A Colorful History of The Prison Mirror, America's Oldest Continuously Operated Prison Newspaper

Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Newspaper clippings: Washington County Historical Society. Images: iStock
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Newspaper clippings: Washington County Historical Society. Images: iStock

J.S. Allen sensed trouble in the air. It was September 7, 1876, and the Northfield, Minnesota hardware store owner had noticed three mysterious men loitering in front of Lee & Hitchcock Dry Goods Store, right next door to the First National Bank—a strange mid-afternoon scene for the small town's main street.

Once the suspicious trio rose and entered the bank, Allen decided to investigate the scene for himself. Little did he know he'd soon be staring down the barrel of a gun wielded by a member of the infamous James-Younger Gang.

Clell Miller, along with Cole Younger, had been standing guard for the surprise heist. As Allen approached the bank, Miller grabbed his collar. "You son of a b****, don't you holler," Miller growled, pointing his revolver at Allen.

 
 

The First National Bank in Northfield, Minnesota, circa 1876.
The First National Bank in Northfield, Minnesota, circa 1876.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

 
 

Allen managed to squirm free from the bandit's grasp. He raced around the corner, yelling, "Get your guns, boys; they're robbing the bank!" The people of Northfield heeded Allen's call to arms and grabbed their weapons. Amid a flurry of bullets, the James-Younger Gang was suddenly outnumbered. The incident would go down in history as the Wild West's most famous failed bank robbery, and would indirectly leave a much longer legacy: the founding of the longest-running penal newspaper run solely by inmates.

The James-Younger Gang was a hardscrabble band of Confederate guerillas-turned outlaws, led by brothers Jesse and Alexander Franklin "Frank" James and siblings Cole, Bob, and Jim Younger. During the latter half of the 19th century, the men became household names as they held up trains, robbed banks, and generally terrorized the West, from Texas to Kentucky to their native Missouri.

Of the eight gang members who took part in the Northfield robbery, three had ridden into town ahead of the others. Before their arrival, Cole Younger later recounted, these men had split a bottle of whiskey. The faction had been told to wait for backup before entering the bank, but they reportedly disregarded this command. As the trio saw the other five gang members approaching, they barged into the bank too early. "When these three saw us coming, instead of waiting for us to get up with them they slammed right on into the bank regardless, leaving the door open in their excitement," Cole wrote in his memoirs.

Inside the bank, the trio clumsily fumbled through the motions as they ordered acting cashier and town treasurer Joseph Heywood to open the safe. (Later, a bank teller would recall that he smelled liquor on the men.) Heywood told the robbers that the safe's door had a time lock, and could only be opened at a specific time.

But after Allen interrupted the robbery, the James-Younger Gang's days were numbered. As a gunfight erupted on the street, Cole rode to the bank and yelled for the three to hurry and get out. One member shot Heywood in the head, killing him, and both Miller (the one who'd assaulted Allen) and bandit Bill Chadwell died in the standoff outside. The rest of the gang were wounded, with the exception of the James brothers. Against the odds, the surviving bandits managed to flee town—but their freedom wouldn't last long.

A search party apprehended the three Younger brothers, along with a gang member named Charlie Pitts, close to the Iowa border. Pitts was killed in the ensuing standoff. Only Jesse and Frank James made it out.

Jesse James would go on to recruit new outlaws and continue his life of crime. He'd die six years later in 1882, at the hands of fellow gang member Robert Ford, and Frank James would turn himself in shortly after his brother's death, eventually living out the rest of his days performing odd jobs ranging from burlesque ticket taker to a berry picker before returning to his family farm in Missouri (though Frank spent some time in jail, he was acquitted on all charges and never served time in prison). But for all intents and purposes, the cabal of ruthless robbers was no more.

In November 1876, the Youngers pleaded guilty in court to escape a near-certain death penalty. They were sentenced to a lifetime of hard labor at the Minnesota State Prison. (The facility no longer exists; in 1914, it was replaced by the Minnesota Correctional Facility–Stillwater in neighboring Bayport [PDF].)

