8 Hilarious Historical Feuds

Mark Twain was no fan of the postal service.
Mark Twain was no fan of the postal service.
popovaphoto (Twain), yellowdesign (Background)/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Some feuds make—and change!—history. The Hatfields and McCoys. Edison versus Tesla. Coke and Pepsi. Here are eight tales of petty jealousy and downright spite that were made for the history books. (And we’ve determined the winners!)

1. Hate Mail // Mark Twain vs. the Postal Service

Mark Twain hated basically everything to do with the post office. Stamps? “When England in 1848 invented stamps, my feelings were decidedly anti-English.” The cost of sending mail overseas? “Downright robbery.” The requirement to write a full address on envelopes? “[W]ords utterly wasted; and, mind you, when a man is paid by the word … this sort of thing hurts.”

Twain’s hatred was long-running. When he was young, he lived in Nevada and held a job ask a clerk for Senator William Stewart. He had this to say when a constituent wrote asking the government to build a new post office: “What the mischief do … you want with a post office? … If any letters came there, you couldn’t read them. … No, don’t bother about a post office … What you want is a nice jail.”

When, in 1879, the private secretary to the Postmaster General tried to respond to some of Twain’s criticism, the novelist shot back: “You are not the Post Office Department, but only an irresponsible, inexpensive, and unnecessary appendage to it.”

The post office responded by merely doing its job—sometimes under impossible circumstances. One time, when Twain forgot the address of a friend, he wrote on the envelope: “To MR. C.M. UNDERHILL, who is in the coal business in one of those streets there, and is very respectably connected, both by marriage & general descent, and is a tall man & old but without any gray hair & used to be handsome. BUFFALO N.Y. from MARK TWAIN P.S. A little bald on the top of his head.”

The post office successfully delivered the letter.

Winner: All the couriers swiftly completing their appointed rounds.

2. Vulturegate // John James Audubon vs. Charles Waterton

In the 1820s, John James Audubon—the American ornithologist and future author of the world’s most expensive book, The Birds of America—was obsessed with vultures. He was particularly fascinated by the bird’s eating habits: Audubon believed the scavengers didn’t find rotting meals with their sense of smell, as commonly believed, but rather used their eyesight.

When Audubon lectured on his theory in 1826, he made the British conservationist, Charles Waterton, deeply upset. Waterton had written extensively about the turkey vulture’s ostensibly excellent sense of smell in one of his books and was so offended by the new theory that he suggested that Audubon “ought to be whipped.” Waterton’s pro-smell cronies encamped in a group called “Nosarians” and tried to smear Audubon’s credibility, making pointed attacks at his abilities as a writer: “Its grammar is bad; its composition poor; and its statements are so unsatisfactory.” According to zoologist Lucy Cooke in her book The Truth About Animals, Waterton kept at his crusade for years:

“Over the course of five years, Waterton wrote no less than nineteen letters to the Magazine of Natural History attacking Audubon and anyone in his orbit. When the journal finally stopped publishing his letters, he reportedly continued to print and distribute them himself. His efforts were futile. His impenetrable, rambling diatribes, punctuated with sardonic ad hominems and obscure Latin phrases, won him few allies. ... The louder Waterton shouted, the more he was ignored. In the end, he was forced to give up.”

Experiments would later support Audubon’s position, and today, it’s generally agreed that all vultures use sight. But in the 1960s, new research found turkey vultures do actually use smell [PDF]. So while Audubon was right about most vultures, he was wrong to call out turkey vultures for not being able to smell (he likely confused them with the non-smelling black vultures). Nowadays even the Audubon Society says the turkey vulture “has a well-developed sense of smell.” That’s got to sting.

Winner: Charles Waterton and turkey vultures.

3. The Race to the North Pole // Frederick A. Cook vs. Robert E. Peary

In 1908, Frederick A. Cook and Robert E. Peary were in a bitter race to the top of the world. Cook would insist he had reached the pole first, but an act of possible sabotage would damage his claim.

On his return trip, Cook had stopped in Annoatok, Greenland, and ran into an American hunter named Harry Whitney. Looking to offload some weight for the next leg of his journey, Cook entrusted Whitney with his supplies—including his navigational records and sextant—under the impression that Whitney would safely take them to New York City. They would meet later.

