Exploding Pants Were a Problem in 1930s New Zealand

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Liars apparently aren’t the only ones who should be concerned with having their pants catch fire. In 1930s New Zealand, a series of events conspired to threaten farmers’ trousers with spontaneous and lethal combustion.

According to Atlas Obscura, the problem stemmed from ragwort, a nuisance weed of European origin that began popping up in New Zealand in the late 1800s. Ragwort, or Jacobaea vulgaris, looks not unlike a dandelion but is far more harmful: Horses and cows react to it as a poison. With the rise of dairy farming in the country and a concurrent rise in grazing cows who knew better than to eat it, ragwort started proliferating.

To respond to the invasive species, farmers took up the Department of Agriculture’s suggestion to use sodium chlorate as an herbicide. It worked, but what the farmers failed to understand was that sodium chlorate was extremely flammable. With a fine mist of the stuff drying on pants and overalls, they were prone to bursting into flames when exposed to heat—like a fireplace where pants might be hung to dry. Among the victims was Richard Buckley, who described just such an incident and witnessed, as one research journal put it, “a string of detonations in his pants.”

Friction could apparently do the trick, too, with farmers on horseback finding that all that jostling could lead to a fiery result. Lighting a match to smoke or just to see in the dark could also be calamitous. A handful of deaths were reported, as these poor laborers were essentially turning themselves into unwitting Molotov cocktails.

Word eventually spread of sodium chlorate’s hazards and it fell out of favor. Ragwort continues to annoy the population of New Zealand.

More Than 350 Franklin Expedition Artifacts Retrieved from Shipwreck of HMS Erebus

Drone image above the HMS Erebus shipwreck.
Drone image above the HMS Erebus shipwreck.
Parks Canada's Underwater Archaeology Team

From a shallow Arctic gulf, a treasure trove of objects from the HMS Erebus shipwreck has been brought to the surface for the first time in more than 170 years. The items could offer new clues about the doomed Franklin expedition, which left England in 1845 to search for the Northwest Passage. All 129 people perished from still-uncertain causes—a mystery that was fictionalized in the AMC series The Terror in 2018.

Marc-André Bernier, head of underwater archaeology at Parks Canada, said in a teleconference from Ottawa that this year’s research season was the most successful since the discovery of the HMS Erebus shipwreck in 2014. Parks Canada divers and Inuit located the HMS Terror, the second ship of the Franklin expedition, in 2016.

Parks Canada diver at HMS Erebus shipwreck
A Parks Canada diver retrieves a glass decanter at the HMS Erebus shipwreck.
Parks Canada's Underwater Archaeology Team

From mid-August to mid-September, 2019, the Parks Canada and Inuit research team began systematically excavating the large and complex shipwreck. “We focused on areas that had not been disturbed since the ship had sunk,” Bernier said. “Right now, our focus is the cabins of the officers, and we’re working our way toward the higher officers. That’s where we think we have a better chance of finding more clues to what happened to the expedition, which is one of the major objectives.”

Over a total of 93 dives this year, archaeologists concentrated on three crew members’ cabins on the port side amidships: one belonging to the third lieutenant, one for the steward, and one likely for the ice master. In drawers underneath the third lieutenant’s bed, they discovered a tin box with a pair of the officer’s epaulets in “pristine condition,” Bernier said. They may have belonged to James Walter Fairholme, one of the three lieutenants on the Erebus.

HMS Erebus shipwreck epaulets
A pair of epaulets, which may have belonged to third lieutenant James Walter Fairholme, was found at the HMS Erebus shipwreck.
Parks Canada's Underwater Archaeology Team

In the steward’s pantry, where items used to serve the captain were stored, divers carefully brushed away sediment to reveal dozens of plates, bowls, dish warmers, strainers, and more— about 50 serving pieces total. Bernier said some of the most exciting finds were personal objects that could be linked to individuals, such as a lead stamp with the inscription “Ed. Hoar,” for Edmund Hoar, the 23-year-old captain’s steward. They also found a piece of red sealing wax with a fingerprint of its last user.

Dishes at HMS Erebus shipwreck
Divers found dishes in the steward's pantry at the HMS Erebus shipwreck.
Parks Canada's Underwater Archaeology Team

Other intriguing items brought to the surface include a glass decanter, found in the officers’ mess area on the lower deck, which may have held brandy or port; a high-quality hairbrush with a few human hairs still in the bristles; and a cedar-wood pencil case. All of the artifacts are jointly owned by the Government of Canada and Inuit.

Hairbrush from HMS Erebus shipwreck
A hairbrush discovered at the HMS Erebus shipwreck still had a few human hairs in the bristles.
Parks Canada's Underwater Archaeology Team

The extensive recovery was made possible by a new research barge, which was moored over the shipwreck and provided hyperbaric chambers and hot-water suits. While wearing the suits, divers were able to stay in the frigid waters for about 90 minutes at a time; they spent over 100 hours examining the wreck this year.

