Hot Rocks


Every year, thousands of tourists pass through Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, and many collect sand or rocks as souvenirs. And every year, thousands of people mail them back, reporting mysterious misfortunes:

  • “Please return to soil. I have been having bad luck.”
  • “Ever since we have taken items, we have had nothing but back luck and medical problems. We apologize for taking items, so we are returning same to Hawaii.”
  • “We placed the rock last fall on a cast iron chair in our garden, this spring the chair’s leg had fallen off. This is the least of the problems we have had since we have taken the rock.”
  • “I must be cursed! Please, whatever the legend, curse or folklore is, please put these rocks back on a beach for me. I do not want one more stroke of fate to push me over the edge.”

According to legend, the volcano goddess Pele punishes those who steal from her. Timothy Murray took home some sand in 1997, and his pet died, his fiancee left him, he started to drink, and the FBI arrested him in a copyright infringement case. “One minute you’re working and you’re law-abiding and you’ve got money in the bank,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle. “The next minute you are sitting in a federal penitentiary in Miami.”

“People need something to blame their troubles on,” says local postmaster Dave Kell, who notes that much of what is sent back is not even from Hawaii. “They bring this stuff on themselves.”

What does he know? If the fire goddess is oppressing you, mail your guilty rock to this return service and they’ll wrap it in a ti leaf and return it to Pele with a propitiating orchid. Better safe than sorry.

Ghost Train


Cincinnati has a subway. Or, rather, the abortive beginnings of one. The digging began in 1920, when streetcars couldn’t keep up with the city’s growing population. But cost overruns and the advent of the automobile gradually turned it into a white elephant. In all, seven miles were prepared, but no cars were ever ordered.

In the years since 1925, when construction stopped, the empty tunnel has been proposed for use as an air-raid shelter, a storage area, a mall, a film set, a wind tunnel, and a wine cellar, but none of these received approval. Instead the entrances have been sealed with concrete, and it remains simply the nation’s largest abandoned subway tunnel.

If enough time passes, perhaps it will be forgotten entirely. Intriguingly, this has happened before.

Adventures in Tuition

In 1987, University of Illinois freshman Mike Hayes wrote to Chicago Tribune columnist Bob Greene with a modest proposal: that each of Greene’s readers contribute a penny to finance his education.

“Just one penny,” he told Greene. “A penny doesn’t mean anything to anyone. If everyone who is reading your column looks around the room right now, there will be a penny under the couch cushion, or on the corner of the desk, or on the floor. That’s all I’m asking. A penny from each of your readers.”

Greene published the appeal in 200 newspapers via his syndicated column — and Hayes received 77,000 letters and enough pennies to break his bank’s coin-counting machine three times. He easily reached his goal of $28,000, enough for four years of tuition, room and board, and books.

He graduated with a degree in food science. Asked why the scheme worked, he said, “I didn’t ask for a lot of money. I just asked for money from a lot of people.”

Deep Freeze


In 1871, a Norwegian seal hunter discovered a wooden hut on Novaya Zemlya in the Arctic Ocean. In it he found clothing, cooking pots, a tool chest, a clock, a flute, a cooking tripod, and several pictures.

It was the lodge of Willem Barentsz, who had passed the winter there in 1597 while seeking a northern route to China. Barentsz had died on the return journey, and the hut had stood for 270 years, awaiting rediscovery.

According to an 1877 report, later investigations recovered Barentsz’s quill pen, a translation of a work on seamanship printed in 1580, “some candles nearly 280 years old, but still capable of giving light” — and “the Amsterdam flag, the first European colour that passed a winter in the Arctic region.”

Fun With Bones


In 1840, Albert Koch made a sensation in London with the “Missouri Leviathan,” an enormous monster whose remains he purported to have discovered in Benton County, Mo. It turned out to be “a mastodon preposterously mounted.” From Scribner’s Magazine:

Koch had added an extra dozen or more joints to the back-bone and ribs to the chest, turned the tusks outward into a semicircle, and converted the animal into an aquatic monster which anchored itself to trees by means of its sickle-shaped tusks and then peacefully slumbered on the bosom of the waves.

