10 Surprising Secrets From Seattle’s History

From salmon-tossing to being the birthplace of grunge, Seattle has many well-known claims to fame. The area is home to some of America's top corporations—Microsoft, Amazon, and Starbucks, to name just a few—and it’s known for its cloudy weather (on average, it has 152 days a year with precipitation). But Seattle has its stranger side, too. Here are a few odd items from the history of this booming Northwest metropolis.

1. VASHON ISLAND HAS A BICYCLE-EATING TREE.

Seattle has many islands just a short ferry ride away. A small-town, woodsy atmosphere characterizes nearby Vashon Island, which is about the size of Manhattan. In fact, the bucolic land is so woodsy that trees may be taking over.

Over a small footbridge on an unmarked trail, where Vashon Highway meets Southwest 204th Street, a Douglas fir has eaten an old bicycle. Tourists in the know make the pilgrimage to see the rusted two-wheeler, which has been swallowed by the tree and lifted about seven feet in the air. The bike's middle is lodged deep beneath the bark while its front and back wheels jut out on either side. Local Don Puz lays claim to the bike, saying he left it there around 1954 when he was a kid.

In the past few decades, the bike has become the stuff of local legend. Its fame got a big boost after 1994, when cartoonist Berkeley Breathed published a children's book about the tree, Red Ranger Came Calling. Unfortunately, vandals have stripped the bike of various parts over the years, but locals continue to mend it, replacing the pilfered parts with donations of their own.

2. A COLORFUL CONGRESSMAN WHO LEAPT TO HIS DEATH IS SAID TO HAUNT THE ARCTIC HOTEL

Marion Zioncheck, who served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1933 until his death in 1936, may have been one of the craziest politicians in U.S. history. A son of Polish immigrants, he began his political career as a fighter for the poor and homeless, and was elected congressman as a fierce champion of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal policies.

While Zioncheck's heart was in the right place, his head seemed to be going in a different direction. A week after meeting 21-year-old Rubye Louise Nix, a secretary at the Works Progress Administration, Zioncheck married her. Their honeymoon in Puerto Rico was memorable: Zioncheck is said to have joined in a student riot, drove through a rich man's gate, lapped soup up like a dog at a dinner, and reportedly bit a driver's neck. He and his wife also were admonished for throwing coconuts out their hotel window. He told reporters that he invented a new drink while in Puerto Rico: "The Zipper," made from hair tonic and rum.

Returning to Washington, D.C. after the honeymoon, he and his bride made headlines after a drunken frolic in a local fountain. In an earlier escapade, the Seattle statesman had taken a crazed 70-mile-per-hour drive up Connecticut Avenue in Washington, D.C., finally parking his car on the White House lawn. He also sent President Roosevelt a gift of a package of empty beer bottles and mothballs. J. Edgar Hoover, meanwhile, received a truckload of manure.

With his sanity in question, Zioncheck was sent to a sanitarium for a short time. In 1936, with most of his political support gone, he launched an independent reelection campaign. His prospects of winning were dwindling, and on August 7, a discouraged Zioncheck wrote a farewell note and threw himself out of the window of his fifth-floor office in downtown Seattle’s Arctic Building. He hit the sidewalk on Third Avenue, just outside the car where his wife was waiting. The Arctic Building is now a DoubleTree hotel, and several visitors have reported that his ghost haunts the fifth floor, occasionally riding the elevator and pushing random buttons.

3. BATMAN IS FROM THE EMERALD CITY.

Seattle has been home to several figures who have left their indelible mark on the world. One who looms large in the pop culture consciousness is Adam West, who became famous for his campy portrayal of Batman on TV in the late 1960s. West's caped crusader fought an array of flamboyant villains—all while coaching youthful viewers in good behaviors such as doing homework, drinking milk, and wearing safety belts.

