Oddities

Heavy-Hearted

In the Medical Times & Gazette, May 21, 1853, George Budd recounts the case of 94-year-old Henry Hall, who was fighting a fire at the Eddystone lighthouse near Plymouth in the winter of 1755 when a quantity of molten lead fell from the roof and struck him in the head and face. “From that moment he had a violent internal sensation, and imagined that a quantity of the lead had passed down his throat into his body.”

Hall was attended by a Dr. Spry at Stonehouse, “and swallowed many things, both liquid and solid, till the 10th or 11th day.” But then he suddenly grew worse, seized with cold sweats and spasms, and he died soon afterward.

Spry reports: “Examining the body, and making an incision through the left abdomen, I found the diaphragmatic upper mouth of the stomach greatly inflamed and ulcerated, and the tunica in the lower part of the stomach burnt”—and he drew forth “a great piece of lead” weighing 7 ounces, 5 drams, and 8 grains.

The Sampford Ghost

In 1810, the house of a Mr. Chave at Sampford Peverell in southwestern England seemed to be invaded by a violent ghost that hated women.

Charles Colton reported that the women who slept in the house, several of whom he had interviewed under oath, had told that “their night’s rest was invariably destroyed by violent blows from some invisible hand, by an unaccountable and rapid drawing and withdrawing of the curtains, by a suffocating and almost inexpressible weight, and by a repetition of sounds, so loud as at times to shake the whole room.”

Chave and his servants swore they had no hand in it (indeed, the notoriety reduced the value of the house), and a reward of £250 brought no further information. Someone was up to something that spring in Devon, but exactly who, and what, and why, have never been discovered.

“An Elephant’s Sagacity”

The stories illustrating the sagacity of the elephant are innumerable; but few are more remarkable than the following one recorded by a writer in a Bombay paper upon the authority of an artillery officer, who was a witness of the incident:– The battering train was going to the siege of Seringapatam, when an artilleryman, who was seated on the tumbril of one of the guns, by some accident fell almost directly under the hind wheel. The elephant stationed behind the gun, perceiving the man’s danger, instantly, without any order from its keeper, lifted up the wheel with its trunk, and kept it suspended till the carriage had passed clear of him.

— Henry Williams, A Book of Curious Facts, 1903

Mind Games

  • Déjà vu — the feeling of having seen an unfamiliar thing previously
  • Déjà vécu — the feeling of having experienced an unfamiliar situation previously
  • Déjà visité — unaccountable knowledge of an unfamiliar place
  • Déjà senti — a sense of “recollection” of an unfamiliar idea
  • Jamais vu — a sense of unfamiliarity with a familiar situation
  • Presque vu — inability to summon a familiar word

Visiting a ruined English manor in 1856, Nathaniel Hawthorne felt “haunted and perplexed” by the idea that he had seen it before. He later realized that Alexander Pope had written a poem about it nearly 100 years earlier.

“Mirage Seen at Buffalo, N. Y.”

The people of Buffalo, N. Y., were treated to a remarkable mirage, between ten and eleven o’clock, on the morning of August 16, 1894. It was the city of Toronto with its harbor and small island to the south of the city. Toronto is fifty-six miles from Buffalo, but the church spires could be counted with the greatest ease. The mirage took in the whole breadth of lake Ontario, Charlotte, the suburbs of Rochester, being recognized as a projection east of Toronto. A side-wheel steamer could be seen traveling in a line from Charlotte to Toronto Bay. Two dark objects were at last found to be the steamers of the New York Central plying between Lewiston and Toronto. A sail-boat was also visible and disappeared suddenly. Slowly the mirage began to fade away, to the disappointment of thousands who crowded the roofs of houses and office buildings. … A close examination of the map showed the mirage did not cause the slightest distortion, the gradual rise of the city from the water being rendered perfectly. It is estimated that at least 20,000 spectators saw the novel spectacle.

Scientific American, Aug. 25, 1894, quoted in Miscellaneous Notes & Queries

The Wreck of the Titan

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Art doesn’t just imitate life — sometimes it anticipates it. Fourteen years before the Titanic was built, the American Morgan Robertson wrote a novel called The Wreck of the Titan that prefigured the real ship’s destiny with remarkable precision.

