Atlas Obscura
Your Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders

Nov. 25 2016 12:30 PM

What Was Wrong With 16th-Century Europeans That They Didn’t Like Tomatoes?

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

There are some people who don't like tomatoes. It's confusing, and wrong, but a fact. However, this reporter believes that tomatoes are the perfect food. As this summer fruit comes into season on the East Coast, if they are red, ripe, and juicy, I could eat them for every meal—sprinkled with salt and drizzled in olive oil, set between two pieces of mayo-slathered bread (Harriet the Spy–style), as a BLT, the best sandwich ever invented, or in basically any combination with corn. Or basil. Or cheese.

Back when tomatoes first came from this side of the Atlantic to Europe, though, Europeans were a whole continent of tomato skeptics. They grew them only in gardens—as ornamental plants—and ate them rarely, if ever. And as a tomato lover, I wondered—what was 16th-century Europeans’ problem? How did they not fall in love with tomatoes at their first opportunity?

It seemed unlikely that the tomatoes themselves were the issue. South and Central Americans had already done the long work of domesticating the tomato plant; the seeds that Spanish travelers brought back grew lumpy red tomatoes similar to today’s “heirloom” varieties. In southern Spain, where tomatoes were first grown in Europe, the climate was favorable for tomato plants, and it seems likely that tomatoes would have been eaten freshly pulled from the vine, i.e., in their ideal state.

Perhaps the problem was the way Europeans were preparing them. Faced with this new, daring food, what did they do with it? If I could try out the recipes they were using, I might be able to understand why they didn’t take to tomatoes.

Nov. 24 2016 8:30 AM

The Giant Ghibli Clock

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Officially called the “NI-TELE Really BIG Clock,” four or five times a day this wacked out symphonic mega machine spins, dances, whirs, and clanks. And as a side gig, it also tells the time.

The giant clock is in the Shiodome section of Tokyo, at the Nittele Tower (headquarters of Nippon Television). It was designed by Hayao Miyazaki, the renowned director and co-founder of Studio Ghibli, and while it’s not exactly drawn from his 2004 film Howl’s Moving Castle, it’s been likened to the aesthetic of the anime classic.

Nov. 23 2016 12:30 PM

Exploring the Strange Pleasures of Cockaigne, a Medieval Peasant’s Dream World

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The dream of the common person’s utopia was more than a little bit different during medieval times. Whereas today we have visions of lands o’ plenty like a huge mountain made of rock candy, the common peasant living in the muck and the mire of medieval Europe had a whimsical, satirical dream land known as Cockaigne.

While there have been many different versions of Cockaigne appearing in literature throughout the ages, in general, the Land of Cockaigne was a medieval dream world where the regular order things was flipped on its head. In Cockaigne, the poor would be rich, food and sex were freely available, and sloth was treasured and respected above all else. It was often portrayed as the perfect daydream of the common peasant, a place where the drudgery and struggle of medieval life was nowhere to be seen. However, even though it was depicted as a serf’s perfect world, it’s unclear how aware of the concept of Cockaigne the average person would have been.

This literal land of milk and honey made its mark in the popular imagination thanks to countless poems and writings that began to appear all across medieval Europe from the 1300s onward. “It’s very hard to say how well common people would have known of Cockaigne,” says Karma Lochrie, author of the book Nowhere in the Middle Ages, which looks at the medieval origins of utopian thought. “We know that visions of Cockaigne existed in all major European languages in the Middle Ages and beyond, but these visions would have only been accessible to elite readers who could read.”

Nonetheless, with the spread of the printing press, tales and poems of Cockaigne became widespread enough that they would eventually reach a wider audience. As Lochrie says, while there are a great number of versions of Cockaigne, the most widely known account is a poem from around 1350 called“The Land of Cockaygne.” Contained in what is thought to have been a friar’s notebook, the poem details many of the barely imaginable wonders that Cockaigne had to offer and gives us an unforgettable look into both the nature of the satire and the aspirations of people of the time.

In the poem, Cockaigne is said to lie somewhere west of Spain, but in reality the promised land never had any concrete location on the map. “[L]ike Thomas More’s Utopia in 1516, one of the recurring features of Cockaigne is that we don’t know where it’s located,” says Lochrie. “It’s somewhere and nowhere, in effect.” But although Cockaigne doesn’t have a concrete location, the authors of the poem knew how to get there. As Lochrie pointed out, the final lines of the poem say that in order to reach Cockaigne, one must bury oneself up to one's chin in pig shit, as a sort of backward version of a purifying ritual. Yeesh.

