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4 Doctor Who Stories Ripped From History Books

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Earlier this week, we looked at Doctor Who stories inspired by the headlines. But far more stories were ripped from the history books. In fact, the original series concept back in 1963 was to alternate science fiction stories (which could be used to introduce science concepts) with period pieces (which could be used to teach history). Since there were so many in nearly fifty years, I'll just list a small selection.

1. The Abandonment of the Mary Celeste

The History: On December 4, 1872, the crew of the Dei Gratia sighted another vessel sailing in the Atlantic Ocean. Something didn't look right about her, as if she was not being properly helmed, and the Dei Gratia moved in closer and identified it as Mary Celeste. They could see no one on board, and after a while, although she flew no distress signal, they decided to board her. They found the ship deserted. The cargo and personal effects of the crew were all intact, along with ample provisions for the voyage, but most of the ship's papers were missing, along with a lifeboat. The ship appeared to have been abandoned in a hurry, but since the crew and passengers were never seen again, to this day no one knows exactly what happened.

On Doctor Who: Starting in May 1965, the BBC began transmission of "The Chase," a six-part adventure featuring the Daleks and providing for the departure of long-running companions Ian and Barbara. The Daleks have developed time travel and are pursuing the TARDIS through time and space, with the intention of eliminating the pesky Doctor. The Doctor discovers the plot and flees through history, with the Daleks in pursuit. In part three, after a brief stop on the Empire State Building, they find themselves on a sailing ship that's becalmed off of the Azores. Barbara goes out to investigate, because she loves sailing vessels, and the companions are mistaken for stowaways. They manage to escape, and the Doctor dematerializes the TARDIS, leaving the ship's crew very confused. Then the Daleks' time vessel arrives. As the Daleks emerge, the crew and passengers flee the ship. The Daleks then leave to resume their pursuit, leaving the abandoned ship adrift.

Here's a fan compilation of clips from "The Chase" set to "A Pirate's Life for Me":

2. Jack the Ripper

The History: London, 1888. A maniac is stalking the streets of Whitechapel, targeting prostitutes, killing them, and sending gruesome trophies and taunting letters to the police and press. The crimes were never solved and the murderer was never identified, but he became known as Jack the Ripper. The general public quickly became frustrated with the inability of the police to find a murderer, and newspapers took to hiring private detectives, a la Sherlock Holmes, whose first adventure had been printed just the year before.

On Doctor Who: In "The Talons of Weng-Chiang" (1977), the TARDIS materializes in London around 1890; the Fourth Doctor wants to show his companion Leela some of the customs of her Earth ancestors, and they see a poster advertising a magician named Li H'sen Chang. En route to the Palace Theatre where he performs, they happen upon a murder in progress. The Doctor decides to investigate.

The victim is a cab driver who had gone to the Palace Theatre to confront Chang, claiming that he must have abducted his wife. The man's wife had attended a performance and been selected as a volunteer for a mesmerism demonstration, and had subsequently walked away. The police had been disinclined to investigate, but one of the theater's staff believes it's the work of the Ripper or a copycat, because this isn't the first woman to disappear in the vicinity of the theater recently. This turns out to be nothing more than cover for the real culprit: a deformed man hiding under the theater and claiming to be the Chinese god Weng Chiang, who needs the young women for a nefarious purpose.

The story is heavily informed by the media treatment of the Ripper murders, the public media frenzy about him, and the growing popularity of Sherlock Holmes (whom the Doctor deliberately imitates, complete with deerstalker hat).

3. The Disappearance of Agatha Christie

The History: In 1926, Agatha Christie's husband Archie revealed that he was having an affair and asked for a divorce. On December 8, they had a fight of some kind and her husband left. So did Agatha, leaving only a note stating that she was going to Yorkshire. No further trace of her was found until she turned up at a hotel eleven days later in Harrogate, Yorkshire. She would give no explanation of her disappearance, though many believe it was a stunt staged to embarrass or otherwise inconvenience her husband.

