When Sarah Davis of Hiawatha, Kansas, died in 1930, her husband John spent most of his wealth on her grave, including 11 life-size statues of Italian marble consorting under a canopy that weighs 50 tons.

The extravagance won John some criticism during the Depression, but today the monument brings a steady flow of tourists to the town.

First Contact

Moving beyond attempts at merely contacting the dead, artist Attila von Szalay claimed to be the first researcher to actually record the discarnate voices of the spirit world. Von Szalay’s quest began in 1936, while he worked in his darkroom. He claimed to hear in this darkened chamber the voice of his deceased brother calling his name. A subsequent interest in Yoga, meditation, and Eastern philosophy made him better able to hear such voices, and in 1941 he attempted for the first time to record the spirits on a 78 rpm record (with disappointing results). It wasn’t until 1956 that von Szalay ‘successfully’ recorded such phenomena, this time using a reel-to-reel tape recorder. Perhaps unaware of their importance in the history of telecommunications, the first recorded spirit voices offered such banal messages as ‘This is G!,’ ‘Hot dog, Art!,’ and ‘Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you all.’ These pioneering sessions were reported by noted psychic researcher Raymond Baylass in a letter to the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research in 1959.

— Jeffrey Sconce, Haunted Media: Electronic Presence From Telegraphy to Television, 2000

Horse Sense

That the world-famous ‘thinking horses’ of Elberfeld are not fakes, that they extract cube roots, read and spell by rational processes rather than by means of trick signs from their trainer, is the conclusion reached by one of the leading European authorities on animal psychology …

The cube root of 5832 was proposed by one of the ladies present, written on the board for the horse and the answer, 18, given correctly in a few seconds. \sqrt{15376} and \sqrt[4]{456976} were likewise given correctly — 124 and 26 in about ten seconds. Mr. Krall and the attendant groom had left the hall immediately after the exercise was written on the board in each case. …

[ \sqrt[4]{614656} ]. Correct reply in a few seconds: 28. The horse was then alone in the room. All the spectators had also gone outside.

[ \sqrt[4]{4879681} ]. Reply after 30 seconds: 117. Wrong. The horse corrected it himself to 144, but finally gave up rather despairingly.

“Can Horses Think? Learned Commission Says ‘Perhaps,'” New York Times, Aug. 31, 1913

The Ghost Train
Image: Wikimedia Commons

In August 2006, the Newhaven Marine railway station in East Sussex was closed to passengers due to safety concerns. But it remained legally open, and under an 1844 regulation a train was required to call there once a day.

So until its closure in 2020, the station received daily train service, though its platforms were inaccessible to the public. The service was listed in timetables, but passengers who wished to travel to the next station were ferried there by taxi instead.


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The territory of Madha is an exclave — it belongs to Oman, but it’s surrounded by the United Arab Emirates.

And Madha itself contains an enclave — the village of Nahwa belongs to the United Arab Emirates.

This makes Nahwa a second-order enclave — it lies within the boundaries of its nation, but it’s surrounded by the territory of another state.

Wine and Roses
Image: Wikimedia Commons
Image: Wikimedia Commons

The oldest living rose bush grows on the apse of the Hildesheim Cathedral in Germany — documentation confirms its age at approximately 700 years (it’s visible in the engraving at right above, which dates from about 1845).

Allied bombers destroyed the cathedral in 1945, but the rose’s roots survived, and it flowered again among the ruins.

The oldest known bottle of wine is the Speyer wine bottle, unearthed from the tomb of a Roman nobleman in 1867 and dated to 350 A.D. Though it remains sealed, it’s presumed to contain liquid wine.

The ethanol will be gone, but the remaining liquid has been preserved by olive oil and wax that the Romans used to protect it from the air. For safety’s sake, its curators have forborne from opening it.

Better Safe

The Pentagon has a detailed strategy for surviving a zombie apocalypse.

CONOP 8888, “Counter-Zombie Dominance,” arose when military planners needed to create a planning document that the public could not mistake for a real scenario. They imagined a “clearly impossible” emergency in which planners needed to “undertake military operations to preserve ‘non-zombie’ humans from the threats posed by a zombie horde.”

“The document is identified as a training tool used in an in-house training exercise where students learn about the basic concepts of military plans and order development through a fictional training scenario,” spokeswoman Pamela Kunze told Foreign Policy. “This document is not a U.S. Strategic Command plan.” But, a disclaimer reads, “this plan was not actually designed as a joke.”

Here it is.

Podcast Episode 337: Lost in a Daydream
Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1901, two English academics met a succession of strange characters during a visit to Versailles. They came to believe that they had strayed somehow into the mind of Marie Antoinette in the year before her execution. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the Moberly-Jourdain affair, a historical puzzle wrapped in a dream.

We’ll also revisit Christmas birthdays and puzzle over a presidential term.

See full show notes …

High and Dry

When the steamship Princess May was grounded in 1910 near Sentinel Island in Alaska’s Lynn Canal, the tide was high and the ship’s momentum forced it well up onto the rocks. There it perched at an angle of 23 degrees for photographer William Case at the height of its extremity.

Happily there was no loss of life, and the vessel was eventually refloated and returned to service.