A British Bigfoot?

Leafing through Sheldrake’s Aldershot & Sandhurst Military Gazette for 8 December 1878 the other day, I came across the following brief report concerning the hunt for a supposed gorilla in the Welsh marches.

For a fortnight past the district around Madely Wood, Salop, has been in a state of intense excitement, by the alleged depredations committed by a gorilla, which is said to have escaped from a wild beast menagerie travelling to Bridgnorth. The animal was stated to have first made his appearance in the neighbourhood of that town, where in the darkness of the night it was severally seen by a clergyman and a policeman, both of whom fled. It is also said to have appeared at several places in the immediate neighbourhood. A few evenings since the occupier of a house in Madely Wood went to bed at a reasonable hour, with the greater portion of his family, leaving his “gude wife” up, who took the opportunity to visit a neighbour, leaving the door open and a candle burning. Returning in a short time, she was horrified at seeing a bent form, with a goodly array of gray hair around its face, crouching over the expiring embers of the fire, apparently warming itself, the light having gone out. Too frightened to shriek, she ran to her neighbours, who quickly armed themselves with pokers, iron bars, guns, and pitchforks and other instruments of a similar character, and marched in a body to capture the gorilla. The form was seen sitting at the fire, but evidently aroused by the approaching body, rose to its full height and revealed the figure of an eccentric character well known in the neighbourhood as “Old Johnny,” who seeing the door open had quietly walked in to light his pipe, accidentally “puffed” the candle out, and was very near being captured, if not exterminated, in mistake for an escaped gorilla. The animal has not been heard of since.

Of Vampire Rabbits...

Some of you UK readers of a certain age may remember a Vampire Duck - Count Duckula no less, and of course we all know the goat sucker El Chupacabras, but how about a vampire rabbit?

In a corner of Newcastle in the North East of England there has long lurked such a thing.  It's behind the St Nicholas Cathedral in an area known as Amen Corner.

Above the entrance to a firm of lawyers lurks this cunning beast.  A creature of the night but proud to show itself to all during the day.  The vampire rabbit.

Vampire rabbit

Nobody knows its origins, but there is a rumour that after a bit of damage the ears were replaced the wrong way round changing it from a vampire hare to the current rabbit.  A recent paint job has changed it to a menacing black but still its teeth and claws are blood red.  The building it guards was built in the early twentieth century so it's a relatively modern innovation, but even though it's modern its still a mystery.  Just one of many mysteries to be found in Newcastle (I won't mention that many are covered in my forthcoming book- Paranormal Newcastle, available for preorder at Amazon).

If you do know anything about the vampire rabbit then please get in tocuh it would be great to know its origins and purpose.

Basis of disbelief discovered

In the world of the Fortean many events happen where people doubt the evidence of their own eyes.  We often see events that don't add up when initially perceived and now it appears that there are specific parts of the brain that flag up these anomalies.

Mike Dash "eaten by 150 foot anaconda"

Here's an interesting example of the power of the internet.

Twelve years ago, I wrote a book entitled Borderlands, which discussed, pretty sceptically, the evidence for a wide range of strange phenomena. One passage concerned the possibility that snakes far bigger than the largest scientifically recorded might exist in the Amazon - the current record for an anaconda is around 33 feet, or about 10 metres, but there are reports of animals as long as 150 feet, or about 50 metres, being seen. Tim Dinsdale, in his The Leviathans (1966), even mentioned and printed sketches of several photos he had been sent from Brazilian newspapers which purported to show snakes of this sort of size.

A couple of years ago, I noticed that my passage had been picked up and cited by several cryptozoology sites as "evidence" for the existence of giant snakes. Then it appeared on Wikipedia - correctly cited - in the article "Giant anaconda". Now comes this bit of remarkable further distortion, apparently written by someone who hasn't read even Wikipedia very closely - but is nonetheless able to cite "video evidence", even.

How the author got things this wrong I can hardly imagine. But be certain that there are people out there prepared to believe him. And you can bet that in another dozen years' time, there'll be sites out there that state, as an accepted fact, that I became supper for some giant snake.


