A scholar in Peking contracted malaria in 1899 and was given medication with an ingredient labeled “dragon bones.” The bone chips, he found, were inscribed with writing dating back to China’s second dynasty. Thousands more were uncovered in the decades following; many of these “oracle bones” had inscriptions recording celestial events, which scientists have since used to calculate changes in the length of an earth day and in the rate of the earth’s rotation.
“One of the wonders of the human heart,” wrote twelfth-century poet Usama ibn Munqidh, “is that a man may face certain death and embark on every danger without his heart quailing from it, and yet he may take fright from something that even boys and women do not fear.” He relates the story of a battle hero his father knew who “would run out fleeing” if he saw a snake, “saying to his wife, ‘The snake’s all yours!’ And she would have to get up to kill it.”
Union general William T. Sherman believed newspaper correspondents to be liabilities. “A spy is one who furnishes an enemy with knowledge useful to him and dangerous to us,” Sherman wrote in an 1863 letter. “I say—in giving intelligence to the enemy, in sowing discord and discontent in an army—these men fulfill all the conditions of spies.”
While on his American speaking tour in 1882, Oscar Wilde visited Leadville, Colorado, where he went into a saloon. There was a piano player in the corner with a sign over him that said: DON’T SHOOT THE PIANIST; HE’S DOING THE BEST HE CAN. It was, observed Wilde, “the only rational method of art criticism I have ever come across.” He also visited a nearby mine where, upon reaching the bottom, the miners implored him to stay for supper: “the first course being whiskey, the second whiskey, and the third whiskey.”
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.
“Six days, six weeks. I doubt six months,” said Donald Rumsfeld, on February 7, 2003, about the duration of the Iraq war. “Whatever happens in Vietnam, I can conceive of nothing except military victory,” Dwight D. Eisenhower said in 1967. Four years before that, Robert McNamara asserted, “The war in Vietnam is going well and will succeed.”
Nineteenth-century British penologist Matthew Davenport Hill, who believed justice to be debased by fees extracted throughout the legal process, often cited mock examination questions given by Cambridge professor Richard Porson. “What happens if you win your cause?” asks the first, to which the answer is “You are nearly ruined.” The second: “What happens if you lose your cause?” Answer: “You are quite ruined.”
Charles d’Éon de Beaumont went to Russia in 1755 as a secret correspondent of French king Louis XV. Disguised as a woman, he obtained an appointment as reader to a Romanov empress; he returned for a mission the next year dressed as a man. By the 1770s speculation about his gender reached such fervor that odds were quoted by London brokers. An 1810 postmortem finally confirmed that he was anatomically male; Marie Cole, his companion of fourteen years, reportedly “did not recover from the shock for many hours.”
Among those who stayed at the Florida Hotel while reporting on the Spanish Civil War were John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, Josephine Herbst, Robert Capa, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and Martha Gellhorn. Gellhorn noted a day when an “influx of shits” came for lunch, one of whom was “a nice handsome dumb named Errol Flynn who looks like white fire on screen but is only very, very average off.”
“Pubic grooming has led to a severe depletion of crab-louse populations,” a medical entomologist with the company Insect Research & Development Ltd. said in an interview in January of this year. “Add to that other aspects of body-hair depilation, and you can see an environmental disaster in the making for this species.” More than 80 percent of college students in the U.S. remove all or part of their pubic hair.
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.”
“Woe to you, my princess, when I come. I will kiss you quite red and feed you till you are plump. And if you are forward you shall see who is the stronger, a gentle little girl who doesn’t eat enough or a big wild man who has cocaine in his body,” wrote Sigmund Freud to his future wife, Martha Bernays, on June 2, 1884.