Hoof Positive

En route to Antarctica in 1840, explorer James Clark Ross noticed something odd on the Kerguelen Islands in the southern Indian Ocean:

Captain Sir J.C. Ross’s party saw no land animals, and the only traces of there being any upon the island were the singular foot-prints of a pony or ass, about three inches in length and two and a half in breadth, having a small and deeper depression on each side and shaped like a horse shoe. The animal had probably been cast on shore from some wrecked vessel: its foot-prints were traced for some distance in the recently fallen snow in hopes of getting sight of it; but the tracks were lost on reaching a large space of rocky ground which was free from snow.

— John Nunn, Narrative of the Wreck of the “Favorite” on the Island of Desolation, 1850

See “A Horse Found Swimming in the Ocean.”

Trunk Line


In October 1899, McClure’s magazine published an account of the hunting of a relict mammoth in the Yukon in 1890. “The Killing of the Mammoth” was fiction, but its realistic style and elaborate detail led many readers to believe that “the king of the primeval forests” really had been discovered in a hidden Alaskan valley, shot, and sold to a museum. “The points of the immense tusks looked as if they could hardly belong to their owner, being, as all the world knows, thirty-one feet, nine inches away from the bases,” wrote the narrator, “Henry Tukeman.” And “The meat was not unpalatable, but terribly tough.”

The following February, the editors recorded their “amazement” that the story “was taken by many readers not as fiction, but as a contribution to natural history.” “Ever since the appearance of that number of the magazine the authorities of the Smithsonian Institution, in which the author had located the remains of the beast of his fancy, have been beset with visitors to see the stuffed mammoth, and our daily mail, as well as that of the Smithsonian Institution, has been filled with inquiries for more information and for requests to settle wagers as to whether it was a true story or not.”

The editors reiterated that the tale was fiction — it had been listed as “A Story” in the issue’s table of contents — and they congratulated the author on the realism of his account. “We doubt if any writer of realistic fiction,” they wrote, “ever had a more general and convincing proof of success.”

“Huge Marine Animal”


Upon the 22d of June 1834, in latitude 46°57′, longitude 58°39′, Captain Neill of the ship Robertson of Greenock, then upon a voyage from Montreal to Greenock, saw the head and snout of a great fish or sea-monster, of which the accompanying sketch or drawing was at the time made. It was first observed about 9:15 A.M., on the weather-bow, about four points; and it then appeared like a large vessel lying on her beam ends.

The Robertson was hauled up so as to near it; and running at the rate of eight knots an hour, she at 12 noon got abreast of it, distant about a mile to leeward. On observation at this time it was discovered to be the head and snout of a great fish swimming to windward; and although it was tried to get closer to it, this could not be done, as the fish, without much apparent exertion, kept swimming as fast as the vessel sailed.

Immediately above the water its eye was seen like a large deep dark hole. That part of the head which was above the water measured about 12 feet, and its breadth or width 25 feet. The snout or trunk was about 50 long; and the sea would ripple over one part, leaving other parts of it quite dry and uncovered. The colour of the parts seen was green, with a light and dark shade; and the skin was ribbed, as represented in the sketch.

Magazine of Zoology and Botany, July 1837

Group Portraits


In 1918, photographer Arthur Mole engaged the nation’s military in a series of “living photographs.” After arranging cloth strips on a parade ground, he’d mount a 70-foot tower and shout orders through a megaphone, arranging thousands of men into formations that assumed patriotic shapes when viewed from the camera’s perspective. Shown here:

  • The Marine emblem, formed by 100 officers and 9,000 enlisted men at the Marine barracks in Parris Island, S.C.
  • The Statue of Liberty, 18,000 men, Camp Dodge, Iowa
  • Uncle Sam, 19,000 officers and men, Camp Lee, Va.
  • Woodrow Wilson, formed by 21,000 soldiers at Camp Sherman in Chillicothe, Ohio
  • The U.S. shield, 30,000 officers and men, Camp Custer, Battle Creek, Mich.

According to a 1971 feature in Life, the men’s only compensation was “the base pay for the day, about $1, and the unique opportunity to write a letter home that began, ‘Dear Mom, today I was part of President Wilson’s left eyebrow.'”




Herman Sörgel thought big. In the 1920s the German architect proposed damming Gibraltar and draining the Mediterranean to unite Europe and Africa into a new supercontinent. The century-long project would create land, food, and power to support an industrial economy to rival those of Asia and the Americas, and it would provide Lebensraum in North Africa for an overpopulated Europe.

The Nazis had no interest in Sörgel’s idea, but he found support among leading engineers both before and after the war. In a Zürich speech in 1932, architect Erich Mendelsohn pressed for a supranational New Deal that would unite Europe in “productive technical world tasks,” and the Atlantropa Institute persisted until 1960, eight years beyond its founder’s death.

In 1977 Popular Mechanics evaluated the plan and found it would require a dam 18 miles long and up to 1,000 feet deep and 1,500 feet wide at its base. The volcanic Mediterranean seafloor, relieved of all that weight, might react in eruptions and earthquakes, and the sea level everywhere else in the world would rise by three feet. “Worst of all, England would no longer control the Straits of Gibraltar,” the editors concluded drily. “Well, you can’t have everything.”

