Here are my favorite mental_floss stories from 2016, at least the ones from my watch. Producing well-researched, well-crafted stories on internet time isn’t always easy, and I’m hugely grateful to all my wonderful writers, not to mention the rest of the team over at MF. Working on stories that connect people to history and place continues to be the thing that gets me out of bed every day. (Well, that and coffee.)
The Chevalier d’Eon, a.k.a. Mademoiselle de Beaumont, was a big star in 18th century France and England who served as a diplomat, spy, pamphleteer, and fencer. D’Eon also lived the first half of life as a man, and the second half as a woman. By Stassa Edwards. (Part of our Show & Tell column highlighting interesting objects in museums and archives.)
Robert Peary has been celebrated as the first man to reach the North Pole, but it was probably Matthew Henson, his assistant, who deserves that distinction. Here’s a retrobituary, as we call them, in honor of the 150th anniversary of his birth. By Michele Debczak.
The dangerous and highly competitive world of Victorian orchid hunting included violent deaths, peeing on competitors’ specimens, and blooms growing out of human bones. By Claire Cock-Starkey.
The Delano grape strike has been heralded as one of the nation’s most important labor struggles, but the Filipinos who started the strike, especially leader Larry Itliong, have long been overlooked. By Kyla Cathey.
On a kayak swamp tour near NOLA in June, I heard the legend of a voodoo priestess whose wrath supposedly destroyed a whole town. I dug into her tale (with the help of mental_floss researcher Jocelyn Sears) to find out the real story, which was just as dark as I imagined—although a little less supernatural.
100 years after Rasputin died, the story of how—and why—he died is still more myth than reality. At this point, I doubt we’ll ever know the whole truth. By Andrew Lenoir.
Le Karnice was the Victorian “safety coffin” designed by Count Michel de Karnice-Karnicki to save lives at a time when fear of premature burial was at an all-time high. By Claire Voon.
This ancient 20-sided die looks like it could have been used for Egyptian D&D, but its possible function as an alphabet oracle might be even more interesting. By Erin Blakemore.
Olive Oatman was a mid-19th-century Mormon teenager who lived with the Mohave tribe for several years before being “freed” by the federal government. She spent the rest of her life a marked woman. By Meg van Huygen.
The ravens at the Tower of London get a lullaby every night. That’s one of the 13 behind-the-scenes “secrets” Christine Colby gathered from the Ravenmaster at the Tower of London.
Les Waas, writer of the Mister Softee jingle, was a perennial prankster. He died in 2016, but I’ll always remember the ice cream truck song as his longest-lasting joke. By Michele Debczak.
Operation Cone of Power, also known as the time British Witches tried to attack Adolf Hitler. By Tom Metcalfe.
The story behind a conman with multiple fake identities, and the Alabama tombstone that reads DAMN THE STATE DEPT. By Meg van Huygen.
Despite not being allowed to attend college, Frances Glessner Lee was a forensic science pioneer whose intricate doll houses helped revolutionize police training. By Christine Colby.
Mount Everest, and summits like it, are home to a surprising number of spooky stories: mysterious figures, phantom radio transmissions, and more. Jane Rose rounded up some ghost stories from the world’s tallest peaks.
Here’s the delicious history of the nation’s oldest Chinese-American restaurant—in Butte, Montana. By Kirstin Fawcett.
In June 1945, a group of kids playing on a Liverpool street discovered a skeleton inside a metal cylinder. Some think the body belonged to a disgraced paint manufacturer, but the case has never been solved. By Luke Bather.
In the 1960s, Yetta Bronstein was an imaginary Jewish housewife who ran for president. One of her slogans: “Vote for Yetta and things will get Betta.” By Meg van Huygen.
This heart-breaking 18th-century rebus token was left for a child abandoned at London’s Foundling Hospital. By Erin Blakemore.
In 1863, a legless man washed up on a beach in Nova Scotia, unable to speak. The town adopted him, but no one ever figured out who he was. Meg van Huygen wrote about “Jerome” and other mysterious people without a past.
A few months after we published that story, a former nuclear physicist and forensic genealogist solved the case of identity thief Lori Erica Ruff, who was actually Kimberly McLean, a Pennsylvania woman who left her family at age 18. By Jake Rossen.
I’m sure there’s a bunch of other fantastic stories I’m forgetting, too. Certain of it.
In non-mental_floss news, I wrote “What Do the Scary Clowns Want” for The New York Times, a brief history of medical cannibalism for Lapham’s Quarterly Roundtable, and a long chapter about human remains in the world’s museums for a forthcoming book about Julia Pastrana, which is being spearheaded by the amazing artist and human Laura Anderson Barbata. (The book is called The Eye of the Beholder: Julia Pastrana’s Long Journey Home, and will arrive summer 2017). I appeared in a German TV show called “History” on the network ZDF; the episode retold several of the stories in Rest in Pieces, and did a great job.
I also edited, for Feral House, two books that I highly recommend: Al Ridenour’s The Krampus: And The Old, Dark Christmas (essential for understanding the fuss about Krampus) and the latest editions of Mel Gordon’s Theatre of Fear and Horror, The Grisly Spectacle of the Grand Guignol of Paris 1897-1962 (essential for understanding, oh, the whole horror genre, probably).
Favorite book I read this year: Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote.
Favorite movie I watched: Valerie and Her Week of Wonders
Favorite album (that’s actually from 2016): Ancient Youth by Double Echo. Yup, it’s 1986 goth all over again, you got a problem with that? Runner up is My Friends Bury Their Souls For The Devil To Find, by Ritual Howls.
I have Bad Feelings about 2017. Still, with courage and imagination, maybe we’ll get through it.