Oddities

Tretretretre

In 1658, French admiral Etienne de Flacourt reported a curious legend among the natives of Madagascar. They described a creature, called tretretretre, that was as big as a 2-year-old calf, with a round head, a human face and ears, an ape’s feet, a short tail, and frizzy fur.

That description matched nothing on the island, so the Europeans dismissed it. But since then, fossils have been unearthed of a giant lemur, Megaladapis, that may explain the myth. It had been thought to become extinct thousands of years ago, but now zoologists think it may have survived into the sixth century, when humans came to the island, and entered their folklore.

A few Megaladapis may even have survived into the 16th or 17th century, so perhaps Flacourt was witnessing the birth of a legend.

Yonaguni

These structures were discovered off the Japanese island of Yonaguni in 1985. Are they man-made? They resemble the pyramids of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Mexico, and Peru, but analyses showed one was 8,000 years old, which would make these the oldest ruins in the world.

If that’s so, historians can’t explain who would have built them. And archaeologists have suggested that the plates may have formed naturally. For now, the jury’s out.

Duck!

How much damage can one sparrow do?

Last year in the Netherlands organizers were preparing a world-record display of cascading dominoes when a house sparrow flew into the room.

The bird knocked over 23,000 tiles before organizers finally resorted to shooting it, setting off a furor among animal-rights activists.

Four days later, a new record was set when 4,002,136 dominoes fell in one continuous cascade.

The bird, stuffed and mounted, will go on display at the Natural History Museum in Rotterdam this November, exactly one year after the shooting.

Beach Blanket Hades

In western Namibia, there’s a deadly strip of beach where the Namib Desert runs right up against the South Atlantic Ocean. Shipwrecked sailors who landed there found themselves trapped between heavy surf on one side and hundreds of miles of desert on the other. Many starved to death right there on the beach.

It’s called the Skeleton Coast.

Apple-Pie Archaeoastronomy

Drawn to megaliths but leery of foreigners? Then toss those plane tickets, drive to Hunt, Texas, and commune with Stonehenge II, a replica made of adobe and wire mesh.

Just watch out for the fire ants.

No Place Like Home

Gibsonton, Fla., has the nation’s only post office with a counter for dwarves.

That’s because Gibsonton used to serve as a sideshow wintering town, where Percilla the Monkey Girl, the Anatomical Wonder, and other circus “freaks” could spend the off season. Siamese twin sisters ran a local fruit stand, and special zoning laws permitted residents to keep elephants and circus trailers on their front lawns. The school board meetings must have been memorable.

Road Warriors

If you think your commute is bad, check out the Kinetic Sculpture Race, held every Memorial Day weekend in Ferndale, Calif. In three days, participants must cover 42 miles of mud, sand, water, gravel and pavement in vehicles powered only by people (“and friendly extraterrestrials”). Arrows, anchors and grappling hooks are strictly disallowed.

The race’s slogan is “adults having fun so children want to get older.”

Does This Count as Plagiarism?

Published in 1838, Edgar Allan Poe’s novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket tells of four men who survive a shipwreck. Starving, they draw lots to see which one is to be eaten. The loser is a man named Richard Parker.

Forty-six years later, in 1884, a yacht named the Mignonette sank during a journey from England to Australia. Four survivors were stranded in a dinghy. After 16 days, Captain Dudley and his two mates killed and ate the cabin boy–whose name was Richard Parker.

The three eventually returned to England, where they were convicted of murder.

Shoe Trees

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The “shoe tree” of Morley Field, San Diego. There are at least 76 such trees in the United States. No one’s quite sure how they get started. What will future civilizations make of this?

Doppelgangers

In 1979 University of Minnesota psychologist Thomas J. Bouchard studied a pair of twins, Jim Lewis and Jim Springer, who had been separated at birth. Here’s what he found on interviewing them at age 39:

  • Both men had had first wives named Linda, divorced them and married women named Betty.
  • Lewis named his first son James Alan; Springer named his James Allan.
  • Both named their dogs Toy.
  • Both had worked as gas station attendants and for the same hamburger chain.
  • They drove the same type of car and bought the same brands of cigarettes and beer.
  • They regularly took annual vacations at the same Florida resort.
  • Both disliked baseball but enjoyed stock-car racing and woodwork.
  • Both gained and lost weight at the same age, bit their fingernails compulsively and had had a minor heart attack.
  • Both suffered from migraines.

