“Curious Wagers”

There have been travelling wagers, and one of the least singular of such was that of Mr. Whalley, an Irish gentleman (and who we believe edited Ben Johnson’s works), who, for a very considerable wager (twenty thousand pounds, it was said,) set out on Monday the 22nd of September, 1788, to walk to Constantinople and back again in one year. This wager, however whimsical, is not without a precedent. Some years ago a baronet of good fortune (Sir Henry Liddel) laid a considerable wager that he would go to Lapland, bring home two females of that country, and two rein-deer, in a given time. He performed the journey, and effected his purpose in every respect. The Lapland women lived with him about a year, but desiring to go back to their own country, the baronet furnished them with means and money.

— Edmund Fillingham King, Ten Thousand Wonderful Things, 1860

The Somerton Man

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On Dec. 1, 1948, a bather discovered a body on the beach near Adelaide, Australia. The man appeared to be European, about 45 years old, well dressed, and in excellent physical condition. Indeed, the coroner could not determine a cause of death. Still more strangely, it seemed the man had carried no money, and all identifying marks had been removed from his clothes. Apparently he had left a suitcase at the Adelaide railway station, but it contained no useful clues. Photos and fingerprints were circulated throughout the English-speaking world, but no one identified him.

And the body bore one last strange clue: In a trouser fob pocket, one of the investigators found a tiny piece of paper bearing the words “Taman Shud.” Those are the final words in the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam; they mean “The End.” A local doctor came forward with a copy of that book, from which the words had been clipped. He had found it tossed on the front seat of his car the day before the body was found.

But even that clue went nowhere. To this day, no one knows who the man was or how he died. He’s known only as the Somerton man.

Better Safe

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Johann Taberger designed this “safety coffin” in 1829, to preserve people who had been mistakenly buried alive. Strings were attached to the body’s head, hands, and feet, connected to a bell that would alert the cemetery’s nightwatchman, who could use a bellows to pump air into the coffin until it could be dug up.

Such devices were popular during the cholera epidemics of the 18th and 19th centuries — European graves were rigged variously with bells, flags, ladders, and escape hatches. There’s no evidence that they ever saved anyone, and they nearly killed some of their inventors: During a demonstration in 1897, a chamberlain to the tsar of Russia buried his assistant, waited, and finally realized that the signaling system had failed. The assistant was saved, but the marketing campaign was DOA.

“Bees Found in a Stone”

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An extraordinary discovery in Natural History was made at Liverpool about a fortnight ago. As one of the stonemasons in the employ of the Dock Trustees, was dressing, on the sea wall of the Regent’s Dock, a huge stone, brought from the Western Point Quarry, and after he had broken a considerable thickness from its outside, he discovered, in a hole of small diameter, which was partially filled with clay, and a loamy sand, three bees, in a state of animation, to the inexpressible astonishment of himself and fellow-workmen, many of whom were witnesses of this strange phenomenon. The foreman of the works put them into his handkerchief, where they remained for several hours afterwards; but, while exhibiting his newly resuscitated strangers, two of them flew away, and he voluntarily gave the third its liberty.

Liverpool Advertiser, Nov. 24, 1817

The Tree That Owns Itself

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In 1832, Col. William Henry Jackson of Athens, Ga., made an unusual bequest:

I, W. H. Jackson, of the county of Clarke, of the one part, and the oak tree … of the county of Clarke, of the other part: Witnesseth, That the said W. H. Jackson for and in consideration of the great affection which he bears said tree, and his great desire to see it protected has conveyed, and by these presents do convey unto the said oak tree entire possession of itself and of all land within eight feet of it on all sides.

So goes the legend. Legally the land is probably part of the right-of-way along Finley Street, but Jackson’s wishes have been honored in spirit: When the original tree fell in 1942, the townspeople grew a replacement from one of its acorns.

Yamamoto Meets Wile E. Coyote

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In early 1945, Americans in western states began to notice something odd. Explosions were heard from Alaska to California, and some people reported seeing parachutes and balloons in the sky.

Newsweek ran an article titled “Balloon Mystery” but was soon contacted by the U.S. Office of Censorship, which was trying to keep the story quiet. It seems the Japanese were using balloons to float bombs over the continental United States. At first it was thought the balloons were being launched from North American beaches, but scientists who studied the sand in their sandbags eventually determined they had been launched from Japan itself. The jet stream could carry a high-altitude balloon across the Pacific in three days.

Japan, it turned out, had launched more than 900 such balloons, and 300 have been found in America. The censorship prevented any word of success from reaching Japan, so the project was soon discontinued. But there was, sadly, some success: On May 5, 1945, a 13-year-old girl tried to pull a balloon from a tree during a church picnic. It exploded, killing a woman and five children.