Atlas Obscura
Your Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders

Jan. 4 2017 12:30 PM

How Civil War Soldiers Gave Themselves Syphilis While Trying to Avoid Smallpox

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Bullets fly, the cold creeps in, and your body is so malnourished that you can barely walk. You know that if smallpox gets hold of you, you don't stand a chance. You look at your fellow soldier's pus-filled lesion and realize there is only one way to survive the smallpox outbreak in your unit. You breathe in deeply, cut your arm open with your rusty pocket knife, and fill the wound with the liquid coming out of your comrade's pustule.

Strange as it may sound, this was the reality for many Union and Confederate soldiers of the American Civil War. In the 1860s, before germ theory had taken hold in the field of medicine, medical facilities often lacked the necessary hygiene to prevent infections. Because of this, thousands of soldiers were killed by simple infections and diseases we now consider nonthreatening or obsolete. Of these, smallpox was perhaps the deadliest and most feared.

Plaguing the world since ancient times, smallpox brought down powerful rulers like Pharaoh Ramses V and has been credited with aiding the fall of Rome and the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire. It also led us to discover vaccination.

By 1861, the year in which the Civil War broke out, the Western world had been vaccinating against smallpox for over half a century. This feat is accredited to Edward Jenner, an English scientist who demonstrated that infecting people with the less threatening cowpox disease would result in immunity to smallpox. Injections were yet to come, so doctors' preferred vaccination method was to gather fluid from an active pustule of an infected cow or person and introduce it into the patient's bloodstream by making a cut in the skin. While prone to certain complications, this method proved effective enough to be exported from Europe to the rest of the world.

Jan. 3 2017 12:30 PM

The Bottomless Mystery of D.B. Cooper

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The appeal of the mystery of D.B. Cooper, who jumped out of a plane with $200,000 in cash and two parachutes in 1971 and was never found, is that it may as well be a myth.

Cooper knew enough to jump at 10,000 feet, high enough to obscure his landing spot but low enough so that he could survive. He knew that the Boeing 727 plane he had hijacked had a rear exit, unlike similar planes and similar models. He apparently knew how to use a parachute but only asked for"front" and "back" parachutes, suggesting to some at least that he wasn't exactly a professional. He also knew, high in the sky, that that might be Tacoma, Washington, down below.

He knew enough, in other words, to get the job done, but not enough to suggest he had any kind of special skills. He was a man in a suit who smoked and drank bourbon and, theoretically, could have been any man in America who wore a suit and smoked and drank bourbon. His only principles were stacks of bills and swagger, and his only political cause was escaping. Was Don Draper D.B. Cooper? (Spoiler alert.) No. But he could've been.

This summer, the FBI announced that it was officially closing the case on D.B. Cooper. A 44-year investigation into his disappearance had come to an end, after dozens of suspects, and hundreds of tips, and, in 1980, the only concrete proof that D.B. Cooper might have in fact made it to the ground and not simply vanished into thin air: some money, found by an 8-year-old boy along the Columbia River, not far from where Cooper might have landed.

Dec. 26 2016 12:30 PM

The Very Hungry Caterpillar Lied to You as a Child

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Think of the best scene from your favorite children's book. Easy, right? The Very Hungry Caterpillar emerges from his cocoon, now a beautiful butterfly that takes up two whole pages. Sal and the Mama Bear run into each other in the blueberry patch. The rascally mouse gets yet another cookie.

There's a reason this particular page stuck in your mind. Maybe it surprised you, or taught you a lesson, or made you laugh. But have you ever wondered if it's accurate?

Yes, children's books are bastions of fantasy, the rightful homes of dragons and magic crayons and talking cheese. But as kids spend less time outdoors and more time learning about nature through screens, some experts are taking a closer look at how well the lessons translate. The answer is often a resounding "needs improvement." And fixing up picture books—those colorful gateway drugs to further education—might be a good first step.

Dec. 23 2016 12:30 PM

Mistletoe Is a Parasitic, Explosive Plant That Maybe You Shouldn’t Stand Underneath

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The mistletoe plant is largely known for a manufactured characteristic: It’s the green sprig with white berries that hangs in doorways during Christmastime, requiring those who meet beneath to kiss.

But here’s the thing about this festive accessory: It’s a parasite.

