October 19, 1533: I’m Always Calculating Stifels

Michael Stifel (or Steifel or Styfel) was a German mathematician, priest and monk. He was also a big fan of Martin Luther, publishing a poem called On the Christian, righteous doctrine of Doctor Martin Luther (not really in the same neighborhood as Keats or Shelley). But what he came to be most famous for was a verse of a different color.

The German saying “to talk a Stiefel” or “to calculate a Stiefel” meaning to say or calculate nonsense can be traced right back to  Michael Stifel – all because of one particular calculation our mathematician/monk made back in 1532. A few years earlier, Stifel had become minister in quiet Lochau, where the tranquil life allowed him to dabble in mathematical studies. His particular interest was in one that he called “Wortrechnung” (word calculation), studying the statistical properties of letters and words in the bible.

As a result of these studies he published a book (publishing seems to be the downfall of many a good person), A Book of Arithmetic about the AntiChrist. A Revelation in the Revelation. Well, this had best seller written all over it. It had the sort of great hook a book needs to grab audiences – the rapidly approaching Judgment Day. To be specific – which Michael was – the world would end on October 19, 1533, at 8 a.m., German Standard Time.

One would think that a would-be Nostradamus – especially one with a statistical bent – would calculate the risk/reward of predicting the end of the world. If you’re wrong, there’s a pretty large helping of egg on your face, and if you’re right, there’s no one around to congratulate you. As you might guess, Stifel fell into the first category.

The townsfolk who, believing his prediction, did not plant crops or store foods and even burned their homes and possessions on the appointed day, were not amused. Stifel had to be taken into protective custody with the villagers chanting death threats outside his cell. He made no further predictions.

This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
― T.S. Eliot


October 17, 1814: This Round’s on Me

An unfortunate incident involving beer – aged porter to be precise – occurred in London back in 1814.

The central London parish of St Giles was, as slums go, one of the slummiest.  Although it has since been rather gentrified with theaters, Covent Garden and the British Museum nearby, it was then mostly squalid housing where immigrants crowded into its ramshackle buildings, often more thanbeer one family to a room. Near one end of the parish stood the massive Meux and Company Horse Shoe Brewery, its giant vats filled with thousands of gallons of aging porter.

One particular vat which held over 135,000 gallons had seen better days. Like the shanties surrounding the brewery, it suffered from age, and on October 17 it succumbed, bursting and letting loose enough precious liquid to give all of St. Giles and then some a pretty good buzz, although the fury with which it was released made tippling difficult. Like giant shaken cans of beer, nearby vats ruptured and joined the game of dominoes.

Within minutes the brick structure that was the Meux and Company Horse Shoe Brewery was breached, and the deluge roared down Tottenham Court Road, flinging aside or burying in debris anyone or anything in its path.

Homes caved in. A busy pub crumbled, burying a buxom barmaid and her ogling patrons for several hours.  All in all, nine people were killed by drink that day. Those who didn’t lose their lives lost everything they owned to evil alcohol. Soon after the suds subsided, survivors rushed in to save what they could of the precious brew, collecting one or more for the road in pots and cans.

St. Giles smelled like the morning after a particular robust party for weeks. The brewery was later taken to court over the accident, but they pleaded an “Act of God,” and the judge and jury bought it, leaving them blameless. The brewery even received reparations from the government.  God, it would seem, has a soft spot for brewers.

I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts, and beer. ~ Abraham Lincoln


October 14, 1790: If It’s Thursday, This Must Be Pitcairn

When British ships arrived at Pitcairn Island in 1814, two men paddled out in canoes to meet them. Both spoke English well, impressing the officers and men of the ships with their refinement as they met on deck. Their civilized demeanor persuaded the ships’ captains that  the mutineers from the Bounty, had created a proper society (after alcoholism, murder and disease had killed most of them off), and did not merit prosecution for the takeover.

One of the two men was Thursday October Christian, son of Fletcher Christian and his Tahitian wife Mauatua. Fletcher, you will remember, was the ringleader of the mutiny that took place on the Bounty‘s voyage to Tahiti for breadfruit. Captain Philip Pipon, commander of one of the British ships, described Fletcher’s son Thursday as being “about twenty five years of age, a tall fine young man about six feet high, with dark black hair, and a countenance extremely open and interesting. He wore no clothes except a piece of cloth round his loins, a straw hat ornamented with black cock’s feathers, and occasionally a peacock’s, nearly similar to that worn by the Spaniards in South America, though smaller.”

Thursday October Christian, born on October 14, 1790, was the first child born on the Pitcairn Islands after the mutineers took refuge there. Born on a Thursday in October, he was given his name because his father wanted him to have “no name that will remind me of England,” forgetting perhaps that there are both Thursdays and Octobers in England. Captain Pipon referred to young Thursday as Friday October Christian,” because the Bounty had crossed the international date line going eastward, but the mutineers had somehow failed to adjust their calendars for this. The mutineers were living on a tropical island where everyone was running around naked. Is it any surprise that they didn’t know what day it was – or care?