On Doctor Who: On May 17, 2008, the BBC aired "The Unicorn and the Wasp." The Tenth Doctor and Donna Noble arrive at a manor house in 1926 England and are promptly mistaken for guests at a party thrown by Lady Eddison, who as a fan of Agatha Christie, has invited her for dinner. But in a pattern that seems lifted right out of Agatha's fiction, the guests start dying mysteriously. It's obvious the killer is one of them -- but which one? In the end, Agatha Christie must save the day, but in so doing suffers temporary amnesia. The Doctor drops her off at a hotel in Harrogate, ten days later.

4. Vincent Van Gogh

The History: Born in the Netherlands on March 30, 1853, Vincent Van Gogh lived a life which is, for many, the epitome of the tormented artist. Though wildly famous today, in his lifetime he toiled in obscurity, unable to sell his paintings and frustrated at his inability to work during bouts of mental illness. His most productive period was the last two years of life. He moved to the city of Arles in 1888 with visions of starting an artists' colony; this dream went unrealized and he began to feel increasingly abandoned. The townsfolk called him mad and wanted him removed; the artist Gaugin visited but ultimately rejected the idea of continued artistic collaboration; and his bouts of madness grew progressively worse, longer, and more frequent. In 1890, he is believed to have shot himself, although some believe it was an accident and not a suicide.

On Doctor Who: On June 5, 2010, the BBC transmitted "Vincent and the Doctor." Intrigued by a strange monster appearing in one of Van Gogh's paintings at the Musee D'Orsay, the Eleventh Doctor and Amy Pond decide to investigate. They land in Provence, in the city of Arles, and quickly find a cafe that looks exactly like Cafe Terrace at Night, painted by Van Gogh in September of 1888. There they find a redheaded Dutchman trying (and failing) to pay off his bar tab by bartering a self-portrait. They immediately recognize him to be Van Gogh and begin making friends with him to try and work out when the monster will appear. I won't spoil the episode, because it's one of the best, but the real star is Van Gogh's art. Many of his paintings are featured at some point in the story -- backgrounds in his apartment, the layout of his room, The Church at Auvers where the creature had appeared, why he decided to paint all those sunflowers, and a lovely scene explaining why he painted Starry Night in that distinctive way.

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iStock / Collage by Jen Pinkowski
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The Elements
9 Essential Facts About Carbon
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iStock / Collage by Jen Pinkowski

How well do you know the periodic table? Our series The Elements explores the fundamental building blocks of the observable universe—and their relevance to your life—one by one.
 
 
It can be glittering and hard. It can be soft and flaky. It can look like a soccer ball. Carbon is the backbone of every living thing—and yet it just might cause the end of life on Earth as we know it. How can a lump of coal and a shining diamond be composed of the same material? Here are eight things you probably didn't know about carbon.

1. IT'S THE "DUCT TAPE OF LIFE."

It's in every living thing, and in quite a few dead ones. "Water may be the solvent of the universe," writes Natalie Angier in her classic introduction to science, The Canon, "but carbon is the duct tape of life." Not only is carbon duct tape, it's one hell of a duct tape. It binds atoms to one another, forming humans, animals, plants and rocks. If we play around with it, we can coax it into plastics, paints, and all kinds of chemicals.

2. IT'S ONE OF THE MOST ABUNDANT ELEMENTS IN THE UNIVERSE.

It sits right at the top of the periodic table, wedged in between boron and nitrogen. Atomic number 6, chemical sign C. Six protons, six neutrons, six electrons. It is the fourth most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen, helium, and oxygen, and 15th in the Earth's crust. While its older cousins hydrogen and helium are believed to have been formed during the tumult of the Big Bang, carbon is thought to stem from a buildup of alpha particles in supernova explosions, a process called supernova nucleosynthesis.

