The Oldest Senior Pictures Ever

In 1936, family historian Alva Gorby published a book no one but her family was likely interested in reading. She called it The Gorby Family: Origin, History and Genealogy. It was, as she claimed in the introduction “a very enjoyable ‘labor of love’” that required many years of collecting family memories, photographs, and lore, chasing down records, and verifying claims.

Hannah Stilley Gorby. This maybe wouldn’t be the worst country album cover. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Like any family genealogy project is bound to do, this one allegedly contains a few errors here and there, but it also includes something of great interest to the wider public beyond just the descendants of Samuel and Mary (May) Gorby. In its pages can be found a print of what is generally accepted to be the oldest living person ever photographed.

I should explain that further because there is a lot of confusion on the internet about just what is meant by such a claim. The photograph in question depicts a woman named Hannah Stilley Gorby, the second wife of Joseph Gorby, son of Samuel and Mary and it was taken around 1840, which would make it not the oldest photo ever taken by maybe about fifteen years or so.

If Alva Gorby’s records are correct, Hannah was born in 1746, making her in the neighborhood of 94 when the picture was snapped. Now, the woman was thirty when the US became a nation and ninety-four is certainly nothing to sneeze at, but there’ve been plenty of photos of people with more birthdays under their belts. Hannah wasn’t even old enough to get her picture featured on a Smuckers jar on the Today Show.

What Hannah Stilley Gorby can claim, however, is that of all the people ever photographed, she was first to have been born. Probably. Or at least maybe.

The problem is that the original daguerreotype of Hannah Stilley Gorby is lost to history and the most reliable support we have for the claim comes from the work of her amateur genealogist descendent who, let’s be honest, probably totally geeked out about her photographically famous aunt. I mean, who wouldn’t?

Probably not a very good country album cover. Image by Jorge Guillen from Pixabay

Because family history can be pretty geek-out worthy, like when you discover an uncle from five generations back who was a missionary physician with a pet orangutan and write a novel because no way can you make this stuff up yourself.

And family pictures are precious. I’ve been thinking about them a lot lately because my oldest son is now a senior in high school and we recently had a series of senior photographs taken of him. Like a lot of photographs.

We haven’t had the opportunity yet to sit down with my photographer friend to look through the proofs, but the shoot was amazing. My son, who was a smushy-faced newborn like yesterday, cooperated with every crazy idea (some of which he volunteered) from donning a suit and tie for a professional headshot to leaning flannel-clad against a fence post with his acoustic guitar in case he someday needs a cover for a country album.

I can’t wait to see how the pictures all came out because no matter what, I know they are photos of my more-or-less grown son, and are technically the oldest senior pictures ever of any of my children. That may not mean much to the general public, but you know that guitar pic is going into a family genealogy book one of these days for the benefit of my descendants, who will probably attempt to verify that he was a famous country music star.

Thankful for a Kick in the Pants

On October 3, 1789, then president of the newly established nation of the United States George Washington issued a proclamation declaring November 26th “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer.” He claimed to have done so at the request of both houses of Congress, who asked him to acknowledge “with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God.”

I’m trying to imagine members of Congress coming up with such words today. I’m also thinking that if each elected member of the federal government, and perhaps all levels of government, spent some time focusing on the things they are thankful for, the United States would be a better nation for it.

In fact, I think if every American citizen spent more time thinking about the things they are thankful for and less time thinking about how stupid their clearly unthinking, unreasonable, stubborn donkey of a neighbor, coworker, sister-in-law, or drunken uncle on the other side of the aisle is, then the United States would be a much better nation for it.

We can, and probably should, do that every single day. Thanksgiving Day didn’t become an official national holiday until 1870 when a post-Civil War United States desperately needed a reason to come together and focus on the good stuff.

Image by Babar Ali from Pixabay

The date wasn’t set on the calendar as the fourth Thursday of November until 1941, but since the very earliest days of the US, the Congress—arguably the collection of the most needlessly quarrelsome and infuriatingly frustrating of its citizens—has recognized that thankfulness is a good thing. And if rarely on much else, on this one thing, we agree.

