I send you what I regard as one of the most remarkable signatures ever devised by a writer. It is one which I have seen on hundreds of Government papers at Washington, D.C., where the man who uses it was for some years Expert Computer of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey and Astronomer of the Carnegie Institution. His name is Herman S. Davis, and he writes it as here shown. This signature is easily made with two swift strokes of the pen, and is not a mere monogram of initials, for it contains the full name, H.S. Davis, and also the year, month, and day of his birth — namely, 8.6.68. It has the further remarkable quality of being so symmetrical as to read exactly the same viewed upside down. — Mr. Russell Lang, Pittsburg, Pa., U.S.A.
– Strand, December 1908
As a mason, at a village near Kirkaldy, in Scotland, was dressing a barley millstone from a large block, after cutting away a part, he found a lizard imbedded in the stone. It was about an inch and a quarter long, of a brownish yellow colour, and had a round head, with bright, sparkling, projecting eyes. It was apparently dead; but after being about five minutes exposed to the air, it showed signs of life, and soon after ran about with much celerity; after half an hour, it was brushed off the stone and killed. There were about 14 feet of earth above the rock, and the block in which the lizard was found was seven or eight feet deep in the rock; so that the whole depth of the animal from the surface was 21 or 22 feet. The stone had no fissure, was quite hard, and one of the best to be got from the quarry of Cullaloe, reckoned perhaps the first in Scotland.
– Kaleidoscope, Aug. 14, 1821
A strangely “costless” ambiguity: The H and the A are identical, but most people can read this phrase without effort.
From The Strand, July 1908:
“If you ask what Fig. 1 represents, nine people out of ten will tell you that it is a triangular piece of wood fastened to a folding screen on the inside, or something to that effect. It represents in reality a solid rectangular block of wood, with a notch cut in one side. Fig. 2 shows the view looking in the direction of the arrow, the position of the notch being shown by the dotted lines.”
The first conscript in World War II was the son of the first conscript in World War I.
Alden C. Flagg Jr., of Boston, held the first number drawn in the U.S. peacetime draft lottery of 1940.
His father, Alden C. Flagg, had drawn the first number in the draft of 1917.
From Kirby’s Wonderful and Eccentric Museum (1820), the long-tailed stallion of Augustus II, king of Poland:
The tail and mane of this horse, exhibit an extraordinary rarity, and excite a doubt whether they may not have been the effect of some artificial means: otherwise, how happens it that the hair of no other animal of this species, should have attained such a wonderful length? The stuffed hide of this horse is preserved in the armoury at Dresden; the colour is cream pye-balled, the length of the mane is nine ells, and of the tail twelve. This horse belonged to Augustus II, king of Poland, who rode him only on extraordinary occasions, when the mane was borne by pages, and the tail by grooms; when he stood in the stable, his hair was tied up in bags.
A singular establishment exists in Russia–the imperial hotel for old worn-out horses, built in the park of Tzarkoe Selo, for the reception of animals employed in the service of the emperor. A special cemetery is annexed to the building, and tombstones record the names of the horses buried, those of the sovereigns who had ridden them, as well as the battles and memorable events at which the animals had been present.
– The Veterinarian, June 1862
When Tamara Rabi arrived at Hofstra University in 2003, strangers would smile, wave, and greet her as if they knew her. Finally a friend told her she looked just like Adriana Scott, another 20-year-old at a neighboring college. Both women had been born in Mexico, both were adopted, and both had the same birthday.
It turned out the two were identical twins who had been separated at birth in Guadalajara, adopted independently by New York families, and raised as only children 25 miles apart, Adriana in a Roman Catholic household on Long Island and Tamara with a Jewish family in Manhattan.
When they were reunited, both were studying psychology, both wore the same silver hoop earrings, and both remembered the same childhood dream. “We have the same mannerisms, the same interests, the same grades in school,” Adriana said.
Curiously, both adoptive fathers had died of cancer. What does that mean?
