Oddities

Doppelgangers

In 1979 University of Minnesota psychologist Thomas J. Bouchard studied a pair of twins, Jim Lewis and Jim Springer, who had been separated at birth. Here’s what he found on interviewing them at age 39:

  • Both men had had first wives named Linda, divorced them and married women named Betty.
  • Lewis named his first son James Alan; Springer named his James Allan.
  • Both named their dogs Toy.
  • Both had worked as gas station attendants and for the same hamburger chain.
  • They drove the same type of car and bought the same brands of cigarettes and beer.
  • They regularly took annual vacations at the same Florida resort.
  • Both disliked baseball but enjoyed stock-car racing and woodwork.
  • Both gained and lost weight at the same age, bit their fingernails compulsively and had had a minor heart attack.
  • Both suffered from migraines.

“Our findings continue to suggest a very strong genetic influence on almost all medical and psychological traits,” Bouchard said. After an extensive study of separated twins, he concluded that shyness, political conservatism, dedication to hard work, orderliness, intimacy, extroversion, conformity, and a number of other social traits are largely heritable.

False Alarm

Because they’re stationary and have a smooth, saucerlike shape, lenticular clouds are often reported as UFOs. These photos were taken in New Hampshire (above) and New Mexico.

The Hum

In the 1990s, residents of Taos, N.M., and Kokomo, Ind., began to report an invasive low-frequency noise, which they likened to a distant idling diesel engine. Others have since reported the sensation elsewhere, especially in Europe. Strangely, the sound is often worse indoors, and ordinary microphones don’t detect it.

Possible explanations have included everything from meteors to submarines, but so far there’s been no large-scale investigation. For now the phenomenon is simply called “the Hum.”

No Message

When he wasn’t escaping straitjackets, Harry Houdini spent a lot of time debunking spiritualists.

Shortly before his death, he made a pact with his wife, Bess: If possible, he would contact her from the other side and deliver a prearranged coded message.

When he died, Bess lit a candle beside his photograph and kept it burning for 10 years, holding séances every Halloween to test the pact. Harry never spoke.

In 1936, after a final attempt on the roof of the Knickerbocker Hotel, Bess put out the candle.

“Ten years is long enough to wait for any man,” she said.

White Meat

In his 1647 Del Luce Animalium, Danish physician Thomas Bartholin noted a great lost opportunity for animal husbandry.

In France’s Montpellier market, he wrote, a chicken had appeared whose feathers glowed. Killed for closer study, the cock “shone on all parts of its body with a remarkably strong light.”

At the same time, he said, an Italian hen from Montebello “shone like a ball of white fire.”

It was a pity, Bartholin noted, that the two birds couldn’t be bred together, “for we might then have obtained a breed of incandescent fowls.” And saved money on candles.

Command Performance

The Bavarian village of Oberammergau has a special deal with God. While the bubonic plague was ravaging Europe, the town’s citizens vowed that if they were spared they would perform a play every 10 years depicting the life and death of Jesus.

God, apparently, accepted. The death rate among adults rose from 1 in October 1632 to 20 in March 1633, but then it dropped again to 1 in July 1633.

True to their word, the villagers staged a play in 1634, and they’ve done so every 10 years ever since.

Christian von Kahlbutz

Christian Friedrich von Kahlbutz is looking remarkably fit for his age. The Prussian knight died in 1702 and his body hasn’t decayed.

No one knows why. He wasn’t embalmed. A legend says it’s God’s punishment for an oath he broke while living. Scientists think he lost a lot of blood before dying and that the local soil lacked materials that would promote decay. But that doesn’t explain why other bodies nearby did rot.

A Hotel That Never Forgets

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The largest elephant in the world is made of wood and tin sheeting. “Lucy” was built south of Atlantic City in 1882 by James V. Lafferty, who hoped to attract tourists and sell real estate.

Lafferty saw big potential in “zoomorphic architecture,” apparently. He got an exclusive patent on animal-shaped buildings, and soon surpassed Lucy with an Elephantine Colossus at Coney Island. At 12 stories tall, it was twice Lucy’s size, with a cigar store in one leg, a dioramic display in another, hotel rooms in the body, and an observation area at the top, with panoramic views of the sea.

Sadly, the Elephantine Colossus was destroyed by fire in 1896, but Lucy herself still stands, and has served as a restaurant, a business office, a cottage, a hotel, and a tavern. Today she’s a national historic landmark.

Cryptids Down Under

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If you visit Australia, beware the bunyip, a bizarre creature with a horse’s tail, flippers, and walrus tusks. Bloodcurdling cries can be heard at night as it devours its prey, and it’s particularly fond of human women.

Does it really exist? Who knows? Australia’s real fauna is so strange that European settlers couldn’t tell the difference. In 1846 a peculiar skull was found on the banks of the Murrumbidgee River in New South Wales, and the Sydney Morning Herald reported that “almost everyone became immediately aware that he had heard ‘strange sounds’ from the lagoons at night, or had seen ‘something black’ in the water.” In the district of Greta, Victoria, residents heard a loud booming sound coming from the local swamp, but search parties found nothing. They finally drained the swamp, and the sound ceased.

