5 Letters That Changed the World

iStock.com/Eerik
iStock.com/Eerik

Emails may take up the bulk of our correspondence these days, but there was a time when a handwritten letter carried a considerable amount of weight—far more than the paper it was composed on. Take a look at five letters that had a demonstrable and powerful effect on world history.

1. The letter that prompted Abraham Lincoln to grow a beard.

In 1860, Abraham Lincoln was the Republican candidate for president. He was also clean-shaven, a look in stark contrast to the images and portrayals of a fully-bearded president that would endure well past his presidency. Growing a beard was a suggestion famously put forth by an 11-year-old girl named Grace Bedell, who offered some unsolicited campaign advice. In her letter to Lincoln that year, she stated that his face, which she described as “so thin,” would benefit from a beard because “all the ladies like whiskers.”

Lincoln wrote her back just days later and wondered if a beard wouldn’t seem like a “piece of silly affectation” since he had never grown one before. Despite the apprehension, Lincoln did grow a beard—perhaps the most famous one in American history. On the way to his 1861 inauguration, he arranged to make a stop in Bedell’s hometown of Westfield, New York, to let her know he had taken her advice to heart.

2. The letter from Albert Einstein that started the Atomic Age.

It would have been impossible for Albert Einstein to understand the gravity of his words as he signed a letter dated August 2, 1939, and later remitted to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In it, he alerted the president to work being conducted by scientists such as Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilard that may one day soon result in a “nuclear chain reaction in a large mass of uranium.” The consequences of such an achievement, Einstein wrote, would be “extremely powerful bombs of a new type.”

Einstein’s motivation was to communicate the potential of a superweapon to the United States government—one that could conceivably be developed by Germany first if the U.S. did not act. When Roosevelt received the letter, he told his military advisor, General Edwin Watson, to take action.

That wasn’t the only correspondence between Szilard and Roosevelt. Upon receipt of the initial letter, Roosevelt also promised to fund Szilard’s research into nuclear fission. When those funds were late in coming, Szilard wrote the president again and threatened to publish a paper he'd written that detailed some of the information needed to make a nuclear weapon—unless Roosevelt made good on his promise. Szilard got his wish, though he later expressed regret at the wheels he had put into motion, fearing a nuclear war would be catastrophic.

Collectively, the letters set into motion a chain of events leading to the Manhattan Project and the development of the atomic bomb, which was deployed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 and helped bring an end to World War II.

3. The letter from George Washington that won the American Revolution.

George Washington had a problem. The Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army was in the midst of a struggle that saw the American colonies trying to separate themselves from Great Britain. It wasn’t going well: The British Army had captured the New York City port and was advancing every day. Washington believed he could benefit from the assistance of a spy in the city to report on what was going on behind enemy lines. When he failed to rouse any volunteers beyond an inexperienced young man named Nathan Hale—who was captured and hanged in just under two weeks—Washington wrote a letter to a proven operative named Nathaniel Sackett.

Washington offered Sackett $50 a month to develop a network of spies and a system of espionage that could gather intelligence. Although Sackett didn’t make much progress, another operative, Benjamin Tallmadge, did. His Culper Spy Ring successfully gathered information about British troop movement and plans and had it delivered to Washington. British plans were continually breached, and General Cornwallis surrendered in 1781.

4. The letter from a mother that helped give women the right to vote.

In 1920, the fate of women’s suffrage rested in the hands of a man who was publicly opposed to the movement. On August 18 of that year, Tennessee House Representative Harry Thomas Burn cast the deciding vote on whether his state would ratify the 19th Amendment. Tennessee became the 36th state to do so, cementing the three-fourths of states needed in order to grant women the right to vote. His vote in favor was unexpected, as Burn was wearing the red rose that was the symbol of anti-suffragists. Just that morning a local newspaper had run an ad imploring people to “wear a red rose” to help defeat the amendment, “the most important issue that has confronted the South since the Civil War.”

When the amendment finally came up for a vote after prolonged discussion, Burn surprised observers by voting in favor of it. The reason? In his jacket pocket was a letter from his mother, Febb Ensminger Burn, that urged him to side with the cause of women’s suffrage. “Don’t forget to be a good boy,” she admonished. Burn later said that “a mother’s advice is always safest for a boy to follow.”

5. The letter that influenced the Civil Rights Movement.

When civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was jailed in Birmingham, Alabama, on April 12, 1963 for participating in a march without a permit, he did not use the time to sit idle. Instead, King used whatever materials he could—including the margins of newspapers and paper provided by his lawyer—and spent the week he was locked up formulating an eloquent and measured response to criticism from the local clergy that protests weren’t the answer. By April 16, he had composed what would become known as the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” a lengthy rebuttal [PDF] that reinforced the need for public demonstrations against segregation.

In the letter, King argued passionately against the idea of waiting patiently for social change to be enacted. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” King wrote. The piece, which was later published in The Atlantic as well as King’s own book, 1964’s Why We Can’t Wait, was viewed as a rallying cry for activism during a crucial period in history and as documentation of the movement itself.

