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Oddities

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”

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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.

The Last Wave

On the night of Dec. 12, 1978, the German barge carrier München issued a distress call in the North Atlantic. A week’s search collected four empty life rafts, but the ship itself was never found.

Two months later another ship discovered the München‘s starboard lifeboat. Its supporting pins had been bent, suggesting that a huge force had passed along the München from fore to aft, tearing the boat from its supports.

That boat had hung 20 meters above the waterline. What did the München encounter that night?

Left and Right

Three of our last four presidents have been left-handed:

Bush I: Left-handed
Clinton: Left-handed
Bush II: Right-handed
Obama: Left-handed

The same would be true if John McCain had won the last election — he’s a leftie too. Indeed, fully half of American presidents since Truman have been southpaws, though only 10 percent of the general population is left-handed.

What accounts for this? Who knows? But UCLA geneticist Daniel Geschwind says, “Six out of the past 12 presidents is statistically significant, and probably means something.”

Quadrennial

The French newspaper La Bougie du Sapeur is published only on leap day, Feb. 29 — which means a new issue appears only once every four years.

You can buy a century’s subscription for 100 euros.

Ships and Meteorites

The following account of unusual phenomena was received March 10, at the Hydrographic office, Washington, from the branch office in San Francisco. The bark Innerwich, Capt. Waters, has just arrived at Victoria from Yokohama. At midnight of Feb. 24, in latitude 37° north, longitude 17° 15′ east, the captain was aroused by the mate, and went on deck to find the sky changing to a fiery red. All at once a large mass of fire appeared over the vessel, completely blinding the spectators; and, as it fell into the sea some fifty yards to leeward, it caused a hissing sound, which was heard above the blast, and made the vessel quiver from stem to stern. Hardly had this disappeared, when a lowering mass of white foam was seen rapidly approaching the vessel. The noise from the advancing volume of water is described as deafening. The bark was struck flat aback; but, before there was time to touch a brace, the sails had filled again, and the roaring white sea had passed ahead.

Science, March 20, 1885

A narrow escape from destruction by an immense meteor was reported this morning by officers of the steamer Cambrian, which arrived from London. The huge fiery mass struck the water within fifty yards of the Cambrian’s starboard bow last Friday evening when the ship’s position was longitude 51.10 west, latitude 42.05 north, several hundred miles south of Cape Race.

[Third officer Daniel Vittery:] ‘The air was filled with a deafening din such as a thousand railroad trains in a tunnel might create. The hiss of dropping fragments gave me the fleeting impression of the ship’s boilers leaking in every plate. … With a crash that shook the ship the monster struck the sea not fifty yards away, and the upheaval was terrific. Not a rope nor a spar was scathed when the meteor, big as a fair-sized house, went squarely over us and struck the sea.’

The Friend, Sept. 21, 1907

Good Boy

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The gold medal for canine endurance goes to Petey, the junkyard dog who guarded Al’s Auto Salvage in New Bern, N.C., in 1996. Petey was only 10 inches tall, and when Hurricane Fran roared up the North Carolina coast on Sept. 5, he was locked in a building that flooded with 16 inches of water.

Owner Skip Crayton feared the worst, but when he opened the shop the following morning, out came Petey, covered up to his neck in oil and mud. Apparently the dog had swum continuously for six to eight hours in the flooded building, keeping his head just above water to stay alive.

Petey couldn’t tell of the experience, of course, but when Crayton got him home he slept for two days.

See also The Dog of Pompeii.

The Probable Liar

In 1984, philosopher William Lycan published a paper with this statement:

The probability of the title of this paper, given itself (and the fact of its being a generalization), is less than 1/2. Yet the probability of any contingent statement given itself is 1. So 1 is less than 1/2.

The title of the paper was “Most Generalizations Are False.”

In other words, the chance that any statement is true, given itself, is 1. But the chance that Lycan’s title is true, given itself, is less than 1/2. Thus 1 is less than 1/2.

Double Vision

What is it with poets and doppelgängers? From a letter from Lord Byron to John Murray, Oct. 6, 1820:

In the latter end of 1811, I met one evening at Alfred my old school and form-fellow, … Peel, the Irish secretary. He told me, that, in 1810, he met me, as he thought, in St. James’-street, but we passed without speaking. He mentioned this, and it was denied as impossible; I being then in Turkey. A day or two afterwards, he pointed out to his brother a person on the opposite side of the way: ‘There,’ said he ‘is the man whom I took for Byron.’ His brother instantly answered, ‘Why it is Byron, and no one else.’ But this is not all:– I was seen by somebody to write down my name among the inquirers after the king’s health, then attacked by insanity. Now, at this very period, as nearly as I could make out, I was ill of a strong fever at Patras, caught in the marshes near Olympia, from the malaria. If I had died there, this would have been a new ghost story for you.

