Atlas Obscura
Your Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders

Aug. 31 2015 1:31 PM

The Submerged Forest of Borth

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

At low tide in the bucolic Welsh coastal village of Borth, what appear to be rocks are revealed on the beach. But these seemingly standard stones are actually the remains of a petrified forest.

In 2014, bits and stumps of such tree species as oak, ash, and birch were uncovered after a massive storm removed tons of sand from the beach. Carbon dating has placed the old plants as having lived around 1,500 B.C. The anaerobic nature of the local peat was able to preserve the remains.


In addition to the tree stumps, as the Guardian reported at the time, the remains of a walkway were found by members of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales, who were patrolling the site after the storms looking for newly other newly uncovered relics. 

The forest has become associated with the longstanding myth of a sunken civilization known as Cantre'r Gwaelod, a sort of Welsh Atlantis. It is believed by devotees of the lost city that the buried forest may be a part of the mythical land. Even before the storms uncovered much of the old forest, human and animal tracks preserved in hardened peat were already being discovered in the area.

While Cantre'r Gwaelodis still undoubtedly lives in the realm of fantasy, the Forest of Borth may be a good indication of the truth the legend was based on.

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Aug. 28 2015 3:21 PM

The Jumbo Kingdom Floating Restaurant

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

A small trend of floating restaurants has built up in Hong Kong's Aberdeen Harbor over the years, but none is so large or iconic as the bustling Chinese wonderland, Jumbo Kingdom.

The Jumbo Floating Restaurant was built in 1976 after years of planning and millions of dollars worth of development. The incredible barge holds over four floors worth of eateries and attractions, ranging from fine dining to tea houses and wine gardens. Able to seat over 2,300 visitors at a time, the floating gargantuan is almost like a small city unto itself, with grand staircases and skinny walkways criss-crossing between the various establishments.


While the site is known for its seafood, the exterior of the giant boat is likely the most memorable feature. Designed by Jumbo Kingdom's builder, Dr. Stanley Ho, who is also known as "The King of Gambling," due to his 40-year monopoly on the Macau gambling industry, the outside of the location is an ornately modern recreation of an ancient Chinese imperial palace. Decked out in countless neon lights and brightly colored flourishes, the remarkable ship looks like something out of a science-fiction film, incorporating traditional Chinese architecture and 21st century spectacle.

Jumbo Kingdom is moored in the harbor and it's continued success should keep it afloat for the foreseeable future.

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Aug. 27 2015 11:18 AM

Corpse Brides and Ghost Grooms: A Guide to Marrying the Dead

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

So you want to marry a ghost.

In some societies, it's possible—with a few caveats. Posthumous marriage—that is, nuptials in which one or both members of the couple are dead—is an established practice in China, Japan, Sudan, France, and even the United States, among members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The procedural and legal nuances of each approach vary wildly between cultures, but here is an overview of how to tie the knot with someone who isn't quite alive.


China: Skewed Sex Ratios and Grave Robbery  
Although Chinese dating and marriage practices are slowly changing under the influence of technology and online dating, traditional, family-oriented values still rule. Matchmaking, via meddling parents and/or a marriage broker, is big business. To be female and unmarried at 30 is to be a “leftover woman.”

The 1978 implementation of the one-child policy has complicated the marriage market somewhat due to the societal preference for baby boys. A 2011 study found that the sex ratio among newborns rose from 105 males per 100 females in 1980 to over 120 males per 100 females during the 2000s. This skewed ratio has resulted in an overabundance of single men.

According to Chinese custom, older sons ought to marry before their younger brothers. If an older brother should die unmarried at a young age, however, there is a solution that keeps the social order intact: ghost marriage. In China, and among the Chinese in Taiwan and Singapore, ghost marriages are performed to address a variety of social and spiritual ills. Chief among these are the desire to placate the restless spirits of those who go to their grave unmarried. “Ghosts with families are liable to direct their discontent within the family circle,” writes Diana Martin in Chinese Ghost Marriage, “and it is here that ghost marriage becomes operative.”

A family whose son or daughter has died at a young age may come to believe that the deceased person is communicating a desire to be wed. This message can take the form of a spirit wreaking general havoc on the family, such as causing illnesses that do not respond to conventional treatments. A restless bachelor ghost may also express his desire to be married by appearing in a family member's dream or while being channeled through a spirit medium during a séance.

Most ghost marriages are conducted to unite the spirits of two departed souls, rather than wedding a dead person to a living one. Though it may seem harmless to conduct a postmortem ritual designed to make two ghosts happy, the practice of matchmaking dead men with worthy ghost brides has occasionally resulted in criminal depravity. In March 2013, four men in northern China were sentenced to prison for exhuming the corpses of 10 women and selling them as ghost brides to the families of deceased, unmarried men. The women's bodies were intended to be buried alongside the dead men, ensuring eternal companionship.

For deceased women, ghost marriage offers social and spiritual advantages in China's patrilineal society. A woman who dies single, without having had children, has no-one to worship her memory or tend to her spirit. According to Chinese tradition, a dead woman cannot be memorialized within her family's home. Her spirit tablet (a memorial to a dead person that is displayed in a home altar that honors the family ancestors) is forbidden from being placed among the family in which she grew up. A deceased married women, by contrast, gets to have her spirit tablet put on display in her husband's home. Ghost marriage, therefore, ensures that a woman's spirit can be worshipped by bringing her into the family of a husband who has been chosen for her after her death.

