“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



Which of these is Japanese sculptor Hananuma Masakichi, and which is the life-size wooden statue he completed in 1885? Amazingly, the statue’s on the right. Masakichi spent three years posing between two adjustable mirrors to capture every skin blemish, blue vein, and discoloration on his body, even inserting his own body hairs into hand-drilled holes at precise locations. He added glass eyes and eyelashes that were exact facsimiles of his own and applied a coat of lacquer to give the finished statue the appearance of flesh and blood. The finished product is so convincing that crowds reportedly had difficulty distinguishing the artist from his work when he posed next to it at exhibition. “The figure stands with a little mask in one hand and an instrument for carving in the other,” reported the Oriental Review. “The lifelike eyes are apparently gazing at the mask, and the face wears a look of intense absorption.”

“A Phonographic Cat”


This cat has a liking for the gramophone: it loves to get in the trumpet to sleep, and will not move even when a record is put in and played!

Strand, August 1906

The Gormanston Foxes

A curious legend attends the Viscounts Gormanston of Ireland. It is said that when the head of the house dies, the foxes leave the surrounding countryside and congregate at the door of the castle. The following statements, collected at the death of Jenico William Joseph, the 14th Viscount Gormanston, on Oct. 28, 1907, appeared in the New Ireland Review of April 1908:

  • Lady Gormanston: “At the time he was dying, foxes were seen about the house and coming towards the house for some days before. His valet who was sleeping in his room heard what he thought was a dog barking, and on going over to the window found that it was a fox sitting under the window and barking. … At the death of Edward, 13th Viscount, the foxes were also there. He had been rather better one day, but the foxes appeared, barking under the window, and he died that night contrary to expectation.”
  • Lucretia P. Farrell, daughter of the 13th Viscount: “On the day before my grandfather … died, the foxes came in pairs (an unusual thing) into the demesne from all the country round; they sat under his bedroom window, which was on the ground floor, and howled and barked all night, although constantly driven away only to return. … At my father’s death, in 1876, I had nursed him till the end, and before he died I fell ill, and my family told me that the foxes appeared in the same way, but not so many. … The Preston crest is a running fox, which we were told no other family has. This is all I can tell, and very creepy it was in those days.”
  • Anthony Delahan, coachman, and Patrick White, steward: “On Monday night, the 28th October, at about 8 o’clock, I saw two foxes in the chapel ground and five or six more round the front of the house and several more in the cloisters, which were circling round in a ring, crying all the time. I saw them continuously from then till about 11 o’clock when I went to bed. I took White with me who also saw the foxes.”
  • Richard Preston: “On Wednesday, 30th October, 1907, at about 10 p.m., I went down to the chapel at Gormanston Castle to watch by the remains of my father. … About 3 a.m. I first became consciously aware of a slight noise without the chapel. … [When I opened the side door,] sitting on the gravel path within four feet of where I stood was a full-grown fox. Just in the shadow, sitting close up against the walls of the chapel, was another. I could hear several more moving quietly about within a few yards, and was almost sure that I saw some of them. … Neither of the two which saw attempted to move until I left the chapel and took a step towards them. They then walked quietly off into the shadow.”

“We venture no comment on the evidence,” the editors write. “Our readers will appreciate it for themselves. Whatever be their interpretation of the facts, they will, at least, allow that in them there is something of the marvellous.”

Bad Neighbors


In 1878, railroad millionaire Charles Crocker decided to buy up the lots surrounding his mansion on San Francisco’s Nob Hill to improve his view of the surrounding vistas. He reached agreements with all the neighbors except for German undertaker Nicholas Yung, who refused to sell.

“I would have been happier than a condor in the sky,” Crocker wrote, “except for that crazy undertaker.”

His solution was pure spite: He built a 40-foot fence around Yung’s cottage on three sides, spoiling his view in hopes that he would sell. The fence can be seen behind the central mansion in this photo; only the chimneys of Yung’s house project above it.

“How gloomy our house became, how sad,” Yung’s daughter later wrote. “All we could see out our windows was the blank wood of the rich man’s fury. … The flowers in the garden all died, and our lawn turned brown, while inside the house everything felt perpetually damp.”

Yung held out nonetheless — according to some reports he mounted a 10-foot coffin atop the wall facing Crocker’s house — and the two maintained a senseless deadlock for years. Yung died in 1880 and Crocker in 1888; only then, when the mansion was sold to a new owner, did Yung’s heirs relent and sell their lot.

