Head Case


Albert Einstein’s brain sat in a cardboard box for 43 years. After the physicist’s death in 1955, Princeton pathologist Thomas Stoltz Harvey removed the organ and took it with him as he moved around the country. He gave it up only in 1998.

Snow Rollers


Travelers are sometimes surprised to find hundreds of evenly spaced “barrels” of snow on a field or lake. Are they the work of elves?

In fact they’re created when strong winds arise after a fall of light, sticky snow.

When the conditions are right, they can reach 3 feet in diameter.

“Australia’s Titanic”


Engineer Claude Sawyer left the Australian steamer Waratah when it docked in Durban in July 1909. He said he’d seen a vision of a man “with a long sword in a peculiar dress. He was holding the sword in his right hand, and it was covered in blood.”

The Waratah left for Cape Town carrying 211 passengers. It was never seen again.

Killing With Kindness


A faded and somewhat droll survival of ecclesiastical excommunication and exorcism is the custom, still prevailing in European countries and some portions of the United States, of serving a writ of ejectment on rats or simply sending them a friendly letter of advice in order to induce them to quit any house, in which their presence is deemed undesirable. Lest the rats should overlook and thus fail to read the epistle, it is rubbed with grease, so as to attract their attention, rolled up and thrust into their holes. Mr. William Wells Newell, in a paper on ‘Conjuring Rats,’ printed in The Journal of American Folk-Lore (Jan.-March, 1892), gives a specimen of such a letter, dated, ‘Maine, Oct. 31, 1888,’ and addressed in business style to ‘Messrs. Rats and Co.’ The writer begins by expressing his deep interest in the welfare of said rats as well as his fears lest they should find their winter quarters in No. 1, Seaview Street, uncomfortable and poorly supplied with suitable food, since it is only a summer residence and is also about to undergo repairs. He then suggests that they migrate to No. 6, Incubator Street, where they ‘can live snug and happy’ in a splendid cellar well stored with vegetables of all kinds and can pass easily through a shed leading to a barn containing much grain. He concludes by stating that he will do them no harm if they heed his advice, otherwise he shall be forced to use ‘Rough on Rats.’ This threat of resorting to rat poison in case of the refusal to accept his kind counsel is all that remains of the once formidable anathema of the Church.

— E.P. Evans, The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals, 1906

The Necktie Paradox


You and I are having an argument. Our wives have given us new neckties, and we’re arguing over which is more expensive.

Finally we agree to a wager. We’ll ask our wives for the prices, and whoever is wearing the more expensive tie has to give it to the other.

You think, “The odds are in my favor. If I lose the wager, I lose only the value of my tie. If I win the wager, I gain more than the value of my tie. On balance I come out ahead.”

The trouble is, I’m thinking the same thing. Are we both right?

Social Climber


On Nov. 11, 1918, 47-year-old Harry H. Gardiner opened an insurance policy with the Bank of Hamilton in Ontario.

That wouldn’t be big news, except for the circumstances: He was clinging to the outside of the building at the time, and sticking his head in through one of the open windows.

Gardiner had been a professional “human fly” since 1905, climbing more than 700 buildings throughout Europe and North America, using no special equipment and usually wearing ordinary street clothes.

His other conquests included Detroit’s 12-story Majestic Building (1916, wearing tennis shoes); the 16-story Empire Building in Birmingham, Ala. (1917); and Vancouver’s 17-story World Building (now the Sun Tower) (1918), home of the Vancouver World.

Gardiner must have been glad to get the policy. History doesn’t record how he died … which probably isn’t good.

“Horses Feeding One Another”

M. de Bossanelle, captain of cavalry in the regiment of Beauvilliers, relates in his ‘Military Observations,’ printed in Paris in 1760, ‘that in the year 1757 an old horse of his company, that was very fine and full of mettle, had his teeth suddenly so worn down that he could not chew his hay and corn, and that he was fed for two months, and would still have been so fed had he been kept, by two horses on each side of him that ate in the same manger. These two horses drew hay from the rack, which they chewed, and afterward threw before the old horse; that they did the same with the oats, which they ground very small and also put before him. This was observed and witnessed by a whole company of cavalry, officers and men.’

