Oddities

Occupational Hazards

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

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

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

(Thanks, John.)

Good Boy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eccentric Cricket

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

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

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

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

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

From “Eccentric Cricket Matches,” Strand, 1903:

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

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

No Man’s Lands

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

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

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

The Isdal Woman

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

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

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

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

See The Somerton Man.

A Distilled Impression

kettle anamorphosis

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

Big Time

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

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

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

The Pyramid Cemetery

willson pyramid

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

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

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

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

(Thanks, Ron.)

Tit for Tat

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

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

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

Light Work

If a pane of green glass gives the things behind it a green colour, it turns white to green, red to black, yellow to greenish yellow, blue to greenish blue. The white pane should, therefore, make everything whitish, i.e. it should make everything pale; and, then why shouldn’t it turn black to grey? — Even a yellow glass makes things darker, should a white glass make things darker too?

– Wittgenstein, Remarks on Colour, 1977

‘Our Second Experiment,’ the Professor announced, as Bruno returned to his place, still thoughtfully rubbing his elbows, ‘is the production of that seldom-seen-but-greatly-to-be-admired phenomenon, Black Light! You have seen White Light, Red Light, Green Light, and so on: but never, till this wonderful day, have any eyes but mine seen Black Light! This box,’ carefully lifting it upon the table, and covering it with a heap of blankets, ‘is quite full of it. The way I made it was this — I took a lighted candle into a dark cupboard and shut the door. Of course the cupboard was then full of Yellow Light. Then I took a bottle of Black ink, and poured it over the candle: and, to my delight, every atom of the Yellow Light turned Black! That was indeed the proudest moment of my life! Then I filled a box with it. And now would any one like to get under the blankets and see it?’

– Lewis Carroll, Sylvie and Bruno Concluded, 1893

The Bat Bomb

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Pennsylvania dentist Lytle S. Adams had a bright idea in 1942: Since Japanese cities were largely built of paper, bamboo, and other flammable materials, they could be disrupted effectively with fire. And a novel way to spread fire in public buildings would be to release bats bearing incendiary devices. Rigged bats dropped over an industrial city would roost in the buildings as living time bombs, and the resulting fires would spread chaos over a wide area.

Surprisingly, the government liked the idea, and it set about designing a bomblike canister in which a thousand bats could be dropped from an altitude of 5,000 feet. At 1,000 feet the container would open, releasing the bats over a wide area. Ten bombers carrying 100 canisters each could unleash a million intelligent bombs over the industrial cities of Osaka Bay.

Preliminary tests were encouraging, even setting a New Mexico air base accidentally ablaze, but the project evolved too slowly and was eventually eclipsed by the atom bomb. In a way that’s a shame: “Think of thousands of fires breaking out simultaneously over a circle of 40 miles in diameter for every bomb dropped,” Adams had said. “Japan could have been devastated, yet with small loss of life.”

Back Again

ernest a. mills

In 1929 the schooner A. Ernest Mills sank after a collision off the coast of North Carolina.

Four days later it bobbed to the surface again. Its cargo of salt had dissolved.

Dolphin Rescues

In the summer of 1978, four men rowed a small boat into the deep water off Dassen Island, South Africa, to fish for barracuda. When mist overtook them, they weighed anchor and tried to return to shore, but visibility dropped so quickly that they were soon lost.

Mac Macgregor was in the bow, trying to peer through the mist, when he felt a bump on the right-hand side and discovered two dolphins there, repeatedly forcing the bow to the left, where two more dolphins were swimming.

“I realized that the dolphins’ odd behavior could be significant and shouted to Mr. [Kobus] Stander to steer to the left,” Macgregor said. “Mr. Stander pulled the tiller round wildly and we just managed to graze past the rocks.”

They continued some further distance through the mist, the dolphins continuing to force the prow to the left, and presently they just missed some further rocks — again on the right. “I was getting a strange feeling that we ought to leave our destiny to the dolphins,” Stander said, “since it was clear they had twice prevented us from running on to the rocks.”

