Miscellany Politics

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.

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 Fear

Greek geographer Strabo wrote around 20 BC that, to deal with “a crowd of women” or “any promiscuous mob,” one cannot use reason but rather must exert control using myths and marvels. “For thunderbolt, aegis, trident, torches, snakes, thyrsus lances—arms of the gods—are myths,” he wrote. “The founders of states gave their sanction to these things as bugbears wherewith to scare the simpleminded.”

Miscellany Food

To celebrate King Henri III of France’s visit to Venice in 1574, a banquet table was prepared with some 1,286 items—from napkins and cutlery to figures of popes—all made from spun sugar.

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 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 Food

Dr. John Harvey Kellogg’s digestive “milk cure” involved drinking a half pint of milk every half hour for twelve hours, supplemented by bran and paraffin four times a day, fruit twice a day, and two enemas a day.

Miscellany States of Mind

In 1903, Mark Twain comforted Helen Keller, who had been accused of plagiarizing her story “The Frost King,” telling her in a letter, “All ideas are secondhand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources.” He took a harder line on his own intellectual property, however, campaigning so vigorously for stringent copyright laws that the American Bar Association later recognized him for his efforts.

Miscellany The Sea

After Panama declared independence from Colombia in 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt attempted to quell suspicions that the U.S. had helped foment revolt in order to build the Panama Canal. Roosevelt asked Secretary of War Elihu Root if he had properly defended himself against accusations of wrongdoing. Root reportedly replied, “You certainly have, Mr. President. You have shown that you were accused of seduction, and you have conclusively proved that you were guilty of rape.”

Miscellany Fashion

In the days after a July 1917 German air raid on London that killed forty civilians, Harry Gordon Selfridge, the American-born owner of Selfridges department store, took out ads declaring he would award $5,000 of life insurance on behalf of anyone killed by such an attack while shopping at his store. His building, he noted, was made out of concrete.

Miscellany The Future

On July 23, 1995, in New Mexico, the astronomer Alan Hale saw an unidentified fuzzy object in the sky. He emailed the Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams. In Arizona, Tom Bopp saw the same thing. He telegrammed the bureau. The comet was named Hale-Bopp the following day. Believing that a UFO was traveling behind it, thirty-eight members of The Heaven’s Gate cult committed suicide on March 26, 1997, six days before the comet reached its perihelion. 

Miscellany Intoxication

In his Brief Lives, John Aubrey wrote that in 1618 Walter Raleigh “took a pipe of tobacco a little before he went to the scaffold, which some formal persons were scandalized at, but I think ’twas well and properly done to settle his spirits.” Often credited with popularizing smoking in England, Raleigh was sentenced to death for treason by King James I, who had published his Counterblaste to Tobacco in 1604.

Miscellany Revolutions

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.”

Miscellany Youth

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, once said of Lord Byron, “I was fourteen when I heard of his death. It seemed an awful calamity; I remember I rushed out of doors, sat down by myself, shouted aloud, and wrote on the sandstone: BYRON IS DEAD!”

Miscellany Swindle & Fraud

The American English term wooden nutmeg, meaning “anything false or fraudulent,” dates from 1829, when Connecticut traders were known to place fake wooden nutmegs in batches of real ones to defraud customers.