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Der Giftpilz


Yes, it’s a Jewish toadstool.

In 1938, fanatical Nazi Julius Streicher published a children’s book called Der Giftpilz (The Poisoned Mushroom), which compared perfidious Jews to poisonous fungus.

“Our boys and girls must learn to know the Jew,” a mother warns her children. “They must learn that the Jew is the most dangerous poison mushroom in existence. Just as poisonous mushrooms spring up everywhere, so the Jew is found in every country in the world. Just as poisonous mushrooms lead to the most dreadful calamity, so the Jew is the cause of misery and distress, illness and death.”

Disturbingly, Streicher had worked as an elementary school teacher before joining the German army in 1914. He published propaganda for Hitler, and after Nuremberg he was the only sentenced Nazi to declare “Heil Hitler” before being hanged. At least he was consistent.

“Quake Hairs”

From a Scientific American account of a Thai earthquake on May 13, 1848:

During the shock, there spontaneously came out of the ground a species of human hairs in almost every place — in the bazaars, in the roads, in the fields, and the most solid places. These hairs, which are pretty long, stand upright and adhere strongly to the ground. When they are burned, they twist like human hairs and have a burned smell which makes it to be believed that they are really hairs; they all appeared in the twinkling of an eye during the earthquake. The river of Chantibun was all rippling, and bubbles rose to the surface, so that the water was quite white. It is thought that these hairs may have been produced by electricity.

Similar “hairs” have been reported after other Asian earthquakes. Some have been identified as fibers from the hemp palm Chamaerops fortunei, a native tree. Others remain unexplained.

Special Delivery


Where there’s a will, there’s a way. In 1849, Henry Box Brown escaped slavery by mailing himself to Philadelphia.

Brown stood 5’8″ and weighed 200 pounds, and he spent 26 hours in a box 2’8″ x 2′ x 3′. Unfortunately, he spent a lot of it upside down. “I felt my eyes swelling as if they would burst from their sockets,” he later wrote, “and the veins on my temples were dreadfully distended with pressure of blood upon my head.” The trip from Richmond covered 275 miles by overland express stage wagon.

When the box was opened, his first words were “How do you do, gentlemen?”

“The Racetrack”


In Death Valley, rocks move. No one’s actually seen it happen, but they leave tracks hundreds of feet long. Experts attribute the phenomenon to a combination of wind, ice, and mud, but some of the stones weigh as much as a man. One 700-pound rock disappeared altogether in May 1994. Hmm.

A Premonition

In April 1865, Abraham Lincoln related the following story to his bodyguard, Ward Hill Lamon:

About ten days ago, I retired very late. I had been up waiting for important dispatches from the front. I could not have been long in bed when I fell into a slumber, for I was weary. I soon began to dream. There seemed to be a deathlike stillness about me. Then I heard subdued sobs, as if a number of people were weeping. I thought I left my bed and wandered downstairs. There the silence was broken by the same pitiful sobbing, but the mourners were invisible. I went from room to room; no living person was in sight, but the same mournful sounds of distress met me as I passed along. I saw light in all the rooms; every object was familiar to me; but where were all the people who were grieving as if their hearts would break? I was puzzled and alarmed. What could be the meaning of all this? Determined to find the cause of a state of things so mysterious and so shocking, I kept on until I arrived at the East Room, which I entered. There I met with a sickening surprise. Before me was a catafalque, on which rested a corpse wrapped in funeral vestments. Around it were stationed soldiers who were acting as guards; and there was a throng of people, gazing mournfully upon the corpse, whose face was covered, others weeping pitifully. “Who is dead in the White House?” I demanded of one of the soldiers, “The President,” was his answer; “he was killed by an assassin.” Then came a loud burst of grief from the crowd, which woke me from my dream. I slept no more that night; and although it was only a dream, I have been strangely annoyed by it ever since.

He was assassinated a few days later.

Entombed Animals


In October 1995 a group of Welsh high-school students discovered a 2-inch frog alive inside an old ring-pull can. The frog was much larger than the can’s opening, so it must have entered when it was small; the can’s sell-by date was May 1994, so it may have been trapped for a year or more.

How did it stay alive all that time? Possibly its odor attracted bugs, and rain and dew could have reached it through the can’s hole.

But possibly some animals can survive long periods with practically no resources. In the 19th century, English geologist William Buckland deliberately buried two dozen toads in chambers of limestone, sealing them in with a sheet of glass. The little ones survived for 13 months, he found, the big ones a few months longer.

