In 1885, an author named James B. Ward published a pamphlet telling of a long-lost treasure available to anyone clever enough to solve the puzzle associated with it. Ward reported that around 1817, a man named Thomas Jefferson Beale had been the leader of an expedition to the American Southwest primarily concerned with hunting buffalo and/or bears. Beale’s group had instead stumbled upon gold and silver deposits in what is now Colorado. Agreeing to keep it all a secret, Beale’s team had spent the better part of two years quietly mining, then had taken the metals to Virginia by wagon and buried them in a vault underground between 1819 and 1821. Beale had written three notes explaining where the treasure was and who had legal rights to shares in it, encrypting each of these using a different text. However, Beale had vanished after leaving the notes with a friend. Eventually, the second of the three texts was deciphered using a slightly altered version of the Declaration of Independence. It specified which county in Virginia the treasure was hidden in, and referred the reader to the first of the notes for details.
But the first—and the third—notes remained stubbornly undeciphered. Neither the Declaration of Independence nor any other ciphertext source produced a readable message out of the first note. Beale had done far too good a job of encrypting his texts.
Or had he? Even as the field of cryptography advanced, and modern computers were invented and directed at the ciphers, the content remained frustratingly out of reach. The tantalizing mystery of where in Virginia there might be an enormous cache of treasure has turned into a broader question: Did Thomas J. Beale even exist, or was James B. Ward playing an enormous practical joke? The problem with the second interpretation is that Ward was not known to be a prankster. Could his pamphlet have been motivated by something stranger still?
Please put on sunglasses so that you are not blinded by the shininess of our newest author, Erika Nesvold.
The mountains of Japan’s Yamagata prefecture are considered sacred by the Buddhists in the region. These holy sites are sparsely populated, their forests interrupted only occasionally by isolated Buddhist temples. Many of the men serving in the temples come seeking solitude and an escape from the modern world. They were probably a bit startled, then, when a group of scientists and historians showed up in 1960 and asked to see their mummies.
The year before, several researchers investigating rumors of local mummies had discovered six mummified Buddhist monks in five temples in Yamagata prefecture. Soon after the discovery, several Japanese universities formed the Investigating Committee for Mummies to study them. The mummies were each kept on display in a place of honor in the temples, and were maintained by the temple monks. Unlike the Egyptian mummies that are most familiar to the Western world, these Japanese mummies were not wrapped in cloth. Instead, they were dressed in monks’ robes, their dried, leathery skin visible on their faces and hands.
Mummies were not unheard of in Japan. In fact, four leaders of the Fujiwara tribe had been mummified in the twelfth century and were still kept in a great golden temple hall in northeastern Japan. But mummification is a tricky business, especially in a climate as humid as Japan’s. The researchers hoped to examine the temple mummies to uncover the details of this specific mummification process.
To prevent bacteria, insects, and fungi from decomposing the mummy, the mummifier usually begins by extracting the internal organs to remove the most tempting food sources for the critters of decay. So when the researchers began examining the Yamagata mummies, they were startled to find that the monks’ internal organs were still intact, and had begun to dry before death. Close examination of the temple records revealed that this live-mummification wasn’t some kind of torture or ritual murder, but rather ritual suicide. These monks had mummified themselves.
On the 10th of January 1956—about a decade into the Cold War and about a year into the Space Race—the United States Air Force launched the first vehicle in its top secret Genetrix program. The vehicle was a balloon—an enormous, 200-foot-tall, 100-foot-wide helium balloon—the first of hundreds that the US would ultimately launch from sites in Scotland, Norway, Germany, and Turkey. Upon release, each balloon ascended into the stratosphere, where the winter jet stream was perfectly situated to carry it over and across the interior of the USSR. A coffin-sized gondola dangled from the bottom of each balloon, housing a set of downward-facing high-resolution cameras. Whenever an onboard photocell detected that the surface below was illuminated by daylight, these cameras snapped periodic photographs. The Genetrix balloons were some of the original high-altitude spy cameras—precursors to spy planes and satellites.
Whenever a balloon cleared Soviet airspace, the US Air Force sent an encoded radio signal that would detonate a small explosive charge on the gondola’s attachment line. If all went according to plan, a specially equipped C-119 airplane would be loitering in the nearby airspace, ready to snag the parachuting payload of photographic film in mid-air. Once retrieved, the film was sent back to the states to be developed and analyzed.
The Genetrix balloons were designed to be practically invisible to radar, using very thin balloon film and a gondola much smaller than a typical aircraft. And this might have worked were it not for the fact that one of the steel rods in the balloon rigging was 91 centimeters long. US Air Force engineers didn’t realize it at the time, but 91 centimeters happened to correspond to one of the frequencies used by Soviet early-warning radar. This caused the otherwise inconsequential rod to resonate and glint like a mirror on Soviet radar screens.
