“The Continental Salamander”

In the year 1826, one Monsieur Chabert … performed the following feats at the White Conduit Gardens: Having partaken of a hearty meal of phosphorus, washed down with a copious draught of oxalic acid in a solution of arsenic, he drank off a jorum of boiling oil, and with his naked hand helped himself to a serving of molten lead by way of dessert. On another occasion he walked into a fiery furnace, stayed in some considerable space of time, and came out whole and unburned. He represented the furnace as hotter than it really was, though, as a matter of fact, he took in with him a raw beefsteak and brought it out broiled to a turn.

— Albert Plympton Southwick, Handy Helps, No. 1, 1886

Yogi Bear’s Dream


The Longaberger Company of Newark, Ohio, makes, um, baskets.

Founder Dave Longaberger wanted all the company’s buildings to be basket-shaped, but his daughters vetoed this after his death. Spoilsports.

Late Arrival

In 1933, a lifeboat was found drifting in Barkley Sound on Vancouver Island.

It was marked Valencia — the name of a passenger liner that had run aground there 27 years earlier.

It was still in good condition.

“De Groote Meid”


In June 1625, Frederick V of Bohemia, having heard tales of a “9-year-old being miraculously tall,” summoned young Trijntje Keever to the Hague. The tales, he found, were true — Trijntje was already 6 foot 6, and she would reach 8 foot 4 before dying of cancer at age 17.

She was probably the tallest woman who ever lived — judging from an anonymous portrait in her hometown of Edam, her shoes were 16 inches long.

Jumbo Jet

Say what you will about the French, they know how to build an elephant:


This one, proposed for the Champs-Élysées in 1758, had air conditioning, a spiral staircase, and a drainage system in the trunk.

The French government said no. There’s no accounting for taste.

Badlands Guardian


Natural erosion carved this image out of the soil in southeastern Alberta.

Inspired, someone gave it a counterpart on the other side of the world.


People born on Leap Day, February 29:

  • Pope Paul III (1468)
  • Gioacchino Rossini (1792)
  • Jimmy Dorsey (1904)
  • Dinah Shore (1916)
  • Howard Nemerov (1920)
  • Dennis Farina (1944)
  • Richard Ramirez (1960)
  • Tony Robbins (1960)
  • Eugene Volokh (1968)
  • Ja Rule (1976)

Sir James Wilson (1812-1880), premier of Tasmania, both entered and left the world on Leap Day. He died on his 68th birthday — or, arguably, on his 17th.

Round Trip

Dave Kunst walked around the world. In June 1970 the county surveyor set out from Waseca, Minn., with his brother John, $1,000, and a mule with the portentous name of Willie Makeit. The brothers walked to New York, flew to Portugal, and had got as far as Afghanistan when John was shot by bandits. Dave recovered from his own wounds and resumed the journey, flying from India to Australia when the Soviet Union denied him entrance. His third mule had died when a Perth schoolteacher agreed to haul his supplies with her car while he walked alongside. He finished the trip in October 1974, having walked 20 million steps and worn out 21 pairs of shoes.

He married the schoolteacher.

Urban Planning

The city of Buenos Ayres, S. A., has received a singular proposition from two German mechanical engineers. They offer to cover the city with a huge umbrella, the base of which is to be 670 feet in diameter, the height 1500 feet, ribs of cast-iron 31 inches in circumference and 8 feet apart, and lining of wrought-iron one and a half inches thick. The great thing when raised will be one mile and a half wide. Around it will be a canal communicating with the Plate River, to carry away the water that might overflow the city. The work is estimated at the modest sum of $5,750,000.

— Albert Plympton Southwick, Handy Helps, No. 1, 1886

The Potsdam Giants

Friedrich Wilhelm I believed in stretching his military — when the Prussian king took the throne in 1713, he founded a special infantry regiment made up of taller-than-average soldiers.

“The men who stood in the first rank in this regiment were none of them less than seven feet high,” wrote Voltaire, “and he sent to purchase them from the farthest parts of Europe to the borders of Asia.” The diminutive king once told a French ambassador, “The most beautiful girl or woman in the world would be a matter of indifference to me, but tall soldiers — they are my weakness.”

They would have made an impressive force on the battlefield, but the “long guys” never saw action — and when Friedrich died in 1740 the crown prince dismissed the regiment.

Rock Music

A correspondent of Nature writes that, in roaming over the hills and rocks in the neighborhood of Kendal, near Lancaster, England, which are composed chiefly of limestone, he had often found what are called “musical stones.” They are generally thin, flat, weather-beaten stones, of different sizes and peculiar shapes, which, when struck with a piece of iron or another stone, produce a musical tone, instead of the dull, heavy, leaden sound of an ordinary stone. The sound of these stones is, in general, very much alike, but sets of eight stones have been collected which produce, when struck, a distinct octave.

