5 Things You'll Learn from Public Domain Review's New Book


We here at mental_floss are huge fans of the website Public Domain Review. Founded in 2011, the site contains a curated collection of the most interesting things in the public domain; its contributors publish essays on some of the cool things they find, a selection of which have been compiled into a new book.

The Book of Selected Essays, 2011 - 2013 is divided into six sections—animals, bodies, words, worlds, encounters, and networks—and is pretty much a must-have for obscure history junkies. “Most of the subjects addressed in these essays—concerned as they are with the small, the unsung, the nooks and shadows—are not the stuff of what Nietzsche called ‘monumental history,’” Adam Green writes in the introduction. But though they aren’t monumental, you’ll probably find that these unfamiliar moments are more interesting than what you learned in history class. PDR was kind enough to send us an early copy of the book; here are five interesting things we learned.


In “Bugs and Beasts Before the Law,” theoretical psychologist Nicholas Humphrey examines the exceptionally weird history of medieval animal trials. “The trials were conducted with full ceremony,” he writes. “[E]vidence was heard on both sides, witnesses were called, and in many cases the accused animal was granted a form of legal aid—a lawyer being appointed at the tax-payer’s expense to conduct the animal’s defense.” A 1906 book, The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals, details 200 cases of animals on trial. In one, which took place in 1494 in Clermont, France, a young pig was accused and, at trial, found guilty of entering a home on Easter morning and “strangl[ing] and defac[ing] a child in its cradle,” killing the infant. The judge declared that “the said porker, now detained as a prisoner and confined in the said abbey, shall be by the master of high works hanged and strangled on a gibbet of wood.” The trials didn't always end so terribly for the animals, though; in another trial, which took place in 1587, weevils arrested for destroying a vineyard "were deemed to have been exercising their natural rights to eat—and, in compensation, were granted a vineyard of their own."


In “Trüth, Beauty, and Volapk,” Arika Okrent (Hey! We know her!) writes about Johann Schleyer, a German priest who, in 1879, was told by a divine presence to create a universal language. Volapük, which meant “world speak,” became so popular that there were 200 societies devoted to it by the 1880s, and yes, Frances Cleveland named her dog Volapük. “It was the first invented language to gain widespread success,” Okrent writes. “It was designed to be easy to learn, with a system of simple roots derived from european languages, and regular affixes which attached to the roots to make new words.” It was also laden with umlauts. According to Schleyer, “a language without umlauts sounds monotonous, harsh, and boring.” But Volapük’s popularity wouldn't last; it began to fall out of favor in 1890.


Move over, Santa: Ten years after Charles Darwin published The Descent of Man, one minister laid out a theory that the garden of Eden could be found at ... the North Pole. In “The Last Great Explorer: William F. Warren and the Search for Eden,” Brook Wilensky-Lanford writes that Warren, minister and also president of Boston University, “knew science was going to define the future. But he was unwilling to give up his theology to the new discipline.” So he found an unlikely way to combine them: by looking to Eden.

“He set about translating the Bible into science,” Wilensky-Lanford writes. “Eden was ‘the one spot on earth where the biological conditions are the most favorable.’ ... He took note of a newly discovered fact: millions of years ago, the earth had been much warmer. He followed the uncovering of fantastic creatures at once familiar and mythical, like the woolly mammoth, the dinosaur, and the giant sequoia. He knew there was still one blank spot on the world map, a place where nobody had been, and he arrived at the inevitable conclusion: The Garden of Eden is at the North Pole.”

He published his ideas in the 1881 book Paradise Found, the Cradle of the Human Race at the North Pole, which was bolstered by 580 sources, including Darwin. The book inspired a number of other “Eden seekers,” as Wilensky-Lanford calls them, whose theories frustrated Warren to no end. Other proposed locations for Eden raised during Warren’s lifetime, included Chautauqua, New York; California’s Santa Clara Valley; and Ohio.


In 1849, Flaubert invited two of his closest friends, Louis Bouilhet and Maxime du Camp, to hear his retelling of the tale of St. Anthony, which “he believed was to be his masterpiece,” Colin Dickey writes in “The Redemption of St. Anthony.” Flaubert, then 30, had been working on the story for four years; he read the entire 541 page manuscript in two uninterrupted four-hour blocks for four days. It was not a pleasant experience: “Bouilhet and du Camp would later remember them as the most painful days in their lives … Bouilhet, with as much tact as he could muster, told Flaubert simply, ‘we think you should throw it into the fire and never speak of it again.’” They challenged him to write something “minutely detailed, objectively reported, as in the vein of Balzac.” The result was Madame Bovary.  

Still, Flaubert couldn’t let St. Anthony go; he rewrote it three times before publishing it in 1874. But as Dickey argues, the work didn’t truly come alive until artist Odilon Redon created plates based on the book, “which finally unlocked the strangeness and decadent symbolism that Flaubert had dreamt of but which he could never quite evoke on the page. ... Redon’s work, which caused a sensation in its day but has too often been neglected (particularly outside France), represents perhaps the true potential, and use, of Flaubert’s Temptation.”


In 1890, historian Henry Adams—grandson of John Quincy Adams and great grandson of John Adams—left America with his friend, painter John la Farge, for a tour of the Pacific. Depressed after the suicide of his wife five years earlier, Adams purportedly wrote a list of goals that included “tracking down and sampling the legendary durian fruit, following his friend Clarence King’s example and falling madly in lust with exotic native girls, and attaining enlightenment,” Ray Davis writes in “Tales from Tahiti.”

Instead, Adams became close friends with the last two Queens of Tahiti: Arii Taimai and her daughter, Marau Taaroa. In 1891, he wrote in a letter that “By way of excitement or something to talk about, I some time ago told old Marau that she ought to write memoirs, and if she would narrate her life to me, I would take notes and write it out, chapter by chapter. To our surprise, she took up the idea seriously, and we are to begin work today, assisted by the old chiefess mother, who will have to start us from Captain Cook’s time.”

The result was Tahiti, Memoirs of Marau Taaroa (also called Memoirs of Arii Taimai), which Adams self-published in 1901. Davis writes that “as the first history of Tahiti, written with the full support of the family at the center of the island’s annexation as a French colony, and as an attempt to give full attention to both sides of the confrontation between ‘civilized’ and ‘primitive’ cultures, it deserves wider access than it’s attained to date.”

Buy The Book of Selected Essays before November 26 for a discount!