Atlas Obscura
Your Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders

Sept. 21 2015 1:45 PM

The Alien Landscape of New Mexico's Bisti Badlands

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

Located in the arid desert of northwestern New Mexico, the Bisti Badlands (formally the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness) offer one of the closest approximations of an unknown alien world as can be found right here on Earth.

Surprisingly, the area takes its name not only from the striking stone formations and hoodoos that litter the landscape ("bisti" being a Navajo term meaning "among the adobe formations"), but from petroglyphs of a crane (bird, not construction equipment) that were found in the area, "De-Na-Zin" being the Navajo word for the animal. The blasted landscape is covered in strange, undulating fungal shapes made of the colorful sandstone and shale. Huge hoodoos and small labyrinths of odd stone shapes have been created by eons of water and moisture wearing away at a softer layer of ash, creating improbable, top-heavy oddities.

Despite looking like a readymade set for a science fiction or fantasy production, the area has not been widely used for filming, save for the 1977 film, Sorcerer.  

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Sept. 18 2015 2:00 PM

The Birthplace of Kermit the Frog

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

Born in 1936 in nearby Greenville, Mississippi, famed visionary and puppeteer Jim Henson grew up and played among the swamplands of Leland which has now proclaimed itself the birthplace of his most famous creation with a permanent exhibit devoted to the man and the frog.

Installed across two rooms in the Leland Chamber of Commerce, the small museum holds puppets and memorabilia that honor Jim Henson's creation of Kermit the Frog. As the story goes, Henson spent his childhood playing among the local flora and fauna (which included frogs) of Leland and eventually made acquaintances with his boyhood friend Kermit Scott, who it is said the character of Kermit the Frog is based on. When the city of Leland established their small Muppet tribute they were actually given three original Muppet figures (Dr. Teeth, The Swedish Chef, and Chester the Rat) to display in addition to tomes full of Muppet facts and a collection of merchandise, dolls, and memorabilia. Unfortunately the trio of puppets originally housed in the museum had to be returned to the Jim Henson Company, but an original Kermit the Frog puppet was later donated to the exhibit by Henson's wife Jane. 

The proud birthplace is still open for visitors to come and explore the roots of the amphibian showman and the city even features a permanent plaque marking Kermit's creation. Guests to the exhibit can even cuddle up to a giant stuffed Kermit for photos and a little imagineering of their own.  

Sept. 17 2015 2:15 PM

The Perks and Pitfalls of Being a Famous Tree

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

To be recognized as a Great Tree, in New York City, is not just a matter of having the correct heritage or coming from the right family.

There's a certain meritocracy and populism to it, although the Greats do tend to live in some of the most desirable sections of the city—Central Park, Washington Square, Prospect Park, or up in wealthy Riverdale, in the Bronx. Also, it helps to have put down roots here decades, even centuries, ago. But when the New York City Parks Department first listed the city's Great Trees, in 1986, it recognized all manner of celebrity trees—not just stately old elms and giant oaks, but trees that were associated with Jacob Riis or Boss Tweed or Revolutionary War hangings.

As impressive as New York's Great Trees might be, there are other ways to measure greatness, too. Champion trees, for instance, are notable for one reason: they are very large, some of the largest known specimens of their species in their country. There's a list of those, too—a "National Register of Big Trees"—although anyone who wants to find some of these Big Trees may have a hard time: Like human celebrities, the country's most notable trees can be elusive.

"We try to be very sensitive about where they are,"  says Bryant Smith, of American Forests. They don't want to send flocks of tree-spotters and paparazzi to harass the trees and ruin their lives, so, says Smith, "we don’t post the location data for a lot of these trees."

For a person, achieving fame or prominence comes with both perks and pitfalls. But what are the advantages of being a celebrated tree? And what are the dangers? While humans have long venerated old and large trees, we've also cut them down and razed whole forests of their less superlative brethren. Around the world, tree lovers have compiled lists of the tallest, largest, oldest, most interesting and most charismatic trees—often with the idea that these registries will either help preserve the lives of these extraordinary trees, or help prompt people to take more care of trees in general. But, like human celebrity, it's not clear that tree celebrity is really good for anyone involved.

What a great tree.

Photo: Unsplash/pixabay/Public Domain

It's not just Americans who have compiled a Who's Who list of their most popular perennials. London's Great Trees, Hong Kong's Old, Valuable Trees—OVTs, for short—and New Zealand's Notable Trees are all roughly equivalent to New York's list. Australia, Britain, Belgium, Hungary, Poland and Germany all have lists of champion trees, and every year, Europe crowns a Tree of the Year. This year, it's an oak tree that lives on a soccer field in Estonia.

These celebrity trees usually have a long history. In New York, for instance, Great Trees tend to be old trees. "Usually they’ve been around for many centuries," says Leslie Day, author of the Field Guide to the Street Trees of New York City. "That makes them venerable. They’re survivors. They’ve survived the changing city, they’ve survived war and fire and drought, and bacteria. They're strong, and they're great things of beauty."

Champion trees earn their place on these lists by earning high scores in formal systems that calculate the size of trees. But size and age aren't the only qualities that attract people to trees. Other celebrated trees—whether they're called great trees, notable trees, monument trees, heritage trees or legacy trees—might commemorate a fallen soldier or mark a battlefield. Or they might have been planted by someone special—a head of state, maybe, or a famous author. They might have survived through intense deforestation or been used as a ossuary. They may have an interesting story to tell. Or maybe they are just shaped like a large bird.

But, for whatever reason they make the list, celebrity trees do tend to be large and old. And that makes them particularly vulnerable. The ecologist David B. Lindenmayer has found that large old trees are often targeted for destruction, either for their wood or because they threaten human safety in densely populated places. Their size and age also makes them particularly valuable to their ecosystem: with their big, small and middle sized branches, their nooks and crannies, their deeply riddled bark, they can provided a multitude of habitats, to plants and animals that would not survive without them.

Protecting these trees, then, can have an outsized impact. And making them into celebrities may be one way to protect them. Some scientists argue that this is one of the best ways to make sure humans take good care of trees—that casting trees as "charismatic megaflora," the arboreal equivalent of polar bears and snow leopards, could inspire people to conserve those trees' homes and indirectly benefit many more species. Since trees' celebrity often depends on their relationship with human society and history, it may be that "framing the conservation of large old trees from a human perspective," as biologist Malgorzata Blicharska writes, may lead to policies that do better by trees in the long run.

It's a simple enough idea. "If people value something they will fight or stand up for it," says Brad Cadwallader, who manages New Zealand's tree register. "Trees can’t speak for themselves, and unless someone speaks for them they often get pushed aside. The higher the profile a tree has the greater ‘voice’ it has."