The Titanic and the Titan were both triple-screwed British passenger liners with a capacity of 3,000 and a top speed of 24 knots. Both were deemed unsinkable; both carried too few lifeboats. And both sank in April in the North Atlantic after colliding with an iceberg on the forward starboard side.

In another novel, Beyond the Spectrum (1914), Robertson forecast a war between the United States and Japan, including a Japanese sneak attack (on San Francisco). There’s no way to know what more he had in store — he died the following year.

The Cardiff Giant

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Workers were digging a well in New York in 1869 when they made a sensational discovery: a 10-foot man made of stone.

Was it an ancient statue? A huge petrified human? The truth turned out to be more mundane: The “Cardiff Giant” had been carved out of gypsum and deliberately buried by a New York tobacconist named George Hull. He turned a good profit: His $2,600 investment sold for $37,500 when it was “discovered.”

The continuing hysteria drove profits higher, and P.T. Barnum offered $60,000 to lease it for three months. Rebuffed, he built his own plaster replica and decried the original as a fake, leading exhibitor David Hannum to grumble, “There’s a sucker born every minute” — a remark later misattributed to Barnum himself.

Eventually the whole thing blew over; by 1870 both giants had been revealed as fake. But the old gypsum carving still makes a good show — it’s on display today in a Cooperstown, N.Y., museum.

Hot Stuff

8th [October, 1672]. I took leave of my Lady Sunderland, who was going to Paris to my Lord, now ambassador there. She made me stay dinner at Leicester-House, and afterwards sent for Richardson, the famous fire-eater. He devoured brimstone on glowing coals before us, chewing and swallowing them; he melted a beer-glass and eat it quite up; then, taking a live coal on his tongue, he put on it a raw oyster, the coal was blown on with bellows till it flamed and sparkled in his mouth, and so remained till the oyster gaped and was quite boiled. Then, he melted pitch and wax with sulphur, which he drank down, as it flamed; I saw it flaming in his mouth, a good while; he also took up a thick piece of iron, such as laundresses use to put in their smoothing boxes, when it was fiery hot, held it between his teeth, then in his hand, and threw it about like a stone; but this I observed, he cared not to hold very long; then, he stood on a small pot; and, bending his body, took a glowing iron with his mouth from between his feet, without touching the pot, or ground, with his hands; with divers other prodigious feats.

Diary and Correspondence of John Evelyn, 1862

“The Salamander”

Make of this what you will — it’s a certificate signed in the 1750s by 11 witnesses, including two representatives of the Sorbonne and a counselor to the French parliament:

We, the undersigned, … certify that we have this day, between the hours of eight and ten o’clock in the evening, seen Marie Sonet while in convulsion, her head on one stool and her feet on another, the said stools being entirely within a large fire-place and under the mantel-piece, so that her body was in the air above the fire, which burned with extreme violence, remaining in that position for thirty-six minutes in four different times, (nine minutes each time) without the cloth in which she was wrapped (she was without other clothes) being burned, although the flames sometimes extended above her—the which appears to us to be quite supernatural.

And: “Again, we certify that while we were signing the present certificate, the said Sonet placed herself over the fire in the manner previously described, and remained there nine minutes, appearing to sleep above the brazier, which was very hot, having been replenished with fifteen large logs, and a faggot of kindling wood, during the last two hours and a quarter.”

(Cited in William Hammond, On Certain Conditions of Nervous Derangement, 1881.)

Fraser Illusion

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The horizontal lines are parallel.

Just Say No

John Cummings was a game drunk. In June 1799, having watched a French mountebank pretend to swallow clasped knives, the 23-year-old American sailor boasted that he could do the same, and “after drinking freely” he proceeded to swallow his own pocketknife and three others offered by his friends.

Thus began a memorable career. According to George Budd in the Medical Times & Gazette, May 21, 1853, Cummings recounted his exploit in Boston six years later and was immediately challenged to repeat it. He swallowed six more knives, and an additional eight the following morning, “so that he had swallowed a knife for every day that the month was old.”

