Inuit Cutlery
I heard this story on an episode of QI (Series G, episode "Geography") that tells of Sir John Ross, a British naval officer and Arctic explorer.

In 1818, Ross led one of the many attempts to find the Northwest Passage. During his time, he collected samples, made a lot of notes about currents and tides, and made contact with Inuits in the Arctic Highland--people who had had no contact whatsoever with Western culture. In fact, this group of Inuits was so isolated that they believed they were the only people on Earth before meeting Ross.

Ross was startled to note that the Inuits had fashioned their own cutlery. It was remarkable, firstly, that they would develop the exact same eating tools as Europeans as opposed to, say, cultures that eat solely with their hands or with other types of tools, like chopsticks. What was even more astounding was that this cutlery was made out of metal, and the Inuits had no knowledge of mining or smelting.

Where in the hell did they get metal knives, forks, and spoons?

If you said 'aliens' . . . then, actually, you're in the right ballpark.

The Inuits took metal they found from three large meteorites that had landed in the Arctic Highlands. They called them "The Woman", "The Dog", and "The Tent", after the shapes they resembled. They extracted and shaped metal fragments, strapped them to pieces of horn, and viola: cutlery.

This quotation comes from the recap of this QI episode here. As they discuss on QI:

"70 years later, Admiral Peary, who claimed to be the first man to reach the North Pole (although the claim is now largely discredited) stole the meteorites and sold them to a museum for $40,000.

"He also took six Inuit children with him, four of whom died of tuberculosis immediately. One of them survived and was brought up by an American couple. He then discovered that his father's bones where a public exhibit in the Natural History Museum in New York. He complained but Peary refused to do anything about it. However, he did give him enough money to return home. The bones were not returned till 1993."

I cannot imagine walking through the Natural History Museum and going, "Dad? . . . Is that you?" This whole story has made me seriously reconsider my opinion of Admiral Peary.

Spite Houses
Let's talk about spite houses today!

If you dont' know what a spite house is . . . well, it's pretty much exactly what the name says. It's a house you build out of spite: oddly-shaped, sometimes very ugly or in an inconvenient place, designed with the specific intention of pissing off a neighbor, the city planners, whomever.

While spite houses are definitely not exclusive to the 19th century, there was a particular boom of them in the Victorian era. I'm not entirely sure why. Please see some examples below (many found on apartment therapy's site here):

1.) The Hollensbury House, Alexandria VA (1830)
This house measures 7 feet by 25 feet. It was designed to piss of the people who kept loitering in the alley that used to be where this house now stands. The owner of one of the adjacent houses, John Hollensbury, got tired of them thar youths causing a late-night ruckus in the alleyway, so he decided to build this obnoxiously small house there and rent it out.

2.) The Freeport Spite House, Freeport NY (19th century)

The city of Freeport decided to build their city on a grid. A single developer, John Randall disagreed with this idea. I guess he didn't want buildings and streets to be easy to navigate or locate. He probably hated symmetry, order, common sense, puppies, rainbows, and friendship.
In retaliation for the city's LOGICAL IDEA, he bought a triangular piece of land and built this house on it. This caused the city to have to divert their road and make a squiggily mess on an otherwise lovely grid.

3.) The Skinny House, Boston MA (1860s).
A father died and left this plot of land to his two sons. While one of the brothers was away, fighting in the American Civil War, the other brother built an enormous house on most of the land. But I guess the best way to fight douchey moves is with douchey moves--rather than just resign that his brother had outsmarted him and found a way to pretty much claim the whole property as his, the second brother built this teeeeeeny tiiiny house as snugly as possible against his brothers, and specifically did it in a way that blocked as much light and ventilation in his brother's house as possible.

What a terrible war the Civil War was. Brother against brother.

