Obscure but interesting: In his 1857 history of the West Branch Valley of the Susquehanna River, John Franklin Meginness quotes a 1793 indenture that purports to trace the title to a plot of Pennsylvania land back to the creation of mankind:

Whereas, the Creator of the earth, by parole and livery of seisin, did enfeoff the parents of mankind, to wit, Adam and Eve, of all that certain tract of land, called and known in the planetary system by the name of The Earth, together with all and singular the advantages, woods, waters, water-courses, easements, liberties, privileges, and all others the appurtenances whatsoever thereunto belonging, or in any wise appertaining to have and to hold to them the said Adam and Eve, and the heirs of their bodies lawfully to be begotten, in fee-tail general forever, as by the said feoffment recorded by Moses, in the first chapter of the first book of his records commonly called Genesis, more fully and at large appears on reference being thereunto had …

This goes on for four pages, tracing ownership through the Six Nations of North America to William Penn and finally to one Flavel Roan, the “witty and rather eccentric gentleman” who Meginness says drew up the deed. “His education was good, and his penmanship superior.”

The whole thing is here.

Boys’ Club

No women are allowed on Greece’s Mount Athos, the site of 20 Eastern Orthodox monasteries, because they would hinder the monks’ progress toward spiritual enlightenment. Mary alone represents her sex on the mountain.

The ban has been in place since an imperial decree in 1046, with a few colorful exceptions:

  • In the 1300s a Serbian emperor brought his wife to the peninsula to protect her from the plague. She was borne in a hand carriage the whole time, her feet never touching the ground.
  • French writer Maryse Choisy snuck in in the 1920s, disguised as a sailor. She published her adventure under the title Un mois chez les hommes (“A Month With Men”).
  • In 1953 Ohio Fulbright Program teacher Cora Miller landed briefly with two other women, creating a furor.
  • In 2008, five Moldovan migrants arrived by way of Turkey; four were women. The monks forgave them.

The rule extends even to hens, cows, nanny-goats, and sows, which means that dairy products and eggs have to be brought in from outside. Female cats, insects, and songbirds are admitted.

In 2003 the European Parliament passed a resolution saying the ban violated “the universally recognised principle of gender equality,” but it remains in place — even female sightseers must stay at least 500 meters offshore.

The Power of Prayer

In 1872 Francis Galton reflected that congregations throughout Britain pray every Sunday for the health of the British royal family. If prayer has tangible effects, he wondered, shouldn’t all this concentrated well-wishing result in greater health for its objects? He compared the longevity of royalty to clergy, lawyers, doctors, aristocracy and gentry, as well as other professions, and found that

[t]he sovereigns are literally the shortest lived of all who have the advantage of affluence. The prayer has therefore no efficacy, unless the very questionable hypothesis be raised, that the conditions of royal life may naturally be yet more fatal, and that their influence is partly, though incompletely, neutralized by the effects of public prayers.

He noted also that missionaries are not vouchsafed a long life, despite their pious purpose; that banks that open their proceedings with prayers don’t seem to receive any benefit from doing so; and that insurance companies don’t offer annuities at lower rates to the devout than to the profane. Certainly men may profess to commune in their hearts with God, he wrote, but “it is equally certain that similar benefits are not excluded from those who on conscientious grounds are sceptical as to the reality of a power of communion.”

(Francis Galton, “Statistical Inquiries Into the Efficacy of Prayer,” Fortnightly Review 12 [1872], 125-35.)

Podcast Episode 107: Arthur Nash and the Golden Rule,_formal_sitting,_circa_1927.jpg

In 1919, Ohio businessman Arthur Nash decided to run his clothing factory according to the Golden Rule and treat his workers the way he’d want to be treated himself. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll visit Nash’s “Golden Rule Factory” and learn the results of his innovative social experiment.

We’ll also marvel at metabolism and puzzle over the secrets of Chicago pickpockets.

See full show notes …


A Quaker objector in the Civil War:

I was ordered out and required to fall in line with the company and drill, but I refused. They tried to make me and I sat down on the ground. They reminded me of the orders to shoot me, but I told them my God said to fear them not that kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul; but rather to fear him that is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. The company was then ordered to fall back eight paces, leaving me in front of them. They were then ordered by Colonel Kirkland to ‘Load; Present arms; Aim,’ and their guns were pointed directly at my breast. I raised my arms and prayed: ‘Father, forgive them; they know not what they do.’ Not a gun was fired. They lowered them without orders, and some of them were heard to say that they ‘could not shoot such a man.’ The order was then given, ‘Ground arms.’

After weeks of such punishment, William Hockett was captured at Gettysburg and released to live in Philadelphia. He remained there until the end of the war.


