“An Extraordinary Pilgrimage”

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

Strange Weather

An optical illusion or mirage was seen by three or four farmers a few miles from this city a few days since, the appearance of which no one is able philosophically to account for. The facts are these: A gentleman, while plowing in a field with several others, about 7 P.M., happened to glance toward the sky, which was cloudless, and saw apparently, about half a mile off in a westerly direction, an opaque substance, resembling a white horse, with head, neck, limbs, and tail clearly defined, swimming in the clear atmosphere. It appeared to be moving its limbs as if engaged in swimming, moving its head from side to side, always ascending at an angle of about 45°. He rubbed his eyes to convince himself that he was not dreaming, and looked again; but there it still was, still apparently swimming and ascending in ether. He called to the men, about 100 yards off, and told them to look up, and tell him what they saw. They declared they saw a white horse swimming in the sky, and were badly frightened. Our informant, neither superstitious nor nervous, sat down and watched the phantasm, (if we may so call it,) until is disappeared in space, always going in the same direction, and moving in the same manner. No one can account for the mirage, or illusion, except upon the uneven state of the atmosphere. Illusions of a different appearance have been seen at different times, in the same vicinity, frightening the superstitious and laughed at by the skeptical.

— Telegram from Parkersburg, W.Va., to the Cincinnati Commercial, reprinted in the New York Times, July 8, 1878

Some Enchanted Evening

A communication in the Naturalist some time ago in regard to musical mice, prepared me for a phenomenon which recently came under my observation, which otherwise would have astonished me beyond conception. I was sitting a few evenings since, not far from a half-open closet door, when I was startled by a sound issuing from the closet, of such marvellous beauty that I at once asked my wife how Bobbie Burns (our canary) had found his way into the closet, and what could start him to singing such a queer and sweet song in the dark. I procured a light and found it to be a mouse! He had filled an over-shoe from a basket of pop-corn which had been popped and placed in the closet in the morning. Whether this rare collection of food inspired him with song I know not, but I had not the heart to disturb his corn, hoping to hear from him again. Last night his song was renewed. I approached with a subdued light and with great caution, and had the pleasure of seeing him sitting among his corn and singing his beautiful solo. I observed him without interruption for ten minutes, not over four feet from him. His song was not a chirp, but a continuous song of musical tone, a kind of to-wit-to-wee-woo-woo-wee-woo, quite varied in pitch. While observing him I took for granted that he was the common house-mouse (Mus musculus), but when he sprang from the shoe to make his escape he appeared like the prairie mouse (Hesperomys Michiganensis), a species I had not, however, observed before indoors. I have thus far failed to secure this little rodent musician, but shall continue to do all I can in the way of pop-corn to entertain him, and if his marvellous voice gives him the preëminence in mousedom which he deserves, by the aid of Natural Selection I shall presently have a chorus of mice, in which case you shall receive their first visit.

— W.O. Hiskey, Minneapolis, Minn., in American Naturalist, May 1871

Local Showers

TOPEKA, Kan., Nov. 17.–The story of a wonderful phenomenon comes from Rossville, a little town nineteen miles west of Topeka on the Union Pacific. For nineteen days, it is said, rain fell incessantly on the orchard belonging to H. Klein, a prominent Rossville resident.

This orchard is in the town, and is bounded on the east by Mr. Klein’s residence, on the other three sides by lines of fences shutting off cultivated fields. The rain did not fall outside of Mr. Klein’s premises, but for nineteen days there was no intermission in the fall, and it was only stopped by the present cold snap. What caused this persistent rain over one orchard, when other orchards in the immediate neighborhood were needing water and not getting it, is puzzling the people of that village. Several hundred people witnessed the phenomenon, and the rainfall is the local sensation at Rossville.

New York Times, Nov. 18, 1891

“Deer Have a Deep Sense of Wrong”

Animals of the deer tribe seem to have a deep sense of any wrong done to any member belonging to them, and to show a determined disposition to avenge that wrong at the first opportunity. Captain Brown states that, ‘At Wonersh, near Guildford, the seat of Lord Grantley, a fawn was drinking in the lake, when one of the swans suddenly flew upon it and pulled it into the water, where it held it under until it was drowned. This act of atrocity was noticed by the other deer in the park, and they took care to revenge it the first opportunity. A few days after, this swan, happening to be on land, was surrounded and attacked by the whole herd, and presently killed. Before this time they were never known to attack the swans.’

