Oddities

Land of Opportunity

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There are only two places on earth where diamonds can be found at their original volcanic source. The first is South Africa … and the second, improbably, is Arkansas, where visitors to Crater of Diamonds State Park unearth more than 600 diamonds each year.

More than 25,000 have been found to date — including the 40-carat “Uncle Sam,” which Wesley Bassum sold in 1924 for $150,000.

“Let us not be too particular,” wrote Mark Twain. “It is better to have old secondhand diamonds than none at all.”

Wet Vendetta

On May 3, 1849, God emptied his washtub over Gloucestershire. The Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal reports that “during a storm of thunder, lightning, and hail, an enormous body of water was seen to rush down a gully in the Bredon Hill, and direct its course to the village of Kemerton,” where it flooded the house of the Rev. W.H. Bellairs.

When Bellairs rode up the hill two days later, “[f]or more than a mile the course of the torrent could be easily traced, from twenty to thirty feet in breadth, every wall being broken down, and the whole, or greater part, of the soil removed.”

He traced this course to a barley field on the northwest shoulder of the hill, “the greater part of which was beaten down flat and hard, as if an enormous body of water had been suddenly poured out upon it. Beyond this field and on higher ground, there were no signs of the fall of water to any great amount.”

The general depth of the torrent seems to have been 6 to 7 feet; it had broken down a stone wall at Bellairs’ house, burst through the foundation of another, carried off a brick wall 6 feet high, and “flowed through the house, to the depth of nearly three feet, for the space of an hour and forty minutes.” No explanation was found.

Physical Education

At Bradford, England, a girl, aged 16, met death in an extraordinary manner. While in the playground of her school she was caught by a veritable tornado which carried her into the air. … [A] witness who was waiting for a car in front of the school said he saw the girl in the air, her skirts blown out like a baloon. She was 25 to 30 feet in the air, just above the school balcony (the latter, the coroner remarked, was 20 feet high). … The physician who was called found the girl unconscious and pulseless, suffering from severe concussion of the brain and compound fractures of the lower jaw, right arm, wrist and thigh. It appeared that she was wearing a pair of bloomers with an ordinary skirt but without petticoats. The jury returned a verdict of ‘died as the result of a fall caused by a sudden gust of wind.’

Journal of the American Medical Association, quoted in Medical Sentinel, June 1911

05/24/2010 I’ve found some confirmation of this in William Corliss, Tornados, Dark Days, Anomalous Precipitation, 1983:

“February 25, 1911. Bradford, England. A letter to the editor called the report of a girl being killed by a gust of wind preposterous and asked for an investigation. The editor replied: ‘Acting on this suggestion, we communicated with Mr. H. Lander, the rainfall observer at Lister Park, Bradford, who kindly sent us a copy of the Yorkshire Observer for February 25th, in which there was a fairly full report of the inquest on the school-girl who was undoubtedly killed by a fall from a great height in an extremely exposed playground during very gusty weather. One witness saw the girl enter the playground from the school at 8.40 a.m., and saw her carried in three minutes later. Another witness saw the girl in the air parallel with the balcony of the school 20 feet above the ground, her arms extended, and her skirts blown out like a balloon. He saw her fall with a crash. The jury found a verdict, ‘Died as the result of a fall caused by a sudden gust of wind.'”

He cites Godden, William; “The Tale of — a Gust,” Symons’s Meteorological Magazine, 46:54, 1911.

Dead Letters

Spiritualist Ludwig von Guldenstubbe had a no-nonsense approach to communicating with the dead — he left paper and pencil for them in Paris churches and cemeteries.

He got only a few scrawls at first, but apparently word spread through the underworld, and soon more illustrious correspondents turned up. In August 1856 von Guldenstubbe produced the signatures of the emperor Augustus and of Julius Caesar, collected at their statues in the Louvre:

http://books.google.com/books?id=imHQpco2WFUC&pg=PA173&dq=guldenstubbe&lr=&as_brr=3&ei=qvv6SuucBJX0zASulp3iDg#v=onepage&q=guldenstubbe&f=false

He also received writings from Abélard, who wrote in bad Latin, and Héloïse, in modern French — evidently she’s been taking correspondence courses since the 12th century.