It’s been a hot minute since I have posted in this space, as I was feeling a little burned out. I admit it’s taken me longer than I anticipated to be ready to jump back into the blogosphere, but as I reflect today on all the things I am thankful for, I am realizing the list definitely includes the opportunity this blog has given me to connect with so many wonderful, creative people all over the world. I’m so thankful for all of you. And I’m also thankful for a consistent weekly kick in the pants to write something, even when I’m too busy or stressed out or uninspired.

Happy official Thanksgiving to all my American blogging friends, and to my international friends as well, because even without a presidential proclamation or an act of Congress, thankfulness is a good thing.

Hot Dogs for a King

In 1937, author Ernest Hemingway ate the worst meal of his life. It consisted of “rainwater soup followed by rubber squab, a nice wilted salad, and a cake” provided by “an enthusiastic, but unskilled admirer.” The man did have a way with words. This delectable meal was served to him at the White House, historically known as a center for culinary excellence, but just then developing a reputation for the opposite.

Lots of visitors had voiced similar complaints and it was becoming commonplace to go ahead and order a pizza before heading to dinner with Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. I don’t know how the Roosevelts felt about that, but when it happens at my house, I admit to some hurt feelings.

Ernest Hemingway enjoying what was probably not the worst meal of his life. unattributed, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I hope I do better than rubber squab and rainwater soup, but my picky children might say otherwise and it’s not uncommon for them to try to grab something else with their friends on casserole night, making me wonder why I bother.

I suppose it’s for more or less the same reason Eleanor Roosevelt did. Her partner in the crime of assaulting the tastebuds in the White House was her dear friend Henrietta Nesbitt who, much like the rest of Depression Era America had fallen on hard times. To help out, the first lady hired her friend as head housekeeper for the first family. As the formerly wealthy wife of a formerly wealthy husband, Nesbitt knew a thing or two about managing a household. She was, however, a terrible cook.

Henrietta Nesbitt, who once served hot dogs and beer to the king of England, making her kind of a hero. Harris & Ewing, photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Nesbitt’s first order of business was to overhaul the White House kitchen, which she did admirably, bringing its equipment into the modern era and creating more space and better workflow. Then she set about designing the kind of meals that would be an example to the households of America on how to eat healthfully and frugally in the midst of the kind of economic turmoil that causes long breadlines and literal starvation.

According to Eleanor Roosevelt herself, Nesbitt’s careful management allowed for the average two-course meal at the White house to cost less than ten cents, no matter who was dining. King George VI was allegedly served hot dogs and beer when he visited, and though his poor wife didn’t quite know what to make of the curious meal, the king seemed to enjoy it.

The White House food, though terrible by comparison to previous administrations and all those since, really probably wasn’t that different than what was being scraped together and served in most American households. Many were even looking to the White House for ideas on how to stretch their dwindling food budgets, which is exactly what Eleanor Roosevelt had hoped would happen.

Fortunately, we’re not living through a Great Depression, at least in this moment. Still, food costs are rising quickly and I do feel a responsibility to teach my children, now teenagers not so far from the day when they will stretch their wings and try to make it out in the world on their own, that one can eat simply and healthfully and frugally when the pizza money runs out.

Maybe the message is getting through. Or maybe they’re complaining behind my back about wilted salad.

Image by Silvia from Pixabay

Just a note: Though my creativity is still shining in the kitchen, on the written page I am dealing with a little bit of burnout. Because of that, I’m going to take a short break from posting in this space. I’ll still be around, visiting blogs and responding to comments and hopefully will be up and writing again soon.

A Small Fault in These Parts

On April 10, 1567, Englishman Ralph Adderly wrote a letter to soldier and politician Sir Nicholas Bagnall. In it, Adderly described his brother-in-law John Bagot in an almost flattering way. The original excerpt is in pre-uniform English spelling, but translated to meet a more modern reader’s expectations it says this:

“I do assure you he is unsuspected of any untruth or other notable crime (except a white lie) which is taken for a small fault in these parts.”

