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The Weird Week in Review

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It's not a tumor, it's a towel!

In 1983, surgeons at the Asahi General Hospital in Chiba prefecture near Tokyo performed ulcer surgery and unknowingly left a surgical towel inside the patient. Twenty-five years later, the unnamed 49-year-old man sought help at a different hospital for abdominal pain. Doctors found what they believed to be a 3-inch tumor. Surgeons only realized the mass was a towel when they removed it! The towel is blue-green, but they are not certain of its original color.

Goat Boarded Bus, Didn't Pay

An unaccompanied pygmy goat walked onto a bus in Portland, Oregon Monday. The driver called dispatch, who sent a police officer, who took the tiny goat to the animal shelter. By then, the goat sported a note that said "Didn't have correct fare." Police checked the classified ads, and found a notice on Craigslist for a missing goat. Poppy, as the goat is named, was reunited with her owner Wendy Dean on Tuesday.

Man Jailed for Faking Death

When Gandaruban Subramaniam fled Singapore 20 years ago to avoid creditors, he faked his death in a most dramatic way -by claiming he had been killed in a shootout between Sri Lankan troops and Tamil Tiger rebels. However, he returned to Singapore and married his widow under his new fake Sri Lankan identity, and even fathered their fourth child! A lawyer uncovered the scheme and 60-year-old Subramaniam was arrested last October. He now faces 3 years in prison for fraud.

Olympic Pinhead

150chinaneedle.jpgDr. Wei Sheng of Nanning, in southern China, has Olympic fever, and he's showing his support by sticking 2008 needles into his head, face, hands, and chest. The needles are supposed to be in the five colors of the Olympic rings. It's not the first publicity stunt for Dr. Sheng, who set a world record in 2004 for sticking 1790 needles  into his head.

Fake Bus Stop for Alzheimer's Patients

Nursing homes in Germany are trying a novel approach to corralling patients who have wandered off. They construct bus stops near the facilities, in places where the bus does not stop. There, hospital staff can find confused patients easily. Franz-Josef Goebel says the idea may sound funny, but it works.

"Our members are 84 years old on average. Their short-term memory hardly works, but the long-term memory is still active.

"They know the green and yellow bus sign and remember that waiting there means they will go home." 

Giant Beetle Can't Find a Mate

150_beetle.jpgAn elephant beetle nearly five inches long made its way from Costa Rica to London in a shipment of bananas. Pest control officers took the beetle, an endangered species, to the Linton Zoo. Now the beetle is ready to mate, and zoo officials are having trouble finding a female elephant beetle in England. Linton Zoo director Kim Simmons says,
"We haven't been able to find Billy a Betty from zoos. Now we're pinning our hopes on private collectors."

Time is running out, as elephant beetles only live about four months.

Fake Call Enabled Museum Heist

Gold artworks worth $2 million were stolen from the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia near Vancouver. Before the heist, cameras mysteriously ceased to function, and a caller identifying himself as a representative of the security company told campus security that there was a problem, and that they should not respond to any alarms! Authorities believe the theft is the work of an expert jewel thief who was out of jail at the time.

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Bess Lovejoy
The Legend (and Truth) of the Voodoo Priestess Who Haunts a Louisiana Swamp
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Bess Lovejoy

The Manchac wetlands, about a half hour northwest of New Orleans, are thick with swamp ooze. In the summer the water is pea-green, covered in tiny leaves and crawling with insects that hide in the shadows of the ancient, ghost-gray cypress trees. The boaters who enter the swamps face two main threats, aside from sunstroke and dehydration: the alligators, who mostly lurk just out of view, and the broken logs that float through the muck, remnants of the days when the swamp was home to the now-abandoned logging town of Ruddock.

But some say that anyone entering the swamp should beware a more supernatural threat—the curse of local voodoo queen Julia Brown. Brown, sometimes also called Julie White or Julia Black, is described in local legend as a voodoo priestess who lived at the edge of the swamp and worked with residents of the town of Frenier. She was known for her charms and her curses, as well as for singing eerie songs with her guitar on her porch. One of the most memorable (and disturbing) went: "One day I’m going to die and take the whole town with me."

Back when Brown was alive at the turn of the 20th century, the towns of Ruddock, Frenier, and Napton were prosperous settlements clustered on the edge of Lake Pontchartrain, sustained by logging the centuries-old cypress trees and farming cabbages in the thick black soil. The railroad was the towns' lifeline, bringing groceries from New Orleans and hauling away the logs and cabbages as far as Chicago. They had no roads, no doctors, and no electricity, but had managed to carve out cohesive and self-reliant communities.

