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Spade Work


August Gussler was persistent. Convinced that Costa Rica’s tiny Cocos Island hid the loot of generations of pirates, the German adventurer set up camp there and in 1889 started digging.

The island occupies only 9 square miles, but it’s crowded with the ghosts of wealthy criminals, including English buccaneers Edward Davis and Bartholomew Sharp, Portuguese pirate Benito Bonito, and Captain William Thompson, who, entrusted with $60 million during an uprising in Lima in 1820, had turned criminal and kept it for himself. All of these, it was said, had hid their loot in the caves of Cocos, whose location 500 miles off the coast had made it an ideal haven for pirates plying the South Seas.

To aid in his search, Gussler had made himself a student of the island’s history. Bonito, he told one visitor, had buried “three hundred thousand pounds’ weight of silver and silver dollars, in a sandstone cave in the side of the mountain. Then he laid kegs of powder on top of the cave and blew away the face of the cliff. In another excavation he placed gold bricks, 733 of them, four by three inches in size, and two inches thick, and 273 gold-hilted swords, inlaid with jewels. On a bit of land in the little river, he buried several iron kettles filled with gold coin.”

Alas, it was hidden remarkably well. In 1908, when Gussler gave up his quest, he had found six gold coins.


On Feb. 11, 1979, 27-year-old Scott Moorman and four friends set out from Hana, Maui, for a daylong fishing expedition aboard the Sarah Joe, a 16.5-foot fiberglass motorboat. They did not return. The Coast Guard searched for five days, and private searches continued much longer, but no trace of them was found.

Nine and a half years later, in 1988, marine biologist John Naughton discovered a wrecked boat with Hawaiian registry on Taongi, the northernmost coral atoll in the Marshall Islands, 2,300 miles west of Hawaii. It was the Sarah Joe, and nearby, under a pile of stones and a driftwood cross, were the bones of Scott Moorman. How he came there, who buried him, and what became of the others remain unknown.

The Rain Wizard


In August 1891, a man named Frank Melbourne arrived in drought-stricken Cheyenne, Wyo., and claimed that he could summon rain at will. He proposed to produce rain within three days in return for a sizable fee.

“He established himself in the loft of a barn in the suburbs of the city and has been there ever since, except when leaving it for his meals,” reported the Rocky Mountain News. “The only apparatus or chemicals he took into his retreat were contained in four ordinary gripsacks. The windows of the barn were carefully shaded with blankets, and the crevices in the floor of the barn loft covered to prevent any eye penetrating the mystery of the rain-making laboratory.”

At first his efforts seemed to have no effect, but on the third day the sky darkened. “Business was almost suspended and thousands of people were on the streets watching the clouds. At 2:40 o’clock there was a heavy peal of thunder and a vivid flash of lightning, and in a few moments the rain came down in torrents.” Melbourne emerged and claimed credit; to convince skeptics, he returned to the loft a few days later, and again showers fell.

This established his reputation, and he moved on to Salt Lake City and Kelton, Utah, and Goodland, Kan., which were also suffering dry spells. He returned to Cheyenne the following summer, promising to cover 5,000 square miles with rainfall, but this time he produced only a few scattered showers. The committee refused to pay him, and he left Cheyenne for good.

Scientific American noted that Melbourne spent the years 1892 to 1894 aboard a specially rigged railroad car, offering his services to any community along the route. “So long as frequent rains occurred,” the editors observed, “although they were natural and were predicted by the Weather Bureau …, yet the farmers of Iowa, Kansas, and Nebraska, ignoring this fact, were sure to accredit all success to Mr. Melbourne.”

The Iowa Weather and Crop Service was more blunt. Melbourne ought to emulate the rain dancers of the Winnebago Indians, it said: “When they begin operations they never let up until it rains, so they score a success every time.”

Round Numbers

Letter to the Times, June 17, 1978:


It is not only dates that make nice patterns of numbers. Some years ago I was bringing a Destroyer home from the Far East and was required to report my position twice a day.