Soviet leaders were understandably annoyed when their military pilots reported back regarding the nature of these radar reflections. US officials replied that these were innocuous weather balloons for the study of cloud formations, a claim which was roundly ridiculed. During the day, there was little the Soviets could do about it apart from political posturing—the balloons cruised at 55,000 feet, which was higher than Soviet weapons could reach. But MiG fighter pilots soon discovered they could shoot the balloons out of the sky at sunrise. The chill of the night robbed the balloons of some of their buoyancy, and they dipped down into weapons range.
The Genetrix program lasted only 27 days. It had originally been planned to continue indefinitely, but president Eisenhower cancelled any further spy balloon launches due to the Soviets’ strenuous diplomatic protests. Of the 500 or so spy balloons that were launched, only about 50 camera gondolas were successfully recovered by the US Air Force. These provided over 10,000 reconnaissance photos of inland Soviet Union and China, including first peeks at nuclear and radar facilities.
The Soviets recovered a number of the gondolas themselves, and engineers began to dissect them, seeking useful information. To their surprise, they found something inside that happened to solve a little problem they had been having with one of their upcoming space missions: temperature-resistant and radiation-hardened photographic film.
Please warmly welcome our newest contributor, Jennifer Colton-Jones.
On a December morning in 1916, the polls opened in the small town of Umatilla, Oregon, for a municipal election. As the day stretched on, the town’s men drifted in and out, casting a ballot here or there. By midday, the men started to wonder what had happened to the women. For months, the women had talked of their newly gained right to vote—women in Oregon won the right to vote in 1912, eight years before the 19th Amendment—but election morning came and went without a peep from Umatilla’s fairer residents.
Perhaps the women had decided they couldn’t spare the time to vote. Perhaps they assumed the incumbents would keep their seats with no serious opposition on the ticket. Perhaps it simply slipped their minds. It would fit: The town’s city councilmen often failed—or simply forgot—to attend council meetings themselves.
The men scratched their heads and looked around. Chickens ran in the unpaved streets, and the sidewalks were broken and cracked under dark and useless streetlights, turned off when the city didn’t pay its electric bill. For years, the women had begged, scolded, and commanded the men to clean up the town, to no avail. Yet when they had the opportunity to speak with their votes, the women’s voices were silent…or were they?
In the early afternoon, the women began to arrive at the polling stations, almost all at once, and almost without exception. By the time the polls closed that evening, the women of Umatilla had pulled off a strange sort of conspiracy unlike anything the country had ever seen.
As night fell over the East German town of Pössneck on the evening of 14 September 1979, most of the town’s citizens were busy getting ready for bed. But not Günter Wetzel. The mason was in his attic, hunched over an old motor-driven sewing machine, desperately working to complete his secret project.
Wetzel and his friend H. Peter Strelzyk and their families had been working on their plan for more than a year and a half, and by now the authorities were looking for them. They were nearly out of time. Wetzel had feigned illness in order to procure five weeks off from work, and during that time he and his friend had collected the materials and laboured over the construction together. This would be their last chance.
Earlier in the day, a strong wind had arisen from the north. These were exactly the conditions that the two families had been waiting for. Around 10:00pm, Wetzel put the finishing touches on the massive patchwork project, then rounded up Strelzyk and prepared to leave. Two hours later the families were en route to a predetermined clearing on a hill by way of automobile and moped. The other components of their project—a steel platform, a homemade gas burner, and a powerful fan—were already packed and ready to go. It was time to attempt the escape.
“I don’t think it belongs here.” Such was the assessment of Bob Vinson, the graveyard shift supervisor at Harvey’s Wagon Wheel Casino in Lake Tahoe, Nevada. The “here” Vinson referred to was a nook just outside the telephone equipment room in the employees-only portion of the second floor of the hotel. The “it” was a curious piece of equipment of unknown origin loitering conspicuously in the cramped side room. It was a metallic gray box about the size of a desk, with a smaller box attached on top near the rear right corner. The front face of the smaller box was an incomprehensible control panel occupied by 28 metal toggle switches in five neat rows, each labeled with a numbered sticker. All of these switches were situated in the down position except for #23, which was toggled up—an oddly ominous asymmetry.
It was approximately 6:30am on Tuesday, 26 August 1980, and although Bob Vinson had been on shift all night long, he hadn’t heard any large equipment delivery commotion from his nearby office, and he was sure this thing hadn’t been there an hour earlier. Whoever had left the machine had taken the time to place each corner on blocks of wood, and these blocks pressed deep dimples into the red-orange carpet, suggesting that the equipment had significant mass. In spite of its resemblance to some kind of manufactured electromechanical office machine, it had no power cord, and no obvious power switch, just the 28 enigmatic toggles. To add alarm to intrigue, Vinson had found that some of the keyholes for the doors leading into the area had been hastily jammed using what appeared to be toothpicks and glue.