Sadly, it appears that death spoils one’s penmanship — here are writing samples from Louise de La Vallière, the repentant mistress of Louis XIV, before (top) and after dying:

http://books.google.com/books?id=imHQpco2WFUC&pg=PA173&dq=guldenstubbe&lr=&as_brr=3&ei=qvv6SuucBJX0zASulp3iDg#v=onepage&q=guldenstubbe&f=false

Perhaps that’s understandable, given the circumstances.

In the 10 months between August 1856 and June 1857, von Guldenstubbe says he got more than 500 specimens this way, in the company of more than 50 witnesses — but somehow no one has ever duplicated his results.

Tall Order

http://books.google.com/books?id=CphHAAAAIAAJ&printsec=frontcover&rview=1#PPA26,M1

[H]e drew our attention to the vast difference the position of the shoulders make in a man’s height. This he illustrated by walking from the audience with his shoulders in their natural position, until, having traversed half the length of the room, he suddenly raised them, as represented in the accompanying sketches. The effect was quite startling, and very ludicrous.

— Frank Bellew, The Art of Amusing, 1866

A Mountain’s Ghost

Visit the top of Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka and you’ll see a striking sight — at sunrise the mountain’s own shadow is caught in the morning mist before you.

“The shadow seemed to rise up and stand in front of us in the air,” wrote a correspondent to Nature in 1886, “with rainbow and spectral arms, and then to fall down suddenly to the earth as the bow disappeared.”

See The Spectre of the Brocken.

Slippery When Wet

While M.V. Tancred was riding out a typhoon in Kobe Bay in early October 1954, E. Gherzi and his companions noted something strange: The waves had steps.

[T]here were a number of well-defined steps, carved so to say into the water just like the steps of a ladder, starting from the trough of the wave up to about half its height. Although the waves were moving quickly, the steps remained, steadily extending parallel to each other for one or two metres in length. There were at times as many as twenty of these nicely successive steps cut into the body of the wave. We tried to photograph them, but the very poor visibility and the fast motion of the waves resulted only in a blurred print.

— “Peculiar Stratified Shape of Typhoon Waves,” Nature, Feb. 12, 1955

A Goodnight Kiss

On Oct. 13, 1863, Connecticut manufacturer S.R. Wilmot was sailing from Liverpool to New York aboard the steamer City of Limerick when he dreamed that his wife visited his stateroom and kissed him. When he awoke, his cabin mate said, “You’re a pretty fellow, to have a lady come and visit you this way.” He related what he had seen, lying awake in his bunk, and Wilmot was surprised to find it corresponded exactly with his dream.

When he joined his wife in Watertown, she asked, “Did you receive a visit from me a week ago Tuesday?”

“A visit from you?” he asked. “We were more than a thousand miles at sea.”

“I know it,” she said, “but it seemed to me that I visited you.”

She explained that she had been thinking about him on the night in question, and “it seemed to her that she went out to seek me. Crossing the wide and stormy sea, she came at length to a low, black steamship, whose side she went up, and then descending into the cabin, passed through it to the stern until she came to my state-room.”

“Tell me,” she said, “do they ever have state-rooms like the one I saw, where the upper berth extends further back than the under one? A man was in the upper berth, looking right at me, and for a moment I was afraid to go in, but soon I went up to the side of your berth, bent down and kissed you, and embraced you, and then went away.”

“The description given by my wife of the steamship was correct in all particulars, though she had never seen it.”

(Frederic Myers, Principles of Psychology, 1891)

The Pororoca

Several times a year, the Atlantic sends a tidal wave up the Amazon. It’s loud, violent, and full of debris, and it can be up to 13 feet high.

So, naturally, people surf it.

A good ocean wave might last 30 seconds, but one surfer rode the pororoca for 37 straight minutes. It carried him 7.7 miles upriver.

Thor Loser

Robert H. Stanley of Greenfield, N.H., must have angered the rain gods — he went to bed during a terrific downpour on Aug. 2, 1966, and awoke to find it had targeted his house alone:

After finding the 5.75 in. of rain in the gage, he inquired from a neighbor 0.3 miles to the east. He found that the neighbor had but 0.50 in. in his gage. He thereupon examined the countryside for visible effects. The road washout extended for only a few hundred feet. Upon going one-half mile in either direction, no evidence of rain erosion of sand or gravel could be found. South of the house, beginning at the gage which was mounted on a pole, well distant from structures or trees, there stretches a 10-acre field. The knee-high grass therein was beaten down flat. By afternoon it began to revive. By the following noon it was erect. To the west of the house, a dry-wash brook running bankful at dawn was empty by 0800 EST. Drawing a line around the traces of erosion, one obtains an oval area about a mile north-south and about three-fourths of a mile east-west. Within this area, rain varied from the order of 1 in. on the limits to almost 6 in. in the center. Outside this limit, rain is believed to have fallen off sharply to less than one-fourth of an inch, generally within a few thousand feet.

