These are some of the most unbelievable things we learned about the world that was and the world that is, and the surprising ways they continue to shape our future.
Born in 1860, Samuel J. Seymour of Maryland was a guest on I’ve Got a Secret in 1956 at the age of 96, when he told the panel and audience that he witnessed the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.
In 1865, at the age of 5, Seymour, his nurse Sarah Cook, and his godmother Mrs. George S. Goldsborough went to see Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre. He recalled sitting in balcony seats across from the Presidential Box when he witnessed John Wilkes Booth leap from the box, and President Lincoln fall over.
Seymour was one of around 1,500 people present during Lincoln’s assassination.
The name “Fido” for a dog may have been popularized by Abraham Lincoln, but the President’s canine by that name met a tragic fate similar to that of his owner. With a moniker that means “fidelity” in Latin, Fido was a yellow-haired mutt the Lincoln family took in about 1855.
Fido was a companion to Lincoln in Springfield, IL, but remained in the Midwest when the Lincoln family went to Washington, DC. Carpenter John Eddy Roll watched Fido during that time, and according to a letter he sent Lincoln in 1862, the dog was “doing well.”
The faithful canine attended Lincoln’s April 1865 funeral in Springfield and spent the rest of his days there. His life was cut short at some point in 1866:
One day the dog, in a playful manner, put his dirty paws upon a drunken man sitting on the street curbing [who] in his drunken rage, thrust a knife into the body of poor old Fido… So Fido, just a poor yellow dog, met the same fate as his illustrious master – assassination.
The drunken man was Charlie Planck, and in the immediate aftermath of the event, Fido went behind a nearby church, where the Rolls found him. They carried him home, buried him, and covered his grave with flowers.
When renowned surgeon William Stewart Halstedfirst asked the Goodyear Rubber Company to make a thin pair of rubber gloves in the winter of 1889-1890, he had no intention of using them to protect his patients against infection. Instead, he only wanted to protect his love interest’s gentle hands from the harsh chemicals she was exposed to as his assistant in the operating room.
Despite being one of America’s most prominent advocates for Joseph Lister’s antiseptic surgical protocols, the John Hopkins doctor saw little advantage to wearing rubber gloves beyond protecting his nurse Caroline Hampton’s skin from mercuric chloride. She evidently appreciated the gesture, because the two were quickly engaged and married shortly after Halsted presented her with his invention.
While the gloves grew in popularity among surgeons for their ability to protect their own skin, it wasn’t until much later that they were recognized for their hygienic properties during operations.
“‘Til death do us part” doesn’t have to be the final word for every couple in France: The country’s Civil Code permits marriage to someone who is deceased.
The law became especially popular after WWI due to the high number of men who were slain during the conflict and left behind fiancees. The most current form of the law goes back to 1959, after the Malpasset Dam in Fréjus burst and 423 people lost their lives. The pregnant fiancee of one of the deceased petitioned to be allowed to marry her deceased fiance to ensure her child’s legitimacy. France’s National Assembly then passed a law allowing the president to authorize such marriages if certain conditions are met, such as evidence of a couple’s intention to marry before the passing of one of the parties, and a serious need for establishing such a partnership.
The law is used about a few dozen times each year. In 2017, for example, a French citizen asked to marry his partner who was slain in a terrorist incident. The marriage date was recorded as the day before the partner perished.
Dragonflies have a 95% success rate in killing their prey, making them the most successful predatory hunters on the planet. In comparison, cheetahs have a 58% success rate, and lions are successful only 25% of the time.
Dragonflies’ slender bodies, long, transparent wings, and multifaceted eyes make the insects ideal hunters. They can fly at speeds up to 30 miles per hour, and their wingspan and design offer the predatory insects agility and mobility their prey lack. Dragonflies are also equipped with multiple lenses and a vast field of vision, with brainpower that is evolved enough to course-correct as soon as they lose sight of their prey.
This is excellent news for humans because dragonflies’ most probable targets are pesky summer insects people try to avoid, such as mosquitoes and flies.
Animals often go to great lengths to survive the winter. Birds fly thousands of miles south looking for warmer weather; bears and some reptiles store up fat and body heat to hibernate during the colder months; other critters grow thick furs or fluffier feathers to serve as winter coats – and turtles breathe through their butts.
