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Oddities

Clever Hans

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Illusionists know that people are eager to be fooled — some even participate unwittingly in their own deception. A striking example of this is Clever Hans, a trick horse who caused a sensation in the early 1900s. Using his hoof, Hans routinely tapped out correct answers to questions about math, reading, spelling and music. But an investigation showed that Hans’ real skill lay in reading his questioner’s body language, which always showed increased tension as he approached the final, “correct” tap.

In 1907, psychologist Oskar Pfungst actually took the horse’s place and found that he could get the right answer 90 percent of the time simply by watching the questioner’s posture and facial expression. This unconscious cueing is remembered as the “Clever Hans effect.”

Aqua Man

Accomplishments of Lewis Gordon Pugh:

  • One month after his first swimming lesson, swam from Robben Island to Cape Town, South Africa
  • Shortly thereafter, swam the English Channel
  • First person to swim around the southernmost point in Africa, the northernmost point in Europe, the Cape of Good Hope, and the Cape Peninsula
  • First person to complete a long-distance swim in all five oceans
  • First person to swim down the entire length of Norway’s Sognefjord, 204 kilometers
  • First person to swim across an African Great Lake (Lake Malawi)
  • Gold medal in the 500-meter freestyle at the 2006 World Winter Swimming Championships in Finland
  • World record for the northernmost long-distance swim (Spitsbergen, 1,000 kilometers from the North Pole) and southernmost long-distance swim (Petermann Island, off the Antarctic Peninsula)

Most recently Lewis became the first person to swim the entire length of the River Thames, to raise awareness about the problems of global warming. Along the way, he stopped in London to visit Tony Blair.

Annie Londonderry

The Gilded Age certainly saw some high-stakes wagers. Twelve years before Harry Bensley settled one bet by pushing a pram around the world, Annie “Londonderry” Kopchovsky settled another by circling the earth on a bicycle.

Annie’s task, proposed by two wealthy Boston clubmen, was to ride around the world in 15 months, earning $5,000 en route. She saw it as a challenge to make her way in a man’s world, and in 1895 the doughty 23-year-old, who had never ridden a bicycle before, pedaled out of Boston, leaving behind a husband and three children.

She brought only a change of clothes and a pearl-handled revolver, but she steadily earned money by carrying advertising banners and ribbons through cities around the world, starting with the Londonderry Lithia Spring Water Company, which paid her to carry its placard on her bike and to adopt her nickname.

That spirit carried her through. On returning home, the victorious Annie wrote a series of sensational features for the New York World, beginning with her cycling adventure. “I am a journalist and ‘a new woman,’” she wrote, “if that term means that I believe I can do anything that any man can do.”

Inverted Jenny

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If you have one of these, hold on to it. Produced by a 1918 misprint, only 100 of these stamps have been found. That puts them among the most valuable stamps in the world — in 2003, an “Inverted Jenny” would sell for $150,000.

Both Sides Now

The Chevalier d’Eon (1728-1810) lived the first half of his life as a man and the second as a woman. Until age 49 d’Eon served as a diplomat and soldier in Louis XV’s France, fighting in the Seven Years’ War and spying in London for the king.

But in 1771 he claimed he was physically a woman and asked to be recognized as such. The government agreed, even financing a new wardrobe, and the chevalier spent his remaining 33 years as a woman, participating in fencing tournaments and even offering to lead a division of women soldiers against the Habsburgs.

Doctors who examined him after death discovered that his body was anatomically male.

Myrtle Corbin

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Born in 1868, Myrtle Corbin had two separate pelvises, side by side — each of her large outer legs was paired with a small inner one. She could move the small ones, but they were too weak for walking.

The condition didn’t slow her down — she married a doctor at 19 and eventually gave birth to four daughters and a son.

Law Ghoul

When the English jurist and philosopher Jeremy Bentham died in 1832, his body was preserved and stored in a wooden cabinet at University College London. That was his request. It’s still there — you can see it at the end of the South Cloisters in the college’s main building. Occasionally it’s brought to council meetings, where Bentham is listed as “present but not voting.”

Unfortunately, students kept stealing the head (apparently a disquieting English custom), so the trustees replaced it with a wax one. Bentham’s real head is locked up in an undisclosed location.

Location, Location, Location

Sadly, there are no Friendly’s restaurants on Shades of Death Road, which runs for fully 7 miles through Warren County, N.J.

The sign is stolen so frequently that local residents have started greasing the pole. That’s a good trick, but it’s not appropriate everywhere.

“Vibrations of the Air”

If a person stand beneath a railway girder-bridge with an open umbrella over his head, when a train is passing, the vibration of the air will be distinctly felt in the hand which grasps the umbrella, because the outspread surface collects and concentrates the waves into the focus of the handle.

Barkham Burroughs’ Encyclopaedia of Astounding Facts and Useful Information, 1889

Garganta

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Fed on radioactive turnips, Rose Newman of Bourton-on-the-Water, England,
grew to the astonishing height of 50 feet.

