Inferno Etiquette

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Mark Twain’s list of 27 items to be rescued from a boardinghouse fire:

  1. Fiancees
  2. Persons toward whom the operator feels a tender sentiment, but has not yet declared himself
  3. Sisters
  4. Stepsisters
  5. Nieces
  6. First cousins
  7. Cripples
  8. Second cousins
  9. Invalids
  10. Young lady relations by marriage
  11. Third cousins, and young lady friends of the family
  12. The unclassified
  13. Babies
  14. Children under 10 years of age
  15. Young widows
  16. Young married females
  17. Elderly married ditto
  18. Elderly widows
  19. Clergymen
  20. Boarders in general
  21. Female domestics
  22. Male ditto
  23. Landlady
  24. Landlord
  25. Firemen
  26. Furniture
  27. Mothers-in-law

“In either ascending or descending the stairs,” Twain wrote, “the young gentleman shall walk beside the young lady, if the stairs are wide enough to allow it; otherwise he must precede her. In no case must he follow her. This is de rigueur.”

Oops

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In 1890, a well-intentioned New Yorker named Eugene Schieffelin released 80 starlings in Central Park. He wanted to introduce every bird mentioned the works of William Shakespeare into the United States. (In The First Part of King Henry the Fourth, Hotspur says, “Nay, I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but ‘Mortimer.'”)

He should have reconsidered. Scientists estimate that those birds have multiplied into more than 200 million in North America, where the starling has become a major pest, outcompeting other birds for nest holes. Opponents of genetically modified organisms still point to Schieffelin’s act to warn of the dangers of invasive species.

The Steps Experiment

In 1977, Los Angeles freelance writer Chuck Ross submitted a typed manuscript to 14 publishers and 13 literary agents. Ross claimed it was an original work, but in fact it was a freshly typed copy of Jerzy Kosinski’s novel Steps, which had won the National Book Award in 1969.

All 27 recipients failed to recognize Kosinski’s work, and all 27 rejected the manuscript.

Sadly, this is nothing new. From Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, September 1888:

A disappointed literary aspirant, weary of having his articles declined with thanks, and doubtful of his critics’ infallibility, copied out ‘Samson Agonistes,’ which he rechristened ‘Like a Giant Refreshed,’ and the manuscript, as an original work of his own, went the rounds of publishers and editors. It was declined on various pleas, and the letters he received afforded him so much amusement that he published them in the St. James’s Gazette. None of the critics discovered that the work was Milton’s. One, who had evidently not even looked at it, deemed it a sensational novel; another recognized a certain amount of merit, but thought it was disfigured by ‘Scotticisms;’ a third was sufficiently pleased to offer to publish it, provided the author contributed forty pounds towards expenses.’

The Balloon-Hoax

On April 13, 1844, a curious headline appeared in the New York Sun:

ASTOUNDING NEWS!
BY EXPRESS VIA NORFOLK:
* * * * * * *
THE ATLANTIC CROSSED
IN THREE DAYS!
* * * * * * *
SIGNAL TRIUMPH OF
MR. MONCK MASON’S
FLYING MACHINE!!!

The story told of an amazing 75-hour crossing of the Atlantic by European balloonist Monck Mason, giving extensive details and including a diagram of the craft.

Two days later the Sun printed a retraction, saying that “we are inclined to believe that the intelligence is erroneous” but “we by no means think such a project impossible.”

That compliment would have pleased the hoax writer. His name was Edgar Allan Poe.

Vacation Planning

Mandeville's Travels

What John de Mandeville lacked in travel experience, he made up in imagination:

In Ethiope are such men that have but one foote, and they go so fast yt it is a great marvaill, & that is a large fote that the shadow thereof covereth ye body from son or rayne when they lye uppon their backes, and when their children be first borne they loke like russet, and when they waxe olde then they be all blacke.

The writer published a singular book full of such prodigies in the 14th century, most of it apparently borrowed from other writers or spun from whole cloth. Who would do such a thing? We’ll never know — as it turns out, the name “Mandeville” itself was made up.

Pella Katadesmos

Text of an ancient Macedonian scroll discovered in Greece in 1986:

On the formal wedding of [Theti]ma and Dionysophon I write a curse, and of all other wo[men], widows and virgins, but of Thetima in particular, and I entrust upon Makron and [the] demons that only whenever I dig out and unroll and re-read this, [then] may they wed Dionysophon, but not before; and may he never wed any woman but me; and may [I] grow old with Dionysophon, and no one else. I [am] your supplicant: Have mercy on [your dear one], dear demons, Dagina(?), for I am abandoned of all my dear ones. But please keep this for my sake so that these events do not happen and wretched Thetima perishes miserably and to me grant [ha]ppiness and bliss.

It would have been written in the 4th or 3rd century B.C.

Il Était Une Fois …

Top 10 most translated authors in the world as of January 2006, according to UNESCO’s “Index Translationum”:

  1. Walt Disney Productions
  2. Agatha Christie
  3. Jules Verne
  4. Vladimir Lenin
  5. Enid Blyton
  6. Barbara Cartland
  7. William Shakespeare
  8. Danielle Steele
  9. Hans Christian Andersen
  10. Stephen King

Each has been translated more than 1,500 times.

“Lamps Lighted by Currents Passed Through the Human Body”

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Mark Twain in the laboratory of his friend, inventor Nikola Tesla, where in 1894 Twain briefly became a human light bulb:

In Fig. 13 a most curious and weird phenomenon is illustrated. A few years ago electricians would have considered it quite remarkable, if indeed they do not now. The observer holds a loop of bare wire in his hands. The currents induced in the loop by means of the “resonating” coil over which it is held, traverse the body of the observer, and at the same time, as they pass between his bare hands, they bring two or three lamps held there to bright incandescence. Strange as it may seem, these currents, of a voltage one or two hundred times as high as that employed in electrocution, do not inconvenience the experimenter in the slightest. The extremely high tension of the currents which Mr. Clemens is seen receiving prevents them from doing any harm to him.

— T.C. Martin, “Tesla’s Oscillator and Other Inventions,” Century Magazine, April 1895