There are several cases of maturity helping trees survive. In New Zealand, for instance, a large Tasmanian blue gum was set to be removed from Havelock North, a suburb of Hastings—until the town found out that the tree was the second largest of its kind in New Zealand and had been there for as long as the town had.

But these lists have their limits. "One should be cautious not to make it all too 'narrow,' not to focus just on individual trees and not to treat other (smaller) trees and other elements of ecosystems seem less important," says Blicharska. In Auckland, New Zealand, for instance, Sarah Wyse, a research fellow at the University of Auckland, who specializes in forest ecology, and her colleagues looked at what types of trees were actually protected by the notable trees list, and where they were located. 

"Really common trees were protected quite well," she says. "They’re the ones people see and identify with. But really rare plants were not. Vulnerable trees aren’t being protected." The notable trees list is the main conservation tool Auckland has—and it turns out many of the trees it's protecting aren't particularly notable. A significant portion—about 10 percent—were actually recognized weed species. "It’s better than nothing," Wyse says. "There are trees that can’t be chopped down. But it’s not quite doing enough at this point." 

A 600-year-old oak tree in Japan.

Photo: Chi King/Creative Commons

And even being on the A-list not always enough. In Hong Kong, for instance, the South China Morning Post found that old, valuable trees were being cut down more frequently since the city had created an official list, due to concerns about disease and public safety.

Marking a tree as something special might be one way of warning other human beings to play nice; it's an admission that people have dominated the world so thoroughly that if we want these impressive specimens to survive, we need to pay attention to them and protect them. But even when we put trees on a list, we don't always do a great job of respecting them. And if that's what happens to our Great Trees. . . you have to feel bad for the C-list trees, and the anonymous woody biomass that doesn't make it on any list at all.

Sept. 16 2015 4:30 PM

The Mind-Bending Science of Awe

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

Awe is not an everyday emotion. You don't wake up awestruck. A satisfying lunch doesn't leave you filled with awe. Even a great day is unlikely to leave you in a state of jaw-dropped, consciousness-opening fear and trembling.

Perhaps that's why, up until about ten years ago, psychology "had surprisingly little to say about awe," wrote Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt in a 2003 paper. The two psychology professors aimed to outline the key qualities of an awe-inspiring encounter.

What they suggested was that awe typically includes feelings of vastness—something larger than a person's self or experience—and accommodation—that a person expand their understanding of the world to include this new information.  

Awe might come from seeing a mountain taller than you thought a mountain could be or listening to a symphony that soars and sinks and feels like it's expanding the universe a bit. People can be awe-inspiring, too: think of a political leader whose presence and power overwhelms. The emotion of awe might be negative or positive, depending, Keltner and Haidt suggested, on whether or not accommodation happens: it's terrifying if you cannot understand and incorporate a new experience but enlightening if you do.

...and on the very small.

Photo: NIAID/Creative Commons

The psychologists laid out a research agenda intended to tease out "the similarities and differences between awe and gratitude, admiration, elevation, surprise, fear and perhaps even love." In the years since, they and other researchers have been testing awe—what is it? How does it work? What seems awesome, and why? For the first time, they're starting to understand both what awe does to us and what it might do for us.

Think about awe, about a time you felt it. Consider how you'd describe that experience to another person. Now, how would you show how you felt without words?

When psychologists first started studying awe, one of the unanswered questions was: what do we look like when we're feeling it? Emotions come with facial expressions (smiles for happy, frowns for sad, mouth open for surprise—your basic emoji alphabet). But no one had studied at what an awe-struck face looked like.

Keltner and two colleagues hypothesized that an awe-filled person would widen their eyes and raise their head, eyes, and eyebrows, just a bit. And they were on track. When they asked people to perform awe, they found that people indeed often raised their eyebrows and widened their eyes. They also opened their mouths and dropped their jaws and, sometimes, breathed in. And, the researchers noticed, few people smiled.

Awe was a serious emotion. "Clues suggest that awe’s function may lie in how it makes you think," Michelle Lani Shiota, who collaborated on this research, wrote. In subsequent experiments looking at "the nature of awe," the researchers found that it often occurred when a person had an opportunity to expand their knowledge of the world. When it happened, it turned a person's attention outwards, instead of towards the self. 

"Nobody feeling awe is not coming out of their comfort zone," explains Craig Anderson, a doctoral student in Keltner's lab. "The experience of awe is positively coordinated with anxiety. You're experiencing something you’ve never experienced before."

It might be big or small, natural or man-made, but it stops you cold—while other positive emotion arouse the body, people feeling awe are very still—and makes you re-evaluate what you actually know.  

In other words, awe is kind of mind-bending, and it alters how a person perceives the world in subtle but meaningful ways. It can, for instance, make time seem to slow down.

Storm clouds building.

Photo: Jason Hunter/Creative Commons

When Melanie Rudd, an assistant professor at the University of Houston, was reading about awe, she kept coming across mentions of timelessness and this sense that time is stretched out. Time—or the lack thereof—is one of her interests, and she was intrigued by the idea that feeling awe could manipulate people's perceptions of time. In a series of experiments, she showed that after people felt awe, for short while, they felt "less pressed for time." 

Awe also encourages people to account for what they're experiencing. When you're feeling this emotion, "you have this strong motivation to explain what's in front of your eyes," says Piercarlo Valdesolo, an assistant professor of psychology at Claremont McKenna College. A couple years back, he and a colleague looked at how people deal with the uncertainty inherent in awe. They found that awe seems to nudge people towards "agentic explanation"—they're less likely to accept that something happened randomly.

Instead, they'll attribute it to an agent, like a god, a supernatural force, or a person. "There's something about awe that seems intimately related to that," says Valdesolo. In their experiments, people in a state of awe were more likely to report belief in supernatural forces, and to believe that a random series of numbers was created by a human. His recent work indicates that awe also makes people more likely to report that science explains all natural events.

"It generally increases this desire to explain what's in front of you," says Valdesolo. "You gravitate towards whatever explanatory framework you prefer." 

All this early research indicates that Keltner and Haidt's initial description of awe was accurate: it's a feeling induced by vastness that requires some sort of mental accommodation to overwhelming new information. The next step is understanding why it exists at all.

Emotions, as a rule, have a purpose. "We've evolved these emotions to help us deal with selection pressures across the evolutionary history of the species," explains Anderson. "When people are scared, they freeze or run away. People that behaved like that tended to survive long enough." In the same way, awe should have some sort of reason for existing. "This pattern of expressive behavior and subjective experience is an evolved response to situations where you’re encountering things that are vast, that sort of blow our minds," Anderson says.

