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7 Mysterious People Without a Past

As the TV show Unsolved Mysteries and its three comebacks proved, folks love a good mystery. History is loaded with people who have disappeared without a trace, though; rarer are the ones who seem to have emerged from nowhere, with no traceable past. Here in the era of the internet, of course, it’s getting easier to crack these cold cases, but there are still a fair number that remain unsolved. Here are some of the creepier people without a past.

1. JEROME OF SANDY COVE

Sandy Cove, Digby Neck, Nova Scotia. Image credit: Paul Hamilton via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Although the versions of his discovery differ, the general story goes that in September of 1863, in Nova Scotia, Canada, an 8-year-old boy walking on the beach of Sandy Cove met a man who was suffering from cold and exposure. He also didn’t have any legs.

When the boy’s family took the legless man to their home, in the village of Digby Neck, they learned that he didn’t speak English. The townspeople named him Jerome, after he murmured something that sounded like that name when they asked who he was. Not only did he not speak English; he didn’t speak in words. As curious looky-loos began stopping by the house to check out the mysterious stranger, Jerome would growl at them like a dog.

When Jerome was examined, the plot thickened. It seemed that his amputations were fresh, so much that they still had the dressings on them and hadn’t yet healed. As well, it seemed that a skilled surgeon had removed the man’s legs. It wasn’t an accident.

After a while, the people of the mostly Baptist town of Digby Neck somehow decided that Jerome might be Catholic (by some accounts, because of a Mediterranean appearance), and he was shipped off to the nearby Acadian community of Meteghan. He was taken in by Corsican-Canadian polyglot Jean Nicola, who tried French on him, in addition to Latin, Italian, and Spanish. Jerome either didn’t speak them or didn’t want to.

Nicola kept Jerome in his house anyhow, caring for him for another 7 years, along with his wife, Julitte, and stepdaughter, Madeleine, for whom Jerome became a favorite. It was during his time in Meteghan that the government was notified of the unidentified double amputee and granted a 2-dollar weekly stipend for his care. Despite living with a linguist, Jerome never learned to speak any language and could only grunt and growl.

After Julitte died, Jerome was sent to live with the Comeau family in the nearby town of St. Alphonse. Jerome stayed here for the rest of his life, allowing the Comeaus to collect admission from onlookers to view him (in addition to collecting his government stipend). Jerome died in 1912, almost 50 years after he was found on the beach. No one ever figured out who he was.

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Jerome has become a favorite character in the folk history of Nova Scotia, with songs and even films telling his story, and theories on his background still abound. Some posit that Jerome was a sailor who was punished with amputation after an attempted mutiny, while others say he was an heir to a fortune who was mutilated, usurped, and then disposed of. According to a book published by Nova Scotian historian Fraser Mooney, Jr, in 2008, Jerome was an immigrant from a town in nearby New Brunswick who suffered from gangrene and was dropped off on Sandy Cove after he became too great of a burden on the town.

None of these theories have been proved—and to this day, Jerome’s identity is still a conundrum.

2. JOHN DOE NO. 24

In October 1945, a deaf teenager was found wandering the streets of Jacksonville, Illinois, unable to speak, sign, or otherwise communicate. The only thing he could write was the name “Lewis.” After trying for some time to locate his relatives and failing, a judge sentenced him to the state’s mental health system, and as he was the 24th nameless person to enter the system, he became known as John Doe No. 24 (and not Lewis, mystifyingly). The name ended up sticking with him until he died.

After being subjected to abuse for years in the state mental institution, things got worse for John, as he eventually lost his eyesight as well, possibly as a side effect of diabetes. Once that happened, he was transferred to several different nursing homes after 30 years in the federal mental health system. He was reported to have kept his sense of humor, though, and was a cheerful guy who enjoyed dancing to music, feeling the vibrations.

When he died of a stroke at the nursing home in Peoria in 1993, no one was any closer to discovering who he was or where he’d come from. At his graveside service, when the crowd was asked if anyone had words to say about John, nobody did. Fortunately, he may not be completely forgotten; when she heard the sad story, singer/songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter commemorated him in her song, “John Doe No. 24.”

