A Brief History of Unidentified Aerial Phenomena

khb.jpg

Today’s topic was one that my patrons on Patreon expressed interest in hearing. I understand if it’s not for everyone--if it seems too out there, as it were--but trust that I’ll be approaching it with the same spirit of logic and balanced skepticism that I always try to bring to my topics. 

*

This time, I'll be broaching an extraordinary topic that, surprisingly, has been in the news recently. On December 16th, less than two months ago, a remarkable article appeared in the New York Times that may have flown right by many people, if you’ll excuse the pun. It was remarkable—and perhaps easy to ignore for many, whose news consumption these days is understandably monopolized by our ongoing political chaos—because it was about UFOs. Its title was “Glowing Auras and ‘Black Money’: The Pentagon’s Mysterious U.F.O. Program,” and essentially it revealed that since 2007, there has been in existence a top secret operation designated the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, or AATIP (perhaps an acronym pronounced a-tip and certainly an atypical program, if you’ll excuse another pun). This program, funded at different times by the Pentagon (and therefore taxpayers) and by private groups, has been investigating UFOs, or as some scientific researchers call it, UAP (unidentified aerial phenomena, a term that indicates the fact that, while we are dealing with witnesses seeing or believing they have seen something that appears to be in the air, we don’t actually know whether they are physical objects in flight). The Times article, however, includes some startling video of encounters between Navy jets and genuine UFOs—startling in that, being captured on radar, they do indeed appear to be…something… and their appearance and behavior doesn’t correspond with known aircraft or natural phenomena. Not wanting to jump to the extra-terrestrial hypothesis, which might sully their reputation in the eyes of many, the Times instead quotes an MIT astrophysicist about the need to study unexplained phenomena but also cautioning that we reserve judgment on its origin and nature, as well as a former NASA engineer and UFO debunker who suggests there may be a variety of prosaic explanations for the sightings investigated by AATIP.

While debunkers are already poo-pooing this development, many in the UFO or UAP research community have expressed great excitement that these may be the first stirrings of a long-awaited event called “Disclosure,” or the official revelation by government that we have been visited by extra-terrestrials. Indeed, there are many in the podcast community, and some fellow Dark Myths podcasters especially, that have been discussing this a great deal, their reactions ranging from pessimistic doubt, to cautious interest and even outright anticipatory glee. For a taste of some of the variety of reaction to this Times piece, check out recent episodes from Astonishing Legends and Not Alone, both of which feature UAP authority Rob Kristoffersen of the Our Strange Skies podcast.

In order to give readers some historical context for the phenomenon of people reporting unusual goings-on in the heavens, I will be doing a run-down of sorts intended to demonstrate that the study of strange sights in the sky should not be considered kooky but rather, taking into account the long history of the phenomenon, should be thought of as a valid scientific undertaking, to say nothing of the prudence of looking into the matter as an evaluation of threats from above. 

*

Many people only look as far back as 1947 for the beginning of the era of UFO phenomenon. That year, in the state of Washington in the northwestern united states, an experienced search and rescue pilot by the name of Kenneth Arnold witnessed what would be the first sensational and widely reported UFO sighting of the modern era. 

Kenneth Arnold was a college educated family man, a skilled pilot with over 9,000 hours in the air, over 4,000 in high altitudes among mountains, and by all accounts a trustworthy and serious man. In June of 1947, returning from a business trip with clear skies, he flew in his little two-seat monoplane near Mt. Rainier hoping to catch sight of a recently crashed U.S. Marine transport, and when he landed in Yakima, he had a crazy story to share with his friend, the airport manager. He claimed to have seen flashing lights that at first he took for reflections on his windows, but after rocking his plane and fiddling with his goggles, he realized they were aircraft. There were 9 of them, flying in formation and passing in front of Mt. Rainier, dark against the snow on its slopes, but they did not look like any aircraft he knew. He thought they must have been some kind of new military craft on a test flight, but it gave him such an eerie feeling that he felt he had to share it. Soon his story spread, and he was talking to reporters. The whole thing basically went viral, and Arnold’s comparison of the crafts to pie pans and saucers led to a very catchy term that spread through the papers like wildfire: flying saucers. The next month, in Roswell, New Mexico, something described as a flying disc crashed. The military said it was a weather balloon, and claiming there had been no military test flights around Mt. Rainier a month earlier, they speculated that Arnold had just seen a mirage, but it was too late. There was a full-blown UFO flap on, with hundreds of similar sightings, and for decades, most UFO sightings involved disc-shaped objects, flying saucers just like Kenneth Arnold’s, but strangely, Arnold claimed he had never described them as saucer-like in shape.

Kenneth Arnold and his boomerang-like UFOs, via Wikipedia

Kenneth Arnold and his boomerang-like UFOs, via Wikipedia

Kenneth Arnold did describe the crafts he’d seen by comparing them to discs, but only on one side, for he explained that they were more like a crescent or a semicircle, “like a pie plate cut in half.” And he did compare them to a saucer, but only to describe their erratic motion, saying they moved the way a saucer skips across water. Nevertheless, the term flying saucer struck one reporter’s ear just right, and that’s what was transmitted to the world. And it is indeed puzzling that, even though Arnold hadn’t seen a disc, most sightings after this were discs. One explanation for this discrepancy is what is called in ufology the psychosocial hypothesis. Martin Kottmeyer in 1988 suggested that the fact the shape had been misreported as a saucer and then that the majority of sightings thereafter were of saucers proves that the entire phenomenon is cultural in nature. Moreover, this psychosocial hypothesis was able to explain something problematic in ufology, namely the phenomenon of flaps or waves of sightings. It didn’t make sense that extra-terrestrials would visit lots of places in bursts then disappear, unless they just came around when Mar was closer in its orbit, but astronomers ruled this out. However, if you thought about one sighting setting off the others, whether they were hoaxes or mistakes or hallucinations or psychological manifestations of a cultural phenomenon, then UFO flaps could be explained.

Of course, this explanation fails to account for sightings with evidence, such as those reported in the Times article, with radar and video records of strange objects in the sky. These can often be dismissed as secret military aircraft or drones, or in an earlier era, as weather balloons, of course. And this is similar to previous explanations that they were simply unidentified airplanes piloted by private citizens or perhaps foreign agents, or during the late 19th century wave of airship sightings, that they were just that: dirigibles piloted by men on unadvertised flights. Perhaps no one was aware of the flight plans of these crafts or who crewed them, but that did not make them extraterrestrial or even extraordinary.

I’ll have more to say about the Mystery Airships, but that is for another episode. For the purposes of this brief prehistory, it is more important look further back, when unidentified aerial phenomena cannot be blamed on manmade aircraft, in order to show that the UFO is by no means a historically discrete phenomena or an invention of the 20th century. Long before Kenneth Arnold’s flying half-saucers, back all the way at the furthest edge of recorded history even, we find remarkably familiar sounding reports of strange sightings in the sky. We will find that these “celestial wonders” or “prodigies,” as they were usually called, were most often interpreted as miracles with religious connotations, as signs from a god or gods. This is simply an example of the way people interpret phenomena through the lens of their worldview. From a modern perspective, many of these sightings from antiquity through the early 19th century will likely be dismissed as astronomical or meteorological events—shooting stars, meteor showers, ball lightning and whatnot. But might not this also be an example of people interpreting phenomena through the lens of their worldview. There are a great many such sightings, 500 in fact, all compiled by Jacques Vallee and Chris Aubeck in my principal source, Wonders in the Sky: Unexplained Aerial Objects from Antiquity to Modern Times. And while some of the reports may seem easily explained with a flippant gesture and mention of weather or comets, there are others that are not. It’s these, the most interesting to me, I have chosen to feature here.

We shall start with Ancient Egypt, where text discovered by archeologists on a monument to the conquests of Thutmosis III describes a star that descended in 1460 BCE, in Lebanon, to strike his enemies, the Nubians, spooking their horses and positioning itself above to illuminate their faces with fire. Now this account could easily be dismissed as a fabrication mythologizing the power and majesty of this conqueror, but if we meet the report on its own terms, it represents the record of an unidentified aerial light that appears to have been directed by an intelligence that chose sides in a battle, coming to the aid of one army in opposition to another.  Then, according to inscriptions on another monument, Pharoah Akhenaton was out for a walk by the river in 1347 BCE when a “shining disc” descended and communicated with him, directing him to found a new Egyptian capital, and Akhenaton did so, going even further to establish a religion worshipping the so-called Solar Disc. Here again, the report could easily be disregarded as religious claptrap or perhaps just as a mystical visionary experience, but if we take it at face value, we are hard-pressed to explain what was reported as a natural phenomenon.

Akhenaton worshiping the Solar Disc, via Wikimedia Commons

Akhenaton worshiping the Solar Disc, via Wikimedia Commons

There are as well some passages of the Bible that describe strange aerial phenomena in association with what might today be termed abductions. In 2 Kings, we have the story of Elijah the Tishbite, the only biblical prophet who never died, as he was taken up by a whirlwind to climb aboard a chariot of fire. And in Ezekiel, we have a vivid account of strange, winged, multi-faced visitors and objects described as “wheels within wheels” that rumbled like an earthquake. During the course of this encounter, Ezekiel was miraculously transported to a mountaintop. Now perhaps these accounts were influenced, as has been suggested of many miraculous visions in the Bible, by hallucination, maybe due to ergotism--which we discussed in Episode  4: The Dancing Plague—or maybe due to the unknowing consumption of some other hallucinogenic substance, or perhaps these visions were experienced during epileptic seizures. Then there is the possibility that these books and other such scriptural accounts of anomalous phenomena were actually written years later by scribes who embellished previous accounts. We don’t know, and so we take the descriptions as they come to us. As we continue in our survey of anomalous history, though, we may begin to ask whether all of these sightings can be so easily explained away.

In Ancient Rome, a variety of similar “prodigies” were recorded for posterity. In the 3rd century BCE, there are reports of ships (as in seagoing vessels) and other objects, some described as round, appearing in the sky, and men in white clothing, like clergymen, standing atop them. There are also reports from the same century, and well into the next, of lights in the sky that were thought to be secondary suns or additional moons, implying that they remained stationary and were of great size. And at the end of the second and beginning of the first century BCE, reports indicate more than mere lights, with descriptions of what sounds like aerial conflict, witnesses claiming they saw flaming spears and flying shields that moved in different directions before clashing together in what appeared to be battle.

Into the Common Era then, and for several centuries we continue to find sporadic reports of torches and globes of light in the sky and objects compared to burning pillars or flying chariots above not only Italy but the Mid-East and the far East, with multiple sightings in Japan and China as well, where phenomena sighted in the skies were often identified as dragons. Whereas, when we look to Northern Europe, and the anomalous phenomena preserved in their records, we begin to see a recurring theme with the reporting of shields in the sky, doing battle. Specifically Medieval Ireland offers some reports of interest. In 698, according to a manuscript transcribed in the 17th century, three shields of different colors were seen not just in flight but “as it were warring from the east to the west.” Less than a century later, also in Ireland, 15th century annals chronicle sightings of aerial ships on which were seen actual crew members. These reports seem to correspond with others in Europe, specifically in France during the reign of Pepin the Short, when apparently many ships, with full complements of crew members, had been seen aloft in the skies. These accounts have doubt cast on them because they appear nearly a thousand years later, but there do exist contemporary accounts that confirm the people of France in that era believed in ships that sailed the clouds and the men who sailed them. 

In one of his many treatises, St. Agobard, a Spanish priest and archbishop of Lyons in the 800s, described a common belief that France received visits from a race of men who piloted airships coming out of a mysterious land called Magonia. Agobard scoffed at these beliefs, which actually went hand in hand with another bizarre notion: that when terrible weather occurred, it was often literally raised by weather wizards. This idea had a long history even then, and it asserted that certain men called Tempestaires or Tempestarii could, by means of sorcery, call forth storms and floods upon the land. This they did for the purpose of selling the fruit that had fallen from the trees during the foul weather as well as the livestock that was killed by the floods and storms. And it was to the airship navigators of Magonia that these Tempestaires sold their ill-gotten goods, creating a kind of black market economy between thieving sorcerers and extra-terrestrials. St. Agobard shared one particular story that was especially troubling, in which some townsfolk held a meeting about stoning four prisoners, three men and a woman who had been chained up and captive for days. They claimed the prisoners had fallen off of a Magonian cloudship. It’s unclear whether they believed these captives to be Magonians who had tumbled overboard or Tempestaires who had only been aboard the ship to conduct their underhanded commerce. Regardless, it seemed being either was enough to warrant execution in their minds. As for Agobard, he believed they were “blinded with profound stupidity” and talked them down from stoning the four people. 

St. Agobard speaking on behalf of those accused of falling from Magonian cloudships, via Wikimedia Commons

St. Agobard speaking on behalf of those accused of falling from Magonian cloudships, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s clear that these notions were already considered fringe and absurd in Agobard’s time, for he describes believers as being “overcome with so much foolishness, made crazy by so much stupidity.” And it certainly appears that these ideas were destructive in that they may have led to more than one lynching or witch-hunt–type hysteria, for this may not have been the first and only time people were accused of being Tempestaires or Magonians, and others may not have been so lucky as to have a skeptical archbishop around to talk sense into their captors.  Nevertheless, it remains interesting as it seems to suggest that sightings of these cloudships were even more common than it appears from the records we have, for entire mythologies had been developed to interpret and explain them.

We see much of the same kind of prodigies across Europe and the Orient through to the end of the millennium: lights in the sky, sometimes called stars or suns, often described as spherical objects or globes, behaving in a fashion that seems out of character for meteors. In Germany, 944, there are globes described as being composed of iron that burned the countryside. And in Japan, on more than one occasion, what appeared to be groups of three objects were seen flying in formation—in 944 in a triangular pattern and in 989 converging from different direction upon the same point. And in the first half of the second Millenium, the prodigies continued. In addition to much more of the same unidentified lights, we see further descriptions of what appear to be craft engaged in aerial combat! 1023, France, two stars were said to have fought each other throughout the fall season, flying at each other from east to west, one of them repelling the other with a “mane of light” so that it couldn’t come near.  In China, 1169, two dragons were seen during a storm, doing battle in the skies, during which combat, two “pearls like wheels” fell to the earth. In England, in October of 1253, three stars emerged from a black cloud, two small and one large. It was reported that the two small stars charged the large one over and over, sending sparks falling earthward, until the large star reduced in size, or at least, as we might assume, in brightness. And on to Italy, in 1284, where a Franciscan monk recorded that some women in a town called Saint Ruffino witnessed two stars chasing each other around and colliding repeatedly, a sign which he says presaged the outcome of a subsequent naval battle.  Then away east, in Japan in 1349, flying objects were seen coming from different quarters of the heavens, displaying acrobatic maneuvers as they approached each other and emitted flashes of light, as if, one might imagine, they were discharging weapons. After that, back westward, to France in 1395, when there is another report of small stars in combat with a large star, this time five small luminosities pursuing and seeming to attack the larger one. This particular sighting also included the booming sound of a shouting voice and the vision of a spear-wielding man hurling fire at the large star, but make of that what you will. And in October of 1461, in another region of France, 25-foot-long fiery phenomena appeared more than once in the sky, accompanied by a great tumult of noise and behaving as if doing battle. This trend of unidentified aerial phenomena that behaved as if engaged in warfare reached its peak in the 16th century with the so-called Battle of Nuremberg.

A bizarre event recorded for posterity in a broadsheet, complete with woodcut illustration, occurred in Nuremberg at dawn on April 14th, 1561. Two cylinders appeared suspended in the skies over the city. They faced each other in the morning sunlight, standing vertically. In the long history of unidentified aerial phenomena up to this point, there had been numerous accounts of columnar objects in the skies. Often described as pillars, sometimes luminous, they have been known to offer guidance on occasion. Just think of the pillar of fire that lit the way for the Children of Israel in their Exodus. And there are similar tales of fiery sky pillars in ancient Rome and Ireland and Russia, but it’s doubtful that the people of Nuremberg made this connection themselves. Still, you might say there’s some precedent for objects like these. In Nuremberg, however, they did not appear to be flaming pillars. Instead, out of these cylinders flew numerous disks and balls of various colors. The description, in translation, is more than a little confusing, explaining that “within which small and big pipes were found three balls also four and more,” which seems to also indicate that there was a difference in size between the two cylinders. To further confuse the matter, the woodcut illustration accompanying the text depicts three of these pipes—called rods in some translations—rather than two, as well as a great many bars or lines like streaks in the sky. These are described as blood-red strips in the text, and they might be interpreted as long objects themselves or as beams of light or even as contrails produced by the exhaust of the spheres that were apparently flying to and fro, launched from the pillars. Further corresponding to other strange sightings that had been described in preceding eras, crosses are also depicted in the sky at the event in Nuremberg, and a massive black spear as well. One thing is certain. The account is explicit in insisting that the spheres and disks launched from the pillars engaged in a terrible fight, stating that they “flew back and forth among themselves and fought vehemently with each other for over an hour.” And before it was over, some of these battling globes crashed to the earth, burning and smoking.

Glaser's broadsheet with woodcut depiction of the celestial wonder, via Wikimedia Commons

Glaser's broadsheet with woodcut depiction of the celestial wonder, via Wikimedia Commons

Now skeptics often dismiss this quite famous incident by pointing to a modern debunking of the show Ancient Aliens, called creatively enough, Ancient Aliens Debunked, which casts doubt on the broadsheet, comparing it to the tabloids of today and saying its author may well have fabricated the entire event, even though the broadsheet asserts that the event was witnessed by many people, both in the city and in the countryside beyond. In truth, this is a broad generalization, and we simply don’t know enough about the printer of this broadsheet to discredit it. His name was Hans Wolff Glaser, and he appears to have mostly practiced his woodcutting in portraiture and religious work. While his work may be considered “coarse” today, there is no evidence that he was a hoaxer or that he ever made comparable claims before or after.

Meanwhile, these same debunkers, unable to decide if it was a hoax or if something actually was seen in 1561, go on to suggest that the Nuremberg sighting was simply a case of trying to construe a natural phenomenon to the witnesses’ limited understanding of the world. From this perspective, it was only a parhelion, or sun dog, an atmospheric optical illusion caused by the reflection of light on ice particles in clouds that results in mock suns and crescents—think gratuitous lens flare in a J. J. Abrams film. This phenomenon actually does offer a valid and reasonable explanation for many UAP throughout history, especially those that describe lights in the sky as additional suns. However, it doesn’t really work in the case of the Nuremberg incident, as there remains the problematic detail described in Glaser’s text and illustrated in his woodcut that during the battle over the city, these mysterious objects fell burning to the ground, where they emitted great plumes of smoke as flames consumed them.

And this event does not stand alone in this time period, either, for in Basel, Switzerland, just five years later, another battle of spheres is said to have taken place. Again recorded in a pamphlet complete with an immortal illustration, these balls, which were described as black, were said to have flown at each other and to have collided and burst into flames and burned away to nothing. Certainly this event can be dismissed by casting doubt on the publication as well, or by suggesting the Swiss witnesses had actually seen parhelia, even though the blackness of the spheres against the sun seems to preclude such an explanation, but when you take off your historical blinders and widen your focus beyond a single event or two, you begin to recognize many sightings that appear to share elements: in the same city the next year, for example, a black sphere reportedly obscures the sun for an entire day. In Italy four years after that, a flaming column that might be compared to the cylinders over Nuremberg is seen at night by the papal fleet. A year after that, in Turkey, more crosses are seen in the sky, as in Nuremberg. In 1589, in France, what appears to be another sky battle is reported, this time with clouds flying and hurling fiery spears at one another. And in 1590 Scotland, another tubular object is seen by peasants to hover over a town before vanishing. Can all these be attributed to sun dogs? 

Original publication depicting the Basel, Switzerland, celestial wonder, via Wikimedia Commons

Original publication depicting the Basel, Switzerland, celestial wonder, via Wikimedia Commons

As we enter the 17th century, reports increase to once every year or two, if not multiple sightings in a year—visions of ships and battles in the sky as well as signs and prodigies like lights and objects including globes and wheels and pillars. In 1665, we find a story out of Germany worth noting for a number of reasons, the foremost of which being that the phenomenon is described as being like a plate with a dome, similar to a man’s hat. In the previous century, there had been several sightings of objects said to be like hats in the sky; these cases, not to mention all the sightings of flying shields, make it clear that the notion of saucer-shaped flying objects may have been around long before Arnold’s time, making the fact of saucer sightings after Arnold’s miscommunication of the shape far less problematic. The story is as follows: in Stralsund, some fisherman reported a flock of sea birds that changed form before their eyes to become battle ships engaged in aerial warfare—once again, a common theme in UAP for centuries. Strangely, though, after this vision faded, they saw a singular object that can most simply be described as a flying saucer. This domed plate hovered over their church for the rest of the day, and the witnesses reported pain and trembling in their limbs the next day, as if their proximity to the object had physically harmed them, an account that calls up notions of radiation poisoning. And toward the end of the century, Germany again saw a strange visitation, over Mecklenberg and Hamburg, in the form of two massive, glowing balls or wheels. After remaining in the sky for fifteen minutes and drawing a crowd of thousands, the objects gave out a loud bang sound and disappeared.

The 17th century also saw the rise of the telescope, an invention that was improved and made more practical by Isaac Newton and others until, in the 18th century, there existed many astronomers, both learned and amateur, all searching the heavens for phenomena of interest. It’s no surprise then that many of the unusual sightings from this era onward, especially after the 1733 development of the achromatic lens, were seen by means of telescopes. In particular, many astronomers believed they saw an unknown planetoid in orbit around Venus, usually observed when Venus was in transit across the disc of the Sun. These are strange enough, since today we know of no Venusian satellites, but even more oddly, astronomers also caught sight of other, unidentified objects passing in front of the sun. These sightings continued into the 19th century, when as we approach the age of aviation, unidentified aerial phenomena become even more complicated by the presence of manmade crafts in the skies. However, we still find some reports that prove hard to explain away.

As discovered in a manuscript archived at the Russian State History Museum, a senator in Moscow wrote a report in 1808 of an object appearing on the horizon and then approaching almost instantaneously with a great, audible crack. Described as a “long, straight plate,” it seems unclear whether it appeared to be saucer-like or was simply flat like a sheet of metal. Regardless, after approaching at phenomenal speed, it stopped and floated in a circle over the Kremlin. Then with a burst of phosphorescent flame from one end, it lit the city as if it were daytime. Thereafter it departed straight upward, shrinking in the distance until it was no longer visible. A remarkable document, it appears to have passed historical scrutiny as the writing style and the age of the paper indicate authenticity.

An illustration accompanying the 1808 manuscript found in the State History Museum, via Information Liberation

An illustration accompanying the 1808 manuscript found in the State History Museum, via Information Liberation

And in this same era, as might be expected, reports begin to arise in the young United States as well. One such can be found in the papers of Thomas Jefferson. In an 1813 letter, one Edward Hansford, a carpenter and the harbormaster of Portsmouth, Virginia, informed Jefferson that he and another man had seen a huge ball of fire, which he describes as “agitated.” As he writes it, the brilliant sphere emitted smoke that occasionally obscured it and then changed its form to that of a turtle, which strikes a chord of familiarity, for what else is a turtle shell but a domed oval, similar indeed to a domed disc. 

And we must wrap up our brief history of UAP with some incidents that seem to encapsulate many of these reports, in that they appear authentic and certainly tantalize with their strange details, but with close examination we see they may derive from less than reliable sources. In an Ohio town called Jay, one Henry Wallace and several others are said to have seen an unusual vessel, mechanical in nature with wheels and other workings that could be observed from below as it passed by, flying about a hundred yards above the ground at a speed of around 6 miles an hour. According to this report, the witnesses saw the occupants of this vessel and estimated they were, on average, about twelve feet tall. Now this story comes to us from an 1858 book that is primarily medical in nature, which also touches on other fringe science, and purports to be a story told to the author firsthand by the witnesses themselves. As with many of the sightings I’ve already recounted, this one can easily be doubted based on its source. Researchers trying to confirm some particulars in it have only been able to ascertain that a town called Jay existed, but not as late as 1858, having seemingly ceased to be after 1842, and that a Henry Wallace lived in a nearby county. The rest of it must be accepted on credulity alone.

And here we are already in the age of ballooning, as Jean-Pierre Blanchard crossed the English Channel in a hand-powered balloon in 1784, and in 1852, Henri Giffard made the first known flight in a steam-powered balloon. Thus, the Jay, Ohio, sighting may be one of the first sightings of the mystery airships that would proliferate in the 19th century. In 1861, for example, the New York Times reported the passage of a manned balloon over New York City but could not ascertain who had built or piloted it. And in this vein comes the last account I’ll share from Vallee and Aubeck’s chronology, which again presents 500 reports throughout history and would make a great coffee table book and conversation piece if you’re into this kind of stuff. This story, like the last, seems to indicate, strangely, that the nearer we come to modern accounts, the less reliable these sightings become. It at first appears to be the tale of a mystery airship, as Frederick William Birmingham, an alderman of Parramatta, in New South Wales, Australia, reports that he witnessed a flying ark touch down near his cottage. He describes its motions and structure with great precision, noting that its hull appeared tremulous and metallic, likening it to the scales of a fish. His story goes on to become even stranger, with a disembodied voice asking him to board the vessel and his being lifted off the ground and carried aloft to its upper decks. An occupant of the vessel, looking like a normal man, invited him down steps into the craft’s interior and awarded him with blueprints to build an airship of the same design. Thereafter, Birmingham experienced what ufologists might term high strangeness, with further signs in the sky and even poltergeist activity in his home. Quite an astounding tale, but in tracing it to its source, researchers have found it dubious. It comes to us through the writings of a ufologist who claimed to have transcribed it in the 1950s from a handwritten book that, first discovered by a teacher in the 1940s had thereafter been passed from person to person before getting into the hands of ufologists and astrologers and promptly disappearing. In fact, there appears to be no evidence of the original manuscript’s existence.

Thus as the late modern period approaches contemporary history, we find reports of UAP more and more problematic, based solely on the presence of explainable aircraft and the proliferation of hoaxers and UFO enthusiasts willing to fabricate incidents. And of course, it is also true that all the long parade of sightings throughout history might easily be dismissed as scientifically explainable meteorological phenomena or atmospheric optical illusions that witnesses simply had no understanding of or could not process without interpreting them according to their understanding of the world, or perhaps as hallucinations or tall tales spread by religious zealots or mischief makers, for such people seem to have been around since time immemorial. Moreover, sightings by early astronomers might easily be called mistakes chalked up to the science of astronomy and the use of telescopes still being in their infancy. But what this brief history of unidentified aerial phenomena certainly demonstrates is that UFOs are not a phenomenon peculiar to contemporary history. While they might have been called signs or prodigies in different eras, they’ve been reported throughout history, as have even more bizarre reports of abductions and encounters with actual mystery beings.

Therefore, considering this historical context, a news story about the Pentagon evaluating the threat of UFOs should not seem like fringe lunacy or a waste of taxpayer money. Rather, if one does not turn a blind eye to this phenomenon’s long history, it seems a prudent and practical program, and one that, along with the rigorous scientific study of what many consider fringe theories, has been sorely lacking for a long time. So kudos to the Times for printing their recent story despite potential embarrassment, and kudos to Jacques Vallee for peering around the blind corners of our past and recording oddities to which other historians would rather shut their eyes.

Blind Spot: Three Men Gone from Eilean Mor, the Missing Keepers of the Flannan Isles Light

Eilean Mor from south_(1912)_(14565088407).jpg

Steeped as it is in folklore and mummery, I feel I must first tell the story of the Great Lighthouse Mystery as it is most often received, as something of a scary campfire tale, before illuminating it with the light of scholarship and skepticism, as this is a tale of the darkness that reigns when a guiding light is left untended. Thus, we may begin with the reports of December 15, 1900, when in the dangerous waters of the Outer Hebrides, two ships, the Fairwind and the Archtor, expecting to see the 140,000 candle-power warning light shining from the lighthouse atop the 150-foot cliffs of Eilean Mór, the largest of the craggy Flannan Isles, saw instead only darkness. And in that darkness, as some have told it, the crew of the Fairwind saw some ragged men like specters rowing a boat toward the benighted isle. While the Fairwind appears not to have reported the extinguished light, the Archtor eventually did, upon finally arriving at Leith port after considerable delay. The Archtor had bottomed out on a rock and taken on water; her captain had to beach and lighten her before she could make it into port. This delay, as well as a further 10-day delay on the part of the Archtor’s agents to report the outage of the light and a failure on the part of the Northern Lighthouse Board’s lookout to note and report the problem himself, meant that no one was aware of anything out of the ordinary on Eilean Mór until the Hesperus, the NLB lighthouse tender, arrived on December 26th, Boxing Day, with supplies and relief. On board was Joseph Moore, a lighthouse keeper coming off his two weeks’ leave. When the Hesperus came close enough to sight the lighthouse and saw no signal flag, it blew its steam whistle and fired a rocket, neither of which elicited any response from above

Moore was dispatched with the second mate and a third sailor in a longboat that docked at the small landing carved into the rock at the base of Eilean Mór’s cliffs, and he left the crewmen behind then, climbing the steep, hand-carved steps up to the grassy embankment at the top and making his way past the ruins of an ancient chapel to the living quarters of the lighthouse keepers in his search for the three lighthouse keepers that had been alone on the island for weeks. One can imagine him shouting their names as he approached, James Ducat and Thomas Marshall—or perhaps Jim and Tom to Joseph Moore—and Donald MacArthur, the Occasional keeper who may not have been so well-known to him. He found the outer door closed, and through a passage, the inner door to the kitchen was shut as well. Inside, he found an unfinished meal of potatoes and salt-mutton, and an overturned chair. But it was not until he noticed that all the clocks had wound down and stopped that Joseph Moore became certain the lighthouse keepers had not been there for some time.

The hand-carved steps of Eilean Mor, via Wikimedia Commons

The hand-carved steps of Eilean Mor, via Wikimedia Commons

Hurrying back to the boat, he enlisted the other two men to help him search. In the lighthouse tower itself, they found the light was clean and full of fuel, as though well-tended to the very last. When this second search failed to turn up any sign of the keepers, they all returned to the Hesperus to report, whereupon Moore and three others were promptly dispatched back to the lighthouse to illuminate the night. The next day, Moore and the other replacement keepers searched the entire island for any indications of what had transpired there. At the west landing, which faced the vast open Atlantic, they discovered some evidence of severe weather. The rails of a steam-powered tramway, installed for hauling supplies up the cliff face, had been bent out of shape and dislodged from the rock by some powerful force, and a box of mooring ropes that should have been firmly anchored in a cleft of rock was simply gone. Then, back at the residence, they found a disturbing sign: a coat, still on its peg. Each of the missing lighthouse keepers had protective weather gear that he would not have ventured outside without wearing, especially in inclement weather—Ducat had his waterproof, Marshall his oilskins, and MacArthur, the Occasional, his wearing coat. It appeared that MacArthur’s wearing coat had been left behind, such that he must have gone out of doors in a state of undress.

Within a few days, the Superintendent of Lighthouses, Robert Muirhead, arrived to write his own report, and his investigation noted some further signs of foul weather having struck the island: a one-ton boulder had tumbled down the slope to rest on a concrete path, and along that same path, an emergency buoy had been somehow forcefully ripped from the railing, not as if by a man seeking to use it but rather as if by some brute and unthinking force, for it had left behind fragments of canvas. This damage was at 110 feet above sea level, a fact that would prove troublesome to some theories as they developed.

And finally, an important piece of evidence was the lighthouse log, in which the keepers kept dated track of weather and sea conditions as well as anything the Northern Lighthouse Board might need recorded. The last entry was dated December 15th, the very day that passing vessels had first noticed the lighthouse was dark. Much has been written about these final log entries in the years since, as interest in the Great Lighthouse Mystery has evolved, for in some ways, as we have received them, they appear to be odd and foreboding. On the 12th of December, Marshall writes about a storm the likes of which he’s never seen, and mentions in passing how quiet Ducat was and how MacArthur had been crying. Then on the 13th, he makes sure to put down that all three of them took to prayer, such was their disquiet and dread. Then, on the 15th, he notes that the weather has calmed, stating cryptically, “God is over all.”

From left: Donald MacArthur, Thomas Marshall, James Ducat, and Robert Muirhead, via Hushed Up History

From left: Donald MacArthur, Thomas Marshall, James Ducat, and Robert Muirhead, via Hushed Up History

As the legend of Eilean Mór grew, so did the theories of what transpired there proliferate. The most common of these, and still the most believable, have to do with poor weather somehow sweeping the three lighthouse keepers into the sea, whether by wave or by wind. However, in later years, reports of the mysterious log entries—which seemed to indicate that weather could not have been the culprit, having calmed before their disappearance—have led to speculation of supernatural or paranormal explanations. So, if it had not been weather, perhaps it was aliens? Because that’s the next logical jump, right? Or perhaps we should remain grounded in history and look at the lore surrounding the island itself. The only former inhabitant of Eilean Mór was St. Flannan, a Celtic monk who according to legend had miraculously floated to Rome on a rock to be consecrated, was known to pronounce curses on robber-barons, and on account of a prophecy that he might become a monarch, asked God to miraculously disfigure his face in order to avoid kingship, which prayer the Lord supposedly answered. The ruins of this saint’s chapel remained, and the lighthouse keepers passed it by daily. Perhaps, then, the keepers offended the spirit of St. Flannan, and the monk showed his scarred face once more to curse the men.

Then again, the history of the isles extends back much further than the 7th century. According to folklore recorded in the 17th century by Martin Martin, the island had once been home to the Losbirdan, people of low-stature whose little bones had been discovered in the soils there. Some have turned these legends of small folk into talk of mischievous elves or spirits of dead sprites who might have acted in some impish way on the men. Regardless of the accuracy of this interpretation of the lore, though, it can’t be argued that superstition surrounded the island. Martin recorded a number of strange traditions followed by those few who visited the islands to gather eggs and down from the nests of sea birds. They believed they had to have an easterly wind in order to approach the island, as a westerly wind was a fell omen. Upon passing the ruins of St. Flannan’s chapel, they stripped to the waist, placed their upper clothes on the altar and prayed three times. And while fowling on the island, they felt they must avoid using certain common words, relying instead on synonyms or alternate nouns. Whether these men feared retribution from St. Flannan or the little Losbirdan is unclear, but it’s almost certain that the lighthouse men failed to follow these ancient precautions. Could it therefore be that they incurred the wrath of something that had lain dormant on the island for centuries? So go the fanciful theories of ghost story enthusiasts, at least….

The problem is that most of the evidence pointing to anomalous goings-on has proven unreliable. First, the unusual log entries that supposedly prove weather could not have caused the three men’s disappearance: Fortean Times contributor Mike Dash, in a very well-researched paper that has served as my principal source for this episode, scoured contemporary sources and found no evidence of such entries. Moreover, he shows how illogical they are, containing chronological errors, being kept by only one lighthouse keeper and not the lead keeper, and noting things that wouldn’t belong in the log, such as melodramatic language and petty observations on the other men’s behavior. Moreover, the log entries don’t seem to have appeared until years after the fact, not so much as a hoax but more as a dramatic embellishment added by one author who thought it made for a better story, and thereafter picked up and included in other renditions. This is how history becomes mythologized, and it seems to have happened in this story in more than one regard. For example, the entire story of the Fairwind spying pale and ragged men working the oars of a lifeboat and heading for the island on the 15th also seems to be apocryphal, as it only appears in a few less than reliable sources. And again, Dash proves that the entire element of the unfinished meal appears to have been fabricated and added to the story somewhere along the way, as he digs up contemporary reports that show the kitchen was clean and tidy, and that indeed a chair may not have even been overturned as so often gets included in the tale. The same, he points out, is true of the Mary Celeste, whose myth grew to include a fictional abandoned meal, as though the diners had vanished mid-victuals. It’s enough to make one doubt reports of the ribs and pea soup in the Carroll A. Deering tale.

The Flannan Isles Light, via Wikimedia Commons

The Flannan Isles Light, via Wikimedia Commons

However, the unusual details that the Occasional keeper, MacArthur, had left his wearing coat on the peg and that the outer and inner doors of the living quarters had been found shut remain problematic. There are a few remaining theories, but these facts trouble all of them. First, weather: disregarding the dubious log entries, there may well have been a violent squall at the island. It would be unusual for the men to have gone out in such weather at all, but as Dash points out, lighthouse keepers could be docked pay for being so careless as to lose equipment, and Ducat and Marshall may have donned their weather gear and gone out to secure the box of ropes which later turned up missing. Then either a gale-force wind or a great rogue wave threatened to take them, and seeing that they were in danger or hearing their cries for help, MacArthur rushed out in his shirtsleeves to help them, whereupon all three had been swept away. The problem with that theory, however, is that MacArthur rushed out without his coat but still had the presence of mind to shut every door behind him as he went.

And there are other problems with the theories of a gust of wind or a wave taking the men. Some have claimed that, considering the wind’s direction at the time, they would have been blown up the grassy slope, not into the sea. That leaves rogue waves, which, some will argue, are not known to reach such a height that they could wash the men into the sea. There was, however, hard evidence of damage at as high as 110 feet on the island, for the buoy had been violently torn from the path’s handrail. While open ocean waves aren’t known to reach that height, it remains a possibility that local conditions among the rocks and cliffs of the island somehow contributed to the creation of a monster wave. For example, one Christopher Nicholson has pointed out that the geos, or narrow gullies, along the coastline could channel the crashing sea into gargantuan waves.

Others, likely encouraged by the mythical log entries and rejecting weather as the cause altogether, have theorized that the Occasional, MacArthur, went stir crazy or came to resent the other two keepers, and simply snapped, leaving his coat and going out to attack the men; whereupon he shoved them over into the sea and fell with them during the struggle. There is no real evidence for this rendition, though. The man was a 40-year-old former soldier with a wife back on the mainland. If any of them might have snapped, one would think it might have been the unmarried, 28-year-old Marshall.

Then there are other theories: perhaps they were taken off the island by a ship, perhaps by the secret service or foreign agents. But a weather disaster remains the most viable. Mystery indeed persists, but to me, it seems boiled down to a matter of a coat on a peg and some shut doors. What could have compelled MacArthur to go out of doors without any protection from the weather? Whatever the reason, it must have been something that caused him to run out in a mad rush, which doesn’t correspond with the fact that doors had been neatly shut behind him. So in the end, we don’t really know what happened that day on Eilean Mór, an island that is essentially just the tip of a massive undersea mountain, and so, as far as we know, the disappearance of these three men itself may be just the visible tip of much larger story that is hidden from our view by the murky waters of the Atlantic. And just like ships passing the darkened lighthouse in December of 1900 expected a spotlight to illuminate their way but were instead engulfed in shadows, so too we, looking back on the Flannan Isles Lighthouse Mystery, find ourselves floating helplessly in the darkness of a historical blind spot.

The Carroll A. Deering, Ghost Ship of Cape Hatteras

carroll deering.png

At dawn on January 31st, 1921, from the lookout perch at the U.S. Coast Guard’s Cape Hatteras Station, Surfman C. P. Brady peered out at the morning fog and spied a dark shape out on the shallow waters of Diamond Shoals, that collection of ever changing sandbars just off the coast, which, together with the other shoals off the Outer Banks, was known for claiming ships and earned the area the sobriquet “The Graveyard of the Atlantic.” But there had also been another name among native tribes for this particular island now called Hatteras, a name listeners should recognize; it had once been called Croatoan by its inhabitants.

This morning, Surfman Brady squinted into the mists, unsure if his eyes were playing tricks on him in the crepuscular light and the morning’s brumous haze. But as the soupy mist receded, there could be no mistaking it.  Somehow, in the night, a schooner had bottomed out on a sandbar of the Diamond Shoals despite the clear warning of the nearby Cape Hatteras Light, atop the black and white spiral stripes of its lighthouse tower.  And what’s more, she looked to be a magnificent vessel, 255 feet from stem to stern, all told, with five grand masts and all its sails set. It must have been quite the sight, a relic from a bygone era appearing out of the fog of the past.

When the news of the shipwreck went out from the Coast Guard station, it was acted on by local boatmen, for there were many in that region who stood ready at a moment’s notice to plunge into the choppy waters of the Cape when a ship had run aground. First, there was the Lifesaving Service, which had stations seven miles apart up and down the coasts of the Outers Banks and had men marching the beaches on constant watch for ships in distress, none of which sentries had managed to spy the five-masted schooner out on the shoals. Then there were the wreckers, those who would have sought to salvage anything aboard the schooner before the waves that had scuttled it battered it to pieces. This was, after all, not far south of Nag’s Head, where as I discussed in my episode on Theodosia Burr, there was a long tradition of wreckers or bankers who would lure ships ashore and strip them of goods. Those still at the family business in the 1920s, of course, were of a decidedly less piratical bent, but they’d still make all haste to a ship that had foundered on the shoals. The seas, however, proved too rough for any of these lifesavers and wreckers and even for the Coast Guard cutters that were eventually dispatched to the wreck, and none could approach any closer than a quarter mile to the ship.

When finally, days later, on the 4th of February, the tugboat Rescue captained by James Carlson was able to board the schooner, it had been so battered by the sea that it was taking on water, its fore and aft decks rolling independently of one another with each crash of the waves. They made a search of her and found no one aboard, unless one counted the starved and mewling ship’s cat—or cats according to some versions. As in  the stories of the Mary Celeste, a meal had been prepared; there were ribs in a pan, pea soup in a pot and coffee on the stove. Unlike that other ghost ship, though, there were clear signs of the ship’s abandonment. The ladder was hanging over the side and its lifeboats were gone—there had been a dory and a motorized yawl, and their falls had been simply cut as if to abandon the ship in haste. Moreover, all the crew’s belongings had been taken, as had the nautical instruments—her sextant and chronometer and telescope—and the ship’s papers. Oddly, in the head, or the toilet area, Captain Carlson found the ship’s charts strewn about, and elsewhere, he found the steering equipment disabled—the wheel had been shattered, the rudder disengaged from its stock, and the binnacle box staved in and broken. A sledge hammer leaned ominously near at hand, but Carlson could not tell if it had been utilized as an instrument of sabotage or a tool of repair. Further evidence also suggested the schooner had not been in working order even before it had foundered on the shoal, for both of its anchors were gone, and strangely, it seemed that the ship had simultaneously been sailing with her running lights and her emergency lights lit, as all were burned out. The latter, two red lights situated high up in the rigging, were signals meant to indicate an out-of-control vessel.

