5 Oddball Tales from History You’ve Likely Never Heard (Part 8)

Continuing on from Part 7 here are five more oddball hidden gems from history which you’ll be able to bedazzle your friends and relatives with.


French Sink Greenpeace Ship, 1985

Sticking to the shadows, sheathed in black and deadly with any weapon, men and women who staff the world’s most active covert action agencies are experts in surveillance, subterfuge and sabotage; they’re the guys that governments turn to when they tire of fighting fair, and no blow is too low.

DGSE frogmen emerge from the surf (reddit.com)

Little else than the noise of sloshing water gently slapping the bow of a small ship intruded on the peace of approaching midnight that set the scene in Auckland Port, New Zealand. The silhouette of the ship was barely perceptible against the faint rays of harbour lights in the distant background and it barely revealed the superstructure of the Rainbow Warrior.

This 418 tonne converted trawler with a thick brushstroke of rainbow down its otherwise black hull was serving as Greenpeace’s flagship in their dogged, decades-old campaigns to resist whaling, seal hunting and nuclear testing in the southern Pacific’s seas and atolls.

Previously the ship had set sail to the Mururoa Atoll, where the French Government were drenching the region in radioactivity in its pursuit to develop its arsenal of nuclear weapons. The Greenpeace crew had become old hands at monitoring and obstructing the French and making thorough nuisances to themselves.

Yet be careful what you wish for; Rainbow Warrior was about to become a victim of her own success. She’d become such a thorn in the French Republic’s side, its government’s patience ran out and the order was given to teach the eco-warriors a lesson they wouldn’t forget.

Unseen, an unnatural burble of bubbles reaching the water surface betrayed a sinister presence; two divers had left the cover of shadows to enter the jet black water.

Their tools, limpet mines, and they were about to perform the coupe-de-grace to ‘Operation Satanique’; a mission to sink the Rainbow Warrior. The two divers, operatives of none other than the Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure (DGSE) — France’s highly covert spy agency — so formidable its name is spoken only in hushed tones among her enemies.

The clock was ticking. The two frogmen dove to place a mine each on the starboard hull, setting them to detonate 10 mins apart. The doomed ship’s crew were thrown violently awake at the violent jolt of the 1st explosion. They clamoured to clamber off the ship and onto the cold jetty with whatever belongings they could snatch.

Diagram showing the positioning of the two mines on the Rainbow Warrior (seafriends.org.nz)

The operation was going to plan like a well-conducted theatre piece until one actor veered from the script; photographer Fernando Pereira felt safe enough to reboard the vessel to retrieve his precious camera equipment when the 2nd mine detonated. It delivered the ship its death blow and Periera, trapped below, joined her.

He was the operation’s sole fatality. The ship slipped under the harbour’s murky waters as the two men in black slipped away and DGSE’s mission was reported successful.

The R.W. sat half-submerged on the harbour bed (theguardian.com)

In the aftermath, however, the French suffered a PR disaster; the two frogmen were caught after New Zealand’s police launched their biggest ever manhunt to discover the two saboteurs were in fact a man and a woman. They’d posed as a married couple in the run-up to the operation.

Although initially trying to deny involvement, France apologised and paid millions of francs in compensation to both Greenpeace and Fernando Periera’s family.

Annie Taylor’s Foolhardy Snatch at Fame and Fortune, 1901

Taylor poses next to the old pickle barrel which would bear her down the Niagara Waterfalls (nytimes.com)

In the picture a woman stands, a face wrinkled and unsmiling. She has dark wavy hair and the build of a woman once the matron of a dance and fitness salon.

She wears a fine dress and feather crowned cap, revealing a social class demanding better than her ailing nest egg. Her face shows just the last glimmers of an elegant beauty from many decades past, betraying the lie in her claim to be 40 years young. Her eyes stare as if to challenge the viewer to underestimate her. Our interest in the photo is only piqued once we observe the large wooden barrel she stands next to.

Annie Edson Taylor, 63 in fact, was at a stage in life reaped from an itinerant path which had both graced her with fortune and tragedy. Now her life was defined by a search for the same comfortable, yet modest means she was born into but had lost between then and now.

She was ready to take one last shot at a massive pay off. All she needed was to do something that no one had ever done before, something that would leave people so enthralled they’d clamour for her autograph and make her stinking rich in the process. Yet at the turn of the 20th Century what was there that no one had yet done? What could push the envelope in human performance and win her fame?