3. MONSIEUR CHOUCHANI

Also known as Shushani, Jewish teacher M. Chouchani is best known for his distinguished students—one of whom was Nobel Peace Prize-winning author Elie Wiesel—and not his own works, but that’s mostly because he fervidly guarded the secret of his identity for his entire life.

Chouchani’s disheveled, mendicant-esque appearance is often mentioned in accounts of his life. Wiesel wrote that Chouchani was "dirty," "hairy," and "looked like a hobo turned clown, or a clown playing hobo,” while according to another pupil, the Lithuanian-French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, “his external appearance was quite unpleasant, some say even repugnant.” But he left a strong impression on his students, who called him a master of philosophy, mathematics, and the Talmud. Both men credit him with being one of their most influential teachers ever.

Extremely little is known about Chouchani’s origins. Just after WWII, between 1947 and 1952, the rabbi lived in Paris, then vanished for several years, popping up in Israel for a while. Then he was hanging out in Paris again briefly. Finally, he moved to South America at some point, where he lived until he died. Beyond that, all that’s really known about this guy is that he was born in 1895, and even the location is unknown.

So is his real name. Chouchani and Shushani are thought to be nicknames, and possibly puns; Shushani is a demonym for someone from the Biblical city of Shushan, now in modern-day Iran. But no one’s even clear on WHY he was called that. Or when he started being called that. Or what the pun is, if there is one.

We do know that Chouchani died in 1968 and that he’s buried in Montevideo, Uruguay. Wiesel paid for his headstone and penned his epitaph, which reads: “The wise Rabbi Chouchani of blessed memory. His birth and his life are sealed in enigma.” Nailed it.

4. BELLA (OF THE WYCH ELM)

David Buttery via Wikimedia // Public Domain

In 1943, in the thick of WWII, four boys were playing in Hagley Wood outside of Stourbridge, England, when they made a grim discovery: a human skull in the hollow trunk of a witch hazel tree. When police returned to the scene, they found more goodies inside the tree—a nearly complete skeleton of a middle-aged woman along with some bits of clothing, a shoe, and a cheap wedding ring. A severed hand was subsequently discovered buried nearby. The corpse was found to have a piece of taffeta in its mouth, suggesting the woman had been asphyxiated, and she’d been dead about a year and a half. It’s surmised that she was stuffed into the tree while she was still warm, as rigor mortis would have prevented it.

As the war was raging, the process of identification was stymied—people disappear all the time during a war, often on purpose. Authorities could roughly discern what the woman looked like, but they had no idea where she was from. All they had was her approximate age (35), her height (5 foot), hair color (mousy brown), and the fact that she had messed-up teeth. A search of 3000 missing person cases did no good, and although the press did cover the story, no one came forward with information. The war surged on, and people forgot about the incident.

To add to the creepiness, strange messages started appearing around Christmas of 1943 or 1944 (sources differ). In the West Midlands town of Old Hill, not far from Hagley, a graffito in white chalk appeared on the side of an empty building, inquiring: WHO PUT LUEBELLA DOWN THE WYCH-ELM. (Witch hazel and wych elms are easily mistaken for one another.) Other similar phrases soon showed up in nearby locations, always including the name Bella or Luebella and frequently the name of Hagley Wood.  After a week or two, the phrase became more consistent, taking the form of: WHO PUT BELLA IN THE WYCH [sometimes WITCH] ELM?

Despite the messages, the case remained as cold as ever. The best lead the police ever came up with was that a Nazi spy ring had been operating in the Midlands area during the war, and one of the women connected to the spies was named Clarabella Dronkers (or possibly Clara Bauerle), who was in her thirties and had irregular teeth. They didn’t have enough information, though, to confirm she was the Bella they were looking for.

No one ever managed to work out the identity of the graffiti artist, or artists, either. The phrase kept appearing for decades after the murder, in and around the Midlands. Many of the instances found it spray-painted in white, all caps, on the base of the 250-year-old Wychbury Obelisk in Birmingham; that location seems to have first been chosen in the 1970s, and the question last appeared there in 1999.

5. MAN OF THE HOLE

He has a slew of nicknames, including the Last Tribesman and the Loneliest Man on Earth. But his real name, like his backstory, isn’t known. Usually called the Man of the Hole, he was first discovered to be living alone in the Amazon rainforest in 1996, on a patch of land surrounded by cattle ranchers, and it’s thought that he is the last living member of his indigenous tribe. Which one? That’s unknown too, as is the language he speaks.

