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.

Fire Alarm


On July 21, 1759, Emanuel Swedenborg attended a dinner party after returning to Gothenburg from England. He went out for a short interval and returned pale and agitated. He told the party that a fire had broken out in Stockholm, 250 miles away, and that it was spreading quickly. He said it had already destroyed the house of one of his friends, whom he named, and that his own house was in danger. Two hours later he exclaimed, “Thank God! The fire is extinguished the third door from my house.”

The following morning the governor questioned Swedenborg, who provided a description of the fire, including how it had begun and ended, and word spread throughout the city. Two days later a messenger arrived from Stockholm bearing letters that confirmed Swedenborg’s account, and a royal courier brought news reporting the extent of the fire, the houses it had damaged and destroyed, and the time it was put out. All confirmed Swedenborg’s description.

“What can be brought forward against the authenticity of this occurrence?” wrote Immanuel Kant, who elsewhere criticized Swedenborg’s mysticism. “My friend who wrote this to me, has not only examined the circumstances of this extraordinary case at Stockholm, but also, about two months ago, at Gottenburg, where he is acquainted with the most respectable houses, and where he could obtain the most authentic and complete information, as the greatest part of the inhabitants, who are still alive, were witnesses to the memorable occurrence.”



It has been recorded by reliable authority that near the graves of Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, and his wife, there stood a venerable apple-tree which had sent two of its roots into the graves of Mr. and Mrs. Williams. The larger root had pushed its way through the earth till it reached the precise spot occupied by the skull of Roger Williams. There, making a turn, as if going round the skull, it followed the direction of the backbone to the hips. Here it divided into two branches, sending one of them along each leg to the heel, where both turned upward to the toes. One of these roots formed a slight crook at the knee, which made the whole bear close resemblance to a human form. There were the graves, emptied of every particle of human dust. Not a trace of any thing was left. There stood the guilty ‘apple-tree,’ as it was said at the time, caught in the very act of ‘robbing the grave.’ The fact proved conclusively that bones, even of human beings, are an excellent fertilizer for fruit-trees; and the fact must be admitted that the organic matter of Roger Williams had been transmitted into the apple-tree; it had passed into the woody fibre, and was capable of propelling a steam-engine; it had bloomed in the apple-blossoms, and had become pleasant to the eye; and more, it had gone into the fruit from year to year, so that the question might be asked, Who ate Roger Williams?

– Sereno Edwards Todd, The Apple Culturist, 1871



In 1906, while serving in the Navy, Albert Moodie of Austin, Texas, wrote a letter to a shipmate. That wouldn’t normally be noteworthy — but Moodie wrote this letter on the regulation tape that battleships use for receiving wireless messages.

“It took me some two weeks to complete the task,” he reported, “as there is a continuous letter from the beginning to the end of the tape — a distance of over a mile.”

Moodie called it “the longest letter in the world.” His friend received it — and answered it.

In a Word

n. waking up

n. ill humor in the morning; “getting up on the wrong side of the bed”

“An Extraordinary Sleeper at Newcastle”

In the year 1752, during the summer, the following particulars happened at Newcastle, in Staffordshire, related by a lady of discernment and veracity, who went to see the sleeper several times. She was a girl about 19 years of age; she slept 14 weeks, without waking, although several methods were tried to wake her, as bleeding, blistering, &c.; in all which time she took no sustenance, except about nine o’clock every night, she opened her mouth, and then some person that attended her, dipped a feather in wine, and with that wetted the inside of her mouth. Her father often gave her an airing in a horse chair, and sometimes took her several miles, to have the advice of the physicians; but neither the motion of travelling, nor any thing the physicians could do, could awake her; she appeared to be healthy all the time, breathed freely, and her pulse beat very regularly, but rather too slow; she never moved herself all the time, except once, it is thought, she moved one leg. When she awaked, it was very gradually, being two or three days from the time she began to stir and open her eyes, before she was quite awake, and then seemed to be very well, but complained of faintness. I heard, last summer, that she had good health, and had no return of her sleepiness.

Gentleman’s Magazine, 1753, quoted in Kirby’s Wonderful and Eccentric Museum, 1820

“Capture of a Whale in the Thames”

A curious old tract in the British Museum, bearing the date of 1658, gives an account of a wonderful capture of a whale in the Thames, not far from Greenwich, in the month of June of that year. The sailors in the river were, of course, anxious to secure the huge monster who had been so rash as to invade our shores; but they found no slight difficulty in despatching it. All sorts of swords, axes, and hatchets, and even guns were brought into the service; but nothing effectual could be done till some one’s ingenuity suggested striking a couple of anchors into the creature’s body. By these it was held fast, and very soon bled to death. Hundreds of people flocked to see the monstrous stranger, and among others went Evelyn, author of the ‘Diary,’ who has left us a curious account of it. It was of no contemptible size, being fifty-eight feet long, twelve feet high, fourteen feet broad, and measured two feet between the eyes.

