A Slap From Poseidon

In the Marine Observer (55:203), T. Wilson Cameron reports one ship’s alarming encounter off the coast of Spain in the 1960s. At 5:20 a.m. one morning the moon disappeared:

I looked to port to see what type of cloud could obscure the moon so thoroughly, and was amazed — horrified, rather, to discover it was no cloud, but an immense wave approaching on our port beam. It stretched far north and south, had no crest, nor white streaks, and as it neared at quite a speed, I could see its front was nearly vertical. I yelled to the lookout man to come into the wheelhouse as he was on the starboard side of the bridge and could not see the wave.

As near as I could judge, about 80 to 100 yards away the wave started to break, and in another few seconds reached our ship and struck us fair abeam with three distinct separate shocks, sweeping our ship for her full length. Fortunately, the vessel rolled away just before the impact and this I am sure saved us from even more serious damage.

“The wave was higher than our foremost track — 85 ft above the water. As this wave approached from a direction 90 degrees different from the normal sea and wind, which had been northerly for a few days previously, I put its existence down to a submarine earthquake in the mid-Atlantic ridge. Certainly it appeared so much different from the normal wind-generated sea, of which I have seen thousands. There was no crest, nor white streaks, a nearly vertical front and quite fast approach.”


In 1998, tides exposed a ring of Bronze Age timbers off the coast of Norfolk.

The monument appears to have been created in 2049 B.C., probably in a salt marsh that was later overrun by the sea.

What was its purpose? Who knows?

The Mystery of Muller Hill

In 1808, a French gentleman bought 2,700 acres in Georgetown, N.Y., and erected a chateau on the highest hill. Evidently he was massively wealthy, landscaping the grounds extensively and ordering a hamlet built on the estate, after the fashion of the great French nobles. And he seemed fearful for his safety, securing the house against gunfire and clearing the woods around it.

He roved the estate on horseback, attended by armed servants, and was described as erect, agile, and commanding. When asked to muster for the local militia he responded with outrage, saying he had led a division and participated in making three treaties, but he gave no other clues to his identity. He followed closely the progress of the War of 1812 and of Napoleon, whose ascendancy he evidently feared; when the Corsican met disaster in Russia he returned abruptly to France.

Who was this man? He gave his name as Louis Anathe Muller, but he guarded his true identity closely. Was he a French duke? A son of Charles X? The future king himself? With only circumstantial evidence, there’s no way to be certain. After Waterloo he sold the estate for a fraction of its value, and he never returned to New York.

Death Be Not Crumbly


Image: Flickr

The inventor of the Pringles can was buried in a Pringles can.

Fredric Baur invented the crush-resistant canister in 1966 and was so proud that he said he’d like to be buried in one. It remained a family joke for years, but when Baur died last year after a battle with Alzheimer’s, his children stopped at a Walgreen’s on their way to the funeral home, bought a can of Pringles, and buried a portion of their father’s ashes in the bright red can.

“My siblings and I briefly debated what flavor to use,” Larry Baur told Time magazine, “but I said, ‘Look, we need to use the original.'”


In 1907, Massachusetts physician Duncan MacDougall conceived a singular experiment. When he observed that a patient at his Haverhill hospital was nearing death, he installed him in a specially constructed bed in his office and measured his weight both before and after death. With six such weighings he determined that humans lose between 0.5 and 1.5 ounces at death.

“Is the soul substance?” he wrote. “It would seem to me to be so. … Here we have experimental demonstration that a substance capable of being weighed does leave the human body at death.”

Similar experiments with 15 dogs showed no change in mass, proving, he decided, that dogs have no souls. MacDougall’s findings were written up briefly in the New York Times and occasioned a flurry of correspondence in American Medicine, but after that they were largely forgotten. But who knows? Perhaps he was right.



German illusionist Matthias Buchinger (1674-1740) was born without hands or legs — but he scarcely missed them. Besides being an expert artist, musician, and marksman, Buchinger excelled as a card player and conjuror:

“He used to perform before company, to whom he was exhibited, various tricks with cups and balls, corn, and living birds; and could play at skittles and nine-pins with great dexterity; shave himself with perfect ease, and do many other things equally surprising in a person so deficient, and mutilated by Nature.” (Great and Eccentric Characters, 1877)

Almost unbelievably, in the self-portrait above, engraved with his finlike hands, Buchinger hid seven biblical psalms and the Lord’s Prayer in the curls of his wig.


