I've only been firebombed the once, and to be honest it wasn't as dramatic as it sounds. Mostly because the firebomber was astoundingly incompetent, but also because I was three miles away at the time.
An intro of this sort requires some explanation. Here it is: for years during the 1980s, while I was at university, I spent several weeks each summer working as a watch leader with the Loch Ness and Morar Project. Although set up to search for the lake monsters said to dwell in Scotland's two deepest lochs, the LNMP gradually transformed itself into a biological survey, more interested in studying the limnology of Loch Ness than it was in actively hunting for its supposed monsters. The Project's leader, Adrian Shine – a self-taught naturalist and FRGS – often popped up in the media, where he talked a lot of sense. As such, he swiftly earned the enmity of the other major monster-hunter in the field at the time: Frank Searle, a former greengrocer and one-time soldier who had been at the loch since 1969 and was notorious, then as now, for producing large numbers of dubious photographs.
I've lived in Edinburgh for something like 15 years now and it truly is a beautiful and amazing city. My most recent book, Paranormal Edinburgh, looks at the Fortean side of Edinburgh. Here is one of my favourite stories from the book.
This much is beyond dispute: that on the afternoon of 31 July 1915, in the first year of the First World War, the British steamer Iberian was shelled, torpedoed and sunk off the coast of Ireland by the German submarine U28. This much is disputed: that when the Iberian went down, there was a large underwater disturbance – caused, it is supposed, by her boilers imploding. Quantities of wreckage were hurled into the air, and there, amid the debris, six members of the U-boat's crew beheld "a gigantic sea-animal, writhing and struggling wildly", which "shot out of the water to a height of 60 to 100 feet." [Source: Bernard Heuvelmans, In the Wake of the Sea Serpents (London: Rupert Hart Davis, 1968) p.395]
This sea-monster yarn first saw light nearly 20 years later, in the autumn of 1933, at a time when the Loch Ness Monster was much in the news. It was told by the U-boat's skipper, Georg-Günther Freiherr (Baron) von Forstner (1882-1940), an old U-boat hand who had formerly commanded SMS U1, and who wrote an article about Loch Ness for a German paper that dragged in his own sighting. According to Von Forstner, the creature had also been seen by five other members of the submarine's crew, all standing in the conning tower. It "had a long, tapering head and a long body with two pairs of legs. Its length may have been some 20 metres [roughly 65 feet]. In shape, it was more like a crocodile than anything else." [Source: Deutschen Algemeine Zeitung, 19 October 1933]
I admit that, after my last post, my thoughts involuntarily drifted back to that strange account of the parcel containing freshly cut-off human ears. What frightening serial ear collector or worse was stalking the city of Lodz and its environs? What actually do I know about such an arcane subject as pre-world war II Polish urban terrors, night stalkers, mystery prowlers and serial killers? Not much. Searching for clues on the internet yielded nothing in terms of weird crime in that country and that time period remotely resembling the account published earlier.
I briefly read up on some modern day Polish serial killers with terrible sounding names (as if they had stepped out of a Penny Dreadful) as 'the Vampire of Bytów', the 'Zaglebie Vampire' or the 'Gentleman Killer'. But on my mysterious ear collector, nothing.
Digging for other accounts of the event and possible follow-ups in an American digital newspaper archive, I located a brief follow-up published in several newspapers, that I reproduce here solve the mystery. I reproduce them all here, since there are some subtle differences in the accounts. Most astonishing of all is that the 26 human ears had become 52 human ears - possibly an error in translation.
An intersting report surfaces via the Irish Times. Recent supposed appearances of the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM) have been following the pattern made famous at Fatima - namely word gets around, lots of people turn up and then they claim to see the sun dancing around in the sky. October the 31st saw 10 000 people attending and an earlier appearance on the 11th of October also saw large numbers. At both gatherings people claimed to see the sun shimmering, changing colour and dancing in the sky.