(Monthly Weather Review, 93:164-68, 1970)

Pest Control

On Aug. 25, 1965, Mr. and Mrs. Robert Greenlee were sitting on their patio in Dunnellon, Fla., with a neighbor, Mrs. Riggs.

Mrs. Greenlee had just swatted a fly when a ball of lightning the size of a basketball appeared immediately in front of her. The ball was later described as being of a color and brightness comparable to the flash seen in arc welding, with a fuzzy appearance around the edges. Mrs. Riggs did not see the ball itself, but saw the flyswatter ‘edged in fire’ dropping on the floor. The movement of the ball to the floor was accompanied by a report ‘like a shotgun blast.’ The entire incident was over in seconds.

… The explosion was heard by a neighbor about 150 feet away, and it was subsequently learned that another neighbor’s electric range had been shorted out at the same time. There was no damage of any sort at the Greenlees, nor were there any marks on the patio floor where the flyswatter had fallen. With regard to the fly, Mrs. Riggs commented, ‘You sure got him that time.’

— Frederick B. Mohr, “A Truly Remarkable Fly,” Science, Feb. 11, 1966

The Yellowstone Lake Whispers

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For more than a century, people have been hearing strange sounds in the sky over the lakes of Yellowstone National Park:

  • “While getting breakfast, we heard every few moments a curious sound, between a whistle and a hoarse whine, whose locality and character we could not at first determine …” (F.H. Bradley, 1872)
  • “[I]t seemed to begin at a distance [and] grow louder overhead where it filled the upper air, and suggested a medley of wind in the tops of pine trees and in telegraph wires, the echo of bells after being repeated several times, the humming of a swarm of bees, and two or three other less definite sources of sound …” (Edwin Linton, 1892)
  • “It put me in mind of the vibrating clang of a harp lightly and rapidly touched high up above the tree tops, or the sound of many telegraph wires swinging regularly and rapidly in the wind, or, more rarely, of faintly heard voices answering each other overhead.” (S.A. Forbes, 1893)
  • “They resemble the ringing of telegraph wires or the humming of a swarm of bees, beginning softly in the distance, growing rapidly plainer until directly overhead, and then fading as rapidly in the opposite direction.” (H.M. Chittenden, 1915)

Evidently the sound is very difficult to describe in words — one of Linton’s party called it “a twisting sort of yow-yow vibration.” Forbes calls it “really bewitching,” and Linton’s guide, Elwood Hofer, called it “the most mysterious sound heard among the mountains.”

Possibly it’s produced by the surrounding mountains under seismic stress, or it could be standing sound waves produced by the wind. No one knows.

Two and Two

In 1977, a gravely ill 19-month-old Qatari girl was flown to a London hospital, where her condition continued to worsen, baffling her doctors.

On the sixth day, the observing nurse was startled to see that the girl began to lose her hair. She realized that the patient’s symptoms were strikingly similar to those in Agatha Christie’s novel The Pale Horse, which she had been reading.

In Christie’s novel, the murder victims had been killed by thallium poisoning. Tests confirmed elevated levels of thallium in the girl’s urine, and doctors treated her accordingly. Three weeks later she was well enough to go home.

Nice Kitty

http://books.google.com/books?id=orMGAQAAIAAJ&printsec=frontcover&rview=1#v=onepage&q=&f=false

French sculptor Louis Vidal was blind since youth, but he produced startlingly faithful renderings of animals: a bull, a wounded stag, a horse, a cow, a dog.

With domestic creatures he could do this by feeling their anatomy directly, or by referring to skeletons or to stuffed specimens. But how did he create The Roaring Lion, the masterpiece first shown at the Salon in 1868?

Legend has it that he did it the hard way: by running his hands over a live lion at the Jardin des Plantes.

“Convinced he would not succeed without having recourse to the living ‘king of beasts,'” reported The English Illustrated Magazine in 1900, “he entered the cage without the least hesitation, accompanied by the lion-tamer. The animal allowed itself to be caressed for some time, and Vidal was thus enabled to study its anatomy. As a result, he produced that most wonderful example of his art, ‘The Roaring Lion.'”