An Open Mind


During the German siege of Paris in 1870, residents had to eat whatever animals were at hand. Daily News correspondent Henry Labouchère recorded his opinions:

  • Horse: “eaten in the place of beef … a little sweeter … but in other respects much like it”
  • Cat: “something between rabbit and squirrel, with a flavor all its own”
  • Donkey: “delicious — in color like mutton, firm and savory”
  • Kittens: “either smothered in onions or in a ragout they are excellent”
  • Rat: “excellent — something between frog and rabbit”
  • Spaniel: “something like lamb, but I felt like a cannibal”

“This siege will destroy many illusions,” he wrote, “and amongst them the prejudice which has prevented many animals being used as food. I can most solemnly assert that I never wish to taste a better dinner than a joint of a donkey or a ragout of cat — experto crede.”

Sea War


On the afternoon of June 21, 1818, the crew of the packet Delia, plying between Boston and Hallowell, Maine, came upon a struggle between a sea serpent and a large humpback whale, according to a statement sworn before a local justice of the peace. From Henry Cheever’s The Whale and His Captors (1850):

The serpent threw up his tail from twenty-five to thirty feet in a perpendicular direction, striking the whale by it with tremendous blows rapidly repeated, which were distinctly heard and very loud for two or three minutes. They then both disappeared, moving in a west southwest direction, but after a few minutes reappeared in shore of the packet, and about under the sun, the reflection of which was so strong as to prevent their seeing so distinctly as at first, when the serpent’s fearful blows with his tail were repeated and clearly heard as before. They again went down for a short time, and then came up to the surface under the packet’s larboard quarter, the whale appearing first and the serpent in pursuit, who was again seen to shoot up his tail as before, which he held out of water some time, waving it in the air before striking, and at the same time, while his tail remained in this position, he raised his head fifteen or twenty feet, as if taking a view of the surface of the sea. After being seen in this position a few minutes, the serpent and whale again sunk and disappeared, and neither were seen after by any on board.

Sea serpents, it seems, tend to win these contests — the English barque Pauline witnessed a similar drubbing half a century later.

“The Myth of the Monkey Chain”


Do South American monkeys form living bridges in order to cross alligator-infested rivers? No modern naturalist thinks so, but the idea is curiously long-lived. Jesuit priest José de Acosta published the first account in Latin in 1589 — here’s a 1604 translation:

Going from Nombre de Dios to Panama, I did see in Capira one of these monkies leape from one tree to an other, which was on the other side of a river, making me much to wonder. They leape where they list, winding their tailes about a braunch to shake it: and when they will leape further than they can at once, they use a pretty devise, tying themselves by the tailes one of another, and by this meanes make as it were a chaine of many: then doe they launch themselves forth, and the first holpen, by the force of the rest, takes holde where hee list, and so hangs to a bough, and so helpes all the rest, till they be gotten up.

For a 1919 report in Natural History, biologist E.W. Gudger tracked down similar seemingly firsthand accounts by William Dampier’s navigator (1699), by Antonio de Ulloa (1735), and by Don Ramon Paez (1862) — but he concludes that they’re false: “Needless to say, this feat presupposes an amount of intelligence in the monkey family that it has never been known otherwise to exhibit, while aside from that, it is palpably impossible because nowhere in a tropical jungle could space be found in which to swing such a long chain as the story requires.”

Personal Calls

Tiny Norfolk Island in the South Pacific has the world’s only telephone directory that lists people by nickname.

In 2007 these included Beef, Blitti, Booda, Bubby, Bugs, Bunt, Cane Toad, Carrots, Chilla, Chinny, Crowbar, Dar Bizziebee, Derms, Devil, Diddles, Diesel, Doby, Doodus, Dussa, Fishy, Frenzy, Gags, Geek, Girlie, Goof, Golla, Grin, Gumboots, Hat, Honkey-Dorey, Hose, Kik Kik, Kissard, Knuckles, Lettuce Leaf, Little Pooh, Loppy, Massport, Monkey, Moo, Nippa, Nuffka, Onion, Paw Paw, Philly, Plute, Possum, Puddles, Puffa, Pumbles, Pumpa, Pusswah, Rubber Duck, Skeeters, Slack, Smudgie, Snobbles, Sputt, Steggles, Storky, Toofy, Toyboy, Trigger, Truck, Ummy, Wiggy, and Yarm.

