Your Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders

Sept. 30 2014 10:10 AM

A Lovable Murderer and Heroic Villain: The Story of Australia's Most Iconic Outlaw

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At a National Police Remembrance Day ceremony in Australia on Monday, three murdered policemen were honored with the Victoria Police Star: an award for officers killed in the line of duty. For the families of those slain, it was a long-awaited recognition—the trio died 136 years ago.

Constables Michael Scanlan and Thomas Lonigan, and Sergeant Michael Kennedy, perished at the hands of the Kelly gang, a notorious group of bushrangers—bushrangers being the forest-dwelling marauding outlaws of 19th-century Australia.

The first bushrangers were convicts who had been transported to the country's penal colonies in the early 1800s, escaped, and gone on the run. The mid-century gold rush in southeastern Australia ushered in the bushrangers' heyday—over the next few decades, outlaws with names like Mad Dog Morgan and Captain Thunderbolt robbed coaches, bars, banks, and hotels, often shooting police officers in the process.

The most famous bushranger, and the man whose legacy maintains a firm hold over the collective cultural psyche of Australia, was Ned Kelly, the ringleader of the Kelly gang. He is remembered with fondness as an underdog and a maverick who fought laws that targeted the poor. He is regarded by fewer with abhorrence for being an unrepentant murderer.

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Sept. 29 2014 11:47 AM

Noisy Castle Gone Silent: The Remains of Chateau Miranda

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

When the French Revolution heated up, the politically active Liedekerke-Beaufort family were forced to abandon their castle in the Walloon region of southern Belgium.

After a few decades of lying low on a nearby farm, the Liedekerke-Beauforts were ready for a new chateau. In 1866 they turned to English architect Edward Milner, whose Gothic design came to life in the form of Miranda Castle.

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Things were sedate and stately at Chateau Miranda until the last gasps of World War II, when German troops descended on the grounds during the Battle of the Bulge. Post-war, Belgium's national railway company used Miranda Castle as a summer home for children who could not be cared for by their parents. Known by the nickname Noisy Castle, the mansion remained a children's recreation site until 1980.

After becoming too expensive to maintain, Miranda Castle was abandoned in 1991. A fire in 1995 destroyed part of the roof, and dry rot has set into the wood. The building is still owned by Liedekerke-Beaufort family, who, following the fire, stripped the castle of its more valuable components.

Though rumors of impending demolition persist, Belgian publication La Meuse reported in August that the castle has been granted a reprieve until at least February 2015 due to its possible inclusion on a Walloon heritage conservation list. According to the article, developers have expressed interest in turning Noisy Castle into a hotel and restaurant. Regardless of the outcome, you may have just a few more months to see the chateau in its dilapidated state.

Sept. 24 2014 10:39 AM

What Rot: A Look at the Striking "Transi" Corpse Sculptures

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

Ordinarily, the statues of heroes who die in battle are sculpted in grand style, depicting the valorous fighter with a fierce stance, formidable muscles, and a determined expression. Not so in the case of René de Chalon, the 25-year-old French prince who perished during the siege of Saint-Dizier in 1544.

When it came time to memorialize the prince in stone, Renaissance sculptor Ligier Richier carved a rotting corpse with shredded muscles falling from the bones and skin hanging in flaps over a hollow carcass. The exposed skull looks toward a raised left hand—originally, this hand held the prince’s actual dried heart. It is believed to have gone missing sometime around the French revolution, after which it was replaced by a smooth stone.

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The Transi of Rene de Chalon at the Saint-Étienne church in Bar-le-Duc.

Photos: MOSSOT/Creative Commons

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The statue, on display at Saint-Étienne church in the French city of Bar-le-Duc, is known as a "transi." Popular in western Europe during the Renaissance, the art form depicts a deceased person during the transition between life and death—the corporeal husk of a departed soul. It's a particularly impactful memento mori.

From the late 14th century onward, some tombs were also adorned with recumbent transi sculptures. In contrast to the usual serene depictions of eternally sleeping saints, these "cadaver tombs' showed the effects of death in stark detail. The effigy of French doctor Guillaume de Harsigny is emaciated and noseless, while Belgian sculptor Jacques du Broeucq's 16th-century "l'homme à moutons" ("man eaten by worms") shows a decaying body riddled with the wriggling creatures.

