The Adventures of Oliver Cromwell’s Head

On a cold January 30 in 1649, a large crowd of Englishmen witnessed the reign of King Charles I come to an end with the swift blow of an executioner’s blade. The man who led the charge for his trial and beheading was Lieutenant-General Oliver Cromwell. Little did he know, however, that his own head would soon roll, too. And roll and roll—across the country for the next 300 years.

Oliver Cromwell

Oliver Cromwell, with his head still attached.

Cromwell, born in 1599 in Huntington, Cambridgeshire rose through the military ranks in the civil war that broke out between Charles I and the anti-king Parliamentarians in 1642. After the king was tried for high treason and subsequently executed seven years later, Cromwell defeated supporters of the king’s son, Charles II, at Dunbar in 1650 and Worcester in 1651 to finally put an end to the war. By 1653 Cromwell pronounced himself Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland and began to reorganize the national church and institute various religious tolerances. Militarily, he ended wars with Portugal and Holland and helped France defeat Spain at the Battle of the Dunes in 1658. But later that year, he succumbed to attacks by malaria and a kidney infection, which eventually proved fatal on September 3.

Cromwell’s body was embalmed and buried in Westminster Abbey. His son, Richard, succeeded him as Lord Protector, but a lack of support led him to resign in May 1659. By 1660, Charles II was invited to return from exile and the monarchy was restored.

Back on the throne, the king decided to exact a posthumous revenge on Cromwell—along with two other deceased military commanders and the President of the High Court of Justice who had sentenced his father. So on January 30, 1661, the 12th anniversary of his father’s execution, the king had the four bodies exhumed and symbolically executed. Cromwell’s body was hung for the day, where it swung with the others for all to see. At the day’s end, the head was severed and the body was thrown in a pit. His head, however, was kept, so it could be stabbed into an iron spike and presented outside Westminster Hall, where it gazed emptily upon passersby for more than twenty years—a grotesque deterrent for any anti-royalist thinking of following in Cromwell’s footsteps.

The embalmed head was finally freed from its public display by a heavy storm, which ripped the weather-worn oak post and iron spike from its position. The head, with the spike still intact, fell to the ground and was retrieved by a passing guard who scooped up the noggin and snuck it home under his cloak. There, he hid Cromwell in the chimney corner, away from inquiring government authorities. It wasn’t until he lay on his deathbed that he informed his family of the whereabouts of the former Lord Protector’s head.

Cromwell's Head Exhibition

A 1799 advertisement for an exhibition of Cromwell’s head.

His daughter inherited the remains, but sold it to the Russell family of Cambridgeshire, who gave the highest bid. It descended through the family to Samuel Russell, an unsuccessful, poor actor who liked his booze. Russell took delight in owning the oddity and exhibited Cromwell’s crown at a local market.

There was plenty to see—the embalmed head still bore many of Cromwell’s features despite the hard, dry, leathery appearance of the flesh. A small hole could be seen on his forehead where a wart had been, and his eyebrows met in the middle. Within his mouth, several teeth remained, along with parts of the gums and membrane of the tongue. In back, the mark of the ax was distinguished near the vertebrae. Hair still clung to the face and head, with the beard stained the color of the embalming fluid. Strands of hair, however, began disappearing during Russell’s exhibitions. The amateur impresario was often inebriated and friends had pilfered pieces for their own personal collections. Topping it all off, literally, was the iron spearhead prominently jutting through the cap of the skull. Truly a sight worth a small price of admission.

One of Russell’s patrons was a museum of curiosities owner named James Cox, who took great interest in the relic and wished to display it in his collection. Russell resisted numerous purchase attempts from Cox, but his need to pay off debts led him to eventually make the sale for 118 pounds in 1787 (roughly equivalent to more than 13,000 pounds today).