On October the 24th Taylor strode down to the banks of a river on the US/Canadian border. On the riverbank, strewn with leaves of brown and yellow, a rowing boat and it’s crew waited patiently and at its stern was tied the barrel, half-submerged. This cavernous, old pickle barrel had been customised by Taylor with padding inside to protect her in the ordeal ahead, an ordeal which promised to make her …or break her.

She paused to listen: Not far downstream of the river an incredibly deep, deep rumbling roar issued from the most powerful waterfall in N. America.

The river sloshing by was the Niagara River and what she was about to attempt was become the first woman to go over the great Niagara Waterfalls and survive the immense power of 168,000m3 (6 million cubic feet) of water per minute propelling her 50m (160ft) down the huge, white wall of gushing water to the bottom.

Could she, a woman no less, survive such an escapade? Taylor gingerly entered her barrel and began to pray.

The mighty Niagara Waterfalls (world-of-waterfalls.com)

The boat rowed out midstream. Air was pumped inside her barrel and once the lid was fastened securely they cut her loose. The barrel sloshed downstream. As the roar of water got heavier increasingly violent rapids battered the barrel, but its casing held firm as did Taylor’s faith. One way or another it would soon be over.

The distance to the precipice closed quickly and just at the moment Taylor thought that bottomless roar could get no more intense, she sensed the sudden plunge through the air for what seemed an eternity.

At the bottom a boat waited to recover the barrel once it bobbed to the surface. Remarkably Taylor was found unscathed except for a gashed forehead — she survived.

In the aftermath, Annie Taylor failed to really cash in on her short-lived fame and said: “If it was with my dying breath, I would caution anyone against attempting the feat … I would sooner walk up to the mouth of a cannon, knowing it was going to blow me to pieces than make another trip over the Fall.

The stunt did nothing to dampen her longevity; she went on to live to 82.

The Rainstorm That Went Splat, 1994

With the sight of undulating woodland resembling the serried ranks of a million upright matchsticks covered in a fuzzy green blanket of needles to the north, and the sound of the wily Chehalis River babbling by to the south Oakland in Washington State is the kind of all-wooden, spreadeagled town American frontier folk, accustomed to all the wilderness they want, like to call home. On August the 7th, 1994 there was no indication that the coming day would be unlike any other.

The so-called Star Jelly (futurism.com)

Oakland is rinsed by mountain rains year-round so, for the few awake at 3 am, the rhythm of precipitation was familiar. Yet any awake in bed, breathless, would have strained to scrutinise an alien sound; not a patter of raindrops on bedroom windows but rather a queer, dull splattering. What on earth could it be?

A cop and his friend on the graveyard shift were cruising the area in his patrol car. They were caught under the heavy deluge and left open mouthed by a translucent, soupy liquid which the windscreen wipers smeared. “We both looked at each other and we said, ‘Jeez, this isn’t right. I mean, we’re out in the middle of nowhere, basically, and where did this come from?’”

They found shelter and the cop took a closer look at what had just gunged his car “The substance was very mushy. It’s almost as if you had Jell-O in your hand… We did have some bells go off in our heads that basically said that this isn’t right, this isn’t normal.” The rain had covered an area of 20mi² (32 km²)

The puzzle deepened. People soon began to turn nauseous and dizzy, pets dropped dead and Officer Lacey was finding it hard to breathe by the day’s end. Most of the residents were reportedly struck down with a mystery virus which lasted up to three months. Was the mystery rain of goo and sickness coincidence? Surely not.

Questions about the gelatin’s origin remain open. Lab tests on the substance were inconclusive; human white blood cells and two types of bacteria were found but the theory that it was human waste dumped from overflying airliners was discounted. Another idea that the goo is caused by a phenomenon called Star Jelly is… peculiar, to say the least.

Some residents recalled the drone of slow, black military aircraft over the town around the time but the airforce denies involvement. Shockingly the official government reports of the event are no more.

The Aristocrat Who Painted the Town Red, 1837

One day in spring 1837 at the Thorpe End tollgate in the fine old English market town of Melton Mowbray, with its half-timbered Tudor townhouses and bustling square, a tollgate keeper lay a wary eye on an approaching party of men.

