Nazi Occultism, Part Two: The Death's Head Cult

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In part two of this series, we will look at the dark messianic figure saluting at the head of the Nazi columns, Adolph Hitler, and beyond him to the figures in his orbit who most involved themselves in mystical and occult practices. At the end of Part One, we introduced him as an art student and army corporal who took an interest in the writings of Jörg Lanz von Liebenfels. After the conclusion of World War I, when the Treaty of Versailles forbade the reconstitution of the Imperial German Army, unemployed veterans joined up with a number of paramilitary militias called freikorps, or like Hitler, joined the national police force known as the Reichswehr. This was a time of great unrest, with communists on the far left and nationalists on the far right all displeased with the democratic compromise of the Weimar Republic, a disaffection exacerbated by a general economic collapse. Just as numerous mystical creeds had vied for ascendancy in the Austro-German New Age, in 1919, in Munich, numerous fledgling political groups struggled to capture the attention of the German people. The Reichswehr sent young Hitler to spy on one small party, the Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (DAP), or the German Workers’ Party, but Hitler, an avowed anti-Semite already, liked what the DAP had to say about Bolsheviks and the Jews being responsible for Germany’s recent defeat and ended up joining the party instead. Before the end of the year, the DAP became the NSDAP, or National Socialist German Workers’ Party, but don’t let the name fool you. They were a far right nationalist group seeking to expand their appeal to their base with watchwords; they were only “socialist” insofar as they heaped scorn on Jewish capitalists. Thus the Nazi party was born, their name a shortening of Nationalsozialistische, and by 1921, the orator Hitler was its chairman, and by 1923, its Führer, the dictator of a political party with some 20,000 members and its own freikorps of storm troopers, the SA, called brownshirts after their uniforms, who went around intimidating and brutalizing enemies of the party. It was late that year that Hitler attempted a coup in Bavaria, fomenting the overthrow of the government with a speech at a beer hall and marching on Munich’s city hall, a gambit that failed and landed him in prison, where he solidified his doctrine of racism and nationalism by writing Mein Kampf and prepared himself to resume leadership of the Nazis and continue his inexorable march to absolute power over Germany and Europe. But while it is overtly clear that Hitler was driven nationalist and racist ideals, it is not as clear whether he subscribed to the occult, mystical, and neo-pagan notions of the Austro-German New Age or how ingrained these elements were in the culture of Nazism.

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Once again, as I discuss the rise to power and beliefs of Hitler and his lieutenants, I do so with a purpose: to examine the veracity of claims that Nazis were an occult group. If I suggest that perhaps there are myths surrounding him or other Nazi figures, it is not in an attempt to exonerate him or revise history to his benefit. Hitler was a racist and a despot and a mass murderer the likes of which I don’t believe have never been seen before or since in human history, and the same can be said for all his cronies or accomplices. If you are listening to this searching for fodder to use in Nazi apologism, unsubscribe, delete your accounts, go outside and get to know the people you fear and blindly hate.

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Clearly Hitler identified with völkisch and Ariosophist ideas, but that does not mean that he was a mystic pupil of Guido von List and Jörg von Liebenfels. He was a clear nationalist, but the völkische movement did not invent German nationalism; there was plenty of that in the Imperial German Army to which Hitler had previously belonged. Certainly he appreciated völkisch notions, such as Drang Noch Osten, the eastward urge, which suggested Germans held a manifest destiny to settle in lands to the east, a notion addressed in Hitler’s doctrine of lebensraum, or the German need to spread eastward for living space. And of course, ideas of German racial superiority, specifically over Jews, appealed to Hitler’s very apparent and rabid anti-Semitism. There is, however, some justified debate over whether he subscribed to the racial theories of Aryan superiority as some others held them, for although he did seek to absorb all Germanic peoples into his Reich, he appears to have been more skeptical about accepting those of other ethnicities even when his racial pseudo-scientists insisted on their Aryan characteristics, which would suggest Hitler maintained more of an Imperial nationalism than some other true believers. Then there is the fact, strange if Lanz von Liebenfels was such an influence on him through his writings in Ostara, that Hitler never drew von Liebenfels into the Reich or awarded him any position. Some have claimed that Hitler may have visited the offices of Lanz’s magazine in 1909 to buy some issues of Ostara, and that he may have spoken with Von Liebenfels at the time, but there is no evidence of a significant influence on the Führer. Indeed, in Mein Kampf, Hitler even warns against “wandering völkisch scholars” and “so-called reformers of the ancient Germanic type,” calling them “the greatest imaginable cowards” and “comedians,” suggesting “that they are sent by dark forces who do not desire the rebirth of [the German] people. For their entire activity leads the Volk away from its fight against the common enemy, the Jew, in order that it may expend its energy in internal religious struggles.” These are certainly not the words of an initiate in pagan mysteries or a true believer in the occult or the mystical.

There exist numerous unsupported claims about Hitler being the pawn of occult agents bent on grooming him for evil purposes. One example comes from English occult writer Victor Neuburg, who claimed to have been present at a conversation in which infamous magician Aleister Crowley informed novelist and essayist Aldous Huxley that his secret society, the Ordo Templi Orientis, had fed peyote to Hitler and under its influence brainwashed him, trained him in oratory, and “gave him his daemon.” Needless to say, Neuburg offers no further evidence of this third-hand claim. Likewise, perhaps the most famous story about Hitler’s involvement in occultism comes to us as hearsay that we are expected to take as truth. In Trevor Ravenscroft’s incredible—as in hard to believe—book, The Spear of Destiny, he lays out a tale about Hitler’s obsession with a magical artifact, manipulation by esoteric secret societies, and possession by dark forces, all of which was supposedly conveyed to him by Dr. Walter Stein, the physician and advisor to Winston Churchill mentioned in Part One, who believed, or at least spread the idea, that Hitler was a Satanist. As Ravenscroft’s pseudohistory unfolds, we meet a young and indigent Hitler who is obsessed with an artifact in the Hofburg Museum in Vienna. This artifact, a lance variously believed to have belonged to Saint Maurice or to Constantine the Great, became conflated with the Holy Lance, or Lance of Longinus, said to have pierced Christ’s side during the crucifixion. This claim is also made of numerous other lance heads displayed around the world. Ravenscroft, however, tacitly asserting that the one in the Hofburg was genuine, describes how it called out to Hitler, possessing him, for he who took ownership of the Holy Lance would rule the world. While it is true that, after annexing Austria, Hitler seized the crown jewels and this artifact along with them, transporting them in an armored train and depositing them in a bunker, there was plenty of precedent for doing so as it made a clear symbolic statement about his sovereignty. Trevor Ravenscroft attributes quotes to Hitler without source; makes claims that biographers of Hitler have proven untrue, such as where he was at certain times and what his financial situation might have been; and relies on a plot containing so many coincidences that it reads like a bad novel, which it probably is. Perhaps the biggest strike against the book is that it later came out Ravenscroft never actually met Dr. Stein but rather claims to have interviewed his ghost through a séance! Regardless, even if he really had learned these things from Dr. Stein, Stein’s own credibility issues and the lack of any concrete evidence make Ravenscroft’s story of Hitler’s initiation into the occult only worth mentioning insofar as it is entertaining.

A depiction of Longinus piercing Christ’s side with the Holy Lance, via  Wikimedia Commons

A depiction of Longinus piercing Christ’s side with the Holy Lance, via Wikimedia Commons

However, even if Hitler’s devotion to esoteric and occult beliefs cannot be clearly proven, it is evident that he surrounded himself with true believers. One example was the astrologer and hypnotist, Erich Jan Hanussen, an old friend of Hitler’s who would sometimes advise him by reading his horoscope or suggesting certain arcane rituals be undertaken for luck or to break supposed curses on Hitler. His relationship to this figure seems to suggest at least an openness or tolerance of the occult. Then there were the members of the Thule Society, such as the playwright Dietrich Eckart, racial theorist and future Reich Minister for the Occupied Eastern Territories Dr. Alfred Rosenberg, and pseudo-aristocratic occultist Rudolf von Sebottendorff, all of whom ran the Nazi mouthpiece newspaper, the People’s Observer. These men were all neo-pagans and Ariosophists, believers in the legendary land of Ultima Thule as the long-lost origin of the mythical Aryan race, about which, as already promised, I will have more to say before the series concludes. There is no evidence that Hitler himself was a member of the Thule Society, however, and he may have only relied on them as writers and publishers because of their involvement in the DAP from the beginning, before it had even transformed into the NSDAP, or Nazi Party. One thing, however, is certain; the involvement of the Thule Society members in the Nazis did much to encourage Heinrich Himmler to devote himself to the party, and Himmler would prove to be the biggest occult influence on Nazism.

Raised a middle-class Catholic, like Hitler himself, Himmler was an imaginative youth who lost himself in daydreams about medieval Germanic folklore and Nordic mythology, much like Guido von List. His reveries about the warriors of the Nibelungenlied and of Teutonic Knights left him yearning for martial service. He enlisted in the 11th Bavarian Infantry Regiment in World War I, but with poor eyesight and a weak constitution, he never saw any action and failed to complete the officer training into which his father had pulled strings to enroll him. During the days of the Weimar Republic, he lived on a farm and became enamored of völkisch ideas, including the most extreme Blood and Soil notions, and he became obsessed by the myth of the Aryan race and its history in the primeval past as well as the runology of Guido von List. After studying agriculture at the University of Munich and still trying to scratch an itch for the military service he idealized, he join a freikorps militia, and finding similar interests among members of Nazi Party, such as those espoused by the Thule Society, he joined up, and during the attempted coup known as the Beer Hall Putsch, he marched with his freikorps to seize the former war ministry offices. Upon Hitler’s release from prison and the reconstitution of the Nazi Party, Himmler took a position as a rural community organizer, recruiting völkisch idealists for the Nazi cause, but his dark star was on the rise. By 1929, he was the head of another freikorps, the SS (the Schutstaffel, or Protection Squad), conceived as a kind of elite imperial guard. Through ruthless maneuvering, Heinrich Himmler would likewise take control of the German State Police, or Gestapo, and over the course of his career and the Third Reich would become the most feared man in Germany, but his focus always remained on the SS, which he transformed from an imperial guard into a kind of cult devoted to neo-paganism and Aryan purity. More than any other Nazi, Heinrich Himmler stands as proof of occultism’s influence on Nazi policy, and it was at his desk that the most horrifyingly evil Nazi policy, that of the Final Solution, originated.

Some scholars, such as Stephen E. Flowers and Michael Moynihan in their essay, “The Myth of Nazi Occultism,” have suggested that the pagan and anti-Christian culture of Nazism has been exaggerated, pointing to the fact the original NSDAP party platform declared Christianity the official religion of Germany, and further noting that Hitler not only mocks neo-pagans in Mein Kampf but also relies on numerous biblical references (Flowers and Moynihan 30-31). A quote from Hitler’s 1938 speech to the Reich Party Congress stands as a clear example that Hitler, who himself never resigned from the Catholic Church as did many others in his party, may have thought of himself as remaining a Christian. He warned that “woe if the movement or the state, through the insinuation of obscure mystical element, should be given unclear orders.… There is already a danger if orders are given for the setting up of so-called cult-places, because this alone will give birth to the necessity subsequently to devise so-called cult games and cult rituals. Our cult is exclusively the cultivation of that which is natural and hence willed by God.” But of course, he may have simply been appealing in this speech to those who had retained their traditional Christian loyalties, and it is telling that in it he still calls Nazism a cult, even if only rhetorically. But to suggest that Nazism was not anti-Christian in the extreme would be to ignore the fact that, along with Jews, they would eventually persecute a great many Catholics and Jehovah’s Witnesses for their beliefs. And the simple fact that the neo-pagan Heinrich Himmler organized and ran the SS like a pagan cult clinches the argument, for the SS were considered the elite, the perfect example of Nazi ideals. Himmler required that any who would join his modern day Teutonic knighthood first renounce their faith in Catholic or Protestant Christianity. SS soldiers were forbidden to celebrate Christmas, replacing the observance with solstice celebrations. While it is true that many in the SS only paid lip service to this policy and continued to worship privately as they always had, the policy itself stands as the strongest evidence of Nazism’s anti-Christian, neo-pagan principles.

Photograph of Himmler by Friedrich Franz Bauer, licensed under  (CC BY-SA 3.0 DE)  via  Wikimedia Commons

Photograph of Himmler by Friedrich Franz Bauer, licensed under (CC BY-SA 3.0 DE) via Wikimedia Commons

The runology of Guido von List, with which Himmler was so fascinated, provides another piece of evidence proving the occult influence on Nazism and the SS in particular. Even the prominence of the swastika itself, which had early been flown as a banner by Lanz von Liebenfels at the solstice rituals of his New Templars, appears to have been encouraged by the fascination of neo-pagans and new age mystics with ancient runes. The old mystic Guido von List had connected the hakenkreuz, or hooked cross, as it was called in German, to ancient Aryans, suggesting it represented some force by which the universe had been created, an assertion for which, typically, he offered no evidence beyond his own certainty. Certainly the symbol, called swastik in Sanskrit, has been found to be prevalent in numerous cultures connected through Indo-European languages, from Northern Europe all the way to India. It has been used in some form in Hinduism and Buddhism and Jewish Kabbalism, and in ancient Greece, where it was called the gammadion. But as noted in the previous installment, language groups and even cultural groups, are not the same as racial groups, and this was the root error that resulted in the myth of an Aryan race. Moreover, this symbol, which Carl Sagan has noted is readily apparent in nature and so could have arisen spontaneously in completely unrelated cultures, has been found in artifacts of pre-Columbian North American native tribes, such as the Navajo. Its widespread use in multiple cultures is likely what encouraged Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society to take it up as one of their principal symbols, and its association with Nordic mythology and the Teutonic Knights, a Catholic military order around whom swirled almost as many fantastical theories as those concerning the Knights Templar, led to the hakenkreuz being adopted as an important symbol of the Thule Society as well, who recommended its use in the Nazi flag. Members of the Thule Society likely saw in it more than the traditional Sanskrit meaning, which denoted good luck or well-being, for they were preoccupied with the symbols of Guido von List’s so-called Armanen Futharkh runes, a runic alphabet he appears to have invented and claimed were supernaturally conveyed to him. Therefore, to them, the hakenkreuz, or swastika, was likely viewed as two Sig or Sigel runes superimposed on each other. According to List’s runic alphabet, Sig meant victory, just like the German word sieg, which would become the traditional Nazi chant, sieg heil, or “hail victory.” Likewise, when it came time for Heinrich Himmler, the true believer, to choose the symbols of the SS and their regalia, he settled on two Sig runes, like twin lightning bolts, a runic symbol that he made so common in Nazi Germany that typewriters were manufactured with a special key to type the symbol on official documents. Along with this runic insignia, Himmler chose to retain the symbol previously adopted by the SS before he had taken command: that of the Totenkopf, or death’s head, a symbol that had been called the Jolly Roger when used by pirates. The images of the skull-and-crossbones and runic double lightning bolts on the black uniforms of this military order would strike terror into their victims and the world at large, and the very fact that this elite group openly and stringently devoted to neo-paganism and racial theories based on myth adopted its own occult iconography goes a long way toward establishing that this was more of a cult than an army.

Himmler’s devotion to the occult myth of the Aryan race is plain to see in his administration of the SS as well, for it was not only held up as an exemplar of Nazism but also of Aryan racial purity. Many were the armchair theorists and mystical declaimers of Ariosophy in those years, but Heinrich Himmler, a mild-mannered and mousy little man with hooded eyes, was determined to act on his convictions of Aryan purity and actually enact a program of controlled breeding that many early 20th century eugenicists only pondered. He started by instituting exacting standards for membership in the SS, believing that his elite corps must be unimpeachably pure of Aryan blood in order to serve as the vanguard in their struggle to assert the mastery of their race. Applicants to serve in the SS were therefore required to not only appear Nordic but to document their genealogy back more than a hundred years to prove that no Slavic or Jewish blood ran through their veins. This was true not only of new applicants, but of the existing rank and file, from which Himmler purged any whose blood he believed to be tainted. Once enlisted, SS could not marry unless their brides provided their family trees to prove their pure Aryan ancestry. Once approved, their weddings were pagan affairs, a non-Christian consecration ceremony that Himmler himself had crafted. And even their daughters were forbidden to marry any man in whose lineage could be found a drop of Jewish or Slavic blood, for Himmler saw the members of his SS as the seed from which a future, purely Aryan utopia would spring, and he felt it needed to be protected from the corruption of miscegenation. No wonder, then, that, after the SS had proven in its operations in the Soviet Union that it was capable of mass murder, the zealously anti-Semitic Hitler, who had long shouted about the annihilation of European Jews, would turn to Himmler, the ruthless enactor of racial policies, for a “Final Solution.” Thus it was Himmler, the mastermind of the concentration camp, and his death’s head cult, who would carry out the greatest atrocities of the Third Reich.

When one hears about how carefully Himmler and the SS scrutinized the women in their officers’ lives, one might be tempted to give credence to the tales that Himmler formed a secret unit of women, the SS Hexen-Sonderkommando, who were witches practicing their dark arts to further the ends of the Führer. But this appears, perhaps unsurprisingly, to be a legend. Certainly Heinrich Himmler, the Reichsführer, was interested in witchcraft. He created a team of researchers to gather evidence that the Catholic Church had persecuted Germans in their witch-trials, and this group, which indexed its findings in the Hexenkartothek, may actually be the inspiration for the SS Hexen group of legend, but there is no indication that this group was even comprised of women, let alone witches. Documents have turned up indicating that Himmler may have believed one of his ancestors had been persecuted as a witch, and that he was interested in claims that unusual numbers of crows were said to haunt the sites of witch executions, but I decline to hazard a guess as to the authenticity of these, and regardless, they would only prove his academic interest in the occult, which is already well-established. In truth, there were female units in the SS, such as the Helferinnenkorps, or Helpers Corp, who served as nurses and administrative assistants. Later, there were the more notorious Aufseherinnen, or Overseers, women tasked with overseeing some aspects of concentration camp operations. Technically, none of these were considered real members of the SS, and of course, there are no indications of them practicing magic, but there is the story of Die Hexe von Buchenwald,  the Witch of Buchenwald, that might have transformed into a legend of actual witches in SS uniforms. Ilse Köhler Koch, wife of Karl Otto Koch, commandant of the Buchenwald, was in her position as Oberaufseherin, known to engage in as much casual cruelty and disgusting sadism as any male counterpart. She took a voyeuristic pleasure in staging rapes, and she was disturbingly obsessed with tattoos, such that she had them cut off the corpses of prisoners, tanning the skin and making accessories out of them, like gloves and handbags.

Ilse Koch testifying in her own defense, via  Wikimedia Commons

Ilse Koch testifying in her own defense, via Wikimedia Commons

While Himmler and the SS may not have had witches in their ranks, they certainly had at least one warlock. In the same year that Hitler rose to the position of chancellor, a nearly 70-year-old man, formerly a colonel who had served in the Austrian army during the previous world war, got an audience with Himmler and explained how he was able to commune with the spirits of old Nordic heroes from the time of Germanic mythology. The two men shared many interests, in theories about the ancient roots of the Germans, their old runic language, their relation to the gods. Himmler made him head of a department focused on researching prehistory, but within a year, this old mystic guru had risen to the rank of SS Oberführer, a position something like that of a general. Karl Maria Wiligut was just another crank coming out of the Austro-German New Age, like a Guido von List or a Jörg Lanz von Liebenfels, except he had never managed to find himself a following. Like List, he was interested in runes and had written a book about them, and just as List crafted a mythology around a group of ancient priests called Armanen, an extrapolation of a tidbit in Tacitus that mentioned Germanic tribes called Irminones who resisted the Romans, Wiligut crafted his own alternate mythology around a similar group he called the Irminen, although he insisted they were a wholly different ancient Germanic priesthood that worshipped a different pagan deity and actually went to war with List’s Wotan-worshippers. Just as Jörg Lanz von Liebenfels had his publication Ostara, Wiligut published his own periodical, The Iron Broom, in which he also vocally dissented from Christianity and bemoaned the fact that the supposedly superior Aryan race had been and was being deteriorated by lesser races, including the Jewish race. As Guido von List had claimed supernatural inspiration for the futharkh runes, and as Jörg Lanz von Liebenfels had claimed to receive a vision revealing the threat of the sub-human races, Wiligut claimed that he knew so much about the ancient world because he channeled ancient spirits, from whom he learned that the Aryan race was born 230,000 years earlier, in a fantastical world with three suns, peopled by dwarves, giants, and mythical creatures. His own bloodline, according to him, could be traced back to Irminen royalty, born of gods and men, just the kind of divine sodomy that Lanz von Liebenfels wrote about. In every way, he was a contemporary of those pseudo-mystics, but he never had his own secret society or cult. In fact, he could not even make a believer of his own wife, whom he abused and who ended up having him committed. Diagnosed with schizophrenia, he spent around three years institutionalized before being released into the welcoming arms of Ariosophists who appreciated his writings. And eventually, he found an acolyte in Heinrich Himmler who was finally able to give him, in the SS, the cult following that had always eluded him.

Heinrich Himmler had grown up in Landshut, in the shadow of Castle Trusnitz, which called up images of the ancient kings and hero knights with which he had been infatuated. And Himmler’s high priest, Karl Maria Wiligut, had never had an ancient temple of his own, as had his contemporaries. Guido von List and his Armanenorden had some ancient Roman ruins at Carnuntum in which they practiced their pagan rituals, and Jörg Lanz von Liebenfels’s Ordo Novi Templi or Order of the New Templars used Castle Werfenstein, an impressive old pile of rocks on a hilltop, for their orgiastic rituals. So, late in 1933, Himmler and Wiligut, the two leaders of the Nazis’ Death’s Head Cult, went looking for just such a place and found it in the Castle of Wewelsburg. Believed to be near the site of an ancient battle in which Germanic tribes defied Roman rule, it was perfectly suited for their neo-pagan beliefs, and the fact that it was said to be the site of thousands of witch burnings also, perversely, seems to have been a draw for them. The strangely triangular shaped castle would officially be the temple of the Death’s Head Cult, renovated to reflect their occult mythology with countless runic symbols carved into the ornate walls and ceilings. The castle was to be the hub from which he would build outward a massive complex called the Center of the New World whose numerous towers, walls and boulevards would, from above form the shape of a spear pointing north, toward the mythical homeland of the Aryan race. This spear one may be templated to think was meant to represent the Holy Lance, but that very Christian symbol had no place in the mythology of the Death’s Head Cult, which more likely would think of it as Gungnir, Wotan’s spear, or as a simple metaphor for this new world order, if you will, that they intended to spearhead.

Plans for the Center of the New World at Wewelsburg, via  Wikimedia Commons

Plans for the Center of the New World at Wewelsburg, via Wikimedia Commons

It was here at Castle Wewelsburg that they would perform their pagan weddings and baptisms, and other rituals, which Himmler, always one for meticulous record keeping, kept curiously secret. Thus legends have sprung up around the goings on there. In Dusty Sklar’s 1977 book, The Nazis and the Occult, she reported an unsupported claim that Himmler, Wiligut, and the SS engaged in human sacrifice rituals at Castle Wewelsburg. As the story goes, they would take a good specimen of an Aryan man, behead him, and use this severed head to channel otherworldly spirits they called the “Secret Masters of the Caucasus.” When you look more closely into the provenance of this story, however, much like the claims of Trevor Ravenscroft, it begins to lose any semblance of credibility. Sklar’s source was an Occidental College anthropology professor named C. Scott Littleton, which sounds reliable enough, but it turns out Littleton had the details from a college friend whose identity he refused to reveal, and that friend had them from a professor at a German university who likewise would remain anonymous. Supposedly, this German professor’s father had been an SS general and had left behind a box of files in which were reports about these grisly séances, but the actual files have never turned up. Instead, we just have what amounts to an urban legend, in which Sklar was told that Littleton heard that so-and-so spoke to a guy whose father had proof of these occult rituals. Nevertheless, what we do know of the Castle at Wewelsburg shows us the fascination that Himmler and Wiligut maintained in the occult and in their mythologized ancient past, an interest they encouraged all the members of their Death’s Head Cult to take. Throughout the castle, they built a series of oak-paneled reading rooms, each named after a specific subject, among which were a room on runes, a room on all things Aryan, rooms on old Germanic kings, a room on the Order of Teutonic Knights, and rooms on King Arthur and the Holy Grail. And as we shall see, in the final installment of this series, under the auspices of Heinrich Himmler’s authority, the Nazis would engage in much strange research and occult archaeology straight out of an Indiana Jones film.

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Further Reading

Badger, William, and Diane Purkiss. “English Witches and SS Academics: Evaluating Sources for the English Witch Trials in Himmler's Hexenkartothek.” Preternature: Critical and Historical Studies on the Preternatural, vol. 6, no. 1, 2017, pp. 125–153. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.5325/preternature.6.1.0125.

Roland, Paul. The Nazis and the Occult: The Dark Forces Unleashed by the Third Reich. Chartwell Books, 2008.

Sklar, Dusty. The Nazis and the Occult. Dorset Press, 1989.

Yenne, Bill. Hitler’s Master of the Dark Arts: Himmler’s Black Knights and the Occult Origins of the SS. Zenith Press, 2010.

Nazi Occultism, Part One: The Myth of the Aryans

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In this installment, I’ll be returning to a topic that I have not revisited since my exploration of the Reichstag fire a couple years ago.  The rise of Nazism and the nature and underpinnings of their racist and tyrannical ideology fits particularly well into the thematic focus Historical Blindness, for a few reasons. One, it involved numerous misleading narratives and dubious conspiracy theories spread as propaganda, some of which have passed into history as though they were fact, as we explored in the previous installments on the Reichstag fire and the Oberfohren memorandum and the Ernst confession. Two, their conception of themselves and their place in history derived from numerous myths and false alternate histories, as we shall see in this series. And three, because not only are the lies and myths of Nazis still promulgated today by some on the far right, but the far right has also seen a resurgence in numerous countries around the world, making it more relevant than ever and essential that we not turn a blind eye to the lessons of the Nazis’ rise to power. Therefore, it is important that we look at the darkest influences in German society at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries to discover what made Nazism possible, what terrible conditions and malevolent forces led to the rise of Hitler and the Nazis.

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At the outset, it must be clearly established that Nazi ideology and mythology are undeniably evil. As I move from one concept’s origin to the next, from one movement or idea to another, I may not always return to this baseline truth or explain overtly why each is dangerous, misleading, or wicked—and in fact, some may appear harmless or may actually have been harmless at first, making their eventual enfolding into Nazism that much more insidious—so at the beginning, I must clarify that every element contributing to the rise of Nazism must be looked back on with distaste and mistrust and that I am in no way exploring them as valid notions or admirable schools or thought. Any who might read this and think, “Hey, they were on to something,” close your browser. You’re missing my point and you should reexamine your biases, your thought processes, and really, your life. Nazis were and are deluded and despicable. Any doctrines of racial supremacy are pure evil, in part and overall. The question I intend to examine here, however, is the nature of Nazism’s evil. Was it a distinctly human evil, the evil of men and their avarice and greed for power and domination? Certainly it was this, but was there some other, spiritual or supernatural aspect to its evil? Nazis are remembered as devilish ghouls, and many are the religious people who will tell you they think Hitler and his lieutenants were possessed by demons. In everything from Indiana Jones to Captain America, Hollywood portrays the Nazis as seekers after ancient and supernatural power. But how accurate is this conception of Nazi occultism? It is a question that first requires a definition of its central term. The “occult” denotes the obscured or the hidden, and in this sense, Nazis were not “occult” at all. While they may have kept some of their most monstrous programs quiet, they made no attempts to hide the tenets or doctrines of their movement. But the term “occult” connotes more than hidden knowledge; it hints at intercourse with the supernatural and with pagan or satanic influences that the Western, predominately Christian world hold to be nefarious, forces in contravention to all that is good and righteous. By this definition, especially that of the pagan and anti-Christian, it is hard to argue that the Nazis were not an occult movement.

Art depicting shrine with mixture of Hindu and Nazi elements typical of the Esoteric Hitlerism of Savitri Devi, via  Archive.org , licensed under  (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)

Art depicting shrine with mixture of Hindu and Nazi elements typical of the Esoteric Hitlerism of Savitri Devi, via Archive.org, licensed under (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)

Nevertheless, it should be noted that in large part, the popular notion of Nazi occultism was a narrative spread as propaganda. And much of this propaganda focused on Hitler and the Nazis being in league with the literal devil. Even the greatest and most prominent opponent of the Nazis, Winston Churchill, who helped to convince the world of the dark and evil threat that Nazi Germany posed, may have been significantly influenced by his personal physician, an expatriate German named Walter Stein who vocally asserted that Hitler was a diabolist and that his power derived from demons, a claim for which there is no evidence, insofar as such a claim can ever be proven. But for a more concrete and influential propagandist, one must look to Lewis Spence, whose 1940 The Occult Causes of the Present War made sweeping accusations of outright Satanic worship among not only Nazis but across Germany generally, and stretching back far into its past. For a taste of Spence’s logic, consider the following: he claimed that the fact so many witches had been burned in Germany was proof that the German people engaged in witchcraft to a greater degree than other peoples. For a further example, consider the 1939 book Hitler Speaks, or Voice of Destruction, supposedly written by a former high-ranking Nazi official, Hermann Rauschning. In it are shared numerous conversations the author claimed to have had with Hitler, depicting a Fuhrer carried away by dark forces and evil spirits (132). This book was revealed by journalists in the 1980s to have been a hoax comprised of choice material cribbed from nihilist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and French horror writer Guy de Maupassant. Further works that presented Hitler and his Nazis and being steeped in the supernatural came from figures who were sympathetic to their cause and bemoaned their defeat in the war, such as Savitri Devi, whose pseudohistorical and mystical biography of Hitler, Genghis Khan, and the Pharaoh Akhnaton, called The Lightning and the Sun, represents the leaders of the Third Reich as demigods and Hitler specifically as having been deified after his suicide, or Chilean author Miguel Serrano, contemporary and acquaintance of Carl Gustav Jung and Hermann Hesse, who advocated an “Esoteric Hitlerism” that blended Nazi ideals with Hindu religious traditions and a variety of conspiracy theories and science fiction. From there, popular culture takes up the torch, depicting the Nazis as demon-possessed, devil-worshipping magic relic hoarders, UFO builders, hollow earth explorers, and moon colonizers. It’s enough to make a level-headed researcher doubt any bizarre stories about them, but such stories abound, and many cannot be denied.

Another element of Nazism that some have suggested arises from the occult influence on the movement is their notion of racial superiority, but it is clear that such notions did not originate from occult sources, and in fact did not even originate in Germany. Rather, they originated in the fledgling science of anthropology, which engaged in a lot of what we recognize today as pseudoscience. Long before this, though, some Westerners turned to the Bible for explanations of race and skin tone variation. They relied on the passage in Genesis indicating that since Noah’s son Ham refused to avert his eyes when his father was naked and drunk, Ham’s son Canaan would be cursed to serve his brethren. This biblical story was misinterpreted and twisted in the mid-sixteenth century to provide a justification for racism and slavery, the curse on Canaan becoming a curse on all Ham’s descendants and coming to include a darkness of skin as well as a fate of servitude, none of which was really supported in the original scripture. Later, in the 17th century, Western natural philosophers still tended to think about race in biblical terms. believing that all races must have originated with Adam and Eve, a foundational assumption that led Robert Boyle to view albino children as proof that humans could give birth to progeny of a different race than their own. Much of what has been called “scientific racism” or “race biology” can be traced back to Enlightenment thinkers, such as Carl Linnaeus, father of taxonomy and a devout Christian, whose taxonomic classification of human beings included judgments of their character based on the ideas of physiognomy, a pseudoscience that asserted a person’s temperament and personality could be discerned from their outward appearance. Thus Linnaeus’s Europeanus was “fair,” as in white, and also “gentle, acute, inventive,” while Asiaticus was “sooty” and “severe, haughty, covetous” and Africanus was “black” and “crafty, indolent, negligent.” A racist hierarchy is abundantly evident here, even without mentioning his further classifications of sub-humans, the Homo Monstrosus.

A diagram showing the racism inherent in craniometry, via  Wikimedia Commons

A diagram showing the racism inherent in craniometry, via Wikimedia Commons

The particular brand of pseudoscientific racism that would eventually be folded into the Nazi worldview may have originated among Germans, as it began to take definite form when the German philosopher Christoph Meiners, who coined the early race classifications of Caucasian and Mongolian, believed in the racial superiority of Germans based on their “whitest, most blooming and most delicate skin.” But his race classifications were taken and run with by others, like Georges Cuvier, French zoologist and naturalist, whose work in paleontology caused him to be revered by the Sea-Serpent Killer Richard Owen whom I spoke so much about in my recent installments. Cuvier would add to Meiners’s classification a third, Ethiopian, sometimes called Negroid, to encompass those of darker skins, whom Cuvier believed “always remained in the most complete state of barbarism.” In order to bolster the claims of racial character and superiority already held by early anthropologists, data collected through the pseudoscientific practice of craniometry, or skull measurement, was used to supposedly prove that races originating from the Caucasus region were better formed and more intelligent. Likewise, among the subclassifications of the Caucasoid, the Aryan, the Semitic, and the Hamitic, craniometrists declared the Aryan, or Indo-European, to be of a superior stock. But Aryan did not always mean white northern European, or Nordic as the Germans came to think of it. Originally, it applied to the speakers of most major European languages and those in northern India, Iran and Central Asia. But German linguists and philologists like Max Müller conflated linguistic relationships with racial relationships, and thus was born the myth of a people calling themselves Aryan who came from some mysterious and mythical northern homeland and migrated into India, Iran, and Europe. This myth found perhaps its most influential supporter in French count Arthur de Gobineau, whose Essay on the Inequality of the Races suggested that the most superior of races are those whose blood has been least degraded from its Aryan purity, for this was a “master race,” a term that originally meant the race from which others derived, as in the term “master key,” but which came to be taken as a term indicating the race’s natural right to dominate those inferior to it. Despite the fact that de Gobineau actually thought the English, with their insular country, to be the closest to pure Aryan blood, his ideas became very popular in Germany. This can be attributed to his friendship with the composer Richard Wagner, who publicized Gobineau’s ideas through a newsletter published specifically for visitors to the world-famous Bayreuth Festival, which celebrates Wagner’s operas.

With the entrance of Wagner into the story, we can begin to examine the ever more distinctly German contribution to the notions of racial superiority that would eventually become foundational to Nazism, and we will see that we cannot claim there were no occult or pagan influences on this most evil aspect of Nazism, for to do so, one would have to ignore the influence of the Austro-Germanic “New Age” movement on this burgeoning ideology. Compared to the New Age movement of the 1980s by Bill Yenne in one of my principal sources, this Germany and Austria in the 1920s saw a great increase in interest in alternative theologies and mysticism, including Buddhist and Rosicrucian philosophies, Egyptian mythologies, and Kabbalistic practices. Among these, perhaps the greatest interest was shown to Germanic folklore and Nordic paganism, both of which had been popularized by the operatic works of Richard Wagner, which drew from mythologies contained in the medieval Icelandic Eddas as well as the ancient Germanic epic poem, the Nibelungenlied. In Wagner’s masterpiece. The Ring of the Nibelung, German audiences became entranced by the age of the Nordic gods of Valhalla, as Wotan, whom we may today more popularly call Odin, seeks to regain a ring inscribed with magical runes that grants its bearer the power to rule the world. A fantasy world filled with giants and dwarfs, it may strike modern audiences as quite similar to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and with good reason, for certainly Wagner was a major influence on Tolkien. And just as Tolkien’s works have fired the imaginations of entire generations, so Wagner’s kindled a renewed interest in all things Nordic and pagan among many in Germany during the last half of the 19th century, such that some renounced their former Christian and Catholic beliefs to practice a new form of pagan worship they would call Wotanism, which they felt was more true to their ancient Germanic heritage.

Depiction by artist Arthur Rackham of a scene from Richard Wagner’s  The Ring of the Nibelung , via  Wikimedia Commons

Depiction by artist Arthur Rackham of a scene from Richard Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung, via Wikimedia Commons

Meanwhile, another popular counterculture movement around the same time, also concerned with Germanic heritage, proves to be a complementary piece to the puzzle as we put together a picture of the roots of Nazism. Rather than an ancient fantasy world, this one had at its heart the practical beauty and charm of rustic farm life in rural Germany. Among many city dwellers there arose a back-to-the-land movement that romanticized peasant life as being closer to the pure German national identity, which was at its heart agrarian. It was a nostalgic movement, called the völkisch, or “folksy” movement, reacting to post-industrial alienation with a yearning for quaint villages and a simpler life. The movement appealed equally across the political spectrum, for all in urban areas felt the misery of wage slavery, drawing everyday workingmen and intellectuals alike. Essential to the völkisch movement was a notion of achieving a closer connection to Germanic identity, and thus, at its heart, it was a nationalist movement. But this became intrinsically tied to notions of not just nationality but race and ethnicity as well, as the ideology of Blut und Boden, or Blood and Soil, emerged. The völkisch notion of Blood and Soil argued that one’s blood, or race and lineage, is inextricable from one’s homeland, or soil, and that those who achieve a closer relationship with the land through a rural way of life forge a closer bond to their racial and ethnic identity. One can already see the separate threads begin to come together, for among the völkisch movement there emerged the most famous of German archaeologists, Gustaf Kossinna, who reached the dubious conclusion that finding materially consistent artifacts in a region, such as the pottery containing cord-like impressions that he discovered between the Rhine and Volga Rivers, meant that an ethnically homogeneous race dwelt there. Eventually, in an effort to bolster the völkisch movement and German nationalism, Kossinna made claims that the Corded Ware culture he had discovered was evidence that ancient Germans were one and the same with the mythical idea of an Aryan people as a distinct superior race.

Thus as two concurrent strains in society, the Austro-Germanic New Age was driven on one side by nationalist Blood and Soil-ers who believed their ancestral racial identity tied to the supreme and mysterious race of Aryans and on the other by those who rejected Christianity to worship at the pagan altars of the old Nordic pantheon. And it would not take much of a stretch, then, to link the two, for the ever-evolving myth of the Aryan race indicated they had migrated from some mysterious northern homeland, which some identified with the mythical Hyperborea or Ultima Thule, about which I’ll have more to say later. From there, it’s a mere skip to suggest that the Aryans were the gods of the Nordic pantheon, their homeland of Valhalla one and the same with the mysterious Aryan homeland, and therefore Germans were descended from the gods themselves. Into this roiling cauldron of mystical ideas about race and ancient wisdom came Madame Helena Blavatsky, a Russian woman who had travelled the world and gained fame with her claims to ancient knowledge and psychic abilities. For a fantastic exploration of Blavatsky and her claims, check out Sebastian Major’s series on her in his podcast Our Fake History. For our purposes here, suffice to say that she emerged from popular spiritualism, which saw mediums holding parlor room séances the world over, and rose to become the founder of her own philosophy, or religion, or many would say cult, which she called Theosophy, and which she established through her best-selling book, Isis Unveiled: A Master Key to the Mysteries of Ancient and Modern Science and Theology, a volume widely considered to be plagiarized and patchwritten from numerous mystical texts. In 1884, as many pseudo-religious groups and schools of philosophical thought vied for attention in the burgeoning Austro-German New Age, she established a branch of her Theosophical Society in Germany. Among the tenets of Theosophy was one idea that would prove to be particularly appealing to the völkisch movement and its Blood and Soil philosophizers: that among the primeval races of humankind, there existed a hierarchy, at the very top of which was the “root race,” which she identified as Aryan, with all others being subraces. 

Photographic portrait of Madame Blavatsky, via  Wikimedia Commons

Photographic portrait of Madame Blavatsky, via Wikimedia Commons

As an example of the melting pot of pagan and occult ideas that was the Austro-German New Age movement and how disparate beliefs might coalesce into the particularly virulent strain that was Nazism, we find Guido Karl Anton List, who in an effort to claim some appearance of aristocracy for himself would later in life go by Guido von List. He was not, however, from a wealthy family. Rather, he grew up middle class and preoccupied with the fantasy world of Nordic mythology. During a tour of the catacombs beneath Vienna at 14 years old, after seeing an old altar that he assumed had once been dedicated to Wotan, his obsession grew. As a young man and an outdoorsman who wrote for an alpine newspaper, he readily embraced the völkisch back-to-the-land movement, and his writing about the natural world began more and more to take on the tinge of mysticism, as he imagined a variety of spirits inhabiting the German countryside. His writings became more and more nationalistic as well and focused on German racial identity after reading a translation of The Origin and Situation of the Germans by Roman historian Gaius Cornelius Tacitus, which made mention of Germanic tribes called Irminones living outside the Roman Empire. In List’s mind, this group took on mythical significance. He called them the Armanen, and he claimed they were a pagan priesthood that held great power flowing directly from the Nordic god Wotan. With the success of his first novel, List found himself rubbing elbows with many prominent figures in the Austro-German New Age, and his further published works focused on Wotanism. After taking an interest in Blavatsky and Theosophy, he developed his own doctrine, bringing together metaphysics, Nordic paganism, völkisch nationalism, and theories of Aryan and Germanic racial supremacy. He called his movement Armanism, after the almost entirely fictional Armanen priesthood he had imagined, and the elite society he founded, the Armanenorden, worshipped Wotan and conducted pagan ceremonies every solstice. Among the many interests of Guido von List that he wrote about and lectured on to his Armanenorden were runes, those ancient alphabets that preceded the adoption of Latin in northern Europe, which List and others believed held some form of magic, a belief likely encouraged in List’s case by his love of Richard Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung, with its rune-magic talismans. Indeed, he claimed to have had a new runic alphabet revealed to him mystically while temporarily blind. This preoccupation with ancient runes among many in Germany would eventually contribute to some of the most recognizable symbols of Nazism.

Photographic portrait of the young mystic Guido von List in 1878, via  Wikipedia

Photographic portrait of the young mystic Guido von List in 1878, via Wikipedia

As with any successful movement, Guido von List’s Armanenorden saw its imitators and offshoots. One imitation was the Germanenorden, which greatly admired Von List and his writings, so this may almost be considered a satellite group. Then there was the offshoot led by one of Von List’s closest followers, Adolf Josef Lanz, who at 19 took the name Jörg and became a monk, a career that didn’t last long because of his engagement in illicit sexual activity. Much like Guido von List claiming a runic alphabet was revealed to him supernaturally, Lanz had what he considered to be a religious revelation. He saw a 13th-century carving of a nobleman standing over a creature with a man’s head and a tail, and he believed that he had been shown some truth about the eternal struggle between humanity, which represented all that was good, and the subhuman, which represented all evil. After his ouster from the monastery, he fell in with the Armanenorden and Von List, gave himself the more noble-sounding name Jörg Lanz von Liebenfels, wholeheartedly accepted the völkisch notions of Aryan superiority and the purity of Germans, and went even further by asserting that other races represented the subhuman evil of which his vision had warned. He wrote a bizarre book called Theozoology or the Account of the Sodomite Apelings and the Divine Electron, which asserted that Aryans and their descendants were theozoa, or god-men, while all others were anthropozoa, descended from sodomy between the gods and apelings. From his work, he founded his own secret society, the Order of the New Templars, which took solstice celebrations to the next level by practicing orgies at which they raised a flag with a particular runic symbol on it that Lanz von Liebenfels had chosen himself: the swastika. And he established his own school of thought, Ariosophy, which took his particularly awful racism to new extremes, suggesting that the doctrine of Social Darwinism must apply in the case of the races as well, and advocating for the selective breeding and sterilization programs that others were calling eugenics. Lanz von Liebenfels also published a magazine called Ostara, after the goddess of rebirth we know from the holiday Easter, a publication in which he spread many of these vile ideas. One subscriber to Ostara, then a corporal in the German army and an art student in Vienna, was Adolph Hitler.

Photographic portrait of Jörg Lanz von Liebenfels, via  Wikimedia Commons

Photographic portrait of Jörg Lanz von Liebenfels, via Wikimedia Commons

Join me next time as I look at the rise of the Nazi party and how these pagan and occult influences helped to shape it and lead it to its darkest places.

*

 Further Reading

Dunlap, Knight. “The Great Aryan Myth.” The Scientific Monthly, vol. 59, no. 4, 1944, pp. 296–300. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/18253.

Flowers, Stephen E., and Michael Moynihan. The Secret King: The Myth and Reality of Nazi Occultism. Feral House/Dominion, 2007.

Reid, Gordon McGregor. “Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778): His Life, Philosophy and Science and Its Relationship to Modern Biology and Medicine.” Taxon, vol. 58, no. 1, 2009, pp. 18–31. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/27756820.

Yenne, Bill. Hitler’s Master of the Dark Arts: Himmler’s Black Knights and the Occult Origins of the SS. Zenith Press, 2010.

The Monster of Loch Ness: Delusion or Denizen of the Deep?

800px-Strange_Creatures_of_the_Past_-_The_Flat-Tailed_Plesiosaur.jpg

As I mentioned in the last installment, sightings of sea monsters fell off rather dramatically after the Daedalus encounter and those that followed. Some have looked to this as proof that there had never been true sea serpents encountered, but rather a series of hoaxes and mistakes, while others have suggested this just reflects the fact that more and more ships at sea may have driven them into hiding, especially once those ships became motorized. The we-scared-it-off theory, after all, had seemed reasonable enough to explain the gradual falling off of sea serpent sightings in Gloucester Bay, New England, which had been crowded with tourist-laden ferries and fishing vessels all hunting for the creature. But the mid 19th century would not be last time that people believed they saw a massive, long-necked, water-dwelling creature that would be termed a monster. While the seas remained mostly calm and untroubled by serpents, in the 1930s and ever since, sightings surged in a rather unexpected place, inland, on a lake, as though the Great Sea Serpent had abandoned its saltwater habitat for the fresh waters of a lake in the Scottish Highlands, southwest of Inverness. Like the Great Sea Serpent, this creature is usually described as serpentine, owing to the fact that when it breaks the surface of the lake in which it supposedly dwells, it is seen as a series of humps. Sometimes, though, witnesses of this creature are graced with a view of its long neck and small head, and perhaps a glimpse of its bulky body, which has led to a popular conception of it as being akin to the plesiosaur, although the fact that this one supposedly lives in a fresh water lake would mean that it would more likely be of the family Leptocleididae, genus leptocleidus, or perhaps a genus and species of polycotylid that recent researchers have proposed, dubbing them “occultonectians,” or “hidden swimmers,” and suggesting they survived the extinction of similar plesiosaurs, at least for a while, by taking refuge in and adapting to bodies of fresh water, adaptation that resulted in the development of longer necks. But rather than speculating exactly what kind of surviving dinosaur this creature is, it is far more logical to first consider the reliability of evidence that there is anything at all so large or unusual dwelling in this particular lake: Loch Ness.

Popular belief in the monster affectionately known as Nessie began in 1933, in March, when a couple, the MacKays, who had been staying at a nearby hotel, were motoring along an old narrow road by the lake. Mrs. MacKay saw a huge black form rolling in the lake and told her husband John to pull over. Once he had stopped the car, John could only see the ripples, about a mile and a half away, but even from these he discerned that something very large had caused them. To Mrs. MacKay, the ripples appeared to be a wake made by something just below the surface, and she watched its progress across the otherwise placid lake. Then she saw it again: black humps, two of them, the one in front smaller than that behind it, rising and sinking as though the entire form were undulating. It turned and circled halfway around before sinking finally and disappearing. A few months later, in June, a crew of workmen spotted a large body and head emerge from the water in the wake of a passing boat, a sighting easily waved away as an optical illusion created by the waves themselves. But then in July, another motoring couple, the Spicers of London, saw a creature emerge from the bushes on the side of the roadway, or at least part of one. It looked like a thick appendage, trunklike, perhaps a long neck held horizontally, wavering over the surface of the road. Then it crossed the road in a jerking fashion, its body filling the entire roadway and then suddenly gone in the direction of the lake. Mr. Spicer estimated it was at least 25 feet long, with dark gray skin like that of an elephant. After this sighting, the lake monster had become a news item, with press reports at first suggesting in a measured way that the Spicers had just seen an enormous otter carrying its young on its back. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, with the press attention, sightings increased to about one a month. In August, more witnesses saw a disturbance trailing behind a steamboat on the lake, insisting that because there were calm waters between the boat and the disturbance, it couldn’t have been the boat’s wake. Then one Mrs. MacLennan saw a large animal sunning itself on a ledge, and when she called to her family, it lurched clumsily and rolled into the water. In October, a crew member on a boat towing a barge saw what looked like a mound of water moving toward them like a wave from the side of the lake. In November, Hugh Gray took the first known photo of the supposed creature during his walk home from church. He claimed to have seen it raising its head above the water and lashing its tail. His photo, which saw extensive reprinting in newspapers in December, shows a vaguely serpentine S-shape on the surface of the waters, obscured by a kind of hazy mist. This photo has been variously said by different photographic experts to show signs of having been retouched or damaged and to show no signs of having been tampered with, leaving us, almost a hundred years later, to merely wonder at it.

Hugh Gray’s photo, used under Creative Commons license ( CC BY 4.0 )

Hugh Gray’s photo, used under Creative Commons license (CC BY 4.0)

In December, as papers reported on Gray’s photographic evidence, the excitement, or hysteria, heated to a fever pitch. One Mrs. Reid, while motoring by, saw an animal lying in a glade very near where Mrs. MacLennan had earlier seen a creature sunning itself, and she described it in much the same terms, huge, fleshy, and clumsy like a hippopotamus. The same month, the first movie film evidence appeared, taken with a 16mm camera by Malcolm Irvine and a film production crew that was in the area specifically hoping to film the creature that had been in the news. His film, which was said by those who viewed it, including reporters from the Times, to have shown a humped creature swimming on the surface and moving both tail and fins, has unfortunately—some might say conveniently—been lost. But it did its job, nonetheless. On the 21st of December, the London Daily Mail, a newspaper with a long and dubious history, declared “MONSTER OF LOCH NESS IS NOT LEGEND BUT A FACT” and in a publicity stunt reported that it had hired Marmaduke Wetherell, a filmmaker with a reputation as a big game hunter, to search for further proof of Nessie’s existence. Think of Wetherell as an early 20th-century precursor to the many reality-T.V. cryptid hunters that populate the backwaters of cable television today, and remember him, for we will return to him shortly. While Wetherell performed his search for Nessie tracks along the shores of the loch, sightings continued into 1934. Just after the New Year, a student named W. Arthur Grant who might have been thought a reliable and scientific witness because he was training to be a veterinarian, nearly ran into something on a benighted road while riding his motorcycle. His headlight illuminated a massive creature with a flat head like that of an eel. It bounded from the bushes and across the road on flippers, its strong round-tipped tail extended behind it, and it disappeared into the darkness, leaving behind only the sound of its splash as it entered the loch. The next month, by the light of a full moon, two girls likewise saw something huge that tapered down to a long tail cross the road in front of them on short appendages that they called legs rather than flippers and head toward the water. And finally, in April of 1934, I’ll end my recounting of the first and most prolific flap of Nessie sightings with the appearance of the most famous, or infamous, photo of the creature. It would come to be known as the “Surgeon’s photo,” having been taken by a gynecologist named Robert Kenneth Wilson while on vacation with a friend. He admitted he had brought the camera hoping to snap a pic of the monster, although later he claimed he’d brought it to photograph birds. When the creature presented itself, he ran back to his car and returned just in time to take two photos, both of which show the shadow of a slender, curved object extending from the water’s surface, the water rippling around it. For all the world, it looked like the body and arched neck and head of the Loch Ness Monster.

