John Metcalf, a native of the neighbourhood of Manchester, … became blind at so early an age as to be altogether unconscious of light, and its various effects. His employment in the younger period of his life was that of a waggoner, and occasionally as a guide in intricate roads during the night, or when the common tracks were covered with snow. Afterwards he became a projector and surveyor of highways in difficult and mountainous parts; and, in this capacity, with the assistance merely of a long staff, he traverses the roads, ascends precipices, explores valleys, and investigates their several extents, forms, and situations, so as to answer his purpose in the best manner.
– John Platts, Encyclopedia of Natural and Artificial Wonders and Curiosities, 1876
According to legend, pearl-hunting Spaniards sailed up the Gulf of California in 1610 and became grounded in a vanishing inland sea, leaving a ship full of treasure in the California desert. Reports are curiously specific:
- In January 1870 an Albert S. Evans told the New York Galaxy that, looking south in 1863 from the summit of the divide between Dos Palmas and the Palma Seca, he’d seen “what appeared in the distance the wreck of a gallant ship.”
- The Sacramento Union, Oct. 6, 1870, reported that a party of four had left San Bernardino to visit the ship. “The bow and stern are plainly visible, and she is 240 miles from the Gulf of California.” The party returned six days later and set out again in November; no further details are recorded.
- In a 1933 book, The Journey of the Flame, Antonio de Fierro Blanco tells of a young mule driver named Tiburcio Manquerna who stumbled across a lost galleon and saw a vast cargo of pearls in its hold. He was later unable to relocate it.
- In January 1939, Desert magazine quoted a Perta Socia Tucker who said that her first husband knew of the ship’s location, “a narrow box canyon with high sheer walls, and a sandy bottom; and partially buried there, a boat of ancient appearance — an open boat but big, with round metal disks on its sides.”
In 1949 the Los Angeles Times reported that three UCLA students set out with 1910 Imperial Irrigation District maps and a story from a Cahuilla Indian who said he’d seen a “serpent-necked” canoe near the Salton Sea in 1917. The Times doesn’t report the result — but if you found a fortune in pearls, you wouldn’t tell a newspaper, would you?
Behold the arms of Richard Plantagenet Campbell Temple-Nugent-Brydges-Chandos-Grenville, 3rd Duke of Buckingham and Chandos, GCSI, PC (1823–1889).
Plutarch wrote, “He who reflects on another man’s want of breeding shows he wants it as much himself.”
In 1997, three scientists examined 10 rock crystal lenses discovered in a Viking grave on Sweden’s Gotland Island. Made in the 12th century, the lenses had been thought to be simple ornaments, but examination showed they had been crafted with the ideal focusing lens shape 500 years before Descartes could calculate it mathematically.
“It seems that the elliptical lens design was invented much earlier that we thought and then the knowledge was lost,” researcher Olaf Schmidt told the BBC. Scientists speculate that the lenses were used to start fires or perhaps even to form a crude telescope.
Who made them? Not Vikings — probably a group of craftsmen in Byzantium or Eastern Europe, possibly even a single talented artisan. Whoever it was, he knew even more about applied optics than scientists at the time.
The 14th Lord Berners, Gerald Tyrwhitt-Wilson (1883-1950), was either eccentric or poetic-minded — he used to dye the pigeons at his Faringdon manor house so that when released they became, in Nancy Mitford’s phrase, “a cloud of confetti in the sky.”
Berners also kept a giraffe, installed a piano in his Rolls Royce, and once received Penelope Betjeman’s horse into his drawing room for tea. When a Miss Lobb complained that a tower erected on his Oxfordshire estate would invite suicides, he nailed up a notice: “Members of the Public committing suicide from this tower do so at their own risk.”
In the Massachusetts House of Representatives hangs a 5-foot pine cod, a historic symbol of the fishing industry. It’s known as the Sacred Cod of Massachusetts.
The Senate, not to be outdone, has a brass fish surmounting its chandelier.
It’s known as the Holy Mackerel.
James Garfield, when not proving the Pythagorean theorem, could write simultaneously in Latin with one hand and in ancient Greek with the other.
Thea Alba (left), “the woman with 10 brains,” toured Europe in 1920 displaying her ability to write in French, German, and English at the same time and to draw a landscape in colored chalk using both hands at once.
You can produce mirror writing by holding a pencil in each hand, writing normally with your dominant hand, and willing the other hand to match it.
