The Monkey Signalman

For a time in the 1880s, a baboon named Jack was employed as a railroad signalman in South Africa. He was working, apparently successfully, as a voorloper, or ox driver, in the Eastern Cape when he was discovered by James Erwin Wide, a Uitenhage signalman who had recently lost his legs in an accident.

Impressed and needing a helper, Wide bought the baboon and trained him to operate his junction. When a train approached it would identify itself with a whistle; Jack would get the keys, head into the signal box and pull the correct lever to change tracks. Alarmed riders complained, but railway management investigated and were so impressed that they actually put the baboon on a railway allowance and rations, including a small amount of brandy per day.

I know this sounds preposterous, but there are photographs of Jack at work and eyewitness accounts of his abilities. His skull can be seen today in the Albany Museum in Grahamstown.


This is The Ambassadors (1533), the celebrated painting by Hans Holbein the Younger. It’s full of noteworthy symbols of exploration, but what’s that odd skewed element at the bottom?

If you view the canvas from a narrow angle, the image resolves into a skull:

This is an early example of anamorphic perspective, an invention of the early Renaissance. It’s thought that Holbein intended that the painting would be hung in a stairwell, when people ascending the stairs would view the image from the proper angle and get a gruesome surprise.

Why? That’s an unanswered question.

Fedor Jeftichew

“Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy” was presented to sideshow audiences as a freak of nature, raised by a savage in a Russian cave and prone to barking and growling incoherently when upset.

In reality, Fedor Jeftichew was born in St. Petersburg in 1868, and he spoke Russian, German, and English. His appearance was due to a medical condition called hypertrichosis, or excessive hair growth, the same disorder that produces “bearded ladies.”

Jeftichew inherited the condition from his father, Adrian, who had performed in French circuses. When his father died, Fedor eventually signed with an American show, going on to tour Europe and the United States extensively. He died in Turkey in 1904.

Electric Chair

In 1898, Columbus prison inmate Charles Justice helped build and install Ohio’s only electric chair.

Justice finished his sentence and returned to society, but irony caught up with him. Thirteen years later he was back in prison, and on Nov. 9, 1911, he was executed in the same electric chair he had helped to build.

No Handicap

Achievements of Carl Herman Unthan (1848-1928), who was born without hands:

  • He could feed himself at age 2.
  • At age 10 he taught himself the violin.
  • At 16 he was sent to a music conservatory.
  • At 20 he was performing to full concert halls. During his first performance he replaced a broken string with his toes.
  • As a marksman, operating a rifle with his feet, he could shoot the spots out of a playing card.
  • He married Antonie Neschta, whom he met while touring Cuba, Mexico, South America, and Europe.
  • He moved to the United States and eventually gained citizenship.

In 1925, Unthan published an autobiography, Das Pediscript (not “manuscript,” because he typed it with his toes). It was published in English in 1935, seven years after his death.

The Middlebush Giant

Excerpt from the obituary of Arthur James Caley (1837-1889), the “Middlebush Giant”:

“The farmhouse of the dead giant was thronged with villagers long before the hour fixed for the funeral. The remains had been placed in a coffin eight feet long and three feet wide. It was covered with cloth and had been specially made for the deceased. After the funeral services were over the coffin was borne on the shoulders of eight sturdy farmers to a wagon which was standing in the road about 100 yards from the house. Undertaker Van Duyn said he could not find a hearse large enough to hold the giant’s coffin. The pallbearers had a hard struggle in carrying the remains down the incline leading from the house to the road and when they deposited the coffin in the wagon, beads of perspiration stood out on their foreheads.”

Caley measured 7 foot 2 and weighed 630 pounds. He had been a fixture in P.T. Barnum’s show, and he remained a sensation even in death: He was originally buried without a tombstone for fear his body would be dug up and put on display.

The Stilt-Walkers of Landes

In 1891, Sylvain Dornon walked from Paris to Moscow on stilts. It took him only 58 days.

Stilts were big in Gascony, whose wide plains, few roads, and broad marshes made foot travel difficult, and where shepherds needed to tend widely scattered flocks. The 5-foot stilts of Landes were called tchangues (“big legs”); with a long staff or crook, they turned a shepherd into a giant walking tripod that could cover plains, bush, pools and marshes with equal ease.

Spend enough time up there and you’d get pretty good at it. An experienced stilt-walker could stand, walk, run, hop, even pick flowers. When he wasn’t tending his flock he could knit or spin using a distaff stuck in his girdle; some tchangues even carried guns or portable stoves.

In 1808, when Josephine went to Bayonne to rejoin Napoleon I, the municipality sent an escort of stilt-walkers to meet her. It’s said that they easily kept up with the horses on the return journey, and the tchangues amused the ladies by racing, a tradition that continued through the 19th century. On the market days in Bordeaux, peasants would travel up to 20 leagues laden with bags and baskets. Beats a Segway.


Using only his bare hands and climbing shoes, Alain Robert has climbed more than 70 structures worldwide, including the Eiffel Tower, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Sydney Opera House and the 1,668-foot Taipei 101, the world’s tallest building.

When he reaches the top, the first thing he does is call his children.

Wife Carrying Championship

This July saw the Ninth Annual Wife-Carrying World Championship in Sonkajärvi, Finland.

The event, inspired by a proud Finnish history of wife-stealing, involves flinging a woman over your back and sprinting past obstacles to a finish line 253 meters away. Rules:

  • “The wife to be carried may be your own, the neighbour’s or you may have found her farther afield,” but she has to be at least 108 pounds and 17 years old.
  • If you drop your wife you’re fined 15 seconds.
  • The only equipment allowed is a belt worn by the carrier.

The world record is 55.5 seconds, and the winner (Estonia) gets his wife’s weight in beer.