If a heterosexual couple is engaged, and the man dies before the wedding, the woman can engage in a ghost marriage by marrying her fiancé's spirit. During the ceremony, a white rooster stands in for the groom. According to Lucas J. Schwartze in Grave Vows: A Cross-Cultural Examination of the Varying forms of Ghost Marriage among Five Societies, the bird also rides in the bridal carriage post-ceremony and thereafter accompanies the bride to formal dealings with the groom's family. Such cases are rare due to the requirements placed on the bride, who must then move in with her dead husband's family and take a vow of celibacy. 

Whether it involves a live person or not, ghost marriage is not legal in China—NBC News reports that it was outlawed during the reign of Chairman Mao—but the ritual endures, particularly in the northern regions of the country.

Japan: Darling Dolls for the Afterlife
In her 2001 article “Buy Me a Bride”: Death and Exchange in Northern Japanese Bride‐Doll Marriage, Ellen Schattschneider sums up the philosophy behind ghost marriage in Japan:

“Persons who die early harbor resentment toward the living. Denied the sexual and emotional fulfillment of marriage and procreation, they often seek to torment their more fortunate living relatives through illness, financial misfortune, or spirit possession. Spirit marriage, allowing a ritual completion of the life cycle, placates the dead spirit and turns its malevolent attention away from the living.”
A traditional Japanese doll.

Photo: Batholith/Public Domain

The main factor distinguishing Japanese ghost marriage from its Chinese counterpart is the incorporation of non-human spouses. A deceased person is not married to a dead person, nor to a living one, but to a doll. The most common ghost marriage is between ghost man and bride doll, but ghost women are occasionally united with tiny, inanimate grooms.

According to Schattschneider, Chinese-style ghost marriage, between a living woman and deceased man, formerly took place in Japan, but was replaced in the 1930s by man-doll marriage. (This shift happened due to an increase in young, single men dying during war and the Japanese invasion of Manchuria. The high number of casualties made it too difficult to find enough live brides for them all.)

During a bride doll wedding ceremony, a photo of the dead man is placed in a glass case alongside the doll to represent their union. The tableau stays in place for up to 30 years, at which point the man’s spirit is considered to have passed into the next realm. The symbolic companionship is designed to keep the ghost husband calm and prevent him from causing unrest within his living family.

France: A Legal Option for the Bereaved and Betrothed
France is the rare country in which it is explicitly legal for a living person to marry a dead one. Article 171 of the French civil code—the laws by which the country is governed—states that "the President of the Republic may, for grave reasons, authorize the celebration of the marriage where one of the future spouses is dead.” 

Naturally, there are caveats: the living person must prove that the couple intended to marry, and has to obtain permission to wed from the deceased’s family. If the president chooses to grant the wedding request, the marriage becomes retroactive from the day before the deceased person’s death. The living spouse does not receive the right to intestate succession—that is, they do not acquire the dead person's assets or property. But if a woman is pregnant at the time of her partner’s death, the child, when born, is considered an heir to the deceased.

Though the civil codes of France were introduced during Napoleon’s reign, the article enabling postmortem matrimony is a relatively recent addition. The story behind the addition begins with a disaster: on December 2, 1959, the Malpasset Dam just north of the French Riviera collapsed, unleashing a furious wall of water that killed 423 people. When then president Charles de Gaulle visited the devastated site, a bereaved woman, Irène Jodard, pleaded to be allowed to marry her dead fiancé. On December 31, French parliament passed the law permitting posthumous marriage.

Hundreds of grieving French fiancées have since married their departed sweethearts. (And that’s "fiancées" with two Es—a study of French posthumous marriages that were granted between 1960 and 1992 found that, of the 1654 wedding requests, almost 95 per cent came from women.)

Posthumous marriages continue to be granted in France, usually under heartbreaking circumstances. In 2009, 26-year-old Magali Jaskiewiczmarried her deceased fiancé and father of her two children Jonathan George, who died at 25 in a car accident two days after asking her to marry him. 

Sudan: Weddings in the Wake of Fatal Feuds  
Within the Nuer ethnic group of southern Sudan, ghost marriage happens in a very particular way. “If a man dies without male heirs, a kinsman frequently marries a wife to the dead man’s name,” writes Alice Singer inMarriage Payments and the Exchange of People. “The genitor [biological father] then behaves socially like the husband, but the ghost is considered the pater [legal father].”

In other words, the woman marries a living man, who stands in for the dead one. Any offspring, while biologically fathered by the living husband, are considered to be descendants of the dead man.

This arrangement, which often is carried out when a Nuer man dies in a feud, is conducted in order to secure both the property and ongoing lineage of the dead man. The woman receives a payment at the time of the ghost marriage—a fee known as the brideprice—which may include "bloodwealth" money from those responsible for the death of the man as well as payment in the form of cattle that once belonged to the deceased man. In this way, Nuer posthumous marriages maintain the social order by redistributing wealth and property.  

Mormonism: Marriage by Proxy
According to the doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, marriage is eternal and death is but a blip. Matrimony, known as “sealing” in Mormonism, binds a couple to one another for the rest of their lives and beyond, provided that both spouses conduct themselves according to the LDS interpretation of the teachings of Jesus Christ.

The Mormon Temple in Salt Lake

Photo:Bryan Mills/Flickr

The Mormon belief that marriage is eternal allows for a wedding ceremony to be performed on those who have already died, in a manner similar to posthumous Mormon baptisms. These proxy sealing ceremonies, which take place in an LDS temple, are intended to be initiated only by the descendants of those concerned. But as Max Perry Mueller wrote in a 2012 Slate article, that's not always the case. Mueller detailed the case of Thomas Jefferson and one of his slaves, Sally Hemings. Neither were Mormon during their lifetimes. They were also not married. But in the eyes of the LDS church, they are now sealed to one another for eternity, having been both posthumously baptized and posthumously wed. 

