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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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5 Dubious Historical Antidotes for Poison (and What Actually Works)
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An artificial bezoar stone from Goa, India
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

When it comes to their health, humans will believe just about anything. In this extract from the new book Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything, authors Lydia Kang, MD, and Nate Pedersen discuss some of the more questionable ways people once tried to protect themselves from poison—whether or not the methods actually worked.

Poison is everywhere. Naturally or unnaturally, it can be in the soil (arsenic), in the air (carbon monoxide), in your drinks (lead), and in your food (cyanide). With so much danger around, it’s no wonder humans have obsessed over finding a universal antidote—the one thing that could save us from all toxins. Imagine you’re a medieval prince about to inherit the throne. Chances are, there are a lot of power-hungry wannabes waiting in the wings. A little arsenic or hemlock might be your best friend or your worst nightmare. Just in case, best have an antidote on standby.

For millennia, a certain amount of magical thinking was employed when arming oneself against poison because science was inconveniently slow to catch up. So grab your handy unicorn horn and a bezoar, and let’s take a look.

1. BEZOARS

Bezoars have been used for centuries as antidotes to poisons. A bezoar is solid mass of undigested food, plant fibers, or hair found in the digestive tracts of animals, including deer, porcupines, fish, and, yes, humans. Anyone with a cat is familiar with the less-cool feline version: hairballs.

Bezoars and other stone-like items created by animals often had a good story behind them. Legends told of deer that would eat poisonous snakes and become immune or cry tears that solidified into poison-curing stones. First-century Arabic author al-Birumi claimed bezoars could protect against one poison called “the snot of Satan,” which we hope never ever to encounter. By the 12th century, when Europe became plagued with, uh, plagues, the bezoar crept into pharmacopeias as panaceas and alexipharmics (poison antidotes).

Bezoars were a seductive notion for the rich and royal, who were at risk of assassination. The stones were often enclosed in bejeweled gold for display or worn as amulets. Indian bezoars, in particular, were sought for life-threatening fevers, poisonous bites, bleeding, jaundice, and melancholy. Consumers were also known to scrape off a bit of bezoar and add it to their drinks for heart health and kidney stones. These tonics were sometimes adulterated with toxic mercury or antimony, which caused vomiting and diarrhea, making buyers think they were effective.

But were they? One team of researchers soaked bezoars in an arsenic-laced solution and found that the stones absorbed the arsenic or that the poison was neutralized. Hard to say if it worked well enough to cure a fatal dose. Ambroise Paré, one of the preeminent French physicians of the 16th century, was also a doubter. The king’s cook, who’d been stealing silver, was given the choice between hanging or being Paré’s lab rat. He chose the latter. After the cook consumed poison, Paré looked on as a bezoar was stuffed down his throat. Six hours later, he died wracked with pain. Perhaps he chose ... poorly?

2. MITHRIDATES

This antidote was named after Mithridates VI, the king of Pontus and Armenia Minor. Born in 134 BCE, he pretty much invented the phrase “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” by consuming poisons daily to prevent his own assassination. His royal home was stocked with stingray spines, toxic mushrooms, scorpions, mineral poisons, and a poisonous plant–filled garden. He was so unpoisonable that after his son took over his kingdom and he faced execution, he couldn’t even commit suicide by poison! He begged a guard to stab him to death. (It worked.)

Though the king’s actual recipe for the antidote is nowhere to be found, versions began to circulate after his death, and they became synonymous with the king himself. Compounds with lengthy and expensive ingredient lists prevailed, including iris, cardamom, anise, frankincense, myrrh, ginger, and saffron. In the first century, Pliny the Elder snarkily remarked, “The Mithridatic antidote is composed of fifty-four ingredients ... Which of the gods, in the name of Truth, fixed these absurd proportions? ... It is plainly a showy parade of the art, and a colossal boast of science.”

Showy or not, people would take the extensive mix of herbs, pound them together with honey, and eat a nut-sized portion to cure themselves. At least it endowed them with expensive-smelling breath.

3. HORNS

An apothecary shop sign in the shape of a unicorn
An ivory pharmacy sign in the shape of a unicorn's head
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

Unicorn horns have been considered a part of antidote legend since the mythical beast galloped into literature around 300 BCE. For centuries afterward, real earthly beasts would sacrifice their lives and their horns to slake our thirst for the miraculous, nonexistent animal, including rhinoceroses, narwhals, and oryx. Even fossilized ammonites were used. It was believed that drinking vessels made of such horns might neutralize poisons, and wounds could be cured by holding them close by. In the 16th century, Mary, Queen of Scots reportedly used a unicorn horn to protect her from poisoning. Too bad it didn’t prevent her beheading.

4. PEARLS

Pearls have long been thought to be powerful antidotes. A beautiful, rare gem created by the homely oyster, a pearl is born out of annoyance (the mollusk secretes iridescent nacre to cover an irritant, like a parasite or grain of sand). Pretty as they are, they’re about as useful as the chalky antacid tablets on your bedside table; both are chiefly made of calcium carbonate. Good for a stomachache after some spicy food, but not exactly miraculous.