So far, it seems, the purpose of awe might have something to do with drawing people together. Rudd's research shows, for instance, that when awe-struck people feel like they have more time, they're more willing to use it to help others. "One of the main reasons that people don’t do those things is that they feel too busy," she says. "If awe can make you feel you’re more rich in time, you’ll be able to give more time away."

A recent study that Keltner's lab collaborated on showed that, even more than other positive emotions, awe promoted generosity. It also improved participants' ethical decision making. A paper still under review indicates that awe can makes people more humble, too.

How does that work, exactly? Anderson's research focuses on curiosity as one possible explanation. People who are prone to feeling awe also score high in curiosity, and it seems like that might be the mechanism by which the emotion creates social benefits. "You're open to meeting new people. Maybe you're a better listener," Anderson says. "Those behaviors fall under the umbrella of 'helping people fold into collectives.'"

"We actually experience awe a lot more frequently than we think," says Rudd. We encounter something in the big wide world, our minds opens as we look for an explanation, and as a result we open up to connecting to other people. "But if you are keeping yourself in your routine of life, it’s going to be hard to experience that feeling of accommodation," she says. "Just going out into newness, you’re going to be more likely to run into something that’s awe-inspiring."

More wonders to explore:

Sept. 15 2015 2:45 PM

How You Lie Depends on Where You’re From

This is a universal truth: Human beings are terrible at spotting liars. Say you're in a situation with two people, where one is making a statement—it might be true, it might be false—and the other person is trying to determine if that person is lying. The likelihood that you're going to make the right choice is about 54 percent—just above what you'd get if you guessed randomly. Even tests for detecting deception—not just old-school polygraphs but scans for behavioral cues and newer, brain-scanning lie detectors—are questionably accurate.

"You could say that people are bad at detecting lies," says Maria Hartwig, an associate professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who studies deception. "But one way to look at this rate is that it’s a very difficult task. The differences between liars and truth tellers are so small is that it’s very, very difficult to tell the difference."

But some aspects of lie detection, especially those elements measured by lie detector tests, might be cultural. For instance, what if the person who might be lying is speaking a second language? What if she grew up in a different place than you, with different social norms? How difficult is it to spot a liar then? Is there any hope for a scientific approach?

Since their invention, lie detecting machines have been an "American obsession” according to Ken Alder, the author of The Lie Detectorsglorified during the years of the Cold War, when the country was obsessed with ferreting out spies and liars.  

But lie detection is not just practiced by Americans on Americans. In Turkey a team of researchers recently created a polygraph customized to Turkish culture, since, as professor Nevzat Tarhan told the Hurriyet Daily News, “That which can be considered a ‘lie’ by regular polygraphs used in the West may not be considered a lie by Turkish people." At border crossings, in business negotiations, in immigration hearings, and in criminal and military interrogations, people who come from all different places are trying to determine if people born and raised across the world are telling the truth or if they're lying.

The people trying to make these judgments have few tools to work with, to understand how the place a person comes from might affect their behavior when they lie. "There may be things that are the same across cultures, but there hasn't been enough research," says Paola Castillo, a lecturer at Charles Sturt University who studies cross-cultural deception detection, to show what exactly those are. There are hints, though, that culture does matter—both in how a liar behaves and how accurately the lie detector can judge these situations.

"You can make mistakes by assuming that we all behave the same," says Castillo. 

A woman takes a lie detector test in 1945 at Clinton Engineer Works.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

Nobody likes a liar. That schoolyard truism has been borne out in research around the planet. In a 1960s study, subjects were given a list of 555 adjectives and asked to rate them on likability, liars came in dead last. In another study, when tens of thousands of people across the world were asked if lying in your own interest is ever justified, almost half said no.

And it turns out that there are some common behavioral patterns in what we think liars do. In 2006, when an international group of investigators, called the Global Deception Research Team, asked people in 58 countries, "How can you tell when people are lying?” they found a remarkable degree of agreement.

"We were expecting to see all kinds of opinions," says Hartwig. "The results were just incredibly consistent. The vast majority of cultures agreed that people look shady when they don’t look you in the eye, when they don’t move a lot and when they contradict themselves."

In particular, people around the world agreed that liars would avert their gaze: Sixty-five percent of the study respondents listed that as a sign of lying, and in 51 of 58 countries, they found that gaze aversion was "more prevalent than any other belief about lying."

Too bad that all those people across the world are wrong about that: As the deception researcher David Matsumoto wrote a few years ago, "No scientific evidence exists to suggest that eye behavior or gaze aversion can gauge truthfulness reliably."

Detecting a lie is much more complicated than noticing that someone won't meet your eye. Many of the behavioral cues that we associate with lying are simply signs of stress: The actual difference in behavior associated with telling a lie is very small. That's why, as Hartwig says, it's not necessarily that we're bad at detecting these shifts. It's that they're almost impossible to see.

What people can detect, though, is when a person they're talking to acts differently than they might expect. And people who live in different places do act differently, in some ways. One study, for instance, showed that Japanese students smiled more frequently to express "social appropriateness" than actual pleasure. Another showed that people from the Middle East were more likely to touch each other and talk loudly. People from Suriname tilt their heads more than Dutch people, another study found. If you're trying to judge whether a person's lying, and they're acting strangely, you might assume it's because they're lying.

A number of studies have shown that when people try to detect lies across cultures, they're often thrown off. One of the first studies to look at this problem, in 1990, had American and Jordanian students try to judge whether each other were lying. And while Americans could tell with some accuracy whether Americans were lying, when they tried to judge the Jordanians' truthfulness, they did worse than if they had flipped a coin. And studies since have shown the same thing—figuring out if someone from a different place is lying is incredibly difficult.

"Indicators of lying in some cultures are indicators of truth in other cultures," says Paul Taylor, a professor of psychology at Lancaster University. "We learn what’s suspicious behavior and what’s normal behavior, and we tend to associate the people who do the first with being slightly dodgy. And that’s a huge mistake if it’s with people from different culture." 

Detecting a lie won't be this easy.

Photo: Tristan Schmurr/Flickr

At the same time, people from different places do lie differently.

While around world, there are rules against lying, what counts as a lie differs from place to place. As one polygraph operator who served during World War II and worked for the CIA wrote in 1987, "In most cultures, speaking truth is a virtue and lying is a vice," but "the polygraph operator working overseas learns to modify his theory somewhat." Other 20th-century American polygraph operators reported that "the Russians value truth among their fellow citizens but will unhesitatingly lie if they perceived doing so as a duty to the state" and that "lying to prevent problems between people is acceptable in Arab culture."

