The Mahogany Ship

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Like Namibia’s Skeleton Coast, the Shipwreck Coast of Australia combines rare beauty with treacherous seas. Explorer Matthew Flinders said, “I have seldom seen a more fearful section of coastline.” More than 50 ships have been lost here, most of them supply ships carrying immigrants and convicts to Victoria and New South Wales in the 1800s, but the coast’s strangest victim may have come much earlier.

Periodically since 1836, travelers have reported stumbling on the wreck of a very old ship of “hard dark timber — like mahogany.” The descriptions are quite specific. Here’s a letter by Captain John Mason of Belfast, published in the Melbourne Argus on April 1, 1876:

Riding along the beach from Port Fairy to Warrnambool in the summer of 1846, my attention was attracted to the hull of a vessel embedded high and dry in the Hummocks, far above the reach of any tide. It appeared to have been that of a vessel about 100 tons burden, and from its bleached and weather-beaten appearance, must have remained there many years. The spars and deck were gone, and the hull was full of drift sand. The timber of which she was built had the appearance of cedar or mahogany. The fact of the vessel being in that position was well known to the whalers in 1846, when the first whaling station was formed in that neighbourhood, and the oldest natives, when questioned, stated their knowledge of it extended from their earliest recollection.

Despite well-financed searches in 1890, 1992, 1999, and 2004, no trace of the ship has been found. If it ever existed, it may have been the missing ship of Portuguese sea captain Cristóvão de Mendonça, which was wrecked in 1522. If that’s true, there’s a strange irony here: The introduction of livestock and pests from Europe have destabilized the local dunes, which may have buried all evidence of Australia’s first European visitor.

Clever Hans

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Illusionists know that people are eager to be fooled — some even participate unwittingly in their own deception. A striking example of this is Clever Hans, a trick horse who caused a sensation in the early 1900s. Using his hoof, Hans routinely tapped out correct answers to questions about math, reading, spelling and music. But an investigation showed that Hans’ real skill lay in reading his questioner’s body language, which always showed increased tension as he approached the final, “correct” tap.

In 1907, psychologist Oskar Pfungst actually took the horse’s place and found that he could get the right answer 90 percent of the time simply by watching the questioner’s posture and facial expression. This unconscious cueing is remembered as the “Clever Hans effect.”

Aqua Man

Accomplishments of Lewis Gordon Pugh:

  • One month after his first swimming lesson, swam from Robben Island to Cape Town, South Africa
  • Shortly thereafter, swam the English Channel
  • First person to swim around the southernmost point in Africa, the northernmost point in Europe, the Cape of Good Hope, and the Cape Peninsula
  • First person to complete a long-distance swim in all five oceans
  • First person to swim down the entire length of Norway’s Sognefjord, 204 kilometers
  • First person to swim across an African Great Lake (Lake Malawi)
  • Gold medal in the 500-meter freestyle at the 2006 World Winter Swimming Championships in Finland
  • World record for the northernmost long-distance swim (Spitsbergen, 1,000 kilometers from the North Pole) and southernmost long-distance swim (Petermann Island, off the Antarctic Peninsula)

Most recently Lewis became the first person to swim the entire length of the River Thames, to raise awareness about the problems of global warming. Along the way, he stopped in London to visit Tony Blair.

Annie Londonderry

The Gilded Age certainly saw some high-stakes wagers. Twelve years before Harry Bensley settled one bet by pushing a pram around the world, Annie “Londonderry” Kopchovsky settled another by circling the earth on a bicycle.

Annie’s task, proposed by two wealthy Boston clubmen, was to ride around the world in 15 months, earning $5,000 en route. She saw it as a challenge to make her way in a man’s world, and in 1895 the doughty 23-year-old, who had never ridden a bicycle before, pedaled out of Boston, leaving behind a husband and three children.

She brought only a change of clothes and a pearl-handled revolver, but she steadily earned money by carrying advertising banners and ribbons through cities around the world, starting with the Londonderry Lithia Spring Water Company, which paid her to carry its placard on her bike and to adopt her nickname.

That spirit carried her through. On returning home, the victorious Annie wrote a series of sensational features for the New York World, beginning with her cycling adventure. “I am a journalist and ‘a new woman,'” she wrote, “if that term means that I believe I can do anything that any man can do.”

Inverted Jenny

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If you have one of these, hold on to it. Produced by a 1918 misprint, only 100 of these stamps have been found. That puts them among the most valuable stamps in the world — in 2003, an “Inverted Jenny” would sell for $150,000.

Both Sides Now

The Chevalier d’Eon (1728-1810) lived the first half of his life as a man and the second as a woman. Until age 49 d’Eon served as a diplomat and soldier in Louis XV’s France, fighting in the Seven Years’ War and spying in London for the king.

But in 1771 he claimed he was physically a woman and asked to be recognized as such. The government agreed, even financing a new wardrobe, and the chevalier spent his remaining 33 years as a woman, participating in fencing tournaments and even offering to lead a division of women soldiers against the Habsburgs.

Doctors who examined him after death discovered that his body was anatomically male.

Hmm

The most common birthday in the United States is Oct. 5.

That’s nine months after New Year’s Eve.

Myrtle Corbin

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Born in 1868, Myrtle Corbin had two separate pelvises, side by side — each of her large outer legs was paired with a small inner one. She could move the small ones, but they were too weak for walking.

The condition didn’t slow her down — she married a doctor at 19 and eventually gave birth to four daughters and a son.

Tin Men

C-3PO and R2-D2 are the only characters that survive all six Star Wars movies.

Fool Me Once

Idaho means nothing. When Congress was casting about for a name for a new western territory, an eccentric lobbyist named George M. Willing suggested “Idaho,” which he said was derived from a Shoshone Indian term meaning “the sun comes from the mountains” or “gem of the mountains.”

He later admitted that he’d made it up.