A Keystone Phantom


For decades, western Pennsylvanians have heard stories of an unlucky power company employee who was disfigured by a bolt of lightning. The ghost of Charlie No-Face haunted the local rail tunnels, it was said, where it would trap unsuspecting motorists.

Most don’t know that the legends have a basis in fact. Raymond Robinson was 8 years old in 1919 when he touched an electrical line on the Morado Bridge near Beaver Falls and lost his eyes, nose, ears, and one arm.

Robinson spent most of the next 60 years at home with his family, where he made belts, wallets, and doormats to sell for a modest income. He stayed indoors by day to avoid a public panic, but at night he would go for long walks along State Route 351, where surprised neighbors sometimes encountered him feeling his way with a walking stick.

By all accounts Robinson was well liked, though understandably shy, and he graciously accepted the cigarettes and beer that strangers offered him. It’s not clear whether he knew of the legend he’d inspired, but it’s survived him by two decades now — he died in 1985, at age 74.

Just So You Know


If you catch a sturgeon in the United Kingdom, it belongs to the queen.

It’s part of her royal prerogative — the sturgeon’s excellence makes it a “royal fish.”

The same goes for whales: The king gets the head and the queen the tail. Sorry.

Steady On


Australia’s Westfield ultramarathon had a surprise entrant in 1983: a 61-year-old potato farmer named Cliff Young arrived wearing overalls and gumboots and took a place among a field of 150 elite 20-somethings for the 543-mile run from Sydney to Melbourne.

Young ran with a peculiar shuffling gait that soon left him far behind the leaders, but as the race wore on he regained the ground rapidly. His strategy was simple: He didn’t sleep. He had routinely rounded up sheep on his family’s 2,000-acre ranch in Victoria, where he often ran two or three days without rest, and this preternatural endurance carried him easily into first place in the Westfield race, beating the record time by nearly two days.

At the finish Young said he’d been unaware there was a $10,000 prize; he gave it away to five other runners and returned quietly to his ranch. Asked what advice he’d give to other elderly runners, he said, “No matter what you do, you have to keep moving. If you don’t wear out, you rust out.”

“The Boy Jones”


Curious doings at Buckingham Palace, 1838-1841:

  • In December 1838, a porter discovered 15-year-old Edward Jones in the marble hall. He had stolen linen and a regimental sword, but a jury acquitted him.
  • In November 1840, the same boy scaled the wall and entered the palace again, this time leaving undetected.
  • The following day a nurse found him under a sofa in the queen’s dressing room. “He said that he had sat upon the throne, that he saw the queen, and heard the princess royal cry.”
  • After three months in prison he returned immediately — in March 1841 he was found eating in one of the royal apartments.

This last earned him three more months’ correction, this time with hard labor, and this apparently cured him. But others would follow: In July 1982 Elizabeth II awoke to find 32-year-old Michael Fagan in her bedchamber. “He thinks so much of the Queen,” Fagan’s mother explained. “I can imagine him just wanting to simply talk and say hello and discuss his problems.”

Happy Crabbing!


On Feb. 5, 1958, during a simulated combat mission near Savannah, Ga., a B-47 bomber collided with an F-86 fighter. The fighter crashed; the bomber, barely airworthy, needed to reduce weight to avoid an emergency landing.

So it dropped a 7,600-pound nuclear bomb.

The bomb contained 400 pounds of conventional explosives and highly enriched uranium. There’s some disagreement as to whether it included the plutonium capsule needed to start a nuclear reaction.

That’s rather important, because in 50 years of searching the Air Force still hasn’t found the bomb. It hit the water near Tybee Island off the Georgia coast and is presumably buried in 10 feet of silt somewhere in Wassaw Sound. But exactly where it is, and how dangerous it is, remain unknown.

Sucker Punch


Man’s greatest curse, it seems, is that he is easily bored. In the 1960s, a novelty-starved Washington state televised the World Octopus Wrestling Championships, in which each contestant would dive into Puget Sound, grab a North Pacific giant octopus, and try to haul it to the surface.

This would be difficult even for a real wrestler; H. Allen Smith pointed out that “it is impossible for a man with two arms to apply a full nelson on an octopus,” much less to apply a crotch hold on an opponent with eight crotches. Plus the giant octopus can grow to 90 pounds.

But nothing can stop a fad. In April 1963, 5,000 spectators watched 111 divers draw 25 surprised octopi pointlessly out of the sound, after which the creatures were released, eaten, or donated to a local aquarium. The octopi had no comment; perhaps they’re planning a comeback match.

“Impromptu Ball on the Stump of a Sequoia”

sequoia cotillion -- anonymous

In 1853, workmen felled the Mammoth Tree in the North Calaveras Grove of giant sequoias in California’s Gold Country. The stump measured 24 feet wide at its base, and a ring count showed it was 1,244 years old.

James M. Hutchings writes in Scenes of Wonder and Curiosity in California (1862):

“Upon this stump, however incredible it may seem, on the 4th of July, thirty-two persons were engaged in dancing four sets of cotillions at one time, without suffering any inconvenience whatever; and besides these, there were musicians and lookers-on.”

