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10 Facts About Krakatoa's 1883 Eruption

On August 27, 1883, Krakatoa (alternately called Krakatau), an uninhabited volcanic island near Indonesia, erupted spectacularly, expelling huge clouds of gas and ash, generating massive tsunamis, and killing more than 36,000 people. Here are a few things you might not have known about one of the most powerful and devastating eruptions in modern history, which had effects worldwide.

1. SIGNS OF THE ERUPTION TO COME BEGAN IN MAY.

Krakatoa had been dormant for around 200 years when it woke up on May 20, 1883. A cloud of ash, reported by the captain of a German warship, rose nearly 7 miles above the island. According to an 1884 article in The Atlantic, while no one in Anjer, 25 miles from the island, or Merak, 35 miles away, reported anything unusual that day, the inhabitants of Batvia, 80 miles away, “were startled by a dull booming noise, followed by a violent rattling of doors and windows. Whether this proceeded from the air or from below was a matter of doubt, for unlike most earthquake shocks the quivering was only vertical.” There were rumblings and blasts from the volcano’s vents for the next three months.

2. THE ERUPTION STARTED ON AUGUST 26.

On the afternoon of August 26, Krakatowa began to erupt in earnest, sending ash clouds at least 22 miles above the island. According to The Atlantic,

“High waves first retreated, and then rolled upon both sides of the strait. During a night of pitchy darkness these horrors continued with increasing violence, augmented at midnight by electrical phenomena on a terrifying scale, which not only enveloped the ships in the vicinity, but embraced those at a distance of ten to twelve miles. The lurid gleam that played on the gigantic column of smoke and ashes was seen in Batava, eighty miles away. Some of the debris fell as fine ashes in Cheribon, five hundred miles to the eastward.”

But the most terrifying part of the disaster wouldn’t occur until the next day.

3. ONE ERUPTION ON AUGUST 27 WAS HEARD 2800 MILES AWAY.

Starting at 5:30 a.m. on August 27, Krakatoa experienced four massive explosions over the course of 4.5 hours. The blasts were so loud they could be heard as far away as Sri Lanka and Perth, Australia—3000 miles away. The force of the final blast at 10:02 a.m. was 10,000 times more powerful than the one unleashed by the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima, and shockwaves generated by the eruption registered all over the world.

4. IT SPAWNED MASSIVE TSUNAMIS ...

Each eruption on Krakatoa caused massive tsunamis. When the volcano collapsed into the ocean, it generated a tsunami at least 120 feet tall, which was so powerful it tossed blocks of coral weighing 600 tons on shore, carried a steamship one mile inland, killing all 28 crewmen, and wiped out 165 villages in nearby Java and Sumatra. One field worker, 5 miles inland on Java, later recalled of the tsunami,

"[A]ll of a sudden there came a great noise. We … saw a great black thing, a long way off, coming towards us. It was very high and very strong, and we soon saw that it was water. Trees and houses were washed away … The people began to ... run for their lives. Not far off was some steep sloping ground. We all ran towards it and tried to climb up out of the way of the water. The wave was too quick for most of them, and many were drowned almost at my side ... There was a general rush to climb up in one particular place. This caused a great block ... A great struggle took place for a few moments, but ... one after another, they were washed down and carried far away by the rushing waters. You can see the marks on the hill side where the fight for life took place. Some ... dragged others down with them. They would not let go their hold, nor could those above them release themselves from this death-grip."

There was also one pretty hard-to-believe tale of survival. Simon Winchester, an expert on the eruption, wrote in the BBC about a German quarry manager who was swept away from the top of his three-story office building, which in turn sat on top of a hill nearly 100 feet tall. According to the quarry manager's accounts, written later, he was carried along on the wave's crest when "suddenly to his right, he saw, being swept alongside him, an enormous crocodile":  

"With incredible presence-of-mind he decided the only way to save himself was to leap aboard the crocodile and try to ride to safety on its back. How he did it is anyone's guess, but he insists he leapt on, dug his thumbs into the creature's eye-sockets to keep himself stable, and surfed on it for 3km. He held on until the wave broke on a distant hill, depositing him and a presumably very irritated croc on the jungle floor. He ran, survived, and wrote about the story."