The dolphins led the boat for half an hour until it entered calm water, then played around it briefly and disappeared. “When the mist cleared and the houses of Ysterfontein could be discerned, we were speechless,” Stander said. “We had intended going ashore at Dassen Island. We had never dreamed that the dolphins would guide us to Ysterfontein.”

In 1972, when her cabin cruiser sank in the Indian Ocean off Mozambique, a South African woman set out to swim the 25 miles to land. She was trailed by half a dozen sharks, attracted by a cut on her foot. But “as the sharks circled closer … two dolphins appeared at her side,” the New York Times reported. “The young woman, Yvonne Vladislavich, said that the dolphins guarded her against marauding sharks, escorted her as she swam and helped her stay afloat when her strength was failing.” They protected her until she was able to climb onto a buoy, from which she was later rescued.

(“Dolphins Rescue Fishermen,” South African Panorama, August 1978; “South African Reports a Rescue by Dolphins,” New York Times, Sept. 10, 1972.)

Fair Warning

While Paulet St. John, Esq., was fox hunting in September 1733, his horse plunged into a chalk pit 25 feet deep. The horse survived and went on to win the Hunters’ Stakes at Winchester the following year.

St. John was so impressed that he erected a monument on Farley Mount, where it stands to this day.

He named the horse “Beware Chalk Pit.”

At a Stroke

1939 sheep kill

On Sept. 1, 1939, a flock of 850 sheep were bedded down for the night in Pine Canyon in the Raft River Mountains of northwestern Utah when a passing thunderstorm wet both the ground and the animals. A single stroke of lightning killed 835 sheep, 98 percent of the flock.

Similarly (below), two bolts of lightning killed 654 sheep on Mill Canyon Peak in the American Fork Canyon in north-central Utah on July 18, 1918.

1918 sheep kill

So avoid northern Utah. On the other hand:

A ploughman in a field, Reuben Stephenson, of Langtoft, England, was struck down by lightning, when both his horses were killed on the spot, and he was so much injured that his life was at first despaired of. In consequence of the accident, Dr. Allison of Birdlington, attended upon the man, and whilst doing so, found he was suffering from a malignant cancer of the lip. When Mr. Stephenson had sufficiently recovered from the effects of the lightning, an arrangement was entered into for the removal of the cancer by an operation; but, strange to say, just when this was on the point of being performed, a minute inspection was made of the cancer, when it was discovered that from the time of the accident, a healing process had been commenced in the lip; this being so evident, the operation was, of course, not attempted; and, in a moderate space of time, the man was completely cured.

Lancet, 1855, quoted in Paul Fitzsimmons Eve, A Collection of Remarkable Cases in Surgery, 1857

Haunting Attire

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Why do ghosts wear clothes? If a ghost is the spirit of a living creature, how can it carry its inanimate garments into the afterlife?

“How do you account for the ghosts’ clothes — are they ghosts, too?” asked the Saturday Review in 1856. “What an idea, indeed! All the socks that never came home from the wash, all the boots and shoes which we left behind us worn out at watering-places, all the old hats which we gave to crossing-sweepers … What a notion of heaven — an illimitable old clothes-shop, peopled by bores, and not a little infested with knaves!”

In 1906 psychic researcher Andrew Lang argued that, far from confusing the notion of an afterlife, ghosts’ clothing might even help to corroborate its existence. “A pretty instance occurs, I think, in a biography of Warren Hastings. The anecdote, as I remember it, avers that at a meeting of the Council of the East India Company in Calcutta one of the members (I think several shared the experience) saw his own father, wearing a hat of a peculiar shape, hitherto strange to the observers. In due time came a ship from London bearing news of the father’s death, and a large and well-selected assortment of the new hat fashionable in England. It was the hat worn by the paternal appearance! If the circumstances are recorded in the minutes of the proceedings of the Council, which I have not consulted, then the hat of that spook becomes important as evidence.”

Even if we grant that a dead person can convey his most personal belongings into the afterlife, how are we to account for phantom ships, coaches, and railway trains? In his 1879 book The Spirit World, American spiritualist Eugene Crowell decided that, rather than being the spirits of “dead” earthly conveyances, these are constructed in the afterlife by the ghosts of mariners and railwaymen who want to ply their trades again. Spectral ships “glide over the waves without sinking,” Crowell explained, “and earthly winds propel them at rates of speed which our ships cannot attain.” If that’s true, then perhaps some ghostly tailor is simply manufacturing clothes for the naked spirits of the newly dead. Decent of him.