 
 

The Minnesota State Prison at Stillwater in 1885
The Minnesota State Prison at Stillwater in 1885
Courtesy of the Washington County Historical Society

 
 

At the Minnesota State Prison, inmates were leased as laborers for private businesses. They worked nine to 11 hours each day and were paid a daily salary of 30 to 45 cents. Prison seemed to have a sobering effect on both Cole and the other two Youngers, and they eventually received more prestigious jobs: Cole was made the prison's librarian; Jim became the "postmaster," who delivered and sent inmates' approved letters; and Bob worked as a clerk.

Then, nearly a decade into their sentence, the three became newspaper founders, thanks to another prisoner named Lew P. Shoonmaker (or Schoonmaker).

Many key facts about Shoonmaker have been lost over the years, although the Minnesota State Archives did recently re-discover his prison records. They note that Shoonmaker was a onetime bookkeeper from Wisconsin who was sentenced to a two-year term in 1886 for forgery. He was released in August of the following year for "good conduct," and a remark in an 1887 newspaper indicated that he went on to edit a paper in Waupun, Wisconsin. But earlier in 1887, while still incarcerated, the enterprising inmate approached Cole Younger and told him that he wanted to launch a prison publication.

The paper was to be the first in the nation to be funded, written, edited, and published entirely by inmates. And after several months of trying to convince the prison's skeptical warden, Halvur Stordock, to approve the publication, Shoonmaker had finally received the go-ahead. Now, all he needed were willing investors—and he wanted Cole to be one of them.

 
 

A mug shot of infamous bank robber and outlaw Cole Younger
A mug shot of Cole Younger.
Courtesy of the Washington County Historical Society

 
 

The deal would benefit both men. Shoonmaker would sell more papers if a notorious name like Cole Younger's was attached to the project. And Younger was likely intrigued by the plan's business model, which would ultimately funnel money directly into the prison's library once the investors were paid back. The newspaper's investors would become shareholders and be reimbursed with 3 percent interest per month; once their investments were recouped, the library would own the paper and its profits would pay for new books and periodicals.

Shoonmaker and a handful of other inmates contributed to the cause, but the biggest investors ended up being the Younger brothers: Together, the three shelled out $50, one-fourth of the required start-up capital. Shoonmaker, who assumed the position of editor, also hired Cole, making him the associate editor and "printer's devil"—an old-fashioned term for a printer's assistant.

On August 10, 1887, The Prison Mirror was born. It cost 5 cents per issue, with yearly subscriptions going for $1, and issues were sold to prisoners and non-prisoners alike. Local merchants like wholesale grocers and various clothiers and tailors also purchased advertisements, which helped pad the editors' coffers.

Historians don't know how Shoonmaker became inspired to start the first prison newspaper west of the Mississippi, and the nation's only paper to be produced by inmates. But as James McGrath Morris, author of Jailhouse Journalism: The Fourth Estate Behind Bars, tells Mental Floss, the paper's founding fit with the idea of prison reform, a burgeoning national trend, while also pioneering a new form of penal journalism.

The first-known prison newspaper was technically founded in 1800, when a New York lawyer named William Keteltas fell upon hard financial times and was imprisoned in debtors' prison. The attorney made a case for his release by publishing Forlorn Hope, an advocacy newspaper that lambasted the criminalization of poverty and called for legal change. However, modern prison journalism's true roots can be traced back to the late 19th century, an era in which corrections officials "believed earnestly that prisons were intended to make better people of their inmates and release them into society," Morris tells Mental Floss.

Morris explains in Jailhouse Journalism that as imprisonment gradually replaced corporal and capital punishment, groups like the Quakers of Pennsylvania called for new jails that would shield inmates from corrupting influences, thus restoring their morality. These calls for change led to the first-ever American Prison Congress in 1870, in Cincinnati, Ohio. In attendance were officers and reformers from around the country, including a man named Joseph Chandler. He was a former congressman, and a member of the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons. More importantly, Chandler had once been a newspaper publisher.

Chandler noted that inmates clamored for newspapers, viewing them as a means of social communication and a window to the outside world. But these publications were filled with salacious details of crimes, which could lead a prisoner's recovering conscience astray. Chandler proposed the idea of a sanitized newspaper written specifically for those in prison. That way, inmates could stay abreast with the changing times, allowing them to re-enter society as informed men.

