Tag Archives: History

Ten Minutes in Lituya Bay

In 1952, geologist Don Miller was conducting a petroleum investigation in the region surrounding the Gulf of Alaska when he encountered a vaguely disquieting geological anomaly. While surveying a remote fjord known as Lituya Bay, Miller found that the dense, mature forest that surrounded the bay ended abruptly hundreds of feet upslope of the water. There was some vegetation growing below the distinct line, but it was all upstart grasses, saplings, and such. It was clear that at some point in recent history, an unknown, massive force had scraped the shores clean, and the vegetation was only beginning to reclaim the land.

There was no evidence that a fire had passed through—none of the surviving trees were charred, nor were the few remaining tree stumps. Instead, it appeared that the trees had been bent and twisted away by some powerful lateral force. The damage resembled a “trimline” like those left behind when a glacier recedes, exposing a line of bare rock alongside vegetation, but there was no glacier in a location that would account for it. A tsunami could also theoretically cause such destruction, but the boundary was much farther upshore than any tsunami in recorded history. Upon investigating further, Miller discovered other, older trimlines around the bay, suggesting that the destructive event had occurred multiple times prior, each a few decades apart. This was not typical bay behavior.

Miller interviewed some people familiar with the area, and heard tales of “cataclysmic floods” and such. He sliced samples from the trees along the edge of the old growth and saw signs of blunt trauma. He left Alaska still contemplating hypotheses, and he ended up writing a paper putting forward some possibilities. But the origin of the distinct damage would remain a geological mystery until five years later, when humans had the unsought opportunity to witness the cause of the terrifying phenomenon firsthand.

The King’s Letters

In the late 1430s and early 1440s, a certain Korean scholar embarked on a massively ambitious project, working almost single-handedly and spurred on largely by personal interest. Although the Korean language had existed for almost 1,500 years, it had never had its own dedicated writing system. Korean writers had long tended to rely on Chinese writing, which was logographic—that is, it was a system of symbols that stood for concepts. Adapting the Chinese characters to Korean meant borrowing some Chinese symbols because of the way they were pronounced, and others because of the concept they conveyed.

This approach had centuries of tradition behind it, but it was not ideal. In particular, Korean had more prefixes, suffixes, and short grammatical words (e.g., prepositions) than Chinese did, and Chinese logographs were not well-suited to capturing these. More practically, learning the thousands of Chinese characters required a good deal of study, which meant that only the most well-educated Koreans could read and write. The Korean scholar in question was determined to bring literacy to the masses. His insight was that they needed an alphabet—that is, a writing system based entirely on pronunciation, and one that required far fewer characters than the logographs.

“What do you know of language and linguistics?” the bold scholar asked of several high-ranking officials who objected to his idea. “This project is for the people, and if I don’t do it, who will?” The scholar was none other than Sejong, the king of Korea, who had held the throne since 1418. His profoundly democratic conviction that literacy ought to be accessible to everyone was revolutionary in every sense. When King Sejong unveiled Hangul—his new alphabet for the Korean language—it was met with vehement opposition from Sejong’s advisors, from the literary elite, and from subsequent monarchs. For these objectors, Hangul was barbaric, it was primitive, it was unnecessary, it was an insult, and it needed to be eliminated.

Mobilis In Mobili

The submarine, designated O-12 in U.S. Naval lingo, measured in at 175 feet long. She was, even by the standards of the early 1930’s, not a particularly impressive sight, with a brief career spent meandering about the then-quiet Panama Canal Zone. Decommissioned on 17 June 1924, she was consigned to the Philadelphia Navy Yard to await scrapping. It was an unremarkable fate for a relatively unremarkable vessel, and were events indeed to play out in this particular fashion, it is doubtful the memory of O-12 would live on past some musty Naval archive. This early and rickety contraption for sailing beneath the waves was, however, destined for greater things, as she became the first machine to take humans past—or rather, beneath—one of the last great unexplored frontiers the Earth has to offer.

