Archive for the ‘Entities’ Category

“If you could even guess the nature of this castle’s secret,” said Claude Bowes-Lyon, 13th Earl of Strathmore, “you would get down on your knees and thank God it was not yours.”

That awful secret was once the talk of Europe. From perhaps the 1840s until 1905, the Earl’s ancestral seat at Glamis Castle, in the Scottish lowlands, was home to a “mystery of mysteries”—an enigma that involved a hidden room, a secret passage, solemn initiations, scandal, and shadowy figures glimpsed by night on castle battlements.

The conundrum engaged two generations of high society until, soon after 1900, the secret itself was lost. One version of the story holds that it was so terrible that the 13th Earl’s heir flatly refused to have it revealed to him. Yet the mystery of Glamis (pronounced “Glarms”) remains, kept alive by its association with royalty (the heir was grandfather to Elizabeth II) and by the fact that at least some members of the Bowes-Lyon family insisted it was real.

This celebrated historical mystery seems to be largely forgotten now, but as late as the 1970s it was chilling new generations as a staple of numerous ghost books. Come to think of it, paperback compilations of old ghost stories seem to have gone the way of the dodo as well, but those crumbly Armada books used to frighten me when I was young. Anyway, you can read the unexpurgated story over at Past Imperfect.

[This is a fully revised, expanded and updated account of a mystery first discussed here, featuring the fruits of much subsequent research.]

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Hugh Trevor-Roper (Lord Dacre)Adam Sisman’s sympathetic new biography of Hugh Trevor-Roper (Lord Dacre), the brilliant if acerbic historian, contains an unexpectedly fascinating passage on the great controversialist’s declining years that sheds a ray of light on the way in which witnesses perceive ghosts.

In his late 80s, Sisman notes, Trevor-Roper was diagnosed with glaucoma and then developed a cataract. Soon afterwards, he began to suffer some alarming hallucinations: “He would look up from his desk and see the trees in leaf in mid-winter, or the landscape whizzing by as if he were aboard a train… Once, as he went to put out the dustbin, he found himself lost in a cemetery of dead machines, surrounded by rusting combine harvesters, lorries, cranes and derricks. Inside, the house grew an extra staircase.” Other outlandish figments of the historian’s imagination included gigantic trees and even a complete train at a platform at Didcot Station (which Trevor-Roper attempted to board).

All of this eventually led to a diagnosis of Charles Bonnet Syndrome –  a little-known condition, first described well over 200 years ago, in which those suffering from failing vision unconsciously compensate by dredging up memories with which to populate the fading landscape. Typically these vsions are what are known as “Lilliput hallucinations” (in which the hallucinated objects appear on a reduced scale), but as Trevor-Roper’s own case shows, it’s also possible to experience the opposite, and also extremely realistic visions of human figures, even within one’s own home. An experience of the latter sort occurred to Trevor-Roper in 2002. As Sisman records:

He woke at three o’clock in the morning to find a woman beside his bed, statuesque and immobile. He tried to question her, but she did not reply, and slowly dissolved into the air. ‘Now I know all about ghosts,’ he said. ‘I’ve seen one now and solved one of life’s mysteries – and the rational world is restored.’

CBS is, of course, a pretty rare syndrome, and it would be wrong to suggest that, on its own, it can account for more than a tiny fraction of ghost sightings or other Fortean reports. Nonetheless, Trevor-Roper’s encounters, and the equally outlandish experiences of other sufferers from CBS, tell us a good deal about the astonishing power of the human memory and the interplay between mind and senses. Perhaps a very similar mechanism accounts for at least a proportion of strange visual experiences; certainly, the Trevor-Roper case suggests that when such phenomena do occur, even the most intelligent and sceptical of witnesses might readily be taken in.

Lord Dacre himself agreed. “It’s perfectly obvious to me that [ghosts]’re created out of the rubbish of the brain,” he told one interviewer, “in the same way as are the hallucinations of CBS. Ghosts are a sub-Charles Bonnet Syndrome.”

Source: Adam Sisman, Hugh Trevor-Roper: The Biography (London: Macmillan, 2010) pp.536-8

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Blessed Virgin Mary with blue sashWe’ve seen, in two earlier posts, how the Saarland village of Marpingen experienced a dramatic series of visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM) during the mid-1870s, with associated claims of miraculous cures and healing, and how the leader of the three girls who claimed to have encountered the apparition in woods outside the village eventually confessed that the entire experience had been invented – thanks, in part, to leading questions asked, and pressure placed on the three child-witnesses by, the eager adults of the village. Today I’m going to conclude this series of analyses, drawn from David Blackbourn’s magnificently detailed study of the episode, Marpingen: Apparitions of the Virgin Mary in Nineteenth Century Germany, by taking a closer look at the reasons why there was so much expectation and religious fervour in Marpingen in the summer of 1876, and why the appearance of the BVM meant so much to the villagers themselves.

I’ve already noted a little of the historical background to this case. The visions took place not long after Germany was unified in the wake of the Franco-Prussian war, and at a time when the renewal of hostilities with France seemed likely. Marpingen – located close to the border with Luxembourg and only a few miles north of the former French provinces of Alsace-Lorraine, which would almost certainly form a focal point of any future conflict – had every reason to fear such an eventuality; the whole area, Blackbourn notes, was one “into which troops were poured at the first hint of trouble, giving its inhabitants a further sense that they lived on the margin,” and there were rumours (which had some basis in fact) that the Chancellor, Bismarck, was planning to sell the whole district to France. [pp.64-5]  But by 1876 the villagers, and the inhabitants of the Saarland in general, had plenty of other problems on their minds, and it’s a good deal easier to understand why the BVM apparently made her appearance in the village when one sees the events of that July in their full context. Sketching context is, of course, something that history professors such as Blackbourn do for fun. Let’s take a brief look at his findings.

Blackbourn’s history of Marpingen stretches back to the time of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, when the borderlands between France and Germany were regularly overrun and occupied by rival armies. War brought with it enormous change; between 1260 and 1760 Marpingen had been part of the Duchy of Lorraine, but over the succeeding half-century the village passed under the control of a succession of six different rulers – some French, some German – and the village was badly shaken by the constant changes in laws, tax gathering, conscription and land ownership that resulted. There were many broader social changes, too; the advent of the railways and industrialisation significantly reduced the isolation of places such as Marpingen; work, and later emigration, took many villagers away from their home for the first time and introduced them to new places, new experiences and new ideas [pp.43, 51-4].

Marpingen nonetheless remained, as Blackbourn points out, relatively self-contained throughout this period. The village was “not marked on normal maps” [p.42], and emigration dried up during the 1850s, when the first large Saarland coal mines came on stream, providing fresh employment opportunities. The advent of mineworking drew substantial numbers of the local men to work at pits up to 20 miles from the village, and these workers became, in effect, weekly commuters, travelling to the mines on Monday mornings and returning on Saturday evenings. This had a significant social impact on village life. Fathers – who were often at home for no more than 30 hours a week – ceased to be imposers of discipline and became instead “the cherished weekend visitor bearing gifts.” [pp.56-7]  This in turn meant that the role of women changed. Wives became more central than ever to family life – not just as home-makers but as workers, keeping up the family farm, feeding the animals, harvesting crops and generating income. They took over as intermediaries between the family, church and school, and became the principal wielders of discipline. One result of these shifts was that women became much more prominent in the local church, and the Catholic church itself was “feminised” during the nineteenth century, losing some of its old patriarchal overtones and focussing far more than it had done hitherto on the perfect mother-figure: the Virgin Mary. There was a steep rise in Marian devotion, and Blackbourn traces the marked influence that the mothers of the Marpingen visionaries had on their children to these developments [p.57].

Woodland around<br /> MarpingenOther important changes occurred in the village during the same period. The most important, for the local peasants, was that the French wars resulted in the abolition of collective husbandry (Gehöferschaft), a system that had periodically reallocated land to local families. Henceforth land was privatised, and could be bought and sold, and this, together with the virtual impossibility (for peasants at least) of securing cheap credit, led inevitably to occasional foreclosures. A number of local families thus suffered considerable financial stress, and the compulsory sale of their land also opened up Marpingen for the first time to outsiders – who included a scattering of Protestants and Jews – with all the uncertainty and threat that that implies. At the same time, new laws on land ownership closed off what had always hitherto been communal areas of woodland [above]. Aside from providing Marpingers with the fruits of the forest (remember that Gretchen Kunz and her companions had been berrying in the Härtelwald on the day they supposedly saw the BVM), this land had always acted as a sort of social safety valve – it provided free resources in the form of wood, leaf-mould, food and even coal (which could be scavenged from surface deposits long into the nineteenth century) for poor villagers, and so helped them to survive times of famine and want. Denial of access to the woodlands was a significant issue for most Marpingers [pp.47, 50-1].

The advent of new faces in the village was a considerable shock, of the sort barely conceivable today. Even at its largest, Marpingen had remained a remarkably enclosed community. It was not large enough to boast its own doctor, resident merchants or bankers, or a notary; villagers had to travel to nearby St Wendel to obtain such services. Nor did any state official live there. This meant that the place was, by necessity, largely self-sufficient. It also meant that the only educated men in the entire village were the local priest and the schoolmaster – and Blackbourn makes the point that the priest frequently despaired of his congregation, while the unfortunate teachers posted to the village had little or nothing to do with their peasant neighbours, and “clung rather desperately to each other and to teachers in neighbouring villages for companionship.” [pp.46-7]  All this meant that Marpingen was not exposed to rationalism, scientific progress or what passed elsewhere on the continent for the Enlightenment, unlike larger villages and towns; superstition, as we shall see, remained largely unchecked.

A further significant change came in 1834, when the Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, the then ruler of the district, sold his lands to the King of Prussia in exchange for an annual income of 80,000 thalers a year [pp.44, 59] and Marpingen thus became part of the largest, most successful and most powerful of German states. This sale might, in some respects, have been expected to benefit the Saarland; the purchase ensured the districts around Marpingen joined the Prussian Zollverein, or German customs union (think a very early version of the EC). But the Zollverein wiped out a lucrative and longstanding smuggling trade over the border with Luxembourg [p.59], and, to make matters worse, Prussia itself was also militantly Protestant. The advent of Protestant rule over the Saarland was seen – quite rightly – as a threat to the solidly Catholic village. “Potential social conflicts,” Blackbourn says, “had an added religious dimension where Catholic peasants or miners faced Protestant forestry or mine officials.” [p.60]

It is ironic, then, that – as things turned out – one product of Prussian overlordship was a distinct Catholic revival, datable to the 1860s. Marpingen, and many villages like it, had been the despair of their parish priests during the preceding half a century; there had been a sharp fall in devotion and a corresponding rise in drunkenness, card-playing, dancing, impiety and illegitimacy; some parishoners had to be virtually forced to stay in their pews during interminable Sunday sermons. In Marpingen itself, an “an unusual degree of spite and hostility in relations between the inhabitants of Marpingen and successive parish priests,” who were sometimes abused in the street by members of their flock. Poor relations between the priest and the villagers were blamed in large part on a village oath – first sworn in 1699, at a time of plague, and renewed annually thereafter, “to keep Saturday afternoons holy,” but after 1800 this wording was generally taken to mean that the villagers felt free to lounge about on an afternoon on which they would normally have been working – six-day weeks being the norm at this time, of course. In consequence, Marpingen became noted for the indolence of its inhabitants. [pp.66-9]  It took several decades, some intensive missionary work, and the perceived threat of a resurgent Protestantism, for this to change [p.73], but when it did the Virgin Mary was in the forefront of what became a potent Catholic revival. In 1847, the old oath was replaced, as Blackbourn notes,

with a Brotherhood of the Sacred and Immaculate Heart of Mary which parishoners were encouraged to join… It became the norm for villagers to join the Brotherhood after their first communion. A second, symbolically important step was taken at the same time: the restoration of the Marienbrunnen. This was a well close to the parish church, whose history went back to a medieval legend. During the draining of a swamp a miraculous image had supposedly been found; it was placed in a shrine by the newly dug well and became an object of veneration, attracting pilgrims in considerable numbers…Later writers saw this double renewal as a turning point. The Marienbrunnen now attracted an increased number of visitors again, espeically on Marian festivals, and became a popular meeting place for the women of Marpingen… As the naming of the Brotherhood indicated, the purposive renewal of popular piety in Marpingen was built on the Marian traditions of the village, whose patron saint was the Virgin and whose parish festival was held on the Feast of the Assumption.