4.) The Alameda Spite House, Alameda CA (early 10th century)
There are two versions in this story. One is that this plot of land was inherited by a man named Charles Froling, but the city claimed a chunk of it in order to built the road. He was intending to build a large home on the property, but obviously couldn't. There was nothing Froling could do about it, so he just built this house anyway, our of protest.

The second urban legend says that this house resulted as a feud between neighbors, and was built to block all the sunlight in the house behind it.

5.)  The Old Spite House, Marblehead MA (1716).
There are two versions of this story as well (also about dick-head brothers). One is that this house was occupied by two brothers who abhored each other and wouldn't speak to each other. Both were too proud to move out or sell their share to the other. They lived in different areas of the house and eventually built that weird addition to keep from having ot see each other.

Guys, this is how The War of the Roses (the film, not the actual war) started. Please tell me this feud ended with one of them dropping a chandeleir on the other.

The second version of the story was that a younger son was outraged at being left such a tiny share of his father's estate, so he built this ugly old thing to spoil the views from his elder brothers' windows.

The Scholomance
In Transylvania (which is an excellent start to any story), there is a legend about a school of black magic run by Satan, called The Scholomance.

That sentence alone raises SO MANY QUESTIONS:
1.) Is it a state-run or private school?
2.) Is Satan the sole teacher, headmaster, or just the founder? If either of the latter, whom does he employ? That's got to be an amazing job interview process.
3.) What's the tuition like?
4.) Who attends this school? Local children? Wizards? IS THIS A SINISTER HOGWARTS?

Side note--Shit, you guys, Voldemort totally spends time in Romania in Harry Potter. Is this really his school? Or did he maybe just attend to brush up on his evil skills? Like community college for dark wizards?

Emily Gerard, who was a 19th-century author, traveled to Transylvania and published a collection of folktales, this being among them. Her collection famously had influence on Bram Stoker in his composition of Dracula.

Gerard writes, "As I am on the subject of thunderstorms, I may as well here mention the Scholomance, or school supposed to exist somewhere in the heart of the mountains, and where all the secrets of nature, the language of animals, and all imaginable magic spells and charms are taught by the devil in person [ah, well that answers that question. That's a LOT of responsibility. I'm teaching 4 classes this semester and it's wearing me out. I can't imagine also being the Prince of Darkness. Sounds like it's a position with a lot of paperwork].

"Only ten scholars are admitted at a time, and when the course of learning has expired and nine of them are released to return to their homes, the tenth scholar is detained by the devil as payment, and mounted upon an zmeju (dragon) he becomes henceforward the devil's aide-de-camp, and assists him in 'making the weather,' that is, in preparing thunderbolts. A small lake, immeasurably deep, lying high up among the mountains south of Sibiu [sic], is supposed to be the cauldron where is brewed the thunder, and in fair weather the dragon sleeps beneath the waters."

Ahh, so this explains the tuition: perpetual servitude. If I'm being honest (and checking my bank account), this sounds pretty standard.

Someone, go read Dracula and get me any and all references to this text!


I found this story on Futility Closet here.

"In 1842, Kentucky slave Henry Bibb made his way to Canada and became an abolitionist. While attending a convention in Detroit, he sent pamphlets to a number of Southern slaveholders, including his former master, William Gatewood. In 1844 he was surprised to receive this letter:

Bedford, Thimble County, Ky.

Mr. H. Bibb.

Dear Sir:– After my respects to you and yours &c., I received a small book which you sent to me that I peroseed and found it was sent by H. Bibb. I am a stranger in Detroit and know no man there without it is Walton H. Bibb if this be the man please to write to me and tell me all about that place and the people I will tell you the news here as well as I can your mother is still living here and she is well the people are generally well in this cuntry times are dull and produce low give my compliments to King, Jack, and all my friends in that cuntry I read that book you sent me and think it will do very well — George is sold, I do not know any thing about him I have nothing more at present, but remain yours &c

February 9th, 1844
P.S. You will please to answer this letter.

