A Coincidence of Titanic Proportions

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Now that all the hullabaloo surrounding the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic is receding, the story of Morgan Robertson remains one of the more intriguing episodes connected to our enduring fascination with this epic tragedy.

Skeptics and mythbusters love to reduce coincidences to simple studies in mathematical probability.   Many point out how any writer concocting a story about the largest ship on the seven seas would have likely used “Titan” or “Titanic” as the name of such a ship.   Others point out how commonplace shipwrecks from submerged icebergs were in the North Atlantic shipping lanes prior to the development of radar technology.  And with Morgan Robertson being a retired merchant seaman, it also increases the likelihood he might imagine a tragedy in which a mammoth ship touted as ‘unsinkable’ would elect to carry only the minimum number of lifeboats required by law – rather than a sufficient number to keep all of its passengers alive in the event of an unthinkable catastrophe.

But as Carl Jung posited in his writings on synchronicity, it’s not just a single coincidence but a string of them that tends to spark our innate curiosity.   As we all learned in middle school mathematics, multiplying fractions results in an even lower fraction.   If each coincidence in a string had, say, a 33% probability (i.e., Robertson had a 33% chance of calling his ship “Titan”, there was a 33% chance he would imagine the ship striking an iceberg, a 33% chance he would choose the impact to be on the forward starboard side, a 33% chance he would choose the month of April, at night, 400 miles from the coast of Greenland, and so on) – 33% – or 1/3 – multiplied just 7 times reduces the probability over a series of coincidences to 1/37, or 1 out of 2,187 chances that the elements in his story would take place in the real world 14 years after he wrote The Wreck of the Titan.   In comparing Robertson’s 1898 novella to accounts of the real sinking of the Titanic, I count at least a dozen such coincidences.

But things get even more intriguing when you consider this wasn’t the only time in which Robertson appears to have presaged the future.   For starters, in his 1905 novel The Submarine Destroyer he describes a submarine that uses a device called the periscope.   For the rest of his life, Robertson claimed to have invented the device, insisting he had built a prototype but had been refused the patent.   This smacks of being a rather dubious claim, however, considering Simon Lake and Harold Grubb perfected the periscope for the Navy in 1902 – 3 years before his novel was published.

However, strange as it seems there was yet another story written by Morgan Robertson published in 1914 that further extends this writer’s extraordinary string of fortune telling coincidences.   In a short story entitled “Beyond the Spectrum” he envisioned a war in the future between the United States and Japan in which the Japanese, rather than openly declaring war, launch a surprise attack on San Francisco.   Although it’s a stretch, some have also noted that he also describes an ultraviolet searchlight weapon used by the Japanese to blind enemy crews, the effects (intense heat, facial burns, blindness) being remarkably similar to those suffered by atomic blast victims at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

While he may not have predicted the future, he certainly affected it with his novella Primordia | Three Laws and the Golden Rule, a story of shipwrecked children who grew up together and fell in love which clearly influenced Henry de Vere Stacpoole’s Blue Lagoon and even Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes.

Whether or not Morgan Robertson possessed second sight, he is nonetheless a remarkably fascinating character, one who will forever be linked by strange association with the most captivating tragedy in history.

If J. Edgar Hoover had been a minister …

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In November of 1950, Elsie Hix wrote F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover to confirm a story she had read in Time Magazine that the Director of the F.B.I was a choirboy in his youth and had strongly considered going into the ministry:

November, 1950 Elsie Hix letter to J. Edgar Hoover

November, 1950 Elsie Hix letter to J. Edgar Hoover

11 days, later J. Edgar Hoover replied via Air Mail with a personal, hand-signed letter back to Elsie Hix:

Hand signed letter from F.B.I. Director J. Edgar Hoover to Elsie Hix, producer of Strange as it Seems

Signed letter from J. Edgar Hoover to Elsie Hix, November 1950

While John Hix established the Strange as it Seems standard of verifiability by confirming each fact with 3 corroborating sources, Elsie Hix worked more efficiently, often going directly to the source to confirm her stories before publishing them:

Letter from Elsie Hix to J. Edgar Hoover accompanying comic strip proof

Letter from Elsie Hix to J. Edgar Hoover accompanying comic strip proof published 4 days later

The beginning of the 1950’s was an interesting time in Hoover’s life and career.   After enjoying widespread power and authority under FDR’s administration, Harry Truman was now in office after his legendary defeat of Dewey 2 years earlier.    Truman didn’t trust Hoover and was highly critical of his tactics, and Hoover openly criticized Truman referring to the President as “that hick from Missouri”.  So in 1950, Hoover began joining forces with Joseph McCarthy, secretly providing the Senator with dossiers of information to help begin his communist witch hunt through the entertainment industry.

