The Death Valley Germans

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

In July 1996 a family of four set out from Dresden for a holiday in the American Southwest. Architect Egbert Rimkus, 34, his son Georg, 11, his girlfriend Cornelia Meyer, 27, and her son Max, 4, arrived in Los Angeles and visited Las Vegas, then traveled to Death Valley National Park. Their names appear in the logs of several visitor sites, and it appears they spent their first night camping in a canyon near Telescope Peak.

When they failed to return as planned on July 29, Rimkus’s ex-wife began to make inquiries. When their travel agency learned that the rented van had not been returned, it notified Interpol. Temperatures in the park had topped 120 degrees on the week of the disappearance.

In late October, a helicopter search pilot spotted the van on a closed road in a remote part of the park known as Anvil Canyon. It had been driven at least 200 miles, and the tracks showed that it had run on flat tires and bent wheels for the final two miles. More than 200 search and rescue workers combed the area; under a bush a quarter mile away they found a beer bottle that appeared to have come from a package in the van.

The search was called off on Oct. 26, but 13 years later, in 2009, hikers discovered the skeletal remains of a man and a woman several miles south of that spot, near a photo ID belonging to Cornelia. Authorities said they were fairly sure the bones belonged to Egbert and Cornelia, but the remains of the children have never been found.

(Thanks, Tom.)

Podcast Episode 208: Giving Birth to Rabbits

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In 1726 London was rocked by a bizarre sensation: A local peasant woman began giving birth to rabbits, astounding the city and baffling the medical community. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll review the strange case of Mary Toft, which has been called “history’s most fascinating medical mystery.”

We’ll also ponder some pachyderms and puzzle over some medical misinformation.

Intro:

The notion of music without substance raises some perplexing philosophical puzzles.

Japanese haiku master Masaoka Shiki wrote nine verses about baseball.

Sources for our feature on Mary Toft:

Dennis Todd, Imagining Monsters: Miscreations of the Self in Eighteenth-Century England, 1995.

Clifford A. Pickover, The Girl Who Gave Birth to Rabbits: A True Medical Mystery, 2000.

Richard Gordon, Great Medical Mysteries, 1984.

Lisa Forman Cody, Birthing the Nation: Sex, Science, and the Conception of Eighteenth-Century Britons, 2005.

Wendy Moore, “Of Rabbit and Humble Pie,” British Medical Journal 338 (May 7, 2009).

Palmira Fontes da Costa, “The Medical Understanding of Monstrous Births at the Royal Society of London During the First Half of the Eighteenth Century,” History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 26:2 (2004), 157-175.

Lawrence Segel, “What’s Up, Doc?” Medical Post 39:11 (March 18, 2003), 37.

Glennda Leslie, “Cheat and Impostor: Debate Following the Case of the Rabbit Breeder,” Eighteenth Century 27:3 (Fall 1986), 269-286.

Bill Bynum, “Maternal Impressions,” Lancet 359:9309 (March 9, 2002), 898.

Dolores Peters, “The Pregnant Pamela: Characterization and Popular Medical Attitudes in the Eighteenth Century,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 14:4 (Summer 1981), 432-451.

S.A. Seligman, “Mary Toft — The Rabbit Breeder,” Medical History 5:4 (1961), 349-360.

Charles Green Cumston, “The Famous Case of Mary Toft, the Pretended Rabbit Breeder of Godalming,” American Journal of Obstetrics and Diseases of Women and Children 68:2 (August 1913), 274-300.

Nathaniel Saint-André, A Short Narrative of an Extraordinary Delivery of Rabbets, Perform’d by Mr John Howard, Surgeon at Guilford, 1727.

Sir Richard Manningham, An Exact Diary of What Was Observ’d During a Close Attendance Upon Mary Toft, the Pretended Rabbet-Breeder of Godalming in Surrey, From Monday Nov. 28, to Wednesday Dec. 7 Following, 1726.

Cyriacus Ahlers, Some Observations Concerning the Woman of Godlyman in Surrey, 1726.

Thomas Brathwaite, Remarks on a Short Narrative of an Extraordinary Delivery of Rabbets, Perform’d by Mr. John Howard, Surgeon at Guilford, 1726.

A Letter From a Male Physician in the Country, to the Author of the Female Physician in London; Plainly Shewing, That for Ingenuity, Probity, and Extraordinary Productions, he Far Surpasses the Author of the Narrative, 1726.

The Several Depositions of Edward Costen, Richard Stedman, John Sweetapple, Mary Peytoe, Elizabeth Mason, and Mary Costen; Relating to the Affair of Mary Toft, of Godalming in the County of Surrey, Being Deliver’d of Several Rabbits, 1727.

Jonathan Swift, The Anatomist Dissected: or the Man-Midwife Finely Brought to Bed, 1727.

“Merry Tuft,” Much Ado About Nothing: or, a Plain Refutation of All That Has Been Written or Said Concerning the Rabbit-Woman of Godalming, 1727.