Yes, the mistletoe attaches itself to other plants and sucks the life out. It’s also one of the few plants that actually propel its seeds (at speeds up to 60 miles an hour) out of its own berries. As a home and food source for birds, butterflies, and bees, the mistletoe plant is a crucial part of the world’s food chain. Being a makeout instigator may be the least interesting thing about mistletoe.

Todd Esque is a research ecologist for the U.S. Geological Survey based in Henderson, Nevada, with over 30 years of experience studying desert tortoises, with forays into Mojave ground squirrels, Joshua trees and rare cactuses. He’s also fascinated with mistletoe. Whenever Esque travels, he keeps his eyes peeled for mistletoe-related research and tries to learn all he can in order to be a resource on the plant.

In the early 2000s, Esque was asked to assist a graduate student who was studying the plant; at the time the assignment almost seemed like a mistake to Esque, who had no expertise in mistletoe. But the one-time gig turned into an obsession. “When they suggested that I don’t need to do it anymore, I was like no, no, no,” says Esque. “This is the most fun I get to have—talking to people about mistletoe and learning about mistletoe.”

There is a lot to love about mistletoe, according to Esque, such as its underappreciated sweet fragrance and the fact that it flourishes during February in the desert, when little else is blooming.

Dec. 22 2016 12:30 PM

Why Did Ancient Italians Bury Thousands of Clay Body Parts?

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Perhaps the most impressive thing about the anatomical votives of central Italy are the sheer numbers in which they were found.

One site contained 1,654 votive feet, made of terra cotta. Another had more than 400 terra-cotta wombs. At Ponte di Nona, there were 8,395 votives recovered in the 1970s—of the 6,171 that were identifiable body parts, 985 were heads, about as many were eyes, and 2,368 were feet. Overall, at about 150 sites, archaeologists have uncovered tens of thousands of feet, legs, arms, hands, heads, eyes, ears, breasts, uteri, vulvae, phalluses, and sometimes whole midriff sections, with indistinct organs exposed.

Scholars of ancient Italy have known about these devotional offerings for decades now, but they're still wondering: Why exactly did people leave these votives for the gods?

Dec. 21 2016 2:00 PM

The Long Death of Product 19, the Most Beloved Cereal You’ve Never Heard Of

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When you hear the name Product 19, you’ll either flash on an experimental invention from some corporate R&D department, or, if you’re one of its fans, you might think of the health cereal, rare in the aisles of American supermarkets yet loved all the same.

But earlier this month, Kellogg’s announced that it had officially discontinued the cereal. While most people these days seemed to barely know of its existence, Product 19 died—a slow, oaty, fade to black, leaving devoted fans desperate.

"PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE don't discontinue this cereal," one fan wrote on Kellogg's community boardsa few months ago. "I LOVE LOVE LOVE this cereal!"

What was Product 19, though? For nearly 50 years, it was simply an answer to a business problem, first released in 1967 as Kellogg's answer to General Mills’ Total, which had hit the market six years prior. As the current slogan still contends, Total aimed to provide 100 percent of the daily amounts of nutrients like vitamin E, calcium, iron, and more. Kellogg’s needed something to compete with this healthy new blockbuster, so they began attempting to develop a vitamin cereal of their own, eventually settling on Product 19.

The name, immediately, was a bit curious, and its origins, perhaps fittingly, remain apocryphal. According to one story, it was so named because the end product was the 19th iteration of the cereal they were developing. Others say it was simply the 19th product that Kellogg's developed that year. Either way, Product 19 stuck, a workmanlike name that echoed what the cereal promised to do: provide a base of nutrition, nothing more or less.

The cereal was made up of flakes made from a combination of lightly sweetened corn, wheat, oats, and rice, and promoted itself as providing the full daily amounts of “multivitamins and iron.” On the more modern boxes, this would be specified as, “Vitamin E, Folic Acid, Iron, and Zinc.” The original box was so covered in charts and blocks of text, it truly looked more like some experimental substance than a breakfast cereal.

Dec. 20 2016 12:30 PM

The Strange Secret Behind the Tragic Deaths of Oscar Wilde’s Half-Sisters

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As a literary genius and master of wit, Oscar Wilde has fascinated the world since he first started writing. There is one area of his life, however, that remained in obscurity until the 1940s and that continues to be a mystery: the horrifying death of his half-sisters.

