Jeannot’s Knife

A French tradition asks: If the handle of a certain knife is replaced whenever it is worn out, and its blade is replaced whenever it becomes worthless, does the knife itself become immortal?

In his 1872 short story “Dr. Ox’s Experiment,” Jules Verne mentions a curious tradition of marriage within the Van Tricasse family:

From 1340 it had invariably happened that a Van Tricasse, when left a widower, had remarried a Van Tricasse younger than himself; who, becoming in turn a widow, had married again a Van Tricasse younger than herself; and so on, without a break in the continuity, from generation to generation. Each died in his or her turn with mechanical regularity. Thus the worthy Madame Brigitte Van Tricasse had now her second husband; and, unless she violated her every duty, would precede her spouse — he being ten years younger than herself — to the other world, to make room for a new Madame Van Tricasse.

Is this a series of distinct marriages — or one immortal union?


In 1985, workers renovating London’s Tate Britain art gallery discovered a handwritten message behind a wall in the rotunda dome:

This was placed here on the fourth of June, 1897 Jubilee year, by the Plasterers working on the job hoping when this is found that the Plasterers Association may be still flourishing. Please let us know in the Other World when you get this, so as we can drink your Health.

It was signed “W. Gallop, F. Wilkins, H. Sainsbury, J. Chester, A. Pickernell, Secretary.”

The Leisure Class

A sort of mania for gambling overtook White’s, a gentlemen’s club in London, in the 18th century. Excerpts from its betting book:

  • “January the 14th, 1747/8. Mr. Fanshawe wagers Lord Dalkeith one guinea, that his peruke is better than his Lordship’s, to be judged of by the majority of members the next time they both shall meet.”
  • “Lord Ravensworth betts Ld. Leicester & Ld. Coke ten guineas each, that the General Post Office is not three miles distant from Lord Gower’s house in Upper Brooke Street.”
  • “Feb. 10th, 1748-9. Mr. Fanshawe betts Dr. Wm. Stanhope twenty guineas, that there was not a play acted at Covent Garden Play house twenty years ago.”
  • “Ap. 2nd, 1761. Mr. Fanshawe wagers Mr. Gauquier one Guinea that if Mr. Harley comes to the House of Commons the first day of sitting, he comes in a red gown.”
  • “Mr. Talbot bets Lord Frederick Bentinck five guineas, that destroying a horse by poison is not a capital offence by Act of Parliament.”
  • “Mr. Talbot bets Mr. Blackford one guinea, that the play of Julius Cæsar is acted within six weeks from this day. Feby. 15th, 1812.”
  • “Sir G. Talbot bets Sir Watkin W. Wynn five guineas, that he Sir W. does not drink a bottle of claret on French ground before the expiration of this month of March. March 6th, 1814.”
  • “Col. Cooke bets Ld. Clanwilliam thirty-five guineas, that if a person understood between them ever fights a duel, he kills his man.”

In 1816 Lord Alvanley and a friend bet £3,000 as to which of two raindrops would be the first to reach the bottom of a windowpane. In a 1750 letter, Horace Walpole wrote, “They have put in the papers a good story made on White’s; a man dropped down dead at the door, was carried in; the club immediately made bets whether he was dead or not, and when they were going to bleed him, the wagerers for his death interposed, and said it would affect the fairness of the bet.”


Letter to the Times, June 15, 1962:


All thrushes (not only those in this neck of the Glyndebourne woods) sooner or later sing the tune of the first subject of Mozart’s G minor Symphony (K. 550) — and, what’s more, phrase it a sight better than most conductors. The tempo is always dead right and there is no suggestion of an unauthorized accent on the ninth note of the phrase.

Yours, &c.,

Spike Hughes

See Bird Songs.

A Time Machine

In an April 1773 letter to Jacques Dubourg, Benjamin Franklin makes a curious observation:

I have seen an instance of common flies preserved in a manner somewhat similar. They had been drowned in Madeira wine, apparently about the time when it was bottled in Virginia, to be sent hither (to London). At the opening of one of the bottles, at the house of a friend where I then was, three drowned flies fell into the first glass which was filled. Having heard it remarked, that drowned flies were capable of being revived by the rays of the sun, I proposed making the experiment upon these: They were therefore exposed to the sun upon a sieve, which had been employed to strain them out of the wine. In less than three hours two of them began by degrees to recover life. They commenced by some convulsive motions in the thighs, and at length they raised themselves upon their legs, wiped their eyes with their fore feet, beat and brushed their wings with their hind feet, and soon after began to fly, finding themselves in Old England without knowing how they came hither. The third continued lifeless till sun-set, when, losing all hopes of him, he was thrown away.

He added, “I wish it were possible, from this instance, to invent a method of embalming drowned persons, in such a manner that they might be recalled to life at any period, however distant; for, having a very ardent desire to see and observe the state of America an hundred years hence, I should prefer to an ordinary death, the being immersed in a cask of Madeira wine, with a few friends, till that time, to be then recalled to life by the solar warmth of my dear country! But since in all probability we live in an age too early and too near the infancy of science to hope to see such an art brought in our time to its perfection, I must for the present content myself with the treat which you are so kind as to promise me, of the resurrection of a fowl or a turkeycock.”

Surface Mail

On Christmas night 1945, Army serviceman Frank Hayostek tossed a bottle over the rail of the troopship that was carrying him home from France. It contained this message:

Dear Finder,

I am an American soldier … 21 years old … just a plain American of no wealth, but just enough to get along with. This is my third Christmas from home. … God bless you.

In September 1946, he received a letter from Ireland:

I have found your bottle and note. I will tell you the whole story.

I live on a farm at the southwest coast of Ireland. On Friday, Aug. 23, 1946, I drove the cows to the fields beside the sea and then went for walk on the strand called The Beal. It is an inlet of Dingle Bay.

