Mary Shelley's Favorite Keepsake: Her Dead Husband's Heart

getty images (shelley) / istock (heart and jar)
getty images (shelley) / istock (heart and jar)

People grieve in different ways. Back in the 1600s, it wasn’t uncommon to make jewelry out of the hair of deceased loved ones. In some parts of Madagascar, people dig up their dead relatives every few years to dance with them. And even now, we consider it fairly normal to incinerate people, then save them in decorative urns on our mantels. Taking all that into account, maybe what Mary Shelley did when her husband died wasn't that weird.

Percy Bysshe Shelley was just 29 when he drowned after his boat, Don Juan, was caught in a storm on July 8, 1822. Shelley's body and those of his two sailing companions were found 10 days later, identifiable only by their clothing. Shelley had stashed a book of John Keats poems in his pocket.

The poet was cremated, but for some reason, his heart refused to burn. Modern-day physicians believe it may have calcified due to an earlier bout with tuberculosis. Though Percy’s friend, Leigh Hunt, originally claimed the heart—he was there for the funeral pyre-style cremation and felt he had a right to keep the unscathed organ—it was eventually turned over to Mary.

Instead of burying it with the rest of his remains in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, Mary kept the heart in a silken shroud, and is said to have carried it with her nearly everywhere for years. In 1852, a year after she died, Percy’s heart was found in her desk. It was wrapped in the pages of one of his last poems, Adonais. The heart was eventually buried in the family vault with their son, Percy Florence Shelley, when he died in 1889.

Can You Pick Out the Weird Law That's Totally Real?

In 1959, the U.S. Postal Service Attempted to Deliver Mail via Missile

Smithsonian National Postal Museum
Smithsonian National Postal Museum

In the late 1950s, the future was up in the air. The space race was just getting started, and the U.S. military was working on missiles that could reach around the world—and even to the Moon. The U.S. government didn’t just see new flight capabilities as military priorities, though. It also thought they could be used to carry mail, as we recently learned from Today I Found Out. Yes, the Postal Service once tried sending letters by missile mail.

In June 1959, the U.S. Navy sent 3000 letters on a guided missile toward a naval auxiliary air station in Mayport, Florida. Launched from the USS Barbero, a submarine that was stationed 100 miles off the U.S. coast in international waters, the 36-foot Regulus I missile made it to Mayport in 22 minutes. Held in two metal containers in what was supposed to be the missile’s warhead chamber, the letters on board were copies of a letter from Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield to then-President Eisenhower, Vice President Richard Nixon, individual representatives of Congress, members of the Supreme Court, the crew of the Barbero, and more. The letters carried regular mail stamps—“not even air mail,” as the AP story that day noted.

The Postal Service heralded it as the first successful delivery of mail by missile. (There had been previous attempts, like a thwarted 1936 delivery on a rocket-powered plane across a lake between New York and New Jersey [PDF]. Despite several attempts, that one never fully made a successful delivery.) But “delivery” was a bit of an overstatement: Most of those letters had to be sent by regular mail service at a post office in nearby Jacksonville, since the 3000 recipients weren’t sitting around at a naval base in Florida waiting for their letter.

An envelope that reads 'First Official Missile Mail'
Smithsonian National Postal Museum

“Now that we know we can do it,” Summerfield told the press, “we plan a series of discussions to determine the practical extent to which the method can be used and under what conditions.” It never did become practical, as we now know. Summerfield’s successor, J. Edward Day, killed the program, pointing out that the letters sent from the USS Barbero ended up taking some eight days to reach their intended recipients. Not exactly rocket speed.

Even if missile mail wasn't a financially or logistically feasible way to send the mail on a regular basis, the test likely proved worthwhile just for the bragging rights. “Ostensibly an experiment in communication transportation,” Nancy A. Pope writes on the National Postal Museum’s blog, “the Regulus’ mail flight sent a subtle signal that in the midst of the Cold War, the U.S. military was capable of such accuracy in missile flight that it could be considered for use by the post office.”

And it wasn’t so strange that the USPS was trying out newfangled technology in its quest to get mail across the country as fast as possible. As the rail industry declined, it was becoming more expensive and less efficient to send mail by train. Throughout the early 20th century, the U.S. Postal Service looked into a number of alternatives, including post office buses that would travel from town to town sorting mail along the way, intercity helicopter mail, and other ideas that harnessed ways of delivering mail that would have been unthinkable a few decades before. But in the end, improving roads to make it easier to send trucks around the country proved a better financial plan than using guided military missiles.

[h/t Today I Found Out]

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