After his parents divorced at age 15, West moved with his mother from Walla Walla, Washington to Seattle, where he attended Lakeside School. (Lakeside has had other successful alumni, most notably Bill Gates and Paul Allen, the founders of Microsoft.) Other notable celebrities with ties to Seattle include actors Rainn Wilson, Joel McHale, Jean Smart, Dyan Cannon, Rose McGowan, and John Ratzenberger (Cheers), as well as singer Judy Collins, choreographer Mark Morris, and cartoonist Gary Larson (The Far Side).

4. RUDYARD KIPLING ONCE CALLED IT A “GREAT BLACK SMUDGE."

The aftermath of Seattle's great fire. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

On June 6, 1889, a fire started in a shop downtown, and within a few hours the central business district was destroyed. At the time, most of the buildings were wooden—the sidewalks were made of wood, and even potholes in the road were filled with sawdust. The fire not only engulfed buildings, it spread quickly to the wharves as well (which were also made of wood). To make matters worse, the system of hydrants and plumbing was inadequate, and the water pressure very low. Firefighters struggled to contain the quickly spreading blaze, and in the end, 120 acres were destroyed, with thousands of homes and jobs lost.

Soon after the fire, the author Rudyard Kipling visited the city, calling it "a horrible black smudge, as though a Hand had come down and rubbed the place smooth. I know now what being wiped out means."

After the blaze, the citizens of Seattle got to work rebuilding. A new building ordinance required buildings to be less vulnerable to fire, and within a year, hundreds of new buildings had risen from the ashes. Much of the new city was built on top of the remnants of the old. Today, remaining structures from before the fire form an underground city that is a popular attraction for tourists.

5. IT WAS HOME TO THE WINDSHIELD DAMAGE HYSTERIA OF 1954.

In the spring of 1954, windshields on cars in Seattle, Bellingham, and other nearby towns suffered a wave of damage. People began reporting that pits, dings, and holes were mysteriously appearing on their car glass. Within a couple of weeks, close to 3000 residents in the Puget Sound area had claimed their windshields were damaged. Even police cars were not immune.

Concern about the cause hit feverish levels, and locals spun plenty of potential theories. One sheriff speculated that the scarred glass was a result of nuclear fallout from tests conducted in the South Pacific, thousands of miles from Seattle. Others blamed radio waves, cosmic rays, and atmospheric conditions. Some even suspected that sand-flea eggs were somehow being laid in the car glass and then hatching.

Scientists at the University of Washington who looked into the matter concluded that all the damage was most likely the result of normal driving practices. Drivers just hadn't noticed the dings before, and now they were all under the influence of some sort of mass delusion. The rumors of windshield damage seemed to feed on themselves. Since then, some have labeled it a textbook case of a collective delusion.

6. IT’S HOME TO A MAN WHO MORTGAGED HIS HOUSE FOR LENIN.

Seattle is made up of a series of distinctive neighborhoods. Fremont is one that prides itself on its eccentricity: it’s the self-declared Center of the Universe, and host to an annual summer solstice parade featuring legions of nude bicyclists. Two massive statues also distinguish the community—one is a towering troll residing beneath the Aurora Bridge, and the other is a large bronze of Vladimir Lenin, striding forth in his signature cap and goatee.

The latter statue stood for a very short time in 1988 in Poprad, Slovakia, but after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, the seven-ton, 16-foot-tall Lenin wound up face-down in the a local dump. When Issaquah teacher, construction worker, and Vietnam veteran Lewis Carpenter came across the statue, he decided to save this piece of history from being melted down. To cover his costs (about $40,000 by some estimates), including shipping, Carpenter had to mortgage his home. After getting the funds together, he cut the statue in three pieces and brought it to a new home in Issaquah, outside Seattle.

Unfortunately, Carpenter died in a car accident in 1994. Sculptor Peter Bevis, the founder of the Fremont Fine Arts Foundry, came to Lenin's rescue. He worked out an arrangement with the Fremont Chamber of Commerce and Carpenter's family whereby Fremont will hold the statue in a trust until a buyer is found (estimated price: $250,000). Of course, Lenin is a controversial figure whose policies led to mass terror and the deaths of millions, so feelings about the statue are justifiably mixed—often his hands get painted red as a symbol of the bloodshed and death attributed to his policies.

