Far-Out Friday: Robert Wadlow, Gentle Giant

On February 22, 1918, with war raging across the seas in Europe, Harold and Addie Wadlow of Alton, Illinois welcomed their firstborn child into the world – Robert Pershing Wadlow.  He was a little over eighteen inches long and weighed eight pounds and six ounces – a perfectly normal size and weight for a baby.  Little did his parents know, however, what the future held for their firstborn child as six months later his height had almost doubled, his weight nearly quadrupled. His height and weight steadily increased – by the third grade Robert, towering over all his classmates, was taller than his teacher.  Despite his size, however, he spent what would be considered a normal childhood – playing with friends, running a lemonade stand and joining the Boy Scouts.  The Bloomer Shoe Factory made a special pair of size seventeen shoes for eight year-old Robert. When exactly the rest of the world outside his family and friends in Alton began to learn about the boy who would later be called Alton’s “Gentle Giant” is unclear.  One woman interviewed for a documentary about his life said she had never heard of him until one day she was outside and noticed a “man” riding along in a red wagon.  Robert’s family had just moved across the street. Around Alton and neighboring areas, attention was drawn to him perhaps as early as 1927 when one newspaper called him “A Man at Eight” – he was taller than his father by then: At the age of ten he was wearing size fifteen shoes.  Five square feet of leather – a lot of...

War-Time Baby Names

Seventy-one years ago the world was on edge as the Allies prepared to storm the beaches of Normandy.  Americans waited anxiously to hear word and many towns and cities across the country made plans to sound sirens when word came the invasion had begun.  California’s war council, however, decided to forego the sirens because, according to Governor Earl Warren, it would “be bad to celebrate until we’ve won something.”1 Woodall Rodgers, Mayor of Dallas, Texas received a letter from the National Noise Abatement Council criticizing plans to sound sirens across the nation because it would create “unnecessary and needless noise.”  Rodgers ignored the criticism and emphasized the city of Dallas would herald the nation’s push into western Europe. Those sirens began to sound in Texas between 2:00 and 2:30 a.m. on the morning of June 6, 1944.  In Houston most retail stores were planning to close and more than four hundred churches opened their doors early that day for twenty-four hours of special prayer for peace and early victory. As sirens sounded in Dallas, a doctor arrived at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Lester Renfrow to delivered their baby girl.  In honor of the faraway invasion, her mother proclaimed she would name her Invasia – Invasia Mae Renfrow.  News of her birth appeared in newspapers across the country, tucked in amongst war headlines.  One newspaper displayed a picture of Invasia and her mother Willie Mae, surrounding by soldiers at war around the world – she was “Invasion Girl.” The Renfrows weren’t the only family to patriotically name their newborn in honor of the day.  In Norfolk, Virginia, parents...

Far-Out Friday: Ocular Explosions

In June of 1932 a column appeared in newspapers across the country, entitled “Questions and Answers from Washington”.  Apparently it was a chance for everyday citizens to ask a burning question which was answered by someone in Washington, D.C.  The questions ranged from “How is Italian salami made?” to “Can fleas be trained?” – and everything in between. One question posed was “Can a glass eye explode?”.  The answer: “A glass or porcelain eye might explode due to some chemical change in the material used, but the recorded occurrences are extremely rare.”  Hmm . . . tell that to Frank R. Minner, an Allentown, Pennsylvania building inspector whose glass eye exploded, “with a report like a pistol shot.”1 Very few who knew Minner were aware he even had a glass eye after losing his left eye in a building accident twenty years before the freakish accident in 1911.  The man who was receiving a building permit was shocked to see Minner remove his hand from the eye and see him bleeding profusely.  Minner was in shock as well and fainted. Dr. Eugene M. Kistler had no idea what caused the glass eye to explode, nor could the original optician.  Minner remained in shock but was expected to recover unless tiny splinters of glass had been blown back into his brain.  Allentown doctors and scientists were truly baffled as to what caused the exploding glass eye. That wasn’t the first time nor the last an exploding glass eye made headlines.  According to a column by Dr. Van Dellen,2 glass eyes were first produced in the sixteenth century, although some believe...

