Tempting Fate

What remained of the Tenth [Massachusetts] departed from City Point, on the James River, on June 21 [1864], for the return to Springfield and Northampton. But before leaving Virginia, on June 20, Sgt. Maj. George F. Polley, who was originally in Brewster’s company and had just reenlisted, carved his name and the inscription ‘Killed June –, 1864’ on a piece of board torn from a cracker box. After participating in the ‘goodbye’ rituals with his comrades and sharing an awkward amusement with them about his carving, Polley was struck flush by an artillery shell and killed. In his diary, brigade member Elisha Hunt Rhodes recorded this incident in his matter-of-fact style. Polley ‘showed me a board on which he had carved his name, date of birth and had left a place for the date of his death,’ reported Rhodes. ‘I asked him if he expected to be killed and he said no, and that he had made his head board only for fun. To day he was killed by a shell from a Rebel Battery.’ The last act of the Tenth before boarding the mailboat for Washington, D.C., was to bury Polley.

— David W. Blight, When This Cruel War Is Over, 2009

The Paul Rubin Cipher

On the morning of Jan. 20, 1953, the body of 18-year-old Paul Emanuel Rubin was found at the bottom of a ditch near the Philadelphia International Airport. The coroner found there was enough cyanide in his body to “kill 10 men,” and taped to his abdomen was a 7″ x 3″ piece of paper with an enciphered message:

rubin cipher

Rubin’s mother hadn’t seen him since the previous morning, when he’d cut some strips of adhesive tape before leaving the house. He was studying chemistry at New York University and would have had access to cyanide, but his mother said he was in good mental and physical health and hadn’t appeared worried about anything. (About 20 minutes before the body was found, the Rev. Robert M. Anderson had wished Rubin good morning; he found him “wild-eyed” and said “he was staring straight ahead and … the pupils of his eyes were dilated.”)

A friend mentioned that Rubin had been working with codes: “They’re very complicated. Anyone who reads science fiction will know what I mean.” Rubin was carrying a copy of Galaxy Science Fiction, as well as a plastic cylinder containing a signal fuse, the casing of a spent .38 caliber bullet, a “fountain pen gun” of uncertain purpose, four keys, and 47 cents. He’d had $15 when he’d left home the previous morning.

An inquest turned up nothing, and the case was closed in March. The cipher has never been solved. The Cipher Foundation has more details about the case, as well as a link to Rubin’s FBI file (8 MB PDF). The fullest account of the case that I know is in Craig Bauer’s excellent Unsolved!: The History and Mystery of the World’s Greatest Ciphers from Ancient Egypt to Online Secret Societies (2017).

The Forest Grove Sound

Make of this what you will: In February 2016 a “mechanical scream” was repeatedly heard at night near Gales Creek Road in Forest Grove, Oregon. Described variously as a “giant flute played off pitch” and “a bad one-note violin solo broadcast over a microphone with nonstop feedback,” the sound typically lasted from 10 seconds to several minutes. It annoyed the residents, but authorities determined there were no problems with gas lines in the area, and the police department announced that the sound didn’t pose a safety hazard.

It ended as mysteriously as it had started — Pacific University physicist Andrew Dawes, who had been mapping the locations where the noise had been heard, plotted his last point on February 27, 2016. He said the results were inconclusive and didn’t suggest any single location. The police and fire departments have closed the case; Forest Grove Fire Marshal Dave Nemeyer said he suspected the noise to be “a faulty attic fan or heat pump.”

The Seneca White Deer

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Seneca_White_Deer_On_Army_Depot_Grounds_1.JPG

When the Seneca Army Depot in upstate New York was shut down in 2000 it left an odd legacy: the world’s largest herd of white deer. The fence erected around the facility in 1941 happened to enclose a few white-tailed deer that carried a recessive gene for all-white coats; the depot commander forbade his GIs to shoot any white deer, and eventually the white herd grew to number more than 300.

These are not albinos; they have brown eyes, not pink, and they live alongside some 600 brown white-tailed deer. In 2016 the Army sold the depot to a local businessman, and part of the land has now been established as a conservation park. Bus tours have “turned out to be hugely successful.”