The American Prison Congress led to the formation of the National Prison Association, which would later become the American Correctional Association. Two years later, in 1872, a similar international convention was held in London. In the meantime, officials around the world began putting these new, enlightened ideals into practice, creating new types of prisons called "reformatories." One such institution was the Elmira Reformatory in New York, run by influential reformist Zebulon Reed Brockway.

Brockway had been at the 1870 American Prison Congress. Influenced by Chandler, Brockway hired an Oxford-educated inmate—whose name today is only remembered as Macauley—to run a newspaper called the Summary. First published in November 1883, the Summary was a news digest filled with carefully culled news items, coverage of prison happenings, and submissions from inmates and reformers. It was uplifting, laudatory, and above all, free from controversy. Across America, advocates clamored for more.

Soon, other reformatories began producing their own imitations of the Summary. These newspapers printed prisoners' edited articles, but officials—not inmates—technically ran the show. This would change in 1887 with The Prison Mirror.

The Prison Mirror's maiden issue was four pages long, 14 by 17 inches. It contained introductions, a reprint of the shareholders' business plan, and florid declarations of intent. Written collaboratively by the paper's founders, the opening article began:

"It is with no little pride and pleasure [that] we present to you, kind reader, this our initiative number of THE PRISON MIRROR, believing as we do, that the introduction of the printing press into the great penal institutions of our land, is the first important step taken toward solving the great problem of true prison reform."

 
 

The nameplate of The Prison Mirror's inaugural issue, published on August 10, 1887. The Prison Mirror is the longest continuously operated newspaper in the United States.

The nameplate of The Prison Mirror's inaugural issue, published on August 10, 1887. 

Courtesy of the Washington County Historical Society

 
 

The Mirror, they continued, would contain both humorous and literary submissions, and "a general budget of prison news, and possibilities, and realities, never before offered to the public." The authors promised to "encourage prison literary talent," "instruct, assist, encourage, and entertain," and "scatter words of warning to the outside world, whose reckless footsteps may be leading them hitherward."

Above all, the paper concluded, the Mirror would provide the prisoners with an independent voice, free from official interference: "This, we believe is the only printed sheet now in existence organized, published, edited, and sent forth to the world by prisoners confined within the walls of a penitentiary."

Also included in this first issue of the Mirror was a letter from the new warden, Halvur Stordock, who had been appointed by Governor Andrew R. McGill earlier that year. Stordock reassured outside readers that taxes didn't fund the Mirror and that the project had his full permission. "If it shall prove a failure, then the blame must all rest on me," he wrote. "If it shall be a success then all credit must be given to the boys who have done all the work."

It's unclear why, exactly, Stordock gave the prisoners such unprecedented free rein. Some critics later claimed that the warden used the Mirror as a publicity stunt; others said that he actually secretly edited the paper. The most likely explanation, however, is that unlike the reformers who founded the Summary, Stordock—a onetime farmer who had been appointed to his new position as a political favor after running for Minnesota Secretary of State—likely knew nothing about penology, or the complications or risks of running a prison.

The Mirror's first issues contained bits of prison news ("The stone steps leading into the new main cell building is a great improvement"), accounts of visitors, summaries of talks given at the prison, and letters from readers. Also included were vignettes from prison life. Some humorous ones featured printer's devil Cole Younger, whom the paper referred to as the staff's "Satanic member." In the inaugural issue, the Mirror published the below anecdote:

"A feat of activity occurred a few evenings since, in the prison cell room which is seldom ever equaled. The Satanic member of The Mirror force, carelessly laid upon the bench whereon he was sitting, a lighted cigar, officer A__n of the night force came up and with the dignity of a modern hero cooly seated himself upon the inoffensive little 'snipe'—a moment only, and the deed was done. Mr. A___ arose with the velocity of a Dakota cyclone, and it is needless to remark a sorer, if not a wiser man, but the fire was quenched. We do not wonder that the Warden is enabled to save the State seven or eight hundred dollars per year, on insurance, when he is provided with such an available fire extinguisher."