Nov. 22 2016 12:30 PM

The Giant Permafrost Tunnel Used for Training in Alaska

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Almost a quarter of the land of the Northern Hemisphere is permafrost, and about a third of that is in the western half of North America. This includes an area near Fairbanks, Alaska, where the Army Corps of Engineers has a permafrost tunnel as part of the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory, or CRREL.

The CRREL tunnel is roomy, about 360 feet long, 6-to-8 feet high, and about 15 feet wide. It’s rich with frozen animal and plant remains, fossils of all kinds, and layers of frozen silt, sand, gravel and bedrock. The space is comprised of an adit (just a more impressive word for access portal) and a winze (a term used in mining to describe sections that adjusts for differing levels or depths), and given its Army Corps parentage, it’s a feat of engineering.

The tunnel started out in the early 1960s as a kind of training camp, for the Corps to learn more about excavating permafrost. In the later 1960s, it was used for similar purposes by the Bureau of Mines to test permafrost mining techniques. Ultimately though, the tunnel has proven its value as a science lab, turning the exposed walls into a frozen classroom on how permafrost behaves, how fossils and sediment have piled up over the epochs, and how the layers may be altered by climate change.

Permafrost is simply a frozen state of ground, not necessarily icy (although it can include ice in its makeup). It’s defined by temperature, not water content, so if the ground—be it soil, rock, peat, sand or river sediment—maintains a temperature of zero degrees Celsius or lower, you’ve got permafrost.

The exposure caused by tunneling has created a paradoxical engineering dilemma for the Corps: how to keep it frozen when outside air is circulating throughout. CRREL has figured that out too. In the winter there is a system of funneling the outside air back in. In the summer, they’ve got some very fancy air conditioning.

If you liked this, you’ll probably enjoy Atlas Obscura’s New York Times bestselling 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.

Nov. 21 2016 12:30 PM

The Remains of the House of David

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

Editor’s note, Nov. 21: The original version of this post contained material from an article in the Detroit Free Press without proper attribution and contained several errors of fact. The original post did not meet Slate’s standards, and we regret the errors. The text has been revised with attributions and links to properly credit the Free Press and its writer, John Carlisle.

The church pews, miniature train, and bandstands of the House of David used to be overflowing with believers. Now, the cultish religious colony has just a few members, but the history of the commune can be seen in its remaining buildings—the opulent century-old mansions and smaller brick houses that sit mostly deserted.

The House of David began in 1903 by Benjamin Purnell, who claimed to be prophet of God. Thousands relocated to Benton Harbor, Michigan to follow Purnell’s “House of David” and live in the commune that promised Heaven on Earth. Members abstained from all vices, and all worldly goods were shared among the community. However despite the austere lifestyle, members of the House of David were no sticks in the mud, as the Detroit Free Press reported in a recent profile on the group.

They were known for being wholesome and fun, even operating a zoo, a farmer’s market, and an amusement park called Eden Springs which drew neighbors in. Chris Siriano, the owner, grew up nearby but is unaffiliated with the colony. He told  Detroit Free Press, “They wanted to have fun; they wanted to invite America into their lives; they loved to entertain and laugh and have a blast."

The colony was perhaps best known for its baseball team. The traveling team was founded in 1914 and became popular not just because of the oddity of their appearance (the men had long, uncut hair and beards to appear in the likeness of Christ), but also because they were quite good. They became popular enough that they hired outside professional players, some of whom grew out their facial hair in deference to the God of Israel. Others just wore fake beards.

The House of David met its controversial end when Benjamin Purnell was accused of the rape of dozens of the girls and women in the community, leading to a fraud conviction. The community was rift in two and numbers dwindled. Today the few remaining members keep up the grounds of the once self-sustaining community, operate their own museum, and remain ever-friendly to visitors.

The zoo has been deserted, and the amusement park too. If you drive down East Britain Avenue in Benton Harbor though, you can still see the gorgeous mansions Purnell built for himself and his wife, along with the followers’ modest brick houses nearby. Driving through the dirt lanes of the commune one can still see the restaurant building, the auditorium, the baseball field and churches, all of which serve as a reminder of what the House of David used to be.

