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"Travels" by John Mandeville, 1459 via Wikimedia // Public Domain
"Travels" by John Mandeville, 1459 via Wikimedia // Public Domain

50 Bizarre Passages from Medieval Europe’s Bestselling Travel Book

"Travels" by John Mandeville, 1459 via Wikimedia // Public Domain
"Travels" by John Mandeville, 1459 via Wikimedia // Public Domain

The Travels of Sir John Mandeville was a medieval bestseller. First published in the mid-14th century and translated into at least eight languages, the book was popular for more than four centuries and was closely read by explorers such as Sir Walter Raleigh and Christopher Columbus. Part travel guide, part Christian polemic, part armchair anthropology, the text traces the purported travels of a knight who, for 30 years, explored Europe, the Holy Land, India, Ethiopia, and beyond.

And most of its contents were entirely fabricated.

Travels is ripe with bloated exaggerations (Mount Ararat is seven miles high) and careless assumptions (camels don’t eat much; therefore, they must live off nothing but air). But as Mandeville ventured farther from continental Europe—into the unknown land medieval folks called “The Antipodes”—his account becomes a little, um, weirder.

There are dragons and cyclops, centaurs, and men with the heads of dogs. There are giants and jumbo-snails and dwarves who live off the smell of apples. A skeptical Sir Walter Raleigh eventually called Mandeville the “greatest fabler of the world.” (Which is funny, because in his own travel book, Discovery of Guiana, Raleigh used Mandeville's idea of a race of headless people with faces on their chests.)

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But Raleigh was onto something. Mandeville was a master at lying, both about his travels and his very identity. As editors Tamarah Kohanski and C. David Benson write in a 2007 introduction to Travels, “The general scholarly consensus today is that ‘Sir John Mandeville, knight of St. Albans’ was probably not a knight, not named Mandeville, not English, and perhaps never traveled much at all.” Mandeville was likely just an anonymous writer who cribbed text from dozens of old travel books and mythologies. It took about 600 years for his venerated reputation to crumble into that of an imposter, plagiarist, and fabulist.

It’s hard to know exactly how gullible Mandeville's original readers were (medieval travel books were often suspected of wild exaggeration even then). All we know is that his book—full of what Mandeville called “diverse folks, and of diverse manners and laws, and of diverse shapes of men”—is one of the most whimsical travel books published in English. We read through it and whittled it down to some of the weirdest passages, listed below.

DIVERSE PEOPLE

A sciapod. Image credit: Wikimedia // Public Domain

1. A man with goat legs // Egypt: This monster … had two horns trenchant on his forehead; and he had a body like a man unto the navel, and beneath he had the body like a goat.

2. One-legged people who use their oversized foot as a shade umbrella (a.k.a.: Sciapods) // Ethiopia: In that country be folk that have but one foot, and they go so blyve [quickly] that it is marvel. And the foot is so large, that it shadoweth all the body against the sun.

3. Dwarves who subsist on the aroma of apples // Island Pytan: The folk of that country … be as dwarfs, but not so little as be the Pigmies. These men live by the smell of wild apples. And when they go any far way, they bear the apples with them; for if they had lost the savour of the apples, they should die anon.

4. Mouthless dwarves who eat through straws and speak sign language // An island near Dondun: In another isle there be little folk, as dwarfs. And they be two so much as the pigmies. And they have no mouth; but instead of their mouth they have a little round hole, and when they shall eat or drink, they take through a pipe or a pen or such a thing, and suck it in, for they have no tongue; and therefore they speak not, but they make a manner of hissing as an adder doth, and they make signs one to another as monks do, by the which every of them understandeth other.

5. People with elephantine ears // Another island near Dondun: In another isle be folk that have great ears and long, that hang down to their knees.

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6. Stone-faced women with killer looks // An island near the “Vale Perilous”: [There] be full cruel and full evil women of nature. And they have precious stones in their eye[s]. And they be of that kind, that if they behold any man with wrath, they slay him anon with the beholding, as doth the basilisk.

7. Gold-digging pygmies who hate birds // The land of Chan: That river goeth through the land of Pigmies, where that the folk be of little stature, that be but three span long ... These men be the best workers of gold, silver, cotton, silk and of all such things, of any other that be in the world. And they have oftentimes war with the birds of the country that they take and eat.