He replied:

Dear Sir:–

I am happy to inform you that you are not mistaken in the man whom you sold as property, and received pay for as such. But I thank God that I am not property now, but am regarded as a man like yourself, and although I live far north, I am enjoying a comfortable living by my own industry. If you should ever chance to be traveling this way, and will call on me, I will use you better than you did me while you held me as a slave. Think not that I have any malice against you, for the cruel treatment which you inflicted on me while I was in your power. As it was the custom of your country, to treat your fellow men as you did me and my little family, I can freely forgive you.

I wish to be remembered in love to my aged mother, and friends; please tell her that if we should never meet again in this life, my prayer shall be to God that we may meet in Heaven, where parting shall be no more.

You wish to be remembered to King and Jack. I am pleased, sir, to inform you that they are both here, well, and doing well. They are both living in Canada West. They are now the owners of better farms than the men are who once owned them.

You may perhaps think hard of us for running away from slavery, but as to myself, I have but one apology to make for it, which is this: I have only to regret that I did not start at an earlier period. I might have been free long before I was. But you had it in your power to have kept me there much longer than you did. I think it is very probable that I should have been a toiling slave on your plantation today, if you had treated me differently.

To be compelled to stand by and see you whip and slash my wife without mercy, when I could afford her no protection, not even by offering myself to suffer the lash in her place, was more than I felt it to be the duty of a slave husband to endure, while the way was open to Canada. My infant child was also frequently flogged by Mrs. Gatewood, for crying, until its skin was bruised literally purple. This kind of treatment was what drove me from home and family, to seek a better home for them. But I am willing to forget the past. I should be pleased to hear from you again, on the reception of this, and should also be very happy to correspond with you often, if it should be agreeable to yourself. I subscribe myself a friend to the oppressed, and Liberty forever.

When I read this I actually said aloud, "Awww, snap!" after just about every line, which was 1.) a well deserved expletive, and 2.) probably means I'm a high schooler from the early 2000s.

In my head, I added this post-script from Henry Bibb to William Gatewood, "P.S. Learn how to write correctly, you dumbass cracker."

Special Delivery
I found this messed up story on Futility Closet here.

"On June 23, 1908, a messenger delivered a bottle of ale to the door of Philadelphia doctor William Wilson. “We are taking the liberty of sending a few physician’s samples of our new product,” read an accompanying letter, which bore the name of a well-known Philadelphia brewing company. “As the beneficial qualities of our ale is to be our strong talking point, we have decided to cooperate with physicians as far as possible in the introduction of our goods.” It asked him to sample the product and to respond if he felt he could recommend it to his patients.

"Three days later, Wilson sampled the bottle. Within 30 minutes he was dead of cyanide poisoning.

"On June 29, coroner Rush Jermon received a typewritten letter:

Dear Mr. Coroner:

I want to write you regarding the death of Dr. W.H. Wilson.

In some way he induced my wife to become a patient of his. As a result of poisonous injections he used, she died a few weeks ago. In order to protect her name, I did not give the last attending physician all the facts, and she was buried with another cause assigned.

To rid the community of this wholesale killer, I have removed him like a weed from a garden. …

Now that this service to the community is rendered and the death of my dear wife avenged, I am going to quit this part of the world. I don’t think you will ever find me but I don’t care much what happens anyhow.

My only regret is the grief caused his wife and child but I believe they are better off without him. I say let those who live by poison die by poison.

"'By the time you get this on Monday morning, I will be far from here,” it concluded. It was signed “An outraged husband and father.'

"An investigation showed that the killer must have mailed the first letter from a West Philadelphia postal station at 1 a.m. on June 23, but no one remembered seeing him there. A clerk at the messenger service described a clean-shaven, neatly dressed man of about 40 wearing a black derby, and a station agent at Bristol, Pa., recalled a man of that description jumping briefly off a train to mail a letter on June 27, the day after Wilson had died. This man had apparently bought a ticket at Torresdale, a small station between Philadelphia and Bristol, earlier that day.

