“A Phosphorescent Sea”


A singular and highly remarkable case of diffused marine phosphorescence was observed by Nordenskiöld during his voyage to Greenland in 1883. One dark night, when the weather was calm and the sea smooth, his vessel was steaming across a narrow inlet called the Igaliko Fjord, when the sea was suddenly observed to be illumined in the rear of the vessel by a broad but sharply-defined band of light, which had a uniform, somewhat golden sheen, quite unlike the ordinary bluish-green phosphorescence of the sea. The latter kind of light was distinctly visible at the same time in the wake of the vessel. Though the steamer was going at the rate of from five to six miles an hour, the remarkable sheet of light got nearer and nearer. When quite close, it appeared as if the vessel were sailing in a sea of fire or molten metal. In the course of an hour the light passed on ahead, and ultimately it disappeared in the remote horizon. The nature of this phenomenon Nordenskiöld is unable to explain; and unfortunately he had not the opportunity of examining it with the spectroscope.

— W.S. Dallas in Wonders of Earth, Sea And Sky, 1902

A Lady of Stature


Born to normal parents in 1846, Anna Haining Swan had reached nearly her mother’s height by age 6. She topped out at 7 feet 5 inches, 350 pounds, shortly after signing up with P.T. Barnum, who paid her handsomely.

Like other “freaks,” Anna was cultured and educated. She studied literature, music and acting, even playing Lady Macbeth. Still, her size presented problems. She was nearly trapped by a fire at Barnum’s museum in 1865 because she couldn’t fit through a third-floor window. Eventually she was lowered by block and tackle, with 18 men holding the end of the rope.

Anna was fortunate in love, though. She met Martin Van Buren Bates when the two were paired for a tour, and they were married in 1871, towering over the priest, who was 6 foot 3. They retired to a custom house with 8-foot doors, where she bore two children, one of which weighed 22 pounds at birth (neither survived). She was buried in an oversize coffin in 1888.

At her full height, Anna was nearly five times as tall as Caroline Crachami (1815-1824), the smallest person in recorded history. Born with primordial dwarfism, Caroline was only 19.5 inches tall. Her skeleton is on display at Scotland’s Hunterian Museum, and her story is recorded in Gaby Wood’s wonderfully titled Smallest of All Persons Mentioned in the Records of Littleness.

Coral Castle

When Edward Leedskalnin’s fiancée left him at the altar, the Latvian eccentric moved to Florida and started building a castle to win her back. A very, very heavy castle: The structure is made of megalithic stones, mostly coral, each of which weighs several tons.

How he did it is something of a mystery, as the 100-pound artist worked only alone and at night. Some teenagers who glimpsed the construction said that he moved the blocks like hydrogen balloons. Leedskalnin gave no details but spoke of a “perpetual motion holder” and said he knew the secret of the Egyptian pyramids.

Anyway, did it work? Sadly, no. Leedskalnin spent 28 years building his castle, but when his erstwhile fiancée heard about it, she said, “I didn’t want to marry Edward when I was 16, and I don’t want to marry him now.” He died a few years later.

“Wonders of Minute Workmanship”

In the twentieth year of Queen Elizabeth, a blacksmith named Mark Scaliot, made a lock consisting of eleven pieces of iron, steel and brass, all which, together with a key to it, weighed but one grain of gold. He also made a chain of gold, consisting of forty-three links, and, having fastened this to the before-mentioned lock and key, he put the chain about the neck of a flea, which drew them all with ease. All these together, lock and key, chain and flea, weighed only one grain and a half.

Oswaldus Norhingerus, who was more famous even than Scaliot for his minute contrivances, is said to have made 1,600 dishes of turned ivory, all perfect and complete in every part, yet so small, thin and slender, that all of them were included at once in a cup turned out of a pepper-corn of the common size. Johannes Shad, of Mitelbrach, carried this wonderful work with him to Rome, and showed it to Pope Paul V., who saw and counted them all by the help of a pair of spectacles. They were so little as to be almost invisible to the eye.

