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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.       

Blind Spot: The Codex of Rohonc

A facsimile edition of the Rohonc Codex, via Wikimedia Commons

A facsimile edition of the Rohonc Codex, via Wikimedia Commons

Thank you for reading Historical Blindness. This is the debut of a new interstitial series: Blind Spots. The principal installments of Historical Blindness require quite a bit of work on my part, including research, composition, and formatting each blog post as well as recording, editing and mixing the podcast, all of which I have to find time to do myself. As such, the project has settled into an already somewhat hectic monthly release schedule. I understand, however, that readers like to see new installments show up in their feeds far more frequently than this. Therefore, in an effort to please existing fans and perhaps find a wider audience, I am now endeavoring to fill the barren time span between the primary posts with these shorter Blind Spots, in which I intend to further explore the most recent story I covered or briefly relate a somewhat peripheral story.

With this purpose in mind, recall our last installment, which opened the mysterious Voynich Manuscript for your perusal. Wilfrid Voynich’s manuscript is not, however, alone in its inscrutability and mystique. Consider another mysterious antiquarian manuscript, unreadable and resistant to all attempts at translation or decipherment since it turned up nearly two hundred years ago. This mysterious tome: the Codex of Rohonc.

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All his life, Gusztáv Batthyány had lived in England as a count, breeding racehorses and enjoying a life of wealth and leisure. Nevertheless, his heritage as a Hungarian nobleman was an important part of his identity, and when his homeland erupted in revolution, one of many across Europe during the tumultuous year of 1848, sometimes called the Spring of Nations or the Springtime of the Peoples, Batthyány proved his devotion to Hungary more than mere lip service, acting on behalf of Magyar nationalists on a constitutional ministry during a time when his family member, Lajos Batthyány, became the first Hungarian Prime Minister. While Lajos was executed by firing squad a year later, Gusztáv survived his involvement in the political upheaval and lived out his years in comfort in his English home, enjoying fine food, drink and horse races until the day his heart gave out in 1883.

An 1883 portrait of Batthyány, via Wikimedia Commons

An 1883 portrait of Batthyány, via Wikimedia Commons

Today, what Batthyány is more often remembered for is his part in bringing the so-called Rohonc Codex to light. In 1838, he donated an extensive library from Rohonc [ˈrohont͡s], a village in Burgenland where his family owned much land, to the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Some records seem to indicate that the Codex of Rohonc was at the library as far back as 1743, when it was identified in catalogues as a prayer book despite the fact that it couldn’t have been read to determine such a thing. Agents of the academy very quickly observed that the book was an item of interest. Leather-bound and 448 pages, the manuscript contained a variety of antiquarian-seeming religious illustrations and much writing of an unrecognizable character. Moreover, there appeared to be a watermark of an anchor with a star that led one scholar to eventually conclude the paper originated from 16th century Italy. One of the agents of the Academy of Sciences believed, upon first laying eyes on it, that the script resembled runic Hungarian, and this correlated well with another recent find, the wooden book of Túróc, which was making news in that it seemed to hint at a grander Hungarian history than was contemporaneously known. If the Rohonc Codex also proved to be an important relic of Hungary’s past, it would be a major find. Thus the earnest study of the Rohonc Codex began.

The book was found to contain much Christian iconography, but additionally, some illustrations depicting astronomical symbols, such as stars, suns and crescent moons, have hinted at pagan or even Islamic iconography, which some have theorized indicates the book comes from an unusually cosmopolitan society or originates from a syncretistic religious tradition. And the system of writing turned out to be no less mystifying than the illustrations. While some characters appear rune-like, as first surmised, others seem rounded and not runic at all. Various linguists have thought the script to be Greek, Cyrillic, or even an alphabet originating from an obscure ancient region of the Roman era called Dacia. One subsequently criticized theorist claimed to recognize the writing as Indian Brahmic and hazarded a subsequently discredited translation. Moreover, the number of distinct characters alone made translation impossible, as there appear to be at least 200 individual graphemes, suggesting that rather than a code or language, it may be written using a syllabary, which provides characters not for letters but for combinations of letters into sounds and syllables.

Page 41 of the Rohonc Codex, via Wikimedia Commons

Page 41 of the Rohonc Codex, via Wikimedia Commons

Scholars continued their studies of the codex for years, certain that if they could decipher the text, the manuscript would offer some historical insights heretofore undiscovered, or at least that it would prove to be an artifact of some worth. Then, in 1866, it was revealed that the wooden book of Túróc, with which the Rohonc Codex had been so favorably compared, was in fact a forgery perpetrated by one Sámuel Literáti Nemes. A Hungarian antiquarian of some renown, universally respected as the discoverer of the Massman Tablets, which at the time were the sole surviving Roman writing tablets known to be in existence, Nemes sold rare old books, coins and artwork to Hungarian aristocrats out of his “Old Curiosity Shop” beneath the towering skeleton of a mammoth. The revelation that Nemes, a Hungarian nationalist, had forged the wooden book of Túróc and other items in an effort to provide some impressive monuments of Hungarian history, shocked many. And this scandal stained the reputation of the Rohonc Codex, as many scholars then studying the manuscript dismissed it as another forgery by the Hungarian hoaxer.

Since that time, however, academic interest in the Codex has again resurged. One scholar working on translating the codex, Benedek Láng, is convinced that it is no forgery. He argues that it is not mentioned in any of Nemes’s papers, as his other forgeries are; it doesn’t conform to the format and presentation of his other forgeries, which were all clearly intended to be taken as old Hungarian; and it is far longer than his other forgeries—indeed, longer even than might have been necessary to fool Nemes’s patrons. Láng also takes issue with the idea that the Rohonc Codex is a Nemes forgery based on the fact that the usual motivation isn’t there. Forgeries, he says, are usually perpetrated to make money, to manipulate the historical view of the past, or to play a practical joke, but the Rohonc Codex, its content indecipherable and therefore not useful in rewriting history or otherwise pranking readers or swindling buyers, seems to have been written for intellectual purposes, which doesn’t correspond with Nemes’s modus operandi. In his own studies, Benedek Láng has come to the conclusion that there is some authentic meaning in the text, but rather than an unrecognized ancient language, he theorizes that it must be “…a cipher, …a shorthand system, or …an artificial language.”

Page 44 of the Rohonc Codex, via Wikimedia Commons

Page 44 of the Rohonc Codex, via Wikimedia Commons

Yet still, the Rohonc Codex remains, at least for now, a mystery. Moreover, researching the scholarship on the manuscript is made extraordinarily difficult for anyone who doesn’t speak Hungarian or have access to a library of works written in that language. Aside from a couple of sources I’ve linked, most of the information available online is published on websiteslike Historic Mysteries and blogs like Passing Strangeness, and The Codex from Rohonc Project, and most of these seem to have taken much of their information from the Wikipedia entry or from obscure books, like Némethi Kálmán’s 1892 Rohonczi Codex Tantétel, which apparently is not available online (at least not in translation!). Thus all we have, at least until some major breakthrough becomes public, are the much repeated details that have long been known, as well as, of course, our speculations. And this is commonplace when browsing through history and peering into the darkness of its blind spots.

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Thanks for reading Historical Blindness, the Odd Past Podcast. We’ll have a full length post for you hopefully within a couple weeks, so subscribe to our RSS feed if you haven’t already, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter, where my username is @historicalblind. If you enjoy the show and are fascinated by historical hoaxes, check out my novel, Manuscript Found! on Amazon, 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 one of the grandest hoaxes ever perpetrated: the beginning of the Mormon Church. 

The Found Manuscript of Wilfrid Voynich

A page of the Voynich Manuscript, via Wikimedia Commons

In this installment, The Found Manuscript of Wilfrid Voynich, we blow the dust off an ancient tome, crack its brittle spine and open it to find… mystery. 

There is something transcendent in discovery. It is a feeling unparalleled in its exhilaration, felt by a detective uncovering a clue or an archaeologist brushing soil off a momentous find. There is, though, some difference to be discerned here between a snoop discovering a telltale receipt in a pile of trash and a scholar lifting an intact and glittering artifact from earth in which it has lain unseen for ages. Discoveries of a historical nature tend to quicken the pulse perhaps more than others, for they have been overlooked or hidden for so long that their discoverer feels an even greater excitement and pride in bringing them to light.

Having experienced this to some degree, I can myself attest to the elation, after interminable hours in a quiet library staring at glowing yellow microfiche as it slides and blurs past, of finally glimpsing something that looks like it might be useful, reversing the spool and discovering just the old newspaper column I was seeking, just the piece of proof I needed. While my experience may pale in comparison to the real thing, I like to believe I can imagine what it is like to make a significant historical or literary discovery, to find a lost manuscript or a previously unknown document of tremendous academic worth. It would be akin to finding buried treasure.

The “found manuscript” has long been a trope in fiction, especially in stories with a Gothic sensibility. Consider Edgar Allen Poe’s short story, “Manuscript Found in a Bottle” as a handy example. The idea that the reader holds a true account of some terrible events, penned by the very protagonist of the story, has proven compelling ever since; one must only look to the modern popularity of “found footage” horror films for confirmation. As a result, one might be tempted to dismiss such framing of tales as a flourish of melodrama. Sometimes, though, life imitates art, and tropes such as these find their way into reality. Take, for example, Anne Frank’s diary, found and kept hidden by those who gave Frank’s family refuge.

Recent famous examples of found manuscripts have tended to be lost novels of famed artists rather than personal narratives of unknown individuals like Diary of a Young Girl. In 2004, the daughter of Ukrainian Jew and Parisian novelist Irene Nemirovsky discovered two novels from an unfinished series her mother had called Suite Française. The novels had been written in a miniscule script and had to be read using a magnifying glass. Nemirovsky’s daughter had long ago put the papers containing the novels in a drawer, for reading through her mother’s writings, most of which were personal, had been heartbreaking, as Nemirovsky had been murdered along with her husband at Auschwitz.  Suite Française, upon its posthumous publication, was hailed as a masterpiece.

A young Walt Whitman, via The New York Times

A young Walt Whitman, via The New York Times

Even just this year, in February, a found manuscript made headlines, this one discovered by a grad student at the University of Texas and originating from the great American poet, Walt Whitman. The discovery of this novel, which apparently Whitman disavowed entirely before shifting into the most prolific and masterful stage of his career as a writer, can be imagined much as I described the lonely scholar in the library. The grad student who found the book, Zachary Turpin, made his discovery only after years of poring over newspaper archives and digitized papers. Turpin describes his discovery as a slow and arduous process that culminated in the opening of a PDF and the uttering of some “unprincipled words.” Whitman’s novel, Life and Adventures of Jack Engle: An Autobiography, has been described as a rollicking city mystery in the tradition of Charles Dickens and has been made available in full for your reading pleasure by Walt Whitman Quarterly Review.

These stories of tragedy captured for the ages and literature snatched out of the jaws of obscurity for induction into the canon are touching and lovely to be sure, but what of the Gothic? What of the dark and mysterious tomes? What of the Necronomicon, bound in leather of dubious origin and clasped with cold, pitted iron? What of the anonymous grimoires found on disused shelves, the apocryphal scrolls hidden at the back of Dead Sea caves?

Of these, there is but one found manuscript that can be rightly considered the most mysterious book ever discovered: the Voynich Manuscript.

Round about 1911 or 1912, a London dealer of antiquarian books named Wilfrid Voynich came into possession of a most unusual manuscript. According to his own accounts of the acquisition, he discovered the manuscript in a southern European castle, in a chest where it had been hidden long ago, unbeknownst to its custodians. It caught his attention as an illuminated manuscript, meaning a handwritten document decorated with marginalia and brightly inked illustrations, which indicated great age and perhaps significant worth. Compared to the other manuscripts in the chests, Voynich called it an “ugly duckling,” small, nondescript… but further analysis showed it to be far more intriguing than the cover let on, for this book’s illustrations and style of script were unlike any other he had seen before. The content of this manuscript, indeed, was enciphered, and its illustrations mystifying.

The plain cover of Voynich's "ugly duckling" manuscript, via Wikimedia Commons

The plain cover of Voynich's "ugly duckling" manuscript, via Wikimedia Commons

Some conflicting accounts of the manuscript’s discovery have since arisen, suggesting that the manuscript was part of a collection owned by the Roman Catholic Church and kept by the Jesuits at Villa Mondragone in Frascati, Italy, and that the sale was made knowingly to Voynich as someone who knew how to keep a secret, presumably from the Vatican. This, however, does not necessarily change what seems to be the most important part of the story to me: that the keepers of the manuscript did not realize the significance of the document they held. So perhaps Voynich did still “discover” the manuscript in riffling through the contents of a chest and recognizing its unusual character, whether or not he found the chests or was invited to look through them.

One can better understand why the Jesuits considered Voynich to be a book dealer “whose discretion could be trusted” when one considers his checkered past. He was no stranger to adventure and intrigue and resisting authority. Born a Polish noble and educated as a chemist and pharmacist in Moscow, somewhere along the way he became radicalized and began to follow the anarchist Sergius Stepniak. In Warsaw, he conspired in the escape of fellow radicals from the Warsaw Citadel, a plot that was foiled, landing Voynich himself in the Citadel. After escaping himself, although not without contracting consumption and acquiring a perpetual hunch in his posture, he persisted in his anarchist activism and eventually found himself sentenced to labor in a Siberian salt mine. Managing to escape again, he journeyed westward, to Hamburg, where he sold the clothes off his back for passage to England, arriving in 1890 with little else besides a scrap of paper with the address of Sergius Stepniak, who had taken up residence there in exile. Among other political exiles, Voynich was involved in printing and distributing propaganda literature and remained active in politics until Stepniak’s untimely death, when he went into antiquarian book dealing. Yet even as a book dealer, he was known to show his battle scars and point out which had been the work of swords and which of firearms.

Voynich plying his trade, via Voynich.nu

Voynich plying his trade, via Voynich.nu

A frequent visitor to monasteries and convents across Europe, Voynich was something of a fast talker and slippery character, talking credulous monks and nuns out of their valuable old collections in exchange for worthless modern texts.

