“Jap Herron,” the novel Mark Twain allegedly posthumously authored via Ouija board

Jap Herron
In 1917, two spiritual mediums published a book they claimed had been dictated by Mark Twain’s ghost via ouija board.

Mark Twain, beloved humorist and the “father of American literature,” died in 1910. Ordinarily, you’d expect this would mean the end of his writing career (especially since this time, reports of his death had not been exaggerated). He was so dedicated to his craft, however, that his work apparently continued even beyond the grave — at least, according to two spiritual mediums who claimed contact with Twain’s departed soul.

Emily Grant Hutchings and Lola V. Hays profess to have begun receiving messages from Mark Twain via Ouija board at a St. Louis seance in 1915. Over the next two years, Twain’s spirit would allegedly dictate an entire novel to the duo from the great beyond. The book, titled Jap Herron: A Novel Written From the Ouija Board, was published in 1917.

Ouija boards were in vogue at the time, and this wasn’t the first ghost-written work of fiction to grace the literary world; St. Louis writer Pearl Curran (a friend of Hutchings) published several novels that she claimed had been authored by a spirit named Patience Worth. The gimmick was one the public seemed to respond to: the novel sold, and generated sufficient attention to warrant a “review” in The New York Times. An excerpt from the Times:

The ouija board seems to have come to stay as a competitor of the typewriter in the production of fiction. For this is the third novel in the last few months that has claimed the authorship of some dead and gone being who, unwilling to give up human activities, has appeared to find in the ouija board a material means of expression.

[…]

The story itself, a long novelette, is scened in a Missouri town and tells how a lad born to poverty and shiftlessness, by the help of a fine-souled and high-minded man and woman, grew into a noble and useful manhood and helped to regenerate his town. There is evident a rather striking knowledge of the conditions of life and the peculiarities of character in a Missouri town, the dialect is true, and the picture has, in general, many features that will seem familiar to those who know their “Tom Sawyer” and “Huckleberry Finn.” A country paper fills an important place in the tale, and there is constant proof of familiarity with the life and work of the editor of such a sheet. The humor impresses as a feeble attempt at imitation and, while there is now and then a strong sure touch of pathos or a swift and true revelation of human nature, the “sob stuff” that oozes through many of the scenes, and the overdrawn emotions are too much for credulity. If this is the best that “Mark Twain” can do by reaching across the barrier, the army of admirers that his works have won for him will all hope that he will hereafter respect that boundary.

The book caused its share of controversy: Clara Clemens, Twain’s daughter and executor of his literary estate, threatened legal action;  Hutchings, Hays, and their publisher agreed to cease publication and to destroy remaining copies of the work.

Of course, there are some who suggest that Twain didn’t die in 1910 after all.

You can read the full New York Times review here, or check out the text of Jap Herron (which did ultimately survive) itself here.

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Fuzzy green “glacier mice” puzzle scientists

Glacier mice
Glacier mice are colonies of mosses found on some glaciers which appear to move non-randomly across the ice.

“What the heck is this!” was the reaction of one glaciologist when he first encountered glacier mice.1  Long known to researchers but still not fully understood, glacier mice might best be thought of as bundles of moss that form pearl-like around pebbles or other impurities on glacial surfaces.

Found as far afield as Alaska, Chile, and Norway, glacier mice were first described in 1951 by Icelandic meteorologist Jón Eyþórsson, who referred to them as jökla-mýs (Icelandic for “glacier mice”).2

What’s particularly curious about these “critters,” however, is that they seem to move around much more than any ordinary moss might.

From NPR:

The movement of the moss balls was peculiar. The researchers had expected that the balls would travel around randomly by rolling off their ice pedestals. The reality was different. The balls moved about an average of an inch a day in a kind of choreographed formation — like a flock of birds or a herd of wildebeests.

 

The researchers considered several possible explanations. The first, and most obvious one, is that they just rolled downhill. But measurements showed that the moss balls weren’t going down a slope.

 

“We next thought maybe the wind is sort of blowing them in consistent directions,” says Bartholomaus, “and so we measured the dominant direction of the wind.”

 

That didn’t explain it either, nor did the pattern of the sunlight.

 

“We still don’t know,” he says. “I’m still kind of baffled.”

