In 1725, Dr Robert Payne wrote to the Royal Society about a strange case at his surgery in Lowestoft, Suffolk. Earlier in the year Dr Payne was visited by James Bishop, a teenaged apprentice from the dockyards in Great Yarmouth. Bishop complained of severe abdominal pains, bloody urine and pus in his stools. On inspection of Bishop’s person, Dr Payne found:
“A hard tumour in the left buttock, on or near the gluteus maximus, two or three inches from the verge of the anus, a little sloping upwards… Shortly after the prongs of a fork appeared through the orifice of the sore… I made a circular incision about the prongs and with a strong pair of pincers extracted it, not without great difficulty, handle and all… the end of the handle was besmeared with excrement [and the fork was] six inches and a half long.”
As might be expected this procedure was excruciating for the patient, however he recovered after a few days’ rest. Bishop refused to tell Payne how the fork came to be in his posterior, however, Bishop’s family threatened to disown him if he did not confess the truth. According to Payne’s report, Bishop later admitted that:
“…being costive [constipated], he put the said fork up his fundament, thinking by that means to help himself, but unfortunately it slipped up so far that he could not recover it again… He says he had no trouble or pain till a month or more after it was put up.”
Ambroise Pare was arguably the most famous barber-surgeon of the 16th century. Pare served as a medical advisor to several French kings and once saved the life of a military officer who had been run through 12 times with a sword.
In Pare’s Oeuvres, a collection of surgical memoirs written near the end of his life, he recalled a strange case from the early 1600s. According to Pare, a woman near Blois had delivered a baby with the “face of a frog”. In 1517, the family was visited by a military surgeon, who examined the child and asked how it came to be deformed. According to the child’s father:
“…his wife had a fever… in order to cure it, one of her neighbours advised her to take a live frog in her hand and hold it until it died. That night she went to bed with her husband, still holding the frog in her hand… They copulated and she conceived, and through the influence of her imagination [she now] has this monster that you have seen.”
Pare’s writings contain another incident involving frogs. In 1551, Pare was consulted by a mentally disturbed man who was convinced his insides were inhabited by frogs which were “leaping about” in his stomach and intestines. Pare issued the patient with a strong laxative, resulting in “urgent emissions” from his bowels – and then secretly slipped some small live frogs “into his close stool”. The patient, apparently satisfied that the frogs were discharged, left feeling much better.
An amusing though unsubstantiated story from rural Lincolnshire concerns a tailor from the village of Owston Ferry, north of Gainsborough. According to press reports from 1839 the tailor, Kellett, was in nearby Epworth on business when he went on a bender and:
“…sold his wife to a saddler of that place, for a tub (twelve pecks) of Swede turnips… One huge turnip was given as deposit to make good the bargain.”
The drunken tailor may have forgotten the arrangement or not taken it seriously. The Epworth saddler, however, had different ideas. He organised for the balance of the turnips to be delivered to Kellett’s home in Owston Ferry. But delivery of the turnips was taken by the tailor’s wife, who had not been informed of the deal and certainly did not approve:
“..Having heard of the whole transaction, and not liking to be disposed of in such a manner, [she] fell on the poor unfortunate tailor and did beat him about the head with the turnips, then turned him out of the house.”
In July 1912, US newspapers reported that a live frog had inhabited a Washington woman’s gullet for almost a year. According to the patient, Mrs V. L. King, the frog had been resident in her throat, oesophagus and upper stomach for around 11 months. She claimed to have swallowed a tadpole in drinking water back in August 1911 and in the ensuing months, it grew into a frog. By May 1912, Mrs King’s family members could hear the frog croaking in her chest.
After weeks of poor health and weight loss, Mrs King consulted surgeons, who dealt with the frog accordingly:
Strangely enough, claims of frogs taking up residence in early 20th century stomachs were not uncommon. In July 1906, Fred Hamm of Lakeview, Iowa vomited up an inch-long frog that had given him internal grief for more than a week. The following month, a Kansas farmer, Roy L. Steward, told reporters he had been harbouring a small frog in his oesophagus for several years.
Despite other reports of body-invading frogs in 1909 and 1911, there is no medical evidence or expert opinion that supports the notion of frogs growing to maturity inside the human body.
Gerallt Gyrmo, or Gerald of Wales, was a prominent clergyman, theologian and diarist of the late 12th and early 13th centuries. Educated in England and France, Gerald became chaplain to Henry II in the mid-1180s. He also accompanied the future King John, then a teenager, on a tour of Ireland.
In his 1188 manuscript Topographica Hibernica, Gerald wrote at length about his experiences on the Emerald Isle. In keeping with English sentiments of the time, his views of Ireland and its people were almost wholly negative. He described the Irish as a race of “rude people… living like beasts”, “given to treachery more than any other nation”, “frightfully ugly”, “adulterous and incestuous” and “foully corrupted by perverse habits”.