Joe Coleman, described as a local visionary, has predicted that the BVM will put in another appearance this Saturday - the 5th of December. Police have previously asked people to keep away and perhaps some of the locals feel the same way too - as a precaution the pubs are closed and Knock becomes dry.
So what is the problem? Well people are quite naturally looking at the sun attempting to get their own view of a miracle. Some are then presenting themselves to University Hospital Galloway with vision problems. Dr Eamonn O'Donoghue, consultant opthalmologist reports that they have witnessed five recent cases of solar retinopathy (damage to the retina from prolonged exposure to the sun - i.e. from staring at it). This might not seem like a tidal wave of vision problems but the hospital would normally be suprised if they were presented with one case per year.
From the Irish Times
“These people came in because they have had a significant reduction
in their vision and they could very well be a smaller representative
sample,” Dr O’Donoghue said, adding that two of those who had presented
to the hospital had also reported that other members of their families
had suffered visual damage.
Scanning old newspapers, one comes across some very odd things. One of these is accounts of the discoveries of uncanny amounts of human parts. Suitcases overflowing with human hair. Collections of skulls found in trunks. But the gruesome one below I had not encountered before.
The clipping stems from a German online archive and was originally published in the Illustrierter Sonntag, from the city of Augsburg, Germany, dated 7 June 1930. Searching for all kinds of Fortean weirdness in the German digitised newspapers and magazines is a very difficult task. Where in place, the search engine capabilities of these digitised archives are very rudimentary. So you need a lot of patience to find anything.
But then there's this item that I found after many hours of ploughing away on my antiquated computer. "26 Cut-Off Human Ears", is the brief headline. My translation of this strange and horrible item follows:
"The police of Lodz stand before a mysterious event, previously unrecorded in the police chronicles. From a train travelling from Starzhsto to Warschau, in the vicinity of Tomaszow, a parcel was thrown, wrapped in newspapers. A railroad employee opened the parcel and to his dismay saw in it 13 pairs of human ears still bleeding. The blood was still remarkably fresh. Extensive investigations notwithstanding, it could not be established whether a horrible act of murder was involved or an alltogether equally weird act of theft from an anatomical institute. As of yet requests sent to various anatomical institutes have not been answered. Sofar the search for the perpetrator has also been without success."
During the course of the publications of his Book of the Damned, Lo!, Wild Talents and New Lands, Fort wrote and received many letters. These letters became scattered after his death in 1932. Fortean researcher Mr. X managed to locate several collections of Fort's letters, and today we can find a number of these transcribed on his website.
Fort made efforts to probe deeper into some reported odd events by writing letters to newspapers or principle witnesses. As the result of this, Fort concluded that often these witnesses did not exist: "I have had an extensive, though one-sided, correspondence, with people who may not be, about things that probably aren't."
Who did exist, but would vanish completely off the earth, was Dorothy Arnold. Fort wrote in his Lo!: "Upon Dec. 12th, 1910, a handsome, healthy girl disappeared somewhere in New York City. The only known man in her affairs lived in Italy. It looks as if she had no intention of disappearing: she was arranging for a party, a tea, whatever those things are, for about sixty of her former schoolmates, to be held upon the 17th of the month. When last seen, in Fifth Avenue, she said that she intended to walk through Central Park, on her way to her home, near the 79th Street entrance of the park. It may be that somewhere in the eastern part of the park, between 59th Street and the 79th Street entrances, she disappeared. No more is known of Dorothy Arnold."
A deeply strange serial murder case from Peru – involving the apparent butchering of 60 or more people in the mountainous Huánuco region so that their bodies could be rendered for their fat – rang a distant bell when I turned to it this morning. According to the BBC, the gang of killers (four of whom were caught in possession of bottles of the stuff [right], and who were allegedly realising $15,000 per litre for it from a cabal of European cosmetics manufacturers) have been nicknamed 'The Pistachos' "after an ancient Peruvian legend of killers who attack people on lonely roads and murder them for their fat."
