If you’ve ever spent hours reading strange, mysterious, or vaguely creepy stories on Wikipedia, you’ve probably come to an uncomfortable realization: Wikipedia is really, really easy to edit. What’s to stop someone from adding a bunch of disturbing details to a story just to make it more compelling? Who’s to say what’s actually true?
Well, we are. We looked into a few of our favorite Wikipedia articles to determine whether the unsettling stories have any basis in reality. Along the way, we reached out to experts, dug into the science, and even (gasp) read really old books.
As we discovered, Wikipedia usually has the story mostly right, but the site often omits some of the best details.
The Toxic Lady
The Wiki-story: On Feb. 19, 1994, Gloria Ramirez checked into Riverside General Hospital in Riverside, California, suffering from nausea, confusion, and a rapid pulse. She’d been treated for cervical cancer, but that condition seemed unrelated to her symptoms.
While attempting to treat her, nurses noticed an oily, garlicky substance pooling on her skin. They drew Ramirez’s blood, which smelled strongly of ammonia. That’s when people started fainting.
Two nurses and a respiratory therapist lost consciousness shortly after coming into contact with Ramirez. In total, 23 emergency room workers became ill, resulting in five additional hospitalizations. Ramirez seemed to endanger anyone who came near her, but the on-staff physicians had no idea what was happening.
Sadly, Ramirez passed away from kidney failure shortly after entering the hospital (physicians performed her autopsy while wearing airtight suits with external air supplies). For the most part, the affected hospital workers quickly regained their health, although nurse Julie Gorchynski developed hepatitis and avascular necrosis (death of bone tissue due to a lack of blood supply). It’s unclear whether or not this was related to Ramirez.
Several staff members faint & later develop illness after Gloria Ramirez is admitted to a #Riverside, CA ER. It is thought that self-adminstered cancer meds reacted with hosital equipment to create a toxic gas but the case remains a #mystery.#OTD #bizarre pic.twitter.com/HRBYZoSQtX
— Today In Mystery (@maxfield_munson) February 19, 2018
The deeper you look into this case, the weirder it gets. All of the affected hospital workers had normal blood tests shortly after the event. Initially, the hospital attributed the effects to mass hysteria, but that hypothesis quickly fell apart.
What could cause a person to become—well, poisonous?
The truth: We reached out to Pat Grant, a forensic scientist who studied the case, and he gave us access to several papers he’d written on the subject. His hypothesis is a bit unconventional—but so is everything about the death of Gloria Ramirez.
To understand what probably happened here, we need a quick chemistry lesson. Dimethyl sulfoxide, a common solvent, can metabolize to dimethyl sulfone under the right conditions; dimethyl sulfone can metabolize dimethyl sulfate, which is extraordinarily toxic.
Dimethyl sulfoxide is commonly used as a home remedy, and Grant believes that Ramirez might have taken the substance to treat the pain from her cervical cancer. His paper notes a variety of other credible reasons that the chemical might have built up in the woman’s blood supply, and he notes that “blood and bile samples gave conclusive evidence of the metabolic oxidation product of [dimethyl sulfoxide], dimethyl sulfone.” By the way, dimethyl sulfoxide can give the skin a strange sheen, and it can make your breath smell like garlic.
Okay, our chemistry lesson is getting out of hand. Here’s the basic idea: Ramirez took something with dimethyl sulfoxide, which turned to dimethyl sulfone in her body. That, in turn, turned to highly toxic dimethyl sulfate, possibly when Ramirez was defibrillated by emergency room staff.
Of course, Grant doesn’t have airtight proof.
“The result of any laboratory experiment that might be performed to support or contradict the proposed scenario could never be unambiguously decisive and could be simply refuted with easy counter proposals of a ‘what-if’ nature,” he says.
We might never know exactly what happened, but we can rule out witchcraft, curses, or the blood from the movie Alien. There’s clearly a chemical explanation for Ramirez’s toxicity.
Read a more detailed account of the case here, courtesy of HealthyWay.
Tarrare, the Bizarre French Glutton
The Wiki-story: Really, you should just read the entire thing. Tarrare’s case is one of the most fascinating (and grotesque) medical mysteries of all time.
