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9 Surprising Secrets From Los Angeles History

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Mock Los Angeles all you want—It’s young! It’s superficial! It has no real culture!—but the City of Angels can match any other American metropolis in buried stories. We unearthed 10 of the weirdest.

1. LOS ANGELES ONCE HAD A CENTRAL PARK.

When this 10-acre park was created in 1887, it wasn’t precisely central (being located in Vernon, then outside city limits), and it wasn’t exactly as grand as its NYC counterpart (being about 830 acres smaller). It wasn’t even LA’s only Central Park (Pershing Square briefly claimed the title about six years later). But it was a nice little urban oasis, dotted with families picnicking under the long boughs of pepper trees. Alas, the privately owned park was subdivided in 1904, and today Vernon is a desolate stretch of storage, industry, and one famous slaughterhouse. Of course, if the park hadn’t been destroyed, we never would’ve had the grimy urban location for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video.

2. LA WAS ONCE COVERED IN OIL DERRICKS.

Any driver taking La Cienega to LAX will pass a few stray pumpjacks lazily chugging away in the distance. These incongruous pumps are relics from the days when the city was covered in oil wells. In the decades before World War II, Los Angeles resembled a wildcat town from the Texas frontier, sporting a thicket of wooden derricks; in Santa Barbara, they stretched off into the surf. These days, the pumps are a shade more discreet. Modern LA has a taste for comically-disguised infrastructure (think of all those metal “palm tree” cell phone towers), so one pump near Beverly Hills High School has been wrapped up like a Christo installation.

3. THE 1963 BALDWIN HILL DAM COLLAPSE WAS THE NATION’S FIRST LIVE TELEVISED DISASTER. 

The JFK assassination was America’s first nationally televised tragedy. But it took a dam collapse three weeks later for a disaster to occur in real time. After a crack in the Baldwin Hills dam in the South Los Angeles neighborhood widened and then split apart, 292 million gallons of water—440 Olympic-size swimming pools—created a 50-foot wave. Remarkably, only five people died in the resulting flood. The entire disaster was captured live by a KTLA helicopter, a TV first. Thirteen years later, nearby oil exploration was blamed for the dam’s failure.

4. LA WAS ORIGINALLY PLANNED AS A GRID, WITH NORTH-SOUTH STREETS NAMED AFTER MEXICAN GOVERNORS, AND EAST-WEST STREETS NAMED AFTER U.S. PRESIDENTS.

City planners cooked up this idea in the 1850s, just a few years after the Mexican-American war, when Spanish speakers outnumbered English. The proposed Mexican governor names (Micheltorena, Alvarado, Figueroa) were to be padded with a sprinkling of random Spanish names (San Pedro, Soto). The plan was buried after the demographics of the city tilted toward English speakers, although some of its names survive today.

5. DORITOS ORIGINATED IN DISNEYLAND. 

Orange County’s only true contribution to Mexican fast food sprang from Disneyland’s Casa de Fritos restaurant, which opened in 1955 and served free Fritos with every meal. Sometime before 1966, the eatery tried cooking up stale tortilla chips; the new snack was the hit of the park, and became so popular that production eventually moved to Oklahoma and Alabama. The marketing executive who is said to have coined the name (allegedly “little golden things” in a mangled, pigeon Spanish) was buried alongside his signature snack in 2011

6. MT. LEE—OF THE HOLLYWOOD SIGN—WAS ORIGINALLY FLATTENED TO MAKE SPACE FOR LA’S GRANDEST MANSION.

The 1700-foot summit behind LA’s best-known landmark wasn’t always so flat. In 1923, Mack Sennett—the fabulously wealthy producer of the Keystone Cops—bought 18 acres of glorious mountaintop. The space was planned for a vast complex that was to include a library, a 2800-square foot pool with sandy beach, and terraced Italian gardens, all overlooking the splendor of Los Angeles below. The entire mansion would have cost $1 million (roughly $14 million in today’s money, or what Chrissy Teigen and John Legend just paid for Rihanna’s Beverly Hills mansion). Steam shovels lopped 69 feet off the peak, then the Great Depression lopped off Sennett’s fortune. Today the mountain still sports a conspicuous flattop. 

7. SOME OF GANDHI’S ASHES ARE KEPT IN PACIFIC PALISADES.

After the revered martyr’s assassination in 1948, a funeral procession of well over a million people attended Gandhi’s cremation at the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers. Some of the ashes were parceled out in separate urns intended for multiple bodies of water around India. One of these urns was passed along to a journalist, who in turn gave the urn to the guru Paramahansa Yogananda. He installed the ashes in a quaint lakeside shrine inside the Self Realization Fellowship in Pacific Palisades, just north of Santa Monica, where they remain open to visits from the public. 