3. IT'S NAMED AFTER COAL.

While humans have known carbon as coal and—after burning—soot for thousands of years, it was Antoine Lavoisier who, in 1772, showed that it was in fact a unique chemical entity. Lavoisier used an instrument that focused the Sun's rays using lenses which had a diameter of about four feet. He used the apparatus, called a solar furnace, to burn a diamond in a glass jar. By analyzing the residue found in the jar, he was able to show that diamond was comprised solely of carbon. Lavoisier first listed it as an element in his textbook Traité Élémentaire de Chimie, published in 1789. The name carbon derives from the French charbon, or coal.

4. IT LOVES TO BOND.

It can form four bonds, which it does with many other elements, creating hundreds of thousands of compounds, some of which we use daily. (Plastics! Drugs! Gasoline!) More importantly, those bonds are both strong and flexible.

5. NEARLY 20 PERCENT OF YOUR BODY IS CARBON.

May Nyman, a professor of inorganic chemistry at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon tells Mental Floss that carbon has an almost unbelievable range. "It makes up all life forms, and in the number of substances it makes, the fats, the sugars, there is a huge diversity," she says. It forms chains and rings, in a process chemists call catenation. Every living thing is built on a backbone of carbon (with nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, and other elements). So animals, plants, every living cell, and of course humans are a product of catenation. Our bodies are 18.5 percent carbon, by weight.

And yet it can be inorganic as well, Nyman says. It teams up with oxygen and other substances to form large parts of the inanimate world, like rocks and minerals.

6. WE DISCOVERED TWO NEW FORMS OF IT ONLY RECENTLY.

Carbon is found in four major forms: graphite, diamonds, fullerenes, and graphene. "Structure controls carbon's properties," says Nyman.  Graphite ("the writing stone") is made up of loosely connected sheets of carbon formed like chicken wire. Penciling something in actually is just scratching layers of graphite onto paper. Diamonds, in contrast, are linked three-dimensionally. These exceptionally strong bonds can only be broken by a huge amount of energy. Because diamonds have many of these bonds, it makes them the hardest substance on Earth.

Fullerenes were discovered in 1985 when a group of scientists blasted graphite with a laser and the resulting carbon gas condensed to previously unknown spherical molecules with 60 and 70 atoms. They were named in honor of Buckminster Fuller, the eccentric inventor who famously created geodesic domes with this soccer ball–like composition. Robert Curl, Harold Kroto, and Richard Smalley won the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering this new form of carbon.

The youngest member of the carbon family is graphene, found by chance in 2004 by Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov in an impromptu research jam. The scientists used scotch tape—yes, really—to lift carbon sheets one atom thick from a lump of graphite. The new material is extremely thin and strong. The result: the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010.

7. DIAMONDS AREN'T CALLED "ICE" BECAUSE OF THEIR APPEARANCE.

Diamonds are called "ice" because their ability to transport heat makes them cool to the touch—not because of their look. This makes them ideal for use as heat sinks in microchips. (Synthethic diamonds are mostly used.) Again, diamonds' three-dimensional lattice structure comes into play. Heat is turned into lattice vibrations, which are responsible for diamonds' very high thermal conductivity.

8. IT HELPS US DETERMINE THE AGE OF ARTIFACTS—AND PROVE SOME OF THEM FAKE.

American scientist Willard F. Libby won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1960 for developing a method for dating relics by analyzing the amount of a radioactive subspecies of carbon contained in them. Radiocarbon or C14 dating measures the decay of a radioactive form of carbon, C14, that accumulates in living things. It can be used for objects that are as much as 50,000 years old. Carbon dating help determine the age of Ötzi the Iceman, a 5300-year-old corpse found frozen in the Alps. It also established that Lancelot's Round Table in Winchester Cathedral was made hundreds of years after the supposed Arthurian Age.

9. TOO MUCH OF IT IS CHANGING OUR WORLD.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is an important part of a gaseous blanket that is wrapped around our planet, making it warm enough to sustain life. But burning fossil fuels—which are built on a carbon backbone—releases more carbon dioxide, which is directly linked to global warming. A number of ways to remove and store carbon dioxide have been proposed, including bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, which involves planting large stands of trees, harvesting and burning them to create electricity, and capturing the CO2 created in the process and storing it underground. Yet another approach that is being discussed is to artificially make oceans more alkaline in order to let them to bind more CO2. Forests are natural carbon sinks, because trees capture CO2 during photosynthesis, but human activity in these forests counteracts and surpasses whatever CO2 capture gains we might get. In short, we don't have a solution yet to the overabundance of C02 we've created in the atmosphere.

