Dry As Dust

A Fortean in the Archives

Wonderful, terrific and eccentric magazines

The Wonderful Magazine frontispieceI love history and I love research: always have done, to a degree other people find – well, let's just say 'unusual'. To give you an idea of what I mean, let me take you back to the summer of 1982, and the last term of my first year at university. Now, first years at most Cambridge colleges sit their Prelims in that term – that's preliminary exams, the sort that don't count towards your degree but do count when it comes to ruining one's summer. By sheer dumb luck, however, I had gone up to Peterhouse, the oldest and most eccentric of colleges, and Peterhouse scorned Prelims. This meant that I spent the eight weeks of that term bombarding my bemused supervisor with 5,000 word essays and still had a lot of spare time on my hands; most of my friends, the ones at other colleges, were feverishly revising, and there wasn't a great deal going on. My fellow Petreans took advantage of this freedom to do a lot of drinking, punting, and garden partying, but even aged 19, I have to admit, my idea of a good time was more to head to the University Library and read.

I wasn't quite swot enough, in truth, to spend the time reading stuff that might have helped me academically. What I actually did was to retreat to the dusty pastures of North Front 6, where it was always cool and dark and the smell of ancient books was overpowering. Nobody ever seemed to go North Front 6, which had tiny windows and no natural light, and was, and probably still is, a sort of elephants' graveyard where old, moribund and essentially useless periodicals went to die. It was paradise for me, though, and it was up there, that term, that I first chanced upon a run of one of the magazines that I want to talk about today.

You what?

A 13 inch Torah scroll yesterday

A few months ago, I created a spin-off from this blog, featuring only the better-researched posts, for various arcane reasons that I won't trouble you with here. [Clue: they're not unconnected with amazon.com's determination to rope in authors in its relentless trudge towards world domination.]

One unexpected spin-off of this decision is that I suddenly find myself with access to the wide variety of search terms visitors are using to stumble across my stuff. This is actually a little disconcerting, in part because it can be a bit of a stretch to work out how some of the wackier ones actually drive people to my work, but mainly because it's something of an eye-opener to see the sort of off-the-wall searches that are going on out there.

I can only hope the people searching hopefully for the following nuggets of information weren't too disapointed with what they actually found. I would imagine, however, that they were. Especially the guy (and you just know it's a guy) with a thing for giant prehistoric crocodiles.

• how to get superhuman strength naturally

• erotic executions by electric chair

• extremely crucified female slaves

• making miniature coffins

• giant penis of prehistoric crocodile

• birth defects of the earls of strathmore

• fortean trench warfare decapitations

• mystery heavenly body discovered washing

• 1900s casket shaped devices

• the devil is the father of deviation

• a medieval coffin like device one is put in

• ottersleben wind speed

Natives of the Red Dragon

Red dragonToday is St David's Day, the national day of Wales, and it seems an appropriate moment to post what remains my very favourite story among all the thousands of strange tales that have featured in Fortean Times over the years. That is a large claim – the complete set of FT must run to several million words by now – but even after all these years I still find what follows so surreal and so magical, in its combination of the gentle, the mundane and the extraordinary, that for me each reading is like immersing myself in a warm bath. All right, it's pretty hard to credit that it's literally 'true'; it helps that it's a Welsh story, and that I'm a proud Welshman – and that the tale remains all but unknown; the account first appeared in print in 1928, and so far as I can tell has never made it onto the Internet. The Fortean Times version of the story is by Paul Sieveking, and it was published in FT48:32 (Spring 1987). The names of the characters involved are so common that it would be extremely difficult to check if they were actually real or not; Radnor Forest, though, is real – and is, according to local legend, the place where the last Welsh dragon still lies sleeping (Daniel Parry-Jones, A Country Parson. London: Batsford, 1975). The strange stamps you're about to read of apparently did exist. No other comment is possible – but then perhaps none is necessary. The best thing to do is simply to sit back and enjoy.

