Strange Encounter


Passing south of the Canary Islands on Dec. 4, 1893, the S.S. Umfuli passed “a monster fish of the serpentine shape, about 80 feet long, with shining skin, and short fins, about 20 feet apart, on the back; in circumference, about the dimensions of a full-sized whale.”

Neither captain R.J. Cringle nor his crew had ever seen anything like it, but they were certain of what they saw. The sea was like a mirror, “and this thing, whatever it was, was in sight for over half an hour.”

Cringle said it was rushing through the water at great speed, throwing water from its breast, and he saw fully 15 feet of its head and neck on three separate occasions. The body, which was not scaly, showed three distinct humps and was much thicker than the neck: “I should not, therefore, call it a serpent.” The Umfuli’s log shows that the chief officer observed the creature through his glass and saw an enormous mouth with great rows of teeth.

“I have been so ridiculed about the thing that I have many times wished that anybody else had seen that sea-monster rather than me,” Cringle said. “I have been told that it was a string of porpoises, that it was an island of seaweed, and I do not know what besides. But if an island of seaweed can travel at the rate of fourteen knots an hour, or if a string of porpoises can stand 15 feet out of the water, then I give in, and confess myself deceived. Such, however, could not be.”

Changing a Bulb

On March 19, 1886, over Oshkosh, Wis., the sun went out.

“The day was light, though cloudy, when suddenly darkness commenced settling down, and in five minutes it was as dark as midnight,” reported the Monthly Weather Review. “General consternation prevailed; people on the streets rushed to and fro; teams dashed along, and women and children ran in cellars; all business operations ceased until lights could be lighted. Not a breath of air was stirring on the surface of the earth. The darkness lasted from eight to ten minutes, when it passed off, seemingly from west to east, and brightness followed. … It seemed to be a wave of total darkness passing along without wind.”

No one knows the cause, but essentially the same thing had happened a century earlier.

Speaking in Tongues


Giuseppe Caspar Mezzofanti (1774-1849) was keeper of the Vatican library and later a cardinal, but he’s best remembered for being a hyperpolyglot, a speaker of many languages.

How many? Estimates range from 24 (in 1805) to 114 (judged after his death). The true number probably lies somewhere in between, but it’s considerable–Byron called Mezzofanti “a monster of languages, the Briareus of parts of speech.”

A Russian traveler once asked Mezzofanti for a list of the dialects he had mastered, and the cardinal sent him the name of God in 56 languages. And Gregory XVI once arranged to have a polyglot group of students waylay him in the Vatican gardens: “[O]n a sudden, at a given signal, these youths grouped themselves for a moment on their knees before his Holiness, and then, quickly rising, addressed themselves to Mezzofanti, each in his own tongue, with such an abundance of words and such a volubility of tone, that, in the jargon of dialects, it was almost impossible to hear, much less to understand, them. But Mezzofanti did not shrink from the conflict. With the promptness and address which were peculiar to him, he took them up singly, and replied to each in his own language, with such spirit and elegance as to amaze them all.”

For another prodigious librarian, see Book Lover.


There are four occasions on which remarkable masses of ice, of many hundred pounds in weight, are believed to have fallen in India. One near Seringapatam, in the end of last century, said to have been the size of an elephant. It took three days to melt. We have no further particulars, but there is no reason whatever for our doubting the fact.

— George Buist, “Remarkable Hailstorms in India, From March 1851 to May 1855,” in Report of the Twenty-Fifth Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, 1856

Snail Mail

Crouching in a Flanders trench in November 1917, 21-year-old Walter Butler addressed a field service card to his fiancee Amy to let her know he was safe.

She never received it. After the war Butler returned to England and the pair married, moved to London, and had a daughter. Eventually they divorced; Amy returned to her family home while Walter remarried and led a career as a builder. She died in 1974 at age 81, he four years later at 82.

In February 2007, the card arrived. Their daughter, now an 86-year-old grandmother, received it.

“I am quite well,” it said. “Letter follows at first opportunity. I have received no letter from you for a long time.”

The Mystery Slab of Beth She’Arim

Excavating a cave near the sacred Galilean catacomb of Beth She’Arim in 1956, a bulldozer unearthed an enormous rectangular slab, 11 × 6.5 × 1.5 feet. Rather than try to move the 9-ton mass, workers at first paved over it. Seven years would pass before anyone thought to examine it closely.