8. Cannibals who keep it in the family // Isle of Dondun: In that isle be folk of diverse kinds, so that the father eateth the son, the son the father, the husband the wife, and the wife the husband. ... they chop all the body in small pieces, and pray all his friends to come and eat of him that is dead.

9. Horned men who speak pig // A desert in Paradise: In that desert be many wild men, that be hideous to look on; for they be horned, and they speak nought, but they grunt, as pigs.

10. Men with leopard beards // Albany: And the men have thin beards and few hairs, but they be long; but unnethe [with difficulty] hath any man passing fifty hairs in his beard, and one hair sits here, another there, as the beard of a leopard or of a cat.

11. Gentlemen with generously droopy family jewels // Crues, India: But there is so great heat ... [that] men’s ballocks hang down to their knees for the great dissolution of the body. And men of that country, that know the manner, let bind them up, or else might they not live, and anoint them with ointments made therefore, to hold them up.

12. Hermaphrodites // Another island near Dondun: And in another isle be folk that be both man and woman ... And they have but one pap [nipple] on the one side, and on that other none … They get children, when they use the member of man; and they bear children, when they use the member of woman.

13. People with a pancake for a face // Another island near Dondun: And in another isle be folk that have the face all flat, all plain, without nose and without mouth. But they have two small holes, all round, instead of their eyes, and their mouth is plat [flat] also without lips.

14. People who desperately need a shave // Beaumare Isle: The folk be all skinned rough hair, as a rough beast, save only the face and the palm of the hand. These folk go as well under the water of the sea, as they do above the land all dry.

15. A land populated entirely by women // Amazonia: Beside the land of Chaldea is the land of Amazonia, that is the land of Feminye. And in that realm is all women and no man; not, as some men say, that men may not live there, but for because that the women will not suffer no men amongst them to be their sovereigns.

16. People who use their oversized upper lip as a blanket // Another Island near Dondun: And in another isle be folk of foul fashion and shape that have the lip above the mouth so great, that when they sleep in the sun they cover all the face with that lip.

17. Polydactyly people who travel on their knees // Another island near Dondun: And in another isle be folk that go always upon their knees full marvellously. And at every pace that they go, it seemeth that they would fall. And they have in every foot eight toes.

18. Feathered ape-men // Another island near Dondun: And in another isle be folk that go upon their hands and their feet as beasts. And they be all skinned and feathered, and they will leap as lightly into trees, and from tree to tree, as it were squirrels or apes.

19. People with dog heads (a.k.a: Cynocephalus) // Nacumera Isle: All the men and women of that isle have hounds’ heads … And they be full reasonable and of good understanding, save that they worship an ox for their God.

DIVERSE PLACES AND CUSTOMS

20. A free-love proto-communist utopia // Lamary: In that land is full great heat. And the custom there is such, that men and women go all naked. ... And they wed there no wives, for all the women there be common and they forsake no man. ... And also all the land is common; for all that a man holdeth one year, another man hath it another year; and every man taketh what part that him liketh. And also all the goods of the land be common, corns and all other things: for nothing there is kept in close, ne nothing there is under lock, and every man there taketh what he will without any contradiction, and as rich is one man there as is another.

21. Obsessive government transparency // Cathay: And under the emperor’s table sit four clerks that write all that the emperor saith, be it good, be it evil; for all that he saith must be holden, for he may not change his word, ne revoke it.

22. A nation that feasts on chubby children // Lamary: Thither go merchants and bring with them children to sell to them of the country, and they buy them. And if they be fat they eat them anon. And if they be lean they feed them till they be fat, and then they eat them. And they say, that it is the best flesh and the sweetest of all the world.

23. Fashionably oppressive hats for unfashionably oppressive marriages // Cathay: And all those that be married have a counterfeit made like a man’s foot upon their heads, a cubit long, all wrought with great pearls, fine and orient, and above made with peacocks’ feathers and of other shining feathers; and that stands upon their heads like a crest, in token that they be under man’s foot and under subjection of man.

24. A city obscured entirely by darkness // Kingdom of Abchaz: For a province of the country ... is all covered with darkness, without any brightness or light; so that no man may see ne hear, ne no man dare enter into him.