The thunder storm of Sunday night — the winding up of one of the most oppressive days ever inflicted on mortal man — was really terrific. The whole firmament growled thunder and shot lightning. It was blinding to look out, and at frequent intervals the thunderbolts burst overhead with a power that shook the solidest structures — then rolled with angry growling along the wings of the storm. St. Paul’s church was struck, but not seriously injured. Beyond this, we have heard of no casualty, unless we may account for such the raining down of an alligator about two feet long at the corner of Wentworth and Anson streets. We have not been lucky enough to find any one who saw him come down — but the important fact that he was there, is incontestible — and as he couldn’t have got there any other way, it was decided unanimously that he rained down. Besides the beast had a look of wonder and bewilderment about him, that showed plainly enough he must have gone through a remarkable experience. By the last accounts he was doing as well as an alligator could be expected to do after sailing through the air in such bad weather.

Charleston Mercury, quoted in Niles’ Weekly Register, July 8, 1843

Klerksdorp Spheres


For years, South African miners have been finding disks and spheres like this one. Usually brown or red, the objects can measure up to 10 centimeters in diameter, and like this one they’re often engraved with parallel grooves or ridges.

How could worked artifacts have found their way into mineral deposits that are billions of years old? Did aliens visit southern Africa in the remote past? Or is the region’s geologic history vastly different than we’d imagined?

Neither. Despite their artificial appearance, geologists say the objects arose naturally, probably as concretions as volcanic sediments in the region hardened into pyrophyllite.

See The Eltanin Antenna.

The Misfortune Field

One of the most enduring contributions to the [Wolfgang] Pauli legend was the ‘Pauli Effect,’ according to which Pauli could, by his mere presence, cause laboratory accidents and catastrophes of all kinds. Peierls informs us that there are well-documented instances of Pauli’s appearance in a laboratory causing machines to break down, vacuum systems to spring leaks, and glass apparatus to shatter. Pauli’s destructive spell became so powerful that he was credited with causing an explosion in a Göttingen laboratory the instant his train stopped at the Göttingen station.

– William H. Cropper, Great Physicists, 2004

(To exaggerate the effect, Pauli’s friends once arranged to have a chandelier crash to the floor when he arrived at a reception. When he appeared, a pulley jammed, and the chandelier refused to budge.)

Achilles in Uruguay

Doubtful but interesting: I’ve found four secondhand accounts that in December 1827 a planter working in a field near Montevideo discovered a tombstone covered with unknown characters, and that it covered a small excavation containing two rusted swords, a helmet, a shield, and a large earthen vessel.

According to the story, the legible part of the inscription was in Greek: “During the dominion of Alexander, the son of Philip, King of Macedon, in the sixty-third Olympiad, Ptolemais–”

The handle of one of the swords reportedly displayed the portrait of a man, supposedly Alexander the Great, and one of the helmets had been sculpted with the image of Achilles dragging the corpse of Hector around the walls of Troy.

The implication is that the ancient Greeks had reached South America — that a commander in Alexander’s fleet was overtaken by a storm in the Atlantic and driven to the Brazilian coast, where he established a monument to commemorate their presence there.

“The interesting nature of this account is sufficient to make us regret its manifest improbability,” writes the Foreign Review. “Such a discovery in Brazil from the time of Alexander is not likely to receive authentic confirmation.”

(The other accounts are in Josiah Priest, American Antiquities, and Discoveries in the West, 1833; The Native Races of the Pacific States of North America, 1876; and Elroy McKendree Avery, A History of the United States and Its People, 1904.)

Zeus Displeased

A manuscript published at Tortona, Italy, in 1677 tells of a Milanese friar who was killed by a meteorite:

All the other monks of the convent of St. Mary hastened up to him who had been struck, as well from curiosity as from pity, and among them was also the Canon Manfredo Settala. They all carefully examined the corpse, to discover the most secret and decisive effects of the shock which had struck him; they found it was on one of the thighs, where they perceived a wound blackened either by the gangrene or by the action of the fire. Impelled by curiosity, they enlarged the aperture to examine the interior of it; they saw that it penetrated to the bone, and were much surprised to find at the bottom of the wound a roundish stone which had made it, and had killed this monk in a manner equally terrible and unexpected.

Take that for what it’s worth. In modern times meteorites have struck an Alabama woman and a Ugandan boy, but neither was seriously injured. (There’s also a dog story.)