8. A 1942 PANIC OVER A RUMORED JAPANESE ATTACK WAS SO FIERCE IT RESULTED IN FIVE CIVILIAN DEATHS.

The invasion hysteria behind Spielberg’s epic flop 1941 was quite real. Fear of a Japanese attack on the West Coast culminated in a mass freakout in February 1942, when Angelinos reported seeing strange aircraft in the skies. The Great Los Angeles Air Raid kicked off when the 37th Coast Artillery Brigade panicked and fired 1400 anti-aircraft shells at the phantom threat. In the barrage of firepower, three people were accidentally killed and another two died of heart attacks. The event lives on in the hearts of UFO conspiracy theorists. 

9. GEORGE AND BARBARA BUSH ONCE LIVED IN COMPTON.

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In 1949, George HW Bush was a salesman, hawking drilling bits for an oil company subsidiary. He and his 24-year old wife Barbara moved into 624 S. Santa Fe Avenue in Compton, where they lived for six months. George W. Bush was three at the time. Compton was white by law, with now-illegal housing covenants restricting occupation. Four decades later, after the 1992 LA Riots, a plan to designate the building a historical landmark fizzled out in the city council. The building became a crack den and was later razed.

An earlier version of this post mentioned secret tunnels that had once existed beneath the Playboy mansion. Alas, that story was an April Fool's joke.

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10 Treasures From the New York Academy of Medicine Library
A urine wheel from Fasciculus Medicinae
A urine wheel from Fasciculus Medicinae
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

Tucked away on a side street near Central Park, the New York Academy of Medicine Library is one of the most significant historical medical libraries in the world. Open to the public by appointment since the 19th century, its collection includes 550,000 volumes on subjects ranging from ancient brain surgery to women's medical colleges to George Washington's dentures. A few weeks ago, Mental Floss visited to check out some of their most fascinating items connected to the study of anatomy. Whether it was urine wheels or early anatomy pop-up books, we weren't disappointed.

1. FASCICULUS MEDICINAE (1509)

The Fasciculus Medicinae is a compilation of Greek and Arabic texts first printed in Venice in 1491. While it covers a variety of topics including anatomy and gynecology, the book begins with the discipline considered most important for diagnosing all medical issues at the time: uroscopy (the study of urine). The NYAM Library's curator, Anne Garner, showed us the book's urine wheel, which once had the various flasks of urine colored in to help aid physicians in their diagnosis. Each position of the wheel corresponded to one of the four humors, whether it was phlegmatic, choleric, sanguine, or melancholic. The image on the left, Garner explains, "shows the exciting moment where a servant boy brings his flasks to be analyzed by a professor." Other notable images in the book include one historians like to call "Zodiac Man," showing how the parts of the body were governed by the planets, and "Wound Man," who has been struck by every conceivable weapon, and is accompanied by a text showing how to treat each type of injury. Last but not least, the book includes what's believed to be the first printed image of a dissection.

2. ANDREAS VESALIUS, DE HUMANI CORPORIS FABRICA (1543)

Andreas Vesalius's Fabrica
Frontispiece of Andreas Vesalius's Fabrica
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

Andreas Vesalius, born 1514, was one of the most important anatomists who ever lived. Thanks to him, we moved past an understanding of the human body based primarily on the dissection of animals and toward training that involved the direct dissection of human corpses. The Fabrica was written by Vesalius and published when he was a 28-year-old professor at the University of Padua. Its detailed woodcuts, the most accurate anatomical illustrations up to that point, influenced the depiction of anatomy for centuries to come. "After this book, anatomy divided up into pre-Vesalian and post-Vesalian," Garner says. You can see Vesalius himself in the book's frontispiece (he's the one pointing to the corpse and looking at the viewer). "Vesalius is trying to make a point that he himself is doing the dissection, he believes that to understand the body you have to open it up and look at it," Garner explains.

3. THOMAS GEMINUS, COMPENDIOSA (1559)

Flap anatomy from Thomas Geminus's Compendiosa
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

There was no copyright in the 16th century, and Vesalius's works were re-used by a variety of people for centuries. The first was in Flemish printer and engraver Thomas Geminus’s Compendiosa, which borrowed from several of Vesalius's works. The first edition was published in London just two years after the Fabrica. Alongside a beautiful dedication page made for Elizabeth I and inlaid with real gemstones, the book also includes an example of a "flap anatomy" or a fugitive leaf, which was printed separately with parts that could be cut out and attached to show the various layers of the human body, all the way down to the intestines. As usual for the time, the female is depicted as pregnant, and she holds a mirror that says "know thyself" in Latin.