MofH’s most common nickname derives from his practice of digging narrow 6-foot-deep chasms inside of each of his homes—which are made of straw, thatch, and giant leaves, and each of which he eventually discards to build a new shelter, leaving the hole behind. It’s thought that the purpose of the holes is to trap animals, or perhaps it’s a place for him to hide. He also has a garden, where he grows manioc, corn, and paw-paw fruit, among other produce.

Since 2007, Brazil’s Fundação Nacional do Índio, the country’s governmental protection agency for natives, has made it illegal to develop on—or even trespass on—the Man of the Hole’s land, beginning with cordoning off 31 square miles around his territory and later expanding it by 11.5 more. He’d already been granted rights to his traditional land, per Brazil’s constitution.

As of 2014, the Man of the Hole was alive, although he’ll fire an arrow at you if you get too close.

6. KASPAR HAUSER

A contemporary depiction of Kaspar Hauser by Johann Georg LaminitImage credit: Wikimedia // Public Domain

This one is almost certainly a hoax, but what an elaborate hoax it is.

In May of 1828, a teenaged boy in peasant clothes was found roaming the streets of what is now Nuremberg, Germany, affecting such a helpless and confused air that passers-by stopped to assist him. He carried on him two letters, one from his caretaker, who said he had raised the boy from infancy and tutored him in reading, writing, and religion, but never allowed him to “take a single step out of my house,” and the other from his mother, stating that he was born on April 30, 1812, that his name was Kasper Hauser, and that his cavalryman of a father had died. The letters were in the same handwriting. He was taken to the home of Captain von Wessenig, where the only things he would say were that he wished to be a cavalryman, as his father was, and “Horse! Horse!” If he were asked any further questions, he would burst into tears and shout “Don’t know!”

When Hauser ended up in custody of the police, jailed as a vagrant in Nuremberg Castle, he said a little more. He claimed to have been held in a dark cell for as long as he could remember, with only a wool blanket, two wooden horses and a toy dog, and fed nothing but bread and water. (As such, he refused to eat any food he was given except bread and water, displaying a special disgust for meat.) He added that he never saw the face of his custodian, only that he’d occasionally drink bitter-tasting water and then wake to find that his hair and nails had been cut.  As well, he seemed obsessed with horses, lighting up with joy after someone gave him a toy horse, petting it, talking to it.

However, the boy seemed in good health, climbing 90 steps up the tower to the jail cell, and he didn’t display any signs of rickets or other malnourishment that would come along with being raised in a dungeon. He said he’d been taught to walk recently by a mysterious man with a blackened face who taught him the phrase, “I want to be a cavalryman, as my father was” (in an Old Bavarian dialect), but he had no idea what it meant. He said the same man was the one who dropped him off on the street in Nuremburg.

Hauser was an object of great curiosity, and people began to visit him in his jail cell, including the city’s mayor, who spent many hours talking with him. Rumors began circulating that he was possible nobility, maybe even one of the princes of the House of Baden.

After two months, Hauser was released and a schoolmaster, Georg Daumer, eventually took the boy into his home and began instructing him on writing, reading, and drawing—which Hauser showed a strong skill for, especially for somebody who’d allegedly never had the occasion to practice.

A drawing attributed to Kaspar Hauser. Image credit: Wikimedia // Public Domain

After about a year, Hauser started getting mysteriously injured.  He was found one day in Daumer’s cellar with a head wound, saying he was attacked by a man in a hood who told him, “You still have to die ere you leave the city of Nuremberg.” He claimed it was the same man who took him to Nuremberg—he recognized the voice.

This resulted in his being moved to the home of a municipal authority. About six months later, a pistol went off in Hauser’s bedroom and he was found with another bleeding head wound. He explained that he’d accidentally knocked the pistol from where it was hanging on the wall. The problem was that the wound was pretty minor and certainly not consistent with a gunshot wound. His caretakers accused him of lying and sent him to the house of Baron von Tucher, who also complained of Kasper’s lies as well as his vanity. The boy continued to burn bridges as he was shuttled around to different caretakers and summarily kicked out after a few months. One patron wrote, “Hauser is a smart scheming codger, a rogue, a good-for-nothing that ought to be killed.”

