In his Comparative Physiognomy of 1852, American physician James Redfield claimed that people of a given nationality tend to resemble a certain animal, and that the animal’s disposition illuminates the national character. For example, Henry VIII, a representative Englishman, resembles a bull: “A ‘bull-neck’ suggests the idea of a tyrannical disposition, or of irresistible desire, and is never spoken of in the way of compliment. … When oxen draw together in a yoke, they lean away from each other, so as to be under the necessity of holding each other up. This is on account of their great repulsiveness — a trait which was mentioned as being a prominent element of the English character.”

The table of contents gives the general tone:

Chapter 2. Resemblances of Germans to Lions
Chapter 14. Resemblances of Laplanders to Reindeers
Chapter 16. Resemblances of Arabs to Camels
Chapter 19. Resemblances of Italians to Horses
Chapter 23. Resemblances of Chinamen to Hogs
Chapter 29. Resemblances of Frenchmen to Frogs and Alligators
Chapter 34. Resemblances of Jews to Goats

He even compares Turks to turkeys. I’m not aware that he ever actually visited these places, but I suppose that’s not necessary to reach these sorts of conclusions.

The whole thing is in the Internet Archive.

03/24/2022 UPDATE: Reader Manuel Saiz sent this video:

Looking Ahead,_1916,.jpg

On July 17, 1915, Winston Churchill sealed the following message in an envelope marked “To be sent to Mrs. Churchill in the event of my death”:

Do not grieve for me too much. I am a spirit confident of my rights. Death is only an incident & not the most important which happens to us in this state of being. On the whole, especially since I met you my darling I have been happy, & you have taught me how noble a woman’s heart can be. If there is anywhere else I shall be on the look out for you. Meanwhile look forward, feel free, rejoice in life, cherish the children, guard my memory. God bless you.

Three decades later, on his 75th birthday, he told the New York Times Magazine, “I am ready to meet my Maker. Whether my Maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter.”


In 1711, Belgian abbott Lucas de Vriese filled an unpublished book with 3,100 anagrams composed on phrases taken from the Latin version of the Bible. Page 81 is called the “echo page,” because the first word of each line echoes the last word of the preceding line. Each line is an anagram of the opening sentence of “Hail Mary”: Ave Maria gratia plena dominus tecum (Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with Thee) occurring in Luke 1:28. Impressively, the whole thing is also an acrostic — taking the first letter of each line spells out the original quotation:

Amacula ter munda, ita per omnia viges.
Viges, enormi mulcta Adami pura enata.
Enata Malis pura vige, ac merito Munda.

Munda Mater emicas, o pura Geniti Aula.
Aula Dei micat, nota summe pura, Regina.
Regina, o Tu pura macula, et Dia Immensa.
Immensa, o Tu diva integre pura ac alma.
Alma ter unice pura Summa io Dei Gnata.

Gnata Dei, pura es communi a Mali reatu.
Reatu magno pura, micat sine lue Adami.
Adami sine omni macula pura, rege tuta.
Tuta o pergas alma ac nimia munda jure.
Iure mero Genita munda a culpis, Amata.
Amata veni Summa Regina, delicto pura.

Pura et ter divina o gemmas, Amica luna.
Luna pura (mira dico) Agni Stemmate Eva.
Eva, i matris culpa e gremio munda nata.
Nata maledicti pura, o vere Summi Agna.
Agna Coeli summa, et Avi ter pura damni.

Damni tu pura Regia es, et a macula omni.
Omni reatu, ac Avi plagis e matre munda.
Munda tu pia merito maculae es ignara.
Ignara culpae mera, o Summi Tu Dei Nata
Nata Pura Medica, et gloria Summa veni.
Veni multa munda, Pia et a gremio Sacra.
Sacra nimie munda, alme pura vige tota.

Tota piaculis munda mera, germina Eva.
Eva o simul prima et munda genita, Cara.
Cara, imo Summi Nata, et digne pura, vale.
Vale, o mendi pura Mater, ac Vitis Magna.
Magna, o sic pura ad literam, vive. Amen.