Marpingen pp.69-70

It is interesting to delve a little deeper into the reasons why the revival of the 1860s was so much stronger and more successful than earlier attempts to prod the Catholics of Marpingen to greater devotion. According to Blackbourn, the key difference was that, rather than offer “a head-on challenge to the more crypto-materialist, superstitious aspects of common belief” in the years leading up to the apparitions of 1876, the church

tried to stamp these with a more acceptable form, often centred on the Virgin. the encouragement of the devotion to May as ‘Mary’s month’ is a good example, for it was superimposed on popular attachment to the ringing of bells in May to drive out evil spirits. The stories of Our Lady of Lourdes that children heard from their priest and in the Catholic school were similarly overlaid on popular beliefs about the appearance of mysterious ‘women in white’.

Marpingen p.75

One important consequence of this, obviously, was that it became natural to associate old ghost stories and tales of spectral women in the nearby woodlands with the BVM.

The Catholic revival, Blackbourn continues, was aided by the appearance of a new parish priest, Father Neureuter, in 1864. Neureuter was young and vigorous – he had been ordained only in 1860 – and he and his sister “shared a fierce devotion ot the Virgin Mary… There is evidence that he was generous with references to Our Lady of Lourdes during his sermons.” The pompous detective sent, undercover, from Berlin to the village in 1876 observed with distaste that it was “teeming with images of the Virgin.” Nor was this growth in Catholic devotion restricted to the village; popular piety grew throughout the Saarland in general in these years, most notably in connection with displays of the so-called “Holy Coat” in the cathedral in nearby Trier. This celebrated relic – supposedly the seamless garment worn by Christ for his crucifixion – was exhibited in 1844 for the first time in more than three decades, and drew vast crowds to the city [p.70]. All in all, it is possible to conclude that, in the district around Marpingen, “the ‘superstitions’ of which the church disapproved had not been driven out, merely driven underground. They were to emerge again in the circumstances of the 1870s.” [p.75]

One reason for this surge in popular piety was unconnected to the activities of the Catholic Church, for the Saarland was badly hit by economic crisis in the middle 1870s. An investment boom, sparked by the unification of Germany in 1870-1, led by 1873 to a badly over-heating economy and then to a depression so severe that it dragged down markets across the world and caused what some economists consider to be the world’s first global slump. The Saarland – a vulnerable border area which had never diversified and remained heavily dependent on a single industry, coal – was particularly badly hit; in one local ironworks, examined by Blackbourn, profits fell by 83%, and the workforce was cut by half. Mine wages were cut by about 16%, and the number of miners employed by around 10%. At much the same time, cheap imports of grain and meat, both from other parts of Europe and from overseas, forced local farmers to dramatically cut their prices. The chief effect of this, for the villagers of Marpingen, was a significant rise in local unemployment, accompanied by an equally drastic fall in agricultural profits. Even “those who remained in employment faced insecurity, declining real wages, and worsening conditions.” There was a wave of repossessions. The crash, hence, impacted on virtually every family in the district, and Blackbourn shows that economic prospects in Marpingen reached their nadir in 1875-6, at precisely the time of the visions. [pp.77-85].

These economic problems were further exacerbated by the onset of a peculiarly German crisis known as the Kulturkampf [“Culture War”]. This, Blackbourn explains, was “the struggle between church and state initiated by Bismarck as a campaign against the alleged Catholic ‘enemy within’,” and it proved to be a significant threat to the Catholics of the Saarland, state persecution manifesting itself even at village level. Nationally, the Kulturkampf meant a ban on preaching politics from the pulpit, the seizure of considerable church property, the removal of state subsidies from any priest who refused to toe the government line, and the establishment of state control over the appointments of teachers and clergymen. Across the country, 1,800 priests were jailed and 16 million marks’ worth of church property appropriated. In the Marpingen district, the diocesan seminary was shut down, the local bishop imprisoned, and 350 clergymen were hauled before the courts. Some 150,000 Catholics (though not those of Marpingen) were left without a priest. When the Bishop of Trier died, furthermore, he was not replaced – a vacancy that, among other things, made it impossible for there to be any formal church investigation of the apparitions at Marpingen [pp.85-6].

Bishop Eberhard of TrierNow, I’m sure that some critics and believers will advance the reasonable point that, in setting out to explain the visions at Marpingen, Blackbourn is seizing on and conflating every bit of “evidence” he can lay his hands on, and so constructing a picture of stress and disaster when in fact little was really changing at a village level. There seems little doubt, however, that the years 1873-76 really were something of a Perfect Storm for Marpingen – the worst crisis for three-quarters of a century, and one that inevitably provoked a response from the Catholics of the district. There was a sharp rise in the number of Catholic associations and the number of Catholic petitions, accompanied by “a highly charged emotional undertow to popular sentiment.” Matters came to a head in 1874, with the arrest of Bishop Eberhard of Trier [right] – and when the bishop turned to give his last blessing to the Catholic crowd before his imprisonment, one contemporary observed, “the agitation of the masses at this final moment was so great, their wailing and moaning so heart-rending, and the emotion that seized even sturdy men so powerful, so overwhelming, that the whole scene is indescribable.” [p.95]

All this had a profound effect on the villagers of Marpingen. Blackbourn identifies a “part-mystical, part-militant” longing in the district, and points out that “the craving for deliverance could take pathological form… when a new mental hospital opened in Merzig in the summer of 1876, the first two male patients were a man who believed he was the Pope and another who claimed to be a papal legate.” [p.95]  The evidence shows there was a steep rise in the importance attached to prophecies and omens, and a “yearning for the supposed signs of supernatural divine intervention.” Miracles began to occur in the district; we noted some of them in the first post in this series, but there were others, too – cases of stigmata and, in nearby Eppelborn, a similar manifestation in the form of a woman named Elizabeth Flesch who sweated blood. Visions of the Virgin were seen, as well, and it’s fascinating to note that these generally took the rather casual, unholy and inconsequential form that so bothered some of the more thoughtful critics of events at Marpingen itself. Reviewing cases from Alsace and Lorraine, Blackbourn concludes that

in none of these cases did the report of events suggest much grace or dignity: one of the boys in Medelsheim [in the Palatinate] apparently tried to shake the Virgin down from the tree in which she was perched, while another girl claimed that the Virgin had hopped onto her hand and stayed there a while before disappearing. The Virgin of Rohrbach supposedly appeared in a plum tree.

Marpingen p.97

Bishop Eberhard, on his release from gaol in 1875, made “direct reference to the protection of the Virgin,” travelled to visit a Marian shrine, and “talked with feeling about [a] ‘simple countryman’ to whom a miraculous image of the Virgin had been revealed at ‘a time of sorrow when widespread confusion reigned.'” He concluded, in a famous pronouncement, that his diocese (and hence Marpingen) must be directly “under the protection” of the BVM [p.96].

It’s hard to imagine such pronouncements did not have an effect on the pious inhabitants of Marpingen, who responded to adversity by resisting, however passively, persecution by the state, and by hoping ever more desperately for salvation in the form of some sort of divine intervention. It was this potent cocktail of fear, resentment and expectation, Blackbourn suggests, that underpinned the events of July 1876:

There was, on the one hand, a discirnible pattern of dumb insolence towards civil authority, which occasionally tipped over into physical resistance to the implementation of the Kulturkampf. There was, on the other, a heightening of religious fervour and apocalyptic sentiment. It is against this background that Marpingen should be seen.

Marpingen p.79

There’s more – much more – that could be said about events in the Saarland. Blackbourn’s book contains an instructive chapter on “Pilgrims, cures and commercialization” which uses some of the points sketched out above to explain why claiming a cure, or profiting from pilgrimage to the village, could be seen as an act of resistance to the state, and a detailed study of the ambivalent reaction of the Catholic clergy. He also considers why the Marpingen visions attracted considerable hostility, while contemporary claims of BVM apparitions in Bavaria and along the border with Russia were far better received, before concluding by taking the whole story forward into the 1960s and chronicling the gradual collapse of the Marpingen pilgrimage industry. Sadly, his book was written before claims of fresh visions emerged from Marpingen in 1999. But I don’t doubt that, given time, David Blackbourn could write just as revealingly on these as well.

All in all, I rate Marpingen: Apparitions of the Virgin Mary in Nineteenth Century Germany among the most important of all books on Fortean phenomena, and anyone with serious interest in the subject should read it. Failure to take account of such academic findings, I’d suggest, renders much other work done on Marian apparitions more or less entirely pointless – and much the same can be said of research in a number of related fields.


As noted in my first post on this subject, much good scholarly work has been done, over the past 30 years or so, on the social and cultural background to Marian apparitions, and very little of it is ever cited outside purely academic publications. Anyone with an interest in this subject would benefit from reading some, or all, of the following books and articles, which admirably supplement and elaborate on David Blackbourn’s conclusions.

Carroll, Michael. Cult of the Virgin Mary: Psychological Origins. Princeton [NJ]: Princeton University Press, 1983. Carroll seeks to explain why Mary, rather than any other religious figure, is so associated with apparitions, and why she is reported in certain places and times, but not in others. Densely-written, and how you regard it rather depends on your tolerance for Freudian theory; at root, Carroll suggests, the cult of Mary is a product of the “father-ineffective family” created by excessive working hours and the lack of a social safety-net – a toxic family structure in which, he posits, “Oedipal desires in both sons and daughters are intensified.”

Christian, William. Apparitions in Late Medieval and Renaissance Spain. Princeton [NJ]: Princeton University Press, 1981.  Christian, a professor of religious history at the University of California at Santa Barbara, is also the author of several important related studies, including Visionaries: the Spanish Republic and the Reign of Christ – a detailed study of Marian apparitions in Ezkioga, Spain, in the run-up to the Civil War – and Moving Crucifixes in Modern Spain, which examines religious phenomena in three Spanish towns in the first half of the century – the titular miracles are clear precursors of the celebrated ‘Moving statue of Ballinspittle‘ case of the 1980s – and considers the knotty problem of why, among tens of thousands of miraculous claims, a few are popularly accepted at certain places and in certain times. Christian’s extensively-referenced work extends up to the early 1960s and makes some important Spanish cases easily accessible to an English-speaking audience: see e.g. ‘Religious apparitions and the Cold War in Southern Europe’ in Eric Wolfe (ed.), Religion, Power and Protest in Local Communities: the Northern Shore of the Mediterranean (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1984), available as a free pdf download here.