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this is the first known reference to the phrase “white lie,” largely held to be a lie that’s not so bad—one that is told in order to avoid conflict, forestall embarrassment, or to protect the recipient, and is more or less benign in nature.

Of course, one man’s bent truth is another man’s vicious load of . . . well, you get the idea. Still, most of us have probably told the occasional white lie when the plain old truth might be needlessly hurtful or when we’re writing a blog post and our research has been somewhat less than thorough because man has it been a week.

I mean, I would never do such a thing, but I assume a lot of you probably have.

I know that the students and faculty of my youngest son’s high school have done so. It’s homecoming week here which means this coming weekend will be packed with football, parading, and dancing. The weekdays, too, have been filled with powderpuff football, pep rallies bursting with team spirit, and themed dress-up days.

Truth. (-ish)

My favorite so far has been “white shirt/white lies day.” On this day, students and teachers wore white tee shirts on which they had written a white lie. Some of the shirts I saw included: “I’m a people person,” “I’ll pay you back,” “I’m not smarter than you,” “I don’t seek validation,” and my personal favorite, “Just because I’m blonde doesn’t mean I’m dumb.”

I’m not entirely sure that the school should be promoting lying of any kind, just as I am entirely certain that some parent will be complaining about it at the next schoolboard meeting. It won’t be me, because I thought it was awfully clever, and in a way, kind of perfect for this particular school’s homecoming celebration.

And then there’s the pretty dresses and the corsages. Image by Stacey Kennedy from Pixabay

The notion of homecoming at my son’s school is itself a little bit of a white lie, as this is only the school’s second year in existence and the first year there will be a graduating class. What this means is that technically speaking, there is literally no one to come home to this school.

But every high school has homecoming football and pep rallies and dances and parades and spirit days. It’s too much fall fun to miss. So, what if it’s all a little bit of a lie? It’s not hurting anyone, and the decision to do all the homecoming things for the benefit of all the nonexistent alumni avoids the conflict that would arise from not doing it, which would also surely find its way to the next schoolboard meeting.

In the wise words of some guy named Ralph Adderly, it seems like nothing more than a small fault in these parts.

Smarter than the Average Dinosaur

It’s been 70.3 million years, give or take a day or two, since the approximately six-mile-wide Chicxulub meteor landed in Yucatan, Mexico and caused a mass extinction event. Earth’s dinosaur inhabitants didn’t so much as lift a finger to try to stop it, a decision they weren’t around to regret.

Image by A Owen from Pixabay

More than 1.9 billion years before that, the Vredefort meteor, now believed to have been more than twice as large as the Chicxulub, impacted the earth at what today is Free State, South Africa. Nothing was done about it by the unicellular lifeforms that might have eventually become dinosaurs if they could have been bothered.

And so, this week I was happy to hear that the planet’s current dominant inhabitants have decided to take the threat more seriously. Since the very first discovery of an asteroid by Italian astronomer, mathematician, and priest Giuseppe Piazzi in 1901, humanity has held onto a little niggling feeling that a human-ending catastrophe might just be hurtling its way through space on a collision course with our big blue ball.

Piazzi’s asteroid, Ceres, isn’t a threat. It seems content enough in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter and has even received an upgrade to dwarf planet. But there are plenty of rocks flying around up there. The researchers who look at such things suggest that asteroids that are at least three miles in diameter have struck the planet about sixty times in the 4.5 billion years or so it’s been around. Of those, three of them were likely large enough to have caused mass extinction.

Image by Michael Watts from Pixabay

Frankly, while three instances in 4.5 billion years is enough to keep writers of science fiction busy for a long time, I’m not really all that concerned. The odds of being alive to see it happen are pretty small.

