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A ChInese prisoner is interrogated by a magistrate. Engraving from Mason & Dadley's The Punishments of China (1901).

A Chinese prisoner – wearing the long pigtail, or queue, that was mandated for all indigenous subjects of the Celestial Empire – is interrogated by a Qing magistrate. Engraving from Mason & Dadley’s voyeuristic classic The Punishments of China (1901).

China, in the middle of the eighteenth century, was the largest nation in the world – and also, by a distance, the most prosperous. Under the rule of a strong emperor, Hungli, and a well-established family (the Qing, or Manchu, dynasty), the Middle Kingdom was by then half-way through the longest period of calm in its long history. It had grown larger, richer and more cultured, its borders reaching roughly their modern extent. But it had also grown vastly more crowded; political stability, and the introduction of new crops from the Americas, led to a doubling of the population to around 300 million.  At its peak, this growth was accelerating at an annual rate in excess of 13%.

This meant trouble, for it meant that wealth was far from evenly distributed. China remained a country of great contrasts: its ruling classes rich beyond the dreams of avarice, its peasants scraping a bare living from the soil. For those living at the bottom of the  food chain – both metaphorically and literally – starvation was a constant possibility, one that grew ever more starkly real the further one travelled from the rich agricultural floodplains around the Yangtze River. By the late 1760s, many peasants were forced to turn to begging to survive, wandering miles from their homes to throw themselves upon the mercy of strangers. Tens of thousands of such forced migrations led inevitably to conflict. They also led to one of the strangest outbreaks of panic and rumour known to history.

China under the Manchus, showing the growth of empire between 1644 and 1800. the soulstealing panic took place along the country's eastern coast, between the Yangtze and Beijing.

China under the Manchus, showing the empire’s growth between 1644 and 1800. The soulstealing panic took place along the country’s eastern coast, between the Yangtze and Beijing. Click to view in larger resolution.

Among the hundreds of victims of this panic was an itinerant beggar by the name of Chang-ssu, who came from  the province of Shantung. Chang-ssu travelled in company with his 11-year-old son, and between them the pair made an insecure living by singing a romantic folk song, ‘Lotus petals fall,’ to crowds of peasants whom they drummed up in their wanderings from village to village. By the end of July 1768, the two beggars had got as far as the gates of Hsu-chou, a city about 200 miles south of their home, when – at least according to Chang-ssu’s later confession – they were accosted by a tall man whom they did not know. The stranger asked them what they did for a living and, on hearing that they begged, he offered them employment – 500 cash for every peasant pigtail they could clip. (The cash was the imperial currency at the time; 500 cash was worth approximately half an ounce of silver.) The stranger refused to tell Chang-ssu and his son what he wanted the hair for, but he did offer them some help: a pair of scissors and a small packet of powder which, he explained, was a “stupefying drug.” Sprinkle the powder on the head of a victim and he would fall to the ground insensible. Then his pigtail – or queue – could easily be clipped.

The work sounded easy enough, and Chang-ssu accepted the commission – so he said. He and the stranger parted, making arrangements to meet up again later on the border with a neighbouring province, and father and son continued on their way, making for the city of Su-chou. In the course of their journey, at a village named Chao, they tried the stupefying powder on a local labourer. Gratifyingly, the man collapsed; Chang-ssu took out his scissors, snipped off the end of the man’s queue, and tucked scissors and the hair in his travelling pack. The beggars did not get far, however. Only a mile or two outside the village they were overtaken by a group of constables, arrested and hauled off to the county jail – suspected, they were told, of the vile crime of soulstealing.  (more…)

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Port Louis, Mauritius, August 1782. The French Indian Ocean colony—highly vulnerable to British attack at the height of the American Revolutionary War—is in a state of alert. The governor, Viscomte François de Souillac, has been warned that a flotilla of 11 ships is approaching his island. Fearing that this is the long-awaited invasion fleet, De Souillac orders a sloop-of-war out to reconnoiter. But before the vessel can report, the panic ends. De Souillac is informed that the fleet has altered course and is now steering away from Mauritius. A few days later, when the sloop returns, the governor gets confirmation: the ships were actually East Indiamen, British merchant vessels making for Fort William in India.

All this is remarkable chiefly for the source of De Souillac’s intelligence. The governor had his information not from signals made by ships sailing far offshore, nor from land-based lookouts armed with high-powered telescopes, but from a minor member of the local engineering corps, one Étienne Bottineau. And Bottineau was chiefly renowned in Mauritius (or “Île de France,” to give it its contemporary French name) as a man who won a lot of bets in waterfront taverns thanks to his uncanny ability to foresee the arrival of ships that were anywhere from 350 to 700 miles from the island when he announced their approach.

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Anyone who suspects that Google, like Starbucks, is secretly planning to take over the world might well point to the search giant’s latest innovation and smile knowingly. That’s because Google has, with surprisingly little fanfare, released a new tool that exploits its unparalleled – and ever faster-growing – holdings of data, and promises to revolutionise the lives of linguists, lexicographers and English scholars, while simultaneously churning odd the odd bit of useful data for the rest of us. As today’s New York Times explains, the company’s latest launch is its New Book Database, containing 500 billion words culled from 5.2m digitised books. Quite a few of those words can already be accessed in their intended order via Google Books, but the NBD has another function – it allows users to search across time (the database covers the period 1800-2008) to track the changing popularity of individual words, and it allows them to compare the usage of several different words over the same period.

The NYT rather worthily put the new database to use comparing the frequency with which the likes of “men” and “women” feature (turns out the latter overtakes the former around 1986), but for our purposes it’s rather more revealing to track the progress of various Fortean topics. The results turn out to be informative. Take the frequency with which the phrase “Loch Ness Monster” appears, for example [top – you can click on all the graphs to see them in a much larger and more easily readable format].
Mentions of the LNM peak in the late 1930s – in fact surprisingly late in the 1930s, perhaps reflecting a delay in translating newspaper coverage into references in published books. The phrase then undergoes a sharp fall in popularity, only to revive in the 1950s and peak around 1977-78, at pretty much the time that optimism about the Rines underwater photos was at its height. What’s really striking is that the phrase continues to grow in popularity pretty much until 2000, despite a clear decline public interest in the subject. What does this indicate? That the words have passed into common currency, most probably, so that “Loch Ness Monster” is used as a metaphor nearly as often as it is as it is to refer to a – supposedly – living beast.
Here, anyway, are the results of some further searches. We can see how “UFO” swiftly overtook the earlier “Flying Saucer” [above], and or how the number of references to angels soared in the run-up to the Millennium. More interesting, perhaps, are searches that track the relative performance of terms against each other – witness the triumph of “Bigfoot” over “Abominable Snowman” and “Sasquatch” [right]. These can show up some quite significant long-term trends. Used intelligently, indeed, there’s probably a paper or two in the idea somewhere.
What is there to say, for example, about the ups and downs of this fairly random series of other Fortean phenomena [right]? What has caused the huge surge in the use of the word “teleportation”? Does this reflect nothing more than an abundance of borrowings in the science fiction literature (and a surfeit of Star Trek movies)? Is it linked to popular belief in UFO abductions? Or is something else altogether going on? And, while the numbers are probably too low to be statistically significant, can it be that more people are actually writing about ley lines now, in the 2000s, even though the Old Straight Track strikes most young Forteans as about as unashamedly 1970s as Slade and spandex loon pants?
What, finally, of the word “Fortean” itself [left]? Well, here the news is not so great. The NBD reveals a peak just after the year 2000, followed by what looks suspiciously like the beginnings of a long, sharp and irreversible decline. Anyway, the tool is easy to use and pretty addictive to play with. Feel free to give it a whirl at the site homepage, here.

UPDATE 24 October 2012. Google has released a significantly improved ngram viewer which makes more elaborate searches possible and smoothes out most of the data incongruities that marred the first release.

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It was hot and dusty in the crypt, and it had been hard work breaking into it. Now the vicar had gone, along with his invited guests, to take his supper. The churchwarden and two workmen armed with spades were left to wait for their return, loitering by the grave they had come to examine – the tomb of Lord Byron the poet.

We didn’t take too kindly to that,” said Arnold Houldsworth. “I mean, we’d done the work. And Jim Bettridge suddenly says, ‘Let’s have a look on him.’ ‘You can’t do that,’ I says. ‘Just you watch me,’ says Jim. He put his spade in, there was a layer of wood, then one of lead, and I think another one of wood. And there he was, old Byron.”

“Good God, what did he look like?” I said.

“Just like in the portraits. He was bone from the elbows to his hands and from the knees down, but the rest was perfect. Good-looking man putting on a bit of weight, he’d gone bald. He was quite naked, you know,” and then he stopped, listening for something that must have been a clatter of china in the kitchen, where his wife was making tea for us, for he went on very quickly,  “Look, I’ve been in the Army, I’ve been in bathhouses, I’ve seen men. But I never saw nothing like him.” He stopped again, and nodding his head, meaningfully, as novelists say, began to tap a spot just above his knee. “He was built like a pony.”

“How many of you take sugar?” said Mrs Houldsworth, coming with the tea.

[Rogers p.134]

We need to rewind a little at this point in order to explain not only why Mr Houldsworth and his friends were taking a spade to the coffin of one of Britain’s greatest lyric poets, but also how Lord Byron himself came to be entombed in a church in the little Nottinghamshire town of Hucknall Torkard (nowadays known simply as Hucknall). To do that, we have to go back to the early nineteenth century and to the tumultuous personal life of the sixth Baron Byron, of whom the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography says simply: “No English writer except Shakespeare acquired greater fame or exercised more world influence.”

George Gordon Noel Byron (1788-1824) was born in London, the grandson of a legendary admiral popularly known as ‘Foulweather Jack’, and the son of a Royal Navy captain (and chronic debtor) known even more evocatively as ‘Mad Jack’ Byron. His distant ancestors had been gifted possession of Newstead Abbey, in Nottinghamshire, for services rendered to Henry VIII at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries – which, at least in part, explains the poet’s posthumous residence in Hucknall – and despite the disadvantage of being born with a club foot, and the death of his feckless father when he was aged just four, the future poet enjoyed a privileged upbringing. He was schooled at Harrow and at Trinity College, Cambridge (where, famously, he kept a tame bear as a pet). After going down he became renowned, in almost equal measure, for his extraordinary poetry – Childe Harold made his name, and Don Juan practically ruined it – his scandalous affairs with a succession of unsuitable women, and his ever-mounting debts. So notorious did these excesses make him that it has been suggested that Byron was the world’s first celebrity, in the modern meaning of the term – an 1820s bad boy with all the dangerous charisma and the smouldering sexuality of the louchest modern rock star.