Their only civilised talent, Gerald writes, is:
“..playing upon musical instruments, in which they are incomparably more skilful than any other nation I have ever seen… In their musical concerts they do not sing in unison like the inhabitants of other countries but in many different parts… who all at length unite with organic melody.”
One of the more fanciful accounts in Gerald’s work, not witnessed by him but recounted as fact, was a ceremony for crowning Irish kings:
“The whole people are gathered in one place, a white mare is led into the midst of them… he who is to be inaugurated… comes before the people on all fours… The mare being immediately killed and cut in pieces and boiled, a bath is prepared for [the king] from the broth. Sitting in this, he eats of the flesh which is brought to him, the people partaking of it also. He is also required to drink of the broth in which he is bathed, not drawing it in any vessel but lapping it with his mouth. These unrighteous rites being duly accomplished, his royal authority and dominion are ratified.”
Natural historians have recorded several anecdotes about frogs and toads hibernating for prolonged periods, sometimes several years, and often in confined or unlikely places.
The early 19th century naturalist Dean Buckland reported a live frog being found in a block of freshly mined coal. Buckland tested theories of amphibian hibernation with a series of experiments, entombing frogs in tree cavities and blocks of porous stone. Most of these proved unsuccessful and produced only dead and shrivelled up frogs and toads – but some of Buckland’s imprisoned subjects survived for up to two years.
Another amazing account comes from a Mr Adlington of Jersey, who in 1856 found a large toad encased in the roots of palm tree:
“The creature looked dead; the tree had ground round it… When [his gardener] began to cut the truck into sections he discovered the toad and split the tree in two to liberate it. The wood was simply rotten fibre, very white, and had evidently grown round the live creature, for when it came out of its hole, a perfect mound was left of it… Of course we thought it was dead and so buried it, but for fear it should come to life we poured boiling water on it. After about half an hour it showed signs of life. In about three days it began to swell out and get moist and hide under big leaves in the garden. In a month it was difficult to distinguish it from other toads, and it was very lively.”
Adlington had sections of the tree examined by his local museum, which estimated that the toad had been buried for as long as 25 years. There is no mention in his report of the toad singing and dancing.
Best known today as the author of Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) was one of the 18th century’s leading authors of satire and whimsy.
In 1726, Swift published a brief essay proposing the construction of communal lavatories around London. His rationale was simple: in a city with very few public toilets, who hasn’t as some point been struck by a sudden diarrhea and ended up fouling their clothing?
“There is nobody, I believe, who [has not been] attacked in the streets by a sudden and violent motion to evacuate… The women fly to shops where, after cheapening something they have no need to buy [they] drop the greatest part of their burden on the floor or into their shoes… While we unhappy wretches hurry to some blind alehouse or coffee house where… the fierce foe, too violent to be resisted, gains the breach and lodges itself on our shirts and breeches, to our utter confusion, sorrow and shame.”
To prevent this common predicament, Swift called for the erection of public toilets in various locations around London. He called for the formation of a public corporation called the Necessary Company, to collect subscriptions and organise the erection of “500 shitting colleges”. He even offered detailed architectural suggestions: the “colleges” should be constructed of Portland stone, decorated with artwork and adorned with marble statues, each “expressing some posture, branch or part of evacuation”.
The interiors of Swift’s proposed facilities would be even more lavish:
“…The area to be paved with marble, with a basin and fountain in the middle… the cells [cubicles] to be painted in fresco with proper grotesque figures and hieroglyphics… the seats to be covered with superfine cloth, stuffed with cotton… the floor to be overlaid with turkey carpets in winter time and strewn with flowers and greens in summer.”
These “shitting colleges”, Swift wrote, would cost twopence per visit. Each facility would be manned a “waiter” and available from five in the morning to eleven at night. No person would be permitted to occupy a cubicle for more than half-an-hour, or to daub the walls with their “natural paint”. A large collection of books should be available for those who like to read “while they are at stool” – however clean cloth should also be on hand, lest visitors use the pages to deal with “the issue of their guts”.
In August 1835 The Sun, New York’s most serious and conservative newspaper, ran a series of six articles detailing fantastic discoveries purportedly made by English astronomer, Sir John Herschel.
Citing an Edinburgh newspaper as the source, The Sun told its readers that Herschel had constructed a gigantic new telescope, featuring a precision-moulded glass lens weighing almost seven tons. Using some technical detail, The Sun explained how Herschel’s telescope had powers of magnification far exceeding earlier devices.
