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Forget Coral Reefs, These Snorkelers Prefer Soggy Bogs


article-imageBog Snorkeling is exactly what it sounds like. (Photo: Courtesy of Thomas Kelly)

When you think of snorkeling, you probably think about sunny, sandy shorelines, colorful tropical fish, and warm cerulean waters. Somewhere like Florida. Or Tahiti. 

What you probably don't think about is the tiny town of Llanwrtyd Wells, in the middle of Wales. For some intrepid snorkelers, the ocean is just too mundane. Swapping coral reefs for sulphuric swamps, beaches and clear waters for turbid mud, and teeming biodiversity for questionable microscopic organisms, the Bog Snorkeling World Championships has been happening in Llanwrtyd Wells annually since 1976. This year's competition is scheduled for August 30.

article-imageI mean, it is a bog. Definitely wash your hands. (Photo: Courtesy of Thomas Kelly)

The strange sport is helping to put rural Wales on the adventure tourism map, injecting much needed attention, and cash flow, to a region that needs it. At the championship, competitors must swim two lengths in a 60-yard trench dug into the bog substrate, for a total of 120 yards. But conventional swimming strokes are disallowed. The snorkelers must use flipper power alone, and are only permitted to surface a few times during the swim. Wetsuits are optional, though many opt to wear one—the water is frigid. 

Bog snorkeling is way harder than it looks. According to a reporter at the Irish Examiner who attempted the sport, "[t]he main problem was breathing. Snorkels are designed for the gentle sea, thundering up the bog leaves you gasping for more air than the tube can provide. Panic sets in, and you have to fight the urge to surface like a submarine and gasp for oxygen."

article-imageKermit getting after it in his natural habitat. (Photo: Courtesy of Thomas Kelly)

Now in its 30th year, the world championships attract over 150 competitors. There are different sections of the championship, the fan favorite being the very British-sounding "fancy dress" section, where competitors don ridiculous costumes, often giving themselves a hydrodynamic disadvantage. According to a press release from Green Events—the self-styled organizer of "madcap activities"—the most labor-intensive costumes of the 2014 event were a pantomime horse, and a man who wore an ironing board on his back as a nod to another zany event: the Extreme Ironing Championships

article-imageIn between saving the world from various supervillains, Superman likes to bog snorkel. (Photo: Courtesy of Thomas Kelly)

All this theater, however, doesn't mean the competition isn't serious. Last year, Kirsty Johnson shaved 1.5 seconds off of the 2013 world record, completing the 120-yard swim in the absurdly fast time of one minute and 22 seconds to claim the overall championship—for both men and women.

article-imageDefinitely takes the cake as the most inefficient costume of 2014. Balloon lady in the bog. (Photo: Courtesy of Thomas Kelly)

After 30 years of peat snorkeling, the town of Llantwrtyd Wells, which claims to be the tiniest town in the entire United Kingdom, is now going even further in its chasing of the bog dollar. If a 120 yard swim through the marsh isn't hardcore enough for you, you can really push your limits at the Bog Triathlon, which includes an eight-mile run (through the bog of course), coupled with the 120-yard swim, and finishes with a 12-mile mountain bike ride.

article-imageA more serious competitor charges to the finish. (Photo: Courtesy of Thomas Kelly)

Bog-based sports are not the only extreme athletic endeavors afoot in Llantwrtyd Wells—you can try "wife carrying," where competitors must carry their wives (or their husbands) on their backs over a half-mile course. The winner gets the equivalent of the person's weight they carried in Welsh beer. There's also the man-versus-horse challenge, in which runners race horses over hilly terrain. This sport was allegedly founded in order to settle a drunken debate about who was better at long distance running: man or horse. 

Of course, Llantwrtyd Wells is also a place where you can kick back and be pampered. After exerting yourself to the brink of exhaustion during one of these unconventional sports, you're invited to relax with a soothing dip in a "bog jacuzzi."


100 Wonders: The Treehouse That God Built


Tree houses are special. 

Connected to a nostalgic vision of youth that one may or may not have experienced, tree houses still manage to retain the promise of freedom, secrets, and warm summer nights no matter how old you are. While children hammer together small backyard tree shacks, adult artists, hoteliers, engineers, and in the case of Horace Burgess, those inspired by God, are creating a whole new set of tree houses, even tree mansions. These are a few of our favorites.

Most embodying the underlying spirit of the treehouse is the Hemloft. Constructed entirely from parts found on Craigslist, the beautiful egg-shaped treehouse was installed illegally in a Canadian national park. After being found out the treehouse was taken down and is currently waiting to find a permanent home.

The Finca Bellavista in Costa Rica is a larger and elaborate treehouse operation. An intentional community living in the trees, it was built by two Colorado expatriates and includes a two-story structure with a full, working kitchen and bathroom. As new residents are added to the community they build their own treehouse to live in which is then connected to the other houses via a series of zip lines. 

Most avant garde of tree houses is the Treehotel in Sweden. Featuring six different tree houses which were created by six Scandinavian designers they include one built to look like a giant bird's nest, one with its own tree top sauna, and one entirely covered in mirrors so that it seems to disappear into the woods. These are just a few of the many incredible tree houses scattered throughout the world. See more amazing takes on tree houses here.

Is A Squirrel Smarter Than A Fifth-Grader?


article-imageAn eastern gray squirrel reaching for a bird feeder while upside down. (Photo: waferboard/WikiCommons CC BY 2.0)

They can defeat just about any attempts to block them from feasting on bird feeders and thrive in the biggest, toughest cities in North America. These creatures have figured out how to use people for their own benefit, and have even, extremely rarely for animals, been documented exhibiting deceptive behavior.

Prepare to consider squirrels in a whole new light.

“Sometimes I think that squirrels are North America's version of monkeys,” says Steve Sullivan, curator of urban ecology for the Chicago Academy of Sciences and Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum as well as the head of Project Squirrel, a citizen science project that tracks the various species of squirrels. But just how smart are they, really?

article-imageAn eastern fox squirrel. (Photo: Dawn/flickr)

The squirrel family is a big and varied one, including ground squirrels like prairie dogs and marmots (giant beaver-like squirrels that mostly live in alpine environments). Most Americans know the tree squirrel, the many and very widespread species of rodent with puffy tails, fantastically acrobatic movements, phenomenal adaptability to urban environments, and very cute little faces. There are a whole bunch of species and subspecies of squirrels in North America, but the most common are the eastern grey squirrel and the fox squirrel, both of which started out in the eastern third of the continent but are now found coast to coast.

The eastern grey and fox squirrels are widely studied; earlier this summer a big conference, the 7th International Colloquium on Arboreal Squirrels, was held in Helsinki, Finland. Studies routinely come out that discover new, amazing behaviors, especially involving the squirrel’s signature behavior, that it buries caches of its food for later. One experiment found that they’ll try multiple tactics to open a locked box. Another found that squirrels really do remember the location of their caches, that they aren’t merely using their keen noses to locate them. Another found that they’re able to quickly learn from their peers.

And perhaps most interestingly, a 2010 study found that squirrels actually engage in deceptive, or paranoid, behavior. When squirrels are being watched, they’ll construct fake caches, pretending to bury a nut, going through the whole rigamarole of digging a hole, patting it down with their front teeth, and scraping dirt or grass over the top of it. They’ll actually be concealing the nut in a pocket near their armpit, and will make the real cache somewhere else. Even when you’re watching for it, it can be hard to tell when a squirrel is making a fake or a real cache. So, how smart is that?

The first big wrench in that question is the word “smart.” Animal intelligence is something we humans are fascinated with, whether it’s teaching the dog a new trick or marveling at the social behavior of octopuses. Animal intelligence stories make headlines constantly. Yet, it’s still not well understood.  “We kind of interpret that as, how would they do on the same IQ test that my 7-year-old just took?” says Sullivan. “And the answer to that is, 100 percent of every other species would do pathetically on it. But that doesn't mean your kid can climb a tree as fast as a squirrel can, or can observe a hawk and identify its characteristics as quickly as a squirrel can.”

Intelligence, among squirrel experts, is not a particularly useful or meaningful concept. When we humans discuss intelligence, we could be referring to a whole host of not-always-related topics: problem solving, abstract thought, creativity, memory retention. A 2006 paper found a whopping 71 different definitions of intelligence scattered amongst scientific literature.

article-imageAn eastern grey squirrel. (Photo: Robert Engberg/flickr)

Tests for animal intelligence usually involve problem solving and memory: can a rat remember a route through a maze? Can a crow figure out how to use a bent piece of wire to fetch food? But those are tests that we conceive of because, frankly, they’re tests that we’d do well on. “Humans are very visual, so we assume that's how animals solve problems, by using what they see in the world,” says Mikel Maria Delgado, a doctoral student at the University of California, Berkeley who studies the university campus’s population of fox squirrels. “But we know that other animals have much better senses of hearing, senses of smell, touch, sensation, like animals with whiskers, and humans can't do a lot of those things very well so we don't consider that criteria for being intelligent.”

It’s easy to assume squirrels aren’t smart because they can’t, say, use tools to bury nuts. Like a lot of assumptions about what makes an organism intelligent, that assumes that intelligence is equal to how similar an animal’s cognitive process is to ours. But what if we go the other way around, and play by the squirrel’s rules?

Delgado conducted a study in which students were placed in a competitive game to act like squirrels. They were tasked with hiding caches of plastic eggs, and then 15 minutes later tasked to go back out and bring back as many eggs as possible. They could locate their own caches or steal from those of other students, the same way squirrels do. This is a very squirrel-like test: memory, deception, location, observation, paranoia.

So how did the students do? “People are pretty bad at it,” laughs Delgado. “It really gives people an appreciation for the problems that squirrels are solving.” Most couldn’t remember their own hiding places. Squirrels bury about 10,000 nuts per year, and the most populous species, the eastern grey and the fox squirrel, make many, many different caches, and may not uncover them for months. They may dig up a cache and bury it somewhere else, and do that up to five times. And squirrels, unlike UC Berkeley students, are engaged in this intellectually draining activity while also avoiding predators and braving the elements.

article-imageAn eastern grey squirrel hoarding palm dates in Florida. (Photo Jamie Drake)

A major obstacle to coming to a measurement of animal intelligence is that animals don’t really have very much leisure time in the wild; decisions are made in the name of efficiency, making sure the amount of calories burned is fewer than the amount of calories ingested. “All animals have evolved to solve certain problems and they're usually really good at that,” says Delgado. But those problems aren’t necessarily the ones we’d pick if giving an intelligence test. “You're only as smart as your ecology requires you to be,” says Sullivan.

