Readers in the Bodleian Library at Oxford must take an oath that they will not kindle fires in the library.
A village in southeastern Michigan (population 45) has, for years, been enjoying a tourist boom. People would come from all over just to be able to mail a card postmarked Hell or to purchase bumper stickers for their cars stating ‘WE’VE BEEN THROUGH HELL!’ In addition to this attraction, the village has lately acquired a reputation as a marriage mill. Seventy two couples were wed there in 1965 and 61 the following year, a large percentage of them having been divorced at least once. One couple is alleged to have told the local justice of the peace that since they’d already been through Hell twice, they might just as well start there.
– Robert M. Rennick, “Obscene Names and Naming in Folk Tradition,” in Names and Their Varieties, 1986
Frontiersman Samuel Brady was being chased through northern Ohio by a band of Sandusky Indians in 1780 when he found his way blocked by the Cuyahoga River:
“He made his way to Standing Rock, and intended to cross at that ford, but the Indians were awaiting him, and he ran farther along the bank, to a place where the rocks rose at some points to a height of twenty-five feet. The body of the river at the narrowest part was from twenty-three to thirty feet wide, and was deep and dangerous. There was no other ford than Standing Rock for miles, and the Indians felt assured of their prize, but faint heart was not known to the Captain of the Rangers, and even a rushing torrent of water did not stop him in his course. Gaining a less precipitous edge of the cliff, he ran back into the forest, to get a good start, and was so near the approaching red men, that he heard their shots and exclamations. Across the expanse of water, at a height of probably twenty or twenty-five feet, he bounded, and with the eye of a practiced marksman, struck the bank on the other side, and stood on the cliff, as the wild yell and wilder appearance of the first pursuer denoted his disappointment and rage.”
Could this have happened as described? The river is broader and its banks much lower than in former times, so it’s hard to judge. The best evidence I can find supporting the tradition is an 1856 letter by Frederick Wadsworth, who writes that “many years ago” he had visited the spot with a companion who had heard the tale from Brady himself. “We measured the river where we supposed the leap was made, and found it between twenty-four and twenty-six feet; my present impression is that it was a few inches less than than twenty-five feet. There were bushes and evergreens growing out of the fissures in the rock on each side of the stream. He jumped from the west to east side; the banks on each side of the stream were nearly of the same height, the flat rock on the west side descending a very little from the west to the east.” Decide for yourself.
Another gentleman, mentioned in the text-books … seemed to have a ruling passion against waste, which the court respected. The testator devised his property to a stranger, thus wholly disinheriting the heir or next of kin, and directed that his executors should cause some parts of his bowels to be converted into fiddle strings; that others should be sublimed into smelling salts, and that the remainder of his body should be vitrified into lenses for optical purposes. In a letter attached to the will the testator said: ‘The world may think this to be done in a spirit of singularity or whim, but I have a mortal aversion to funeral pomp, and I wish my body to be converted into purposes useful to mankind.’
– Basil Jones, “Eccentricities of Sane Testators,” Law Notes, November 1908
In 1911, Kansas farmer Charlie Faust approached New York Giants manager John McGraw and said that a fortune teller had predicted that he would pitch for the Giants and that they would win the pennant. Perhaps superstitious, McGraw let Faust suit up for the games and warm up on the sidelines. He pitched only two innings (and gave up one run), but the Giants did indeed win the pennant that year.
Faust remained with the club in 1912, and the team won the pennant again. They won again in 1913, but when the pitcher’s mental problems led him to be institutionalized in 1914, the Giants finished 10 games behind the Braves. When Faust died in 1915, at age 34, they finished last.
It is a sad fact that dead babies figure largely in the contents of the railway Lost Property Offices. These are at once handed over to the police, and a formal inquest is held. Some little time ago, Mr. Groom tells me, a live child was found in a small box on the departure platform, close to the eight o’clock Scotch train. The little one was cosily packed in wadding, and was provided with a feeding-bottle. A few holes had been drilled in the box–which, by the way, was covered with wallpaper, and was addressed to a home in Kilburn. The authorities of this home, however, refused to take in the child, as no money had been sent with it. So the poor, lost property infant was handed over to the police, who, in turn, passed it on to the workhouse, where it was christened ‘Willie Euston,’ and lived for four years. I succeeded in obtaining a photograph of the finding of this child, and the incident is shown in the accompanying illustration. The official on the right gave his own Christian name to the poor little waif.
– William G. FitzGerald, “The Lost Property Office,” Strand, December 1895
On Nov. 20, 1980, Leonce Viator Jr. went fishing with his nephew on Louisiana’s Lake Peigneur. He might have noted two worrisome things: Below the lake was a salt mine, and above it was a drilling rig.