Here’s a brief synopsis: Born in 1772, Tarrare had an insatiable appetite. He was kicked out of his home for eating…well, everything in sight. He’d reportedly eat his own body weight every single day, and his parents, quite understandably, couldn’t afford to care for him.
Eventually, he became a traveling showman, consuming stones, live animals, and other unusual items for fascinated crowds. Look, they didn’t have Netflix back then.
Tarrare had a slim build and was described as a man of average intelligence and apathetic temperament. Here’s a description of him, courtesy of the 1819 text On the Honorary Rewards of a Physician:
His habit of body was weak and slender; he was not of a ferocious spirit; his look was timid; the little hair he had preserved, although very young, was very fair, and extremely fine. His cheeks were sallow, and furrowed by long and deep wrinkles. On distending them, he could in them as many as a dozen eggs or apples. His mouth was very large. He hardly had any lips; he had all his teeth, the molars were much worn away, and the color of their enamel streaked like marble.
We wouldn’t call that a kind description, per se, but it’s certainly vivid.
While Tarrare had terrible body odor, he seemed otherwise normal. His skin hung in folds, and his stomach would swell like a balloon when he ate, and his “cheeks and his eyes became a vivid red.” When he joined the French Revolutionary Army, he found that he couldn’t survive on soldier’s rations—he desperately tried to forage for scraps and begged other soldiers for their portions, but even so, he was eventually treated at a military hospital for exhaustion.
Eventually, the military tried to use Tarrare’s talents as a weapon. They asked him to swallow a wooden box containing secret documents; Tarrare was to walk through enemy lines, find a French colonel, and (there’s no easy way to say this) produce the box. Unfortunately, Tarrare was captured when attempting his first mission, and after a mock execution, he became obsessed with curing himself of his strange disorder.
An article can contain a story. An article about rocket science probably doesn't have much narrative, but aarticle about Tarrare, the guy who ate live cats, snakes, lizards and puppies, and swallowed eels without chewing? That's a story. https://t.co/d7AqUtPi1J
— Wikipedia (@Wikipedia) April 26, 2018
Sadly, a cure never came, although not from lack of trying. During Tarrare’s autopsy, surgeons discovered that he had an abnormally large liver and gallbladder, and his stomach was enormous. However, these discoveries didn’t sufficiently explain his bizarre disease.
The truth: We can’t really determine how much of Tarrare’s story is real since we’re relying on anecdotal accounts of his behavior.
“It may, of course, be that there is some degree of exaggeration, but we will never know for sure” Jan Bondeson, MD, senior lecturer at Cardiff University and author of Freaks: The Pig-Faced Lady of Manchester Square & Other Medical Marvels, tells Urbo. Bondeson’s work is referenced extensively in the Tarrare Wikipedia article (both as Freaks and under its original title, The Two-Headed Boy and Other Medical Marvels), and he notes that there are several plausible explanations.
Doctors claimed that his gullet was so wide, they could see into his stomach from his mouth.
— بوكيبلينكي (@pookleblinky) December 6, 2017
For instance, one source notes that Tarrare “was always heated and sweating,” which could indicate a metabolic disorder. He may have also had a mental disorder; numerous studies have shown that damage to the amygdala region can affect appetite.
What about the stories of Tarrare eating hundreds of pounds of meat in a single sitting—is that even physically possible? We reached out to several gastroenterologists, but none were willing to comment on a 200-year-old case. Perhaps that’s for the best; in our gut (pardon the pun), we know that aspects of the Tarrare story are exaggerated, but we’d like to believe otherwise.
Check out our full piece on Tarrare here.
The Schmidt Pain Index
The Wiki-story: The Schmidt Pain Index is a scale used to gauge the pain from insect bites (specifically, the bites from wasps, bees, and ants). It’s organized in levels from 1 to 4. A level 1 sting might feel like a pinch, while a level 4 is somewhere around the just-stepped-on-a-LEGO-after-stubbing-your-toe-and-also-falling-into-molten-lava territory.
Entomologist Justin Schmidt invented the index, and to make it as accurate as possible, he allowed hundreds of insects to sting him.
The Schmidt Pain Index has been referenced on countless nature shows, and it’s the basis for a YouTube channel Brave Wilderness (host Coyote Peterson frequently allows insects to sting him, although he’s not an entomologist, just an idiot). It’s also mentioned in the 2015 film Ant-Man, indicating that the Marvel Universe has their own Justin Schmidt.
