Category: history

Function: The Roar of the Greasepaint

Russian Jager (Private and Officer of the Grenadier Company of the Life Guard Jager Regiment)It’s easy, given our modern understanding of camouflage, to mock the sort of grandiose headgear these gentlemen are wearing – especially given their role as sharpshooters – but, consider:

It’s 1812, and you’re standing alongside your sweating and anxious French brethren, on the dewy grass of a Russian morning, while staring down an enemy battle line.

The tiny emperor’s claims of easy victory have brought you hundreds of miles from your home, and you’re feeling pretty good about having encountered these fellows with their convenient “shoot here” plumes.

Mid-mock, your best friend, Jean Francoise, is suddenly cut down by one of the silly-hatted peacocks.

Who’s laughing then?

Armed Clown found at

Listen, all I’m saying is that there may be something behind the idea of equipping NATO troops with heavily armoured clown outfits.

Homicidal Inequality

Jack the Ripper - found at stumbled across something that I found odd – stick close behind me as we take a quick stroll through a rogues gallery.

The Original Night Stalker is the moniker for an unidentified serial killer and rapist who murdered at least ten people in Southern California from 1979 through 1986 and sexually assaulted at least fifty in Northern California from June 1976 to July 1979.


The “Original Night Stalker”: a dark, dangerous, sort of moniker.

“Freeway Phantom” was the name given to an unidentified serial killer known to have abducted, raped and strangled six female youths in Washington, D.C. from April 1971 through September 1972.


The “Freeway Phantom”: ethereal and mysterious – a name that conjures up the image of a ghost wandering dimly lit pavement.

The Honolulu Strangler […] was Hawaii’s first known serial killer and responsible for the death of five women in Honolulu.


The “Honolulu Strangler”: a practical label, perhaps, but still evoking a sort of classic villainy.

“The Doodler” (aka “The Black Doodler”) refers to an unidentified serial killer believed responsible for 14 slayings and three assaults of men in San Francisco’s gay community between January 1974 and September 1975. The nickname was given due to the perpetrator’s habit of sketching his victims prior to having sex with them and then stabbing them to death.


The Doodler? Seriously? I don’t mean to cast aspersions on whoever the SF journalists and police had coming up with nicknames, but it seems to me that this fellow wouldn’t have been known as something quite so lame if he hadn’t been targeting the gay community.

I don’t know what I would have gone with for an alternate – the San Francisco Slasher? The Artist? – but even “The Black Doodler” sounds like a poorly paid caricaturist who intentionally draws over-sized noses on all of his clients.

Police had developed a prime suspect in the case, identified by two of his survivors, but authorities could not proceed with an arrest as the surviving victims refused to “out” themselves by way of testifying (one was an entertainer, the other a diplomat). Meanwhile, the suspect spoke freely with police, although he did not admit the slayings.


To date, the suspect has never been publicly named or apprehended, and the slayings have faded into obscurity; very little information is currently available about these crimes.


Wheels Of Cheese

Mammoth Cheese

The Cheshire Mammoth Cheese was a gift from the town of Cheshire, Massachusetts to President Thomas Jefferson in 1802. The cheese was created by combining the milk from every cow in the town, and made in a makeshift cheese press to handle the cheese’s size. The cheese bore the Jeffersonian motto “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.”

I’ve long complained that we don’t apply enough pomp and circumstance to our eating habits. Everything else on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs maintains some mysticism or grandiosity, but those who handle or dispense our food are often some of the lowest paid people in society.

You could point at high priced restaurants/foodies/celebrity chefs as proof to the contrary, but go ask the farmer who supplies the produce, or the grocery store clerk who stocks it, or even the waiter who denies the temptation to spit into it as it moves towards your table, and you’ll likely find someone making a barely livable wage.

The final product weighed between 1200 and 1600 pounds, was four feet wide, and fifteen inches thick. Due to its size, it could not safely be transported on wheels, so the town hired a sleigh to bring it to Washington, D.C. during the snowy winter months. With Leland steering the sleigh, the three week, 500 mile trip became an event from town to town as word spread about the gift.

