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.
Observing the shore of Greenland in July 1820, explorer William Scoresby was surprised to see it change before his eyes:
The general telescopic appearance of the coast was that of an extensive ancient city abounding with the ruins of castles, obelisks, churches and monuments, with other large and conspicuous buildings. Some of the hills seemed to be surmounted by turrets, battlements, spires, and pinnacles; while others, subjected to one or two reflections, exhibited large masses of rock, apparently suspended in the air, at a considerable elevation above the actual termination of the mountains to which they referred.
All of this was continually changing even as he watched, Scoresby writes. But “notwithstanding these repeated changes, the various figures represented in the drawing had all the distinctness of reality; and not only the different strata, but also the veins of the rocks, with the wreaths of snow occupying ravines and fissures, formed sharp and distinct lines, and exhibited every appearance of the most perfect solidity.”
On the 18th of December, 1795, several persons, near the house of Captain Topham, in Yorkshire, heard a loud noise in the air, followed by a hissing sound, and soon after felt a shock, as if a heavy body had fallen to the ground at a little distance from them. In reality, one of them saw a huge stone fall to the earth, at the distance of eight or nine yards from the place where he stood. When he first observed it, it was seven or eight yards above the ground; and in its fall, it threw up the mould on every side, burying itself twenty-one inches in the earth. This stone, on being dug up, was found to weigh 56 lbs.
– Cabinet of Curiosities, Natural, Artificial, and Historical, 1822
Mr. Brograve, of Hamel, near Puckridge in Hertfordshire, when he was a young man, riding in a lane in that county, had a blow given him on his cheek: (or head) he looked back and saw that nobody was near behind him; anon he had such another blow, I have forgot if a third. He turned back, and fell to the study of the law; and was afterwards a Judge. This account I had from Sir John Penruddocke of Compton-Chamberlain, (our neighbour) whose Lady was Judge Brograve’s niece.
– John Aubrey, Miscellanies Upon Various Subjects, 1696
The Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal isn’t known for its romance. But one 1896 article has become famous for its account of a bizarre episode in Southeast Asia. Ethelbert Skertchley describes the Berbalangs, a species of ghoul in the folklore of Cagayan de Sulu, an island in the southwestern Philippines. These creatures, he explains, can adopt an astral form when seeking human flesh. It’s all pretty scholarly until the end, when Skertchley describes his own encounter near a Berbalang village:
There was not a breath of air stirring, and we were in the middle of an open valley with no trees about when we heard a loud moaning noise like someone in pain. … Presently the sound died away to a faint wail and the sound of wings became audible, while a lot of little dancing lights, like fire-flies, only reddish, passed over us.
On leaving the village, Skertchley passed an isolated house, where his native companion indicated the ghouls must have gone. The next day the writer returned to the scene:
I entered the house and looked round, but could see no one; going farther in, I suddenly started back, for huddled up on the bed, with hands clenched, face distorted, and eyes staring as in horror, lay my friend Hassan–dead.
Nothing more is said. Skertchley concludes simply by writing, “I have stated above the facts just as they occurred, and am quite unable to give any explanation of them.” If the editors received any further information, they never published it.
Two weeks before Lindbergh’s famous crossing, two French war heroes set out in a biplane to attempt the first nonstop transatlantic flight from Paris to New York.
They took off early on May 8, 1927, and were sighted at the French coast and later off Ireland. But no further sightings were made, and after 42 hours the White Bird was listed as lost.
Possibly she was simply the victim of an Atlantic squall. An extensive search between New York and Newfoundland discovered nothing. But witnesses there claimed to have heard the aircraft, and scattered sightings were reported on a line south from Nova Scotia into coastal Maine. Later, struts and engine metal were found that are not manufactured in North America.
But none of this is conclusive, and no definitive trace of the wooden craft has yet been found — in particular, its engine. In 1984 the French government declared officially that the pair might have reached Newfoundland. But whether they did remains unknown.
Jean-Paul Marat’s correspondence mentions one Bottineau, born in France around 1740, who founded a science he called nauscopie, “the art of discovering vessels and lands at a considerable distance.” Stationed on the Isle of France, reportedly he was soon winning wagers by predicting arrivals up to three days in advance.
The commissary-general of the navy swore that “he has announced to us within six months, one hundred and nine vessels, one, two, three, or four days before the signals were made from the mountains, and in this number he only was twice mistaken.” The island’s governor affirmed: “What we can certify is, that M. Bottineau was almost always right.”
Bottineau explained that he observed an effect in the atmosphere, but he refused to sell his method, claiming the offers were too low. Unfortunately, Europe was distracted by the political upheaval in France, and in 1802 he was reported to have “died lately in great misery at Pondicherry.” His secret, if he had one, went with him.
