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


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



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”


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.

A Confused Apparition

In his Lives (1827), Peter Walker recounts a baffling spectacle seen on Scotland’s River Clyde in the summer of 1686:

[T]here were showers of bonnets, hats, guns, and swords, which covered the trees and the ground; companies of men in arms marching in order upon the water-side; companies meeting companies, going all through other, and then all falling to the ground and disappearing: other companies immediately appeared, marching the same way.

Walker says these reports continued for at least three afternoons, but notes that fully a third of the assembled crowd, including himself, could see nothing. That sounds like a mass delusion, but “those who did see, told what works (i.e. locks) the guns had, and their lengths and wideness, and what handles the swords had … and the closing knots of the bonnets.” Make up your own mind.

So There

In the year 1796, died at Wordley Workhouse, Berks, Mary Pitts, aged 70; on being accused of having rummaged the box of another pauper, she wished God might strike her dead if she had; and instantly expired.

Kirby’s Wonderful and Scientific Museum, 1803

“Remarkable Monster”

valhalla sea serpent, illustrated london news, 1906

On Dec. 7, 1905, British naturalists J. Nicoll and E.G.B. Meade-Waldo spotted “a creature of most extraordinary form and proportions” during a research cruise off the coast of Brazil. Nicoll described a head “shaped somewhat like that of a turtle” above a 6-foot “eel-like” neck that “lashed up the water with a curious wriggling movement.” Below the water “we could indistinctly see a very large brownish-black patch, but could not make out the shape of the creature.”

They later spied it doing about 8.5 knots, slightly faster than the ship: “From the commotion in the water it looked as if a submarine was going along just below the surface.” The witnesses insisted it was not a whale, though Nicoll felt it was a mammal. That’s all we know.

A Geological Puzzle

Being at my seat near the village of Meudon, and overlooking a quarry-man, whom I had set to break some very large and hard stones, in the middle of one we found a huge live toad, though there was no visible aperture by which it could have got there. I could not help expressing my wonder how it had been generated, had grown, and lived; but the labourer told me, it was not the first time he had met with toads and the like creatures within huge blocks of stone, in which there could be found no visible opening or fissure.

— Ambrose Pare, chief surgeon to Henry III of France, quoted in The Monthly Magazine, 1798

Good Boy

This one is preposterous, but I have two sources, so here goes.

In the 1870s, visitors to a remote New Mexico sheep ranch discovered the solitary rancher dead in his hut. His records showed that he had been dead two years, but his flocks had actually increased since his death. How was this possible?

It turned out that his dog had been tending the flocks in his absence. The rancher had trained him to drive the flocks to their pasture in the morning, guard them all day, and return them to their fold at night, and he’d continued these duties when the rancher disappeared, killing some sheep as necessary for food but faithfully tending the rest.

According to these reports, in 1879 the New Mexico legislature awarded the dog a pension for life as a reward for his fidelity, “and no doubt as an encouragement to all other shepherd dogs in that territory to be good and faithful.” Draw your own conclusions.

(Sources: The Anti-Vivisectionist, Dec. 15, 1880; Albert Plympton Southwick, Handy Helps, No. 1, 1886)


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


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


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


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.