May 15, 1482: Toscanelli’s Comet

Paolo Toscanelli, born in 1397, was your typical Italian Renaissance Man, dabbling in everything from astronomy to mathematics to philosophy to cartography. He rubbed elbows (and influenced) the likes of Leonardo da Vinci and Christopher Columbus. In fact, that fickle finger of fate could have just as easily pointed at Paolo instead of Columbus.

As we all know, Christopher Columbus as a boy used to sit on the docks in Genoa watching ships slowly disappear over the horizon. While all the other boys sitting on the docks attributed this phenomenon to the ships falling off the edge of the world, Christopher determined that ships were gradually disappearing because the world was actually round. A fairy tale, of course. Columbus knew the world was round because Paolo Toscanelli told him it was round. Toscanelli even gave Columbus a map (a flat map admittedly) that showed Asia to the left on the other side of the Atlantic. Neither of them had reckoned on that other continent lying in-between. Yet Columbus got an October holiday and a city in Ohio while Toscanelli got squat.

Another near miss for Paolo was his observation of a comet in 1456. Although Paolo was the first to identify it, it remained known only as the Comet of 1456 until 300 years later when English astronomer Edmond Halley predicted its 1759 return and got naming rights.

Paolo died on May 15, 1482, ten years before Columbus sailed the ocean blue and some 350 years before “Halley’s” Comet did an encore.

May 15, 1856: Over the Rainbow

She threw her arms around the Lion’s neck and kissed him, patting his big head tenderly. Then she kissed the Tin Woodman, who was weeping in a way most dangerous to his joints. But she hugged the soft, stuffed body of the Scarecrow in her arms instead of kissing his painted face, and found she was crying herself at this sorrowful parting from her loving comrades.

Glinda the Good stepped down from her ruby throne to give the little girl a good-bye kiss, and Dorothy thanked her for all the kindness she had shown to her friends and herself.

Dorothy now took Toto up solemnly in her arms, and having said one last good-bye she clapped the heels of her shoes together three times saying, “Take me home to Aunt Em!

Lyman Frank Baum, born in Chittenango, New York, in 1856 (died 1919), was best known for writing The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, although he wrote a total of 55 novels, 83 short stories, over 200 poems, and made many attempts to bring his works to the stage and screen.

In 1897, after several abortive early careers, Baum wrote and published Mother Goose in Prose, a collection of Mother Goose rhymes written as prose stories, and illustrated by Maxfield Parrish. The book was a moderate success, allowing Baum to quit his door-to-door sales job and devote time to his writing. In 1899, Baum partnered with illustrator W. W. Denslow, to publish Father Goose, His Book, a collection of nonsense poetry. The book was a success, becoming the best-selling children’s book of the year. Then in 1900, the duo published The Wonderful Wizard of Oz to critical acclaim and financial success.   The book was the best-selling children’s book for two years after its initial publication.

Oz was a popular destination long before the famous 1939 screen version of the book.  A  musical  based closely upon the book,  the first to use the shortened title “The Wizard of Oz”, opened in Chicago in 1902, then ran on Broadway for 293 performances.   Baum went on to write another 13 Oz novels.

Baum’s intention with the Oz books, and other fairy tales, was to tell American tales in much the same manner as the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen , modernizing them and removing the excess violence.  He is often credited with the beginning of the sanitization of children’s stories, although his stories do include eye removals, maimings of all kinds and an occasional decapitation.

Most of the books outside the Oz series were written under pseudonyms. Baum was variously known as Edith Van Dyne, Laura Bancroft, Floyd Akers, Suzanne Metcalf, Schuyler Staunton, John Estes Cooke, and Capt. Hugh Fitzgerald.

Baum wrote two newspaper editorials about Native Americans that have tarnished his legacy because of his assertion that the safety of white settlers depended on the wholesale genocide of American Indians. Some scholars take them at face value, others suggest they were satire. Decide for yourself.

The Pioneer has before declared that our only safety depends upon the total extermination of the Indians. Having wronged them for centuries we had better, in order to protect our civilization, follow it up by one more wrong and wipe these untamed and untamable creatures from the face of the earth. In this lies safety for our settlers and the soldiers who are under incompetent commands. Otherwise, we may expect future years to be as full of trouble with the redskins as those have been in the past.


January 9, 1493: I Have Heard the Mermaids Singing

mermaidDo mermaids exist? These creatures – half woman, half fish – have found their way into the lore of seafaring cultures at least as far back as ancient Greek. You’ve seen them depicted; a woman’s head and torso and the tail of a fish instead of legs. They’re most often quite attractive, gazing upon their own countenance in a mirror and combing their long flowing tresses (like Darryl Hannah in the movie Splash, for example).

But believe in them? One might just as well believe in sirens, the half-woman, half-bird creatures who dwell on islands from where they sing seductive songs to lure sailors to their deaths. Yet there have been some notable sightings. No one less than Italian explorer Christopher Columbus has written of an encounter. On January 9, 1493, the intrepid New World traveler spotted not one but three mermaids frolicking somewhere near the Nina, Pinta or the Santa Maria (or maybe one entertaining each ship?)

