“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

A Well-Tempered Cartwheel


From Strand, August 1906:

A circular canon is so named not because of its circular form, but because it completes the circle of fifths–i.e., it goes through all the keys, each a perfect fifth above the other, until it returns to the original key. The one under notice is written in triple counterpoint, any part sounding equally well in the top, middle, or lowest voice, and each bar is in three different keys at once, all harmonizing.

This rendering is a bit indistinct, I’m afraid — if I can find a clearer version I’ll post it.

The Grey Town Noises

In Nature, May 12, 1870, captain Charles Dennehy of the R.M.S. Shannon noted “a very curious phenomenon” observed by the occupants of iron vessels off the port of Grey Town, Nicaragua.

“[W]hile at anchor in this situation, we hear, commencing with a marvellous punctuality at about midnight, a peculiar metallic vibratory sound, of sufficient loudness to awaken a great majority of the ship’s crew, however tired they may be after a hard day’s work.”

The sound, Dennehy said, converted the ship into “a great musical sounding board.” “It is musical, metallic, with a certain cadence, and a one-two-three time tendency of beat. It is heard most distinctly over open hatchways, over the engine-room, through the coal-shoots [sic], and close round the outside of the ship. It cannot be fixed at any one place, always appearing to recede from the observer. On applying the ear to the side of an open bunker, one fancies that it is proceeding from the very bottom of the hold.” It continued for about two hours, was heard only aboard iron vessels, and was unknown to the inhabitants on shore.

Denney’s letter brought responses from readers who referred to similar sounds in Trinidad, India, and Chile. They postulated a “musical fish” or gas rising from vegetation on the seabed but offered no conclusive explanation.

Curiously, William Corliss notes that the sounds’ descriptions seem to match the Yellowstone Lake whispers.

The Absence Paradox

If you are somewhere else, you are not here.

You are not in Rome; you are somewhere else.

Therefore you are not here.

Dueling Doppelgängers


When World War I broke out in August 1914, Germany enlisted a large ocean liner, the Cap Trafalgar, to attack British merchant ships around Cape Horn. While at a supply base on Trinidade, it was surprised by the HMS Carmania, a British liner that had been similarly pressed into service by the British navy.

The two enormous ships squared off and fought a murderous sea battle. In the end the Cap Trafalgar sank, and the Carmania limped away to a Brazilian port.

An observer might still have wondered which side won — by an ironic coincidence, the Cap Trafalgar had been disguised as the Carmania and the Carmania as the Cap Trafalgar.

Missing Person

At 5 p.m. on Dec. 2, 1919, Canadian theater magnate Ambrose Small met with a lawyer in his Toronto office. The lawyer departed at 5:30 p.m. Between 5:30 and 6:00, Small vanished.

No one saw him leave the office, and no body was ever found. The disappearance seemed senseless. Small was a self-made millionaire; no money was missing, there was no evidence of kidnapping, and no ransom note was ever received.

Curiously, writer Ambrose Bierce had disappeared in Mexico six years earlier. Charles Fort wondered, “Was somebody collecting Ambroses?”

Swing Time


Jazz pianist Billy Tipton was biologically female. She lived as a man from age 19 to her death at 74, when the truth was discovered.

Born in 1914, Dorothy Tipton developed an early love of jazz, but sexism in the music industry and the straitened economy of the Depression made it impossible to find work. In 1933 she donned trousers and her father’s nickname and began playing in Oklahoma bars.

By the 1940s she was touring the country, and in the 1950s the Billy Tipton Trio released two albums for Tops Records and performed with Duke Ellington, Patti Page, and Rosemary Clooney. Arthritis finally forced Billy’s retirement in the 1970s.

Throughout all this Tipton had relationships with at least five women, including nightclub dancer Kitty Kelly, with whom she raised three adopted sons. She bound her chest, ostensibly to protect ribs fractured in an auto accident, and she always locked the bathroom door. Son William learned of his father’s sex only when a paramedic working on the dying Tipton asked, “Son, did your father have a sex change?”

Why keep a secret for 55 years? Tipton left no account of her reasons, and perhaps it’s none of our business. “I can’t say that passion wasn’t there with Billy, because it was,” said former lover Betty Cox, who insisted she never suspected Billy’s sex even during intimacy. “Now, 40 or 50 years later, you see these cross-dressers all the time on TV. You can certainly tell. Even on TV. I can look at a person and say, ‘Gee, that’s obviously a woman.’ Why couldn’t I then?”

Point of Interest

A few miles to the northeast of Woodstock lies the village of Saugerties, and just before entering it, Routes 212 and 32 come together. We do not know who first gave this juncture the name of Fahrenheit Corners, but as a large IBM plant is in the vicinity, we may reasonably suspect one of its more whimsical employees.

Journal of Recreational Mathematics, October 1981

Aging Fast

The California Court of Appeal faced a curious philosophical question in 1989: Do you become a year older on your birthday, or on the preceding day?

Paul Johnson had committed a robbery in San Francisco on Aug. 12, 1988, one day before his 18th birthday. The prosecution had charged him as an adult, arguing that “A person is in existence on the day of his birth. On the first anniversary he or she has lived one year and one day.”

Is that so? The appeals court didn’t buy it — Justice William Channell overruled the prior decisions and had Johnson tried as a juvenile.