What I find interesting in this brief communication between my grandmother and the FBI director is that Hoover was also battling widespread rumors at the time that he was homosexual.    He hunted down those who fostered such rumors just as ruthlessly as he targeted suspected fifth column communists, which made the press fearful of investigating and reporting on the details of Hoover’s personal life.   While biographer Anthony Summers was convinced of Hoover’s homosexual inclinations, 40 years after his death his character was still ambiguously portrayed in the Clint Eastwood / Leonardo di Caprio film J. Edgar.

I wonder if Hoover’s motivation for responding so promptly and personally to my grandmother’s inquiry about how he almost became a minister was to help dispel such rumors.  It may have also been why the F.B.I. Director was also adamant in clarifying that while he was indeed a choirboy, he most definitely was not a soprano.

“If you doubt this, write for proof to the author.”

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When my grand uncle John Hix launched Strange as it Seems in 1928, his comic strips included a challenge to his readers, “if you doubt this, write for proof to the author”.

Although there were many others seeking a niche in the oddity genre Robert Ripley created with Believe It or Not!, John Hix became Ripley’s #1 competitor overnight.   He was only 20 years old at the time, the youngest syndicated artist in the country.

In 1929, Time Magazine published an article entitled “Hix vs. Ripley” reporting how “fresh astounder Hix” had risen to challenge Ripley by publishing stories whose accuracy could be proven.   To this day, when someone writes in to Ripley’s Believe or Not! to question an innacuracy, they receive back a stock postcard that simply reads, “Believe It or Not!”

In contrast to Ripley, John Hix insisted from the outset that every published fact be proven by a minimum of 3 sources.   One of my most treasured family heirlooms is a row of file cabinets that lines an entire wall of my garage.   Inside each cabinet is a treasure trove of letters (many handwritten), photographs, notes and sketches stapled to each published cartoon providing proof of every story published to anyone who inquired.

With the advent of television in the 1950’s, the popularity of comic strips waned and Strange could no longer employ a team of researchers.   The feature was solely produced in that decade by my grandmother Elsie Hix, who toiled late into the evenings researching and writing the feature after coming home each day from a full time job as an executive secretary.   Providing 3 sources for each fact was no longer feasible.  Nonetheless, Elsie meticulously upheld the standard by focusing on quality vs. quantity, researching stories from reputable sources such as Smithsonian Library newsletters or correspondence with academic experts attesting to the validity of a published fact.

My children can hardly imagine the world of the 1920’s when the hometown daily newspaper and a trip to the library was the way most people accessed the world outside their town’s city limits.   I wonder how John and Elsie Hix would marvel at the ease in which we can find hundreds of thousands of references for a fact or story in seconds with just a few keystrokes.

As we launch Strange as it Seems again in this 21st century, upholding John and Elsie Hix’s standard of veracity poses an altogether different challenge.   Finding 3 sources to corroborate a claim is easy, but in this “cut and paste” multimedia world with thousands of news and information sites echoing stories across the sphere, dozens of sources can easily report (and often do) a story that later proves to be patently false.

So in spite of all the resources available to us in this digital age, we find ourselves researching just as much and likely more than our predecessors did to uphold the burden of proof, combining John Hix’s model with Elsie’s, seeking a myriad of reputable if not irrefutable sources.

But truth was not the brand’s only ideal we feel a responsibility to uphold.   At its core, my uncle, grandparents and parents were storytellers.   Across the myriad of people I’ve encountered over the years that remember reading the comic strips, seeing the film shorts or listening to the radio shows, what I hear most in their recollections is the wild and wonderful, unknown and unusual stories they heard that made their eyes pop and their jaws drop.

If Uncle John were standing over my shoulder today (as I often imagine him doing), I chuckle when I think how he might react seeing our first episode unfold with a title that ends in a question mark.   Although one couldn’t necessarily prove a coincidence to be stranger than another, we did source our first episode from perhaps the greatest list-maker of all time, Irving Wallace (along with his two children Amy and David) who published the New York Times #1 bestseller The Book of Lists in 1977.    Irving Wallace was one of the most widely read novelists and respected researchers of his day.

As we publish our 2nd Strange as it Seems internet episode, I’m afraid we’ve done it again.   Just like our first episode, The Most Successful Pirate in History! hinges it’s claim on an adjective – this time it’s “the most successful” pirate rather than the “strangest” coincidence.

Nonetheless, I’m supremely confident Uncle John would recognize his brand in an instant in yet another wonderful story that very few people know about an extraordinary pirate who roamed the South China Sea in the first decade of the 1800’s.

Extraordinary, yes.   But the most successful?  How does anyone prove that?

For starters, we conducted a not-so-very scientific experiment when our narrator Rachel Reenstra took to the streets to ask people who they thought was the most successful pirate in history.  Perhaps not surprisingly, our whimsical “man on the street” study showed the answer to be … Jack Sparrow.