It was one gigantic piece of glass.

No one knows who made it or precisely how. Evidently an ancient furnace had produced great batches of molten glass that could be cooled and broken into reworkable pieces. This batch had been abandoned, perhaps because contamination had ruined its clarity.

Whatever its origins, it’s an amazing achievement. On its discovery, the Beth She’Arim slab was the third largest piece of glass ever made; even today, only large telescope mirrors rival its size. And it was produced 1600 years ago.

A Big Splash


The New York Times carried a surprising headline on March 15, 1918: BIG CONCRETE SHIP AFLOAT IN PACIFIC. Noting the lack of shipyards and steel plants on the West Coast, California businessman W. Leslie Comyn had built a 7,900-ton steamer out of ferrocement.

“The huge hull, careening sharply as it slid sidewise down a steeply pitched incline, threw up a big wave in the narrow estuary, but then righted sharply and rode like a buoy,” the Times reported. “She looks as if she might have been carved out of rock, so massive is her build.”

Experts announced a new era of rapid shipbuilding, and Comyn made plans to build 54 more concrete vessels. But steel ships, though more expensive, proved lighter and faster, and by 1921 Faith had been sold and scrapped as a breakwater in Cuba.

Huth’s Moving Star


In late 1801, Johann Bode, director of the Berlin Observatory, received a curious series of letters from astronomer Hofrath Huth in Frankfort-on-the-Oder. On Dec. 2 Huth had seen something new in the sky, “a star with faint reddish light, round, and admitting of being magnified.” But it wasn’t a star: On subsequent nights he watched it drift slowly to the southwest, growing gradually fainter, and by Jan. 6 it had disappeared. Huth concluded that he was watching an object recede from Earth.

Unfortunately, Bode was busy with other things, and the weather was too cloudy for him to confirm Huth’s observations. Also, the positional data that Huth had provided were somewhat poor.

Huth wasn’t a nut: Among other things, he co-discovered Comet Encke in 1805. And Nature noted later that he had alerted Bode to the object in time for the director to witness it himself if the skies had been clear. But as it happened, Huth was the only one to witness the curious object, whatever it was. And, whatever it was, it has not returned.

The Pudding Guy

In 1999, UC-Davis civil engineer David Phillips was grocery shopping when he noticed something peculiar. Healthy Choice Foods was offering frequent-flyer miles to customers who bought its products. But a 25-cent pudding would bring 100 miles — the reward was worth more than the product itself.

Recognizing a good thing, Phillips bought 12,150 servings of pudding for $3,140, claiming he was stocking up for Y2K. Then he enlisted the Salvation Army to help him peel off the UPC codes, in exchange for donating the pudding.

He mailed his submission to Healthy Choice, and to their credit they awarded him 1.25 million frequent-flyer miles, enough for 31 round trips to Europe, 42 to Hawaii, 21 to Australia, or 50 anywhere in the United States.

There’s no downside. Phillips also got Aadvantage Gold status for life with American Airlines, which brings a special reservations number, priority boarding, upgrades, and bonus miles. And he got an $815 tax writeoff for donating the pudding.

(Thanks, Brendan.)


Line items in a bill received by an English lord from an artist in 1865, for repairs and retouchings to a gallery of paintings:

  • To filling up the chink in the Red Sea and repairing the damages of Pharaoh’s host.
  • To cleaning six of the Apostles and adding an entirely new Judas Iscariot.
  • To a pair of new hands for Daniel in the lions’ den and a set of teeth for the lioness.
  • To an alteration in the Belief, mending the Commandments, and making a new Lord’s Prayer.
  • To new varnishing Moses’s rod.
  • To repairing Nebuchadnezzar’s beard.
  • To mending the pitcher of Rebecca.
  • To a pair of ears for Balaam and a new tongue for the ass.
  • To planting a new city in the land of Nod.

From William Shepard Walsh, Handy-Book of Literary Curiosities, 1892.

Heated Basement

While drilling for natural gas near the Turkmen village of Derweze in 1971, geologists watched their rig fall through the surface into a huge underground cavern.

The opening was full of gas, so they ignited it, hoping it would burn off in a few days.

That was 39 years ago. Presumably it will still burn out eventually, but the locals have given up waiting — they now call it “the door to hell.”

See A Hot Town.

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.