7. IT’S HAD MORE THAN ITS FAIR SHARE OF SERIAL KILLERS.

Maybe it's something in the water. Seattle seems like a peaceful place on the surface, but the town has had an unusual number of serial killers. The infamous Ted Bundy attended the University of Washington and served as the assistant director of the Seattle Crime Prevention Advisory Commission. Gary Ridgway, a.k.a. the Green River Killer, confessed to killing more than 70 women in the Seattle area. John Allen Muhammad—who along with his accomplice Lee Boyd Malvo terrorized citizens in the Washington, D.C. area in 2002—was a resident of nearby Tacoma and regularly attended a mosque in Seattle. Kenneth Bianchi, the famed Hillside Strangler of San Francisco, committed his final two murders in Bellingham, just north of Seattle, before getting caught.

8. IT HAS SOME SURPRISING CONNECTIONS TO NEW YORK CITY.

When settlers first came to the area in 1851, they established a town at what's now Alki Point that they first called New York-Alki. The settlers chose the name with the hope that the area would grow to the size and importance of New York City. Today, a tiny replica of the Statue of Liberty stands in Alki overlooking the bay, a reminder of the area's original New York name. While Frederick Law Olmsted designed New York's Central Park, his sons, the Olmsted Brothers, designed many of Seattle's parks—including Colman, Frink, Green Lake, Interlaken, Jefferson, Mt. Baker, Seward, Volunteer, Washington Park Arboretum, and Woodland parks.

The Pacific Science Center was designed by Seattle-born Minoru Yamasaki for the 1962 World's Fair in Seattle. Yamasaki would later go on to design the World Trade Center in New York City. His signature look of narrow pointed arches appeared in both structures.

9. YOU CAN SEE MUMMIES ON THE WATERFRONT.

You expect to see a mummy in a museum, but Seattle has two on display in a gift shop along its well-touristed piers. Not far from the new ferris wheel and Ivar's Fish Bar, Ye Olde Curiosity Shop houses two mummies—a female named Sylvia and a male named Sylvester. Many visitors think the figures are fake, but researchers from the Bioanthropology Research Institute at Quinnipiac University in New Haven, Connecticut conducted CT and MRI scans in 2001 and 2005 and confirmed that they are the real deal. In fact, they declared Sylvester to be one of the best-preserved mummies they have ever seen.

According to legend, two cowboys found Sylvester's dried-out body in Arizona's Gila Bend Desert in 1895. Some say he was killed in a saloon shootout and has what appears to be a gunshot wound in the stomach. Sylvia is more deteriorated, but evidence shows that she is a European female who died at about the age of 30 from tuberculosis and lost her teeth while still alive.

Ye Olde Curiosity Shop itself is an underappreciated Seattle treasure—its origins date back to 1899 when Joseph Edward Standley set up his curio and souvenir shop on the waterfront. Over five generations, the Standley family has enlarged its collection of oddities, bringing in shrunken heads, taxidermy treasures, and natural and artificial wonders from all over the world.

10. WANT TO GET AROUND DOWNTOWN? JUST REMEMBER THIS PHRASE.

Locals know this handy mnemonic device—the phrase “Jesus Christ Made Seattle Under Protest”—as a way to remember the street names downtown. Starting from the south and heading north, the street names are Jefferson and then James ("Jesus"), Cherry and Columbia (“Christ”), Marion and Madison (“Made”), Spring and Seneca (“Seattle”), University and Union (“Under”), and finally, Pike and Pine (“Protest”). Note, however, that some townsfolk use the word "Pressure" instead of "Protest."

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Fabia Mendoza/Guernsey's
Rosa Parks's Former House in Detroit Will Be Sold at Auction
Fabia Mendoza/Guernsey's
Fabia Mendoza/Guernsey's

The humble wooden house that Rosa Parks moved into after fleeing to Detroit in the fallout of her historic Montgomery bus protest will be auctioned off by Guernsey’s next month. The house has been taken apart, reassembled, and displayed in different locations over the years—including destinations as far-flung as Berlin, Germany—and the structure could theoretically be rebuilt anywhere.