As soon as Captain Pipon left, Thursday went back to his original name, not wanting to be confused with that other character from a story set on a tropical island.


October 13, 1917: God to Earth: Shape Up

It was an “aeroplane of light, an immense globe flying westward at moderate speed,” according to one of the many witnesses who were assembled that cloudy October 13. Many were certain they had seen amiracle-of-the-sun_cosmo-code figure within the globe — not some strange looking extraterrestrial creature, but rather a human form, a woman. Had this been the 1950s, this occurrence may have been commonplace; people were seeing flying saucers, flying doughnuts and other strange alien craft everywhere. But this was 1917, and UFOs were the stuff of speculative science fiction. Therefore, witnesses did not attribute this to an invasion from Mars or some far-off galaxy; they said it was a miracle.

The number of witnesses was rather phenomenal for a UFO sighting — some 30,000 or more descended on the little Portuguese village of Fatima. Nor had an alien invasion ever been scheduled in advance. It was three children who announced the visit of the lady. The kids had seen apparitions off and on for several months leading up to this day, apparitions bringing the message that folks upstairs were annoyed at all the war mongering that was going on and that if things didn’t change for the better, annihilation was next on the agenda. (This was not unlike the message Klaatu — as in “Klaatu barada nikto” — delivered to earthlings several decades later. It’s a message that never seems to get through to us, however.)

Although the accounts of the appearance were wildly contradictory, leading some naysayers to suggest people saw what they wanted to see, the consensus was that it was raining when the clouds suddenly parted and the sun appeared. It was duller than usual and resembled a spinning globe as it careened toward the earth. Its lady passenger appeared appeared to some but not all in the assembly and shot an admonishing glance before her chariot zigzagged away.

Many remained skeptical, having not seen anything themselves and suggesting that some of the others may have stared at the sun a bit too long. Nevertheless, some 13 years later the Roman Catholic Church declared that maybe it was a miracle after all. It’s official designation is now the Miracle of the Sun.

October 6, 1961: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb

fallout-shelterCold war and nuclear fears had been ramping up for years, when President John F. Kennedy took to the tube on October 6, 1961, to suggest that American families build bomb shelters to protect them from atomic fallout when those pesky Communists of the Soviet Union attacked the Homeland with their nuclear missiles. Just a year later, the Cuban Missile Crisis raised the stakes even higher.

While folks like Nelson Rockefeller and Edward Teller were outlining grandiose plans for an enormous network of concrete lined underground fallout shelters to shelter millions of people, civil defense authorities were talking up concrete block basement shelters that could be constructed by home handifolk for a couple of hundred bucks. Exactly how much protection they might actually provide was an open question.

Most people calmed down during the mid-1960s,  and fallout shelters pretty much went the way of duck and cover.  They were converted into wine cellars, recreation rooms or mushroom gardens. For others, the fallout shelter notion has been kept alive by internet sites devoted to nuclear hysteria. You can survive a nuclear or dirty bomb attack, shouts one such site.  It will not be the end of the world. But, you must be prepared!

Being prepared naturally involves purchasing a fallout shelter from one of the many firms that still market them — Acme Survival Shelters, Hardened Structures Inc., Safecastle.  Taking it over the top is a company called Zombie Gear whose motto is Be prepared for anything.

This Train Don’t Carry No Robbers

The Ohio & Mississippi train was chugging along through Indiana on October 6, 1866, when it was boarded by a nefarious outlaw gang known as the Reno brothers. The gang wasn’t just hitching a ride, it was robbing the train. This was unheard of. Never before had a moving train been robbed; holdups had always taken place on trains sitting at stations or freight yards. This daring first netted the gang $10,000, and there would be more to follow.

The concept quickly caught on. There were vast isolated areas, plenty of places to hide, and little law enforcement in the U.S. West. Pretty soon everyone was robbing trains. Eventually, railroad owners got wise, using fortified boxcars and deploying armed guards, but the bad guys had a few very good years. The Reno gang which consisted of four Reno brothers and some of their pals had two good years before they were caught and came to an untimely end at the hands of a vigilante mob, another fun part of the Old West.

Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room. — President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers) in Dr. Stranglove

October 4, 1582: Tempus Fugit, Really Fugit

In 1582, the Gregorian Calendar was adopted for the first time with Poland, Portugal and Spain leading the way. The calendar was implemented by and named after Pope Gregory XIII . He didn’t like the Julian Calendar in use at the time because Easter kept creeping back to an earlier time of the year so that eventually it would fall in the middle of winter, even on Christmas Day (which wasn’t creeping) and really confuse Christians.

