In 1896, New Jersey clam diggers Frank Samuelsen and George Harbo decided to make a name for themselves by rowing across the Atlantic Ocean. On June 6 they set out from the Battery in an 18-foot oak rowboat with a compass, a sextant, and a copy of the Nautical Almanac. They reached England’s Isles of Scilly in 55 days, a record that still stands.
Ironically, on the way home their passenger steamer ran out of coal. The pair launched their boat and rowed back to New York.
Decide which direction each of these men is looking in. Then cover their lower faces.
In November 1890, 4-year-old Ottie Cline Powell was gathering firewood when he wandered away from his schoolhouse in Amherst County, Virginia. An extensive search couldn’t find him.
His body was found the following spring on the peak of Bluff Mountain in the Blue Ridge — 7 miles away, at an elevation of 3,372 feet.
This may be the first UFO photo ever taken. It’s half of a stereo photograph dating from 1871, showing a cigar-shaped ship over Mount Washington, N.H.
“Mystery airships” were floating ominously over America between 1896 and World War I, but neither the ships nor the witnesses had quite got the hang of things yet. In 1897 the Washington Times suggested that the dirigibles were “a reconnoitering party from Mars”; the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch agreed that “these may be visitors from Mars, fearful, at the last, of invading the planet they have been seeking.”
But other accounts said they were terrestrial airships piloted by mysterious humans. One of these supposedly told an Arkansas state senator that he was flying to Cuba to use his “Hotchkiss gun” to “kill Spaniards.” In Texas, witnesses told of meeting “five peculiarly dressed men” who had descended from the Lost Tribes of Israel; they had learned English from British explorer Hugh Willoughby’s ill-fated 1553 expedition to the North Pole.
Much of this is documented, but newspaper writers themselves were prone to practical jokes in that era, which makes the whole thing impossible to untangle. Plus, people seem to want to believe this stuff: In April 1897, hoaxers sent up a balloon made of tissue paper over Burlington, Iowa. The Des Moines Leader received reports that the ship had “red and green lights” and that “one reputable citizen swore he heard voices.” Oh well.
Seeing a red apple should increase your confidence that all ravens are black.
Why? Because the statement “All ravens are black” is logically equivalent to “All non-black things are non-ravens.” And seeing a red apple (or green grass) confirms this belief.
This is logically inescapable, even if it’s counterintuitive. It’s known as Hempel’s paradox.
On May 26, 1828, a 16-year-old boy wandered into Nuremberg. He appeared to have the mental development of a 6-year-old; he could not say where he had come from, only repeating the sentence “I want to be a knight, as my father was” and the name “Kaspar Hauser.”
Two letters carried by the boy implied that his widowed mother had given him up to the care of a laborer, who had raised him in a secluded room. He said he had spent most of his life in a tiny cell with a straw bed, fed only on bread and water and occupied only with a carved wooden horse. Occasionally he was drugged so that his clothes could be changed and his hair cut. A mysterious man would visit him on occasion, always careful to hide his face.
It was noted that Hauser bore a passing resemblance to the grand duke of Baden. Officially the house of Baden had no comment about his case (it doesn’t to this day), but it seems someone was anxious to silence him: In 1829 a hooded man attacked him with an ax, succeeding only in wounding him slightly, and four years later another stranger waylaid and stabbed him. He died three days later.
Searching the crime scene, police found a small black purse with a note: “Hauser will be able to tell you how I look, where I came from and who I am. To spare him from this task I will tell you myself. I am from … on the Bavarian border … My name is MLO.”
Hauser lies now in a country graveyard. His headstone reads, “Here lies Kaspar Hauser, riddle of his time. His birth was unknown, his death mysterious.”
Math prodigy George Bidder was born to a Devonshire stonemason in 1806. In a public appearance at age 11, he answered each of these questions in less than a minute:
- What is the cube root of 673,373,097,125? “Answer, 8,765.”
- If a mouse can draw one ounce and a half, how many mice can draw 50,000 tons? “Answer, 1,194,666,666, and one ounce over.”
- If a coach travels from Exeter to Plymouth, 44 miles, every day in a year, how often does a wheel turn round that is 2 feet 9 inches? “Answer, 30,835,200.”
- If a fan of a windmill goes round 15 times in a minute, how many times will it go round in 7 years, 4 months, 1 week, 2 hours, 3 minutes — 365 days 6 hours to the year, and 28 days to the month? “Answer, 57,897,245.”
- If the ministers have taken of the income tax 12 millions of money in 1-pound notes, how many miles would they cover a road 30 feet wide, each note being 8 inches by 4 and a half? “He directly answered, 18 miles, 1,653 yards, and one foot.”
- Suppose the earth to consist of 971 million of inhabitants, and suppose they die in 33 years and four months, how many have returned to dust since the time of Adam, computing it to be 5,850 years? “Answer, 170,410,500,000.” Multiply it again by 99. “Answer, 16,870,639,500,000.”