Here’s a rough translation, from City University of Hong Kong mathematician Felipe Cucker’s Manifold Mirrors: The Crossing Paths of the Arts and Mathematics:

Thrice clean from stain, that is why you blossom.
You blossom after being born free of Adam’s great curse.
Born of sinners, you blossom pure and clean, due to your own merit.

Clean you shine, Mother, oh pure Temple of the Only Begotten Son.
God’s Temple shines, famous for its great purity, oh Queen.
Oh Queen, you who are free of stain, incommensurable Divine.
Oh incommensurable, you are divine, immaculately pure and nourishing.
Nourishing, thrice peerlessly pure, oh greatest daughter of God.

Daughter of God, you are free from original sin.
Free from the greatest sin, you shine free from Adam’s curse.
Pure, clean of Adam’s stain, protected queen.
Continue protected, oh nourishing and so justly clean.
Justly Daughter free from guilt, Beloved.
Come, oh Beloved, greatest Queen, free from guilt.

Pure and thrice divine, you are adorned with gems, oh loving moon.
Pure moon (I speak of marvelous deeds), Eve of the Lamb’s lineage.
Eve, go, born free from guilt in her mother’s womb.
Born free from blame, truly Lamb of the Highest.
Greatest Lamb of Heaven and thrice free from the Ancestor’s harm.

You, oh, Queen, are free from harm and from stain.
From all sin and from the Ancestor’s calamities you are free since birth.
Clean through your own merit pious, you have not known any stain.
Merely ignorant of the guilt, oh you, born from God the Highest.
Born Pure, Healer, come also oh Highest in glory.
Come clean from punishment, Pious and Holy from your mother’s womb.
Sacred, mightily clean, motherly pure, you live protected.

Bloom protected, you, the only one clean from expiatory punishment, Eve.
Oh Eve, first born as well as clean, Beloved.
Beloved, truly born from the Highest and fittingly pure, be strong.
Be strong, oh Mother free from fault, and Great Vineyard.
Great, oh truly pure, live. Amen.

(Via Walter Begley’s Biblia Anagrammatica, or, The Anagramatic Bible, 1904.)

Remaking the World

In 2000, University of Maine geological scientist Roger LeB. Hooke estimated that human beings now move more earth than any other geomorphic agent, 6 metric tons of earth and rock per capita each year (31 tonnes in the United States!), for a global total of about 35 billion tonnes.

For comparison, ancient Egypt moved 625 kg per capita per year, Easter Island 260 kg, and the Mayan city of Copán 665 kg. Rome, at its zenith, including the roads, moved 3.85 tonnes of earth per person each year. Hooke estimates that the earth we’ve moved in the last 5,000 years could build a mountain range 4,000 meters high, 40 km wide, and 100 km long. And if the current rates of increase persist (mostly due to technology and population growth), that mountain range could double in length by 2100.

“One may well ask how long such rates of increase can be sustained, and whether it will be rational behavior or catastrophe that brings them to an end.”

(Roger LeB. Hooke, “On the History of Humans as Geomorphic Agents,” Geology 28:9 [September 2000], 843-846.)

Going in Style

In Ghana, coffins can be works of art. The tradition is particularly strong among the Ga people of the Greater Accra Region, whose kings were historically borne on figurative palanquins that bore the shapes of their family totems to ensure protection by the associated spirits.

Modern carpenters extended this tradition in the 20th century, dropping the spiritual function and expanding their inspirations to remember the dead one’s occupation or personality. In 1951 two carpenters buried their 91-year-old grandmother in a coffin shaped like an airliner because she had said she often daydreamed of flying. Today businessmen are often buried in coffins shaped like luxury Mercedes, and other recent designs include birds, fish, cars, shoes, butterflies, crabs, pineapples, lions, pigs, mobile phones, books, fire engines, toothpaste tubes, wrenches, cheetahs, eagles, and pianos.


One April Fool’s Day, when logician Raymond Smullyan was 10 years old, his brother told him, “Today I am going to trick you like you have never been tricked before.”

“Little Raymond waited, and waited, and waited, and nothing happened,” writes Ron Aharoni in Circularity. “To this very day, he is not sure whether his brother tricked him or not.”

