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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.

CMU’s Kilroy

Just as Georgia Tech has George P. Burdell, Carnegie Mellon has Harry Q. Bovik, an invisible but dedicated student/researcher/ghost/mascot whose long tenure at the institution has produced an impressive list of achievements.

According to his personal page, Bovik has served as a science consultant to the Weekly World News, a White House fellow, and a project scientist at the Millenium Falcon Engineering Company.

Currently he’s a senior computer scientist at CMU, where his office is famously hard to find, and his work has inspired an annual conference.

Happily, he’s also kept up with the times: He has a LinkedIn profile and a Facebook page.

Shadow Governments


In 1907 an anonymous turner produced a vase that threw a shadow of Queen Victoria.

Seventy years later, for the Silver Jubilee in 1977, a vase was produced that evoked the profiles of both Prince Philip and Elizabeth II.

Is this a tradition? It might lead us to see too much.

“An Egg as a Rat-Trap”


I send you a photograph showing the untimely fate which befell a too inquisitive rat. It had managed to force its way into an ostrich egg, but then found that getting out was quite another matter, and so perished in the miserable manner shown in the following picture, which was sent to me by Mr. William Fisher, Mahalapye, B. Bechuanaland. — Miss G. Gardiner, 78, Guilford Street, W.C.

Strand, July 1908

See “A Man Drowned by a Crab” and “A Rat Caught by an Oyster.”

An Extraordinary Coincidence


As Thomas Young was struggling to decipher the Rosetta Stone, a traveler gave him a parcel of Egyptian manuscripts. Among the baffling hieroglyphics he noted three names written in Greek: Apollonius, Antigonus, and Antimachus. As he was puzzling over the rest, a friend gave him some papyri he had purchased at Thebes in 1820. Two of these contained some Greek characters, and Young began to examine them impatiently.

He “could scarcely believe that I was awake, and in my sober senses” when he saw the words Antimachus Antigenis and, a few lines further back, Portis Apollonii. It was a Greek translation of the very Egyptian manuscript he had been wrestling with!

“I could not, therefore, but conclude, that a most extraordinary chance had brought into my possession a document which was not very likely, in the first place, ever to have existed, still less to have been preserved uninjured, for my information, through a period of near two thousand years: but that this very extraordinary translation should have been brought safely to Europe, to England, and to me, at the very moment when it was most of all desirable to me to possess it, as the illustration of an original which I was then studying, but without any other reasonable hope of being able fully to comprehend it.”

“This combination would, in other times, have been considered as affording ample evidence of my having become an Egyptian sorcerer.”

Orderly Exits

But the superstitious noted that the death of Prince Albert Victor on a Thursday broke a remarkable spell or curse which had hung over the present royal family of England for more than a century and three-quarters — bringing about the death of all the prominent members of that family on Saturdays. William III died Saturday, March 18, 1702; Queen Anne died Saturday, August 1, 1714; George I died Saturday, June 10, 1727; George II died Saturday, October 25, 1760; George III died Saturday, January 29, 1820; George IV died Saturday, June 26, 1830; the Duchess of Kent died Saturday, March 16, 1861; the Prince Consort, husband of Queen Victoria and grandfather of the recent deceased Prince Albert Victor, died Saturday, December 14, 1861; Princess Alice of Hesse-Darmstadt, Victoria’s second daughter, and sister of Albert, died Saturday, December 14, 1878. The shadows which overhung the late prince’s life are said to have been darkened by a superstitious fear which caused him to keep close in-doors on Saturdays.

– William Shepard Walsh, Handy-Book of Literary Curiosities, 1892

The Chatata Wall


In 1891, J.H. Hooper found what he thought was a buried headstone on his farm in Bradley County, Tenn. On excavating it he found that the stone was part of a sandstone wall, about 16 feet of whose length was covered with unreadable marks arranged in wavy, nearly parallel lines.

A small sensation ensued. “Some of these forms recall those on the Dighton Rock,” wrote A.L. Rawson that year in the Transactions of the New York Academy of Sciences, “and may belong to the same age. How many other hidden inscriptions there may be in this, the geologically oldest continent, it is impossible to say but delightful to conjecture.”

Others thought they saw duplicates among the characters, as well as drawings of birds and animals. Could the inscription be Hebrew? Had the Lost Tribes of Israel somehow found their way to prehistoric Tennessee? No, as it turns out: Today it’s thought the marks were made … by mollusks.