Aug. 26 2015 1:09 PM

Found: The Oldest Message in a Bottle Ever Recovered

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A few months back, Marianne Winkler and her husband, Horst, were taking a vacation on Amrum, a German island in the North Sea, just south of the border with Denmark. Marianne was walking along the beach one day when she found an old bottle. Inside there was a note with instructions: Break the bottle.

Marianne tried to retrieve the bottle's contents without breaking it, but it was impossible. So, she and her husband broke the bottle, the Telegraph reports. Inside, they found another piece of paper—a postcard with instructions to send it back to the Marine Biological Association of the U.K. So they did.


Starting in 1904, 111 years ago, George Parker Bidder, marine biologist interested in geology, erosion and sponges, released 1,020 bottles just like the one Winkler found into the sea. His aim was to better understand how the deep currents of the sea worked: The bottles were designed so that they'd bob along close to the sea floor. 

Most of them were found in the months after their release, by fisherman trawling deep in the water. And with the evidence he collected, Bidder was able to show these deep ocean currents moved from east to west.

The Marine Biological Association of the U.K. believes that the bottle Winkler found was released in the latter part of the experiment, in 1906. That would make it 108 years old—and, most likely, the oldest message in a bottle ever to be recovered. The final determination is now being put in the hands of Guinness World Records.

The association also made good on Bidder's promise of a reward to anyone who found the bottle and returned the postcard—one shilling.

Aug. 25 2015 12:36 PM

Chile’s Atacama Giant

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Illustrated on a Chilean hillside known as Cerro Unitas and surrounded by thousands of smaller geoglyphs, the Atacama Giant, a massive image of a deity used to calculate the movements of the moon, stands as the largest geoglyph ever discovered.

Likely created sometime between 1000 and 1400 A.D. by a successive series of indigenous cultures including the Inca, the massive figure rests among about 5,000 smaller images of birds, mystical designs, and other images that have been etched on the ground. The images were created by either digging out the lines of the design from the soil, or by placing patterns of stones and sand on top of it, and sometimes a mixture of the two methods. (Successive cultures worked to create the images, which accounts for the variation.)


The giant itself is 390 feet tall and built in a direct and unpretentious design with no flourishes, save for the straight lines emanating from its head and torso to imitate either some sort of ceremonial garb or the unearthly features of a god. Whichever the lines symbolize, researchers have determined that they very likely served a practical purpose as well. When they aligned with the moon, the lines in the giant's headdress, in conjunction with the other points on its body, the image would have been used to track the time of year so that the ancient builders could predict the coming of the crucial rainy season.  

While the Atacama Giant may not be the most famous geoglyph in the game (that distinction goes to the Nazca Lines), the size, clarity, and former importance of the rain god to the people who made the design allow it to stand tall regardless.

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Aug. 24 2015 12:18 PM

Eisenhower and History’s Worst Cross-Country Road Trip

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

Dwight D. Eisenhower, contrary to popular belief, did not build the federal highway system for the sole purpose of evacuating cities in the event of an atomic war. But there was one key military endeavor that did influence Eisenhower's support for giant, smoothly paved roads. In 1919 he traveled with the military in a motor convoy across the country, from D.C. to San Francisco, in "the largest aggregation of motor vehicles ever started on a trip of such length," the New York Times reported.

This was one of the first major cross-country road trips, and it planted the idea in the Eisenhower's mind that the federal government could and should make improving U.S. highways a priority. Soon, driving from coast to coast would become mythologized as one of the key American experiences. But in 1919 it was a terrible, torturous endeavor.


In 62 days, more than 80 trucks, cars, and motorcycles made their way along the planned route of the Lincoln Highway, one of the first cross-country highways ever built. They crossed plains, mountains, and deserts on roads that, up until Nebraska, were surprisingly well-made. But once the convoy hit the West, the trucks started getting stuck in ditches, sand and mud, for hours at a time. By Utah, the conditions of the roads were so bad, it almost stopped the convoy altogether.

Some personnel

Photo:Eisenhower Archive/Public Domain

This was a pivotal point in the way Americans thought about the geography of their country. Traveling across the country was no longer a life-threatening ordeal—transcontinental railways had reached the Pacific in the mid-1800s, and in 1876 an express made it from New York to San Francisco in just 83 hours. But it wasn't fun, either.

The idea of crossing the country on a lark was just taking hold: Eisenhower and a colleague joined the convoy at the last minute, basically because they thought it would be exciting. And the trip did immerse the military men in a cross-section of American life, at concerts, big city dances, chicken dinners, rodeos, barbecues, and ranch lunches. Most days, though, the reality of the road was less romantic: Before the convoy reached California, its personnel would be forced to camp on twisty mountain roads, ration water, and spend hours pushing their vehicles along otherwise impassable stretches. Like the oxen of Western pioneers, the cars and trucks often died. But the mechanical beasts, at least, could be brought back to life.

In 1919 the military had just returned from the Great War in Europe, where War Department motor units had helped secure victory, and military leaders wanted to show their machines off. But any network of roads that these trucks might travel on was still, for the most part, imaginary. Since the late 19th century, the Good Roads Movement had been advocating for upgrades to the dirt and gravel tracks that connected cities to one another, and forming associations to finance and build them. One of the purposes of the 1919 convoy was to support this movement: A Zero Milestone marker would designate the spot from which it set off, in D.C.'s Lafayette Square, and in one early conception, that marker was to be decorated with a map of golden highways—the longed-for system of perfect American roads.