The sale of the home will be part of Guernsey’s “African American Historic & Cultural Treasures” auction to be held July 25-26 in New York City, and proceeds from the house will benefit the Rosa McCauley Parks Heritage Foundation.

The fact that the home is still standing is testament to the resilient spirit of Rosa Parks, but it wasn’t always in such great shape. The home, formerly owned by Parks’s brother, fell into disrepair over the years and was slated to be demolished by the city of Detroit.

That’s when Parks’s niece, Rhea McCauley, stepped in. She bought the house for $500 and handed it over to Ryan Mendoza, an artist who promised to preserve the structure as a monument. He took it apart, transported it thousands of miles to Berlin, and rebuilt the house in his yard, where it remained on public display.

“A lot of people did think that that house was not worth saving because there’s so many in Detroit that looks just like that house,” Mendoza told the BBC. “It sort of goes without saying that she’s a national icon and what she did was so important for so many millions of people even if they don’t know it.”

Most recently, the home was displayed as part of a symposium with the Rhode Island School of Design.

After Parks was arrested on December 1, 1955, for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man, she lost her job and received a steady stream of death threats. Two years later she and her family decided to move north, and the Detroit home she shared with 17 other relatives represented “a place of love and of peace,” McCauley told the BBC.

Also heading to the auction block is a handwritten account of Rosa Parks’s first meeting with Martin Luther King, Jr., in August 1955, about four months before her bus protest. She wrote of her first impression, “I was amazed and astonished at the youthful appearance and the profound and eloquent speech delivered by Rev. M.L.K. Jr. I knew I would never forget him.”

Other notable items up for sale include a Jackson Five recording contract, signed by Joe Jackson; original score sheets of music from The Supremes and The Temptations; and hundreds of movie posters documenting African Americans’ role in film.

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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
15 Riveting Facts About Alan Turing
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

More than six decades after his death, Alan Turing’s life remains a point of fascination—even for people who have no interest in his groundbreaking work in computer science. He has been the subject of a play and an opera, and referenced in multiple novels and numerous musical albums. The Benedict Cumberbatch film about his life, The Imitation Game, received eight Oscar nominations. But just who was he in real life? Here are 15 facts you should know about Alan Turing, who was born on this day in 1912.

1. HE’S THE FATHER OF MODERN COMPUTER SCIENCE.

Turing essentially pioneered the idea of computer memory. In 1936, Turing published a seminal paper called “On Computable Numbers” [PDF], which The Washington Post has called “the founding document of the computer age.” In the philosophical article, he hypothesized that one day, we could build machines that could compute any problem that a human could, using 0s and 1s. Turing proposed single-task machines called Turing machines that would be capable of solving just one type of math problem, but a “universal computer” would be able to tackle any kind of problem thrown at it by storing instructional code in the computer’s memory. Turing’s ideas about memory storage and using a single machine to carry out all tasks laid the foundation for what would become the digital computer.

In 1945, while working for the UK’s National Physical Laboratory, he came up with the Automatic Computing Machine, the first digital computer with stored programs. Previous computers didn’t have electric memory storage, and had to be manually rewired to switch between different programs.

2. HE PLAYED A HUGE ROLE IN WINNING WORLD WAR II.

Turing began working at Bletchley Park, Britain’s secret headquarters for its codebreakers during World War II, in 1939. By one estimate, his work there may have cut the war short by up to two years. He’s credited with saving millions of lives.

Turing immediately got to work designing a codebreaking machine called the Bombe (an update of a previous Polish machine) with the help of his colleague Gordon Welchman. The Bombe shortened the steps required in decoding, and 200 of them were built for British use over the course of the war. They allowed codebreakers to decipher up to 4000 messages a day.

