Birth of a Nation

American businessman Russell Arundel and his friends were drinking rum in a Nova Scotia fishing lodge in 1948 when they got blearily ambitious: They drew up a declaration of independence for tiny Outer Bald Tusket Island, renaming it Outer Baldonia:

Fishermen are endowed with the following inalienable rights: The right to lie and be believed. The right of freedom from questioning, nagging, shaving, interruption, women, taxes, politics, war, monologues, cant and inhibition. The right to applause, vanity, flattery, praise and self-inflation. The right to swear, lie, drink, gamble and be silent. The right to be noisy, boisterous, quiet, pensive, expansive and hilarious.

Baldonia’s currency, they declared, was the tunar; all citizens who caught bluefin tuna would be named princes; and exports would include empty rum and beer bottles. Women were banned — though an exception was eventually made for Arundel’s former secretary, “princess” Florence McGinnis, because “I was doing all the paperwork.”

Baldonia made a modest name for itself: It was recognized in the Washington D.C. telephone directory, and Rand McNally put it on a map. But Arundel tired of the joke and eventually sold the island to the Nova Scotia Bird Society — he’d spent only one night in the “royal palace,” he said, and found it “windy, cold, and miserable.”

In the Dark

Here are two principles about shadows:

  1. They don’t pass through opaque objects. Your shadow can fall on a wall, but not through it.
  2. Light must strike an object in order to cast a shadow. If you’re in the shade, you have no shadow.

Right? But now suppose the sun is behind you and you’re contemplating a butterfly:

shadow problem

The shadow under the butterfly is not cast by you (Principle 1), and it’s not cast by the butterfly (Principle 2). So what’s casting it?

“This is a genuine problem,” writes philosopher Robert Martin. “The rules for shadows aren’t inconsistent, but they are empirically inadequate — there are phenomena they do not fit.”

Big Sky Country

The winter of 1886-87 will be long remembered throughout the north-west for the extreme severity of the temperature and the unusual depth of snow. … Near Matt. Coleman’s ranch [in Fort Keogh, Montana] on January 28 the flakes were tremendous, some were larger than milk-pans. Some flakes measured 15 inches square and 8 inches thick. For miles the ground was covered with such bunches, and they made a remarkable spectacle while falling. A mail-carrier was caught in the same storm and verifies it.

New York World, Feb. 14, 1887, quoted in a letter to Nature, March 3

“Exhibition of Bees on Horseback!”

The celebrated Daniel Wildman will exhibit several new and amazing experiments, never attempted by any man in this or any other kingdom before, the rider standing upright, one foot on the saddle, and one on the neck, with a mask of bees on his head and face. He also rides, standing upright on the saddle, with the bridle in his mouth, and by firing a pistol makes one part of the bees march over the table, and the other swarm in the air and return to their hive again, with other performances too tedious to insert.

— Advertisement for a June 20, 1772, exhibition, quoted in Alfred Neighbour, The Apiary, or, Bees, Beehives, and Bee Culture, 1878

Four-Dimensional Basketball

The public school in College Corner, Indiana, straddles the border with Ohio — the state line runs right through the gymnasium. So at the opening tip of a basketball game, players jump from different states.

Until 2006, when the Hoosier State began observing daylight saving time, a ball thrown from Ohio would hit the net in Indiana an hour earlier.

The Jackass of Vanvres

In 1750, Jacques Ferron was caught having sex with an ass and sentenced to death.

To add insult to injury, the ass had a character witness:

The prior to the convent … and the principal inhabitants of the commune of Vanvres signed a certificate stating that they had known the said she-ass for four years, and that she had always shown herself to be virtuous and well-behaved both at home and abroad and had never given occasion of scandal to any one, and that therefore ‘they were willing to bear witness that she is in word and deed and in all her habits of life a most honest creature.’

The ass was acquitted, and Ferron hanged.

From Edward Payson Evans, The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals, 1906.

