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The True Story of the Southwick Jog


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If you were very bored one day and built a 3D model of the state of Connecticut, then ran your hand along the top, you’d get to a place, just north of the town of Granby, where your hand would fall into a strange little pocket. This is the “Southwick Jog,” a two-square-mile plot of land where an otherwise straight border between Connecticut and Massachusetts breaks and dips itself a little south.

Almost everyone living on either side of the Jog has a story to explain it. One legend says that the border dips because the Congamond Lakes on the land had to be given to Massachusetts since their source waters were further up in her territory. Another story goes that the surveyors who set the border were drunk the whole time; when they sobered up and realized they had laid the line too far north, they gave Massachusetts that little pocket to make up for the lost land, instead of re-surveying. A joke explanation given in Massachusetts is that the Jog is there to hold the commonwealth in place, lest it slide into the sea. Still other stories give reasons like complicated tax evasion schemes or bizarre royal feuds.

The real reason for existence of the Jog is at once much simpler and more complicated than any of the folk tales from the area. The story spans more than 150 years and five different border surveys, but starts with one lesson: Surveying is a job best left to professionals.

In the Beginning

In the mid-17th century, English explorers moving through the Connecticut River Valley founded a farming community they called Southwick. To assert its sovereignty in the area, the Massachusetts Bay Colony sent two men to survey and mark the colony’s southern boundary in 1642. Instead of hiring professional surveyors to walk the boundary line, though, Massachusetts hired Nathaniel Woodward and Solomon Saffery, who were described as “skillful and approved” artists. Connecticut was less enamored by the men’s skills, but kept its mouth shut and allowed the survey to be done.

Line #1

According to the Massachusetts Charter, the colony’s southern border was to run west “from a point three miles south of the most southerly branch of the Charles River.” Woodward and Saffery botched the job right from the start—thanks in part to their lack of experience and their crude, inaccurate tools—by beginning at a point a few miles too far south. They made things worse as they moved west and decided that, rather than walking the line like other surveyors would marking it as they went, they would save time and effort and avoid confrontation with native tribes if they traveled by boat. They went back to the coast, sailed around Cape Cod, down into Long Island Sound and then up the Connecticut River. When they reached what they thought the proper latitude, they fixed the line and established the boundary, skipping all that walking in between the two points.

The line wound up being fixed too far to the south (as much a seven miles below the true line). Connecticut was suspicious of the survey, but wouldn't even receive a royal charter for several years, and again stayed quiet on the issue.

By 1662, Connecticut had its charter, which clearly defined her northern border as being above Woodward and Saffery’s line, but was still hesitant to fight Massachusetts over it because she was already involved in border disputes with Rhode Island and New York.

Meanwhile, the land between the two lines continued to fill up with people who had only a hazy conception of which colony they lived in.

Line #2

After a few decades occasional sparring over the border(s), Connecticut asked Massachusetts to help it fix the problem and complete a joint survey. Massachusetts refused, maintaining that the 1642 survey was correct.

Connecticut decided to strike out alone, hiring John Butler and William Whitney—real surveyors—to run the line according to its charter. They conducted their survey in a very orthodox fashion and reported in August 1695 that the previous line had been laid too far south. Connecticut confronted Massachusetts with the report, but Massachusetts only responded to say that the report was unnecessary, since the border had already been established in 1642.

Line #3

In 1702, Connecticut commissioned two men from that colony and one from Massachusetts to run another line according to the Massachusetts charter. Their result coincided almost perfectly with the line Connecticut had run just a few years prior and confirmed again that Woodward and Saffery’s line was too far south. Massachusetts did not want to accept the results and give up territory, but it was also reluctant to argue a survey conducted by one of its own citizens according to its own charter. Eventually, Massachusetts decided that the survey was invalid and she could not accept the border, as the Massachusetts surveyor had never received power to represent the colony.

Line #4

In 1713, a joint commission made up of representatives from both colonies divvied up control of the towns in the disputed territory. When the residents of some of these towns complained about where they’d wound up, the two colonies finally agreed to a joint survey of a new border according to their charters. Not surprisingly, it fell far north of Line #1 and closer to Lines #2 and #3.

