A piece of sperm whale skin bearing scars from a giant squid’s suckers. Once thought to be legendary, the squid normally keep to the deep sea; almost everything we know about them has been learned from specimens found in whale stomachs.
On Jan. 9, 2003, Australian officials found the Taiwanese ship High Aim 6 adrift off the West Australian coast. It had plenty of fuel, and the crew’s personal belongings were still aboard (including seven toothbrushes), but it was mysteriously empty, drawing comparisons to the Mary Celeste of 1872.
Authorities spent two days inspecting the vessel and conducted an aerial search of 7,300 square nautical miles, but they found no trace of the crew, who had last contacted the owners on Dec. 13 from the Marshall Islands, halfway between Papua New Guinea and Hawaii.
That’s all. The unwanted ship was finally sunk to serve as a fish habitat, but no one knows what happened to the crew.
A “sea-monster” reported by the officers and crew of H.M.S. Osborne in calm waters off northern Sicily, June 2, 1877. These sketches were produced by Lt. Haynes, a witness, for the London Graphic.
A Lt. Osborne told the New York Independent that the row of fins pictured in the first sketch was 30 to 40 feet long. The second sketch, he said, shows the creature “end on,” depicting only the head, which was “bullet-shaped and quite six feet thick,” and flippers. Osborne estimated that the animal was 15 or 20 feet wide across the back, and “from the top of the head to the part of the back where it became immersed I should consider about fifty feet, and that seemed about a third of its whole length.”
“Thus it is certainly much longer than any fish hitherto known to the zooelogists,” concludes the Independent, “and is, at least, as remarkable a creature as most of the old wonder-makers ever alleged.”
In September 2002, astronomers noticed something odd: An object about 60 feet long was orbiting Earth. It must have arrived recently, but it didn’t resemble any recently launched spacecraft. It might have been an asteroid … but it appeared, spookily, to bear titanium dioxide paint. Was it an alien ship?
The object disappeared again in June 2003, so officially we’re still baffled. But the best guess is that it’s an old stage of Apollo 12 that somehow wandered away from Earth in 1971, circled the sun about 30 times, and came home to visit. If that’s true then it might come back again in 2032—we can visit it on our rocket scooters.
French astronomer Camille Flammarion writes of a curious optical phenomenon in Wonders of Earth, Sea And Sky (1902):
Ulloa, being in company with six fellow-travellers upon the Pambamarca at daybreak one morning, observed that the summit of the mountain was entirely covered with thick clouds, and that the sun, when it rose, dissipated them, leaving only in their stead light vapors, which it was almost impossible to distinguish. Suddenly, in the opposite direction to where the sun was rising, “each of the travellers beheld, at about seventy feet from where he was standing, his own image reflected in the air as in a mirror. The image was in the centre of three rainbows of different colors, and surrounded at a certain distance by a fourth bow with only one color. … All these bows were perpendicular to the horizon; they moved in the direction of, and followed, the image of the person they enveloped as with a glory.”
“The most remarkable point was that, although the seven spectators were standing in a group, each person only saw the phenomenon in regard to his own person, and was disposed to disbelieve that it was repeated in respect to his companions,” Flammarion writes. “The same apparition was observed in the polar regions by Scoresby, and described by him. He states that the phenomenon appears whenever there is mist and at the same time shining sun.”
In 1864, the Inuit gave the skin and skull of an “enormous” yellow-furred bear to naturalist Robert MacFarlane. He packed them up and shipped them to the Smithsonian Institution, where they were placed in storage and forgotten.
Fifty-four years later, zoologist Clinton Hart Merriam unpacked the remains and realized they represented an entirely new species, and MacFarlane’s specimen was apparently the last of its kind. No one has ever seen a living “MacFarlane’s bear,” except for those Inuit — and now their story is lost.
Each spring, more than a million European starlings migrate through the marshlands of western Denmark, where they appear in mass formations like this shortly before sunset each day.
The Danes call it the “black sun.”
Account of an encounter with a titanic shark, recorded by Australian naturalist David Stead in his 1963 book Sharks and Rays of Australian Seas:
In the year 1918 I recorded the sensation that had been caused among the “outside” crayfish men at Port Stephens, when, for several days, they refused to go to sea to their regular fishing grounds in the vicinity of Broughton Island. The men had been at work on the fishing grounds — which lie in deep water — when an immense shark of almost unbelievable proportions put in an appearance, lifting pot after pot containing many crayfishes, and taking, as the men said, “pots, mooring lines and all”. These crayfish pots, it should be mentioned, were about 3 feet 6 inches in diameter and frequently contained from two to three dozen good-sized crayfish each weighing several pounds. The men were all unanimous that this shark was something the like of which they had never dreamed of. In company with the local Fisheries Inspector I questioned many of the men very closely and they all agreed as to the gigantic stature of the beast. But the lengths they gave were, on the whole, absurd. I mention them, however, as an indication of the state of mind which this unusual giant had thrown them into. And bear in mind that these were men who were used to the sea and all sorts of weather, and all sorts of sharks as well. One of the crew said the shark was “three hundred feet long at least”! Others said it was as long as the wharf on which we stood — about 115 feet! They affirmed that the water “boiled” over a large space when the fish swam past. They were all familiar with whales, which they had often seen passing at sea, but this was a vast shark. They had seen its terrible head which was “at least as long as the roof on the wharf shed at Nelson Bay.” Impossible, of course! But these were prosaic and rather stolid men, not given to “fish stories” nor even to talking about their catches. Further, they knew that the person they were talking to (myself) had heard all the fish stories years before! One of the things that impressed me was that they all agreed as to the ghostly whitish colour of the vast fish.
Stead draws no conclusions, but writes, “The local Fisheries Inspector of the time, Mr Paton, agreed with me that it must have been something really gigantic to put these experienced men into such a state of fear and panic.”
Born without arms, Frances O’Connor (1914-1982) was billed as a living Venus de Milo in popular sideshows, eating, drinking, and smoking a cigarette with her feet.
See also Carl Herman Unthan.
They laughed at William Beebe when the naturalist described a 6-foot glowing monster he’d encountered on a mile-deep dive in 1930. One colleague said he’d probably seen two fish swimming together.
Beebe got the last laugh four years later, when a fishing vessel pulled up one of these, a spiny, glowing creature that weighed more than 250 pounds. It’s known as “Beebe’s monster.”
Exploring Oak Island, Nova Scotia, in 1795, three boys discovered an old tackle block hung from a tree directly over a circular depression. Excited by thoughts of buried treasure, the three dug down 30 feet, discovering a layer of flagstones followed by layers of logs about every 10 feet, according to news accounts in 1856. That attracted serious treasure hunters, and subsequent digs got as deep as 80 feet, where reportedly they turned up a large inscribed stone (“Forty feet below lies two million pounds”) just before the pit flooded.
That stopped the digging for a while, but it attracted still more attention. In 1849 a drill passed through the following layers, starting at the 98-foot mark:
- spruce platform
- 12-inch space
- 22 inches of “metal in pieces”
- 8 inches of oak
- 22 inches of metal
- 4 inches of oak
- another spruce layer
- 7 feet of clay
Reportedly the operators found three small links of a gold chain in the mud stuck to the drill. There have been at least 11 digs since then, ultimately producing nothing. Possibly “the money pit” still holds loot belonging to Blackbeard or Captain Kidd … but no one’s been able to find it.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.