Many of the island’s residents are descended from the Bounty mutineers, who resettled from the Pitcairn Islands in 1856. Their European surnames are so common on the island that many go by adopted names.

UPDATE: I’m told that the Spanish village of Villanueva del Trabuco, in Andalucía, has a nickname-based phone directory that runs to 30 pages. The population is 5,000, about twice that of Norfolk Island.

(Thanks, Toño and Lucía.)

“A Horse Found Swimming in the Ocean”

Capt. Edwards, of the fishing smack Amelia, reports that when off ‘Skunnett,’ on the Rhode Island shore, some time since, he discovered an object swimming off his bow which he finally made out to be a horse. He made sail but could not overhaul the animal, which was making desperate struggles to reach the main land three miles away. At times he would disappear from sight in the waves which broke over him,–the sea running very high at the time,–but a moment later would reappear, and with a loud snort and toss of the head, would shake off the water from his ears and eyes, and then renew the struggle. At last he made the shore, and, without pausing a moment, dashed up the beach, his long tail and curling mane floating outward on the wind. The splendid animal was possessed of immense strength, else he could not have swam that long distance in such a sea. Where he came from nobody knows. No vessel was in sight from which he could have escaped.

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

Room Service

On July 17, 1945, Suite 212 of Claridge’s Hotel in London became part of Yugoslavia.

Queen Alexandra was giving birth, and Winston Churchill made the concession so that the new prince could be born on Yugoslavian soil.

Concentric Landmarks

Lake Huron’s Manitoulin Island contains a lake of its own, Lake Manitou. Lake Manitou is the world’s largest lake-on-an-island-in-a-lake.

Lake Manitou itself contains two islands; each is thus an island in a lake on an island in a lake.


Three anecdotes of Newton’s absent-mindedness:

  • His maid one day found him in his kitchen, holding an egg and boiling his watch.
  • His nephew noted, “At some seldom times when he designed to dine in the hall, would turn to the left hand [rather than going straight], and go out into the street, where making a stop, when he found his mistake, he would hastily turn back & and then sometimes instead of going into hall, return to his chamber again.”
  • From Thomas Moore’s diary: “Anecdote of Newton, showing his extreme absence–inviting a friend to dinner, & forgetting it–the friend arriving, & finding the philosopher in a fit of abstraction–Dinner brought up for one–the friend (without disturbing Newton) sitting down & dispatching it, and Newton, after recovering from his reverie, looking at the empty dishes & saying, ‘Well really, if it wasn’t for the proof before my eyes, I could have sworn that I had not yet dined.'”

English minister George Harvest was notoriously inattentive. On one occasion he accompanied Lord Onslow to Calais, awoke from an abstraction, and found that the two had become separated.

He could not speak a word of French, but recollecting that Lord Onslow was at the Silver Lion, he put a shilling in his mouth, and set himself in the attitude of a lion rampant. After exciting much wonder among the town’s people, a soldier guessing what he meant by this curious hieroglyphical exhibition, led him back to the Silver Lion, not sure at the same time whether he was restoring a maniac to his keepers, or a droll to his friends.

The Percy Anecdotes, 1823

“A Snow Lady”


The accompanying picture shows what can be done with snow, by those who care to exercise their powers of modelling, and produce something more natural in appearance than the familiar old ‘Snow Man,’ built up after the figure of a Lowther Arcade Noah. During a lull in the severe frosts of last winter, two ladies (amateurs, who had never had a lesson in modelling), with the assistance of only a shovel and pair of scissors, erected and modelled the ‘Snow Lady’ in a garden near Pangbourne. No foundation of any kind was used, and no sticks or wires were concealed under the figure for the purpose of supporting head, body, or arms. An enlargement of the original photograph was shown at the Photographic Exhibition during last autumn, and gave rise to many remarks, sage and otherwise. A large number of those who looked at it pronounced it as ‘No doubt very cleverly got up–but all humbug!’ ‘Real snow? Not a bit of it! Quite impossible!’

