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.”

A Man Possessed


Alexis Vincent Charles Berbiguier was beset by imps — not metaphorically, but (to his mind) quite literally. Born in 1764, the French nobleman was plagued from his youth by what he called farfadets or goblins, led by an agent of Beelzebub named Rhotomago. Using brushes, pins, sponges, and snuff, he worked out a method to trap the imps in bottles, but they were legion. His 1821 autobiography recounts his plight:

I have suffered much, and am still suffering. For twenty years demons, sorcerers and farfadets have not allowed me a moment’s rest: everywhere they pursue me: in the town and country, in church and at home, and even in my bed. My head is sound, and no defect mars the good condition of my body. I am made in the image of our Saviour. Why, then, have I been chosen as the principal victim?

Convinced that he had been chosen by God to exterminate these agents of evil, he pleaded his case resolutely to all who would listen. “These brushes, gentlemen,” he told one courtroom, “contain the souls of the hobgoblins who came to attack me last night. Look at this bottle — well, it contains millions of hobgoblins. Oh, laugh as long as you like, but, were it not for me, you would not be so much at your ease, nor even the judges upon the bench.”

Berbiguier lived out his life in this belief, keeping increasingly to himself and suspicious of those who tried to help. But he never conquered the imps. In a way his failure was heroic — delusions they may have been, but their victims’ torture was real.

“Wills Against Moustaches”

Mr. Tegg, in his curious and interesting volume, Wills of Their Own, quotes two testators whose aversion to moustaches continued to exhibit itself even after death. The will of Mr. Henry Budd, which came into force in 1862, declared against the wearing of moustaches by his sons in the following terms: ‘In case my son Edward shall wear moustaches, then the devise herein before contained in favour of him, his appointees, heirs, and assigns, of my said estate called Pepper Park, shall be void; and I devise the same estate to my son William, his appointees, heirs, and assigns. And in case my said son William shall wear moustaches, then the devise hereinbefore contained in favour of him, his appointees, heirs, and assigns of my said estate, called Twickenham Park, shall be void; and I devise the said estate to my said son Edward, his appointees, heirs, and assigns.’

Another instance is the will of Mr. Fleming, an upholsterer of Pimlico, proved in 1869, who left £10 each to those of the men in his employ who did not wear moustaches. Those who persisted in wearing them to have only £5 each.

— Jacob Larwood, Forensic Anecdotes, 1882

Sea Mail


At noon on the 12th of July, 1892, Mr. J.E. Muddock, the well-known novelist, then on his way home from Canada in the Sarna, threw into the icy Straits of Belle Isle a soda-water bottle containing a message, which, together with the bottle, is here shown. Exactly 485 days afterwards Mr. Muddock had a letter from Norway saying that his bottle had been picked up by a poor fisherman at the entrance to the Sogne Fiord, 2,500 miles in a straight line from the place where it was committed to the sea. Had it not been picked up it would have gone into the Arctic regions. This experiment was of real scientific value, since it was the means of settling certain matters relating to ocean currents.

Strand, January 1898

A Civilian Casualty

U-28 crocodile

On July 30, 1915, the German submarine U-28 torpedoed the British steamer Iberian in the North Atlantic. Captain Georg Günther Freiherr von Forstner and his crew watched the ship sink rapidly under the waves, stern first. Then, a surprise:

When the steamer had disappeared for about 25 seconds it exploded at a depth which we could not know, but one thousand meters will be a safe guess. Shortly afterwards pieces of wreckage, among them a huge marine animal which made violent movements, were thrown out of the water, flying approximately 20 or 30 meters high.

At this moment we were six men on the bridge, myself, the two officers of the watch, the chief engineer, the navigator and the helmsman. We at once centered our attention upon this marvel of the seas. Unfortunately we had not time to take a photograph because the animal disappeared in the water after 10 or 15 seconds. It was about 20 meters long, looked like a giant crocodile, and had four powerful paddle-like limbs and a long pointed head.

“The explanation of this event seems easy to me,” von Forstner wrote. “The explosion of, or in, the sinking steamer caught the ‘undersea-crocodile,’ as we called it, and forced it out of the water.” When the story was attacked, von Forstner stood firm, declaring that he “would not give up a single meter of the length of the animal.” What was it? Who knows?

Local Industry

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the tiny town of Vernon in Florida’s panhandle gained a disturbing reputation for insurance fraud. Only 500 people lived in Vernon, but fully 10 percent of these (all men) reported they had lost arms, legs, and fingers. For a brief period this region of Florida accounted for two-thirds of all loss-of-limb claims in the United States.

“Somehow they always shoot off the parts they seem to need least,” noted one investigator. Another wrote, “To sit in your car on a sweltering summer evening on the main street of Nub City, watching anywhere from eight to a dozen cripples walking along the street, gives the place a ghoulish, eerie atmosphere.”

The trend lasted only a few years, and the allegations were never proven, but the town remained sensitive to its reputation for decades. In 1981 filmmaker Errol Morris was planning a documentary about Vernon (where, he said, the people “became a fraction of themselves to become whole financially”). According to Morris’ Web site, the film “had to be retooled when his subjects threatened to murder him.”

“A Sheep’s Taste for Music”

The Rev. T. Jackson says, in referring to sheep being fond of, and variously affected by, music, that the Highland breed of sheep carry off the palm for cleverness and for their partiality to sweet sounds. He knew one of them that would jump and skip about with considerable pleasure whenever a lively, quick tune was played; but the moment it heard the National Anthem, it would hang down its head, appear to be very sullen, annoyed, and much displeased until the music ceased.

— Vernon S. Morwood, Wonderful Animals, 1883