25. Making broth with dirty dishes // Cathay: And when they have eaten, they put their dishes unwashen into the pot or cauldron with remnant of the flesh and of the broth till they will eat again.

26. And animal repellent made of snails // Land of Lomb: They anoint their hands and their feet [with a juice] made of snails and of other things made therefore, of the which the serpents and the venomous beasts hate and dread the savour; and that maketh them flee.

27. Dubious healthcare // Caffolos: Men of that country when their friends be sick they hang them upon trees, and say that it is better that birds, that be angels of God, eat them, than the foul worms of the earth.

28. Even more dubious “friendships”// Caffolos: From that isle men go to another isle, where the folk be of full cursed kind. For they nourish great dogs and teach them to strangle their friends when they be sick.

29. Women who shave // Land of Lomb: And the women drink wine, and men not. And the women shave their beards, and the men not.

STRANGE FRUITS

30. Courage-building lemons // Isle of Silha: They anoint their arms and their thighs and legs with an ointment made of a thing that is clept [called] lemons, that is a manner of fruit like small pease; and then have they no dread of no cockodrills [crocodiles], ne of none other venomous vermin.

31. An ocean made entirely out of gravel // The land of Prester John: For in his country is the sea that men clepe [call] the Gravelly Sea, that is all gravel and sand, without any drop of water, and it ebbeth and floweth in great waves as other seas do.

32. Age-enhancing trees // A desert near the Isle of Beaumare: And men say that the folk that keep those trees, and eat of the fruit and of the balm that groweth there, live well four hundred year or five hundred year, by virtue of the fruit and of the balm

33. Oversized grapes // Caldilhe: And there be vines that bear so great grapes, that a strong man should have enough to do for to bear one cluster with all the grapes.

Wikimedia // Public Domain

34. Wooly trees // Bacharia: In that land be trees that bear wool, as though it were of sheep, whereof men make clothes and all things that may be made of wool.

35. Fruits full of hot surprises // Arabia: And there beside grow trees that bear full fair apples, and fair of colour to behold; but whoso breaketh them or cutteth them in two, he shall find within them coals and cinders.

36. Like, a lot of surprises // Land of Cathay: And there groweth a manner of fruit ... And when they be ripe, men cut them a-two, and men find within a little beast, in flesh, in bone, and blood, as though it were a little lamb without wool. And men eat both the fruit and the beast. And that is a great marvel.

FANTASTIC BEASTS

A dragon from a 15th century edition of the Travels. Image credit: British Library via Europeana // Public Domain

37. Sushi-loving cyclops // An island near Dondun: In one of these isles be folk of great stature, as giants. And they be hideous for to look upon. And they have but one eye, and that is in the middle of the front. And they eat nothing but raw flesh and raw fish.

38. Man-eating giants // Vale Perilous: After this ... is a great isle, where the folk be great giants of twenty-eight foot long, or of thirty foot long. … And they eat more gladly man’s flesh than any other flesh.

39. Even taller man-eating giants // Beyond Vale Perilous: In an isle beyond that were giants of greater stature, some of forty-five foot, or of fifty foot long, and, as some men say, some of fifty cubits long. … And men have seen, many times, those giants take men in the sea out of their ships, and brought them to land, two in one hand and two in another, eating them going, all raw and all quick.

40. 60-foot-long crocodiles // Silha Island: In that land is full much waste, for it is full of serpents, of dragons and of cockodrills [crocodiles], that no man dare dwell there. These cockodrills be serpents, yellow and rayed above, and have four feet and short thighs, and great nails as claws or talons. And there be some that have five fathoms in length, and some of six and of eight and of ten. [A fathom is six feet.]

41. Two-headed geese // Silha Island: In that country and others thereabout there be wild geese that have two heads.

42. Chickens covered in wool // Mancy, India: In that country be white hens without feathers, but they bear white wool as sheep do here.

43. Centaurs // Another island near Dondun: And in another isle be folk that have horses’ feet. And they be strong and mighty, and swift runners; for they take wild beasts with running, and eat them.

44. Serpents that sniff out illegitimate children // Sicily: And in Sicily there is a manner of serpent, by the which men assay and prove, whether their children be bastards or no, or of lawful marriage: for if they be born in right marriage, the serpents go about them, and do them no harm, and if they be born in avoutry [adultery], the serpents bite them and envenom them.

