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Miscellany

Miscellany Disaster

Plutarch related that news of the Athenians’ brutal defeat at Syracuse during the Peloponnesian Wars first came from a stranger who told the story at a barbershop “as if the Athenians already knew all about it.” When the barber spread the news, city leaders branded him a liar and an agitator. He was “fastened to the wheel and racked a long time.” Official messengers later came with the “actual facts of the whole disaster,” and the barber was released.

Miscellany Disaster

When Albert Einstein visited Beno Gutenberg, a seismologist at Caltech, in 1933, the two strolled around the Pasadena campus while Gutenberg explained earthquake science. Suddenly their wives arrived to inform them there had been a massive earthquake. “We had become so involved in seismology,” recalled Gutenberg later, “that we hadn’t noticed.”

Miscellany Disaster

The first mass extinction on earth occurred around 2.5 billion years ago, when a photosynthesizing bacterium appeared and released so much oxygen into the atmosphere that anaerobic life was largely wiped out. This is often called the Great Oxygenation Event, the Oxygen Catastrophe, or the Oxygen Holocaust. 

Miscellany Disaster

The first known legal use of the phrase act of God was in a 1581 English case concerning property inheritance. It referred, in that instance, to death, declared by the judge to be among “those things which are inevitable by the act of God, which no industry can avoid, nor policy prevent.”

Miscellany Disaster

A scientific study found that hurricanes given feminine names tend to be deadlier than those given masculine names; people consider them less risky and take inadequate precautions. “Changing a severe hurricane’s name from Charley to Eloise,” the study notes, “could nearly triple its death toll.”

Miscellany Disaster

A 1959 Chicago Daily Tribune article about Robert Frost, who had recently proclaimed his confidence in humanity’s resilience in the face of missile threats, ran with the headline: HUMAN RACE BOMB PROOF, POET BELIEVES.

Miscellany Disaster

Hatches of Rocky Mountain locusts (Melanoplus spretus) in 1874 and 1875 brought swarms up to 1,800 miles long and 110 miles wide across the Great Plains. Numbers were estimated in the trillions. Farmers risked starvation. The swarm is believed to have been the largest mass of living insects ever witnessed by modern man—but within thirty years the species disappeared. “I can’t believe M. spretus is extinct,” said ecologist Dan Otte in 2014. “But where to look for it?”

Miscellany Disaster

Bibliophilic bishop Richard de Bury lamented the burning of the Library of Alexandria. “Who would not shudder at such a hapless holocaust, where ink is offered up instead of blood,” he wrote in 1344, “where the devouring flames consumed so many thousands of innocents?”

Miscellany Disaster

Sixteenth-century “father of mineralogy” Georgius Agricola critiqued “these attacks, which are so annoying,” made by those protesting how mining exterminated animals and poisoned brooks and streams. “With the metals that are melted from the ore,” he explained, “birds without number, edible beasts, and fish can be purchased elsewhere and brought to these mountainous regions.”

Miscellany Disaster

“Pompeii like any other town,” Herman Melville wrote in his journal during an 1867 visit. “Same old humanity. All the same whether one be dead or alive. Pompeii comfortable sermon. Like Pompeii better than Paris.”

Miscellany Disaster

“Thank the good God we have all got through and the only family that did not eat human flesh,” wrote fourteen-year-old Virginia Reed, a surviving Donner Party member, in an 1847 letter. “Don’t let this letter dishearten anybody and never take no cutoffs and hurry along as fast as you can.” Reed reported being “pleased with California, particularly with the climate.” 

Miscellany Disaster

In order to halt or slow the advance of glaciers, the Tlingit tribe of the northwest coast of North America used to sacrifice dogs and slaves by throwing them into the glacier’s crevasses in the hopes of appeasing the ice spirit.

Miscellany Disaster

Astrologers of the Ayyubid Empire predicted in 1186 that the world would end September 16 of that year; a dust storm, stirred up by planetary alignment, would scour the earth of life. Sultan Saladin criticized the “feeble minds” of believers and planned an open-air, candlelit party for that evening. “We never saw a night as calm as that,” an attendee later remarked.

Miscellany Disaster

Opening night of Henry JamesGuy Domville, on January 5, 1895, was “an unmitigated disaster,” James wrote in a letter, “hooted at, as I was hooted at myself, by a brutal mob, and fruitless of any of the consequences for which I have striven.” The play’s reception, he wrote, “has completely sickened me with the theater and made me feel, at any rate for the present, like washing my hands of it forever.”

Miscellany Disaster

According to sixth-century-BC Greek poet Hipponax of Colophon, in times of drought, famine, or plague an ugly or deformed person was chosen by the community to be pharmakós, or scapegoat. After being fed figs, barley cake, and cheese, he would be struck on the genitals with the bulbs and twigs of wild plants, led on a procession accompanied by flute, and burned on a pyre. His ashes were thrown into the sea. It is believed that Hipponax, whom Pliny the Elder once called “notoriously ugly,” may have been exaggerating the ritual.