4. WILLIAM COWPER, THE ANATOMY OF HUMANE BODIES (1698)

Illustration from William Cowper's The Anatomy of Humane Bodies
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

After Vesalius, there was little new in anatomy texts until the Dutch anatomist Govard Bidloo published his Anatomia humani corporis in 1685. The work was expensive and not much of a financial success, so Bidloo sold excess plates to the English anatomist William Cowper, who published the plates with an English text without crediting Bidloo (a number of angry exchanges between the two men followed). The copperplate engravings were drawn by Gérard de Lairesse, who Garner notes was "incredibly talented." But while the engravings are beautiful, they're not always anatomically correct, perhaps because the relationship between de Lairesse and Bidloo was fraught (Bidloo was generally a bit difficult). The skeleton shown above is depicted holding an hourglass, by then a classic of death iconography.

5. 17TH-CENTURY IVORY MANIKINS

17th Century Ivory Manikin
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

These exquisite figures are a bit of a mystery: It was originally thought that they were used in doctors’ offices to educate pregnant women about what was happening to their bodies, but because of their lack of detail, scholars now think they were more likely expensive collector's items displayed in cabinets of curiosity by wealthy male physicians. The arms of the manikins (the term for anatomical figures like this) lift up, allowing the viewer to take apart their removable hearts, intestines, and stomachs; the female figure also has a little baby inside her uterus. There are only about 100 of these left in the world, mostly made in Germany, and NYAM has seven.

6. BERNHARD SIEGFRIED ALBINUS, TABULAE SCELETI (1747)

Illustration from Bernhard Siegfried Albinus's Tabulae Sceleti
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

One of the best-known anatomists of the 18th century, the Dutch anatomist Bernhard Siegfried Albinus went to medical school at age 12 and had a tenured position at the University of Leiden by the time he was 24. The Tabulae Sceleti was his signature work. The artist who worked on the text, Jan Wandelaar, had studied with Gérard de Lairesse, the artist who worked with Bidloo. Wandelaar and Albinus developed what Garner says was a bizarre method of suspending cadavers from the ceiling in the winter and comparing them to a (very cold and naked) living person lying on the floor in the same pose. Albinus also continued the dreamy, baroque funerary landscape of his predecessors, and his anatomy is "very, very accurate," according to Garner.

The atlas also features an appearance by Clara, a celebrity rhinoceros, who was posed with one of the skeletons. "When Albinus is asked why [he included a rhinoceros], he says, 'Oh, Clara is just another natural wonder of the world, she's this amazing creation,' but really we think Clara is there to sell more atlases because she was so popular," Garner says.

7. FERDINAND HEBRA, ATLAS DER HAUTKRANKHEITEN (1856–1876)

Circus performer Georg Constantin as depicted in Ferdinand Hebra's dermatological atlas
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

By the mid-19th century, dermatology had started to emerge as its own discipline, and the Vienna-based Ferdinand Hebra was a leading light in the field. He began publishing this dermatological atlas in 1856 (it appeared in 10 installments), featuring chromolithographs that showed different stages of skin diseases and other dermatological irregularities.

"While some of the images are very disturbing, they also tend to adhere to Victorian portrait conventions, with very ornate hair, and [subjects] looking off in the distance," Garner says. But one of the most famous images from the book has nothing to do with disease—it's a depiction of Georg Constantin, a well-known Albanian circus performer in his day, who was covered in 388 tattoos of animals, flowers, and other symbols. He travelled throughout Europe and North America, and was known as "Prince Constantine" during a spell with Barnum's Circus. (The image is also available from NYAM as a coloring sheet.)

8. KOICHI SHIBATA, OBSTETRICAL POCKET PHANTOM (1895)

19th century Obstetrical Pocket Phantom
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

Obstetrical phantoms, often made of cloth, wood, or leather, were used to teach medical students about childbirth. This "pocket phantom" was originally published in Germany, and Garner explains that because it was made out of paper, it was much cheaper for medical students. The accompanying text, translated in Philadelphia, tells how to arrange the phantom and describes the potential difficulties of various positions.

9. ROBERT L. DICKINSON AND ABRAM BELSKIE, BIRTH ATLAS (1940)

Image from Robert Dickinson's Birth Atlas
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

Robert Dickinson was a Brooklyn gynecologist, early birth control advocate, and active member of NYAM. His Birth Atlas is illustrated with incredibly lifelike terracotta models created by New Jersey sculptor Abram Belskie. The models were exhibited at the 1939 New York World's Fair, where they became incredibly popular, drawing around 700,000 people according to Garner. His depictions "are very beautiful and serene, and a totally different way of showing fetal development than anything that had come before," Garner notes.

10. RALPH H. SEGAL, THE BODYSCOPE (1948)

The Bodyscope
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

This midcentury cardboard anatomy guide contains male and female figures as well as rotating wheels, called volvelles, that can be turned to display details on different parts of the body as well as accompanying explanatory text. The Bodyscope is also decorated with images of notable medical men—and "wise" sayings about God's influence on the body.