The drill punctured the mine’s roof, and the resulting whirlpool devoured two oil rigs, 11 barges, a tugboat, a loading dock, “assorted greenhouses,” a house trailer, several tractors, countless trees, and most of the Live Oak Botanic Gardens. Amazingly, the water drained so quickly that Viator’s 14-foot aluminum boat was stuck in the mud at the lake’s bottom, and the pair were able to walk away.
No one was killed, but Lake Peigneur is now saltwater.
UPDATE: Viator’s boat wasn’t stuck in the mud — he tied it to a tree, ran to safety, and watched the hole eat both the boat and the tree. There’s good footage here, including the waterfall formed when the normally outflowing Delcambre Canal reversed itself to feed the whirlpool:
Outside the village of Nowe Czarnowo in western Poland is a grove of 400 pine trees bent into curious crooked shapes. The surrounding trees are straight, but these were apparently deliberately bent north at their bases about 10 years after their planting in 1930. No one knows why.
This photograph, taken in mid-winter at the highest point in His Majesty’s home domains, shows two of the meteorologists enjoying a game of ping-pong alongside the observatory on the summit of Ben Nevis. The photo was taken when the snow reached an average depth of 7ft., and during the progress of the game the temperature was as low as 18deg. Fahr. The table, composed as it was of a solid block of snow, covered with baize, served its purpose admirably, and the game, if not played under the most favourable climatic conditions, can at least boast of ‘high’ scoring.
– Robert H. Macdougall of Ben Nevis Observatory, quoted in Strand, August 1902
When Marshall Bean left the Army in 1965 after eight years’ service, he inverted his name to avoid his creditors. His new driver’s license and Social Security card read Naeb Llahsram.
Unfortunately, this fooled the Army, too, which drafted him back again in 1966. It took him more than a year to convince them he’d already served.
“All this is his own fault,” an Army spokesman told the Associated Press. “It would not have happened in the first place if he hadn’t spelled his name backwards.”
Bored and industrious in 1902, the citizens of the Yukon built a 32-foot snowman on the border between Canada and Alaska.
In the spirit of brotherhood, they gave it two faces — King Edward looked out over the British domain, and Uncle Sam surveyed the American.
In 1915, after being cut off from his regiment in northern France, British Army private Patrick Fowler found his way to the farmhouse of Marie Belmont-Gobert in the German-occupied town of Bertry. He implored her to hide him, but she had space only in an oaken cupboard in the living room.
Incredibly, Fowler spent three years and nine months in a space 5.5 feet high and 20 inches deep while more than 20 German musketeers were billeted in the same house. “He was there at times when unsuspecting Germans were actually sitting around the fire in the same room,” reported the New York World in 1927. “Often they came down to the ground floor quarters of the Belmont family and made coffee on the fire there.”
The Germans even made periodic searches. “[A German captain] and his men sounded the walls and floors for secret hiding places, uttered awful threats,” reported Time. “Mme. Belmont-Gobert only sat passive in her sitting room. At last the captain wrenched open the right-hand door of her large black armoire, snorted to see it divided into small shelves incapable of holding a rabbit, banged the right-hand door shut without opening the left-hand door, strode away.”
The Germans finally left Bertry on Oct. 10, 1918, and Fowler returned to his unit. Nine years later, in recognition of her act, the French government granted Belmont-Gobert a pension, and Britain named her a Dame of the Order of the British Empire. The cupboard resides today in the King’s Royal Hussars’ Museum in Winchester.
In January 1953, Albert Gunter was driving a double-decker bus across London’s Tower Bridge when “it seemed as though the roadway in front of me was falling away.”
“Everything happened terribly quickly,” he told Time magazine. “I realized that the part we were on was rising. It was horrifying. I felt we had to keep on or we might be flung into the river. So I accelerated.”
Gunter sped to the top of the rising roadway and jumped across the gap to land on the southern span 6 feet below. “I thought that might start going up too,” he said, “so I just kept right on till I got to the other bank.”
The bus broke a spring, the conductor broke his leg, 12 of the 20 passengers were injured, and Gunter got a £10 bonus.
In 1910, Flint, Mich., landowner Neil Boyston provided a lot for the Flint Union School in return for “one clover blossom a year.”
In exchange for an acre of land in Philadelphia, the Schuylkill Fishing Company used to pay landowner William Warner an annual tribute of three perch on a pewter platter.
In 1772, a Manheim, Pa., congregation rented the site for its church from Henry William Stiegel in return for “one red rose, payable in June, when the same shall be lawfully demanded.”
When Henry VIII granted an estate to the Lord of Worksop Manor in 1542, he received it on the condition that he and his heirs should provide a right-hand glove for the king and support his arm on the day of his coronation.
