1835 was one of the more bizarre years in the history of the United States. That summer, excitement gripped the country when a New York newspaper, The Sun, announced the recent discovery of life and civilization on the Moon. It began with a newspaper article, the first of six in a series, that was published on August 25th. In it, the newspaper announced that Sir John Herschel, the era’s leading astronomer, had used powerful telescopes to get a clear glimpse of the Moon’s surface.
What Sir John saw was stunning. It astonished him and upended all human knowledge to date. As The Sun described it: “By means of a telescope of immense dimensions and an entirely new principle“, Herschel had discovered planets in other solar system, and established new and revolutionary theories. He had also “solved or corrected nearly every problem of mathematical astronomy“. All of that was just a tip of the iceberg, however: the prominent astronomer had discovered life on the Moon.
According to The Sun, Sir John Herschel’s telescope revealed that the Moon was teeming with life. From his observatory on the Cape of Good Hope, the astronomer saw oceans, rivers, and trees. A variety of animals roamed the lunar surface, including goats, buffalos, walking beavers, and unicorns. And flying above them all, were human-like creatures with bat wings who built houses and temples. It was all detailed in a 17,000-word six-part series, reprinted from The Edinburgh Journal of Science.
Herschel had traveled to the Cape in 1834 to catalog the stars of the Southern Hemisphere. However, he discovered far more than stars with his powerful telescope when he turned it to the Moon. First were hints of vegetation, a body of water, a beach, and a string of pyramids. As the focus was adjusted for sharper detail, herds of bison-like animals were seen. Next came bizarre blue goats that looked like unicorns. Yet more animals, such as walking beavers, were described in the third installment. All of that was nothing, however, compared to what came next.
The biggest shocker in The Sun’s series about Sir John Herschel’s lunar observations arrived in the fourth installment. In it, the newspaper announced the discovery of human-like beings, about four feet tall, who flew with bat wings. “We scientifically denominated them as Vespertilio-homo, or man bat; and they are doubtless innocent and happy creatures“, the article went on. That was when the mounting excitement grew into a fever pitch. It was also when the authors discovered that they had greatly underestimated the public’s gullibility.
The articles had been intended as satire, which the authors thought was obvious. Instead, they were taken as gospel truth by the public. The authors eventually wound down the story with the telescope’s accidental destruction. It had been left exposed to the Sun, whose rays caused its lens to act as a burning glass. The result was a fire that destroyed the telescope and the observatory. Needless to say, Sir John Herschel had never claimed the bizarre astronomical discoveries attributed to him.
Do you still remember Beanie Babies, planking, the Ice Bucket or Mannequin Challenge, or any of the tons of similar fads that seem to grip the country from time to time, quickly spreading like wildfire, before fading into oblivion? Their 1950s equivalent was the phone booth stuffing fad. It was just what the name says: people around the world – or at least in the English-speaking world – competed to see how many folks they could cram into a phone booth.
It is often assumed that the fad began on college campuses on the US West Coast. It actually kicked off in Durban, South Africa. There, in early 1959, twenty-five students tried to see if they could fit into a phone booth. They pulled it off and submitted their accomplishment to the Guinness Book of World Records. Word of their bizarre stunt spread, and before long, a fever of phone booth stuffing had spread to England, Canada, and the US.
11. The Phone Booth Stuffing Competition Got Seriously Heated
To participate in the Phone Booth Stuffing Challenge, people – usually college students – squeezed themselves into a phone booth, one after another, until nobody else could fit in. It seems straightforward, but there was plenty of complexity involved. In 1959, college kids began skipping class to devise plans to beat the record. Schematics were drawn to figure out the optimal configuration for cramming the highest number of human bodies into a phone booth, like a 3-D Tetris. In Britain, where the fad was named “telephone booth squash”, some students went on diets to reduce their bulks. In MIT, some turned to geometry and advanced calculus to figure out the most efficient configuration for cramming bodies into a tight space.
As the competition heated up and competitive juices flowed, accusations of cheating were hurled. Some universities’ claims were challenged because of violations of supposed rules that should have been followed. Some argued that a booth stuffing was valid only if somebody inside was able to make a phone a call. In some universities, the count was based on any part of a competitor’s body placed inside the booth. They were challenged by other campuses, which contended that it only counted if all participants had their entire bodies inside. Eventually, amidst heated recriminations, the bizarre fad died out in late 1959.
King Bela I of Hungary (circa 1020 – 1063) reigned from 1060 until his death. During his years as monarch, he solidified Hungary’s Christian identity by putting down a final pagan rebellion. He also fought a successful war against Holy Roman Emperor Henry III to defend Hungary’s independence. Bela accomplished much during his relatively brief tenure on the throne. Unfortunately for him, it was his very throne that proved his undoing. In one of the Middle Ages’ most bizarre demises, Bela’s throne killed him.