Why stop there? Nine months later, drunk again, he made the same boast in England and swallowed five knives on Dec. 4 and nine clasp kives on Dec. 5 (plus, he was told, another four that he was too drunk to remember).

Through the next four years, in great pain and continually vomiting, Cummings applied to a number of doctors, at least one of whom dismissed his story as incredible. But when he died finally in March 1809, his stomach was opened and “a great many portions of blades, knife-springs, and handles were found in it, and were carefully collected for the museum at Guy’s Hospital, in which they are now preserved,” Budd notes—Cummings’ contribution to medical science.

“Note How Your Friend Laughs”

It is a well known and easily demonstrated scientific fact that different people sound different vowels when laughing, from which fact a close observer has drawn the following conclusions: People who laugh in A (pronounced as ah) are frank, honest, and fond of noise and excitement, though they are often of a versatile and fickle disposition. Laughter in E (pronounced as ay) is peculiar to phlegmatic and melancholy persons. Those who laugh in I (pronounced as ee) are children or simple-minded, obliging, affectionate, timid, and undecided people. To laugh in O indicates generosity and daring. Avoid if possible all those who laugh in U, as they are wholly devoid of principle.

— Henry Williams, A Book of Curious Facts, 1903

Plying the Blue

Phantom ships, as they have been called, have repeatedly been seen by various observers. Mr. Scoresby, in his voyage to Greenland, in 1822, saw an inverted image of a ship in the air, so well defined that he could distinguish by a telescope every sail, the peculiar rig of the ship, and its whole general character, insomuch that he confidently pronounced it to be his father’s ship, the Fame, which it afterwards proved to be.

— Charles Kingsley, The Boys’ and Girls’ Book of Science, 1881

See also The Wizard of Mauritius.

Shocking

A remarkable instance of the salutary effects of atmospheric electricity on the human body is told by the Wolverhampton correspondent of the London ‘Times.’ He states that during a thunder-storm a collier named Bates, who had lost his sight through an accident, was being led home, when a flash of lightning was reflected on the spectacles he was wearing to conceal his disfigurement. After the peal of thunder which followed he complained of pain in his head. The next moment, to his surprise, he found that he had regained possession of his eye-sight. The occurrence caused considerable excitement in the locality.

Popular Science Monthly, 1889

See also “Cure of a Palsy by a Stroke of Lightning.”

Let This Be a Lesson

The market square in the Wiltshire town of Devizes contains the following inscription:

On Thursday, 25th January, 1753,
RUTH PEARCE
of Potterne, in this County,
Agreed with Three other Women to buy a Sack of Wheat
in the Market, each paying her due proportion
towards the same.
One of these Women, in collecting the several quotas of
Money, discovered a deficiency, and demanded of
RUTH PEARCE the sum which was wanting
to make good the Amount.
RUTH PEARCE protested that she had paid her Share,
and said she wished she might drop dead if she
had not. — She rashly repeated this awful wish; —
when, to the consternation and terror of the surrounding
multitude, she instantly fell down and expired,
having the money concealed in her hand.

The Colter Stone

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In the early 1930s, a farmer turned up a rock while clearing a field in Idaho. It had been carved into the shape of a man’s head, and it bore the inscription JOHN COLTER on one side and 1808 on the other.

John Colter had left the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1806 to venture alone into the northwest. He returned two years later with stories of strange geysers, hot springs, and bubbling pools of mud. Few believed him.

If the stone is authentic, then Colter did indeed explore Wyoming, cross the Grand Tetons in the dead of winter, and descend alone into Idaho — the first white man to do so.

A Prodigy

A remarkable instance of rapid growth in the human species was noticed in France, in 1729, by the Academy of Sciences. It was a lad, then only seven years old, who measured four feet eight inches and four lines high, without his shoes. His mother observed his extraordinary growth and strength at two years old, which continued to increase with such rapidity, that he soon arrived at the usual standard. At four years old he was able to lift and throw the common bundles of hay in stables into the horses’ racks; and at six years old, he could lift as much as a sturdy fellow of twenty. But although he thus increased in bodily strength, his understanding was no greater than is usual with children of his age; and their playthings were also his favourite amusements.