— Vernon S. Morwood, Wonderful Animals, 1883

“A Plucky Steeplejack”


This is a photograph of a steeplejack named Will Ramsner, lying on the top of a sixty-foot flag-pole on the building known as the Boston Block. He used to climb up the staff with no aid except his hands and legs. When reaching the top he had to climb over the butt, which is almost the size of an ordinary barrel. Ramsner’s object in performing this feat, which attracted thousands of people, was to advertise his trade. While on his high perch he smoked cigarettes and read a newspaper, which he eventually threw down to the crowd below, who tore it into small pieces, keeping them as souvenirs.

Strand, August 1906

Busy Man

When Saparmurat Niyazov became president of Turkmenistan, he commissioned a 12-meter gold-plated statue of himself that rotated always to face the sun. That was actually one of his more modest decrees. Others:

  • He had his parliament officially name him Turkmenbashi, “father of all Turkmens.”
  • He named streets, schools, airports, farms, and people after himself, as well as vodka, a meteorite, the country’s second largest city, and a television channel.
  • He banned the Hippocratic oath and demanded that doctors swear allegiance to him.
  • His autobiography, the Rukhnama (“book of souls”), was studied in schools and became a textbook in other subjects, such as history and geography. Libraries, now superfluous, were closed.
  • Gold-plated statues to him were erected throughout the country.
  • He banned ballet, opera, public smoking, lip syncing, beards, gold teeth, recorded music, health care in rural areas, and car radios.
  • He planned the construction of a “palace of ice” and penguin enclosure so that residents of the desert could learn to skate.
  • He decreed that the word old must not be applied to people — when one turns 61 he enters “the prophetic age,” and 73 marks “the inspired age.”
  • He applied the name Gurbansoltan Edzhe (“the Turkmen heroine”) to his mother, a women’s magazine, the year 2003, April, and bread.

“I’m personally against seeing my pictures and statues in the streets,” he said, “but it’s what the people want.”

An Inland Archipelago


Through an accident of history, the Belgian town of Baarle-Hertog is located largely inside the Netherlands — it’s made up of 24 separate parcels of land, 20 of which lie inside the Dutch border, enmeshed with the Dutch municipality of Baarle-Nassau. To make things more confusing, two of these pockets of Belgium themselves contain pockets of the Netherlands.

This makes life interesting. Each house is deemed to pay taxes in the country where its front door is located, which means that some shops contrive to move their doors by several meters to get a favorable rate. A house can move to another country by moving its front door. Tourists who go shopping can encounter two tax regimes in the same street. And a child born to one Belgian and one Dutch parent possesses two passports.

At one point the speed limit was 60 kmh in the Netherlands and 50 kmh in Belgium, a perilous situation when a motorist might cross the border several times a minute. “Once, a motorcycle accident happened in front of Baarle’s cultural center,” writes Evgeny Vinokurov in A Theory of Enclaves (2007). “It happened on the territory of Baarle-Hertog but so close to the border running across the street that the man was dragged along to Baarle-Nassau. The ambulance from Baarle-Hertog arrived but did not help the bleeding man.”

And in 1971 a corrupt bank occupied a building that straddled the border, which permitted it to avoid being searched by the authorities of either state. The Belgian tax department couldn’t reach the safe, which lay behind “Dutch” counters. And the Dutch authorities could pass the counters but couldn’t open the safe, which was “Belgian.” Finally, authorities from both states undertook to search the premises in a joint effort, and the bank was eventually declared bankrupt after investigations into the laundering of drug money.

Stump Trouble


The voting paradox shows that conflicting majorities can prevent a clear winner even in a fair election.

Sadly, this can be true even if the candidates specify platforms. Suppose there are two issues, x and y, each of which admits two possible positions, x and x’ and y and y’. Then a candidate can have four possible platforms: xy, xy’, x’y, and x’y’. Now suppose there are three voters, each of whom ranks her preferences in a different order:

Voter 1: xy, xy’, x’y, x’y’
Voter 2: xy’, x’y’, xy, x’y
Voter 3: x’y, x’y’, xy, xy’

If the voters could vote on the individual issues instead of having to choose a platform, Voters 1 and 2 would prefer x to x’, and Voters 1 and 3 would prefer y to y’. These are clear majorities. But in practice platform x’y’ will defeat platform xy, since it’s preferred by a majority (Voters 2 and 3).

“Thus, a platform whose alternatives, when considered separately, are both favored by a majority may be defeated by a platform containing alternatives that only minorities favor,” writes Steven J. Brams in Paradoxes in Politics. Public policy scholar Anthony Downs argues that the fact that a majority platform can be constructed from minority positions may make it rational for politicians to appeal to coalitions of minorities.