Just kidding. Bourton-on-the-Water contains a 1:10 scale model of itself.

And, yes, the scale model contains a scale model.

Lluvia de Peces

In the Honduran province of Yoro, it rains fish. Each year between May and July there’s a heavy rainstorm that leaves hundreds of live fish on the ground, which local villagers cook and eat.

No one knows how this happens, but it’s been going on for more than a century. One town has even started an annual festival.

Airmail Before Airplanes

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The world’s first airmail stamps were issued for the Great Barrier Pigeon-Gram Service, which carried messages from New Zealand’s Great Barrier Island to the mainland between 1898 and 1908.

It was pretty good: The fastest pigeon, aptly named Velocity, made the trip to Auckland in only 50 minutes, averaging an astounding 125 kph. That’s only 40 per cent slower than modern aircraft.

I Think That I Shall Never See …

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In 1964, grad student Donald Currey cut down a bristlecone pine in eastern Nevada to see how old it was.

It was 4,844 years old. He had killed the oldest thing in the world.

Bonus sad noble tree story here.

The Dunmore Pineapple

My homeowners’ association would never allow this. Pineapples were big in 18th-century Europe, a rare delicacy and a symbol of wealth, so they got sculpted into everything: gateposts, railings, weather vanes, and door lintels. This stone cupola, 14 meters high, adorns Dunmore Park in Scotland, where they actually managed to grow live pineapples with a furnace-driven heating system. No mean feat.

Bunny Hop

Don’t laugh, they’re good at it. Rabbit show jumping began in Sweden in the late 1970s, and today there are more than 50 clubs throughout Scandinavia.

In case you’re wondering, the official world records are 99.5 cm (39.17 inches) for the high jump, 300 cm (118.11 inches) for the long jump.

C.O.D.

Charles McKinley lacked the airfare to visit his folks in Texas, so on Sept. 5, 2003, he mailed himself from New York to Dallas.

Amazingly, authorities didn’t catch on until an air freight driver reported that he “had seen a pair of eyes looking out from inside the crate.”

Henry Box Brown did the same thing 150 years ago, but he was escaping slavery. McKinley, apparently, just wanted to save money.

Cueva de las Manos

Found in a cave in Argentina, these handprints are at least 9,500 years old.

No one knows who made them, but their size suggests a 13-year-old boy.

Sea Serpent

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In August 1848, during a voyage to Saint Helena in the South Atlantic, the officers and crew of HMS Daedalus observed a creature 60 feet long that held a peculiar maned head above the water.

What was it? The English biologist Sir Richard Owen supposed it was an elephant seal; others have suggested a “super eel,” a giant squid, and an upside-down canoe. We’ll never know.

Curse of the Iceman

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In 1991, a pair of German tourists discovered the frozen corpse of a Copper Age man in the Alps, where it had apparently lain undisturbed since 3,300 B.C. “Ötzi” had died in a fight, it seems: A CAT scan found an arrowhead in one shoulder, and he had bruises and cuts on his hands, wrists, and chest. DNA analysis also found blood from four other people on his gear.

If he was ornery in life, apparently his ghost was worse. In all, eight people connected with the iceman have died unexpectedly. In 1992, the head of the investigating forensic team died in a head-on collision. The mountaineer who led scientists to the body died in an avalanche. An Austrian journalist who covered the body’s removal died of a brain tumor, and the tourist who found it fell into a ravine on the mountain.

Have investigators unleashed a mysterious curse, like that of King Tutankhamen? “I think it’s a load of rubbish,” said the leading expert on the corpse, archaeologist Konrad Spindler. “It is all a media hype. The next thing you will be saying I will be next.”

He died in April 2005.

Nice Try

Joshua Gardner may be a sex offender, but he’s a creative one. Last year the 22-year-old visited Minnesota’s Stillwater Area High School three times, claiming to be Caspian James Crichton-Stuart IV, the Fifth Duke of Cleveland. He spoke in an English accent and insisted that students, staff and even the principal call him “your grace.”

Student journalists caught on when he misspelled the name of his “castle,” and they soon discovered Gardner was on probation after having sex with a 14-year-old girl in 2002. He now faces up to 21 months in prison.

Japanese War Tuba

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Before World War II, this photo emerged from Japan — Emperor Hirohito inspecting a fleet of giant tubas, with anti-aircraft guns in the background.

They’re actually acoustic locators, designed to listen for plane engines. Radar made the whole project obsolete.

No Tips

Throughout his entire professional career, Andy Kaufman kept a day job busing tables at Jerry’s Famous Deli in Los Angeles.

Jastrow Illusion

An optical illusion. The two figures are the same size.

No, Seriously

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There’s never a good time for a tsunami, but the one that hit Hawaii in 1946 (visible at center right) was particularly unfortunate. It landed on April 1, and many residents dismissed the warnings as an April Fools prank. Ultimately 165 people died.