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Miscellany

Miscellany Philanthropy

A nineteen-year-old boy diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma requested help from the Make-A-Wish Foundation in 1998 to hunt a moose with his father. His request was denied. A year later the foundation instituted a national ban on firearm-related wishes, and the boy’s mother founded Hunt of a Lifetime, an organization devoted to sending terminally ill children deep-sea fishing or on hunting trips for sheep, elk, moose, or bear.

Miscellany Spies

In ancient Indian espionage networks, a sattri was an orphan-spy trained from youth in palmistry, magic, omens, and augury. 

Miscellany Animals

The first known “laboratory rat” was used in 1828 in an experiment about fasting. Guinea pigs have been put to scientific use since the 1780s, when Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier measured their heat production. The first recorded usage of guinea pig to liken a person or a thing to a test subject was in 1891, by George Bernard Shaw in his book The Quintessence of Ibsenism.

Miscellany Music

Born on Lesbos around 700 BC, Terpander, a master of the kithara, was summoned to Sparta during a period of civil strife—an oracle had suggested bringing the “Lesbian singer” to help—and organized the city-state’s earliest civic music culture. Immensely popular there, he later returned for what was to be his last performance. While he was playing, a fig thrown by an adoring fan went directly into his mouth. Terpander choked on the fruit and died.

Miscellany Comedy

According to his biographer Aelius Lampridius, the Roman emperor Elagabalus would amuse himself at dinner by seating his guests on “air pillows instead of cushions and let the air out while they were dining, so that often the diners were suddenly found under the tables.”

Miscellany Water

The story of Juan Ponce de León searching for the Fountain of Youth in Florida in 1513 was fabricated after his death in a chronicle by Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés, a Spanish courtier who found the explorer to be egocentric, dim-witted, and gullible—and so wished to render him foolish in the annals.

Miscellany The Future

In 1963, having left bread, butter, and milk for her sleeping children, Sylvia Plath stuck her head inside an oven. In 1974, having turned on her car in a closed garage, waiting for the carbon monoxide to kill her, Anne Sexton sat and drank vodka.

Miscellany Revolutions

Georges Cuvier, founder of the field of paleontology, wrote in 1812 that examination of the strata of the earth revealed “traces of revolutions.” He surmised, “Innumerable living beings have been the victims of these catastrophes; some have been destroyed by sudden inundations, others have been laid dry in consequence of the bottom of the seas being instantaneously elevated. Their races have become extinct and have left no memorial of them, except some small fragment which the naturalist can scarcely recognize.”

Miscellany Philanthropy

Country musician Garth Brooks sued an Oklahoma hospital over its handling of a $500,000 contribution he made in 2005. Brooks wanted a wing named after his late mother and claimed hospital officials showed him mock-ups with her name in neon lights; the hospital said the donation had been anonymous and that Brooks only established his conditions afterward. Brooks won the lawsuit, receiving twice the amount of his original gift.

Miscellany Magic Shows

At the end of The Tempest, Prospero relinquishes his “rough magic” and declares, “I’ll break my staff,/Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,/And deeper than did ever plummet sound/I’ll drown my book.” In W.H. Auden’s “commentary” on the play, The Sea and the Mirror, Prospero says at the beginning, “Now, Ariel, I am that I am, your late and lonely master,/Who knows now what magic is:—the power to enchant/That comes from disillusion. What the books teach one/Is that desires end up in stinking ponds.”

Miscellany Death

Titus Andronicus is William Shakespeare’s bloodiest play; the body count reaches fourteen. Rounding out the top-three deadliest plays are Richard III (eleven) and King Lear (ten).

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 Spies

In 480 BC, with the Persian army on the cusp of defeating Greece, Athenian general Themistocles sent a trusted slave to convey a message to Persian king Xerxes; the note professed allegiance to Persia and reported many Greek ships prepared to defect. The Persians, acting hastily on this false intelligence, sailed into the Strait of Salamis, where the Greek fleet was waiting and gained a decisive victory. 

Miscellany Intoxication

The questions “Have you ever used Derbisol?” and “How often?” sometimes appear along with questions about alcohol, cocaine, and marijuana use on youth-risk surveys for students. Derbisol is a fictitious drug devised to test the reliability of the responder. In one survey, 163 of 894 students said that they had tried Derbisol—or 18.2 percent.

Miscellany Home

The West’s first flushable indoor toilet was designed in 1596 by John Harington, the “saucy godson” of Queen Elizabeth. He published his findings as The Metamorphosis of Ajax, the title a pun on a jakes, slang for a lavatory. Harington was banished from court for the pamphlet but allowed back in 1598, when he installed a water closet in the queen’s Richmond palace.