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Moment in Oddity - Talking Mushrooms
For some people, the thought of talking mushrooms probably conjures images of Alice in Wonderland's caterpillar, taking puffs of his hookah pipe while lounging atop this capped fungi. What was in that hookah? Well, you may be surprised to know that many scientists believe that mushrooms are able to communicate with each other using a vocabulary of sorts, with up to 50 words! Now, one won't hear little mushrooms cracking wise or chortling back and forth together, however, they have been proven to communicate through impulses found within their roots. Studies have shown through electrodes that these pulses are not random, but ordered and in a sophisticated fashion. Those fluent in fungi surmise that the organisms' shared "conversations", primarily consist of warnings of danger and detecting something tasty and nutritious within reach. Many herbal plants have connections through runners and have been shown to emit chemicals making their leaves less tasty when being munched on by caterpillars. Similar studies have also shown reactions to nutrients being supplied near their roots. Though more is to be learned regarding this surprising discovery, clearly, many mushrooms DO have the ability to communicate with each other, and that, certainly is odd.
This Month in History - James Smithson Establishes the Smithsonian Institute
In the month of June, on the 27th, in 1829, scientist James Smithson establishes the Smithsonian Institute. James Smithson was an English scientist who had been a fellow at the Royal Society of London almost his entire life and he had published numerous scientific papers. Upon his death, he left everything to his nephew with a stipulation. If his only nephew died without any heirs, Smithson wanted the whole of his estate to go to “the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” It's a unique request made even more bizarre by the fact that Smithson had never been to the United States. Clearly, we have a Smithsonian Institute, so you know that the nephew died without heirs. President Andrew Jackson accepted the gift which included a vast library, minerals, personal effects, eight shillings, seven pence and 104,960 gold sovereigns that came to $500,000 at the time. Congress put forward an act that created the Smithsonian Institute in 1846 and President James Polk signed it into law. That initial spark has led to 19 museums, 9 research centers, a television channel, magazine and the national zoo. Plus a lot of hidden relics they've stashed away in their basement catacombs that they don't want us to know about like giant human bones for example, but uh, anyway, I've visited a few of the museums and they are very cool and it was all thanks to an English man named Smithson.
Haunted Puerto Rico (Suggested by: Kelly Crews)
Being located at the tip of one point of the Bermuda Triangle, it's not surprising that Puerto Rico has some strange legends, disappearances and hauntings. The island is today a United States territory, but for years it was under Spanish rule. This is a place with a vibrant culture mixing Afro-Caribbean, Spanish and American influences. On this episode we explore the history of the island and several of the haunted locations on Puerto Rico.
Puerto Rico was originally known as Borinquen to the Taino people who lived there. They called themselves boricua. Christopher Columbus arrived at the island in 1493 when he returned Taino captives and he decided to claim it for Spain, dubbing it San Juan Bautista. The first European settlement was founded by Juan Ponce de Leon in 1508. This settlement was called Caparra, which was changed to Puerto Rico in 1521 to represent that it was a rich port. Soon the whole island was called Puerto Rico and the port became San Juan. The Spanish fortified the island and made it a place of farming for tobacco, coffee, ginger and sugar cane. Calls for independence from Spain began in 1868 and 600 residents of the mountain town of Lares rose up. This movement is still celebrated today as El Grito de Lares (The Cry of Lares) even though it was unsuccessful. After the Spanish-American War in 1898, the Treaty of Paris ceded Puerto Rico to the United States and it is still a territory of the US. Puerto Ricans are US citizens although the country has not been granted statehood yet.
San Juan is the capital of Puerto Rico and is the third oldest European-established capital city in the Americas. This is a major seaport with around 2.5 million residents living in the metropolitan area. San Juan had been the boundary between two tribes on the island, led by the chiefs Mabo and Yuisa. The port was used by the Spanish as a major stopover for the transport of goods like gold and silver. Hence why it was so fortified. The Battle of Puerto Rico in 1595 was an English attack led by Sir Francis Drake. He was repelled, but a couple years later, the Earl of Cumberland laid seige to San Juan. Exhaustion forced the English to give up their occupation. The Dutch later sacked the city, but were eventually repelled. The British tried again in 1797 and were forced to withdraw. San Juan was a strong city and in 1947 it would prove to be a progressive city when it elected a woman as mayor, making her the first female mayor of a capital city in any of the Americas. It is also home to several haunted locations.