“Full and Impartial Relation and Detection of the Rabbit Imposture &c.,” The Political State of Great Britain 32:12 (December 1726), 572-602.

Edward White, “An Extraordinary Delivery of Rabbits,” Paris Review, July 5, 2016.

Listener mail:

Rasnov Fortress, Romania Tourism (accessed July 5, 2018).

Wikipedia, “Rasnov Citadel” (accessed July 5, 2018).

Wikipedia, “Polybius” (accessed July 5, 2018).

“Polybius,” Encyclopaedia Britannica (accessed July 5, 2018).

“The British Alpine Hannibal Expedition,” John Hoyte (accessed July 5, 2018).

Wikipedia, “War Elephant” (accessed July 5, 2018).

“Battle of the Trebbia River,” Encyclopaedia Britannica (accessed July 5, 2018).

Philip Ball, “The Truth About Hannibal’s Route Across the Alps,” Guardian, April 3, 2016.

Paul Rodgers, “Tracing Hannibal’s Elephants — With Dung,” Forbes, April 5, 2016.

Franz Lidz, “How (and Where) Did Hannibal Cross the Alps?” Smithsonian, July 2017.

Michael B. Charles and Peter Rhodan, “‘Magister Elephantorvm’: A Reappraisal of Hannibal’s Use of Elephants,” The Classical World 100:4 (Summer 2007), 363-389.

S. O’Bryhim, “Hannibal’s Elephants and the Crossing of the Rhône,” The Classical Quarterly 41:1 (1991), 121-125.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Benjamin Busser, who was inspired by the “Peter Weinberger” episode of the Casefile podcast.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Google Play Music or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — you can choose the amount you want to pledge, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support. You can also make a one-time donation on the Support Us page of the Futility Closet website.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

Confidences

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When workers took up the floorboards of a French alpine chateau last month, they found penciled messages on their undersides. “Happy mortal,” one read. “When you read this, I shall be no more.” Elsewhere the same hand had written, “My story is short and sincere and frank, because none but you shall see my writing.”

It appears that the carpenter who had installed the floor, Joachim Martin, had written 72 message in pencil to be read by a future generation. “These are the words of an ordinary working man, a man of the people,” Sorbonne historian Jacques-Olivier Boudon told the BBC. “And he is saying things that are very personal, because he knows they will not ever be read except a long time in the future.”

The messages concern events in the rural community of Les Crottes, outside the walls of the Château de Picomtal, whose parquet floor Martin had laid. Among other things, he reveals that he overheard the mistress of one of his friends giving birth in a stable one midnight in 1868. “This [criminal] is now trying to screw up my marriage. All I have to do is say one word and point my finger at the stables, and they’d all be in prison. But I won’t. He’s my old childhood friend. And his mother is my father’s mistress.”

Unfortunately, almost nothing is known about Martin. He lived from 1842 to 1897, he had four children, and he played the fiddle at village fetes. But he found a way to avoid being forgotten.

Nowhere Man

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

The greatest Czech citizen is a man who doesn’t exist. Jára Cimrman was dreamed up as a modest caricature of the Czech people for a 1966 radio program, but he’s been adopted as a sort of fictive national hero. By general agreement he’s an accomplished author, detective, poet, inventor, mathematician, playwright, sportsman, philosopher, traveler, teacher, and composer; in a 2005 television competition he would have been voted “The Greatest Czech” but was disqualified for not existing. No one quite knows what he looks like, but his accomplishments are listed on an immortal Wikipedia page:

  • He proposed the Panama Canal to the U.S. government while composing a libretto for an opera about it.
  • Fleeing arctic cannibals, he came within 7 meters of reaching the North Pole.
  • He invented yogurt.
  • He created the first puppet show in Paraguay.
  • He corresponded with George Bernard Shaw for many years, without receiving a response.
  • He constructed the first rigid airship using Swedish steel and Czech wicker.
  • He reworked the electrical contact on Edison’s first light bulb and found a sublet for Gustave Eiffel.
  • He suggested that Mendeleev rotate his first draft of the Periodic Table.
  • He devised the philosophy of externism, the opposite of solipsism. In solipsism, the observer exists and the outside world does not. In externism, the outside word exists but the philosopher does not.

When Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, he found three missed calls from Cimrman.

Related: Germans pretend that the city of Bielefeld doesn’t exist. The tradition began in 1993 as a satire of conspiracy theories (“Do you know anybody from Bielefeld? Have you ever been to Bielefeld? Do you know anybody who has ever been to Bielefeld?”), but it’s taken on a life of its own. Referring to a town hall meeting she’d attended in Bielefeld, Chancellor Angela Merkel added, “… if it exists at all,” and the city council once released a press statement titled Bielefeld gibt es doch! (Bielefeld does exist!) … on April Fools’ Day.

(Thanks, January and Bryan.)

