President Abraham Lincoln on November 21, 1864, sent a letter to Mrs. Bixby, who, the War Department informed him, had lost five sons fighting for the Union. “I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.” In fact, two of Mrs. Bixby’s sons were killed in action, a third either deserted or died while a prisoner of war, a fourth was honorably discharged, and the fifth deserted.
In July 2003 details leaked of a new venture from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency: an online market for financial speculation on possible terrorist attacks, assassinations, and coups. “Futures markets have proven themselves to be good at predicting such things as elections results,” the Defense Department argued. “They are often better than expert opinions.” DARPA—already under fire for its proposed Total Information Awareness program—was forced to abandon the idea.
The Communist Party of China considered “revolution in mind” a prerequisite for political emancipation in the 1940s. Work reports tell of “speaking bitterness” sessions—in which peasants would share stories of their oppression—sometimes referred to as “turn-over-mind meetings.” The meetups later served as inspiration for feminist consciousness-raising groups in the United States during the 1970s.
Opening night of Henry James’ Guy 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.”
A British law dictates that any whale, porpoise, or sturgeon caught near the coast or cast ashore is a “royal fish” and belongs to the Crown. Specifics were refined in a 1610 parliamentary debate over the ownership of the salmon population in the Irish River Bann. “Though they are great fish,” said Lord Robert Hale, who argued these salmon should be considered part of the commons, “they are not royal fish.”
In Britain in 60, Boudicca, queen of the Iceni tribe, led a revolt against the occupying Romans. According to the historian Tacitus, her forces killed seventy thousand people, sacking and burning the cities later known as St. Albans, Colchester, and London. “We must conquer in the line of battle or fall,” she announced before her final charge. “That is the fate of this woman; let men live on as slaves if they wish.”
A riot erupted in Constantinople in 532 that forced Justinian and his advisers to consider fleeing. Procopius wrote in History of the Wars that the emperor’s wife, Theodora—the only time in the work in which she speaks—told her husband, “If now it is your wish to save yourself, O Emperor, there is no difficulty.” On hand, she noted, were money and boats. “For myself,” she went on, “I approve a certain ancient saying that royalty is a good burial shroud.” Justinian stayed, put down the revolt, and in the ashes of the city’s old church built the still-standing Hagia Sophia.
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.”
William Gladstone, prime minister of England four times between 1868 and 1894, walked the streets of London at night hoping to rescue prostitutes from their lives of vice. In 1848 he cofounded the Church Penitentiary Society Association for the Reclamation of Fallen Women; he would, it is said, offer streetwalkers a place to sleep, protection from their procurers, and a chance to give up their way of life.
In his autobiographical novel Boyhood, Leo Tolstoy describes his youthful joy in philosophical abstraction: “I frequently imagined myself a great man, who was discovering new truths for the good of mankind, and I looked on all other mortals with a proud consciousness of my dignity.” His euphoria didn’t last. “Strange to say,” he wrote, “whenever I came in contact with these mortals, I grew timid.” Soon he was “ashamed of every simplest word and motion.”
“If ever a loss at sea fell under the definition, in the terms of a bill of lading, of Act of God,” Joseph Conrad wrote, “this one does, in its magnitude, suddenness, and severity; and in the chastening influence it should have on the self-confidence of mankind.” The sentence ends the first paragraph of his 1912 essay “Some Reflections on the Loss of the Titanic.”