In the fifth century B.C., a storm upset the pontoon bridges by which Xerxes’ armies were crossing from Persia into Greece. Xerxes punished the strait with three hundred lashes. (Herodotus called this a “highly presumptuous way to address the Hellespont.”)
In the ancient Athenian summer festival known as Buphonia, an ox was slain with an ax, which was then charged with murder and thrown into the sea.
In 1428 Pope Martin V ordered English theologian John Wycliffe’s 44-years-dead body to be dug up and burned for heresy.
In 1519 a group of field mice in Stelvio, Italy, were charged with damaging crops by burrowing. The prosecutor argued that the loss of income prevented local tenants from paying their rents. The mice were assigned a defense attorney, Hans Grinebner, who claimed that his clients aided society by eating insects and enriching the soil. The judge banished the mice but promised them safe conduct and “an additional respite of fourteen days … to all those which are with young and to such as are yet in their infancy.”
In 1685, after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, the Protestant chapel at La Rochelle, France, was condemned to be demolished. Its bell was spared, with a condition:
To expiate the crime of having rung heretics to prayers, it was sentenced to be first whipped, and then buried and disinterred, by way symbolizing its new birth at passing into Catholic hands. Thereafter it was catechized, and obliged to recant and promise that it would never again relapse into sin. Having made this ample and honourable amends, the bell was reconciled, baptized, and given, or rather sold, to the parish of St. Bartholomew.
— James George Frazer, Folk-Lore in the Old Testament, 1918
On Aug. 31, 2004, this man was discovered, naked and unconscious, behind a Burger King restaurant in Richmond Hill, Ga. When he regained consciousness in the local hospital, he was unable to remember who he was or how he’d came there.
That was nine years ago, and he still can’t remember. Benjaman Kyle — a name he adopted simply because it shares initials with Burger King — has been diagnosed with dissociative amnesia. He believes his birthday is Aug. 29, 1948, and he has some fragmentary memories of Denver and Indianapolis. But beyond that his life is largely a blank. He has been the subject of numerous newspaper stories and has appeared on national television, but no one has recognized him. He is the only American citizen whose whereabouts are known and yet is officially listed as missing.
The lack of a name or a Social Security number makes the search uniquely difficult. Benjaman has snapshots of memory: buying a grilled cheese sandwich at the Indiana state fair in the 1950s, and public debates over mass transit in Denver in the 1980s. But these lead nowhere. The Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles tried and failed to match his face with anyone in its records, and the FBI has been unable to match his DNA or fingerprints.
In 2010 he told told the Guardian that he often refrains from telling his story to new acquaintances because “you get two reactions. They want to tell you their theories or they think you’re mad. Neither is much fun for me.”
He acknowledges that many stories such as his turn out to be hoaxes. “It sounds crazy, I know that,” he says. “All I can say is I’m telling the truth.”
(10/05/2015 Some progress, after 11 years!)
On May 23, 1964, Cumberland firefighter Jim Templeton was visiting Burgh Marsh in Cumbria, England, when he snapped three photos of his 5-year-old daughter, Elizabeth. When the pictures were developed, he was surprised to see what looked like a spaceman in the background of one of them.
Templeton told reporters, “I took the picture to the police in Carlisle, who, after many doubts, examined it and stated there was nothing suspicious about it. The local newspaper, the Cumberland News, picked up the story, and within hours it was all over the world. The picture is certainly not a fake, and I am as bemused as anyone else as to how this figure appeared in the background. Over the four decades the photo has been in the public domain, I have had many thousands of letters from all over the world with various ideas or possibilities — most of which make little sense to me.”
The best guess seems to be that the figure is Templeton’s wife, Annie, who had dark bobbed hair and was wearing a pale blue dress that appeared white in other photos taken that day. The camera’s viewfinder obscured part of the image area, so it would have been possible for him to take the photo without realizing that Annie was in the shot. But who knows?
When Winston Churchill died in 1965, he left his country home Chartwell to the government with a curious stipulation: It must always maintain “in comfortable residence” a marmalade cat named Jock.
The original Jock had been given to Churchill two years before his death by his private secretary, Sir John “Jock” Colville, and quickly became a favorite. When the cat died in 1975, 10 years after the prime minister, he was replaced with a Jock II, and the line has continued.
The current resident is Jock V, who “jumps into the sink at every opportunity.”
German architect Herman Sörgel’s plan to drain the Mediterranean was only the beginning — he also wanted to irrigate Africa by creating an enormous pair of artificial seas. By damming the Congo River he would create a gigantic lake in the center of the continent; he calculated that this would cause the Ubangi River to reverse its course, flowing northwest into the Chari River and creating a huge “Chad Sea” that would seek an outlet in the north, a “second Nile” that would irrigate Algeria. Between them, these new seas would cover 10 percent of the continent.
