Thursday, April 28, 2011

You Could Look It Up

In 1941 James Thurber wrote an amusing short story called "You Could Look It Up," in which a three-foot tall adult was a pinch-hitter in a baseball game, just so he could be "walked" (because the pitcher couldn't fathom the strike zone in someone so diminuitive).  This ploy was actually used in 1951 by the St. Louis Browns, with Eddie Gaedel, at 3 feet, 7 inches, going to bat (once in his major league career) against the Detroit Tigers.

There are many such curious historical tidbits lost to conventional histories.  Ripley's Believe It or Not has been a long-standing staple because of readers' appetites for the obscure, unusual, and peculiar.  Indiana has its own version of Ripley's in Indiana's Believe It or Not, by Fred D. Cavinder (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990).  Interestingly, the book was republished under the title Amazing Tales From Indiana (1990), prompting me to suspect that Ripley's may have threatened a lawsuit (or perhaps filed one) for trademark infringement.  Whatever the title, the book is a gem of Hoosier historical minutiae.  Its success brought forth a sequel, More Amazing Tales from Indiana (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003), in which Cavinder delighted readers with more surprising historical facts that people probably didn't learn when studying Indiana history in the third or fourth grades.

Cavinder, who was an Indianapolis Star reporter for over three decades and editor of the Star Magazine for 16 years, handles the stories deftly with an entertaining and engaging prose.  Each story is short and sweet (most are less than a page in length), and the scope and variety will easily hold your attention.

Let's test your knowledge of obscure Hoosier history:

  • Which Indiana county has the highest elevation?
I once lived there, so I know the answer, as will many of my readers.  But, in case you haven't had time to search the Internet for the answer, Cavinder tells us:  Randolph County, from or near which originate many Hoosier streams and rivers.

  • (Almost) President John W. Davis
Dr. John W. Davis, of Carlisle, Sullivan County, Indiana, was a compromise candidate at the 1852 Democratic national convention.  He lost to Franklin Pierce by a single vote.  Pierce, as the Democratic candidate, won the election and became the country's 14th president.  It could just as easily have been Davis, which would have given Indiana a second holder of that prestigious office (Benjamin Harrison was the Hoosier state's sole American president; William Henry Harrison, his grandfather, was from Virginia).

  • Where (and when) could you find magnetic water in Indiana?
If you had lived during the 1870s, you might have visited Jim Bailey's homestead near Plymouth, Indiana.  His water well produced an estimated 500 gallons a minute, and metallic objects became magnetized when placed into the water.  A compass needle would be affected if held within two feet of a bucket of Bailey's "attractive water."

  • Whose grave was in the center of a Hoosier highway?
Nancy Barnett, who settled with husband William in Johnson County, Indiana, around 1821, lived on three acres of land near Sugar Creek.  When she passed, she was buried, pursuant to her last wishes, overlooking the creek.  As the decades passed, highway construction forced removal of the cemetery's graves--except for Nancy's.  Descendants of Nancy Barnett fought governmental projects for many years, and Cavinder included a photograph in the 1990 edition of his book showing Nancy's grave, complete with an official state historical marker, sitting in the middle of County Road 400 South (what was once Hill's Camp Road).  The road separates into two tracks to accommodate the interment.

Cavinder delights readers with dozens of similar historical tales.  If you are interested in Hoosier history and enjoy the offbeat and peculiar, then look for Cavinder's books (the ones mentioned above, plus many, many others about Indiana) at your public or school library.

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