The Surgeon’s Photo, credited to Robert Kenneth Wilson, used under Creative Commons license ( CC BY 4.0 )

The Surgeon’s Photo, credited to Robert Kenneth Wilson, used under Creative Commons license (CC BY 4.0)

When one considers the believability of these encounters, one might be tempted to dismiss the eyewitness testimony altogether, leaving only the harder evidence to evaluate. In fact, the simple fact that the story became a newspaper sensation within the first year tends to discredit most of the sightings as either hoaxes by attention seekers or mistakes by the overeager who had been caught up in the hysteria. But historical precedent for sightings of a creature in or around Loch Ness before 1933 might weaken this argument. In looking for pre-’33 indications of Nessie’s existence, one is invariably drawn into the realm of folklore. For example, the Scottish people originated largely in Ireland, and there is an ancient Irish tradition that sees in the reflection of bodies of water an inverted aquatic world, where it was supposed there dwelled mirror opposite creatures, like water-cows and water-horses. Tales told of these animals crossing over at times, such that farmers had been known to harness their ploughs to a water-horse. In Scottish lore, the water-horse evolved to become the kelpie, a shape-changing creature similar to the siren in its alluring behavior. And this certainly might apply to Nessie, when one considers the siren call it has had on many a monster and cryptid hunter. Further, more geographically specific folkloric evidence of the creature can be found in the 7th century writings of the Abbot of Iona, who biographized the 6th century life of Saint Columba. In his work, St. Columba has numerous encounters with animals that show God had given him mastery over the creatures of the earth, such as snakes and boars. In one particular passage, the saint commands a monk to swim across the River Ness and bring back a boat. When a “water beast” appears and makes toward the monk, St. Columba cried out from the shore, “Thou shalt go no further, nor touch the man! Go back with all speed!” and the fearsome beast retreated. To most, in context with the rest of the stories told about St. Columba, this would seem a simple tall tale, but looking back at a story of a “water beast” in Ness—even if it was the river and not the loch—a modern reader cannot help but consider that this could be evidence of an aquatic monster in the area.

And there are many accounts in far more modern times of giant eels, or horse-eels, in the same area if one widens the scope of one’s search beyond Loch Ness. Friend of the show Mike Dash has written of 19th century reports of giant eels which have at least one thing going for them as explanations of Nessie in that they are bottom-dwellers that only surface occasionally, explaining why whatever is in Loch Ness is only glimpsed infrequently. He cites the memoir of a Scottish Catholic priest, who writing about events in the middle of the 19th century described lakes on Hebridean islands teeming with gigantic eels that travel overland from lake to lake. Dash also describes secondhand recollections of a huge maned eel being caught in a canal-lock in 1899 at Corpach, only about 26 miles southwest of the shores of Loch Ness, and how everyone believed it must have come down from Loch Ness, which supposedly had a reputation for monstrous serpents even then. As for Loch Ness itself, there were reports of sightings previous to the 1933 flap, such as in 1871 or ’72 when D. Mackenzie saw what he thought was a log suddenly come to life and churn up the water as it swam with great speed, or in 1889, when Alexander Macdonald saw an unusual creature on the lake that he called “the salamander” and which Roderick Matheson, who frequently plied the waters of the loch on his schooner, called “the biggest eel I ever saw in my life…[with] a neck like a horse and a mane somewhat similar.” Then into the 20th century, when sometime during the first decade a fisherman recalled having scared off a large beast with an eel’s head and a tapering tail that lay still upon the surface of the loch when he cast his line near it. 1919, a 12-year-old boy named Jack Forbes, drives a pony cart home through a stormy night with his father when a beast emerges from the trees, crosses the road and splashes into the water. 1923, a chauffeur’s headlamps catch a huge humped creature as his car rounds a bend, and actually hears the thing grunting as it waddles away. 1926, Simon Cameron is watching some gulls on the water when suddenly they fly off screeching because something that looked like an overturned boat bursts to the surface, water washing down its sides. While some of these recollections may have been colored by or even invented to corroborate the later legend of Nessie, it does seem that Loch Ness had long been a place where people saw animals they believed were unusual.

Further supporting the idea that Loch Ness monster sightings have proven to be far more than a yearlong flap easily written off as mass hysteria fueled by sensational journalism is the fact that the sightings never really stopped. Roy Mackal, a biologist working for University of Chicago who took particular interest in Nessie, claimed there were more than 10,000 such reports and that he had personally reviewed nearly 3,000 published accounts of them. Certainly there are many hundreds of verifiable witness claims, with a more recent accounting estimating they number around 1,800, but more than these, there is a wealth of harder evidence as well. Including the aforementioned Gray photo and the Surgeon’s Photo, one tally has around 30 photos taken of Nessie or what the photographers purport to be Nessie. Most of the time, they picture little more than shadowy humps on the water’s surface that one might imagine could be breaching portions of the creature’s neck or back, such as the Lachlan Stuart photo of 1951 and the Peter McNab photo of 1955. Others like the 1977 Anthony Shiels photo and the 1982 Jennifer Bruce photo seem to show the creature’s head and long neck held elegantly straight up out of the water, like the Surgeon’s photo. Not all of these are easily available to the modern researcher, as some are in private collections and seem to have no extant copies. Such is also the case with movie films supposedly capturing the creature, which also may number as high as 30, ranging from older cine film reels to more modern video recordings. One of these, taken by a Dr. MacRae around 1935 and said to show a slant-eyed, horned creature splashing the surface with its great reptilian tail, supposedly remains locked away in a vault in London, awaiting its release at some uncertain future time when “the public takes such matters seriously!” This seems to be a common explanation for why some alleged films cannot be examined, such as the 1938 film made by London bank manager James Currie, which supposedly resides in the same vault as the MacRae film. Then there are those films that have simply been lost, which includes the very first film made by the aforementioned Malcolm Irvine. Likewise with a film made by one James Fraser the next year, which seems to have rather suddenly vanished after being screened for the Linnaean Society of London, whose members thought it pictured a seal or otter rather than a monster. In 1936, when Malcolm Irvine managed to capture Nessie on film yet again, he once more promptly lost the footage. These instances of poor custodianship of evidence do little to inspire confidence in the credibility of the evidence itself.

Photo by Anthony Shiels, used under Creative Commons license ( CC BY 4.0 )

Photo by Anthony Shiels, used under Creative Commons license (CC BY 4.0)

Beyond the suspicious disappearance of evidence to cause one to look askance, there is also a history of hoaxes about as long as the history of Nessie herself. Remember the actor, film director and “big game hunter” Marmaduke Wetherell that I said to keep in your memory? Within days of his arrival at the lake after being hired by the Daily Mail to “track” the Loch Ness Monster, Wetherell made it known that he had discovered Nessie’s huge tracks and sent plaster casts of them to the London Natural History Museum. The museum eventually revealed that they appeared to be hippopotamus prints. But Wetherell hadn’t discovered a rogue hippo living around the loch; rather, he had taken a stuffed hippo’s hoof that had been part of an umbrella stand, attached a stick to it and used it like a stamp. Years later, in 1960, a young firefighter named Peter O’Connor was caught making hoax photographs by inflating a plastic sack and weighting it down with stones. In 1972, Frank Searle, frustrated at not being able to catch a glimpse of the genuine article, faked some later discredited photos using logs and other objects and by pasting images of brontosaurs onto pictures of water. Then there were the remarkably clear photos taken by Anthony Shiels in 1977, whose reputation as a kook already put his pictures in doubt. Shiels was a self-styled psychic and wizard who claimed to have actually conjured Nessie to the surface through the use of ancient magic. Close examination of his photo showed that ripples on the water’s surface could be seen through the creature’s neck, a sure sign of double exposure. By the time the 1980s and ’90s came around, older, long respected photographic evidence also began to be discredited. The first was Lachlan Stuart’s photograph of humps on the water from 1951, which Stuart had actually admitted to a local was accomplished by wrapping haybales in tarps and floating them in a row. Finally, in 1994, a confession revealed that the most famous photo of all, the Surgeon’s Photo, had been a crude fake perpetrated in collaboration with that original hoaxer, Marmaduke Wetherell. Wetherell’s own step-son, two years before he died, had admitted that Wetherell had conspired with his sons to concoct the photo by affixing a plastic head and neck to a toy submarine and photographing it in a calm inlet of the lake. The gynecologist Robert Kenneth Wilson had been a co-conspirator in agreeing to say he had taken the photo, since Wetherell had already been discredited. Some have cast doubt on this confession as being itself a hoax, suspicious about the perceived size of the object, whether the photo could have been taken in a sheltered cove, and whether a toy submarine could have supported the weight of such a false neck, but even most Nessie believers have come to accept that the Surgeon’s photo, long the single greatest piece of evidence in favor of Nessie’s existence, was nothing but a fraud.

Photo by Lachlan Stuart, used under Creative Commons license ( CC BY 4.0 )

Photo by Lachlan Stuart, used under Creative Commons license (CC BY 4.0)

Even if one took the Surgeon’s Photo as authentic, it still does not stand as unimpeachable evidence of Nessie’s existence, for ever since the beginning of the 1933 Loch Ness Monster flap, there have been plenty of convincing answers for what people really see and what is actually pictured in photographs. Most sightings of humps in the water are explainable as waves. Think about the sightings of humps in the wake of a passing boat I mentioned. And we now know that water sometimes behaves strangely, with odd, standing waves or solitons, that appear to be immobile humps with water washing over them. When sightings cannot be accounted for by the water itself, some other, more recognizable animal usually does the trick, like a bathing deer, or most commonly, an otter. Even birds, like cormorants, flying close to the water with their wings disturbing the surface, might appear at a distance to be a series of moving humps leaving a wake. As for more exotic animals, a bathing elephant extending its trunk from the surface, would certainly seem to fit the bill, especially considering some early reports that described its flesh as elephant-like,  and it just so happens that a circus was in the area in 1933. The showman who owned the circus, Bertram Mills, was known to let his performing animals bathe in the loch, and he seemed to encourage the excitement, offering a 20,000 pounds sterling reward to any who could capture the monster. This was a monstrous sum indeed, equivalent to almost 2 million dollars today, and some have suggested he only advertised such an exorbitant reward because he knew the monster didn’t exist, perhaps because he knew his elephants had been mistaken for the beast. But one does not need to look so far for so complicated an answer either. In addition to the extensive photographs and films taken above water, there have been numerous underwater photos taken, as well as many sonar contacts, and all can be very convincingly explained by fish activity and debris. In the same way, some humps on the surface can be attributed to huge bottom-feeding sturgeon visiting the surface, or to simple logs and other vegetable matter. This seems to be a clear instance in which Occam’s Razor cuts to the heart of the matter. These prosaic explanations of sightings are far simpler than the notion that a heretofore undiscovered species of lake monster exists and may represent proof of surviving dinosaurs. And more than this, there are further problems of feasibility making the lake monster hypothesis fundamentally untenable. First, there is the fact that, for such a species to have survived, there must needs be substantial breeding population, not just a solitary monster or a couple of mates, which conflicts with how infrequently they are seen, especially considering how intently people search for them. Then there is the fact that the loch is simply not big enough to contain such a population, nor does it contain enough food to sustain them. Some have suggested that there must be a hidden underwater channel from this freshwater lake to the ocean, but if this were the case, the loch being so far above sea level would mean that the lake waters would have long ago emptied into the sea. When Occam’s Razor cuts so easily and unequivocally through a popular belief like this, it must be assumed to be false, and this means that the same must hold true for all the other supposed denizens of lakes that have surfaced since Nessie. Ogopogo in Okanagan Lake, Tessie in Lake Tahoe, Champ in Lake Champlain, and Bessie in Lake Erie: all must be considered with the utmost skepticism, their very existence held in doubt.

Further Reading

Binns, Ronald. The Loch Ness Mystery Solved. Prometheus Books, 1984.

Campbell, Steuart. The Loch Ness Monster: The Evidence. Prometheus Books, 1997.

Leviathan, The Great Sea Serpent, Part 2: Into the Chaos Waters

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In the last edition, I considered the idea that the myths and legends of sea serpents might represent evidence that some dinosaurian creatures actually survived extinction. Thus we traced notions of giant reptilian sea monsters to their roots and explored what has been identified by German comparative mythologists as the Chaoskampf, the motif of a god hero defeating a sea serpent that represents chaos, as seen in the battles of Yahweh vs. Leviathan, Marduk vs. Tiamat, Baal vs. Yam, and Thor vs. Jörmungandr. But there are far more than those that I discussed, such as the Greek myth of Zeus vs. Typhon, the Hittite myth of Tarhunt vs. Illuyanka, the Indian myths of Indra vs. Vritra and Krishna vs. Kāliyā, the Egyptian Ra vs. Apep, the Chinese Yu the Great vs. Xiangliu, and the Japanese Susanoo vs. the 8-headed dragon Orochi [please excuse my pronunciation]. I further looked at similar legends of heroes in antiquity that faced sea serpents, like Heracles and Perseus facing the ketos or cetus, but of course there are more of these as well, such as Apollo defeating Python, the serpent at the center of the earth; Cadmus slaying a dragon at Athena’s direction and cultivating an army from its teeth; and Jason of the Argonauts defeating the dragon that guarded the Golden Fleece. Then there are the dragon-slaying Saint George, Saint Michael the Archangel, and Saint Theodore of Amasea, and the dragon-slayers of medieval legend, such as Beowulf, Siegfried, Gawain, Lancelot, Tristan, and John Lambton, to name just a few. These examples, even when viewed as pure myth with no basis in real encounters between mankind and huge reptilian creatures, still tend to indicate some knowledge of such massive dinosaurian animals having once existed, knowledge unlikely to have been derived from the fossil record back then, as there is no evidence of dinosaur bones having been discovered before the 17th century, nor any reason to believe discoverers of such a fossil in antiquity would be able to discern the anatomy or nature of the creature to whom the bones belonged. And we have reports from antiquity and beyond of ancient peoples finding carcasses of reptilian sea monsters that had washed ashore, unidentified remains, sometimes called globsters, which because they can often be indefinable blobs, are frequently dismissed by skeptics. Take for example, the Stronsay beast, a 55ft corpse that washed ashore on the island of Orkney in 1808. Thinking it a sea serpent, some gave it a scientific name, Halsydrus pontoppidani. Skeptics looked at reports about its remains and claimed it was merely an oversize basking shark. Similarly, even the many reports of encounters with living sea monsters that come to us from antiquity are waved away by the scholarly and the scientific-minded, who claim they are run-of-the-mill sea creatures like whales, despite evidence that ancients were very familiar with whales. The apotheosis of this pattern, of witnesses being mistrusted after the fact, reports being cast in a skeptical light by those supposed to be better qualified at identifying something they didn’t actually see, came in the 19th century, when sightings of sea serpents became more and more frequent despite scientific insistence that such creatures simply did not exist.

*

In August of 1817, poor weather drove a coasting vessel in to the bustling harbor town of Gloucester, Massachusetts, on Cape Ann, where its skipper made his way to a local auction house and shared a story that everyone found hard to credit. He and his crew, he said, had spied something strange in the waters at the bay’s entrance. Bobbing there was a creature that appeared to be some kind of sea serpent! It was at least 60 feet long! The patrons of the auction house scoffed and guffawed at the skipper’s ridiculous prank, but before much longer, more and more people were claiming to have seen this creature in the bay. Its body could be seen on the surface of the water, they said, with keg-sized humps all down the trunk of its body, which writhed and moved like a caterpillar. Its skin was black and leathery, and its head was that of a snake, without ears or horns or any sign of gills, and with eyes the size of plates. As sighting after sighting was reported, some continued to disbelieve, while others gave credence to the reports, for after all, this was not the first time that a sea serpent had been seen in Gloucester Bay. It was the oldest seaport in the country, and in fact was one of the first settlements in the Massachusetts Bay Colony chartered in 1623 by James I. The first such report came not long after that when in 1639 John Josselyn, known for writing about New England and its flora and fauna, put down in his diary a story told to him thirdhand about a sea serpent encounter. A boat full of Englishmen spied the serpent “coiled up like a Cable upon a Rock at Cape-Ann,” as the story went, and were discouraged from shooting at it by two Native Americans on board who indicated that if the serpent weren’t killed by their shots, it would attack them in their boat. And again, in a 1641 diary entry, one Obadiah Turner described some residents gathering clams after a storm when just offshore they spotted a serpent that was 15 fathoms, or 90 feet long, a sight that Turner suggests was no great surprise to the inhabitants of Cape Ann, who had seen such creatures before. Now Josselyn’s report, coming from a local who heard it himself from a neighbor, seems about as suspect as any urban legend, and the entry in Turner’s journal actually appears only in a 19th century book of biographical sketches that, while historically accurate in some regards, may be entirely fictional in others, but the historical precedent of serpent sightings in Gloucester Bay, while weak, is there. And as August wore on 1817, historical precedent soon became moot, as hundreds of sightings accumulated.

A depiction of the Gloucester sea serpent, via  Wikimedia Commons

A depiction of the Gloucester sea serpent, via Wikimedia Commons

Today, these witness sightings survive in the form of eighteen signed depositions given under oath before a local magistrate. A shipmaster named Ellery swore to seeing the serpent’s flat, snake-like head and about 40 feet of its body, which seemed jointed with humps the size of 2-gallon kegs. He saw the beast turn around quickly, its head passing by its own tail. Then we have a merchant named James Mansfield who on the 15th likewise saw an enormous serpent swimming around the surface, holding its head about a foot above the water, and he too described humps on its body, calling them “bunches.” Then another mariner named William Somerby described a snake-headed sea serpent that swam past his schooner more swiftly than any whale. Describing its swimming motion, he said its body rose and fell, and its head moved from side to side as it went. On and on the reports go, agreeing in most particulars. Sightings were made mostly in Gloucester Bay, but up the coast into Maine as well, and south all the way to Long Island Sound. All of them described a snake-like creature with a flat oblong head—compared to a snake’s in shape but to a horse’s in size—that it raised sometimes several feet above the water on a long neck. And crucially, it was said to be indented or uneven on its back and body, with humps or joints. A former staff member of George Washington’s, General David Humphries, came to the area to collect reports, and according to him, the serpent was actually seen by a crowd of more than 200 people over the course of an entire afternoon, frolicking in the waters off Windmill Point in Massachusetts Bay. Obviously a phenomenon like this would not go unnoticed even by a fledgling press, and indeed, the Boston Weekly Messenger spread news of the creature with the headline “Monstrous Serpent.” Surely this exacerbated the rash of sightings and encouraged some who had seen nothing to make false claims, for soon tourists flooded the area, hoping for a glimpse of the monster. Add to this the fact that a $5,000 bounty was put on the creature, and you have not only ferries full of looky-loos choking up Gloucester Bay but also ships full of whalers readying their harpoons and cod fishermen setting out nets and attaching baited shark hooks to buoys in hopes of catching and skinning the serpent. It is said some ships who encountered the serpent simply turned around and sailed away in fear, or took on artillery to protect themselves. One man, Martin Gaffeney, supposedly shot the creature, but it only dove out of sight into the waters and surfaced again in the distance, out of range of Gaffeney’s gun. 

Amid this outrageous flap, the Linnaean Society of New England, a group devoted to taxonomy, or the naming and classification of organisms, took an interest. With no specimen, they looked to personal testimony as a reliable alternative. Forming a committee, the Linnaean society wrote a questionnaire to hand out while interviewing witnesses and engaged the Gloucester judge who took the aforementioned depositions and published the witness statements with the lengthy title of Report of a Committee of the Linnaean Society of New England Relative to a Large Marine Animal Supposed to be a Serpent, Seen near Cape Ann, Massachusetts, in August 1817, a primary source for witness statements about the serpent. According to the Linnaean Society, there was simply too much evidence for there to be nothing to the reports. The fact that it was all testimonial evidence did not dissuade them, as testimonial evidence was at the time given great weight, when the witnesses could be confirmed to be of good reputation. So the Committee concluded that they had identified a new species, a genuine sea serpent! And they bolstered this conclusion with further notes on a physical specimen they believed had been discovered. Shortly after the sightings had begun, some farmers had pitchforked what appeared to be a three-foot snake on the beach, but this snake was unusual. After the farmers had given their statements and turned the dead snake over to the Linnaean Society committee, they saw it for themselves and dissected it. There were unusual protuberances along on the snake’s back, and as this appeared to correspond with the reports of the sea serpent’s humps, they decided that this must be a young specimen of the same species, which they named Scoliophis atlanticus. To their chagrin, however, a French naturalist named Alexandre Lesueur, who had also examined the snake, declared that it was nothing more than a common black snake suffering from a disease that left its spine deformed. While sightings continued, in 1819 in Nahant, and then up in Nova Scotia in 1825 and 1833, after a while they died away. At the time, one Boston newspaper declared it would no longer report on the serpent because it was not news, for “the existence of this fabulous animal is now proven beyond all chance of doubt.” Yet at the same time, it was already becoming a dubious story, with one playwright in Charleston publishing a drama in 1819 called The Sea Serpent; or, Gloucester Hoax: a Dramatic jeu d’esprit in Three Acts, which suggested that the people of Gloucester had lied about seeing the serpent just to increase tourism.

A Linnaean Society illustration of the Scoliophis atlanticus via  Wikimedia Commons

A Linnaean Society illustration of the Scoliophis atlanticus via Wikimedia Commons

Regardless of the vagaries of public opinion or the credulity of the press, what the example of the Gloucester Serpent demonstrates is that the scientific community, in the beginning of the 19th century, was actually very open to the notion of a previously unconfirmed species of large marine creature. The alacrity with which the Linnaean Society of New England announced the discovery of a new species, to say nothing of the gameness of Edinburgh’s Wernerian Natural History Society to endorse the authenticity of the Stronsay Beast, as discussed in my recent patron exclusive, shows that the very idea of a real sea serpent was not yet scientific anathema. How, then, did that change? One might look to the 1840s and a major character I introduced in Part One, Richard Owen, who might be thought of as a sort of villain in this story, especially if you believe his biographers that he was a callous and dastardly egoist who relished controversy, and if you consider that during his career he claimed credit for fossil discoveries that others had actually made. He even visually fits the bill of our story’s villain, as in his old age, he very much resembles how we imagine Ebenezer Scrooge to appear. But in our last installment, I only pointed out the irony of this “father of the dinosaurs” comparing pterodactyls to dragons in his Crystal Palace statuary exhibition while he vehemently attacked any who would suggest that dinosaurs survived in the time of man as the dragons or sea serpents of yore. But let us look more specifically at what Owen did to earn himself the nickname “the Sea-Serpent Killer.” Perhaps his first foray against sea serpents was not against any living example of one, but against a fossil, for remember that the first half of the 19th century was the heyday of dinosaur discovery and classification. The fact that evidence of massive reptilian creatures existing in the far past emerged at the same time as reports of them appearing in modern day seas cannot be discounted as a major impetus of belief in the Great Sea Serpent. But in the 1840s, Richard Owen dealt a blow to notions of ancient sea serpents when one Dr. Richard Harlan sent Owen a number of massive vertebrae and other bones that had been discovered in the American South. Harlan had deduced from these bones the existence of a huge reptilian sea creature that he called Basilosaurus, or “king lizard.” However, after examining them, Owen concluded and made known to the world that this was a cetacean creature, a prehistoric whale, not a reptile, suggesting it be renamed the Zeuglodon. Thus Richard Owen killed his first sea serpent, and out of this scholarly kerfuffle would arise an affair that would forever shake the scientific community’s faith in sea serpent tales.

Present at one meeting of the Association of American Geologists at which Dr. Harlan presented his Basilosaurus bones was one Dr. Benjamin Silliman. Silliman was a believer in sea serpents, having come out years earlier in favor of the idea that the Gloucester Serpent was a real creature. A few years after Dr. Harlan spoke at that meeting, Silliman received a visit in Connecticut from one Albert Koch, a purveyor of antiquities and fossils who operated a kind of travelling museum of oddities. Silliman had previously published some of Koch’s writings, and knowing Koch’s interest in massive prehistoric creatures, he told Koch about a woman in Alabama who might know where another Basilosaurus skeleton could be found. Forthwith, Koch made his way to Alabama, and by hook or by crook, he came into possession of some very interesting bones indeed. Before long, like the very P.T. Barnum he fancied himself, he opened a tourist attraction to show off the assembled skeleton of a fantastical sea serpent that he called Hydrarchos sillimani, hydrarchos meaning “great sea-serpent” and sillimani after his friend who’d given him the tip. Koch traveled with his skeleton to New York City and displayed it along with a letter of endorsement from Benjamin Silliman, and he made much of welcoming the opinion of Richard Owen, who he believed would find the Hydrarchos sillimani far more similar to a Plesiosaurus than to an extinct whale. However, Koch never received the benefit or the detriment of Owen’s opinion, for before it could be offered, one of Benjamin Silliman’s very own former students, Jeffries Wyman, declared to the world that Koch’s skeleton was a crude counterfeit. It was a hoax, he asserted, a simple assortment of bones from five different skeletons that he had cobbled together to approximate the image of a sea serpent. With this claim, Benjamin Silliman demanded that Koch remove his name from the display, which Koch promptly did although he maintained the skeleton was genuine. Today, consensus remains that the Hydrarchos of Albert Koch was a fraud, just as Wyman claimed, for indeed, Koch was caught perpetrating exactly such a fraud when he sold the Missourium, a supposed skeleton of a mastodon, to the British Museum, which promptly recognized that that it was composed of several skeletons and took it apart to reassemble them correctly.

An illustration of Albert Koch’s Hydrarchos, via  Wikimedia Commons

An illustration of Albert Koch’s Hydrarchos, via Wikimedia Commons

It was only a few years after this that the most famous and detailed report of an encounter with a sea serpent appeared in newspapers to astonish the lay public and stir the already kindled ire of scientific skeptics like Richard Owen, who by this point believed all sea serpent witnesses to be either liars or fools. The problem was that the witnesses of this sea serpent were considered reliable, and some might have argued, unimpeachable. It occurred on August 6th, 1848, when H.M.S. Daedalus, a Royal Navy corvette, a kind of small frigate, sailed the seas between St. Helena and the Cape of Good Hope, on its return journey from the East Indies. A midshipman saw it first, and alerted the officers who stood on the quarterdeck. The ship’s captain, Peter M’Quhae, and his first lieutenant, Edgar Drummond, along with some others, saw a large serpentine creature swimming on the surface of the sea not far from the ship. The details of this encounter come to us from the captain’s own report to his superior, which was eventually published in the Illustrated London News along with some illustrations that M’Quhae supervised to ensure their accuracy. He said that sixty feet of the creature’s body was visible, and that it seemed to move as if propelled, without any undulation of its form. And it passed so close by the ship that “had it been a man of my acquaintance I should have easily recognized the features with the naked eye.” What he saw of its features was a snakelike head, exposing big jagged teeth when it opened its jaws, with a mane like seaweed, and it raised its head as high as four feet above the water as it went, as close as M’Quhae could estimate by comparing it to the length of the ship’s main-topsail yard. In all, he and his crew watched this sea serpent for twenty minutes!

As I suggested before, at the time, witness testimony was accorded great weight as evidence, as in a court of law, provided the witness could be proven trustworthy, and in this regard, Captain M’Quhae seemed unassailable. First, officers of the Royal Navy were a scientific sort of mariner, with training in navigation and meteorology and experience in observing the seas around them. They were not the kinds of superstitious sailors one might expect to dream up a monster that wasn’t there. They, like most 19th-century British gentlemen, believed in empiricism and knew that spreading a false tale like this could not only damage their reputations but also harm their careers. Furthermore, to suggest that they may have been mistaken in what they saw discounts their years of experience at sea; M’Quhae, for example, had become an officer more than thirty years earlier, during the Napoleonic Wars. Nevertheless, our villain, Richard Owen, incensed at the idea that the public would take the word of some mere navy men over the skepticism of the scientific community, weighed in. His rejoinder, published in the Times, essentially insisted that they must have just seen an elephant seal, and that they had mistaken the eddy that frequently trails behind swimming elephant seals as the body or tail of a serpent. Never mind that these experienced seamen had most likely seen elephant seals before. But the Sea-Serpent Killer had spoken, and M’Quhae’s angry rejection of the assertion did little to slow the groundswell of skepticism. In the wake of Owen’s challenge to the veracity of the sighting, more attention was paid to the account of the incident recorded by M’Quhae’s First Lieutenant, Drummond, whose version of the event differed in some key regards. It indicates that, while the captain insisted he had seen a tail, Drummond could only see a fin, and rather than passing as close as the captain says, Drummond estimates it was about a hundred yards away and could only be seen with the naked eye for five minutes, after which they had to watch it with a spyglass. Add to this Drummond’s report that the weather was “dark and squally” and you have plenty of good reason to doubt the testimony of the captain of the Daedalus, who, it should be noted, first estimated the creature’s length to be 120 feet before conferring with others on his crew and emending his estimation to half that. And at least one researcher, friend of the show Mike Dash, has actually cast some doubts upon the supposedly unimpeachable character of the chief witness, Captain Peter M’Quhae, pointing out that M’Quhae had only been offered two commands in the several decades since he became a commander, suggesting he was not necessarily the best example of a Royal Navy Captain, with all the assumptions about intellect and keen perception that go with it. 

Another depiction of the Daedalus serpent encounter, via  Wikimedia Commons

Another depiction of the Daedalus serpent encounter, via Wikimedia Commons

All of this chipping away at the façade of reliability of the Daedalus encounter may lead one to disregard it entirely and wonder why anyone ever took it seriously, but then one must understand that the story appeared in newspapers with astonishing illustrations created in collaboration with the witnesses themselves. Then, for every expert expressing his doubt in the papers, there followed another convincing report of further sea serpent encounters. A couple months later a report appeared relating the story of an American brig, the Daphne, having encountered a similar serpent in September, only a little more than a month after the Daedalus had had its encounter, and in the same waters off the African coast. With the dragon-like only 40 feet away, the Daphne aimed cannons charged with nails and sundry pieces of iron at it and fired, causing the monster to rear its head and thrash in the waters before diving and fleeing. Then on New Year’s Eve of the same year, witnesses aboard H.M.S. Plumper, near Oporto off the Portuguese Coast, saw another serpent, and like the creature reported by the crew of the Daedalus, this one too appeared to have a mane. However, as the skepticism of the learned became well-known and began to spread, sea serpent sightings fell off and almost ceased, a fact that many have suggested proves there never were any serpents to begin with. One more did occur a decade later that is worth mentioning, though, due to it finally sinking the Daedalus tale once and for all. Sailing near the Cape of Good Hope, just as the Daedalus had been, one Captain Smith spotted a sea serpent from the deck of his ship, the Pekin. Fearlessly, he commanded his crew to draw nearer to this primordial beast of the deep, and as they approached, he caught a better look at it. It was nothing but a large mass of seaweed, out of it sprouting a root that resembled a neck and head. This, of course, made the Daedalus encounter something of a joke, prompting an anonymous member of her crew to write a furious letter to the Times insisting that what they had seen was a living creature swimming rapidly, with a surge of water under its chest, but the damage had been done, first by Owen, then by others. Theories about what M”Quhae and his crew saw are many and various. It was either a seal, or an oarfish, or some kind of shark or whale, or it was some floating seaweed or a log, or perhaps even a whaler’s abandoned canoe being pulled by something he had harpooned, but it was not, could not be, a sea serpent.

In the modern age of the Internet and fascination with the paranormal and cryptozoological, interest in the Great Sea Serpent has seen a resurgence, but we have also seen the development of yet further simple and skeptical explanations of what these supposed sea monsters really might have been. In the 1990s, friend of the show Mike Dash uncovered an alternate illustration of the Daedalus serpent drawn according to First Lieutenant Drummond’s directions, and this alternative picture, which does not show a serpentine head raised far above the water, had led some to suggest that the crew saw a sei whale, a kind of rorqual whale, skimming the surface. A comparison of pictures makes a convincing case, but there remain some elements that preserve doubt, such as there being no mention of the creature blowing like a whale and the fact that the sei whale’s fin should have been more prominent. Then there is the New England Serpent. Judging from the strange descriptions of the Gloucester Serpent as having humps or segments like barrels and the description that it moved rather more like a caterpillar than a serpent—surging forward and then gathering its segments before surging again—a compelling theory has been suggested that it was a whale dragging a great deal of netting and barrels from an attempt by whalers to kill it. So rather than its body contracting and expanding, what mariners saw was its burden being pulled behind it and gathering when its momentum ceased. Again, a compelling explanation, but one that fails to account for descriptions of the creature’s large eyes and flicking, snakelike tongue. In the end, it is easy for a doubter to cherry pick certain details to fit a debunking explanation and ignore others. And we see skeptics bend over backwards sometimes to get their theories to work, saying perhaps the whale seen by the Daedalus was injured or deformed so that its fin was not so prominent, or perhaps among the barrels being dragged by the whale mistaken for a serpent in Gloucester Bay there was one pile of kegs that resembled a raised neck and snakelike head. These contortions can sometimes seem just as ridiculous as the alternative belief, that primordial, perhaps dinosaurian creatures, survivors of the massive extinction event that wiped out most other animals like them, still roam about in the seas, hidden beneath the surface for the most part, until they rear their controversial heads and cast our notions of natural history into chaos and confusion.

The much less sensational sketch of Lieutenant Drummond’s recollection of the creature, via the  Skeptical Inquirer

The much less sensational sketch of Lieutenant Drummond’s recollection of the creature, via the Skeptical Inquirer

Further Reading

Colavito, Jason. “A Yale Professor’s ‘Lecture’ on Giants in the Time of the Great Sea Serpent Fraud.” JasonColavito.com, 20 May 2015, www.jasoncolavito.com/blog/a-yale-professors-lecture-on-giants-in-the-time-of-the-great-sea-serpent-fraud.

Erickson, Evarts. “When New England Saw the Serpent.” American Heritage, vol. 7, no. 3, April 1956, www.americanheritage.com/when-new-england-saw-serpent.

Fama, Elizabeth. “Debunking a Great New England Sea Serpent.” Tor.com, Macmillan, 16 Aug. 2012, www.tor.com/2012/08/16/debunking-a-great-new-england-sea-serpent/.

Galbreath, Gary J. “The 1848 ‘Enormous Serpent’ of the Daedalus Identified.” Skeptical Inquirer, vol. 39, no. 5, September/October 2015, skepticalinquirer.org/2015/09/the_1848_enormous_serpent_of_the_daedalus_identified/.

Harris, Gordon. “The Cape Ann Serpent.” Historic Ipswich, historicipswich.org/2019/03/26/cape-ann-sea-serpent/.

“How to Unmake a Sea Serpent: The Case of the Scoliophis Atlanticus.” Esoterx, 29 March 2014, esoterx.com/2014/03/29/how-to-unmake-a-sea-serpent-the-case-of-the-scoliophis-atlanticus/.

McGowan-Hartmann, John. “Shadow of the Dragon: The Convergence of Myth and Science in Nineteenth Century Paleontological Imagery.” Journal of Social History, vol. 47, no. 1, 2013, pp. 47–70. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/43306045.

Willis, Matthew. “Where Be Monsters? The Daedalus Sea Serpent and the War for Credibility.” The Appendix, 5 June 2014, theappendix.net/issues/2014/4/where-be-monsters-daedalus-sea-serpent-and-war-for-credibility.

Leviathan, The Great Sea Serpent, Part One: Here Be Dragons

Destruction_of_Leviathan.jpg

On the last episode, I discussed our knowledge of the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event, which destroyed something like 75% of all life on the planet. Whether this was the result of widespread volcanic eruption or asteroid impacts or both, there is consensus, based on the fossil record, that most of Earth’s life forms died off at the time. Everyone knows about the extinction of the dinosaurs, but there were many other species destroyed in the same extinction event, from mammals to invertebrates and even single-celled creatures and plant life. But of course, we also know that some life survived that extinction event. If this were not the case, then we humans and other animals would not be around to proliferate and dominate the planet. So then, how do we know that some dinosaurs did not themselves survive extinction? Considering the myths and legends of antiquity and the Middle Ages, one might be tempted to see in tales of dragons proof that some great saurian monsters survived, not just into further prehistoric eras, but even into historical eras, their encounters with men recorded for posterity.  For where did the notion of dragons originate, if not derived from those gargantuan reptiles? Some historians have suggested that ancient peoples must have discovered dinosaur fossils and thus extrapolated legends of dragons (Stothers 221). Certainly the concept of dragons colored our imagery of dinosaurs in the 19th century. Indeed, much of the early writing about the ichthyosaur and plesiosaur named them “sea-dragons,” and even the staunchest opponent of mythologizing the dinosaurs, the originator of scientific dinosaur taxonomy, Richard Owen, conceded to calling the pterodactyl a “dragon” (McGowan-Hartmann 54-55). This comparison may have even influenced our conception of dinosaur physiology, as only recently have we begun to question the portrait of giant, scaled beasts, believing them instead to have often been feathered creatures. There is, however, no convincing evidence for the reverse notion, that such fossils created our myths of dragons and other monstrous reptilian beasts. Another view holds that the notion of such monsters entered human culture simple because of encounters with known creatures, like large crocodiles and pythons, but this also doubtful, for considering the great size attributed to them, not to mention their other preternatural attributes, these would have to be inordinately exaggerated tales to establish such myths and legends. Is it not easier to believe, then, that some dinosaurian species could have survived the extinction event that destroyed others, and that perhaps they lived and procreated long enough to have encounters with mankind before going extinct in some later era? Certainly not, you’d say, or the fossil record would surely demonstrate their continued existence in later periods. A nearly unimpeachable argument, to be sure. But what if the evidentiary remains of these few surviving creatures have simply not been discovered yet, and could this be because they dwelt in the most remote places on earth, the deepest and darkest of habitats, the ocean depths? If so, could it possibly be that some have survived even to this day? (Please join me next time for) Thank you for listening to Leviathan; or the Great Sea Serpent, Part One: Here Be Dragons.

Despite the speculation that dinosaur fossils may have been stumbled upon in antiquity and recognized as the remains of enormous reptiles, the knowledge of such creatures appears to have originated in the late 17th century, when in 1677 English naturalist Robert Plot discovered a massive petrified femur. Plot’s assumption that it was the bone of a gargantuan man might serve as an example of what discoverers of fossil remains in antiquity may have assumed upon finding large bones. Likewise, when the Lewis & Clark expedition found a large bone in a Cliffside in 1806, Meriwether Lewis believed it to have belonged to a great fish.  It was not until the 1820s and ‘30s and the discovery of further fossilized bones in England that the classification of the dinosaur began with the description of the Megalosaurus in 1824. The vocabulary we know today would come into use in 1841, when the aforementioned Richard Owen coined the term dinosaur, a Greek portmanteau of “terrible” and “lizard.” Still, however, the notion of dinosaurs did not take hold of the public imagination. It had much to overcome, not the least of which was the resistance of a religious establishment that had decided in the 17th century that the Earth had been created in 4004 B.C., on October 23rd at 9 a.m. to be as precise as the Archbishop on whose calculations they relied. Therefore, the entire notion of vast primordial ages, proven by the fossil record of extinct creatures, challenged their entire worldview (McGowan-Hartmann 52). Another hurdle that early paleontologists faced was the very conception of dinosaurs; it was one thing to read about the bones and to hear the descriptions of the creatures, but another entirely to see them and conceive of them as they might have been in life. Richard Owen overcame this obstacle in 1854, when he opened a display of life-size dinosaur statues at Crystal Palace, in Sydenham, London. He called it the “first public ‘revivifying’ of the dinosaur,” and the display may be responsible with Western culture’s obsession with dinosaurs ever since (qtd. in McGowan-Hartmann 53). But of course, as previously indicated, even the scientifically-minded Owen resorted to evoking the image of ancient dragons at Crystal Palace in order to help the viewing public to conceive of the creatures as he conceived of them.

Owen’s dinosaur statues under construction, via  Wikimedia Commons

Owen’s dinosaur statues under construction, via Wikimedia Commons

It is perhaps, however, a strange supposition to think that people would have had a hard time imagining such beasts without statues and directions to think of them as dragonlike. It would seem mid-nineteenth century Englishmen and women would have been easily able to conceive of giant reptilian monsters, for there had been unsettling news in the press for decades, complete with illustrations, of colossal sea serpents spotted all over the world. Visitors to Owen’s exhibition surely had heard of the so-called Great Sea Serpent, a fantastical hypothesized marine creature that had come to worldwide attention over the course of a spate of sightings in New England in 1817 and had been witnessed in various parts of the world’s oceans ever since, from the coasts of Norway to the waters of Nova Scotia and all the way down to the south Atlantic Ocean, where in 1848 the crew of the H.M.S. Daedalus experienced one of the most publicized and compelling encounters with an unidentified sea creature that has ever been recorded. The irony is that the father of the dinosaurs, Richard Owen, had taken umbrage at the attention these sightings had drawn, especially that of the Daedalus, for he saw the public’s fascination with them and the credulous acceptance of them as unscientific (McGowan-Hartmann 51). He had dedicated his life to the painstaking study of the fossil record and anatomical science, and here were some squinting sailors and hucksters come around to tell the world that one of the principal tenets of paleontology, that the monstrous primordial creatures he studied had all gone extinct, was false. To Owen, this represented a backsliding into pre-Enlightenment superstition, when rather than simply marking unknown areas of maps as terra incognita, cartographers would write hic sunt dracones, or “here be dragons,” and would populate the blank spaces of their maps with fanciful illustrations of monsters, and scholars would compile lists of preposterous phenomena, as in Konrad Lykosthenes’s 1557 Prodigiorum ac ostentorum chronicon, or Chronicle of Prodigies and Portents, which featured more than a thousand woodcuts of strange spectacles, including numerous sea monsters. Indeed, Richard Owen’s vocal criticism of the validity of sea serpent sightings and the credibility of their witnesses had earned him the nickname “the sea-serpent killer.” Thus it is exceedingly ironic that even he would have recourse to comparing dinosaurs to dragons in his strictly scientific exhibition. The underlying truth this fact may suggest is that, even disregarding the rampant sea serpent sightings of the 19th century—all of which, rest assured, we will examine or review, with varying detail, in this series before we conclude—and notwithstanding the rich lore of dragons and sea monsters originating before the Age of Enlightenment, in the Age of Discovery and the Middle Ages, notions of huge reptilian and serpentine beasts have been embedded in human consciousness across cultures, far back into antiquity and beyond, to the very foundations of myth.

Even in the furthest reaches of human civilization, we have traditions of gods or great heroes who did battle with serpentine monsters associated with the ocean. Consider, for example, the Mesopotamian myth of Marduk and Tiamat, the mother of monsters and dragons. The hero-god Marduk faced her on the battlefield, loosing an arrow into her open jaws and splitting her heart in two. Although some scholars dispute her general appearance, as portrayed by Babylonians, it is generally accepted she took a snake-like form, and she is clearly associated with the salt waters and was of so immense a size that Marduk was able to form all of heaven and earth out of her corpse, so one might justly consider her the first Great Sea Serpent. The idea of all creation being made possible by the heroic defeat of a sea monster or god appears across cultures. Canaanites held that Baal defeated Yam to create the world, and likewise, Yahweh, god of the Israelites, struggled against a sea monster, or monsters, at the time of creation. In various places in the Bible, we find reference to Rahab, the “boisterous” sea serpent, Tannim, variously translated as sea monster or dragon, and of course, Leviathan, the “twisting serpent” of Isaiah, the Psalms, and Job ( qtd. in Papadopoulos and Ruscillo 214). While it is unclear whether these were single or separate serpents, their role is the same. By defeating them, Yahweh establishes order out of the chaos of the waters. The creature is also presented as proof of the power of Yahweh, for in Job, the question is posed whether a mere man could hope to catch Leviathan with a fishhook. And funny enough, that is exactly what is done in Norse mythology, though not by a mere man, when the god Thor undertakes an ambitious fishing trip, hoping to land the World Serpent, Jormungandr. Baiting his hook with a giant ox’s head and hooking the beast, Thor thrusts his feet through the bottom of his boat and into the floor of the sea, hauling the serpent up to look it in the eye. The serpent got away that day, but it was foretold that Thor would face it again during the final struggle of Ragnarok. Thor sought out the World Serpent for vengeance, but often we find in these sea serpent myths the hero, perhaps not a god but at least a demigod, facing the beast in an effort to save a damsel. Greek mythology provides more than one example of this, with Heracles saving Hesione from a sea monster, and likewise Perseus rescuing Andromeda, both women having been chained to rocks as sacrifices to appease the god Poseidon, who had sent the monsters to devastate their kingdoms. Now, I am no Alexander Hislop; I do not suggest that these similarities mean these are but different names for the same figure, or that these myths represent retellings of one real encounter between an ancient hero and a primordial monster, but is it not possible that this sea-monster motif in ancient mythology suggests some inherited human knowledge of gigantic, sea-dwelling reptiles? Or did these remarkably dinosaurian creatures spring fully formed from human imagination? 

Thor facing Jormungandr, via  Wikimedia Commons

Thor facing Jormungandr, via Wikimedia Commons

It is interesting that the customary explanations relied on to dismiss later sea serpent encounters—usually that they were actually encounters with creatures that we can easily identify today—are also used to explain away old myths such as these. For example, the Leviathan of Job is simply a crocodile, some claim, even though descriptions have it breathing fire or rearing seven heads, or it was just a whale (Papadopoulos and Ruscillo 214). This one, of course, is a perennial favorite, as the sheer size of whales, and the fact that only part of them could be glimpsed in the water surely could have meant they were the source of some supposed sea monster sightings. Leviathan is also sometimes conflated with the creature that swallowed Jonah in the Bible, and this creature has clearly been assumed to have been a whale, although the Hebrew calls it rather vaguely a “big sea creature.” Then there is the sea monster of Greek mythology, the so-called “cetus” that Poseidon sent against man. It is often pointed out that this is the same word from which the word “cetacean” is derived,  which is our scientific classification for marine mammals like whales. Indeed, the word “cetus,” or more accurately “ketos” (κῆτος) before its Latinization, appears to have been used in ancient Greece to mean both a whale and a sea monster or sea serpent. But to suggest that ancient Greeks held some misconception of the nature of the whales that populated the Mediterranean would be inaccurate. Among other sea creatures, whales in particular presented themselves for easy anatomical study, for they beached themselves and died, or expanded with methane when dying at sea and floated to shore to continue decomposing (Papadopoulos and Ruscillo 198). The bones of whales have been recovered as ancient Greek artifacts, used to make objects like tables (Papadopoulos and Ruscillo 197). And Greek and Roman philosophers and naturalists such Aristotle and Pliny make their knowledge of whales clear. Aristotle, for example, notes they “have no gills but a blowhole instead” and lacking teeth, they “have instead hairs similar to pigs’ bristles,” a clear description of baleen plates (qtd. in Papadopoulos and Ruscillo 210, 212).

Rather than convince us that the “cetus” of legend was not a whale, perhaps their knowledge of whales might cement the notion that the word was always only used to refer to whales. And it should be pointed out that in the Bible, Jonah boarded his ship in Jaffa, and that was the same place where it was said Andromeda had been chained in offering to the monstrous Cetus. (Papadopoulos and Ruscillo 213). So perhaps both of these encounters were, after all, with a whale, although chaining up a human sacrifice for a whale seems rather ridiculous, given what we know of whales. And other descriptions of the monstrous Cetus make its differences from a whale starkly clear. When Virgil uses the term to refer to the sea serpents that attack Laocoön and his sons, he describes them as “rearing in coils…their bodies thrashing, backs rolling in coil on mammoth coil… flickering tongues licking their hissing maws.” Now of course, this creature was a poetic invention, as was the Marcus Manilius description of the Cetus that attacked Andromeda at Jaffa. But in much the same way, Manilius describes it as coiled, with scales and jaws (Papadopoulos and Ruscillo 212). At least one scholar, Kathleen Coleman, has attempted to see a description of a whale in Manilius’s portrait, but one would be hard-pressed to see in these descriptions anything but the monstrous sea serpent of legend. And although not witness accounts, they certainly go to show that ancient Greeks were not only thinking of whales when using the word “cetus” or “ketos.” A couple final examples to illustrate this come to us from Pliny, who recorded the discovery of more than one huge sea monster whose remains had washed ashore. On the coasts of an island near Lyon, he describes the tide leaving hundreds of monsters of incredible size stranded. Another, on the coast of Spain, was said to have more than a hundred teeth as long as nine inches, and yet another, on the eastern side of Mediterranean, again near Jaffa, was more than forty feet long, with a spine one and a half feet thick and ribs taller than any elephant. One might argue that these could very well have been the remains of whales, but considering the Greeks’ known familiarity with whales, it is then unusual that the bones of the latter creature were thereafter taken to Rome and placed on display as the very sea monster that had attacked Andromeda at Jaffa so many years before (Papadopolous and Ruscillo 213). 