Parapsychological aspects of Art Spiegelman's Maus

I've spent the past couple of weeks working in the Seeley Historical Library, Cambridge, where the selection of books on offer is resolutely targeted to the needs of undergraduate coursework. So, browsing the shelves in my chosen alcove in search of something to read in a spare five minutes, I found myself faced with a pretty unappetising selection of material - not least because it turned out that I'd chanced into the section of the library dealing with the Holocaust. In the end, the choice boiled down to Rose's seminal Revolutionary Antisemitism in Germany from Kant to Wagner (sample chapter title: "The German statists and the Jewish Question, 1781-1812") or a copy of Art Spiegelman's Maus. I'm not too proud to say that, after practically no soul searching at all, I plumped for Spiegelman.

Maus, for those who don't know it, is a 300-page comic book which deals with Spiegelman's father's struggle to survive World War II - no easy task for a Polish Jew who fell into German hands as early as 2 September 1939. It's a harrowing story, not least in its second half, which deals principally with the year that Vladek Spiegelman spent in Auschwitz, but though the book's been out now for more than 20 years, I'd never actually read it before. It was with some surprise, then, that I stumbled across a couple of very interesting accounts of psychic phenomena within its pages.

The first occurs quite early in the book, when, as a result of the German conquest of Poland, Vladek finds himself interned in a forced labour camp during the first autumn of the war. One night he had a dream...

"Don't worry..."

A voice was talking to me. It was, I think, my dead grandfather.

"Don't worry, my child..."

It was so real, this voice...

The Skull of Doom

For Brits of a certain age Arthur C Clarke has a lot to answer for - and I'm not just talking 2001 A Space Odyssey.  In 1980 ITV in the UK started to broadcast Arthur C Clarke's Mysterious World, a 13 part series looking at unexplained Phenomena.  By this point in my life I was already hooked on Forteana and had already read all of the relevant books in my local library and I had started to build up my own library.  I was however still on my own.  No internet to chat to people, no UnConvention to meet up with like minded folk and I am afraid that at that point I had not even heard of Fortean Times.  So one of my only outlets of Forteana was Arthur and his tremendous show.  The opening credits showed a beautiful skull made of crystal.  I'd read about it and seen still pictures but thiswas a movingimage - it was far more beautiful than I had ever realised.  And then on September the 16th 1980 in an episode entitled Ancient Wisdom there was a whole lot of information on the Skull.  I lapped it up.  It was fantastic.  For me this was rapidly to become one of my three all time favourite Fortean objects (Shroud of Turin and Nessie being the other two). 


I have to say I was more than slightly appalled to receive the news from
Paul Sieveking last Monday that Ken Campbell had died suddenly the
day before at only 66 and seeming so full of vigor and inventiveness
that he looked like he would go on forever, I'd only just been
hearing about how good he'd been in Edinburgh and was about to ring
his agent to book him for my science festival.

Secrets of the Fort Sort

In my biographical note I say something like “sorting clippings with
the forteans is the only thing I do now that I was doing 15 years
ago”, since I started this I've lived in 4 different cities, had 4
different jobs, 4 houses, 2 wives, three cats, 5 cars and 2 children,
but every month or so, or as close to that as I can wangle it I have
trundled off down to Paul Sieveking's flat in north London to commune
with the Gang of Fort over a tray of unsorted clippings, and for
something so core to the activities for the Fortean Times what
actually goes on at a clipping sort is remarkably little known by the
majority of readers.

The format of the day has remained delightfully unchanged too. Dramatis
personae usually involves Paul, Bob Rickard, Steve Moore and myself,
and in later years Mark Pilkington, Rachel Carthy and Phil Baker have
joined in, Joe McNally was a regular for a while, and all sorts of
other people have made guest appearances, but the core of sorting
veterans has remained essentially the same. When I first read FT, I
assumed the flow of clippings that came in from all over the world
must be being sorted by a vast army of fortean minions somewhere in
the semi-legendary Fortean Towers, and after sending in my own
clippings for a while thought it would be great to join them so I
could get to see all the stuff the mag didn't have room for, so I got
in touch and volunteered, and was slightly surprised to find it was
just a few stalwarts in a front room somewhere who were pleased to
have another hand to help out.

Fortean London

Things have been a bit quiet of late so I thought I'd tell you a bit about my proposed Summer Holiday trip to London.

Me being me there are two things that are quite important - firstly I want to pack as much into my time there as possible and secondly I want there to be a strong Fortean theme running throughout.

There was one item in the calendar I wanted to see - I'm a member of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) so I thought I'd better try and get to one of their lectures so that was a fixed point in terms of dates, everything else could potentially be fitted in around it. So I started looking around at what is on in London that I could fit in.