Bela’s father, Prince Vazul, had been a nephew of the childless Hungarian King Stephen I. When the king bypassed Bela’s father to name another nephew heir, Vazul rebelled but was captured and blinded as punishment in 1031. Bela and his siblings fled Hungary, but returned in 1046 when Bela’s eldest brother successfully deposed the king and seized the crown. According to Hungarian royal custom, whereby the crown passed from brother to brother by seniority, Bela was made a duke and named heir.
While Bela was away from Hungary, his brother changed the succession and named his four-year-old son heir. So Bela raised an army in Poland, and marched into Hungary to reassert his rights. During the ensuing struggle, the brother on the throne was killed, and Bela was crowned in his place. Soon thereafter, an uprising of recently-Christianized Hungarians erupted. They demanded a return to paganism, and an end to Christianity, which had become the official state religion a few decades earlier. Bela mobilized an army and crushed the pagans. In 1063, he successfully fought off a German invasion under the auspices of the Holy Roman emperor, and asserted Hungarian independence.
Bela’s bizarre end came later that year, after his throne tottered and fell. “Throne tottered and fell” is not meant as a figure of speech or an allusion to a weakening of his power and authority, but literally. One September day in 1063, Bela I held court in his summer palace in Domos. Flanked by his senior advisors, and with his noblemen and officials gathered before him, the king regally ascended the steps to his throne and took a seat. Unregally, the heavy wooden throne collapsed once the royal posterior sat down. Bela I was severely injured in front of his horrified court, and died of his wounds.
Aleister Crowley (1875 – 1947), born Edward Alexander Crowley, was an English occultist, novelist, poet, painter, and a mountaineer who also claimed to be a magician. Not the stage tricks pull a rabbit from a hat or doves from a coat kind of magician, but the warlock, spells and sorcery type. An L. Ron Hubbard type before there was an L. Ron Hubbard, Crowley also founded a religion in the early twentieth century, Thelema, whose prophet he asserted himself to be.
From the preceding, it goes without saying that Crowley was as bizarre as bizarre gets. As the prophet of the Thelema faith, Crowley declared that he was entrusted with guiding mankind to the “Aeon of Horus”. A fundamental principal of Thelema was that the twentieth century would usher in the age of Horus, which would overthrow all existing codes of morality and ethics. In the new age, people’s “True Will”, which they would discover via magic, would be all that matters.
Aleister Crowley summarized the ethics of the Aeon of Horus as: “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law“. His magic religion included lots of sex with his followers, which he termed “Sexual Magick”, with a k. Orgasms and bodily secretions were used as spell components. At the core of Sexual Magick was the requirement that adherents be completely open and uninhibited about sex, without social limitations or restraints. Also, followers should expose their children to sex from infancy, and accustom them to witness all kinds of sexual activity.
In 1920, Crowley and his followers established the Abbey of Thelema, a religious commune in Sicily. It did not take long not long before the bizarre and perverse goings-on there led to controversy, scandals, and denunciations. The abbey and its inhabitants became regular fodder for the press. The Italian government finally responded to the outcry, shut down the commune, and evicted everybody in 1923. Crowley then hit the road, and split the remaining two decades of his life traveling between Britain, France, and Germany, to promote and initiate people into Sexual Magick.
6. The Lesser-Known Maccabeus Who Met a Bizarre End
Eleazar Maccabeus (died 162 BC) was the younger brother of Judas Maccabeus, who led the 167 – 160 BC Maccabean Revolt against the Seleucid Empire. The Seleucid King Antiochus IV had banned Jewish religious practices, and ordered that Zeus be worshipped instead. Mattathias ben Johann, the father of Eleazar and Judas, would have none of that. He killed a Hellenized Jew who sacrificed to Greek idols as an apostate, then fled into the wilderness with his five sons. There, they launched a guerrilla campaign that soon flared into a rebellion.
After Mattathias’ death, his son Judah took over the revolt. In 164 BC, he and his followers entered Jerusalem and restored Jewish worship at its temple – an event commemorated in the feast of Hanukah. However, the city’s conquest was incomplete, as a Seleucid garrison retained control of a fortress within its walls, facing the Temple Mount. As to Eleazar, he met a bizarre end at the Battle of Beth Zechariah in 162 BC, two years after his older brother’s capture of Jerusalem.
Judas Maccabeus besieged the Temple Mount fortress, but a Seleucid army of 50,000 men, accompanied by 30 war elephants, marched to its relief. So he lifted the siege and marched out with 20,000 men to intercept the enemy. Unfortunately, Judas abandoned the guerrilla tactics that had won him victories and served him well until then. Instead, he lined up his men to meet the Seleucids in formal battle. It was a mistake. Judas’ forces proved no match for the Seleucid heavy infantry phalanx, professional cavalry, and armored war elephants that especially unnerved the Jewish defenders.
