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.


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,
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


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



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.


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


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

Ill Wind

When air hits the Alps, it sometimes drops its moisture on the windward side and descends into the land beyond as a warm, dry wind.

When this happens, headache and depression increase in Central Europe. The “murder winds” have even been blamed for heart attacks and suicide.

No one has explained the effect.



In 1858 Mark Twain had a vivid dream in which he saw his brother Henry lying in a metal burial case. On Henry’s chest lay a bouquet of white flowers with a red rose at its center.

A month later, Henry lost his life when his steamboat’s boiler exploded. A grieving Twain arrived to discover his brother’s body in a metal case—the other victims had been given wooden coffins, but the ladies of Memphis had taken up a fund for Henry, touched by his youth and good looks.

As Twain stood there, an elderly woman approached and placed a bouquet of white flowers on Henry’s chest. At its center was a single red rose.

See also A Premonition.

Owen Parfitt

In June 1768, bedridden tailor Owen Parfitt was put into a chair at the door of his Somerset cottage while his sister made his bed. She emerged after 15 minutes to find only the empty chair.

A search continued throughout the rural village through the night and all the following day. No trace of him was ever found.

Beauty Sleep


Virginia Centurione Bracelli died in 1651, but her body was found largely uncorrupted when her grave was opened 150 years later.

She was canonized in 2003.

“A Strange Phenomenon at Eccleston”

Whilst sitting quietly in [Bank House], the inmates have been frequently alarmed — sometimes two or three times a day — by the descent of showers of water, apparently from the ceiling. These showers have drenched them, flooding the floor and covering the furniture with water, rendering the house almost uninhabitable. … The water comes straight down from the ceiling, and shows not the slightest indication of its being thrown into the apartment. So singular is the affair that people have concluded that it is some spiritual influence, and is a sort of judgment upon the good ladies of the house for some dereliction, who, naturally enough, are much affrighted.

Preston Herald, Feb. 15, 1873

I Find Your Lack of Faith Disturbing


Image: Flickr

There’s a sculpture of Darth Vader on Washington’s National Cathedral.

During construction, a competition was held among children to suggest a carved grotesque, and Christopher Rader of Kearney, Neb., submitted a drawing of Darth Vader’s head.

It’s visible on the cathedral’s northwest tower — but you’ll need binoculars to see it.

Slow But Sure


In August 1820, an avalanche swept three mountaineers into a crevasse on Mont Blanc. Thirty-eight years later, a physicist who had studied the glacier’s rate of flow predicted that the bodies would soon be given up. He was right. William Herbert Hobbs writes in Earth Features and Their Meaning:

In the year 1861, or forty-one years after the disaster, the heads of the three guides, separated from their bodies, with some hands and fragments of clothing, appeared at the foot of the Glacier des Bossons, and in such a state of preservation that they were easily recognized by a guide who had known them in life.

The bodies had traveled 3,000 meters in 41 years. “To-day,” wrote Hobbs in 1912, “the time of reappearance of portions of the bodies of persons lost upon Mont Blanc is rather accurately predicted, so that friends repair to Chamonix to await the giving up of its victims by the Glacier des Bossons.”

Flash Photo

Near the village of Combe-Hay, in England, there was a wood composed largely of oaks and nut trees. In the middle of it was a field, about fifty yards long, in which six sheep were struck dead by lightning. When skinned there was discovered on them, on the inside of the skin, a facsimile of part of the adjacent landscape.

— William Walsh, A Handy Book of Curious Information, 1913

“Petrified Bodies”

The body of a child, nine months old, was buried in the ‘Old Burying-Ground,’ Stoddard, N. H., in January, 1818. In 1856, the body was disinterred, with others adjacent to it, for the purpose of removal to another lot. The body of this child alone had petrified. It was nearly as white as marble, and the features were as natural as the day it was buried, though the body soon crumbled on being exposed to the air.

Miscellaneous Notes and Queries, February 1888

All Wet


Mark Twain wrote, “Water, taken in moderation, cannot hurt anybody.”

He would have approved of Matthew Robinson, the second Baron Rokeby. Born in 1712, the Scottish nobleman swam in the sea in all weather, sometimes until he fainted, and had drinking fountains installed along his route to the beach.

A visitor noted, “He was accustomed to bestow a few half-crown pieces … on any water drinkers he might happen to find partaking of his favorite beverage, which he never failed to recommend with peculiar force and persuasion.”

Not content with the sea, Robinson eventually even added a glass-enclosed swimming pool to his mansion, where he spent hours.

It doesn’t seem to have hurt him. He shunned physicians, but lived to be 88.