Months later, Robert Peary—fresh from his own expedition north—would appear in Annoatok with a boat. Whitney was thirsty to leave Greenland, and Peary agreed to help take Whitney home under one condition: That he leave all of Cook’s supplies behind. Whitney accepted. Cook, with his equipment lost somewhere in Greenland, would never be able to defend his claim. The New York Times, which had helped sponsor Peary’s trip, would say that Cook's claim was “The most astonishing imposture since the human race came on earth.”

Seventy-nine years later, in 1988, the newspaper would issue a correction. It remains unclear if either man actually reached the pole.

Winner: The tourism office in Annoatok, Greenland.

4. Gravity Grievances // Robert Hooke vs. Isaac Newton

In 1665, Robert Hooke looked through a microscope at a piece of cork and was immediately reminded of a monastery. Believing the latticework of small structures he saw resembled a monk’s chamber, he decided to give them a familiar name: Cellula, or cells.

The discovery of the cell is just one of Robert Hooke’s many accomplishments. He did “pioneering work in optics, gravitation, paleontology, architecture, and more,” according to Alasdair Wilkins at io9. He was also an influence on Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity—he wrote to Newton about the idea around 1680—and was convinced that Newton would have never cooked up with theory without his help. So why isn’t Hooke a household name?

Newton might be at fault. For years, the two scientists quibbled over credit for a slew of discoveries, and it irked Newton. In one letter, Newton wrote to Hooke, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” As Wilkins explains, this may not have been a compliment. Hooke was short and hunchbacked, and it’s possible that Newton was taking a swipe at the scientist: Your influence is as small as your stature. When Hooke died and Newton became the president of the Royal Society, Newton’s acolytes wrote off Hooke as a footnote. In fact, under Newton’s leadership, the only painting of Hooke in existence went missing. Some argue, without evidence, that Newton had it burned.

Winner: Isaac Newton, conspiracy theorists, fans of mitochondria.

5. The Bone Wars // Othniel Charles Marsh vs. Edward Drinker Cope

Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope would discover around 130 dinosaur species in the mid- to late-19th century, introducing the world to big names such as Triceratops and Stegosaurus. You’d think that these two heavyweight paleontologists, with all of their shared interests, would have worked well together, right?

At first, they did. But in 1868, everything changed. For years, Cope had been classifying fossils discovered in the marl quarries near Haddonfield, New Jersey. When Marsh visited Cope to take a tour of the pits, he secretly made an agreement with the quarry owners stipulating that he was entitled to the fossils they found. Cope was furious. Later, Marsh discovered that Cope had reconstructed one of his dinosaur skeletons backward, mistaking the animal’s tail for its neck. The information went public and deeply embarrassed Cope. A toxic rivalry was born.

For the next three decades, the two men spread toxic smears as they raced to collect the most fossils—what is now known as the Bone Wars. According to the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, “Cope’s rushed work was plagued by careless errors. Marsh often resorted to bribery and bullying in the pursuit of specimens.” The ruthless feud would transform both men into legends of paleontology—and would lead them to financial ruin.

Winner: Michael Crichton's bank account.

6. The Astor Riots // William Macready vs. Edwin Forrest

If you think the Oscar fight for “Best Actor” is fraught today, it was much worse in 1849. Back then, the race for the best Shakespearean actor fell to two men: William Macready, a British critical darling, and Edwin Forrest, one of America’s first great homegrown stars. For years, the British and American press debated who was the better actor, and the two men attracted a loyal—and occasionally belligerent—following. (Once, Forrest went to one of Macready’s performances and hissed from the seats.)

But the rivalry became more symbolic in the 1840s, as America’s sentiment for the British soured. (An influx of Irish immigrants, who despised all things British, amped up the vitriol.) So, in May 1849, when Macready appeared in the role of Macbeth at the Astor Opera House in New York City, he was greeted with boos and volleys of garbage.