 Even previous to finding his cipher manuscript in Frascanti, Voynich had become known for including “Unknown, Lost or Undescribed books” in his catalogues, and he did a tidy business with the British Museum. Among the documents he sold to the museum, at least one was determined to be a forgery after his death. Despite the fact that as a dealer, the forgery had likely fooled his as well, rather than being perpetrated by him, this has led some to suggest that the cipher manuscript later known as the Voynich Manuscript may have been a hoax cooked up to earn him a tidy profit. However, the fact is that, after discovering the manuscript, Voynich made no attempt to sell it but rather exhibited it. Some years after finding it, in fact, he became obsessed with studying the book and for the rest of his life developed theories regarding its provenance, authorship and purpose. Such was the draw of this unusual manuscript that it became the prized possession of the dyed-in-wool wheeler-dealer Wilfrid Voynich.

So what made the manuscript so interesting? The illustrations were odd, certainly, but not as odd as some other illuminated medieval manuscripts, which depicted anthropomorphized animals committing various atrocities, a variety of cryptids and demons and even some archaic pornography to boot. The most commonly cited of these is the Smithfield Decretals, which the Voynich Manuscript doesn’t come close to in terms of bizarre illustrations. So it must have been the script in which the book was written that first drew Voynich’s interest, for upon closer examination, it was impossible to discern whether it was written in a cipher or in some unrecognizable language.

A mitred fox preacher ministers to flock both literal and figurative, from the Smithfield Decretals, circa 1300-1340, via Wikimedia Commons

A mitred fox preacher ministers to flock both literal and figurative, from the Smithfield Decretals, circa 1300-1340, via Wikimedia Commons

The Voynich Manuscript is divided into distinct sections. These have been identified by scholars such as René Zandbergen, whose extensive work on the topic has been an indispensable resource for this episode, as herbal, astronomical/astrological, cosmological, biological and pharmaceutical in content, as well as a section with only text and stars drawn in the margins. These delineations, however, have been discerned based solely on the artwork, as the strange language or code in which the book is written has never been deciphered. The least mystifying are the astronomical and cosmological passages, which depict in circular and spiral diagrams the sun, moon and certain recognizable constellations, illustrations of zodiac degrees similar to those called paranatellonta, and a variety of geometrical diagrams. The biological illustrations prove odder, portraying naked women in baths and waterslides. The figures are sometimes called nymphs, or water spirits, and the sections sometimes alternatively labeled balneological, in reference to the depicted hydrotherapy. Lending more mystery to this sections are the theories that the baths and pipes through which these nymphs frolic actually represent internal human organs or that they might be a demonstration of alchemical processes.

A page from the "biological" section of the Voynich Manuscript, via Wikimedia Commons

A page from the "biological" section of the Voynich Manuscript, via Wikimedia Commons

The majority of the manuscript is comprised of herbal illustrations showing entire plants in detail, from root to stem. The remarkable thing about these illustrations, though, which has fueled many of the wilder theories regarding the manuscript, is that the plants cannot be recognized as species that exist in nature! This has led, of course, to suggestions of otherworldly provenance and further cemented the Voynich Manuscript’s place in legend. Meanwhile, the more staid assessments of skeptical historians raise the valid points that some other well-known alchemical treatises also carry illustrations of entirely fantastical plants, and that herbal illustrations from antiquity were often hand copied from one manuscript to another, resulting in some abstraction and corruption as depictions became further and further caricatured and unrecognizable.

A page from the "herbal" section of the Voynich Manuscript, via Wikimedia Commons

A page from the "herbal" section of the Voynich Manuscript, via Wikimedia Commons

Nevertheless, it was surely the unusual character of the illustrations and the secrecy implicit in the text’s encipherment that piqued Voynich’s interest and led to his years of scrutiny and theorizing. And he had a stroke of luck in discerning some of the manuscript’s early history in the form of a letter found inside the manuscript from one Johannes Marcus Marci, a scientist of Prague, which establishes that the book was gifted to Jesuits in Rome in 1665. In the letter, Marci indicates that the manuscript once belonged to Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II. This letter and the clues contained therein provided the basis for Voynich’s theories regarding its authorship and early history prior to showing up in Prague in the 1600s. Marci indicates that “[t]he former owner of this book…devoted unflagging toil [to its deciphering]…and he relinquished hope only with his life.” The letter further revealed that, when it arrived to the court of Rudolph II, “…he presented the bearer who brought him the book 600 ducats. He believed the author was Roger Bacon, the Englishman.” Thus one of the longest lasting theories of the manuscript’s origins was perpetuated.

Voynich made a presentation of what he called the Roger Bacon manuscript at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia in 1921, promoting his belief that the manuscript had been authored and encoded in the latter half of the 13th century by one of the fathers of experimental science, Roger Bacon, a theory that has persisted among some fringes even after radiocarbon testing dated it to the 15th century, taking on more and more outlandish character, such as that in the manuscript Bacon describes galaxies he viewed through an anachronistic telescope or that Bacon was preserving secret knowledge of alien technology.

Based on the letter, Voynich appears to have taken it as a given that Roger Bacon was behind the manuscript, and perhaps more interesting is his theory of who owned the manuscript prior to Rudolph II. Voynich came to the conclusion that the “former owner” referred to in Marci’s letter was none other than John Dee. If you are not familiar with Dee, he was a notorious English polymath, an advisor to Queen Elizabeth, and an all-around fascinating individual deserving perhaps of his very own episode—and indeed I may return to him in the future. Suffice to say here that in addition to his knowledge of mathematics and astronomy, his reputation as an occultist and magician was unparalleled. Indeed, he may be responsible for our modern image of wizards as long-bearded, robe-wearing crystal ball wielders with funny hats.

"John Dee performing an experiment before Queen Elizabeth I," Oil painting by Henry Gillard Glindoni, via Wikimedia Commons

"John Dee performing an experiment before Queen Elizabeth I," Oil painting by Henry Gillard Glindoni, via Wikimedia Commons

The theory of Dee’s ownership of the manuscript maintains traction even today, where on Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library’s webpage for the manuscript, Dee is still included as part of its history. Actually, there is plenty of support for this theory. John Dee did indeed present himself at the court of Rudolph II. He and his dubious cohort Edward Kelley, on a mission they believed had been assigned to them by an angel of God with whom they had made contact through invocation magic, went to the Holy Roman Emperor to tell him he was possessed by demonic forces and to recruit him in their efforts to establish a unified world religion through direct communication with God and His angels.

Their journey proved fruitless, but regardless of their failure in this endeavor, some surviving accounts from John Dee’s son note that, while in Bohemia, Dee held in his possession “a booke...containing nothing butt Hieroglyphicks, which booke his father bestowed much time upon: but I could not heare that hee could make it out.” It is also shown in Dee’s own journal, in October of 1586, that he had 630 ducats, a sum comparable to the price the Marci letter states was paid for the cipher manuscript.

However, these pieces of evidence have not stood up under scrutiny, for John Dee was known to have had another cipher manuscript in his possession at the time: The Book of Soyga. Indeed, it was this manuscript that so vexed Dee in its impenetrability, such that when Edward Kelley first claimed to have made contact with an angel, one of Dee’s first questions was whether or not the book held anything of value and whether the angel could help him read it. The Book of Soyga remained a legendary grimoire, known only by reputation and from the few allusions made in Dee’s writings, until, in another astounding discovery of a lost manuscript, historian Deborah Harkness stumbled upon the book catalogued under an alternate title in the British Library in 1994. It is now deciphered, translated and available for the public to read online, a treatise on astrology and magic and thus by its very nature mystical, to be sure, though now no longer a complete mystery.

A cipher table from the Book of Soyga, via Mariano Tomatis's Blog of Wonders

A cipher table from the Book of Soyga, via Mariano Tomatis's Blog of Wonders

The existence of the Book of Soyga certainly casts doubt on Voynich’s assertion that his cipher manuscript was the one in Dee’s possession in Bohemia, but perhaps more suspect is the fact that Voynich appears to have based his theory of Dee’s having owned the manuscript entirely on a 1904 work of embellished historical fiction by Henry Carrington Bolton masquerading as a scholarly work entitled The Follies of Science at the Court of Rudolph II.

Even today, the theories of the Voynich Manuscript’s origins and contents remain contested. Among them persists the idea that it is a hoax. Certainly the dating of the manuscript to the 1400s did much to assuage the notion that Voynich himself forged the book, but nevertheless doubt remained, mostly suggesting that the indecipherable language must not really be a language or code at all, but rather a kind of artful gibberish, for surely a real language would have been translated, a real cipher decrypted after so much time and analysis. One theory in this vein that I find entertaining is the idea that it is not a real book at all but rather a prop created by Francis Bacon for a stage production, thus making the “code” in which it’s written a simple mock language meant only to fool audiences from afar, with illustrations that needed only be convincing at a distance.

This idea of the manuscript as a work of art puts one in mind of another mysterious book with bizarre artwork and indecipherable text. In 1981, artist Luigi Serafini published his Codex Serafinianus, which also featured illustrations of imaginary plants and captions in an unreadable script. The difference here, however, is that the artist forthrightly admits the language to be wholly invented and meaningless, and the artwork goes far beyond depictions of herbs, with strange machinery and creatures, often showing things fused together in troubling and fantastical ways, like the famous image of a couple that transforms into a crocodile while performing coitus. Serafini admits to having worked on the Codex while under the influence of the hallucinogen mescaline, and he says his intention was to instill the feeling of bemusement that children experience when looking at books they cannot comprehend.

A page from the Codex Serafinianus, via Wired

A page from the Codex Serafinianus, via Wired

While the notion that the Voynich manuscript is nothing more than a work of art intended to mystify is certainly pleasing, especially since, if that were its purpose, it has accomplished it remarkably, the fact is that recent scholarship suggests the book may be decipherable after all. In 2013, a study approached the problem of deciphering the text using information theory and concluded that the text indeed contains linguistic patterns, indicating there is some meaning to be found in its pages. And the following year, University of Bedfordshire linguistics professor Stephen Bax claimed to have finally deciphered words in the text, including names of plants in the herbal sections—juniper and coriander—and the name of a constellation in the astronomical section: Taurus.

If these advancements in the study of the manuscript are to be taken as signs of progress to come, then we may eventually know the content of the book. Nevertheless, even then, its origins may remain forever shrouded in mystery, lost among competing theories, such as that it was written by the heretical gnostic Cathars of Southern Europe, that it was an Aztec medical text, or that it was penned by Leonardo Da Vinci using his non-dominant hand.

Indeed, one has the impression that mystery will surround Wilfrid Voynich’s found manuscript no matter what we learn about it. And perhaps some books are destined to remain unread, some chapters of the past meant to remain blank. Still, one does hope that, with enough time and study, our historical blindness might be cured, at least in this regard, enough to bring the manuscript’s words into focus.

*

Thank you for reading Historical Blindness. If you enjoy these explorations into the blind spots of history, you may be interested in an exciting new project I'm launching. 

Tying in with this installment’s theme of found manuscripts, I am publishing one of my own. After long years of research and composition and revision, I am finally publishing my debut historical novel. The book makes use of the found manuscript trope I discussed earlier, and at its center is a very famous story of a supposedly found manuscript, for the novel explores the beginning of Mormonism from a skeptical perspective. In fact, the novel’s title is Manuscript Found!, the first in a trilogy. The following is the dust jacket synopsis:

In early nineteenth-century Western New York, a world of mobs and secret societies where belief in visions and magic is still commonplace, two men compose manuscripts that will leave indelible marks on society, and one woman finds among the religious and political turmoil a pretext to exert an influence outside her appointed sphere. In this debut novel exploring the beginnings of Mormonism and the rise of America's first third-party political movement in opposition to Freemasonry, Nathaniel Lloyd delineates the intersections of religion and politics and the power of secrets and falsehoods. The first volume of a trilogy, Manuscript Found! establishes compelling characters and follows as they become embroiled in the political and religious affairs of their age, unaware that fate will eventually bring them together on the western frontier.

You can find links to the book here on the website; go check it out if you’re a reader!

The Dancing Plague

Die Wallfahrt der Fallsuechtigen nach Meulebeeck, an engraving by Hendrick Hondius based on a drawing by Pieter Brueghel depicting the dancing plague, via Wikimedia Commons

Die Wallfahrt der Fallsuechtigen nach Meulebeeck, an engraving by Hendrick Hondius based on a drawing by Pieter Brueghel depicting the dancing plague, via Wikimedia Commons

While in our previous entries we have delved into a passage of history to which many have turned a blind eye and another which remains a blind spot in our knowledge of the past, in this installment, we’ll examine one of the most puzzling medical mysteries of the ages, one which is often dismissed by those whom science has blinded: The Dancing Plague.

To be certain, the Middle Ages were a high time for mysterious illnesses. The most commonly known illness of the era, the Black Plague, certainly seemed mysterious during its horrific reign across Europe. How were the physicians of that time to ascertain that the buboes—the hot and tender egg-like protuberances swelling on the necks, groins and armpits of the infected, from which the term bubonic is derived—were rising from the bites of fleas carrying the disease from rats to humans? Thinking the disease to be spread through corrupted air, they prescribed relocation, and of course this was effective since distance from the rats and their fleas meant less chance of being bitten. However, this diaspora also resulted in the spread of the disease. Still, the treatment appeared successful, and often the reason why a cure proved effective was just as mysterious as the illness itself.

Like the bubonic plague, many of the most mysterious illnesses of the medieval period were characterized by horrible boils and sores, such that it almost seemed like a succession of biblical plagues. In Paris, in 945 C.E., an epidemic of such pustules, later called St. Anthony’s Fire, spread and could only be cured by Hugh the Great, Duke of the Franks and Count of Paris, who held a stockpile of palliative holy grains at St. Mary’s church. It has since become clear that St. Anthony’s Fire was spread by the ingestion of grains corrupted by ergot fungus, so the grains of Hugh the Great were holy and restorative only insofar as they were not poisonous.

Other mysterious diseases presenting suppurating sores likewise elicited some odd treatments. Water Elf Disease, which may have been something similar to endocarditis, was thought to be caused by the stab of a witch, and sufferers sought relief through song. Then there was the King’s Evil, a scrofulous infection of the lymph nodes that presented with swollen masses on the neck similar to buboes that was believed to be curable by the mere touch of a monarch. However, a king was not about to go around laying bare hands on the afflicted, so instead kings were known to touch coins, which were then given to the infected as so-called “touch pieces” to rub on their sores.