Round Trip


John A. “Colonial Jack” Krohn pushed a wheelbarrow out of Portland, Maine, on June 1, 1908, and he pushed it back 357 days later. In the interval he pushed it around the perimeter of the contiguous United States, a journey of 9,024 miles on which he wore out 119 pairs of socks and lost 17 pounds.

On his return Krohn’s barrow was covered with cards; he had delivered a letter to the postmaster of Portland’s namesake in Oregon and returned with the reply. He’d completed the trip in 43 days fewer than expected, he said, though he hadn’t walked on Sundays and had lost 19 days to sickness.

“With some there had been doubts regarding his being able to accomplish such an unusual undertaking, considering his frail appearance when he first started out,” ran one contemporary account. “The great benefits of an out of door life could be readily noted on his return, through his improved look and action in every respect, showing the benefits derived from many weeks and months passed in the open air.”

He didn’t rest long — after writing a book about the adventure, he hit the road again to promote it.

An Early iPod

J.G. Christopher, of Minneapolis, Minn., is the possessor of a canary bird, the voice of which has been developed in a peculiarly painstaken manner, so that now this ‘educated’ songster can successfully render the well-known air, ‘A Life on the Ocean Wave.’ The bird will commence to warble like any other of these pets, and after uttering a few notes will immediately strike into the tune, and when its voice has attained full height the above tune will be sung entire, and in a manner that sounds singularly melodious and attractive, literally setting to note its natural vocal powers. This was only achieved after the most diligent and patient attention. As soon as the bird was old enough to pick up a living it was put in a room apart from all others, and a music-box also placed in the apartment and kept perpetually going, so that this singular pupil had nothing to learn from but that. After four months of such apprentice-ship, the owner was rewarded by hearing his little favorite render ‘A Life on the Ocean Wave’ as naturally and perfectly as if that was the song of its ancestors.

— James Baird McClure, ed., Entertaining Anecdotes From Every Available Source, 1879

Kindled Ambition


From Strand, January 1898: When match manufacturers S.I. Moreland and Sons challenged their customers to create “the greatest novelty of any sort that can be made with not less than 1,000 of our match-boxes,” G.W. Roberts of Birmingham submitted a full-size piano composed of 3,776 matchboxes and 5 pounds of glue.


Among other entries, F. Marshall’s 10-foot-6-inch model of the Forth Bridge is a marvel of engineering — other than 3,000 matchboxes, “no material whatever is used in the construction of the bridge — not even in the stays. When completed it stood the test of 42 lb. weight in the centre of either arch. I never saw the original bridge, but got an idea of it from a lithograph in a railway guide.”


And above is a model of Nelson’s ship Victory passing a large lighthouse, by Mr. Grubb of Atherstone, who worked three hours a night for five months. The ship is 3 feet 6 inches long and the lighthouse 5 feet 2 inches high.

The Strand also reports that a Lewis Sheldon constructed a double-masted turret ship-of-war 8 feet 3 inches long that carried 15 guns and six lifeboats, all made out of matchboxes. Sadly, they don’t include a photo.

Give and Take


The rocky island of Märket lies in the Baltic Sea between Sweden and Finland. When the Finns put a lighthouse on it in 1885, they unwittingly put it on Swedish territory.

This created a problem: Without moving the lighthouse or altering the coastline, the parties had to find a way to reapportion the island equitably according to their agreement.

The solution was to draw a reverse S on the map: Sweden grants Finland the lighthouse, but it gains a corresponding incursion into Finnish territory, so the island’s balance is restored.

It must be tricky to play croquet, though.

Somewhat related: The Tehachapi Loop.

The Ghost Plane

On Dec. 8, 1942, American forces in Kienow, China, spotted an unidentified plane heading toward them on a beeline from Formosa. Pilots Bob Scott and Johnny Hampshire approached it and discovered it was an old American P-40B Tomahawk bearing an insignia that hadn’t been seen since Pearl Harbor. The pilot would not identify himself.

Fearing a trick by the Japanese, Scott and Hampshire fired briefly on the plane, but it sought neither to evade them nor to counterattack. Scott moved to the plane’s farther side and saw that it had been badly damaged before they came upon it — the canopy had been shot away, the right aileron was gone, and part of the wing was missing. The pilot’s head was slumped on his chest. Strangest of all, the P-40B had no landing gear — the wheel wells were empty.

Scott and Hampshire lost the plane in a cloud bank and then saw it crash in a rice paddy below. Who was the pilot, and where had the strange plane come from? No one knows, but after years of research Scott evolved a conjecture that it had been assembled by a small group of Air Corps personnel who had retreated from Bataan to Corregidor and then to Mindanao. If this is true it must have flown more than 1,000 miles through enemy airspace to reach China.

