Much Ado About Nothing

You can fool some of the people all of the time.

Perhaps inspired by Thomas Chatterton, the teenage Samuel William Henry Ireland (1777-1835) “found” an old deed with Shakespeare’s signature.

His father, a collector, was overjoyed, so Ireland went on finding more Shakespeareana — a promissory note, a declaration of Protestant faith, letters to Anne Hathaway and to Queen Elizabeth, books with notes in the margins and “original” manuscripts for Hamlet and King Lear.

Amazingly, these were all authenticated by experts of the day. Ireland wasn’t caught until at age 18 he wrote an entire “lost” play, which was mounted at Drury Lane Theatre. As a playwright, he couldn’t match the Bard, and Vortigern and Rowena closed after a single performance on April 2, 1796.

Sadly, his father took the blame, as no one could believe such a young man could pull off such a forgery. His son fled to France and died in obscurity.

Irish Bulls

Two examples of “Irish bulls,” or ludicrous published statements:

It is in a Belfast paper that may be read the account of a murder, the result of which is described thus: “They fired two shots at him; the first shot killed him, but the second was not fatal.”

Connoisseurs in [Irish] bulls will probably say that this is only a blunder. Perhaps the following will please them better: “A man was run down by a passenger train and killed; he was injured in a similar way a year ago.”

— From Henry B. Wheatley, Literary Blunders: A Chapter in the “History Of Human Error,” 1893

Ern Malley

I had often, cowled in the slumbrous heavy air,
Closed my inanimate lids to find it real,
As I knew it would be, the colourful spires
And painted roofs, the high snows glimpsed at the back,
All reversed in the quiet reflecting waters –
Not knowing then that Durer perceived it too.
Now I find that once more I have shrunk
To an interloper, robber of dead men’s dream,
I had read in books that art is not easy
But no one warned that the mind repeats
In its ignorance the vision of others. I am still
The black swan of trespass on alien waters.

That’s from “Durer: Innsbruck, 1495,” a poem by Ern Malley. When it was celebrated in the Australian modernist magazine Angry Penguins, its real authors, James McAuley and Harold Stewart, stepped forward. Not only had they written the poem, they said, but they had “deliberately perpetrated bad verse”: “We opened books at random, choosing a word or phrase haphazardly. We made lists of these and wove them in nonsensical sentences. We misquoted and made false allusions.”

The point, they said, was to show that modern critics had become “insensible of absurdity and incapable of ordinary discrimination.”

The critics insisted that they had accidentally created a masterpiece.

Landmarks in Medicine, #3

From John Aubrey, Miscellanies Upon Various Subjects, 1696:

Mr. Schoot, a German, hath an excellent book of magick: it is prohibited in that country. I have here set down three spells, which are much approved.

— To cure an Ague. Write this following spell in parchment, and wear it about your neck. It must be writ triangularly.

A B R A C A D A B R A
A B R A C A D A B R
A B R A C A D A B
A B R A C A D A
A B R A C A D
A B R A C A
A B R A C
A B R A
A B R
A B
A

With this spell, one of Wells, hath cured above a hundred of the ague.

— To cure the biting of a Mad-Dog, write these words in paper, viz. “Rebus Rubus Epitepscum”, and give it to the party, or beast bit, to eat in bread, &c. A Gentleman of good quality, and a sober grave person, did affirm, that this receipt never fails.

— To cure the Tooth-Ach: out of Mr. Ashmole’s manuscript writ with his own hand.

“Mars, hur, abursa, aburse”.
Jesu Christ for Mary’s sake,
Take away this Tooth-Ach.

Write the words three times; and as you say the words, let the party burn one paper, then another, and then the last. He says, he saw it experimented, and the party “immediately cured.”

Progress Marches On

Uncle Billy rested his axe on the log he was chopping, and turned his grizzly old head to one side, listening intently. A confusion of sounds came from the little cabin across the road. It was a dilapidated negro cabin, with its roof awry and the weather-boarding off in great patches; still, it was a place of interest to Uncle Billy. His sister lived there with three orphan grandchildren.

Leaning heavily on his axe-handle, he thrust out his under lip, and rolled his eyes in the direction of the uproar. A broad grin spread over his wrinkled black face as he heard the rapid spank of a shingle, the scolding tones of an angry voice, and a prolonged howl.

“John Jay an’ he gran’mammy ‘peah to be havin’ a right sma’t difference of opinion togethah this mawnin’,” he chuckled.

— Annie Fellows Johnston, Ole Mammy’s Torment, 1897

Hemingway’s Cats

Ernest Hemingway’s former home in Key West, Fla., contains a colony of six-toed cats.

The author had a sailor’s love of polydactyl cats — their extra toes are considering good luck at sea, giving them superior abilities to climb and to hunt shipboard rodents.

So when Hemingway received a six-toed cat from a ship’s captain, he provided for its descendants in his will. There are currently about 60 cats at the Key West house, and about half of them have extra toes.

“No Ass to Be Found Here”

One day we all set out on a tour to the Farm. Jack and Frank had gone on first, while my wife and I were as yet close to the Cave. All at once the boys came back, and Fritz said, “Look at that strange thing on its way up the path. What can it be?”

I cast my eye on the spot and cried out, “Fly all of you to the Cave! fly for your lives!” for I saw it was a huge snake, or boa, that would make a meal of one of us, if we did not get out of its way.

We all ran in doors, and put bars up to the door of the Cave. A large dove cote had been made on the roof, and to this we got up through a hole in the rock.

Ernest took aim with his gun, and shot at the snake, so did Fritz and Jack, but it gave no sign that they had hit it. I then tried my skill, but it did not seem to feel my shot any more than theirs, though I was sure I must have struck its head. Just as we took aim at it once more, we saw it turn round and glide through the reeds in the marsh.

— From The Swiss Family Robinson Told in Words of One Syllable by Mary Godolphin (1784-1864)

Ambrose Bierce’s Disappearance

“Good-by — if you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags please know that I think that a pretty good way to depart this life. It beats old age, disease, or falling down the cellar stairs. To be a Gringo in Mexico — ah, that is euthanasia!”

— An excerpt from one of Ambrose Bierce’s last letters, posted in 1913 from Chihuahua. He vanished shortly afterward. His disappearance remains a mystery.