Cromwell now enjoyed a brief stint as a museum star until Cox had to shut its doors. In 1799, he sold the head to three interested brothers, named Hughes, for 230 pounds. They attempted to capitalize with a heavily advertised exhibition, but were met with skepticism about the head’s authenticity and found few takers for the overly priced admission of two shillings and sixpence. The brothers, however, all met their own demise within the next 15 years and the head rolled into the possession of their daughters. The young girls didn’t know what to do with the old rotting remnant, so in 1814 they sold it to an acquaintance, Josiah Henry Wilkinson. Wilkinson kept the head wrapped in silk within a black box, but frequently opened it to share with locals and various distinguished men of the time seeking a visit.

One of these visitors was renowned British sculptor John Flaxman (1755-1826), who was well informed about the appearance of Cromwell and expressed doubt that Wilkinson possessed the real thing. So the showman asked him to first give a description—they would then see if Flaxman’s words matched what he would soon see. “He had a low, broad forehead, large orbits to the eyes, a high septum to the nose, and high cheekbones,” Flaxman said. “But there is one feature which will be with me a crucial test, and that is, that, instead of having the lower jawbone somewhat curved, it was particularly short and straight, but set out at an angle, which gave him a jowlish appearance.” Upon taking view of the head, Flaxman was persuaded it was genuine. The visual matched perfectly.

The head passed through several generations of the Wilkinson family before finally being left to Sidney Sussex College—Cromwell’s alma mater—where it continued to live on. It was eventually given a number of forensic tests that proved its authenticity. There, the head was finally buried once again in 1960, hundreds of years after its original resting place at Westminster Abbey.

© Marc Hartzman

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Excised Tumors, The Stereoscopic Skin Clinic, Gout Treatments And Other Hidden Treasures

Ever wonder if a hefty 90-pound tumor could be removed through the practice of mesmerism? The answer awaits in Bethesda, Maryland. That’s where you’ll find the National Library of Medicine, the world’s largest medical library, which houses more than 17 million items dating from the 11th century to the present offering information on countless medical conditions and methods.

Rare medical books, 19th-century surgical illustrations, mid-20th century animated cartoons, microfilms, photographs, journals, technical reports and much more can all be found within its walls.

Hidden Treasure

Hidden Treasure: The National Library of Medicine (Blast Books)

Of course, if a trip to Bethesda and millions of items to peruse doesn’t fit into your schedule, a new book, Hidden Treasure: The National Library of Medicine (Blast Books), will bring many of the most fascinating artifacts to you, each accompanied by an essay from distinguished scholars, artists, collectors, journalists and physicians. The book celebrates the library’s 175th anniversary.

Among the many treasures lying between the covers is a wealth of wondrous materials largely unseen by the public and obscure to the librarians, curators and historians. Some, such as the hauntingly delicate paintings and illustrations of “monstra” collected in the early decades of the 19th century “from the museum of Dr. Klinkenberg” in the Netherlands had never before been reproduced.

Flip to page 142 and you’ll find a sketch of the enormous aforementioned tumor claimed to have been removed through mesmerism. Mesmerism, also known as “animal magnetism,” allegedly allowed its practitioners to fall into a trance and commune with distant minds. According to essayist Marianne Noble, “They saw through solid objects and even bodily tissues to identify illnesses.”

The tumor image is part of the Mesmerism Scrapbooks collection dating from 1842-54. The sketch, by Dr. James Esdaile, indicates a specially designed knife took three minutes to complete the procedure and that the patient “had no difficulty in recovering from the shock, and is doing perfectly well.”

If horrific skin diseases pique your interest, the Stereoscopic Skin Clinic from 1910 offers a large collection of disturbing images, including fingers suffering from ringworm of the nail, shingles covering a woman’s eye, and syphilis. All in glorious 3D with the aid of a stereoscope viewer.

The Stereoscopic Skin Clinic (1910)

The Stereoscopic Skin Clinic (1910)

An anonymous collector’s scrapbook of Chang and Eng Bunker, the original Siamese Twins, features articles, handbills, satirical prints, tickets to appearances, and various ephemera about the brothers during their 10 years of touring. As sideshow historian James Taylor notes, their run was “One of the most notable show-business acts of the nineteenth century.”