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Jacques du Broeucq's 16th-century "l'homme à moutons" ("man eaten by worms").

Photo: Jean-Pol GRANDMONT/Creative Commons

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The transi on the tomb of Guillaume de Harcigny.

Photo: Vassil/Creative Commons

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A transi by Ligier Richier at the Musée des Beaux Arts, Dijon.

Photos: Rama/Creative Commons

Sept. 23 2014 9:01 AM

Tristan da Cunha: Life on the World's Most Remote Island

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world's hidden wonders. Like us on FacebookTumblr, or follow us on Twitter @atlasobscura.

A stay on Tristan da Cunha is not your typical island vacation. There are no restaurants. There are no hotels. Credit cards are not accepted, the beaches aren't safe for swimming, and every month brings between 17 and 26 days of rain. Smack-dab in the middle of the island lies a giant volcano. But Tristan Da Cunha is enticing because it offers something that no other island destination can: extreme isolation.

Sept. 22 2014 11:15 AM

Avenue of the Baobabs: Madagascar's Magical Upside-Down Trees

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

Along a stretch of the dirt road that leads from Morondava to Belo Tsiribihina in Madagascar stand rows of baobab trees, their stout trunks glowing and fading as the sun passes overhead. This is the Avenue of the Baobabs, one of the more striking spots for appreciating the Adansonia grandidieri species endemic to the island nation.

Sept. 19 2014 1:10 PM

Ascension Island: Home of Lava Fields, a False Forest, and the World's Worst Golf Course

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

Way out in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean, 1000 miles from the nearest continent, is a small island with an extraordinary history. Measuring 34 square miles, Ascension Island boasts jagged lava fields, an artificial forest, a NASA tracking station, a graveyard full of yellow-fevered sailors, and beaches crawling with green sea turtles. And that's just a snippet of the story.

Ascension's documented history begins in the early 16th century, when an armada from Portugal encountered it on their annual supply run to India. There is some dispute as to which year this occurred—the prevailing view is that explorer João da Nova of the Third Armada first saw the island in 1501 and named it Conception Island. Two years later, on May 21, Alfonso de Albuquerque happened upon the land mass and renamed it Ascension Island in recognition of the date: Ascension Day.

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Unimpressed by the barren environs, the Portuguese dropped off a few goats to serve as future food for passing ships and continued on to India to load up on spices. Ascension saw little action until 1725, when a Dutch East India Company ship returning from the East Indies dropped off its resident bookkeeper, Leendert Hasenbosch. The former soldier had engaged in sodomy during the voyage, a sin the captain chose to punish using the "abandon the offender on an uninhabited barren island in the middle of the Atlantic" method.

Hasenbosch survived for approximately six months. British sailors making a pit stop at Ascension in 1726 discovered the deceased Dutchman's diary, which revealed the extent of his suffering. Three months into his exile, having run out of water, Hasenbosch wrote that he drank turtle's blood and "some boiled piss mixed with tea; which, though it was so very nauseous, revived me much."

In 1815, the British established a precautionary presence on Ascension. The freshly defeated Napoleon had just been exiled to nearby St. Helena, and the British were concerned that the French might descend upon Ascension as part of an effort to rescue the general. The island was claimed in the name of King George III and outfitted with a garrison of naval officers.

Ascension became a pit stop and supply store for travelers on long sea voyages, particularly the those involved in the West Africa Squadron—the Royal Navy's anti-slavery patrol. Sailors who arrived bearing the tell-tale signs of yellow fever were quarantined at the alarmingly named Comfortless Cove. Some never left the island—the remains of those who succumbed to the disease still lie in small cemeteries surrounding the cove.

In 1836, a 27-year-old Charles Darwin landed at Ascension near the end of his five-year exploratory voyage aboard the HMS Beagle. The volcanic topography made quite the impression on him. "[I]magine smooth conical hills of a bright red color, with their summits generally truncated, rising separately out of a level surface of black rugged lava," Darwin wrote in The Voyage of the Beagle. "To complete the desolate scene, the black rocks on the coast are lashed by a wild and turbulent sea."

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Prickly pear, introduced to the island in the mid-19th century.

