The Body Politic

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This iconic image of Abraham Lincoln is not authentic — Lincoln never posed in this “heroic” style during his lifetime, so after his death an enterprising artist added Abe’s head to a portrait of South Carolina Democrat John C. Calhoun.

Both men would have been aghast. “Many in the South once believed that slavery was a moral and political evil,” Calhoun once wrote. “That folly and delusion are gone. We see it now in its true light, and regard it as the most safe and stable basis for free institutions in the world.”

Podcast Episode 215: The Lieutenant Nun

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In 1607, a 15-year-old girl fled her convent in the Basque country, dressed herself as a man, and set out on a series of unlikely adventures across Europe. In time she would distinguish herself fighting as a soldier in Spain’s wars of conquest in the New World. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of Catalina de Erauso, the lieutenant nun of Renaissance Spain.

We’ll also hunt for some wallabies and puzzle over a quiet cat.

See full show notes …

Cameo

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This is the only known photograph of Connecticut’s Charter Oak, a famous symbol of American independence before a storm blew it down in 1856.

Curiously, the father of the country seems to appear among its branches.

Podcast Episode 214: The Poison Squad

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In 1902, chemist Harvey Wiley launched a unique experiment to test the safety of food additives. He recruited a group of young men and fed them meals laced with chemicals to see what the effects might be. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Wiley’s “poison squad” and his lifelong crusade for food safety.

We’ll also follow some garden paths and puzzle over some unwelcome weight-loss news.

See full show notes …

Potential

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His father also relates another amusing little incident: ‘When he was about ten years old, a distinguished phrenologist came along and stayed several days in the place. He was frequently asked to examine heads, blindfolded. The phrenologist, among others, examined the boy Grant. He felt his head for several minutes without saying anything. Then he was asked if the boy had a capacity for mathematics. The phrenologist, after some further examinations, said: “You need not be surprised if you see this boy fill the Presidential chair some time.”‘

— William Ralston Balch, Life and Public Services of General Grant, 1885

Better Late

The Peloponnesian War ended in 1996. The bloody conflict between Athens and Sparta had stopped in 404 B.C. without an official peace pact, so after 2,500 years the cities decided to sign a symbolic agreement. It read, “Today we express our grief for the devastating war between the two key cities of ancient Greece and declare its end.”

Similarly, when the First Anglo-Dutch War ended in 1654, the Dutch Republic forgot to include the Isles of Scilly in the Treaty of Westminster, so the Dutch and the Scillonians remained pointlessly but arguably at war for 332 years, until they signed a symbolic peace in 1986.

The Dutch ambassador said, “It must have been awful to know we could have attacked at any moment.”

Podcast Episode 213: Grover Cleveland’s Secret Surgery

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In 1893, Grover Cleveland discovered a cancerous tumor on the roof of his mouth. It was feared that public knowledge of the president’s illness might set off a financial panic, so Cleveland suggested a daring plan: a secret surgery aboard a moving yacht. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the president’s gamble — and the courageous reporter who threatened to expose it.

We’ll also audit some wallabies and puzzle over some welcome neo-Nazis.

See full show notes …

First Across

I can’t confirm this, but it’s interesting: In his 1954 book Lonely Voyagers, French navigator and maritime historian Jean Merrien claims that the first documented case of a single navigator crossing the Atlantic is that of a Native American who reached the Iberian peninsula long before Columbus’ time:

In the Middle Ages there arrived one day on the coast of Spain a man ‘red and strange’ in a craft described as a hollowed tree. From the recorded description, which specifically states that he was not a Negro, he might well have been a native of America in a piragua — a dug-out canoe … the unfortunate man, ill and enfeebled, died before he had been taught to make himself understood.

In Christopher Columbus: The Mariner and the Man, Merrien suggests that Columbus may have known about this man and assumed that he had come from China. I’ll see if I can discover his original source; if I can I’ll update this post.

Agitato

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Harry Truman’s daughter Margaret was a classically trained vocalist, and in 1950 Washington Post music critic Paul Hume drew Truman’s ire with a negative review. He wrote that Margaret was “extremely attractive on the stage… [but] cannot sing very well. She is flat a good deal of the time. And still cannot sing with anything approaching professional finish.” Truman wrote to him:

Mr. Hume:

I’ve just read your lousy review of Margaret’s concert. I’ve come to the conclusion that you are an ‘eight ulcer man on four ulcer pay.’

It seems to me that you are a frustrated old man [Hume was 34] who wishes he could have been successful. When you write such poppy-cock as was in the back section of the paper you work for it shows conclusively that you’re off the beam and at least four of your ulcers are at work.

Some day I hope to meet you. When that happens you’ll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below!

[Columnist Westbrook] Pegler, a gutter snipe, is a gentleman alongside you. I hope you’ll accept that statement as a worse insult than a reflection on your ancestry.

H.S.T.

Possibly sympathetic with Truman’s hurt feelings, neither Hume nor his editor wanted to run the letter, but it leaked out in the now-defunct Washington News and started a scandal, outraging citizens who felt that the president seemed more concerned with his daughter’s reviews than with the war in Korea. One telegram read:

HOW CAN YOU PUT YOUR TRIVIAL PERSONAL AFFAIRS BEFORE THOSE OF ONE HUNDRED AND SIXTY MILLION PEOPLE. OUR BOYS DIED WHILE YOUR INFANTILE MIND WAS ON YOUR DAUGHTER’S REVIEW. INADVERTENTLY YOU SHOWED THE WHOLE WORLD WHAT YOU ARE. NOTHING BUT A LITTLE SELFISH PIPSQUEAK.

William Banning of New Canaan, Connecticut, enclosed a Purple Heart with his letter:

Mr. Truman:

As you have been directly responsible for the loss of our son’s life in Korea, you might just as well keep this emblem on display in your trophy room, as a memory of one of your historic deeds.

Our major regret at this time is that your daughter was not there to receive the same treatment as our son received in Korea.

William Banning

According to biographer David McCullough, Truman kept the letter in his desk for several years.

Podcast Episode 212: The Lost Treasure of Cocos Island

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

Cocos Island, in the eastern Pacific, was rumored to hold buried treasure worth millions of dollars, but centuries of treasure seekers had failed to find it. That didn’t deter August Gissler, who arrived in 1889 with a borrowed map and an iron determination. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow Gissler’s obsessive hunt for the Treasure of Lima.

We’ll also marvel at the complexity of names and puzzle over an undead corpse.

See full show notes …