Well, my dog was running before me and I saw him stop and sniff something light on the sand, and then he went off in pursuit of sea gulls. I found the object was a brown bottle. … The cork … crumbled in my fingers. How the note kept dry, nobody can understand. … I sat there on the beach and read it.

I thought at first I was dreaming. This is just a little common Irish village where nothing strange ever occurs, and this is something for the farmers to talk about while they cut the oats and bring the hay into the barn. Well, imagine, the bottle has been on the sea for eight months. … Who knows where it has been? It may have traveled around the world. How did it escape being broken on the rocks? If you had only seen where I got it! It’s all a mess of rocks. The hand of Providence must surely have guided it.

Well, I hope to hear from you soon. … You mention offering no reward to the finder of the bottle. Well, I ask no reward, as it was a very pleasant surprise. Wishing you very good luck, your loving friend,

Breda O’Sullivan

Hayostek and O’Sullivan exchanged 70 letters over the next seven years. She was a farm girl in the village of Lispole in County Kerry, and he found work as a welder in Johnstown, Pa., saving $80 a month in order to visit her.

In August 1952 Hayostek flew to Ireland, where both were besieged by reporters.

“It’s in the hands of God,” he said. “She’s very nice.”

“After all,” she said, “we only met a few hours ago. Up to then, he was only a man in a bottle.”

But after two weeks O’Sullivan announced, “There is no romance and there will be no wedding. We will remain good pen pals.” She continued to correspond with Hayostek until 1959, when she married a local man. “If I had known that I would get all that publicity by answering the letter,” she told a reporter later, “I would have left the bottle lying there.”

Hayostek may have felt differently. His gravestone reads: “Frank L Hayostek, June 11, 1924-November 15, 2009: Frank Hayostek met in Tralee, Ireland, with Breda O’Sullivan who found a message-laden bottle he had tossed from a Liberty ship seven years before.”

Inner Space

In 1914 Edgar Rice Burroughs published At the Earth’s Core, a fantastic tale in which an elderly inventor and his young friend discover that the earth is hollow and contains a concave world lit by a tiny sun. This land, known as Pellucidar, is peopled by intelligent races and inhabited by monstrous prehistoric creatures.

Strikingly, a year earlier Marshall Blutcher Gardner had proposed nearly the same idea in earnest. In A Journey to the Earth’s Interior he had described a hidden land lining the interior of our hollow planet:

Here, indeed, we may expect to find a new world — a world the surface of which is probably subdivided, like ours, into continents, oceans, seas, lakes, and rivers. Here, through the heat of the interior sun, plant life may exceed in size and luxuriance any vegetation that ever grew upon the outside surface of the earth. Here may be found strange animals of every description; some of them even larger, perhaps, than the prehistoric mammoth or mastodon, on account of the abundant supply of vegetation, and others of species unrecorded by zoologists. Here, also, may tread the feet of a race of people whose existence is entirely unknown or hitherto unsuspected by us.

Gardner had even patented a hinged globe to help explain his theory. He concluded his book with a call for an expedition to explore this new world, declaring that “the whole truth apparently has not yet been revealed.” In a strange sense, Burroughs’ characters discovered that world the following year.

Table Talk

[Prince Christian of Schleswig-Holstein-Augustenburg] was unfortunate enough to lose an eye in a shooting accident. When conversation flagged at a dinner-party, as happened so often when he was the host, he would bid the footman bring him a tray containing his collection of glass eyes, which he would exhibit to his embarrassed guests, explaining at great length the peculiarities of each one — ‘and this one, you see, is blood-shot, I wear it when I have a cold.’

— Georgina Battiscombe, Queen Alexandra, 1969

Till Death

At 1 p.m. on Dec. 31, 1910, West Virginia peach grower Charles Twigg called on his fiancee, Grace Elosser, at her home in Cumberland, Md. The two were to be married the following day. They closed themselves in the parlor and remained undisturbed until 2:30, when Grace’s mother looked in with a question. She found Charles sitting in a corner of the divan, with Grace leaning against him. Both were dead.

A post-mortem suggested traces of cyanide in their stomachs, but no container was found on the bodies or in the room. If it was not suicide, was it murder? The couple had led uneventful lives, and only Grace’s family had had access to the parlor. A jury returned a verdict of cyanide poisoning “at the hands of person or persons to us unknown.”

The matter remained at an impasse until Jan. 28, when, as an experiment, doctors J.R. Littlefield and A.H. Hawkins left two cats in baskets on the parlor divan, lighted the stove, and closed the door for an hour. Both cats died. The lovers’ bodies were exhumed, and an examination showed that they had died of carbon monoxide poisoning. The flue had been choked with soot, and the odorless gas had overwhelmed the couple.

The Elossers cleaned the flue and moved out the house, but nearly the same tragedy befell the two women who succeeded them. On Feb. 21, 1913, a neighbor happened to call and found both women unconscious in their chairs. It was discovered that two bricks had been placed in the flue to reduce its draft, and soot had again choked the narrowed opening.


In 1989 a team from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution detected an unusually high-pitched whale call in the Pacific. Where most whales sing in the range 15–20 hertz, this one sang at 52 hertz, just above the lowest note of a tuba. The song has recurred most years since then, ranging between Alaska and California but not following the migration pattern of any known filter feeder. The whale seems to be healthy and maturing, but it remains the only one of its kind.

Because it sings and travels alone, the animal has been called “the loneliest whale in the world.” Whale biologists suspect that it may be malformed, or possibly a hybrid of two different species.

“He’s saying, ‘Hey, I’m out here,'” Kate Stafford of the National Marine Mammal Laboratory told the New York Times in 2004. “Well, nobody is phoning home.”

(Thanks, Kendal.)