“Once a year a Lord of the Manor of Essington was compelled to bring a goose to Hilton,” noted the New York Times in 1910. “He was called upon to drive the bird around the room. In the meantime a kettle of water was placed over a wood fire, and the unfortunate tenant was required to drive the goose around the room until the water was boiled and began sending steam out of the spout of the pot. It does not take a very great stretch of the imagination to conjure up the chaos that must have ensued on rent day at Hilton.”
Between 1884 and 1896, visitors to Coney Island could stay in an elephant. Each leg of the tin-skinned wooden behemoth was 60 feet long; its ears were 40 feet wide; and the enormous trunk measured 72 feet. The forelegs housed a diorama and a cigar store, and the hind legs contained staircases leading to 31 hotel rooms above — advertised entertainingly as “a main hall head room, 2 side body rooms, 2 thigh rooms, 2 shoulder rooms, 2 cheek rooms, 1 throat room, 1 stomach room, 4 hoof rooms, 6 leg rooms, 2 side rooms, 2 hip rooms, 1 through room from which the Elephant is feeding.” (Presumably this last carried a discount.)
The hotel idea didn’t work out, and in the end the building served mostly as a concert hall and amusement bazaar, with novelty stalls, a gallery, and a museum. Visitors could use telescopes to peer out of the monster’s glass eyes, and it was said that the mists of Niagara could be seen from the howdah on its back, which teetered at a height of 175 feet.
The contractor that built the colossus said that it would last half a century, but within 12 years it had been abandoned and burned to the ground. All that remained was part of a foreleg.
The hero of this exploit (it is a little difficult to locate him among so many) is Maurice Pardo–the “Herculean Human Motor,” as he modestly styles himself. This wonderful cyclist balances and propels, solely by his own power and skill, twenty-five persons on his specially-made machine, which is unquestionably of the two-wheeled variety; whether or not it may be styled a ‘safety,’ however, is rather for the human cargo to say. The total weight on the bicycle is a little more than 4,000 lb.
– Strand, October 1896
New Mexico’s Santa Fe National Cemetery contains 16,000 headstones and only one statue, a life-size sandstone carving of Army private Dennis O’Leary, who died in 1901 at age 23.
Legend has it that O’Leary was stationed at lonely Fort Wingate, where he carved the statue himself, inscribed the death date, and shot himself. Military records show that a Pvt. Dennis O’Leary died of tuberculosis on this date. But then who carved the statue, and why?
Whenever I passed, some few years ago, a certain shop-window in the West-end of London, I usually had an additional peep at a large card to which was attached a mummified cat grasping a mummified rat firmly in its jaws. If I remember rightly, these animals were discovered, in a preserved, albeit shrunken and dusty, condition, imprisoned between some rafters in the house during repairs. Evidently the unfortunate cat got jammed in its peculiar position accidentally, and being averse to releasing its own prisoner, and thereby being better able to release itself, held it securely until suffocation to both ensued. It was a striking illustration of the powerfulness of determination exercised by even the smaller class of animals.
– James Scott, “Shopkeepers’ Advertising Novelties,” Strand, November 1895
When Dora Ratjen competed at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, her teammates thought it strange that she always bathed behind a locked door. “I thought something was a bit funny, because she had a deep voice and she snored in her sleep,” recalled fellow high jumper Elfriede Kaun. “She also had to shave, not just her legs and under her arms, but also her face.”
Ratjen took fourth place and went on to set a world record (1.67 m) in the 1938 European Athletics Championships. On the way home she was detained by the Magdeburg police, who discovered that she was a man. Because of his malformed genitals, the midwife at his birth had mistakenly told his parents that he was female, and he was christened Dora and raised as a girl. “From the age of 10 or 11 I started to realize I wasn’t female, but male,” he told police. “However, I never asked my parents why I had to wear women’s clothes even though I was male.” He learned to pursue his love of sport as a loner.
After the discovery in Magdeburg, Ratjen promised to stop competing, and the prosecutor declared that no finding of fraud was possible because there was no intention to reap financial reward. Dora returned his medals, changed his name to Heinrich, and quietly took over his parents’ bar, declining numerous interview requests.
It’s often reported that the Nazis forced Ratjen to compete in the Olympics as a deliberate ruse “for the honor and glory of Germany,” but a 2009 investigation by Der Spiegel found no evidence of this. Sportswriter Volker Kluge told the magazine, “On the basis of the available documents, I think it is completely out of the question that the Nazis deliberately created Dora Ratjen as a ‘secret weapon’ for the Olympic Games.” He conceded that the Reich Sport Ministry may have been aware that Ratjen was a “borderline case.”