Similar experiences befell Shelley, Goethe, John Donne, and Wilfred Owen.

Steller’s Sea Ape

On Aug. 10, 1741, explorer Georg Wilhelm Steller reported spotting “a very unusual and new animal” in the waters off southern Alaska. It was about 5 feet long, he said, with the head of a dog and the tail of a shark, and was covered with gray hair. It had long whiskers, large eyes, and erect ears. When it rose out the water to observe his ship, Steller saw that it had no flippers.

For two hours Steller and the animal watched each other. It passed some 30 times under the ship, he said, apparently in order to view it from both sides. At one point it juggled a bit of kelp in its mouth, occasionally biting off and swallowing pieces. An assistant finally shot at it twice with a musket, missing both times, and the animal disappeared.

In 250 years, no one has ever seen another “sea ape.” The consensus among biologists is that Steller saw a young northern fur seal, but he had observed these creatures on the same voyage and presumably would have recognized one. So what was it?

Headlights

Peculiar effect of a thunderstorm near Leadhills, Lanarkshire, on June 7, 1817, reported by surgeon James Braid before the Wernerian Society and later reprinted in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine:

… [T]he master of the house told me that he was very much alarmed as he was going home on Saturday evening, between six and seven o’clock, ‘from,’ as he expressed himself, ‘his horse’s ears being the same as two burning candles, and the edges of his hat being all in a flame.’ …

On Thursday 20th, I was gratified for a few minutes with the luminous appearance described above. It was about nine o’clock, P.M. I had no sooner got on horseback than I observed the tips of both the horse’s ears to be quite luminous: the edges of my hat had the same appearance.

The horse’s ears stopped glowing after a shower of moist snow, Braid reported, “but the edges of my hat, being longer of getting wet, continued to give the luminous appearance somewhat longer.”

“I could observe an immense number of minute sparks darting towards the horse’s ears and the margin of my hat, which produced a very beautiful appearance, and I was sorry to be so soon deprived of it.”

The Paradox of Unsuccessful Intervention

Mike is overweight. His wife has just baked a cake. Happily, Mike has a box that will quiet his desire for cake. Unhappily, its battery is dead. Mike pushes the button, nothing happens, and he eats the cake.

Now, the fact that he pushed the button shows that his desire to avoid cake was greater than his desire to eat cake. So why did he push the button?

A Late Visitor

Statements of the family and associates of H. Rider Haggard regarding the events of July 9, 1904:

Mrs. M.L. Haggard:

On the night [of] July 9th I was awakened by most distressing sounds proceeding from my husband, resembling the moans of an animal, no distinct words. After listening for a few moments, I woke him up, whereupon he said that he had had a nightmare, in which he was engaged in some struggle connected with our retriever dog “Bob,” and that “Bob” was trying to talk to him and explain that he wanted help. It was quite dark at the time, so I conclude it must have been about 2 a.m.

Angela Rider Haggard:

On Sunday morning, July 10th, my father mentioned at the breakfast table that he had had a horrid nightmare about my black retriever dog “Bob.” He said that he dreamt the dog was dying in a wood and trying to make some communication to him. My mother corroborated this statement, saying he had made such a noise that he had even awakened her, and she aroused him as he seemed so disturbed. Of course we all laughed at it at the time, for we did not know then that anything had happened to the dog, for I had seen him myself at 8 o’clock on the preceding evening.

Lilias R. Haggard:

On the evening of Sunday, July 10th, I, who am in the habit of feeding the dogs, told Daddy that “Bob” had not come to his breakfast or his supper that day, so I thought he must be lost. Daddy had said at breakfast on Sunday that he had dreamt that “Bob” was dying in a wood, and that he, Daddy, was trying to extract something from “Bob,” and that “Bob” was trying to speak.

Harry Alger, railway platelayer:

I was at my business on the line between Bungay and Ditchingham at 7 o’clock on the morning of Monday, the 11th July … and found the broken collar of a dog lying there, which I produce, and had to scrape off the dried blood and some bits of flesh from the line. … Under all the circumstances I think that the dog must have been killed by the late excursion train on Saturday night which left Ditchingham for Harleston at 10.25. … The marks of blood upon the piles showed where the dog had fallen from the bridge into the reeds. These reeds grow in deepish water.

C. Bedingfield, groom:

My master and I found the dog in the Waveney near the Falcon Bridge on the morning of July 14th. It is the retriever dog, Bob, which I have known ever since it has been at Ditchingham House.