One evening, I saw that we would be passing close to where the Greenwich Meridian cuts the Equator so arranged to arrive there dead on midnight. Once there I altered course to due North and stopped engines so my position signal read:

At 0000 my position Latitude 00°00′N, Longitude 00°00′E. Course 000°. Speed 0.

I had considered saying I was Nowhere but thought (probably correctly) that Their Lordships would not be amused.

Yours faithfully,

Claud Dickens

Music for Headstands


Ignaz Moscheles’ piano piece “The Way of the World” is invertible — the music reads the same upside down.

Here’s pianist Felix Noel playing it both ways, and here’s a printable score (PDF) if you’d like to try it yourself.

See Both Sides Now.

Breakfast News

In May 2009, California consumer Janine Sugawara sued PepsiCo for implying that crunchberries are a fruit. She claimed that she and other consumers had been misled both by the name of the cereal and by the image on the box of Cap’n Crunch “thrusting a spoonful of ‘Crunchberries’ at the prospective buyer.” The package suggests that the product contains real fruit, she said; had she known otherwise, she would not have bought it.

“While the challenged packaging contains the word ‘berries’ it does so only in conjunction with the descriptive term ‘crunch’,” wrote Judge Morrison England Jr., reflecting wearily upon the course his life had taken. “This Court is not aware of, nor has Plaintiff alleged the existence of, any actual fruit referred to as a ‘crunchberry.’ Furthermore, the ‘Crunchberries’ depicted on the [box] are round, crunchy, brightly-colored cereal balls, and the [box] clearly states both that the Product contains ‘sweetened corn & oat cereal’ and that the cereal is ‘enlarged to show texture.’ Thus, a reasonable consumer would not be deceived into believing that the Product in the instant case contained a fruit that does not exist.”

He dismissed the case and denied Sugawara the chance to amend her complaint. “The survival of the instant claim would require this Court to ignore all concepts of personal responsibility and common sense,” he wrote. “The Court has no intention of allowing that to happen.”

Creative Taxidermy


To demonstrate “the discovery which I had made of preparing specimens upon scientific principles,” eccentric naturalist Charles Waterton (1782-1865) created “The Nondescript,” a red howler monkey whose face he had manipulated into a semi-human cast.

“I have no wish whatever that the nondescript should pass for any other thing than that which the reader himself should wish it to pass for,” he wrote, rather elliptically. “Not considering myself pledged to tell its story, I leave it to the reader to say what it is, or what it is not.”

The specimen is preserved at the Wakefield Museum in West Yorkshire. Lost is a similar Waterton creation, “The English Reformation Zoologically Demonstrated,” a series of “portraits” of famous Protestants fashioned from preserved lizards and toads.

Such experiments could make Waterton seem unfeeling, but he was fundamentally more sympathetic with the wildlife of South America than the Georgian society to which he’d been born. He made this address to a sloth he surprised on the banks of the Essequibo in Guyana:

“Come, poor fellow. If thou hast got into a hobble to-day, thou shalt not suffer for it: I’ll take no advantage of thee in misfortune; the forest is large enough for both thee and me to rove in: go thy ways up above, and enjoy thyself in these endless wilds; it is more than probable thou wilt never have another interview with man. So fare thee well.”

(“I followed him with my eye till the intervening branches closed in betwixt us; and then I lost sight for ever of the two-toed Sloth. I was going to add, that I never saw a Sloth take to his heels in such earnest: but the expression will not do, for the Sloth has no heels.”)

“Three Sundays in a Week”


In 1841 Edgar Allan Poe pointed out the confusion that can result when a ship reckons time while circling the world. Captain Smitherton and Captain Pratt have just returned from circumnavigating the globe, one traveling eastward and the other westward, while Kate and her father Mr. Rumgudgeon have remained in London. On reuniting, they discover some confusion: Captain Pratt thinks that tomorrow will be Sunday, Smitherton thinks that yesterday was Sunday, and Kate and Rumgudgeon think that today is Sunday. Finally Smitherton says:

What fools we two are ! — Mr. Rumgudgeon, the matter stands thus: The earth, you know, is, in round numbers, twenty-four thousand miles in circumference. Now the earth turns on its own axis, spins round, these twenty-four thousand miles, going from west to east, in precisely twenty-four hours. Well, sir, that is at the rate of one thousand miles an hour.

