Oddities

Unwelcome Coincidence

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Abraham Lincoln’s son Robert seemed to carry an odd curse — he was present or nearby at three successive presidential assassinations:

  • On April 14, 1865, his parents invited him to accompany them to Ford’s Theater. He remained at the White House and heard of his father’s death near midnight.
  • On July 2, 1881, he was an eyewitness to Garfield’s assassination at Washington’s Sixth Street Train Station.
  • On Sept. 6, 1901, he was present at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, N.Y., when McKinley was shot.

In 1863, a stranger saved his life in a Jersey City train station. The stranger was Edwin Booth — the brother of John Wilkes Booth, his father’s future assassin.

Honeymoon

In October 1928, newlyweds Glen and Bessie Hyde set out to run the rapids of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. They didn’t reappear by December, and a search plane spotted their scow adrift on the river, upright, intact, and loaded with supplies. No one knows what became of them.

Showoff

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English mathematician John Wallis (1616-1703) had an odd way of passing time:

“I note that on 22 December, 1669, he, when in bed, occupied himself in finding (mentally) the integral part of the square root of 3 × 1040; and several hours afterwards wrote down the result from memory. This fact having attracted notice, two months later he was challenged to extract the square root of a number of fifty-three digits; this he performed mentally, and a month later he dictated the answer, which he had not meantime committed to writing.”

— W.W. Rouse Ball, Mathematical Recreations & Essays, 1892

“Cure of a Palsy by a Stroke of Lightning”

Mr. Samuel Leffers, of the county of Carteret, in North Carolina, had been attacked with a palsy in the face, and particularly in the eyes. While he was walking in his chamber, a thunderstroke threw him down senseless. At the end of twenty minutes he came to himself; but he did not recover the entire use of his limbs till the evening. Next day he found himself perfectly recovered; and he could now write without the use of spectacles. The palsy did not return.

The Cabinet of Curiosities, 1824

Now What?

elephant platform

In 1891, Hermann Reiche patented a platform “to enable an elephant to climb up a tree.”

“Doubt,” wrote Galileo, “is the father of invention.”

The Salt Man

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In winter 1993 workers in a salt mine in western Iran uncovered the body of a man with long hair and a beard. He had been buried in the middle of a 45-meter tunnel.

Carbon dating showed he had been lying there for 1700 years. It appears he was of high rank and had been struck in the head, but no one knows who he was or how he came to be there.

See also Bog Bodies.

Four-Watt Methuselah

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The world’s longest-lived light bulb is in a fire station in Livermore, Calif.

It’s been burning continuously since 1901.

U.S.S. Saratoga

In March 1781, the Continental Navy sloop Saratoga was escorting a convoy of merchant ships off Haiti when it spotted two British sails to the west. It overtook and captured the first ship, put an American crew aboard, and set out after the second.

Midshipman Penfield, commander of that crew, was watching the chase when a strong wind arose, requiring his attention. When he raised his eyes again, the Saratoga had vanished. No trace of her was ever found.

Tommy Jones

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On the evening of Aug. 4, 1900, 5-year-old Tommy Jones went missing near his grandfather’s farm in Brecon, South Wales. A 29-day search of the surrounding country found no trace of him.

His body was finally discovered on Pen y Fan, the highest mountain in South Wales, at an altitude of 1,300 feet. He had died of exhaustion and exposure. No one knows what led him there.

Strangely, almost the same thing had happened 10 years earlier in Virginia.

The Snail Telegraph

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In the early 19th century, French occultist Jacques Toussaint Benoit became convinced that when two snails touch they form a “sympathetic bond” so that, ever afterward, when one is touched the other will respond.

He got financing to build a “snail telegraph,” a dish in which 24 lettered snails were glued in place. Messages could be sent by touching snails in sequence; their partners, glued to an identical dish elsewhere, would then wriggle, conveying the message.

After a demonstration in October 1851, La Presse hailed the invention as a revolution. Benoit’s backers, however, demanded a stricter test — and found that the inventor had disappeared.

