Pitching In

At a timber-mill in the Powelltown district (Victoria) it is customary to blow three blasts of the whistle to indicate an accident and six blasts to notify a fatality. One day the six blasts echoed about the hills and men ran from all directions to the mill. But there was no fatality; the ‘whistle’ was produced by a Lyrebird, which had heard the three blasts with some frequency, and, in imitating them, had added three more for good measure. That episode ranks with one related by Mervyn Bill, a forest surveyor, who has written that when he was camped at Hell’s Gates (Victoria), he was annoyed to see, through the theodolite telescope, his men doing certain field operations without the usual instructions. The fact became revealed, subsequently, that they had obeyed ‘instructions’ from a Lyrebird in an adjacent gully, which faultlessly imitated the surveyor’s shrill, staccato code of signals.

— Alec H. Chisholm, Bird Wonders of Australia, 1958

See Technical Fowl.

Occupational Hazards

In April 1964, British prime minister Alec Douglas-Home was staying at the home of a friend in Scotland. One day when he happened to be alone there, he answered the door to find a group of students from Aberdeen University, who said they were there to kidnap him.

At first Douglas-Home said, “I suppose you realize if you do, the Conservatives will win the election by 200 or 300.” Then he stalled by asking for 10 minutes to pack a few things, and bought further time by offering beer to the students. Eventually his friends returned and the students departed willingly. Douglas-Home never spoke publicly of the incident, as the breach would have imperiled his bodyguard’s career, but in 1977 he mentioned it to a colleague, whose diary entry came to light in 2008.

Related: Australian prime minister Harold Holt disappeared entirely in 1967. He was visiting Cheviot Beach, near Portsea, with friends when he decided to go swimming. When he disappeared from view a search was organized, but it could find no trace of him. The beach is known for its rip tides, so he’s presumed to have drowned, but no body has ever been found.

(Thanks, John.)

Good Boy

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Haarlem_Bavokerk_grote_hondeslager.jpg
Image: Wikimedia Commons

An epitaph in the Pine Forest cemetery in Wilmington, N.C., reads:

“JIP” JONES
BORN SEPT. 24, 1894
DIED MAY 18, 1904

THIS WAS THE ONLY DOG WE EVER KNEW
THAT ATTENDED CHURCH EVERY SUNDAY

Actually, dogs commonly attended services in former times. Indeed, until the 19th century, they could be so numerous that churches employed “dog whippers” to remove unruly dogs during services. The Great Church of St. Bavo in Haarlem, the Netherlands, contains a carving of the hondenslager at work (above).

The 18th-century zoologist Carl Linnaeus used to attend mass with his dog Pompe. Linnaeus always left after an hour, regardless of whether the sermon was finished. It’s said that when he was sick Pompe would arrive at the service alone, stay for the customary hour, and depart.

“Heaven goes by favor,” wrote Mark Twain. “If it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in.”

Eccentric Cricket

http://books.google.com/books?id=iq4vAAAAMAAJ

From Edmund Fillingham King’s Ten Thousand Wonderful Things, 1860:

On the 9th of August, 1796, a cricket match was played by eleven Greenwich pensioners with one leg, against eleven with one arm, for one thousand guineas, at the new cricket ground, Montpelier gardens, Walworth. At nine o’clock the men arrived in three Greenwich stages; about twelve the wickets were pitched, and they commenced. Those with but one leg had the first innings, and got 93 runs; those with but one arm got but 42 runs during their innings. The one-leg commenced their second innings, and six were bowled out after they had got 60 runs; so that they left off one hundred and eleven more than those with one arm. Next morning the match was played out; and the men with one leg beat the one-arms by one hundred and three runs. After the match was finished the eleven one-legged men ran a sweep-stakes of one hundred yards distance for twenty guineas, and the three had first prizes.

From Henry Colburn’s London “calendar of amusements,” 1840:

http://books.google.com/books?id=6eE-AAAAYAAJ

From “Eccentric Cricket Matches,” Strand, 1903:

A few winters ago, when a fine stretch of water in Sheffield Park was frozen over, his lordship [the Earl of Sheffield] organized a match on the ice, in which several of his house guests appeared. All the players used skates, the wicket-keeper, as might be imagined, having no little difficulty to keep still, and the bowlers being continually no-balled for running, or rather skating, over the crease. The beauty of ice-cricket lies in the fact that the batsman may score half-a-dozen runs while the fieldsman is endeavouring to regain his feet and pick up the ball, which may be lodged in a bank of snow.

http://books.google.com/books?id=iq4vAAAAMAAJ

No Man’s Lands

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mitchell_Map-06full2.jpg

Lake Superior contains a phantom island. After the American Revolution, the Treaty of Paris established the boundary between the United States and Canada as running “through Lake Superior northward of the Isles Royal and Phelipeaux to the Long Lake,” following an inaccurate map created by John Mitchell. In the 1820s surveyors discovered that Phelipeaux does not exist, and the boundary had to be negotiated anew.