Pearl powder has been used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat a variety of diseases, and Ayurvedic physicians used it as an antidote in the Middle Ages. It was also reported to make people immortal. An old Taoist recipe recommended taking a long pearl and soaking it in malt, “serpent’s gall,” honeycomb, and pumice stone. When softened, it would be pulled like taffy and cut into bite-sized pieces to eat, and voilà! You would suddenly no longer need food to stay alive. Cleopatra famously drank down a large and costly pearl dissolved in wine vinegar, though in that case she wasn’t avoiding poison. She didn’t want to lose a bet with Antony—which might have fatally injured her pride.

5. THERIAC

Albarello vase for theriac, Italy, 1641
A vase for theriac, Italy, 1641
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

Theriac was an herbal concoction created in the first century by Emperor Nero’s physician, Andromachus, who was reported to have Mithridates’s secret notes. It was a mashed formula of about 70 ingredients, including cinnamon, opium, rose, iris, lavender, and acacia in a honey base. In the 12th century, theriac made in Venice was branded as particularly special, and Venetian treacle (derived from a Middle English translation of theriac) became a hot commodity. Its public, dramatic production often attracted curious crowds.

By the 18th century, cheaper golden syrup was substituted for honey. As treacle began to lose its luster as a treatment, its definition as an herbal remedy disappeared from common vernacular. But the sweet syrup remained. Which is why when we think of treacle, we think of treacle tarts, not a fancy means of saving ourselves from a deathly poisoning.

BONUS: WHAT ACTUALLY WORKS

Thankfully, science has brought us a wide range of antidotes for many items we shouldn’t be exposed to in dangerous quantities, if at all. N-acetylcysteine, fondly referred to as NAC by doctors, saves us from acetaminophen overdoses. Ethanol can treat antifreeze poisoning. Atropine, ironically one of the main components of plants in the toxic nightshade family (such as mandrake), can treat poisoning from some dangerous fertilizers and chemical nerve agents used as weapons. For years, poisonings were treated with emetics, though it turns out that plain old carbon—in the form of activated charcoal—can adsorb poisons (the poisons stick to the surface of the charcoal) in the digestive system before they’re dissolved and digested by the body.

As long as the natural world and its humans keep making things to kill us off, we’ll keep developing methods to not die untimely deaths.

We’ll just leave the fancy hairballs off the list.

The cover of the book Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything
Workman Publishing

Excerpt from Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything by Lydia Kang, MD and Nate Pedersen/Workman Publishing. Used with permission.

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By Napoleon Sarony - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
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25 of Oscar Wilde's Wittiest Quotes
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By Napoleon Sarony - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

On October 16, 1854, Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was born in Dublin, Ireland. He would go on to become one of the world's most prolific writers, dabbling in everything from plays and poetry to essays and fiction. Whatever the medium, his wit shone through.

1. ON GOD

"I think that God, in creating man, somewhat overestimated his ability."

2. ON THE WORLD AS A STAGE

"The world is a stage, but the play is badly cast."

3. ON FORGIVENESS

"Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much."

4. ON GOOD VERSUS BAD

"It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious."

5. ON GETTING ADVICE

"The only thing to do with good advice is pass it on. It is never any use to oneself."

6. ON HAPPINESS

"Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go."

7. ON CYNICISM

"What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing."

8. ON SINCERITY

"A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal."

9. ON MONEY

"When I was young I thought that money was the most important thing in life; now that I am old I know that it is."

10. ON LIFE'S GREATEST TRAGEDIES

"There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it."

11. ON HARD WORK

"Work is the curse of the drinking classes."

12. ON LIVING WITHIN ONE'S MEANS

"Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination."

13. ON TRUE FRIENDS

"True friends stab you in the front."

14. ON MOTHERS

"All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his."

15. ON FASHION

"Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months."

16. ON BEING TALKED ABOUT

"There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about."

17. ON GENIUS

"Genius is born—not paid."

18. ON MORALITY

"Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike."

19. ON RELATIONSHIPS

"How can a woman be expected to be happy with a man who insists on treating her as if she were a perfectly normal human being?"

20. ON THE DEFINITION OF A "GENTLEMAN"

"A gentleman is one who never hurts anyone’s feelings unintentionally."

21. ON BOREDOM

"My own business always bores me to death; I prefer other people’s."

22. ON AGING

"The old believe everything, the middle-aged suspect everything, the young know everything."

23. ON MEN AND WOMEN

"I like men who have a future and women who have a past."

24. ON POETRY

"There are two ways of disliking poetry; one way is to dislike it, the other is to read Pope."

25. ON WIT

"Quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit."

And one bonus quote about Oscar Wilde! Dorothy Parker said it best in a 1927 issue of Life:

If, with the literate, I am
Impelled to try an epigram,
I never seek to take the credit;
We all assume that Oscar said it.

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