A Debaculous Fiasco

Dr. Terwilliker
Dr. Terwilliker

With graduation less than a week away, the President Emeritus of Lake Forest College was trying not to panic. He’d had an especially difficult time organizing the ceremony that year, and he’d just received word that the scheduled commencement speaker for the class of 1977 was refusing to give a speech.

“I talk with people, not to people,” insisted Theodor Geisel, better known by his pen name, Dr. Seuss. The renowned author and illustrator had misunderstood Lake Forest’s invitation, believing the college intended to award him an honorary doctorate—which it did, but with the polite understanding that honorary degrees are the usual currency for graduation speeches. Seuss told President Hotchkiss that he was completely unwilling to address the eager students with anything more than a few words of thanks. He did not, he felt, have any useful advice to offer them.

Hotchkiss found this assertion as baffling as anyone would, considering Seuss’s long and productive career, but Hotchkiss’s subsequent flattery, cajoling, and even abject pleading had no effect. Seuss was willing to chat one-on-one with students at a reception the night before, but he simply wasn’t in the business of telling others how to find success. In desperation, Hotchkiss made one last, whispered overture on the graduation stage as he handed Seuss his certificate. “Would you be willing to say a few words?”

To Hotchkiss’s great relief, Seuss reached into his gown and pulled out a scrap of paper. Despite his capitulation, however, Seuss hadn’t really changed his mind about the value of his own advice: the title of his speech, “My Uncle Terwilliger on the Art of Eating Popovers,” secretly alluded to the most devastating, colossal failure of his career.

Drawing the Shorter Straw

When the two trailblazers of animated film finally met in 1941, the one named Walt Disney was quickly becoming a legend. The other, an Argentine named Quirino Cristiani, was on an equal but opposite trajectory toward obscurity.

Despite their different upbringings, the two men were attracted to film in similar ways. For each of them, a childhood passion for drawing evolved into experimentation with political cartooning as the Great War loomed over the world. Driven by a well-developed perfectionistic streak and a knack for innovative thinking, each of the animators experimented with animated cut-outs, then hand-drawn animation. Their accomplishments in pioneering feature-length animated motion pictures wowed their audiences and earned them praise and success.

Both were renowned in their day, but the American had become far better celebrated. Disney had persisted through major challenges and found unalloyed success; Cristiani had also overcome a number of steep obstacles, but found mostly bad luck. Although Cristiani earned fame for two milestone achievements—the first feature-length animated motion picture (1917) and the first one with a pre-recorded soundtrack (1931)—most of his films met with unfortunate ends. As a result, his story has slipped into undeserved obscurity.

The Curse of Konzo

On 21 August 1981, Australian physician Julie Cliff received the following message on her telex, a print-on-paper precursor to modern text messaging:

“Polio outbreak. Memba District. 38 cases. Reflexes increased.”

The apparently routine message was sent from the Provincial Health Directorate in Nampula, a city in northern Mozambique. Cliff worked in the epidemiology department of the Mozambican Ministry of Health in Maputo, at the southern end of the country. Effective vaccines against poliomyelitis—a food and water-borne infectious disease that can damage nerves and cause paralysis—had been developed in the 1950s and 1960s, eliminating polio from many industrialized countries. However, the disease remained rife throughout sub-Saharan Africa. So the message was unremarkable—except for one thing. In the acute phase of polio, tendon reflexes are not increased. They are absent. 

Only a few possible reasons could account for this inconsistency: flawed examination of the patients, a typo in the telex, or some unknown disease process causing an unusual pattern of paralysis in the unfortunate Mozambicans.

Dr. Cliff arrived in Nampula province shortly afterwards as part of a small Health Ministry investigation team, determined to get to the root of the mystery. Typographical errors and poor clinical examination technique were quickly ruled out as possible explanations for the anomaly. Close inspection of affected individuals confirmed the disease was definitely not polio. Yet the question remained: what else could it be?

A Jarring Revelation

Poet, inventor, and businesswoman Amanda Theodosia Jones learned firsthand why 19th century America was a tough time and place to be a female entrepreneur, especially one with romantic and spiritual sensibilities. In her long and storied career, Jones made remarkable advances in food safety and other fields, collecting a dozen patents along the way. She relied on not just her ingenuity and diligence, but some influential and very unlikely friends.