Bad Dogs

Pep and Lady

Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary got an unusual inmate in 1924: “Pep the cat-murdering dog,” a black Labrador retriever who was allegedly incarcerated for killing the first lady’s favorite pet. In truth Pep was donated to the prison by governor Gifford Pinchot to improve morale; he was transferred to nearby Graterford Penitentiary in 1929.

Pep’s example was followed by Lady, a beagle who belonged to the captain of the prison’s guards. She posed for the second picture in 1957.

In American Notes, Dickens recalled that one inmate at Eastern State kept a rabbit in his cell; others kept birds and cats. And the prison was later home to Al Capone, who had some unusual quarters of his own.

Night Owl

Albert Herpin, born in France in 1862 and for fifteen years a hostler in the employ of Freeholder Walter Phares of this city, declares that he has not slept a wink during the past ten years. Notwithstanding this, he is in perfect health, and does not seem to suffer any discomfort from his remarkable condition. He goes to bed regularly, but says he never closes his eyes, or at least never for an instant loses consciousness of all going on about him. In the morning he arises refreshed and ready for another day’s work among the horses. He declares the change of position and the darkness of the room seem to give him all the rest he desires.

— “Hasn’t Slept in Ten Years,” New York Times, Feb. 29, 1904

“Singular Circumstance”

The following anecdote appears so marvellous, that we can scarcely expect it to obtain general belief; but it has been transmitted to us by a most respectable correspondent; a correspondent who is far from being credulous himself, and who has no interest in deceiving others:–‘The other day, a horse belonging to Mr. Thomas Johnstone, tenant on the estate of Major Culton of Auchenabony, having lost a shoe, and probably feeling his foot somewhat uneasy from the want of it, left the field where he was grazing, and went to a smithy about a mile distant, where he used to be shod. On arriving, he was observed to pause a few minutes, as if in expectation that the owner of the house would come out, and introduce him in due form; but finding nobody in attendance, he walked in, placed himself in the corner where he used to stand during the operation of shoeing; and on the smith’s coming in, he instantly made known his errand by holding up the shoeless foot. Soon after, the owner of the horse having missed him, came to the smithy in the course of his search, and to his no small surprise, found THE SMITH ENGAGED IN PUTTING ON A SHOE!’

— “Dumfries paper,” quoted in The Kaleidoscope, July 10, 1821

An Obscure Exit

On June 3, 1872, retired Navy captain George Colvocoresses bought a ticket for the boat from Bridgeport, Conn., to New York, where he had an appointment the next day with an insurance agent. He put a leather valise in his stateroom and dined in the restaurant, where he was observed to keep a small morocco traveling bag in his lap. At 10:30 a local druggist sold him some writing paper and envelopes and indicated the best route back to the boat. Just as the boat was putting off, a pistol shot was heard, and a policeman found Colvocoresses dying in the street.

His clothing was unbuttoned, and his shirt was on fire at the point where the bullet had entered, about 6 inches below the left breast. His possessions were near him except for the traveling bag, which was later found on a Naugatuck wharf, cut open with a dull knife. Diagonally across the street from the body was a large old-fashioned horse pistol. On the following day, percussion caps, a bullet, and a powder horn were found about 60 feet from where the body had been discovered.

Was this murder or suicide? Colvocoresses had recently increased the insurance on his life to $198,500, and it was claimed that the pistol’s hammer fitted an indentation in his bag. But a physician testified that it would be impossible for a man to shoot himself and then throw the pistol across the street, and the captain was healthy, on good terms with his family, and had adequate means.

After a long fight the insurance companies agreed to pay 50 cents on the dollar. That’s all we know.

Thunder Down Under

Concerning the strange and inexplicable sounds heard by travellers in various parts of the world, there have been from time to time many interesting reports. Among the most curious of these are perhaps the accounts met with in the narratives of Australian explorers. … Stuart mentions that one morning, when in the interior, among the red sandhills of the inhospitable desert, he was startled by hearing a loud, clear, reverberating explosion, like the booming of artillery. These noises, which have been frequently observed in sandy districts, seem to come with an explosive echo from the sandhills, and reverberate for a considerable time amongst the surrounding mountains. Sounds of a like kind have alarmed most of the Australian explorers. Captain Sturt, who followed the course of the Darling River in 1828, describes an extraordinary sound which about three in the afternoon, on a day in the month of February of that year, astonished himself and party. ‘The day,’ he says, ‘had been remarkably fine, not a cloud was there in the heavens, nor a breath of air to be felt. On a sudden we heard what seemed to be the report of a gun fired at the distance of between five and six miles. It was not the hollow sound of an earthy explosion, or the sharp, cracking noise of falling timber, but in every way resembled a discharge of a heavy piece of ordnance. On this all the men agreed, but no one was certain whence the sound proceeded. Both Mr. Hume and myself, however, thought it came from the north-west. I immediately sent one of the men up a tree, but he could observe nothing unusual. The country around him appeared to be equally flat on all sides, and to be thickly wooded. Whatever occasioned the report, it made a strong impression on all of us, and to this day the singularity of such a sound in such a situation is a matter of mystery to me.’

— “Natural Sounds,” The People’s Magazine, Jan. 12, 1867

See Brontides.