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Subject: ‘Oddities’

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The haunting enigma of Kaspar Hauser

Posted in Historical articles, History, Mystery, Oddities on Tuesday, 18 March 2014

This edited article about Kaspar Hauser first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 595 published on 9 June 1973.

Kaspar Hauser,  picture, image, illustration
The seventeen-year-old Kaspar Hauser arriving in the city of Nuremberg by Andrew Howat

Kaspar Hauser staggered into the house, moaning with pain, his hand pressed hard against his left side. There, a deep red stain was already spreading out, discolouring his padded jacket.

Appalled at the sight of his pupil in this piteous state, Dr Mayer rushed over to him. Faint words gasped disjointedly from Kaspar’s lips. All Dr Mayer could make out were “garden,” “man,” “purse” and “stabbed.”

These were among the last words Kaspar spoke. But before he died three days later, on December 17, 1833, he did manage to tell Dr Mayer that his killer had lured him into the public gardens at Ansbach with the promise that he would at last learn who his parents were.

This was a puzzle which had teased people all over Germany for more than five years.

Kaspar Hauser had appeared in a Nuremberg square on May 28, 1828, when he was found leaning against a wall dazed and incoherent. He staggered about rather than walked, could not bear strong light on his eyes, and at first could eat nothing but bread and water.

The only clues about him lay in a letter he carried and the phrases he kept repeating, “I want to be a soldier like my father” and “horse, horse.” He spoke mechanically without real understanding, something which tied in with the distinctly odd upbringing that was revealed in the letter.

In October 1812, Kaspar, then six months old, was left at the house of the letter-writer, a poor labourer, who kept him confined and alone for the next sixteen years.

The only instructions the labourer received from Kaspar’s mother were to keep him until he was 17, then send him to Nuremberg to the Sixth Cavalry Regiment in which the boy’s dead father had once served.

Kaspar was hardly the most promising of recruits. When he was taken to the Nuremberg police and imprisoned by them as a vagrant, he spent his time either sleeping or sitting on the floor staring into space.

In this state he was a fascinating exhibit for the sightseers who came in their hundreds to gawp at him in his prison cell. To them Kaspar was a curiosity more compelling than any animal in the town zoo.

Certain more humane councillors of Nuremberg were offended by this, and decided in July 1828 that the boy should be properly cared for and educated: only in this way, they felt, could anything definite be learned about him.

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The poet Francois Villon was King of France for a day

Posted in Legend, Literature, Myth, Oddities, Royalty on Tuesday, 18 March 2014

This edited article about France first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 595 published on 9 June 1973.

Francois Villon the vagabond King,  picture, image, illustration
Francois Villon, the vagabond King

Did medieval Paris really have its own underworld monarch, the king of the beggars? Is it historically true that, for a joke, King Louis XI went so far as to make this arch-criminal king of France for twenty four hours? Was the beggar king a spare time poet, as well as a soldier of such ability that he saved his city from capture during his brief reign? Was there ever, in fact, a man behind the legend of the Vagabond King?

It was always a good story, and in one form or another it has cropped up again and again over the years. Books, plays, even an opera have been written round the cheerful 15th century crook who was supposed to have made the most of a royal whim. It always sounded too far-fetched a story to be true, and few scholars would have wasted their time over such an improbable tale if the Vagabond King had not possessed a name. Fortunately one crops up in all the stories: Francois Villon.

At least we know that this man was real enough. He was born in Paris in the year 1431, and became a Master of Arts at the university of that city, as well as finding fame as a poet whose work is one of the glories of France.

If this makes him sound an unlikely candidate for the title of the Vagabond King, it must be remembered that legends have an almost uncanny knack of proving themselves to be true.

Nevertheless, for four hundred years nobody read Villon outside his homeland, and it was not until half-way through the 19th century that a number of English poets began to translate his work, much of it written in medieval French slang. Suddenly people wanted to know more about this man whose words had the power to make 15th century Paris jump into focus like a film.

For a time, the Vagabond King story was widely believed. Then, as Villon’s works became more and more fashionable, historians began to wonder just how much of the strange tale was really true. The search for the Vagabond King had begun.

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The mystery of Extra-Sensory Perception remains baffling

Posted in Historical articles, Mystery, Oddities on Thursday, 13 March 2014

This edited article about telepathy first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 588 published on 21 April 1973.

