On July 9, 1962, a Western Airlines L-188 was flying over central Nevada when the pilot felt a thud. On landing, the crew found a football-sized dent in one of the horizontal stabilizers. Stuck in the dent was a feather, which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service identified as a mallard’s.
The plane had been flying at 21,000 feet.
In May 1892, the French newspaper La Petite Gironde sponsored a unique contest: The first man to travel on stilts the 302 miles from Bordeaux to Bayonne and Biarritz and back would win 1,000 francs.
Sometimes the stilts broke, although they were made of strong ash. The men would then halt for repairs and seize the opportunity of taking a meal–soup and fried eggs, perhaps, with coffee and white wine. … First arrivals at various control-posts were presented with bouquets, laurel wreaths, and more substantial tokens in the shape of free rations and money. Others frankly touted for contributions in the towns, and made a grand thing of it.
Of 69 starters, 32 covered the course in the allotted time of eight and a half days. The prize went to 31-year-old Pierre Deycard, who finished in 4 days 7 hours — after which he was treated to a banquet of 15 courses “and then made to parade the town with a bank note for 1,000 francs pinned on his chest.”
(From Strand, January 1898.)
En route to Antarctica in 1840, explorer James Clark Ross noticed something odd on the Kerguelen Islands in the southern Indian Ocean:
Captain Sir J.C. Ross’s party saw no land animals, and the only traces of there being any upon the island were the singular foot-prints of a pony or ass, about three inches in length and two and a half in breadth, having a small and deeper depression on each side and shaped like a horse shoe. The animal had probably been cast on shore from some wrecked vessel: its foot-prints were traced for some distance in the recently fallen snow in hopes of getting sight of it; but the tracks were lost on reaching a large space of rocky ground which was free from snow.
— John Nunn, Narrative of the Wreck of the “Favorite” on the Island of Desolation, 1850
In October 1899, McClure’s magazine published an account of the hunting of a relict mammoth in the Yukon in 1890. “The Killing of the Mammoth” was fiction, but its realistic style and elaborate detail led many readers to believe that “the king of the primeval forests” really had been discovered in a hidden Alaskan valley, shot, and sold to a museum. “The points of the immense tusks looked as if they could hardly belong to their owner, being, as all the world knows, thirty-one feet, nine inches away from the bases,” wrote the narrator, “Henry Tukeman.” And “The meat was not unpalatable, but terribly tough.”
The following February, the editors recorded their “amazement” that the story “was taken by many readers not as fiction, but as a contribution to natural history.” “Ever since the appearance of that number of the magazine the authorities of the Smithsonian Institution, in which the author had located the remains of the beast of his fancy, have been beset with visitors to see the stuffed mammoth, and our daily mail, as well as that of the Smithsonian Institution, has been filled with inquiries for more information and for requests to settle wagers as to whether it was a true story or not.”
The editors reiterated that the tale was fiction — it had been listed as “A Story” in the issue’s table of contents — and they congratulated the author on the realism of his account. “We doubt if any writer of realistic fiction,” they wrote, “ever had a more general and convincing proof of success.”
Upon the 22d of June 1834, in latitude 46°57′, longitude 58°39′, Captain Neill of the ship Robertson of Greenock, then upon a voyage from Montreal to Greenock, saw the head and snout of a great fish or sea-monster, of which the accompanying sketch or drawing was at the time made. It was first observed about 9:15 A.M., on the weather-bow, about four points; and it then appeared like a large vessel lying on her beam ends.
The Robertson was hauled up so as to near it; and running at the rate of eight knots an hour, she at 12 noon got abreast of it, distant about a mile to leeward. On observation at this time it was discovered to be the head and snout of a great fish swimming to windward; and although it was tried to get closer to it, this could not be done, as the fish, without much apparent exertion, kept swimming as fast as the vessel sailed.
Immediately above the water its eye was seen like a large deep dark hole. That part of the head which was above the water measured about 12 feet, and its breadth or width 25 feet. The snout or trunk was about 50 long; and the sea would ripple over one part, leaving other parts of it quite dry and uncovered. The colour of the parts seen was green, with a light and dark shade; and the skin was ribbed, as represented in the sketch.