Soon after, however, both the paper's "Satanic member" and founding editor Shoonmaker would jump ship. In the Mirror's second issue, Shoonmaker resigned (presumably because he was due to be released on August 30) and handed over his responsibilities to a reluctant inmate named W.F. Mirick. ("I am afraid … that my fellow unfortunates, and the public outside have been led to expect at my hands more than they will receive," Mirick admitted in the paper's third edition, published on August 24, 1887.) Younger also resigned from the paper, perhaps because the job took his time and attention away from the prison library.

Stripped of its famous staffer, the paper now had to make its own name. This turned out to be a rather easy exercise, as its writers took on the unprecedented task of criticizing prison life, politicians, and even other newspapers.

Articles elicited compliments and condemnation from the outside world, and the Mirror printed them with relish. Newsmen debated among themselves whether inmates should be entrusted with the privilege of producing their own paper.

"The editor of the Taylors Falls Journal is having a controversy with THE PRISON MIRROR, a new paper printed inside the state penitentiary," the Rush City Post wrote in 1887. "We haven't seen THE MIRROR, but from the way the Journal squirms, we should judge it to be a lively paper."

And holding to the Mirror's promise to "speak the truth, whatever we conceive it to be," reform-minded journalists viewed the publication as a rare window into the depravities of prison life. In 1887, the Chicago Herald wrote:

"If the Minnesota project is to succeed, it must have a little life in it, and instead of praising the warden, guards, and keepers, it must show them in their hideous deformity. A journal published by jail-birds should be candid, sincere, bold, and even defiant … The reader should hear, or at least he should imagine that he hears, the clank of a ball and chain or the rude swoop of a manacled fist."

In the fall of 1887, The Prison Mirror became entangled in a highly political feud. The permissive Warden Stordock had replaced a warden named John A. Reed, who'd held the position for nearly 13 years. He was well respected but ousted on charges of allegedly mismanaging prison funds. When Stordock took over, "two of the three prison inspectors resigned because of Stordock's appointment, which they correctly thought was [Governor] McGill trying to make place for some of his political friends," according to a historical account provided by Brent Peterson, executive director of the Washington County Historical Society.

 
 

Warden Halvur G. Stordock allowed prisoners at the Stillwater Jail to found the nation's very first prison newspaper that was independently operated by inmates.
Warden Halvur G. Stordock

Courtesy of the Washington County Historical Society

 
 

Several months after Warden Reed was dismissed, Stordock and new prison inspectors opened an investigation into his administrations. No one quite knows what sparked the scrutiny, but rumors swirled as the governor assembled an oversight committee.

"There were rumors about [Reed] using materials from the prison for his personal use," Peterson tells Mental Floss. "Then, there was even more of a bombshell: He was doing inappropriate things with female convicts and the matron. All of this was played out in the newspapers, and it turned out to be just wrong. False." (During this period in history, a handful of women were housed in the Stillwater Prison, in their own separate quarters.)

The rumors allegedly drove Reed to attempt suicide, according to Peterson. Meanwhile, the Mirror sided with their ally Stordock, and reprinted the accusations. This invoked the wrath of one of the state's most influential papers: The Minneapolis Tribune.

In a Sunday editorial published in October 1887, the Tribune went on the offensive: "A careful examination of the recent issues of the Prison Mirror … compels the frank opinion that it ought to be summarily suppressed or else reformed in all its departments," the Tribune wrote. They lambasted the Mirror for printing "the most offensive and adverse comments upon ex-Warden Reed's pending investigation," and for also commenting "freely and in shockingly bad taste upon inside prison matters."

"Men in the penitentiary are not as men at liberty," the Tribune concluded. "Among the other things denied them should certainly be the privilege of running a newspaper without restriction or responsible control."

Warden Stordock and other officials considered this advice. But before they could make moves to shut down the Mirror, another local paper—the St. Paul Daily Globe—chimed with an editorial titled "Don't Do It":

"It is said that Warden Stordock intends to suppress further publication of the Prison Mirror because a paragraph slipped into the columns of a recent issue alluding to the Reed-Stordock squabble … [the Mirror] has been the means of furnishing the convicts with a great deal of reading matter that they would not otherwise have had, and has in many ways been a source of light and comfort to lives, which, God knows, are cheerless enough at best. It is in the interest of humanity that the Globe appeals to the authorities of the Stillwater prison not to suppress the publication of this little paper."