Strand, January 1892

“A Divided Family”


Vito and Giuseppe Bertucci, father and son, living at 3,103, South Twelfth Street, Tacoma, Washington, were equal owners of their house. The son was married. A short time ago the house caught fire and, as a result, became in need of repairs. But here a hitch arose. Father and son could not agree upon just what should be done. They wrangled and wrangled over the matter, and this only led to further misunderstandings, neither would the one buy the other out. There was absolutely no possibility of adjustment of the differences between them, so they did the only wild thing possible — they agreed to each pay their share for the hire of a carpenter who should cut the house in two. The father owns the part on the right of the picture, while the son has already moved his to one side, and will make this the nucleus for another home. The transaction is naturally the laughing affair of Tacoma, and the odd buildings can easily be seen from one of the street cars.

Strand, November 1906



William Archibald Spooner never (or rarely) uttered the verbal train wrecks that were attributed to him (“Which of us has not felt in his heart a half-warmed fish?”). But he seemed strangely prone to similar gaffes in daily life:

  • He told a student, “I thought you read the lesson badly today.” When the student protested that he hadn’t read it, “Ah,” said Spooner, “I thought you didn’t.”
  • He told a fellow don at Oxford, “Do come to dinner tonight to meet our new fellow, Casson.” When the man explained, “But, warden, I am Casson,” Spooner returned, “Never mind, come all the same.”
  • To another student: “Let me see. Was it your or your brother that was killed in the war?”
  • An Oxford colleague once received a note asking him to come to Spooner’s office the following morning. At the bottom was a postscript saying that the matter had been resolved and that he needn’t come.
  • A dining companion once saw Spooner spill a small amount of salt on the table. Apparently reversing the technique for removing a stain, he poured wine on it.

Professor Edward Morris Hugh-Jones recounted a dinner in North Oxford: “It came on to rain quite heavily, and [Spooner’s] host and hostess pressed him to stay. It was far too cold and wet for Spooner to traipse all the way back to college, they said, and they would gladly make up a bed for him. They were as good as their word and briefly departed upstairs to see to the arrangements. When they came down again, their guest had disappeared. Suddenly there was a knock at the house door, and there was Spooner, totally wet through, with a little bundle in his hands. ‘My nightshirt,’ he explained. ‘I went back to college for it.'”

Mountain Hazard


Although in our days the carrying off of Ganymede is not re-enacted, yet the inhabitants of mountainous countries have some ground for accusing the eagles of bearing off their children. A well known fact of this kind took place in the Valais in 1838. A little girl, five years old, called Marie Delex, was playing with one of her companions on a mossy slope of the mountain, when all at once an eagle swooped down upon her and carried her away in spite of the cries and presence of her young friend. Some peasants, hearing the screams, hastened to the spot, but sought in vain for the child, for they found nothing but one of her shoes on the edge of the precipice. The child, however, was not carried to the eagle’s nest, where only two eaglets were seen, surrounded by heaps of goat and sheep bones. It was not till two months after this that a shepherd discovered the corpse of Marie Delex, frightfully mutilated, upon a rock half a league from where she had been borne off.

— Henry Davenport Northrop, Earth, Sea and Sky, 1887


In 1886, French gas fitter Jean-Albert Dadas was admitted to a Bordeaux hospital suffering from exhaustion. Normally he led a quiet life, he told a medical student, but occasionally he would be overcome by anxiety and headaches and then find himself in a distant city, apparently having traveled there on foot. If the local police didn’t arrest him for vagrancy he would report to the French consul, who would arrange for his travel back home.

Dadas was 26 when he arrived at the hospital, but the attacks had begun when he was 12. He’d been working as a manufacturer’s apprentice when he simply disappeared, and his brother found him in a neighboring town helping an umbrella salesman. Since then, the medical student wrote, Dadas had regularly deserted “family, work and daily life to walk as fast as he could, straight ahead, sometimes doing 70 kilometers a day.” Some journeys had taken him as far as Algeria and Moscow.

Dadas’ condition was diagnosed as dromomania or “pathological tourism.” Though they’re rarely seen today, such fugue states saw a curious vogue in France in the 1890s — and produced one memorable case in Pennsylvania.

(Thanks, Eleanor.)

“A Revolving Ice Cake”


There is a curious ice formation on the Mianus River, near the village of Bedford, Westchester County, New York. The Mianus at that place is a small stream, averaging about ten feet in width. At a place locally known as the ‘ten foot hole’ the stream widens out into a pool forty or fifty feet wide. In this pool there has formed a cake of ice about twenty five or thirty feet in diameter and perfectly circular in shape. This circular cake of ice is slowly revolving and is surrounded for about two-thirds of its circumference by stationary ice. There is a space of about three inches between the revolving cake and the stationary ice, except at the ‘up stream’ side of the revolving cake, where the water is open and the current quite swift. Each revolution takes about six minutes. I inclose a rough drawing which will give an idea of this curious formation.

