Plying the Blue

Phantom ships, as they have been called, have repeatedly been seen by various observers. Mr. Scoresby, in his voyage to Greenland, in 1822, saw an inverted image of a ship in the air, so well defined that he could distinguish by a telescope every sail, the peculiar rig of the ship, and its whole general character, insomuch that he confidently pronounced it to be his father’s ship, the Fame, which it afterwards proved to be.

— Charles Kingsley, The Boys’ and Girls’ Book of Science, 1881

See also The Wizard of Mauritius.


Georg Wilhelm Richmann was attending a meeting at the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences in August 1753 when he heard thunder. He ran home with another man, hoping to record how an insulated rod responded to an electrical storm.

He succeeded, in a way: A ball of lightning leapt from the rod and struck Richmann in the head, killing him instantly and knocking his companion unconscious. That makes Richmann the first person in history to die while conducting electrical experiments.

Joseph Priestley wrote, “It is not given to every electrician to die in so glorious a manner as the justly envied Richmann.” That’s one way to look at it.

“Rhyming Words Wanted”

A whimsical letter written by W. S. Gilbert notes ‘a great want’ among poets. ‘I should like to suggest,’ he says, ‘that any inventor who is in need of a name for his invention, would confer a boon on the rhymsters, and at the same time insure himself many gratuitous advertisements, if he would select a word that rhymes to one of the many words in common use, which have but few rhymes or none at all. A few more words rhyming with ‘love’ are greatly wanted; ‘revenge’ and ‘avenge’ have no rhyming word, except ‘Penge’ and ‘Stonehenge’; ‘coif’ has no rhyme at all; ‘starve’ has no rhyme except (oh, irony!) ‘carve’; ‘scarf’ has no rhyme, though I fully expect to be told that ‘laugh,’ ‘calf,’ and ‘half’ are admissible, which they certainly are not.’

Miscellaneous Notes and Queries, March 1894


A remarkable instance of the salutary effects of atmospheric electricity on the human body is told by the Wolverhampton correspondent of the London ‘Times.’ He states that during a thunder-storm a collier named Bates, who had lost his sight through an accident, was being led home, when a flash of lightning was reflected on the spectacles he was wearing to conceal his disfigurement. After the peal of thunder which followed he complained of pain in his head. The next moment, to his surprise, he found that he had regained possession of his eye-sight. The occurrence caused considerable excitement in the locality.

Popular Science Monthly, 1889

See also “Cure of a Palsy by a Stroke of Lightning.”


That’s Mary Todd Lincoln with the ghost of her husband, as captured by “spirit photographer” William H. Mumler.

The story goes that Mary sat for the photo in the early 1870s, when she had taken the name Lindall, and that the photographer didn’t know her identity until the exposure revealed the martyred president.

That’s the story. Skeptics immediately accused Mumler of fakery, and he didn’t win any friends with his new career, “revealing” the ghosts of Civil War dead for their grieving families.

That practice was too low even for P.T. Barnum (!), who testified against Mumler in a fraud trial in 1869. He was acquitted, but he died penniless in 1884.

Perhaps Mumler really had discovered an astonishing new technique … but it seems telling that his own ghost has never been photographed.

Let This Be a Lesson

The market square in the Wiltshire town of Devizes contains the following inscription:

On Thursday, 25th January, 1753,
of Potterne, in this County,
Agreed with Three other Women to buy a Sack of Wheat
in the Market, each paying her due proportion
towards the same.
One of these Women, in collecting the several quotas of
Money, discovered a deficiency, and demanded of
RUTH PEARCE the sum which was wanting
to make good the Amount.
RUTH PEARCE protested that she had paid her Share,
and said she wished she might drop dead if she
had not. — She rashly repeated this awful wish; —
when, to the consternation and terror of the surrounding
multitude, she instantly fell down and expired,
having the money concealed in her hand.