Somehow, The Prison Mirror weathered the storm and stayed afloat. Later, the inmates admitted (but didn't apologize for the fact) that the Reed gossip had been inappropriate for their pages. After reaffirming their commitment to free speech, they resolved to forge on as normal. All this occurred within the first four or so months of the paper's existence—a time span that would ultimately prove to be the most vibrant in their history.

The Mirror continued printing monthly, but by 1890, it had lost the majority of its lifeblood: the original founders who first brought it to life. Just five members out of the original 15 remained in prison. Mirick, a convicted murderer, had been pardoned and released, and in 1901, Cole and Jim Younger were paroled after 25 years in prison. (Bob Younger had died in prison from tuberculosis.)

The Mirror also changed once Stordock retired and a new warden took over the position. Authorities now reviewed proofs of the paper, and over the years its tone, subject, and length shifted along with staff turnover and the current political climate. "Life is not static, it is dynamic," Martin Hawthorne, a vocational instructor at the prison who is also The Prison Mirror's supervisor, tells Mental Floss. "So too must be The Prison Mirror."

The Mirror—which recently celebrated its 130th anniversary—is still a vital cornerstone of prison life. In addition to the occasional hard-hitting investigation, each 16-page issue of the monthly publication offers a variety of features and recurring columns, like "Ask a Lawyer." Currently, 2225 copies are printed per month, with most going to inmates. Around 200 copies are regularly sent to prison advocacy groups, law schools, and other organizations and institutions.

"Since we publish events that touch or feature offenders that are incarcerated here," Hawthorne says, "they feel that it is their newspaper. It is almost like a small neighborhood paper. There is never an issue where someone doesn't know someone featured in the paper."

But unlike the 19th century Mirror, today’s product is heavily censored—both by authorities and the inmates themselves. To avoid retribution from sources or rebuke from authorities, contributors are forced to walk a delicate line between intrepid reporter and circumspect prisoner. They're unlikely to print anything that could place themselves in danger's way, or result in an issue being pulled. Then, the final product is reviewed by a host of critical eyes, including Hawthorne, the prison's education director, the associate wardens, the Office of Special Investigation, and finally, by the warden himself.

"In a correctional environment, we are always sensitive to any subversive illegal activities or gang references, so if any of these are noticed they are asked to remove them," Hawthorne explains. "We are also sensitive to victims’ rights. So if there is anything mentioned that may have an impact or reference on that, they are asked to remove it. Outside of those considerations, they are free to write about whatever they feel needs to be addressed at the time."

While limited by these constraints, the Mirror still manages to perform important journalism: In 2012, for example, an investigation conducted by paper editor Matt Gretz discovered that Minnesota lawmakers had taken $1.2 million in profits from the Stillwater prison canteen to balance out budget cuts in 2011. Typically, this money is used for inmate programs and recreational materials [PDF].

While not the freewheeling pioneer of free press it once was, the Mirror continues to serve as a vehicle for prisoners to let their voices be heard, just as it did in 1887. "Ours isn't a pretty history," reflected editor Gretz in 2012, in a commemorative issue celebrating the paper's 125th anniversary. "But we sure do have stories to tell."

 
 
This piece was updated on January 4, 2018 with new information from the Minnesota State Archives.

10 Historically Disappointing Time Capsules

eag1e/iStock via Getty Images
eag1e/iStock via Getty Images

Unearthing a time capsule should be an exciting affair, a chance to see mysterious items hand-picked long ago as apposite examples of a bygone era. Unfortunately, these buried tubes of old garbage rarely live up to the hype.

"Ninety-nine percent of time capsules will remain boring as hell to the people that open them," says Matt Novak, who runs Gizmodo's Paleofuture site. Novak is a self-professed time capsule nerd who has seen enough capsule disappointments to keep his hopes in check. "Time capsules are both optimistic and selfish," he tells Mental Floss. "Optimistic in the sense that they represent a belief that not only will anyone find them sometime in the future, but also that anyone will care about what's inside."

Time capsules as we know them are a relatively new invention that became famous in 1939 with the burial of the Westinghouse Time Capsule at the World's Fair. This highly publicized capsule, which is not scheduled to be opened until the year 6939, contains both quotidian items and extensive writings on human history printed on microfilm (along with instructions on how to build a microfilm viewer). It was an ambitious project, with engineers specially designing the capsule to resist the ravages of time. Most time capsules, however, aren't equipped to be buried underground.

