Oddities

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.”

The Black Dog of Bungay

On Aug. 4, 1577, a great storm broke over the English town of Bungay. According to an account by Abraham Fleming, a huge black dog appeared in the local church, “running all along down the body of the church … passed between two persons, as they were kneeling uppon their knees, and … wrung the necks of them bothe at one instant.” The dog fell upon another man and “gave him such a gripe on the back, that … he was … shrunk up, as it were a peece of lether scorched in a hot fire.”

According to the legend, the black dog terrorized another church on the same day, leaving spectral claw marks in the door.

It makes a good story, but it turns out that Fleming was a propagandist for the Puritant church, which taught that storms were divine punishment. Parish records reflect the storm, but there’s no mention of the dog. Still, there are those claw marks …

The Sentinelese

The Stone Age isn’t quite over — not everywhere. On North Sentinel Island in the Bay of Bengal lives a tribe of about 250 people, the Sentinelese, who have remained so hostile to contact with outsiders that their society is almost entirely free of modern influences.

They have no agriculture, subsisting through hunting, fishing and gathering plants. It’s not even clear whether they can produce fire without an external source like lightning.

The Indian government has made overtures by leaving gifts, but the warlike Sentinelese drove them off. Earlier this year, Sentinelese archers killed two fishermen who came too close to the island. Their bodies still haven’t been recovered — even a helicopter sent to retrieve them was driven off by arrows.

Newgrange

Older than the pyramids, Ireland’s Newgrange lay lost for millennia until workers uncovered it while looking for building stone in the late 1600s.

No one knows who built it or why, but each year at the winter solstice the sun shines directly along a special passage into a chamber at its heart.

Oscar Wilde wrote, “The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.”

The Valentich Disappearance

On Oct. 21, 1978, 20-year-old Frederick Valentich was piloting a Cessna 182 airplane off King Island, Australia. About 45 minutes after taking off, he radioed air traffic control to report a large aircraft with four lights at about his altitude.

He said the craft had passed about 1,000 feet above him at very high speed. He described it as “a long shape” with “a green light” and said it was “metallic,” as though it were “shiny all over.”

“It seems to me that he’s playing some sort of game,” he said. “He’s flying over me two … three times at speeds I could not identify.” He reported that the object “vanished,” then said it was approaching again from the southwest.

A few minutes later he said, “Melbourne, that strange aircraft is hovering on top of me again. … It is hovering, and it’s not an aircraft.” Valentich’s radio microphone stayed open for another 17 seconds, during which air traffic controller Steve Robey heard “metallic scraping sounds” before the signal died.

No trace of Valentich or his plane was ever found.

Animal Trials

Witches weren’t the only ones in danger during the Middle Ages. In 1386, when a pig tore a French child’s face, the tribunal of Falaise put it on trial, ultimately sentencing it to be maimed and hanged in human clothing.

In 1474 the Swiss town of Basel tried a rooster for sorcery (it had allegedly produced an egg) and burned it at the stake.

Likewise wolves, snakes, crows, bats, owls, rats — even dogs and cats were put on trial. Like women, animals were considered demonic whenever men couldn’t understand their behavior.

Hare Today

On the Isle of Portland, in the English Channel, it’s considered bad luck to say the word rabbit.

So people use the term “underground mutton.”

Everybody Wins

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The fishermen of Laguna in southern Brazil have a unique arrangement with local bottlenose dolphins. A pod of dolphins will drive fish toward the beach, where fishermen stand in the surf. When they see a dolphin roll over, the men throw out their nets, and the dolphins eat the escaping fish.

No one trained the dolphins to do this. It’s been going on since at least 1847.

Nostradamus Distaff

If you’re going to make prophecies, it pays to be a little vague. The supporters of Ursula Southeil (1488-1561) claimed she’d correctly foreseen the automobile, the telegraph, air travel, and submarines. But one prediction failed to come true:

The world to an end shall come,
In eighteen hundred and eighty one.

“Old men and comets have been reverenced for the same reason,” wrote Jonathan Swift, “their long beards, and pretenses to foretell events.”