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23 Funny Historical Letters to Santa
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At the end of the 19th century, illustrator Thomas Nast popularized our current version of Santa Claus: a fat, jolly man with a white beard and a red suit who lives at the North Pole. Nast’s cartoons in publications like Harper’s Weekly also helped spread the idea of sending St. Nick mail. By the late 1870s, American children had begun mailing their Christmas wish lists to Santa, but the Post Office considered these letters undeliverable. Around this time, newspapers began prompting children to send wish lists to them, which would then be published so that Santa (and parents) could read the letters all in one place. We’ve collected 23 funny historical letters from children to Santa Claus, as printed in newspapers across the U.S.

1. CONRAD FROM NEBRASKA (1896)

The Courier, Dec. 19, 1896

Conrad tries to mask his violent tendencies by interspersing the weapons between non-threatening gifts, but he shows his hand with that threat at the end.

2. CLIFFORD FROM NEBRASKA (1896)

The Courier, Dec. 19, 1896

Clifford sounds ... intense.

3. MARIE FROM NEBRASKA (1896)

The Courier, Dec. 19, 1896

“As I can not have it I will not ask for it" ... but I will mention it, just in case.

4. LYNWOOD FROM VIRGINIA (1903)

“I smashed everything you sent me last year." I won’t tell you what I want this year, but you better not mess up.

5. PAUL FROM VIRGINIA (1903)

This 4-year-old is very concerned about his infant brother’s lack of teeth. Since the local doctor has proved useless to rectify the situation, Paul hopes Santa might be able to lend a hand. He is magical, after all.

6. HARRY FROM MONTANA (1903)

Fergus County Argus, Dec. 16, 1903

Who knew keeping your feet dry was such an important part of staying off the Naughty list?

7. RAYMOND FROM WEST VIRGINIA (1907)

Clarence doesn’t sound very nice.

8. PERCY FROM WEST VIRGINIA (1907)

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Poor Opal and Mildred. They’re just girls. Do girls even have preferences?

9. VIRGINIA FROM MISSOURI (1907)

Virginia understands that sometimes Santa needs to delegate.

10. ROBERT FROM TENNESSEE (1913)

The Commercial, Dec. 19, 1913

Old people get lonely.

11. WILLIE FROM FLORIDA (1915)

Sure, an axe sounds like an age-appropriate gift for a five-year-old.

12. ELEANOR FROM FLORIDA (1915)

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“Bring both if possible.”

13. UNSIGNED LETTER FROM FLORIDA (1913)

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This transplant from Maine would really like a basketball, but he doesn’t quite believe that a Santa Claus can exist in Florida, where there isn’t even any snow.

14. WALTER FROM FLORIDA (1915)

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The Daytona Daily News, Dec. 17, 1915

Good choice not to act a pig, Walter.

15. MERLA FROM FLORIDA (1915)

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The Pensacola Journal, Dec. 24, 1915

Merla will not be ignored!

16. ROY FROM FLORIDA (1915)

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The Pensacola Journal, Dec. 24, 1915

A doll dressed in a cowboy suit could not be called Raymond. A lack of sailor suit is a dealbreaker.

17. MAXWELL FROM FLORIDA

The Pensacola Journal, Dec. 24, 1915

Ways to improve your chances of getting a pony from Santa, according to Maxwell Hudson: 1. Admit right off it’s expensive. 2. Say you will use it to take your sisters to school. 3. Promise to be grateful for anything Santa brings, so as not to seem greedy. 4. Make yourself seem extra kindhearted (and thus deserving of a pony) by showing concern for your fatherless neighbors. Did it work? We will never know.

18. MOXIE FROM TENNESSEE (1916)

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Perhaps a kid known for being mean shouldn’t be given a firearm.

19. DICK FROM SOUTH CAROLINA (1916)

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The County Record, Dec. 21, 1916

No, Santa certainly wouldn’t want to get “fastened in” the chimney.

20. JOHN FROM NEW MEXICO (1918)

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World War I devastated Western Europe, decimating a generation of young men—and apparently killing the French Santa Claus.

21. MARY FROM NEW MEXICO (1922)

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The Carlsbad Current, Dec. 15, 1922

Come on, Mary, Santa’s not a mind reader.

22. JEWEL FROM NEW MEXICO (1922)

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The Carlsbad Current, Dec. 15, 1922

No apology for the door-slamming incident. That might have helped your cause, Jewel.

23. R.B. FROM NEW MEXICO (1922)

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The Carlsbad Current, Dec. 15, 1922

R.B. is very thoughtful to provide such specific instructions; otherwise, Santa might get confused.

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