Okay, maybe there’s no bunyip, but that’s the not the end of your worries. Australians also warn of the drop bear, a sort of plunging koala; the hoop snake, which rolls like a wheel after its prey; and the yowie, which is either an ant/lizard or a giant ape. Pack a flashlight.

A Japanese Enigma

In the winter of 1803, Japanese fishermen discovered a strange vessel at Harayadori, northeast of Tokyo. They said it resembled a pot for cooking rice, 3.5 meters high and 5.5 meters in diameter, with a wide brim. The top was covered with pitch and contained glass panels and a sliding door; the bottom was made of bands of the “finest foreign iron.”

Inside they found a woman. “She seemed to be 20 years old, … had a fair complexion like snow and wore her excellent black hair dangling behind her back. Her beauty was beyond description.” She could not communicate with the fishermen and appeared to guard “a small box and let no one come near it, for reasons unknown.”

This account is recorded in two different texts, Dust of Japanese Apricots and Anecdotes from the Rabbit Garden, both containing contemporary illustrations. Unfortunately, neither tells what became of the woman or her vessel.

Fonthill Abbey

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In 1795, with a million pounds and nothing to do, William Beckford decided to build a Gothic cathedral on his estate. He skimped on materials, so the tower collapsed twice, but by 1813 it was finished, complete with front doors 35 feet high.

Beckford doesn’t seem to have known what to do with it. He used only one bedroom and dined alone, sending away the extra food. A new kitchen collapsed after Christmas dinner.

He finally sold it in 1822, and the tower collapsed for the last time in 1825. Today only a gatehouse remains.

Onza

When the Spanish conquistadors conquered Mesoamerica, they started sending back reports of a dangerous local animal, built somewhat like a cougar but more fierce than a mountain lion — and quicker to attack humans.

The Indians called the cat cuitlamiztli, but the Spaniards dubbed it onza. “It is not as timid as the [cougar],” wrote Jesuit missionary Ignaz Pfefferkorn in 1757, “and he who ventures to attack it must be well on his guard.” Another missionary, Johann Baegert, wrote that an “onza dared to invade my neighbor’s mission when I was visiting and attacked a 14-year old boy in broad daylight. … A few years ago another killed the strongest and most respected soldier” in the area.

Reports petered out by 1757, but in 1938 three hunters shot a strange animal in northwestern Mexico. It resembled a light-colored cougar with elongated ears, legs, and body. When a farmer in the same area killed another specimen in 1986, genetic analysis linked it to western North American pumas. Whatever it was, it had a fully functional reproductive system, so there may be more of them.

Zzzzzz

In 1992, a Canadian man who stabbed his mother-in-law to death was found not guilty because he was sleepwalking.

The man fell asleep at home, in his living room. After a few hours, he got up and drove 23 kilometers to his in-laws’ house. Still asleep, he went inside, found a knife in the kitchen, and went to the bedroom where his in-laws were sleeping. He strangled and cut his father-in-law, who survived the attack. The mother-in-law died from repeated stab wounds and a brutal beating.

Medical experts agreed unanimously that the man was sleepwalking and thus was not performing voluntary acts.

The Canadian Supreme Court upheld the decision.

Numbers Stations

Around the world, shortwave radio operators have discovered stations that repeat seemingly senseless strings of numbers, often in a mechanically generated female voice.

Known as numbers stations, they’re thought to be used to communicate with spies in the field — but no government has ever acknowledged them.

Plain of Jars

The highlands of Laos contain thousands of stone jars, left by an ancient race that’s been completely forgotten. Some are 10 feet tall and weigh 14 tons.

Were they funeral urns? Containers for food? We’ll never know.

A Hot Town

The cemeteries in Centralia, Pa., are more populous than the town itself. In 1962, a local trash fire ignited an eight-mile seam of underground coal, and the resulting sinkholes and carbon monoxide eventually forced the state to condemn every building in the borough. Centralia doesn’t even have a zip code anymore — the Postal Service revoked it in 2002.

Former residents might return to open a time capsule in 2016, but they won’t stay — the underground fire is expected to burn for at least another century.

Champ

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Since 1883 there have been more than 240 reported sightings of “Champ,” the purported monster of Lake Champlain in New England.

For a figment, Champ is pretty popular. Vermont has put him on its endangered species list, and Burlington’s minor league baseball team is called the Vermont Lake Monsters.