The Value of an Education

Imprisoned during the French Revolution, zoologist Pierre André Latreille found a beetle on the floor of his dungeon. He pointed out to the prison doctor that it was the rare Necrobia ruficollis, described by Johan Christian Fabricius in 1775. Impressed, the doctor sent it to a local naturalist, who knew Latreille’s work and managed to secure the release of Latreille and a cellmate.

All the other inmates were executed within a month.

A Double Man

I seem to be on a Sherlock Holmes kick lately. A few oddities about Dr. Watson:

  • In A Study in Scarlet he says he was wounded in the shoulder, but in The Sign of Four he says he was wounded in the leg. One theory resolves this by suggesting that he was bending over when hit, and that the bullet passed through his leg and lodged in his shoulder. (The BBC series Sherlock sidesteps the problem by saying that Watson’s limp is a psychosomatic symptom of post-traumatic stress.)
  • He seems uncertain about his first name. In “The Problem of Thor Bridge,” Watson says that his dispatch box is labeled “John H. Watson, M.D.,” but in “The Man With the Twisted Lip” his wife Mary calls him “James.” Dorothy L. Sayers offers another neat resolution: Maybe his middle name is Hamish, the Scottish equivalent of James.
  • It’s not clear how many times he’s been married. He certainly married Mary Morstan, whom he met in The Sign of Four. But then in “The Empty House” he refers to “my own sad bereavement,” and in “The Blanched Soldier” Holmes mentions that “The good Watson had at that time deserted me for a wife, the only selfish action which I can recall in our association.” This seems to suggest that Watson remarried after Mary’s death, but this is never made clear, and a second wife is never named.

At its annual dinner, the Sherlock Holmes literary society the Baker Street Irregulars always toasts the second Mrs. Watson. This was the toast in 2002:

Watson had a second wife
But, did he lead a double life?
He had two wounds; he had two names
(One was John, the other James).
He often claimed he dined alone
Yet quaffed whole bottlesful of Beaune.
He’d disappear for days on end
Accompanying his clever friend,
Then lame excuses where he’d been
Were published in Strand Magazine.
And so to the spouse of this pain in the ass
We raise a toast and lift our glass.

(From Roger Johnson and Jean Upton, The Sherlock Holmes Miscellany, 2012.)

Male Run

Mr. and Mrs. Emory Harrison of Jonesboro, Tenn., had 13 children, all boys, making the largest all-male American family in 1955.

Amazingly, they made this crowded life seem pretty easy. Emory told the St. Petersburg Times that they spent only $12 to $15 a week on food, since they could grow most of what they needed on their 70-acre farm. And he boasted that he’d spent less than $50 on medical bills in 22 years of married life.

The Harrisons found immortality in algebra textbooks, which are forever asking the odds of this outcome. If both genders are equally likely, the chance is 1 in 8,192.

Exploring Made Easy

A tiny detail, but I thought it was interesting: Scottish writer Henry Drummond believed that sub-Saharan Africa was so well networked with footpaths that an explorer could walk from Zanzibar westward “never in fact leaving a beaten track” until “his faithful foot-wide guide lands him on the Atlantic seaboard.” From his Tropical Africa of 1888:

Now it may be a surprise to the unenlightened to learn that probably no explorer in forcing his passage through Africa has ever, for more than a few days at a time, been off some beaten track. Probably no country in the world, civilized or uncivilized, is better supplied with paths than this unmapped continent. Every village is connected to some other village, every tribe with the next tribe, every state with its neighbour, and therefore with all the rest. The explorer’s business is simply to select from the network of tracks, keep a general direction, and hold on his way.

This is repeated in J.W. Gregory’s The Story of the Road (1931) and in M.G. Lay’s Ways of the World (1992). Gregory admits only afterward that this may have been true in Nyasaland, the district that Drummond had visited, but it’s hardly the case elsewhere. “One evening, after the porters had suffered one of many repeated disappointments at not finding a human path, I removed their gloom, as they sat around the camp fires, by translating to them the passage from Henry Drummond. Their laughter showed that they concluded that the reports of European travellers, like those they told themselves on their return to the coast, were not always to be taken literally.”