“An Extraordinary Pilgrimage”

Catherine de Medicis (queen of France) made a vow that if some concerns which she had undertaken terminated successfully, she would send a pilgrim to Jerusalem, who would walk there, and every three steps he advanced, he should go one back at every third step. It was doubtful whether there could be found a man sufficiently strong to go on foot, and of sufficient patience to go back one step at every third. A citizen of Verberie offered himself, and promised to accomplish the queen’s vow most scrupulously. The queen accepted his offer, and promised him an adequate recompence. He fulfilled his engagement with the greatest exactness, of which the queen was well assured by constant enquiries.

— William Granger, The New Wonderful Museum, and Extraordinary Magazine, 1804

Strange Weather

An optical illusion or mirage was seen by three or four farmers a few miles from this city a few days since, the appearance of which no one is able philosophically to account for. The facts are these: A gentleman, while plowing in a field with several others, about 7 P.M., happened to glance toward the sky, which was cloudless, and saw apparently, about half a mile off in a westerly direction, an opaque substance, resembling a white horse, with head, neck, limbs, and tail clearly defined, swimming in the clear atmosphere. It appeared to be moving its limbs as if engaged in swimming, moving its head from side to side, always ascending at an angle of about 45°. He rubbed his eyes to convince himself that he was not dreaming, and looked again; but there it still was, still apparently swimming and ascending in ether. He called to the men, about 100 yards off, and told them to look up, and tell him what they saw. They declared they saw a white horse swimming in the sky, and were badly frightened. Our informant, neither superstitious nor nervous, sat down and watched the phantasm, (if we may so call it,) until is disappeared in space, always going in the same direction, and moving in the same manner. No one can account for the mirage, or illusion, except upon the uneven state of the atmosphere. Illusions of a different appearance have been seen at different times, in the same vicinity, frightening the superstitious and laughed at by the skeptical.

— Telegram from Parkersburg, W.Va., to the Cincinnati Commercial, reprinted in the New York Times, July 8, 1878

Some Enchanted Evening

A communication in the Naturalist some time ago in regard to musical mice, prepared me for a phenomenon which recently came under my observation, which otherwise would have astonished me beyond conception. I was sitting a few evenings since, not far from a half-open closet door, when I was startled by a sound issuing from the closet, of such marvellous beauty that I at once asked my wife how Bobbie Burns (our canary) had found his way into the closet, and what could start him to singing such a queer and sweet song in the dark. I procured a light and found it to be a mouse! He had filled an over-shoe from a basket of pop-corn which had been popped and placed in the closet in the morning. Whether this rare collection of food inspired him with song I know not, but I had not the heart to disturb his corn, hoping to hear from him again. Last night his song was renewed. I approached with a subdued light and with great caution, and had the pleasure of seeing him sitting among his corn and singing his beautiful solo. I observed him without interruption for ten minutes, not over four feet from him. His song was not a chirp, but a continuous song of musical tone, a kind of to-wit-to-wee-woo-woo-wee-woo, quite varied in pitch. While observing him I took for granted that he was the common house-mouse (Mus musculus), but when he sprang from the shoe to make his escape he appeared like the prairie mouse (Hesperomys Michiganensis), a species I had not, however, observed before indoors. I have thus far failed to secure this little rodent musician, but shall continue to do all I can in the way of pop-corn to entertain him, and if his marvellous voice gives him the preëminence in mousedom which he deserves, by the aid of Natural Selection I shall presently have a chorus of mice, in which case you shall receive their first visit.

— W.O. Hiskey, Minneapolis, Minn., in American Naturalist, May 1871

Local Showers

TOPEKA, Kan., Nov. 17.–The story of a wonderful phenomenon comes from Rossville, a little town nineteen miles west of Topeka on the Union Pacific. For nineteen days, it is said, rain fell incessantly on the orchard belonging to H. Klein, a prominent Rossville resident.

This orchard is in the town, and is bounded on the east by Mr. Klein’s residence, on the other three sides by lines of fences shutting off cultivated fields. The rain did not fall outside of Mr. Klein’s premises, but for nineteen days there was no intermission in the fall, and it was only stopped by the present cold snap. What caused this persistent rain over one orchard, when other orchards in the immediate neighborhood were needing water and not getting it, is puzzling the people of that village. Several hundred people witnessed the phenomenon, and the rainfall is the local sensation at Rossville.

New York Times, Nov. 18, 1891

“Deer Have a Deep Sense of Wrong”

Animals of the deer tribe seem to have a deep sense of any wrong done to any member belonging to them, and to show a determined disposition to avenge that wrong at the first opportunity. Captain Brown states that, ‘At Wonersh, near Guildford, the seat of Lord Grantley, a fawn was drinking in the lake, when one of the swans suddenly flew upon it and pulled it into the water, where it held it under until it was drowned. This act of atrocity was noticed by the other deer in the park, and they took care to revenge it the first opportunity. A few days after, this swan, happening to be on land, was surrounded and attacked by the whole herd, and presently killed. Before this time they were never known to attack the swans.’

— Vernon S. Morwood, Wonderful Animals, 1883

“A Plucky Steeplejack”


This is a photograph of a steeplejack named Will Ramsner, lying on the top of a sixty-foot flag-pole on the building known as the Boston Block. He used to climb up the staff with no aid except his hands and legs. When reaching the top he had to climb over the butt, which is almost the size of an ordinary barrel. Ramsner’s object in performing this feat, which attracted thousands of people, was to advertise his trade. While on his high perch he smoked cigarettes and read a newspaper, which he eventually threw down to the crowd below, who tore it into small pieces, keeping them as souvenirs.