In 1989, a Philadelphia financial analyst visited a flea market in Adamstown, Pa., spotted an old painting whose frame he liked, and purchased it for $4.
When he removed the frame, he found a folded document between the picture canvas and the wood backing. And the document appeared to be the Declaration of Independence.
It was. He had discovered an original printing of the Declaration from its first printing in 1776. Sotheby’s auctioned it for $2.42 million in 1991, then again for $8.14 million in 2000.
“This was how Congress voted to disseminate the news of independence,” said Sotheby’s vice chairman David Redden. “So it was printed up from Thomas Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration and then sent around by couriers to the armies in the field, to the newly independent colonies, to the committees of public safety, and surely to the British, too.”
How it got into the painting is unknown.
From the American Journal of Science: In November 1829, a 30-cubic-foot block of marble was raised from a quarry northwest of Philadelphia and taken to a Norristown sawmill to be cut into slabs.
“One was taken off about three feet wide and about six feet long, and in the body of the marble, exposed by the cutting, was immediately discovered an indentation, about one and a half inches long and about five eighths of an inch wide, in which were the two raised characters” (left).
“Fortunately, several of the most respectable gentlemen residing in Norristown were called upon to witness this remarkable phenomenon, without whose testimony it might have been difficult, if not impossible, to have satisfied the public, that an imposition had not been practised by cutting the indentation and carving the letters after the slab was cut off.”
No explanation is offered. The block had been raised from a depth of 60-70 feet in the quarry.
In 1744, 11-year-old Matthew Daking of Yorkshire emerged from a fever with such a ravenous appetite that “if he was not fed as he called out for it, he would gnaw the very flesh off his own bones.” When Matthew was awake, he was devouring food — though “it can hardly be said eating, because nothing passes his stomach, all is thrown up again.”
Here’s a sample of his diet, as reported in the Philosophical Transactions — an incredible 384 pounds of food in six days:
This continued for more than a year, with Matthew losing strength as his appetite grew. Eventually he lost the use of his legs. “He is sometimes so hungry, that he says he could eat them all,” reported Dr. J. Cookson. “He often wishes he were in the king’s kitchen.” He died a few months later, “quite emaciated.”
London had a curious visitor in the 17th century: Francis Battalia, an Italian said to subsist on stones. “His manner is to put three or four stones into a spoon, and so putting them into his mouth together, he swallows them all down one after another; then (first spitting) he drinks a glass of beer after them,” wrote John Bulwer in his Artificial Changeling of 1650. “He devours about half a peck of these stones every day, and when he chinks upon his stomach, or shakes his body, you may hear the stones rattle as if they were in a sack.”
A Dutch ship discovered a second stone eater on a northern island in 1757 and brought him to Avignon, where a Father Paulian declared himself “fully convinced that he is no cheat.” And in 1788 London exhibited a third such man, “the most Wonderful Phenomenon of the Age, who GRINDS and SWALLOWS STONES, &c.,” “subsisting on pebble flints, tobacco pipes, and mineral excrescences.”
What accounts for this? In Miracle Mongers and Their Methods (1920), Houdini wrote, “I watched several performances of one of these chaps who swallowed half a hatful of stones, nearly the size of hen’s eggs, and then jumped up and down to make them rattle in his stomach. I could discover no fake in the performance, and I finally gave him two and six for his secret, which was simple enough. He merely took a dose of powerful physic to clear himself of the stones, and was then ready for the next performance.” Draw your own conclusions.
In 2008, researchers at Oxford University found that subjects could reduce pain and swelling in an injured hand by viewing it through reversed binoculars.
Conversely, a magnified injury was more painful. “If it looks bigger, it looks sorer,” said physiologist G. Lorimer Moseley. “Therefore the brain acts to protect it.”
If you’re not doing anything next spring, head to Nederland, Colo., to celebrate Frozen Dead Guy Days, a three-day festival commemorating Bredo Morstoel, whose body is packed in dry ice in a Tuff Shed in the hills above town.