Of course, it’s just this kind of nonchalant attitude that took out the dinosaurs. Lucky for humanity, I’m not in charge of Earth’s defenses against incoming space rocks.

Don’t worry, because NASA is on the job. This past Monday, the Double Asteroid Redirection Test successfully collided with and nudged a completely innocent asteroid that was too busy minding its own business to wipe out life on Earth.

Over the next months and years, astronomers all over the world will be observing and calculating just how much impact the DART had on the asteroid’s path and we will all breathe a little easier knowing that we might just be smarter than the average dinosaur.

Just the Worst: A Celebration of Banned Book Week

In 1637, English lawyer and colonist Thomas Morton, founder of the Merrymount colony that eventually became Quincy, Massachusetts, published a book that was not very complimentary of his Puritan neighbors.

According to Morton, who had been pretty successful in establishing trade and good relations with the Native Americans in the vicinity of his colony, the Puritans were generally unfair, dishonest, abusive, and hateful. He also had some unflattering nicknames for them.

Amsterdam: Jacob Frederick Stam, publisher, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Prior to writing his book, Morton had attempted to expel the Puritans from Massachusetts with a lawsuit that rested on their alleged misrepresentation of their purpose for establishing a colony in the first place. They’d done so in a different location than originally planned as well, and in a location to which someone else technically held the rights. He won the suit.

The lawsuit had come on the tail of a particularly nasty encounter between Morton and his neighbors.  Despite his own traditional Anglican beliefs, Morton engaged in his fair share of passive aggressive paganistic behavior of the variety that would drive a Puritan mad. When he erected an eighty-foot-tall maypole and invited his Algonquin friends over for a raging kegger, the highly offended Puritans arrested him, cut down his maypole, burned down his colony, and left him to die stranded on a rocky, coastal island.

Fortunately, Morton had managed to make himself some friends by throwing the best parties and, you know, not slaughtering them, and so he survived the ordeal. If the legal decision that revoked the Massachusetts Bay Colony charter had been enforced, that might have been the end of it, but it wasn’t. And so, Morton wrote his offensive book.

New English Canaan, which today is considered a historically significant literary work of the American colonial period, consists of three parts. The first is a primarily positive view of Native American customs. The second is an account of the natural history of Massachusetts. And the third is a satirical look at why Puritans are just the worst.

Image by Pretty Sleepy Art from Pixabay

The book was originally published in the Netherlands, where anti-English books of the day tended to be published. Not all that surprisingly, most of the copies were initially seized and destroyed by the English government. The few copies that managed to circulate were quickly condemned and banned by the Puritans, making New English Canaan the first banned book in America.  

Today there are just sixteen original copies of Morton’s book in existence, though it has been republished with plenty of scholarly criticism and is freely available on the internet. I haven’t read it, but honestly, the mere fact that it was banned makes me kind of want to pick it up.

I might just do so, in honor of Banned Book Week. The annual event is celebrated this week by the American Library Association and by intelligent, thoughtful people everywhere who are not the busy-body mom crusaders across the nation that have for some reason decided they are responsible for monitoring the reading material of everyone else’s children.  

Carol M. Highsmith, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I feel compelled, too, as long as I am standing up here on my soapbox, to state that such people shout on each side of the political aisle, as is evidenced by the practice of revenge banning being attempted at a truly alarming rate.

At this point I am so frustrated by the book banners I, probably unfairly, assume that if given the chance they would cut down a maypole, burn down a school, and banish all the librarians to die alone on a rocky, coastal island. All in the noble name of keeping children safe from just the kind of intellectual stimulation and freedom of thought that could help them to develop into critical thinkers. Just the worst.

Thank heavens for the majority of parents who recognize that censorship belongs in their private homes and families, along with their noses. Thank heavens, too, for the librarians who, too often without support from their district administrators, are standing up for the freedom to read. And shame on the politicians who are not.

Happy Banned Book Week to all!

How Do You Like Them Apples?

