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Misguided Acts

Under ordinary circumstances, the final evening of a cruise aboard the luxury turbo-electric ocean liner SS Morro Castle was a splendid event. Hundreds of lady and gentlemen passengers would gather in the Grand Ballroom in their finest evening attire for the customary Farewell Dinner, where veteran sailor Captain Willmott would captivate his guests with salty tales from his years at sea over endless glasses of champagne. Reality, bills, hangovers, and economic depression were all far away, on the other end of tomorrow morning's gangplank in New York. But on the night of Friday, the 7th of September 1934, circumstances aboard ship were not ordinary. Passengers were indeed draped in their finery in the ballroom, yet the captain's chair at the captain's table was conspicuously vacant. He had somewhat suddenly felt unwell. And atop the typical worries lurking outside were two near-hurricane-force storms, one approaching from the north and another from the south. The agitated sea and gusty winds were beginning to cause some sway in the decks, putting already-eaten entrées in danger of unscheduled egress. The surly weather was bound to be a considerable distraction.

Nevertheless, the Morro Castle was a large and modern cruise ship quite capable of handling inclement weather. Chief Warms was in command of the bridge for the night shift, and he knew well enough to keep her slicing through the sea near top speed to minimize passenger discomfort. The ship made 20 knots against a gale-force headwind, so shuffleboard was out of the question, but in the Grand Ballroom, festooned with colorful flags and balloons, drinks were drunk and rugs were cut. The waitstaff served a steady supply of Cuban lobster broiled in butter, ham in champagne sauce, roast turkey, and candied sweet potatoes. The ship’s orchestra served a steady supply of dance tunes.

The Morro Castle Orchestra
The Morro Castle Orchestra

Just before 8:00pm, the orchestra abruptly stopped playing mid-song. The previously foxtrotting passengers turned to see what was the matter, and there at the bandstand they saw cruise director Bob Smith beckoning for everyone's attention. He announced that he had some sad news to share. Their captain, Robert Willmott, had died suddenly in his quarters. The official farewell party and dance contest were therefore canceled, but the orchestra and barkeeps would remain on station late into the evening for passengers who wished to linger. Smith instructed the passengers to have a pleasant evening, and departed.

The ship's doctor had determined the captain's cause of death as "heart attack brought on by acute indigestion." He had been just 52 years old. William Warms and the other officers were shocked and saddened by the turn of events, but there was also an unmistakable undertow of apprehension on the bridge. In recent weeks Captain Willmott had confided in some of his fellow officers that he had reason to believe that a "red" was aboard the ship plotting revenge against the Morro Castle and her captain. Although Willmott had never seemed particularly prone to paranoia, his remarks had been dismissed as such. The wild sabotage speculations were more difficult to ignore under the new circumstances, but scrutiny would have to wait. Chief Warms--now Acting Captain Warms--was understandably anxious. It was he who had discovered the captain's body face-down and motionless in his bathtub, and he was having trouble keeping the image out of his mind. Now he was obliged to assume command during some of the worst sailing weather he had ever seen, and he had already been awake for over twenty-four hours. Even if sleep had been possible under such conditions, there was no time for it. It was going to be a long night.

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The men from London arrived just in time to see Mary Toft give birth to her fifteenth rabbit.

It was the winter of 1726, and Nathaniel St. André and Samuel Molyneux arrived in the market town of Godalming in Surrey to meet Mary Toft, a short, stout peasant of "stupid and sullen temper" (per St. André's later, embittered description). They found the country-woman waiting at the house of local man-midwife John Howard. She was lingering on the edge of a bed, stripped down to her corset. Howard assured the Londoners that they had come just in time.

Soon Mary Toft's body began to twist and contort. Her throes could be so powerful that her clothes would fly off her body, and the woman would have to be held down in her chair. Sometimes the labors lasted up to a day and a half. Toft's belly would "leap," a phenomenon Howard thought was caused by baby rabbits jumping around inside Toft's uterus. One was observed to hop like this for eighteen hours.

But that winter day, the labor was not prolonged, and soon Toft had delivered her child--the skinned torso of a small rabbit. The men from London started dissecting it right there on the floor. St. André--surgeon anatomist to the King of England himself--took a section of lung and put it in a basin of water. It floated, showing that the lungs had air in them, which suggested that the creature had breathed before it died. The rabbit's anus was found to have feces in it, which meant that the small animal must have eaten something. There was no blood.