Massachusetts, much to Connecticut’s shock, accepted the line and relinquished its claims to much of the disputed land. The new line laid north of several Massachusetts settlements, though, and presented the problem of which colony they would belong to: the one that first settled them or the one that now had the land they sat on. Another commission decided that Massachusetts should retain control of these towns, including the area of Southwick. This resulted in some adjustments to the line, including that little pocket of Massachusetts dipping below the rest of the border. Connecticut, meanwhile, was reimbursed with an equal amount of land from within Massachusetts. To everyone involved it seemed a fair decision.

Line #5

Everyone, that is, except the inhabitants of these towns, who were not given any say in the matter of which colony they went to. It was too late to do anything, though, since the agreement was already signed, stamped and sealed. The border seemed settled, finally, so the jilted townspeople regrouped and came up with a plan.

Right when things had settled down and the colonial governments thought that that the border issue was done, the General Assembly of Connecticut received petitions from people living in several of the Massachusetts border towns in the previously disputed area. The petitioners claimed that if their land had laid below the accepted line, then they should, and wanted to, be part of Connecticut (mostly because taxes were lower there). The General Assembly saw no flaw in the argument and approved the petition.

As conflicts with England came to a head in the colonies and the war of independence broke out, the border dispute was set aside. After the war, Connecticut got back around to dealing with the towns. She argued to Massachusetts that these towns were clearly below the boundary that had first agreed upon and had been given to Massachusetts only out of Connecticut’s generosity. Furthermore, the residents of the disputed lands had requested to be part of Connecticut. Massachusetts countered with the fact that Connecticut’s premature approval of the petition and assumed jurisdiction over the towns directly violated their 1713 compromise. The Bay State was willing to overlook this faux pas, however, if Connecticut stopped pressing it to give up any more land.

The situation was left at that until 1801, when another agreement was hammered out to soothe lingering tension: The area around Southwick would be divided in two, with the Congamond Lakes as the boundary. The portion east of the lakes would go to Connecticut, and the portion to the west would go to Massachusetts. The two states agreed, the area was surveyed again, the Jog got its current shape and, after one hundred and fifty-nine years, the border was established. For good this time!, everyone swore.

Or was it?

Oh jeez.

Today, there remains a small, half-serious movement of Connecticuters who want to “take back the notch” and set the border as laid out by lines #2 and #3—they're even selling t-shirts—so the Jog’s story might have a few more chapters left in it. Stay tuned.

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Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
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Head Case: What the Only Soft Tissue Dodo Head in Existence Is Teaching Scientists About These Extinct Birds
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock

Of all the recently extinct animals, none seems to excite the imagination quite like the dodo—a fact Mark Carnall has experienced firsthand. As one of two Life Collections Managers at the UK's Oxford University Museum of Natural History, he’s responsible for nearly 150,000 specimens, “basically all the dead animals excluding insects and fossils,” he tells Mental Floss via email. And that includes the only known soft tissue dodo head in existence.

“In the two and a bit years that I’ve been here, there’s been a steady flow of queries about the dodo from researchers, artists, the public, and the media,” he says. “This is the third interview about the dodo this week! It’s definitely one of the most popular specimens I look after.”

The dodo, or Raphus cucullatus, lived only on the island of Mauritius (and surrounding islets) in the Indian Ocean. First described by Vice Admiral Wybrand van Warwijck in 1598, it was extinct less than 100 years later (sailors' tales of the bird, coupled with its rapid extinction, made many doubt that the dodo was a real creature). Historians still debate the extent that humans ate them, but the flightless birds were easy prey for the predators, including rats and pigs, that sailors introduced to the isolated island of Mauritius. Because the dodo went extinct in the 1600s (the actual date is still widely debated), museum specimens are very, very rare. In fact, with the exception of subfossils—the dark skeletons on display at many museums—there are only three other known specimens, according to Carnall, “and one of those is missing.” (The fully feathered dodos you might have seen in museums? They're models, not actual zoological specimens.)

