For an imaginary creature, the Popo Bawa of Zanzibar seems pretty eager for publicity. According to legend, the creature — described as a one-eyed dwarf with batlike wings and sharp talons — seeks out men who deny its existence, sodomizing them for up to an hour and threatening longer, and repeated, attacks unless they tell their friends and neighbors about the experience.
Strangely, the creature’s attacks are said to rise and fall with the local election cycle. Maybe it’s campaigning.
Last year Sharon Tendler married a bottle-nosed dolphin.
Tendler, 41, first became captivated with the animal during a dolphinarium show in Eilat, Israel. She visited him regularly for 15 years (“The peace and tranquility under water, and his love, would calm me down”) and finally approached the trainer for permission for an unofficial ceremony.
On Dec. 28, 2005, Tendler walked down the dock in a white silk dress, kissed the dolphin, and whispered “I love you” into his blowhole (video). They had to make some concessions, of course: Instead of rice, the crowd threw mackerel.
Mammoths generally died out with the last ice age, but some survived on Russia’s Wrangel Island until 1500 B.C., around the same time Stonehenge was built.
Reportedly the Soviet Air Force spotted a group of mammoths in Siberia during World War II but subsequently lost them.
Madagascar’s elephant bird died out around Shakespeare’s time.
So it’s a little weird that two eggs were found in Western Australia in 1930 and 1993.
Did they float there? No one knows.
En route from Vancouver to Australia on Dec. 30, 1899, the captain of the S.S. Warrimoo spotted a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. At midnight, he stopped the ship at the intersection of the international date line and the equator.
At that moment, the ship was straddling two different hemispheres, days, months, years, seasons, and centuries, all at the same time. By passing between the bow and the stern, passengers could stroll between winter and summer, north and south, and the 19th and 20th centuries.
The downside: For the Warrimoo, Dec. 31 disappeared entirely.
(Roberto Casati points out that if you return to this point on June 21 and lie down on the deck, at midnight your left hand will be in summer, your right hand in spring, your left foot in winter, and your right foot in autumn.)
A gigantic figure haunts the Vosges Mountains, known by the name of “The Spectre of the Brocken.” The ignorant peasants were, in former times, in great fear of it, thinking it a supernatural being, and fancying that it brought upon them all manner of evil. And it must be confessed it was a fearful sight to behold suddenly upon the summit of a lofty mountain an immense giant, sometimes pointing in a threatening attitude to a village below, as if dooming it to destruction; sometimes with arms upraised, as if invoking ruin upon all the country; and sometimes stalking along with such tremendous strides as to make but one step from peak to peak; often dwarfing himself to nothingness, and again stretching up until his head is in the clouds, then disappearing entirely for a moment, only to reappear more formidable than before.
But now the Spectre of the Brocken is no longer an object of fear. Why? Because men have found him out, and he is nothing in the world but a shadow. When the sun is in the right position, an ordinary-sized man on a lower mountain will see a gigantic shadow of himself thrown upon a cloud beyond the Brocken, though it appears to be on the mountain itself, and it is so perfect a representation that it is difficult to believe it is only a shadow. But it can be easily proved. If the man stoops to pick up anything, down goes the spectre; if he raises his hand, so does the spectre; if he takes a step of two feet, the spectre takes one of miles; if he raises his hat, the spectre politely returns his salute.
– Frank R. Stockton, Round-About Rambles in Lands of Fact and Fancy, 1910
“Almost all absurdity of conduct arises from the imitation of those whom we cannot resemble,” wrote Dr. Johnson.
During World War II, 300,000 American troops were stationed in the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu). Greatly impressed with the Westerners’ wealth and power, the natives began to worship a messiah they called Jon Frum, “the king of America,” who lives in the crater of a local mountain.
To this day, every Feb. 15 they celebrate Jon Frum Day by offering prayers and flowers at a red cross — that’s the date the believe Frum will return bearing cargo from heaven. They also conduct a flag-raising ceremony and a military parade with bamboo “rifles.” The movement even has its own political party.
Records show there never was an actual Jon Frum. But a separate cult has found a real messiah: They worship Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.
The Colossi of Memnon, in Egypt. After an earthquake, the one on the right began to “sing” every morning at dawn, producing a light moaning sound probably related to rising temperatures and evaporating dew. In “The Sphinx,” Oscar Wilde wrote:
Still from his chair of porphyry gaunt Memnon strains his lidless eyes
Across the empty land, and cries each yellow morning unto thee.
Hearing the song brought good luck, so the colossi began to attract pilgrims from across the ancient world. It stopped in 199 when Emperor Septimius Severus tried to fix the damage. Nice going.