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Nicole Garner
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History
How One Widow's Grief Turned a Small Town Into a Roadside Attraction
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Nicole Garner

Like many small towns, the southwest Missouri town of Nevada (pronounced not as the state, but as Nev-AY-duh) loves to tell tales. Incorporated in 1855, the 8000-person city was once a railroad hub and a former home to the outlaw Frank James, the elder brother of the more infamous Jesse James. But the one story Nevada residents love to tell above all others isn't about anyone famous. It's about an atypical above-ground grave in the town's oldest cemetery, the man who's interred there, and how he can't get any rest.

Scan of the Nevada Daily Mail from March 4, 1897.
Nevada Daily Mail; March 4, 1897.
Courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri.

On March 4, 1897, the body of a young man was found near Nevada, Missouri, apparently struck by lightning. The local newspaper, the Nevada Daily Mail, printed the story of his death that evening right next to the news that William McKinley had been sworn in as president that day; a bold-faced headline declared "Death Came Without Warning," and noted “His Clothing Torn From His Body." A reporter at the scene described how the body, which was found around 11 a.m., was unrecognizable at first. Eventually the young man's father identified him as Frederick Alonzo "Lon" Dorsa, and the coroner determined that an umbrella was the cause of Lon's electrocution.

Lon left behind a widow whose name was never mentioned in newspapers; to this day, other printed versions of the Dorsas' story omit her identity. But she had a name—Neva Dorsa—and her grief led her to commission a singularly peculiar grave for her husband—one that would open her up to years worth of ridicule and also make their small town a roadside attraction.

A funeral announcement in the Daily Mail noted that undertakers had prepared Lon's body in a "neat casket" before a funeral service set for March 7. A follow-up article the next day read that Lon's funeral was widely attended, with a large procession to the cemetery and burial with military honors. His widow—whose name was determined from a marriage license filed at the Vernon County courthouse showing that Lon married a Neva Gibson on February 12, 1895—had gone from a newlywed to a single mother in just two years.

But, Lon's first interment was temporary. Neva had arranged a grand resting place for her husband, which wasn't ready in the short time between his death and the funeral. Modern newspaper retellings of Lon and Neva's tale say she ordered a large, above-ground enclosure from the Brophy Monument Company in Nevada. A large piece of stone—some accounts say marble while others suggest limestone or granite—was shipped in via railroad car. When it arrived, the stone was too heavy to move, so a local stonecutter spent more than a month chiseling away before the piece was light enough to be pulled away by horses. A wire story described the stone tomb as being "12 feet long, 4 feet wide and 5 feet high. Its weight at completion was 11,000 pounds."

Before Lon’s body was placed inside, Neva made a few key additions—specifically a hidden pane of glass that let her view her husband:

"A piece of stone, covered to represent a bible [sic], is the covering of the aperture. It can be lifted easily by the widow's hand and when Mrs. Dorsa's grief becomes unusually poignant, she goes to the cemetery and gazes for hours at a time upon the face of her dead husband."

The Daily Mail covered the second tomb's installation with morbid attention to detail on May 6, 1897, precisely two months after Lon was initially buried:

"When the grave was opened this morning the coffin looked as bright and new as when buried but it had water in it which had at one time nearly submerged the body. The remains looked perfectly natural and there were no evidences of decomposition having sat in—no odor whatover [sic]. A little mould [sic] had gathered about the roots of his hair and on the neck, otherwise the body looked as fresh as when buried."

The newspaper called the tomb a "stone sarcophagus" and noted that Neva was there to examine her husband's corpse and watch the reburial of his remains. There was likely no inkling from those present, or the community who read about it in that evening's paper, that Neva had designed the tomb with unexpected and usual features, like the pivoting stone Bible that would reveal Lon's face below when unlocked and moved.

