Archive for the ‘Psychic phenomena’ Category

On September 14, 1224, a Saturday, Francis of Assisi—noted ascetic and holy man, future saint—was preparing to enter the second month of a retreat with a few close companions on Monte La Verna, overlooking the River Arno in Tuscany. Francis had spent the previous few weeks in prolonged contemplation of the suffering Jesus Christ on the cross, and he may well have been weak from protracted fasting. As he knelt to pray in the first light of dawn (notes the Fioretti—the ‘Little flowers of St Francis of Assisi,’ a collection of legends and stories about the saint),

he began to contemplate the Passion of Christ… and his fervor grew so strong within him that he became wholly transformed into Jesus through love and compassion…. While he was thus inflamed, he saw a seraph with six shining, fiery wings descend from heaven. This seraph drew near to St Francis in swift flight, so that he could see him clearly and recognize that he had the form of a man crucified… After a long period of secret converse, this mysterious vision faded, leaving… in his body a wonderful image and imprint of the Passion of Christ. For in the hands and feet of Saint Francis forthwith began to appear the marks of the nails in the same manner as he had seen them in the body of Jesus crucified.

In all, Francis found that he bore five marks: two on his palms and two on his feet, where the nails that fixed Christ to the cross were traditionally believed to have been hammered home, and the fifth on his side, where the Bible says Jesus had received a spear thrust from a Roman centurion.

Francis had been marked by the stigmata. But how? Had they been placed there by God? Or had the future saint inflicted the wounds on himself? Why are so many stigmatics women – and why are so few Protestants? The answers are revealing, and you can read more in this week’s Past Imperfect essay here.

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Reading the diaries of John Rae, the renowned controversialist and long-serving headmaster of Westminster School (1970-86), turns up an interesting anecdote that illustrates some of the problems that parapsychologists encounter outside the laboratory, where they are all too often at the mercy of unexpected variables – especially when they are too prone to believe.

Rae had attended a dinner at Blackheath, held by the biographer John Grigg and his wife, and arrived to discover that Arthur Koestler was also a guest. Koestler. an Austro-Hungarian by birth best known for his anti-Communist book Darkness At Noon (1940), was nearing the end of a complicated life; he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease five years earlier and more recently had contracted leukemia. This had boosted an already active interest in parapsychology and historical revisionism, which had led him to write such books as The Case of the Midwife Toad (on Paul Kammerer and coincidence) and the wildly controversial and, historically, deeply flawed The Thirteenth Tribe (which argued that the Ashkenazi Jews, who make up the great majority of modern day Israelis, were not originally German semites, but were descended from the inhabitants of the the 9th century middle Asian Khazar Empire).

By 1980, anyway, Koestler was a convinced believer in psychic phenomena who had already made arrangements, in his will, to leave a substantial legacy to Edinburgh University to fund a parapsychology department there. Hence the piquancy of Rae’s anecdote:

Before dinner the wooden stool on which I am sitting collapses and Koestler insists that he had heard the Griggs’ dog start barking a fraction of a second before the stool collapsed, as though I had communicated some form of early warning to the animal. This enables Koestler to lead an interesting discussion about various forms of extra-sensory perception. But it is cut short by John Grigg, who points out that the dog, whose name is Slippers, barked because it heard the telephone in the hall ring just before the stool collapsed. We are all rather disappointed, especially Koestler.

[Source: John Rae, The Old Boys’ Network: A Headmaster’s Diaries 1972-1986, entry for 17 March 1980. (London: Short Books 2010 pp.200-01)

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Storey pp.285-6]

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

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

[Ibid p.288]

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

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

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

I am, Sir, your obedient servant,


Great Malvern, April 26.

Hmm. Who to believe?

