In 1978, as part of an initiative to adopt gender-neutral language, the city council of Woonsocket, R.I., dubbed its manholes “personholes.”

After two weeks of nationwide derision, they changed their minds.

Time reported, “The council members voted to go back to manholes, indicating that it will be a long time before a person-person delivers Woonsocket’s mail.”

Enough Already

Acclaimed English actress Sarah Siddons made her Dublin debut in May 1784. Evidently some Irish theatergoers felt the hype was excessive — here’s one sardonic review, quoted in English as She Is Wrote, 1883:

“On Sunday, Mrs. Siddons, about whom all the world has been talking, exposed her beautiful, adamantine, soft, and lovely person, for the first time at Smock Alley Theatre in the bewitching, melting, and all tearful character of Isabella. From the repeated panegyrics of the impartial London newspapers, we were taught to expect the sight of a heavenly angel, but how were we supernaturally surprised into almost awful joy at beholding a mortal goddess! … When she came to the scene of parting with her wedding ring, ah! what a sight was there! the very fiddlers in the orchestra, albeit unused to melting mood, blubbered like hungry children crying for their bread and butter! and when the bell rang for music between the acts the tears ran from the bassoon players’ eyes in such plentiful showers that they choked the finger stops, and making a spout of the instrument poured in such torrents on the first fiddler’s book that not seeing the overture was in two sharps, the leader of the band played it in one flat. But the sobs and sighs of the groaning audience and the noise of corks drawn from smelling bottles prevented the mistakes between sharps and flats being heard. One hundred and nine ladies fainted! forty-six went into fits! and ninety-five had strong hysterics. The world will scarcely credit the truth when they are told that fourteen children, five old men, one hundred tailors, and six common councilmen were actually drowned in the inundation of tears that flowed from the galleries, the slips, and the boxes, to increase the briny pond in the pit. The water was three feet deep. An Act of Parliament will certainly be passed against her playing any more!”

Too Much Glory

When Louis XIV asked, “What time is it?”, he was told, “Whatever time your majesty desires.”

When Louis comforted the duke of Saint-Aignan on the death of his son, Roger de Rabutin wrote, “It is only near him that a parent can find some pleasure in losing his children.”

When Louis asked Boileau’s opinion of his verses, the poet said, “Ah, sire, I am convinced that nothing is impossible to your majesty. You desired to write some poor rhymes, and you have succeeded in making them positively detestable.”

During a lecture on chemistry, Louis Jacques Thénard told Charles X, “These gases are going to have the honor of combining before your majesty.”

The subjects of James I expressed the wish that he might reign over them as long as the sun, moon, and stars should endure. “I suppose, then,” muttered the king, “they mean my successor to reign by candlelight.”

Modern Ills

“Twelve Ways to Commit Suicide,” from the American Medical Journal, reprinted in the Manhattan and de la Salle Monthly, 1875:

  1. Wearing of thin shoes and cotton stockings on damp nights and in cold, rainy weather. Wearing insufficient clothing, and especially upon the limbs and extremities.
  2. Leading a life of enfeebling, stupid laziness, and keeping the mind in an unnatural state of excitement by reading trashy novels. Going to theatres, parties and balls in all sorts of weather, in the thinnest possible dress. Dancing till in a complete perspiration, and then going home without sufficient over-garments through the cold, damp air.
  3. Sleeping on feather-beds, in seven-by-nine bedrooms, without ventilation at the top of the windows, and especially with two or more persons in the same small, unventilated bedroom.
  4. Surfeiting on hot and very stimulating dinners. Eating in a hurry, without masticating your food, and eating heartily before going to bed every night, when the mind and body are exhausted by the toils of the day and the excitement of the evening.
  5. Beginning in childhood on tea and coffee, and going from one step to another, through chewing and smoking tobacco and drinking intoxicating liquors, and physical and mental excesses of every description.
  6. Marrying in haste and getting an uncongenial companion, and living the remainder of life in mental dissatisfaction. Cultivating jealousies and domestic broils, and being always in a mental ferment.
  7. Keeping children quiet by giving paregoric and cordials, by teaching them to suck candy, and by supplying them with raisins, nuts, and rich cake. When they are sick, by humoring their whims, indulging their fancies, and pampering their appetites, with the mistaken notion of being extra kind to them.
  8. Allowing the love of gain to absorb our minds, so as to leave no time to attend to our health. Following an unhealthy occupation because money can be made by it.
  9. Tempting the appetite with bitters and niceties when the stomach says No, and by forcing food when nature does not demand and even rejects it. Gormandizing between meals.
  10. Contriving to keep in a continual worry about something or nothing. Giving way to fits of anger.
  11. Being irregular in all our habits of sleeping and eating, going to bed at midnight and getting up at noon. Eating too much, too many kinds of food, and that which is too highly seasoned.
  12. Neglecting to take proper care of ourselves, and not applying early for medical advice when disease first appears. Taking celebrated quack medicines to a degree of making a drug shop of the body.