Andromeda and the sea monster, via  Wikimedia Commons

Andromeda and the sea monster, via Wikimedia Commons

With the discovery of physical remains, one sees that antiquity offers more than just poetic renderings of mythical sea creatures. And beyond reports of remains, which one could argue might be misidentified, there are records of eyewitness encounters with monsters that dwell in the deep.  One incident, recorded by Orosius but likely derived from a lost history by Livy, occurred in the Bagradas, a river near Carthage in northern Africa that spills directly into the Mediterranean Sea. A Roman commander had his troops encamp beside the river, and when they went to fetch water, a huge reptile, some 120 feet long, poisoned and devoured numerous men, and the soldiers’ javelins glanced harmlessly off of its thick scales (Stothers 223). The report goes into singular detail, indicating that the creature had no feet and describing its motion as that of a serpent or snake, “by a sinuous movement, extending its sides first right and then left.” Eventually, the Roman soldiers defeated the serpent by flinging a boulder on it with a ballista, and its viscera were said to poison the water (Stothers 224). They carried this creature’s skin and jaws back with them to Rome for all to wonder at. Aristotle indirectly corroborates this incident on the Bagradas River when he describes massive serpents overturning fleets of boats in the sea off the North African coast (Stothers 226). Meanwhile, Pliny the Elder mentions large snakes swimming in the Red Sea and Livy describes massive snakes leaping out of the water in the seas south of Rome (Stothers 228, 232). Now all of these encounters might be explained by suggesting they were exaggerated accounts of encounters with prosaic beasts. The leaping snakes seen from Rome may have actually been the backs of dolphins, and others may have been genuine sea snakes of large size. The Bagradas beast, often supposed to be a crocodile, does not seem as easily explained away, though, for its sinuous, serpentine movements would not suggest those of a crocodile, and even if its reported length of 120 feet were inaccurate, it must have been miraculously large to warrant the display of its remains as an “object of wonder” for more than a hundred years (Stothers 224). Nor was the Bagradas beast alone in its mythic proportions. Around 75 BCE, Posidonius described the corpse of a sea monster a hundred feet long and its jaws 7 feet wide. Describing the same creature, Strabo noted that its jaws were large enough when gaping for a man on horseback to enter it, that each of its scales was 4 feet long, the size of a shield, and men mounted on horseback on either side of it could not see each other (Stothers 232). These descriptions were not of bones but of fresh creatures with the scales of their flesh intact, and so, considering the knowledge of whales that we know ancient mariners and coastal dwellers had, it seems unlikely they would have mistaken a beached whale for a scaled monster. And we have reports of similarly massive sea creatures when they were still alive, as when Aelian shares the reports of mariners who have seen the so-called Scolopendra, a creature that was supposed to be able to lift its head above the water as it swam, the entirety of its body visible on the surface, with what appeared to be thousands of tiny feet or flippers propelling it like oars protruding from a galley. We have reports of the remains of these Scolopendra from Theodoridas and Antipater (Stothers 233). To explain them, scholars have suggested, again, they were merely whales, and the feet must have simply been an illusion caused by ripples, or perhaps suckerfish attached all in a row to the whale’s side, and I suppose attached in this way also to every whale mistaken for a Scolopendra by experienced sailors who had likely seen whales before. Another theory goes that the Scolopendra may have not been a whale at all, but rather a giant squid, a creature whose own existences was for so long doubted, and its sightings explained away. 

As the sea serpent enters medieval lore, it is difficult to separate myth inspired by Greek and Roman poets from genuine sightings. One example of the fanciful legends coming out of medieval Europe would be that of King Olaf II of Norway who was said to have slain an “orm” or sea serpent and thrown it onto a cliff side, where its shape could still be discerned. And as we leave the Middle Ages with their tales of dragons and dragon slayers behind and enter the Age of Exploration, we continue to find Norway, with its storied Sea Orm, to be a hotbed for sea serpent sightings. In the mid-16th century, historian and cartographer Olaus Magnus did much to make this Great Norway Serpent famous. A Catholic priest exiled from Sweden after its conversion to Lutheranism, Magnus started drawing up his Carta Marina, or Sea Map, in 1527. By 1539, it was the biggest and most detailed and accurate map of any European region, and scattered across it were illustrations of a variety of sea monsters. These were no decorative dragons set down merely to fill empty space, though, as had been the practice among mapmakers previously, but rather depictions of sea monsters that sailors had actually reported seeing, whose eyewitness accounts were collected in Magnus’s History of the Northern People to accompany the map. The most fantastic of those shown on the map is coiled about a ship’s mast and striking with bared fangs at a sailor on the ship’s deck. This sea serpent had been reported by numerous fishermen and trade navigators that plied the waters around Norway’s coasts. It was between 200 and 300 feet long, and 20 feet thick, living in caves and feeding on livestock that strayed too close to the shore. The beast was black, they said, with shining eyes that seemed to gleam like fire. Covered with scales, it swam about with its head held high out of the water, a mane of hair glistening on the back of its neck, and sailors knew not to watch it from the decks of their ships, lest it draw near and snap them up. Magnus’s sea serpent stories spread from there into early zoological texts, like Sebastian Münster’s 1544 chart of marine and terrestrial monsters, Conrad Gesner’s 1558 Historiae Animalium, Edward Topsell’s 1608 History of Serpents, and on they went, from the 17th to the 18th century, when more modern sightings began to shape the notion of the Great Sea Serpent with which Richard Owens would do intellectual battle.

Olaus Magnus’s  Carta Marina , via  Wikimedia Commons

Olaus Magnus’s Carta Marina, via Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps the first of these modern sightings, again in Norway, was that of missionary Hans Egede in 1734, who saw a monster emerge from the water, raising its head “as high as the Mast-Head.” Its body he said was as big as the ship that carried him, and it “spouted like a Whale-Fish” before falling backward and raising its tail. Now to the modern reader, it is easy to dismiss this as a breaching whale, despite the fact that Egede’s own words indicate some familiarity with whales. But Egede also described its skin as “rugged and uneven” and “covered in Shell work” (McGowan-Hartmann 50). This scale-like quality to the skin might be explained away with the presence of excessive barnacles on the whale, one may suppose, but this was not the only sighting in Norwegian waters in those years, for a Captain Lawrence de Ferry would report seeing another serpent, or “Sea-snake,” as he called it, near Bergen in 1746, and he and his fellow sailors would describe it under oath in a deposition. The creature passed them, and they brought the ship about to draw nearer to it, firing a gun at it until it disappeared into the bloody water. This serpent, they said, held its very horse-like head with its long white mane two feet above the water, and behind its neck, they spied as many as eight coils of its thick body, with about a fathom, or six feet, between each, making it at least 50 feet long. If this is the creature Egede saw—for he also described its head as “oblong,” like a horse’s—then it sounds less and less like a whale. As sightings like these were spread in those years, in works like Bishop Erich Pontoppidan’s 1753 Natural History of Norway, or John Jonston’s 1767 Natural History of Fishes, they were sometimes treated as genuine and sometimes relayed with skepticism, and the scholarly practice of suggesting that the sailors had just seen some other readily identifiable animal began. Despite the fact that often sailors were far more likely to have seen firsthand and be able to discern such creatures than the writers who doubted their faculties, their sea serpent sightings were blamed in the nineteenth century on not only whales and squids, but on sharks, seals, sea lions, porpoises, eels, oarfish, and simple logs and seaweed. But while this scientific skepticism became almost zealous, an atmosphere that Richard Owens, father of the dinosaur, would do much to establish and perpetuate, the seemingly credible sightings of sea serpents seemed to multiply, almost as if to spite their doubts.   

*

Join me next time for Part Two of Leviathan, the Great Sea Serpent, as we enter the chaos waters of sea monster sightings in the modern era and try to come to some conclusion as to the believability of all these big fish stories. 

A depiction of the sea serpent reported by Hans Egede, via  Wikimedia Commons

A depiction of the sea serpent reported by Hans Egede, via Wikimedia Commons

Further Reading

McGowan-Hartmann, John. “Shadow of the Dragon: The Convergence of Myth and Science in Nineteenth Century Paleontological Imagery.” Journal of Social History, vol. 47, no. 1, 2013, pp. 47–70. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/43306045.

Nigg, Joseph. Olaus Magnus’s Sea Serpent.” The Public Domain Review, publicdomainreview.org/2014/02/05/olaus-magnuss-sea-serpent/

Papadopoulos, John K., and Deborah Ruscillo. “A Ketos in Early Athens: An Archaeology of Whales and Sea Monsters in the Greek World.” American Journal of Archaeology, vol. 106, no. 2, 2002, pp. 187–227. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4126243.

Stothers, Richard B. “Ancient Scientific Basis of the ‘Great Serpent’ from Historical Evidence.” Isis, vol. 95, no. 2, 2004, pp. 220–238. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/426195.

Blind Spot: The Great Dying and the Chicxulub Crater

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For a very long time, there has been consensus among paleontologists that a mass extinction event, sometimes called The Great Dying, occurred around the boundary between the Cretaceous and the Paleogene or Tertiary periods, a boundary also marking the end of the Mesozoic era and the beginning of the Cenozoic, about 65.5 million years ago. The fossil record stands as clear evidence of a mass extinction around that time, with the fossil remains of dinosaurs being the best known and most illustrative examples of species extinction during that period. However, scientists have not always been in consensus regarding just what caused this mass extinction. Some have theorized that gradual climate change may have made the planet uninhabitable for them, or volcanic activity, or falling sea levels. The idea that an asteroid impacted the earth was something of an outlier, considered dubious by many, for it seemed so very unlikely that in the vast, howling void of space a meteor or a comet would be on just the right trajectory to collide with our pulsing globe of life, let alone that its impact could have such a massive destructive effect on species the world over. But two physicists out of Berkeley, Luis and Walter Alvarez, would change this notion forever, and through the scientific detective work of various disparate specialists and investigators, evidence supporting the Alvarez Hypothesis would eventually convince the world that some massive impact resulted in the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction. But is this known with any certainty, and what doubts or alternative theories persist, making the cause of the extinction of the dinosaurs a prehistoric blind spot?

In 1977, a young geologist named Walter Alvarez was collecting limestone samples in a little Italian village called Gubbio. What he discovered was that between two layers of limestone marking the Cretaceous-Peleogene boundary, a thin layer of red clay was present. In the Cretaceous layer below, there were a great variety of different species of tiny, fossilized marine creatures called “foram,” while in the red clay there were none. Then in the Paleogene layer above, there remained only one species of foram. Returning to Berkeley with his samples, Walter consulted his father, Nobel Prize winning physicist Luis Alvarez, an impressive man with a storied career that included designing the detonator of the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, inventing a radar system commonly used by air traffic controllers, discovering an isotope, and pioneering the use of bubble chambers in particle physics and cosmic ray detection for the purposes of searching for hidden chambers in Egyptian pyramids. Luis Alvarez suggested using neutron activation analysis on the Gubbio samples to determine the length of time it took for the red clay layer to form, but to their surprise, the most interesting thing this analysis turned up was the immense quantity of iridium in the clay. Of course, as we know from the scientific study of the Tunguska Event, iridium is an element common in asteroids and other extraterrestrial objects, but not typically present in the crust of the Earth. With further discoveries of this anomaly at other sites, such as New Zealand and Denmark, evidence mounted that some extraterrestrial material had been dispersed across the world at the end of the Mesozoic Era, just when the mass extinction was known to have occurred. And what’s more, beyond iridium and some other elements, the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary layer contained a great deal of soot, indicating some kind of mass conflagration.

Luis Alvarez winning the Nobel Prize, via  Wikimedia Commons

Luis Alvarez winning the Nobel Prize, via Wikimedia Commons

As the Alvarez Hypothesis took shape and gained momentum, a terrifying vision of apocalyptic doom began to form. The idea of an asteroid striking the Earth and causing a tsunami was comprehensible, but that would not account for global devastation of species far inland. But Luis Alvarez’s experience with nuclear explosions gave him some insight, for he know that a blast of great magnitude would throw an immense amount of dust into the stratosphere, theorizing that it could possibly blot out the sun for years, which would result in plummeting temperatures and the death of plant life and thereafter of most animal life. And based on the iridium levels they had observed, Alvarez inferred that the asteroid must have been massive indeed, at 300 billion tons, and thus its impact would have resulted in an explosion equivalent to 100 billion megatons of TNT. In one second, this world killer would have torn a hole in our atmosphere, superheating to hotter than the surface of the sun, and when it struck, it would have thrown matter half way to the moon, much of which would have come falling back down as separate meteor strikes. The blast wave would have utterly destroyed all life for a few hundred miles, and creatures beyond that radius faced fires, earthquakes, landslides, and acid rain as the skies filled with dark clouds far worse than any of the so-called Dark Days I discussed in the latest patron-exclusive Blindside episode. These were dark months, perhaps even benighted for as long as a year as dust clouds filled the atmosphere. 70-75 percent of all life would have died as photosynthesis failed, starving herbivores and thereby reducing the food supply of carnivores. The Alvarez Hypothesis was not only horrifying, it had geological evidence to support it, but it remained largely contested by those who subscribed to the theory that the extinction was precipitated by massive volcanic activity in the Deccan Traps region of India. They and others challenged the Alvarez Hypothesis, refusing to believe in an impact with no crater as proof.

One of the first craters studied as possible proof of the asteroid impact theory was located in Manson, Iowa. This was one of the largest craters ever discovered on the planet at 22 miles in diameter. But Luis Alvarez had estimated the crater of their world killer would have to be more than a hundred miles across. Moreover, new evidence had appeared in Haiti, where Florentin Maurrasse of Florida International University discovered an even thicker layer of iridium. When Glen Izett of the U.S. Geological Survey examined samples from the Haitian layer, he found tektites, little pieces of glass naturally created by meteorite impacts. Drill samples from the Manson, Iowa, crater were then compared with the Haitian tektites, settling once and for all through chemical analysis that the Manson impact could not have been the culprit. And this further narrowed the search field, for those who had examined the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary sediments at Haiti and the tektite glass therein, including a graduate student named Alan Hildebrand, agreed that the impact site must have been close by, somewhere in the Caribbean. Little did Hildebrand and others searching for the crater realize that their crater had already been found. Leave it to a newspaperman to make that connection. In 1981, Carlos Byars, writing for the Houston Chronicle, suggested that a ring formation recently surveyed on the Yucatan Peninsula was not a volcano as previously believed, but may in fact have been an impact crater. When Byars contacted Alan Hildebrand and shared the idea, Hildebrand followed up, reaching out to the geophysicists who had been studying the formation, not realizing he was about to enter the final chapter of a story that had been unfolding for decades.

Example of tektite glass, via  Wikimedia Commons , licensed under the  Creative Commons   Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported ,  Attribution: I,    Brocken Inaglory

Example of tektite glass, via Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, Attribution: I, Brocken Inaglory

In 1947, PEMEX, the national Mexican oil company, performed a gravity survey of the Yucatan peninsula in search of fossil fuel deposits, and they picked up a semicircular formation that looked promising. However, when they drilled the area in the 1950s, they came up empty handed. Drilling near the pueblo of Chicxulub, a village whose name meant “the devil’s tail” in Mayan, they turned up no oil, but rather some odd samples of volcanic rock. Being that there were no known volcanoes in the region, it was theorized that the circular formations their survey had perceived were from a long extinct and buried volcano. More than a decade later, after capping their failed wellheads, PEMEX contracted Robert Baltosser to reconsider their gravity survey data, and Baltosser was the first to recognize the presence of an ancient crater, as he had previously surveyed a crater site in Tennessee. So the discovery was made, but Baltosser had signed a confidentiality agreement, and PEMEX was not in the business of publicizing data that might prove to be valuable. Thus the existence of the massive crater remained a secret.

In 1978, Glen Penfield, another contractor, was mapping magnetic fields for PEMEX using survey flights over the sea off the Yucatan coast. He discovered a magnetic anomaly and mapped out a huge semicircular ridge beneath the water, and when he compared it with the company’s old gravity map, he found to his astonishment that they matched, forming a perfect circle. He realized he had made a momentous discovery, but like Baltosser before him, he was bound by his agreement with PEMEX not to publish his findings. However, he knew that a journalist learning of the discovery would certainly be able to publish. So Penfield arranged for a reporter acquaintance, Carlos Byars of the Houston Chronicle, to be present at a meeting of the Society of Exploration Geophysicists when he and his colleague would be presenting a report of their findings. The plan worked; Byars published the story and thereafter put Penfield in touch with Hildebrand, the grad student who was becoming a major player in the search for the impact site that would prove the Alvarez Hypothesis.

In 1990, Hildebrand and Penfield began their joint search for evidence that could prove not only the existence of the Chicxulub crater but also its responsibility for the Great Dying. Evidence, however, would not be easy to come by. The data Penfield had turned over to PEMEX had gone through a normalization process that erased some of the magnetic anomalies that had been telltale signs of an extraterrestrial impact. Those anomalies remained on the original data records, but those tapes had been lost somehow. The only evidence of what Penfield had observed beneath the sea off of the Yucatan Peninsula now lay filed away somewhere at PEMEX headquarters, under lock and key, and PEMEX, already resentful that Penfield had spoken about his findings at a meeting of geophysicists, was not inclined to share them. So they went in search of the drill samples that had been taken in the ‘50s, which they discovered had been stored in a warehouse in Veracruz. Unfortunately, that warehouse had burned down, and when he arrived to sift through the ashes, he found that it had been bulldozed. Penfield’s only hope then was to search the towns were PEMEX’s failed wellheads had been capped, and eventually, he found that several of the core samples had been taken and distributed for study. Upon examining the melted sedimentary rock that many had previously believed to be the result of volcanism, they discovered the presence of “shocked quartz,” which is only ever formed at impact sites. Thus the Chicxulub formations were proven to be an impact crater, and further study has only further proven the crater’s existence. At 110 miles in diameter, it was the likeliest suspect to prove the Alvarez Hypothesis, which today is supported by the majority of the scientific community.

Gravity map of the Chicxulub Crater, via  Wikimedia Commons

Gravity map of the Chicxulub Crater, via Wikimedia Commons

Scientific consensus does not make for scientific certainty, however, nor for objective truth. There had been many ridiculous hypotheses before the Alvarez Hypothesis—namely that dinosaurs had died off because of how very stupid they were, because they had eaten too much or eaten the wrong things and poisoned themselves, or because they had failed to procreate or just wasted away from some kind of primeval ennui—but like the dinosaurs, most of these theories died off with the coming of the asteroid theory. However, one old hypothesis has persisted. Some scientists still point to the Deccan Trap volcanic eruptions as the culprit. All four of the major extinction events before the Great Dying had been as a result of volcanic activity releasing carbon dioxide and sulphur into the atmosphere. This is generally agreed upon. And much evidence indicates that the fifth extinction event, at the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary, coincided with the voluminous eruption of one of the largest volcanos on Earth in the Deccan Traps. It seems absurd to suggest that this volcanism had nothing to do with it, for certainly, if both were occurring, then both probably contributed to the poisoning of the world’s air. The two theories, after all, are not so very different. Both take a catastrophist view of prehistory, imagining very sudden and calamitous changes rather than a gradual transformation. Recently, though, some of the gradual views of dinosaur extinction have started to regain traction. In 2016, a phylogenetic study of dinosaur speciation published statistical evidence that dinosaur speciation, the ability to spawn new species as others went extinct, had been declining for tens of millions of years (Sakamoto et al. 5036). This, however, doesn’t diminish the significance of the effects that volcanism or a massive extraterrestrial impact would have. Rather, it only shows that dinosaurs would have been especially susceptible to extinction at the time.

One scientist, a Princeton micropaleontologist named Gerta Keller, has actually challenged the idea that an impact at Chicxulub could have caused the Great Dying. According to her research, the object that struck the Yucatan peninsula arrived 300,000 years before the Great Dying actually occurred and so could not be responsible for it. Moreover, she argues that since the layers at Chicxulub containing microtektites were lower than the layers containing iridium, then the iridium layer discovered around the world could not have been from the Chicxulub impact. While her claims have been contested, Keller remains steadfast, insisting that a sudden extinction likely required the coincidental combination of massive volcanism in the Deccan Traps and a massive extraterrestrial impact, but insisting that Chicxulub is not the one that did it. And now we have a new candidate, a hypothesized 310-mile-wide crater that just happens to be located offshore of India and the Deccan Traps volcanic plateau. This crater has been named Shiva after the Hindu god of destruction. Other, smaller impact sites dating to the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary have started to turn up as well, like Manson, Iowa, and the 15-mile-wide crater in the Ukraine, at Boltysh. A picture begins to form of monstrous lifeforms already in decline and vulnerable to disaster, and a world reeling from colossal volcanic activity suddenly pummeled by a series of enormous asteroids, perhaps a swarm or perhaps castoff from one initial impact. But like all theories about the Great Dying, this is just conjecture—it is an informed opinion, supported by fact, but still only an opinion—and this, perhaps the most significant event in Earth’s past, which was directly responsible for the emergence of humanity as the dominant life form on the planet, may forever remain enigmatic.

*

A depiction of dinosaur extinction precipitated by Deccan Traps volcanism, via  Wikimedia Commons

A depiction of dinosaur extinction precipitated by Deccan Traps volcanism, via Wikimedia Commons

Further Reading

Betz, Eric. “How We Found the Dinosaur Doomsday Site.” Discover, 23 March 2016, blogs.discovermagazine.com/d-brief/2016/03/23/chicxulub-crater-dinosaurs-drilling/#.XL5BOzCpHRY

DiGregorio, Barry. “Doubts on Dinosaurs.” Scientific American, vol. 292, no. 5, 2005, pp. 28–29. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/26060982.

Hildebrand, Alan R., et al. “Chicxulub Crater: A Possible Cretacious/Tertiary Boundary Impact Crater on the Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico.” Geology, vol. 19, no. 9, Sep. 1991, pp. 867-871. ResearchGate, www.researchgate.net/publication/257984366_Chicxulub_Crater_A_possible_CretaceousTertiary_boundary_impact_crater_on_the_Yucatn_Peninsula_Mexico

Jablow, Valerie. “A Tale of Two Rocks.” Smithsonian Magazine, Apr. 1998, www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/a-tale-of-two-rocks-151643588/

Gerta Keller, et al. “Chicxulub Impact Predates the K-T Boundary Mass Extinction.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, vol. 101, no. 11, 2004, pp. 3753–3758. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3371432.

R. Monastersky. “Cretaceous Die-Offs: A Tale of Two Comets?” Science News, vol. 143, no. 14, 1993, pp. 212–213. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3977229.

Ponsford, Matthew. “The Buried Secrets of the Deadliest Location on Earth.” BBC, 12 Nov. 2018, www.bbc.com/travel/story/20181111-the-buried-secrets-of-the-deadliest-location-on-earth

Sakamoto, Manabu, et al. “Dinosaurs in Decline Tens of Millions of Years before Their Final Extinction.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, vol. 113, no. 18, 2016, pp. 5036–5040. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/26469494.  

Schulte, Peter, et al. “The Chicxulub Asteroid Impact and Mass Extinction at the Cretaceous-Paleogene Boundary.” Science, vol. 327, no. 5970, 2010, pp. 1214–1218. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40544375.

 

 

 

Terror over Tunguska: The Siberian Blast of 1908

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Come with me on a breathtaking expedition to a primeval swampland, where we will encounter a visitor from the stars. This is a story of cosmic horror on a level of which H. P. Lovecraft only lurked at the threshold. The notion of an earth-shattering cataclysm hurtling out of the black void of the universe to end the era of man is a chilling one. In modern cinema, we might temper our feelings of powerlessness by imagining that our technology is up to the task of defending against a world-ending asteroid strike, as in the popcorn flick Armageddon, but at the same time, our sense of impotence in the face of such imminent death from beyond persists, as that same year saw a less optimistic version of the scenario in 1998’s Deep Impact. This deep-seated dread comes not from knowledge or experience, as humankind has never experienced such a calamity before; we know a great deal about surviving earthquakes, hurricanes, tornados, and tsunamis, but not about the devastation of a massive celestial object impacting the earth. And yet it has happened here before. Scientists believe that around 4.4 billion years ago, a planetoid the size of Mars collided with our world, casting off so much of our mass as to create our moon.  And 65 million years ago, it is believed that just such an impact might have been the cause of the extinction event that eradicated the world’s population of dinosaurs. So perhaps this foundational dread is inborn, part of our connection with the earth and its longer memory. Or perhaps it is simply that our own exploration and scientific discovery has revealed things with which we struggle to be at peace, for we have uncovered the evidence: the bones of extinct creatures, the massive Chicxulub Crater beneath the Yucatan peninsula. And then there is the one more recent reminder of such devastating collisions, although this one lacks a discernible crater and remains mysterious in many ways.

*

Just after 7 a.m. on June 30th, 1908, Semen B. Semenov sat on his porch enjoying a morning that must have seemed like many others. As a farmer in the Siberian village of Vanavara, he was no stranger to hard work and likely had already been at it for some hours before taking a seat on his porch and admiring the day. Then, before his eyes, the sky split open, and a ball of fire burst into his field of vision, a mass of flame roiling as it moved over the forest. Semenov felt the heat of that fire hit his face as if he’d just opened the door of a kindled woodstove. He scrutinized the fireball, trying to judge the size and nature of the thing, but just as quickly as it appeared, it vanished, for the sky suddenly darkened, as though the rift he thought he’d seen had clapped shut. A thud sounded from the forest, deeply felt through the earth, and then the forest, the fields, the very porch beneath his feet seemed to jolt as if struck by an impossibly sudden gust of wind, and Semenov’s feet lost hold of the planks beneath them and he fell unconscious. When he regained his senses, a great and furious roar, as of an entire fleet of ships discharging cannon fire, rattled his entire house, cracking its sturdy wooden frames and shattering the windows. Turning again to the skies from whence this destroyer had come, Semenov witnessed the birth of a massive black cloud, rising from the forest where burning trees could be seen to have fallen in great numbers and climbing ever higher into the once pleasant morning sky.

Semenov was not alone a witness of this event north of the Stony Tunguska River, about forty miles or 65 kilometers from his village of Vanavara. Most of those who lived in that largely uninhabited region saw the fire, heard the terrible blast, and of course they saw the haze the poisoned all the air and the towering smoky cloud, which filled the sky afterward, dropping a foul black rain as it sluggishly drifted over the land. In the aftermath of this fiery visitation, those who drew near that stretch of the Stony Tunguska found countless burned tree trunks, denuded of all branches, lying flat on the ground in parallel ranks, like fallen soldiers laid out after battle. Hunters found game scarce, and for a while, most went without venison, for more than a thousand reindeer had been destroyed by the blast. Indeed, there were some known tribes of nomadic people who also disappeared, entire roaming communities, whole families that were wiped from the face of the earth by that all-consuming fire from the heavens. Nor were the effects of this event experienced only by locals, such was the magnitude of the blast. After Semenov and his house were battered by the shockwave, 400 miles away the Trans-Siberian Express was similarly rattled, its engineer bringing the train to an abrupt halt when he saw the very tracks ahead vibrating like the tines of a tuning fork. Within five hours, London’s barometers detected the shock wave racing through the atmosphere, and later, they would detect it again, after the ripple of the blast had gone all the way around the world and returned. And the towering dark cloud rising from the Siberian wastelands would continue, rising higher than any ordinary cloud, treating Central Asia and northern Europe to glorious sunsets and strange, illuminated nights so bright that Londoners reported being able to read their newspapers and take clear photographs at midnight and sailors claimed to be able to see clearly for miles across benighted seas. The cause of this night sky illumination, it seems, was that the dark Siberian cloud had grown to such a towering height that it caught and reflected sunlight from beyond the horizon.

Location of the Tunguska Event, via  Wikimedia Commons

Location of the Tunguska Event, via Wikimedia Commons

It was clear to the world that some great atmospheric disturbance had occurred, but it was not clear what had caused it. The London Times, days later, suggested it was the result of some distant volcanic eruption, since it seemed so similar to the aftermath of Krakatoa’s eruption 25 years earlier. But with no definite reports of volcanic activity, news of the disturbance seemed to fade and dissipate along with the massive cloud. While one might think that news from Russia, the developed nation closest to the blast might have enlightened the world, Russia and all her peoples, scientists included, were preoccupied at the time. Only three years earlier, unarmed petitioners were massacred by Imperial Guardsmen at Tsar Nicholas II’s Winter Palace, sparking the first Russian revolution, as mutinies among the military, strikes among workers, and general social unrest threatened the empire. This was followed by Russia’s entry into the Great War and thereafter by the revolutions of 1917, kicking off the Russian Civil War in 1918, which saw the Red and White armies clashing across Siberia, displacing tens of thousands of peasant farmers like Semen Semenov. And while the violent warfare persisted, amid this refugee crisis, an outbreak of typhus spread, turning much of Siberia, already a harsh and desolate place, into a nightmarish hellscape, with swollen and mutilated corpses littering the streets and choking the icy rivers.

Thus it was not until 1921 that someone ventured out into the wilds of Siberia to investigate what had happened there more than a dozen years earlier. His name was Leonid Kulik, a former revolutionary who had survived three wars and imprisonment for his radicalism. By 1921, he was studying meteorites at St. Petersburg’s Mineralogical Museum and planning an expedition into Siberia to search for impact sites. During his preparations, he found an old Siberian newspaper that mentioned the event of 1908, and he began a new line of investigation, piecing together several obscure news articles to assemble a narrative of that day in June when Siberian peasants witnessed a strange fiery object traversing the morning sky on a horizontal and southerly trajectory, terminating in an enormous blast. Based on these vague and contradictory newspaper reports, Kulik set out that year, on the Trans-Siberian Express to the town of Kansk, where he found no shortage of villagers willing to share their memories of that strange day, but he soon realized he was searching the wrong place and returned to St. Petersburg to further research the blast. So Kulik immersed himself in all the reports he could find from that year and any further research that had been done, consulting the work of geophysicists whose observatories had recorded the seismic and atmospheric disturbances that day. Based on their calculations, Kulik eventually recognized that the epicenter of the blast lay north of Vanavara and the Stony Tunguska River, in the midst of a remote and swampy coniferous forest, or taiga.

Leonid Kulik, via  Wikimedia Commons

Leonid Kulik, via Wikimedia Commons

Kulik would not be able to mount another expedition until 1927, when he and an assistant made their way into the vast Siberian interior of the continent. It was a dangerous journey in a dangerous land. The winters were legendarily severe there. The swamps of the taiga were more easily traversable then, as they stayed frozen solid for eight or nine months, but one ran the risk of freezing to death themselves in that time of year. It is said that in those months, birds are known to fall out of the skies, frozen solid. But with the summer thaw came vast bogs swarming with clouds of mosquitos and flies, their brackish waters crowded with decaying tree trunks to the point that they became impassable. Thus Kulik and his companion timed their departure such that they would be entering the taiga in the spring, hoping to avoid the pitfalls of both seasons. It proved to be months of travel, the most arduous being the final leg, as they penetrated the taiga itself on pack horses. After several days, fighting scurvy and other illnesses, they finally arrived at the site of the 1908 blast. It stretched on, impossibly vast, all the way to the horizon, an entire ancient forest smashed flat to the ground, thick old-growth tree trunks blackened by fire, snapped like toothpicks at their bases, and thrown to the ground. To give some sense of the immensity of this blast, it has been measured at 2,150 square kilometers or 1,335 square miles, with some 80 million trees destroyed. As Kulik surveyed the massive blast zone, he saw every tree parallel to the next, and as he further explored, he found the trees, which had been pointing south, were eventually pointing north, indicating a radial pattern. Finding the center of this pattern, he expected to discover a massive crater, but instead, to his surprise, he found a grove of trees that still stood upright, although they were dead, blackened and bereft of branches. He likened them to a stand of telegraph poles at the epicenter of the blast zone. Leonid Kulik would return to this site more than once in his life, always searching for a crater, for evidence of the meteorite that must have struck the earth to cause this destruction. But he never solved this, the enduring mystery of the Tunguska Event, an extraordinary blast with no apparent impact.

The mystery of what came out of the sky on June 30th, 1908, persists even today. Expeditions by scientists to the blast site have been continuous. Kulik himself, as previously stated, made several more, but in 1941, at 58, he became involved in his fourth war, and this one he didn’t survive, dying in a prison camp in 1942. Scientific advancement in the fifties and sixties and afterward saw further interest renewed in the site. Of course the prevailing theories focused on a comet or meteorite strike, but the lack of impact crater confounded these and gave rise to various intriguing alternative theories. In 1946, Russian war veteran and science-fiction author Alexander Kazantsev hypothesized that an alien spacecraft, from Mars obviously, had visited Siberia in order to retrieve water from Lake Baikal and ended up exploding in the air over the taiga. His theory was born of the atomic age and was inspired by a visit to Hiroshima, so Kazantsev speculated that the craft detonated in a nuclear explosion, irradiating the area below. No evidence of high radiation levels have ever been found to support the theory of a nuclear explosion, however, so this notion, with its concomitant belief in extraterrestrial visitation, has only been embraced by UFOlogists and writers of science fiction, among whom the Tunguska Event has become a mainstay. This marks the beginning of a pattern in thought on the Tunguska Event, though. Just as the Atomic Age and the era of UFO sightings led to this unique new theory about the Siberian blast, so whenever a new notion in science emerged, it was applied to this mysterious incident.

Alexander Kazantsev, via  arves.org

Alexander Kazantsev, via arves.org

In the mid-sixties, a new theory emerged positing that a chunk of antimatter had struck the Earth in 1908. In like fashion, this theory seems to have arisen from the popularity of the concept of antimatter at the time. The idea of negative matter can actually be traced back to the late 19th century, to outmoded scientific theories, such as the vortex theory of gravity, which in the 1880s led William Hicks to propose the existence of matter with negative gravity. The existence of luminiferous ether, a long-standing theory of the substance filling what seems to be empty space, remained scientific consensus in those years, and despite proofs of its non-existence like the results of the Michelson-Morley Experiment, it would not be done away with until Einstein’s contributions. When applied to the understanding of the atom, Ether theory led Karl Pearson in the 1890s to suggest the existence of Ether Squirts, which notion itself “would involve the existence of negative as well as positive matter in the universe.” But it wasn’t until the 1920s and the work of Paul Dirac that we draw near the modern notion of antimatter as negative particles. Then in 1932 Carl Anderson scientifically confirmed their existence, discovering and naming the positron. A couple decades later, in 1955, Emilio Segrè and Owen Chamberlain discovered the antiproton and won the Nobel Prize in Physics. Thus in the 1960s, the interest in antimatter was high, and another Nobel Prize winning scientist, Edward Libby, developer of the science of Carbon-14 dating, put his weight behind the idea that the Tunguska Event may have been an example of antimatter and matter colliding. As proof, they cited radiocarbon evidence from tree rings formed in 1909 (“Blast Due” 382). However, they collected their data from two trees, an oak in L.A. and a Douglas fir in Tucson. A few years later, the Condon Report on UFOs which reinvestigated Project Blue Book data for the Air Force revealed the findings of several scientists that there was not enough radiocarbon evidence to support this theory, and that the impact of an object containing antimatter may actually be impossible to confirm as we have no evidence that the antimatter itself would leave any trace.

Just as scientific preoccupation with antimatter led to ideas of an antimatter collision, so in 1973, when the scientific community was fascinated by black holes, a new theory regarding the nature of the Tunguska Event was spawned. This one, however, would have seemed quite far-fetched before very recent scholarship, for black holes were known to be enormous deformations of space-time where gravity is so strong that no matter would escape. Surely a black hole would condense, pulverize, and destroy the Earth as we know it, for it was thought that only a mass the size of a star could form a black hole. Then along came Stephen Hawking at Cambridge to show the world that the Big Bang may have created black holes of varying sizes, some perhaps even very small. And as study of the phenomena progressed, it was speculated that large black holes could fragment into smaller ones if they collided with each other. So arose the notion that the object that Semenov saw roaring out of the sky in 1908 was not a comet or asteroid but a black hole. As this theory goes, the mass at the center of the black hole would only have been the size of a few atoms, and the collision of its gravitational field with our atmosphere could have caused the great disturbance that witnesses saw. Despite all this sound and fury, however, proponents of this theory insisted the black hole would have passed right through the ground, through the entire Earth itself, and would have emerged on the other side of the globe, through the Atlantic Ocean, raising a great column of water and leaving behind a massive shockwave (“Did a Black Hole” 181). The problem here was that no such disturbance was recorded in the Atlantic that year.

Simulated view of a black hole, via  Wikimedia Commons    (CC BY-SA 2.5)

Simulated view of a black hole, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.5)

 While these colorful theories have come and gone, the abiding theory is that a comet or an asteroid struck the Siberian taiga that day. The lack of an impact crater has always confounded this simple theory, though, for if an object of the size scientists believe this object must have been actually struck the ground, there would have been a massive displacement of the earth, and there certainly wouldn’t have still been trees standing upright at the epicenter of the blast radius. So, taking a page from Kazantsev’s science fiction, they rely on the idea of an airburst, and this appears to resolve the problem. Under great pressure from penetrating the atmosphere, the object exploded above the ground, the force of the blast directed downward because of its trajectory, charring the trees directly below it but leaving them standing as the shockwave then hit the ground and spread outward, burning and knocking over the trees in its path as it moved away from that stand of blackened telegraph poles. But what was it? There is a big difference between a comet and an asteroid. A comet is composed primarily of ice and dust, so the idea that it would detonate and disperse completely under the heat and pressure of entering the atmosphere is understandable. And it’s true that a comet might strike the Earth at far higher velocity than an asteroid because they circle far from the sun on longer orbits, so even a small comet might make for a far more destructive collision. But because of their longer orbits, comets are far less likely to strike the Earth than asteroids (Gasperini et al. 81). In fact, we have no direct evidence that a comet has ever hit Earth, although recently we did confirm that such a collision can happen, when in 1994 observatories witnessed a comet crash with great violence into Jupiter.

Due to the rarity of comet impacts, and evidence from computer simulations that suggest a comet would explode too high in the atmosphere to be the cause of the blast, science tends to favor the notion that the Tunguska Event was caused by an asteroid. What kind of asteroid, however, proves to be yet another mystery. An iron asteroid, once part of some planet’s core, would be so dense as to explode too low, or not explode at all, resulting in a crater and a meteorite remaining behind for study. As this doesn’t appear to be the case, many scientists believe it to have been a common stony asteroid, once part of some planet’s crust (Peterson 23). The fact that such a stony asteroid might have been vaporized in its explosion does not necessarily mean, however, that no trace of its extra-terrestrial material remained. In fact, some Soviet investigators in the late 1960s believed they discovered such remains. In soil samples taken from the blast site, they uncovered a number of shiny black metallic spheres with magnetic properties (Glass 547). Analysis of their distribution appeared to indicate they were associated with and perhaps formed by the blast. These microscopic spheres were studied for more than a decade, and by the 1980s, nigh-sensitivity neutron activation analysis indicated they were extra-terrestrial in nature, specifically due to their richness in iridium (Ganapathy 1159). Moreover, testing of Antarctic ice layers dated to 1908 also show higher levels of iridium, indicating that this meteoritic debris travelled the world over after the towering cloud over Tunguska carried it into the stratosphere (Ganapathy 1160).

Lake Cheko, via  Geotimes

Lake Cheko, via Geotimes

But still, as always, experts disagree, staking their professional reputations and careers on a variety of alternative theories. A group of Italian scientists, for example, have traveled to Siberia to take samples from the bottom of Lake Cheko, a small lake very near the epicenter of the blast, which because of its shape has been speculated to be an impact crater, perhaps for a piece of the asteroid thrown aside by the airburst. The Italian investigators discovered the lake to have funnel-like dimensions, unlike most Siberian lakes, which have flat bottoms, and this shape further encouraged the idea it had been created by an impact (Gasperini et al. 84). The amount of sediment on the bed of the lake seemed to indicate it was older than 1908, but their study of the sediment indicated a difference between its topmost layers and those beneath, and underwater video showed what appeared to be trees buried in the sediment. Moreover, old 19th century military maps showed no sign of the lake and testimony from natives corroborated the idea that the blast had created it. And most tantalizing, their seismic and magnetic analysis returned indication of an anomalous magnetic rocky object beneath the lake that they believe may be the culprit, a fragment of the Tunguska object (Gasperini at al. 86). Further studies by Russian scientists have continued to dispute this theory though, showing through radiometric dating and analysis of sedimentation rate that the lake is significantly older than the Tunguska Event (Rogozin et al. 1226).

So, as with all enduring mysteries, disputes persist. Indeed, I have not even taken the time to discuss the opposing school of thought, that the Tunguska blast was a completely terrestrial phenomenon, the result of a natural release of methane gas from the swampy taiga, perhaps due to the underground formation of a kimberlite deposit. If a massive plume of methane were ignited, it would certainly create an enormous fireball, although witness statements clearly indicate the fireball they saw descending, not ascending. Nevertheless, this view of the event is so popular that in Moscow, on the anniversary of the Siberian blast, scientists who subscribe to competing views of its cause attend separate conferences on the same day (Perkins 6). Yet regardless of this schism in the scientific community, in the popular imagination, when one thinks of the Tunguska Event, one thinks of some cold cosmic body hurtling out of darkness to smite our living Earth. The thought is enough to cause an existential dread, especially when one considers that such impacts may not be as rare as we would like to believe. In 2013, a meteor the size of a six-story building screamed across the sky over Chelyabinsk, Russia, and detonated with the strength of a nuclear explosion, shattering countless windows and injuring 1,200 people. Then just last year, in December 2018, another meteor exploded, this time over the Bering Sea. No one noticed at the time, but satellites observed it, and we’re only now coming to realize the strength of the blast, which rings in at 173 kilotons, ten times that of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. It is unsettling, to say the least, to think that if either of these objects had exploded closer to the Earth’s surface, or God forbid, impacted, then we might have had an event of such devastation that only the Tunguska blast could stand as its precedent. And of course, in the case of Chelyabinsk, with its population of over 1 million, it could have been far, far worse.

Fallen trees at Tunguska, 1927, via  Wikimedia Commons

Fallen trees at Tunguska, 1927, via Wikimedia Commons

Further Reading

“Blast Due to Antimatter?” The Science News-Letter, vol. 87, no. 24, 1965, pp. 382–382. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3948365.

“Did a Black Hole Collide with the Earth in 1908?” Science News, vol. 104, no. 12, 1973, pp. 180–181. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3958509.

Fernie, J. Donald. “Marginalia: The Tunguska Event.” American Scientist, vol. 81, no. 5, 1993, pp. 412–415. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/29775005.

Ganapathy, Ramachandran. “The Tunguska Explosion of 1908: Discovery of Meteoritic Debris near the Explosion Site and at the South Pole.” Science, vol. 220, no. 4602, 1983, pp. 1158–1161. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1689889.

Gasperini, Luca, et al. “THE Tunguska MYSTERY.” Scientific American, vol. 298, no. 6, 2008, pp. 80–86. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/26000644.

Glass, Billy P. “Silicate Spherules from Tunguska Impact Area: Electron Microprobe Analysis.” Science, vol. 164, no. 3879, 1969, pp. 547–549. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1727021.

Peterson, I. “Tunguska: The Explosion of a Stony Asteroid.” Science News, vol. 143, no. 2, 1993, pp. 23–23. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3976924.

Perkins, Sid. “A Century Later, Scientists Still Study Tunguska: Asteroid or Comet Blamed for Siberian Blast of 1908.” Science News, vol. 173, no. 19, 2008, pp. 5–6. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20465508.

Rogozin, D., et al. “Sedimentation Rate in Cheko Lake (Evenkia, Siberia): New Evidence on the Problem of the 1908 Tunguska Event.” Doklady Earth Sciences, vol. 476, no. 2, Oct. 2017, pp. 1226–1228. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1134/S1028334X17100269.







Blind Spot: A Tale of Two Babylons

Whore-of-babylon-blake-1809.jpg

In this edition, I will discuss another very influential anti-Catholic work. However, as opposed to the lurid Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, this work’s criticism focused more on Catholic beliefs and practices, yet it still managed to be just as sensational, incendiary, and outrageous as that Protestant hoax. The work first appeared as a pamphlet in 1853 and was expanded into a book over the next five years, while secret societies in America turned anti-Catholicism into the ascendant Know Nothing political party before promptly fading into obscurity, as covered in my recent Patreon exclusive Blindside podcast episode. But this book, The Two Babylons by Alexander Hislop, would not fade away so quickly and would see multiple editions before evolving into a tract in more modern times to continue spreading its complicated yet somehow convincing claims that the Roman Catholic Church was really just pagan idolatry repackaged from its Babylonian origins. Perhaps it is not surprising that these claims found purchase among Protestants who were already disposed to identify the Roman Catholic Church with the “whore” of the apocalyptic prophecy in Revelation 17, which depicts a beast, and riding atop it, a woman, the so-called “mother of harlots,” whose name appears on her forehead as “Mystery, Babylon the Great.” To claim that the Catholic Church was actually just Babylonian paganism in disguise certainly seemed to clarify that unsettling imagery. And beyond Protestants, the claims of this book have historically appealed to condescending atheists and know-it-all agnostics as well, and have since passed into the realm of memery. As I discussed in my Christmas special, glib social media reposts claiming that certain religious practices are based on heathen traditions have proven quite popular, and those having to do with Easter seem to have their origin in Hislop’s pseudohistorical work. So what can be discerned from his dense treatise? What conclusions has it disseminated, and how did the author arrive at them?

*

I have been unable to find much in the way of well-sourced biographical information about the author of The Two Babylons, Alexander Hislop. More is written about his brother, Stephen, a missionary to India of some renown who drowned while crossing a swollen river. In his biography, we have a brief mention of Alexander, the eldest of three brothers, who “was educated for the ministry of the Church of Scotland…was a ripe classical scholar, was deeply read in Biblical archaeology and prophetic exposition, and…became a minister of the Free Church of Scotland in the town of Arbroath.”  The fact that he sided with the Free Church in the Presbyterian schism sometimes called the Disruption of 1843, which resisted the power of government to appoint ministers in the church, already suggests he was something of an iconoclast and a church purist. And a simple perusal of his several published works before The Two Babylons further indicates the power of his convictions regarding Christian doctrine, and one in particular, 1846’s The Light of Prophecy Let In on the Dark Places of the Papacy, demonstrates the drift of his thoughts toward the thesis he would eventually express in the most well-known of his works. And the thesis of The Two Babylons is not secreted away, buried in some dense paragraph at the back of the volume, but rather appears in clear typeface upon its cover in the form of a subtitle: The Papal Worship Proved to be the Worship of Nimrod and His Wife.

As Hislop asserts, many of the doctrinal and ritual practices of the Catholic Church—tellingly, the ones that Protestant critics of Roman Catholicism tend to take issue with, like its treatment of Mary as a co-redeemer and its reliance on images and rituals—have been derived from ancient pagan beliefs. He starts back at the very beginning, with the migration of peoples to the river valley that would come to be known as Babylonia and later as Mesopotamia, and the rise of the great hunter Nimrod who defeated the beasts that preyed upon them and protected his subjects within the secure walls of cities, such as Babel, where according to the biblical legend, a grand tower was built and languages became confused, and from which, so the story goes, all the peoples of the world dispersed, carrying with them, by Hislop’s reckoning, the pagan traditions that in Roman times would eventually be integrated with the Christian faith to create Catholic traditions. Hislop claims that after Nimrod’s death, his wife, Semiramis, lifted him up in memory as a sun god, and by extension, deified their son Tammuz as the son of god or as god reincarnate, and eventually, she came to be worshiped herself as a mother goddess. Hislop sees a direct line of descent between Semiramis and the veneration of Mary by Catholics, tracing this mother goddess tradition through numerous iterations, as Isis with her Horus in Egypt, as Shingmoo in China, Nana among Sumerians, Ceres in ancient Greece, Fortuna in Rome, and in India as Indrani or as Isi with the child Iswara or as Devaki with the child Crishna. He finds analogues in nearly every culture of antiquity, and he believes that at some point, after the Etruscans had integrated into Roman society, an Etruscan pontiff who was dedicated to the old idolatrous ways managed to get himself elected sovereign pontiff and began the corrupting the church by incorporating more and more pagan Babylonian symbols and traditions.

Isis suckling Horus, via  Wikimedia Commons

Isis suckling Horus, via Wikimedia Commons

Among these symbols are the keys of heaven given over to Peter and symbolically entrusted to the Pope as representative of papal authority. To Hislop, it can be no coincidence that two pagan gods, Janus and Cybele, are also pictured with keys. Then there is the gaudy throne on which the Pope sits, the Chair of Saint Peter, which Hislop says must have previously been the throne of the pagan Pontifex Maximus because of some panels on it that depict the labors of Hercules. And the Pope’s mitre he says corresponds with the fish head of another pagan god, Dagon. Then there’s the Eucharist. The church’s insistence that sacramental wafers be round is telling, per Hislop, since disks of bread were also consumed at altars in Egypt, in symbolism of the sun! Even something as simple as a ritual burning of candles can be painted a shade of sinister, for as Hislop notes, candles were also burned by worshippers of the sun god Zoroaster, who was yet another iteration of Nimrod according to Hislop’s view of history. And his revelation of paganism’s deep embedding within the church would not be complete without taking the central symbol of the faith down a peg or two. The cross, Hislop declares, is a pagan symbol used throughout the many traditions descended from Babylonian idolatry, and it represents the mystic letter Tau, which stands for Tammuz, son of Nimrod and Semiramis. Thus even the innocent treat of hot-cross buns eaten on Good Friday is tainted, but further still Hislop takes it, for he claims this treat and the very word that we have for it, “bun,” derives from an ancient sacred bread consumed in worship of another goddess, whom the holiday Easter celebrates.

So we come to perhaps the most well-known and widely spread of Hislop’s contentions, that the church holiday of Easter is really a pagan celebration. He makes similar arguments about Christmas, most of which I have wrestled with already in my recent holiday special. And like those claims, you’ve likely read or heard these as well: the traditions of Easter are derived from the worship of Astarte or Ishtar, a fertility goddess, and the eggs and bunnies of the holiday are mere symbols of sex and apt for the bursting forth of life at springtime. Hislop sees a pure precursor to Easter in the Jewish Passover, which occurred around the same time of year, and he grants that its intended purpose was to commemorate Christ’s death and resurrection, said to have happened around that time of year as well. But the fasting period of Lent he says was borrowed from the pagan tradition of a forty days’ abstinence in the spring that can be observed in many cultures. Of bunnies, Hislop is entirely silent, but as for the eggs, he looks far and wide for their precedence, marking the ancient Greek consecration of eggs to Baachus, the Hindustani tales that attach importance to eggs and their color, the Japanese sacralization of a brazen egg, and the practices among the Egyptians of hanging eggs in temples and among the Chinese of painting and dying eggs for festivals. His final coup de grace, however, is the myth of the Phoenician goddess Astarte falling to earth in an egg. Case closed, or at least that’s how Hislop presents it—eggs appear in different cultural traditions, so they must all be tied to a single earlier tradition, and the goddess Astarte is said to have emerged from an egg, so surely all instances of sacred egg traditions must really be instances of Astarte worship. And if Astarte is not close enough sounding to Easter for you, there is Ishtar, Mesopotamian counterpart. So there you are. Easter must be Ishtar.