— Magazine of Zoology and Botany, July 1837
In 1918, photographer Arthur Mole engaged the nation’s military in a series of “living photographs.” After arranging cloth strips on a parade ground, he’d mount a 70-foot tower and shout orders through a megaphone, arranging thousands of men into formations that assumed patriotic shapes when viewed from the camera’s perspective. Shown here:
- The Marine emblem, formed by 100 officers and 9,000 enlisted men at the Marine barracks in Parris Island, S.C.
- The Statue of Liberty, 18,000 men, Camp Dodge, Iowa
- Uncle Sam, 19,000 officers and men, Camp Lee, Va.
- Woodrow Wilson, formed by 21,000 soldiers at Camp Sherman in Chillicothe, Ohio
- The U.S. shield, 30,000 officers and men, Camp Custer, Battle Creek, Mich.
According to a 1971 feature in Life, the men’s only compensation was “the base pay for the day, about $1, and the unique opportunity to write a letter home that began, ‘Dear Mom, today I was part of President Wilson’s left eyebrow.'”
Herman Sörgel thought big. In the 1920s the German architect proposed damming Gibraltar and draining the Mediterranean to unite Europe and Africa into a new supercontinent. The century-long project would create land, food, and power to support an industrial economy to rival those of Asia and the Americas, and it would provide Lebensraum in North Africa for an overpopulated Europe.
The Nazis had no interest in Sörgel’s idea, but he found support among leading engineers both before and after the war. In a Zürich speech in 1932, architect Erich Mendelsohn pressed for a supranational New Deal that would unite Europe in “productive technical world tasks,” and the Atlantropa Institute persisted until 1960, eight years beyond its founder’s death.
In 1977 Popular Mechanics evaluated the plan and found it would require a dam 18 miles long and up to 1,000 feet deep and 1,500 feet wide at its base. The volcanic Mediterranean seafloor, relieved of all that weight, might react in eruptions and earthquakes, and the sea level everywhere else in the world would rise by three feet. “Worst of all, England would no longer control the Straits of Gibraltar,” the editors concluded drily. “Well, you can’t have everything.”
The annexed drawing represents a pair of cat-fish, (a species of Silurus? L.) which were taken alive in a shrimp net, at the mouth of Cape Fear river, near Fort Johnston, N.C., in August, 1833, and presented to Professor Silliman. One of them is three and a half, the other two and a half, inches long, including the tail,–the smallest, emaciated and of sickly appearance. They are connected in the manner of the Siamese twins, by the skin at the breast, which is marked by a dark streak, at the line of union. The texture and color otherwise, of this skin is the same as that of the belly. The mouth, viscera, &c., were entire and perfect in each fish …
When these fish came into existence it is probable they were of almost equal size and strength, but one ‘born to better fortune,’ or exercising more ingenuity and industry, than the other, gained a trifling ascendency, which he improved to increase the disparity, and by pushing his extended mouth in advance of the other, seized the choicest and most of the food for himself. Yet though he probably hated the incumbrance of his companion, and wished the ‘marriage tie cut asunder,’ he afforded protection to his ‘weaker half,’ and could not eat it without swallowing himself.
— American Journal of Science and Arts, July 1834
On Aug. 4, 1913, a naked Joe Knowles walked into the forest of northwestern Maine. On Oct. 4 he walked out again wearing a bear skin. In the interval, he said, he’d spent two months living entirely by his wits in the wilderness.
The “modern primitive man” drew thousands at public appearances; Harvard physicians praised his conditioning; and his account of the adventure, Alone in the Wilderness, sold 300,000 copies.
“Any man of fair health could do the same thing, provided he meant business and kept his head,” Knowles wrote. “But, to the best of my knowledge, no other man in the history of civilization ever did what I did; and for that reason the people are marveling at it.”
Knowles’ exploit had been funded by the Boston Post, and in December the rival American claimed that he’d spent most of the time in a lakeside cabin. Knowles denied this vociferously, and he entered the woods twice more to prove it, funded by the American‘s parent. Without witnesses it’s hard to know who’s right; the truth, whatever it was, died with Knowles in 1942.