While this might be somewhat essentialist, research has borne out the idea that cultural differences change how people lie.

"We’ve know that for quite a long time," says Taylor. "What constitutes lying in other populations can be very distinct from what constitutes lying in Western cultures." In some places, little white lies that smooth social situations might not be considered lies at all, for instance. Or, says Castillo, "if you view lying as a way of protecting your family and if family is culturally important to you, you won't be nervous lying."

Cultural differences also impact how people lie when they do. In "individualistic" cultures, like America, liars often try to distance themselves from the lie—they'll use fewer first-person pronouns. In "collectivist" cultures, where community is more important, the exact opposite is true: Liars will try to distance the community from the lie.

All this doesn't mean, though, that every country should be investing in its own place-specific lie detector. Rather, researchers are honing in on different strategies to detect lies to begin with—for instance, using interviews to elicit facts that can be checked against their existing knowledge or researched later, rather than using a person's body language to judge their truthfulness on the spot.

In the end, even the best, most culturally sensitive lie detector would have to deal with the variability of individual human behavior—and that can be confounding no matter where people were born or raised, or how they happen to tilt their head while talking.

More wonders to explore:

Sept. 14 2015 3:47 PM

Netball: The Sport America Invented, Then Lost

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

On Friday Aug. 7, teams of women from 16 nations gathered in Sydney to contest the 2015 Netball World Cup.

It’s an exciting time for residents of the Commonwealth. But for Americans, it's a big pile of "meh." Because netball is a sport that most Americans have never heard of, let alone played. Which is ironic, considering it was invented in Massachusetts.

Netball first emerged way back in the 1890s, when it was known as women’s basketball—not the women's basketball you’ll find at a WNBA game, but a more dainty, restricted version of the basketball that was invented for men. 

The story begins in 1891, when Canadian doctor and physical education teacher James Naismith was working at the YMCA International Training College in Springfield, Massachusetts. Beset by harsh winters, Naismith was tasked with creating a sport that could be played indoors during the colder months. Making use of scant resources, Naismith came up with “basket ball,” a team game that employed 13 rules, nine players per side, a soccer ball, and two peach baskets nailed to the balcony of the YMCA gymnasium. 

Dr. James Naismith displays the core constituents of his "basket ball."

Photo: Wikipedia/Public Domain

In January 1892, Naismith published an introduction to this newfangled basketball business in The Triangle, the YMCA’s physical education magazine. He described it as “well suited for boys,” and a game that “may be played by gentlemen in a manly way.” Nevertheless, the article caught the attention of a woman named Senda Berenson, the gymnastics teacher at the all-female Smith College located a mere 20 miles from the Springfield YMCA.  

Berenson found the game appealing, but saw a need to modify the rules for women players so they would not degenerate into unseemly masculine brutishness on the court. In an essay titled “The Significance of Basket Ball for Women,” published in 1903, Berenson wrote that “unless a game as exciting as basketball is carefully guided by such rules as will eliminate roughness, the great desire to win and the excitement of the game will make our women do sadly unwomanly things.”

The major basketball modifications that Berenson enforced at Smith College were: no snatching or batting the ball from another player; a three-second time limit for holding the ball; a limit of three dribbles; and the division of the court into thirds. Each player was restricted to one of these thirds—a safety measure put in place because, according to Berenson’s essay, "a number of girls who play without division lines have developed hypertrophy of the heart."

The Smith College women's basketball team of 1902.

Photo: Wikipedia/Public Domain

Beyond preventing women’s hearts from exploding all over the gym, the division of the court had another effect: it guarded against the emergence of dominant "star player" individuals, and made it so that goals could only be scored when all team members, restrained to their sections, cooperated to advance the ball down their part of the court. 

Berenson was not the only American woman of the era who dedicated herself to turning the boisterous new game of basketball into something more restrained and ladylike. In New Orleans in 1895, Newcomb College physical education teacher Clara Baer introduced a modified version of the game with the dainty name of “basquette.” This six-per-side variant had seven court zones, no dribbling or guarding, and, in the words of Tracy Taylor in "Gendering Sport: The Development of Netball In Australia," a set of rules "that ensured players' posture remained graceful."

Another significant contributor to the early lady-fication of basketball was Martina Bergman-Österberg, a Swedish phys ed teacher who established her own women’s physical training school in London. After encountering basketball on a visit to the United States, Bergman-Österberg brought the game to her students at Hampstead Physical Training College and Gymnasium.

Taylor writes that Bergman-Österberg, a robust gymnastics enthusiast and suffragette, "promoted sport as training for motherhood and for the delivery of healthy children." In this context, women's basketball was ideal. Not only was it played "in a manner that retained femininity and decorum," says Taylor, but, because it restricted the players to their third of the court and involved no body contact, it was "not perceived as a threat to a woman's reproductive function."

It was in England that women’s basketball became “netball,” via a new name and a set of codified rules released by the phys-ed-focused Ling Association in 1901. (Confusingly, however, netball was still referred to as "women's basketball" outside Britain until around 1970.) From England, the sport spread to far-flung parts of the British Empire—for a handy glimpse into the extent of British colonization, just look at the list of countries that play netball. From St. Lucia to South Africa to Singapore to Samoa, the geographic reach of the sport is astounding.

For may decades, the game was played with local variations—Australia fielded seven players per side, for instance, while New Zealand fielded nine. Countries played by "varied sets of rules up until the 1960s,"writes Taylor. During that decade, netball acquired global standards. The current version of the sport is played seven-a-side, with each player wearing a bib denoting their position in letters—"WD" for wing defense, "GA" for goal attack, and so forth. There is no dribbling, no taking more than two steps with the ball, and players have to remain within their positions' designated zones and stay three feet from whoever is holding the ball. 

As netball flourished in the Commonwealth, its Massachusetts prototype, women's basketball, began to peter out in the United States. During the 1960s, right when netball was getting serious by aligning to international standards and having a world championship competition, American women’s basketball took its last gasping breaths, died, and, with a boost from the introduction of Title IX in 1972, was reborn with reverted rules that aligned with men's basketball—the basketball we know today.

Netball in America was lost. But it's not gone forever—there's now a movement afoot to bring it back.

Raised in netball-loving Australia, Ros Day is the VP of Education at Netball America, an association that aims to show the United States the many benefits of the game it ceded to the British Empire. One of Day's goals is to reintroduce the sport to America by bringing it into schools across the nation. In pursuing this with the help of fellow Australian expats, however, there are some unexpected challenges to overcome. "It’s quite interesting getting past our accent,” she says, “because whenever we say 'netball,' they hear 'nipple.'"