Macready continued his performances at the urging of the New York literati, prompting political opportunists at Tammany Hall to paste posters across the city asking WORKING MEN, SHALL AMERICA OR ENGLAND RULE IN THIS CITY? Soon, the question of who was the better actor took on a larger meeting. Thousands of protestors congregated outside the theater, the militia was called, and a riot broke out. At least 22 people died, making it, according to JSTOR Daily, “the deadliest civic insurrection in American history up to that time.”

Winner: Nobody.

7. Life After Death // Arthur Conan Doyle vs. Harry Houdini

Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini were fascinated by spiritualism, albeit for different reasons. Houdini was a professional illusionist who made a living fooling people. Before he was a household name, he earned a small income by hosting séances and pretending to speak to the dead. As badly as he wanted to believe in the afterlife, he was skeptical of anybody who claimed to have the power to communicate with the other side.

Houdini’s friend Arthur Conan Doyle, however, sincerely believed that he could access the afterlife. In fact, his wife Jean moonlighted as a medium. One day, she claimed to summon Houdini’s dead mother and received a 15-page message from beyond the grave. There was one problem: The ghost wrote in impeccable English. Houdini’s mother was Hungarian, and spoke almost no English at all.

For Houdini, it was a breaking point. The two men never reconciled their differences. Houdini would go on to describe mediums as “human leeches,” charlatans who exploited people’s grief, and would dedicate great energy to exposing fraudulent mediums. His crusade to debunk these con artists was so great that some have theorized that Houdini may have been poisoned by angry psychics.

Winner: Rationalism and sucker punches to the gut.

8. A Puzzling Philosophical Problem // Dr. Karl Popper vs. Ludwig Wittgenstein

At Cambridge University, it was tradition to hold a weekly discussion for the university’s philosophers and their students. On one such evening, in 1946, the guest was Dr. Karl Popper with Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein in attendance. It would be the first—and last—time all three philosophers were in the same room together.

Popper presented a paper called “Are There Philosophical Problems?”, a jab at Wittgenstein, who argued there were no such problems—only linguistic puzzles. Wittgenstein grew so impassioned as he argued with Popper that he picked up a red hot fireplace poker and began waving it around for emphasis. When Russell demanded that Wittgenstein put the poker down, Wittgenstein stormed out of the room.

At least, that’s one version of events. Some say Wittgenstein was physically threatening Popper. Others suggest Popper was ready to take a literal stab at Wittgenstein himself. Whatever the case, it’s fitting that nobody has been able to verify what, exactly, occurred: Popper’s most famous contribution to philosophy was, after all, a critique of verificationism.

WINNER: Uncertainty.

10 Rad Gifts for Hikers

Greg Rosenke/Unsplash
Greg Rosenke/Unsplash

The popularity of bird-watching, camping, and hiking has skyrocketed this year. Whether your gift recipients are weekend warriors or seasoned dirtbags, they'll appreciate these tools and gear for getting most out of their hiking experience.

1. Stanley Nesting Two-Cup Cookset; $14

Amazon

Stanley’s compact and lightweight cookset includes a 20-ounce stainless steel pot with a locking handle, a vented lid, and two insulated 10-ounce tumblers. It’s the perfect size for brewing hot coffee, rehydrating soup, or boiling water while out on the trail with a buddy. And as some hardcore backpackers note in their Amazon reviews, your favorite hiker can take the tumblers out and stuff the pot with a camp stove, matches, and other necessities to make good use of space in their pack.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Osprey Sirrus and Stratos 24-Liter Hiking Packs; $140

Amazon

Osprey’s packs are designed with trail-tested details to maximize comfort and ease of use. The Sirrus pack (pictured) is sized for women, while the Stratos fits men’s proportions. Both include an internal sleeve for a hydration reservoir, exterior mesh and hipbelt pockets, an attachment for carrying trekking poles, and a built-in rain cover.

Buy them: Amazon, Amazon

3. Yeti Rambler 18-Ounce Bottle; $48

Amazon

Nothing beats ice-cold water after a summer hike or a sip of hot tea during a winter walk. The Yeti Rambler can serve up both: Beverages can stay hot or cold for hours thanks to its insulated construction, and its steel body (in a variety of colors) is basically indestructible. It will add weight to your hiker's pack, though—for a lighter-weight, non-insulated option, the tried-and-true Camelbak Chute water bottle is incredibly sturdy and leakproof.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Mappinners Greatest 100 Hikes of the National Parks Scratch-Off Poster; $30

Amazon

The perfect gift for park baggers in your life (or yourself), this 16-inch-by-20-inch poster features epic hikes like Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park and Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. Once the hike is complete, you can scratch off the gold foil to reveal an illustration of the park.

