Little Miss Muffet

On July 2, 2013 · 1 Comments

A map peculiarity reminded me of an old nursery rhyme, probably one of the most famous of them all, and likely familiar to each of us:

Little Miss Muffet
Sat on a tuffet,
Eating her curds and whey;

I’ll get to the specific reason soon enough. Let me ramble and meander for a little while though, as I tend to like to do, before arriving at the final destination.

The "Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes" would seem like a proper place to search for an explanation, however it’s copyright protected on Google Books and I didn’t feel like traipsing down to a physical library to look it up. An amalgam of different online sources, seemingly all deriving from Oxford anyway, traced a possible explanation to one Dr. Thomas Muffet who allegedly wrote the rhyme about his stepdaughter Patience. That’s one theory, anyway.

Black Widow Spider
Black Widow Spider by Smithsonian, on Flickr,
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Dr. Muffet was an entomologist, an insect scientist, so that could have parlayed into the latter part of the rhyme where the spider frightened the little girl. Yes, I understand that a spider is an arachnid not an insect, and a spider scientist is an arachnologist not an entomologist. I’m grasping at straws, here. Regardless, the passage first appeared in published form in 1805, in "Songs for the Nursery."

There might also be a little intrigue or alternate meanings written into the verse:

Is Little Miss Muffet a symbol of sexual harassment or feminine stereotypes? Is this a simply a verse about a young girl eating a meal and being frightened by a bug? Or could these characters represent real people prominent in 16th century England’s history?

Do any of these explanations have anything to do with geography, and does 12MC really care? No, not really. It was a fun tangent while it lasted and let’s get back to more pertinent business.


Muffet, as a surname, "usually originates from the town of Moffat in Annandale, in the former county of Dumfriesshire, Scotland. If so the derivation is from the Gaelic ‘magh’, meaning a field or plain, and ‘fada’, translating as ‘long’, – the long field."

Moffat, Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland

It’s not a particularly common surname although the variant Moffatt (like the town) would probably sound more familiar. Geographically, I found a small handful of Muffets used as street names and that was about it.

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I decided to select Muffett Street, in Scone, New South Wales, Australia. I figured Miss Muffet might enjoy a nice scone once she tired of curds and whey. Scone is the horse capital of Australia, located in NSW’s Upper Hunter Shire of the Hunter Valley. The town is know primarily for the Scone Cup, "the biggest country racing carnival in Australia."


What, exactly is a tuffet? It’s a type of low-slung chair that most people would call a stool if it wasn’t covered with fabric. This is a tuffet:

tuffet and chair
Tuffet and Chair by triesquid, on Flickr,
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) license

I don’t understand why anyone would publish such an ugly, shaggy example of a tuffet on Flickr, much less share it with a Creative Commons license. Nonetheless someone did and I’m grateful because ultimately tuffet was easier to show than to explain. The word also had an interesting etymology that derived from the Old French touffel, meaning little tuft, and it has become "obsolete except in the nursery rhyme."

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It’s pretty obsolete as a place name, too. The only geographic feature in the United States, Canada the United Kingdom or Australia that I could discover was a single lonely little pond in the Arizona desert: Tuffet Tank. It didn’t look anything like a tuffet. What could have influenced someone to call it a tuffet? I could see elbow or boomerang or even a cheezy mustache, but I’m struggling with tuffet.

Curds and Whey

Curds and Whey are odd consumables derived from milk, or substances seemingly more appropriate for an episode of Bizarre Foods.

Curds are a dairy product obtained by curdling (coagulating) milk with rennet or an edible acidic substance such as lemon juice or vinegar, and then draining off the liquid portion. The increased acidity causes the milk proteins (casein) to tangle into solid masses, or curds. The remaining liquid, which contains only whey proteins, is the whey.

I can say from first-hand experience that curds can be quite tasty. I’ve had cheese curds many times when visiting the wife’s family in Wisconsin. Curds, as served to me, were either plain or breaded and deep-fried as a bar snack. We called them "squeaky cheese" when they were particularly fresh. Some of you will know exactly what I mean. The rest of you will have to take my word for it that curds make a peculiar, unmistakable squeak when chewed fresh.

I don’t know anything about whey. I’ve never tried it.