The affairs and the debts, anyway, forced Byron to flee to the continent in 1816, where he became a member of the celebrated houseparty at the Villa Diodati, in Geneva, that produced Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein during the infamous “year without a summer.” After a lengthy residence in Italy, the poet was drawn, in 1823, to Greece, where that nation’s successful struggle for independence from the Ottoman Turks was getting underway, and it was there he died of fever – probably malaria – in April 1824, still aged only 36.

The Greeks (for whom Byron was and remains a major national hero) would have been more than happy to have buried him where he fell – perhaps on the Acropolis, they hinted – but the British authorities insisted on the repatriation of the body. [Webb]  This, at a time when news of Byron’s death took several weeks to reach Britain (where it caused so profound a shock its effects have been likened to the hysterical mourning that followed the death of Princess Diana), and when word of the family’s decision on repatriation took weeks more to be sent to Greece, inevitably caused significant problems for those charged with preserving the body. The poet’s cadaver was autopsied, and despite Byron’s reported plea, before death, “let not my body be hacked,” five doctors crawled over it, removing heart, brains, lungs and intestines, pumping everything chock full of embalming fluid, and despatching the mangled remains to London in a tin coffin and a collection of spirit-filled vases reminiscent of Egyptian canopic jars.

The body did not reach London, on the ship Florida, until the beginning of July, more than two months after Byron’s death [Galt pp.305-06; Marchant III, 1234], and when it did there were unseemly wrangles over where to bury it. Both St Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey flatly declined to inter so scandalous a character within their walls, and it is for this reason that the poet was eventually put to rest in the family vault at Hucknell, some two miles from his former estate at Newstead Abbey. There he remained, in a crypt beneath the church, for more than a hundred years – not entirely undisturbed, for the tomb was opened again in 1852 for the burial of his daughter, the celebrated mathematician Ada Lovelace – but home and apparently at peace.

Enter the Reverend Canon T. G. Barber. Barber – who was born in Nottingham in 1876 and returned to the district as a curate in 1904 – was both a passionate admirer of Byron and a determined controversialist: a dangerous combination, it transpired, in a man placed in charge of the church where the poet had been buried. Over the years, Barber became increasingly exercised by the desire to enter Byron’s tomb – or, as he put it, to lay the rumour, which he claimed was put to him by numerous visitors, that the poet was not in fact interred in the vault. After some years – it was by now the summer of 1938 – Barber was able to obtain permission from both Byron’s family and the Home Office to have the vault opened. He appears to have obtained the necessary permits on the back of the promise that he would merely examine the church crypt to ascertain that the poet’s coffin was still there; there was no mention, it seems clear, of anything so controversial as an actual exhumation. [Barber pp.132-7]  All of which leads us to a warm evening in the middle of June, the excavations of churchwarden Houldsworth and the Bettridge brothers, and Canon Barber’s eventual return to the freshly opened tomb.

Barber, it seems safe to say, remained blissfully unaware of Houldsworth’s unauthorised exhumation. For one thing, the Byron vault had turned out to be far smaller than expected, “not being able to hold more than three coffins abreast on the floor,” [Nottingham Journal, 24 May 1824; Barber pp.132-3, 136] and far more disordered, too; as well as containing nine coffins, in various stages of decay, and the poet’s canopic jars, there was so much debris and detritus littered about that, in hacking the coffin open, the churchwarden and his men had done little but add slightly to the mess [see photo right. Byron’s coffin lies with a baron’s coronet on it to the left of the crowded image. Directly beneath it, in the bottom left corner, is the case containing the jars of his brains and entrails. In the centre of the image is the coffin of his daughter, Ada Lovelace]. For another, Barber – who for some reason seems to have felt that he had “a personal appointment with Byron” – deliberately delayed his return to the tomb until midnight, and, in order to access the vault without attracting the attention of his parishoners, he entered with only a small lantern to light his way. What Barber originally intended to do when he got into the vault we don’t know; he never properly explained himself. Nominally his commission was to do nothing but tidy around and confirm that the poet’s coffin really was present. But, given the extraordinary circumstances under which the clergyman returned, it may very well be that he secretly planned exactly what Houldsworth had already done: to open Byron’s coffin and examine his remains.

What we can say with some certainty is that Barber clambered down a ladder into the crypt and soon discovered that the poet’s coffin had been prised open. Fortunately for Arnold Houldsworth, both the Canon and almost all those experts in Byronic poetry who have written on the exhumation subsequently have been content to attribute the desecration to an unknown tomb-robber of the nineteenth century. [Barber p.132; Longford p.218n; Books and Bookmen v.21 (1975) p.21]  It further seems that the rector’s outrage was tempered with relief that the dirty work had been done for him, for he did not agonise over the state of the coffin for very long.

Barber’s published description of what happened next inevitably lacks the pungency of Arnold Houldsworth’s.

Dare I look within? Yes, the world should know the truth – that the body of the great poet was there – or that the coffin was empty. Reverently, very reverently, I raised the lid, and before my eyes lay the embalmed body of Byron in as perfect a condition as when it had been placed in the coffin one hundred and fourteen years ago. His features and hair easily recognisable from the portraits with which I was so familiar. The serene, almost happy expression on his face made a profound impression on me… But enough – I gently lowered the lid of his coffin – and as I did so, breathed a prayer for the peace of his soul.”

[Barber p.137]

The Canon, like Houldsworth, did note some damage to the body: most obviously, he wrote, Byron’s right foot, his lame one, had become detached from the remainder of the body and lay in the bottom of the coffin. [Longford pp.207, 218]  But Barber made no explicit comment on the state of the remainder of the poet’s body, although the decomposition of the arms and legs mentioned by his churchwarden was actually a typical effect of over-hasty and inadequate embalming. No mention was made – naturally, given the date and Barber’s calling – of either the poet’s nakedness or the abnormal genital development that had so awed Mr Houldsworth. And we have no photographs; a Mr Bullock, who had been brought along as a sort of official photographer to record the condition of the tomb, “refused on moral grounds” to take any pictures. [Ellis]  Thus when the rector published an account of his investigations, entitled Byron And Where He Is Buried, in book form in 1939, it contained a pretty sanitised version of events.

All this is understandable enough, because even Barber’s bowdlerised memoir caused outrage. The mere fact that Byron’s tomb had been desecrated – albeit with the sort-of permission of the poet’s family and the British government – was enough to spark a scandal, and the awkward fact that the exhumation had occurred at all went on to be studiously ignored by a succession of Byron’s biographers, including Leslie Marchand, author of the standard door-stopping three volume authorised study (1957), and his successor Doris Langley Moore, whose biography (1961) references Barber’s book in its bibliography but fails to mention its contents even obliquely in the text. [Barton]

Indeed it was not until much later, in the middle 1960s, that churchwarden Houldsworth’s recollections were finally sought and the peculiar tale of Byron’s curiously well-preserved body at last entered limited circulation. The man who put it into print was Byron Rogers, now a renowned colour journalist, who was then just beginning his career as a feature writer on the Sheffield Star – where his exotic West Wales accent caused him to be mistaken for a Hungarian. In his autobiography, Rogers explains how the interview and his scoop came to pass:

I was sitting in the Star‘s offices one morning, reading the papers, when I came upon a story about a Russian scientist who had dug up Tsar Ivan the Terrible, and, working from the skull, had reassembled his face. Staring at those grim features, I remembered that I had read somewhere that in the late 1930s someone had opened Lord Byron’s coffin in his family vault in Hucknall, just down the road from Sheffield. I rang the vicar, who confirmed that this had indeed happened, and that one man among his parishoners had been there at the time.”

[Rogers p.132]

Pausing only to collect a friendly University of Sheffield academic to add a little respectability to his coverage, Rogers hurried down to Hucknall, located the local library’s copy of Canon Barber’s memoir, and interviewed Arnold Houldsworth. Published in the mass-circulation Star, the former churchwarden’s confession – and hence the strange story of Byron’s “quite abnormal development” – began making the rounds, worming its way gradually into the public consciousness in the course of the next decade. [Dean; Wallace p.1215; Longford p.217; Stabler p.132; Harvey; Dawes]  By the first years of the new century, it was no longer quite so scandalous, and was well enough known to be used to open The Kindness of Sisters, David Crane’s 2003 study of Byron’s wife and half-sister.

In all those years (it may be added in conclusion), Houldsworth’s tale has become a curiosity, a prurient bit of literary gossip, and, finally, the subject of some fairly heavyweight feminist analysis. [McDayter pp.183-4]  Yet its fundamental truth remains unquestioned; no one, it seems, has ever critically analysed the churchwarden’s account. From this perspective, it should be left to Byron Rogers to deliver a coda to the story he first put into print. Writing nearly 50 years later, the Welshman concluded his account of his 1960s feature with a telling observation.

And there the story would have rested, sinking into myth, except… One night at Sheffield University for a poetry reading, I was desperately trying to find a lavatory, having stopped in the pub on my way, when I opened a door into a pitch-black room, and, groping for a light switch, touched what felt like a big glass jar. The light came on, and I saw at eye level, about a foot from me, penises cut from corpses. My hand had clearly disturbed them, for they were dancing in a stately sort of way, and each, having been injected with embalming fluid, was the size of a rolling pin.”

[Rogers p.134]

Vertical elevation and plan of the Byron family vault, Hucknall, Notts., as it was in 1938

Side view and location plan of the Byron family vault, Hucknall, Notts., as it was in 1938


Thomas Gerrard Barber. Byron And Where He Is Buried. Hucknall: Henry Morley & Sons, 1939.

Anne Barton. ‘Byron: the poetry of it all.’ New York Review of Books, 19 December 2002.

Martin Dawes. ‘Poet’s privates and an odd cock and bull story.’ Sheffield Star, 16 July 2009.

Paul Dean. ‘Hail, Muse! etc.’ The New Criterion, June 2003.

Mavis Ellis. ‘The poet, Lord Byron.’ In Claves Regni [St Peter’s, Nottingham online parish magazine] nd [?c.2004]. Accessed 15 October 2010.

John Galt. Life of Lord Byron. London: Colburn & Bentley, 1830.

Oliver Harvey. ‘Lord Byron’s life of bling, booze and groupie sex.’ The Sun, 15 August 2008.

Elizabeth Longford. Byron. London: Hutchinson, 1976.

Ghislaine McDayter. Byromania and the Birth of Celebrity Culture. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Jerome McGann. ‘Byron, George Gordon Noel.’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Leslie Marchand. Byron: A Biography. London, 3 vols.: John Murray, 1957.

Byron Rogers. Me: The Authorised Biography. London: Aurum, 2009.

Jane Stabler. Palgrave Advances in Byron Studies. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

Irving Wallace et al [eds], The People’s Alamanac 2. New York: William Morrow, 1978.

L.J. Webb. ‘Requiesit in pax: the death of Lord Byron.’ In Crede Byron, a website devoted to Byron’s childhood home at Newstead Abbey. Accessed 15 October 2010.