Vitrified Forts

Throughout Europe geologists have found ancient hill forts whose walls have apparently been fused by fire. An intense heat has partly melted some stones and left others encased in a glassy coating. In some cases an entire wall has been merged into a solid mass.

No one knows who did this, how, or why.

“Human Bones in Solid Rock”

With others of our fellow-citizens, I have been highly interested in the discovery of human bones in a solid sandstone rock, of a quarry near Cusick’s mill, about six miles from the city, and with the assistance of Mr. Charles Bobbins and Dr. Ball have taken steps thoroughly to investigate this highly interesting subject. … The bones submitted to my inspection are the bones of an adult female, they were contained in a cavity of the solid sandstone rock, perfectly close, having no communication whatever with any fissure or crack of the rock. The cavity represents the shape of the body, invested with flesh; the leg, thigh, hip and part of the back are moulded with beautiful exactness, and would, if filled with plaster of Paris, give a mould, preserving all the graceful curves of the entire body.

— John G.F. Holston, Zanesville [Ohio] Courier, quoted in Mining Magazine, November 1853

Night Drop

Abraham Newland slept in the Bank of England every night for 25 years.

He retired as chief cashier in 1807.

Buried Alive


On Feb. 2, 1799, 42-year-old Elizabeth Woodcock was returning from market to her home in Cambridge when she was overcome with fatigue and lay down in a field. A heavy storm had overtaken her, and she came to her senses under six feet of snow, in which she remained buried for eight days.

Her cries went unheard, but she managed to tie a handkerchief to a stick and thrust it through the snow, where a passing farmer finally noticed it and went for help. When shepherd John Stittle pulled her free, she said, “I have been here a long time.” “Yes,” he said, “since Saturday.” “Ay, Saturday week,” she replied. “I have heard the bells go two Sundays for church.” She’d been lying only half a mile from her home.

Woodcock lost her toes to frostbite and lingered until the following July, when she died. “We are sorry to add,” notes the Gentleman’s Magazine, “that too free indulgence in spirituous liquor is supposed to have been the cause both of the accident which befel Elizabeth Woodcock, and its fatal consequences.”

“Curious Account of a Tame Seal”

In January 1819, in the neighbourhood of Burntisland, a gentleman completely succeeded in taming a Seal; its singularities attracted the curiosity of strangers daily. It appeared to possess all the sagacity of the dog, and lived in its master’s house, and eat from his hand. In his fishing excursions, this gentleman generally took with him, upon which occasions it afforded no small entertainment. When thrown into the water, it would follow for miles the track of the boat, and although thrust back by the oars, it never relinquished its purpose. Indeed it struggled so hard to regain its seat, that one would imagine its fondness for its master had entirely overcome the natural predilection for its native element.

— Pierce Egan, Sporting Anecdotes, Original and Selected, 1822

The Body Politic

In January 1950, senator Victor Biaka-Boda of French West Africa was touring his homeland when his car broke down in a region with a history of cannibalism.

His charred bones were found in November. Apparently he had been eaten by his constituents.

The Trilithon


In a quarry at Baalbek, in modern Lebanon, lies “the stone of the south” — a single hewn stone weighing 1500 tons. It’s not surprising that the ancients abandoned it; if they’d got it out of the quarry it would have been the largest stone ever moved.

But a retaining wall nearby contains a row of three stones weighing 750 tons apiece. Somehow they were raised 22 feet into position. No one knows how.

Lost and Found

Hiram de Witt, of this town, who has recently returned from California, brought with him a piece of the auriferous quartz rock, of about the size of a man’s fist. On thanksgiving day it was brought out for exhibition to a friend, when it accidentally dropped on the floor, and split open. Near the centre of the mass was discovered, firmly embedded in the quartz, and slightly corroded, a cut-iron nail of the size of a sixpenny nail. It was entirely straight, and had a perfect head. By whom was that nail made? At what period was it planted in the yet uncrystallized quartz? How came it in California? If the head of that nail could talk, we should know something more of American history than we are ever likely to know.