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Finally, 12MC arrives at the entire point of this article, the spectacular Curdsen Way in Las Vegas, Nevada. I am convinced that this street was named for curds and whey. Look at the other street names nearby — Better Way? Thata Way? and… Supreme Court?… which is how I discovered the neighborhood in the first place. I purposely avoided this specific Supreme Court in the earlier article because I didn’t want anyone to spot Curdsen Way and spoil the surprise. I was laughing too hard.

That was one seriously messed-up real estate developer.

And that was an awful lot of reading to get to a punchline.

Atlantis Lite

On January 31, 2013 · 8 Comments

I’ve been thinking about towns submerged by reservoirs. I don’t know why that suddenly came to mind or why it fascinated me without prompting. It’s one of those things.

This is also a topic that interests many other people apparently. They’ve written all sorts of definitive lists of underwater ghost towns. I won’t replicate those definitive works. One can review them later if interested. It’s a surprisingly common phenomenon. People need water. Towns are flooded. I’ll simply provide a few examples spread across the globe that I’ve explored via satellite.

Let’s get the obvious one out of the way first, an instance of scale so incredibly audacious that it cannot escape unmentioned.

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It’s difficult to even conceive of a situation where nearly 1.25 million people had to relocate. That happened in the years leading up to 2008 because of the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtzee River in China. To put that in perspective, that’s like compelling everyone in Rhode Island or everyone within the city limits of Birmingham, England, or everyone in Adelaide, Australia to pack up and move to a new home.

Old House & Shed
SOURCE: Valley_Guy on Flickr via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0) license

I’ve been impressed by Old Adaminaby in New South Wales, Australia which was submerged below the waters of Lake Eucumbene in 1957. The town moved nearby to higher ground before the waters inundated lower-lying areas (map). The only remnants left behind were a few ruins that rise above the waters periodically during protracted droughts.

The Internet believes that the most significant example in the United States involved four towns in Massachusetts submerged by the Quabbin Reservoir (map). I base that solely on the fact that this seemed to be the most common result whenever I consulted the major search engines. Four towns that had been around since the late Eighteen or early Nineteenth Century (Dana, Enfield, Greenwich, and Prescott) were all flooded behind the Winsor Dam and Goodnough Dike by 1939.

Bluffton, Texas rises again
merindab on Flickr via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0) license

I’m more partial to Bluffton, Texas, though. Like the example from Australia, the original Bluffton townsite rose from the dead during a recent drought. Ordinarily it rested beneath the placid waters of Lake Buchanan, a reservoir along the Colorado River of Texas, where its been submerged since the late 1930′s (map).

I guess I’m a sucker for those towns that are drowned, only to claw their way back into the visible world in zombie-like fashion when waters recede. I could probably write an entire article based entirely on submerged towns that have reappeared because of recent droughts. There are several others in the United States that I found with minimal searching: Monument City, Indiana (included news video); Corydon, Pennsylvania; and Los Arboles, New Mexico all rose from their watery graves, along with townsites in many other parts of the world.

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Let’s feature an example from Russia because loyal reader "January First-of-May" hails from there and has had to endure so may articles on 12MC focused on just about every location other than Russia. Here you go, January First-of-May. This one’s for you.

Mologa in the Yaroslavl Oblast was flooded in the 1940′s as a result of the creation of the Rybinsk Reservoir at the confluence of Mologa and Volga Rivers. Allegedly 130,000 people lived in Mologa and had to be relocated, while about three hundred residents refused to leave and drowned. Joseph Stalin didn’t mess around.

Oddly enough, Google Maps actually labeled the ghost town. Even thought its underwater. Even though it hasn’t existed since the 1940′s.

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I haven’t forgotten about the United Kingdom either. There are plenty of examples in the UK, too. How about Ladybower Reservoir in Derbyshire? The little English villages of Ashopton, Derwent Woodlands Church and Derwent Hall all found themselves on the wrong side of the dam and succumbed to the waves in 1944. In Wales, Capel Celyn disappeared too, thanks to the Llyn Celyn Reservoir (map).

The list goes on and on.

Captain Thunderbolt

On October 30, 2012 · 2 Comments

Captain Thunderbolt, despite a name seemingly custom-designed for a comic book, was not a superhero. He certainly couldn’t stop bullets from hitting at his chest.

I went in search of places named for "Captains Less Prestigious" recently. The effort intended to find memorable places associated with second-tier captains who never achieved the same level of fame or renown of Captain James Cook. This prompted reader "John of Sydney" to mention Thunderbolts Rock and Thunderbolts Way in the vicinity of Uralla, New South Wales, Australia. While neither designation specifically included a military title, John noted that both referred to a Nineteenth Century character known colloquially as Captain Thunderbolt.

