Space Ghost


In September 2002, astronomers noticed something odd: An object about 60 feet long was orbiting Earth. It must have arrived recently, but it didn’t resemble any recently launched spacecraft. It might have been an asteroid … but it appeared, spookily, to bear titanium dioxide paint. Was it an alien ship?

The object disappeared again in June 2003, so officially we’re still baffled. But the best guess is that it’s an old stage of Apollo 12 that somehow wandered away from Earth in 1971, circled the sun about 30 times, and came home to visit. If that’s true then it might come back again in 2032—we can visit it on our rocket scooters.

The Ulloa Circle


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

Ulloa, being in company with six fellow-travellers upon the Pambamarca at daybreak one morning, observed that the summit of the mountain was entirely covered with thick clouds, and that the sun, when it rose, dissipated them, leaving only in their stead light vapors, which it was almost impossible to distinguish. Suddenly, in the opposite direction to where the sun was rising, “each of the travellers beheld, at about seventy feet from where he was standing, his own image reflected in the air as in a mirror. The image was in the centre of three rainbows of different colors, and surrounded at a certain distance by a fourth bow with only one color. … All these bows were perpendicular to the horizon; they moved in the direction of, and followed, the image of the person they enveloped as with a glory.”

“The most remarkable point was that, although the seven spectators were standing in a group, each person only saw the phenomenon in regard to his own person, and was disposed to disbelieve that it was repeated in respect to his companions,” Flammarion writes. “The same apparition was observed in the polar regions by Scoresby, and described by him. He states that the phenomenon appears whenever there is mist and at the same time shining sun.”

MacFarlane’s Bear

In 1864, the Inuit gave the skin and skull of an “enormous” yellow-furred bear to naturalist Robert MacFarlane. He packed them up and shipped them to the Smithsonian Institution, where they were placed in storage and forgotten.

Fifty-four years later, zoologist Clinton Hart Merriam unpacked the remains and realized they represented an entirely new species, and MacFarlane’s specimen was apparently the last of its kind. No one has ever seen a living “MacFarlane’s bear,” except for those Inuit — and now their story is lost.

You’re Gonna Need a Bigger Boat

Account of an encounter with a titanic shark, recorded by Australian naturalist David Stead in his 1963 book Sharks and Rays of Australian Seas:

In the year 1918 I recorded the sensation that had been caused among the “outside” crayfish men at Port Stephens, when, for several days, they refused to go to sea to their regular fishing grounds in the vicinity of Broughton Island. The men had been at work on the fishing grounds — which lie in deep water — when an immense shark of almost unbelievable proportions put in an appearance, lifting pot after pot containing many crayfishes, and taking, as the men said, “pots, mooring lines and all”. These crayfish pots, it should be mentioned, were about 3 feet 6 inches in diameter and frequently contained from two to three dozen good-sized crayfish each weighing several pounds. The men were all unanimous that this shark was something the like of which they had never dreamed of. In company with the local Fisheries Inspector I questioned many of the men very closely and they all agreed as to the gigantic stature of the beast. But the lengths they gave were, on the whole, absurd. I mention them, however, as an indication of the state of mind which this unusual giant had thrown them into. And bear in mind that these were men who were used to the sea and all sorts of weather, and all sorts of sharks as well. One of the crew said the shark was “three hundred feet long at least”! Others said it was as long as the wharf on which we stood — about 115 feet! They affirmed that the water “boiled” over a large space when the fish swam past. They were all familiar with whales, which they had often seen passing at sea, but this was a vast shark. They had seen its terrible head which was “at least as long as the roof on the wharf shed at Nelson Bay.” Impossible, of course! But these were prosaic and rather stolid men, not given to “fish stories” nor even to talking about their catches. Further, they knew that the person they were talking to (myself) had heard all the fish stories years before! One of the things that impressed me was that they all agreed as to the ghostly whitish colour of the vast fish.

Stead draws no conclusions, but writes, “The local Fisheries Inspector of the time, Mr Paton, agreed with me that it must have been something really gigantic to put these experienced men into such a state of fear and panic.”

Frances O’Connor


Born without arms, Frances O’Connor (1914-1982) was billed as a living Venus de Milo in popular sideshows, eating, drinking, and smoking a cigarette with her feet.

See also Carl Herman Unthan.

Fish Story


They laughed at William Beebe when the naturalist described a 6-foot glowing monster he’d encountered on a mile-deep dive in 1930. One colleague said he’d probably seen two fish swimming together.