The boat in question was a near-antique. Predating the American entry into World War I, she had been built in 1916 by the Lake Torpedo Boat Company of Bridgeport, Connecticut, designated with the hull number SS-73. Unexpectedly, her ultimate fate in the hands of Philadelphia’s scrappers was sidelined by an eccentric Australian gentleman, though it is safe to assume that no tears were shed in the U.S. Naval headquarters when he offered to take her off the Navy’s hands. O-12 was given a new, though ultimately brief, lease on life, in a journey that was to span the breadth of the Atlantic Ocean and past the rim of the Arctic Circle. It was an expedition that in the literal sense would go where no man had gone before, furthering the frontiers of science…while simultaneously threatening everyone involved with watery graves and financial ruin.

Into the Bewilderness

alphabetical An Christine in introduction is order: Ro. Welcome

Waterton capturing the cayman, by his friend Captain Edwin Jones
Waterton capturing the cayman, by his friend Captain Edwin Jones

Charles Waterton was born in Yorkshire, England in 1782, to an aristocratic Catholic family whose ancestors included members of several royal families. The life of an idle nobleman didn’t appeal to him, however. From a young age, he displayed a passion for studying and interacting with animals in a very hands-on way.

An inveterate tree-climber, Waterton was grateful for the wide array of bird species found on his family’s estate. He was so much of a birdbrain that teachers complained of his “vast proficiency in the art of finding birds’ nests” distracting him from his studies. Like his teachers, Waterton’s classmates noticed his fondness for being amongst animals. He was the one called upon when the boys wanted someone to tame an angry goose, or to ride a cow for their entertainment. He was even appointed rat catcher at his Jesuit boys’ school.

Waterton’s youthful interest in trapping the animals around him evolved into a specialist desire to understand less common animals. This being the Victorian era, and Waterton having the time and money to devote to his preoccupations, his obsessions prompted amusement in the readers of his prolific writings, rather than consternation. For instance, he once described a dissection of a vulture’s nose as “beautiful.” And he was an expert on how a variety of tropical animals, from the howler monkey to the toucan, tasted. The former, apparently, is not dissimilar to goat, while the latter should be boiled for best results.

This type of contradiction—being moved by animals, yet also scientifically dedicated to studying them by killing and preserving them in scientifically novel ways—would be a theme throughout Waterton’s life. The man clearly had complex feelings about his relationships with animals. Perhaps the most significant of these feelings was the desire to transcend the divisions within the animal kingdom: divisions between animals, but also ones separating himself and the creatures he loved.

Colonels of Truth

Please note that this piece contains a bit of swearing.

The Driver
The Driver

The seventh of May 1931 was a hot, dusty day in the mountain town of Corbin, Kentucky. Alongside a dirt road, a service station manager named Matt Stewart stood on a ladder painting a cement railroad wall. His application of a fresh coat of paint was gradually obscuring the sign that had been painted there previously. Stewart paused when he heard an automobile approaching at high speed—or what counted for high speed in 1931.

It was coming from the north—from the swath of backcountry known among locals as “Hell’s Half-Acre.” The area was so named for its primary exports: bootleg booze, bullets, and bodies. The neighborhood was also commonly referred to as “the asshole of creation.”

Stewart probably squinted through the dust at the approaching car, and he probably wiped sweat from his brow with the back of a paint-flecked wrist. He probably knew that the driver would be armed, angry, and about to skid to a stop nearby. Stewart set down his paint brush and picked up his pistol. The car skidded to a stop nearby. But it was not an armed man that emerged—it was three armed men. “Well, you son of a bitch!” the driver shouted at the painter, “I see you done it again.” The driver of the car had been using this particular railroad wall to advertise his service station in town, and this was not the first time that the painter—the manager of a competing station—had installed an ad blocker.

Stewart leapt from his ladder, firing his pistol wildly as he dove for cover behind the railroad wall. One of the driver’s two companions collapsed to the ground. The driver picked up his fallen comrade’s pistol and returned fire. Amid a hail of bullets from his pair of adversaries, the painter finally shouted, “Don’t shoot, Sanders! You’ve killed me!” The dusty roadside shootout fell silent, and indeed the former painter was bleeding from his shoulder and hip. But he would live, unlike the Shell Oil executive lying nearby with a bullet wound to the chest.