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You might call it parapsychology’s greatest mystery. Did Catherine Crowe – sixtysomething literary stalwart of the mid-nineteenth century, passionate advocate of the German ghost story, and author of that runaway best-seller The Night Side of Nature (London, 2 vols.: Newby, 1848) – really tear through the streets of Edinburgh at the end of February 1854, naked but for a handkerchief clutched in one plump hand and a visiting card in the other? And, if she did, was it because she had experienced a nervous breakdown, or because the spirits had convinced her that, once her clothes were shed, she would become invisible?

Catherine CroweCrowe’s name may not ring too many bells today, but a century and a half ago she was famous. Born in 1790, she was noted as a novelist (she wrote Susan Hopley, an intricately plotted crime procedural that was some way ahead of its time) and as a friend of the great and good (she knew Thackeray, Dickens and Charlotte Brontë, among many others). Nowadays, however, she is best remembered as a pioneer parapsychologist – “a hugely important figure in the emergence of modern ghost-seeing culture chiefly because of her relentless calls for society to turn its attention to the unexplained phenomena in its midst and investigate them in an objective manner.” [McCorristine p.10]

Crowe’s Night Side was one of the publishing sensations of 1848. A two volume exploration of “ghosts and ghost seers,” intermingled with observations on phrenology, Mesmerism and the poltergeist phenomena, the book happily appeared just before the vast explosion of interest in communication with the dead occasioned by the dubious activities of the Fox sisters on the far side of the Atlantic. In consequence, Night Side ran through 16 editions in only six years, made its author moderately rich, introduced a large number of well-to-do Victorians to the world of the occult – and had an influence out of all proportion with its present reputation. Indeed, the book “marked the turning point,” Hilary Evans suggests, “in society’s relationship with the paranormal.” [Evans p.88]

With the publication of Night Side, Crowe herself [seen above left in the only known image showing her, from H. Douglas Thomson’s The Great Book of Thrillers (London: Odhams, nd c.1937)] became a semi-public figure, thanks in part to her then-unorthodox life-style – she had separated from her husband and gone to live on her own in Edinburgh, a most irregular procedure in those days. [DNB] She was chattered about by the likes of De Quincey and Hans Christian Andersen (who encountered her inhaling ether with another woman writer at an Edinburgh party, and scathingly described “the feeling of being with two mad creatures – they smiled with open dead eyes…”) [Andersen, diary entry – left – for 17 Aug 1847] All of this was quite startling behaviour for a woman who was not in the first flush of youth (she was 64 years old in 1854), and doubtless it helps explain why accounts of Crowe’s bizarre behaviour spread quite so quickly, and were believed quite so readily, as they were.

Charles Dickens was one of those who heard gossip regarding strange goings-on in Edinburgh, and in a letter to the Revd. James White, dated 7 March 1854, he gave what has become the standard account of the incident:

Mrs Crowe has gone stark mad – and stark naked – on the spirit-rapping imposition. She was found t’other day in the street, clothed only in her chastity, a pocket-handkerchief and a visiting card. She had been informed, it appeared, by the spirits, that if she went out in that trim she would be invisible. She is now in a mad-house and, I fear, hopelessly insane. One of the curious manifestations of her disorder is that she can bear nothing black. There is a terrific business to be done, even when they are obliged to put coals on her fire.

[Storey pp.285-6]

Dickens returned to the subject a few days later, in a letter to Emile de la Rue dated 9 March:

There is a certain Mrs Crowe, usually resident in Edinburgh, who wrote a book called the Nightside of Nature, and rather a clever story called Susan Hopley. She was a medium, and an Ass, and I don’t know what else. The other day she was discovered walking down her own street in Edinburgh, not only stark mad but stark naked too. She said the Spirits had informed her that if she walked out with a card in her right hand and her pocket hand kerchief in her left – and nothing else – she would be invisible. But she was not surprised (she added) to find herself visible, because she remembered that in opening the street door, she had changed the card into the left hand and the pocket hand kerchief into the right! She is now under restraint, of course.

[Ibid p.288]

Dickens was far from the only person to hear this outlandish tale – or to pass it along. It seems to have circulated pretty widely at the time (though never apparently with any sort of source, or eyewitness account, attached to it) and one still occasionally reads it today. The Dictionary of National Biography, for instance, reports the incident as fact, and adds that the author subsequently spent “a short stint in Hanwell Asylum.” [DNB] (I note that the Asylum’s papers, including registers of admissions, still exist, in the London Metropolitan Archives, but I have not yet had the opportunity to check them.) Shane McCorristine, in his new book on ghost-seeing, also mentions the affair, albeit in more neutral tone, and notes that the earliest published reference to it was a “gleeful” account in Zoist (v.12 p.175), a “prominent mesmerist/phrenological periodical.”

My hunt for the truth about Crowe’s madness, and her nudity, has been a fairly frustrating one. The story does not seem to have featured at all in the Scottish newspapers of the day, nor in any English ones until as late as the end of April, nearly two months after the Dickens letters suggest it was in oral circulation. Crowe herself, moreover, hotly denied that any such incident had ever occurred. Having belatedly stumbled across a newspaper “squib” recounting Zoist‘s report, she penned a comprehensive counter to the Daily News (29 April 1854):

Sir.– I am very sorry to trouble the public about my private maladies or misfortunes, but since the press has made my late illness the subject of a paragraph, stating that I have gone mad on the subject of spirit rapping, I must beg leave to contradict the assertion. I have been for some time suffering from chronic gastric inflammation; and, after a journey to Edinburgh and a week of considerable fatigue and anxiety, I was taken ill on the 26th of February, and was certainly for five or six days – not more – in a state of unconsciousness. During this aberration, I talked of spirit rapping, and fancied spirits were directing me, because the phenomena, so called, have been engaging my attention, and I was writing on the subject; but I was not – and am not – mad about spirits or anything else, thank God! though very much out of health and exceedingly debilitated. I have been residing in London for the last five weeks; and I am now at Malvern trying what hydrotherapy will do for me. I should feel greatly obliged by your insertion of this letter; and also, if those journalists who have aided in spreading the erroneous impression will assist in disseminating this corrected statement, which I should have made earlier, but the paragraph did not meet my eye til to-day.

I am, Sir, your obedient servant,


Great Malvern, April 26.

Hmm. Who to believe?

Well, there’s no doubt that Crowe had every reason for denying so spicy and so embarrassing a tale, nor that her own version of events – with its confirmation that she raved of spirit rapping while in a delirium – comes perilously close to admitting that there was something, somewhere, in the story. The date that Crowe puts on events – the last couple of days of February 1854, and the first couple of days of March – also ties in pretty neatly with the dates of the Dickens letters. But I would have been inclined to give Mrs Crowe the benefit of the doubt, along with her feminist biographer [Ayres p.64], had it not been for a fortuitous recent discovery of what looks very much like confirmation of the Dickens version of events in the papers of Robert Chambers [below left], the renowned Edinburgh editor, publisher, evolutionary theorist and polydactyl.

Crowe was a neighbour of Chambers’s, and according to a letter Chambers wrote to his associate Alexander Ireland very soon after the supposed date of the incident, talk of her nude engagement with the spirit world was certainly true, even if it remained uncertain whether any bout of insanity was involved. Which is to say that Crowe – at least according to Chambers – had fallen somehow under the influence of spirits, and had had to be rescued by her friends from a “terrible condition of mad exposure.” [Chambers to Ireland, 4 Mar 1854, W&R Chambers Papers, Department of Manuscripts, National Library of Scotland, Dep/341/112/115-116] Note here, by the way, what looks suspiciously like confirmation of another of Dickens’s details: Crowe was discovered naked “walking down her own street” [Storey p.288]; Crowe and Chambers were “neighbours” [Chambers Papers].

Catherine Crowe: mad and naked? A Scottish jury might return the verdict of Not Proven. But, on the balance of probabilities, this Welsh one finds her guilty as charged.


Andersen, Hans Christian. Dagbøger 1845-1850. Copenhagen: G.E.C. Gads Forlag, 1974.

Ayres, Brenda. Silent Voices: Forgotten Novels by Victorian Women Writers. Westport [CT]: Praeger, 2003.

Evans, Hilary. Intrusions: Society and the Paranormal. London: RKP, 1982.

King, W.D. ‘”Shadow of a Mesmeriser”: the female body on the “dark” stage.’ Theatre Journal v49 n2 (1997).

McCorristine, Shane. Spectres of the Self: Thinking about Ghosts and Ghost-Seeing in England, 1750-1920. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Storey, Graham et al (eds). The Letters of Charles Dickens: 1853-1855. Oxford: OUP, 1993.

Wilkes, Joanne. ‘Catherine Crowe.’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

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Marpingen from the airI’ve already mentioned, in these pages, the alarming lack of awareness Forteans show of all the progress being made in the fields of academia. Only rarely does one see purely scholarly works cited in the literature, and this considerably impoverishes us – most obviously because it limits our capacity to understand the subtle underpinnings of a wide range of phenomena.

Today I want to give a solid example of precisely what I mean by taking the first of what I expect will be several looks at a book that Forteans have remained blissfully unaware exists ever since it was published nearly 20 years ago. Marpingen: Apparitions of the Virgin Mary in Nineteenth Century Germany (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994) is an extensive, richly-researched account devoted to an undeniably obscure event: the apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM) that supposedly took place in a small German village named Marpingen, in the Saarland, back in 1876. These apparitions were big news at the time. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims poured into the village to visit the apparition site and drink the waters of its miraculous spring; it was even predicted that Marpingen would become the “German Lourdes”. For a variety of reasons, though, this never happened; the village very slowly faded from people’s memories, and the apparitions themselves were never formally investigated by the Catholic authorities, much less granted the formal Church seal of approval – a process critical to the continuing popularity of “approved” vision sites such as Lourdes, Knock and Fatima. So obscure has Marpingen become, indeed, that I have never seen the events there mentioned in even the best Fortean surveys of religious phenomena. All of which makes David Blackbourn’s enormous study – which runs to 500 pages and is based on wide reading and several years’ worth of research in seven German archives – the more laudable and fascinating.