But let’s look more closely at these assertions. While it is very true that Astarte is identified across cultural lines with Ishtar, as she is also one and the same with the Semitic mother goddess Ashtoreth, the connection Hislop makes to Easter appears to be based on nothing more than how the names strike his ear. Astarte/Ashtoreth/Ishtar was a goddess of sex and fertility but also of war and vengeance; she appears greatly simplified here in order to cement her association with Easter. The problem is, most of the world doesn’t celebrate a holiday called Easter, but rather one called Pasqua in Italy, Pâques in France, Paaske in Denmark, Paskha in Bulgaria, and Pasen in the Netherlands, all derived from the latinate Pascha, itself from the Hebrew Pesach or Passover. So who’s using the name Easter? English speakers and Germans, who celebrate Ostern. Hislop’s myopia really shows here, as does his ignorance of folklore that had origins far closer to home, for most scholars accept that the name Easter is derived from the name of the Germanic goddess Ēostre or Ostara, a goddess of the dawn, with whom rabbits were symbolically associated (Billson 447). As for the eggs, there is no shortage of pagan traditions involving this most common of foodstuffs, several of which seem to accord well with the Easter themes of rebirth, such as the egg from which the phoenix is reborn, but the simplest and therefore most likely explanation for the inclusion of eggs in Easter traditions is the prominence of roasted eggs in the Passover Seder meal (Newall 16).

The goddess Ēostre or Ostara, by Johannes Gehrts, 1901, via  Wikimedia Commons

The goddess Ēostre or Ostara, by Johannes Gehrts, 1901, via Wikimedia Commons

Now some might object that this still shows Christian traditions having their origins in pagan goddess traditions or in other non-Christian ceremonies, and this is absolutely true. One would be hard-pressed to make a tenable argument that there exist no such influences in Christian traditions. But what Hislop argues is far different. He argues that nearly every goddess tradition can be traced back to Semiramis, that the worship of her and her husband and son were purposely integrated, through some far-reaching conspiracy, into the pure and true form of Christianity as a means of poisoning it into apostasy.  Now it’s quite true that pagan deities were often conflated across cultures; for example, Ishtar/Astarte/Ashtoreth have also been identified with the goddess Aphrodite. Much of this conflation can be blamed on the ancient Greeks, who believed their pantheon of gods to be universal, meaning that they assumed all cultures worshipped the same deities but merely had different names for them (Budin 98). Today, scholars of antiquity take a different view, but Hislop, relying on his scripture-based understanding of the dispersion and migration of peoples and cultures, takes a decidedly Grecian syncretistic approach to world history, skipping from civilization to civilization, presuming that each must have their Nimrod, Semiramis, and Tammuz figures because his theory depends on it. In his estimation, Semiramis is Astarte, is Aphrodite, is Diana, is Artemis, is Ceres, is Juno, is Minerva, is Athena, is Venus, etc. etc. And likewise Nimrod is Osiris, is Zoroaster, is Mithra, is Odin, is Saturn, is Bacchus, is Cupid, is Apollo, is Mars, is Adonis, is Hercules, is Beelzebub, is Lucifer and on and on and on and on and on and on…..

He does, however, sometimes claim there is evidence for his profligate syncretism, often referencing the contemporary work of Austen Henry Layard. In fact, at the time of The Two Babylon’s publication, citing the archaeological finds of Layard at the site he believed was Nineveh lent seeming authenticity and academic rigor to Hislop’s treatise. But Layard’s findings have since been challenged and in some cases discredited. For example, his book was titled Nineveh and Its Remains, but the site he was excavating would eventually be identified as Nimrud, called Calah in Genesis, while Nineveh, it was discovered, was actually elsewhere. And much of what Layard claimed in his hastily written book cannot be given much weight, as he may have been embellishing his findings to secure better funding. One of his advisors even suggested he “[w]rite a whopper” and “[f]ish up old legends and anecdotes,” saying “if you can by any means humbug people into the belief that you have established any points in the Bible, you are a made man.” Then, beyond citing Layard and other scholars whose work could not be called reliable today, Hislop relies a lot on what might be described as armchair etymology as proof of his claims. In fact his identification of several goddesses with Semiramis relies on such questionable evidence, for he sees in Astarte and Ashtoreth’s names Greek and Hebrew cognates for the word “tower,” and behold Diana had a second name that meant “tower-maker” and everyone knows Semiramis, or at least her husband Nimrod, was renowned as a builder of cities. Therefore, by his logic, these far-flung deities were the same mythical being. Even contemporary critics excoriated him for his fast and loose play with pseudo-etymology, such as the Saturday Review of September 17, 1859, which pointed out that “[h]e always acts upon the principle, common to all dabblers in etymology, of ignoring the obvious derivation, and going a-mare’s-nesting among the roots of some wholly alien dialect.”

The final line of the Saturday Review’s evaluation of Hislop’s work perfectly encapsulates the academic community’s critical response to his research: “we never before quite knew the folly of which ignorant or half-learrned bigotry is capable.” Yet despite this decidedly forceful challenge to the quality of his scholarship, the book was embraced, perhaps not surprisingly in that era of anti-Catholicism, by Protestants of every stripe, regardless of the fact that many of Hislop’s claims about Catholicism would logically recast all of Christianity as a pagan apostasy. Historians have never really taken his work seriously, and for good reason, but an academic consensus has never proven to be a deterrent to the spreading of baloney. It gets repackaged for wider consumption and becomes harder and harder to quash. In this case, one Ralph Edward Woodrow transformed Hislop’s dense work into a simplified and easy to digest illustrated little book called Babylon Mystery Religion: Ancient and Modern, and evangelical Christian ministry groups bought and circulated it by the thousands. Never mind that years later Woodrow realized the errors of Hislop’s methodology, noting first and most outrageously that Nimrod and Semiramis don’t even appear to have lived during the same time period, let alone have been married. As a mea culpa for his part in disseminating the nonsense, he wrote a follow-up essentially pointing out what historians had known for decades: that Hislop’s argument was built on superficial similarities, by misquoting authorities and making up fictions out of whole cloth. But by then, Hislop’s academic-sounding drivel had been even further repackaged into a cartoon tract by famously anti-Catholic pamphleteer Jack Chick, and there was just no stopping its propagation. And to this day, if you Google the origin of Easter or questions about Mary worship, you’ll find memes and webpages of varying quality that earnestly recycle Hislop’s claims as though they are gospel.

1200px-Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_The_Tower_of_Babel_(Vienna)_-_Google_Art_Project_-_edited (1).jpg

Further Reading

 

Budin, Stephanie L. “A Reconsideration of the Aphrodite-Ashtart Syncretism.” Numen, vol. 51, no. 2, 2004, pp. 95–145. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3270523.

Billson, Charles J. “The Easter Hare.” Folklore, vol. 3, no. 4, 1892, pp. 441–466. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1253567.

Newall, Venetia. “Easter Eggs.” The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 80, no. 315, 1967, pp. 3–32. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/538415.

Maria Monk and Her Awful Disclosures

Maria-Monk-760x480.jpg

In this edition, I revisit a topic that I briefly explored as background in my very first foray into blogging and podcasting, which looked at the demagogue Lewis Charles Levin and his influence on the 1844 nativist riots in Philadelphia. I’ve decided to delve more deeply into nativism in American history not only because I feel that this story deserves a better telling than I gave it in 2016, but also because, over the last couple of years, we’ve seen the embers of nativist sentiment that candidate Donald Trump fanned during his campaign erupt into flames during his presidency. And Donald Trump, during his first term, has done much to further encourage the nativist feelings that helped carry him into office. Say what you want about him as a chief executive, but he is not one to forget about the constituency that elected him and has consistently and tirelessly appealed to his base, which of course may help him in his bid for reelection. Soon after taking office, within days of being sworn in, in fact, he signed a series of executive orders that would certainly appeal to xenophobes and Americans that are fearful of foreigners. These orders stripped federal funds from cities that provided sanctuary to undocumented immigrants, drastically increased the numbers of immigration enforcement and border patrol officers, and built detainment facilities at the border. During the ensuing years, his administration faced significant criticism for a continuing year-over-year increase in arrests and removals by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement or ICE officers as well as for the policy of separating families and interning children at the U.S.–Mexican Border. Meanwhile, he has consistently pushed during budget negotiations to fund the concrete barrier, or wall, that he promised his supporters in 2016, even allowing the government to shut down over this sticking point, the most recent being the longest government shutdown in American history. As I write this, after a State of the Union address in which he threatened to do so, Trump has declared a state of National Emergency over a border crisis that he insists can only be resolved by building his proposed wall, while many insist there is no border crisis, or that the crisis is actually humanitarian and has been mischaracterized, or that the wall will cost too much and be ineffective. Clearly, the fear of immigrants and their perceived pernicious influence on society is a current issue, and so the situation demands an awareness of America’s history of nativist politics, lest we risk true historical blindness. In particular, Trump’s so-called Muslim Ban, the executive order that barred the entry of immigrants from certain countries whose inhabitants happened to share a predominate religion puts one in mind of the original objects of nativist aversion: European Catholics. Anti-Catholicism was the original engine of anti-immigrant sentiments, and to couch our analysis of that part of American history in a narrative, we shall look to the most popular, most influential anti-Catholic work every published in America. In 1836, the first edition of this book sold 40,000 copies, and it was the best-selling book in America for years, until it was finally surpassed by Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It is certainly strange, then, that when the woman credited as its author died in 1849, she expired in an almshouse, and rather than remembering her accomplishments in her obituary, newspapers reported her death as though taking pleasure in the passing of a villain.

*

The woman presented as the author of the book in question, Maria Monk, told of her chaste Protestant youth. Her father, an officer of the British garrison in Montreal, died before she could know him, and her mother sent her away to a nunnery for her education, a common practice even among Protestants because of the well-known quality of Catholic schools. As she grew older, Maria Monk became interested in converting to take the veil and join the Black Nuns of the nearby Hotel Dieu Nunnery, a convent highly regarded for its charitable contributions to the community. So she converted and entered as a novice, toiling for years at the arduous tasks of sewing and candlemaking until such time as she received the black veil, took oaths and learned some terrible truths about the nunnery in which she had resided for so long. The Mother Superior explained to her that she must “obey the priests in all things,” and the principal thing they would demand of her was to have sexual intercourse with them. The Mother Superior explained that in this case, it was no crime but rather a virtue to offer this relief to the poor, secluded, ascetic priests without whose service all of mankind must burn in hell for lack of the pardoning of their sins. So after all, the convent was little more than a harem for the priesthood, she discovered, and on that first night, as a baptism of sorts, one priest summoned her to his private chambers, where she was brutally raped by three priests. And as if this violation were not horror enough, she also learned that beneath the nunnery lay a warren of secret tunnels connecting to other convents and churches through which the nuns were forced as a humiliation to walk on their hands and knees, and dungeons and torture chambers in which uncooperative nuns were held and branded like cattle and whipped with rods until they bled. Perhaps the most horrifying discovery she made was the fate of the children produced by the rape of the priests: these newborns were baptized, strangled to death, and discarded into a lime pit. Of course, Maria considered escape, but the example of another nun discouraged her. St. Frances, a beautiful nun, resisted the priests for fear of having a child that would be murdered, and for this crime they sentenced her to death, forcing the other sisters to watch as they laid her on a bed, threw another bed on top of her, and then jumped up and down on it, as many as the bed would hold, not only smothering St. Frances but battering and crushing her body. When she no longer drew breath, they threw her into the pit along with the decomposing infants.

L'ancien Hôtel-Dieu de Montréal sur la rue Saint-Paul, et le charrieur d'eau, via  Wiki  pedia

L'ancien Hôtel-Dieu de Montréal sur la rue Saint-Paul, et le charrieur d'eau, via Wikipedia

Maria Monk often found herself imprisoned and tortured in those secret places beneath the convent, usually for an ill-considered comment to her Mother Superior. While there, she met a mentally unstable nun named Jane who shared her knowledge all of the secret places of the Hotel Dieu. Armed with this knowledge as well as the certainty that any child she bore would be promptly put to death, Maria Monk finally resolved to escape the nunnery when she discovered she was pregnant. Upon the pretense of seeking supplies for the physician, she managed to get herself out of the Hotel Dieu and fled Montreal for New York, where she ended up almost dying in childbirth at a charity hospital. It was there that she spoke frankly to a Protestant minister about her terrible experiences at the nunnery, and the minister encouraged her to tell the world. Thus was born her book, The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, as Exhibited in a Narrative of Her Sufferings During a Residence of Five Years as a Novice and Two Years as a Black Nun, in the Hotel Dieu Nunnery in Montreal. First news of the book and its shocking revelations was published in October of 1835 in the Protestant Vindicator, teasing only that a nun was being sheltered by a group of Protestant ministers, and that she had recently escaped the Hotel Dieu nunnery pregnant with a priest’s child. Immediate outrage erupted in Montreal newspapers, from Catholic and Protestant alike, insisting the Vindicator retract their libel, for the nuns of the Hotel Dieu were looked upon as saintly women for feeding and clothing the poor and the sick, and ministering to the dying and their orphans. Moreover, the idea that such abominations would be ignored by everyone in their city or that they were all so blind as to be ignorant of them entirely was enough to incense nearly every resident of Montreal. But the publishers of the Protestant Vindicator insisted that more details and proofs would be forthcoming, and soon other Protestant publications joined in the promotion of the book, thus ensuring it would sell well and be widely read upon its publication, and indeed, within weeks, it had sold 20,000 copies.

The advance press and the scandal itself might seem an obvious explanation for the book’s success, but from another view, it may seem anomalous in the otherwise staid and prudish 1830s for so lurid a tale to find so wide an audience. For context, we must consider the rise in anti-Catholicism in those years. Since 1820, a fear of Catholic influence in America, as spread by Catholic immigrants, specifically Germans and the Irish, had welled up like sewage after a storm. Catholic populations had been growing in America since the Revolutionary War, but they had largely been communities of businessmen and artisans, and their religious institutions were admired for the way they gave back to their communities, as with the Catholic private schools in convents, to which even Protestants desired to send their children. In the early 19th century, however, the influx of poor and uneducated Catholic immigrants put many Protestants on guard. They saw diseases spreading in slums, as in New York in 1832, where cholera thrived among new immigrant populations, and they saw social services like poorhouses, asylums, and prisons spread thin because immigrants disproportionately filled them. Looking at these problems, Protestant ministers settled on the Catholic Church as the cause of many societal woes. Whereas before they had focused on doctrinal differences and theological disputes in their anti-Catholic messages, in the 1830s they began to attack them on moral grounds, selling a great number of pamphlets, books, and newspapers like the Protestant Vindicator by publishing sensationalist material that played on the public’s anxieties over gender roles and sexuality. Nuns who devoted themselves to God rather than to a husband, and priests who took vows of celibacy, could be seen as subverting traditional domestic and family roles, and some have seen this as the reason why much of the anti-Catholic literature of the day was focused on female sexuality and on seduction and rape narratives. Thus, when Maria Monk’s disclosures were published, they had a waiting audience ravenous for more and more lurid revelations about the Catholic bogeyman.

Cholera prevention poster from New York City, via  Wikimedia Commons

Cholera prevention poster from New York City, via Wikimedia Commons

Maria Monk’s Awful Disclosures fit comfortably into this genre of anti-Catholic literature that was doing well at the time. Some of the earliest entries in this category, like the 18th century titles Master-Key to Popery and Mysteries of Popery Unveiled, were simple exposes of priestcraft, illuminating the minutiae of sacramental rituals and the practices of inquisitors. Even these prefigure Monk's narrative, however, as they were often preoccupied with the practice of confession, which since the Middle Ages had been frowned upon for its suspected inappropriate contact between priests and the virtuous young women who confessed to them. This was the first sex scandal of the Catholic Church, and priests were sometimes subject to Inquisition themselves, for the crime of "solicitation," which today might be called sexual harassment. Interestingly, the confessional was invented during the Reformation to combat this precise problem, and originally they had been open air dividers to be used in public, meant to separate the confessor from her priest but not afford the priest any privacy. But these were not exposés of convents or heinous crimes committed therein. Some more contemporary anti-Catholic literature took the form of conspiracy theorizing, such as in Foreign Conspiracy Against the Liberties of the United States, an 1835 collection of letters that Samuel Morse, the inventor of the telegraph, had written to the New York observer cautioning against the political influence of popery--a concern that would soon come to dominate Anti-Catholic thought. For more direct predecessors to Monk’s Disclosures we must look to fiction, particularly the gothic novel, among the many contemporary popular examples of which we find more than one story of nuns being exposed to the corruption and lechery of priests. The Nun, published in 1834, portrayed monks as nefarious sorts who lured women into nunneries, depicting a heroine, Clarice, who is held captive in a convent. That same year, in Lorette, History of Louise, Daughter of a Canadian Nun, readers followed a protagonist that was ill-used by a lecherous priest. And nunnery exposés were not just the stuff of fiction but explored in non-fiction as well, such as in 1834’s Female Convents and Open Convents in 1836, the latter of which claimed nuns were subject “to the savage and brutal lusts of men professing to be ministers of religion” (qtd. In Pagliarani 111). Nor even were Monk’s disclosures the first of their kind. A year earlier, one Rebecca Reed wrote of escaping from the terrors of another convent in Charlestown, outside of Boston, Massachusetts, in her Six Months in a Convent. Reed’s book did not sell as many copies as Monk’s, and in the long run, due to problems of credibility stemming from her unreliable character, neither was her story given as much weight as Monk’s, nevertheless it contributed significantly to a notorious riot in Charlestown.

During the year prior to its publication, Rebecca Reed’s manuscript was circulated locally, its allegations of captivity and abuse at the local Ursuline convent stirring up rumor and anti-Catholic resentment in an area where it already festered. By 1834, the population of indigent Irish Catholic immigrants in the greater Boston area had soared to 20,000, a fact resented by Yankee Protestant laborers who felt their work prospects were being undercut by this cheaper labor supply, a fear that had already led to numerous skirmishes among these workmen. Into this explosive atmosphere Reed injected her claims, further rousing suspicion and anger against a convent school whose students were actually predominately Protestant. Then one day, a nun from the convent showed up at a local man’s door, incoherent and wearing only a nightdress. A carriage soon arrived from the convent, from which the mother superior and a bishop emerged, explaining that the nun was suffering from a brain fever. They took the poor nun back to the convent and let it be known that her condition improved after her return. But that didn’t stop the rumors which Reed’s book had already set in motion. As the story spread, it was said that a nun had escaped her convent only to be recaptured and dragged back to her captivity. Newspapers took up the rumors, suggesting the poor escapee had endured torture prior to her escape and speculating that she had likely been murdered once recaptured. Placards appeared in public with threats, indicating that if the convent were not investigated, it would be demolished in four days’ time. These were not put up by anti-Catholic ministers but by truckmen, lower class workers of Boston who felt great resentment toward the Irish laborers who had become their competitors. In order to prevent this threatened mob action, town selectmen went the next day to inspect the nunnery and were led in their tour of the building by the very nun whose recent brain fever and wanderings had encouraged the furor. She was quite well now, and her thorough tour turned up no torture chambers or secret tunnels. But even as the selectmen prepared a statement for the newspapers, a mob gathered at the nunnery, three days before the time they had appointed.

"Ruins of the Ursuline Convent, at Charlestown Massachusetts," 1834, via  Wikimedia Commons

"Ruins of the Ursuline Convent, at Charlestown Massachusetts," 1834, via Wikimedia Commons

They shouted for the mystery woman who had escaped and been recaptured to be set free, and the mother superior, in high dudgeon, threatened the mob, announcing sarcastically that if they didn’t leave, the bishop would unleash the power of the “twenty thousand of the vilest Irishmen at his command.” Of course, this only made matters worse. Pistol reports filled the night sky, and the mob increased, setting barrels of tar on fire to light the area and illuminate the imminent riot. When they finally broke through the front entry, the nuns were ushering their students out the back to hide by a tomb in the garden. From this vantage, they watched as the rioters, finding no evidence of the evils they imagined within, set about looting, breaking windows and dishes and picture frames, pushing furniture out onto the grounds, and setting fire to the interior of the beautiful school, hollering and laughing all the while. Firemen arrived, and they did nothing. In the aftermath, some few rioters were charged for their crimes, but all were either acquitted or pardoned. Rather than fueling anti-Catholic hysteria, the Ursuline riot of 1834 garnered sympathy for the plight of the Catholic in America and caused many Protestants to temper their anti-Catholic rhetoric. After this egregious incident and the subsequent publication of Reed’s book, which was implicated in the affair, it is perhaps not surprising that the most popular convent exposés and escaped nun narratives tended to expose the goings-on of nunneries in foreign countries, which could safely be accused of improprieties and iniquities without fear of accidentally inciting violence against them. So in 1836, we see Rosamond: or, a Narrative of the Captivity and Sufferings of an American Female under the Popish Priests, in the Island of Cuba, and we see The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, with its horror stories set in a Canadian convent.

However, Canada was simply not far enough away for the calumnies to go unanswered. While the nuns and the bishop of Hotel Dieu would not lower themselves to respond to such nonsense, the newspapermen of Montreal did. A very public investigation was conducted, with numerous affidavits sworn. A variety of respectable citizens of the city went on record that the Hotel Dieu was a perfectly reputable establishment, and that Maria Monk was known as a vagrant and a woman who made her living by disgraceful means on the streets, a “stroller” (Sullivan). Most damning was the affidavit sworn by Maria Monk’s own mother, which revealed the true life story of the increasingly infamous woman. Maria was born to a Protestant family in Quebec around 1816. She had been an unruly child, made even more disorderly after a brain injury she had suffered as a toddler: a slate pencil had been thrust deeply into her ear. From that time onward, her mother claimed that she had indulged in outrageous fantasies. These troubled her all her life and must have bordered on delusions as eventually, after some time spent in prostitution, she was committed to the care of the Magdalene asylum in Montreal. This had been her only contact with Catholic nuns, and it came to an abrupt end when she became pregnant while an inmate there. The nuns had turned her out into the street, and it was then that she met one William Hoyte, anti-Catholic activist and head of the Canadian Benevolent Society, who took her to New York and encouraged her to spread the story of her captivity in a convent. Maria’s mother even swore that Hoyte had offered to pay her off if she would corroborate her daughter’s claims, but she refused, feeling that he was taking advantage of her brain damaged daughter. All of these statements were published and circulated not only in Montreal but beyond as well, for some Montreal newspapermen collaborated on a book that refuted Maria’s Awful Disclosures called Awful Exposure of the Atrocious Plot Formed by Certain Individuals Against the Clergy and Nuns of Lower Canada, Through the Intervention of Maria Monk. Their book, however, was not widely read, and William Hoyte and the cabal of nativist agitators responsible for promoting Monk’s book, among them certain Protestant ministers such as Reverend J. J. Slocum and Reverend George Bourne, assured the public through their anti-Catholic mouthpiece newspapers, that these affidavits were simply lies promoted by the Catholic Church to dupe the foolish Protestants who lived among them in Montreal.

Cover illustration of Awful Disclosures, via  Wikimedia Commons

Cover illustration of Awful Disclosures, via Wikimedia Commons

One American Protestant newspaperman, Colonel William Leete Stone, happened to be travelling through Canada in the autumn of 1836, and harboring some nativist sentiments himself, he could not resist the urge to go see for himself the terrible sins in which the priests and nuns of Montreal might have been engaged. Colonel Stone walked every inch of the Hotel Dieu and the Magdalene asylum and two other convents in the city, never finding any sign of mass graves, torture chambers, or hidden passageways. Upon his return to New York, he interviewed Maria Monk herself, and finding that she could not accurately describe the convent, he declared in his pamphlets and in his newspaper, the Commercial Advertiser, which was one of the most widely read in the city, that Monk was a fraud. This certainly injured her credibility, but still supporters clung to the truth of her book. That same year, however, further revelations emerged from the courts, where a series of lawsuits among the coterie of nativists surrounding Monk hauled the secrets of the whole affair into the open. It turned out that Maria Monk had been the mistress of William Hoyte, but after he brought her to New York and introduced her to the others in his nativist circle, she left him to be the mistress of Reverend J. J. Slocum, and now Slocum was encouraging her to sue for a better share in the profits of the book. As the suits commenced, it became clear that, although Maria Monk’s name appeared on the book, its principal authors were the aforementioned trio of Hoyte, Slocum and Bourne. Nevertheless, when one wants to believe something, all sorts of mental gymnastics can ensure it remains believable, like insisting that these nativists only helped her put down what were her true recollections, that they were ghost writers rather than hoaxers. And so the book kept selling, so much so that a rival nativist newspaperman, Samuel B. Smith, wanted a piece of the action and, unbelievably, produced his own supposed escaped nun, Francis Patrick, whom he claimed had also fled the Hotel Dieu. This Francis Patrick, though, was an outright fiction, played in public by a woman named Frances Partridge, and her story, published by Smith in The Escape of Sainte Francis Patrick, Another Nun of the Hotel Dieu, was more widely disbelieved. Therefore, when Maria Monk met her and wrapped her in a hug and announced through tears that she had known Francis Patrick at the Hotel Dieu, rather than lending credibility to Patrick’s claims, it only further discredited her own. The next year, Maria Monk left Reverend Slocum, then her legal guardian, and ran away to Philadelphia with some unknown man. There she disappeared, eventually turning up on the doorstep of a doctor with a new story, claiming that a band of Catholic priests had kidnapped her and held her in a Catholic asylum in Philadelphia with plans to spirit her back to Montreal. The doctor contacted her guardian, Reverend Slocum in New York, who eventually came to get her, but not before the physician had spoken at great length with Maria about her abduction. Finding her story inconsistent, this doctor further damaged her trustworthiness in the public’s eyes when he published a pamphlet called An Exposure of Maria Monk’s Pretended Abduction and Conveyance to the Catholic Asylum, Philadelphia, by Six Priests on the Night of August 15, 1837: with Numerous Extraordinary Incidents during her Residence of Six Days in This City.

Soon Slocum, trying to rehabilitate her reputation, arranged for the publication of a sequel to Awful Disclosures, titled Further Disclosures by Maria Monk concerning the Hotel Dieu Nunnery, the substantial profits of which, as her guardian, Slocum kept entirely for himself. That same year, Maria became pregnant, and Slocum abandoned her to destitution and public denigration. She disappeared from the public eye after that, only showing up in the historical record again just before her death in a poorhouse, when she was arrested for picking her own boyfriend’s pocket. This woman went from being held up as a paragon of Protestant virtue, inspiring a nation’s sympathy as the ultimate victim of the wicked foreign power that was Catholicism, to being a blurb in an 1849 newspaper, which announced, “There is an end of Maria Monk” (Pelchat).

But there seems to be no end to her awful disclosures. After the conspiracy behind the book was exposed, after she was thoroughly discredited, even after her final ignominious end, her books sold and sold. Throughout the rest of the 19th century and even into the 20th, the worst continued to be believed about what went on behind closed doors in convents. And in the form of tracts circulated by evangelical groups, this known hoax continues to be disseminated, showing up in 1961 when Catholic candidate John F. Kennedy campaigned for president, and again in 1995 when Catholic traditionalist Pat Buchanan sought the Republican nomination for president. Much like the insidious Protocols of the Elders of Zion, this lie just won’t die because if they want to, some people will stubbornly believe even the most thoroughly debunked fraud and will spread it to others who don’t know any better.

One of many cheap reprintings of  Awful Disclosures , undated, via  The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry

One of many cheap reprintings of Awful Disclosures, undated, via The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry

And of course, the fact that the Catholic Church is so mired in current scandals having to do with inappropriate sexual contact certainly doesn't help the public discern what they should believe when exposed to hoaxes like these. Just last month, in fact, Pope Francis declared that his predecessor, Pope Benedict, had dissolved an order of nuns in France because of allegations that priests there kept the nuns in "sexual slavery." A story like this might cause one to wonder if escaped nun narratives like Maria Monk's were actually true... but then the evidence that they were frauds rather causes one to wonder if these modern accusations might not be a similar kind of hoax. But there is every reason to believe recent accusations made by nuns encouraged by the #MeToo movement against abusive priests, as reported on by the Associated Press, not to even mention the massive, ongoing pedophilia scandal. So we are left with some cognitive dissonance, believing accusations against the modern church but disbelieving previous claims. However, the difference of motivation and the presence of ulterior motive must be considered here. The struggle of sexual assault victims to overcome fear and shame in order to bravely expose their abusers must be differentiated from the machinations of those seeking through bald-faced deception to promote the fear and resentment of an entire class of people based on race or religion.


Portrait of Maria Monk, via  Catholic Education Resource Center

Portrait of Maria Monk, via Catholic Education Resource Center

*

Further Reading

Franchot, Jenny. “Two ‘Escaped Nuns’ Rebecca Reed and Maria Monk.” Roads to Rome: The Antebellum Protestant Encounter with Catholicism, University of California Press, 1994, publishing.cdlib.org/ucpressebooks/view?docId=ft1x0nb0f3&chunk.id=d0e2483&toc.depth=1&toc.id=d0e1634&brand=ucpress.

Frink, Sandra. “Women, the Family, and the Fate of the Nation in American Anti-Catholic Narratives, 1830-1860.” Journal of the History of Sexuality, vol. 18, no. 2, 2009, pp. 237–264. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40663352.

Hughes, Ruth. “The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk.” University of Pennsylvania, www.sas.upenn.edu/~traister/hughes.html.

Kennedy, Kathleen. “The Nun, The Priest, and the Pornographer: Scripting Rape in Maria Monk’s Awful Disclosures.” Genders, no. 57, 2013, Academic OneFile, link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A324981030/AONE?u=sjdc_main&sid=AONE&xid=67fbbac8.

Pagliarini, Marie Anne. “The Pure American Woman and the Wicked Catholic Priest: An Analysis of Anti-Catholic Literature in Antebellum America.” Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation, vol. 9, no. 1, 1999, pp. 97–128. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1123928.

Pelchat, André. “Maria Monk’s Awful Disclosures” Beaver, vol. 88, no. 6, p.28. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login/aspx?direct=true&db=f6h&AN=36006571&site=ehost-live.

Prioli, Carmine A. “The Ursuline Outrage.” American Heritage, February/March 1982, www.americanheritage.com/ursuline-outrage.

Sullivan, Rebecca. “A Wayward from the Wilderness: Maria Monk’s Awful Disclosures and the Feminization of Lower Canada in the Nineteenth Century.” Essays on Canadian Writing, no. 62, Fall 1997, p. 201. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=339667&site=ehost-live.

Blind Spot: The Jowers Affair

JimsGrill.jpg

Just when it seemed that James Earl Ray’s dubious and discredited claims would fade into the background noise of history, leaving him to rot in his prison cell, disregarded by the press and the culture generally, events conspired to haul his claims of being a patsy out of mothballs. In 1993, on the ABC program Prime Time Live, Sam Donaldson interviewed a beshadowed man on national television, and this man claimed to have accepted money and hired a gunman to murder Dr. King, making it clear that he had far more to say if he were granted immunity from prosecution. This man was one Loyd Jowers. Sixty-seven years old at the time of his television appearance, Jowers was the owner of Jim’s Grill, the restaurant beneath the rooming house that served as a sniper’s perch to the assassin. Jowers’s confession began a new line of investigation leading to a new conspiracy claim for Ray’s then lawyer, a conspiracist named Dr. William Pepper—that’s right, Dr. Pepper—to focus on and promote. In 1997, Dexter King, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s second son, visited James Earl Ray and confronted him about his involvement in the murder. Shockingly, he then announced on behalf of his whole family, that they believed in Ray’s innocence. A few months later, Dexter also met with Loyd Jowers. Likewise, the Kings believed that Jowers’s testimony was the key to proving the murder of Dr. King had been the result of a conspiracy. This marked the beginning of a campaign by those who had survived Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to get Jowers’s story on the record. When they, along with Ray’s legal counsel, failed to get Jowers immunity, Coretta Scott King brought a civil suit against Jowers as well as “other unknown co-conspirators” for the wrongful death of her husband, seeking only $100 in symbolic compensation, as their true goal was not monetary reward but rather to finally get the truth. To some, the result was the final revelation of James Earl Ray’s innocence and proof of a conspiracy to kill Dr. King. But sometimes, the act of muddling or obscuring truth can masquerade as its disclosure when in fact it’s only making the truth harder to discern.

Loyd Jowers claimed that Frank Liberto, a Memphis produce dealer with a reputation for mafia connections who had long been suspected of involvement in the King assassination, had given him a substantial sum of money to arrange for King’s death, out of which he had paid the assassin. Now, patrons on Patreon will recognize the name Liberto from January’s Patreon exclusive Blindside edition of the podcast, in which I explored the conspiracy claim about his and the mafia’s involvement. Suffice to say here that there is every reason to doubt Liberto had anything to do with the murder of Dr. King, but his name had been floated in the immediate aftermath of the assassination and had never really disappeared from the conspiracy theories surrounding the murder, so it’s no great surprise that Jowers would name him in the late 1990s. However, as the Jowers angle was looked into by Ray’s attorney Dr. Pepper and his investigators—who themselves have major credibility issues, as outlined in my most recent Blindside Patreon episode and as I will further discuss shortly—they claimed to have uncovered numerous witnesses who could corroborate Jowers’s involvement in the murder. One was a cab driver, James McCraw, who told an investigator on Dr. Pepper’s team that Jowers had shown him a box with a rifle in it and bragged that it was the very rifle that had killed King. Another was one Bobbie Spates, a waitress at Jim’s Grill, who said Jowers had told her the day after the assassination that he’d found the murder weapon. And finally, there was Bobbie’s sister, Betty, a 16-year-old girl and Loyd Jowers’s erstwhile lover who worked across the street from the grill at a paper company. Betty Spates also put the rifle in Jowers’s possession, for she said she went to the restaurant that afternoon and saw him on his knees disassembling it. Moreover, Betty corroborated the claims that Jowers had an influx of money, for she claimed to have seen a great deal of cash secreted away in a disused stove a week prior to the King slaying. And as Dr. Pepper’s investigation continued, Betty’s revelations became more and more outrageous. She said she had visited the grill several times on the day of the assassination, each time seeing Jowers with a rifle. Before noon, she saw him with the gun; around noon, she saw him in the foliage back of the restaurant, aiming the gun up at the Lorraine Motel as though rehearsing the assassination; at around 4pm, she saw him disassembling the rifle; and then at 6pm, right after the moment of the assassination when she had heard a firecracker sound, she saw Jowers running back into the restaurant by the back door, the knees of his trousers muddy, his hair disheveled, his face pale and agitated. In his hands was a second, different rifle from the one she had earlier seen him carrying. Not only did this testimony seem to corroborate Jowers’s involvement, but it also contradicted his own claim that he had merely paid someone else to shoot King, instead indicating that he himself had been the shooter. And one other claim of Betty’s tends to confirm that she was not conspiring with Jowers in a hoax: she said that a known employee of Jowers’s, Willie Akins, had come into her home in the mid-1980s, fired a gun into the sofa beside her, and told her that Jowers had paid him to kill her.

There are, however, a myriad of reasons to doubt Betty Spates’s claims. Firstly, the story of Akins’s murder attempt was not very believable, and she had never even called the police about it. Secondly, there was the way her story expanded proportional to Dr. Pepper’s interest in it, a telltale sign of someone saying what an investigator wants to hear. Then there was the fact that elements of her statements proved untrue. At one point she said she was working at Jim’s Grill that day, but she had never worked there as her sister Bobbie had. She also claimed that Jowers had bought her a house to keep her quiet, and that government men had approached her with an offer to place her in witness protection, neither of which turned out to be true. And she went on to recant major aspects of her story, such as that Jowers had asked her to dispose of the rifle and that she had been at the restaurant at the time of the assassination, the latter detail having already been disproven since the police locked down Jim’s Grill just after the shooting to interview those inside, among whom she was not listed. But perhaps the biggest red flag on Betty Spates’s testimony comes from statements she had made to investigators at the time of the assassination. Twenty-four years earlier, back when the two had still been romantically involved, Betty Spates was already making claims about Jowers’s involvement in the crime. After the assassination, Betty was spreading the story that, very close to the time of the shooting, she had seen James Earl Ray outside the rooming house, making it impossible for him to be upstairs pulling the trigger. Instead of Ray, she was offering Jowers as a suspect, failing to disclose their relationship, which, if strained, might have been a motive for falsely accusing him. However, when Ray’s prosecutors visited her in 1969, she admitted her claims were a hoax, explaining that she had been promised five grand to make the false statements by friends of Martin Luther King who wanted to force investigators to expand their scope beyond James Earl Ray.

Loyd Jowers, via  Wikimedia Commons

Loyd Jowers, via Wikimedia Commons

The final nail in the coffin of the Spates testimony was hammered in when she revealed that one of Dr. Pepper’s investigators, eager to obtain some smoking gun evidence of Ray’s innocence, in this case both figurative and literal, had actually offered Betty money. She called the $500 the investigator gave her a Christmas present, and the investigator told Gerald Posner, the author of my principal source, Killing the Dream, that he had only been helping Betty out with some overdue utility bills, but Spates eventually made a clear confession that she had taken monetary compensation for the story that she offered. And this was not the only time that Dr. Pepper’s team of investigators would prove themselves dishonest. At about the same time they were encouraging Betty Spates’s stories, they had also found another woman, Glenda Grabow, who was willing to go on the record that she knew who Raoul was. She said she had been involved in an abusive relationship with him when she was fourteen, and he had admitted to her that he had killed Dr. King. On her testimony, Dr. Pepper tracked down an actual suspect, a Portuguese immigrant living in New York named Raul, spelled slightly differently than James Earl Ray had always spelled it. Nevertheless, in 1995, after decades of playing coy and not identifying anyone as his Raoul, Ray pointed at this suspect’s photo and confirmed it was his mystery man. But there were numerous problems. Grabow’s story was so implausible that Dr. Pepper himself left most of it out of his book. Besides his claims to have killed King, Grabow’s Raul was involved with Carlos Marcello, the famous New Orleans crime lord, and met with Jack Ruby, with whom Grabow says she was also romantically involved. Moreover, Grabow happened by chance to have seen her Raul standing on the hood of his car outside the Houston airport upon JFK’s arrival in Texas, training a scoped rifle in the president’s direction, asserting that she had accidentally foiled the first attempt on Kennedy’s life, resulting in Raul moving to Plan B at Dealey Plaza. Of course, none of this helped Ray, so Dr. Pepper omitted it. And to further demonstrate the untrustworthiness of the Pepper team’s investigative practices and therefore the unreliability of all their witnesses, Gerald Posner describes audio tapes of Dr. Pepper’s investigators questioning Grabow, in which they ask leading questions and even put Raoul’s name in her mouth, as she had only referred to him by a racial epithet that they assured her was only his nickname: Dago. But the really unforgivable part of this farce Dr. Pepper’s team created is the fact that the Raul that Grabow and Ray identified was an innocent family man whose life was turned upside down by these accusations, ruining him financially and leaving him no peace in his retirement.

Likewise, then, considering the unprincipled techniques of Dr. Pepper’s investigators, the statement of Betty’s sister Bobbie is also suspect. As for the taxi driver, McCraw, like Betty, we know that he told a far different story when questioned during the months after the assassination. Back then, the only thing he had to say was that, on the day of the assassination, he had picked up Charlie Stephens, the chief witness placing Ray in the rooming house, and that Stephens was drunk. But even this appears to be a fabrication, as taxi company records do not indicate he was even there. It’s possible McCraw said what he did in order to corroborate the claims his friend Loyd Jowers was making. So then we must finally examine Jowers’s own reliability, already troubled by the fact that he had been an alcoholic for decades, as attested to by his own attorney (Posner 289). But disregarding that, we see inconsistencies in the stories he has told about what happened that day as well. Originally, much like Betty Spates, Jowers only told authorities things that might help exonerate James Earl Ray, making one wonder if he too was hoping to claim the money Spates said was being offered by King’s supporters. He said that at around 4pm, he saw the white Mustang out front, and inside his restaurant was a white man he didn’t recognize, eating sausages and eggs. At 6pm, he said, he heard the report of the rifle sounding like a skillet crashing onto the floor and walked toward the rear of the establishment to investigate. At that time, and just after, the white stranger was still present and asked him for a beer. But of course, this stranger could not have been Ray, because Jowers remembered that the Mustang had disappeared while the man remained. And the white stranger came back the next day, and the suspicious Jowers called the police, who identified him as a drifter named Gene Crawford. But this did not stop Jowers from spinning tales about the man, saying sometimes that he was a regular customer named Jim Sanders and other times that he was a CIA operative named Jack Youngblood, neither of which are true.

Further indications of Jowers’s penchant for changing his story around whenever his details are proven false came after his dramatic television appearance, when he named the gunman he had paid to kill King. He claimed to Dr. Pepper and his team that he had hired Frank Holt, a black day laborer. In Jowers’s version, Holt pulled the trigger in the foliage out back, and Jowers disposed of the murder weapon. And before anyone went looking for Holt, he said he had hired Willie Akins to kill the gunman, so there was no point spending any time trying to track him down. Willie Akins, of course, was the same inept assassin who supposedly shot the heck out of Betty’s couch but never actually harmed her despite accepting money to murder her, and here again, he appears to have failed, for Holt was alive and denied involvement and even passed a polygraph. After this, Jowers began to claim that his co-conspirators were members of the Memphis police department, and that the gunman in particular was Lieutenant Earl Clark. This time, he was slippery enough to only implicate men he knew were dead and could not defend themselves.

In Jowers’s favor, one might point out that he had nothing to gain from his confession. He was elderly; perhaps, the guilt had weighed on him and he only wanted to come clean before he died. But just as we know the Pepper team gifted some money to Betty Spates, there are indications that much greater promises of money were being made. In the end, when Betty Spates confessed that her story of seeing Jowers with the gun had come from Dr. Pepper’s team, she also indicated that Jowers’s attorney was involved. According to her, they wanted her to say she had seen Frank Holt hand the rifle to Jowers by the back door before running around to the street, where the police then led him right back in the front door of the restaurant, for the record showed that police officers had pushed Frank Holt into Jim’s Grill from the sidewalk that day. And they told Betty that if she said this thing, she and Jowers could divide $300,000 dollars. So, if this story is true, then it’s clear Jowers believed there was something in it for him to make his confession. After all, if he were only motivated by his guilty conscience, why would he play so coy and refuse to divulge any particulars until he had an immunity deal? Where this money might have come from is a trickier question. Perhaps there would be money in television appearances, like the one Jowers had already made, but not three hundred grand. More likely, Dr. William Pepper anticipated his book, Orders to Kill, would make a killing, so to speak, and he could comfortably apportion a few hundred grand to the little people whose wild stories made it so incendiary. This was similar, in fact, to how James Earl Ray had managed to obtain the services of so many famous lawyers: by offering them a slice of the money his story would make.

Cover of  Orders to Kill , via  Google Books

Cover of Orders to Kill, via Google Books

But of course, Dr. William Pepper and his team could not have made a media circus of James Earl Ray’s case some 30 years after the assassination without some help. One figure that helped to keep the case in the limelight was Judge Joe Brown, whom you may know as a television personality. Judge Brown actually fought to get Ray’s case assigned to him and afterward refused to recuse himself when it became apparent that he strongly supported the defense and believed there was a conspiracy to murder King. Then of course, the support of Dexter King and other King family members certainly helped to legitimize Dr. Pepper’s efforts. It would be one thing for the family to publicly forgive Ray for his crime, something that many SCLC preachers and friends of King have done as a testament to the power of God’s grace and mercy. It is another thing entirely for Dr. King’s son to shake the hand of the man who murdered his father and tell him he got a raw deal. It is, however, completely understandable for the King family to seek the whole truth about the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. It is therefore especially troubling and distasteful for someone to mislead them and misrepresent the facts in order to make them believe something that isn’t true. This is how blind spots crop up in history. Believable lies are propagated, provable truths are twisted and purposely misinterpreted, and falsehoods are taken to heart and spread by those who are most drawn to believe them. In fact, heap enough untruths on anyone and they’ll find it hard to sift through for the truth. In the civil case of Coretta Scott King vs. Loyd Jowers, for example, after sitting, and even sometimes dozing, through hours and hours of second- and third-hand testimony, the jury found in favor of Coretta Scott King, suggesting that the evidence proved Loyd Jowers and other conspirators, “including government agencies,” were responsible for King’s death, not James Earl Ray. But in response to all the noise made by Dr. Pepper and the Kings, Attorney General Janet Reno launched a Department of Justice investigation and essentially concluded what the House Select Committee on Assassinations had concluded, that Ray was not framed but rather was the shooter. And as for indications that Ray’s brothers may have been co-conspirators, while they did not deny this possibility, they simply could not justify its further investigation because, after 30 years, they just didn’t have any leads on new evidence. There the case of the conspiracy to murder Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., stands, and people, it seems, as always, will believe what they want to believe.

The Killing of Dr. King, Part Three: Ray's Reasons

Killing Dr. King pt 3 logo square.jpg

Having examined Ray’s version of events—that he was manipulated by a mystery man named Raoul into bringing the murder weapon to the Memphis rooming house that served as the sniper’s perch, but that he himself did not pull the trigger—and finding it sorely lacking in credibility, we now move on to consider the scenario that Ray was the shooter. Some of the points raised against this version include that he was a bumbling and failed crook and could not have possibly planned such a nearly perfect assassination, a perspective that doesn’t take into account his successful capers, like his bank robberies and his prison escape—and in fact, he would go on to escape from prison again for a short time while serving his sentence for murdering King. Others point to the fact that he was not a murderer and therefore seems an unlikely culprit. However, he had made a career of armed robbery, of threatening people with murder if they didn’t give him what he wanted, and once he is said to have stabbed someone in a Kansas City bar for no reason other than that they had spoken to him. Then there is the point that Ray was no sniper and therefore isn’t likely to have been the shooter, but to suggest that he couldn’t possibly have made the shot that killed King from 200 feet away doesn’t take into account the fact that when he joined the Army in 1946, he qualified as a marksman during basic training. Therefore, the real question needs to be one of possible motivation, of what may have driven Ray to commit the crime. He claims that not only was he not aware that Dr. King would be in Memphis at the same time as he would be there, but also that he didn’t really know who Martin Luther King was and that he certainly never talked about him. Moreover, he and his surprisingly numerous supporters, which include many people of color, insist that he is not a racist. Therefore, it would seem that he had no concrete reason to plan Dr. King’s murder and must have been a patsy. But are his supporters only seeing what he wants them to see? And what evidence is there to belie his true motivation?

Expectedly, after his arrest, Ray was grilled about his feelings toward African Americans in an effort to ascertain whether racism was a driving factor in his assassination of Dr. King. Did he hate black people? Was he connected to white supremacist organizations? Ray has always consistently denied any racist views, though his denials often included odd quibbling and admissions of feeling estranged from people of other races, which one might take as the equivocation of a guilty mind or as an attempt at complete honesty. Certainly many African American believers in a conspiracy have embraced the idea that Ray harbored no hatred toward them. Yet a close investigation into James Earl Ray’s past, as Gerald Posner provides in his book, Killing the Dream, which I’ve relied on extensively in this series, turns up some real evidence that Ray’s ideas about race tended toward bigotry all his life. He grew up in a poor little area of Missouri that some called Little Dixie, as it had been settled by Southerners and had a strong Ku Klux Klan presence (Posner 80). Although Ray himself has never been connected to the Klan, beyond the fact that later in life he accepted the representation of a famously Klan-associated attorney, he did evince some social and political ideas that would line up perfectly with that notorious hate group. While working at a tannery in 1944, he befriended a German named Henry Stumm who spoke admiringly of Hitler and the Nazis. It has been reported by people who knew Ray during this period—including one of his brothers, who shared some damning information about Ray with book authors before later denying he had said them—that it was during this time that James Earl Ray developed an intolerance of and hatred toward Jews and African Americans. From his point of view—again according to statements made by his own brother—Ray believed that the U.S. would be a better place if Nazis took control because they would ensure that it would be a racially homogeneous nation: all white. He thought not that they would exterminate all other races, but that they would exile them, deport them to some other country. In fact, so charmed was he with Nazi race politics that when he joined the Army after the war had ended, he requested to be stationed in occupied Germany, where more than one family member assumed he hoped to learn from or even support the Nazis.

A young James Earl Ray, already in trouble with the law, via the   LA Times

A young James Earl Ray, already in trouble with the law, via the LA Times

After the Nuremberg trials, however, he became disillusioned with the Nazis and with the Army, going AWOL and getting himself discharged from duty and sent back to the states. On the ship back, he was enraged, according one of his brothers, because black soldiers who had married German girls were put in first class while single white soldiers like himself were left in second class. Once home, Ray turned to a life of crime, and some who knew him said he developed an unreasonable hatred for African Americans, making occasional statements about how they should all be kicked out of the country, or even that they ought to be killed (Posner 111). This bigotry apparently continued or even worsened during his time in prison. Beyond the statements of his brothers and others close to him, some of which have since been recanted, some two dozen men who served time with Ray testified to his hostility toward black people. In fact, his animosity kept him from taking advantage of the opportunity to get out of his cell at Leavenworth and enjoy more freedom. In 1957, he had the chance to live on the prison’s honor farm, but he refused because it was integrated and apparently he much preferred the segregated living arrangements of the prison. Then while serving a sentence at Missouri State Penitentiary, he refused to attend any sporting events because the teams were comprised mostly of black players, and he once said of a black guard that worked his cell block, “that’s one nigger that should be dead.” And upon hearing of JFK’s assassination, he remarked, “That is one nigger-loving SOB that got shot. After his escape from the penitentiary, during his time courting Claire Keating in Montreal, Keating remembered their conversations turning to race and to black people specifically, saying that Ray told her, “You got to live near niggers to know ’em,” adding that everyone who knows them hates them (Posner 165). And after that, Ray again showed his true colors to the next woman he spent any significant time with, a prostitute in Mexico. One night, while drinking at a cantina, Ray seemed bothered by the fact that four black men had come in to drink at the same establishment. He began insulting and provoking the men before leaving the bar and coming back in to abuse them more. Returning to his seat, he had his companion feel inside his pocket, where she found that he was now carrying a pistol. One of the black patrons approached him and tried to make peace, but Ray snubbed him. Eventually, Ray drove all four men from the cantina with his disrespect, and he would have gone after them if his companion hadn’t stayed him by convincing him that police would be making their rounds.