The Haskell Free Library and Opera House straddles the border between Derby Line, Vt., and Stanstead, Quebec. The library’s front door is in the United States, but the circulation desk and all of the books are in Canada. Opera is performed on a Canadian stage before an American audience.
Hence it’s the only library in the U.S. with no books, the only opera house in the U.S. with no stage, and the only library in Canada with no entrance.
WESTPHALIA.–If the east has its Fata Morgana, we, in Westphalia, have also quite peculiar natural phenomena, which, hitherto, it has been as impossible to explain satisfactorily, as to deny. A rare and striking appearance of this description forms now the subject of universal talk and comment in our province. On the 22nd of last month a surprising prodigy of nature was seen by many persons at Büderich, a village between Unna and Werl. Shortly before sunset, an army, of boundless extent, and consisting of infantry, cavalry, and an enormous number of waggons, was observed to proceed across the country in marching order. So distinctly seen were all these appearances, that even the flashing of the firelocks, and the colour of the cavalry uniform, which was white, could be distinguished. This whole array advanced in the direction of the wood of Schafhauser, and as the infantry entered the thicket, and the cavalry drew near, they were hid all at once, with the trees, in a thick smoke. Two houses, also, in flames, were seen with the same distinctness. At sunset the whole phenomenon vanished. As respects the fact, government has taken the evidence of fifty eye-witnesses, who have deposed to a universal agreement respecting this most remarkable appearance. Individuals are not wanting who affirm that similar phenomena were observed in former times in this region. As the fact is so well attested as to place the phenomenon beyond the possibility of successful disproof, people have not been slow in giving a meaning to it, and in referring it to the great battle of the nations at Birkenbaum, to which the old legend, particularly since 1848, again points.
– J. Macray, in Notes and Queries, March 25, 1854
In a letter dated July 3, 1632, historian James Howell tells of seeing a curious monument in a London stonecutter’s shop: “Here lies John Oxenham, a goodly young Man, in whose Chamber, as he was struggling with the pangs of death, a Bird with a white breast was seen fluttering about his bed, and so vanished.” Howell says the same apparition attended the deaths of Oxenham’s sister, son, and mother.
He wrote that “This stone is to be sent to a Town hard by Exeter, where this happened.”
An anonymous pamphlet published nine years later gives essentially the same story. A True Relation of an Apparition in the Likeness of a Bird with a White Breast, That Appeared Hovering Over the Death-Beds of Some of the Children of Mr. James Oxenham, of Sale Monchorum, Gent. reports that a ghostly bird had appeared at the deathbeds of John, his mother, his daughter, and an infant.
On looking into this, Sabine Baring-Gould could find no trace of the monument in the Oxenham family’s parish, and the apparition isn’t mentioned on other Oxenham graves. He concludes that many of Howell’s published letters were not genuine but “were first written when he was in the Fleet prison, to gain money for the relief of his necessities.”
Creepy, though. See The Gormanston Foxes.
A famous councilor of Zurich … relates that Guillaume de Saluces, who was Bishop of Lausanne from 1221 to 1229, ordered the eels of Lake Leman to confine themselves to a certain part, from which they were not to go out. …
The summonses against offending animals were served by an officer of the criminal court, who read these citations at the places frequented by them. Though judgment was given by default on the non-appearance of the animals summoned, yet it was considered necessary that some of them should be present when the citation was delivered; thus, in the case of the leeches tried at Lausanne, a number of them were brought into court to hear the document read, which admonished them to leave the district in three days.
– William Jones, “Legal Prosecutions of Animals,” The Popular Science Monthly, September 1880
On Feb. 12, 1908, mechanic George Schuster joined five other motorists in Times Square to undertake an insanely ambitious race to Paris — by driving west to Alaska, across the Bering Strait, and then all the way through Siberia and Europe, a total of 20,000 miles.
“The drivers would surely have to make their own roads in many districts, and for many days most of the driving would be done on the low gear,” consultant Joe Tracy told the New York Times, which co-sponsored the contest. Tracy recommended that each team carry a windlass and block and tackle “to pull the car up steep grades and prevent it from dashing over cliffs in going down the mountains.”
One team got stuck in Hudson Valley snow, a second got lost in Iowa, a third was caught loading its car onto a train, and a fourth dropped out in Russia. Schuster finally arrived in Paris on July 30 to take first place, 170 days after leaving New York.
The prize was $1,000, but appallingly Schuster didn’t collect it until 60 years after the race, when he was 95 years old and nearly blind. After realizing its oversight the Times presented the payment at a 1968 dinner in Buffalo, acknowledging “what is probably the slowest payoff in racing history.”