Photo: Drew Avery/Creative Commons

Darwin's descriptions of Ascension's stark terrain enraptured the English botanist and explorer Joseph Hooker. Eager to see the landscape for himself, Hooker embarked on his own voyage to the island in 1843 and thereafter hatched an ambitious plan: to transform Ascension into a greener, gentler place by shipping in trees from around the world and planting them on the jagged, brown hills.

To procure the plants he needed for his artificial forest, Hooker turned to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in London, where his father was the director. Between 1847 and 1850, over 300 trees were dispatched from Kew to Ascension Island and planted on the highest peak—optimistically named Green Mountain—with the aim of improving soil and increasing rainfall. Over the next few decades, plants from Kew and the botanic gardens in Cape Town, South Africa, continued to arrive at Ascension. The result was an altered ecosystem. Today, Green Mountain's vegetation is a verdant mish-mash of ginger, pines, bamboo, aloe, banana bushes, and prickly pears. (The rest of the island is still dominated by browns and grays.)   

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Barren lava-field terrain in the island's north.

Photo: Drew Avery/Creative Commons

During the 20th century, Ascension functioned primarily as a military outpost. The Americans arrived during World War II to build an airbase, which they used as a stop-off point for planes heading to Europe. Post-war, when the US' focus shifted to the Cold War and the Space Race, NASA established a tracking station on the island that kept tabs on spacecraft and missiles. For an insight into what life was like on the island at that time, have a read of Joe Frasketi's Range Rat page, where former Ascension workers share memories. ("I am confused about the name of the donkey called Rebel," reads one contribution. "He sounds like the same one we called JJ. In addition to hanging around the theater, he used to hang around the NASA site and we would feed him brandy-soaked sweet rolls. He would get drunk and stagger down the road toward the base.")

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A young feral donkey, one of many animal species introduced to the island.

Photo: Drew Avery/Creative Commons

NASA's station is no longer operational, but the European Space Agency maintains a tracking station on the island, and the US and British air force bases remain. Around 800 people now live on the British-administered island, but none are permanent residents. In September 2013 the Guardian reported that privatization of government and military services has resulted in fewer jobs, shorter contracts, and a crackdown on the number of family members who can accompany employees to the island.

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Cat Hill, the location of the U.S. military base and NASA tracking station.

Photo:JERRYE & ROY KLOTZ MD/Creative Commons

Despite its remoteness and small population, Ascension does have a tourism industry. The main activities on offer for visitors are fishing, hiking, and golf—the settlement of One Boat boasts a golf course that the Ascension government's own website dubs the worst in the world. The website of Ascension's Obsidian Hotel explains why: "The 'Greens' are called 'browns' and are made of crushed compacted lava smoothed flat with diesel oil."

To visit Ascension, you need to request permission from the government a month in advance and make sure you have comprehensive travel and medical insurance, including medical evacuation coverage. Then it's just a matter of hopping aboard a nine-hour military charter flight from the Brize Norton airforce base northwest of London. Bon voyage.

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Passengers disembark at Wideawake Airfield.

Photo:Vincent van Zeijst/Creative Commons

Sept. 17 2014 1:46 PM

A Salute to Defiant Scots on the Eve of Their Possible Secession

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

With Scotland voting tomorrow on whether to secede from the United Kingdom, images embodying the country's national identity have been hitting American TV. The go-to cultural reference among satirical late-night hosts has been, of course, William Wallace as portrayed by Mel Gibson in Braveheart. Jon Stewart, a kilt-clad Stephen Colbert, and John Oliver—in a segment inspired by Love Actually—have all included Gibson's blue-striped face in their coverage during the last week. 

With respect to the real William Wallace, who incited Scotland's first War of Independence in 1297, there is another, much more recent example of Scottish defiance that deserves attention. It involves Glasgow, a statue, and a traffic cone.

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In front of Glasgow's Gallery of Modern Art is a statue of the Duke of Wellington astride a horse. The Duke, born Arthur Wellesley in 1769, was an Anglo-Irish soldier who served as both Commander-in-Chief of the British Army and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Voted as one of the 100 Greatest Britons in a 2002 UK public poll, the Duke is known for his commanding role in defeating the French during the Napoleonic Wars.