Local Color

In May 2008, when roommates Ben Kinsley and Robin Hewlett learned that Google would be sending a camera car down their Pittsburgh street, they decided to greet it in style. After the car’s visit, anyone who typed “Sampsonia Way Pittsburgh” into Google Maps would see a high school marching band showered in confetti, two 17th-century swordsmen doing battle, a woman escaping a third-story window using knotted sheets, and a love ray uniting fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns.

The images have since been replaced as Google has updated its records, but the “Street With a View” project became Kinsley’s master’s thesis project at Carnegie Mellon University. And they made this film:

Dedication

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

Confined since age 15 in Surrey’s Earlswood Asylum, autistic savant James Henry Pullen spent seven years building a 10-foot replica of the iron steamship Great Eastern. Completed in 1877, it included brass anchors, copper paddles, 13 lifeboats, hundreds of individually molded planks, 5,585 rivets, and more than 1 million wooden pins made in a specially constructed pin mill. The upper deck could be hoisted to reveal state cabins and furniture inside. It’s now on display at the Museum at the Langdon Down Centre in Teddington.

Below is the sectional plan of the actual 692-foot steamship, for comparison.

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(Thanks, Charlie.)

For What It’s Worth

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In an effort to attract female worshippers and tourists, Taiwan’s Southwest Coast National Scenic Area erected the “High-Heel Wedding Church” in 2016 in Budai Township, Chiayi County. It’s 17 meters tall and contains about 320 pieces of blue-tinted glass; Guinness has certified it as the “world’s largest high-heel shoe-shaped structure.” The BBC reports:

The shoe was inspired by a local story. According to officials in the 1960s, a 24-year-old girl surnamed Wang from the impoverished region suffered from Blackfoot disease. Both of her legs had to be amputated, leading to the cancellation of her wedding. She remained unmarried and spent the rest of her life at a church. The high heel is intended to honour her memory.

The church will be used for weddings and pre-wedding photo shoots, not regular services. Pan Tsuei-ping, the administration’s recreation section manager, said, “In our planning, we want to make it a blissful, romantic avenue. … Every girl imagines how they will look like when they become the bride.” The building will contain “100 female-oriented features,” including “chairs for lovers, maple leaves, biscuits, and cakes,” all suited for romantic photographs.

But the project has also been criticized as sexist and patronizing. On the Chinese microblogging site Weibo, Jessie Chou wrote, “I wear flip flops anyway.”

Absent Friends

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If existence is taken as betokening thisness and thereness, then nonexistence is going to have, speaking informally, this problem: It obliges us to speak of a nothing. If a nonexistent object were always like a footprint in the sand, we might refer to it by its mold, its negative place. But usually the world closes up without much trace around things that have passed their time and ceased to exist, and often there is not even a world left to hold the mold — think of extinct dodos and never existent unicorns; there is no empty niche left in our ‘real’ world for the former and there never was — some say — one for the latter. What kind of focus allows us then to speak of things that are definitely and determinately nowhere and not now and not ever? What, if anything, is it we are referring to when we say: This does not exist?

— Eva Brann, The Ways of Naysaying, 2001

The Blythe Intaglios

In 1932, pilot George Palmer was flying from Las Vegas to Blythe, Calif., when he saw drawings sketched on the desert. Someone had scraped away the dark surface soil to draw three human figures, two four-legged animals, and a spiral.

Because they’re so large (the largest human figure is 171 feet long), they’d gone unnoticed until then. No local Native American group claims to have made them; radiocarbon dating places their creation between 900 BCE and 1200 CE.

Leaps and Bounds

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English cricketer C.B. Fry had a curious party trick: He would stand on the floor facing a mantelpiece, crouch, and leap upward, turning in midair and landing with his feet planted on the shelf, from which he would bow to onlookers. He claimed to be able to do this into his 70s.

On July 17, 1933, John Dillinger walked into the Daleville Commercial Bank in Indiana and told the teller, “Well, honey, this is a holdup. Get me the money.” Told there was no key to the teller’s cage, Dillinger vaulted over the counter himself to investigate. “This would become another of his well-known trademarks,” writes John Beineke in Hoosier Public Enemy, “the quick and graceful vaults over counters that were often several feet high. The feat earned him the nickname ‘Jackrabbit’ in some newspapers.”

In a letter to the Times on March 16, 1944, G.M. Trevelyan, the Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, remarks on the tradition of trying to leap up the eight semicircular steps of the college hall at one bound. “The only person to succeed of whom I know was the gigantic [William] Whewell, when he was Master of the college; he clapped his mortar-board firmly on his head, picked up his gown with one hand, and leapt.”

Trevelyan had recently learned that Henry Hutchinson Montgomery, later a bishop, had made the jump during his undergraduate career at Trinity, between 1866 and 1870, and “I have heard that the feat was accomplished once or twice in this century; once, I was told, an American succeeded, but I have not the facts or names. It has certainly been done very seldom.”

(Thanks, Chris.)