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Being an historian, I readily admit to a special fondness for that rarest of Fortean phenomena, the “timeslip” case. These are incidents in which a witness appears to travel back through time, in some unexplained and unexpected way, and is able to witness at first hand an event in the past. The proper name for the phenomenon is retrocognition, and by far the best-known example of it is the celebrated Versailles incident of August 1901, which involved two female English academics on a visit to Paris who took a fork in the path in the grounds of the palace of Versailles and became convinced that they had somehow begun walking through the gardens as they existed in the late eighteenth century, at the time of Marie Antoinette. In the course of their ‘adventure,’ the ladies remembered passing several structures which did not exist in 1901, and encountering a number of people, clad in convincing period dress, whom they initially supposed to be actors rehearsing a play. Their story has been the subject of considerable investigation, and though far from all of the results favour the ladies’ interpretation, the incident nonetheless still ranks among a surprisingly large number of researchers’ “classic cases”. There are, however, three or four other, much less celebrated, timeslip cases that follow a very similar pattern, and I want to have a look at one of those today.

Before we begin, it’s worth bearing in mind that practically all incidents of this type share some intriguing common characteristics, among which I would list the following: [i] the percipient(s) may be aware, at the time of the experience, that something unusual is going on, but typically the full strangeness of the event only strikes them days, weeks or even months later; [ii] often the ‘strangeness’ that is noticed is some sort of dissociation; there may for example be an unnatural stillness. This, of course, is characteristic of various altered states of consciousness; [iii] there is almost always an immersive element to the experience. What is seen is not a ‘vision’ but an apparently real environment through which the percipient(s) can travel and with which they can, in some cases, interact – but only very rarely does that interaction take the form of actual conversation, or physical contact with a person from the supposed ‘past’. This, again, is highly suggestive of various ASCs; [iv] historical research is generally brought to bear, and some discovery is made that appears to confirm that the percipient(s) saw or heard something they should not have been able to and could not have known about. Such discoveries are, however, usually controversial and it is in any case extremely rare for such information to be actually unknown at the time the incident occurred. Generally the information is dug out of some old book or manuscript and therefore it is always possible to argue that the percipient(s) acquired the knowledge either from seeing, hearing or reading some reference to it (a common explanation in cases of ‘past life’ regression), or even telepathically. Finally, [v] very unusually, among Fortean phenomena, multiple-witness cases are commonplace in this field – indeed they are the norm. Close examination of the casebook generally shows that the percipients have discussed the case in detail amongst themselves long before it comes to the attention of any investigator, and that there has been a process of mutual reinforcement in the course of which, it is reasonable to suppose, the ‘strangeness’ of the case often becomes magnified, the witnesses become much more certain that they have experienced something genuinely inexplicable, and any rough edges in their testimony are smoothed away.

Some of these characteristics (though not all) apply to the case before us, which the solitary witness came to believe was an experience of the aftermath of the Battle of Nechtansmere. This fight (popularly said to be depicted on a Pictish symbol stone, above) took place on 20 May 685 and is mostly forgotten today, though it was the Waterloo of late seventh century Scotland. The combatants were the indigenous Picts* and an invading army of Saxons commanded by Ecgfrith¶, King of Northumbria, who was by some distance the most powerful ruler in the British Isles at the time. The battle was, nonetheless, a Pictish victory, and it resulted in Ecgfrith’s death and the dispersal of his army – thus helping to secure the independence of Scottish kingdoms from Saxon overlordship.

For those alive in the 680s, it seems safe to say, Nechtansmere would have been one of the great events of the day. Nonetheless (this being the Dark Ages, after all), the battle is extremely ill-recorded. The most detailed description is given by Bede, writing in Northumbria some half a century later, though Ecgfrith’s violent end is also mentioned briefly in a couple of Irish chronicles and one Welsh one. Bede observes, in his Ecclesiastical History, that Ecgfrith “rashly led” his army north against the advice of his most trusted advisors, and that the battle occured when “the enemy made show as if they fled, and the king was drawn into the straits of inaccessible mountains, and slain with the greatest part of his forces,” but he sadly neglects to mention even approximately where the fight took place. That detail is supplied by the Annals of Ulster and the Annals of Tigernach (both compiled, according to even the most optimistic estimates, several centuries later), which refer to the battle as “Dún Nechtain”, and by Symeon of Durham who – writing in the 12th century – called it “Nechtanesmere”. The idea that the battle was fought close to a body of water is echoed in the work of the ninth century Welshman Nennius, who called it Gueith Lin Garan, or ‘the Battle of Crane Lake’, but it was not until the early nineteenth century that the likely site was identified by another noted historian, George Chalmers, who (in his Caledonia, or, an Account Historical and Topographic, of North Britain) first suggested it had been fought at Dunnichen (below right), a shallow hill near Forfar, in Angus, which shares its name with a small nearby village.