If you liked this, you’ll probably enjoy Atlas Obscura’s New York Times bestselling 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.

Nov. 18 2016 12:30 PM

The Unverifiable Legend of the Early-20th-Century Preacher Who Raised 14 People From the Dead

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After Smith Wigglesworth died in 1947, doctors are said to have found that some of the bone on each of Wigglesworth's knee caps was missing. Later, in his house, others found two indentations, about a foot apart, on the wooden floor of a corner room.

Wigglesworth, it was surmised, had spent a lot of time there knelt in prayer.

Is this story true? Who knows. But it belongs to the pantheon of Wigglesworth stories, a man who is said to be responsible for countless healings and the raising of 14 people from the dead.

A former plumber who traveled the world preaching, Wigglesworth was among the key early preachers of Pentecostalism, whose practitioners are known in some circles as "holy rollers," so named for the behavior of early adherents, some of whom literally rolled on the ground in spiritual ecstasy. Today, Wigglesworth remains an important inspiration for the modern Pentacostal movement, and nearly an entire cottage industry exists selling Wigglesworth writings and biographies. He helped define one of the most iconic aspects of the religion, namely, speaking in tongues.

It might surprise some to know that practice, seemingly endemic to the American South, was in part popularized by a Brit. Or that Wiggleworth's laying-on-of-hands had a surprise element: His healings could be incredibly violent.

Wigglesworth was born in 1859 in Yorkshire, England, to a poor family, later training to be a plumber and marrying Polly Featherstone in 1882. According to at least one account, one of his first healings was of himself. Tired of taking salts to ease his hemorrhoid problem, he anointed himself with oil and prayed on it. The hemorrhoids disappeared.

In 1907, he said he spoke in tongues for the first time, and spent the next six years establishing a church in Yorkshire known as the Bowland Street Mission. In 1913, his wife Polly died. Wigglesworth traveled to the U.S. for the first time the following year, launching his international ministry that eventually took him across the world.

However, Wigglesworth's real calling card was something that's all but lost in the modern Pentacostal faith: healing, which, for him, was a combination of prayer and violence. Wigglesworth believed that any sickness was actually the devil inside of you, which meant that prayer was needed, but also, frequently, a physical assault. There are many such stories: the time Wigglesworth punched a sufferer of stomach cancer in the stomach, the times he violently shook those on their deathbeds, or, more commonly, the times in front of crowds when healing was in part dependent upon delivering a good hard slap.

"His notion of praying for the sick as an act of spiritual warfare helps account for his rough handling of people in his earlier ministry," the Pentacostal scholar Gary B. McGee has written. "He thought of striking a person where they hurt as actually hitting the devil. Although some reported healing as a result, others thought it best to avoid identifying the location of their pain."

Take this account from the Foursquare Crusader, an early Pentacostal periodical, which described Wigglesworth at a service at the Angelus Temple in Los Angeles, when he visited in July 1927.

When this man prays for the sick he gets right down to business. He rips off his coat and rolls up his sleeves. Lifting his hand to heaven he cries. “Are you ready!” If assent is given, he “lays hands upon the sick” and prays: then, with a cyclonic movement of the hands over the afflicted part or a resounding slap that can be distinctly heard) throughout the auditorium, he declares that they are “free,” and commands them to stoop and bend over or to run up and down the aisle, as the case may be. His methods are spectacular, strenuous, and often humorous, but the results seem to justify the means, for at the close of the service when he asks all those who have been healed to stand, literally hundreds leap to their feet.

Here's another account, which happened in December 1934 in Washington, D.C., published in Redemption Tidings:

Just before the meeting began, we had noticed that a young girl, with crutches, was coming in. She was assisted by a man and woman. Her legs absolutely dangled, with the feet hanging vertically from them. From her waist she seemed to be limp and powerless. Room was made for her in the front row. When the invitation to be saved was given, she attempted to go forward aided by her assistants. Brother Wigglesworth, on seeing her start, said, “You stay right where you are. You are going to be a different girl when you leave this place.” When the rest had been dealt with Brother Wigglesworth turned to the girl and, having been told her trouble, said to the people, “This girl has no muscles in her legs; she has never walked before.” He laid his hands on her head and prayed and cried, “In the name of Jesus Christ, walk!” Looking at her, he said, “You are afraid, aren’t you?” “Yes,” she replied. “There is no need to be. You are healed!” he shouted. “Walk! walk!” And praise God she did – like a baby just learning! Twice she walked, in that characteristic way, the length of the platform! Glory to God! When we left the room, her crutches were lying on the seat, and on reaching the sidewalk we saw her standing, as others do, talking with two girl friends.