Devlin, Judith. The Superstitious Mind: French Peasants and the Supernatural in the Nineteenth Century. New Haven [CT]: Yale University Press, 1987. Explores the threat posed by the “unknown” – in the form of impenetrable forests and dangerous roads – in the lives of the French peasantry, and the ways in which appeal to the BVM and various intercessory saints could be used to temper and control such fears.

Harris, Ruth. Lourdes: Body and Spirit in the Secular Age. London: Allen Lane, 1999. A complex study, directly comparable to Blackbourn’s, of the visions at Lourdes, and their aftermath. The author, an Oxford academic, is a specialist in the history of medicine in nineteenth century France, and she writes illuminatingly on claims of miraculous healings at the shrine.

Kselman, Thomas. Miracles and Prophecies in Nineteenth Century France. New Brunswick [NJ]: Rutgers University Press, 1983. Includes an important look at miracle claims from Lourdes; combines historical and sociological approaches into a sceptical whole. Kselman is also the author of Death and the Afterlife in Early Modern France.

Lachapelle, Sofie. ‘Between Miracle and Sickness: Louise Lateau and the Experience of Stigmata and Ecstasy.’ Configurations v12n1 (Winter 2004). Study of a prominent Belgian stigmatic (whose life and claims were covered in some detail by Herbert Thurston in his Physical Phenomena of Mysticism) by a Canadian professor of the history of science who has also written well on Charles Richet and French psychical research. Lachapelle focuses on the ways in which contemporary medicine investigated and understood Lateau and her claims. Her paper deals principally with the struggle of scientists and their physiological and pathological hypotheses to establish themselves with authority in a society in which religious belief was still the norm; it focuses particularly on the conflicts experienced by Christian scientists (small ‘s’) confronted with such cases.

Pope, Barbara Corrado. ‘Immaculate and powerful: the Marian Revival in the nineteenth century’. In Clarissa Atkinson et al (eds), Immaculate and Powerful: The Female in Sacred Image and Social Reality. Cambridge [MA]: Harvard University Press, 1985. A feminist take on the subject which suggests that the increased frequency of Marian visions in the nineteenth century was a product of the feminisation of the Catholic church during that period as much as it was of the century-long ‘Marian age’ between about 1850 and 1950 set in motion by the pronouncement of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. Pope is a history professor turned novelist from the University of Oregon.

Taylor, Thérèse. Bernadette of Lourdes: Her Life, Death and Visions. London: Burnes and Oates, 2003. A scholarly and not overtly partial biography which treats its subject as a historical figure rather than as a saint. Taylor is an odd and engaging combination of nun and lecturer in gender and sexuality at Charles Sturt University.

Weber, Eugen. ‘Religion and superstition in nineteenth century France’. In Historical Journal v31 (1988). Author of the highly influential Peasants into Frenchmen, which looked at French rural nationalism in the late nineteenth century, Weber reviews the historiography of this subject and makes the point that the triumph of Catholicism over the folklore-laced popular religion prevalent in the provinces was by no means pre-ordained. This paper is available online, in a slightly revised form, as chapter 6 in Weber’s book My France.

Zimdars-Swartz, Sandra. Encountering Mary: Visions of Mary from La Salette to Medjugorje. Princeton [NJ]: Princeton University Press, 1991. A general survey that is well on the way to becoming the accepted academic overview of this subject. The author, a University of Kansas professor whose background is in the history of popular piety in the medieval period, notes the links between BVM apparitions and other phenomena, such as UFOs, but is thoroughly scornful of non-academic takes on the subject.

Update 25 June 2014. Harvard’s new digital scholarship initiative DASH (great name!) has made Blackbourn’s 1992 journal article ‘The Madonna of Marpingen: A likely story’ (Common Knowledge 7) available free here.

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Shrine in the Härtelwald at MarpingenA couple of days ago we looked briefly at events in Marpingen, a German village in the Saarland, during harvest-time in 1876, and saw how a group of young female visionaries claimed to have witnessed an apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary in some woods outside the village [right] – an account written up in vast detail by the Harvard history professor David Blackbourn in his 1994 book Marpingen. Today we’re going to follow Blackbourn deeper into the local archives and look in considerably greater detail at the witnesses, at what they said they saw, at how their accounts of their experiences were shaped, and varied over time – and at what the raw data from Marpingen may imply about the gradual processes of sanitisation and consolidation that have worked to produce the much less controversial, much more uniform visions that have been formally approved by the Roman Catholic church. All this, as I noted in my first post on the subject, comes from an extensive collection of official and private documents assembled at the time, and gives us an unusually close look at what actually happened during one apparently quite typical set of Marian visions in the late 19th century; it  offers several keys to understanding such events.

Let’s begin by remembering that the initial apparition at Marpingen took place on the same day that a major religious festival took place at the established Marian site of Lourdes; we’ve already noted that this ceremony, widely publicised by the Catholic church, may well have helped to inspire events in the Saarland, if only by predisposing the Marpingen witnesses to have been thinking about the BVM on the day of their vision. There were, however, several other potential triggers for the events as they played out, among them the well-publicised and ostensibly miraculous appearance of the Virgin’s face in a patch of fungus in a Silesian church (delightfully referred to as Obraz Najswietszej Panny Maryji na grzybie, or  “The Image of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary in the Mushroom”) and some Marian visions in several villages in neighbouring Alsace in 1873. In the neighbouring parish of Dirmingen, moreover, yet another purportedly miraculous event took place in May 1876, just five weeks before the vision in the Härtelwald. As Blackbourn explains, this latter incident was apparently “talked up” into something much more significant than it at first appeared to be, yet it opens up a tantalising window on a world in which miraculous events apparently occurred quite frequently. More importantly, there can be little doubt that the story, in its more advanced form, soon reached Marpingen, and strongly suggested that the BVM was capable of appearing in the vicinity.

The incident arose out of a seemingly unspectacular event: Father Schwaab of Urexweiler was walking his dog in Dirmingen woods with a schoolteacher friend when the dog was alarmed by a falling spruce tree. The spot in the woods was already associated in folk memory with magical events; a forester had supposedly been beaten by an unknown hand, and someone else claimed to have seen thousands of cats there. Popular sentiment proceeded to turn the incident into a form of apparition. Rumour had it that Father Schwaab had seen a woman whose sudden disappearance was followed by a whirlwind that toppled the spruce. The priest denied any supernatural occurrence, but according to the forester Louis Bruch the affair caused ‘great excitement’ throughout the district. The tree became known as ‘the spruce and the spirits’: some avoided it, others carved crosses into the wood and stripped the tree and its neighbours of their bark, which they cooked and ate or fed to their cattle. The mysterious woman was believed to be the Virgin Mary ascending to heaven.

Marpingen p.98

In addition to sketching several plausible ways in which news of the “miraculous” happenings at Dirmingen might have reached Marpingen, Blackbourn also draws attention to a couple of precursor-events in the village itself. Some decades earlier, there had been reports of a mysterious “woman in white” haunting the mill where Margaretha (‘Gretchen’) Kunz‘s father worked, and, in 1868, a village woman “claimed to have seen a white-clad figure resembling Father Neureuter’s dead sister provide ‘miraculous accompaniment’ for the priest on one of his journeys.” It’s difficult to know how large a part incidents of this sort played in most Marpingeners’ spiritual worlds, but we can at least say that Neureuter himself – the parish priest – apparently expected something more decidedly miraculous to happen: “I always had the thought that Marpingen would be tested,” he remarked some time later.

Just how much of all this the young Marpingen witnesses themselves were actually aware of is quite difficult to say; the full record of the girls’ interrogations – 10 volumes’ worth of testimony – was unfortunately destroyed by bombing during World War II. A 500-page précis of the evidence in the case does survive, nonetheless, and Marpingen uses this and numerous other sources to paint a remarkably comprehensive picture of the lives and times of the three girls at the centre of the case.

The Kunz, Hubertus and Leist families, Blackbourn discovered, were pretty typical of those that have produced Marian visionaries in the past. The Leists and the Hubertuses lived in stone farmhouses; they were “poor, but with enough to live on,” in the opinion of the parish priest; another local notable, notary Hess of Tholey, described the Kunz and Hubertus families as “people of exemplary honesty”. Nonetheless, the Kunz family was much more ambiguously and marginally placed in Marpingen society than the other two; Margaretha’s father had died in an mill accident some months before she was born, which meant, inevitably, that life was even more a struggle for her mother than it was for Marpingen’s other peasants. The Kunzes, hence, had more to gain from associating themselves with a miracle, and from this perspective it’s certainly interesting to note that Margaretha Kunz was clearly the leader of the little group that went to the Härtelwald. Even though it was Susanna Leist who first caught sight of the “woman in white,” the evidence shows the other witnesses deferring to Margaretha when it came to describing what they had experienced – and it’s very noticeable, isn’t it, that there always is a “leader” in these sorts of cases – it was Mélanie Calvat at La Salette, Lucia dos Santos at Fatima, Albert Voisin at Beauraing, and Eugène Barbadette at Pontmain. According to Blackbourn,

Marpingen visionariesAlthough the youngest of the visionaries, [Kunz] was powerfully built like her mother and was easily the largest of the three girls. A contemporary photograph of the three seers shows her dominating the group physically [see left: Susanna Leist is standing, Margaretha Kunz is sitting, left, and Katharina Hubertus is on the right]. She was also by common consent the cleverest. Dr Nikolaus Thoemes, who did so much to disseminate the ‘miracle of Marpingen’ with his pamphlets, believed that Kunz was ‘generally more developed than the other two.’ The word that seemed to occur to everyone who met her was geweckt – bright or sharp. For the priest Felix Dicke, who spent a long time in the village, she was ‘somewhat brighter than the other two.’ The teacher André thought her ‘very bright,’ compared with the average Susanna Leist and the rather backward Katharina Hubertus. She impressed the merchant Jacob in Tholey as ‘bright and fearless’, while the superintendent of the institution at Saarbrücken where the three girls were later confined believed she was ‘brighter than the others and appears to influence them.’