The World of Wonders, 1883

The Fateful L

Harry B. Partridge points out that most presidents whose names have contained a penultimate L — Ronald Reagan, Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, Franklin Roosevelt, John Fitzgerald Kennedy — have died in office or survived an assassination attempt. He speculates that Gerald Ford survived because he was born Leslie Lynch King Jr., and that Theodore Roosevelt was divinely spared because THEO means God. (James Polk died three months after leaving office.)

Partridge also notes that a name with patronymic prefix (Mc, Fitz, etc.) is invariably fatal. To date there have been only two: William McKinley and John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

See Tecumseh’s Curse.

King Without a Country


Pity James Harden-Hickey — he founded a nation and no one believed him.

In 1893, newly rich after marrying into steel money, the American adventurer stopped at the empty island of Trinidad in the South Atlantic (not its larger namesake in the Caribbean) and, fancying a military dictatorship, proclaimed himself James I.

To his credit, Harden-Hickey did everything he could to legitimize his claim, but it’s hard to get these things off the ground. He named a secretary of state; opened a consular office in New York; established a flag, postage stamps, and a coat of arms; and began to sell bonds. After only two years, though, Britain seized the island for a telegraph station, occasioning a dispute with Brazil, and Harden-Hickey’s protests brought him only ridicule in the popular press.

Bold to the last, Harden-Hickey even tried to arrange an invasion of England from Ireland, but he couldn’t arrange financing. In 1898 he took an overdose of morphine, leaving behind a note to his wife–and the crown of his quondam nation.

Phantom Islands

In 1823, American explorer Benjamin Morrell reported hunting seal along a coastline in the Weddell Sea near Antarctica. The land, he wrote, abounded in sea elephants and “oceanic birds of every description.” No one has been able to rediscover Morrell’s land, and in the 20th century it was shown conclusively to have disappeared.

In 1841 the English whaler James Stewart described a snow-covered island 5 to 6 miles long in the South Pacific. Other ships confirmed its existence in 1860 and 1886. But subsequent searches found nothing. John Davis of the Nimrod, who searched the area in 1909, wrote, “I am inclined to think Dougherty Island has melted.”

For nearly 30 years, India and Bangladesh disputed an island in the Bay of Bengal. In 2010 rising sea levels solved the problem: The island has disappeared. “What these two countries could not achieve from years of talking,” said Jadavpur University oceanographer Sugata Hazra, “has been resolved by global warming.”

(Thanks, Shrey.)

For Your Consideration


I send you a photograph of a snake made of postage-stamps. It contains, I believe, from fifteen thousand to twenty thousand stamps. The only portion not made of stamps is the head, which is of black velvet, with eyes of white beads, also teeth of beads; the fang is a match stuck into the mouth. The snake was made by Mrs. Membury, of Hyde Corner, Bridport, Dorset, and took about three years to complete. The length is four feet nine inches.

Strand, March 1907

Shades of Gray


An optical illusion. The gray bars on the left appear lighter than those on the right, but in fact they’re the same color.

Roll Call

The taking of the United States census, now nearly completed, has brought to light some curious specimens of given names. A man in Illinois has five children, who have been christened Imprimis, Finis, Appendix, Addendum, and Erratum. In Smythe County, Virginia, a Mr. Elmadoras Sprinkle has called his two sons Myrtle Ellmore and Onyx Curwen, and his six daughters Memphis Tappan, Empress Vandalia, Tatnia Zain, Okeno Molette, Og Wilt, and Wintosse Emmah. The great number of persons surnamed Sprinkle in that county is given as the excuse for these extraordinary names.

Notes and Queries, Dec. 10, 1870


Merrimack College mathematician Michael J. Bradley was coaching his son’s Little League team in 1996 when he noticed something odd in the rulebook:

Home base shall be marked by a five-sided slab of whitened rubber. It shall be a 12-inch square with two of the corners filled in so that one edge is 17 inches long, two are 8 1/2 inches and two are 12 inches.

non-euclidean home plate

That’s impossible. “The figure implies the existence of a right isosceles triangle with sides 12, 12 and 17. But (12, 12, 17) is not (quite) a Pythagorean triple: 122 + 122 = 288; 172 = 289.”

