October 17, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
Fact: two hundred years ago today, eight Londoners drowned in a flood of beer.
I don’t know what else to say.
I guess I can tell you a little about it: how it began at the Meux and Company Brewery on Tottenham Court Road, where an enormous vat ruptured, unleashing more than a hundred thousand imperial gallons of beer; how the force of that gushing beer apparently caused the brewery’s other vats to rupture, thus sending some 1,470,000 liters of beer into the streets; and how that beer washed through a nearby home, killing a mother and daughter as they took tea. The Times reported that “inhabitants had to save themselves from drowning by mounting their highest pieces of furniture.” And the story goes that that the beer deluged right through a living room where a wake was in progress, killing a few mourners with intoxicating irony.
When I learned of the flood, my first question wasn’t “How many people died?” It was “What kind of beer was it?” And according to no less reputable a source than FunLondonTours.com, the answer is porter. Porters tend to be pretty strong, so anyone who managed to gulp down a few mouthfuls as he or she was enveloped by the beer wave … well, you can see where I’m going with this.
For more on the flood, check out Atlas Obscura.
October 17, 2014 | by Forrest Gander
The many deaths of Ambrose Bierce.
Ambrose Bierce’s old house in St. Helena, California, surrounded by the vineyards of Napa Valley, is in good repair. Eight stout sequoia trunks flair outward from a fused base in the front yard. An hour and a half drive to the south, in San Francisco, is a short knife-thrust of an alley in North Beach named Ambrose Bierce. It runs behind the old San Francisco Examiner building, where Bierce worked as a columnist for the young William Randolph Hearst.
This year marks the centennial of the presumed death of Bierce, Civil War soldier, journalist, and author of The Devil’s Dictionary, a wickedly witty book of social commentary disguised as definitions. He’s still best known for his fiction: his fastidiously plotted horror tales and the dark, vivid stories—including the often anthologized “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”—that drew from his early war experiences at Chickamauga, Shiloh, and Kennesaw Mountain, where he was wounded. In 1913, at the age of seventy-one, the famous writer saddled up a horse and rode into Mexico, not speaking any Spanish, in order to cover the Mexican Revolutionary War, perhaps to participate in it, perhaps to interview Pancho Villa. As newspaper accounts of his time reported, he disappeared without a trace.
More accurately, there were too many traces to follow and World War I soon broke out, so a thorough search for Bierce was postponed. In his disappearing act—and some thought it was an act meant to cloak his suicide or his removal to a sanitorium—Bierce becomes a bit like one of the ghostly characters in Mexico’s most celebrated novel, Pedro Paramo, which is narrated by a man who doesn’t realize he’s dead. Or like the protagonist in Bierce’s own story “An Inhabitant of Carcosa,” who stumbles across his own tombstone. According to witnesses, Bierce died over and over again, all over Mexico. There is even a cenotaph for him in the sleepy mining town of Sierra Mojada, in the Chihuahua Desert. Curiously, although his body doesn’t lie under it, it is the most distinguished marker for any of Bierce’s immediate family. Back in St. Helena, his two sons and his wife are buried in unmarked graves. Read More »
October 7, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
Say you’ve got to skip town in a hurry. Maybe you owe somebody a lot of money; maybe the mayor’s daughter is in love with you and you’re below her station; or maybe it’s 1870, the Franco-Prussian War is on, and you have to ditch Paris because it’s under fierce siege and you’re the minister of the interior. In any case, here’s what history advises:
Flee in a hot-air balloon.
Léon Gambetta did it on October 7, 1870. Worked like a charm.
Okay, Paris ultimately lost the war, so “worked like a charm” may be overstating things, but still—Gambetta lived, didn’t he? He did. He became a prominent statesman.
At the time of his spectacular escape, Paris had been shelled by the Germans and Napoleon’s empire had fallen; Gambetta helped to improvise a new government and advised running it from someplace other than the capital, given the city’s precarious condition. A delegation left for Tours to organize the resistance, but Gambetta himself had to be sure to elude capture by the Prussians.
The safest way, against all odds, was by balloon: couriers had been delivering the mail to Paris that way with great success. And so they smuggled him out on the sumptuously named (if not sumptuously appointed) Armand-Barbès, one of some sixty-six balloons. He made it to Tours intact and resumed his post with vigor.
After this comes the part where the French lose anyway, but let’s skip that and wonder instead how Gambetta felt up there, in transit. I mean, I’m sure he was terrified, at least partially—his capture would be the end of him—and yes, there must’ve been a good bit of patriotism coursing through the old veins, but I hope he took a deep breath and saw the bigger picture, saw himself wafting into the history books on a hot-air balloon, Prussians cursing the sky and stomping on their hats.