Japanese records confirm that there was an American P-40 over Formosa on Dec. 8, 1942, but where it came from, where it was headed, and indeed how it even got airborne remain a mystery.


These have been in my notes for years — I can’t conclusively disprove them, but I have my doubts:

  • In 1930 four Germans bailed out of a glider inside a thundercloud over the Rhön Mountains, were carried upward by their parachutes into a region of supercooled vapor, and froze to death.
  • The monument to Jose Olmedo in Guyaquil, Ecuador, is actually a secondhand statue of Lord Byron, substituted because the town had no money. (Also: Cuzco, Peru, is rumored to have a statue of Chief Powhatan rather than Atahualpa.)
  • A surprising number of sources claim that Mississippi spent a fifth of its revenues on artificial limbs in 1866.
  • In 1902 Germany manufactured a “Goethemobile” in honor of the poet. (I really hope this is true.)

Debunk/rebunk/semi-unbunk as you please.

Turkey Drives


George Hanger, an eccentric friend of George IV, once wagered £500 that 20 turkeys could outrace 20 geese over a course of 10 miles. The turkeys held a lead of as much as two miles for the first three hours, but toward evening they wandered off the road and began to roost.

“In the mean time, the geese came waddling on, and in a short time passed the turkey party, who were all busy in the trees dislodging their obstinate birds; but as to any further progress, it was found impossible, and the geese were declared the winners.”

In 1866, desperate for cash after a fire destroyed his hardware store in Placerville, Calif., Henry C. Hooker bought 500 turkeys and drove them over the Sierra Mountains to Carson City, Nev., where he sold them at a great profit to silver miners. (The turkeys took flight while descending a particularly steep precipice: “As I saw them take wing and race away through the air I had the most indescribable feeling of my life. I thought here is good-bye turkeys!”) He used the money to establish a new life as an Arizona stockman.

Hearing Places

Architect Stedman Whitwell thought it illogical and confusing that different towns sometimes have the same name. He suggested assigning a unique name to each location based on its latitude and longitude. He published this table in the New Harmony, Ind., Gazette in 1826:


Insert an S to indicate south latitude and a V for west longitude; omit them for north and east. Thus New Harmony (38°11’N, 87°55’W) would be rechristened Ipba Veinul; New York would be Otke Notive, Washington D.C. Feili Neivul, and Pittsburgh Otfu Veitoup.

What these names lack in poetry they make up in utility: a traveler given the name of a town can immediately infer its location. Unfortunately, Whitwell’s scheme never caught on — and today the United States has 28 Springfields, 29 Clintons, and 30 Franklins.

Round Three


From the London Graphic, July 19, 1879, a sketch and statement by Capt. Davison of the steamship Kiushiu maru:

Saturday, April 5, at 11.15 a.m., Cape Satano [Japan] distant about nine miles, the chief officer and myself observed a whale jump clear out of the sea, about a quarter of a mile away. Shortly after it leaped out again, when I saw that there was something attached to it. Got glasses, and on the next leap distinctly saw something holding on to the belly of the whale. The latter gave one more spring clear of the water, and myself and chief then observed what appeared to be a large creature of the snake species rear itself about thirty feet out of the water. It appeared to be about the thickness of a junk’s mast, and after standing about ten seconds in an erect position, it descended into the water, the upper end going first. With my glasses I made out the colour of the beast to resemble that of a pilot fish.

Davison’s statement was countersigned by his chief officer, Mr. McKechnie. This is the third account I know of a fight between a whale and a sea serpent; the others occurred in 1818 and 1875. The whales seem to lose every time. I’m going to award the crown to the serpents and maybe we can avoid any further hostilities.

“A New England Wreck”


The accompanying illustrations give the reader a fair idea of the results of a peculiar wreck that occurred on the Northern Division of the N.Y., N.H. & H. Railroad near Worcester, Mass., on February 2nd [1898]. Engine 823, a 50-ton freight locomotive, was pushing a snow plow at a high rate of speed when it collided with Engine 684, an eight-wheel locomotive of lighter weight, which was also running at a high speed, and pulling a milk train.

Five men who were in the snow plow jumped into a bank of snow and were uninjured. … Another strange feature of this peculiar wreck is that just previous to the collision the men in the snow plow discovered that the knob was off the door and they were locked in. They finally contrived to open the door, and on looking out saw the milk train coming. The snow plow was completely demolished. The wreck was caused by a telegraph operator going to sleep and allowing the snow plow to pass his station when he had orders to hold it.