Among the racist sentiments that Ray revealed in prison were comments about other countries to which he’d like to immigrate because they were less diverse or had ideas about relations between races that he found more sensible. For example, he told other inmates that he was considering moving to Australia because, as he understood it, there were no black people there. And he spoke a lot about the country of Rhodesia, a southern African nation built on harsh segregationist laws that was frequently in the news at the time because of its social and political turmoil. There, some 200,000 whites had maintained their extravagant lifestyles and their hegemony over the more than three million black native inhabitants by refusing to concede to black rule like the rest of the British colonies in Africa. Under Prime Minister Ian Smith, the colony declared a Unilateral Declaration of Independence and broke away from Britain. According to his brother John, James Earl Ray had not only expressed interest in travelling to Rhodesia but admiration for their stand against black majority rule, telling his brother during a prison visitation that he believed Ian Smith was doing a fine job. Things quickly fell apart, however, as The ensuing economic sanctions did little to bring the Rhodesians to heel, and as the white Rhodesians faced economic sanctions and a guerilla war at home, with multiple black nationalist groups, some armed and trained by Russia and others by China, engaged in a bush war with the relatively small Rhodesian army. This war was framed as a stand against Communism and heathenism, but to be certain, at its heart, it was a struggle to preserve a way of life made possible by white minority rule. And rather than Rhodesia’s troubles discouraging Ray’s interest in immigrating there, he seemed even more drawn to go and contribute in some way to their cause. While in Mexico, he wrote to an address he found in U.S. News and World Report advertising for immigrants to Rhodesia. Later, from Los Angeles, he wrote to the American-Southern African Council, expressing his interest in immigrating to Rhodesia and asking how he might obtain a passport since the U.S. wasn’t issuing them for travel to Rhodesia at the time, and then to the Friends of Rhodesia, Orange County chapter, purchasing a subscription to a pro-Rhodesian publication called the Rhodesian Commentary and asking further questions about immigrating there.  Indeed, his flight to Europe after the assassination seems to have been an effort to make his way to Africa and offer his services as a mercenary. After his London bank robbery, he flew to Lisbon, which was a hotspot at the time for recruiting white mercenaries to fight in Angola’s civil war. In Lisbon, he visited the South African Embassy and asked them about mercenary recruitment, but finding that they were no longer recruiting, he went to the Rhodesian mission and the legation for Biafra, making clear his desire to join a white mercenary group at each location. Thereafter, when he was caught with his pistol back in London Heathrow Airport, he said he was carrying it because he intended to make his way to Rhodesia, where it was quite dangerous. Judging from these actions, it would appear that his plan to go to Africa centered either on some ideological desire to support a country fighting for white supremacy or on some deep yearning to shoot at black Africans.

Rhodesian Army recruitment poster

Rhodesian Army recruitment poster

Another point supporting the notion that, despite whatever weak denials he made or tolerant facades he adopted after his arrest for King’s murder, James Earl Ray did indeed harbor racist ideology is his vociferous support of Alabama governor George Wallace, whose conflict with Dr. King and stringent stand against civil rights I discussed in the most recent installment of this series. By the time Ray escaped from Missouri State Penitentiary, Wallace was concentrating on a bid for the presidency of the United States. His populist campaign has been aptly compared to the campaign of Donald Trump numerous times by many historians, like Wallace biographer Dan Carter and presidential historian Ronald Feinman, as well as by respected news organizations, including the New York Times, and National Public Radio. Like Trump, Wallace fanned the fires of resentment and fear of progressive social change, in his case specifically over the Civil Rights Movement and its recent legislation, calling the Voting Rights Act “one of the most tragic, most discriminatory pieces of legislation ever enacted” and bemoaning the civil rights legislation for setting “race against race and class against class.” With this reactionary message, he drew massive crowds to disorderly rallies, just like his 2016 counterpart, and like Trump, he appealed to the poor white demographic, suggesting that politicians in Washington were out of touch with the people and that they had a rude awakening coming. As were Trump’s rallies, Wallace’s were troubled by protesters who called him a racist and whom Wallace mocked from his lectern. While Trump called his followers to Make America Great Again, Wallace urged his supporters to Stand Up for America. It’s almost as if Trump was working from a George Wallace playbook when he decided to declare the press his opposition and spend more time discrediting them than his opponents.  And much like Trump, he surprised many pollsters and analysts with his unexpected success, winning some 10 million popular votes and carrying 5 states.

We know that James Earl Ray was a strong George Wallace supporter because his brother John Ray, another Wallace supporter, has stated that James approved of his politics and even suggested that, after leaving Montreal following his failure to obtain a passport, he probably chose to go to Birmingham not because a shadowy mystery man directed him there but rather because he wanted to go somewhere people shared his views on race. After his sojourn in Mexico, Ray ended up in Los Angeles at the same time that Wallace was holding his raucous rallies up and down the state of California, and it would be no stretch to think he attended one of them. But even if he didn’t, we know that he read the Los Angeles Times, which devoted much column space in those months to Wallace’s effort to get his third party on the California ballot, and we know that in establishing his Eric S. Galt alias in L.A., he told people he was in town working for the Wallace campaign. In fact, he even appears to have done some stumping for them, of a sort. It turns out that his first trip to New Orleans from Los Angeles had not been made in order to rendezvous with Raoul—a character that he never mentioned to anyone until after his capture—but rather he made it as a favor to a woman he’d met, driving her, her brother and another friend there to retrieve her two daughters, but before he would take them, he demanded that all three sign a petition to get Wallace on the ballot. Finally, there is the indication that Ray may have been planning Dr. King’s assassination long in advance, and that George Wallace was an integral part of the plan. Ray’s brother Jerry told George McMillan, one of the writers researching the assassination, that there had been such a plan, and that Ray chose to establish his Eric S. Galt identity in Birmingham after returning from Canada because, much like Donald Trump can be counted on to use his pardon power as a sort of political patronage, James Earl Ray assumed that if he murdered Dr. King in Alabama, Wallace would make sure he went free. Of course, Jerry Ray would later deny that he said any such things, even though the statements are present in McMillan’s interview notes (Posner 169). And this would not be the only such statement indicating that James Earl Ray had entertained the idea of killing Dr. King for years.

Wallace campaign poster, via  Wikimedia Commons

Wallace campaign poster, via Wikimedia Commons

Ray claimed that he had only the vaguest knowledge of Dr. Martin Luther King’s existence, a dubious notion considering how much we know he read and kept up with the news, and that he certainly never spoke about him to anyone, but statements collected from people who knew him prior to the assassination contradict this. Back in prison, more than one inmate remembered how Ray would become agitated while reading weekly newsmagazines over the actions of civil rights leaders and King specifically, and one inmate, Cecil Lillibridge, recalled him scornfully calling Dr. King “Martin Luther Coon” (Posner 135). Likewise, statements made by Ray’s brothers, Jerry and John, who had visited him in prison and appear to have rendezvoused with him more than once after his escape, indicate that James Earl Ray was more than aware of Dr. King, that he was actually entertaining ideas about killing him.  Several weeks after his escape, according to Jerry Ray, all three brothers met in an old, rundown Chicago hotel and plotted some ways they might make money. Ideas bandied about ranged from as dangerous as kidnapping someone of importance for a ransom to as seedy as making and selling pornography, the latter being a scheme James Earl Ray found quite enticing. During this meeting, though, James told his brothers, “I’m going to kill that nigger King. That’s something that’s been on my mind. That’s something I’ve been working on.” According to their story, told to author George McMillan, both brothers refused to have anything to do with this plot. And later, both brothers claimed such a meeting had never taken place and denied they’d ever told McMillan it had. But the brothers were known to lie about their meetings with Ray. For example, John had visited James in prison the day before James’s escape, and there is reason to believe he aided his brother’s escape since James afterward used an alias and a social security number that John had previously been known to use. And despite prison records that prove the visitation happened, John claimed he had not visited James the night before the escape. And years later, when the House Select Committee on Assassinations questioned Jerry Ray about this meeting in Chicago at which James reportedly expressed intentions to murder Dr. King, Jerry tellingly did not deny it happened but rather refused to talk about it, hiding behind the Fifth Amendment on the grounds that discussing this meeting might incriminate him. Considering the fact that the bank robbery the brothers are suspected of committing together took place shortly after the meeting, it is possible that their discussion of kidnapping and robbery plans was what Jerry worried would be incriminating, but there is the further possibility that the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., was one of the plots hatched by the brothers in that Chicago hotel room, and that rather than it being James’s plan alone, the brothers raised it and planned to pursue it together. The question, then, is why? After the assassination, Jerry said that if Ray had done it, “there had to be a lot of money involved” (Posner 41). But he told McMillan that he had refused to go along with Ray’s plan of killing King because “There ain’t no money in killin’ a nigger” (Posner 152). Yet shortly after the manhunt for his brother had begun, he reportedly told a friend who asked him if Ray had done it that “This is his business… If I was in his position and had eighteen years to serve and someone offered me a lot of money to kill someone I didn’t like anyhow, and get me out of the country, I’d do it.” So was there, after all, money in it for the man who killed Dr. King? And did the brothers discuss this, among other moneymaking schemes, during their brainstorming session in that Chicago hotel room?

Of course, it is part of Ray’s legend of Raoul that he was drawn unwittingly into a plot to kill King on a promise of money, but if Ray had taken it upon himself to plan King’s murder as a moneymaking scheme before he claims he ever even met Raoul, then where would he have gotten the impression there was money in it? His prison acquaintance Cecil Lillibridge, who had listened to him rail against civil rights leaders, says that Ray also used to wonder aloud whether or not there might be some group out there that would reward the killer of a civil rights activist like King (Posner 135). Other inmates told interviewers that Ray spoke about murdering Dr. King for money, speculating that he might get as much as $10,000 for it. One inmate, Harry Sero, remembers suggesting to Ray that, what with King advocating boycotts, some wealthy businessmen might pay a lot to have King put out of the way. Ray’s comments appear to have graduated after that from speculative to seemingly assured, telling other inmates that some “businessman’s association” was offering a hundred grand for King’s murder, though he couldn’t name the group, simply saying he would find out who they were (Posner 136). Were there such bounties on Dr. King? The short answer is yes, of course there were, bounties ranging from $50,000 to $100,000 offered by a variety of far right hate groups like the KKK, the National Socialist White People’s Party, the Minutemen, and the American Nazi Party. Which of these groups Ray might have come into contact with, however, is a more important question to demonstrating that Ray may have undertaken the assassination in the hopes of collecting a bounty. There are reports that some prisoners in the Missouri State Penitentiary at Jefferson City were aware of a $100,000 bounty on King from the White Knights of the Mississippi KKK as well as of another bounty by a local criminal enterprise calling itself the Cooley’s Organization (Posner 137). But one such supposed bounty stands out. In the late ‘70s, the House Select Committee granted immunity to a St. Louis man in exchange for his testimony about being offered money to assassinate Dr. King. Russel Byers testified that in late ’66 or early ’67, a real estate developer with ties to the criminal underworld named John Kauffmann approached him about an opportunity and took him to see a wealthy segregationist named John Sutherland. Byers’s tale has him entering a well-appointed study adorned with memorabilia from the Confederacy to discuss a proposition. Sutherland, with a Confederate hat on his head, offered Byers fifty grand to kill King or to arrange his death, a bounty he said would be provided by a wealthy organization out of the South. Byers said he declined to take part in their plot. The House Select Committee was able to corroborate Byers’s story, and it seemed quite feasible that Ray might have found out about this offer before he escaped the penitentiary, as Byers’s brother-in-law was incarcerated in the same cell block with him, and Ray has admitted to knowing him. Then there is the fact that Kauffmann, the guy who brought Byers in on the plot, was a convicted amphetamine dealer, and during his trial, it came out that he was having the drugs smuggled into Missouri State Penitentiary, where James Earl Ray was using and selling them. A strong indication that Ray had heard of the Sutherland bounty on King comes from another inmate’s testimony, given long before Byers ever spoke about the bounty, that Ray had tried to bring him in on a plot to kill King for money, no longer claiming the bounty was ten grand or a hundred, but now naming the $50,000 amount we know was offered by John Sutherland and assuring the fellow prisoner that, if they killed King in the South, it wouldn’t even matter if they were caught because “who in the South like niggers?” (Posner 139).

An older Ray, in trouble with the law again, via  Newsweek

An older Ray, in trouble with the law again, via Newsweek

So there is good reason to believe James Earl Ray had it in his head that he and his brothers might make a considerable amount of money by planning and carrying out King’s assassination. After their meeting in Chicago, Ray made his way to Birmingham in order to establish his alias Eric S. Galt as an Alabaman because, as Jerry Ray explained to George McMillan, James Earl Ray thought getting rid of King would help the George Wallace campaign, and he believed that, if he were caught, Wallace would surely pardon him for the murder, maybe not right away, but eventually, when the outrage had subsided (Posner 169). And in fact, John Sutherland, the wealthy lawyer who had put up the fifty grand bounty on king, was a major player in the George Wallace campaign, a fact that lends credence to the conspiracy theory that the Wallace campaign may have actually been linked to the King assassination. Months later, after Ray’s vacation in Mexico, when he made his visit to New Orleans while living as Galt in Los Angeles, rather than meeting with Raoul as he claimed, there is a chance that he actually met with one of his brothers there and that they further discussed the idea of killing King and collecting the Sutherland bounty. Since Ray’s departure, his brother John had opened a tavern in St. Louis in an area where numerous Wallace rallies were held, and it had quickly become a haunt for ex-cons and underworld types looking for jobs, just the kind of place where the bounty would have been whispered about. Then, after Ray’s visit to New Orleans, John converted the tavern into a Wallace campaign center, distributing literature and helping to register voters. And in another connection to the Sutherland bounty, John employed a woman whose husband was friends with Russel Byers, the man Sutherland had propositioned about killing King. After Ray’s visit to New Orleans, there are clear signs that he wasn’t just looking forward to skipping the country or engaging in some more light smuggling but rather planning something big. He underwent plastic surgery to change his appearance. He would later explain that he did this because he expected soon to show up on the FBI’s Most Wanted list, a rather telling excuse, since surely he didn’t think a small-time escaped armed robber would be placed on the Most Wanted list so long after his escape unless he had it in his head that he would soon be committing a far more heinous and high-profile crime. He even went so far as to manually adjust his bandaged nose after his rhinoplasty so that even his plastic surgeon wouldn’t know exactly what he looked like. As James Earl Ray prepared to leave L.A., Dr. Martin Luther King visited the city and spoke at numerous events over the course of a couple days. Less than a month later, King would lie shot on the balcony at the Lorraine, and James Earl Ray had also begun the final leg of his journey to be in that same city block at the same time. As he headed east, staying at cheap motels, newspapers reported that Dr. King would be in Selma, Alabama, on the 22nd, and Ray drove straight there, indicating that, after all, he was stalking the reverend. When King left Selma, Ray took his leave as well, driving then to King’s hometown, Atlanta, Georgia, and it is worthwhile now to remember the map the FBI would eventually discover in one of his rooms, with King’s home and the church where he preached both circled in pencil. It was during this stay at a rooming house in Atlanta that Ray made the two hour drive west to Birmingham several times to visit multiple gun stores, and of course, if he really had no idea that the gun he would be buying was going to be used to murder someone and instead just thought it was going to be a showpiece to impress their Mexican connection, there would have been no reason not to buy the gun right there in Atlanta. Driving so far to buy it betrays Ray’s concern that the gun might later be traced back to him. Astonishingly, Jerry Ray, in the 1975 interview with George McMillan that he would later claim never happened but which is corroborated in McMillan’s notes according to Gerald Posner, the author of my principal source, Killing the Dream, Jerry said he actually met up with James in Birmingham, cagily implying they had test-fired the first rifle Ray bought together and that he had concerns about whether the gun could “do it in one shot” (Posner 223). Recall that when Ray returned  the first rifle he’d bought, he said that he’d changed his mind after speaking with his brother. After exchanging the rifle, Ray brought it to Memphis. There is some debate over when Ray left for Memphis with the rifle, whether it was before or after the announcement that King was returning to that city for another march, but we know that he only arrived at the New Rebel the night before the assassination.

The details coalesce to form a clear picture, it seems to me, that there may have been numerous conspiracies to have King killed in the form of bounties being put on his head, whether implicitly or explicitly, by hate groups as well as, perhaps, by some Southern boosters of the George Wallace campaign, but that Ray was not necessarily part of those conspiracies in the sense that he may only have heard of the bounties second or third hand and undertook to murder King with the hope of collecting on them after the fact. The clearest evidence of any conspiracy is between James Earl Ray and his brothers John and Jerry, who if McMillan’s interviews can be believed, might more accurately be called accomplices than co-conspirators. And there is little reason to trust known dissemblers and convicted felons over George McMillan, whose journalistic work appeared in the most distinguished of publications, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Saturday Evening Post. Nevertheless, while close scrutiny of the available research paints a surprisingly clear picture of a virulent racist and lifelong outlaw driven to murder out of greed who after his capture and conviction devoted the remainder of his life to spinning a web of lies and conspiracy innuendo, there are still a couple details that give one pause and prove a bit harder to explain away. For example, most of the aliases that James Earl Ray used, among them Eric S. Galt, John Willard, and Ramon Sneyd, were the names of real people, all of whom lived near each other in the same suburb of Toronto. The fact that a few of these Canadian men could’ve passed for Ray has led some to believe that the mysterious Raoul, Ray’s supposed handler, had provided him with these cover identities, although Ray himself never claimed this. Instead, he said he probably got the names out of a phone book, a believable enough explanation until one discovers the fact that the real Eric Galt’s middle name was not “Starvo,” as Ray had given it, but rather St. Vincent. Curiously, though, the real Galt customarily wrote out his middle name abbreviated, as St. V., with the periods looking like little o’s, so that it appeared to read as StoVo. So the only reasonable explanation seems to be that, rather than getting this name from a phone book, Ray must have seen some paper on which Galt had handwritten his name and simply guessed at pronouncing the middle name, corrupting it from Stovo to Starvo. But there is evidence that Ray stalked some of the men whose names he would later use, as among his possessions was another map with marks on it, this one of Toronto with marks near the homes of these men. And we know that after the assassination, he contacted the real life counterparts of several of his known aliases, pretending to be a government official in order to ascertain whether they already had passports, since he would be trying to get a passport in one of their names. So considering this, it is perhaps not impossible to imagine that he had previously gone to Toronto, stalked some men who looked like him, and took some papers from Galt at least, perhaps from his trash in order to find out what his signature looked like. It certainly is a complicated routine to go through when other fugitives might just make up a name, but perhaps it just reflects the fact that he had given a lot of thought to how he might establish an ironclad identity and obtain a Canadian passport, which eventually he did.

Ray’s Canadian passport photos, via  Another Nickel in the Machine

Ray’s Canadian passport photos, via Another Nickel in the Machine

Then there are the hypnosis sessions he underwent in Los Angeles before setting out to assassinate Dr. King. Assassination conspiracy theorists are no stranger to the notion that unwitting patsies can be programmed to commit murder through hypnosis. This is a major element of the conspiracy theory that Sirhan Sirhan was not alone responsible for the shooting of Bobby Kennedy. Sirhan Sirhan was an enthusiast of self-hypnosis and actually practiced it on himself by following the instructions provided by a group of supposed Rosicrucians. Now, who the Rosicrucians are, or were, is a topic better left for its own likely sprawling edition of Historical Blindness, but it’s understandable that this tidbit has fueled many conspiracy theories. Well, it turns out that James Earl Ray was interested in self-hypnosis as well. He had read about hypnosis in prison, bought more books on it in Canada, and attended several sessions with a psychologist in L.A. who specialized in hypnosis and found Ray to be an excellent subject of it—much like it was found that Sirhan Sirhan was easily hypnotized. This, of course, all sounds very suspicious and sinister, until you read what his hypnotists had to say about him. When interviewed, Dr. Freeman, his L.A. psychologist, said Ray revealed no secret plan to kill King while under hypnosis, but that he did betray his immense dislike for African Americans. Ray also visited the International Society of Hypnosis and spoke with its head, Rev. Xavier von Koss, who disagreed about Ray being easy to hypnotize, saying he showed a “strong subconscious resistance” (Posner 209). And for what it’s worth, during his encounter with Ray, Koss also claims to have surmised that Ray wanted recognition above all else. And the simple truth about these assassins’ interest in self-hypnosis might be far more mundane that one would anticipate. The fact is, self-hypnosis was something of a self-help fad at the time. It was becoming popular as a self-improvement technique that could improve memory and sleep and help one overcome personality problems like shyness and social disorders like anxiety. Some more common uses of self-hypnosis that many may be more familiar with are its use in helping people quit smoking or lose weight. So rather than it being a nefarious brainwashing technique that some mysterious conspirators used to program both Sirhan Sirhan and James Earl Ray, isn’t it a simpler and therefore more logical explanation that they just used it to overcome the shyness with which they were both known to struggle? In fact, as an escaped convict who may have also been planning a high-profile assassination, Ray’s shyness, his tendency to not look people in the eye and seem squirrely and nervous, was something he would have certainly wanted to correct, as it could very well get him caught. In fact, in the end, it did, as the immigration officer at the passport desk in Heathrow on June 8th, 1968, looked a little closer at him and his papers, double-checking his name against those on his “Watch For and Detain” list, because he seemed “slightly nervous” (Posner 45).

Time, it is said, marches on, and like the marchers at whose head Dr. Martin Luther King strode, it has gone on to remember him well. Just days after his murder, with his killer still on the loose and the fires of rioters still burning, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1968, and several months later, before an election that LBJ had backed out of, he spoke again on the passage of a landmark Gun Control Bill that was directly inspired by the horrendous murders of both Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy by men that never should have been allowed to get their hands on a firearm. But, of course, even after these tragedies which roused our nation to action, much like today, the influential gun lobby prevented the passage of comprehensive gun control legislation. Within weeks of the Gun Control Bill’s passage, we elected president Richard Nixon. After the failure of his presidential campaign, George Wallace returned to Alabama and licked his wounds, winning the governorship back in 1971 and once again campaigning for president in 1972, when he became the victim of his own assassination attempt. Unlike King, surviving the attempt, he lived to the age of 79. Despite publicly moderating his views on race, Wallace is not remembered well, unlike Dr. King, who is popularly viewed today as a visionary, a hero, a saint, and a martyr. As for James Earl Ray, he died in 1998 at 70, failing to ever win a new trial despite decades of sowing doubt about his guilt. Nevertheless, speculation about Ray’s innocence and the possibility of a conspiracy will not die.

View of Lorraine Hotel from the window where James Earl Ray was alleged to have fired the fatal shot at Martin Luther King, Jr., via  Flickr  (uploaded by Mr. Littlehand, licenced under the terms of the cc-by-2.0.)

View of Lorraine Hotel from the window where James Earl Ray was alleged to have fired the fatal shot at Martin Luther King, Jr., via Flickr (uploaded by Mr. Littlehand, licenced under the terms of the cc-by-2.0.)

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Further Reading

Posner, Gerald. Killing the Dream: James Earl Ray and the Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Random House, 1998

The Killing of Dr. King, Part Two: The Legend of Raoul

Killing Dr King pt 2 logo.jpg

Last time, after honoring Dr. King’s life and work before the day set aside for remembering him, we followed the FBI on the killer’s trail, looking at the evidence turned up along the way, until the suspect, James Earl Ray, was captured at a London airport. Already, conspiracy theories abounded, suggesting that the CIA, the FBI, Memphis police, the mafia, white supremacists, or black militants had plotted King’s murder. Flatly listing these theories tends to make them sound ridiculous, but there were good reasons to harbor suspicions in those post-Warren Report years, when New Orleans DA Jim Garrison was making noise about a conspiracy behind JFK’s assassination. And there were certainly some details around King’s death that contributed to the speculation. First, the failure of the police to set up road blocks and inform neighboring states about their search for a white Mustang suggested to many that local authorities were letting the assassin get away. The fact that a hoaxer led police on a wild goose chase with a phony CB radio broadcast also suggests to some the idea that a conspirator was working to help the assassin escape, even though that hoax broadcast took place more than half an hour after the shooting, when the shooter was likely already in another state. Then there was the fact that the principal witness at the rooming house, Charlie Stephens, who claimed to see a man matching Ray’s description leaving the shared bathroom carrying a rifle-length bundle, was a known drunk who appears to have been intoxicated that day, though police who took his statements indicated he was not exceedingly drunk. And Stephens was important to placing James Earl Ray in the rooming house, for while police did find Ray’s fingerprints on items in the abandoned bundle, they found none in the room he had rented and only a partial palm print in the bathroom. This is easily accounted for by the fact that, a career burglar and escaped convict, Ray himself spoke in some interviews about his habit of wiping his fingerprints. As for ballistics evidence, the FBI determined that the bullet fired into Dr. King matched the other bullets in the abandoned bundle, but that it could not be confirmed that it had been fired from the rifle in the bundle. This was simply because the bullet had been damaged and identifying marks could not be perceived, and in no way indicated that the bullet had not been fired from the gun discarded on the street outside the rooming house. Nevertheless, it has contributed to theories that the bundle was planted as part of a frame-up. As for the sniper’s perch, though most were certain the gunshot had originated from the building across the street from the Lorraine Motel, some few others thought it had come from some shrubbery above a retaining wall. Dr. King’s driver thought he saw some movement in those bushes, and months later, one of the rooming house residents said he was in the bushes drinking wine and had seen a figure with a gun dashing through the foliage. Later, it came out that the driver, who was known for telling tales, had actually been in the pool area and would have been unable to see the foliage across the road, and the rooming house resident had previously told the authorities that he’d been in his room, not in the bushes, and that he’d seen nothing. Nevertheless, the foliage above the retaining wall has since become a legendary place, like the grassy knoll at John F. Kennedy’s assassination. And just as Lee Harvey Oswald proclaimed himself a patsy before his murder by Jack Ruby, James Earl Ray insisted he had been set up. The difference was that great care was taken to protect Ray from a similar fate, and so he survived and had far more to say. The story he told his lawyers and the author William Bradford Huie involved a mysterious figure whom he had met in Montreal while on the lam. This man, named Raoul, had drawn Ray into a smuggling operation, bought him the Mustang and paid his living expenses, maneuvered him various places on the promise of eventually providing him with a passport, ordered him to buy the rifle as part of an arms deal, and eventually schemed to get him in Memphis, in the wrong place at the wrong time, a completely oblivious patsy.

When considering the likelihood of a plot against King, one has to begin with the local authorities. Dr. King had been considered a thorn in the side of numerous municipal and state authorities in areas he had visited. Alabama serves as a principal example. One of Dr. King’s most zealous adversaries was Alabama governor George Wallace, a segregationist who had staked his political career on racism, famously standing in the doorway of the University of Alabama to prevent black students from entering. His calls for Segregation Now, Segregation Tomorrow, Segregation Forever helped make Birmingham the frontlines for the Civil Rights Movement, and under his auspices, led by his terrible example, Birmingham police resorted violence during the SCLC campaign in that city. Another of King’s worst opponents had been the Commissioner of Public Safety in Birmingham, “Bull” Connor, who, taking his cues from the bigoted governor, callously turned the hoses of the firemen and the batons of the policemen he commanded against King and his protesters. And later, demonstrating against illegal, racially motivated obstacles to voting registration that Governor Wallace tacitly allowed to persist in his state, King and the SCLC planned a historically lengthy march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, where on Bloody Sunday unarmed protesters were welcomed by tear gas and truncheons. Indeed, if Dr. King had been assassinated in any city in Alabama, the very first suspects might have been members of its police force, with implications that orders might have come down all the way from the governor’s office to rid their state of the troublesome activist. But King was killed in Tennessee, a state where he had not done any extensive organization previous to the sanitation strikes, which had only begun about a month before his arrival there. This is not to say that Tennessee had not seen its fair share of struggles for civil rights. On the contrary, since the ’50s there had been multiple bombings in Nashville in response to the desegregation of schools and in retaliation for student-led sit-in campaigns in the ’60s aimed at integrating lunch counters. And Dr. King did have some influence on the activism in Tennessee, as it was spearheaded by the Nashville Christian Leadership Conference, an affiliate of King’s SCLC, and King had sent one of his own to tutor them in the techniques of non-violent resistance. But Dr. King himself only came to Nashville after a bomb destroyed the home of a lawyer who represented sit-in participants, and he came not in a leadership capacity, but rather to express his admiration for all the work that had been done there without him, saying he was there “not to bring inspiration but to gain inspiration.”  

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. being arrested in Alabama for "loitering,"  via  Wikimedia Commons

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. being arrested in Alabama for "loitering," via Wikimedia Commons

It’s not impossible to imagine that he had enraged many in Tennessee simply through his very famous work, which had spread to states all over the country, or even that police in Memphis blamed King, despite his non-violent message, for the violence that erupted during the March 28th demonstration that he attended, but it would have been a drastic step to resort to assassinating him, and they would have had a very short time to organize their plot. Some have pointed to the fact that police were not providing any security for Dr. King as proof that they were part of a conspiracy bent on seeing him killed, but in truth Dr. King preferred not to be surrounded by police officers, who of course represented the immediate opposition in any street demonstration and who only days earlier had shot a 16-year-old rioter to death. So wary was he of having a police escort that he and his group actually made an attempt to elude their police security detail before it was finally called off them in favor of surveilling the group from a distance. Others have contended that King and his entourage had been maneuvered to the Lorraine Motel in order to put him in the cross-hairs, a contention that is also untrue. King and his group customarily stayed at the Lorraine, an establishment owned by African Americans, and moreover always stayed in the same room. In fact, days earlier, during the March 28th violence, the police had warned him away from the Lorraine for his own safety, directing him to stay at a Holiday Inn instead, a change of lodgings for which Dr. King was subsequently criticized. Their failure to order roadblocks or extend their APB certainly reflects poorly on them, but they were dealing with rioting in the wake of the news that Dr. King had been murdered. And a bigger problem with the notion that King’s assassination was the object of a plot by Memphis police is that it simply doesn’t work with the idea that James Earl Ray was a patsy. Ray had only just arrived in Memphis the night before the assassination. Even King himself had not long been there and had been in and out of the city three times in the preceding weeks on impromptu visits, making a Memphis-based plot unlikely. Moreover, for the local conspiracy theory to work with Ray’s story about Raoul, it would require that the authorities in Memphis or Tennessee generally so wanted Dr. King dead that they planned his assassination long before the sanitation strike that drew him there had even begun. And it would mean they sent an agent to Montreal, of all places, to skulk around bars scoping out promising scapegoats, only to lead him on a circuitous escapade all over North America, from Canada to Mexico and from California to Georgia, before finally sending him to Memphis in order to frame him. While this seems manifestly unlikely, the idea that Ray was groomed as part of a plot at a higher level of government may seem less unlikely. After all, the FBI were present with the Memphis police in that nearby fire station, spying on Dr. King at the Lorraine.

A plot against King at the FBI is certainly not unbelievable, for it’s well-documented that one actually existed. The FBI had been keeping an eye on Dr. King’s activities since his earliest activism in Montgomery in 1955, with Director J. Edgar Hoover suspecting that King harbored Communist leanings and classifying him as a national or domestic security risk.  Indeed some of those closely involved with King and SCLC leadership were known members of Communist organizations, including Bayard Rustin, Hunter Pitts O’Dell, and Stanley Levison, but this should not be surprising of progressive activists in their era. Today, we know that the FBI tasked a sophisticated surveillance network with spying on King, complete with wiretaps on his phones and paid informants on his staff. Because of this surveillance, there is ample evidence of just how little Dr. King thought of Communism, which he called “an alien philosophy contrary to us.” But despite evidence that he was not a Communist insurgent, in 1964, King incurred the redoubled wrath of Director Hoover when he declared that the FBI was “completely ineffectual in resolving the continued mayhem and brutality inflicted upon the Negro in the deep South,” to which, like a child, Hoover responded by calling King a liar. True to his peace-loving nature, Dr. King arranged a meeting with Hoover, who received King with no outward animosity. Meanwhile, Hoover’s FBI engaged in an all-out smear campaign, maligning his character to Roman cardinals in an effort to prevent a meeting between Dr. King and the Pope that year, and sending a notorious package to his house in an effort to sow discord in his marriage. This package contained a tape with moaning sex sounds and a letter that addressed him only as “King,” continuing, “In view of your low grade, abnormal personal behavior (sic) I will not dignify your name with either a Mr. or a Reverend or a Dr. And, your last name calls to mind only the type of King such as King Henry the VIII and his countless acts of adultery and immoral conduct lower than that of a beast.” The letter called him an immoral, sexually psychotic fraud and a liability to the cause of civil rights, insisting that his extra-marital liaisons with both women and men would soon be made public, suggesting that the tape was a recording of him and insinuating that the only thing left for him to do was to kill himself. Although the letter made statements intended to indicate it had been written by an African American and perhaps someone in his own organization, Dr. King perceptively guessed that it had been sent by the FBI. Indeed, now, due to recently declassified files, we know that the FBI was preparing reports on Martin Luther King all the way up to the time of his assassination, still claiming that he was a Communist agent and that workshops King held were really only fronts for drunken orgies at which attendees committed adultery with prostitutes and engaged in homosexual acts. It is certainly true that Dr. King was no saint. Indeed, he once penitently confirmed as much to activist and singer Joan Baez who had seen him intoxicated the night before. In response, Baez said, “And I’m not the Virgin Mary. What a relief!” Ralph Abernathy, in his autobiography, did reveal that King, a man frequently on the road and away from home and family, had been involved in extramarital affairs, but there appears to be no evidence whatsoever for the salacious and defamatory claims made by the FBI in their efforts to ruin Dr. King.

NY Herald Tribune article from 1964, via the University of Virginia’s  Office of African-American Affairs

NY Herald Tribune article from 1964, via the University of Virginia’s Office of African-American Affairs

Clearly the thought that Hoover’s FBI might have been responsible for the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., was well justified. But this would have to be a compartmentalized plot, for surely the President of the United States, to whom the FBI answers, would not condone such action against a non-violent reverend. Or can some credence be given to the conspiracist who claims the plot went all the way to the top? Well, above Hoover was the Attorney General, a role Ramsey Clark served at the time of King’s murder, but Clark is an unlikely suspect for involvement in a plot against King as he was a consistently staunch supporter of the civil rights movement. And above the Attorney General, of course, would be the President himself. Now, many take it for granted that King had positive relationships with both John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, but both executives had J. Edgar Hoover pouring poison in their ears, trying to convince them of what a threat Dr. King really was. While Kennedy had made promises to King about getting civil rights legislation passed, behind his back he was signing his approval of the wiretaps Hoover had requested. After Kennedy’s assassination, President Johnson reached out and made clear his intentions to take up Kennedy’s civil rights agenda. And in fact he did, working with Dr. King on passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in an effort to end segregation and discrimination. King found in Johnson an accommodating ally. Although sometimes he prioritized other objectives, like his War on Poverty initiatives, over the most pressing concerns of Dr. King and the SCLC, like ensuring obstacle-free black voter registration in order to get black Southerners on juries and into civic service, nevertheless King found that with a little persistent pressure, LBJ always seemed to do the right thing, and in 1965 Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act to help remove illegal barriers to black voter registration in the South. And certainly, after Dr. King’s death, Johnson expressed grief publicly and continued to work to cement King’s legacy in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1968. It would be misleading to suggest, however, that Dr. King never represented a problem for LBJ. The simple fact that he was known to work with King, whom so many others in power despised, appears to have been an issue for him, and he was known to distance himself from the reverend, denying their relationship like Peter denying Jesus. And their partnership was certainly strained in the end, when Dr. King very publicly split from him on the issue of the Vietnam War. And of course, taking a stand against the conflict in Vietnam surely gave Hoover more ammunition against him, more reason to claim he was a Communist. So the question, then, is could Hoover have exploited this rift between Johnson and King to convince the Commander-in-Chief that some covert action was warranted to rid the country a man he portrayed as a dangerous agitator? This is pure conjecture based on speculation. All we really know is that the President’s often positive partnership with King was lately troubled and that the director of the largest domestic law enforcement organization was waging a very personal campaign against King, one that even included threats. Beyond this, to support the notion of a conspiracy, there is only the legend of Raoul.

LBJ and MLK, via  Wikimedia Commons

LBJ and MLK, via Wikimedia Commons

Even before his extradition to the United States, James Earl Ray, still stubbornly sticking to his alias Ramon Sneyd at the time, began shopping his story around through his attorney. Indeed, from the time of his extradition to the time of his guilty plea, he went through a couple of prominent lawyers, all of which he retained on the promise of sharing the profits from his story, which he anticipated would be substantial. William Bradford Huie was first to sign a deal with and interview him, but before long numerous authors were hard at work on numerous books. Nevertheless, Ray worked exclusively with Huie, a journalist known for checkbook journalism, or paying handsomely for his stories, and famous for his recent work in what would today be considered the true crime genre, with particular focus on notorious cases of interracial murder, such as those of Emmett Till and the Freedom Summer murders. When Huie published the first of his interviews with Ray in Look magazine, he faced contempt of court charges, and not for the first time, for the judge feared Huie’s inflammatory revelations would influence the outcome of the trial. Huie’s article told of how Ray had escaped from prison in Missouri and hid out in Illinois before making his way to Montreal in hopes of getting travel documents and going overseas. There, he haunted a waterfront tavern, making it known that he was in trouble with the law in the U.S. and that he would be willing to engage in unlawful activity in order to gather some money and obtain false identification. That was when Raoul, a man Ray described as being a blond Latin, approached him. Over the course of several meetings, Raoul convinced Ray to make a few trips over the border to Detroit with some packages that he assumed contained narcotics. After receiving some money for this apparent smuggling operation, on Raoul’s promise of an eventual bigger payoff and provision of a passport, Ray made his way to Birmingham, where Raoul eventually caught up with him, bought him the white Mustang, and sent him down to Mexico to do some gun running south of the border. After a significant period of time in Mexico and thereafter in Los Angeles, Ray used a New Orleans contact number and arranged to meet again with Raoul in that city. At this rendezvous, Raoul continued to string Ray along, urging him to come out to Atlanta for some more gun-running, still dangling the promise of a big payoff and the paperwork that would finally ease Ray’s passage out of the country. Chasing after those promises, Ray returned to LA and made preparations to move to Atlanta. Once he’d settled in Georgia, he met with Raoul, who gave him $700 to buy a hunting rifle with a scope and some ammunition. The reason Raoul gave him was that the rifle would serve as an example to their Mexican connection of the kinds of guns they could provide. Raoul then directed Ray to take the rifle to Memphis, thus setting the stage for the final scene of the plot.

This was the story of James Earl Ray’s grooming by Raoul as Ray told it. And on the surface, to a lot of people, it makes sense, for how could James Earl Ray, a hapless small-time burglar, manage to get away with a high-profile murder and then obtain the money and the false identification necessary to make his escape to Europe like some smooth secret agent? But there are significant issues with this tale, even beyond the simple foundational flaw that he was encouraged to come up with a sensational story in order not only to defend himself but also to sell books and thereby make a tidy profit. One issue is that for most of the rest of his life, Ray failed to identify this Raoul character, and his descriptions seemed to constantly change, shifting from a Latin to a French Canadian, with hair that changed color from blond to red, to dark, auburn, and sandy and skin that was at times pale and at others dark and ruddy (Posner 162). Once he fanned the flames of conspiracy theory by identifying Raoul with one of the Three Tramps photographed at JFK’s assassination, but even then he only admitted some similarity. Then there are the simple logic problems. Why would any smuggler worth his salt even trust Ray with stashes of narcotics and guns on the promise of a later payment for delivery, when Ray might easily have just taken the contraband for himself? Moreover, why would their Mexican buyers have even needed them to procure guns when U.S. gun stores at the time were selling firearms over the counter without requiring any identification? And if all these smuggling operations were simply a ruse meant to draw Ray into their machinations, why on earth would they engage him, a wanted escapee, in risky criminal activity that could have easily landed him back in prison, abruptly foiling all the time they had spent grooming him as a patsy?

A young James Earl Ray, via the  LA Times

A young James Earl Ray, via the LA Times

It is also not entirely inconceivable that James Earl Ray might have financed his own travels. He was after all, a burglar known for keeping himself in money by pulling the occasional heist. Immediately after his escape from prison, he took a straight job while lying low, washing dishes in a restaurant. Yet somehow he had enough money to live on when he made his way up to Montreal some weeks later. There is some indication that he met up with his brothers, Jerry and John, during this period, so perhaps they loaned him some money, but interestingly, at just that time, a nearby bank was robbed by two masked men with shotguns. Taking 27 grand, even a share of this haul would have easily bankrolled Ray’s subsequent travels, and records show that the next day, Ray bought the car he would drive to Canada for some $200. Moreover, the FBI suspected James’s brother John of the robbery, as he may have been involved in five similar holdups during the last two years, for one of which he was actually convicted. And the indications of James Earl Ray’s continuous thievery during the time between his escape from prison and his arrest for murder does not stop there. Ray told Huie that the night before paying a lease on an apartment in Montreal, he visited a brothel and after availing himself of its services, he robbed its pimp. By the time he got to London, he lacked the money to move on. He told Huie that he should have committed a robbery in Canada before getting on the plane. To renew his capital, he ended up robbing a bank there in London, leaving a thumbprint behind to prove it (Posner 249). He is often portrayed as being a bumbling and incompetent thief based on an early robbery of a taxi driver that had earned him a year in prison, but based on his successful escape from prison, the reports of various successful robberies he pulled, and indications of even greater heists he may have been involved with, the idea that he financed his own travels seems a lot more likely than that he relied on the piecemeal payments of the tightfisted Raoul.

Likewise, the notion that he would have allowed himself to be strung along for so long on the unfulfilled promise of obtaining a passport also strains credulity. For one thing, Ray had an idea of how to get a passport in Canada back when he was still in prison. He had read a newspaper article about an Italian criminal that had exploited the simple process of getting Canadian papers and had spoken with a fellow inmate about how one could use newspaper archives and city records to get a birth certificate and establish identity. Indeed, that appears to be the reason why he had gone to Canada in the first place. He had one misconception that held him back, though. He was under the impression that in order to get his passport he needed a voucher, a Canadian citizen willing to attest to his identity. So in Montreal, he bought himself a suit and got himself a haircut and went about trying to meet a lady friend that he could eventually convince to vouch for him. And he did meet someone, a polished woman in her thirties by the name of Claire Keating, with whom he had a fleeting romance. One of the bigger logical flaws of his story about Raoul was that he continued pursuing women, and Ms. Keating specifically, in his effort to obtain a passport even when Raoul had supposedly already offered to obtain the papers for him. One might suggest that he continued to pursue her for genuine romantic reasons, and considering the fact that she was by all accounts quite lovely and throughout his life his only other liaisons appear to have been with prostitutes, this would be quite plausible, were it not for the fact that he abandoned his pursuit of her as soon as he learned she worked for the Canadian Department of Transport. He was using her, and when he felt she represented a threat, he dropped her. Regardless, even according to Ray’s own legend of Raoul, the mystery figure never actually provided him with those long-promised papers. After making his escape from the scene of the crime and getting himself back up to Canada, he did that himself, using his old tricks to establish false identity and this time scheming to create a second identity that could vouch for him until he discovered he had no need for a voucher. In the end, we know exactly how he got himself overseas, and we have a clear idea of how he kept himself in money.

James Earl Ray’s fake Canadian Passport, via  ABC News

James Earl Ray’s fake Canadian Passport, via ABC News

As for the day in question, Ray contends that not only was he unaware of the plot against King, but he was wholly ignorant that King was even present in Memphis when he followed Raoul’s directions and drove there. We know that he checked in to the New Rebel Motel, alone, under his known alias Eric S. Galt, on the evening before the murder, and we know he was up late based on the clerk’s report of seeing his light on at 4am. What Ray tells us is that he met Raoul at the New Rebel, received directions to check into the rooming house across from the Lorraine Motel the next day and meet Raoul at the nearby restaurant Jim’s Grill at three in the afternoon. Ray claims he handed the hunting rifle he’d recently purchased in Birmingham over to Raoul in the New Rebel and never saw it again, the implication being that Raoul had asked him to buy it not for some weapons deal but merely to connect him to the murder weapon and to get his fingerprints on it. Of course, this story already doesn’t make sense in a few ways. For example, if the gun deal were real, they could have done it right there at the New Rebel, with no reason to switch hotels, and if that were just a ruse to get Ray into the rooming house and connect him with the sniper’s nest, why wouldn’t Raoul have just had him take the rifle there as well, on the understanding that they’d be completing their gun deal in the room? But regardless of why or at whose direction, Ray did indeed head to the rooming house the next day and check in under the alias John Willard, and then the various stories he has told over the years in crafting his alibi become muddled. He met with Raoul either at Jim’s Grill, in the parked Mustang, or in room 5B in the rooming house (Posner 230). We know that after checking into the room, Ray drove to buy a pair of binoculars, and he says he did that on Raoul’s instructions. After returning to the room and giving Raoul the binoculars, Ray made himself scarce at Raoul’s insistence. This is the critical hour before the assassination, and Ray asserts that he wasn’t even in the rooming house, claiming instead that he was in Jim’s Grill, or perhaps another restaurant or an ice cream parlor, but also at a movie theater, and maybe in a drugstore, plus sitting in his car for a while (Posner 231). Quite the vaguely busy hour. It was when he was sitting in his car that he heard the shot, and then Raoul, he claimed, burst out of the rooming house and got into the Mustang’s backseat, pulling a sheet over himself to hide. Ray drove him several block away, let him out, and that was the last he ever saw Raoul. The only problem with this alibi was that there were witnesses at a record store who saw a single man climb into an empty white Mustang after the shooting and drive off alone. True to form, Ray laughed it off, said that first story was just a joke, and emended his alibi (Posner 231). A gas station attendant named Willie Green had been quoted in a newspaper as reporting that during the assassination, a suspiciously nervous man was at his filling station pacing around the public phone. He said he believed Ray was the man he had seen and had identified him from a photo, and moreover, he believed there had been a white Mustang in the lot. In truth, the attendant’s claims to have identified the nervous man from a photo of Ray must have been false, as police did not have a photo of Ray when the attendant was questioned. And Gerald Posner, in his fantastic book Killing the Dream, which has been instrumental in creating this series, uncovered in the notes of the journalist who first quoted Green the detail that the gas station attendant had actually seen this nervous fellow sometime after the assassination, and that he had hung around the station until long after Ray would’ve been out of state.  Nevertheless, Ray’s new alibi became that he had been at a gas station—one he couldn’t quite pinpoint in his memory—getting a spare tire repaired. As for why he suddenly fled the city and the country, he explained that he spooked when he ran into a police roadblock—already a doubtful scenario since there was a recognized failure of the police to establish roadblocks—and afterward, hearing on the radio news of the assassination and the fact that police were looking for a white Mustang, he put the pieces together and headed to Canada.

Ray’s story about Raoul has been found by many, including the House Select Committee on Assassinations that convened in 1978 to further examine conspiracy claims in both the King and the JFK slayings, to be wholly unreliable. Some of the strongest evidence against his claim that he had bought the rifle at Raoul’s direction simply to show a prospective Mexican buyer the kind of weapon they might provide in an arms deal comes from the testimony of the several gun store clerks who dealt with Ray in and around Birmingham during the weeks leading up to the assassination. They said he asked numerous questions about different rifles’ accuracy and about the quality of different scopes. They remembered him inquiring how far a bullet might be expected to drop over certain distances. When he finally did purchase a rifle, he returned it the next day, explaining he needed a more powerful gun as he intended “to hunt bigger game” (Posner 13).  These appear to be the statements of a man with specific needs who plans to make a particular use of the firearm, not of a man picking up a rifle on behalf of someone else just to show to a third party. In the end, the House Select Committee on Assassinations determined that all evidence suggested James Earl Ray had pulled the trigger and killed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but they were a bit less definite on the question of whether he acted alone, suggesting that he may have had some help. So, if Raoul was simply a fabrication, meant to stir up conspiracy claims and help Ray sell his story, it seems the issue becomes who else might have aided or been aware of Ray’s plans to assassinate King, and in the reports of gun store clerks we have some further clues to this mystery. In explaining why he was exchanging the rifle he had bought for another, he said he had made the decision after speaking with his brother about it.

James Earl Ray and his lawyer testifying before the House Select Committee on Assassinations, via  The Telegraph

James Earl Ray and his lawyer testifying before the House Select Committee on Assassinations, via The Telegraph

Be on the lookout for the next installment in this continuing series, as we examine this and the further mystery of why James Earl Ray murdered Dr. King, in Part Three: Ray’s Reasons.

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Further Reading

Posner, Gerald. Killing the Dream: James Earl Ray and the Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Random House, 1998

The Killing of Dr. King, Part One: A Dream Defied

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It occurred fewer than 5 years after the murder of the 35th president of the United States at Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas, during the era of disillusionment and mistrust that his assassination provoked. And it was followed within 2 months by the murder of Robert F. Kennedy, presidential hopeful and bearer of the standard of hope that many believed had been torn asunder by his brother’s assassination. Thus the optimism of the 1960s was killed by a handful of bullets, and trust in our government was forever diminished by the persistent questions of who was really behind these slayings. And of course you’ve heard plenty of conspiracy theories about the JFK assassinations, from the plethora of books and films that explore it. You have likely heard quite a lot about the RFK assassination as well; in fact, the creators of podcast giant Crimetown recently produced a fantastic mini-series on it called the RFK Tapes. But there appear to be fewer books and less media attention generally on the assassination that occurred between the two Kennedy assassinations. The victim of this assassination was a champion of the marginalized, so this may reflect a further historical disregard for him and those he represents.  I am writing, of course, of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., firebrand and spearhead of the American Civil Rights Movement. His assassination differed from that of the two Kennedys in several regards. Aside from simple differences of race, King, while a political figure, was not a politician. He was not a candidate for the presidency; he was the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a preacher and activist, a symbol of non-violence and proponent not only of equality and social justice but of peace and harmony. After his murder, an international manhunt commenced, concluding in the arrest at Heathrow Airport in London of a white Missourian named James Earl Ray. This accused assassin accepted responsibility for King’s death in a guilty plea, but over the course of the next 30 years, he fought for a new trial and encouraged the conspiracy theories that swirled around the crime. By the time of his death, incredibly, he had convinced even those closest to Dr. Martin Luther King of his innocence, and today, many still believe he was a patsy in a nefarious and well-planned plot. But we know, readers, that an idea being popular or even prevalent doesn’t make it true.