“Thus, these specifications seem to give new meaning to a ‘Field of Dreams.’”



New England got unexpectedly clobbered in March 1888 when 40 inches of snow fell in a day and a half. Businesses were closed and streetcars abandoned as screaming winds whipped the drifts into house-devouring hills as deep as 50 feet. Thirty trains were paralyzed near New York City, their passengers taken in by nearby residents, and the city’s fire engines lay mired in the streets, unable to respond to calls. “Despatches between Boston and New York were sent by way of London” due to downed lines, reported the Albany Cultivator & Country Gentlemen, and “for two hours on Tuesday people crossed the East river on an ice floe brought up by the tide.”

The forecast had been “clearing and colder, preceded by light snow.”

Double Takes

A Yorkshire police constable sent this image to the Strand in 1907: “This photograph of dog and puppies was about to be thrown away as a failure, when on turning the picture sideways it was found that the dog’s body has the appearance of a man’s head”:


This undated photo seems to reveal the image of a bearded Jesus:

double takes - jesus image

And Bohemian artist Wenzel Hollar etched Landschafts-Kopf in the 17th century:


Is it a portrait or a landscape?

The Girt Dog of Ennerdale


In 1810, a mysterious creature began killing sheep in northern England. Between May and September it defied the entire county of Cumberland, killing up to eight sheep a night despite being hunted nearly continuously. The “girt dog” never attacked the same flock on successive nights; it ignored poisoned meat left for it and led frustrated farmers on fruitless chases of 20 miles and more, occasionally turning to savage the forelegs of the pursuing dogs but never uttering a sound.

Finally, in September, the creature was run to ground near the Ehen River and shot. In four months it had killed more than 300 sheep. The carcass, which weighed 112 pounds, was stuffed and set up in a museum in Keswick, though it’s since been lost. Its description — a tawny dog with a tiger’s stripes — curiously matches that of the thylacine (above), a wolflike marsupial native to Tasmania. Possibly an exotic predator had escaped from a traveling menagerie and found itself peculiarly adapted to Cumberland farmland. We’ll never know.

For What It’s Worth

A paper received from Natal Africa contains an article by Rev. Josiah Tyler on the similarity of Jewish and Zulu customs. Among them we mention several: The feast of first fruits, rejection of swine’s flesh, right of circumcision, the slayer of the king not allowed to live, Zulu girls go upon the mountains and mourn days and nights, saying ‘Hoi! Hoi!’ like Jepthah’s daughter, traditions of the universal deluge, and of the passage of Red Sea; great men have servants to pour water on their hands; the throwing stones into a pile; blood sprinkled on houses. The authors’ belief is that the Zulus were cradled in the land of the Bible. Certain customs are mentioned which may be ascribed to the primitive tribal organism. These are as follows: Marriages commonly among their own tribe; uncle called father, nephew a son, niece a daughter; inheritance descends from father to eldest son. If there are no sons it goes to the paternal uncle. A surmise has been advanced by some that the relics of the Queen of Sheba’s palace may be found in certain ancient ruins described by Peterman, Baines and others, and the Ophir of scripture has been located at Sofala, an African port.

The American Antiquarian, January 1885

“This Prodigious Child”


Born to an Enfield miller in February 1779, Thomas Hills Everitt began to grow apace after six weeks, and it soon became clear that he was a young giant. When he reached 9 months and 2 weeks a local surgeon compared his dimensions to those of a 7-year-old boy:


His height at that point was 3 foot 1, and his weight was estimated at 9 stone.

Eventually his parents moved to London and began to exhibit him to the public; he was said to be well proportioned, with fine hair, pure skin, an expressive face, and a good temper, and he “subsisted entirely on the breast.” The surgeon hoped he might live to some enormous maturity, but he died in 1780, at about 18 months.

The Hermit of Niagara

This is rather romantically obscure: On June 18, 1829, a stranger arrived on the American side of Niagara Falls and took a room at a local hotel. His name was Francis Abbott, and after viewing the falls he declared himself so enchanted that he extended his stay from a few days to a week, and then to a month. Eventually he took up residence in an old cottage on Goat Island, where he lived alone contemplating the falls for some 20 months. Occasionally he could be seen walking precariously along a single beam of timber that projected over the flood at the Terrapin Bridge. On June 10, 1831, he disappeared while bathing in the water, and on June 21 his body was discovered downstream at Fort Niagara.

