Weird News of the 1900s
December 1901: Unable to afford the cost of a steerage ticket from Germany to America, Johann Beck sealed himself in a box and shipped himself as freight. He survived, although barely, because a storm delayed the ship at sea, causing him to run out of food several days before arrival in America.
1903: John Dadmun of Camden, New Jersey made a violin out of a giant lobster claw. The lobster from which the claw came had been caught in 1862. When played, the lobster violin was said to sound exactly like a normal wooden violin.
June 1903: Islamic leader Mirza Ghulam Ahmad challenged Christian evangelist John Alexander Dowie to a "prayer duel" to the death. Ahmad claimed to be second coming of Christ in the spirit who would establish the final victory of Islam on earth. But Dowie, claiming to be the forerunner of Christ's return, insisted that Christ intended to destroy all Muslims. Ahmad, in announcing the duel, declared that God would reveal which one of them was telling the truth by killing the liar first. Dowie died in March 1907. Ahmad died a little over a year later.
September 1903: In Philadelphia, a school opened, described as "the only institution of its kind in the world," that taught parrots to speak by means of the new technology of the phonograph. Its founder, Mrs. Jacob Hope, launched the school with a record that repeated the phrase "Polly wants a cracker" 1000 times. She later expanded to offer other phrases. The fee for a six-month term was $40, but more if the bird was to be taught French or German sentences.
April 1904: A young lady, attractively dressed in green, entered the offices of city officials in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, opened a bag of dried peas, threw a handful on the floor, and left after saying, "Peas mean something." She repeated the performance at the court house and sheriff's office.
April 1904: Having a profound fear of being buried alive, Frances Power Cobbe (a leading campaigner for women's suffrage) included instructions in her will that, following her death, a doctor should "perform on my body the operation of completely severing the arteries of the neck and windpipe so as to render any revival in the grave absolutely impossible." If this wasn't done, all other bequests in her will were to be null and void. When she died, Dr. Walter Hadwen of Gloucester carried out the postmortem operation.
July 1906: Robert Naysmith, who had made a living by exhibiting himself as a "human ostrich," swallowing nails, glass, hatpins, and stones, died in a London workhouse. An autopsy revealed that the nails and hatpins which riddled his body were the cause of his death. They were found in his liver and kidneys, but the largest number were in his intestines.
October 1906: Three Belgian inventors claimed to have built a flying machine shaped like a giant wasp. They called it an orthoptere. It rose from the ground by means of flapping wings made of silk and then used gigantic aluminum propellers to move forward. Despite claims of a successful test flight, there never was a public demonstration of the insect aircraft.
November 1906: A small child, barely three years old, was brought into a Swiss court, charged with the crime of stealing two penny toys dangling from the doorway of a shop. The child admitted to the crime but explained (though he could not yet speak well) that "he did not have any toys like other boys." The magistrate was unmoved. He sentenced the child to three and a half months' imprisonment, and as the parents cried for mercy, he shouted at the gendarme, "Remove the prisoner!"

Wins Head-Standing Wager, Loses Life

February 1907: In St. Joseph, Missouri, Harry Stilson made a wager that he could stand on his head for 20 minutes, most of the time without the support of his hands. He proceeded to win the bet, and set a new local record. But the next morning he fell unconscious and died soon after. Physicians attributed the cause of death to "congestion of the brain" — a result of standing on his head for too long.
May 1907: Joseph Bjelik, on trial for abandoning his wife, explained that he had fled because she beat him, whipped him, made him sleep under the bed, and fed him on cold victuals. His wife readily affirmed all this, though noted, "When he is good I don't beat him." Bjelik offered to pay his wife $6 a week if he could stay away. But because his wife was unwilling to trust him to make the payment, the court ordered him to return home.
September 1907: The wedding service of Belle Crouse and Percy Bissell came to an abrupt halt when the bride, standing at the altar, suddenly screamed, "Save me! Save me! He's got a revolver in his pocket and he threatened to shoot me if I did not marry him." The reverend tackled the bridegroom, and the bride fled the church. Police later put the pistol-packing bridegroom on a train out of town.

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All original content in posts is Copyright © 2016 by the author of the post, which is usually either Alex Boese ("Alex"), Paul Di Filippo ("Paul"), or Chuck Shepherd ("Chuck"). All rights reserved. The banner illustration at the top of this page is Copyright © 2008 by Rick Altergott.