A Clever Solution

https://www.flickr.com/photos/nationalarchives/25598040278

In 1627 a group of sailors wanted to communicate a grievance to the captain of one of the King’s ships. Technically this amounted to mutiny, which was punishable by death, so they needed a way to express their solidarity without revealing any one of them as the leader and inviting retribution against him.

The answer was to arrange their 76 signatures in a circle, demanding that their allowances be distributed and the ship be victualed before they would weigh anchor. (I don’t know whether the captain agreed.)

From the U.K. National Archives.

Podcast Episode 263: Memories of Proust

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jozef_Czapski_January_21_1943_LOC_matpc.21627.jpg

Confined in a Soviet prison camp in 1941, Polish painter Józef Czapski chose a unique way to cope: He lectured to the other prisoners on Marcel Proust’s novel In Search of Lost Time. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Czapski’s ambitious project and the surprising importance of literature to the prisoners of oppressive regimes.

We’ll also race some lemons and puzzle over a woman’s birthdays.

See full show notes …

An Audible End

world war i armistice signature

World War I’s final ceasefire went into effect at a precise moment: 11:00 a.m. Paris time on Nov. 11, 1918. The French had worked out a way of recording sound signals on film — they used it to infer the position of enemy guns by determining the time between the sound of a shell’s firing and its explosion. This gives us a visual record of the end of the fighting, six representative seconds from the periods before and after the armistice. (Note, though, that the minute immediately before and the one immediately after the ceasefire aren’t shown, “to emphasize the contrast.”)

I don’t have an original source for this — Time magazine credits the U.S. Army Signal Corps.

Emphasis

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Vladimir_Lenin_Leon_Trotsky_Lev_Kamenev_1920.jpg

In 1920, after Lenin delivered a speech in Petrograd to troops departing to fight in the Soviet-Polish war, Russian artist El Lissitzky challenged his architecture students to design a speaker’s platform on a public square. The result was the Lenin Tribune, a rostrum that can bear its speaker aloft to address a crowd of any size. In a letter to the art historian and critic Adolf Behne, Lissitzky wrote:

I have now received some sketches of former works and have reconstructed the design. Therefore I do not sign it as my personal work, but as a workshop production. The diagonally-standing structure of iron latticework supports the movable and collapsible balconies: the upper one for the speaker, the lower one for guests. An elevator takes care of transportation. On top there is a panel intended for slogans during the day and as a projection screen at night. The gesture of the entire speaker’s platform is supposed to enhance the motions of the speaker. (The figure is Lenin.)

Here the message reads PROLETARIAT. Lissitzky later said he regretted not publishing the design when Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International was attracting attention, so that the two might have competed against one another.

Podcast Episode 261: The Murder of Lord William Russell

https://curiosity.lib.harvard.edu/crime-broadsides/catalog/46-990080942200203941
Image: Harvard Digital Collections

In May 1840 London was scandalized by the murder of Lord William Russell, who’d been found in his bed with his throat cut. The evidence seemed to point to an intruder, but suspicion soon fell on Russell’s valet. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the investigation and trial, and the late revelation that decided the case.

We’ll also marvel at Ireland’s greenery and puzzle over a foiled kidnapping.

See full show notes …

Revere’s Obelisk

revere's obelisk

To celebrate the repeal of the Stamp Act, Paul Revere designed an obelisk that was erected on Boston Common on the evening of May 22, 1776. Its four panels, painted on translucent waxed paper borne on a wooden frame, described the phases of the struggle against the act:

1. America in distress apprehending the total loss of Liberty.

2d. She implores the aid of her Patrons.

3d. She endures the Conflict for a short Season.

4. And has her Liberty restord by the Royal hand of George the Third.

At the bottom is the legend “To every Lover of Liberty, this Plate is humbly dedicated, by her true born Sons, in Boston New England.”

It was illuminated by 280 candles, and fireworks and Catherine wheels were launched from its sides. Unfortunately it “took Fire … and was consumed” a few hours a later. This is the only surviving copy of the engraving.

(Thanks, Charlie.)

“A Rabbit Tamed”

A notable detail from Alexander Morrison Stewart’s Camp, March and Battle-Field (1865): During the Battle of Malvern Hill, a terrified rabbit darted about the battlefield looking for safety until it came upon a Union regiment lying prone:

Ere the rabbit seemed aware, it had jumped into the midst of these men. It could go no farther, but presently nestled down beside a soldier, and tried to hide itself under his arm. As the man spread the skirt of his coat over the trembling fugitive, in order to insure it of all the protection in his power to bestow, he no doubt feelingly remembered how much himself then needed some higher protection, under the shadow of whose arm might be hidden his own defenceless head, from the fast-multiplying missiles of death, scattered in all directions.

It was not long, however, before the regiment was ordered up and forward. From the protection and safety granted, the timid creature had evidently acquired confidence in man — as the boys are wont to say, ‘Had been tamed.’ As the regiment moved forward to the front of the battle, it hopped along, tame, seemingly, as a kitten, close at the feet of the soldier who had bestowed the needed protection. Wherever the regiment afterwards went, during all the remaining part of that bloody day and terrible battle, the rabbit kept close beside its new friend.

“When night came on, and the rage of battle had ceased, it finally, unmolested and quietly, hopped away, in order to find some one of its old and familiar haunts.”

Tidings

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chateau_Wood_Ypres_1917.jpg

Due to a miscommunication, Lt. Jack Brewster of the 3rd Royal Fusiliers started forward with his men to attack a German position in Ypres before the proper order had been given. He was last seen rushing toward the German trenches and was feared lost. In May 1915 Brewster’s parents were desperately seeking more information when they received an unexpected letter from a German sergeant named Egbert Wagner:

Dear Sir

On 11th of this month, through God’s gracious guiding hand, I was led to discover your son, Lieutenant JA Brender [sic], 3rd Royal Fusiliers, in a shell hole, where he had been lying for two [three] days with a gun shot wound in the upper part of his thigh. Acting on the command of our Lord Jesus ‘Love your Enemies’ I bandaged him with the permission of our officer, and provided him with bread and wine. I had a lot of conversation with your dear son, whose condition visibly improved by evening. With eight of our brave Riflemen I arranged to get him conveyed, with the assistance of some medical staff, back from our front line position to the collecting center for wounded. There I handed over your dear son to the care of best and competent hands, and now carry out my promise given to your son, when we were lying so happily together in the shell-hole, in spite of the rain of bullets, that I would communicate his deliverance to his dear father. I offer you my earnest wish for peace and await your reply via Denmark.

Sergeant Egbert Wagner

He had forwarded it through his friend Axel Backhausen in Denmark. The family wrote back, asking Backhausen to convey their “great relief” to Wagner, who “must be a very good man. … We trust he may live to do other good work in the world for such men are badly needed in these terrible times.”

Brewster’s father added that friends had asked to see Wagner’s letter. “I hope you will forgive me for granting their requests,” he wrote. “I believe, in some cases, it will be used as a text for sermons next Sunday.”

(From Richard van Emden, Meeting the Enemy: The Human Face of the Great War, 2013.)

Podcast Episode 260: The Rugged Road

florence blenkiron and theresa wallach

In 1934, two Englishwomen set out to do what no one had ever done before: travel the length of Africa on a motorcycle. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow Theresa Wallach and Florence Blenkiron from Algiers to Cape Town on a 14,000-mile adventure that many had told them was impossible.

We’ll also anticipate some earthquakes and puzzle over a daughter’s age.

See full show notes …