Natives of the Red Dragon

The strange tale of the Warsaw basilisk

BasiliskFew creatures have struck more terror into more hearts for longer than the basilisk: a crested snake, hatched from a cock's egg, that was widely believed to wither landscapes with its breath and kill with a glare. The example at right comes from a German bestiary, but the earliest description that we have was given by Pliny the Elder, who described the basilisk in his pioneering Natural History (79AD) – the 37 volumes of which he completed shortly before being suffocated by the sulphurous fumes of Vesuvius while investigating the eruption that consumed Pompeii. According to the Roman savant, it was a small animal, "not more than 12 fingers in length," but astoundingly deadly nonetheless. "He does not impel his body, like other serpents, by a multiplied flexion," Pliny wrote, "but advances loftily and upright" – a description that accords with the popular notion that the basilisk is the king of serpents – and "kills the shrubs, not only by contact, but by breathing on them, and splits rocks, such power of evil is there in him." The basilisk was native to Libya, it was said, and the Romans believed that the Sahara had been fertile land until an infestation of basilisks turned it into a desert.

Spring-heeled Jack and the terrified child

Spring-heeled Jack

Spring-heeled Jack cut such a fearsome figure in his prime that it is no surprise that he has been blamed, over the years, for causing a number of fatalities. On at least one occasion he is supposed to have actually murdered his victim, but in most cases he is said to have polished them off using that old bogeyman's stand-by, the ability to frighten an unfortunate witness to death.

The most notorious of Jack's killings, of course, is his alleged murder of a 13-year-old London prostitute named Maria Davis. She is said, by a good number of secondary sources, to have been flung into the foetid waters of Folly Ditch, in Jacob's Island, in November 1845 and left there to drown. The Davis killing is, however, a fake; it was first mentioned by the notoriously unreliable Peter Haining in his The Legend and Bizarre Crimes of Spring-heeled Jack, pp.84-5, and an examination of the surviving London coroner's records and death certificates shows that no such incident ever occurred.

The horrible history of the Ostrich Inn

Ostrich Inn, ColnbrookThe new issue of Fortean Times contains an interesting essay on haunted inns by Alan Murdie which discusses, among several gory stories, the supposedly spook-infested Ostrich Inn in Colnbrook, Buckinghamshire – where ‘a past landlord named Jarman is supposed to have murdered up to 60 guests on the premises, in either the 16th or 18th century’ [FT259:17]. The pub's unusual name rang a bell, and after a short hunt I turned up a story about the same place that I clipped from the Daily Telegraph, 31 October 1989:

In the shadow of one of London’s ghastliest locations, one of England’s oldest pubs is on the market – together with a ghastly history.

The Ostrich Inn, a Grade II listed freehouse near Heathrow Airport, is said to date back to 1106 and was the scene of 60 grisly murders committed by 12th century landlord John Jarman and his wife.

After inviting wealthy travellers to sleep on a specially-made hinged bed, Jarman would say to his wife, "There is now a fat pig to be had if you want one." She would answer: "I pray you put him in the hogsty till tomorrow." The victim would then fall through a trapdoor into a vat of boiling water.

Bottomless lakes and the world-ocean

Bodensee (Lake Constance)

My recent post on the folklore of 'bottomless lakes' such as the Bodensee (Lake Constance – above) brought an extremely interesting email from an old friend, the Dutch historian Dr Henk Looijesteijn. The Dutch being a people whose history is inextricably bound up with water – both as a trading nation and a country literally built on land reclaimed from the sea – Henk's own research has often put him in contact with local folklore, and his comments are pretty revealing. They strike me as well worth posting here.

'Your blog on bottomless lakes brought something to memory,' Henk writes,

'The lake that has no bottom...'

Loch nam Breac Dearga

Loch nam Breac Dearga really isn't much to look at: a puddle on the western slopes of Meal Fuar-mhonaidh (2,284 ft/696m) in the Highlands of Scotland. Yet once upon a time the little mountain lochan (above) possessed a fearsome reputation. Sir John Murray, the great oceanographer who devoted more than a decade of his life to a comprehensive survey of Scottish lakes, was told that "this loch was locally reputed to be of great depth, or even supposed to be bottomless."