Bredo’s grandson Trygve Bauge imported the corpse from Norway in 1989 and stored it in liquid nitrogen; when Trygve was deported in 1993 and his mother evicted from her home, local businesses pitched in to keep the body preserved.
The annual festival includes coffin races (above), a hearse parade, lookalike contests, an ice-carving demonstration, documentaries (Grandpa’s in the Tuff Shed and Grandpa’s Still in the Tuff Shed), frozen turkey bowling, showshoe races, and snow sculpture contests. Nearby Glacier Ice Cream has even concocted a commemorative flavor, Frozen Dead Guy.
Bredo has been dead now for 20 years; psychics report he’s amused by all this but doing fine.
From The Strand, August 1909:
“This is a photograph, taken by myself last year, of an old London horse omnibus that I found on the prairie on the outskirts of the City of Calgary, Alberta, Western Canada. It had been stripped of its outside seats, and bore such announcements as: ‘Over Waterloo Bridge,’ ‘Camden Town,’ ‘Old Kent Road,’ ‘The Dun Cow,’ etc. It still bore the name of the original owner, a Mr. French, of London. I have come across many discarded London omnibuses in out-of-the-way villages, etc., in this country, but I never expected to find one six thousand miles away from the Metropolis. — Mr. Henry Pope, 437, Fulham Palace Road, London, S.W.”
The National Weather Service issued a worrisome advisory on Dec. 17, 2003:
Unusually hot weather has entered the region for December … as the Earth has left its orbit and is hurtling towards the sun. Unusually hot weather will occur for at least the next several days as the Earth draws ever nearer to the sun. Therefore, an excessive heat watch has been posted.
The alert, which appeared on NOAA’s website, turned out to be a test message posted accidentally during a training session. By midafternoon it had been removed and a correction posted.
In December 2005, tired of endless credit-card offers, West Hollywood realtor Gary More scrawled NEVER WASTE A TREE across one application and mailed it in.
Chase Visa issued a card to “Never Waste Tree.”
He cut it up.
More notable errors in the New York Times:
- “A report misidentified the document on which John Hancock put his famous prominent signature. It was the Declaration of Independence, not the Constitution.” (July 14, 1985)
- “An article about Ivana Trump and her spending habits misstated the number of bras she buys. It is two dozen black, two dozen beige and two dozen white, not two thousand of each.” (Oct. 22, 2000)
- “A recipe for juniper-flavored gravlax misstated the amount of kosher salt. It is one-half cup, not four cups.” (Nov. 26, 2000)
- “A report in the ‘Sunday’ pages included erroneous data from the Farmer’s Almanac about occurrences of full moons. The last month with no full moon was February 1980, not February 1866. The next month without a full moon will be February 1999, not some month 2.5 million years from now.” (Feb. 25, 1996)
- “An article misstated the title of the 1955 film that made James Dean a star. It is ‘Rebel Without a Cause,’ not ‘Rebel With a Cause.’” (May 8, 2000)
See also Erratum.
Writing in Psychological Review in 1917, Berkeley psychologist George Stratton reported the startling achievements of Jewish scholars known as Shass Pollaks, who would memorize the entire Babylonian Talmud — not just the text, but the position of every word on every page:
“A pin would be placed on a word, let us say, the fourth word in line eight; the memory sharp would then be asked what word is in the same spot on page thirty-eight or fifty or any other page; the pin would be pressed through the volume until it reached page thirty eight or page fifty or any other page designated; the memory sharp would then mention the word and it was found invariably correct. He had visualized in his brain the whole Talmud; in other words, the pages of the Talmud were photographed on his brain. It was one of the most stupendous feats of memory I have ever witnessed and there was no fake about it.”
Stratton also quotes Judge Mayer Sulzberger of Philadelphia, who had seen a Shass Pollak put down a pencil at random in the Talmud and immediately name the word on which it had lighted.
These achievements, Stratton wrote, “should be stored among the data long and still richly gathering for the study of extraordinary feats of memory.”
