Cleveland, Ohio is used to being the butt of jokes. Its famous burning river and the perennial underperformance of its football team have earned it widespread mockery and the enduring moniker “the mistake on the lake.” Once one of the nation’s five largest metros, Cleveland’s industry has bled offshore and its people have fled for suburbs and Southern climes, leaving behind a well-worn rustbelt emblem with an outsized set of legacy cultural institutions.
In 1986, movers and shakers at the United Way tried to shift this narrative with a single bold stroke. Their plan: break a Guinness world record by releasing more than one million balloons into the air as a fundraising gimmick, and show the world that Cleveland could be something more than a cheap punchline.
To do so, they contracted an LA-based balloon company that spent six months preparing for the event. A structure the size of a city block, covered with a mesh net, was set up to hold the balloons, which were filled in a single day by 2,500 volunteers. Altogether, more than 1.4 million balloons were inflated and launched into the air on September 27, 1986 — and truly, it was a sight to see.
Alas, Balloonfest ’86 was not the positive turning point Cleveland had hoped for. A simple principle had evaded the organizers: what goes up must come down. A cold front trapped the balloons close to the ground and forced many of them into the lake just offshore. The rest caused problems elsewhere: shutting down airports, clogging highways and waterways, littering the region with plastic and string. Horses in surrounding exurbs suffered “permanent injuries” when they were spooked by balloons landing in their pastures, prompting lawsuits and a payout from the event organizers. Most tragically, a Coast Guard search for two missing fishermen had to be called off due to the balloons; both men drowned. (This also prompted a lawsuit and subsequent settlement.)
Asked for comment on the event years later, the United Way said simply “we would not do a balloon launch ever again.”
In the spring of 1626, during the reign of the Tianqi Emperor — the last ruler of the Ming dynasty — a catastrophic explosion devastated Beijing. As many as 20,000 people were reportedly killed, and entire square miles of the city were completely obliterated. Yet despite the large scale of destruction, and the generally meticulous recordkeeping of the imperial court, the cause and nature of the explosion are still subject to fevered speculation. Some even suggest that it never actually occurred at all.
The earliest account of the event appears in an official gazette (dibao) from the summer of 1626, reprinted later under the title “Official Report on a Heavenly Incident” (see Feng 2020):
When the sky was bright and clear, there was a sound like a roar from the northeast to the southwest corner of the capital, and the ashes rose and the houses were uprooted. In a moment there was a great earthquake, and the sky and the earth collapsed, and it was dark as night. From Shunchengmen in the east to Jinbu in the north, three to four miles in length, the surrounding area was destroyed, affecting tens of thousands of homes and people. The area around Wang Gong’s factory is completely devastated, with pieces of corpses everywhere, a suffocating smell filling the air, and rubble falling from the sky, confusing the vision. It is difficult to describe this heartbreaking sight. The roar of the explosion was heard from Hexiwu in the south, in Tongzhou in the east, in Miyun, and Changping in the north.1
Feng (2020, p. 74) notes two ways that this report differs from “conventional” gazettes:
The first is that it includes no reference to imperial edicts or court memorials; instead, it features copious entries describing how people, including the emperor and officials, suffered from the catastrophic explosion. Second, the text delineates an extensive array of abnormal and uncanny scenes that occurred in multiple locations across Beijing, conveying an atmosphere of panic in the capital. These elaborate narratives of “strangeness” stand in sharp contrast to the typically terse accounts of disasters in other gazettes.
Setting aside these reports, the simplest explanation for the explosion is not so strange at all: an accidental ignition of stores at the Imperial Gunpowder Workshop (Wanggongchang). Indeed, the Wanggongchang Armory, which produced nearly two tons of gunpowder per week2, was located near the epicenter of the blast. Yet while this account might seem to accord with the principle of Occam’s Razor, some argue that the details don’t add up. In particular, analysis suggests that the destruction described in contemporary records would have required explosive force equivalent to 20,000 tons of TNT, orders of magnitude more than even the largest plausible stockpiles of black powder could produce.3 Others contend that specific elements of the official narrative (a “roaring rumble” from the northeast, a bright streak of light, mushroom-shaped clouds) are inconsistent with a gunpowder explosion.
explored all the possible causes of the incident from a spontaneous explosion of black powder to a natural gas leak, and the more far-fetched theories of meteorites, hidden volcanoes, and an underground nuclear discharge. The conference participants ultimately concluded that an earthquake resulted in a release of gasses at the site which ignited a massive explosion and firestorm which destroyed the area.
