Kaspar Hauser Redux

On Sept. 18, 1989, a frightened teenage girl walked into William B. Jack Elementary School in Portland, Maine. “She just stopped at the counter,” teacher’s aide Judi Fox told the Houston Chronicle. “She walked in and signed a little bit.” Realizing that the girl was seeking help, Fox summoned a teacher who knew sign language and the two took her to a nearby school for the deaf.

Communicating in gestures and drawings, the deaf girl explained that she had been abducted about three years earlier, possibly from a foster home in California, and then moved several times. She believed she was 15 years old, and had been given the name Toby Cole by her captors, though authorities could find no missing-persons report that matched her case.

FBI agent Paul Cavanagh added, “From some of the drawings she was able to provide, it is believed that some of the people she was with since her abduction may have been tied to the occult.”

Unfortunately, no further clues to the girl’s identity were ever found, and she was able to provide no information leading to arrests. She was placed in a foster home, and the case remains unsolved.

On the same theme: In 2009 former Gallaudet University student Joseph Mesa Jr. was convicted of murdering two classmates. The jury rejected his claim that a pair of black hands had urged him on in sign language. Prosecutor Jeb Boasberg said, “An insanity defense doesn’t work if you’re not insane.”

UPDATE: There were further developments in the Toby Cole story, though they make the whole tale even stranger. Police and FBI investigators identified the woman as 27-year-old Margaret Louise Herget of Sandy, Ore. She had moved to Louisiana in August and then to Maine just a few days before turning up at the school. Police lieutenant Michael Bouchard told the Associated Press in October that Herget was hearing-impaired but not deaf and that authorities no longer believed that she had been abducted. But why she had concocted the story, so far as I can tell, is still a mystery. Thanks to everyone who wrote in about this.

Cast Away

Image: Wikimedia Commons

In July 1761 an illegal slave ship foundered near Tromelin, a speck of land 200 miles east of Madagascar. After six months on the island, the surviving gentlemen and sailors assembled a makeshift boat and departed, promising to return for the 60 slaves left on the island. They never did.

The slaves kept a fire going for 15 years while they struggled to survive on an island of barely 0.3 square miles. They fashioned houses from coral and sand, built a communal oven, and subsisted on turtles and seabirds.

“We have found evidence of where they lived and what they ate,” archaeologist Max Guérout told the Independent in 2007. “We have found copper cooking utensils, repaired, over and over again, which must originally have come from the wreck of the ship.”

Many of the castaways simply succumbed. At one point 18 left on a makeshift raft; it’s not known whether they reached land. In 1776 a French sailor was shipwrecked on the island, built a raft, and escaped to Mauritius with three men and three women. When a rescue ship arrived for the last seven castaways, they included a grandmother, her daughter, and an 8-month-old grandchild who had been born on the island.

The governor in Ile de France declared them free, since they had been bought illegally. He adopted the family of three and named the boy Jacques Moise. His surname is a French form of Moses — a baby rescued from water.

Spade Work


August Gussler was persistent. Convinced that Costa Rica’s tiny Cocos Island hid the loot of generations of pirates, the German adventurer set up camp there and in 1889 started digging.

The island occupies only 9 square miles, but it’s crowded with the ghosts of wealthy criminals, including English buccaneers Edward Davis and Bartholomew Sharp, Portuguese pirate Benito Bonito, and Captain William Thompson, who, entrusted with $60 million during an uprising in Lima in 1820, had turned criminal and kept it for himself. All of these, it was said, had hid their loot in the caves of Cocos, whose location 500 miles off the coast had made it an ideal haven for pirates plying the South Seas.

To aid in his search, Gussler had made himself a student of the island’s history. Bonito, he told one visitor, had buried “three hundred thousand pounds’ weight of silver and silver dollars, in a sandstone cave in the side of the mountain. Then he laid kegs of powder on top of the cave and blew away the face of the cliff. In another excavation he placed gold bricks, 733 of them, four by three inches in size, and two inches thick, and 273 gold-hilted swords, inlaid with jewels. On a bit of land in the little river, he buried several iron kettles filled with gold coin.”