And how, once he’d reached safety, could he find it in himself to talk about anything else?
Hello, I would say by way of introduction for the rest of my life, It is I, the man who fled Paris by balloon. No, no, remain seated. Hold your applause.
October 7, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
Is Byron in for a rude awakening! There is already an organization, a human one, known as “Phoebus,” the international light-bulb cartel, headquartered in Switzerland. Run pretty much by International GE, Osram, and Associated Electrical Industries of Britain, which are in turn owned 100%, 29% and 46%, respectively, by the General Electric Company in America. Phoebus fixes the prices and determines the operational lives of all the bulbs in the world, from Brazil to Japan to Holland (although Philips in Holland is the mad dog of the cartel, apt at any time to cut loose and sow disaster throughout the great Combi-nation). Given this state of general repression, there seems no place for a newborn Baby Bulb to start but at the bottom.
But Phoebus doesn’t know yet that Byron is immortal …
—Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow
I can remember reading Gravity’s Rainbow and marveling at the imagination on display in the famous “Byron the Bulb” section, in which a very chipper, eternally burning lightbulb (yes, that’s our Byron) finds himself in the crosshairs of Phoebus, a nefarious lightbulb cartel intent on controlling the life span of every bulb in the world.
At the time, I assumed without a second thought that Phoebus was a work of fiction—and why wouldn’t it be? The cartel was mentioned, after all, in basically the same breath as an all-girl opium den, “dildos rigged to pump floods of paregoric orgasm to the cap-illaries [sic] of the womb,” and, yes, a talking lightbulb.
Markus Krajewski, a media studies professor, was less skeptical: “I knew that Pynchon’s prose style mixes fact and fiction, and so I wondered: Could this be true?”
It was, his research revealed. Well, it kind of was—the Phoebus cartel really did exist, and it perpetrated what can only be called the “Great Lightbulb Conspiracy.” Appropriately enough, IEEE Spectrum—a trade magazine edited by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers—has Krajewki’s story: Read More »
September 29, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
Sadie Stein wrote earlier today about Balzac, who was famously enamored of coffee—especially coffee on an empty stomach—as a creative agent, so much so that it probably killed him. On the other end of the spectrum is J. M. Holaday, a—scholar? an armchair scientist? he’s a man about whom Google reveals little—whose sole publication, an essay called “Coffee-Drinking and Blindness,” survives him. The piece appeared in the North American Review in September 1888. Rhetorically marvelous if scientifically unsound, it argues emphatically that drinking too much coffee will make you go blind. And this was not, to Holaday’s mind, mere conjecture. He begins his essay with bold certitude:
I am satisfied that defective vision and blindness will pretty soon be a prominent characteristic among the American people … I make this assertion without having seen any statistics whatever on the subject of blindness. I found out long ago that a cup of coffee leaves a night-shade on the brain which continues longer than an eclipse of the sun. For some time past I have been consulting with different persons in Council Bluffs, who are suffering with failing sight, and in each instance I ascertained that the unfortunate person was and is a regular coffee-drinker.
Indubitable evidence! Correlation does imply causation! Lest you fear that Holaday is a plant—a tea lobbyist, maybe, or a cola manufacturer—he’s quick to note that he was once fond of coffee himself, though he “now feel[s] free of the coffee-drinking vice, and will have no more trouble with it unless I shall again fall a victim to some church supper or to the magnetic blandishments of some buoyant hostess.” Read More »
September 15, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
Sometimes power changes hands. Sometimes, perforce, the change is violent. And sometimes, albeit rarely, it involves a Byzantine emperor who’s assassinated in the bathtub, where his servant bashes his brains in with a silver bucket.
Such is the fate, putatively, that befell Constans II on September 15, 668, unless it befell him on July 15, 669, which is also eminently possible. As a historian on Reddit’s AskHistorians recently explained, “there is basically only one source for this, the eighth-century Theophilus of Edessa, who wrote a chronicle whilst serving the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad. This work is now lost, but it was used by several later chroniclers, including the more well-known Theophanes from the ninth century.” Said historian goes on to quote an account by the tenth-century historian Agapius:
When Constans was in the bath, one of his attendants took a bucket, mixed in it mallow and soap, and put this on Constans’s head. While the latter’s eyes were filled with the mallow and soap, so that he could not open them, the attendant took the bucket and struck Constans on the head with it, so killing him. He rushed out of the bath to escape and no one heard any more of him. The servants remained outside waiting for the king to come out, but when they had been sitting a long time and it was getting late and he still had not come out, they entered the bath and found him unconscious. They brought him out and he lived for that day, but then died having reigned for twenty-seven years.