Dunnichen HillSince the precise location of the Battle of Nechtansmere is central to our enquiry, it’s worth pausing for a moment to look at the manner in which Chalmers arrived at his conclusion. Alex Woolf of the University of St Andrews, author of the most recent study of the problem, says that he ‘based his identification on early forms of the name preserved in the cartulary of Arbroath abbey; Dunnichen comprised part of the abbey’s endowment and is described there as Dunectin or Dunnechtyn, which seems definitely to stem from Dún Nechtain.’ Chalmers’s conclusion has been generally accepted by scholars ever since, and though there is no longer any sign of a loch or mere near Dunnichen, a small stone monument in the village now commemorates the events of 685.

Fast forward 1,265 years to 2 January 1950, and a cocktail party held 10 miles away in the little town of Brechin. This party was attended by Miss E.F. Smith, a lady then aged about 55 who was resident in the village of Letham, under Dunnichen Hill. According to her own account, Miss Smith left the party late, having consumed an unspecified quantity of those delicious cocktails. Driving conditions were extremely poor. It was pitch dark, and ‘a fall of snow had been followed by rain.’ Two miles outside Brechin, Miss Smith skidded her car into a ditch. There was, she insisted,

no question of [her] skid having been due to her fainting, or other lapse of consciousness, nor [had she been] injured in any way, or concussed. She had to abandon her car, however, and continue her journey on foot – a distance of about eight miles. Her walk was along deserted country roads in a countryside with a few scattered farms. She had her little dog with her, but, for the last two miles of the journey, she had to carry him on her shoulder; and as she neared Letham, she must have felt fairly exhausted. She also felt ‘nervous’… for she deliberately refrained from taking a commonly used, and normally welcome, shortcut, because it would have taken her out of the open country and alongside a dark, wooded area.

The apparitional experience began when Miss Smith was about half a mile from the first houses of Letham village and it continued until she reached them. The time was getting on for 2am.

[Source: Andrew MacKenzie, Hauntings and Apparitions p.163]

In Miss Smith’s recollection, the first sign that something unusual was taking place came as she approached the crest of a slope from which Dunnichen Hill became visible. Peerng ahead, she saw a groups of lights moving in the distance which, as she walked on, gradually resolved themselves into a shadowy group of figures carrying flaming torches. A little later a second phase of the experience began when she noticed a second group to her right, about a third of a mile away. The third and most dramatic stage followed

as she watched figures even closer to her, in the field, on the right, about fifty yards away, in the direction of some farm buildings which, however, were not visible in the darkness.

At this stage, the dog started to growl. Miss Smith said, ‘he was sitting on my left shoulder and he turned and looked at the lights… and I thought, next he’s going to bark.’

Continuing as fast as she could towards her home, Miss Smith left the scene and the mysterious figures behind her and went straight to bed. Only on waking in the morning did she fully recognise how strange the experience had been.

It took another 20 years for the witness’s account of her evening to be recorded by a member of the Society of Psychical Research, Dr James McHarg, a psychologist who visited Miss Smith in September 1971 – it is not stated how he heard of her experience. McHarg found the witness still able to supply a detailed account of her encounter (one wonders just how much more detailed it had become in the intervening decades), and apparently quite credible:

Miss Smith said that at the beginning of the first phase, in the distance straight ahead, she saw… ‘quite a lot of torches.’ Miss Smith felt that what she was seeing had not suddenly started but that it had already been going on when she came upon it. Her recalled reaction was to say to herself, ‘Well, that’s an incredible thing.’… Speaking about the nearest figures of all, wPictish warriorhich she watched during the third stage of her experience, Miss Smith, ‘they were obviously looking for their own dead… the one I was watching, the nearest one, would bend down and turn a body over, and, if he didn’t like the look of it, he just turned it back on its face and went on to the next one… There were several of them…. I supposed they were going to bury them.’