Ben Greenblatt, popular piano stylist, has played for every kind of society party, but this week marked the first time that his audience consisted of monkeys. He ‘gave’ at the Philadelphia Zoological Gardens just to see how the chimpanzees would react to his Steinway. …
Checking upon the reaction of animals to music has been tried periodically ever since the zoo opened its gates 70 years ago. Once an elephant nearly sprayed a jazz band with a trunkful of water, and on another occasional Tommy Dorsey nearly lost his trombone when an inquisitive chimpanzee tried to take it apart to see what made it tick.
– Billboard, April 1, 1944
Every year, thousands of tourists pass through Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, and many collect sand or rocks as souvenirs. And every year, thousands of people mail them back, reporting mysterious misfortunes:
- “Please return to soil. I have been having bad luck.”
- “Ever since we have taken items, we have had nothing but back luck and medical problems. We apologize for taking items, so we are returning same to Hawaii.”
- “We placed the rock last fall on a cast iron chair in our garden, this spring the chair’s leg had fallen off. This is the least of the problems we have had since we have taken the rock.”
- “I must be cursed! Please, whatever the legend, curse or folklore is, please put these rocks back on a beach for me. I do not want one more stroke of fate to push me over the edge.”
According to legend, the volcano goddess Pele punishes those who steal from her. Timothy Murray took home some sand in 1997, and his pet died, his fiancee left him, he started to drink, and the FBI arrested him in a copyright infringement case. “One minute you’re working and you’re law-abiding and you’ve got money in the bank,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle. “The next minute you are sitting in a federal penitentiary in Miami.”
“People need something to blame their troubles on,” says local postmaster Dave Kell, who notes that much of what is sent back is not even from Hawaii. “They bring this stuff on themselves.”
What does he know? If the fire goddess is oppressing you, mail your guilty rock to this return service and they’ll wrap it in a ti leaf and return it to Pele with a propitiating orchid. Better safe than sorry.
Cincinnati has a subway. Or, rather, the abortive beginnings of one. The digging began in 1920, when streetcars couldn’t keep up with the city’s growing population. But cost overruns and the advent of the automobile gradually turned it into a white elephant. In all, seven miles were prepared, but no cars were ever ordered.
In the years since 1925, when construction stopped, the empty tunnel has been proposed for use as an air-raid shelter, a storage area, a mall, a film set, a wind tunnel, and a wine cellar, but none of these received approval. Instead the entrances have been sealed with concrete, and it remains simply the nation’s largest abandoned subway tunnel.
If enough time passes, perhaps it will be forgotten entirely. Intriguingly, this has happened before.
In 1987, University of Illinois freshman Mike Hayes wrote to Chicago Tribune columnist Bob Greene with a modest proposal: that each of Greene’s readers contribute a penny to finance his education.
“Just one penny,” he told Greene. “A penny doesn’t mean anything to anyone. If everyone who is reading your column looks around the room right now, there will be a penny under the couch cushion, or on the corner of the desk, or on the floor. That’s all I’m asking. A penny from each of your readers.”
Greene published the appeal in 200 newspapers via his syndicated column — and Hayes received 77,000 letters and enough pennies to break his bank’s coin-counting machine three times. He easily reached his goal of $28,000, enough for four years of tuition, room and board, and books.
He graduated with a degree in food science. Asked why the scheme worked, he said, “I didn’t ask for a lot of money. I just asked for money from a lot of people.”
In 1871, a Norwegian seal hunter discovered a wooden hut on Novaya Zemlya in the Arctic Ocean. In it he found clothing, cooking pots, a tool chest, a clock, a flute, a cooking tripod, and several pictures.
It was the lodge of Willem Barentsz, who had passed the winter there in 1597 while seeking a northern route to China. Barentsz had died on the return journey, and the hut had stood for 270 years, awaiting rediscovery.
According to an 1877 report, later investigations recovered Barents’ quill pen, a translation of a work on seamanship printed in 1580, “some candles nearly 280 years old, but still capable of giving light” — and “the Amsterdam flag, the first European colour that passed a winter in the Arctic region.”