Category Archives: Tall tales

1856: Toad hibernates for 25 years under palm tree

Natural historians have recorded several anecdotes about frogs and toads hibernating for prolonged periods, sometimes 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 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 – however 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 a 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.

Source: Letter from M. Adlington, cited in Journal of the Royal Society of the Arts, v.57, October 1909. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2016. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1726: Swift calls for 500 “shitting colleges” in London

Jonathan Swift

Best known today as the author of Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) was one of the 18th century’s leading satirists. 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 sudden diarrhoea 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”.

Swift 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 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 by 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” – but clean cloth should be on hand, lest visitors use the pages to deal with “the issue of their guts”.

Source: Jonathan Swift, “Proposals for Erecting and Maintaining Publick Offices of Ease within the Cities and Suburbs of London and Westminster”, 1726. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2016. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1835: Giant beavers walk upright on the Moon

Sir John Herschel – possibly after reading discoveries attributed to him in The Sun

In August 1835 The Sun, New York’s most serious and conservative newspaper, ran a series of six articles that detailed fantastic discoveries 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. In 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 that was 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.

Source: The Sun (New York), August 27th and 28th, 1835. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2016. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1851: Today’s weather: mild with a chance of meat

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 this 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 a passing flock of vomiting vultures.

Source: The San Francisco Daily Herald, July 24th 1851. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2016. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1582: Cuntius, the stinking vampire of Pentsch

cuntius vampire

In 1582, residents in a village in Silesia (now Poland) complained of visitations from a bad-breathed vampire with a brow-raising name: Cuntius.

Before joining the ranks of the undead, Johannes Cuntius had been a respected citizen and aldermen in Pentsch. In February 1582, Cuntius 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, when they resolved 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. The village of Pentsch became the town of Horni Benesov, the ancestral home of United States presidential candidate and former Secretary of State, John Kerry.

Source: Various inc. Henry More, An Antidote against Atheism (Book III), 1655. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2020. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.