The June 1851 issue of Scientific American reported that a zinc and silver vase had been blasted from solid rock 15 feet below the surface of Meeting House Hill in Dorchester, Mass. The bell-shaped vessel had floral designs inlaid with silver.
Experts at the time estimated it to be about 100,000 years old, which would obviously throw everything we know out the window.
Unfortunately, it disappeared after circulating through several museums. What’s the real story? Who knows?
In 1805, the French writer Émile Deschamps was treated to some plum pudding by a stranger, Monsieur de Fontgibu.
Ten years later, Deschamps ordered plum pudding at a Paris restaurant, but the waiter told him the last dish had already been served to another customer — to M. de Fontgibu, as it turned out.
Seventeen years after that, in 1832, Deschamps was once again offered plum pudding, and he told his friends about the strange coincidence. At that moment, M. de Fontgibu entered the room by mistake.
“Three times in my life have I eaten plum pudding, and three times have I seen M. de Fortgibu!” Deschamps exclaimed. “A fourth time I should feel capable of anything … or capable of nothing!”
Here’s one explanation for crop circles:
This English woodcut pamphlet was published in 1678. It tells of a farmer who swore he would rather have the devil mow his field than pay the high price demanded by a laborer.
According to the pamphlet, that night his field appeared to be in flames, and the next morning it was found to be mowed to supernatural perfection.
Maybe so, but if that’s what causes these things, the devil’s been getting awfully fancy lately:
France’s Michel Lotito, better known as Monsieur Mangetout, eats metal and glass for a living. He began eating unusual materials compulsively as a child and has made it into a career, performing publicly since 1966.
Thanks to an unusually thick stomach lining, Mangetout can safely consume 2 pounds of metal a day with no ill effects. Generally he cuts large items — bicycles, television sets, shopping carts, a coffin — into 1-kilogram pieces, which he washes down with mineral oil and plenty of water.
In 1978 he started eating a small plane, a Cessna 150. He finished it in 1980.
Pareidolia is the experience of “seeing” something in a stimulus that’s simply vague and random.
You’ve felt it if you’ve ever seen images of animals or faces in clouds, or the man in the moon, or heard messages when records are played in reverse. It’s the basis for the Rorschach inkblot test.
This is a portrait of Elizabeth II as it appeared on the 1954 series Canadian dollar bill. So many people thought they saw the face of the devil in the queen’s hair that the bills were eventually withdrawn from circulation.
There’s nothing there — the portrait was adapted from a photograph.
A tremendous blizzard in January 1978 buried a flock of sheep under a snowdrift in Sutherland, Highland, Scotland.
Weeks later, after digging out 16 dead sheep, Alex Maclellan found one ewe still alive. Its hot breath had created air holes in the snow, and it had gnawed its own wool for protein.
It had survived that way for 50 days.
From Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine by George M. Gould and Walter L. Pyle, 1896:
A convict at Brest put up his rectum a box of tools. Symptoms of vomiting, meteorism, etc., began, and became more violent until the seventh day, when he died.
After death, there was found in the transverse colon, a cylindric or conic box, made of sheet iron, covered with skin to protect the rectum and, doubtless, to aid expulsion. It was six inches long and five inches broad and weighed 22 ounces.
It contained a piece of gunbarrel four inches long, a mother-screw steel, a screw-driver, a saw of steel for cutting wood four inches long, another saw for cutting metal, a boring syringe, a prismatic file, a half-franc piece and four one-franc pieces tied together with thread, a piece of thread, and a piece of tallow, the latter presumably for greasing the instruments.
“On investigation it was found that these conic cases were of common use, and were always thrust up the rectum base first,” the authors explain. “In excitement this prisoner had pushed the conic end up first, thus rendering expulsion almost impossible.”
“Good-by — if you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags please know that I think that a pretty good way to depart this life. It beats old age, disease, or falling down the cellar stairs. To be a Gringo in Mexico — ah, that is euthanasia!”
– An excerpt from one of Ambrose Bierce’s last letters, posted in 1913 from Chihuahua. He vanished shortly afterward. His disappearance remains a mystery.
Most people are familiar with the drawings in Peru’s Nazca Desert:
It’s thought they were created by local peoples between 200 B.C. and 600 A.D. They’re remarkably well realized, considering that the builders probably couldn’t have viewed them from the air. Here’s a view from a satellite:
It’s easy to decide that they’re the work of visiting extraterrestrials — the airliners that first spotted them in the 1920s described them as “primitive landing strips” — but researcher Joe Nickell has shown that a small team of people can reproduce a drawing in 48 hours, without aerial supervision, using Nazcan technology. Still, well done.