In the days after Captain Carlson of the tug Rescue was finally able to board the schooner, wreckers salvaged what they could for auction, which wasn’t much—some sails that could still be reused, some furniture. As it continued to be battered against the shoal by the relentless ocean, it was eventually declared to be a menace to the navigation of other ships. So an order was given to dynamite her, and most sources say that is what was done. At least one version gives a far more dramatic ending, however, asserting that even as the Coast Guard cutters put out to sea with the explosives to carry out these orders, a sudden storm whipped up and finally shattered the ghost ship. Either way, whether by man or by nature, she was certainly reduced to a patch of debris and timbers floating far and wide to wash ashore up and down the Outer Banks. And somewhere among that flotsam could likely be seen the transom, which as it drifted away still bore the schooner’s name and origin: Carroll A. Deering, Bath.

The stern of the schooner, via the National Park Foundation

The stern of the schooner, via the National Park Foundation

The five-masted schooner had been the largest and the last ship ever constructed by G. G. Deering Company in Maine—the finest accomplishment of the 99 ships Gardiner Deering built, and thus he had named it after his own son. And she was something of a ghost from the moment she was christened, as the days of wooden sailing vessels were dwindling when she was launched in 1919.

Designed to carry coal at a capacity of 3,500 tons, this she had done well until in late 1920, with a hold packed with coal bound for Rio de Janeiro, her captain became ill and the crew of the Carroll A. Deering was obliged to accept a substitute captain, an able old salt named Willis Wormell, on what would prove to be its final voyage. And it was the daughter of this new captain, one Lula Wormell, who would later demand a federal investigation of what had happened to the 10-strong crew of the Carroll A. Deering, as she was certain that if the crew had simply abandoned the ship on Diamond Shoals, they would have easily found help from the Coast Guard on shore and Captain Willis Wormell would have reunited with his family shortly thereafter.

The investigation uncovered some strange and foreboding details when looking into their journey. It turned out that, during a stay in Barbados en route to Norfolk, Virginia, after delivering their shipment of coal in Rio, Captain Wormell found another Maine sea captain who happened to be in port, one G. W. Bunker, and spent a day speaking with him, expressing some grave concerns over the crew he had found himself leading. He considered them unruly, especially his first mate, Charles McLellan. Meanwhile, McLellan had been enjoying the local rum and gotten deep into his cups, whereupon he found himself jailed and awaiting Captain Wormell to post his bail. This the captain did, but not before McLellan had supposedly been overheard making threats against the captain, swearing at one point that he would “get the old man” before they reached Norfolk.

After weathering several extremely stormy weeks on the Atlantic, the Deering was next sighted by a lightship 90 miles south of Hatteras. According to the captain of that lightship, one James Steel, the Deering’s crew appeared to be milling about on the quarterdeck, where crewmen were not typically allowed. A tall and thin red-haired man who did not speak or act like an officer addressed the lightship with a Scandinavian accent through a loudspeaker, claiming the vessel had lost its anchors south of Cape Fear near the Frying Pan Shoals while attempting to wait out a windstorm, and asked that the owners of the ship, G. G. Deering Company in Bath, Maine, be informed. The next afternoon, another vessel spotted the Deering plying waters on a course that would take it right onto the Diamond Shoals. These eyewitnesses, however, saw no one on her decks and simply disregarded the schooner, assuming her crew would eventually spot the Cape Hatteras Light or the Diamond Shoal Lightship and thereby avoid foundering on a sandbar.

Color drawing of Cape Hatteras Light by Paul McGehee

Color drawing of Cape Hatteras Light by Paul McGehee

But of course, they didn’t. And these piecemeal reports of the schooner’s final voyage, stitched together, appeared to point to one explanation: mutiny. And in support of this theory, there were some few other tantalizing details reported by Captain Carlson of the tug Rescue. It seems that there had been handwritten notes in Captain Wormell’s own hand in the margins of some of the recovered maps that had been dated up until the 23rd of January, 1921, after which the marginalia had been scrawled in another hand. Moreover, in the captain’s quarters, Carlson noted that the spare bed had been slept in, and he discovered three pairs of boots there, none of which belonged to Captain Wormell. These details along with the report of the men loitering on the quarterdeck, which was usually reserved only for the captain, and the fact that a red-haired Scandinavian man had addressed the lightship as if he were the captain, led many to assume that perhaps McLellan had made good on his threat, or that perhaps his mutiny had been quelled but not before it had claimed all those of high position on the vessel, as there were indeed Scandinavians aboard: six Danes, all sailors, and one Finn who served as boatswain. Perhaps the survivors of the shipwreck had all fled the Deering in fear of imprisonment.

However, the federal investigation, spearheaded by then Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, turned up some further items of interest as well. No sign of the lifeboats had ever been found, nor any wreckage or corpses. Nearby ports were all put on alert for any surviving crew members, but despite some false alarms, none ever turned up. As there was no way the men would have been able to run off with these boats carried over their heads, that meant either the ocean had swallowed them entire, survivors and all, or they had purposely sunk the lifeboats to cover their tracks. The only other possibility was that the boats, and perhaps the crew as well, had been taken up by another vessel. And indeed, as it turned out, another ship, the SS Hewitt, an oil steamer of the Union Sulphur Company, had disappeared off the Carolina coast around the same time. This has since led to speculation that the whole affair might be an early case of anomalous phenomena related to the Bermuda Triangle, suggesting that both of these ships met with unexplainable fates while in the northernmost waters of that mysterious patch of ocean, but at the time, these details pointed to a far more prosaic if no less unbelievable explanation: piracy. Unbelievable, I say, because this was far from the age in which piracy was common; it was the roaring 20s, not the 18th century.

Nevertheless, some information appeared that seemed to support this notion. For example, another ship, the Cyclops, had earlier disappeared in the area, further giving credence to the idea that pirates had been preying on ships in those waters. And shortly after James Steel, the captain of the lightship south of Hatteras, had encountered the Deering and spoken to the red-haired man on its quarterdeck, he spied an oil steamer and hailed it, thinking its crew could pass on the red-haired man’s distress message since his own wireless communications equipment was not in working order. This steamer, however, did not respond, and Steel, his interest piqued, examined the vessel and found he could not see its name displayed. He then blew his whistle, and contrary to maritime law, the steamer simply ignored him and changed its course. Could this have been the Hewitt, piloted by the pirates who had taken her?

The S. S. Hewitt, via Wikimedia Commons

The S. S. Hewitt, via Wikimedia Commons

Adherents of the piracy theory did not have to wait long for a smoking gun to tilt the case in their favor, for in April, an area fisherman named Christopher Columbus Gray discovered a message in a bottle while combing a beach north of Cape Hatteras. The fisherman turned it over to the Coast Guard, and the federal investigation then confirmed that the bottle was of a kind manufactured in Brazil, and the paper on which the note had been written matched a type commonly made in Norway. Moreover, those who knew the crew of the Deering identified the script as matching the handwriting of an engineer aboard the Deering—indeed the only member of the crew that Captain Wormell considered a stalwart friend—as it followed his unusual habit of capitalizing words mid-sentence. The message read:  “Deering Captured by Oil Burning Boat Something Like Chaser taking Off everything Handcuffing Crew Crew hiding All over Ship no Chance to Make escape finder please notify head Qtrs Of Deering.”

The press, getting wind of the investigation, took the piracy theory and ran with it. The New York Times admitted it was a remote possibility but nevertheless a valid one, and the Washington Post took the matter much further, adding the intriguing angle, based on the message in Gray’s bottle, that said pirates had a torpedo-boat chaser or perhaps even a submarine obtained from a foreign government after World War One. These pirates, according to speculation, could be smugglers of bootleg alcohol, rogue Germans still fighting the war out of some African port, or Russian Bolsheviks looking to carry their spoils back to their fledgling Soviet Fatherland! The bootleggers theory was an especially popular one, this being the Prohibition era, as the Deering had come through rum-soaked Barbados. And the Deering’s hold would have been able to carry something like a million dollars’ worth of contraband alcohol, thereby making the vessel extremely valuable to booze runners. However, the idea that Bolshevists were preying on American ships off the coast of the Carolinas gained traction as well. Other ships that had gone missing in that general time frame were compiled in a list as victims of these supposed pirates, and it was pointed out that some of the cargo on ships reported missing was material denied the Communist regime under terms of embargo. Then a raid on a New York Communist front group turned up papers calling on revolutionaries to steal American vessels and cross the Atlantic to bring them to Russia, and rumors of ships appearing in Russian ports with blacked-out names began to circulate.

Of course, all of this should be considered in the context of the Red Scare, which was in full swing after the strikes, bombings and riots of 1919. Other news outlets, like the Wall Street Journal, and actual experts on nautical risks like meteorologists and Lloyd’s of London tended to downplay the idea that pirates were involved at all. Pirates would not have kidnapped the crew and abandoned the vessel, as the vessel itself or its cargo would have been their prize, and they certainly wouldn’t have needed the lifeboats, having presumably boarded the schooner from their own boats, so that was another mark in favor of the mutiny theory or the rather bland theory that the crew simple ran aground and then drowned in rough seas when they abandoned the schooner. Other theories suggested freak weather catastrophes that compelled the crew to abandon ship long before running aground or that the Deering had struck a floating mine left in the water from WWI. However, it seems unlikely they would not have reefed their sails during such inclement weather, and reports indicate the ship was intact on its sandbar and did not start taking on water until it had suffered days of crashing waves there, which would rule out the floating mine suggestion. Still other theories pointed to tropical disease and mass suicide, but these were even more far-fetched and couldn’t account for the lost lifeboats or the crew’s missing belongings.

And what of the message in a bottle? In August, a federal agent got close with the discoverer of the note, Christopher Columbus Gray, and coaxed from him an admission that he had forged the note as a hoax. At first, Gray evaded arrest, but later, rather stupidly accepting an invitation to start employment at the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, he was captured and confessed again to the imposture, explaining that he believed the renown from finding the message might land him a coveted job in the lighthouse.

Newspaper headline of September 1921, via the State Archives of North Carolina

Newspaper headline of September 1921, via the State Archives of North Carolina

One by one, these tall tales seemed to collapse beneath the weight of their own supposition, as the majority of the 10 missing ships presumed to be victims of pirates were thereafter blamed on an especially severe hurricane season. The federal investigation officially petered out in 1922, but no one theory remains a clear and certain answer. Did the ship lose its anchors and steering equipment in a storm and run out of control into the shoal? If so, why had they prepared and set out a meal before abandoning ship? And what happened to them afterward? Were their boats overwhelmed by waves?

Or had there been a mutiny against Captain Wormell led by First Mate McLellan? If so, how did they come to lose their anchors? Or was it perhaps both mutiny and foul weather that befell the ship? And then, what about the SS Hewitt? It is thought that this steam vessel would surely have survived any foul weather in the area. Does anything other than being boarded by pirates explain the disappearance of the Hewitt? Christopher Columbus Gray admitted to forging the message in a bottle, but that itself still seems mysterious, for how did this Carolina fisherman get the Brazilian bottle and Norwegian paper? Nor does he appear to have explained how he was able to effect such a convincing imitation of the engineer’s handwriting—or was that just a coincidental likeness or confirmation bias on the part of those who identified the writing? And even without the note, could not some act of piracy still be a viable explanation, at least in part? Couldn’t it be both, somehow? Or all? Could not the Deering have suffered a mutiny and then encountered disastrous weather, whereupon they encountered pirates who had earlier taken the Hewitt and then took the Deering as well? Perhaps it was these pirates who, discovering the schooner beyond repair, aimed it for the shoals and abandoned it for their true prize, the Hewitt.

If this were the 19th century, it might easily be assumed that the wreckers and bankers of the region had hung lamps from their horses’ necks to fool the ship’s crew into thinking they were entering safe harbor, only to founder themselves and be boarded and murdered. But this was the 20th century, and the Coast Guard was stationed nearby, and besides, there was no sign of violence aboard and nothing had been taken from the ship for salvage.

If pirates don’t float your boat, so to speak, would you rather look for some far more unexplainable explanation? Did the vanishing of the Hewitt and the disappearance of the Carroll Deering’s crew have something to do with that nexus of mysterious happenings, the Bermuda Triangle? Or perhaps to you this bears too striking a resemblance to the disappearance from that same neighborhood of over a hundred colonists at Roanoke some 330 years earlier. Perhaps, if Captain Carlson’s men had had examined the ghost ship just a little more closely before abandoning it a second time to the merciless sea, they might have glimpsed a mysterious word carved into one of the schooner’s five masts and recognized it as the ancient name of the island off whose shore it had foundered: Croatoan.

croatoan11.jpg

*

Thanks for listening to Historical Blindness, the Odd Past Podcast. My principal source for this episode was Hatteras Island: Keeper of the Outer Banks by Ray McAllister and the non-fiction novel Ghost Ship of Diamond Shoals: The Mystery of the Carroll A. Deering by Bland Simpson, which I highly recommend and which you can find a link to on the website’s reading list.

Blind Spot: The Terrible within the Small; or, The Fabrication of the Learned Elders of Zion and the Forgery of Their Protocols

194-JuifFrance1.jpg

In this short companion piece to my previous post on the Blood Libel, it turns out I have a bit more to say about that topic, for unbeknownst to me while I wrote that piece, the ancient accusation that Jews engaged in ritual murder was actually in the news. For any who doubt that these grossly absurd and malicious myths could possibly be given any credence in the modern era, consider the fact that the Russian Orthodox Church, in conjunction with Vladimir Putin’s regime, have just revived the blood libel in the form of a claim that in 1918, Tsar Nicholas II and the rest of the Romanov family—including little Anastasia, despite persistent rumors—were not just executed but were ritually murdered. While they may not have named Jews as the ritual murderers, Russia’s long history of dubiously associating Jews with Bolshevism makes the subtext of the accusation clear, and Jewish organizations in Russia and abroad have expressed not only concern but outrage.

That the blood libel would rise again in Russia, of all places, is sadly not surprising, for Russia has a long history of brutally oppressing the Jews. Jews had been forbidden to enter Russia since the 15th century, but after 1772 and the first partition of Poland, they came under Russian rule regardless. Fearing the competition of Jewish merchants, Jews were restricted to living only in certain border territories, later called the Pale of Settlement. Tsars consistently struggled with the question of how to deal with this foreign element in their kingdom. Some made attempts to integrate them, such as Tsar Nicholas I, who did so by imposing forced conscription, requiring all Jews to serve 25 years in his armies on the assumption that this would acculturate them nicely. Nevertheless, Russian Jews preserved their cultural heritage and thus their “otherness.” By the 1860s, fears of Jewish plots began to arise, and by the 1880s, we see the first of the Russian pogroms, usually around Easter, when the story of Jews murdering Christ inevitably stirred ire and likely rekindled the blood accusation as well. Moreover, Jews who had built any measure of affluence for themselves despite the restrictions placed on them appear to have inspired envy and hostility among poor Russians, who invariably incited these targeted riots by starting brawls. After the pogroms of the 1880s, the Russian state increased its systemic repression of the Jews, limiting their economic privileges, restricting their further settlement, blocking their admission to higher education and eventually expelling them from Moscow. Russian Jews responded with a further diaspora, fleeing for friendlier lands, and among those who stayed, many joined the Zionist movement, justifiably yearning for a homeland all their own, while others became radicalized, swelling the ranks of revolutionary movements, which of course only exacerbated mischievous lies that all Jews conspired together to overthrow the Russian monarchy, or perhaps on an even grander scale, to conquer the world. This is the story of one such conspiracy theory and the documentary evidence supposed by many—even today, despite all evidence to the contrary—to prove it true, the story of what has proven to be a tenacious historical blind spot for many. Thank you for listening to The Terrible within the Small; or, The Fabrication of the Learned Elders of Zion and the Forgery of Their Protocols.

1905 map showing percentage of Jews in the Pale of Settlement, via Wikimedia Commons

1905 map showing percentage of Jews in the Pale of Settlement, via Wikimedia Commons

Conspiracy theories claiming that all Jews worked together internationally to advance some nefarious agenda were not new. As I mentioned at the end of my episode on the Blood Libel, the idea was present in medieval Norwich in Thomas of Monmouth’s claim that the converted Jew Theobald had revealed to him a great council of Jewish royalty and leaders who convened in France to decide which country would host their annual ritual murder. And in 1348, the very same year that the Black Plague appeared, so did accusations that the disease had been spread by Jews poisoning wells as a means to destroy Christians. However, the 19th century saw a transformation of the conspiracy theories about the Jews. Rather than depicting them merely as anti-Christians, they began to be seen as a secret cabal hell-bent on world domination. Now this was a role traditionally played by Templar Freemasons and the Bavarian Illuminati in transnational conspiracy theories, but after the Revolution of 1848, in which Jews were active, these conspiracies to overthrow the status quo and supplant it with something different, and therefore frightening, began to be blamed on Jews as well as Freemasons. In the 1860s, a number of books appeared that promulgated these myths. Posing as an English aristocrat, Hermann Goedsche published a novel called Biarritz in 1868 in which he has a cabal of powerful Jews meeting secretly in a Prague cemetery to discuss their vast scheme to subvert the governments and religions of the world to their eventual gain. This scene, it turns out, was baldly plagiarized from an Alexandre Dumas novel depicting Cagliostro meeting with the Illuminati to discuss the Affair of the Necklace, but it clearly indicates the kind of intrigue attributed to Jews in those years.

In Russia the next year, we see Iakov Brafman’s Book of the Kahal, published in Minsk, that set forth the claims that following the much maligned Talmud, Russian Jews had learned to hate Russia’s culture and people and were actively conspiring to topple the Orthodox Church. Then the religious enmities and the lust for secular power attributed to the Jews finally came together in one especially vitriolic accusation. One Sergei Nilus published a book in 1903 entitled The Great within the Small. Due to his role in the bringing forth of a monstrous and seemingly immortal conspiracy, Nilus has to posterity become a much mythologized character, a monk and a séance-leading mystic—which considering the preoccupation with occultism and spiritualism at the tsar’s court would not itself be absurd if it were accurate. In truth, Nilus was from a noble family and had practiced law for a time, but after retiring, he became enamored of the apocalyptic strain of the Orthodox faith, and eventually established his own brand of visionary religion. He gained some fame for himself when, in the first edition of The Great within the Small, he claimed to find and translate the writings of a famous Russian saint. However, it is in the second edition of The Great within the Small, which bore the subtitle The Advent of the Antichrist and the Approaching Rule of the Devil on Earth, that his anti-Semitic conspiracy theory takes clearer shape. In it, he outright asserts the existence of a worldwide Judeo-Masonic conspiracy not only to overthrow Christian states and establish their own global dominion but also to raise up a Jewish world leader, a tyrant who would be the Antichrist. And as proof of their machinations, he offered as an appendix another document that had somewhat mysteriously come into his possession: The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, which purported to be the minutes of a secret meeting among the masterminds of a vast Jewish conspiracy.  In brief, the Protocols reveal that Jews the world over have been colluding a long time to depose all monarchs, overthrow all governments, and corrupt all religions. Commanding the absolute loyalty of all Jews and marshalling the secret forces of the Freemasons and other secret societies, they bring about their goals by inciting populist revolutions and advancing liberalism, which leads invariably to socialism, and thence to communism before finally descending into anarchy and the complete destruction of civilization.

Sergei Nilus, via Wikipedia

Sergei Nilus, via Wikipedia

Nilus offered little help in the way of determining the origin of this manuscript, offering a variety of contradictory stories. First, he asserted that a friend in the Okhrana, or Russian secret police, took it from a whole book of protocols found in a Zionist stronghold in France. In a later edition, he clarified that they had been stolen by the wife or lover of a Masonic leader in Alsace from his iron chest. Then in the 1917 edition, Nilus further explains that these were essentially the minutes of the first Zionist Congress in Switzerland in 1897, but of course, that was not a secret meeting, but rather a very public one, and the Protocols were certainly not items on the agenda there. As the story progressed, then, Nilus adjusted his story to assert that the Protocols had been stolen from the home of Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism. Regardless of which of these stories Nilus actually believed, if any, we do know that the document had been in circulation before he got his hands on it, as it was published in part by a Russian newspaper in 1903, to little notice. Such was certainly not the case after the publication of Nilus’s The Great within the Small. There is reason to think that Tsar Nicholas II himself was swayed by the Protocols. Previous to their advent, he had shown some inclination to give in to liberalism and modernization, for in 1905, with the October Manifesto, he limited his powers and established a parliament and a constitution, but afterward, he thwarted it by constantly dissolving it and enacted a broad program of anti-Jewish propaganda in conjunction with the Orthodox Church. Pogroms in that year, as the Protocols became widely read, ran rampant, claiming the lives of 3,000 Jews. Most of these pogroms were incited by the state itself through its provocateurs, the Black Hundreds, a proto-fascist group that stirred the rumor that the revolution was a Jewish conspiracy to overthrow the tsar. And after the Bolsheviks had seized control and executed the Romanov family in 1918, a new edition of the Protocols was widely distributed among the tsarist counterrevolutionary White Army. It was essentially their bible, proof that those they fought were pawns of evil Jews hell-bent on the overthrow of the world. White Army soldiers went so far as to read the Protocols aloud to any illiterates who needed indoctrination, and during the course of the next couple years, they massacred somewhere around 120,000 Jews.

It was after all of this carnage, and after White Army emissaries had distributed the Protocols abroad at the Versailles Peace Conference, thereby commencing the long history of the Protocols’ publication outside of Russia, that voices of reason began to cast doubt on the document.  In May of 1920, Dr. J. Stanjek published an analysis of the text of the Protocols that proved it was plagiarized in part directly from Hermann Goedsche’s Biarritz, who, if you recall, had himself plagiarized Dumas, making the Protocols essentially a plagiarism of a plagiarism. And shrewdly, Stanjek also predicted that other portions of the text were likely plagiarized from a French source, as they seemed a direct criticism of Napoleon III. However, this exposé was not enough to halt the spread of the Protocols, which continued to terrify and convince such memorable personages as Henry Ford in America and Winston Churchill in England

Then, sure enough, in 1921, a foreign correspondent for the Times of London stationed in Constantinople was approached by a former operative of the Okhrana in exile with a copy of a French book published in the 1860s. This book, Dialogue between Machiavelli and Montesquieu in Hell by Maurice Joly, was a thinly veiled satire of the policies and schemes of Napoleon III, and as Stanjek predicted, proved to be the source for most of the rest of the Protocols, indicating that the destructive little pamphlet was just a patchwork, a palimpsest of previous works, all fiction, that originally had nothing to do with the Jews.

Maurice Joly, via Wikimedia Commons

Maurice Joly, via Wikimedia Commons

As scholars have since theorized, reactionary conservative members of Tsar Nicholas II’s court with connections to the Okhrana secret police—Pyotr Rachkovsky, head of the secret police, has been named—likely conceived of the Protocols as a means of turning the Tsar against the liberal influences in his court. Thus they turned to their propagandists in France, and some have identified the forger Mathieu Golovinski as a likely candidate for the Protocols’ plagiarism. Golovinski started his career manufacturing evidence for the state police and continued with the Orthodox Church’s Holy Synod, producing fake news articles for that organization’s propaganda campaign against modernization, liberalism, socialism, and, of course, what many already saw as Jewish influence on Russian society.  And later in his career, while in exile in Paris, writing false stories to be planted in the foreign press, it is theorized that Rachkovsky or some conservative member of the Tsar’s court, or perhaps one of their representatives in the Okhrana, tasked him with creating a document that would appear to be proof of a Jewish plot to modernize and liberalize Russia to terrible ends, all for the sole purpose of scaring the Tsar into a firmer and more conservative rule. 

With the exposure of the Protocols as nothing more than a plagiarized forgery as early as 1920, one would think that the distribution and influence of the document would cease, but on the contrary, The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion has become one of the most widely translated and distributed texts in the world. In Germany, Joseph Goebbels saw it as a useful tool of propaganda, and Adolph Hitler, seeming to genuinely believe it, used it extensively as the basis for his whole worldview during his rise to power, thus eventually providing a pretext for the Holocaust. Even after a Swiss court declared the Protocols false in 1935 and the U.S. Congress declared them fraudulent in 1964, they continued to be brought forth. The Ku Klux Klan, unsurprisingly, continued to distribute the document, and in 1968, an Islamic organization in Beirut published hundreds of thousands of copies in multiple languages. New editions appeared in Egypt and France in 1972, in India in 1974, in America in 1977, and in England in 1978. The late 80s saw its publication in Japan and as part of the charter of Hamas. The early 1990s saw the Protocols pop up in Mexico and Turkey and again, coming full circle, being published once more in Russia. And in the 2000s, they appeared in print in Lebanon and on Arab television in the form of a serial adaptation. And it is still touted and given credence today by white nationalist and neo-Nazi groups as well as by conspiracy theorists like David Icke. It seems that, for the powers of intolerance and fear, the Jews are simply too tempting a target of scapegoating, for not even empirical evidence and plain logic can dissuade the believers in ant-Semitic conspiracy. When it is pointed out to them that the Protocols have long been known to be a plagiarized forgery, these hateful believers reverse the logical conclusion and claim that, clearly, the Jews must have then taken their plans from this forgery, plagiarizing this plagiarism of a plagiarism. Why? Because it confirms their fear and resentment of Jews and therefore must be true. When the truths we’ve managed to find in the past are ignored by those who purposely wear blinders, then it comes as no surprise that blind spots such as these threaten to send us back to the Dark Ages.

Images from various editions of the Protocols, via University of California, Santa Barbara

Images from various editions of the Protocols, via University of California, Santa Barbara

Images from various editions of the Protocols, via University of California, Santa Barbara

*

My principal sources for this episode were A Lie and a Libel: The History of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion by Binjamin W. Segel and the graphic history The Plot by Will Eisner, which I highly recommend and which you can find a link to on the website’s reading list.

Bloody Libel; or, the Slaughter and Sacralization of Young William of Norwich

Jews-Blood-Libel-Child-1478.jpg

This installment, the first in a while because of a hiatus I was forced to take (thank you for your patience!) represents a continuation of sorts from my two-part Halloween special on accusations of devil worship through history, for if you recall, I noted that some of the accusations leveled against supposed Satanists—that of the desecration of Christian symbols and the ritual murder of children—would have been dreadfully familiar to Jews of the Middle Ages.

Jews in Christian Europe of the Middle Ages may have been the perfect target for vilification. They were perceived as holding themselves apart from almost every community in which they settled; they were the literal “other” with their distinct garb—which in later years was imposed on them by papal order—and their supposedly recognizable physical characteristics, which were often, in rumors, inflated out of cruelty or fear to include a bad smell and diabolical facial features. Their depiction in the New Testament and in Catholic traditions as the betrayers and murderers of Christ—a narrative revived every Easter—certainly singled them out for persecution and massacre during the Crusades, when some crusaders believed that killing a Jew absolved them of all sins. And when the only alternative was forced conversion, many Jewish communities made the horrific decision to commit collective suicide in order to maintain their faith and dignity.

Considering the long history of Anti-Judaism and Antisemitism, which stretches much further back than the Crusades, it is sadly unsurprising when one hears the outlandish justifications that have been trotted out at different times to rationalize atrocities committed against them: for example, the patently absurd accusation that they connived to desecrate the host. This ridiculous myth held that Jews so hated Jesus Christ that they conspired to steal consecrated host wafers from churches in order to do them physical harm by stabbing them. This, of course, was their way of murdering Jesus again, because according to the doctrine of transubstantiation, the host wafers were the literal body of Christ. A moment’s logic is enough to dismiss this, since its premise relies on the notion that the Jews themselves actually believed these arcane and ludicrous Catholic doctrines.

Medieval depiction of host desecration, via Wikipedia

Medieval depiction of host desecration, via Wikipedia

But other myths propagated to justify the persecution of Jews in the Middle Ages, while still patently preposterous, are too dark to laugh off. I refer, of course, to the persistent myth that Jews engaged in ritual murder, the so-called “blood libel.” This accusation was comparable to the rumor that they desecrated the host as from its very origins it appears as an accusation of ritually recreating Christ’s crucifixion, often through the sacrifice of a Christian child. Various motivations were offered to explain these imagined crimes, some far more foolish than others. Vaguely, it was usually asserted that their religion demanded it—a claim that few of their accusers or persecutors would have challenged, as they rarely knew much of anything about Jewish customs. A more specific and more bizarre claim eventually emerged that the Jews required Christian blood to make their matzo, the unleavened bread they had to eat at Passover. This, again, is certainly reminiscent of the accusations widely made against heretics and perceived devil worshippers in the Middle Ages, that they baked their sacrifices into wafers for the unholy communion of their black masses. But undoubtedly the most outrageous and bizarre motivations attributed to the Jews for their alleged crimes were physical rather than religious. Playing on the perception of Jews as the utterly different other, whose rites of circumcision set even their sexual organs apart, it was suggested that the Jewish male menstruated and had to replenish his blood through the sacrifice and consumption of others.  And since this hemorrhagic curse was part and parcel with the blood curse, because Jews accepted the responsibility for Christ’s death from Pontius Pilate, it was said that they must specifically consume the blood of a Christian.

This collection of myths, which drove persecution and pogroms throughout the Middle Ages and afterward and is even today, unbelievable as it may seem, hauled out of mothballs by gullible and vitriolic anti-Semites, must have begun somewhere. That is the focus of this, Episode 14: Bloody Libel, or the Slaughter and Sacralization of Young William of Norwich.

Many have looked to antiquity for the origins of the blood libel. Some point to the Hellenistic age, when Seleucid emperor Antiochus IV Epiphanes sacked the temple in Jerusalem, defiling it by sacrificing a pig on its altar and erecting in its place an altar to Jupiter. In a seasonal aside, Antiochus Epiphanes’s aggressive persecution of the Jews in ancient Judea, outlawing the practice of their faith, forbidding circumcision and selling thousands of families into bondage, eventually led to the Maccabaean revolt and the re-consecration of the Temple, an event which, along with the legend of its attendant miracle of long-burning oil, represents the basis of the Jewish holiday, Chanukah, the Festival of Lights, which as I understand it starts the day I plan to release this episode, Wednesday, December 12.

Well, according to one later account by Greek historian Posidonius (poe-see-though-nius), when Antiochus Epiphanes took the Temple in 168 BCE, he found a Greek captive there who claimed that the Jews ritually cannibalized a Greek every seven years. Needless to say, the account can neither be confirmed nor trusted, considering the gross anti-Judaism rampant among Greeks of the era, as especially demonstrated in the bitterly anti-Semitic emperor himself, and even if the story were true, in that a Greek prisoner made the claim, it would remain problematic, for considering the source, you’d have to assume the man fabricated the tale to please the emperor. Regardless of its plausibility, the tale issued forth and persisted in a few other texts, but scholar Gavin Langmuir, in his influential work on the origins of the blood libel, makes a compelling argument that not only does this tale bear little resemblance to the blood libel as it later emerged in medieval Europe, but also that books containing this obscure anecdote were few and far between, such that the myth likely did not spring from this font.

Antiochus Epiphanes spoils Jerusalem, a 1690 engraving by Wilhelm Goeree, via Seder Olam Revisited

Antiochus Epiphanes spoils Jerusalem, a 1690 engraving by Wilhelm Goeree, via Seder Olam Revisited

In similar fashion, Langmuir dismisses another possible origin of the myth from Syria during the First Persian Empire, where intoxicated Jews at Inmestar, according to a Christian historian writing at some historical distance, supposedly tied a Christian boy to a cross in mockery of Christ, accidentally or purposely killing him in the process. As Langmuir shows, this incident was not widely recorded in texts that would have been available in medieval Norwich, England, where it is generally accepted that the first accusations of ritual murder appeared in the mid-1100s, and so could not have been their inspiration.

Other scholars continue to quibble, suggesting that the accusations made in Norwich were not made up out of whole cloth, that their inspiration can be found in the First Crusades, when Christian soldiers were shocked by the Jews’ willingness to kill not only themselves but also to sacrifice their wives and their very children rather than submit to forced conversion. Nevertheless, it appears that the incident I will now relate was the very first appearance of the blood libel, and that it emerged all at once and almost wholly formed—a notion that is deeply disturbing, for it seems somehow easier to comprehend that such an evil appeared gradually, built upon slowly throughout the ages, rather than materializing so abruptly, a sudden monster.

To understand the origins of the blood libel in Norwich, one must first consider the cultural and political context of medieval England after the Norman Conquest. Following the invasion and occupation of England by William the Conqueror, many Anglo-Saxons fled the country, and those who stayed faced something of an identity crisis. The conquest remade the country, not only physically, with structures being demolished in order to raise castles and cathedrals, but also culturally and racially, installing a new class of elites that spoke a language foreign to most. Situated near the North Sea on the River Wensum and therefore easily accessible for trade with Normandy, Norwich benefited from this change greatly. A new castle was raised, as well as a Cathedral, and a great influx of Norman merchants created a thriving burgh there. The affluence of this burgh, which had swelled to a population exceeding 10,000 and become one of the largest cities in England, drew a small community of Jews as well, plying their customary trade of money lending and injecting money into the economy through their commerce with local artisans. This was a city divided by race as well as language, for the Jews kept mainly to areas where the French-speaking Normans had settled, and there were those of Anglo-Scandinavian descent who had little contact with them and, as we shall see, held them in low regard.

Medieval Norwich, via Culture24

Medieval Norwich, via Culture24

It is important here to note that everything we know about what happened in Norwich the week of Easter 1144 we take from a decidedly biased and dubious source, the Life and Passion of Saint William the Martyr of Norwich, by Thomas of Monmouth, about whom I will have plenty to say as the story progresses. Suffice to say now that Thomas arrived in Norwich years later, and he composed his book on the events of 1144 later still. Moreover, his bias is evident to even the most credulous reader, for as can be gleaned from the title alone, Thomas was campaigning to have William of Norwich, who in that fateful year turned up dead, canonized as a saint. Nevertheless, we may deduce from Thomas’s record, considering his words as well as his omissions, what is likely to be fact and what embellishment, as Gavin Langmuir so shrewdly explores in his work.  Here I will recount the “facts” in outline before laying out the legend in its entirety as Thomas of Monmouth wrote it.

At the broken heart of this story is a boy of twelve years, an English child who bore the Norman name of William. Although he did not live at home but rather with a local man named Wulward, his family lived nearby: his mother, Elviva, and his aunt, Leviva. There were many connections with the church in his family—his grandfather was a priest; his aunt Leviva’s husband, Godwin Sturt, was a priest as well; his cousin, Leviva’s son, was a deacon; and his own brother would later become a monk—but William had taken up a trade, apprenticing himself to a skinner at eight years old. During the course of his work, he had some contact with the local Jewry. However, during Lent in 1144, the man Wulward with whom he lived and his uncle Godwin Sturt both told him not to have any more interaction with the Jews in the burgh—and here we see one of the first hints of his family’s opinion of Jews.

On March 20th that same year, a mysterious man approached William. He was the archbishop’s cook, he said, and he had some work for William. This stranger went with William to his mother’s home to ask her permission to take William to the archbishop’s kitchen, and Elviva assented after taking a little money for herself from this cook. Now after the fact and years later, when Thomas of Monmouth went about playing detective and piecing together a narrative for his Life and Passion Saint William, Elviva would say that she was suspicious of this man, and William’s aunt Leviva would make further claims of having encountered the supposed cook herself before William’s disappearance, but there is reason to doubt these claims, so I shall impart them later, as we examine Thomas’s version of events. For now, it must only be known that William vanished after supposedly going to work for the archbishop.

On Good Friday, the boy’s body was stumbled upon in Thorpe Wood, a dense and brushy forest across the river Wensum east of the city. A nun by the name of Legarda found the corpse on her return from visiting a house of lepers. William wore only his jacket and shoes. Legarda would later claim that a preternatural beam of light led her to the body’s location, and that as she watched ravens attempting to feast on his remains, she saw that his flesh was impenetrable to their claws and their beaks. Thus the tales of miracles associated with the dead child commenced, but it is certainly strange that she then went on her way rejoicing at the sight and never told anyone of the poor child’s demise or the miracle until later. Thereafter, a forester named Sprowston happened upon the body, and his observations seem keener. The boy’s head had been shaved, and there appeared to be wounds on his scalp. Perhaps the oddest detail was that some strange device had been placed in his mouth—this, it turned out upon closer inspection, was a wooden teasel. A comb- or brush-like device traditionally used on cloth to raise its nap, it was clearly a torture device, having been forced with its tines into William’s mouth.

Detail of a mural depicting a Jew kidnapping a child, via the BBC

Detail of a mural depicting a Jew kidnapping a child, via the BBC

This was a disturbing discovery, but strangely, Sprowston went back to town. He must have told others of the body, for there are reports of curiosity seekers visiting the body over Easter weekend, like a medieval Stand By Me, but he did not return himself until Monday, whereupon he buried the boy where he lay. However, at least one visitor to the corpse seems to have recognized William and informed his family, for the next day, his uncle, Godwin Sturt, arrived to the designated spot in Thorpe Wood with his cousin and brother, disinterred the corpse, identified it as William, and reburied it in the same place. Godwin went back to tell his wife, Leviva, the sad news, and Leviva responded, seemingly apropos of nothing, by sharing a nightmare she’d recently had, one that betrays an alarming fear of Jews. In her dream, Jews surrounded her in the marketplace, clubbed her, and tore her leg off, stealing away with her limb. Why would she suddenly share her dream when told this news? Because apparently she had told him of the dream already, and as she reminded him, he had interpreted it to mean that the Jews would cause her to lose someone she loved. When Leviva and her husband shared this news with William’s mother, it seems likely they also shared their thoughts on Leviva’s supposedly prophetic dream, for Elviva promptly went about shouting that the Jews had murdered her boy.

As I mentioned in my caveat at the beginning, all of this is gleaned from Thomas of Monmouth’s Life and Passion of Saint William and therefore dubious, but if it were true, it only goes to show the malicious prejudice of this family, jumping to this conclusion on no further evidence than the interpretation of a nightmare. And indeed it seems clear that Thomas of Monmouth was not entirely putting words in their mouths, for not long after the discovery, Godwin Sturt publicly accused the Jews of William’s murder, standing before the Bishop’s synod and citing some vague and ridiculous evidence. He pointed to the dream as a premonition, and he suggested that this man who posed as the archbishop’s cook in order to kidnap William was so cunning that he must have been a Jew. He also spoke of Jewish religious practices vaguely and made unclear references to the wounds on William, but he never made the outright assertions that the Jews had crucified William as part of a profane ritual recreating Christ’s murder. That would all come later, and indeed, it may be that Thomas of Monmouth put those ambiguous and vaguely corroborative statements into his mouth in an effort to confirm the outrageous claims he would make.

The church called upon the Norwich Jews three times to come and answer the charges, but the Jews—certainly no strangers to persecution and wary of Catholic judgment—sought the counsel of the king’s representative, the sheriff, who advised them against submitting to ecclesiastical authority and ended up offering them shelter in the castle until the outcry subsided. Of course, afterwards, it would be claimed that the Jews bribed the sheriff for his protection, an accusation that simultaneously painted the Jews as guilty and the law that protected them as corrupt.

Norwich Castle, via University of South Florida

Norwich Castle, via University of South Florida

A full month after the body’s discovery, the Bishop ordered that the boy’s body be disinterred a second time and buried a third time in the cemetery at the cathedral, where according to Thomas, monks washed the corpse and examined it further. It appeared the body had been badly burned, as if by boiling water. Moreover, as Thomas records it, these monks found indications that the boy had suffered a crucifixion similar to Christ’s, as they saw a wound on his side as well as wounds on his hands and feet that might have corresponded to being nailed to a cross. Additionally, they identified the cuts on his scalp as being from thorns and even claimed to have found pieces of the thorns still in the wounds. Of course, by the time Thomas wrote about this, he was entirely devoted to establishing a cult in William’s honor and sacralizing him as not only a saint but a genuine martyr, and this puts the entire medical examination into doubt, especially considering the boy’s corpse had been exposed to carrion for days and decomposing in the ground for a full month by the time they examined it. And even if Thomas’s account is accurate in this regard, the monks of the priory themselves may have made these claims upon examining the body for the very same reasons, for it seems the Bishop didn’t order the body moved to the cathedral until after a Prior from an abbey far away south in Sussex approached him after the synod at which Sturt had accused the Jews and offered to take the boy’s body away to his monastery, where he would build upon the legend of the boy’s death and turn him into a holy relic. So it seems even before Thomas of Monmouth arrived on the scene and began pushing for the child’s canonization, the bishops and monks of the Norwich Cathedral saw an opportunity to turn the poor murdered child into a venerated figure, something that could elevate their cathedral into a destination for pilgrimage. And sure enough, after William was moved from the woods to the monk’s cemetery, some few reports of miracles began to appear.

What else we know about the events prior to Thomas arriving and insinuating himself into the affair, and again this comes to us through Thomas’s eventual writings as well, is that two years later, around 1146, a prominent Jewish moneylender named Eleazar was murdered in Norwich by the squires of a knight who was indebted to him. According to the legend as composed by Thomas years afterward, some in the church again brought up the case, suggesting that no Christian should have to answer murder charges made by the Jews until they answered for William’s murder. Thus when Thomas arrived at the Norwich cathedral priory circa 1149, there seems to already have been a nascent movement afoot to see William canonized—at least one miracle was supposed to have been reported around that time and related to Thomas, of a virgin who, stalked by an incubus, received instruction in a vision to carry candles to William’s grave and, having done so, claimed to have been delivered from her tormentor.  And the supposed manner of William’s death was part and parcel with the growing legend of his martyrdom and surely also found its way through rumormongering to Thomas. Not only was there still a thriving belief in some circles that one or more Jews had killed the boy, but there was also a handy prime suspect in the Jewish community leader, Eleazar, who having been murdered himself could no longer answer any accusations made against him. Considering these circumstances and the fact that having the relics of a bona fide saint would not only improve the station of a cathedral but could also immortalize a monk like Thomas in folklore and religious literature, it’s clear Thomas may have seen an opportunity to serve whatever ambition a Benedictine monk like him might have had. Irrespective of his motivations, however, which might very well have sprung from genuine credulity and faith, Thomas almost immediately set about recording, and likely encouraging,  whatever reports of miracles he could find, some of which consisted of visions describing  William, crowned and attired in white, at the very feet of God Himself.

Saint William of Norwich, portrayed in all his glory, via Wikimedia Commons

Saint William of Norwich, portrayed in all his glory, via Wikimedia Commons

Like a quintessential English detective, Thomas also went about piecing together the “facts” of the murder, interviewing witnesses and sniffing out leads. Although years had passed, Thomas somewhat dubiously uncovered a variety of new evidence in the form of eyewitness testimony of a suspiciously damning nature. For example, although she had never made the claim before, even though it certainly would have helped to prove the accusations against the Jews, William’s aunt Leviva told Thomas that the mysterious “cook” with whom William had last been seen had come with William to visit her as well, the day after paying her sister Elviva for the privilege of obtaining William’s labor, and according to her, she was so suspicious of him that she sent her young daughter to shadow them and asserted that the little girl returned to report that they’d gone into the house of a Jew.