St. André then turned his attention to the mother, who had been waiting patiently by the fire. He found that one breast produced a thin, watery milk. After palpating Mary's stomach, St. André found a hard lump in the woman's right side. From this he concluded that the rabbits had been bred in Toft's fallopian tubes, after which they had hopped down to her uterus, where they developed. With no prospect of another birth any time soon, the men retired.

In the evening Mary Toft fell into convulsions again--this time so violent she had to be held in her chair. "After three or four very strong Pains that lasted several minutes, I delivered her of the skin of the rabbet, rolled and squeezed up like a Ball," St André wrote later. The rabbit's head came soon after, complete except for one ear.

Satisfied, St. André and his companion Molyneux returned to London with some of Mary's purported offspring, preserved by Howard in jars of alcohol. By the end of the year, all of England--even King George I himself--would know about the woman who had given birth to rabbits.

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Sometime in the 1940s, an improbable encounter occurred at a mental institution in Maryland. Two women, each of whom was institutionalized for believing she was the Virgin Mary, chanced upon one another and engaged in conversation. They had been chatting for several minutes when the older woman introduced herself as "Mary, Mother of God."

"Why you can't be, my dear," the other patient replied, unable to conceive of such a notion. "You must be crazy. I am the Mother of God."

"I'm afraid it's you who are mixed up," the first asserted, "I am Mary."

A hospital staff member eavesdropped as the two Virgin Marys debated their identities. After a while the women paused to quietly regard one another. Finally, the older patient seemed to arrive at a realization. "If you're Mary," she said, "I must be Anne, your mother." That seemed to settle it, and the reconciled patients embraced. In the following weeks the woman who had conceded her delusion was reported to be much more receptive to treatment, and she was soon considered well enough to be discharged from the hospital.

This clinical anecdote was retold in a 1955 issue of Harper's Magazine, and a highly-regarded social psychologist named Dr. Milton Rokeach read it with great interest. What might happen, he wondered, if a psychologist were to deliberately pair up patients who held directly conflicting identity delusions? Perhaps such psychological leverage could be used to pry at the cracks of an irrational psyche to let in the light of reason. Dr. Rokeach sought and secured a research grant to test his hypothesis, and he began canvassing sanitariums for delusional doppelgängers. Soon he found several suitable subjects: three patients, all in state care, each of whom believed himself to be Jesus Christ. And he saw that it was good.

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On the 11th of July 1897, the world breathlessly awaited word from the small Norwegian island of Danskøya in the Arctic Sea. Three gallant Swedish scientists stationed there were about to embark on an enterprise of history-making proportions, and newspapers around the globe had allotted considerable ink to the anticipated adventure. The undertaking was led by renowned engineer Salomon August Andrée, and he was accompanied by his research companions Nils Strindberg and Knut Fraenkel.

In the shadow of a 67-foot-wide spherical hydrogen balloon--one of the largest to have been built at that time--toasts were drunk, telegrams to the Swedish king were dictated, hands were shook, and notes to loved ones were pressed into palms. "Strindberg and Fraenkel!" Andrée cried, "Are you ready to get into the car?" They were, and they dutifully ducked into the four-and-a-half-foot tall, six-foot-wide carriage suspended from the balloon. The whole flying apparatus had been christened the "Örnen," the Swedish word for "Eagle."

"Cut away everywhere!" Andrée commanded after clambering into the Eagle himself, and the ground crew slashed at the lines binding the balloon to the Earth. Hurrahs were offered as the immense, primitive airship pulled away from the wood-plank hangar and bobbed ponderously into the atmosphere. Their mission was to be the first humans to reach the North Pole, taking aerial photographs and scientific measurements along the way for future explorers. If all went according to plan they would then touch down in Siberia or Alaska after a few weeks' flight, laden with information about the top of the world.

Onlookers watched for about an hour as the voluminous sphere shrank into the distance and disappeared into northerly mists. Andrée, Strindberg, and Fraenkel would not arrive on the other side of the planet as planned. But their journey was far from over.

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Please give an uncomfortably warm welcome to our newest author, Gustaf Hildebrand.

The meeting had not gone well, the man gloomily reflected as he was driven out of East Berlin. His head was still heavy after a few too many snifters of cognac. The American's ambitious scheme to build a life and career in Moscow had sputtered to an unforeseen halt not unlike a Trabant's two-stroke engine; the only concession the Russians had made was to invite him back for another meeting in two weeks' time. The three KGB representatives he had talked to didn't seem very enthusiastic about his offer to defect from the US Army.