Amazon's Under-the-Radar Coupon Page Features Deals on Home Goods, Electronics, and Groceries

Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Now that Prime Day is over, and with Black Friday and Cyber Monday still a few weeks away, online deals may seem harder to come by. And while it can be a hassle to scour the internet for promo codes, buy-one-get-one deals, and flash sales, Amazon actually has an extensive coupon page you might not know about that features deals to look through every day.

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12 Very Haunted Roads

Don't get caught on these roads at night.
Don't get caught on these roads at night.
Pixabay, Pexels // CC0

What could be scarier than driving down a dark road at night? Driving down one of these dark roads at night. If any of the below routes—compiled by Commercial Truck Trader—pop up on your GPS this spooky season, consider finding an alternate way to your destination.

1. Jeremy Swamp Road // Southbury, Connecticut

Jeremy Swamp Road and several other streets in southwestern Connecticut are said to be frequented by Melon Heads, creatures that, according to the New England Historical Society, live in wooded areas and “look like small humanoids with oversized heads” that “survive by eating small animals, stray cats and human flesh, usually the flesh of teenagers.” Some say the Melon Heads are the result of inbreeding, with others theorizing that they escaped from local hospitals or asylums.

2. Owaissa Street // Appleton, Wisconsin

Legend has it that every full moon, a tombstone in Owaissa Street’s Riverside Cemetery bleeds. The tombstone belongs to Kate Blood, who, according to some stories, was either a witch who killed her husband and children with an ax, or was a woman murdered by her husband. (Local historians, however, say Blood died of tuberculosis.) Visitors also report seeing a creepy hooded figure roaming the cemetery.

3. Prospector’s Road // Garden Valley, California

Driving along this hilly, three-mile stretch of road is not for the faint of heart: It’s supposedly haunted by the spirit of a tall, bearded prospector who was murdered after he drunkenly bragged about his claim. According to Weird California, those who run into the entity—who is supposedly responsible for many an accident along the road—will hear him whisper: “Get off my claim.”

4. Sandhill Road // Las Vegas, Nevada

The flood tunnels beneath Sandhill Road between Olive Avenue and Charleston Boulevard in Las Vegas are said to be haunted by a dead couple. People have also reported hearing creepy, ghostly moans coming from the darkness and being chased by the specter of an old woman.

5. Bloody Bride Bridge // Steven’s Point, Wisconsin

Drivers on Highway 66 in Steven’s Point, Wisconsin, might get a glimpse of the ghost of a bride who was supposedly killed on her wedding day in a car accident on the bridge. Legend has it that if those drivers park on the bridge at midnight and look in their rearview mirrors, they’ll see the bride, in her bloody wedding dress, sitting in the backseat.

6. Boy Scout Lane // Steven’s Point, Wisconsin

Also located in Steven’s Point, the isolated Boy Scout Lane is supposedly where a group of Boy Scouts died, although no one quite seems to know why or how—some say they were killed while camping when their fire raged out of control; others say it was a bus accident; and some say they simply disappeared. Whatever the reason, visitors to the area now say they can hear footsteps and calls for help coming from the woods.

7. Route 66 // Villa Ridge, Missouri

Located on Route 66, the abandoned Tri-County Truck-Stop is a hotbed of ghostly activity. Before the restaurant shut down, employees reported hearing strange noises, seeing apparitions, and watching as coffee pots were thrown across the room by invisible forces.

8. Stagecoach Road // Marshall, Texas

On this red dirt road—which once served as a route for stagecoaches traveling to the town from Shreveport, Louisiana—paranormal investigators have snapped photos of ghosts and had the batteries of the equipment they were using to investigate drain inexplicably. Others who have driven down the road and turned off their cars said they felt a presence stepping on the bumper; when they went home, they discovered tiny handprints in the red dust on the back of the car. The road is supposedly haunted by the spirit of a Voodoo priestess.

9. Route 666 // Douglas, Arizona

The road formerly known as Route 666 may now be part of Route 491 [PDF], but some still call it The Devil’s Highway. Drivers traveling on this section of highway have recounted being pursued by a pack of terrifying dogs or a phantom semi-truck, among other strange and scary encounters.

10. Goatman's Bridge // Denton, Texas

Old Alton Bridge is an iron-truss structure built in 1884 that got its unsettling moniker from local legends. Fifty years after the bridge was built, a successful Black goat farmer named Oscar Washburn—who went by the nickname “Goatman”—put a sign on the bridge that read “This Way to the Goatman.” The sign incensed the Ku Klux Klan, who hanged Washburn on the bridge. But according to Legends of America, “when they looked over to make sure he was dead, they could see only the rope. Washburn was gone and was never seen again.” Some report seeing a man herding goats across the bridge, which was decommissioned around 2001, while others say they’ve seen a half-man, half-goat creature there.

11. Route 375 // Rachel, Nevada

Entertaining the idea of a close encounter? Drivers on this road—which runs near the Nevada Test and Training Range, home of Area 51—have reported hundreds of strange, potentially alien sightings from Alamo to Tonopah, leading to the route’s nickname: “The Extraterrestrial Highway.”

12. Ortega Ridge Road // Montecito, California

This road is haunted by Las Ters Hermanas, or The Three Sisters—three nuns who, it’s said, were murdered more than a century ago. They can be seen standing on the side of the road, arms crossed, their eyes bright blue and their faces glowing.