The Stilt-Walkers of Landes

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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.

“Buildering”

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.

The Mad Gasser of Mattoon

The Mad Gasser of Mattoon was a mysterious figure who haunted Mattoon, Ill., in the summer of 1944.

Typically, homeowners would report awakening to a sweet odor, then feeling nausea, dizziness, headaches, breathing difficulty, or a feeling of paralysis. Some saw a tall figure dressed in black fleeing their property after the attack.

Police and citizens patrolled the streets, and the newspapers printed several sensational accounts, but the police never found a suspect. The attacks stopped after Sept. 13, as mysteriously as they had begun.

Left-Handedness and Age

Twelve percent of American 20-year-olds are left-handed, but only 5 percent of 50-year-olds and fewer than 1 percent of people over 80.

Does this mean that more lefties are being born today? Or that older generations were forced to switch hands? Or that southpaws die sooner? No one knows.

Rongorongo

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Statues aren’t the only mystery on Easter Island. Tablets found on the island bear a mysterious script, known as rongorongo, that has never been successfully deciphered.

Some scholars have pointed out similarities between the strange characters and the prehistoric script of the Indus Valley in India, 6,000 miles away, but others dispute this.

The islanders themselves give eager and varying accounts to archaeologists and historians, and perhaps they themselves don’t know. Some say that rongorongo means peace-peace, and that the documents record treaties, perhaps with visitors to the island.

So far, none of the attempts at translation have withstood peer review.

An Early Serial Killer

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Wander too far away from the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 and you might disappear forever.

Herman Mudgett, an enterprising serial killer, built a row of three-story buildings near the Chicago fair and opened it as a hotel. Guests discovered — too late — that it was a maze of more than 100 windowless rooms, where Mudgett would trap them, torture them in a soundproof chamber, and then asphyxiate them with a custom-fitted gas line.

Then he’d send the bodies by chute to the basement, where he’d cremate them or sell them to a medical school.

This went on for three years, until a fire broke out and police and firemen discovered the trap. No one knows how many people Mudgett killed; he confessed to 27, but estimates go as high as 230.

He was hanged in Philadelphia in 1896.

“The Lindow Man”

In 1963, Peter Reyn-Bardt killed his wife and buried her in a peat bog in Cheshire County, England. Twenty years later, when a body was discovered, he assumed he’d been caught and turned himself in.

He should have waited. An investigation showed that the body was not his wife’s, but that of an Iron Age man who had died two thousand years earlier and been eerily preserved in the cold acid bog.

They convicted Reyn-Bardt anyway.

The Devil’s Footprints

On the morning of Feb. 8, 1855, residents of Devon, England, awoke to find a series of prints in the snow. Resembling cloven hooves, the “devil’s footprints” ran through the countryside for more than 100 miles, largely along straight lines and seemingly unimpeded by rivers, haystacks and other obstacles.

Some attribute the prints to hopping mice, whose jumps can leave hooflike marks, but they’d have to be pretty ambitious mice — the tracks covered more than 100 miles, topping houses and high walls. On the other hand, no one has offered a better explanation.