A major element to the perceived intelligence of squirrels is their ability to live and even thrive in urban environments. This is sort of an element of the basic human understanding of intelligence as “similarity to us,” but there might be something to it. After all, doesn’t the ability to adapt to a fast-growing, extremely unnatural construction like a city demonstrate intelligence for an animal that hasn’t evolved to live in that environment?

article-imageA fox squirrel. (Photo: Ingrid Taylar)

Not necessarily. “They're really sort of pre-adapted to urban areas,” says Sullivan. “A telephone line is, to them, no different than a sassafras tree. A telephone line and a sassafras tree both have long spindly branches that poke out, that you can run across to get to safety. But they don't offer food or much in the way of safety.” It’s not so much, suggests Sullivan, that squirrels adapted to urban life, but that the skills and abilities squirrels already had just so happened to be a good fit for cities. It’s the same story for pigeons. Urban pigeons are typically feral ancestors of domesticated rock pigeons, a bird species that prefers to live and nest on small ledges on the sides of cliffs. They prefer tiny, hard outcroppings on steep vertical environments. So when we built skyscrapers with ledges, it wasn’t that pigeons adapted to cities—it was like we built a gigantic perfect mansion, just for them.

Socialization is often cited as a building block of intelligence. Squirrel social behavior is not really that unusual in a lot of ways. Unlike their ground squirrel cousins, tree squirrels like the eastern grey and the fox squirrel are solitary, living alone, raising young only briefly, and communicating in a range of vocalizations and body movements. (That chittering sound you hear from above, by the way, means “you’re close to my food cache, get the hell out of here.”) The only really unusual attribute thus far discovered is the squirrel’s ability and propensity to deceive other squirrels. But is that a sign of intelligence or simply an element of instinct? Very hard to say.

FOUND: A Flying Spaghetti Monster



Bathyphysa confira, aka Flying Spaghetti Monster (Photo: Project SERPENT)

The Flying Spaghetti Monster was first described in 2005, not by scientists but by a man poking fun at intelligent design. The FSM  "revealed himself to me in a dream," Bobby Henderson said. He was a God-like creature that oversees carbon dating, and he looked like spaghetti and meatballs. The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster was soon established, and Pastafarians begin spreading the FSM gospel.

article-imageFollowers of the Flying Spaghetti Monster sometimes use this logo (Image: Brian Sawyer/Flickr)

If the Judeo-Christian God created man in his own image, Bathyphysa confira might be the equivalent earthly creation of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. This very strange creature was recently spotted 4,000 feet under the ocean, by a deep sea remote operating vehicle that was working on repairs of an oil rig, off the coast of Angola. 

The oil workers who saw this creature nicknamed it the Flying Spaghetti Monster, after the erstwhile deity. But they also sent the video to the scientists at the National Oceanography Center, who identified it as Bathyphysa confira.

Though it looks like one creature it's actually a colony of individual animals, with specialized functions. They cannot survive on their own, so the whole mishmash of tagliatelle-like strands is generally considered one being. And, sure, it looks weird, but so do humans if you look at them long enough. 

Bonus finds: two-headed snakea bar of gold

Every day, we highlight one newly lost or found object, curiosity or wonder. Discover something unusual or amazing? Tell us about it! Send your finds to sarah.laskow@atlasobscura.com. 

Fleeting Wonders: There's Still Time To See The Perseids



The Perseids giving it their all in 2013. (Photo: the very honest man/Flickr)

The best show of the summer is still in the sky! Due to the constant churn of Earthly media coverage, it may seem like the Perseids are so yesterday. But space stops for no news cycle, and if you’ve been sleeping on this meteor shower, you’ve got another chance to spot it before it slows to a dribble. If your 4 a.m. is free, this is a great way to use it.

The how-to is easy enough: go somewhere as far as possible from light pollution, lie on your back, let your eyes adjust to the dark, and wait. If conditions are right, you'll soon be treated to nature’s premiere space dust spectacular. Even if you can’t get out of the city, stay away from streetlights and you still might catch a few, NASA’s Bill Cooke told Business Insider.


A Perseid one-ups the whole galaxy over the Very Large Telescope in Chile in 2010. (Photo: European Southern Observatory/WikiCommons CC BY 4.0)

The Perseids are snips from the tail of comet Swift-Tuttle, which sheds debris as it orbits the Solar System. When the Earth revolves into the comet’s trail, this dust passes through our atmosphere and crackles into a zingy light show. This year’s performance is particularly spectacular because the moon is in its darker phases, and won’t drown out the rest of the players.

Past nights have been magnificent, and tonight might be the best of all. Go ahead, set your alarm right now.


A lone Perseid streaks through Cassiopeia. (Photo: John Flannery/Flickr)

Every day, we track down a fleeting wonder—something amazing that's only happening right now. Have a tip for us? Tell us about it! Send your temporary miracles to cara@atlasobscura.com. 

Jimmy 'Orion' Ellis Seemed So Much Like Elvis, People Thought He Actually Was


article-imageOrion is his iconic eagle suit. (Photo: Sun Records/Courtesy Pipoca Pictures)

When Elvis Presley died in 1977, the mourning that ensued was as fevered and earnest as the fandom that surrounded him in life. Thousands flooded Memphis to be near The King’s funeral, which was held at Graceland on a sweltering day on August 18th. People wept and reeled; they didn’t want to believe he was gone.

A year later, a masked man who called himself Orion gave them a very good reason to think he was not. He dressed like Elvis, he swiveled his hips like Elvis—and most importantly—he sang like Elvis. And not just a little bit: His sultry, resonant voice sounded exactly like The King. What incredible mystery was this man hiding behind the sparkly mask he never, ever removed?

At the core of Jeanie Finlay’s documentary Orion: The Man Who Would Be King is the story of a singer who is incredibly gifted but ultimately doomed because he isn’t one of a kind. It’s a problem a legion of musicians face, but in Jimmy Ellis’ case, it wasn’t so much that he couldn’t set himself apart from the crowd, it’s that he couldn’t untether his legacy from one of the world’s biggest music stars of all time. His voice was so similar to the icon’s, that the Ellis songs that comprise the soundtrack of Finlay’s film seem to be sung by Elvis’s ghost—and in a way they were.

Over several years and international reporting trips, Finlay pieced together the strange and tragic story of Ellis, a Tennessee crooner who hungered after fame and eventually found himself at the center of a bizarre marketing scheme that had him performing as Orion. He became a sensation; at times up to 500 fans would trail his tour bus. His fan club grew to 400,000 members, he released 9 studio albums, and he toured Europe, including a stint in Germany with Kiss. And while Ellis enjoyed many of the trappings of success, he suffered behind the mask and longed to be recognized for himself.

Finlay’s film is a meditation on the nature of fame, talent, and public persona, but it’s also an investigation into a pop cultural origin story that has largely been forgotten.

“I think Orion’s the reason that Elvis is still sighted today,” says Finlay. “They created a myth and let it just fester and grow in people’s imaginations.”

Orion: The Man Who Would Be King opens in the UK on September 25. We talked to Finlay about making the film, modern Orion fandom, and the nature of fame.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

article-imageDirector Jeanie Finlay. (Photo: Jo Irvine)

How did you find out about Orion?

About 12 years ago, in Nottingham in England, where I live, I was at a garage sale with my husband and we bought an Orion record. It was “Orion Reborn”, so it was the reissued version. It’s a man in a blue suit on a blue background, so it’s a really striking album cover and he’s got really big hair and a mask and his hands on his hips. It’s just like ‘What is this!’

We buy a lot of records—I made a film about record shops a few years ago—we collect vinyl, lots of of old and interesting things. So we took it home and it was just like ‘What the hell is this?’ It had yellow vinyl, it’s gold vinyl, limited edition, and it sounded like songs Elvis might have recorded but you just never heard them. At that time I was making artwork, I wasn’t making films, so it was just this intriguing story. I researched into the back story and found out about his meteoric rise and then terrible fall. So it was a story that never really went away.

Then I started making films and I‘ve made a few features and I came back to Orion about six years ago and thought ‘Oh c’mon that’s got to be a film.’

And then I just gradually started to uncover it. It was a huge excavation job, because Orion was not a huge star. It was an intriguing story and there were definitely ways into it, but it was a mammoth job. I went to the states quite a few times, went to Norway and found the biggest ever collector of Orion material, he lives in Norway, so I went there twice. It was piecing the bits together and wondering, ‘Can this be a film?’ and I made three other features while I was making Orion.

It’s been a long time.

article-imageOrion from the album “Reborn” – the record that filmmaker Jeanie Finlay bought 10 years ago in Nottingham and set off on a quest to find the man under the mask.(Photo: Sun Records/Courtesy Pipoca Pictures)

Was there ever a scenario where Jimmy could have found success or was his similarity to Elvis what doomed him from the beginning?

My belief is that he probably found the biggest success he could have, really. There’s a lot of very heated debate in Orion fan circles so there’s two schools of thought. One of them is that without the mask he wouldn’t have found any success and the mask was his ticket to stardom. And then the other school is that the mask got in the way and it stops him from ever becoming bigger.

I think that Elvis Presley cast such a long shadow over the whole career of Orion. It’s not like he sounded like Stevie Wonder. He sounded like Elvis, and he’s such an icon. There’s a whole industry in people trying to sound like him. I think it was really, really hard for him to ever be himself. 

I think that’s the ultimate tragedy at the heart of the Orion story. He wanted to himself and be taken seriously and loved for himself. But when people heard him sing they didn’t think about what they had, they thought about what they’d lost.

article-imageOrion recording in the studio at Sun Records, Nashville. (Photo: Sun Records/Courtesy Pipoca Pictures)

What does Orion fandom look like today?

I spent a lot of time in the eye of the storm of Orion fandom over the years. Orion fandom is very ardent. I haven’t done a screening yet where there isn’t a person there who’s a huge Orion fan. And I’d say because he’s pretty niche, the people who love him truly love and adore him.

So there are people that saw him back in the day in the south who are now maybe in their 60s and still play his music and still talk about his music every day...But then there’s also younger collectors. Kenneth [Dokkeberg, the Norwegian collector] is in his very early 30s and I think that for some people the idea of Elvis is that everything has been collected, every story has been told, every object has been bought. With Orion there’s new stories to discover and you can get close to the people that were in his band or you can buy things that he signed. He’s a more accessible star.

article-imagePromotional poster for Orion Reborn. (Photo: Sun Records/Courtesy Pipoca Pictures)

You also made a film The Great Hip Hop Hoax about two Scottish musicians who pose as California rappers. What did making these two movies make you think about being famous and what being a star is. What’s the difference between having a persona and faking it?

I’m not sure that there is, really.

I think it’s made me feel quite cynical about everything but then I’m also drawn to the dream that people might make it. I keep thinking about The X Factor and The Voice and American Idol and those sorts of things. Every single person who goes on those programs thinks they’re going to break the mold and do it differently this time. And they don’t.

I think we all wear masks but Jimmy Ellis wore a spangly, sequined, bedazzled mask. And the boys in The Great Hip Hop Hoax—they were slightly different. They invented themselves. They could have been anyone they wanted and they created people that they didn’t even like. To me that was the whole thing,  ‘Why would you do that? You could be anything.’ So that film’s really a bromance gone wrong.

article-image(Photo: Sun Records/Courtesy Pipoca Pictures)

And in the end Orion didn’t really like the persona he helped create, either.