You can listen to an 11-minute NPR story about glacier mice here:

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With billions under lockdown, the Earth’s crust is quieter

We find ourselves at an unprecedented point in history: the majority of humanity, nearly 4 billion souls, are now under lockdown, either totally confined to their homes or ordered to leave only for vital business.1

And it turns out that people are moving around so much less that it’s seismologically notable. Scientific American reports:

Just as natural events such as earthquakes cause Earth’s crust to move, so do vibrations caused by moving vehicles and industrial machinery. And although the effects from individual sources might be small, together they produce background noise, which reduces seismologists’ ability to detect other signals occurring at the same frequency.



Researchers who study Earth’s movement are reporting a drop in seismic noise—the hum of vibrations in the planet’s crust—that could be the result of transport networks and other human activities being shut down. They say this could allow detectors to spot smaller earthquakes and boost efforts to monitor volcanic activity and other seismic events.



A noise reduction of this magnitude is usually only experienced briefly around Christmas, says Thomas Lecocq, a seismologist the Royal Observatory of Belgium in Brussels, where the drop has been observed.

Sounds like some successful social distancing! You can check out the full article here.

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The unnerving link between pandemics and psychosis

As we continue to face down the coronavirus, and begin to use our time in quarantine to ponder its possible long-term consequences, Vice.com reports on an unexpected side effect of similar disease outbreaks.

In flu pandemics of years past — such as the Spanish Flu of 1918 and the 1889-90 influenza — a few doctors noted something striking. Specifically, they observed that a significant number of patients developed symptoms outside the normal set associated with influenza: hallucinations, mental disorders, psychosis. Sophisticated contemporary research lends support to these observations, finding evidence of a connection between the flu and schizophrenia. (For instance, children of mothers who had the flu while pregnant appear substantially more likely to develop schizophrenia later in life.)

Check out an excerpt from Vice’s article below:

While today, we consider viral infections to be diseases of the body—they infect the lungs, give us fevers, stuffy noses, or a cough—throughout history there’s also been a strange link between influenza and psychotic disorders similar to schizophrenia, a severe mental disorder that can affect how people think.
                 
By 1919, the Spanish Flu pandemic had spread influenza to a third of the world’s population, or around 500 million people. Psychiatrist Karl Menninger was treating people at Boston Psychopathic Hospital who’d recently been infected. But his patients had symptoms far beyond what’s usually associated with the flu. In a paper on 100 cases he saw over three months, he described seeing extreme mental disturbances—over half of his patients had some sort of psychosis, and almost two-thirds had hallucinations.
                 
After outbreaks of influenza in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1889, people experienced insomnia, depression, suicidal thoughts, and homicidal urges. One neurologist wrote that it wasn’t uncommon for people with the flu to feel “dark forebodings of…impending disaster” or to think they had committed a “fearful crime” and were about to be punished.

You can read the full article here.

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The strange history of Leap Day role reversal

A number of Leap Day traditions involve women proposing marriage to men, who must pay some kind of penalty if they decline.

Historically, subversion has often been a central aspect of holiday celebrations. The Roman festival of Saturnalia, for instance, saw slaves treated to lavish banquets and given license to disrespect their masters for the day. Christmastime festivities in England involved the seasonal appointment of a peasant or lowly sub-deacon as the “Lord of Misrule,” elevated beyond his station and charged with overseeing Christmas revelries. Similar traditions in the Middle Ages entailed designating a “boy bishop” to parody the actual bishop during occasions such as the feast of the Holy Innocents.

Leap Day — February 29 — has its own history of holiday subversion, in this case dealing specifically with gender roles. Throughout Europe and even in parts of the United States, Leap Day has involved flipping the script typically adhered to during the rest of the year when it comes to courtship in particular.

One such tradition involved women proposing to men (February 29 being referred to as “Bachelor’s Day”). The custom seems to originate in the British Isles. According to one account,

[I]t is said that the tradition began in 5th century Ireland when St. Brigid of Kildare bitterly complained to St. Patrick that women had to wait far too long for men to propose.

The legend says that St. Patrick decreed the women could propose on this one day in February during the leap year.

This tradition took a different form in three Illinois cities. For much of the twentieth century, Aurora, Joliet, and Morris, Illinois “replaced city council members, police, and firefighters with women on February 29. But the women had only one real objective: finding a husband.” Vox.com illustrates the day with a newspaper account from 1932:

Guilty, pleaded Mr John Livingston, a popular United States airman, when he was arraigned at the police court at Aurora, Illinois, on a charge that while he was the town’s most eligible bachelor he refused to marry the police magistrate, Miss Florence Atkins.

Your honour is beautiful, but I have maintained my plea of guilty, said Mr Livingston as he awaited sentence.