The unknown writer then offered a detailed account of what Herschel saw when he turned his enormous telescope on the Moon: vast oceans, giant mountain ranges, active volcanoes, tropical vegetation, thick forests – and several types of animal, including a form of beaver erectus:
“[Dr Herschel] classified nine species of mammalia and five of ovipara. Among the former is a small kind of reindeer, the elk, the moose, the horned bear and a biped beaver. The last resembles the beaver of the earth in every other respect than in its destitution of a tail and its invariable habit of walking upon only two feet. It carries its young in its arms like a human being and moves with an easy gliding motion. Its huts are constructed better and higher than those of many tribes of human savages, and from the appearance of smoke in nearly all of them, there is no doubt of its being acquainted with the use of fire.”
According to The Sun, Herschel documented numerous other species living on the Moon, including a humanoid race four foot tall with yellow faces, beards and giant wings like those of a bat:
“The wings seemed completely under the command of volition, for those of the creatures whom we saw bathing in the water, spread them instantly to their full width, waved them as ducks do their to shake off the water and then as instantly closed them again in a compact form. [The creatures] then almost simultaneously spread their wings and were lost in the dark confines of the canvas before we had time to breathe from our paralyzing astonishment. We scientifically denominated them as Vespertilio Homo, or ‘man bat’, and they are doubtless innocent and happy creatures.”
As might be expected, the reports in The Sun caused a sensation, giving rise to frantic discussions and speculations among New Yorkers. It also sparked a marked increase in the newspaper’s sales. Other American newspapers seized on it and ran excerpts from The Sun’s articles.
It wasn’t until October, some seven weeks later, that The Sun reports were exposed as a hoax. Despite this the newspaper never published a retraction, admission or apology.
In the summer of 1851, a military depot at Benicia, California reported being hit by a bizarre thunderstorm. According to eyewitnesses, pieces of raw meat rained from the sky for around three minutes. When the deluge subsided, five acres of the base had been carpeted with small chunks of flesh, origin unknown. According to one San Francisco press report:
“The pieces were from the size of a pigeon’s egg up to that of an orange, the heaviest weighing three ounces. No birds were visible in the air at the time. Specimens of the meat, which is apparently beef, were preserved by Major Allen and the Surgeon of the Post. A piece that was examined three hours after it fell showed a portion of a small blood vessel, some of the sheath of a muscle and muscle fibre.”
Any thoughts of hosting California’s largest barbecue were quickly dispelled when the meat turned out to be “slightly tainted”.
The ‘meat shower’ in Benicia wasn’t the only incident of its kind in 19th-century California. Small pieces of flesh reportedly fell in Sacramento (March 1863), Los Nietos (August 1869), Juapa (September 1870) and near Los Angeles (August 1871). These later showers also deposited blood, brains, other organs and bone fragments.
Experts could provide no adequate explanation for these incidents of gory precipitation. Two of the most popular theories were that a tornado had hit a slaughterhouse or offal pit and lifted its contents into the troposphere – or that these towns had been hit by passing flock of vomiting vultures.
In 1582, residents in a village in Silesia complained of visitations from a bad-breathed vampire named Cuntius. Before joining the ranks of the undead, Johannes Cuntius was actually a respected citizen and aldermen in Pentsch. In February 1582 he was fatally injured after being kicked by one of his “lusty geldings”.
Before expiring, Cuntius lingered for several days, complaining of ghostly visions and feeling like he was on fire. According to one witness, at the moment of his death a black cat entered the room and jumped onto his bed.
As befitted his civic status, Cuntius was entombed near the altar of his local church. But within a few days several townspeople reported receiving visits from the dead man. All described a “most grievous stink” and “an exceedingly cold breath of so intolerable stinking and malignant a scent as is beyond all imagination and expression”.
A whole litany of annoyances and harassments was attributed to the vampire, including accusations of:
“..Galloping up and down like a wanton horse in the court of his house… Miserably tugging all night with a Jew [and] tossing him up and down in his lodgings… dreadfully accosting a wagoner, an old acquaintance of his, while he was busy in the stable [and] biting him so cruelly in the foot that he made him lame… [Entering a] master’s chamber, making a noise like a hog that eats grains, smacking and grunting very sonorously…”
The people of Pentsch tolerated these nocturnal visits until late July, at which point they decided to exhume Cuntius’ coffin and deal with his wandering corpse. They found that his:
“..skin was tender and florid, his joints not at all stiff but limber and moveable… a staff being put into his hand, he grasped with his fingers… they opened a vein in his leg and the blood sprang out fresh as in the living.”
After a brief judicial hearing, Cuntius’ body was thrown onto a bonfire and burned, then hacked to pieces and crushed to ashes. As might be expected, the spirit of Cuntius ceased its nocturnal visits. By coincidence, the village of Pentsch became the town of Horni Benesov – the ancestral home of former US Secretary of State John Kerry.