Futility Closet book ad




In August 2005, an Airbus A340 airliner overshot the runway at Toronto, plunged into a ravine, and burst into flames.

Of the 309 people on board, all survived.

It’s known as the Toronto Miracle.

“Light From Potatoes”

The emission of light from the common potato, when in a state of decomposition, is sometimes very striking. Dr. Phipson, in his work on ‘Phosphorescence,’ mentions a case in which the light thus emitted from a cellarful of these vegetables was so strong as to lead an officer on guard at Strasbourg to believe that the barracks were on fire.

– Frank H. Stauffer, The Queer, the Quaint and the Quizzical, 1882

An Early Escher


“False Perspective,” a 1754 engraving by William Hogarth.

“Whoever makes a DESIGN without the Knowledge of PERSPECTIVE,” he wrote, “will be liable to such Absurdities as are shewn in this Frontispiece.”

King Size

January 11, 1613, some masons digging near the ruins of a castle in Dauphiné, in a field which (by tradition) had long been called the giant’s field, at the depth of eighteen feet discovered a brick tomb thirty feet long, twelve feet wide, and eight feet high, on which was a gray stone, with the words Theutobochus Rex cut thereon; when the tomb was opened, they found a human skeleton entire, twenty-five feet and a half long, ten feet wide across the shoulders, and five feet deep from the breast-bone to the back, his teeth were each about the size of an ox’s foot, and his shin bone measured four feet.

Kirby’s Wonderful and Scientific Museum, 1803



An optical illusion. Nothing’s actually moving.

“Grand and Awful Beyond Description”


Account of strange electrical activity during a blizzard at Bar Harbor, Maine, from the Ellsworth Herald, March 4, 1853:

Mrs. E. Holden was near a window, winding up a clock; a ball of fire came in through the window and struck her hand, which benumbed her hand and arm. She then, with all in the house, retreated into the entry. Another flash succeeded, and, in the room from which they had retired, resembled [sic] a volume of fire, whirling around and producing a cracking noise. A similar appearance of fire was seen, and cracking noises were heard in a large number of houses. Some who heard the noise say it sounded like breaking glass.

Capt. Maurice Rich had his light extinguished, and his wife was injured. He got his wife onto a bed and found a match; at that instant another flash came and ignited the match and threw him several feet backwards. John L. Martin received such a shock that he could not speak for a long time.

A great many people were slightly injured. Some were struck in the feet, some in the eye while others were electrized [sic], some powerfully and some slightly. But what was very singular, not a person was killed or seriously injured, not a building damaged; but a cluster of trees within a few rods of two dwelling houses was not thus fortunate. The electric fluid came down among them, taking them out by the roots, with stones and earth, and throwing all in every direction. Some were left hanging by their roots from the tops of adjacent standing trees — roots up, tops down.

The New York Times later quoted a witness: “I don’t believe there ever was a worse frightened lot of people in the world than the inhabitants of Bar Harbor were that night. That purple ball [of] lightning flashed about and obtruded itself everywhere. There was scarsely [sic] a house that was not visited by it.”

The Vela Incident

On Sept. 22, 1979, a U.S. satellite spotted a flash of light in the Indian Ocean. The satellite was designed to detect nuclear explosions, but unfortunately it was failing, so we can’t be sure what it saw.

What caused the flash? Possibilities include a nuclear test by South Africa or Israel; a meteor entering the atmosphere; a French neutron bomb; or even a meteor striking the satellite itself. For now, no one knows.

String Not Included


“The pearl is the oyster’s autobiography,” said Fellini.

In this case it’s an epic: The Pearl of Lao Tzu weighs 31,893 carats, or more than 14 pounds.

It was extracted from a giant clam in the Philippines in 1934.

“Swallowed by an Earthquake and Thrown Out Again”

A tombstone in the island of Jamaica has the following inscription: ‘Here lieth the body of Lewis Galdy, Esq., who died on the 22d of September, 1737, aged 80. He was born at Montpellier, in France, which place he left for his religion, and settled on this island, where, in the great earthquake, 1672, he was swallowed up, and by the wonderful providence of God, by a second shock was thrown out into the sea, where he continued swimming until he was taken up by a boat, and thus miraculously preserved. He afterwards lived in great reputation, and died universally lamented.’

– Frank H. Stauffer, The Queer, the Quaint and the Quizzical, 1882

Party of One


This is not Photoshopped — it’s an actual photograph of the world’s largest chair, in the piazza of Manzano, Italy, where it was dedicated. (Manzano is a city of chair makers.)