Sörgel also wanted to build a giant hydroelectric plant at Stanley Falls whose power could bring light and industry to much of Africa. But the plans came to nothing. “The scale of such a project is beyond colossal and is utterly unfeasible politically,” writes Franklin Hadley Cock in Energy Demand and Climate Change. “Its hydroelectric power potential is staggering, as are the environmental and human problems building it would cause.”
In 1910, four years after Frederick Cook claimed falsely to have reached the peak of Mount McKinley, an unlikely quartet of Alaskan gold miners — Tom Lloyd, Peter Anderson, Billy Taylor, and Charles McGonagall — announced they had planted a spruce pole on the mountain’s 19,470-foot north summit. Though using rudimentary equipment and not acclimated to the altitude, they claimed to have made the final 8,000-foot climb and descent in only 18 hours, carrying the heavy pole and fueled only by hot chocolate and doughnuts.
President Taft congratulated them on the feat, which the New York Times said “was undertaken not for the enlightenment of the world, but to prove the pluck and endurance of the members of the party.” But Lloyd’s exaggerated accounts began to draw skepticism (he claimed to have joined his companions on the summit when it appears he had remained in camp), and these only grew when the party could produce no photographs taken above 11,000 feet.
But three years later Hudson Stuck conquered the main summit and reported that, using binoculars, he had seen a large pole near the north peak. The pole has since been lost, but today it’s generally believed that the Sourdough expedition did succeed in reaching its goal. In 1914 Stuck wrote, “To Pete Anderson and Billy Taylor, two of the strongest men, physically, in all the North, and to none other, belongs the honor of the first ascent of the North Peak and the planting of what must assuredly be the highest flagstaff in the world.”
I may relate an odd incident in the life of Dr. [Thomas] Birch. He was very fond of angling, and devoted much time to that amusement. In order to deceive the fish, he had a dress constructed, which, when he put it on, made him appear like an old tree. His arms he conceived would appear like branches, and the line like a long spray. In this sylvan attire he used to take root by the side of a favourite stream, and imagined that his motions might seem to the fish to be the effect of the wind. He pursued this amusement for some years in the same habit, till he was ridiculed out of it by his friends.
— John Taylor, Records of My Life, 1832
Travel + Leisure named Lesotho’s Matekane Air Strip one of the world’s scariest runways. The tarmac is only 1,312 feet long, and it ends abruptly at the edge of a couloir at 7,550 feet.
If you run out of runway before getting airborne, explained bush pilot Tom Claytor, “you shoot off the end of the airstrip, then drop down the 2,000-foot cliff face until you start flying. … It’s a little bit hard to do the first time.”
How do you occupy a goat? Build a tower for it. Portuguese winemaker Fernando Guedes da Silva da Fonseca built the first “torre das cabras” in the 1820s, a three-story stone tower surrounded with a spiral ramp made of logs.
Inspired by Fonseca, vintner Charles Back built a tower of his own at the Fairview Wine and Cheese Farm in South Africa in 1981 (shown here). Goats are intelligent, gregarious, and curious, and they like to climb, so Fairview offers the tower to a select few of the 1,000 goats in its winelands.
Inspired in turn, Illinois farmer David Johnson built a 31-foot tower in Findlay, Ill., for his 34 Saanen milk goats. “Goats love it, and people driving by can’t believe it,” Johnson told Farm Show magazine. “Goats are the most curious animals in the world, so they use the tower a lot. They come and go, passing each other on the ramp as needed.”
“People often ask if any goats ever fall off the tower, and I always tell them the answer is no because goats are very sure-footed. Once in a while we do get freezing rain, and then I use a portable torch to melt the ice from the steps.”
The South African tower has also been replicated in Norway and Argentina. Let’s hope they’re not planning a takeover.
In 1525, fed up with robbers and highwaymen on the Anglo-Scottish border, Archbishop of Glasgow Gavin Dunbar composed a monumentally comprehensive curse against them:
I curse their head and all the hairs of their head; I curse their face, their brain, their mouth, their nose, their tongue, their teeth, their forehead, their shoulders, their breast, their heart, their stomach, their back, their womb, their arms, their legs, their hands, their feet, and every part of their body, from the top of their head to the soles of their feet, before and behind, within and without.
I curse them going and I curse them riding; I curse them standing and I curse them sitting; I curse them eating and I curse them drinking; I curse them rising, and I curse them lying; I curse them at home, I curse them away from home; I curse them within the house, I curse them outside of the house; I curse their wives, their children, and their servants who participate in their deeds; their crops, their cattle, their wool, their sheep, their horses, their swine, their geese, their hens, and all their livestock; their halls, their chambers, their kitchens, their stanchions, their barns, their cowsheds, their barnyards, their cabbage patches, their plows, their harrows, and the goods and houses that are necessary for their sustenance and welfare.