— Letter from J.M. Bates to Scientific American, Feb. 9, 1895

The Corruptible Club

In 1926, Mexican physician Luis Cervantes met Concepción Jurado, a 61-year-old schoolteacher who was impersonating a bearded Spanish count at a party. Impressed by her performance, Cervantes convinced Jurado to partake in an ongoing hoax. He invented a character, Count Carlos Balmori, and engaged prominent Mexicans to underwrite the story of Balmori’s wealth and power. Reporters planted stories of the count’s wealth and travels, bankers forged bankbooks, and judges and politicians provided official papers when needed.

Then, each week, Cervantes would choose a victim and stage a “Balmoreada,” a special evening in which the count would approach one guest and offer a fabulous sum in return for a ridiculous favor. He would induce a hacienda owner to shave his beard, a general to lead a revolution against Mexico, a Chilean diplomat to denounce his country, all in return for great wealth.

It’s said that only one guest in 20 refused the offer. As soon as the victim had accepted the proposal, Jurado would reveal her disguise and the dupe was admitted to the club, sworn to secrecy and invited to each future Balmoreada as a guest.

This went on for fully five years, until Jurado’s death of cancer in 1931. The society of the gullible greedy grew to include matadors, bankers, and police officials. Onetime President Plutarco Elías Calles is even said to have attended the meetings. Its members have now dwindled away, but Jurado’s tomb, in the largest cemetery in Mexico City, commemorates it with cartoons of both her personalities.

“A Surpriseing Bett Decided”

edward bright

When Essex grocer Edward Bright died in November 1750, he weighed more than 600 pounds; his coffin was three feet deep and required 12 men to draw it to the church.

The following month, to settle a bet, seven men were buttoned into Bright’s waistcoat.

In the engraving recording the feat, one onlooker says, “Sir you’ll allow that to be Fair.” His companion says, “I do Sir, & to me beyond Imagination.”

The Parrot of Atures

In exploring the upper Orinoco around 1800, Alexander von Humboldt learned of a tribe, the Atures, that had recently died out there. Their language had died with them, but Humboldt was still able to hear it spoken: “At the period of our voyage an old parrot was shown at Maypures, of which the inhabitants related, and the fact is worthy of observation, that ‘they did not understand what it said, because it spoke the language of the Atures.'”

From a 19th-century poem:

Where are now the youths who bred him
To pronounce their mother tongue?
Where the gentle maids who fed him
And who built his nest when young?

Humboldt managed to record phonetically 40 words spoken by the parrot, and in 1997 artist Rachel Berwick painstakingly taught two Amazon parrots to speak them. Can a language be said to survive if no one knows its meaning?

News to Order


Publicity stunts undertaken by press agent Jim Moran, 1938-1959:

  • Sold a refrigerator to an Eskimo in Alaska
  • Threw eggs at an electric fan
  • Changed horses in midstream in a Nevada river
  • Sought a needle in a haystack (for 10 days)
  • Walked a bull through a New York china shop
  • Hatched an ostrich egg (by sitting on it for 19 days)
  • Opened a Washington embassy for a mythical country

By the 1950s the era of the flamboyant stunt was ending, and authorities put a stop to Moran’s more ambitious schemes. He said, “It’s a sad day for American capitalism when a man can’t fly a midget on a kite over Central Park.”

“Mathematical Genius”

The Cincinnati Gazette says that ‘William Marcy, a colored boy from Kentucky, who was in that city lately, can add up columns of figures of any length, divide any given sum, multiply millions by thousands within five minutes from the time the figures are given to him, and with such exactness as to render it truly wonderful. Recently, in the presence of a party of gentlemen, he added a column of figures, eight in a line, and one hundred and eighty lines, making the sum total of several millions, within six minutes. The feat was so astounding, and apparently incredible, that several of the party took off their coats, and, dividing the sum, went to work, and in two hours after they commenced produced identically the same answers. The boy is not quite seventeen years of age; he cannot read nor write, and in every other branch of an English education is entirely deficient.’

The National Magazine, December 1853