The Specter of Devil Worship, Part Two

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

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

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

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

Portrait of Gille de Rais, via Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of Gille de Rais, via Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Portrait of La Voisin, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Portrait of La Voisin, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Specter of Devil Worship, Part One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lawrence Pazder and Michelle Smith, via Getty Images

Lawrence Pazder and Michelle Smith, via Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jubal Early's Lost Cause

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

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

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

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Confederate Pictorial Envelope, 1861, via Civil Discourse

Confederate Pictorial Envelope, 1861, via Civil Discourse

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

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

Jubal Early in Confederate military garb, via Wikimedia Commons

Jubal Early in Confederate military garb, via Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blind Spot: The Loss of Theodosia Burr Alston

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Trial of Levi Weeks for the Murder of Elma Sands

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

Lispenard's Meadow, via The Lineup

Lispenard's Meadow, via The Lineup

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

*

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

Burr and Hamilton, via History.com

Burr and Hamilton, via History.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Swift bequeathing his journal, via rootsweb.ancestry.com

Swift bequeathing his journal, via rootsweb.ancestry.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Portrait of Earl Dorr, via The Mojave Project

Portrait of Earl Dorr, via The Mojave Project

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Mulhatton: The Liar Laureate of the World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A portrait of Joseph Mulhatton, via the Museum of Hoaxes

A portrait of Joseph Mulhatton, via the Museum of Hoaxes

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

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

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

A clipping from the Chatham Record, January 12, 1882

A clipping from the Chatham Record, January 12, 1882

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blind Spot: Tutelary Spirits

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

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

A friendly banshee depicted floating above ramparts.

A friendly banshee depicted floating above ramparts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A depiction of the scene at the Mayerling Tragedy

A depiction of the scene at the Mayerling Tragedy

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

 

The White Ladies of German Lore

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The White Lady appearing to Freidrich I, via Wikimedia Commons

The White Lady appearing to Freidrich I, via Wikimedia Commons

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

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

A depiction of a White Lady apparition, via Wikimedia Commons

A depiction of a White Lady apparition, via Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

Tombstone of Kunigunde von Orlamünde at Himmelskron, via Wikimedia Commons

Tombstone of Kunigunde von Orlamünde at Himmelskron, via Wikimedia Commons

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

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

Bertha von Rosenberg, via Wikimedia Commons

Bertha von Rosenberg, via Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blind Spot: The Lady of the Haystack

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

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

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

Depiction of a similar scene, via The Natural Navigator

Depiction of a similar scene, via The Natural Navigator

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

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

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

Portrait of Count Cobenzl, via Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of Count Cobenzl, via Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

Portrait of Emperor Francis I, via Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of Emperor Francis I, via Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

Portrait of Empress Maria Theresa, via Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of Empress Maria Theresa, via Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

Kaspar Hauser, Part Two: Princeling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Portrait of Countess Hochberg, circa 1800, via Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of Countess Hochberg, circa 1800, via Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lord Philip Henry Stanhope, via Wikimedia Commons

Lord Philip Henry Stanhope, via Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To be delivered.

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

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

I come from ________

At the Bavarian frontier,

By the river ________

I will even tell you my name—M.L.Ö.

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

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

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

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

The dagger later found in the Hofgarten, via LiFo

The dagger later found in the Hofgarten, via LiFo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blind Spot: Princess Caraboo of Javasu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Princess Caraboo in costume, via Wikimedia Commons

Princess Caraboo in costume, via Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kaspar Hauser, Part One: Foundling

via Artify

via Artify

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

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

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

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

Peter the Wild Boy, via Wikimedia Commons

Peter the Wild Boy, via Wikimedia Commons

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

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

Kaspar Hauser, via Wikimedia Commons

Kaspar Hauser, via Wikimedia Commons

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

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

From the Bavarian Frontier;

        the place is not named.

      1828.

                High well-born Captain!

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

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

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

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

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

Old facsimile of Kaspar's Letter, via Wikimedia Commons

Old facsimile of Kaspar's Letter, via Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

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

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

Judge Anselm von Feuerbach, via Wikimedia Commons

Judge Anselm von Feuerbach, via Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Georg Friedrich Daumer, via Wikimedia Commons

Georg Friedrich Daumer, via Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blind Spot: The Oberfohren Memorandum and the Ernst Confession

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

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

Dr. Ernst Oberfohren, via Wikipedia

Dr. Ernst Oberfohren, via Wikipedia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Karl Ernst, via Wikimedia Commons

Karl Ernst, via Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

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

Propagandist Willi Münzenberg, via Wikimedia Commons

Propagandist Willi Münzenberg, via Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

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

Firebrand in the Reichstag!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blind Spot: The Codex of Rohonc

A facsimile edition of the Rohonc Codex, via Wikimedia Commons

A facsimile edition of the Rohonc Codex, via Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

An 1883 portrait of Batthyány, via Wikimedia Commons

An 1883 portrait of Batthyány, via Wikimedia Commons

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

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

Page 41 of the Rohonc Codex, via Wikimedia Commons

Page 41 of the Rohonc Codex, via Wikimedia Commons

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

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

Page 44 of the Rohonc Codex, via Wikimedia Commons

Page 44 of the Rohonc Codex, via Wikimedia Commons

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

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

The Found Manuscript of Wilfrid Voynich

A page of the Voynich Manuscript, via Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

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

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

A young Walt Whitman, via The New York Times

A young Walt Whitman, via The New York Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Voynich plying his trade, via Voynich.nu

Voynich plying his trade, via Voynich.nu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A page from the Codex Serafinianus, via Wired

A page from the Codex Serafinianus, via Wired

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dancing Plague

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strasbourg circa 1572, via ResearchGate

Strasbourg circa 1572, via ResearchGate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lost Colony and the Dare Stones, Part Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

The Lost Colony and the Dare Stones, Part One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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