Miss Atkins, passing sentence, said: In accordance with the old Leap Year custom. I must fine you. You are ordered to buy me a new silk dress.

The prisoner was then released and under the care of the dark eyed Chief of Police, Miss Dorothy Ward, was taken to a shop to make the purchase.

Sadly — or perhaps not so sadly, given their sexist overtones — traditions like these have largely been forgotten. Perhaps it is time to establish a new set of Leap Day observances instead. The most promising alternative might be found in 30 Rock’s Leap Day episode (Season 6, Episode 9), in which “the cast and writers celebrate Leap Day with a Santa Claus-like mascot, a gilled creature named Leap Day William, who lives in the Mariana Trench and trades candy for children’s tears.”

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The Chicago cholera outbreak that wasn’t

Offshore water intake in Lake Michigan.
Lake Michigan supplies Chicago with its drinking water through intakes such as this one. In the late 1800s, fears of contamination led Chicago to reverse the flow of its river.

In 1885, devastating outbreaks of cholera and typhoid claimed the lives of 90,000 people in Chicago. To this day, news stories and popular histories point to the epidemic as the reason for a number of infrastructure and public health reforms in the Windy City. The only problem? It never happened.

On first glance, the story might make some sense. Chicago draws its drinking water from Lake Michigan. According to the myth, a prodigious rainstorm that year washed sewage and refuse into the lake, contaminating the city’s intakes and leading to the outbreak. Supposedly in response to this, the city established the Chicago Sanitary District and, in 1887, embarked on its herculean effort to reverse the flow of the Chicago River itself.

Wikipedia provides a concise refutation of this entire narrative:

Analysis of the deaths in Chicago [in the 1880s] shows no deaths from cholera and only a slight rise in typhoid deaths. In fact, no cholera outbreaks had occurred in Chicago since the 1860s. Typhoid deaths never exceeded 1,000 in any year in the 1880s. The supposed 90,000 deaths would have represented 12% of the city’s entire population and would have left numerous public records as well as newspaper accounts. Libby Hill, researching her book The Chicago River: A Natural and Unnatural History, found no newspaper or mortality records and, at her prompting, the Chicago Tribune issued a retraction (on September 29, 2005) of the three recent instances where they had mentioned the epidemic.

It’s fascinating how such a story — despite a complete lack of evidence — can enter the popular consciousness and reproduce itself for decades. What other urban legends do we breathlessly retell, without pausing to consider that they might not be true? What other “historical episodes” never really happened at all?

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Mysterious swarms of drones appearing over Colorado and Nebraska

Since just before Christmas, residents of eastern Colorado have witnessed mysterious swarms of drones — sometimes as many as thirty at a time — taking to the skies in the early evening hours. The first accounts of the drone swarms appeared in The Denver Post on December 23. Business Insider reports that

Since then, sightings have spanned six counties across Colorado and Nebraska.

Phillips County Sheriff Thomas Elliott had no answer for where the drones came from or whom they belonged to but did have a rough grasp on their flying habits. “They’ve been doing a grid search, a grid pattern,” he told The Denver Post. “They fly one square and then they fly another square.”

No one seems to know where the drones are coming from, who’s responsible for them, or what exactly they’re up to. So far, the Air Force, the DEA, the Department of Defense, the FAA, and a host of other institutions and agencies (including all private drone companies known to be operating in the area) have denied involvement. Complaints have prompted a federal investigation, but thus far no additional information has been released to the public. The altitude at which the drones appear to be flying is largely unregulated.

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The gigantic, terrifying Yule Cat feeds at Christmastime.

Yule Cat
The Yule Cat is a huge and vicious cat who lurks about the snowy countryside during Christmastime and eats people who have not received any new clothes.

While Santa Claus is the central and typically solitary supernatural figure associated with Christmas for many Americans, European folklore is rife with other characters. A whole cast of such figures make their own annual Christmastime visits to evaluate children’s behavior and dole out corresponding rewards or punishments. Some of them supplement St. Nicholas, while others supplant him (consider Krampus and Belsnickel); some come from entirely separate traditions altogether. One such is the Yule Cat of Icelandic folklore.

The Jólakötturinn, or Yule Cat, is a monstrous feline taller than the tallest houses. At the end of the year, the creature lurks in the snow waiting to devour anyone who has not received new clothes for Christmas. Why new clothes? According to the National Museum of Iceland,

it was customary in the old rural [Icelandic] society that employers gave the employees in their home a new garment and sheepskin shoes for Christmas. This was done to reward the people for good work as the tasks that had to be accomplished before Christmas were numerous and therefore the weeks leading up to Christmas were characterized by a rigorous workload.