The scene was at odds with itself. Their veneer of clean, tailored clothing, fine riding boots, well-groomed moustaches and strong jawlines made the tollkeeper conscious for a moment of his own grubby stubble. Yet, from their cultured tones, boozy banter spewed. Laughter and shouts echoed down the narrow carriageway and the band of staggering, swaggering men jostled after it.

The tollkeeper hailed hopefully to a young man he took to be the ringleader but the big droopy eyes which met his twinkled with mischief and he wore an ominous, leery grin. To the side were some ladders, brushes and pots of red paint to effect repairs. The leader turned his gaze to them and, before the tollkeeper could step in between, the party leapt and scooped up the paint and brushes.

They set upon the tollkeeper who, dismayed, shrieked calls to wrest them away, but to their whoops and cackles they doused the poor man in red paint. A sputtering, red-faced constable rushed over… and he was turned even more red-faced!

Like a crazed troop of monkeys the men now rampaged into the town, smashing, kicking and pulling down pieces of property. They sploshed doors a carved swan and anyone who tried to halt them in red paint while indignant townsfolk looked on, mouths agape. They vandalised the Post Office and the Leicestershire Banking Company and tried to overturn a caravan in which a man was fast asleep.

Marquess Henry Beresford ‘painting Melton Mowbray red’ (leicesterchronicle.co.uk)

Help was called in and, finally, to the clacking thrum of nail soled boots on street cobbles constables clamoured into the street and set upon them. Clubs cracked and thumped and swang through the air and the scoundrels were finally subdued. Now for the biggest shock; as onlookers gawped, the party’s leader was identified to be a nobleman no less - Henry Beresford, 3rd Marquess of Waterford.

That wasn’t even the end of it; After being sent to sober up in the local gaol, Marquess Henry’s cronies came to his rescue, beating up two guards and holding a sharp blade to a guard’s throat for the cell key. So the Marquess escaped …but scot-free?

Aristocrats stand as exemplars of grace, class and decorum. The Marquisate of Waterford is no exception; rows and rows of windows festoon the grand, Georgian facade of Curraghmore House - the family estate - and their noble lineage goes back to the 17th Century. At some point, an impish streak seeped into the bloodline when Henry entered the world; the trouble in Melton Mowbray is not the only time he brought his peerage into disrepute.

Once Marquess Henry sobered up he hastened to shell out for the damages but the townsfolk wouldn’t be placated so easily. Eventually Henry and his party were fined a considerable £100 each and ordered to contribute an idiom to the English language.

Toothache Leads to Unbelievable X-Ray Find, 2005

23-year-old construction worker Patrick Lawler, with thick black eyebrows and a well-trimmed goatee, sat on the edge of his chair and gnawed on his fingernails with the sort of trepidation familiar to many in his situation - he was sitting in the dentist’s waiting room.

Like so many Americans the lack of medical insurance meant that a visit to the dentist could solve a medical problem but replace it with a financial one, so Lawler was reluctant to sit in the chair for just a toothache. Even so there was swelling which no amount of painkillers or ice cream would soothe. And then there was the blurry vision; for six days now, since a day’s work at a ski lodge, the pain endured.

Lawler’s wife worked at the surgery so when Lawler shook his dentist’s hand in greeting, it was the warm greeting of friends. They proceeded with an X-ray. Then his dentist returned with the findings. Lawler was so shocked he was sure that the professional, being the friend he was, was goofing around. Yet there was no sign of a smirk to betray that; he was deadly serious. ‘There’s a nail in your head!’ he announced.

Dumbstruck, the murk of the mystery then cleared for Lawler as he recalled that day at the ski lodge; he had been using a nail gun which backfired. It had shot a nail into a wood piece nearby but what Lawler had astonishingly failed to notice was a second nail had actually punched into his upper mouth.

Lawler poses with the four-inch nail (nytimes.com)

How the young man failed to detect a piece of metal burrow into his head is beyond belief. Lawler was rushed to hospital and underwent a four-hour surgery to remove a whopping 4 inch (10.2cm) nail, an inch and a half of that piercing his brain. By extreme fluke the nail caused no damage to his mental faculties. Lawler’s surgeon quipped “If you’re going to have a nail in the brain, that’s the way you want it to be. He’s the luckiest guy ever.”

If you can believe it this isn’t the only time a man has unwittingly fired a nail into his head so beware, if you’re into DIY and some mystery pain ever flares up in your skull, it just could be you have a nail in your head.

Click here for part 9

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