If that’s just a story … then how did he manage it?

Light Infantry

Since 1844, the Royal Welch Fusiliers have had a regimental goat. He’s not a mascot, but a ranking member of the unit — he marches at the head of the battalion during ceremonial duties, and fusiliers must stand to attention when he walks past.

They’re not always model soldiers. The most recent goat — Lance Corporal William Windsor, inevitably known as Billy — was once demoted for butting a drummer at the queen’s birthday celebration. But he was promoted again three months later, after taking the summer “to reflect on his behavior.” Boys will be boys.

See Reviewing the Troops.

Evaporated Milk

At the Mesa de Pavones, in the middle of the steppes of Caraccas, Mr. Bonpland and I saw cows suspended in the air. Distance one thousand toises. Measuring with the sextant, the breadth of the aërial interval, we found the animal’s feet elevated above the soil 3’20”. Simple suspension, no double image. I was assured, that horses had been seen, near Calabozo, suspended and inverted, without exhibiting any direct image.

— Mirage described in Alexander von Humboldt, Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent, 1818

Your Move

Playing go requires tremendous concentration, and Hashimoto Utaro and Iwamoto Kaoru shut out all distractions as they resumed an adjourned game in Japan’s Honinbo championship on Aug. 6, 1945.

Unfortunately, they were three miles from downtown Hiroshima.

The explosion damaged the building and injured spectators — but play resumed after lunch.

Hare Remover

Paul Armand-Delille was angry at the damage that rabbits were doing to his French estate, so on June 14, 1952, he inoculated two of them with a virus, Myxomatosis cuniculi, that he knew had curbed rabbit populations in Australia.

It, um, worked. Within 6 weeks, 98 percent of his rabbits were dead — and by the end of 1954, so were 90 percent of the rabbits in France.

Armand-Delille was charged one franc for illegally spreading an animal disease, then given a medal for services to agriculture. The medal depicts Armand-Delille on one side and a dead rabbit on the other.

Sixty years earlier, essentially the reverse had happened in the United States.

Right Cross

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kungsgatan_1967.jpg

On Sept. 3, 1967, every car in Sweden came to a stop at 4:50 a.m., carefully switched from the left side of the road to the right, and proceeded at 5 a.m.

The whole nation switched to right-hand traffic overnight. And to the planners’ immense credit, no fatal accidents were associated with the change, and accident rates went down in the year that followed.

(Non)Fiction

In early 1912, writer Mayn Clew Garnett submitted a story to Popular Magazine. “The White Ghost of Disaster” told the story of the Admiral, an 800-foot ocean liner that strikes an iceberg at 22.5 knots in the North Atlantic and sinks, killing more than a thousand passengers, largely due to a scarcity of lifeboats.

On April 14, while the story was in press, the 882-foot Titanic struck an iceberg at 22.5 knots in the North Atlantic and sank, killing 1,517, largely due to a scarcity of lifeboats.

The story appeared in May.

“A Frozen Crew”

In 1774 a deserted ship of an uncouth form was discovered in the arctic region strangely encumbered with ice and snow. … The discoverer was the captain of a Greenland whaling-vessel named Warrens, who, on boarding her, found in one of the cabins … the corpse of a man perfectly preserved by the frost, with the exception of a slight greenish mould which appeared about the eyes and on the forehead. The body was seated in a chair and leaning back, a pen was still in its right hand, and before it was the open logbook, in which the dead man had been writing when he ceased to breathe. The last complete sentence of the unfinished entry ran as follows:–

‘November 11th, 1762. We have now been enclosed in the ice seventeen days. The fire went out yesterday, and our master has been trying ever since to kindle it again, but without success. His wife died this morning. There is no relief.’

… Captain Warrens and his men retired in solemn silence, and on entering the principal cabin found on a bed the dead body of a woman, with all the freshness of seeming life in her attitude and expression; and seated on the floor, holding in his hands the flint and steel, which he seemed to be in the act of striking, the corpse of a young man. Neither provision nor fuel could be anywhere discovered.

The World of Wonders, 1883

A Keystone Phantom

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Greenman.jpg

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

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Acipenser_oxyrhynchus.jpg

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

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Cliffyoung1983.jpg

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.”