29 March 2010

Thank You, Spammer, for the Time Machine

One of those weird e-mails arrived today, the kind that is a jumble of nonsensical sentences that are just barely English, sent by an improbably named stranger. About one a month gets past the spam filter. I’m not sure what the robotic senders are after, since usually none of the words is V*AG*RA. I think I’m probably supposed to inadvertently click on some attachment, which will then enslave my computer or eat my hard drive. So usually I handle such things with the electronic equivalent of a smile-and-nod to a beggar on the street: I tell my mail program it’s spam, and then I’m on my way.

But the language of this one was different. These few short paragraphs had words in them I hadn’t read since my last perusal of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, like “waistcoat-pocket” (with a hyphen). It had a pun about “prescription” and “postscription,” and another one that had the meaning of “exercise” moving from a written essay to the act of moving your body. It also had a robin named Bob Scarlet. It was still nonsense, but it read like authentic 19th-century nonsense––like a fragment from an unpublished work by Lewis Carroll.

So I plugged one of the more unusual phrases (“Dorothy gave the paper a good shake, after which Bob Scarlet took it and stuffed it into his waistcoat‑pocket”) into a Google search. There I found that my spammer had lifted a bit from a serialized story, “The Admiral’s Caravan” by Charles E. Carryl, published in the January 1892 issue of St. Nicholas: An Illustrated Magazine for Young Folks. Google has thoughtfully digitized the Princeton University Library’s copy of this volume, so I could read the whole story (if I wanted to). So can you:

Do you know St. Nicholas? Its last original reader probably died in 2005, but I was lucky enough to stumble across some old bound volumes of it in my own public library at the age of 10 or so. It was published from 1873 to 1941, first by Scribner’s, then by the Century Co. It was known not only for publishing the most famous children’s authors and illustrators of its day (Louisa May Alcott’s Jo’s Boys was first serialized there), but also for including works by its young readers. (The PBS television show “Zoom!,” which I grew up watching, was inspired by St. Nicholas.) I love knowing that it’s still out there, waiting to be discovered by someone else who loves Arthur Rackham illustrations and novels by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

So thank you, Sorbello Banke, whoever you are. But I’m still not clicking on your “ratepayer.zip” file. And you’re still spam.


  1. (9 April 2010) This just happened to me again -- with a completely different 1890s magazine. This time the nonsensical phrase led me to something called McClure's, also digitized by Google:
    http://tinyurl.com/McClureMag . I've never heard of McClure's, but from the contents page it appears to be a grown-ups' publication, albeit one with a lot of fiction, and with seemingly an obsession with the Civil War, which had ended 32 years previous. Hmm.

  2. Aha -- here's a 1971 article in The Journal of Library History (vol. 6, no. 4, pp. 372-375) that says "McClure's Magazine was the most famous of the crusading periodicals which attacked corruption in public life around the turn of the century."