Firstly I was delighted to find that I could take in a lecture by Benjamin Creme - emissary for Maitreya (basically the second coming and he's already here - apparently he lives somewhere in the East End of London - I wonder if I could pop round for a cup of tea?). I know the basic Maitreya story having been to a couple of Edinburgh based lectures - the lecturer was inspired to join the movement after hearing Creme talk. So he must be inspirational! Oh and he's in his 80's so best to get him whilst I still can!

Next up is a talk and walk by Scott Wood of the South East London Folklore Society (SELFS). Part of the London Magtastic series of events Scott will "take a short tour around London Bridge which will
feature ghostly, monstrous and magical sites. See the sites of a magical
battle with a ghost, the legend of Mary Overy, a wife's ghostly onslaught,
the wizard-artist's studio and much more
". Sounds good to me.

Digital Clippings: Chasing Polts and Monsters in dusty old Times


One of the key services planned for the CFI is an online archive of Fortean periodicals (including , ufology, cryptozoology, psychical research and so on). Recently, I saw an example of how this could be done.

Inspired by the images of old news clippings posted by Mike Dash and Theo Paixmans in this forum, I'd like to share with you a recent little bonanza. Thanks to a tip from Brian Chapman on the forteana mail list - - these digitised clippings came from a recent and short-lived trial run of the long-anticipated digital archive of the Times, spanning 1785-1985. For a few days in mid-August 2007, the Thompson-Gale host site - see - made the entire 200-year archive freely available for genealogy researchers as part of National Family History Week.

Alas, I only discovered it one day before the free password expired and had only an hour or so to test it for Fortean data. The Times archive is now only available through their regular subscription procedure -  

As anyone who has used the rather eccentric indexes to ancient runs of the Times will know, they were made for a different era, one of gentlemen scholars with lots of time on their hands. They were indexed, usually, on the short headline so you also had to have a talent for coming at your subject obliquely; a ‘frog fall', for example, may have been indexed as ‘A Curious Phenomenon' or an SHC might be ‘Shocking Death in Putney'.

Serious stuff: accessing PhD theses for Fortean research

[UPDATED August 2011]

Academia has long been a little suspicious of the Fortean world, and with some reason. There has always been so much woolly thinking, so many unprovable hypotheses, and so little truck with the scientific method on our side of the academic iron curtain that — setting aside the rationalists at CSICOP — aspiring scholars have chosen to stay well clear of our subject when it comes to selecting areas of study, and most especially when choosing a topic for that most important of academic hurdles, the PhD thesis - a critical decision that can heavily affect one's chances of securing employment thereafter.

There are exceptions to this rule, of course. Students of folklore, social studies and psychology have occasionally turned their attention to the sort of topics covered in Fortean Times. But even in these disciplines, the problems of securing funding, a supervisor and — above all — maximising the prospects of finding a job have deterred all but a few from pursuing serious study of Fortean topics, no matter how sceptical the writers’ viewpoint.

Cottingley Fairies for Sale

Fancy owning a piece of Fortean history? Well I can't quite offer it I'm afraid but I can literally offer the next best thing! <Having checked a few things I take it all back - I can offer it - it is indeed number 31 the house of the Wrights that is for sale>

Cottingley is forever in our minds courtesy of Arthur Conan Doyle and the fairy photographs of Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths from 1917 and 1920. There are so many Fortean aspects and indeed cliches in this case that I shall not rehash them here. Cottingley is currently experiencing a bit of a building boom and new streets are being added, streets with names such as Oberon Way, Lysander Way and Goodfellow Close. There is already a Fairy Dell there. But Main Street survives. This is the street where the girls were staying at the time, specifcially in number 31.

Number 31 was sold in July of 2000, for £57 000. But it now appears that next door is up for sale.

Estate Agent advert

A mere snip at £154 995

The estate agent description inlcudes mention of the fairies:

Waratah: a fresh look at the legend of the bloody swordsman

I’m uncomfortably aware that the research portion of this blog has gone by the board over the last few months – blame it on my struggles with an upcoming book. So I thought it might be an idea to step back and take a detailed look at ways of getting an entirely new project off the ground, exploiting all the sources that are available nowadays to someone trying to pin down a subject – perhaps one that’s not too well documented and that seems a challenge to research.