Alas, it was hidden remarkably well. In 1908, when Gussler gave up his quest, he had found six gold coins.


Image: Wikimedia Commons

On Feb. 11, 1979, 27-year-old Scott Moorman and four friends set out from Hana, Maui, for a daylong fishing expedition aboard the Sarah Joe, a 16.5-foot fiberglass motorboat. They did not return. The Coast Guard searched for five days, and private searches continued much longer, but no trace of them was found.

Nine and a half years later, in 1988, marine biologist John Naughton discovered a wrecked boat with Hawaiian registry on Taongi, the northernmost coral atoll in the Marshall Islands, 2,300 miles west of Hawaii. It was the Sarah Joe, and nearby, under a pile of stones and a driftwood cross, were the bones of Scott Moorman. How he came there, who buried him, and what became of the others remain unknown.

The Rain Wizard


In August 1891, a man named Frank Melbourne arrived in drought-stricken Cheyenne, Wyo., and claimed that he could summon rain at will. He proposed to produce rain within three days in return for a sizable fee.

“He established himself in the loft of a barn in the suburbs of the city and has been there ever since, except when leaving it for his meals,” reported the Rocky Mountain News. “The only apparatus or chemicals he took into his retreat were contained in four ordinary gripsacks. The windows of the barn were carefully shaded with blankets, and the crevices in the floor of the barn loft covered to prevent any eye penetrating the mystery of the rain-making laboratory.”

At first his efforts seemed to have no effect, but on the third day the sky darkened. “Business was almost suspended and thousands of people were on the streets watching the clouds. At 2:40 o’clock there was a heavy peal of thunder and a vivid flash of lightning, and in a few moments the rain came down in torrents.” Melbourne emerged and claimed credit; to convince skeptics, he returned to the loft a few days later, and again showers fell.

This established his reputation, and he moved on to Salt Lake City and Kelton, Utah, and Goodland, Kan., which were also suffering dry spells. He returned to Cheyenne the following summer, promising to cover 5,000 square miles with rainfall, but this time he produced only a few scattered showers. The committee refused to pay him, and he left Cheyenne for good.

Scientific American noted that Melbourne spent the years 1892 to 1894 aboard a specially rigged railroad car, offering his services to any community along the route. “So long as frequent rains occurred,” the editors observed, “although they were natural and were predicted by the Weather Bureau …, yet the farmers of Iowa, Kansas, and Nebraska, ignoring this fact, were sure to accredit all success to Mr. Melbourne.”

The Iowa Weather and Crop Service was more blunt. Melbourne ought to emulate the rain dancers of the Winnebago Indians, it said: “When they begin operations they never let up until it rains, so they score a success every time.”

Round Numbers

Letter to the Times, June 17, 1978:


It is not only dates that make nice patterns of numbers. Some years ago I was bringing a Destroyer home from the Far East and was required to report my position twice a day.

One evening, I saw that we would be passing close to where the Greenwich Meridian cuts the Equator so arranged to arrive there dead on midnight. Once there I altered course to due North and stopped engines so my position signal read:

At 0000 my position Latitude 00°00’N, Longitude 00°00’E. Course 000°. Speed 0.

I had considered saying I was Nowhere but thought (probably correctly) that Their Lordships would not be amused.

Yours faithfully,

Claud Dickens

Breakfast News

In May 2009, California consumer Janine Sugawara sued PepsiCo for implying that crunchberries are a fruit. She claimed that she and other consumers had been misled both by the name of the cereal and by the image on the box of Cap’n Crunch “thrusting a spoonful of ‘Crunchberries’ at the prospective buyer.” The package suggests that the product contains real fruit, she said; had she known otherwise, she would not have bought it.