Buy it: Amazon

5. National Geographic Adventure Edition Road Atlas; $19

Amazon

Hikers can use this brand-new, updated road atlas to plan their next adventure. In addition to comprehensive maps of all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Canada, and Mexico, they'll get National Geographic’s top 100 outdoor destinations, useful details about the most popular national parks, and points on the maps noting off-the-beaten-path places to explore.  

Buy it: Amazon

6. Adventure Medical Kits Hiker First-Aid Kit; $25

Amazon

This handy 67-piece kit is stuffed with all the things you hope your hiker will never need in the wilderness. Not only does it contain supplies for pain, cuts and scrapes, burns, and blisters (every hiker’s nemesis!), the items are organized clearly in the bag to make it easy to find tweezers or an alcohol wipe in an emergency.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Hiker Hunger Ultralight Trekking Poles; $70

Amazon

Trekking poles will help increase your hiker's balance and stability and reduce strain on their lower body by distributing it to their arms and shoulders. This pair is made of carbon fiber, a super-strong and lightweight material. From the sweat-absorbing cork handles to the selection of pole tips for different terrain, these poles answer every need on the trail. 

Buy it: Amazon

8. Leatherman Signal Camping Multitool; $120

Amazon

What can’t this multitool do? This gadget contains 19 hiking-friendly tools in a 4.5-inch package, including pliers, screwdrivers, bottle opener, saw, knife, hammer, wire cutter, and even an emergency whistle.

Buy it: Amazon

9. RAVPower Power Bank; $24

Amazon

Don’t let your hiker get caught off the grid with a dead phone. They can charge RAVPower’s compact power bank before they head out on the trail, and then use it to quickly juice up a phone or tablet when the batteries get low. Its 3-inch-by-5-inch profile won’t take up much room in a pack or purse.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Pack of Four Indestructible Field Books; $14

Amazon

Neither rain, nor snow, nor hail will be a match for these waterproof, tearproof 3.5-inch-by-5.5-inch notebooks. Your hiker can stick one in their pocket along with a regular pen or pencil to record details of their hike or brainstorm their next viral Tweet.

Buy it: Amazon

Sign Up Today: Get exclusive deals, product news, reviews, and more with the Mental Floss Smart Shopping newsletter!

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

Remembering the Deadly London Beer Flood of 1814

London's Horseshoe Brewery
London's Horseshoe Brewery
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

In the fall of 1814, one of history's most bizarre disasters befell London when a 15-foot wave of beer flooded an entire neighborhood and left eight people dead.

The Horse Shoe Brewery on Tottenham Court Road in London boasted a massive 22-foot-tall vat that held some 160,000 gallons of dark porter. On October 17, 1814, one of the metal hoops meant to secure it snapped, and the wooden vat succumbed to the immense pressure of all that fermenting brew. The gushing beer smashed open the brewery's other vats, resulting in a raging sea of beer that burst forth from the building.

Over 1 million liters of beer flooded out onto the road and raced through the St. Giles neighborhood. The area was crammed with crowded slums, and many inhabitants couldn't escape in time. According to The Independent: "Hannah Banfield, a little girl, was taking tea with her mother, Mary, at their house in New Street when the deluge hit. Both were swept away in the current, and perished."

Others who were gathered in a cellar for a wake were caught by surprise by the flood and drowned in beer. A wall of a nearby pub crumbled and crushed a 14-year-old girl who was standing next to it. In total, eight people perished in the accident.

Unsubstantiated rumors persist that rowdy locals brought pots and pans to the river of beer in an attempt to round up free drinks. In reality though, the citizens of St. Giles were lauded in the press for their help with the rescue efforts, keeping quiet in the aftermath in order to help listen for the screams of their trapped neighbors.

This story has been updated for 2020.