Now suppose that I sail from this position a thousand miles east. Of course, I anticipate the rising of the sun here at London by just one hour. I see the sun rise one hour before you do. Proceeding in the same direction yet another thousand miles, I anticipate the rising by two hours; another thousand, and I anticipate it by three hours: and so on, until I go entirely round the globe, and back to this spot, when having gone twenty-four thousand miles east, I anticipate the rising of the London sun by no less than twenty-four hours; that is to say, I am a day in advance of your time. Understand?

But Captain Pratt, when he had sailed a thousand miles west of this position, was an hour, and when he had sailed twenty-four thousand miles was twenty-four hours, or one day, behind the time at London. Thus, with me, yesterday was Sunday; thus, with you, to-day is Sunday; and thus, with Captain Pratt, to-morrow will be Sunday. And what is more, Mr. Rumgudgeon, it is positively clear that we are all right.

Mr. Rumgudgeon, who had forbidden Kate to marry until there were “three Sundays in a week,” now relents. Too bad for him — the international date line would shortly obviate the problem.


spirit of byron

“The Spirit of Byron,” a popular English print, circa 1830.

A footnote in Byron’s Don Juan mentions a rhyming contest between John Sylvester and Ben Jonson:

“I, John Sylvester, lay with your sister.”

“I, Ben Jonson, lay with your wife.”

“That is not rhyme.”

“No, but it is true.”

House Cat

hedren lion 1

Tippi Hedren had a lion. The star of The Birds kept a full-grown African lion as a house pet in the 1970s.

“My mother and stepfather went to African in 1972 and found themselves stricken by the plight of animals there,” remembered Melanie Griffith, her daughter, in When I Was a Girl. “There was a prediction that by the year 2000 there would be no more wild animals. My stepfather made a movie about it, and my mother decided that we should get a real lion — that way, we could experience what living with wildlife was like.

“So we made friends with this guy Neil. He had a full-grown lion on his ranch, and we’d go out and visit him. Eventually we got a lion cub of our own. His name was Casey, and he was our first cat. Eventually we started to get more and more. The police would come to our door, and I’d take the lions, jump over the fence into this vacant lot, and hide there with the cats while the police searched the house. It was a wild thing to do.”

hedren lion 2

Hedren went on to found a California wild animal preserve that, among other things, is now home to Michael Jackson’s two Bengal tigers.

(Thanks, Dan.)

Old Soldiers Never Die …


From Currier & Ives — “The Shade and Tomb of Washington.” His tomb is clear enough — where is his shade?

Haste, Waste


On Sept. 21, 1956, Navy pilot Tom Attridge put his supersonic F11F Tiger into a shallow dive and test-fired two bursts from its 20mm cannon. Unfortunately, the jet was traveling so fast that it overtook its own rounds. One struck the engine, which failed on the way back to the airfield. Attridge crash-landed, losing a wing and a stabilizer but getting away safely. His Tiger had become the first jet aircraft to shoot itself down.

A puzzle sent to me by a Caltech grad student: A man is walking his dog on the beach. Each time he blows a whistle, the dog doubles its speed. If the dog starts at 2 meters per second, how many whistles does it hear? Answer: Fifteen — when the dog exceeds the speed of sound, it catches up with the earlier whistles.

(Thanks, John and Srivatsan.)

Lost and Found

dalmatian photo

What is this? Most people see a mass of black blobs and then gradually recognize a photograph of a Dalmatian.

“What is interesting is that the outline shape on the picture surface that is experienced as resembling that of a dog is not seen as an outline shape at all unless the dog is seen in the figure,” writes University of British Columbia philosopher Dominic McIver Lopes. There’s no dog-shaped outline to notice; the contour of the dog’s body is invisible. To see the contour we must first see the dog … but how do we see the dog without the contour?

