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

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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.”

Noble Wisdom

Maxims of Rochefoucauld:

  • “Few men are able to know all the ill they do.”
  • “We are never made so ridiculous by the qualities we have, as by those we affect to have.”
  • “In every profession, every individual affects to appear what he would willingly be esteemed; so that we may say, the world is composed of nothing but appearances.”
  • “We like better to see those on whom we confer benefits, than those from whom we receive them.”
  • “Everybody takes pleasure in returning small obligations; many go so far as to acknowledge moderate ones; but there is hardly any one who does not repay great obligations with ingratitude.”
  • “In misfortunes we often mistake dejection for constancy; we bear them without daring to look on them, as cowards suffer themselves to be killed without resistance.”
  • “None but the contemptible are apprehensive of contempt.”
  • “We want strength to act up to our reason.”
  • “We easily forget crimes that are known only to ourselves.”
  • “It is as easy to deceive ourselves without our perceiving it, as it is difficult to deceive others without their perceiving it.”
  • “We are sometimes less unhappy in being deceived than in being undeceived by those we love.”

And “Those who apply themselves too much to little things commonly become incapable of great ones.”

Meek Chic

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Why is modesty a virtue? Classically, to be virtuous is to be wise, thoughtful, and prudent. But modesty seems to depend on ignorance.

Julia Driver writes, “For a person to be modest, she must be ignorant with regard to her self-worth. She must think herself less deserving, or less worthy, than she actually is. … Since modesty is generally considered to be a virtue, it would seem that this virtue rests upon an epistemic defect.”

As Sherlock Holmes says, “To underestimate one’s self is as much a departure from truth as to exaggerate one’s own powers.”

A New Deal

Playing cards were used as currency in early Canada. In 1685 the intendant of the French garrison in Quebec found that he had no money to pay his troops, “and not knowing to what saint to make my vows, the idea occurred to me of putting in circulation notes made of cards, each cut into four pieces; and I have issued an ordinance commanding the inhabitants to receive them in payment.”

This worked surprisingly well, so when funds ran short the following year they tried it again. The system continued intermittently for 70 years, collapsing finally only with the chaos of the Seven Years’ War.

“A Courtly Spaniard”

While the Duke de Villa Medina was at the English court, he was present, and took part at a tournament given by Elizabeth, where his gallantry and manly beauty made him the observed of all observers. At the close of the sports, as the duke came near to the queen, she said to him, pleasantly, that she would like to know who was the chosen mistress of so gallant a knight; whereupon he shook his head and would not further answer.

‘But,’ persisted Elizabeth, ‘there must be, somewhere, a lady whose beauty and perfection of character gives to her a deeper place in your heart than is yielded to another?’

‘Ah! yes gracious madam; there is one such.’

‘And may I know who she is?’

The duke reflected a moment, and then answered that he would inform her on the morrow.

And on the morrow he sent to the queen inclosed in a box of sandal-wood and mother-of-pearl a small mirror.

Those who know Elizabeth’s character can well imagine how deeply this exquisite bit of flattery must have touched her.

The Lamp, 1881

Blind Brickbats

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In 1956, Cardinal Spellman forbade New York Catholics to see Elia Kazan’s film Baby Doll. Asked whether he himself had seen it, Spellman replied, “Must you have a disease to know what it is? If your water supply is poisoned, there’s no reason for you to drink the water.”

The British Board of Film Censors reported that the 1928 French surrealist film The Seashell and the Clergyman was “so cryptic as to be almost meaningless” … but “if there is a meaning, it is doubtless objectionable.”

“Think for yourselves,” wrote Voltaire, “and let others enjoy the privilege to do so, too.”