Daily Archives: 17 June 2014

June 17, 1864 (a Friday)

The Martian mummy hoax in 1864:

The story began in the 17 June 1864 issue of Le Pays, Journal de l’Empire, one of the most important French newspapers at the time of Emperor Napoléon III, as a letter sent by an unnamed correspondent to a French journalist; its title was “Un habitant de la planète Mars” [“An Inhabitant of the Planet Mars”]. Other letters were then published twice a month in that paper until 06 January 1865. And a book with the same title, by author Henri de Parville, was soon published in Paris, probably in April or May 1865, by Hetzel, who was from 1863 the publisher of Jules Verne; it had apparently both a hardback and a softcover edition. De Parville, whose full name was François Henri Peudefer de Parville (1838-1909), was a popular science writer, a contributor to some newspapers, an author (for instance, in 1883 he wrote a book about electricity and its applications), and a manager of a popular science magazine. He had apparently some importance, for a prize of the Académie des Sciences bears his name.

A Martian mummy, from the French astronomer Camille Flammarion (1881).

Besides a preface and a postscript by de Parville (hereafter P), which will be considered later, the book consists of the 14 letters sent to him by the unnamed journalist from Richmond (hereafter N = narrator); they bear no date, except for the last one, dated 27 September [1864] , which is the only one which did not appear in Le Pays.

The [alleged…] events take place in the “Arrapahys country, several miles from James Peak”; no other precise location is given, but the given route locates them probably somewhere in Colorado. (A quick Google search gives indeed the James Peak in the Arapaho National Forest, at some 60 km WNW of Denver.) Workers of (or for) the wealthy landowner Mr. Paxton are searching for oil in his estate. One day, they discover in a Paleozoic terrain a strange egg-shaped rock which measures some 45 yards [35 m] and the surface of which seems enameled. Mr. Davis, a geologist from Pittsburgh, begins its study. News of the discovery spreads, and interested people are arriving on the spot, despite its isolation and the war [the American Civil War, of course].

A scientific committee decides to dig a hole in the rock, in which they find a cavity, from which is extracted a white metallic jar bearing curious drawings, then several other such containers. Next a grave is discovered behind a metal plate. It contains the calcified mummy of a strange being:

some parts seemed carbonized and the short legs were damaged during the extraction, the head was intact, no hair, instead a smooth, coriaceous skin, a triangular-shaped brain,..[]…instead of a nose a short trunk, a small mouth with some teeth, two orbital cavities with the eyeballs removed in the past, as limestone had formed in there…

There are also some objects, particularly metal rods. The plate bears several drawings: ‘rhinoceros’, ‘palm tree’, “very successful representation of a star similar to the Sun as drawn by children”, other ‘stars’ which are identified as the planets and the biggest of which shows evidently the Martian origin of the being. Money is collected so that the work can be continued, with several meetings of the scientific committee on the site. It consists of specialists from various disciplines and is chaired by the geologist Newbold, and has some journalists as guests, including N. During the first meeting, a vote by the committee decides that the creature is an extraterrestrial.

In order that the whole world shares proofs of the event, Paxton decides to offer the engraved plate to the Royal Society in London and the mummy to the Institut de France in Paris, while the United States keeps the egg-shaped rock and the various artifacts. And N is assigned the mission to bring the mummy to France, he writes in his last letter to his friend P.

However, nothing comes during the following months. Here we must go
back briefly to the preface, where P had written that he had received the letters very mysteriously twice a month: early on the morning, opened on his desk. And we jump again to the postscript: six months later, another letter comes from Richmond, in which N wonders for not having received news from France, and this letter is signed… Henri de Parville! P wonders if de Parville had been his own correspondent, writing by night in some altered state. Last clue: his postscript is dated… 1 April 1865 (April Fool’s Day).

An identical story was published in La Capital, a Rosario, Argentina newspaper on 13 October 1877. This time the discovery, again attributed to Paxton and Davis, occurred near the Carcarana River, near whose banks the egg-shaped object lay half-buried. The body and related artifacts were put on display in a local tavern and later lost.

Many nineteenth-century newspapers routinely published outrageous yarns, often set in some distant place inaccessible to a skeptical reader who might seek verification.

The French “mummified Martian” hoax might have inspired the “Cardiff Giant,” the 10-foot statue planted and uncovered in 1868-1869 in an upstate New York farm as an alleged petrified ancient giant man. The “Cardiff Giant” was the creation of New York tobacconist and outspoken atheist George Hull. He decided to create the giant after an argument with a fundamentalist minister about the passage in Genesis 6:4 that there were giants who once lived on Earth.


  • Jerome Clark. Unexplained!: Strange Sightings, Incredible Occurrences and Puzzling Physical Phenomena, 3rd Edition (Canton, MI: Visible Ink Press, 2012).
  • Henri de Parville. Un habitant de la planète Mars (Paris, France: J. Hetzel, 1865).

June 17, 1957 (a Monday)

Scales of Justice

On this date, Sweezy v. New Hampshire was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Background: On January 5, 1954, Paul M. Sweezy was summoned to appear before New Hampshire attorney general Louis C. Wyman for inquiries into Sweezy’s political associations. Under a 1951 New Hampshire statute, the state attorney general was authorized to investigate “subversive activities” and determine whether “subversive persons” were located within the state. Wyman was especially interested in information on members of the Progressive Party, an organization many politicians suspected of nurturing communism in the United States.

Sweezy said he was unaware of any violations of the statute. He further stated that he would not answer any questions impertinent to the inquiry under the legislation, and that he would not answer questions that seemed to infringe on his freedom of speech. Sweezy did answer numerous questions about himself, his views, and his activities, but he refused to answer questions about other people. In a later inquiry by the attorney general, Sweezy refused to comment about an article he had written and about a lecture he had delivered to a humanities class.