All on board? OK, let’s pick a topic and see what we can do with it. Oh, and to inject a little bit of faux excitement in the project – just like on TV! – we’ll also set ourselves a totally spurious time deadline of, say, one hour to gather as much information we possibly can. Well, if it’s good enough for Time Team

WaratahOur subject is one I’ve known of vaguely for years and years, but never properly looked into: the mysterious disappearance of the SS Waratah, a brand-new passenger ship belonging to the Blue Anchor Line, in July 1909. The ship, a 9,300 ton, single-stack luxury liner intended for the London-Sydney route, vanished off the coast of South Africa with all hands – a total of 211 passengers and crew. According to most accounts, not a single body or piece of identifiable wreckage was ever found, and repeated searches have since failed to reveal any trace of the ship on the sea bed.

Queen of the Rats

The Rat Queen of London

Central Europe may have its Rat Kings - bundles of rats permanently joined together by their tails; between 30 and 50 examples have turned up in the last 400 years or so depending on who you ask, and preserved ones are to be found in museums in Hamburg, Hamlein, Stuttgart and Gottingen (I borrowed that one for the Fortean exhibition I did in Croydon), but only London has a Rat Queen.

Of all the ghastly trades pursued in Victorian London, few were worse than that of the Toshers, who rummaged about inside the city sewers retrieving anything even vaguely saleable, well, except maybe the "Pure" Collector, who gathered dog shit for the tanning trade - they had a special glove for the task. Given the foulness and danger inherent in their work, it‘s not surprising that toshers were a superstitious lot, and according to one named Jerry Sweetly1, their superstitions featured the mysterious Rat Queen, who could bring a man luck in the pipe, and he claimed to speak from personal experience.

Floods, "Pressure", and Nuclear Death

The start of a new year is a time for looking back, for looking forward, and - perhaps most entertainingly of all - for checking out how well the world's assorted psychic doom-mongers have been doing in the prediction stakes.

Thirty years ago now, Irving Wallace and David Wallechinsky asked many of the leading sensitives of the day to list their forecasts for the future, then published the results in ever-wonderful People's Alamanacs 1 & 2 - which readers of this blog will know still rank among my favourite reading matter. A few hedged their bets with the sort of vague, undated prognostications that you can never really label "wrong" - suggesting that "a cure for blood diseases will be found" sometimes between 1975 and the far-distant future strikes me as a fairly safe bet. Most, though, filed startlingly-precise and unmistakably media-friendly predictions revolving around imminent disaster on a national and global scale.

In an attempt to be fair, I've checked every prediction from the Almanac #1 that's both firmly dated and reasonably unambiguous, and tried to choose a balanced selection from them. Bearing in mind, then, that a far-seeing psychic gazing into his or her crystal ball back in 1975 ought to have been able to predict the collapse of Communism, the fall of the Berlin Wall, AIDS, Gulf Wars I and II, the Falklands conflict, a female British Prime Minister, the assassination attempt on President Reagan, the end of apartheid in South Africa, the rise of reality television, the death of Diana, the destruction by plane of the World Trade Center, and the Boston Red Sox finally winning a World Series, let's take a look at how the Almanac's all-star line-up fared.


Psychic #1

Malcolm Bessant of the College of Psychic Studies, London

Predictions for 1975-80

We've never had it so good...

It's always good to start the new year with a look back at things past - it's a chance for us to make sure we don't repeat the same mistakes if nothing else! And if we look back to Charles Fort we can see how much things have changed.

Whilst working on his collection of data of the damned Fort had to travel to major library collections and fortunately he had a bequest which meant he could devote the necessary time to his researches. Availability and ease of access were major issues for Fort and for many who followed in his footsteps, but look at the situation now in 2008. We have the internet - communication with fellow researchers of any of our Fortean interests is a lot quicker than good old snail mail - we can even carry out real time conversations through the net without the previously prohibitive phone call charges of the past. The net itself is a vast and ever changing resource - we can check and recheck facts to our hearts content. Ok anyone can put up a web page and say anything they want but looking at one source isn't research - it's plagarism! Cross checking of information is so much easier now, what would have taken months in the past can be accomplished in days if not hours.