The following extraordinary accident occurred about five o’clock on the morning of Friday, the 14th of November, 1817, in Caermarthen: — As a drove of oxen were passing through Spilman-street, one of them strayed to the Castle-green, whence, in his headlong course, he fell over the precipice facing the bridge, upon a house, of which the inhabitants were asleep in bed. It will naturally be supposed, that the terror and alarm excited on the occasion were great. Fortunately, however, part of the roof fell in, while the ox was balancing athwart a beam, exactly over a bed, in which were two children, fast asleep, and who were awakened by a rafter falling upon the bed. The parents had hardly removed these poor children from their perilous situation, when the beam, giving way, fell with its burden upon the bed. Notwithstanding all the alarm and bustle created by this occurrence, we are happy to add, no personal injury was sustained on the occasion; and what is remarkable, the ox does not appear to have suffered materially from this extraordinary descent.
— Gloucester Herald-Times, Nov. 27, 1817
In Inverness in 1954, a cow escaped an auction market through an unsecured gate, climbed a stairway over a shop, fell through the floor, and in her struggles turned on a tap, which flooded the shop.
The shopkeeper sued the auctioneers, but the judge declared himself “forced to the conclusion that a gate-crashing, stair-climbing, floor-bursting, tap-turning cow is something sui generis, for whose depredations the law affords no remedy unless there was foreknowledge of some such propensities.”
John Albert Thompson was tending a ranch in the Sacramento Valley in 1856 when he heard that settlers in nearby Placerville were having difficulty getting mail to western Nevada during the winter months — when the Sierra Nevada filled up with snow, the journey seemed impossible.
Thompson had learned cross-country skiing in his native Norway and volunteered to make the trip. He proved so able that “Snowshoe Thompson” served as a one-man delivery service for the next 20 years. Carrying an 80-pound mailbag on his back and holding a pole for balance, he would typically make the 110-mile outbound trek in three days and return in two, subsisting on biscuits, dried meat, and snow.
“If I have my mackinaw,” he said, “I never freeze. Exercise keeps me warm. In fact, my problem even in blizzards is not to keep from freezing, but rather that I sweat too easily. I have never been cold in the mountains.” His sense of direction was unerring, and he regularly saved the lives of others who had become lost in the mountain passes. He died in 1876 after two decades of service, for which he was never paid.
In 1936, Missouri sculptor Lester Gaba created a plaster mannequin with such an “eerie, almost human quality” that for a bizarre few years she joined the society A-list. Gaba, “the Andy Warhol of his day,” squired her to parties at El Morocco and the Stork Club (above, with champagne cocktail); Harry Winston loaned her diamonds; and press photographers spotted her in the balcony of the Broadhurst Theatre and having her hair done at Saks Fifth Avenue. “Such is the state of mind of the café set,” reported Life, “that when a man broke her hand at a party a lady screamed, ‘You brute!'”
After six years of soirees, movie roles, and marriage proposals, Cynthia was shattered in a 1942 accident. By that time even Gaba was tired of the attention. “Cynthia had become a Frankenstein to me,” he said, “and I was rather relieved that she decided to — retire.”
A few years before World War I, Albert Marr discovered a baboon on his farm in Pretoria, South Africa. The two became such good friends that Marr took “Jackie” with him when he joined the Third South African Infantry Regiment, and the baboon became company mascot, with rations, a pay book, and his own uniform.
In August 1915 the two sailed for the war, where they saw front-line action against the Turks and Germans and participated in an Egyptian campaign. In 1916 Marr was hit in the Battle of Agagia, and the medical team arrived to find Jackie licking the wound.
Marr and Jackie were both wounded in April 1918, and Jackie’s leg was amputated, but he made a full recovery and was promoted to corporal and awarded a medal for valor. (In 1973 Marr showed Jackie’s discharge papers to a Johannesburg reporter. He was listed as “bilingual.”) In 1919 Jackie took part in a London victory procession, riding a captured howitzer. Then he retired to Marr’s farm, where he died in 1921.
In other baboon employment news, I’ve found some more details about Jack the monkey signalman, whom I first wrote about in 2005. In her 2007 book Baboon Metaphysics, University of Pennsylvania primatologist Dorothy L. Cheney confirms that in the late 1800s railway guard James “Jumper” Wide lost his feet in a train accident and sought help with his work as a signalman at Uitenhage on the line between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. He encountered a young baboon that had been trained to drive an ox wagon, bought him of his owner, and trained him to work as a signalman:
Each track was assigned a different number. If the driver gave one, two, or three blasts, Jack switched the signals in the appropriate manner, altering the direction of travel so that oncoming trains would not collide. If the driver gave four blasts, Jack collected the key to the coal shed and carried it out to the driver. His performance was so unerringly correct that he earned the name ‘Jack the Signalman.’