A Blind Aye

Rep. Tom Moore was dismayed at how often his colleagues in the Texas House of Representatives passed bills without understanding them. So in April 1971 he sponsored a resolution honoring Albert de Salvo:

This compassionate gentleman’s dedication and devotion to his work has enabled the weak and the lonely throughout the nation to achieve and maintain a new degree of concern for their future. He has been officially recognized by the state of Massachusetts for his noted activities and unconventional techniques involving population control and applied psychology.

That’s true as far as it goes — Albert de Salvo is the Boston Strangler.

The measure passed unanimously.

Embarrassing Duels

In June 1836, congressmen Daniel Jenifer of Maryland and Jesse A. Bynum of North Carolina met on the dueling ground in Bladensburg, Md. Jenifer had denounced Andrew Jackson’s party and refused to retract his statement. The two men stood 10 feet apart, both fired six times, and, amazingly, both missed six times. They called it a draw.

In The Field of Honor, his 1883 history of dueling, Benjamin Cummings Truman records a strange contest between Capt. Raoul de Vere and Col. Barbier-Dufai, of Paris. The two agreed to settle a quarrel by entering a coach with daggers in their right hands and with their left arms tied, and fighting while the coach was driven twice around the Place du Carousel. Both died.

Even stranger: A Spaniard and a German both loved the daughter of Maximilian II, but the emperor did not want to risk their lives in a conventional duel. Instead he promised the girl’s hand to whichever man could wrestle his opponent into a bag.

“The two gentlemen expressed their willingness to engage in even so ridiculous a contest for so superior a prize, and fought in the presence of the whole court, the contest lasting more than an hour, the Spaniard finally yielding, having been put fairly into the bag by the German, Baron Eberhard, who took it and its Castilian contents upon his back, and very gallantly laid them at the feet of the young lady, to whom he was married the following day. This is the only duel or tournament of the kind on record.”

See En Garde!

First to Market

In March 1964, David Threlfall sent a unique request to bookmaker William Hill: “I’d like to bet £10 that a man will set foot on the surface of the moon before the first of January 1970.”

He’d heard President Kennedy’s 1961 address challenging the United States to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, and “I thought if a bookmaker was prepared to offer reasonable odds it would be a commonsense bet.”

The bookmaker disagreed and put the odds at 1,000 to 1. Threlfall accepted, and the bet was placed on April 10.

As the Apollo program advanced, the odds began to drop, and people began to offer Threlfall thousands of pounds for his betting slip. He held on to it, though, and when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon in 1969, he received the reward for his forethought — a check for £10,000.

Adventures in Tuition

In 1987, University of Illinois freshman Mike Hayes wrote to Chicago Tribune columnist Bob Greene with a modest proposal: that each of Greene’s readers contribute a penny to finance his education.

“Just one penny,” he told Greene. “A penny doesn’t mean anything to anyone. If everyone who is reading your column looks around the room right now, there will be a penny under the couch cushion, or on the corner of the desk, or on the floor. That’s all I’m asking. A penny from each of your readers.”

Greene published the appeal in 200 newspapers via his syndicated column — and Hayes received 77,000 letters and enough pennies to break his bank’s coin-counting machine three times. He easily reached his goal of $28,000, enough for four years of tuition, room and board, and books.

He graduated with a degree in food science. Asked why the scheme worked, he said, “I didn’t ask for a lot of money. I just asked for money from a lot of people.”

Enjoy Your Flight

Items prohibited from carry-on baggage by the Transportation Security Administration, as of June 2010:

  • Meat cleavers
  • Spear guns
  • Sabers
  • Hatchets
  • Cattle prods
  • Swords
  • Brass knuckles
  • Nunchakus
  • Throwing stars
  • Blasting caps
  • Dynamite
  • Hand grenades

And “snow globes … even with documentation.”