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November 1 is National Author’s Day

National Authors' DayToday is National Author’s Day. In 1928, teacher Nellie Verne Burt McPherson suggested the creation of a holiday dedicated to American authors at a meeting of the Bement Illinois Women’s Club.

McPherson was inspired by an experience she’d had more than a decade earlier while lying in a hospital recuperating from an illness. She’d written a fan letter to Irving Bacheller after reading his story, Eben Holden’s Last Day A’Fishin.

She was thrilled when the author responded by sending her an autographed copy of another one of his stories. She remembered his kindness when she pioneered the observance.

As president of the club, she submitted her idea to the General Federation of Women’s Club. It was celebrated unofficially for many years. In 1949, the United States Department of Commerce made it an official holiday, but it remained largely unknown for almost 20 years.

After McPherson’s death in 1968, her granddaughter Sue Cole began to promote the celebration of National Author’s Day. She urged readers to write to American authors to “brighten up the sometimes lonely business of being a writer.” Other ways to celebrate include re-reading a classic, picking up a current title or writing reviews for your favorite books and authors on Goodreads or Amazon.  

Happy National Author’s Day!

Copyright © 2017 Worldwide Weird Holidays

October 31 is National Magic Day

Everybody knows today is Halloween. But it’s also National Magic Day, when members of the Society of American Magicians (SAM) and many other groups celebrate with free magic performances for kids, the ill, elderly and shut-ins.

Why is this holiday celebrated today? In 1938, a Chicago member of SAM proposed a holiday to honor Harry Houdini. October 31st was declared National Magic Day in memory of the day Houdini died.

national magic day houdini in chains

Houdini set the standard for a type of performance known as Escape Or DieThere are at least three possible ways for a magician to risk his life in the event of failure.  These are death by drowning, as in the water escapes Houdini pioneered; death by suffocation, as in escapes from airtight enclosures such as coffins; and death by falling (also originated by Houdini), in a straitjacket escape while hanging from high above the earth, where falling meant certain death.

In 1915, at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, Houdini was chained in a locked box weighted down with 500 pounds of iron and dropped into the bay. He escaped. To celebrate the fair’s centennial, the Palace of Fine Arts, the only building that remains from the exposition, has constructed an “escape room” which challenges all who enter to escape within 80 minutes.

On September 30, 1926, in Worcester, MA, he performed the first public test of an airtight coffin, seeking to prove there were no secret tubes siphoning air to him or other trickery. The Daily Telegram reported that Houdini would be sealed for one hour “in the coffin in which he will be buried when he dies.”

national magic day houdini coffin test

The test went off without a hitch. What no one knew then was that it would become Houdini’s casket only one month later, after his death on Halloween 1926.

Houdini wasn’t killed by a feat gone wrong; he died of diffuse peritonitis due to acute appendicitis, widely believed to have been caused by a punch to his abdomen on the morning of October 22, 1926. A young man who may have been a college student, an amateur boxer or both decided to test Houdini’s boast that he could withstand any blow. The magician later claimed he was injured only because he wasn’t given time to prepare by tensing his abdominal muscles.

Research shows it’s unlikely that a punch could directly rupture an appendix, even one that’s already inflamed. In any case, Houdini mistakenly assumed the pain he suffered afterward was due only to the punch, leading him to refuse medical treatment for what could have been a routine case of appendicitis.

Instead, he continued to perform for two more days until, overwhelmed by pain, he agreed to be hospitalized. The surgeon who removed his appendix found it had burst, spreading peritonitis throughout Houdini’s body. The odds were against him in the days before antibiotics, but he held on and endured another surgery, seeming to rally before finally slipping away on October 31st at the age of 52.

Ten years later, his wife Bess held what she called The Final Houdini Séance on the roof of the Knickerbocker Hotel. Supposedly, she had a compact with her late husband to contact her within ten years. There’s nothing to substantiate that. It appears that Bess wanted the subject of communicating with Harry to be closed. After her husband did not reappear,  she wrote:

Since the failure of the ten-year test, it is my opinion that all concerned have struck a mighty worldwide blow at superstition.