In a Word

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anatiferous
adj. producing ducks or geese

A deservedly rare word; it arises from the medieval belief that the barnacle goose (Branta leucopsis) grew underwater, emerging from barnacles that fell from trees. In his Topographia Hibernica of 1188, Welsh monk Giraldus Cambrensis wrote:

There are likewise here many birds called barnacles,(barnacle geese) which nature produces in a wonderful manner, out of her ordinary course. They resemble the marsh-geese, but are smaller. Being at first, gummy excrescenses from pine-beams floating on the waters, and then enclosed in shells to secure their free growth, they hang by their beaks, like seaweeds attached to the timber. Being in progress of time well covered with feathers, they either fall into the water or take their flight in the free air, their nourishment and growth being supplied, while they are bred in this very unaccountable and curious manner, from the juices of the wood in the sea-water. I have often seen with my own eyes more than a thousand minute embryos of birds of this species on the seashore, hanging from one piece of timber, covered with shells, and, already formed.

Apparently the belief arose because these geese were never seen to nest like other birds; it was not yet understood that birds migrate.

Well Bounded

In the Indian state of West Bengal lies a district known as Cooch Behar which is curiously merged with its neighbor, Bangladesh. The Indian land contains 92 Bangladeshi enclaves, and the Bangladeshi land contains 106 Indian enclaves.

The largest Indian enclave itself contains a Bangladeshi enclave, and that Bangladeshi enclave contains a bare hectare of Indian farmland known as Dahala Khagrabari. That makes Dahala Khagrabari the world’s only instance of an enclave in an enclave in an enclave.

See Concentric Landmarks.

Ice Route

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In 1959, in response to a challenge by a radio station, Norwegian insulation manufacturer Glassvatt transported a three-ton block of ice from the Arctic Circle to the equator without refrigeration.

The block, insulated with wood and glass wool, was loaded onto a truck that made its way south through Europe, crossed by freighter from Marseilles to Algiers, and then crossed the Sahara, evading guerrillas and continually bogging down in the sand.

After three weeks the crew arrived in Lambaréné, Gabon, where they delivered 300 kg of medicine to Albert Schweitzer, and they reached their destination, Libreville, a week later. Amazingly, the ice block had lost only 11 percent of its weight. They cut it up, shared it among the citizens of the equatorial city, and flew back to Norway.

Derbes’ Law

Most of our pleasures come from filling or emptying cavities, and vice versa.

Contributed by Dr. Vincent J. Derbes of New Orleans to More of Mould’s Medical Anecdotes, 1989.

The Bermagui Mystery

In 1880, 29-year-old Australian geologist Lamont Young set out in a fishing boat to survey the gold fields north of Bermagui in New South Wales. With him were his assistant, two fishermen, and the vessel’s owner. The boat was spotted sailing north the following morning, but it was discovered deserted that afternoon inside a shoal at Mutton Fish Point, 16 kilometers north of Bermagui.

Inside the boat were clothes, books, and research papers belonging to Young and his assistant, whose spectacles were laid out neatly on the seat. The oars and mast had been lashed to supports, but the sails and anchor were missing, and there was a single bullet hole in the starboard side. Near a campfire on the beach nearby were tins of salmon and butter, a jar of honey, half a loaf of bread, and three mother-of-pearl studs. There was no evidence of a struggle, but the copper case of a cartridge was found in the sand 30 yards from the boat.

The Colonial Office offered a reward of 200 pounds for information leading to the location of the missing men, and Young’s father hired a private detective, but the five were never found, and their disappearance has never been explained. The inlet where the boat was found is now named Mystery Bay in their honor.

