During the Middle Ages, wild animals were often believed to be devil-possessed. Wolves, moles, and caterpillars were tried in courts and executed. A story is told of Saint Dominic catching a sparrow, plucking it alive, and rejoicing in his triumph over the powers of darkness. By 1531 a legist argued that “rural pests would simply laugh” at civil-court censure but “have greater fear” of the Church’s power of anathema and should be excommunicated.
Suetonius reported that Caligula often cheated when playing dice. The emperor once interrupted a game to go into the courtyard, where he spotted a group of rich knights passing. He had them arrested, stole their goods, then “resumed the game in high spirits, boasting that his luck had never been better.”
In 1872, railroad magnate and racehorse owner Leland Stanford hired Eadweard Muybridge, then famous for his photographs of Yosemite Valley, to capture evidence on film that at a certain point in a horse’s trot, all four of its legs were simultaneously off the ground. Five years later, Muybridge developed a camera with a shutter speed of 2/1000 of a second, fast enough to prove Stanford correct.
When the captain of a French ship landed on the west coast of Australia in 1802 and encountered the local Bunurong people, he stripped down and exposed his genitalia, hoping to dramatize his common humanity for the natives. The Bunurong exchanged curious looks before fleeing in dismay.
While running the Vincent Astor Foundation, Brooke Astor established in 1991 an organization that provided furnishings to formerly homeless families, inspired by visits to two such families in Queens whose apartments were bare. “How can you build a new life if you don’t have any furniture?” Astor asked. “To move into a place and just sit there with a bag and not even have a teacup is terrible.”
Residents of North Yorkshire from the eleventh to fourteenth centuries were so afraid of the dead rising to attack the living that they would dismember, decapitate, burn, and otherwise mutilate corpses before burying them. The process was generally undertaken shortly after death, when the bones were still soft.
In 1882 the nawab of Bahawalpur ordered a bed from a Parisian manufacturer that included four life-size bronze gurines of naked women with natural hair and movable eyes and arms, holding fans and horsetails. Wires were arranged so downward pressure on the mattress set the gures in motion, fanning and winking at him, while a selection from Gounod’s opera Faust played from a built-in music box.
Paul Wittgenstein, brother of Ludwig, lost his right arm in combat during the First World War. Wishing to continue playing the piano, he commissioned one-handed works from esteemed composers, including Benjamin Britten, Sergey Prokofiev, and Maurice Ravel, insisting, for some, on having exclusive lifetime performance rights.
“A seaman in the coach told the story of an old sperm whale, which he called a white whale, which was known for many years by the whalemen as Old Tom, and who rushed upon the boats which attacked him, and crushed the boats to small chips in his jaws, the men generally escaping by jumping overboard and being picked up,” recorded Ralph Waldo Emerson in his journal on February 19, 1834, adding that the whale “was finally taken somewhere off Payta Head by the Winslow or the Essex.” It was the wreck of the Essex in 1820 from which Herman Melvil
On the future of history, Thucydides speculated that since there are no “temples or monuments of magnificence” in Sparta, “future generations would find it very difficult to believe” that it once commanded two-fifths of the Peloponnesus; while those same generations would conclude from the impressive ruins of Athens that it was “twice as powerful as it in fact was.”
In the 1860s editor William Bullock invented a printing press that used continuous-roll paper; it made double-sided copies in mass quantities and transformed publishing. Two years later Bullock got his leg stuck in the press’ belt mechanism while installing one at a Philadelphia newspaper, developed gangrene, underwent an amputation, and died during the operation.