Many reports of interest are originally published in newspapers and journals - many of which have online archives which are searchable. I popped the phrase "mermaid" into the online archive section of The Scotsman newspaper and produced a range of hits from 1817 onwards. And each one was accompanied by a pdf of the original article - how long would it have taken me to search all edtions of the paper - either paper copies (if I could get hold of them) or on microfiche? And how many mistakes would I have made? Being realistic the online search engine may have made mistakes but there are probably less than I would have made! This makes research of articles so much easier - it's a godsend, it really is.

10 Suggestions For Your 2008 Reading List

The invisible mongoose that lives in the wall has asked me to make a list of the best books I read in 2007. I’m not one to argue, so here’s a double-handful of titles arranged in no particular order.

The Trickster and the Paranormal (Xlibris, 2001) by George P. Hansen.
A dense, occasionally baffling disquisition of how the paranormal works. Contains a staggering amount of information about skeptics, sociology, parapsychology, stage magic, literature, hoaxing, shamans and religion. The last 200 pages can be a real briar patch, but the author presents complicated material as clearly as possible, tells interesting stories, like his work on the Brooklyn Bridge abduction case, and includes some first-rate dish. From time to time I muttered, “What the hell is he talking about?” but by the end I felt like I actually understood something about the supernatural. Then I had a nervous breakdown.

The Rough Guide to Unexplained Phenomena 2nd edition (Rough Guides, 2007) by Bob Rickard and John Michell.
Whether you’re a budding fortean or someone who can use “lithobolia” in a sentence, you will enjoy this overview of the paranormal. The Guide contains fresh and familiar material, but what makes it really interesting is how the contents are arranged. Instead of sections on “poltergeists” or “UFOs”, the authors use headings like “teleportation” that describe what seems to be happening. This makes it easier to discuss phenomena without preconceptions and avoids the “linkage blindness” that can occur with familiar categories. The book’s a little unwieldy for bathtub reading, and there’s an arguable fact or two, but it’s a glimpse of what the great, unwritten, Encyclopedia Forteana might be like.

Seven Fortean Wonders of the World Results

Thanks to everyone who voted - here are the results of the CFI Seven Fortean Wonders of the World (in no particular order)

Bigfoot / Yeti

Shroud of Turin

Piri Reis Map



Oak Island

Crop Circles




And that's it - that's our list of the Seven Fortean Wonders of the World. If you want to discuss any of these why not pop along to the forums area?

Treasures of the British Library Catalogue

As a Christmas treat, I’m reposting this gem, composed by Paul Sieveking for Fortean Times 177 (October 2003), which celebrated the 30th year of publication. This list of curious titles and amusing author names was collected by Paul Sieveking and others (including me) while working on the last hard copy edition of the British Library Catalogue of Printed Books, (1979-1985).   

The Seven Fortean Wonders of the World - Round 3.

Well that's the second round now closed and the third starting. Some last minute rallying of groups led to a surge in numbers of votes cast for certain categories - nothing wrong with that - the important thing is that peoples voices are heard and that people vote. If you want to argue about the inclusion or non-inclusion of things from the list please feel free to use the forum area - that's what it's there for.

The final 20, which can be voted on on the right hand side of this page or on the round three dedicated page, are an interesting list. They've all earned their place - firstly one or more people took the time to nominate them and then they've successfully come through two rounds of voting. But what will make it? What will be in the final list of Seven Fortean Wonders? It's down to you - if you want something there vote for it and persuade others to do so via the forum. The final list will be available at the start of 2008 and it will be a list of seven with no rank or ordering - they're in the list or they're not, it's as simple as that.

Seven Fortean Wonders Round Two voting open

The first round of voting for the Seven Fortean Wonders has now closed.

Thanks to everyone who took part we now have a smaller list for the second round. Again you will be able to nominate your choice and the twenty with the highest number of votes will go through to the next round and after the third round we’ll have our list of seven. You can vote from the side bar or at the Round Two web page.

You can see the final 38 here.

Don't forget, you can also discuss the candidates (and a few other things) over at the CFI Forums.

A project such as this relies on your participation so thank you very much for the voting so far and stick with it! Some people have announced that they were finding it too tough to vote in the first round as the choice was too wide – hopefully this will make it easier although I suspect not – it’s still a mighty impressive list of Forteana. If you know someone who didn’t vote first them round give them a shout – it’s definitely not too late. The more people who take part the more representative the poll will be.