It’s bad enough that the Chase family of Barbados had to inter six members between 1808 and 1819.
But each time they opened the family vault, they found that the coffins had been rearranged into awkward positions.
After the last instance, the island’s governor pressed his personal seal into fresh cement in the vault’s door. The seal was intact when the vault was opened the next year — but the coffins had been rearranged again, with one thrown up against the door.
Finally the coffins were buried separately in the Christ Church graveyard. No explanation was ever found.
On Oct. 25, 1924, witnesses reported a three-hour fight between two whales and a “giant polar bear” off the coast of Margate, South Africa. The creature attacked the whales using its tail, lifting itself out of the water by as much as 20 feet, but eventually succumbed.
When its body washed up on shore, residents reportedly saw a 47-foot fishlike animal with snow-white fur 8 inches long, an elephant’s trunk, a lobster’s tail and a carcass drained of blood. No head was visible; the trunk extended directly from the body.
Strangely, though the body remained for 10 days on Margate Beach, no scientist investigated and no photographs were taken. Most likely it was a whale whose decay made it appear furry, but we’ll never know.
Yes, it’s a Jewish toadstool.
In 1938, fanatical Nazi Julius Streicher published a children’s book called Der Giftpilz (The Poisoned Mushroom), which compared perfidious Jews to poisonous fungus.
“Our boys and girls must learn to know the Jew,” a mother warns her children. “They must learn that the Jew is the most dangerous poison mushroom in existence. Just as poisonous mushrooms spring up everywhere, so the Jew is found in every country in the world. Just as poisonous mushrooms lead to the most dreadful calamity, so the Jew is the cause of misery and distress, illness and death.”
Disturbingly, Streicher had worked as an elementary school teacher before joining the German army in 1914. He published propaganda for Hitler, and after Nuremberg he was the only sentenced Nazi to declare “Heil Hitler” before being hanged. At least he was consistent.
From a Scientific American account of a Thai earthquake on May 13, 1848:
During the shock, there spontaneously came out of the ground a species of human hairs in almost every place — in the bazaars, in the roads, in the fields, and the most solid places. These hairs, which are pretty long, stand upright and adhere strongly to the ground. When they are burned, they twist like human hairs and have a burned smell which makes it to be believed that they are really hairs; they all appeared in the twinkling of an eye during the earthquake. The river of Chantibun was all rippling, and bubbles rose to the surface, so that the water was quite white. It is thought that these hairs may have been produced by electricity.
Similar “hairs” have been reported after other Asian earthquakes. Some have been identified as fibers from the hemp palm Chamaerops fortunei, a native tree. Others remain unexplained.
Where there’s a will, there’s a way. In 1849, Henry Box Brown escaped slavery by mailing himself to Philadelphia.
Brown stood 5’8″ and weighed 200 pounds, and he spent 26 hours in a box 2’8″ x 2′ x 3′. Unfortunately, he spent a lot of it upside down. “I felt my eyes swelling as if they would burst from their sockets,” he later wrote, “and the veins on my temples were dreadfully distended with pressure of blood upon my head.” The trip from Richmond covered 275 miles by overland express stage wagon.
When the box was opened, his first words were “How do you do, gentlemen?”
In Death Valley, rocks move. No one’s actually seen it happen, but they leave tracks hundreds of feet long. Experts attribute the phenomenon to a combination of wind, ice, and mud, but some of the stones weigh as much as a man. One 700-pound rock disappeared altogether in May 1994. Hmm.
In April 1865, Abraham Lincoln related the following story to his bodyguard, Ward Hill Lamon:
About ten days ago, I retired very late. I had been up waiting for important dispatches from the front. I could not have been long in bed when I fell into a slumber, for I was weary. I soon began to dream. There seemed to be a deathlike stillness about me. Then I heard subdued sobs, as if a number of people were weeping. I thought I left my bed and wandered downstairs. There the silence was broken by the same pitiful sobbing, but the mourners were invisible. I went from room to room; no living person was in sight, but the same mournful sounds of distress met me as I passed along. I saw light in all the rooms; every object was familiar to me; but where were all the people who were grieving as if their hearts would break? I was puzzled and alarmed. What could be the meaning of all this? Determined to find the cause of a state of things so mysterious and so shocking, I kept on until I arrived at the East Room, which I entered. There I met with a sickening surprise. Before me was a catafalque, on which rested a corpse wrapped in funeral vestments. Around it were stationed soldiers who were acting as guards; and there was a throng of people, gazing mournfully upon the corpse, whose face was covered, others weeping pitifully. “Who is dead in the White House?” I demanded of one of the soldiers, “The President,” was his answer; “he was killed by an assassin.” Then came a loud burst of grief from the crowd, which woke me from my dream. I slept no more that night; and although it was only a dream, I have been strangely annoyed by it ever since.
