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The Weird Week in Review

Ground Zero at the Maya Apocalypse

The town of Bugarach, France, was reported to be the safest place on earth for the Maya Apocalypse. The officials of the village of about 200 said they didn't want to be flooded with refugees, but it turns out they were overrun with journalists instead.

It took jet-lagged correspondents about five minutes after arriving in town to realise that their end-of-the-world report would look as bleak as a rural French village in winter. Which, by the way, is exactly what Bugarach is. Their editors in New York, Tokyo, Berlin, Istanbul or London were definitely not going to be happy with endless footage of TV crews roaming helplessly in the otherwise empty streets of Bugarach, the rocky outpost in southwest France that doomsday prophets inspired by an ancient Mayan calendar have designated as the sole survivor of the impending apocalypse.

Journalists were even thwarted in their mission when the town's mayor did not show up for a press conference. Only one "doomsday prophet" was in residence, Sylvain Durif, who was glad to meet with journalists and receive all the publicity.

Naked Full Moon Grape Harvest

Vintner Mike Hayes of Queensland, Australia, is recreating an ancient ritual to improve his wine. That means picking the grapes under a full moon sans clothing. Records of the technique come from the former Soviet republic of Georgia, and date back 4,000 years. Hayes considers the stunt an experiment, learned as part of a Churchill Fellowship. The nude harvesting will begin in March. Hayes grows dozens of rare alternate varieties of grapes, and his winery was awarded five stars.

Speeding Ticket for an Idling Car

In Baltimore, Maryland, a speeding ticket was issued to Daniel Doty based on a camera trap that noted he was traveling at 38 mph in a 25 mph zone. However, the pictures taken by the camera clearly showed that the car was idling at a stop light, and never moved during the sequence of evidence. The system contractor says each ticket must pass two layers of review, then be examined by a police officer before it is issued -which evidently did not work in this case. The speed camera program has generated $48 million in the past three years. Baltimore and some other areas pay the camera company contractors based on the number of tickets issued, which is prohibited by state law. A Baltimore District Court judge dismissed the case when it came to court.

Driveway Stolen

Rachel L. McCarty of Reddick, Florida, arrived home last week and felt a large bump at the entrance to her driveway. The concrete pavers that made up her driveway were completely gone! A neighbor had seen men digging up the concrete and loading it into a truck, but did not consider it suspicious. Another crew was doing contracted work on a barn on the victim's property, so the witness thought the driveway work was just part of the remodeling. However, when the perpetrator returned two days later to the same neighborhood and began to dismantle another driveway, he was reported by neighbors and arrested.

Zoo Baby

There's a new baby at the Rosamond Gifford Zoo! But there are no cute furry baby pictures released to the media, because this specimen is human. An unnamed 21-year-old woman went into labor as she was visiting the zoo in Syracuse, New York, last Friday morning. Zoo Education Coordinator Liz Schmidt was called to help.

“I honestly didn’t expect her to deliver at the zoo,” Schmidt said this afternoon. “I thought we’d pop her in a wheelchair and she’d be good to go to the hospital.”

It was obvious to Schmidt when she arrived that the baby had other ideas.

The woman had been touring the zoo with a group of five to seven adults and children when she went into labor, Schmidt said. An adult led the children away to go look at the lions, as the woman was giving birth, she said.

Zookeeper Sarah Kohler assisted, while elephant keeper John Moakler took over crowd control. An ambulance was called and took the mother and the newborn baby girl to a hospital.

Toddler Hatches Deadly Snake Eggs

Three-year-old Kyle Cumming of Queensland, Australia, found some interesting eggs in his yard and took them inside. He asked his mom for a container and stashed the eggs in his closet. Several weeks went by, and when Kyle's mother Donna Sim opened the wardrobe on Monday, she found they had hatched -into deadly eastern brown snakes! Of all the known snake species, only the eastern taipan is more deadly. The snakes were still in the container with a lid on, and Sims took the snakes to a wildlife sanctuary, where they were identified. The snakes will be released in a wilderness area. Kyle is a bit disappointed, because he wanted to raise the snakes.

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9 False Rumors With Real-Life Consequences
King Louis XV of France
King Louis XV of France
Library and Archives Canada, Wikimedia // Public Domain

Don’t believe everything you read—or everything you hear. Unverified but plausible-sounding rumors have been the basis for violent death and destruction throughout history, whether or not the stories had anything to do with the truth.

