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Image: Wikimedia Commons

This enigmatic headstone stands in in St. Paul’s Cemetery in Alexandria, Virginia, over the body of an unknown woman. Nothing definite seems to be known as to the woman’s identity, apart from the year of her death, but the poignant epitaph has fueled speculation for more than two centuries. One common suggestion is that she was Theodosia Burr Alston, a daughter of Aaron Burr who disappeared at sea in 1813, but this doesn’t account for Alston’s whereabouts in the three years before the mystery woman’s interment at Alexandria. It seems unlikely now that the inscription will ever be explained.

Image: Flickr

In 1962, determined to start life anew, Yorkshire newspaper editor Brendon Grimshaw purchased little Moyenne Island in the Seychelles for £8,000. He remained there for the next 40 years. In that time Grimshaw and an assistant planted 16,000 trees by hand, built three miles of nature paths, attracted 2,000 new birds, and became caretakers of 120 giant tortoises. The island now hosts two thirds of all plants endemic to the Seychelles.

Grimshaw once turned down an offer of $50 million for the island, saying that he didn’t want to see it become a holiday destination for millionaires. Instead, in 2008 it was named a national park. Grimshaw died in 2012, but today a warden is posted on the island to collect entrance fees from tourists.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Fighting a storm in the Kuril Archipelago in January 1960, Soviet barge T-36 ran out of fuel and was carried out of its lagoon and into the open ocean. By the time the storm ceased it had also lost its radio transmitter, and when rescue crews found debris it was concluded that the vessel had sunk.

In fact it was drifting eastward across the North Pacific. The barge had recently been stocked with a three days’ supply of food and water, but some of this had been ruined in the storm, and the four-man crew were eventually reduced to eating their shoes and belts as they drifted endlessly east. “Each time we awoke, we were surprised to be alive,” private Philip Poplavski later told Time. “But we felt we were too young to die.”

Finally, after 49 days, they were spotted by an American Navy reconnaissance plane and picked up by the aircraft carrier Kearsarge. Amid worldwide publicity, the crew sailed to Paris on the Queen Mary, then flew back to the Soviet Union.

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This is a photograph of an absence. In 1876 the whaling ship Velocity reported spotting some “Sandy Islets” in New Caledonia, and “Sandy Island” was carried into later charts as a potential navigational hazard. But doubts began to arise in the 20th century, and in 2012 an Australian research vessel visited the area and “undiscovered” the island. With its absence officially confirmed, it’s been removed from modern maps and databases.

In a Word

v. to watch carefully; to keep vigil

n. lateness; delay

adj. roving; wandering; characterized by vagaries

adj. that roams around the world

Letter to the Times, Aug. 24, 2001:

Sir, Some years ago when I lived in Livingstone, Zambia, I received a letter from Lusaka, the capital, correctly addressed but weeks late.

Among the numerous back stamps the envelope had collected in its travels the last was Livingstone, Canada, with an inscription ‘Try Livingstone, Zambia’.

The letter had also visited Scotland and New Zealand.

Yours truly,

David H. Walton
Crowland, Peterborough

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Drive east on Canusa Street and you’re in the United States, drive west and you’re in Canada. That’s because the street, part of Quebec Route 247, runs along the border — the yellow line dividing its lanes follows the 45th parallel.

Families who live on the south side are in Vermont, and those in the north are in Quebec — they can see one another but must present themselves at a border post before crossing the street.

But residents of both countries can freely visit the Haskell Free Library — where the main entrance is in America but the books are in Canada.

Private Collection

In November 1985, a couple walked into an art museum in Tucson, Arizona. While the woman chatted with a security guard, the man disappeared briefly upstairs, and then the pair departed. Then the guard discovered that Willem de Kooning’s painting Woman-Ochre was missing — it had been cut out of its canvas.

More than 30 years later, in 2017, retired New York speech pathologist Rita Alter passed away in the little town of Cliff, N.M., five years after her husband, Jerry, a former schoolteacher. In their bedroom was the missing de Kooning, in a position that was visible only when the door was closed. The painting appeared to have been reframed only once in the 31 years it had been missing, suggesting that it had had only one owner in that time.

Had the Alters stolen the painting? They were admirers of de Kooning and had been in Tucson the day before the theft. But such a crime seems vastly out of character for the retiring couple. “[They wouldn’t] risk something as wild and crazy as grand larceny — risk the possibility of winding up in prison, for God’s sake — they wouldn’t do that,” Rita’s sister told the New York Times.

Had the pair then bought the painting from a third party? That seems impossible too — it was worth an estimated $160 million. Perhaps the painting’s authenticity had been forgotten by the time of the transaction, so that both buyer and seller thought it was a copy? How could that have come about?

Jerry Alter once published a story in which a woman and her granddaughter steal an emerald from a museum and keep it on private display, “where two pairs of eyes, exclusively, are there to see.” Is that a coincidence? A veiled admission?

We may never know. The FBI’s case remains open.

(Thanks, Daniel.)

Thinking Ahead

If James cannot decide whether to marry Alice or Jane, he simply travels to the future and learns that he is to choose Alice; he then chooses her for this reason. One wants to object that the decision to marry Alice was never really made at all! But this is not true; the decision was made — as a result of the knowledge that this was the decision … It is not the case that the prospective bridegroom could visit the future and compare the results of marrying Alice with those of marrying Jane in order to decide between the alternatives. For if he visits the future, he will learn only that in fact he chose Alice, for better or for worse!

— Gilbert Fulmer, “Understanding Time Travel,” Southwestern Journal of Philosophy 11:1 (1980), 151-156, via Paul J. Nahin, Time Machine Tales, 2016

“A Matter of Opinion”

A man walks round a pole on the top of which is a monkey. As the man moves, the monkey turns on the top of the pole, so as still to keep face to face with the man. Now, when the man has gone round the pole, has he or has he not gone round the monkey?

— John Scott, The Puzzle King, 1899