In his Comparative Physiognomy of 1852, American physician James Redfield claimed that people of a given nationality tend to resemble a certain animal, and that the animal’s disposition illuminates the national character. For example, Henry VIII, a representative Englishman, resembles a bull: “A ‘bull-neck’ suggests the idea of a tyrannical disposition, or of irresistible desire, and is never spoken of in the way of compliment. … When oxen draw together in a yoke, they lean away from each other, so as to be under the necessity of holding each other up. This is on account of their great repulsiveness — a trait which was mentioned as being a prominent element of the English character.”

The table of contents gives the general tone:

Chapter 2. Resemblances of Germans to Lions
Chapter 14. Resemblances of Laplanders to Reindeers
Chapter 16. Resemblances of Arabs to Camels
Chapter 19. Resemblances of Italians to Horses
Chapter 23. Resemblances of Chinamen to Hogs
Chapter 29. Resemblances of Frenchmen to Frogs and Alligators
Chapter 34. Resemblances of Jews to Goats

He even compares Turks to turkeys. I’m not aware that he ever actually visited these places, but I suppose that’s not necessary to reach these sorts of conclusions.

The whole thing is in the Internet Archive.

03/24/2022 UPDATE: Reader Manuel Saiz sent this video:

A Double Man

I seem to be on a Sherlock Holmes kick lately. A few oddities about Dr. Watson:

  • In A Study in Scarlet he says he was wounded in the shoulder, but in The Sign of Four he says he was wounded in the leg. One theory resolves this by suggesting that he was bending over when hit, and that the bullet passed through his leg and lodged in his shoulder. (The BBC series Sherlock sidesteps the problem by saying that Watson’s limp is a psychosomatic symptom of post-traumatic stress.)
  • He seems uncertain about his first name. In “The Problem of Thor Bridge,” Watson says that his dispatch box is labeled “John H. Watson, M.D.,” but in “The Man With the Twisted Lip” his wife Mary calls him “James.” Dorothy L. Sayers offers another neat resolution: Maybe his middle name is Hamish, the Scottish equivalent of James.
  • It’s not clear how many times he’s been married. He certainly married Mary Morstan, whom he met in The Sign of Four. But then in “The Empty House” he refers to “my own sad bereavement,” and in “The Blanched Soldier” Holmes mentions that “The good Watson had at that time deserted me for a wife, the only selfish action which I can recall in our association.” This seems to suggest that Watson remarried after Mary’s death, but this is never made clear, and a second wife is never named.

At its annual dinner, the Sherlock Holmes literary society the Baker Street Irregulars always toasts the second Mrs. Watson. This was the toast in 2002:

Watson had a second wife
But, did he lead a double life?
He had two wounds; he had two names
(One was John, the other James).
He often claimed he dined alone
Yet quaffed whole bottlesful of Beaune.
He’d disappear for days on end
Accompanying his clever friend,
Then lame excuses where he’d been
Were published in Strand Magazine.
And so to the spouse of this pain in the ass
We raise a toast and lift our glass.

(From Roger Johnson and Jean Upton, The Sherlock Holmes Miscellany, 2012.)

First Things Last

In Book 11 of the Odyssey, Odysseus encounters his mother in Hades and asks her seven questions. She answers all seven, but strangely in reverse order:

A – What killed you?
B – A long sickness?
C – Or Artemis with her arrows?
D – How is my father?
E – How is my son?
F – Are my possessions safe?
G – Has my wife been faithful?

G – Your wife has been faithful.
F – Your possessions are safe.
E – Your son is thriving.
D – Your father is alive but in poor condition.
C – Artemis did not kill me with her arrows.
B – Nor did a sickness kill me.
A – But my longing for you killed me.