Treatments for gout, scurvy, and other ailments compiled by Elizabeth Strachey from 1693 to the 1730s offers various remedies, sometimes accompanied by a touch of magic—one of the pages features an acrostic of abracadabra on a corner. Of course, if you’re just looking to kill rats, Strachey recommends a blend of oatmeal, bacon fat, and lime.

Each of the 200-plus pages within Hidden Treasure offers a captivating and beautifully disturbing journey through the library.  And relief that today’s medical advancements are indeed advanced.

© Marc Hartzman

Forty-four presidents, a hippo, two lions, a wallaby, two alligators and one bad-tempered badger.

There are many perks that come with being the President of the United States, such as residing in a lovely white house and gaining a great deal of prestige. Plus, you can have a pet hippo—just like Calvin Coolidge, our 30th president. His pygmy hippopotamus, named Billy, was a gift from tire manufacturer Harvey S. Firestone in 1927. The rare baby hippo was just one of eight of his kind living in America and measured six feet long, stood thirty inches tall, and weighed about 600 pounds. He was described by The New York Times as being “as frisky as a dog.” Billy had been captured in Liberia at one of Firestone’s plants, but once under Coolidge’s care, he spent his days at the much cozier National Zoo.

Calvin Coolidge's pet hippo.

Calvin Coolidge was not only President of the United States, but he was a hippo owner as well.

The hippo was only one of Coolidge’s unusual pets. The Commander in Chief’s menagerie also included numerous dogs and cats, along with two lion cubs, a bear, Smoky Bob the bobcat, an antelope, a raccoon called Rebecca, and a wallaby. Like many of the animals, the wallaby was gift, in this case from an American man living in Tasmania. When the president was offered the wallaby in a letter, he hadn’t a clue as to what sort of animal it was. A quick flip-through in the dictionary told him it was a small species of kangaroo and led Coolidge to accept the gift.

Although no other president could boast such a collection of creatures, there have been many others who’ve kept curious pets. Theodore Roosevelt, for example, acquired a badger named Josiah in 1903 after a young girl threw the little beast at the president as his train pulled out of a small Kansas town. Roosevelt kept Josiah and the First Family bottle-fed him until he cut his teeth. Once armed with his own chompers, Josiah nipped at the legs of passersby throughout the White House.

William Taft, our nation’s 27th and heaviest president (tipping the scales at more than 300 pounds) kept a Holstein cow as a pet. The first, named Mooley Wooly provided milk for the First Family. However, Mooley Wooly couldn’t produce enough milk for the large Taft clan. So Wisconsin senator Isaac Stephenson bought the president a new cow, named Pauline Wayne. From 1910-1913, the Taft’s pet cow freely grazed the White House lawn.

Old Whiskers

President Harrison had old whiskers to match his goat, named Old Whiskers.

Benjamin Harrison, President Number 23, kept a goat named Old Whiskers. Harrison’s grandchildren were big fans of Old Whiskers, as he was often hitched to a cart in order to pull them around the White House lawn. However, the goat may not have had as much fun as the kids. One day, he managed to escape the White House grounds through an open gate and ran toward freedom down Pennsylvania Avenue. The president chased after him, waving his cane and holding onto his top hat. Old Whiskers finally came to a stop. No one was injured, but many were entertained.

Herbert Hoover kept two alligators in the White House and allowed them to occasionally wander about freely. Perhaps he was inspired by John Quincy Adams, who kept only one alligator. Adams’ gator was given to him in 1826 by the Marquis de Lafayette.

While dogs have held the title of First Pet in the modern era, it would take a cuddly, loyal elephant, giraffe, or rhino to truly be a first.