Emily Brontë: a fantasy-prone personality

Emily Bronte: a fantasy prone personalityMore than a quarter of a century has passed since a couple of psychologists named Theodore X. Barber and Sheryl Wilson first published their important study into the central role that a percipient's fantasy life plays in the nature, frequency and detail of the paranormal claims they make. According to this theory, 'fantasy-proneness' (the term Barber and Wilson coined to describe such imagination-driven experiences) directly correlates with – and to a large extent explains – a wide variety of unusual and psychical experiences, including the propensity to see ghosts, hear voices, and undergo close encounters with UFOs and entities of various exotic varieties.

The critical point, according to Barber and Wilson, is that the 'fantasy-prone personalities' they identified were liable to blur the divide between imagination and reality, allowing the former to intrude into the latter in ways that made their imaginary experiences seem quite real. The pair went on to list a total of 14 indicators of fantasy-proneness, and suggested that individuals who experience six or more of these could be labelled "fantasy-prone". These 14 indicators are:

The miniature coffins found on Arthur's Seat

Arthur's Seat Coffins

It may have been Charles Fort, in one of his more memorable passages, who described the strange discovery best:

London Times, July 20, 1836:

That, early in July, 1836, some boys were searching for rabbits' burrows in the rocky formation, near Edinburgh, known as Arthur's Seat. In the side of a cliff, they came upon some thin sheets of slate, which they pulled out.

Little cave.

Seventeen tiny coffins.

Three or four inches long.

In the coffins were miniature wooden figures. They were dressed differently in both style and material. There were two tiers of eight coffins each, and a third one begun, with one coffin. 

The extraordinary datum, which has especially made mystery here:

That the coffins had been deposited singly, in the little cave, and at intervals of many years. In the first tier, the coffins were quite decayed, and the wrappings had moldered away. In the second tier,  the effects of age had not advanced to far. And the top coffin was quite recent looking.

[Fort, Complete Books p.169]

Frank Searle's lost second book

Frank Searle Nessie: Seven Years in Search of the MonsterI'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.

Baron Von Forstner and the U28 sea serpent of July 1915

U28 sea serpent reported by Baron Von Forstner. torpedoing of SS Iberian, 31 July 1915. Original image from Begegnungen Mit Seeungeheuren - Encounters With Sea Monsters - by Gould and Von Forstner. Leipzig: Grethlein & Co., 1935.

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]

Fat-stealing entities of Peru

Bottles of human fat recovered by Peruvian police in the Pistachos murder caseA 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."

Adventures in time #1: a Scottish spinster at the Battle of Nechtansmere, 685 AD

Pictish stone commemorating the Battle of Nechtanesmere (Dunnichen/Dunnichen Moss)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.

A very early vision of the Virgin Mary

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.

The Monsters of Achanalt

Loch Achanalt"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."

Some modern eccentrics #2. Rupert T. Gould: scholar, broadcaster, officer and not-quite-gentleman

Rupert Gould and his wife MurielA 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
(Almost) Everything

Jonathan Betts

A bloody Belgrade bogeyman of 1903

Serbian vampire bogeyman of Belgrade, 1903Pearson'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.)



I've got a little list

Richfield Reaper

[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.

The Monster of Glamis

Glamis CastleGlamis 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.

Further adventures in the new digital Arcadia

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.

More digital newspapers

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.

Ghosts, witches, vampires, fairies and the law of murder

Francis Smith meets the Hammersmith GhostLate 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.

Fresh light on the Axeman of New Orleans

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.

Some modern eccentrics #1. Joyce McKinney: manacled Mormons, cloned pit bulls and a three-legged horse


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.

Ongoing tragedy and the Satanic Ritual Abuse panic of 1988-91

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.

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.

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...

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.

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