Strand, August 1906

Busy Man

Image: Wikimedia Commons

When Saparmurat Niyazov became president of Turkmenistan, he commissioned a 12-meter gold-plated statue of himself that rotated always to face the sun. That was actually one of his more modest decrees. Others:

  • He had his parliament officially name him Turkmenbashi, “father of all Turkmens.”
  • He named streets, schools, airports, farms, and people after himself, as well as vodka, a meteorite, the country’s second largest city, and a television channel.
  • He banned the Hippocratic oath and demanded that doctors swear allegiance to him.
  • His autobiography, the Rukhnama (“book of souls”), was studied in schools and became a textbook in other subjects, such as history and geography. Libraries, now superfluous, were closed.
  • Gold-plated statues to him were erected throughout the country.
  • He banned ballet, opera, public smoking, lip syncing, beards, gold teeth, recorded music, health care in rural areas, and car radios.
  • He planned the construction of a “palace of ice” and penguin enclosure so that residents of the desert could learn to skate.
  • He decreed that the word old must not be applied to people — when one turns 61 he enters “the prophetic age,” and 73 marks “the inspired age.”
  • He applied the name Gurbansoltan Edzhe (“the Turkmen heroine”) to his mother, a women’s magazine, the year 2003, April, and bread.

“I’m personally against seeing my pictures and statues in the streets,” he said, “but it’s what the people want.”

An Inland Archipelago


Through an accident of history, the Belgian town of Baarle-Hertog is located largely inside the Netherlands — it’s made up of 24 separate parcels of land, 20 of which lie inside the Dutch border, enmeshed with the Dutch municipality of Baarle-Nassau. To make things more confusing, two of these pockets of Belgium themselves contain pockets of the Netherlands.

This makes life interesting. Each house is deemed to pay taxes in the country where its front door is located, which means that some shops contrive to move their doors by several meters to get a favorable rate. A house can move to another country by moving its front door. Tourists who go shopping can encounter two tax regimes in the same street. And a child born to one Belgian and one Dutch parent possesses two passports.

At one point the speed limit was 60 kmh in the Netherlands and 50 kmh in Belgium, a perilous situation when a motorist might cross the border several times a minute. “Once, a motorcycle accident happened in front of Baarle’s cultural center,” writes Evgeny Vinokurov in A Theory of Enclaves (2007). “It happened on the territory of Baarle-Hertog but so close to the border running across the street that the man was dragged along to Baarle-Nassau. The ambulance from Baarle-Hertog arrived but did not help the bleeding man.”

And in 1971 a corrupt bank occupied a building that straddled the border, which permitted it to avoid being searched by the authorities of either state. The Belgian tax department couldn’t reach the safe, which lay behind “Dutch” counters. And the Dutch authorities could pass the counters but couldn’t open the safe, which was “Belgian.” Finally, authorities from both states undertook to search the premises in a joint effort, and the bank was eventually declared bankrupt after investigations into the laundering of drug money.

Stump Trouble


The voting paradox shows that conflicting majorities can prevent a clear winner even in a fair election.

Sadly, this can be true even if the candidates specify platforms. Suppose there are two issues, x and y, each of which admits two possible positions, x and x’ and y and y’. Then a candidate can have four possible platforms: xy, xy’, x’y, and x’y’. Now suppose there are three voters, each of whom ranks her preferences in a different order:

Voter 1: xy, xy’, x’y, x’y’
Voter 2: xy’, x’y’, xy, x’y
Voter 3: x’y, x’y’, xy, xy’

If the voters could vote on the individual issues instead of having to choose a platform, Voters 1 and 2 would prefer x to x’, and Voters 1 and 3 would prefer y to y’. These are clear majorities. But in practice platform x’y’ will defeat platform xy, since it’s preferred by a majority (Voters 2 and 3).

“Thus, a platform whose alternatives, when considered separately, are both favored by a majority may be defeated by a platform containing alternatives that only minorities favor,” writes Steven J. Brams in Paradoxes in Politics. Public policy scholar Anthony Downs argues that the fact that a majority platform can be constructed from minority positions may make it rational for politicians to appeal to coalitions of minorities.

Round Trip


John A. “Colonial Jack” Krohn pushed a wheelbarrow out of Portland, Maine, on June 1, 1908, and he pushed it back 357 days later. In the interval he pushed it around the perimeter of the contiguous United States, a journey of 9,024 miles on which he wore out 119 pairs of socks and lost 17 pounds.

On his return Krohn’s barrow was covered with cards; he had delivered a letter to the postmaster of Portland’s namesake in Oregon and returned with the reply. He’d completed the trip in 43 days fewer than expected, he said, though he hadn’t walked on Sundays and had lost 19 days to sickness.

“With some there had been doubts regarding his being able to accomplish such an unusual undertaking, considering his frail appearance when he first started out,” ran one contemporary account. “The great benefits of an out of door life could be readily noted on his return, through his improved look and action in every respect, showing the benefits derived from many weeks and months passed in the open air.”

He didn’t rest long — after writing a book about the adventure, he hit the road again to promote it.