“While the challenged packaging contains the word ‘berries’ it does so only in conjunction with the descriptive term ‘crunch’,” wrote Judge Morrison England Jr., reflecting wearily upon the course his life had taken. “This Court is not aware of, nor has Plaintiff alleged the existence of, any actual fruit referred to as a ‘crunchberry.’ Furthermore, the ‘Crunchberries’ depicted on the [box] are round, crunchy, brightly-colored cereal balls, and the [box] clearly states both that the Product contains ‘sweetened corn & oat cereal’ and that the cereal is ‘enlarged to show texture.’ Thus, a reasonable consumer would not be deceived into believing that the Product in the instant case contained a fruit that does not exist.”

He dismissed the case and denied Sugawara the chance to amend her complaint. “The survival of the instant claim would require this Court to ignore all concepts of personal responsibility and common sense,” he wrote. “The Court has no intention of allowing that to happen.”

Creative Taxidermy


To demonstrate “the discovery which I had made of preparing specimens upon scientific principles,” eccentric naturalist Charles Waterton (1782-1865) created “The Nondescript,” a red howler monkey whose face he had manipulated into a semi-human cast.

“I have no wish whatever that the nondescript should pass for any other thing than that which the reader himself should wish it to pass for,” he wrote, rather elliptically. “Not considering myself pledged to tell its story, I leave it to the reader to say what it is, or what it is not.”

The specimen is preserved at the Wakefield Museum in West Yorkshire. Lost is a similar Waterton creation, “The English Reformation Zoologically Demonstrated,” a series of “portraits” of famous Protestants fashioned from preserved lizards and toads.

Such experiments could make Waterton seem unfeeling, but he was fundamentally more sympathetic with the wildlife of South America than the Georgian society to which he’d been born. He made this address to a sloth he surprised on the banks of the Essequibo in Guyana:

“Come, poor fellow. If thou hast got into a hobble to-day, thou shalt not suffer for it: I’ll take no advantage of thee in misfortune; the forest is large enough for both thee and me to rove in: go thy ways up above, and enjoy thyself in these endless wilds; it is more than probable thou wilt never have another interview with man. So fare thee well.”

(“I followed him with my eye till the intervening branches closed in betwixt us; and then I lost sight for ever of the two-toed Sloth. I was going to add, that I never saw a Sloth take to his heels in such earnest: but the expression will not do, for the Sloth has no heels.”)

“Three Sundays in a Week”


In 1841 Edgar Allan Poe pointed out the confusion that can result when a ship reckons time while circling the world. Captain Smitherton and Captain Pratt have just returned from circumnavigating the globe, one traveling eastward and the other westward, while Kate and her father Mr. Rumgudgeon have remained in London. On reuniting, they discover some confusion: Captain Pratt thinks that tomorrow will be Sunday, Smitherton thinks that yesterday was Sunday, and Kate and Rumgudgeon think that today is Sunday. Finally Smitherton says:

What fools we two are ! — Mr. Rumgudgeon, the matter stands thus: The earth, you know, is, in round numbers, twenty-four thousand miles in circumference. Now the earth turns on its own axis, spins round, these twenty-four thousand miles, going from west to east, in precisely twenty-four hours. Well, sir, that is at the rate of one thousand miles an hour.

Now suppose that I sail from this position a thousand miles east. Of course, I anticipate the rising of the sun here at London by just one hour. I see the sun rise one hour before you do. Proceeding in the same direction yet another thousand miles, I anticipate the rising by two hours; another thousand, and I anticipate it by three hours: and so on, until I go entirely round the globe, and back to this spot, when having gone twenty-four thousand miles east, I anticipate the rising of the London sun by no less than twenty-four hours; that is to say, I am a day in advance of your time. Understand?

But Captain Pratt, when he had sailed a thousand miles west of this position, was an hour, and when he had sailed twenty-four thousand miles was twenty-four hours, or one day, behind the time at London. Thus, with me, yesterday was Sunday; thus, with you, to-day is Sunday; and thus, with Captain Pratt, to-morrow will be Sunday. And what is more, Mr. Rumgudgeon, it is positively clear that we are all right.

Mr. Rumgudgeon, who had forbidden Kate to marry until there were “three Sundays in a week,” now relents. Too bad for him — the international date line would shortly obviate the problem.