Being an historian, I readily admit to a special fondness for that rarest of Fortean phenomena, the "timeslip" case. These are incidents in which a witness appears to travel back through time, in some unexplained and unexpected way, and is able to witness at first hand an event in the past. The proper name for the phenomenon is retrocognition, and by far the best-known example of it is the celebrated Versailles incident of August 1901, which involved two female English academics on a visit to Paris who took a fork in the path in the grounds of the palace of Versailles and became convinced that they had somehow begun walking through the gardens as they existed in the late eighteenth century, at the time of Marie Antoinette. In the course of their 'adventure,' the ladies remembered passing several structures which did not exist in 1901, and encountering a number of people, clad in convincing period dress, whom they initially supposed to be actors rehearsing a play. Their story has been the subject of considerable investigation, and though far from all of the results favour the ladies' interpretation, the incident nonetheless still ranks among a surprisingly large number of researchers' "classic cases". There are, however, three or four other, much less celebrated, timeslip cases that follow a very similar pattern, and I want to have a look at one of those today.
Just a quick update to let you know that the CFI now has it's own Facebook page
The blog page and the main website at www.forteana.org areof course still the main areas to keep you aware of what is happening but the Facebook page is a more informal location and gives you a chance to comment as well.
This is just one of many changes and projects that we are working on at the moment, so watch any of these spaces!
Visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary rank among the most interesting of Fortean phenomena. They are, to begin with, often very well evidenced; there are frequently multiple witnesses, and series of visions can run for days, weeks, months, or even years. Because of their theological implications, such experiences have also been the subject of intensive contemporary investigation, and though devout interrogators don't always ask the questions that we Forteans want answered, the fact is that we know vastly more about the background and early lives of percipients such as St Bernadette or Catherine Labouré than we do about most people who report strange things.
BVM experiences are also of special interest to those of us who take an interest in the psychological and cultural factors that underpin all such reports. They are very culturally specific, being reported - with one or two notable exceptions - exclusively by Roman Catholics and often include either prophetic or doctrinal elements. (One of the most interesting thing about the visions at Lourdes was the BVM's statement to Bernadette that "I am the Immaculate Conception," a comment that rather conveniently affirmed quite a new and controversial bit of Catholic dogma.) Cases often feature bizarre and surreal elements - one thinks particularly of the visions at Pontmain, in France, during the Franco-Prussian war, in which the Virgin hovered in the sky "surrounded by an oval frame, and her words, far from being spoken, inscribed themselves slowly on a twelve-foot-long strip of parchment that materialised beneath her feet. She then disappeared from the feet up into a 'kind of bag.'" [Dash, Borderlands p.55] Marian apparitions are also exceptionally fascinating from a purely evidential point of view, because in cases where there are multiple witnesses it is entirely normal for the various percipients to see and hear very different things.
From Bob's recent post on indexing the impossible to imaging the impossible - ghost photography.
Earlier on this year I was co-organiser, along with Richard Wiseman and Caroline Watt, of a one day event for the Edinburgn International Science Festival - The Science of Hauntings. Along with the other other invited speakers on the day I gave a talk on the history of spirit photography - two of my passions combined in a very logical way - photography and organised spiritualism were born at round about the same time and consequently their history is intertwined. From the desire to talk to the dead their soon arose the need for photographs of spirits (initialy photography was used to take photographs of the recently departed but this was a step beyond that). From the earliest spirit photographs of William Mumler and others through to the latest orbs the subject is still rich in controversy and unwritten histories. Over forthcoming blogs I will concentrate on different aspects of this story. If anyone can't wait and they're in London at Halloween then come along to the British Library where I will be delivering an illustrated lecture on just this topic from 14.30 to 16.00.
And if anyone would like to fund me in a PhD study of this topic just let me know - I'm champing at the bit!
"In a little book hailing from the fringe of the delectable region of Loch Ness, Mr R.L. Cassie describes his researches concerning the Monsters of Achanalt," noted The Times of 27 December 1935, adding, a little ominously: "It is a small book for so great an undertaking."