Johannes Ferrarius, a Jesuit, had in his posession cannons of wood, with their carriages, wheels, and all other military furniture, all of which were also contained in a pepper-corn of the ordinary size.

An artist, named Claudius Callus, made for Hippolytus d’Este, Cardinal of Ferrara, representations of sundry birds setting on the tops of trees, which, by hydraulic art and secret conveyance of water through the trunks and branches of the trees, were made to sing and clap their wings; but, at the sudden appearance of an owl out of a bush of the same artifice, they immediately became all mute and silent.

Burroughs’ Encyclopaedia of Astounding Facts and Useful Information, 1889

Fainting Goats


In the early 1800s, a reclusive farm worker sold four goats to Dr. H.H. Mayberry of Marshall County, Tenn. Mayberry discovered that the goats had an odd quality: When startled they would stiffen for about 10 seconds, often falling over.

Mayberry bred them, and today it’s understood they have a hereditary genetic disorder called myotonia congenita. There’s even an International Fainting Goat Association.

The original breeder disappeared, rumored to have returned to Nova Scotia. No one knows his name.

A Premature Burial

In the 1850s, a girl contracted diphtheria while visiting Edisto Island, S.C. Amid fears of an outbreak, she was pronounced dead and hastily interred in a local mausoleum:

Some days afterwards, when the grave in which she had been placed was opened for the reception of another body, it was found that the clothes which covered the unfortunate woman were torn to pieces, and that she had even broken her limbs in attempting to extricate herself from the living tomb. The Court, after hearing the case, sentenced the doctor who had signed the certificate of decease, and the Major who had authorized the interment each to three month’s imprisonment for involuntary manslaughter.

(Reported in the British Medical Journal, 1877)

Stone Spheres

Since the 1930s, hundreds of stone spheres have been found in Costa Rica. They range from a few centimeters to more than 2 meters in diameter and weigh up to 16 tons.

No one knows who made them or why, but they’re old — some date to 200 B.C.

Curse of the Ninth

Anton Bruckner died after writing his ninth symphony. So did Beethoven, Schubert, and Dvořák. In the 19th century, a superstition arose that a quick death awaited anyone who wrote nine symphonies.

Arnold Schoenberg wrote: “It seems that the ninth is a limit. He who wants to go beyond it must pass away. It seems as if something might be imparted to us in the Tenth which we ought not yet to know, for which we are not ready. Those who have written a Ninth stood too close to the hereafter.”

Mahler figured he could escape the curse with a decoy: When he finished his ninth, he retitled it “The Song of the Earth” and wrote a second “ninth” symphony. When nothing happened, he told his wife “the danger is past,” started a new work — and died.

Mary the Elephant


1916 came to a black end for Sparks World Famous Shows, a circus that was traveling through the American South. In Kingsport, Tenn., an amateur trainer named Red Eldridge was leading a 5-ton Asian elephant to a local pond when she stopped to nibble a watermelon rind. He grew impatient and prodded her behind the ear. She flung him against a drink stand and stepped on his head.

What followed can only be described as a lynching. A crowd began to chant, “Kill the elephant!” A local blacksmith fired two dozen rounds into Mary, with little effect. The local sheriff impounded her, newspapers reported (falsely) that she had killed several workers in the past, and nearby towns threatened to boycott the show. By most accounts Mary had calmed down after killing Eldridge, but that didn’t seem to matter.

So on Sept. 13, owner Charlie Sparks took Mary to a local railroad yard and hanged her from an industrial crane in front of 2,500 people, including most of the town’s children. The chain snapped on the first attempt, causing Mary to fall and break her hip. The second attempt killed her, and she was buried beside the tracks.

“Cruelty, like every other vice, requires no motive outside of itself,” wrote George Eliot. “It only requires opportunity.”

A War in the Sky


At sunrise on April 14, 1561, the citizens of Nuremberg, Germany, witnessed a strange aerial spectacle. According to a contemporary broadsheet, large numbers of red, blue and black “globes” or “plates” appeared near the sun, “some three in a row, now and then four in a square, also some standing alone. And amongst these globes some blood-colored crosses were seen.” Two great tubes also appeared, “in which three, four and more globes were to be seen. They then all began to fight one another.”

