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.

Faxes From the Far Side

This piece was intended primarily as an audio experience, there is an adio player embedded in the episode page.

On the 10th of January 1956—about a decade into the Cold War and about a year into the Space Race—the United States Air Force launched the first vehicle in its top secret Genetrix program. The vehicle was a balloon—an enormous, 200-foot-tall, 100-foot-wide helium balloon—the first of hundreds that the US would ultimately launch from sites in Scotland, Norway, Germany, and Turkey. Upon release, each balloon ascended into the stratosphere, where the winter jet stream was perfectly situated to carry it over and across the interior of the USSR. A coffin-sized gondola dangled from the bottom of each balloon, housing a set of downward-facing high-resolution cameras. Whenever an onboard photocell detected that the surface below was illuminated by daylight, these cameras snapped periodic photographs. The Genetrix balloons were some of the original high-altitude spy cameras—precursors to spy planes and satellites.

Whenever a balloon cleared Soviet airspace, the US Air Force sent an encoded radio signal that would detonate a small explosive charge on the gondola’s attachment line. If all went according to plan, a specially equipped C-119 airplane would be loitering in the nearby airspace, ready to snag the parachuting payload of photographic film in mid-air. Once retrieved, the film was sent back to the states to be developed and analyzed.

Launching a Genetrix balloon
Launching a Genetrix balloon

The Genetrix balloons were designed to be practically invisible to radar, using very thin balloon film and a gondola much smaller than a typical aircraft. And this might have worked were it not for the fact that one of the steel rods in the balloon rigging was 91 centimeters long. US Air Force engineers didn’t realize it at the time, but 91 centimeters happened to correspond to one of the frequencies used by Soviet early-warning radar. This caused the otherwise inconsequential rod to resonate and glint like a mirror on Soviet radar screens.

Soviet leaders were understandably annoyed when their military pilots reported back regarding the nature of these radar reflections. US officials replied that these were innocuous weather balloons for the study of cloud formations, a claim which was roundly ridiculed. During the day, there was little the Soviets could do about it apart from political posturing—the balloons cruised at 55,000 feet, which was higher than Soviet weapons could reach. But MiG fighter pilots soon discovered they could shoot the balloons out of the sky at sunrise. The chill of the night robbed the balloons of some of their buoyancy, and they dipped down into weapons range.

The Genetrix program lasted only 27 days. It had originally been planned to continue indefinitely, but president Eisenhower cancelled any further spy balloon launches due to the Soviets’ strenuous diplomatic protests. Of the 500 or so spy balloons that were launched, only about 50 camera gondolas were successfully recovered by the US Air Force. These provided over 10,000 reconnaissance photos of inland Soviet Union and China, including first peeks at nuclear and radar facilities.

The Soviets recovered a number of the gondolas themselves, and engineers began to dissect them, seeking useful information. To their surprise, they found something inside that happened to solve a little problem they had been having with one of their upcoming space missions: temperature-resistant and radiation-hardened photographic film.

The Petticoat Rebellion of 1916

Please warmly welcome our newest contributor, Jennifer Colton-Jones.

Laura Stockton Starcher, 1917 (The Oregonian/Oregon Historical Society)
Laura Stockton Starcher, 1917 (The Oregonian/Oregon Historical Society)

On a December morning in 1916, the polls opened in the small town of Umatilla, Oregon, for a municipal election. As the day stretched on, the town’s men drifted in and out, casting a ballot here or there. By midday, the men started to wonder what had happened to the women. For months, the women had talked of their newly gained right to vote—women in Oregon won the right to vote in 1912, eight years before the 19th Amendment—but election morning came and went without a peep from Umatilla’s fairer residents.

Perhaps the women had decided they couldn’t spare the time to vote. Perhaps they assumed the incumbents would keep their seats with no serious opposition on the ticket. Perhaps it simply slipped their minds. It would fit: The town’s city councilmen often failed—or simply forgot—to attend council meetings themselves.

The men scratched their heads and looked around. Chickens ran in the unpaved streets, and the sidewalks were broken and cracked under dark and useless streetlights, turned off when the city didn’t pay its electric bill. For years, the women had begged, scolded, and commanded the men to clean up the town, to no avail. Yet when they had the opportunity to speak with their votes, the women’s voices were silent…or were they?

In the early afternoon, the women began to arrive at the polling stations, almost all at once, and almost without exception. By the time the polls closed that evening, the women of Umatilla had pulled off a strange sort of conspiracy unlike anything the country had ever seen.

The First Ten Years

As you may gather from the content, the audio podcast version of this article contains some content not easily translatable to text. We encourage you to listen if you are able. -AB

This piece was intended primarily as an audio experience, there is an adio player embedded in the episode page.

Transcript of audio:

Hello listeners, Alan Bellows here, founder of Damn Interesting. This month, September 2015, we at Damn Interesting are celebrating our 10th birthday.

Because we modern humans use a base ten numbering system, ten and multiples of ten naturally feel like big milestones. But base ten is actually a pretty poor base for a numbering system, having only a few divisors—1, 2, and 5—so when we do mathematical division we very often end up with messy fractions. Probably the only reason use base ten is because we happen to have ten fingers. Twelve would be a much better base, because it has 1, 2, 3, 4, and 6 as divisors. Sorry metric system.

Ancient Egyptian and Babylonian mathematicians used a base 60 system, which has ten divisors, and it is therefore very easy to cleanly subdivide. There are lots of stories out there regarding ancient civilizations and their access to superior technology, and most of those stories are nonsense, but at least some of those ancients had a nice counting system. Their base 60 mathematics is why we have 60 seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in an hour, and 360 degrees in a circle.

Anyway, as I was saying, this month is our tenth birthday.

Up in the Air

As night fell over the East German town of Pössneck on the evening of 14 September 1979, most of the town’s citizens were busy getting ready for bed. But not Günter Wetzel. The mason was in his attic, hunched over an old motor-driven sewing machine, desperately working to complete his secret project.

Wetzel and his friend H. Peter Strelzyk and their families had been working on their plan for more than a year and a half, and by now the authorities were looking for them. They were nearly out of time. Wetzel had feigned illness in order to procure five weeks off from work, and during that time he and his friend had collected the materials and laboured over the construction together. This would be their last chance.

Earlier in the day, a strong wind had arisen from the north. These were exactly the conditions that the two families had been waiting for. Around 10:00pm, Wetzel put the finishing touches on the massive patchwork project, then rounded up Strelzyk and prepared to leave. Two hours later the families were en route to a predetermined clearing on a hill by way of automobile and moped. The other components of their project—a steel platform, a homemade gas burner, and a powerful fan—were already packed and ready to go. It was time to attempt the escape.

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