The route the convoy would take was mostly along the Lincoln Highway, the first major transcontinental motor route. The more than 80 vehicles carried 24 officers and 258 enlisted men, and they left D.C. at 1 p.m. on July 7, 1919. It took the convoy the rest of the day to reach Frederick, Maryland, where Eisenhower joined the group. In seven and a half hours, they had traveled 46 miles, a drive that today would take just about an hour.

From the very beginning of the drive, the convoy encountered problems. On that first afternoon, the convoy's Trailmobile Kitchen broke a coupling, and an observation car broke a fan belt. The Militor wrecker winch, a towing vehicle, started work that first day. On the second day, the convoy was delayed for two hours, mostly due to wobbly bridges too dangerous to use or covered bridges that the trucks wouldn't fit through. To avoid these, sometimes the convoy took a detour; sometimes it simply forded whatever body of water the bridge was meant to cross.

One truck was stuck in the mud. The roads, though, were excellent, according to the convoy's daily log. They covered 62 miles in 10 and half hours.

That pace—about 6 miles an hour—is what the convoy would average in its crawl across the country. No day was without difficulty, and though drivers had all claimed experience with trucks, Eisenhower's impression was that they'd lied. "Most colored the air with expressions in starting and stopping that indicated a longer association with teams of horses than with internal combustion engines," he later recalled.

For the first half of the trip, though, whatever car trouble the convoy had was "easily overcome," young Lt. Col. Eisenhower would report. And while paved roads more or less disappeared between Indiana and California, the convoy stayed on schedule through Illinois and Iowa. It was in Nebraska that the trouble started.

Eisenhower's report on this section of the trip is brief but telling. "In Nebraska, the first real sand was encountered," he wrote. "Two days were lost in western part of this state due to bad, sandy roads." The convoy's time in the state started out nicely enough: A number of vehicles were outfitted with new tires, the officers were allowed use of the "beautiful new Omaha Athletic Club," and the Packard Motor Car Co. sponsored a dinner. The official observer even got to go up in a balloon.

But soon, as they pushed west, the roads started deteriorating. When it rained, the vehicles got stuck in soft spots on the roads, up to their hubs, and the men had to push them out. Outside  Lexington, the roads got so slippery that trucks started sliding into ditches by the side of the road. The Militor itself, up until this point the savior of all damaged and mired vehicles, skidded into a ditch, and it took two hours for the crew to extract it. On that day, 25 trucks in all skipped into the ditch. The next, all 12 engineers' trucks needed to be towed at once. The Militor slid into a ditch again. The day after that, it took seven hours to pull all the trucks through 200 yards of quicksand.

"Liberty turned over"

Photo: Eisenhower Archive/Public Domain

This, though, was nothing compared with Utah. Out on the Salt Lake Deserts, the heavy trucks could barely pass through the tracks of sand and crystallized alkali. "From Orr's Ranch, Utah, to Carson City, Nevada, the road is one succession of dust, ruts, pits and holes," wrote Eisenhower. At points, the convoy was 20 miles from any source of water—and 90 miles from the nearest railroad. On Aug. 21, the first day on the stretch that Eisenhower described, 10 miles from their starting point, the convoy had to remove a sand drift: That took a whole hour. But that was the easy part of the day. Soon the convoy had to leave its planned path, to detour around an impassable cutoff, and by 2 p.m. almost every vehicle they had was stuck in the sand. Getting them out "required almost superhuman efforts of entire personnel from 2 p.m. until after midnight," the daily log reported. That day, the group went 15 miles—in seven and a half hours.

The next day, the convoy was running low on water. Each person got just one cup to last through supper and overnight. Fuel was running low, too, and so supper itself was cold baked beans and hard bread. Finally, a new supply of water showed up, having been brought from 12 miles away, by a team of horses. The entire team was exhausted, but because they were now behind schedule, their Sunday rest day was canceled. Finally, on Aug. 23, they made it through Utah and into Nevada, which wasn't much better. It wasn't until Sept. 3, after days more tedious progress, that they finally made it over the Sierra Nevada range and onto the "perfect roads" of California's farmland, speeding through groves of peach, almond, orange and olive trees.

Through Nebraska

Photo: Eisenhower Archive/Public Domain

The convoy made it to San Francisco six days behind schedule. The trip, overall, was a triumph, and the governor of California threw a celebratory dinner featuring clam chowder, salmon, fried chicken, sweet potatoes, Turkish melon, and cigars. The commemorative program noted that it was impossible to think of the convoy without remembering the "hardship, privation, discouragement, and even death" that the Forty-Niners had gone through just a few decades before to accomplish the same goal. Traveling across the country was no longer such a crazy idea.

But by the end of the trip, the official observer reported later, “the officers of the Convoy were thoroughly convinced that all transcontinental highways should be construed and maintained by the Federal Government." As Eisenhower put it, "there was a great deal of sentiment for the improving of highways," and on that point, "the trip was an undoubted success."

At the time, the Townsend Highway Bill, which would create the first Federal Highway Commission, was under consideration in Congress, and the convoy's experience would help persuade legislators to pass it. It would be decades before America's road system could actually ferry cars quickly across the country, and the real road trip era would begin. But this was a start.

Salt Lake City

Photo: Eisenhower Archive/Public Domain

Aug. 21 2015 12:08 PM

The $6 Billion Gold Mine That Wasn’t There

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The Gold Rush may be over, but that doesn’t mean the precious metal stopped inspiring criminal ingenuity.