Yes, but I would say he was more of a passenger, I think once Shelby [producer Shelby Singleton of Sun Records] got ahold of Jimmy that was it. I think he was much more passive in terms of creating his persona. I think he did it and obviously there was all the sex, he got all the women he ever wanted, all the perks to being a star, but it seems it always comes at a price.

article-imageOrion promo card put out by Sun Records.  (Photo: Sun Records/Courtesy Pipoca Pictures)

article-imageOrion in London. (Photo: Sun Records/Courtesy Pipoca Pictures)

Would it be possible to pull this off today?

I’m not sure. Another one of the things that drew me to the story was that it was to be discovered. 

This is a story that lingers in people’s memories or in photo albums in attics of ladies in North Carolina or Alabama. So that was really intriguing to me—it was a sleeping story. This was a thing that caught fire by word of mouth, it was before Google. I’m not sure if it could happen now, at all. But you never know.

article-imageOrion from the album “Fresh”. (Photo: Sun Records/Courtesy Pipoca Pictures)

I don’t know if it would be successful today because there’s a culture of glee in unmasking people.

Oh, definitely! He would have been discovered immediately. Immediately. They would have discovered it. I have to say though, even though all of that said, I still get loads of messages from people saying ‘You do know there were two Orions. One was Elvis and one was Jimmy Ellis.’ There are a lot of people who actually believe that he was Elvis. So I’ve said to them, ‘This is a documentary, it’s based on the facts I’ve unearthed and the people I’ve spoken to’ and then they don’t believe me anyway.

When the The Great Hip Hop Hoax came out, we were on the front page of Reddit because other people were calling it a hoax inside a hoax and it was a “hoaxception” and I was an actress. We played it at the Edinburgh film festival and afterward there was a guy who said ‘My girlfriend and I have discussed it all evening, and we’re confident that you’re an actress and so are the guys and this is all a tactic to sell records. Is it?’ And I said, ‘You can believe everything I’ve told you.’ And he said, ‘Well, of course you would say that.’

Once you make an atmosphere where people aren’t sure what is real, anything is up for grabs, really.


75 Years Later, the Deadly Bombing That Rocked the New York World's Fair Is Still Unsolved



The Hall of Nations area towards the British Pavilion at the 1939 World's Fair in New York. (Photo: Library of Congress)

The World’s Fair of 1939-1940 was conceived as a way to pull New York out of the doldrums of the Great Depression. The fair’s theme was “Dawn of a New Day,” and in order to create this gleaming vision of the future, the vast ash dumps of Corona, Queens were transformed into a glittering playground with expansive displays from 60 countries, all trying to out-do one another.  

The USSR built a life-sized replica of a Moscow metro station. In the British Pavilion, visitors could marvel at the Magna Carta and the Crown Jewels, while in the French Pavilion, the celebrated Le Pavilion restaurant proved so popular it would move to Manhattan after the fair.

The fair's hometown was not so lucky. New York City Parks Commissioner Robert Moses and Chief of Police Grover Whalen, who together spearheaded the site’s evolution from a place the New York Times described as having “dog-sized rats” that skittered through ash mounds that “towered as high as 90 feet” to a suitable place for President Roosevelt to visit, picked the perfectly wrong time for such a spectacle. In 1939, the world was teetering on the precipice of war. The buttons handed out by General Motors, which read “I Have Seen The Future,” suddenly took on an ominous meaning.  

The first season of the World’s Fair ran from April to October 1939; in the fall, Adolf Hitler set into motion the events that would start the Second World War. Poland, invaded on the first day of September, draped their pavilion in large black cloths, and Czechoslovakia didn’t open theirs at all.


An oblique view of the Helicline, the curved walkway that led to the Perisphere. (Photo: Library of Congress)

President Roosevelt dedicated the Fair, and it was broadcast by the medium of the future, the television. Visitors marveled at wondrous new inventions like the fax machine, air conditioning and an eight-foot tall robot that could walk, talk and even smoke. Futuristic architecture lined wide pastel-colored avenues. The fair was promoted as the eighth wonder of the world, a world dominated by U.S. industry and enterprise.

The newest Ford cars endlessly circled the Avenue of Tomorrow. The Westinghouse Corporation planted a time capsule to be opened in 5,000 years that included artifacts that ranged from Albert Einstein’s writing to a pack of Camel cigarettes. Salvador Dali’s “Dream of Venus” installation featured barely clad women dressed as pianos and mermaids in a surreal dream world. Many of the rides, including the parachute drop, would eventually end their days at Coney Island’s amusement park.

During his opening speech, FDR declared that "we Americans offer up a silent prayer that on the Continent of Europe, from which the American hemisphere was principally colonized, the years to come will break down many barriers to intercourse between nations—barriers which may be historic, but which....have led to strife and have hindered friendship and normal intercourse." The sentiment was in line with the views of most American citizens, who favored staying out of the "mess" in Europe. 

But Germany was not the only country trafficking in dangerous rhetoric at the time. New York was also home to a large number of Nazi sympathizers. The pro-fascist German American Bund had been set up in 1936 to promote Nazi Germany in the U.S., with members drawn from the country’s German immigrant population. Founder Fritz Julius Kuhn soon assembled a sizable faction of supporters.


German American Bund parade in New York City on East 86th St, October 1939. (Photo: Library of Congress)

Pro-Nazi marches complete with swastika banners took place on the Upper East Side and down Fifth Avenue. On February 20, 1939, 20,000 Nazi sympathizers chanting “Heil Hitler” attended a rally at Madison Square Garden, the stage decorated with twin banners of Hitler and George Washington. During the summer, Penn Station ran trains, the so-called “Camp Siegfried Specials,” to Yaphank, Long Island, where Bund-organized training camps taught shooting, camping, survivalist, and eugenics classes, and promised German-American patriots that “you will meet people who think like you do.” The rallies and camps drew increasingly hostile protests from anti-German groups.

As tensions rose in the city, so too did the violence. On June 20th, 1940, a bomb ripped apart the offices of the Communist Daily Worker at 35 East 12th Street. That same day, a time bomb exploded at 17 Battery Place, home of the German consulate. On June 21st, a call was placed to Manhattan police headquarters saying that the Bund was going to blow up the Brooklyn Bridge.

On Independence Day, over in Flushing Meadows Park, the glittering science fiction landscape drawing thousands of visitors a day was suddenly torn apart when a bomb went off at the World’s Fair.


Trylon & Perisphere at the World's Fair. (Photo: Library of Congress)

Detective Joseph Lynch was a college graduate and trained pharmacist from the Bronx. Originally a teacher at Fordham University, with plans to open his own apothecary, the Great Depression led him to seek a more stable way to support his wife and five children. He decided to join the New York City Police Department, where his high level of education quickly propelled him to the elite ranks of the Bomb and Forgery Squad.

On July 4th, 1940, Lynch was on call, but enjoying the holiday at home. About an hour before he was due to finish his shift, a call came in that a suspicious package had been reported at the World’s Fair. Taking his sister’s car, he raced to the Polish neighborhood of Greenpoint, Brooklyn to pick up his partner, Ferdinand Socha.

Socha was also college educated, and had studied medicine. Like Lynch, he was accelerated to the bomb squad. He was off-duty that day, but volunteered to accompany his partner to Flushing Meadows Park to investigate.


Patrolman Emil Vyskocil's ID pass for the World's Fair. (Photo: Luke Spencer)

At the popular British Pavilion, the telephone switchboard operator had received an anonymous call saying that there was a bomb planted in the exhibit. The caller claimed the place was going to blow up and she should “get out.”

A suspicious satchel had been discovered by an electrician in the ventilation room in an upper level of the packed British Pavilion. Patrol officers gingerly removed the case to a more remote area behind the Polish Pavilion, where it would wait for the Bomb Squad. Arriving on the scene, Socha and Lynch could hear the case still ticking.

Back then, the bomb squad had little in the way of protective clothing and safety equipment. As NYPD detectives, Socha and Lynch were dressed in regular suits. All they had going in was their experience, bravery, and simple tools.

Using a pocketknife, Socha cut a small hole in the case. Lynch looked through tentatively. “It’s the business,” Lynch said to his partner. Those were the last words he ever spoke.


Detectives Ferdinand Socha and Joseph J. Lynch, as shown in a news story about the bombing. Photo: Luke Spencer) 

The bomb was later estimated to be the equivalent of around 12 sticks of dynamite. The blast carved a hole in the ground five feet wide and three feet deep, immediately killing Detectives Lynch and Socha. Patrolman Emil Vyskocil had been hurrying bystanders away when the bomb exploded. He suffered terrible injuries from shrapnel fragments to his back and legs. Detectives William Federer, Martin Schuchman, and Joseph Gallagher were also badly injured in the blast.

The Police Department quickly began an investigation into the tragedy. Naturally, it was a high priority case. But three-quarters of a century later, the NYPD is still looking for answers. 

My NYPD contact is Bernard Whalen, who has served in the police force since 1981. Together with his father, a former New York state corrections officer, Jon Whalen, he wrote a book outlining the history of The NYPD’s First 50 Years. For Bernard, who has done extensive research into the World’s Fair bombing, the bravery of those officers remains so meaningful that the book is dedicated “in recognition of the heroism the displayed on that fateful afternoon in the finest tradition of the NYPD.”


Bernard Whalen, long time veteran of the NYPD and author, by the memorial 75 years after the bombing. (Photo: Luke Spencer)

Walking around the Chinatown neighborhood that for many years was his precinct, Whalen explained that he “felt they were kind of forgotten in history. People don’t remember what was in reality a very serious incident.” Compared to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the bombing of the World’s Fair is hardly known or taught.

According to Whalen, the NYPD began rounding up leading Nazi sympathizers shortly after the bombing. Members of the Communist Party, the Irish Republican Army and the extremist Christian Front were also questioned. As it had been the British Pavilion that was targeted, primary suspicion fell upon the German American Bund.

One of the first arrests took place the very next day, July 5, 1940, with a raid at the Bund offices on West 181st Street. Former member Caesar Kroger was seized along with several Lugers and rolled-up maps of the U.S. with prominent locations marked on them.

Grimly bent on avenging their comrades, policemen combed the city for the person or persons whose time bomb killed the detectives. But no evidence could tie the German American Bund to the bombing, and as the investigation floundered, an unprecedented reward was offered, with $1,000 coming from the police union and $25,000 from the city, a figure Whalen explains is “roughly around $500,000 today.” 


Joseph J. Lynch's medal for valor. (Courtesy of Easter Miles)

While responsibility for the bombing focused on Britain’s enemies, Whalen says that an alternate theory isn’t out of the realm of possibility, that the bomb was planted by the British themselves as an inside job. Left virtually isolated against Germany, Churchill was desperate for American aid. Meanwhile, American involvement in Europe was the last thing Hitler wanted, so why carry out an act of terrorism that would only help propel the U.S. into the war?

The ventilation room where the bomb was placed was not open to the public, and Whalen says its existence would only have been known to people with inside knowledge of the British Pavilion. British security staff guarded the Crown Jewels and Magna Carta. The anonymous call that warned of the bomb could have in theory prevented any casualties, while at the same time generating sympathy for Britain. "One of first things that came out of the bombing was anti-German sentiment," says Whalen.