One such mysterious illness that spread festering boils across Europe was known as the French Disease as it appeared to have been transmitted by the French to the Italians during the 1493 siege of Naples. This medieval illness, however, persisted into the Early Modern Era and beyond, eventually coming to be known as the sexually transmitted infection syphilis. And syphilis was not alone in surviving the Middle Ages. There was another holdover plague with a much longer history that reappeared in the 16th century. This one, however, caused no boils, no sores. Instead it caused an ecstasy, though not in the euphoric sense. Rather, this was the ecstasy of a frenzied trance that eventually broke the body and killed the sufferer.

Strasbourg circa 1572, via ResearchGate

Strasbourg circa 1572, via ResearchGate

In the Alsatian city of Strasbourg, on the Rhine River, a city renowned as the home of Johannes Gutenberg’s revolutionary moveable type printing press and of the tallest building in the world, Strasbourg Cathedral, a strange occurrence transpired in the summer of 1518. Among narrow streets choked with pedestrian traffic and mongers of every stripe, a hausfrau by the name of Troffea began to dance. No strains of music were heard to prompt her rhythmic motions. Indeed, by one subsequent report, her husband had just instructed her to perform a task she did not desire to do, and he stood in exasperation, demanding, to no avail, that she cease her antics. Thus, as Frau Troffea continued her silent and solitary dance, it was at first dismissed by onlookers as a domestic squabble.

One can imagine the dance itself as commencing slowly, almost lazily, with some swaying motions and fluid movements of the limbs. Soon, though, the motions became more energetic, her tempo increasing, and despite her husband’s pleas, she remained impassive, as if entranced. As minutes then turned to hours and her dance continued, onlookers gathered. It is not recorded whether her husband remained in concern or left in anger at her behavior. What is known is that while some among her audience still believed her to be acting out in defiance of her husband, others began to think something more sinister was at work. As fatigue set in, her dancing grew more violent and fitful, almost like contortions, and some began to suggest she was possessed by a demon. She had not eaten or taken water and was drenched in sweat. Eventually, she collapsed, but her strange episode was not over. When she awoke, she stood slowly and began again her danse macabre. This continued, depending on the source, for four to six days. Before growing crowds of spectators, she danced herself bruised and bloody, fainting occasionally in exhaustion only to resume her stuporous cavorting upon waking. By the time authorities stepped in and took Frau Troffea away, the consensus seemed to be that her ecstasy was inspired or perhaps inflicted by God rather than by the devil. Thus she was carted off to a nearby shrine, where indulging in such holy paroxysms was deemed more seemly. However, that was not the last that Strasbourg would see of the dancing disorder that afflicted Frau Troffea.

Mere days after Troffea’s initial dance, some thirty-four other sufferers appeared, compelled to dance nonstop, unto exhaustion, injury, and in some cases, death. That’s right. It is recorded that many danced themselves into the grave that hot summer in Alsace. And as the number of manic dancers grew, the populace began to fear it was a plague, perhaps inflicted by God Himself as a punishment for their sins. With fear and paranoia growing, and every day more dancers filling the streets, the governing body of Strasbourg, a combined privy council called the XXI composed mostly of guild leaders, was obliged to do something.

At first, there was a strong debate in council meetings. Men of the cloth and physicians squared off, the former suggesting such explanations as possession or divine punishment and the latter dismissing such possibilities in favor of far more rational explanations, such as that the afflicted suffered from blood that had grown too hot. As they squandered time on debate, however, the outbreak spread. When there were more than a hundred dancers, the council finally took action, opening two guildhalls, those of the dyers and the carpenters, for the shelter of the afflicted. Acting on the advice of physicians first, who suggested the dancing was actually providing a natural relief for some physiological disorder, the council paid unaffected citizens to stay and dance with them and even contracted musicians to fill the guildhalls with the rousing music of drums and fifes to better facilitate their dancing. In effect, they threw them a big party. But this did not achieve their desired results, for none of the afflicted were cured of the urge to dance. In fact, it appeared to exacerbate the trouble, as many in the guildhalls died from dance and others, presumably the paid chaperones or perhaps even passersby, enamored of the music and dancing in the halls, became infected themselves, and thus the plague spread.

Dance Macabre,, attributed to Michael Wolgemut, published 1493 in Hartman Schedel's Chronicle of the World, via Wikimedia Commons

Dance Macabre,, attributed to Michael Wolgemut, published 1493 in Hartman Schedel's Chronicle of the World, via Wikimedia Commons

In response to this clear failure to address the problem, the Council of Twenty-One took a different approach, issuing statutes that today sound like something out of the classic ‘80s film Footloose. There shall be no music in their city, they decreed, on penalty of a 30 shilling fine. While exception was made for good, upstanding folk celebrating weddings or observing mass, even then music would have to be limited to stringed instruments, without the accompaniment of such tempting rhythms as tambourines and drums offered. And to complete their moral legislation, the council even banished “loose persons,” but, thankfully, only temporarily.

When the enforced absence of song still didn’t settle the swinging hips and limbs of all the poor dancing maniacs on the floor, the council resorted to more religious remedies. In a final recourse, they ordered all uninfected guild members to take up the dancers in their halls, lay them bodily onto several large wagons and tie them down, for the stricken were to make a forced pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Vitus at Saverne. With these wagons overladen with bound and writhing forms, they did just that, creaking along some 25 miles of road—slowly, one might imagine—and up a narrow path to the  cave on a promontory where the shrine was kept. There the dancers jigged their way inside and fell prostrate before the image of St. Vitus. A mass was then said over them, and to calm their tapping toes, each was given a pair of red shoes that had been blessed with the sign of the cross and anointed with oil. And this, oddly enough, appeared to do the trick. As many as four hundred were said to have been afflicted with the dancing plague that summer, and the pilgrimage seemed to help many of them recover. This earned the condition the name St. Vitus’s Dance, perhaps because it became widely believed that the saint could help, or because they suspected someone had cursed the afflicted in the saint’s name, or because they supposed the plague had been sent as a punishment by St. Vitus for not venerating him enough.

Religious tradition describes St. Vitus as a 3rd century Sicilian child, who after converting to Christianity against his affluent family’s wishes, performed several miraculous healings through the laying on of hands. Hagiography has him healing paralysis and blindness and other conditions that led to the modern conception of him as the patron saint of neurological disorders. Supposedly boiled in a cauldron while still a child by an emperor’s son whom, according to the legend, he had just healed of demonic possession, after his martyrdom and eventual canonization, his relics came to be most associated with healing illnesses presenting “unsteady step” and “trembling limbs,” among other forms of lameness. Thus the Strasbourgians’ supposition that this particular saint might help their dance-mad citizens, and thus St. Vitus’s reputation as a patron saint of dance.

Martyrdom of Saint Vitus, circa 1450, artist unknown, via Wikimedia Commons

Martyrdom of Saint Vitus, circa 1450, artist unknown, via Wikimedia Commons

Since the Strasbourg epidemic, St. Vitus’s Dance is known to have had some recurrences elsewhere in Europe during the 16th century, sometimes in a recurring form wherein sufferers fall prey to the dancing urge every summer around the same time and must make their pilgrimage to a shrine of St. Vitus annually, but never again has such a rampant outbreak occurred. In the years afterward, even unto the modern day, there has been much debate as to the causes of this phenomenon, whether it be a supernatural affliction, a true physiological illness or a psychogenic complaint—in other words, was it a curse, a sickness or a madness? In weighing all these possibilities, however, one must consider the long history of dancing sickness throughout the Middle Ages leading up to the Strasbourg outbreak.

Among the oldest accounts of a dancing mania was one, which may be entirely fabular or merely embellished from fact, that took place in eastern Saxony, in a district of Bernburg called Kölbigk. The year has been variously reported as 1013, 1015, 1017, and 1021, but clearly it can be narrowed down to the early 11th century. What is consistent in the story is that, one Christmas Eve, a group gathered in a churchyard and kicked up such a racket with their singing and dancing as to upset the church’s priest, who was at the time trying to proceed with Mass. According to the most detailed account I could find, it was at the church of St. Magnus the Martyr, and those gathered there were carolers, of a sort—in that they sang chorolla, or ballads, one of which reportedly included the lyrics ”Why do we stand? Why do we not move?” And move they did, holding hands and jumping and dancing in a circle that the priest of St. Magnus called a “ring dance of sin.” Like any old fuddy-duddy upset at the noise, the priest came out to complain, and when they would not quiet, he cursed them. Counterintuitively, however, he cursed them to continue dancing unceasingly for an entire year, and legend has it this is just what they did, leaping and spinning in their circle day and night. They took no food or water until the spell was broken on the following Christmas Eve, at which time they fainted dead away and slumbered for days, some expiring in their sleep. Those who survived suffered painful spasms for years and were reduced to alms-begging paupers. Now of course this story is unbelievable in more than one respect, but it can’t be dismissed entirely as it was not to be the last instance of this phenomenon.

Religious fanatics dancing amid graves in a churchyard, vi Wikimedia Commons

Religious fanatics dancing amid graves in a churchyard, vi Wikimedia Commons

For example, in the independent German city of Erfurt in either the year 1237, 1247 or 1257 depending on the source, a great many children (from at least one hundred to over a thousand) gathered in the streets, singing and dancing uncontrollably, and proceeded out the city gates, dancing some twelve miles all the way to the walls of Arnstadt, where, their energy depleted, they fell asleep and were retrieved by their worried families. It has been reported that, similar to other outbreaks of a dancing plague, some of the children died in the grips of this mania, and the survivors afterward suffered enduring symptoms, including lethargy and trembling in the extremities. Some have speculated that this incident inspired the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, although Hamelin is around 130 miles northeast of this vicinity.

Some 20 to 40 years later, in Maastricht, 1278, around 200 people danced uncontrollably on a bridge that suddenly buckled and cast them into the waters of the Meuse to drown. Thereafter, in 1374, a major spate of occurrences erupted in Aachen and spread east to Cologne, west to Ghent and north and south into the Netherlands and France. From this outbreak we have disturbing reports of the afflicted shrieking in pain and screaming out while they danced that they were dying. It was thus assumed to be an epidemic of mass demonic possession, and exorcists kept busy that year, shouting their incantations and throwing the plague’s victims into baths of holy water. Some of the dancers, it is said, even cried out the name of their demonic tormentor: Friskes. It can be surmised that this is where the verb frisk, meaning to frolic playfully, originated, as well as the word frisky, meaning lively and playful. So next time your puppy or your children are jumping about with a surfeit of energy, you might want to cast out the demon Friskes, just to be sure.

Further outbreaks of the dancing plague were few and far between for the next century. Early in the 15th century, a monk danced until he died at the Benedictine Monastery of St. Agnes at Schaffhausen, and an assemblage of ladies went into an extended dance frenzy at the Water Church in Zurich. And in 1463, a great number of manic dancers came in a hopping, gamboling pilgrimage to the shrine of Eberhardsklausen near Trier. These pilgrims, some of whom had been suffering their condition six months, danced so vigorously that they were known to have broken ribs with their strenuous movements, but as in other recorded instances, they felt compelled to dance in order to combat a deep physical pain they felt. They danced until they collapsed in fatigue but leapt back into action if one poured wine on them!

As in the Strasbourg epidemic of the next century, they associated their condition with a particular saint, this time St. John—likely because many claimed to have had a vision of his severed head during their frenzies—and appealed to his image for a cure. Thus the alternative name for St. Vitus’s Dance: St. John’s Dance. And in another curious connection to the Strasbourg contagion, there appeared to be some odd correlation between the condition and the color red. If you recall, 55 years later, red shoes appeared to help cure the Strasbourgians. In Trier in 1463, the dancing pilgrims of St. John reportedly were not able to see the color red! Therefore, by some logic that surely seemed sound at the time, they wore red coral around their necks as amulets and even ingested potions containing powdered red coral.

St. John's Dancers in Molenbeeck by Pieter Brueghel II, via Wikimedia Commons

St. John's Dancers in Molenbeeck by Pieter Brueghel II, via Wikimedia Commons

Considering this long history throughout the Middle Ages prior to the Strasbourg incidents, it should come as no great surprise that the dancing plague may not have entirely disappeared after its brief resurgence in early modern Europe. In the 1730s, at a cemetery in Paris, among followers of a heretical sect called Jansenism who made daily pilgrimages to the grave of a revered ascetic where it was rumored miraculous cures had been performed, a remarkable phenomenon was recorded. These pilgrims began to contort themselves and experience convulsions—thus their strikingly cool name, the Convulsionnaires—and they are often associated with the dancing plague because their convulsions took on the cast of dance. The differences, however, were manifold. Beyond spasms and dancing, the Convulsionnaires were also said to sing, shout prophecies, speak in tongues, and bark like animals. Moreover, they claimed to be able to produce their convulsions on command, and instead of asserting that their movements helped abate some pain they were feeling, they rather declared that their convulsions allowed them to withstand any pain someone might inflict upon them. To prove it, they encouraged onlookers to do violence on them, and according to some accounts they did indeed seem immune to harm while in their ecstatic throes, withstanding strangulation, bludgeoning by various objects and even attacks with blades! And to top off these incredible claims, the Convulsionnaires were supposedly witnessed levitating! Authorities closed the cemetery to restore order, but the Convulsionnaires took to the streets, and their condition seemed contagious, with some reports numbering them in the thousands. While this affair certainly has its dissimilarities from previous dance outbreaks, it is the same in that, eventually, it died away.