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

Inverted Sightseeing

In 1900, Johann Hurlinger walked on his hands from Paris to Vienna. He covered 870 miles in 55 days, averaging 10 hours a day. That’s about 1.5 miles per hour.

See also The Stilt-Walkers of Landes.

A Cautionary Tale


John Christian Frommann, doctor of medicine, and professor of philosophy at the college of Coburg, in Franconia, mentions a poor widow woman, aged twenty-six years, who lived out of the town in an unhealthy house, frequented by a great quantity of reptiles. This woman being accustomed to sleep with her mouth open, a snake half a yard long, and of proportionate thickness, crept into her stomach. She was attacked with different complaints, which the author describes at length; but by means of various medicines which he administered, he at length succeeded in making her bring it up, and ridding her of such a disagreeable inmate.

Kirby’s Wonderful and Scientific Museum, 1820

The Rohonc Codex


What is this? No one seems to know. In 1838 a local nobleman donated a 448-page illustrated manuscript to the Hungarian Academy of Sciences as part of a larger library. It’s written in an unknown system of symbols, apparently from right to left, and illustrated with religious, secular, and military scenes. The paper was made in Venice in the 1530s, but the book may have been composed later.

Hungarian, German, and French scholars have been unable to decipher the text, despite more than a century of work. Possibly the whole thing was a hoax by Sámuel Literáti Nemes (1796–1842), a known historical forger. But no one really knows.

Murder at the Priory

In 1876, London barrister Charles Bravo took three days to die of antimony poisoning but refused to say who had poisoned him or why.

An inquest determined it was a case of willful murder, but no one was ever arrested or charged. To this day, no one knows who killed him.

“Strength and Sagacity of a Fox”

In 1815, a fox was caught in a trap, at Bourne, Cambridgeshire, with which he made off. He was traced in the snow the following morning, by the Earl of De La Warr’s gamekeeper, upwards of ten miles, and was taken out of the earth alive and strong. His pad was then in the trap, which, with three feet of chain at the end of it, is supposed to have weighed fourteen pounds. Another fox accompanied him the whole of the way, seldom being distant from him more than four or five yards.

The Cabinet of Curiosities, 1824

Fleeting Beauty


“All Is Vanity” (1892), by the American illustrator C. Allan Gilbert.

Back up to get the full effect.

“Toad Embedded in a Tree”

A few days ago, as two sawyers were employed in cutting up an oak tree about thirteen inches in diameter, for the use of the Earl of Derby’s colliery, at Rainsford, in Lancashire, the man in the pit perceived something to move in the part they were then cutting, which, on examination, proved to be a full-grown toad. The animal was quite alive, when taken up, notwithstanding one of the legs had been cut off by the saw; the cavity in which it was found was exactly in the centre of the tree, just large enough to contain the body, and measured three and a half yards from the root or bottom. The tree was perfectly sound in every part, and not the least crack or aperture could be discovered that had a communication with the atmosphere.

La Belle Assemblée, January 1810

Helen Duncan


In November 1941 a U-boat torpedoed the British battleship Barham, but the Germans didn’t realize they’d hit it. The British Admiralty managed to keep the loss a secret for two months, but in the interval a Scottish spiritualist named Helen Duncan announced that the Barham had sunk. She said she’d heard the news from a dead sailor.

The British authorities arrested Duncan, hoping to discredit her story. They appealed to an old law against fraudulent “spiritual” activity … which unfortunately was called the British Witchcraft Act of 1735.

So: History records that a practicing medium who revealed an “unknowable” secret at a séance in 1941 was convicted under a witchcraft law. She served 9 months.

Racing by Starlight


Death Valley at night.

Note the racetrack stone in the foreground.

Now You See Him …

Teleportation in the Bible:

And he commanded the chariot to stand still [in Gaza]: and they went down both into the water, both Philip [the Evangelist] and the eunuch; and he baptized him. And when they were come up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught away Philip, that the eunuch saw him no more: and he went on his way rejoicing. But Philip was found at Azotus: and passing through he preached in all the cities, till he came to Caesarea.

(From Acts 8:38-40.)