A man standing with a Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird
A subfossil (bone that has not been fully fossilized) Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird in a museum in Wales circa 1938.
Becker, Fox Photos/Getty Images

Since its extinction was confirmed in the 1800s, Raphus cucullatus has been an object of fascination: It’s been painted and drawn, written about and scientifically studied, and unfairly become synonymous with stupidity. Even now, more than 300 years since the last dodo walked the Earth, there’s still so much we don’t know about the bird—and Oxford’s specimen might be our greatest opportunity to unlock the mysteries surrounding how it behaved, how it lived, how it evolved, and how it died.

 
 

To put into context how old the dodo head is, consider this: From the rule of Oliver Cromwell to the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, it has been around—and it’s likely even older than that. Initially an entire bird (how exactly it was preserved is unclear), the specimen belonged to Elias Ashmole, who used his collections to found Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum in 1677. Before that, it belonged to John Tradescant the Elder and his son; a description of the collection from 1656 notes the specimen as “Dodar, from the Island Mauritius; it is not able to flie being so big.”

And that’s where the dodo’s provenance ends—beyond that, no one knows where or when the specimen came from. “Where the Tradescants got the dodo from has been the subject of some speculation,” Carnall says. “A number of live animals were brought back from Mauritius, but it’s not clear if this is one of [those animals].”

Initially, the specimen was just another one of many in the museum’s collections, and in 1755, most of the body was disposed of because of rot. But in the 19th century, when the extinction of the dodo was confirmed, there was suddenly renewed interest in what remained. Carnall writes on the museum’s blog that John Duncan, then the Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, had a number of casts of the head made, which were sent to scientists and institutions like the British Museum and Royal College of Surgeons. Today, those casts—and casts of those casts—can be found around the world. (Carnall is actively trying to track them all down.)

The Oxford University Dodo head with scoleric bone and the skin on one side removed.
The Oxford University Dodo head with skin and sclerotic ring.
© Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History // Used with permission

In the 1840s, Sir Henry Acland, a doctor and teacher, dissected one side of the head to expose its skeleton, leaving the skin attached on the other side, for a book about the bird by Alexander Gordon Melville and H.E. Strickland called The dodo and its kindred; or, The history, affinities, and osteology of the dodo, solitaire, and other extinct birds of the islands Mauritius, Rodriguez and Bourbon. Published in 1848, “[It] brought together all the known accounts and depictions of the dodo,” Carnall says. The Dodo and its kindred further raised the dodo’s profile, and may have been what spurred schoolteacher George Clark to take a team to Mauritius, where they found the subfossil dodo remains that can be seen in many museums today.

Melville and Strickland described Oxford’s specimen—which they believed to be female—as being “in tolerable preservation ... The eyes still remain dried within the sockets, but the corneous extremity of the beak has perished, so that it scarcely exhibits that strongly hooked termination so conspicuous in all the original portraits. The deep transverse grooves are also visible, though less developed than in the paintings.”

Today, the specimen includes the head as well as the sclerotic ring (a bony feature found in the eyes of birds and lizards), a feather (which is mounted on a microscope slide), tissue samples, the foot skeleton, and scales from the foot. “Considering it’s been on display in collections and museums, pest eaten, dissected, sampled and handled by scientists for over 350 years,” Carnall says, “it’s in surprisingly good condition.”

 
 

There’s still much we don’t know about the dodo, and therefore a lot to learn. As the only soft tissue of a dodo known to exist, the head has been studied for centuries, and not always in ways that we would approve of today. “There was quite some consideration about dissecting the skin off of the head by Sir Henry Acland,” Carnall says. “Sadly there have also been some questionable permissions given, such as when [Melville] soaked the head in water to manipulate the skin and feel the bony structure. Excessive handling over the years has no doubt added to the wear of the specimen.”

Today, scientists who want to examine the head have to follow a standard protocol. “The first step is to get in touch with the museum with details about access requirements ... We deal with enquiries about our collections every single day,” Carnall says. “Depending on the study required, we try to mitigate damage and risk to specimens. For destructive sampling—where a tissue sample or bone sample is needed to be removed from the specimen and then destroyed for analysis—we weigh up the potential importance of the research and how it will be shared with the wider community.”

In other words: Do the potential scientific gains outweigh the risk to the specimen? “This,” Carnall says, “can be a tough decision to make.”

