In 1913 outdoorsman Joseph Knowles pledged to spend two months in the woods of northern Maine, naked and alone, fending for himself “without the slightest communication or aid from the outside world.” In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow Knowles’ adventures in the woods and the controversy that followed his return to civilization.
We’ll also consider the roots of nostalgia and puzzle over some busy brothers.
“Joe Knowles, Lived in Wilds Unarmed!”, New York Times, Oct. 23, 1942.
Joseph B. Frazier, “An Early Nature Buff: By Going Into the Woods Alone, Did Joe Knowles Remind America of Its Potential?”, Orlando Sentinel, March 2, 2008.
Joseph B. Frazier, “‘Natural Man’ Inspired, Despite Fraud Claims,” Augusta Chronicle, March 16, 2008.
“The 100th Anniversary of Joe Knowles’ Famous Odyssey into the Wilds,” Lewiston [Maine] Sun Journal, April 14, 2013.
“Joe Knowles and the Legacy of Wilderness Adventures,” Lewiston [Maine] Sun Journal, May 12, 2013.
“Nature Man Badly Injured,” Los Angeles Times, May 18, 1915.
“The Nature Man,” The Billboard, Nov. 6, 1915.
Grace Kingley, “Joe Knowles, Nature Man, at Republic,” Los Angeles Times, Sept. 23, 1914.
Still dressed in his bearskin and cedar-bark shoes, Knowles was examined by Harvard physician Dudley Sargent on Oct. 9, 1913. “He surpassed every test he took before starting on the trip,” Sargent declared. “His scientific experiment shows what a man can do when he is deprived of the luxuries which many people have come to regard as necessities.”
In Love Letters of the Great War (2014), Mandy Kirkby quotes this letter sent from Gleiwitz, Upper Silesia, in April 1917:
This is the last letter I am writing to you, because on the 24th I am going to marry another man. Then I don’t have to work any longer. I have already been working for three years as long as you are away from home. All the other men come home for leave, only you POWs never come. Nobody knows how long it will take until you come home. That’s why I am going to have a new husband. I will give the children to the orphanage. I don’t give a rat’s ass about a life like that! There is no way to survive with these few Pfennig benefits. At work they have a big mouth about the women. Now I don’t need to go to work, now the other man is going to work for me. All wives whose husbands are POWs will do the same thing and they will all get rid of the children. Three years at work are too much for the women and 20 Mark for benefit and 10 Mark child benefit are not enough. One cannot live on that. Everything is so expensive now. One pound of bacon costs 8 Mark, a shirt, 9 Mark.
“We don’t know anything more about this unfortunate couple, but the strain of separation has brought the wife to breaking point,” Kirkby writes. “Whether she carried out her threat, we’ll never know.”
In 1818 caricaturist George Cruikshank saw several people hanging from a gibbet near Newgate Prison in London and learned to his horror that they had been executed for passing forged one-pound notes — at the time, doing so even unknowingly was punishable by death or transportation.
The fact that a poor woman could be put to death for such a minor offence had a great effect upon me — and I at that moment determined, if possible, to put a stop to this shocking destruction of life for merely obtaining a few shillings by fraud; and well knowing the habits of the low class of society in London, I felt quite sure that in very many cases the rascals who forged the notes induced these poor ignorant women to go into the gin-shops to ‘get something to drink,’ and thus pass the notes, and hand them the change.
He went home and dashed off this sketch, which was then printed on the post paper used by the bank, so that it would resemble counterfeit currency. “The general effect was of a counterfeit, but closer examination revealed that every element of the official design had been replaced by a savage parody,” writes Robert L. Patten in George Cruikshank’s Life, Times, and Art. The seal shows Britannia eating her children, the stamp depicts 12 tiny heads in prison, and the pound sign is a coiled hangman’s rope.
The protest created a sensation, and remedial legislation was passed. Cruikshank’s satire, noted the Examiner, “ought to make the hearts of the Bank Directors ache at the sight.”
C. Wiltberger created this allegorical map of temperance in 1838 (click to enlarge). The goal is to get from the Ocean of Animal Appetite in the west to the Ocean of Eternity in the east. It would be natural enough to investigate Indulgence and Generosity Islands, but this will lead you to Evil Company Island, and once you’re through the Devil’s Trap you’ll have to negotiate the Sea of Intemperance, with its islands of Murder, Arson, Larceny, and Quarrel. Beyond the Great Gulf of Wretchedness lies the Sea of Anguish, which puts you out at Suicide Island (and its capital, Spontaneous Combustion).
The better plan is to head north immediately and enter the Cold Water River at Hope Island. Bear south at Knowledge toward Cultureville and Mount Science and take the Tee Total Rail Road to the Sea of Temperance, and then head north through the Old Age Outlet past Comfortville and Restburg and safely into Eternity. (Beware the Gulf of Broken Pledges — even at this late stage, it will lead you directly to Desperation Point.)
My favorite part: Poverty Island has a port called Nosupper.