Other more “outlandish” theories, Jeremiah Jenne notes, “have implicated supernatural forces and even an interplanetary nuclear strike on Beijing.”
The reality may be far more mundane than any of the above. Feng (2020) argues that historical accounts of the explosion immediately sought to “politicize” it. In fact, the Tianqi Emperor was not a popular figure. He was, as Jenne recounts, “an odd young man, more comfortable in a carpenter’s shop than reading documents. […] Power devolved to his mother and the eunuchs, in particular, the infamous Wei Zhongxian, one of the most corrupt officials in Chinese history.” Along these lines, Feng suggests that “the ‘Official Report’ emphasizes the strangeness of the explosion in a manner that subtly aims to provoke the audience’s suspicion of the eunuch faction.” Perhaps the real story, then, is one of exaggeration for political effect — an industrial explosion embellished and distorted to tar a distrusted group.
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 from 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.
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.
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?
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.
We’re all readily familiar with that ubiquitous personification of the United States, Uncle Sam. What is largely forgotten today, however, is that he was hardly the first such national symbol. In fact, Uncle Sam had several predecessors — perhaps most notably the post-Revolutionary War-era character “Brother Jonathan.”
He was ill-mannered and ill-spoken—a boor, a braggart, a ruffian, a bigot, a hick, and a trickster. His name was Brother Jonathan.
Today he is all but forgotten—eclipsed by his upstanding uncle, Sam. But after the Revolutionary War, Brother Jonathan was the personification of the newly independent American people: clever, courageous, not all that sophisticated and proud of it. He was the everyman incarnate. It was the everyman who had led America to victory. And now America looked to the everyman to lead them out from the bloated shadow of Great Britain.
Brother Jonathan was a rustic New Englander who was depicted at various times on stage as a peddler, a seaman, and a trader, but always as a sly and cunning figure. He began to show up in political cartoons in newspapers and magazines during the early part of the 19th century as new and cheaper printing methods developed. It was at this point that American cartoonists transformed Brother Jonathan from a figure of derision into one of patriotic pride.
The term appears to date to the English Civil War, when it was applied derisively to the Puritan roundheads. […] It is probably derived from the Biblical words spoken by David after the death of his friend Jonathan, “I am distressed for thee, my brother Jonathan” (2 Samuel 1:26).
A popular folk tale about the origin of the term holds that the character is derived from Jonathan Trumbull (1710–85), Governor of the State of Connecticut, which was the main source of supplies for the Northern and Middle Departments during the American Revolutionary War. It is said that George Washington uttered the words, “We must consult Brother Jonathan,” when asked how he could win the war. That origin is doubtful, however, as neither man made reference to the story during his lifetime and the first appearance of the story has been traced to the mid-19th century, long after their deaths.
It’s worth noting, of course, that even Brother Jonathan had predecessors: even earlier personifications of America include Columbia and Lady Liberty.
…was not on some obscure Usenet system or bygone bulletin board. It occurred, according to the Smithsonian, in a letter to Winston Churchill dated September 9, 1917 (more than 100 years ago!). The letter, written by British admiral Lord Fisher, includes the now-famous acronym in its final line:
Apparently there are two exclamation points in “omg”!
Other internet acronyms are much more recent coinages. The first documented instance of “LOL,” for example, dates back to a May 1989 issue of an online newsletter (still available here). Said newsletter includes the following guide to “colorful communicating” on the internet:
OLM - On Line Message OTW - On The Way
OIC - Oh I See H - HUH???
BTW - By The Way LOL - Laughing Out Loud
ROTF - Rolling On The Floor RAO - Rolling All Over
LMTO - Laughing My Tush Off BRB - Be Right Back
AFK - Away From Keys BBL - Be Back Later
BAK - Back At Keys WLCM - Welcome
BCNU - Be Seeing You L8R - Later
ODM - On De Move OTB - Off To Bed
LTNT - Long Time No Type TTFN - Ta Ta For Now
RE - Again (Greetings, as in "re-hi")
LTNS - Long Time No See
M/F - Male or Female (also known as 'MORFING', as in
"Oh no! I've been morfed!!")
Some of these terms, of course, are still in use, while others never really took off.
While cranberries have been cultivated and consumed by Native Americans since pre-Columbian times – and have long been associated with Thanksgiving celebrations in the United States – the fruit’s position on our harvest table has not always been so secure.