Beebe got the last laugh four years later, when a fishing vessel pulled up one of these, a spiny, glowing creature that weighed more than 250 pounds. It’s known as “Beebe’s monster.”

Oak Island

Exploring Oak Island, Nova Scotia, in 1795, three boys discovered an old tackle block hung from a tree directly over a circular depression. Excited by thoughts of buried treasure, the three dug down 30 feet, discovering a layer of flagstones followed by layers of logs about every 10 feet, according to news accounts in 1856. That attracted serious treasure hunters, and subsequent digs got as deep as 80 feet, where reportedly they turned up a large inscribed stone (“Forty feet below lies two million pounds”) just before the pit flooded.

That stopped the digging for a while, but it attracted still more attention. In 1849 a drill passed through the following layers, starting at the 98-foot mark:

  • spruce platform
  • 12-inch space
  • 22 inches of “metal in pieces”
  • 8 inches of oak
  • 22 inches of metal
  • 4 inches of oak
  • another spruce layer
  • 7 feet of clay

Reportedly the operators found three small links of a gold chain in the mud stuck to the drill. There have been at least 11 digs since then, ultimately producing nothing. Possibly “the money pit” still holds loot belonging to Blackbeard or Captain Kidd … but no one’s been able to find it.

“A Phosphorescent Sea”


A singular and highly remarkable case of diffused marine phosphorescence was observed by Nordenskiöld during his voyage to Greenland in 1883. One dark night, when the weather was calm and the sea smooth, his vessel was steaming across a narrow inlet called the Igaliko Fjord, when the sea was suddenly observed to be illumined in the rear of the vessel by a broad but sharply-defined band of light, which had a uniform, somewhat golden sheen, quite unlike the ordinary bluish-green phosphorescence of the sea. The latter kind of light was distinctly visible at the same time in the wake of the vessel. Though the steamer was going at the rate of from five to six miles an hour, the remarkable sheet of light got nearer and nearer. When quite close, it appeared as if the vessel were sailing in a sea of fire or molten metal. In the course of an hour the light passed on ahead, and ultimately it disappeared in the remote horizon. The nature of this phenomenon Nordenskiöld is unable to explain; and unfortunately he had not the opportunity of examining it with the spectroscope.

— W.S. Dallas in Wonders of Earth, Sea And Sky, 1902

A Lady of Stature


Born to normal parents in 1846, Anna Haining Swan had reached nearly her mother’s height by age 6. She topped out at 7 feet 5 inches, 350 pounds, shortly after signing up with P.T. Barnum, who paid her handsomely.

Like other “freaks,” Anna was cultured and educated. She studied literature, music and acting, even playing Lady Macbeth. Still, her size presented problems. She was nearly trapped by a fire at Barnum’s museum in 1865 because she couldn’t fit through a third-floor window. Eventually she was lowered by block and tackle, with 18 men holding the end of the rope.

Anna was fortunate in love, though. She met Martin Van Buren Bates when the two were paired for a tour, and they were married in 1871, towering over the priest, who was 6 foot 3. They retired to a custom house with 8-foot doors, where she bore two children, one of which weighed 22 pounds at birth (neither survived). She was buried in an oversize coffin in 1888.

At her full height, Anna was nearly five times as tall as Caroline Crachami (1815-1824), the smallest person in recorded history. Born with primordial dwarfism, Caroline was only 19.5 inches tall. Her skeleton is on display at Scotland’s Hunterian Museum, and her story is recorded in Gaby Wood’s wonderfully titled Smallest of All Persons Mentioned in the Records of Littleness.

Coral Castle

When Edward Leedskalnin’s fiancée left him at the altar, the Latvian eccentric moved to Florida and started building a castle to win her back. A very, very heavy castle: The structure is made of megalithic stones, mostly coral, each of which weighs several tons.

How he did it is something of a mystery, as the 100-pound artist worked only alone and at night. Some teenagers who glimpsed the construction said that he moved the blocks like hydrogen balloons. Leedskalnin gave no details but spoke of a “perpetual motion holder” and said he knew the secret of the Egyptian pyramids.

Anyway, did it work? Sadly, no. Leedskalnin spent 28 years building his castle, but when his erstwhile fiancée heard about it, she said, “I didn’t want to marry Edward when I was 16, and I don’t want to marry him now.” He died a few years later.