In their book A Colorful History of Popular Delusions, Robert Bartholomew and Peter Hassall describe rumors as “stories of perceived importance that lack substantiating evidence.” They also note that the sociologist Tamotsu Shibutani describes rumors as “improvised news,” which tends to spread when the demand for information exceeds supply. Such an information deficit most often occurs during wars and other crises, which might explain why some rumors have had such dramatic results. Here’s a selection of some of the most interesting rumors with real-life results collected in Bartholomew and Hassall’s book.

1. KING LOUIS XV WAS KIDNAPPING CHILDREN.

In 1750, children began disappearing from the streets of Paris. No one seemed to know why, and worried parents began rioting in the streets. In the midst of the panic, a rumor broke out that King Louis XV had become a leper and was kidnapping children so that he could bathe in their blood (at the time, bathing in the blood of children was thought by some to be an effective leprosy cure).

The rumor did have a tiny kernel of truth: Authorities were taking children away, but not to the king’s palace. A recently enacted series of ordinances designed to clear the streets of “undesirables” had led some policemen—who were paid per arrest—to overstep their authority and take any children they found on the streets to houses of detention. Fortunately, most were eventually reunited with their parents, and rumors of the king’s gruesome bathing rituals were put to rest.

2. LONDON WAS GOING TO BE DESTROYED BY AN EARTHQUAKE.

Two small earthquakes struck London at the beginning of 1761, leading to rumors that the city was due for “the big one” on April 5, 1761. Supposedly, a psychic had predicted the catastrophe. Much of the populace grew so panicked that they fled town for the day, with those who couldn’t afford fancier lodgings camping out in the fields. One soldier was so convinced of the impending doom that he ran through the streets shouting news of London’s imminent destruction; sadly, he ended up in an insane asylum a few months later.

3. JEWS WERE POISONING WELLS.

A deep well
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Reports that Jews ritually sacrificed Christian children were not uncommon during the Middle Ages, but things took a particularly terrible turn during the spread of the Black Plague. In the 14th century, thousands of Jews were killed in response to rumors that Satan was protecting them from the plague in exchange for poisoning the wells of Christians. In 1321 in Guienne, France alone, an estimated 5000 Jews were burned alive for supposedly poisoning wells. Other communities expelled the Jews, or burned entire settlements to the ground. Brandenburg, Germany, even passed a law denouncing Jews for poisoning wells—which of course they weren't.

4. BRIGANDS WERE TERRORIZING THE FRENCH COUNTRYSIDE.

In July 1789, amid the widespread fear and instability on the eve of the French revolution, rumors spread that the anti-revolutionary nobility had planted brigands (robbers) to terrorize the peasants and steal their stores of food. Lights from furnaces, bonfires, and even the reflection of the setting sun were sometimes taken to be signs of brigands, with panic as the predictable result. Provincial towns and villages formed militias in response to the rumors, even though, as historian Georges Lefebvre put it, “the populace scared themselves.” In one typical incident, near Troyes on July 24, 1789, a group of brigands were supposedly spotted heading into some woods; an alarm was sounded and 3000 men gave chase. The “brigands” turned out to be a herd of cattle.

5. GERMAN-AMERICANS WERE PLOTTING SNEAK ATTACKS ON CANADA.

Officers of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police marching in a Canada Day parade
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Canada entered World War I in 1914, three years before the United States did. During the gap period, rumors circulated that German-Americans sympathetic to their country of origin were planning surprise attacks on Canada. One of the worst offenders of such rumor-mongering, according to authors Bartholomew and Hassall, was British consul-general Sir Courtenay Bennett, then stationed in New York. In the early months of 1915, Bennett made “several sensational claims about a plan in which as many as 80,000 well-armed, highly trained Germans who had been drilling in Niagara Falls and Buffalo, New York, were planning to invade Canada from northwestern New York state.” Bizarre as it may sound, there was so much anxiety and suspicion during the period that Canadian Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden requested a report on the story, which the Canadian police commissioner determined to be without any foundation whatsoever.

6. THE INDONESIAN GOVERNMENT WAS HUNTING HEADS FOR CONSTRUCTION PROJECTS.

In certain parts of Indonesia, locals reportedly believe—or once did—that large-scale construction projects require human heads to keep the structures from crumbling. In 1937, one island was home to a spate of rumors saying that a tjoelik (government-sanctioned headhunter) was looking for a head to place near a local jetty construction project. Locals reported strange noises and sights, houses pelted with stones, and attacks from tjoelik wielding nooses or cowboy lassos. Similar rumors surfaced in 1979 in Indonesian Borneo, when government agents were supposedly seeking a head for a new bridge project, and in 1981 in Southern Borneo, when the government headhunters supposedly needed heads to stabilize malfunctioning equipment in nearby oil fields. Terrified townspeople began curtailing their activities so as not to be in public any longer than necessary, although the rumors eventually died down.

