Graeme Wood

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Wojtek, Soldier Bear

Originally appeared in The Daily.

In November 1947, after five years of service, the Polish army discharged a soldier by the name of Wojtek at the rank of corporal. Wojtek’s record had its moments of distinction, including heroism under fire in the brutal battle against the Nazis at Monte Cassino, Italy. But overall, it was blemished with insubordination, including drunkenness, theft of women’s clothing, and attempted murder. For another soldier, these crimes would have meant a court-martial, but the army let them slide, because Corporal Wojtek was a 500-pound brown bear.
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Project Runaway

Alamo deserter lives on to become Texas’ most infamous coward

Originally appeared in The Daily.

In August 1990, when President George H. W. Bush wanted to send a message to Saddam Hussein, he used the toughest language he knew: that of his adoptive home state of Texas. Bush warned Saddam that “a line has been drawn in the sand,” and that the U.S.-led coalition would remove him from Kuwait by force if necessary. Saddam was not a man of rhetorical subtlety in any language, but he could be forgiven for wondering what “line in the sand” his adversary was talking about. If the dictator did not know his Texas history, the imagery would have perplexed him — and if he did know his Texas history, it might have perplexed him even more. Was he supposed to cross it, or not?
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Silent as a Grave

An accused Salem witch pays for the right to say nothing in court

Originally appeared in The Daily.

The right to remain silent is a beautiful thing. In 1692, at the height of the Salem Witch Trials, a gray-bearded farmer was asked whether he was a wizard and he refused to say. He was brutally executed. But if the Constitution has secular martyrs, that old farmer, Giles Corey, is surely the patron saint of its Fifth Amendment, and one of history’s greatest champions of keeping one’s trap shut. Read the rest of this entry »

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The Card Trick that Stumped Houdini

Originally published in The Daily.

The most important rule of magic — other than remembering to check for rabbit-droppings before putting your hat back on — is never to perform the same illusion twice on the same occasion. The temptation can be excruciating: The trick has already proven its ability to fool, and the audience has proven its susceptibility. But the magician who gives his audience a second chance to catch him out always slips up eventually, especially if the audience includes an eagle-eyed fellow magician.
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Playing the hand dealt

Long an outlaw activity, poker gains a respectable reputation

Originally appeared in The Daily.

The World Series of Poker is underway in Las Vegas, and a record number of fools will be lining up for the privilege of being parted from their money. The buy-in is a minimum of $1,000 and a maximum of $50,000. Around 75,000 players will enter, and the very best will walk away with millions in prize money, as well as a champion bracelet that will mark him (they’re all men, so far) as someone you should never, ever play cards with.
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Big Hunk o’ Love

Originally published in The Daily.

In 1992, the U.S. Postal Service asked the nation to vote by postcard on whether the new Elvis Presley stamp should depict Elvis as a young man — slickly pompadoured, tie loose, cool as a diner malt — or as the jonesing, sequined lard-ass he later became. The decision wasn’t a hard one: Voters overwhelmingly chose the young Elvis, preferring to remember their idol in the days when he put Crisco in his hair rather than into his face. Memories of Presley’s shape late in life remain painful for some fans, who prefer the image of a lithe young star with a pelvis so provocative that, even fully clothed, it could not be shown on television. But Elvis morphed into something much worse, burying himself in his own pudge, until on Aug. 16, 1977, his heart decided it could no longer work under those conditions and left the King dead on his bathroom floor. Read the rest of this entry »

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Brain Power

Doctor solves mystery of ‘silent killers’ linked to mad cow disease

Originally appeared in The Daily.

A staple of kung fu movies is the “silent killer” punch that feels like a tap when delivered but that minutes, hours or years later causes the victim to keel over, stone dead. Biology has many such silent killers, such as cancer and HIV, but none is stealthier or more insidious than the family of diseases uncovered by American neurologist Stanley Prusiner in 1982. And, he found, to deal a death blow, these diseases needed nothing more exotic than a plain old delicious steak. Read the rest of this entry »

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Knights of the Castle

Originally published in The Daily.

In 1921, in the early days of meat inspection, an American cow’s journey from factory to restaurant was still long and uncertain, a public-health gamble for everyone but vegetarians. Ground beef was especially suspect. If you, the diner, dared to sink your fangs into a burger, your greasy mouthful might contain an unpleasant surprise: if you were lucky, part of a cow; if you were not — something else. Read the rest of this entry »

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