No One Home

On the afternoon of Oct. 24, 1961, 31-year-old Joan Risch was found to be missing from her home in Lincoln, Massachusetts. Blood that matched her type was found in the kitchen and the driveway, a table had been overturned, and a telephone handset had been torn from the wall. Risch’s 2-year-old son was safe in his crib upstairs. Her husband, returning from a business trip, said he could not explain the source of some empty beer bottles in a wastebasket.

Risch had last been seen wearing a trench coat and carrying something red quickly up her driveway, toward the garage. Several people reported having seen a two-tone blue car in the neighborhood, and possibly in Risch’s driveway, at about the time of her disappearance, and a number of witnesses reported having seen a disoriented woman matching Risch’s description walking along nearby roads.

Some time after her disappearance, it was discovered that Risch had checked out 25 books on murders and missing-persons cases over the summer of 1961. The case has never been solved. Both Risch’s husband and police chief Leo Algeo died in 2009. Algeo said, “I thought they’d find a body or bones or something. … Things do turn up. People don’t disappear without a trace.”

The Groaning-Board

At the sign of the Wool-sack, in Newgate Market, is to be seen a strange and wonderful thing, which is an elm board, being touched with a hot iron, doth express itself as if it were a man dying with groans, and trembling, to the great admiration of all the hearers. It hath been presented before the king and his nobles, and hath given great satisfaction.

London handbill, 1682

One of the most curious and ingenious amusements ever offered to the publick ear was contrived in the year 1682, when an elm plank was exhibited to the King and the credulous of London, which, being touched by a hot iron, invariably produced a sound resembling deep groans.

This sensible, and very irritable board, received numbers of noble visitors; and other boards, sympathising with their afflicted brother, demonstrated how much affected they might be by similar means.

— James Peller Malcolm, Anecdotes of the Manners and Customs of London, 1810

In one of William Molyneux’s communications he mentions the exhibition of ‘the groaning-plank’ in Dublin, a curiosity that attracted much attention and many learned speculations about the years 1682 and 1683. He was, however, too much of a philosopher to be gulled with the rest of the people who witnessed this so-called ‘sensible elm-plank,’ which is said to have groaned and trembled on the application of a hot iron to one end of it. After explaining the probable cause of the noise and tremulousness by its form and condition, and by the sap being made to pass up through the pores or tubuli of the plank which was in some particular condition, he says: ‘But, Tom, the generality of mankind is lazy and unthoughtful, and will not trouble themselves to think of the reason of a thing: when they have a brief way of explaining anything that is strange by saying, “The devil’s in it,” what need they trouble their heads about pores, and matters, and motion, figure, and disposition, when the devil and a witch shall solve the phenomena of nature.’

“Gallery of Illustrious Irishmen: Sir Thomas Molyneux,” Dublin University Magazine, September 1841

Rising Masses

A writer in The Builder has cleverly suggested that bridges might be erected in the crowded thoroughfares of London for the convenience of foot passengers, who lose so much valuable time in crossing. As the stairs would occupy a considerable space, and occasion much fatigue, I beg to propose an amendment: Might not the ascending pedestrians be raised up by the descending? The bridge would then resemble the letter H, and occupy but little room. Three or four at a time, stepping into an iron framework, would be gently elevated, walk across, and perform by their weight the same friendly office for others rising on the opposite side. Surely no obstacles can arise which might not be surmounted by ingenuity. If a temporary bridge were erected in one of the parks the experiment might be tried at little cost, and, at any rate, some amusement would be afforded. C.T.

Notes and Queries, July 17, 1852

Narrators and Film

Ishmael narrates Moby-Dick, just as Gulliver narrates his travels and John Watson narrates the Sherlock Holmes stories. In each case we can assume that all the information presented in the literary story is imparted to us by its fictional narrator.

But the filmed version of each story contains thousands of details that are apparent to us but clearly never observed directly by the narrator. Yet it’s still the narrator who’s ostensibly telling us the story. If the narrator isn’t supplying these details, then … who is?

Fair Enough
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Butterflies in the genus Diaethria are commonly called “eighty-eights” because their wings bear a pattern that resembles the number 88 or 89.

The Australian ringneck parrot has four subspecies, one of which is known as the 28 parrot for its triple-noted call, which sounds like “twentee-eight.”

Buzz Off

The first directory of Philadelphia, published in 1785, contains some odd entries:

‘I won’t tell you,’ 3. Maiden’s Lane.
‘I won’t tell it,’ 15. Sugar Alley.
‘I won’t tell you my name,’ 160. New Market Street.
‘I won’t have it numbered,’ 478. Green Street.
‘I won’t tell my name,’ 185. St. John’s Street.
‘I shall not give you my name,’ 43. Stamper’s Alley.
‘What you please,’ 49. Market Street.