The truth: Schmidt really did allow himself to be stung thousands of times, and his original paper has a decent number of citations, so the information seems scientifically useful (even if he didn’t ultimately find a link between venom chemistry and pain, like he set out to do). Plus, it gave him a chance to show off his gift for prose: He describes the fierce black polybia wasp’s sting as, “A ritual gone wrong, Satanic. The gas lamp in the old church explodes in your face when you light it.” There’s also his description of the sting of the artistic wasp: “Pure, then messy, then corrosive. Love and marriage followed by divorce.”
#tbt who remembers this episode and what kind of spider this is?! #BeBraveStayWild pic.twitter.com/dDXZrWY3mn
— Brave Wilderness (@BraveWilderness) April 26, 2018
Over the last few decades, he’s continued his research. Other scientists have taken the dubious premise to extremes; in 2014, researcher Michael L. Smith mapped honey bee stings on 25 parts of his body, repeating the experiment three times in order to accurately gauge the painfulness of each sting.
The three most painful places to get stung: The nostril, the upper lip, and the genitals. Try not to think too hard about that.
Check out our full piece on the Schmidt pain index here.
The Wiki-story: Okay, this one is basically part of the list because it has the word “witch” in it, but it comes from a delightfully bizarre piece of local lore.
Spend much time in Vermont, and you’ll inevitably come across a home with weird attic windows. They look something like this:
According to some Vermonters (and yes, that’s what they’re called), they’re called witch windows, and they’re angled against the roofline in order to prevent witches from entering the home. By forming a sort of cross with the roof, the windows ward off the evil crones (and, we’d assume, any other supernatural creatures in the area).
Some homeowners refer to them as “coffin windows.” The Wikipedia page notes that “it is unclear if they really were used for removing a coffin from the second floor, avoiding a narrow staircase,” although, in our investigation, we found that claim to be unlikely. If you were going to remove a body from a house with a narrow staircase, why wouldn’t you simply leave the coffin outside and carry the body down separately?
We know, we know. This is getting a bit grim.
The truth: The “witch window” name is pretty neat, but this architectural oddity has a much less interesting explanation.
“The ‘witch windows’ are very common in Vermont,” architectural historian Walter Wheeler tells Urbo via email. “That is because they are a typical solution to the need to get light in a second floor bedroom in a one or one-and-a-half story house that has an attached wing.”
“It’s the only way to get a window of good size in the wall between the roof of the wing and that of the main part of the house. The alternative would be to make dormer windows, but that solution wasn’t favored among Vermonters.”
Blame the Vermont weather, along with the fact that standard-sized windows are much less expensive than custom-built dormers.
Read our more detailed investigation here.
The Wiki-story: Spite houses are pretty much what they sound like: They’re homes built (or modified) specifically to annoy neighbors.
Take the case of the Pum Island Pink House in Newbury, Massachusetts. When it was built in 1925, it was a perfectly lovable, livable house. Its only problem: location. According to local lore (taken from this piece in The New York Times), a wife agreed to divorce her husband on the condition that he build her a perfect replica of their home. She didn’t specify where he could build the house, however, and that proved to be her undoing. Her (ex-) husband built the home out in the country, away from everything, without running fresh water (the taps reportedly pump saltwater).
Or take the Alameda Spite House in Alameda, California. A man named Charles Froling wanted to build on a plot of land he’d inherited, but the city of Alameda took a portion of the land to construct a street. Froling appealed to his neighbors, but they weren’t willing to stand up on his behalf—so he built his house anyway.
Granted, the resulting property is a mere 10 feet wide and 54 feet long, but Froling did get the last laugh. That’s really what spite houses are about; they’re often extraordinarily expensive, and they’re certainly petty, but they’re an effective way to show other people that you really, really hate them. Isn’t that what life’s all about?
The truth: Spite houses certainly exist, but if you’re thinking about building your own to annoy your neighbors, friends, or exes, we’ve got bad news: Modern building codes are pretty much designed to prevent this sort of thing.
“Thanks to modern building codes and zoning, building a true spite house … would be all but impossible today,” says Jon Vara, contributing editor for The Journal of Light Construction. “And while that’s a clear loss for future architectural historians, it’s certainly good news for homeowners with ornery neighbors.”