Fantastic Flapjack

Another beautiful abandoned idea: note the fire extinguisher that the man on the left may be eying.

Chance Vought V-173

One of the most unusual aircraft ever designed for the U.S. Navy was the Chance Vought V-173, also known as the Zimmerman “Flying Pancake”. It was a prototype “proof of concept” aircraft that lacked wings, instead relying on its flat circular body to provide the lifting surface. This multi-million dollar project nearly became the first V/STOL (vertical takeoff and landing) fighter. The V-173 blueprints were shown to the Navy in 1939.

– Dave’s Warbirds

[youtube_sc url=””]

Meet The Old Cult Leader, Same As The New Cult Leader

Joanna SouthcottIt’s perhaps unsurprising that most cult leaders come out of a background of poverty – Manson was born to an unwed 16-year-old, and Jim Jones’ family was apparently heavily hit by the Great Depression – but it seems rarer to have a sect lead by a lady, as in the case of Joanna Southcott.

From the wikipedia:

Her father was a farmer and she herself was for a considerable time a domestic servant in Exeter. She was originally of the Church of England, but about 1792, becoming persuaded that she possessed supernatural gifts, she wrote and dictated prophecies in rhyme, and then announced herself as the woman spoken of in Revelation

Not to be crass, but if I had to spend the majority of my days picking up in a house that wasn’t my own while having my bum pinched by it’s unruly owner, I too might consider digging up some prophecies and hitting the road.

Better yet, she had some luck in her new trade.

Her followers became numerous and in 1802 she settled in London and a chapel was opened for her followers. – Probert Encyclopaedia

Unfortunately, the prophet business is a lot like real estate: it doesn’t mean much unless you can close the sale and show results.

At the age of sixty four she affirmed that she was pregnant and would be delivered of the new Messiah, the Shiloh of Genesis – wikipedia

Although the baby never materialized, Joanna didn’t need to dodge the pointed questions of her followers for terribly long.

The official date of death is given as 27 December 1814; however, it is likely that she died the previous day, 26 December 1814, as her followers retained her body for some time, in the belief that she would be raised from the dead, and only agreed to its burial after it began to decay.

A whiff of decay wasn’t the only thing she’d left her people: she also imparted a trunk full of prophecies, with a suitably difficult bar to achieve before she might be proven wrong.

A final quote from the wikipedia:

She left a sealed wooden box of prophecies, usually known as Joanna Southcott’s Box, with the instruction that it be opened only at a time of national crisis, and then only in the presence of all twenty four bishops of the Church of England[…] Eventually in 1927 one reluctant prelate […] was persuaded to be present at the box’s opening, but it was found to contain only a few oddments and unimportant papers, among them a lottery ticket and a horse-pistol.

Joanna Southcott's Box

Communist Threat

John Wayne making The AlamoJust one of those items that I hadn’t heard, and which I thought was worth mentioning:

Soviet documents released in 2003 reveal that, despite being a fan of Wayne’s movies, Joseph Stalin ordered Wayne’s assassination due to his strong anti-communist politics. Stalin died before the killing could be accomplished. His successor, Nikita Khrushchev, reportedly told Wayne during a 1959 visit to the United States that he had personally rescinded the order. – wikipedia

What would the cult of John Wayne look like if it could truly be said that commies had shot Liberty Valance?

The Universe is a Cruel Slapstick Comedian

Bobby Leach (1858 in Cornwall, England – April 26, 1926) was the second person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel, after Annie Taylor, and the first male to ever do so, accomplishing the feat on July 25, 1911.


Bobby Leach with his capsule

A brave fellow, risking the sort of death-defying business we’ve generally outlawed, or outgrown, in the interim years.

Leach made a living, for a time, from his gamble – but cosmic justice is a cruel mistress.

(The emphasis is mine.)

In 1926 while on a publicity tour in New Zealand, Leach injured his leg when he slipped on an orange peel (according to some reports, it was a banana peel). The leg became infected […] Bobby Leach died two months later.


Spirits & Salty Water

Concept art for the Flying Dutchman from Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's ChestI assume you’re familiar with the Flying Dutchman, but have you ever heard the legend of the S.S. Ourang Medan?

