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


Image: Flickr

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


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


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.


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


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


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


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.”

“The Boy Jones”


Curious doings at Buckingham Palace, 1838-1841:

  • In December 1838, a porter discovered 15-year-old Edward Jones in the marble hall. He had stolen linen and a regimental sword, but a jury acquitted him.
  • In November 1840, the same boy scaled the wall and entered the palace again, this time leaving undetected.
  • The following day a nurse found him under a sofa in the queen’s dressing room. “He said that he had sat upon the throne, that he saw the queen, and heard the princess royal cry.”
  • After three months in prison he returned immediately — in March 1841 he was found eating in one of the royal apartments.

This last earned him three more months’ correction, this time with hard labor, and this apparently cured him. But others would follow: In July 1982 Elizabeth II awoke to find 32-year-old Michael Fagan in her bedchamber. “He thinks so much of the Queen,” Fagan’s mother explained. “I can imagine him just wanting to simply talk and say hello and discuss his problems.”

Happy Crabbing!


On Feb. 5, 1958, during a simulated combat mission near Savannah, Ga., a B-47 bomber collided with an F-86 fighter. The fighter crashed; the bomber, barely airworthy, needed to reduce weight to avoid an emergency landing.

So it dropped a 7,600-pound nuclear bomb.

The bomb contained 400 pounds of conventional explosives and highly enriched uranium. There’s some disagreement as to whether it included the plutonium capsule needed to start a nuclear reaction.

That’s rather important, because in 50 years of searching the Air Force still hasn’t found the bomb. It hit the water near Tybee Island off the Georgia coast and is presumably buried in 10 feet of silt somewhere in Wassaw Sound. But exactly where it is, and how dangerous it is, remain unknown.

Sucker Punch


Man’s greatest curse, it seems, is that he is easily bored. In the 1960s, a novelty-starved Washington state televised the World Octopus Wrestling Championships, in which each contestant would dive into Puget Sound, grab a North Pacific giant octopus, and try to haul it to the surface.

This would be difficult even for a real wrestler; H. Allen Smith pointed out that “it is impossible for a man with two arms to apply a full nelson on an octopus,” much less to apply a crotch hold on an opponent with eight crotches. Plus the giant octopus can grow to 90 pounds.

But nothing can stop a fad. In April 1963, 5,000 spectators watched 111 divers draw 25 surprised octopi pointlessly out of the sound, after which the creatures were released, eaten, or donated to a local aquarium. The octopi had no comment; perhaps they’re planning a comeback match.

“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.