Jews didn’t care a whole lot because they were already up to year 5303. Muslims were back at 1001. The Chinese were celebrating 4278 (Year of the Horse). Certain scientists were way ahead of everyone else at 11582, having added 10,000 years to the current year to make the starting point the beginning of the human era (like they knew what day that was) instead of the birth of Jesus who they say wasn’t born in 1 BC but in 4 BC (lied about his age) and wasn’t born on his birthday (Christmas).

But back to the Christians for whom it was October 4, 1582, and also for whom tomorrow would be October 15, because Pope Gregory took ten days right out of the calendar to put Easter back where it had been when he was a boy.  calendarWell, you can just imagine how upset folks who had birthdays or special anniversaries or doctors’ appointments between October 5 and 14 were.

Some people just refused to use the new calendar. Many European countries fell into line later in the year. But many Protestant countries thought the new calendar was part of a Catholic plot . Britain (and its colonies) didn’t come along until 1752. The Greeks didn’t start using it until 1923. And a few malcontent members of the U.S. Congress refuse to adopt it until Obamacare is repealed.

Calling All Crimestoppers

An all-American, tough but smart, police detective arrived on the crime scene on October 4, 1931. Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy comic strip first appeared in the Detroit Mirror. The strip continues to run to this day, although drawn by others since Gould departed for that precinct in the sky back in 1985.

Along with police procedure and gadgets such as the two-way wrist radio, the strip featured a bevy of colorful characters. There’s Tess Trueheart, Tracy’s lady friend and eventual wife, his adopted son Junior and his wife Moon Maid (an alien), their daughter Honey Moon, Junior’s second wife Sparkle Plenty and her parents B. O. and Gravel Gertie. An almost endless list of villains: Abner Kadaver, Art Dekko, Breathless Mahoney, Cueball, Flattop, Gruesome, Junky Doolb (blood backwards), Littleface Finny, the Mole, Mrs. Chin Chillar, Mumbles and Pruneface.  You’ll find an exhausting list here.

September 25, 1513: Found Me An Ocean

It was the Age of Discovery, and monarchs throughout Europe were exhorting their subjects to “get out there and discover something.” And so they did – Christopher Columbus, Vasco deGama, Juan Ponce de Leon. Vasco Nuñez de Balboa, of Spain, was perhaps an unlikely discoverer of things. Having sailed on an expedition to the Americas, he became a planter and pig farmer on the island of Hispaniola. Unsuccessful, he tossed it all into the baby blue waters of the Caribbean and, to elude his creditors, sailed as a stowaway on a westbound ship, hiding inside a barrel along with his dog Leoncico.

Balboa settled in the Isthmus of Panama and became a productive member of the settlement, eventually becoming governor. One day on an extended nature walk he and an entourage decided to cross the Isthmus to see what was on the other side. They crossed through a heavy jungle toward the highest mountain peak. Balboa hiked to the top of the peak where they viewed a large expanse of water.

Legend has it that as Balboa finished this long and dangerous crossing, reaching the largest of the oceans, his second-in-command said: “Balboa, you must name this great body of water at the end of our perilous journey.”

Whereupon Balboa stepped into the water and said: “I name thee The Great Body of Water at the End of Our Perilous Journey.”

At this, his second-in-command said: “No, Balboa, be specific!”

The rest is history as Balboa said: “I name thee The Specific Ocean.”*



*  This account of Balboa’s discovery was provided by Joel Kucharski.  It must be true because I’m pretty sure he was there.

September 23, 1889: Deal Me In, Yamauchi-san

Nintendo, the consumer electronics giant was founded on September 23, 1889. No, it wasn’t the first video gaming company, a hundred years ahead of its time. Super Mario Brothers and Pokémon were not evennintendo1 glints in some developer’s eyes. The company was founded to produce playing cards. Playing cards had been introduced to Japan centuries earlier, but each time a card game became popular, folks began gambling on it, and the government banned it. One card game, hanafuda, resisted this trend. It used Western style cards with images but no numbers. The lack of numbers and the fact that the game was quite complicated limited its appeal to gambling types.

Nintendo founder Fusajiro Yamauchi produced and sold handcrafted hanafuda cards painted on mulberry tree bark — hardly high tech. The company hummed along happily producing its cards for another fifty years or so until an antsy grandson of the founder began to expand. His expansion efforts were rather haphazard and for the most part less than successful. There was a taxi company and a TV network, a food company selling instant rice. Then there was the chain of “love hotels,” offering accommodations for “resting” at hourly rates with such amenities as unseen staff members and hidden parking lots.

Nintendo stock soon bottomed out. In 1966, Nintendo got into the toy business with such products as Ultra Hand, Ultra Machine and Love Tester. During the 1970s, the company moved into electronics and arcade games. Then in 1981, it introduced Donkey Kong and the rest is — well, you know what they say.