From C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed, a collection of reflections on the loss of his wife, Joy, in 1960:

It is hard to have patience with people who say ‘There is no death’ or ‘Death doesn’t matter.’ There is death. And whatever is matters. And whatever happens has consequences, and it and they are irrevocable and irreversible. You might as well say that birth doesn’t matter. I look up at the night sky. Is anything more certain that in all those vast times and spaces, if I were allowed to search them, I should nowhere find her face, her voice, her touch? She died. She is dead. Is the word so difficult to learn? …

Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.

He published it originally under the pseudonym N.W. Clerk, a pun on the Old English for “I know not what scholar.”

Podcast Episode 96: The Abduction of Edgardo Mortara

On June 23, 1858, the Catholic Church removed 6-year-old Edgardo Mortara from his family in Bologna. The reason they gave was surprising: The Mortaras were Jewish, and Edgardo had been secretly baptized. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of little Edgardo and learn how his family’s plight shaped the course of Italian history.

We’ll also hear Ben Franklin’s musings on cultural bigotry and puzzle over an unexpected soccer riot.

See full show notes …

The Revelation Game

brams revelation game

Is it rational to believe in the existence of a superior being? In 1982, New York University political scientist Steven J. Brams addressed the question using game theory. Assume that SB (the superior being) chooses whether to reveal himself, and P (a person) chooses whether to believe in SB’s existence. The two players have the following goals:

SB: Primary goal — wants P to believe in his existence. Secondary goal — prefers not to reveal himself.
P: Primary goal — wants belief (or nonbelief) in SB’s existence confirmed by evidence (or lack thereof). Secondary goal — prefers to believe in SB’s existence.

These goals determine the rankings of the four outcomes listed above. In each ordered pair, the first number refers to SB’s preference for that outcome (4 is high, 1 is low), and the second number refers to P’s preference. For example, SB prefers the two outcomes in which P believes in SB’s existence (because that’s his primary goal), and of these two outcomes, he prefers the one in which he doesn’t reveal himself (because that’s his secondary goal).

Brams finds a paradox here. If the game is one of complete information, then P knows that SB prefers not to reveal himself — that is, that SB prefers the second row to the first, regardless of P’s choice. And if SB will undoubtedly choose the second row, then P should choose his own preferred cell in that row, the second one. This makes (2, 3) the rational outcome of the game; it’s also the only outcome that neither player would choose unilaterally to depart once it’s chosen. And yet outcome (3, 4) would be preferred by both to (2, 3).

“Thus,” writes Brams, “not only is it rational for SB not to reveal himself and for P not to believe in his existence — a problem in itself for a theist if SB is God — but, more problematic for the rationalist, this outcome is unmistakably worse for both players than revelation by SB and belief by P, which would confirm P’s belief in SB’s existence.”

(Steven J. Brams, Superior Beings, 1983. This example is drawn largely from his paper “Belief in God: A Game-Theoretic Paradox,” in International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 13:3 [1982], 121-129.)

Electrical Fault

In 1969, California attorney Russell Tansie sued God for $100,000 on behalf of his legal secretary, who blamed Him for destroying her Phoenix home with a bolt of lightning in 1960:

Plaintiff is informed and believes that defendant (God) at all times mentioned herein is responsible for the maintenance and operation of the Universe, including the weather in and upon the State of Arizona, and that on or about August 17, 1960, defendant so maintained and controlled the weather, in, around and upon Phoenix, in such careless and negligent manner as to cause lightning to strike the plaintiff’s house, setting it on fire and startling, frightening and shocking the plaintiff.

Tansie added that God “did this with full knowledge and that the act was committed with malice and ill will.” He hoped to win a default judgment when the defendant failed to appear in court. I don’t know the outcome; maybe they reached a settlement.

Celestial Mechanics

Being an angel is hard work. In his 1926 essay “On Being the Right Size,” J.B.S. Haldane writes, “An angel whose muscles developed no more power weight for weight than those of an eagle or a pigeon would require a breast projecting for about four feet to house the muscles engaged in working its wings, while to economize in weight, its legs would have to be reduced to mere stilts.”

And this takes no account of the weight of the harp. In The Book of the Harp, John Marson notes that gold is about 10 times heavier than willow, once the favorite wood of Celtic harp makers. He calculates that a harp of gold would weigh 120 pounds, far more than the 70-80 pounds of the largest pedal harp.

Should we worry about this? Let us not forget that it was angels who destroyed Babylon for its people’s wrongdoings. In the Book of Revelation, chapter 18, verse 21 tells us: “And a mighty angel took up a stone like a great millstone, and cast it into the sea, saying, ‘Thus with violence shall that great city of Babylon be thrown down.'”

This becomes a public health matter. Even if harps aren’t thrown at us deliberately by vengeful angels, Marson writes, “there is always the danger of one being dropped accidentally from a great height, resulting in the kind of damage caused on occasion by meteorites — unless, of course, the Bible is indeed correct after all, and angels do not play harps.”

See Hesiod’s Anvil.