The Isdal Woman

On Nov. 29, 1970, on a remote hiking trail in Norway’s Isdalen Valley, a university professor and his two daughters discovered the body of a woman lying in a burned-out campfire. In the grass around her were a dozen pink sleeping pills, a packed lunch, an empty quart bottle of liqueur, and two plastic bottles that smelled of gasoline. She had died from a combination of burns and carbon monoxide poisoning, and an autopsy showed traces of at least 50 sleeping pills in her body. Her neck bore a bruise, possibly the result of a blow.

In the ensuing investigation, Bergen police found that the woman had visited the city three times between March and November that year. On the last visit she had checked into the Hotel Rosenkrantz for one day, then moved to the Hotel Holberg, where she had remained in her room and seemed watchful. On Nov. 23 she paid cash for the room and asked the receptionist to call a taxi for her. Her body was found six days later.

Her identity was an insoluble puzzle. She had checked into the Holberg as a Belgian named Elisabeth Leenhower, but police discovered that she had maintained at least nine different identities and spoke German, English, Dutch, and French, all with an indistinct accent. She had left two suitcases in a locker at the train station, but all identifying information had been removed: The labels had been cut out of her clothes, and even the name tag of a bottle of cream had been scraped away. Sketches of the woman were circulated throughout Norway, but no one knew her.

After interviewing 100 people in a three-week investigation, the police formally ruled her death a suicide. On Feb. 5, 1971, a procession of 18 officers bore her to the cemetery where she lies today. Her identity has never been discovered.

See The Somerton Man.

Big Time

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

Some notable clock faces: the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company Tower in Manhattan (upper left), the Palace of Westminster in London (upper right), the Allen-Bradley Clock Tower in Milwaukee (lower left), the Spasskaya Tower at the Kremlin (lower right), and the Abraj Al Bait tower in Mecca (center).

Unbelievably, these are shown to scale. Each of the four faces on the Abraj Al Bait is 43 meters square; the minute hand alone is 22 meters long.

The Palace of Westminster is unusual in that its clock uses the numeral IV — most clocks with Roman numerals use IIII in the fourth position, for unclear reasons.

The Pyramid Cemetery

willson pyramid

In 1830, architect Thomas Willson proposed housing London’s dead in a gigantic pyramid, “a metropolitan cemetery on a scale commensurate with the necessities of the largest city in the world, embracing prospectively the demands of centuries, sufficiently capacious to receive 5,000,000 of the dead, where they may repose in perfect security, without interfering with the comfort, the health, the business, the property, or the pursuits of the living.”

Willson’s necropolis would have covered 18 acres but would consolidate graves that would require 50 times that space in a conventional graveyard. With a base the size of Russell Square and a height greater than St. Paul’s, its granite-faced bulk would surpass the great pyramid of Giza. Through an Egyptian portal visitors would enter a surrounding enclosure decorated with statuary, cenotaphs, and monuments, as well as a chapel, a register office, and dwellings for the keeper, the clerk, the sexton, and the superintendent. They could ascend any side of the pyramid by a vast flight of stairs, at the top reaching an obelisk crowned with an observatory.

“This grand mausoleum,” Willson announced, “will go far towards completing the glory of London. It will rise in majesty over its splendid fanes and lofty towers,–teaching the living to die, and the dying to live for ever.” The cost he estimated at £2.5 million, but with 30,000 interments per year at £5 each, the pyramid would bring in £150,000 per year, saving £12.5 million over the course of a century in a project whose necessity, sadly, was certain to endure.

“However, the pyramid cemetery, instead of rearing its gloomy mountain-side into the clouds, and casting the shadow of death over every part of London in succession in the course of the day, exists only upon paper,” runs a contemporary report. “The dividends were too remote, and joint-stock people would not wait one hundred years for one hundred per cent.”

(Thanks, Ron.)

Tit for Tat

On March 19, 1884, the French cargo ship Frigorifique was cruising through heavy fog in the Bay of Biscay when the British steamer Rumney loomed out of nowhere and struck it amidships. The French crew scrambled aboard the Rumney, and their own ship disappeared into the fog.

Some time later, while the injured Rumney was still lowering its boats, another ship hove out of the fog and struck it amidships. This proved to be the empty Frigorifique — her jammed rudder had led her in a great circle through the fog to return for a second collision.