Then, another damning report happened to fall into Thomas’s lap. Another man of the cloth, one who had been actively sharing with Thomas tales of supposed miracles associated with William’s grave, dropped quite a bombshell. He claimed to have taken the deathbed confession of one Aelward Ded, in which Ded described seeing two Jews on horseback in Thorpe Wood on the Friday before Easter 1144, recognizing one of them as the prominent moneylender Eleazar who would be murdered a couple years later. According to the supposed confession, Ded approached them because one of them carried a suspicious looking sack over the neck of his horse, which Ded touched and realized contained a body. As the tale went, the Jews fled and later bribed the sheriff to intimidate Ded into keeping what he’d seen a secret, which astonishingly he had until the day of his death.

And if all these testimonies weren’t enough to seal it, Thomas next found a Christian maidservant who had worked for Eleazar during the Easter of 1144. She reportedly took Thomas to Eleazar’s house, into which Leviva’s daughter claimed to have seen William disappear, and showed him further physical evidence of the crime. She claimed that during the week leading up to Easter, she had been called on to bring her master Eleazar boiling water, and she described peeping with one eye through a hole to see a boy child fastened to a post. Of course, like the other witnesses Thomas reports interviewing, this servant also had never told a soul for the lame reason of worrying about losing her job and being afraid of the Jews—who remember represented an extremely small portion of the population in the overwhelmingly Christian burgh. But it didn’t matter because Thomas could then claim to have seen hard evidence of the boy’s manner of death, which he had all along rather bizarrely insisted was a recreation of the crucifixion. He says he saw the holes where William was nailed to the post, but since either the wounds recorded by the monks who’d examined William’s body or the marks on the post did not seem to indicate the traditional form of a crucifixion, he was careful to explain in his manuscript that the Jews had only nailed his left hand and foot to the post and merely bound the other limbs in place. Why? Well, to avoid the appearance that the boy had been crucified, of course. Never mind that scalding him with boiling water and forcing a barbed wooden teasel into his mouth also looked nothing like crucifixion; those flourishes must also have been performed just to throw savvy investigators like Thomas of Monmouth off the trail.

Painting depicting the murder of William of Norwich, via Wikimedia Commons

Painting depicting the murder of William of Norwich, via Wikimedia Commons

The biggest piece of “evidence” Thomas produced seems to have only been offered in Book 2 of his manuscript in order to answer those who doubted his outrageous theory. In the first book he had several times referred to converted Jews who had confided in him that sacrificing a Christian in imitation of Christ’s crucifixion was a vital Jewish tradition, but in Book 2, he revealed that it had just been one former Jew to tell him this, one Theobald of Cambridge who had become a Christian monk when he’d heard of William’s posthumous miracles. Theobald painted the picture of a vast Jewish conspiracy to ritually murder a Christian. This they did annually in accordance with their ancient scriptures, which told them that they must shed Christian blood “in scorn and contempt of Christ,” whose crucifixion had caused them to be scattered in foreign lands, and that if they did not, they would never return to their homeland and be free. Theobald spoke very specifically about how the chiefs among the Jews gathered at Narbonne, where the royal seed resided, and drew lots to determine which country among all those in which the Jews resided would be the setting for that year’s sacrifice, after which the Jews of that country’s largest city would draw lots to determine the town or city where the ritual murder would take place. And in 1144, according to Theobald, Norwich had been chosen, and all the Jews knew and accepted it. 

Now this is manifest nonsense. Scholars Jewish and Gentile alike have pored over every foundational work of Judaism, and there exists no such edict. Actually, this claim mirrors in some ways the fears of the Talmud that would appear during the next century, which based on incomplete and erroneous understandings of that collection of writings claimed that it was an anti-Christian work encouraging violence against followers of Christ. But this was a hundred years before that. And there appears to be no historical precedent for such an accusation unless one goes all the way almost 1300 years back to that Greek prisoner in the Temple with his claim that the Jews engaged in a ritual sacrifice every seven years—a claim that as I explained earlier scholars doubt Thomas of Monmouth had ever heard of! Therefore, that would make Thomas himself the origin of this very specific and despicable accusation…or the converted Jew Theobald, if such a man existed. And there is reason to believe he may have, for it turns out that there was indeed a King of the Jews at Narbonne, as Theobald had supposedly told Thomas. There exists a legend of a scholar from Babylon named Machir, who settled in Narbonne, France, with the blessing of Charlemagne to establish himself there as King of the Jews. And it is true that descendants in the Machir family enjoyed the title of “nasi” or prince. Scholars including Joseph Jacobs in 1897 and the aforementioned Gavin Langmuir have argued that Theobald must have been real, for it seems unlikely that Thomas of Monmouth would have had such knowledge of the Jewish community at Narbonne.

So, the question is, who was the true source of this blood libel? Was this notion that Jews had committed a ritual recreation of the crucifix already present among the people of Norwich, among whom there certainly were those prejudiced against Jews, as evidenced in some of the statements made by William’s family? Was it just a one-of-a-kind rumor that sprang from the fact that the murder had occurred at Easter, when the story of Christ’s crucifixion was ubiquitous? Or had it been an imaginative invention of Thomas as he wrote his manuscript in order to paint William as Christ-like in his martyrdom? And more particularly, where had the concept that Jews were compelled annually to engage in such ritual murder originated? If Theobald was real, was he led by Thomas to make such a claim? Had Thomas coaxed this lie out of him to fit a narrative he was already composing? Or conversely, was this Theobald, about whom historians know nothing else, the true author of the lie? Did he pour this poison in Thomas’s ear, causing Thomas to then force all the rest of his evidence, whether real, embellished or contrived, to conform to this implausible theory? And if so, if it is possible that the blood libel was essentially started by a Jewish man, what was his motivation to start this lie that would spread like fire and burn many of his brethren?

As with all blind spots in our history, we may never know the truth in all its particulars. But we do know that this incident seems to be the birth of this great lie, which lived on in various forms for centuries. Within a couple decades it had spread to France, and soon more dead boys were suggested to have been victims of Jewish ritual murder. However, the first time the libel resulted in the shedding of innocent Jewish blood was back in England, in Lincoln, an affair recorded by Chaucer. In 1255, an 8-year-old boy named Hugh who had gone missing was found dead on land owned by a Jew, who on the promise that his life would be spared, accused other Jews of assembling on his land to ritually kill the lad. Henry III executed this man despite the promise of sparing him and sent 91 other Jews to London for trial, putting 19 to death. On and on the blood libel spread, resulting in miscarriages of justice and massacres. The rest of the 13th century saw incidents in numerous Germanic towns and cities, and in the 15th and 16th centuries, the lie resurfaced, with accusations spreading as far as Spain and Hungary. Even after the Age of Reason, we see the Damascus Affair and the Tisza-Eszlár Affair in the mid- and late-19th century, respectively, and the Polna and Kolnitz Affairs at the dawn of the 20th century. Even after thorough debunking and condemnation by monarchs and popes alike, this dark and destructive myth lay dormant and then stirred again, over and over, to corrupt the minds of those who were blind to its history. And tragically, it would not be the only such myth to inspire distrust and persecution of the Jews, for embryonic in this accusation was one of vast, international conspiracy, a further lie that would rear its foul head in manifold ways.

*

I relied on several scholarly articles for this episode that I cannot easily link to, so here’s my bibliography, in MLA style because that’s what I’m accustomed to using.  :)

 

Cohen, Jeffrey J. “The Flow of Blood in Medieval Norwich.” Speculum, vol. 79, no. 1, 2004, pp.

26–65. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20462793.

Langmuir, Gavin I. “Thomas of Monmouth: Detector of Ritual Murder.” Speculum, vol. 59, no. 4,

1984, pp. 820–846. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2846698.

McCulloh, John M. “Jewish Ritual Murder: William of Norwich, Thomas of Monmouth, and the

Early Dissemination of the Myth.” Speculum, vol. 72, no. 3, 1997, pp. 698–740. JSTOR,

JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3040759.

Rubin, Miri. "Making a Martyr: William of Norwich and the Jews." History Today, vol. 60, no. 6,

June 2010, p. 48. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?

direct=true&db=f5h&AN=51447114&site=ehost-live.

 

The Specter of Devil Worship, Part Two

In this installment, we’ll be discussing a subject that requires an examination of the details of alleged violent crimes against children. Reader be warned.

Michael_Pacher_004.jpg

Welcome to part two and the conclusion of our Halloween edition of Historical Blindness. When we left off, we had just examined the accusations of black sabbaths performed by witches and warlocks and considered the evidence that witchcraft as the worship of the devil was only a mad construction of the Catholic Church and its Inquisition, growing out of previous allegations made to demonize heretics. Our final thought pondered whether any of these accusations had ever been grounded in fact.

Indeed, there appear to have been some accused of witchcraft who genuinely had been practicing sorcery, or at least attempting to do so. However, where there was genuine interest in magic and its practice (insofar as magic can actually be practiced), it was not of a Satanic aspect. At this time, Arabic texts on performing magic, and specifically summoning and controlling spirits, were being translated and found a readership in the West, but far from Satanic, these grimoires originated in pagan traditions and were simply adapted by Christians seeking to try their hand at magic. And even then, rather than being performed in deference to or worship of the devil, these magical ceremonies were usually meant to summon and bind a demon to serve one’s own purposes, usually to further some ambition through the control of others or to increase one’s wealth through some alchemical miracle. Take, for example, the story of Gilles de Rais, a French nobleman and war hero compatriot of Joan of Arc who during the Inquisition’s witch craze was executed for horrific crimes as well as for evoking and having discourse with the Devil.

Born into an established French family, Gilles de Rais inherited his title of Baron of Rais, as well as great wealth and extensive property. He was a brilliant young man, with a classical education in music, science, and Latin. After two betrothals that failed due to his fiancées suddenly dying, he was married by the age of 16, and by 25 he served with distinction as the Marshal of France. He was a Christian hero, serving alongside the Maid of Orleans in bringing aid to that city and marching on both Reims and Paris, though after he died in infamy, some have tried to expunge him from French history. This may be understandable when one considers the charges for which Gilles de Rais was executed.

Portrait of Gille de Rais, via Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of Gille de Rais, via Wikimedia Commons

After the glory days of Gilles de Rais’s military career, he became profligate with his wealth, employing far too many servants, raising his own standing military forces with funds out of his own pocket, and staging expensive dramatic productions. Before long, he had squandered his fortune and sought the help of alchemists to renew it. Along with the promise of transmuting base metals into gold, however, alchemists at the time were recognized as necromancers as well by the Catholic Church, casting spells and summoning demons in order to receive their favors. Gilles de Rais, therefore, began to seek more than just regaining his wealth in his pursuit of the alchemists’ philosopher’s stone. Having seen for himself in the person of Joan of Arc how supernatural power might be wielded by those in whom it is invested, he was led to believe that perhaps the alchemists he employed could endow him with powers of a god. After some failed attempts at summoning demons, it is said that eventually his alchemists succeeded in summoning the Devil himself, and in a contract Gilles de Rais signed in his own blood, he accepted a deal with the fiend. He would receive three rewards: science, power and wealth. In return, he need not surrender his soul. Instead, he needed only to burn five children and give their hearts to Satan.

And it would seem that Gilles de Rais took to his task with relish, or that perhaps he had already indulged in the horrific pastime of child murder. Whether innocent or already guilty of such crimes before his alchemical and diabolical quest, the evidence recorded after his eventual arrest suggests that between 1432 and 1440, he murdered more than 800 children, immolating them, amputating their limbs, severing their heads, scooping out their eyes and digging the hearts out of their chests as offerings to the Devil. These children were kidnapped and delivered to him by hired abductors, who later testified to their involvement. And as his various estates and castles fell into the hands of other family members, he enlisted other hirelings to help him hide his crimes by destroying the remains of children hidden there, a task which they also would testify to completing on his behalf. And finally, Gilles de Rais himself would confess to his crimes, offering from his own mouth the estimation that he murdered and sacrificed approximately 120 little boys every year for seven long and horrifying years.

Here, certainly, it would seem, we have evidence of human sacrifice to the Devil confirmed by the findings of a court. However, let us look more closely and with an open mind. Just as before many hangers-on were only too happy to help him squander his money, as he sought help in replenishing his coffers through alchemy, there was no shortage of confidence men posing as alchemists seeking to further relieve him of the last few coins he had. And if indeed he had not engaged in child murder before his alchemical pursuits, a notion supported by the further alleged detail that he always sought to save his own soul by praying to God for forgiveness both during and after his crimes, then surely the various alchemists who encouraged him to offer these sacrifices and convinced him they were necessary were the ones truly at fault, or at least they should share the blame for these heinous crimes, if they actually occurred.

Depiction of de Rais about his murderous sorcery, via Wikimedia Commons

Depiction of de Rais about his murderous sorcery, via Wikimedia Commons

And if these murders actually did occur, were they indeed made as offerings to Satan? If Gilles de Rais were actually a serial murderer, as some have claimed, perhaps driven by some sexual compulsion as indicated by the victimology of always targeting young boys, does this necessarily equate to devil worship? And if, instead, he only murdered these children in order to complete these arcane rituals, were they actually Satanic? As previously established, grimoires disseminating the traditions of alchemy and ceremonies for summoning demonic beings were not inherently Satanic in the sense that they derived from pagan traditions.  And even a cursory examination of the ceremonies supposedly performed with Gilles de Rais shows that there was a lack of Satanic trappings. They involved circles drawn on the floor, not black candles and upside down crosses. While some accusations were made against him of performing Black Masses, these have proven unsubstantiated.

And as for the rest of the allegations, these too appear to lack credibility when examined closely. Gilles de Rais was tried by the Inquisition, and it has been pointed out that although he had squandered much of his wealth, he still retained a massive estate in the form of castles and other physical assets that the Church and his accusers were only too happy to seize upon their forfeiture. Indeed, Gilles de Rais confessed to his crimes… but not at first. Rather, he denied them and only admitted them after three days of torture. And while we do have the testimony of his accomplices, it is also possible that they were tortured themselves, as the Inquisitors were known to torture even witnesses! For anything resembling reliable evidence, then, we must look to the physical evidence, which also is lacking here. There is no unassailable record of investigators or other officials finding bodies, but rather only witness testimony of the destruction of said corpses, which testimony may have been coerced in order to explain why there was no evidence of bodies! Even reports of missing children during that period don’t offer any corroboration, as they don’t come near the number of murders alleged and can easily be explained without resorting to blaming a Satan-worshipping nobleman and his kidnapping ring.

Therefore, yet again, accusations of human sacrifice and Devil worship break down before reasonable examination. One begins to doubt, then, that there was ever any truth to these Satanic Panics. There is, however, more to come, and indeed, the next entry in our history of Devil worship should give one pause.

In 1678, French occultism showed its pale and horrible underbelly to the light in a scandal that has been called the Chambre Ardent Affair and the Affair of the Poisons. And here at the heart of what is otherwise a murder scandal, we finally find what appears to have been a verified case of ceremonies involving the offering of children for the conjuring of demonic forces. It all started when a lawyer at a dinner party overheard a high society fortune-teller bragging about providing “inheritance powder” to people in high places, this being a euphemism for poison. As poisoning was suspected of being rampant among noblemen and their wives, the lawyer reported the incident, and police investigated, uncovering a network of fortune-tellers whose real business was selling poison and performing abortions. As the investigation drew on, however, it would uncover more than abortion and the abetment of murder and would indeed touch far too close for the comfort of King Louis XIV. Thus he drew a veil of secrecy over the whole affair, choosing to prosecute the case in a Chambre Ardent, or Burning Chamber, called such because it was entirely closed off to the light of day and lit by torches, and perhaps also because, historically, such courts had been reserved for trying heretics, and their interiors had occasionally been lit by other kinds of burnings.

As the investigation unfolded, witnesses implicated further conspirators in the Affair of the Poisons, who in turn accused other and the layers of this criminal organization were peeled back. Eventually, officials came to the heart of the matter. At the center of this network was Catherine Monvoisin, better known as La Voisin, who was known to burn the fetuses she aborted in a secret furnace beneath her house. Moreover, it came forth that she had raised an unusual pavilion on the grounds of her house as a kind of chapel. In this unhallowed place, she arranged for profane rituals to take place, hiring an old priest named Abbé Guibourg to perform them. These rituals were evocations, conjuring demons and offering sacrifice to them in return for favors. The investigation came reached all the way to the king when his mistress, Madame de Montespan, was implicated as having availed herself of these ceremonies in an effort to keep the king’s affections.

Portrait of La Voisin, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Portrait of La Voisin, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art

In the Burning Chamber, in a reversal of ordinary procedures, the priest Abbé Guibourg gave his confession to a secular authority, and what he revealed struck everyone with horror. Abbé Guibourg said his twisted version of a mass on the belly of a nude woman, treating her as an altar. At the appointed time of the mass, a baby was presented to him, whose blood he shed by cutting its innocent throat. This child’s blood he poured into a chalice, calling to the demonic entities Astaroth and Asmodee to accept this sacrifice in exchange for meeting his demand, which was that Madame Montespan, present there with only a veil over her head and bosom, would continue to enjoy the amity of the king and that he would deny her nothing.

After the baby, thus drained of its blood, was taken away, its viscera and heart were carried back to the dark priest, who then ground them up for Montespan to consume as well as to slip secretly to the king. Her demand were written as follows:

…I demand the love of the King…and that the Queen shall be sterile, and the King shall leave her bed and her table for me, that I shall obtain all that I ask for me and my parents…that I shall be called to the counsels of the King, and to know what happens there…and that the Queen shall be repudiated, that I shall be able to marry the King.

The King’s mistress was never tried for her participation in these terrible rituals, but Abbé Guibourg was imprisoned for the rest of his life, along with a great many others who were involved in the Affair of the Poisons, while others were put to death, including La Voison, the woman at the head of this Satanic network, who was burned at the stake. source:

Although torture was, again, a factor in the proceedings of this Burning Chamber, the fact that the awful details of these terrible rituals were corroborated by multiple witnesses tends to lend Guibourg’s testimony credence. However, it should be noted that the babies described as being sacrificed were already dead. Providing illegal abortion services to women across Paris, La Voisin had a plentiful supply of fetuses at her disposal, so it appears that, rather than live sacrifices to dark powers, these were something more like grisly props in a disgusting theatrical production. Perhaps this is cold comfort, but again we see the specter of true devil worship becoming more and more ethereal with closer examination.

For example, the story appears at first glance to be a confirmed and proven instance of devil worship, or at least of diabolical deal-making, but consider the demons to which the priest appealed: Asmodee and Astaroth. They appear to be appropriate entities for the occasion, the former being thought to inspire lust and lechery in men and the latter known to grant friendships with great lords, but follow their history farther back and we find these figures do not even originate from Christian or even Hebrew traditions but rather from other religions, such as Zoroastrianism, and both appear to be derived from Astarte or Ishtar, a fertility goddess of Phoenician and Persian mythology. The idea that some unscrupulous priest would pretend to hold such a ceremony, drawing from centuries of lore made available in grimoire literature and thereafter promulgated by the Catholic Church and its Inquisitors, who spread everywhere the idea of such rituals existing, certainly doesn’t stretch the imagination, especially when one remembers that Abbé Guibourg was accepting payment for performing these rituals, which despite the horrendous element of using aborted fetuses as props, seem rather ridiculous in this light.

La Voison and Abbé Guibourg's Black Mass performed on Madame de Montespan, via Wikimedia Commons

La Voison and Abbé Guibourg's Black Mass performed on Madame de Montespan, via Wikimedia Commons

Guibourg’s rituals would themselves help to mold the legend, thus perpetuating the cycle, with myth inspiring real practice that went on to fuel the myth, as thereafter reports of Black Masses, rituals parodying and profaning the Catholic Mass, most of them reflecting elements of Guibourg’s rituals with nude women as altars and the sacrifice and consumption of babies, proliferated in 18th and 19th century Europe.

One group accused of engaging in such ceremonies were the Hell-Fire Clubs of 18th century London, who have been said to hold full-fledged Satanic rituals, with black candles and inverted crucifixes, orgies in which forbidden sex of all kinds—even incest—was indulged, and, familiarly, the conjuration of the devil himself in the form of a goat or a cat. History shows, however, that the Hell-Fire Club was little more than a drinking club and themed society like the Freemasons originally formed to liven up otherwise boring and prudish Sundays with some carousing. The group took its inspiration from Rabelais’s satirical work Gargantua and the fictional monks at Thelème, whose motto was “Do what thou wilt,” a philosophy that would later influence occultists in the 20th century, who in their own turn would be called Satanists and even embrace the label, foremost of these being Aleister Crowley, but we may leave that colorful figure for another episode. It is enough here to say that The Hell-Fire Club has been rather inaccurately remembered and unfairly maligned. In reality, nothing more nefarious went on there than might be expected to occur inside the windowless rooms of your local Masonic temple.

But indeed, what might go on within those secretive enclaves? Much has been made of a nebulous and secret connection between the Masonic fraternity and the Knights Templar, suggesting that the latter actually survived their extermination by hiding among the ranks of the former and incorporating their traditions and rituals into those of the Freemasons. So then, of course, if the Templars were secretly Satanists, might not the Masons who received them and protected them be devil worshippers as well? In the 19th century, an era that saw much anti-Masonic sentiment, there arose evidence that, indeed, the Satanic Masonic conspiracy was real and more widespread than any might have imagined.

In 1885, a writer best known by the pen name Léo Taxil, who had previously been a major critic of the Catholic Church, gave up his secular crusade against them and converted to the faith very publicly. Now firmly on the Church’s side, he began to aim his pen and his sharp words at the enemies of the Pope, foremost of which was the Masonic fraternity, which Pope Leo XIII had condemned for its religious tolerance. During the course of Taxil’s crusade against Freemasonry, he claimed to have uncovered a secret Gnostic tradition, suggesting that the Masons worshiped the devil, Lucifer, as the true and misunderstood god of light, and despised Adonai, the god of the bible, as a false and cruel deity. He revealed in his writings that for many years, the original Baphomet idol of the Knights Templar had resided at the Masonic Temple in Charleston, South Carolina, the seat of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry, where the Grand Master of its Supreme Council, Albert Pike—a military figure of the Mexican-American War as well as the Civil War on the side of the Confederacy, whose statue stands today in Washington, D.C.—was inspired to establish a secret Luciferian branch of Masonry there call the Reformed Palladium. The Palladists, unknown to much of the rank and file of everyday Masons, performed grotesque Luciferian rituals, which included sexual debauchery, for unlike most of Freemasonry, the Palladian Rite secretly initiated women into its ranks.

Masonic devil worship, as alleged by Léo Taxil, complete with Templar costumes and Baphomet idol, via Freemason Information

Masonic devil worship, as alleged by Léo Taxil, complete with Templar costumes and Baphomet idol, via Freemason Information

Soon it was not Taxil alone alleging these things, as in an 1891 pamphlet, one Adolphe Ricoux published what he claimed were the theological writings of Albert Pike himself , explicating the notion that there were two gods, Adonai and Lucifer, and the Palladist Freemasons were rightly to be called Luciferians, as Satanists accepted the theology of Christianity but chose to worship evil instead of good while Luciferians rejected the entire paradigm, claiming it to be lies spread by Adonai, god of evil and darkness.

Perhaps the most frightening exposé of Palladian Freemasonry’s devil worship came the next year, when a huge serial publication called The Devil in the 19th Century was printed and disseminated. In it, one Dr. Bataille told the extraordinary story of his infiltration of the evil Palladists.

Serving as a ship’s surgeon aboard the steamboat Anadyr in 1880, Dr. Bataille had occasion to befired an Italian silk merchant named Gaëtano Carbuccia healthy and ribald atheist who during the course of his journeys appeared to transform before Bataille’s eyes into a forlorn and feeble old man. Investigating, Bataille coaxed from Carbuccia his story of becoming involved in the Palladian Rite of Freemasonry, where during one ceremony, he witnessed a séance at the altar of Baphomet over the skulls of fallen missionaries at which the shining figure of Lucifer appeared in corporeal form. Believing himself damned for his participation, he had lost all hope in redemption.

Obsessed with this story, Dr. Bataille embarked on a journey of his own that would lead him around the world and into the very heart of a palpable darkness. In Naples, he bought his way into the Masonic brotherhood, and he began his infiltration in what today is called Sri Lanka, where having insinuated himself among the Palladists there, he was taken to a hut to give his medical opinion on a bedridden woman, whom he assured them was wasted away to near death, if she was not dead already. Promptly, then, the woman suddenly rose, crawled to an altar beneath the figure of Baphomet, and allowed herself to be burned alive by the chanting devil worshipers.

Thereafter, having still not learned enough of these Palladists and their horrors, Bataille went to India, to a French colonial settlement, where once again penetrating the inner circle of Luciferian activity there, he visited a temple where worshipers surrounding Baphomet’s statue had allowed themselves to waste away until they were rotting, like living corpses supplicating themselves before the idol, their flesh ulcerating and gangrenous, faces eaten by rats. One of them tried to call out to Beelzebub, but each time he tried to speak, his eye, which hung out of its socket, fell into his mouth. When no devil was conjured, a woman was brought out and cheerfully burned her arm in hot coals. This also not successfully evoking Lucifer, they moved on to a gruesome sacrifice of a goat, and then to cutting the throat of one of the putrefying supplicants as a human sacrifice. All of the rituals failed in their object of conjuring the devil, but they succeeded in leaving Dr. Bataille sick for days.

Cover illustration of "The Devil in the XIX Century," via Wikimedia Commons

Cover illustration of "The Devil in the XIX Century," via Wikimedia Commons

Eventually, the doctor arrived at Calcutta, where he was conducted to a mountain atop which seven temples had been built. In each of these temples, he saw countless horrors, such as baptism into a pit of writhing venomous snakes, the sacrifice of numerous animals, the spontaneous levitation and disappearance of devil worshipers, and a final ceremony in a charnel house where participants made their incantations while lying in the cold embrace of decomposing corpses.

The good doctor continued on his dark journey of initiation into Palladism, going next to Singapore, then China, and finally to the Great City of Lucifer, the Rome of Satan, Charleston, South Carolina. During the course of his infiltration, Dr. Bataille came to learn of two women who represented a struggle for the heart of Palladism. One was Sophia Walder, chief of the female order, and the other was a newcomer, Diana Vaughan. Sophia was said to keep a serpent familiar and to wield great supernatural power, having the ability of substitution, to be able to transform herself at will into other, often well-known figures. Diana also was known to levitate and bilocate, or be in more than one place at a time, and on some occasions when the demon Asmodeus was successfully conjured, he made it clear that he favored Diana and would eventually take her as his wife. The rift between these two women split the Reformed Palladium, until, like Leo Taxil himself, Diana Vaughan saw the error of her ways and converted to Catholicism. In an effort to make amends for her Satanic activity, she began to publish a serialized exposé of her own entitled Memoirs of an Ex-Palladist.

The wealth of testimony being published by Léo Taxil and others caused a resurgent Satanic Panic and Anti-Masonic movement at the end of the 19th century, such that Taxil even had an audience with and support from Pope Leo XIII.  After Diana Vaughan’s conversion and the publication of her memoirs had begun, many in the press demanded to interview her, and in 1897, Léo Taxil arranged a press conference at the Geographical Society, promising that Diana Vaughan would finally present herself to the public. At the appointed time, Taxil spoke to the gathered crowd… and explained that he had perpetrated one of the greatest hoaxes in modern history. Not only was Diana Vaughan an invention of his, but so was Dr. Bataille and Adolphe Ricoux and all of the awful details about the Reformed Palladium, which he had fabricated. Even his conversion to Catholicism had been part of the hoax, which was all calculated to make a fool of the Pope and the Catholic Church. Calling it a “joyous obfuscation,” he predicted that it would be met with “a universal roar of laughter.” “Palladism,” he said, “my most beautiful creation, never existed except on paper and in thousands of minds! It will never return!”

Léo Taxil, looking rather pleased with himself, via MasonicDictionary.com

Léo Taxil, looking rather pleased with himself, via MasonicDictionary.com

But of course it did, though perhaps not under the same name. Not even a hundred year later, the Satanic Panic in America had people believing again in secret cemetery conclaves and far-reaching diabolical conspiracies. This is the nature of historical blindness. When blind spots persist in our past, and when we turn a blind eye to the lessons to be learned there, we fall into the most foolish of patterns and repeat some of the most shameful passages in history. To quote a writer who himself was considered a Satanist“The Devil’s best trick is to convince us that he does not exist.” On the contrary, considering the death and suffering that resulted from accusations of witchcraft and devil worship throughout history, it would seem his greatest victory was in convincing the world that he did exist.

The Specter of Devil Worship, Part One

In this installment, we’ll be discussing a subject that requires an examination of the details of alleged violent crimes against children. Reader be warned.

Baphomet.png

For this Halloween edition of Historical Blindness, we’ll be exploring a horror trope that that has been popular in Hollywood ever since the 1968 Roman Polanski classic, Rosemary’s Baby. We’ll be looking at Satanism and the historical basis for the widespread belief that there exists a vast conspiracy of devil worshipers who engage in profane and horrifying ceremonies at the behest of their dark lord. Of course, many today still remember the moral crisis of the 1980s, the so-called Satanic Panic, in which allegations of Satanic Ritual Abuse proliferated. Although the consensus today is that such prevalent secret rituals likely never happened and were instead simply the imaginings of troubled minds encouraged by the suggestions of irresponsible psychologists and law enforcement professionals, there yet remain many people, especially among evangelical Christians, who firmly believe that such Satanic conspiracies exist to this day and stretch much further back in history than the ’80s. The question at hand, then, is the truth of this proposition. What is the history of Satanism, and how accurate are the allegations regarding its rituals and practices? Indeed, has it ever truly existed as represented in popular culture? Thank you for joining us for part one of our in-depth investigation into The Specter of Devil Worship.

*

What the Satanic Panic was seems apparent enough simply from its apt name, a moral panic over Satanism. But without some understanding of this phenomenon’s dimensions—its prevalence and most telling characteristics—one cannot begin to appreciate the extraordinary features of this moral panic, which was much more than mere urban legend and gossip among conservative busybodies. This panic involved accusations of widespread physical abuse of children, ritualized in occult ceremonies, with implications of massive conspiracy and organized murder. Some might separate the Satanic Panic from the Child Abuse Panic, differentiating between cases alleging only the abuse of children and those that claimed Satanic rituals were a major component, but in truth most cases of the former kind, like the McMartin Preschool case, usually ended up transforming into cases of the latter kind as further allegations came out. These accusations, were made by the children themselves, more often than not, during poorly conducted interviews and therapy sessions involving hypnosis, recovered memories and a great deal of suggestion and leading questions, and were met with astonishing credulity, encouraged by community organizations such as Believe the Children. Those accused of child abuse and the somehow even more nefarious Satanic Ritual Abuse, or SRA, in some cases are even still serving time for crimes alleged during this roundly discredited phenomenon. This panic, at its height, became institutionalized and systemic, with entire wings law enforcement devoted to rooting it out according to established best practices, with actual specializations cultivated among psychologists who consulted on such cases and with concrete legislation enacted to make it easier for children to make accusations without having to face those they accused or testify in open court.  

The leading psychiatrist in this field was one Lawrence Pazder. It was he who codified the concept of Satanic Ritual Abuse, and he was the most prominent consultant to law enforcement in cases where it was suspected. Pazder derived his authority on the subject from the fact that he had treated a woman named Michelle who claimed to have experienced Satanic Ritual Abuse in perhaps the first and certainly the most distressing such case. Pazder published a book on the topic in 1980, titled Michelle Remembers, thereby kicking off the Satanic Panic.

A photo of Michelle Smith taken by Pazder during a session, via National Post

A photo of Michelle Smith taken by Pazder during a session, via National Post

Michelle first came to Dr. Pazder’s office in 1976, referred to his psychiatric care by her physician after having suffered a miscarriage. After losing her child, she had continued to hemorrhage without any apparent physical reason, causing her doctor to suspect her troubles were psychogenic. A pretty, dark-haired 27-year-old woman, she lay on Pazder’s couch and spoke to the doctor about her dreams, disturbing dreams about spiders coming out from under skin, a nightmare that Pazder viewed as symbolic of some deep horror she held inside. After some months of therapy, his suspicions were confirmed when a deep well of emotion suddenly burst during a session and Michelle screamed uncontrollably for almost half an hour before reverting to a childlike state. Then, over the course of many sessions, she recovered vivid memories of being abused by groups of people wearing black, holding black candles, in rooms draped with black cloth. In these ceremonial sessions, she was sometimes violated by having foreign objects, “colored sticks,” forced into her, and once she was given an enema so that her abusers could more easily compel her to defecate on a Bible and a crucifix. During these rituals, she was also confronted with death in horrifying ways, watching participants tear living cats apart with their teeth, seeing dismembered corpses stitched together and galvanized into twitching by electrical shock, being forced to lie in a coffin with a decaying corpse. And most sickening were her claims of the cultists’ use of dead babies. They were known to cut them in half over her and to rub their severed body parts on her. During one climactic ceremony, they placed Michelle inside a hollow statue, naked. Inside the statue with her were live snakes and parts of dead babies, which she was made to force through an opening, to their vile delight, pushing them out of the statue’s mouth.

Certainly an appalling story, but was it true? Some particulars actually defy belief. Beyond dramatic mystical flourishes like the appearance of such supernatural beings as Satan, mantled in flame, and Mary, clothed in light, there are unusual elements of her recollections that bear the quality of dream or nightmare: items appearing out of nowhere, giant spiders and bats like images on Halloween decorations, and impossible occurrences such as snakes actually emerging from Michelle’s own body. And what were Dr. Lawrence Pazder’s reasons for believing them? Simply that he felt their truth.

After the book’s publication, it became a sensation, and within three years, allegations of SRA were widespread and the Satanic Panic was in full swing, with specials on major primetime news magazine and talk shows helping to spread the fear like a virus. But in 1989, voices of reason began to emerge when an FBI agent published a book critical of law enforcement’s handling of such cases, and in 1990, The Mail on Sunday out of London published an investigative piece that helped to finally debunk Michelle Remembers. The article profiled Michelle, telling of her life since the book, how she had married Dr. Pazder and made a career with him on the lecture circuit. Then it tracked down her father, who had quite a bit to say about the veracity of her story. In the book, Pazder says she claimed that her mother introduced her into the Satanic cult ceremonies and took part herself as a dazed and passive, perhaps drugged, participant. Michelle’s father, however, insisted that her mother was kind and gracious churchgoing woman whose memory her daughter has forever befouled. He offered some insight into some of Michelle’s recovered memories, pointing to the actual, far tamer incidents that may have inspired them, and thereby painted a clear picture of a mentally ill woman taken advantage of by an irresponsible mental health professional that saw a variety of opportunities in her lurid imaginings.

Lawrence Pazder and Michelle Smith, via Getty Images

Lawrence Pazder and Michelle Smith, via Getty Images

So today the Satanic Panic is dismissed by empirical and reasonable thinkers as a tissue of lies and paranoia. But of course, the 1980s was not the first time anyone had ever heard of Satanism. Had it ever been real? Had evil people ever sacrificed babies at the altar of the fallen angel Lucifer? In order to consider this question, one must study a great swathe of history, all the way back to the Middle Ages, when the specter of Devil Worship first appeared in earnest.

To understand the history of accusations of devil worship, we must go all the way back to the Middle Ages, when the Catholic Church saw a number reform movements started that the church proper considered heretical. These were Gnostic sects, which held that there were two gods, one of the old testament and one of the new, and that all flesh was evil, which in some cases led to extreme asceticism and in others to carnal excess. Gnostic traditions had long been the enemy of Catholicism, with the church having legislated against them almost a thousand years earlier at the Council of Nicea.  A Gnostic sect of the Middle Ages sprang up in Orléans, where it is said some ascetic clergy that encouraged vegetarianism and celibacy also developed some divergent doctrinal ideas. Before long, the Catholic Church spread the further accusation that this sect engaged in orgies while the very devil looked on, and that they murdered the children born of these unions, burned them and used their ashes to turn others into heretics. Here we have one of the first descriptions of what might later be termed a Black Mass, complete with a profanation of the Eucharist by the baking of dead children into the bread. Historians, however, view these allegations as dubious, for such accusations had been around a long time before this, directed first at Jews in the form of the Blood Libel, and then later at early Christians themselves by the Romans

As the Middle Ages went darkly on, further Gnostic sects appeared, many of these also in France, a place that would see a great many Satanic Panics of its own throughout history. In the 13th century, the Gnostic traditions resurged in the form of Catharism. These too were devout ascetics who had the audacity to espouse dualist beliefs and criticize the Church of Rome, which in response launched military crusades to extirpate them, and when that failed, established a system of Inquisition by which suspected heretics could be tortured and burned at the stake. Perhaps to assuage the guilt Inquisitors felt at persecuting what seemed to be fervently religious people, certain legends sprang up around the Cathars. While previously it had been understood that their traditions were of the devil in that, being heretical, they surely pleased the adversary of God, eventually these notions became quite literal, with rumors of actual devil worship. It was said that the devil approached them in various forms, such as that of a horrible toad. Then he came to them as a cat to be worshipped, which they obliged by kissing the cat’s anus, a practice, some said, that inspired the name Cathar. After this, in line with previous allegations, it was said they had orgiastic sex and ate any children that issued from these sexual encounters. The Medieval Inquisition seemed to find heretics everywhere, and this may be easier to fathom when one considers that the church forced those condemned as heretics to forfeit all their property not only to their Inquisitors, but also as a kind of reward to those who had accused them. And while many of these accused heretics admitted their devil worship to their Inquisitors, these confessions were extracted by torture and therefore dubious in the extreme.

The devil directing Cathars to kiss a cat's anus, via Cathar.info

The devil directing Cathars to kiss a cat's anus, via Cathar.info

The Inquisition did not disappear with the Cathars, either. In the early 14th century, the King of France, Philip the Fair, accused a very prominent religious-military order called the Knights Templar. This order had been established after the First Crusade to provide protection to Christians making pilgrimage to the Holy Land and was approved as an official order by the Catholic Church itself. Nevertheless, the Inquisition responded to King Philip’s accusations with alacrity, and the confessions that emerged from the Templars’ trial painted the picture of a truly diabolical society. There were, of course the traditional charges leveled against heretics, that of dishonoring the cross and engaging in licentious sex, which as a fraternal organization, was alleged to be sodomy. They were even accused of worshiping a cat like the Cathars! But it is another accusation of idolatry which has proven the most long-lived and damning. The Knights Templar were accused of worshiping an idol in the form of a head that was named Baphomet at their trial, and ever since, this has become an alternate name for the devil, alongside Satan, Lucifer and Beelzebub. But what was this Baphomet, really? Based on some descriptions of it as a bearded head, it has been suggested that it was as innocent as an image of Christ, and variously, based on a similarity between name, it has been identified with Mohammed. But the idol was also described as being many-headed or having multiple faces, which might suggest a depiction of the Trinity or the dualism of Gnostic thought. However, the fact is there doesn’t appear to even be any proof that this image, whatever it was, had even been venerated by the Templars, for any number of relics representing a variety of traditions may have been discovered in the temple of this order, perhaps acquired during the Crusade and kept as curiosities, or perhaps deposited there by someone else. It was, indeed, common practice for the Knights Templar to store and protect the valuable property of merchants and noblemen alike, and they had become a kind of medieval bank, a fact that many historians suggest is the true reason for the accusations Philip the Fair made against them. The king was in dire financial straits, a fact that had precipitated riots that had driven him to take refuge with the Templars themselves! By leveling accusations against the wealthy Templars, accusations he knew they would confess to under torture, Philip essentially arranged the redistribution of their wealth to himself and the church. And his gambit succeeded; though most of the Templars thereafter recanted their confessions, they were burned at the stake regardless.

Knights Templar being burned at the stake, via istorianasveta.eu

Knights Templar being burned at the stake, via istorianasveta.eu

Already one detects a pattern, one that should be familiar to even the lay student of history: that of the “witch hunt.” And in the 15th century, we have the European witch craze itself, during which the Inquisition asserted that women, frequently midwives, actually flew by night astride their enchanted broomsticks to sabbats whereat they engaged in promiscuous sex with each other as well as with demons, eating the children that issued from these unholy unions, of course, and performing heinous magic to do mischief against the god-fearing, destroying their crops and sickening their children. There was, indeed, almost no misfortune that could not be blamed on the evil doings of local woman. In order to give a clearer picture of the devil worship and Satanic rituals alleged of these witches, let us consider the following description of a sabbat as it was first recorded in the Compendium Maleficarum, an Italian witch-hunting manual published 121 years after the scene it details:

In 1594, a young woman from Aquitane is reported to have stood trial before the Parliament of Bordeaux. Described as appearing intelligent, she confessed, without being subjected to any torture, to her corruption by a particular man, who had led her to a field and drawn a circle upon the ground with while reading aloud from a black book. After this ritual, a great, black goat, with a black candle burning between its horns, appeared in the company of two women and another man, this one wearing the vestments of a priest. The goat spoke, inquiring about her, and her corrupter answered, saying she had been brought there to become one of the goat’s subjects. Approving, the goat demanded they all make their veneration: making the sign of the cross with the wrong hand and approaching to lift the goat’s tail and kiss its anus. The next time she was taken to the field, a tress of her hair was cut and presented to the goat as a sign that she was his bride, whereupon the goat led her to the woods and violated her painfully. She was struck with horror at the sensation of the goat’s semen, which was ice cold.  

The girl from Aquitane described numerous subsequent rituals in the field, some of which appeared to be a profane reenactment, or mockery, of the Mass, the first recorded description, in fact, of the Black Mass. In this ceremony, their corrupted priest raised a slice of turnip dyed black in place of the Eucharistic Host, and offered a chalice filled with water rather than wine. In place of Holy Water, each was anointed with the diabolical goat’s urine, and the rite concluded with every witch reporting on the spells, curses and poisons they had used against unsuspecting innocents.

A dark and disgusting rite, if it were true, but of course if one were to believe such a tale despite the incredible detail of the talking goat with the icy seed and the uncanny similarity of the ritual with that of Cathars accused of kissing a different animal’s rear end, one has to confront the problem of how and why such accusations were made and spread, and how such confessions were extracted. Almost invariably, this was by means of torture. Now in this instance, we have the claim that the confessor was not subjected to torture, but regardless, when torture was so liberally resorted to as a means of drawing out what Inquisitors wanted to hear, it was no less a factor when only a threat. This girl of Aquitane may have given the Inquisitors the tale of an awful sabbat that they expected just to avoid torment. In this way, torture, whether it be applied or merely threatened, corrupts all testimony.