Marpingen p.104

Blackbourn goes on to delve further into the circumstances of the  Kunz family, and emerges with more important data. The father’s death, for instance, certainly placed his family in considerable financial and legal difficulties; the mother found herself caught up with the problem of dealing with his debts, and fought an unsuccessful battle to retain at least partial control of his mill. Money was short; Margaretha’s brothers had to leave school and go down the pits, and her sister was forced to go into domestic service. Margaretha, then, could clearly anticipate that a tough, physically-exhausting life awaited her at the conclusion of her childhood – and on top of that, as Blackbourn says, “it would be surprising if she did not experience some resentment from her brothers and sisters, as the last-born of an unusually large family, another mouth to feed in suddenly straitened circumstances (and another claimant on the modest family property).” The author goes on to compare Gretchen Kunz to Bernadette Soubirous, the celebrated Lourdes visionary – “the daughter of a bankrupted and imprisoned miller, sent out to work as a farm servant.” Unsurprisingly, he finds the parallels between the two girls “uncanny” – and he also points out that the Marpingen witnesses would have known quite a lot about Bernadette and her experiences, since one of Katharina Hubertus’s sisters hoped to become a nun, and the village schoolteacher, André

had talked about these and other apparitions, and may even have done so just before the Marpingen events began. The children also received instruction concerning the Immaculate Conception from the parish priest, and Frau Kunz later recalled to a visitor that Father Neureuter had talked about the apparitions at Lourdes in a sermon… Starting school marked a sudden change in their lives, and brought them into more regular contact with such accounts… The Marpingen apparitions included scenes, from the Annunciation to the temptation of Christ, that exactly echoed passages in the Shuster school bible that the girls had studied in catechism classes.

Marpingen pp.106-07

Put all these influences together, Blackbourn suggests, and you create a potent cocktail of expectation and belief.

The time when the Marpingen apparitions began would have been marked by particular devotions to the Virgin Mary, even without the drama of the Lourdes coronation ceremony. The Marian festival of the Visitation that fell on 2 July was expecially important in German-speaking Europe; and the following day was one on which, every year since the late seventeenth century, pilgrims throughout the Trier diocese had travelled to the Marian shrine at Beurig. This was the day on which the three girls found themselves still in the Härtelwald woods as dusk fell and the Angelus sounded.


Now, I should pause for a moment here to point out that if I do have one quibble with Blackbourn’s account, it’s with his description of the vision in the Härtelwald taking place at “dusk” – an important point, as we shall see, since any analysis of what might or might not have happened in the woods depends heavily on what the visionaries actually saw. It was early July, and if the visions coincided with the Angelus – prayers said in Catholic churches each day at 6pm – then dusk would still have been as much as two or three hours’ off, which makes what apparently happened that much harder to explain. Bear this point in mind, anyway, as Blackbourn goes on to describe the critical moments of the visionaries’ reception by their families:

When they returned home that first evening with their stories of a ‘woman in white’, the initial reaction of their parents was, on the face of it, sceptical.  Susanna Leist’s father told her that she was talking nonsense (dummes Zeug), and suggested that she had simply seen a village woman. Katharine Hubertus was given no food that evening by her father; her mother promised her a new dress if she stopped her romancing. Frau Kunz also resorted to the carrot and stick, promising her daughter a new dress if she told the truth and punishment if she continued to lie: ‘Your brother Peter will beat you half to death, and you will go to hell and not to heaven.’

Marpingen p.107

Velasquez's Immaculate ConceptionAs the author points out, these versions of events were given to the parish priest and, later, to the very hostile Prussian authorities, so it would have been in the families’ interest to portray themselves as sceptics; indeed, Blackbourn believes that all three sets of parents, but especially Frau Leist, played “a rather more active part in the shaping of the apparitions” than they cared to admit. Indeed, Frau Leist – in the account of Margaretha Kunz – actually instructed the three children to “Go back into the woods tomorrow, pray, and if you see her again, ask her who she is; if she says she is the Immaculately Conceived, then she is the Blessed Virgin.” This, if true, must surely have been a considerable prod to the three young visionaries – a strong hint that more was expected of them than an account “remarkably lacking in intensity or a sense of rapture”. For, initially at least, Blackbourn say, “the overriding impression is one of fragmented descriptions lacking any real centre. In other apparitions, the Virgin assumed a fixed appearance, graced a particular spot, and delivered a single powerful message. In Marpingen the children described a Virgin in motley who flitted from place to place and had no special message.” There were “secrets”, of course, and Katharina Hubertus said that she had been promised she would become a nun. But even these exchanges “seldom rose above the level of banality, their prophecies concerned missed appointments rather than sublime matters of war, peace, and famine.” Some of the children’s statements seem mischievous, even malicious, “as when the children claimed to see the devil in the house of the pious church bookkeeper Fuchs.” All in all, as Blackbourn says, “the apparitions did not so much represent the eruption of the divine into everyday life, as subject the divine to an everyday regimen.” By far the most remarkable of all the many accounts given by Kunz and her companions of their encounters with the Virgin was one in which Mary “joined them in their games as they rolled down the hillside.” [p.112]

Frau Leist’s intervention also, it should be said, conveys some interesting indications of just how familiar the visionaries and their families must have been with events at Lourdes – where the apparition had announced herself to Bernadette as “the Immaculate Conception”, thus conveniently bolstering what was still a new and controversial bit of dogma, the notion that the Virgin Mary had been conceived “free from sin” (as portrayed in Diego Velasquez’s celebrated Immaculate Conception, above) and was hence worthy of bearing the Christ-child. In fact, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, though in itself of some antiquity, had been proclaimed as dogma only in 1854, and the vision at Lourdes, once accepted by the Church, went a good way to encouraging its acceptance as an article of faith.

Frau Leist, Blackbourn continues, seems to have exercised significant additional influence on the Marpingen visionaries. It was she who suggested to the children that the “woman in white” might have worn a blue sash – an item of classically Marian clothing most recently noted by Bernadette at Lourdes. This prompt would later be identified by the Prussian authorities as “a highly incriminating piece of evidence pointing to parental instigation,” though Blackbourn prefers to see it as no more than an adornment to “a rather vague account”. He goes on to point out that “there is a further example of the way in which the events of the first day were retrospectively shaped into a pattern more closely resembling the apparition at Lourdes… at a very early stage the two children surplus to the requirements of a classic apparition [the two six-year-olds, Lischen Hubertus and Anna Meisberger]… were tacitly dropped from the account.”

That Frau Leist and other adults asked leading questions, though, is beyond doubt. “When the children were asked if the Virgin wore a golden crown,” Blackbourn observes,

and carried the child Jesus, they readily agreed. The suggestions that a chapel be built (‘of stone, not of wood’) and the sick be brought to the site were also reported by the girls as answers to questions put by others… [and] as new suggestions were made, the seers incorporated them into their accounts. Thus the idea of the devil [wrote Margaretha, some years later], ‘was put into our minds by imprudent observations and questions.’ This may be how the girls came to describe the ‘poor souls from purgatory’ shown to them by the Blessed Virgin and released by their prayers. Belief in the physical manifestation of tormented souls, crying for release, was a strong element in local popular piety; it was just the sort of matter on which the visionaries were likely to be pressed. What Margaretha Kunz described retrospectively is an apparition narrative being constructed through a process of suggestion and accretion. This is consistent with other evidence. To take an overt example, in September 1876 the children referred vaguely to a shining head hovering over the Blessed Virgin in one apparition. The visiting theologian Matthias Scheeben showed them a picture of St Nicolas of Flue that he carried with him, and the visionaries promptly agreed that this was the very head they had seen.

Marpingen pp.110-11

Whatever the truth, it certainly seems that the visionaries returned to the woods next day (4 July) fully expecting to see the Virgin once again – and it is not, perhaps, all that surprising that they were gratified, nor that, once the parents became convinced (or convinced themselves) that their children were telling them the truth, they in turn became strong supporters of the reality of the encounters in the Härtelwald. Johannes Hubertus, in particular, set out on 5 July, the third day of the visions, to accompany the children to the woods, and was a witness to the earliest of Marpingen’s miracle cures: the first vouchsafed to another adult, a retired miner by the name of Nikolaus Recktenwald, and the second to another of Hubertus’s daughters, Barbara. Barbara was apparently relieved of a “bad foot” (a cure, incidentally, typical of the sort of vaguely-defined, poorly diagnosed and impossible-to-prove claims that the Catholic church itself has striven to weed out at the approved vision site Lourdes by the creation of a dedicated Medical Bureau, staffed by doctors, which summarily rejects all “cures” of problems that had not previously been the subject of a specific professional diagnosis). Nor was that the extent of Hubertus pere‘s involvement; by 3 August, he was claiming to have heard the signing of the angels who accompanied the Virgin on her visits to Marpingen.

The adult witnesses, of course, were inconvenient; Marian visions were sufficiently common, and sufficiently uniform, by 1876 for all those concerned to be aware that the BVM appeared first and foremost – indeed, almost exclusively – to pre-pubescent children. Blackbourn makes the point that it’s important to remember that the principal witnesses were still extremely young, and that the thousands of Catholics who descended on the village placed a burden on the three girls

that sometimes became intolerable. Pilgrims crowded in and around their parents’ homes, asking the children to repeat what they had seen and pestering them to sign pictures. In the words of one visiting priest, they found themselves ‘in a state of siege’… exposed to constant public demand: one day they were kept at the apparition site from 8am to 11pm, until almost collapsing from exhaustion. This may account for some of the tetchiness, the sullen silences, and the occasional discomfiture of questioners. These were children of 8, after all, who yawned, stretched, and readily became bored when subjected even to friendly questioning. The pressures on them help to explain a number of the more elaborate later apparitions, as the children were driven to reckless invention. This was certainly true in one such case, the dubious ‘prediction’ that a young child, Jacob Schnur, would die, and the related description of a funeral procession in the sky over Marpingen. Margaretha Kunz later said that these had been ‘invented to satisfy the people who wanted even more miracles.’

Marpingen p.114

That the visionaries were playing a game of some sort with the adults in the village – at least at first, before matters got out of hand – emerges fairly clearly in the later statements of Kunz, who told one sceptical girl in the Saarbrücken orphanage in which the Marpingen witnesses were briefly confined: “You are not as stupid as the stupid gentlemen; they are more stupid than we children.” [p.114]  Yet before long all three girls found that they had painted themselves into a corner with their stories; too many people had placed faith in them – including members of their own families – and too many stood to lose from any admission of fantasy, invention, or outright hoax on the part of the original witnesses. To take only one example, the parish priest, Father Neureuter, served time in jail for his determination to stand up for the reality of the Marpingen visions. “By that stage,” Blackbourn notes, “the prospect of admitting that everything rested on falsehood must have seemed insurmountably daunting” to all three girls.

It did not take long for all this pressure to begin to tell. One sceptical Catholic visitor, Dr Jakob Strauss, discovered that Margaretha “appeared willing to either agree or disagree that there was a ‘Virgin in the clouds’ when offered money. [p.117]  Kunz herself later confessed herself astonished “that the whole thing went so far,” until “it reached a stage where I could no longer go back” [p.115], while Susanna Leist, harshly questioned by some state officials, “broke down and claimed that Kunz had invented the whole thing.” [p.118]   Possibly these pressures account for Leist’s reluctance to admit she had experienced any further visions of the Virgin when these were claimed, later in the first weeks of July, by Kunz and the easily-led Hubertus. The original visionary’s apprehension, Blackbourn says, led her to alternate “between ‘scornful’ reactions to Margaretha’s claims of further apparitions and warnings to her friend that ‘you talk too much, you’ll betray everything'” while incarcerated in the orphanage at Saarbrücken, while Kunz’s mother made the journey over from Marpingen to warn her daughter that she should stick to her story.