It was in 1902 that journalist Kate Masterson, writing for the New York Times, solidified an American symbol and expressed perhaps an over-zealous appreciation for America’s favorite dessert. In response to a British writer’s assertion that one shouldn’t indulge in apple pie more than twice a week, which is probably pretty good dietary advice, Masterson called that pace of pie-eating “utterly insufficient.”

She went on to write that “Pie is the American synonym of prosperity. . .Pie is the food of the heroic. No pie-eating people can be permanently vanquished.”

Mmm. Heroism is delicious. Image by Pam Carter from Pixabay

That’s a lot of confidence to put into pie, but to be fair, there really is nothing more American than apple pie. Except, that is, for pretty much anything that is actually uniquely American, or even originally American, which pie is not. For that matter, neither are apples.

There’s only one species of apple that is native to North America. That’s the inedible crab apple, from which Johnny Appleseed liked to make hard cider, but otherwise mostly just makes a mess of suburban lawns. The sweeter varieties that are great for pies come originally from Asia from which they made their way to pie-loving Europe, and then into the early days of the American colonies.

Colonists loved planting apple trees and it wasn’t long before there were thousands of varieties growing, with apple trees on nearly every homestead. When America’s first cookbook, American Cookery, was published in 1796, American housewives could find two different recipes for apple pie among its pages.

There are definitely worse problems to have. Image by S. Hermann & F. Richter from Pixabay

And they must have used them well because twenty-four years after Masterson extolled the heroic pie, the phrase “as American as apple pie,” began to show up as an expression of the ideals of American motherhood, wholesomeness, and comfort. When American soldiers headed off to World War II, one of their battle cries became fighting for mom and apple pie.

And why not? In a way I suppose it’s fitting. Much of the culture of the American people didn’t originate in North America, either, but is blended together from influences from all over the world into one big, unique pie, with admittedly quite a few different takes on the original one or two recipes.

I’m grateful for that and also for all the literal apple recipes for pies and cobblers and sauces and breads and apple butter and yes, more pie. Like the colonists that came before us, my family planted apple trees not long after we moved into our house. Two of the trees produce a couple dozen lovely sweet apples every year. The third tree produces somewhere in the neighborhood of ten thousand.

We might even have a jar or two of applesauce left from two years ago, but ours are not this pretty. Image by congerdesign from Pixabay

That might be a slight exaggeration, but you get the idea. We’ve given away apples, welcomed friends to come pick apples, canned applesauce to put on a shelf with last year’s canned applesauce we haven’t gotten to yet, and made our share of pies.

I like apples, and apple pie, but we kind of have it coming out of our ears. I guess maybe that’s a sign of prosperity and heroism and immunity to permanent vanquishment. I don’t know. But I do think that at least during apple season, Masterson was probably right to say that pie only two times a week is utterly insufficient.

Hey also, if you happen to know any great apple recipes, please feel free to put them in the comments. Thanks!

They Really Do Make Everything Out of Pumpkin

It was probably about four thousand years ago that the indigenous arctic peoples of the Inuit, Aleut, and Yupik tribes began using the world’s first kayaks. These early small, versatile boats were covered in animal skins stretched over frames constructed from driftwood or whale bones or any other material that seemed like it might make a good kayak, which most likely did not include giant pumpkins.

At some point in human history, someone looked at this and said, “I bet I could make something like that out of a really big pumpkin.” Edward S. Curtis, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The kayak didn’t become a recreational vehicle until much later when in 1866, English barrister and travel writer John MacGregor published his widely read A Thousand Miles in the Rob Roy Canoe. In it he described the boat design he used to tour the rivers of Europe. Twenty-eight inches wide, fifteen feet long, and weighing around eighty pounds, MacGregor’s boat was made of oak and cedar and featured a rubber canvas over a cockpit. And it was also definitely not made of pumpkin.

Because no one would ever think that a pumpkin might make a good boat. Except that a couple of weeks ago on August 27, Duane Hansen, a sixty-year-old Nebraska man, hopped into a hollowed-out 846-pound pumpkin that he grew himself and floated thirty-eight miles down the Missouri River from just south of Omaha to Nebraska City.