Witches kiss the posterior of a goat-headed devil at their sabbat, via Medievalists.net

Witches kiss the posterior of a goat-headed devil at their sabbat, via Medievalists.net

But these days, with Western culture’s modern fascination with the witch craze, the reasonable judgments of historians have prevailed upon public imagination, such that most now accept witch hunts for what they were. We understand that these so-called witches were midwives and innocent old women caught in webs of lies and accusations made by townsfolk looking for scapegoats as well as by other accused looking to save their own skins, literally. On some occasions, as well, we see that herbal healers were seen as brewers of potions and casters of spells and curses, the witch at the cauldron, as it were, when in reality they were little more than mixers of ointments and makers of poultices. There is evidence as well that these herbalists dabbled in the use of hallucinogenic drugs, derived from herbs such as hemlock, nightshade and mandrake. These were likely to cause illness when ingested orally, but could be safely taken by applying it to the mucous membranes of the female genitals. Their applicator of choice? A broomstick, greased with their hallucinogenic ointment. This they would straddle naked, and in their minds, they soared beyond the clouds. Thus some witches, confessing to their nightly flights on broomsticks, may have been telling the truth as they understood it, but they appear to have been guilty only of substance abuse rather than of devil worship.

Here, at the height of the witch craze and the Medieval Inquisition, we shall end part one of our examination of the Specter of Devil Worship. Already we can discern a pattern of false accusations and pious outrage resulting in the spread of rumors of diabolical rituals and the veneration of evil. Can it be that the entire phenomenon never existed? Is it possible that purposeful distortion of the truth, in combination with innocent credulity, has led to the perpetuation of a vast legend throughout history? Or were there cases of actual devil worship and genuine demonic sorcery?

Join us on Halloween for Part Two, in which we’ll dive even deeper into the history of devil worship.

Jubal Early's Lost Cause

human confederate flag postcard.jpg

Welcome to a very special episode installment of Historical Blindness. It has been a full calendar year since I started this project. At the time, we were in the full throes of an awful presidential election year, and although I had envisioned this blog as a study of history’s weaknesses by telling the stories of mysteries we still can’t solve and false history that misleads us to a misunderstanding of the past, I chose to make my first post overtly political, looking at a demagogue who stirred up anti-immigrant sentiment because I felt and still feel strongly about any politician that rises to power by fomenting violence and dividing us.

Now, a year later, and I’m starting to see the term "historical blindness" thrown around quite a bit in the news. Ever since the sad events at Charlottesville, and more specifically since Donald Trump’s equivocation over who was at fault for the violence that took place, when he painted both sides as equivalent and defended the sentiment that Confederate monuments should not be toppled, suggesting that Robert E. Lee was as important a figure as George Washington, or at least that the two were equally immoral in condoning and engaging in slavery--or in Lee’s case, defending it through military insurrection--I have been getting Google alerts for a variety of articles in which the term I thought I coined for the title of this blog keeps showing up to describe this distortion or purposeful misunderstanding the past.

Therefore, yet again, a year in and almost a year since that fateful presidential election, and I feel I must address a very hot button issue. To any readers and friends from the South, if you feel affronted by this subject matter or the assertions I make, I implore you to read with an open mind, to check for yourself the sources I’ll provide on the website’s reading list, and, true to the purpose of this podcast, to question received history. Indeed, our topic falls squarely within the purview of this project's theme, for the very notion that Robert E. Lee should be lionized as an equal to our founding fathers is part and parcel with a distorted view of the Confederacy that has been touted ever since the end of the Civil War and which led to these monuments being erected in the first place. The veneration of Robert E. Lee, however, was only one aspect of this false narrative, which can be traced back to one man, a commander of Confederate troops and thereafter a fugitive and a “historian,” though I use the word loosely and with irony. This false historian, through his assiduous misrepresentation of the facts, almost single-handedly succeeded in changing the way many would think about the character and motivation of the South, even in the North, and in modern day, among the lay public as well as historiographers. This is the story the man who proved that history is not always written by the victors. Thank you for keeping an open mind as I relate the story of Jubal Early’s Lost Cause.

*

Confederate Pictorial Envelope, 1861, via Civil Discourse

Confederate Pictorial Envelope, 1861, via Civil Discourse

Odds are that at different times in your life, you’ve heard two competing narratives about the reasons for the secession of the South and the subsequent Civil War. Maybe you’ve heard that it was all over slavery; that’s clear enough for any child to understand. And perhaps, in a history class or in some intent conversation with a confident friend, you learned that this was an oversimplification, and that it was really about question of state’s rights versus the sovereignty of the federal government. Well that certainly does make the struggle of the Confederacy seem more justified, then, and maybe even downright noble, doesn’t it? And it’s a great perspective to take when you want to seem smarter than others in the room, telling them that they’re oversimplifying a more complicated matter and villainizing the rebels. But what if it really was just that simple? What if Southern states did only secede in a bid to preserve an economy predicated on a system of human bondage that it saw as being under attack by the North? Indeed, the first states to secede did so in direct response to the election of an abolitionist president in Abraham Lincoln, and any who doubt that the perpetuation of slavery was the central impetus for secession would do well to examine secessionist pamphlets then in circulation, such as one titled “The Doom of Slavery in the Union: Its Safety Out of It.” Those who argue that most Southerners did not own slaves and therefore wouldn’t have fought for the institution discount the motivation of ambition, as even poor subsistence farmers had plans of eventually running large plantations with slave labor, a fact clearly appealed to in another secessionist pamphlet, “The Interest in Slavery of the Southern Non-Slaveholder,” which bore the subtitles, “The Right of Peaceful Secession” and “Slavery in the Bible.”  To those who might point to another secessionist pamphlet, “The South Alone Should Govern the South,” as proof that state sovereignty was at least an aspect of their argument, it would behoove them to read on to that publication’s subtitle as well, which reads, “And African Slavery Should Be Controlled by Those Only Who Are Friendly to It.” Indeed, one only has to look at the verbiage present in the first Ordinance of Secession, ratified by South Carolina, where all these pamphlets were published. In their “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union,” delegates cite “an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery,” in particular decrying interference with the return of fugitive slaves to bondage. The second state to secede, Mississippi, stated their reasons even more flatly: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world.” And in their “declaration of the causes which impel the state of Texas to secede from the federal union,” delegates from that state gave one of the most racist and awful rationales for secession: “We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.

Therefore, it seems apparent that indeed Southern states attempted to dissolve the Union and met the United States armed forces in open military rebellion for the essential reason that they wished to preserve the institution of slavery. So then where did this notion come from that it wasn’t about slavery at all? How did this narrative of the nobility of the Southern cause emerge? Where did the idea that they were simply fighting for freedom against an oppressive central government originate? The truth is that this take on the Confederacy really only came out after the fact, and maybe this is understandable. People have a tendency to view the past through rose-tinted lenses and with hindsight find ways to justify even the most reprehensible behavior. So perhaps this conception of Southern motivation developed naturally among many Southerners during Reconstruction and just happened to find its way into mainstream historical thought. But the truth is that we actually can trace the creation of this myth, which stands as only one among a chain of lies and misrepresentations, perpetrated by one man before being disseminated by others, in order to recast the past in a light favorable to the South and thereby tell a different story to future generations

Jubal Early in Confederate military garb, via Wikimedia Commons

Jubal Early in Confederate military garb, via Wikimedia Commons

Jubal Anderson Early was something of a curmudgeon and an elitist. The son of a slaveholding Virginia family, it appears he may not have owned any slaves himself, but with ideas about the glory of the Southern past and the aristocratic gentility of prominent Southern families, he was known to doggedly support the rule of the landed slaveholding class. As a Whig, he was something of an outsider among Virginia Democrats, and indeed he found himself standing in opposition to secession, but when he could not stand against the rising tide of history, he exchanged party politics for devotion to the Southern and Confederate cause. As a veteran of the late Seminole Wars in Florida as well as the Mexican-American War, he offered his “own head on the block as a willing victim for the good of the Commonwealth,” becoming an important lieutenant of Robert E. Lee and commanding troops in numerous battles.

His subordinates and peers knew Early as a cantankerous and quarrelsome old cuss, earning himself the nickname “Bad Old Man.” He had ever been an outsider and contrarian, living as a bachelor, yet fathering children with a 16-year-old girl and, flouting all societal customs, giving his name to his bastard issue. He has been called “startlingly profane,” and is credited with wielding an “acid tongue” when criticizing his underlings and fellow commanders. And yet, for someone so outspoken and critical of others, his record of military command is spotty at best. At the First Battle of Mannassas, he proved himself as a brigadier by routing Union Forces, but at the inconclusive Battle of Williamsburg, he lost many men and sustained an injury himself that took him out of commission for a while. After his recovery, he earned distinction over the course of several battles and received promotion to major-general but thereafter failed to distinguish himself as a commander and contributed to the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg. During the second Shenandoah Valley campaign, Early led a successful invasion of Maryland, but pulled up short of the capital, failing to make the decisive push into Washington that many believe he might have. Finally, after Early’s loss of three battles in a row and his utter defeat Waynesboro, General Lee relieved him of his command, but he did so with such tact, treating him with such respect, that he retained Early’s highest esteem and undying loyalty. 

After the war, Jubal Early remained an unreconstructed rebel, and he fled to Cuba disguised as a farmer, rather than remain to endure the yoke of Yankee governance. Afterward, while living in Mexico, Early received a letter from Robert E. Lee that indicated the general wanted to write about the war and needed whatever relevant documents Early might have kept, for he believed it important to “transmit, if possible, the truth to posterity, and do justice to our brave Soldiers.” While Jubal Early had already been collecting his own thoughts about the late conflict and formulating his decidedly skewed perspective, which he expressed in letters during that time, this request from Lee proved to be the impetus he needed to begin his compositions in earnest. Within a few short months, Jubal Early had drafted a memoir in which can be seen the beginnings of his Lost Cause ideology. He continued to write while in Mexico, and thereafter in Canada, and by 1869 he had returned to Virginia, where he joined the Southern Historical Society. This organization he essentially transformed into an organ for propaganda, publishing 52 volumes of papers over a decade, laying out his Lost Cause mythology. This ambitious undertaking, an effort “to construct the archives in which shall be collected…memoirs to serve for future history,” was largely successful at influencing historians over the next century.    

Fugitive Jubal Early in disguise as a farmer, via Wikimedia Commons

Fugitive Jubal Early in disguise as a farmer, via Wikimedia Commons

This Myth of the Lost Cause that Jubal Early and his collaborators promulgated comprised a few principal notions. One of these I’ve already discussed—the claim that states didn’t secede to preserve slavery but rather to preserve states’ rights in the face of federal tyranny. Another is not even worth considering seriously: the claim that slavery was an overall benevolent institution, in which slaves were treated kindly and fairly and protected from the cruelties of life outside of bondage. This lie can be countered with even a cursory reading of any slave narrative, all of which unfailingly enumerate the many cruelties and evils of the institution. Moreover, this is the same lie traditionally fed to the slaves themselves to scare them out of attempts at escaping to freedom.

The rest of the tenets of the Lost Cause also promote a conception of the Confederacy as noble rebels rather than as traitors fighting to maintain their racist system of human subjugation, and these contribute directly to the continued reverence for Confederate leaders we see today, for they paint Confederate commanders and soldiers as underdog heroes. They claim that not only was it a Lost Cause, but it was also a hopeless cause, as Southerners were desperately outnumbered by Union forces yet fought and gave their lives regardless, depicting them as true martyrs. The myth goes that Confederate forces only won as many battles as they did because Robert E. Lee was one of the most brilliant tacticians in history. And not only were Robert E. Lee and his soldiers the underdog heroes of the Civil War, but also Union general Ulysses S. Grant was nothing more than a clumsy butcher who only succeeded against the Confederacy through the waging of “total war,” using his superior numbers to slaughter them in a most ungentlemanly way.

Some of these claims I won’t even bother to address. Firstly, the idea that the Union was only able to defeat the Confederacy through brute force and unprecedented tactics seems to contradict the notion that the war was unwinnable for the South. It seems like they’re saying, “There’s no way we could’ve won,” then turning around and saying, “You only won by not fighting fair!” And Jubal Early himself should not have been decrying the tactics of his enemy, as he relied on some morally questionable strategies himself. For example, in Maryland, when the residents of a certain town didn’t greet him happily and offer support and reinforcements, he threatened to burn their town to the ground unless they paid a ransom of $200,000, which today would be about $3 million.

The truth is that many historians today believe that the South, while certainly outnumbered, could very well have won the war, or at least achieved a stalemate. They might have successfully sought international support, but instead they failed in foreign diplomacy. And they might have increased their military forces through the emancipation and enlistment of their own slaves, but they remained steadfastly devoted to maintaining the institution of slavery—because, of course, that was their principal reason for fighting—and so they lost.

We must, however, examine the idolization of Robert E. Lee, for it is so relevant today in our discussion of Confederate monuments. President Trump, in his egregious reaction to the events at Charlottesville, suggested an equivalence between George Washington and Robert E. Lee and told press that they were “changing history.” This is not only a distortion, it’s a reversal of the truth. Confederate monuments venerate not the man Robert E. Lee, but rather the myth that Jubal Early and his Southern Historical Society erected in his place. In their estimation, Lee was a not only a noble gentleman and a scholar but also an unparalleled military mind that could do no wrong. At times, praise of Lee bordered on religious, as if Early and his accomplices were trying to deify him in memory. But one fact remained to trouble their depiction of Lee: the fact that he lost the important battle of Gettysburg. This Early explained by offering a scapegoat. Perfect and godlike general that Lee was, there was no way he could be at fault for the loss, so Early blamed his lieutenants, and one in particular, James Longstreet, who he claimed refused to carry out Lee’s orders and thereby lost the battle for the South. This resulted, as some historians have phrased it, in “a historiographical puzzle, involving a total ‘rewriting’ of the Gettysburg saga by former Confederates.” In truth, however, James Longstreet seems to have been unjustly maligned. Lee alone can be held responsible for the command decisions as well as the conduct of those he commanded at Gettysburg, and there is historiography that argues convincingly that Longstreet actually provided wise counsel that Lee ignored. If one were going to spread the blame around to underlings, then Jubal Early himself would need to shoulder some of it, as would others. 

This statement of Trump’s was not the first time that Washington and Lee have been compared, either. One needs look no further than Washington and Lee University in Lexington, VA, to see the two figures honored together. And this was the case in 1890, when during a grand parade in Richmond, VA, in which pictures of Washington and Lee had been hung side by side, a huge statue of Robert E. Lee was hauled through the streets of Richmond by people rather than draft animals, after the manner in which George Washington’s statue had been hauled through the same streets more than thirty years earlier, It was an impressive affair that celebrated the Lost Cause view of the war, with Jubal Early parading on horseback and speechifying, and the pariah James Longstreet was present as well, though not nearly so welcome. Events such as these, arranged and promoted by Jubal Early and his Historical Society as well as other veterans and those sympathetic to the Lost Cause view of the war, strengthened for posterity the myth of the nobility of the Confederate cause and ensured the magnification of Lee as a figure to be revered alongside the founding fathers.

The unveiling of the statue in Rochmond, via the Library of Virginia

The unveiling of the statue in Rochmond, via the Library of Virginia

About four years later, Jubal Early died falling down some stairs, but the propaganda machine he had set in motion continued to move and build momentum. When other veterans of the Civil War began to die off, an organization called the United Daughters of the Confederacy launched a campaign that would see a great number of Confederate monuments built during the early 1900s, not coincidentally just during the formalization of Jim Crow segregation laws, in a clear effort to whitewash the past and to establish a dominant culture of white supremacy. And then again, a backlash against the passage of the Civil Rights Act saw yet more of these monuments to a false history erected

This is quintessential historical blindness, a false and indeed purposely distorted narrative that has been systematically disseminated in an effort to control the public’s perceptions of a region’s shameful past. The apologists of Dixieland have for more than a 150 years refused to face historical truth, instead relying on lies and misdirection, imploring anyone who does attempt to scrutinize their history to, as the song says, “look away, look away, look away.”

*

 

I relied on a couple of fantastic books as sources for this episode, including a collection of essays entitled The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History and a book similarly titled the Myth of the Lost Cause by Edward H. Bonekemper III. Find links to these books on Amazon through our Episode Reading List

Blind Spot: The Loss of Theodosia Burr Alston

theodosia on plank.jpg

In the last installment, I told the story of the Trial of the Century at the dawn of the 1800s, a murder mystery with Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr at its heart, defending an innocent man against awful calumnies. Despite winning their client an acquittal that the public generally praised as justice, a myth has arisen around the trial suggesting that Burr and Hamilton set a guilty man free, a legend helped by the fictional account of the Quakeress boardinghouse-keeper’s wife, Mrs. Ring, confronting the men before the courthouse to curse them for their part in freeing the murderer of her cousin, Elma Sands. This is an apocryphal tale produced by a relative of the Rings in a novel years later, but it has done much to shape the memory of the event, and when one considers the subsequent hardships and tragedies suffered by the supposedly cursed men, the tale certainly gives one pause. The troubles of Aaron Burr, in particular, grew and compounded over the next decade until he was dealt his most grievous blow. This is the story of that misfortune: the Loss of Theodosia Burr Alston.

At first, following the Weeks Trial, things went splendidly for Burr. His gambit of forming a bank masquerading as a municipal Water project brought a lot of merchants and middle class voters into the Democratic Republican fold, and his tireless canvassing ended up getting his party’s slate of candidates elected. In turn, their man, Thomas Jefferson, took the presidency, and Burr himself took the Vice-Presidency. After that, however, it was all downhill. Jefferson shut him out, and four years later sought to replace him. Burr thought he would run an independent campaign and poach votes from both parties, but during the course of that bitter presidential election, his old nemesis, Alexander Hamilton, worked industriously to ruin him politically. Eventually, vague rumors of Hamilton disparaging him to a group of Federalists over dinner, with hints of “despicable” accusations being made, led Burr to challenge Hamilton to their famous and fateful duel. And the calculated letter Hamilton left behind indicating his intention to purposely fire into the trees because of his disapproval of dueling proved to be the mortal wound from which Burr would never recover. His chances in the election were ruined, and the authorities were actually considering murder charges, so Burr, though still the Vice President, fled New York like a common criminal.

Duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, via Wikimedia Commons.

Duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, via Wikimedia Commons.

He fled to South Carolina, where the apple of his eye, his daughter Theodosia, waited to take him in. Theirs had always been an exceedingly close relationship. Burr found his girl to be as intelligent and discerning as any man, and in a departure from common attitudes of the time toward women, he supported her in her education and all her intellectual pursuits, encouraging her to read the writings of early feminists such as Mary Wollstonecraft. Indeed, their relationship was so close that some believe3d it unseemly, and it has been suggested that the “despicable opinions” expressed by Hamilton may have been imputations that Burr’s relationship with his daughter was incestuous. Theodosia lived with her husband, Joseph Alston, a South Carolina state congressman, and when Aaron Burr fled New York to stay with them, her son, named for his grandfather, was a precocious two-year-old who brought great joy to the beleaguered Vice President.

When the charges against him had been dropped and his term of office ended, Burr went westward. Within a couple years, his Democratic Republican ticket mate, President Jefferson, brought him up on charges of treason, as it was alleged that Burr had planned to build an army and seize land in the Southwest and Mexico, forming his own country. The truth of these charges, however, is debatable, and the whole affair would perhaps require its own episode to do it justice. Suffice it to say that while Burr beat the charges, with Theodosia at his side supporting him through the entire affair, his reputation would never recover, and thereafter he chose to live in exile and poverty in Paris. While abroad, he had Theodosia act on his behalf in all matters, and Aaron Burr would not return until 1812, when he finally came back to New York to resume his practice of the law.

But Fortune was not through with Burr. That year, while his son-in-law was running for governor of South Carolina, his grandson died of a malarial fever. In great despair, with her health suffering from the grief and stress, Theodosia boarded a pilot-boat–built schooner called the Patriot, a former privateer that had stowed its guns below decks for this journey, making herself vulnerable to attack. On this vessel, Theodosia set sail for New York to seek the comfort of her father. Burr came to the waterfront to meet her upon her arrival, but her ship did not appear at the expected time. Day after day, he paced the docks, and night after night, he wrote increasingly desperate letters, corresponding with the equally distraught Joseph Alston. Eventually, Alston, who won the governorship, had to accept that his wife had been lost at sea, and in his grief, he grew ill and died himself. Aaron Burr would live almost another quarter of a century after Theodosia’s disappearance, and if one believed that a curse really had been placed on him after the Weeks Trial, one cannot really imagine it heaping more calamity and heartbreak on him than this. For the remainder of his life, he was forced to hear and contemplate many theories as to what befell his poor, grieving daughter. 

Reproduction of original John Vanderlyn portrait of Theodosia, via Wikimedia Commons.

Reproduction of original John Vanderlyn portrait of Theodosia, via Wikimedia Commons.

The thought of his daughter drowning when her ship was caught in rough weather or struck broadside by a wave was surely bad enough. Worse were the whisperings that the Patriot had been taken by pirates, as how, then, might his beloved Theo have spent her final moments? What certainly made the thought more unsettling was its plausibility. Burr had been told that along the coast of North Carolina there lurked bands of scavengers called Wreckers or Bankers because they preyed upon the wrecks of ships that foundered on the sandbanks, especially near Nag’s Head and Kitty Hawk. When no ships obliged them by running aground, they lured them to their doom by tying a lantern around the neck of an old nag, which bobbing light resembled the light of an anchored ship and fooled passing vessels into thinking it a safe anchorage. When they wrecked upon the bank, these wreckers salvaged what they could and murdered the passengers.

This must have been a private horror that Aaron Burr lived with every day for the rest of his time on earth, the thought of his daughter being dragged from the hulk of the wrecked Patriot and murdered, if she were lucky before she could be defiled. And these nightmares were surely only cemented when the confessions began. In 1820, a newspaper article claimed that two pirates who had recently been hanged for their crimes admitted to having been crewmen on the Patriot, led a mutiny and killed everyone aboard. And in 1833, just a few years before Burr finally succumbed to death, another newspaper reported that a man in Mobile, AL, made a deathbed confession to his physician that he had been among the pirates who had destroyed the Patriot. According to this report, when all the men aboard had been dealt with, only Theodosia remained, proud and brave in facing her doom. As she had not resisted them, the pirates did not wish to harm her, but as it had to be done, they drew lots, and this dying pirate in Mobile had been the one chosen to take her life. Thinking it a mercy, he set a loose plank half over the edge of the vessel, and Theodosia, refusing a blindfold, walked courageously into the sea

After Aaron Burr died, the legend continued to grow. In the last decades of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, other pirate confessions appeared. In 1874, a Texas paper published a letter by someone claiming to have been a pirate aboard the brig that took the Patriot. In his story, Theodosia attacked the captain with a bottle and was subdued. After dying during the ship’s subsequent voyage to Galveston Bay, she was buried on Galveston Island. Thereafter, yet another deathbed admission, this time by one Benjamin F. Burdick in a poorhouse in Michigan, became a prominent element of the legend. His story followed the Mobile confession closely, but this time we get a lot more dramatic details. The pirate captain wants to keep her as a concubine, but she says she would prefer to die. Giving her some time to think about her decision, she retires to her cabin and reemerges dressed in white, clutching a bible to her chest. She kneels, prays, and walks the plank, but before plunging into the icy waters, she turns, lifts the scriptures and cries out: “Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord! I will repay!” Burdick’s details supposedly match the truth well enough to credit the tale, except that he got her name wrong, calling her Odessa Burr Alston, a discrepancy that some say makes his story rather more credible. However, the bigger issue with this late addition to the legend is that it appears to confirm a version of the story told in an 1872 novel by Charles Gayarré as Burdick claimed his pirate captain was none other Dominique Youx, the pirate that took the Patriot in Gayarré’s fictional account.

Dominique Youx, pictured with the Lafittes, via Historical New Orleans.

Dominique Youx, pictured with the Lafittes, via Historical New Orleans.

And this version of the tale does not alone strain credulity, for others have cropped up that are equally hard to credit. One asserts that it is she who lies interred in Alexandria, VA, in a grave marked for a “female stranger” who died there in 1816 of some illness while under the watchful eye of an Englishman posing as her husband.  Another claims that the pirate Dominique Youx spared her, and she was thereafter taken captive by Jean Claude Lafitte and proved instrumental in convincing the pirate to help American forces win the Battle of New Orleans. And yet another suggested she had survived the passage to Galveston Bay, kept as a sex slave by her captors but was abandoned when the pirate ship was scuttled during a hurricane. There a Karankawan Indian found her, naked and chained to the deck. He took her to wife, but she soon passed away, leaving him with a locket engraved with her name, a piece of evidence that has, of course, not been preserved for the historical record.

One piece of possible evidence that we do have is the so-called Nag’s Head portrait. In 1869, one Dr. Pool happened to notice a remarkable portrait in the home of a resident of Nag’s Head, NC. When he inquired about it, she explained that, many years earlier, her first husband, had been among the notorious wreckers of that coastal area and happened upon a scuttled pilot boat. Like a ghost ship, there was no one aboard, though a table was set for a meal. Believing the ship had been taken by pirates and everyone aboard forced to walk the plank, they began their salvage, and imagine their surprise when they discovered a cabin full of fine silken women’s clothing and a grand portrait. Dr. Pool, believing the portrait to be of Theodosia, began corresponding with various scions of the Burr family, and eventually, a distant cousin of Theodosia’s was interested enough to make the trip. Upon seeing the portrait, she was certain it was Theodosia because of a striking resemblance to her own sister.

The Nag's Head Portrait, via Wikimedia Commons. Compare with previous portrait. 

The Nag's Head Portrait, via Wikimedia Commons. Compare with previous portrait. 

For Aaron Burr’s part, he claimed that he never believed any of the pirate stories. “…my daughter is dead,” he insisted. “No prison on earth could keep Theodosia from me if she were alive.” But can the rest of us make claims to such certainty in this case? What do we really know beyond the fact that she was lost, plucked out of the pageant of history and hidden from the sight of the world, her fate a blind spot in the past.

The Trial of Levi Weeks for the Murder of Elma Sands

2013_0506_webimages_27_burr.jpg

On New Year’s Eve, 1799, the reports of rifles were heard across Manhattan Island every half hour, from dawn to sunset, but this was not a celebratory discharge of arms. Rather, it was a dirge, a military salute to the late revolutionary hero, George Washington, who had passed away two weeks earlier and whose funerary march filled the snowy streets with mourners that day, with dragoons at the forefront hauling captured British artillery, followed by cavalry, militia and veterans of the revolution. Thereafter came the fraternal orders of the city, like the Freemasons in their odd regalia, and the city’s major financial players, members of the boards of its influential companies, followed by city councilmen and the denizens of Columbia University before the rank and file of its general professionals in the medical and legal fields. 

This spectacle was a fitting end to the year for Manhattan, for the city had been plagued by death that year. Before Washington’s death cast a final pall over the city, it had suffered many losses among its own populace from Yellow Fever, such that before the season had ended and the epidemic subsided, the island had become something of a ghost town, with many fleeing the city, and leaving its streets as dead as the fever’s victims. It was generally agreed that the source of the city’s troubles with the fever was its potable water supply, entirely provided by one pump, the Tea-Water Pump, a supply that many believed had been contaminated by the tainted waters of the nearby pond known as the Collect, which had become brackish from furnace and tannery waste as well as from dead animals and the personal effluvium of chamber pots. This was no new problem, and by the end of the century, it looked like a resolution had finally been reached, as a recently formed concern called the Manhattan Company, members of whose board marched in Washington’s memorial parade on New Year’s Eve, had developed a solution: wooden pipes had been laid to carry fresh water from Lispenard’s Meadow outside of town right to the citizens. And so life and populace had been returning to Manhattan at the close of the year when news of Washington’s passing reached them.

The Manhattan Company laying wooden pipes to bring fresh water to the city, via 6sqft

The Manhattan Company laying wooden pipes to bring fresh water to the city, via 6sqft

Lest it be thought that the people of Manhattan were united in their gladness at having survived the fever and their sorrow over the late General Washington’s passing, though, it should be established how very divided the city was. American politics had settled quickly and firmly into a two-party system, with the Federalists, who sought firmer central control through constitutional prerogative and a newly established national bank and federal mint, and the Democratic-Republicans, who opposed such centralization and were often characterized as radicals like unto revolutionary French Jacobins. And the poster boys of these two great factions could both be found among marchers in that sad New Year’s Eve procession: Alexander Hamilton, dyed in wool Federalist and founder of the Bank of the United States, marching among the veterans of the revolution, and his former brother-in-arms and erstwhile nemesis Aaron Burr, Democratic-Republican and former Attorney General and Senator of New York, marching with the board of the Manhattan Company, the water-bringing savior of the city that Burr had founded. These two parties, and these two men, found themselves locked in a struggle for the control of not only New York politics, but also the control of national politics. The upcoming election of the presidency, after all, would be determined there in New York, as local elections in this most populous city of the nation would stack the state legislature, which itself appointed electors and thereby controlled the outcome of presidential elections. Previously, Hamilton and the Federalists held sway, wielding power over city merchants with their national bank, but Burr had recently managed something of a coup. Taking advantage of a loophole in the charter for the Manhattan Company that Hamilton himself had signed, a vague clause that allowed the company to make use of surplus funds however it saw fit, Burr had managed to create a bank under the guise of a water company and thereby loosen the Federalist stranglehold on the electorate. In fact, Burr’s use of cheap materials, choosing wooden pipes to bring water from Lispenard’s Meadow to the city, seems to indicate that the water project was only a means to an end. Although he did bring fresh water to the people of Manhattan, he appears to have been more focused on bringing political capital to his party and himself.

This was the context in which that funereal parade took place, two titans of American society among its marchers. And any who know their fair share of history are well aware that the fate of these two men was to be closely intertwined, but the day of their fateful duel was still far in their future, and long before that, these two men, lawyers both, would find themselves sitting at the same table, united in the purpose of defending a man, the question of whose guilt would see the city further divided.

A depiction of another funeral parade for Washington, in Philadelphia, via Wikimedia Commons

A depiction of another funeral parade for Washington, in Philadelphia, via Wikimedia Commons

*

Two days after the memorial parade, the new century having begun with a sharp cold snap, a rotund man in the baggy clothes and floppy hat of a Quaker, strode resolutely out to a house on the edge of Lispenard’s Meadow, a foggy tendril of breath streaming from his mouth before dissipating as if never there.  His name was Elias Ring, keeper of a boardinghouse in Manhattan, and the specter of death had continued to haunt him and his wife and everyone in his establishment even after the dawn of the hopeful new year, for one of his lodgers, who happened to be his wife’s cousin, a youthful beauty by the name of Gulielma Sands—Elma for short—had been missing since before Christmas, having gone out one snowy evening carrying a muff she had borrowed from another lodger and never returned. They had searched everywhere, and everyone feared the worst. Ring had even gone so far as to hire a man to drag the Hudson for her corpse. Now with the New Year had come a troubling clue: a boy had found the borrowed muff in Lispenard’s Meadow and it had been given away as a gift to someone who later happened to hear of Elma’s disappearance, and more specifically of the article she was said to be carrying.

Word having reached Elias, he marched out to the meadow and to the home of the boy who had found the muff. Within a short time, Elias, together with the boy’s father and several others, set out across the meadow to the place where the boy had discovered the muff, a disused and boarded up well. Called the Manhattan Well, it had been considered by Burr’s Manhattan Company as the source for the new water project but had been rejected in favor of a freshly dug well elsewhere. There it stood, a lonely, breathing hole in the earth, and one of the boards closing up its maw had been pried off. The deputation of searchers probed the well with poles, and making the grim discovery that there was indeed some heavy, sodden mass in the water below, they went about hooking it and hauling it up. Upon the task’s completion, what was struck by the daylight in turn struck the men with horror and repulsion: a sopping sheet of dark hair, the waterlogged material of a filthy dress, and in between, glimpses pallid, slick and stiff flesh.

Lispenard's Meadow, via The Lineup

Lispenard's Meadow, via The Lineup

It was Elma, Elias confirmed, and someone fetched a constable. The constable arrived to find a muttering crowd gathered round the body, and by their demands he felt compelled to act immediately, for it seemed that rumors had for some time already held a certain man in suspicion, and the discovery of Elma’s body meant, surely, that Levi Weeks, another lodger of Elias Ring’s and erstwhile companion of the deceased young lady, was guilty of her murder and must hang. The constable set out, the beginnings of a mob at his back, and found Weeks at the workshop where he plied his trade, performing carpentry for his brother Ezra Weeks, a prominent house-builder who had also helped to construct the new waterworks stretching from Lispenard’s Meadow into the city. The constable found Levi Weeks, a handsome and strong young man, rather less than surprised. He did not even need to be told what was happening but rather discerned it from the faces of those who came to him. And then, seemingly unprompted, he said something that would be held as the strongest piece of evidence against him: “Is it the Manhattan Well she was found in?”

*

Levi Weeks had both an alibi and a benefactor in his wealthy and influential brother, Ezra, for he had been at his brother’s house for dinner on the evening of Elma’s disappearance, and in order to help prove this, Ezra hired a team of the best attorneys in the city, one Brockholst Livingston and the powerhouse duo of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, who agreed to put aside their personal and political enmities for the purposes of seeing justice done in this sensational case—as well as for the payday it promised. ­­And it was indeed a question of whether justice would be done, for it appeared young Weeks was in danger of being railroaded.

Burr and Hamilton, via History.com

Burr and Hamilton, via History.com

Rumors had begun to circulate well before the discovery of Elma’s corpse because Levi was known to be close with Elma, going out on the town with her occasionally and often speaking privately with her in her room. Indeed, many in the household anticipated an imminent wedding proposal, and although the two of them left the boardinghouse separately on the evening of Elma’s disappearance, ostensibly with different plans, Elias’s wife believed that she heard them whispering to each other on the stairs before leaving, likely making clandestine plans that would conclude with Elma’s bloody murder. And such talk was not only exchanged among those who knew Levi and Elma, but rather, the rumormongering had run amok through the city, with gossipers, or perhaps just one, spreading the tale that Levi’s guilt was a known fact, his hanging a foregone conclusion. Handbills had even been printed and circulated that talked of Elma’s ghost seeking retribution against her lover, and demons dancing about the lip of the well to celebrate the Devil’s victory in persuading Levi Weeks to commit his terrible act. 

One newspaper piece, at least—this one likely penned by Aaron Burr himself—made the suggestion that Levi Weeks may be innocent of the crime and urged the public to suspend their judgment. This piece even went so far as to point out that Elma Sands may not have even been murdered, noting that she was prone to melancholy and idle threats of self-harm. This the Ring family disputed spiritedly in a statement of their own, though of course it must have occurred as a possibility to Elias Ring as he had paid to have the Hudson dragged in fear she’d drowned herself. Nevertheless, the Rings’ version of events was now a full-blown narrative, having been embellished through retelling to the point that Elma was now Levi’s fiancée, due to marry him the next day and likely already with child, and she had been murdered in her very bridal gown…quite a harrowing tale, though none of it be true.

The story did its job of whipping up the public fury, though, and while Levi Weeks languished in a jail cell, the Rings displayed Elma’s pale and ghostly corpse in their boardinghouse, opening their doors to any and all who wished to view this poor victim of brutality. And in an even more ghastly display, when it came time to carry her out of the house and bury her, they threw open her coffin and propped her up in the streets as an awful spectacle for the gathering crowds to see, making it clear all the while who they believed had taken her life. Such a deathly scene had not been observed in Manhattan since Washington’s funeral parade; this time, however, it excited feelings of outrage and vengeance rather than sorrow. And the very same crowds that thronged the street to see Elma’s body showed up at the courthouse on the first day of the trial of Levi Weeks, making a circus of what should have been a solemn and rational affair. 

As the trial commenced, the prosecutor, Cadwallader Colden, took the floor to establish a motive for the alleged crime, calling on witness after witness to testify that Levi and Elma were not only courting but, as was generally believed, headed toward marriage. These witnesses, including Mrs. Ring with her claim to have heard the two conferring secretly upon the stair, were met with the form cross-examination of Alexander Hamilton, who frequently objected to their reliance on hearsay and challenged every bit of conjecture as immaterial and unreliable. Some witnesses, including Elias Ring and another lodger of his, even testified that some untoward intimacy may have developed between the two. Ring claimed that he heard some suggestive sounds from an empty room and the next morning found the bedclothes disturbed, and the lodger, a salesman named Richard Croucher who had a devilish aspect to his countenance, impugned Levi’s character in no uncertain terms, insinuating that he had even happened upon them in flagrante delicto.

Prosecutor Colden followed this testimony with that of witnesses who claimed to have seen Ezra Weeks’s sleigh on the night of Elma’s disappearance, flying through the streets on some secret errand, its bells removed to silence its passage. Juxtaposing this testimony with that of other witnesses who had seen a sleigh with a woman and one or two men in it, and others still who claimed to have seen a sleigh on its way out to Lispenard’s Meadow and to have witnessed footprints and sleigh tracks in the snow near Manhattan Well, Colden created a fabric of evidence meant to be taken together to indicate that Levi Weeks, and perhaps Ezra Weeks as well, took Elma on a silent sleigh ride to her deep and watery doom. Of course, Hamilton did not let this pass unchallenged and indeed was able to shred much of the testimony, forcing witnesses to admit they couldn’t actually discern the color of the sleigh’s horse in the darkness, or that they didn’t actually know what Ezra Weeks’s sleigh looked like in order to recognize it, or that they weren’t even certain when they saw what they saw.

Detail of 19th century painting depicting a horse-drawn sleigh in the countryside, via Wikimedia Commons

Detail of 19th century painting depicting a horse-drawn sleigh in the countryside, via Wikimedia Commons

Finally, as a decisive thrust, Colden called multiple medical experts who gave the opinion that there were signs on the corpse that indicated she had been murdered. One doctor noted bruising on the neck and bosom and a telltale clicking when he pressed on the clavicle that indicated she had been strangled with such violence that her collarbone had snapped. This, of course, provided no direct connection to Levi Weeks whatsoever, but speculation that this indicated a crime of passion certainly made the assertion that the prosecutor wanted to make. And the speculative and circumstantial nature of the evidence isn’t even what the defense seized on in cross-examination, for there was something even more dubious about these experts. One wasn’t even a surgeon as he presented himself but was actually a mere dentist, and none of them had been among the doctors who performed Elma’s autopsy nor had even been present at the inquest. They had only had opportunity to examine the corpse while it was on display at the Ring Boardinghouse and in the streets of Manhattan, long after its removal from the well and after it had been handled by innumerable people.

In the prosecution’s closing arguments, Cadwallader Colden held forth on a certain legal text that insisted on the importance, nay, the indispensability, of circumstantial evidence in a murder trial, when the only people who knew with certainty what happened were either dead or guilty and thus not likely disposed to offer truthful testimony. An interesting philosophy, certainly, and Aaron Burr, rising to offer the defense’s opening arguments, promptly offered a sound rebuttal, pointing out that Colden had taken his quoted passage out of context, and that the legal text used by the prosecution actually argued against his point. Indeed, circumstantial evidence should not be relied upon exclusively when other evidence is lacking, as it might lead to innocent men being convicted on no more proof than coincidence and supposition.

The defense went on to call numerous witnesses able to confirm Levi’s alibi. He had come to his brother’s house for dinner, neither had taken the sleigh out for a late night ride in huggermugger, and Levi had left at so late an hour that, despite Cadwallader Colden’s claims to the contrary, he simply wouldn’t have had time to commit the crime before he was known to have returned to the Ring boardinghouse and retired for the night. It simply couldn’t have been done. And not only did Levi’s brother testify to the same, but he also gave a compelling reason why Levi might have asked whether Elma had been found in a certain well—it was the simple and obvious reason that word had already spread of the search for Elma taking place out on Lispenard’s Meadow, and Ezra himself, having some knowledge of the meadow in his capacity as the builder of the waterworks there, had mentioned to Levi that they were searching in the vicinity of the Manhattan Well.

Like the prosecution, the defense also called medical experts, only theirs were the actual doctors who had examined the corpse at the time of its discovery, at the coroner’s inquest. They disputed the conclusions of the prosecution’s experts, stating that no such indications of violence had been present at the autopsy, and furthermore, in contradiction of the fervent assertions of Levi Weeks’s accusers, they had found that Elma Sands had not been pregnant at the time of her death. Indeed, beyond some scratches on the hands, which may have been occasioned during her fall down the well whether she was dead or alive upon entering, there were no indications that she had been murdered, and there was enough water in her lungs to indicate she had died by drowning. It seemed the finding of the coroner that she had been murdered was more a result of social pressure than of any scientific deduction, and the presiding physicians were rather more of the opinion that she had killed herself by leaping into the well. Thus the defense was justified in following other avenues of inquiry not supportive of homicide, raising such evidence as Elma’s melancholy, her habitual use of laudanum and offhand threats of suicide.

But they had already suggested these notions to the jury in cross-examination, and since many jurors likely still believed she had been murdered, it seemed more important instead to cast a shadow of doubt on the prosecutor’s narrative of Levi’s guilt. And this they did by raising other suspects for the court to consider, the first being none other than the Quaker keeper of the boardinghouse himself, Elias Ring. This they accomplished by turning against him his own story of secret rendezvous scandalously overheard, for it turned out that the neighboring building, a blacksmithery, shared a wall with the boardinghouse, and the blacksmith had actually heard carnal encounters taking place in Elma’s room. This neighbor swore that he had heard the voice of Elias Ring himself having trysts with Elma Sand while his wife was away during the height of the Yellow Fever, and even remembered remarking upon it to his wife, to the effect that he feared Ring had ruined the poor girl. Therefore, it appeared that Ring was the cad misusing the girl, not Levi.

A drawing sometimes used as a depiction of the Ring Boardinghouse, via Murder by Gaslight

A drawing sometimes used as a depiction of the Ring Boardinghouse, via Murder by Gaslight

Then there was the other tenant of the boardinghouse, Richard Croucher, who had been only too happy to testify that he had seen Levi and Elma in a compromising position, he whose diabolical features already made the jury and the crowd disposed to distrust him. Croucher admitted that he had somehow offended Elma in passing her through a hallway, perhaps by brushing against her or by some more impertinent act, and that he had almost come to blows with Levi, who had defended her honor in the matter. So it seemed Croucher had some basis for resenting the both of them, and as it turned out, over the course of various witness testimonies, it had been Croucher who had so industriously spread the rumor that Levi was guilty of murdering Elma. Throughout the time that Elma’s corpse stood on display in the boardinghouse, he was seen haunting the room, telling anyone who might listen that she had been done in by her lover, Levi Weeks. And witness after witness confirmed that Croucher had gone about bursting into stores and taverns, shouting the news of Levi’s guilt. Once, when a grocer gave similar testimony about a stranger coming into his establishment not to purchase anything but rather only to spread his poison against Weeks, Alexander Hamilton lifted a candle to better illuminate Richard Croucher’s face in the dark courtroom so that the grocer could identify him. Moreover, it was revealed that the blacksmith neighbor had actually confided his secret about Elias Ring’s infidelity with Elma Sands to Richard Croucher. The fact that Croucher would spread rumors and swear evidence against Levi Weeks yet omit this important fact absolutely compromised his credibility, and the notion that he might have actually used this knowledge to blackmail Elias Ring into helping him pin the crime on poor Levi Weeks tended also to cast suspicion on him as being the actual killer.

