A Geological Puzzle

Being at my seat near the village of Meudon, and overlooking a quarry-man, whom I had set to break some very large and hard stones, in the middle of one we found a huge live toad, though there was no visible aperture by which it could have got there. I could not help expressing my wonder how it had been generated, had grown, and lived; but the labourer told me, it was not the first time he had met with toads and the like creatures within huge blocks of stone, in which there could be found no visible opening or fissure.

— Ambrose Pare, chief surgeon to Henry III of France, quoted in The Monthly Magazine, 1798

Spelling Peril

I take it you already know
Of tough and bough and cough and dough.
Others may stumble, but not you,
On hiccough, thorough, laugh, and through.
Well done! And now you wish, perhaps,
To learn of less familiar traps.
Beware of heard, a dreadful word,
That looks like beard and sounds like bird.
And dead—it’s said like bed, not bead,
For goodness’ sake, don’t call it deed!
Watch out for meat and great and threat,
(They rhyme with suite and straight and debt).
A moth is not a moth in mother,
Nor both in bother, broth in brother.
And here is not a match for there,
Nor dear and fear for bear and pear.
And then there’s dose and rose and lose
Just look them up—and goose and choose.
And cork and work and card and ward,
And font and front and word and sword.
And do and go and thwart and cart
Come, come, I’ve hardly made a start!
A dreadful language? Why, man alive!
I’d mastered it when I was five!

— Anonymous

Good Boy

This one is preposterous, but I have two sources, so here goes.

In the 1870s, visitors to a remote New Mexico sheep ranch discovered the solitary rancher dead in his hut. His records showed that he had been dead two years, but his flocks had actually increased since his death. How was this possible?

It turned out that his dog had been tending the flocks in his absence. The rancher had trained him to drive the flocks to their pasture in the morning, guard them all day, and return them to their fold at night, and he’d continued these duties when the rancher disappeared, killing some sheep as necessary for food but faithfully tending the rest.

According to these reports, in 1879 the New Mexico legislature awarded the dog a pension for life as a reward for his fidelity, “and no doubt as an encouragement to all other shepherd dogs in that territory to be good and faithful.” Draw your own conclusions.

(Sources: The Anti-Vivisectionist, Dec. 15, 1880; Albert Plympton Southwick, Handy Helps, No. 1, 1886)



“Spirit photographs” created by hoaxer William Hope in 1919.

From left: Mr. and Mrs. Gibson with their deceased son; Mrs. Longcake with her dead sister-in-law; the Rev. Charles Tweedale and his wife, with her father.

Arthur Conan Doyle (below, center) defended Hope even when skeptic Harry Price had shown that he was manipulating his plates. “The credulity of dupes,” wrote Edmund Burke, “is as inexhaustible as the invention of knaves.”



A moving Sermon being preached in a Country Church, all fell a weeping but one Man, who being ask’d, Why he did not weep with the rest? Oh! said he, I belong to another parish.

The Jester’s Magazine, November 1766

The Silent City


In 1885, explorer Richard Willoughby claimed to have discovered a wonderful mirage above Alaska’s Muir glacier: He’d seen a modern city, he said, with buildings, church towers, vessels, even citizens. This photograph sold “like hot cakes” in the summer of 1889, and Willoughby sold the negative to a San Francisco photographer for $500.

There it all unraveled. An American consul, home from England, noted that the “silent city” bore a striking resemblance to Bristol. It turned out that Willoughby had paid an English tourist $10 for an overexposed photo of his hometown, and the rest was hot air. Still, he deserves credit for invention.

“Fatal Double Meaning”

Count Valavoir, a general in the French service under Turenne, while encamped before the enemy, attempted one night to pass a sentinel. The sentinel challenged him, and the count answered ‘Va-la-voir,’ which literally signifies ‘Go and see.’ The soldier, who took the words in this sense, indignantly repeated the challenge, and was answered in the same manner, when he fired; and the unfortunate Count fell dead upon the spot,–a victim to the whimsicality of his surname.

— Charles Carroll Bombaugh, Gleanings for the Curious From the Harvest-Fields of Literature, 1890


I’m in a 10der mood to-day
& feel poetic, 2;
4 fun I’ll just — off a line
& send it off 2 U.

I’m sorry you’ve been 6 O long;
Don’t B disconsol8;
But bear your ills with 42de,
& they won’t seem so gr8.

— Anonymous