The date was 22 February 1953. It was George Washington's Birthday, a holiday for all American troops stationed in Berlin. The drunken man being shuttled out of East Berlin in a Soviet car was Robert Lee Johnson, a 31-year-old sergeant in the United States Army. Most competent intelligence services would have considered the Army clerk useless, dismissing him as an embittered bureaucrat with a grossly inflated sense of self-worth. Nine years later he would, through a combination of luck and circumstance, become one of the most destructive spies the KGB had ever implanted into the US military.

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On 12 November 1971, in the presidential palace in the Republic of Chile, President Salvador Allende and a British theorist named Stafford Beer engaged in a highly improbable conversation. Beer was a world-renowned cybernetician and Allende was the newly elected leader of the impoverished republic.

Beer, a towering middle-aged man with a long beard, sat face to face with the horn-rimmed, mustachioed, grandfatherly president and spoke at great length in the solemn palace. A translator whispered the substance of Beer's extraordinary proposition into Allende's ear. The brilliant Brit was essentially suggesting that Chile's entire economy--transportation, banking, manufacturing, mining, and more--could all be wired to feed realtime data into a central computer mainframe where specialized cybernetic software could help the country to manage resources, to detect problems before they arise, and to experiment with economic policies on a sophisticated simulator before applying them to reality. With such a pioneering system, Beer suggested, the impoverished Chile could become an exceedingly wealthy nation.

In the early 1970s the scale of Beer's proposed network was unprecedented. One of the largest computer networks of the day was a mere fifteen machines in the US, the military progenitor to the Internet known as ARPANET. Beer was suggesting a network with hundreds or thousands of endpoints. Moreover, the computational complexity of his concept eclipsed even that of the Apollo moon missions, which were still ongoing at that time. After a few hours of conversation President Allende responded to the audacious proposition: Chile must indeed become the world's first cybernetic government, for the good of the people. Work was to start straight away.

Stafford Beer practically ran across the street to share the news with his awaiting technical team, and much celebratory drinking occurred that evening. But the ambitious cybernetic network would never become fully operational if the CIA had anything to say about it.

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For a tropical island, Clipperton doesn’t have very much going for it. The tiny, ring-shaped atoll lying 1,000 kilometres off the southwest coast of Mexico is covered in hard, pointy coral and a prodigious number of nasty little crabs. The wet season from May to October brings incessant and torrential rain, and for the rest of the year the island reeks of ammonia. The Pacific Ocean batters the island from all sides, picking away at the scab of land that rises abruptly from the seabed. A few coconut palms are virtually the only thing that the island boasts in the way of vegetation. Oh, and the sea all around is full of sharks. It isn’t much of a surprise that Clipperton Island is decidedly uninhabited.

This was not always the case, however. Over the course of the island’s modern history, four different nations--France, the United States, Britain, and Mexico--fought bitterly for ownership of Clipperton. It was desirable both for its strategic position and for its surface layer of guano, since the droppings of seabirds (as well as bats and seals) are prized as a fertiliser due to their high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus. Each of the four countries in turn attempted to maintain a permanent presence on Clipperton between 1858 and 1917. When a contingent of Mexican settlers did finally gain a toehold on the atoll, they were forgotten and left stranded on the island with a delusional man who seized the chance to become a dictator.

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In 1881, silk top hats and bow ties were the height of gentlemanly fashion, monocles were the preferred means of corrective vision, and the suggested greeting on newfangled telephone contraptions was a cheerful "ahoy-hoy". One June Saturday of that year, as the sweaty, swampy summer was just beginning to settle over Washington DC, a gentleman strolled into the US capital’s district jail on the banks of the Anacostia River. The visitor was well-dressed, about 40 years of age, slight of frame, and sunken of cheek. A weedy patch of gray-tinged whiskers sprouted from his chin, and his face was punctuated by a pair of dark, wide-set eyes which were predisposed to shiftiness. He was an attorney named Charles J Guiteau. He approached the attending guard at the Bastille jail and requested a tour of the facilities.

Deputy Warden Russ eyeballed the man, as deputy wardens do, and explained that visitors were only allowed to tour on particular days. Undeterred, Mr Guiteau surveyed the fraction of the structure that he could see from the office, and remarked that the facility was, "a very excellent jail." The steadfast deputy warden urged the would-be sightseer to return at a more appropriate time. Mr Guiteau decided that he would do exactly that, and departed.

Although Charles Guiteau was a licensed lawyer, his visit to the Bastille was not on behalf of a soon-to-be-incarcerated client. As he would later explain, he had visited the prison to "see what kind of quarters I would have to occupy." Perhaps most importantly, he wanted to ensure that the structure would be able to withstand the angry mob that would soon pursue him. Such were the details that a gentleman must attend to when he plans to assassinate the president.

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