When  asked about clothing, Miss Smith said ‘…they looked as if they were in – well, I would have said brown, but that was merely the light – anyway, dark tights, the whole way up, a sort of overall, with a roll collar, and at the end of their tunics there was a larger roll around them too. And it simply went on looking like tights until it reached their feet. I did not see what was on their feet. But they weren’t long boots.’

[Compare this description to the contemporary carving above, showing a Pictish warrior on a symbol stone at Golspie.]

… Miss Smith was asked about the torches the figures she saw were carrying. She replied ‘…they were carrying very long torches in their left hands… [the torches were] very red… Afterwards, I wondered what on earth they’d been made of – tar, I suppose. Was there tar in those days?’

[Source: Ibid pp.165-7]

Now, all this is very interesting, not least because it is very clear that, by the time Dr McHarg arrived on the scene,  Miss Smith had long come to the conclusion that she had somehow witnessed groups of Pictish warriors of the late seventh century. No other explanation for the experience seems to have been considered by her, and the psychical researcher Andrew MacKenzie, writing up the case, merely observes: ‘It was assumed that the scene Miss Smith described concerned the aftermath of the Battle of Nechtanesmere.’ Miss Smith herself freely admitted that she was aware of the battle, and knew that it was supposed to have been fought near her home village. (This is not surprising – most of the inhabitants of Letham, one imagines, were aware of this.) She insisted, however, that she knew nothing of the specifics of the fight, nor of its precise location, nor of the Pictish dress and equipment of the day.

Map of Miss Smith's experience

Dr McHarg, in analysing the experience, trod with considerable caution around the background to the whole affair – he asked no impertinent questions about how much Miss Smith might have drunk at her cocktail party, or whether her intake of alcohol had contributed to her crash, merely offering a brusque assurance that, in any case, an eight-mile walk would have ‘sobered her up’. Nor, since Miss Smith was not a patient, did McHarg feel able to question her regarding her health or mental state, though he did note that ‘I detected nothing of a medical (i.e. neurological or psychiatric) nature to suggest temporal lobe epilepsy or any relevant clinical condition.’ He also felt confident that the case was neither a fraud nor a hoax, though he gave no reasons whatever to back up that conclusion, and one is left with the rather definite feeling that he simply considered a woman of Miss Smith’s age and genteel background incapable of such deceit. McHarg did consider the possibility that the whole experience was a false memory of some sort, produced by long musing on some trigger event. His research, however, inclined him heavily to a third conclusion, that the experince had been real – and, furthermore, that it had most likely been a genuine instance of retrocognition, one that had probably occured in some sort of altered state of consciousness. (It was surely noteworthy, he remarked, that Miss Smith had been more worried about the possibility that her dog might begin to bark, and wake the village, than she had been frightened or intrigued by the bizarre scene she was witnessing.)

McHarg’s reasons for accepting Miss Smith’s experience as a genuine instance of retrocognition boils down to a couple of essential points. One concerns the flaming ‘torches’ that the figures seen that night were carrying, and which the witness supposed must have been dipped in tar – though, looked at closely, it is plain that there was a very great deal of assumption in the doctor’s thinking:

At the time of the interview McHarg assumed that Miss Smith meant that it had been the flames of the torches that had been unusually red, but she may equally have meant that it had been their shafts. Enquiries revealed that torches in Scotland used to be made from the resinous roots of the Scots fir which, in their natural state, do indeed have a distinctive red colour which would perhaps be enhanced by torchlight. Such roots would have been available at Nechtansmere, for Dunnichen Hill was crowned then, no doubt, as it is today, with the Scots fir of the Caledonian forest.