In June, 1947, supposedly a distress signal was received by two American vessels, from a Dutch cargo-ship.

A radio operator aboard the troubled vessel reported the deaths of the ship’s captain as well as all of its officers, and possibly the entire crew, before sending out further garbled messages and finally declaring himself in dying condition with the words “I die”. – wikipedia

Anywhere we find loneliness, or a long disconnect from humanity, we seem to attribute the supernatural, or the bizarre. Tales of ghost ships stretch through history, (there’s even a handy list on wikipedia,) but they aren’t the only sea-story in which the barrier between reality and folklore grows thin.

A Fata Morgana is an unusual and very complex form of mirage, [which] is seen in a narrow band right above the horizon. It is an Italian phrase derived from the vulgar Latin for “fairy” and the Arthurian sorcerer Morgan le Fay, from a belief that the mirage, often seen in the Strait of Messina, were fairy castles in the air or false land designed to lure sailors to their death created by her witchcraft. – wikipedia

Carl Banks Oil Painting.The legend of the Flying Dutchman may have originated with sailors observing the reflection of an actual ship on the horizon, as projected onto the sky. The Ourang Medan, on the other hand, existed at sea level.

When the Silver Star crew located and boarded the apparently undamaged Ourang Medan in a rescue attempt, the ship was found littered with corpses (including the carcass of a dog) in what appeared to be terrified postures, with no survivors and no visible signs of injuries on the dead bodies. – wikipedia

In an odd way, these types of legends are a little like hearing a ghost transport truck story out of one of the Ice Road Truckers – actually, I suppose Pee Wee’s Big Adventure covered that exact angle.


In the case of the Ourang Medan, however, the truth of the matter is tough to know: as the ship was purportedly being hauled to port, it exploded and sank. While some skeptics doubt the ship ever even existed, another possible theory has been put forth:

Bainton and others hypothesize that the Ourang Medan might have been involved in smuggling operations of chemical substances such as a combination of potassium cyanide and nitroglycerin or even wartime stocks of nerve agents. According to these theories, sea water would have entered the ship’s hold, reacting with the cargo to release toxic gases, which then caused the crew to succumb to asphyxia and/or poisoning. Later, the sea water would have reacted with the nitroglycerin, causing the reported fire and explosion. – wikipedia

The Dutch merchantman Ottoland had almost completed her journey from New Brunswick, Canada when she hit a mine in the North Sea on 5th October 1940. -

Pigeon Holes

Pigeon PilotLike many people with a recognizable surname, I sometimes get questions from people regarding a non-relative – in my case, B.F. Skinner.

While I do find his work in behavioral conditioning interesting, I’ve always loved another of his inventions, and wish it was the one that had made his (our) name famous.

From the wikipedia:

[During WWII] [t]he US Navy required a weapon effective against the German Bismarck class battleships. Although missile and TV technology existed, the size of the primitive guidance systems available rendered any weapon ineffective.

What does a psychologist best known for working with animals have to do with missiles?

The project centered on dividing the nose cone of a missile into three compartments, and encasing a pigeon in each. Each compartment used a lens to project an image of what was in front of the missile onto a screen. The pigeons would peck toward the object, thereby directing the missile.

Pigeon Missile PrototypeThat’s right, the war could have been won with kamikaze pigeon pilots, if anyone had been able to take the idea seriously. Despite some apparent success in training and testing, the project was canned – but that wasn’t the only animal-weapon the military was dealing with at the time.

Again from the wikipedia:

Bat bombs were bomb-shaped casings with numerous compartments, each containing a Mexican Free-tailed Bat with a small timed incendiary bomb attached. Dropped from a bomber at dawn, the casings would deploy a parachute in mid-flight and open to release the bats which would then roost in eaves and attics. The incendiaries would start fires in inaccessible places in the largely wood and paper construction of the Japanese cities that were the weapon’s intended target.

After some testing, including an accident in which the Auxiliary Army Air Base in Carlsbad, New Mexico, was set on fire, the batbomb was also shelved – in favour of the “simpler” solution of dropping atomic weaponry.Some days you just can't get rid of a bomb!