In April 1851, sailing in clear weather off the Newfoundland Banks, the English brig Renovation encountered an enormous ice floe bearing two black three-masted ships, one heeled over and the other upright.
The crew observed them for about an hour, until they were lost to sight. No explanation has ever been found.
Playing whist at a Suffolk club in January 1998, Hazel Ruffles shuffled the deck and dealt a full suit to each player.
The odds of this happening are 2,235,197,406,895,366,368,301,599,999 to 1.
John Lewis Candiac … was born at Candiac, in the diocese of Nismes, in France, in 1719. In the cradle he distinguished his letters; at thirteen months he knew them perfectly; at three years of age he read Latin, either printed or in manuscript; at four, he translated from that tongue; at six, he read Greek and Hebrew, was master of the principles of arithmetic, history, geography, heraldry, and the science of medals; and had read the best authors on almost every branch of literature. He died of a complication of disorders, at Paris, in 1726.
– John Platts, Encyclopedia of Natural and Artificial Wonders and Curiosities, 1876
A thrill passed through London in January 1762, when a 12-year-old girl reported that she was visited nightly by a dead woman.
Elizabeth Parsons, daughter of the parish clerk of St. Sepulchre’s, said that she heard knockings and scratchings and witnessed the apparition of a woman surrounded by a blazing light. The girl said the ghost resembled Fanny Kent, a lodger in her house who had died recently of smallpox.
Witnesses too heard the knockings, which attended the girl wherever she slept. They learned to communicate with “Fanny” through a system of knocks — and learned that her husband had poisoned her.
The whole thing reached a climax when the ghost agreed to attend a gentleman into the vault where Fanny’s body lay, and to knock upon the coffin there. Unfortunately, no knock came, and the girl asked to return to her father.
She had been using a simple wooden clapper to produce the sounds; her father, who had owed money to the “poisoner,” had invented the whole scheme.
Among curious bequests to wives, that of John Lambeth, who died in 1791, is conspicuous for its bitterness. After declaring that ‘the strength of Sampson, the genius of Homer, the prudence of Augustus, the patience of Job, the philosophy of Socrates, the subtlety of Hannibal, the vigilence of Hermognes, would not suffice to subdue the perversity of her character,’ he bequeathed to his wife Elizabeth the sum of one shilling!
– Bizarre Notes & Queries, February 1886
Florentine scholar Antonio Magliabechi (1633-1714) has been described as a literary glutton. His house was choked with 40,000 books and 10,000 manuscripts, and he spent hours each day in the Medici library.
The negligent Magliabechi reportedly once forgot to draw his salary for a full year, but his head was “an universal index, both of titles and matter.” When the Duke of Florence asked him for a particular volume he replied, “Signore, there is but one copy of that book in the world; it is in the Grand Signore’s library at Constantinople, and is the eleventh book in the second shelf on the right hand as you go in.”
That memory made him a human search engine for writers of the time. In Curiosities of Human Nature, Samuel Goodrich records that a priest might consult Magliabechi about a panegyric on a particular saint. “He would immediately tell him who had said anything of that saint, and in what part of their works, and that, sometimes, to the number of above a hundred authors. … All this he did with the greatest exactness, naming the author, the book, the words, and often the very number of the page in which the passage referred to was inserted.”
Surrounded by books, he lived to be 81, and in his will he left his library to the public.
There’s something curious about the Congolese minister of foreign trade — he doesn’t exist.
When the prime minister asked for two nominees for the post, UNACEF party leader Kisimba Ngoy nominated himself and “Kasongo Ilunga,” apparently thinking he was bound to win against a phantom.
The plan backfired when the prime minister chose Ilunga. The enigmatic 36-year-old failed to appear at the opening of the new government, and he hasn’t claimed his office. Ngoy says that the invisible bureaucrat has resigned, but the prime minister insists that he must do so in person.
That leaves Congo without a trade minister — and Kisimba helplessly offering that dubious resignation letter. “He wrote it himself,” he insists. “He signed it. Could an imaginary man do that?”
In Rouen, in 1509, in digging in the ditches near the Dominicans, they found a stone tomb, containing a skeleton whose skull held a bushel of corn, and whose shin bone reached up to the girdle of the tallest man there, being about four feet long; and, consequently, the body must have been seventeen or eighteen feet high. Upon the tomb was a plate of copper, whereon was engraved, ‘In this tomb lies the noble and puissant lord, the Chevalier Ricon De Vallemont, and his bones.’