Cheney writes that when an astonished passenger complained, Jumper and Jack were dismissed, but then Jumper convinced the officials to test Jack’s skills rigorously, and he did so well that he was rehired and given daily rations and an employment number. He (Jack) died of tuberculosis in 1890.
Capt. Charles W. Oldrieve to-day accomplished the feat of walking on the water from Cincinnati to New Orleans, a distance of 1,600 miles, in forty days, lacking forty-five minutes, thereby winning a wager of $5,000.
Oldrieve met with an accident just before reaching the goal, at the head of Canal Street, that nearly cost him his life. His big wooden shoes suddenly slid outward and the water walker turned turtle. His wife, who accompanied him all the way in a rowboat, rescued the Captain.
Oldrieve left Cincinnati Jan. 1 at noon on a wager that he would walk to New Orleans in forty days. At the falls above Louisville he was delayed for twenty-four hours, and that time, it was agreed, should be allowed for. Oldrieve was in motion only during daylight, lying over every night at the various landings. He was equipped with shoes made of cedar 4 feet 5 inches long, 5 inches broad, and several inches deep. In a gasoline boat preceding the water walker were Capt. J.W. Weatherington of Dallas, Texas, who backed Oldrieve, and Arthur Jones, who represented Edward Williams of Boston, who laid the wager.
— New York Times, Feb. 11, 1907
In 1822, frontiersman Hugh Glass joined a corps of 100 “enterprising young men” to ascend the Missouri River on a fur-trapping expedition. At the Grand River he was attacked by a grizzly bear; he and his companions managed to kill it, but Glass was badly mauled. The expedition’s leader offered $40 for volunteers to remain with Glass until he died or could travel. The two men who accepted this charge, John Fitzgerald and Jim Bridger, waited a short interval and then simply took Glass’ belongings and rejoined the expedition, reporting that they’d buried the body.
Glass awoke mutilated, alone, and unprovisioned 200 miles from the nearest settlement. He crawled south for six weeks, foraging on berries, roots, and the carcasses of buffalo, before he reached the Cheyenne River, where he fashioned a raft and floated to Fort Kiowa on the Missouri. Then he set out to seek revenge.
He found Bridger on the Yellowstone near the mouth of the Bighorn River, and decided to spare him because of his youth (Bridger had been only 17 when he’d abandoned Glass). He found Fitzgerald at Fort Atkinson, where he was serving as a private in the Sixth Infantry. George Yount recounts the climax:
Glass found the recreant individual, who had so cruelly deserted him, when he lay helpless & torn so shockingly by the Grizzly Bear–He also there recovered his favorite Rifle–To the man he only addressed himself as he did to the boy– ‘Go false man & answer to your own conscience & to your God;–I have suffered enough in all reason by your perfidy–You was well paid to have remained with me until I should be able to walk–You promised to do so–or to wait my death & decently bury my remains–I heard the bargain–Your shameful perfidy & heartless cruelty–but enough–Again I say, settle the matter with your own conscience & your God.’
He told Fitzgerald’s commanding officer, “I reckon the skunk ain’t worth shooting after all.”
During the Civil War, the 8th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment had a particularly patriotic mascot — a bald eagle. Named for the commander-in-chief of the Union Army, “Old Abe” accompanied his regiment into battle at the Second Battle of Corinth and the Siege of Vicksburg, screaming at the enemy and spreading his wings. Apparently he was a bit of a ham — in September 1861 the Eau Claire Free Press reported:
When the regiment marched into Camp Randall, the instant the men began to cheer, he spread his wings, and taking one of the small flags attached to his perch in his beak, he remained in that position until borne to the quarters of the late Col. Murphy.
After the war Old Abe resided in the state capitol, where he died in a fire in 1881. Today he lives on in the insignia of the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division.
Sir.–I have recently, on a visit to Mr. Gee’s plantation three miles south of Quincy, Gadsden county, in this territory, observed a natural curiosity, the following description of which may be interesting to you and many of the readers of the American Journal of Arts and Science.