His greatest achievement was cracking the Enigma, a mechanical device used by the German army to encode secure messages. It proved nearly impossible to decrypt without the correct cipher, which the German forces changed every day. Turing worked to decipher German naval communications at a point when German U-boats were sinking ships carrying vital supplies across the Atlantic between Allied nations. In 1941, Turing and his team managed to decode the German Enigma messages, helping to steer Allied ships away from the German submarine attacks. In 1942, he traveled to the U.S. to help the Americans with their own codebreaking work.

3. HE BROKE THE RULES TO WRITE TO CHURCHILL.

Early on, Bletchley Park’s operations were hampered by a lack of resources, but pleas for better staffing were ignored by government officials. So, Alan Turing and several other codebreakers at Bletchley Park went over their heads to write directly to Prime Minister Winston Churchill. One of the codebreakers from Bletchley Park delivered the letter by hand in October 1941.

“Our reason for writing to you direct is that for months we have done everything that we possibly can through the normal channels, and that we despair of any early improvement without your intervention,” they wrote to Churchill [PDF]. “No doubt in the long run these particular requirements will be met, but meanwhile still more precious months will have been wasted, and as our needs are continually expanding we see little hope of ever being adequately staffed.”

In response, Churchill immediately fired off a missive to his chief of staff: “Make sure they have all they want on extreme priority and report to me that this had been done.”

4. HE HAD SOME ODD HABITS.

Like many geniuses, Turing was not without his eccentricities. He wore a gas mask while riding his bike to combat his allergies. Instead of fixing his bike’s faulty chain, he learned exactly when to dismount to secure it in place before it slipped off. He was known around Bletchley Park for chaining his tea mug to a radiator to prevent it from being taken by other staffers.

5. HE RODE HIS BIKE 60 MILES TO GET TO THE FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL.

Though he was considered an average student, Turing was dedicated enough to his schooling that when a general strike prevented him from taking the train to his first day at his new elite boarding school, the 14-year-old rode his bike the 62 miles instead.

6. HE TRIED OUT FOR THE OLYMPICS.

Turing started running as a schoolboy and continued throughout his life, regularly running the 31 miles between Cambridge and Ely while he was a fellow at King’s College. During World War II, he occasionally ran the 40 miles between London and Bletchley Park for meetings.

He almost became an Olympic athlete, too. He came in fifth place at a qualifying marathon for the 1948 Olympics with a 2-hour, 46-minute finish (11 minutes slower than the 1948 Olympic marathon winner). However, a leg injury held back his athletic ambitions that year.

Afterward, he continued running for the Walton Athletic Club, though, and served as its vice president. ”I have such a stressful job that the only way I can get it out of my mind is by running hard,” he once told the club’s secretary. “It's the only way I can get some release."

7. HE WAS PROSECUTED FOR BEING GAY.

In 1952, Turing was arrested after reporting a burglary in his home. In the course of the investigation, the police discovered Turing’s relationship with another man, Arnold Murray. Homosexual relationships were illegal in the UK at the time, and he was charged with “gross indecency.” He pled guilty on the advice of his lawyer, and opted to undergo chemical castration instead of serving time in jail.

8. THE GOVERNMENT ONLY RECENTLY APOLOGIZED FOR HIS CONVICTION …

In 2009, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued a public apology to Turing on behalf of the British government. “Alan and the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted as he was convicted under homophobic laws were treated terribly,” Brown said. "This recognition of Alan's status as one of Britain's most famous victims of homophobia is another step towards equality and long overdue." Acknowledging Britain’s debt to Turing for his vital contributions to the war effort, he announced, “on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan's work I am very proud to say: we're sorry, you deserved so much better."

His conviction was not actually pardoned, though, until 2013, when he received a rare royal pardon from the Queen of England.

9. … AND NAMED A LAW AFTER HIM.