The monsters' story is indeed a remarkable one. In June 1934, about a year after the Loch Ness Monster first made international news, Cassie began to notice odd shapes in the lochs and rivers near his home in Achanalt, a village a short distance to the noth-west of Inverness on the picturesque Kyle of Lochalsh railway line. These soon resolved themselves into whole families of monstrous creatures, from 10 to 900 feet long, which choked the local waterways and spilled out onto land – in fact appearing more or less wherever the 77-year-old poet and author looked.
In Loch Achanalt itself (above right) dwelled a saurian which Mr Cassie christened 'Gabriel'. Gabriel was 900 feet long if an inch – only 150 feet shy of the length of the tiny loch itself. Yet he shared his domain with innumerable smaller brethren and at least six monsters of between 100 and 200 feet. "Many of the animals seen in the lakes are of enormous size," Cassie wrote, with careful understatement. "A hundred feet may be considered a mere minimum length."
In the last few weeks I have at last begun a project that was long on my mind ... an online index to Fortean Times. The initial stages will explore the potential of Internet tools (such as wikis) to make this a live project available to all via the CFI website.
As some of you may know, Steve Moore and I compiled detailed index to FT up to issue 105 (1997), but, in the 12 years since then, the count has risen by another 149 issues.
A few years ago, I offered some small help to Jonathan Betts, the curator of horology at the National Maritime Museum, while he was writing his biography of my boyhood hero, Rupert Gould. Gould (pictured right with his wife Muriel shortly after their marriage in 1917) is best known for his decade-long labour of restoring the four prototype Harrison chronometers that revolutionised navigation in the eighteenth century, but also penned (or rather pecked out on ancient typewriters - he owned one of the country's finest collections of antique typing machines) four or five of the most wonderfully stimulating and imaginative books ever committed to print, among them the first book ever written on the subject of the Loch Ness Monster and the less well known Oddities: A Book Of Unexplained Facts. I discovered a copy of the latter buried on the shelves of my aunt's house when I was about 13, and it remains one of my three or four favourites, containing, as it does, seminal essays on Orffyreus's Wheel and the long-lost 'science' of nauscopie.
Anyway, Fortean Times was forced to prune back the review I wrote of Betts's book, and, re-reading it today, it struck me as worth posting in full here; remarkably little information about Gould is available on the net. Both the biography and the man himself deserve to be vastly better-known – and what wouldn't I give to have copies of Mares' Nests and Nine Days' Wonders sitting nestling in my library alongside The Case for the Sea Serpent and The Stargazer Talks?
Time Restored: The Harrison Timekeepers and R.T. Gould, The Man Who Knew
The Ghost that came back for its photographs
This is a story from my recent book Paranormal Newcastle and whilst this story is in the book the relevant pictures are not, so here they are.
From left to right we have
Mr Dickinson, a photographer on whom a ghostly client called
The Photographic shop and studio of Mr Dickinson
The Portrait of Mr Thompson which not even the grave would keep him from collecting
Warning in W T Steads book for those about to read the ghost stories within
Here is the relevant section from the book to give you a taste
Pearson's Weekly, a British magazine popular during the early years of last century, ran a peculiarly interesting article on 'Mysterious people who have worn masks' some time in the latter half of 1903. I picked up a reprint in New Zealand's Christchurch Star, 24 November 1903, and the story leads with a fascinating account of a contemporary urban terror in the Serbian capital, Belgrade. The city was then – thanks to the June 1903 disembowelling of its unfortunate king, Aleksandar I – in the midst of one of its frequent bouts of extreme political instability, and the Serbian bogeyman had some extraordinary features. He was tall and slim and interested in children,in a manner entirely typical of his breed, but was much more violent than most, being rumoured to bloodily murder the offspring of the ruling classes, while leaving the children of poor families unscathed. Still more peculiarly, his victims' "mangled bodies" were supposed to turn up by the roadside "drained of every drop of blood," suggesting definite links to the still-strong local vampire tradition – for which see Paul Barber's excellent Vampires, Burial and Death: Folklore And Reality (Yale University Press, 1988). The article describes the monster as a "vlkoslak", which it defines as "a Servian word [meaning] indifferently either a vampire or a were-wolf."