It is a yellow pine tree bearing another in a perfectly healthful and flourishing state, like itself and those in the woods around them. The trees, as represented in this sketch, are united about thirty five feet from the ground, where they entwine around each other. The one that is borne, (marked A,) extends down, to within about two feet of the ground, and is alive and healthful to its lowest extremity.
These trees have been, in the condition in which they now are, for a period longer back than the first settlement of the country by the present population. They were pointed out by the Indians as a curiosity to the first Americans who came to Florida. The stump of the tree which is borne, has long since disappeared, and the place which it occupied, is now grown up in small bushes and grass.
— Lt. George W. Long, Tallahassee, Fla., in American Journal of Science and Arts, July 1834
The pastoral farm of Dalgonar is situated near the source of the Skarr Water, in the parish of Penpont, Dumfriesshire. The ridge of hills on the farm as per Ordnance Survey is 1580 feet above sea-level. There are only five trees on the farm–two ash and three larch. An extraordinary occurrence presented itself to the eyes of Mr. Wright, my informant, at the end of October 1889, on this farm, which has been narrated to me in a letter received from him, as follows:–
‘I was struck by a strange appearance in the atmosphere, which I at first mistook for a flock of birds, but as I saw them falling to the earth my curiosity was quickened. Fixing my eyes on one of the larger of them, and running about 100 yards up the hill until directly underneath, I awaited its arrival, when I found it to be an oak leaf. Looking upwards the air was thick with them, and as they descended in an almost vertical direction, oscillating and glittering in the sunshine, the spectacle was as beautiful as rare. The wind was from the north, blowing a very gentle breeze, and there were occasional showers of rain.
‘On examination of the hills after the leaves had fallen, it was found that they covered a tract of about a mile wide and two miles long. The leaves were wholly those of the oak. No oak trees grow in clumps together nearer than eight miles. The aged shepherd, who has been on the farm since 1826, never witnessed a similar occurrence.’
— James Shaw, Tynron School, Dumfriesshire, in Nature, Oct. 30, 1890
In 1928, to capitalize on the nation’s enthusiasm for marathons, sports promoter C.C. Pyle proposed “the world’s greatest single athletic project”: a 3,400-mile footrace from Los Angeles to New York City.
Pyle stressed that the winner “must have guts and stamina,” and this proved to be an understatement. Of the 200 runners who showed up at the start on March 4, 77 had quit by the end of the first day, and only 91 remained by early April. “His left ankle was swollen to twice its normal size,” said the wife of Illinois’ Frank Johnson, who dropped out after 900 miles. “His lips were cracked so badly he bled when he tried to eat.”
But the race wore on, and on May 26, 55 exhausted runners stumbled into New York, where Oklahoma’s Andy Payne took first place with a time of 573 hours, 4 minutes, and 34 seconds. He’d won $25,000 and worn out five pairs of rubber-soled canvas shoes.
Payne paid off the mortgage on his family’s farm and went on to serve as clerk of the Oklahoma supreme court for 38 years. “One can’t be an athlete all his life, but he can use the same desire that made him,” he said. “For clean living, for love of God and country.”
Extract from the logbook of the ship Leonidas, sailing from New York toward Le Havre, May 1817, latitude 44°6′ north; cited in American Journal of Science, April 1820:
First part of the day light variable winds and cloudy; at two P.M. on the larboard quarter, at the distance of about half the ship’s length, saw a strange fish. Its lower parts were like a fish; its belly was all white; the top of the back brown, and there was the appearance of short hair as far as the top of its head. From the breast upwards, it had a near resemblance to a human being and looked upon the observers very earnestly; as it was but a short distance from the ship, all the afternoon, we had a good opportunity to observe its motions and shape. No one on board ever saw the like fish, before; all believe it to be a Mermaid.
The second mate Mr. Stevens, an intelligent young man, told me the face was nearly white, and exactly like that of a human person; that its arms were about half as long as his, with hands resembling his own; that it stood erect out of the water about two feet, looking at the ship and sails with great earnestness. It would remain in this attitude, close along side, ten or fifteen minutes at a time, and then dive and appear on the other side. It remained around them about six hours. Mr. Stevens also stated that its hair was black on the head and exactly resembled a man’s; that below the arms, it was a perfect fish in form, and that the whole length from the head to the tail about five feet.
