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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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            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!