Weight Watchers

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The Habeas Corpus Act of 1679 is a landmark in English law, permitting a prisoner to challenge the lawfulness of his detention. But Parliament passed it through an absurd miscount:

Lord Grey and Lord Norris were named to be the tellers: Lord Norris, being a man subject to vapours, was not at all times attentive to what he was doing: so, a very fat lord coming in, Lord Grey counted him as ten, as a jest at first: but seeing Lord Norris had not observed it, he went on with this misreckoning of ten: so it was reported that they that were for the Bill were in the majority, though indeed it went for the other side: and by this means the Bill passed.

That account, by contemporary historian Gilbert Burnet, is borne out by the session minutes. The act remains on the statute book to this day.

Last Words

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On Dec. 6, 1917, an overnight express train bearing 300 passengers was approaching Halifax, Nova Scotia, when an unexpected message arrived by telegraph:

“Hold up the train. Ammunition ship afire in harbor making for Pier 6 and will explode. Guess this will be my last message. Good-bye boys.”

The train stopped safely before the burning French cargo ship Mont-Blanc erupted with the force of 2.9 kilotons of TNT, the largest manmade explosion before the advent of nuclear weapons.

The blast killed 2,000 residents, including train dispatcher Vince Coleman. He had remained at work in the telegraph office, sending warnings, until the end.

Corporal Violet

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When Napoleon left France for Elba, his supporters wore violets as a secret sign of their allegiance. This 1815 colour print by Jean-Dominique Etienne Canu, Le Secret du Caporal La Violette, conceals images of the exiled emperor, his wife, and his son. Where are they?

History Brief

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Meade brought his troops to this place where they were to win or lose the fight. At noon all was in trim, and at the sign from Lee’s guns a fierce rain of shot and shell fell on both sides. For three hours this was kept up, and in the midst of it Lee sent forth a large force of his men to break through Meade’s ranks. Down the hill they went and through the vale, and up to the low stone wall, back of which stood the foe. But Lee’s brave men did not stop here. On they went, up close to the guns whose fire cut deep in their ranks, while Lee kept watch from the height they had left. The smoke lifts, and Lee sees the flag of the South wave in the midst of the strife. The sight cheers his heart. His men are on the hill from which they think they will soon drive the foe. A dense cloud of smoke veils the scene. When it next lifts the boys in gray are in flight down the slope where the grass is strewn thick with the slain. … Oh, that there were no such thing as war!

— Josephine Pollard, The History of the United States Told in One-Syllable Words, 1884

Alignment

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When informed of the accession of Peter III of Russia in 1762, George III said, “Well, there are now nine of us in Europe the third of our respective names”:

  • George III, King of England
  • Charles III, King of Spain
  • Augustus III, King of Poland
  • Frederick III, King of Prussia
  • Charles Emanuel III, King of Sardinia
  • Mustapha III, Emperor of the Turks
  • Peter III, Emperor of Russia
  • Francis III, Duke of Modena
  • Frederick III, Duke of Saxe-Gotha

Such a coincidence was unprecedented in European history.

Abuse of Power

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One hot summer day in 1904, Speaker of the House Joe Cannon of Illinois visited the House dining room and asked for a bowl of bean soup. He was told that, in view of the sultry weather, it had been omitted from the menu.

“Thunderation!” Cannon roared. “I had my mouth set for bean soup! From now on, hot or cold, rain, snow, or shine, I want it on the menu every day.”

And so it has been, ever since. The recipe was published on the menu in 1955:

2 lb. No. 1 white Michigan beans.
Cover with water and soak overnight.
Drain and re-cover with water.
Add a smoked ham hock and simmer slowly for about 4 hours until beans are cooked tender. Then add salt and pepper to suit taste.
Just before serving, bruise beans with large spoon ladle, enough to cloud. (Serves about six persons)

A New Day

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Early on the morning of May 13, 1862, a lookout on the U.S.S. Onward spotted a Confederate steamer heading out of Charleston Harbor directly toward the Union blockade. Commander F.J. Nickels was about to fire when he saw that the steamer was flying a white flag. “The steamer ran alongside and I immediately boarded her, hauled down [the] flag of truce, and hoisted the American ensign, and found that it was the steamer Planter, of Charleston, and had successfully run past the forts and escaped.”

The transport ship’s pilot, Robert Smalls, had resolved to escape slavery by steaming out to the Union warships blockading his city. When the ship’s white officers had gone ashore that night, he directed his eight fellow slaves to fire up the boilers and guided the ship to a nearby wharf, where they collected their families. Then Smalls donned the captain’s hat and coat and gave two long and one short blasts on the whistle as they neared Fort Sumter, as he had seen the captain do. The sentry sent him on his way. As he made for the Union fleet three miles away, he put up one of his wife’s bedsheets as a flag of truce.

Harper’s Weekly called the theft “one of the most daring and heroic adventures since the war commenced.” In his Naval History of the Civil War, Union admiral David Dixon wrote, “The taking out of the ‘Planter’ would have done credit to anyone, but the cleverness with which the whole affair was conducted deserves more than a passing notice.”

Smalls was given a monetary reward for the captured Planter and went on to serve in the South Carolina legislature and the U.S. House of Representatives. When Abraham Lincoln asked why he had stolen the ship, he said simply, “Freedom.”

Detente

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In 1958 Winston Churchill broke his spine in a fall and was required to sleep with a bedrest, which he hated. He and nurse Roy Howells got into a heated argument in which the two swore at one another.

In making up afterward, Churchill said, “You were very rude to me, you know.”

Howells said, “Yes, but you were rude too.”

Churchill said, “Yes, but I am a great man.”

“There was no answer to that,” Howells remembered later. “He knew, as I and the rest of the world knew, that he was right.”

(From John Perry, Winston Churchill, 2010.)

Two Gruesome Incidents

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On Jan. 28, 1393, during a riotous wedding at the royal palace of Saint-Pol, Charles VI and five French nobles dressed up as wild men using linen costumes covered with pitch and hair and ranged among the guests, howling like wolves and daring them to guess their identities. One guest approached too closely with his torch and set them ablaze. The Duchess of Berry had the presence of mind to throw a cloak over the king, and one of the nobles managed to dive into a barrel of water. “The other four were burned alive their flaming genitals dropping to the floor, [the Monk of St. Denis] remarks with a sharp but on this occasion rather unsavoury eye for detail, releasing a stream of blood,” notes Jan R. Veenstra in Magic and Divination at the Courts of Burgundy and France. “Three of them, the count of Joigny, the bastard of Foix and Aymeri de Poitiers were deeply mourned; a fourth victim, Huguet de Guisay, was left wailing in agony for three days before he too expired, but he was not mourned, the Monk of St. Denis explains, since he was a vicious man and people were glad to see him perish.”

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On March 26, 1351, during the Breton Civil War, the contending fortresses of Josselin and Ploërmel agreed to an organized contest: Each side would select a team of 30 knights who could fight with any weapons they chose, including swords, maces, and battleaxes. Referees would signal the start of the melee and manage truces for refreshments and medical care. The fight went on for hours. In the end, English commander Robert of Bamborough, of Ploërmel, and eight of his men were slain and the rest taken captive; the pro-French Breton team lost four (or perhaps six) knights; and both sides were badly wounded. The “combat of the thirty” made heroes of its victors and became a symbol of chivalry during the Hundred Years’ War; in 1373, Jean Froissart saw firsthand the honor accorded to a survivor who displayed his scars at a feast given by Charles V.

(Thanks, Davecat.)