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

“How Did It Get There?”


From The Strand, April 1901. R.C. Hardman of Meadhurst, Uppingham, ordered a ton of coal and found a coin dated 1397 embedded in one lump.

If there’s an explanation for this, I can’t find it.

Darwin’s Revenge


Some kings expire in bed. Some die gloriously in battle.

Alexander of Greece was bitten to death by monkeys.

He was walking in the royal garden in October 1920 when a monkey attacked his dog. He fought it off with a stick, suffering only a wound on the hand, but the monkey’s mate rushed in and gave him a much more severe bite. He died of blood poisoning three weeks later.

Alexander’s exiled father returned and led the nation into a bloody war with Turkey. “It is perhaps no exaggeration,” wrote Winston Churchill, “to remark that a quarter of a million persons died of this monkey’s bite.”

See “Monkeys Demanding Their Dead.”

“An Extraordinary Cock, With Four Legs”


He was hatched near Birmingham, purchased in the market of Alcester, in the county of Warwick, and is now the property of Mr. John Weisman, tailor, residing at No. 6, Lombard Street, Mint Street, Southwark. … He is strongly made, his plumage beautifully variegated and spangled, and of a fine tone of colour. When seen in front he appears to resemble any other animal of the same species, except that his beak is small for his size, and his comb and wattles are considerably larger than usual: but connected with the rump there is a smaller body, which is provided with a second pair of legs, with spurs equal in size to those of the other legs, being three inches in length and remarkably strong. These hinder legs the animal does not employ in walking; they hang down behind the others, not loosely, but on the contrary, in a firm and strong manner. He has two vents which he uses indiscriminately; and crows both loud and well.

Kirby’s Wonderful and Scientific Museum, 1820

“Singular Discovery”


A very singular discovery of an inscription was made some time since at Coxwold, near Thirsk in Yorkshire. … An ash was … felled and split for firewood. Upon being riven asunder, the outer part of the tree was cleft in two like a case, leaving the inner portion of the trunk entire, and the following rude inscription was discovered, distinctly legible, both upon the inner part of the trunk, and with the letters inverted, upon the outer casing. The inscription can, without difficulty, be thus read:–

tree inscription

There is no date to the inscription, but … it would … appear that the tree has been cut down nearly a hundred years. Also, by the number of rings in the wood, each indicating a year’s growth, the tree appears to have been about fifty-five years old when the inscription was made, and to have subsequently grown for nearly two hundred years. The closeness of the rings under the circumference prevents this estimation of the date from being regarded as more than an approximation; but all the circumstances render it highly probable that the inscription was made about three centuries ago.

– Kazlitt Arvine, Cyclopaedia of Anecdotes of Literature and the Fine Arts, 1856

A Boston Accent

Harvard anthropologist Terrence Deacon was walking past the New England Aquarium one day in 1984 when a voice yelled, “Hey! Hey! Get outta there!”

He stopped, but saw no one. Again the voice said, “Hey! Hey you!” Eventually he traced it to an enclosure of harbor seals, and to one in particular that seemed to be speaking English:

On investigating, Deacon learned that “Hoover” (named for his appetite) had been discovered as a pup by a Maine fisherman and donated to the aquarium, where he became a star attraction.

Deacon studied the seal for a year. Regarding the vocalizing, he notes that some birds seem to learn their parents’ songs in early life but sing them only later. “Though we will never know for sure,” he writes, “the image of Hoover guzzling the food in the cupboard and the old fisherman yelling, ‘Hey! Hey! Hoover! Hey you! Get outta there!’ has a persuasive feel, or twisted irony.”

“This Gift of Heaven”

William Beckford’s 1835 travel memoir Italy: With Sketches of Spain and Portugal contains a startling episode in the monastery El Escorial, near Madrid:

Forth stalked the prior, and drawing out from a remarkably large cabinet an equally capacious sliding shelf–(the source, I conjecture, of the potent odour I complained of)–displayed lying stretched out upon a quilted silken mattress, the most glorious specimen of plumage ever beheld in terrestrial regions–a feather from the wing of the Archangel Gabriel, full three feet long, and of a blushing hue more soft and delicate than that of the loveliest rose. I longed to ask at what precise moment this treasure beyond price had been dropped–whether from the air–on the open ground, or within the walls of the humble tenement at Nazareth; but I repressed all questions of an indiscreet tendency–the why and wherefore, the when and how, for what and to whom such a palpable manifestation of archangelic beauty and wingedness had been vouchsafed.