Often, the healings were too common to go into that level of detail. Take this description in the Pentecostal Evangel, from 1935.

A man with cancer on his face and hands was healed almost instantly. A woman with hernia of 17 years’ standing was completely delivered. A man with asthma of 8 years’ standing was saved and healed instantly. A lady was healed of deafness and afterwards heard clearly.

What's going on here? A complicated placebo effect in many cases, to be sure, but also old-fashioned marketing. Most all of the early publications that tracked Wigglesworth's exploits (and the three quoted from above) were written to attract new believers to the then-emerging Pentacostal movement, which would became more familiar to Americans decades later in the form of televangelists like Jim Bakker, Paul Crouch, and Jimmy Swaggart. (The Jonas Brothers also grew up in the faith.)

And in the days before cellphone cameras, the plausibility of faith healing was only limited by your imagination. Was Smith Wigglesworth a specially anointed agent of God? It was hard to say, exactly, but there wasn't any evidence proving that he wasn't.

Faith healing could also be a powerful draw. Wigglesworth eventually took his act to Australia, India, Switzerland, and Finland, among a rash of other places, often greeting crowds of hundreds. His legend followed him, too, though his gatherings were mostly ignored by the mainstream press, which meant few objective observers were along for the ride. The best accounts of Wigglesworth's life are his own and that of Stanley Frodsham, a friend and eventual biographer, whose Smith Wigglesworth: Apostle of Faith, published in 1948, is the foundational text for the Wigglesworth legend.

Since then, there have been numerous accounts, though many have engaged, as one scholar put it, in "blatant and unashamed acts of embalmment."

Wigglesworth was not able to heal all of those around him. In the early years, swaths of Pentacostals rejected modern medicine, instead entrusting their health to God, and Wigglesworth was no different. Perhaps as a result, there were several maladies in his life that no amount of prayer seemed to be enough for, like his daughter's deafness and his own battle with kidney stones.

He also, of course, couldn't prevent his own death, at the age 87, passing on March 12, 1947, in England, while attending the funeral of a close friend. Or that's at least according to the myth.

If you liked this, you’ll probably enjoy Atlas Obscura’s New York Times bestselling 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.

Nov. 17 2016 12:30 PM

The Society Lady Who Brought Ancient Greek Fashion to 18th-Century Europe

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

Known all over Europe for her astonishing beauty, Lady Hamilton accomplished many things in her lifetime. She was considered a key figure in the arts, a muse and patron, and her political influence saved the king and queen of Naples. As if that wasn’t enough, she also—along with the spread of democratic ideas in the aftermath of the French Revolution, and the discovery of Pompeii—revived the neoclassical style that marks the Regency period (1795–1825).

But to understand the influence she held over Europe, one must follow the trajectory of her life. Born in poverty and employed as a maid in her teenage years, her astonishing beauty and irresistible charm earned her the heart of many powerful men. Though scorned by her first two lovers, she eventually became the inamorata (and subsequent wife) of Sir William Hamilton, the English ambassador in Naples.

It was from this city, foreign though it was to her, that Lady Hamilton would make the world kneel at her feet.

Nov. 16 2016 12:30 PM

The Remains of the Palace of Depression

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In 1929, the most devastating year in the history of Wall Street, 70-year-old New York stock trader George Daynor was among those who lost his entire fortune. Left with just $7, no hope, and a tinge of depression, Daynor never would have dreamt that he would one day become a world-renowned name.

Directly following the stock market crash, Daynor claims to have been led by an angel on a 10-day, 112-mile hike to Vineland, New Jersey, where the only piece of property he could afford was a seven-acre junkyard situated on a swamp for the price of exactly $7.

One night, while sleeping in the junkyard, Daynor’s angel reappeared in one of his dreams, urging him to use the mud, fuel leakage, bottles, bed frames, and unwanted auto parts on his property to build the “Palace of Depression,” a grand, marvelous home made of mud and junk. And that he did.