May all the malevolent wishes and curses ever known, since the beginning of the world, to this hour, light on them. May the malediction of God, that fell upon Lucifer and all his fellows, that cast them from the high Heaven to the deep hell, light upon them.
May the fire and the sword that stopped Adam from the gates of Paradise, stop them from the glory of Heaven, until they forebear, and make amends.
May the evil that fell upon cursed Cain, when he slew his brother Abel, needlessly, fall on them for the needless slaughter that they commit daily.
May the malediction that fell upon all the world, man and beast, and all that ever took life, when all were drowned by the flood of Noah, except Noah and his ark, fall upon them and drown them, man and beast, and make this realm free of them, for their wicked sins.
May the thunder and lightning which rained down upon Sodom and Gomorrah and all the lands surrounding them, and burned them for their vile sins, rain down upon them and burn them for their open sins.
May the evil and confusion that fell on the Gigantis for their opression and pride in building the Tower of Babylon, confound them and all their works, for their open callous disregard and oppression.
May all the plagues that fell upon Pharaoh and his people of Egypt, their lands, crops and cattle, fall upon them, their equipment, their places, their lands, their crops and livestock.
May the waters of the Tweed and other waters which they use, drown them, as the Red Sea drowned King Pharaoh and the people of Egypt, preserving God’s people of Israel.
May the earth open, split and cleave, and swallow them straight to hell, as it swallowed cursed Dathan and Abiron, who disobeyed Moses and the command of God.
May the wild fire that reduced Thore and his followers to two-hundred-fifty in number, and others from 14,000 to 7,000 at anys, usurping against Moses and Aaron, servants of God, suddenly burn and consume them daily, for opposing the commands of God and Holy Church.
May the malediction that suddenly fell upon fair Absalom, riding through the wood against his father, King David, when the branches of a tree knocked him from his horse and hanged him by the hair, fall upon these untrue Scotsmen and hang them the same way, that all the world may see.
May the malediction that fell upon Nebuchadnezzar’s lieutenant, Holofernes, making war and savagery upon true Christian men; the malediction that fell upon Judas, Pilate, Herod, and the Jews that crucified Our Lord; and all the plagues and troubles that fell on the city of Jerusalem therefore, and upon Simon Magus for his treachery, bloody Nero, Ditius Magcensius, Olibrius, Julianus Apostita and the rest of the cruel tyrants who slew and murdered Christ’s holy servants, fall upon them for their cruel tyranny and murder of Christian people.
And may all the vengeance that ever was taken since the world began, for open sins, and all the plagues and pestilence that ever fell on man or beast, fall on them for their openly evil ways, senseless slaughter and shedding of innocent blood.
I sever and part them from the church of God, and deliver them immediately to the devil of hell, as the Apostle Paul delivered Corinth.
I bar the entrance of all places they come to, for divine service and ministration of the sacraments of holy church, except the sacrament of infant baptism, only; and I forbid all churchmen to hear their confession or to absolve them of their sins, until they are first humbled by this curse.
I forbid all Christian men or women to have any company with them, eating, drinking, speaking, praying, lying, going, standing, or in any other deed-doing, under the pain of deadly sin.
I discharge all bonds, acts, contracts, oaths, made to them by any persons, out of loyalty, kindness, or personal duty, so long as they sustain this cursing, by which no man will be bound to them, and this will be binding on all men.
I take from them, and cast down all the good deeds that ever they did, or shall do, until they rise from this cursing.
I declare them excluded from all matins, masses, evening prayers, funerals or other prayers, on book or bead; of all pigrimages and alms deeds done, or to be done in holy church or be Christian people, while this curse is in effect.
And, finally, I condemn them perpetually to the deep pit of hell, there to remain with Lucifer and all his fellows, and their bodies to the gallows of Burrow moor, first to be hanged, then ripped and torn by dogs, swine, and other wild beasts, abominable to all the world.
And their candle goes from your sight, as may their souls go from the face of God, and their good reputation from the world, until they forebear their open sins, aforesaid, and rise from this terrible cursing and make satisfaction and penance.
As part of Carlisle’s millennium celebrations in 2001, local artist Gordon Young carved 383 words of the curse into a granite boulder. Since then, local livestock herds have been wiped out by foot-and-mouth disease, a devastating flood has struck the city, factories have closed, and the Carlisle United soccer team dropped a league. Jim Tootle, a local councillor who blamed these misfortunes on the revived curse, himself died suddenly in 2011.
“It is a powerful work of art but it is certainly not part of the occult,” Young insisted. “If I thought my sculpture would have affected one Carlisle United result, I would have smashed it myself years ago.”