"Burying something is literally the worst way to preserve it for future generations," Novak says, "but we continue to do it." Contents are routinely destroyed by groundwater, so most time capsules reveal little more than trash chowder.

Still, Novak holds out hope for "rare one percenters—those time capsules that not only have something interesting inside, but also survived their journey into the future without turning into mush." The following 10 time capsules, however, fall firmly in the remaining 99 percent.

1. Derry, New Hampshire comes up empty

Just this week, residents of Derry, New Hampshire gathered at the local library to witness what they hoped might be an important moment in the town's history: the opening of a 1969 time capsule, which they believed might include some memorabilia from famed astronaut Alan Shepard, who was a Derry native. Instead, they found ... nothing. Absolutely nothing.

"We were a little horrified to find there was nothing in it," library director Cara Potter told the media. While there's no written record of exactly what was inside the safe, we do know that the time capsule had been moved a couple of times over the past several decades. And that the combination was written right on the back. "I really can’t understand why anyone would want to take the capsule and do anything with it,” Reed Clark, a 90-year-old local, told the New Hampshire Union Leader. But local historian Paul Lindemann says that, "There very well may have been valuable items in there" (including something of Shepard's).

2. The past comes alive in Tucson

In 1961, Tucson, Arizona's Campbell Plaza shopping center—the first air-conditioned strip mall in the country—celebrated its grand opening. To make the event truly memorable, developers buried a time capsule beneath the mall, forbidding anyone from opening it for the achingly long time period of 25 years.

When 1986 finally rolled around, another celebration was held for the capsule's unearthing. Three television crews captured the moment when workers, accompanied by a former Tucson mayor, excavated the capsule and cracked it open. Archaeologist William L. Rathje was on hand, and he later reported its contents as "a faded local newspaper (in worse condition than many I’ve witnessed being excavated from the bowels of landfills) and some business cards."

3. Bay City makes peace with its waterlogged history

In 1965, workers at Dafoe Shipbuilding Co. in Bay City, Michigan buried the “John F. Kennedy Peace Capsule.” It was to remain buried for 100 years—until city council members got antsy in 2015 and ordered for it to be unearthed five decades sooner than originally intended.

When crews unsealed the giant capsule, they found it was totally drenched: The shipbuilders responsible for sealing the capsule couldn't prevent it from taking on water. Many of the items were paper ephemera that didn't survive their 50-year submersion.

Non-paper items that could be identified included, according to MLive.com, “an old pair of lace-up women's boots, large ice tongs for carrying blocks of ice, a slide rule with a pencil sharpener, a pestle and wooden bowl, a centennial ribbon, a coffee grinder, a filament light bulb, an old non-electric iron and lots of Bay City Centennial plates, a 1965 Alden's Summer Catalogue, papers from Kawkawlin Community Church, and booklets from the labor council.”

4. Westport Elementary's too-successful capsule

In 1947, the superintendent of Westport Elementary School in Missouri buried a time capsule that wasn't to be opened for another 50 years. He left a note detailing this fact, but he forgot to include any information about the capsule's location. When it came time to retrieve it, no one knew where to start digging. ''We're calling it a history mystery,'' said a teacher who was tasked with finding it. She had little to go on, as the school's original blueprints—like the capsule itself—were lost.

5. The smell of history on Long Island

For its 350th anniversary in 2015, the residents of Smithtown in Long Island, New York opened a time capsule that had been buried in front of town hall in 1965. An unveiling celebration was held, and a crowd of more than 175 gathered to watch town officials dressed in colonial costumes dramatically reveal its contents.

These included, according to Newsday, "a proclamation of beard-growing group Brothers of the Brush, papers, and paraphernalia from the town's 300th anniversary events, a phone book, an edition of The Smithtown News, pennies from the 1950s and '60s, a man's black hat, and a white bonnet.”

Town residents and officials alike came away unimpressed. "I would have thought those folks would have used a little more imagination and put some artifacts from that time in the time capsule," Smithtown's then-supervisor Patrick Vecchio said.