First, a brief word about the author. Blackbourn (who, like many of the best of the present generation of British history dons, currently teaches at Harvard) is a noted expert on the history of nineteenth century Germany; he’s the author of an excellent and extremely readable general survey, History of Germany, 1780-1918, and several more specialist monographs with slightly daunting titles, among them The Conquest of Nature: Water, Landscape and the Making of Modern Germany. His work on Marpingen grew out of his interest in the relationship between national politics and local communities, and the ways in which the newly unified German state (“Germany” as we know it came into existence only in 1871, after the Franco-Prussian War) worked, or failed to work, on a regional and district level; about half his book is devoted to exploring what the events at Marpingen can tell us about the way in which Germany was structured in the 1870s and the Prussian-dominated government set about imposing itself on the nation at large. To make these points, however, Blackbourn had to dig deeply into the story of the supposed apparitions and set out the way in which the episode was handled by the local religious and state authorities, and he did so such a concerted way that he emerged with a considerably better-informed take on the subject than any Fortean (or Catholic) writing on Lourdes or Fatima has had. I therefore commend his book to anyone with any interest in religious phenomena, or in the social, economic and cultural background to all Fortean phenomena, and I plan, over the next couple of posts, to summarise some of the more interesting of Blackbourn’s findings. All this, remember, is based on some immensely detailed reading in the Bistumsarchiv, Trier, the Landeshauptarchiv in Koblenz and various other manuscript sources; in other words it takes us about as close as we’re likely to get to what was probably a pretty typical BVM apparition flap in the late nineteenth century. (I’m not going to repeat Blackbourn’s detailed archival citations here – but believe me when I say that his work is extensively researched.)

Of course, even Blackbourn’s book is not quite perfect; notably, it’s so heavily anaytical that it supplies no clear, linear summary of what actually happened. It took me some time to sort out the actual course of events, but, having done so, I think it probably makes sense to tell the story as it happened… at first at least. So let’s begin by returning to Marpingen itself as the village was in the summer of 1876 – five years after the end of the Franco-Prussian War, to put things in their proper context, and in the midst of the long economic crisis that persisted for much of that tumultuous decade. It’s 3 July, a significant date in the Catholic calendar: one day after the Marian Festival of the Visitation, and (as Blackbourn argues, surely not coincidentally) also the very day on which a crowd of 100,000 Catholics (including 35 bishops) was descending on the renowned apparition site at Lourdes for a well-publicised ceremony that climaxed with the crowning of a statue of the Blessed Virgin.

July was harvest time in Saarland, a solidly Catholic district on the border with France. In Marpingen, where most of the inhabitants made their living either from farming or in mining, all the adults not working in the pits were out in the fields gathering in the crops. Only young children, too weak to be of use in harvesting, were excused, and they were sent instead out to a hilly, wooded area called the Härtelwald to pick bilberries. Five girls found tehmselves together as dusk fell and they began to make their way back to the village. The group consisted of three eight year olds – Katharina Hubertus, Susanna Leist and Margaretha Kunz – and two six year olds, Lischen Hubertus and Anna Miesberger.

Between the wood and the meadow was an area of wild meadow with thick bushes around it. It was here that Susanna Leist suddenly called out, bringing Katharina and Margaretha hurrying to her, and drew her friends’ attention to a ‘white figure’. When the girls reached home, agitated and frightened, all three described seeing a woman in white carrying a child in her arms. There is some dispute over the initial reactions of parents, siblings, and neighbours, but it is clear that the girls remained in a state of excitement. Margaretha slept badly and prayed a lot, Katherina dreamed of the woman in white, Susanna was reluctant to go to bed at all. The following day they returned to the spot and knelt down about 20 yards away to pray. According to their account, after they had said the Lord’s Prayer three times the apparition appeared again to Margaretha and Katharina – although not to Susanna Leist, the original seer. ‘Who are you?’ they asked the figure in the local dialect, and received the reply: “Ich bin die unbefleckt Empfangene” (‘I am the Immaculately Conceived.’) ‘What should we do?’ ‘You should pray.’ The children resumed their prayers, and the figure disappeared.

Marpingen p.xxii

Those who have read something of the BVM will recognise a number of common motifs in the Marpingen account: child witnesses, an impoverished rural setting at a time of crisis, a conversation with a woman in white able to communicate in the local patois, and the inability of some of those present to see or hear things that other witnesses saw and heard. Nor was there much especially unusual in what happened next: a succession of further visions, over a period of two more days, the identification of a ‘miraculous spring’ whose waters possessed healing powers, and the first of a procession of miracle cures.

True, the sheer profusion of visions was rather unusual, and so was their variety; the visionaries

began to claim apparitions in other parts of the village – in their homes, in barns and stables, in the school, in the graveyard and the church. The visions they described became more luxuriant. The Virgin appeared with and without the Christ-child,  sometimes accompanied by angels. She was dressed now in white, now in gold and azure. the apparitions also took on darker tones. On one occasion the girls reported seeing the Virgin clad in black, on another they described a celestial procession passing over the graveyard. The devil also appeared.

Marpingen p.xxiii

Nor were the original three visionaries the only ones to claim that they had seen the Virgin Mary. Later several adult villagers made similar claims, and in the summer of 1877, a year after the initial visions, a rival group of children also began to see visions.

Yet what really distinguishes Marpingen from other appearances by the BVM – and what ensured that there would be an abundant paper archive of events for Blackbourn to examine – was the German authorities’ ham-fisted response to news of the visions when they finally seeped into the outside world. Strenuous attempts were made to control the visionaries, and, eventually, to punish them; the spot in the Härtlwald where the first encounter with the BVM had allegedly taken place was sealed off and placed under a police guard; the army was brought in to disperse the crowds; an undercover police detective from Berlin was sent to the Saarland to pose (rather unconvincingly, one supposes) as a wealthy Irish journalist and inveigle his way into the witnesses’ confidence; and both the villagers themselves, and pilgrims visiting Marpingen, were constantly harrassed. Legal cases were eventually brought against several dozen pilgrims on the bizarre charge of “unlawful pilgrimage”, against quite a number of villagers for illegally putting up paying guests in their homes; eventually, the visionaries themselves were first taken into care, and then brought to trial on accusations of fraud. It was not until April 1879 that a series of ‘Not Guilty’ verdicts finally brought matters to a close, the police were withdrawn from the Härtlwald, and things finally returned more or less to normal in the Saarland.

To understand why the Marpingen visions aroused such an intense response requires some knowledge of the German ‘back story’. Germany, in this period, was in the throes of kulturkampf, an attempt led by the Chancellor, Bismarck, to separate church and state and reduce the influence of the Catholic church. From this perspective, the Marpingen BVM visions – which unleashed an apparently uncontrollable wave of popular piety (by 10 July, a week after the visions began, the village was laying host to an estimated 20,000 visitors), made possible by the advent of the railways and more urgent by the desperate economic times – posed a significant threat, and much of the David Blackbourn’s efforts are devoted to tracking this interplay between local devotion and state repression. From our perspective, however, the most interesting aspect of the story is the author’s careful dissection of the visionaries themselves and their home lives, and it is to this peculiarly illuminating topic that I now turn.

NEXT: “It was all one big lie.”

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Of giant eels

Bridge at Ballynahinch Castle

The thing about lake monsters, I think it’s generally agreed, is that they really ought to be seen a lot more often than they are. Take even a reasonably substantial body of water, one the size of Loch Ness, for instance, add a self-sustaining monster population (25 animals? 40? Nobody really knows, but it’d have to be a decent number), and the brain begins to boggle slightly at the sheer implausibility of all those creatures paddling about the centre of the Highlands, within a few yards of a major road, and yet being spotted and reported perhaps three times a year.

The real problem, of course, is that virtually all of the usual suspects – the plesiosaurs and long-necked seals and, god help us, giant prehistoric whales (if there’s one LM candidate that combines the worst aspects of every conceivable theory in one utterly unlikely package, the zeuglodon is it) – are air-breathers. And you don’t have to spend too long at a place such as Loch Ness, just 22 miles long and only one mile wide, to realise how preposterous the idea of air-breathing lake monsters is. Seals, which do get into the loch occasionally, are quite regularly spotted and identified, so there’s simply no reason to suppose larger animals would go unnoticed. That’s why I long ago converted to the idea that the solution to this mystery more likely lay in the realms of witness perception, human psychology and cultural expectation than it did in cryptozoology. But, even so, I still suspect that one type of animal does play a central role in some lake monster sightings: fish.

There’s little doubt in my mind that fish are responsible for much of the sonar evidence from places like Loch Ness, and none that animals large enough to awe witnesses exist (though not necessarily in Scottish lakes). There’s a surprisingly large amount to be said in favour of sturgeon as the explanation for many “upturned boat”-type sightings. But, for those who remain convinced by numerous reports of lake monsters with long necks, only one candidate really satisfies: the eel – or, more specifically, a hypothetical giant eel, perhaps with an unusually thickened body; Roy Mackal was keen on those.

Bristol Mercury 29 October 1842Hull Packet 6 November 1840I’m no scientist, and I’ll leave it to the likes of Darren Naish to discuss the problems with the eel theory; there are many. Still, seen from my layman’s perspective, there are a couple of things to be said in favour of the notion, aside from the fact that eels are predominantly bottom-dwellers that don’t come to the surface very often. One is that many accounts of the existence of giant eels exist – here are two, discovered in a cursory search of 19th century British regional newspapers. [As always with this blog, you can see such clips in a more readable format by downloading and opening the image, or clicking on it and dragging to your desktop.] The one on the left is from the Bristol Mercury of 29 October 1842, and the clip on the right is from the Hull Packet of 6 November 1840. Both describe animals significantly larger than eels are supposed to get in the UK, or indeed anywhere else; the largest recognised eel species, the Moray, can grow only to about 12 feet (3.75 metres).

A second point is that eels are capable of travelling surprising distances over land, which may help to explain some of those pesky land sightings of lake monsters; a third, and the one that most interests me today, is that there demonstrably is, or was, a tradition in Ireland and Scotland that monstrously large and ugly “hairy eels” exist. The Irish called these creatures horse-eels, supposedly because their heads and foreparts resembled those of horses, while their tails were those of eels. I’m going to devote the rest of this post to setting out some little-known descriptions of these creatures. How you interpret this material is up to you; cryptozoologists may choose to see it as evidence that such animals really exist,but even if you doubt this I think the folkloric aspects of the tales are interesting, and they certainly tell us a great deal about the background against which Scottish and Irish lake monster reports were originally made – before the cryptozoologists and mystery-mongers got their hands on them, that is.

The first source I want to publish here is an extract from a memoir by a Scottish Catholic priest named Alexander Campbell (1818-1891), who was based on the Hebridaen island of South Uist. The memoir was written right at the end of Campbell’s life, but the period alluded to is c.1850. The memoir is preserved in the Scottish Catholic Archives in Edinbugh, which, by the by, contains most of the surviving papers of the abbots and monks of the old Benedictine monastery at Fort Augustus, and is a surprisingly rich source for a wide variety of nineteenth and early twentieth century Highland Forteana.

Another prominent feature of the long island is its enumerable lakes teeming with eels and trouts, some of the former attain an almost incredible size. These eels when they arrive at this monstrous size according to the opinion and also conviction of the natives, make their way over land to the sea. And I have reason to believe that this opinion of theirs will be found to be correct. I myself for some years was an eye witness[,] one of these huge monsters appearing in a lake situated in the township of Boisdale lashing at times furiously the water with its tail and making at the same time a hissing sort of noise. But for the last three years it has left the lake and is not now to be seen. Its disappearance was no matter of surprise to the inhabitants because they expect all monster eels of this description to make at length their way to the sea.

