Fainting Goats


In the early 1800s, a reclusive farm worker sold four goats to Dr. H.H. Mayberry of Marshall County, Tenn. Mayberry discovered that the goats had an odd quality: When startled they would stiffen for about 10 seconds, often falling over.

Mayberry bred them, and today it’s understood they have a hereditary genetic disorder called myotonia congenita. There’s even an International Fainting Goat Association.

The original breeder disappeared, rumored to have returned to Nova Scotia. No one knows his name.

A Premature Burial

In the 1850s, a girl contracted diphtheria while visiting Edisto Island, S.C. Amid fears of an outbreak, she was pronounced dead and hastily interred in a local mausoleum:

Some days afterwards, when the grave in which she had been placed was opened for the reception of another body, it was found that the clothes which covered the unfortunate woman were torn to pieces, and that she had even broken her limbs in attempting to extricate herself from the living tomb. The Court, after hearing the case, sentenced the doctor who had signed the certificate of decease, and the Major who had authorized the interment each to three month’s imprisonment for involuntary manslaughter.

(Reported in the British Medical Journal, 1877)

Stone Spheres

Since the 1930s, hundreds of stone spheres have been found in Costa Rica. They range from a few centimeters to more than 2 meters in diameter and weigh up to 16 tons.

No one knows who made them or why, but they’re old — some date to 200 B.C.

Curse of the Ninth

Anton Bruckner died after writing his ninth symphony. So did Beethoven, Schubert, and Dvořák. In the 19th century, a superstition arose that a quick death awaited anyone who wrote nine symphonies.

Arnold Schoenberg wrote: “It seems that the ninth is a limit. He who wants to go beyond it must pass away. It seems as if something might be imparted to us in the Tenth which we ought not yet to know, for which we are not ready. Those who have written a Ninth stood too close to the hereafter.”

Mahler figured he could escape the curse with a decoy: When he finished his ninth, he retitled it “The Song of the Earth” and wrote a second “ninth” symphony. When nothing happened, he told his wife “the danger is past,” started a new work — and died.

Il Était Une Fois …

Top 10 most translated authors in the world as of January 2006, according to UNESCO’s “Index Translationum”:

  1. Walt Disney Productions
  2. Agatha Christie
  3. Jules Verne
  4. Vladimir Lenin
  5. Enid Blyton
  6. Barbara Cartland
  7. William Shakespeare
  8. Danielle Steele
  9. Hans Christian Andersen
  10. Stephen King

Each has been translated more than 1,500 times.

Mary the Elephant


1916 came to a black end for Sparks World Famous Shows, a circus that was traveling through the American South. In Kingsport, Tenn., an amateur trainer named Red Eldridge was leading a 5-ton Asian elephant to a local pond when she stopped to nibble a watermelon rind. He grew impatient and prodded her behind the ear. She flung him against a drink stand and stepped on his head.

What followed can only be described as a lynching. A crowd began to chant, “Kill the elephant!” A local blacksmith fired two dozen rounds into Mary, with little effect. The local sheriff impounded her, newspapers reported (falsely) that she had killed several workers in the past, and nearby towns threatened to boycott the show. By most accounts Mary had calmed down after killing Eldridge, but that didn’t seem to matter.

So on Sept. 13, owner Charlie Sparks took Mary to a local railroad yard and hanged her from an industrial crane in front of 2,500 people, including most of the town’s children. The chain snapped on the first attempt, causing Mary to fall and break her hip. The second attempt killed her, and she was buried beside the tracks.

“Cruelty, like every other vice, requires no motive outside of itself,” wrote George Eliot. “It only requires opportunity.”

In a Word

n. a collector of beer mats

Dudeney Numbers

Only six numbers have this curious property:

1 = 1; 13 = 1
8 = 5 + 1 + 2; 83 = 512
17 = 4 + 9 + 1 + 3; 173 = 4913
18 = 5 + 8 + 3 + 2; 183 = 5832
26 = 1 + 7 + 5 + 7 + 6; 263 = 17576
27 = 1 + 9 + 6 + 8 + 3; 273 = 19683

They’re called Dudeney numbers, after the English author and mathematician who discovered them. (Regular readers know I’m something of a fan.)

Group Portrait


This is the largest gathering of human beings in the history of the world — in January 2001, 70 million Hindu pilgrims met in Prayaga, India, for a religious festival called the Kumbh Mela.

Three years later, 30 million met in Ujjain.

A War in the Sky


At sunrise on April 14, 1561, the citizens of Nuremberg, Germany, witnessed a strange aerial spectacle. According to a contemporary broadsheet, large numbers of red, blue and black “globes” or “plates” appeared near the sun, “some three in a row, now and then four in a square, also some standing alone. And amongst these globes some blood-colored crosses were seen.” Two great tubes also appeared, “in which three, four and more globes were to be seen. They then all began to fight one another.”

After an hour, “they all fell … from the sun and sky down to the earth, as if everything were on fire, then it slowly faded away on the earth, producing a lot of steam.”

Strangely, the same thing happened five years later in Basel, Switzerland. On Aug. 7, 1566, also at sunrise, “many large black globes were seen in the air, moving before the sun with great speed, and turning against each other as if fighting. Some of them became red and fiery and afterwards faded and went out.”