Kiernan Lannon, the executive director of the town's Historical Society, told Newsday, "The most interesting thing that came out of the time capsule was the smell. It was horrible. I have smelled history before; history does not smell like that. It was the most powerfully musty smell that I've ever smelled in my life."

6. A time capsule worse than going to class

In 2014, New York Mills Union Free School District students filed into an assembly hall to watch the opening of a 57-year-old time capsule. The capsule, buried under the school’s cornerstone, was revealed to contain "a 1957 penny, class lists, teacher handbook, budget pamphlet, and letterhead." In a video of the unearthing, you could hear stray boos from disappointed students who expected much more than letterhead.

7. Norway's anachronistic treasure trove

The residents of Otta, Norway had been eagerly awaiting the day when they'd get to open a package that had been sealed in 1912 and given to the town's first mayor in 1920, along with a note: "May be opened in 2012." Townspeople hoped it contained oil futures, while historians optimistically predicted relics from a 400-year-old battle.

The parcel was opened at the end of a lavish ceremony that featured musical performances and speeches. The crowd, which included Princess Astrid of Norway, had to wait 90 suspenseful minutes (in addition to the 100 years since 1912) before they got down to business.

The Gudbrandsdal museum's Kjell Voldheim had the honor of opening the package. Inside he found ... another package. Inside that package were miscellaneous papers, and Voldheim narrated for the crowd as he pored through the items. “Oye yoy yoy," he said ("almost in exasperation," according to Smithsonian), as he tried to make sense of what he was seeing. Included among the lackluster documents were newspapers dated from 1914 and 1919, a few years after the package had presumably been sealed. While deemed authentic, the find was nonetheless confusing.

8. New Zealand's rare find

In 1995, a 100-year-old capsule thought to contain historical documents was opened by hopeful scholars in New Zealand. According to The New York Times, "all they found was muddy water and a button.”

9. Michigan's capitol mess

The Michigan State Capitol celebrated its 100th birthday in 1979, and officials marked the occasion by opening a capsule that had been buried beneath the building's cornerstone. While the itemized list of the capsule's contents was intriguing—"1873 newspapers, a state history, a history of Free Masonry, a copy of the Declaration of Independence, a silver plate inscribed with Lansing officials’ names, and other papers on specialized topics"—it wasn't included in the actual box. The actual items that were buried wound up being destroyed.

“They’re in very bad shape,” Robert Warner, the late director of the University of Michigan's Bentley Historical Library, said. Water damage had ruined the fragile paper documents, and Capitol anniversary revelers had to gamely celebrate a box full of sludge.

10. Keith Urban's time capsule confusion

Australia's Pioneer Village Country Music Hall had been left in disrepair, which is what made the discovery of a plaque on its grounds in 2014 so exciting. Perhaps there was promise buried beneath the abandoned venue. Hidden behind overgrown vegetation, it read:

Pioneer Village Country Music Club
10 yr Time Capsule
Placed by Mayor Yvonne Chapman
This Day 4th July 1994
To be Re-opened 4th July 2004

As recounted by Paleofuture, the capsule's opening was a decade overdue, though fans who used to frequent the music hall said they already knew what was inside: a photo of a young Keith Urban. The musician got his start at Pioneer Village, and the photo was buried to celebrate the local star.

Oddly, a different capsule from 1994 was discovered on the music hall's abandoned grounds in 2013. Keith Urban fans eagerly opened it, thinking they had found the photo, but were left disappointed when it proved to be empty. So, by process of elimination, a photo of Keith Urban had to be in the more recently discovered capsule. Unless there's a third capsule, in which case they should probably just give up and buy a Keith Urban photo on eBay.

This story has been updated for 2019.

Hard Sell: A History of the Pet Rock

Amazon
Amazon

You may have heard the story of the Pet Rock, the Mexican beach stone that could be purchased in bulk for less than a penny, retailed for $3.95, and made inventor Gary Dahl a millionaire during a kind of novelty gift hysteria in late 1975. But Dahl didn’t really get rich off of the rock.

He got rich off of a cardboard box.

Dahl was working as a freelance advertising copywriter in California that year when, while having drinks at a bar with friends, the conversation turned to the destructive nature of pets. Dogs and cats ruined furniture. Worse, they required constant attention, from being walked to being fed to cleaning up after them. Dahl said that he didn’t have to worry about any of that because he had a “pet rock.”