— Frank H. Stauffer, The Queer, the Quaint and the Quizzical, 1882

See also The Musical Stones of Skiddaw.

A Phantom City

In The Atmosphere (1873), Camille Flammarion quotes a M. Grellois, who was traveling in northern Algeria in the summer of 1847:

I was proceeding one very hot day on horseback, at a walking pace, between Ghelma and Bône, in company with a young friend who has since died. When we had arrived within about two leagues of Bône, toward one in the afternoon, we were suddenly brought to a halt at a turn in the road by the appearance of a marvelous picture unfolded before our eyes. To the east of Bône, upon a sandy stretch of ground which a few days before we had seen arid and bare, there rose at this moment, upon a gently sloping hill running down to the sea, a vast and beautiful city, adorned with monuments, domes, and steeples.

That sounds like a mirage, but Grellois says the travelers observed the city for nearly half an hour, and that “reason refused to admit that this was only a vision.” “Whence came this apparition? There was no resemblance to Bône, still less to La Calle or Ghelma, both distant twenty leagues at least. Are we to suppose it was the reflected image of some large city on the Sicilian coast? That seems to me very improbable.”

Doubly Romantic


On Aug. 9 each year in the little Alaskan town of Kotzebue, the sun sets twice.

Due to a quirk of the town’s location and time zone, the sun goes down just after midnight on that day—and then again just before the following midnight.

Long Distance

Over water, or a surface of ice, sound is propagated with remarkable clearness and strength. … Lieut. Foster, in the third Polar expedition of Capt. Parry, found that he could hold conversation with a man across the harbor of Port Bowen, a distance of six thousand six hundred and ninety-six feet, or about a mile and a quarter. This, however, falls short of what is asserted by Derham and Dr. Young, — viz., that at Gibraltar the human voice has been heard at the distance of ten miles, the distance across the strait.

— Charles Carroll Bombaugh, Gleanings for the Curious from the Harvest-Fields of Literature, 1890

In-Flight Meal

In March 1876, Scientific American reported that witnesses in northeast Kentucky had observed “flakes of meat” drifting down from a clear sky. The flakes, which were “perfectly fresh,” measured up to 3-4 inches square and were confined to an oblong field.

The Louisville Courier-Journal reported that a local butcher roasted a slice and pronounced it “palatable.” Presumably he did this before hearing the prevailing theories: that lightning had roasted a flock of ducks–and that a flight of buzzards had disgorged its latest meal.

“Fidelity of a Dog”

An affecting anecdote was recently recorded in the French papers. A young man took a dog into a boat, rowed to the centre of the Seine, and threw the animal over, with intent to drown him; the poor dog often tried to climb up the side of the boat, but his master as often pushed him back, till, overbalancing himself, he fell overboard. As soon as the faithful dog saw his master in the stream he left the boat, and held him above water till help arrived from the shore, and his life was saved.

— T. Wallis, The Nic-Nac; or, Oracle of Knowledge, 1823



When 17-year-old polymath James Crichton arrived in Paris in 1578 to complete his education, he immediately challenged the faculty of the College of Navarre to a disputation. And he was pretty cocky about it:

He proposed that it should be carried on in any one of twelve specified languages, and have relation to any science or art, whether practical or theoretical. The challenge was accepted; and, as if to show in how little need he stood of preparation, or how lightly he held his adversaries, he spent the six weeks that elapsed between the challenge and the contest, in a continual round of tilting, hunting, and dancing.

“On the appointed day, however, and in the contest, he is said to have encountered all the gravest philosophers and divines, and to have acquitted himself to the astonishment of all who heard him. He received the public praises of the president and four of the most eminent professors. The very next day he appeared at a tilting match in the Louvre, and carried off the ring from all his accomplished and experienced competitors.”

(From Samuel Griswold Goodrich, Curiosities of Human Nature, 1852)

“Remarkable Coincidence”


On the night of May 11, 1812, John Williams of Redruth in Cornwall awakened his wife and told her he’d dreamed that he was in the lobby of the House of Commons and saw a man shoot the chancellor. Twice he went back to sleep, and twice he had the same dream.

Williams repeated the experience to friends in the following days, one of whom told him, “Your description is not at all that of the Chancellor, but is certainly very exactly that of Mr. Perceval, the chancellor of the exchequer.” Williams was explaining that he had never met or corresponded with this man when a messenger arrived from Truro with word that Perceval had been shot by an assassin in the lobby of the House of Commons on May 11 — the night of Williams’ dream.