© Marc Hartzman

 

The Very Serious History of Silly Putty

For more than 50 years Silly Putty has been stretched, squeezed and squished by silly and not-so-silly people of all ages. More than 3,000 tons of the popular putty has been produced — enough to fill 200 million colorful plastic eggs. But before it was copying Sunday comics and bouncing off walls, the military was hoping it would help thwart Japanese plans to invade countries that produced rubber for tires, gas masks, boots and other military necessities. The government sought a synthetic substance that could perform the same functions and be produced in secure locations.

In 1943, a chemist named James Wright working for General Electric stumbled upon the unique putty by accident. He combined boric acid and silicone oil in a test tube and created a new rubbery substance. As he began to play with it, he discovered it bounced higher than rubber, stretched to great distances, snapped with sharp tugs, and could pick up ink from any printed matter. Unfortunately, none of those qualities made much sense for a tire.

Without a practical purpose, the putty, known as “nutty putty,” was passed around among friends. In 1949, it eventually found its way into the hands of a toy storeowner who decided to package the goo and sell it for $2 in her catalog. It proved a popular item, but she chose not to include it in subsequent catalogs. Her marketing consultant, Peter Hodgson, however, saw the putty’s potential and purchased the rights from GE in order to sell the stuff himself. Borrowing enough cash to fund the putty’s production, Hodgson packaged it in small plastic eggs and named it Silly Putty (nothing else offered a proper description). He distributed the eggs to Neiman-Marcus and Doubleday bookstores, but got his big break when a reporter for the New Yorker wrote a blurb about the bouncy blob and set off an avalanche of orders.

The rest is history, which includes Silly Putty’s ride aboard the 1968 Apollo 8 mission where it kept astronauts occupied and prevented tools from floating about in the cabin. As it turned out, Silly Putty had a practical purpose after all.

© Marc Hartzman

 

The Man Who Was Twice as Big as André The Giant

Of the giants who have roamed the earth, the tallest was Robert Wadlow, standing 8 feet, 11 ½ inches. And while he undoubtedly towered above all other men on the planet, he wasn’t history’s most all-around massive person.

That title would go to Miles Darden (sometimes called Mills). Born in 1799 in North Carolina, Darden reportedly grew to stand 7 feet, 6 inches and weigh just over 1,000 pounds. That’s more than a foot shorter than Wadlow, but more than double his weight.

Or, to better help your imagination, picture André the Giant, but slightly taller and twice as heavy. One Miles Darden equals two giant Andrés.

Like Wadlow, André, and other giants, a malfunctioning pituitary gland likely caused Darden’s abnormal growth.

Miles Darden

No photos of Miles Darden exist. But photos of signs about him do.

A man of this stature would seemingly have left numerous legends of size and strength. Yet, few exist.

Darden lived a quiet and uneventful life. He was a farmer and later in life opened a tavern and inn in Lexington, Tenn.

Many articles from the late 19th century stated that Darden wasn’t exactly proud of his size and refused to step on a scale. His weight, in 1845, was ascertained by a clever and curious group of fellows who waited for Darden to board his specially made two-horse wagon — built with very strong tension springs — in order to measure the distance of the cart’s body to the ground. When Darden was away from the vehicle, they loaded it with stones, or possibly 100-pound sacks of sugar, until the cart lowered to the same distance from the ground. Their crude measurement: 871 lbs.

Of course, he continued to get bigger. Combine his glandular condition and a very hearty appetite, and that’s no surprise. In Every Day in Tennessee History, James Jones claims Darden’s typical breakfast included one dozen eggs, 30 buttered biscuits, a gallon of water and two quarts of coffee.

That’s enough food to feed a family — which he also had to do. It is believed that Darden was married at least twice, with one wife bearing at least three children before passing in 1837. Remarkably, she only stood 4 feet, 11 inches and weighed 98 pounds. His children were also large, but nowhere near the unusual proportions of their father.

Outfitting a man of Darden’s size was no easy task. His coat took 13 ½ yards of fabric to create. It once fit around three 200-pound men with ease — who demonstrated its magnitude by walking through the town square together.

It was said that Darden could single-handedly pull a loaded wagon from a mud hole, whereas normal-sized men couldn’t budge it.

