Boo!

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Freud would have loved San Jose’s “Winchester Mystery House,” a mansion-sized emblem of its owner’s mental illness. Rifle heiress Sarah L. Winchester started construction in 1884, and never stopped. A medium had told her of a family curse, and convinced her that she would die if the construction ever ceased.

So it went on, 24 hours a day, for 38 years. There was no plan; the house was just continuously rebuilt. Worse, Sarah believed that vengeful spirits of gun victims were seeking her, so she slept in a different room each night, and the layout is full of secret passages and stairways and doors that lead nowhere.

The result shows what $5.5 million worth of insanity looks like. Altogether there are 160 rooms, including 40 bedrooms, 47 fireplaces, 1,260 windows, 17 chimneys (with evidence of two others), two ballrooms, two basements and three working elevators.

It takes 20,000 gallons to paint the place, so painting never stops. In that sense, Sarah’s weird wish lives on.

SPCSCPG

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The Society for the Prevention of Calling Sleeping Car Porters “George” was a lighthearted association with a useful, if incidental, cause. Most railway porters were black, and many passengers called them all George, following the racist custom of naming slaves after their masters. (George Pullman ran the company that made the cars, so the porters were regarded as his servants.)

Strangely, the prevention society was founded not by the black porters, but by white railway employees who were actually named George. Apparently they were either annoyed by the tradition or thought that such a society would be a good joke.

People did think it was funny, or at least inoffensive. At its peak, the society had 31,000 members, including King George V of the United Kingdom, Babe Ruth (whose given name was George), and French politician Georges Clemenceau.

Left Turn at Albuquerque

Late last year, somewhere in the lonely New Mexico desert, someone began broadcasting a strange shortwave radio signal.

At regular intervals, on several frequencies, Yosemite Sam says, “Varmint, I’m a-gonna blow you to smithereens!”

The FCC thinks the signal is originating in the desert near Albuquerque, but no one knows who’s broadcasting it, or why.

Speak Up, Please

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The appropriate word here is “Bleeaagh.” In 897, Pope Stephen VI dug up the decomposing body of his predecessor and put it on trial for violating church law. Formosus, who had been dead for nine months, was found guilty and buried again. Rome turned against Stephen, who was eventually strangled in prison. It’s known as the cadaver synod or, in Latin, the “synodus horrenda.”

Watch Your Step

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Vaucanson’s Shitting Duck was one of the more unsavory products of the French Enlightenment.

When it was unveiled by Jacques de Vaucanson in 1739, thousands watched the “canard digérateur” stretch its neck to eat grain from a hand. The food then dissolved, “the matter digested in the stomach being conducted by tubes, as in an animal by its bowels, into the anus, where there is a sphincter which permits it to be released.” These inner workings were all proudly displayed, “though some ladies preferred to see them decently covered.”

Why make fake duck shit when the world is so well supplied with the real thing? It was part of the Enlightenment’s transition from a naturalistic to a mechanical worldview. Suddenly a duck was not a God-given miracle but a machine made of meat, and complex automatons carried the promise of mechanized labor, stirring a cultural revolution.

Goethe mentioned Vaucanson’s automata in his diary, and Sir David Brewster called the duck “perhaps the most wonderful piece of mechanism ever made.” Sadly, the whole thing was a fake: The droppings were prefabricated and hidden in a separate compartment. Back to the drawing board.

Jersey Devil

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The Jersey Devil may be a figment, but it’s an admirably hard-working one. Since 1840 the creature has been haunting the southern Pine Barrens, killing livestock, leaving strange tracks, flying, barking, attacking trolleys, eating chickens, biting dogs, and generally expressing a vituperative disapproval of Garden State settlement.

Its appearance matches its disposition. This drawing was made for the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin in 1909, but eyewitnesses have also reported a ram’s head, a long neck, thin wings, short legs, thick black hair, a monkey’s arms and hands, a dog’s face, split hooves, a foot-long tail, and “the general appearance of a kangaroo.”