In this way, then, the Yule Cat rewards good behavior (hard work) and punishes slackers — perhaps a sensible ethic to promote given the harsh Icelandic climate.

 

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Tonight is Krampus Night

Krampus
In Central European folklore, Krampus is a horned figure described as “half-goat, half-demon,” who during the Christmas season punishes children who have misbehaved.

Fewer Christmas traditions are stranger than that of Krampus. Krampus, you may be aware, is St. Nicholas’s sinister (and lesser-known) demonic sidekick. If old St. Nick is the good cop who rewards well-behaved children with gifts of toys, Krampus is his bad cop counterpart: he punishes naughty children by beating them with birch switches (and by terrifying them with his demonic visage). Truly unlucky troublemakers might be kidnapped away in the basket he carries strapped to his back. The tradition recalls the old trope of saints vanquishing demons through the power of God and forcing them into their thrall, but likely has deeper roots in pre-Christian Alpine customs.

Many Americans remain unfamiliar with Krampus, although his profile has grown in recent years (owing in part, no doubt, to the 2015 holiday horror film of the same name). But he is widely celebrated across several parts of Europe, including Austria, Bavaria, Hungary, and surrounding regions. Young men in these parts will traditionally dress up as Krampus in the first two weeks of December, particularly on the evening of 5 December, and roam the streets frightening children with rusty chains and bells. So grab your mask, hit the streets, and get in the Krampusnacht spirit — just be prepared for some weird looks if you’re not in Europe.

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How Cleveland Lost the World’s Largest Book

The Golden Book of Cleveland
The Golden Book of Cleveland was 7 feet by 5 feet and 3 feet thick, with 6,000 pages. It was about the size of a queen-size bed and weighed 2 1/2 tons.

The Golden Book of Cleveland was as big as a queen sized bed, contained more than half a million signatures, and weighed more than two tons. If it still exists, it is the largest book in the world. But its whereabouts have been unknown since 1937.

Cleveland, Ohio played host to the Great Lakes Exposition of 1936-37, its own effort at a World’s Fair that attracted more than 7 million visitors over its two-year run. The expo was “conceived as a way to energize a city hit hard by the Great Depression” and featured rides, sideshows, botanical gardens, cafes, art galleries, and other attractions. Notable among these was the Golden Book of Cleveland, billed as the largest book in the world. From Cleveland Magazine:

The Golden Book of Cleveland, official registration book of the Great Lakes Exposition, stood inside the main entrance on St. Clair Avenue during the expo’s first season. It was 7 feet by 5 feet and 3 feet thick, with 6,000 pages — about the size of a queen-size bed. It weighed 2 1/2 tons. The Golden Book had spaces for 4 million signatures. By Aug. 17, 1936, halfway through the expo’s season, 587,400 people had signed it.

According to Cleveland Magazine, the expo’s organizers intended to donate the book to a local historical society. (“The idea was that fairgoers or their descendants could visit Cleveland again years later, look on the page number recorded in their booklet and find their signature.”) The book disappeared from expo coverage in Cleveland newspapers after August 1936, however, and after the expo ended it vanished from the public record entirely. Cleveland Magazine checked three libraries’ archives, a dozen books of newspaper clippings from the expo, more than a dozen Cleveland historians, the Western Reserve Historical Society, and the Ohio Historical Society, and none could account for the book’s ultimate fate.

So where might Cleveland’s lost bed-sized book have ended up? Some speculate that it was simply destroyed following the expo. However, after Cleveland Magazine published an article about the book in 2006, a man named Al Budnick claimed that his father had sold the book to a Tucson doctor in the early 1950s. While no physical trace of the book (nor the identity of its alleged purchaser) has since turned up, you can read more in a 2007 article in the Arizona Daily Star.

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Thanksgiving in space

The American astronauts onboard the International Space Station are preparing to celebrate Thanksgiving, and they’ve recorded a video message giving us a look at what their observations will entail. Check it out here, or watch below:

According to NASA, Thanksgiving was first celebrated in space aboard Skylab, the first American space station, in 1973. Since then, Thanksgiving has also been celebrated on space shuttles and the defunct Russian space station Mir.

Worried about getting into political arguments over Thanksgiving dinner? Consider talking about space instead! The Planetary Society last year compiled a helpful list of space-related conversation starters, covering topics such as:

  • How to stop an asteroid headed for earth
  • Liquid water elsewhere in our solar system
  • Space tourism
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