He described the sighting in his ship’s journal: “They were not as beautiful as they are painted, although to some extent they have a human appearance in the face.” Columbus’ account would give ammunition to conspiracy theorists who claim that most mermaid sightings are actually manatees —  sea cows, although they’re said to share a common ancestor with elephants. Manatees are slow-moving aquatic beasts, weighing a good thousand pounds with bulbous faces but Bette Davis eyes. Most moviegoers would not mistake them for Darryl Hannah.

Henry Hudson, a British and more reliable explorer, also sighted a mermaid “come close to the ship’s side, looking earnestly on the men. A little while after a sea came and over- turned her. From the navel upward her back and breast were like a woman’s . . .her body as big as one of ours; her skin very white, and long hair hanging down behind . . . In her going down they saw her tail, which was like the tail of a porpoise, and speckled like a mackerel.” Much better, except for the mackerel part.

A few years later, Captain John Smith, of Pocahontas fame, spotted a mermaid off the coast of Massachusetts. He wrote that the upper part of her body perfectly resembled that of a woman and that she swam about with style and grace. She had “large eyes, rather too round, a finely shaped nose (a little too short), well-formed ears, rather too long. . .” And she probably thought Smith was a little too much of a jerk.

Would you think this was a mermaid?
Would you mistake this for a mermaid?


Just a coincidence? 

Chic Young the creator of the comic strip Blondie was born on January 9, 1901, and Arthur Lake (surely you remember Arthur Lake) who played Dagwood Bumstead on radio, TV and in the movies died on January 9, 1987 — exactly 86 years later.  !


Few people think more than two or three times a year; I have made an international reputation for myself by thinking once or twice a week.

– George Bernard Shaw

November 15, 1492: According to the Surgeon General

Rodrigo de Jerez secured his place in history as a trailblazer way back in 1492. He and a companion, Luis de Torres were crewmen who sailed to the Americas aboard the Santa Maria as part of Christopher Columbus’ first voyage.

While in Cuba, which members of the voyage assumed to be China (Columbus knew the world was round but thought it rather tiny), Rodrigo and Luis hoping to meet the great Khan of Cathay, ran into some native Cubans. Perhaps they had never actually seen a native of China or perhaps, to Spaniards, everyone else in the world looked alike. Nevertheless, they were columbus_tobaccobefriended by the Cubans, never realizing they might just as easily have been eaten.

The Cubans were taking a smoke break and they invited Rodrigo and Luis to join them. According to Rodrigo, they had wrapped some dried leaves in palm or maize into something that looked sort of like a paper musket. To the Spaniards’ surprise, they lit one end with a flame and pushed the thing into their mouths, “drinking the smoke” from the other end. Luis wanted nothing to do with it, finding it a filthy habit, most likely addictive, and socially repugnant. But Rodrigo being, as previously mentioned, a trailblazer, jumped right in, thereby becoming, right there on November 15, 1492, the first European to ever smoke tobacco.

The natives believed that tabacos, as they called it, was a gift from the Creator and that the exhaled tobacco smoke was capable of carrying one’s thoughts and prayers to heaven. Rodrigo just thought smoking was sophisticated and cool.  Almost immediately, he became a confirmed two-pack-a-day man.

Rodrigo brought the habit back to his hometown (despite signs posted all over the Santa Maria saying Thank you for not smoking), but the cloud of smoke billowing from his mouth and nose gave his neighbors such a fright that the holy inquisitors imprisoned him for seven years. By the time he left prison, smoking was de rigueur.


I used to wake up at 4 A.M. and start sneezing, sometimes for five hours. I tried to find out what sort of allergy I had but finally came to the conclusion that it must be an allergy to consciousness.

– James Thurber

February 29, 1504: Making Things Disappear

lunarChristopher Columbus was not particularly known for his genius. After all, he thought a manatee was a mermaid and the Bahamas were India. But on the evening of February 29, 1504, he showed himself to be a bit of a clever fellow and quite the showman to boot. Having stopped in Jamaica to make ship repairs during his fourth voyage (chances are, he had finally figured out that this was not India) he befriended the local natives (whom he referred to as the Pakistanis). However, Columbus’ crew was a surly lot and they soon wore out their welcome.

“When are you guys leaving?” the natives asked subtly. Then, when the Europeans refused to leave, the Jamaicans cut off their food and ganja.

The Europeans wanted to slaughter their rude hosts, but Columbus had a plan. He invited the Jamaican leaders to a late night pow wow. After a few rums and tokes, Columbus told his guests that his god was quite annoyed at their behavior and he was going to do something really nasty like smite them all dead. The Jamaicans were quite amused. Columbus then relented on the smiting part, but as punishment he said he would take away their moon. They were still quite amused, but when the moon began to disappear they changed their tune in a hurry, begging Columbus to please return their moon. Columbus said he would return their moon in exchange for all their papayas and all their pot.

It is lost to history how or if Columbus knew the moon would disappear that night. Perhaps it was just a lucky guess. Nevertheless, smug after his performance, Columbus warned the Jamaicans that they’d best behave. To remind them of his great power, he then told them that he would make February 29 disappear the following year and for three years after that.