Far From Home


Here’s a surprise: The English royal menagerie of the 13th century included a polar bear. From The New American Cyclopædia, 1869:

In the reign of Henry III, of England … it is curious to record that a white bear was among the collection of wild beasts in the tower of London, for which the sheriffs of the city were ordered to provide a muzzle and an iron chain, to secure him when out of the water, and a long and stout cord to hold him when fishing in the Thames.

“The words italicized seem to identify the species beyond the possibility of error; but one would like to know whence the polar bear was brought, at that early day, so long previous to the commencement of arctic exploration.” Probably it was a gift from Haakon IV of Norway.

See Clara and MacFarlane’s Bear.

The Land Speaks

Haiti growls. A strange rumbling sound is heard periodically in the southwestern part of Hispaniola; locals liken it variously to the noise of “a heavy wagon passing over pavement, of thunder rolling in the distance, of dynamite exploding or of cannon being fired off, of water falling on dry leaves, of the wind blowing through high forest trees in a tempest.”

No one knows what causes the sound, known locally as the gouffre. It seems to be heard most commonly near the Chaîne de la Selle, a mountain chain in the south. Possibly it’s caused by small adjustments along a fault there.

From the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America, December 1912. See also Brontides and The Yellowstone Lake Whispers.

Paging Mr. Darwin


Unlikely creatures from American folklore:

  • The gillygaloo lays cubical eggs that won’t roll downhill (hard-boiled they make excellent dice).
  • The gyascutus has legs of unequal length so that it can walk easily on hillsides.
  • The Funeral Mountain terrashot is shaped like a casket and explodes in the desert heat, leaving a grave-shaped hole.
  • The squonk weeps continually at its own ugliness, and when surprised dissolves entirely into tears.
  • The tote-road shagamaw has a bear’s front feet and a moose’s hind feet, leaving tracks that change every quarter mile.
  • The slide-rock bolter, above, skids on its own drool across valley paths, scooping up tourists.

“A forest ranger … conceived the bold idea of decoying a slide-rock bolter to its own destruction. A dummy tourist was rigged up with plaid Norfolk jacket, knee breeches, and a guide book to Colorado. It was then filled full of giant powder and fulminate caps and posted in a conspicuous place, where, sure enough, the next day it attracted the attention of a bolter which had been hanging for days on the slope of Lizzard Head. The resulting explosion flattened half the buildings in Rico, which were never rebuilt, and the surrounding hills fattened flocks of buzzards the rest of the summer.” (William Thomas Cox, Fearsome Creatures of the Lumberwoods, 1910)

Making Points

The London Medical and Physical Journal records the case of Kate Hudson, a 31-year-old single woman who was admitted to the general hospital at Nottingham on Aug. 4, 1783. “On inspection of the arm two needles were discovered under the skin, a little above the dorsal side of the wrist.” These were removed with forceps, but more needles were discovered farther up the arm.

This continued, on and off, for nine years. Needles were discovered in Hudson’s leg, foot, breast, and stomach; she passed needles in her urine and stool and vomited up still more. Just as abruptly, on June 12, 1792, she was dismissed as cured, and was reported in July to be married with two children and enjoying “better health than for several years past.”

“At present, I shall make no Comment on the Case,” writes physician Hugh Moises. “I feel it, however, a duty I owe to myself, (and to anticipate the attacks of puny Criticism) that I should here observe, that the language of the Case throughout, is strictly that of the minutes preserved in the Case Books of the Hospital, as taken thence by myself upwards of ten years ago.”

“Sailing on Skates”


In the winter time, when northern ports, such as the Baltic, are closed by ice, it is a very common thing for the sailors to pass the time in skating, or rather sailing upon skates. This pastime has a charm of its own unknown to the ordinary skater, and when practice has engendered confidence and dexterity in directing the sail, the proficient may bend backwards and, as it were, sleep upon the wind.

This exercise is very agreeable, and not very dangerous; the falls made by a learner in practising at the beginning are not serious, as they generally take place backwards, and are thus modified by the sail.