Not so another compulsive dance craze, this one in Italy and somehow far more disturbing, at least to me, than any that preceded it. As far back as the 14th century it was recorded, and further study and definition of the condition took place during the 1600s and 1700s. The condition is known as tarantism, and it is thought to proceed from the venomous bite of the dreaded tarantula spider. The preferred treatment? Music! The sufferer, or tarantata, after experiencing some of the obvious symptoms of venomous bites—swelling and difficulty breathing—will leap into dance when music is played. Therefore we have some clear similarities with St. Vitus’s Dance and previous dance plagues: dance as a means of relief from physical pain, music having a clear effect (although here it is seen as ameliorative), and perhaps most unsettling, possession being blamed. You see, the tarantata is said to be possessed by the spirit of the offending spider, and the music and dance are a means of exorcism. Indeed, their dance was a kind of imitation of the tarantula, arching their backs and clambering on all fours up walls and across floors. The musicians became folk healers in these situations, and their skills on violin and tambourine were tested, for they had to play an improvised sort of music that anticipated the bizarre spiderlike movements of their patients in order to successfully banish the spirit of the tarantula. As seen in St. John’s Dance and St. Vitus’s Dance, the symptoms of tarantism did not always disappear for good but rather returned every year around the same time with haunting dreams and hallucinations of spiders, necessitating an annual pilgrimage to a church in Galatina to entreat St. Paul for mercy. Paul, having himself survived a snake bite, is considered, among other things, patron saint of those suffering from venomous bites. Astoundingly, belief in tarantism persisted well into the 20th century. Only recently has it seemed to perish with the last of the pilgrims to Galatina, and what remain are legends and relics of the past, including the peculiar music style said to cure the condition, pizzica-pizzica, and the dance itself, which has evolved from the spiderlike crawling of its origins into the whirling dance known as the tarantella.

Page from Magnes sive de arte magnetica opus tripartitum by Athanasius Kircher, via Wikimedia Commons

Page from Magnes sive de arte magnetica opus tripartitum by Athanasius Kircher, via Wikimedia Commons

What in the past might have been diagnosed as tarantism might today be considered a neurological condition, and this is true of the dancing plague generally. Ask a doctor, and he or she would likely suggest these were episodes of epileptic seizure that were not understood at the time, or those well-versed in history might dismiss it as Sydenham’s chorea, an older diagnosis that, like epilepsy, attempts to define the condition in terms of spasms and unsteady movement. While some neurological explanation might seem likely, especially when considering the strange repetition of details having to do with the perception of the color red, weighing all evidence, such diagnoses seem reductive in that they describe only convulsion rather than actual dance and do not account for the contagion that seems evident in the record. And in fact, it has been noted that as far back as the 1463 outbreak of St. John’s Dance, epilepsy was a known condition, called the “falling sickness,” and the dancing plague was viewed as a clearly different illness.

Another popular theory is that of ergotism. Recall my earlier account of St. Anthony’s Fire as an illness caused by fungus on grain and cured by receiving untainted grain from a church’s stores. Well, it turns out the fungus ergot can also cause convulsive seizures and mania. This explanation, combined with religious fervor and legend, does seem to best explain the phenomenon. Consider, for example, the fact that the only known cure was a pilgrimage to a church or shrine, where perhaps they received untainted grains. However, one of the foremost scholars on this topic, John Waller, has pointed out that ergotism might cause convulsions and hallucinations but that it is not known to have ever caused the sustained rhythmic motions described so consistently in the historical record. Moreover, he points out that people do not react so uniformly to ergot poisoning, and surely if ergotism were the cause, there would have also been reports of the gangrenous form, St. Anthony’s Fire, which there was not. And again, he demonstrates that the people of Alsace knew well the dangers of ergot, citing wooden pipes found in grain mills that were carved with contorted faces as a reminder of the risk of tainted flour. Familiar as they were, they still saw St. Vitus’s dance as a plague altogether distinct from ergotism, and who are we, in the modern day, to gainsay their firsthand knowledge?

Hence Waller’s own theory: that most if not every instance of the dancing plague can be attributed to mass psychogenic illness, perhaps more popularly known under the umbrella term mass hysteria. In other words, it was all in their heads! The spread of the dance would thus be simply attributed to the power of suggestion, and the religious aspects of the condition and its supposed cure can be understood as part of the religious mysticism common in that era. The entire phenomenon, then, is explicable as a sociological trend.

To me, though, this rationalization disappoints. There seems to be no more concrete evidence for this explanation than there is for the idea that it truly was an enigmatic disease that subsequently disappeared. And when prominent mysterious happenings in the past can be so effortlessly disregarded as mass hysteria, it may lead to a serious case of historical blindness.

The Lost Colony and the Dare Stones, Part Two

Front and back of the original Dare Stone, via Brenau University

Front and back of the original Dare Stone, via Brenau University

Welcome to Historical Blindness, the Odd Past Podcast. In this installment, we will continue our exploration of The Lost Colony of Roanoke with an examination of what may be the most outrageous archaeological find, or hoax, of the last century. If you did not read the previous installment, please do so before continuing to this, part two of The Lost Colony and the Dare Stones.

In 1937, nearly 350 years after John White’s discovery of the colony’s disappearance, the story of the Lost Colony jumped suddenly back into the national consciousness with the discovery of a remarkable artifact. This item, a rock, was brought to Emory University of Atlanta by one Louis E. Hammond, a man purporting to be a tourist from California. This stone, which carried a mysterious engraved message, immediately captured the interest of History Professor Haywood Pearce, for this stone’s inscription appeared to be a message from none other than Eleanor Dare. On its face, beneath a cross (significantly a Latin cross, with one arm longer than the other, rather than the Maltese cross, with arms of equal length, which had been the agreed upon signal to indicate the colony had gone inland), was carved the message “Ananias Dare & Virginia went hence vnto heaven 1591 Any Englishman Shew J·hn White G·vr Via.” On the reverse side of this stone, which you can view above, a longer message was carved in Elizabethan English, this one harder to make out for its Middle English orthography and the fact that both a’s and o’s seem to appear as rough-hewn dots: “Father s··ne After Y·v g·e f·r Engl·nde we c·m hither ·nlie mis·rie & W·rre T·w yeere Ab·ve h·lfe De·De ere T·w yeere m·re fr·m sickenes beine f·vre & Twentie s·lv·ge with mes·ge ·f shipp vnto vs sm·l sp·ce ·f time they ·ffrite of revenge r·nn ·l ·w·ye wee bleeve yt n·tt y·v s··ne ·fter ye s·lv·ges f·ine spirts ·ngrie suddi·ne mvrther ·l s·ve se·ven mine childe ·n·ni·s t· sl·ine wth mvch mis·rie bvrie ·l neere fovre myles e·ste this river vpp·n sm·l hil names writ ·l ther ·n r·cke pvtt this ther ·ls·e s·lv·ge shew this vnto y·v & hither wee pr·mise y·v to give gre·te plentie presents.” This message was signed “E W D,” presumably for Eleanor White Dare.

The stone told a clear enough story. Soon after White left them, the colonists came “hither,” presumably to the place the stone had been found, suffered misery and war for two years, losing more than half their number to illness within another two years. We are given the number 24, though it seems unclear whether that represents the number who expired or survived. It sounds as if it is the number dead, but this would not be “above half” the number left behind, so Pearce read it as the number who survived. Thereafter, a “savage,” or Native American, reported to the surviving colonists that a ship approached, and this caused some fear of revenge that drove the natives to flee, even though the colonists apparently did not believe the ship to belong to their countrymen. Afterward, supposedly driven by angry spirits or simply in an angry mood, the natives massacred the remaining colonists, leaving only seven alive. Eleanor reports that her child and husband were among those slain, whom they buried around four miles east of “this river”—presumably meaning the river near which the stone had been discovered—on a hill where they’d left another stone, this one a grave marker inscribed with the names of the dead. The message ends by explaining that this stone had been given to a native to give to White (or as the reverse side indicates, to give it unto any Englishman, who would then show it to White) on the promise that the native messenger would be rewarded with gifts upon delivering it—a problematic detail to which we shall return.

The find, if genuine, was a monumental discovery, but Pearce and his colleagues, wary of hoaxes, examined it and questioned its discoverer, Louis E. Hammond, closely. Hammond was a tourist out of California. By one report a seller of produce, Hammond claimed to have stopped along a newly built causeway in swamplands along the Chowan River in North Carolina to hunt for hickory nuts. These swamps had for many years been inaccessible, and even rumored to be a pirate haunt in days of yore; thus, when Hammond tripped over the 21-pound piece of quartz and saw its inscription, he thought perhaps it represented a clue to the resting place of buried treasure and took it with him. Two months later, he arrived at Emory University in Atlanta, seeking a translator. Pearce and his colleagues saw no evidence of fraud in the stone, noting that its inscription might have been made with tools available to colonists and that its message appeared consistent, idiomatically and orthographically, with Elizabethan English. Therefore, they followed this mysterious Hammond to the place where he claimed to have found the stone.

Hammond took them to the causeway and whipped out a crude map scrawled on a paper bag, but to their chagrin, November rains made it impossible for him to pinpoint the site where he had pulled it from the ground. Frustrated in his search, Hammond led them to a sand bar; there an old sunken barge marked the place where he had supposedly washed the stone—and not only washed it but scrubbed it with a wire brush and accentuated the lettering using a pencil! These misguided efforts of Hammond’s were later blamed for the inability to properly assess how long the stone had lain in the swamp.

Dr. Haywood Pearce, examining stone with colleagues, via Brenau University

Dr. Haywood Pearce, examining stone with colleagues, via Brenau University

Pearce remained skeptical, but feeling that the stone warranted further investigation, he hoped to find the grave marker alluded to in its inscription as a verification of its authenticity. There is, however, at least to my understanding, an error in logic here. The stone referred to a grave “east this river,” as if the Dare Stone was meant to remain in one location, presumably there on the western side of the Chowan, and act as a guide to the grave marker on the hill. But then it says “put this there also,” which wouldn’t make sense with the previous statement, and then “savage show this unto you,” indicating the stone had been given to a native as a message to be given over to any Englishman. This appears wholly nonsensical. If it were meant to stay by the river and point any who came across it to the other side of the river and the grave, then it would defeat the purpose to place this stone also at the grave or to instruct natives to carry it away from that spot to an Englishman in exchange for gifts…

None of these inconsistencies appear to have occurred to Pearce, though, as he seems to have been far too excited over the prospect of finding the grave to consider such contradictions. Unfortunately, though, as he was embarking on his quest for the gravesite, rumors had already begun to swirl that he had actually already discovered Virginia Dare’s grave. In an effort to quash these reports, he published a translation of the stone in January of the next year. Thereafter, the former mayor of Edenton, a town near the purported discovery site of the stone, wrote Pearce with a tantalizing anecdote. As a young man, he had performed logging work in the swamps east of the Chowan, just where the Dare Stone claimed the grave marker could be found, and incredibly, he recalled a remarkable moss-covered stone upon a hilltop that might have been the very marker Pearce sought. Of course, Pearce set out to find this rock, and on finding it, very carefully removed the moss to find…nothing at all. Therefore, he began to excavate the hill, certain that he would find the resting place of the dead colonists, and in the process, he turned up…no indication of remains whatsoever.

Regardless of this dig’s failure, Pearce was undeterred, and since his first media promotion of the investigation had resulted in a promising lead, he might be forgiven for thinking that further advertisement of his search might provide a real breakthrough. In hindsight, however, he surely regretted his subsequent decision to offer a $500 reward for any who could find or lead them to the grave marker in question.

The story takes a careening turn then when William Eberhardt, an uneducated stoneworker, almost a year and a half after the arrival of the Dare Stone at Emory, approached Dr. Haywood Pearce with another find, this one purportedly found some 300 miles from the first, south and west and one state over, in South Carolina. The stone Eberhardt showed Pearce was inscribed with a much different style of script that at first blush seemed unreadable, although a date, 1589, could be discerned. Pearce dismissed it as a Spanish gravestone, telling Eberhardt they would keep the stone and translate it, but that the reward they had offered was only for a stone that would be found near the Chowan River in North Carolina. Eberhardt, undaunted, returned with two more stones bearing the same date and supposedly found in the same region. One might imagine this trying Pearce’s patience, as he explained to Eberhardt again that the stone he sought would not be found in South Carolina. Moreover, Pearce apparently explained to Eberhardt exactly what the date on the stone he sought would be, and therefore one might imagine that he very well could have shared some further details as to what would mark the Dare gravestone he wanted so desperately to find. Amazingly, then—or perhaps predictably—Eberhardt returned with exactly the stone Pearce pursued.

The aforementioned Eberhardt stone on display at Brenau University, via The Virginian-Pilot

The aforementioned Eberhardt stone on display at Brenau University, via The Virginian-Pilot

The stone Eberhardt brought him bore the following legend: “Heyr laeth Ananias & Virginia Father Salvage mvrther Al save seaven names written heyr mai God hab mercye Eleanor Dare 1591.” On the reverse surface were inscribed 15 names, which in combination with Ananias and Virginia Dare was exactly the number of dead Pearce expected to be memorialized on the grave marker. A triumph of luck and archeology, it seemed. But what about the fact that Eberhardt still claimed to have found it so far from the first stone? Rationalization can scale any mountain, it seems, for Pearce simply changed his theory to accommodate, apparently reasoning that the first stone had been carried by its Indian bearer from South Carolina all the way to North Carolina in search of the promised Englishmen who would trade great gifts for it—never mind the “east this river” bit.

Eberhardt certainly had Pearce’s attention then. Upon interrogation, Eberhardt revealed his lack of education, which made him more trustworthy in Pearce’s eyes, and explained that, by pure chance while travelling, he had discovered a site with multiple engraved stones resting in a gully at the base of a hill. He had taken only one with him as a curio and had returned to recover others when Pearce had been uninterested in the first. Indeed, he claimed to have discovered thirteen more stones there, and he produced all of them for Pearce. Of course, Pearce asked to be shown this site, and Eberhardt obliged, leading him into a rural area near the Saluda River and showing him a depression in the ground where he said the stones had lain when he discovered them.

What remained was to test the authenticity of the stones, and to test the veracity of Eberhardt. The stones passed scrutiny, although whether or not that scrutiny might have been cursory or deficient is hard to surmise at this historical distance. Pearce and the experts he consulted found Eberhardt’s stones to bear what appeared to be authentically Elizabethan language. Moreover, their inscriptions, in most of their particulars, such as the names mentioned, appeared to correspond with extant accounts from John White and John Smith. And finally, chemical tests to examine oxidation and weathering seemed to indicate that the stones were old (although how old could not then be determined) and, more importantly, that the cut surface within the engraved letters appeared to be equally weathered. Further convincing was Pearce’s investigation of Eberhardt’s background, which confirmed his lack of education and therefore the likelihood of his inability to accurately approximate Elizabethan English and his lack of familiarity with relevant historical records that corroborated the names inscribed on the stones.