45. Pungent panther skins that can blind a man // Inside a palace in the city of Caydon: And all the walls be covered within of red skins of beasts that men clepe [called] panthers, that be fair beasts and well smelling; … Those skins be as red as blood, and they shine so bright against the sun, that unnethe [hardly] no man may behold them.

46. Dragons // Beirut: From thence men come by a city that is called Beyrout, where Saint George slew the dragon; and it is a good town, and a fair castle therein…

47. A camel-chameleon hybrid // Arabia: And there be also in that country many camles; that is a little beast as a goat, that is wild, and he liveth by the air and eateth nought, ne drinketh nought, at no time. And he changeth his colour often-time, for men see him often sithes [many times], now in one colour and now in another colour; and he may change him into all manner colours that him list, save only into red and white.

48. Jumbo sheep // The Perilous Valley: And among those giants be sheep as great as oxen here, and they bear great wool and rough. Of the sheep I have seen many times.

49. Gigantic snails // Calonak: There be also in that country a kind of snails that be so great, that many persons may lodge them in their shells, as men would do in a little house.

50. Whatever this terrifying thing is // Arabia: There be also many other beasts, full wicked and cruel, that be not mickle [much] more than a bear, and they have the head like a boar, and they have six feet, and on every foot two large claws, trenchant; and the body is like a bear, and the tail as a lion.

You can read all of The Travels of Sir John Mandeville here.

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The Plucky Teenage Stowaway Aboard the First American Expedition to Antarctica
The Ohio State University Archives
The Ohio State University Archives

Documentary filmmaker and journalist Laurie Gwen Shapiro came across the name "William Gawronski" in 2013 while researching a story about Manhattan's St. Stanislaus, the oldest Polish Catholic church in the U.S. In 1930, more than 500 kids from the church had held a parade in honor of Billy Gawronski, who had just returned from two years aboard the first American expedition to Antarctica, helmed by naval officer Richard E. Byrd.

The teenager had joined the expedition in a most unusual way: by stowing aboard Byrd's ships the City of New York and the Eleanor Bolling not once, not twice, but four times total. He swam across the Hudson River to sneak onto the City of New York and hitchhiked all the way to Virginia to hide on the Eleanor Bolling.

"I thought, 'Wait, what?" Shapiro tells Mental Floss.

Intrigued by Billy's persistence and pluck, Shapiro dove into the public records and newspaper archives to learn more about him. She created an Excel spreadsheet of Gawronskis all along the East Coast and began cold-calling them.

"Imagine saying, 'Did you have an ancestor that jumped in the Hudson and stowed away to the Antarctic in 1928?'" Shapiro says. She got "a lot of hang-ups."

On the 19th call, to a Gawronski in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, an elderly woman with a Polish accent answered the phone. "That boy was my husband," Gizela Gawronski told her. Billy had died in 1981, leaving behind a treasure trove of mementos, including scrapbooks, notebooks, yearbooks, and hundreds of photos.

"I have everything," Gizela told Shapiro. "I was hoping someone would find me one day."

Three days later, Shapiro was in Maine poring over Billy's papers with Gizela, tears in her eyes.

These materials became the basis of Shapiro's new book The Stowaway: A Young Man's Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica. It's a rollicking good read full of fascinating history and bold characters that takes readers from New York to Tahiti, New Zealand to Antarctica, and back to New York again. It's brimming with the snappy energy and open-minded optimism of the Jazz Age.

Shapiro spent six weeks in Antarctica herself to get a feel for Billy's experiences. "I wanted to reach the Ross Ice barrier like Billy did," she says.

Read on for an excerpt from chapter four.

***

As night dropped on September 15, Billy jumped out of his second-floor window and onto the garden, a fall softened by potatoes and cabbage plants and proudly photographed sunflowers. You would think that the boy had learned from his previous stowaway attempt to bring more food or a change of dry clothes. Not the case.

An overnight subway crossing into Brooklyn took him to the Tebo Yacht Basin in Gowanus. He made for the location he'd written down in his notes: Third Avenue and Twenty-Third Street.