Ghost Writer


[Theodore] Dreiser said that when he was living in New York, on West Fifty-seventh Street, John Cowper Powys came occasionally to dinner. At that time Powys was living in this country, in a little town about thirty miles up the Hudson, and he usually left Dreiser’s place fairly early to catch a train to take him home. One evening, after a rather long after-dinner conversation, Powys looked at his watch and said hurriedly that he had no idea it was so late, and he would have to go at once or miss his train. Dreiser helped him on with his overcoat, and Powys, on his way to the door, said, ‘ I’ll appear before you, right here, later this evening. You’ll see me.’

‘Are you going to turn yourself into a ghost, or have you a key to the door?’ Dreiser laughed when he asked that question, for he did not believe for an instant that Powys meant to be taken seriously.

‘I don’t know,’ said Powys. ‘ I may return as a spirit or in some other astral form.’

Dreiser said that there had been no discussion whatever during the evening, of spirits, ghosts or visions. The talk had been mainly about American publishers and their methods. He said that he gave no further thought to Powys’s promise to reappear, but he sat up reading for about two hours, all alone. Then he looked up from his book and saw Powys standing in the doorway between the entrance hall and the living room. The apparation had Powys’s features, his tall stature, loose tweed garments and general appearance, but a pale white glow shone from the figure. Dreiser rose at once, and strode towards the ghost, or whatever it was, saying, ‘Well, you’ve kept your word, John. You’re here. Come on in and tell me how you did it.’ The apparation did not reply, and it vanished when Dreiser was within three feet of it.

As soon as he had recovered somewhat from his astonishment Dreiser picked up the telephone and called John Cowper Powy’s house in the country. Powys came to the phone, and Dreiser recognized his voice. After he had heard the story of the apparation, Powys said, ‘I told you I’d be there, and you oughtn’t to be surprised.’ Dreiser told me that he was never able to get any explanation from Powys, who refused to discuss the matter from any standpoint.

– W.E. Woodward, The Gift of Life, 1947

Close to Home


On Sept. 9, 1942, a lookout on Mount Emily in Oregon’s Siskiyou National Forest reported a plume of smoke near the town of Brookings. The Forest Service contained the fire easily, but investigators turned up something odd at the site: fragments of an incendiary bomb of Japanese origin.

It turned out that a Japanese submarine had surfaced off the Oregon/California border and 31-year-old navy officer Nobuo Fujita had piloted a seaplane into the forest, hoping to start a fire that would divert U.S. military resources from the Pacific. Recent rains had wet the forest, so the plan failed, but it marked the first time the continental United States had been bombed by enemy aircraft.

Fujita returned safely to Japan, where he opened a hardware store after the war, and he became an agent of amity with the United States. In 1962 he accepted an invitation to return to Oregon, where he donated his family’s samurai sword to Brookings, and he invited three local students to visit Japan in 1985. The city made him an honorary citizen shortly before his death in 1997, and his daughter spread his ashes at the site of the bombing.

Red Letters

‘All the world loves a lover.’ But in Venezuela, they do something about it. T.R. Lahey, in the Catholic periodical, Ave Maria, is responsible for the statement that the postal authorities there allow love letters to go through the mails at half price! But there is a condition. The letters must be mailed in bright-colored envelopes (pansy-blue for loving thoughts, and pink cloud effects; there would be a place for yellow and green to express the feelings of envious suitors and jealous lovers). These bright tints are intended to help the postal clerks and postmen to recognize the nature of the missives; but what a temptation to the carriers to open the letters and cull precious thoughts and phrases!