The existence of Emily and Mary Wilde, the illegitimate daughters of Sir William Wilde, was kept hidden from most of the world. However, they still enjoyed considerable social standing and were often invited to events by Ireland’s high society.

On Oct. 31, 1871, the sisters were enjoying themselves at one such event. The Hallowe’en party was hosted by a man named Andrew Reid at the Drumacon House in Ireland. Everything was a success right until the end of the party when the host asked one of the sisters—most likely Mary—to one last dance around the ballroom. In a dark twist of fate that turned a night of joy into a tragedy, Mary got too close to the candlesticks and her dress caught on fire.

Dec. 19 2016 12:30 PM

I Tried a Medieval Diet, and I Didn’t Even Get That Drunk

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It can seem sometimes like all diet advice boils down to the same basic ideas. Eat vegetables and healthy proteins, avoid processed snack food, and hydrate, hydrate, hydrate.

This was not, however, the case in medieval times.

The Regimen Sanitatis Salernitanum was created, allegedly, by famous doctors for English royalty and disseminated in the form of a poem. It recommends, very specifically, red wine, fresh eggs, figs, and grapes. It has little to say about vegetables. In many ways, it’s the antithesis of today’s health fads—it celebrates wheat, emphasizes meat, and involves two significant meals, with no mention of snacking. Water is looked on with suspicion, and juice is nowhere to be found.

But from the 1200s through the 1800s, the regimen was one of the most well-known guides to health in Europe, at a time when the stakes of staying healthy were much higher than they are now. Getting sick could be a death sentence; this regimen promised to keep people well.

Could we be ignoring some great advice? Is water really all that? I decided to test the Regimen Sanitatis Salernitanum out myself. For a week and a half, I followed, to the best of my ability, the advice of the doctors of Salerno. I drank diluted wine at dinner and sometimes at lunch; I ate bread at almost every meal; I sought out richly stewed meat whenever I could. The regimen was not just about what to eat, though, and I also followed its prescriptions for daily life.

I felt like I was living the Game of Thrones life; some days, I felt I was living like a 13th-century king. Despite the amount of wine I was consuming, I never got drunk! In fact, I felt great.

Dec. 16 2016 12:30 PM

1990s Doomsday Planners Worried About Feminists Breaching Nuclear Waste Sites

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The year is 2091, and women are in charge of the United States. According to a missive describing their rise, they occupy 80 percent of top governmental, academic, and corporate positions. The cultural canon has shifted, moving works by women to the forefront. And thanks to technology that allows mothers to choose their children's gender, the sex ratios are skewed in favor of the new powerful class: Ten women are born for every three men.

It's a very particular imagining of a possible future—government-sponsored and dreamed up by the "Boston team," a group hired by the Department of Energy in 1991 to imagine potential breaches of a nuclear waste site. Besides feminists, this panel warned of humanoid robots, a new Wild West, bad lawn decorations, and space warriors. Their fears show how far we've come in only 25 years—and how far we still have to go.

Political rhetoric is always future-focused, and governments have long tried to plan for eventualities. But with the advent of nuclear technology, the people in charge began thinking even further ahead. As historian Peter Galison explains in "The Future of Scenarios: State Science Fiction," starting in the 1950s, intellectuals built whole careers out of forecasting future wars, disasters, and energy depletion scenarios. So when the government faced a very real, present challenge—figuring out where and how to store the nuclear waste produced by the development of these weapons—they knew who to call.

"Before the waste site could open," Galison writes, "Congress demanded, and the Environmental Protection Agency specified, that the DOE had to have a plan that would keep humans from inadvertently stumbling into the waste." Nuclear as it was, said waste would be sticking around for millennia. The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP, was set to be built in New Mexico, just 26 miles east of Carlsbad. It was time for some pretty juiced-up futurism.

Dec. 15 2016 12:30 PM

The Nine Lives of the Spanish Prisoner, the Treasure-Dangling Scam That Won’t Die

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“A man in this country receives a letter from a foreign city,” reads a New York Times trend story from 1898, about a “common” scam being carried out by mail. Titled “AN OLD SWINDLE REVIVED”, the story details how the "Spanish Prisoner" scam generally begins:

“The writer is always in jail because of some political offense. He always has some large sum of money hid, and is invariably anxious that it should be recovered and used to take care of his young and helpless daughter by some honest man. He knows of the prudence and good character of the recipient of the letter through a mutual friend, whom he does not mention for reasons of caution, and appeals to him in time of extremity for help.”

