Archive for the ‘Urban Legend’ Category

Santa Claus Up-to-Date

This wasn’t actually in the Magazine Section, but it was from the same issue and I found it amusing so I thought I’d share it anyway:

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Written by David

December 10th, 2010 at 10:15 am

Germany Has A Talking Dog

From December 11, 1910


GERMANY HAS A TALKING DOG: Don, the Marvelous Setter with a Vocabulary of Six Words — Scientists Stupefied. (PDF)

These days it seems that everybody has a talking dog. But do any of those dogs speak German? Don the Dog Who Is Either A Setter Or A Pointer did!

Don’s power of speech was revealed when he was 6 months old. It came to light without training or teaching of any kind upon the part of his master. The dog took up his position one day while the Ebers family was sitting at supper and began begging, in familiar dog fashion, with his eyes. “Willst du wohl was haben?” (You want something, don’t you?) asked the game keeper, expecting nothing in reply except the stereotyped, grateful, affirmative look from Don’s soulful eyes. To Herr Eber’s consternation, the dog answered, not with a look, but with unmistakably plain and intelligent speech, “Haben!” (Want.) It was the first time a spoken word have ever escaped his lips.

The article notes that “Skeptics persist in the belief that whatever the dog ‘says’ is at best only articulate growling or barking.” But that surely can’t be the case, because the Times only publishes the news that’s fit to print.

Bonus fun fact: The phrase “Scientists Stupefied” only has three Google search results at the time of this writing (excluding instances where the words appear together but are parts of separate clauses).

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Written by David

December 10th, 2010 at 9:15 am

Posted in Nature,Urban Legend

Was Queen Elizabeth A “Famous Impostor”?

From October 30, 1910


WAS QUEEN ELIZABETH A “FAMOUS IMPOSTOR?” Mr. Bram Stoker Brings Together Some of the Notable “Frauds” of History in Proof of His Theory that “Good Queen Bess” Was a Man. (PDF)

Just in time for Halloween, Dracula author Bram Stoker comes forth with a strange tale. Only this one he alleges to be entirely true. According to Stoker, as detailed further in his book Famous Impostors, Queen Elizabeth of England was actually a man.

Moreover, “she” really was once a female. The transformation came about when the young Princess Elizabeth went out of town with her governess for a bit of fresh air:

While she was there word came that the King was coming to see his little daughter. Shortly before his arrival, however, “the child developed acute fever, and before steps could be taken even for her proper attendance and nursing, she died. The governess feared to tell her father — Henry VIII had the sort of temper which did not make for the happiness to those around him.” The nurse thereupon hid the body and scoured the neighborhood for some living girl child who could be passed off for the Princess.

“But here again was a check. Throughout the little village and its surroundings was to be found no little girl of an age reasonably suitable for the purpose required. More than ever distracted, for time was flying by, she determined to take the greater risk of a boy substitute — if a boy could be found.” And, of course, there was a boy available — “just such a boy as would suit the special purpose for which he was required, a boy well known to the governess, for the little princess had taken a fancy to him and had lately been accustomed to play with him. Moreover, he was a pretty boy, as might have been expected from the circumstance of the little Lady Elizabeth having chosen him as her playmate. He was close at hand and available. So he was clothed in the dress of the dead child, they being of about equal stature.” King Henry, it is said, suspected nothing during his visit, as Elizabeth had always feared him and there had never been any of the intimacies of father and daughter between them.

The name of the boy who grew up to be Queen Elizabeth: Neville. And now you know the rest of the story.


Written by David

October 29th, 2010 at 9:00 am

The Mystery Of The Marie Celeste

From September 18, 1910


THE MYSTERY OF THE MARIE CELESTE: A Solution Offered Nearly Forty Years After the Ship Was Found Crewless Under Full Sail. (PDF)

The Marie Celeste was a merchant ship found floating in the Atlantic Ocean in December 1872 with nobody on board. The ship was in good shape, had plenty of food and water, and the crew’s personal belongings were still on board. Nobody from the ship was ever heard from again.

The mystery has been written about in several works of both non-fiction and fiction, including a short story by Arthur Conan Doyle which you can read online. It is even the subject of a computer game you can try out in your browser.