In fact, the largest gold mining scam in the history of the world took place just over a decade ago, when a shady prospector used his wedding ring to fake the existence of a $6 billion mine.


The story of the greatest mining cheat of all time began in 1993 when the owner of Canadian penny-stock mining company Bre-X purchased the rights to some land in the middle of the jungles of Borneo. The plot of land, at the head of the Busang River, was bought up on the advice of geologist and explorer John Felderhof, who had previously gained a name for himself for his part in discovering a massive gold and copper mine in Papua New Guinea. Despite the fact that some larger mining companies had explored the area previously and decided it was not a viable site, Bre-X gambled on Felderhof’s promise of an underground jackpot.

Felderhof’s interest in the site was supposedly based on core samples provided by the project manager, Filipino mining prospector Michael de Guzman. In 1994, Guzman was producing crushed core samples that indicated Bre-X may have just purchased one of the largest gold deposits ever discovered. The initial estimates, based on the core samples, indicated that there might be more than 136,000 pounds of gold buried in them thar jungles, and this was only the beginning. By 1995 the estimates had skyrocketed to over 2 million pounds, and by 1997 the estimate more than doubled, reaching almost 5 million pounds of rumored gold hiding just beneath the surface of the Borneo mine. In a final estimate, given during a conference call with investors from J.P. Morgan, Felderhof just went off the deep end and suggested that there could be more than 13 million pounds of gold waiting to be dug up. 

All of this was based solely on de Guzman’s thousands of core samples. In the three or so years since the gold had been discovered, a bustling mining town had even sprung up on the site, with its own church and school.

When Bre-X first purchased the Borneo land, its stocks were selling for around 30 cents apiece, but as the tales of its insane discovery grew, their nearly worthless stock blew the roof off the market, rising to around $250 a share by 1997, bringing the value of the company to what would be a staggering $6 billion in today’s money. At the time, Lehman Brothers called the Bre-X mine “the gold discovery of the century.”

Now they just needed to produce some gold. Which was a problem as there had never been any to begin with.

The Borneo forest in Kalimantan, near where the fabled mine supposedly was.

Photo:Ruanda Agung Sugardiman/Wikipedia

As it would turn out, de Guzman had been “salting” his core samples with gold dust, first with shavings from his own wedding ring and later with $61,000 worth of locally panned gold. Of course other geologists, hired by some of the investors, had taken a look at de Guzman’s samples and raised suspicions due to the fact that the entire cores had been crushed up, leaving nothing to verify the samples against, and that the gold fragments themselves seemed to have an unnatural shape. But de Guzman managed to talk his way through all of their misgivings, and Bre-X continued to grow on rampant speculation.

Around 1996, as Bre-X’s star and stock were rising, Indonesian President Suharto took an interest in the massive windfall that had been discovered in his country. First he halted its final approval to exploit the land, stating that Bre-X was too small a firm to solely mine the area. Eventually Suharto and Bre-X worked out a deal wherein the shares of the mine would be split among Bre-X, Indonesia, and a more established mining company, Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold. Of course this meant that Freeport-Moran would need to independently verify that there was gold at the site. Oh darn.

The Suharto deal was finalized in February of 1997, and just a month later, on March 19, de Guzman was found dead in the heart of the jungle, supposedly having thrown himself from a helicopter while on the way to a meeting with Freeport. (His body was said to have been identified by a molar and a thumbprint after wild animals had ravaged the rest.)

After de Guzman's death, things went downhill startlingly fast. Just days later, Freeport reported that it had discovered no gold at the site, taking samples just over a meter from where Bre-X had drilled. The jig was up. Freeport released further findings in the ensuing months, revealing the salting scheme. The stock instantly tanked, and the $6 billion con was at an end, leaving a number of very rich people feeling very stupid.

The true culprit of the massive Bre-X fraud is up for debate. Was Felderhof, who sold over $80,000,000 worth of his Bre-X stock just months before the reveal of the scam, the true mastermind? Were the owners of Bre-X in on the con? Or was de Guzman just fooling everyone down the line?

No one is sure, but this final portion from an on-the-ground report of the Bre-X mine that ran in Fortune magazine in 1997 is fairly telling,

There was another peculiar moment. In one of my last meetings in Jakarta with Felderhof, de Guzman walked in. I rose and slapped him on the back, congratulating him on Freeport's emerging as Bre-X's new partner. He should have been thrilled. Instead, he was stone cold. Grim. Icy. He didn't even look at me. It was clear he wanted to talk to Felderhof alone.

Bre-X folded in 2002.

John Felderhof was acquitted of insider trading in 2007.

Michael de Guzman remains deceased, although some believe he has been spotted in Canada. Others believe he was murdered.

Aug. 20 2015 10:00 AM

The Mechanical Chess Player That Unsettled the World

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

Warnings over the perils of artificial intelligence arms races have made headlines of late, but debates over the possibilities of AI have been raging since the '70s.

The 1770s.


At the dawn of that decade, an inventor by the name of Wolfgang von Kempelen debuted his latest creation in Vienna: A chess-playingautomaton made for Habsburg Archduchess Maria Theresa. Known initially as the Automaton Chess Player and later as the Mechanical Turk—or just the Turk—the machine consisted of a mechanical man dressed in robes and a turban who sat at a wooden cabinet that was overlaid with a chessboard. The Turk was designed to play chess against any opponent game enough to challenge him.