The role the US would play in the war, if any, was assumed to be decisive to the conflict’s outcome. Leading up to the Fair, Whalen says, “you had competing governments coming to Washington to try and persuade Roosevelt to either enter the war or stay isolationist.”


 The front page of the New York Herald Tribune the day after the bombing. (Courtesy of Easter Miles)

A devastating bomb at the World’s Fair and a large body count could have possibly have swayed public opinion in the way the sinking of the Lusitania did in World War I.

The case of the exploding bomb at the World’s Fair was all but forgotten as news reports filtered in about Nazi aggression and atrocities in Europe. But it remained painfully real for the families Socha and Lynch left behind. Detective Socha and his wife had no children, and she eventually remarried, even though it meant losing her NYPD’s widow’s pension.

Meanwhile, Detective Lynch’s young wife, Easter, was left with five children to support but never remarried. The detective's wake was held in the Bronx family home, and over 5,000 people came to pay their respects, including Babe Ruth, who signed the book of remembrance.

Lynch’s eldest daughter, who shares her mother’s name, was just 10 at the time. Today, aged 85, she has worked tirelessly from her home in Orange, Connecticut to keep the memory of her father’s bravery alive.


Easter Miles, daughter of Detective Lynch, at the plaque. (Photo: Luke Spencer)

“I grew up overnight,” Easter Lynch (now Easter Miles) says. “When I found out, I said, ‘Who’s going to take care of my mother?’”

At 12, Easter started working in a bakery. By the age of 17 she was working in finance and studying business at Fordham’s evening school to help support the family. “My mother was a heroine,” Easter says. “She didn’t take welfare, and four out of the five children went to college, each one sharper than the next.”

The bomb squad did their best to help, too. “The squad was very close-knit. Before my father and Socha died, there had only been six of them in it,” Easter says. “They pitched in and became our surrogate fathers. They took us to the circus and to ball games. They were there at Thanksgiving and Christmas.”

But little support came from either the World’s Fair Corporation or the British government. Lord Halifax, who became the U.K.’s ambassador to the U.S. in 1940, sent the Lynch family an engraved silver dish on behalf of the British government, “in recognition of the gallantry of her husband Detective Joseph Lynch.”


The silver dish presented to Easter Lynch from Lord Halifax representing the British Government. (Courtesy of Easter Miles)

Easter recalls her mother sending a telegram to the King and Queen of England, saying: “Thank you for your dish. If I had a house where I could use this for calling cards, it would be greatly appreciated. A basket of fruit to feed my children would be much better.”

Throughout the years, Easter has steadfastly collected an archive of newspaper clippings and reports of the case and the heroic sacrifices made by her father, Socha and the other severely injured officers.

During the 1964-65 World’s Fair, which took place at the same site in Flushing Meadows Park, a plaque for the bombing victims of 1939 was commemorated. Years later, the plaque had fallen into disrepair, and resembled little more than a manhole cover. Easter Miles led the petition to have it restored to where it lies today, outside the Queens Museum, the sole building left over from the 1939-40 World’s Fair.

Today the plaque, which lies largely unnoticed in a flowerbed by the Queens Museum’s left wall, is one of the few markers of this early terrorist attack on American soil.


The plaque outside the Queens Museum commemorating the World's Fair bombing of July 4th 1940. (Photo: Luke Spencer)

The memorial reads:

This plaque is dedicated to the memory of detectives
Joseph J. Lynch and Ferdinand A. Socha
Bomb and Forgery Squad
Who were killed in the line of duty while examining a time bomb taken from the British Pavilion of the World’s Fair in Flushing Meadow Park at 4:45pm on July 4th, 1940.

On the recent 75th anniversary of the bombing, a memorial service was held at the site of the plaque. While the murderers of Socha and Lynch have never been caught, the terrorist attack of 1940 did lead to almost immediate improvements in equipment and safety protocols for the Bomb Squad, including the invention of the LaGuardia Pyke bomb carrier truck, which would carry explosive devices away in greater safety.

The case of the exploding bomb at the World’s Fair remains one of the New York Police Department’s most poignant open files.

The $26,000 reward is still there.


FOUND: A River Hidden Under a Giant Pyramid



Chichen Itza (Photo: Cocojorgefalcon/Wikimedia)

The city of Chichen Itza, in Mexico's Yucatan peninsula, was one of the largest in the Maya world for centuries, starting sometime after the year 750 until 1250. Its name means "at the mouth of the well of Itza," and the center of the city, there was a giant pyramid, that's still standing today. And underneath the pyramid, archaeologists have just discovered an underground river.

Sixty five feet under the ground, there's a cavern—the chamber of an underground river, which is covered by rock. The archaeologists found it not by excavating under the pyramid (which would put it in danger) but by scanning the ground with an electric resistance survey. This part of Mexico is dotted with cenotes, small pools created by sinkholes in the limestone. Underground rivers like this one often connect them.

The question now is: did the Maya architects of the pyramid purposefully build on top of the river? As the Associated Press explains, "The cenotes that surround the pyramid could represent the four points of the compass. The river at the center might represent the center of the Maya’s universe, which they thought of as a tree with roots reaching below ground." In other words, a pretty good place to build a giant religious monument.

Bonus finds: Part of a previously unknown Fitzgerald novel about ballerinasa baby exoplanet that's a lot like Jupiter

Every day, we highlight one newly lost or found object, curiosity or wonder. Discover something unusual or amazing? Tell us about it! Send your finds to sarah.laskow@atlasobscura.com. 

Treasures of The World's Largest Private Collection of Original Manuscripts


article-imageEinstein's Theory of Relativity. (All Photos: Courtesy Karpeles Manuscript Library Museums)

This story was sponsored by the fine folks of Enjoy Illinois.

Reading about history is interesting, but seeing the original documents, complete with hand-written notes and doodles in the margins, allows a whole new level of connectivity across the ages. 

Founded in 1983, the Karpeles Museum is the world's largest private collection of original manuscripts and documents. With 11 locations across the U.S.A., the museum's treasures span literature, arts, science, and history, such as Webster's original dictionary, the original draft of the Bill of Rights, and Einstein's famous equation

In partnership with the Karpeles Museum in Rock Island, Illinois, we've selected some of the most awe-inspiring original documents. Below, check out Christopher Columbus' report on his last voyage of discovery to the New World, Rene Descartes' treatise on physics and math, Galileo's last book announcement, and many other precious items. 


article-imageLindbergh's landing citation from Le Bourget field in Paris, 1927. 

On the morning of May 20, 1927, equipped with four sandwiches, two canteens of water, and 451 gallons of gas, Charles "Lucky" Lindbergh set out to do what no man (or woman) had ever accomplished: fly non-stop across the Atlantic alone. 

The former mail pilot, backed by a group of wealthy businessman, took off from the dirt runway of Roosevelt Field, Long Island, in his trusty "Spirit of St. Louis." Lindbergh covered the 3,600-mile distance in just over 33 hours, contending with darkness, sleet, and navigational difficulties. He finally landed at Le Bourget Field, in Paris, to an ecstatic crowd of supporters.

The document above is Lindbergh's original landing citation in Paris, stating, "I certify that I left Long Island (near New Island) at 6:51 and 30 seconds (American time) and have reached the airport of Bourget (near Paris) on May 21, 1927 at 10:22 (French time)."


article-imageThe manuscript from 1652 wherein William Harvey, discoverer of circulation of the blood, establishes and funds the Harveian Oration.

Best known for his discovery of the circulation of the blood, William Harvey was a notable doctor, instrumental in developing the scientific method of inquiry, and as an early promoter of scientific education.

The document above, dated to 1652, establishes the Harveian Oration, a yearly lecture held at the Royal College of Physicians in London, held to this day. Written five years before his death, the document states, "that once every Year for ever, that is to say upon every first day of April, being the Birth day of the sayd William Harvey . . . There may be a Feast held . . . [and] there may be an Oration in Latin made to the whole College . . . wherein the whole society may be exhorted to mutuall Love and affection, and to the search of the Nature and propertys of things by way of experiment."


article-imageThe first page of a letter from Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, where she discusses the ratification of the Geneva Convention, from 1882. 

This document, dated to 1882, was written by Clara Barton, the founder of the American Red Cross. In the letter, she discusses the ratification of the Geneva Convention, which was used to protect the sick and wounded during times of war.  The Geneva Convention gives the Red Cross its ability to work across global conflicts in the pursuit of humanitarian efforts. This is the only surviving copy of the letter.


article-imageColumbus' "Lettera Rarissima", a letter describing His Last Voyage of Discovery to The New World in the year 1502-3. 

The Lettera Rarissimia above is Columbus's report of his Last Voyage of Discovery to The New World in 1502-3. The Lettera Rarissimia was Columbus's first letter detailing the coastline of the American continent, as in his previous voyages he had only visited the outlying islands.

Contrasting with his previous reports, Columbus describes the difficulties, illnesses, and storms that plagued him and his crew. In one terrifying episode, Columbus's ship was grounded off the coast of Jamaica, and he could not seek the assistance of the islanders, whom he thought to be hostile. He wrote this letter, and sent a few of his best men in a small dinghy to seek rescue from the governor of Santo Domingo.

After a harrowing nine months waiting in the ship, rationing food and water, Columbus and his crew were rescued. 


article-imageThe announcement by Galileo of the completion of his publication 'Dialogue on Two New Sciences'.

This document is the last surviving copy of Galileo's announcement of the completion of his famous publication, Dialogue on Two New SciencesCovering much of the famed astronomer's work in physics over the preceding 30 years of his life, the Dialogue on Two New Sciences is often heralded as the beginning of the field of modern mechanics. 

Published in 1638, this book was Galileo's final publication, before he died at the age of 77 in 1642. 


article-imageAn excerpt from John Locke's 'Essay concerning Human Understanding', 1689. 

Philosopher, physician, and Enlightenment thinker John Locke's influence on the modern world is hard to underestimate. Seen here is an excerpt from his Essay Concerning Human Understandinghandwritten by Locke himself in 1689, but not published until 1690.

Locke's essay sets the foundation of empiricism in modern philosophy, positing that the mind of an infant is a "blank slate," and it is filled with thoughts and ideas through the experience of life. The thesis of the Essay Concerning Human Understanding served to inspire later Enlightenment thinkers, such as David Hume, and its influence can be traced through the American Constitution—Thomas Jefferson changed Locke's phrase, "Life, Liberty, and Property," to the now famous, "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness."


article-imageRene Descartes' treatise.

Rene Descartes, often regarded as the founder of rational modern philosophy, hand-wrote the above treatise on physics and mathematics, written in Latin.  In the margin, Descartes works out the equation of a tangent at an angle of 45 degrees to a curve.

While such equations are the bane of high-school students across the world, Descartes took great pleasure in solving them. In the treatise, he cheekily adds that solving this equation took him nowhere near the "fortnight that another [nameless] mathematician had supposed, since when he is working for himself, he abbreviates heavily."