"But there the trail ended. The mystery became a nationwide sensation, but no further progress was made. An inquest on July 10 returned a verdict of death by cyanide of potassium poisoning at the hands of a person or persons unknown. The killer was never found."

It would be really interesting to go through the doctor's medical records now (assuming he kept good records and that they still exist) and see if we could piece together who his patient might have been. We know she was married and likely had children (or at least her husband had children), we know roughly what the treatment was, we know roughly when she died, we know she went to another doctor before her death . . . This would make a fantastic subject for a non-fiction novel.

Pick Up Lines
I found this hilarious series of quotations from The History of Love blog here, who was actually quoting from a Washington Post article here (both of which were written by scholar Emily Brand, who delights me). I think I've entered a wormhole of reblogging.

ANYWAY, Brand's research reveals seduction advice given to men in the late 1700s, cited specifically from a 1799 book entitled The New Academy of Compliments. Because nothing says "I sincerely love you" quite like quoting aloud from a mass-produced list of generic praise. Ahh, the manufacturing of sentiment. And you thought Hallmark invented that.

Without further ado, Brand's article, with my comments in square brackets:

"Gentleman readers, follow the suggested plan of attack at your peril. I, for one, have a new-found respect for the beleaguered ladies of 18th century New York — it seems the modern experience of 'courtship' wasn’t so different as we might think.

"Presenting six steps to seducing a woman, from the 'The New Academy of Compliments'

1. Tell her that you think she’s hot. Suggested pick up lines include:

“Madam, as you are fair and beauteous, be generous and merciful to him that is your slave.”

“Sweet lady, your virtues have so strangely taken up my thoughts, that therein they encrease and multiply in abundant felicity.” [Did you just say that my virtues are breeding inside your brain?]

“I have a long time been broiling on the flames of ardent affection towards your dear self.” [Well, that's too bad. I prefer my meat medium-rare.]

2. If necessary, catch her off-guard by insulting her first.

“I am as lantern-jaw’d as you are platter-fac’d; but yet perhaps we may have lovely babes when we come together, if we can but tell how to get them.” [Two genetic wrongs don't make a right. Also, nothing woos a woman quite so much as saying 'I want to put my babies inside you and see what comes out.']

3. Make a dramatic entrance. When all eyes are on you, make the most of it — preferably with a bit of fancy footwork:

“If a young man enters into a room, on his approaching those he intends to pay his respects to, he must. . . bow with his hat in his right hand, and then advancing three steps traverse ways, and by degrees approach the party, and if there be more than one, he must salute them severally: if a man, by a genteel embrace, in pressing the left side with his right arm: if a woman, a proferred salute, if not a real one.” [Guys, this is called 'uncomfortably sidling up to someone'. You know what also works? Walking like a normal person.]

4. Don’t open with “the conversation”. Assessing her suitability by quizzing her about her virginity/previous partners is probably not a very good idea. (This one is actually pretty sensible.)

“When a young gentleman has found a conqueress of his affection, let him not rudely accost her if she be a virgin, lest his good meaning be taken in evil part.” ["HI PRETTY LADY, WHAT IS THE STATUS OF YOUR GENITALS, PLS? I WOULD LIKE TO KNOW FOR REASONS OF GOOD MEANING."]

5. Keep within her sights. Because there is nothing more effective than a bit of light stalking.

“Then it is his business to walk before her window, or watch her going abroad, that she may have a perfect sight of him, which commonly creates a liking love.” ["How did you guys get together?" "He stalked me all the way to the altar!"]

6. Don’t give up, even if she rejects you. At which point it all gets a bit “Blurred Lines.”

“There is no way after the ice is once broke, like opportunity and resolution, in spight of all resistance, not to be denied, to haunt her like her shadow, and fill her ears with themes of love, settled with a few scattered protestations, which is the only way to obtain her.” ["Your words are saying 'No', but the way you punched me in the face and slammed the door said 'Yes'".]

