No Play Zone

In an April 3, 1971, letter to the editor of the Saturday Review, reader K. Jason Sitewell reported some alarming news: A congressman named A.F. Day had introduced a bill that would abolish all private parks of more than 50 acres and all public recreation areas that were used by fewer than 150 people a day. The practical effect would be to abolish the nation’s golf courses.

Sitewell said he understood Day’s motive because he’d grown up with him. The congressman’s grandfather had “perished in a sand trap,” and his father had died of a coronary after hitting 19 balls into a pond.

An uproar followed. Country clubs vowed to fight the bill, constituents besieged their representatives, and editorials decried the measure, which Golf World called “as ominous a threat to golf as anything that has come along.”

But eventually it became clear that there was no such bill and readers saw the link between the purported congressman’s name and the date of Sitewell’s letter. It turned out that the whole thing had been a jape cooked up by Review editor and inveterate prankster Norman Cousins.

“I wrote apologies to each subscriber who had been offended or angered,” Cousins wrote. “I begged my golfing friends, who threatened to have me barred from every course in the nation, to forgive me for my joke. I suffered enough every time I played, I told them, and penance was awaiting me on each tee.”

A Sharp

Antique dealer Leopoldo Franciolini (1844–1920) was so prolific in creating fraudulent musical instruments that scholars are still trying to sort out the confusion he left behind. The modern stewards of Frederick Stearns’ collection write:

In this case, we have an Alto Clarinet in F. … It is a composite instrument with four sections: two are leather-covered maple, … the barrel appears to have been purloined from a bass clarinet … the bell from an oboe. The mouthpiece appears to be re-purposed from a bass clarinet. … The simultaneous crudeness and creativity demonstrated in [Franciolini’s] catalogue is greatly entertaining. More troubling, however, is the shadow cast upon the flawed judgment of Frederick Stearns in his last years of collecting.

The catalog description of a harpsichord in the Stearns collection reads, “One could say that it is the only surviving instrument ever crafted by the maker Rigunini, however, given that not a single person by the name of Rigunini ever seems to have drawn breath, we might assume that Franciolini invented the name and forged the date.”

The Sleeping Cupid,_giove,_national_gallery_di_londra,_forse_copia_del_cupido_di_michelangelo.jpg

A young Michelangelo once aged a sculpture artificially to bring a higher price. He began working on a sleeping cupid in 1495, at age 20, apparently inspired by a sculpture in the Medici Gardens. At the advice of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco he aged it falsely to resemble an antique and then passed it on to a dealer, who sold it to Cardinal Riario of San Giorgio. Riario erupted when he discovered the artifice, and Michelangelo offered to take back the sculpture, but the dealer wouldn’t hear of it, and Michelangelo ultimately kept his share of the money.

The work has since been lost, but it helped to establish the artist’s reputation and first brought him to the notice of patrons in Rome.

Outsider Art

This is Sunset Over the Adriatic, a painting exhibited at the 1910 Salon des Indépendants and attributed to the “excessivist” Genoan painter Joachim-Raphaël Boronali.

When critics praised the work, novelist Roland Dorgelès revealed that he’d tied a paintbrush to the tail of a donkey named Lolo to decry the excesses of modern art.

Lolo’s thoughts are not recorded.

See Different Strokes.

Top Secret

But the most absurd and preposterous of all [ventures offered during the South Sea Bubble], and which shewed, more completely than any other, the utter madness of the people, was one started by an unknown adventurer, entitled ‘A company for carrying on an undertaking of great advantage, but nobody to know what it is.’ Were not the fact stated by scores of credible witnesses, it would be impossible to believe that any person could have been duped by such a project. The man of genius who essayed this bold and successful inroad upon public credulity, merely stated in his prospectus that the required capital was half a million, in five thousand shares of 100l. each, deposit 2l. per share. Each subscriber, paying his deposit, would be entitled to 100l. per annum per share. How this immense profit was to be obtained, he did not condescend to inform them at that time, but promised that in a month full particulars should be duly announced, and a call made for the remaining 98l. of the subscription. Next morning, at nine o’clock, this great man opened an office in Cornhill. Crowds of people beset his door, and when he shut up at three o’clock, he found that no less than one thousand shares had been subscribed for, and the deposits paid. He was thus, in five hours, the winner of 2000l. He was philosopher enough to be contented with his venture, and set off the same evening for the Continent. He was never heard of again.

— Charles Mackay, Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, 1852


In 1962, a burnt golf ball arrived at the botanic gardens at Kew, in southwest London. The head of mycology, R.W.G. Dennis, may have rolled his eyes: The office had received another burnt golf ball 10 years earlier, which the submitter had claimed to be a “rare fungal species.” In that case the staff had got as far as trying to collect spores before they’d realized the hoax.

Twice provoked, Dennis responded in good humor. He published an article titled “A Remarkable New Genus of Phalloid in Lancashire and East Africa,” formally nominating it as a new species of fungus, “Golfballia ambusta,” and describing the specimens as “small, hard but elastic balls used in certain tribal rites of the Caledonians, which take place all season in enclosed paddocks with partially mown grass.” When a third burnt golf ball arrived in 1971, it was accepted into the collection, where all three balls now reside.