Fortune teller, picture, image, illustration
A fortune teller reading the tea leaves

“Last call for Flight 709 to Rome! Will all passengers for Flight 709 have their boarding passes ready please!”

In the queue of passengers making their way to the waiting jetliner a man suddenly hesitates, white faced, then falls out of line.

An airline official hurries up to him. “Are you all right, sir?”

The man nods. “Yes, thanks. Changed my mind, that’s all. Think I’ll go another day.” How can he explain that he has just had a frighteningly realistic mental picture of a plane, his plane, crashing into a mountain and vanishing in a torrent of searing flame? It would sound ridiculous. Even the man himself cannot understand the strange dread that grips him, willing him to stay at home. But stay at home he does, and when he sees a newspaper placard that evening that says Jet Crashes in Alps he knows without asking that it was Flight 709. He knows because he was warned.

But how?

It is a question men were asking each other long before the jet plane was invented. For centuries men have sought to discover the explanation for the strange way that, every so often, people seem to be able to overcome space and time to know things that, logically, they can have no means of knowing. This strange gift is known today as Extra Sensory Perception, or E.S.P. And the search for the truth about it has baffled some of the best brains in the world.

For purposes of investigation, E.S.P. has been closely defined. It includes Telepathy, Clairvoyance, Precognition and Psychokinesis. Complex names for surprisingly common happenings, if reports are true.

Telepathy refers to the apparently magical manner in which one person can pass information on to another. Thus a man may look at a playing card and by means of some kind of thought wave, communicate the information to someone else.

Clairvoyance needs no second man or “agent.” The clairvoyant person simply knows what cards lie on the table in the next room.

Precognition is the knowledge of events that will happen in the future, and Psychkinesis describes the movements of objects by mental energy alone.

E.S.P. is a modern term, but in days gone by it went by a variety of names: Second Sight, Fortune Telling, Magic and Witchcraft. Plenty of men and women sought its secrets, and not a few of them ended up by being burnt at the stake for their pains.

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Philip Nolan – the American whom America rejected forever

Posted in America, Historical articles, History, Oddities, Sea, Ships on Wednesday, 5 March 2014

This edited article about Philip Nolan first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 579 published on 17 February 1973.

Philip Nolan,  picture, image, illustration
Philip Nolan took over a gun and his encouragement and bravery greatly helped to bring about the defeat of HMS Java

It was May 11th, 1863. The American corvette, U.S.S. Levant, was sailing in the Pacific. Captain Danforth was on duty on the bridge when a Lieutenant approached him, saluting smartly.

“Our guest is asking to see you, sir,” the Lieutenant said.

Captain Danforth nodded. “I’ll see him later.”

“He is asking for you urgently, sir,” the Lieutenant persisted. “He appears ill.”

Captain Danforth handed the bridge over to the Lieutenant and went below. He made his way to a cabin at the stern of the ship and knocked on the door. A weak voice asked him to enter. Captain Danforth went in, closing the door behind him.

“Thank you for coming, Captain,” said the man who was lying on the bunk. He tried to lift himself up but he was too weak and he fell back against the pillow.

Captain Danforth went quickly across to the bunk and looked at his passenger. He was white haired. The hands clutching at the blanket were veined and wrinkled. Captain Danforth guessed him to be about eighty years of age. There was no way of telling from the face. This was covered by a black velvet mask. All that could be seen were the eyes, dull and watery, and the thin wrinkled lips.

“You are ill,” Captain Danforth said with concern.

The man shook his head. “No. Just old and dying.” He raised a hand and pointed. “The map.”

Captain Danforth looked around the cabin. It was the first time he had been in it. It was sparsely furnished. On a shelf there were a handful of books. On one wall hung a painting of the American eagle, done by the occupant of the cabin. On the opposite wall hung a map of America.

“The map,” the man muttered again weakly.

Captain Danforth went and fetched the map. He saw that this too had been drawn by his passenger but that it was badly out of date.

“I drew that map many years ago,” the man said. “Over fifty years, I think. I would like to know what it would look like now.”