Like you we here at the CFI have no idea who will win – we all have our favourites and we hope they’ll make it through to the end – but we’ll have to wait until January 1st 2008 for the announcement. If you don’t vote they might not be there and then you only have yourself to blame! One thing you can do to make sure your personal choice gets through is to use the forums and argue your case – we already have some discussion there from round one – lets have some more.

I know some people have expressed some dissatisfaction with the voting system – well I’m sorry about that but a system had to be chosen and whatever method we went for there would always be some dissent. This is the system we’ve got and this is what we’re going with – if you have any views you’d like to express again please feel free to use the forums as an area of debate we can then take on board ideas for future polls.

In conclusion – many thanks for everyone who has voted so far and thanks in advance for the votes that are about to come in in the future rounds. I know the final list of seven will be a strong guide for some future holidays for me – I hope it will inspire you too. Many thanks.

Coincidence or connection?

Mexican Zapasita leader Subcomandante Marcos Subgenius deity Bob Dobs

Zapasita Leader Subcommandante Marcos          Subgenius deity Bob Dobbs


Seven Fortean Wonders of the USA

When the New Seven Wonders of the World was announced, Loren Coleman suggested making a list of seven fortean wonders to accompany it. I found the prospect of choosing a world list intimidating, however, and decided to concentrate on the United States.

The qualifications for being one of the New Seven Wonders were not rigorous; candidates had to be "man made, completed before 2000, and in an "'acceptable'" state of preservation." [1]. I used the same criteria, including some choices that represent a category of objects.

That said, here they are, ready to be made into postage stamps and collectible spoons, the Seven Fortean Wonders of America.

Seven Fortean Wonders of the World - Voting Open

After a slightly longer than anticipated gestation period (computer problems which took the CFI blogs down) the voting for the Charles Fort Institute Seven Fortean Wonders of the World is finally here.

On the Seven Wonders web page you can see a list of all 79 nominations. Each is linked to a paragraph giving more details and there are further links to more information so you can find out as much as you like about each candidate before you vote. We've also set up a forum for discussion - just log in and champion your favourites.

The voting is split into three rounds, initially from 79 down to 40, then 40 to 20 and finally 20 to the all important 7. The final result will be anounced on the 1st of January 2008 - be sure to log onto the Blogs to check how you favourites have done, the result will also be on the original voting page.

Thanks to everyone who has taken the trouble to put forward their nominations, thanks to everyone who votes, thanks to Dino for setting things up, thanks to Loren Coleman and all at The Anomalist and thanks for all who have helped to spread the word including the Russian UFO magazine (click image for big version).

Russian UFO Magazine

and a fantastic two page spread in The Sunday Sport!
(click image for big version)

Sunday Sport

We want this poll to be as representative as possible so the more voting we have the better - spread the word, tell all your friends, get them to vote and get them to tell their friends as well. vote. Vote. VOTE


Herman's Curse

The name Herman Webster Mudgett is largely forgotten, but he was an infamous figure in late 19th century America.

Mudgett, better known as "H.H. Holmes", was a successful swindler and serial killer who built a "Murder Castle" in Chicago, a three-story human abattoir complete with shops, apartments, and its own crematorium. He was captured in 1895 and wrote a death-row memoir in which he claimed a total of 27 murder victims, including men, women and children. Mudgett was hanged and, at his request, the coffin filled with concrete to discourage grave robbers.

True crime buffs remember the Castle, but there is another aspect of the story that suggests the man's malignant influence was not cemented into the ground with him.

According to David Franke's book, The Torture Doctor:

No More Heroes

It's one thing to read about the delusions of elderly professors, long a source of exasperation and amusement to forteans, but dealing with the consequences of their behavior first-hand is quite another,. Nobel Prize winners, though, seem to be in a class of their own when it comes to waywardness, as I have been finding out in recent weeks. Over the years, Nobel laureates have espoused vitamin C as the cure for all ills(Linus Pauling),admitted having regular conversations with talking raccoons (Kary Mullis) and spent years espousing dubious right-wing causes (William Shockley), and this is a far from comprehensive list of outside-the-box ideas either. Most recently, James Watson, co-discoverer of DNA’s structure , has elevated himself to this dubious pantheon, by opining in a Sunday Times interview that he was "inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa" because "all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours – whereas all the testing says not really". He went on to say there was a natural desire that all human beings should be equal but "people who have to deal with black employees find this not true" This was subsequently made front-page news by the Independent, who accused Watson of racism. As I was supposed to be running a public interview with him days later and staging an exhibition on his work (already unexpectedly complex due to the Northern Rock banking crisis and chronic vagueness from the exhibition provider) this led to interesting times

Percy Fawcett's battle tactics

One of the great joys of reading history is the endless capacity it possesses for throwing up the unexpected.