“Our findings continue to suggest a very strong genetic influence on almost all medical and psychological traits,” Bouchard said. After an extensive study of separated twins, he concluded that shyness, political conservatism, dedication to hard work, orderliness, intimacy, extroversion, conformity, and a number of other social traits are largely heritable.

False Alarm

Because they’re stationary and have a smooth, saucerlike shape, lenticular clouds are often reported as UFOs. These photos were taken in New Hampshire (above) and New Mexico.

The Hum

In the 1990s, residents of Taos, N.M., and Kokomo, Ind., began to report an invasive low-frequency noise, which they likened to a distant idling diesel engine. Others have since reported the sensation elsewhere, especially in Europe. Strangely, the sound is often worse indoors, and ordinary microphones don’t detect it.

Possible explanations have included everything from meteors to submarines, but so far there’s been no large-scale investigation. For now the phenomenon is simply called “the Hum.”

No Message

When he wasn’t escaping straitjackets, Harry Houdini spent a lot of time debunking spiritualists.

Shortly before his death, he made a pact with his wife, Bess: If possible, he would contact her from the other side and deliver a prearranged coded message.

When he died, Bess lit a candle beside his photograph and kept it burning for 10 years, holding séances every Halloween to test the pact. Harry never spoke.

In 1936, after a final attempt on the roof of the Knickerbocker Hotel, Bess put out the candle.

“Ten years is long enough to wait for any man,” she said.

White Meat

In his 1647 Del Luce Animalium, Danish physician Thomas Bartholin noted a great lost opportunity for animal husbandry.

In France’s Montpellier market, he wrote, a chicken had appeared whose feathers glowed. Killed for closer study, the cock “shone on all parts of its body with a remarkably strong light.”

At the same time, he said, an Italian hen from Montebello “shone like a ball of white fire.”

It was a pity, Bartholin noted, that the two birds couldn’t be bred together, “for we might then have obtained a breed of incandescent fowls.” And saved money on candles.

Command Performance

The Bavarian village of Oberammergau has a special deal with God. While the bubonic plague was ravaging Europe, the town’s citizens vowed that if they were spared they would perform a play every 10 years depicting the life and death of Jesus.

God, apparently, accepted. The death rate among adults rose from 1 in October 1632 to 20 in March 1633, but then it dropped again to 1 in July 1633.

True to their word, the villagers staged a play in 1634, and they’ve done so every 10 years ever since.

Christian von Kahlbutz

Christian Friedrich von Kahlbutz is looking remarkably fit for his age. The Prussian knight died in 1702 and his body hasn’t decayed.

No one knows why. He wasn’t embalmed. A legend says it’s God’s punishment for an oath he broke while living. Scientists think he lost a lot of blood before dying and that the local soil lacked materials that would promote decay. But that doesn’t explain why other bodies nearby did rot.

A Hotel That Never Forgets

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The largest elephant in the world is made of wood and tin sheeting. “Lucy” was built south of Atlantic City in 1882 by James V. Lafferty, who hoped to attract tourists and sell real estate.

Lafferty saw big potential in “zoomorphic architecture,” apparently. He got an exclusive patent on animal-shaped buildings, and soon surpassed Lucy with an Elephantine Colossus at Coney Island. At 12 stories tall, it was twice Lucy’s size, with a cigar store in one leg, a dioramic display in another, hotel rooms in the body, and an observation area at the top, with panoramic views of the sea.

Sadly, the Elephantine Colossus was destroyed by fire in 1896, but Lucy herself still stands, and has served as a restaurant, a business office, a cottage, a hotel, and a tavern. Today she’s a national historic landmark.

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.