In 1833, five days after a huge fight with another schoolmaster who’d taken the teen in and then found out he was a giant liar, Kasper showed up with a serious chest wound. He claimed he was lured to the Ansbach Court Garden and a stranger had given him a bag and then stabbed him in the left breast. When police searched the boy, they came up with a violet purse containing a letter written in Spiegel schrift(German mirror writing). In English, it said:

“Hauser will be
able to tell you quite precisely how
I look and from where I am.
To save Hauser the effort,
I want to tell you myself from where
I come _ _ .
I come from from _ _ _
the Bavarian border _ _
On the river _ _ _ _ _
I will even
tell you the name: M. L. Ö.”

Nobody believed him this time, saying the wound, like the previous ones, was likely self-inflicted and he probably just punctured his chest more deeply than he’d meant to. The letter was also folded in a peculiar triangle shape that Hauser himself was known to use, and it contained some grammatical errors that were typical of his writing.

So they did nothing, and Hauser died from his wound three days later. He’s buried in Ansbach, and the epitaph reads: “Here lies Kaspar Hauser, enigma of his time … mysterious his death.”

Although historians seem to agree that Hauser was full of it, none of them ever figured out where he came from in the first place, and the idea that he was a lost prince of Baden prevailed for over a century. Finally, in 1996, a blood sample of Hauser’s was compared to samples from living members of the House of Baden. No dice.

7. GREEN BOOTS

It’s one thing to die shrouded in mystery, your identity never discovered, but it’s another for your anonymous, frozen body to serve as a landmark for the next 13 years.

To be fair, it’s not such an uncommon thing to do when you’re dealing with bodies on Mt. Everest. Obviously, it’s hard enough to climb the thing, much less to retrieve dead people and drag them down the mountain, especially if they’ve fallen into difficult-to-access places. That was the situation with the corpse known as Green Boots, who lay on his right side, with his face obscured from view, on the world’s highest mountain from at least 2001 until 2014.

Although there are approximately 200 frozen human bodies on Everest at any given time, it was the location of Green Boots in combination with his bright lime-green footwear that made him so memorable. At around 27,900 feet, all expeditions coming in from the north side could plainly spot Green Boots curled in his final resting place, a limestone cave. He’s so well known that another climber, David Sharp, died in Green Boots’ Cave (that’s its name) in 2006, after lying there in a hypothermic state for hours, while at least two dozen other climbers passed him. It’s believed that the other climbers saw him and thought he was Green Boots, already dead, and therefore didn’t stop and help.

There are lots of ideas out there as to who Green Boots is. He’s most commonly thought to be Indian climber Tsewang Paljor, who was known to have been wearing green boots the day he disappeared on Everest in 1996. Other people think it’s the body of his climbing partner, Dorje Morup. Both men died in the Everest disaster of 1996, along with six others. There have been many deaths on Everest—more than 200—and it seems unlikely that Green Boots’ identity will ever get pinned down. In 2014, he (or she) disappeared, presumably removed and buried.

SOLVED: LORI ERICA RUFF

Wikipedia // Public Domain

September 2016 update: The case has now been solved—Lori Erica Ruff was Kimberly McLean, a Pennsylvania woman who left her family at age 18.

Lori Ruff had been acting bizarrely in the months prior to her death in 2010, but it wasn’t anything new—her husband Blake had recently separated from her for that reason. Lori had always been a weird one, refusing to let any members of his family hold their baby daughter, for starters. Although she was in her 40s, she’d asked for an Easy-Bake Oven for Christmas. She also had a strange habit of abruptly leaving family gatherings to go take a nap. Lately, it’d gotten worse—after Blake filed for divorce, Lori had been sending harassing emails to his family and even stole a set of their house keys.

But even after she committed suicide by gunshot in Longview, Texas, neither her husband nor any of her in-laws saw the final bombshell coming.

