In 1984, a British homemaker was reading at home when a voice told her, “Please don’t be afraid. I know it must be shocking for you to hear me speaking to you like this, but this is the easiest way I could think of. My friend and I used to work at the Children’s Hospital, Great Ormond Street, and we would like to help you.” She tried to ignore it, but the voice said, “To help you see that we are sincere, we would like you to check out the following,” and gave her three pieces of information that she had not known. When these proved to be true, she consulted her doctor, who referred her to Ikechukwu Obialo Azuonye, a consulting psychiatrist at the Lambeth Healthcare NHS trust.

An examination found nothing, so he diagnosed her with a functional hallucinatory psychosis, and after two weeks of counseling and thioridazine the voices ceased and she went on holiday. But they soon returned, telling her that she needed immediate treatment and giving an address, which turned out to be the computerized tomography department of a large London hospital. The voices told her that she needed a brain scan because she had a tumor and her brain stem was inflamed.

Azuonye found no evidence of this, but she was so distressed at this point that he ordered the scan anyway, and it showed evidence of a meningioma with a left posterior frontal parafalcine mass extending through the falx to the right side. She elected immediate surgery (the voices agreed), and the operation was carried out in May 1984. When she regained consciousness, she heard the voices for the last time. They said, “We are pleased to have helped you. Goodbye.”

When Azuonye presented this case at a conference in 1996, three opinions seemed to prevail. Some thought that the voices had been telepathic communications from people who had learned about the tumor psychically and were trying to warn the patient. Others thought that the patient had known about the tumor before coming to the U.K. and had invented the story in order to get free medical care under the National Health Service (this seems unlikely, as she’d been living in the U.K. for 15 years before hearing the voices).

The third explanation, which Azuonye shared, was that the presence of the meningioma had triggered enough residual sensations to alert her that something was wrong, and that her fear had led her unconsciously to take in information about London hospitals, which was expressed by the voices. The fact that the voices stopped when the tumor was removed showed that the symptoms had been related to the presence of the lesion.

(Ikechukwu Obialo Azuonye, “A Difficult Case: Diagnosis Made by Hallucinatory Voices,” BMJ 315:7123 [December 20, 1997], 1685-1686.)

Last Call

The last confirmed sighting of New Zealand’s huia wattlebird occurred in 1907. Sound recording was then in its infancy, so no recording of the bird’s call is known to exist. But in 1949 local historian Robert Batley arranged this recording of Hēnare Hāmana, a skilled caller who as a young man had participated in an expedition to seek the huia in the Ruahine Ranges north of Wellington. That effort was unsuccessful, but Hāmana, now in his 60s, remembered the call and performed it in the studios of radio station 2YA. So, to that extent, the call has been “rescued.”

Birds have occasionally returned the favor: See The Parrot of Atures and Ghosts of Scotland.

(Thanks, Charles.)


In 1659, when Louis XIV of France and Philip IV of Spain met to sign the Treaty of the Pyrenees following the Thirty Years’ War, they did so on Pheasant Island, an uninhabited island in the Bidasoa river between their two nations.

Ever since, the island has remained under joint sovereignty — it’s governed alternately by Spain and France, changing hands every six months.

A Wrong Turn

In February 1978, five young men disappeared after attending a college basketball game in Chico, California. Several days later their car was discovered high on a mountain road in Plumas National Forest, far from their route home to Yuba City. It was stuck in a snowdrift but could easily have been pushed free by five men; the gas tank was a quarter full.

In June, the bones of three of the men were found 20 miles deep in the forest. Inside a nearby trailer were the remains of a fourth, Ted Weiher, wrapped in eight sheets. He had died of starvation and hypothermia. His feet were badly frostbitten, his face bore 13 weeks’ beard, he’d lost half his 200 pounds. The trailer was stocked with food and fuel, but he’d used none of it. Still missing was the fifth man, Gary Mathias (right), whose shoes were found in the trailer.

As it happened, a Sacramento man had been lying in his car on the same mountain road that night, suffering a mild heart attack. He told police he saw a car parked behind him during the night, surrounded by a group of people, but when he called for help they went silent and turned off their headlights. Later he saw flashlights, but these too went out when he called for aid.

Gary Mathias remains missing to this day. “We don’t know what happened to them — we’ve a real mystery on our hands,” Yuba County Undersheriff Jack Beecham said that March. “The prevalent theory is it could be anything.”


In a short clip among the DVD extras included with Charlie Chaplin’s 1928 film The Circus, a woman walks past the camera appearing to talk on a cell phone. The best explanation seems to be that she’s using a portable hearing aid, introduced by Siemens in 1924.

In 2013 the clip below appeared on YouTube, allegedly shot in 1938 and again seeming to show a woman using a cell phone. One popular explanation, that Dupont was experimenting with wireless telephones in Leominster, Massachusetts, is apparently not true, but I can’t find any plausible theories beyond that. Draw your own conclusions.