There is a recording of the séance or, more likely, a theatrical reading of the transcript which was released as an album. On it, Bess says, “It is finished.”

She couldn’t have been more wrong. The “final” séance spawned dozens of Halloween Houdini séances that continue to this day. Some bill themselves as “official.” As Houdini himself would tell you, that’s impossible. One thing’s for sure: If séances work, then Mr. Houdini’s phone is ringing off the hook right about now.

*****

P.S. Houdini was well known for his hostility to the Spiritualism movement so popular in his day and attempted to discredit so-called mediums at every turn. (He had tried to contact his dead brother and father as a young man and was embittered by the experience.)

So it seems a bit odd that he befriended Arthur Conan Doyle, who was a fervent believer in psychic phenomena. Each sought to convert the other until Doyle’s wife Jean offered to contact Houdini’s mother shortly after her death.

He agreed, wanting to believe it was possible.  During the séance, Jean went into a trance while holding a pencil and jotted a message from Houdini’s mother through a method known as “automatic writing.” Houdini took the note, saying nothing about the fact that his mother had never learned to read or write and, in any case, spoke no English.

He went public soon after, saying that he didn’t believe the Doyles were being intentionally deceitful. They were simply gullible. Doyle responded by saying the language of the spirit is universal. Their friendship never recovered.

Read more about Houdini’s amazing exploits. Honor his skepticism of mediums and con artists, while experiencing the childlike wonder of a magic show. Have a happy National Magic Day!

Copyright © 2017 Worldwide Weird Holidays

October 26 is Mule Appreciation Day

mule appreciation dayAccording to numerous sources on the Internet:

President Ronald Reagan signed a bill in 1985, designating October 26th as Mule Appreciation Day. Two hundred years before on this date, a ship docked in Boston, bearing the gift of a donkey from King Charles III of Spain to President George Washington.

We went a little crazy researching this holiday, delving into government records and scrutinizing proposed bills and signed laws. We can report that the bill did exist:

S.J.RES.39
Latest Title:
A joint resolution to designate October 26, 1985, as “Mule Appreciation Day”.
Sponsor: Sen Gore, Albert, Jr. [TN] (introduced 2/5/1985)
Related Bills: H.J.RES.76

Yes, that’s right. Al Gore, senator from Tennessee, submitted this bill. (An identical bill was proffered by Representative Jim Cooper, also of Tennessee.) Both have this notation:

Latest Major Action: Referred to Senate committee. Status: Read twice and referred to the Committee on Judiciary.

We can find no confirmation that Reagan did indeed sign the bill into law. So that part of the story surrounding Mule Appreciation Day is probably bunk. But the actual story is still fascinating.

George Washington wasn’t just our first president; he was also an avid mule breeder and wanted Andalusian donkeys (known as jacks) to mate with his mares. But Spain forbade their export. In 1785, when word of Washington’s wish reached King Charles III, he dispatched a ship carrying two of the prized animals.

Only one of the jacks, dubbed Royal Gift, survived the sea voyage. Most accounts omit this detail and report the shipping of only one,  perhaps because it is a sad footnote to the story.

In 1786, the Marquis de Lafayette sent Washington a jack and two mares (jennies) from a famous breed in Malta. These three historical figures influenced the breeding of mules forever.

Of course, Washington wasn’t the only person breeding mules. The Andalusian and Maltese breeds, along with the Catalonian, Majorcan, and Poitou, were incorporated over time into the development of today’s American Mammoth jack.  According to the North American Saddle Mule Association (NASMA):

There are no longer any real populations of true donkey breeds in the United States. The registries are bound by size, not breed type….The tall, slender black jack may be used for saddle mules, and the heavy-boned, drafty dappled red roan used for draft mules.