The head, which has been examined by evolutionary biologist Beth Shapiro and extinction expert Samuel Turvey as well as dodo experts Julian Hume and Jolyon Parish, has been key in many recent discoveries about the bird. “[It] has been used to understand what the dodo would have looked like, what it may have eaten, where it fits in with the bird evolutionary tree, island biogeography and of course, extinction,” Carnall says. In 2011, scientists took measurements from dodo remains—including the Oxford specimen—and revised the size of the bird from the iconic 50 pounder seen in paintings to an animal “similar to that of a large wild turkey.” DNA taken from specimen’s leg bone has shed light on how the dodo came to Mauritius and how it was related to other dodo-like birds on neighboring islands [PDF]. That DNA also revealed that the dodo’s closest living relative is the Nicobar pigeon [PDF].

A nicobar pigeon perched on a bowl of food.
A nicobar pigeon.
iStock

Even with those questions answered, there are a million more that scientists would like to answer about the dodo. “Were there other species—plants, parasites—that depended on the dodo?” Carnall asks. “What was the soft tissue like? ... How and when did the dodo and the related and also extinct Rodrigues solitaire colonize the Mascarene Islands? What were their brains like?”

 
 

Though it’s a rare specimen, and priceless by scientific standards, the dodo head is, in many ways, just like all the rest of the specimens in the museum’s collections. It’s stored in a standard archival quality box with acid-free tissue paper that’s changed regularly. (The box is getting upgraded to something that Carnall says is “slightly schmancier” because “it gets quite a bit of use, more so than the rest of the collection.”) “As for the specific storage, we store it in vault 249 and obviously turn the lasers off during the day,” Carnall jokes. “The passcode for the vault safe is 1234ABCD …”

According to Carnall, even though there are many scientific and cultural reasons why the dodo head is considered important, to him, it isn’t necessarily more important than any of the other 149,999 specimens he’s responsible for.

“Full disclosure: All museum specimens are equally important to collections managers,” he says. “It is a huge honor and a privilege to be responsible for this one particular specimen, but each and every specimen in the collection also has the power to contribute towards our knowledge of the natural world ... This week I was teaching about a species of Greek woodlouse and the molluscs of Oxfordshire. We know next to nothing about these animals—where they live, what they eat, the threats to them, and the predators that rely on them. The same is true of most living species, sadly. But on the upside, there’s so much work to be done!”

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How Promoting Handwashing Got One 19th Century Doctor Institutionalized
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Regardless of how often we actually do it, it's common knowledge that washing our hands before eating, after coughing, and after using the bathroom is good for us. But the connection between handwashing and health wasn't always accepted as fact. As Danielle Bainbridge explains in the PBS web series Origin of Everything, the first doctor to campaign for cleanliness in hospitals was not only shunned by other medical professionals, but ended up in an insane asylum.

Prior to the 19th century, handwashing primarily existed in the context of religious ceremonies and practices. It plays a role in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, and Buddhism in some form or another. But washing up to stop the spread of disease wasn't really a thing for most of history. People weren't aware of germs, so instead of microbes, they blamed illness on everything from demons to bad air.

Then, in 1846, a Hungarian doctor named Ignaz Semmelweis made a breakthrough observation. He noticed that women giving birth with the help of midwives were less likely to die than those treated by doctors. He determined that because doctors were also performing autopsies on victims of puerperal fever (a bacterial infection also known as childbed fever), they were somehow spreading the disease to their other patients. Semmelweis started promoting handwashing and instrument sterilization in his clinic, and the spread of puerperal fever dropped as a result.

Despite the evidence to support his theory, his peers in the medical community weren't keen on the idea of blaming patient deaths on doctors. Partly due to his commitment to the controversial theory, Semmelweis was shunned from his field. He suffered a mental breakdown and ended up in a mental hospital, where he died a few weeks later.

Germ theory did eventually become more mainstream as the century progressed, and washing hands as a way to kill unseen pathogens started gaining popularity. Even so, it wasn't until the 1980s that the CDC released the first official guidelines instructing people on best handwashing practices.

If this story suddenly has you in the mood to practice good hygiene, here's the best way to wash your hands, according to experts.

[h/t Origin of Everything]

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