“Communicated by Mr. Elisha Lewis of New-Haven, a respectable merchant.”
While discharging a fare of codfish from the schooner Vinnie M. Getchell, at Gloucester, Mass., on September 15, 1886, Capt. John Q. Getchell, master of the vessel, found imbedded in the thick flesh of a large cod a knife of curious workmanship represented by the accompanying illustration. …
The fish in which the knife was found was one of a fare caught in 75 fathoms of water on the northeast part of George’s Bank; it was apparently healthy, being thick and ‘well-fed,’ and according to Captain Getchell, would weigh about 40 pounds after being split, or say 60 pounds as it came from the water. The general excellent quality of the fare of fish attracted considerable attention from people who saw them, and led to the discovery of the knife. Some remarks having been made concerning the fish, Captain Getchell lifted several of them from a tub (where they had been thrown to wash after being weighed) and exhibited them to the by-standers, commenting on the size and thickness of the specimens. Holding one across the edge of the tub in a semi curved position, he ran his hand over the thicker portion of the fish to call attention to its fatness. In doing so, he felt something hard beneath his fingers, and further examination produced the knife. Of course much surprise was expressed by those present, who had never before seen such a strangely formed implement, and speculation was rife as to how it came there. When found, the knife-blade was closed, and the small or posterior end of the handle was the part first felt by Captain Getchell, and was nearest the tail of the fish.
The handle of the knife is of brass, curved and tapering posteriorly, with a longitudinal incision, on the concave side, to receive the edge of the blade. The handle is remarkable in form, and is suggestive of the handiwork of some savage tribe or the scrimshaw work of a sailor. … The blade is lanceolate in form, with the cutting edge curved outward, to fit into the handle, and the back nearly straight. … The total length, from point to point in a straight line, is 6 1/4 inches.
— Bulletin of the United States Fish Commission, Dec. 31, 1886
It’s one thing to shoot a bear, another to take its dignity. From a feature on “animal furniture” in Strand, August 1896:
“This obsequious-looking bear was shot in Russia by no less a personage than the Prince of Wales; and for years it has ‘waited’ meekly in the smoking-room at Marlborough House.”
Evidently this was the vogue in the 1860s. Further examples:
- A chair made from a baby giraffe shot in British East Africa
- A pet monkey converted into a candle holder (“Mr. Jamrach, the famous wild beast importer, was vexed with orders for dead monkeys”)
- A black swan table lamp, made to order for a wealthy Australian gentleman
- A “tiger chair” made for a gentleman in the Indian Civil Service (“Observe the ingenious way in which the tail is disposed, as though the tiger were coiled right round the chair”)
- A small elephant made into a hall porter’s chair
Gandhi would later write, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”
Babies were featured in carnival sideshows in the early 20th century, as part of a campaign by German pediatrician Martin Couney to introduce incubators to the public. He had started at the World Exposition in Berlin in 1896, displaying premature babies borrowed from a local charity hospital, then moved to London the following year. The Lancet expressed some misgivings about associating babies with carnival showmen, but it supported Couney’s exhibit and the principle of incubation.
Couney moved to the United States in 1903 and displayed babies at Coney Island every summer for 40 years. Because he charged the parents nothing, the exhibition brought the expensive procedure within reach of needy families, saving hundreds of lives as it educated the public. “Dr. Couney’s Baby Farm” remained open until 1943, shortly after Cornell University opened the city’s first neonatal unit, and a number of adults who had been treated there met regularly in New York.
Catherine de Medicis (queen of France) made a vow that if some concerns which she had undertaken terminated successfully, she would send a pilgrim to Jerusalem, who would walk there, and every three steps he advanced, he should go one back at every third step. It was doubtful whether there could be found a man sufficiently strong to go on foot, and of sufficient patience to go back one step at every third. A citizen of Verberie offered himself, and promised to accomplish the queen’s vow most scrupulously. The queen accepted his offer, and promised him an adequate recompence. He fulfilled his engagement with the greatest exactness, of which the queen was well assured by constant enquiries.
— William Granger, The New Wonderful Museum, and Extraordinary Magazine, 1804