Founded in the 1880s by Manhattan rationalists, the 13 Club held a regular dinner on the 13th of each month, seating 13 members at each table deliberately to laugh at superstition.

“I have given some attention to popular superstitions, and let me tell you that argument is powerless against them,” founding member Daniel Wolff told journalist Philip Hubert in 1890. “They have a grip upon the imagination that nothing but ridicule will lessen.” As an example he cited the tradition that the mirrors must be removed from a room in which a corpse is lying. “Make the experiment yourself, and the next time you are called upon to sit up with a corpse, notice how uncomfortable a mirror will make you feel,” he said. “Of course it is a matter of the imagination, but you can’t reason against it. All the ingrained terrors of six thousand years are in your bones. You walk across the floor and catch a glimpse of yourself in the glass. You start; was there not a spectral something behind you? So you cover it up.”

As honorary members the club recruited 16 U.S. senators, 12 governors, and six Army generals. Robert Green Ingersoll ended one 1886 toast by declaring, “We have had enough mediocrity, enough policy, enough superstition, enough prejudice, enough provincialism, and the time has come for the American citizen to say: ‘Hereafter I will be represented by men who are worthy, not only of the great Republic, but of the Nineteenth Century.'”

But Oscar Wilde, for one, turned them down. “I love superstitions,” he wrote. “They are the colour element of thought and imagination. They are the opponents of common sense. Common sense is the enemy of romance. The aim of your society seems to be dreadful. Leave us some unreality. Don’t make us too offensively sane.”

(Thanks, David.)

In a Word


v. to deceive in the manner of a prostitute

BOW-STREET — Eliza Merchant, a black-eyed girl, of that class of women known as ‘unfortunates,’ was charged by Garnet Comerford, a sailor, with robbing him of four sovereigns, several dollars and half-crowns, and his shoes. The tar stated that on Wednesday evening, about eight o’clock he left the house of his Captain, the honourable Mr. Duncan, at the west end of town, intending to pay a visit to a sister, whom he had not seen since he left England in the Seringapatem. On the way, he met as tight a looking frigate as ever he clapt his eyes on. She hoisted friendly colours; he hove to; and they agreed together to steer into port. They sailed up the Strand, when she said she would tow him to a snug berth, and he should share her hammock for the night. He consented; and when he awoke in the morning he found that she had cut and run. His rigging had been thrown all about the room, his four sovereigns and silver, and shoes were carried off.

The Morning Chronicle, Dec. 8, 1828

In a Word


n. one’s own handwriting or autograph; a style or character of writing

What is this? It’s the signature of Treasury Secretary Jack Lew. When Lew was nominated for the post in January 2013, it threatened to appear on all U.S. paper currency for the duration of his tenure.

Barack Obama said, “Jack assures me that he is going to work to make at least one letter legible in order not to debase our currency, should he be confirmed as secretary of the Treasury.” He did so — the current signature is below.

Lew’s predecessor, Timothy Geithner, had a similarly incomprehensible signature and produced a more legible version for the currency. “I took handwriting in the third grade in New Delhi, India,” he said, “so I probably did not get the best instruction on handwriting.”


Land of Opportunity


Auguste Bartholdi patented the Statue of Liberty. In 1879, seven years before its dedication in New York Harbor, the French sculptor filed a one-page abstract describing his “design for a sculpture”:

The statue is that of a female figure standing erect upon a pedestal or block, the body being thrown slightly over to the left, so as to gravitate upon the left leg, the whole figure being thus in equilibrium, and symmetrically arranged with respect to a perpendicular line or axis passing through the head and left foot. The right leg, with its lower limb thrown back, is bent, resting upon the bent toe, thus giving grace to the general attitude of the figure. The body is clothed in the classical drapery, being a stola, or mantle gathered in upon the left shoulder and thrown over the skirt or tunic or under-garment, which drops in voluminous folds upon the feet. The right arm is thrown up and stretched out, with a flamboyant torch grasped in the hand. The flame of the torch is thus held high up above the figure. The arm is nude; the drapery of the sleeve is dropping down upon the shoulder in voluminous folds. In the left arm, which is falling against the body, is held a tablet, upon which is inscribed ‘4th July, 1776.’ This tablet is made to rest against the side of the body, above the hip, and so as to occupy an inclined position with relation thereto, exhibiting the inscription. The left hand clasps the tablet so as to bring the four fingers onto the face thereof. The head, with its classical, yet severe and calm, features, is surmounted by a crown or diadem, from which radiate divergingly seven rays, tapering from the crown, and representing a halo. The feet are bare and sandal-strapped.

Bartholdi also received copyright 9939G for his “Statue of American Independence,” and architect Richard Morris Hunt received copyrights for the pedestal.