Margaretha did retain a good deal of self-confidence, at least at first; confronted by Susanna Leist, she apparently retorted: “I know what I can say – I’m cleverer than you.” [p.116]  Yet even the clever Kunz, taxed repeatedly by a succession of hostile interviewers, was too young to stand up stolidly to adult interrogations, and proved unable to keep her story straight for long. Blackbourn depicts a long series of confessions and retractions made by all three girls; Margaretha, he notes, faced a total of 28 separate interviews spread over a period of several years. [p.208]. Throughout this time, the position the girls took depended almost entirely on whether they were separated from their families, and exposed to tough questioning by irritated Prussians, or safe back in Marpingen, surrounded by families who had much invested in their stories, and who stood to make considerable profits from the pilgrimage trade that rapidly developed, whether from renting out beds in their homes, selling religious trinkets at the roadside, or packaging and retailing water from Marpingen’s “miraculous spring” – which we know was eagerly sought after and dispatched and consumed as far away as Belgium.

Pregnant with meaning though all this undoubtedly is, however, it doesn’t actually take us that much closer to what really
happened in the Härtelwald on the first evening of the visions. To discover more, it is necessary to turn to a detailed account written by Margaretha Kunz years later, in 1889, when she was 20 and had become a servant at a local convent prior to taking vows as a nun. Blackbourn, who is acutely aware of the pressures brought to bear on the child witness in the 1870s, when Margaretha regularly confessed and then recanted, views this document – made in confidence at the urging of Father Neureuter – as unequivocal and convincing, not least because, despite her wish to take holy orders, “after the opening paragraph Margaretha shows no evidence of great remorse or guilt” – though the author does point out that it is “striking that at every key juncture in the account it is others who are described as taking the initiative.” [p.320]

Margaretha, Blackbourn writes,

recalls first how the girls were hurrying home on the evening of 3 July when Susanna Leist called out, “‘Gretchen, Kätchen, look, over there is a woman in white.’ Frightened, we looked at the spot she had pointed out and actually saw a white figure, or rather with our imagination already excited and in the half-dark we believed that was what we saw.’ As they rushed back to the village, their appearance (‘We must have looked awful’) caused them to be ‘bombarded with questions.’ According to Margaretha, her own mother was initially sceptical, suggesting that the figure was ‘only a cord of wood, and because it was dark you thought you had seen a woman. She was right,’ added Margaretha, ‘for later I satisfied myself that it was stacked up wood lying there with the white side pointing outwards.’ (She does not, however, say how much later it was that she satisfied herself of this.)

Marpingen p.320

One cannot but wonder, reading this, whether the accounts of BVM apparitions given by other witnesses, at other times, might not have been based on a similarly heady combination of popular piety, peer pressure and simple misperceptions – not least when considering how, next day, the three girls went out to the Härtelwald again, fully primed by Susanna Leist’s mother’s instructions

to ask the figure, if they saw her again, whether she was the Immaculate Conception. Margaretha continued:

I saw nothing, but all three of us put the question, then one of them nudged me and said, listen, I am the Immaculately Conceived, although I heard nothing. I said, oh yes, we put the second question that had been agreed, what should we do? As if with one voice we both gave the answer, pray devoutly and do not sin. How it was possible I do not know, I know only that I myself neither saw nor heard anything.


The whole experience had been, the girl concluded, “one big lie”, and the adults of the village had made a “great mistake” – their error being “to believe us immediately instead of calming us down.” [p.110] Or, to put it more charitably (as Blackbourn does), “the 8-year-olds had stirred up something they only faintly understood, and gone too far to turn back.” What prevented them from recanting in time for the events at Marpingen to fade rapidly into history was thus the favourable, even hysterical, response that news of the visions roused in their fellow villagers. [p.321]  Marpingen itself, in short, was in large part responsible for the visions at Marpingen.

NEXT: The village and the villagers, miracles and cures

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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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Artist’s impression of Arthur Grants land sighting at Loch Ness, January 1934.

Let’s begin with the obvious: the camera lies. And because we know it lies, we tend to doubt the things it tells us. A million gallons of ink have been spilled on analyses of classic photographic images, very often with devastating results for those who have chosen to place faith in them as “proof” of any sort. Adamski’s UFO: a chicken brooder.* The Surgeon’s Photograph: a model mounted on a clockwork submarine. The ghosts snapped from the SS Watertown: nothing but a cut-and-paste job. The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall: a simple case of double exposure.

The consequences of this home truth are profound, if obvious. Photos can’t be trusted. The stuff that does exist tends to fall broadly into two categories. On the one hand are the hazy, badly-focussed shots of “something” – which might possibly be genuine, but are rarely proof of anything. On the other are unambiguous, clear images, which look exciting at first glance but are almost always fakes. And the whole field is the Fortean equivalent of a money pit, sucking up endless resources without producing anything concrete in return.

All this means that anyone with experience in this field tends to look extremely sceptically at the photographic evidence. What about other sorts of image, though? Well, oddly enough the sceptics’ tool-kit tends to get tossed out of the window whenever illustrations get involved. For the most part that’s easy enough to understand; they’re not seriously meant to be part of the evidence. But there’s one interesting exception to this rule, and what I want to do right now is take a hopefully instructive look at the under-rated role “artists’ impressions” have played in our subject.

By artists’ impressions, I mean not generic illustrations – “Hey, this is what a flying saucer looks like” – but images that are based directly on witness testimony, and make some claim, however subliminally, to represent “what was actually there.” And what really interests me about this neglected facet of the Fortean universe is an unremarked-on disconnect: these are images that purport to show something real, something genuinely important, and there’s no question that they have played a major role in shaping the way in which we think about most things Fortean (think back to your own earliest encounter with our field. Whatever it was it was that sucked you in, I’ll bet a dollar to your dime that a compelling bit of artwork was involved along the way.) Yet, almost without exception, the images concerned are the work of everyday commercial hacks, who know little and care less about the subject, and for whom success is measured not so much in achieving the closest possible approximation to “what the witness saw,” but in selling newspapers, or books, or magazines. I’d go so far as to suggest that, in 75 percent of cases, the drawing that enticed you was the product of a fleeting afternoon’s commission. It might, with luck, have begun with the handing over of some evidence, some witness statement. But almost certainly it ended with: “Draw this. But better make it look dramatic.”

From this perspective, it’s easy to see that the vexed question of how closely pictures of this sort approximate to what the witness said, or saw, is rather a red herring. The real problem goes deeper than that. It is that commercial and artistic pressures combine to all but guarantee that these impressions will be very poor reflections of the original experience. They may be biased in all sorts of unexpected, unaccounted ways – I remember, while working at Fortean Times, commissioning a painting of the chupacabras from an illustrator who point-blank refused to depict the thing as anything other than a quadripedal cryptid. What we can say, though, is that they’re almost certain to over-dramatise, elaborate, and draw on existing imagery for inspiration – and so will inevitably tend to reduce complex subjects to simple explanations. When UFOs are drawn as spaceships, or lake monsters as dinosaurs, it’s most likely not because spaceships or dinosaurs were seen. It’s because spaceships and dinosaurs make for better pictures.

Chupa contrast

Chupacabras contrasts. On the left, a drawing made by an eyewitness, Madelyne Tolentino. On the right, the artist’s impression drawn for Fortean Times by an illustrator who insisted on portraying the chupacabras as a cryptid.

What, then, are the consequences of this dangerous-sounding difficulty? What we’re left with, I’d contend, is a plethora of highly misleading “almost-photographs”. These artists’ impressions actually have much of the authority of photos – after all, they claim to show us what the witness saw. But they can’t be challenged in the same way that we can challenge photographic images. Artists don’t draw in tell-tale clues (the sun in the wrong position, “spaceships” made from buttons, “monsters” pasted onto backgrounds). They don’t do ambiguity, either; their impressions almost always strip out all uncertainty from what was most likely quite a hesitant and speculative eyewitness report. More important still, artists’ impressions simply don’t concern themselves with the sort of problems that investigators confront in the field. You very rarely see commercial images that show an object at a distance, in poor viewing conditions – and it also goes without saying that you’re not shown it in the form of the snatched glimpse so typical of strange experiences – a “something” seen from the corner of an eye for only a second or so. No, artists’ impressions tend to show things closer and clearer than they were. Not to mention frozen in time, eternally presenting themselves for study, proffering answers that are not answers at all. They really are responsible for an awful lot of trouble.

Enough of the theory. To give you an idea of what I mean, let’s take a look at a couple of instructive examples. And since it’s pretty difficult to know just how far drawings depart from what was seen when we deal only with written statements, I’m going to confine myself to cases for which, fortuitously, we can compare witness sketches to completed artists’ impressions.  It’s relatively rare to have access to both, so I won’t go so far as to assert that what follows are typical examples. But my guess is that they may well be.


The HMS Daedalus sea serpent – artist’s impression of an encounter in the South Atlantic, 1848. Drawn several months later by an artist from the Illustrated London News, working under the guidance of the ship’s captain.

The case that first got me thinking about the perils of the artist’s impression is a famous one, the HMS Daedalus sea-serpent of 1848. Most of you will probably be familiar with the bare bones of this celebrated incident – identified by Rupert Gould as “the locus classicus of the sea-serpent” – and remember how, off the coast of Namibia in the southern midwinter, an “enormous serpent” was spotted from the quarterdeck of the British fifth-rate Daedalus. This monster was seen by the ship’s Captain, Peter M’Quhae, by the First Lieutenant, Edgar Atheling Drummond, and by five others as well. But pretty much every subsequent description of the case has been based on the evidence of just one of those witnesses: Captain M’Quhae. He gave an account to his superior, which found its way into the columns of the Illustrated London News. According to this recollection, the monster’s “head and shoulders kept about four feet constantly above the surface of the sea, and as nearly as we could approximate it by comparing it with the length of what our mainsail topyard would show in the water, there was at the very least 60 feet of the animal á fleur d’eau [visible at the surface].” M’Quhae added the compelling detail that the monster “passed rapidly, but so close under our lee quarter that had it been a man of my acquaintance I should easily have recognised his features with the naked eye.” There followed a detailed description of the creature, which – the Captain said – had a snakelike head, a neck some 15 or 16 inches round, no fins, “but something like the mane of a horse, or rather a bunch of seaweed” washing about its back.

What’s important to remember here is that M’Quhae’s Daedalus report was made some months after the fact – not until October, actually, when the ship reached her home port – and that the famous images that everyone remembers [above and below] were not drawn by M’Quhae himself, but by an artist commissioned by the ILN – the leading illustrated paper of the day [Gould, The Case for the Sea-Serpent (London 1928) pp.94-103].

M'Quhae head

Close-up of the Daedalus sea serpent’s head, again from the ILN. Rupert Gould drew attention to the heavier shading on the creature’s “muzzle”. Note the fine detail and apparent impossibility of confusing this clearly living animal with anything mundane or inanimate.