By this time, the trial had stretched on for days, such that the judge had been forced to sequester the jury by having them sleep on the floor in the courthouse on the first night, and late on the second day, everyone was exhausted. Hamilton and Burr had weakened the prosecution’s case and made a strong defense, and so, confident in their work, they closed their case without any closing argument. The jury retired… and returned very shortly, after almost no deliberation, with a verdict of not guilty, which was met by the resounding cheers of a crowd that two days before would have lynched Levi Weeks in the streets if they’d had their way.

Today, the murder of Elma Sands remains unsolved. Did she kill herself? Did Levi kill her? Or was there a murderer on the loose? The people of New York, at least, were satisfied some months later that the perpetrator was identified when Richard Croucher, the nefarious looking fellow lodger who had so besmirched Levi Weeks’s name, was arrested and tried for rape. According to the details that emerged in his subsequent trial, after his recent marriage, he took his young stepdaughter to the Ring boardinghouse to help him pack his things, and it was there that he forced himself upon her most brutally. In doing so, he even raised the topic of Elma Sands, threatening that he would kill this girl the same way Elma had been killed if she told anyone of what he’d done to her. It was not exactly an admission of guilt in Elma’s murder, but for many, it was close enough. And in Paul Collins’s fantastic book Duel with the Devil, which I have relied on as my principal source for this episode, Collins relates some unsettling details about his history that further depict him as a man capable of murder. In England, he seems to have had a psychotic break and attempted to slay someone, an act that earned him the nickname Mad Croucher. And after his release from prison in New York, having served his time for the rape and been pardoned on the understanding that would leave the country, he instead went to Virginia, where he was eventually arrested for theft. Finally forced to return to his native London, we have a final report, recorded by a son of Alexander Hamilton, that he was ultimately put to death for some “heinous crime.”

Yet in popular imagination, many overlook this likely suspect and instead have suggested that Burr and Hamilton helped exonerate a guilty man. This can be largely attributed to the myths and folklore that have arisen around the case. First, ghosts have ever surrounded the affair. After the handbills about goblins and spirits in Lispenard’s Meadow, there arose a variety of stories about the Manhattan Well being haunted by the restless spirit of Elma Sands, such that one can imagine her crawling out of its depths, wet and pale, like a scene straight out of The Ring.

Indeed, these ghost stories persist even today and seem to imply that justice was not done 217 years ago, even though nearly everyone at the time seems to have been satisfied with the verdict. The trial has been compared to the OJ trial because of its sensational aspects and the “dream team” assembled in Weeks’s defense, but in this regard it was different. Unlike the OJ case, the public was relieved that they hadn’t convicted what appeared to be an innocent man.

Even those who weren’t at the trial soon learned all about it from some popular narrative accounts of the proceedings that were widely read, as this was the first well documented court case in our history, and with popular versions of the events written by a variety of spectators as well as the court reporter, it might be considered one of the first popular publications in the modern True Crime genre. It was because of this popularity that it soon became exaggerated in memory and mythologized. One example of this corruption of the record is the moment when Hamilton held up a candle to identify Croucher; this has become a cinematic scene in the popular imagination, and has even been illustrated as such, in which Hamilton (or Burr, depending on the account) lifted two entire candelabras and dramatically thrust them forth in a pivotal courtroom moment, to identify the true murderer.

Depiction of exaggerated events at the Weeks Trial, via the Library of Congress

Depiction of exaggerated events at the Weeks Trial, via the Library of Congress

Another example derives from a novel about the trial written anonymously some 70 years after the affair by a granddaughter of the Rings. This book concocted a scene in which Mrs. Ring waited outside the courtroom to curse Burr and Hamilton for using their wiles to free her cousin’s murderer, a myth that has proven very popular in the telling of this tale, supported as it is by the unhappy fates of some involved in the trial, such as the judge, John Lansing, who some years later disappeared never to be seen again. And of course, the most commonly raised proof of the existence of Mrs. Ring’s curse, the ensuing woes of the two most prominent historical figures in the narrative, starting with their fateful duel and, at least for Burr, continuing on to further hardships and miseries, some of which I’ll be discussing in the upcoming Blind Spot. For now it is enough to remark upon the historical blindness that occurs when mysteries such as these go unsolved and when facts and truth become cluttered with embellishments and folklore.

*

Thanks for listening to Historical Blindness, the Odd Past Podcast. Aside from the few sources to which I’ve linked in the body of the blog post, I relied almost entirely on Paul Collins’s amazingly well-researched book, Duel with the Devil: The True Story of How Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr Teamed up to Take on America’s First Sensational Murder Mystery. If you’d like to read this book and support the podcast at the same time, please visit historicalblindness.com/books, where I’ve set up a reading list with great books for further reading on the topics of every episode I’ve ever done!

Blind Spot: Swift's Lost Silver Mine and Dorr's River of Gold

92823173.jpg

In our last installment, Joseph Mulhatton: Liar Laureate of the World, I took listeners deep into the history of fake news by exploring the life and work of the most prolific newspaper hoaxer who ever lived. The subject of that episode was first introduced to me while listening to the hugely entertaining and informative podcast Astonishing Legends, as hosts Forrest Burgess and Scott Philbrook brought up Mulhatton as a possible explanation for the newspaper article that sparked the legend of Kinkaid’s Cave in the Grand Canyon. This story in the Arizona Gazette in 1909 indicated that a massive cavern had been found in the Grand Canyon that contained not only treasures but also relics and mummified remains that indicated it had once been the home of an Egyptian civilization, thus providing evidence of pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contact. The guys at Astonishing Legends rightly pointed to a quite convincing theory by Don Lago, published by the Grand Canyon Historical Society, that this was a Mulhatton hoax. And indeed, listeners should find many aspects of the Kinkaid’s Cave tale familiar, as Mulhatton several times published hoaxes about caverns with underground rivers and great riches, including proof of pre-Columbian, specifically Egyptian, contact. Philbrook and Burgess of Astonishing Legends also cautioned, however, that there is no proof of Mulhatton having perpetrated this story as a hoax, and it should be kept in mind that there is a long history, both before and after Mulhatton’s time, of stories about caves containing riches untold, legends that spread far and wide and persist even today, despite the fact that they may be nothing more than fables and tall tales. One only has to look at two such American legends to see this folkloric tradition: Swift’s Lost Silver Mine and Dorr’s River of Gold. 

*

The first of these tales finds us back in Mulhattan’s stomping grounds, Kentucky, but in the late 18th century. A pioneer by the name of Dooley Townsend is out one day setting traps by the Red River when a band of lost and starving men come upon him, desperate for sustenance and direction. Townsend helps them, but one man among them, an old blind man, is far too gone and dies with Townsend at his bedside, bequeathing to the Good Samaritan his only possession of value, a journal. And the story this journal tells will establish a legend that will drive many to adventure and ruin.

Swift bequeathing his journal, via rootsweb.ancestry.com

Swift bequeathing his journal, via rootsweb.ancestry.com

According to the journal, the old man was one John Swift, formerly a seagoing man and ship captain who may have commanded any sort of vessel, from merchantman to pirate ship, as far as the record tells. Having retired from that life to become a merchant in North Carolina and Virginia, he happened to take under his wing a young man named Munday who had lived most of his life among Native American tribes. Out of gratitude, Munday promised to lead Swift to a secret cave in Kentucky where native peoples were known to mine silver. So off they went, in the early 1760s, to find the mine, forging through the untamed wilderness that was Kentucky long before Daniel Boone was ever reported to have done so and never encountering a single Native American, as it appears, at least according to some historians, that no tribes then lived in the region, instead using the land only to hunt and meet in open warfare.

Eventually, Munday found the old mine, which was essentially a cave in the face of a cliff, and Swift’s journal gave very precise descriptions of landmarks leading to the mine, ostensibly as a record so that Swift could find it again. He found the mine plentiful indeed, reporting that he easily found ore and was even able to smelt it in a nearby stone furnace. Therefore, he and Munday returned to the mine several times throughout the 1760s, until once they stayed too long, despite Munday’s warnings, and were beset by Native American warriors, barely escaping with their lives. After that close call, they did not return for several years, and when they did, they came prepared to haul back as much silver as possible. On their way back, each member of their party rode his horse with a large, heavy sack of silver, such that the horses could not carry any more weight, but a snake bit Munday’s horse, killing it. When Munday suggested that others go on foot as well so that he could place his sack on a horse and not have to leave it behind, an argument ensued. During the quarrel, Munday threatened to betray the group to area natives, and Swift murdered him

Swift and Munday searching for the mine, via rootsweb.ancestry.com

Swift and Munday searching for the mine, via rootsweb.ancestry.com

Some versions of his story have Swift going back to England after this, where he was imprisoned on some crime. Others have him returning to North Carolina, where his spending of silver coins he had minted himself got him tried for counterfeiting, charges that were supposedly dismissed when the coins were found to be pure silver. Regardless of where he was in the interim, one detail is agreed upon; not suddenly but inexorably, Swift went blind, and thereafter, all of his future expeditions relied on his recollections, comparing his descriptions to the observations of his travelling companions. Thus his last expedition, when Townsend discovered him lost in the wilderness and starving. After Dooley Townsend received the journal, it was thereafter lost, perhaps taken from his belongings upon his death by an unscrupulous lawyer. Word of its existence first appears in the historical record in 1788, and ever since, it has become a mythical artifact, its narrative and maps passing from treasure hunter to treasure hunter, and somewhere along the way becoming duplicated and bastardized by forgers and compilers claiming to reproduce it from memory, such that there appear to have been multiple competing versions in circulation, all claiming authenticity even though some bear the clear marks of paraphrasing and even bald-faced quotation!

While some argue over the particulars of what has been recorded from these different documents, others dispute the entire story outright. Believers point to Kentucky place names and oral history as proof that Swift and his mine existed, while the more scholarly pore over old documents in search of his name and cite a 1788 treasury warrant by Kentucky historian and mapmaker John Filson as evidence for the story’s veracity, as the warrant identifies 1,000 acres that were supposed to contain Swift’s mine. For proof that Swift’s silver coins did and do exist, numismatists, or coin collectors, will point to the Sprinkle Dollar, a silver coin of unknown origin supposed to have turned up in circulation in 1830s West Virginia.  

A map supposedly based on details from Swift's journal, via TreasureNet

A map supposedly based on details from Swift's journal, via TreasureNet

On the other hand, skeptics pick apart all documentary evidence by pointing out inconsistencies and look to geological evidence that Kentucky sandstone has never produced more than trace amounts of silver, and nothing like the great veins and nuggets reported in the Swift tales. Some say that Swift concocted the tale as a cover for counterfeiting activity and piracy, kind of like money laundering in that he had to offer some explanation for ill-gotten coinage, but other disbelievers take it further and allege that Swift himself never existed. One theory points to the many Masonic symbols in the surviving accounts of the Swift journal to suggest it was written as an allegory, symbolically representing Masonic ideas of the search for enlightenment and tying into tales of Solomon’s mines. These theories tend to point at none other than the historian John Filson, he who first put down a reference to the mine for history and posterity, as the perpetrator of this literary hoax

Whether the story of Swift’s Lost Silver Mine was a hoax or a literary concoction or a genuine lost treasure, it has certainly driven many a seeker of wealth and adventure to devote their lives and fortunes to searching for it. And even today, well into the 21st century, treasure hunters expend great effort and capital in searching for the lost mine.

Portrait of Earl Dorr, via The Mojave Project

Portrait of Earl Dorr, via The Mojave Project

Such is also the case with another legend that sounds even more like a Mulhatton tall tale, featuring as it does a vast subterranean river, although this one appeared decades after the Liar Laureate’s alleged passing. In 1934, a prospector named Earl P. Dorr swore an affidavit regarding the discovery of a cavern and underground river beneath Kokoweef Mountain in the Joshua Tree region of the Mojave Desert. His story unfolded as follows: Three Native American brothers, the Peyserts, had been hired to work on his father’s ranch in the 1890s. During the first few years of the 20th century, the brothers went in search of the motherlode that tribal legend told was secreted beneath Kokoweef, and find it they did. After discovering the entrance to a vast cavern system and exploring its labrynthine passages, they came upon a chamber where an underground river lapped against virgin black sands sparkling with placer gold. The Peyserts took what they could, but before they left, the waters rose as in a sudden tidal influx and drowned one of them. Out of superstition, they never returned to the cavern that had claimed their brother’s life, but they did tell Earl Dorr of the cavern and the river of gold, and Dorr’s affidavit claimed he had gone on to find it, but after the cavern’s entrance was seen by two other prospectors, he blasted it to keep them from taking the gold for themselves, and after that he was unsuccessful at finding another entrance.

The Peyserts making their discovery, in The Desert Magazine, via The Mojave Project

The Peyserts making their discovery, in The Desert Magazine, via The Mojave Project

Disbelievers in Dorr’s story call him a teller of tales, suggesting that he may have explored an actual, verified cave beneath Kokoweef, called Crystal Cavern, but that his tales of finding treasure there were fabrications. As proof they point to the fact that he actually swore out multiple affidavits, and that the details between them create discrepancies. Moreover, it appears that many particulars of his story, including the Native American brothers’ discovery of the cave, the description of the underground river and black sands laden with gold, and the tidal waters claiming one brother’s life, were likely plagiarized from a collection of mythical yarns about lost mines and buried treasure written by one John Mitchell and published a year before the swearing out of his affidavits under the title Lost Mines of the Great Southwest. Nevertheless, these revelations have not deterred believers, and the legend has persisted. In the early 90’s, the story of Earl Dorr’s River of Gold was even featured on the classic show Unsolved Mysteries. In the segment, which can be seen on Amazon Video on episode 4 of season 6, Robert Stack tells the story of one Wally Spencer, who claimed to have found Dorr’s river and believed the government was conspiring against him, bugging his house to find the river’s location and take the water rights for themselves. Even today there exists a mining operation at Kokoweef Mountain that has sworn to its shareholders for years that they were very near striking the mountain’s legendary mother lode.

Earl Dorr at his River of Gold, from The Desert Magazine, via The Mojave Project

Earl Dorr at his River of Gold, from The Desert Magazine, via The Mojave Project

These stories of lost treasure made their way not only into history books in some cases, but perhaps more profoundly, they established themselves in popular belief and have obsessed treasure hunters and adventurers for decades and even centuries. When stories such as these, the veracity of which are vehemently debated, can become the sole focus and pursuit of people’s lives, then the relatively common and more often than not harmless condition of historical blindness becomes injurious and takes on a more fearsome aspect. Whether hoaxes like Mulhatton’s or earnest reports of riches real or imagined, these blind spots in history have lured many seekers to ruin.

Joseph Mulhatton: The Liar Laureate of the World

Since just before last year’s vitriolic presidential election, a new phrase has entered the American political lexicon. It has become a rhetorical strategy all its own, almost like a brand new logical fallacy in that it does not hold up as an argument under any kind of scrutiny. It is a complete rejection of a source implying it holds no truth or any worth, but this dismissal is not based on research, fact or logic but rather only on the basis that one dislikes what the source has to say and therefore contemptuously applies to it a nonsensical label meant to completely undermine its authority. This label? “Fake news.”

The idea of false or misleading information propagated through journalism is not new. Listeners of course may recall our episodes on the Reichstag Fire and the propaganda surrounding it, which made its way into history books for a long time. Indeed, even the phrase “fake news” isn’t new. A quick look at the Google Books Ngram Viewer shows that it had been used infrequently in the 19th century and then, during the 20th century with its rampant government sponsored, wartime propaganda campaigns, it can be seen to spike in contemporary literature. Of course, one can also see that the phrase’s prominence in social and political discourse today dwarfs its use in the past. And of course, there is a reason for this, an inciting incident, so to speak.

As the 2016 presidential campaigns heated up, sensational and outrageous news stories started to show up in social media feeds, spread by users themselves who found that these stories reinforced their suspicions about or prejudices against a candidate. The problem was that these supposed news stories were actually hoaxes perpetrated by degenerate trolls and opportunists seeking to garner advertising clicks through viral distribution of their fraudulent articles. After the election, the suggestion that these pervasive hoaxes may have helped to sway the electorate caused social media giant Facebook to take measures against this so-called “fake news,” thus bringing the term into common modern parlance and cementing its place in the zeitgeist. Then a funny thing happened. The new president of the United States, who had himself indulged in some of the conspiracy-mongering common of these hoaxes, began to misuse the term “fake news,” and its accepted meaning began to evolve. No longer did the term refer only to recognized hoaxes, false stories propagated anonymously and pretending to come from respectable news outlets by hiding behind slightly altered domain names. Now it was an epithet, a new political barb to sling at any legitimate news outlet that may be publishing unfavorable news or following an editorial direction that proves inconvenient for one’s agenda.

With the idea of fake news drifting so far from its intended definition, it becomes important to put things in perspective, and the examination of history is uniquely useful for doing just that. Therefore, let us go back to the 19th century and the beginning of fake news in the form of newspaper hoaxes in order to better understand what fake news really is. And in looking into this topic, there is no better figure to examine than Joseph Mulhatton*, the Liar Laureate of the World.

The history of newspaper hoaxes provides a nearly perfect analogy for the actual fake news of today. These false stories were often printed despite their dubious nature in order to increase newspaper sales, just like the fake news economy that culminated in 2016 was driven by revenue, although sometimes these hoaxes were mistakenly printed because they fooled editors or were purposely run as satire, making them comparable to articles in the Onion, which are sometimes misunderstood to be hoaxes rather than jokes. The big difference here is that these articles did not appear in publications devoted solely to satirical writing, nor in disreputable publications masquerading as real newspapers, but rather in otherwise trustworthy news outlets. New York’s The Sun, while more willing to print unsophisticated content as a penny paper, nevertheless prided itself on being politically independent and certainly wasn’t in the business of printing boldface lies until, two years after its 1833 launch, it became complicit in a hoax that claimed an astronomer had discovered life on the moon. Not only were various forms of animal life detailed, but a civilization of winged humanoids as well. There are a variety of reasons why the editor of The Sun may have perpetrated the ingenious and complicated hoax. Perhaps it was to increase circulation, which certainly seems to have been accomplished. Perhaps it was meant as a trap for the more respected papers, tempting them to reprint a falsehood that could thereafter be revealed to discredit them, although none took the bait. Or perhaps it was a satire all along, poking fun at the implausible ideas of certain fringe astronomers, but it had quickly gotten out of editorial control. Regardless, this affair certainly serves as the first major example of a newspaper hoax, and it may have exerted some influence on the subject of our story in the form of inspiration.

A French print by the Thierry bothers showing the appearance of the landscape and inhabitants of the Moon, via The Houston Chronicle

A French print by the Thierry bothers showing the appearance of the landscape and inhabitants of the Moon, via The Houston Chronicle

And inspiration for newspaper hoaxes was by no means wanting. In 1844, with his wife ill and creditors hounding his trail, Edgar Allan Poe came to the offices of The Sun in New York with a fanciful story in hand, perhaps encouraged by their embroilment in the Moon Hoax not a decade earlier, and sure enough, the newspaper published his story. Thus the Great Balloon Hoax was born, detailing the astounding transatlantic journey of ballooner Monck Mason in just 75 hours. And during the life of our central character, young Joseph Mulhatton, who was born sometime in the late 1840s or early 1850s, another famous newspaper hoax appeared that may have encouraged him in his lies. In 1874 the New-York Herald, which ironically had been the staunchest and most vocal critic of The Sun regarding the Moon Hoax, printed a story about animals escaping the Central Park Zoo and running amok throughout the city. The article caused a general panic among readers, and despite the fact that at the end of the story it admitted to being a fabrication, the Herald was roundly denounced for its deception of the public. 

At this juncture let us focus on the subject of this study, who by the time of the Central Park Zoo Escape Hoax was already well on the path to establishing himself as an accomplished hoaxer. Even in his youth, the impulse to spin tales appears to have been strong in him. Depending on one’s opinion of religion, one may speculate that his tendency to spread false narratives was either developed out of rebellion against his father or was a predisposition inherited from him, for his father was a Presbyterian minister. Regardless, before he had even reached his majority, he had a major hoax under his belt, for it seems he spread the rumor of a series of stagecoach robberies outside of Pittsburgh, where he was attending high school at the time. The newspaper journalists of the area became convinced that an outlaw gang was at work, and in order to scoop an exclusive, they took to riding in buckboard wagons all around the area, hoping to be held up themselves. Eventually, after hours and hours of uneventful wandering, they concluded that the story had been a prank.

Out of high school, Mulhatton went to work for a Pittsburgh hardware company and began to travel as their salesman, or drummer. His travels took him far and wide, and before long he had taken up with a Louisville, Kentucky, hardware company as their drummer, which sent him even farther abroad, to the American South and the Southwest. He was quite successful in his salesmanship on account of being a fast-talker and quick-witted and largely because of his genial nature and the fine figure he cut, a well-dressed young man with well-groomed dark hair and beard and sharp blue eyes. And it was perhaps this respectable demeanor that helped him to dupe and corrupt so many newspaper editors, for along his extensive travels, as a hobby or perhaps a compulsion, he took to writing and publishing brief fictions in area newspapers. This was the era when Joe Mulhatton developed his reputation as the Modern Munchausen, the Monarch of Mendacity, and the Liar Laureate of the World

A portrait of Joseph Mulhatton, via the Museum of Hoaxes

A portrait of Joseph Mulhatton, via the Museum of Hoaxes

His hoaxes began with some similar themes: in 1875, he wrote that the bodies of Presidents Washington and Lincoln were to be exhumed and displayed at Philadelphia’s Centennial Exposition as a way to raise funds for finishing the Washington Monument, much to the outrage of some. Then a couple years later, in 1877, he presented a story about Washington’s body being disinterred due to some necessary repairs being made at Mount Vernon, at which time it was discovered that the corpse had petrified and resembled a statue. Additionally, in Texas, another story supposed to have been penned by Mulhatton related the discovery of two petrified bodies, those of a cowboy and an Indian, frozen forever in mortal combat. This fantastical discovery is even said to have drawn the interest of that great showman of oddities, P. T. Barnum

During his early years in Kentucky, he revisited the theme of his first hoax and in 1878 wrote again about outlaws in a series of letters to papers. Under the pseudonym “Orange Blossom,” he cast himself as a drummer local to the town of Big Clifty who had confronted some highway robbers on a bridge and cast them over into the water. Thereafter, in “Orange Blossom’s” letters, he referred to himself as the “Hero of Big Clifty” and detailed how he was lionized and celebrated throughout the region as the guest of honor at picnics and barbecues. Some years later, in 1883, this story seems to have gotten Mulhatton into quite a spot, as reports surfaced of his being kidnapped by bloodthirsty criminals who wanted to know if he was this “Orange Blossom” hero who claimed to best outlaws and intended to murder him for the fame it would bring. According to the tale as printed in newspapers, Mulhatton was being marched to a skiff on a river when, using knowledge of knots and escape artistry he had apparently learned while travelling with some famous showmen, he surreptitiously freed himself of the ropes tying his hands but did not let on that he was no longer bound. On the skiff, then, he made his move. He shouted, and when the outlaws sprang to their feet, he rocked the boat violently to send them falling overboard. They thrashed in the water, grasping at the sides of the boat, but Mulhatton took up an oar and methodically bludgeoned each of them, leaving a trail of blood in the river two miles long. A gripping yarn, certainly, but considering Mulhatton’s proclivity to spread tall tales, this too likely never happened.

In addition to preserved corpses and murderous outlaws, Mulhatton also appeared to be fascinated with the massive Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, and a number of articles about the discovery of gargantuan caves that rivaled that great cave in size, containing underground rivers and astonishing artifacts, have been attributed to him. He wrote of a cave in Pike County, Kentucky, containing virgin gold, with an underground river rippling over a bed of diamonds and the skeletons of cave-dwellers laid to rest in stone sarcophagi. So convincing was this article that it precipitated a rush for purchasing land in the area, and again P.T. Barnum is said to have shown up, looking to procure the remains of one of these cavemen. Then again, in 1878, Mulhatton wrote of the discovery of another massive cave, this one lacking the gold and jewels, but no less rich in artifacts and mummies, this time described as presenting “every appearance of the Egyptian mummies,” and therefore implying some kind of pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contact. Here again, a magnificent underground river was reported to flow—three of them, in fact—making it possible to admit a vessel, and according to the story, a local businessman had even begun to make plans to offer underground steamboat rides. In 1880, in Wyoming, he spun the tale of another grand cavern, this one housing a strange tribe of white natives with Egyptian-like customs who were kept from leaving their subterranean home by the local Sioux tribesmen on account of some superstitions that they came from beyond the vale. A reporter from Omaha was so intrigued by this story that he went to investigate and found himself taken prisoner by those selfsame Sioux, who during his week-long captivity soundly disabused him of the notion that the story was true. And again, in late 1881, a report appeared of a Leitchfield, Kentucky farmer who was accustomed to storing his milk and butter in some small caves nearby his farmstead. Finding them too small, he essayed to enlarge them through demolition only to uncover a far larger cavern beneath. This one too contained a grand underground river, teeming in this account with eyeless fish, and again, there were mummies of an Egyptian sort, but this time Mulhatton took it further, claiming that the farmer discovered an entire pyramid in the cave, an exact replica of the Great Pyramid at Giza, and inside, altars and decorations adorned with Masonic symbols. A final series of lies about caves purported that the famous Mammoth cave had been sold to the English, a report that greatly upset many but was promptly followed by the comforting update that the transaction had been cancelled upon the realization that the cavern would be very difficult to ship overseas.

A clipping from the Chatham Record, January 12, 1882

A clipping from the Chatham Record, January 12, 1882

But preserved corpses and caverns were not the only recurring elements in newspaper hoaxes attributed to Joseph Mulhatton. Several of Mulhatton’s stories revolved around the unlikely and, frankly, unethical, use of animals for commercial ends.  In 1876, he placed ads in Kentucky presenting himself as the agent of a major furrier in New York who was seeking cats because of the sudden and unusual demand for their fur. On the promise of fetching top dollar, a great many area farmers choked the streets of Leitchfield on the appointed day, their wagons laden with boxes full of stray cats. Upon learning it was a hoax, Mulhatton’s fuming dupes released their cats, causing such a nuisance that the township was forced to implement a “shotgun quarantine,” a euphemism for open season on shooting cats. In a sort of reprisal, someone who knew which hardware firm Mulhatton worked for sent them a crate, that, when opened, spilled terrified felines out to fill the business with hissing and mewling. In another hoax, he claimed that a cotton planter had trained geese to weed his fields, each wearing a gourd full of water around its neck so that they could keep hydrated. And then, yet again, he claimed that a Flagstaff shepherd by the name of Green had trained kangaroos to tend his flock, an arrangement that had worked out so well, owing to the animal’s agility, that he had arranged for a great many more kangaroos to be sent to him for training as herders. This, of course, stirred the ire of cowboys and shepherds alike, for how dare he give their jobs to some hop-along Aussie beasts! 

Nor was this the sole controversy he caused over the use of animals as labor. In 1887, he wrote about a farmer who had imported South American monkeys to work in his hemp and cotton fields. Here Mulhatton seems to have been poking the hornets’ nest, going into detail about how compliant the monkeys were and contrasting that tractability with the hot-headed field laborers who had rioted over this usurpation of their livelihood. Of course, no such riots had ever transpired because there were no such monkey field hands, but this did not stop the story from travelling far and wide, until newspapers in England were lamenting America’s bizarre labor problems, suggesting that this did not bode well for the working classes.

And finally, another favorite motif in Mulhatton’s hoaxes was that of the meteorological or astronomical. He had an especial fondness for frightening newspaper readers with accounts of the impact of meteorites, or as they were sometimes then called, aerolites. In 1883, outside of William’s Ranch in Texas, a meteorite descended like a ball of fire and struck with the force of an earthquake, shattering every window in town, according to Mulhatton’s piece. It killed many head of cattle, destroyed the home of a Mexican herdsman and his family and buried the occupants themselves! Afterward, still steaming, one could ascertain its great size, for even though mostly buried in the earth, it still towered 70 feet above the surface and covered about an acre of land. In fact, so convincing was this account that many came to look for the meteor, even scientists from far away. According to Mulhatton, many of these seekers became lost in the brush and had to live off the land, while others, not finding the meteor and not wanting to return without a report of it, simply bought parcels of land and remained for the rest of their days, but one can take this further tale of Mulhatton’s for what it’s worth. And indeed, even if one were unaware of Mulhatton’s history of hoaxes, it would be impossible to credit the fact that he claimed to have witnessed another meteorite strike near the Ripsey mines in Arizona, in 1896, for unless the meteorites were attracted magnetically to him, the odds alone challenge the credibility. This time, he described nearby houses shaking like leaves, with cupboards jarred and the dishes within upset. Even larger than his previous meteorite, this one was supposed to have been 2 acres across, striking the ground with a sound like a cannon volley. Instead of cattle, it was sheep that this time suffered the brunt of the impact, but again, Mulhatton described the sufferings of a Mexican herder and his family whose dwelling was in the path of the meteor. One might safely, I’d say, attribute some racial bigotry to the man for the way he repeatedly hurled fictional meteors at Mexican families. 

A clipping of the Turner County Herald, August 20, 1896.

A clipping of the Turner County Herald, August 20, 1896.

Perhaps the most incredible story involving Mulhatton actually turns out to be true. In 1884, he was nominated for President by his fellow travelling salesmen at a drummers’ convention in Louisville, Kentucky. He would be put forward as the candidate of the Business Men’s Reform Party, and the whole thing was considered something of a joke by all… all, that is, except Mulhatton, who insisted that with his army of travelling salesmen stumping for him, even if he couldn’t win the office, he’d be able to take a state or two and thereby force his way into politics. An interesting prospect, to be sure, the Liar Laureate goes to Washington, but it never really panned out and he went on with his itinerant lifestyle, sowing falsehoods everywhere he went.

During his travels, he wrote so many interesting hoaxes it’s impossible to parse them all, even if you could find each one of them, as there are many he is suspected of having written that may have been penned by other hoaxsters. Among those that are definitely attributed to him, he started a series of sensations similar to his cave stories about Native American mounds that held treasures and relics, one even containing the original tablets inscribed with the ten commandments! Elsewhere he claimed that an astronomer named Klein had discovered the Star of Bethlehem, and for further astronomical stories, he invented the character of Professor Birdwhistle, to whom he attributed a variety of astounding discoveries, such as a new moon that happened to be invisible, and most astonishingly, the detection of some unusual activity around Mars that revealed not only that Martians existed but also that they flew back and forth interacting with Earth and that they were engaged in some kind of war on their home world to fend off an invasion

The list goes on and on. In Iowa, well diggers struck subterranean waters so vast that a new river rivaling the Mississippi had sprung up. In Texas, a girl took a bunch of balloons from a peddler and promptly floated away over the sea, saved only by a sharpshooter who popped one balloon at a time until some rescuers in a boat could bring her in to safety. Elsewhere in Texas, a carriage full of skeletons was found, its occupants apparently having been killed years before by lightning. In the Mojave desert, an intact battleship was discovered, and in Wisconsin,  a lake monster that appeared to be half fish and half snake preyed upon livestock. If you believed his dispatches, he had more luck in discovering unusual natural phenomena than anyone who ever lived, finding a lake that dyed blond the hair of any who bathed in it, and finding not one but two extremely strange species of plant: a cactus with magnetic properties and a carnivorous tree, the arbor diaboll, that that could grasp and strangle even large creatures with its twisting limbs, pulling them in to devour them.

1887 image depicting another carnivorous plant from a similar hoax, via Wikimedia Commons

1887 image depicting another carnivorous plant from a similar hoax, via Wikimedia Commons

Later in life, in the last years of the 19th century, he settled in Arizona, buying and selling mining claims, and doubtless his tricky nature came to bear in this enterprise as well. In fact, there are reports of Mulhatton showing rocks with veins of gold ore in them as proof of a claim’s worth, when actually it seemed he had simply hammered brass nails into the stone to give it the appearance of containing gold. Then at the turn of the century, he was committed to an asylum for a time as insane, thinking he had killed a man and others were after him for revenge, and after that, rumors abounded that he had gone out west and died. Indeed, the fact that no one heard from him for some years seemed to indicate that he did pass into history, but eventually he turned up in Texas, exploding the rumors of his demise and putting all the newspaper on guard.

After that he seemed to disappear again, until eventually he turned up in California. In October of 1904, the San Francisco Call reported that Mulhatton sat in a jail cell in that city awaiting trial for stealing someone’s coat. In recent years, since his bout of insanity—which he attributed to being kicked in the head by a horse rather than to any alcoholic degeneracy—he had drifted westward, following circuses and relying on the charity of the Salvation Army. He presented himself as a phrenologist, one who can tell the content of a person’s character and even predict his or her behavior by feeling the lumps of the person’s head. Mulhatton appears to have been engaged in some similar bamboozling at the tavern where he was arrested, as he was said to have taken off his own coat to hold forth about a “mystic chart” and then put someone else’s coat on, which garment contained a bank roll in its pocket. Mulhatton is described as being wholly ignorant of the fact he committed a crime, but then he seems not to have been as sharp as he used to be, his wits likely dulled by whiskey as instead of the fast-talking genius he had become an incoherent mess. And no longer cutting the attractive figure he had previously been known for, he had gained weight and grown a red, bulbous nose. Such was his marked descent that the Call article went so far as to illustrate his decline with a drawing depicting his former self next to the sad, filthy version of himself that sat in the San Francisco jail. 

Illustration of Mulhatton both after his downfall and in his prime, from the San Francisco Call

Illustration of Mulhatton both after his downfall and in his prime, from the San Francisco Call

This story went far and wide, and later that month, an expanded version of it in the Chicago Tribune included further statements from the interview with Mulhatton in which he admitted that whiskey was the culprit responsible for his downfall. Therefore, it seems not only the loss of his job as a hardware drummer and his apparent financial straits could be blamed on his slowly worsening alcoholism, but also his erratic behavior and apparent bouts of insanity, a fact that had been suspected ever since his asylum commitment. And apparently he hadn’t even liked the stuff at first, but felt he had been forced to imbibe whiskey because he was so well known and so well liked that he was expected to liven up every party. In a sense, then, it was his stories that were his ruin, for it was his entertaining yarns that thrust him into fame and high society, where the life of the party never finds the bottom of his glass.

After his arrest in San Francisco, he disappeared again, and again there were rumors that he had died, which were again debunked in 1908 when he showed back up in Arizona, claiming to have discovered a copper mine. Then in 1913, another report of his death emerged. While out about his mining operations, he reportedly attempted to cross the Gila River, which was swollen at the time, and lost his footing, whereupon he was swept away. Several witnesses claimed to have seen the drowning, recovered his body and buried him, but the world and all posterity learned of it through, of course, a newspaper report, so it may be understandable if some believe this to be one final hoax that Mulhatton may have played on the public before fading into obscurity. And the fact that our knowledge of the past relies in large part on such publications so frequently misled and riddled with hoaxes causes one to begin to doubt much of received history. When parts of what we know about the past may actually be nothing more than concoctions penned by a hoaxer, then certainly we suffer from historical blindness.

* A variation in the spelling of his name as Mulhattan is common, but I have chosen to spell it as Mulhatton because that is how his name appears in the majority of the contemporary newspaper sources I found. 

Blind Spot: Tutelary Spirits

In our previous installment, we explored the weird and convoluted legend of the White Lady, a ghost that appears as a warning or fell omen that a prince of the Hohenzollern dynasty will soon perish. In researching this pale harbinger, I came to understand how tied up it was in ancient mythology as well as more recent history, and indeed, this phantom of Germany was not alone the sole example of its kind. It appears that the idea of a guardian spirit that is tied to an individual or a family can be found in the ancient traditions of Greeks, Romans and Celts. These entities were called daemons in Ancient Greece, and it was argued that they were part and parcel with human existence, tied in some mysterious way with our bodies or our souls. Socrates spoke of this daemon as though it were some divine force guiding his actions, but since then, many thinkers have suggested that he actually referred to something more rational and down to earth. Hegel believed that Socrates referred to his will, and Jung believed that what Socrates mistook for a spiritual guide was actually the unconscious. But these are modern rationalizations, and one can find notions of a guardian spirit, a phantom presence that protects and warns, throughout history, from the Roman Genius, which was a guardian spirit or family spirit, to the spirit guides of Native Americans. It is this tradition of actual spectral entities, many of which are described as bound not only to an individual but to a certain family, that the White Lady of the Hohenzollerns seems to fit into. They are often said to appear before some calamity or tragedy, as a silent forewarning, and there seem to be many of them in Germany and beyond. These guardians have another name; they are called tutelary spirits.

The Hohenzollern harbinger appears to be only one among a great many White Ladies in popular lore everywhere. In the United Kingdom alone, many come to mind. The White Ladies of the castle of Skipsea in Yorkshire, of Samlesbury hall in Lancashire, of Blenkinsopp castle in Northumberland, of Bolling Hall near Bradford, and those of Woodhouselee and Avenel all have their legends, in which women of various stations in life suffered various abuses and lunacies and perished by neglect or violence. The difference, however, is that these don’t appear to be tutelary spirits, their appearances not necessarily presumed to foreshadow anything in particular. In Ireland, however, there is legend of an undoubtedly tutelary spirit called a “White Lady of Sorrow” who is known to warn certain families of an imminent death among their ranks. This, of course, is the legend of the Banshee. It is supposed that a Banshee might be the spirit of any person who had in life encountered the family and loved them or had good reason to harbor animosity toward them. Thus the Banshee, who portends a family member’s impending death with its song, may sing a comforting air or shriek with hellish glee at its enemies’ forthcoming suffering.

A friendly banshee depicted floating above ramparts.

A friendly banshee depicted floating above ramparts.

Nor is the Banshee the only singer among tutelary spirits. Scottish lore suggests that the chiefs of ancient houses had their own guardian spirits, Bodachs, who warned of a coming death, and one, the Bodach-an-Dun, or ghost of the hill, protector of the Shaw clan, is said to have sung in lamentation when the family lost its ancestral land

Sometimes these tutelary spirits, while still women like the Hohenzollern harbinger and the Banshee, differ noticeably in appearance, or more specifically in the color of their garments. Back in Germany, we find a legend out of Darmstadt of a Red Lady who appeared shortly before the unhappy death of Princess Alice, daughter of Queen Victoria. And in Bavaria, another is connected with the House of Wittelsbach, a family that has been haunted not only by spirits but by the specter of madness as well, with more than 20 members having gone insane within a hundred years. The spirit that haunts the Wittelsbachs in their ancestral castles at Fürstenried and Nymphenburg is also an ethereal woman, but rather than appearing as a young and fetching woman in white, she appears as an aging and haggard woman in a long black robe, with hair as white as a sheet. This Black Lady appeared prior to the death of King Maximilian II in 1864. According to the story, Maximilian’s wife, Marie of Prussia, beheld this fearful apparition standing behind her husband’s chair and looking at her with sorrow in her eyes before vanishing. Greatly frightened, she told the king what she had seen, and Maximilian, aware of the legend of the Black Lady, demanded of his guards what woman clothed in black they had allowed to enter the room, but of course his guards claimed not to have admitted anyone. Three days later, the king died suddenly, supposedly of a catastrophic attack of gastritis.

Maximilian’s son, then, is also said to have had his demise foretold by an appearance of this Black Lady. Ludwig is sometimes called the “Mad King,” because he was deposed when a psychiatrist declared him mad and therefore unfit to rule. In recent years, this evaluation has been brought into question, with some suggesting that Ludwig’s deposing had more to do with his debts and rumors of his homosexuality rather than any genuine insanity. Regardless, one night, a guard claimed to have seen the Black Lady floating at the opposite end of the King’s corridor. Chasing the spirit down to the courtyard, the guard demanded that she identify herself, but the figure made no reply, moving on through the moonlight. Nearing the chapel, the spirit turned to regard him. The guard then produced a firearm and discharged it, but it backfired, injuring him mortally. He had only time enough to tell the tale of his encounter to another alarmed sentry before dying. And true to the legend of the Black Lady’s appearance, the very next day, a great tragedy befell “Mad” King Ludwig while out walking the shore of Lake Starnberg. He had insisted on walking alone with the physician who had declared him unfit to rule. When they didn’t return, a search ensued, and they were both found dead in the lake, with the physician showing signs of having suffered some violence. It was thought that the Mad King had killed the doctor who’d betrayed him and then drowned himself, but no water was found in the King’s lungs, leaving the nature of Ludwig II’s death a mystery. But that tale may be better served if we save it for the topic of another episode…

Lake Starnberg, with portrait of "Mad" King Ludwig inset, via Zeno.org

Lake Starnberg, with portrait of "Mad" King Ludwig inset, via Zeno.org

As for these legends of tutelary spirits, it seems they do not always appear as spectral women. In France there persisted a tradition of a Little Red Man who showed himself at the Tuileries Palace just prior to some great calamity that would affect the ruling family of the land. At his first appearance, Marie Antoinette herself saw him in early August 1793; she and her attendants were lounging when they noticed him, a tiny man, clad in scarlet, with such an inhuman gaze that he seemed a goblin. Horrified, she and the others fled from the imp and told her mother what they’d seen. Within a few days, the bloody French Revolution had begun. This Little Red Man appeared again in 1814 to Napoleon’s son before Napoleon’s abdication and exile, but thereafter, many thought him a hoax because of one debunked sighting in 1815.  The Little Red Man appeared to some ladies and a chevalier while they sat dining. Coming out of the fireplace, he took a leg of mutton from the table and disappeared back up the chimney. This report certainly upset the royal family, who feared it portended some tragedy, and the King sent two chimney sweeps up the chimney to search out the scarlet imp, but neither of them returned! Only when he sent professional firefighter up the chimney was it discovered that some youths on another floor had cut a hole into the chimney in order to play the prank and had let the two chimney sweeps in on the joke. However, the legend of the Little Red Man did not die, for the creature was seen again in 1824 before Louis XVIII’s passing and again in 1871 before the fires of the Paris Commune

Indeed, it appears that legends of tutelary spirits associated with royal families do not always even take the form of a person. Legend has it that, before the transpiring of terrible events that touched the lives of those in the Habsburg dynasty of Austria, preternaturally large white birds were seen flying in the daylight. These unearthly creatures, called the Turnfalken, were said to fly by night, hidden in darkness, and only made daytime flights to forebode some ill omen for the Habsburgs with their strange and shrill cries. As with others of these tutelary spirits, the Turnfalken were seen in flight before numerous Habsburg deaths, some of them quite unexpected, such as that of Duchess Sophie Charlotte, who died in a fire at a Paris bazaar. One of the most notable Habsburg deaths presaged by the flight of the Turnfalken was the mysterious death of crown prince Rudolph in what is known as the Mayerling Tragedy. This incident, in which the crown prince and his mistress were found dead in the imperial hunting lodge, has remained a mystery, as none can be certain whether their deaths resulted from murder, suicide, or some combination thereof. But that, again, may be a story to explore in a future episode, so let us not dwell long on it, for the Turnfalken flew on through the years. Before the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, for example, there are reports that a flock of Turnfalken were seen wheeling around the skies above Vienna, shrieking. And before the death of Emperor Franz Joseph I two years later, it is said the Turnfalken circled the city in such great numbers that they sparked a general panic among the populace.