Language barriers aside, Day says that once American kids get the lowdown on what netball is, they react with curiosity and enthusiasm. Part of the appeal for them is an approach to athletics that is not often seen in the States. “The concept of playing sport socially, or for fun, in the American psyche, isn’t really there," says Day. For young people in the United States, says Day, sports are “very competitive, it’s very specialized, and it’s with the end result of the scholarship. And if you’re not that good, then you give up and you don’t play sports anymore."

A young Goal Defense faces up to a Goal Shooter at All Hallows School in England.

Photo: Owen Lucas/Flickr

Netball, by contrast, is not about creating LeBron-style stars. With its fair division of player positions allowing for differing strengths, the game is "fully inclusive," says Day—"no one person can dominate the game, so everyone has a role to play."

And that includes people of all genders. Despite netball's history as a game made for women, the staff of Netball America teach it to everyone. This approach reflects changing attitudes within the netball world—in recent decades, the sport has come to incorporate men and boys, either as part of mixed teams or in all-male sides. In countries like Australia, however, where netball has long been the most popular team sport for women, the image of it as a "girl's game" is hard to shake. Even in the 21st century, articles about men's growing participation in the sport still come with cutesy-bordering-on-patronizing headlines like "Netball: It's not (just) for girls!" and "There is no skirting it, men love netball."

For Americans, there is no such history to contend with: netball is a "blank slate," says Day. And she likes to teach it to Americans as though she is re-introducing them to a once-beloved, now-forgotten friend. “America can claim it as their own," she says. It's "the sport that they lost and are now finding again."

Sept. 11 2015 1:06 PM

Unconscious Ventriloquism: The Weird Case of the Zaragoza Goblin

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

The supernatural often seems to get a short shrift from government authorities, but that isn’t always the case. Or, at least, once, this wasn’t the case, because in 1930s Spain, the police, the military, and the international press were all summoned in response to the supposed voice of a goblin living in a residential stove.

The strange incident in Zaragoza, Spain in September of 1934 was finally blamed on “unconscious ventriloquism,” leaving one (probably) innocent woman slandered, and an entire city confused. (We scoured the almostdaily reports from the 1934 London Times for the story.)

The madness began on September 27th, 1934 in the second floor home of the Palazón family, who lived in an apartment building on what was then known as Gascón Gotor street. It was on that date that the family first began hearing strange screams, laughter, and voices that seemed to come from the walls of their kitchen, specifically from their stove or its chimney. The chimney connected to many other units in the building before escaping to the roof, so the logic was that it must have been coming from someone in the building. The roof itself was taller than any around it and too isolated to access easily.

The voice, male, did not seem to just be in the heads of the Palazón family either. When the Palazóns asked their their neighbors for help, they too would hear the voice when they came to the apartment, and word started to spread about the peculiar haunting on Gascón Gotor.

While most believed that the sounds were some kind of prank, both the practical observers and those who truly believed that the voice was of supernatural origin started thinking of the presence as a duende. The termduende translates roughly to “elf” or “goblin.” The beings come from Latin American folklore, and are analogous to fairies, sprites, or, well, goblins, in Western folklore. They are natural spirits that can have a range of traits or significance ranging from being benevolent pixies to mischievous boggarts depending on the tale. As it would turn out, the Zaragoza Duende was closer to the latter.

With the whole building aware of the voice coming from the supposed stove goblin, local interest in the house began to grow. Curious onlookers would crowd around outside the house to try and catch a snippet of the spirit’s conversation, and the befuddled Palazón family did not know what to do. In the month since the voice had begun appearing, it was said to both ask and answer questions, and took a particular interest in the Palazón’s young maid, Pascuala Alcocer. The voice would call out her name and and laugh maniacally.

Finally, with the family unable to root out the source of the disturbance or cope with its presence any longer, the Palazóns went to the police for help in mid-November of 1934. It is unknown whether the police would have gotten involved had local interest in the Zaragoza elf not been beginning to take on a tenor of hysteria. But with the authorities involved, the mystery voice became more popular than ever, and the crowds grew by the hundreds while the police investigated.

The befuddled police began investigating the stove, but their presence did not seem to faze the phantom. Officers would ask it questions it would unerringly answer. In their first piece on the Zaragoza goblin (titled A Polite Spanish Ghost, The Times would refer to the voice as the “Saragossa Ghost”), published in their November 24th, 1934 edition, theLondon Times reported that an “architect and some workmen” were then sent into the building to get to the bottom of the shameless voice. They searched every room from the cellar on up, but could find no evidence of a prankster or even where they might have hid. As one of the workers stood in front of the goblin stove, and said that the chimney opening should be measured, it was reported that the voice said simply, “You need not trouble, the diameter is just 6 inches.” Turns out the goblin was correct.

Could any old stove hold a goblin?

Photo: Robert Taylor/Creative Commons

With still no answers as to the where the damn goblin could be, the building was completely evacuated and a team of police and volunteers began guarding the building morning and night, keeping a 30-yard perimeter around the home so that whatever mischief maker was behind the voice could not return. Doctors and psychologists were brought in, as well as a priest who sprinkled the stove with holy water. According to The Times, the voice spoke “incessantly.” Haunted sightseeing trips from nearby Bilbao began organizing, as answers grew more and more elusive.

Then suddenly, the voice went quiet. After two days of silence from the goblin, the local magistrate, who was eager to restore logic and order to the city, deemed the case to simply be an anomaly and the police withdrew. However, things were far from over.

Just two days after it had stopped all communication, the voice surprised a group of neighbors and visitors by suddenly exclaiming, “Cowards, cowards, cowards, here I am.” And just like that, the goblin was back. The police returned, but the Palazón family had had enough, and moved away from Zaragoza. The voice would taunt police, saying, “I am coming, I am coming.” (Although nothing ever appeared.)

Interest in the Zaragoza goblin was reaching a fever pitch. A Barcelona radio station tried to get someone to put a microphone in the room so they could broadcast the voice, and members of Scotland Yard were planning trips out to the apartment to try and solve the case. By November 30th, the Governor of Zaragoza had had enough, and called an end to all of the goblinoid silliness, asking the people to essentially settle down, and help find out who the prankster was.

Of course just saying a thing and making it true are not the same thing, so the governor took matters into his own hands.

On December 4th, the governor issued a statement that the perpetrator of the voice was none other than the young maid, Pascuala Alcocer, who he said had been performing the voice via something he called, “unconscious ventriloquism.” Understandably, Alcocer herself claimed to be completely unaware that she was apparently throwing her voice while in some sort of fugue state. The official who had been presiding over the investigations claimed to have seen it himself, vaguely explaining that it was the result of “a psychic phenomenon produced only in certain circumstances.”