After an hour, “they all fell … from the sun and sky down to the earth, as if everything were on fire, then it slowly faded away on the earth, producing a lot of steam.”

Strangely, the same thing happened five years later in Basel, Switzerland. On Aug. 7, 1566, also at sunrise, “many large black globes were seen in the air, moving before the sun with great speed, and turning against each other as if fighting. Some of them became red and fiery and afterwards faded and went out.”

Turnspit Dogs


Well, here’s a cheery scene. Laughing children, a bright fire, and … wait a minute, is that a dog on a treadmill?

Once common, turnspit dogs were specially bred to run on wheels and turn meat. Typically they were kept in pairs so they could take turns at the hot and unpleasant work, which largely went unappreciated. In Of English Dogs (1576) they’re described as “long-bodied, crooked-legged and ugly dogs, with a suspicious, unhappy look about them.”

Perhaps fortunately, the breed is extinct now, made obsolete by the mechanized kitchen.


Sixteenth-century prophet Nostradamus predicted three Antichrists. The first two are thought to have been Napoleon and Hitler, but the third, known only as “Mabus,” hasn’t shown up yet. Here are the relevant quatrains:

Mabus will soon die, then will come
A horrible undoing of man and beast,
We will see vengeance at once,
One hundred powers, thirst, famine, when passes the comet.

His hand finally through the bloody ALUS,
He will be unable to protect himself by sea,
Between two rivers he will fear the military hand,
The black and angry one will make him repent of it.

What does this mean? Who knows? Presumably it’ll make sense at the time.

Naga Fireballs

Every October, glowing balls rise from the depths of the Mekong River in Thailand and Laos. Each night hundreds of reddish orbs, each the size of an egg, rise to about 200 meters above the river and disappear.

No one’s sure what’s causing them. Possibly the river’s sediment is fermenting and combusting. Villagers attribute the fireballs to the phaya naga, which they say lives in the Mekong. Whatever the cause, they make for a good festival.

Foo Fighters


During World War II, Allied pilots over Europe and the Pacific reported seeing blobs of light or fire near their planes. In 1945, Time reported:

If it was not a hoax or an optical illusion, it was certainly the most puzzling secret weapon that Allied fighters have yet encountered. Last week U.S. night fighter pilots based in France told a strange story of balls of fire which for more than a month have been following their planes at night over Germany. No one seemed to know what, if anything, the fireballs were supposed to accomplish. Pilots, guessing it was a new psychological weapon, named it the “foo-fighter.” … Their descriptions of the apparition varied, but they agree that the mysterious flares stuck close to their planes and appeared to follow them at high speed for miles. One pilot said that a foo-fighter, appearing as red balls off his wing tips, stuck with him until he dove at 360 miles an hour; then the balls zoomed up into the sky.

Possibly they were electrical discharges, like St. Elmo’s fire, or possibly German anti-aircraft batteries were firing flares to aid their night fighters. Whatever they were, the lights apparently caused no injury or damage.

“Lamps Lighted by Currents Passed Through the Human Body”


Mark Twain in the laboratory of his friend, inventor Nikola Tesla, where in 1894 Twain briefly became a human light bulb:

In Fig. 13 a most curious and weird phenomenon is illustrated. A few years ago electricians would have considered it quite remarkable, if indeed they do not now. The observer holds a loop of bare wire in his hands. The currents induced in the loop by means of the “resonating” coil over which it is held, traverse the body of the observer, and at the same time, as they pass between his bare hands, they bring two or three lamps held there to bright incandescence. Strange as it may seem, these currents, of a voltage one or two hundred times as high as that employed in electrocution, do not inconvenience the experimenter in the slightest. The extremely high tension of the currents which Mr. Clemens is seen receiving prevents them from doing any harm to him.