Throughout their marriage, a lockbox had been stashed in the couple’s closet—a lockbox that Blake had been instructed to never touch—and when it was pried open, it was found to contain a series of documents pointing to a very convoluted past. Lori had always been evasive about her background, saying her parents were dead and she had no siblings, and it turns out she had good reason to be cagey: Prior to marrying Blake and becoming Lori Erica Ruff, she had been Lori Erica Kennedy, having legally changed her name in July of 1988. But only a few months before that, it seems her name had been Becky Sue Turner—and according to an investigator the family knew, Becky Sue Turner was a 2-year-old who had died in a fire in Fife, Washington, in 1971.

That’s where the trail stops. Ruff had also gotten herself a new social security number after she changed her name to Lori Kennedy, which basically wiped her identity clean. It’s not known what name she used before she was Becky Sue, or really much about her at all, only that she got a GED and a degree in business administration from the University of Texas at Arlington in 1997 and may have once worked as an exotic dancer, according to an old acquaintance.

The lockbox also contained fake letters of reference from an employer and a landlord, as well as scraps of paper with illegible writing on them—only the words “North Hollywood police,” “402 months,” and the name of attorney Ben Perkins were made out. It’s thought she might have been facing possible jail time—402 months of it—at some point. It’s also suspected, due to some of the documents, that she might have been older than she’d purported to be, a theory that’s supported by the fact that she suffered infertility when she was supposedly in her 20s and resorted to in-vitro fertilization to conceive her daughter in 2008.

Ruff wrote Blake an 11-page suicide note, as well as a shorter one addressed to her daughter, but neither those nor anything found in the lockbox—or her squalid house full of dirty dishes and scribbly scraps of paper—has cleared up the mystery of who she was or where she came from. The police don’t even have any leads, only a list of ruled-out suspects. The Social Security investigator assigned to the case, in regard to Ruff’s next-level identity theft skills, says: “She’s very good.”

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Maynard L. Parker/Courtesy of The Huntington Library in San Marino, California
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The Concept of the American 'Backyard' is Newer Than You Think
A home in Long Beach, California, in the 1950s.
A home in Long Beach, California, in the 1950s.
Maynard L. Parker/Courtesy of The Huntington Library in San Marino, California

Backyards are as American as apple pie and baseball. If you live in a suburban or rural area, chances are good that you have a lawn, and maybe a pool, some patio furniture, and a grill to boot.

This wasn’t always the case, though. As Smithsonian Insider reports, it wasn’t until the 1950s that Americans began to consider the backyard an extension of the home, as well as a space for recreation and relaxation. After World War II, Americans started leaving the big cities and moving to suburban homes that came equipped with private backyards. Then, after the 40-hour work week was implemented and wages started to increase, families started spending more money on patios, pools, and well-kept lawns, which became a “symbol of prosperity” in the 1950s, according to a new Smithsonian Institution exhibit.

A man mows his lawn in the 1950s
In this photo from the Smithsonian Institution's exhibit, a man mows his lawn in Long Beach, California, in the 1950s.
Maynard L. Parker/Courtesy of The Huntington
Library in San Marino, California

Entitled "Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Back Yard," the exhibition includes photographs, advertisements, and articles about backyards from the 1950s and 1960s. The traveling display is currently on view at the Temple Railroad & Heritage Museum in Temple, Texas, and from there it will head to Hartford, Connecticut, in December.

Prior to the 1950s, outdoor yards were primarily workspaces, MLive.com reports. Some families may have had a vegetable garden, but most yards were used to store tools, livestock, and other basic necessities.

The rise of the backyard was largely fueled by materials that were already on hand, but hadn’t been accessible to the average American during World War II. As Smithsonian Insider notes, companies that had manufactured aluminum and concrete for wartime efforts later switched to swimming pools, patio furniture, and even grilling utensils.

A family eats at a picnic table in the 1960s
A family in Mendham, New Jersey, in the 1960s
Molly Adams/Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens, Maida Babson Adams American Garden Collection

At the same time, DIY projects started to come into fashion. According to an exhibit caption of a Popular Mechanics article from the 1950s, “‘Doing-it-yourself’ was advertised as an enjoyable and affordable way for families to individualize their suburban homes.” The magazine wrote at the time that “patios, eating areas, places for play and relaxation are transforming back yards throughout the nation.”

