Oddities

Sea Monks

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In his Annales, English antiquarian John Stow describes the capture of a sea monster in the shape of a man, in 1187:

“Neere unto Orforde in Suffolke, certaine Fishers of the sea tooke in their nettes a Fish having the shape of a man in all pointes, which Fish was kept by Barlemew de Glanville, Custos of the castle of Orforde, in the same castle, by the space of six monthes, and more, for a wonder: He spake not a word. All manner of meates he gladly did eate, but more greedilie raw fishe, after he had crushed out all the moisture. Oftentimes he was brought to the Church where he showed no tokens of adoration. At length, when he was not well looked to, he stale away to the sea and never after appeared.”

The creature was not fish-tailed, but had a bald head, the body of a man, a beard and a very hairy chest. What was it really? A giant squid? A walrus? An angel shark? We’ll never know.

An Indonesian Prophecy

A 12th-century Javanese king, Jayabaya, predicted that white men would conquer the Indonesian island one day and tyrannize the people for years, until the white men were driven out by yellow men from the north. The yellow men would remain for one crop cycle, he said, and then Java would be free.

Amazingly, these predictions were fulfilled almost perfectly 800 years later. White settlers from the Netherlands ruled the island until the Japanese invaded in 1942, and two years later they officially granted Indonesia its independence.

Since Javanese predictions are so accurate, we should note that Indonesia seems due for another messiah — prophecies said he’d arrive “when iron wagons drive without horses and ships sail through the sky.”

Hmm

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In 1971, the Flat Earth Society announced that the world is a disc, with the North Pole at the center and a 50-meter wall of ice at the outer edge.

Strangely, that matches the flag of the United Nations.

Geronimo!

Sam Patch (1799-1829), “The Yankee Leaper,” earned his epithet — in his 30-year lifetime he jumped from the following points:

  • Mill dam, Pawtucket, Rhode Island
  • Passaic Falls, New Jersey
  • Miscellaneous bridges, factory walls, ships’ masts
  • Niagara Falls, New York
  • Upper Falls, New York

That last one attracted a crowd of 8,000 — Upper Falls is 99 feet high. The first attempt went fine, but on the followup he dislocated both shoulders and drowned. His grave marker says “Sam Patch — Such Is Fame.”

Silbury Hill

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As old as the pyramids, southern England’s Silbury Hill is even more enigmatic. It’s essentially a gigantic man-made hill, 130 feet tall and perfectly round.

It must have taken 18 million man-hours to build, but archaeologists are stumped as to its purpose.

Benjamin Bathurst

On Nov. 25, 1809, British diplomat Benjamin Bathurst was preparing to leave the small German town of Perleberg. He stood outside the inn, watching his portmanteau being loaded onto the carriage, stepped out of the light, and was never seen again.

A nearby river was dragged, and outbuildings, woods, ditches, and marshes were searched, but no trace of Bathurst was ever found. A reward was offered for information, but none came forth.

Bathurst had been urging Austria into war against the French, but Napoleon swore on his honor that he had played no part in the disappearance. The mystery has never been solved.

High and Dry

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This is a classified photo of Mount Ararat, Turkey’s tallest mountain, taken by the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency in 1949.

That dark area is the “Ararat anomaly,” an unknown object perched on the edge of a precipice at about 15,500 feet. Biblical literalists think it’s the remains of Noah’s Ark. The U.S. government says it’s “linear facades in the glacial ice underlying more recently accumulated ice and snow.”

For now, it’s a stalemate — no one’s been able to reach it yet because the Turkish military controls the area.

Straight and Narrow

An optical illusion.

The horizontal lines are parallel.

Flying Dutchman

“At 4:00 a.m., the Flying Dutchman crossed our bows. A strange red light as of a phantom ship all aglow, in the midst of which light the masts, spars, and sails of a brig 200 yards distant stood out in strong relief as she came up on the port bow.”

— Prince Albert Victor, duke of Clarence, aboard H.M.S. Inconstant, July 11, 1881.
Thirteen officers and men saw the object, whatever it was, as did the crews of the corvettes Tourmaline and Cleopatra.

Nice Going

Four light aircraft have been flown under the St. Louis arch.