None of that matters to some of the more mischievous residents of Glasgow, who, since the 1980s, have taken to placing a bright orange traffic cone on the Duke's head. The origin of the tradition is unclear—there is a chance that alcohol was involved—but the Duke's orange hat proved so popular that a new one would reappear every time city officials removed the last one.

In 2013, the city attempted to quash the conehead malarkey by proposing to raise the statue's plinth to six feet, making it much more difficult for pranksters to reach the Duke's head. The $106,000 proposal outraged the citizens of Glasgow. A Change.org petition, signed by over 10,000 supporters, made people's passions clear: "The cone on Wellington's head is an iconic part of Glasgow's heritage, and means far more to the people of Glasgow and to visitors than Wellington himself ever has."

Within two weeks of the plinth-raising application being lodged, the Glasgow City Council cancelled its plans to modify the statue. The Duke and his orange hat live on as a symbol of cheeky Scottish defiance, and shall be looking over Glaswegians as they head to the polls tomorrow.

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The statue on a rare cone-free day.

Photo: Seo J Kim/Creative Commons

Sept. 16 2014 8:00 AM

The Wall Street Bombing: Low-Tech Terrorism in Prohibition-Era New York

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world's hidden wonders. Like us on FacebookTumblr, or follow us on Twitter @atlasobscura.

September 16 marks the anniversary of a horrific terrorist attack on Manhattan's Financial District. The perpetrators targeted a prominent building that also served as a symbol of American capitalism. But their method of attack was unusual. They did not hijack a plane or use suicide bombers with explosives strapped to their chests. They used a horse-drawn wagon.

The Wall Street bombing, as the event is now known, occured just after noon on Thursday, September 16, 1920. A wagon loaded with a bomb containing dynamite and 500 pounds of small iron weights parked in front of 23 Wall Street. The corner building was then the headquarters of J.P. Morgan & Co., the nation's most powerful bank. At 12:01 pm, the timer on the bomb reached zero and a terrific explosion rocked the street.

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Thirty people—and one horse—died instantly from the blast. Another eight died later from the injuries they sustained. Hundreds were injured, some by shrapnel on the street, others by the glass that rained down from the broken windows of the J.P. Morgan building. The blast was so forceful that, according to a bystander quoted in the New York Times the next day, a trolley carrying passengers two blocks away was "thrown from the tracks by the shock."   

No-one claimed responsibility in the aftermath of the attack, leading many on the scene to conclude that the perpetrators were communist agitators fresh from the Bolshevik Revolution. On September 17, 1920, the Times reported that "both the police and the government investigators were inclined to the theory that Reds had placed a time bomb in the wagon." Russians were the prime suspect in the eyes of John Markle, a wealthy anthracite coal field operator who happened to be at the J.P. Morgan building when the blast occurred. "[T]here is no question in my mind," he told the Times, "that the explosion was caused by Bolsheviki."

Not everyone, however, thought red was the color of guilt. Department of Justice agent Frank Francisco was reluctant to believe J.P. Morgan had been targeted and figured the explosion may have been an accident. The Times quoted him thusly: "If an attempt had been made on the Morgan offices, I believe it would have been made at night, or some radical would have secured a position in the institution and planted an infernal machine inside."

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People standing in front of 23 Wall Street in the aftermath of the explosion.

Photo: Bain News Service (Library of Congress)/Public domain

In their haste to reopen the New York Stock Exchange the day after the blast, city officials swept away evidence that may have led to identification of the perpetrators. Despite a three-year investigation, those responsible for the attack have never been officially identified. In 1944, however, the FBI revisited the case and concluded that Italian anarchists were likely behind the plot—the group had conducted a series of bombings across the United States in 1919, which fueled the nation's first Red Scare.

Today, the limestone acade of 23 Wall Street still bears the scars from the shrapnel that blasted into it 94 years ago. These little marks are the only on-site hint of the attack—no signs or plaques commemorate the bombing.

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The scarred wall of 23 Wall Street today.

Photo: Ella Morton

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Hand-sized pock marks still mar the facade.

Photo: Ella Morton

Sept. 8 2014 12:18 PM

Solving the Great Stink: London's Gorgeous Victorian Sewage Cathedrals

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

The night men of Victorian London had it rough. Tasked with hauling away "night soil"—human waste—under the cover of darkness, night men ventured into the city's 200,000 cesspits armed with only buckets, rope, and the desire to make money at any cost.

