Concealed Shoes
Image: Wikimedia Commons

England’s Northampton Museum maintains a Concealed Shoe Index that documents the discovery of shoes hidden in the structure of buildings, 1900 of them as of 2012.

This seems to have been a tradition that was once widespread and that died out relatively recently — the first such shoe was discovered behind the choirstalls in Winchester Cathedral, which were installed in 1308, and almost half are from the 19th century. Most have been worn, and about half belonged to children.

Why did people do this? The shoes may have been a fertility charm, or offerings to a household deity, or protections against evil spirits. But the practice was evidently once very popular — concealed shoes have been found in Europe, North America, and Australia, and in many types of buildings: workhouses, factories, public houses, country cottages, town houses, manor houses, hospitals, and two Oxford colleges, St John’s and Queen’s.

Turning Back Time

A watch for left-handed people has been invented by a Kalamazoo jeweler, who believes that the left-handed look at things in a ‘left-handed’ fashion. The left-handed watch runs backward. The dial is arranged so that the numeral 1 is on the left hand of 12 instead of on the right as in the case of the ordinary watch. The hands also run from right to left instead of in the usual fashion. Mechanically, with the exceptions given, the left-handed watch differs very slightly from the ordinary time-piece.

The inventor constructed the unusual watch for the benefit of his daughter, who is left-handed.

Popular Science Monthly, January 1916


I was just researching wartime superstitions and came across this striking anecdote. Major Hubert Knilans was an American bomber pilot who flew with the No. 619 Squadron in the RAF during World War II. As he was climbing to cruising altitude one evening, “The upper sky before me was still somewhat lighted. A figure of a woman several thousand feet high slowly emerged into my startled view.”

He realized she had the face of a young woman he’d loved but who had died suddenly of pneumonia some years earlier. “She had a slight smile on her lips as I flew towards her. The vision slowly melted into the darkening sky around us.”

He says he was “a bit uneasy” over this vision, uncertain “if she had appeared to reassure me that she would keep me from harm or if she was welcoming me into her world of the hereafter.”

Apparently it was the former — he finished the mission successfully and wrote up the encounter in his private memoir A Yank in the RCAF.

The Nearby Daughter

Your beloved daughter is spending the summer at a Japanese monastery. On July 28 you receive a letter from an administrator, dated July 19, saying that she needs to have her wisdom teeth removed. The availability of drugs is not certain: She’ll either have a relatively painful extraction on July 27 or an unpleasant but painless one on July 29. Learning of this situation from afar, which drug would you prefer to have been available?

Now imagine that you receive the letter on July 26 and jet to her bedside. You arrive on July 28 to find her asleep. She seems a little restless, but you don’t know whether that’s because she had a painful extraction yesterday or because she’s anxious about having an unpleasant one tomorrow. Now which do you prefer?

“I find that the large majority of people to whom I present these cases say that they would prefer, in the first case, for their daughter to have the merely unpleasant operation on the 29th, and, in the second case, for their daughter to have had the painful operation on the 27th,” writes MIT philosopher Caspar Hare. “Furthermore, in each case they feel that it makes sense to have the preference, given the way in which it is appropriate to care about a daughter. While they would be loath to condemn a parent with different preferences, they feel that such a parent would be making a kind of mistake.” Why should this be?

(Caspar Hare, “A Puzzle About Other-Directed Time Bias,” Australasian Journal of Philosophy 86:2 [June 2008], 269-277.)


Here’s an oddity: In 1882 Lewis Carroll collaborated on a song with the dreaming imagination of his friend the Rev. C.E. Hutchinson of Chichester. Hutchinson had told Carroll of a strange dream he’d had:

I found myself seated, with many others, in darkness, in a large amphitheatre. Deep stillness prevailed. A kind of hushed expectancy was upon us. We sat awaiting I know not what. Before us hung a vast and dark curtain, and between it and us was a kind of stage. Suddenly an intense wish seized me to look upon the forms of some of the heroes of past days. I cannot say whom in particular I longed to behold, but, even as I wished, a faint light flickered over the stage, and I was aware of a silent procession of figures moving from right to left across the platform in front of me. As each figure approached the left-hand corner it turned and gazed at me, and I knew (by what means I cannot say) its name. One only I recall — Saint George; the light shone with a peculiar blueish lustre on his shield and helmet as he turned and slowly faced me. The figures were shadowy, and floated like mist before me; as each one disappeared an invisible choir behind the curtain sang the ‘Dream music.’ I awoke with the melody ringing in my ears, and the words of the last line complete — ‘I see the shadows falling, and slowly pass away.’ The rest I could not recall.

He played the melody for Carroll, who wrote a suitable lyric of five verses. Hutchinson disclaimed writing the music, but if he didn’t … who did?

(From Stuart Dodgson Collingwood, Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll, 1898.)

11/24/2021 UPDATE: Reader Paul Sophocleous provided this MIDI file of the published music. (Thanks, Paul.)

A Good Walk Spoiled

If aliens watched us play golf, what on earth would they think we were doing? We invent an arbitrary, difficult task and then try to perform it, expending vast quantities of money and leisure time in a pursuit that serves no productive purpose and that most players find frustrating. A writer for Punch summed it up in 1892: “The object is to put a very small ball into a very tiny and remotely distant hole, with engines singularly ill adapted for the purpose.”