Photographer Rob Krause says, “They’re still working on the table.”

The “Ghost Yacht”

Two months ago an unmanned catamaran appeared near Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. The Kaz II had set out safely from nearby Airlie Beach four days earlier. Her engine was running, and her radio and navigation system were working. The sails were up, though one was badly shredded. Survival equipment, including three life jackets and an emergency beacon, were found on board. Investigators even found a laptop running and the table laid for dinner. But the three-man crew were nowhere to be found.

A search was called off after two days. That’s all anyone knows.

Maunder’s Auroral Beam


On Nov. 17, 1882, something odd appeared in the sky over Europe. The “strange celestial visitor” appeared low in the northeastern sky and elongated as it moved steadily from east to west over the course of two minutes. It was whitish or greenish-white, about 30 degrees long and 3 degrees wide, and had distinct edges.

Whatever it was, the thing was witnessed by professional astronomers across the continent and described in journals including Nature and The Observatory. Edward Walter Maunder of the Greenwich Royal Observatory said it moved “as the Sun, Moon, stars and planets move but nearly a thousand times as quickly.” Even 34 years later Maunder recalled the phenomenon as “unlike any other celestial object that I have ever seen. The quality of its light, and its occurrence while a great magnetic storm and a bright aurora were in progress, seem to establish its auroral origin. But it differed very widely in appearance from any other aurora that I have ever seen.”

What was it? No one knows.

A Pet Lover


‘A fellow, a shepherd at Beverley, in Yorkshire, about eleven years ago, for a bet of five pounds, was produced, who was to devour a living cat. The one produced was a large black tom cat, which had not been fed for the purpose; but was chosen, as being the largest in that neighbourhood. The day appointed was the fair-day at Beverley. The parties met. The man produced was a raw-boned fellow, about forty. The cat was then given to him; on which he took hold of his four legs with one hand, and closing his mouth with the other, he killed him by biting his head to pieces immediately, and in less than a quarter of an hour, devoured every part of the cat, tail, legs, claws, bones, and every thing. The man who laid the wager gave the fellow two guineas for doing it, and the shepherd appeared perfectly satisfied with the reward.’

The Cabinet of Curiosities, 1824

“Bogs of Butter”

‘At Stramore, in the county of Monaghan, near the town of Glaslough,’ say the newspapers of 1813, ‘a short time ago a quantity of butter was found in a bog on the lands of Thomas Johnson, of Armagh, Esq. at the depth of twenty feet beneath the surface of the ground. In consequence of the antiseptic qualities of the bog, the butter was found in a state of the most perfect preservation; its colour a statuary white. The person who found this butter mixed it with other unctuous matter, and formed it into candles for family use. It was more condensed in substance than butter usually is, but perfectly sweet in taste, and free from any disagreeable odour.’

The Cabinet of Curiosities, 1824

Man-Eating Tree Update


Longtime readers will remember our travel advisories against Madagascar and Java, whose plants tend to eat people.

We must belatedly add Central America to that list, after reading about the ya-te-veo (“I see you”) tree in J.W. Buel’s Sea and Land (1887). That’s a pretty innocuous name, Buel writes, but it hides an evil nature: Get too close and the tree will sieze you with its shoots, press you onto its short, thick trunk, impale you with daggerlike thorns, and drink your blood.

Apologies for the late notice. If any lives have been lost due to our oversight, it’s probably best not to send flowers to the next of kin.

Look Here

The ‘Four-eyed Man of Cricklade’ was a celebrated English monstrosity of whom little reliable information is obtainable. He was visited by W. Drury, who is accredited with reporting the following–

‘So wondrous a thing, such a lusus naturae, such a scorn and spite of nature I have never seen. It was a dreadful and shocking sight.’ This unfortunate had four eyes placed in pairs, ‘one eye above the other and all four of a dull brown, encircled with red, the pupils enormously large.’ The vision in each organ appeared to be perfect. ‘He could shut any particular eye, the other three remaining open, or, indeed, as many as he chose, each several eye seeming to be controlled by his will and acting independently of the remainder. He could also revolve each eye separately in its orbit, looking backward with one and forward with another, upward with one and downward with another simultaneously.’ He was of a savage, malignant disposition, delighting in ugly tricks, teasing children, torturing helpless animals, uttering profane and blasphemous words, and acting altogether like the monster, mental and physical, that he was. ‘He could play the fiddle, though in a silly sort, having his notes on the left side, while closing the right pair of eyes. He also sang, but in a rough, screeching voice not to be listened to without disgust.’