But first, let's start with a miracle! In San Juan there is this cute little chapel tucked away in a little corner. This chapel was built on top of the ancient stone walls that had protected the city and this was to commemorate a miracle that took place here. In 1753, the town was celebrating San Juan Bautista and a man who was riding a horse in a parade, lost control of the horse and he and the horse plunged over the cliff to the ground below. His name was Baltazar Montanez. The Spanish Secretary of Government, Don Mateo Pratts, saw Montanez and the horse falling and like most of us, he cried out a prayer that sounded something like "Christ of Good Health, save him!" The prayer worked because Montanez survived, although the horse did not. In gratitude, Montanez built the small chapel on the spot where he believed he fell over the cliff and he made a gorgeous altar from gold leaf and silver. Now people from all over the world come to the tiny chapel seeking miracles for themselves. They leave behind tiny silver ornaments that represent the parts of their bodies in which they need healing. Today, you can see the chapel looking much as it did when first built and see all these ornaments of hope for a miracle.
Teatro Tapia is the oldest free-standing continuously-running drama stage building in San Juan. The theater was built in 1824 and officially opened in 1832. It was built in the Italian style with a horseshoe shape that had three tiers of boxes. This was originally called the San Juan Municipal Theater. The name changed to Antonio Paoli Theater in 1935 and then again in 1937 to its current Teatro Alejandro Tapia y Rivera. That name was for a Puerto Rican poet and dramatist. The theater became the center of cultural life in the city until the 1940s when it fell into disrepair. The building was slated for demolition, but the mayor of San Juan at the time, Felisa Rincon de Gautier, saved it. The theater was restored several times and today hosts cultural events, ballet performances and dramas.
Visitors and employees claim to have experienced many hauntings things in the theater, including witnessing full-bodied apparitions, feeling something unseen brush up against them and hearing disembodied footsteps and voices. The theater has the typical large loading dock doors and they open and close on their own, no small feat. One of the spirits here is thought to be that of a woman who fell to her death while she was performing. She is thought to be behind the singing disembodied voice that is heard and she is seen wandering the grounds. Another female apparition is witnessed in Box 105 sporting an Edwardian dress. She sometimes shows up behind theater patrons and then suddenly disappears. A spectral choir of voices is heard on the stage occasionally.
Hotel El Convento
The Hotel El Convento in San Juan is one of the most historic hotels on the island. This started as a Carmelite convent when it was built in 1646 with funding from Doña Ana Lanzós y Menendez de Valdez. This is the Western Hemisphere's oldest cathedral and Dona Ana was the first to join the cloister, followed by her sister and four other women. In 1903, the convent was closed by the Archbishop of San Juan. Robert Frederic Woolworth, heir to the Woolworth fortune, bought the property and started converting it into the El Convento Hotel. On January 27, 1962, the hotel opened embracing Old World charm and Spanish Colonial architectural style. The property was renovated again in the 1990s and 2000s and officially renamed Hotel El Convento.
One of the spectral stories includes the original founder and first Mother Superior of the convent, Doña Ana. Her passion for the place seems to have kept her spirit here. Her spectre is seen roaming the halls and she is witnessed praying in various locations. She occasionally awakens guests from their sleep. Other nuns have joined her as well. The swishing sounds of nun robes are heard in the hallways. The disembodied chanting of nuns is also heard. One really weird happening is the sound of chains being dragged through the halls.
Paseo de La Princesa
The Paseo de la Princesa translates to the Promenade of the Princess and is a pedestrian promenade in the historic district. It wraps around the old wall and has old sentry posts, including the only city gate that still remains, Puerta de San Juan. The promenade is named for the La Princesa Prison, which still exists
and serves as the home for the Puerto Rico Tourism Company. The prison
was built in 1837 and could house 240 prisoners. This was a horrible place to serve time. There were solitary confinement cells called calabozos and another cell called caja de chinches that was so named because it was full of thousands of bedbugs. Difficult prisoners would be thrown in here until they passed out from loss of blood.