According to Lexington historian, Paul Williams, Darden could overpower a bull and pull him backwards. Williams also recounted a story of Darden saving a man who’d ridden up to his saloon on a horse, nearly frozen to death. Darden lifted him off the horse and carried him inside to warm up and recover.

Pulling wagons from mud and besting bulls in strength are impressive displays of power, but Darden’s greatest feat may have been the one he exhibited every day — simply supporting his enormous frame. Darden lived a long life for someone of his size and remained mobile until his final years.

His colossal size eventually led to his death on Jan. 23, 1857. Doctors stated the cause of death was due to strangulation — rolls of fat around his windpipe prevented him from breathing.

His casket was eight feet long and took 17 men to place him in it.

© Marc Hartzman

The Man-Bats on the Moon

In 1969, the world witnessed history when Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon. But there was a time, many years earlier, when the world was abuzz about men not only walking on the moon — but flying on it as well.

For one remarkable week in 1835, it was believed that an entire race of human-like winged people lived on the moon. It became known as the Great Moon Hoax, and indeed, it was great.

It all began with an article in the Tuesday, Aug. 25, edition of The New York Sun, stating that renowned astronomer Sir John Frederick William Herschel (who named seven moons of Saturn and four moons of Uranus) had observed life on the moon.

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This was not a major scoop by the Sun, it was supposedly a reprint from The Supplement to the Edinburgh Journal of Science. The paper’s readers, however, didn’t know that publication had gone out of business several years earlier. Nor did they suspect that a creative editor, Richard Locke, fabricated every detail.

The findings stated wondrous forms of plant life and wildlife were living happily on the moon. The creatures included a monstrous blue unicorn with a beard like a goat and tailless, but talented, beavers that walked on their hind legs, lived in huts and built campfires.

Additional discoveries were reported each day that week, with a growing readership and word spreading across the country and the globe. It was, as one might expect, a true sensation.

Friday’s edition announced the discovery of the flying humans, dubbed “man-bats.” These alleged four-foot tall beings were covered with short, glossy, copper-colored hair — except for on the face. Their wings were composed of a thin membrane and had no hair.

Herschel’s powerful telescope offered even further details to report:

The face, which was of a yellowish flesh color, was a slight improvement upon that of the large orangutan, being more open and intelligent in the expression, and having a much greater expanse at forehead. The mouth, however, was very prominent, though somewhat relieved by a thick beard upon the lower jaw and by lips far more human than those of any species of the simis genus.

2012-01-14-GreatMoonHoaxmanbat.jpg
These short, unattractive flying folks were also quite chatty and expressive with their gestures: “the varied actions of the hands and arms appeared impassioned and emphatic.”

As the excitement spread, there were those ready to take action. One group of women from Springfield, Mass., wrote to Sir Herschel asking how they could help spread the gospel to these pagan man-bats of the moon.

Scientists from Yale University were reportedly sent to the Sun to study a physical copy of the journal. But Locke sent them from one office to another, dodging them until they finally returned to campus as curious as they were before they left.

Although it all sounds ridiculous today, in 1835, knowledge of the moon was lacking and the belief in extraterrestrial life, including lunar life, was commonplace.

In the October 1826 issue of the Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal, an anonymous author wrote that German astronomer Heinrich Wilhelm Matthäus Olbers “considers it as very probable that the moon is inhabited by rational creatures, and that its surface is more or less covered with vegetation,” and that based on observations made through his telescope, fellow German astronomer Franz von Gruithuisen “maintains that he has discovered… great artificial works in the moon, erected by Lunarians.”

Gruithuisen also proposed that because the moon was closer to the sun, its jungles grew faster than those in Brazil and that the Lunarians held fire festivals, which caused the bright caps on Venus.

By the end of that extraordinary week, it was reported that the Herschel’s telescope was clumsily left facing the sun and that a hole had been burned into its reflecting chamber, preventing any further observations of our new winged friends on the moon.