Locomotive Firemen’s Magazine, March 1898


Mistaken Identity


In 1903, a prisoner named Will West arrived at Leavenworth. The record clerk took the photographs above and, thinking he remembered West, asked whether he had been there before. West said no.

The clerk took some measurements, went to the file, and produced this record, bearing the name William West:


Amazed, the prisoner said, “That’s my picture, but I don’t know where you got it, for I know I have never been here before.”

Incredibly, this was true. A different William West had been serving a life sentence at Leavenworth since 1901, and the new prisoner had the same name, face, and measurements.

The case became a strong argument in favor of the new science of fingerprinting.

“A Much Traveled Goat”

About the year 1772 there died at Mile End, England, a well informed goat, if traveling and seeing the world would make it so. It twice circumnavigated the globe; first in the discovery ship Dolphin, with Captain Wallis, and afterward in the ship Endeavorer, commanded by the celebrated Captain Cook. The Dolphin sailed from England August 22, 1766, and returned May 20, 1768. It visited many lands, including numerous islands of the Pacific, on this voyage. The goat did not remain ashore very long, for the Endeavorer sailed from Plymouth August 25, 1768. The vessel touched at Maderia, doubled Cape Horn, spent six months along the coast of New Zealand, and visited many other strange countries. It got back to England June 12, 1771. In the three years Cook lost thirty of his eighty-five men, but the goat returned in apparent good health. Arrangements were made to admit her to the privileges of one of the government homes for sailors, but she did not live to enjoy them. She wore a silver collar, with a Latin inscription prepared by Dr. Samuel Johnson.

— Albert William Macy, Curious Bits of History, 1912

Hit and Run

On Dec. 30, 1947, the United States Hydrograph Office received the following wireless message from the Grace Line steamer Santa Clara, which was bound for Cartagena:


The master of the ship, J. Fordan, published a detailed account, which was carried widely by the Associated Press:

Suddenly, John Axelson, the third mate, saw a snake-like head rear out of the sea about 30 feet off the starboard bow of the vessel. His exclamation of amazement directed the attention of the two other mates to the sea monster, and the three watched it unbelievingly as it came abeam of the bridge where they stood, and it was then left astern.

The creature’s head appeared to be about two and one-half feet across, 2 feet thick, and 5 feet long. The cylindrically shaped body was about 3 feet thick and the neck about one and a half feet in diameter. As the monster came abeam of the bridge, it was observed that the water around the monster, over an area of 30 or 40 square feet, was stained red. The visible part of the body was about 35 feet long. It was assumed that the color of the water was due to the creature’s blood and that the stem of the ship had cut the monster in two.

From the time the monster was first sighted until it disappeared in the distance astern, it was thrashing about as though in agony. The monster’s skin was dark brown, slick and smooth. There were no fins, hair, or protuberances on the head or neck or any visible parts of the body.

Possibly the creature was a monstrous oarfish; we’ll never know for certain.

Beating the News

On Feb. 18, 1855, French-Canadian cattle dealer Louis Remme deposited $12,500 in gold in the Sacramento branch of the Adams & Company bank. Shortly afterward he received word that Page, Bacon & Company of St. Louis, the largest financial company west of the Alleghenies, had failed. He returned to the bank but it had already been liquidated, depleted by desperate depositors.

So Remme jumped on a horse and rode 665 miles north in 143 hours, including 10 hours of sleep and brief stops for food. He arrived in Portland, Ore., on Feb. 26, went straight to the Adams & Company bank, presented his certificate of deposit, and withdrew the $12,500. He had beaten the steamer that carried news of the bank’s failure — and Portland had no telegraph.

Courting Danger


In 1898, 23-year-old Cambridge dropout Ewart Grogan found himself with a problem: He was in love with a rich girl, but her father forbade her to accept. So Grogan proposed to prove himself by making the first-ever transit of Africa from south to north.

He set out from Cape Town and spent two years struggling north through largely unexplored East Africa. Along the way he negotiated lions, cannibals, volcanoes, war, illness, exhaustion, and 400 miles of swamp, but in 1900 he wired Gertrude: “Have reached Cairo. My feelings just the same. Anxiously await your answer. Make it yes. Love, Ewart.” She wired back, “My feelings also unchanged. Am waiting for you. Gertrude.” They were married seven months after his return, and Grogan inscribed a copy of his bestselling account of the trip to his new father-in-law.

In 1932 Imperial Airways invited Grogan to repeat his trans-African journey, this time by air. What had taken two years now took eight days. “It seems beyond belief that a man could have that double experience in a lifetime,” he told the Daily Express. “It shows how fast the world is moving.”