My instinct is that this long-forgotten scare might have a good deal to teach us about bogey figures in general and the vampire traditions of the Balkans, and would certainly repay further research. (Download or click + drag the clipping to your desktop for a larger, more readable copy.)
[Last updated: 5 June 2012]
A further slew of dusty old newspapers has been digitised and made available online, and that bit of news prompts me to cull the best of the new content and combine them with with some older links to create the beginnings of a more comprehensive list of useful resources. By useful, I mean larger major-language newspapers or multiple-title archives, mostly, that are searchable and can be accessed privately online - anything, essentially, that looked beyond the narrow purview of small-town doings and local politics for its news. Many are paysites, but of these, almost all will allow free searches, so at least you can find out if they hold enough useful material to make paying worthwhile.
This information is scattered all over the web at present, and the signal-to-noise ratio is such that it's increasingly difficult to distinguish the useless from the useful, and - in some cases - to locate the most important links. In order to avoid littering this blog with my own scattering of occasional discoveries, I also plan to add future finds to this list, and will keep this entry updated with any changes in web address as I become aware of them. If you use digital archives on a regular basis, in short, you may find it worth bookmarking this entry.
For those who failed to purchase the Cottingley Fairy Cottage blogged about on these very pages another home is for the sale. The house that was used for the filiming of the original House on Haunted Hill is up for grabs at a mere $15 million. It was also used in Blade Runner.
Lloyd Wright's Ennis House, a Los Feliz hilltop masterpiece composed of
patterned and smooth concrete blocks that has been mightily threatened
by man and Mother Nature, is being offered for sale at $15 million by
the private foundation that has been restoring it.
Eric Lloyd Wright, the architect's grandson and a member of the
nonprofit Ennis House Foundation's board, said that, given harsh
economic realities, private ownership would be the best way to save the
house and honor his grandfather's intentions.
In general as time goes by jobs become easier due to for example mechanistation or increased use of computers. Think how easy it was in the past to build a house and compare that to how easy it is to build a skyscraper today. Despite this you would think some things would never get any easier, for example the job of being Indiana Jones. Jones is a tomb raider (lets be honest) and so far in his exploits we have seen him tangle with the Ark of the Covenant, the Holy Grail and many other items. But quite frankly for these two named pieces he need not have gone to all that trouble.
We all know from the work of Graham Hancock (The Sign and the Seal) that the Ark is at Axum in Ethiopia (I still think this is Hancock's best piece of work). It's in a church not open to anyone and it is guarded by a single monk who is the only person allowed to see the Ark. At least that is how the story has been told (if you're wondering why it's there Solomon had an illegitamte son with the Queen of Sheba and he took the Ark back home to Ethiopia - that's why it appears to vanish from the Bible). But news reaches our ears which has some bits of excitement in it.
Glamis Castle, in Scotland, is a famous place: a picture-postcard tourist destination, birthplace of the late-lamented Queen Mother Gawd Bless ‘Er™, and – not incidentally for the purposes of this blog – notoriously the most haunted ‘house’ in Britain. Any number of spook stories are associated with the castle, from tales of ghosts materializing in visitors' bedrooms to the legend of the infamous Earl Beardie, the so-called "Tiger Earl" – a fifteenth century Earl of Crawford whose soul is said to have been claimed by the devil while he unrepentantly played cards at Glamis upon the Sabbath day.