We have a pretty good idea how the News artist produced his engravings, since after they were published M’Quhae wrote a letter to the paper expressing his gratitude to the man, “to whom I beg to acknowledge myself greatly indebted for the patience and attention with which he listened to the various alterations suggested by me during the progress of the drawings.” [ILN, 4 November 1848] Here, then, we have an apparently ideal case – one in which a talented artist has been carefully directed by the chief eyewitness, who in turn has expressed himself entirely happy with the engraver’s labours. So far as most cryptozoologists are concerned, this makes the ILN‘s dramatic engravings pretty much as good as photographs, and there has been much excited comment over the years regarding the fine details of the drawings. Dr T.S. Traill, a Scot who addressed the Royal Society of Edinburgh on the matter, went so far as to draw some inferences from the sea-serpent’s “short obtuse muzzle,” while Gould drew attention the apparent presence of a ‘crescentic mark’ on a close-up of the monster’s head [above left] that he thought might be a nostril. [Oudemans, The Great Sea Serpent (Leiden, 1892) pp.287-8; Gould op.cit. p.104] That extrapolating details such as this from a commercial illustration might be taking things a little far was at least admitted by Gould, who ruefully remarked that “the existence of the ‘crescentic mark’… is doubtful; in the original, it might equally be a piece of fancy shading.”[Gould, op.cit., captions to plates]

So far as most anomalists are concerned, nonetheless, the Daedalus report remains among the top two or three accounts of sea-serpents, a celebrity that’s due in no small part to those elegant ILN engravings. It was with great interest, therefore, that I learned a dozen or so years ago of complimentary evidence in the form of a journal belonging to the ship’s First Lieutenant, Edgar Drummond. Drummond (1825-93), a scion of a noted banking family who traced his descent back to the time of Macbeth, in the eleventh century, had been one of the seven original witnesses on board the Daedalus, and an extract from the journal in question appeared in The Zoologist for 1 December 1848. What was not previously apparent, though, was that Drummond had also sketched the monster. His drawing of what appeared to him to be “a large snake or eel” was published, rather obscurely, in The Log of Mystic Seaport, vol.46-47 (1995-96) in the context of a letter from the sailor’s grandson, Maldwin Drummond, and picked up from there by Matt Bille’s Exotic Zoology newsletter. [Bille, ‘The enduring “sea serpent”,’ Exotic Zoology 4 (3) (1997) pp.1-6] The date of Edgar Drummond’s sketch is not given, but since we know he made an entry in his journal on or shortly after the date of the encounter, it is reasonable to suppose it is contemporary, and thus pre-dates M’Quhae’s encounter with the ILN‘s engraver by about two months. Rather revealingly, the same journal also notes that Drummond saw only a head and a “back fin,” while Maldwin Drummond’s letter asserts – presumably from the same source – that M’Quhae initially estimated the monster’s length at 120 feet, revising his estimate down by 50 percent after discussion with his officers.

Below, anyway, is the – vastly less detailed and far less dramatic – sketch that Drummond made, most likely almost on the spot. Note the presence of two small “fins”, set 30 feet apart, and the entire absence of the long, serpentine body described so convincingly and vividly by Captain M’Quhae. Reflect, too, that M’Quhae – a Royal Navy officer, remember, of nearly 50 years’ standing – is pretty much most researchers’ idea of the perfect “reputable witness”. Then compare the sketch to the ILN‘s far more detailed and dramatic engraving, and ask yourself: if two depictions are so different, how safe is it to assume that those News engravings really are “almost-photographs”, as M’Quhae’s letter to the News‘s editor implies, and most cryptozoologists have tended to assume? Bear in mind that Maldwin Drummond thought his grandad’s sketch entirely consistent with Richard Ellis’s theory that the Daedalus creature was actually a giant squid. If you know anything about the history of the Royal Navy in the nineteenth century, finally, you will also realise that an officer such as M’Quhae, who rose to the rank of commander as early as 1814, yet was offered only two minor commands as captain over the succeeding 35 years, would have been known to the Admiralty as an officer far from the very top of his profession. All these observations tend to degrade M’Quhae’s standing as the perfect witness, and so call into question the accuracy of his memory when briefing the Illustrated London News‘s man.

Drummond Daedalus sea serpent 1848

Edgar Drummond’s sketch of the Daedalus sea serpent, apparently made at the time of the sighting.

So much for the Daedalus‘s sea-serpent but, lest it be thought that this case is exceptional, I stress that it is possible to draw some not dissimilar conclusions from two other water monster cases that I have followed up on over the years. The first, dating to 1934, concerns a Loch Ness land sighting – the celebrated Arthur Grant affair, illustrated in fine style at the head of this article. [Modern Mechanix, April 1934] The second is an Irish case dating to a couple of decades later. First, though, Grant.

Arthur Grant, rather like M’Quhae, is often portrayed as an “ideal witness” – he was a trainee vet, and local, and hence assumed to be familiar with most varieties of Highland wildlife. This notion has actually been robustly challenged [Ronald Binns, The Loch Ness Mystery Solved (Shepton Mallet, 1983) pp.189-90], but certainly Grant was adamant that when, on the night of 5 January, he all but ran over something crossing the north shore road, the thing that he encountered was no ordinary animal. Said Grant:

I had a splendid view of the object. In fact I almost struck it with my motorcycle. It had a long neck and large oval-shaped eyes on the top of a small head. The tail would be from 5 to 6 feet long and very powerful… the total length of the animal would be 15 to 20 feet. Knowing something of natural history I can say that I have never seen anything in my life like the animal I saw. It looked like a hybrid… [and] entered the loch with great speed. [Constance Whyte, More Than A Legend (London, 1957) p.74]

Now, exciting though all this is, the truth is that the circumstances of the Grant sighting were far from ideal. It took place on a dark winter’s night, and the scene was only fitfully illuminated by the solitarty headlight on Grant’s motorcycle. The incident itself, if real at all, can have lasted for no more than a few seconds, and there are at least a couple of unsettling details in the vet’s account. For one thing, Grant was plainly well aware of the earlier, even more spectacular, Spicer land sighting of July 1933. [Binns, op.cit. p.91] Second, returning to the spot next day, the student claimed to have found physical evidence to back up his claims in the shape of a patch of flattened grass. [Whyte, op.cit. p.76] Both circumstances seem a little too convenient, and Maurice Burton, for one, expressed incredulity at the sheer amount of detail Grant purportedly drank in: “Arthur Grant was not only able to make a drawing of the animal, but he was able to estimate its size, describe its poise and general form, estimate the size of its head and eye, gauge the length of its neck and of the tail, note the colour and texture of its skin, and describe how the animal moved.” [Burton, The Elusive Monster (London, 1961) pp.148-9]

Grant sketch

Arthur Grants sketch of the Loch Ness Monster, from the Daily Mail of 8 January 1934. Compare to the artist’s impression above – especially with regard to the animal’s hind parts.

I feel some sympathy for Burton’s point of view, for the fact is that trainee vet seems to have been a good deal less certain of exactly what he saw that might be supposed from his written description. Grant made several drawings of the whatever-it-was he saw – at least six, Binns suggests – and these contradict each other in significant details. The earliest of them, moreover [right], published in the Daily Mail of 8 January 1934, is the least detailed, and exhibits what seems to be considerable uncertainy as to the shape of creature’s under-parts – scarcely surprising, one might think, given that these must have merged rather with the road in the dark, seen from the witness’s perspective. The animal in the sketch also looks much less like a “monster” than the vet’s later efforts, and quite different to the popular depictions of the creature that appeared in newspapers worldwide [top]. Burton and Binns agree it suggests that what Grant saw was probably an otter, a view that it would be difficult to embrace if one had access only to the dramatic and entirely unambiguous artists’ impressions that we have of the event. The point being that no-one who thought that such excitable drawings accurately reflected what Grant had seen would agree for a moment with the otter theory.

Lough Fadda

The Lough Fadda monster of 1954, drawn in the 1980s from witness descriptions for the partwork The Unexplained.

My third example differs rather from the two above, in that no witness drawings are available to us. What we do have, however, is something equally intriguing: a detailed description, given by one witness, an artist’s impression, based on it, and the remarks of a second witness, tracked down later, who turned out to be quite critical of the image concerned. The case in question is an Irish one, and it concerns the famous monster of Lough Fadda, in Connemara, seen, supposedly, by a party of angling picnickers in the summer of 1954. According to the principal witness, a local librarian by the name of Georgina Carberry, what she and three friends saw in the lough that day was a veritable monster, which approached to within 20 yards of them, so that

we could distinctly see two big humps showing behind its head out of the water. And the tail we noticed, when it swung round the rock, ’twas a kind of a fork – a V-shaped tail. And the mouth which was open when it came in quite close to us at the shore and the eyes and that I can’t really remember. But I distinctly remember the whole body had movement in it. [FW Holiday, The Dragon and the Disc (London, 1973) p.37]

Carberry’s interview, given 14 years after the encounter in question, may or may not give an accurate version of what actually happened – though it’s certainly worth pointing out that she, as a librarian, falls very much into the same category of “reliable witness” as do Peter M’Quhae and Arthur Grant. It is, however, certainly quite detailed, and it was enough for an artist commissioned by the Orbis partwork The Unexplained to produce a drawing [above left] in about 1982. There’s no indication, by the way, that Carberry ever even saw it, but no other depictions of the Lough Fadda monster are readily available, so The Unexplained‘s image has become, if only by default, the accepted version of what Carberry’s creature looked like. It is, thus, rather instructive to learn that when the Fadda case was reinvestigated in 2001, a second member of the picnic party took issue with that same impression. According to researcher Nick Sucik, when this witness, a woman he named only as Ann, was shown the illustration based on Carberry’s description, she insisted that the monster she had seen had had no tail, and also possessed a much thicker neck and blunter mouth. Sucik had Ann sketch her own impression of the creature over a Tippex’d print of The Unexplained‘s version [below]. The contrast between the two images is instructive.


The Lough Fadda monster, 2001 – an eyewitness, “Ann”, has corrected the partwork’s artist’s impression, based on her near 50-year-old memories of the encounter.

Finally, just in case it be thought that  the problem of artists’ impressions be confined solely to the realms of cryptozoology, let’s take a brief look at what is probably the best-known, most controversial, British UFO case of them all: the Rendlesham encounter of December 1980. In this case, as is well known, US Air Force personnel from an airbase in Suffolk reported strange lights that flashed through the forest that ran almost up to the base itself. A security detail entered the woods, and there, supposedly, encountered a triangular object, brightly lit and hovering a few feet off the ground. There is certainly much of interest to be said about the Rendlesham case, which has been explained variously as an encounter with a UFO that left physical traces and as the radical misperception of the lighthouse at Orford Ness, five miles away, but the one thing that is beyond dispute is that the case has become so celebrated that a plethora of artists’ impressions have been produced to illustrate it. Here are three, all based, however remotely, on witness descriptions, and all supposed to accurately depict the various stages of this renowned encounter:

Rendlesham 3 ways

The Rendlesham Forest UFO landing case – two eyewitness sketches, accompanied on the right by an artist’s impression.

Note, once again, how very detailed and how unambiguous these artists’ impressions are. And consider how illustrations of this sort might impact upon the naive, the ill-informed and the credulous, with special reference to convincing them that this encounter was “real”. Now compare the objects the artists’ show to the original witness sketches, produced soon after the incident in question, archived on astronomer and sceptic Ian Ridpath‘s excellent website.