In 1980, Kenneth Swyers tried to parachute onto the span, hoping to jump back off and land on the ground. He slid all the way down one leg and died.

“Against stupidity,” wrote Schiller, “the gods themselves contend in vain.”

Jack Lalanne

Six appalling facts about fitness expert Jack Lalanne:

  1. At age 40, he did 100 handstand push-ups in under six minutes and 1,033 push-ups in 23 minutes.
  2. In the same year he swam between Alcatraz Island and Fisherman’s Wharf while handcuffed, and swam underwater the length of the Golden Gate Bridge with air tanks but no fins, towing a 2,000-pound boat. Seriously.
  3. In his sixties, he began to swim with shackles as well as handcuffs. For the bicentennial he towed 13 boats across a Southern California bay, and in the year he qualified for Social Security he towed 6,500 pounds of wood pulp across a Japanese lake.
  4. At age 69, his chest still measured 47 inches, his waist 27 inches.
  5. At 70, he towed 70 boats across Long Beach Harbor.
  6. LaLanne is now 91 years old, but he still gets up at 5:30 every morning to spend two hours working out in the weight room and the pool.

“I can’t afford to die,” he says. “It will ruin my image.”

Honk If You Love Megaliths

Carhenge is a replica of Stonehenge constructed of vintage American automobiles spray-painted gray. The heel stone is a 1962 Cadillac.

Who says Americans have no taste?

The Mary Celeste

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Passengers and crew of the Mary Celeste, a 103-foot brigantine that left New York for Genoa on Nov. 7, 1872:

  • Benjamin S. Briggs, 37, captain
  • Sarah Elizabeth Briggs, 30, captain’s wife
  • Sophia Matilda Briggs, 2, captain’s daughter
  • Albert C. Richardson, 28, mate
  • Andrew Gilling, 25, second mate
  • Edward W. Head, 23, steward and cook
  • Volkert Lorenson, 29, seaman
  • Arian Martens, 35, seaman
  • Boy Lorenson, 23, seaman
  • Gotlieb Gondeschall, 23, seaman

A month after she sailed, the ship was found abandoned off the coast of Portugal. Her cargo was intact, and she carried a six-month supply of food and water. The sextant, chronometer and lifeboat were missing, suggesting that the ship had been deliberately abandoned.

No survivors were ever found. The mystery has never been solved.

In Other Words

Twins Grace and Virginia Kennedy were severely neglected by their San Diego parents, attended minimally by a German-speaking grandmother. They saw no other children, rarely played outdoors, and did not go to school.

They were 8 years old when a speech therapist realized they had invented their own language:

GRACE: Cabengo, padem manibadu peeta.
VIRGINIA: Doan nee bada tengkmatt, Poto.

It was apparently a mix of English and German, with some original words and grammatical oddities.

Their father soon forbade their speaking it, saying, “You live in a society, you got to speak the language.” They learned English, but they still bear the emotional scars of their neglect: Virginia works on an assembly line, and Grace mops floors at a fast-food restaurant.

The Chaocipher

Somewhere, J.F. Byrne is laughing at all of us.

A friend of James Joyce (he was the basis for Cranley in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man), Byrne announced in 1918 that he had devised a simple and unbreakable code system, called the “Chaocipher,” that would fit into a cigar box:

I had, and still have in mind, the universal use of my machine and method by husband, wife, or lover. My machine would be on hire, as typewriter machines now are, in hotels, steamships, and, maybe even on trains and airlines, available for anyone anywhere and at any time. And I believe, too, the time will come — and come soon — when my system will be used in the publication of pamphlets and books written in cipher which will be unreadable except by those who are specially initiated.

Unfortunately, no one was interested. The U.S. Signal Corps, the State Department, the Department of the Navy, AT&T — all turned him down.

Finally, Byrne published a lengthy coded message in his autobiography, offering $5,000 to anyone who could decipher it. A few years later, he quietly died, taking the secret with him.

The cipher has never been solved.

01/29/2014 UPDATE: In 2010 Byrne’s family donated his papers to the National Cryptological Museum, so the algorithm is now known. (Thanks, Peter.)