I’ve found three independent accounts of this, but no record of who proposed the dance. The stump’s still there, in what is now Calaveras Big Trees State Park — it’s now known as the Discovery Tree.


The Hard Way


Karl Bushby is walking to his house in Hull, England. And because he likes a challenge, the 40-year-old ex-paratrooper has started from the most remote point possible: Punta Arenas in southern Chile, whence he set out on Nov. 1, 1998.

The 36,000-mile journey was to take 14 years, putting Bushby back in Hull by 2012. He’s got safely across the Bering Strait, but Russian visa restrictions have slowed him down, and once he reaches Kazakhstan he may pass south into Iran, which will bring its own adventures. Stay tuned.

Thinking Back

Can you move an object using only your mind? Of course not. But can you move one in the past?

Since January 1997, the Retropsychokinesis Project at the University of Kent has invited Web visitors to try to influence the replay of a prerecorded bitstream. In other words, they must try to influence an event that has already happened.

The experimenters claim to be agnostic as to whether retroactive causality exists, but “the best existing database suggests that the odds are in the order of 1 in 630 thousand million that the experimental evidence is the result of chance.”

Try it for yourself here — but remember, if you have some skepticism about this, it may only be because someone in the future is influencing you.

Curious Weather

The very worst case of delerium tremens on record is one told of by the Bonham (Texas) Enterprise, which says that a few days ago a man residing five or six miles from that place ‘saw something resembling an enormous serpent floating in a cloud that was passing over his farm. Several parties of men and boys, at work in the fields, observed the same thing, and were seriously frightened. It seemed to be as large and long as a telegraph-pole, was of a yellow striped color, and seemed to float along without any effort. They could see it coil itself up, turn over, and thrust forward its huge head as if striking at something.’

New York Times, July 8, 1873

See The Crawfordsville Monster.

Great Soul


Photos of Chang Woo Gow are deceiving because of his regular proportions: The Chinese giant was already 7 foot 9 when he came to England at age 19 — he wrote his name on a wall at a height of 10 feet at the request of the Prince of Wales.

Fourteen years later, when he appeared in Paris for the 1878 World’s Fair, Chang had grown to 8 feet and weighed 364 pounds. But he met the public clamor with consistent kindness, grace, good humor, and a quiet intelligence — he spoke six languages and, on one occasion, greeted by name several visitors whom he had encountered once 16 years earlier.

After a tour of European capitals, he retired to Bournemouth, where it is said that on evening walks he would light his cigar at gas streetlamps. When he died in 1893 at age 48 (and was buried in a coffin eight and a half feet long), his friend William Day remembered him as “a giant of giants, great of stature, but with the kindest nature and a heart as true and tender as ever beat.”

Libyan Desert Glass

What is this stuff? Fragments of it can be found over large areas in the northeastern Sahara. No one’s sure where it came from — it could have arrived as part of a meteor, it could have been fused together in some ancient impact or under the heat of an aerial explosion. The jury’s still out.

Rippling Beans

An optical illusion. Nothing’s moving.

“A Poor Man’s Disneyland”


Image: Flickr

Jim Bishop’s castle is exactly that — a 160-foot baroque edifice that Bishop has constructed single-handed over the course of 40 years in the forest of southern Colorado.

It already contains a thousand tons of stone and iron, and still Bishop’s not finished. Before he dies he wants to add a moat, a roller coaster, a balcony big enough to accommodate an orchestra — and a second castle for his wife.

Mima Mounds


What are these? They appear by the hundreds throughout western North America, but no one knows what produces them. Earthquakes? Glaciers? People? Gophers? The force involved must be considerable — the mounds can reach 8 feet in height and 50 feet in diameter — but for now their origin is a mystery.

01/15/2014 UPDATE: Gophers. (Thanks, Hugh.)

The Wow! Signal


On Aug. 15, 1977, a telescope at Ohio State University detected a strong narrowband radio signal in the constellation Sagittarius — one so unusual that astronomer Jerry Ehman marked the printout with an exclamation.

The signal’s intensity rose and then fell as the beam swept past its position in the sky. That’s consistent with an extraterrestrial origin … but in 30 years and more than 100 searches, no one has been able to relocate it.

Without a recurrence, there’s no way to know what Ehman’s telescope heard that night — it’s just a frustrating splash in a large, silent sea.



“If fifty million people say a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing.” — Anatole France

Curiously, when France died in 1924, doctors found that his brain was two-thirds normal size. But, said surgeon Louis Guillaume, “It was the most beautiful brain one could dream of seeing. Its convolutions were marvelous.”



As a writer, W.T. Stead may have been too prescient.

In 1886 he published an article about the sinking of an ocean liner and the consequent loss of life, warning, “This is exactly what might take place and will take place if liners are sent to sea short of boats.”

Six years later he wrote a novel, From the Old World to the New, in which a ship collides with an iceberg in the North Atlantic and sinks; the survivors are picked up by the Majestic, a ship of the White Star Line.

An outspoken newspaper editor, Stead himself embarked for the New World in April 1912 when President Taft invited him to address a peace conference at Carnegie Hall.

Alas, he never arrived — he had booked his passage on the RMS Titanic.