It should be noted that Beckford was something of an eccentric; his enormous country house had collapsed 10 years earlier, and perhaps his writings too were built on dreams. But the monks aren’t telling.


One day last week a marvelous apparition was seen near Coney Island. At the height of at least a thousand feet in the air a strange object was in the act of flying toward the New Jersey coast. It was apparently a man with bat’s wings and improved frog’s legs. The face of the man could be distinctly seen, and it wore a cruel and determined expression. The movements made by the object closely resembled those of a frog in the act of swimming with his hind legs and flying with his front legs. … When we add that this monster waved his wings in answer to the whistle of a locomotive, and was of a deep black color, the alarming nature of the apparition can be imagined. The object was seen by many reputable persons, and they all agree that it was a man engaged in flying toward New Jersey.

New York Times, Sept. 12, 1880

A Dress Rehearsal

Sir:–Among many strange coincidences which I have experienced in my time, one of the most singular which I can recall at the moment happened to me in connection with a play which I wrote some twenty years ago for the German Reed entertainment. One of my characters was named Robert Golding, and for the requirements of the plot I had made him the sole survivor of the crew of a ship called the Caroline, which had been lost at sea. A few days after the production of the play I read in a newspaper an account of the shipwreck of a vessel named the Caroline, which had gone down with all hands, with one exception, and this exception was a man of the name of Golding. Now Golding is not at all a common name, and the circumstance of his being, both in fact and fiction, the sole survivor of the shipwrecked Caroline, impressed me at the time as being a coincidence of a very peculiar nature. Yours faithfully, ARTHUR LAW.

– London Daily Graphic, Sept. 7, 1905, quoted in Experiments in Psychical Research at Leland Stanford Junior University, 1917

Two-Legged Cats


The cat on the left appeared in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s American Magazine of Useful and Entertaining Knowledge in October 1836. It’s difficult to tell from the drawing, but I think she’s missing her left front and right rear legs. “She was active, and would leap on a table, to the height three or four feet. Her gait is odd, as might be supposed, and often she leaps like a frog. … She frequently sits in the posture as given in the annexed drawing, especially when expecting to receive food; and her appearance very singular and rather ludicrous. Though destitute of claws, she is a good mouse-catcher. The tail is usually extended, and then she resembles somewhat that singular animal, the kangaroo.”

The other was featured in Arthur’s Home Magazine in July 1891, “a most cheerful, healthy, engaging little creature” whose “fashion of walking was queer, but lively.” She belonged to F.C. Hill, a professor at Princeton, who returned from a two-week trip in spring 1877 to find her dead. “Poor kitty was well and happy while I was with her,” he wrote. “I really think she pined and died as much from loneliness as anything else.” Her skeleton was displayed in the museum at Princeton College, “so that pussy remains as serviceable after death as it was her warm will to be in life.”

“A Fiery Wind”

Out in Cheatham county about noon on Wednesday — a remarkably hot day — on the farm of Ed. Sharp, five miles from Ashland, a sort of whirlwind came along over the neighbouring woods, taking up small branches and leaves of trees and burning them in a sort of flaming cylinder that travelled at the rate of about five miles an hour, developing size as it travelled. It passed directly over the spot where a team of horses were feeding and singed their manes and tails up to the roots; it then swept towards the house, taking a stack of hay in its course. It seemed to increase in heat as it went, and by the time it reached the house it immediately fired the shingles from end to end of the building, so that in ten minutes the whole dwelling was wrapped in flames. The tall column of travelling caloric then continued its course over a wheat field that had been recently cradled, setting fire to all the stacks that happened to be in its course. Passing from the field, its path lay over a stretch of woods which reached the river. The green leaves on the trees were crisped to a cinder for a breadth of 20 yards, in a straight line to the Cumberland. When the ‘pillar of fire’ reached the water, it suddenly changed its route down the river, raising a column of steam which went up to the clouds for about half-a-mile, when it finally died out. Not less than 200 people witnessed this strangest of strange phenomena, and all of them tell substantially the same story about it. The farmer, Sharp, was left houseless by the devouring element, and his two horses were so affected that no good is expected to be got out of them in future. Several withered trees in the woods through which it passed were set on fire, and continue burning still.

– Nashville, Tenn., Press, quoted in Symons’s Monthly Meteorological Magazine, September 1869