Some say a mule is more intelligent than either parent. While that’s debatable, renowned veterinarian Robert M. Miller, a mule breeder, says the hybridization “accounts for his amazing strength and stamina.”  A mule exhibits the best qualities of both parents.

A mule is generally sturdier than a horse, with stronger feet less likely to need shoeing, and will often live and work longer. His legendary sure-footedness and stability make him the animal of choice for those who pack or hike on steep mountain trails.

Because a mule inherits a strong sense of self-preservation from the donkey side of the family, he reacts differently to perceived threats. Miller states that when frightened, a horse will usually panic and flee blindly, often hurting himself in the process. “A frightened mule, on the other hand, will usually assess the situation, and avoid injuring himself,” according to Miller.

Maybe that’s what makes mules the preferred mode of transport on the precipitous trails that descend to the floor of the Grand Canyon. Legend has it that Brighty (a burro) accompanied President Theodore Roosevelt there when he hunted mountain lions.

That last part is a dodgy bit of Internet lore. Brighty (short for Bright Angel) did live in the canyon from about 1892 to 1922 and inspired a book and a movie. Roosevelt visited in 1903. Whether they came in contact with each other is a question for the ages.

We know this much is true: Visitors who ride all the way down to Phantom Ranch can send postcards from the bottom that say Mailed by Mule from the Bottom of the Grand Canyon. 

Mules have played a significant role in our country’s history and deserve to be appreciated year-round. So the next time we see a mule, we’re going to pay him some respect. After all, he might just be looking back at us, thinking we’re jackasses.

Happy Mule Appreciation Day!

Copyright © 2017 Worldwide Weird Holidays

October 23 is National Mole Day

National Mole Day is not a time to pay tribute to cute furry diggers, secret agents, Mexican sauces, freckles or skin tags. (By the way, you really ought to have that thing checked out.)national mole day

Once a year on October 23 from 6:02 a.m. to 6:02 p.m., National Mole Day celebrates Avogadro’s Number (6.02 x 1023), a unit of measurement in chemistry. Mole Day originated in an article from The Science Teacher in the early 1980s. Inspired by the article, a chemistry teacher in Wisconsin created the National Mole Day Foundation on May 15, 1991.

In 1811, Lorenzo Romano Amedeo Carlo Avogadro di Quaregna e di Cerreto—Amadeo Carlo Avogadro to his parents—proposed a law stating that equal volume of all gasses, at the same temperature and pressure, have the same number of molecules.

Avogadro contradicted better-known scientists of his time, didn’t publish his work in highly regarded journals and hailed from Italy, which had fallen out of favor as a site of scientific innovation. It took almost a hundred years for the scientific community to catch on. Chemist and Nobel laureate Jean Baptiste Perrin proposed in 1909 that the total number of particles contained in one mole be called the Avogadro Constant.

6.02×10^23

One mole is a mass (in grams) whose number is equal to the molar mass of the molecule. Because atoms are so small, they can only be measured in enormous numbers, on the scale of Avogadro’s number.

1 Mole = ∼ 602,200,000,000,000,000,000,000

It ‘s hard to imagine such a large number. Oklahoma State University has some useful analogies to help envision it:

  • Astronomers estimate that there is a mole (6.02 x 1023) of stars in the universe.
  • Water flows over Niagara Falls at about 650,000 kL (172,500,000 gallons) per minute. It would take 134,000 years for one mole of water drops to flow over Niagara Falls.
  • One mole of marbles, each 2 cm in diameter, would form a mountain 116 times higher than Mount Everest. The base of the marble mountain would be slightly larger than the area of the USA.

National Mole Day has always been about fostering interest in chemistry. It has been celebrated by teachers, students and schools for decades and inspires participants to create activities, thought experiments and even music videos to make learning about Avogadro’s Number fun.

Avogadro would be so proud!

Copyright © 2017 Worldwide Weird Holidays