Laugh if you will, but don’t underestimate it: To date the Devil has been shot, electrocuted, and hosed by the West Collingswood fire department, but sightings have continued through 1991, when a pizza deliveryman encountered a white horselike creature in Edison. Watch your back.

Poe’s Death

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What killed Edgar Allan Poe?

On Oct. 3, 1849, Poe was found on the streets of Baltimore, delirious and wearing clothes that were not his own. The man who found him said he was “in great distress, and … in need of immediate assistance.” He remained incoherent and died four days later. He was only 40.

An acquaintance said it was drunkenness, but he turned out to be a supporter of the temperance movement who distorted the facts. The attending physician wrote that “Edgar Allan Poe did not die under the effect of any intoxicant, nor was the smell of liquor upon his breath or person.”

Well, what, then? Other theories include a rare brain disease, diabetes, enzyme deficiency, syphilis, even rabies. Some people think Poe was accosted, drugged, and used as a pawn in a plot to stuff ballot boxes that day.

There’s no surviving death certificate, so we’ll never really know. Today Poe lies in the churchyard at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, where mystery follows him even in death: Every year since 1949, the grave has been visited by a mystery man in the early hours of the poet’s birthday, Jan. 19. Dressed in black and carrying a silver-tipped cane, the “Poe Toaster” kneels at the grave and makes a toast with Martel cognac. He leaves behind the half-empty bottle and three red roses.

Future Perfect

Predictions made by John Titor, a “time traveler” from 2036 who appeared briefly on the Internet in 2000 and 2001:

  • The United States will go to war with Iraq over claims that the latter has nuclear weapons, and these claims will later prove false.
  • Civil unrest will follow the presidential election of 2004, escalating into civil war in 2005.
  • The war will pit cities against rural areas, with the government controlling the cities.
  • When the old system cannot be restored, a new president will take power in 2009.
  • As American support for Israel wavers, a nuclear war will occur in the Middle East.
  • China will take over Korea, Taiwan, and Japan.
  • In 2015 there will be a global nuclear war among United States, China, Europe, and Russia. Nearly 3 billion people will die.

“Perhaps I should let you all in on a little secret,” he wrote. “No one likes you in the future. This time period is looked at as being full of lazy, self-centered, civically ignorant sheep. Perhaps you should be less concerned about me and more concerned about that.”

On the other hand, he also claimed that Y2K would lead to martial law and that “Russia is covered in nuclear snow from their collapsed reactors.” So, maybe not.

Ameranthropoides Loysi

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What is this? Is it a spider monkey? Or is it some unknown primate? We may never find out — this is the only photograph that survives from a strange encounter in the Venezuelan jungle in 1920.

Swiss oil geologist François De Loys was exploring near Lake Maracaibo when two creatures angrily approached his camp. The animals behaved like monkeys, holding onto shrubs and branches. The male escaped, but De Loys shot the female, which proved to be 1.57 meters tall, about half a meter larger than any known spider monkey. He said the creature had no tail, though it’s impossible to tell from the single photo he took.

All traces of the creature itself are lost — De Loys skinned it and kept the hide and skull, but he lost them during the difficult expedition (20 of the 24 explorers died).

Since then, authorities have argued endlessly about “Ameranthropoides loysi” — but it’s worth noting that that’s a regulation crate it’s sitting on, which supports De Loys’ contention about its size, and that its face, chest and hands differ in significant respects from a spider monkey’s. And there have been occasional reports of similar creatures in South America: “Mono Grande” may yet be discovered there.

Malden Island

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This is Malden Island, an uninhabited speck of land more than 1,500 miles from Hawaii. When Lord Byron’s cousin discovered it in 1825, he found a series of ruined stone temples in the interior, but the island was deserted. Who were the builders, where did they come from, and what became of them? No one knows for sure.