At the Viennese court in 1770, Von Kempelen began his demonstration of The Turk's workings by opening the doors and drawers of the cabinet and shining a candle inside each section. Inside were cogs, gears, and other clockwork. After closing the cabinet, von Kempelen invited a volunteer to serve as the Turk's opponent.

Gameplay began with the Turk moving his head from side to side to survey the board before appearing to decide on the first move. His left arm then jerked forward, the fingers splayed, and he picked up a chess piece, moving it to another square before setting it down.

The inner workings of the Turk's arm, as envisioned by Joseph Racknitz.

Photo: Joseph Racknitz/Public Domain

So far, this was relatively standard stuff—at the time, automata in the form of mechanical animals and expressive humanoids had delighted many a royal and commoner. One of the most prominent automata makers, Jacques de Vaucanson, had not only created the Digesting Duck—which wiggled its beak, quacked, and pooped out pellets it had been fed—but also the Flute Player, an automaton that could, in the words of Tom Standage in The Turk, "mimic almost all of the subtleties of a human flute player’s breathing and musical expression."

Compared to these masterful simulacra, the Turk, with his expressionless face made of carved wood and jerky arm movements, initially seemed an inferior product. But then came the rest of the chess game. The Turk was good. Really good. And it wasn't just adept at executing a repetitive task. The Turk responded skillfully to the unpredictable behavior of humans. This machine seemed to be operating autonomously, guided by its own sense of rationality and reason. If the human opponent attempted to cheat, as Napoleon did when facing off against the machine in 1809, the Turk would move the chess piece back to its previous position, and, after repeated cheating attempts, would swipe his arm across the board, scattering pieces to the ground.

The Turk serving up some side-eye to those who doubt his intelligence.

Photo:Carafe/Creative Commons

Of course, there had to be a trick to all of this. But the nature of the deception was, for many decades, elusive. Following the 1770 demonstration, which astonished Maria Theresa and her attendants, von Kempelen, an engineer rather than an entertainer, was content to let the Turk rest. The automaton sat in a neglected state until after Maria Theresa's death, when her son and royal successor, Joseph II, remembered the Turk and asked von Kempelen to revive it. In 1783, von Kempelen took the Turk on tour to Paris, where he once again astonished onlookers—including a certain chess-loving American by the name of Benjamin Franklin.

Tours of England and Germany followed over the next year. During this time, people began to publish their speculative accounts of the Turk's workings. Some, such as British author Philip Thicknesse, were indignant at the notion that the Turk was a purely mechanical creation whose gameplay was free from human influence. "That an AUTOMATON can be made to move the Chessmen properly, as a pugnacious player, in consequence of the preceding move of a stranger, who undertakes to play against it, is UTTERLY IMPOSSIBLE," wrote Thicknesse in a critical pamphlet he passion-published in 1784. (The immoderate word capitalization is all his.)

An exhibition ad from 1818.

Photo: Wikipedia/Public Domain

Thicknesse did not believe, as others did, that von Kempelen was directing the Turk's gameplay from several feet away using strong magnets, stealthy strings, or remote control. His opinion took the Occam's Razor approach, with a child-labor twist: He wrote in his pamphlet that the cabinet must be concealing "a child of ten, twelve, or fourteen years of age"—presumably one whose chess talents were prodigious.

The notion that someone was hiding in the cabinet was espousedfrequently over the decades, with variations on the size of the hypothetical person as well as their positioning. The cabinet measured four feet long, two-and-a-half feet deep, and three feet high—dimensions that encouraged people to speculate that short-statured people and children were the most likely candidates for the role of hidden Turk operator. Some believed that the concealed person stayed in the cabinet the whole time, using strings, pulleys, and magnets to execute the chess moves, while others thought the operator crawled up into the body of the Turk in order to control him.

Then there was the complication of the pre-demonstration routine in which von Kempelen would open the cabinet doors and drawers and shine a candle inside, seemingly precluding the presence of a human. But this, too, was cited as a mere trick—in 1789, Freiherr zu Racknitz proposed that the concealed operator hid in the back of the cabinet's bottom drawer during the pre-game display, then moved to the main portion.

Could there be a tiny man inside? Racknitz thought so.

Photo: Joseph Racknitz/Public Domain

The most outlandish tale of a hidden operator comes from Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, a French magician who encountered the Turk in 1844—long after its heyday. In his 1859 memoirs, Robert-Houdin passed on the Turk's origin story—a clearly apocryphal tale that he nonethelessdescribed in great detail. According to Robert-Houdin, von Kempelen was in Russia during the 1790s when he met a doctor named Osloff. The doctor was sheltering a fugitive Polish soldier, Worousky, whose legs had been blasted away by a cannonball. This soldier happened to be a gifted chess player. So von Kempelen did what anyone would do in the situation: spent three months building a fradulent humanoid automaton chess player machine equipped with a cabinet large enough to house Worousky, thereby smuggling him out of Russia to safety by touring the automaton through major cities. A foolproof plan if ever there was one.

Such outlandish stories, while entertaining, added unnecessary complications. The truth was simpler: the Turk did operate via a concealed operator, who controlled each movement from inside the cabinet by candlelight, pulling levers to operate the Turk’s arm and keeping track of the moves on their own board. Von Kempelen, and his Turk-touring successor, Johann Maelzel, picked up new chess players on their travels, gave them a quick how-to orientation, then bundled them into the cabinet.

Though the machine ultimately relied on human behavior and a bit of old-fashioned magic, its convincingly mechanical nature was cause for both wonder and concern. Arriving smack-bang in the middle of the industrial revolution, the Turk raised unsettling questions about the nature of automation and the possibility of creating machines that could think. The fact that the Turk appeared to operate on clockwork mechanisms, complete with whirring sounds, contradicted the idea that chess was, in the words of Robert Willis in 1821, "the province of intellect alone." If a machine could play a human game at the mercy of the human whims of its opponent, what else could it do?