In 1928 William Todd's Tebo Yacht Basin was a resting spot— the spot—for the yachts of the Atlantic seaboard's most aristocratic and prosperous residents. The swanky yard berthed more than fifty staggering prizes of the filthy rich. Railroad executive Cornelius Vanderbilt kept his yacht O-We-Ra here; John Vanneck, his Amphitrite. Here was also where to find Warrior, the largest private yacht afloat, owned by the wealthiest man in America, public utilities baron Harrison Williams; yeast king (and former mayor of Cincinnati) Julian Fleischman's $625,000 twin-screw diesel yacht, the Carmago; General Motors president Alfred P. Sloan's Rene; shoe scion H. W. Hanan's Dauntless; and J. P. Morgan's Corsair III. The Tebo Yacht Basin's clubroom served fish chowder luncheons to millionaires in leather-backed mission chairs.

Todd, a great friend of Byrd's, lavished attention on his super-connected pal with more contacts than dollars. He had provided major funding for Byrd's 1926 flight over the North Pole, and helped the commander locate and refit two of the four Antarctic expedition ships for $285,900, done at cost. Todd loved puffy articles about him as much as the next man, and press would help extract cash from the millionaires he actively pursued as new clients; helping out a famous friend might prove cheaper than the advertisements he placed in upmarket magazines. Throughout that summer, Byrd mentioned Todd's generous support frequently.

Two weeks after the City of New York set sail, the Chelsea, the supply ship of the expedition, was still docked at the Tebo workyard and not scheduled to depart until the middle of September. Smith's Dock Company in England had built the refurbished 170-foot, 800-ton iron freighter for the British Royal Navy at the tail end of the Great War. First christened patrol gunboat HMS Kilmarnock, her name was changed to the Chelsea during her post–Royal Navy rumrunning days.

Not long before she was scheduled to depart, Byrd announced via a press release that he was renaming this auxiliary ship, too, after his mother, Eleanor Bolling. But the name painted on the transom was Eleanor Boling, with one l—the painter's mistake. As distressing as this was (the name was his mother's, after all), Byrd felt a redo would be too expensive and a silly use of precious funds. Reporters and PR staff were simply instructed to always spell the name with two ls.

As Billy eyed the ship in dock days after his humiliation on board the New York, he realized here was another way to get to Antarctica. The old, rusty-sided cargo ship would likely be less guarded than the flagship had been.

As September dragged on, Billy, back in Bayside, stiffened his resolve. No one would think he'd try again! On September 15, once more he swam out during the night to board a vessel bound for Antarctica.

Since his visit two weeks prior, Billy had studied his news clippings and knew that the Bolling was captained by thirty-six-year-old Gustav L. Brown, who'd been promoted weeks earlier from first mate of the New York when Byrd added the fourth ship to his fleet. Billy liked what he read. According to those who sailed under Brown's command, this tall and slender veteran of the Great War was above all genteel, and far less crotchety than the New York's Captain Melville. Captain Brown's education went only as far as high school, and while he wasn't against college, he admired honest, down-to-earth workers. Like his colleague Captain Melville, Brown had begun a seafaring life at fourteen. He seemed just the sort of man to take a liking to a teenage stowaway with big dreams.

Alas, the crew of the second ship headed to Antarctica now knew to look for stowaways. In a less dramatic repeat of what had happened in Hoboken, an Eleanor Bolling seaman ousted Billy in the earliest hours of the morning. The kid had (unimaginatively) hidden for a second time in a locker under the lower forecastle filled with mops and bolts and plumbing supplies. The sailor brought him to Captain Brown, who was well named, as he was a man with a mass of brown hair and warm brown eyes. The kind captain smiled at Billy and praised the cheeky boy's gumption—his Swedish accent still heavy even though he'd made Philadelphia his home since 1920—yet Billy was escorted off to the dock and told to scram.

A few hours later, still under the cover of night, Billy stole back on board and was routed out a third time, again from the “paint locker.”

A third time? The Bolling's third in command, Lieutenant Harry Adams, took notes on the gutsy kid who had to be good material for the lucrative book he secretly hoped to pen. Most of the major players would score book deals after the expedition; the public was eager for adventure, or at least so publishers thought. The catch was that any deal had to be approved by Byrd: to expose any discord was to risk powerful support. Adams's book, Beyond the Barrier with Byrd: An Authentic Story of the Byrd Antarctic Exploring Expedition, was among the best: more character study than thriller, his grand sense of humor evident in his selection of anecdotes that the others deemed too lightweight to include.