An envelope with “Harvey’s Management” typewritten on one side lay on the carpet alongside the object. Vinson was reasonably suspicious that the envelope did not contain anything as harmless as an invoice. “Stay here,” Vinson instructed the custodian who had been examining the mystery object with him. “Don’t touch it. Don’t let anyone fool with it. I’ll be right back.”
Vinson soon returned with companions, having summoned members of Harvey’s Wagon Wheel Casino security, who had subsequently summoned sheriff ‘s deputies and the fire department. After prodding the envelope with a broomstick to ensure it wasn’t booby-trapped, those to whom it was concerned gingerly extracted three pages of typed text from the envelope. The letter claimed that this device was a bomb.
Under ordinary circumstances, the final evening of a cruise aboard the luxury turbo-electric ocean liner SS Morro Castle was a splendid event. Hundreds of lady and gentlemen passengers would gather in the Grand Ballroom in their finest evening attire for the customary Farewell Dinner, where veteran sailor Captain Willmott would captivate his guests with salty tales from his years at sea over endless glasses of champagne. Reality, bills, hangovers, and economic depression were all far away, on the other end of tomorrow morning’s gangplank in New York. But on the night of Friday, the 7th of September 1934, circumstances aboard ship were not ordinary. Passengers were indeed draped in their finery in the ballroom, yet the captain’s chair at the captain’s table was conspicuously vacant. He had somewhat suddenly felt unwell. And atop the typical worries lurking outside were two near-hurricane-force storms, one approaching from the north and another from the south. The agitated sea and gusty winds were beginning to cause some sway in the decks, putting already-eaten entrées in danger of unscheduled egress. The surly weather was bound to be a considerable distraction.
Nevertheless, the Morro Castle was a large and modern cruise ship quite capable of handling inclement weather. Chief Warms was in command of the bridge for the night shift, and he knew well enough to keep her slicing through the sea near top speed to minimize passenger discomfort. The ship made 20 knots against a gale-force headwind, so shuffleboard was out of the question, but in the Grand Ballroom, festooned with colorful flags and balloons, drinks were drunk and rugs were cut. The waitstaff served a steady supply of Cuban lobster broiled in butter, ham in champagne sauce, roast turkey, and candied sweet potatoes. The ship’s orchestra served a steady supply of dance tunes.
Just before 8:00pm, the orchestra abruptly stopped playing mid-song. The previously foxtrotting passengers turned to see what was the matter, and there at the bandstand they saw cruise director Bob Smith beckoning for everyone’s attention. He announced that he had some sad news to share. Their captain, Robert Willmott, had died suddenly in his quarters. The official farewell party and dance contest were therefore canceled, but the orchestra and barkeeps would remain on station late into the evening for passengers who wished to linger. Smith instructed the passengers to have a pleasant evening, and departed.
The ship’s doctor had determined the captain’s cause of death as “heart attack brought on by acute indigestion.” He had been just 52 years old. William Warms and the other officers were shocked and saddened by the turn of events, but there was also an unmistakable undertow of apprehension on the bridge. In recent weeks Captain Willmott had confided in some of his fellow officers that he had reason to believe that a “red” was aboard the ship plotting revenge against the Morro Castle and her captain. Although Willmott had never seemed particularly prone to paranoia, his remarks had been dismissed as such. The wild sabotage speculations were more difficult to ignore under the new circumstances, but scrutiny would have to wait. Chief Warms—now Acting Captain Warms—was understandably anxious. It was he who had discovered the captain’s body face-down and motionless in his bathtub, and he was having trouble keeping the image out of his mind. Now he was obliged to assume command during some of the worst sailing weather he had ever seen, and he had already been awake for over twenty-four hours. Even if sleep had been possible under such conditions, there was no time for it. It was going to be a long night.
Low-pressure weather systems are a familiar feature of the winter climate in the northern Atlantic. While they often drive wind, rain, and other unpleasantness against Europe’s rocky western margin, this is typically on a “mostly harmless” basis. Early in the evening of 31 January 1953, the weather in northern Europe was damp, chilly, and blustery. These unremarkable seasonal conditions disguised the fact that a storm of extreme severity was massing nearby, and that an ill-fated assortment of meteorological, geophysical, and human factors would soon coalesce into an almost unprecedented watery catastrophe.
The storm scudded past the northern tip of Scotland and took an unusual southerly detour, shifting towards a low-lying soft European overbelly of prime agricultural, industrial, and residential land. The various people, communities, and countries in its path differed in their readiness and in their responses to the looming crisis, yet the next 24 hours were about to teach them all some enduring lessons. In a world that remains awash with extreme weather events—and with increasing numbers of people living in vulnerable coastal areas—the story of this particular storm system’s collision with humanity remains much-studied by emergency planners, and much-remembered in the three countries it so fatally struck.