Cabinet doors open, nothing here but clockwork.

Photo: Wikipedia/Public Domain

This was one of the big questions rattling around the young mind of Charles Babbage when he first saw the Turk play when it toured England under Maelzel in 1819. Three years later, Babbage began working on the Difference Engine, a machine designed to calculate and tabulate mathematical functions automatically. It was an early step on the path toward artificial intelligence.

"Unlike the new machines of the industrial revolution, which replaced human physical activity, this fragment of the Difference Engine, like the Turk, raised the possibility that machines might eventually be capable of replacing mental activity too," writes Tom Standage in The Turk.

In the 1820s and '30s, Maelzel took the machine for one last hurrah around the northeast United States, during which Edgar Allan Poe developed a fondness for it and wrote his own treatise on the human-assisted operations he assumed were in place during gameplay. But the thrill of the Turk was fading. By the 1850s, with Maelzel having perished during a Turk tour of Cuba, the machine sat forgotten in the Chinese Museum in Philadelphia. It was there that, in 1854, it succumbed to a fire. 

Though the Turk could be called a fraud, to regard the machine as a mere trick or swindle is to dismiss the profound and disruptive questions it introduced. The Turk may not have been intelligent, but it pointed toward an all-too-easily imaginable future of machines that can think for themselves—an ethical conundrum with which even the world's AI experts are still struggling.

Aug. 19 2015 10:00 AM

The Truth and Myth Behind Animal Trials in the Middle Ages 

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

Weevils destroy your crops? Pig maim your children? Dying to get back at these creatures? In Europe during the Middle Ages, you could bring them to court, where they could face sentences ranging from gruesome mutilation to excommunication. Or at least that is what many reports say, although the hard evidence of such legal actions is scant.

And somehow, the surreal practice of trying beasts as though they are people continues to this day.


The main issue with our understanding of the strange practice, according to Sara McDougall, associate professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, is the sourcing. “The sources are 19th-century scholars who didn’t bother to give a whole lot of explicit information on where they found the stuff,” she says, “With a lot of the medieval ones, we know that some of them were either made up or they were textbook cases that were kind of a way to keep students from falling asleep.” In an even stranger reasoning for a fake animal court story, McDougall says that one of the most famous cases of beasts on trial, involving a bunch of rats, was “completely made up just to defame the lawyer who supposedly defended the rats.”

Even with so much uncertainty about which animal trials were real, McDougall stresses that some did still take place.

The most detailed source of case studies (whether real or imagined) we have for the medieval (roughly between the 13th and 16th centuries) practice of putting animals on trial is E.P. Evans’ treatise on the subject,The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals, published in 1906. Evans points out two distinct types of animal trials that would occur:

[There is] a sharp line of technical distinction between Thierstrafen and Thierprocesse; the former were capital punishments inflicted by secular tribunals upon pigs, cows, horses, and other domestic animals as a penalty for homicide; the latter were judicial proceedings instituted by ecclesiastical courts against rats, mice, locusts, weevils, and other vermin in order to prevent them from devouring the crops, and to expel them from orchards, vineyards, and cultivated fields by means of exorcism and excommunication.

In other words, most large animals were tried for offenses such as murder, and generally executed or exiled, while smaller, more diffuse pests and offenders were more often excommunicated or denounced by a church tribunal. But all were thought to have been given their day in court.

Evans’ book lists about 200 cases in which all creatures large and small were brought to trial for a plethora of reasons.

Most complaints against smaller animals leveled for infestation or destruction of crops ended up in some sort of excommunication from the church, or official ecclesiastical denouncement. Evans explains that this was largely done as an effort to make people feel better about exterminating them. Since even weevils, slugs, rats, and such were considered God’s creatures, the devastation they inflicted was likely part of his plan, so to just destroy them would be to act against God’s will and creatures. Of course if they were tried in a church court, and excommunicated (or condemned in the case of animals and insects), that could mitigate guilt.

One such case in the 1480s saw the Cardinal Bishop of Autun in France rule against some slugs that were ruining estate grounds under his purview. He ordered three days of daily processions where the slugs were told to leave the area or be cursed, thus making them free game for extermination. A similar case was said to have taken place just a year later.

In the case of larger animals such as bulls, pigs, dogs, cows, and goats, the offending beasts  could, in theory, actually be brought to court to stand trial. The sentences for these animals tended to be more severe.

Pigs often got the worst of the human legal system, for a simple reason. “They were killing people,” says McDougall.

In an age where animals were often roaming the streets and children were found in the fields, accidents were pretty common. Evans describes a fairly typical case in 1379 in which two herds of swine were feeding together when a trio of pigs became agitated, and charged the swinemaster’s son, who died from his injuries. All of the pigs from both herds were tried, and “after due process of law, were condemned to death.” Somewhat luckily, all but the three instigating pigs were implicated as accomplices, and later pardoned.

In most cases, the court endeavored to try the animal as closely as it could to the same way humans were tried. This included how they were punished. Just like some murderers of the day, condemned animals (again, in most cases, pigs), were horribly executed for their crimes. Evans described a pig in 1266 that was publicly burnt for the crime of mutilating a child, and another in 1386 that was “to be mangled and maimed in the head and forelegs, and then to be hanged, for having torn the face and arms of a child.”