It is equally known here that these eels migrate from one lake to another and crawl along the land like serpents. In confirmation of this fact, I was told by an eye witness worthy of credence that he and others were assembled together on a Sunday evening on a knoll in Ormiclate and saw a great many sea gulls assembling over a field at no great distance, darting now and then down to the ground. The unusual manoeuvres on the part of the gulls excited their curiosity so they went to see what was making such a swarm of them congregate in one place. Upon their arrival they discovered a number of large eels making their way to the neighbouring lake, which was more than a quarter of a mile distant from the one from which they started. No consideration will induce an Uist man or woman to taste an eel and they even intertain the strangest prejudice against them who do so.

[Source: Alexander Campbell, ‘The Mission of South Uist.’ Scottish Catholic Archives DA9/45B]

South UistThe area that Campbell describes can be seen on a map of the southernmost portions of Uist (right), but one thing that’s not so clear from this close-up is how close Uist itself is to Ireland. In fact it’s only just over a hundred miles directly north of Ulster, and – more importantly – it sits astride an ancient sea route that, during the Middle Ages, closely linked Ireland and the Western Isles to Scandinavia. The intermixing of Irish and Scots along this route is key to understanding much of the history of this region (for example, the Western Isles were part of the Kingdom of Norway until the 1260s, and the repercussions of the plantation of Scots in Ulster during the seventeenth century still looms large in Irish politics today.) It’s also very important to understand that Irish and northern Scottish folklore is inextricably interlinked. From the folkloric point of view, it’s no surprise that both the Highlands and Islands of Scotland and their Irish counterparts, the wild western parts of Eire, are equally rich sources of lake monster traditions.

The chief source of information on the Irish horse-eel tradition is old school monster-hunter F.W. “Ted” Holiday: a man in whom I generally place limited faith, as previously discussed. Nonetheless, horse-eels play a leading role in his The Dragon and the Disc (1973), which deals in large part with a series of bizarre lake monster reports that emerged from the bogs of Connemara during the 1960s – and by bizarre I mean not only that the creatures were frequently reported at remarkably short range, and hence in unusual detail, but also that the loughs that they were seen in were minuscule – far too small to support even a single large animal for any length of time.

The thing that makes Holiday’s work valuable is that it includes a long series of interviews with his Connemara witnesses. These were tape-recorded and transcribed, and reprinted without passing through the filter of the autor’s preconceptions, which makes them unusually interesting. I commend all of them to you, but there are too many, actually, to give them in full here, so I am going to confine myself to one especially peculiar type of story: traditions concerning gigantic eels that for various reasons became trapped in a variety of obstacles, allowing – at least hypothetically – for detailed observation, and the collection of physical evidence. (The fact that no such evidence was, in fact, collected says something about all these accounts, I’m sure.)

Those who know a little about lake monsters may be familiar with at least one such story: an account, which comes via the Irish monster-hunter Captain Lionel Leslie, of a Mrs Cameron, of Corpach. Writing probably early in the 1960s, Mrs C. describes an animal “found in the Corpach canal-locks when these were drained at the end of the last century,” or c.1899. Corpach is at the southern end of the Caledonian Canal, which runs from Inverness, through Loch Ness, to Fort William. According to the letter which Mrs Cameron addressed to Leslie,

In appearance it resembled an eel but was much larger than any eel ever seen and it had a long mane. They surmised it had come down from Loch Ness as even then the loch had a sinister reputation.

[Source: FW Holiday, The Great Orm of Loch Ness (London: Faber, 1971) p.172]

As a source, this account is less than perfect – it’s at second, or more likely third, hand, and even if it does contain a grain of truth it’s pretty definitely been corrupted by later accretions from the Loch Ness legend; Ronald Binns and others have amply demonstrated that the loch had no “sinister reputation” as early as 1900. The idea of a gigantic eel, particularly one with a “long mane” is, however, pretty consistent with the material collected by Holiday and his colleagues in Connemara in the 1960s. These accounts dealt with eel-like lake monsters seen in a number of western lochs located close to the district capital, Clifden. These include Lough Fadda, Lough Auna, Lough Shanakeever and tiny Lough Nahooin, as well as Crolan Lough – all of which I have identified on the Connemara map below.

Map ofWestern Connemara showing lake monster reports

The first of these accounts comes from an interview with a Connemara man by the name of Tom Connelly, “who had worked in America and London before returning to his native heath.” The interview was conducted by Holiday with Ivor Newby and Lionel Leslie; the date was 11 July 1968, and Connelly, who was then 65, described his sighting of a “horse-eel” in Crolan Lough in April 1961. The bogs of Connemara, incidentally, are good country for eels; as Connelly explained, Crolan Lough fed into Lough Derrylea and thence “a continuation of little rivers takes them into the sea.” After he described his sighting – of a 12 or 14 foot long creature seen at roughly 40 yards – Connelly added some further information about Crolan Lough:

Culvert between Crolan Lough and Lough Derrylea, ConnemaraHoliday: You’ve never seen anything like this before?

Connelly: No, not before or since. Only that when we were small our parents always kept us away from that lake in particular. They’d never let us go near it.

Holiday: Was there any local name for the creatures that you ever heard of?

Connelly: Some of the people called them…”horse-eels”…The old people used to make out that the things in these lakes used to travel overland. I often heard about that.

Holiday: From lake to lake?

Connelly: Yes, from lake to lake.

“Mr Connelly,” Holiday’s account continues, “then took us across the bog to a point on a hillock where he had looked down upon the monster. On the way back we examined a shallow, sedge-filled stream which connects Crolan Lough with Lough Derrylea. A culvert, about a yard in diameter, takes this stream under a bog road. The witness described how a monster became stuck in this culvert about eighty years ago [c.1888] during his father’s time.”

Holiday: Did you hear this from your father?

Connelly: From me mother. I used to hear me father talk about it, too, but her in particular always used to talk about it.

Holiday: “Did they ever describe what it looked like?

Connelly: Only just an oversized eel, like, caught in the gully. It couldn’t wriggle itself through. They didn’t bother going near it and it stayed and it just melted away.

Holiday: No bones? They never found any bones?

Connelly: There couldbe but they just didn’t take much remark of it. Only just that when we were small they’dalways keep us away from that lake in particular.

Concluded Holiday: “Further questioning suggested that the creature damaged the culvert during its struggles and this had to be rebuilt. The carcass was so loathsome that no-one would remove it.”

[Source: FW Holiday, The Dragon and the Disc (London: Futura, 1974) pp.52-4]

Culvert at Crolan LoughDuring a holiday I took in Connemara during the hot summer there in 1991, I visited the same district and located the culvert and the stream, which, as can be seen from these snaps (above right and, left, in close up), was an is a pretty modest affair, so overgrown it was difficult even to make out the mouth of the culvert. The “monster” of Holiday’s second Irish story, though, was apparently a good deal larger. This tale was set a few miles to the east at Ballynahinch, a castle from which the Irish Protestant landowning family the Martyns held sway over much of Connemara between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. The castle is built on a very picturesque lake, from which a shallow river that for most of the year is not much more than a stream runs two miles south to the sea at Bertraghboy Bay, and it was beneath a bridge on this river that a monstrous eel was supposedly caught at roughly the same time as the Crolan Lough incident – c.1888. On this occasion, Holiday’s witness was Patrick King, “an old man” living in a cottage on the road from Clifden. Because Mr King was shy of strangers, he was interviewed on Holiday’s behalf by “an alert young man” from the same cluster of cottages named Martin Walsh.

“About this big eel that was seen at Ballynahinch,” Walsh began.

Patrick King: Well, I don’t remember it but I heard my father talk about it. It was jammed under the bridge at Ballynahinch. By Ballynahinch Castle.

MW: Well, what preparations did they do to catch him?

PK: They couldn’t kill him so they were making a spear… the blacksmith pointing a spear to spear him with it and get a rope tied onto a tree [sic].

MW: What was the name of the blacksmith?

PK: Patrick Connelly.

MW: And where was he from?

PK: He was from Cashel.

Bridge at Ballynahinch Castle beneath which a horse eel supposedly  became stuck, c.1888Walsh then established that Connelly had been working at Ballynahinch when “the eel [became] jammed under the bridge [and] the water stopped.” My photos of this location (right and below) give some idea of how large the creature in question would have had to be to genuinely dam the stream – though perhaps during a drought the river would have dried to nearly nothing, and in any case the detail has something of a folkloric ring to it.

MW: Was there much water under the bridge at the time?

PK: There wasn’t.

MW: What height would it be about?

PK: His back was over it. And they made a spear for him and that night there was  a big flood and it went over himand took him off.

Holiday: How big was he?

MW: How big did you hear he was? What length was he?

PK: I hear he was about 30 foot.

MW: Thirty feet long. And how thick do you think he’d be?

PK: About as thick as a horse.

Holiday: Did you hear what his head looked like?

PK:  I didn’t hear about his head. I only heard them talk about him. That would be… about 80 years ago now.

MW: What length was the spear that they were making for him?

PK: Oh, the spear was a pointed one to drive into him and hold him with feedin on it. [Feedin is a type of line – MD]

MW: So that when it went into him it wouldn’t come out.

Holiday: I know. With barbs on it. How long was he stuck under the bridge then?

PK: A couple of days. He came down and was jammed under it.

[Source: The Dragon and the Disc pp.70-2]

As I say, you can interpret these stories as you wish. I think it would be wise to assume the material may be distorted by the witnesses’ desire to please their interviewer, perhaps by conjuring up details where really there were none. But Patrick King’s refusal to describe the Ballynahinch monster’s head is quite an encouraging sign that his account may be reasonably accurate – though by that I mean only that it was probably an honest report of a tradition dating back to well before his birth.

Bridge at Ballynahinch Castle from the north looking southIf horse-eels did dwell in Connemara in the 1880s, though, there’s still the question of why they are so rarely seen there now. Father Campbell’s memoir, which suggests that once the creatures reached a certain size they left the lakes that they had made their homes and returned to the sea broadly correlates with the known life-cycle of eels, which famously breed in the Sargasso. Further than that, though, I’m relucant to go. For me, these accounts can simply be enjoyed as stories, no matter what the “truth” in them. And from that perspective, Holiday’s The Dragon and the Disc is well worth a read. There are lots of stories in it, and it’s very thought-provoking.

[Afterword: Dick Raynor, one of the best Loch Ness researchers, has a very useful page documenting a series of horse-eel reports from Loughs Auna and Shanakeever, two other loughs that Holiday mentions in his book.

[Acknowledgements: My grateful thanks to Alasdair Roberts, former editor of the Innes Review, for sending me the SCA material from Father Campbell’s account of South Uist.]