This reversal is called chiasmus, and it appears throughout oral literature. Apart from its aesthetic effect, it’s thought that it may have helped ancient poets to remember long passages and to recall the structure of a complex story. Of the Iliad, classicist Cedric Whitman writes, “Not only are certain whole books of the poem arranged in self-reversing, or balancing, designs, but the poem as a whole is, in a way, an enormous hysteron proteron, in which books balance books and scenes balance scenes by similarity or antithesis, with the most amazing virtuosity.”

Some of these patterns are wrought on such a huge scale that it’s hard to believe that a listening audience could even recognize them. Why then offer them? Whitman gives two reasons. One, a poet might perform a feat of virtuosity for its own sake, even if the audience overlooks it. And two, “The human mind is a strange organ, and one which perceives many things without conscious or articulate knowledge of them, and responds to them with emotions necessarily and appropriately vague.”

(Cedric Whitman, Homer and the Heroic Tradition, 1958; and Steve Reece, “The Three Circuits of the Suitors: A Ring Composition in Odyssey 17-22,” Oral Tradition, 10:1 [1995], 207-229.)

Card Catalog

This is pleasing: The first library card catalogs were made using playing cards. During the French Revolution the government created a new system of public libraries, and in order to inventory the books they created the “French Cataloging Code of 1791,” in which bibliographic data was written on playing cards, which were sturdy, uniform, and plentiful. A photo is here.

In The Card Catalog, its affectionate tribute to this now outmoded tool, the Library of Congress notes that 1.2 million cards representing more than 3 million volumes were recorded using this system within 3 years. “Although the ambitious cataloging project did not result in the formation of a national catalog, it did demonstrate the potential of utilizing a uniform format.” (Also: “Deuces and aces were reserved for the longest titles, as those cards had the most space on which to write.”)

I, Libertine,_Libertine_(book_cover).jpg

Irritated at the way bestseller lists were compiled in the 1950s, late-night radio host Jean Shepherd asked his listeners to visit bookstores and request a nonexistent book, I, Libertine, by the imaginary author Frederick R. Ewing.

The number of requests drove the title onto the New York Times bestseller list, and, encouraged by its popularity, bookstores began to order the novel. So Shepherd and publisher Ian Ballantine got novelist Theodore Sturgeon to write it, following the plot that Shepherd had described to his listeners. (Sturgeon fell asleep while trying to write the whole book in one marathon session, so Ballantine’s wife Betty had to write the last chapter.)

Ballantine Books published the novel in September 1956, using a photo of Shepherd in place of Ewing, and donated the proceeds to charity.

The Wall Street Journal exposed the hoax a few weeks before publication. “Mr. Ballantine’s idea, though simple enough, was a startling one, for publishers consider it one of the greatest possible tragedies to print a book later discovered to be the work of a literary faker,” wrote reporter Carter Henderson. “At Simon & Schuster, Inc., faces still redden when Joan Lowell’s autobiographical ‘Cradle of the Deep’ is mentioned even though this phony tale of a young girl’s spectacularly adventurous life at sea was published in 1929.”

Once and for All

In 2003, students from the University of Plymouth placed a computer keyboard in the enclosure of six Celebes crested macaques in the Paignton Zoo in Devon for one month.

They published the result as Notes Towards the Complete Works of Shakespeare.

It’s hard to know what to make of this. “They are very intentional, deliberate, and very dextrous, so they do want to interact with stuff you give them,” offered zoo biologist Vicki Melfi.

But “the monkeys aren’t reducible to a random process,” concluded test designer Geoff Cox. “They get bored and they shit on the keyboard rather than type.”

A Look Ahead

The writing in Hugo Gernsback’s 1911 science fiction novel Ralph 124C 41+ is uniformly terrible:

As the vibrations died down in the laboratory the big man arose from the glass chair and viewed the complicated apparatus on the table. It was complete to the last detail. He glanced at the calendar. It was September 1st in the year 2660. Tomorrow was to be a big and busy day for him, for it was to witness the final phase of the three-year experiment. He yawned and stretched himself to his full height, revealing a physique much larger than that of the average man of his times and approaching that of the huge Martians.

