Dry As Dust

A Fortean in the Archives

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.

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

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.

Photograph everywhere

This wonderful view shows the rarely-visited eastern end of monster-haunted Loch Morar, one of the most starkly beautiful, yet utterly inaccessible, places in our overcrowded island.

A century and a half ago, two tiny communities named Oban and Kinlochmorar existed at this end of the 11-mile-long loch, and were home to perhaps score of crofters and ghillies, but there was never any road or even a footpath to connect them to the communities at the western end of Morar and the last inhabitants abandoned their properties shortly after the end of World War I. No one has lived at the head of the loch since then, and it's scarcely surprising that when Elizabeth Montgomery-Campbell and David Solomon wrote The Search For Morag (1972), their ground-breaking study of Morar's lake monster tradition, they recorded only a single sighting from the far end of the loch, nor that I (and I suspect even those with a keen interest in Morar) never had the least idea of what this isolated district actually looked like.

The visions at La Salette

The terrible coach crash in the Alps a few days ago, in which nearly 30 Polish Catholics were killed on their way back from a pilgrimage to La Salette , directed public attention momentarily to a Marian shrine that's long been overshadowed by the better-known and more accessible vision sites at Lourdes, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, and Fatima, in central Portugal.

La Salette first came to notice a little more than 150 years ago, in September 1846, when two illiterate peasant children, 15-year-old Melanie Mathieu and Maximin Giraud, 11, reported a remarkable vision they claimed to have experienced while herding cattle on a bleak mountainside some 6,000 feet above sea level. According to one early account, set down by the Catholic Archbishop of Birmingham, William Ullathorne, some eight years after the events they described, the children had just woken from a lunchtime nap when Melanie

Battle of the Search Engines

Like most people in the UK - and I suspect elsewhere - I've been bombarded for the past few weeks by a plethora of TV and poster ads for the ask.com search engine. And like many people - I suppose - I've logged on to give the revamped site a second chance. (It was once "Ask Jeeves", and boasted, too ambitiously as it turned out, of returning industry-standard results to queries entered in plain English.)

And is it any good? Ask certainly produces more results than Google, but that's seldom a good thing. And the results themselves can be surprisingly different: type "Charles Fort Institute" into Google and you get 609 hits, the first three of which are the CFI homepage, a Wikipedia entry, and a mention on Dave Walsh's Blather blogsite. Type the same search into ask.com and it comes up with 1,180 hits, the third of which is a credit report concerning the CFI's financial solvency - which is certainly a novelty in my experience.

In the end, the thing that damns ask.com for me is its intrusive way with ads. Type in anything that registers as a keyword with the site and it produces search results bookended top and bottom with at least half a dozen sponsored sites that are difficult to distinguish from the genuine returns. To me, that's confusing and intrusive, and the quality of results ask.com returns is far from spectacularly good enough to make up for that problem.

I may run an ask.com search from time to time, on topics I'm concerned to cover properly, but on the current evidence I'm not going to be switching permanently from Google any time soon.

For Good or Evil? Google Books

It's hard to think of a major web-based archive initiative that's been quite so controversial as Google Books. This project - which Google itself announces as an effort to scan and index every book, in every language, ever published, and to make the results freely available to readers over the internet - has enthralled researchers, to whom it promises untold intellectual riches, while sending publishers racing to their lawyers screaming copyright infringement.

It's easy - and I speak here as an author - to see why the industry is worried. Aggressively or badly managed, Google Books plainly does have the potential to impact on publishers' revenues and writers' copyright. If it became possible, for instance, to download or print , free of charge, sections of books, or books in whole, Google would at the very least have succeeded in revolutionising the industry as fundamentally as Gutenberg. Scraping a living from one's writing is an uncertain enough business at the best of times, without worrying about the collapse of the financial underpinnings of a business that's seldom been a beacon of either profit or efficiency.

Serendipity and Spring-heeled Jack

Delware Devil

(Click image to read the article in Adobe PDF format)

As if to prove the point that good things do sometimes fall into the lap of those who search long and hard enough, this clipping caught my eye in the Washington Times of 28 April 1909, p.6.

I was searching for something else entirely, but who could resist at least glancing at a headline like that? As it turns out, the article describes a long-forgotten "phantom prowler" case from the little town of Georgetown, Delaware (current population: 5,000) which has some obvious parallels with that of the renowned British bogeyman Spring-heeled Jack. Jack's the subject of my longest-running research project (25 years and counting). Which makes today a good day so far as I'm concerned.

Small town, big help

Strange but true: the most useful single resource available to researchers hunting for newspaper stories from the period 1855-1946 is an obscure daily published in a central Minnesota town most people have never heard of.