Barry Moreno’s Statue of Liberty Encyclopedia (2005) recounts the memory of a German immigrant who encountered the statue in 1911: “I remember we see Statue of Liberty. Gus asked me, ‘What’s the statue?’ And then we’re looking … and his father say, ‘That’s Christopher Columbus.’ And I put my two cents out. I say, ‘Listen, this don’t look like Christopher Columbus. That’s a lady there.'”

The Wisdom of the Crowd


At a livestock exhibition at Plymouth, England, in 1907, attendees were invited to guess the weight of an ox and to write their estimates on cards, with the most accurate estimates receiving prizes. About 800 tickets were issued, and after the contest these made their way to Francis Galton, who found them “excellent material.”

“The average competitor,” he wrote, “was probably as well fitted for making a just estimate of the dressed weight of the ox, as an average voter is of judging the merits of most political issues on which he votes, and the variety among the voters to judge justly was probably much the same in either case.”

Happily for all of us, he found that the guesses in the aggregate were quite accurate. The middlemost estimate was 1,207 pounds, and the weight of the dressed ox proved to be 1,198 pounds, an error of 0.8 percent. This has been borne out in subsequent research: When a group of people make individual estimates of a quantity, the mean response tends to be fairly accurate, particularly when the crowd is diverse and the judgments are independent.

Galton wrote, “This result is, I think, more creditable to the trustworthiness of a democratic judgment than might have been expected.”

(Francis Galton, “Vox Populi,” Nature, March 7, 1907.)

A Second Paradox of Blackmail

We covered one paradox regarding blackmail in 2010: If it’s legal for me to reveal your secret, and it’s legal for me to ask you for money, why is it illegal for me to demand payment to keep your secret? In the words of Northwestern University law professor James Lindgren, “Why do two rights make a wrong?”

Here’s a second paradox: If you had initiated the same transaction — if you had offered to pay me for my silence, and I’d agreed — then we’d have the same outcome, but this time it’s legal. “It is considered paradoxical that the sale of secrecy is legal if it takes the form of a bribe, yet is illegal where the sale of secrecy takes the form of blackmail,” writes Loyola University economist Walter Block. “Why should the legality of a sale of secrecy depend entirely upon who initiates the transaction? Why is bribery legal but blackmail not?”

(Walter Block et al., “The Second Paradox of Blackmail,” Business Ethics Quarterly, July 2000.)


We cannot seek or attain health, wealth, learning, justice or kindness in general. Action is always specific, concrete, individualized, unique. And consequently judgments as to acts to be performed must be similarly specific. … A man who aims at health as a distinct end becomes a valetudinarian, or a fanatic, or a mechanical performer of exercises, or an athlete so one-sided that his pursuit of bodily development injures his heart. When the endeavor to realize a so-called end does not temper and color all other activities, life is portioned out into strips and fractions. Certain acts and times are devoted to getting health, others to cultivating religion, others to seeking learning, to being a good citizen, a devotee of fine art and so on. This is the only logical alternative to subordinating all aims to the accomplishment of one alone — fanaticism. This is out of fashion at present, but who can say how much of distraction and dissipation in life, and how much of its hard and narrow rigidity is the outcome of men’s failure to realize that each situation has its own unique end and that the whole personality should be concerned with it?

— John Dewey, Reconstruction in Philosophy, 1920



“Sir Winston Churchill once told me of a reply made by the Duke of Wellington, in his last years, when a friend asked him: ‘If you had your life over again, is there any way in which you could have done better?’ The old Duke replied: ‘Yes, I should have given more praise.'” — Bernard Montgomery, A History of Warfare, 1968

The Panopticon


In the 18th century Jeremy Bentham proposed building a circular prison in which well-lit cells face a central “inspection house” where a single watchman dwells. Because the prisoners can’t see the watchman, they never know when they’re being watched and so must constantly police their own behavior.

Bentham called this “a mill for grinding rogues honest” and listed the benefits in the preface to a 1791 book: “Morals reformed — health preserved — industry invigorated — instruction diffused — public burthens lightened — Economy seated, as it were, upon a rock — the gordian knot of the poor-law not cut, but untied — all by a simple idea in Architecture!”

He was so taken with the idea that he proposed putting it into practice himself. “Allow me to construct a prison on this model,” he wrote to the Committee for the Reform of Criminal Law. “I will be the gaoler. You will see … that the gaoler will have no salary — will cost nothing to the nation.” He spent much of the 1790s pursuing the project, but he couldn’t find enduring support for it and nothing was ever built.

(Thanks, Anna.)

11/27/2016 UPDATE: Cuba built one. (Thanks, Saber.)