Great Serpent Mound

Created by Native Americans at least 1,000 years ago, Ohio’s Serpent Mound is a double mystery.

First, while there are several burial mounds nearby, the serpent itself doesn’t contain any human remains. It’s just a giant earthen snake, 1,330 feet long.

Second, the site on which it’s built shows faulted and folded bedrock, meaning that a huge cataclysm, a meteorite or a volcanic explosion, happened here in the ancient past.

Is that why the serpent was built there? We may never know.

The Mars Effect

When French psychologist Michel Gauquelin set out to determine whether astrology was valid, he found a curious anomaly.

His analysis showed that sports champions are more likely to be born when Mars is in the fourth quadrant. Examples include Babe Ruth, Muhammad Ali, Tiger Woods and Venus Williams.

It’s called “the Mars effect.”

Caveat Emptor

French forger Vrain Denis-Lucas must have had a golden touch. His customers bought “manuscripts” from all of the following authors:

  • Robert Boyle
  • Isaac Newton
  • Blaise Pascal
  • Cleopatra
  • Judas Iscariot
  • Pontius Pilate
  • Joan of Arc
  • Cicero
  • Dante Alighieri

… even though all of them were written in contemporary French. All told, Denis-Lucas sold 27,000 manuscripts before the French Academy of Science realized something was wrong. He spent two years in prison and then disappeared.

Walking Tall

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“Man is the noblest work of God!” roared Mark Twain. “Well now, who found that out?”

Consider the case of Oliver the chimpanzee. Oliver liked to stand upright instead of knucklewalking like his peers, and his keepers noticed that his face was flatter than other chimps’, who tended to avoid him.

That’s all the impetus they needed. Throughout the ’70s and ’80s Oliver was paraded through a succession of theme parks, zoos and promotions, billed as a missing link or even a “humanzee,” or human-chimp hybrid, and confined for seven years in a cage that measured only 7 by 5 feet.

It all came to nothing. In 1996, when Oliver was old, blind, and arthritic, University of Chicago geneticist David Ledbetter checked his chromosomes and discovered he was just an ordinary ape, albeit one who preferred to walk upright.

It’s still possible that Oliver belongs to a rare subspecies of chimps who resemble humans … but after that treatment, would he take that as a compliment?

All Clear

Lloyd’s of London does not charge higher insurance rates for ships passing through the Bermuda Triangle. It says the area is no more dangerous than any other high-traffic piece of ocean.

The U.S. Coast Guard agrees.

Some Secrets Last Forever

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This conical tower, part of the Great Zimbabwe ruins of sub-Saharan Africa, has stood for a thousand years, and we may never learn what lies inside: The tower is 30 feet tall and has no windows or doors.

Man-Made Lightning

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Flames conduct electricity. Forest fires near high-voltage transmission lines can actually discharge them to the ground.

A Superhero Monk

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The Loch Ness monster is not only shy, he’s old. The Life of St. Columba, by the 7th-century Scottish abbot Adomnan of Iona, contains an account of the monster attacking a Pict in 565, and being fought off by the courageous saint:

[He] raised his holy hand, while all the rest, brethren as well as strangers, were stupefied with terror, and, invoking the name of God, formed the saving sign of the cross in the air, and commanded the ferocious monster, saying, “Thou shalt go no further, nor touch the man; go back with all speed.” Then at the voice of the saint, the monster was terrified, and fled more quickly than if it had been pulled back with ropes, though it had just got so near to Lugne, as he swam, that there was not more than the length of a spear-staff between the man and the beast. Then the brethren seeing that the monster had gone back, and that their comrade Lugne returned to them in the boat safe and sound, were struck with admiration, and gave glory to God in the blessed man. And even the barbarous heathens, who were present, were forced by the greatness of this miracle, which they themselves had seen, to magnify the God of the Christians.

CSS Shenandoah

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The Civil War didn’t quite end with Lee’s surrender. The Confederate man-of-war CSS Shenandoah was in the Arctic Ocean at the time, and kept attacking Union ships for four more months.

By the time it stopped, the Shenandoah had carried the Confederate flag completely around the world. It sank or captured 38 ships, two-thirds of them after the war ended, and took close to a thousand prisoners. Oops.