But it successfully predicted spaceflight, tape recorders, sound movies, solar energy, artificial cloth, television, synthetic foods, remote-control power transmission, the videophone, transcontinental air service, and voiceprinting. While Martin Gardner called it “surely the worst SF novel ever written,” Arthur C. Clarke marveled that it contains the first accurate description of radar, encountered when Ralph is pursuing the villain who has kidnapped his girlfriend:

A pulsating polarized ether wave, if directed on a metal object can be reflected in the same manner as a light-ray is reflected from a bright surface or from a mirror. … By manipulating the entire apparatus like a searchlight, waves would be sent over a large area. Sooner or later the waves would strike a space flyer. A small part of the waves would strike the metal body of the flyer, and these waves would be reflected back to the sending apparatus. Here they would fall on the Actinoscope, which records only reflected waves, not direct ones. … From the intensity and the elapsed time of the reflected impulses, the distance between the earth and the flyer can then be accurately and quickly calculated.

Clarke calls Ralph 124C 41+ “dreadful but fascinating. … The pun in the title gives you a good idea of its literary quality.” The full text is here.


A team of volunteers have deciphered a message written by Charles Dickens in his own puzzling brand of shorthand, solving a riddle that had persisted for more than 150 years.

Apparently in 1859 the Times had mistakenly rejected an advertisement that Dickens had hoped to run during his delicate transition from the editorship of Household Words to All The Year Round. Dickens had written to the newspaper’s editor, J.T. Delane, asking him to intervene in the matter and had saved a cryptic copy of the message, possibly for legal reasons. With the passage of time the key to the author’s so-called Brachygraphy had been lost.

When scholars recently appealed for help in understanding the message, an international team of amateur solvers pooled their insights to decipher the “Tavistock Letter.” “Having the text of this letter at long last will allow scholars to learn more about Dickens’s shorthand method while gaining further insight into his life and work,” wrote Philip Palmer, curator and head of literary and historical manuscripts at Morgan Library & Museum. “We are thrilled that colleagues at the Dickens Code project have helped make this letter accessible in new ways to researchers.”

That’s not the end of it — a further puzzling page, this one from the notebooks of Dickens’ shorthand pupil Arthur Stone, still awaits solution.

(Thanks, Bill.)

Case Closed

Who wrote the works of Shakespeare? Here’s a novel way to decide the question: In 1987 Supreme Court justices Harry Blackmun, William Brennan, and John Paul Stevens presided over a moot-court debate at American University to consider whether the author was really Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. (The session was underwritten by David Lloyd Kreeger, a noted benefactor of theater in Washington, D.C., and an ardent Oxfordian.)

After considering evidence presented by two American University law professors, all three justices chose Shakespeare, though Stevens expressed some uncertainty based on the author’s refined sensibilities.

“Just reading it cold,” he said, “I would tend to draw the inference that the author of these plays was a nobleman; there are just too many places in which nobility is stressed as a standard. In Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy, the standard is which ‘is the nobler in the mind.’ There are all sorts of references to nobility and skills that are familiar to the nobility but unknown to most common people. So, you can’t help but have these gnawing doubts that this great author may perhaps have been someone else.”

Blackmun agreed that, of the various alternative claimants, Oxford had come closest to proving his case. “Whether that is enough is something that we’re supposed to say, I suppose; and yet, I am reluctant to say it.” Brennan added, “My conclusion is that Oxford did not prove that he was the author of the plays. And so, I feel that the 200 years that elapsed — I gather at least that long — after Shakespeare’s death before any doubt was cast on whether or not he was the author, leaves the thing about where we started.”

The debate was attended by more than a thousand people and published afterward in the American University Law Review (37:3, 1988).

Similarly, in 1892 the Boston monthly Arena set up a “tribunal of literary criticism” to decide whether Francis Bacon deserved the credit. After more than a year of contributions from various authorities, including the actor Sir Henry Irving, a panel of judges decided overwhelmingly for Shakespeare.