Instead, the newspaper suggested that the "costly mousoleum [sic] provided for the reception of his remains is the tribute of her affection."

Lon Dorsa's grave.
Lon Dorsa's grave at Deepwood Cemetery in Nevada, Missouri.
Nicole Garner

Following Lon's re-interment, Neva managed her grief by visiting her deceased husband regularly. Her home was near his grave—the 1900 U.S. Census listed her as a 25-year-old widow living on south Washington Street in Nevada, the same street as the cemetery—and three years after her husband's death, she was employed as a dressmaker, working year-round to provide for their young children, Beatrice and Fred.

By 1905, a new wave of public scrutiny hit the Dorsa (sometimes spelled Dorsey) family when the details of Neva's specially designed, above-ground grave began circulating. It's not clear who reported the story first, but the Topeka Daily Capital, published across the Kansas border 150 miles from Nevada, published a piece, which eventually spread to The St. Louis Republic. Early that spring, the same story was printed in the Pittsburgh Press, a Chicago church publication called The Advance, and in the summer of 1906, a description of Lon Dorsa's crypt had made it nearly 1000 miles to the front page of the Staunton Spectator and Vindicator in Staunton, Virginia:

"The strangest tomb in America, if not in the world, is that which rest the remains of Lon Dorsa in Deepwood cemetery, Nevada, Mo. It is so constructed that the widow can look upon her deceased husband at will, by the turning of a key in a lock which holds a stone Bible just above the remains."

Articles at the time noted that Lon's remains were in an airtight tomb and that scientists supposedly told Mrs. Dorsa that her husband's body would be well-preserved in those conditions, but decomposition had already taken place: "It [the body] has turned almost black, but the general outline of the features remains unchanged."

According to a 1997 walking tour pamphlet of Deepwood Cemetery, it wasn't long before community members caught on that Neva visited the cemetery all too often: "Fascinated children hung about to watch the lady arrive in her buggy. If she saw them, she'd go after them with a whip, shrieking like a madwoman …" the guide stated. Eventually, "her family had the pivot removed and the Bible cemented down."

Local lore suggests that the publicity and Lon's deterioration drove Neva to insanity. Some say she ended up in an asylum and died soon after—a fairly believable tale, considering Nevada was home to one of the state's hospitals for mental illness. However, a list of Deepwood Cemetery lot owners, found at the Vernon County Historical Society, doesn't have a burial space for Neva.

A more likely explanation—based on a listing on Find a Grave, a website that indexes cemeteries and headstones, and which matches Neva's personal information—suggests she simply remarried and moved to California. The California Death Index, 1945-1997, shows that a Neva (Gibson) Simpson died Dec. 30, 1945 in Los Angeles. The birth date and place match those of Neva (Gibson) Dorsa.

Newspaper clipping featuring a picture of a skull.
Nevada Daily Mail, Nov. 30, 1987. Courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri.
State Historical Society of Missouri

Wherever Neva ended up, Lon's body didn't exactly rest in peace. In July 1986, vandals broke into the town's most famous tomb and stole his head. It was recovered the following year in a Nevada home, but law enforcement and cemetery caretakers noted that the stone Bible, which had been cemented down for some time, was periodically ripped off the tomb.

Talbot Wight, the Deepwood Cemetery Board’s president at the time, told the Daily Mail in 1987 that Lon's hair, skin, and clothing were well preserved until vandals broke the encasing glass. "Evidently, he was still in pretty good shape until July," Wight said.

But when Lon's skull was photographed for the newspaper's front page, it featured no hair or skin, both of which likely decomposed quickly after being stolen if not before. The skull was buried in an undisclosed location away from the body so as to not tempt new grave robbers, and the tomb was re-sealed with marble in an attempt to prevent further damage.

Still, the story of Neva Dorsa and her husband’s remains hasn't died away. It circulates through southwestern Missouri, drawing visitors to Deepwood Cemetery to gaze at the stone plot—just not in the same way Neva had intended.

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