Eberhardt and Pearce on the Chattahoochee River, from the Saturday Evening Post, via Angelfire.com

Eberhardt and Pearce on the Chattahoochee River, from the Saturday Evening Post, via Angelfire.com

The final indication to Pearce that Eberhardt was on the level came when the man passed a tricky test. Trying to catch Eberhardt out, Pearce suggested that, rather than accepting the promised $500 reward, Eberhardt take only $100 and a 50% stake in the property on which he had found all the stones, a piece of land that, if the stones proved authentic, would surely be worth far more in time. Eberhardt’s decision to take the stake in the property seemed to confirm to Pearce that Eberhardt himself believed the stones to be genuine. He therefore made the deal, feeling more confident in the discovery, and subsequently sent Eberhardt out to find further stones in the South Carolina area and into Georgia. Since the stone with the colonists’ names had a further message along the edge that read, “Father wee goe sw,” or southwest—which to me seems a clear effort by a forger to explain why the Eberhardt stones had been found hundreds of miles southwest of where Pearce expected to find them—Pearce hoped more stones would be found to the southwest of Eberhardt’s hill. The next stone to be found, however, was not turned up by Eberhardt but by a resident of Atlanta named I.A. Turner who claimed to have found the stone along the Chattahoochee southwest of the hill while hunting, contacting Pearce because of an Atlanta newspaper piece on the other stones. Turner’s stone matched all of Eberhardt’s in its script. Signed again by Eleanor, it appeared to indicate that more stones would be found by the same river. And sure enough, Eberhardt thereafter discovered nine more stones along the Chattahoochee. And in the next year, as dozens of new stones were lugged in by various different people for scrutiny, the last vestiges of Pearce’s skepticism were finally obliterated when an assemblage of Georgian farmers reported that they had seen such stones, inscribed with what they had always believed were the writings of Native Americans, up to fifty years earlier. One farmer, T.R. Jett, who had lived throughout his childhood in the area where these latest stones had been discovered, claimed to have seen two such stones in his youth, one of which had been displayed in his family’s mill and widely remarked upon. While he could not recall what had become of those stones, the aforementioned I.A. Turner (the first to find a stone in Georgia besides Eberhardt), another local, claimed to recall where the stone had been discarded after its exhibition in the mill and, fantastically, managed after so many years to find it for Pearce. The second stone from Jett’s memory had apparently been hauled out of the river and split into two pieces, one of which had reportedly been used as part of a stone construction in a barn that no longer stood. Surely this fragmented stone could no longer be found… but no, with a little encouragement, Jett managed to find one half in a ditch and the other in an old tool chest. The pieces fitted together perfectly, and one might imagine this moment like a pivotal scene from a historical mystery thriller, when the music swells and the outlandish theory is proven factual.

In all, 48 Dare Stones were discovered after the first, and 42 of them by Eberhardt! Always the stones were picked up with no witnesses around to confirm their discovery, but sometimes Eberhardt was able to show indentations in the ground that fit his finds. The inscribed story beyond the first stone was predictable at first and then, before its conclusion, sensational. The stones indicated that some so-called “savages” had shown the colonists much mercy, whereas others, from the east, had massacred them. Talk of burying the dead was common. All the while, some effort was made to look for Governor White’s return (a dubious claim considering how far inland these stones had supposedly been found). Thereafter, talk of a native king taking the surviving colonists in and taking Eleanor to wife, seemed to take the narrative in a decidedly romantic direction. This narrative was not unfolded to Pearce in any linear fashion, as stones were found out of the chronological order of the story they had to tell, but eventually, all was pieced together. If the stones were to be believed, Eleanor Dare, after losing her husband and daughter to murder, married a native chieftain, lived with him, possibly in a cave, in “primeval splendor,” and eventually bore her new husband a child, another daughter whom, according to one stone, she named Agnes and whom, according to another, she hoped her father would find take back to England.  Eventually, some conflict arose among the natives owing to the birth of the girl, but before that could be further explicated, the narrative resolved with an ominous remark upon Eleanor’s sudden illness. This story in stones concluded with a date of 1599, when it might be presumed that Eleanor expired from some naturally arising ailment, although it might also be speculated that she was poisoned by those of the tribe who were upset over the birth of her daughter.

Cover of the Saturday Evening Post issue in which Sparkes's article appeared, via Angelfire.com

Cover of the Saturday Evening Post issue in which Sparkes's article appeared, via Angelfire.com

Regardless of any conjecture this story might inspire, however, all theories arising from it were soon proven moot, for consensus regarding the authenticity of the Dare Stones was about to shift rather dramatically. After further study and corroboration by visiting professors hailing from institutions as storied as Harvard, Pearce wrote to the Saturday Evening Post regarding the stones, and the Post sent journalist Boyden Sparkes down to Georgia to look into the matter. According to the article that Sparkes eventually published in the spring of 1941, which has been quite useful in composing my own account of the affair, Sparkes immediately found Pearce wary and even hostile—specifically when Sparkes suggested that it stretched the imagination to believe a Native American might have been prevailed upon to lug a 21-pound stone around on the off-chance he might be able to exchange it for goods sometime in the unforeseeable future.

Sparkes inquired about the university at Chapel Hill’s lack of interest in the stones, and Pearce suggested that Paul Green, faculty at Chapel Hill and author of a popular play about the Lost Colony, was angry because filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille, who had been sniffing around Green for source material, had now turned his attentions to Pearce. Sparkes very sharply pointed out that Hollywood’s optioning of historical source material had become a big business, especially there in Georgia after the success of Gone With the Wind, and suggested that this entire affair of the Dare Stones may have been a scheme to draw Hollywood’s attention, even going so far as suggesting that Hammond, the mysterious Californian, might have been a hoaxer on some Hollywood production company’s payroll. Indeed, it seemed that someone had tried to sell a stone at Manteo, where Green’s play was put on, long before Hammond ever showed up at Emory. According to Sparkes’s article, a local senator remembered some huckster who came through the area promoting a real estate project and a coastal highway and had outright suggested the creation of bogus relics using old ballast stones. Among the other schemes this out-of-towner had brainstormed were carving CROATOAN on a log and sinking it out where fishermen would pull it up in their nets or claiming to find one of Governor White’s buried chests. According to Sparkes, who says he tracked down records of this mysterious man kept by the administrators of that coastal highway, this stranger had even been caught filming Paul Green’s play with a handheld camera on opening night and been asked to cease and desist. But perhaps most discrediting is that Sparkes claims Pearce knew about this suspicious story yet still gave weight to Hammond and his stone.

A 1939 production of Paul Green's "The Lost Colony," via TheLostColony.org

A 1939 production of Paul Green's "The Lost Colony," via TheLostColony.org

Sparkes further debunks the notion that various unaffiliated farmers independently corroborated the existence of the stones found in Georgia. According to his article, Eberhardt was close friends with all the other finders of the Georgia stones, and the Jett family, who purported to remember the stones in their mill, was also acquainted with Eberhardt through his companions. In fact, while Pearce averred that Mr. Jett easily identified the stone from memory, Sparkes’s interview with Mr. Jett suggests that the man actually made the identification under rather strange circumstances and with no small amount of coaching. It seems Jett had shot his landlord with a shotgun, and it was while being held in jail that he was approached by Pearce and shown the stone through the bars of his cell. Jett did not identify it immediately, as Pearce indicated, but did so after getting out of jail, and Sparkes implies that Pearce may have helped him in some wise. Jett’s remembrances are further made dubious by his claims that he never could read the “Indian writing” on the stones in his youth, whereas the stones he identified are clearly inscribed with English lettering! Sparkes’s working theory was that the Jett stones were purposely inscribed with g’s carved to resemble the figure eights mentioned in some witness accounts of old stone relics that probably did at some point exist.

Moreover, Sparkes went himself to examine the tool chest in which Mrs. Jett reportedly found half a stone that fit perfectly with the other half a stone that had supposedly been part of an unmortared pillar. He makes a convincing case that any stones banging around among tools in a chest and surviving the ruin of a building would be chipped and not fit together, as he puts it, as neatly as a “freshly broken teacup.” Although there does appear to be corroboration for stones with “Indian writing” being stored in that tool chest, he suggests that, in pursuit of the reward money offered, Mrs. Jett could easily have replaced the remembered stones for one manufactured by Eberhardt and his cronies.

Sparkes not only cast doubt on Hammond and Eberhardt, but he also pointed out ways in which Pearce had essentially invited fraud and swindlery by offering monetary incentives and, even more damning, that he had seemingly exaggerated or misrepresented the details of his own investigations into the stones’ authenticity. To wit: one of the other finders of stones in Georgia, known friend of Eberhardt I. A. Turner, had apparently been promised some pay by Pearce and told Sparkes he planned to sue Pearce over the matter. Turner insinuated that, if the stones were hoaxes, Pearce knew all about it.

Sparkes also indicates that Pearce’s investigation of Eberhardt’s background actually turned up some suspect past behavior, such as the fact that he had actually sold bogus Indian relics to an antique dealer in the past! Pearce allegedly left this bit out of his writings to the Post, and when Sparkes finally met up with Eberhardt himself, finding the man in a shack, sick and intoxicated, he learned of another detail Pearce had glossed over. The way Pearce told it, the fact that Eberhardt had taken an interest in the hill where his stones were discovered rather than the full $500 reward proved he was on the level. However, in 1940, Eberhardt had sold his share of the hill back to Brenau University for $1400, which along with other remuneration for stone-hunting amounted to far more than the original reward. It would seem Eberhardt was a savvier businessman than Pearce represented him to be. Moreover, while Pearce had characterized the hill as uncultivated, Sparkes reports that a local farmer grew cotton on it and, when shown photos of the stones, asserted he’d never seen them there before.

And as perhaps the most ridiculous aspect of Eberhardt’s story, Sparkes points out the overwhelming coincidence that only Eberhardt had found stones even when other, more learned men were searching the same areas, and that by the end, Eberhardt was finding them conveniently quite near his own home!

Pearce and Harvard scholars examining Dare Stone, from the Saturday Evening Post, via Angelfire.com

Pearce and Harvard scholars examining Dare Stone, from the Saturday Evening Post, via Angelfire.com

Turning his attention back to discrediting Pearce himself, Sparkes dug through reports on scientific testing and found that Pearce had even ignored some findings by his own experts, who had pointed out that letters had been carved to purposely avoid disturbing lichen and some even appeared to have been carved as recently as a few days or weeks earlier! Moreover, Pearce appeared to have purposely misrepresented expert evaluations of the stones to say they could not be reproduced through short-cut methods, when in fact it seems any stone-cutter might have accomplished the same engraving using a variety of modern methods. Furthermore, Pearce’s claims that the language on the stone was altogether consistent with Elizabethan English conveniently ignored the exceptions made by linguists that a few words, including “primeval,” appeared wholly anachronistic.

Perhaps most damning was Sparkes’s uncovering of Pearce’s correspondence with the film director Cecil B. DeMille, which indicated that he did indeed seek to sell his new history to the filmmaker in the form of the rights to a different play from Green’s, one he had co-written himself based on the story related by the Eberhardt stones.

After Sparkes’s Saturday Evening Post article, titled “Writ on Rocke,” was published, Bill Eberhardt contacted Pearce’s mother, wife of Brenau University’s president, and requested a meeting, which she agreed to, thinking Eberhardt wanted to show her a new stone. And lo and behold, he did have a new stone to show her, but this one was inscribed with a threat. “Pearce and Dare Historical Hoaxes,” it read. “We Dare Anything.”  Eberhardt informed Mrs. Pearce that he would release the stone to the Post as proof of forgery unless the Pearces gave him $200. Pearce received this message from his mother, and whether or not the fact that Eberhardt had indeed forged his stones came as a shock to him, it undoubtedly was received with despondency, for the jig was up. Pearce went to confront Eberhardt with a witness, and Eberhardt reportedly received them with a rifle laid casually and menacingly across his lap, bidding Pearce to keep his distance. Pearce demanded something in writing before he would surrender the money, but Eberhardt would sign nothing incriminating. Afterward, with only the corroboration of his witness to validate his claim, Pearce went to the press and made the front page of the Atlanta Journal on May 15, 1941, with the headline, “Hoax Claimed By ‘Dare Stones’ Finder in Extortion Scheme, Dr. Pearce Charges.”

The effect of the Post and Journal articles was to turn the Dare Stones into a nationwide laughingstock and destroy Pearce’s academic reputation and career. Although Eberhardt denied Pearce’s allegations, saying that he’d never forged any stones but rather found them where Pearce had told him to look, the matter of the Dare Stones was laid to rest in the court of public opinion. For the next 70 years, the Dare Stones were all dismissed as hoaxes.

However, recent interest in the original Dare Stone, the one presented to Pearce at Emory by Hammond, has once again cast doubt on accepted history and weakened these certainties for some. These doubts were raised by, of all things, a History channel docudrama released in 2015. The program follows a couple of stonemasons, the Vieira brothers, who are best known for a previous History channel special attempting to prove the existence of an extinct race of giants, a conspiracy theory previously covered by one of the Vieiras in a TED Talk that was subsequently removed by its Youtube curator as pseudoscience. In their special on the Dare Stones, they investigate on behalf of the Lost Colony Center for Science and Research, a rather sensationalist society that pursues a variety of theories in regard to the colony’s fate, some more outlandish than others, such as that the colonists relocated as part of a secret operation to harvest sassafras, a crop valued as a curative for such ailments as syphilis. The film goes into detail telling the story and has the brothers examining the stones. Of course, they find that Eberhardt’s stones were likely engraved using a drill press, while the first stone’s lettering is, they suggest, more consistent with chisel work. More interesting, though, is the claim of one Dr. Kevin Quarmby, presented as an expert linguist in the program (and indeed his credentials seem appropriately impressive although his background appears to be more in the area of Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama rather than linguistics, per se) that the word “ye” with a superscripted e, which has long been taken as a second-person personal pronoun (as in “you”), is actually representative of the written form of the definite article “the,” which would seem to indicate either authenticity or a counterfeit of such genius that the forger was actually better versed in Elizabethan writing than the Harvard professors who evaluated his work. This assertion has led Brenau University, which remains the keeper of the stones, to call for renewed academic examination of the first Dare Stone, which in turn necessitates a closer study of its purported discoverer, the enigmatic Louis E. Hammond.

