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



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.'”