When Sweezy persisted in his refusal to talk about others and about his lecture, he was held in contempt of court and sent to the Merrimack County jail. The Supreme Court of New Hampshire affirmed the conviction, and Sweezy appealed.

Decision: The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the conviction. The basis for the reversal was the New Hampshire statute’s improper grant of broad interrogation powers to the attorney general and its failure to afford sufficient criminal protections to an accused. The Court commented strongly upon the threat such a statute posed to academic freedom:

We believe that there unquestionably was an invasion of petitioner’s liberties in the areas of academic freedom and political expression — areas in which government should be extremely reticent to tread.

The essentiality of freedom in the community of American universities is almost self-evident. No one should underestimate the vital role in a democracy that is played by those who guide and train our youth. To impose any strait jacket upon the intellectual leaders in our colleges and universities would imperil the future of our Nation. No field of education is so thoroughly comprehended by man that new discoveries cannot yet be made. Particularly is that true in the social sciences, where few, if any, principles are accepted as absolutes. Scholarship cannot flourish in an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust. Teachers and students must always remain free to inquire, to study and to evaluate, to gain new maturity and understanding; otherwise our civilization will stagnate and die.

June 17, 1911 (a Saturday)

The Republican and Ultra Conservative Roots of the Los Angeles Times

Harrison Gray Otis Statue, MacArthur Park, Los Angeles

To Harrison Gray Otis (1837-1917), Democrats weren’t the opposition but “hags, harlots and pollutants.” Members of organized labor were “skunks, pinheads, gas-pipe ruffians, rowdies, anarchists and deadbeats.” Elections weren’t routine political events in a democracy but apocalyptic choices between the forces of good and evil. He saw his growing list of enemies as more ink for his poison pen, resulting in more readers of his newspaper.

Otis’ first bully pulpit, the Santa Barbara Press, was a financial failure. In 1882, he bought a one-quarter interest in the new Los Angeles Daily Times. In 1883, Otis and entrepreneur H. H. Boyce became co-owners of the Times, now grown to eight pages, and formed the Times Mirror Company. Otis set about transforming the newspaper. As John Weaver writes in Los Angeles: The Enormous Village: “He dropped ‘Daily’ from the Times masthead, ordered up livelier headlines, doubled the telegraphic news coverage, made room for letters to the editor and added a column, ‘Political Points’ which collected editorial barbs aimed at Democrats by other Republican journals.”

“When you worked for the Times in those days,” Louis Sherwin later remembered, “you were not reporting for a newspaper; you were embattled for a Cause.” Otis took pride in his growing reputation as the most aggressive and unyielding foe of organized labor in America. He founded the Merchants and Manufacturers (M&M) Association—a league of local businesses created to keep the unions out. He rallied the M&M membership with his cry: “We say to capital: Here you can invest in safety! Don’t hover between the lines or I will count you as the enemy! Decide!”

As George E. Mowry writes in The California Progressives: “It is possible that no man in all the United States hated organized labor more, and it is certain that few did more to obstruct its advance.” For years, the Page 1 banner of the Times included the phrase, “True Industrial Freedom,” while editorials and news stories reflected Otis’ uncompromising opposition to the union shop. As John Weaver notes, labor leaders called Los Angeles “Otistown” because it was “the country’s most impregnable open shop fortress.” The burgeoning circulation of William Randolph Hearst’s pro-union Los Angeles Examiner reflected the growing anti-Otis constituency and explained in part how Los Angeles could simultaneously be the national headquarters for arch-conservative capitalism and a crucible for socialist politics.

In 1907, the American Federation of Labor levied a penny-a-month assessment on its membership to create a war chest dedicated exclusively to fighting Otis. On the national level, prominent citizens were declaring that Otis was an enemy of democracy and progress. No voice was louder or drew more applause than that of Theodore Roosevelt, when he wrote on 17 June 1911 in The California Outlook magazine:

[Otis is] a consistent enemy of every movement of social and economic betterment – just as he has shown himself the consistent enemy of men in California who have dared resolutely to stand against corruption and in favor of honesty… The attitude of General Otis in his paper affords a curious instance of the anarchy of soul which comes to a man who, in conscienceless fashion, deifies property at the expense of human rights… It may be quite true that the Los Angeles Times has again and again shown itself to be as much an enemy of good citizenship, of honest and decent government, and of every effective effort to secure fair play for working men and women, as any anarchist sheet could show itself to be.

June 17, 1825 (a Friday)

Shrewsbury School

On this date, Charles Darwin left Shrewsbury School. He went on to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh, as he remarked in his autobiography:

Towards the close of my [Shrewsbury] school life, my brother worked hard at chemistry, and made a fair laboratory with proper apparatus in the tool-house in the garden, and I was allowed to aid him as a servant in most of his experiments. He made all the gases and many compounds, and I read with great care several books on chemistry, such as Henry and Parkes’ Chemical Catechism. The subject interested me greatly, and we often used to go on working till rather late at night. This was the best part of my education at school, for it showed me practically the meaning of experimental science. The fact that we worked at chemistry somehow got known at school, and as it was an unprecedented fact, I was nicknamed “Gas.” I was also once publicly rebuked by the head-master, Dr. Butler, for thus wasting my time on such useless subjects; and he called me very unjustly a “poco curante”, and as I did not understand what he meant, it seemed to me a fearful reproach.

As I was doing no good at school, my father wisely took me away at a rather earlier age than usual, and sent me (Oct. 1825) to Edinburgh University with my brother, where I stayed for two years or sessions.