North American pond turtles spend more than half of their lives without air underwater, so it’s no surprise the species has adapted some interesting coping strategies for surviving changing climates. These aquatic turtles dwell in frigid conditions during the winter months, forcing them to lower their body temperatures and significantly slow their metabolisms for survival.
This technique, called brumation, makes breathing much less important, as the hardy reptiles need smaller amounts of oxygen to survive. Still, they do need a little air to keep them moving in the winter months. So, they use a technique called cloacal respiration – a process that filters oxygen directly from the water through their butts and into their lungs.
Books were incredibly expensive in the 18th century. Consequently, British publishers often combined helpful information regarding numerous subjects – including math, recipes, the alphabet, history, and other topics useful for the typical family. Recognizing a clever, practical idea when he saw one, Benjamin Franklin decided to pen an American version of the popular texts for colonial households.
To create the perfect publication, the inventor looked to British author George Fisher’s The Instructor for inspiration. While Franklin made a few tweaks to some of the information – like changing city lists to reflect the map of the American colonies and providing a brief history of the nation – he added an entirely new collection from a 1734 Virginia medical handbook. Called Every Man His Own Doctor: The Poor Planter’s Physician, the content walked readers through home remedies for numerous ailments, including “the suppression of the courses” (menstruation).
The text gave detailed instructions for the application and uses of herbs known to have abortifacient and contraceptive properties. After reading it, Ohio State University professor Molly Farrell, who specializes in early American literature, noted:
It’s just sort of a greatest hits of what 18th-century herbalists would have given a woman who wanted to end a pregnancy early… It’s very explicit, very detailed, [and] also very accurate for the time in terms of what was known at the time….
Many squirrel species are tree dwellers, so it’s easy to assume that falling from their high-branched abodes would be an inherent danger. However, the fluffy-tailed rodents, which usually weigh from 1 to 1 ½ pounds, are genetically designed to survive an unexpected plunge toward the earth – no matter the elevation.
Squirrels are small and light, and their stretchy bodies and bushy tails create a significant drag in the air, allowing them to glide (to a degree) before they safely land on the ground after a leap or fall. Because squirrels reach a low terminal velocity after just a few seconds and maintain the fall speed regardless of their initial height, they can safely drop out of the stratosphere or a local oak tree at roughly the same rate.
American composer, lyricist, and record producer Jim Steinman originally penned “Total Eclipse of the Heart” – which hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts in 1983 – for a musical adaptation of the classic vampire movie Nosferatu.
Despite being inspired by the total darkness of a full moon eclipse, the song’s original title was “Vampires in Love,” and Steinman once mentioned that anyone who listened to the lyrics could quickly realize that the song was referring to romance found in vampiric darkness.
Steinman was also surprised that he was asked to work with singer Bonnie Tyler on the project, as he usually worked with Meat Loaf and other artists who were more hard rock or heavy metal than pop. Still, Steinman loved Tyler’s voice and was excited to take on the challenge of moving into a different genre. Although the song never appeared in the musical version of Nosferatu, it did make an appearance on stage and in the playbill of another musical, Dance of the Vampires.
Contrary to clever advertising strategies, people who eat Skittles don’t actually experience “tasting the rainbow” with an array of flavors. Instead, Skittles engineers manipulate candy lovers’ senses with colors and scents.
Flavoring individual varieties of candy is more expensive than adding coloring and fragrance, and human brains often can’t distinguish the difference. According to neuroscientist Don Katz:
Skittles have different fragrances and different colors, but they all taste exactly the same.
Katz blindfolded taste testers to prove the hypothesis and required them to wear nose plugs. When the scientist fed single skittles to the participants, they could only guess the candy flavor around 50% of the time. According to Katz, this proved that Skittles eaters remained dubious about which “flavored” candy they ate when color and smell weren’t differentiating factors.
In the second half of the 18th century, powdered wigs became a major status symbol for the ruling class. Syphilis was the main cause of these wigs coming into fashion, as the disease was rampant in Europe during the period and affected more Europeans than the plague.
With the hairline being an important symbol of status for men at the time, the syphilitic side effect that caused patchy hair loss and the graying of one’s hair obviously was a large concern. Wigs became the easy (yet expensive) fix for hiding the hairline.
Once King Louis XIV of France and his cousin King Charles II began wearing them, the fashion quickly caught on with other members of the ruling class, courtiers, and eventually merchants. The white powdered wigs eventually fell out of favor, replaced by individuals simply powdering their own natural hair instead.