— “Springfield (U.S.) Republican,” quoted in The Latter-Day Saints’ Millennial Star, March 1, 1852

The “Blowing Oak”

One of the natural curiosities of Hernando County, Florida, is an immense live-oak, situated near Brooksville, which seven feet from the ground measures thirty-five and one half feet in circumference; from this height to the top it has but two large limbs spreading out, and at the top measures eighty yards across. On one side of this singular work of nature is a small orifice from which issues a continual stream of cold air, showing some subterranean connection that is unaffected by what is going on above ground. No matter whether the wind blows east, west, north, or south, there is a constant current of cold air from this mysterious cavity.

— Albert Plympton Southwick, Handy Helps, No. 1, 1886


In March 1893, weary and vexed in his work classifying ancient finger rings, German archaeologist H.V. Hilprecht went to bed and dreamed that a tall priest led him to a Babylonian treasure chamber. The priest explained that the fragments were not finger rings but earrings for a statue of the god Ninib, cut from a votive cylinder sent by King Kirigalzu to the temple of Bel. “If you will put the two together you will have a confirmation of my words,” he said. “But the third ring you have not yet found in the course of your excavations, and you never will find it.”

“With this the priest disappeared,” Hilprecht wrote. “I awoke at once, and immediately told my wife the dream, that I might not forget it. Next morning — Sunday — I examined the fragments once more in the light of these disclosures, and to my astonishment found all the details of the dream precisely verified in so far as the means of verification were in my hands. The original inscription on the votive cylinder read: ‘To the god Ninib, son of Bel, his lord, has Kurigalzu, pontifex of Bel, presented this.'”

(Reported in The American Naturalist, October 1896)

“Instance of Extraordinary Affection in a Badger”

The following circumstance is related in a letter to a friend from Chateau de Venours:–

‘Two persons were on a short journey, and passing through a hollow way, a dog which was with them started a badger, which he attacked, and pursued, till he look shelter in a burrow under a tree. With some pains they hunted him out, and killed him. … Not having a rope, they twisted some twigs, and drew him along the road by turns. They had not proceeded far, when they heard a cry of an animal in seeming distress, and stopping to see from whence it proceeded, another badger approached them slowly. They at first threw stones at it, notwithstanding which it drew near, came up to the dead animal, began to lick it, and continued its mournful cry. The men, surprised at this, desisted from offering any further injury to it, and again drew the dead one along as before; when the living badger, determining not to quit its dead companion, lay down on it, taking it gently by one ear, and in that manner was drawn into the midst of the village; nor could dogs, boys, or men induce it to quit its situation by any means, and to their shame be it said, they had the inhumanity to kill it, and afterwards to burn it, declaring it could be no other than a witch.’

— Pierce Egan, Sporting Anecdotes, Original and Selected, 1822

See also “Monkeys Demanding Their Dead.”

It Ain’t Over Yet

Below the king’s chamber in the Great Pyramid of Giza there’s a smaller room whose purpose is unknown. A narrow shaft ascends to the south from that chamber. It’s only 8 inches wide, too narrow for a human to climb, but in 1992 a German robot crawled 65 meters up the incline and discovered a stone door with copper handles. In 2003 a second robot drilled a hole through that door and discovered a second door behind it.

“It looks to me like it is sealing something,” said Zahi Hawass, head of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities. “It seems that something important is hidden there.”

What is it? Who knows?

The Bhawal Case


Death plays tricks in India. Prince Ramendra Narayan Roy died in Darjeeling in 1909 and turned up alive 12 years later in Dhaka. He didn’t remember the details, he said; he’d been found lying in the jungle and had wandered India as a religious ascetic until his memory had returned.

The Board of Revenue offered proof that Roy had been cremated, but the prince’s tenants believed the claimant and supported his bid for the old estate. Hundreds of witnesses testified variously through 10 years of legal wrangling, which ultimately decided in favor of the mysterious stranger.

His vindication was short-lived, though. Hours after the final hearing, the claimant had a fatal stroke — and, this time, he stayed dead.