On the 26th of April, 1875, a very large Calamary (or Squid) was met with on the northwest of Biffin Island, Connemara [Ireland]. The crew of a curragh (or coracle) observed to seaward a large floating mass surrounded with gulls. They pulled out to it, believing it to be wreck, but to their astonishment found it was an enormous cuttlefish, lying perfectly still, as if basking on the surface of the water. Paddling up with caution, they lopped off one of its arms. The animal immediately set out to sea, rushing through the water at a tremendous pace. The men gave chase, and, after a hard pull in their frail canvas craft, came up with it, five miles out in the open Atlantic, and severed another of the arms and the head. These portions are now in the Dublin Museum. The shorter arms measure each eight feet in length, and fifteen inches round the base; the tentacular arms (or longer arms) are said to have been thirty feet long. The body sank.
(Recounted in The World of Wonders, 1883)
At the Kishi railway station in southern Japan, the stationmaster has her own litter box. Tama, a local stray cat, was named to the post in January 2007, and ridership immediately jumped 17 percent.
She’s paid in cat food and gets her own hat; as the station is unmanned, her main job is to greet passengers.
This all sounds remarkably progressive, but Tama may have mixed feelings: She’s still the only female manager in the company.
(Image: Wikimedia Commons)
A Clergyman, in the eastern part of Sussex, a few years since, at a single discharge of his gun, killed a partridge, shot a man, a hog, and a hogsty, broke fourteen panes of glass, and knocked down six gingerbread kings and queens that were standing on the mantle-piece opposite the window. The above may be depended upon as a fact, not exaggerated, but given literally as it happened.
– Pierce Egan, Sporting Anecdotes, Original and Selected, 1822
In the 1740s, workers at a stable near Cambridge noticed that a cat had taken a peculiar fancy to one of the horses there. She was always near him, they found, sitting on his back or nestling nearby in the manger.
Her attachment proved so great that when the stallion died in 1754 “she sat upon him after he was dead in the building erected for him, and followed him to the place where he was buried under a gateway near the running stable; sat upon him there till he was buried, then went away, and never was seen again, till found dead in the hayloft” — apparently of grief.
The cat’s name is not recorded, but she certainly could pick horses: The stallion was the Godolphin Arabian, now revered as the founder of modern thoroughbred racing stock. His direct descendants include both Seabiscuit and Man o’ War.
In 1912, workmen digging a tunnel for New York’s new subway discovered a carpeted room decorated with oil paintings, chandeliers, and a grandfather clock.
According to Tracy Fitzpatrick in Art and the Subway, it was the waiting room for an early prototype subway built in 1870 — a block-long tunnel in which a single car was pushed by a giant fan. Funding had failed, and the project had been forgotten.
In Britain this wouldn’t be redundant — in British English an avenue is a row of trees.
Unfortunately, that’s not so in Toronto, where Avenue Road is a major thoroughfare.
Local journalist Robert Fulford called it “an identity crisis with pavement.”
Between 1980 and 1993, 42 visitors to Israel experienced a peculiar psychotic episode with seven consistent clinical stages:
- Anxiety, agitation, nervousness and tension, plus other unspecified reactions.
- Declaration of the desire to split away from the group or the family and to tour Jerusalem alone.
- A need to be clean and pure: obsession with taking baths and showers; compulsive fingernail and toenail cutting.
- Preparation, often with the aid of hotel bed-linen, of a long, ankle-length, togalike gown, which was always white.
- The need to scream, shout, or sing out loud psalms, verses from the Bible, religious hymns, or spirituals.
- A procession or march to one of Jerusalem’s holy places.
- Delivery of a “sermon” in a holy place. The sermon was usually very confused and based on an unrealistic plea to humankind to adopt a more wholesome, moral, simple way of life.
These people had no history of psychiatric illness and arrived as regular tourists, with no special mission in mind. They recovered fairly spontaneously on leaving the country and were reluctant afterward to discuss the episode. No explanation has been found.
(Bar-el Y, et al. (2000) Jerusalem syndrome. British Journal of Psychiatry, 176, 86-90.)
Menu proposed by Vincent M. Holst in Why Not Eat Insects? (1885):
- Slug soup
- Boiled cod with snail sauce
- Wasp grubs fried in the comb
- Moths sauteed in butter
- Braised beef with caterpillars
- New carrots with wireworm sauce
- Gooseberry cream with sawflies
- Deviled chafer grubs
- Stag beetle larvae on toast
“Why on earth should these creatures be called loathsome, which, as a matter of fact, are not loathsome in any way, and, indeed, are in every way more fitted for human food than many of the so-called delicacies now highly prized?”
He has a point — viewed as livestock, house crickets convert energy to protein about 20 times more efficiently than beef cattle.