From 1929 to 1932, Daynor spent his days eating whatever he could scrape up—frogs, fish, rabbits, and squirrels—all while constructing a gigantic palace out of dirt and scrap. Daynor built the palace to prove to every American what he learned from experience: that the Great Depression was not impossible to overcome. In Daynor’s own words, “the only real depression is a depression of individual ingenuity.”

Promoted as “the greatest piece of originality ever brought about in the history of Man,” Daynor’s junk house featured 18 towering spires, a massive outdoor fireplace, a circular shell-covered door, and the Knockout Room, where Daynor would allegedly drop a bowling ball atop your head to erase the worst of your memories.

Unfortunately for Daynor, after hearing about a baby who had recently been kidnapped near the palace, he made the false claim that he was the true kidnapper in a desperate attempt to gain publicity. And publicity he got, but not in the way he would have wanted; Daynor was arrested for over a year on charges of lying to the FBI, and in 1969, long after his death, the Palace of Depression was torn to the ground.

Perhaps, though, the Palace of Depression may see a second life. Nearly 50 years after the destruction of Daynor's junk house, a volunteer-led restoration project of the palace is in progress. It is set to be completed in the coming years.

If you liked this, you’ll probably enjoy Atlas Obscura’s New York Times bestselling 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.

Nov. 15 2016 12:30 PM

The 37,000 Offerings of the Basilique Notre-Dame-des-Victoires

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

Nearly every inch of this Paris basilica is covered in ex-votos, devotional artifacts that take their name from the Latin ex voto suscepto, or "from the vow made." The church houses an astounding 37,000 items.

The church is named Notre Dame des Victoires, or Our Lady of Victories, after the unification of France under Louis XIII, who prayed to the Virgin for assistance. It became a popular site for Catholic pilgrims in the early 19th century, who would offer their offerings to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. The collection of ex-votos is still growing, though wall space is becoming ever more scarce.

The ex-votos come in all different forms. Most are engraved bricks purchased by the offerer for the church. They read things like "La Sainte Vierge Ma Conserve Mon Petit Garcon En Mai 1856, C Et R" ("The Holy Virgin Saved My Little Boy in May 1856 C And R"), or No. 9011, "Jai Confié Ma Barque a L'etoile De La Mer Et Elle La Hereusement Conduite Au Port, L.C." ("I Have Entrusted My Boat to the Star of the Sea and She Fortunately Led Her to Port, L.C."). There is one section of beautifully forged metal hearts. Another wall holds a case of military medals, offered by the soldiers to the Blessed Mother as thanks for their lives.

We'll never know whether these prayers were granted by divine intervention, good fortune, or simply positive intentions, but it is heartwarming to see evidence of centuries of fulfilled vows and thankful people.

If you liked this, you’ll probably enjoy Atlas Obscura’s New York Times bestselling 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.

Nov. 14 2016 12:30 PM

The Tassen Museum of Bags and Purses

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

In a 17th-century mayoral house on an Amsterdam canal, there is a museum that hones in on one specific region of fashion history: purses.

This collection might seem strangely specific, but the museum curators view the handbag as a historical artifact at the intersection of technology and fashion. It's also something we've produced a lot of throughout the ages, and as such, the museum is stocked floor to ceiling with purses, bags, cases, satchels, and all other sorts of storage accoutrement.

It's the largest collection of purses and bags the world over, with more than 5,000 artifacts and counting. The oldest bags in the collection date to the 16th century and were mostly used by men to carry Bibles, alms, etc. There are châtelaines, proto-toolkits women could carry attached to their belts on chains around the 17th century, that carry scissors, thimbles, and smelling salts. 20th century bags range from utilitarian rucksacks to tiny clutches, reflecting the many different roles women played throughout the century.

There are as many different kinds of purses as one could imagine. The museum has items like Margaret Thatcher's handbag and the Versace purse Madonna carried to the premiere of Evita. There are ancient bags made from dirtied goat's hide and purses encrusted with thousands of Swarovski crystals. The purse has always been a handy accessory, but here at the Tassen Museum it takes the spotlight.

If you liked this, you’ll probably enjoy Atlas Obscura’s New York Times bestselling 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.