Of course arguments were made that the young girl was nowhere near the premises when most of the strange talking occurred, but for the city officials, the matter was at an end and they were happy to move on. Now fingered as the perpetrator of the fraud, but with no evidence to arrest her (and really no interest in doing so), Alcocer was allowed to return to her hometown to get away from the judging eyes of those in Zaragoza.

The building eventually went back to relative normal. Although future tenants would still report ghostly sounds, it seemed that the goblin had left the building.

No culprit or explanation was ever settled on for who exactly was behind the elaborate Zaragoza goblin hoax, and the city seemed happy to try to forget the whole incident. Yet not all reminder of the goblin was erased. The original apartment building that held the goblin stove was demolished in 1977, but the new building that stands in its place still bears the name “Edificio Duende,” or “Goblin Building.”

Sept. 9 2015 2:49 PM

The Pursuit of Personal Tunneling

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

When Leanne Wijnsma digs a tunnel, it needs to be in a public place. She marks the spot where it will begin and the spot where it will end, and she begins. Normally, when she digs in Amsterdam, where she lives, she uses a small shovel. But when she travels to dig holes—she's dug in Germany, Italy, Belgium, and South Africa—and can't bring her tools with her, she'll buy a shovel there, and it'll tell her something about the quality of the dirt.

"Every time, when I start digging, I'm super nervous," she says. "Not one tunnel is the same, and you don't know if it's going to work out. Will something happen? Is the soil ok? Is it too hard or too soft? Will I find something crazy?"

Wijnsma, a designer and artist, dug her first hole after she hit a block with another video project intended to explore freedom. Her tunnels are not long, nor are they very deep underground. She starts by digging around 4 to 5 feet into the ground and burrows maybe a dozen feet before emerging on the other end. "I was so much in my head, thinking, a lot of theory," she says. "I just had the urge to dive into the soil and find something really basic."

She thought she would dig one tunnel. She's now worked on a total of 13.

There are practical reasons to dig a tunnel, like to reach a deposit of coal, or diamonds, or some other vein of precious material; to move people, maybe on subway trains, more efficiently than is possible above ground; to transport water or sewage long distances; to make it through a mountain or under a river; to reach your car through a pile of snow. Sometimes there are reasons to dig a tunnel in secret—to hide drugs or guns or money, to smuggle yourself into a country where you're not supposed to be, to smuggle yourself out of a place you're trapped inside. (Or, according to one recent conspiracy theory, to take over the state of Texas from underneath a Walmart.) Humans have dug so many impressive tunnels that, last year, one paleobiologist argued that tunnels will be humanity's lasting legacy on Earth: No other species has dug such extensive tunnels, of such large circumference, as we have. They could still be there tens of millions of years from now.

The beginning of a tunnel might look something like this.

Photo:Olesachem/Creative Commons

But sometimes people dig tunnels for more inscrutable reasons. There was the Toronto man whose tunnels scared the police. The Costa Rican whose tunnel system is bright and cheery. The Russian who tried to create a subway system by hand. The Armenian who had visions that guided his digging. The British "Mole Man" whose tunnels extended in all directions from the basement of his house. The Californian miner who dug a tunnel as a shortcut (though no one else was sure what it was a shortcut to). The D.C. entomologist who dug two sets of tunnels— one at the house where he lived with his first family, one where he lived with his second.

Like Wijnsma, these men had an urge to dig. But some of their tunnels extended far beyond the scale on which Winjsma is working: they reached multiple stories underneath the ground, or stretched half a mile long. Some of these men worked on their tunnels for almost two decades, using only simple tools to excavate, day after day, foot after foot, creating along with their physical labyrinths another puzzle: Why would a person want to—need to, even—dig a personal tunnel?

There is a certain cool factor to digging a private tunnel. Just ask any kid who's tried to dig one in the backyard. Technically, many backyard tunnels do not become actual tunnels, which should have an entrance and an exit or, at least, a destination; they are holes in the ground that aspire to be more. (My childhood tunnel was actually in my friend Amanda's yard; we had big plans for our underground clubhouse, before we hit a root and then a rock, and eventually gave up—or maybe grew up.)

It's easier to acquire a tunnel as an adult, especially as an adult who has enough money to hire a professional to build one. Henry T. Nicholas III, who made his money in computer chips, had a secret tunnel built behind a wooden panel in his Laguna Hill mansions: it was made to look like stone, with "impression of skulls carved into niches, which were lit by candelabras," Vanity Fair reported, and the contractors who built it claimed it was intended as a place for Nicholas to "indulge his appetite for illegal drugs and sex with prostitutes." More recently the Wall Street Journal reported that secret tunnels are becoming more common as a feature of luxury mansions. Among preppers, there's some debate about the safety and utility of installing escape tunnels from a house's basement; it's not a priority for everyone, but some people do opt in to the idea.*

The most intriguing personal tunnels, though, are the ones dug by individuals. When earlier this year Toronto police found a tunnel more than 30 feet long and 6 1/2 feet high, with electric lights and a sump pump, the theories of its origins ranged wide—maybe it was a terrorist group, planning to attack the nearby stadium? Maybe it was a drug lab? Eventually, the police announced that it was dug by two men for "personal reasons"—a mystery of its own.

It turned out that the tunnel belonged to Elton MacDonald. (The second man, a friend, had helped him build it.) He was 22 and had worked in construction. He had spent two years building it out as far as he had and used it as a retreat of sorts; he lived nearby, with his family. But even MacDonald couldn't explain, exactly, what had kept him working on the tunnel. "Honestly, I loved it so much," he told Macleans. "I don't know why I loved it."

Like MacDonald, some of the men who've dug extensive personal tunnels have professional skills that have aided them. Manuel Barrantes, whose Costa Rican tunnel system extends over 4,000 square feet, worked as a miner before he started digging, for instance.

Barrantes' tunnels stand out in that they have a clear and practical purpose, namely that he intended to create an underground home for his family. His tunnels are decorated with carvings, of suns, faces, and characters including the Flintstones. For a massive set of underground tunnels, they are remarkably cheery. (The tunnels are now named Topolandia, and they're open for tours.) In Russia, Leonid Murlyanchik's tunnels also had a purpose: Originally, he intended to visit a romantic prospect in a nearby town. But that was in 1984, and when he was warned away from the woman, he continued digging, about 3 feet a day, with the intention of creating a subterranean transportation system for his neighbors.

This is the strange thing about this diggers, though: Even when they have a purpose, it's hard to understand how it can justify the effort. Before he died, Murlyanchik would spend a day digging out the next 3feet of his tunnel and then another three days shoring it up with bricks and sealing those walls. He kept at this for almost three decades.

And some of these tunnelers do not claim to have a practical purpose. In Armenia, Lyova Arakelyan started digging because in 1985 his wife asked him to put a potato cellar into their house. But once he started, he didn't stop: He kept working on the system of tunnels underneath their house until he died in 2008. He would sleep for only three or four hours and spent much of his time underground. He had, he said, visions of where the tunnels should go next, how they should progress through the earth. When he died, he had reached 70 feet beneath the house.

Visions aside, some other tunnels started similarly. Britain's Mole Man started his project with the intention of creating a wine cellar. And Harrison G. Dyar, the D.C. entomologist, began digging his tunnels after he volunteered to loosen the earth of the family's yard to prepare it for hollyhocks. For some reason, they just kept digging.

Marc Epstein has been trying to understand, for more than a decade, why Dyar dug. An entomologist himself, he's writing a biography of Dyar, and while it's about much, much more than tunnels, this strange habit of his subject has been a persistent puzzle.

"I still don't know how he did it," Epstein says. "It's almost unfathomable, the amount of energy it would take, and he was a frail guy. It still doesn't add up, that's what's so fascinating."

Dyar's tunnels first came to light in 1924, when the alley behind his Dupont Circle house collapsed beneath the weight of a truck. The D.C. papers, like the Toronto papers would almost a century later, went wild speculating whether it was spies or smugglers who'd dug them. They were mysterious. Here's what the Washington Post reported finding there:

On the ceiling were pasted numerous copies of German newspapers dated during the summer of 1917 and 1918.  Dimly seen in the feeble rays of the electric torches, it was possible to discern in the newspaper articles frequent references to submarine activities then employed by the imperial government of Germany.  Cryptic signs and engravings in cipher defaced the papers to some extent.

But soon Dyar fessed up, and achieved a certain degree of fame for his tunneling habit. In 1932 Modern Mechanix featured his second set of tunnels, which went 32 feet down into the ground and had three levels. He told the magazine that he dug them because it was "an appealing form of exercise to relieve the intense strain of his workday."

"Yeah, he got exercise out of it, but that doesn't quite explain it," Epstein says. One persistent rumor has been that the tunnels connected his two houses, the one in Dupont Circle, where he lived with his first wife, and the one below the Mall, where he lived with his second. There was a certain scandal to this arrangement: His relationship with Wellesca Allen, his second wife, predated their marriage, and it seems that her children were his.  

It's not true, Epstein says, that the tunnels connected the two houses. But he understands why people might want to think that. "It makes so much more sense that they would connect the houses," he says. "It gives it a sense of purpose."

Instead, it probably went something more like this. Dyar was an energetic guy, with a lot on his mind. He'd clash with other scientists—it was once rumored named an insect corpulentis after an overweight colleague—and his family life was a mess. His mind, too, was overactive. In addition to his scientific work and his tunneling, he wrote science fiction stories, hundreds of them. Digging tunnels was, perhaps, mesmerizing, even meditative.

For Wijnsma, the Amsterdam artist, tunneling is about escape—from a society where everything is planned and structured, and from her less physical work, sitting at a desk in front of a computer.

"You kind of stop thinking," she says, "There's just the smell of soil; you get blisters on your hands, and your muscles are sore. You only have one goal, and that is extremely relaxing."

Sometimes she encounters obstacles. In Cape Town there was a really huge stone. It was maybe 200 pounds, although maybe, in her memory, it's gotten larger. It was heavy enough that she couldn't lift it, and after an hour of trying to move it, she thought that maybe she would give up. She was sitting next to her hole, thinking, that, OK, she would go home, she would leave the tunnel unfinished. But then she got up. She went to the city, she bought a rope, and she came up with a system to pull that rock out.

"It was such a beautiful moment," she says. "I think that is the whole point of the tunnels"—taking on whatever challenge the earth presents and getting past it.

*This post originally referenced a article that described tunnels between the Playboy mansion and the homes of celebrities. That was an April Fool's joke. The reference has been removed.

Sept. 8 2015 2:19 PM

Pigeon Towers: The Rise and Fall of a 17th-Century Status Symbol

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

During the 16th and 17th centuries, the richest people across the United Kingdom and France built beautiful towers just for pigeons

Known as dovecotes, pigeonniers, doocots, or colombiers, these buildings served as apartment blocks for hundreds of pigeons who were waiting to be eaten by members of the nobility. Early 20th-century pigeon expert Arthur Cooke estimated that by the 1650s, there were 26,000 dovecotes in England alone. Though many dovecotes had similar designs, each had its own flair. In his 1920 Book of Dovecotesthe seminal tome on the subjectCooke waxed lyrical on the grandeur of thepigeonnier:

"Are not all dovecotes pretty much alike?" it may be asked. The answer to this question is emphatically "No." It would be difficult to find two dovecotes quite identical in every detail, architectural style, shape, size, design of doorway, means of entrance for the inmates, number and arrangement of the nests ... they were designed and built by craftsmen gifted with imagination, who, though they worked to some extent upon a pattern, loved to leave their individual marks upon the things they fashioned with their hands.

Dovecotes were used primarily to keep pigeons for their meat. (The birds' guano was also collected and used for fertilizer, gunpowder, and tanning hides.) At the time, root vegetables had not yet arrived in Britain, meaning that in winter, farmers could not rely on their usual crops to feed livestock such as pigs and cows. They were therefore bereft of beef and bacon, and turned to alternative sources of meat. Pigeons were easy to maintain: As natural foragers, they spent their days seeking food, then came home to roost at night. A farmer needed only to have a tower lined with nest-friendly alcoves in order to keep hundreds of squabs at the ready.

The interior of a colombier on the French island of Oleron.

Photo:pascal_nl/Creative Commons

This Elizabethan convenience food, however, was not available to all. "Dovecotes for the time were a badge of the elite," says John Verburg, a dovecote devotee and self-styled "Jane Goodall of pigeons." During the reign of Elizabeth I, a pigeon tower was a privilege reserved only for feudal lords. And this law was enforced: Cooke wrote of a case in England in 1577 in which a "tenant who had erected a dovecote on a royal manor was ordered by the Court of Exchequer to demolish it." 

Among the elite crew of pigeon tower people, there was an additional hierarchy. The usual wealth-conscious rules applied: Bigger was better, and ornate meant important. "The larger, the more beautiful dove­cote, the higher your societal esteem," says Verburg. "Commoners were not allowed to keep pigeons, and the size of the dovecote one was allowed depended upon status and land ownership."

