“Curious Account of a Bat”

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On opening the vault belonging to the family of J. Norris, Esq. in the church of St. Peter’s Mancroft, Norwich, on Monday, February the third, 1806, a live bat was found therein, of a greyish colour, where it had probably laid in a torpid state, a solitary companion for the dead, more than thirty-two years, the distance of time since the vault was before opened.

Bell’s Messenger, Feb. 16, 1806

An Airborne Doppelganger

http://www.gutenberg.org/files/15884/15884-h/15884-h.htm

French astronomer Camille Flammarion writes of a curious ballooning incident in Wonders of Earth, Sea And Sky (1902):

On April 15, 1868, at about half-past three in the afternoon, we emerged from a stratum of clouds, when the shadow of the balloon was seen by us, surrounded by colored concentric circles, of which the car formed the centre. It was very plainly visible upon a yellowish white ground. A first circle of pale blue encompassed this ground and the car in a kind of ring. Around this ring was a second of a deeper yellow, then a grayish red zone, and lastly as the exterior circumference, a fourth circle, violet in hue, and imperceptibly toning down into the gray tint of the clouds. The slightest details were clearly discernible — net, robes, and instruments. Every one of our gestures was instantaneously reproduced by the aerial spectres. … It is … certain that this is a phenomenon of the diffraction of light simply produced by the vesicles of the mist.

A Prophetic Monk

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The English Benedictine monk Eilmer of Malmesbury saw Halley’s comet as a young boy in 989.

When he saw it again 76 years later, he declared: “You’ve come, have you? … You’ve come, you source of tears to many mothers. It is long since I saw you; but as I see you now you are much more terrible, for I see you brandishing the downfall of my country.”

The year was 1066. That October, with the Battle of Hastings, the Normans began their conquest of England.

The Void

In 1969, French author Georges Perec wrote a 300-page novel without the letter e:

Noon rings out. A wasp, making an ominous sound, a sound akin to a klaxon or a tocsin, flits about. Augustus, who has had a bad night, sits up blinking and purblind. Oh what was that word (is his thought) that ran through my brain all night, that idiotic word that, hard as I’d try to pin it down, was always just an inch or two out of my grasp — fowl or foul or Vow or Voyal? — a word which, by association, brought into play an incongruous mass and magma of nouns, idioms, slogans and sayings, a confusing, amorphous outpouring which I sought in vain to control or turn off but which wound around my mind a whirlwind of a cord, a whiplash of a cord, a cord that would split again and again, would knit again and again, of words without communication or any possibility of combination, words without pronunciation, signification or transcription but out of which, notwithstanding, was brought forth a flux, a continuous, compact and lucid flow: an intuition, a vacillating frisson of illumination as if caught in a flash of lightning or in a mist abruptly rising to unshroud an obvious sign — but a sign, alas, that would last an instant only to vanish for good.

Remarkably, La Disparition has been translated into six different languages, each imposing a similar constraint — the Spanish, for instance, contains no a, and the English, here, no e.

Bog Bodies

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

Celts killed each other. During the Iron Age, they’d stab, bludgeon, hang, and strangle their victims, then dump them in the sphagnum bogs that dot Northern Europe, sometimes with the ropes still around their necks.

We know this because the acidity of the bog water, the cold temperature, and the lack of oxygen have effectively prevented these corpses from decomposing. More than 700 bodies have been recovered, some as old as 10,000 years and some still appearing fresh enough to be mistaken for recent murder victims.

The “Grauballe Man,” above, was found in 1952 by a Dane digging for peat. His throat was cut in 290 B.C., but his body was well enough preserved to yield fingerprints. Why was he killed? Maybe ritual, maybe execution for a crime, maybe human sacrifice. Here’s one odd clue: Judging from their nutrition and manicures, the bodies appear consistently to have been from the upper classes.

The Upas Tree

upas tree

In the 18th century, tales circulated of a terrible tree in Java, so poisonous that it destroyed all life within 15 miles. It grew alone in a desolate valley, surrounded by dead bodies; there were no fish in the streams nearby, and birds fell from the sky. The upas tree’s poison could be harvested only by condemned criminals wearing leather hoods fitted with glass eyeholes, and scarcely a tenth of these returned.

Lord Byron and Charlotte Brontë popularized this account, and so did Charles Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus, but the truth is more prosaic. There is a upas tree, but its poison is generally only dangerous if you receive it via an arrow. It lives in Southeast Asia.

The exaggeration can be traced to one man, a French surgeon named Foersch who published a florid account in the London Magazine of December 1783. He was either sly or gullible — it’s not clear which.

The “Toxic Lady”

On Feb. 19, 1994, Gloria Ramirez was admitted to California’s Riverside General Hospital complaining of chest and stomach pains. She was in cardiac arrest about 15 minutes after arriving at the emergency room.

A doctor and two nurses drew blood for testing, which the nurses later said contained small white crystals and smelled of ammonia. Almost immediately after smelling the fumes, all three passed out. The emergency room was evacuated, patients were moved to the parking lot, and a hazardous materials crew had to seal Ramirez’s body in an airtight coffin.

What happened? No one knows. The fumes hospitalized six workers, but an autopsy on Ramirez’s body suggested only kidney failure related to cervical cancer. After conducting 34 interviews, the California Department of Health Services chalked up the outbreak to “mass sociogenic illness.” But more investigations may be forthcoming — the lawsuits are just starting up.

“A Monsieur Chaban”

A Monsieur Chaban, in Paris, exhibited his astonishing powers of resisting heat, in so wonderful a manner, that the National Institute, and other learned societies, appointed delegates to view and inspect the performances, and to report thereon. Among other singular feats exhibited by this man, and reported to the National Institute, was his going into a common baker’s oven, with a leg of mutton in his hands, and remaining, in the usual manner, closed in until the mutton was completely dressed; another, that standing in the midst of a tar barrel, he remained therein till the whole was consumed to ashes around him. In 1818, he arrived in London, and publicly exhibited himself in Piccadilly, where he offered to repeat these last two exhibitions, before any number of persons, on being properly remunerated for the same; at the same time; he generously offered himself to the fire-offices and the public, in cases of calamitous fires, whenever they should be pleased to call on him, without fee or reward.

Kirby’s Wonderful and Scientific Museum, 1820

Bad Advice

In 1887, president Grover Cleveland welcomed an old friend to the White House. Weary of the office, he said to the man’s 5-year-old son, “My little man, I am making a strange wish for you. It is that you may never be president of the United States.”

The boy was Franklin Roosevelt.