Apparently some residents, suspicious of taxation, had refused to identify themselves … so the publishers listed their responses in place of their names in the directory.

(From Notes and Queries.)


In January 1946, the night before he was to scheduled fly to Tokyo, British air marshal Victor Goddard attended a cocktail party in Shanghai where another officer described a dream in which Goddard had been killed in a plane crash. He said the plane had been carrying three English civilian passengers, two men and a woman, and had experienced icing troubles during the flight and crashed on a shingled beach near mountains.

Goddard’s flight had had no scheduled passengers, but that night he was asked successively to take two men and a woman with him to Tokyo, all English civilians. During the flight the plane’s wings iced over and he was forced to make a crash landing on the Japanese island of Sado, on a shingled beach near mountains. Everyone survived, and they were rescued after a search.

“For my next crash I want no prior information,” Goddard wrote in the Saturday Evening Post. “Makes one too ‘nervy,’ as we say. Quite spoils the enjoyment of flying.”

An Early IMAX

In 1827, visitors to London could get a titan’s view of the city by visiting Regent’s Park. There surveyor Thomas Hornor had built a colosseum housing the largest painting in the world, a panorama seven stories tall and 130 feet in diameter. A spiral staircase rose to a large gallery from which visitors could view London as seen from the ball atop St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Estimates of the painting’s size vary from 24,000 to 44,000 square feet; flyers called it “nearly an acre of canvas.” Half a million people visited the Colosseum in 1829, but Hornor’s backer left for Paris and he was quickly broke. New owners reopened the attraction in 1845, though, and it stood as a fixture for 30 years, renowned for the clarity of its vista. “The ascent is easy, the sky is fine and bright, the atmosphere is clear,” wrote one visitor. “We can command constant sunshine.”

A Near Thing

Of the loss of the Titanic there is one perfectly attested premonition.

‘On the 23d of March the Hon. J. Cannon Middleton booked a passage on the ill-fated ship, which was announced to sail on April 10. About the end of March he dreamed that he saw her floating keel upward, her passengers and crew swimming round her. The same dream was repeated the following night. Though feeling very uneasy, he told no one and took no action. But on April 4 he received a cable suggesting, for business reasons, that he postpone his journey. He consequently canceled his ticket, and then related his dream to his wife and three friends, all of whom testify to his having done so. He also produces as evidence his canceled ticket and the cable delaying his journey.’

Here the facts seem to be beyond dispute; but it is, of course, impossible to rule out the theory of coincidence. It should be noted, however, that Mr. Middleton had crossed the Atlantic a dozen times, and had never before had any such premonition or felt any nervousness. The coincidence that, just on this occasion, he should twice have a warning dream is certainly very strange.

— William Archer, “Can We Foretell the Future?”, McClure’s Magazine, December 1915

An Odd Episode

In April 1909, Carl Jung asked Sigmund Freud his opinion on precognition and parapsychology. As Freud was dismissing them, Jung felt “a curious sensation”:

It was as if my diaphragm was made of iron and was becoming red-hot — a glowing vault. And at that moment there was such a loud report in the bookcase, which stood right next to us, that we both started up in alarm, fearing the thing was going to topple over us. I said to Freud: ‘There, that is an example of a so-called catalytic exteriorisation phenomenon.’

‘Oh come,’ he exclaimed. ‘That is sheer bosh.’

‘It is not,’ I replied. ‘You are mistaken, Herr Professor. And to prove my point I now predict that in a moment there will be another loud report!’ Sure enough, no sooner had I said the words than the same detonation went off in the bookcase.

“To this day I do no know what gave me this certainty,” Jung said later. “But I knew beyond all doubt that the report would come again. Freud only stared aghast at me. I do not know what was in his mind, or what his look meant. In any case, this incident aroused his mistrust of me, and I had the feeling that I had done something against him. I never afterwards discussed the incident with him.”

Freud was not impressed. In a letter to Jung he wrote, “At first I was inclined to ascribe some meaning to it if the noise we heard so frequently when you were here were never again heard after your departure. But since then it has happened over and over again, yet never in connection with my thoughts and never when I was considering you or your special problem.”

A fuller account is here. It’s not clear that they ever discovered the source of the sound, but note that Freud’s letter was written in the same month as the experience, where Jung’s recollection was made in an interview half a century later — when (perhaps among other things) he had misremembered the location of the bookshelf.