Best known by far, however, is the strange story of the Monster of Glamis, which (thanks in large part to its vague royal associations) has some claim to be ranked among the more pervasive legends of the late nineteenth century. In its evolved form (and it took some time to evolve, as we will see), this legend relates how, in the early nineteenth century, the wife of the then heir to the Earl of Strathmore gave birth in the castle to an boy who was so hideously deformed that the family took the decision to lock the child away in a secret room, denying him the chance to succeed to the earldom. Malformed though he was, however, the hideous infant proved to be surprisingly long-lived. Supposedly he survived well into the twentieth century, dying only in the 1920s, and knowledge of his existence became the dark secret of the Strathmore family, passed down from father to son just before the boy came of age at 21. Aside from the present Earl and his son, the only other person privy to the secret was supposedly the family’s chief factor – the manager of the Glamis estate.
Archives tend to be sedate places, usually, but of late they have been plunging online with such unrestrained abandon that even stuck-in-the-mud old hands like me have begun to feel a little giddy. It’s only a couple of weeks since my last update on newspaper and journal digitisation, and already there’s some significant news to be reported.
Most important, at least in its massive potential, is the appearance of a beta–test version of the long-touted Historic Australian Newspapers, from the National Library of Australia. This site, now freely available online, covers the period 1803-1954, and though only a tiny fraction of the planned holdings are currently available, it already looks extremely promising. Material from 26 papers is available, the titles ranging from the Melbourne Argus to the Perth Gazette and including no fewer than five from Hobart alone. It’s likely to develop rapidly from now on, too, with thousands of pages being digitised each month.
It's been a while since I last wrote on the subject of newspaper digitisation, and there have been a couple of important developments recently that are well worth mentioning. Probably the most significant has been the end of The Times archive's exclusive arrangement with Gale, which had kept the paper irritatingly unavailable to private users for quite a few years. The Thunderer – like the New York Times, which called a halt to its own similarly restrictive arrangement with ProQuest some time ago – now markets its own archive over the net to anyone willing to pay for access, and the cost is pretty affordable, particularly if you plan ahead: it comes in at £4.95 for a day pass, £14.95 for a month, or £75 for a year's access. This compares favourably to the £7.95 a day charge levied by the rival Guardian and Observer archive. Better still, the day pass offer is a genuine one, giving free access to as much Times content as you can cope with in 24 hours. In this it differs appreciably from those sold by most American papers, which often limit the number of articles you can access with a day pass to as few as five.
Also worth noting are two other relatively new British national newspaper databases: those of the Daily Mirror (1903-date) and the Daily and Sunday Express titles and their stablemate the Daily Star (2000-date). These are now marketed together by UKPressOnline at a rate of £5 for 48 hours' use, rising to a rather steep £295 for full annual access.
Recently I reported that the cottage at the centre of the Cottingley Fairies case was up for sale. I did get frequent emails asking if I was still interested in a house in the area for a few months after! However I can confirm that the house has now sold and the good news is that it has a sympathetic owner!
Actor Dominic Brunt (Emmerdale) has bought the house. According to the editiorial in Fortean Times 248 Dominc, co-organiser of theLeeds Zombie Festival,
"Dominic, it turns out, is not just an obsessive zombie buff but also a long-time FT reader (“to my wife’s dismay I never throw a copy away”)"
So it's pleasing to know that the place is in safe hands. I wonder if he'll be seeing Zombie Fairies whilst he's there?
Late on the evening of 3 January 1804, a bricklayer by the name of Thomas Millwood left his home in Hammersmith, to the west of London. He was smartly dressed in the sort of clothes favoured by men in his trade: "linen trowsers entirely white, washed very clean, a waistcoat of flannel, apparently new, very white, and an apron, which he wore round him." Unfortunately for Millwood, though, those clothes proved to be the death of him. At 10.30pm, while he was walking alone down Black-lion-lane, he was confronted and shot dead by a customs officer called Francis Smith - thus setting in motion one of the strangest, best-remembered and most influential cases in British legal history.
Just after dawn on the morning of 22 May 1918, police called to a respectable dwelling in the poorest quarter of New Orleans discovered a horrific sight. A baker by the name of Joseph Maggio and his young wife, Catherine, lay sprawled on a double bed sticky with blood. The couple had been brutally attacked by a man wielding an axe. Both victims had been struck several times in the face, and Catherine’s throat had been cut so violently that her head was almost severed from her body.