Descartes passed away in 1650, but his works are closely analyzed by scholars to this day. 


Fleeting Wonders: Miles Of Seaweed Choking Caribbean Beaches



A normal amount of sargassum. (Photo: James St. John/Flickr)

If you like your postcards scrawled on, we've got the vacation for you. Beaches in the Caribbean and Barbados have become snarled in ridiculous amounts of sargassum, a brown, bubbly seaweed that tends to clump into huge mats. While at their blooming site in the Sargasso Sea, the weed mats house tuna, crabs, turtles, and other beloved seafarers. But after they get beached, they're more likely to attract flies, suffocate fish, and repel tourists. 


Sargassum mats where they belong, in the Sargasso Sea. (Photo: Tam Warner Minton/Flickr)

Artfully strewn shreds of sargassum have long graced the Caribbean coastline, but these whole-beach takeovers are pretty new—some beaches report ten-foot pile-ups, which is enough to make an incredible number of sea monster wigs. Some scientists blame these "bumper crops," which started showing up in 2011,  on runoff filled with sewage waste and fertilizer. Others think the mats are actually from the equatorial Atlantic, where warming water has mixed with river-carried nutrients to make Sargasso-like conditions. 


Too much sargussum can also snare larger animals, like this spinner dolphin, caught in 2010. (Photo: Terry Ross/Flickr)

People may spar over exactly where it came from, but everyone agrees on one thing: it stinks. TheWashington Post described it as "smelly and decaying," while The Associated Press evokes "stinking mounds" that "attract biting sand flies and smell like rotten eggs." Tobago is calling it a "natural disaster," and Mexico has pledged $9.1 million and thousands of temporary workers to shovel it away—although at the current rate of entanglement, odds are it will be quickly replaced.

Every day, we track down a fleeting wonder—something amazing that's only happening right now. Have a tip for us? Tell us about it! Send your temporary miracles to cara@atlasobscura.com. 

Egyptmania: A Festivity for the Pharaohs Roundup


Illinois Obscura Society was created in partnership with Enjoy IllinoisSign up to find out more about the back room tours, unusual adventures, and incredible parties that Atlas Obscura will be putting on in Chicago and greater Illinois. 


All photography by Patricia and Michael Wilson

On the last day of July, 2015, The Illinois Obscura Society hosted an event at the famed home of the (fictional) Indiana Jones, the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago in Illinois. This institution is devoted to the serious research of Middle Eastern artifacts, but for one night, they let us invade their halls in elaborate 1920s costumes, complete with custom hooch, gypsy jazz, and even some belly dancers.


The museum is full of artifacts from Egypt, Mesopotamia, Assyria and other places. Some were created 9,000 years ago. All of them are important to our understanding of ancient cultures, and we were privileged to be in their presence. 


This didn't stop us from having fun. Folks came in all manner of costume, from 1920s flappers to Moroccan merchants to barbershop dandies. And yes, Indiana Jones was there in many different forms. 


Swing Gitan accompanied the evening in "Gypsy Jazz" style. The instrument shown here is called a cimbalom, a form of Hungarian hammered dulcimer. 


Dancing in a museum? Just another Atlas Obscura event. Some of these folks were quite talented.


Our bartenders got into the "spirit" of things serving 1920s-style gin cocktails and local craft brew.


Letherbee Gin is NOT made in a bathtub, but it is made in small, premium batches. We were honored to have them sponsor the alcoholic portion of the festivities.


Renowned Egyptologist Emily Teeter regaled us with tales of the museum's founder, James Breasted, whose true life exploits rivaled those of his fictional stereotype, Indiana Jones.


These gentlemen were found wandering the halls gazing at the antiquities and taking part in our scavenger hunt.  Though they didn't win the scavenger hunt, they certainly were winners in the costuming department.


This gentleman, in fine 1920s fashion, was not observed to be tap dancing, probably out of respect for the artifacts nearby. We know he had it in him, though.


Although the event is over, the Oriental Institute remains. This is a hidden gem in the Chicago area for anyone interested in visiting one of the world's finest collections of Middle Eastern artifacts. 

Illinois Obscura Society was created in partnership with Enjoy IllinoisSign up to find out more about the back room tours, unusual adventures, and incredible parties that Atlas Obscura will be putting on in Chicago and greater Illinois. 

FOUND: A Stone Giant in Upstate New York



The Cardiff Giant (Image: Public domain/Wikimedia)

In the fall of 1869, a farmer named Stub Newell asked some neighbors to come over to help dig a well on his property in upstate New York, near the tiny town of Cardiff. When they broke ground, not far beneath the surface, they hit something hard.

Soon, they had uncovered something incredible: a giant stone man.

The giant weighed almost 3,000 pounds and was 10 feet tall. Newell and his neighbors weren't quite sure what it was—a petrified man or an ancient statue? Either way, people were interested. They came from miles around to see the Cardiff Giant, and Newell started charging 50 cents per person.

Now, ten feet is awfully tall for a human being: Even today, the tallest person ever measured was just under 9 feet tall. And soon enough it became clear that the giant found on Newell's farm wasn't real. 

Few scientists ever believed the giant was actually a petrified man although some did buy the "ancient statue" story. But in reality, he had been carved just a year or so before. George Hull, Newell's cousin, had heard a Protestant preacher talking about the Biblical account of giants roaming the earth and seen an opportunity. In secret, he had the giant made from a giant block of gypsum, arranged for it to be buried on Newell's land, and then waited.

The truth about the giant came out within a few months of its discovery. By that point, Hull and Newell had already sold their giant (it's now at the Farmers' Museum, in Cooperstown, N.Y.), and P.T. Barnum had made a plaster copy (now at Marvin's Marvelous Mechanical Museum, in Michigan). 

The Cardiff Giant was far from the only giant that's been "discovered" over the years. In the 1870s, another Hull-created giant showed up in Colorado. A few years after that, a hotel in upstate New York found their own petrified giant. In 1890, a French anthropologist discovered a set of giant bones that he insisted was human. A few years after that, a saloon in Colorado was giving people a look at a concrete giant named "McGinty" for $1 a person. People want giants to be real so badly that some believe the Smithsonian Institute has actively covered up evidence of giants' existence.

Since about 2002, stories of giant skeletons being found in India and Saudi Arabia have regularly shown up on the internet. Usually, these stories are accompanied by pictures of giant skulls flanked by tiny human beings. Unlike the late 19th century finds, these are truly giants, reportedly more than 60 feet long. These pictures are, of course, fakes: one of the most prevalent took about 90 minutes create, for a fake photo contest. (It won third place.) But reports of these giant finds are persistent enough that National Geographic has had to address them: "The National Geographic Society has not discovered ancient giant humans," a 2007 story insisted



Not a real giant (Image: IronKite)

Every day, we highlight one newly lost or found object, curiosity or wonder. Since this is Cheat Week at Atlas Obscura, those finds will all be fake. Got a favorite hoax? Tell us about it! Send your finds to sarah.laskow@atlasobscura.com. 


Cheating Wonders: Beringer's Lying Stones



Engravings of some crabby specimens from Beringer's figured stone collection, from his 1726 Lithographiæ Wirceburgensis. (Image: University of Heidelberg/CC BY-SA 3.0)

In 1725, Dr. Johann Bartholomeus Adam Beringer had it all—the dean's chair at Germany's Wurzburg University, a sheaf of important medical papers to his name, and the grateful support of powerful patients, including the local Prince-Bishop (who ruled both secular and religious populations).

By 1726, that magnificent name had been dragged through the mud, all because of a bunch of rocks.

Beringer was a physician by trade, but his true love was natural history. He especially enjoyed collecting and poring over oryctics, or "things dug from the earth," and he had hired some neighborhood boys to bring him interesting chunks of rock from the nearby Mount Eibelstadt. Most of them were nothing to write home about, worthy of serving as props for brief lectures on at the University or of slotting into his well-stocked cabinet of natural curiosities. But on May 31, 1725, the boys brought in a truly interesting haul: three stones, one shaped like a gleaming sun, the other two imprinted with worms.  


A set of Beringer's Stones carved with celestial objects. (Image: University of Heidelberg/CC BY-SA 3.0)

That wasn't all. Over the next few weeks, the his hired hands carted in more and more weirdly-shaped reliefs—stony birds, lizards, spiders, slugs, and even comets. Beringer was excited. At the time, scholars of oryctics were engaged in a passionate debate about where exactly "figured stones," or fossils, came from. Here was Beringer's opportunity to not only join the fray, but to blow everyone's minds with his unprecedented discovery. 

The problem? It wasn't the kind of discovery Beringer thought it was. It was, rather, a hoax of exceptional magnitude—one that involved the perpetrators, Wurzburg University mathematician J. Ignatz Roderick and librarian Georg von Eckhart, carving upwards of two thousand stones into flora, fauna, and celestial signs. Christian Zanger, a 17-year-old the duo hired to polish and distribute the stones, later said they went to all this trouble "because Beringer was so arrogant and despised them all."

So Beringer was insufferable enough to inspire these two colleagues to prank him big time. But was he pompous enough to believe the stones were real? 


Beringer's colleagues just wanted to slug him. (Image: University of Heidelberg/CC BY-SA 3.0)

He was. As the stones kept coming in and his collection got larger and stranger (Hebrew letters! Frogs mating! A "fish-faced bird"!), Beringer didn't flinch. Rather than investigating outside tips that he might be getting hosed, he tried to incorporate it all into a cohesive theory. He roped in one of his graduate students, Georg Ludwig Hueber, and together they began work on the Lithographiæ Wirceburgensis, or "Wurzurg Lithography," which, the title page crowed, was "ILLUSTRATED WITH OVER TWO-HUNDRED EXTRAORDINARY ENGRAVINGS." (Though the treatise was supposedly Hueber's dissertation, that same title page put much more emphasis on the involvement of his advisor, "THE MOST NOBLE, ILLUSTRIOUS, AND LEARNED" Dr. Beringer.)

The work uses the evidence of the stones to carefully debunk most then-predominant fossil theories—for example, they couldn't have been carved by pagans because pagans didn't know Hebrew, and they couldn't have been petrified during the Biblical flood, because the flood happened in spring, and "how, then, did the diluvial tempest miraculously deposit... a mature acorn appended to a small branch?" 


The frontispiece of the Lithographiæ Wirceburgensis, featuring noblemen, children, and lots of stones. (Image: University of Heidelberg/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Most of all, they couldn't be a massive, man-made trick. As the book neared publication, a guilt-ridden Roderick and Eckhart attempted to confess, fearing their prank had gone too far, and that either Beringer's reputation would be ruined or that natural history would never recover. In response, the authors dedicated Chapter XII to asserting that "our idiomorphic stones are not the handwrought products are fraudulent recent artistry, as some persons have shamelessly pretended." If the "pair of antagonists" now trying to delegitimize his findings knew the stones were fake all along, why had they waited until now, the eve of publication, to show their hands? Like the others, the chapter begins with an engraving of one of the stones; this one shows a small, gutted bird, its ribs splayed to the sides. 