First Across

I can’t confirm this, but it’s interesting: In his 1954 book Lonely Voyagers, French navigator and maritime historian Jean Merrien claims that the first documented case of a single navigator crossing the Atlantic is that of a Native American who reached the Iberian peninsula long before Columbus’ time:

In the Middle Ages there arrived one day on the coast of Spain a man ‘red and strange’ in a craft described as a hollowed tree. From the recorded description, which specifically states that he was not a Negro, he might well have been a native of America in a piragua — a dug-out canoe … the unfortunate man, ill and enfeebled, died before he had been taught to make himself understood.

In Christopher Columbus: The Mariner and the Man, Merrien suggests that Columbus may have known about this man and assumed that he had come from China. I’ll see if I can discover his original source; if I can I’ll update this post.

Atomic Gardening
Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1959, when the world was casting about for peaceful applications of fission energy, activist Muriel Howorth established the Atomic Gardening Society, a global group of amateur gardeners who cultivated irradiated seeds, hoping for useful mutations. Howorth published a book, Atomic Gardening for the Layman, and crowdsourced her effort, distributing seeds to her members and collating their results. She herself made news with “the first atomic peanut,” a 2-foot-tall peanut plant that had sprouted from an irradiated nut.

She teamed up with Tennessee dentist C.J. Speas, who had a license for a cobalt-60 source and had built a cinderblock bunker in his backyard. Via Howorth he distributed millions of seeds to thousands of society members, but the odds remained against them: It would likely require many times this number to hit on a mutation that was potentially useful.

The Atomic Gardening Society disbanded within a few years, but it gave way to more ambitious “gamma gardens” of 5 acres and more in which plants are arranged in rings around a central radiation source. This technique continues today in America and Japan.

The Forgotten Winchester

In 2014, archaeologists conducting surveys in Nevada’s Great Basin National Park found a .44-40 Winchester rifle propped against a juniper tree. Manufactured in 1882, apparently it had stood there for a century.

“It looked like someone propped it up there, sat down to have their lunch and got up to walk off without it,” Nichole Andler, the park’s chief of interpretation, told the Washington Post.

Possibly it had belonged to a miner, a rancher, or a hunter. Winchester manufactured 25,000 of this model in 1882, so its presence isn’t exactly surprising. But why did the owner abandon a $25 rifle?

“It probably has a very good and interesting story,” Andler said, “but it probably is a story that could have happened to almost anyone living this sort of extraordinary existence out here in the Great Basin Desert.”

It’s now on permanent display at the park’s Lehman Caves Visitors Center.


Christian Heinrich Heineken, “the infant scholar of Lübeck,” was so supernaturally gifted that it’s hard even to believe the stories that are told about him. Born in 1721 to a pair of German artists, as a baby he could recite several Biblical stories from memory, and he read the Old and New Testament in Latin before the age of 2.

After he was fourteen months of age the child began the history of the world and could answer any question asked. In his fourth year he could read printed and written matter, although he never learned to write. The multiplication table was learned and recited in order or skipping about. He could relate whole stories in French and knew fourteen hundred sentences from good Latin authors; in geography he knew all the important places on the map.

During a storm at sea he quoted John Trapp: Qui nescit orare, discat navigare (“He that cannot pray, let him go to sea [and there he will learn]”). Introduced to the Danish king at age 3, he said, “Permit me, sir, to kiss the hand of Your Majesty and the hem of your royal garment” and recited his own history of Denmark.

There’s no telling what sort of life lay in store for him, but he passed away after only 4 years and 4 months, apparently of celiac disease, leaving his tutor to proclaim him “a wonder for all time.”

(Jennifer L. Jolly and Justin Bruno, “The Public’s Fascination With Prodigious Youth,” Gifted Child Today, 33:2 [March 2010], 61-65.)

Black Monday

Something extraordinary happened to the army of Edward III on Monday, April 13, 1360, as they camped in an open field near Chartres during the Hundred Years’ War.

According to the contemporary historian Jean Froissart, “During the time that the French commissioners were passing backwards and forwards from the king to his council, and unable to obtain any favourable answer to their offers, there happened such a storm and violent tempest of thunder and hail, which fell on the English army, that it seemed as if the world was come to an end. The hailstones were so large as to kill men and beasts, and the boldest were frightened.”

Some sources say that 1,000 men and 6,000 horses were killed. Possibly they died through cold rather than trauma; a London chronicle says the “day was a foul dark day of mist and hail, and so bitter cold that many men died for cold.”

Whatever it was, it shook Edward’s confidence. Froissart writes, “The king turned himself towards the church of Our Lady at Chartres, and religiously vowed to the Virgin, as he has since confessed, that he would accept of terms of peace.”