In 1895, when a Chicago landowner failed to pay his taxes, a bidder acquired a claim to the east one-vigintillionth part of the lot. The insurance company tried to foreclose, arguing that the owner had allowed a cloud to come on the title by the loss of this small fraction. But the county court held that a vigintillionth (1/1000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000) was practically nothing, as “its width would be so fine that the most powerful magnifying glass ever made could not discover it: it would be utterly incapable of physical possession.” In a little rhapsody, the Northwestern Law Review agreed:
If the surface of the earth were rolled out flat and a vigintillionth sold off the east side and sold to pay the taxes of the owner thereof, the purchaser at the tax sale would get a strip about 500 quin-decillionths of an inch wide. Hardly large enough for even a Pingree potato patch.
If the holder of the fee simple title to the section of space between the earth and the sun, (taken at 93,000,000 miles), should be unfortunate enough to be sold out to the tax buyer, he would, if he failed to redeem, lose title to a strip along one side of his holding, (say next the sun), some 140 qual decillionths of an inch in width.
Or, if the ‘unknown owner’ of the space between here and the nearest fixed star, (Alpha Centauri), something like twenty million millions of miles from the Northeast corner of Randolph and State Sts. should be unfortunate in his real estate venture and fall into the greedy hands of the tax buyer, he would have to yield up dominion over a strip on the East side of his subdivision some 645 dio decellionths of an inch across.
This must be some odd trend of American law in the 1890s — in his Strangest Cases on Record (1940), John Allison Duncan mentions another such case in Arapahoe County, Colorado. He includes a photograph of the certificate of purchase.
A letter from William Pomeroy Barnett of Whitesboro, Texas, to Ollie Hughes, 1891:
I hav bin thinin fur a gude while thet I wood rite you a leter an tel you thet I wus luvin beter eny uther gurl in texas an ef you will mary me I wil be jist the bestest feller you ever seed in the wurld i will fede the hoss an mirk the cow an slop the pig an chern the buter an eny theng else in the wurld you tel me to. if you knode how much i luv you you wood say yes when yuve thunk the mater overall tu your sef i hope you will eny way. if you can luv me jist a little tenty bit i wood fele awful gude if you wood tel me so the first time you see me an ef you cante luv me donte luv thet uther feller fur if you du it wood kill me deder an a dor nale to no hit. fur i do kere fur you a ho lot, if not a lot, more. you are the apple uf my eye.
I wunder if it makes all the boys fele as funny as hit dus me to be in luv if hit dus they all fele mity gude all the samey. but i think i wude fele a heep beter if i node you luved me jist as hard as id you. but if you cante think nuthen uv me brake the nuze sorter eazy like or else you mite coze me to have the harte dezeze us sum uther killin theng. I am a cumin over thare sum uv theze times a purpus to ask you to be my wife an id do hope yure ansar will be in the offurmative if hit ante i donte no What I will do but i spect i will go as crasy as a lunytick, well ole gal i will cloze fur this hopin to here frum you sune if not suner Purhaps. When you rite you must be shore an rite to the one thet sent you this if you donte I wonte git hit shore, rite sune to your luvin Jular Ky. resp. yorse.
They were married that November.
(From George U. Hubbard, The Humor and Drama of Early Texas, 2003.)
For 200 years the U.S. Treasury has maintained a “conscience fund” that accepts repayments from people who have defrauded or stolen from the government. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the history of the fund and some of the more memorable and puzzling contributions it’s received over the years.
We’ll also ponder Audrey Hepburn’s role in World War II and puzzle over an illness cured by climbing poles.
Wisconsin banker John Krubsack grafted 32 box elders into a living chair.
In 1836, Indians abducted a 9-year-old girl from her home in East Texas. She made a new life among the Comanche, with a husband and three children. Then, after 24 years, the whites abducted her back again. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of Cynthia Ann Parker, caught up in a war between two societies.
We’ll also analyze a forger’s motives and puzzle over why a crowd won’t help a dying woman.
In a case regarding the value of a dead horse, Judge Squire Sprigg of Butler County, Ohio, charged the jury as follows:
Gentlemen of the Jury: This is a hoss case. We make quick work of hoss cases in this court. These people killed Doc’s old hoss; if Doc’s hoss was worth anything, then he is entitled to recover; if he wasn’t worth anything, then he ain’t. Some hosses are worth something and a good many more are worth nothing. So, it is for you to say, whether this hoss was worth anything or not. You are to be governed by the preponderance of testimony. Preponderance is a big word, which I must explain to you. It means this: If one side has fifty witnesses and you think they are all liars, and the other side has one witness, and you don’t think he is a liar, or at least as big a liar as the other fifty, then the testimony of the one will preponderate over that of the others, and will knock the socks off of the other fifty. Now, if by a preponderance of the testimony, as I have explained it to you, you think the Doc’s old hoss was worth anything, find what that is and give it to him; if you think he was worth nothing, why say so. Doc will think this is pretty hard on the medical profession, but he will have to take the medicine which the law prescribes. The law provides for just such cases; it calls this damnum absque injuria, which means, as I interpret it, that a man is usually hurt a damned sight less than he thinks he is.
Now, gentlemen, I believe I have covered the whole case. You have heard the evidence and the law as I have given it to you. Remember that you are under oath in this business and that the court expects quick verdicts, especially in hoss cases.
They found for the defendant, the SPCA, and declared that Doc must pay the costs. “I stood true to the honor of our noble profession, and put a chattel mortgage on my household goods, and paid it off in weekly installments like a man,” he wrote. “But I have never had a law suit since.”