The Jackass of Vanvres

In 1750, Jacques Ferron was caught having sex with an ass and sentenced to death.

To add insult to injury, the ass had a character witness:

The prior to the convent … and the principal inhabitants of the commune of Vanvres signed a certificate stating that they had known the said she-ass for four years, and that she had always shown herself to be virtuous and well-behaved both at home and abroad and had never given occasion of scandal to any one, and that therefore ‘they were willing to bear witness that she is in word and deed and in all her habits of life a most honest creature.’

The ass was acquitted, and Ferron hanged.

From Edward Payson Evans, The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals, 1906.

Above the Law

For an omnibenevolent being, God has a lot of legal trouble. Nebraska legislator Ernie Chambers sought an injunction against the deity in 2007, asserting that He had caused “widespread death, destruction and terrorization of millions upon millions of the Earth’s inhabitants.” And in 2008 a Romanian prisoner claimed that his baptism had been a contract that God had broken by failing to protect him from evil.

God escaped both suits on technicalities. Chambers’ action was dismissed because God has no address and thus couldn’t be notified, and the Romanian suit was deemed to be beyond the court’s jurisdiction because God is not an individual or a company. So that settles that.

Strange Eyes

G.K. Chesterton used the term moor eeffocish to describe the queerness sometimes glimpsed in familiar things. He borrowed the phrase from Charles Dickens, who as an unhappy child would sometimes sit in a coffee shop in St. Martin’s Lane:

In the door there was an oval glass plate with ‘COFFEE ROOM’ painted on it, addressed towards the street. If I ever find myself in a very different kind of coffee-room now, but where there is such an inscription on glass, and read it backwards on the wrong side, MOOR EEFFOC (as I often used to do then in a dismal reverie), a shock goes through my blood.

J.R.R. Tolkien later wrote: “The word Mooreeffoc may cause you to realise that England is an utterly alien land, lost either in some remote past age glimpsed by history, or in some strange dim future reached only by a time-machine; to see the amazing oddity and interest of its inhabitants and their customs and feeding-habits.”

All’s Fair

When his second wife died in November 1628, Sir Edward Dering set his sights on a rich London widow. We know this because for some reason he kept a minute journal of his tactics:

Nov. 20. I adventured, was denied. Sent up a letter, which was returned, after she had read it.

Nov. 21. I inveigled G. Newman with 20s.

Nov. 24. I did re-engage him, 20s. I did also oil the cash-keeper, 20s.

Nov. 26. I gave Edmund Aspull [the cash-keeper] another 20s. I was there, but denied sight.

Nov. 27. I sent a second letter, which was kept. I set Sir John Skeffington upon Matthew Cradock [the widow’s cousin]. The cash-keeper supped with me.

Nov. 28. I went to Mr. Cradock, but found him cold.

Nov. 29. I was at the Old Jewry Church and saw her, both forenoon and afternoon.

Dec. 1. I sent a third letter, which was likewise kept.

Jan. 9. George Newman says she hath two suits of silver plate, one in the country and the other here, and that she hath beds of 100l. the bed!

This went on for five months, with the widow hesitating and Sir Edward plying connections with gifts, wine, and money. In the spring she chose another suitor. Edward did marry again — but he neglected to destroy the journal.

Twice-Tolled Tails

Mottoes on English bells, collected by John Potter Briscoe in Curiosities of the Belfry, 1883:

  • Fear God and obeai the Qwene. (Artlingworth, Northamptonshire, 1589)
  • Arise and go about your business. (St. Ives, Cornwall)
  • I ring at six to let men know/When too and from thair worke to goe. (Coventry, West Midlands, 1675)
  • A trusty friend is harde to finde. (Passenham, Northamptonshire, 1585)
  • Bee not wise in your owne conceits. (Yardley Hastings, Northamptonshire, 1723)
  • Labour overcometh all things. (Glentham, Lincolnshire, 1687)
  • Rejoice with them that do rejoice and weep with them that weep. (Orlingbury, Northamptonshire, 1843)
  • When you die/Aloud I cry. (Owmby, Lincolnshire, 1687)
  • I call the quick to church and dead to grave. (Calstock, Cornwall, 1773)
  • When you hear this mournful sound/Prepare yourselves for underground. (Hough-on-the-Hill, Lincolnshire, 1683)

And “Mankind, like us, too oft are found/Possessed of nought but empty sound!” (Bakewell, Derbyshire, 1798)

“Calamities of Genius”

Homer was a beggar; Plautus turned a mill; Terence was a slave; Boethius died in gaol; Paul Borghese had fourteen trades, and yet starved with them all; Tasso was often distressed for five shillings; Bentivoglio was refused admittance into an hospital he had himself erected; Cervantes died of hunger; Camoens, the celebrated writer of the Lusiad, ended his days in an alms house; and Vaugelas left his body to the surgeons, to pay his debts as far as it would go. In our own country, Bacon lived a life of meanness and distress; Sir Walter Raleigh died on a scaffold. Spencer, the charming Spencer, died forsaken, and in want; and the death of Collins came through neglect, first causing mental derangement. Milton sold his copy-right of Paradise Lost for fifteen pounds, at three payments, and finished his life in obscurity; Dryden lived in poverty and distress; Otway died prematurely, and through hunger; Lee died in the streets; Steele lived a life of perfect warfare with bailiffs. Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield was sold for a trifle to save him from the gripe of the law; Fielding lies in the burying-ground of the English factory at Lisbon, without a stone to mark the spot; Savage died in prison at Bristol, where he was confined for a debt of eight pounds; Butler lived in penury, and died poor; Chatterton, the child of genius and misfortune, destroyed himself.

The Terrific Register, 1825

En Garde!

Duel After a Masquerade Ball, by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1857).

For all their romance, duels got a bit silly. English poet Mark Akenside escaped a confrontation with a Counsellor Ballow only because one refused to fight in the morning and the other in the afternoon.

In France in 1843, two young men agreed to a duel using billiard balls at 12 paces. Melfant drew the red ball, warned his adversary, “I am going to kill you at the first throw,” and did precisely that, hitting Lenfant in the forehead.

Magnificently, two Frenchmen fought a duel by balloon over Paris in 1808, ascending from the Tuileries and firing blunderbusses at one another. M. de Grandpré sent a ball through M. Le Pique’s balloon, which plunged, killing him and his second. The lady’s response is not recorded.

Sack Race

After losing a bet in April 1864, shopkeeper Reuel Gridley carried a 50-pound sack of flour through the little town of Austin, Nev. In a saloon afterward, someone proposed selling the flour at auction for the benefit of wounded Union soldiers. The suggestion was adopted on the spot, and the winning bid, $250, came from a local mill worker.

When Gridley asked where to deliver the sack, the man said, “Nowhere — sell it again.”

Thus was born a unique enterprise: Three hundred people paid a total of $8,000 for the same sack of flour that day, and soon Gridley went on tour through other Nevada mining towns, raising tens of thousands of dollars by selling it repeatedly. By the war’s end he had extended the tour through California, New York, and St. Louis and raised $150,000, a fortune for the time. Mark Twain wrote, “This is probably the only instance on record where common family flour brought three thousand dollars a pound in the public market.”