The American backyard continues to grow to this day. As Bloomberg notes, data shows that the average backyard grew three years in a row, from 2015 to 2017. The average home last year had 7048 square feet of outdoor space—plenty of room for a sizable Memorial Day cookout.

[h/t Smithsonian Insider]

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15 Fascinating Facts About the Brooklyn Bridge
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Don't agree to buy it, but you can never know too much about the most famous way to get across the East River—which officially opened 135 years ago, on May 24, 1883.

1. THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE NEEDED A LITTLE BRIBERY TO GET STARTED.

In its initial conception, the Brooklyn Bridge had an honorable goal: Providing safe passage across the rough and frigid East River for Brooklyn residents who worked in Manhattan. In the 1850s, Prussian-born engineer John Augustus Roebling dreamed of a suspension bridge that would make the commute easier for these working class New Yorkers.

However, the methods employed to get the project rolling weren’t quite as honorable. After Roebling was hired by the New York Bridge Company to help span the river, infamous political kingpin William “Boss” Tweed funneled $65,000 in bribes to city aldermen to secure funding for the bridge.

2. THE BRIDGE HAS GONE BY SEVERAL NAMES.

“Brooklyn Bridge” seems like a natural handle for the hybrid suspension and cable-stayed bridge connecting lower Manhattan to its neighbor across the East River, but the name evolved over time. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle first referred to the project as the “Brooklyn Bridge” in 1867, but in its early days it was still referred to as the “Great East River Bridge” as well as the “Great East River Suspension Bridge." At its 1883 dedication, it took on the clunky official name the “New York and Brooklyn Bridge.” (Brooklyn wouldn’t become a part of New York City until 1898.) Brooklyn civic pride led to the name officially changing to the “Brooklyn Bridge” in 1915.

3. ROEBLING PAID A HIGH PRICE FOR THE BRIDGE.

The Brooklyn Bridge was Roebling’s brainchild, but he wouldn’t live to see its completion. While making measurements for the future bridge in 1869, a ferry crushed Roebling’s foot. The engineer developed tetanus as a result of these wounds and passed away in July 1869.

4. ROEBLING’S SON TOOK HIS PLACE AND HAD EQUALLY BAD LUCK.

After Roebling’s death, his son Washington Augustus Roebling stepped in as the bridge project’s chief engineer. The younger Roebling soon developed a problem of his own. To build the structure’s massive foundation, workers labored in caissons, sealed chambers that kept the riverbed dry and allowed for digging. Breathing and working deep in the caissons required compressed air, which meant workers who came up from the depths were vulnerable to “caisson disease,” better known today as the bends. In 1872, Roebling came down with this decompression sickness and was confined to bed.

5. THE PROJECT BECAME AN EARLY FEMINIST VICTORY.

After Washington Roebling fell ill, a third Roebling stepped in as the de facto chief engineer of the bridge, his wife, Emily Warren Roebling. Although Emily began her tenure running orders between her husband, who was laid up in a Brooklyn Heights apartment with a view of construction, and his workers, she soon took bona fide command of the project, overseeing the design, construction, and business management of the tremendous undertaking. Emily Warren Roebling is now widely recognized as a pioneering female engineer and a driving force behind the bridge. Following her work on the bridge, Emily went on to earn a degree in law from New York University and published essays in favor of gender equality.

6. A ROOSTER MADE THE FIRST TRIP ACROSS THE BRIDGE.

Technically, the rooster was tied for first. Emily Warren Roebling earned the honor of being the first human to make the trip across the historic bridge, riding proudly in a carriage a week before its official opening in front of an audience that included President Chester A. Arthur. Sitting in Emily’s lap all the while was a rooster, a symbol of good luck.

7. THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE WAS THE WORLD’S FIRST STEEL-WIRE SUSPENSION BRIDGE.

John Augustus Roebling himself is credited with introducing the steel-wire innovation into bridge design. The engineer proudly referred to steel as “the metal of the future.”