“The Eagle Map of the United States”

https://books.google.com/books?id=HX0mAQAAIAAJ&pg=PA449

A truly ‘spread eagle map’ is found in a small book of 1833, entitled, ‘Rudiments of Knowledge,’ by Joseph Churchman. This eagle map is explained very geographically. The United States and territories are represented under the figure of an eagle; the States of New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and a part of New York being chiefly included in the head and beak — the remainder of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, principally embraced in the neck — the outline of coast, from Cape Henlopen to South Carolina inclusive, making the turn and formation of the breast, Florida representing the legs — the Arkansas territory, including the land occupied by the Cherokees to the Spanish line, forming the tail — the northern line of the United States, through lakes Ontario and Erie to Detroit, describing the back — the wings raised and the outline of them curving with the line of the United States through lakes St. Clair, Huron and Superior, and spread and extended to overshadow a large part of the Missouri territory.

— P. Lee Phillips, “Some Peculiar Maps,” Daughters of the American Revolution Magazine, August 1918

Rinehart

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:HarvardYard.jpg

On June 11, 1900, someone in Harvard Yard called out “Oh, R-i-i-i-n-e-HART!” There must have been something in the air, because hundreds of students repeated the cry, and for the next 40 years it took on a strange life of its own. Journalist (and alumnus) George Frazier mentioned it in his 1932 song “Harvard Blues,” recorded in 1941 by Count Basie. John Barrymore mentioned it in his 1939 film The Great Man Votes. Thomas Pynchon describes it in his novel Against the Day. Today it’s documented in slang dictionaries and has entered the realm of legend: A Harvard man menaced by Arabs in Africa supposedly cried “Rinehart!” and was rescued by a fellow alumnus from the nearby French Foreign Legion.

The truth is more prosaic. Rinehart is John Bryce Gordon Rinehart, class of 1900. A contemporary article in the Harvard Crimson explained:

Rinehart, who is an earnest student, has been in great demand as a tutor to other men in his courses. As he lives at the top of Grays hall his friends have sought to find out whether he was in or not by directing plaintive cries of ‘Rinehart, O Rinehart’ at his windows. This made the studiously inclined who swell in the neighboring dormitories very tired and they determined to quell Rinehart, so promptly at dark for the past three nights the college yard has resounded with the cries of ‘Rinehart, O Rinehart.’ First one end of the yard and then other would send up the plaintive cry, and then all the buildings would swell as if in chorus with the same old plaint. Last night the college police tried to stop the racket, but the boys by a little teamwork kept them running from one dormitory to the other. One man with a megaphone was particularly offensive, but despite the police vigil of three hours the megaphonist was still summoning Rinehart in tearful tones.

Rinehart himself, “stocky, gray, and genial” at 61, finally confirmed this at the university’s tercentenary celebration in 1936, his first time back to campus:

It was in the Spring of 1900. Examinations were over and the atmosphere was tense, as it usually is between examinations and commencement.

My classmates always looked upon me as a grind. They were continually calling for me to go out on a spree, but I have never touched a drop in my life.

That Spring evening, in 1900, they came and called up to my room — I was living in Gray’s 49, on the top floor — for me to join them. The late Frank Simonds, living in Matthews, who was a friend of mine, heard the call and just for a joke stuck his head out of his window and repeated the call.

The cry was taken up. Among those who joined in were John Price Jones and Charles Underwood, who is director of the Manly School here in Cambridge. Within a few minutes the yard was a bedlam.

Why it caught on, though, still seems to be a mystery.

Podcast Episode 225: The Great Stork Derby

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When Toronto attorney Charles Vance Millar died in 1926, he left behind a mischievous will that promised a fortune to the woman who gave birth to the most children in the next 10 years. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow the Great Stork Derby and the hope and controversy it brought to Toronto’s largest families during the Great Depression.

We’ll also visit some Portuguese bats and puzzle over a suspicious work crew.

See full show notes …

The Poison Garden

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

Northumberland’s Alnwick Garden contains a special section full of hemlock, belladonna, foxglove, deadly nightshade, Brugmansia, Laburnum, and the botanical ingredients of strychnine and ricin.

“If you’re building something, especially a visitor attraction, it needs to be something really unique,” Jane Percy, the Duchess of Northumberland, who designed the garden, told Smithsonian. “One of the things I hate in this day and age is the standardization of everything. I thought, ‘Let’s try and do something really different.'”

She collected more than 100 varieties, which visitors are forbidden to touch, taste, or smell. (Even so, in 2014 seven visitors reportedly fainted from inhaling the fumes alone.)

“I thought, ‘This is a way to interest children,'” the duchess said. “Children don’t care that aspirin comes from a bark of a tree. What’s really interesting is to know how a plant kills you, and how the patient dies, and what you feel like before you die.”