Turing was only one of the many men who suffered after being prosecuted for their homosexuality under 19th-century British indecency laws. Homosexuality was decriminalized in the UK in 1967, but the previous convictions were never overturned. Turing’s Law, which went into effect in 2017, posthumously pardoned men who had been convicted for having consensual gay sex before the repeal. According to one of the activists who campaigned for the mass pardons, around 15,000 of the 65,000 gay men convicted under the outdated law are still alive.

10. HE POISONED HIMSELF … MAYBE.

There is still a bit of mystery surrounding Turing’s death at the age of 41. Turing died of cyanide poisoning, in what is widely believed to have been a suicide. Turing’s life had been turned upside down by his arrest. He lost his job and his security clearance. By order of the court, he had to take hormones intended to “cure” his homosexuality, which caused him to grow breasts and made him impotent. But not everyone is convinced that he died by suicide.

In 2012, Jack Copeland, a Turing scholar, argued that the evidence used to declare Turing’s death a suicide in 1954 would not be sufficient to close the case today. The half-eaten apple by his bedside, thought to be the source of his poisoning, was never tested for cyanide. There was still a to-do list on his desk, and his friends told the coroner at the time that he had seemed in good spirits. Turing’s mother, in fact, maintained that he probably accidentally poisoned himself while experimenting with the chemical in his home laboratory. (He was known to taste chemicals while identifying them, and could be careless with safety precautions.)

That line of inquiry is far more tame than some others, including one author’s theory that he was murdered by the FBI to cover up information that would have been damaging to the U.S.

11. HIS FULL GENIUS WASN’T KNOWN IN HIS LIFETIME.

Alan Turing was a well-respected mathematician in his time, but his contemporaries didn’t know the full extent of his contributions to the world. Turing’s work breaking the Enigma machine remained classified long after his death, meaning that his contributions to the war effort and to mathematics were only partially known to the public during his lifetime. It wasn’t until the 1970s that his instrumental role in the Allies' World War II victory became public with the declassification of the Enigma story. The actual techniques Turing used to decrypt the messages weren’t declassified until 2013, when two of his papers from Bletchley Park were released to the British National Archives.

12. THE TURING TEST IS STILL USED TO MEASURE ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE …

Can a machine fool a human into thinking they are chatting with another person? That’s the crux of the Turing test, an idea developed by Turing in 1950 regarding how to measure artificial intelligence. Turing argued in his paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” [PDF] that the idea of machines “thinking” is not a useful way to evaluate artificial intelligence. Instead, Turing suggests “the imitation game,” a way to assess how successfully a machine can imitate human behavior. The best measure of artificial intelligence, then, is whether or not a computer can convince a person that it is human.

13. … BUT SOME CONSIDER IT TO BE AN OUTDATED IDEA.

As technology has progressed, some feel the Turing test is no longer a useful way to measure artificial intelligence. It’s cool to think about computers being able to talk just like a person, but new technology is opening up avenues for computers to express intelligence in other, more useful ways. A robot’s intelligence isn’t necessarily defined by whether it can fake being human—self-driving cars or programs that can mimic sounds based on images might not pass the Turing test, but they certainly have intelligence.

14. HE CREATED THE FIRST COMPUTER CHESS PROGRAM.

Inspired by the chess champions he worked with at Bletchley Park, Alan Turing created an algorithm for an early version of computer chess—although at that time, there was no computer to try it out on. Created with paper and pencil, the Turochamp program was designed to think two moves ahead, picking out the best moves possible. In 2012, Russian chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov played against Turing’s algorithm, beating it in 16 moves. “I would compare it to an early caryou might laugh at them but it is still an incredible achievement," Kasparov said in a statement after the match-up.

15. THERE IS ALAN TURING MONOPOLY.

In 2012, Monopoly came out with an Alan Turing edition to celebrate the centennial of his birth. Turing had enjoyed playing Monopoly during his life, and the Turing-themed Monopoly edition was designed based on a hand-drawn board created in 1950 by his friend William Newman. Instead of hotels and houses, it featured huts and blocks inspired by Bletchley Park, and included never-before-published photos of Turing. (It’s hard to find, but there are still a few copies of the game on Amazon.)

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