Most of the 36,417 people who died—90 percent—were killed by tsunamis. The remaining 10 percent fell victim to falling debris called tephra and pyroclastic flows, hot, fast moving masses of volcanic gas and ash.

5. … AND RELEASED 11 CUBIC MILES OF ASH INTO THE ATMOSPHERE.

The sun in the area was blacked out for three days, and the cloud of ash spread 275 miles. “The matter expelled,” wrote The Atlantic, “rose to an elevation so tremendous that, on spreading itself out, it covered the whole western end of Java and the south of Sumatra for hundreds of square miles with a pall of impenetrable darkness.” There was so much ash that in Nicaragua, on the other side of the Pacific, the sun was blue. After the eruption, floating pumice fields—nearly 10 feet deep in places—clogged ports, interrupting trade.

6. WHEN THE ERUPTION WAS OVER, MOST OF THE ISLAND WAS GONE.

Pre-eruption, the island was 2625 feet high and 3 by 5.5-miles, with three vents. But the last eruption—which had an estimated force of 200 megatons of TNTblew the island apart. Only one-third of the island survived.

7. IT CHANGED THE COLOR OF THE SUNSETS …

All of the volcanic debris from Krakatoa’s eruption caused fiery red sunsets around the world up to three years afterward. Poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, who lived in London, described the Krakatoa sunsets as “more like inflamed flesh than the lucid reds of ordinary sunsets; the glow is intense; that is what strikes everyone; it has prolonged the daylight, and optically changed the season; it bathes the whole sky, it is mistaken for the reflection of a great fire.”

8. … WHICH MAY BE WHY THE BACKGROUND OF THE SCREAM IS SO VIBRANT.

In 2003, researchers announced in Sky and Telescope that they had found not only the exact location in Oslo, Norway, where Munch placed the figure in his famous 1893 painting, but that they had determined that particles in the air from Krakatoa’s eruption were responsible for the painting’s blood-red sky. “It was very satisfying to stand in the exact spot where an artist had his experience," paper author Donald Olson, a physics and astronomy professor at Texas State University, said in a press release. “The real importance of finding the location, though, was to determine the direction of view in the painting. We could see that Munch was looking to the south-west—exactly where the Krakatoa twilights appeared in the winter of 1883-84.” The scientists said that newspaper articles published after the eruption reported the red skies.

9. THE ERUPTION AFFECTED EARTH’S TEMPERATURE FOR YEARS AFTERWARD.

The volcanic debris in the atmosphere was so great that it filtered the amount of sunlight reaching Earth’s surface, causing global temperatures to fall 1.2 degrees Celsius the next year. Temperatures were finally normal again in 1888.    

10. THERE’S A NEW VOLCANO THERE TODAY.

In December 1927, fishermen discovered that a new volcano had emerged from the caldera of the former Krakatoa. It was named Anak Krakatau (Child of Krakatau), and it’s still active today. You can see it in action in the video above.

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Weird
Watch Plastic Skeletons Being Made in a 1960s Factory
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The making of human teaching skeletons used to be a grisly affair, involving the manipulation of fresh—or not-so-fresh—corpses. But as this video from British Pathé shows, by the 1960s it was a relatively benign craft involving molded plastic and high temperatures, not meat cleavers and maggots.

The video, accented by groan-worthy puns and jaunty music, goes inside a factory in Surrey that produces plastic skeletons, brains, and other organs for use in hospitals and medical schools. The sterile surroundings marked a shift in skeleton production; as the video notes, teaching skeletons had long come from the Middle East, until countries started clamping down on exporting human remains. Before that, human skeletons in Britain and the United States were often produced with a little help from grave-robbers, known as the Resurrection Men. After being dissected in anatomical classes at medical schools, the stolen corpses were often de-fleshed and transformed into objects for study. The theft of these purloined bodies, by the way, started several of America's first riots. Far better they be made out of plastic.