A depiction of the scene at the Mayerling Tragedy

A depiction of the scene at the Mayerling Tragedy

To the enlightened modern mind, these legends of tutelary spirits not only smack of superstition but also may seem backward in their outmoded notions of the superiority of nobility and royalty, that for some reason families of a certain breeding were special and warranted the protection of spiritual guardians. All too often, though, we look at the past through the lens of the present, judging our forebears according to our own worldview instead of meeting them on their own terms. If we fail to understand that the people of the past lived in a world of spirits and magic, then we are blinded to the true nature of their existence and perhaps to an entire facet of the human experience. Consider the words of Sir Walter Scott: “Unaided by revelation, it cannot be hoped that mere earthly reason should be able to form any rational or precise conjecture concerning the destination of the soul when parted from the body; but the conviction that such an indestructible essence exists…must infer the existence of many millions of spirits who have not been annihilated, though they have become invisible to mortals who still see, hear, and perceive, only by means of the imperfect organs of humanity.” 

 

The White Ladies of German Lore

In this installment, we’ll take a look at a story that, while certainly mysterious and certainly historical, leans somewhat more toward legend and the supernatural. As such, the sources I’ve had to rely upon have been spare and rather less credible than I would like, but such is the nature of stories like these, and indeed, like the old classic show Unsolved Mysteries and like much of the more popular programming on the History Channel, I may occasionally dip my toes into the murky waters of the paranormal, just as I may sometimes enter the realm of true crime and politics. Be assured, however, that my central theme of scrutinizing the blind spots in our past shall remain intact.

The subject of this episode actually came up in my series on Kaspar Hauser, Foundling of Nuremberg, Wild Boy of Bavaria, and Child of Europe. In the second part of that series, I explored the theory that Hauser had been a crown prince of the Grand Duchy of Baden, stolen from his nursery and swapped out with a sickly babe by an evil second wife of his great grandfather. This woman, Countess Hochberg, according to the legend as told in multiple sources, dressed in white in order to impersonate a famous ghost whose appearance was known for presaging the death of princes. Thus she is said to have frightened away any who might have questioned her presence in the nursery and witnessed Hauser’s abduction and replacement with a changeling. I reported, based on the sources associated with Hauser’s story in which I had found the detail, that this spirit was called the White Lady of Baden, and to be certain, I was intrigued by this story. However, as I looked further into the story and began to entertain the idea of focusing an entire installment of Historical Blindness on this legend and its origins, I realized that my sources were in error, at least in a way. For every source I have been able to find on the White Lady records her appearances in the Old Schloss, the city palace in Berlin, which is indeed far from Baden. However, as I investigated the tales behind the story of the Weisse Frau, the White Lady of the Old Schloss, I found that this apparition was identified not only with the Berlin Palace but also, through her supposed origins, with other White Lady legends, apparitions that were supposed to have resided in various other locations throughout Germany. Therefore, as a retraction and mea culpa of sorts, I am happy to present The White Ladies of German Lore.

*

The Berlin Stadtschloss, or City Palace, began as a fortification on the Spree River built by Frederich II, Hohenzollern Elector of Brandenburg, in the mid-fifteenth century, with part of a city wall integrated on its eastern side. The palace served as the winter home of the Hohenzollern family for three centuries thereafter, and became the hub of government and society. Successive monarchs renovated and expanded the palace, adding new wings until it became something of a hodge-podge old pile, but nevertheless, it remained a symbol of government and power well into the 20th century. Listeners may recall that the Old Palace was one of the landmarks that Marinus van der Lubbe had tried to set on fire before succeeding in burning the Reichstag. It was something of a hulking and rambling monstrosity, especially in its heyday, with 600 lushly furnished rooms, grand gala suites and banquet chambers, all connected by great pillared halls lined with frescoes and sculptures—to say nothing of the sumptuous royal apartments and throne room! And then there is the dark tower, with its onion cupola plated in copper that after tarnishing earned it the name “The Green Hat,” where Frederich II, nicknamed the “Irontooth,” is said to have gravely conducted traitors to the Iron Maiden, silencing their screams when he shut them up inside. 

The Berlin Schloss with Green Hat visible, via antique-prints.de

The Berlin Schloss with Green Hat visible, via antique-prints.de

Such a palace, as it slipped slowly into disuse and decrepitude, can be imagined as the very model of a haunted castle, and indeed, a specter was seen there quite frequently. One of the earliest records of people claiming to have seen the spirit comes from just before the turn of the 17th century, in 1598, when another Hohenzollern Elector of Brandenburg, Johann Georg, lay dying, and thus the legend that this apparition foretold the imminent doom of Hohenzollern princes was established. Such was the pervasion of this legend that before Elector Johann Sigismund’s death some 20 years later, he asked the chaplain of his court more than once if the spirit had been seen. We know from the chaplain’s own writings that the existence of the spirit was not a matter of debate, as it had been seen so many times “by individuals of all ages and conditions.” Rather, the real questions were of the disposition and intentions of the spirit. The chaplain believed the apparition, which appeared as an ethereal woman in a white dress, to be benevolent, as its presence provided a warning to princes of their looming demise.

And indeed, the White Lady had been spotted by a page in the days before Johann Sigismund’s death, in a corridor near the tower of the Green Hat, where it is traditionally held that the spirit resides in some hidden room. This page, it is said, upon catching sight of the spectral woman, tried to make a pass at her, attempting to snake an arm around her waist while saying, “Lovely mask, where goest?” His arm passed through her as through a fog, and the spirit, raised one of the keys she was said to carry, which keys some suggested she used to enter any room in the palace, and tapped him on the forehead with it. The page shared his story with whoever would listen, and as the legend goes, he grew pale and slender and more feminine with age, he who had once been a masculine and ruddy sort of fellow. It was reported that, as this went on, his steps began to make less and less noise, until the transformation seemed complete and he flowed about like a very ghost, frightening women who mistook him for the White Lady. Upon his death, the legend says that only a sack of bleached bones were found in his bed.

Thereafter, the ghost was seen by another man of the cloth in 1628, when she is reported to have uttered a statement in Latin: “Veni, Judica vivos et mortuos!” which translates to “I have come to judge the living and the dead.” Thereafter, she appeared in the mid- to late-1600s prior to the death of Anna Sophia, Duchess of Brunswick, and before the death of Elisabeth Charlotte of the Palatinate, mother of reigning Elector of Brandenburg Friedrich Wilhelm. During the latter of these appearances, it is recorded that she was witnessed by a courtier named Kurt von Burgsdorf who had earlier expressed a general disbelief in the spirit’s existence, suggesting that he would have to lay his own eyes on her to give credence to such tales. One night, after the Elector had retired to bed, Burgsdorf saw the spirit upon the back stairs leading to the garden, and he cursed her, asking if her thirst for the princely blood of Prussia had not already been slaked. In reply, the White Lady is said to have thrown him down the stairs, making such a noise as to wake the Elector from his slumber.

Some years after that, in 1667, another report of the White Lady being seen in the very bedchamber of Electress Louise Henrietta. In this instance, the electress herself saw the apparition sitting in a chair and writing, whereupon the White Lady rose, bowed and disappeared. Then, sure as night follows day, not long after this encounter, Electress Louise Henrietta of Nassau passed away.  And so it went throughout the years. In 1678, Erdmann Philip, Margrave of Brandenburg, found the White Lady sitting in an armchair in his bedchamber, and thereafter he died of injuries sustained on the race course when his horse fell. Then she was seen several times in 1688, the year in which the Great Elector, Friedrich Wilhelm, died, and was in fact seen the very day of his death by the court chaplain at the exact time of the elector’s passing. And then on to Friedrich Wilhelm’s son, Friedrich I, King in Prussia, who was supposedly woken in the night by the White Lady who parted the hanging fabric over his bed to give him a good look at her and then drifted into the adjoining room to make a great clamor of crashing dishes, like a very poltergeist. Friedrich I is said to have ordered a coffin made the very next day and promptly died that evening. 

The White Lady appearing to Freidrich I, via Wikimedia Commons

The White Lady appearing to Freidrich I, via Wikimedia Commons

However, another version of this story suggests he did not see the White Lady at all. Rather, it is said that his jealous wife, Sophia Louisa of Mecklenburg, believed the king had a beautiful young countess in his bedchamber, and in the middle of having her hair powdered, she flew into a rage and ran down a corridor with a sheet around her, leaping through a glass door to enter the king’s chamber. Upon waking to see this bloody, powdered figure in a bedsheet, he fell in a fit, crying that he had seen the White Lady and was surely lost. Despite being told the truth, he came down with a fever and perished. Therefore, even if this were not a genuine apparition, still a White Lady appeared to him, portending his demise, just as would be the case with this son, Friedrich Wilhelm I, known as the Soldier King, who legend says saw the spirit while drinking a bowl of beer and, coughing, set down the bowl, said merely, “Well, we must be going,” and died of what has been termed “alcoholic degeneracy” that very night. Whether a true ghost or some other figure wearing the guise of the shade as the Countess of Hochberg is supposed to have done when kidnapping Kaspar Hauser, it seems that even just the belief that one had seen the White Lady was enough to send a healthy prince into the grave.

The Soldier King’s son, Frederick the Great, however, was not a believer. Out of bravado or overcompensation, he openly scoffed at the notion that the White Lady was real, even though popular wisdom told him that his forefathers had all seen her. But he may have been far more obsessed with the tale than he let on. Apparently he took the time to paint a picture of the White Lady, which he gave to his sister. And once, with the writer and philosopher Voltaire, with whom the king had formed an affectionate and mutually flattering though short-lived friendship, he went on a midnight hunt for the ghost, holding candles aloft as they traipsed through the Old Schloss’s many darkened rooms. At one point, when Frederick took a corner and lost Voltaire, it’s said that the atheist intellectual and dandy, perhaps jumpy from his legendary overconsumption of coffee, went quite mad with fear, dashing across rooms and upsetting furniture and other things in his terror. Some sources say that Frederick the Great himself never saw the White Lady, despite his preoccupation with her. However, shortly before his death, his Queen and her entire household claimed to have seen the apparition looking out from a turret of the Old Schloss. And other sources contend that, eventually, Frederick the Great saw her after all, though not in Berlin. Rather, he saw her at his summer palace in Potsdam, striding through his library without sparing him a glance. It cannot be said that he feared her, or at least that he couldn’t overcome his fear of her, for he bravely followed her, finding her always across the room and entering the next, far from his reach, although she turned and beckoned to him. He died soon afterward in the same library in which he had seen her, and it is reported that he passed while looking intently at something—or someone—in the corner invisible to all save him.

A depiction of a White Lady apparition, via Wikimedia Commons

A depiction of a White Lady apparition, via Wikimedia Commons

It may seem strange that the spirit would appear beyond the walls of the Schloss, but actually sightings of the phantom appear not to have been bound to the Berlin city palace. She is supposed to have appeared to a Hohenzollern count at Hohenzollern Castle in the Swabian Alps during its siege by the Free Cities of Württemberg, pacing the ramparts, wringing her hands and sobbing, heralding the impending loss of the beleaguered stronghold. Here again, a story has the Hohenzollern count’s wife disguising herself as the White Lady in order to leave the castle unmolested during its siege and thereby resupply their stores of ammunition, so perhaps some sightings of the White Lady beyond Berlin were actually of impostors in costume. The tales of the White Lady showing herself beyond Berlin are numerous, however, including appearances in Schalksberg,  Plassenberg and Ansbach, and when we consider the origins of the legend and try to pin down who the White Lady may have been in life, who her “original” was, so to speak, we begin to see that the spirit was rather well-travelled . . . or that in fact there may have been more than one White Lady in Germany.

The most common account holds that the White Lady is the ghost of one Agnes, Countess of Orlamünde, who bore Count Otto of Orlamünde two children before his death in the mid-14th century. Thereafter, Agnes is said to have fallen madly in love with a younger man, Albert “the Handsome” of the Hohenzollerns, Burgrave of Nürnberg. When she confessed her feelings, Albert supposedly told her that he would marry her, but for the fact that there were “four eyes” watching him, standing in the way. According to the story, Albert meant his parents, who disapproved of their marriage, but Agnes believed he meant her two children, and in order to remove this impediment, she murdered them both by driving a golden needle into their brains through their ears. Some versions of this story vary, asserting that her weapon was not a golden needle but rather a silver hairpin or a spinning needle, and some suggest that, after Albert discovered her horrific crime and rejected her, she went mad and killed herself while others follow her journey of redemption to Rome and thereafter to Himmelskron where she supposedly founded a convent and died there as its abbess.

While the story of Agnes of Orlamünde may provide a perfect backstory for the spirit, it is problematic, historically speaking, as it appears Otto of Orlamünde’s wife was named Beatrix, not Agnes. It may be that this figure has been confused with or is a corrupted version of one Kunigunde of the Landgraves of Leuchtenberg, who married a subsequent Otto of Orlamünde, and though she did not found it, she certainly contributed to the convent at Himmelskron in the form of an endowment. History may not have recorded the murder of Kunigunde’s children, but popular legend says she likewise killed her son and daughter with a silver hairpin.

Tombstone of Kunigunde von Orlamünde at Himmelskron, via Wikimedia Commons

Tombstone of Kunigunde von Orlamünde at Himmelskron, via Wikimedia Commons

In the mid-15th century we find another likely suspect in the form of Perchta (or often, alternately, Bertha) von Rosenberg who was cruelly mistreated by her husband, John von Lichtenstein of Steyermark. After his death, she moved to Neuhaus in Westphalia where she had a castle built for herself. For the rest of her life, she was known to wear only white out of mourning, such that even in her portraits she appears remarkably similar to the White Lady, in a white gown and white veil, carrying roses and a ring of keys, both of which are known to be items the White Lady has been seen to carry. The spirit of Bertha von Rosenberg was first known to haunt her castle at Neuhaus, but she is said to haunt other locales as well, wherever her family had settled or expanded. As the Rosenbergs had married into the Hohenzollerns as well as the royal families of Hesse and Baden, this means she has been seen across many German regions and principalities, from Berlin to Bavaria and elsewhere, which appears to explain the misnomer of the “White Lady of Baden” used by some authors when discussing the story’s intersection with that of Kaspar Hauser. And indeed, it seems some surviving accounts confuse Bertha von Rosenberg with Agnes or Kunigunde of Orlamünde, suggesting that after she was widowed, it was she who killed her children to win the love of Albert the Handsome, and that she afterward threw herself from a window of her castle at Neuhaus.

Further confusing the origins of the White Lady legend and particularly its association with Bertha von Rosenberg is the historical presence of another Bertha, a Hohenzollern who married Rudolph II of Burgundy and was depicted on the throne with a spindle rather than a scepter, and another Bertha commonly called the Goosefoot Queen, who reigned as Queen of the Franks with her husband, Pepin the Short, and who was said to have had a broad and flat foot as a result of her constant pedaling of a spinning wheel. These real Berthas appear to have been identified with a figure from Swabian folklore, Bertha the Spinner, who is said to carry a spindle and stomp her flat foot in anger when displeased. Indeed, the legend of Bertha the Spinner itself may have been the inspiration of the White Lady, as she is said to wear white robes. Moreover, she comes forth at Christmas time to reward or punish children according to their behavior, like Santa Clause, but considering the fact that she wields a spindle when she comes for the children, it is not hard to discern some intersection here with the legends about Agnes or Kunigunde of Orlamünde, for it must be remembered that in some versions of their tale, she killed her children with a spindle. And just to give some idea of how these legends continue to spider-web in every direction, these historical Berthas and this legendary goose-footed spinner, in addition to being comparable to the figure of jolly St. Nickolas, also may have been the origin of Mother Goose.

Bertha von Rosenberg, via Wikimedia Commons

Bertha von Rosenberg, via Wikimedia Commons

A century later, in the mid-1500s, we find another couple of figures commonly identified with the White Lady, both being women who were ill-used by Joachim II, Elector of Brandenburg. Joachim II is known to have greatly expanded the Old Schloss of Berlin during his time, which necessitated that he purchase some of the buildings around it, and one story suggests that he turned a certain old woman out into the street when she refused to sell him her house. This version suggests it is this old woman who has haunted his descendants ever since. The other version of the story suggests that the White Lady is actually one Anna Sydow, the widow of a gun maker who was beautiful enough to draw the Elector’s attentions. According to one source, whether by expanding the palace or by showering his mistress with extravagances, Joachim II went broke and ended up seeking the help of an alchemist called Philoponus Philaretus, who promised to make the Elector 300 million gold coins using only one small grain of thePhilosopher’s Stone. Like many of the sources I’ve been able to find for this episode, most of which vary in their details or contradict one another (and which I have tried dutifully to document in the blog entry), this tale of a mysterious alchemist, which of course intrigued me, could not be substantiated at all. The name appears to correspond with pseudonymous characters Robert Boyle later used in his writings, so it’s possible that they were common names in the lore of alchemy or even commonly used as aliases among confidence men posing as alchemists. The latter appears to agree most with the story, which says that Joachim II died suddenly without seeing the windfall promised to him by the alchemist, who promptly disappeared. Before the Elector died, he made his son promise to take care of his mistress, Anna Sydow, but his son either broke his promise or interpreted his obligation oddly, for he immediately locked her up in a tower at Spandau, where she languished until her death. Thus it is said that Anna Sydow haunts not only Spandau but also every residence of the family of her beloved. The Elector’s son, it should be noted, was none other than Johann Georg, mentioned earlier as one of the first Hohenzollerns to have his death foretold by the White Lady’s appearance. However, some have suggested that Anna Sydow could not have been the White Lady, as she is said to have seen the specter herself, as had her beloved Joachim II, indicating that the spirit existed long before her imprisonment and death.

And indeed the stories of the White Lady may derive from legends and folklore with an even longer history than any I have so far mentioned, stretching back all the way to Norse mythology and the Nibelungen Lay, a pre-Christian epic poem featuring dragons and a mystical treasure, for a very similar apparition robed in white is said to haunt the rocky Swabian hills, carrying roses and tapping her magical keys against rock faces to open hidden doors and give glimpses of the long vanished Nibelungen treasure. And tracing even farther back into the pre-Christian Norse mythology from which the Nibelungen Lay was derived, we find a goddess named variously Freya or Frigga, and significantly enough, in ancient Germanic tradition, called Bertha. The bride of Odin, Bertha is described as white-robed, a bringer of life and death, and called by some the Ancestress, as she is thought to be the forerunner of all Germanic nobility and royalty. To further tie her back to the White Lady legend, this Freya/Bertha goddess was conflated or syncretistically combined with Bertha the Goosefoot and Spinner, in that some parts of Germany celebrate Berchtentag, or Bertha’s Day, by eating the foods considered sacred to the goddess Freya and praising geese and all other white things as sacred.   And there may also be some confusion or conflation of the many Berthas already mentioned with the Teutonic goddess Perchta, goddess of the moon and bringer of winter, who is depicted as a widow bemoaning the loss of her late husband, the Sun. Her children are the flowers in the field and the foliage in the tress, which she slays with another kind of silver needle: an icicle.

Frigga depicted with needle in hand and two infants beside her, via Wikimedia Commons

Frigga depicted with needle in hand and two infants beside her, via Wikimedia Commons

Whether the White Lady of the Old Schloss of Berlin is in fact a goddess, or whether she is the spirit of a once-living woman—or as has been suggested before, an entire line of women who have been doomed to haunt the Hohenzollerns, or whether she is a simple myth perpetuated by the mistaken, the playful and the dishonest, it is certain that sightings of her continued well into the late modern period, haunting every royal German family throughout every region of Germany. In the late 18th century, she seems to have moved out of her comfort zone, haunting others besides the great families of Germany, as France’s King Louis XVI, while being held for trial during the revolution that overthrew his rule, apparently asked those around him if they had seen the White Lady, explaining that she appeared when princes of his house were about to die. And in 1812, during the French occupation of the palace at Beyreuth, she is said to have thrown over the bed of Napoleon Bonaparte and tried to strangle him. Perhaps the most recent report of the White Lady has her appearing to foretell the death of an Austro-Hungarian of the Habsburg-Lorraines, and in the process ushering in the doom of a generation, as she is rumored to have appeared in 1914 before the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand and the commencement of the Great War, a conflict that would result in the abdication of the last Hohenzollern emperor, Wilhelm II.

Granted, ghost stories are not history, but they often have a historical inspiration. When wading through such muddied historical context as this, with persons who may not have existed, and figures who have been confused and combined in memory, who have been mixed up and mythologized, we again see the weakness in our records of history, the blind spots in our recollection of the past. One might even imagine that “The White Lady” of Ferdinand Freiligrath’s poem, she who “attired in white, appears / with mourning and with wailing, with tremors and with tears,” is speaking of our historical blindness when she chastises us, saying, “’You note them not; you blindly face the hosts of Hate and Fate! / Alas! Your eyes will open soon—too soon, yet all too late!’” 

Blind Spot: The Lady of the Haystack

In a little village called Bourton outside Bristol, a beautiful but troubled woman appeared in 1776. By all accounts young, elegant, shapely and graceful, she enchanted those whom she encountered, who worried for her on account of the destitute condition she appeared to be in. Nevertheless, she never complained about her situation or begged for any charity beyond a drink of milk. Indeed, although everyone she encountered entreated her to come indoors and accept shelter in their homes, and especially the village women who warned her how unsafe it was for a woman alone to sleep out of doors, this unusual creature refused all their offers, choosing instead to slumber beneath the makeshift shelter of haystacks in the fields of Bourton, for as she said, “trouble and misery dwelt in houses, and that there was no happiness but in liberty and fresh air.”

Never did she share her true name with the townsfolk, who assumed from her bearing and mien that she was of high birth. In the absence of a name, he was given one: Louisa. Throughout her time in Bourton, many attempts were made to ascertain who Louisa was and whence she came. She spoke English, but with some peculiarities in pronunciation and sentence structure, such that most believed she was foreign born. One gentleman spoke to her in a variety of European tongues, most of which appeared to make her uncomfortable, and when he spoke German, she turned away, overcome with emotion and sobbing.

Walking to and fro, she showed kindness to children and accepted gifts of milk and tea and simple foods but refused the extravagances of fine clothing and jewelry, which she discarded atop bushes as though they were things of little interest or beneath her. Thus she abided in Bourton for four years, making her home among the haystacks the entire time, except for a short stay in St. Peter’s hospital in Bristol, where she was treated for insanity and promptly released. Age, illness and exposure to the elements took a toll on her beauty, but nevertheless she remained an enchanting woman. Fond of her and concerned for her well-being, the people of Bourton placed her under one Mr. Henderson’s care, in his private insane asylum in Gloucestershire. Although she had not wished to go, her health did appear to improve there. Her lucidity, however, appeared to wane, and she descended into some form of cognitive impairment, called in that era not derangement or dementia but rather “idiotism.”

Depiction of a similar scene, via The Natural Navigator

Depiction of a similar scene, via The Natural Navigator

While her wits deteriorated, those who cared for her refused to give up on finding where she had come from and perhaps reuniting her with family. Based on her reaction to spoken German, they believed her to be of German origin. Therefore, as she languished in Henderson’s Gloucesterhire madhouse, her friends composed a narrative relating all they knew about her appearance in England and her behavior there, and this they published in the newspapers of a variety of major German and French cities. To their disappointment, nothing came of the narrative’s publication, at least not at first. Some years later though, as Louisa, the Lady of the Hay-Stack, continued to deteriorate in her room at the madhouse, a fantastic pamphlet purporting to reveal the secret of her origins was published anonymously in France. This mysterious pamphlet was titled The Stranger, a true history, and it began with an introduction of sorts that gave the particulars of Louisa’s previously published narrative before tantalizingly suggesting that this poor Lady of the Hay-Stack might indeed be one and the same as the subject of the narrative it went on to share.

The pamphlet began its story in 1768, when one Count Cobenzl, minister plenipotentiary of the Austrian Netherlands under Holy Roman Empress Maria Theresa, received a cryptic letter from a woman at Bourdeaux calling herself Mademoiselle La Frülen. In this letter, she said that she had written to him because of how universally respected he was. She was soliciting some undefined aid from him, and she assured him that when he knew who she was, he would likely be glad to have helped her. Cobenzl then received another letter signed by a Count Weissendorf from Prague suggesting that Cobenzl do all he can to help this La Frülen woman, and to advance her money if she desired it, for again, “when you shall know, Sir, who this stranger is, you will be delighted to think you have served her, and grateful to those who have given you an opportunity of doing it.” And then another similar letter from one Count Dietrichstein of Vienna arrived, entreating Cobenzl again to help this stranger with a false name.

Cobenzl replied to La Frülen that he’d be happy to help her but must be told her real name. Their correspondence continued, and as she prevaricated, Cobenzl was visited by a woman from Bourdeaux who knew the mysterious letter writer, speaking very highly of her and sharing with Cobenzl that, due to her mysterious origins and the fact of her remarkable resemblance to the late Holy Roman Emperor Francis I, founder of the Habsburg –Lorraine dynasty, many rumors had arisen about her extraction. Meanwhile, La Frülen assured Cobenzl that she would tell him everything, but for the time being she sent him a portrait of herself, saying that it might give some hint as to what she would tell him. The subject of this portrait appeared to bear a remarkable resemblance to the late emperor, and this judgment was made by none other than the late emperor’s own brother, Prince Charles of Lorraine, whom Count Cobenzl had shown the painting.

Portrait of Count Cobenzl, via Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of Count Cobenzl, via Wikimedia Commons

As Cobenzl continued to exchange letters with this stranger, she sent him further portraits, this time of the empress and the late emperor, suggesting Cobenzl compare her portrait only to the latter. The implication was quite clear, and Cobenzl felt he had to tread rather carefully, yet he continued to receive letters from elsewhere commending him for helping this Mademoiselle La Frülen and beseeching him to keep her secret. After about half a year of this, though, in the early months of 1769, he received letters of a different sort. These communications from Vienna indicated that the authorities were in the process of arresting this La Frülen in Bourdeaux and shipping her to Brussels to be questioned by Count Cobenzl himself. For it appeared that the King of Spain had also received a letter about this woman in Bourdeaux, this missive purporting to be from Emperor Joseph II himself claiming the girl as his half-sister and the natural born daughter of the late Francis I, but when the King of Spain contacted His Imperial Majesty about this letter, the Emperor denied writing it, informed his mother, the Empress, that a forger and impostor in Bourdeaux was seeking to pass herself off as a Habsburg-Lorraine and forthwith dispatched legal authorities to apprehend her!

Upon arriving at Brussels and being conducted to Count Cobenzl, the mysterious Mademoiselle La Frülen charmed everyone with her beauty and bearing, and surprised some with her striking resemblance to the late emperor. She appeared to be under the impression that her arrest was due to debts she had incurred in Bourdeaux, which had been her reason for writing to Cobenzl for aid in the first place. The tale this woman shared with Cobenzl and her other interrogators was a sad one indeed. She had no notion of her birthplace, but believed she had been raised in Bohemia, where she remembered a remote country house and two kind women who nurtured her, and a man of the cloth who occasionally visited to say mass and catechize her. The women took it upon themselves to teach her to read and write, but this priest, upon discovering the fact, forbade it.

Thus she persisted, a chaste and pious youth sequestered from all society, until a man she did not know came to visit her wearing a hunting-suit, put her on his knee and remarked upon how grown she was. Lovingly, he encouraged her to behave well and obey her guardians, and he took his leave. He made a great impression on her, and when he returned more than a year later, dressed again as though out on a hunt, she committed his features to memory, such that she could and did describe him in detail to Count Cobenzl and her other interrogators. At the conclusion of the man’s second visit, she wept, and he appeared moved, promising to visit again soon. However, he did not return for two years, explaining then that he had intended to visit sooner but had taken ill. During this third encounter, the youthful Mademoiselle La Frülen expressed her familial love for the man, and he likewise expressed love for her, promising to see to all her needs and provide her an opulent life of wealth. He then gave her three portraits, one she recognized as being of himself, which he admitted, and one of a regal-looking woman. These, she claimed, were the portraits of the late Emperor Francis I and Empress Maria Theresa that she had sent to Count Cobenzl. The third portrait depicted a veiled woman, which the man claimed was her mother. Along with the portraits, he gave a gift of money and a promise to soon fulfill all her grandest wishes, but he also made her vow never to marry.

Portrait of Emperor Francis I, via Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of Emperor Francis I, via Wikimedia Commons

The implications of the tale were clear. If the man had been the same as the subject of the portrait given to Cobenzl, that made him Emperor Francis, and some other particulars of the tale indicated that she was supposed to have been his daughter. For example, in explaining to her some article of his clothing as an officer’s distinction and then endeavoring to explain what an officer was, he indicated that they were honorable and gallant men whom she should love, being herself the daughter of an officer. And later, when asking her whether she would like to meet the Empress, he said, “You would love her much if you knew her, but that for her peace of mind, you must never do,” implying some secret kept from the Empress. Thus the fact he always visited in hunting clothes, for what better excuse to make a visit to the countryside than a hunt. And La Frülen’s descriptions of his features, and in particular a distinguishing pale mark on one of his temples, seemed to fit the late Emperor Francis exactly. In fact, the detail that he had become ill during a specific period was corroborated by the late Emperor’s brother Charles, who recalled Francis becoming ill after returning from a hunting trip around that time.

Eventually, the priest who taught her catechism informed her that the kind visitor she so loved had passed away and had left instructions that she be taken to a convent. So terrified was she of life in a convent that she fled from her chaperones during the journey, ending up sleeping in a barn. Thereafter, relying on the charity of those she encountered, she was able to find passage to Sweden on a carriage but fell from the conveyance during the journey, suffering a grievous head wound and having to stay with a Dutch family at their inn until her recovery. Thereafter continuing to Stockholm, she encountered the first of a series of charitable noblemen who, on account of her resemblance to the late Emperor and based on cryptic recommendations to offer her aid, took her in, provided her with gifts and loans and generally saw to her every need and comfort. Everywhere she went in those years, from Stockholm to Hamburg to Bourdaeux, she fell in with an aristocratic element, who often received letters from afar entreating them to offer her succor and charity, hinting at the tantalizing secret of her lineage.

Such letters, of course, Count Cobenzl and his fellow interrogators were well familiar with, and they informed Mademoiselle La Frülen that she was not in custody because of the many debts she had accumulated in Bourdeaux but rather for the forging of letters and for fraudulently posing as the daughter of Emperor Francis. In great distress, she admitted to having forged the letter from Emperor Joseph II to the King of Spain as well as some other letters, but she justified this based on the threats she had received from creditors and refused to recant the story of her youth and its implications that she was a natural born daughter of the Emperor. As for many of the other letters, some of which Count Cobenzl himself had received recommending him to offer her aid, she claimed absolute ignorance of them, suggesting that her father must have instructed a great many people to see to her welfare, and that they continued to do so from afar.  Moreover, she indicated that she had no desire to continue seeking charity from others but that she had no choice because of the vow she had made never to marry. Several advantageous proposals had been made to her in Bourdeaux that would have seen her well taken care of, but she had refused them to keep her promise.

Portrait of Empress Maria Theresa, via Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of Empress Maria Theresa, via Wikimedia Commons

Having received the details of this interrogation, the Empress was disposed to treat the prisoner as severely as possible, but before any action was taken against her, Count Cobenzl became very fatally ill. While on his death bed, he received a mysterious letter that he afterward burned. Something in the content of the letter appears to have convinced him to treat Mademoiselle La Frülen far more leniently than the Empress wished, and after Cobenzl’s death, she was conducted to a small town and left there to her fate with a sum of fifty gold coins. 

Thus the pamphlet ended in the year 1769, insinuating that somehow this poor woman, driven quite mad by her circumstances, found her way across the Channel seven years later to England and Bristol, to lead a sad but tranquil life among the haystacks of Bourton. In support of this speculation is the report that, among the several languages other than English spoken to her, Louisa, the Lady of the Haystack, only appeared to respond in any way to French and German. She appears to have been illiterate, never looking in a book even when one was offered to her. Some reported finding a distinct scar on her head that seemed to corroborate the story of her fall from a carriage. As her faculties had drastically diminished, all questioning of her regarding the content of the pamphlet was largely fruitless. She babbled about her mamma coming for her mostly, but once, when it was suggested that they take her to Bohemia, she is said to have replied, “That is papa’s own country.”

After a long illness, she died in Mr. Henderson’s madhouse in December of 1801, by all accounts still a happy and mirthful woman even if she had lost all of her wits. She seems to have reverted to a childlike nature during that final season of her life. And she left behind many questions to which we may never know the answers. Who was she? If she was Mademoiselle La, then was she indeed the daughter of an emperor? Or was she merely a forger and confidence woman? Just as Mademoiselle La Frülen remains a question mark blemishing Continental history, in all likelihood, Louisa, the Lady of the Haystack, will ever remain a blind spot in British history, a mystery in her own time as well as an enigma in posterity.

Kaspar Hauser, Part Two: Princeling

Thanks for reading Historical Blindness, the Odd Past Podcast. If this is the first time you’ve visited the blog, you’ve found it in the midst of a series on the mysterious foundling, Kaspar Hauser. Before continuing to read to this installment, go back to Episode 7, part one, and then check out the Blind Spot on Princess Caraboo of Javasu, which serves as an interlude of sorts. And while you’re at it, read through the backlog, binge listen to the podcast and rate and review us on iTunes.

*

In the first half of our story, we met young Kaspar Hauser, lumbering clumsily into Nuremberg on blistered feet, his pockets filled with odds and ends (a key, a rosary and religious tracts) and his entire life in his hand in the form of a couple missives, one ostensibly written by the mother who’d abandoned him, and the other by the foster father who’d kept him imprisoned in darkness his entire life. We observed the unusually childish behavior Kaspar displayed, his temperamental gastric processes, and the extreme interest taken in him by certain benefactors, such as Judge Feuerbach, who was coming to suspect that Kaspar was of noble or even royal stock, and Professor Daumer, who took the strange youth in, tutored him, and performed homeopathic experiments upon him.

Moreover, in the interlude we heard the singular tale of Princess Caraboo of Javasu, a young woman in England 11 years earlier who had passed herself off as a Indonesian princess when in fact she was a poor English farm girl and an astonishingly adept impostor. Thus we might understand well the circumspection of many when it came to Kaspar Hauser and his inconsistent tale, for might not this youth who spoke in a vulgar country dialect be attempting to accomplish a similar deception in order to better his position in life, with a view toward becoming a light horseman as his letter indicated? Was he not already enjoying the fruits of his imposture by living in Daumer’s home, receiving an education and riding horses in his leisure time?

As we rejoin the narrative, even Daumer himself, one of Kaspar’s staunchest defenders, began to notice a tendency toward dishonesty in the boy. It seemed that Kaspar had come to prefer wandering and horseback riding in the fields outside of Nuremberg to his frequent lessons with the professor, and he was known to play hooky and lie about where he had been. Daumer believed this new propensity for untruthfulness came as a direct result of a gradual change in the boy’s diet, for he had slowly begun to introduce meat into the boy’s meals until Kaspar managed to digest it, and now he suspected that this new deceitfulness, as well as an attendant dampening of his supposed magnetic abilities, showed that a carnivorous diet has a corrupting influence on humanity, blunting certain uncanny talents that we might all otherwise enjoy. However, Daumer’s tendency toward quackery has already been noted, and it is very important to note that Kaspar’s dishonesty, rather than being indicative of calculated charlatanry, came only in the form of innocent falsehoods such as are commonly told by children, especially when caught disobeying.

One example of Kaspar’s childish lies occurred on an October morning in 1829, when Daumer confronted Kaspar over his truancy. Kaspar insisted that he had not been outside the city walls riding when he was supposed to have been reporting for his lessons, but Daumer had him dead to rights, for he had confirmed with others who had seen the adolescent out riding his horse in the fields. The entire scene strikes me as reminiscent of many another that has played out in the homes of teenagers the world over, for when accused of misbehavior, it seems the teen’s first recourse is to deny, and I can only imagine that after being told he had been seen, Kaspar either cast doubt on those who had seen him or made some further excuse, as is frequently the recourse of headstrong youth. On this occasion, however, something more dramatic also occurred.

As the day wore on, and the heat of their quarrel cooled, with Daumer and Kaspar Hauser separately going about their customary daily activities, Daumer’s sister happened to notice blood upon the stairs, with footprints in it. This she cleaned, assuming that Kaspar had suffered a nosebleed. Afterward, in looking for Kaspar in his room and in the privy, or toilet—where Kaspar, with his delicate constitution, was known to spend much time—she found a larger pool of blood, which, farcically, she assumed had been left by a cat that had birthed kittens. Again, she cleaned the pool of blood, believing the tracks had been made by Kaspar who had heedlessly walked through the puddle and simply failed to wipe his feet. Only when Kaspar did not show up for dinner did the Daumers become alarmed. Daumer’s mother checked Kaspar’s room and checked again the privy, and then she saw a mark of blood on the cellar door, and inside, a further trail of blood on the steps. Sending a maid to investigate this sanguinary track, she discovered an inert form collapsed at the bottom of the cellar steps. “There lies Kaspar, dead!” the maid reported, and others were sent down to fetch him up. He was bleeding from his forehead and appeared delirious, but was very much alive, saying only a few broken words, “…man struck…” and “…hide in cellar…” before fainting away with feverish shivers and violent convulsions, such that three men had difficulty holding him down. During his many hours of disorientation and insensibility, he was offered a cup with a hot drink, and he bit a shard from the cup, swallowing it down with the drink! Only a few more things did he manage to say clearly during this delirium, among them, “…not murder, not be silent, not die!” and “…a man murder me! away! not murder me! I fond of every body; injure nobody…” and perhaps most tellingly, “Brought me out of my prison, you murder me! You first have murdered me, before I understood what life is. You must say why you imprisoned me…” 

From a contemporary engraving depicting the first attack on Kaspar, via Strange Flowers, a WordPress blog.

From a contemporary engraving depicting the first attack on Kaspar, via Strange Flowers, a WordPress blog.

Not until he was sensible again could he tell the story in all its particulars. It seems he had gone earlier to visit the homeopath associate of Professor Daumer, Dr. Preu, and had been given a walnut, which despite Kaspar’s worries that it would disagree with him, he ate a portion of to satisfy Dr. Preu’s curiosity and almost instantaneously felt ill. After returning to Daumer’s house, he went to the privy, sitting there for quite a while in intestinal distress. While thus indisposed, he heard the distant sound of the house door and light footsteps approaching through the passage toward the privy. He peered through an opening in the privy screen to ascertain who was there. To his horror, he claimed to have seen a man dressed in black, with a black silk mask and shiny black gloves—whom in his delirium he had compared to a soot-blackened chimney sweep who had earlier frightened him in the kitchen. Kaspar tried to pull up his trousers, which because of the cramped space of the privy caused his head to push the screen open, thus exposing him to the masked intruder, who then spoke: “You must die before you leave Nuremberg!” Brandishing a cleaver, he struck Kaspar on the forehead and left him there to die. But Kaspar did not perish from the blow. He described coming to his senses and wandering back up the passage into the house, explaining the presence of his bloody boot prints there, and claiming that he ended up back in the passage by the privy quite by accident, due to his disorientation, whereupon he spotted the cellar and decided to hide within, in case his attacker remained in the house. 

Notifications with a description of the assassin were immediately sent far and wide by magistrates, but no suspects were ever identified or arrested. And the testimony of one eyewitness suggested that no one answering the description of the black-clad attacker had come near the Daumers’ house during that time, and that the only person seen approaching the house was a beggar. This, of course, encourages the convictions of those who believe Kaspar Hauser a liar. After his quarrel with Daumer, he must have faked the attack in order to regain favor and sympathy, or perhaps with even grander designs, he hoped again to excite the interest of the public, which had been waning. There had been some talk about town that, much improved now in his literacy, he intended to write an autobiography, so could not this have been a stunt to make it look like someone wished to silence him, a trick to recapture the fancy of the entire city and publicize his forthcoming book? 

But other reports seemed to corroborate Kaspar’s story, as another eyewitness claimed to have seen a man that fit the description of the attacker leaving the Daumers’ house at just that time, and another witness saw perhaps the same man washing his hands in a nearby basin on the street…perhaps to clean the blood from them? And a third report, given by a poor woman some days later, describes a well-dressed man fitting the description of the attacker asking around about whether Kaspar had died in the attack and slinking away suspiciously upon seeing a posted notification seeking the public’s help in apprehending the assassin. With such evidence in Kaspar’s defense, interest in him and his murky background did indeed resurge, and many, including the brilliant Judge Anselm von Feuerbach, who was certainly no gullible fool, believed that, rather than a stunt, this was a genuine attempt to silence Kaspar before his autobiography could reveal some carefully protected secret about his origins. For as I’ve mentioned before, theories had already surfaced that Kaspar’s lifelong captivity had been undertaken in order to deny him some grand birthright.