There I was, ploughing happily through Richard Holmes’s well-researched and anecdote-rich Tommy: The British Soldier on the Western Front in my bath, when I ran across an old friend in quite unusual circumstances. ‘Structural and personal problems prevailed,’ writes Holmes in a passage otherwise dryly devoted to the problems encountered by British artillery in suppressing German heavy guns. ‘Perhaps the most notorious came in VI Corps in late 1916 when the Amazon explorer Colonel Percy Fawcett arrived to take up the new post of corps counter-battery colonel. He immediately declared that he was not in the least bit interested in the innovative work being done on the detection of German guns by flash-spotting and sound ranging… The only counter-battery shots which he would allow were those against targets clearly visible from British lines - or those he had personally detected on his ouija board.’

A prison curiosity

Richard Honeck (1877-1976), an American murderer, served what is believed to be the longest gaol sentence ever to terminate in a prisoner's release. Jailed in 1899 for the killing of a former school friend, Honeck was paroled from Menard Correctional Center in Chester, Illinois on 20 December 1963, having served 64 years and one month of his life sentence. In the decades between his conviction and the time his case came to public notice again in August 1963, he received only a single letter – a four-line note from his brother in June 1904 – and two visitors: a friend in 1904, and a newspaper reporter in 1963.

My recent stumble across mention of this oddity in Irving Wallace and David Wallechinsky's incomparable The People's Almanac (New York: Doubleday, 1975), p.1341, inspired a brief flurry of research in the online archives of the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune - the magnificent repositories of which are now fully keyword searchable from their first issues to the present day. A quarter of an hour's work was enough to flesh out a story easily bizarre enough to make the pages of FT – a good example of just how quickly researchers can move in this digital age.

The Grey Dog of Meoble

Grey Dog isle

Photo courtesy of Iain Thornber

Mention of Loch Morar in my last post put me in mind of a legend from the same district that is not at all well known among Forteans, but which combines, in an interesting way, two distinct folklore motifs: those of the ‘loyal pet’ and the ‘harbinger of death’.

The Grey Dog of Meoble (which I have seen given, in the Gaelic in which the story was first told, as an cuth glas Meobhail or an cu glas Mheobail) is a gigantic, shaggy-haired Scottish deerhound whose preternatural appearances are said to presage death to members of the Macdonald clan in the south Morar districts where the tradition first flourished. Tales of the spectral animal’s appearances certainly date to the first half of the nineteenth century; we know that Caraid nan Gaidheal, a renowned Highland piper who died in 1867, had heard the legend (John Gibson, Old and New World Highland Bagpiping (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s Press, 2002, p.318). They come not only from the tiny crofting hamlet of Meoble (pronounced “Meeble”) – a settlement, now all but abandoned, in an isolated district a mile from the shores of Loch Morar – but from other parts of Scotland and even Canada.

Going, going, gone!

A giant step?

As someone who is constantly researching some Fortean topic or other, I really appreciate the notes by Mike Dash and Theo Paijmans in their blogs about research resources. I really hope they will continue and the notes build up into a series useful to any Fortean researcher ... and I fully expect to contribute to that series myself.

Here's my first shot, the point of which is that it is well worth monitoring auction catalogues for items of interest. Remember, not too long ago, the well publicised auction of the camera with which the notorious Cottingley fairy pictures were made? Sadly, such items themselves usually fall well beyond what most of us (even collectively?) could afford, but there are good literary gleanings too.

I must thank Phil Baker who, at a recent gathering at Paul Sieveking's home in North London to sort newsclippings, brought to our attention a notice from Christie's auction house of possibly the most famous of all photographs of a footprint of the manimal that westerners referred to as the Abominable Snowman, better known in the Himalayas as the yeti. Closer to the date of the sale, I began to monitor the Christie's website. I had the (daft?) idea of bidding for them myself, but when one newspaper (sorry, lost the clipping) announced that the photos were expected to fetch more than £2000. I wisely let that drop, but I saved the following details from their online catalogue in case they were not available after the auction.

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