The Grave Creek Stone

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This flat, polished sandstone pebble was found in a 2,000-year-old burial mound in West Virginia in 1838. Though it seemed to bear 25 pseudo-alphabetic characters, no one could agree on their meaning. In 1845 ethnologist Henry Rowe Schoolcraft consulted “noted antiquarians” and concluded that the inscription contains “four characters corresponding to the Ancient Greek; four Etruscan; five Runic; six ancient Gallic; seven old Erse; ten Phoenician; fourteen old British; sixteen Celtiberic, with some resemblance to the Hebrew.” In the 1870s physician R.J. Farquharson compiled wildly varying translations of the inscription from three different scholars:

  1. “Thy orders are laws, thou shines in thy impetuous clan, and rapid as the chamois.”
  2. “The chief of emigration who reached these places (or island), has fixed these decrees forever.”
  3. “The grave of one who was murdered here; to revenge him may God strike his murderer, suddenly taking away his existence.”

Also in the 1870s, antiquarian M.C. Reid asked a law student, a schoolgirl, a pharmacist, and a college professor to create “twenty or more arbitrary characters not resembling any figures or alphabetical characters known to them.” Their characters resembled those in Old World alphabets, just as did those on the Grave Creek stone. Reid was “compelled to conclude that there is nothing in the form of the characters of the Grave Creek Stone which require us to decide that they are old, that they are alphabetical, or if alphabetical that they are derived from any known alphabet.”

Today it seems most likely that the stone was forged by James W. Clemens, a local physician who had financed the original excavation and wanted to sell rights to exploit the mound. In 2008 anthropologist David Oestreicher discovered the same sequences of markings in a 1752 book by a Spanish historian, An Essay on the Alphabets of the Unknown Letters That Are Found in the Most Ancient Coins and Monuments of Spain. It appears that Clemens simply copied these characters onto the stone and planted it in the mound.

The Davenport Tablets

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When the Rev. Jacob Gass discovered three inscribed slate tablets near Davenport, Iowa, in 1877, he thought they demonstrated the presence of an ancient Old World people who’d traveled to the Americas long before Columbus. The find was praised in local journals, but in 1885 ethnologist Cyrus Thomas declared them a fraud: The inscriptions were a hodgepodge of various languages amateurishly rendered, and Gass had reported finding the slates in loose soil in which human bones had been scattered about, suggested that they’d been planted there.

It turned out that the slates matched those on the roof of a nearby house of prostitution, right down to the nail holes. In 1991 archaeologist Marshall McKusick tracked down a confession by local academy member James Willis Bollinger, who said, “We had no respect for Reverend Gass because he was the biggest windjammer and liar and everyone knew he was. We wanted to shut him up once and for all.” McKusick points out that Bollinger was only 9 years old when the slates had been discovered, but perhaps he’d heard the story from other members and injected himself into the story. The modern consensus is that Gass was the victim of a hoax.

False Features

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Just before his death in 1702, butterfly collector William Charlton delivered an unusual specimen to London entomologist James Petiver. Petiver wrote, “It exactly resembles our English Brimstone Butterfly (R. Rhamni), were it not for those black spots and apparent blue moons on the lower wings. This is the only one I have seen.” Carl Linnaeus named it Papilio ecclipsis and included it in the 12th edition of his Systema Naturae in 1767.

It wasn’t until 1793 that Danish zoologist Johan Christian Fabricius discovered that the dark patches had been painted on — it was only an ordinary brimstone butterfly after all. The curator at the British Museum “indignantly stamped the specimen to pieces” at this news, but entomologist William Jones created two new replicas to commemorate the “Charlton Brimstones.”

Never Mind

On April 8, 1885, the St. Louis Evening Chronicle published an astonishing story — coal miner Tim Collins had broken into a forgotten cavern hewn by subterranean giants:

A large room, probably 65 by 100 feet in extent, showed itself dimly by the light of our tapers. It was about 20 or 25 feet from floor to ceiling, and had evidently been lighted from the top, though there were openings in the walls where, from appearances, great oaken blinds or doors had once been. These doors had rotted, and only small portions of them remained, small bits of which we chipped off with our knives as souvenirs of our visit. Further examination showed that this room had been used as a workshop but mechanics who had been at work long before Huram’s artificers hewed the architecture for Solomon’s temple. On each side near the walls, and also in the center, were found tables or benches where they had fashioned the work of their hands. These benches were of stone, and there were but few evidences of the character of work done. The wood that had been employed was damp, rotten and so covered with mold as to be almost indistinguishable in shape, and when touched, crumbled to dust. Tools were found on the benches, the handles of which had long since rotted away. But the tools themselves were in a good state of preservation and show that they were fashioned by master mechanics. A number of them were brought to the surface and are now exposed to the gaze of the curious.