The Winona Daily Republican wasn't a large paper. In the nineteenth century it sold a couple of thousand copies. Even today, its successor-paper, the Daily News, has a circulation of a mere 11,000. But, published as it was in what seems to have been the archetypal slow-news town, it did print a huge number of wire stories from around the world. It is these that give the archive its value - for everyone other than present-day Winona residents, that is.

It's hard to over-state how unusual the Daily Republican seems to have been in this respect. Increasing numbers of local newspapers are coming online - Northern New York Historical Newspapers (which has one of the most awkward, cumbersome and time-consuming user interfaces I've ever encountered) lists 24 titles and contains more than 600,000 pages; the Historical Missouri Newspaper Project has 13 more. But sample searches soon reveal that all 37 of these newspapers concentrated almost entirely on local news. That makes them very useful for people interested in the minutiae of life in Rolla, Missouri, or Ogdensburg, New York, but of distinctly limited value to everyone else.

The Affairs of Dame Rumor

According to the Independent, 6 April 2007, the opening of the Primark clothing chain's new flagship on Oxford Street last week descended into chaos as several hundred shoppers, drawn to the opening by wild, fast-spreading rumours of spectacular bargains, formed such a crush that the store had to be opened early and customers restricted to a 25-minute time slot to prevent the risk of injury.

As is so often the case, the exact nature of the mysterious "rumours" that had drawn so many people to the store proved difficult to pin down‚ though some, inevitably, suspected Primark's own PR agents of hatching a stunt. The Independent reported that many of those queuing to get in had heard that the opening would be marked by a half-price sale. BBC News, meanwhile, said that a number of those drawn to the store had come in the belief that every item in the store would be on sale for a mere £1, for a limited time, at least. In fact no special discounts were available at all, and many shoppers left hot, tired and disappointed.

The speed with which tall tales of this sort can travel never ceases to startle me, and there's no doubt that modern technology, not least text messaging and the internet‚ can play a key part in their spread. But it's also worth remembering that wild and influential rumours are by no means a purely twenty-first century phenomenon.

Chronicling America

Newspaper digitisation is going to be so important to Fortean researchers that I can see myself touching on the topic frequently for the foreseeable future. Right now, though, it’s enough to note that a project with the potential to become the most important and most accessed of all online newspaper repositories was launched a few days ago by the Library of Congress.

    It's called Chronicling America and it’s an offshoot of the old United States Newspaper Program, a cataloguing project that’s been running since 1980. The long-term aim is to digitise and make freely available complete runs of representative newspapers from all parts of the United States. For now, the project consists of a prototype site containing runs of only two dozen titles, and it covers only the years 1900-1910.

Stiffkey Revisited

There can't be many rural graveyards that boast the remains of a vicar who was mauled to death by lions, but I saw one this week, thanks to my daughter.

It was her birthday recently - she's hit 11 - and to celebrate we agreed to fulfil one of her three lifetime ambitions. These are [i] to cycle to India; [ii] to read a newspaper while floating on the Dead Sea; and [iii] to tour England in a VW camper van. Number three seemed by some distance the cheapest and least life-threatening, so we hired a van and headed for East Anglia.

We had no particular route in mind but, glancing at the map, I was surprised to see that the A149 coast road passes right through the Norfolk village of Stiffkey. The chance to see the place where the unfortunate Reverend Harold Davidson once lived (at least on Sundays) was simply too good to miss, and at three on the afternoon of our second day we pulled up beside a picture-postcard rural church to discover what trace, if any, remained of the place's most infamous incumbent.

Harold Davidson became notorious in the early 1930s when the newspapers latched onto his efforts to 'rescue' London prostitutes - work that became so all-consuming that he frequently spent six days of each week in the East End, hurrying home to Norfolk just in time to take Sunday Communion. On Remembrance Sunday 1930, however, Davidson failed to make it back to his parish in time (rumour had it that he dallied too long in town and missed a train), and an angry parishioner reported him to the church authorities for immoralty.

The Ghost Ship and the President

Chance can be a fine thing.

The darker recesses of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library would never top most people's lists of likely sources of Fortean material, but, leafing through the catalogue of the Lawrence Richey papers held there yesterday, I stumbled across a name I hadn't heard in quite a while: that of the Carroll A. Deering.

The Deering was an elegant five-masted schooner that went aground on Diamond Shoals, off the coast of North Carolina, back in January 1921, and her name still crops up frequently in the literature of mysteries of the sea. At the time of her stranding, she was on the return leg of a voyage from her home port in Virginia to Brazil, and, as was the case with the Mary Celeste, to which she has often been compared, she seems to have been, at least until going aground on the shoals, in a sound, sailable condition despite a recent brush with foul weather. To make matters more intriguing, the first men to board the wreck found an evening meal sitting, uneaten, on the stove. The Deering's crew of 11 men were nowhere to be seen (and neither were the ship's boats, another thing this ghost ship has in common with the Mary Celeste). None of them were ever seen alive again.

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