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The Wonderful Magazine frontispiece

I love history and I love research: always have done, to a degree other people find – well, let’s just say ‘unusual’. To give you an idea of what I mean, let me take you back to the summer of 1982, and the last term of my first year at university. Now, first years at most Cambridge colleges sit their Prelims in that term – that’s preliminary exams, the sort that don’t count towards your degree but do count when it comes to ruining one’s summer. By sheer dumb luck, however, I had gone up to Peterhouse, the oldest and most eccentric of colleges, and Peterhouse scorned Prelims. This meant that I spent the eight weeks of that term with a lot of spare time on my hands; most of my friends, the ones at other colleges, were feverishly revising, and there wasn’t a great deal going on. My fellow Petreans took advantage of this freedom to do a lot of drinking, punting, and garden partying, but even aged 18, I have to say, my idea of a good time was more to head to the University Library and read.

I wasn’t quite swot enough, in truth, to spend the time reading stuff that might have helped me academically. What I actually did was to retreat to the dusty pastures of North Front 6, where it was always cool and dark and the smell of ancient books was overpowering. Nobody ever seemed to go North Front 6, which had tiny windows and no natural light, and was, and probably still is, a sort of elephants’ graveyard where old, moribund and essentially useless periodicals went to die. It was paradise for me, though, and it was up there, that term, that I first chanced upon a run of one of the magazines that I want to talk about today.

It was called The Mirror of Literature, Art and Amusement, published in London in the 1820s and the 1830s, and it was filled with an extensive selection of eye-opening stories of the sort that nowadays appear in Fortean Times. These I carefully noted and had photocopied (the not-drinking business meant that there was money for this), and the photocopies I took home for the holidays, and sat at the kitchen table and typed out – there were no scanners and no laptops then. When I finished I had a pile of stories about three inches high, full of cases of spontaneous human combustion, earth-eaters and other prodigies, and that pile, to my considerable surprise, changed my life. I’d already started sending newspaper clippings to FT (another portion of the student grant was paying for my sub, so thank you, British taxpayer, for that), but when my parcel of material from the Mirror reached the magazine, the resident Gang of Fort realised that they were dealing with the sort of mild obsessive that they could relate to. The result was an invitation to join the staff; 28 years later, here I am.

The Mirror – though I didn’t know it at the time – was a late example of a genre of periodical that was popular at the time: what one might call, for convenience, the ‘wonderful magazines’. These publications specialised in marvels, everything from extraordinary adventures (such things happened quite a lot back then) to human prodigies and strange events. I remember that the Mirror contained quite a long article about a Swiss boy who could count the seconds in his head so accurately that he was as reliable as a good clock – that was fairly typical of the mag’s contents. Some of this material was probably quite reliable, but one would be unwise to take such things on faith. What the Wonderfuls were really good at was shining light into an area of human experience that’s not generally chronicled – not so much what was supposed to be actually happening ‘out there’, but what people then believed, and thought was credible. I’ve always been of the opinion that the chief value of FT is to gather and set down a mass of broadly unrelated matter that would otherwise go uncollected, and be lost, and to preserve it for posterity; well, the Wonderfuls performed the same function back in the early 1800s, and it’s largely thanks to them that the likes of Daniel Lambert, the Leicester fat man, or Thomas O’Brien, the Irish giant, are still fairly well-remembered now.

The earliest of the Wonderfuls date back to the 1760s, though the genre has a clear precursor in the various broadsides and ballads published from the first half of the seventeenth century that regaled their readers with ‘strange and wonderful news’. [The folklorist Michael Goss has written in detail on these pamphlets in Fortean Studies 1 (1994) pp.182-97.] Although nowadays they exist pretty much exclusively as bound volumes, the Wonderfuls were not first issued in that form; they were, rather, published in weekly parts, and the publisher would occasionally print up an index or list of contents, together with instructions to a binder for assembling the parts; many, perhaps all, such magazines were however also repackaged and reissued, bound, by the publisher. This practice made the Wonderfuls the forerunners of the modern partwork, but it also indicates that such magazines were aimed squarely at the middle classes, who alone possessed the resources to have their copies bound; there was a clear dividing line between ‘wonderful magazines’ and the penny dreadfuls that emerged a few years later and eventually killed them off. Sensational though the contents of their publications often were, therefore, the writers and properietors of wonderful magazines sought to gild them with at least a veneer of education and gentility.

Chalcographimania indexThe various wonderful, terrific and eccentric magazines that appeared during this period have never formally been catalogued – to my knowledge at least – though the contemporary Chalcographimania, or, the portrait-collector and printseller’s chronicle contains valuable information (and, inter alia, on of the most hilarious indexes I’ve encountered, full of literal renditions of the bowdlerised references to notables so common in books at this time – check out the sample page to the right). More recently, the crude beginnings of one bibliographic study may be found here, the American end of this publishing phenomenon is discussed in Pitcher and Hartigan’s Sensationalist Literature and Popular Culture in the Early American Republic (2000), and James Gregory wrote on ‘Eccentric biography and the Victorians’ in Biography v30n3 (2007).

This is, perhaps, not surprising. Actually performing the task of cataloguing thoroughly would be a tricky job, requiring a professional librarian; the various series were endlessly reissued, sometimes under slightly different titles, mostly including nothing new but a title page, but occasionally incorporating scatterings of new material – another practice that has continued to the present day, as anyone who recalls the impressive variety of ways that Orbis found to reissue its 1980s partwork The Unexplained in magazine and book form will recall. Plagiarism was also a significant problem, as it was for most publishers in the years before the law on copyright was strengthened and enforced, and the leading case of Hogg v. Kirby (8 Ves. Jun. 215, 223; 1803) involved teh Wonderful writer Alexander Hogg’s attempts to prosecute a rival, Kirby, for passing off his own Wonderful Magazine as a “new series improved” version of Hogg’s. The lack of scruple, outright disregard for copyright, and bizarre early nineteenth century publishing practices evident in cases of this sort can be seen in Hogg’s outraged accusation that the first number of Kirby’s work (which purported to be the fifth of Hogg’s) actually began in the middle of a sentence that Hogg’s fourth issue had left unfinished.

It’s worth pausing here for a moment to take a closer look at R.S. Kirby, who thus emerges onto the scene as one of the leading publishers of ‘terrific’ material. He was, it appears, originally a London bookseller who was engaged by Hogg to peddle his partwork.  Sales, evidently, were good enough to tempt Kirby to betray his partner and go into business on his own account, but it would be wrong to think of the pirate publisher as nothing but a thief. Yes, the historical material that appeared in the wonderful magazines was often treated cavalierly – most of it was unreferenced, poorly researched, endlessly hacked up and rewritten, and, inevitably, it also favoured anecdote and the ‘good story’ over verifiable fact. Considerable work, however, did sometimes go into the acquisition of new material… particularly when it came to accounts of contemporary trials and executions, which were wildly popular. There was, throughout this period, a guarantee of ready sales for any penny-a-liner able to obtain an exclusive interview with a notorious murderer in the condemned cell, and it was pretty common for gaolers to be heavily bribed to permit access in suchcircumstances. Kirby himself appears to have been present at the remarkable 1804 trial of Francis Smith for the murder of the ‘Hammersmith Ghost,’ and another writer of sensational criminal literature, J. Curtis (whose day job was as a court reporter for The Times), boasted that he had not missed an execution in the vicinity of London for a quarter of a century, and once walked 29 miles before breakfast to be present at the hanging of a Captain Moir.

The corollary of all this was that material from the various wonderful magazines retained its value for decades; there’s a reference, dating to 1843 (which I cannot find right now, drat it) to the copyrights to Kirby’s then four-decade-old work being sold at auction. For those willing to read the material carefully (read: critically, and with an awareness of cultural context), the Wonderfuls still have much to offer us today. So I’m going to list those that I know existed here, and link to those that – all hail Google Books – are going online, as and when they do so. My aim will be to keep this listing updated every now and then; in time I may even get around to creating a rough index to the material they contain. If you’re interested in wonderful, terrific and eccentric magazines, in short, you may want to bookmark this post and refer back to it every now and then.

1764-65 The Wonderful Magazine, or Marvellous Chronicle, Consisting Entirely of Matters Which Come Under the Denomination of Miraculous! Queer! Odd! Strange! Supernatural! Whimsical! Absurd! Out o’ The Way! and Unaccountable!

London, 2 vols. Sold at 6d. per number.

1793-95 Wonderful Magazine and Marvellous Chronicle… Containing Authentic Accounts of All the Most Wonderful Productions and… Events That Have Ever Happened, etc.

London, 5 vols. (60 weekly numbers). Edited by Alexander Hogg. Published by C. Johnson. A revival and extension of the 1760s periodical.

1802-07 New, Original and Complete Wonderful Museum & Magazine Extraordinary.

London, 5 vols. William Granger and James Caulfield. Sometimes referred to as Granger’s New Wonderful Museum and Extraordinary Magazine.

Volume 1, Volume 2, Volume 3, Volume 4, Volume 5

1802-08 Wonderful and Scientific Museum, or Magazine of Remarkable and Eccentric Characters. London, 6 vols. RS Kirby and Alexander Hogg. ‘A complete Library of every thing that can make the Work useful and entertaining.’

Sold bound at 10s.6d. per volume.

Volume 1, Volume 2, Volume 3, Volume 4, Volume 5, Volume 6

1803-07 The Eccentric Mirror: Reflecting a Faithful and Interesting Delineation of Male and Female Characters, Ancient and Modern…

London, 4 vols.  Edited by G.H. (Henry) Wilson. Published by James Cundee. Focussed on those with “extraordinary qualifications, talents, and propensities, natural or acquired…” including  longevity, obesity, “enterprising pursuits” etc.

Volume 1, Volume 2, Volume 3, Volume 4

1809 The Mariners’ Marvellous Magazine, or Wonders of the Ocean

London, 4 vols. Thomas Tegg. Mostly shipwreck narratives.

1809 The American Magazine of Wonders, and Marvellous Chronicle…

New York, 2 vols.  Donald Fraser. Widely available on microfilm in academic libraries.

1809 The Supernatural Magazine

Dublin. Wilkinson & Courtney. A short-lived publication. Deals with ghosts, portents, animal magnetism, alchemy, Rosicrucianism etc.

1821 Wonderful Characters: comprising memoirs and anecdotes of the most remarkable persons of every age and nation

London, 3 vols. G.H. (Henry) Wilson.