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The “Talking Fish” was a performing seal called Jenny

Posted in Animals, Fish, Historical articles, History, Leisure, London, Oddities on Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Talking fish,  picture, image, illustration
The Talking Fish

The Victorians were fascinated by natural oddities, and exhibitions of Unnatural Wonders and Freaks of Nature were very popular. In The Times of April, 1859, there appeared an advertisement for one such event: “THE TALKING AND PERFORMING FISH will arrive at 191 Piccadilly, early in May. Complimentary cards to naturalists and gentlemen of the press will be issued for private performances three days before public exhibition.” This turned out not to be a fish but a pet seal called Jenny, which had been taught by her keeper to perform various tricks and make suitably speech-like sounds when required. Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published in November of the same year, 1859, and the subsequent interest in evolution would give rise to many bizarre ‘entertainments’ mocking the scientific attempts to find human characteristics in the animal kingdom.

Many more pictures relating to London entertainments can be found at the Look and Learn picture library.

Sir Henry Wood and the invisible pianists

Posted in Famous artists, Famous Composers, Historical articles, History, Leisure, London, Music, Oddities on Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Henry Wood concert,  picture, image, illustration
Sir Henry Wood and the invisible pianists

A remarkable concert was recently held at Queen’s Hall, where a ‘Pianola’ Piano (‘Duo-Art’ Reproducing Model) – untouched by human hands – played Harold Bauer’s interpretation of Saint-Saens’ Concerto in G minor, accompanied by the Queen’s Hall Orchestra under the direction of Sir Henry J. Wood. It adequately accompanied Miss Carrie Tubb in vocal numbers, and Mr William Murdoch in a pianoforte duet. Pianoforte recordings by Paderewski, Madame Chaminade, Busoni and Pachmann were also given, the latter listening to his own playing from a seat in the stalls.

Many more pictures relating to London entertainments can be found at the Look and Learn picture library.

A German U-boat was haunted by a phantom officer

Posted in Boats, Historical articles, History, Mystery, Oddities, Superstition, World War 1 on Thursday, 13 February 2014

This edited article about U-Boat 65 first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 550 published on 29 July 1972.

U-boat 65,  picture, image, illustration
The haunted U-boat

Before she had even left the dockyard U-Boat 65 had claimed five lives. Then a rating was lost overboard and a torpedo explosion killed four men and an officer. From then on the ghost of the officer haunted the German submarine, striking terror into the hearts of the crew. Superstitious tales maybe? But were they?

It began before they had even finished building her. A steel girder which was being lowered into place in her hull, suddenly slipped from its chains and crashed down on two workmen below, killing them both:

It was unfortunate and sad that two men should die, the foreman said, after the two shattered bodies had been carried away. But the work had to go on. The Fatherland needed ships. When this one was finished it would be yet another nail in the coffin of the British Imperialists who were already reeling under the hammer blows of the U-Boats, haunting the icy waters of the Atlantic. Now back to work. For the Fatherland.

With these words ringing in their ears, the workmen returned to their tasks, thinking no doubt that it was pressures like these which caused men to become careless.

The next accident could not be put down to carelessness. Just before the ship was launched, three men were sent down to the engine room to check over the equipment. Suddenly, inexplicably, they found themselves choking rapidly to death in a thick haze of poisonous fumes which seemed to come from nowhere. Gasping their lives away, the three men stumbled blindly to the door, only to find it jammed. Within minutes they were all dead. The subsequent enquiry could find no reason for the escape of the deadly fumes, nor any reason why the door should have jammed.

The U.B. 65 had already claimed five victims. She was to claim many more before her career came to an end.

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A statue of Theagenes crushed a crazy boxing opponent

Posted in Ancient History, Historical articles, History, Oddities, Sport, Sporting Heroes on Wednesday, 5 February 2014

This edited article about the Olympic Games first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 544 published on 17 June 1972.

Olympic boxers,  picture, image, illustration
Olympic boxers

Facts are few about the ancient Olympic Games held in Greece from the days of legend until AD 394. We do know that for five days, at four year intervals, a thrilling festival of sports was held.

Chariots, with horses teamed four abreast, charged through the arena. There were foot races, wrestling and boxing matches.

Victors received only one prize, a crown of olive branches cut from a sacred grove by a boy with a golden knife. When they returned home, they were feted like gods. Statues were erected in their honour. One of these fell and killed a boxer who had pounded the image of his rival until it toppled from its pedestal. Theagenes was the name of the boxer who had been banned from several games for foul play, and was victorious even by proxy.

King Pedro’s courtiers attended his wife’s posthumous coronation

Posted in Famous crimes, Historical articles, History, Oddities, Royalty on Friday, 31 January 2014

This edited article about Pedro of Portugal first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 536 published on 22 April 1972.