The hoax finally came to light when Locke privately told a fellow writer at the Journal of Commerce, and word traveled to the Sun‘s publisher. The story, however, proved entertaining — and that’s just how people took it. Circulation of the paper remained up in the months that followed.

Locke publicly denied that he’d concocted the entire account himself.

© Marc Hartzman

The Man With Two Mouths

Throughout history, sideshows have given curiosity seekers opportunities to gaze in wonder at people born with something extra — a superfluous something or other.

Francesco Lentini, for example, traveled for decades in the early 20th century as the Three-Legged Wonder. He also had a fourth foot and a second set of genitals.

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Laloo, billed as “The Handsome Healthy Hindoo” was born in 1874 with a parasitic twin protruding from his torso. It had two arms, two legs, and a functioning penis. Fortunately, it could not defecate.

And there have been numerous people born with extra people attached to them — Chang and Eng Bunker being the most famous. The brothers, born in Siam 200 years ago, were joined at the chest by a ligament and the reason we have the term “Siamese twins.” Together, they made a fortune and eventually married two sisters and fathered 22 children (none were twins).

But in November of 1887, New York’s Bowery area featured a most unusual attraction with an extremely rare extra: a second mouth.

He was Otto Tolpefer, the Man with Two Mouths.

Tolpefer was born with a bonus mouth located just below the chin. The blonde, smooth-faced Tolpefer sat on a platform drinking water with one mouth and simultaneously smoking a cigarette with the other. When speaking, he used the top mouth and closed the second one with his fingers.

New York Times reporter covering the act described his speech as poor, because “the tracheal bellows gives his voice a strange and unreal whispering sound like that of a sexton at a funeral.” The second mouth was unable to speak or eat and was fitted with brass lips. He would shut it with his finger when talking with the upper mouth.

The reporter further remarked that “Otto is not a pleasant object to gaze at excessively, and as a wall decoration he would not succeed.”

An additional comment stated, “The two-headed cow, who felt quite badly when he came, has become reconciled after watching his performances.”

Little else is known about Tolpefer. There are no further reports of his appearances, his adventures later in life, or even what he had to say in response to the New York Times reporter’s vivid descriptions.

© Marc Hartzman

Olympic Tug of Warriors

Tug of War is a staple of gym class, where heavy kids are heroes and skinny kids are picked last. But its origins lie far outside the schoolyard, dating back to ancient Egyptians and Chinese competing in what was considered a royal sport. More recently, Tug of War warriors competed for the glory of Olympic gold medals. In 1900, the rope made its Olympic debut in Paris, featuring teams of eight competitors. Victory was achieved by pulling the opponent’s side of the rope past a designated marking.

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Tug of War clubs entered these Olympic battles, as opposed to individual countries. This meant one nation could win multiple medals, which is exactly what happened in 1904 when three teams of burly men from the United States dominated the opposition and took home gold, silver and bronze medals. Great Britain achieved the same feat in 1908, but it wasn’t without dispute. Their first years of superiority was quite controversial. One of Britain’s three teams was made up of Liverpool police, who, the United States alleged, wore illegal footwear. According to the official Olympic Tug of War rules: “No competitor shall wear prepared boots or shoes with any protruding nails, tips, sprig, points, hollows, or projections of any kind. No competitor shall make any other way before the start.”

While the Americans abided the rules of the shoes, their counterparts across the pond did not. According to an account of the affair: “They were wearing enormous shoes, so heavy in fact that it was only with great effort that they could lift their feet from the ground.” The manager of the American team protested the obscene footwear, but Olympic officials stated that Liverpool policemen typically wore such big, heavy clunkers. (Clearly, these policemen did not have a lot of chasing to do, which must have left them plenty of time to practice rope tugging.) Sure enough, Liverpool’s feet dug into the turf, anchored them in place, and led to an easy victory.

By the 1920 Antwerp Olympics, Great Britain and its shoe shenanigans had yanked more rivals than any other country, earning five medals in total to prove itself the king of the rope. And jokers in sportsmanship.