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Dr. King had not planned to visit Memphis, Tennessee, in March of 1968.  At the time, he was busy planning a march on Washington, the Poor People’s Campaign, meant to unite poverty-stricken populations across racial lines. But recent events in Memphis drew his attention. The predominately African-American sanitation workers had gone on strike over poor pay and lack of benefits, driven to action after two workers were accidentally crushed to death in a garbage truck and the city refused to provide any compensation to their bereaved families. The impasse reached during their strike precipitated the city’s first civil rights march, which ended in violence between marchers and police after a police car rolled over a marcher’s foot. When Dr. King came to speak at the strike headquarters on March 18th, he was met by 15,000 people, and despite all his plans and busy schedule, he agreed to return later that month to lead them in another march. However, upon his return, before he and other members of the SCLC could hold their planned workshops on non-violent resistance with the Memphis protesters, a new element of violent protesters had invaded the city, rioting, looting and starting fires. 4,000 National Guardsmen were sent in, and three hundred rioters were arrested. King was distraught, but not defeated. Holding a press conference, he announced that he would return within a few days to lead a non-violent march.

“I am a Man (Sanitation Workers Strike, Memphis, 1968)”, by Ernest Withers, image courtesy  St. Lawrence University Art Gallery , licensed via Creative Commons   (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

“I am a Man (Sanitation Workers Strike, Memphis, 1968)”, by Ernest Withers, image courtesy St. Lawrence University Art Gallery, licensed via Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

After a brief time at home in Atlanta, the time had come to fly back to Memphis. It was April 3rd, and when his friend Xernona Clayton came to pick him up and drive him to the airport, his children began to behave strangely, begging him not to go, almost as if they had some premonition about what would befall him on his trip. Then in another ominous sign, once he had boarded his plane, it remained on the tarmac and King waited as they searched the plane from nose to tail, for a bomb threat had been made. Eventually, the plane took off, and King joked that it looked like he wouldn’t be killed after all, prompting his friends to assure him that no one was going to kill him. Upon arrival in Memphis, though, another dark portent arrived in the form of their car and driver, which had been provided by a funeral home. That night, King had turned in, but a phone call roused him. It turned out that some 2,000 people had gathered at the strike headquarters hoping to see the newly arrived Dr. King speak. Reluctantly, King dressed and made his way there. His friend, SCLC Program Director Reverend Ralph Abernathy, delivered a grand, impromptu introduction for him that has since been likened to a eulogy, and then Martin Luther King, Jr., took the pulpit.  Based on the content of the now famous speech he delivered that night, it is clear that death was on his mind. He had faced it throughout his career, in countless states where he had gone to confront systemic racism and violence as well as to curb the rioting of his own brothers and sisters. In his speech, he spoke of one incident in particular, in which a deranged woman had stabbed him at a book signing. He quoted the letter of a little white girl who had written him thankful he had not sneezed, remarking that if he had sneezed he would have died. And he listed all of the accomplishments in the Civil Rights Movement that he would not have been around for if he had sneezed. Then, uncharacteristically, he remarked upon risks to his life that he may still face, expressing a sense of peace tinged by defiance. Watching the speech is a remarkable experience, especially knowing its context. King steps suddenly away from the microphone to sit back down, seemingly overcome with emotion, collapsing into Reverend Abernathy’s arms looking almost shocked. He seems to have truly confronted his death, facing his fear and overcoming it. The next day, he is described as being in a far more hopeful and joyous mood than he had been in some time. Before the end of that day, Dr. King would be dead, his life taken before he even reached his fortieth year.

This man, who inspired and outraged the world, was born on January 15, 1929, to a family of preachers, and his name was actually Michael. For generations, members of his family had served as the pastors of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, first his maternal grandfather, then his own father. When he was six years old, his father decided to change both their names; they would be known from then on as Martin Luther King Sr. and Jr., after the Great Reformer. From a young age, Martin Jr. showed himself to be devoted to non-violence, turning the other cheek when bullies brutalized him at school or when he encountered the scorn of bigots. Not to say that he was a preternaturally mature or saintly character as a child. He was also a bit of a scamp, an innocent prankster, tying his mother’s furs to a stick and thrusting them through bushes to scare passersby. He loved board games and ice cream and was less than enthusiastic about washing dishes and reciting bible verses, skirting the latter chore by choosing John 11:35, the shortest verse in the bible, in which Jesus weeps. He was indeed precocious, however, when it came to his intellect and education. He breezed through high school over the course of only two years and entered college at 15. Early in his college years, it is apparent that Martin Luther King, Jr., was already wrestling with what he would later call “the race problem.” This is evident in a letter to the editor of the Atlanta Constitution that he wrote at just 17 years old. In it, he censured people who “raise the scarecrow of social mingling and intermarriage” when the question of racial equality is discussed, saying, “We want and are entitled to the basic rights and opportunities of American citizens: The right to earn a living at work for which we are fitted by training and ability; equal opportunities in education, health, recreation, and similar public services; the right to vote; equality before the law; some of the same courtesy and good manners that we ourselves bring to all human relations.” During those years, he also became interested in Henry David Thoreau’s treatise on Civil Disobedience and “became convinced then that non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good.” In grappling with the problems his race faced, he began to consider how he might best contribute to a solution, and that was when he considered the church. He explains his reasoning most clearly himself: “I had been brought up in the church and knew about religion, but I wondered whether it could serve as a vehicle to modern thinking. I wondered whether religion, with its emotionalism in Negro churches, could be intellectually respectable as well as emotionally satisfying.” So he applied himself to following in his father’s footsteps. Graduating with a sociology degree at 19, he immediately began preaching at Ebenezer Baptist with his father and continued his education, earning his theology degree at 22 and entering graduate studies in theology at Boston University, where he earned his doctorate at just 26 years old. His father did not appreciate his more cerebral style of preaching, nor did some of his associates understand some of his allusions to Thoreau and Nietzsche, https://theundefeated.com/features/hbo-king-in-the-wilderness-reveals-the-loneliness-of-martin-luther-king-last-years/ but all doubts about the efficacy of his approach evaporated when in the mid-fifties he helped organize and lead numerous historical civil rights protests. 

Ropsa Parks with Martin Luther King, Jr., via  Wikimedia Commons

Ropsa Parks with Martin Luther King, Jr., via Wikimedia Commons

The same year he earned his PhD, King became involved with Rosa Parks and the Women’s Political Council of Montgomery in organizing the bus boycotts and establishing the Montgomery Improvement Association to protest segregation. Within a month, he was receiving threats and facing angry crowds. His home was bombed. But before the year was out, bus segregation was defeated in the courts, and King himself rode on the unsegregated transportation system. His success in Alabama led to his appointment as chair of the Southern Negro Leaders Conference on Transportation and Nonviolent Integration, as African American ministers across the South sought out his guidance in making strides in their own states, and it is this organization that King would transform into the SCLC. He was thrust into sudden fame, appearing on the cover of Time in 1957, and during the next few years meeting Vice-President Nixon, President Eisenhower, and presidential hopeful John F. Kennedy, travelling abroad to meet foreign dignitaries and the followers of Mohandas Ghandi, and giving national addresses—his first, a plea for enfranchisement, given before the Lincoln Memorial.  Meanwhile, his civil rights work continued. In Atlanta, he participated in a department store sit-in and was arrested. He was arrested twice more in ’61 and ’62 during segregation protests in Georgia. Then in 1963, he faced fire hoses and attack dogs in Birmingham and led 200,000 marchers on Washington, where he delivered his most famous speech. As if in response to the historic demonstration, 2 weeks later, a bomb killed four children at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, and King attended the funeral service to eulogize them. Two months later, JFK, with whom King had been working to advance the cause of civil rights, was gunned down in Dallas. Following the assassination, Dr. King began working with President Lyndon B. Johnson, a collaboration that would eventually bear fruit in the form of the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act, and in recognition of all his tireless and fearless activism, King received the Nobel Peace Prize.

Despite all this progress, King still saw a long and hard road ahead. During an attempted march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, he and his marchers were met with violence, a day remembered as Bloody Sunday. And later that year, King confronted racism that was also tied up with economic issues when the riots erupted in Watts, California. He traveled there to preach non-violence, but he was met with scorn by some who saw lawlessness as their only recourse and heckled him during his pleas for peaceful resistance. Therefore it wasn’t only white racists by whom he was met with resistance in that turbulent period, as he entered a new phase in the SCLC’s struggle for change. Learning from what he saw in California, he expanded the scope of their activism beyond segregation, tackling the problem of slums and inequality in housing practices and education in Chicago in 1966. In the process, he met resistance from black community leaders as well, like Reverend Henry Mitchell. Many African American ministers in Chicago liked the system the way it was, being that they wielded power in the community through the patronage of the mayor, Richard Daley, who ran the city through machine politics. This was by no means the first time Dr. King had encountered criticism from members of his own race. At the beginning of his career, racial separatist Malcolm X had strongly criticized Dr. King’s non-violent approach, and after Watts, it seemed that other elements of the civil rights movement were also beginning to turn away from his message of peaceful protest. In Mississippi, young activist Stokely Carmichael of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee began to express disillusionment with non-violence despite his organization’s name. He began to call for a show of strength from the black community, a push for so-called “Black Power” in opposition to the racist creed of “White Power.” King stood with Carmichael and marched beside him, but he never endorsed his message, instead preaching his consistent message of non-violence and racial alliance, not conflict.

King giving his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, via  Wikimedia Commons

King giving his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, via Wikimedia Commons

Finally, a year before his death, answering the entreaties of many despite the reservations of many others, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., began to speak out against the war in Vietnam. To King, it would be hypocrisy to protest violence at home when our country acted as a purveyor of violence abroad. In 1967, he identified three evils in society. The first was racism, which he had fought his entire career. The second was poverty, which he had come to realize was hopelessly entangled with the race issue. The third he acknowledged was militarism. He encountered stiff backlash from quarters both expected and unexpected after opposing the Vietnam War, as he began organizing the Poor People’s Campaign. Thus when called to Memphis in March of ’67, he struggled to sustain his hope and confidence, but those around him on his final day saw a change in his disposition after delivering his Mountaintop speech, as though he were renewed with purpose and had exorcised the fears and doubts that plagued him. In fact, he was downright playful, engaging in a pillow fight with his friends in their room at the Lorraine Motel and looking forward to a dinner of real soul food at a friend’s house. Unbeknownst to them, across the street from the Lorraine, past some bushes, a wall and an embankment, at a cut-rate rooming house full of drunk and infirm tenants, a thin white man calling himself John Willard had checked in. During the next hour or so, tenants remember hearing someone stalking back and forth between a room and the shared bathroom at the end of the hall, which had a clear line of sight from its window to the Lorraine, and tenants who tried to use the bathroom during this hour found it always occupied. At approximately 6:01 p.m., the tenants heard what sounded like the pop of a firecracker, and on the balcony of the Lorraine, little more than 200 feet from the rooming house’s bathroom window, Martin Luther King, Jr., collapsed. A .30-06 bullet had shattered his jaw, entered his neck, and opened his jugular vein. Despite attempts by his friends to stop the bleeding and rush him to medical care, the single shot fired that day killed Dr. King.

Police were on the scene immediately, as they happened to be ensconced at a nearby fire station keeping King and his entourage under surveillance. They went to the Lorraine first, where witnesses indicated that they believed the shot had come from the direction of the boardinghouse. Converging on the building, they found other witnesses who had seen a man leaving the building with a bundle, which he had abandoned at a storefront before fleeing in a white Mustang. In the bundle, they found a rifle, bullets, clothing, a radio, binoculars, and a toiletry bag, and in the rooming house bathroom, they found the window screen pushed out, the tub moved under the window, and a scuff mark on the sill. In Mr. John Willard’s room, they found a chair by an open window and binocular straps on the floor. Not ten minutes had passed since the shooting before police had a description of both the suspect and his vehicle, but from the rooming house, it was quite possible to have driven out of state within that time frame. Authorities changed all traffic lights to red in order to slow the suspect’s escape, but in an egregious failing, they did not establish road blocks or extend their all-points bulletin to neighboring states. Meanwhile, a CB radio operator led police on a wild goose chase, claiming to be in a high speed pursuit of the white Mustang. This hoax, in addition to the fact that a large portion of the police force did not engage in the hunt because of the growing threats of rioting, contributed to the assassin’s escape.

King’s friends pointing to the rooming house as King lies in a pool of blood at their feet, image courtesy  Mr. Littlehand , licensed via Creative Commons   (CC BY 2.0)

King’s friends pointing to the rooming house as King lies in a pool of blood at their feet, image courtesy Mr. Littlehand, licensed via Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0)

As the killer, it was assumed, had crossed state lines, the FBI took over the manhunt, while riots broke out across the country. Tracing the rifle as well as a laundry mark on the discarded clothing, they soon had a number of aliases other than John Willard, including the name John S. Galt, all for a man matching the suspect’s description. Then a white Mustang was reported abandoned in Atlanta by a man matching the same description. It was registered to one Eric Starvo Galt, connecting the Mustang to the abandoned bundle containing the rifle, garage service and tourist visa stickers showed the Mustang had been in Mexico and Los Angeles during the last year. Fiber evidence further indicated that the Eric Galt who drove the car had been in the rooming house across from the Lorraine, and as they traced his movements in California previous to the assassination, they came up with a photo of him from a bartending school he had attended in LA. The seller of the rifle thereafter picked that photo out of a lineup to identify him as the purchaser of the firearm. Finally, a lead on Galt’s whereabouts came their way when a money order purchased in California was used by an Eric Galt for a correspondence course in locksmithing that had been completed in Montreal, Canada. When they investigated Galt’s rooming house lodgings in Montreal, they found a map of Atlanta on which Ebenezer Baptist Church, SCLC headquarters, and the King family residence had been circled. The manager of the rooming house also identified Galt’s photo from among others. Fingerprints from the bundle items and from the map found in the room in Montreal eventually came up as belonging to one James Earl Ray, a career thief and escaped prisoner from Missouri State Penitentiary. Now with a real name and more photos, the FBI put Ray on the Most Wanted list, went to the press and disseminated wanted posters all over North America. Eventually, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, through a painstaking search of passport applications, connected Ray to another alias, Ramon Sneyd, and further traced his activities under that alias to a travel agency that had booked him on a flight to London. So the manhunt went international, while back at home, on June 5th, the country suffered yet another horrifying tragedy in the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. Two days later, James Earl Ray turned up at Heathrow airport, trying to use his false Canadian passport to travel to Brussels. He was detained for having a handgun without a permit. More than 2 months after Dr. King’s assassination, the chief suspect in his murder was caught and awaiting extradition.

From the beginning, conspiracy theories abounded. Dubious informants claimed that Ray had escaped to South America with the CIA or to Cuba aboard a yacht, or that like Knight Rider, he had driven his Mustang into a moving truck and was being harbored by the Ku Klux Klan. JFK conspiracy theorists asserted that Ray greatly resembled one of the Three Tramps, the unidentified vagrants photographed at Dealey Plaza, while white supremacist groups claimed that the real people behind the killing were the SCLC themselves, unhappy with King’s leadership, or perhaps militant black youth disillusioned with King’s insistence on non-violence. To others, the likely culprits were the mafia or the FBI or perhaps both! Among the most vocal supporters of conspiracy claims was Ralph Abernathy himself, who spoke for others in the SCLC and for King’s family in demanding further investigation. Conspiracy theories multiplied and grew ever more specific after Ray began to talk to a writer, William Bradford Huie. Long before his trial was set to start, Huie began publishing a series of articles in Look magazine detailing James Earl Ray’s claims that a man named Raoul had manipulated him, maneuvered him to Memphis, and arranged for him to take the fall for a murder he didn’t commit. On Ray’s 40th birthday, during a special hearing ahead of his trial, he pleaded guilty on his lawyer’s advice, but he insisted that he was only “legally” guilty, and that he did not accept sole responsibility for the crime, actually dropping the word “conspiracy” to the judge. Within hours, Dr. King’s widow, Coretta, released a statement confirming that she did not believe Ray had acted alone and demanding that authorities continue their investigation until all those responsible had been brought to justice. Within days, Ray recanted his guilty plea, for the rest of his life, he fought to win a new trial and convince the world of his innocence. Even today, many are inclined to believe him, subscribing to some conspiracy scenario or another. But how logical and credible are these theories? Keep an eye out for the next part in this series as we examine the legend of Raoul.

FBI Wanted poster for James Earl Ray, via  Wikimedia Commons

FBI Wanted poster for James Earl Ray, via Wikimedia Commons

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Further Reading

Posner, Gerald. Killing the Dream: James Earl Ray and the Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Random House, 1998.

A Very Historically Blind Christmas

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I love Christmas: the family time, the music, the classic movies, the decorations, the aroma of evergreen trees and spice apple, the taste of gingerbread with my coffee and nutmeg in my eggnog. I am not, however, much of a churchgoer or man of faith; therefore, I have some ambivalence about this holiday which is so often and heatedly defended as a Christian tradition. We must remember the reason of the season, and we must keep Christ in Christmas, or so many remind us while lamenting a culture that does not encourage people to keep the nativity scene at the forefront of all thoughts throughout December. Recently, I saw an image being posted on social media with these statements: “Christmas is based on a pagan holiday. Jesus wasn’t born in December. Christmas trees are a Heathen tradition.” And of course, this wasn’t the first time I’d heard these claims. Being something of a know-it-all and a pedant who is only too happy to challenge preconceived notions about both history and religion, I have been known to make such statements myself. But of course, as I have learned in making this show, critical thought challenges all preconceived notions, not only the ones that you dislike and want to dispel. The claims of the agnostic, the atheist, and the anti-religious must be examined just as skeptically and fairly as any assertions made by the religious. So this holiday season, I’ve set out to explore the veracity of these claims and get to the bottom of just how pagan or Christian are Christmas’s origins and traditions.

Perhaps the first assertion we should examine is that Jesus Christ was not born on December 25th, as this is a frequent point used to undermine the entire Christian basis of the holiday.  In truth, we don’t know when Jesus was born. The two gospels that depict the nativity, Matthew and Luke, fail to record a birthdate or even to identify the month or the season of his birth. We can, however, make some judgments based on details that are included. Both gospels indicate vaguely that the story of the Nativity took place during the reign of Herod the Great, King of Judea, but there are inconsistencies. Matthew says the Christ child was born during his reign, and goes on to tell the story of Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents, but Luke actually only mentions the reign of Herod as being the time when an angel foretold of the birth of John the Baptist and implies a significant passage of time between that and Mary’s angelic visitation. Rather, Luke explicitly places Christ’s birth during the Census of Quirinius, taken during the imposition of Roman rule, for which male landowners were required to return to their ancestral homes and be counted. Thus a problem arises with the timeline, as this census took place a decade after Herod’s death, which would make the two nativity narratives entirely contradictory. Moreover, it would not make sense for Joseph to take Mary on his journey while she was “great with child” if she need not be counted for the census when she could instead remain in the comfort of their home on whatever land Joseph presumably owned. And one detail stands out from Luke as evidence that whatever the month of Christ’s birth, it couldn’t be December, this being the verse that states there were shepherds watching over their flocks in the fields at night when Mary delivered the child. This would seem to place his birth during a warmer time of year. However, if these inconsistencies tell us anything, it is that we should not be looking to Matthew and Luke as accurate records of the past. The most likely explanation for all of these discrepancies is that, writing about events at a seventy to eighty year remove, the authors simply got things wrong or invented details to flesh out their stories. So why, a few hundred years later, did the church settle on December 25th as the Feast of the Nativity? Some have claimed that it was a simple matter of doing the math, that December 25th falls nine months after March 25th, when the Feast of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary is observed, celebrating Christ’s immaculate conception. One might then reasonably ask how they determined March 25th to be the anniversary of the annunciation, and the answer raises the odd notion that martyrs are predestined to be martyred on the anniversary of their conceptions. But there may be a simpler explanation. Records of the first Feast of the Nativity predate the first Feast of the Annunciation by about 100 years, so if simple math determined these dates, then if anything, that math was done in reverse, counting backward nine months from December 25th to be certain the date of the Annunciation lined up with the chosen date of the Nativity. So the question remains, why choose December 25th?

Our answer may indeed lie in pagan and secular traditions in the form of midwinter feasts and festivals that were common and popular in the Roman Empire during the time when Christianity was only just establishing its own traditions. The first record we have showing December 25th as the date of Christ’s birth comes from a calendar produced in Rome in 354 CE, an era when Christianity was vying for ascendancy against various pagan traditions. There is a quotation from a supposed 4th-century scribe called Scriptus Syrus that appeared as an annotation on another work, and it clearly makes the claim that the Christian Church simply adopted pagan traditions for its own purposes: “It was a custom of the pagans to celebrate on the same Dec. 25 the birthday of the sun, at which they kindled lights in token of festivity …Accordingly, when the church authorities perceived that the Christians had a leaning to this festival, they took counsel and resolved that the true Nativity should be solemnized on that day.” This is the heart of the contention, that the Christmas we know is simply a pagan celebration appropriated by Christianity out of either convenience or for the purpose of asserting religious dominance, which of course it succeeded in doing. The quote itself is suspect, though. The annotation actually appeared on an 18th-century edition of a 12th century work, and the name Scriptus Syrus only means “a Syrian writer.” Therefore, it doesn’t appear to be a claim made in the 4th century, but rather one made some 800 years later by an unknown writer. Still we may ask whether or not it is true. What was this festival of the birthday of the sun? This can easily be recognized as dies natalis solis invicti, or the birthday of the unconquered sun, a civil holiday timed to coincide with the winter solstice to honor the symbolic rebirth of the sun as days began once more to lengthen and the light, therefore, was seen to overcome the darkness. This festival was associated with the Cult of the Unconquered Sun, or Sol Invictus, a sun god that held a place of honor as a principal deity in the Roman Empire. But it is the roots of Sol Invictus in far older Mithraic traditions that raise further questions about how pagan influences have defined Christianity.

Geertgen tot Sint Jans’s The Nativity at Night c. 1490, via  Wikimedia Commons

Geertgen tot Sint Jans’s The Nativity at Night c. 1490, via Wikimedia Commons

Stop me if you’ve heard this before. Pretty much everything about Christ and Christianity is actually derived from Mithraism and its central figure, Mithra. Born to a virgin on December 25th, Mithra too was visited by shepherds. In his life he traveled and taught and performed great miracles, gathering 12 followers before he sacrificed himself and ascended to heaven. Remembered as a messiah, his followers, who were baptized and observed a Eucharistic ritual meal, worshiped him on a day set aside as sacred: Sunday. Listening to this litany of similarities and knowing that Mithraism preceded Christianity by hundreds of years, many have been led to believe that Christianity was little more than a knockoff religion repackaging the Mithra narrative. Some suggest Jesus may have been an initiate of the Mithraic mysteries, and that his death and resurrection was nothing more than a reenactment of Mithra’s rebirth. Others go further and propose without evidence that there may not have been a real Jesus, as such, that his story was merely a retelling of Mithra’s. Are you still with me? Have you shut off skipped to another Christmas podcast? If you’re still listening, the truth of matter seems to lie somewhere in between the two extremes. Certainly Mithraic traditions predated Christianity. Indeed, they predated the Roman Empire. Long before his entrance into the Western world, the figure of Mithra appeared in India and Persia as Mitra, a marshal of peoples and binder of men in covenants and contracts (Laeuchli 74). Even in these earliest of iterations, he is associated with the sun, first as a kind of intercessor, mediating between the heavens and the earth, ensuring the rising of the sun and thus the success of agricultural endeavors. As the figure made his way into Persia and became Mithra and thereafter reached the West and became Mithras, he developed more martial qualities, and indeed his cult was eventually widely spread by soldiers (Hinnells). His association with the sun also developed to the point that, while he was depicted as a man, often killing a bull, he was also depicted as the very sun itself. Aside from any similarities, there are myriad pronounced differences from Christianity, and some have even argued—with no real support—that, rather than Christianity borrowing from Mithraism during the time of their competition for devotees, it was actually Mithraism that modeled itself after Christianity. While this is not well-supported, there is at least the possibility of it being true, for most of the similarities that are cited relate to the later Roman Mithraic traditions that developed contemporary to Christianity.

The question of who plagiarized whom—if the syncretism of religious traditions can even be called plagiarism—becomes moot, however, if it turns out that the similarities themselves aren’t actually there. For example, the date December 25th, which I’ve already argued in unsupported in the birthdate of Christ, may not actually have been universally accepted as Mithra’s birthdate either, as archaeological evidence indicates Mithra and Sol Invictus may have been considered separate deities, perhaps closely connected or even a dualistic manifestation of one divine being but certainly possessing their own identities. As for the virgin birth, some versions of the Persian Mithra were born to a virgin water goddess called Anahita, conceived either by the “milky fountain of immortality” or by some kind of incestuous relationship between the two of them that simply doesn’t make sense in a purely chronological, chicken-before-the-egg way. However, the Roman Mithras was said to have sprung fully formed from a rock, witnessed by two torchbearers that have somehow been distorted into shepherds for the purpose of forcing the comparison to the nativity. And while it is true that some ancient versions of the nativity have Christ born in a cave, none have him born of stone. Moreover, Mithra was never said to be a man traveling the land and imparting his wisdom as was Christ, and while there are plenty of works of art in Mithraic temples that have been construed by scholars as depicting Mithra performing some wonder or another, there are no testimonial stories of him performing such miraculous works as we have of Christ. Some of that art also portrays Mithra surrounded by twelve other figures, but these weren’t disciples or even men; they were the signs of the Zodiac. Meanwhile, their supposed Eucharist was essentially just a ritual meal, common in religious ceremonies, comprised of more than just bread and wine, and lacking any suggestion of the consumption of Mithra’s flesh and blood, which would of course make it not Eucharistic at all. Indeed it does appear that the Mithraic mystery cult engaged in ceremonial washings and baptism, and Mithra did have Sunday, the day named for the unconquered sun, set aside for him, but as can be seen, the lion’s share of these claims are either demonstrably false or dubious.

Relief depicting Mithras slaying a bull, via  Wikimedia Commons

Relief depicting Mithras slaying a bull, via Wikimedia Commons

Likewise, doubt can be cast upon the assertion that Christmas trees were a heathen tradition. Like many others, I have smugly pointed to the book of Jeremiah, Chapter 10, verse 3, to suggest that Christians were hypocrites for putting up and decorating Christmas trees. It reads, “Thus saith the Lord, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them. For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not.” How upsetting these lines can be to a God-fearing Christian at Christmastime. And as Jeremiah was likely composed hundreds of years before the birth of Christ, it would seem to be a clear cut case of pagan traditions incorporated into Christmas. But in fairness, with the context of the following verses, it is clear that Jeremiah is talking about the creation of idols carved from the wood of trees and then covered in precious metals. And what we know of the history of Christmas trees does not support an origin so far back in antiquity.

The tradition of decorating homes and churches with greenery in the winter has a long history, and it is closely connected to other traditions in other seasonal festivals, such as the lighting of candles, as it observes the same theme of light, warmth, and life persisting amidst the darkness, the cold, and the death present all around us in winter. In London, as early as 1444, it is recorded that a proto-Christmas tree was erected outdoors in the form of a maypole that had been adorned with ivy and sprigs of holly. So we do indeed see a secular basis for this tradition, but for true Christmas trees, we must look to Germany, where in that same century two legends grew. One told of a saint Boniface who foiled a pagan human sacrifice to Thor by felling the oak tree on which it was to take place and putting up a fir in its stead, the evergreen serving as a metaphor for eternal life through Christ. The other legend told of an apple tree miraculously blooming on Christmas Eve, a miracle that inspired others to claim they also witnessed trees inexplicably flowering on Christmas. These stories may also have been inspired by the so-called paradise plays that were popular on Christmas Eve. The plays dramatized the events of the Garden of Eden in Genesis with an evergreen tree standing in for the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and apples tied to its branches to represent the forbidden fruit. Imagine that for a moment. Isn’t it the perfect precursor to the Christmas trees of today, festooned with red sparkling bulbs? The people eventually stopped putting on their paradise plays, but they kept the decorated trees, displaying them in public squares and eventually bringing them into the home. The practice became so popular that some municipalities actually passed ordinances limiting the chopping of trees and the number of trees people could have in their houses. And this tradition, in which again we might see pagan, secular, and Christian influences, spread from Germany the world over. 

So it’s not such a cut and dry affair as some loudmouth atheists might present it.  Yes, elements of Christmas may have derived from Mithraic traditions, but clearly some prominent mainstays—the nativity narrative, the Christmas tree—have decidedly Christian origins. And if the theme at the heart of the evergreen tree being displayed in the dead of winter owes something to more ancient and non-Christian traditions in the form of decorating with greenery, it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. The same can be said of the Mithraic celebration of dies natalis solis invicti, for neither was theirs the first midwinter celebration to mark the solstice, or solstitium, when the sun stood still. For an even more ancient forerunner, we must look to the celebration of Saturnalia in primitive Rome. Since at least the first century, and likely even longer, a festival was held by farmers to observe the conclusion of the planting season. Starting as a 2-day event honoring the god Saturn, the sower of seeds, as its popularity grew with the Roman Empire, it expanded, and like the Advent began earlier in the month and concluded in late December, near the solstice. Saturnalia appears to be the origin of the season’s merrymaking, for it was a time of great feasts, lavish banquets when social order was relaxed. In fact, the excesses of Saturnalia were so great that the notoriously extravagant and libertine Emperor Caligula even felt it needed to be reined in. So there appears to be a long and storied history to our Christmastime wassailing and inebriety. Other connections include, of course, decorating buildings with greenery, lighting candles, and even giving gifts, usually of candles, wax dolls, and caged birds. And Saturnalia is not alone as a precursor or contemporary midwinter festival with similar elements to Christmas. Other secular and pagan festivities include the Kalends, a civic celebration of the New Year during which people feasted, decorated buildings with greenery, gave gifts and even enjoyed the spectacle of parades. Then there is the decidedly Christmas Germanic celebration of Yule, an ancient name for the month of January that was synonymous with “festivities.” This celebration appears to have been related to Norse mythology, as Odin, the Yulefather, was said during this time to lead an army of the dead on a hunt, riding across the sky on an eight-legged horse. A more realistic but no less fun explanation is that Yule marked the end of harvest and therefore the beginning of the season for brewing beer, and so was a time for carousal, when in addition to feasting and burning a yule log in the hearth, many were known to “drink yule.”

Peter Nicolai Arbo’s The Wild Hunt of Odin, 1868, via  Wikimedia Commons

Peter Nicolai Arbo’s The Wild Hunt of Odin, 1868, via Wikimedia Commons

So what we are talking about here is not plagiarism, as I so clumsily put it before, but a well-known phenomenon known as syncretism: defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “The amalgamation or attempted amalgamation of different religions, cultures, or schools of thought.” If Christmas, the Christian Christ Mass, blended purposely or organically with religious and cultural forms that preceded it, it is nothing that all its predecessors had not already done. As the Kalends grew in prominence, they adopted the traditions of Saturnalia, and even if we do not know the means of their transmission to other regions, we certainly see their similarities in the Yule festivities as well. And of course, we see them further appropriated by the Mithraic cult of Sol Invictus, and Mithraism is a serial offender in this regard. It has been called “wildly syncretistic… a bizarre mixture of primitive and more advanced cultural elements” (Laeuchli 77-78). In fact, some suggest that Mithraism’s success in spreading so far across the ancient world is owed specifically to the fact that people of other cultures, when exposed to his myth, were easily able to conflate him with other deities, solar and otherwise. He was identified with the Babylonian Shamash and Marduk as well as the Mesopotamian Bel, and then his cult folded in nicely with that of the Roman sun god, Sol Invictus. Then we have Christianity, which shared prominent commonalities with other so-called mystery religions, including the celebration of god’s birth, death, rebirth and ascension, and an emphasis on initiation in the form of baptism and, for a long time, secrecy, using the ichthus, or Christ fish as a kind of secret password or signal. Should anyone be surprised then that in the melting pot of religion that was Rome some blending took place? And should Christians be defensive at the suggestion or deny its truth? The answer to both should be no, in my opinion. If anything, a better understanding of the robust and many-faceted history of Christmas traditions just shows that this most wonderful of holidays belongs to Christian and non-Christian alike, that all of us can see in it a history and a theme of great value: the bravery of making light in the darkest time of the year, the hope of renewal, of the return of the sunshine and life springing forth again from a cold earth, a belief in resurrection in every sense. So rather than quibble over how each tradition started, instead of mocking others for what they see and value in the holiday, let us all take what merriment we can from it and kindle a fire of fellow-feeling in every breast. Merry Christmas to all!

Further Reading

Flanders, Judith. Christmas: A Biography. St. Martin’s, 2017.

Laeuchli, Samuel. “Urban Mithraism.” The Biblical Archaeologist, vol. 31, no. 3, 1968, pp. 73–99. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3210985.

Lincoln, Bruce. “Mitra, Mithra, Mithras: Problems of a Multiform Diety.” History of Religions, vol. 17, no. 2, 1977, pp. 200–208. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1062362.

Blind Spot: Tracking the Devil in Devon

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In this final October edition, I’ll look at a puzzling event that, when considered in context, seems a complementary tale to my last. In the previous edition, I discussed the haunting specter of Spring-Heeled Jack, a figure described as having devilish qualities—beyond his preternatural abilities to leap over walls and onto rooftops, he was said to have glowing eyes, fiery breath, and sharp facial features like the Devil himself. One diabolical feature I failed to remark upon, since it only appeared in one report, had to do with the creature’s feet. For the most part, Jack was described as wearing boots—boots it was assumed contained some spring-loaded mechanism in the heels to help propel him in his leaping—but there is a report that, in 1826, a masked and cloaked figure attacked a young man by clasping the boy to his body and somehow setting him afire, and this attacker was reported by the badly burned victim to have had cloven hoofs instead of feet. And like the Devil is wont to do, Spring-Heeled Jack disappeared from the public eye for around three decades: the 1840s, ’50s, and ’60s. Interestingly, though, smack in the middle of these quiet years, when the diabolical figure of Spring-Heeled Jack was absent from the scene, an incident in the county of Devon, some 254 kilometers or 158 miles southwest of London, had people believing the Devil still trod the earth. On the morning of February 9th, 1855, people all over the county woke to discover tracks in their garden paths and streets, and many believed these were not ordinary animal tracks. The incident has been called the Great Devon Mystery, and the tracks have been described as the Devil’s Hoof-marks, for many concluded that Satan himself had visited their neighborhood, creeping up near their doors in the cold darkness of the previous night.

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That winter of 1855 was unusually cold, freezing over the rivers of Devon County, the Teign and the Exe, and falling a full degree lower than anyone remembered it ever falling before. On the evening of February 8th, a heavy snowfall blanketed the region, and covered it also in a deep peaceful silence—only one report exists of a resident’s dog kicking up a row that night, which is especially curious considering the indications of widespread disturbance and activity that were discovered the next morning, after dawn brought some rain and a subsequent frost. Within a few days, reports began to circulate about what the residents of Devon villages found that morning: strange tracks that these hardy country folk, who were not unaccustomed to the sight of animal sign, found unnatural and even upsetting. They appeared not only in open areas, where an animal might be expected to venture, but also within the walls of locked gardens, and some of the trails seemed to walk purposefully up to their doors and disappear, or reappear on rooftops as though the creature that had left them had walked easily up the walls. And many agreed that these tracks looked like those that might be left by a pony or donkey: a hoof—sometimes cloven and sometimes not, but hooved, certainly. But of course, a donkey could not get inside their garden walls or onto their rooftops. Moreover, the tracks seemed too straight and purposeful, and appeared to have been made by a bipedal creature. And what cloven-hoofed creature walks about on two legs like a man? The Devil, of course, and almost immediately, this seems to be the conclusion many reached. It only took a few hours before hunting parties formed in multiple villages, setting out to track down this mystery night visitor. These tracking parties discovered some remarkable oddities, including tracks that disappeared and then reappeared in the middle of a snowy field and others that went directly up to a haystack and continued on unimpeded on the other side, with no sign of having disturbed the hay itself, as if whatever left them had merely walked right through it. And one story has a party following the tracks into a wood, where their hunting dogs came whimpering back with their tails between their legs, so terrified were they of whatever they had cornered. This last story would be easy to dismiss as folklore, were it not for its corroboration by a reverend at Marychurch.

Map showing locations of reported hoof-marks, from  Mike Dash’s research

Map showing locations of reported hoof-marks, from Mike Dash’s research

Indeed, much of the original source support that is available comes from churchmen and would seem, perhaps, the more reliable for it. A Reverend Ellacombe of Clyst St. George, collected numerous documents on the incident, including letters from a Reverend Musgrave of Withycombe Raleigh and some tracings of the tracks likely made on the scene. These, along with some letters from locals published in the Illustrated London News, serve as the extent of the primary source documentation of the event, which, once again, researcher Mike Dash has delved into extensively in his investigation of this phenomenon, which again I have relied on as my principal source, since his is the definitive work on the topic. As Dash points out, much of the primary source material is contradictory, and the evidence it presents is meager, but this has not limited the development of many theories to explain the tracks. One, as might be expected from paranormal researchers, is that the marks were not tracks at all, but rather the result of laser beams fired from flying saucers engaged in some kind of land surveying. Another rather interesting theory developed in later years is that the marks were made by some as yet unidentified weather phenomenon, an idea first floated by J. Allan Rennie, a Scotsman who claimed to have seen, in the wilds of Canada in 1924, similar tracks being formed before his eyes by no visible being or creature, just tracks being laid into the snow by a phantom and being blamed on a wendigo by his Native American companion. However, according to Rennie, as they drew right up to him, a splash of water hit his face and the marks continued on behind him, suggesting some strange meteorological even whereby large raindrops may fall only in one line and successively, like a trail.  A more down to earth explanation, though still up in the clouds, puts forth the idea that the tracks were laid by a balloonist out for a lunatic midnight flight on the frigid and windy night of February 8th, and that a loose rope, perhaps with a horseshoe or other grappling device at its end, had been left to drag along beneath. While all three of these explanations account for the appearance of tracks that disappear and then reappear elsewhere, as well as for tracks on rooftops and in walled gardens, there are other contemporary reports that weaken them. For example, despite the legend that evolved, saying that the tracks were one single trail in a straight line that went purposefully all over Devon, there are many reports of meandering and crisscrossing trails that would not seem to fit these theories or the idea that one evil Adversary left the hoof-marks. One hunting party out of Dawlish did track one trail as far as five miles, which is a long distance for one creature on a snowy night, but no parties tracked any trails long enough to confirm that they were all one trail. Moreover, these parties reported the tracks passing beneath low tree branches and through small holes in hedges and 6-inch drainage pipes, which would eliminate not only UFO lasers, strange rain, and balloon ropes but also any suspected creatures that were large, such as donkeys, ponies, and of course the odd escaped monkey or kangaroo that are sometimes suggested. It would also eliminate the Devil himself, unless Satan is very small indeed, with strides only ranging from eight to sixteen inches.

This leaves smaller creatures, and of them there was no shortage of suspects. At different times, badgers, otters, rabbits, birds, and rodents have been named as possible culprits of the tracks. The descriptions of the tracks themselves have been so varied—ranging not only from cloven to not cloven but also to having toe marks or claw marks or the impression of pads—and so many explanations have been offered for why an animal without hoofs might leave prints that resemble hoof-marks—rabbits and rats, for example, hop, and landing with four feet together can create a hoof-like impression, and birds like gulls, driven inland by the cold, might have ice on their feet that could take the shape of a hoof—such that it becomes difficult to rule out many of the suspects. Add to this the fact that it had rained at dawn, likely melting whatever tracks had been laid and then distorting them when they refroze. A similar explanation has been put forward to explain how bear tracks might be mistaken for yeti prints, and in the case of the Great Devon Mystery, it means an argument can be made for nearly any creature being the culprit. One reverend of Dawlish reported that a farmer had found what appeared to be hoof-marks but upon closer examination, seeing claw marks in them, realized they were just his own cat’s tracks, thawed and misshapen by the frost. This tends to make one doubt most of the reports. Could it have just been a brief panic or hysteria, causing many in Devon to mistake common animal tracks for something supernatural and sinister? If so, why did these savvy country folk suddenly act like they’d never encountered such trails, and why did such panics not recur every time similar trails were seen? They surely must have been, for snowy nights were not uncommon, nor were rodents and birds. And what of contemporary reports that the tracks of cats and other animals could clearly be made out that morning, indicating that the distortion of a thaw and a refreeze was not the explanation, or the reports that these hoof-marks were not indistinct but rather extraordinarily clear and sharp, as one witness put it, “as if cut by a diamond or branded with a hot iron”? This, of course, leads us to an alternate explanation: that of a hoax perpetrated by men.

Alleged yeti footprints at the Himalayas photographed by Frank Smythe in 1937 and printed in  Popular Science , 1952, via  Wikimedia Commons

Alleged yeti footprints at the Himalayas photographed by Frank Smythe in 1937 and printed in Popular Science, 1952, via Wikimedia Commons

But who would go to the great trouble of committing this hoax, and why? In the 1970s, one Manfri Wood revealed in his account of growing up as a Romany gypsy that the hoax had been perpetrated by seven tribes of Romany for the purposes of claiming their territory by scaring away other tribes, such as Pikies, who held deep-seated fears of the devil. They had planned it for a year and a half, he explained, and it had been accomplished using stilts made from stepladders. However, Wood’s version of the hoax suggested the prints would have been far larger than they were actually reported to be, and that the tracks would have been laid at intervals of about 9 feet, rather than every 8 inches. Add to this the idea that seven tribes of gypsy could possibly descend upon so many Devon towns in one night, tramping on stilts through gardens and atop roofs, without ever being spotted and only ever disturbing one dog, and you have a legend second only to Santa Claus’s massive Christmas Eve undertaking in its lack of feasibility. There is, however, a second possibility. As many of the reports of tracks were said to cross churchyards, it has been suggested that the signs of the devil were set down as a kind of protest, a display of dissent against recent happenings in the Anglican Church. For the last few decades, the so-called “high church” clergy had inflamed the ire of so-called “low church” parishioners who held some disdain for ritual and other trappings commonly associated with Roman Catholicism. The Oxford Movement, or Tractarianism as it had commenced with the publication of a series of tracts, had been moving the church toward an Anglo-Catholic revival, to the indignation of many. This theory posits that protesters, disliking this move away from simple Protestantism, had visited churches on the night of February 8th to make the point that the devil had returned, come home to roost in the Anglican Church.

The fact is, this would not have been the first time even that year that hoof-marks were laid around places thought to be corrupt as a statement. A month earlier and 150 miles or 240 kilometers northeast of Devon, several pubs around Wolverhampton had hoof-marks on their walls and roofs, and these seem to have been left by teetotalers hoping out to indicate that alcohol was the devil’s drink. So this appears to be a well-established ideological stunt designed to imply the presence of evil at a place. The problem in the case of the Great Devon Mystery, however, is that the hoof-marks were not only found on church grounds, but all over, in private gardens and atop the roofs of homes owned by simple citizens. And what would have been the point of laying the tracks all the way out of town, as far as five miles out into the wilderness? And these tracks appeared in towns all over the county in one night. Not only is it unlikely that the vast conspiracy required to perpetrate such a stunt could have long stayed hidden, but it would also have been quite the ill-conceived failure, since by failing to place the hoof-marks only on churches, its hypothetical message had been very poorly conveyed. But if, in this instance, the notion that mere men could have been behind the phenomenon seems rather more a stretch than a reasonable explanation, we might still find a sensible solution, as we have before, by suggesting that it may have been a combination of several proposed explanations. Could not some tracks, when out in the open, have been made by donkeys and ponies, while others were made by birds with icy feet alighting on roofs and in fields, and still others by rats who had climbed into walled gardens? But then one encounters another problem… that of the seemingly honest and earnest residents of Devon County themselves. Why would so many sensible people who were quite familiar with their home and the common wildlife thereabout suddenly take to the snowy morning searching out mundane animal tracks and ascribing supernatural significance to them? Did it just take one person to suggest that the marks in the snow were unusual and represented something uncanny to set off the hysteria? And if so, what are the chances that one such person made the suggestion in more than thirty places across Devon County? If doubting the strangeness of the tracks requires us to make this leap in logic, would it actually be more reasonable to believe these simple country folk, these farmers and reverends, that something strange stalked all over their county that winter’s night? As Mike Dash asserts, with so little evidence and so many puzzling aspects, this mystery may forever remain a blind spot in the past. 

An example of the tracks as shown by the  Illustrated London News , 1855, via  Wikimedia Commons

An example of the tracks as shown by the Illustrated London News, 1855, via Wikimedia Commons

Further Reading

Dash, Mike. “The Devil's Hoofmarks: Investigating the Great Devon Mystery of 1855.” Fortean Studies, vol. 1, 1994, pp.71-150. mikedash.com, www.mikedash.com/research.

The Diabolical Features of Spring-Heeled Jack

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As we make our way through the dark nights of October, let us consider the disturbing and intriguing story of a Victorian-era bogeyman who has been portrayed variously as a mischievous spirit, a violent creature, a nefarious prankster, and an extraterrestrial being. Some commonalities with that far better known Victorian villain, Jack the Ripper, include that he was responsible for numerous violent assaults against women and that he was popularly given the same appellation, Jack, but this was certainly a different beast, as it were, entirely. From 1837 to the 1870s and on into the 20th century, London and its surrounding environs—as well as other English cities—were periodically haunted by an unsettlingly tall and dark figure who ambushed his victims in the dark of the night and was said to display various preternatural and even, perhaps, supernatural, abilities. Legends of this Jack were lost to history and not popularly known until the 1960s, when an editorial call for stories of extraterrestrial encounters prior to Kevin Arnold’s 1947 sightings were answered by one J. Vyner in an article called “The Mystery of Springheel Jack.” Vyner’s article focused on the various inconsistently reported details that indicated there was something weird about this figure, presenting a picture of a being with pointed ears and claws who could leap to great heights. In Vyner’s depiction, he wore a sparkling metallic helmet and tight-fitting suit, reminiscent of a spaceman, with a light affixed to his chest, as if it were Iron Man armor—and indeed it proved to be bulletproof! Moreover, his eyes glowed, and he fired a futuristic gas gun that sent his victims swooning. This is the image of the so-called “Spring-Heeled Jack” that became popular in modern times: that of an alien creature, likely stranded after a UFO crash, searching for refuge in 19th century England. But as researchers return to the original newspaper sources and other contemporaneous documents upon which all understanding of this figure must rest, they find that elements of Vyner’s depiction cannot be corroborated and likely were embellished to please his particular audience. One researcher, Mike Dash—whose work I relied on heavily in my episode on the disappearance of the Flannan Isles lighthouse keepers and whose thorough investigation into the Spring-Heeled Jack mystery will serve as my principal source in this episode—found no confirmation in contemporary sources for the cropped, animal-like ears or the sci-fi gas gun, and shows that the idea of a light attached to his chest was a simple misrepresentation of a report that he held a lantern up in front of his chest. Dash tracks all the different unnatural aspects attributed to this figure: superhuman leaping ability, slashing talons, a hide or suit of armor that proved impervious to bullets, and—far more disturbing than a gas gun—the reports that he spat fire! These attributes were not reported consistently in all of Spring-Heeled Jack’s appearances, but they appear consistently enough to warrant the consideration that this was no common attacker. So what was Spring-Heeled Jack? Is his a story of hoaxes in newsprint, as we have seen before, or of mass hysteria, as is a useful explanation of so many other phenomena? Or was he real? And if real, was he a creature out of nightmare or just a uniquely equipped human criminal? And if a mere man, who was this steampunk villain?

We’ll begin on a dark winter’s night in February 1838, east of London in the village of Old Ford, where what would become Spring-Heeled Jack’s most famous attack is about to occur outside the little cottage of the Alsop family. The hour approached 9 p.m. when 18-year-old Jane Alsop heard the bell at their gate ringing forcefully. She went to the door and looked out across the dooryard, seeing the figure of a man standing in the darkness at the gate. What’s the matter, she inquired and asked him to stop ringing the bell so violently. The figure identified himself as a policeman and said, “For God’s sake, bring me a light, for we have caught Spring-Heeled Jack here in the lane!” Jane rushed to fetch a lighted candle and hurried across the dooryard with it. When she handed the candle to the shadowy figure, she saw that he wore a long cloak, and instantly, he threw aside the cloak, revealing the garments beneath: a tight-fitting white suit of a material that appeared to be something like oilskin. He held the candle to his chest, illuminating himself for Jane to see: a hideous face, with diabolical features. He wore a helmet of some sort, his eyes shone like red fire, and he vomited blue-white flames from his mouth. Springing at her, he seized Jane by her dress and gripped the back of her neck. His fingers seemed to terminate in metal claws, and forcing her head under his arm, he proceeded to slash at her clothing. Jane shrieked and wrenched herself out of his grasp, dashing back toward the front door of her house. Just as she reached the front steps, though, Jack was on her again, ripping out her hair and slashing her arms, shoulders, and neck. Just then, her sister rushed out and pulled her from his clutches, and the alarm was raised in the house. The family rushed upstairs to shout for help from the police, and there they claimed to see the attacker fleeing across a field. Afterward, Jane’s father, having heard his daughter’s story, went out to his gate, expecting to find the cloak that the villain had thrown off still lying on the ground, but there was nothing there, leading him to suspect the attacker had not been alone.

Spring-Heeled Jack, depicted making off with a young lady victim, via  Wikimedia Commons

Spring-Heeled Jack, depicted making off with a young lady victim, via Wikimedia Commons

Hearing this tale, what stands out, aside from the terrifying aspect of the attack, is the fact that this attacker lured Jane out by saying he was a policeman and that he had caught Spring-Heeled Jack. Therefore, he must have assumed that the name was familiar to the Alsop girl. So where did this character make his first appearance and what legend had already grown up around him by the time of the Alsop attack? First mention of the attacker appears in London newspapers in December of 1837, and strangely, his first appearances bear little resemblance to the specter as he later became known. It was said that in September the previous year, he had appeared in the village of Barnes as a white bull, although it was believed he was a ghost or devil merely assuming that form. Over the course of a few months, when he appeared to attack people, both men and women, he was variously described as, once again, an animal, such as a bear, or as a ghost or devil. It is unclear whether these latter terms were used rather more figuratively than literally. Yet in some of these early appearances, elements of his eventual depiction emerge: He is described in some instances as wearing mail or armor, and in others as wielding iron claws. Even his ability to leap, which we don’t really see evidenced in the Alsop testimony, was well established by then, with accounts of the figure scaling the walls of Kensington Palace to dance on its lawns. His preternatural leaping ability was attributed to his having springs in his boots, leading the newspapers to dub him Spring Jack, a nickname that had evolved quickly to Spring-Heeled Jack. And Alsop was not even the first to associate a blue fire with this attacker, as one young woman of Dulwich had been accosted by a ghost in a white sheet enveloped in blue flame. With these reports multiplying in newspapers over the course of those several months, it is safe to say that by the time the shadowy figure approached the Alsops’ gate that February night, the idea of a devilish attacker named Spring-Heeled Jack lurking about in darkness to pounce on innocent young women was widespread and causing a veritable panic.