The Lutheran, Nov. 6, 1940

Late Arrivals

Reiss records the death of a woman who was hastily buried while her husband was away, and on his return he ordered exhumation of her body, and on opening the coffin a child’s cry was heard. The infant had evidently been born postmortem. It lived long afterward under the name of ‘Fils de la terre.’ Willoughby mentions the curious instance in which rumbling was heard from the coffin of a woman during her hasty burial. One of her neighbors returned to the grave, applied her ear to the ground, and was sure she heard a sighing noise. A soldier with her affirmed her tale, and together they went to a clergyman and a justice, begging that the grave be opened. When the coffin was opened it was found that a child had been born, which had descended to her knees. In Derbyshire, to this day, may be seen on the parish register: ‘April ye 20, 1650, was buried Emme, the wife of Thomas Toplace, who was found delivered of a child after she had lain two hours in the grave.’

– George Milbry Gould and Walter Lytle Pyle, Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine, 1896

A Third Valiant Ass

From an account by Spanish priest Pedro Simón of an expedition led by Luis Alonso de Lugo against the Tairona Indians of Colombia, 1535:

At dawn, as they lay hidden in the cornfields which surrounded the village, awaiting the moment to attack, they heard an ass bray. They knew that the Indians did not possess such animals, and did not believe that an ass could have climbed the high crags which barred the way from the coast. … When the place had been pacified and looted, they enquired about the ass … The Indians said that it had come in a ship, which had been wrecked on the coast. … They had killed those of the ship’s company who got ashore, but had kept the ass, and had carried it up into the mountains, trussed with ropes and slung between two poles, along with all the other loot they found in the ship. … So our soldiers, deeming it inappropriate and contrary to native custom that such articles should be in the hands of Indians, collected them all up, along with everything else that took their fancy, including the ass, and took it back to the coast. But the trails were rough, more suited to cats than men, and the descent was as hard as the ascent had been, so they made the Indians carry the donkey down just as they had brought it up; and very useful it turned out to be. Surely, as the first of its race to penetrate those mountains, it deserved to be numbered among the conquistadores. It served in other entradas later, and finally in the expedition which Hernando de Quesada, brother and deputy of Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada the discoverer, led in search of El Dorado. It was ridden by Fray Vicente Requejada of the Order of Saint Augustine. … The ass served the friar well until, on the return march, they all ran out of food and, in the extremities of hunger, killed it for food. They left not a scrap of it. They collected its blood, made sausages of its guts, and even devoured its hide, well boiled. It had served them well in life, and served them better still in death, by its timely rescue from starvation; a salutary reminder of the hardships which in those days were the daily lot of discoverers.

See An Ass Cast Away and Hoof Positive.

Curve Ball


An astronomical oddity, from the Sidereal Messenger, June 1890:

On the evening of April 25th, 1889, at about 8:30 p.m., I was examining Saturn with a power of about 180 on a 4 1/8-inch achromatic by Brashear, when, much to my surprise, I found the shadow of the globe on the rings curved the wrong way, i.e. from the globe, as shown in the following drawing. Thinking my eyes might be deceiving me I called my wife, and without telling her what I had seen, requested her to describe the shape of the shadow. She described the shadow as having its right hand edge curved away from the planet.

I wrote to Professor Comstock of the Washburn Observatory about it, and was informed by him that while my observation of Saturn was unusual, it was far from being unprecedented; that the same appearance was observed in 1875 with the 26-inch achromatic at Washington, and that Webb, in ‘Celestial Objects for Common Telescopes,’ says: ‘The outline of this shadow has often been found curved the wrong way for its perspective.’ Professor Comstock also adds, ‘I do not know that any satisfactory explanation for this anomaly has ever been given.’

William Corliss notes a flurry of similar observations between 1886 and 1914. I think this must have been explained by now, but I haven’t been able to find a source.

(Jenks, Aldro; “On the Reversed Curvature of the Shadow on Saturn’s Rings,” Sidereal Messenger, 9:255, 1890.)

Euathlus in Ohio

In 1946 an American doctor named Jones was tried in Ohio for performing six illegal abortions (State v. Jones, 80 Ohio App. 269). In one of the six cases, the only evidence was the testimony of the woman herself, Jacquelin Harris. But under Ohio law, the recipient of an abortion was an accomplice to the crime, and the unsupported testimony of an accomplice was suspect and insufficient for a conviction.