Near the end of the second Eisenhower administration, fears of widespread chemical contamination prompted the Great Cranberry Scare of 1959. A few weeks before Thanksgiving, Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare Arthur S. Flemming announced that
The Food and Drug Administration today urged that no further sales be made of cranberries and cranberry products produced in Washington and Oregon in 1958 and 1959 because of their possible contamination by a chemical weed killer, aminotriazole, which causes cancer in the thyroids of rats when it is contained in their diet, until the cranberry industry has submitted a workable plan to separate the contaminated berries from those that are not contaminated.1
American consumers panicked: a “fifty-million-dollar-a-year business collapsed overnight [and] sales of fresh cranberries […] dropped sixty-three per cent from the year before.” Fearful of poisoning, cranberries vanished from Thanksgiving tables that year; even the Eisenhowers declined to serve them at the White House dinner.2
Afterward, two things became clear. First, that the contamination was not widespread, and that scientists had simply erred on the side of caution since there was no way for consumers to determine on short notice where their cranberries had come from. Second, the cranberry industry concluded that it could not depend on Thanksgiving sales alone – prompting the introduction and marketing of cranberry juices that could be sold year-round.3
I never knew that giant snails featured so prominently in medieval paintings, but now that I do, this is the first question on my mind. They do, it turns out. According to Sarah J. Biggs of the British Library, “images of armed knights fighting snails are common” in 13th and 14th century illuminated manuscripts, “especially in marginalia.” Check out a sampling below:
One theory about the snails, Biggs goes on, is that they represent the Resurrection; others suggest they are a symbol of the Lombards, a group “vilified in the early middle ages for treasonous behaviour”; still others have described the ‘knight v snail’ motif as “a representation of the struggles of the poor against an oppressive aristocracy, a straightforward statement of the snail’s troublesome reputation as a garden pest, a commentary on social climbers, or even as a saucy symbol of female sexuality.”
As /r/AskHistorians puts it, in other words, there are “as many explanations as there are scholars”; fundamentally, we just really don’t know. Redditor /u/TheAlaskan relates another plausible account:
“I’m partial to the explanation of Medievalist Lisa Spangenberg, who suggests that the snail is ‘a reminder of the inevitability of death.’
To understand that reference, you have to refer to Psalm 58 (Wycliffe translation) . We’re looking here at verses 7-8:
7 They shall come to nought, as water running away; he bent his bow, till they be made sick. (They shall come to nothing, like water running forth; and when they go to bend their bows, they shall be made feeble, or weak.)
8 As wax that floateth away, they shall be taken away; fire fell above, and they saw not the sun. (Like a snail that melteth away into slime, they shall be taken away; like a dead-born child, they shall not see the sun.)
Like the snail, even the best-armored knight will melt away.”
Formerly submerged under 60 feet of water, the ongoing drought in the western United States has left the ghost town of St. Thomas, Nevada, once again exposed to the air.
From the Huffington Post:
Lest anyone forget, the drought in California and across the Southwest is still raging on. And one of the places where its effects can be observed most clearly is Nevada’s Lake Mead.
The nation’s largest reservoir has hit a series of troubling milestones over the past year, sinking to a record low in late June. Now, in the latest benchmark for the new Lake Mead, a town that flooded shortly after the completion of the Hoover Dam in 1938 has literally risen from the depths.
The ghost town — once called St. Thomas, Nevada — was founded as a Mormon settlement in 1865 and had six bustling businesses by 1918, according to Weather.com. But for nearly a century, it’s been uninhabited and uninhabitable, existing mostly as an underwater curiosity.
Mysterious is an appropriate term for the vast reaches of Earth’s global ocean: after all, we now have a fuller knowledge of the surface of Pluto, a full 4.67 billion miles away, than we do of the bottoms of our own terrestrial seas. It should really come as no surprise that Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 still hasn’t been found.
Researchers have found something interesting off the coast of North Carolina, though: the remains of a centuries-old shipwreck of unknown origin, likely dating to the time of the American revolution or the early eighteenth century. From the Washington Post:
The Marine scientists didn’t set out to find a shipwreck. But when they deployed their underwater equipment off the North Carolina coast, there it was, lying nearly a mile beneath the surface: a ship carrying an iron chain, red bricks and glass bottles.
Those artifacts suggest the ship could date to the Revolutionary War or the early 19th century. […]
“Lying more than a mile down in near-freezing temperatures, the site is undisturbed and well preserved,” Bruce Terrell, chief archaeologist of NOAA’s Marine Heritage Program, said in a statement. “Careful archaeological study in the future could definitely tell us more.”