The really weird part about this story is that Hansen’s journey nabbed him a Guinness World Record, smashing the previous record holder’s distance of a little more than twenty-five miles, meaning there was a previous world record to smash.

I think this one is actually crying out to be made into a kayak. Nick Ares, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/
licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The sport of pumpkin kayaking dates all the way back to 1996 and soon resulted in the Windsor Pumpkin Regatta in 1999, an annual event held in Windsor, Nova Scotia and originally founded by Danny Dill, the son of the pumpkin grower responsible for the Atlantic Giant Pumpkin.

Sadly, the event has been discontinued for now because of ongoing venue issues, but it has inspired similar regattas in Oregon, Maine, Utah, and a handful of other locations. Previously it has included three categories of races including motorized, paddled, and experimental kayaks, though I might argue the sport is young enough that one might still consider kayaking in a hollowed-out pumpkin a tad experimental, and plenty ridiculous.   

But the event, and the several like it, have attracted thousands of people each year occasionally including celebrities. Mind you, that’s not thousands of participants, because while there seems to be no shortage of people who think pumpkin kayaking is fun to watch, giant pumpkins in the required six- to eight-hundred-pound range aren’t always easy to come by.

That’s the reason it took Duane Hansen five years of dreaming big to finally achieve this gigantic, world record-breaking goal the day after his sixtieth birthday. It took him that long to manage to grow an Atlantic Giant large enough to make the journey.

I don’t think I’ll make it down the Missouri in this thing. Sigh. Maybe next year.

That accomplishment alone seems impressive to me, because I too am growing pumpkins, and they have turned out somewhat smaller than 846 pounds. And this is even more disappointing to me now that I know I could have been paddling a pumpkin down the Missouri River.

Granted, I didn’t plant Atlantic Giant Pumpkin seeds, but I did have a reasonable expectation that my pumpkins might at least be large enough to carve Jack-o-lanterns. Maybe I just need to take a page from Duane Hansen’s book and dream bigger.

Hares, Hounds, and an Unlikely Superfan

It’s been about two hundred years since the students of the Shrewsbury School in England invented a new game in which they pretended to engage in an epic rabbit hunt. A couple of students took off running through whatever winding path they wished, carrying with them scraps of paper to drop along the way and lay down a trail. These were the hares.

This guy looks like he’s ready to catch
some rabbits. R.H.Moore: All about dogs; a book for doggy people New York,J. Lane,1900. https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/
item/75529, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

After giving the hares about a ten-minute head start, the next wave of students took off in hot pursuit, doing their best to follow the paper trail “scent” and locate their prey, like good “harriers.” These hounds were usually the younger of the remaining students because older, bigger students rarely tolerate being referred to as dogs.

At last came the field. These were the oldest students who really got their wriggle on and went in for the metaphorical kill. At least I assume it was metaphorical. The whole thing was designed to resemble the traditional hare or fox hunt. It was also a pretty good way to get some exercise.

In general, I approve of exercise and as I’ve mentioned once or twice before I have an almost irrational hatred of rabbits, so it might seem like this game would be right up my alley. Except that it isn’t, because I also have an entirely rational hatred of running. I’ve mentioned that once or twice, too.

The game of “hare and hounds” (referred to sometimes as “paper chase”) certainly does require a lot of running. In fact, it wasn’t long before this game became a competitive sport at public schools throughout England and soon after Oxford and Cambridge. By 1876 the sport held an English national championship.

Ok, no there weren’t really 25,000 athletes. But it was a lot. And not one of the runners you can see in this picture is my son.

Eleven years later it had come to the United States. By then the imaginary rabbit had long been abandoned and the sport had become known as cross country. Today it shows up all over the world with lots of crazy people (referred to sometimes as “runners”) who just run through the countryside. For fun, I guess.