(Thanks, Michael.)

“Notice of a Double Fish”


The annexed drawing represents a pair of cat-fish, (a species of Silurus? L.) which were taken alive in a shrimp net, at the mouth of Cape Fear river, near Fort Johnston, N.C., in August, 1833, and presented to Professor Silliman. One of them is three and a half, the other two and a half, inches long, including the tail,–the smallest, emaciated and of sickly appearance. They are connected in the manner of the Siamese twins, by the skin at the breast, which is marked by a dark streak, at the line of union. The texture and color otherwise, of this skin is the same as that of the belly. The mouth, viscera, &c., were entire and perfect in each fish …

When these fish came into existence it is probable they were of almost equal size and strength, but one ‘born to better fortune,’ or exercising more ingenuity and industry, than the other, gained a trifling ascendency, which he improved to increase the disparity, and by pushing his extended mouth in advance of the other, seized the choicest and most of the food for himself. Yet though he probably hated the incumbrance of his companion, and wished the ‘marriage tie cut asunder,’ he afforded protection to his ‘weaker half,’ and could not eat it without swallowing himself.

American Journal of Science and Arts, July 1834

A Walk in the Woods


On Aug. 4, 1913, a naked Joe Knowles walked into the forest of northwestern Maine. On Oct. 4 he walked out again wearing a bear skin. In the interval, he said, he’d spent two months living entirely by his wits in the wilderness.

The “modern primitive man” drew thousands at public appearances; Harvard physicians praised his conditioning; and his account of the adventure, Alone in the Wilderness, sold 300,000 copies.

“Any man of fair health could do the same thing, provided he meant business and kept his head,” Knowles wrote. “But, to the best of my knowledge, no other man in the history of civilization ever did what I did; and for that reason the people are marveling at it.”

Knowles’ exploit had been funded by the Boston Post, and in December the rival American claimed that he’d spent most of the time in a lakeside cabin. Knowles denied this vociferously, and he entered the woods twice more to prove it, funded by the American‘s parent. Without witnesses it’s hard to know who’s right; the truth, whatever it was, died with Knowles in 1942.


The following extraordinary accident occurred about five o’clock on the morning of Friday, the 14th of November, 1817, in Caermarthen: — As a drove of oxen were passing through Spilman-street, one of them strayed to the Castle-green, whence, in his headlong course, he fell over the precipice facing the bridge, upon a house, of which the inhabitants were asleep in bed. It will naturally be supposed, that the terror and alarm excited on the occasion were great. Fortunately, however, part of the roof fell in, while the ox was balancing athwart a beam, exactly over a bed, in which were two children, fast asleep, and who were awakened by a rafter falling upon the bed. The parents had hardly removed these poor children from their perilous situation, when the beam, giving way, fell with its burden upon the bed. Notwithstanding all the alarm and bustle created by this occurrence, we are happy to add, no personal injury was sustained on the occasion; and what is remarkable, the ox does not appear to have suffered materially from this extraordinary descent.

Gloucester Herald-Times, Nov. 27, 1817

In Inverness in 1954, a cow escaped an auction market through an unsecured gate, climbed a stairway over a shop, fell through the floor, and in her struggles turned on a tap, which flooded the shop.

The shopkeeper sued the auctioneers, but the judge declared himself “forced to the conclusion that a gate-crashing, stair-climbing, floor-bursting, tap-turning cow is something sui generis, for whose depredations the law affords no remedy unless there was foreknowledge of some such propensities.”

Snowshoe Thompson

snowshoe thompson

John Albert Thompson was tending a ranch in the Sacramento Valley in 1856 when he heard that settlers in nearby Placerville were having difficulty getting mail to western Nevada during the winter months — when the Sierra Nevada filled up with snow, the journey seemed impossible.

Thompson had learned cross-country skiing in his native Norway and volunteered to make the trip. He proved so able that “Snowshoe Thompson” served as a one-man delivery service for the next 20 years. Carrying an 80-pound mailbag on his back and holding a pole for balance, he would typically make the 110-mile outbound trek in three days and return in two, subsisting on biscuits, dried meat, and snow.

“If I have my mackinaw,” he said, “I never freeze. Exercise keeps me warm. In fact, my problem even in blizzards is not to keep from freezing, but rather that I sweat too easily. I have never been cold in the mountains.” His sense of direction was unerring, and he regularly saved the lives of others who had become lost in the mountain passes. He died in 1876 after two decades of service, for which he was never paid.



In 1936, Missouri sculptor Lester Gaba created a plaster mannequin with such an “eerie, almost human quality” that for a bizarre few years she joined the society A-list. Gaba, “the Andy Warhol of his day,” squired her to parties at El Morocco and the Stork Club (above, with champagne cocktail); Harry Winston loaned her diamonds; and press photographers spotted her in the balcony of the Broadhurst Theatre and having her hair done at Saks Fifth Avenue. “Such is the state of mind of the café set,” reported Life, “that when a man broke her hand at a party a lady screamed, ‘You brute!'”

After six years of soirees, movie roles, and marriage proposals, Cynthia was shattered in a 1942 accident. By that time even Gaba was tired of the attention. “Cynthia had become a Frankenstein to me,” he said, “and I was rather relieved that she decided to — retire.”