Portrait of Countess Hochberg, circa 1800, via Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of Countess Hochberg, circa 1800, via Wikimedia Commons

Legends regarding Kaspar’s noble birth had emerged within a couple weeks of his appearance, and not all of them agreed in their particulars. Some claimed he was the progeny of Napoleon Bonaparte himself. Professor Daumer believed him to be the successor of an English aristocrat, while others would later believe him a Hungarian nobleman’s heir. But the theory regarding a noble birthright that proved the most popular over the years was that he was the crown prince of Baden, abducted from his crib in 1812. According to this version of events, Kaspar was the true heir of Grand Duke Karl Freidrich, who after siring three children from an earlier marriage, entered a morganatic marriage with one Luise Geyer von Geyersberg while in his seventies. A morganatic marriage indicates marriage to someone of lower rank who is given no claim to the wealth or titles of the spouse of higher rank. In this case, Geyerberg was only given the title of Countess Hochberg. Moreover, any children born of a morganatic marriage would not succeed to the titles or property of the parent of higher birth, so when the Countess Hochberg gave Grand Duke Karl Friedrich three sons—a fact that some found suspect considering the Grand Duke’s age, spawning rumors that they were actually fathered by one of the Grand Duke’s grown sons—they were not destined to be his heirs. That honor, it seemed, would fall to his grandson, Prince Karl, the only grandson of the Grand Duke’s first marriage, and thence forth to his progeny, the first of which was born in 1812 to Duchess Stéphanie de Beauharnais, who happened to be Napoleon’s stepdaughter.

As the story goes, Countess Hochberg, envious and determined to seize the dynasty for her own sons, dressed in white and stole into the nursery. There was a well-known ghost story at the time of an entity called the White Lady of Baden, who appeared, it was said, when princes died. Thus when the Countess appeared in spectral white, wet-nurses swooned away and other servants cowered out of her path, giving her access to the royal nursery, where she accomplished her purpose of replacing the newborn prince with an unhealthy changeling that would die within a couple of weeks. The abducted princeling, then, which the legend says was Kaspar Hauser, was taken away to live as the child of the court servant from whom the Countess had taken the sickly babe.

Within a couple of years, then, young Kaspar was taken to a castle on the Rhine. Some circumstantial evidence even appeared to support this, as Professor Daumer claimed to have seen Kaspar draw a coat of arms from memory that resembled one at this castle. Moreover, a governess accused as one of Kaspar’s captors, supposed tohave overseen the child at this Rhinish castle on behalf of the Countess, is reported to have fainted upon hearing herself so implicated in these stories and ended up perishing in a mental asylum, which in no way diminished suspicion of her involvement. And finally, some recalled a strange story from 1816, in which a message in a bottle had been discovered floating in the Rhine. The message, written in Latin, purported to be a plea for help from a prisoner held somewhere nearby in an underground cell. The note was signed S. Hanès Sprancio, and proponents of the Prince Kaspar theory suggested this was an anagram that translated to “his son Kaspar,” speculating that the message had been composed by one aware of the princeling’s captivity who pitied him and hoped the Grand Duke would hear of the note and ascertain its secret meaning. In later years, it was posited that the castle in which Kaspar had been held was one called Pilsach, for in the 1920s, a novelist found a dungeon there and suggested a resemblance to a drawing made by Kaspar, and in the 1980s, a toy horse was supposedly discovered there as well.

The cell discovered at Pilsach in the '20s where it has been suggested Hauser was confined, via LiFo

The cell discovered at Pilsach in the '20s where it has been suggested Hauser was confined, via LiFo

As the legend continued, the evil Countess had been busy throughout the years of Kaspar’s confinement, murdering every heir that stood in the way of her children inheriting the title of Grand Duke of Baden, which meant poisoning the Grand Duke himself, Kaspar’s father, as well as Karl’s brother Friedrich and Kaspar’s own baby brother, who was born to Stéphanie de Beauharnais in 1816 and only lived eight days. The Countess died in 1820, with her children seemingly the only option for the continuation of the dynasty. After her death, an accomplice saw fit to free the boy and see that he might enjoy some semblance of a fulfilling life as a trooper in Nuremberg, but with the publicity his story had received, and the suggestion that he may be remembering enough of his past to write a book, some deadly measures had to be taken to obscure their crimes.

So the story went, and the apparent attempt on Kaspar’s life did much to corroborate it. Two constables were assigned to guard Kaspar against further attacks, and Professor Daumer suggested that Kaspar would be better off living elsewhere, whereupon a wealthy merchant took him in, in whose household he was subjected to many apparently indecent goings-on, as the constables guarding him reportedly took many untoward liberties with the maidservants. Apparently, his tendency toward lying, however childishly, only worsened in this environment, as the lady of the house reported Kaspar freely spinning falsehoods and then sulking and throwing tantrums when confronted or reproached. Indeed, on one occasion, after being admonished for dishonesty, he went to his room, and later, when a pistol shot sounded, his guards rushed in to find him lying prostrate, bleeding from his head where a bullet had grazed him. According to him, he had been on a chair, reaching to retrieve a book from a shelf when he slipped and reached out to keep himself from falling and accidentally disturbed a brace of pistols that hung on the wall as a last defense against assassins. One of these pistols had accidentally fired, and he was lucky to be alive. 

Many who scrutinize Kaspar’s life for proof that he was a liar and impostor see this incident as establishing a clear pattern: caught in a lie, he undertakes to purposely injure himself in order to regain sympathy, only this time, with guards outside his door, he couldn’t blame his injury on a shadowy trespasser. There is also something to be said for the possibility that this may indeed have been an accident, and as for the lady of the house complaining of Kaspar’s dishonesty, doubt has also been cast on her word, as reports surfaced later that she had made sexual advances toward the ingenuous Kaspar, which he, in his innocence, had spurned, making a resentful enemy of her. Indeed, after the episode with the gun, he was forced to leave the merchant’s home and move in with the man who had overseen him in the merchant’s household, and this guardian thereafter described a positive change in Kaspar after getting out of that environment. His lying abated and he excelled in his studies. One might justifiably infer, then, that this boy of perhaps 18 years was no scoundrel but rather, like any other youth, more likely to comport himself virtuously in a wholesome environment, with the guidance of a decent role model.

Unfortunately, at this time, a different sort of benefactor and guardian entered Kaspar’s life: the fourth earl of Stanhope, Philip Henry, a travelling English nobleman who some believe may have been a spy for the British government or perhaps for certain German royals, many of whom he was well acquainted with—a fact that would eventually turn suspicion on him as being in league with the shadowy forces aligned against Kaspar Hauser, as he had been in Nuremberg on some unknown business during the first attempt on Kaspar’s life.

Lord Philip Henry Stanhope, via Wikimedia Commons

Lord Philip Henry Stanhope, via Wikimedia Commons

Lord Stanhope entered Kaspar’s life as a friend, someone who had taken an interest in his story and his wellbeing, buying his way into the boy’s good graces with lavish gifts and donations of hard money and quickly becoming his new legal guardian. Stanhope openly supported the notion that Kaspar was a boy of high birth, although rather than a German noble of Baden, he seized on some occasions when Kaspar seemed to understand Hungarian words as proof that the boy came from Hungarian nobility. Kaspar had suffered paroxysms upon hearing the name of a Hungarian town. Indeed, perhaps because of his growing vanity, and wishing to encourage rumors of his nobility, he cried “That is my mother!” upon hearing the maiden name of a Hungarian countess. Lord Stanhope took Kaspar to Hungary, hoping that being immersed in the Magyar language and seeing the sights might encourage further recollection, but alas, Kaspar was clearly unfamiliar with the culture, the language, the landmarks. Nevertheless, he appears to have made a melodramatic show of nearly recalling certain things, as the Hungarian nobles who met him found Kaspar’s histrionics laughable.

After the trip to Hungary, Lord Stanhope began to think Kaspar a fraud. Wanting little more to do with him, he left Kaspar in Ansbach with an authoritarian tutor name Johann Meyer, who kept Kaspar on house arrest most of the time, making him sit through dense lectures on mathematics and history and frequently searching his rooms and making attempts to read Kaspar’s personal journal, likely reporting any suspicious thing he found to Lord Stanhope, who appeared to have made it his purpose to expose Kaspar as a fraud. Meyer reported that Kaspar was certainly a dishonest boy, but again, his falsehoods tended to be childish lies told with the object of finding an excuse to have a break from his studies and get out of the house for a short while. His only respite from Meyer came from religious lessons that he took with a local pastor and visits to his friend, Judge Anselm von Feuerbach, who before his death in 1833 secured for Kaspar a junior clerk position in the chancery against his tyrannical schoolmaster’s wishes.

Some months after Feuerbach’s demise, on December 14 of 1833, a bitterly cold and gusty day, the schoolmaster, Johann Meyer, answered the front door to find Kaspar Hauser, who had been out on his usual errands, returned home in quite a state. He lurched inside, clutching at his chest where he appeared to be bleeding a little, and he gestured back out of doors, toward the nearby Hofgarten park. “Man had knife,” he sputtered. “Gave me pouch—Stabbed—Ran as fast as I could—Pouch is still there!” Meyer, sympathetic soul he was, merely wondered why Kaspar had been out at the park in this weather at all, and Kaspar crumpled to the floor. Meyer took Kaspar to lie on the couch, but his compassion ended there. He believed Kaspar was attempting another stunt to get sympathy, and he told the boy as much in no uncertain terms, going so far as to threaten him with a beating if he did not recant his story and tell the truth.

The account that Kaspar gave between moans, lying there writhing in pain on the couch, was that a workman had come to him at the chancery, inviting him to the Hofgarten to see some items of clay, but when Kaspar arrived, no one was there, and near a memorial to a certain local poet, a bearded man in a black hat approached him, held out a pouch saying it was a gift, and when the boy took it, promptly stabbed him with a stiletto dagger. When Kaspar, even under threat of a thrashing, refused to withdraw this story, Meyer relented and went to find a doctor. This he did, and the first physician to examine Kaspar, after likely listening to Meyer’s diminishment of Kaspar’s character and hearing his certainty that the wound was self-inflicted and likely superficial, arrived and immediately poked an unhygienic bare finger into the wound, starting back in surprise when his finger went quite deep and nearly felt Kaspar’s thumping heart.

A depiction of Kaspar Hauser's murder, via Welt and N24

A depiction of Kaspar Hauser's murder, via Welt and N24

With this doctor’s report that Kaspar had indeed been grievously, perhaps mortally, wounded, Meyer reported the incident to the police, who went to search the park and question possible witnesses. Meanwhile, Meyer sought a second opinion, and this time the physician said exactly what Meyer wanted to hear, that the wound was not serious and Kaspar would be just fine. Thus, as his temperature rose, and his pain worsened, Meyer stood there assuring police constables that Kaspar was a liar who had stabbed himself and was exaggerating his condition. “Oh God,” Kaspar was heard to whimper before dying three days after his attack, “having to depart life in this way, in despair and dishonor!”

Johann Meyer and Lord Stanhope both made it their mission after Kaspar’s death to defame him, to tarnish his reputation and convince as many as possible that Kaspar Hauser was a prevaricator and dissembler, a country vagrant who had sought a better life for himself through imposture and had continued to seek attention and charity by faking attempts on his life, the last of which he had made too realistic, essentially committing accidental suicide. And this is, indeed, the opinion of Hauser that dominates today, and there is much to support it, such as the inconsistencies in his story previously noted, and the sheer unlikelihood of some particulars, such as that a child raised only on bread and water would have been strong enough to walk let alone to climb the stairs of the tower where he was conducted after his first appearance. Moreover, the entire notion that a child could be taught to write in the dark by a guiding hand or could be taught to walk in a short time after years in a low-ceilinged dungeon simply beggared the imagination. Then there was the fact that the penmanship of the letters he carried appeared to resemble the penmanship he later developed upon supposedly becoming literate.

As for the supposed attack in Ansbach that killed him, the police did not find the attacker or the weapon when they search the park, but they did find the pouch that Kaspar had mentioned. Inside it was a note written in spiegelschrift, or mirror writing, which read as follows:

To be delivered.

Hauser will be able to tell you exactly who I am, and whence I come,

but to save him the trouble I will do it myself:

I come from ________

At the Bavarian frontier,

By the river ________

I will even tell you my name—M.L.Ö.

The note written in mirror-writing found in the Hofgarten, via Wikimedia Commons

The note written in mirror-writing found in the Hofgarten, via Wikimedia Commons

It has never been ascertained why the pertinent information was left blank or what the initials stand for. But it was pointed out by Meyer and then corroborated by witnesses less hostile to Kaspar, that the pouch had belonged to Kaspar Hauser, and that the writing on the note had been his own, as he had been practicing mirror-writing.

Of course, all of this does seem to damn young Kaspar Hauser as a liar, but consider evidence on the other side of the debate. The softness of Kaspar’s hands and the blisters on his feet does seem to indicate he hadn’t been a physically active youth, and some of the reactions he had to food other than bread and water, especially his gastrointestinal suffering, seem impossible to have faked. Moreover, while many have pointed out that Kaspar’s guardians often caught him in lies, they were predominately childish fibs, not devious plots. When considering the first attack in Daumer’s house, there are the eyewitness accounts of a man answering to the attacker’s description leaving the house and washing his hands, and likewise, in Ansbach, it turned out that eight witnesses, including a constable, had seen a suspicious character matching the description Kaspar had given of his assassin skulking about the park at the time of his attack, and had even been seen walking with Kaspar. One witness, astonishingly, claimed to have seen the stranger leaving the park with blood on his hand! While the murder weapon was not found at the time, a fearsome “French bandit’s dagger” was eventually discovered in the bushes of the Hofgarten near the monument in 1838. As for the theory that Kaspar had stabbed himself so mortally, Dr. Jan Bondeson, whose discussion of Hauser’s case in The Great Pretenders  I have relied on heavily for this episode, brings his modern medical expertise to bear in comparing the various physicians’ accounts and autopsy reports and suggests that the evidence simply doesn’t support suicide. Although Kaspar likely died from infection due to the first doctor thrusting a dirty finger into his wound, the angle of the stabbing and the absence of any hesitation wounds, together with reports that he appeared in good spirits prior to the incident and had always been fearful of sharp objects and the prospect of pain or injury, all amounts to conclusive evidence of murder.

The dagger later found in the Hofgarten, via LiFo

The dagger later found in the Hofgarten, via LiFo

While today most dismiss Kaspar as a fraud, in his own time, there was public outcry that his death proved the theory that he was a kidnapped prince of Baden, and many conspiracy theorists further alleged that Lord Stanhope and his vile creature, the schoolmaster Johann Meyer, had themselves been conspirators—party to the first attack on Kaspar, orchestrators of his successful assassination, and now intent on erasing their crime from history by besmirching Kaspar’s name so that he would always be remembered as an impostor. The theory that Kaspar Hauser was a lost princeling, must have been quite convincing at the time, and likely was even encouraged by Kaspar himself, much as he had probably encouraged the strange homeopathic experiments of Daumer and Preu. He seems to have been a boy who wanted to please those around him, which in his case meant acting a certain part and offering the responses that people hoped to see, whether they were physical responses to homeopathic remedies or exaggerated moments of feigned remembrance.

Regardless, the princeling theory no longer holds water for a variety of reasons, not the least of which being that the Countess Hochberg cannot be proven to have poisoned the heirs of the Grand Duchy of Baden, for there is no indication that they were murdered at all and in fact seem to have died naturally. Some rumors did abound when Grand Duchess Stephanie lost her two sons, but there is no evidence of baby-swapping, nor any logic behind the idea that the Countess would murder everyone who might prevent her children’s rise to power and yet for some reason leave a contender for the throne alive in the form of Kaspar languishing in his dungeon at Pilsach. Indeed, the dungeon later found at Pilsach seems to not agree in several regards with descriptions Kaspar gave, which included windows. And as for the message in a bottle of 1816, most believe that to have been a prank, as the latin signature, S. Hanès Sprancio, could be construed in translation as meaning “I am a Jackass who don’t know where I am.”

In 1996, popular periodical Der Spiegel laid this to rest by testing the DNA present on Kaspar’s bloodstained clothing, which had been on display in a museum for years. Testing against the DNA of confirmed descendants of Grand Duchess Stephanie, this study proved that Kaspar Hauser was no relation to that royal lineage. Nevertheless, believers insisted there had been some mistake. Rumors rose that the museum or some of its patrons had tampered with the clothing, embellishing the bloodstains with cow’s blood or ketchup. The stains were confirmed to be human blood, but still, it seemed only comparing the bloodstains to DNA taken from Kaspar Hauser’s very remains would satisfy some, and this has never been undertaken.

The cover of Der Spiegel, 25 Nov. 1996, via Der Spiegel Online.

The cover of Der Spiegel, 25 Nov. 1996, via Der Spiegel Online.

If we accept that Kaspar was no princeling, there still remains the mystery of his origins and the question of his murder. One theory returns us to the notion raised in part one that many of these “wild children” were actually children with illnesses or cognitive disabilities that were abandoned because they were considered to be burdens. Beyond Kaspar’s apparent childishness, illiteracy and general ignorance, there are the accounts of his convulsive fits. First in response to Daumer and Preu’s homeopathic experiments, then after the first attack and also after hearing the name of a certain Hungarian town, he is said to have gone into violent spasms. These reports, as well as others indicating that Kaspar suffered from consistent facial tics and that his brain showed some abnormality during the autopsy, have led some scholars to hypothesize that Kaspar suffered from epilepsy. In fact, it turns out that the items in his pockets when he was first taken in—the key, the rosary and the religious tracts—were actually common folk remedies, charms meant to protect the bearer against epilepsy, or what they called the falling sickness. According to this theory, then, he somehow injured himself by accident during his seizures and simply hallucinated the man in black that attacked him. This seems less than convincing for more than one reason, besides the fact that this diagnosis of epilepsy has since been challenged by other scholars. For example, Kaspar does not seem to have been cognitively or physically impaired so as to seem a burden to his caretakers, so why would he have been abandoned, and if he had been abandoned, why at the advanced age of 16 and why the letter of introduction? Moreover, reports of the wound that killed him, which must have been made by a dagger, seem to show that it could not have been self-inflicted, let alone accidental.

Dr. Jan Bondeson, in The Great Pretenders, offers a more rational version of the Kaspar Hauser tale in which Kaspar was a vagabond who was manipulated into or conspired in a scheme to gain charity by presenting himself as a poor mistreated foundling. His co-conspirator or manipulator, then, perhaps being the man who wrote the letter and sent him into Nuremberg to perpetrate his imposture, was also the man in black who later attacked him and eventually killed him. This ruffian, seeing that Kaspar had succeeded in gaining a measure of prosperity through his benefactors, had attempted to blackmail him; he would expose Kaspar as a fraud if Kaspar didn’t somehow share some of the material comfort he had gained for himself. This then explained the mysterious note being written in Kaspar’s own mirror-writing and being placed in his own pouch, and most importantly, it explained why it only had blanks where the important information should have been: Kaspar showed his blackmailer the note and threatened to fill in the blanks to incriminate him, but rather than intimidating him, it only threw him into a murderous rage.

Statues depicting Kaspar Hauser at different points in his life, via Wikimedia Commons

Statues depicting Kaspar Hauser at different points in his life, via Wikimedia Commons

It seems, however, that no one theory accounts for every mysterious particular in the story of Kaspar Hauser, and this is why it has proven to be one of the most enduring of historical mysteries. To illustrate, no less than four memorials to Kaspar can be visited in Germany.  One can view his bloody clothes in a museum that is situated on a square named for him. One can visit the statues at the Platenstrasse, one depicting Kaspar with his rumpled clothes as he has first appeared in Nuremberg and the other Kaspar as the young gentleman he became, looking back at his old self in puzzlement. Or one could visit his grave, where the memorial stone reads: “Here lies Kaspar Hauser, the riddle of his time. His birth was unknown, his death mysterious.” And finally, there is the monument at the site of his stabbing in the Hofgarten, with its apt Latin inscription: “Hic occultus occulto occisus est.” Here a mysterious man was killed in a mysterious way. And the Latinate root for mysterious here seems especially appropriate, for “occult” means to cut off from view, to obscure. Certain passages in history seem destined to remain concealed from our sight, and it is these unreadable chapters in our past, these hopeless cases of historical blindness, that remain the most contentious and the most memorable.

*

Thank you for reading Historical Blindness. If you enjoy this blog, support it by telling people about it, liking us on Facebook, following us on Twitter, and giving the podcast a five-star review on iTunes. You can also support the program by purchasing my book, Manuscript Found!, a historical novel about the dubious origins of Mormonism and a Masonic plot to silence a traitor. If you enjoyed this series on Kaspar Hauser, you’ll find more stories of charlatans and impostors, swindlery and conspiracy in the novel. Here’s a link to the Amazon page. And if you’re feeling generous and want to contribute directly to the production of the show, you can donate here or visit our Patreon page to pledge a monthly donation and receive rewards. Thank you!

Blind Spot: Princess Caraboo of Javasu

Thanks you for reading Historical Blindness. This is a fortnightly blog and podcast, and you are reading a Blind Spot installment, which is shorter bonus content I release between my principal blog posts. This Blind Spot happens to be sandwiched between part one and part two of a series on Kaspar Hauser, the mysterious foundling of early 19th century Bavaria. As such, I highly recommend you take the time to read Kaspar Hauser, Part One—Foundling, before enjoying this Blind Spot, which serves as an interlude and bridges the two halves of that story. For this is the story of another foundling—although this one not a child—who appeared in England almost exactly 11 years previously, give or take a month, and one who also excited the sympathies of all who encountered her. She too inspired and even encouraged legends of having been born of royalty in her native land, and this she accomplished without ever speaking a word that could be understood by her adherents. This is the story of Princess Caraboo of Javasu.

*

On an April evening in 1817, in the village of Almondsbury, in County Glocester, a beautiful black-haired woman who looked to be in her mid-twenties appeared at the open door of a reverend’s cottage and made gestures indicating she wanted to come in and rest on the couch. She wore all black—black gown, black shawl, black stockings—and even her eyes were deep black pools. She appeared unable to speak a word of English; beyond her gestures, she expressed herself in a tongue understood by none and was thus referred to the local Overseer of the Poor, who in turn brought her that very evening to the mansion of a local Magistrate, Mr. Worrall, for he was aware that in the household there lived a servant who spoke several foreign languages. This mysterious foreign woman appeared reluctant to enter the mansion, but relented upon the kind invitation of the lady of the house, Mrs. Worrall, who that evening became charmed by the prepossessing young woman and greatly concerned for her well-being.

Mrs. Worrall put her up in a public house that night, where in the parlor the woman pointed to a picture of a pineapple and appeared to indicate she was familiar with the fruit. Some other hints at her country of origin could be gleaned from her unusual customs at the public house and afterwards, during her brief stay at St. Peter’s Hospital as a vagrant. She refused any meat or alcohol, much like Kaspar Hauser would a decade later, taking only tea and preferring rice to bread, seeming in fact to favor a vegetarian Hindustani diet, especially savoring curries. Furthermore, she appeared unfamiliar with traditional beds, needing to be shown how to use them. All of these clues seemed to indicate that she originated from some tropical and perhaps Asian locale, and yet she seemed to adhere to some Christian traditions, praying over her food and at her bedside before sleeping, and showing some recognition of the significance of the cross. Mrs. Worrall, who continued to visit her despite wariness that the young woman might be making a fool of her, spoke to her frankly in English, begging her to come clean and promising to offer her aid regardless of any deception, but the young woman remained impassive, convincing Mrs. Worrall that she understood English not at all. With a little more coaxing and gesturing, she got the girl to share her name, which she pronounced as “Caraboo.”

Portrait of Princess Caraboo of Javasu, circa 1817, by Thomas Barker of Bath, via Historical Portraits Image Library

Portrait of Princess Caraboo of Javasu, circa 1817, by Thomas Barker of Bath, via Historical Portraits Image Library

Many people came to visit this Caraboo during her stay at the hospital. They brought books with them in hopes that Caraboo might indicate her place of origin by pointing at a map or picture, while others brought foreign-born visitors they believed might be able to discern Caraboo’s language. Eventually, one such visitor, a Portuguese man from Malaysia named Manuel Eynesso, finally declared the language she spoke to be an admixture of Sumatran and some other Indonesian island dialects, interpreting her words to tell her story in broad strokes, that she was of high birth in her homeland and had been kidnapped from her island, brough across the world to England and abandoned. Upon Eynesso’s word that Caraboo was genuine, Mrs. Worrall insisted that the poor girl return to live at her. Indeed, she became something of an object of curiosity during her stay at the mansion of her benefactress, and men of high pedigree would come to see her and question her for themselves, some of them supposedly learned men, linguists, physiognomists, and craniologists. One among these, a man who had himself made multiple voyages to the East Indies, recorded the particulars of Caraboo’s tale based on his understanding of her tongue and interpretation of her gestures.

By this account, Caraboo was a princess of an island called Javasu, daughter of a Chinese-born chieftain who went about carried by common folk in a palanquin and a Malaysian mother who had been a killed by cannibals. Her own trouble had started when out for a stroll in her royal garden at Javasu accompanied by some ladies in waiting. Pirates ambushed them, bound and gagged them and carried them off to their ship. Too late did her father realize the crime; he swam after the pirate ship and shot an arrow but only succeeded in killing one of Caraboo’s handmaids. Caraboo herself fought valiantly, killing one pirate with a dagger and wounding another, but to no avail. The pirates made good their escape and within two weeks sold her to another pirate captain. This second ship she found herself on appeared to trade in female flesh, as Caraboo described them stopping at ports, acquiring other women as prisoners and then offloading them again at other ports. Eventually, the ship on which she remained a prisoner sailed for Europe. After months at sea suffering at the hands of pirates, she leapt overboard at the first sign of the English coast. Thereafter, she wandered from house to house begging before finding her way to Almondsbury and the charity of Mrs. Worrall. 

During her stay of some ten weeks at the Worrall mansion, and despite the suspicions of some who believed her a fraud, Princess Caraboo never once faltered in her character as not only a devout and demure princess but also a fierce and exotic warrior. She presented quite a sight to the Worralls and their guests. Fashioning her own dresses in the style of her culture, with long, wide sleeves and a large band of cloth wrapping her midsection, she went about in a homemade headdress of feathers and flowers, balancing plates of fruit on her fingertips and performing elaborate yet delicate dances unlike any they had seen before, falling to one knee and rising in agile leaps, lifting a foot in a sling and waltzing in strange, contorted ways. On the Worrall estate, she was known to paddle a boat out into the pond or sit in the top of a tree to avoid the company of men. Additionally, she carried a tambourine and a gong on her person, which she struck and rattled as she saw fit, and she made a show of keeping track of time using an odd system of knotted strings. Perhaps most strikingly, she armed herself like a true Disney warrior princess, with a bow and arrow on her shoulder and a sword and dagger at her waist. Nor was she unskilled in the use of these weapons, as she was seen many times to practice with them, and indeed a gentleman somewhat skilled at fencing found himself unable to disarm her.

Princess Caraboo in costume, via Wikimedia Commons

Princess Caraboo in costume, via Wikimedia Commons

Try as they might, her doubters could not catch her out. One man looked deeply into her eyes and declared in no uncertain terms that she was the most beautiful creature he had ever beheld, but she gave no outward blush or any other indication that she had understood his words. Servants of the household, who perhaps resented the privilege extended to the mysterious girl, contrived to prove her an impostor by lying awake to hear if she talked in her sleep, but she appeared to speak her native language even in her sleep! And when woken suddenly, she never had a slip of the tongue. Indeed, no one ever heard her speak anything other than her strange language, and in this she was consistent as well, with certain words always used in the same manner, meaning the same thing: mosha for man, raglish for woman, pakey for child; night was anna and morning mono; ake brasidoo, she might say, meaning “come to breakfast,” or inju jagoos, meaning “do not be afraid.”

As such an interesting character, it’s no surprise that her story made it into newspapers, and it may also come as no great shock then that, having read about Princess Caraboo in the papers, someone contacted Mrs. Worrall to inform her that her guest was an impostor, a poor girl out of Devonshire named Mary Baker known for her eccentricity and propensity to spin tales. Thus armed with evidence of Caraboo’s imposture, Mrs. Worrall sat her down and confronted her. Caraboo, or rather, Mary Baker, at first attempted to continue feigning an inability to understand Mrs. Worrall, but eventually, she broke down and admitted her deception. She claimed to have previously lived in Bombay as the nurse of a European family and to have come to England after living some time on an island east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean…but this too was discovered to be a lie, and eventually Baker told a truer story, although this one no less shocking for the tragedy therein.

Mary Baker had lived in the village of Witheridge in her youth. She had somewhat of a rebellious temperament, disobedient and ambitious. Her parents more than once arranged employment for her, and she consistently left these positions in dissatisfaction, returning home again. She struck out on her own then, and after finding some work in Exeter, she took her earnings, bought some fine clothing, and again left her position to return home. This time, however, seeing her new clothing, her father accused her of theft, and she left again, becoming a beggar and vagabond. During this miserable time, she seriously considered hanging herself, and was in fact in the process of tying her apron strings to a tree in a deserted country lane to accomplish the act when she believed she heard a voice saying that such an act was a sin against God. Untying her apron strings then, she went about her vagrant life, sleeping in hay lofts and panhandling from house to house, once begging at a constable’s house and only just escaping imprisonment. Finally succumbing to hunger and fatigue, she collapsed and was saved by a passing wagon, the drivers of which took her to London, where some other good Samaritans conducted her to a hospital. There she stayed for months, delirious and being treated for what they styled a “brain fever,” which treatment consisted mostly of cupping, blistering and blood-letting. In her delirium, she considered the nurses to be angels, of whom she daily inquired whether she was dead.

After her hospital stay, she was adopted by a charitable family that taught her to read, but again, after three years of happiness, Mary defied her mistress’s wishes by contriving to make time with a servant cook. After the ensuing falling out, she again left her comfortable circumstances in a headstrong huff, returning to her vagabond’s life before ending up as a housemaid at a convent. However, upon sharing her story in its entirety, she was accused of falsehood—for surely she was a sinful girl and not the unfortunate innocent that she presented herself to be!—and again she was turned out, this time by a minister. Thereafter, due to the dangers of life on the streets and highways, she passed herself off as a man, and it was during this time that she was taken in by highwaymen, robbers who were looking to recruit her as a fellow blackguard. Upon uncovering her true gender, made obvious by the way she cried out when discharging a gun, these highwaymen ended up paying her to keep her silence about their hideout and their crimes. After escaping these criminals, she took a variety of positions in different households, in Exeter and back again, in London. During this time, she claimed to meet a man who married her, took her traveling, and then abandoned her back in London with child. After delivering her baby, she took the child to a Foundling Hospital and asked that they take the baby in, for she had no means of supporting it. Still, she visited the baby regularly, until such time as she learned that the child had taken ill and passed away. Thereafter, she left London for good.

During these most recent years of vagrancy, she fell in with gypsies for an undisclosed period of time, and it was perhaps from these that she learned the trick of passing herself off as a foreigner, for after this time she admitted to going from town to town and from house to house, pretending not to speak any English and thereby exciting the sympathy and charity of almost everyone she encountered. Thus when she arrived at Almondsbury, she was already well practiced in her imposture.

And she certainly had been aided in her pretense, for throughout her narrative, she spoke of people who falsely claimed to recognized her language, which she admitted now was pure gibberish! Some had called it Spanish, and others French. Indeed, Manuel Eynesso, in claiming he recognized her speech as Indonesian, had greatly helped to convince everyone of her veracity, yet all she had done was babble nonsense words, letting others who wished to seem knowledgeable do the rest. It seemed, actually, that most of her story had been invented by those trying to interpret her gibberish and gestures, and that she had merely played along! Remember that the people who visited her and speculated upon her origins and customs did so in clear English, within earshot, affording her the advantage of showing them just what they were looking for. For example, she had actually overheard the servants who conspired to stay up and listen to her in her sleep, so she had remained awake herself and pretended to speak her gibberish language even while sleeping!

Gibberish characters made use of by Princess Caraboo, via Wikimedia Commons

Gibberish characters made use of by Princess Caraboo, via Wikimedia Commons

Mrs. Worrall checked on her story, of course, and found it corroborated in almost every detail, except for the detail of who the father of her child had been—he may have been a gentleman who married her and swept her away in travel, or he may have been a day laborer or even the husband of one of the families she had served. Regardless, as Mary Baker, aka Princess Caraboo, had never attempted to bilk her or otherwise misuse her outright and had only stayed at the mansion at Mrs. Worrall’s own insistence, she did Baker one last favor and paid her way to America, where this remarkable and resourceful woman disappeared from history and may have actually continued her impostures here. Indeed, who knows what she might have made of herself…

The parallels between Princess Caraboo and Kaspar Hauser are numerous. They both appeared to be innocent creatures in distress and relied on the charity of strangers. Both displayed unusual eating habits, and both inspired legends of having come from royal lineage, legends that they themselves may have encouraged. It is difficult to make the argument that Kaspar Hauser himself had heard the story of Princess Caraboo and decided to perpetrate a similar fraud, although this is entirely possible. What is rather easier to assume is that the general public had heard the story of Princess Caraboo, for a narrative of the incident by John Matthew Gutch, which I have relied on for this account, appeared the very same year in 1817. This famous story of a false foundling, an impostor passing herself off as royalty, may have contributed to the turning of opinion against Kaspar Hauser, for although the theory that he was a lost prince was rising, so too was the notion that he was a sham.

*

Thank you for reading Historical Blindness. I’ll be back in a couple weeks with the conclusion of my series on Kaspar Hauser. If you liked this installment and are interested in historical hoaxes, charlatans and impostors, you’ll love my novel, Manuscript Found!, about the founding of Mormonism. 

Kaspar Hauser, Part One: Foundling

via Artify

via Artify

With this installment, we’ll begin a series exploring one of the most famous historical mysteries, one which gripped all of Europe with speculation and obsession for years and even today brings new fascination and astonishment to those who discover it. The story involves a mysterious character of unknown origins, suspicions of dynastic chicanery, accusations of imposture, and of course, tales of shadowy assassins. This is Kaspar Hauser, Part One: Foundling.

*

Even in the early nineteenth century, legends about wild foundlings were not new. The feral child was a concept that had long captured the interest of the public. Particularly prevalent was the concept of a lost or abandoned child who survived in the wilderness with help of animal benefactors. Tales of human children who were raised by wolves go all the way back to the Middle Ages. In the early 13th century, French chronicler Jacque de Vitry describes a she-wolf stealing and suckling human children and striking them with a paw when they tried to walk upright, teaching them, essentially, the posture of beasts. And in Caesarius of Heisterbach’s Dialogus Miraculorum, we hear of another youth kidnapped away from civilization and fostered by wolves, taught to go about on hands and feet—quadripedally, as it were—while howling wolfishly.

Then the 14th century brought stories of Hessian wolf children. In 1304, tales of a boy snatched from Hesse and living in primeval splendor, laying about the bases and trees and sharing in his wolf pack’s daily catch of game. It is said they ingeniously created crude shelter in winter for the youth, who had no pelt to protect him from the elements. Upon his return to human society, all were quite astonished by the facility with which he leapt and bounded upon all fours, and he proved splendid entertainment in the court of the Hessian prince. Nevertheless, his keepers felt it more seemly that the boy walk erect, which they accomplished by forcibly binding him to a piece of straight wood. The fame of this Wild Boy of Hesse surely colored the motived of hunters some 40 years later, in the Hessian region of Wetterau, when they reportedly discovered another boy who had been living with wolves for 12 years. Again, this feral Hessian child was reintegrated into human society, perhaps more successfully as he lived a recorded 80 years. Indeed these tales of feral children, which may today seem a bit too fabulous to be real, nevertheless inspired Carl Linnaeus, originator of the zoological classification system of binomial nomenclature, to indicate a separate sub-category of humanity designated Homo ferus

And these stories of feral foundlings were fresh in the mind for Europeans in the early nineteenth century. In 1725, a naked, hairy, skittish child of about 12 was discovered in northern Germany, subsisting on grass and leaves in a forest near Hamelin. Unable to speak when he was captured, he was at first kept in a correctional facility before being brought to the court of King George at Herrenhausen as entertainment. He could not stomach bread, and the food he did take—vegetables and rare meat—he devoured messily, with no concept of manners. Thereafter taken to London, he became the toast of the town, serving as the philosophical inspiration of such luminaries as Jonathan Swift and Daniel Defoe and ending up as a kept creature of the Princess of Wales. Given the most respected educators, the Wild Boy of Hamelin, called Peter, made no progress in his letters, causing his tutors eventually to give up their efforts as pointless. Peter was eventually and quite literally put out to pasture, sent to live the rest of his ignominious days as a farmhand. He never learned to speak, but taking a final lesson from civilized people, he did learn to drink gin.

Peter the Wild Boy, via Wikimedia Commons

Peter the Wild Boy, via Wikimedia Commons

These stories of feral children, prominent in the zeitgeist of the 19th century, were not always to be trusted, however. Near the dawn of the 1800s, in southern France, some men exploring a forest found a wild boy who would come to be known as “Victor of Aveyron.” He is described as 11 or 12, his naked body dirty and heavily scarred. Much like Peter, Victor fled when approached but was treed by his pursuers and captured. In a neighboring village, where his captors gave him into the care of a widow, there were reports of having seen the child living in the woods for years. After escaping from the widow’s care, and being recaptured, Victor was sent to Paris to be analyzed as an untainted and pure example of human intellect in its most nascent state. Most doctors who examined him, however, agreed that he was not a feral child but rather a child with cognitive disabilities who had been abandoned by his parents. Indeed, this suggestion appears to offer a convincing explanation for Peter the Wild Boy of Hamelin as well, for modern experts suggest Peter may have suffered from the chromosomal condition known as Pitt-Hopkins syndrome. This idea actually tends to cast doubt on any stories of wild foundlings who showed a lack of intellectual development or failed to respond well to education in that, sadly, they may have been disabled youth callously deserted in the wilderness.

Thus the popularity of wild foundling narratives persisted in the early 19th century, even if it was occasionally dampened by suspicions that the child was not a true savage. It was in this cultural milieu that, on May 26th, 1828, a strange and awkward youth trudged into Nuremburg in what was then the Kingdom of Bavaria. As it was Whitsuntide, a religious holiday commemorating the Pentecost, few people were out roaming the streets, and the tottering figure drew the attention of a shoemaker who stood outside his home enjoying the day. The shoemaker watched as the boy, who looked about 16 years old and seemed healthy enough at a distance, with a strong and thickset frame, came wobbling toward him. Then the shoemaker noticed his unsteady gait, his ragged peasant’s clothes, his boots that were far too small for his feet, and, as the boy came nearer, the blank expression of the blue eyes beneath his wide-brimmed hat.  The boy gave him an uncivilized greeting in an unfamiliar country dialect and indicated abruptly and vaguely his interest in finding New Gate Street. Despite the boy’s simple and broken communication, the kind citizen understood and led him across the Pegnitz River. It was then that the boy, who was clearly struggling to walk in a coordinated manner, produced a sealed envelope from his coat. Examining it, the shoemaker saw that it was addressed rather specifically to the captain of a light horse regiment, prompting the shoemaker to suggest that the boy did not want New Gate Street but rather the New Gate Tower itself, where the guardroom was located. The uncouth boy exclaimed that this tower must be a new structure, to which the shoemaker responded with confusion, for the New Gate was very old indeed. Curious, he asked where the boy had come from and the boy replied that he came from Regensburg. This was to be the only time that this remarkable and enigmatic foundling would ever name a place of origin, and indeed, when the shoemaker asked for news from Regensburg, the boy offered none, as if he knew little of the place from which he came.

Kaspar Hauser, via Wikimedia Commons

Kaspar Hauser, via Wikimedia Commons

The shoemaker returned home once he had seen the boy to guardroom, where the boy removed his wide-brimmed hat and handed the letter to a corporal on duty. The corporal, for his part merely handed the letter back, telling the boy the location of the home of the addressee, the Captain of the Fourth Squadron of the Sixth Regiment of Light Horse. The boy left then, and surprisingly, without any guidance that was recorded, he managed to find his way to the captain’s house, where he gave the letter to a servant and announced in his unsophisticated way that he wanted to be a trooper, like his father before him. He knew not where he had come from, he said now, but it had been a long journey to Nuremberg, during which he had been forced to march ceaselessly. The servant showed him to the stable, where he would be permitted to wait for the captain, and before falling into the deep slumber of true exhaustion, he shared some details about himself with the captain’s man. Upon seeing the horses in the stable, he said, “There were five of those where I was before,” and he told the servant that he had learned his letters in this ambiguous former abode, traveling daily across borderlands to receive schooling. The boy was given beer to drink and meat to sustain him, but this did not please him, for he shrank from the victuals with revulsion. He was indeed extremely hungry and thirsty, but it turned out the only nourishment he could stomach were bread and water.

Eventually, the Captain of the Fourth Squadron arrived and went to the stable to see his visitor. The boy greeted him with delight, reaching out to fondle the shiny ornaments of his uniform and grasping at the sword on his hip, saying innocently, “I want to be such a one!” The captain asked the boy’s name, and the boy said, “I do not know, Your Honor.” Doffing his wide-brimmed hat then, he made reference to a mysterious foster father who had taught him the etiquette of removing his hat in the presence of others, and to address them with the honorific he had used in responding to the captain. The captain took the letter the boy offered and read the following

From the Bavarian Frontier;

        the place is not named.

      1828.

                High well-born Captain!

I send to you a boy, who might, as he wishes, serve faithfully the King; the boy was left with me, 1812, the 7th of October, and I am a poor day-labourer, with ten children, and have enough to do to take care of them, and his mother left the child with me to bring him up, but I have not been able to speak to her and I did not mention to the Justice that the child was left with me. I thought that I must consider him as a son, and have brought him up like a Christian; and have not, since 1812, let him go a step from the house, in order that nobody might know where he was brought up, and he himself does not know how my house is called, nor what the place is called; you may ask him, but he cannot mention it. I have already taught him to read and write: he can write my hand-writing like myself; and when we ask him what he will become, he says, he will be a light horseman, as his father was. If he had parents, which he has not, he would have been a learned lad. You need only shew him any thing, he can do it at once.

I have brought him only as far as Neumark, from thence he must go to you. I have said to him, that when he is once a soldier I will come immediately and visit him, otherwise it would cost me my neck.

Best of Captains, you need not trouble him at all, he does not know the place where I am, I brought him away during the night, he does not know the way home.

I am your obedient; I do not make my name known as I could be punished.

And he has not a farthing of money with him, because I have none myself, if you do not keep him, you may kill him, or hang up in the chimney.

Old facsimile of Kaspar's Letter, via Wikimedia Commons

Old facsimile of Kaspar's Letter, via Wikimedia Commons

Enclosed with this letter was a note on a scrap of paper, seemingly written in the same hand and with the same ink but in Latin. This note read: 

The child is already christened, is called Kaspar; you must yourself give him a surname, and bring him up; his father was a light horseman; when he is seventeen years old, send him to Nuremberg, to the 6th regiment of light horse, in which his father also served. I beg you to bring him up till seventeen years old. He was born on the 30th of April, 1812. I am a poor girl; I cannot support the child; his father is dead.