8. A SNEAKY CONTRACTOR INTRODUCED LOW-QUALITY WIRE INTO THE MIX.

Construction materials were accumulated under the watch of John Augustus Roebling, who failed to notice that he had been swindled on his cable wire. Contractor J. Lloyd Haigh snuck a substantial amount of inferior, even faulty, wire into the mix. The flaw went unrecognized until after the wires were incorporated into the standing bridge, at which point replacing them was impossible. Instead, the construction team doubled down on its security measures, introducing far more wire than calculations deemed necessary while working desperately to keep the discovery from reaching the public. For his part, Haigh escaped prosecution for this crime, but was arrested and convicted for forgery in an unrelated case. 

9. THE BRIDGE WAS THE SITE OF A STAMPEDE SOON AFTER OPENING.

The Brooklyn Bridge opened to the public on May 24, 1883 and enjoyed a fairly harmonious first five days in operation. On May 30, however, disaster struck when either a woman tripping or a rumor of a pending collapse sparked a panic among the massive crowd of pedestrians crossing the bridge. The mob’s frantic race to escape the bridge resulted in the deaths of 12 people and serious injuries to 36 more.

10. TWENTY-ONE ELEPHANTS WALKED ACROSS THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE IN 1884.

How do you convince one of America’s busiest cities that its newest bridge can offer safe transport to its many commuters? Elephants. Since the most common haven for trained elephants in the 1880s was a circus tent, the city called upon entrepreneurial showman P.T. Barnum to march 21 elephants across the Brooklyn Bridge in May of 1884 to show just how sturdy the span was.

11. COMPARTMENTS IN THE BRIDGE WERE USED FOR STORING WINE.

If you think a nice glass of wine would be the perfect companion for a moonlit stroll across a river, this is the bridge for you. Engineers built sizeable vaults that were up to 50 feet tall into the bridge beneath its anchorages. Thanks to their cool temperatures, these granite-walled storage spaces made the perfect wine cellars, and they were rented out to the public until World War I. The company A. Smith & Co. Productions forked over $500 a month as rent for the Brooklyn-side vaults, while the liquor distributor Luyties Brothers paid a pretty $5000 for the prime real estate beneath the Manhattan anchorage.

12. ANOTHER COMPARTMENT WAS TURNED INTO A FALLOUT SHELTER.

At some point during the Cold War, one of the bridge’s compartments transformed into a survival shelter stocked with food and water rations and medical supplies. After fading into obscurity after the close of the Cold War, this fallout shelter was rediscovered in 2006 during a routine structural inspection of the bridge.

13. NOBODY CAN FIGURE OUT EXACTLY WHAT COLOR THE BRIDGE WAS.

Upon the announcement of a plan to repaint the Brooklyn Bridge in 2010, controversy erupted over the landmark’s original color. Some historians insisted that the young suspension bridge wore a proud buff color, renamed “Brooklyn Bridge Tan” for the modern makeover. (The option of “Queensborough Tan” drew groans.) On the other side of the battle, old documents and hand-colored lithographs supported the argument that the icon’s original color was “Rawlins Red,” a hue derived from the iron-oxide from the eponymous mountain town of southern Wyoming. In the end, Brooklyn Bridge Tan won out.

14. THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE STANDS WHERE GEORGE WASHINGTON SLEPT.

The Manhattan anchorage of the Brooklyn Bridge features a bronze plaque commemorating the land below as the former location of the country’s first presidential mansion. Known alternatively as the Samuel Osgood House and the Walter Franklin House, the Lower Manhattan mansion served as the home of George Washington during his first ten months as America’s Commander-in-Chief. The residence stood at the intersection of Cherry Street and Pearl Street for 85 years before its demolition in 1856.

15. THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE WAS THE LONGEST IN THE WORLD FOR 20 YEARS.

Just two years before starting work on his New York project, John Augustus Roebling made a bit of suspension bridge history with the humbly named John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge, which spanned 1057 feet over the Ohio River between Covington, Ky. and Cincinnati. Roebling put that endeavor to shame with the Brooklyn Bridge, which bested its predecessor’s principal span by about 50 percent. Boasting a main span of 1595 feet and a total measurement of 5,989 feet, the Brooklyn Bridge held the superlative of longest suspension bridge in the world for two decades. When it finally lost the title in 1903, its successor was none other than its fellow East River crossing the Williamsburg Bridge. The latter’s main span bested the Brooklyn Bridge’s by only four and a half feet, though its total length reached 7308 feet.

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