[Source: Ibid p.167]

McHarg’s second point, though, seems far more solid, for it concerns the activity of the ‘Pictish warriors’ reported by Miss Smith, and particularly the way in which, the witness concluded,

the nearer figures carrying torches were… quite obviously skirting the mere, because they didn’t walk, from where I was looking, straight across to the far corner of the field, they came round

This deviation can be seen on the map McHarg prepared of the site [above], where it is shown by an arrow curving around the north-east lobe of the mere.

McHarg seemed to be on especially firm ground here – at least so far as Andrew MacKenzie was concerned – because the little local loch, presumably once known as Nechtansmere, had – it will be remembered – drained centuries previously and been turned into farmland. No local knew exactly where the lake had been, and its likely contours were effectively disguised by the gently rolling nature of the landscape. Only a few years earlier, however, during the unusually wet winter of 1946-7, floods had partually refilled the ancient lake, and Dr FT Wainwright of Queens College Dundee – then one of the leading authorities on Dark Age Scotland – had taken the opportunity to map the vanished loch, a task he undertook with the aid of aerial photography. As MacKenzie points out, his results, published in Antiquity in 1948, ‘clearly showed a finger of the loch projecting in a north-easterly direction, round which people moving towards the east would have had to skirt.’

This, at first glance, seems to be precisely the sort of hard evidence a psychical researcher craves. Miss Smith was absolutely adamant that she had neither read nor even heard of Wainwright’s paper before she had her experience, and McHarg was equally convinced that no one but the most practised map-reader could have accurately transposed the contours of his map to the ground as it appeared on the night of 2 January. Yet – by his own estimation, at least – Miss Smith had accurately placed the north-east lobe of Nechtansmere as it would have been in 685. This, the good doctor thought, was evidence that something paranormal had occurred, though whether that was retrocognition or merely telepathy (in the form of psychically acquired knowledge of an unread paper) he would not hazard. It is worth noting, parenthetically, that – as his map clearly shows – the theory also requires the Northumbrian army invading Pictland to have been approaching Dunnichen from the north, the wrong direction.

That, anyway, is where the matter rested for a further quarter-century, Miss Smith’s vision at Dunnichen Hill seeming at the very least an interesting curiosity. Some progress was made with possible alternate explanations during this time – a book entitled Hypothermia and Cold Stress, published in 1986, introduced McHarg’s account (in my opinion almost certainly correctly) into a discussion of ‘the effects of cold and stress on cerebral function’ – pointing out, as McHarg conspicuously did not, that the entire experience might have been sparked by an hallucination, and that whether or not Miss Smith was drunk on the night of her experience, she almost certainly would have been rendered dangerously cold and completely exhausted by the shock of her accident followed by an unanticipated eight-mile walk in temperatures that must have been at or below zero, the last two miles of which were completed while carrying her dog. It was only recently, however, that a much more fundamental objection to the reality of Miss Smith’s “vision of Nechtansmere” was raised. This occurred – though Alex Woolf quite possibly does not know it – when he published a short paper in the Scottish Historical Review which argued that King Ecgfrith’s final battle must have been fought not beneath Dunnichen Hill, but at another site in the Cairngorms, miles to the north.

Woolf’s argument, which has met with an extremely favourable reception among historians of Dark Age Scotland, is based on simple geography. Surely, he suggests, no informant of Bede’s even remotely familiar with the terrain around Dunnichen, Angus, could describe the low, rolling hills there as ‘inaccessible mountains’, nor suggest that any cleft between them was sufficiently vertiginous to conceal a lurking Pictish army. And, as Woolf points out, there is in fact a second site in Scotland whose modern name derives, as does Dunnichen’s, from the ancient Dún Nechtan of the Irish annals: Dunachton, in Badenoch, on the shores of Loch Insh.

