. He had been hiding in an underground jungle cave for 28 years, refusing to believe leaflets that said the war had ended.
  • 2nd. Lt. Hiroo Onoda hid in the Philippines jungle for 29 years. He finally gave up in 1974, when his old commanding officer convinced him the war was over. He surrendered in his dress uniform and sword, with his Arisaka rifle still in operating condition, 500 rounds of ammunition, and several hand grenades.
  • The last holdout, Capt. Fumio Nakahira of the Japanese Imperial Army, was discovered on Mindoro Island in the Philippines in April 1980 — 35 years after V-J Day.

“It is with much embarrassment that I have returned alive,” Yokoi said on returning to Japan. He got $300 in back pay.

Human Life Expectancy

Average human lifespan, by era:

  • Neanderthal: 20 years
  • Neolithic: 20 years
  • Classical Greece: 28 years
  • Classical Rome: 28 years
  • Medieval England: 33 years
  • End of 18th century: 37 years
  • Early 20th century: 50 years
  • Circa 1940: 65 years
  • Current (in the West): 77-81 years

Today the average Zambian dies at age 37, the average Japanese at age 81.

Death Tolls

  • 300 million – smallpox, worldwide, 20th century
  • 200 million – bubonic plague, worldwide, 1300s
  • 62 million – World War II
  • 60 million – Mongol conquests, 13th century
  • 19 million – AIDS, worldwide to date
  • 1 million – Irish potato famine, 1846-1849
  • 830,000 – Shaanxi earthquake, China, 1556
  • 650,000 – Deaths in the Roman Colosseum for public entertainment, 80-404
  • 36,000 – Krakatoa eruption, Indonesia, 1883
  • 15,000 – Holy Inquisition, 1184-1800
  • 1,517 – RMS Titanic, 1912
  • 300 – Great Chicago Fire, 1871
  • 270 – Pan Am Flight 103, Lockerbie, Scotland, 1988
  • 36 – Hindenburg disaster, Lakehurst, N.J., 1937
  • 7 – Space shuttle Challenger, Florida, 1986
  • 4 – Kent State shootings


Tallest U.S. presidents:

  • Abraham Lincoln 6’3.75″
  • Lyndon B. Johnson 6’3.5″
  • Thomas Jefferson 6’2.5″
  • Chester A. Arthur 6’2″
  • George H.W. Bush 6’2″
  • Franklin D. Roosevelt 6’2″

And shortest:

  • John Adams 5’7″
  • John Quincy Adams 5’7″
  • William McKinley 5’7″
  • Benjamin Harrison 5’6″
  • Martin Van Buren 5’6″
  • James Madison 5’4″