Around the same time, the dramatically named Mountains of Kong appeared on maps of West Africa, apparently placed there originally by English cartographer James Rennell. It wasn’t until the 1880s that French explorer Louis Gustave Binger discovered that they don’t exist either. They persisted in Goode’s World Atlas until 1995.

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Guinea_from_Milner%27s_Atlas.jpg

The Isdal Woman

On Nov. 29, 1970, on a remote hiking trail in Norway’s Isdalen Valley, a university professor and his two daughters discovered the body of a woman lying in a burned-out campfire. In the grass around her were a dozen pink sleeping pills, a packed lunch, an empty quart bottle of liqueur, and two plastic bottles that smelled of gasoline. She had died from a combination of burns and carbon monoxide poisoning, and an autopsy showed traces of at least 50 sleeping pills in her body. Her neck bore a bruise, possibly the result of a blow.

In the ensuing investigation, Bergen police found that the woman had visited the city three times between March and November that year. On the last visit she had checked into the Hotel Rosenkrantz for one day, then moved to the Hotel Holberg, where she had remained in her room and seemed watchful. On Nov. 23 she paid cash for the room and asked the receptionist to call a taxi for her. Her body was found six days later.

Her identity was an insoluble puzzle. She had checked into the Holberg as a Belgian named Elisabeth Leenhower, but police discovered that she had maintained at least nine different identities and spoke German, English, Dutch, and French, all with an indistinct accent. She had left two suitcases in a locker at the train station, but all identifying information had been removed: The labels had been cut out of her clothes, and even the name tag of a bottle of cream had been scraped away. Sketches of the woman were circulated throughout Norway, but no one knew her.

After interviewing 100 people in a three-week investigation, the police formally ruled her death a suicide. On Feb. 5, 1971, a procession of 18 officers bore her to the cemetery where she lies today. Her identity has never been discovered.

See The Somerton Man.

A Distilled Impression

kettle anamorphosis

Henry Kettle painted this pyramid anamorphosis around 1770. If a mirrored pyramid is placed at the center of the canvas, then each of its sides reflects a portion of one of the four distorted heads … producing a true hidden portrait when viewed from above.

Big Time

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Comparison_four_face_clocks.jpg
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Some notable clock faces: the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company Tower in Manhattan (upper left), the Palace of Westminster in London (upper right), the Allen-Bradley Clock Tower in Milwaukee (lower left), the Spasskaya Tower at the Kremlin (lower right), and the Abraj Al Bait tower in Mecca (center).

Unbelievably, these are shown to scale. Each of the four faces on the Abraj Al Bait is 43 meters square; the minute hand alone is 22 meters long.

The Palace of Westminster is unusual in that its clock uses the numeral IV — most clocks with Roman numerals use IIII in the fourth position, for unclear reasons.

The Pyramid Cemetery

willson pyramid

In 1830, architect Thomas Willson proposed housing London’s dead in a gigantic pyramid, “a metropolitan cemetery on a scale commensurate with the necessities of the largest city in the world, embracing prospectively the demands of centuries, sufficiently capacious to receive 5,000,000 of the dead, where they may repose in perfect security, without interfering with the comfort, the health, the business, the property, or the pursuits of the living.”

Willson’s necropolis would have covered 18 acres but would consolidate graves that would require 50 times that space in a conventional graveyard. With a base the size of Russell Square and a height greater than St. Paul’s, its granite-faced bulk would surpass the great pyramid of Giza. Through an Egyptian portal visitors would enter a surrounding enclosure decorated with statuary, cenotaphs, and monuments, as well as a chapel, a register office, and dwellings for the keeper, the clerk, the sexton, and the superintendent. They could ascend any side of the pyramid by a vast flight of stairs, at the top reaching an obelisk crowned with an observatory.

“This grand mausoleum,” Willson announced, “will go far towards completing the glory of London. It will rise in majesty over its splendid fanes and lofty towers,–teaching the living to die, and the dying to live for ever.” The cost he estimated at £2.5 million, but with 30,000 interments per year at £5 each, the pyramid would bring in £150,000 per year, saving £12.5 million over the course of a century in a project whose necessity, sadly, was certain to endure.

“However, the pyramid cemetery, instead of rearing its gloomy mountain-side into the clouds, and casting the shadow of death over every part of London in succession in the course of the day, exists only upon paper,” runs a contemporary report. “The dividends were too remote, and joint-stock people would not wait one hundred years for one hundred per cent.”

(Thanks, Ron.)

Tit for Tat

On March 19, 1884, the French cargo ship Frigorifique was cruising through heavy fog in the Bay of Biscay when the British steamer Rumney loomed out of nowhere and struck it amidships. The French crew scrambled aboard the Rumney, and their own ship disappeared into the fog.

Some time later, while the injured Rumney was still lowering its boats, another ship hove out of the fog and struck it amidships. This proved to be the empty Frigorifique — her jammed rudder had led her in a great circle through the fog to return for a second collision.

Both ships sank this time, but the crews escaped safely in the Rumney‘s lifeboats.