– John Platts, Encyclopedia of Natural and Artificial Wonders and Curiosities, 1876
During a business trip in the late 1950s, George D. Bryson registered at the Brown Hotel in Louisville, Ky., accepted the key to Room 307, and jokingly asked whether any letters had arrived for him.
He was confused to learn that there was indeed a letter for George D. Bryson in Room 307.
It wasn’t for him: The room’s previous occupant had also been named George D. Bryson.
In the ecclesiastical courts of 16th-century France, lawyer Bartholomew de Chasseneux made his name by prosecuting the local vermin (“O snails, caterpillars, and other obscene creatures, which destroy the food of our neighbours, depart hence!”).
Impressed with his argument, the authorities in Autun asked him to advocate for the rats, which they put on trial in 1510 for eating the harvest of Burgundy.
That’s a tall order for even a master lawyer, but, amazingly, Chasseneux won the day:
In his defence, Chasseneux showed that the rats had not received formal notice; and, before proceeding with the case, he obtained a decision that all the priests of the afflicted parishes should announce an adjournment, and summon the defendants to appear on a fixed day.
At the adjourned trial, he complained that the delay accorded his clients had been too short to allow of their appearing, in consequence of the roads being infested with cats. Chasseneux made an able defence, and finally obtained a second adjournment. We believe that no verdict was given.
(From Sabine Baring-Gould, Curiosities of Olden Times, 1896)
When Martha Mitchell, the wife of Nixon attorney general John Mitchell, began to claim that the White House was engaged in illegal activities, she was rumored to be mentally ill.
But events proved her right. Nixon later told David Frost, “If it hadn’t been for Martha Mitchell, there’d have been no Watergate.”
Psychologists remember this as the “Martha Mitchell effect” — when a client insists that he’s being chased by the mob, or that the police have been spying on him, he’s not necessarily delusional. In the words of psychotherapist Joseph Berke, “even paranoids have enemies.”
In 1939 a Great Dane was officially enlisted in the Royal Navy. “Just Nuisance” earned his name by lying at the top of the gangplanks at a South African dockyard. When he began to follow sailors onto local trains, the Navy decided to accept him as a sailor, thus supporting morale (and granting him free rail travel).
Nuisance generally stayed ashore, and his record shows that he went AWOL, lost his collar, and was found sleeping in a petty officer’s bed. But his faithfulness eventually earned him a promotion to Able Seaman, and he was even “wed” to another Great Dane, producing five puppies that were auctioned off in Cape Town.
He was discharged in 1944 and buried later that year with full naval honors, and he’s remembered today with an annual parade of Great Danes in Simon’s Town.
Begin on one hand, and count the ten fingers throughout. Begin next time at the finger last counted in the first round, counting this time backwards — ten, nine, eight, seven, six — then holding up the other hand, say ‘And five are eleven.’
– Cassell’s Complete Book of Sports and Pastimes, 1896
Mr. E.N. Sponce, of Windhouse, in the island of Yell, relates, that about the beginning of the present century, during a violent thunderstorm off the Shetland Islands, a fishing-boat belonging to Mr. Midyell was struck by lightning, which came down the mast, tearing it in shivers, and melted into a mass a watch in the pocket of a man (the skipper) who was sitting close by the mast, and considerably scorched him, as well as materially injured the boat, and, more or less, the other five men in it. This account of the occurrence was received by Mr. Spence from the skipper himself.
– John Timbs, Things Not Generally Known, Familiarly Explained, 1859
In June 1980, Maureen Wilcox found that she held the winning numbers in both the Massachusetts and the Rhode Island lotteries.
She won nothing, though: Her Massachusetts numbers won the Rhode Island lottery and vice versa.
The autobiography of the American eccentric “Lord” Timothy Dexter (1748-1806) contains 8,847 words and no punctuation:
IME the first Lord in the younited States of Americary Now of Newburyport it is the voise of the peopel and I cant Help it and so Let it goue Now as I must be Lord there will foller many more Lords pretty soune for it dont hurt A Cat Nor the mouse Nor the son Nor the water Nor the Eare then goue on all is Easey Now …
When readers complained, he added a page of punctuation marks to the second edition, inviting them to “peper and solt it as thay plese.”
At 8 a.m. on April 22, 1884, Thomas Stevens pedaled out of San Francisco on a 50-inch penny-farthing bicycle. Four months and 3,700 miles later, he arrived in Boston.
That was just the start. The following April he boarded a steamer for Liverpool, cycled across Europe and through Turkey to Calcutta, sailed to Hong Kong, and cycled across Japan, arriving at Yokohama on Dec. 17, 1886.
Even allowing for the steamship passages, he estimates that he actually pedaled about 13,500 miles — and became the first person to “circumbicycle” the globe.