That all changed on September 29, 1915, when a massive hurricane swept in from the Caribbean. In Frenier, where Julia lived, the storm surge rose 13 feet, and the winds howled at 125 miles an hour. Many of the townsfolk sought refuge in the railroad depot, which collapsed and killed 25 people. Altogether, close to 300 people in Louisiana died, with almost 60 in Frenier and Ruddock alone. When the storm cleared on October 1, Frenier, Ruddock, and Napton had been entirely destroyed—homes flattened, buildings demolished, and miles of railway tracks washed away. One of the few survivors later described how he’d clung to an upturned cypress tree and shut his ears against the screams of those drowning in the swamp.

The hurricane seemed to come out of nowhere. But if you listen to the guides who take tourists into the Manchac swamp, the storm was the result of the wrath of Julia Brown. Brown, they say, laid a curse on the town because she felt taken for granted—a curse that came true when the storm swept through on the day of her funeral and killed everyone around. On certain tours, the guides take people past a run-down swamp graveyard marked "1915"—it’s a prop, but a good place to tell people that Brown’s ghost still haunts the swamp, as do the souls of those who perished in the hurricane. The legend of Julia Brown has become the area's most popular ghost story, spreading to paranormal shows and even Reddit, where some claim to have seen Brown cackling at the edge of the water.

After I visited the swamp earlier this year and heard Julia Brown's story, I got curious about separating fact from fiction. It turns out Julia Brown was a real person: Census records suggest she was born Julia Bernard in Louisiana around 1845, then married a laborer named Celestin Brown in 1880. About 20 years later, the federal government gave her husband a 40-acre homestead plot to farm, property that likely passed on to Julia after her husband’s death around 1914.

Official census and property records don’t make any mention of Brown’s voodoo work, but that's not especially surprising. A modern New Orleans voodoo priestess, Bloody Mary, told Mental Floss she has found references to a voodoo priestess or queen by the name of Brown who worked in New Orleans around the 1860s before moving out to Frenier. Mary notes that because the towns had no doctors, Brown likely served as the local healer (or traiteur, a folk healer in Louisiana tradition) and midwife, using whatever knowledge and materials she could find to care for local residents.

Brown’s song is documented, too. An oral history account from long-time area resident Helen Schlosser Burg records that "Aunt Julia Brown … always sat on her front porch and played her guitar and sang songs that she would make up. The words to one of the songs she sang said that one day, she would die and everything would die with her."

There’s even one newspaper account from 1915 that describes Brown's funeral on the day of the storm. In the words of the New Orleans Times-Picayune from October 2, 1915 (warning: offensive language ahead):

Many pranks were played by wind and tide. Negroes had gathered for miles around to attend the funeral of ‘Aunt’ Julia Brown, an old negress who was well known in that section, and was a big property owner. The funeral was scheduled … and ‘Aunt’ Julia had been placed in her casket and the casket in turn had been placed in the customary wooden box and sealed. At 4 o’clock, however, the storm had become so violent that the negroes left the house in a stampede, abandoning the corpse. The corpse was found Thursday and so was the wooden box, but the casket never has been found.

Bloody Mary, however, doesn’t think Brown laid any kind of curse on the town. "Voodoo isn’t as much about curses as it is about healing," she says. The locals she has spoken to remember Julia as a beloved local healer, not a revengeful type. In fact, Mary suggests that Julia’s song may have been more warning to the townsfolk than a curse against them. Perhaps Brown even tried to perform an anti-storm ritual and was unable to stop the hurricane before it was too late. Whatever she did, Mary says, it wasn’t out of malevolence. And if she’s still in the swamp, you have less to fear from her than from the alligators.

This story originally ran in 2016.

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Why Do Female Spotted Hyenas Give Birth Through Their Pseudo-Penises?
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At the zoo, you can sometimes tell the difference between male and female animals by noting their physical size, their behavior, and yes, their nether regions. Hyenas, however, flip the script: Not only are lady spotted hyenas bigger and meaner than their male counterparts, ruling the pack with an iron paw, they also sport what appear to be penises—shaft, scrotum, and all.

"Appear" is the key word here: These 7-inch-long phalluses don't produce sperm, so they're technically really long clitorises in disguise. But why do female hyenas have them? And do they actually have to (gulp) give birth through them? Wouldn't that hurt … a lot?

The short answers to these questions are, respectively, "We don't know," "Yes," and "OW." Longer answers can be found in this MinuteEarth video, which provides the full lowdown on hyena sex. Don't say we didn't warn you.


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