(Top image: Wikimedia Commons)
Alexander d’Agapeyeff included this “challenge cipher” in Codes and Ciphers (1939), his introductory textbook in cryptography:
75628 28591 62916 48164 91748 58464 74748 28483 81638 18174
74826 26475 83828 49175 74658 37575 75936 36565 81638 17585
75756 46282 92857 46382 75748 38165 81848 56485 64858 56382
72628 36281 81728 16463 75828 16483 63828 58163 63630 47481
91918 46385 84656 48565 62946 26285 91859 17491 72756 46575
71658 36264 74818 28462 82649 18193 65626 48484 91838 57491
81657 27483 83858 28364 62726 26562 83759 27263 82827 27283
82858 47582 81837 28462 82837 58164 75748 58162 92000
No one could solve it, and he later admitted he’d forgotten how he’d encrypted it.
It remains unsolved to this day.
Mike the Headless Chicken was something of a celebrity in the western U.S. in the 1940s. He started life as an ordinary Wyandotte rooster in Fruita, Colo., but a botched decapitation in 1945 missed his brain stem and jugular vein, leaving him headless but still mostly functional.
When the rooster did not die, his surprised owner resolved to care for him permanently, feeding him milk and water with an eyedropper, as well as small grains of corn. Mike actually put on weight on this regimen: At his beheading he weighed 2.5 pounds; at his death he was up to nearly 8.
Mike reportedly seemed fairly happy with his headless existence. He could balance on a perch and walk clumsily; he would even attempt to preen and crow, as far as possible without a head.
On tour, Mike made $4,500 a month at West Coast sideshows. Animal-rights activists were aghast, but several humane societies examined him and declared he was free from suffering. He finally died in March 1947 at a Phoenix motel, 18 months after losing his head.
To this day, Fruita holds a “Mike the Headless Chicken Day” each year on the third weekend of May. Events include Pin the Head on the Chicken, a “chicken cluck-off,” and chicken bingo, in which chicken droppings fall on a numbered grid to determine the numbers.
In 1911, three murderers were hanged on Greenberry Hill, London.
Their names were Green, Berry, and Hill.
This is the most isolated tree on Earth, the “Tree of Ténéré,” a single determined acacia that grew alone for decades in the Sahara in northeastern Niger. There were no other trees for more than 400 kilometers; it was the only tree to appear on maps of the area, even at a scale of 1:4,000,000.
“What is its secret?” wondered a French commandant in 1939. “How can it still be living in spite of the multitudes of camels which trample at its sides? How at each azalai does not a lost camel eat its leaves and thorns? Why don’t the numerous Touareg leading the salt caravans cut its branches to make fires to brew their tea? The only answer it that the tree is taboo and considered as such by the caravaniers. … The acacia has become a living lighthouse; it is the first or the last landmark for the azalai leaving Agadez for Bilma, or returning.”
What could bring down such an exalted spirit? Believe it or not, it was hit by a truck. Twice. The first instance, in which a lorry headed to Bilma detached one of its two trunks, happened apparently in the 1950s. The noble tree struggled on for 20 more years before it was knocked down by an allegedly drunk Libyan driver in 1973. The dead tree was taken to the Niger National Museum in Niamey; today it’s been replaced by a simple metal sculpture. (Image (c)2001 Peter Krohn)
In the 1840s, John Banvard painted a panorama of the Mississippi River valley — possibly the largest painting ever attempted. It was 12 feet high and 1,300 feet long.
He traveled with it through Europe, Asia, and Africa, and Queen Victoria even got a private viewing.
Improbably, it’s been lost. How do you misplace a painting that’s a quarter mile long?
You always know when it’s 11 a.m. at Memphis’ Peabody Hotel: Five ducks are escorted from their penthouse suite, down the elevator to the lobby, along a red carpet (accompanied by a Sousa march), and into the fountain, where they spend the day. At 5 p.m. they return, with equal ceremony.
This has happened every day since the 1930s.
Short on human help, England enlisted another species at its Sheffield munitions plant during World War I.
Write your own joke.
For a time in the 1880s, a baboon named Jack was employed as a railroad signalman in South Africa. He was working, apparently successfully, as a voorloper, or ox driver, in the Eastern Cape when he was discovered by James Erwin Wide, a Uitenhage signalman who had recently lost his legs in an accident.