Monadh Ruadh mountainsWoolf’s argument is that the geography of Dunachton fits Bede’s description almost perfectly. It is a known Pictish site – an inscribed stone dated to the 6th to 8th centuries was discovered close by the church there in the nineteenth century – and the earliest surviving mention of the place (which dates to the 1380s) mentions the existence of a ‘chapel of Nechtan’ in the vicinity that could well have lent its name to the local loch. Dunachton, furthermore, lies at the foot of three passes which cut between mountains that rise to 1,100 metres [right], and which are vastly more suitable as likely ambush spots than the rear of modest Dunnichen Hill. The new site is also so much further north of the established centre of Northumbrian power than it much easier to imagine the luckless Ecgfrith’s advisors taking alarm at the idea of sending an expeditionary force to such a place.

Accepting Woolf’s persuasive arguments, however, still leaves us with the problem of what Miss Smith actually experienced that night in January 1950. The answer to that question is: a fantasy, surely, sparked by a hallucination or a simple misperception, exacerbated by exhaustion and incipient hypothermia, fuelled by local knowledge of the battle tradition, and embroidered on, most likely, over two decades before the witness ever encountered Dr McHarg – during which time, as Miss Smith freely admitted, she had located and read Wainwright’s influential paper.

All of which, I must say, is a shame.


* Readers of 1066 And All That will remember that “the Scots (originally Irish, but by now Scotch) were at this time inhabiting Ireland, having driven the Irish (Picts) out of Scotland; while the Picts (originally Scots) were now Irish (living in brackets) and vice versa.” As the book’s authors, Sellar and Yeatman, stress, “It is essential to keep these distinctions clearly in mind (and verce visa).”

¶ Who was, of course, say Sellar and Yeatman, one of the “wave of Egg-Kings found on the thrones of all these kingdoms, such as Eggberd, Egg-breth, Eggfroth, etc. None of them, however, succeeded in becoming memorable – except in so far as it is difficult to forget such names as Eggbirth, Eggbred, Egg-beard, Eggfish, etc. Nor is it even remembered by what kind of Eggdeath they perished.”


Lloyd, Evan. Hypothermia and Cold Stress (Beckenham: Croom Helm, 1986) pp.136-42.

McHarg, James. ‘A vision of the aftermath of the Battle of Nechtanesmere, AD 685’. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research 49 (December 1978) pp.938-48.

____________. ‘A vision of Nechtansmere’. Scots Magazine January 1980 pp.379-387.

MacKenzie, Andrew. Hauntings and Apparitions (London: William Heinemann, 1982) pp.161-70.

______________. Adventures in Time (London: The Athlone Press, 1997) pp.104-05.

Woolf, Alex. ‘Dún Nechtain, Fortriu and the Geography of the Picts’. Scottish Historical Review 85(2), 2006, pp.182-201.

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I’ve spent the past couple of weeks working in the Seeley Historical Library, Cambridge, where the selection of books on offer is resolutely targeted to the needs of undergraduate coursework. So, browsing the shelves in my chosen alcove in search of something to read in a spare five minutes, I found myself faced with a pretty unappetising selection of material – not least because it turned out that I’d chanced into the section of the library dealing with the Holocaust. In the end, the choice boiled down to Rose’s seminal Revolutionary Antisemitism in Germany from Kant to Wagner (sample chapter title: “The German statists and the Jewish Question, 1781-1812”) or a copy of Art Spiegelman’s Maus. I’m not too proud to say that, after practically no soul searching at all, I plumped for Spiegelman.

Maus, for those who don’t know it, is a 300-page comic book which deals with Spiegelman’s father’s struggle to survive World War II – no easy task for a Polish Jew who fell into German hands as early as 2 September 1939. It’s a harrowing story, not least in its second half, which deals principally with the year that Vladek Spiegelman spent in Auschwitz, but though the book’s been out now for more than 20 years, I’d never actually read it before. It was with some surprise, then, that I stumbled across a couple of very interesting accounts of psychic phenomena within its pages.

The first occurs quite early in the book, when, as a result of the German conquest of Poland, Vladek finds himself interned in a forced labour camp during the first autumn of the war. One night he had a dream…

“Don’t worry…”

A voice was talking to me. It was, I think, my dead grandfather.