This means trouble:

  • The prosecution can argue that if the doctor is guilty then he should be convicted, and that if he’s innocent then the woman is not an accomplice and her testimony is sufficient to convict him. Either way, he should be convicted.
  • The defense can argue that if the doctor is innocent then he should be acquitted, and that if he’s guilty then the woman is his accomplice, which makes her testimony insufficient for a conviction. Either way, he should be acquitted.

“This puts the jury in a position of returning a self-annulling verdict,” writes Peter Suber in The Paradox of Self-Amendment. “If they find Jones guilty, then they must find that Harris was his accomplice, then they must find her evidence against Jones insufficient, then they must acquit Jones. But if they find Jones innocent, then they must (at least may) find Harris’ evidence legally sufficient, then they must (at least may) convict Jones.”

Jones was found guilty, ironically because, as an accused party, he was presumed innocent, and so the witness was presumed not to be an accomplice. “This led to the remarkable situation that the testimony was admissible and could lead to a conviction,” writes Michael Clark in Paradoxes From A to Z, “notwithstanding the fact that the conviction undermined the probative value of the testimony.”

See Turnabout.

Opposing Forces


This is a picture of which Captain Gordon McCabe of Richmond, Virginia, writes: ‘I send photographs of two bullets, one Federal, the other Confederate, that met in mid-air and flattened out against each other. The bullets were picked up in 1865 between the lines immediately after the evacuation of Petersburg.’

– Robert S. Lanier, The Photographic History of the Civil War, 1911

Time and Again


Peter and Jane, both 20 years old, are visited by a time machine one day in 1999. A familiar figure emerges, hands a diary to Jane, and asks her to travel to 2019, recording her impressions of the trip. She does so, dutifully making an entry in the diary. When she arrives in 2019 she meets the 40-year-old Peter and gives the diary to him. He returns to 1999, making an entry in the diary himself. When he emerges in 1999, he gives the diary to the 20-year-old Jane and asks her to travel to 2019.

Now: How many entries are in the diary when Peter gives it to Jane? It’s not blank, for we know it contains Jane and Peter’s accounts of their journeys through time. But if it contains those two accounts when Jane departs, then she will have written a third on her journey to 2019, and Peter a fourth before arriving at the present moment. It seems that the diary must contain an indefinite number of entries, but there are clearly only two trips, Jane’s to 2019 and Peter’s to 1999. What is the answer?

(From Robin Le Poidevin, Travels in Four Dimensions, 2003.)

Second Sight

Ben Underwood lost his eyes to retinal cancer at age 2, but within three years he had taught himself to discern objects by echolocation, making clicking noises with his tongue and listening for reflected sound. Soon he was able to run, rollerblade, skateboard, and play basketball with other children.

His first Braille teacher, Barbara Haase, witnessed his progress as they went on walks together. “I said, ‘Okay, my car is the third car parked down the street. Tell me when we get there,’” she remembered. “As we pass the first vehicle, he says, ‘There’s the first car. Actually, a truck.’ And it was a pickup. He could tell the difference.”

Underwood led a full life until age 16, when he died of the same cancer that took his eyes. “People ask me if I’m lonely,” he once said. “I’m not, because someone’s always around, or I’ve got my cell phone and I’m always talking to friends. … I tell people I’m not blind, I just can’t see.”

(Thanks, Mike.)

Under Cover

A dwarf named Richbourg, who was only sixty centimetres (23 1-2 inches) high, has just died in the Rue du Four, St. Germain, Paris, aged 90. He was, when young, in the service of the Duchess d’Orleans, mother of King Louis Philippe. After the first revolution broke out he was employed to convey despatches abroad, and, for that purpose, was dressed as a baby, the despatches being concealed in his cap, and a nurse being made to carry him. For the last twenty-five years he has lived in the Rue du Four, and during all that time never went out. He had a great repugnance to strangers, and was alarmed when he heard the voice of one; but in his own family he was very lively and cheerful. The Orleans family allowed him a pension of 8000 francs.

Ballou’s Dollar Monthly Magazine, February 1859