Nintendo still makes hanafuda cards.

Madame Would-Be President

Born on September 23, 1838, Victoria Woodhull, although rather woodhullfamous or infamous in her day, does not jump readily to mind today. She wore many hats: newspaper publisher, stock broker, lobbyist, traveling clairvoyant, public speaker on women’s suffrage. She was also the first woman to run for president in the United States. That was in 1872 as the candidate of the Equal Rights Party. Noted abolitionist Frederick Douglass was selected as her running mate. However, he never acknowledged it, and campaigned for Republican Ulysses S. Grant.

She had a few things going against her. Women couldn’t vote, so she couldn’t even vote for herself. She was not old enough to serve as president. And just a few days before the election she was arrested on obscenity charges for publishing an account of an adulterous affair between the minister Henry Ward Beecher and Elizabeth Tilton.

She didn’t receive any electoral votes, and no one knew her popular vote total since her votes weren’t counted. One gentleman in Texas did publicly admit voting for her.

One of the world’s most popular entertainments is a deck of cards, which contains thirteen each of four suits, highlighted by kings, queens and jacks, who are possibly the queen’s younger, more attractive boyfriends.”
― Lemony Snicket

September 22, 1761: George, the Sequel

With the usual pomp and circumstance, the marriage and coronation of King George III of England and Charlotte Sophia of Mecklenburg-Strelitz took place on September 22, 1761. The couple were married on the day they met, but remained married for 50 years and 15 children.  George was a notable monarch for several reasons, the most familiar being the loss of the American colonies and his supposed madness. Although many people see a link between the two, it’s a stretch. He was also the longest reigning monarch at 60 years until the reign of his granddaughter Queen Victoria.

George didn’t really lose the American colonies any more than George Washington found them. But independence “happened on his watch” a phrase Americans in the future would delight in applying to practically anything gone wrong. Also on his watch, Great Britain defeated the French in the Seven Year’s War and once again many years later the French under Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo.

In his later life, George III had recurrent, and eventually permanent, mental illness. Finally in 1810, a regency was established, and George III’s oldest son, George (coincidentally), ruled as Prince Regent. On III’s death, George Jr. succeeded his father as George IV.

The subject of George III’s mental illness was explored in the play The Madness of George III which inspired the movie The Madness of King George. The name change was supposedly for other reasons, but some maintain that it was because American audiences would think The Madness of George III was a sequel and wonder what happened to the first two movies.

O Mighty Caesar

“He is blessed with a kind of magic truth, the uncanny ability to project the core and humanity of the character he is playing. Beneath the surface humor there is a wry commentary on the conventions and hypocrisies of life.”  Sid Caesar was born on September 22, 1922. He lit up 50s television with his incomparable humor on Your Show of Shows and Caesar’s Hour as well as many movies during his long career.

September 21, 1219: I’m-a Gonna Give You Apple and a Plum and an Apricot or Two

Every history buff is familiar with the great Khwarezmian Empire. No? The Khwarezmian Empire under the stewardship of Shah Ala ad-Din Muhammad reached the height of its glory during the early 13th century. It also reached its nadir during the early 13th century. The story of the Khwarezmian Empire is a cautionary tale about the  genghisimportance of peace, friendship and good manners and as such would be uplifting in its own special way were it not for all the bloodshed and gore.

Khwarezmia was a neighbor to Mongolia whose benevolent commander-in-chief was none other than Genghis Khan, who had a bit of a bad reputation throughout the East. Nevertheless Genghis offered an olive branch to the shah by sending him a rather lavish fruit basket with the Hallmark words of friendship: ‘You are the ruler of the land of the rising sun and I of the setting sun.’

Comes a watershed moment in the history of Khwarezmia and possibly the reason it doesn’t trip off our tongues today. Genghis sent a delegation of several hundred men to deliver the fruit basket, but the shah, in an admittedly bad start to a relationship, had them tossed into a dungeon. He kept the fruit basket.

Genghis was irked, but thought maybe the shah misunderstood his intentions (his being a foreigner and all). So he sent three royal ambassadors — two Mongols and a Muslim interpreter –to make inquiries. The shah, in what we can all agree was a doozie of a tactical blunder, had everyone in the first delegation killed, shaved the heads of the two Mongol ambassadors, and sent them back with the head of the interpreter as his answer to Genghis.

Genghis Khan sent no further pleasantries. On September 21, 1219, he personally visited Khwarezmia, along with thousands of his best cutthroats. Khwarezmian cities fell like dominoes. The shah’s army was decimated and four million Khwarezmians were killed. Genghis even diverted rivers to erase the shah’s birthplace. The empire ceased to exist.

Violence never settles anything. — Genghis Khan