A security guard here told the Islands Magazine staff in 2006 that he experienced weird things. The exchange goes like this, "You ever see anything strange in these sentry posts?” “Oh, every night. Lights, shadows moving. When it gets very late, I’ve even heard voices.” He seems quite nonchalant about the encounters. “Voices? What do they say?” He shrugs. “I only hear whispers. It’s nothing.” “Nothing?” “No. I used to work at the old jail, which is now a tourism office. Every night, that place it was too much. Doors and windows would open, chairs would move, lights would turn on and off. I had to ask for a transfer. I still give that building space when walking past, even during the day. This whole town whispers, though. The buildings have lives when we aren’t looking.”
El Condado Vanderbilt Hotel
The Condado Vanderbilt Hotel has that name because the Vanderbilt family built it. This was all the way back in 1919 and the hotel website says, "Its luxe roots were established in 1919, when Condado Vanderbilt Hotel opened its doors to European and Hollywood royalty, captains of industry and bluebloods, all of whom crossed paths in its hallowed halls." So clearly not a place for us Kelly. But even being a fancy smancy hotel doesn't prevent it from being haunted. The hotel brought high-end tourism to the island and a certain woman who would become the hotel's Lady in White. Now the hotel will tell you they have no ghosts, but ask the employees and you'll hear a different story. There was a fire at the Dupont Plaza Hotel in 1986. Three disgruntled employees were in a labor dispute with the hotel and they started the fire. The blaze killed 98 people and injured 140. Our Lady in White was said to have lost a dear family member in that fire and while she stayed at El Condado, she threw herself down the service elevator shaft. Employees claim to feel and see her presence near the service elevator, especially on the sixth floor. There is a dark and sad blending of emotions here. The apparition is seen walking in the hallways and sometimes appears in rooms while housekeeping is servicing them. Her perfume is also detected when she is around.
Castillo San Cristobal
Castillo San Cristobal was the largest fort built by the Spaniards. Construction began in the 1780s. This started as a small artillery platform on a hill to push back attacks by the English and Dutch on the city of San Juan. The fort was named for Saint Christopher and took over 150 years to complete. This fort features a deep moat and many tunnels and some of those tunnels were rigged as "countermines," which were loaded with gunpowder and exploded under the feet of attacking enemies. There was a main plaza for assembling troops and running drills. The plaza is bordered by eleven casemates that were fortified from bombs and featured gun ports for cannons. Five cisterns under the plaza collected rain water and could hold 800,000 gallons of rain water. There is a dungeon here that still contains a drawing made by a prisoner back in the late 18th century. A friar who was accused of murder was chained to a wall here for over 20 years.
The main ghost story told about this location is connected to a love story. The tale goes that a young woman named Maria Dolores fell in love with a thief named Betancourt. The main problem with this was that her father was San Juan's executioner and Betancourt had been sentenced to death. Maria ran to the fort to stop the hanging and she arrived too late. Betancourt was left hanging from the gallows and Maria was devastated. She grabbed another noose and hanged herself next to her love. Maria's father came later to bury Betancourt's body and found his beloved Maria there too. Both the spirits of Maria and Betancourt are seen in the area where the gallows had once been at the fort.
Located here at the fort is also La Garita del Diablo, which is The Devil's Turret or Devil’s Watchtower. This was used by soliders to keep watch at night and they would call out to each other to make sure they were still there and legend claims that sometimes soldiers would disappear. At the end of watch, these soldiers would not appear and they never showed up again. It was said that the devil devoured their souls and bodies, leaving their uniforms and weapons behind. We can't verify the uniforms and weapons thing, but if true that certainly makes the stories more chilling.
Castillo San Felipe del Morro
One of the most popular tourist sites in San Juan is the Castillo San Felipe
del Morro. Most locals just call the historic fort El Morro, which means The Nose. The fort is located on the corner of the islet of Old San Juan. This was the second fort built here with construction beginning in 1539. The first rendition was a simple promontory mounted with a cannon. Eight bronze cannons were added to the fort by 1555. More and more was added to the fortification over the next 250 years until it was six levels high. This was a powerful deterrent that repelled pirates, the British and the Dutch. In 1843, the first lighthouse in Puerto Rico was constructed on top of the castle. When America acquired Puerto Rico they formed the US Army post of Fort Brooke, which included El Morro and nearby Spanish government buildings. They also added a golf course, baseball diamonds, an officers' club, hospitals and officers' quarters. The fort was used through the World Wars and retired in 1961. The National Park Service made it into a museum and the El Morro and Old San Juan were declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1983.