That’s impressive, but there are limits, of course. Texas legend tells of “Old Rip,” a horned toad accidentally sealed in a courthouse cornerstone in 1897. When the building was demolished 31 years later, Rip supposedly hopped out. That sounds ridiculous, but supporters insist that the witnesses included two judges and a pastor. You can judge for yourself: Rip’s remains are on display at the Eastland County Courthouse.

Trick or Treat

In October 1998, 300 dead starlings fell out of the sky in Tacoma, Wash.

No one knows why.

Revenge of the Food Chain

A human sacrifice to a carnivorous tree, as described in the South Australian Register, 1881:

The slender delicate palpi, with the fury of starved serpents, quivered a moment over her head, then as if instinct with demoniac intelligence fastened upon her in sudden coils round and round her neck and arms; then while her awful screams and yet more awful laughter rose wildly to be instantly strangled down again into a gurgling moan, the tendrils one after another, like great green serpents, with brutal energy and infernal rapidity, rose, retracted themselves, and wrapped her about in fold after fold, ever tightening with cruel swiftness and savage tenacity of anacondas fastening upon their prey.

Unfortunately, years of subsequent investigation — including the enchantingly titled Madagascar, Land of the Man-Eating Tree (1924) — have failed to find such a tree, or even the Mkodo tribe that purportedly feeds it. Nice try, though.

“Up in the Air”


“This gentleman had an idea that he could fly by the aid of this ingenious machinery. You will see that his wings are arranged so that they are moved by his legs, and also by cords attached to his arms. The umbrella over his head is not intended to ward off the rain or the sun, but is to act as a sort of parachute, to keep him from falling while he is making his strokes. The basket, which hangs down low enough to be out of the way of his feet, is filled with provisions, which he expects to need in the course of his journey.

“That journey lasted exactly as long as it took him to fall from the top of a high rock to the ground below.”

– Frank R. Stockton, Round-About Rambles in Lands of Fact and Fancy, 1910

Rat Kings

Every so often someone finds a bunch of rats whose tails are knotted together. It’s called a rat king. (This one, with 32 rats, was found in a German miller’s fireplace in 1828.)

The rats are usually dead when they’re discovered, and no one has suggested a natural cause, so presumably humans are involved somehow.

Typically the rats are fully grown adults, so they’re not born this way, and their tails are often broken and callused, which means they’ve survived in this state for some time, fed by humans or by other rats.

Why would anyone do this? Who knows?

The Flynn Effect

Are we getting smarter? IQ scores around the world have been going up by about three IQ points per decade.

Suggested reasons include improved nutrition, smaller families, better education, and the stimulating modern environment, but no one really knows what’s causing it.

It’s called the Flynn effect, after New Zealand political scientist who discovered it.

She Ain’t Heavy

Kailashgiri Brahmachari is carrying his mother across India. They left the northern village of Piparia eight years ago and hope to reach Varanasi in 2013.

He says it’s the will of God.

“He is a nice son, but I am getting tired,” his mother told the BBC. “I sometimes feel like ending the journey and getting back home.”

The Cottingley Fairies


In 1920 two English cousins, Frances Griffiths and Elsie Wright, produced a series of photos that seemed to show them cavorting with fairies and gnomes.

The images were published in The Strand and convinced Arthur Conan Doyle, among others. In The Coming of the Fairies (1922), he wrote: “It is hard for the mind to grasp what the ultimate results may be if we have actually proved the existence upon the surface of this planet of a population which may be as numerous as the human race, which pursues its own strange life in its own strange way, and which is only separated from ourselves by some difference of vibrations.”

But see Fairies Unmasked.


I Say, 007!

Blue Peacock was the sexy code name of a secret British plan to salt the Rhine with nuclear mines in the 1950s, in case of war.

Less sexily, they planned to put a live chicken in each one, to keep the electronics from getting cold.

When the file was declassified on April 1, 2004, this was taken to be an April Fool’s joke, but it’s true. Fortunately, the project was canceled.

Hemingway’s Cats

Ernest Hemingway’s former home in Key West, Fla., contains a colony of six-toed cats.

The author had a sailor’s love of polydactyl cats — their extra toes are considering good luck at sea, giving them superior abilities to climb and to hunt shipboard rodents.

So when Hemingway received a six-toed cat from a ship’s captain, he provided for its descendants in his will. There are currently about 60 cats at the Key West house, and about half of them have extra toes.