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History
Assault, Robbery, and Murder: The Dark History of "Bedsheet Ghosts"
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Wearing his finest black outfit, Francis Smith stared nervously at the three judges in London’s main criminal courthouse. A mild-mannered excise tax collector, Smith had no known criminal history and certainly no intention to become the centerpiece of one of 19th century England’s most unusual murder trials. But a week earlier, Smith had made a criminally foolish mistake: He had shot and killed what he believed to be a ghost.

The spectators inside the courthouse sat hushed as the prosecutor and a cross-examiner questioned about half a dozen eyewitnesses. Each person had seen Smith in the village of Hammersmith (now a part of London) the night of the crime, or they had previously seen the ghost that Smith was zealously hunting. One such eyewitness, William Girdler, the village night-watchman and Smith’s ghost-hunting partner, had not only seen the white-sheeted specter lurking across the street—he had chased it.

“When you pursued it,” the cross-examiner asked, “how did it escape?”

“Slipped the sheet or table-cloth off, and then got it over his head,” Girdler responded. “It was just as if his head was in a bag.”

“How long had the neighborhood been alarmed with its appearance?”

“About six weeks or two months.”

“Was the alarm great and general?”

“Yes, very great.”

“Had considerable mischief happened from it?”

“Many people were very much frightened.”

Girdler was telling the truth. The people of Hammersmith had reported seeing a ghost for weeks now, and they were terrified: The specter was verifiably violent. It assaulted men and women, and during its two month campaign of harassment and intimidation, it had successfully evaded capture. Rumors swirled that it could manifest from graves in an instant, and sink back into the mud just as quickly. At the time, the magazine Kirby’s Wonderful and Scientific Museum reported that the ghost was “so clever and nimble in its retreats, that they could never be traced.”

When Ann Millwood took the stand, the cross-examiner asked if she was familiar with these reports.

The Hammersmith Ghost.
The Hammersmith ghost

“Yes, I heard great talk of it,” Millwood explained, “that sometimes it appeared in a white sheet, and sometimes in a calf-skin dress, with horns on its head, and glass eyes.” That wasn’t all. The ghost also reportedly took the shape of Napoleon Bonaparte; other accounts said that its eyes radiated like glow-worms and that it breathed fire.

It must have been incredibly difficult for Millwood to describe the ghost’s appearance, especially in front of a public audience. The ghoul she characterized looked nothing like her late brother Thomas, the young man whom Francis Smith had mistakenly murdered.

 
 

In 19th century Britain, seeing a ghost—at least, a person dressed up as one—was not uncommon. Ghost impersonating was something of a fad, with churchyards and cobblestoned alleyways regularly plagued by pranksters, louts, and other sheet-wearing hoaxsters who were up to no good.

Historian Owen Davies tracks the origin of ghost impersonators in his wide-ranging book, The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts, tracing the first reports of fake ghosts to the Reformation, when critics of Catholicism accused the Church of impersonating the dead to convert doubters. (According to one account by the reformer Erasmus, a priest once fastened candles to a cast of crabs and released them in a dark graveyard in hopes of imitating the lost, wandering souls of purgatory.)

But for most ghost impersonators, candle-strapped crustaceans were unnecessary; all you needed was a white sheet. Up until the 19th century, the bodies of the poor weren’t buried in coffins but simply wrapped in fabric—sometimes the sheet of the deathbed—which would be knotted at the head and feet. Ghost impersonators adopted the white sheet as their de facto wardrobe as early as 1584, when Reginald Scott, a member of parliament and witchcraft aficionado, wrote that, “one knave in a white sheet hath cozened [that is, deceived] and abused many thousands that way.” It’s from this practice that the trope of a white-sheeted ghost originated.

Seventeenth and 18th century Britain are sprinkled with accounts of phony phantoms. Take Thomas Wilmot, a famed crook and highwayman who once disguised himself as a spirit to steal money. (His appearance—chalked-up skin and a sheet-bound head—sent a table of gamblers scrambling for an exit. Wilmot pocketed the cash they left on the table.) And by the 1760s, so many white-sheeted pranksters were prowling in cemeteries that annoyed citizens were paying bounties to get rid of them. According to the Annual Register, one ghost in southern Westminster “struck such terror into the credulous inhabitants thereabouts, that those who could not be brought to believe it a ghost, entered into a subscription, to give five guineas to the person, who would seize him.”