Impressed and needing a helper, Wide bought the baboon and trained him to operate his junction. When a train approached it would identify itself with a whistle; Jack would get the keys, head into the signal box and pull the correct lever to change tracks. Alarmed riders complained, but railway management investigated and were so impressed that they actually put the baboon on a railway allowance and rations, including a small amount of brandy per day.
I know this sounds preposterous, but there are photographs of Jack at work and eyewitness accounts of his abilities. His skull can be seen today in the Albany Museum in Grahamstown.
Self-portrait by Sarah Biffen (1784-1850), a Victorian painter who had no arms.
She painted this with her mouth.
This is The Ambassadors (1533), the celebrated painting by Hans Holbein the Younger. It’s full of noteworthy symbols of exploration, but what’s that odd skewed element at the bottom?
If you view the canvas from a narrow angle, the image resolves into a skull:
This is an early example of anamorphic perspective, an invention of the early Renaissance. It’s thought that Holbein intended that the painting would be hung in a stairwell, when people ascending the stairs would view the image from the proper angle and get a gruesome surprise.
Why? That’s an unanswered question.
“Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy” was presented to sideshow audiences as a freak of nature, raised by a savage in a Russian cave and prone to barking and growling incoherently when upset.
In reality, Fedor Jeftichew was born in St. Petersburg in 1868, and he spoke Russian, German, and English. His appearance was due to a medical condition called hypertrichosis, or excessive hair growth, the same disorder that produces “bearded ladies.”
Jeftichew inherited the condition from his father, Adrian, who had performed in French circuses. When his father died, Fedor eventually signed with an American show, going on to tour Europe and the United States extensively. He died in Turkey in 1904.
In 1898, Columbus prison inmate Charles Justice helped build and install Ohio’s only electric chair.
Justice finished his sentence and returned to society, but irony caught up with him. Thirteen years later he was back in prison, and on Nov. 9, 1911, he was executed in the same electric chair he had helped to build.
Achievements of Carl Herman Unthan (1848-1928), who was born without hands:
- He could feed himself at age 2.
- At age 10 he taught himself the violin.
- At 16 he was sent to a music conservatory.
- At 20 he was performing to full concert halls. During his first performance he replaced a broken string with his toes.
- As a marksman, operating a rifle with his feet, he could shoot the spots out of a playing card.
- He married Antonie Neschta, whom he met while touring Cuba, Mexico, South America, and Europe.
- He moved to the United States and eventually gained citizenship.
In 1925, Unthan published an autobiography, Das Pediscript (not “manuscript,” because he typed it with his toes). It was published in English in 1935, seven years after his death.
Excerpt from the obituary of Arthur James Caley (1837-1889), the “Middlebush Giant”:
“The farmhouse of the dead giant was thronged with villagers long before the hour fixed for the funeral. The remains had been placed in a coffin eight feet long and three feet wide. It was covered with cloth and had been specially made for the deceased. After the funeral services were over the coffin was borne on the shoulders of eight sturdy farmers to a wagon which was standing in the road about 100 yards from the house. Undertaker Van Duyn said he could not find a hearse large enough to hold the giant’s coffin. The pallbearers had a hard struggle in carrying the remains down the incline leading from the house to the road and when they deposited the coffin in the wagon, beads of perspiration stood out on their foreheads.”
Caley measured 7 foot 2 and weighed 630 pounds. He had been a fixture in P.T. Barnum’s show, and he remained a sensation even in death: He was originally buried without a tombstone for fear his body would be dug up and put on display.
In 1891, Sylvain Dornon walked from Paris to Moscow on stilts. It took him only 58 days.
Stilts were big in Gascony, whose wide plains, few roads, and broad marshes made foot travel difficult, and where shepherds needed to tend widely scattered flocks. The 5-foot stilts of Landes were called tchangues (“big legs”); with a long staff or crook, they turned a shepherd into a giant walking tripod that could cover plains, bush, pools and marshes with equal ease.
Spend enough time up there and you’d get pretty good at it. An experienced stilt-walker could stand, walk, run, hop, even pick flowers. When he wasn’t tending his flock he could knit or spin using a distaff stuck in his girdle; some tchangues even carried guns or portable stoves.
In 1808, when Josephine went to Bayonne to rejoin Napoleon I, the municipality sent an escort of stilt-walkers to meet her. It’s said that they easily kept up with the horses on the return journey, and the tchangues amused the ladies by racing, a tradition that continued through the 19th century. On the market days in Bordeaux, peasants would travel up to 20 leagues laden with bags and baskets. Beats a Segway.