The Future
I found this collection of quotations on Futility Closet's blog here. Sorry to phone it in so much, but I'm teaching and my life has turned really hectic, so expect lots of reblogs until the semester ends.

On a side note, I love absolutely everything to do with the 1893 Chicago World's Fair and highly recommend that everyone read Devil in the White City as soon as humanly possible. I will know if you don't. I will know.

"On the occasion of the 1893 World’s Fair, the American Press Association asked 74 prominent Americans to imagine the United States of 1993. Some responses:

  • “By the 1990s, longevity will be so improved that 150 years will be no unusual age to reach.” — Thomas De Witt Talmage, Presbyterian preacher

  • “In the 1990s, the United States will be a government of perhaps 60 states, situated in both North and South America.” — Asa C. Matthews, comptroller of the Treasury

  • “Wealth will be more widely and equally distributed. Great corporations and business interests will be conducted harmoniously — on the principle of the employers and workers sharing in the profits.” — Junius Henri Browne, journalist

  • Three hours will constitute a long day’s work.” — Mary E. Lease, activist and lecturer

  • Trousers will be relegated to bookkeepers, barbers, pastry bakers, and cripples.” — Van Buren Denslow, attorney and economist

  • We are going to see a wonderful development in the use of jewels in American churches.” — George F. Kunz, mineralogist

  • “By the end of the Twentieth Century, taxation will be reduced to a minimum, the entire world will be open to trade, and there will be no need of a standing army.” — Erastus Wiman, journalist

"'Perhaps I am wrong in some of these prophecies,' reflected drama critic John Habberton, who had predicted that all marriages would be happy. 'But if that is so, I shall not be here to be twitted with it — now will I?'”

Maybe not, but he definitely will be tweeted.

Traveling Companions
I found this remarkable story on Futility Closet's blog here. I think this is one of the coolest things I've posted on this blog. It would make for a fantastic film. You're welcome, Hollywood.


"In 1848, Ellen and William Craft resolved to flee slavery, but they needed a way to get from Macon, Ga., to the free states in the north. William could never travel such a distance alone, but Ellen’s skin was fair enough that she could pass for white. So she disguised herself as a white male cotton planter attended by William, her slave. (She had to pose as a man because a white woman would not have traveled alone with a male slave.) The two asked leave to be away for the holidays, the illiterate Ellen bound her arm in a sling to escape being asked to write, and they departed on Dec. 21. Over the next four days:

  • Ellen found herself sitting next to a friend of her master on the train to Savannah. She feigned deafness to discourage his attempts to engage her in conversation.

  • The captain of a steamer to Charleston complimented Ellen on her “very attentive boy” and warned him to shun the “cutthroat abolitionists” in the north.

  • During the voyage a slave trader offered to buy William, and a military officer scolded Ellen for saying “thank you” to her slave.

  • In South Carolina a ticket seller insisted on seeing proof that Ellen owned William. A passing captain intervened and sent them on their way.

  • In a Virginia railway station a white woman confronted William, mistaking him for her own runaway slave.

  • An officer in Baltimore threatened again to detain them without proof of ownership, but relented, telling a clerk, “He is not well, it is a pity to stop him.”

"On Dec. 25, after a journey of more than 800 miles, they arrived in Philadelphia:

On leaving the station, my master — or rather my wife, as I may now say — who had from the commencement of the journey borne up in a manner that much surprised us both, grasped me by the hand, and said, ‘Thank God, William, we are safe!’ then burst into tears, leant upon me, and wept like a child. The reaction was fearful. So when we reached the house, she was in reality so weak and faint that she could scarcely stand alone. However, I got her into the apartments that were pointed out, and there we knelt down, on this Sabbath, and Christmas-day, — a day that will ever be memorable to us, — and poured out our heartfelt gratitude to God, for his goodness in enabling us to overcome so many perilous difficulties, in escaping out of the jaws of the wicked.