The Jews began to panic and break in fear of the pachyderms, so Eleazar Maccabeus tried to encourage his comrades by demonstrating the elephants’ vulnerability. He charged at the biggest pachyderm he could find, got beneath it, thrust his spear into its unarmored belly, and killed the beast. He did not get to savor his success for long, however: the dying elephant collapsed on top of Eleazar and crushed him to death. His comrades, appalled by his bizarre demise, did not rush in to emulate him, and the courageous demonstration did not keep the Jewish army from breaking soon thereafter.
In 1874, the Imperial Russian Navy commissioned one of history’s most bizarre warships, the monitor ship Novgorod. It featured a circular hull and gained one of the poorest reputations ever attached to a ship. The idea behind the round hull was to give her as shallow a draft as possible, and allow her to carry a heavier weight of armor and weapons than other ships of a similar size but conventional designs. It turned out to be one of modern history’s worst-designed warships. A 2500-ton vessel, it was powered by six steam engines that drove six propeller screws, and was so clumsy that contemporaries compared it to a floating soup dish.
On the plus side, the Novgorod was largely immune to ramming – a common tactic back then. It featured an armored belt that was nine inches thick, its round shape deflected strikes, and its vital components were well inside the hull. It sported a pair of eleven-inch guns, which were powerful for the era. Its shape and flat bottom also gave it a draft of only twelve feet, which allowed it to operate close to the coastline in shallow waters. That was about it for the ship’s advantages. As seen below, they were greatly outweighed by the disadvantages.
3. This Weird Ship’s Design Defects Were Matched by Terrible Manufacturing Defects
The bizarre circular hull of the Novgorod played havoc with the rudder’s ability to steer the ship or turn it around. In a storm, she was unsteerable, and even in calm weather, it took 45 minutes for the ship to make a full circle. On top of that, in rough seas, the wide flat bottom made the vessel susceptible to pitching so severe that the propellers came out of the water. The blunt hull did not slice through water so as to reduce its resistance but pushed large volumes of water out of the way by sheer brute force.
The preceding made the ship very fuel-inefficient and caused it to consume coal at a prodigious rate. In addition to design defects, the Novgorod was plagued with sundry manufacturing defects. Low-quality materials and poor workmanship led to persistent recurring problems with the ship’s propulsion, from blades to shaft to drive, that lasted for the vessel’s entire career. Additionally, she suffered from poor ventilation that no amount of troubleshooting could fix, even after ventilation cowls were installed on the gun emplacements.
2. Firing Her Guns Made The Novgorod Spin Like a Top
The Novgorod not only looked weird and handled bad, it also sucked at it the core mission of a warship: she was a poor fighting platform. The ship’s pair of eleven-inch had a muzzle velocity of 1290 feet per second, and could punch through eleven inches of armor at 800 yards – respectable for that era. However, the guns had an exceptionally slow rate of fire: it took them ten minutes to let off a shot. The rotating mounts on which the guns were placed were also slow, and took three minutes to traverse 180 degrees.
The problem was exacerbated by weak locks, that caused the gun mounts to rotate on their own from the guns’ recoil. To add to her woes, the guns’ firing caused the ship to rotate uncontrollably, like something out of a Looney Tunes cartoon. Because the flat-bottomed vessel had no stabilizing keel to keep her in line and keep her guns pointed towards the target, the only solution was to moor the Novgorod in a fixed position. That effectively transformed her from a ship to a floating fortress anchored in place, with her guns pointed seaward.
1. The Russians Could Tried to Palm this Bizarre Ship Off on the Bulgarians, but they Were Not Interested
The Novgorod and other round hulls were summarized thus by a naval historian: “they were a dismal failure. They were too slow to stem the current in the Dniepr and proved very difficult to steer. In practice the discharge of even one gun caused them to turn out of control and even contra-rotating some of six propellers was unable to keep the ship on the correct heading. Nor could they cope with the rough weather which is frequently encountered in the Black Sea. They were prone to rapid rolling and pitching in anything more than a flat calm, and could not aim or load their guns under such circumstances“.
During the Russo-Turkish War of 1877 – 1878, the Novgorod was assigned to the defense of Odessa in the Black Sea. It was discovered that her outer engines contributed little to her performance, so they were removed. The modifications brought her already low speed lower down still, to a mere 6 knots (6.9 miles per hour). After the war, she was stationed in Sevastopol, where she deteriorated and gathered rust until she was finally stricken from the Navy list in 1903. The Russians tried to sell her to Bulgaria in 1908, but the Bulgarians were uninterested in the bizarre ship, so it was sold for scrap in 1911.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading