Atlas Obscura
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Sept. 4 2015 12:46 PM

What It Actually Means to 'Read the Riot Act' to Someone

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 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. 

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Sept. 3 2015 2:08 PM

Gimbel’s Art Deco Sky Bridge

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

If you ever find yourself walking down modern 32nd Street in Manhattan, near 6th or 7th Avenue, be sure to look up or you might miss the opulent three-story skyway built by the same firm that would go on to design the Empire State Building just years later.*

After retail giant Gimbels purchased the Saks Co. in 1923, it became one of New York's largest retailers. Even prior to this, the Gimbels had opened a large New York store taking up the block between 32nd and 33rd Streets, in 1910. After taking ownership of the the Saks-34th Street store, their own store expanded into an annex location in a portion of the building south of 32nd Street. Thus the Gimbels Bridge was born to provide access between their expansion space and the main store.


Built in 1925, the third-story bridge was designed by architectural firm Shreve and Lamb, which would go on to develop the Empire State Building just a few years later. The skywalk is suspended over 32nd Street and features an Art Deco copper facade that has oxidized into a vibrant green. The bridge is in itself almost its own building at three stories tall and featuring wall-to-wall windows on both sides so that people could watch the streets below.

Once open to shoppers, Gimbel's bridge is now mostly sealed off, but visitors rushing to Penn Station can look up and remember a New York where dueling department stores could produce architectural wonders.

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Correction, Sept. 4, 20015: The post originally misstated that the Gimbel's bridge connected two buildings that made up Saks 34th Street department store.

Sept. 2 2015 1:01 PM

The Isolated Beauty of Gásadalur Village

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 tiny Danish village of Gásadalur in the Faroe Islands sits at the edge of a tall cliff overlooking the sea. A ring of tall mountains cuts it off from the rest of its own island, and, for most of its existence, from the rest of the world at large.

Prior to 2004 there were only a couple of ways to get to Gásadalur Village. One option was to hike over the mountain terrain that surrounds the settlement, which rises over 2,000 feet high, and then trek for even more miles to the village. The other option was to clamber up the cliff face from any ship brave enough to venture that close to the rocks. In the 1940s a staircase was built into the cliff rocks to make travel a bit easier, but other than that, progress in terms of making the remote village accessible was almost nil.


Because of this isolation, the population of the village fell dramatically despite a number of good, workable fields near the settlement. The number of citizens had dropped into the teens by the time a tunnel was blasted through one of the mountains in 2004, allowing automobile travel to the small community.

While the hope is that the population will grow with the use of the access tunnel, as of 2012 the reported population was still only 18. However, the smaller population has ensured that the historically quaint houses and unspoiled vistas all around will stay around a bit longer.

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Sept. 1 2015 1:53 PM

The Princess Who Kept a Pet Lion at the Plaza Hotel

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

Every gravestone at Hartsdale Pet Cemetery in New York represents the story of a remarkable and beloved animal. There's Woodstock, a cat so docile he was often mistaken for meatloaf. There is Speculaas, Who Left No Ball Unchased.

And then there is perhaps the most intriguing grave of all: Goldfleck, a lion cub who once belonged to a Hungarian princess.


Goldfleck, who died in 1912, was the short-lived but sorely missed pet of Princess Elisabeth Vilma Lwoff-Parlaghy, a woman whose life was full of art and adventure. Parlaghy was born in Hungary sometime between 1863 and 1867—though her birthdate is often quoted as April 15, 1863, the New York Times lauded her as an artistically talented woman of "not yet thirty" in July 1896. Raised in Hungary and Germany and educated at the Academy of Arts in Paris, Parlaghy began to attract the attention of the Paris, Berlin, and Vienna art worlds in 1891 with a striking portrait of her mother, the Austrian Baroness von Zollerdorff.

Elisabeth Parlaghy's portrait of her mother,Baroness von Zollerdorff.

Wikipedia/Public Domain

Within a few years, Parlaghy's portraits of European royals were being exhibited internationally, including at the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago, where the art jury awarded her a gold medal. “Few men to-day among the world’s portrait painters have so large a way of looking at nature or a broader manner of expressing form," wrote the New York Times of her portraiture on July 12, 1896. "She sweeps in her subject in big, vigorous brush strokes, and she models with great freedom.”

At that time, Parlaghy was nearing the end of her first visit to the United States. The Times, clearly charmed by her many attributes—"graceful in figure, animated in features and conversation, and, like many of her race, a rare linguist," the article boasted—was not shy about expressing its hope that Parlaghy would return to America.

“The woman, her career, youth, personality, and the astonishing success with which she has met altogether make her an interesting figure in the art world," wrote the Times. "[T]he possibilities of her future are practically unlimited … we may expect great things.”

Great things did indeed follow, and not just in the artistic realm. In 1899, Parlaghy married Russian Prince George Eugeny Lwoff, thereby becoming a royal herself. The union lasted just a few years, but Princess Lwoff-Parlaghy managed to retain her royal title—and much of her royal riches—post-divorce.

The princess's self-portrait.

Wikipedia/Public Domain

By 1908, Lwoff-Parlaghy had taken the plunge and relocated to the United States. In addition to having further honed her portraiture skills over the years, the princess had cultivated her love of animals. On June 20, 1908, the Times reported that Lwoff-Parlaghy, now attended by an entourage, was "living quietly in a little cottage at Hot Springs, Va., where she is to be seen hovering about the verandas caressing strange pets." 

The next day the Times printed a more thorough inventory of the princess's human and animal companions:

“Attending the Princess were two attachés, two couriers, a footman, first and second butler, first and second lady’s maid, a cook, a valet, a Swedish nurse, and last but not least in the affections of the Princess, her assortment of animal pets, consisting of a small fluffy Pomeranian dog, a smaller Angora cat, a guinea pig, an owl, two small alligators, and a bear.”

Though New York may have seemed the obvious choice for an artistic, single European princess looking to live in luxury, a few logistical factors prevented Lwoff-Parlaghy settling into the City That Never leeps. The princess sought a hotel that would cater to her royal whims while accommodating her menagerie. Rumors of Lwoff-Parlaghy's extravagant tastes were committed to print, which didn't help matters. "Wandering Magyar Princess Threatens to Invade New York Hotels," blared the sub-heading of the June 20, 1908, Times article, which went on to say that her demands included "four white ponies and a gold-trimmed vehicle."

According to the Times, Lwoff-Parlaghy's people had been sending letters to the managers of New York's swankiest hotels, requesting a suite that would house the princess, six of her servants, and her ragtag family of fauna. The Waldorf-Astoria turned her down, but the 1-year-old Plaza Hotel agreed to accept the princess and her unusual entourage. In 1909 the whole gang moved into a suite on the third floor.

Lwoff-Parlaghy settled into life in New York, adorning her Plaza rooms with Persian rugs, Gothic art, and her own paintings. But despite the creature comforts, something was missing. Then, according to Curtis Gathje's book At the Plaza: An Illustrated History of the World's Most Famous Hotela trip to the circus showed the princess that she had been walking around with a lion-shaped void in her heart:

"[T]he princess fell in love with a lion cub she spotted at the Ringling Brothers circus; she tried to buy it but was rebuffed," writes Gathje. "Determined to have it, she came up with a plan: One of her recent portraits depicted Civil War hero Gen. Daniel E. Sickles (also a figure of some renown at the time), and she convinced him to ask Ringing Brothers for the cub, knowing they couldn’t refuse him."

This canny plan worked: The Ringling Brothers were guilted into handing over their lion cub to Sickles, who had lost his right leg to a Civil War cannonball at Gettysburg. Sickles then presented the lion to Lwoff-Parlaghy as a "gift," as though the idea had popped into his head on a whim.

The young lion's official name was Sickles, but the princess took to calling him Goldfleck. Tame but energetic, Goldfleck moved into the third-floor suite at the Plaza, where he spent a lot of time hanging out in the giant bathtub of the main bathroom. (There is a delightfully evocative but poorly documented rumor that Lwoff-Parlaghy christened the lion by pouring a glass of Champagne on his head.)

A trainer was on hand in case the lion became too rowdy, but Lwoff-Parlaghy liked to tend to Goldfleck herself. For exercise, she took him on leashed walks through Central Park. Despite the luxury amenities at the Plaza and the opportunities to stretch his legs and get some fresh air in the park, Goldfleck seemed to be faring poorly. In 1912 he died. Heartbroken, the princess conducted a funeral ceremony in her Plaza suite before journeying to Hartsdale and burying the beloved cub at the pet cemetery. Goldfleck is still the only lion to be interred at Hartsdale in the cemetery's 119-year history.

Hartsdale Pet Cemetery.

Photo by Ella Morton

After Goldfleck's death, things began to go awry for Princess Lwoff-Parlaghy. The arrival of World War I decimated her family fortune, and in 1914 she was asked to leave the Plaza, having racked up too much money in unpaid room fees. According to the New York Times, her paintings were held as security against the debt. 

By March 27, 1914, the Times had begun to acknowledge . Lwoff-Parlaghy's mercurial nature, taking note that in April 1910 she "slammed the door of her private elevator in the face of the Duchess of Manchester.” Further tales of her fractiousness followed:

She has figured in many stirring episodes, including a wild night ride through Connecticut in an auto after she had abandoned a private car on a New Haven train, in which she did not get the privacy she desired because other passengers passed through it in going to the dining car.

Things had gotten tumultuous, but Lwoff-Parlaghy still managed a triumph with her artwork: She persuaded the reclusive Nikola Tesla to pose for a portrait. Tesla, a man obsessed with hygiene and plagued with a pathological fear of women wearing pearls, believed it to be unlucky to sit for a painting. The portrait that Lwoff-Parlaghy created in 1916 remains the sole one for which he posed. The princess unveiled the artwork during a special reception at her post-Plaza home, located 20 blocks south on East 39th Street.

Lwoff-Parlaghy's portrait of Nikola Tesla.

Wikipedia/Public Domain

Princess Lwoff-Parlaghy died on Aug. 29, 1923, having faded from public view. "The last few months of her life no one heard from or about her," wrote the Times in April 1924. A report from the day after her death noted that "[n]othing remained of the pomp and of the gorgeously uniformed entourage which had surrounded the Princess in earlier days." Still, she was buried at the Bronx's Woodlawn Cemetery in a manner fit for a royal: dressed in blue and silver robes, her head adorned with a silver crown.

Reflecting on her life and times a few months after her death, the Times wrote: “A number of the more conservative members of old time New York society, as well as the newer and less sure, came, saw and were conquered by the Princess who had not only beauty, but charm.” Oh, and one more thing: "She loved animals."

Aug. 31 2015 1:31 PM

The Submerged Forest of Borth

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

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

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


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

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

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

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Aug. 28 2015 3:21 PM

The Jumbo Kingdom Floating Restaurant

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

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

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


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

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

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Aug. 27 2015 11:18 AM

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

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

So you want to marry a ghost.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Batholith/Public Domain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Mormon Temple in Salt Lake

Photo:Bryan Mills/Flickr

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

Aug. 26 2015 1:09 PM

Found: The Oldest Message in a Bottle Ever Recovered

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Aug. 25 2015 12:36 PM

Chile’s Atacama Giant

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

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

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


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

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

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Aug. 24 2015 12:18 PM

Eisenhower and History’s Worst Cross-Country Road Trip

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

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

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


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

Some personnel

Photo:Eisenhower Archive/Public Domain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Liberty turned over"

Photo: Eisenhower Archive/Public Domain

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

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

Through Nebraska

Photo: Eisenhower Archive/Public Domain

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

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

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

Salt Lake City

Photo: Eisenhower Archive/Public Domain