“Value of a Long Psalm”

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In old times a culprit, when at the gallows, was allowed to select a Psalm, which was then sung, thereby lengthening the chances of the arrival of a reprieve. It is reported of one of the chaplains to the famous Montrose, that being condemned in Scotland to die for attending his master in some of his exploits, he selected the 119th Psalm. It was well for him that he did so, for they had sung it half through before the reprieve came. A shorter Psalm, and he would have been hung.

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

One Mean Plane

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In 1943, after a mission in Italy, the American bomber Lady Be Good failed to return to its Libyan base. Apparently lost, the crew had called in for a bearing, but they never arrived. Eventually they were presumed to have crashed in the Mediterranean.

Almost 16 years later, in 1958, a team of British geologists found the plane’s wreckage hundreds of miles away in the Sahara, broken in two but mysteriously well preserved. That created a second mystery: Where were the crew?

Seven bodies were eventually found, far to the north. Low on fuel and thinking themselves over the sea, they had bailed out, landed in the desert, and watched as the unmanned bomber flew out of sight carrying supplies, water, and a working radio. Amazingly, they had stayed alive for eight days in the desert; one walked 109 miles before succumbing.

The plane’s mischief continued even after its destruction. When salvaged parts from the Lady Be Good were installed in other aircraft, they seemed to convey an odd curse. Some transmitters went into a C-54; it encountered propeller trouble and the crew saved themselves only by throwing cargo overboard. A radio receiver went into a C-47; it ditched in the Mediterranean. And an armrest went into a U.S. Army “Otter” airplane; it crashed into the Gulf of Sidra. The crew were never found, but the armrest washed quietly ashore.

No-Show

“In July 1751, were interred, the coffin and remains of a Farmer Stevenage, in Hertfordshire, who died Feb. 1, 1720, and ordered by will, that his estate, which was 400 [pounds] a year, should be enjoyed by his brothers, who were clergymen, and if they should die, by his nephew, till the expiration of thirty years, when he supposed he should return to life, and then it was to revert to him: He also ordered his coffin to be affixed on a beam in his barn, locked, and the key enclosed, that he might let himself out. They staid four days more than the time limited, and then interred him.”

Kirby’s Wonderful and Scientific Museum, 1820

“Oysters Growing on Trees”

Mr. C.H. Williams, of the Geographical Society of England, tells us how oysters inhabit the Mangrove woods in Cuba: ‘For several years I resided in that island, and have several times come across scenes and objects which many people would consider great curiosities — one in particular. Oysters grow on trees, in immense quantities, especially in the southern part of the island. I have seen miles of trees, the lower stems and branches of which were literally covered with them, and many a good meal have I enjoyed with very little trouble in procuring it. I simply placed the branches over the fire, and, when opened, I picked out the oysters with a fork or a pointed stick. These peculiar shell-fish are indigenous in lagoons and swamps on the coast, and as far as the tide will rise and the spray fly so will they cling to the lower parts of the Mangrove trees, sometimes four or five deep, the Mangrove being one of the very few trees that flourish in salt water.’

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

Mill Ends Park

The smallest park in the world is Mill Ends Park in Portland, Oregon. You’re looking at it: 452 square inches, barely two feet across. The nearby Forest Park is 60 million times as big.

Mill Ends started in 1948, when Oregon Journal journalist Dick Fagan noticed a forgotten hole outside his office on Front Street. He planted flowers and began to write a weekly column about goings-on there, including “the only leprechaun colony west of Ireland.”

When Fagan died in 1969, Portland took up the tradition, dedicating Mill Ends as an official city park in 1976. Today it has a swimming pool for butterflies (with diving board), a miniature Ferris wheel, and statues, and it hosts snail races, weddings, and regular rose plantings.

Just goes to show, you don’t need a large lot if the location’s good.

“A Glutton”

Titus Angles of Darlington, has again shewn symptoms of a voracious appetite, by devouring five pounds and a half of old bacon, nauseous to the extreme. After finishing his repast he was taken in triumph round the town in a cart, and afterwards ducked in the Skerne.

— “Durham Paper,” cited in The Cabinet of Curiosities, 1824

Great

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The 13th day of the month is most likely to fall on a Friday.

Flash Fiction

Ernest Hemingway’s shortest story was six words long:

“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

He’s said to have called it his best work.