If you’re satisfied that the originals could reasonably inspire the artists’ impressions, if you’re not bothered by that tell-tale – honest? havering? – question-mark on the second witness drawing, and if, after everything you’ve read and and seen, you still think most artists’ impressions are worth the paper they are drawn on, you’re a better man, I’d say, than me.

* Maybe. Could also be a saucepan lid with ping pong balls, or a tobacco humidor with the nipple of a baby’s bottle glued on top.

[Acknowledgements: My grateful thanks to Matt Bille, Dave Clarke and Ian Ridpath for their help in sourcing images for this post.]

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Black Dog - not to scaleFor reasons that ought to become in clear in about a month, I’ve acquired a bit of an interest recently in Pierre Van Paassen, a Dutch-born Canadian journalist who enjoyed a distinguished career as a foreign correspondent during the 1920s and the 1930s. Van Paassen (1895-1968) [below], who wrote for the New York Evening World and the Toronto Star, led a pretty action-packed life, getting himself thrown into Dachau concentration camp – and later out of Germany – for criticising Adolf Hitler back in 1933, and going on to cover the Italian invasion of Abyssinia and the Spanish Civil War before giving it all up to become a Unitarian minister. That need not concern us here, however. What does is that, long before any of this happened, in the spring of 1929, Van Paassen was living in France when he experienced – or said he experienced – a particularly peculiar series of encounters with a ghostly black dog. These events, so Van Paassen tells us in his autobiography, Days of Our Years (1939) pp.248-51, were corroborated by at least three other witnesses – one of them a priest – and also resulted in the death of a “police dog.” And, just to top things off, the priest eventually identified the source of all the trouble as a teenage girl living in the same property, thus suggesting the black dog case had some sort of links to the poltergeist phenomenon.

Pierre Van PaassenVan Paassen’s case, in short, is such a rich and complex one that one reads it wishing it was just a little better evidenced. None of the other witnesses, sadly, gave an independent deposition; in fact, neither they nor the girl at the centre of the case are fully named, and, more worryingly, the village where the strange events supposedly took place appears not to exist. Which is unfortunate, especially since Van Paassen himself failed to report the incident for well over a decade. In the final analysis, we only have Van P’s word that anything untoward ever took place, and we don’t know nearly enough about his background to understand how well read he was, for instance, in the folklore of the black dog, never mind how reliably he retold the case in an autobiography that was, after all, primarily intended as an entertainment. What we do know – and I’ll be returning to this point in a future post – is that he was an unreliable witness, prone to dramatisation and a sucker for a good conspiracy theory. So, not quite the ideal witness, then.

For all this, the appearance of so many varied and distinct motifs, in a case from a country scarcely known for its black dog lore, which at least claims to combine multiple witnesses with physical evidence, and which features the testimony of that ne plus ultra of “reliable sources,” a Catholic priest, makes Van Paassen’s tale an intriguing one, to say the least. Since it seems to have been pretty much forgotten, I paraphrase the details here from the pages of his autobiography. Further analysis, for once, I leave to others.

In the spring of 1929, Van Plaassen had taken lodgings in a private house in Bourg-en-Foret, France. One night he was startled to see a large black dog pass him on the stairs, and even more perplexed when the animal reached the landing and promptly disappeared. Van Plaassen searched the entire house, but could find no trace of the dog, and eventually concluded that it had been a stray that had somehow wandered in, then found its own way out again.

Van Plaassen did not mention the encounter to anyone before, a few days later, he left on a trip. When he returned, he noticed that the other members of the household seemed greatly upset. His enquiries soon revealed that, during his absence, several other people had also seen the dog, and always on the stairs. His curiosity now thoroughly piqued, Van Plaassen decided to wait up late in the hope of encountering the “animal” again, and he invited a neighbour, a Monsieur Grevecoeur, and his young son to join him as corroboarting witnesses.

Sure enough, the black dog appeared at the head of the stairs again that night. Grevecoeur whistled to it, and the dog wagged its tail in friendly fashion. As the trio began to mount the stairs towards it, however, the animal began to fade from sight, vanishing before they could reach it.

A few evenings later, Van Paassen decided to watch again, this time accompanied by his own two “police dogs” – perhaps a pair of German Shepherds. Yet again the ghostly animal materialised, and this time the dog came part way down the stairs before it disappeared. A moment later, so Van Plaassen writes, he saw his dogs seemingly engaged in a deadly tussle with an invisible adversary. “This,” he says, “led to a horrible scene. The dogs pricked up their ears at the first noise on the floor above and leaped for the door. The sound of pattering feet was coming downstairs as usual, but I saw nothing. What my dogs saw I do not know, but their hair stood on end and they retreated growling back into my room, baring their fangs and snarling. Presently they howled as if they were in excruciating pain and were snapping and biting in all directions, as if they were fighting some fierce enemy. I had never seen them in such mortal panic. I could not come to their aid, for I saw nothing to strike with the cudgel I held in my hand. Then one of my dogs yelled as if he were in his death-throes, fell on the floor and died.” Examination of the animal’s body failed to reveal any external signs of injury.

The death of the “police dog” was too much for Van Plaassen’s landlord, who summoned a priest to advise them. This man, named by Van Plaassen as the septuagenarian [= learned, wise] Abbé de la Roudaire, arrived and stood watch with the journalist next night. Once again the black dog appeared, but this time the priest stepped towards it. The beast gave a low growl and faded from sight once more, but the Abbé had apparently seen enough. He summonded the landlord and asked if any young girls were employed as servants in the house. The owner admitted that one was, and asked the Abbe if he thought there might be some connection between the young girl and the strange apparition. Shrugging his shoulders, the Abbé de la Roudaire agreed that there was sometimes an “affinity” between young people and various types of strange phenomena. The servant girl was dismissed – we’re not told on what grounds, and left to conclude that an employment tribunal might have proved interesting. Whatever the circumstances, though, the Abbé proved correct in his analysis. After the girl’s ejection from he household, the ghostly black dog was never seen again.

Some black dog literature:

Janet and Colin Bord, Alien Animals (London: Granada, 1980)

Theo Brown,  ‘The Black Dog.’ Folk-Lore v.69 (1958).

Simon Burchell, Phantom Black Dogs in Pre-Hispanic Mexico (Loughborough: Heart of Albion Press, 2007).

Ethel Rudkin, ‘The Black Dog.’ Folk-Lore v.49 (1938).

Bob Trubshaw, ‘Black dogs: guardians of the corpse way,’ Mercian Mysteries, August 1994.

___________, Explore Phantom Black Dogs (Loughborough: Heart of Albion Press, 2005).

David Waldron & Christopher Reeve, Shock! The Black Dog of Bungay: A Case Study in Local Folklore (Bungay: Hidden Publishing, 2010).

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Visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary rank among the most interesting of Fortean phenomena. They are, to begin with, often very well evidenced; there are frequently multiple witnesses, and series of visions can run for days, weeks, months, or even years. Because of their theological implications, such experiences have also been the subject of intensive contemporary investigation, and though devout interrogators don’t always ask the questions that we Forteans want answered, the fact is that we know vastly more about the background and early lives of percipients such as St Bernadette or Catherine Labouré than we do about most people who report strange things.

BVM experiences are also of special interest to those of us who take an interest in the psychological and cultural factors that underpin all such reports. They are very culturally specific, being reported – with one or two notable exceptions – exclusively by Roman Catholics and often include either prophetic or doctrinal elements. (One of the most interesting thing about the visions at Lourdes was the BVM’s statement to Bernadette that “I am the Immaculate Conception,” a comment that rather conveniently affirmed quite a new and controversial bit of Catholic dogma.) Cases often feature bizarre and surreal elements – one thinks particularly of the visions at Pontmain, in France, during the Franco-Prussian war, in which the Virgin hovered in the sky “surrounded by an oval frame, and her words, far from being spoken, inscribed themselves slowly on a twelve-foot-long strip of parchment that materialised beneath her feet. She then disappeared from the feet up into a ‘kind of bag.'” [Dash, Borderlands p.55] Marian apparitions are also exceptionally fascinating from a purely evidential point of view, because in cases where there are multiple witnesses it is entirely normal for the various percipients to see and hear very different things.

Kevin McClure, whose book The Evidence for Visions of the Virgin Mary remains one of the most thought-provoking studies of this subject, points out that the BVM apparitions that have taken place since the ‘Miraculous Medal’ case of 1830 follow a clear evolutionary pattern, with later witnesses apparently drawing on their knowledge of earlier cases, or being informed of them by their better-educated interrogators. Elsewhere, McClure mentions two other problems that bear on the interpretation of these visions: the question of why the BVM should choose ill-educated peasant children of no influence as conduits for the important messages she wishes to deliver to mankind, and the peculiar fact that the earliest well-attested Marian apparition took place in the English village of Walsingham as late as 1061. Where, McClure asks, had Mary been for the previous 1,030-odd years, and why choose to return to earth then, after so long a sojourn in Heaven?

It’s well worth bearing McClure’s queries in mind when considering a very rare earlier BVM report which I stumbled across the other day while reading Roger Collins’s highly-regarded The Arab Conquest of Spain, 710-797. This apparition may well be the earliest that can be specifically dated – it occurred in the city of Toledo on 18 December 662 – and the chief witness was about as far from an illiterate peasant girl as it is possible to get; he was Reccesuinth, the King of Visigothic Spain.

BVM apparition to St IldephonsusThe details of the apparition are, perhaps inevitably, hazy. The source is the Vita Ildefonsi, an account of some deeds of Bishop Ildefonsus of Toledo. The original manuscript is, importantly, more or less contemporary – it was written only a few years after its subject’s death in 667, apparently by his successor, Cixila. According to the Vita, the BVM appeared to Ildefonsus, in the presence of Reccesuinth, on her own feast day, and invested him with “a small present from the treasury of my Son.” Collins notes that “it is implied that this is a garment, which in later tradition became fixed as a chasuble [the elaborately embroidered outer vestment worn by a Catholic priest – about as far from typical of the clothing worn in first century Palestine as it is possible to get], and the whole scene was to be a very popular one in the art of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spain.” [Collins p.75] An example of this artistic tradition appears to the right, and a significantly elaborated contemporary telling of the same story on this Catholic blog puts the incident this way:

It is recounted that on this feast of the Mother of God, Archbishop
Ildephonsus, together with some of his clergy, hastened to church
before the hour of Matins to honour Our Blessed Lady with their songs.
Arriving close to the church, they found it all ablaze with a heavenly
radiance. This so frightened the little band that all fled, except for
Archbishop Ildephonsus and his two faithful deacons. Deacons, take
note! With wildly beating hearts, these entered the church and made
their way to the altar. A great mystery was about to unfold.

There, seated on the Archbishop’s throne, was the august Queen of
Heaven surrounded by choirs of angels and holy virgins. The chants of
paradise filled the air. Our Blessed Lady beckoned Ildephonsus to
approach her. Looking upon him with tenderness and majesty, she said:
“Thou art my chaplain and faithful notary. Receive from me this
chasuble, which my Son sends you from His treasury.” Having said this,
the Immaculate Virgin clothed Ildephonsus in the chasuble, and
instructed him to wear it for the Holy Sacrifice on her festivals.