The Maggios were the first of no fewer than 12 victims of a murderer who earned the soubriquet ‘The Axeman of New Orleans’ – killings which ran until the autumn of 1919, were never solved, and stopped as mysteriously as they had started. The murders became infamous not merely for their violence but for the bizarre modus operandi of the Axeman himself. Each victim was Italian, and either a grocer or a baker. Each was killed in his own home by an assailant who gained entry by carefully chiselling a panel out of the backdoor. On each occasion, the murder weapon was left behind for the police to find – the axe used to kill the Maggios was discovered propped up in their bath.
And then there was the Axeman’s unexplained obsession with jazz.
The Yeti has always been a poor cousin of the Bigfoot. It never gets the column inches its more famous North American cousin does but I guess that's the price you pay for living in such a remote and out of the way area as the Himalayan regions of Nepal and Tibet. But could that be about to change? Britain's elder statesman naturalist Sir David Attenborough, whilst appearing on the Friday Night With Jonathan Ross show 27th Feb 2009, made a pronouncement on the Yeti.
“I'm baffled by the Abominable Snowman - very convincing footprints have been found at 19,000ft.”
For Forteans of a certain age, mere mention of the name of Joyce McKinney sends one careering back to 1977, when the one-time Miss Wyoming ranked among the top three newspaper stories of the year, right up there alongside the Silver Jubilee and the Sex Pistols. Now, three decades and more later, Elizabeth II is still on the throne and Johnny Rotten has declined into a mere staple of reality TV. But McKinney has faded from the memory so completely that none of the people I mentioned her to recently could recall quite how or why they knew the name. It was only when I dropped manacled Mormon missionaries into the conversation – or recalled McKinney's most famous quote ('I loved him so much that I would have skiied naked down Mount Everest with a carnation up my nose if he had asked me to.') – that the rest of the story tended to come flooding back.
McKinney's name – long dormant in my own mind – had popped up as I finished a re-reading of John Michell's ever-wonderful Eccentric Lives & Peculiar Notions at the beginning of the week. I had been struck – leafing through chapters recounting the excesses of barely-remembered Victorians – by the dearth of modern equivalents to such epic figures as Comyns Beaumont, the British newspaper editor who convinced himself that Jesus had been born in Somerset, or Cyrus Teed, the determined hollow-earther who hand-built a New Jerusalem for his followers at a site near Fort Myers in Florida. True eccentrics, it seemed, no longer flourish these days, if only because we live in a society that becomes more self-conscious by the day, while true eccentricity, remember, is nothing more or less than behaviour that society as a whole deems peculiar, but which appears entirely reasonable to the eccentric concerned. But that was before I thought of checking up on McKinney.
Edinburgh is of course the place to be and if further proof were needed...
As part of the Edinburgh International Science Festival we have
Last week's news threw up a small story that, at first merely intriguing, turned out to be pretty much as sad as any I've read over the last few years.
"After 20 years, kidnapped brother and sister found," the Daily Telegraph reported from San Jose, California in a story concerning the rediscovery of a brother and sister from Murfreesboro, Tennessee who had been abducted on 1 March 1989 and had not been heard from since. Sounds heartwarming, till you read on to the details of the case. The people who abductred Christi and Bobby Baskin, then aged 7 and 8, changed their names and took them thousands of miles from home turned out to be their maternal grandparents. And the abduction, it seemed, had been planned because Marvin and Sandra Maple had become convinced that their daughter and her husband - a Baptist pastor - were actually Satanists who had ritually abused the children as part of their involvement in a murderous cult.
A year-long investigation at the time failed to turn up any evidence of the supposed cult - or of any abuse, ritual or otherwise. And the Baskins, it seems, never gave up hope of reuniting with their missing children; for 20 years their answerphone gave out a plea for Christi and Bobby to leave a message if they called.