Alcobaca,  picture, image, illustration
The Monastery of Alcobaca where Inez de Castro was buried, as was King Pedro himself, by Stanley Inchbold

All history’s kings have been entitled to their own peculiarities. It has always been one of the advantages of being a king that your eccentricities are above reproach. And of all the world’s kings who have left their catalogue of eccentricities to posterity, few can better the 14th century King Pedro of Portugal.

Pedro’s story is entwined with a woman who became a legend in her country. She was Inez de Castro, and Pedro’s love of her deserves to rank with the love of Hero for Leander, Paris for Helen, and the other immortals.

Inez, a gay, laughing little girl of great charm, was raised with the daughter of a friend of her father, a girl called Constancia.

Constancia’s father was a rich Spanish duke and the two girls played happily together, racing through the echoing corridors of the duke’s palace, inventing endless games and telling each other what they would do when they were grown up and free of the splendid but confining atmosphere of the court.

Even as they chatted, however, Constancia’s future was already being settled for her by her father and his politically powerful friends. It happened that Alfonso, the King of Portugal, was looking for a Spanish wife for his son and heir Pedro, and there were many good reasons in Spain and Portugal why Constancia should marry the young man who would one day make her a queen.

Alfonso quickly agreed the terms; that Constancia should marry Pedro in return for which he would send his Portuguese army to help the Spaniards drive the invading Moors from their country. On 30th October, 1304, at the great and decisive Battle of Salado, his soldiers fulfilled his part of the bargain and the following year Constancia was married to Pedro.

With the child bride on her journey to Lisbon went her lifelong friend, little Inez de Castro, who was to be her principal lady-in-waiting. But poor Constancia! Lisbon terrified her, and she shrank in alarm from her bridegroom whom his people called Collo de Garza, saying his neck was as long as that of a heron.

Within months Pedro realised that his political marriage was doomed and, hurt by his wife’s dislike of him, he turned for companionship to her beautiful young lady-in-waiting, Inez de Castro. Soon the two were hopelessly in love.

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The pig who ate a communion wafer was condemned to death

Posted in Animals, Historical articles, History, Law, Oddities on Saturday, 25 January 2014

This edited article about legal systems first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 527 published on 19 February 1972.

Animal justice, picture, image, illustration
Top: A sow and her piglets are summoned to appear before the court; Bottom: A court official reads out the charges to a cow accused of trampling a boy to death

Imagine your surprise if you saw a pig, a cow or even a wild animal such as a fox or a badger, being led into court to be tried by a judge and jury! If you had lived on the Continent in medieval times, such a spectacle would not have surprised you in the least, for in those days it was quite common for both domestic and wild animals to be brought to court, there to be tried, sentenced or acquitted, according to the jury’s verdict.

These animal courts were not staged for fun. They were conducted in all seriousness, with eminent lawyers acting for plaintiff and accused, exactly as they do when people are tried in our courts today.

Not long ago a bird was blamed for causing a thatched cottage to be burnt to the ground. It was suggested that the bird had taken a still smouldering cigarette end into the thatch for use as nest-building material. If the same thing had happened in medieval times it would have been the solemn duty of the ecclesiastical court to publicly declare the bird to be under notice to quit the district forthwith.

Fantastic, admittedly – but none the less true. The position was that civil courts had jurisdiction over all domestic creatures, including farm animals, whilst the church, or ecclesiastical courts, could call to trial and pronounce sentence on all forms of wild life, from wolves and rats down to insect pests such as ants and house flies.

One of France’s most eminent jurists, M. Chassensee, made his name for his masterly defence of the rats in the Diocese of Autun, in the 15th century. The rats were accused of appearing in great numbers and annoying the townspeople and were therefore summoned to appear before the local ecclesiastical court.

The defendants were described as “dirty animals of grey colour living in holes.” As the rats failed to appear in answer to the summons, the prosecution demanded sentence right away. But Chassensee argued that All the rats in the diocese were interested parties and they, too, should be called to give evidence. The curate of every parish was therefore commanded to issue a general summons. Still no rats turned up.

Contempt of court? Certainly not, argued Chassensee. Some were too old and some too young to make the journey. The rest of his clients, he explained, were quite willing to attend, but were afraid to come out of their holes because of “evilly disposed cats belonging to the plaintiffs.” This resulted in a stalemate and the case was therefore adjourned, sine die, or indefinitely!

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