Billy was not the only stowaway that September day. Also aboard was a girl Adams called Sunshine, the "darling of the expedition," a flirt who offered to anyone who asked that she wanted to be the first lady in Antarctica. (In the restless era between world wars, when movies gave everyone big dreams, even girl stowaways were not uncommon.) Brown told a reporter that Sunshine had less noble aspirations, and soon she, too, was removed from the Bolling, but not before she gave each crew member a theatrical kiss.

As the early sun rose, Captain Brown called Billy over to him from the yacht yard's holding area where he had been asked to wait with the giggling Sunshine until his father arrived. The captain admired Billy's gumption, but it was time for the seventeen-year-old to go now and not waste any more of anyone's time.

As Lieutenant Adams recorded later, "Perhaps this matter of getting rid of Bill was entered up in the Eleanor Bolling log as the first scientific achievement of the Byrd Antarctic expedition."

*** 

From THE STOWAWAY: A Young Man's Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica by Laurie Gwen Shapiro. Copyright © 2018 by Laurie Gwen Shapiro. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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The Truth Is In Here: Unlocking Mysteries of the Unknown
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In the pre-internet Stone Age of the 20th century, knowledge-seekers had only a few options when they had a burning question that needed to be answered. They could head to their local library, ask a smarter relative, or embrace the sales pitch of Time-Life Books, the book publishing arm of Time Inc. that marketed massive, multi-volume subscription series on a variety of topics. There were books on home repair, World War II, the Old West, and others—an analog Wikipedia that charged a monthly fee to keep the information flowing.

Most of these were successful, though none seemed to capture the public’s attention quite like the 1987 debut of Mysteries of the Unknown, a series of slim volumes that promised to explore and expose sensational topics like alien encounters, crop circles, psychics, and near-death experiences.

While the books themselves were well-researched and often stopped short of confirming the existence of probing extraterrestrials, what really cemented their moment in popular culture was a series of television commercials that looked and felt like Mulder and Scully could drop in at any moment.

Airing in the late 1980s, the spots drew on cryptic teases and moody visuals to sell consumers on the idea that they, too, could come to understand some of life's great mysteries, thanks to rigorous investigation into paranormal phenomena by Time-Life’s crack team of researchers. Often, one actor would express skepticism (“Aliens? Come on!”) while another would implore them to “Read the book!” Inside the volumes were scrupulously-detailed entries about everything from the Bermuda Triangle to Egyptian gods.

Inside a volume of 'Mysteries of the Unknown'
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Mysteries of the Unknown grew out of an earlier Time-Life series titled The Enchanted World that detailed some of the fanciful creatures of folklore: elves, fairies, and witches. Memorably pitched on TV by Vincent Price, The Enchanted World was a departure from the publisher’s more conventional volumes on faucet repair, and successful enough that the product team decided to pursue a follow-up.

At first, Mysteries of the Unknown seemed to be a non-starter. Then, according to a 2015 Atlas Obscura interview with former Time-Life product manager Tom Corry, a global meditation event dubbed the "Harmonic Convergence" took place in August 1987 in conjunction with an alleged Mayan prophecy of planetary alignment. The Convergence ignited huge interest in New Age concepts that couldn’t be easily explained by science. Calls flooded Time-Life’s phone operators, and Mysteries of the Unknown became one of the company’s biggest hits.

"The orders are at least double and the profits are twice that of the next most successful series,'' Corry told The New York Times in 1988.

Time-Life shipped 700,000 copies of the first volume in a planned 20-book series that eventually grew to 33 volumes. The ads segued from onscreen skeptics to directly challenging the viewer ("How would you explain this?") to confront alien abductions and premonitions.

Mysteries of the Unknown held on through 1991, at which point both sales and topics had been exhausted. Time-Life remained in the book business through 2003, when it was sold to Ripplewood Holdings and ZelnickMedia and began to focus exclusively on DVD and CD sales.

Thanks to cable and streaming programming, anyone interested in cryptic phenomena can now fire up Ancient Aliens. But for a generation of people who were intrigued by the late-night ads and methodically added the volumes to their bookshelves, Mysteries of the Unknown was the best way to try and explain the unexplainable.

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