The HMS Erebus’s size and excellent state of preservation mean there’s much more to discover, Bernier said. The Erebus is 108 feet long, and though the upper deck has collapsed, there are 20 cabins on the main deck. They’ve examined only three so far. “There are tens of thousands of artifacts still there,” Bernier tells Mental Floss. “We’re going to be very focused and save what needs to be saved, and go to places [in the wreck] where there are good chances of finding the most information that is valuable for the site.”

Parks Canada and Inuit archaeologists
Parks Canada and Inuit archaeologists set up instruments near the HMS Erebus shipwreck.
Parks Canada's Underwater Archaeology Team

As with the findings from previous research seasons, many questions about the shocking demise of the Franklin expedition remain unanswered. How and when did the HMS Erebus sink after both ships were abandoned in spring 1848, having been trapped in ice since September 1846? Which officers and crew were among the 24 men who had died by that time, and why so many?

Bernier tells Mental Floss there’s even a new mystery to solve. Near Edmund Hoar’s items, divers found another artifact that also bore the name of a crew member—mate Frederick Hornby. “Originally, when the ships set sail, he was not on Erebus, he was on Terror,” Bernier says. “So this object jumped ship at one point. How did that happen? Was Hornby transferred to Erebus; did they abandon one ship and put everybody on the other one? Was it something somebody recovered after he died? Was it given to somebody? With one object, we can start to see [new] questions. Hopefully, by piecing all of this together, we can actually start pushing the narrative of the story in some interesting direction.”

8 Things That Happened on Leap Day

On Leap Day in 1692, the first warrants were issued in the Salem Witch Trials.
On Leap Day in 1692, the first warrants were issued in the Salem Witch Trials.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Since Leap Day comes just once every four years, events that happen on February 29 are somewhat rare. Check out these eight events that are extra memorable thanks to their timing.

1. On Leap Day in 1940, Hattie McDaniel won an Academy Award.

Actress Hattie McDaniel took home an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress at the 1940 Academy Awards for her role as Mammy in Gone with the Wind. The win made her the first African American to receive the award.

2. Buddy Holly’s lost glasses were found on Leap Day in 1959.

Buddy Holly in his signature glasses
Buddy Holly in his signature glasses.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The singer's famous glasses disappeared for more than two decades after he died in a plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa, in 1959. Holly’s trademark frames, along with the Big Bopper’s watch, were thrown clear of the plane wreckage. The items remained buried in the snow until the spring thaw, when they were turned over to the County Sheriff’s office and filed away in a sealed manila envelope, where they were forgotten. The envelope was rediscovered in 1980 by County Sheriff Jerry Allen, who came across it while looking for old court records. The discovery was announced on February 29, 1980. The glasses were returned to Holly’s widow, Maria Elena.

3. The Henriksen siblings—all of them—were born on Leap Day.

On February 29, 1960, Heidi Henriksen was born. Her brother, Olav, joined the family exactly four years later. And in 1968, to the day, Leif-Martin Henriksen entered the world. The Norwegian siblings held the Guinness record for most babies born on a Leap Day until 2012, when the Estes family from Utah tied them: Xavier Estes was born on February 29, 2004; Remington Estes in 2008; and Jade Estes in 2012.

4. Davy Jones died on Leap Day in 2012.

In 2012, the Monkee passed away after suffering a heart attack. He was just 66, leaving many fans in shock at his unexpected death.

5. Hank Aaron became the highest-paid Major League Baseball Player on Leap Day.

A $200,000-a-year contract might seem like peanuts for a MLB player today, but by 1972 standards, it was a big deal. So big, in fact, that the three-year contract Aaron inked to play for the Atlanta Braves made him the highest paid baseball player in the league.

6. The future Pope John Paul II was nearly killed on Leap Day.

Pope John Paul II riding in the Popemobile
Pope John Paul II riding in the Popemobile in 2004.

Back when he was just 24-year-old Karol Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II was walking home when a German army truck hit him and left him on the road for dead. The driver of a lumber truck picked him up and took him to the hospital, where Wojtyla remained unconscious for nine hours. It’s said that the incident inspired him to switch to a spiritual career path.

7. Family Circus debuted on Leap Day in 1960.

On February 29, 1960, Bil Keane’s long-running comic strip debuted as The Family Circle. Inspired by Keane’s own wife and children, Family Circus is now drawn by Keane’s youngest son, Jeff—the inspiration for “Jeffy” in the comic strip.

8. The first warrants were issued in the Salem Witch Trials on Leap Day.

Salem residents Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne, and Tituba were accused of witchcraft on February 29, 1692. After refusing to confess, Good was hanged and Osborne died in prison; Tituba, a slave, admitted to her supposed crimes and was released from jail a year later.

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