In the end, Beringer and Hueber conclude that the stones must have been carved by God, during a sort of heavenly drafting process where he tried to figure out what Creation should look like. Eons later, he left these "capricious fabrications" on the hill—perhaps, Beringer theorized, as a fun game for Beringer, or as a present for the Bishop of Wurzberg. "I do call the mountain... a new Parnassus of our fatherland," Hueber wrote in the dedication to this Bishop. "For thereon... the eloquent stones proclaim the felicity of [Germany]."  


Strange birds frozen in strange positions. (Image: University of Heidelberg/CC BY-SA 3.0)

In more dramatic versions of this story, Beringer is surprised, the day after publication, to be delivered a last stone, carved exactly in the style of the others. This one bears a single word—BERINGER—and in a flash of insight, the doctor realizes he's been duped. He runs around town attempting to buy up all the copies of his just-pressed book, but it's too late, and he lives out his years in disgrace, a man ruined by fake ruins. 

Real life wasn't so stark. People slightly less blinkered than Beringer realized that the fraud theory was the most plausible, and Beringer went to court to clear his name, bringing the attempted confessors with him. After all was said and done, Beringer came away only slightly bruised, living long enough to write two more books. Eckhart and Roderick suffered much more—after their teenaged employee refused to take the fall for them (they had failed to pay him for his polishing services), they were exiled from the University, and thus their livelihoods. Roderick left the city entirely, and Eckhart was dead within five years.


Stones carved with Hebrew characters, proof God was holding the chisel. (Image: University of Heidelberg/CC BY-SA 3.0)

God may not have carved Beringer's stones, but the lessons he took too long to learn are chiseled into the psyches of scientists everywhere. "The quantity of censure and ridicule to which its author was exposed" made those who came after him "more cautious in indulging in unsupported hypotheses," wrote James Parkinson, another professional doctor/natural history hobbyist, who became famous for describing Parkinson's disease. If you ever need a reminder, a few hundred "lügensteine," or "lying stones," are still kicking around museums and private collections, lending their curiosity cabinets a weighty dose of skepticism. 


Some of the surviving Lying Stones, deceiving the patrons of the Teyler's Museum in the Netherlands. (Photo: MWAK/WikiCommons Public Domain)

For Cheat Week, we're tracking down Cheating Wonders—pranks that went so far, they might as well be real. Have a tip for us? Tell us about it! Send your formative frauds to cara@atlasobscura.com. 

Why Fake Diaries Can be as Powerful as the Real Thing


article-image(Photo: MorganStudio/shutterstock.com)

Sometime in 1993, Joe Nickell, an investigator of historical, paranormal and forensic mysteries, received a copy of the purported diary of one of the most infamous serial killers, Jack the Ripper. Supposedly written by James Maybrick, the Jack the Ripper suspect, the copy had been sent by Kenneth Rendell, a friend and document expert who was investigating it on behalf of Warner Books. The British publisher had planned to publish the original diary that fall—with an initial print run of 200,000 copies—but was now reconsidering it after The Washington Post questioned its authenticity.

Rendell, who owns a respected gallery in New York City, had helped expose the Hitler diaries back in 1982, and had serious doubts of his own, wanted Nickell to take a second look. Nickell’s first impression wasn’t good.

“I called him back and said, ‘Even from across the ocean I can smell something awry.’ It was full of all this Jack the Ripper cliche and written in this pseudo maniacal tone of ‘how much I love killing people.’ So it was more like a poorly written piece of fiction than the way an actual person writes a diary,” Nickell recalls.

article-imageA thin-layer chromatography test, one of the types used to try and verify the Jack the Ripper diary. (Photo: Natrij/WikiCommons CC BY-SA 3.0)

Still, for the sake of doing a proper investigation, Nickell and Rendell got the publisher to send them the original diary, and assembled a team to examine the ink and paper, as though it were a corpse, or a piece of evidence in a criminal case. Weeks later, they were standing in a rented forensic laboratory in Chicago with “a cracker jack document expert” named Maureen Casey Owens, an ink chemist named Robert Kuraz, and Robert Smith, the would-be publisher. As soon as Smith unveiled the book, the team began to follow the trail of highly suspicious clues.

First there was the writing, which didn’t look genuine to the period. “It was as though someone had tried to make ‘ye old antique-y looking writing by adding curli-queues,’” Nickell recalls. Then there was the document itself. With numerous pages cut out, and the remaining ones stained with paste, the book didn’t look like a diary, but rather an antique scrapbook. This led the team to surmise that whoever had written it had tried to hide its original use.

article-imageJack the Ripper suspect James Maybrick in 1889. (Photo: Public Domain/WikiCommons)

But in the end it was a will and a bit of comparative handwriting analysis that provided the most damning piece of evidence. “Jack the Ripper was supposedly a man named James Maybrick, and Maybrick was being shown as the author of this diary,” Nickell says. “The problem was that there was a handwritten will of James Maybrick’s in handwriting which was authentic for the period—and it didn't have anything in common with the handwriting in the Jack the Ripper diary.”

In the end, Warner didn’t publish the diary. But Hyperion, an American publisher, did. And more than a decade later, a body of literature and articles has grown around it, an evolving debate between Ripperologists and skeptics about the forensic evidence,the veracity of the text, and the mystery of Ripper himself.

According to Nickell, most of the accounts, especially the ones that claim the diary is real, are merely pseudo science. And yet even the most outrageous fakes (and all their attendant literature and controversy) may be useful. At base, a fake diary is a metanarrative on celebrity culture, opportunism, and a very human desire—the wish to travel through time, get inside each other’s heads, and know what a person was thinking. At their most potent, fake diaries can threaten history itself, and may be as valuable—both historically and monetarily—as the real thing.

article-imageTitle page of an 1811 edition of 'Meditations' by Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, translated by R. Graves. (Photo: Public Domain/WikiCommons)

As a form, diaries are older than Jesus, with origins in the East and Middle East. “I have seen the diary of the son in law of Prophet Mohammed, Ali ibn Abi Talib, that goes back 6000 years in Arabia, and he mentions how he observes peacocks and who proud they were of themselves,” says Keya Morgan, a document expert in Los Angeles and owner of the largest collection of original Abraham Lincoln photographs in the world. “I have diaries going back to Cuneiform tablets, old Sumerian writings that record what happened, how those people were feeling.” Later, starting in 161 CE, the Roman Empire Marcus Aurelius began writing a series of meditations, recording his personal notes to himself. In the 9th century, the scholar Li Ao kept a journal of his travels through southern China.

According to document expert Tom Lingenfelter, of the Heritage Collector’s Society in Pennsylvania, diaries gained popularity, as a form, in the 1800s, and especially during the Civil War, in tandem with other sentimental objects, “like locks of hair and lockets.”

In this way, the appeal of a diary is both historical and personal. Even though Morgan has a substantial collection of objects and dresses from Marilyn Monroe’s estate, and is working on a film about her death that touches on her diaries, he says his favorite diaries by far are those of strangers from the Civil War era. “It’s sort of a connection, a time machine.” Morgan says. “I feel like, who am I, no one even knows them anymore, and here I am sitting in my living room privately reading their most intimate thoughts.”

article-imageA page from the pocket diary of Isaiah Goddard Hacker, a soldier in the Union Army during the American Civil War, 1864. (Photo: Public Domain/WikiCommons)

 The power of a diary persists, even when it’s unmasked as a fake. Take the case of Go Ask Alice. It caused a sensation when it was published in 1971 as the anonymous diary of a troubled girl addicted to drugs. And even after it was exposed as a novel, the book maintained its allure, playing into the fears of nervous parents and a lurid curiosity about the secret lives of teenage girls.

Others haunt the corridors of power. When the master forger Mark Hoffman concocted documents and personal letters relating to the Mormon Church—the most explosive of which was the Salamander Letter, describing how an angel had appeared to Joseph Smith in the form of a large white salamander—the church bought many of them them up, and hid the ones that threatened its history away in a vault. And then there were the Hitler diaries, which pretty much rocked the world. The the German press called it the historical find of the century but the texts were eventually debunked through a combination of handwriting analysis and the discovery of optical brighteners in the paper stock (Nickell and Morgan’s mentor, Charles Hamilton, a handwriting expert, was one of the first to come forward and question the legitimacy of the diaries based on the pattern of the script). That their crudeness managed to fool so many experts and journalists was a major source of embarrassment, and they continue to be controversial, not least because they underplay Hitler’s role in perpetrating the Holocaust.

article-imageMarilyn Monroe in 1952. (Photo: 20th Century Fox)

Finally, there’s the the little “red diary” of Marilyn Monroe. According to Morgan, who has conducted some 360 interviews with law enforcement officials, intelligence officers, and Monroe’s friends, it’s a terrible fake, as bad, if not worse, than Jack the Ripper’s. And yet it did more than get people talking. When Ted Jordan took the diary public, he didn’t just spark a frenzy among the media—he prompted officials to reopen the case into her death.

In some cases, the forgers have become as notable as the diaries themselves. The works of Joseph Cosey and Robert Spring, who forged personal letters by Lincoln, Benjamin Franklin, and George Washington, and were experts in handwriting and made their own ink, can fetch hundreds, even thousands of dollars. Hoffman, the forger behind the Mormon documents, produced so many good forgeries that he actually affected the market. “Many of his forgeries, letters he wrote, manuscripts he wrote, are still in universities and private collections. People are very hush hush about it but he tained the market in a specific way,” Morgan says. “Bad forgeries are like a bad singer on American Idol: you hear it and go ugh! But a good one, everyone appreciates.” 

If good forgeries are getting harder to pull of, Morgan thinks that email has something to do with it. “I deal with hundreds of celebrities, they’re all my friends and clients, and it’s mostly all by text or email. Thats all I have,” Morgan says. “In the future, people are going to say, how do you know this guy really sent this, and it wasn’t their assistant or mother or cousin? With an actual diary you have the paper, the ink, the writing style, the distance between the words and letters, the pattern of the style, if it’s wiggly or circular. There are so many factors to examine,” he adds. “It’s the power of what-if.”  

The Time I Convinced A Hollywood Director that I Was My Identical Actress Twin


article-imageThe Paul twins, Caroline (left) and Alexandra (right). (Photo: Caroline Paul)

This is an excerpt from the Kindle single called Almost Her: The Strange Dilemma of Being Nearly Famous, published by Shebooks about her experience as the twin of an actress who starred in Baywatch and the nature of celebrity. Buy the whole thing here, you won't be sorry.

We shared 100 percent of our genes, but we grew up to very different lives. By our late 20s Alexandra was an established actress in Los Angeles, and I was a San Francisco firefighter. Our lives and work affected our looks; we weren’t exact replicas. Alexandra was 10 pounds lighter. My shoulders were broader. Her smile was wider. But two things connived, so that our unintended charade continued. We looked enough alike. Delighted Baywatch fans sidled up to me even when I was in full fire gear. Homeless men pointed, patients with chest pain peered, kids at a school fire drill broke rank screaming when they spotted me (a terrifying sight even for someone holding an ax). The possibility of an identical twin never crossed anyone’s mind. It was easier to believe that the Baywatch star had decided to swaddle herself in a turnout coat and helmet, grab that ax, and jump on a fire engine for the day. Was it because people watched so much television? Celebrities were already omnipresent in their lives, and it was just a small leap from the screen to the sidewalk in front of them.