All in the Family

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Testimony given by James Device against his grandmother, Elizabeth Sothernes, in a trial for witchcraft, Lancaster, England, April 27, 1612:

THE sayd Examinate Iames Deuice sayth, that about a month agoe, as this Examinate was comming towards his Mothers house, and at day-gate of the same night, Euening. this Examinate mette a browne Dogge comming from his Graund-mothers house, about tenne Roodes distant from the same house: and about two or three nights after, that this Examinate heard a voyce of a great number of Children screiking and crying pittifully, about day-light gate; and likewise, about ten Roodes distant of this Examinates sayd Graund-mothers house. And about fiue nights then next following, presently after daylight, within 20. Roodes of the sayd Elizabeth Sowtherns house, he heard a foule yelling like vnto a great number of Cattes: but what they were, this Examinate cannot tell. And he further sayth, that about three nights after that, about midnight of the same, there came a thing, and lay vpon him very heauily about an houre, and went then from him out of his Chamber window, coloured blacke, and about the bignesse of a Hare or Catte. And he further sayth, that about S. Peter’s day last, one Henry Bullocke came to the sayd Elizabeth Sowtherns house, and sayd, that her Graund-child Alizon Deuice, had bewitched a Child of his, and desired her that she would goe with him to his house; which accordingly she did: And therevpon she the said Alizon fell downe on her knees, & asked the said Bullocke forgiuenes, and confessed to him, that she had bewitched the said child, as this Examinate heard his said sister confesse vnto him this Examinate.

Sothernes died in prison as her trial approached, but her family barely outlived her. James, his mother, and his sister also confessed to witchcraft and were executed on Aug. 18.

No Band-Aids Needed

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Image: Wikipedia

Eager to see Stonehenge but afraid of bruising yourself on the hard, hard stones?

Visit Foamhenge, a replica made of polystyrene, 10 miles southwest of the original.

“Human Timepiece”

“J.D. Chevalley, a native of Switzerland, has arrived at an astonishing degree of perfection in reckoning time by an internal movement. In his youth he was accustomed to pay great attention to the ringing of bells and vibrations of pendulums, and by degrees he acquired the power of continuing a succession of intervals exactly equal to those which the vibrations or sounds produced.–Being on board a vessel, on the Lake of Geneva, he engaged to indicate to the crowd about him the lapse of a quarter of an hour, or as many minutes and seconds as any one chose to name, and this during a conversation the most diversified with those standing by; and farther, to indicate by the voice the moment when the hand passed over the quarter minutes, or half minutes, or any other sub-division previously stipulated, during the whole course of the experiment. This he did without mistake, notwithstanding the exertions of those about him to distract his attention, and clapped his hands at the conclusion of the time fixed. His own account of it is thus given:–‘I have acquired, by imitation, labour, and patience, a movement which neither thoughts, nor labour, nor any thing can stop: it is similar to that of a pendulum, which at each motion of going and returning gives me the space of three seconds, so that twenty of them make a minute–and these I add to others continually.'”

The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction, Jan. 15, 1831

Surf and Turf

The coelacanth, a prehistoric fish, was thought to have died out 65 million years ago — until a museum curator noticed one in a South African fish catch in 1938.

When a second specimen appeared in 1952, prime minister Daniel François Malan exclaimed, “Why, it’s ugly! Is this where we come from?”

Pssst

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The National Statuary Hall in the United States Capitol is a “whispering gallery” — because of the room’s shape, whispers at one end of the room can be heard clearly at the other.

Gil Perez

On Oct. 24, 1593, a man suddenly appeared in the Plaza Mayor of Mexico City. He was wearing the uniform of the guards of Malacanang Palace in the Philippines, and he claimed he had no idea how he had arrived in Mexico.

The man said that his name was Gil Perez and that was a Spanish soldier of the Filipino Guardia Civil. Moments earlier, he said, he had been on sentry duty at the governor’s palace in Manila. He said the governor, Don Gómez Pérez Dasmariñas, had been assassinated.

Perez refused to believe he was in Mexico City, as he had received his orders in Manila on the morning of Oct. 25, which now lay in the future. The Inquisition questioned Perez, but he could only repeat that he had traveled from Manila to Mexico “in less time than it takes a cock to crow.”

Two months later, news arrived by a Filipino ship that Manila’s governor had indeed been assassinated on Oct. 23, and witnesses confirmed that Gil Perez had indeed been on duty in Manila. One of the ship’s passengers said he recognized Perez and swore that he had seen him in the Philippines on the day of the assassination. Perez eventually returned to the Philippines and took up his former position as a palace guard.

Historians point out that this story didn’t appear in writing until a century after it supposedly happened, and no records of Perez’s imprisonment or interrogation have been found, so there’s no way to know what the truth is.

Vox Piscis

On June 23, 1626, a fishmonger in Cambridge, England, gutted a large cod and found a book inside. Wrapped in sailcloth, it turned out to be a discourse on the sacraments written by Protestant priest John Frith. Before being burned at the stake in 1533, Frith had been detained in an Oxford fish cellar.

A Mr. Mead, fellow of Christ’s College, Cambridge, wrote, “I saw all with mine own eyes, the fish, the maw, the piece of sailcloth, the book … only I saw not the opening of the fish, which not many did, being upon the fish-woman’s stall in the market, who first cut off his head, to which the maw was hanging, and seeming much stuffed with somewhat, it was searched, and all found as aforesaid.”

If that sounds, well, fishy, Mead says, “He that had his nose as near as I yester morning, would have been persuaded there was no imposture here.”

Impressed, Cambridge reprinted the volume as Vox Piscis — “The Voice of the Fish.”