“Singular Phenomenon”

A short time ago, I was pricking out some annuals on a flower-bed, on which some geraniums were already planted, when I was surprised to see flashes of light coming from a truss of geranium flowers. At first I thought it was imagination, but my wife and a friend who were present also saw them. Time was about 9 p.m., and the atmosphere clear. There were other geraniums a different colour on the same bed, but there was no effect on them. The particular geranium was a Tom Thumb. Is this at all common? I have never seen or read of it before. — S. Ingham

Knowledge, July 27, 1883

A Look Around


In September 1893, London doctor Farquhar Matheson was sailing with his wife on Scotland’s Loch Alsh, between the isle of Skye and the mainland. “Our sail was up and we were going gaily along when suddenly I saw something rise out of the loch in front of us–a long, straight, necklike thing as tall as my mast.”

The thing was 200 yards away; it was not until it began to submerge that Matheson saw “it was a large sea-monster–of the saurian type, I should think.”

He likened the head and neck to those of a giraffe. He watched the creature surface again three times, at intervals or two or three minutes, as he followed it for perhaps a mile. “It was not a sea-serpent, but a much larger and more substantial beast–something of the nature of a gigantic lizard, I should think.”

He denied emphatically that he had seen only an optical illusion, noting that he had watched the creature’s head gradually descend and ascend several times, and saw the light glisten on its smooth skin.

That evening he described the event to some gentlemen, including Sir James Farrar. They laughed at first, but “when I showed them that none of their theories would fit the case, they admitted that the sea-serpent, or sea-monster, could not be altogether a myth.”

“Turks Flee From a Mirage at Shaiba”

On April 12th, a three days’ battle opened at Shaiba with an attack by a motley army of 22,000 Turks, Kurds, and Arabs commanded by German officers. During the thick of the fighting, and when success was well within their grasp, the Turkish forces ceased firing and fled in wild panic from field.

A Turkish prisoner subsequently explained the cause of the Turkish withdrawal. It appears that a pack train, approaching the British line from the rear, had been so distorted by a mirage that it appeared to the Turks as a great body of reinforcements. Believing themselves to be fighting against enormous odds, they had yielded up a victory almost won.

– William C. King, King’s Complete History of the World War, 1922



In August 1911, a group of butchers discovered a 50-year-old “wild man” in their corral in Oroville, Calif. The local sheriff gave him into the keeping of a San Francisco anthropology museum, where he remained until his death five years later.

It’s believed that “Ishi” was the very last of his kind — the last of his group, the last of his people, and the last Native American in Northern California to have lived free of the encroaching European-American civilization.

The rest had been killed in encounters with the white man.

Even “Ishi” means only “man” in Yana, Ishi’s native language. When asked his actual name, Ishi had said, “I have none, because there were no people to name me.”


A sad catastrophe is reported to have happened to this Italian vessel, the Rosina, bound from Catania for New York. One day at the end of October she was nearly capsized by a sudden squall in the middle of the Atlantic. All hands were summoned instantly to take in sail, and all, together with the captain, were actively engaged, when an enormous wave swept the deck of every living person, leaving only one of the crew, who happened to be below. On running up on deck this man, named Criscuolo, found not a living soul, not even the ship’s dog, and saw himself the sole occupant of a half-wrecked vessel in a tempest in the Atlantic. For eight days he struggled against wind and sea without taking an instant’s repose, constantly on the watch for some sail, and had abandoned himself to despair, when the Marianna, a Portuguese brigantine, descrying the damaged vessel, bore down upon her as she was sinking and rescued Criscuolo, who was taken on to New York.

– “Wrecks and Casualties,” The Shipwrecked Mariner, January 1882



On several occasions, mathematician Maria Agnesi (1718-1799) arrived in her study to discover that a vexing problem had been solved for her — and, eerily, solved in her own handwriting.

Agnesi was a somnambulist. In her sleep she would walk to the study, make a light, and solve a problem that she had left incomplete.

Then she’d return to bed with no memory of what she’d done.

A Natural Lighthouse

Sailors can navigate Venezuela’s Lake Maracaibo easily at night — the sky is lit with almost continuous lightning 150 nights a year. The flashes are visible for hundreds of miles, but there is no thunder.

No one knows what causes it.


In Detroit, year ago, Street Sweeper Joseph Figlock was furbishing up an alley when a baby plopped down from a fourth-story window, struck him on the head and shoulders, injured Joseph Figlock and itself but was not killed. Last fortnight, as Joseph Figlock was sweeping out another alley, two-year-old David Thomas fell from a fourth-story window, landed on ubiquitous Mr. Figlock with the same results.

Time, Oct. 17, 1938