Hammond—who claimed to have been traveling with his wife when he discovered the stone, though no one ever saw her—turned out to be something of a phantom. Due to their immediate suspicions of a hoax, Pearce and his associates at Emory had tried to tail him one night but were eluded. On another occasion, they tried to collect his fingerprints from a glass, but to no avail. Pearce even claimed to have hired Pinkerton detectives to investigate his background, and no evidence of the man’s existence was ever turned up. Likewise, the Vieira brothers of the History channel special hired their own investigator to track down proof of a Louis E. Hammond’s existence in California at that time. Tantalizingly, the investigator found proof of a Louis Hammond who served time in Folsom Prison around that time for forgery, but the age of this prisoner seems to be different from that of the Hammond who brought in the stone, according to descriptions, so the connection remains indefinite.

The Vieira Brothers, looking here for all the world like serious researchers, via New York Daily News

The Vieira Brothers, looking here for all the world like serious researchers, via New York Daily News

It appeared that at least in one regard Hammond told the truth, for the fact that he hailed from California seems to have been confirmed. After leaving Georgia for home, Hammond wrote from somewhere in Alameda, California—with a P.O. Box return address—suggesting that Pearce and Emory University charge 25 cents to view the stones. To Emory University administrators, this proved Hammond to be a fraud, so Pearce had thereafter been obliged to take the stone to Brenau University, where his father was president and various other family members served as administrators and faculty—a move that would further discredit him to Boyden Sparkes. It did appear, however, that Hammond just wanted some cash for his find, and after managing to obtain a weak reference from some jewelry store owner that confirmed little more than that, indeed, Louis Hammond existed, Pearce and Brenau University gave Hammond some money for the stone, and Hammond thereafter vanished.

But was it possible that Louis Hammond was in league with known forger Bill Eberhardt? One account suggests at least that this was not so. According to Boyden Sparkes, it appears that Hammond stuck around long enough to be aware of the Eberhardt stones, and Eberhardt’s co-conspirator Turner claimed to have been approached by Hammond and asked to find a stone with the word “Yahoo” on it. This apparently was an attempt to prove that Eberhardt and his friends would turn up a stone with any word asked for, thus demonstrating their stones to be hoaxes. However, Turner and Eberhardt did not take this bait, and Pearce, unfortunately, took this as further proof that Eberhardt was in earnest. So, I suppose it is still possible that Hammond and Eberhardt’s crew were working together to convince Pearce of the stones’ legitimacy, but such an elaborate con strains credulity.

Nevertheless, the questions remain. Was the first Dare Stone a fraud, as the ensuing stones turned out to be? Was Hammond that same huckster known to be planning similar pranks around the Manteo area during the premiere of Green’s play? Or was he perhaps a Hollywood henchman dispatched to drum up a marketable narrative for a future blockbuster? 

If the first stone is genuine, then consider the implication of the inscription that it was both left as a marker pointing to a grave site AND as a message to be carried by natives to Englishmen who would reward them with gifts. Where is the logic in its message? Or even regardless of the confusing content of its inscription, if there is any doubt as to its authenticity, shouldn’t modern science be able to settle the matter one way or another? Until that time, this will remain a lapse in the clarity of history, a beshadowed corner of our historiography, an episode of historical blindness.

Detailed image of front of original Dare Stone, via The Wall Street Journal

Detailed image of front of original Dare Stone, via The Wall Street Journal

Thanks for reading Historical Blindness! This installment was researched and written by me, Nathaniel Lloyd. If you enjoyed this post and would like to read more thought-provoking stories from our shared past, please listen to the podcast and spread the word by subscribing and leaving us a positive review on iTunes, Google Play and Stitcher and by sharing the program with any friends you think might enjoy it. Explore this website to find previous installments and other products, such as a link to my forthcoming novel, Manuscript Found!  At the bottom of the page, you’ll find links to stay up-to-date with our latest installments, products and recommendations by subscribing to our RSS feed or following us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. If you feel moved to support our program and make it possible for us to release installments more frequently, you can follow the navigation link at the top of the page to www.historicalblindness.com/donate, where you can contribute a one-time donation or pledge recurring support through Patreon. All donations contribute directly to the composition and production of the program, and with enough support, a more frequent release schedule would be more feasible. Keep an eye out for our next installment, and thanks again for reading!

 

 

The Lost Colony and the Dare Stones, Part One

The Carte of All the Coast of Virginia by Theodor de Bry (source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Carte of All the Coast of Virginia by Theodor de Bry (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Welcome to another installment of Historical Blindness! I’d like to start by thanking all the listeners who checked out our first installment, and I’d like to heartily apologize for the amount of time between our first post and this follow-up. The fact is that the practical matter of earning a living and providing for my beautiful wife and daughter leaves me with little spare time to work on this project. If you enjoy this blog or its associated podcast, please consider making a donation to support its production. Listener support would make it possible to compose and release this podcast on a more frequent basis. I’ve made it a bit simpler to donate by setting up a page on our website at www.historicalblindness.com/donate, where you’ll have the option of making a one-time donation or pledging regular support through Patreon. You can navigate to the page by finding and clicking the Donate button above. Thanks so much for any support you can offer!

In this two-part installment, we’ll explore one of the creepiest and most mythologized mysteries in American history, and we’ll dig into one of the most consistently debated, debunked and disputed archaeological finds of the last century. Our mystery, of course, is that of the Lost Colony of Roanoke, the fate of its denizens, and the further puzzle of the notorious Dare Stones.

This topic is exemplary of the kind of subject matter I hope to explore most in this podcast: a story that is compelling and atmospheric, evoking an air of mystery and presenting an enigma while provoking questions and doubts about the reliability of the historical record. This is quinessential Historical Blindness.

Much has been made of the Lost Colony of Roanoke in popular fiction and entertainment, especially in the horror genre. Stephen King himself played with a parallel to the Lost Colony in his nightmarish novel It. Most recently, the popular television series American Horror Story, which had previously played with elements of the story, focused on it more directly in its sixth and current season.

Something about the setting of the story makes it unsettling from the beginning. In 1585, when England first sought to establish a permanent colony in the Americas, it was a mystery continent, very literally a New World with new peoples, unfamiliar races, unusual foods, strange creatures—an alien world with harsh seasons of unforgiving weather and scarcity, fierce natural predators and inscrutable inhabitants, any of which would kill visitors and settlers alike. It was a place and a time, as well, when magic and supernatural evil were living realities, at least in the minds of those who lived the in the era, European and indigenous alike.

Consider, then, the discovery made by John White, governor of the colony, against this backdrop, when upon returning after too long an absence to resupply the settlers, he discovered all the colonists, including his daughter and granddaughter, vanished and the only clue left behind a curious word carved into a post. That word, now infamous and fraught with sinister connotation: Croatoan.

From America First--100 Stories from Our History by Lawton B. Evans (source: mainlessons.com)

From America First--100 Stories from Our History by Lawton B. Evans (source: mainlessons.com)

But to gain some perspective on this much embroidered story, we must examine its beginnings. The colony of Roanoke was first established, upon an island in what was then considered Virginia—named for the Virgin Queen Elizabeth after initial voyages of discovery chartered by her pet, Sir Walter Raleigh—but in what today is North Carolina, south of Albemarle Sound between the mainland and the barrier islands called the Outer Banks. The Queen had been pleased by reports of the island’s climate and beauty  and the amicability of its natives. Therefore, England sought to establish its first American colony there, in direct competition with the colonial ventures in Florida of their naval rivals, the Spanish.  Before the establishment of the Roanoke colony that we now think of as the Lost Colony, there had been previous attempts to settle on the same island. Sir Walter Raleigh dispatched a fleet carrying a group of 108 settlers to the island in 1585, which along the way perpetrated some raids and depredations in the Spanish West Indies before being hosted cordially by the Spanish governor of Hispaniola. Thereafter, on their way to Roanoke, they explored the island known as Ocracoke south of Cape Hatteras and, in retaliation for an alleged petty theft, burned a native village to the ground. After establishing their colony on the northern part of Roanoke Island, the fleet granted one Ralph Lane the governorship and returned to England for resupply. Lane was busy in the absence of the fleet, building a fort on the eastern coast of the island and exploring the coast of the mainland. However, because of the lateness of the season when they arrived and their unfamiliarity with the land, they failed to raise any crops and quickly ran through their provisions, which meant relying wholly on native charity. This, of course, led to privation and poor relations, and while the colonists survived their first winter, in 1586, their position seemed increasingly tenuous. After a minor clash with the local tribe in May, the English retaliated with a raid in which they overturned canoes and decapitated two natives. This, of course, resulted in open warfare, which concluded with the murder of the tribe’s chief.

Still awaiting their resupply nearly a year after the fleet had left the colonists on the island, it was with great relief that they received the news of Sir Francis Drake’s formidable fleet laying not far offshore. Lane predictably pleaded for aid, suggesting their position among native tribes was untenable, a plea that was carried to Drake. Upon receiving two options from Drake, that of accepting a ship and further provisions that would supply them for the foreseeable future or boarding the fleet for immediate passage back to England, Governor Lane, not wanting to abandon the colony quite yet, was disposed to accept the ship and supplies. However, as the first, smaller ship Drake offered was promptly lost in a storm and as any other ship Drake might offer would be too large to harbor in their island port and would have to anchor beyond the Outer Bank, making it indefensible, Lane and the colonists erred on the side of caution and abandoned their colony, leaving only 15 men behind to literally hold the fort. Shortly thereafter, their resupply finally arrived to find the settlement all but deserted. Thus even the very first colony of Roanoke was lost, though under far less mysterious circumstances.

Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh (source: postalmuseum.org)

Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh (source: postalmuseum.org)

Another colony was not established at Roanoke for a year, this one to be governed by John White, who as a young artist had been among the fleet that established the first colony there. Among the 150 settlers with whom White sailed across the Atlantic were his daughter, Eleanor, and son-in-law, Ananias Dare. The journey to the New World was known to be dangerous, or at least arduous, taking a minimum of six weeks. In this case, it took almost three months during the summer heat for White’s small fleet to reach Roanoke. Therefore, it is surprising that White consented to let Ananias bring Eleanor, for she was pregnant, and must have been far along and well aware of it when they embarked in early May, for less than a month after disembarking at Roanoke in late July, she gave birth to her daughter, whom she named Virginia after their new home.

Virginia Dare came into the world as both a person and a symbol. She was the first English child born in the New World and thus came to represent many things to many people. She was a symbol of hope and rebirth, emblematic of the human spirit of exploration and adventure as much as of British expansionism and willpower. She has since passed into folklore as an icon of American history, representative of our nation’s independence and our bravery. Moreover, as a child, she is a figure of innocence and virtue, and as a woman, a remarkable and empowering character.  

"Baptism of Virginia Dare" lithograph from Pioneers in the settlement of America: from Florida in 1510 to California in 1849 by William A. Crafts, 1876 (source: Wikimedia Commons)

"Baptism of Virginia Dare" lithograph from Pioneers in the settlement of America: from Florida in 1510 to California in 1849 by William A. Crafts, 1876 (source: Wikimedia Commons)

The colonists’ intention had been to found their so-called City of Raleigh on the Chesapeake Bay, where access by ships of a deeper draft would be more feasible. First, though, they landed a party on Roanoke to check on the fifteen men left behind the previous year. None were found, but they did discover the skeleton of one man and the ruins of their fort, which had been burned to the ground. It was assumed, then, that they had all been slain by “Sauages,”  but finding the many dwelling places still standing, as well as melons that had grown well in the settlers’ absence and an abundance of wild game, the new expedition decided to remain despite this ominous portent.

Shortly after the new colonists settled there, some Roanoke natives made it clear that they had not forgotten the conflicts of the previous year. Coming across one George Howe, an English settler out by himself spearing crabs with a stick, they shot him full of sixteen arrows and fell on him with swords of wood, bludgeoning him. Meanwhile, White was busy making peace with the Croatoan tribe that dwelt on a nearby island through an intermediary named Manteo. After learning of the attack on Howe, he mustered 25 men and led them in an attack on a nearby native village as revenge for Howe and the missing fifteen colonists, but after shooting one and running off the rest, they discovered that actually the natives they had attacked were Croatoans, their allies. Apparently the Roanoke natives had already fled their village, and the Croatoans were only there gathering what had been abandoned. Manteo and the Croatoans ostensibly forgave the English their mistake, but considering the ensuing events, it’s understandable why one might doubt the veracity of their forgiveness.

"A Cheiff Lorde of Roanoac," illustrated by Theodor de Bry from a watercolor by John White (source: learnnc.org)

"A Cheiff Lorde of Roanoac," illustrated by Theodor de Bry from a watercolor by John White (source: learnnc.org)

As the colonists’ first voyage had taken longer than anticipated, and as it was already late August and planting season past, Governor White was obliged to leave only a little more than a month after arriving in order to provision the settlement. Imagine it. Your daughter has just borne you a beautiful granddaughter in this wild and violent land, where lately the indigenous peoples have murdered one of your own, and you must leave your family behind to sail across the world, not to return for at least three months. Indeed, White did not want to go, but the colonists insisted as one, and he left with two vessels, leaving another behind. One can imagine him waving tearfully from the decks of his ship, shouting his promises to return forthwith.

Alas, such promises would have been made for naught, as White’s return journey encountered obstacles.

"The Spanish Armada off the English Coast" by Cornelis Claesz van Wieringen (source: Wikimedia Commons)

"The Spanish Armada off the English Coast" by Cornelis Claesz van Wieringen (source: Wikimedia Commons)

War with Spain had become official, and the crown desired that all ships be made available for naval warfare, for the Spanish Armada was extensive and formidable. Eventually, the queen allowed for two small ships to be dispatched to relieve the colonists, but in 1588, when sailing under the authority of the crown, captains of even smaller ships apparently could not resist the siren call of the sweet trade, and therefore engaged in piracy, or privateering as it was called when sailing under the auspices of a king or queen. The ship carrying Governor White seemed in no hurry to get him back to his family, for its captain set about preying on vulnerable ships throughout European waters, and eventually his ship fell prey itself, suffering a cannon volley and being boarded by the French. Reportedly brutal fighting took place upon her decks, and Governor White was lucky to have survived. Eventually, the ship returned to England, as did the other ship dispatched to bring the colonists aid.