"The Crafts went on a speaking tour of New England to share their story with abolitionists, then moved to England to evade recapture under the Fugitive Slave Act. They returned only in 1868, when they established a school in Georgia for newly freed slaves."

Santa Cash
I found this story on Futility Closet's blog here.


"The U.S. government did not issue paper money until 1861. Until then, private banks printed their own currency under charters to the states.

"As a result, this $5 bill featuring Santa Claus [in the middle illustration] was legal tender in the 1850s. It was issued by the Howard Banking Company of Boston.

"A number of banks issued Santa-themed money in the same period — the most natural being the St. Nicholas Bank of New York City."

Carl Akeley
I was looking at some rarely seen photographs in world history on the Earthly Mission site here, and discovered this photograph:


This is a picture of the father of modern taxidermy, Carl Akeley, who in 1896 killed this leopard with his BARE HANDS after it attacked him.

There is a reason why Akeley went with Teddy Roosevelt on his African expeditions to kill everything and fill up the Natural History Museum with specimens. Akeley was a total badass. And the most badass thing about him? His actions in Africa (leopard strangling aside) are actually more palatable to us today than Roosevelt's. He was way, way ahead of his time.

Akeley had put together a lot of museum dioramas with exotic animals for, what he and most people at the time considered to be, the benefit of science. There were lots and lots of elephants and lions killed and captured for this purpose. The one animal that people really wanted to learn about was the gorilla, since there were very few in zoos and gorillas tended to be hard to find for explorers (they live in very isolated communities, often on mountains, so they're hard to find, even today, and even harder to approach).

In 1921, Akeley did an astounding thing: he went to Africa not for the purpose of bagging himself some dead gorillas, but actually to learn about them and specifically to determine if the killing of gorillas was justified, even for the purposes of education and science. He went to the Congo (always a naturally dangerous and often a politically unstable place), hiked up this chain of volcanoes, and spent a great deal of time studying a relatively unknown animal who could easily tear your head off if it felt threatened.

He did all of this in order to justify to himself that his research was ethical.

He determined it wasn't.

In fact, he was so tremendously swayed in the other direction that he spent the remaining years of his life setting up a gorilla preserve in those specific mountains, even convincing the King of Belgium (whose country had colonized the Congo and whose colonization techniques were known to be exceptionally brutal, even for the time) to set up Africa's very first national park. Which he did, in 1925. It is now the Virunga National Park.

Now, this is not to say that Akeley was totally opposed to collecting animals for education purposes, but he was profoundly against collecting them as trophies. At the very least, he wanted researchers to spend time with exotic animals and learn more about them while the animals were still alive; bagging them to ship back to a museum was a last-resort option.

These are, of course, only a small fraction of the cool things Akeley did. He wasn't just an explorer, stuffer of dead emus, or puncher of leopards. He was also an inventor. He came up with the idea of a cement gun to repair and save crumbling buildings.

He also dreasically improved the motion picture camera (all the way back before 1915) to make it way, way more mobile. While he did this to make it easier to capture footage of animals in the wild, it actually became hugely beneficial to the Allied war effort (they mounted his cameras on planes so pilots could bring back evidence of enemy troop movements). His cameras also, naturally, were picked up by Hollywood to use in their big action sequences.

He had more than 30 patents at the time of his death. Oh, and he wrote children's books. I like to think they are hardcore morality tales that make the Brothers Grimm look LAME. "Remember, children, only kill another living creature if it tries to kill you first. But make sure to use your hands. Using anything else just isn't sporting. Helpful Tip:Did you know that lions have really soft skulls? That's their weakness."

He also reminds me a bit of Tywin Lannister. So there's that.

He died in 1926 of a fever when he was in the middle of his fifth trip to the Congo.

You are viewing bizarrevictoria