© Marc Hartzman

The Horsey Horseless

Discussions about transmissions, differentials, torque and other vehicular intricacies may rattle amateur auto enthusiasts. But the ambitious conversationalist can impress gearheads by shifting the chatter to the subject of horsepower. More specifically, the power of one horse.

As you know, long before the might of 400 horsepower enhanced the state of a driver’s masculinity, vehicles were powered by actual horses.

However, like any who are left behind during times of technological wizardry and advancement, horses began to lose their jobs as motored vehicles took to the roads in the late 19th century. These wondrous machines were referred to as horseless carriages. In fact, car manufacturers tried to persuade horse owners to make the switch by claiming: “If you can afford to stable a horse, you can afford one of our cars.”

Of course, horseless carriages were a brave new world to be explored by the curious and adventurous, those who sought greater enlightenment, speed, and status as an early adopter. Such courageous souls drove these amazing but “infernal machines” down the streets, startling every horse and pedestrian along the way. Frightened horses became such a problem that some owners threatened to shoot drivers on sight.

In 1899, an inventor named Uriah Smith of Battle Creek, Michigan came to the rescue of modern transportation. In an attempt to ease the transition to engine-powered carriages — for both the driver and the horse — he created a vehicle called the Horsey Horseless Carriage.

The Horsey Horseless

This early concept vehicle was designed to prevent horses from getting scared upon seeing a approaching automobile.

This early concept vehicle was designed to prevent horses from getting scared upon seeing a approaching automobile.The design called for a large, wooden horse head to be attached to the front of the buggy, thereby resembling a typical horse and carriage. “The live horse would be thinking of another horse,” said Smith, “and before he could discover his error and see that he had been fooled, the strange carriage would be passed.”

It’s unclear whether any Horsey Horselesses were ever produced, or if it only existed in theory. It is, however, perfectly clear that those now in the know will not only forever drive with a greater sense appreciation for the bold coup of the automobile and a sensitivity for the mass unemployment of horses worldwide, but will remember to quit the conversation while ahead.

© Marc Hartzman

Missile Mail

The history of the post office is rarely of interest to anyone but the uniquely eager philatelist. However, its finer quirks may prove fascinating to both the intelligentsia and dullards alike. Missile mail, in particular, is worthy of occupying a small nugget of the brain.

It was a cold day in January of 1959 when United States Postmaster General, Arthur E. Summerfield, thought he had stumbled upon a stroke of genius. Not one to dilly dally with such a mental feat, he hastily made a bold and proud statement promising tax-paying citizens that before man reached the moon, “your mail will be delivered within hours from New York to California, to England, to India or to Australia by guided missiles.” He nearly made his prediction a reality. Just six months later, on June 9, he launched a Regulus I guided missile carrying 3,000 pieces of souvenir mail. High-ranking officials such as President Eisenhower and Supreme Court justices were among the lucky recipients.

Missile Mail

In the late 1950s, the US Post Office attempted to send mail by missile.

“This peacetime employment of a guided missile for the important and practical purpose of carrying mail is the first known official use of missiles by any post office department of any nation,” Summerfield claimed.

Summerfield’s missile was fired from the U.S.S. Barbero submarine 100 miles off the Atlantic coast to a naval air station near Jacksonville, FL. Navy planes guided the missile by radio control to its parachute landing in just 22 minutes. The Postmaster said this novel way of sending birthday cards, pen pal letters, and unwanted junk mail was “of historic significance to the peoples of the entire world.”

Cost-efficiency doomed Summerfield’s plan. But expenses weren’t the only criticism of the high-flying Missile Mail. The day after the launch, the Los Angeles Times observed that the real need for speed was in handling mail before and after transport: “We hopefully look forward to the time when the lines in front of post office windows are jet propelled. Or when rocket belts are issued to those who manage to take a week to deliver a letter mailed within the same city.”

We continue to look forward to such a day.

© Marc Hartzman

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