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.


A “cryptarithm,” originally published by Henry Dudeney in the July 1924 Strand:


Each letter stands for a different digit. Can you identify them?

Click for Answer

Fonthill Abbey


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.

In a Word

v. to overshadow


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.


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.

A Rodent Condo

The largest known beaver dam was discovered near Three Forks, Mont.

It was 2,140 feet long, 14 feet high, and 23 feet thick at the base.

A Hot Town

The cemeteries in Centralia, Pa., are more populous than the town itself. In 1962, a local trash fire ignited an eight-mile seam of underground coal, and the resulting sinkholes and carbon monoxide eventually forced the state to condemn every building in the borough. Centralia doesn’t even have a zip code anymore — the Postal Service revoked it in 2002.

Former residents might return to open a time capsule in 2016, but they won’t stay — the underground fire is expected to burn for at least another century.