7. POWERFUL APHRODISIAC GUM WENT ON SALE IN THE MIDDLE EAST.

An assortment of sticks of pink bubble gum
iStock

In the mid-1990s, the Middle East was home to some alarming rumors about aphrodisiacal gum. In 1996 in Mansoura, Egypt, stories began spreading that students at the town’s university had purchased gum deliberately spiked with an aphrodisiac and were having orgies as a result. One local member of parliament said the gum had been distributed by the Israeli government as part of a plot to corrupt Egyptian youth. Mosque loudspeakers began warning people to avoid the gum, which was supposedly sold under the names “Aroma” or “Splay.” Authorities closed down some shops and made arrests, but never did find any tainted gum. Similar rumors cropped up the following year in the Gaza Strip, this time featuring a strawberry gum that turned women into prostitutes—supposedly, the better to convince them to become Shin Bet informants for the Israeli military.

8. SORCERERS WERE PLAGUING INDONESIA.

In the fall of 1998, a sorcerer scare in East Java, Indonesia, resulted in the deaths of several villagers. The country was in crisis, and while protests raged in major cities, some in the rural area of Banyuwangi began agitating for restitution for past wrongs allegedly committed by sorcerers. The head of the local district ordered authorities to move the suspected sorcerers to a safe location, a process that included a check-in at the local police station. Unfortunately, villagers took the suspects’ visits to police stations as proof of their sorcery and began killing them. Anthropologists who studied the incident said the stories of supposed sorcery—making neighbors fall sick, etc.—were based entirely on rumor and gossip.

9. OBAMA WAS INJURED BY A WHITE HOUSE EXPLOSION.

These days, rumors have advanced technology to help them travel. On April 23, 2013, a fake tweet from a hacked Associated Press account claimed that explosions at the White House had injured Barack Obama. That lone tweet caused instability on world financial markets, and the Standard and Poor’s 500 Index lost $130 billion in a short period. Fortunately, it quickly recovered. (Eagle-eyed journalists were suspicious of the tweet from the beginning, since it didn’t follow AP style of referring to the president with his title and capitalizing the word breaking.)

An earlier version of this story ran in 2015.

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The TSA's Top 10 Strangest Finds of 2017
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Airport security checkpoints are dull for everyone except Bob Burns, the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) witty social media lead. For the uninitiated, Burns—who’s also known as “Blogger Bob”—keeps track of the strange, hilarious, and dangerous things people try bringing on planes, and posts pictures of the more unusual items onto the organization's Instagram page. Among the many strange items Burns has encountered are countless knives and guns, a tiny dog trapped in a checked suitcase, a sandwich slicer, and even a life-size corpse prop from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Bob Burns, the TSA's social media lead
Courtesy of Bob Burns

To commemorate yet another year on the job filled with bizarre checkpoint finds, Burns recently created the video below. It highlights the top 10 weirdest TSA finds from 2017, which range from bladed metal knuckles Burns dubbed “Satan’s Pizza Cutter” to narcotics disguised as Christmas presents.

“We hate to tear open a perfectly wrapped gift, but as you can see from this [video], the contents of the gifts aren’t always sweaters, socks, and underwear,” Burns tells Mental Floss.

While making the video, Burns didn’t have pictures on hand of every single strange object he wanted to include. If so, he might have added a weaponized paint roller that was discovered inside a carry-on bag at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. It “looks like something out of a Mad Max movie,” Burns says. “It’s as if Mad Max wanted to paint the Thunderdome with the blood of his victims. It’s a paint roller wrapped in sandpaper and wire with nails protruding.”

A weaponized paint roller discovered by the TSA in 2017
Courtesy of Bob Burns

Other items that weren't captured in Burns's video that piqued the social media guru’s interest included grenade-shaped salt and pepper shakers and a knife concealed inside a container of Dove men’s deodorant. “Now I get why [the label] reads ’48 hours of protection,'” Burns says.

A knife hidden inside a deodorant container, discovered by the TSA in 2017
Courtesy of Bob Burns

Watch the video below to view Burns’s entire top 10 list of unusual checkpoint finds, and when you're done, check out the TSA's Instagram for more of his signature hilarity.

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