Abbott had shunned society increasingly, but the villagers who had interacted with him could assemble a picture. He was an English gentleman of a finished education, skilled in music and drawing, and had visited Egypt, Palestine, Turkey, Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and France. He wrote in Latin but destroyed his compositions. When the villagers investigated his hut they found his dog at the door and his cat on the bed; his guitar, his violin, flutes, and music books were scattered about, but his portfolio and the leaves of a large book were blank.

“What, it will be asked, could have broken up and destroyed such a mind as Francis Abbott’s?” asked the New York Mirror. “What could have driven him from the society he was so well qualified to adorn — and what transform him, noble in person and in intellect, into an isolated anchorite, shunning the association of his fellow-men? The history of his misfortunes is not known, and the cause of his unhappiness and seclusion will, undoubtedly, to us be ever a mystery.”

“Something Like a Warning”


Being on a main road in Ashwell, Hertfordshire, this gate, with its peculiar inscriptions, naturally causes much comment. It stands on a field belonging to Mr. C.H.P. Walkden, whose orchard has suffered severe depredations, and shows his philosophical endeavour to cope with the evildoers.

Strand, July 1908

Placebo Buttons

In most elevators installed since the early 1990s, the “close door” button has no effect. Otis Elevator engineers confirmed the fact to the Wall Street Journal in 2003.

Similarly, many office thermostats are dummies, designed to give workers the illusion of control. “You just get tired of dealing with them and you screw in a cheap thermostat,” said Illinois HVAC specialist Richard Dawson. “Guess what? They quit calling you.”

In 2004 the New York Times reported that more than 2,500 of the 3,250 “walk” buttons in New York intersections do nothing. “The city deactivated most of the pedestrian buttons long ago with the emergence of computer-controlled traffic signals, even as an unwitting public continued to push on.”

(Thanks, Tad.)

Lost and Found

In early April 1922, a little girl, Pauline Picard, disappeared from her parents’ farm in Brittany. Searches turned up no clues, and eventually it was thought that she had been carried off by gypsies.

Then word came from Cherbourg that a girl had been found who matched Pauline’s description. The parents hurried to claim her, but they found that the girl did not seem to know them, and she remained silent when addressed in Breton. They returned with her to their village, where the neighbors recognized her, and the attending policeman was satisfied she was Pauline Picard.

Then, in May, a farmer crossing a local field discovered the mutilated body of a young girl. She could not be identified, but her parents recognized Pauline’s clothes.

The New York Times reported: “Although it would seem almost incredible that the parents should make a mistake, the Picards are now uncertain whether the child they have been nursing for more than a month is really their own, and the police are faced by a three-fold task — to discover the murderer, identify the murdered child, and, if she is proved to be Pauline Picard, discover the identity of the little girl from Cherbourg.”

I can’t find any record that they succeeded.

“A Clock Made of Straw”


“There is probably no more unsuitable material with which to build a clock than straw. Yet this has been accomplished recently by a German shoemaker, who, during his leisure time, has made the ingenious piece of mechanism illustrated herewith. One would think that at least certain of the movable parts, or the springs, would be fashioned of some hard material such as bone, wood, or metal, yet nothing else was employed but straw. The figures, hands, dial, pendulums, chain, weight, gears, and the whole skeleton consist of this breakable stuff. By pressing a button, which comes out automatically on one side, the clockwork is wound up, and runs for five hours. There are eight pendulums, which allow regulation of speed. The chain is fourteen inches long and without end, like that of a bicycle. The diameter of the dial is eight inches. There were probably some thousands of stalks used in the work, each being three and four fold, to give more strength, one sliding within the other. No less than fifteen years was required to complete this wonderful clock.”

Strand, July 1908

A Bad Night

In October 1845, the owner of a Boston brothel awoke to find that one of his prostitutes, Maria Bickford, had been nearly decapitated with a razor. Bickford’s companion, Albert Tirrell, was nowhere to be found but had been seen recently on the premises, and his cane and bits of his clothing were found near the body.

Tirrell was discovered in New Orleans and brought back for trial. His lawyer argued that Bickford might have been killed by her own hand or by a third party — or that Tirrell might have done it while sleepwalking. The defendant had a noted history of walking in his sleep, one that was confirmed by doctors. As recently as September, a cousin testified, Tirrell had pulled him out of bed and brandished a knife. “Somnambulism explain[s] … the killing without a motive,” the lawyer argued. “Premeditated murder does not.”

After less than two hours’ deliberation, the jury declared Tirrell not guilty — the first successful such murder defense in American legal history.