After the Alsop attack, Lambeth-street police office undertook an investigation headed by one James Lea, a renowned detective. Lea had found some fame ten years earlier while investigating the sensational Red Barn Murder. This case revolved around a young couple, William Corder and Maria Marten, who were much disgraced in their community—he for his philandering and swindlery, and she for her promiscuity and bearing of bastard children. They made plans to meet at a red barn and elope, but Maria’s family grew suspicious when she never wrote to them, despite the excuses William made in his letters. Then, perhaps on the basis of a dream his wife had, Maria’s father searched the red barn and found his daughter’s corpse. Detective James Lea had done the police work of tracking down Corder in London, confronting him with the charges, and searching his new residence, where he discovered some pistols that may have been the murder weapons and turned up some letters Corder had written claiming Maria was living with him and happy, evidence that helped to condemn William Corder to the gallows. Ten years later, and Lea found himself working another sensational case.

The Red Barn, scene of the crime, via  Wikimedia Commons

The Red Barn, scene of the crime, via Wikimedia Commons

Upon interviewing the residents of Old Ford, Lea found that this figure, or someone matching his description, had been haunting the area for a month, wearing a cloak and springing out at passersby in the lanes to frighten them, and some reports do indeed remark upon his agility in fleeing from those who had pursued him. Over the course of Lea’s investigation, he would come to the conclusion that this assailant need not necessarily have been a demon out of hell, as he inquired at the London Hospital and observed experiments that showed a man could reproduce the fire vomiting effects that Jane Alsop had described by blowing alcohol and perhaps other ingredients, such as Sulphur, into a flame, which of course the Alsop girl provided for her attacker. Moreover, he had suspects. When the Alsops cried for help from their windows, a trio of men from a nearby pub answered their call and reported encountering a cloaked man who told them a policeman was needed at the Alsop’s cottage. Another witness, James Smith, a wheelwright who at the time of the Alsops’ cries for help had been carrying a wheel up the lane, said he ran into two local men, Payne, a bricklayer, and Millbank, a carpenter. Smith described Millbank as being dressed all in white, white hat and shooting jacket, which could have been mistaken by Jane for the tight white oilskin and helmet she believed she had seen. What’s more, Smith asserted that, later that night, recognizing him as the man they had passed in the lane, Millbank asked him, “What have you to say to Spring Jack?” Then a shoemaker, Richardson, who had been on the same street and confirmed seeing Millbank and Payne there, claimed he had also seen two others, young men, one in a cloak, joking about Spring-Heeled Jack being in the lane.

So we have contradictory testimony from three sources--and indeed, because of this uncertainty, no one was ever charged with the crime—but all of these witnesses would seem to agree that the Spring-Heeled Jack in Old Ford that night was nothing more than a man or boy who thought the violent assault on Jane Alsop little more than a jest. This agrees well with Detective Lea’s assessment that this was a local criminal, for he had been reported in the area and apparently, as Lea pointed out, the perpetrator knew the family, as he seems to have called out to Mr. Alsop at some point, perhaps while at the gate. If this Spring-Heeled Jack were a resident of Old Ford, could he possibly have been the same assailant troubling so many villages in the previous months, ranging all over Isleworth, St. John’s Wood, Brixton, Stockwell, Vauxhall, Camberwell, and elsewhere? And was he the same Spring-Heeled Jack who, only five days after appearing at Jane Alsop’s gate, knocked on a door in Whitechapel and dropped his cloak to scare the wits out of a servant boy? And three days after that, could it have been the same man who waylaid the Scales sisters in an alley in Limehouse, once again wearing a cloak and some kind of headgear—described as a bonnet here rather than a helmet—throwing off his outer garment, lifting a lantern before him and spitting blue fire from his mouth into Lucy Scales’s face? Perhaps… perhaps it was simple recklessness to perpetrate his crimes not only in surrounding villages but also in his own neighborhood. But it may be impossible to tell, for already there were confirmed reports of copycats, so all of these must be considered dubious. In March, a man attacked the proprietress of a public house with a club, announcing he was Spring-Heeled Jack; a cloaked man assaulted a woman in Lincoln’s-Inn-Fields, slapping her face; and two cloaked men, who had blackened their faces, frightened a child. A young man in Kentish Town was let off with a warning after running around with a mask and blue paper in his mouth to approximate the fire of other reports, and another man was fined for going about in a mask and sheet. Meanwhile, a blacksmith in Islington saw in this panic a perfect opportunity for sexual assault and was charged with crimes against several women. And though most of these have little or nothing in common with the previous attacks, newspapers did not hesitate to print headlines announcing that Spring-Heeled Jack was out and about in their neck of the woods. So the name became a catch-all for any person going about in costume to scare pedestrians and grope young women.

Spring-Heeled Jack, leaping a gate, via  Wikimedia Commons

Spring-Heeled Jack, leaping a gate, via Wikimedia Commons

After 1838, the specter of Spring-Heeled Jack disappeared for more than thirty years. Therefore, it is surpassingly unexpected that the figure would reappear over the course of multiple flaps in the 1870s and beyond. In early October 1872, the so-called “Peckham ghost” made his first appearance in that village. The term likely used in the metaphorical sense of a phantom figure, but perhaps also in reference to the ghostly appearance of this white-clad figure, this “ghost” made a habit of jumping out at women in roadways and rising up menacingly from behind fences to startle unsuspecting passersby. This figure’s costume was decidedly less sophisticated, a dark cloak lined in white so that he need only throw his cloak open for the desired effect. But still, some reports suggested the presence of fire around his face and the ability to leap high fences in a single bound, leading to the old speculation that his boots were rigged with springs or perhaps had soles of India rubber, which I suppose in English imaginations of the time had properties akin to flubber. A man was accused and held on charges of being the Peckham ghost, but appearances continued while he was in custody, so again, no one suspect proved a believable culprit for all the incidences. Then at the end of that year, another “ghost” scare has been subsequently linked with the legend of Spring-Heeled Jack, this time in Sheffield, the farthest flap from London at the time at some 227 kilometers to the northwest. This appears to have been a tall man in a classic ghost costume: a simple white sheet. But the fact that he is described as being swifter and more agile than a normal man and was reported to have jumped over walls and gates has led to his being linked with old Jack. It seems to be, however, that he, and perhaps many others tenuously identified as Spring-Heeled Jack, may have only been an early practitioner of free-running, the sport now called Parkour.

Perhaps the boldest iteration of Spring-Heeled Jack sprang up in 1877 at a British Army camp at Aldershot to bound around sentry boxes and powder magazines, dodging bullets and slapping guards. It’s said that this Jack made no answer when the sentries saw him approaching and demanded he identify himself. With astonishing speed, he came close enough to slap some of the sentries’ faces with a hand that felt cold, like that of a corpse, and then hopped off toward a nearby cemetery. The guards in more than one instance gave chase and fired their weapons after him, to no avail. This has added to the legend that Jack was bulletproof, though the original reports could actually just be indicating that the guards missed their mark. That same year, Spring-Heeled Jack was reported by certain publications to have appeared numerous times, once climbing the Newport Arch, an ancient Roman landmark, with bullets fired by locals bouncing off the strange hides he wore. But ’77 was not his last hurrah, for 11 years later, during the Ripper murders, he showed up in Everton, in Liverpool some 288 kilometers from London, crouching in church steeples. Then into the 20th century he ventured, showing up again in Everton in 1904, leaping over rooftops in front of hundreds of witnesses. This last appearance, however, came with something of an explanation. It seemed that this scare actually originated with a supposed haunted house known to have poltergeist activity. The place was so famous in those parts that crowds of Liverpudlians used to gather outside in fearful expectation of seeing the ghost within. Add to this the presence of a local man who suffered from some mental imbalance who used to run around rooftops shouting about his wife being a devil, knocking bricks and mortar down on baffled onlookers, and you had a perfect recipe for a leaping ghost scare. With such an explanation in this flap, one wonders whether all the previous flaps might be similarly explained.

Spring-Heeled Jack among the headstones in a cemetery, via  Wikimedia Commons

Spring-Heeled Jack among the headstones in a cemetery, via Wikimedia Commons

Certainly there appears to have been some hysteria involved in many of the reports. Newspaper reporters themselves were skeptical at first, back in 1837, suggesting these were just the kinds of chilling tall tales passed around by servant girls, and in the few instances in which they did any real investigation, there seemed a dearth of first-hand witnesses. On some occasions, the ghostly beasts that had been reported lurking on the streets were simple cases of misidentification: a pale-faced cow or a white police horse became a ghastly demonic bull or bear or a hoary devil. Even the report of Jack dancing on the lawns of Kensington Palace was actually a re-imagining of something far less nefarious that happened 15 years earlier. And during the thick of the panic in January 1838, The Morning Herald’s investigation turned up plenty of people repeating the stories of Spring-Heeled Jack, but no one who had actually seen him firsthand. The reporter found himself chasing after empty leads, tracking down people who were said to have been injured by the phantom attacker only to have them say it hadn’t happened to them personally and send him on looking for someone else to whom it had happened. As Mike Dash has pointed out, this is a textbook example of an urban legend.

However, there do appear to be verifiable reports of some attacks, such as in the Alsop case, where we also have some very human suspects, and years later at Aldershot, where again it seems a human man may have perpetrated the attacks on sentries as a prank. It was reported that an unknown individual had earlier been stopped entering the camp carrying a carpet bag that could have contained a costume but that he was allowed to enter when he claimed to be a soldier. And there is some indication that the Aldershot Jack may have indeed been a soldier, for after being shot at, he ceased his nocturnal games until such time as the soldiers had been ordered not to waste any more ammunition firing at him, at which time he resumed his escapades. Only a soldier stationed there would have been aware that there was no further risk of being gunned down. And while of course the Alsop attack was a serious act of violence, as were all the sexual attacks associated with Spring-Heeled Jack, there is plenty of precedent for the notion that many attacks may have just been undertaken as pranks, as in Aldershot. All the way back in 1803, a ghost was said to be haunting the lanes of Hammersmith. His clothing, if nothing else, was described in terms quite similar to Jack’s, as white like a sheet and sometimes similar to an animal’s hide. Eventually a man encountered him, shot him, and was tried for his murder when beneath his costume he turned out to be a respected member of the community just out scaring people for a laugh. And the idea that Spring-Heeled Jack may just be a prankster, or several pranksters, was considered even in early 1838, as several newspapers reported on rumors that a group of bored noblemen were behind the attacks, performing them as part of a wager. One particular young nobleman, The Marquess of Waterford, Henry Beresford, known to drink heavily and enjoy a practical joke, was among those suspected of being involved in the wager, but there is no concrete evidence to support this speculation.

Henry Beresford, 3rd Marquess of Waterford, via  Wikimedia Commons

Henry Beresford, 3rd Marquess of Waterford, via Wikimedia Commons

Hard evidence, however, is not something that 19th century newspapers always require before putting a story into print, as we have seen before, most recently in our examination of the phantom airships in America. London newspapers helped spread this panic by printing second hand accounts of the attacks, by calling him a ghost and a devil, and by dubbing him with the catchy name Spring-Heeled Jack. And some less scrupulous newspapers, such as the Illustrated Police News, which reported a number of sensational encounters with Spring-Heeled Jack in 1877 that no other sources corroborate, may have been fabricating incidents out of whole cloth. And the secondary literature also is rife with embellishment and falsification. Mike Dash has done the hard work of fact checking other writers who had researched the topic before him, and one of them, Peter Haining, seems to have manufactured stories for the specific purpose of confirming the theory that the Marquess of Waterford was behind the crimes. He tells of an attack on a servant girl named Polly Adams and has her describe her attacker as a laughing nobleman with protruding eyes like those of Henry Beresford, when no contemporary source has been turned up to confirm that such an attack ever occurred. Likewise, to one appearance of Jack that does appear in newspaper reports, he added the specific detail that a witness had identified a crest with a gold filigree “W” stitched into Spring-Heeled Jack’s cloak. This report is often repeated today as support for the notion that Waterford was behind the crimes, but there is no indication that it ever happened beyond Haining’s claim. And Dash has proven that Haining lacks all credibility, as he completely invented one encounter: the murder of a prostitute named Maria Davis that he attributes to Spring-Heeled Jack. Haining provided a woodcut illustration that he claims shows the recovery of Davis’s body from a ditch, but Mike Dash tracked down this woodcut to discover that it only depicts someone gathering water, not recovering a corpse. With distortions as shameless as these obscuring the truth here, it’s hard to tell what can be trusted.

The picture Haining misused, via  Morgue of Intrigue

The picture Haining misused, via Morgue of Intrigue

Nevertheless, while some of the attacks may have been contrived, and some may have been mere imitations, there must have been some original. A legend does not spring up from nothing, does it? And despite all the different variations on his appearance, the different modus operandi, far-flung settings and disparate time spans, one still sees similarities, a pattern that is hard to dismiss. Even outside of the UK, there have been other, similar encounters, and it is hard to imagine that the legend of Spring-Heeled Jack would have spread so far, especially since the newspapers there never made such a link. In Georgia, in 1841, a man dressed as the devil attacked and robbed a woman, and when confronted, he swelled and emitted smoke, pronouncing himself the Prince of Darkness before being shot to death. In Cape Cod, more than thirty years after his final appearance in England, a phantom called the Black Flash skulked around Provincetown with flaming eyes, spitting fire into his victims’ faces, laughing when shot at, and springing easily over 8-foot fences. In those same years, during World War Two, a “Spring Man” was known to hop down the darkened streets of Prague after the German-imposed curfew. Then the fifties saw a similar figure appear in Baltimore, clad in a black cloak and leaping onto rooftops. In fact, to a modern audience he might sound like a proto-Batman, and indeed, despite the terror he struck in many, he also appeared as a heroic figure in Victorian Penny Dreadfuls, terrifying villains with his preternatural leaps and acting the part of the outlaw hero, an anti-hero like Robin Hood. So one could certainly see Batman, the vigilante with acrobatic skills and a frightening persona, as being part of the same tradition as Spring-Heeled Jack. Is this then something universal, an archetype, a folkloric tradition like others we see appearing independently in different cultures? Or is it just testament to the eternal appeal of dressing up and leaping out to scare people? At this time of year, I lean toward the latter. Happy Halloween!

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Further Reading

Dash, Mike. “Spring-Heeled Jack: To Victorian Bugaboo from Suburban Ghost.” Fortean Studies, vol. 3, 1996, pp. 7-125. mikedash.com, docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/7bb090_e0f718375aa54f789586c062f29dd204.pdf.

The Myth and Mystery of Christopher Columbus

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Ahead of the now controversial holiday Columbus Day, it is worthwhile to examine the myths and mysteries surrounding that much vaunted explorer who in fourteen hundred and ninety-two went and sailed the ocean blue: Christopher Columbus. As with many of you listeners, I’m sure, I vividly remember the legend of Columbus as it was taught to me by teachers and illustrated children’s books. As the legend went, Columbus was a man of conviction; he believed the world was round and thus that he could sail west to reach the Indies in the east. But he had trouble obtaining financial backing for his journey, for the advisers to Queen Isabella scoffed at his ignorance. Finally, Queen Isabella, who believed in Columbus, pawned her crown jewels to pay for his endeavor, and after a long and perilous crossing, Columbus’s ships, the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria landed in the New World, for rather than reaching the East Indies, Columbus had discovered America. This is a story that many children have heard, and some embellished particulars might be forgiven as necessities in making history palatable to youngsters, such as the fact that Queen Isabella never pawned her jewels for Columbus—she had done this before, to provision her armies, but in the case of Columbus, she had only expressed a willingness to do it. But in the early 1990s, as the quincentennial, or 500th anniversary, of Columbus’s landing at the Bahamas approached, far more central aspects of the legend than this were challenged. And in the years since, Columbus has become a villain in the eyes of many who see him as a figure representative of terrible colonial atrocities against native inhabitants. Native American activists have disrupted numerous Columbus Day parades, and today many cities have chosen to replace the holiday with Indigenous Peoples Day, and just as there has been a continual push to remove or relocate confederate monuments, so have activists petitioned to do away with Columbus’s statues. As with the controversy over Confederate statues, which I discussed in my episode Jubal Early’s Lost Cause, there are still many who vociferously oppose this trend, which they see as historical revisionism of the worst sort, meant only to libel and demonize. And it is not at all clear which of these contending sides will win out in this historiographical conflict. While it may seem that the majority of professional historians ascribe to a less than idealized version of Columbus, this may mean nothing when it comes to whether the legend will continue to be disseminated as it always has been. In fact, Christina M. Desai, in a 2014 article in Children’s Literature in Education called “The Columbus Myth: Power and Ideology in Picturebooks about Christopher Columbus,” showed that children’s literature continues to promote the same ideas about Columbus, regardless of how modern views of the man have changed. What is this myth? What revelations about Columbus do modern historians offer? What do we know and what do we not know about the so-called Great Discoverer? Thank you for listening to Episode 26: The Myth and Mystery of Christopher Columbus.

One might ask, what are these conceptions of Columbus that children’s literature teaches? What are these myths propagated by schoolbooks? First and foremost would be the myth of discovery. To children in the United States, we teach that Columbus discovered America, but of course, in his 1492 voyage, he landed at the Bahamas, and his various subsequent journeys likewise saw him land at other islands in the Caribbean, such as that which today we call Haiti and the Dominican Republic, but which Columbus called Hispaniola. He can hardly be said to have discovered our country, which is essentially what children are allowed to believe. Now, one might cry “semantics!” Clearly he landed in the New World, so one can accurately say he discovered the Americas. But Native Americans have a deeper misgiving here, for how can it be said that Columbus discovered a land that was already inhabited with a native Arawak population numbering somewhere around 8 million? Books and traditions that assert Columbus discovered this land thereby transmit to future generations an age-old colonialist ideology that is intrinsically Euro-centric. Yes, some dark-skinned Other was already present, it tells children, but their existence was incidental, as they were inferior to the Western European explorers who made their way to those lands. Thus the inherent right of colonial powers to claim lands for themselves is tacitly asserted. The ridiculousness of this idea being in any way approved of today, regardless of how commonly held it was in that era, was illustrated dramatically by Adam “Fortunate Eagle” Nordwall, a Native American Chippewa activist who in 1973 flew to Italy and emerged from his plane resplendent in his tribal regalia to proclaim that he had discovered Italy and would claim possession of it on behalf of Native Americans, despite the little detail that it was teeming with Italian inhabitants.

Adam “Fortunate Eagle” Nordwall meeting the Pope, via  The Bemidgi Pioneer

Adam “Fortunate Eagle” Nordwall meeting the Pope, via The Bemidgi Pioneer

Some would argue this may be misconstruing the meaning of the word discovery as it’s used in this context, for surely it is a worthwhile accomplishment to be the first explorer to “discover,” as in find out, that other continents existed in this world, regardless of whether they were inhabited, just as a Native American sailing across the Atlantic and landing in France could be said to have “discovered” that Europe existed. But can Columbus even claim this honor for himself? There are many theories and indications that Pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contact occurred, some of course dubious, and others intriguing. It has been suggested that an Irish monk, Saint Brendan the Navigator, who is said to have made a great voyage across the sea to a legendary Isle of the Blessed, may have actually landed in North America as long ago as the sixth century. Then, of course, there were the Norse voyages to the mysterious, fertile shores of Vinland west of Greenland detailed in the Saga of the Greenlanders and the Saga of Erik the Red, which if believed would place the first European explorers on North American shores somewhere around 1000 C.E. and give credit to Leif Eriksson, or perhaps to a lesser known Norseman named Bjarni Herjólfsson around 14 years earlier. And if the Norse claim is soured by some of the doubtful claims over inscribed rune stones that proponents tout as proof, then there’s always the Welsh claim that in 1170 an illegitimate prince by the name of Madoc ab Gwynedd, son of a Welsh prince and the daughter of a Viking lord, set sail with his brother and 200 Welshmen. Declared missing the next year, a legend transmitted by Cherokee tribes would have us believe that these resolute Welshmen made their way to the shores of what is today Mobile, Alabama, and thenceforth, harried by native attacks, sailed up a series of rivers until they settled in Georgia and intermarried with the indigenous peoples there. Then again, perhaps this story strains your credulity even more than that of the Viking voyages to Vinland, due not only to its folkloric roots but to the suspicious fact that it gained prominence in Elizabethan England as a means of countering Spanish claims to the New World. As an example of its questionable veracity, one of its biggest promoters was the colorful character of John Dee, whom I’ve mentioned before in my episode on the Voynich Manuscript and to whom I still plan to devote at least one full episode in the future. Dr. Dee not only asserted that Madoc’s voyage strengthened Elizabeth’s claim on the New World; he further insisted that King Arthur had discovered it long before that!

And so, with such outlandish contentions as these, perhaps you give no credence to any theories of pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contact. But still, can Christopher Columbus be credited even with being the first European to “discover” that a hitherto unknown continent existed if he never realized it himself? Columbus sailed west searching for a new route to the Indies, those East Asian lands rich in gold and spices. When he landed on what today are the Bahamas, Cuba, Haiti, he believed that he was visiting the distant shores of China and Japan, a conviction most evidence shows he held throughout his subsequent voyages and maintained to his death. This, of course, is why the Americas are named for the cartographer Amerigo Vespucci, who was first to realize the significance of what Columbus found. However,  this is disputed as well, with some pointing to another Welshman, Richard ap Meryk, who anglicized his name to Amerike when he moved to Bristol and founded a Society of Merchant Adventurers. Some say America was named for him, as he was a principal financier of John Cabot’s 1497 expedition to Newfoundland, and others take it further, asserting that Bristol fisherman landed at Newfoundland in 1480 and named it for Richard Amerike. So the claims do not cease, and indeed are not limited to Europe. Some have claimed Chinese voyager Zheng He found the New World in the 15th century and point to an 18th century map of the world clearly showing the Americas as proof, for a dubious notation on it claims it was a copy of a 1418 map. And even more recently, Turkish president Erdoğan, a despot and known propagandist, suggested that Muslims had preceded Columbus to Cuba. His evidence? In Columbus’s writings, there is mention of finding a mosque on a hill, but historians agree this was a metaphor. Nevertheless, this gives a clear indication of just how muddled is the history of the New World’s “discovery.”

Columbus landing on Hispaniola, quite unsure of where he was, via  Wikimedia Commons

Columbus landing on Hispaniola, quite unsure of where he was, via Wikimedia Commons

Another persistent myth about Columbus is that he was in the minority, or even alone, in believing that the earth was round. This is not merely a simplification used to embellish his story in children’s books; even scholars have been known to repeat this myth, suggesting that Columbus’s venture was so adamantly opposed at first because ignorant and narrow-minded officials in the Spanish court scoffed at him for suggesting one could reach the East by sailing westward, reminding Columbus that his ships would fall off the edge of the world. This part of the story helps to build the legend of Columbus as a brilliant and inspired genius, a hero opposed by small-minded men. In truth, however, it was commonly held at the time that the earth was round, and had been since antiquity. Aristotle himself worked out what he believed was the circumference of the planet some two hundred or more years before the Common Era, as did librarians at Alexandria, and their measurements differ only about 5% from current day calculations! It had been common knowledge among the educated for centuries, and for everyone else, the curved shadow of the Earth on the Moon during eclipses made it obvious enough. Moreover, anyone who observed ships on the ocean was able to confirm it, for as they sailed away over the curvature of the Earth, they dropped slowly out of sight, their hulls long before their masts. In fact, the oldest surviving globe, the Erdapfel or “earth apple,” was made the same year as Columbus’s first voyage, 1492; though it shows no indication of the existence of the Americas, it is quite spherical, and it was likely not the first of its kind. Columbus cannot even be credited with being the first man to realize the world’s globular shape would make it possible to sail west to reach the East, as Greek historian and geographer Strabo suggested back in 63 BCE that India could be reached by such a westward route. In truth, Spanish resistance to Columbus’s venture derived from the very fact that knowledge of the Earth’s shape and size was far greater than the received myth would have us believe. Court officials scoffed at Columbus’s specious projections, insisting sailing westward to reach the Indies would take far longer than Columbus claimed. And, of course, they were right. Indeed, one cannot even credit Columbus with proving what everyone previously had only reasoned about the Earth’s shape because he never actually circumnavigated it. Recognition for that must go to Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition 30 years later.

This myth that Columbus set out to disprove the theory of Earth’s flatness began in the work of America’s great mythmaker, Washington Irving, perhaps best known for his iconic fiction stories, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle.” Having gone to Madrid to help translate some documents on Columbus, Irving decided to write the man’s history for American audiences. Along the way, though, he relied more and more on his tendencies as a writer of fiction, filling in the blind spots by reasoning what must have happened or what may indeed have occurred and weaving those imagined scenes into the narrative, resulting in The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, an 1828 work presented to the reading public as scrupulous historiography when it was really something closer to historical fiction. And when it came time to write about Columbus’s meeting with the Council at Salamanca, he embellished the scene to create the drama he assumed the true encounter must have had. In fairness to Irving, Columbus himself had a tendency to portray himself as persecuted and unfairly treated in his own writings, so Irving may have thought his sources justified his elaboration, but the result was a fictional passage in which Columbus faces the derision of closed-minded men in power. This is the origin of the myth that objections were raised over Columbus’s notion of a round Earth, but actually, Irving does have some council members concede the roundness of the planet, and the principal reservation that Irving has his the councilmen raise against Columbus’s reasoning is doctrinal, having to do with the idea of the antipodes, an idea rejected by the church because it meant the existence of people on the other side of the planet who must not have been descended from Adam. Still others in the council Irving depicted as more concerned that the distance around the earth was far greater than Columbus anticipated, which of course is accurate. Nevertheless, it was the idea that the council members were all Flat Earthers that caught on and soon found itself included in other books. And this notion of enlightened scientific thinking being suppressed by dogmatic reactionaries became an especially popular trope used by Darwinists in the later 19th century to defend the theory of evolution, equating Columbus’s struggle against ignorant Flat Earthers with Copernicus’s struggle against the 16th century church in an effort to depict their religious detractors as brassbound and standpat. As true as this may have been in Copernicus’s case and in the case of the dogmatists opposing Darwinian thought, it was not the case when Columbus went seeking support for his venture. And just as today reactionaries parade outlier examples to suggest there is not scientific consensus when it comes to climate change, so then the champions of science in the 19th century held up obscure claims of Flat Earthers in antiquity as representative of common belief, suggesting that 15th century science owed its backward notions to the ideas of Cosmas Indicopleustes in the 6th century or Lactantius in the 3rd century, even though few in the 1400s likely even knew about these thinkers and their religious opposition to the idea of the Earth’s roundness and probably even fewer gave weight to their opinions.

Washington Irving, looking rather proud of his mythologizing, via  Wikimedia Commons

Washington Irving, looking rather proud of his mythologizing, via Wikimedia Commons

A final facet of the Columbus myth as it continues to be conveyed to generations of youth has to do with Columbus’s motivation. Many treatments of Columbus emphasize his devoutness, portraying him like a saint. In this view of Columbus, he had no other purpose for crossing the Atlantic than to spread the word of God to those benighted souls across the water whom he considered to be heathens. This mythical portrayal of him has Columbus finding inspiration, even as a child, in his namesake, Saint Christopher, who according to a decidedly folkloric tradition once carried the Christ child across a river. In just the same way, so the myth goes, Columbus had been chosen to carry Christ across the dark waters metaphorically in carrying His Word to the godless, and most depictions of his arrival in the New World show him kneeling in prayer upon stepping foot on shore. This element of the Columbus myth also seems to have been derived from Columbus’s own self-aggrandizing writings. In his efforts to acquire backing for his voyage, he presented himself as a heavenly-anointed character, divinely chosen to spread not only Christendom but also Spanish influence abroad. In fact, later in his career, when he had lost his position in his colony and no longer held favor in the court, he spent time searching the scriptures for indications that his voyages had been foretold in prophecy and compiled them in a manuscript never published in his life. Around this time he also began to sign his name as Christo Ferens, or Christ Bearer, an indication that he actively publicized himself as a figure analogous to St. Christopher. But to accept and promulgate this image of Columbus is to allow the man to make his own myth, and it means turning a blind eye to more clearly supported motivations, such as the gathering of wealth for the Spanish crown and, of course, self-enrichment. Columbus did not sell his voyage on the basis of the opportunity it would afford for evangelizing natives. The Spanish court expected returns on their investment, and Columbus’s actions after his “discovery” indicate that the gathering of gold and other riches was paramount. Now there may have been some overlap with these two motivations attributed to him, as some recent scholarship has suggested that Columbus hoped through his venture to finance a new crusade in order to take Jerusalem from Muslims. Among the prophecies compiled by Columbus, alongside those foretelling the conversion of all peoples to Christianity, were those prophesying the final reclamation of the Holy Land from Muslim control. But an accurate evaluation of what drove Columbus cannot be taken directly from the man’s own words alone. Rather, we must consider his actions in the New World to gain a more perfect understanding of his enterprise.

And it is here where we sail into the deepest and darkest waters of the Columbus myth. Since the quincentennial, a clear revisionist effort has been made to rewrite his character in memory and history. Rather than a saintly hero or harbinger of enlightenment, he was the father of slavery and a perpetrator of genocide. Traditionalists decry this trend as libel, arguing that Columbus’s villainy has been exaggerated and his actions judged out of context according to the moral sensibilities of modern society. Further, they insist that he cannot be held accountable for events he only set in motion, especially when he did so inadvertently. So it becomes incumbent on us to examine these two allegations. First, was Columbus responsible for the New World slave trade? We know he was no stranger to the slave trade, as the earliest records we have of him indicate he was sailing around the west coast of Africa on a Portuguese slaving vessel. And on his 1492 voyage, he appears to have personally planted the first sugar plant in the Caribbean, a crop which would flourish in that climate and would eventually require a massive labor force for its cultivation, leading directly to the establishment of a slave trade between Africa and Hispaniola. But if that is too unwitting an act for us to lay blame on Columbus, then let us look to his second voyage, when he returned to Hispaniola with 17 ships. This was his voyage of conquest, and when he took control of the island, he quickly discovered that the gold and riches he believed would be so plentiful were actually not so forthcoming. Therefore, in an effort to boost the disappointing return, he began to see the native population as another resource he could exploit, and he established the institution of slavery. Not only did he enslave natives in the New World for the purposes of gathering wealth for the crown, but he also shipped the natives back across the Atlantic. Although many died during the crossing, he took comfort in the fact that, as he wrote, “this will not always be the case, for the Negroes and Canary Islanders reacted in the same way at first” (Fernández-Armesto 6). Traditionalists may insist that Columbus cannot be judged a villain even for these actions, as the world’s understanding of the evils of slavery was not then prevalent. But the surprising fact is that the Spanish had laws against slavery even in that era. Slavery was only to be condoned with prisoners of war and criminals who had violated natural law, and even then must be approved by a royal court. This is not to say that the Spanish disapproved of all slavery in the New World. In fact, they did approve of the enslavement of certain Carib natives of the Lesser Antilles who it was said practiced cannibalism, as such acts broke natural law. The problem was that Columbus traded mostly in Arawak natives, and specifically the Taino population, whom he had often stated were responsive to evangelization, making their enslavement unlawful. Columbus actually received warnings from Spanish royal courts, which ordered these illegally enslaved natives to be emancipated. So, the fact that he appears to have had far fewer reservations about human bondage even than those he served would seem to justify the revisionist perception of Columbus as the man who brought slavery and its concomitant evils to the Americas.

A depiction of Spanish atrocities in the work of Las Casas, via  Wikimedia Commons

A depiction of Spanish atrocities in the work of Las Casas, via Wikimedia Commons

So we come to the worst of the crimes laid at Columbus’s feet in modern times: that of genocide or the deliberate murder of an entire people. Apologists rightly point out that it would have been foolish for Columbus to deliberately stamp out the population of Taino natives on Hispaniola, as he relied on them to gather wealth from the island, and he could hardly be said to have redeemed them in Christ if he simply killed them all. Moreover, there was the matter of rebellion to consider. Wholesale slaughter would have made the Taino ungovernable, and Columbus even said as much, exhorting the Spanish to “take much care of the Indians, that no ill nor harm may be done them…so [they] should have no cause to rebel” (Fernández-Armesto 7). And yet, over the course of the first three years of his governorship, the Arawak population plummeted by some 5 million! Of the remaining 3 million, only about 22,000 remained 18 years later. 30 years after that, they were all but extinct. And a similar pattern prevailed across the Caribbean basin. To account for these numbers without laying blame on Columbus and his governorship, apologists point to disease, and certainly contact with Europeans meant the spread of disease. In fact, disease took many Spanish lives as well, but one of the worst diseases to spread in the aftermath of the Spanish invasion was syphilis, and it spread because of Spaniards routinely raping native women. And Columbus’s programs and policies would prove just as brutal and deadly as any illness. Many among the indigenous population, in addition to being enslaved, had their valuable cultivated lands seized by the invaders, and for many, this meant starvation. As for those who escaped enslavement, there remained an unrealistic tribute program. Upon their arrival, the Spanish had delighted many natives with gifts, including baubles such as hawk’s bells, the little brass bells that falconers customarily affixed to their birds’ talons. During Columbus’s subsequent rule, however, these gifts became a curse, as around 1495, Columbus ordered that every native over 14 years old had to bring him enough gold to fill his or her hawk’s bell every three months. This proved to be an impossible task for many, as gold was not as plentiful there as had been imagined, and as a consequence for failing to meet one’s tribute, the Spanish chopped off the natives’ hands and let them bleed to death. Historians estimate more than 10,000 natives were murdered in this way. And the atrocities do not cease there, with reports of Spaniards wagering on who could behead a native or hack him in half with one fell strike and of Spaniards taking infants from their mothers’ breasts and throwing them against rocks or cutting them into pieces with their swords and feeding them to their dogs. They hanged the natives, burned them at the stake, and cooked them on spits just to teach them respect, or rather, fear, and they even engaged in wholesale massacre, putting men, women, and children—whole villages—to the sword until the streets ran with blood like the floor of an abattoir. All this was reported by Bartolome de Las Casas, a Dominican friar who arrived at Hispaniola in 1502 (Churchill 8). Again, apologists argue with a straight face that Columbus cannot be blamed for atrocities that occurred when he was no longer governor of Hispaniola, but these outrages were made possible not only by the atmosphere first established under his rule, but also by his policies, which remained in effect and, after 1509, were enforced by Columbus’s own son.

For many Italians and Italian-Americans, these facts do not sit well, for despite the fact that Columbus sailed and claimed land for Spain, it is said Columbus was born in Genoa and was therefore ethnically Italian. And he has become a symbol in Italy just as much as he has in the United States. During the quincentennial in 1992, a ceremony was held in Las Vegas to marry the Statue of Liberty to a statue of Christopher Columbus in Barcelona. But to illustrate just how many blind spots remain in our understanding of who Columbus was and what he stood for and did, it should be pointed out that we know shockingly little about him. In portraits, he is always depicted differently because we don’t really know what he looked like and can’t even guess about his appearance based on race or culture because we don’t even know for a certainty where he came from. The Italians make the strongest case, but the fact remains that there exists no record of his birth, even though birth records were kept at the time in Genoa. Moreover, Columbus never wrote himself about his youth, leaving the place of his birth and upbringing a mystery, and he wrote and apparently spoke not in any dialect of Genoa but in Castilian with a smattering of Latin and Portuguese. Of course, the fact that he sailed for Portugal, had some knowledge of the language, and took a Portuguese wife led to claims he was Portuguese as well as theories that he ran a map shop in Lisbon. Then his Castilian fluency and his service to Spain, along with the fact that he kept a Spanish mistress, led to claims he was Spanish; perhaps you’ve heard the Hispanic version of his name, Cristóbal Colón. In the 1920s, some historical documents surfaced purporting to prove his Spanish heritage, but these turned out to be forgeries. Nevertheless, the claims did not cease there. In 1913, a theory arose that he was Jewish, or more specifically that he was a Spanish Jew, either a converso who had converted to Christianity, or that he had been forced to hide his Jewish identity because of King Ferdinand of Aragon’s 1492 order expelling Jews from Spain. There is little concrete evidence for this theory, however, and some who have promoted it relied on awful anti-Semitic stereotypes, suggesting Columbus’s Jewishness explained his excessive greed for gold (Churchill 11). While the notion of a Jewish Columbus may add new dimension to the theory that Columbus’s central motivation was to reclaim Jerusalem, and has even led to other theories about his motivation, such as that he was really interested in tracking down the lost tribes of Israel in the New World, there is virtually no evidence for it beyond some linguistic analysis that suggests he occasionally dropped a Hebrew word into his compositions. It would seem to me, though, that this proves nothing, since foreign words are frequently adopted by other languages, and Columbus specifically was known to use a mix of several languages and dialects, as already noted.

Various portraits of Columbus showing no resemblance to each other, via  vanderkrogt.net

Various portraits of Columbus showing no resemblance to each other, via vanderkrogt.net

Mystery follows Columbus from his origins to the end of his life and beyond. More than 30 years after his death in 1509, his remains, along with his son’s, were transported to Santo Domingo to be laid to rest in the New World according to his wishes. With the end of Spanish power in Hispaniola in 1795, the remains were sent to Havana, but in 1877, a lead box was discovered back at Santo Domingo containing bones and clearly marked as the casket of Cristóbal Colón. Thus there were two sets of remains, those in Cuba—which, with the outbreak of war with the U.S. in 1898, were shipped again back to Spain and are still there—and those in the present day Dominican Republic, where their keepers claim they never left, the Spanish having taken the wrong bones, whether by accident or because someone loyal to Columbus’s memory switched the remains since Columbus had wished to stay in Santo Domingo. They point to the evidence of arthritis in their bones as proof, as it is known Columbus suffered from that condition. The Spanish have somewhat weightier proof for the authenticity of the remains in their possession in the form of DNA analysis confirming their bones share DNA with those of Columbus’s brother, but the Dominicans refuse to accept these results and at the same time have declined to allow similar testing on the bones in their possession. So even in death, Columbus remains a man between worlds, claimed by many but belonging to none. The apologists who would reclaim his identity as a hero cry that modern revision indulges in the so-called “Black Legend,” the trend in historiography to tear down and demonize persons and cultures that in the past may have been idealized, and to ignore or minimize their positive contributions. But if the scholarship is sound, if the facts that have caused revisionists to reexamine previous portrayals are accurate, then what other response can there be but to recoil from such deeds?  Some argue for more balance in our consideration of Columbus, such as the Smithsonian and other museums, which in recent years have altered their discourse to stress not Columbus’s “discovery” but Spanish “contact,” and use the antiseptic term “exchange” to encompass all that transpired during the clash of these cultures. This historiographical trend warns us to strive for balance and fairness, and above all not to engage in reductive archetypes like heroes and villains (Bigelow, “Two Myths”). This may be a worthwhile and even admirable endeavor, in theory, but one wonders if such evenhandedness is always warranted. In the future, for example, will we be censured for suggesting that some villainy was at work in orchestrating the holocaust?

*

Further Reading

Bigelow, Bill. "Once upon a genocide: Christopher Columbus in children's literature." Social Justice, vol. 19, no. 2, 1992, p. 106+. Academic OneFile, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A13850074/AONE?u=cclc_merced&sid=AONE&xid=3057a024. Accessed 3 Sept. 2018.

---. "Two myths are not better than one." Monthly Review, July-Aug. 1992, p. 28+. Academic OneFile, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A12478791/AONE?u=cclc_merced&sid=AONE. Accessed 3 Sept. 2018.

Churchill, Ward. “Deconstructing the Columbus Myth: Was the ‘Great Discoverer’ Italian or Spanish, Nazi or Jew?” Social Justice, vol. 19, no. 2 (48), 1992, pp. 39–55. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/29766673.

Fernandez-Armesto, F. “Columbus--Hero or Villain?” History Today, vol. 42, no. 5, May 1992, p. 4-9. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=f6h&AN=9205183670&site=ehost-live.

Paul, Heike. “Christopher Columbus and the Myth of ‘Discovery.’” The Myths That Made America: An Introduction to American Studies, Transcript Verlag, Bielefeld, 2014, pp. 43–88. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv1wxsdq.5.

Koning, Hans. Columbus: His Enterprise. Monthly Review Press, 1991.

Singham, Mano. “Columbus and the Flat Earth Myth.” Phi Delta Kappan, vol. 88, no. 8, Apr. 2007, p. 590-92. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=brb&AN=504303125&site=ehost-live.

Vizenor, Gerald. "Christopher Columbus: Lost Havens in the Ruins of Representation." American Indian Quarterly, vol. 16, no. 4, Fall92, pp. 521-32. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=31h&AN=9305145094&site=ehost-live.

Blind Spot: Charles Dellschau and His Extraordinary Sonora Aero Club

765px-Charles_Dellschau_work_example_10.jpg

In the last edition, I surveyed the history of innovation in ballooning before telling the tale of the mysterious sightings that occurred in 1896 and ’97, but is it possible that there is a further history of aviation pioneering that didn’t make it into the historical record? Could some inventors have made great strides in the design and building of airships? If fleets of flying machines really were seen in 1896 and 1897, then it would seem someone must have. And there does exist a body of work that claims to answer these questions. In all, it comprises some 2000 pages, with watercolor paintings and handmade collages as well as handwritten passages that purport to reveal the existence of an organization of airship inventors who made great advances in aviation in the 1850s, but did so entirely in secret. But is this a work of history or a work of art? Does it impart fact or simply weave an intriguing fiction?

The work began around the turn of the 20th century. The artist was then a man of around 70 years, a Prussian immigrant by the name of Charles Albert August Dellschau who had arrived at Galveston in 1849 at the age of 19. He lived much of his life in Texas, working in Richmond as a butcher, as had been his father’s trade. In 1861, he married a widow with a 5 year old girl. Decades later, after losing his wife and most of the children he had fathered with her, he moved from Richmond to Houston to work as a clerk for his step-daughter’s husband, a saddler maker. In the mid-1890s, his son-in-law also passed away, and Dellschau moved in with his widowed step-daughter and her several children. He retired right around when the airship flaps began. Not long after these incredible sightings of flying ships, Charles Dellschau, who seems to have spent most of his time in his step-daughter’s attic, began to write his illustrated memoirs. This undertaking thereafter turned into a seemingly endless series of drawings, paintings, and collages on butcher paper. It seems he produced one new intricate work of art of this sort about every two days, working by candle light up in his attic studio, until he died in 1923 at the age of 93. He never tried to publish his writings or sell his artwork in life, and after he was gone, his family left it moldering up in that attic until the 1960s, when a house fire prompted a fire inspector to clean out the attic. Thinking all the old papers a fire hazard, he dumped them all on the curb. Somehow, the artwork thereafter came into the possession of the owner of a local store, where for even longer it remained hidden under various other items—tarps and carpets—until its rediscovery and sale to various art galleries and museums, and to a researcher named P. J. Navarro, whose interest lay principally in the mystery airship sightings of the late 1890s. From there, the work of Charles Dellschau entered history and the public consciousness.

A manuscript of Charles Dellschau’s work, via  Wikimedia Commons

A manuscript of Charles Dellschau’s work, via Wikimedia Commons

You see, rather than the simple autobiography of a butcher, as one might have expected from him, his writings and his illustrations and collages depicted in vivid detail his involvement with a society of airship makers in California. If Dellschau’s work is to be believed, then sometime in the early to mid-1850s, not long after he first arrived in Texas, he traveled to California, to the gold rush country west of Yosemite, where in a small town called Sonora, he served as the draftsman for a secret society of airship builders. This group, the Sonora Aero Club, was composed of men with Germanic names, likely immigrants to America just like Dellschau, and they met among miners in the saloon at Sonora, talking not of gold but of flight. One man in particular stands out in Dellschau’s works as the leader or principal innovator in the Sonora Aero Club: one Peter Mennis. A German miner and rough sort, he is described as a drunk and a genius, tinkering with airships for the sole purpose of astonishing friends and maybe making enough money to keep himself in drink. It is he who engineers or discovers the miraculous “Lifting Fluid” that eventually allows all the Sonora Aero Club’s ships to float and fly. Mennis calls this material “Supe.” Essentially, it replaced hydrogen in their designs, as drops of it, released onto rotating metal plates called an “Electrande,” resulted in a gas that filled the airships’ envelopes to provide lift. So you might say they were driving around souped-up hot-air balloons. From his memoirs, one gets the impression that the club is a group of jovial aviation enthusiasts, keenly interested in the mechanics of flight, yes, but perhaps even more interested in telling a good tale and having a raucous good time at the local tavern.

Example of Dellschau’s work, via  Wikimedia Commons

Example of Dellschau’s work, via Wikimedia Commons

But there is mystery and intrigue in Dellschau’s club as well, for theirs was a secret society, and their undertakings performed under a strict code of silence. In one margin, among the many tales told in scrawled annotations on his paintings, he tells of an airship pilot that the club suspected was taking payment for transporting cargo, and how the club orchestrated the crash of his vessel in retaliation. There is mention of members being forbidden to build the ships they had designed because they had been sharing too much information with people outside the club, and of a nosy boardinghouse owner who tried to eavesdrop on their meetings and got stranded on a cliff for her snooping. When ships were built, they had to be disguised as wagons so that no one who saw them would think anything of them. Indeed, even a half a century later, Dellschau didn’t seem entirely comfortable writing about the secrets of the Aero Club, so some of his work is written in code, which of course is very odd for a memoir or a history. Some details that we have come from the researcher P. J. Navarro, who claims to have cracked Dellschau’s code after years of studying his work. Acccording to Navarro, one prominent coded phrase, seemingly in Greek characters, ĐM = XØ (delta mu = chi phi) represents the name of a mysterious organization that financed or somehow otherwise supported or made possible the innovations of the Sonora Aero Club. Navarro says this phrase decodes to NYMZA, although no one really knows what that acronym might stand for. Other researchers suggest that these coded portions were only responses to the Great War in Europe that Dellschau introduced after 1914, as though he had to keep things secret in a time of war, and judging from context, they seem to just be a code for the name of the club itself. But that hasn’t stopped the shadowy NYMZA from becoming a dark and looming entity that casts its shadow over the entire legend, a development we will explore shortly.

An example of Dellschau’s work, via  Wikimedia Commons

An example of Dellschau’s work, via Wikimedia Commons

As Dellschau tells it, this was a golden era of aviation in the deep gold country of California. Members of the club held forth about their designs in their secret meetings behind their boardinghouse. They traveled the roads in airships disguised as covered wagons waiting until no one was around so they could take flight and go on extended voyages through the skies, sleeping and eating their meals high up in the clouds. But as with all good things, the club eventually came to an end. Crashes are not uncommon in his stories about the club, a fact which really lends his tales authenticity or verisimilitude. For example, one story tells of an aero being commandeered by a pilot who was not up to the task and drove the ship right into a redwood and broke his neck. For the most part, though, the club easily recovered from such accidents. But when, in the 1860s, Peter Mennis himself died in a fiery crash, the secret of his Lifting Fluid died with him. Apparently the Club floundered for some time, trying to recreate Mennis’s miraculous substance, but in the end, club members went their separate ways, like Dellschau, who ended up back in Texas, if you believe his stories, content to marry and work for 26 years as a butcher after all the profound adventures he had experienced. Now some would argue that this was not the end of the Aero Club, and would suggest that after thirty to forty years of experimentation, former members must have finally perfected the Supe, resulting in the appearance of all those many airships in the 1890s. And these believers will likely point to some recognizable names in Dellschau’s work, suggesting that a Smith that Dellschau mentions must be the same Smith that patented an airship design in 1896, or that a Wilson he refers to is likely the same Wilson mentioned in a series of Texas airship sightings, but these are common names being linked to persons decades and many miles apart. There is only one concrete piece of evidence remaining that the Aero Club existed, and it is the artwork of Charles A. A. Dellschau, which cannot be taken as definitive proof.

An example of Dellschau’s work, via  Wikimedia Commons

An example of Dellschau’s work, via Wikimedia Commons

Of course, this has not kept conspiracy theorists and fringe thinkers from doing what they do best, and now the Sonora Aero Club is all tied up in a variety of outlandish ideas with little basis in fact. Take the books and articles of Walter Bosley for an example. Bosley claims that, not only was the Aero Club real, but that the reason why their technology never went mainstream, so to speak, and simply disappeared after the airship sightings, was that this represented the beginning of a breakaway civilization. If you are unfamiliar with idea of breakaway civilizations, think about bad sci-fi in which Nazis developed advanced technology and then withdrew from the world to start their own society in Antarctica, or within the hollow earth, or on the moon. It’s wild stuff, and Bosley doesn’t hesitate to draw connections between the Aero Club and its financiers, NYMZA, and the Nazis with their rumored experimental aircraft, the Nazi Bell. In fact, drawing connecting lines is what Bosley does, even when there are no dots to connect. He suggests that in 1903, when the Wright Brothers were struggling to get their plane off the ground, a rumored airship flight to Mars actually did take place using technology from Nicola Tesla, and that this represents the beginning of another breakaway group. What’s more than that, he even manages to bring Donald Trump into the conspiracy, pointing out that one Dellschau painting has the name Homer Trump below a particular ship, suggesting that maybe one of Donald’s Trump’s relatives was part of the Aero Club, and further pointing out that Trump’s uncle, John G. Trump, was one of the FBI agents who went through Tesla’s documents after he died, hinting at some kind of cloak and dagger intrigue between these two rival breakaway civilizations. But even Walter Bosley himself seems to have embraced his critics’ biggest complaint against his theories and freely admits that he engages in “wild ass speculation.”