That creates a sort of Dadaist dilemma in mycology. By accepting the specimens and publishing a description, Dennis had arguably honored them as a genuine species. The precise definition of a fungus has varied somewhat over time; in publishing his article, Dennis may have been satirically questioning criteria that could accept a nonliving golf ball as a species. But what’s the solution? Some specialists have argued that fungi should be defined as “microorganisms studied by mycologists.” But in that case, points out mycologist Nathan Smith, we should be asking, “Who is a mycologist?”


Charles Bertram built his reputation as a historian on The Description of Britain, a 15th-century manuscript that he’d discovered at age 24 and that provided important new insights into British history, including an ancient map; more than a hundred names of cities, roads, and people; and information from a lost contemporary account by a Roman general. For more than a century Bertram’s discovery served as a touchstone of scholarship on Roman Britain — it was cited in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, among many other works.

After Bertram’s death in 1765 doubts began to mount, and by 1846 it was clear that The Description of Britain had been a forgery. Bertram had managed to convince a few influential librarians, and on the strength of their endorsement other historians had been willing to take the claim seriously. Bertram had never let anyone see the original manuscript, always inventing reasons why he couldn’t share it and sending instead facsimiles of the original.

The effects of the hoax took decades to eradicate — as late as 1911 the Encyclopædia Britannica was still referring to a fictitious naval base on the strength of the Description‘s account.

Remote Romance

The American Medical Weekly carried an eye-opening story in 1874 — a woman impregnated by a bullet:

On the 12th day of May, 1863, the battle of R. was fought. […] Our men were fighting nobly, but pressed by superior numbers, had gradually fallen back to within one hundred and fifty yards of the house. My position being near my regiment, suddenly I beheld a noble, gallant young friend staggering closer, and then fall to the earth. In the same moment a piercing scream from the house reached my ear! I was soon by the side of the young man, and, upon examination, found a compound fracture, with extensive comminution of the left tibia; the ball having ricochetted from these parts, and, in its onward flight, passed through the scrotum, carrying away the left testicle. Scarcely had I finished dressing the wounds of this poor fellow, when the estimable matron came running to me in the greatest distress, begging me to go to one of her daughters, who, she informed me, had been badly wounded a few minutes before. Hastening to the house, I found that the eldest of the young ladies had indeed received a most serious wound. A minnie ball had penetrated the left abdominal parietes, about midway between the umbilicus and anterior spinal process of the ilium, and was lost in the abdominal cavity, leaving a ragged wound behind. Believing there was little or no hope of her recovery, I had only time to prescribe an anodyne, when our army fell back, leaving both field and village in the hands of the enemy. […] About six months after her recovery, the movements of our army brought me again to the village of R., and I was again sent for to see the young lady. She appeared in excellent health and spirits, but her abdomen had become enormously enlarged, so much so as to resemble pregnancy at the seventh or eighth month. Indeed, had I not known the family and the facts of the abdominal wound, I should have so pronounced the case. Under the above circumstances, I failed to give a positive diagnosis, determining to keep the case under surveillance. […] Just two hundred and seventy-eight days from the date of the receipt of the wound by the minnie ball, I delivered this same young lady of a fine boy, weighing eight pounds. […] About three weeks from the date of this remarkable birth, I was called to see the child, the grandmother insisting there was ‘something wrong about the genitals.’ Examination revealed an enlarged, swollen, sensitive scrotum, containing on the right side a hard, roughened substance, evidently foreign. I decided upon operating for its removal at once, and in so doing, extracted from the scrotum a minnie ball, mashed and battered as if it had met in its flight some hard, unyielding substance.

A later issue revealed that this had been a joke:

DR. L.G. CAPERS, of Vicksburg, Miss., disclaims responsibility for the truth of that remarkable case of impregnation by a minnie ball, as reported in No. 19 of this Journal. He tells the story as it was told to him. He does not say it is untrue, but is disposed to appositely remember the truth of the old adage, that ‘accidents may happen in the best regulated families.’ The joke is, that the Doctor reported the case without any signature, but as the editor is indisposed to be made the victim of canards, and recognized the writing sent, he was unwilling to deprive the author of the contemplated fun, and allowed him to enjoy even more of this than was anticipated. The readers have enjoyed the story much, but not enough ‘to cut capers’ after reading it.

Capers is Legrand G. Capers, a physician who’d served as a surgeon in the Confederate army — and evidently a practical joker.

01/04/2024 UPDATE: Wow, a similar incident involving a knife wound has been verified. (Thanks, Sally.)

Action at a Distance

On April 1, 1976, English astronomer Patrick Moore announced a unique opportunity on BBC Radio 2. At 9:47 a.m., he said, Pluto would pass behind Jupiter, and the combined gravitational forces of the two bodies would noticeably reduce gravity on Earth. If listeners jumped in the air during the conjunction, they’d feel a floating sensation.

Shortly after the appointed moment, the BBC began to receive hundreds of phone calls from listeners who’d confirmed the effect, including “a woman who said that she and 11 friends had been wafted from their chairs and orbited gently around the room.”

None of them had noted the date.

Man of the Hour

Abbreviating litre with a lowercase L can be confusing, as the character can be mistaken for the digit 1. But usually the International System of Units permits a capital letter only when a unit is named after a person.

So, in 1978, University of Waterloo chemist Kenneth Woolner announced in a schoolteachers’ newsletter that the litre had been named for Claude Émile Jean-Baptiste Litre, a fictional French scientist who had proposed a unit of volume measurement before his death in 1778.

Woolner had intended the claim only as an April Fools’ hoax, but the point was made. Today the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology recommends abbreviating litre with an uppercase L.