The account of this apparition, and of the miraculous chasuble, was
deemed so certain and utterly beyond doubt, that news of it spread
through the Church, even reaching the Ethiopians. The Church of Toledo
honoured the event with a special proper Mass and Office. What was the
miraculous chasuble like? Artists through the ages have sought to
depict it, more often than not in rich brocades of gold and blue.

There are several interesting facets to this account. Firstly, it’s clear that the passage relating the BVM apparition in the Vita Ildefonsi is part of an entirely different tradition to the Marian encounters of the last two centuries. Mary appeared not in an external, rural setting, but in what was then Spain’s capital city, and not to insignificant children but to a roomful of the kingdom’s most notable men, the king and his bishop chief among them. Second, her gift was something physical and not a warning or a piece of prophecy, as is typical today. Finally, the BVM apparition was – according to the author of the Vita Ildefonsi – part of a series of supernatural events. Nine days earlier, both Reccesuinth and Ildefonsus had witnessed a miracle apparently wrought by St Leocadia, the patron saint of Toledo. This miracle – which took place, significantly enough, on the saint’s feast day – involved the levitation of the massive lid to Leocadia’s sepulchre and the discovery of her perfectly-preserved shroud, some 360 years after her death:

[Source: Ann Christys, Christians In Al-Andalus, 711-1000 (Richmond, Surrey: Curzon Press, 2002) p.22]

Collins, in discussing this pair of miracles, makes the important point that the BVM apparition supposedly seen by King Reccesuinth and Bishop Ildefonsus was “of a very superior type” and adds that it was “quite unprecedented in Spanish hagiographical texts.” [Collins p.77] Quite possibly, however, reports of earlier BVM apparitions were made in other countries. I would wager that, if they were, they will be found to follow the pattern set out in the Vita Ildefonsi a lot more closely than they do modern received wisdom of what a Marian apparition should be.

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Bottles of human fat recovered by Peruvian police in the Pistachos murder caseA deeply strange serial murder case from Peru – involving the apparent butchering of 60 or more people in the mountainous Huánuco region so that their bodies could be rendered for their fat – rang a distant bell when I turned to it. According to the BBC, the gang of killers (four of whom were caught in possession of bottles of the stuff [right], and who were allegedly realising $15,000 per litre for it from a cabal of European cosmetics manufacturers) have been nicknamed ‘The Pistachos“after an ancient Peruvian legend of killers who attack people on lonely roads and murder them for their fat.”

I first mentioned the pistachos (more properly pishtacos) years ago in a 1989 Fortean Times news item (FT51:9 – and see also FT93:16), though back then they were described as child abductors and there was no mention of human fat at all. The legend is actually very well-known in Peru and throughout much of South America, but it seems to have been new to some of the journalists who wrote up the murder case, several of who explained that the word is used nowadays to refer to any murderer for hire. One Portuguese journalist went so far as to define ‘pistachos‘ as “vampires who feed on fat.” This strikes me as a very modern adulteration of what is a far more interesting and ancient legend. “Pishtaco” actually derives from the Quechua word “pishtay”, meaning to shred or cut into strips, and Alberto Tauro del Pino, in his magisterial Enciclopedia Ilustrada del Perú (Lima: 6 volumes, Editorial Peisa, 1987) v.5, defines it to mean a bandit whose occupation is robbing lone women or men. The pishtaco‘s modus operandi, Tauro del Pino adds, is to strangle his victims, after which he eats their meat and sells their fat. The mutilated victims are either buried, sometimes still alive, to fertilize the soil, or disposed of by being interred in the foundations of buildings.

It seems possible this latter detail is another more modern addition to a centuries-old story capable of multiple interpretations; my own first guess was that the pishtacos may have had their origins in a combination of old fertility rites and the sort of desperate measures resorted to in order to stay alive in horribly impoverished areas during times of dearth and drought. That idea is supported by some scholars, but other interpretations are possible. Antonio Gonzalez Montes, of the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, prints a variant story in which the fat obtained from the pishtacos‘ victims is used to lubricate machinery and keep it working, while the American anthropologist Mary Weismantel, in her Cholas and Pishtacos: Stories of Race and Sex in the Andes (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), notes that such stories “often begin with the dangerous moment when a stranger appears on Indian land” and tells another tale in which the killers are Francsican monks, hooded and robed, and the fat they take is used to grease church bells – apparently so as to improve their tone.

For most of Weismantel’s informants, the pishtaco was “a foreigner” with a big overcoat “that undoubtedly concealed knives and guns”, blue eyes, long hair and “enormous boots.” Other writers suggest that successful pishtacos wear clothes made from the skins of their victims and can also be identified by the peculiar, western devices that they use – cars and cameras, tape recorders, MP3 players and so on. They are voracious, preferring human flesh when it can be got, drinking large quantities of milk, and are notorious rapists. On occasion they allow their female victims live in order to give birth to pishtacquitos, who grow up to accompany their father on his travels.

Guamon Poma sorceror and the devilThe most comprehensive book on the subject, a compilation of folklore published in Spanish by Juan Ansión as Pishtacos: De Verdugos a Sacaojos (Lima: Tarea, 1989), argues that the genesis of the legend goes back several centuries, and may pre-date the Spanish conquest. The sixteenth century Peruvian chronicler Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala, who wrote on the appalling treatment meted out to South America’s indigenous peoples (and drew – he was a remarkable artist [his depiction of a wizard consorting with the devil can be seen left]), describes a variety of sorcerer who mixed human fat with gold and feathers to cast spells. On the other hand,  Catharine Stimpson of New York University, who contributes an introduction to Weismantel’s book, points out that

the exact representation of the pishtaco has varied over time. Its origin may have been the practice of colonizing Spanish soldiers who took Indian fat to help heal their wounds. In the eighteenth century, the pishtaco appeared as a priest with a knife, and then evolved into a man on horseback or in a powerful car. During the economic crisis of the 1980s, when rural residents immigrated to urban centers, the pishtaco reappeared as the sacojos, white medical technicians in dark suits who steal and dismember children.

This ties in well not only with the common modern legend of the organ-snatcher but with other bits of commentary; it is mentioned, for example, that the pishtaco‘s purpose has evolved over the years, so that now their main aim is to sell fat to the government, which exports it to help write down the enormous foreign loans that burden the country. Looked at from this perspective, the legend might be seen as a creation of an indigenous people who see themselves, almost literally, as cogs in their conquerors’ machine (the fat, Gonzalez Montes says, is required to ensure there is no interruption to “the rhythm and continuity of the production process”), though perhaps fear of the changes to traditional peasant life wrought by industrialisation also played its part.

Anyway, since the term has become so debased of late, and with relatively little information about the pishtacos readily available, it seems worth repeating my original FT article here, if only for the purpose of comparison. Here, then, is the legend of the pishtacos as it appeared in print two decades ago, at a time when Peru was far more troubled than it is today:

Bogeymen Haunt Peru

The word is out in the remote hamlets of the Peruvian Andes: the pistachos are back. Pistachos are folk-devils, white-skinned men dressed in broad-brimmed hats, greatcoats and riding boots who steal children from the streets at night. As described by the local Indians, they greatly resemble the picture of the stereotypical Spanish landowner.

What is interesting about the recent spate of pistacho stories is their location: the bogeymen have come down out of the mountains and sightings have been reported in several major Peruvian cities. An innocent man was beaten to death in Ayacucho, and our source, the Independent of 29 Dec 1987, mentions that the son of a British diplomat narrowly escaped lynching, in some indeterminate place, at some time or another.

Anthropologists suggest that the current endemic unrest in Peru – where a bloody state of near-war exists between the authorities and Maoist ‘Shining Path’ guerillas – may account for the return of the pistachos. Others say that the Army puts such stories about in the hope that outsiders in a community may be attacked… but there is yet a third hypothesis, which suggests that the Shining Path are behind the tales, which are spread to encourage people to attack the army foot soldiers who are the only (mortal) figures to be been after dark in most Peruvian towns.

A footnote [November 22]

Widespread press coverage of the Peruvian murder gang and its activities over the past two days has thrown up some interesting additional information. For one thing, according to the gang members detained by the local police, their group has been in existence for a surprisingly long time. The pishtacos’ leader, Hilario Cudeña, 56 – who some reports state has been arrested, but most seem to agree remains at large – is said to have been involved in the fat trade for the past three decades. Equally intriguing is the widespread disbelief in the scientific community that there can be any sort of market in human fat. For one thing, the rendering methods described by the captured gang members are so lo-tech that the product (which might theoretically have some applications in filling and plumping products) would be dangerously impure. (The pishtacos, we learn, worked “by removing the head, arms, legs and organs, then suspending the bodies above candles to allow the fat to drip down into tubs”.) For another, our increasingly obese society produces such vast quantities of surplus First World fat, extracted via liposuction, that it’s hard to imagine that there could be demand for relatively tiny quantities of South American product; indeed, the gallons of fat extracted from patients every day is thrown away precisely because there is no viable use for it, and – and, as The Independent points out – “given the cosmetic surgery industry’s reputation for spotting new business opportunities, if they could make $6 a gallon on it, never mind $60,000, they would be unlikely to pass it up.” Thirdly, doctors who do implant fat in human bodies use cells extracted from the patients in order to avoid problems with immune response – think lip-plumping collagen injections made with fat extracted from the patient’s buttocks. Finally, it strikes me that if this gang of pishtacos have been at work in Peru since the late 1970s, their activities long predate the development of modern fat-implanting plastic surgery technologies, rendering it highly questionable whether the motive for the killings – originally at least – had anything to do with supplying the demands of cosmetic surgeons.

All this, I suspect, leaves open the distinct possibility that (assuming the Peruvian police have the story straight at all) these modern pishtacos did not acquire their nickname from a mere coincidental resemblance to beings from an old Andean legend. It seems considerably more likely that Peru’s new fat-stealers have spent the past 30 years or so quite consciously apeing the bogeymen’s reputed modus operandi, for reasons that are no doubt horrifying, but which at present still elude us.

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Pearson’s Weekly, a British magazine popular during the early years of last century, ran a peculiarly interesting article on ‘Mysterious people who have worn masks’ some time in the latter half of 1903. I picked up a reprint in New Zealand’s Christchurch Star, 24 November 1903, and the story leads with a fascinating account of a contemporary urban terror in the Serbian capital, Belgrade. The city was then – thanks to the June 1903 disembowelling of its unfortunate king, Aleksandar I – in the midst of one of its frequent bouts of extreme political instability, and the Serbian bogeyman had some extraordinary features. He was tall and slim and interested in children, in a manner entirely typical of his breed, but was much more violent than most, being rumoured to bloodily murder the offspring of the ruling classes, while leaving the children of poor families unscathed. Still more peculiarly, his victims’ “mangled bodies” were supposed to turn up by the roadside “drained of every drop of blood,” suggesting definite links to the still-strong local vampire tradition – for which see Paul Barber’s excellent Vampires, Burial and Death: Folklore And Reality (Yale University Press, 1988). The article describes the monster as a “vlkoslak”, which it defines as “a Servian word [meaning] indifferently either a vampire or a were-wolf.”

My instinct is that this long-forgotten scare might have a good deal to teach us about bogey figures in general and the vampire traditions of the Balkans, and would certainly repay further research.

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