An example of Dellschau’s work, via  Wikimedia Commons

An example of Dellschau’s work, via Wikimedia Commons

The fact is, though, that elements of Dellschau’s story invite speculation as to its authenticity. It has been observed that the machinery he drew was very precise, and that he used the same mechanisms over and over again, which would likely be the case if inventors were building their designs on previous iterations. Does this just represent a lack of imagination on Dellschau’s part or is it a stroke of realism? It can hardly be said, when looking at his work, that he lacked imagination, and this may actually be a mark against the veracity of his stories, for many of the stories in his early memoirs are ridiculous, featuring a very fictive protagonist-antagonist relationship between Peter Mennis and an obese foil named Christian Axel von Roemeling who crashes his airship and thereafter becomes the butt of various pranks. Indeed, the simple fact that Dellschau purports to remember verbatim the words spoken so many years ago is itself suspect, like when he goes into some of Mennis’s speeches, such as when Mennis tells of a dream he has and it becomes a narrative about rescuing the corpulent Roemeling from the moon. And yet, when one wants to confirm that Dellschau wasn’t in Sonora in the 1850s, one finds a blind spot in his past. No one seems able to confirm his whereabouts between his arrival at Galveston in 1849 and his marriage in Richmond in 1861. But likewise, no one has been able to dig up any historical evidence of any of the principal characters ever having lived around Sonora at the time either. And even if this evidence were ever discovered, wouldn’t it be easier to believe that these were just some pranksters spouting off at a saloon, maybe something akin to the The Ancient and Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus, that drinking club and parody of a fraternal organization called the Clampers, which was active in Sonora at the time and is known for its pranks and false mythology. And in the same way, isn’t it easier to believe that after the airship sighting hysteria, and during the decades of genuine aviation breakthroughs afterward, this old man undertook an ingenious art project, rather than that at twenty years of age, fresh in the country and with no experience doing anything other than carving meat, this young man was spirited away to California to serve as the draftsman for a secret society of balloonists with near-magical technology? Then again, I suppose, just because something is easier to believe doesn’t always make it true.

Further Reading

Charles A. A. Dellschau (monograph), edited by Stephen Romero, Marquand Books, 2013.

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The Phantom Airships of 1890s America

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In this edition, we return to the rich topic of historical UFO sightings. As I showed way back in my Brief History of Unidentified Aerial Phenomena, sightings of unusual lights and what appeared to be craft in the skies stretch all the way back to the beginning of recorded history. In that edition, I chose to conclude my enumeration of strange sights in the sky without covering the 19th century, but these marvels did not cease in the 19th century only to resume when Kenneth Arnold’s 1947 sighting set off the modern era of UFO reports. There is, however, good reason to draw a boundary between the celestial wonders of bygone epochs and sightings that occurred squarely within the era of aviation. Now, many would point to Orville and Wilbur Wright’s invention of and first successful flight in an airplane as the beginning of this age, but mankind had devised ways to fly more than a century before this, at the dawn of the age of ballooning, and a great many men had been working on improving the technology, moving from captive and free balloons to lighter-than-air aircraft that made use of buoyant gas for lift but also had some means of propulsion and control. However, the engineers of these aerostats, more commonly known today as dirigibles, or blimps or zeppelins, depending on the rigidity of their structure, and back then usually just called airships, never quite mastered the trick of powered, steerable flight before the Wright Brothers launched their heavier-than-air craft at Kitty Hawk in 1903. It is therefore exceedingly strange that, a full seven years before Kitty Hawk, people all over the United States started to see advanced aircraft plying the skies overhead.

After numerous demonstrations of hot-air balloon flight, the first manned flight ever recorded occurred in France in 1783 in the Montgolfier brothers’ globe aérostatique. A decade later, in America, Jean P. Blanchard ascended to nearly one mile above the earth and crossed the Delaware in a balloon of his own, and thus the age of ballooning commenced. It continued through much of the 19th century, with few developments in the way of powered and steerable craft. These were hot-air balloons of the classic sort, although they varied in design, with buoyancy controlled by the release of hydrogen gas and the jettisoning of ballast, usually in the form of sand bags. Powered flight was not achieved until 1852, when Henri Giffard’s airship used a 3-horsepower steam engine to turn a propeller with three blades and drive his dirigible 17 miles or 27 kilometers from Paris to Élancourt. Such designs became more common, and improvements were made; for example, in 1884 Charles Renard and Arthur Krebs managed to return to their place of departure in their powered airship, La France. And dirigibles weren’t the only design being experimented with: Clément Ader designed more of a glider in the form of a go-kart with bat-like wings and a steam engine that never accomplished much more than sustained hops off the ground, and Otto Lilienthal is credited with several successful flights with what was essentially a hang glider modeled after the physical frame of a bird. Clearly, innovations in aviation were becoming more and more common, but most ended in failure, and some in catastrophe. Ader’s glider crashed over and over, and Lilienthal, buffeted by a stiff wind, actually broke his back and died. And perhaps some of the worst airship disasters happened in 1897. In that year, Swedish balloonist Saloman Andrée’s balloon expedition to the north pole ended with three men crashing onto the ice, where they remained stranded for months before dying. That same year in Berlin, Friedrich Hermann Wölfert demonstrated an airship powered by a Daimler motor, but sparks ignited the hydrogen, and he and his mechanic died in the resulting blaze.

You may have noticed that all of these flights were European attempts. The odd truth is that, after Jean Blanchard’s 1793 flight, which first ascended at Philadelphia, there are few reports of American aviation attempts. We have John Wise, who in 1835 made his first ascent in Philadelphia as well and would later use his balloon for postal delivery purposes, and then we have some instances of captive balloons being used for military reconnaissance during the Civil War. Then there was Charles Ritchel, the inventor of the funhouse mirror, who managed, in 1876, to fly a little one-man airship with a hand-cranked propeller at the Centennial Exposition, again in Philadelphia, and in the 1880s John Joseph Montgomery in California had some luck with gliders. But in the heyday of 1890s, no American stands out until Samuel Pierpont Langley of the Smithsonian Institute, who in 1896 flew several unmanned Aerodromes, or steam-powered gliders. Langley’s drones, which he launched with a catapult, made some successful flights that year, and Langley would go on to be a significant rival to the Wright brothers in the early 1900s. But if, in 1896, Langley’s gliders were the only aircraft flying American skies, as history would lead us to believe, it is unaccountable that, from late fall 1896 to spring 1897, hundreds of reports describing sightings of powered, steerable airships zipping through the skies appeared in newspapers across the country.

The San Francisco  Call , 19 Nov. 1896, via  Chronicling America

The San Francisco Call, 19 Nov. 1896, via Chronicling America

It began on a cold and gloomy evening in Sacramento, the capital of California, located east of San Francisco in the middle of the state’s fertile Central Valley. On November 17, after a gray and squally day, hundreds of witnesses saw an erratic light flying over the city, like an arc lamp, according to the newspaper reports. It made no noise, this light, and it appeared to be suspended beneath a dark shape that many would liken to a cigar. Beyond this, reports varied: it either had a rudder and propellers, or it did not, and some said pilots could be seen operating its workings, turning something by working bicycle pedals. More than that, they could be heard! When they descended to near the buildings below, witnesses heard them shouting to “Lift her up quick!” and some streetcar workers heard music and a voice that said, "Well, we ought to get to San Francisco by tomorrow noon" as the craft flew away to the southwest, against the prevailing wind. For the next few days, hubbub circulated in the Sacramento Evening Bee, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the San Francisco Call, but there was little sign of the airship until passengers on an Oakland cable car claimed to have seen an airship with a searchlight on November 21st. That’s when it went from isolated incidents to a full-blown flap, with thousands of sightings in one day across multiple cities: Sacramento, Oakland, San Jose, and San Francisco, where it floated over landmark buildings and the bay and scared off seals with its arc light. This of course would mean an impossibly fast ship, numerous ships, or false reports. And at least some hoax or mistaken sightings seem likely, since after that day, appearances of the airship or ships seem to spread in many directions. On the 25th of November, it was seen in eleven different places, again around Sacramento and the Bay Area, but also north of the Bay Area in Napa and Petaluma, where some ingenious entrepreneurs charged admission to view the airship through their telescope, and even as far as Chico, 81 miles north of Sacramento. By the end of November, sightings became intermittent. On November 29th, a Bakersfield paper reported a sighting, but also included the opinion of an astronomy professor that it had only been a sighting of Mars or Venus, and on November 30th, residents of Los Angeles saw three lights overhead, but a local expert on bicycles assured the newspaper it was likely just university students pranking the city by attaching reflectors to a balloon. On the first of December, another airship appeared over Oakland, a hundred-foot-long cigar-shaped object with a triangular fishtail rudder, its surface aluminum that appeared darkened by weathering, zooming off at high speed toward San Francisco but seen again later the same day making the same maneuver in the same direction. On December 3rd, an airship was seen in no fewer than 6 locations, in San Francisco, in Vallejo, where it had been reported that residents had been searching the skies, disappointed at not seeing an airship, and in a scattering of smaller towns to the east: Davis, Dixon, Brown’s Valley and North Bloomfield, all indicating an easterly flight path, except that later in December, on the 17th, a ship was seen farther west, in Biggs, and then the last of the sightings in California, after the New Year, happened away south of there in Lodi. Still, if one were inclined to believe in a real airship or airships flying around California that autumn, one might discern a vague course from Sacramento to the Bay Area, and back and forth and around for a few jaunts before setting off eastward, toward the interior of the country.

The first indication that the airship sightings were not over and done with came in February 1897, when an airship was reported skulking around Hastings, Nebraska, some 1,200 miles from where one had last been seen. Some assumed this was the same airship as had been seen in California, and that it had made a miraculous flight over the Rocky Mountains, even though the original report seems to indicate that the airship had been seen around Hastings during the previous fall as well and just hadn’t been reported on by the paper. Meanwhile, another reporter around a hundred miles north in Norfolk remarked that “[i]t would be interesting to know just what brand of liquor the Hastings correspondent drinks, that enables him to see airships carrying powerful lights gyrating about through the atmosphere. It must be a remarkable brand of goods, and…we would be glad to try a few gallons of it.” https://history.nebraska.gov/sites/history.nebraska.gov/files/doc/publications/NH1979UFOs.pdf  But despite aspersions cast by snarky newspapermen, sightings continued. On February 6th, south of Hastings in Inavale, six folks leaving a prayer meeting heard voices overhead and spied a 30 to 40-foot airship with a bright headlamp and six smaller running lights. In fact, during this flap, reported sightings spider webbed out in all directions from Hastings, appearing, clockwise, in York, McCool Junction, Lincoln, McCook, Big Springs, and North Platte, where some trouble reportedly caused the ship to descend in a shower of sparks. By the 16th of that month, a ship arrived over Omaha, where a girl saw it and ran into a party being held at 26th and H, encouraging everyone to come out and have a look at the “funny thing in the sky,” leading to a few dozen more witnesses seeing the object aloft around 400 to 500 feet in the air. These airships, if real, seem to have been grounded for a while after that, but in April they returned in force, it seemed, with reports in Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, and all the way East to New York and way down south in Texas. Researchers have tracked down more than 150 sightings in around 20 states, far more than I could possibly survey in this podcast episode without it becoming repetitive and boring. Nevertheless, let’s take a look at a few of these encounters in April. The Chicago Tribune started their coverage by claiming that hundreds had seen a ship in Omaha on the 6th of April and continued by reporting on the 10th that hundreds had spotted a winged airship above their own windy city. The Chicago Herald thereafter printed the claims of one William McCann, who along with three others said he had seen and photographed an airship over Rogers Park. The Herald printed an illustration from a wood carving of McCann’s photo, which we still have today for examination. It is unfortunate that newspapers could not at the time print photographs, otherwise we might actually have a blurry pic of a phantom airship. As it turned out, however, the photograph itself has been lost, if it ever actually existed. We do, though, have reports that the plates of the photo were given an acid test and determined to be genuine before the Herald printed its illustration. But the Tribune, on the other hand, pronounced the photo to be a fraud on April 12th, citing the cryptic proof that it displayed “too much scope of lens,” whatever that means.

The Chicago Times-Herald of 12 April 1897 with the illustration of McCann's photo, via  University of Florida

The Chicago Times-Herald of 12 April 1897 with the illustration of McCann's photo, via University of Florida

And while Chicago newspapermen squabbled, the airships seemed to float inexorably onward, appearing in both Jefferson, Iowa, and Kalamazoo, Michigan, on April 15th, although these two couldn’t possibly be the same airships, even disregarding the fact that an aircraft travelling 450 miles in a day at that time would have been ludicrous, because the airship in Jefferson reportedly crashed into the earth. Town residents gathered at the huge smoking crater it had left and even sent someone down to investigate. The same issue of the Jefferson Bee that reported this reported multiple other airship crashes in Greene County. Curiously, just as the airship mania was reaching its highest elevation in the Midwest and reports of airships falling to the earth were becoming more popular, a spate of sightings took off in Texas, many of these reporting landings and crashes as well. On April 20th, the Galveston Daily News gave a highly detailed report of a ship seen in Uvalde, Texas, by Sheriff H. W. Baylor. A bright light and the sound of voices drew him out to an alley behind his house, where he found an airship with wings and fins. A crew of three men greeted him, asking for water and explaining they were on a trial run with their airship. One man called himself Wilson, claiming to be from Goshen, New York, and discovering that Baylor was a sheriff, asked after a Captain C. C. Akers, who used to be the sheriff of Zavalla County. Wilson claimed to have met Akers in Ft. Worth in 1877. Baylor told him Akers was then at Eagle Pass working for the customs service, and Wilson asked him to say hello from him. He and the other pilots then took water from Baylor's yard and flew away north. This uncommonly detailed story even had a corroborating witness in county clerk Henry J. Bowles, who apparently saw the ship leave Baylor's alley, and other articles appear to have confirmed with C. C. Akers that he had indeed made the acquaintance of someone named Wilson, although that is a common name. But the seeming credibility of the witnesses—a sheriff and a county clerk—has led many to give these reports credence.

Nevertheless, despite the apparent reliability of witnesses in these matters, it should be remembered that the true source of these accounts are the newspapers that reported them. If you are curious about just how scrupulous newspaper editors were when it came to publishing fraudulent stories to entertain their readers and sell more papers, just go and listen to my 10th episode, Joseph Mulhatton, the Liar Laureate of the World. Hoaxes appeared frequently in papers during these years, and often the reliable witnesses they named had come right out of the imaginations of the fraudsters who wrote them. And this was the dawn of Yellow Journalism as well, when sensationalist rhetoric often only loosely connected to facts dominated newsprint. Much Yellow Journalism centered specifically on the question of Cuba, which at the time was still a colony of Spain but had seen a revolutionary struggle for some years. As many Americans wanted to see the Spanish ousted, big newspapermen like Pulitzer and Hearst published a lot of stories depicting the Spanish colonial powers as villains and the revolutionaries as heroes, and they didn’t let a little thing like accuracy or truth get in the way of a good story. And to cement the very real connection between the airship flaps and the age of Yellow Journalism, not long after the sightings in California began, a well-known attorney named W. H. H. Hart was quoted in a paper as claiming that he represented the phantom airship’s inventor, and that the vessel had been built for the sole purpose of flying to Cuba and bombing the Spanish in Havana. Similarly, the San Francisco Examiner claimed to have it on strong authority that the airship was called the Thunderbird and was bound for Cuba with the mission of bombarding General Weyler, the island’s Spanish governor, with eggs.

The San Francisco  Call , 29 Nov. 1896, clearly engaging in Yellow Journalism, via  Chronicling America

The San Francisco Call, 29 Nov. 1896, clearly engaging in Yellow Journalism, via Chronicling America

With the question of the reliability of newspaper reports hanging over this entire affair, we now turn to one of the most fanciful explanations of these phantom airship sightings: that they were really extra-terrestrial spacecraft! There are in fact some newspaper reports that indicate the object in the sky may have come from away across the ocean, which would make it extremely unlikely that these were the maiden flights of experimental aircraft. On September 20th, 1896, a Professor Swift spied a light of the magnitude of Venus over the Pacific Ocean and sent a telegram to a Professor Perrins at Lick Observatory, wondering if he had discovered a new comet. And on October 22nd, none other than the mayor of San Francisco, Adolph Sutro, reported that several people had seen a light flying eastward about 500 feet above the surface of the Pacific, and that it emitted an electrical glow. But these reports do little more than indicate that Mars and Venus and meteors and comets might have been frequently mistaken for flying lights. Some reports of crashed airships in Iowa certainly added to this hysteria. In fact, the aforementioned man who climbed down into the crater in Jefferson carried a Volapük dictionary with him. Volapük, meaning “world language,” was a constructed international language, like the subsequently more common Esperanto. One can only imagine who the intrepid investigator thought he might encounter at the bottom of that crater to bring that with him. And of course, one does not need to wonder, as newspaper reports of other crash sites in Iowa, such as one at Churdan, described encounters with extra-terrestrial creatures! And on an empty road outside Springfield, Missouri, one W. M. Hopkins, a travelling salesman, saw a landed airship while driving his wagon, and outside of it, two nude aliens that he found beautiful indeed. He kissed their hands and boarded their craft when invited, and when it began to ascend, he escaped abduction only by leaping off! And late in April, we get a story out of LeRoy, Kansas, from a farmer named Alexander Hamilton, who with his son and a farmhand saw a 300-foot ship with a carriage-like construct beneath it, crewed by an odd looking family—man, woman and children. This airship actually lowered a rope and carried away a struggling calf. Hamilton and the others gave chase, but lost the ship. Later, another farmer named Lank Thomas found the calf’s remains, which consisted only of skin, legs, and a head. This would appear to be an early report of cattle mutilation, complete with reliable officials swearing to its veracity, as eleven men, including the postmaster, the sheriff, and the justice of the peace swore an affidavit. But then, all of these purported facts were reported in a newspaper, and if that isn’t already suspect enough for you, there’s the fact that the farmer Hamilton who reported the event and provided the affidavit was a known member of a local liar’s club.

Perhaps the longest-lived of these reports came out of Texas. In the Dallas Morning News of April 19th, 1897, a column attributed to a correspondent named Haydon with the headline “A Windmill Demolishes It” told a wild tale of an airship with some mechanical malfunction flying low over Aurora, Texas. It struck a windmill on the land of one Judge Proctor and exploded, spreading debris over acres of land. Those first on the scene, found only one pilot, horribly injured from the explosion, but still apparently whole enough for everyone to plainly see he was not of this earth. In fact, according to Haydon, a signal corpsman named T. J. Weems, given as an authority on astronomy, expressed the opinion that the pilot must have been a Martian. And to further excite speculation, Haydon reported that the pilot had some papers on his person, miraculously intact after the explosion that had so disfigured his body, and that they were inscribed with strange hieroglyphics. Finally, he claimed the ship was composed of some unknown metal, though he cites no expert opinion on this detail. Oddly, the piece ends with the tidbit that they would be giving this otherworldly creature a standard, Christian funeral. The simple fact that this news did not make many waves at the time tells us that those who read it probably thought it was one of the tall tales or hoaxes common in newspapers back then, which most people could easily discern were not meant to be taken seriously. Not until UFOlogists in the early 1970s looked into it did it really become a legend. MUFON investigators descended on Aurora and walked the land with metal detectors, hoping to turn up some of that alien metal. Some iron alloy that seemed to not display the magnetic properties one might expect actually was found, but this ended up being an iron-zinc roofing shingle. Undeterred, they scoured the local cemetery for the unmarked grave of the alien and, indeed, found a site with a marker that looked like it depicted an airship. Authorities, however, refused to let them go digging up graves, and when the marker ended up stolen, likely by one of the UFOlogists themselves, they cried conspiracy! But perhaps the real conspiracy had taken place back in 1897, for recent historical research indicates that Haydon, the author of the article, had an agenda. It seems that the town of Aurora had recently been devastated by agricultural problems, fires, a failed railroad, and so-called “spotted fever,” or cerebro-spinal meningitis, which had taken Haydon’s wife and sons. It has been suggested that Haydon may have penned the hoax in an effort to promote his dying town.

San Francisco  Call  article of 23 Nov. 1896 mentioning the inventor and his attorney, Collins, via  Chronicling America

San Francisco Call article of 23 Nov. 1896 mentioning the inventor and his attorney, Collins, via Chronicling America

Even if one wanted to believe that the flying objects were real, isn’t there a simpler and far more believable explanation than that little green men were flying them? Why not normal, earthling men? After all, as I discussed earlier, it’s not like no one was working on creating flying machines. So the question then becomes, who were the inventors of these aircraft? Right from the very start of the California flap, there are plenty of candidates offered up by the newspapers covering the story. In the first article to report an airship, the Sacramento Evening Bee, by way of explanation for the outlandish sighting, claimed a New York man had built an airship and would be flying to California in it, though they offered no further details. And the LA Times, almost in the same breath as it insisted that the ships were all mistaken sightings of Mars and Venus then claimed that the ship’s inventor was a man from Los Angeles. And, well before the attorney Hart had made his claims about the ship’s mission to Cuba, another prominent lawyer, George D. Collins, claimed to represent the inventor of the ship that had been seen. The inventor’s name was E. H. Benjamin, Collins said, and after 7 years of work, bankrolled by a mysterious company and using parts manufactured on the east coast, he had been successful and had already made several flights. According to a New York Herald article that appeared during the April flap the following year, the ship described by Collins was 150 feet long, with two wings, and would fly eastward next, which would tend to explain the path of the sightings. On April 10th, the Herald claimed one Max Harrhar, secretary of the Chicago Aeronautical Association, claimed to be expecting a powered, steerable airship with a crew of three out of San Francsico, on its way to D. C. For full info, Harrhar directed inquirers to Octave Chanute, the well-known President of his association, who he indicated was the wealthy bankroller of the venture. Then on the 13th, the same paper reported on the authority of one Oscar R. Booth, an airship inventor from Chicago, that the famous airship making the rounds belonged to one Charles Clinton of Dodd City, Kansas. The Dallas Morning News of April 6th named a G. M. Padgitt of Springfield, Missouri, as an inventor engaged in balloon flights, and the Chicago Tribune of April 12th had the inventor’s name as A. C. Clinton of Omaha. Later that month, though, they revealed that A. C. Clinton was just a pseudonym of Clinton A. Case; this they had from one Wakefield, the Secretary of the Omaha Exposition, where Case had requested 87,000 Square feet for a landing place. Another suspect out of Omaha was one Alva J. Grover, who had reportedly shown people plans for a powered, steerable airship, and yet another was a country tinkerer named John O. Preast, who it was said had covered the walls of his home with drawings of his ships. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn82015679/1897-04-01/ed-1/seq-7/ The list goes on… the St. Louis Post Dispatch on April 25th reported an airship like a headless, tailless fish, with propellers and wings and a 9-foot-long passenger car. It landed for repairs, and its pilot, a Professor Charles Davidson, claimed to have left Sacramento a month earlier. And on May 7th, the Chicago Tribune gave a similarly detailed description of an airship that, according to a New York Times article describing the same craft, was 40 feet long, with propellers, attached to a bicycle for take-off. Its inventor was reported as Professor Arthur W. Barnard of Nashville, and he claimed he had demonstrated his airship at the Tennessee Centennial Exposition to general amazement but apparently little news coverage.

Not all candidates for inventing the airship were named by newspapers during the flap. For example, researcher Micah Hanks dug up a patent filed in April 1896 by one Charles Abbott Smith of San Francisco, an inventor of some repute who had previously sold some patents for tools useful to shoemakers farmers, and builders. In a San Francisco Call article some 9 months before the California flap, Smith talks about his proposed airship, and mention is made that the U. S. government may have been offering a $100,000 for the invention of working airship. This may be relevant to the story of another popular contender for our airship inventor. John Worrell Keely was a Philadelphian who, inspired by the vibrations of a tuning fork, began experimentation to determine how vibrations might allow him to tap into the power of luminiferous ether, the medium by which light was propagated and the stuff that many believed filled all empty space. By 1872, he claimed a breakthrough and convinced some wealthy capitalists to bankroll his motor company, for soon he would build an engine using his proprietary technology. In 1874, he demonstrated his etheric generator, a device that ran on the vapor produced by ordinary tap water, and yet produced enough energy to break iron bars and drive bullets into wood. Whenever his investors wanted progress, he always had a new device to demonstrate in a dramatic fashion, showing how musical tones he played on his flute or harmonica could through vibration activate etheric energy and thereby operate the machines he showed them, such as the “hydro-pneumatic pulsating vacuo-engine.” Some, however, suggested the music was only a signal to hidden accomplices, indicating when to operate the machinery. Nevertheless, his career was a long one. In 1884, he demonstrated a “vaporic gun” for the government at Sandy Hook, impressing some and not impressing others, who complained that a “healthy donkey could kick harder than the projectile struck.” Then in 1896, perhaps trying to win that hundred grand offered by the government, he gave a demonstration that showed revolving copper spheres and claimed it showed his manipulation of “polar-depolar force,” further explaining that “[g]ravity is nothing more than a concordant attractive sympathetic stream flowing towards the neutral center of the earth,” all of which to say that he would soon be able to control gravity and therefore raise heavy airships into the sky. While many would like to believe that it was his astounding science that raised the airships of that year, the truth is there is no evidence that he ever accomplished this or any of his other plans. After his death, skeptics raided his lab, and no one could ever make his devices work as he had in demonstrations. So he is remembered today as one of history’s greatest frauds.

John Worrell Keely, via  Lock Haven University

John Worrell Keely, via Lock Haven University

While it is tempting to believe some inventor really made these airships, considering all the many inventors and true balloonists diligently working in those years to perfect a powered, steerable airship capable of the kind of flights reported in 1896 and ’97, the simple fact that these ships were not demonstrated to great fanfare in public exhibitions, as nearly every major flight before them had been, tends to cast doubt on the idea of them being real at all. The mysterious Wilson who supposedly piloted a ship around Texas claimed this was because no patent had been filed yet, so they didn’t want their invention stolen, but this strains credulity as well. What inventor would wait until well after the successful completion and flight test of their airship to file a patent? And even if one were to accept this explanation, there remains the final question of why, after the April 1897 flap, the airships were never seen again. Surely they had proven viable! Why would no one patent them and go public at that point? So then we are left with the theory that these sightings were artifacts of Yellow Journalism, a media hoax. Some have pointed out that the Midwest sightings clearly travel eastward along the path of the telegraph lines, suggesting that as one newspaper perpetrated its hoax, the next received word of it by telegraph and perpetuated it. But there are problems with this theory as well. Even in the era of Yellow Journalism, a newspaper’s reputation could be damaged by engaging in outright fraud, especially in such an extended way. These were legitimate news sources, not supermarket tabloids like we have today, and they were often in direct competition with other papers that would jump at the chance to prove their rivals were spreading falsehoods. Moreover, when these papers did print outrageous hoaxes, like those written by Mulhatton, they were usually standalone stories, often so absurd that their readers could easily determine what was news and what was satire meant only for entertainment. These sightings, however, were reported on over and over again, like real news, and in between eyewitness reports, the correspondents often injected their vocal skepticism, such as in the San Francisco Examiner of December 5th, 1896: “Fake Journalism has a good deal to answer for, but we do not recall a more discernible exploit in that line than the persistent attempt to make the public believe that the air in this vicinity is populated with airships. It has been manifest for weeks that the whole airship story is pure myth.”

Perhaps it is impossible now to make heads or tails of this mess. It seems like people must have seen something, at least in Sacramento, at the beginning of things. If there truly were no ships in the sky and never had been, how did this hysteria ever get started? It’s possible that some combination of all the various theories offers the best explanation. Maybe there were real sightings at first, and maybe some or all of those had been mistakes, confusing Venus, which was bright that year, or a big box kite, as has been put forth as an explanation for the airship sightings. Then perhaps, as newspapers wanting to boost sales wrote up these reports, they embellished them, added details or increased the number of witnesses. After that, it was spread by telegraph to other locales, which then caused people there to look for airships in the skies and to make further mistaken sightings or even to perpetrate hoax sightings. Some newspaper articles even seem to playfully toe the line between professional skepticism and engagement in the hysteria. For example, in the April 14th 1897 New York Herald, a reporter expresses frustration over the unreliability of airship news but then goes on to report that a steam-powered ship called the Pegasus had been flying around for the last month. And in May, just at the tail end of the final flap, the Houston Daily Post published a piece about a reporter at a train station being told by a train official to ask a certain stranger about airships, for the official had heard that the man had something to do with them. Upon inquiring into it, the stranger, a Mr. Dodson from Texas, scoffed, “My, my, has that old stale April fool story ever received any serious consideration here? ...Why, that was a clean-cut fake from the start…a fake pure and simple, started by some enterprising reporter like yourself, and rolled along by all other scribes.” So there we have it, yes? An epic April fool’s joke. That could account at least for the massive spate of sightings that April, and it recasts some details as decidedly humorous, such as the Herald's April 10th article citing a Max Harrhar, which in retrospect sounds like it's quoting someone named "Utmost Laughter." But this Mr. Dodson of the Houston Daily Post article wasn’t quite finished. “I have the only airship which has ever been successfully invented,” he claimed mildly and went on to explain that he compressed air was the trick, for the eagle, he expounded, flies without flapping its wings simply by holding its breath. It was as easy as that. In order to float, he said, one only has to be full of hot air. 

A contemporary cartoon and poem makes of the airship sightings a metaphor, via  Chronicling America

A contemporary cartoon and poem makes of the airship sightings a metaphor, via Chronicling America

Further Reading

Arts, Steven A. "Airship Hysteria in Mid-1890s America." Nexus Magazine, Aug. - Sep. 2013, www.nexusmagazine.com/articles/doc_view/287-airship-hysteria-in-mid-1890s-america.

Busby, Michael. Solving the 1897 Airship Mystery. Pelican, 2004.

Danelek, J. Allan. The Great Airship of 1897: A Provocative Look At the Most Mysterious Aviation Event in History. Adventures Unlimited, 2009.

Winkler, Louis. “The Not-So-Mysterious Airships of 1896-97.” MUFON UFO Journal, No. 169, March 1982, pages 3-6. (not officially available online, but transcribed here)

The Memorable Arrest of Martin Guerre

Return+of+Martin+Guerre+from+Dumas+Joanne+of+Naples cover.jpg

In this edition, in an effort to cite precedent supporting my pet theory about the Campden Wonder case—namely that the William Harrison who returned to his wife after an absence of two years may not have actually been the real Steward of Lady Campden—I share the story of the most famous case of imposture ever recorded. And it is a true precedent, for it did precede the events of the Campden Wonder by nearly a hundred years. For its true beginning, however, we must look back more than a century and off across the Channel, more than 600 miles, or 1000 kilometers south of Chipping Campden, to a little peasant village in the very south of France, among the foothills of the Pyrenees. The village of Artigat, 32 miles or 51 kilometers south of that larger burg of the Languedoc, Toulouse, was situated on the Lèze River, which to an American ear sounds delightfully like a lazy river. As this might suggest, it was a sleepy village in the mid-16th century, with some 60 to 70 families in the surrounding area, and none paid manorial dues to a seigneur, for no feudal lords held lands in the area. Thus, the peasants of Artigat owned their own lands, holding their titles in allodium by occupying and defending them and, of course, cultivating them. They grew millet, oats, wheat, and grapes, raised sheep, cows, and goats, and forged a modest legacy from the land, such that successful peasant families passed their estates on to heirs much like their far wealthier seigneurial counterparts. And this facet of the culture would have great bearing on the famous case we shall be focusing on, as would their popular conception of marriage, which, with the rise of Protestantism dividing the community, was then much debated in that corner of France, where the idea of “clandestine,” or secret and common law marriage, had been common but was then being challenged. And in this quiet Languedoc hamlet, where the biggest quarrels were over matters of Catholic orthodoxy and doctrinal dispute, a scandal would emerge from family discord, involving accusations of desertion, betrayal, and imposture. But more than any of this, it would cause some to call into question prevailing assumptions about guilt and innocence and the very nature of identity.

*

The Deguerre family were peasant Basques with ancestral lands at Hendaye, near the Bay of Biscay, one branch of which family ended up settling 162 miles or 260 kilometers away to the east in Artigat and assimilating, learning to express themselves in the Occitan language of the Languedoc and changing their name to the more French Guerre.  Two brothers, Sanxi and Pierre, headed the Guerre family in Artigat, and in 1538, in an effort not only to further the family’s assimilation but also to make a fruitful bond with another affluent peasant family, the de Rols, Sanxi Guerre arranged a marriage between his son Martin and their daughter, Bertrande. Martin was 14 at the time, and Bertrande may have been as young as nine or ten. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the two children failed to immediately consummate their marriage, despite their families’ encouragement. Nor did they succeed, it seems, for years afterward, even after they reached ages of sexual maturity, which caused the families to believe that young Martin Guerre, despite his apparent vigor in playing at swords and acrobatics with the other village boys, was impotent, perhaps because a spell had been cast on him. And to undo the charms of whatever jealous sorceress had cursed them, it would take the charms of a very different kind of sorceress, a wise woman versed in the ways of magic but who remained true to god and church. They sought the aid of several such women, and eventually, eight years into their failed marriage, one mysterious old enchantress told them how to defeat the spell they were under. They had village priests say several masses for them and administer the eucharist, and then they ate special cakes that the wise woman said would stoke their passions. One wonders just what was in those cakes, for sure enough, the couple thereafter consummated their union, and Bertrande soon became with child. She bore Martin a son, another heir to the Guerre family lands, named Sanxi after Martin’s father. For a time, Martin must have had the approval of his father, but in 1548, at 24 years old, Martin lost any goodwill he might have earned with the birth of his child when he allegedly stole some grain from the family. Rather than face the wrath of his father, he left Artigat, abandoning not only his heritage but his wife and infant son as well.

Bertrande’s position in the family and the village was much reduced in the absence of her husband. There was a place in the village society for a wife and a place for a widow, but she found herself suddenly neither, and her life remained in a limbo. After some years, Martin’s parents passed away, but not before they forgave their absent son and named him heir to the family lands in both Artigat and Hendaye. But in Martin’s absence, the uncle, Pierre, took control of the family lands and guardianship of Martin’s sisters. Himself a widower, Pierre Guerre remarried to none other than Bertrande’s widowed mother, and so she found herself living again with her mother, but now also with her missing husband’s family. She had gone from being the wife of the family’s heir with a household all her own, to little more than a houseguest and a burden, a deserted woman much whispered about in the village. And this was her life during the eight years that her husband was gone. Then one day in 1556, news reached Artigat that a man claiming to be Martin Guerre had checked in to a hostel in a neighboring village. When the hosteller brought up the wife and child he had left behind, this Martin Guerre, it was said, had wept. Martin’s sisters were the first to go see him at the hostel, and they came back with their verdict, telling Bertrande that it was indeed their brother Martin. So Bertrande also made haste to see him, but she shrank from this bearded stranger who seemed heavier than her Martin. When he spoke to her with love, however, and proved himself with knowledge of their shared experiences and conversations and other specifics, she relented and embraced him. He had been away in Spain fighting in King Henri II’s war against the Habsburgs, but he had come back for her and their son, and to reclaim his birthright. Bertrande took him home to Artigat, and while some whispered that he was not Martin Guerre, he further proved himself by recognizing villagers he had known long ago, calling to them by name, and reminding them of things they had done together a decade earlier. Certainly his appearance had changed, but there was enough of a likeness that any differences could be ascribed to his eight-year absence and the hard years he had spent at war. While some harbored their suspicions, Martin convinced the only people who mattered: his sisters, his uncle and the administrator of his family’s property, Pierre, and his wife, Bertrande, who took him eventually into her bed. And this was the greatest of proofs, for most believed that no wife could be so deceived that she did not recognize the touch of her true husband.

And happy marriage seemed to come easily with the returned Martin Guerre. Within a few years, Bertrande had borne Martin two more children, daughters. Sadly, only one survived, little Bernarde, but it did go to prove that whatever marital difficulties they’d had a decade earlier were gone. And Martin threw himself not only into the role of husband and father but also into that of heir and head of the family, taking his father’s house for himself and taking back guardianship of his sisters from his uncle, Pierre. Moreover, he moved to make his family’s business more mercantile, selling the grains they grew, the wool they harvested, and the wine they made. Beyond this, he looked to capitalize on the family’s substantial property holdings, and it is this that eventually brought him to loggerheads with his uncle, who stood aghast at his nephew’s attempts to sell their ancestral lands. Eventually, suspecting that Pierre was not being entirely forthcoming with the profits and holdings of the family, Martin sued his uncle. It was then, in the first months of 1559, that Pierre began to suspect this Martin Guerre to be an impostor. He looked at Martin, and the difference in his physical frame from the boy he remembered stood out. He looked at Martin’s boy, Sanxi, and saw little resemblance there. How is it, he asked, that this pseudo-Martin no longer remembered certain phrases in the Basque language of his youth? He persuaded his wife, Bertrande’s mother, of the imposture, and soon all of Bertrande’s family was convinced that she shared her bed with a stranger. From them, the scandal spread, and the village became divided as to the identity of Martin Guerre. The shoemaker said Martin’s feet had shrunk, and others in the village suggested he had become shorter, stockier, his complexion lighter. They said that the real Martin’s nose had been flat and his bottom lip protruding, unlike this new Martin, and where, they asked, was the scar they remembered on Martin’s eyebrow? In response, Bertrande insisted, “He is Martin Guerre my husband or else some devil in his skin. I know him well. If anyone is so mad as to say the contrary, I’ll make him die.”  And she is not alone in resorting to violence, for Pierre spoke with friends about helping him pay a cutthroat to murder his supposed nephew, and when that failed, he and Bertrande’s own brothers accosted him and beat him with a truncheon. Seeing her family thus assaulting her husband, Bertrande forced herself between them, shielding her Martin with her own body, so that if her brothers and Pierre wanted to club Martin, they would have to strike her as well.

A depiction of criminal proceedings in which, as with Guerre's trial, the public was very involved, via  Kommersant

A depiction of criminal proceedings in which, as with Guerre's trial, the public was very involved, via Kommersant

In the autumn of that year, as their quarrel raged on, a soldier passed through Artigat and after hearing of the scandal and seeing Martin Guerre, he announced that the man in question was a fraud, for he knew the real Martin Guerre, had met him in Flanders after the Siege of Saint-Quentin, where the real Martin Guerre had lost his leg and had it replaced by a wooden peg. As this Martin Guerre clearly had both legs, the soldier reasoned, he must be an impostor! Close on the heels of this pronouncement, Martin Guerre was arrested on arson charges, accused of having burned down a building on a farm west of the village, a charge likely orchestrated by Pierre himself as the complaint included allegations that he was engaging in adultery by sharing Bertrande’s marriage bed. The charges were eventually dropped, but during his imprisonment in Toulouse, Bertrande was forced to move back under the roof of her mother and Pierre Guerre, where they began to coerce her to bring charges of her own against Martin. At first she refused, traveling to Toulouse to visit Martin and complaining about the family’s bullying of her, but eventually, she had no choice. Martin came home from the jail at Toulouse, enjoyed one peaceful evening with Bertrande, and in the morning faced Pierre and his brothers-in-law, all of them bearing weapons. They took him away to stand trial at Rieux on charges Pierre had made in Bertrande’s name. Without Martin, she and the children must live in Pierre’s house, and if she refused to press these charges against Martin, Pierre told her he would throw her out into the street.

So long as Bertrande would endorse the charges, Pierre Guerre was confident in the case he had built, for in addition to the various villagers willing to testify to the differences they perceived in Martin, he now had a suspect. While Martin had languished in Toulouse under the trumped-up arson charges, he had learned some things of interest. Apparently, during the course of some travels Martin had made in some villages to the northwest, an innkeeper had recognized him as one Arnaud du Tilh, and Martin had hushed him and asked him to keep his silence, explaining that Martin Guerre was dead and had given him his goods. Likewise another man had recognized him during the course of his travels, calling him Pansette, which was an alias of the same man, Arnaud du Tilh, and Martin had even given this man some handkerchiefs to pass on as a gift to Arnaud du Tilh’s brother. Arnaud du Tilh was a young man from Sajas, 27 miles or 43 kilometers northwest of Artigat. He had the nickname Pansette, meaning “the belly,” perhaps for his thickset physique or perhaps for his appetites, for he was known to be an enthusiastic drinker and philanderer. A foulmouthed youth, he was known to gamble and to steal, and he was so quick-witted and cunning that he gained the unusual reputation of wielding some kind of sorcery in his underhanded dealings. This Arnaud du Tilh, alias Pansette, had disappeared from village life to serve in the war, just as Martin Guerre said he had done. Was it possible that this rogue had assumed Martin Guerre’s identity? He certainly had good reason to do so. Du Tilh was heir to his own family properties in Sajas, but the Guerre inheritance would have dwarfed it. And the draw of taking the by all accounts beautiful Bertrande to wife should not be overlooked. But how had he managed to learn so much about Artigat and Martin’s life there? Had he met the true Martin Guerre during the course of his travels in service of France? Had he been coached by accomplices? Or were the resurgent rumors about him true? Was he some sort of warlock, a dark sorcerer leveraging the powers of the devil to usurp another man’s life?

Martin Guerre’s very identity stood trial in Rieux, 15 miles or 24 kilometers northwest of Artigat. The court called on one hundred and fifty witnesses to testify, and about 60 of them refused to indicate one way or the other whether they believed the defendant was the true Martin Guerre. The rest were relatively evenly split. Some who had known Martin before his departure and some who had known Arnaud du Tilh, including Pansette’s own uncle, testified that the defendant was not Guerre or that he was du Tilh. But for every witness to swear to his differences from Martin, there was a witness to swear to their likenesses: Martin had warts on one hand and a scar on his forehead, as did the defendant, and Martin had extra teeth like those that could be seen in the defendant’s mouth. Just as Arnaud du Tilh’s uncle swore the defendant was his nephew, Martin Guerre’s sisters swore he was their brother. And perhaps the most important witness, Bertrande, refused to swear that the defendant was not her husband. Indeed, so confident was the defendant that his wife was being suborned into bringing false charges against him that he told the judge he would gladly accept death if his wife were to say he was not who he said he was. Considering her silence, the judges agreed to remove her from Pierre’s house in order to prevent any further coercion. Indeed, it seemed that the defendant had the court on his side. He confidently confronted each of the witnesses against him with convincing rebuttals, and he proved himself time and time again by calling up specific details from Martin’s life that matched perfectly with testimony taken separately from other witnesses, even validating intimate goings on that Bertrande had shared with the court in confidence. However, there was still much to doubt. Despite the defendant’s brilliant performance, evidence seemed equal on both sides. No handwriting could be compared, for apparently neither Guerre nor du Tilh could write before their departures and so had left behind no samples of their writing. Likewise, familial likeness offered little confirmation, for while the defendant did indeed resemble Martin Guerre’s sisters, he bore little resemblance to Guerre’s son, Sanxi. In the end, perhaps to play it safe or simply to pass the problem on to the court at Toulouse where the defendant would certainly appeal, they found him guilty.

And appeal he did. His second trial began with the defendant confronting his accusers, Bertrande and Pierre Guerre. So convincing were the defendant’s claims that his wife had been coerced by his uncle to bring the charges against him that the court had all three of them imprisoned until they sorted the matter out, for if the defendant really was Martin Guerre, then Pierre and Bertrande could be found guilty of calumny, and if he were not, then Bertrande might be found guilty of fraud as well if she were the man’s accomplice. Neither boded well for the woman at the center of the trial, so Bertrande chose every word carefully, threading the needle between being the innocent wife defrauded by an impostor husband and being the innocent wife compelled to perjury by the villainous uncle. So the trial proceeded much as before, with confident testimonies on both sides, but this time the judges were far more moved by the defendant’s memory of his former life. After questioning Bertrande and others, they attempted time and again to catch him out with any inconsistency, but they failed. According to Jean de Coras, the reporter at the court who would go on to make the case famous with his popular pamphlet about the case, Arrest Memorable, “His remarks sustained at length and containing so many true signs, gave great occasion to the judges to be persuaded of [his] innocence.” But as they prepared to deliver their verdict, a mysterious man came limping up to the courthouse, his wooden peg leg knocking the floor with every step. The proceedings of the trial must be halted, he declared, for he had a vital revelation pertaining to the hearing. The defendant could not possibly be who he said he was, for this peg-legged man was himself the real Martin Guerre.

The first depiction of the case, from  Alle de Wercken  by Jacob Cats, incorrectly portraying the couple as being far wealthier than peasants, via Natalie Zemon Davis's  The Return of Martin Guerre , p. 87

The first depiction of the case, from Alle de Wercken by Jacob Cats, incorrectly portraying the couple as being far wealthier than peasants, via Natalie Zemon Davis's The Return of Martin Guerre, p. 87

The defendant confronted this last-minute witness with a vengeance, calling him a rascal, a newcomer, an evildoer, insisting he was a ringer on Pierre Guerre’s payroll. And indeed, when questioned about his early life as the court had questioned the defendant, this peg-legged stranger could not remember nearly as many details. When it was time to haul Pierre out of his cell to identify this new claimant to Martin’s identity, they arranged a line-up, with several others dressed the same. Pierre easily picked the peg-legged man out of the line-up, but this may not have been much of a feat unless all the others had wooden legs as well, for remember that the travelling soldier had already claimed the real Martin Guerre had lost his leg. What was harder to dismiss were the sisters’ reactions to the man, for each of them, individually, considering the two men side by side, changed their minds and exclaimed that surely this new man with the peg leg was their real brother and the other had deceived them. So it was, as well, for Bertrande, who trembled and wept upon seeing this new arrival and immediately embraced him, pleading innocence for being duped by the impostor, blaming his sisters who had accepted his impersonator and convinced her to do the same. With the tide so clearly turning against the defendant, the judges confronted him, asking how he had summoned the devil that had taught him so much about Martin’s life and about the people of Artigat. He only blanched, for once at a loss for words. For a time he continued to insist he was Martin, but eventually, he confessed to being Arnaud du Tilh, aka Pansette. He had used no sorcery in his imposture, and despite rumors, he had never met Martin in the war, for Martin Guerre had ended up in the Castilian city of Burgos after his departure from Artigat, serving as a lackey in a bishop’s palace, and during the war he had served in an opposing army. Rather, Arnaud had been mistaken in Picardy for Martin Guerre by men who became his accomplices in the imposture, and with their coaching, he had prepared for years to play the part of Martin Guerre. Du Tilh’s crime was considered all the more serious for involving not only adultery but also the theft of an inheritance. The judges sentenced him to death, but not before he made a public apology. In white shirtsleeves, with no hat, he carried a torch through the village of Artigat barefoot, from the church to Martin Guerre’s house, where he would be executed. Among his final words was an entreaty to Martin Guerre himself, for the returned man had dealt most harshly with Bertrande in court, treating her like a disloyal harlot and not taking any measure of responsibility for the situation, even though it was he who had made the entire affair possible by abandoning her in the first place. The self-confessed Arnaud du Tilh begged the newly returned Martin Guerre to treat his wife with kindness and love, for none of this, he said, was her fault, and she was a virtuous, honorable, loyal woman. Then he was hanged in front of them, and in order to more thoroughly erase the memory of this man the village deemed to be so contemptible, his corpse was burned.

So, you may think, where is the mystery here? Mystery there may have been at the time, but surely all of this was neatly resolved with Arnaud du Tilh’s confession. Yet as we have seen time and time again, nagging questions remain, the first being the enigma of Bertrande de Rols. Was this woman a victim of imposture or a willing accomplice? Surely this Arnaud du Tilh could not have fooled her when it came to matters of the utmost intimacy. And certainly he could not have amassed such a great wealth of knowledge based on the coaching he claims to have received from a couple of village acquaintances and must have been further coached by Bertrande herself. But there is a further ambiguity here: namely the question of whether or not the judges in Toulouse made the right verdict, whether justice was served, whether or not the defendant really was Arnaud du Tilh or whether he was whom he had all along claimed to be. As already mentioned, testimony and proofs were about equal for and against him, and he proved himself far better at recalling the details of his life than did the peg-legged man. While his likeness to Martin’s sisters could not be denied, there was the fact that the son, Sanxi, did not resemble him, but recall Martin Guerre’s marital difficulties, their conspicuous childlessness and rumors of his impotence. To a modern observer, the superstitious remedy of masses and special cakes seems like it would have been entirely ineffective, so the fact that Bertrande immediately became pregnant might suggest that the boy Sanxi wasn’t even Martin’s after all, which would clearly explain his lack of resemblance. Why, then, would Martin’s sisters suddenly decide the peg-legged man was the real Martin? On the other side of that same coin, one might just as well ask why they thought Arnaud du Tilh was Martin. But Bertrande had good reason to suddenly change her loyalties. She was in a very precarious position, after all, and she would have had to think not only about herself, but her children as well. When the sisters began to change their story and agree with Pierre that the peg-legged man was the real Martin, she may have seen the writing on the wall. Believing her husband’s cause to be lost, she may have made a hard decision to save herself. Likewise, the defendant had already stated that if his wife were to swear that he was not her husband, he would welcome death. His confession may have only been proof of this. And he had his children to think of as well, for even if Sanxi was not his, his daughter, Bernarde, was. In freely confessing his alleged imposture, he managed to obtain from the court the promise that his daughter would not become a bastard. While she would be disinherited by the Guerre family, the court would allow her to inherit Arnaud du Tilh’s family properties. Even if he wasn’t Arnaud du Tilh, this may have seemed the only possible way to provide for his little girl.

Perhaps the most tragic aspect of this story is that the man accused of imposture seems to have been a kind and decent man. According to witnesses at trial, even those who believed him a fraud, he acquitted himself with honor in his daily life in Artigat and in his business dealings, and he proved himself a loving husband to Bertrande. The same could not be said about the young Martin who had failed his wife and abandoned her, and the behavior of the man hauled before the judges at Rieux and Toulouse was nothing like that of the young Pansette, with his drunkenness, his petty crime, and his promiscuity. So in the end, whether he was this Arnaud du Tilh or whether he really was Martin Guerre, they killed a good man for the sake of the memory of a lesser man. And what caused even his staunchest supporters to turn on him in the end? Was it certainty, after seeing the face of the other supposed Martin, or was it just doubt? In a time before photographs, in a peasant world where no one had portraits of themselves and few even owned mirrors by which to regard themselves, how closely was physical appearance observed and how accurately could likeness be recalled? It would seem, after such an absence of years, that it would have to be only vaguely. And just as one man might be indistinguishable from another, so the truth can sometimes be indistinguishable from falsehood. As Renaissance philosopher Michel de Montaigne states in an essay that makes mention of the strange case of Martin Guerre, “Falsehood is so neere Neighbour to trueth, that a wiseman should not put himselfe upon a slipperie downefal. Truth and falsehood have both alike countenances…. Wee beholde them with one same eye….”

The Return of the True Martin Guerre  by Jacques Wagrez, from Alexandre Dumas's   Celebrated Crimes , Vol. 1, p. 272

The Return of the True Martin Guerre by Jacques Wagrez, from Alexandre Dumas's Celebrated Crimes, Vol. 1, p. 272