“Don’t worry, my child…”

It was so real, this voice…

“And you will come out of this place – Free! – on the day of Parshas Truma.”

I woke up right away. And when I went to sleep again, it was: ‘Parshas Truma! Parshas Truma!’

Truma, as Spiegelman explains, is the name of a section of the Torah, which is read aloud in synagogues once a year. Vladek asked a rabbi interned in the camp with him for the date on which Truma was due to be recited and was told it was the middle of February, three months hence. Weeks later, after so long that he had lost track of time, a group of German administrators arrived in the camp and the prisoners were released and sent home. While he was waiting for his turn to be interviewed, Spiegelman was accosted by the rabbi:

Someone sneaked next to me…


‘Do you know what day it is?

‘Saturday, of course.’

‘But do you know what Saturday? It’s Parshas Truma!’

At this point Spiegelman, the cartoonist, interjects a passage from his own interview with his father, late in the 1970s.

‘You mean your Parshas Truma dream actually came true?’

‘Yes. This for me is a very important date. I checked later on a calendar. It was this parsha on the week I got married to Anja. And it was the parsha in 1948, after the war, on the week you were born!’

A second instance of remarkably exact precognition occurs at the other end of the book. Vladek was separated from his son, Richieu, in 1943 when the couple sent the boy into hiding, and from his wife Anja when they were taken to Auschwitz. Both parents, astoundingly, survived the war, but both were convinced the other was almost certainly dead.  With the fighting over, Anja returned to her home in Poland and, when there was no sign of her husband, she went, in despair, to see a Romany fortune teller, who told her:

‘I see tragedy… death!… You’ve lost your father, your mother, everyone!’

‘Y-yes. Only Lolek, my nephew, came back.’

‘I see a child – a dead child…’

‘Richieu! My little boy Richieu [sob].’

‘Wait! Now I see a man… illness… it’s your husband! He’s been very, very ill… He’s coming… he’s coming home! You’ll get a sign that he’s alive by the time the moon is full. [And] I see a ship… a faraway place… You’ll have a new life and another little boy…’

The next frame depicts Vladek returning home, after four years away, on the night of the full moon. And the remainder of the fortune teller’s prophecy comes true some years later; the Spiegelmans emigrate to Sweden, then America, where their son Artie, the cartoonist, is born.

What are we to make of these remarkable instances of apparent precognition? Well, scholars far more versed in the field than me have had their say already. But, from a Fortean perspective, I suppose that the first point to make is that this is by no means conclusive evidence. For one thing, the stories comes to us at second hand at best – from Vladek Spiegelman via his son, in the first instance, and from Anja to Vladek to Artie in the second – and both were told 30-40 years after they occurred, so there was plenty of time for them  to be elaborated and polished. It’s also true, as more than one critic has pointed out, that the two instances of prophecy in the book serve the narrative and have a fictional ring – is it really credible that Spiegelman the cartoonist had never heard the Parshas Truma story before, given the fact that his parents later Bar Mitzvahed him on the auspicious date?

All that said, though, Art Spiegelman did tape and archive most of his conversations with his father, and requested that Maus be stocked with non-fiction titles in bookstores rather than with fiction (Michael Rothberg, ‘”We were talking Jewish”: Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” as “Holocaust” production,’ Contemporary Literature vol.35 no.4 (Winter 1994) pp.661-87). No critic seems ever to have claimed that Vladek’s account was anything other than an honest attempt to tell his story, so there’s no obvious reason to doubt that something of the sort did happen. And if Spiegelman’s account is true, both prophecies were pretty remarkably precise, and just as accurate. That’s something that’s vanishingly rare in the field of parapsychology.