In other pursuits, if people deliberately impede themselves from achieving their own goals, we question their rationality. But this is almost the whole point of golf — rules and courses are deliberately designed to make it extremely difficult to get the ball into the hole (a strange goal to pursue in the first place).

“The intuitive explanation, of course, is that golf wouldn’t be worth playing if it were easy,” writes Washington State University philosopher David Shier. “It simply wouldn’t be fun. Well, maybe much of the time it’s not exactly fun anyway, but it surely wouldn’t be interesting, and it wouldn’t ever be gratifying. Golfers place obstacles in the way of achieving their own goals in order to make the sport more challenging and, consequently, more interesting and enjoyable.” … But why pursue it at all?

(David Shier, “Is Golf Inherently Irrational?”, in Andy Wible, ed., Golf and Philosophy, 2010.)

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Image: Flickr

Sometimes it’s easier to reach a just legal result by reconceiving facts than by rewriting a rule. A classic example is Mostyn v. Fabrigas, decided by the King’s Bench Court in 1774. Fabrigas was a resident of Minorca, a Mediterranean island which was then occupied and controlled by England. He was imprisoned by Mostyn, the governor of the island. Fabrigas wanted to sue him, but no suit could be brought against Mostyn in Minorca without the approval of the governor. So Fabrigas sued him instead in the Court of Common Pleas in London for trespass and false imprisonment, winning a jury verdict of £3,000. Mostyn appealed, claiming correctly that the trial court had jurisdiction only in cases brought by residents of London, and Lord Mansfield, resoundingly, declared that Minorca was part of London for purposes of this action. The assault had occurred “at Minorca, to wit at London, in the parish of St. Mary-le-Bow, in the Ward of Cheap.”

That’s from University of Virginia scholar Frederick Schauer’s “Legal Fictions Revisited,” in Maksymilian Del Mar and William Twining’s Legal Fictions in Theory and Practice (2015). He adds this wonderful footnote:

There is a story, probably apocryphal, that, in 1939, the renowned and beloved deer which graze on the grounds of Magdalen College, Oxford, were at risk of being requisitioned during the wartime food shortage by the Ministry of Food. In order to prevent such an occurrence, it is said, influential Magdalen graduates in the government arranged to have the deer reclassified as vegetables and thus be spared from the slaughterhouse. More recently, it is reported that Magdalen’s noisy swinging door has been informally classified as a musical instrument in order to bring it within the prohibition on playing musical instruments at certain hours.


In 1984, a diver was working in the beluga whale enclosure at San Diego’s National Marine Mammal Foundation when someone shouted “Out, out, out!” On emerging, the diver asked who had told him to exit the tank, and it turned out that the speaker was the whale itself, Noc, who had lived at the facility since his capture in 1977.

Noc’s keepers had previously heard strange sounds coming from the whale and dolphin enclosure that seemed to resemble people talking in the distance, their words just beyond the limit of comprehension. “We were sceptical at first,” neurobiologist Sam Ridgway told New Scientist. “They were definitely unlike usual sounds for a [beluga], and similar to human voices in rhythm and acoustic spectrum.”

The researchers concluded that he was indeed mimicking human speech, though Noc used his nasal tract to produce sounds, rather than a larynx, as humans do. They had only a short window in which to study the behavior: After four years Noc stopped, either because he’d reached maturity or because he’d lost interest.

The Giant of Castelnau

Anthropologist Georges Vacher de Lapouge turned up a surprise in 1890: While excavating a Bronze Age cemetery at Castelnau, near Montpellier, France, he discovered three apparently human bones of gigantic size. On the left is the “giant’s” femur, or thigh bone; on the right is a tibia, or shin bone. Between them is a normal humerus, or upper arm bone, from the same cemetery. At the bottom is a fragment that may belong to either a femur or a humerus; if it’s the latter then it must have belonged to the same giant. If this is right, then the individual would have stood between 10 and 11 feet tall.

Lapouge published his discovery in La Nature that year. “I think it unnecessary to note that these bones are undeniably human, despite their enormous size,” he wrote. “The volumes of the bones were more than double the normal pieces to which they correspond.”

The specimens were examined by zoologists and paleontologists at the University of Montpellier and passed eventually to pathological anatomist Paul Kiener of the Montpellier School of Medicine; the London Globe noted that “Kieger, who, while admitting that the bones are those of a very tall race, nevertheless finds them abnormal in dimensions and apparently of morbid growth.”

“There has been an old tradition among the peasants of the vicinity that a cavern in the valley was, in olden times, occupied by a giant,” noted Popular Science News. “It would be curious if the discovery of M. Lapouge should show it to be founded on fact.”

Interestingly, the bones of further French giants were reported to have turned up near the same location a few years later. From the Princeton Union, Oct. 11, 1894: “In a prehistoric cemetery recently uncovered at Montpellier, France, while workmen were excavating a waterworks reservoir, human skulls were found measuring 28, 31 and 32 inches in circumference. The bones which were found with the skulls were also of gigantic proportions. These relics were sent to the Paris academy, and a learned ‘savant’ who lectured on the find says that they belonged to a race of men between ten and fifteen feet in height.”

But that seems to be the end of it. Was the whole thing a hoax?