Pop Quiz

When calculating prodigy Truman Henry Safford was 10 years old, the Rev. H.W. Adams asked him to square the number 365,365,365,365,365,365 in his head. Dr. Adams wrote:

He flew around the room like a top, pulled his pantaloons over the tops of his boots, bit his hands, rolled his eyes in their sockets, sometimes smiling and talking, and then seeming to be in agony, until in not more than a minute said he, 133,491,850,208,566,925,016,658,299,941,583,255!

Safford (1836-1901) went to Harvard and became director of the Hopkins Observatory at Williams College. Strangely, his calculating abilities seemed to wane as he got older.

The Shugborough House Inscription


This relief appears on an 18th-century monument on the grounds of Shugborough Hall, a country estate in Staffordshire, England. The shepherds are pointing to this inscription:

D•                   M•

What does it mean? No one knows. If it’s a ciphertext, no one’s been able to solve it, and that includes the codebreakers at Bletchley Park, who cracked the German Enigma code in World War II.

If you can decipher it, there may be a reward in it for you: Some say the message contains a clue to the location of the Holy Grail.

“A Shocking Discovery”

It is well known that during the French Revolution, the wood Kusel, near Deux Ponts, was often the scene of various actions, and that the Prussians encamped in it a considerable time; consequently the wood was so nearly ruined, that only a few oak trees were left standing here and there. These trees were sold in the month of March last, 1803, and one lot fell to a citizen of Strasburgh for fifty florins. Soon afterwards ordering two of them to be cut down, one of them, the largest, was no sooner divided for the purpose of removal, than to the astonishment of the labourers they discovered a human skeleton, from which all the flesh having wasted away, nothing remained near the body at the bottom of the tree but some bits of blue cloth, and part of a hat. A purse half decayed was also found, containing about 100 louis d’ors in gold; and from the buttons upon the blue cloth, it was concluded that the deceased had been a Prussian officer, who not knowing the tree to be hollow, was probably sleeping near the top of the trunk of it, had slipped in, and from cold, or a variety of circumstances, being unable to extricate himself, had there perished. The fact, however, can be attested by the proprietor, the purchaser of the trees, and several other persons.

Kirby’s Wonderful and Scientific Museum, 1803

The Battle of Los Angeles


In the early morning hours of Feb. 25, 1942, someone reported a mysterious object flying over Southern California, and L.A. briefly went nuts. A blackout was ordered, sirens were sounded, and the military fired more than 1,400 anti-aircraft shells into the night sky. Some said they struck the object; certainly they struck several buildings, and killed three civilians.

No one knows what really happened that night. The object could have been a weather balloon, a blimp, a Japanese fire balloon, or nothing at all. Navy secretary Frank Knox chalked the whole episode up to war nerves. With three local residents dead of heart attacks, that seems as good an explanation as any.

Finding Religion

Here are the first three verses of Genesis:

1 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

2 And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

3 And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

Pick any word in the first verse, count its letters, and move ahead by the corresponding number of words. For example, if you start at beginning, you’d count 9 letters and move ahead 9 words, landing on the in the second verse. Count that word’s letters and continue in this manner until you’ve entered the third verse.

You’ll always arrive at God.

(Discovered by Martin Gardner.)

“An Extraordinary Cat!”


In 1821, a shoemaker in the south side of Edinburgh, while engaged in cleaning a cage in which he kept a lark, left the door of the cage open, of which the bird took advantage, and flew away by a window at which its owner was then standing. The lark being a favourite, its loss was much lamented. But it may be imagined what was the surprise of the house, when about an hour after, a cat, belonging to the same person, made its appearance with the lark in its mouth, which it held by the wings over the back, in such a manner that the bird had not received the least injury. The cat, after dropping it on the floor, looked up to those who were observing her, and mewed, as if to attract attention to the capture. The lark now occupies its wiry prison, with the same noisy cheerfulness as before its singular adventure.

The Cabinet of Curiosities, 1824

Trompe L’Oeil

Designers wanted to put a dome on Rome’s Sant’Ignazio church, but neighbors complained of the shadow. So, instead, artist Andrea Pozzo painted this design on the flat ceiling.

When it’s viewed from the side (below), the church gets its dome after all.