Those more well-versed in the history of pirate lore would more likely assert that Bartholomew Roberts, the real “dread pirate Roberts” notoriously known as Black Bart, was the most successful pirate in history.   Even his wikipedia entry purports him to be “the most successful pirate of the golden age of piracy” having captured over 470 ships.

But is the number of captured ships the true measure of a pirate’s success?   Most pirates commanded only a single ship, or at most a handful.   The pirate we feature in our episode controlled a force of 50,000 pirates spread amongst 1,000 ships, a fleet so massive it challenged the combined navies of China, Britain and Portugal for control of the South China Sea.

But as Mark Twain once wrote, “Now and then we had a hope that if we lived and were good, God would permit us to be pirates”.   As the box office receipts of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies attest, there’s perhaps a little bit of pirate in all of us.   The archetype endures because of what pirates represent – freedom, adventure, living by one’s own rules beyond the confines of authority.

Upon becoming a pirate, Bartholomew Roberts was said to have remarked, “In an honest service there is thin commons, low wages, and hard labour.  In this, plenty and satiety, pleasure and ease, liberty and power; and who would not balance creditor on this side, when all the hazard that is run for it, at worst is only a sour look or two at choking?  No, a merry life and a short one shall be my motto.”

So by this measure, I assert that real success in being a pirate is how long you can get away with it.

Captain Kidd was captured, hanged (twice) and gibbeted in 1701.

Edwin Teach, the dreaded Blackbeard, was killed in 1718, shot in 5 places and cut in twenty more.

Black Bart died a picture perfect pirate’s death in February of 1722, shot through the throat with grapeshot in the midst of battle and buried at sea by his men according to his wish.  To this day, February 10th is known as The Blackest Day for it signaled the end of the Golden Age of Piracy.

But strange as it seems, 85 years later this same Chinese pirate who commanded the largest pirate fleet in history retired – with complete amnesty and the lion’s share of loot – to live out the rest of their days in peace, dying quietly of old age.

Now that’s what any true pirate would call real success.

All the more if they also knew she was a woman.

There’s no such thing as a ‘coinkidink’ …

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One of my earliest and fondest memories is spending long afternoons sitting cross-legged on the cool cement floor of a room adjacent to the garage of our home in San Marino, California where my parents kept the Strange as it Seems archives.

Created by my grand uncle John Hix in 1928, the Strange as it Seems feature was carried forward by his brother Ernest after John died of heart disease on D-Day (strange as it seems), June 6th, 1944 .  When Ernest himself died suddenly in a plane crash just 4 years later, my grandmother Elsie picked up the torch and produced the feature for the next 15 years, eventually handing it over to my parents in the early 1960’s.   By 1970, though, their careers were in full swing and with syndication agreements dwindling, researching and producing the feature was no longer feasible for them.   So they shut down the feature and boxed up the archives for posterity.

Ernest Jr. and Phyllis Hix also adopted me that same year.   I was 5 years old.   As the only child of two hard working parents, I could disappear into that room off the garage for hours on end without ever being discovered or interrupted.  I would build forts out of the stacks of comic strip proofs while munching stacks of crackers and apple slices and just stare at the fascinating drawings, reading endless pages of strange and unusual stories, often dozing off only to wake up and read more until my eyes went bleary again.

As I grew older, I came to appreciate more and more the extraordinary playroom I had been given as a boy, especially as my knowledge of history, literature, art, science, and nature had grown by osmosis to a point at which my friends refused to play Trivial Pursuit with me any more.

My Grandma Houston on my mother’s side used to say “there’s no such thing as a coinkidink”.    In 1977, The People’s Almanac published the first volume of The Book of Lists by David Wallechinsky, Irving Wallace, and Amy Wallace, which immediately became a #1 bestseller.  I was given the book for Christmas, and when I opened the book to “The 15 Favorite Oddities of All Time”, the 5th favorite oddity began with the sentence, “Oddity hunter John Hix told one of the authors of this book about the world’s most incredible engineer … “

As I swelled with pride at reading Uncle John’s name in the country’s #1 bestselling book, I realized at that very moment that I was the only Hix remaining.   While I had enjoyed my private playroom of oddities, I felt a responsibility to see the feature reborn again and the archives carried forward.

In 1970 when the feature ended, Strange as it Seems had run for 42 years.    42 years later, the brand returns again for the digital age.   In 2009 with two of my closest friends from college, we launched HistoriVision, a new media company that is a multi-brand platform producing premium quality, high engagement video content featuring professional narration, stirring music, crisp sound effects, and state-of-the-art animations from an award winning design studio.   For 2 years, we’ve been building an initial library of content that includes internet episodes, animated comics, and classics mined from the archives that we are digitizing and preserving for generations to come.

Our first Strange as it Seems Internet Episode features the #1 favorite oddity of all time according to the 1977 Book of Lists.    To this day, it remains one of the strangest coincidences ever recorded.