Postal shakedowns were a simple, and sometimes effective, way of illicitly separating rich people from their money in the 19th century. What was in it for the good Samaritan, just opening his mail on a boring day? Well, the sender of the letter “is willing to give one-third of the concealed fortune to the man who will recover it,” according to the Times.

What happens next is the ask: Before the treasure can be recovered, the writer just needs some money sent to him first. (The treasure, of course, never materializes.)

Sound familiar? The so-called “Spanish Prisoner” scam is still around: Just this week, a top Nigerian fraud artist was arrested for his part in carrying out similar swindles via email. And the 1898 Times description of the scam's broad outlines remains remarkably accurate, save for a few technological details.

The swindle came to be known as the “Spanish Prisoner” because, often, the letter writer claimed to be holed up in a Spanish jail, for reasons arising from the Spanish-American War. “The letter is written on thin, blue, cross-lined paper, such as is used for foreign letters, and is written as fairly well-educated foreigners write English, with a word misspelled here and there, and an occasional foreign idiom,” the 118-year-old Times story notes.

Modern readers, though, are likely more familiar with its more modern variant: official-looking emails from Nigeria, which ask the recipient to send money—often thousands of dollars—to unlock a massive treasure, which has been tied up by government officials or otherwise encumbered in some abstruse way.

As in 1898, these entreaties at first blush might seem real but upon closer inspection hardly hold up. The English is a little broken, and the "official" seal of some Nigerian government agency doesn't seem quite right. There's an air of too much desperation.

And, yet, still, people fall for it, since the conceit of the scam isn't that it will work every time, or even one out of a hundred times. You only need a few suckers, in other words, to make millions. One victim in the U.S. lost $5.6 million to scammers. The recently arrested Nigerian spam kingpin was said to have hauled in around $60 million in ill-gotten gains.

But even in the days when you had to hand-write letters the scam was astonishingly successful. Eugène François Vidocq, who is called the father of criminology, documented in his memoirs a version of it perpetrated by prisoners in early 19th-century France. This was well before the Spanish-American War, when the scheme was then known as "letters from Jerusalem."

achille_deveria_vidocq_1
Eugène François Vidocq, the father of modern criminology.

Public domain

Vidocq, who, before he founded France's civilian police corps was a criminal himself, saw firsthand the letters while he was imprisoned in a jail in Bicètre, in rural France.

"Sir,—You will doubtlessly be astonished at receiving a letter from a person unknown to you," one such letter began, according to Vidocq's recollection. The structure of this letter is savvy. Before unleashing his tale of woe, the writer offers the carrot first: a casket containing 16,000 francs in gold as well as diamonds, which the writer says he and his master were forced to leave behind after they were detained while traveling. Having laid out the stakes, he continues, writing of his eventual supposed imprisonment, before, finally, the ask, which in this case is very subtle: "I beg to know if I cannot, through your aid, obtain the casket in question and get a portion of the money which it contains. I could then supply my immediate necessities and pay my counsel, who dictates this and assures me that by some presents, I could extricate myself from this affair."

Vidocq wrote that 20 percent of such letters received some kind of reply, and, in some cases, prisoners made hundreds of francs from the letters, which were tacitly allowed by jailers, who would also take a cut.

Fast forward nearly 200 years to the 1980s, when scammers in Nigeria began to send reams of paper letters to people across the world. By the 1990s, they used fax machines and, by the late 1990s, had switched to email.

In the most recent case, a man known only as "Mike," was arrested, according to the BBC. Over the years, Mike oversaw dozens of people who sent an untold number of emails out across the world, from the U.S. to India to Romania, using the digital age to realize the full potential of the swindle.

Which means that, in 2116, when you receive a holographic message of doubtful provenance promising hidden riches in exchange for a few thousand dollars upfront, don't do it. It's been tried before.

If you liked this, you’ll probably enjoy Atlas Obscura’s New York Times best-selling book, which collects more than 700 of the world’s strangest and most amazing places: Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders.

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