The story drew worldwide attention for three days before it was revealed to be false — reporter J.W. Estes of the Moberly Daily Monitor had concocted it as a late April Fools’ Day hoax.

Collins was real enough — to keep off curiosity seekers he was forced to mount a sign at his mine’s entrance: NO BURRYIED SITY LUNATICKS ALOUD ON THESE PREMISES.

(From Kenneth L. Feder, Archaeological Oddities, 2019.)

Chutzpah

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

Reader David Kastelan just let me know about this — in 2015 someone scammed €80 million from wealthy victims by donning a silicone mask to impersonate French defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. Ostensibly he was asking for financial help in raising ransoms for journalists held hostage by Islamists.

“Everything about the story is exceptional,” Le Drian’s lawyer told the BBC. “They dared to take on the identity of a serving French minister. Then they called up CEOs and heads of government round the world and asked for vast amounts of money. The nerve of it!”

Early contacts were made by phone, but eventually “Le Drian” appeared on Skype in a brief call from a poorly lit ministerial office. Many of the targets refused, but the Aga Khan lost €18 million, and an unnamed Turkish businessman lost at least €40 million.

No one knows who’s responsible, but one suspect is French-Israeli con man Gilbert Chikli. He’s currently in jail in Paris, and the calls have stopped, but it’s possible that other gang members are still at large.

No Comment

In 1958, momentarily exasperated at the jargon that afflicted behavioral science, Harvard sociologist Daniel Bell typed up an impenetrable paper titled “The Parameters of Social Movements: A Formal Paradigm”:

The purpose of this scheme is to present a taxonomic dichotomization which would allow for unilinear comparisons. In this fashion we could hope to distinguish the relevant variables which determine the functional specificities of social movements. Any classificatory scheme is, essentially, an answer to some implicit other scheme. In this instance, it is an attempt to answer the various hylozoic theories which deny that social categories can be separable.

He divided social movements into two types, the homologous and the metonymous. Homologous movements are distinguished by structural variables (monocotyledonous and dicotyledonous), matrix variables (ultramontane and anti-nomian), and process variables (syncretistic and diastrophic). Metonymous movements, by contrast, are marked by goal definitions (transcendental or eschatological), a matrix of change that’s quietistic or chiliastic (the latter either sectarian or lacrimatarian), and a mode of change that’s immanent or informed by kairos (diastasis).

“I sent it off to two sociological friends, who I thought would appreciate it, and one sent me back a serious letter about some of the categories, while the other, not knowing whether it was a spoof or not, wrote: ‘You are too good a sociologist not to have created something which itself is quite useful.'”

(From Dwight Macdonald, Parodies, 1960.)

Podcast Episode 242: The Cardiff Giant

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In 1869, two well diggers in Cardiff, N.Y., unearthed an enormous figure made of stone. More than 600,000 people flocked to see the mysterious giant, but even as its fame grew, its real origins were coming to light. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the Cardiff giant, one of the greatest hoaxes of the 19th century.

We’ll also ponder the effects of pink and puzzle over a potentially painful treatment.

See full show notes …

Podcast Episode 223: The Prince of Forgers

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Denis Vrain-Lucas was an undistinguished forger until he met gullible collector Michel Chasles. Through the 1860s Lucas sold Chasles thousands of phony letters by everyone from Plato to Louis the 14th, earning thousands of francs and touching off a firestorm among confused scholars. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll trace the career of the world’s most prolific forger.

We’ll also count Queen Elizabeth’s eggs and puzzle over a destroyed car.

See full show notes …

Vision

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

One of the most exquisite of telephone hoaxes known to me was one contrived by Dr Carl Bosch when he was a research student in Germany. He happened to work in a laboratory situated several floors up, where from his window he found that he could survey a block of flats across the road. Having discovered that the occupant of one of the flats was a newspaper correspondent, Bosch telephoned him pretending to be his own professor. Excitedly he explained to the correspondent that he had just invented a marvellous system of television (the date was 1933) which you could clip on to an ordinary telephone set, look into it and see the man that you were speaking to at the other end. Of course, the newspaper man was incredulous. The ‘professor’ then offered to demonstrate the system to him, inviting him to point the telephone towards the middle of his room, then stand in front of it and do anything that he liked, such as standing on one leg, after which the ‘professor’ would tell him what he had done. The result was a rave article in the local newspaper, an embarrassed newspaperman, and an astonished ‘professor’.

— Robert L. Pfaltzgraff et al., Intelligence Policy and National Security, 1981

Podcast Episode 208: Giving Birth to Rabbits

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In 1726 London was rocked by a bizarre sensation: A local peasant woman began giving birth to rabbits, astounding the city and baffling the medical community. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll review the strange case of Mary Toft, which has been called “history’s most fascinating medical mystery.”

We’ll also ponder some pachyderms and puzzle over some medical misinformation.

See full show notes …