This encounter might have been as commonplace as any other gunfight around Hell’s Half-Acre were it not for the identity of the driver. The “Sanders” who put two bullets in Matt Stewart was none other than Harland Sanders, the man who would go on to become the world-famous Colonel Sanders. He was dark-haired and clean-shaven at the time, but his future likeness would one day appear on Kentucky Fried Chicken billboards, buildings, and buckets worldwide. In contrast to most other famous food icons, Colonel Sanders was once a living, breathing person, and his life story is considerably more tumultuous than the white-washed corporate biography suggests.

89, 263, 201, 500, 337, 480

In 1885, an author named James B. Ward published a pamphlet telling of a long-lost treasure available to anyone clever enough to solve the puzzle associated with it. Ward reported that around 1817, a man named Thomas Jefferson Beale had been the leader of an expedition to the American Southwest primarily concerned with hunting buffalo and/or bears. Beale’s group had instead stumbled upon gold and silver deposits in what is now Colorado. Agreeing to keep it all a secret, Beale’s team had spent the better part of two years quietly mining, then had taken the metals to Virginia by wagon and buried them in a vault underground between 1819 and 1821. Beale had written three notes explaining where the treasure was and who had legal rights to shares in it, encrypting each of these using a different text. However, Beale had vanished after leaving the notes with a friend. Eventually, the second of the three texts was deciphered using a slightly altered version of the Declaration of Independence. It specified which county in Virginia the treasure was hidden in, and referred the reader to the first of the notes for details.

But the first—and the third—notes remained stubbornly undeciphered. Neither the Declaration of Independence nor any other ciphertext source produced a readable message out of the first note. Beale had done far too good a job of encrypting his texts.

Or had he? Even as the field of cryptography advanced, and modern computers were invented and directed at the ciphers, the content remained frustratingly out of reach. The tantalizing mystery of where in Virginia there might be an enormous cache of treasure has turned into a broader question: Did Thomas J. Beale even exist, or was James B. Ward playing an enormous practical joke? The problem with the second interpretation is that Ward was not known to be a prankster. Could his pamphlet have been motivated by something stranger still?

The Japanese Art of Self-Preservation

Please put on sunglasses so that you are not blinded by the shininess of our newest author, Erika Nesvold.

The mountains of Japan’s Yamagata prefecture are considered sacred by the Buddhists in the region. These holy sites are sparsely populated, their forests interrupted only occasionally by isolated Buddhist temples. Many of the men serving in the temples come seeking solitude and an escape from the modern world. They were probably a bit startled, then, when a group of scientists and historians showed up in 1960 and asked to see their mummies.

The year before, several researchers investigating rumors of local mummies had discovered six mummified Buddhist monks in five temples in Yamagata prefecture. Soon after the discovery, several Japanese universities formed the Investigating Committee for Mummies to study them. The mummies were each kept on display in a place of honor in the temples, and were maintained by the temple monks. Unlike the Egyptian mummies that are most familiar to the Western world, these Japanese mummies were not wrapped in cloth. Instead, they were dressed in monks’ robes, their dried, leathery skin visible on their faces and hands.

Mummies were not unheard of in Japan. In fact, four leaders of the Fujiwara tribe had been mummified in the twelfth century and were still kept in a great golden temple hall in northeastern Japan. But mummification is a tricky business, especially in a climate as humid as Japan’s. The researchers hoped to examine the temple mummies to uncover the details of this specific mummification process.

To prevent bacteria, insects, and fungi from decomposing the mummy, the mummifier usually begins by extracting the internal organs to remove the most tempting food sources for the critters of decay. So when the researchers began examining the Yamagata mummies, they were startled to find that the monks’ internal organs were still intact, and had begun to dry before death. Close examination of the temple records revealed that this live-mummification wasn’t some kind of torture or ritual murder, but rather ritual suicide. These monks had mummified themselves.