Between midnight and 5 a.m., night men climbed down into the pits of human effluvia, filled their buckets, and hauled the waste into carts. It was dangerous, disgusting work: beyond the appalling stench and hard physical labor, night men risked death by asphyxiation due to the overpowering gases and fumes.

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A cartoon by John Leech addressing the Great Stink in the July 3, 1858 issue of the London satire magazine Punch. The three figures emerging from the river represent diphtheria, scropula (a condition involving enlargement of the lymph nodes on the neck), and cholera.
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Prior to the installation of the sewer system, London was a city of overflowing cesspits that drained into a putrid Thames. Cholera ran rampant and the air was a miasma of human waste smells, slaughterhouse run-off, and factory emissions.

Conditions were particularly noxious during the summer of 1858, a time known as The Great Stink. The smell of the sewage-filled Thames was so horrid that it affected operations at the Houses of Parliament. A transcript from parliamentary proceedings on June 11, 1858 notes that "Gentlemen sitting in the Committee Rooms and in the Library were utterly unable to remain there in consequence of the stench which arose from the river." In an attempt to mask the smell, the parliamentary curtains were soaked in chloride of lime. But the distracting odor remained.

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The Prince of Wales and a gaggle of gentlemen start the sewer pumps at Crossness Pumping Station in 1865.

Clearly, something had to be done. The solution came in the form of a sewer system designed by Joseph Bazalgette, chief engineer of the Metropolitan Board of Works. Construction on six intercepting sewers—which diverted waste from the city to a Thames estuary downstream—began in 1859.

Among the most beautiful components of the new sewer system were the pumping stations at Crossness and Abbey Mills. Designed in Byzantine style with hints of Moorish influence, these ornate cathedrals of waste held steam pumps surrounded by red-brick arches, octagonal cupolas, shiny brass handrails, wrought-iron detailing, and elegant "MBW" monograms—for the Metropolitan Board of Works. At Crossness, the steam pumps were named Victoria, Prince Consort, Albert Edward, and Alexandra, after members of the British royal family.

The Crossness and Abbey Mills pumping stations have been superseded by more advanced systems, but the ornate Victorian buildings remain. Crossness station, located on the south bank in the borough of Bexley, has been restored and is available for hire—the official website recommends you consider it as a location for product launches, viral videos, and Shakespearean theater productions. The Abbey Mills pumping station, situated on the north bank near West Ham, is generally closed to the public, but Thames Water occasionally conducts tours as part of city open house programs.   

Visit Atlas Obscura for more on the Crossness and Abbey Mills pumping stations.

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Abbey Mills Pumping Station, completed in 1868.

Photo: Ian Wright/Creative Commons

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The "Prince Consort" steam engine, named after Queen Victoria's husband Albert.

Photo: Steve Cadman/Creative Commons

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The octagonal domed ceiling of Abbey Mills Pumping Station.

Photo: Matt Brown/Creative Commons

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The C Station Pump House at Abbey Mills.

Photo: Msemmett/Creative Commons

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A section of the London sewer at Fleet River near Farringdon.

Photo: sub-urban.com/Creative Commons

Sept. 5 2014 9:15 AM

The Magnificent Mud Mosque of Mali

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

Last year, the UNESCO-heritage-listed Great Mosque of Djenne in Mali sustained damage to its walls and had to be repaired by members of the community. But that wasn’t cause for concern—it happens every year.

Like hundreds of other buildings in Djenne, the Great Mosque is made of mud. It was built in 1907, but the town's mud architecture dates back to at least the 14th century. To create the buildings, masons pack mud and straw into bricks, allow them to dry in the sun, and stack them to form walls. A layer of mud plastered on top provides a smooth surface and better stability.

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Though the buildings are sturdy and often sprawling—the Great Mosque can hold 3,000 worshippers—they are still vulnerable to the elements. Rain, humidity, and temperature changes cause cracks and erosion in the walls. Djenne's mud masons regularly band together and repair the mosque to keep it from falling apart.

Visit Atlas Obscura for more on the Great Mosque of Djenne and Mali's mud architecture.

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Photo: FRANCOIS XAVIER MARIT/AFP/Getty Images

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A man walks among the mud buildings of Djenne.

Photo: Juan Manuel Garcia/Creative Commons

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