(Image: Wikimedia Commons)
On Oct. 21, 1796, at about 4 p.m., “a number of spectators” witnessed a curious mirage in clear weather near Cork, Ireland:
It appeared on a hill, on the county of Waterford side of the river, and seemed a walled town with a round tower, and a church with a spire; the houses perfect, and the windows distinct. Behind the houses appeared the mast of a ship, and in the front a single tree, near which was a cow grazing: whilst the Waterford hills appeared distinctly behind. In the space of about half an hour the spire and round tower became covered with domes, and the octagonal building, or rather round tower, became a broken turret. Soon after this change, all the houses became ruins, and their fragments seemed scattered in the field near the walls; the whole in about an hour disappeared, and the hill on which it stood, sunk to the level of the real field. The hill and trees appeared of a bright green, the houses and towers of a clear brown, with their roofs blue.
From Curiosities for the Ingenious, 1825.
If aliens are studying us, they must be baffled sometimes.
In late 1999 four women’s bras appeared on a wire fence in southern New Zealand. That’s innocent enough, but by February the number had grown to 60. In October it reached 200, and by the following February nearly 800.
Why? Who knows? The local council waited until September to clear the fence — by which time it had accumulated more than 1,500 bras.
(Image: Wikimedia Commons)
It is recorded of the poet Dryden, by Charles Wilson, in his ‘Life of Congreve,’ that having, strange to say, belief in astrology, he was careful to ascertain to the second the time at which his son Charles was born. He then calculated the boy’s nativity, and was alarmed to discover that evil influences prevailed in the heavens. … He concluded that in his eighth year, and on the day of birth, his son’s life would be seriously endangered if not lost; and that if he lived, the same danger would exist when he attained his twenty-third birthday, and again on his thirty-third or fourth. On the boy’s eighth birthday, despite every precaution to keep the boy from every possible danger, he was nearly killed by the fall of a wall. On his twenty-third birthday he was seized with giddiness and fell from an old tower belonging to the Vatican at Rome; and he was drowned at Windsor while swimming across the Thames in his thirty-third year.
– The World of Wonders, 1883
In a pond near Lewes, in Sussex, a pike, in appearance about a foot long, was seen to seize and gradually gorge a swallow (probably one of the web-footed kind), as it was wantoning on the surface of the water. The above is an indubitable fact, as witnessed and related by a clergyman, whose veracity cannot be disputed, and on whose authority we feel a pleasure in recording this piscatory anecdote.
– Pierce Egan, Sporting Anecdotes, Original and Selected, 1822
Feats of Canadian strongman Louis Cyr (1863-1912), “the strongest man who ever lived”:
- In 1881 he lifted a horse weighing at least 1500 pounds.
- In 1886 he lifted a 218-pound barbell with one hand and raised 2,371 pounds on his back.
- In 1895 he raised a platform that held 18 men.
- In 1889 he shouldered a 433-pound barrel of cement with one arm and lifted 552.5 pounds clear of the floor with a single finger.
- In 1891 he resisted the pull of four draft horses even as grooms drove them apart with whips.
Where did he get these gifts? “The mother of Louis Cyr … could easily shoulder a barrel of flour and carry it up two or three flights of stairs.” (Josephine Beiderhase, American Gymnasia and Athletic Record, 1906)
See also Jack Lalanne.
An old volume of the Quarterly Review mentions a crime discovered in a most extraordinary way in Australia in the year 1830, of which a public record is preserved, and which figures with full details in the journals of that period. The confidential steward of a wealthy settler near Sydney stated that his master had suddenly been called to England on important business, and that during his absence the whole of his immense property would be in his exclusive care. Some weeks after an acquaintance of the absentee settler riding through his grounds was astonished to perceive him sitting upon a stile. He strode forward to speak, when the figure turned from him with a look of intense sorrow and walked to the edge of a pond, where it mysteriously disappeared. On the morrow he brought a number of men to the water to drag it, and the body of the man supposed to be on his way to England was brought up. The steward was arrested, brought to trial, and, frightened at the story of his master’s ghost, confessed the crime, stating that he did the murder at the very stile on which his master’s ghost had appeared. He was duly executed.
– The World of Wonders, 1883
In 1906, standing on a headland in northern Canada, Robert Peary spied a landmass about 130 miles away in the Arctic Ocean, at about 83°N 100°W.
An expedition eight years later found no sign of it. Peary’s landmass was never seen again.
The following resolutions were passed by the Board of Councilmen in Canton, Mississippi:–
- Resolved, by this Council, that we build a new Jail.
- Resolved, that the new Jail be built out of the materials of the old Jail.
- Resolved, that the old Jail be used until the new Jail is finished.
– Charles Carroll Bombaugh, Gleanings for the Curious from the Harvest-fields of Literature, 1875