This Sunday Magazine article gives one theory for the ship’s disappearance, but if the mystery intrigues you, check out the Wikipedia entry for a lot more information, and the website

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Written by David

September 17th, 2010 at 9:30 am

Fears Of The Comet Are Foolish And Ungrounded

From May 8, 1910


FEARS OF THE COMET ARE FOOLISH AND UNGROUNDED: Mary Proctor Tells of Similar Scares in the Past, Occuring Every Time These Blazing Visitors Were Expected, and All Proved Groundless (PDF)

Every 76 years or so, Halley’s Comet passes by Earth. 1910 was one of those years. The comet was coming so close that Earth would actually pass through part of its tail. And apparently people were freaked out. Mary Proctor was a well known astronomer at the time (as was her father before her) and in this article she tries to calm everybody down. Earth passing through the tail of a comet, she says, is like a rhino passing through a spider web. The comet’s tail is so huge and the particles in it are so small that they don’t pose any risk to the planet.

Here is her description of the hysteria:

A dismal report is circulating to the effect that Halley’s comet is about to cause the destruction of our planet, and as we draw nearer the fateful date of May 18, a grave feeling of apprehension is excited in the minds of those who are very naturally afraid of something they cannot understand.

Here is a gigantic monster in the sky with a head over two hundred thousand miles in width… and a train two million miles in length, rushing through space at the alarming rate of a thousand miles a minute.

On May 18 the earth will be plunged in this white hot mass of glowing gas, and, according to the report of the ignorant and superstitious, the world will be set on fire.

These sensation makers further say that the oceans on the side facing the comet will be boiled by the intense heat, and the land scorched and blistered as the dread wanderer passes by on its baneful way.

How the report started, and by whom it is difficult to trace, but the harm is done. We hear daily of people overcome with terror, one committing suicide, preferring to choose his own manner of death rather than await the coming of the final destruction of the earth. Another has gone insane, and numberless other cases, if known, might be added, showing the harm which has been done by the sensational articles which have been published accompanied by lurid illustrations showing purely imaginary effects of the comet.

Even children are afraid of the approaching comet, as evidenced by the following pathetic letter from a little girl eleven years old at a school in New York. It was sent to the writer last March, while she was in England, and reads as follows:

“I am in a very bad fix, in fact the whole school is. Every one says that the world will come to an end on the 18th of the month. Is it true the earth is to pass through the comet and we will all burn up? Tell me if it is true, also when shall we be able to see the comet! Please excuse this letter, but I don’t want to die.”

Proctor goes on to describe how several comets through history have been heralded as omens both good and bad, but that none of them did much other than put on a light show. So there’s nothing to worry about.

Or is there?

In his 2008 book Death from the Skies!, astronomer Phil Plait examines the various ways the world might actually end. In his chapter on asteroid and comet impacts, he writes, “So how big a danger are asteroid and comet impacts? Statistically speaking, you’re not going to like the answer: the odds of getting hit are 100 percent. Yes, really. Given enough time, and if we do nothing about it, there will be impacts, and one will be big.” But fortunately, he also says that “of all the woes facing us from space, this is the one that is nearly 100 percent preventable.” All we have to do is fund the research to detect and deflect them in time.

Update: Phil Plait has written a very thoughtful commentary about this post on his site.

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Written by David

May 7th, 2010 at 9:06 am

Posted in Science,Urban Legend

Fear Of Being Buried Alive Is Groundless

From April 3, 1910


FEAR OF BEING BURIED ALIVE IS GROUNDLESS: Popular Belief That Such a Fate is Common Exploded by the London Lancet, After Careful Study of the Matter (PDF)

I guess this was a reasonable fear at the time, especially considering how our definition of “dead” has changed over the years (Is it when the heart stops? When the person is no longer breathing? When there’s no brain activity?). The London Lancet newspaper (“the authority of the Royal Colleges of Physicians and of Surgeons in England”) did a little Mythbusting, as the Sunday magazine reported:

To be buried alive is beyond doubt a fate sufficiently dreadful to cause the blood to run cold at the mere thought. But in spite of all the stories to the contrary, it is a peril that in modern times is to all intents and purposes none-existent…

Speaking ex cathedra in an editorial article, the Lancet calls attention to the fact that in all the thousands of post mortem examinations which have been performed throughout the civilized world during the last fifty years, there has not been a single authenticated case of the supposed corpse under examination showing signs of life such as would invariably appear at the dissection of a living subject…

The London Lancet has performed a very valuable service in issuing this authoritative pronouncement which should receive the widest publicity, since it will rob death of some of the terrors which Edgar Allen Poe did so much to develop in his gruesome tales.

The photo in the article shows the “Duke of Saxe-Weimer, whose family has taken extreme precautions against being buried alive.” And apparently both Alfred Nobel and Hans Christian Andersen took steps to make sure they wouldn’t be buried alive. While their fears may have been groundless, says that it has happened.

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Written by David

April 2nd, 2010 at 11:30 pm

Posted in Science,Urban Legend