Around the mid-17th century, the feudal-lord requirement started to be relaxed a little—in practice, if not in common law—causing a boom in dovecote construction and a decline in the prestige of the pigeon tower. "When that set of rules fell, and commoners were allowed to construct dove­cotes, the status element was lost and the incentive to build dove­cotes gone," says Verburg. "We are a vain people."

A dovecote at Nymansin West Sussex, England.

Photo: sidebog7/Creative Commons

Another innovation then came along to hasten the death of the dovecote: the introduction of root vegetables. "It will be neither jest nor paradox to say that dovecotes were in a great measure doomed when first the turnip and the swede were introduced to British agriculture, early in the eighteenth century," Cooke wrote. With pigeons no longer needed as a winter food source, dovecotes stopped being built.

Three hundreds years later, many of these pigeon towers still exist, in various states of neglect and disrepair. Using Cooke's tome as a guide, Verburg, whose interest in dovecotes comes from a "synergism of style, architecture, and, yes, pigeons," has traveled through England, France, and several other European countries in search of surviving towers. They are still there, dotting the countryside, although pigeons have obviously lost their cachet among the elite. For insight into how far these former status symbols have fallen, one needs only to visit Trafalgar Square or any puddle in Manhattan. Once nobility fought to build huge towers to raise pigeons; now we call them "rats with wings."

BONUS: Highlights from the dovecoat tour. Cotehele, pictured below, an estate in Cornwall that dates back to England's Tudor era. The domed dovecote on the premises is dotted with moss and surrounded by wild greenery, giving the whole scene a tranquil feel.

An overgrown dovecote at Cotehele in Cornwall, England.

Photo: Roger Lombard/Creative Commons

France is the prime destination if you're interested in seeing dovecotes, particularly the Brittany region. Verburg recommends it both in terms of sheer numbers of towers left and the variety of styles on display. "Many are architectural wonders matching that of the elegant estates themselves," he says.

A dovecote at Avebury in Wiltshire, southwest England.

Photo: Varun Shiv Kapur/Creative Commons

The remains of a doocot in a corn field at Parbroath Castle in Scotland.

Photo: B4bees/Creative Commons

Inside a dovecote in Wales.

Photo: Smabs Sputzer/Creative Commons

Sept. 4 2015 12:46 PM

What It Actually Means to “Read the Riot Act” to Someone

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When someone talks about being "read the riot act," it usually means they've been caught engaging in antisocial behavior and chastised accordingly. But it's not just a quirky idiom—the origin of the phrase comes from a real Riot Act designed to quell discord. And it had to be read, out loud, in order to take effect.

Back in 1714, the original Riot Act was passed by British parliament. It took effect just over 300 years ago, on August 1, 1715. It was aimed at "preventing tumults and riotous assemblies," and made provisions for "more speedy and effectual punishing" of those who engaged in civil unrest. 

If a group of a dozen or more people gathered and showed signs of being unruly, the Riot Act enabled an officer of the law to approach the crowd and tell them to disperse. To do so, said officer had to literally read the Riot Act, in a manner similar to the United States' practice of reading someone their Miranda rights before interrogating them. 

The proclamation part of the Riot Act, which had to be recited aloud to the letter, went thusly:

"Our Sovereign Lord the King chargeth and commandeth all persons, being assembled, immediately to disperse themselves, and peaceably to depart to their habitations, or to their lawful business, upon the pains contained in the act made in the first year of King George, for preventing tumults and riotous assemblies. God Save the King!"

Once the officer—who could be a mayor, bailiff, sheriff, or justice of the peace—read this wordy sentence, ideally in a booming and authoritative voice, the group received a grace period of one hour. After 60 minutes elapsed, any members of the crowd who remained had officially committed a felony. The punishment? Death.

Ideally, rabble rousers would listen to the reading of the Riot Act, reflect upon their wrongdoing, and each saunter away in silent contemplation, thus avoiding further confrontation and eventual death by execution. In practice, however, assembled crowds were less inclined toward such peaceable resolutions.

If the situation was spiraling out of control, the officer upholding the law was under no obligation to hang back for the full hour while things escalated further. In those cases, said officer could recruit any able-bodied bystanders to help subdue the rambunctious rabble.

During a Special Commission for the trial of rioters who participated in London’s massive anti-Catholic Gordon Riots of 1780, Lord Loughborough clarified the post-reading-of-the-Riot-Act procedures:

"If the mob, collectively, or a part of it, or any individual, within or before the expiration of that hour, attempts or begins to perpetrate an outrage amounting to felony, to pull down houses, or by any other act to violate the law, it is the duty of all present, of whatever description they may be, to endeavor to stop the mischief, and to apprehend the offender."

Protestor David Kirkwood is detained by police during the Battle of George Square in 1919.

Photo: Wikipedia/Public Domain

The Gordon Riots, which ran rampant over London for the better part of a week and resulted in hundreds of deaths, were among many skirmishes that occurred in that stormy era of class conflicts and religious clashes.

"[T]he Riot Act was in constant use throughout the turbulent eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries," writes Frances Webber in "Six Centuries of Revolt and Repression," published in the journal Race & Class. London in particular, "suffered mini-riots on almost every public occasion; elections, fairs, executions were accompanied by window-smashing and looting by the poor, who were able to disappear speedily into the maze-like back alleys which were 'no-go' areas for gentlemen and troops alike."

During larger protests, the reading of the Riot Act could further antagonize an already violent crowd. In 1768, a protest in south London against the imprisonment of radical John Wilkes turned into a deadly melee, as Jerry White writes in A Great and Monstrous Thing:

“The Surrey magistrates read the Riot Act but the violence intensified and the soldiers were ordered to fire. Two volleys of musketball were shot into and over the crowd. Seven died that day, including a woman orange seller and a man driving a hayrack, unluckily hit by a ball fired over the people’s heads.”

The incident became known as the Massacre of St. George's Fields.

According to the BBC, the last attempted reading of the Riot Act took place at the Battle of George Square in Glasgow, Scotland, on January 31, 1919. On that occasion, protestors fighting for shorter working hours clashed with police. During the conflict, a sheriff began to read the Act, but the sheet of paper was, in the words of the BBC, "snatched out of his hand" by protestors.

The Riot Act was finally repealed in England and Wales in the Criminal Law Act of 1967, which rendered a slew of old legislation obsolete. Though British police officers are no longer required to stand in the middle of an unruly crowd reading from a sheet of paper, the concept of reading someone the riot act survives.

Even 300 years after it first came into effect, to be threatened with "the riot act" is to be told: stop causing trouble, or there'll be trouble.