A Well-Timed Exit

Composer Arnold Schoenberg was fascinated with numerology. Born on Sept. 13, he came to fear that he would die at age 76, because its digits add to 13. He examined a calendar for 1951 and was dismayed to see that July 13 fell on a Friday. When the fateful day came he took to his bed, fearing the worst. The day passed uneventfully, and shortly before midnight his wife entered the bedroom to say goodnight. Schoenberg uttered the word “harmony” and died.

The time of his death was 11:47 p.m., 13 minutes before midnight on Friday, July 13, in his 76th year.

“A Rat Caught by an Oyster”

A rat, lately visiting a tub of oysters at the post office in Falmouth, and whisking his tail between the open shells of one of them, it closed upon him, and held him so firmly, that he was prevented from escaping through his hole, and was found in the morning with the oyster still holding fast of his tail at the entrance of it.

La Belle Assemblée, January 1800

Soul Food

Followers of Breatharianism believe that humans can live without food or water. Wiley Brooks, founder of the Breatharian Institute of America, even claims to have survived mainly on a diet of fresh air for the past 30 years.

It’s not clear what he counts as fresh air — in 1983 he was spotted leaving a Santa Cruz 7-Eleven with a Slurpee, a hot dog and a box of Twinkies.

Silver Lining

Louis-Auguste Cyparis was lucky to be in solitary confinement. After a bar fight in May 1902, the 27-year-old laborer had been put in an underground bomb-proof magazine in the city jail of St. Pierre, Martinique, when he saw the day grow suddenly dark outside the narrow grating in his door. Presently Cyparis was blasted with scalding air and ashes, suffering deep burns on his hands, arms, legs, and back. He spent four days nursing these wounds before he managed to attract a rescue team.

He had lived through the eruption of Mount Pelée, the worst volcanic disaster of the 20th century. Of the town’s 28,000 inhabitants, only three had survived.

Ghost Rockets


What is this? It was photographed by the Swedish army on July 9, 1946, one of thousands of such sightings over Scandinavia that summer.

Some witnesses said the objects maneuvered or flew in formation. A number of them crashed into lakes, but no debris was found; the army spent three weeks searching for a “gray, rocket-shaped object with wings” that reportedly crashed into Lake Kölmjärv on July 19, but found nothing.

Fearing that the Russians were testing captured German missiles, the U.S. government secretly sent Gen. Jimmy Doolittle and RCA president David Sarnoff to investigate. Sarnoff told the New York Times that “the ‘ghost bombs’ are no myth but real missiles.” Truman was told they were originating from the German village of Peenemünde, but there are no records of rocket launches there after the war.

Whatever they were, there were a lot of them. In September the sightings spread to Greece, Portugal, Belgium, and Italy. In all, 2,000 sightings were reported, 200 on radar. Most likely the objects were meteors, but officially no one knows.

“Curious Account of a Bat”


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


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


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

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.