— T.C. Martin, “Tesla’s Oscillator and Other Inventions,” Century Magazine, April 1895

Adam Rainer

Adam Rainer lived as both a dwarf and a giant. Born in 1899 in Austria, Rainer was 3 feet 10.5 inches tall at age 21. Then, suddenly, he began to grow, stretching a full meter in the next 11 years to reach 7 feet 1.75 inches in 1931. The physical strain left him bedridden for life, but he kept growing. When he died in 1950 at age 51, Rainer had reached 7 feet 8 inches, having grown 46 inches during his adult years. No one knows why.

The Maine Penny

Digging in an old Indian settlement in 1957, Maine archaeologists turned up a silver penny that had been minted in Norway between 1065 and 1080 A.D.

That means either that ancient Norse had visited the region … or that the natives had quite an extensive trade network. An arctic Eskimo cutting tool was found at the same site.

Auroral Sounds


Ever since ancient Rome, people have reported hearing the aurora borealis. It’s been described as a crackling, hissing, buzzing, or whistling.

Modern science can’t explain such sounds (yet), and so far no one’s managed to record them, so for now the jury’s still out.

Related: In 1881, correspondent F.C. Constable wrote to Nature of walking home during an electric storm in Karachi when “I heard all round me the constant crackling or rustling of blazing flames. Towards the north-west across a low arc near the horizon pale sheet lightning swayed quickly to and fro. There was no rain at the time, that came heavily afterwards. The sound of flames was close round me, and others had the same experience. No one I can find has ever seen lightning so completely fill the air or heard such strange sounds.”

Love Padlocks


In the 1980s, in the Hungarian city of Pécs, lovers began to clamp padlocks to this wrought-iron fence as a symbol of their commitment.

Now that the fence has filled up, people have begun attaching locks to fences and statues throughout the town center, and the custom has spread to Hungary, Latvia, Italy and Japan.

“Love is a lock that linketh noble minds,” wrote Robert Greene, “faith is the key that shuts the spring of love.”



Is there an aquatic church we don’t know about? Three centuries after John Stow’s sea monk escaped, a “bishop-fish” was caught and taken to the king of Poland. It gestured to a group of Catholic bishops, appealing to be released, and when they granted its wish it made the sign of the cross and swam away.

Another bishop-fish was reportedly caught near Germany in 1531. This one refused to eat and died after three days.

Swiss naturalist Conrad Gesner, who described it in his Historia Animalium, also refers to monk-fish caught off Norway and in the Firth of Forth. Someone ought to take up a collection.

The Ding Hai Effect

Adam Cheng isn’t very popular among stockbrokers. That’s because every time the Hong Kong actor stars in a new television show, there’s a sharp drop in global stock markets.

No one can explain it, but it’s happened eight times since 1993, when Cheng first starred as Ding Hai in the dramatic series Greed of Man. Only once, in 2004, has a new Cheng series not been accompanied by a drop in the stock market.

Desert Downpour

A “magic tap.” Can you see how it’s done?

Click for Answer

Richard Sharpe Shaver

Amazing Stories was full of, well, amazing stories, but Richard Sharpe Shaver insisted that his were true. Between 1943 and 1948, Shaver and editor/publisher Ray Palmer told of cavern cities filled with evil robots that kidnapped and tortured unwary humans. Shaver insisted he had been a prisoner for several years.

Strangely, the first story brought a flood of excited letters corroborating Shaver’s tale. One woman claimed she had been abducted from a Paris subbasement and raped and tortured before good robots freed her. “Shaver Mystery Club” chapters began to spring up, and Amazing gained about 50,000 subscribers.

The stories petered out as the sensation ran its course, though the clubs persisted into the late 1950s. By the 1970s, Shaver was insisting that certain rocks were “books” created by ancient Atlanteans. Today it seems he was not a misunderstood visionary but a troubled schizophrenic with a compelling imagination.

The Forevertron


The Forevertron is the largest scrap metal sculpture in the world. Salvage expert Tom Every spent decades collecting 320 tons of antique machinery, including dynamos built by Thomas Edison and an actual decontamination chamber from the Apollo project. It’s in southern Wisconsin.