Oddities

Black Sheep

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In 1894, Walter Rothschild drove three zebras to Buckingham Palace to prove they could be tamed.

His family’s banking pedigree meant little to him — he’d wanted to be a zoologist, he said, since age 7.

Somniloquist

Dion McGregor never made it big as a songwriter, but he gained fame for another talent — his roommate discovered that McGregor spoke at full conversational volume while dreaming:

  • “Welcome to Midget City. Uh hmmmm … from the ground up we built it. Yes, from the ground up, ummm hmmmm. Well, we have 173 — a hundred — no — 174, 174 buildings … uh hmmmm. We have our own police system. See that little cop over there? One of our midgets.”
  • “Well, I like … it’s 6 feet deep and about 8 feet long. Yes, well … yes … you can drown the neighbor children in it … if they’re noisy you just lure them in. We have a dumbwaiter that comes up from the garden … you just pop them in that dumbwaiter … drag them right up … and pop them in the water … drown them … throw them down into the still. Hah-hah-hah-hah-hah … of, of course, I’m kidding. Heh-heh-heh-heh!”
  • “Well certainly you have to bring a — you have to bring a gift; it’s a birthday party, stupid! Well naturally. What do you think? You can’t go to a birthday party without bringing a gift. Honestly, for a child of 3, you can be so dense. Naturally … yes of course … I don’t care … you bring a gift of your own choosing.”

The two released a recording of these dreams and a companion book in 1964. “You may not believe this,” McGregor wrote, “but I’m one of those people who really values his privacy.”

Tableau

In Hitler Moves East, former SS officer Paul Carell records a bizarre scene from the bitterly cold winter of 1941 on the eastern front. At Ozarovo a rearguard of the German 3rd Rifle Regiment came across a group of Russian troops standing motionless in waist-deep snow. On investigating, they found that the Soviets, horses and men, had frozen to death where they stood:

Over on one side was a soldier, leaning against the flank of his horse. Next to him a wounded man in the saddle, one leg in a splint, his eyes wide open under iced-up eyebrows, his right hand still gripping the dishevelled mane of his mount. The second lieutenant and the sergeant slumped forward in their saddles, their clenched fists still gripping their reins. Wedged in between two horses were three soldiers: evidently they had tried to keep warm against the animals’ bodies. The horses themselves were like the horses on the plinths of equestrian statues — heads held high, eyes closed, their skin covered with ice, their tails whipped by the wind, but frozen into immobility.

Lance Corporal Tietz couldn’t take photos because “the view-finder froze over with his tears” and the shutter refused to work. “The god of war was holding his hand over the infernal picture,” Carell writes. “It was not to become a memento for others.”

“A Curious Fact”

A lady correspondent of the Boston Transcript submits the following: A few nights since, upon retiring to rest, the gas being out and the room quite dark, the writer’s attention was directed to her foot, which was illuminated by light; which upon examination was found to be phosphorescent, and proceeded from the upper side of the fourth toe of the right foot. Upon rubbing it with the hand, the light increased and followed up the foot, the fumes filling the room with a disagreeable odor. This lasted some time, when the foot was immersed in a basin of water, hoping to quench the light, but to no purpose; for it continued beneath the surface of the water, the fumes rising above. The foot was taken out and wiped dry, but the light still remained. A second immersion of the foot followed, and soap applied, with the same result. No more experiments were tried, and after a time it gradually faded and disappeared. The time occupied by the phenomenon was about three quarters of an hour. The lady’s husband substantiates the above fact, as he also witnessed them. Will some one please explain the above, as the emitting of phosphorus from a living body is new to the writer.

The American Eclectic Medical Review, September 1869

“An Ass Cast Away”

In March, 1816, an ass belonging to captain Dundas, R. N. then at Malta, was shipped on board the Ister frigate, captain Forrest, bound for Gibraltar, for that island. The vessel struck on some sands off the Point de Gat, and the ass was thrown over board, in the hope that it might possibly be able to swim to the land; of which, however, there seemed but little chance, for the sea was running so high, that a boat which left the ship, was lost. A few days after, when the gates of Gibraltar were opened in the morning, the guard was surprised by Valiant, as the ass was called, presenting himself for admittance. On entering, he proceeded immediately to the stable of Mr. Weeks, a merchant, which he had formerly occupied. The poor animal had not only swam safely to the shore, but without guide, compass, or travelling map, had found his way from Point de Gat to Gibraltar, a distance of more than two hundred miles, through a mountainous and intricate country, intersected by streams, which he had never traversed before, and in so short a period, that he could not have made one false turn.

The Scrap Book, or, A Selection of Interesting and Authentic Anecdotes, 1825

“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

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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”

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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:

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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

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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.

“Leapers”

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

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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

Showoff

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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”

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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.