The Anglo-Spanish War raged on throughout that year, and indeed the Spanish, at one point in 1588, reconnoitered the island of Roanoke and saw the British fort and settlement, seemingly still intact and inhabited. They planned to return and attack the colony but, as far as Spanish historical records show, never actually did so.

Meanwhile, back in Britain, White struggled to put a new fleet together. Even after the war was officially won, merchant ships were held in port against Spanish attack. Not until 1590 did White manage to get permission for a merchant privateer to carry him back to the colony, and even then the merchantman who owned the fleet refused to take any other passengers or even any supplies, as his chief interest was the taking of ships and cargo as prizes while abroad.

It had, however, been two and a half years since White had seen his daughter or granddaughter, and it is therefore understandable why he would take any opportunity to reach them, even if it meant returning alone and empty-handed. After crossing the Atlantic, the merchant fleet spent months in the Caribbean, privateering, and one can only imagine the impatience and frustration White must have felt: the longest leg of his journey complete and once again back in the New World, and they tarried south of Florida, occupying themselves with their depredations.

Finally, almost five months after leaving England, they reached Virginia and the island of Roanoke. The waters they had to cross in boats were tumultuous, and one of the fleet’s captains drowned with six other men when their boat overturned. White and others in two boats approached at night, saw a distant light and rowed toward it, blowing a trumpet and singing in English to announce their arrival in the darkness. They heard no reply. In the morning, they found that the light they’d seen had actually been a number of trees that had mysteriously been set on fire. They crossed through the burning forest and followed the beach to the settlement White had left in 1587, and as they crested a hill to approach the colony, they found a tree the letters “CRO” carved into it. On to the settlement then, and they found a palisade of tree trunks that had been placed as posts to form a wall around the dwellings, a fortification against some danger, but the dwelling places themselves, within the walls had been dismantled, and there was no sign of the settlers. One can imagine White calling out, shouting for Eleanor and Ananias, for little Virginia Dare, and receiving no answer.

They searched the settlement. Finding no one, White sought out some chests that he had buried 3 years earlier and found them exhumed, ransacked, their contents, including his maps and artwork, spread over the ground. Continuing his search, likely in mounting desperation, he looked for some sign, an indication of what might have happened to the settlers and his family. Before White departed in 1587, arrangements had been made for the colonists to leave a sign if they decided to or were in some wise forced to move inland: a Maltese cross was to be carved somewhere as a message. Eventually, a clue was discovered. On a post in the palisade, the word CROATOAN had been carved, but no Maltese cross.  

From School History of the United States by Henry E. Chambers, 1887 (source: University of South Florida)

From School History of the United States by Henry E. Chambers, 1887 (source: University of South Florida)

To White, this was a glimmer of hope, for Croatoan was the ancestral island home of Chief Manteo, whose people had been a friend to his settlers, even despite the colonists’ accidental attack on them. Indeed, the merchant fleet had landed at Croatoan Island briefly before continuing on to Roanoke, so White, probably desperate for some hope, insisted they go back. That was when the overcast sky opened to drop a deluge of rain and wind upon them, and they fled back to their fleet. The weather did not let up, and their food and water dwindled. The merchant captains whose fleet carried White insisted they return to the West Indies for provisions before returning to search Croatoan. In the end, however, after being blown off course to the Azores, they simply returned across the Atlantic to Europe. John White was never able to organize another expedition to search for the colonists, and so he went to his grave wondering what ever became of his daughter Eleanor, his son-in-law Ananias, and his granddaughter, Virginia Dare. No seventeenth-century expedition ever turned up sign of the missing settlers. Thus the Lost Colony of Roanoke and the fate of Virginia Dare became a great mystery of the New World, spawning many a legend.

Virginia Dare’s myth only grew with time. In 1840, a novel by Cornelia Tuthill had her marrying a Jamestown colonist, an 1892 novel by E.A.B Shackelford had her keeping company with Pocahontas, and an epic poem of 1907 had her magically transformed by a Native American shaman into a white doe. Further literary treatments of her in 1908 and 1930 connected her again to Pocahontas, one presenting Dare as Pocahontas’s mother and another suggesting she was Pocahontas’s rival for John Smith’s affections. And so on, through the years, Virginia Dare has survived, never long gone from the pages of literature and popular fictions.

As to the scenarios associating her with Pocahontas, they are undoubtedly fanciful, but there is good reason to imagine such encounters, as according to at least one extant account of his adventures, John Smith, erstwhile inamorato of Pocahontas and governor of Jamestown colony, reportedly heard from Pocahontas’s father, Chief Powhatan, of the Roanoke colonists’ massacre—this an allegedly firsthand account, as the chief claimed to have been present and even supposedly showed Smith evidence: a musket barrel, a mortar and some ironwork. This tale derives from a note apparently added to surviving accounts by compiler Samuel Purchas in his 1625 Purchas his Pilgrimage, which also clearly reported that Smith sought to uncover the fate of those left behind at Sir Walter Raleigh’s colony and “could learne nothing of them but that they were dead.” Regardless of this report, however, historians remained uncertain, for although the bulk of our received history may be composed of such unconfirmed rumors as these, unreliable firsthand accounts transmitted ear to ear before being compiled for posterity, nevertheless they remain dubious. So this mystery, this blind spot in history, endures.

Detail of John Smith's map of Virginia (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Detail of John Smith's map of Virginia (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Historians in subsequent eras of course developed their own theories, some involving massacre and others involving passage inland and integration into native tribes, but none could be certain. One of the most intriguing and probable theories remains that the colonists did indeed flee to Croatoan Island, now called Hatteras Island, where the friendly people of chief Manteo accepted them and integrated them into the tribe. Indeed, at the dawn of the 18th century, English explorer John Lawson wrote of a tribe he called the Hatteras that had once lived on those islands and had settled in the eastern reaches of mainland North Carolina. These natives he described as having fair skin and gray eyes; they claimed to have white forebears and appeared to be familiar with such European customs as writing and reading, or making paper speak, as they expressed it. In fact, this tribe appears to have held as tradition that they were the descendants of the Lost Colony, and in 1880, referring to themselves as Croatans, they claimed as much in their petition to the U.S. government for aid. Moreover, the Ethnological Bureau appears to have given weight to their claims, and one Hamilton McMillan,  investigating for himself, found that the Croatans wore beards, had English surnames and, incredibly, spoke a pure form of old Anglo-Saxon! 

The Croatan Normal School at Pembroke, North Carolina (source: The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)

The Croatan Normal School at Pembroke, North Carolina (source: The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)

Recent archaeology even appears to support the notion that the colonists were perhaps not massacred, at least not entirely, and instead assimilated with extant Native tribes. In the late 1990s, excavators began digging up English artifacts alongside native artifacts on Hatteras Island, near Cape Creek, such as a signet ring, a slate with English lettering still on it, and various other items showing evidence of metallurgy on the island. Then, in 2012, a map of the area belonging to Governor John White—perhaps one of the very maps he’d recovered from his ransacked chests—was discovered to have a diamond-shaped symbol hidden beneath a patch that may have represented the location of a planned fort

Remember that one possible plan was for the colonists to abandon Roanoke and head inland if they were attacked and to leave a Maltese cross as a sign. Although no sign of a Maltese cross had been found at Roanoke, it might still be reasonably thought that the site marked on the map, on Albemarle Sound, could be a likely location to search for clues, and a team that had been digging up Native American pottery in that vicinity since 2006 in fact uncovered a dozen artifacts of apparently English provenance

John White's map, 1585 (source: National Geographic [my labels])

John White's map, 1585 (source: National Geographic [my labels])

Now the matter is not entirely settled, of course, as historical fact rarely is, but this preponderance of evidence would appear to indicate that members of the Lost Colony of Roanoke, including perhaps the Dares, survived and lived among the Native American tribes of eastern North Carolina.

There was, however, a remarkable series of finds in the first half of the 20th century that presented a somewhat different account of events, depicting, in fact, a fantastical historical romance that boggled the imagination. And these artifacts continue even today to muddy the waters. Join us next time as we further unfold the saga of the Lost Colony and the Dare Stones….

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Thanks for reading Historical Blindness. This installment was researched, written and designed by me, Nathaniel Lloyd. If you enjoyed this blog post and would like to read more thought-provoking stories from our shared past, please spread the word by leaving a positive review for our podcast on iTunes, Google Play Music and Stitcher and by sharing the post with any friends you think might enjoy it. Explore the website at historicalblindness.com to dig find other products, such as links to my forthcoming novel, Manuscript Found! At the bottom of the page, you’ll find links to stay up-to-date with our latest installments, products and recommendations by subscribing to our RSS feed or following us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. If you feel moved to support our program and make it possible for us to release installments more frequently, you’ll also find a page at historicalblindness.com/donate where you can contribute a one-time donation or pledge recurring support through Patreon. All donations contribute directly to the composition and production of the blog and podcast, and with enough reader and listener support, a more frequent release schedule would be more feasible. Keep an eye out for part two of The Lost Colony and the Dare Stones, which is already in the works! And thanks again for reading!

Demagoguery and Know-Nothing Native Americanism

Fight Between the Rioters in Kensington (Image courtesy History Matters)

Welcome to the first installment of Historical Blindness, a blog that will explore little known passages in history. As it is intended, this blog and its associated podcast will dredge up interesting and largely forgotten stories from our past, with a specific focus on demonstrating the inscrutability, the ineffability, the unknowability of the past by examining cases of outrageous hoaxes, mass hysteria, baffling mysteries and unreliable historiography, such as apocryphal accounts that contravene accepted history, thereby raising the question, “Can we trust history as we have received it?”  However, with the purpose not only of calling attention to history’s untrustworthiness but also the fallibility of our own education and memory, we shall also occasionally examine stories from our past that reflect directly upon the events of modern day with the intention of raising the question, “Have we learned nothing from received history?”

With this larger purpose in mind, I would like to first thank you, the reader, for giving this initial post a chance and next assure you that our subject matter will not always be as inherently political as you may find this first entry to be. Indeed, I originally intended to take my time developing and producing the first several blog posts so that I might build a backlog and release entries with some semblance of regularity. However, I find myself today anxious to tell a story that seems tremendously pertinent to this political moment, and to do so during this important election cycle, before we cast our ballots for President in November. It is the story of one Lewis Charles Levin, a nineteenth-century American social activist and politician whose demagoguery mirrors in many ways the rise and rhetoric of one of today’s candidates and whose life, I believe, stands as a cautionary tale not only to a public who might consider empowering such an individual, for whatever reason, but also to that selfsame modern candidate , who may wish to avoid both the tragic end of this figure as well as the ignominy that is ever the legacy of the demagogue.

First, let us look a little more closely at the term “demagogue” to clarify its meaning. Etymologically, it means little more than “a leader of people,” but in connotation and common parlance it has come to mean something more along the lines of “a rabble-rouser.” The demagogue is a disingenuous leader who says whatever will more stir the ire and passions of the populace and thereby gather the most popular support. These agitators usually foment some kind of violence among their supporters.  For example, in ancient Athens, the man many believe to be the first demagogue, Cleon, inflamed the public’s prejudices against the inhabitants of the rebel city Mytilene during the Peloponnesian War to such a degree that he convinced them to vote for the execution of every single male citizen and the enslavement of the remaining citizens—a decision that was thankfully mitigated thereafter to executing only the revolt’s leaders.

G.K. Chesterton calls the demagogue “the man who says nothing and says it loud.” Perhaps most articulately and precisely, James Fenimore Cooper, in The American Democrat, describes both the demagogue’s character and methods:

The peculiar office of a demagogue is to advance his own interests, by affecting a deep devotion to the interests of the people. Sometimes the object is to indulge malignancy, unprincipled and selfish men submitting but to two governing motives, that of doing good to themselves, and that of doing harm to others…. The demagogue always puts the people before the constitution and the laws, in face of the obvious truth that the people have placed the constitution and the laws before themselves…. The demagogue is usually sly, a detractor of others, a professor of humility and disinterestedness, a great stickler for equality as respects all above him, a man who acts in corners and avoids open and manly expositions of his course, calls blackguards gentlemen, and gentlemen folks, appeals to passions and prejudices rather than to reason, and is in all respects a man of intrigue and deception, of sly cunning and management, instead of manifesting the frank, fearless qualities of the democracy he so prodigally professes.

Thus, according to Cooper, the demagogue is a leader of little sincerity who harnesses the lowest of populist sentiments—fear and hatred—in order to place himself at the head of a constituency for which he possesses no real respect or loyalty, making them promises he never intends to keep for the sole purpose of establishing himself politically. If this characterization already seems to describe well a certain modern figure on the political stage, the specific person who serves as the subject of our study will seem an actual forerunner if not a very role-model, for Lewis Charles Levin was the original mouthpiece of American xenophobia. In the 1840s, he kindled the growing fear and resentment of immigrant communities in Philadelphia, resulting in devastation for that city but political gain for himself.

1834 portrait of Lewis Charles Levin, image courtesy of Wikipedia

1834 portrait of Lewis Charles Levin, image courtesy of Wikipedia

 

            Born a Jew in South Carolina, 1808, Levin seems to have searched most of his young life for a cause célèbre. He spent his peripatetic young manhood as a roving teacher studying to pass the bar. Drifting rootless through Maryland and Louisiana, marrying in Kentucky and again wandering on, he eventually found a cause to argue when in Mississippi he fought a duel and received a grievous wound. Now it is important to understand that in this era, the 1820s and ’30s, duels were fought quite frequently by gentlemen as well as the lower sort of men—it was indeed a standard resolution to quarrels and perceived slights and a common course of action when one felt the need to save face or preserve pride—but it was a practice that many in that age of reason considered barbaric and contended should be outlawed. Levin, perhaps out of some humiliation he suffered at being wounded in a duel, took pen to paper to argue against the practice. This was his first foray into political activism.