(Reported in Kirby’s Wonderful and Scientific Museum, 1820)
Mr. Forbes tells a story of a female monkey (the Semnopithecus Entellus) who was shot by a friend of his, and carried to his tent. Forty or fifty of her tribe advanced with menacing gestures, but stood still when the gentleman presented his gun at them. One, however, who appeared to be the chief of the tribe, came forward, chattering and threatening in a furious manner. Nothing short of firing at him seemed likely to drive him away; but at length he approached the tent door with every sign of grief and supplication, as if he were begging for the body. It was given to him, he took it in his arms, carried it away, with actions expressive of affection, to his companions, and with them disappeared. It was not to be wondered at that the sportsman vowed never to shoot another monkey.
— Edmund Fillingham King, Ten Thousand Wonderful Things, 1860
Once exclusive to Europe, the ice hotel jumped to Quebec City in 2000. With 22 beds, this Canadian establishment is smaller than its Swedish cousin, but it does have room for two art galleries, a bar, a movie theater and a chapel. Room service serves cold cuts on ice plates.
When the Swedish cargo steamer Baychimo became trapped in pack ice in 1931, the crew abandoned her and assumed that she sank in a subsequent blizzard. So they were surprised to hear that a local seal hunter had spotted her 45 miles away. They found the ship and retrieved the most valuable cargo, but still she did not sink. In fact, the Baychimo would be sighted numerous times throughout the next 38 years, most recently in the Beaufort Sea in 1969. For all anyone knows, she’s still up there.
If you’re selling a house in New York, you must disclose the presence of poltergeists. That’s the finding of the New York Supreme Court in Stambovsky v. Ackley, widely known as the “Ghostbusters case of 1991.”
When Jeffrey Stambovsky offered to buy Helen Ackley’s house in Nyack, he didn’t know it was haunted. Stambovsky tried to back out of the deal, but a trial court dismissed his suit.
When he appealed the case, the new court noted that, since the seller had reported the ghosts in Reader’s Digest, she couldn’t claim that they didn’t exist. “As a matter of law, the house is haunted.”
And, it said, a buyer couldn’t be expected to discover ghosts on his own, because “the most meticulous inspection and search would not reveal the presence of poltergeists at the premises or unearth the property’s ghoulish reputation in the community.”
So Stambovsky got no damages but escaped the contract. Moral: caveat emptor.
All right, keep your seats. Bathynomus giganteus is an example of “deep-sea gigantism,” where creatures assume huge sizes in the cold black mud a mile down, perhaps to better regulate body temperature.
It’s related to the woodlouse, if that’s any comfort.
A “hen with a human profile” found near the Russian city of Tula in 1816, reported in Kirby’s Wonderful and Scientific Museum (1820).
“As the beak is wanting, and has for substitute a kind of mouth, it is very difficult for her to eat, and still more so to collect grains,” reports a Professor Fischer. “The too great advancement of the nostrils prevents her altogether from drinking; it is, therefore, necessary to feed her with bread soaked in water, or in milk.”
Every May and December, thousands of Catholics gather in Naples to witness a miracle: The dried blood of Saint Januarius, which is kept in small capsules, liquefies when it’s brought near his body.
Januarius was martyred in 305, and the “miracle of the blood” has been happening since at least 1389, which is pretty impressive.
But investigator Joe Nickell notes that a thixotropic gel such as hydrated iron oxide remains highly viscous until it’s stirred or moved. And the same miracle is claimed for several other saints … all in the Naples area. Hmm.
Dinny the Dinosaur isn’t just an eyesore, he’s a habitable building. Created in the 1960s to attract visitors to a nearby inn, the 150-ton brontosaurus has an entrance at the base of his tail, and his builder, Claude Bell, used to live in the upper rooms. You can see Dinny in Cabazon, Calif., just north of Interstate 10.
On Oct. 26, 1873, fishermen Daniel Squires and Theophilus Piccot set out to fish for herring off Portugal Cove, Newfoundland. With them in the 20-foot dory was Piccot’s 12-year-old son, Tom.
On the water they spied a mass of flotsam that they took for wreckage or seaweed, but when they tried to draw it near with a boathook the thing struck the gunwale with a parrotlike beak and threw a tentacle around the boat. Thinking quickly, the boy hacked at the attacking creature until it released the dory and retreated.
The trio returned to port with a severed tentacle 19 feet long, which they gave to the Rev. Moses Harvey, an amateur naturalist in St. John’s. It’s thought to be the first conclusive proof of the existence of giant squid.
With enough patience, you can breed an animal to do almost anything. When medieval Norwegians wanted help hunting puffins, which nest in cliffs and burrows, they created the Norwegian lundehund, which is practically a puffin-hunting machine. A lundehund can close its ears, turn its forelegs at right angles to its sides, and bend its head backward until its forehead touches its back. Plus it has an extra toe.
When the puffin hunters switched to nets, the breed nearly disappeared — by World War II there were only six left. But now they’re back up to around 2,000. Waste not, want not.