The British Museum bought this up and, sniffing, reassembled it into a mastodon. Koch only warmed to his work — in Alabama he turned up the remains of two basilosauri and, writes Rupert Gould, arranged them to form “a serpentine creature 114 feet long, for which he manufactured, from any spare bones that were handy, a corresponding skull, ribs and paddles” (below). He had time to exhibit “Hydrarchos sillimani” in New York and Boston before outraged naturalists finally shut him down; the restored basilosaurs found a home in Berlin.


Never Mind

In 1987, the residents of Wilkinsburg, Pa., prepared to dig up a time capsule that had been buried in the last century. But no one could remember where it was.

In 1976, during the American bicentennial, a cross-country wagon train collected the signatures of a reported 22 million Americans to be buried at Valley Forge, Pa. But when President Ford arrived for the sealing ceremony, someone had stolen the capsule from an unattended van. It remains missing.

In 1939, MIT engineers deposited a brass time capsule beneath an 18-ton magnet used in a new cyclotron. No one has figured out how to retrieve it.

(Thanks, Luke.)

“Singular Old Coin”

The editor of the Milford (Del.) Beacon, was shown, a few days go, a coin — a composition of copper and brass — found on the farm of Mr. Ira Hammond, about two miles from that place. It is over 600 years old, bearing, date 1178; on one side is a crown, and upon the other the words ‘Josephus, I D J-PO RT-ET-AL G-REX,’ very legible, and the work well executed. This coin is about two hundred years older than the discovery of America, and the question very naturally arises, where did it come from?

Scientific American, 6:250, 1851

UPDATE: Another mystery solved: A reader points out this entry in the U.S.
Bureau of the Mint catalogue of coins and tokens:

16. Meia dobra, 1768. (R). 6*Jy.
Laureated bust, draped, to right; below, R 1758. Rev. Garnished shield
of arms of
Portugal, crowned. Edge, wreath. 32 mm. ; 216 grs.

Probably Scientific American‘s correspondent discovered a Portuguese coin from the 18th century and misread the date. (Thanks, John.)

Time-Machine Journalism

Being the paper of record brings with it some odd responsibilities. On March 10, 1975, the New York Times inadvertently published the wrong dateline in its Late City editions, officially dating the day’s news “March 10, 1075.”

Modern readers would understand that this was a simple typo, of course, but the editors grew concerned that future historians might be confused to discover a Times issue from the Middle Ages. So the following day’s issue contained a historic correction:

In yesterday’s issue, The New York Times did not report on riots in Milan and the subsequent murder of the lay religious reformer Erlembald. These events took place in 1075, the year given in the dateline under the nameplate on Page 1. The Times regrets both incidents.

A Leap in the Dark


Paradoxically, a shadow can go even faster than light! We can [cast a shadow] first at one star and then toward another star. We can take two stars more or less the same distance from Earth, such as Acrux in the Southern Cross and Bellatrix in Orion (both are 360 light-years away from us). We point the flashlight at Acrux and then we make the beam slide slowly toward Bellatrix. Three hundred sixty years later, the shadow … (which will at this point have become huge and very fast) will reach Acrux, and just a few seconds later it will be at Bellatrix, after having crossed one quarter of the vault of the sky far faster than the speed of light. Can shadows do things that are physically impossible?

— Roberto Casati, Shadows, 2000

“A Strange Cavern”

The residents of East Union, Ohio, several miles east of Wooster, are considerably worked up over the discovery of a cave near the village. J.M. Davis, Will S. Grady and Alexander Hunter, while out hunting, chased a rabbit into a burrow on a hill near the line of the Cleveland, Akron & Columbus railway. Determined to secure the game, they procured a mattock and shovel and proceeded to dig it out. After excavating the earth to a depth of about four feet they uncovered a curiously shaped stone, upon which were the evident marks of human workmanship. … The stone itself closed the opening into a subterranean chamber, which, with the aid of a ladder and lantern, was found to be in the form of a cubical cistern (perfectly dry), ten feet high, ten feet wide and ten feet long, carved in solid sandstone, with exquisite precision, and containing a few arrow-heads, stone pestle and mortar, the remains of a fire, and in the northwest corner, sitting in an upright position, a human skeleton, in a good state of preservation, with circlets of copper about its neck, wrist, and ankle bones. Its eyeless sockets were turned toward the entrance, and looked sad and ghastly. Upon making the discovery Coroner Huntsberger was summoned, but, viewing the skeleton, refused to hold an inquest. Crowds of people are visiting the cave daily since the discovery.

The American Antiquarian and Oriental Journal, May 1891

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