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 Comedy

Gioachino Rossini was known to possess strong opinions about other composers. “Wagner has some fine moments,” he estimated, “but some bad quarters of an hour.” After hearing Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, he remarked, “What a good thing it isn’t music.”

Miscellany Philanthropy

In 1982 John Candelaria, a pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates, was given $238 in per diem meal money while on a bus to Wrigley Field from the team’s hotel in Chicago. Candelaria threw his cash out the bus window, a few dollars per toss, much to the surprise of those on the street. “It just seemed like the thing to do,” Candelaria told a reporter.

Miscellany Disaster

The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah may have been caused by an earthquake that occurred through the Great Rift Valley around 1900 BC. The “brimstone and fire” described in the Bible would have been due to petroleum and gases present in the area igniting the cities.

Miscellany Animals

Beaver fur can contain between 12,000 and 23,000 hairs per square centimeter, and it is particularly good for making thick, pliable, water-resistant felt. In 1733 the Hudson Bay Company valued one prime-quality beaver skin at the same worth as one brass kettle, two pounds of Brazilian tobacco, one gallon of brandy, or a pound and a half of gunpowder.

Miscellany Rivalry & Feud

British historian Orlando Figes admitted in 2010 to posting scathing reviews on Amazon for books by other Russian-history specialists. Using the name Historian, he called one work “dense and pretentious” and complained another was not “worth the bother of ploughing through its dreadful prose.” Of Figes’ own The Whisperers, Historian posted that it “leaves the reader awed, humbled, yet uplifted” and wrote of its author, “I hope he writes forever.”

Miscellany States of Mind

Thomas Aquinas was so absorbed in solving a philosophical problem while dining with Louis IX around 1269 that he believed himself to be in his own office; when the solution came to him, he slapped the table and called to his secretary—who was not present—to get ready to write. The king, “amazed and edified that a man’s mind could be so enraptured by the spirit that none of the body’s senses could disturb it,” summoned a scribe to record the revelation.

Miscellany Animals

Llamas, alpacas, guinea pigs, turkeys, and ducks were among the animals indigenous to the New World that Christopher Columbus encountered on his second voyage there in 1493. On that trip he introduced from the Old World horses, pigs, cattle, sheep, and goats. “A large whale was taken betwixt my land, butting on the Thames and Greenwich,” wrote London dweller John Evelyn in his diary on June 3, 1658.

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 Water

A 1551 municipal law in Lisbon regulated water at the Palacete Chafariz d’el Rei, segregating access across six spouts: the first for “slaves, freedmen, black people, mulattoes, and Indians”; the second for galley slaves; the fifth for “black and mulatto women and Indian women, both freed and captive”; and the sixth for white women and girls. White men and boys got the middle spouts, the third and the fourth.

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 Swindle & Fraud

In the law courts of democratic Athens in the 5th century BC, citizens on trial were compelled to offer their own defenses, often hiring speechwriters. “If I make a mistake in speaking, pardon me and treat it as due to inexperience rather than dishonesty,” pleaded one defendant, who had hired the orator Antiphon to compose the entire speech.

Miscellany The Future

“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.”

Miscellany Rivalry & Feud

Carl Jung attributed his split with his mentor Sigmund Freud around 1910 in part to a generational divide. “Our descendants are our most dangerous enemies,” Jung argued, “for they will outlive us, and, therefore, without fail, will take the power from our enfeebled hands.”

Miscellany The Sea

Samuel Johnson enlisted Tobias Smollett, author of Roderick Random, to help rescue Johnson’s “Negro servant Francis Barber” from naval service—“a state of life,” as James Boswell wrote, “of which Johnson always expressed the utmost abhorrence.” Johnson once said, “No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into a jail; for being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned.” At another time he claimed, “A man in a jail has more room, better food, and commonly better company.”