According to a contemporary news account, Williams visited the spot six weeks later: “Immediately that he came to the steps at the entrance of the lobby, he said, ‘This place is as distinctly within my recollection, in my dream, as any room in my house,’ and he made the same observation when he entered the lobby. He then pointed out the exact spot where Bellingham stood when he fired, and which Mr. Perceval had reached when he was struck by the ball, where, and how he fell. The dress both of Mr. Perceval and Bellingham agreed with the description given by Mr. Williams, even to the most minute particular.”

Ghost Music

In 1923, 7-year-old Rosemary Brown said she’d had a vision of a white-haired man in a black gown. “He told me that when I grow up, he would give me music,” she said.

Ten years later she recognized a picture of Franz Liszt. And in 1964, she said he returned, acting “like sort of a reception desk” to put her in touch with dead composers from Grieg to Chopin, who dictated new works to her from beyond the grave.

The classical music establishment gave these mixed marks. Leonard Bernstein and André Previn were skeptical, but Richard Rodney Bennett said, “If she is a fake, she is a brilliant one, and must have had years of training.” (She claimed to have had only three years of piano instruction.) “Some of the music is awful, but some is marvelous. I couldn’t have faked the Beethoven.”

Whatever the truth, the experiment is over now. Brown died in 2001, presumably joining her illustrious friends — and depriving them of an audience here below.

A Confused Apparition

In his Lives (1827), Peter Walker recounts a baffling spectacle seen on Scotland’s River Clyde in the summer of 1686:

[T]here were showers of bonnets, hats, guns, and swords, which covered the trees and the ground; companies of men in arms marching in order upon the water-side; companies meeting companies, going all through other, and then all falling to the ground and disappearing: other companies immediately appeared, marching the same way.

Walker says these reports continued for at least three afternoons, but notes that fully a third of the assembled crowd, including himself, could see nothing. That sounds like a mass delusion, but “those who did see, told what works (i.e. locks) the guns had, and their lengths and wideness, and what handles the swords had … and the closing knots of the bonnets.” Make up your own mind.

So There

In the year 1796, died at Wordley Workhouse, Berks, Mary Pitts, aged 70; on being accused of having rummaged the box of another pauper, she wished God might strike her dead if she had; and instantly expired.

Kirby’s Wonderful and Scientific Museum, 1803

“Remarkable Monster”

valhalla sea serpent, illustrated london news, 1906

On Dec. 7, 1905, British naturalists J. Nicoll and E.G.B. Meade-Waldo spotted “a creature of most extraordinary form and proportions” during a research cruise off the coast of Brazil. Nicoll described a head “shaped somewhat like that of a turtle” above a 6-foot “eel-like” neck that “lashed up the water with a curious wriggling movement.” Below the water “we could indistinctly see a very large brownish-black patch, but could not make out the shape of the creature.”

They later spied it doing about 8.5 knots, slightly faster than the ship: “From the commotion in the water it looked as if a submarine was going along just below the surface.” The witnesses insisted it was not a whale, though Nicoll felt it was a mammal. That’s all we know.

A Geological Puzzle

Being at my seat near the village of Meudon, and overlooking a quarry-man, whom I had set to break some very large and hard stones, in the middle of one we found a huge live toad, though there was no visible aperture by which it could have got there. I could not help expressing my wonder how it had been generated, had grown, and lived; but the labourer told me, it was not the first time he had met with toads and the like creatures within huge blocks of stone, in which there could be found no visible opening or fissure.

— Ambrose Pare, chief surgeon to Henry III of France, quoted in The Monthly Magazine, 1798

Good Boy

This one is preposterous, but I have two sources, so here goes.

In the 1870s, visitors to a remote New Mexico sheep ranch discovered the solitary rancher dead in his hut. His records showed that he had been dead two years, but his flocks had actually increased since his death. How was this possible?

It turned out that his dog had been tending the flocks in his absence. The rancher had trained him to drive the flocks to their pasture in the morning, guard them all day, and return them to their fold at night, and he’d continued these duties when the rancher disappeared, killing some sheep as necessary for food but faithfully tending the rest.

According to these reports, in 1879 the New Mexico legislature awarded the dog a pension for life as a reward for his fidelity, “and no doubt as an encouragement to all other shepherd dogs in that territory to be good and faithful.” Draw your own conclusions.

(Sources: The Anti-Vivisectionist, Dec. 15, 1880; Albert Plympton Southwick, Handy Helps, No. 1, 1886)