Bone and Garden

The Sedlec Ossuary in the Czech Republic is decorated with 40,000 human skeletons.

“If life must not be taken too seriously,” wrote Samuel Butler, “then so neither must death.”

Heels Shortened

In October 2003, a couple hiking in the mountains of northern Sweden came upon 70 pairs of shoes, all filled with butter.

No one knows who put them there, or why.

Tally Ho

“Twenty young men chase a cheese off a cliff and tumble 200 yards to the bottom, where they are scraped up by paramedics and packed off to hospital.”

That’s a typical description of the Cooper’s Hill Cheese Rolling and Wake, held each May at Cooper’s Hill near Gloucester, England. The participants run downhill after a Double Gloucester cheese, which the winner gets to keep. Theoretically they’re trying to catch the cheese, but it rapidly gets up to 70 mph (knocking over a spectator in 1997) and this rarely happens.

The racers themselves get sprained ankles, broken bones and concussions, and the first-aid services are getting stretched as the race grows in popularity. Last year they ran out of ambulances.

One Man Is an Island

Winnipeg resident Jim Sulkers lay dead in his apartment for two years before his body was discovered.

Sulkers was estranged from his family, and automated banking processed his disability checks and paid his bills.

When police finally climbed through the window in August 2004, they found his mummified body in the bed, spoiled food in the refrigerator, and a wall calendar that was two years out of date. Everything else was in perfect order.

Beachcombers’ Bonanza


If you live on the Atlantic coast, keep your eyes peeled for rubber ducks. In 1992, 29,000 bathtub toys were washed from a container ship into the North Pacific. For 14 years they’ve been working their way through the arctic, and they’re beginning to appear in the U.S. and Europe. The First Years, the U.S. company that made the ducks, is offering $100 in savings bonds to anyone who finds one — call 1-800-317-3194.

Bon Apetit

A masochist’s lunch menu:

  • Casu marzu is a Sardinian cheese riddled with live insect larvae that can jump up to 6 inches. Wear goggles.
  • Kopi luwak, sometimes described as “cat poop coffee,” is a Sumatran beverage made from berries that have passed through a civet’s digestive tract.
  • Lutefisk is a Nordic dish made by soaking whitefish in lye. It is the only food refused by Jeffrey Steingarten, author of The Man Who Ate Everything: “Lutefisk is not food, it is a weapon of mass destruction.”
  • “Stinky tofu,” a favorite of Mao Zedong, is marinated for months in a brine of fermented vegetables. Reportedly it tastes like blue cheese, but its smell has been compared to sewage, horse manure, and “a used tampon baking in the desert.”

Mark Twain wrote, “Part of the secret of success in life is to eat what you like and let the food fight it out inside.”

“Get Thee Behind Me”

Here’s one way to beat temptation: file a lawsuit. In 1971, Gerald Mayo sued “Satan and his staff” in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania. He alleged that “Satan has on numerous occasions caused plaintiff misery and unwarranted threats, against the will of plaintiff, that Satan has placed deliberate obstacles in his path and has caused plaintiff’s downfall” and had therefore “deprived him of his constitutional rights,” a violation of the U.S. Code.

The court noted that jurisdiction was uncertain; legally the devil might count as a foreign prince. Also, Mayo’s claim seemed appropriate for a class action suit, and it wasn’t clear that Mayo could represent all of humanity. Finally, no one was sure how the U.S. Marshal could serve process on Satan.

So the devil got away. Mayo’s case has been cited several times, and has never been overturned or contradicted.

Extreme Hospitality

Photo by Tom Corser, www.tomcorser.com. Licenced under Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 England & Wales (UK) Licence: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/uk/deed.en_GB.

Except for the beds, Sweden’s Ice Hotel is made completely of ice blocks — 60 rooms and suites, a bar, a reception area and a chapel, 30,000 square feet in all. Even the glasses in the bar are made of ice. You can book a room for about $400, but hurry — it melts in May.

Its alter ego is the Uyuni Salt Hotel, in Bolivia, where everything — including the beds — is made of salt. (Photo (c)2005 Tom Corser, www.tomcorser.com.)


Until 2000, calling 760-733-9969 would connect you to a single phone booth in the Mojave desert, 15 miles from the nearest interstate and miles from any building.

Tired of vandalism, Pacific Bell finally took down the booth. Fans put up a headstone, but they took that down too. Killjoys.