Freak Winds

Feb. 7, 1988, was a normal day in Lancashire until 10 p.m., when an anemometer at the Hazelrigg weather station registered a single wind gust of 106 mph. Immediately afterward, the winds dropped back to 5 mph.

The squall was tiny but real — investigators discovered that it had moved a 75-kilogram sheep feeding trough a distance of 5.1 meters.

On June 15, 1960, a collapsing thunderstorm blasted Kopperl, Texas, with 75-mph gusts of superheated air that raised the temperature to 140 degrees Fahrenheit, fully 20 degrees above the state’s all-time record. It’s remembered as “Satan’s storm.”

It’s Good to Be King

Kevin Baugh looks pretty happy, doesn’t he? Well, you would be, too — Kevin is president of the independent micronation of Molossia, an acre of Nevada desert that he claimed as an independent republic in 1999.

Molossia has a population of 3; its inhabitants speak English and observe Molossian Standard Time, which is 7 hours 29 minutes behind Greenwich. The local currency is the Valora, which equals a partial tube of Pillsbury cookie dough.

The nation’s capital, Espera, surrounds the Baugh residence near Dayton, Nevada. Tourism has reached 10 visitors a year, but you have to surrender your pocket change at the border, and you can’t bring any firearms, incandescent light bulbs, catfish, onions, walruses, or “anything from Texas except Kelly Clarkson.”

Its motto is “Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained.”

Indie Roc

Excerpts from Midwestern newspapers, April 1948:

BELVIDERE, Ill. – (UP) – A farmer and a truck driver reported today that they had seen a bird ‘bigger than an airplane.’ … The giant bird was reported by Robert Price and Veryl Babb. Price said he saw it while working near his barn on his farm near Caledonia, Ill. … He said it had a long neck and ‘what I suppose were its feet trailing behind it.’ … Babb, a Freeport, Ill., truck driver, reported seeing the bird at a different location on the same day. … ‘When I spotted the thing it was coasting. It was bigger than an airplane and reminded me of one of those prehistoric monsters I learned about when I was in school.’

ST. LOUIS – (UP) – A retired Air Force colonel and a 12 year-old boy last night backed up the report by two Belvidere, Ill., residents of spotting a ‘monster bird.’ … ‘At first I thought there was something wrong with my eyesight,’ [Col. W.F.] Siegmund said. ‘But it was definitely a bird, and not a glider or jet plane.’ He described the creature as about the size of a small pursuit plane and said it was flying northeast at an altitude of between 4,000 and 5,000 feet. … The Trares boy said he spotted the bird in the air one evening at sunset and ran yelling into his house to tell his mother. He said it was gray-green in color and about the size of an airplane.

ALTON, Ill. – (UP) – An ‘enormous’ bird, first reported sighted two weeks ago, was seen flying over the outskirts of Alton shortly before noon yesterday. E.M. Coleman, a former salesman, and his 5 year-old son, James, said the bird was flying at about 500 feet and ‘cast a shadow the same as that of a Piper Cub at the same height.’ Coleman said it was an ‘enormous, incredible thing with a body that looked like a naval torpedo.’

Curiously, flying monsters have been reported in that area for more than 300 years.

The Dog of Helvellyn


On April 17, 1805, artist Charles Gough set out to walk over Helvellyn, a mountain in England’s Lake District, with his dog, Foxie. He never returned. Three months later, on July 27, a shepherd heard barking high on the mountain’s flank, at about 2,300 feet, and discovered Foxie beside her master’s body.

It appeared that Gough had fallen to his death, and the dog had remained by his side for three months. How she had survived up there remains a mystery — she had even borne a puppy, which was found dead in a burrow dug into the mountainside. The episode captured the Romantic imagination, and Wordsworth, Edwin Landseer, and Walter Scott all paid tribute to Foxie’s loyalty:

How long did’st thou think that his silence was slumber!
When the wind waved his garment how oft did’st thou start!

But I can find no record of what became of her.

Bonus dog-loyalty-overtime stories: New Mexico, Montana, Tokyo.

Sky Waves


Image: Flickr

No one knows what causes the “morning glory” clouds of northern Australia, but they’re striking — long rolling tubes that can stretch for hundreds of kilometers across the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Glider pilots converge on tiny Burketown in Far North Queensland each fall, hoping to “surf the glory,” riding the unique air currents that accompany the clouds.

How’s That Diet Going?

Dr. Boehmen, of Wittenberg, described a man who on one occasion ate a raw sheep, a sucking-pig, and by way of dessert sixty pounds of prunes without ejecting the stones; and on another devoured two bushels of cherries, several earthen vessels, and chips from a furnace. He also ate at the same time, some pieces of glass, pebbles, a shepherd’s bagpipe, rats, birds with their feathers, and an incredible number of caterpillars, finishing his astonishing meal by swallowing a pewter inkstand, with its pens, pen-knife, and sand-box. The doctor also informs us that during this miraculous deglutition he was generally under the influence of brandy, but appeared to relish his strange food, and was a man of extraordinary muscular strength, who died in his seventy-ninth year!

The World of Wonders, 1883