            Eventually, he settled in Philadelphia, where in 1840 he passed the bar, but within two years he had abandoned the practice of the law, preferring to pursue a career as a prototypical pundit. He bought a newspaper, finding his next cause célèbre, named it the Temperance Advocate and wrote in high dudgeon against the sale and imbibing of alcohol. To Levin, the cause of temperance had extensive political implications; he associated the problem of intemperance with establishment power and fortune, asserting that the wealthy amassed their riches by offering only low wages, which in turn led to crime and vice, and that lawmakers and political parties, by licensing the sale of alcohol, were complicit in the corruption of society. In this way, Levin appealed to the prejudices of the lower classes against their employers and rulers in his crusade to banish drink from society.

            Now, you may find his temperance argument sympathetic, if hyperbolic and somewhat irresponsible, but Levin’s greatest cause, which would become his raison d'être, would prove to be even more divisive and entirely sordid. Despite his familial background in Judaism, by 1843, he had embraced Christianity, perhaps because it agreed well with his campaign to correct dissolute and licentious behavior or perhaps in some earnest conversion; this we don’t know. What we do know, what the historical record does support, is that he saw something more than just personal edification and improvement in Christianity—and not just any Christianity, but specifically Protestantism, for he saw a new cause in opposing Catholicism, or more specifically, the spread of its influence in America.

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Now, Anti-Catholicism of this sort—tinged with paranoia and fear of the church’s political clout—was nothing new; it dated all the way back to the English Reformation when it was more commonly called antipapistry. And it was even on the rise during Levin’s time, in early nineteenth-century America, as Irish Catholic immigration increased. In 1834, for example, acting on rumors that women were being held against their will, an Ursuline convent was burned by Protestants in Charlestown, Massachusetts, and afterward, a former student in the convent wrote a sensational book about her time there, further inflaming the rumors. Thereafter, perhaps capitalizing on the aforementioned book’s success, one Maria Monk published a volume entitled The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, which told of forced sexual relations between nuns and priests in another convent, going so far as to allege that uncooperative sisters were chained in dungeons and the babies born of these illicit unions were murdered. Despite being later proven a libelous work of fiction, Awful Disclosures fanned the flames of anti-Catholicism and, in effect, anti-immigration as well.

In fact, Samuel Morse, better known as a developer of telegraphy and inventor of Morse Code, even ran for Mayor of New York City in 1836 on a nativist platform that was pronouncedly anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic. In letters to the New York Observer that were collected and published in 1835, Morse expressed the fear and wrath of fellow nativists in clear though hyperbolic fashion, comparing Catholicism's presence in young America to that of a snake in a crib, writing,

Let no foreign Holy Alliance presume, or congratulate itself, upon the hitherto unsuspicious and generous toleration of its secret agents in this country. America may, for a time, sleep soundly, as innocence is wont to sleep, unsuspicious of hostile attack; but if any foreign power, jealous of the increasing strength of the embryo giant, sends its serpents to lurk within his cradle, let such presumption be assured that the waking energies of the infant are not to be despised, that once having grasped his foes, he will neither be tempted from his hold by admiration of their painted and gilded covering, nor by fear of the fatal embrace of their treacherous folds.

Where Morse failed in 1836, James Harper, one of the original publishers of Awful Disclosures, succeeded in 1844, being elected the Mayor of New York City as a representative of the emergent American Republican Party. Not to be confused with the more established National Republican Party, the American Republican Party was a newly formed nativist party founded to fight the spread of Catholicism and the perceived blight of Irish immigration.

Anti-Catholic cartoon circa 1855 via the Library of Congress

Anti-Catholic cartoon circa 1855 via the Library of Congress

 

Closer to Levin’s home, this militant brand of Protestantism had been stirring in Philadelphia quite a while as well. In 1831, there had been a clash in the streets when Irish Protestants paraded past an Irish Catholic church in celebration of King William’s establishment of Protestant control of Ireland in 1690. More recently, in 1842, an assemblage of Philadelphia preachers named themselves the American Protestant Association, deemed “…the system of Popery to be, in its principles and tendency, subversive of civil and religious liberty, and destructive to the spiritual welfare of men…” and resolved to “…unite for the purpose of defending [their] Protestant interests against the great exertions…to propagate that system in the United States….”

Watching this divisive movement gain support and momentum, Levin launched another newspaper, the Daily Sun, to use as a mouthpiece for his own nativist sentiment. Levin approached nativism through the lens of temperance and his steadily increasing resentment of the established political parties, the Democrats and the Whigs. As Levin saw it, candidates for office were decided on not by the people but by party insiders, in “groggeries” over “segars,” precisely the equivalent of the perennial “smoke-filled room” where cabals of secretive power brokers are said to do the dark work of true governance. Levin believed party politics to be tied up in vice and corruption and asserted that only a third party would allow for true democracy; thus he attached himself to the new American Republican Party, lately victorious in the New York mayoral election. In its Philadelphian iteration, under the auspices of Levin and other proponents, this party called itself the Native American Party. While today the term "Native American" refers to indigenous peoples, then it was a term taken up with pride to distinguish those born stateside from the wretched, tempest-tossed refuse that huddled in masses on teeming foreign shores.

While only a secretary of this nascent party, Levin was perhaps the most vocal advocate of its cause and, as a publisher, the most capable of disseminating its message. In addition to regular editorials in the Daily Sun, Levin published a book expressing his feelings on the Irish Repeal Association’s campaign to dissolve Ireland’s union with Great Britain around this time. Predictably, he did not view it as a bid for freedom, for its leader, Daniel O’Connell, was a papist who would only make Ireland beholden to the Pope. And it was just this that he warned the predominately Catholic immigrants of Europe, and particularly the Irish Catholic, intended to do in America: stage a coup by voting as a block, raising up their own men to power and subverting American democracy in favor of monarchism and deference to the Catholic Church. Our only hope, as he represented it, was to stem the surging influx of indigents and criminals and papists and to defy the cronyism and corruption of the ruling parties: in short, to support Native Americanism.

*

Before we examine the most outrageous chapter of Levin’s life, I would like to pause for a moment to offer a caveat regarding my scholarship. I make no claims to being a rigorous historian. I am a storyteller first and foremost, an entertainer; therefore, I may sometimes give short shrift to elements of my subject matter that don’t serve well the narrative I am trying to dramatize.  However, my promise is that, while attempting to shape and share an engaging story, I will also make my best efforts to present the story accurately and provide reliable sources.

To that end, I should mention some other contemporary circumstances that likely contributed to the anti-immigrant sentiments of the times as well as to the general desire for a change in the status quo of party politics. All of these factors are clearly outlined in John A. Forman’s “Lewis Charles Levin: Portrait of an American Demagogue,” a comprehensive source that I have relied on heavily.

Two important dynamics beyond anti-Catholicism that exacerbated this political climate in Philadelphia were a loss of status on the national political stage and a descent into economic depression. In 1836, the most important Philadelphian in the country, Nicholas Biddle, President of the Second Bank of the United States, was stymied in his attempt to recharter the institution by President Andrew Jackson. The Bank War, as it was called, had been a prominent issue in the Presidential campaigns of 1832, and after Jackson successfully blocked the bank’s recertification in ’36, Philadelphia and her people took it as a personal defeat. No longer the central hub of the American economy, Philadelphia lost some of its eminence, and Philadelphians became disillusioned with their political leaders and open to outsider politicians that suggested the established parties were corrupt and/or ineffectual.

Then, in 1837, an economic crisis occurred that led to years of recession. In the absence of the national bank in Philadelphia, federal capital was placed in a variety of “pet banks,” relocating money from the large banks that relied on it to smaller banks that certainly benefitted from it. The practical effect, however, was panic, as major banks, now carrying far less capital, could not extend credit or offer loans as they had before. In Philadelphia, as well as elsewhere, the Panic of 1837 meant hard times, and as is almost always the case when Americans suffer economic hardship, the poor immigrant, who will often work for lower pay, is blamed for the privations of by natural-born citizens. 

While the loss of their national bank and the ensuing recession certainly added to the atmosphere, one issue in particular allowed Lewis Charles Levin to really rile up his audience, and this one, again, Americans will recognize: religion in schools. The debate here, however, was not about its presence but rather about what form it would take. Catholics in the Kensington district protested that the Bible used as a reader in schools was a Protestant King James Bible and contended that Catholic students should be allowed to use a Catholic text. Levin and his Native Americans misconstrued their position, perhaps willfully misrepresenting their complaint, and warned the public that the Irish Catholics of Kensington wanted to have the Bible removed from schools, which, if it were allowed, Levin argued would lead to a new generation of idle, profligate, dissolute youth. In short, the evil immigrant papists were hell bent on undermining the very moral fabric of society.

This was the background and the political narrative when, in May of 1844, Levin’s incitements finally erupted into violence.

*

The Native Americans rallied first in Independence Square, holding forth to crowds of supporters about the Bible issue. But perhaps that wasn’t provocative enough, for next they moved their rally right into the heart if Kensington district so that the Irish Catholics themselves could hear their disparaging speeches. The first of these rallies disbanded when Irish Catholics, predictably, gathered to face their deriders. However, in the spirit of authentic agitation, Levin and the Native Americans were not discouraged from holding their rallies in the very dooryards of Irish Catholic Kensington residents but rather determined to do so again, likely hoping that violence would break out and somehow prove their dispersions against the Irish to be true.

On a stormy Monday in May, Lewis Charles Levin ascended a stage to address his audience. As if on cue, the heavens opened up with a rumble, and a downpour began—this perhaps a gesture toward divine intervention. But Levin was undeterred. Taking shelter in a nearby marketplace, he resumed his remarks, which have ever been described as passionate and incendiary.

It must have begun as a murmur at the crowd’s periphery—a confrontation between a nativist and an Irishman. Very quickly, then, it came to blows and graduated to full-scale rioting, as men brandished bricks and cudgels. When gunfire boomed in the marketplace, the first struck was a constable, shot in the face. Others received gunshot wounds in their sides, their hips, their legs. Stones and bricks filled the air, crashing down upon those gathered and battering the walls and windows of businesses and houses in the area. With the report of pistols, many dispersed, and others gave chase. Residents’ homes received barrages of rocks for no other reason than that men had fled into an adjacent alley or fallen against their doors. The damage to property was enormous, and the violence unrestrained.

The next day, the Native American convened again, no longer in Kensington, to counsel restraint. Many among their audience called for Levin, to hear what the chief instigator had to say about curbing their retaliation against the Irish rioters. Levin kept his silence, and the rioting continued for another two days. The militia had to be deployed to bring an end to it, but by then, numerous rioters on both sides as well as bystanders had been wounded, and seven were dead. When the smoke literally cleared, a seminary and two Catholic churches had been destroyed by arson, as well as some thirty private residences.

 

In the aftermath, Levin attempted to defend the acts of rioters, inflating the number of deaths Native Americans suffered at the hands of Irish Catholics, depicting their rally as an innocent demonstration that had done nothing to elicit the barbarities with which Irish Catholics had responded. He lashed out at rival newspapers, claiming they had incited the Catholics to lynch mobbery, and argued that the response of nativists was a natural reaction to being attacked—even the burning down of homes and churches!

Meanwhile, the rest of Philadelphia, even most of his fellow Native Americans, could not likewise defend the rioters or Levin’s increasingly outrageous rhetoric. However, public disapprobation has never been enough to sway the kind of men who do violence in the streets, and in July, the rioting resumed, this time in Southwark district, where Levin himself lived. Although the violence in this round was chiefly between nativists and the troops the governor had dispatched to keep peace, Levin characterized it differently in the Daily Sun, claiming it to be an honest struggle between native-born patriots and papist invaders. With every proclamation the governor made, Levin responded in his paper in such a way that only further incited the rioters, comparing the governor to Napoleon and claiming that his sole intent in sending the military was to revoke the people’s liberty.

 

Indeed, before it was over, Levin himself appears to have participated in the rioting. Levin, of course, claimed to have been present only to convince the rioters not to raze another church, but his presence among a mob during the riots—this man who had only ever encouraged their exploits—does indeed give one pause.

*

After the Philadelphia Bible Riots, Levin was running for Congress and at the same time under indictment for inciting a riot. As is often the case with a demagogue whose appeal to his supporters derives from the very fact that he encourages their prejudice, his indictment did not hurt him at the polls. He served in House of Representatives for six years, proved a belligerent firebrand in presidential politics throughout that period and was instrumental in the creation of another third party: the appropriately named Know-Nothing Party, whose platform was again strongly anti-immigration and anti-Catholicism. He became something of an annoyance to his fellow Congressmen, seem to have gone about their business dreading the times when he would monopolize the floor, holding forth on the dangers of immigration, the conspiracies of the Jesuits, and the evils of the Pope. His theories of Popish insinuations into American government—that the Catholic Church was the power behind the President!—earned him little support even if his calls for amending the naturalization process did.

By the end of his career, detractors who had always thought him somewhat unhinged were vindicated when, in an especially passionate diatribe against a Presidential candidate, he comported himself like an utter madman. In the following years, he was hospitalized for insanity. Upon his death, in a final series of indignities, the money his wife paid to procure a monument for his grave was stolen, leaving his resting place unmarked, and his family went on to convert, joining the Catholic Church he for so long had feared and despised.

*

            If any part of this story rings a bell—an agitating politician, an appeal to prejudice, encouragement of violence for political ends—then think carefully about the parallels and choose sensibly in the ballot box this November.

            I thank you for reading the first installment of Historical Blindness. Again, as this blog is just starting out, and I am no veteran blogger, I beg your patience as I work on establishing a consistent schedule. As I explained, I wanted to get this post, which you might consider a preview or a pilot, out to you before the election.  If you enjoyed this first installment, please subscribe using the RSS feed linked at the bottom of the page, and in the future, poke around more in this website to dig further into each upcoming story and find other products, such as links to my forthcoming novel, Manuscript Found!  At the bottom of the page, you’ll find links to follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram as well, where I promise we'll soon be more active. And if you feel moved to support this endeavor and make it possible for us to release installments of the blog and podcast more frequently, you’ll also find a button there that links to our Patreon page, where you can donate and hopefully in the future earn rewards. Keep an eye out for our next installment, which is already in the planning!