Malaria in colonial India was a major problem for British citizens and soldiers and, as a result, they relied on quinine to combat the disease. Derived from the bark of the cinchona tree, quinine was popular with European settlers in South America during the 17th century as an anti-fever drug. In colonial India, it was again used for fevers, and due to its bitterness, was usually mixed with soda water and sugar.
The bubbly beverage soon became a new drink – tonic water; the first patents for it appeared as early as 1858. Schweppes tonic water entered the market in 1870 as “Indian Quinine Tonic” and was mixed with alcohol, namely gin.
The addition of gin to quinine and tonic water had been taking place for decades by the time commercial concoctions came on the scene. In British India, a daily gin and tonic was essential to maintaining imperial control. Part medicinal and part social, imbibing these cocktails became part of life for British expatriates. When they returned to England or ventured to other parts of the world, gin-and-tonic drinkers took their affinity for the beverage with them.
Humans have tried to dominate nature since the dawn of time. For Australia in 1932, this uncontrollable force of nature turned out to be… emus.
Emus, the third-largest birds in the world (after ostriches and cassowaries), are flightless and can sprint at speeds of up to 20 mph. Their native homeland is Australia, and for farmers in the 1930s, the birds’ migration habits caused problems. Australian farmers were already struggling amid an economic depression, and when emus began migrating inward during breeding season, they began eating the farmers’ crops. In response, the Australian government declared war on the emus, and a group of ex-soldiers took up arms against the birds.
Emus proved to be a tough enemy; they scattered in small groups and were difficult to exterminate. After just one month, the soldiers withdrew from the field of combat. Although the number of emus felled is unknown, today they remain one of the most common animals in Australia.
It’s a common home remedy for people dealing with urinary tract infections: down some glasses of cranberry juice for a few days, and the infection will clear up.
There is some logic behind the idea that cranberry juice would be useful for UTIs. As biomedical scientist Katie McCallum noted for Houston Methodist Hospital’s blog:
One prominent theory is that a substance in cranberries, called proanthocyanidins, might help prevent UTI-causing bacteria from sticking to the walls of the bladder and other urinary tract linings. If bacteria can’t stick, they’re likely to get flushed away the next time you use the bathroom instead. Infection averted.
Blueberries are also good sources of proanthocyanidins. The problem is that the juices of either berry typically don’t have enough of the chemicals to make much of a difference. Plus, helping to prevent an infection isn’t the same thing as curing an existing one.
The science surrounding the medical uses of cranberries isn’t settled one way or the other yet. As Dr. Pamela J. Levin explained on Penn Medicine’s Women’s Health Blog:
The data on cranberry juice and cranberry supplements with regard to urinary tract infections is inconsistent. Though studies have demonstrated potential ability to decrease symptomatic UTIs, there isn’t sufficient data to determine the duration of therapy or the dose of cranberry necessary to achieve effect.
In the absence of conclusive proof that cranberry (or blueberry) juice is truly medically useful, the best thing to do for a UTI is to visit a doctor, who can prescribe something that has been proven to work: antibiotics.
The holidays are high cookie time, when treasured family recipes are dusted off and executed. For many people, part of the joy of cookie-baking isn’t just eating a warm, oven-fresh treat; it’s also sneaking bits of raw dough as your mother shoos you out of the kitchen and admonishes, “You’ll die from eating raw cookie dough!”
Although maternal wisdom is seldom wrong, it isn’t totally correct in this case. Eating raw cookie dough generally is not deadly.
It’s true that uncooked dough could potentially harbor Salmonella bacteria, thanks to its core ingredients of raw eggs and flour. But the odds of developing a Salmonella infection from raw cookie dough are small, and if people do get sick, they typically recover without treatment. Still, the odds are enough to prompt some scientists to advise avoidance, especially for people who are immunocompromised, as they might require hospitalization for antibiotics and IV rehydration.
The good news is that not all cookie dough puts consumers at risk of illness – specially prepared edible raw cookie dough is perfectly safe to eat, and is now available in most supermarkets.
It’s highly likely that lightning will strike in the same place more than once, especially if it hits an exceptionally tall and protruding object. The Empire State Building, for example, is struck approximately 25 times a year.
Also, just because the sky is clear doesn’t mean that outdoor enthusiasts should ignore warning signs of an impending storm. If you hear thunder, lightning is close enough to become a physical danger – even if there isn’t a cloud in sight.