These pranks had consequences. In 1792, a ghost impersonator in Essex spooked a farm-worker steering a wagon; the horses jumped, the driver tumbled, and his leg was crushed by one of the wagon’s wheels. He died from his injuries. Twelve years later, soldiers in London’s St. James’s Park spotted the specter of a headless woman, an event that authorities took very seriously, if only because it was distracting—and reportedly harming—its security guards. In the 1830s, a ghost impersonator was tried for manslaughter because he literally frightened an 81-year-old woman to death.

It was dangerous for the so-called ghosts, too. In 1844, six men chased a ghost impersonator and beat him so badly that he had to visit the hospital. In 1888, a mob of 50 villagers—all armed with sticks—surrounded a “ghost” and only released him after he agreed to donate money to a local infirmary. (Some ghost-busts startled investigators for other reasons: Davies writes that, in 1834, an investigation of an unoccupied haunted house revealed “nothing more than some boisterous love-makers.”)

Like many other pastimes in 19th century Britain, ghost impersonating was a gendered activity: Women, especially young female servants, were often restricted to mimicking poltergeist activity indoors—rapping on doors, moving furniture, throwing rocks at windows—while the sheet-wearing hijinks were reserved for young men who, far too often, had scuzzy intentions.

Most accounts of ghost impersonating, both modern and historical, gloss over the fact that men often used their ghostly cover to intimidate, harass, sexually assault, and even rape women. In his precise and critical account of ghost impersonators, Spirits of an Industrial Age, the historian Jacob Middleton argues that ghost impersonating was not only the domain of juvenile pranksters, but also that of sexual predators. This was made most painfully clear during the 1830s, the height of hauntings by “Spring-Heeled Jack.”

Spring-Heeled Jack.
Spring-Heeled Jack
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Every day, London’s women had to contend not only with the persistent threat of cads and street harassers, but also with men the press dubbed “Monsters,” menaces who stalked, grabbed, groped, slashed, and stabbed women in the breasts and buttocks. These criminals were piquerists, people who took sexual pleasure in piercing the skin of women, and a spate of attacks in the 1780s put all of London at unease. In the early 1800s, these boors started to take cover by dressing as ghosts. Spring-Heeled Jack, called a “monster in human form,” was among them: Hiding in alleyways after sunset, he would seek lone women, knock on their doors, and attempt to tear away their clothes with hooks. Thanks to London’s sensationalist press, tales of Spring-Heeled Jack would bloat into urban legend.

But even before Spring-Heeled Jack, on a normal evening, the women of Hammersmith were justified in feeling worried about stepping outside after dark. Organized police forces were a relatively new idea in Great Britain, and solitary neighborhoods such as Hammersmith were protected by little more than a roving constable or watchman. Reports of the Hammersmith ghost intensified that anxiety. (The community's men weren’t much help. As the Morning Post reported, “[The ghost] was seen on Monday evening last pursuing a woman, who shrieked dreadfully. Although there were four male passengers in the stage coach, which passed at the time, not one durst venture to the rescue of the distressed female.”) It wasn’t until weeks of attacks that bands of locals, their bellies sloshing with ale supplied by the nearest public house, began taking to the streets to stop the menace.

It was at the intersection of these two sad facts that the tragedy at Hammersmith unfolded: Francis Smith went out on January 3, 1804 to catch a ghost, while Thomas Millwood went out to ensure that his wife, who was walking home alone in the dark, did not meet one.

 
 

Thomas Millwood was told he resembled the Hammersmith ghost. A bricklayer, Millwood wore a white jacket, white trousers, and a white apron, an ensemble that scared a carriage-riding couple one dark Saturday night. When the passerby exclaimed to his wife, “There goes the ghost!” Millwood turned and uncorked a few colorful and unprintable words, asking if the man wanted “a punch in the head.”

After the incident, a family member named Phoebe Fullbrooke implored Millwood to change his wardrobe at night. “Your clothes look white,” she said. “Pray do put on your great coat, that you may not run any danger.” Millwood mumbled something about how he hoped the town’s vigilantes would catch the ghost, but he neglected the advice and continued walking home in his white work clothes.