Far-Out Friday: There Once Was a Chicken Without a Head

Seventy years ago this year, about a month after the atom bomb was dropped on Japan, one story grabbed headlines around the country.  That story is still reason for an annual celebration on the third weekend of May in Fruita, Colorado.  He probably didn’t even have a name before all the hoopla which began on September 10, 1945, but afterwards they called him “Mike the Headless Chicken”, although how the rooster came to be called Mike is unclear. According to the Mike the Headless Chicken web site, this young chicken was supposed to be dinner on that day in September.  Farmer Lloyd Olsen had been dispatched by his missus Clara to kill the chicken, instructed to leave a generous neck bone, his mother-in-law’s favorite part of the chicken.  Olsen did the deed and as usually is the case (which is where we come by the phrase, “running around like a chicken with its head cut off”) the chicken staggered around. Normally a chicken is supposed to fall dead after a time, but this one apparently shook off the trauma of having its head severed and began walking around preening his feathers and pecking for food.  The following morning Olsen found the rooster still alive, its “head” (neck) tucked under its wing.  He figured if this bird had that much will to live perhaps he could find a way to feed and keep it alive. Using an eyedropper, Olsen carefully fed and watered Mike and the chicken actually started to gain weight and thrive.  Several days later, Olsen decided to take his headless chicken to the University of Utah and...

Far-Out Friday: This Might Have Been a Victorian Thing (Get Me Out of Here, I’m Not Dead!)

A friend forwarded a story to me recently from Retro Indy (Indianapolis) about a device invented in the late eighteenth century, which led me to explore a bizarre series of patents granted from the 1840’s through the early twentieth century.  The September 20, 1963 issue of Life magazine suggested that one peculiarity of the nineteenth century, the fear of being buried alive, may have been inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s creepy stories. Christian Eisenbrandt The first patent was granted to Christian Eisenbrandt, a German maker of fine brass and woodwind instruments.  According to one source, many American fifers serving in the War of 1812 were equipped with Eisenbrandt’s fifes.  Besides his reputation for finely-crafted musical instruments, Eisenbrandt is known for his “Life Preserving Coffin, In Doubtful Cases of Actual Death”. The coffin was crafted in such a way that the slightest movement would cause the spring-loaded lid to pop open.  All of which begs the question, did it work after being buried underground.  The answer was “no” it only worked while the coffin was above ground.  Still, he seemed rather sure of himself as the patent description indicates: I . . . have invented a new and useful improvement in coffins, which I term a life-preserving coffin in doubtful cases of death . . . the inventor of this coffin has contrived an arrangement whereby any one who may not really have departed this life may by the slightest motion of either the head or hand acting upon a system of springs and levers cause the instantaneous opening of the coffin lid. Franz Vester Eisenbrandt’s invention obviously had design...

Far-Out Friday: Friggatriskaidekaphobia and the Thirteen Club

Do you suffer from friggatriskaidekaphobia (and you say, I don’t even know how to pronounce it, so how could I be afflicted with it!?!).  Maybe not, but it may affect between seventeen and twenty million Americans.  According to the Mayo Clinic, in clinical terms a phobia “is an overwhelming and unreasonable fear of an object or situation that poses little real danger but provokes anxiety and avoidance.” This particular phobia, as it relates to a certain calendar date, may only be experienced one to three times per year.  This year it will haunt millions of people three times on a Friday – February 13, March 13 and November 13 – and no one seems to know definitively when and where the notion of “Friday the 13th” being an unlucky day, or for that matter the number “13″ being associated with misfortune and bad luck, originated. Theories abound, including those who believe it dates back to hundreds of years before Christ in 1780 B.C. when Code of Hammurabi was enacted without a thirteenth law (but, then again, there was no numeration in the text either), according to History.com. Some point out that the number 12 signifies completeness and evidence abounds for this theory: 12 Zodiac signs, 12 months in a year, Jesus had 12 disciples, 12 tribes of Israel, 12 hours on the clock, just to name a few.  Of course, there is the exception to that rule – a “baker’s dozen” always refers to one extra donut or pastry added to the order, making it thirteen. Some believe that biblical history records that Eve offered Adam the forbidden fruit...