Phantom orbs are seen floating on the grounds. There is a Lady in White here and she is particularly creepy. She slithers along the ramparts. The tunnels give people weird feelings and they hear the disembodied voices of men calling out, particularly at night. The ghosts of prisoners are said to be seen here as well. Ghost ships are seen sometimes at night out in the waters in front of the fort and these are ships from all the enemy countries that tried to attack Puerto Rico. This sounds like residual stuff from the various wars and battles. The chapel is a hotbed for haunting activity as well.
El Pirata Cofresi
Probably the most interesting spirit on Puerto Rico belongs to a pirate named Roberto Cofresi, also known as El Pirata Cofresi. Roberto Cofresi was born in 1791 and came from noble beginnings, literally. His family was of nobility, but they were very poor because of the economic state of the island of Puerto Rico under the Spanish Empire and the wars for independence. Cofresi's mother died when he was four and his father died when he was twenty-three. He married a local girl who also came from a noble family, but they soon were destitute when the estate burned to the ground. The couple had two boys who died soon after their births. The best way for a man to make money was to go to sea and so he did and it was through his experiences out on the high seas that he realized that the real money was in privateering, not the fishing that it was believed he was doing. Before long he had worked his way to being a captain and commanded a small fleet of modest vessels. The one he rode aboard was the Anne and it was a fast six-gun sloop. His group managed to evade capture by vessels from many countries including Spain, the UK, France and the United States.
Legend claims that he wasn't just about enriching himself, he was like Robin Hood stealing from the rich to give to the poor. And while that may sound noble, it is important to point out that 300 to 400 people died while he was pillaging. El Pirata Cofresi came to his end in 1825. Spain formed an alliance with the West Indies Squadron and the Danish government of Saint Thomas and they laid a trap for Cofresi and his group. They engaged in a naval battle and Cofresi abandoned his ship and tried to get away over land, but was ambushed by a local trooper and two members of the Puerto Rican militia. Cofresi tried to bribe an official to let him go, but it didn't work. Cofresi and his men were sent to San Juan, Puerto Rico to the Castillo San Felipe del Morro and given a military tribunal, which found them guilty and sentenced them to death. This was carried out about three weeks after their capture and was done by firing squad on March 29, 1825.
Puerto Rico is proud of their famous pirate. Cofresi was believed to be the last of the great West Indies pirates and he was the dominant Caribbean pirate of his era. He basically took over Jean Lafitte's territory after he died. He has inspired many myths, songs, poems, books and films and several locations in Puerto Rico have been named for him. A monument was erected for him in Boqueron Bay. Cofresi couldn't be buried in a Catholic cemetery so he was buried behind Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery on a hill that overlooked the cemetery wall. Kelly Crews shared some pictures from her trip there that we will share on Instagram. Of course, there are stories of buried treasure. Legend claims that anyone looking for the treasure will get dragged down to Davy Jones' Locker or attacked by the ghosts of Cofresi and his crew.
People claim that he had success because he sold his soul to the Devil. They say this gave him inhuman powers like invisibility and great strength. One place where his spirit is said to linger is Mona Island, which had been his favorite hideout. His apparition has been seen there. That spirit has also been seen in his hometown of Cabo Rojo. Cofresi seems to be having a good time singing Spanish hymns and drinking rum - those two things really go together. But it is good if he is drinking rum because it is said that if he inebriated, he'll tell you where his treasure is located when you ask. One woman was said to meet her end when she went looking for the treasure where the ghost told her it would be in some shark-infested waters and well...the sharks won.
And as a fun aside, there is this strange legend that we found connected to San German. San German is a historic town in the southwestern part of Puerto Rico and is the second oldest city here. This is home to the Gates of Hell. We know, those macabre gates seem to pop up all over the world. These gates are located in a precarious spot. They can be found at crossroads of street B and C of what is referred to as Sabana Eneas. The legend claims that if you place your face right at the center of the crossroads and whisper a prayer to the Devil, then say his name 13 times, the sounds of Hell will enter your ears.
Puerto Rico sounds like a wonderful place to visit with both its beauty and history. And it seems to have a fair number of ghosts lurking around too. Is Puerto Rico haunted? That is for you to decide!
Kelly Crews hosts Lore of the South, which you can find wherever you listen to podcasts!