Beastiality was also an occasional accusation that led to the trial of an animal, although this charge was actually known to go in the animal’s favor. “Both the human and the animal might be put to death, but in some cases, they seem to have managed to say that it wasn’t the animal's fault, that the animal didn’t consent,” McDougall says. “So the animal wasn’t punished.”

Still other animals were imprisoned right along with human criminals. In this case, as no one honestly believed the animal was solemnly considering its actions, the owner was charged for the animal’s board as a form of secondhand punishment.

As barbaric, strange, or just silly as animal trials may seem, they continue well into the modern day. In 1916 an elephant named Mary murdered her trainer and was hanged in Tennessee using a crane. In 2008, in Macedonia, a bear was convicted of stealing honey from a beekeeper. The parks service was forced to pay $3,500 in damages. It seems like the human thirst for justice, no matter how irrational or silly, continues to know no bounds.

Aug. 18 2015 10:00 AM

The New York Interns Spending Their Summer in a Cemetery 

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

It's a Wednesday morning in August, and a heat wave in New York has turned the city air thick and hazy. Freed from the demands of school for the summer, most teenagers would choose to hit the beach or play video games. But 18-year-old Shechem Scatt has been spending the last few hours happily cleaning 19th-century gravestones. 

Scatt, clad in a white hard hat, bright orange T-shirt, and sturdy pants, is one of a dozen interns who have been chosen to spend the bulk of their summer learning how to spruce up mausoleums, monuments, and headstones at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. Recruited from trade schools, colleges, and social programs around the city, they are the first participants in the cemetery's Preservation Training Program, created in partnership with the World Monuments Fund. The 12 interns will receive nine weeks of training in the art of stonework restoration. 


A typical workday, which runs from 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., may involve fine-tuning their caulking skills on planks of plywood, studying stone types in a trailer classroom located across the street from the cemetery, or cleaning the headstone of Titanic survivor Archibald Gracie IV.

Applying to work at the cemetery for the summer, Scatt says, was "one of the best decisions I have made."


Many of the interns had never been to Woodlawn Cemetery before beginning the program. Teddy Espinal, 18, hadn't spent much time in graveyards at all. "I look at the cemetery differently now," he says. Before this I used to be like, ‘Oh, dead people.’ But now I think about stones, and maintaining and cleaning and working on stuff. It’s less scary."

The idea of spending summer days among the dead never fazed intern Melanie Ayala. Growing up in a Mexican family where the Day of the Dead was celebrated each year, Ayala always revered cemeteries, an attitude that has influenced her approach to the daily tasks at Woodlawn. 

"I always talk to the headstones," she says. "I was cleaning this one, her name was Sophia. Sophia Stark. And I was like, 'I got you, Sophia. I’m going to clean you right up.' "

When working on the stones, Ayala thinks about the lives of those buried beneath. "I pay attention to the names, and I pay attention to the dates," she says. "I saw a few headstones that had my birthday. It just makes you be happy that you’re above ground for another day."


Many of the interns preferred the cemetery to office jobs. Scatt's school, the Williamsburg School for Architecture and Design in Brooklyn, "has had lots of other internship opportunities and apprenticeship opportunities," says Scatt, but the cemetery program was the one that drew his attention.

Fellow intern Ayala agrees. The lone woman among the dozen young workers, Ayala was interning for New York state Sen. Kevin Parker when she became aware of the Woodlawn program via an email. At first she hesitated, wondering if it was right for her.

"Maybe this doesn't cater to me, because I'm a girl," the 23-year-old recalls thinking. But another thought followed: "What I just said in my mind is what all of me stands against." Long accustomed to being the only girl on soccer teams and in dance crews, Ayala applied to intern at Woodlawn. Having learned a range of construction and restoration techniques at the cemetery, she now plans to work with her father, a construction foreman, before eventually becoming a paramedic.

Melanie Ayala.

At this end of the program, two of the 12 interns will then be selected for a 19-month apprenticeship in masonry conservation and maintenance at Woodlawn. Competition is fierce, and everyone is working hard to impress while being supportive of one another. "We’re making it really hard for them to choose the two that will stay here," says Luis Liz Cruz, who is 20. 

As for the 10 who won't continue on at Woodlawn, there are several other post-internship employment options. During the final week of the program, the group will be at the International Masonry Institute training center, where they will take certification tests in occupational safety and health as well as scaffolding training. Dennis Holloway, a director of training at the IMI, has been observing the interns in action and is eager to find new workers for stonework restoration projects around the city—his projects include New York icons like the Chrysler Building, the Museum of Natural History, and the Empire State Building.

Of course, the main difference between cleaning gravestones at Woodlawn and restoring the eagles on top of the Chrysler Building is the altitude. As a trainer and restoration worker, Holloway has encountered people who say they have no fear of heights, but then run into trouble at a crucial moment. "Everybody comes to me and says, 'I don't have a problem, I don't have a problem,' " he says. "Then I stick them on the Empire State Building and they have a problem."

Regardless of where the interns end up after the Woodlawn program, their summer in the cemetery has already made a big impact. Not only have they learned a wide range of practical restoration skills, but spending time among the headstones has made them reflect on the nature of remembrance. Some of the inscriptions on the stones have become obscured by years of built-up dirt and biological growth. To carefully scrub that away and reveal the name of someone who died long ago is to revive their memory and honor their life—regardless of who they were.

"When you hear someone say that somebody will never be forgotten, it’s usually said in reference to somebody that made an impact on a huge amount of people’s lives, like a celebrity or something like that," says Ayala. "But everybody's life matters. Everybody was here for a reason."