“The Most Desperate Naval Battle”

On the twenty-third of December, 1757, the British privateer Terrible, Captain William Death (who had Devil for his lieutenant and Ghost for his surgeon), of twenty-six guns and two hundred men, captured a large French ship, after an obstinate battle, in which he lost his brother and sixteen men killed. A few days after, he fell in with the privateer Vengeance, thirty-six guns and three hundred and sixty men, who recaptured the prize, and, having manned her, both ships bore down on the Terrible, whose main was shot away by the first broadside. After a desperate engagement, in which the French captain and his lieutenant were killed, with two thirds of his crew, the Terrible was boarded, when no more than twenty-six persons were found alive, sixteen of whom had lost an arm or a leg, the remaining ten being badly wounded. The ship, which had been equipped at Execution dock, was so shattered that it could scarcely be kept above water.

– Albert Plympton Southwick, Quizzism; And Its Key, 1884

The Penny Game

Two robots are playing a game. Between them is a pile of coins. Each robot, on its turn, can take either one or two coins from the pile. So long as each elects to take one coin, play continues until the pile is exhausted. If either elects to take two, the remaining coins vanish and the game ends.

One might think that the best plan would be always to take a single coin, but if both players are rational and know it, the first player will immediately take two pennies and end the game.

He reasons thus: If there were only two pennies in the pile, I’d benefit most by taking both of them rather than just one. Now suppose there were three pennies. If I took only one, then I would leave my opponent in the position I just imagined, and being rational he’d take both remaining pennies. Therefore I should take two of the three.

And so on backward, up to any arbitrary number of pennies. Paradoxically, it seems, improvident greed is more rational than constructive cooperation. Adapted from Hollis, Martin and Sugden, Robert (1993) “Rationality in action.” Mind 103:1-35, referenced in R.M. Sainsbury, Paradoxes, 2009.

See Tug of War.

Circle Seat


When the Golden Hind was broken up in 1662, its timbers were fashioned into a chair that still resides in the Bodleian Library at Oxford. Abraham Cowley wrote an ode, “Sitting and Drinking in the Chair, Made Out of the Reliques of Sir Francis Drake’s Ship”:

As well upon a staff may Witches ride
Their fancy’d Journies in the Ayr,
As I sail round the Ocean in this Chair:
‘Tis true; but yet this Chair which here you see,
For all its quiet now, and gravitie,
Has wandred, and has travailed more,
Than ever Beast, or Fish, or Bird, or ever Tree before.
In every Ayr, and every Sea’t has been,
‘T has compas’d all the Earth, and all the Heavens ‘t has seen.
Let not the Pope’s it self with this compare,
This is the only Universal Chair.

“While armchair travelers dream of going places,” wrote Anne Tyler, “traveling armchairs dream of staying put.”


pressmen strike newspaper

On Sept. 19, 1923, New Yorkers awoke to a strange composite newspaper — 2,500 web-pressmen had staged an unauthorized strike, shutting down most of the city’s large dailies, so the newspapers joined forces and put out an eight-page issue with 10 nameplates.

On the front page was a message from union president George Berry telling the pressmen to get back to work.

“Toads Hatched by Ducks”

Early in July 1807, a most extraordinary phenomenon was observed by several people of credit, at the house of Mr. Rhodes, in Thornes-lane, near Wakefield. A hen had been sitting on ducks’ eggs, several of which had produced ducklings: on examining one egg, a small hole was found in one end of the shell, through which a toad was discovered, not alive, which filled the whole shell, and seemed, upon breaking it, to be absolutely straitened for want of room. Except the small hole, such as is usually found in an egg, when the animal within is mature for hatching, the shell was perfectly whole, so as utterly to preclude the supposition of the toad’s having crept in through the hole. We have ourselves seen the toad, and with a small part of the shell still adhering to it.

Wakefield Star, quoted in Kirby’s Wonderful and Eccentric Museum, 1820

Ghost Quiz

In 1885, Cecilia Garrett Smith and a friend were experimenting with automatic writing using a primitive Ouija board on which a planchette was guided by a visiting “spirit.”

“We got all sorts of nonsense out of it, sometimes long doggerel rhymes with several verses,” but the prophecies they asked for were rarely answered. When they asked who the guiding spirit was, the planchette wrote that his name was Jim and that he had been Senior Wrangler at Cambridge. Intrigued, they asked Jim to write the equation describing the heart-shaped planchette they were using, and they received this response:


This they interpreted as ghost quiz equation, which J.W. Sharpe later graphed thus:


“I am quite sure that I had never seen the curve before, and therefore the production of the equation could not have been an act of unconscious memory on my part,” Smith wrote later. “Also I most certainly did not know enough mathematics to know how to form an equation which would represent such a curve, or to know even of what type the equation must be.”

One wonders what Jim thought of all this. They never got any further math out of him.



A shop in Herne Bay, Kent, advertised this specialty through the whole of the summer 1906 holiday season.

Reader John Day sent this photo to The Strand. “Herne Bay trippers are evidently careless of what they eat.”

Landscape or Portrait?


An engraving by Johann Martin Will, 1780.

Andrew Wyeth said, “I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape. Something waits beneath it; the whole story doesn’t show.”