“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

A Bad Night

Description of the bed chamber of countess Cornelia Bandi as discovered by her maid one morning in 1731, reprinted in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, 1745:

Four feet distance from the bed there was a heap of ashes, 2 legs untouched, from the foot to the knee, with their stockings on: between them was the lady’s head: whose brains, half of the back part of the skull, and the whole chin, were burnt to ashes; among which were found 3 fingers blackened. All the rest was ashes, which had this particular quality, that they left in the hand, when taken up, a greasy and stinking moisture.

… The bed received no damage; the blankets and sheets were only raised on one side, as when a person rises up from it, or goes in; the whole furniture, as well as the bed, was spread over with moist and ash-coloured soot, which had penetrated into the chest-of-drawers, even to foul the linens; nay the soot was also gone into a neighbouring kitchen, and hung on the walls, moveables, and utensils of it. From the pantry a piece of bread covered with that soot, and grown black, was given to several dogs, which refused to eat it.

“It is impossible that by any accident the lamp should have caused such a conflagration,” remarks the correspondent. “There is no room to suppose any supernatural cause. The likeliest cause then is a flash of lightning.”

Cookie-Cutter Holes

On Nov. 24, 1984, the Spokane, Wash., Spokesman-Review reported the discovery of a massive chunk of earth, 10 feet long by 7 feet wide, that had somehow been plucked from the ground and put down, right side up and intact, 73 feet away. Roots had been torn apart rather than cut, and, strangely, the debris between the hole and the slab traced an arc rather than a straight line.

“All we know for sure is that this puzzle piece of earth is 73 feet away from the hole it came out of,” said geologist Greg Behrens.

Similar “cookie-cutter holes” have been observed elsewhere; the earliest known reference is in the Royal Frankish Annals of the 8th century:

In the land of the Thuringians, in the neighborhood of a river, a block of earth fifty feet long, fourteen feet wide, and a foot and a half thick, was cut out, mysteriously lifted, and shifted twenty-five feet from its original location.

No doubt there’s a mundane explanation for this, but for now no one knows what it is.

“A Snow Mushroom”


From the American Annual of Photography, 1908:

It is a natural snow-cap resting on the stump of a felled tree. The cap is nine feet in diameter and nearly four feet thick. Its weight has caused the rim to bend so that the top becomes a curved dome. The originally horizontal strata of the snow slope steeply downwards near the rim and small pieces break off where the strength is least, hence the edges are rough though the top is smooth. The cap acts as an umbrella sheltering the ground beneath from snowfall. The structure had taken some months to grow and would have been difficult to dislodge, for the snow was firmly welded by its own pressure. The total weight of the snow cap was calculated at about one ton.

See also Mushroom Rocks.

The Jumping Frenchmen of Maine

In 1878, neurologist George Miller Beard noted a strange trait among the French-Canadian lumberjacks in the Moosehead Lake area of Maine — they reacted strongly when startled:

  • “One of the jumpers while sitting in his chair with a knife in his hand was told to throw it, and he threw it quickly, so that it stuck in a beam opposite; at the same time he repeated the order to throw it, with cry or utterance of alarm resembling that of hysteria or epilepsy.”
  • “He also threw away his pipe when filling it with tobacco when he was slapped upon the shoulder.”
  • “Two jumpers standing near each other were told to strike, and they struck each other very forcibly.”
  • “One jumper when standing by a window, was suddenly commanded by a person on the other side of the window, to jump, and he jumped straight up half a foot from the floor, repeating the order.”
  • “One of these jumpers came very near cutting his ‘throat’ while shaving on hearing a door slam.”
  • “They had been known to strike their fists against a red-hot stove; they had been known to jump into the fire and into water; they could not help striking their best friend, if near them, when ordered.”
  • “It was dangerous to startle them in any way when they had an axe or knife in their hand.”

The condition, whatever it was, ran in families, chiefly among men, and the jumpers were otherwise “modest, quiet, retiring, deficient in power of self-assertion and push.” Similar cases have since been observed in Malaysia and Siberia, but no one knows whether the disorder is ultimately neurological or psychological.

Air Travel

Remarkable outcome of a London séance, June 3, 1871, as reported in The Spiritual Magazine, July 1:

After a considerable time an object was felt to come upon the table, and when the light was struck their visitor was found to be Mrs. [Agnes] Guppy. She was not by any means dressed for an excursion, as she was without shoes, and had a memorandum book in one hand and a pen in the other. The last word inscribed in the book was ‘onions,’ the ink of which was wet, and there was ink in the pen. When Mrs. Guppy regained her consciousness, she stated that she had been making some entries of expenses, became insensible, and knew nothing till she found herself in the circle.

In his Miscellanies Upon Various Subjects (1696), antiquarian John Aubrey writes that a gentleman of his acquaintance, “Mr. M.,” was burned by the inquisition in Portugal in 1655 “for being brought thither from Goa, in East-India, in the air, in an incredible short time.”

The Paradox of Future Individuals

Any large-scale change in human behavior will literally change the human race: Because such a change alters the conditions under which individuals are conceived, our grandchildren in one scenario will be different people from those in another. This is particularly true in sweeping policy matters such as the environment, global warming, etc.

This seems to suggest that we needn’t feel guilty about our poor stewardship. The descendants who would benefit by our reform are different from those who will suffer at our neglect–and we owe a duty only to the latter.