This porous relationship between reality and entertainment was never more apparent than at a second alarm fire I fought during those years. The street was packed with gawkers when my crew and I arrived. More emerged from shops and nearby apartments, drawn to the smoke pouring from the windows, the screaming tenants, the sirens. One such rubbernecker accosted my officer as he headed to the building. “Is this a real fire,” the man asked. “Or is this a movie?”

My officer whirled around. Was the civilian drunk? Or was he just stupid?

“Of course it’s a real fire,” he barked.

The man retorted, “Then why did the Baywatch girl just run in there?”


A still from Christine, Alexandra Paul in the background. (Photo: Static Mass)

When we were 20 Alexandra landed her first big role, as the female lead in the movie Christine. For some reason (call it reckless youth), she decided it would be a great idea to bamboozle the film’s director, John Carpenter. A twin switch. On the set.

And so: an assistant spirited me into the make-up trailer. Alexandra was already there. We were dressed in identical corduroys and turtlenecks and then handed to the makeup artists, who seated us in front of beveled mirrors that multiplied each reflection. They rouged and lipsticked and mascaraed. They curled our hair. They lined our eyes. Late in the transformation I glanced to one side of the mirrors, then the other, and felt a sudden vertigo. I had lost track of which face was mine and which my twin’s. “Whoa,” I said, gripping the chair. I turned to stare at the real Alexandra, orienting. She was there, I was here. OK.

Alexandra’s costar, the only other person apprised of the charade, arrived at the trailer to lead me to the set.

I had imagined a long, silent walk where I would look around imperiously, maybe disapprovingly, pouting, tossing my hair, sighing. Weren’t actors supposed to be divas, speaking only to those at a certain imagined tier, shunning all others, unless it was to call for more bonbons and champagne? This was my acting debut and I was going to kill it, I thought to myself. I lifted my chin, threw my shoulders back, and pretended to know where the hell I was headed. But as I made my shaky way, gripping the costar’s sleeve, my script was suddenly altered. I was being hailed, it seemed, from all sides.

“Hi, Alexandra!” people called from behind lights, and on scaffolds, and by snack tables. Gaffers, grips, assistants, caterers. Some approached and asked me how I was, others smiled, eyes shining, with the delight of someone who has just spotted a kitten. I was bowled over; I knew Alexandra was nice enough but had not expected this, this outpouring. In my very bones, it struck me: my twin was an exceptional person. Not because she was in the movies. But because of something much deeper. She was kind, generous, good. She was exceptional in her soul, and people loved her for it.

And now I was expected to be her. I could put the makeup on, but more than that, I wasn’t sure. She was radiant, adored, and I was just, well, an impostor. “Hi,” I replied to each greeting, faintly. My method acting evaporated. I struggled to realign myself.

In that moment I thought: is it possible to live up to my twin?

There was no more time to ponder this existential crisis because we were suddenly face to face with John Carpenter. I greeted him with all the cheer I imagined my twin would and forced myself to chat amiably.

“Do you have a cold?” he asked abruptly. My voice sounded different.

I assured him I felt fine, and he murmured, OK, good, and then I clambered onto a waiting bulldozer. The shot was simple: “Just push the clutch,” the cinematographer told me. I nodded, and waited for Alexandra to appear so no film would be wasted and no union laws broken. But now John Carpenter was calling for the cameras to roll—Alexandra, Alexandra, I chanted in my head—to no avail. And… Action! Carpenter yelled. What choice did I have? I pushed the clutch. “Cut,” he shouted, and motioned for me to descend from the bulldozer. Just then Alexandra appeared at his shoulder. “Did you fire me already?” she asked. He turned to look at her. He paled. He jerked his head around to look at me. “What the…” he cried, before the whole room exploded in laughter and applause, suddenly understanding.*

“You’re so lucky!” singletons exclaim upon hearing stories like this one. “I wish I was a twin.”

“Well,” I tell them, “Perhaps you were.”

One in 90 live births result in twins (fraternal and identical), but one in eight begin as twins. This phenomenon of “the vanishing twin” still puzzles scientists; they aren’t sure why one disappears and one remains. The “how” is only a little clearer. The best guess is that the fetus is absorbed into the mother’s body; sometimes it may be assimilated into the surviving twin. Often it happens so early that no one is the wiser. But advances in technology mean that fetuses can be tracked earlier and earlier, and it’s now clear that many humans born alone may once have had a sibling in the womb.

While the numbers are new and surprising, the vanishing twin phenomenon has been recognized for centuries. Hair and teeth were found in singletons, often much later in life. Five tiny fetuses were once discovered in the brain of a child. A six-pound fetus was removed from an elderly man. Sometimes two fraternal embryos can merge to become one body—detected when blood tests show two different blood types (identicals may merge, too, but blood tests aren’t helpful). There is speculation that a child born hermaphroditic—with both male and female sex characteristics—is really a fusion of fraternal twins.

All of this is to say that 15 percent of singletons—and this is a conservative number—had a twin who disappeared sometime during pregnancy. What does this mean for the survivor? Is there a subconscious understanding that a twin was lost? Could this account for some singletons’ fascination with twins, or others’ inexplicable certainty that something is missing?



Identical twins rarely look exactly identical, but the resemblance still gets Caroline Paul attention from strangers. (Photo: Caroline Paul)

Celebrity is not an inner condition, like happiness or desperation; it is instead bestowed by the rest of us. Celebrity is not even dependent on something you consciously do; it is just, according to Merriam-Webster, the “state of being famous, celebrated.” A celebrity may be a talented soccer player/opera singer/banker. But a talented soccer player/opera star/banker is not necessarily a celebrity. The mantle is placed after an unspoken agreement between a certain number of other people. How many people, I’m unsure, but the figure has to be high. Certainly if over a billion people watch your show, you’re a celebrity. But what are you being celebrated for?

Being watched by so many other people? Nobel Prize winners, who should be celebrities, aren’t. Paris Hilton, whose contribution to the world includes a sex tape and the dog-in-handbag trend, is. She is mobbed everywhere she goes. I actually saw her once—more accurately, I saw her hand as she lowered the window of her limousine and reached out to sign a few autographs—and I admit to an unexplained flush, a momentary heart rate increase, and the need to point and tell someone else that Paris Hilton was there, over there, see? 

But why?

* My highly skilled clutch-pushing actually made it into the movie.” 

 The entire Kindle single can be purchased here

The Golden Age of Fake IDs Could Be Over



McLovin will be out of luck (Photo: youngthousands/Flickr)

The past century has been a golden age of identification documents.

As international travel and auto ownership boomed, so did the use of licenses and passports. And as the need for government-issued IDs grew, so did the demand for fake ones. But have the glory days passed as biometrics replace paper forms? Will new facial recognition technology make harder than ever to get a fake ID—or to use one?

For now, it's still possible for an underage drinker to borrow an older sibling's license and sneak into a bar. But the technology already exists to foil that plan; the only question is how far it will spread and who will be allowed to use it.

Early IDs didn't include photographs. A British passport issued a century ago, for instance, would have described a person's features, with a more details than today's standard height, weight, hair and eye color. But today, the photograph used on a driver's license or passport is one of its key features, and as facial recognition technology improves, those photos are being used to prove that you are who you say you are.

Over the past few years, state DMVs across the country have been implementing programs to stop people from getting false identifications to begin with. When a person seeking a new license visits the DMV, their image is checked against a database of photos. If the person is trying to obtain a false ID—because they're trying to shed their old, shitty driving record, because they're trying to steal another person's identity, or any one of myriad reasons one would try to scam a new card—their face won't match the photos associated with their assumed name. Or the search will find photos of that person under their true name.

This technology's essentially the same as the algorithms that let Facebook automatically identify people in posted photos. But it's been very effective in cracking down on fraud. A couple years ago, the New York DMV announced that it had arrested more than 2,500 people as a result of identity fraud investigations that grew from this technology, in the few years it'd been in use. New Jersey identified almost 1,000 potential criminal cases. In Arizona, the number of potential ID fraud cases identified increased by 860 percent, the Arizona Republic reported

And just this year, the federal government's Customs and Border Protection started a pilot program that uses facial recognition technology to check that the person using a passport is the same person in the passport's photo. The digital chip inside all newer passports contains a digital copy of your passport photo; at passport control, the person trying to use the passport has their photo taken, and if the two don't match, the customs agent can investigate further.

Coming back from Mexico at the end of April, I had to use a system matching this description: At a kiosk at New York's JFK airport, I scanned my passport, positioned my head in front of a camera and took a selfie. The machine spit out a little piece of paper, which I handed over to an agent—and, no questions asked, I was back in the country. (There was a longer line, though, of people who the machine hadn't automatically approved.)

It's not hard to imagine this technology being used regularly in bars (and putting bouncers out of work). But privacy advocates are seeking to limit the spread of facial recognition technology: requiring people to take pictures of themselves to enter a bar or any other private spaces would create a vast database of photos that could be used to track an individual wherever she went. And it's just as easy to imagine that more Americans would take issue with that reality than with teenagers drinking a few beers before they're really supposed to. (Plus, spies aren't too keen on it, either.) For now, at least, it's still easy for college students to get and use fake IDs. As long as they come from China.

The Man Who Can Punk Your Dog



Rudi pranks a colt. (Photo: RudiRok/Youtube)

Imagine: you’re standing on a street corner, waiting for the light to change. A friendly-looking dog wanders up the sidewalk, tail wagging, a few steps ahead of his owner. You stoop down to pet him, and he opens his mouth, and, in perfect English, yells:


Good prank, right?

Rudi Rok does this to dogs every day. Rudi, a Finnish entertainer, is incredible at imitating canines—and lions, crickets, gulls, elephants, and other noisy denizens of the animal kingdom. Close your eyes and play through his YouTube channel, and you’d swear you were in the middle of an extremely diverse jungle.

He uses his skills to make viral videos, spice up his beatboxing, and produce sound effects for video games (the forthcoming “MarcoPolo Arctic” is voiced entirely by him, from wind to walruses).

But mostly, Rudi likes to prank animals. In his video “How Dogs React to Human Barking,” Rudi has several “conversations” with different pups, most of whom end up overexcited, angry, or just plain baffled. “The Real Horse Whisperer” has him coaxing a colt out from behind its mother with a whinny and some nickering; in its cow counterpart, Rudi’s moos get a whole herd slowly approaching the fence, as if about to make contact with a belligerent alien.

“I know the language, but I don’t know what I’m saying,” Rudi says in a phone interview. “They get confused and sometimes a bit angry. Then I’m like ‘oops.’”

Their befuddlement is understandable. Rudi has been a hobbyist dog whisperer since age seven, but he started in earnest 10 years ago, after a broken back derailed his professional dancing career. Though he had to change mediums, he still throws himself into his performances. Rudi is bald and long-limbed, with bright eyes and an elastic face. If he’s being a monkey, he’s darting around making simian faces. If he’s a dog, his tongue is hanging out.