– George M. Gould and Walter L. Pyle, Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine, 1896

Cruel and Unusual


Account of a torture and execution by elephant at Baroda, India, 1814:

“The man was a slave, and two days before had murdered his master, brother to a native chieftain, called Ameer Sahib. About eleven o’clock the elephant was brought out, with only the driver on his back, surrounded by natives with bamboos in their hands. The criminal was placed three yards behind on the ground, his legs tied by three ropes, which were fastened to a ring on the right hind leg of the animal. At every step the elephant took, it jerked him forward, and every eight or ten steps must have dislocated another limb, for they were loose and broken when the elephant had proceeded five hundred yards. The man, though covered in mud, showed every sign of life, and seemed to be in the most excruciating torments. After having been tortured in this manner for about an hour, he was taken to the outside of the town, when the elephant, which is instructed for such purposes, was backed, and put his foot on the head of the criminal.”

– From The Percy Anecdotes, 1821

Memento Mori

Rome’s Capuchin Crypt contains the remains of more than 4,000 monks who died between 1528 and 1870, including several intact skeletons wearing Franciscan habits.

Reportedly it inspired the Sedlec Ossuary.

Cold Snap

On Feb. 3, 1947, the Yukon’s Snag airport recorded a temperature of minus 81.4 degrees. One worker reported:

Becoming lost was of no concern. As an observer walked along the runway each breath remained as a tiny motionless mist behind him at head level. These patches of human breath fog remained in the still air for three or four minutes before fading away. One observer even found such a trail still marking his path when he returned along the same path 15 minutes later.

And: “We threw a dish of water high into the air, just to see what would happen. Before it hit the ground, it made a hissing noise, froze, and fell as tiny round pellets of ice the size of wheat kernels.”

“Colors Most Frequently Hit in Battle”

It would appear, from numerous observations, that soldiers are hit during battle according to the color of their dress in the following order: Red is the most fatal color; Austrian gray is the least fatal. The proportions are — red, twelve; rifle green, seven; brown, six; Austrian bluish-gray, five.

– Frank H. Stauffer, The Queer, the Quaint and the Quizzical, 1882


In seeking a costume for the character Professor Marvel in the The Wizard of Oz, the MGM wardrobe department found a tattered Prince Albert coat in a secondhand store in Los Angeles.

One afternoon actor Frank Morgan turned out the coat’s pocket and discovered the name “L. Frank Baum.” By a bizarre coincidence, they had chosen a coat once owned by the author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

This sounds dubious, I know, but cinematographer Hal Rosson, his niece Helene Bowman, and unit publicist Mary Mayer have all vouched for the story.

“We wired the tailor in Chicago and sent pictures,” Mayer told Aljean Harmetz for the book The Making of The Wizard of Oz. “And the tailor sent back a notarized letter saying that the coat had been made for Frank Baum. Baum’s widow identified the coat, too, and after the picture was finished we presented it to her. But I could never get anyone to believe the story.”

Queen of the Mist


The first person to go over Niagara Fall in a barrel was actually a woman. Hoping to make money from the publicity, schoolteacher Annie Edson Taylor climbed into a pickle barrel on Oct. 24, 1901, and was set adrift north of Goat Island. Twenty minutes later she emerged downstream with only a gash on her forehead.

But “if it was with my dying breath,” she later said, “I would caution anyone against attempting the feat. … I would sooner walk up to the mouth of a cannon, knowing it was going to blow me to pieces than make another trip over the fall.”

There are some reports that she was accompanied by a black kitten. One says it emerged as a white kitten.

See also Niagara in a Barrel and “Sending Vessels Over Niagara Falls.”

Fleeing the Scene


On April 15, 1912, the German liner Prinze Adelbert was steaming through the North Atlantic when its chief steward noticed an iceberg with a curious scar bearing red paint. He took this photo.

He learned only later that the Titanic had gone down in those waters less than 12 hours earlier.

Love Conquers All

In December 1796, a young man named Graham, a resident of Lancaster, went to Workington, to fulfil a promise of marriage made to a young woman of that town. — On entering the room in which she also was, he became indisposed, and tottering to where she sat, fell dead at her feet.

Kirby’s Wonderful and Scientific Museum, 1803