Death by Derivatives

In April of 1873, an unhappy man walked along Clark Street in downtown Chicago. His name was Aymar de Belloy. There was a gun in his pocket, and a nickel – enough for one final glass of beer.

He entered Kirchoff’s tavern and sat at a table, then changed his mind about the beer. He drew his gun, pointed it at his forehead, and pulled the trigger.

The bullet careened along the inside of his skull like a speed skater on a banked turn. It stopped at the left temple, sparing his brain. Belloy rose and staggered to the bar, shaking hands with the horrified men he passed along the way. Upon reaching the bartender, he apologized in all sincerity for the inconvenience he had just caused. Then he collapsed.

Ghoulish Acts & Dastardly Deeds

On 29 March 1951, shortly after 5 p.m., a hand-grenade-sized pipe bomb exploded in the landmark Grand Central Terminal in New York City. Ordinarily, the detonation of a pipe bomb in a busy commuter terminal at rush hour would be cause for grave public concern, yet the local news media barely acknowledged the event.

It had been a hectic news day. In one of the shrillest moments in America’s infamous anti-communism “red scare,” husband and wife Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were both found guilty of conspiracy to commit espionage. News from the ongoing war in Korea dominated the space below the fold. By comparison, the small explosion from the homemade pipe bomb at Grand Central didn’t hurt anyone; it merely startled passers-by and damaged a cigarette urn outside the Oyster Bar. Police dismissed the event as the work of “boys or pranksters.” The New York Times reported the event in the following day’s issue, though only with a three-paragraph brief at the bottom of page 24.

About four weeks later, another small bomb exploded inside a phone booth in the basement of the New York Public Library. Again, no one was injured, though the explosion damaged the booth—as well as the composure of a security guard leaning against the booth at the time. The NYPD bomb squad found fragments very similar to the Grand Central device; both were lengths of well-machined pipe with a cap on each end. Inside, a .25 caliber shell detonated a reservoir of explosive gunpowder packed with nuts and bolts. The alleged “boys or pranksters” had evidently reprised their prank—and they were far from finished.

No Country For Ye Olde Men

The year was 1721. The ship was called the Prince Royal, its destination the American colonies. And the cake—the cake was gingerbread.

The British crew shouldn’t have been surprised to find the metal file in the cake. Its stasher, James Dalton—a notorious thief and escape artist—had been shuttled involuntarily between Britain and America more times than a trans-Atlantic diplomat. Unluckily for Dalton, this particular mutiny fell apart as soon as the cake did. Luckily for Dalton, there would always be a next time. After all, as a convict who’d been sentenced to the punishment of “transportation” multiple times, Dalton had mutinied before.

Fire and Dice

Downstairs in the casino, little remained of the MGM Grand Hotel’s former glory. In the early morning hours of 21 November 1980, a fire had broken out in the Las Vegas landmark, ripping through the lounge in an explosive wave that instantly killed everyone in the area. Bodies sat frozen in front of what had once been slot machines, now no more than blackened pillars jutting upward from a flow of melted slag along the floor. The room’s plastic and chrome-plated decor, it turned out, had been as much a facade as its promises of riches.

Fortunately, the Clark County Fire Department had responded immediately, and the blaze never spread beyond the first floor. From where David Demers and his fire investigation team stood on the 23rd floor, no one would have even felt the temperature rise. Why, then, were they surrounded by corpses?

The Reconstruction of Ulysses S. Grant

In the second half of the 19th century, few Americans were better known—and revered—than the man whose face looks out today from the $50 bill. Ulysses S. Grant led Union troops to victory in the American Civil War, then thwarted attempts by President Andrew Johnson to suppress fundamental civil rights of newly freed black Americans. Twice elected president himself, Grant stewarded a war-torn nation as it struggled to reunify. After leaving the White House, he invested his name and entire life savings to a Wall Street brokerage firm. It would make him rich, he was told, and afford him a comfortable retirement. Instead, it would leave him penniless.

Like any army commander, Grant had lost battles and had known the pain of defeat. But this loss hit personally. Never before had he found himself in straits so dire, literally destitute. Fortunately, the former president and retired general had one more fight in him—because his real troubles had just begun.

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