George Psalmanazar convinced people he was from Formosa and his phony book about the island became a best-seller

Worldbuilding is the process science fiction and fantasy authors use to construct the various elements of the universe or world in which they set their story or series. George Psalmanazar’s worldbuilding made a name for him in early 18th century London. The problem was, the world he created was a fabricated version of the island of Formosa (now Taiwan).

The blonde, blue-eyed European convinced Great Britain he was a native Formosan kidnapped by Catholic missionaries. His 1704 book, An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa: An Island Subject to the Emperor of Japan (with nearly 50 more words in the…


The author’s spirit is credited with writing at least three books

During his life, Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, became “the greatest humorist this country has produced,” according to the New York Times. It seems Twain still wanted to write after he died in April 1910. He supposedly “ghost” wrote at least three books.

The first book Twain wrote posthumously was appropriately titled Spirits Do Return. Ida Bell White, who remains virtually unknown, wrote the novel. Twain’s role in the book is a bit unclear. The title page says he “inspired” it and it is dedicated to him. …


The cult of Glycon, a human-headed snake, lasted more than a century

Throughout history, humans worshiped hundreds of deities. The cult of Glycon, a human-headed snake, arose in second-century Asia Minor. Founded by Alexander of Abonoteichus around 160 CE, the religion worshiped Glycon for a century or more after Alexander’s death. It was all a fraud. Glycon’s human head was a sock puppet.

All we know of Alexander comes from Lucian of Samosata, a Syrian writer. At the request of a friend, Lucian told Alexander’s story in a letter around 180 CE, about ten years after Alexander’s death. The letter makes clear Lucian’s contempt for Alexander, calling him “a man who does…


The remarkable, short career of war correspondent Januarius MacGahan

War correspondents necessarily encounter hazardous situations but try not to disregard safety. By contrast, American Januarius MacGahan might be considered a swashbuckler. During his eight years as a war correspondent, he was imprisoned, crossed hundreds of miles of desert on horseback, and ventured into the Arctic. He is most remembered today, though, as the “Liberator of Bulgaria.”

MacGahan was born June 12, 1844, on a farm in east-central Ohio. His father died when he was six, and he worked on their and other farms until he finished school. Working later as a bookkeeper and reporter in St. Louis, he met…


Sentence in 1942 assault case led Hitler to unilateral power over judges

German shipyard worker Ewald Schlitt probably didn’t know an article about his March 1942 assault conviction appeared in a newspaper in Berlin, some 275 miles away. His misfortune was that Adolf Hitler read the article.

In the summer of 1940, Schlitt’s wife of three years confessed to a sexual relationship with another man. He beat her during their violent argument and she ended up in a nursing home. She contracted intestinal flu there and died in October 1940. …


His exposure to and use of Arabic science led to claims of necromancy

Not all popes are known for their sanctity. The Middle Ages saw glut of immoral popes. But Pope Sylvester II has the distinction of being the first accused necromancer to rule the church. Religious politics saw witchery in his erudition.

Born Gerbert in south-central France around 946, he entered a nearby Benedictine monastery as a child. An excellent student, in 967 the abbot asked a visiting Spanish count to take Gerbert to Spain to study. He spent three years at church institutions in Catalonia, a buffer zone between the Franks and the Moors. …


It helps to know English to create a guide to the language

NOTE: All quotations (sic)

Success, some say, comes when you “find a need and fill it.” In the mid-19th century, Pedro Carlino saw a need for a Portuguese guide to conversational English. He didn’t let the fact that he couldn’t speak English stand in his way. First published in 1855, his book remains available today. Mark Twain called it “perfect.” Its success, though, stems not from usefulness but unintended hilarity.

The story begins with a different book published nearly 20 years before. A book by “José da Fonseca” intended to help Portuguese speakers with French was published in Paris in…


Cheaper than hardcover books, paperback sales quickly soared into the millions

Paperback books helped create my lifelong reading addiction, in large part because they were affordable. I have fond memories of a small bookstore in an alley behind the Post Office in my hometown. Although the location might suggest a bawdy stock, it was akin to the small bookstores we would later see in shopping malls. I would stop in a couple of times a month and spend an excessive amount of time looking through the store, particularly the spinning metal display stands. Paperbacks also had the advantage of fitting in your back pocket for hands-free transportation.

The modern paperback revolution…


Nearly 500 years later the Catholic Church formally declares the boy was not a martyr

Trent, Italy, is perhaps best known today for the Council of Trent, seen as one of the most significant events in the history of the Roman Catholic Church. Responding to the Reformation movement started by Martin Luther was one of the council’s main aims. During its off-and-on meetings between 1545 and 1563, the council condemned Protestant principles and doctrines as heresies. Yet this wasn’t the first time Trent was the locus of a clash between religions; the first was deadly.

On Thursday, March 23, 1475 (Julian calendar), a two-year-old boy named Simon went missing in the northern Italian town. The…


Sometimes people take in words orally, not visually

Where and when the phrase “You’ll eat those words,” the standard idiom to suggest something said or written will be retracted, originated is unknown. As far back as the Book of Revelation, John of Patmos must eat a book held by an angel (Rev.10:9). A book of proverbs printed at Cambridge University in 1670 contained the phrase, “to eat ones [sic] words,” this idiom’s first appearance in print. History might suggest that someone with enough power in the 17th century could turn the phrase into a command.

Take the case of Austrian politician Isaac Volmar, a longtime adviser to the…

Tim Gebhart

Retired Lawyer. Book Addict. History Buff. Lifelong South Dakotan. Blog: prairieprogressive.com

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