Understandably, the Captain was at a loss as to what he should do with the strange boy named Kaspar. Eventually he decided that it was a police matter and took the child to the police station, where the timid Kaspar was subjected to a rough interrogation. When asked his name, he wrote down “Kaspar Hauser,” which seems like it might have been a name used to mock the boy, if the letter’s indication that he had never been let out of the house is to be believed, as “hauser” could be construed to mean a person who is never allowed outdoors, or a “house-er.” When asked where he was from, Kaspar answered, “I dare not say…because I do not know.” Indeed, he replied to most questions with similar, repetitive answers, pleading ignorance and again reminding everyone that he wanted to follow his father’s footsteps as a soldier. One police officer threatened to abandon him in the woods if he didn’t admit where he was from, and Kaspar panicked and wept like a child: “Not the forest,” he pleaded, “not the forest!” Despite his apparent distress, Kaspar offered them no further insight into his origins, and he was thereafter locked up as a vagrant in the watchtower of the imperial castle.

Before imprisoning him, the police searched his person for some hints to his identity. His trousers appeared designed for riding horses, and his ragged jacket and handkerchief both had been embroidered with the letter “K.” In his pockets, he carried some interesting items: a key, a rosary, a prayer book, some religious tracts…and a small envelope containing a bit of gold dust! So much for the letter’s assurance that searching him would be pointless as he carried no money. And poignantly, considering the narrative offered by the letter and the tale that this “Hauser” was soon to tell, one of the tracts on his person bore the title, “Art of Recovering Lost Time and Ill Spent Years.” 

During his confinement in the tower, physicians examined him, and they determined his facial expression to be remarkably listless, comparing him to a caged and dispirited animal. His hands and feet, they noted, were surpassingly soft, betraying a life of little physical hardship, and indeed, his feet, which had been stuffed into boots far too small for him, were covered in blisters, as if they had gone long unused. Otherwise, he seemed hale enough, strong and well-fed, despite his finicky tastes. He refused to take anything but black bread and water, and this was not pickiness but rather an inability to digest anything else, for when anyone slipped any other fluids into his water—coffee or alcohol—or when they concealed meat inside the bread he ate, Kaspar suffered severe physical reactions: headaches, vomiting and diarrhea. Indeed, when word spread about the Wild Boy being kept in the tower, a great many curious visitors came to meet Kaspar, and some of these were not the kindest of callers. Some, having heard of his timidity and his violent reactions to food, would brandish swords before him and laugh at his fear or slip him food or drink that would disagree with him and delight in his ensuing sickness.

Judge Anselm von Feuerbach, via Wikimedia Commons

Judge Anselm von Feuerbach, via Wikimedia Commons

Others, however, were kind to him, offering him coins and children’s toys, his most prized being a hobby horse. His reaction to these gifts evinced an unusual childishness for his age. He appeared to love anything shiny, and when coins were held out to him and then snatched away, he bawled like an infant. When first his cell had been lit by candle, he reached innocently to touch the flame and recoiled in surprise at the pain of being burned. When presented with his own image in a mirror, like a baby, he reached out to touch the image and circled the looking glass in an attempt to find the child on the other side. These convincing reactions caused many who visited him to believe his story utterly, including the turnkey at the tower, who brought his two-year-old to the tower and watched as Kaspar somewhat ridiculously flinched and withdrew, afraid that the toddler would strike him. Another visitor, Paul Johann Anselm von Feuerbach, a judge of the appeals court, took a great interest in Kaspar after he visited the tower and offered Kaspar two coins, one a shiny coin of lesser value and another a dirty coin of higher value, and was surprised when Kaspar preferred the less valuable one simply because of its luster, even after the Judge explained that it was worth far less. Judge Feuerbach would write a book about Kaspar Hauser that he would publish in 1832, and from the very start, he was certain that the Foundling of Nuremberg was an honest and innocent child, and more than that, as the boy’s vocabulary and ability to communicate grew at leaps and bounds, he began to suspect that Kaspar was a child of great potential and perhaps magnificent origins. When Kaspar finally imparted the story of his origins, the Judge’s suspicions only increased.

Kaspar told of a lifetime of imprisonment in a far smaller cell than he currently enjoyed at the castle tower. The room that was the only world he knew for all his life had been of such small dimensions that most of his years he had spent on his knees or seated. This dungeon had two small windows, but these were kept shuttered or boarded up, so that Kaspar had known only shadow and pitch darkness. The trousers he found himself always wearing had no seat so that he could move his bowels without disrobing, and this he did in a hole in the floor of his miserable cell. His only companions in that place were hobby horses—hence his favor for such toys—and he never saw his captors. Whenever he woke, there was bread and water for him, and occasionally, after noticing his water had a strange taste, he grew drowsy, and upon waking found his nails pared and his clothing changed. This was the nature of his young life, day upon week upon month upon year, until such time as his captor decided he must learn to speak and write and walk like a man. This was somehow, improbably, accomplished in the darkness of his cell by a still unseen jailer who spoke to him until Kaspar could repeat some useful sentences and reached inside to guide Kaspar’s hand in writing his name. Only then had Kaspar been taken outside and taught to take a few wobbly steps before being carted off to Nuremberg and dumped inside the city gates with his letter of introduction.

The story became a sensation in Nuremberg. The very fact that anyone could treat a child so heartlessly, like an animal, created justified outrage, as such terrible tales of child neglect and abuse have tended rightly to do ever since. With the general goodwill of the city extended to him, Kaspar Hauser became an object of pity and love, adopted by Nuremberg as the city’s own child, with many swearing that he would never want for care or comfort. Charitable donations poured in, such that Kaspar Hauser would no longer need to worry about food, clothing, or lodging and would be able to receive a respectable education.

Kaspar's imprisonment, from a contemporary engraving, via LiFo

Kaspar's imprisonment, from a contemporary engraving, via LiFo

Enter Georg Friedrich Daumer, retired schoolmaster. Like so many others, Daumer had taken an interest in Kaspar and offered not only to put up the boy in the house he shared with his mother and sister but also to educate him. Thus a new chapter of Kaspar Hauser’s life began, and Kaspar took up residence with the Daumers. During this new life, he made excellent headway in learning to read and write as well as in his other studies, and true to his love of horses and his dreams of becoming an equestrian, he took easily to horsemanship, a fact that Daumer attributed to his having sat for most of his life, creating a bottom perfect for the saddle.

Daumer, however, was motivated by other interests beyond charity in his stewardship of Kaspar Hauser. Considering himself a man of science, he saw in Kaspar Hauser a perfect opportunity to study  a pure example of humanity, a blank slate of a man who had not yet been corrupted by society, this being a common attraction for those who studied feral children. Indeed, Daumer was interested in the burgeoning alternative medicine system known as homeopathy, which proposed natural, herbal remedies administered in tinctures diluted to such a degree as to seem wholly ineffective. Daumer and an associate homeopath, Dr. Paul Sigmund Preu, performed unending experiments on Kaspar, spiking Kaspar’s water with a variety of herbal concoctions. To their delight, their experiments produced gas, vomit, and diarrhea in their subject, even in extremely diluted form, which they believed to be hard evidence proving the tenets of homeopathy.

Moreover, Daumer and Preu attributed preternatural abilities to Kaspar, claiming that they observed in him the ability to hear and smell at greater distances than most humans and the faculty of seeing even in pitch black darkness. And perhaps the most astonishing of their findings, they claimed that Kaspar was somehow sensitive to magnetic fields, able to find hidden metal objects like a pig sniffing out truffles. Daumer also observed that Kaspar felt some unusual sensations when touching animals and appeared to have some kind of supernatural connection to animals, feeling a kind of sympathetic agitation when animals he was near became distressed or excited. This, Daumer believed, was an example of “animal magnetism,” a concept proposed by mesmerists.

These, of course, seem to be dubious claims, and indeed, when one looks into Daumer’s background, one finds a great deal of eccentricity. Daumer adhered to a variety of pseudo-scientific ideas, including spiritualism and alternative history, some of which was decidedly anti-Semitic. For example, he believed that ancient Jews cannibalized their firstborn in sacrificial rites, and in a less anti-Semitic and more just absurd belief, he traced the path of Jews escaping Egypt all the way across the Asian continent to the New World, suggesting that the parting of the seas was actually a crossing of the Bering Strait, which promptly melted behind them to drown Pharaoh’s armies.

Georg Friedrich Daumer, via Wikimedia Commons

Georg Friedrich Daumer, via Wikimedia Commons

Nevertheless, Daumer did appear to care for Kaspar, for his well-being and education. While under Daumer’s care, much of the city and the world beyond, thinking him well taken care of, lost interest in the story, but not Judge Feuerbach, who had begun to formulate outlandish theories about Kaspar’s origins. The fact that Kaspar showed such a natural predilection toward learning and that, apparently, so much effort had been made to conceal his existence as a child led Feuerbach and many others to hypothesize that Kaspar was actually the descendant of a royal family, and perhaps the heir to a throne, kidnapped and hidden away in order to manipulate a dynasty. Others, however, would point out the inconsistencies in Kaspar’s story to suggest he was a liar and a fraud, for had he not said there were horses where he was from? Had he not been wearing riding breeches? Would not this explain how he took so well to horseback riding? And had he not said that he used to cross borders to go to school? This certainly didn’t jibe with his story of imprisonment in the dark and would certainly help to explain how he was learning so easily, for could he not have simply been pretending to learn things he already knew well?

These are the questions that have lasted from then even until today, when we look back on what we know of Kaspar Hauser and try to come to some conclusion that satisfies. But at this historical distance, we are like a child groping about in the dark, blind to what may be a simple and obvious truth.

*

Thank you for reading Historical Blindness. Join us again in two weeks when we’ll look at another case of a foundling that was taken by many to be royalty, an incredible case of charlatanism and staggering credulity that easily may have colored the public’s perceptions of the Wild Boy of Bavaria. Then we’ll be back in four weeks for the conclusion of this dumbfounding tale: Kaspar Hauser, Part Two—Princeling.

In addition to the work of Judge Anselm von Feuerbach, to which I’ve linked throughout as source material, I am indebted to the work of Dr. Jan Bondeson, whose book, The Great Pretenders: The True Stories behind Famous Historical Mysteries, has been an indispensable resource in composing this installment.

Tell people about the blog! Let them know how much you like it and why you think they’ll like it too. Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter, and you can share and retweet our posts there to tell even more people about us. And you can directly support the blog and podcast by purchasing my book, Manuscript Found!, on Amazon, a historical novel about the dubious origins of Mormonism and a Masonic murder mystery that helped shape American party politics.

Until next time... keep your eyes wide...

Blind Spot: The Oberfohren Memorandum and the Ernst Confession

Thank you for reading Historical Blindness. We are now a fortnightly blog, alternating between our full-length installments and shorter bonus posts every two weeks. These Blind Spots serve as companion pieces, telling a separate but similar tale or further exploring the last installment's story by relating an aspect of it we didn’t have time to include. In this Blind Spot, we’ll do the latter, so if you haven’t read the last installment, Firebrand in the Reichstag!, please go back and do so before enjoying this Blind Spot.

*

The story of the Reichstag Fire and the legend of a conspiracy behind it is so far reaching and epic that we did not have time in our already oversized post on the topic to include some of the most interesting passages. Therefore, I proudly present here the stories of two men’s untimely deaths and the disturbing documents that cropped up afterward, linking them to the Reichstag Fire and suggesting a conspiracy to murder and silence them. This is an account of the Oberfohren Memorandum and the Ernst Confession.

Dr. Ernst Oberfohren, via Wikipedia

Dr. Ernst Oberfohren, via Wikipedia

On April 26th, 1933, two months after the burning of the Reichstag and still several months before the publication of the Brown Book and the convening of the farcical London Counter-Trial, the first stirrings of the conspiracy theory that would come to dominate the Reichstag Fire narrative appeared. In a couple articles in an English newspaper, the Manchester Guardian, it was revealed that a manuscript was furtively circulating in Germany, written by a high-ranking official of the Nationalist party, which had until the recent seizure of power been allied with the Nazis, and it purported to tell the true story of the Reichstag arson, suggesting here for the first time in print that the Nazis themselves entered the Reichstag via the underground passage from Göring’s residence, setting the fire to create a Bolshevik scare and thereafter capitalize on the ensuing anarchy to establish a dictatorship. Appearing aghast at such an allegation in the foreign press, the German Legation in London lodged a protest against “so monstrous a vilification,” but soon enough the newspaper’s source surfaced, a memorandum attributed to former parliamentary leader of the German-National People’s Party, Dr. Ernst Oberfohren, recently deceased after an ostensible suicide on May 7th. According to the memorandum’s anonymous introduction, however, Oberfohren’s home had been raided by Brown Shirts, or soldiers of the S.A., the Nazi’s private army, who after finding a copy of the memo, allowed him to commit suicide as the only alternative to a much worse fate.

The Oberfohren Memorandum made a number of accusations, including that, during the raid of the Communist Party headquarters previous to the fire, Brown Shirts had planted guns and documents intended to create the false impression that a workers’ uprising was afoot. When this failed to elicit the uproar they desired, according to the memo, they instead resorted to the arson of the Reichstag. The act was accomplished by Brown Shirts, entering via the tunnel, and leaving behind their “creature,” Marinus van der Lubbe. And in the uproar that ensued, the Nazis planned an armed overthrow of the government in the early days of March that had only just been thwarted by unfavorable circumstances. As can be discerned from the memorandum, Dr. Oberfohren despaired over what the future might hold, and when Hitler’s swastika might usurp the place of the iron cross atop German flagpoles. Thus he had circulated the manuscript, which made its way outside of Germany and presaged the narrative of the Brown Book to come, as well as much historiography for the next three decades.

1934 British cartoon satirizing the Night of the Long Knives, via Academic Dictionaries and Encyclopedias

1934 British cartoon satirizing the Night of the Long Knives, via Academic Dictionaries and Encyclopedias

Oberfohren was not alone in having the circumstances surrounding his death questioned and having attributed to him a document that incriminated the Nazis in the Reichstag Fire affair. Around a year after the release of the Oberfohren Memorandum, and half a year after Marinus van der Lubbe had been decapitated for his crime, came the dark and bloody Night of the Long Knives. The popular name for this event hearkens back to the medieval legends of King Arthur, and specifically the murder of unarmed britons by Saxon mercenaries at a banquet in what was called the Treachery of the Long Knives, and indeed the name’s conjuring of violent betrayal is apt, for the Night of the Long Knives, or the Röhm Putsch as Germans know it, was a bloody purge of Hitler’s own private army, the S.A. You see, when Hitler rose to power, he gave a lot of lip service to socialist ideology—hence the National Socialist German Workers’ Party—but having seized power and now aiming for further military domination beyond Germany’s borders, he would need to focus on industry and feared that elements of his Brown Shirt army who had believed his talk of workers’ rights would turn on him and prove to be an impediment. Furthermore, some leaders of the Brown Shirts, including founder Ernst Röhm, his deputy Edmund Heines and Berlin chief Karl Ernst, were known homosexuals—remember that van der Lubbe was depicted in the Brown Book as a homosexual prostitute in service to Röhm—so some among the Nazi leadership, including Göring, found their lifestyle as well as their politics distasteful. These were all reasons enough to turn on some of their staunchest supporters; therefore, on the 30th of June, they launched operation Hummingbird with the force of the other wing of their private army, the S.S. or Black Shirts. That day they arrested and executed numerous Brown Shirt leaders—including Röhm, Heines and Ernst—along with various political figures they deemed problematic, all under the guise of removing immoral elements from their ranks.

Imagine that: a demagogue rouses the downtrodden and resentful to gain power and then promptly betrays their interests. What a surprise…

After the purge, another document surfaced, this one purporting to be a confession penned by recently executed Karl Ernst, in which he admits to conspiring with Nazi and S.A. leaders in firing the Reichstag. Foreseeing the betrayal of Göring and Goebbels, Ernst had written the confession as a safeguard, to keep himself from being assassinated lest it be released upon his death (a gambit that apparently had not succeeded). The Ernst Confession described the entire affair, even from its earliest planning stages, when Göring and Goebbels had felt compelled to scrap a different plan involving a supposedly Communist assassination attempt on Hitler in Breslau. After considering other targets, they settled on the Reichstag, since then they could appear as “champions of parliamentarianism.”  Thinking at first they would hide within until it was empty, they feared being seen and recognized by Communists. According to the confession, it was Ernst himself who came up with the idea of using the underground tunnel, and while inspecting it and hiding their incendiary material, they had almost been caught by the watchman. In this version of events, one of the conspirators had met Marinus van der Lubbe, and thinking him a likely fellow of whom they “should be able to make good use,” convinced him that setting fire to the Reichstag was a grand idea. Thus, as Ernst and the real arsonists were escaping back through the tunnel, having set numerous fires in the Session Chamber, van der Lubbe’s handler was to see him to the Reichstag and ensure he broke into the restaurant to “blunder about conspicuously,” thinking himself the sole arsonist. This is the picture the Ernst Confession paints: calculated manipulation of the political situation, perfect execution of a false flag incident, and utter vindication of the allegations in the Oberfohren Memorandum and the Brown Book.

Karl Ernst, via Wikimedia Commons

Karl Ernst, via Wikimedia Commons

Needless to say, this document did not look good for Hitler and his party, but at this point, the Nazis were beyond redemption in the eyes of the foreign press, and their power in Germany was quickly becoming impossible to challenge. By the end of the summer, President Hindenburg died and Hitler took for himself the position of Führer of Germany, the title meaning vaguely a guide but the role essentially that of a supreme despot. And thenceforth, history marched on in goosestep.

Not until the publication of Fritz Tobias’s groundbreaking work in Der Spiegel did anyone bother to examine the credibility of these documents, the Oberfohren Memorandum and the Ernst Confession. Rather than take them at face value, Tobias attempted to determine the true authors of the documents and to either corroborate or refute their contents. He began by examining the last days of Dr. Oberfohren and his suicide.

As Tobias shows, Oberfohren, a former professor of political science who had taken a position as chairman of the Nationalist deputies in the parliament under party leader Alfred Hugenberg, was increasingly disillusioned with his party, having openly opposed the Nationalists’ decision to give Hitler the chancellorship in an effort to forge a joint majority with the Nazis. Indeed, he had composed some pamphlets attacking Hugenberg and had been found out as the author, resulting in his resignation. Tobias demonstrates that because of his opposition to the Nationalist alliance with the Nazis, he would not have been privy to any secret operations at the time of the fire. Indeed, his suicide appears not to have been compelled by Nazi Storm Troopers but rather precipitated by a combination of emotions: guilt over betraying his party and depression over the direction his country’s government was taking. Visitors during his final days later testified to his hopelessness and, as his own wife put it, his “black despair” over the inevitable rise of a Nazi dictatorship and his powerlessness to oppose it. In fact, his suicide letter is actually addressed to Hugenberg as an apology, describing the “superhuman agonies” he was suffering and bemoaning the damage he had done to the Nationalists.

Thereafter, Tobias addresses the major theses of the memorandum, offering evidence that firearms and revolutionary literature were indeed seized at the Communist headquarters, rather than planted, and that the Nazi coup planned for March was wholly an invention of the real author of the memorandum, Wilhelm Münzenberg, the head of the Communist Agitation and Propaganda department, Agitprop, pointing out reports that forged orders had been circulated days after the fire in an effort to create a scare over a Nazi putsch. These were dismissed as fraudulent and commonly attributed to Münzenberg. Moreover, comparing the writing style of the memorandum to a pamphlet published by the Central Committee of the German Communist Party, Tobias comes to the conclusion that the Oberfohren Memorandum was also written by Münzenberg and later simply repurposed as a forgery thereafter attributed to Oberfohren following his suicide.

Propagandist Willi Münzenberg, via Wikimedia Commons

Propagandist Willi Münzenberg, via Wikimedia Commons

Likewise, Fritz Tobias casts doubt on the idea that Karl Ernst and others were executed on the Night of the Long Knives in order to eliminate loose ends and further cover up Nazi responsibility for the fire. Rather, he presents the more likely scenario that Ernst and his fellow Brown Shirt Storm Troopers were executed for all the obvious reasons: their political differences and the threat they posed to the National Socialist agenda. Then, as before, Willi Münzenberg seized on the opportunity to attribute a forgery to the fresh corpses that the Nazis had left in their wake. He points out that the two men named in the confession as accomplices in setting the fire had, embarrassingly, actually survived the S.A. purge and, with no reason to remain loyal to the Nazis, called the confession a fraud. And later, some of Münzenberg’s own fellow Communists named the “so-called Ernst testament” as an outright concoction edited by none other than Marinus van der Lubbe’s co-defendant, Georgi Dimitrov, the Communist leader lately acquitted of having had any part in the burning of the Reichstag.

In a world of political narratives handled so craftily by masters of public perception, our understanding of the past is not a matter of flat fact and hard documentation easily recalled. History was unreliable enough when it was written by the victors, but as can be seen in this story, now it can also be written by spin doctors, and the spotlight of truth can be purposely obscured by forgers and propagandists, leaving instead only blind spots.

*

Thanks for reading Historical Blindness. Review the podcast on iTunes if you can. Poke around the website to donate, read our blog entries and find links to our social media accounts and to my book on Amazon. And keep an eye out for our next full length episode, which will take you back to Germany, although about a century earlier…

Until next time... keep your eyes wide....

Firebrand in the Reichstag!

In this installment of Historical Blindness, we will delve into a topic that, although largely settled among respected historians, remains a living legend in the public mind, with most lay persons still believing long disproven lies to be true. This is a subject, it must be said, that still, some eighty years on, inspires passion and heated argument. As such, I feel I must make my intentions clear in a preemptive apology of sorts, offering assurances regarding my motives in undertaking to tell this story. In presenting the various narratives of this event, several of which have been propagated since it transpired, I do not intend to exonerate any one party, nor do I have any desire to present the Nazis, who feature prominently in the story, as anything other than the great villains of their era. Many before me have investigated this topic, and in making certain observations regarding culpability for this specific event, have been accused of trying to exonerate Hitler’s fascist regime and whitewash their crimes. Indeed, current day neo-nazis and white nationalists frequently tout some of the admirable historiography I will rely on here in their repugnant apologism of Nazi racism and their denial of the genocide that Hitler perpetrated. I must, therefore, make it absolutely clear at the outset that Hitler and his fascist National Socialist German Workers’ Party, aka the Nazis, can never be acquitted for the many monstrous crimes they committed against humanity and the ideals of freedom and equality. A search for truth among purposeful fabrications in the historical record may find that one specific crime traditionally laid at their feet may not have been perpetrated by them, but nevertheless, their reaction to said crime and the many subsequent offences committed by them, which cannot be denied, remain to damn Hitler and his Nazis forever.

But I get ahead of myself… To make a beginning, we must look further back, to the rise of Hitler and his Nazis, and to the volatile conditions of the Weimar Republic, crippled by the Great Depression and by insurmountable political division, which created a tinderbox awaiting a spark. This was the Weimar Republic in its death throes: a society gripped by an unemployment rate of almost 40%, a government that could not rule except by emergency decree and continual dissolution of a deadlocked legislature, and a very dangerous fascist newly installed as chancellor seeking to eliminate the political obstacle represented by the opposition Communist Party. The Nazi conflict with Berlin Communists had just culminated in the Communist Party headquarters, the Karl Liebknecht House, being raided, their firearm stockpiles seized, by the Berlin Police, the chief of which also happened to be a leader of the S.A., or Brownshirts, the paramilitary wing of the Nazi Party. It was in this combustible atmosphere that, just after 9pm on February 27, 1933, the conflagration began.

The night was remarkably cold, 22 degrees Fahrenheit with an icy wind that blasted through the streets of Berlin, cutting through one’s overcoat to chill the bones. This wintry gale blew hard on the façade of the Reichstag, the grand edifice of German republicanism that had housed various legislative bodies and stood, with its ornate Neo-Baroque columns and impressive glass and steel cupola, for nearly forty years. The Reichstag was empty at this time of night: the last government official departed for the evening, the postman come and gone, the night watchman done with his rounds. Nevertheless, the streets around the Reichstag were not deserted completely; various passersby were still about, hurrying home through the cold or enjoying a bracing winter’s walk arm in arm with a spouse. One of these, a student come from the library and passing near the front of the Reichstag, heard breaking glass and, turning, saw a figure on a first-floor balcony with what appeared to be a flaming object in hand. The student immediately sought out a policeman who was walking his beat on the opposite side of the Reichstag; he pointed the officer in the direction of the figure he’d seen, slapping his back and insisting he investigate.

The Reichstag before the fire, from The Reichstag Fire by Fritz Tobias.

The Reichstag before the fire, from The Reichstag Fire by Fritz Tobias.

Upon reaching the spot the student had indicated, the officer, a sergeant, saw a broken window and observed a reddish glow within the building. Another passerby joined him to gawp silently, and then a third, a typesetter who had heard the glass breaking, thought he’d seen two men entering the building and tried to raise the alarm on the southern side of the Reichstag with a blind cry into the night that may not have even been heard. Having returned to find the sergeant and the other passerby, he joined them in staring at what was the restaurant on the first floor, seeing a figure inside passing before several windows, torch blazing in hand. They followed his progress. The sergeant drew his gun. The typesetter bellowed, “…why don’t you fire?” and the sergeant did, discharging his gun toward a window where the intruder could be seen and only succeeding in driving the firebug farther into the Reichstag’s interior. Only then did the police sergeant think to send passersby to raise the police and the fire brigade.

What ensued was a comedy of errors, with people running in all different directions: to a police precinct, shouting for help; to an engineering institute, pleading for the caretaker to telephone the fire brigade; and to the lodge of the doorkeeper of the Reichstag, demanding he activate the fire alarm. In response, the 32nd precinct scrambled a squad car but brought no reinforcements, the caretaker of the engineering institute fumbled with a phone book but failed to find the fire brigade’s number, and the Reichstag doorkeeper scoffed, refusing to believe the building was on fire until he went to see for himself. And when police finally tried to enter and do something about the matter, they found door after door barred. The doorkeeper, finally convinced of the emergency, was able to admit them by the north entrance, but they had to wait ineffectually for the House-Inspector to arrive with keys to the inner doors. The doorkeeper, in his panic, had not phoned the House-Inspector but rather the Chief Reichstag Messenger, who had activated the phone tree with the news. Luckily, the House-Inspector had heard fire engines while tucking into his supper, had called the doorkeeper himself, and was on his way, angry at not being called directly. Eventually, some 15 minutes after the arsonist’s entrance into the building, the police were able to gain entry as well.

The House-Inspector, a Lieutenant of the 32nd Precinct, and a few constables climbed the stairs, crossed the lobby and were met with the eerie sight of red light emanating from behind a monument to Kaiser Wilhelm. The curtains framing a door to the main Session Chamber were blazing, and through the glass door, more fire could be glimpsed.  Upon entering the Session Chamber, they witnessed a sheet of fire rising behind the tribune and the Speaker’s Chair at the back of the chamber, as well as below, in the stenographer’s well. It looked to them like a brightly glowing church organ.

The House-Inspector also claimed to have seen numerous small, sputtering fires among the deputies’ benches on either side of the tribune. Firemen had meanwhile arrived, fighting a number of small fires in other lobbies, so the House-Inspector shut the doors and left with a constable to search out the arsonist. One of the firemen thereafter opened the door again and, struck by smoke and heat upon entering the Session Chamber and marking a great draft through the doors, thought it best to close the room off. But of course, the chamber was not truly shut off, for the great glass dome above had been breached by the fire, acting as a chimney and making of the chamber a furnace. Before long, the Reichstag’s Session Chamber would be absolutely cored out of the building.

The burnt-out Sessions Chamber, from The Reichstag Fire by Fritz Tobias.

The burnt-out Sessions Chamber, from The Reichstag Fire by Fritz Tobias.

The House-Inspector and the constable did not search long before, as they passed beneath a grand chandelier in the southern corridor of Bismarck Hall, a tall and bare-chested young man darted in front of them, coming from the direction of the rear of the Session Chamber. Upon seeing them, he froze a moment before trying to flee back from whence he had come. When the constable trained his pistol on the figure and called for him to raise his hands, the young man stopped and complied, heaving for breath. Searching his trousers, the constable found a passport with his name: Marinus van der Lubbe.

“Why did you do it?” the House-Inspector demanded, trembling in a fury.

“As a protest,” van der Lubbe said mildly, and the House-Inspector struck him.

Marinus van der Lubbe was taken away to endure an arduous interrogation, and by 11pm, the fire he had apparently set was extinguished, leaving only a charred black cavity at the heart of the Reichstag, where the Session Chamber had been. No one else was arrested on the scene, and indeed, no other suspects had been witnessed. Although the typesetter who witnessed someone breaking in thought at first he had seen two figures, it eventually seemed more likely to investigators that the second figure had been a reflection. And though there was subsequent report of a shadowy figure seen leaving the southern entrance of the Reichstag at about the same time as the window was being broken, receiving some sort of gestural signal from two women across the street and then fleeing, though not without a suspicious backward glance at the building, later this shadowy agent was determined to have been an innocent passerby taking shelter from the wind and then running off to catch a bus. And with Marinus van der Lubbe’s confession, which he gave gladly, in addition to his subsequent walkthrough of the Reichstag to show authorities how he had set the fire quite by himself, it appeared that the case was closed and the state had their man.

Marinus van der Lubbe, from The Reichstag Fire by Fritz Tobias.

Marinus van der Lubbe, from The Reichstag Fire by Fritz Tobias.

But of course, if you have ever heard of the Reichstag Fire, you know it was not that simple. The event has become a pivotal moment in modern history, and in public perception, it has come to serve as a symbol for conspiracy and manipulation. It is looked at and referred to as the prototypical example of a “false flag” operation, or a covert operation executing some incident with the intention to deceive the world into believing said incident was perpetrated by some nation or group that in fact bears no responsibility for it. The Reichstag Fire has become the quintessential false flag operation, and has been used ever since in American political discourse to draw parallels and cast aspersions, fueling conspiracy theories from one extreme of the political spectrum to the other. After the attacks of September 11th, 2001, when the Bush administration declared a nebulous and unilateral War on Terror and whittled down civil rights with the Patriot Act, critics cried that 9/11 was his Reichstag Fire. When the tragic mass shootings of 2012 prompted an urgent national discussion of mental illness and gun violence, some conspiracy theorists callously suggested these events were staged by the Obama administration as part of a plan to declare martial law and disarm the populace, the idea being that they would be his Reichstag Fire, justifying the taking of our guns. Even leading up to the recent election of Donald Trump, some feared an imminent Reichstag Fire event that would allow Obama to extend his time in power or somehow rig the election against the Trumpites. And now, in the Age of Trump, fueled by genuine fearmongering from an administration that tells us any checks on its power, any obstruction of its agenda will result directly in terror attacks, anxiety over a looming Reichstag Fire runs high. Even as I prepared this episode, a recent and horrifying chemical attack in Syria is suspected to be a false flag intended to trigger—or justify—American military action against the current Syrian regime, which Trump promptly and literally launched.

With so much meaning imbued in this event, it behooves us to examine it more closely as a “false flag.” Accusations that a conspiracy was afoot began almost immediately, as the Speaker of the Reichstag, Hermann Göring, whose residence stood across the street, straightaway formulated the opinion that the fire was the work of the embattled Communists and specifically the leader of the Communist Party in the Reichstag, Ernst Torgler. And even as the building burned, then-chancellor Adolph Hitler arrived at the scene, and on a balcony overlooking the conflagration inside the Session Chamber, lit by the glow of the fire and red-faced from the heat and from fury, is said to have remarked that it was the beginning of a Communist uprising. “Now we’ll show them!” he is said to have shouted. “Anyone who stands in our way will be mown down. The German people have been soft too long. Every Communist official must be shot. All Communist deputies must be hanged this very night. All friends of the Communists must be locked up.” And indeed, the night of the fire, the Berlin police and the Brownshirts were quite busy, kicking down the doors of thousands of Communists to drag them out of their beds and incarcerate them. Before long, the Nazis had charged four others for the firing of the Reichstag: Communist leader Ernst Torgler, who had been in the Reichstag late that night, and three little-known Bulgarian Communists, Georgi Dimitrov, Blagoi Popov and Vassili Tanev.

The Nazi leaders at the scene of the fire. Hitler talking to Prince August Wilhelm, Göring (second from left) and Goebbels (second from right), from The Reichstag Fire by Fritz Tobias.

The Nazi leaders at the scene of the fire. Hitler talking to Prince August Wilhelm, Göring (second from left) and Goebbels (second from right), from The Reichstag Fire by Fritz Tobias.

Almost simultaneously, the Communists of Berlin and beyond, as well as much of the foreign press, deemed it more believable to lay the blame for the fire at the feet of the Nazis themselves, a true false flag operation intended to make all of Germany fear a Communist uprising and provide pretext for the Nazis to declare martial law and bolster their governmental power. And indeed, the passage of the ominously named Enabling Laws, and most importantly the “Decree for the Protection of the People and the State,” soon gave credence to this suspicion.

On one item, at least, both sides of this argument could agree: Marinus van der Lubbe could not possibly have managed to set the Reichstag ablaze all by himself. Just based on common sense, almost everyone decided that he was either a madman or an imbecile, and details of the investigation that thereafter emerged only encouraged this assumption: an early communique relating the results of the police report indicated “that the incendiary material could not have been carried in by less than seven persons, and that the distribution and simultaneous lighting of the several fires in the gigantic building required the presence of at least ten persons.” The question, then, was who were the others, and which side had masterminded the act?

Communists abroad had no intention of waiting for the ruling of the German Supreme Court, which anyway they were certain they could guess. In solidarity with the defendants, then, who aside from van der Lubbe were widely regarded as innocent scapegoats, a book entitled The Brown Book of the Hitler Terror and the Burning of the Reichstag was published and a symbolic counter-trial was organized in London, with a variety of well-respected lawyers involved and various noteworthy intellectuals in attendance, including H. G. Wells.

The Brown Book and witnesses at the counter-trial took the low estimation of van der Lubbe’s character and ran with it, relying on a variety of never before cited sources to implicate the firebug as a homosexual prostitute and familiar of Brownshirt leader Ernst Röhm. The book also uncovered the fact that a tunnel existed beneath the home of Speaker Hermann Göring, crossing beneath the street and offering the likeliest means by which Nazi arsonists could have entered and exited the Reichstag undetected. Thus, the true incendiaries had escaped unseen and left behind their patsy, Marinus van der Lubbe, erstwhile Communist, perhaps, but in truth a Nazi stooge. This Brown Book, which was written anonymously but popularly attributed to none other than Albert Einstein, who always denied authoring it, presented a narrative of the fire that persisted for many years to come, such that many history textbooks reported as fact that Hitler certainly arranged the burning of the Reichstag himself, and even today many will repeat this story as accepted fact.

British Newsreel describing London Counter-Trial and German Supreme Court trial in Leipzig, via YouTube

After the counter-trial, the whole world, having witnessed the consolidation of Nazi power and the ruthless grinding out of Communist resistance in the wake of the fire, waited with bated breath for the outcome of the trial. But to the surprise of most, reports from the Supreme Court in Berlin indicated that the defendants were receiving a rather earnest defense and fair trial. Unusually, the proceedings found themselves bogged down in somewhat extraneous matters, as the prosecution, rather than just focusing on proving the defendants’ guilt, endeavored instead to defend the Nazis from the accusations of the Brown Book. When the trial did focus on the charges at hand, the issue under examination was whether van der Lubbe had any concrete association with the Communist Party leadership and fellow defendant Torgler in particular, which according to the court’s opinion the prosecutors failed to prove. The prosecution then had more than they bargained for when the Bulgarian defendant Dimitrov, who unbeknownst to them happened to be a high-ranking representative of the Communist International, took the stand. With sharp wit and clever logic, he turned every accusation back at the Nazis, holding up a figurative mirror so that every implied wrongdoing, every allegation of conspiracy and furtive crime became a fresh charge they had to defend against themselves. And while they succeeded with their parade of experts, who were in fact chemistry professors and criminologists with no practical expertise in fire assessment, to convince the court that van der Lubbe could not have acted alone, they failed to offer enough evidence to convict German Communist Party leader Torgler, international Communist leader Dimitrov or the other two Bulgarian defendants. Marinus van der Lubbe, however, who had stringently denied having accomplices throughout the proceedings and seemed to sink into black despair as the consequences of his actions unfolded, was convicted, and under a newly passed law that called for capital punishment in cases of high treason and arson, purposely made retroactive to apply to the Reichstag Fire case, he was beheaded within the year.

With the Supreme Court ruling that van der Lubbe did indeed have accomplices, the Nazis were at least able to maintain their insistence that their rule had been necessitated by the Red Peril. Meanwhile, the rest of the world—and, for the most part, historians—would side with the Communists and remain convinced that the Nazis themselves were the shadowy accomplices, and, ironically, their own tribunal, called on to condemn their enemies, had only served to prove the suspicions against themselves.

Marinus van der Lubbe at his trial, from The Reichstag Fire by Fritz Tobias.

Marinus van der Lubbe at his trial, from The Reichstag Fire by Fritz Tobias.

Indeed, the ironies abound in this story, for not quite thirty years after the fire, an outsider to the world of academic history named Fritz Tobias, giving a sober and balanced look at all surviving documents, would prove to the world that Marinus van der Lubbe was indeed the sole arsonist, and his reckless act of political indignation, meant to wake up the common people to fight against the Nazi “mercenaries of capitalism,” had indeed ushered in the horrors of the Third Reich. Tobias’s work, which appeared in the German publication Der Spiegel in 1959 and which later he published under the title The Reichstag Fire: Legend and Reality, is a seminal work that changed history even if it failed to completely alter the public imagination when it comes to the fire, and I have relied on its remarkable details heavily in this account. Unfortunately, just as Tobias was attacked at the time as a whitewasher of Nazi history, in modern times his work has been embraced by Nazi apologists and holocaust deniers as proof the Nazis weren’t so bad. Because of that, while his work is available in its entirety in the form of a PDF online, the file appears to only be hosted by white nationalist websites spreading despicably racist ideology. Therefore, I have decided to host the file on my own website in an effort to make it available while also divorcing it from such associations.

In his work, Tobias systematically dismantles the prevailing narratives of not only the Nazi theory of Communist culpability but, more importantly considering its widespread acceptance, the Communist theory of Nazi culpability. He goes into minute detail describing the night of the fire, showing how the night watchman and others, like the Reichstag postman, had walked through the building minutes before witnesses saw van der Lubbe breaking in and had seen no one, smelled no petroleum or smoke. He demonstrates the fundamental unlikelihood that anyone entered the Reichstag via the underground passage because it was a labyrinth of locked doors and steam pipes with a floor of loose metal plates that made such a clamor when someone walked on them that the night watchman surely would have heard anyone passing through it. He examines van der Lubbe’s life, relying on the testimony of those who actually knew him and dissecting the testimony of those who didn’t to show he was no homosexual, no madman, no imbecile, but rather an intelligent young man, disgruntled due to unemployment, who not only was capable of setting the fire exactly how he said he had done it but who also had set fire, all by himself, to a number of other public buildings in the preceding days: a welfare office, the Town Hall and the old Imperial Palace. Moreover, he provides evidence that the early communique’s estimation of seven to ten arsonists was not based on any evidence but rather made on Göring’s insistence, for political reasons, and he debunks the testimony of the so-called experts at the official trial to establish that van der Lubbe not only could have started the fire himself but that he absolutely did. Furthermore, he reveals the true mind behind the Brown Book and the London counter-trial to be none other than Wilhelm Münzenberg, the head of Agitprop, or the Communist Agitation and Propaganda Department, in Paris. Indeed, Tobias goes through every charge in the Brown Book, showing it to be an outrageous tissue of lies and forgeries invented not only to indict Nazis for starting the fire but also to further the Communist cause. And he reveals the counter-trial to be a farce, with comical language barriers, Communist agitators pretending at unbiased judgment, bored officials checking out girls and even one witness who actually wore a mask on the stand in order to pretend to be a Storm Trooper with inside knowledge of the arson, when in fact he was a Jewish journalist.

Predictably, Tobias was condemned for defending the Nazis, but with time and considered reflection on his work, the historical community at large realized that his was the most measured, realistic and convincing account of the Reichstag fire. Other historians, both professional and amateur, have since tried to resuscitate the theory of Nazi culpability for the fire, including most recently a book by Benjamin Carter Hett in 2014, but none of their attempts have succeeded in supplanting Tobias’s version of events in academic circles as they appear to rely solely on rehashing old speculation and second-guessing the credibility of Tobias and his sources rather than offering actual evidence.

In 2008, Marinus van der Lubbe was posthumously exonerated, but this was a purely symbolic gesture not reflective of his actual guilt in the crime. It was meant more to represent the modern sentiment that any criminal convictions made under the auspices of National Socialism must not have been an expression of justice, as Nazism itself represented the antithesis of justice. And still there are many who believe that we should not dare suggest the Nazis were innocent of any particular offense among their litany of crimes. In truth, acquitting the Nazis of this specific crime in no way excuses their manipulation of the event as an opportunity to seize power. Indeed, one can certainly imagine them perpetrating such a crime. Take for example their attack on the radio station at Gleiwitz in 1939, which many consider a false flag as it was meant to be blamed on Polish troops, and to ensure this, they are said to have taken concentration camp prisoners, murdered them with injections, dressed them in Polish uniforms and left them on the scene (although this too is disputed). The fact that they failed to plant such brazen evidence at the Reichstag, that they appeared by all reports shocked and angry upon learning of the fire and that they then put their supposed suspects on trial rather than summarily executing them to control the narrative of their hoax all tends to show that they weren’t responsible for the arson. But the fact that Hitler seized on the opportunity with such gleeful alacrity, calling it a signal from heaven,” should serve as an even darker lesson to which we should never turn a blind eye. Whether or not events have been orchestrated in conspiracy, how a government reacts to them, how they use them to their own advantage to promulgate doctrines or advance agendas, must always be closely scrutinized. We cannot afford to wear blinders when it comes to our leaders’ machinations. We might not survive such a bout of historical blindness.

*

Thanks for reading Historical Blindness blog. Be sure listen to this episode of the Odd Past Podcast. Download numbers really help. If you enjoy the show and are fascinated by historical mysteries, check out my novel, Manuscript Found!. Just visit the Books page of the website for links to the book on Amazon, where it’s available in paperback and on the Kindle for a meager sum. The first of a trilogy that is mostly complete, this volume is a gripping yarn about a Masonic murder mystery and one of the grandest hoaxes ever perpetrated: the beginning of the Mormon Church. As always, you can support us by subscribing if you haven’t already, liking us on Facebook and following us on Twitter (where my username is @historicalblind), by telling friends and family about the show and by donating if you feel generous. On the Donate page of the website, you can give a one-time donation or find a link to our Patreon page where you can pledge a monthly amount. Either way you’ll get a shout out on the podcast! Thanks again for reading the Historical Blindness blog.