1822 Biographica Curiosa, or, Memoirs of Remarkable Characters of the Reign of George III.

London. George Smeeton; illustrations by George Cruikshank. May be the same as Smeeton’s Historical and Biographical Tracts (1820)? “A fascinating compendium of celebrated “freaks” (midgets, giants and
the overweight, female fireaters and wildboys), misers, religious
frauds or visionaries (Joanna Southcott, Anne Moore), murderers,
beggars, eccentrics and the self-deluded.” [Bonham’s auction catalogue, 2010]

1823-41 The Mirror of Literature, Amusement and Instruction

London, 48 vols.  Edited by T. Byerley. Published by John Limbaird. Much broader in content than the ‘wonderfuls,’ but still contained abundant quantities of more or less sensational material, especially in its early volumes.

Volume 1, Volume 3, Volume 4, Volume 5, Volume 6, Volume 7, Volume 8, Volume 9, Volume 14, Volume 16, Volume 30, Volume 32, Volume 33, Volume 36, Volume 38

1824 The Cabinet of Curiosities: or, Wonders of the World Displayed

London. J. Limbaird

1825 The Terrific Register, or, Record of Crimes. Judgements, Providences,and Calamities

London, 2 vols. T. Richardson. Includes various natural marvels, peculiar deaths, lucky escapes, accounts of human sacrifice in Mexico, etc. in addition to straightforward criminal reporting.

Volume 1, Volume 2

1825 Endless Entertainment, or, Comic, Terrific and Legendary Tales

London. J. Mark. Dwarves, monsters, wizards. Only one story per part.

1827 Wonders of the Universe, or, Curiosities of Nature and Art, including Memoirs and Anecdotes of Wonderful and Eccentric Characters…

London. Jones & Co.

1830 Smeeton’s Wonderful Magazine, or, The Wonderful Magazine of All That Is Singular, Curious, and Rare in Nature and Art

London. G. Smeeton.

• 1833   The Cabinet of Curiosities: or, Wonders of the World Displayed.

New York. McElrath & Bangs. American edition of the 1824 British Cabinet, with some new material.

• 1849-50   The New Wonderful Magazine, Consisting of a… Collection of Remarkable Trials, Biographies &c.

London, 2 vols.

• 1880   Collection of four hundred portraits of remarkable, eccentric and notorious personages printed from the original copper plates of Caulfield’s Remarkable characters, Grainger, and Kirby’s Wonderful museum

London. Reeves & Turner.

[Hat-tip: my grateful thanks to the estimable John Adcock, of the highly recommendable Yesterday’s Papers, for pointing me in the direction of a significant proportion of the above material.]

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BasiliskFew creatures have struck more terror into more hearts for longer than the basilisk: a crested snake, hatched from a cock’s egg, that was widely believed to wither landscapes with its breath and kill with a glare. The example above comes from a German bestiary, but the earliest description that we have was given by Pliny the Elder, who described the basilisk in his pioneering Natural History (79AD) – the 37 volumes of which he completed shortly before being suffocated by the sulphurous fumes of Vesuvius while investigating the eruption that consumed Pompeii. According to the Roman savant, it was a small animal, “not more than 12 fingers in length,” but astoundingly deadly nonetheless. “He does not impel his body, like other serpents, by a multiplied flexion,” Pliny wrote, “but advances loftily and upright” – a description that accords with the popular notion that the basilisk is the king of serpents – and “kills the shrubs, not only by contact, but by breathing on them, and splits rocks, such power of evil is there in him.” The basilisk was native to Libya, it was said, and the Romans believed that the Sahara had been fertile land until an infestation of basilisks turned it into a desert.

Pliny is not the only ancient author to mention the basilisk. The Roman poet Lucan, writing only a few years later, described another characteristic commonly ascribed to the monster – the idea that it was so venomous that if a man on horseback stabbed one with a spear, the poison would flow up through the weapon and kill not only the rider but the horse as well. The only creature that the basilisk feared was the weasel, which ate rue to render it impervious to its venom, and would chase and kill the serpent in its lair.

The basilisk was popular in medieval bestiaries, and it was in this period that a great deal of additional myth grew up around it. It became less a serpent than a mix of snake and rooster; it was almost literally hellish. According to Jan Bondeson, who wrote extensively on the subject in an essay published in his The Feejee Mermaid and Other Essays in Natural and Unnatural History (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999) pp.161-92, the monster was

the subject of a lengthy discourse in the early-thirteenth-century bestiary of Pierre de Beauvais. An aged cock, which had lost its virility, would sometimes lay a small, abnormal egg. If this egg is laid in a dunghill and hatched by a toad, a misshapen creature, with the upper body of a rooster, bat-like wings, and the tail of a snake will come forth. Once hatched, the young basilisk creeps down to a cellar or a deep well to wait for some unsuspecting man to come by, and be overcome by its noxious vapours.

The king of snakes also crops up occasionally in the chronicles of the period, and it is in these accounts that we are mostly interested here. Among the principal cases we might note the following:

• In the ninth century, during the pontificate of Leo IV (847-55), a basilisk concealed itself under an arch near the temple of Lucia in Rome. The creature’s odour caused a devastating plague, but the Pope slew the creature with his prayers. Julius Scaliger (1484-1558), Exercitations.

• In 1202, in Vienna, a mysterious outbreak of fainting fits was traced to a basilisk that had hidden in a well. The creature, which fortunately for the hunters was already dead when they found it, was recovered and a sandstone statue erected to commemorate the hunt. Bondeson, 172.

•  According to the Dutch scholar Levinus Lemnius (1505-68), “in the city of Zierikzee – on Schouwen Duiveland island in Zeeland – and in the territory of this island, two aged roosters… incubated their eggs… flogging them they were driven away with difficulty from that job, and so, since the citizens conceived the conviction that from an egg of this kind a basilisk would emerge, they crushed the eggs and strangled the roosters.”

• In Basle, in 1474, another old cock was discovered laying an egg; the bird was captured, tried, convicted of an unnatural act, and burned alive before a crowd of several thousand people. Just before its execution, the mob prevailed upon the executioner to cut the rooster open, and three more eggs, in various stages of development, were discovered in its abdomen. EP Evans, The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals (London: William Heinemann, 1906) p.269.

• At the royal castle at Copenhagen, in 1651, a servant sent to collect eggs from the hen coops observed an old cockerel in the act of laying. On the orders of the Danish king, Frederick III, its egg was retrieved and closely watched for several days, but no basilisk emerged; the egg eventually found its way into the royal Cabinet of Curiosities. Bondeson pp.175-6.

• When the parish church of Renwick, Cumbria, was torn down in 1733, a huge, bat-winged creature, supposed to have been a basilisk, angrily flapped at the workmen. One of them, a man named John Tallantire, killed it with a tree branch, earning him and his descendants exemption from the fees due to the manor. George Eberhardt, Mysterious Creatures: A Guide to Cryptozoology (Santa Barbara [CA]: ABC Clio, 2002) p.82.

By far the best known of all such accounts, however, is the strange tale of the Warsaw basilisk of 1587, which one quite often sees cited as the only instance of an historically-verifiable encounter with a monster of this sort. Bondeson (pp.173-4) gives one of the fullest accounts of this interesting and celebrated incident:

The 5-year-old daughter of a knifesmith named Machaeropaeus had disappeared in a mysterious way, together with another little girl. The wife of Machaeropaeus went looking for them, along with the nursemaid. When the nursemaid looked into the underground cellar of a house that had fallen into ruins 30 years earlier, she observed the children lying motionless down there, without responding to the shouting of the two women. When the maid was too hoarse to shout anymore, she courageously went down the stairs to find out what had happened to the children. Before the eyes of her mistress, she sank to the floor beside them, and did not move. The wife of Machaeropaeus wisely did not follow her into the cellar, but ran back to spread the word about this strange and mysterious business. The rumour spread like wildfire throughout Warsaw. Many people thought the air felt unusually thick to breathe and suspected that a basilisk was hiding in the cellar. Confronted with this deadly threat to the city of Warsaw, the senate was called into an emergency meeting. An old man named Benedictus, a former chief physician to the king, was consulted, since he was known to possess much knowledge about various arcane subjects. The bodies were pulled out of the cellar with long poles that had iron hooks at the end, and Benedictus examined them closely. They presented a horrid appearance, being swollen like drums and with much-discoloured skin; the eyes “protruded from the sockets like the halves of hen’s eggs.” Benedictus, who had seen many things during his fifty years as a physician, at once pronounced the state of the corpses an infallible sign that they had been poisoned by a basilisk. When asked by the desperate senators how such a formidable beast could be destroyed, the knowledgeable old physician recommended that a man descend into the cellar to seize the basilisk with a rake and bring it out into the light. To protect his own life, this man had to wear a dress of leather, furnished with a covering of mirrors, facing in all directions.

Benedicus did not, however, volunteer to try out this plan himself. He did not feel quite prepared to do so, he said, owing to age and infirmity. The senate called on the burghers, the military, and police but found no man of sufficient courage to seek out and destroy the basilisk within its lair. A Silesian convict named Johann Faurer, who had been sentenced to death for robbery, was at length persuaded to make the attempt, on the grounds that he be given a complete pardon if he survived his encounter with the loathsome beast. Faurer was dressed in creaking black leather covered with a mass of tinkling mirrors, and his eyes were protected with large eyeglasses. Armed with a sturdy rake in his right hand and a blazing torch in his left, he must have presented a singular aspect when venturing forth into the cellar. He was cheered on by at least two thousand people who had gathered to seethe basilisk being beaten to death. After searching the cellar for more than an hour, Faurer finally saw the basilisk, lurking in a niche of the wall. Old Benedictus shouted instructions to him: he was to seize it with his rake and carry it out into the broad daylight. The brave Johann Faurer accomplished this, and the populace ran away like rabbits when he appeared in his strange outfit, gripping the neck of the writhing basilisk with the rake. Dr Benedictus was the only one who dared examine the strange animal further, since he believed that the sun’s rays rendered its poison less effective. He declared that it really was a basilisk; it had the head of a cock, the eyes of a toad, a crest like a crown, a warty and scaly skin “covered all over with the hue of venomous animals,” and a curved tail, bent over behind its body. The strange and inexplicable tale of the basilisk of Warsaw ends here: none of the writers chronicling this strange occurrence detailed the ultimate fate of the deformed animal caught in the cellar. It would seem unlikely, however, that it was invited to the city hall for a meal of cakes and ale; the versatile Dr Benedictus probably knew of some infallible way to dispose of the monster.

Strange and unbelievable stuff, one thinks – not least because, even setting aside the Warsaw basilisk itself, there are quite a few odd things about this account. For one thing, Renaissance-era knifesellers were invariably impoverished artisans – and what sort of artisan could afford a nursemaid? Come to think of it, moreover, whoever heard of a knifeseller with a name like Machaeropaeus? It’s certainly no Polish name, though it is certainly appropriate: it’s derived from the Latin “machaerus”, and thence from the Greek “μάχαιρα”, and it means a person with a sword.