The Christmas War

In 1964, Larry Kunkel’s mother gave him a pair of moleskin pants for Christmas. He found that they froze stiff during the Minnesota winters, so the following Christmas he wrapped them up and gave them to his brother-in-law, Roy Collette. Collette returned them to Kunkel the next year, and the pants began oscillating between the two as a yearly joke. This was fun until it escalated:

  • One year Collette twisted the pants into a tight roll and stuffed them into an inch-wide pipe 3 feet long and gave them to Kunkel.
  • Not to be outdone, Kunkel returned them the following year compressed into a 7-inch cube and baled in wire.
  • So Collette gave them back immured in a 2-foot crate full of stones and banded with steel.
  • Collette next had them mounted inside an insulated window with a 20-year guarantee.
  • Kunkel soldered them into a 5-inch coffee can and sealed that in a 5-gallon container filled with concrete and reinforcing rods.
  • Kunkel locked them in a 225-pound homemade steel ashtray made of 8-inch steel casings.
  • Collette returned them welded inside a 600-pound safe decorated with red and green stripes.
  • Kunkel put them in the glove compartment of a 2,000-pound 1974 Gremlin crushed into a 3-foot cube.
  • Collette put them inside a tire 8 feet high and 2 feet wide and filled it with 6,000 pounds of cement.
  • Kunkel hid them inside one of 15 identical concrete-filled canisters, which he loaded into a 17.5-foot rocket ship filled with concrete and weighing 6 tons.
  • Collette put them in a 4-ton Rubik’s cube fashioned from kiln-baked concrete and covered with 2,000 board-feet of lumber.
  • Kunkel put them into a station wagon filled with 170 steel generators welded together.
  • Collette returned them inside a cement-truck tank delivered by a flatbed truck and accompanied by a crane.

Here it ended. In 1989 Collette planned to encase the pants in 10,000 pounds of glass and leave them in Kunkel’s front yard. “It would have been a great one,” Kunkel admitted. “Really messy.” But the insulated container failed during pouring and the molten glass reduced the pants to ashes. They reside today in an urn on Kunkel’s mantel.

Cat and Mouse

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Rats have pretty well overrun the globe, but there’s one exception: Alberta, Canada, which has waged a successful war against the critters for 50 years. Owning rats is forbidden to Alberta residents; they can be kept only by zoos and research institutions. The province maintains a rat control zone 600 kilometers long along its eastern border, staffed by eight professionals, and any rats they find are poisoned, gassed, or shot.

“Alberta is the only province with rat-free status, and we take this very seriously,” Verlyn Olson, minister of agriculture and rural development, said in an August statement. “We have lived without the menace of rats since 1950, when our control program began.”

But it’s a constant battle. In 2003 pest specialist John B. Bourne told National Geographic that he worries the wily creatures will hitch a ride to the interior aboard a truck or train. “They are so adaptive, so intelligent, so successful and physically capable … that it would not surprise me if they show up in a place where you’d least expect a rat to show up. I have the greatest respect for this rodent’s resourcefulness, and [its] capabilities scare the hell out of me.”

Leonard Trask

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Maine farmhand Leonard Trask was 28 years old when he was thrown by a horse and began to develop a curious stiffness in his back and neck. The following spring his neck and spine began to curve, forcing him to “bow forward,” but he was able to continue working.

He suffered another fall in 1840, though, and the condition grew worse. He went to 22 physicians seeking advice but was finally told that “no benefit would be likely to result therefrom.” According to an 1857 account, “his neck and back have continued to curve, more and more, every year, drawing his head downwards upon his breasts so there appears but little room to press it further without stopping entirely the movement of the jaws.”

In time he had difficulty even in sitting and reading, and he felt unsafe in riding a horse because he could not see where he was going. In his prime he had stood 6 foot 1, but by 1857 his stature had shrunk to 4 feet 10.5 inches, as his head had bowed entirely below his shoulders. He wrote:

In that celestial, bright and happy land,
Beyond this vale of sorrow, pain and tears,
Where I, erect in glory, hope to stand,
In faith and hope, the future bright appears.

Trask’s condition was unknown at the time of his death in 1861, but it was diagnosed afterward as ankylosing spondylitis, an inflammatory disease of the skeleton in which vertebrae can fuse together. His was the first published clinical account of the disease in the United States.