It’s definitely not my kind of sport, but I have been working on becoming a superfan because my youngest son has decided he would like to spend his high school years as a crazy person. He started this past spring surprising me, and possibly himself, by deciding to run distance events in Track & Field. Turns out he’s pretty good at it, and improving rapidly.

I, however, have discovered that cross country is a difficult sport to spectate. His first meet of the schoolyear occurred earlier this week at a very crowded park with what felt like about a thousand other schools, each with at least twenty-five runners. I exaggerate, of course, but only because I rarely could pick out my son in the pack.

I may not love running, but as long as I bring one of these to the meet, my son is happy enough to grant me superfan status.

I lined up with thousands (probably) of parents along the start and saw a mass of runners take off. I really can only assume he was among them. Then I shuffled along with the crowd to another part of the course, held up my camera to catch a picture of him running past, and failed to find him before the horde of spectators began once again to shuffle into a new place and I missed him again.

I did see him cross the finish line, right at his goal time for the event. I caught up with him afterwards to give him his special sport recovery drink I’d been keeping cold for him and to tell him how comfortable he had looked on the course. I assume that was probably mostly true since he was smiling. At least it seemed like the kind of thing a superfan parent should say.

I really am proud of him, though I’m not sure where he got his love for the sport. It’s probably safe to assume that is wasn’t from his mother who mostly thinks running is stupid. But just maybe it stems in part from a shared innate drive to hunt down rabbits.

Mothman by Day, Mole Man by Night

Sometime around September 25, 1924 the streets of Washington D.C.’s Dupont Circle district opened up and swallowed a truck. I imagine that was quite a shock for the truck driver who suddenly found himself in the literal dark underbelly of his nation’s capital. It was also a surprise to nearly everyone in the city, especially when it was discovered that the reason for the sinkhole was an elaborate series of tunnels dug beneath the area.

Harrison Gray Dyar. Mothman by day, Mole Man by night. Unidentified photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Speculation quickly suggested nefarious plots involving spy rings and bootlegger operations, neither of which turned out to be true. To the best of anyone’s knowledge, the tunnels didn’t lead to a great Masonic treasure, either.

The explanation finally came from a former resident of the neighborhood, Harrison Dyar, a fifty-eight-year-old, independently wealthy and highly respected entomologist who spent most of his career at the Smithsonian Institution. There he was the custodian of the Lepidoptera. In case you aren’t up on your bugs, that’s the order of insects that includes butterflies and moths.

If moths do happen to be your thing, then Dyar’s name might be familiar to you. He’s the rock star entomologist behind Dyar’s Law, which is a ratio that can be used to identify larval stages based on insect head width, a fact I’m sure you already knew. He’s also the inspiration for the genus of moth once known as Dyaria. That name has since been changed to Coenodomus, which is harder to pronounce, but is also much easier to say with a straight face.

But that’s not all Dyar is known for because, when he was done looking at insects all day, he also had an unusual hobby. For years, the man spent an enormous amount of his free time digging tunnels that snaked from his home through the ground beneath Washington D.C. When asked why he did this, he replied that he did it for exercise.

Oops. Accidental discovery (by cave-in) of a tunnel built by Harrison G. Dyar. Dupont Circle, Washington D.C. Herbert A. French, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

His children and their friends played in the tunnels, some of which were reinforced with concrete, lined with ceramic tiles, and included ladders, archways, decorative animal sculptures, and strings of electric lights. The whole thing allegedly started one day when Dyar dug a garden for one of his wives (because there’s more than moths to this historical figure) and then he just kept digging until, a decade and a half later, a truck fell through the streets of Washington D.C. Oops.

Dyar’s tunnels are all filled in or bricked off today, but of course rumors abound that there are plenty of underground tunnels and bunkers throughout the city. Some claims are substantiated. A few such spaces are even open to the public.

Others remain little more than whispers, though I doubt anyone would be surprised to find that Washington D.C. has its fair share of dark, cavernous secrets and an unstable underbelly created by the custodians of all manner of Dyaria.