Here … Kitty

In July 1891, lightning struck the house of a Mr. Arent S. Vandyck of New Salem, Vt. He submitted this account to a Boston newspaper:

Suddenly the younger Mr. Vandyck [his son] pointed to an old-fashioned sofa. Upon it lay what was apparently the silver image of a cat curled up in an exceedingly comfortable position. Each glittering hair was separate and distinct, and each silvery bristle of the whiskers described a graceful curve as in life. Father and son turned towards the sword which hung upon the wall just above the sofa and there saw that the sword had been stripped of all its silver. The hilt was gone, and the scabbard was but a strip of blackened steel. The family cat had been electroplated by lightning.

Draw your own conclusions.

Shades of Gray

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An optical illusion. Squares A and B are the same color.

“Effect of a New Nose”

Van Helmont tells a story of a person who applied to Taliacotius to have his nose restored. This person, having a dread of an incision being made in his own arm, for the purpose of removing enough skin therefrom for a nose, induced a laborer, for a remuneration, to allow the skin for the nose to be taken from his arm. About thirteen months after the adscititious nose suddenly became cold and, after a few days, dropped off, in a state of putrefaction. The cause of this unexpected occurrence was investigated, when it was discovered that, at the same moment in which the nose grew cold, the laborer at Bologna expired.

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

Cryptozoology

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This is the Beast of Gévaudan, a wolf the size of a cow that terrorized southeastern France in the 18th century. All the big press in “cryptozoology” goes to Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, and the Abominable Snowman, but there’s a cast of B players that are a lot more colorful:

  • The Mongolian Death Worm haunts the Gobi Desert, using poison and electrical charges to kill men, horses, and camels. It’s said to resemble a four-foot length of cow intestine.
  • The Great Grey Man of Ben MacDhui lives in Scotland’s Cairngorm Mountains. He can appear as a 10-foot humanoid, or he can afflict victims psychically, with overwhelming terror, dark blurs, echoing footsteps, and “an icy feeling.”
  • The Lizard Man of Scape Ore Swamp attacked 17-year-old Chris Davis while he was changing a tire early one South Carolina morning in 1988. Reportedly a series of long scratches were later found on the roof of Davis’ car.
  • The Monkey Man of New Delhi might have had metal claws, or glowing eyes, or a helmet, or green lights on its chest, or it might have been a remote-controlled robot. Whatever it was, it was mad. Between May 14 and May 17, 2001, Delhi police fielded more than 40 reports of attacks around the city.
  • The most lyrically named “cryptid” is the Clutchbone, a seven-foot leathery monster that roamed Europe in the 1800s, burning and dismembering its victims. It had a lit torch in place of a head.

My favorite, though, is the New Jersey Vegetable Monster: A single drunken witness claimed to have seen a humanoid resembling a giant stalk of broccoli in the New Jersey Pine Barrens. “Likely attributable to a case of delirium tremens.”

Boston Molasses Disaster

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Of sweetness, Shakespeare wrote: “A little more than a little is by much too much.” Boston learned this the hard way in the Molasses Disaster of 1919, when someone tried to fill a weak tank with 2.3 million gallons of the thick syrup.

“A muffled roar burst suddenly upon the air,” wrote the Boston Herald. “Mingled with the roar was the clangor of steel against steel and the clash of rending wood.”

The tank collapsed, sending a giant wave of molasses sweeping through the North End. Even in the January cold, the wave would have been 8 to 15 feet high and traveled at 35 mph. It broke the girders of the elevated railway, lifted a train off its tracks, and tore a firehouse from its foundation. Twenty-one people stickily drowned, and 150 were injured. Cleanup took six months; one victim wasn’t found for 11 days.

No one knows the cause, but it’s been noted that molasses was used in making liquor, and the disaster occurred one day before Prohibition was ratified. It appears the owners were trying to distill molasses into grain alcohol before the market dried up. Write your own pun.

“The Librarian”

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Giuseppe Arcimboldo‘s caricature of Rudolf II’s historiographer and librarian, Wolfgang Lazio (1514-1565) — a collector of coins and a lover of books.