See also The Tichborne Claimant.

“Strange Discovery in Ohio”

A queer exhumation was made in the Strip Vein coal bank of Capt. Lacy, at Hammondsville, Ohio, one day last week. Mr. James Parsons and his two sons were engaged in making the bank, when a huge mass of coal fell down, disclosing a large smooth slate wall, upon the surface of which were found, carved in bold relief, several lines of hieroglyphics. Crowds have visited the place since the discovery and many good scholars have tried to decipher the characters, but all have failed. Nobody has been able to tell in what tongue the words were written. How came the mysterious writing in the bowels of the earth where probably no human eye has ever penetrated? There are several lines about three inches apart, the first line containing twenty-five words. Attempts have been made to remove the slate wall, and bring it out, but upon tapping the wall it gave forth a sound that would seem to indicate the existence of a hollow chamber beyond, and the characters would have been destroyed in removing it. At last accounts Dr. Hartshorn, of Mount Union College, had been sent for to examine the writing.

Wellsville Union, quoted in The True Latter Day Saints’ Herald, Jan. 1, 1869

Dark Science


On Aug. 21, 1945, physicist Harry Daghlian accidentally dropped a brick of tungsten carbide into a plutonium bomb core at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. The mass went critical, and Daghlian died of radiation sickness.

Exactly nine months later, physicist Louis Slotin was conducting an experiment on the same mass of plutonium when his screwdriver slipped and the mass again went critical. He too died of radiation sickness.

The mass became known as “the demon core.”

“Disinterested Informer”

A lady walking over Lansdown, near Bath, was overtaken by a large dog, which had left two men who were travelling the same road with a horse and cart, and followed by the animal for some distance, the creature endeavouring to make her sensible of something by looking in her face, and then pointing with his nose behind. Failing in his object, he next placed himself so completely in front of the object of his solicitude, as to prevent her from proceeding any farther, still looking steadfastly in her face. The lady became rather alarmed; but judging from the manner of the dog, who did not appear vicious, that there was something about her which engaged his attention, she examined her dress, and found that her lace shawl was gone. The dog, perceiving that he was at length understood, immediately turned back; the lady followed him, and he conducted her to the spot where her shawl lay, some distance back in the road. On her taking it up, and replacing it on her person, the interesting quadruped instantly ran off at full speed after his master, apparently much delighted.

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

Rock and Roll


Every so often a Scottish farmer turns up a knobbly stone ball the size of an orange. No one knows precisely who made them or why: Were they weights for fishing nets? Die-like oracles? Flung weapons? Balls used in games? Some are quite elaborately carved, and they have as many as 160 knobs.

Whatever they were, they were immensely popular among Bronze Age Scots — more than 400 have been found to date in northeastern Scotland, most in Aberdeenshire.

Costa Ricans made stone balls with somewhat larger ambitions, and Romans made enigmatic dodecahedrons. Which of our own artifacts will baffle future civilizations?

Bears Repeating

While lecturing at Oxford, geologist William Buckland kept a bear named Tiglath Pileser. (Buckland was a lunatic.) In 1847 he dressed “Tig” in a cap and gown and took him to the annual meeting of the British Association and to a garden party at the Botanic Gardens. “The bear sucked all our hands and was very caressing,” remembered Charles Lyell. Eventually banished from Christ Church, Tig retired to Islip, where he terrorized the local sweetshop owner until he was sent to the Zoological Gardens.

Byron kept a bear in his chambers at Cambridge — because, he said, Trinity rules forbade dogs. “I had a great hatred of college rules, and contempt for academical honors.” It’s said he conducted it there in a stagecoach (as “Lord Byron and Mr. Bruin”) to sit for a fellowship.

“There was, by the by, rather a witty satire founded on my bear,” Byron later remembered. “A friend of Shelley’s made an ourang-outang (Oran Hanton, Esq.) the hero of a novel (‘Melincourt’), had him created a baronet, and returned for the borough of One Vote.”