A few nights later, Francis Smith and William Girdler went ghost hunting.

Compelled by reports of the ghost’s violence, the men carried firearms. Hammersmith’s spirit had choked a man and the village swirled with rumors that it had even attacked a pregnant woman who later died of shock. According to one report, the apparition caused “so much alarm, that every superstitious person in that neighborhood had been filled with the most powerful apprehensions.” But superstitions mattered little. Ghost or not, there was undoubtedly a public menace in Hammersmith, and people wanted it gone. A bounty of 10 pounds would be awarded to anybody who caught it.

A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in 'The Newgate Calendar.'
A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in The Newgate Calendar.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

That same night, Thomas Millwood stopped at his father’s house and began chatting with his sister Ann. Sometime between 10 and 11 p.m., she suggested he leave and escort his wife, who was still in town, back home. “You had better go,” Ann said. “It is dangerous for your wife to come home by herself.” Millwood agreed and stepped outside, wearing his white bricklayer’s clothes. He didn’t know that he was walking down the same unlit lane as Francis Smith, shotgun in tow.

When Smith spotted the white figure gliding in his direction, he lifted his fowling piece to his shoulder and yelled, “Damn you, who are you? Stand, else I’ll shoot you.” The air stood silent. He yelled a second time and stared down the barrel. Not hearing any response, Smith fired.

Millwood’s sister heard the gunshot and screamed for Thomas, but, like Smith, she heard no response. She later found her brother lying face up on the dirt lane, his face stained black with gunpowder, his white clothes stained red.

 
 

The Caledonian Mercury reported the sad news later that week: “We have to announce to the public an event, in some of its circumstances so ludicrous, but in its result so dreadful, that we fear if the reader should even laugh with one side of his mouth, he must of necessity cry with the other.”

The moment the smell of spent gunpowder hit his nose, Smith knew he’d made a mistake. Millwood had been killed instantly; the shot entered his lower left jaw and exited through the back of his neck. Smith barged into the White Hart pub in visible distress, possibly in shock, and waited to be arrested. One week later, he stood trial at London’s Old Bailey courthouse. The jury deliberated for 45 minutes before returning with a conviction of manslaughter.

The three judges rejected the sentence.

“The Court have no hesitation whatever with regard to the law,” Justice Rooke exclaimed, “and therefore the verdict must be—‘Guilty of Murder’ or ‘a total acquittal from want to evidence.’” In other words, the jury could not be wishy-washy. Smith was either guilty of murder, or not guilty of murder—the jury needed to decide.

Within minutes, Smith was convicted of murder. He was sentenced to hang the next Monday; his body would be dissected in the name of science.

Reports of Smith’s trial were lurid. As the Newgate Calendar tells it, “When the dreadful word ‘Guilty!’ was pronounced [Smith] sank into a state of stupefaction exceeding despair.” His feelings were likely intensified by the admission of John Graham, a Hammersmith shoemaker who days earlier admitted to starting the Hammersmith ghost hoax. (Graham began impersonating the specter to scare his apprentices, who he complained were filling his children’s heads with nonsense about ghosts. Unfortunately, his prank appears to have inspired violent copycats to engage in what the Caledonian Mercury called “weak, perhaps wicked frolic.”)

In the end, Smith would be lucky. His sentence was sent to His Majesty King George III, who not only delayed the execution but eventually granted Smith a full pardon.

The Hammersmith ghost trial, however, would haunt England’s legal system for almost another two centuries. Smith’s case would remain a philosophical head-scratcher: If somebody commits an act of violence in an effort to stop a crime from occurring—only to realize later that they were mistaken and that no crime was being committed—is that person still justified in using violence? Or are they the criminal? British law would not be make room for this gray area until the 1980s.

Meanwhile, the tragedy in Hammersmith failed to deter England’s many ghost impersonators. Pranksters and creeps alike continued wearing bedsheets in dark cemeteries and alleyways for almost another century. In fact, the ghost of 1803 and 1804 would not be the last specter to haunt the village of Hammersmith. Two decades later, a ghost would return. But this time, villagers whispered rumors that this haunting was real, caused by the angry soul of a white-clad bricklayer named Thomas Millwood.

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