“I seem therefore to come to this conclusion,” Haggard wrote later, after relating the story in the Times. “Either the whole thing is a mere coincidence and just means nothing more than indigestion and a nightmare, or it was the spirit of the dog on its passage to its own place or into another form, that moved my spirit, thereby causing this revelation, for it seems to be nothing less.”

“Holland Conquered by a Spider”

Dubious but colorful: The Foreign Quarterly Review, January 1844, reports the case of Quatremer Disjonval, a Dutch adjutant-general whom the Prussians had incarcerated in a dungeon at Utrecht.

To pass the time he studied the prison’s spiders and noted that their behavior varied with approaching weather. When a sudden thaw threatened the advance of republican troops in January 1795, Disjonval sent a letter to the French general promising a severe frost within two weeks.

When the cold that arrived 12 days later froze Dutch canals solid enough to bear French artillery, the republicans took Utrecht and “Quatremer Disjonval, who had watched the habits of his spiders with so much intelligence and success, was, as a reward for his ingenuity, released from prison.”

See “Spider Barometers.”

Ice Rings

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What’s 2.5 miles wide, perfectly circular, and warm enough to melt ice?

I don’t know either, but there are at least two of them in Russia’s Lake Baikal.

They were spotted in April from the international space station.

09/26/2013 Resolved. (Thanks, Drew.)

A Point to Make

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In 1945, Dutch designer Arnold Henske realized that his body was “invulnerable” and took to swallowing glass and razor blades as a fakir in Amsterdam.

That’s a real rapier transfixing his thorax at left.

His dream was to use his ability to spread a message of love and peace, but Dutch officials would license him only to perform his act, not to preach against materialism, as he’d hoped.

A voice told him to swallow a steel needle in 1948, and he died of an aortic rupture — a broken heart.

Smullyan’s Paradox

At a desert oasis, A and B decide independently to murder C. A poisons C’s canteen, and later B punches a hole in it. C dies of thirst. Who killed him?

A argues that C never drank the poison. B claims that he only deprived C of poisoned water. They’re both right, but still C is dead. Who’s guilty?

Air Mail

Distances to which objects were carried by the tornado at Mount Carmel, Ill., June 4, 1877:

A letter from Mount Carmel was found at Vincennes, Ind., twenty-five miles northeastward. A piece of tin roofing was picked up near Hazleton, Ind., seventeen miles northeastward. The spire, vane, and gilded ball of the Methodist church were found near Decker’s Station, Ind., fifteen miles northeastward. A letter from Mount Carmel was carried by the wind to Widner Township, Ind., forty-five miles north-northeastward. A discharge from the military service of the United States belonging to a Mount Carmel man was found near Edwardsport, Ind., nearly fifty miles northeastward, and a letter from Mount Carmel was found near the same place. … I was also told that a paper sack of flour from a demolished store was found nearly five miles distant in Indiana, with no further damage than a small hole in it.

From the Annual Report of the Secretary of War, 1877.

Gef the Talking Mongoose

In September 1931, the Irving family claimed to hear a scratching behind the walls of their farmhouse on the Isle of Man. That seemed mundane enough until the scratcher revealed itself as Gef, a 79-year-old talking mongoose from New Delhi. Over the next four years, James Irving kept a journal recording the family’s bizarre interactions with the creature, which he said threw objects, boasted about its powers, and gossiped about the neighbors.

Investigations went nowhere, as Gef appeared and spoke only to the Irvings. A hair sample and tooth impressions suggested only a dog; a set of pawprints were found not to be those of a mongoose.

It’s hard to credit such an outlandish story, but it’s equally hard to see why anyone would invent it. The Irvings profited nothing by it and were widely ridiculed in the media; when the family finally sold the house in 1937, they lost money, as it was now reputed to be haunted.

In 1947, the new owner claimed to have discovered and shot a real mongoose on the property. You don’t suppose … ?

The Valentine Phantom

Each year, in the early hours of Valentine’s Day, someone scatters red hearts through downtown Montpelier, Vt.

When they first appeared, in 2002, they were simple photocopies, but by 2006 large banners were gracing the State House columns. Soon the decorations spread to the high school’s chimney and a tower at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

“Currently, there are no leads and no suspects,” joked police chief Dave Janawicz in 2007, when 14 inches of snow failed to stop the bandit. “But the investigation continues.”

Vermont’s capital is not alone in this — for years, the same thing has been happening in Portland, Maine, and in Boulder, Colo. No one knows who does it or why.

A similar phantom visits the grave of Edgar Allan Poe each year on the poet’s birthday.