He was assassinated a few days later.
In October 1995 a group of Welsh high-school students discovered a 2-inch frog alive inside an old ring-pull can. The frog was much larger than the can’s opening, so it must have entered when it was small; the can’s sell-by date was May 1994, so it may have been trapped for a year or more.
How did it stay alive all that time? Possibly its odor attracted bugs, and rain and dew could have reached it through the can’s hole.
But possibly some animals can survive long periods with practically no resources. In the 19th century, English geologist William Buckland deliberately buried two dozen toads in chambers of limestone, sealing them in with a sheet of glass. The little ones survived for 13 months, he found, the big ones a few months longer.
That’s impressive, but there are limits, of course. Texas legend tells of “Old Rip,” a horned toad accidentally sealed in a courthouse cornerstone in 1897. When the building was demolished 31 years later, Rip supposedly hopped out. That sounds ridiculous, but supporters insist that the witnesses included two judges and a pastor. You can judge for yourself: Rip’s remains are on display at the Eastland County Courthouse.
In October 1998, 300 dead starlings fell out of the sky in Tacoma, Wash.
No one knows why.
A human sacrifice to a carnivorous tree, as described in the South Australian Register, 1881:
The slender delicate palpi, with the fury of starved serpents, quivered a moment over her head, then as if instinct with demoniac intelligence fastened upon her in sudden coils round and round her neck and arms; then while her awful screams and yet more awful laughter rose wildly to be instantly strangled down again into a gurgling moan, the tendrils one after another, like great green serpents, with brutal energy and infernal rapidity, rose, retracted themselves, and wrapped her about in fold after fold, ever tightening with cruel swiftness and savage tenacity of anacondas fastening upon their prey.
Unfortunately, years of subsequent investigation — including the enchantingly titled Madagascar, Land of the Man-Eating Tree (1924) — have failed to find such a tree, or even the Mkodo tribe that purportedly feeds it. Nice try, though.
“This gentleman had an idea that he could fly by the aid of this ingenious machinery. You will see that his wings are arranged so that they are moved by his legs, and also by cords attached to his arms. The umbrella over his head is not intended to ward off the rain or the sun, but is to act as a sort of parachute, to keep him from falling while he is making his strokes. The basket, which hangs down low enough to be out of the way of his feet, is filled with provisions, which he expects to need in the course of his journey.
“That journey lasted exactly as long as it took him to fall from the top of a high rock to the ground below.”
– Frank R. Stockton, Round-About Rambles in Lands of Fact and Fancy, 1910
Every so often someone finds a bunch of rats whose tails are knotted together. It’s called a rat king. (This one, with 32 rats, was found in a German miller’s fireplace in 1828.)
The rats are usually dead when they’re discovered, and no one has suggested a natural cause, so presumably humans are involved somehow.
Typically the rats are fully grown adults, so they’re not born this way, and their tails are often broken and callused, which means they’ve survived in this state for some time, fed by humans or by other rats.
Why would anyone do this? Who knows?
Are we getting smarter? IQ scores around the world have been going up by about three IQ points per decade.
Suggested reasons include improved nutrition, smaller families, better education, and the stimulating modern environment, but no one really knows what’s causing it.
It’s called the Flynn effect, after New Zealand political scientist who discovered it.
Kailashgiri Brahmachari is carrying his mother across India. They left the northern village of Piparia eight years ago and hope to reach Varanasi in 2013.
He says it’s the will of God.
“He is a nice son, but I am getting tired,” his mother told the BBC. “I sometimes feel like ending the journey and getting back home.”
In 1920 two English cousins, Frances Griffiths and Elsie Wright, produced a series of photos that seemed to show them cavorting with fairies and gnomes.
The images were published in The Strand and convinced Arthur Conan Doyle, among others. In The Coming of the Fairies (1922), he wrote: “It is hard for the mind to grasp what the ultimate results may be if we have actually proved the existence upon the surface of this planet of a population which may be as numerous as the human race, which pursues its own strange life in its own strange way, and which is only separated from ourselves by some difference of vibrations.”
But see Fairies Unmasked.
Blue Peacock was the sexy code name of a secret British plan to salt the Rhine with nuclear mines in the 1950s, in case of war.
Less sexily, they planned to put a live chicken in each one, to keep the electronics from getting cold.
When the file was declassified on April 1, 2004, this was taken to be an April Fool’s joke, but it’s true. Fortunately, the project was canceled.