Petersburgh, July 30, 1817. — The ground of a village, distant twenty-two versts from Abo, has sunk suddenly to the depth of many fathoms, and twelve peasants’ houses have been buried in a manner that no trace remains of their former position. A similar event happened at the same place, in the years 1755 and 1788. Among other unknown causes of this phenomenon, it is attributed to the situation of the village upon a swampy soil, and to a river which flows beside it. It is not stated, whether any lives were lost.
— London Morning Post, Aug. 30, 1817
Sweden’s Björketorp runestone (center, above) certainly means business. Thirteen feet tall, it bears this threatening inscription:
Here, I have hidden the secret of powerful runes, strong runes. The one who breaks this memorial will be eternally tormented by anger. Treacherous death will hit him. I foresee perdition.
That’s scary, but it’s not very clear. Archaeologists had thought the curse protected a grave, but a dig in 1914 found no remains. So maybe it’s a cenotaph (meaning the body is buried elsewhere), or a shrine to Odin, or an ancient border marker between Sweden and Denmark. Anyway, be vaguely careful.
On Dec. 15, 1900, a passing steamer noticed that the lighthouse on Scotland’s Flannan Isles had gone dark. A relief crew, arriving on Dec. 26, found that the flagstaff was bare, the beds were unmade, the clock was stopped … and there was no trace of the three men who manned the lighthouse.
A chair had been overturned by the kitchen table, but otherwise there were signs of order. The lamps had been cleaned and refilled, the entrance gate and main door had been closed, and a set of oilskins were found inside, which was strange, considering the violent weather.
As they explored further, the relief crew discovered at the island’s west landing signs of damage that were “difficult to believe unless actually seen.” An iron railway was wrenched out of its concrete, a rock weighing more than a ton had been displaced, and turf had been ripped from a clifftop 200 feet above sea level. But the keepers had kept their log after this point.
What really happened? An investigation suggested that the three were swept away while trying to secure a box on the west landing. But no one really knows.
What John de Mandeville lacked in travel experience, he made up in imagination:
In Ethiope are such men that have but one foote, and they go so fast yt it is a great marvaill, & that is a large fote that the shadow thereof covereth ye body from son or rayne when they lye uppon their backes, and when their children be first borne they loke like russet, and when they waxe olde then they be all blacke.
The writer published a singular book full of such prodigies in the 14th century, most of it apparently borrowed from other writers or spun from whole cloth. Who would do such a thing? We’ll never know — as it turns out, the name “Mandeville” itself was made up.
One last unlucky elephant. In the early 1900s, Thomas Edison was locked in a historic “war of currents” with George Westinghouse. Edison wanted the nation to use direct current; Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla wanted alternating current.
That sounds like a pretty tame dispute, but Edison went to some horrific lengths to sway public opinion. To prove that AC was dangerous, he began electrocuting stray cats and dogs. He said they were being “Westinghoused.” He also secretly funded the first electric chair, which ran on AC but was underpowered — its first use resulted in “an awful spectacle, far worse than hanging,” in the words of one witness.
Anyway, around this time a Coney Island elephant named Topsy was condemned to death for killing three men in three years. Hanging was out, thanks to the ASPCA, so Edison suggested they send 6,600 volts of AC through her. So on Jan. 4, 1903, 1,500 people gathered at the amusement park and watched as Topsy ate carrots laced with 460 grams of potassium cyanide and was Westinghoused. She died quickly, reportedly, but Edison recorded the whole thing on film, and later played Electrocuting an Elephant to audiences around the country.
He lost the fight for DC power, though. There’s some justice.
Mr. Zachariah Pearce, aged 21, died at Cranbrook, Kent, October 17, 1786. The following remarkable occurrences are related as matters of fact, which can be attested by many persons in Cranbrook. Mr. W. Pearce, the father of the above Zachariah, died of a frenzy fever, November 30, 1785. Some time before he died, a small bird, of the dish-water kind, came often every day, and pecked hard against the chamber window where Mr. Pearce lay sick. The window was set open, to try if the bird would enter the room, but it did not; and means were used to catch it, but in vain. The bird continued to come and do the same, till Mr. Pearce died, and was buried, and then it ceased to return. Since the above Zachariah Pearce was taken ill, the same bird, or one of the like kind, frequented his chamber window, and continued to do so occasionally to the time of his death. A similar circumstance occurred in the same parish, about two years and a half before. These are real facts.
— Gentleman’s Magazine, 1786
In August 1971, a human face formed on the kitchen floor of María Gómez Cámara in Bélmez de la Moraleda, Spain. Her husband and son destroyed it with a pickaxe and laid new cement, but the face formed again. In the ensuing 30 years, the family says, a succession of human faces, of varying shapes and sizes, have appeared on the cement floor.
An excavation beneath the house reportedly found human remains, but removing them didn’t stop the apparitions. Spanish parapsychologist Germán de Argumosa claimed that the faces continued to develop even when the floor was sealed to prevent fraud, which he said proved their “paranormal origin.”
But, using infrared photography, his colleague Ramos Perera concluded that pigmentation had been added to alter one face, “and even the paint brush bristles could be perceived.” A third parapsychologist, José Luis Jordán, believes that an acid was used to oxidize the cement.
Maybe they should just switch to linoleum.