Today, many cities have specific sections of their building codes that ban the practice of “malicious erection.” Stop giggling—that’s what it’s called.
Read more stories of spite houses here.
The Wiki-story: Have you ever started driving up a hill, only to realize that you’re actually…going downhill?
You let off the gas, but you keep accelerating. You’re coasting against gravity. Did you just poke a hole in the Matrix, or are you having a bad reaction to those White Castle cheeseburgers you ate a few exits back?
Congratulations: You just traveled across a gravity hill.
The truth: Gravity hills are optical illusions, and no, they don’t break the laws of physics. Prominent examples include Confusion Hill in Ligonier, Pennsylvania and Spook Hill in Lake Wales, Florida.
Most gravity hills occur on roads that travel over two hills—one right after the other—or where the surroundings consist entirely of downhill slopes. The horizon is always obscured since a clear view of the horizon would ruin the illusion (you’d be able to use the horizon as a reference point, so the slope wouldn’t fool you).
The Wikipedia page for gravity hills covers this phenomenon accurately, although it leaves out some interesting info. For instance, the “spook hills” seem to work even if you realize that your mind is playing a trick on you.
In 2003, Italian researchers artificially re-created the “anti-gravity spots” and tested them on observers. They attributed the illusion to “misperception of the eye level relative to gravity, caused by the presence of either contextual inclines of a false horizon line,” noting that the effect works even if you know exactly how it works.
That explains why this video continues to blow our mind.
Check out our full piece on gravity hills and other horizon-centric optical illusions here.
The Wiki-story: Identical twins June and Jennifer Gibbons were known as “The Silent Twins” since they only spoke to each other in a strange, idiosyncratic language which was completely undecipherable to others. They often mirrored movements simultaneously (for instance, both twins would raise their right arms at the same time) and were completely inseparable.
On the advice of therapists, the twins were sent to separate boarding schools, but that failed to improve their behavior. They became catatonic, refusing to speak with others.
After being reunited, the Gibbons twins wrote several novels, which weren’t financially successful. They began committing crimes, including arson, and were committed to the high-security Broadmoor Hospital. At the hospital, they were successfully treated and went on to live long, happy lives.
Just kidding. We just want one of these stories to have a happy ending.
The Gibbons twins still refused to speak with others, and after receiving high doses of antipsychotic medications, Jennifer developed a neurological disorder that caused repetitive, involuntary movements.
Here’s where things go from sad to disturbing: The twins reportedly had an agreement that if one of them passed away, the other would live normally. In 1993, Jennifer told June that she’d sacrifice herself; in March of that year, she suddenly passed away. Her official cause of death was acute myocarditis (inflammation of the heart).
When Jennifer died, June began speaking to her caregivers. She was released shortly thereafter, but according to her older sister Greta, she never really recovered from her time in the hospital.
The truth: What could cause a person to suddenly die for no apparent reason?
Well, the problem with that question is the “no apparent reason” part. We know that Jennifer was on high doses of antipsychotic medication, and her neurological condition was undoubtedly causing a tremendous amount of stress.
Stress cardiomyopathy certainly exists; defined in one medical journal as “a condition in which intense emotional or physical stress can cause rapid and severe heart muscle weakness,” it’s certainly a possible candidate for Jennifer’s mysterious death.
Journalist Marjorie Wallace, who visited the Gibbons twins regularly, told NPR that June was in good health at the time of Jennifer’s death; since the twins received the same treatment at Broadmoor, she doubts that Jennifer’s medication weakened her immune system significantly. However, while antipsychotics often affect twins similarly, environmental and behavioral factors also play a role.
That’s a scientific way of saying, “We don’t know exactly what happened here, but it probably involved medication.” To say that Jennifer simply decided to make herself die is an exaggeration—but according to Greta, the tragic story does shine a light on the toll that incarceration takes on families.
Please read about the legend of the silent twins. June and Jennifer Gibbons. THAT actually happened for real.
— Sky (@TheGreyGenesis) May 9, 2015
“They should never have been held in Broadmoor,” Greta told The Daily Mail in 2016. “I know they did wrong but they didn’t kill anyone. It totally ruined their lives. Jenny should never have died—she was only 29 years old and should not have been discharged if she was not fit enough. She should have been in hospital. And June could have had a much better life.”