This "captain" was a bushranger, an Australian highwayman, born with a much less memorable name in 1835: Frederick Wordsworth Ward. His criminal life began early as a horse thief and involved a prison sentence a failed parole and finally an escape from the Cockatoo Island penal establishment (map). Wanted by the authorities, Ward returned to criminal pursuits to support himself in an attempt to avoid another trip to prison. He also returned to lands already familiar to him, to the New England District of New South Wales. Here he could rob soft targets with impunity while hiding in the rugged, sparsely-populated terrain he knew so well.

Thunderbolt's Hideout
Thunderbolt’s Hideout: Melanie J. Cook on Fickr via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) license

Ward dubbed himself Captain Thunderbolt by 1863 as his fame or infamy began to spread. Bushrangers as a class were viewed in some quarters as folk heroes for their ability to live by their wits in harsh terrain and remain one step ahead of the law. Unmistakeably, these bands of roving outlaws were criminals. Captain Thunderbolt focused on easy marks such as remote country stores, postal carriers, highway travelers, livestock stations and hotels. This was not a romantic lifestyle.

Nonetheless the bushrangers generated a level of sympathy in the face of a justice system perceived by the underclass as socially unfair. It’s really not all that different than some of the bandits roaming the Old West of the United States. Captain Thunderbolt may not have achieved a level of name recognition as did other famed bushrangers such as Ned Kelly, however he may have been the most proficient. His career lasted nearly seven years, perhaps the longest continuous streak of any bushranger. Longevity was not a hallmark of this particular occupation.

Australia’s Famous Bushrangers noted:

[Captain Thunderbolt]… undoubtedly had great nerve, endurance and unusual self-reliance and his success as a bushranger can be largely attributed to his horsemanship and splendid mounts, to popular sympathy inspired by his agreeable appearance and conversation, and to his gentlemanly behaviour and avoidance of violence; he also showed prudence in not robbing armed coaches, or towns where a policeman was stationed. The last of the professional bushrangers in New South Wales, Ward was the most successful.

Detailed accounts of Ward’s life include the Australian Dictionary of Biography and the aforementioned Australia’s Famous Bushrangers. The second source is particularly useful and includes a photograph taken of Ward after his death plus a long list of crimes attributed to him by date and location.

View Thunderbolt in a larger map

Thunderbolt territory consisted primarily of the western side of the Great Dividing Range north of Sydney and south of Brisbane. It is still readily identifiable within the modern terrain. I consulted the Government of Australia’s Geoscience Australia Gazetteer of Australia Place Names to produce the map displayed above. Notice the tight clustering of various Thunderbolt-themed geography: mountain; lookout; cave; gap; gully; gorge; hideout; hill; hole; and rock. It’s a veritable treasure map of Captain Thunderbolt’s Nineteenth Century haunts.

Notice the road that I marked with a red line. This is Thunderbolts Way that John mentioned in his original comment. It is well regarded as a great scenic road covering a variety of terrain including mountains and plains, running 290-kilometres (180 mi) between Gloucester and Copes Creek. It cuts directly through territory once roamed by Captain Thunderbolt.

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Thunderbolts Way takes travelers through Uralla, NSW. Here, the town erected a Captain Thunderbolt statue at the intersection of the Thunderbolts Way and the New England Highway. Uralla figures significantly in the demise of the bushranger. Along Kentucky Creek (nearest Street View image) just outside of town, a constable finally caught-up with Frederick Ward and shot him dead. Captain Thunderbolt came to an untimely end in 1870 although legends of survival and mistaken identity continued for years thereafter.

Uralla leverages its Captain Thunderbolt connection as a tourism draw. In addition to the road and the statue, Uralla hosts an exhibit at the McCrossin’s Mill Museum and draws attention to various of his bushranger hideouts nearby. One can even visit his grave in the Old Uralla Cemetery.

Thunderbolt, most definitely, would be a "captain" less prestigious.

Totally Unrelated Weather Update

Hurricane Sandy gave the Washington, DC area a pretty severe pounding of rain and wind into the early hours of this morning as expected. I was pretty lucky. We kept electrical power throughout the storm in spite of numerous trees and wires down within my immediate neighborhood. The family is fine. So is the gecko.

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