“When I’m doing the sounds, I fully commit to them,” he says. “It’s like acting, you know? You can’t act something out unless you’re full into it.”

But enthusiasm is not enough. It takes a long time to learn new audio tricks, even for Rudi. First, he imagines the sounds, with the help of recorded nature noises or private sound-storming sessions at the Helsinki Zoo (“I’ve got to go there when it’s closed for other people,” he says). When he’s developed a “really, really clear image” of the sound in his mind, he starts practicing, sometimes for many hours a day.

It can take up to six months, but “finally it comes. After one more month, I got it a second time. After a few weeks, I got it a third time,” and then it’s part of his repertoire. Occasionally, it takes props—he had trouble imitating a walrus, until he recorded himself with a basket on his head.

Rudi says messing around with sound is worth it, even if you don’t end up being able to punk your dog. “Every one of us, when we’re kids, we make sounds, and we’re really serious about those sounds,” he says. That falls by the wayside as we grow up, and become afraid to make a spectacle of ourselves. But “it’s in our nature to make sounds.”

And it’s in our nature to play tricks. Though Rudi loves playing tricks on dogs, he’s even more fond of fooling humans—his favorite prank involves going to a crowded park in summertime, threading through clumps of people, and letting out a very convincing hornet whine. “They’re all panicking and running around,” he laughs. “Big men scream like little girls.” And Rudi, presumably, gives a satisfied yap.

Naturecultures is a weekly column that explores the changing relationships between humanity and wilder things. Have something you want covered (or uncovered)? Send tips to cara@atlasobscura.com.

Cheating Wonders: A Brief History of the Konami Code



(Photo: El Payo/Flickr)


Some of us could push those buttons on a video game controller in our sleep, just from muscle memory. But what's most amazing about the Konami Code is its staying power: In the world of game cheats, the sequence is still king. Decades after its invention, variations on this directive still unlock secrets all over the internet.

It was originally designed to be input via the classic Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) controller which only had a directional pad, “A” and “B” buttons, with Start and Select buttons in between. Given the simplicity of the controller itself, the cheat code had to be a repetition of the available buttons, and the hypnotically rhythmic cadence of the Konami Code is part of its lasting charm.

But what did it do? It saved lives. 

The code first appeared in the NES version of game developer Konami’s classic space-shooter Gradius in 1986. The developer who was converting the game from its arcade version to the console version, Kazuhisa Hashimoto, couldn’t actually beat the game because it was too hard, so he created what would come to be known as the Konami Code, to give himself a cheat that tricked out his little ship with all the game’s power-ups. As the story goes, he simply forgot to take it out of the code before the NES version was released.


(Photo: Kevin Simpson/Flickr)

Hashimoto’s code would go on to be included in each subsequent Gradius sequel and franchise expansion, but it was the code’s inclusion in the 1988 NES version of ultra-macho shoot-em-up Contra that solidified its place in the cultural consciousness. Contra, another arcade port from Konami, was a notoriously hard action game where one stray bullet could end your game, and while this is a blockbuster idea for getting kids to dump quarters into an arcade machine, it could be a bit of a downer when playing it at home. Luckily someone had included the Konami Code in the NES version, and when correctly keyed in, it would instantly give players 30 lives. The game became one the iconic releases of the original NES, and its fame carried over to the Konami Code cheat which was also sometimes known as the “Contra Code” or the “30 Lives Code.”

The code would go on to be included in all of Contra’s sequels in addition to dozens of other Konami releases, including games in the Castlevania, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Dance Dance Revolution franchises. The Konami Code, or some variation of it, has now been included as a secret cheat code in hundreds of video games from a number of different publishers across just about every game platform from PCs to Playstation 4s. As video games moved away from the concept of limited lives, the effect of the Konami Code also evolved. Differing from game to game, today the code can sometimes unlock extra features or challenge modes (Bioshock Infinite), sometimes it gives out infinite ammo (Resident Evil 2), and sometimes it just unlocks some goofy secret screen (Adventure Time: Hey Ice King! Why'd You Steal Our Garbage?!). It’s really the cheat that keeps on giving.


(Screenshot by Eric Grundhauser)

Nostalgic love for the Konami Code has even brought the code from the world of video games to the internet at large, as inputting the code on certain sites will trigger all manner of weird cheat. Go to the Buzzfeed homepage and type in the code to transform the entire site into news of a much more important nature. Enter the code on some of Conde Nast’s British publication sites (vogue.co.uk, gq-magazine.co.uk, wired.co.uk) to receive a special visit from a bizarrely dapper visitor. Even Digg transforms into a totally new site with the use of the Konami Code (be sure to wear headphones).

In terms of long-lasting appeal and cultural impact, the Konami Code may be the single most popular cheat of all time. It didn’t just reward us all with 30 lives, it’s given us almost 30 years of easter eggs and secrets. UP, UP, DOWN, DOWN, LEFT, RIGHT, LEFT, RIGHT, B, A, START. Hopefully we just got 30 more.    

How To: Cheat Nuclear Fusion


article-image(Photo: gadri/shutterstock.com)

Nuclear fusion could be one of the most productive sources of energy known to man thanks to the nearly endless amount of power that is produced in the fusing of atomic particles. If we could harness its power without, say, creating a star or detonating a bomb, that’d be great.

And for a brief period in the early 1990s, it seemed like there might be a way to make the impossible happen.

article-image(Photo: Ryan Somma/Flickr)

In the most basic terms, nuclear fusion occurs when the nuclei of two atoms crash together, forming a new type of nucleus, often releasing excess energy in the process. These atomic collisions are the source of power in most main sequence stars such as our very own sun. Which is all well and good, except creating a star on Earth is not only dangerous but also not very easy. Nuclear fusion requires a great deal of energy just to occur, such as the naturally occurring, millions of degrees hot  atomsmashers at the heart of every star. There has to be a better way!

Enter respected scientists, Stanley Pons (of the University of Utah) and Martin Fleischmann (of the University of Southampton), who in 1989 claimed that they had found a way to create so-called “cold fusion” using a homemade reactor that could fit on the kitchen counter. According to the research they released, which nearly instantly garnered international media attention, all that was needed were some somewhat basic chemical components and a bit of electricity. Pons and Fleischmann’s cold fusion worked by placing a rod of palladium (a rare form of platinum) in a beaker of heavy water, then applying an electrical current to the liquid. According to Pons and Fleischman, after a time, the water would heat up, then cool down, then heat up again a few times before the “cell” went dormant. They claimed that the energy being put out via heat was not only greater than the electric current being introduced, but that the reaction was the result of a cheap, clean, and safe form of nuclear fusion.

article-image(Photo: NASA/Wikipedia)

Their discovery hit the scene like a hydrogen bomb (one of the only man-made contraptions to achieve nuclear fusion). Pons and Fleischmann leaned into the attention, claiming that their discovery would solve the planet’s energy needs in a cold flash, all while being environmentally sound. It all sounded too good to be true. Which it was.

Researchers around the world immediately tried to replicate Pons and Fleischmann’s findings, with little to no success. The heat reactions the two scientists claimed to have found were, by their own admission, somewhat random. Scientists around the globe who tried and failed to recreate cold fusion began to accuse Pons and Fleischmann of sloppy science, reasoning that their palladium was somehow contaminated, or wondering if their claims had ever been real in the first place.  

article-image(Photo: pbroks/Wikipedia)

With the speed of an atomic explosion, Pons and Fleischmann’s cold fusion theories were reduced to raving quackery. The pair had released their findings in March of 1989, and by the end of April, most media outlets were calling the whole thing a fiasco, the New York Times running a piece entitled, “The Utah Fusion Circus.” Federal funding for a planned center to study cold fusion was canceled, and the duo became the poster boys for pathological science, studies that somehow find false results based on a desire for things to be so, than on any facts.

Pons and Fleischmann left the U.S. in 1991 to continue their research in Europe, but their miraculous cold fusion reactor still never materialized.

Nonetheless, research into the process continues to this day. The study of Pons and Fleischmann’s process and similar approaches are no longer politely referred to as cold fusion, preferring more scientific terms like low-energy nuclear reactions (LENR) and Anomalous Heat Effect (AHE), that distance the research from the stigma of bad science.

While no miraculous cold fusion device has yet been definitively proven to work, the dream of cheating physics, of finding a backdoor to a seemingly unattainable process, is still alive and well. Maybe one day, Pons and Fleischmann will be proven right, and all of our energy needs will be wiped away, but until then we can still look forward to the ultimate way to cheat our way into nuclear fusion, creating a fake star.

Marvel at the Awesome and Mysterious Power of 19th-Century Magic Advertisements


article-imageAn 1894 poster for Harry Kellar's stage show. (Photo: Library of Congress)

Devils. Crystal Balls. Skeletons. Bats. Floating figures. Disembodied heads. The promotional posters for late 19th-century magic shows promised sensational entertainment and awe-inspiring tricks, among them necromancy, mind-reading, fortune-telling, levitation and hypnosis. It’s no surprise that attending a magic show at a large theater–as opposed to a country fair, where they had traditionally been held–became a popular pastime for Victorian-era audiences.

As their fame grew, different illusionists became synonymous with certain tricks. Harry Keller was renowned for levitating a woman; Howard Thurson, the "King of Cards," could make cards vanish one-by-one; and the most famous of them all, Harry Houdini, pioneered escape acts and sought to uncover fraudulent spiritualists.

These magicians and their illusions are portrayed in exaggerated glory in the advertisements for the performances, which make up a large part of the Magic Poster Collection from the Library of Congress. Below, we bring you the most tantalizing specimens from the trove. 

article-imageA 1920 poster for the 'master mystifier' and necromancer, Harry Houdini. (Photo: Library of Congress)

article-imageHoudini promising to expose fraudulent mediums in this 1909 poster. (Photo: Library of Congress)

article-imageHarry Kellar's demonic 1900 poster. (Photo: Library of Congress)

article-imageA 1900 poster for Forrest & Company. (Photo: Library of Congress

article-imageHoward Thurston "all out of a hat", from 1910. (Photo: Library of Congress

article-imageHoward Thurston with the "wonder show of the universe", in 1915. (Photo: Library of Congress)

article-imageAn 1898 poster for one of Newmann the Great's illusions. (Photo: Library of Congress) 

article-imageAnother Newmann the Great poster from 1911. (Photo: Library of Congress

article-imageA poster from 1870 for the "Modern Witch of Endor". (Photo: Library of Congress

article-imageLeon Herrmann "the Great", from 1898. (Photo: Library of Congress)

article-imagePromises of "startling sensations and illusions" in this 1898 poster for Leon and Adelaide Herrmann. (Photo: Library of Congress)

article-imageZan Zig the magician performing in four vignettes in this 1899 poster. (Photo: Library of Congress)

article-imageA poster from 1900 for Phllips Climation, successor to The Great Dayton Show. (Photo: Library of Congress)