Both ships sank this time, but the crews escaped safely in the Rumney‘s lifeboats.

Light Work

If a pane of green glass gives the things behind it a green colour, it turns white to green, red to black, yellow to greenish yellow, blue to greenish blue. The white pane should, therefore, make everything whitish, i.e. it should make everything pale; and, then why shouldn’t it turn black to grey? — Even a yellow glass makes things darker, should a white glass make things darker too?

— Wittgenstein, Remarks on Colour, 1977

‘Our Second Experiment,’ the Professor announced, as Bruno returned to his place, still thoughtfully rubbing his elbows, ‘is the production of that seldom-seen-but-greatly-to-be-admired phenomenon, Black Light! You have seen White Light, Red Light, Green Light, and so on: but never, till this wonderful day, have any eyes but mine seen Black Light! This box,’ carefully lifting it upon the table, and covering it with a heap of blankets, ‘is quite full of it. The way I made it was this — I took a lighted candle into a dark cupboard and shut the door. Of course the cupboard was then full of Yellow Light. Then I took a bottle of Black ink, and poured it over the candle: and, to my delight, every atom of the Yellow Light turned Black! That was indeed the proudest moment of my life! Then I filled a box with it. And now would any one like to get under the blankets and see it?’

— Lewis Carroll, Sylvie and Bruno Concluded, 1893

The Bat Bomb

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Pennsylvania dentist Lytle S. Adams had a bright idea in 1942: Since Japanese cities were largely built of paper, bamboo, and other flammable materials, they could be disrupted effectively with fire. And a novel way to spread fire in public buildings would be to release bats bearing incendiary devices. Rigged bats dropped over an industrial city would roost in the buildings as living time bombs, and the resulting fires would spread chaos over a wide area.

Surprisingly, the government liked the idea, and it set about designing a bomblike canister in which a thousand bats could be dropped from an altitude of 5,000 feet. At 1,000 feet the container would open, releasing the bats over a wide area. Ten bombers carrying 100 canisters each could unleash a million intelligent bombs over the industrial cities of Osaka Bay.

Preliminary tests were encouraging, even setting a New Mexico air base accidentally ablaze, but the project evolved too slowly and was eventually eclipsed by the atom bomb. In a way that’s a shame: “Think of thousands of fires breaking out simultaneously over a circle of 40 miles in diameter for every bomb dropped,” Adams had said. “Japan could have been devastated, yet with small loss of life.”

Dolphin Rescues

In the summer of 1978, four men rowed a small boat into the deep water off Dassen Island, South Africa, to fish for barracuda. When mist overtook them, they weighed anchor and tried to return to shore, but visibility dropped so quickly that they were soon lost.

Mac Macgregor was in the bow, trying to peer through the mist, when he felt a bump on the right-hand side and discovered two dolphins there, repeatedly forcing the bow to the left, where two more dolphins were swimming.

“I realized that the dolphins’ odd behavior could be significant and shouted to Mr. [Kobus] Stander to steer to the left,” Macgregor said. “Mr. Stander pulled the tiller round wildly and we just managed to graze past the rocks.”

They continued some further distance through the mist, the dolphins continuing to force the prow to the left, and presently they just missed some further rocks — again on the right. “I was getting a strange feeling that we ought to leave our destiny to the dolphins,” Stander said, “since it was clear they had twice prevented us from running on to the rocks.”

The dolphins led the boat for half an hour until it entered calm water, then played around it briefly and disappeared. “When the mist cleared and the houses of Ysterfontein could be discerned, we were speechless,” Stander said. “We had intended going ashore at Dassen Island. We had never dreamed that the dolphins would guide us to Ysterfontein.”

In 1972, when her cabin cruiser sank in the Indian Ocean off Mozambique, a South African woman set out to swim the 25 miles to land. She was trailed by half a dozen sharks, attracted by a cut on her foot. But “as the sharks circled closer … two dolphins appeared at her side,” the New York Times reported. “The young woman, Yvonne Vladislavich, said that the dolphins guarded her against marauding sharks, escorted her as she swam and helped her stay afloat when her strength was failing.” They protected her until she was able to climb onto a buoy, from which she was later rescued.

(“Dolphins Rescue Fishermen,” South African Panorama, August 1978; “South African Reports a Rescue by Dolphins,” New York Times, Sept. 10, 1972.)