Now, the only sort of person likely to be mooching around central Europe with a Latin monicker in the late 16th century was a humanist – one of the new breed of university-educated, classically influenced scholars who flourished in the period, rejected the stifling influence of the church, and sought to model themselves on the intellectual giants of ancient Greece and Rome. Humanists played a vital part in the Renaissance and the academic reawakening that followed it; they communicated in the scholars” lingua franca, Latin, and proudly adopted Latin names. So whoever the mysterious Polish knifeseller lurking on the margins of this story may have been, we can be reasonably confident that he himself was not a humanist, and not named Machaeropaeus. It follows that his tale has been refracted through a humanist lens, and most likely put into print by a humanist.

Bondeson, a reliable and careful writer, unusually gives no source for his account of the Warsaw basilisk, and my own research has traced the story only back as far as the mid-1880s, when it appeared in the first volume of Edmund Goldsmid’s compilation Un-natural History [Goldsmid, Un-Natural History, or Myths of Ancient Science: Being a Collection of Curious Tracts on the Basilisk, Unicorn, Phoenix, Behemoth or Leviathan, Dragon, Giant Spider, Tarantula, Chameleons, Satyrs, Homines Caudait, &c… Now First Translated from the Latin and Edited… Edinburgh, 4 vols.: privately printed, 1886. I, 23]. This is a rare work, and I’m certainly not qualified to judge its scholarship, though there’s no obvious reason to doubt that Goldsmid (a Fellow of both the Royal Historical Society and the Scottish Society of Antiquaries) should be regarded as a reliable source. According to the Un-Natural History, anyway, the Warsaw basilisk was chronicled by one George Caspard Kirchmayer – actually Georg Kaspar Kirchmayer (1635-1700), who was ‘Professor of Eloquence’ (Rhetoric) at the University of Wittenberg – in his pamphlet On the Basilisk (1691). Goldsmid translates this work and so gives us a few additional details – the implements used to recover their bodies were “fire-hooks”, and Benedictus, in addition to being the King’s physician, was his Chamberlain as well. As for Faurer, the convict, “his whole body was covered with leather, his eyelids fastened down on the pupils [and his suit was] a mass of mirrors from head to foot.”

Kirchmayer, in turn, gives another source for his information on the Warsaw case. He says he took his information from an older work by “D. Mosanus, Cassellanus and John Pincier” called “Guesses, bk.iii, 23”. The Latin names are a bit of a giveaway here; the mysterious Guesses turns out to be, as predicted, a humanist text, but it is not – a fair bit of trial and error and some extensive searching of European library catalogues reveals – a volume titled Conectio (‘Guesses’). The account appears, rather, in book three of Riddles, by Johann Pincier (or, to give it its full and proper title, Aenigmata, liber tertius, cum solutionibus in quibus res memorata dignae continenturAenigmatum, libri tres, cum solutionibus in quibus res memorata  dignae continentur, published by one Christopher Corvini in Herborn, a German town north of Frankfurt, in 1605.)

The authors named by Kirchmayer can also be identified. There were two Johann Pinciers, father and son, the elder of whom was pastor of the town of Wetter, in Hesse-Kassel, and the younger professor of medicine at Herborn – then also part of the domains of the Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel – and later in neighbouring Marburg. Since Aenigmatum was published in Herborn, it seems it was the younger of the two Pinciers who was actually the author of the book and hence of the original account of the Warsaw story, which – a copy of his work in the Dutch National Library in The Hague reveals – appeared on pp.306-07 of the book (above). Pincier’s close connection with Hesse-Kassel, meanwhile, is confirmed by his dedication of the whole volume to Moritz the Learned (1572-1632), the famously scholarly reigning Landgrave of the principality at the time Aenigmatum was published.

The identity of Kirchmayer’s “D. Mosanus” is more of a puzzle. He certainly wasn’t the co-author of Aenigmatum, and exactly how his name came to be connected to the tale of the Warsaw basilisk is something of a mystery, but – taking Hesse-Kassel as a clue – it’s possible to identify him as Jakob Mosanus (1564-1616), another German doctor-scholar of the period – the “D.” standing not for a Christian name but for Dominus, or Gentleman – who was personal physician to Moritz the Learned himself. This Mosanus was born in Kassel, and this explains the appearance of the word “Cassellanus” in Kirchmayer’s book – it’s not a reference to a third author, as I at first supposed, but simply an identifier for Mosanus. And, whether or not the good doctor wrote on the basilisk, it’s well worth noting that he was – rather intriguingly – both a noted alchemist and a suspected Rosicrucian.

The latter connection suggests that Mosanus would certainly have been interested in basilisks; basilisk powder, a substance supposedly made from the ground carcass of the king of snakes, was greatly coveted by alchemists, who believed it was possible to make ‘Spanish gold’ by treating copper with a mix of human blood, vinegar and the stuff (Ursula Klein & EC Spary, Materials and Expertise in Early Modern Europe. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2009, p.45). I conclude, therefore, that the two men identified by Kirchmayer as his authorities for the Warsaw tale both enjoyed the patronage of Moritz the Learned, may perhaps have been collaborators, and were certainly close enough in time and place to the Warsaw of King Stefan I to have sourced their story solidly. In the close-knit humanist community of the late sixteenth century it’s entirely possible that one or both of them actually knew Benedictus – another Latin name, you’ll note – the remarkably learned Polish physician who is central to the tale.

Does this mean that there is anything at all to the story? Perhaps yes, perhaps no – but I would certainly be interested to know a good deal more.

[Update (29 March 2010): My grateful thanks to Dr Henk Looijesteijn, of Amsterdam, whom regular readers of this blog will recall assisting with the folklore of bottomless lakes a few weeks ago. Henk not only supplied identification of Aenigmatum, but also sent me a copy of the section devoted to the basilisk.

He adds that, so far as he was able to tell from the tightly-bound copy of the book in the National Library, Pincier’s account of the Warsaw basilisk was considerably less detailed than that given by Kirchmayer. ‘Maybe,’ Henk continues, Kirchmayer

also relied on something written by Mosanus, but I have not come across a title by Mosanus which looks as though it might contain the story of the basilisk.

It may well be that Mosanus functioned as Pincier’s authority, but never actually wrote anything down. He may have been an eyewitness, or come to know of the story in some other way, but he was certainly still alive when Pincier published his book.

I have also consulted my own modest library concerning the basilisk, and note that Leander Petzoldt’s Kleines Lexicon der Dämonen und Elementargeister (Munich 1990) discussed the creature on pp.29-31. The only historic incident that Petzoldt mentions is the Basle case from 1474, but he adds some detail. The old cock was aged 11 years, and was decapitated and burned, with his egg, on 4 August 1474. A possible explanation for this case is found in Jacqueline Simpson’s British Dragons (Wordsworth, 2001) pp.45-7. Simpson mentions an interesting theory about so-called egg-laying cock, suggesting they were in reality hens suffering from a hormone imbalance, which it seems is not uncommon and causes them to develop male features, such as growing a comb, taking to crowing, fighting off cocks, and trying to tread on other hens. She still lays eggs, but these are, of course, infertile. An intriguing theory, I think, which may explain the Basle, Zierikzee and Copenhagen cases. It does not explain the Warsaw case, of course.]

[Afterword: There is another Polish account of a basilisk in Warsaw. See here for further details. Meanwhile, here – for those who fancy giving it a try – are the instructions for producing basilisk powder. Source: Klein & Spary p.45.]

Instructions for producig basilisk powder. From Klein & Spary,  Materials and Expertise in Early Modern Europe

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Spring-heeled Jack cut such a fearsome figure in his prime that it is no surprise that he has been blamed, over the years, for causing a number of fatalities. On at least one occasion he is supposed to have actually murdered his victim, but in most cases he is said to have polished them off using that old bogeyman’s stand-by, the ability to frighten an unfortunate witness to death.

The most notorious of Jack’s killings, of course, is his alleged murder of a 13-year-old London prostitute named Maria Davis. She is said, by a good number of secondary sources, to have been flung into the foetid waters of Folly Ditch, in Jacob’s Island, in November 1845 and left there to drown. The Davis killing is, however, a fake; it was first mentioned by the notoriously unreliable Peter Haining in his The Legend and Bizarre Crimes of Spring-heeled Jack, pp.84-5, and an examination of the surviving London coroner’s records and death certificates shows that no such incident ever occurred. Haining is also the source for at least three other cases in which Jack was allegedly blamed for a mysterious death – the discovery of a man found dead by a roadside in Surrey in 1848 ‘with claw marks across his face and body’; the murder of a ‘pretty young girl’ in Hertford seven years later whose breasts were scratched and whose legs were covered with burn marks; and the demise of an ‘old woman’ whose body was discovered by the side of a road in Middlesex in 1863 ‘with such fear written across herface that she could only have been frightened to death by a terrifying attacker.’ [Ibid pp.85-6]

Haining’s reputation in matters of accuracy has sunk so low that it seems almost superfluous to point out that he provides no sources to back any of these statements, either, and not one of these three cases has ever been reported anywhere else. As it happens, however, the archives do hold records of at least one case in which Jack actually was found guilty – by a coroner’s court – of frightening a victim to death. The story was reported in the Liverpool Mercury of 15 November 1887, at the tail end of what had been a considerable Spring-heeled Jack scare on Merseyside. Here it is:

Child frightened to death.–Last night, Mr. S. Brighouse held an inquest at Churchtown, Southport, on the body of Jane Halsall, seven years of age, daughter of Peter Halsall, gardener, Mill-lane. The father said the deceased met him last Wednesday as he was returning from work and told him that the children with whom she played said the Liverpool ghost, “Springheeled Jack,” was coming to Southport. She afterwards repeated the statement to her mother, who tried to allay the child’s fears by telling her that the ghost was “dead and buried.” During the night the child became seriously ill, and when Dr Hawksley was summoned the next night he found her unconscious, in which state she remained until her death. About six hours before the deceased expired she was heard to say, “The ghost is coming.” The cause of death was certified to be congestion of the brain, due to fright.– The Coroner remarked that whoever personated the ghost was a mean and despicable fellow. When he learned that he had caused this child’s death he would no doubt feel it very much. It was such a monstrous thing that a man should have the power to strike terror into children and timid people in this way, that he hoped the delinquent would be caught and be the recipient of severe punishment if the law could reach him.– The jury concurred in these remarks, and returned a verdict of “Death by Fright.”

It would not do, of course, to take this story at face value. “Congestion of the brain” was one of those imprecise blanket terms common throughout the nineteenth century, and was used to describe a bewildering variety of conditions, among them strokes and brain haemorrhages. Neither seems likely to have killed a seven year old child, but meningitis was also often referred to in this way, and (judging from the scanty description of Jane Halsall’s symptoms) it was most likely this that actually killed the unfortunate girl.

Wrong though the coroner’s jury may have been, however, there is no gainsaying its verdict. The plain fact is that Spring-heeled Jack really was judged, at least once, and found guilty in a court of law.

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