Oh God for one more breath

On the morning of May 19th, 1902, a huge explosion ripped through Fraterville Coal Mine in Tennessee, its devastating power instantly killing most of the 216 miners who were below ground. For the 26 who survived the initial blast, a side passage of the mine proved to be a safe haven, but not for long—when

My Dear Son

The following heartfelt letter of fatherly advice was written in 1908 by novelist and screenwriter John D. Swain as his son began student life at Yale, the same university from which John himself had graduated. His wonderful, poignant letter was subsequently reproduced in the Yale Alumni Weekly and proved so popular amongst both students and parents

Time & the hour run through the roughest day

While studying in Germany in May of 1900, pioneering American psychologist William James discovered that his 13-year-old daughter, Peggy, was finding it incredibly difficult to adjust to life at school in England, many hundreds of miles from home. In an effort to lift her from this emotional slump, James wrote to her with the following advice.

Why I am an Atheist

In 1903, Kentucky-based newspaper “Blue-grass Blade” asked its readers to write in and contribute to a forthcoming feature named, “Why I am An Atheist.” Hundreds of letters soon arrived and many were subsequently reprinted in the paper; over a century later, in 2011, they were compiled to form the book, Letters from an Atheist Nation. Below

Sympathy begins at home

In February of 1905, the following letter was sent to an aspiring writer by Jack London — the renowned author responsible for, most notably, White Fang and The Call of the Wild. In actual fact, it was a form letter used many times by London until, a couple of years later, he vowed to read and

Letter to a Young Poet

In 1902, a 19-year-old aspiring poet named Franz Kappus sent a letter and some of his work to the hugely influential Bohemian-Austrian poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, and politely asked for some feedback. Some months later, the following invaluable response reached Kappus, and it didn’t end there — over the course of the next 5 years, Rilke continued

We have listened long enough to the pessimists

In March of 1906, unable to preside over a public meeting of the Association for Promoting the Interests of the Blind, deafblind activist and author Helen Keller instead sent the following stirring letter to her good friend, Mark Twain. On the day of the event, Twain, who was chairing the meeting in Keller’s absence, read her

The spectacle sickened me

In July of 1905, after attending a performance of Don Giovanni at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, renowned playwright and critic George Bernard Shaw wrote a wonderful letter of complaint to The Times. His grievance didn’t concern the opera itself, but rather an extravagantly dressed lady seated in his line of sight. The letter,

I am greatly troubled by what you say

In 1905, the “superintendent of the children’s department” at Brooklyn Public Library ordered that all copies of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn be removed from the room, due to their characters’ “coarseness, deceitfulness and mischievous practices.” Soon after, unhappy with the development, the librarian in charge of the “Department for the Blind,” Asa Don Dickinson, wrote

The bulk of all human utterances is plagiarism

In 1892, deafblind author Helen Keller was accused of plagiarism after a short story of hers, named “The Frost King,” was identified as being extremely similar to Margaret Canby’s “Frost Fairies.” An investigation followed, as did a tribunal in which she was eventually acquitted. Amazingly, Keller was just 12 years of age at the time. A

Intolerable Ignorance

Between the date of her death — January 22nd, 1901 — and her extravagant funeral a fortnight later, millions mourned as the body of Queen Victoria lay in state on the Isle of Wight. At some point during this lengthy period, disgusted at what he saw as an excessively long, out-of-touch “spectacle,” the great George Bernard

Deep sickness seized me

In October of 1819, 23-year-old schoolteacher Lucy Thurston and her husband, Asa, left their home in Massachusetts to become members of the first expedition of Christian missionaries to the Hawaiian Islands. Their efforts were welcomed, and for the rest of their lives they educated the locals, helped to build schools and churches, and even translated

To the next Burglar

As he slept upstairs on September 8th of 1908, two young burglars entered Mark Twain‘s home, took an entire sideboard into the garden and proceeded to break it open. They were eventually caught by police with a stash of silverware. The next day, with the help of an aspiring young artist named Dorothy Sturgis, Twain

My belly is too much swelling with jackfruit

In 1909, after missing his train due to an ultimately disastrous trip to the lavatory at Ahmedpur station, an embarrassed, angry young man named Okhil Chandra Sen sent an unintentionally amusing letter of complaint to the Sahibganj divisional railway office in West Bengal. The letter proved to be an important one as, according to the

Sweetheart come

On February 7th of 1909, a 30-year-old mother of two by the name of Emma Hauck was admitted to the psychiatric hospital of the University of Heidelberg in Germany, having recently been diagnosed with dementia praecox (schizophrenia). The outlook improved briefly and a month later she was discharged, only to be readmitted within weeks as her condition deteriorated

Success

Above: The Wright brothers’ 4th flight, Dec. 17, 1903; Image: LoC On this day in 1903, following an unsuccessful attempt three days previous, the Wright brothers once again took their newly-built Wright Flyer to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, and proceeded to make history by claiming “the first sustained and controlled heavier-than-air powered flight.” In fact, they

The lid is on in Packingtown

Over the course of seven weeks in 1904, journalist Upton Sinclair entered Chicago’s meatpacking industry and worked undercover as a factory operative. The next year his resultant exposé, The Jungle, was serialised in the newspaper Appeal to Reason; in February of 1906, it was released in book form and became an instant bestseller. Shortly after

Have you heard about the Toad?

Whilst holidaying with his wife in May of 1907, Kenneth Grahame wrote the first of fifteen letters to his son and ended it with mention of Toad, a fantastical character recently introduced to seven-year-old Alistair‘s bedtime stories, in part to better teach him right from wrong. His son was delighted and, over the coming weeks, his

H. G. Wells on American journalists

Judging by the following letter, science fiction novelist H. G. Wells was not a fan of American journalists; in 1907 at least. Writing to a friend in May of that year, the author of The Time Machine and The War of The Worlds – to name but two of his classics – makes clear his

Send cask arsenic exterminate aborigines

This 1907 telegram was sent by a Charles Morgan to Henry Prinsep, a man seemingly based 2200km away in Perth who at the time was Chief Protector of Aborigines for Western Australia. Following the arrival of British settlers in the 18th century, Australia’s indigenous population were slowly faced with disease, loss of land, stolen generations and general

An idiot of the 33rd degree

In November of 1905, an enraged Mark Twain sent the following superb letter to J. H. Todd, a salesman who had just attempted to sell bogus medicine to the author by way of a letter and leaflet delivered to his home. According to the literature Twain received, the “medicine” in question — called “The Elixir of

We have a message from another world

In the summer of 1899, while alone in his Colorado Springs laboratory working with his magnifying transmitter, the inimitable Nikola Tesla observed a series of unusual rhythmic signals which he described as “counting codes.” Having just detected cosmic radio signals for the first time, Tesla immediately believed them to be attempted communications from an intelligent

Flight is possible to man

This extremely confident letter from one half of the Wright Brothers – Wilbur – was their first contact with renowned engineer Octave Chanute, an aviation pioneer and author of Progress in Flying Machines who went on to offer the brothers much invaluable advice over the coming years. It was written three years prior to their

You are a decoration, you little witch!

Mark Twain wrote this truly lovely letter to 9-year-old Enid Jocelyn Agnew in 1907. Enid, also known as Joy, was the daughter of Punch Magazine‘s Managing Director, Philip Agnew. Philip had recently honoured Twain by throwing a bash at Punch’s offices, a gathering at which Joy had presented Twain with a drawing by Punch cartoonist