It was, of course, a joke. And it got a laugh. But Dahl decided there could be more to it than that. He went home and began writing an owner’s manual for this hypothetical pet rock, which detailed how best to handle it, the tricks it could perform (“play dead” being the most popular), and how it could remain a faithful companion due to its “long life span.” The gag was not so much the rock itself but the way it was presented. In addition to the manual, Dahl conceived of a cardboard box with air holes that resembled the kind used by pet shops. It also bore a passing resemblance to a McDonald's Happy Meal container.

 

Dahl's motivation in making a serious effort to monetize his pet rock idea was due in large part to his precarious financial situation at the time—he was struggling to keep up with his bills. He recruited George Coakley and John Heagerty, two colleagues, to come on as investors. They both signed on, with Coakley investing $10,000—a not-inconsiderable sum in 1975, especially when the intention was to sell virtually worthless rocks.

The Pet Rock packaging is pictured
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Dahl, however, knew what he was marketing. Like chattering teeth, the Hula Hoop, and other fads, the Pet Rock was the beneficiary of good timing. Vietnam had ended but Watergate was still fresh; the country’s mood was slightly downcast, and Dahl believed people would see the inane nature of the Pet Rock and recognize the humor of it. He boxed the rocks with the manual and packed them in excelsior, which may be best known as comic book legend Stan Lee’s catchphrase but also means a softwood shaving pile meant for protecting fragile items. The rocks were purchased from a local sand and gravel company, which sourced them from Mexico’s Rosarita Beach. Dahl debuted the rock at a gift show in San Francisco in August of 1975, then waited for a reaction.

He got one. People understood the appeal right away and he began taking orders. Neiman Marcus wanted 1000 rocks. Bloomingdale’s later signed on. Newsweek did a story with a picture, which spread the word. Dahl had retail and media credibility for what was superficially a nonsense product. His bar joke was turning into a national phenomenon.

When the holiday season arrived, Dahl estimated he was selling up to 100,000 Pet Rocks a day. Ultimately, he would sell between 1.3 and 1.5 million of them within a period of just a few months. Coakley made $200,000 back on his initial $10,000 investment. Dahl gifted both Coakley and Heagerty with Mercedes. Making 95 cents in profit on each Pet Rock sold, Dahl earned over $1 million. He launched his own firm, Rock Bottom Productions, which was itself another joke. “You’ve reached Rock Bottom” is how the receptionist answered their phone.

 

The fad did not last—by definition, they’re not designed to—but Dahl was satisfied. His two investors were not; they "claimed they had received too small a share of the profits" and later sued Dahl for more revenue. After a judgment in the investors' favor, Dahl wrote them a six-figure check.

The Pet Rock is pictured
Amazon

There were attempts to prolong the life of the rock by offering a Bicentennial version in 1976—it had the American flag painted on it—and mail-order college degrees for them. Dahl sold Pet Rock T-shirts and Pet Rock shampoo. There were also copycat gifts, since Dahl could not really patent a rock. (He might have been able to obtain a utility patent because of the rock’s particular purpose as a companion, but he did not.) The humor was transient, however, and people had moved on.

Dahl had other ideas. There was the Official Sand Breeding Kit, which claimed to provide guidance on growing sand, and Canned Earthquake, which consisted of a coffee can that had a wind-up mechanism that caused it to jump around on a table. Neither was particularly successful. Dahl’s real passion, though, was buying and renovating a bar in Los Gatos, which he named Carrie Nation’s Saloon.

This was not without its problems, as people who believed they had the next Pet Rock would often stop by the bar to try and secure an audience with Dahl for his insight. Many times, their idea consisted of packaging bull or elephant excrement. There were also proposals to market a pet stick. Dahl had no patience for these inventors, believing the Pet Rock could not be duplicated. Later, he went back to advertising after taking what he described as an “eight-year vacation” following the success of his project.

The Pet Rock can still be found online, though it’s no longer Dahl’s business. He died in 2015. Of the unsold rocks he had left over at the end of the fad, he was indifferent. If they didn’t sell, he said, he would just use them to repave his driveway.

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