— John Platts, Encyclopedia of Natural and Artificial Wonders and Curiosities, 1876

Squirmy

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An optical illusion. Nothing’s moving.

Inclement Weather

In The Atmosphere (1873), Camille Flammarion reports that in the latter part of October 1844, during a hurricane in the south of France, hailstones fell weighing 11 pounds. On May 8, 1802, a piece of ice fell “which measured more than three feet both in length and in width, with a thickness of two and a quarter feet.”

Nature (Aug. 30, 1894) reports that a gopher turtle, measuring 6 by 8 inches and entirely encased in ice, fell at Bovina, Miss., during a severe hailstorm there in 1893. Meteorologist Cleveland Abbe suggested that some “special local whirls or gusts” had carried it aloft. The turtle, evidently, had no comment.

Autodidact

In Curiosities of Human Nature (1852), Samuel Griswold Goodrich records that the duke of Argyle discovered a Latin copy of Newton’s Principia on the grass one day during a walk on his grounds. The book was claimed by Edmund Stone, the 18-year-old son of a gardener, and the astonished duke discovered that the young man was conversant with geometry, Latin, and Newton.

Argyle asked how he had come to know these things, and the youth replied that a servant had taught him to read 10 years earlier, and that he had taught himself arithmetic and geometry from textbooks, and Latin and French from dictionaries.

“It seems to me,” he said, “that we may learn everything when we know the 26 letters of the alphabet.”

Lucky Numbers

In a typical Powerball lottery drawing, there are four or five second-place winners.

On March 30, 2005, there were 110.

Officials suspected fraud at first, but it turned out that most of the winners had received the same mass-produced fortune cookie, which listed five of the six winning numbers.

The coincidence cost the lottery association $19 million.

“A Curious Race”

A curious race was recently witnessed in Westphalia, the contest being between pigeons and a number of bees, the respective owners of which had wagered their favorites to win. The course was three miles and a half, and a dovecot which happened to be near a hive was selected as the winning post. It was found no easy matter to mark the bees so as to make their identity unmistakable, but the difficulty was at last surmounted by rolling them in flour previous to starting them on their journey. This, while making them easily recognized on their arrival, probably retarded their flight; but nevertheless, and though the pigeons were looked upon by those interested as the most likely winners, the race resulted in a victory for the bees; the first bee arriving at the post twenty-five seconds before the first pigeon, and three other bees before the second.

— Henry Williams, A Book of Curious Facts, 1903

Time Slip

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On Aug. 10, 1901, Charlotte Anne Moberly and Eleanor Jourdain were visiting Versailles when they were overcome by a feeling of oppression. They became lost and encountered a number of unusual people, including a man with a scarred face, a fair-haired lady sketching on the grounds, and a group of “very dignified officials, dressed in long greyish green coats with small three-cornered hats.”

Months later, in researching the history of the Trianon, they came to believe that they had somehow slipped back in time on that day to the 1770s and had there met the Comte de Vaudreuil and Marie Antoinette. Their account, published in 1911 as An Adventure, created a sensation but was ultimately dismissed. Moberly and Jourdain were respected academics, but their book simply offered no compelling evidence for their claim.

Nor have any French historians found a record of two bewildered women appearing at Versailles in the 18th century.

“Sea Serpent”

We are informed that the Sea Serpent was seen of Squam Bar on Wednesday last, and again on Thursday, in Sandy Bay harbour. At the latter place, he was visible for some time, within fifty yards of the shore, and was fired at a number of times with muskets; two balls were seen to strike him and rebound. He was distinctly seen by as many as fifty people; and is described as appearing perfectly calm, with his head about two feet out of water, and his body visible only in parts or humps, as he has been before described, with a space of about two feet between each. He was judged to be at least seventy or eighty feet long.

Salem Gazette, cited in The Cabinet of Curiosities, 1824