It is of course entirely possible that the whole Parshas Truma incident was nothing but coincidence – some sort of psychological protection mechanism magicked into existence deep in Vladek’s brain, which had a 1:52 chance of being accurately fulfilled. It’s also true that any fortune teller confronted by a distressed Jewish woman late in 1945 would not have been taking an enormous leap to suggest that she had lost members of her family during the war and might want to emigrate. Still, according to Spiegelman, neither parent knew of Richieu’s death till months after Anja’s visit, Vladek had indeed been seriously ill, with typhus, and the Romany woman’s prediction of a second son – and only a son – certainly came true.

What really interests me about both stories is their psychological background. Both occurred at moments when the protagonist was in a desperate position, feeling considerable fear, some yearning, and had a need for comfort and hope. Might we term them instances of “crisis precognition”, in much the same way that parapsychologists have identified the phenomenon of the “crisis apparition” – ‘ghosts’ of the living that appear to materialise at psychologically critical moments, particularly the moment of death? If so, how many similar accounts might be collected to form a casebook? One for somebody applying for a Perrott Warrick fund grant, perhaps.

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FawcettOne of the great joys of reading history is the endless capacity it possesses for throwing up the unexpected.

There I was, ploughing happily through Richard Holmes’s well-researched and anecdote-rich Tommy: The British Soldier on the Western Front in my bath, when I ran across an old friend in quite unusual circumstances. ‘Structural and personal problems prevailed,’ writes Holmes in a passage otherwise dryly devoted to the problems encountered by British artillery in suppressing German heavy guns. ‘Perhaps the most notorious came in VI Corps in late 1916 when the Amazon explorer Colonel Percy Fawcett arrived to take up the new post of corps counter-battery colonel. He immediately declared that he was not in the least bit interested in the innovative work being done on the detection of German guns by flash-spotting and sound ranging… The only counter-battery shots which he would allow were those against targets clearly visible from British lines – or those he had personally detected on his ouija board.’

Fawcett, for those who have never encountered him, was one of the most celebrated explorers of his day, noted for a series of expeditions into the uncharted and dangerous Amazon basin that began with a 1906 commission to chart the boundary between Bolivia and Brazil. Best-known among Forteans for the post-war vanishing act he performed back in the jungle – which has since inspired dozens of expeditions to take off in search of him – he was actually a regular artillery officer, commissioned in 1886, who had seen long service in Ceylon – hence his appearance in the trenches. But while most accounts of Fawcett’s career agree he was eccentric, he is not usually thought of as much of a mystic. His still-unexplained disappearance, which occurred while on a quixotic expedition with his son Jack and the boy’s friend, Raleigh Rimmell, to find the ‘Lost City of Z’, deep in the jungle, is generally supposed to be about as weird as the explorer got. (The best recent coverage of this mysterious city, incidentally, appears in a long article by David Grann published in the New Yorker, 19 September 2005.)

It doesn’t take much digging, though, to discover that Fawcett was a much stranger bird than that. He enjoyed some highly eccentric cryptozoological encounters, supposedly shooting a monstrous anaconda measuring a record-breaking 62 feet long, and at one point discovered a breed of dog that had two noses. And, according to a TV producer named Misha Williams, his purpose in searching for the fabled City of Z was not what it had seemed at all.

The Observer covered Williams’s theories in a story published back in March 2004. The producer had befriended the Fawcett family and been granted access to personal papers that had lain unread for decades. Searching through these, he discovered that ‘Fawcett had no intention of ever returning to Britain and, perhaps lured by a native she-god or spirit guide whose beautiful image haunts the family archive, he planned instead to set up a commune in the jungle, based on a bizarre cult.’

Fawcett, The Observer continued, ‘hoped to follow what he privately described to friends and family as ‘the Grand Scheme’. He wanted to set up a secret community which would be based on a mixture of unusual beliefs involving both the worship of his own son, Jack, and the tenets of the then-fashionable credo of theosophy.

Jack Fawcett (left) – worship him! – and Raleigh Rimmell

‘I can now show that there were scores of associates who were planning to go out and join Fawcett to live in a new, freer way,’ Williams concluded after discovering ‘a drawing of a beguiling and ageless “sith” or female “spirit guide” who he suspects is near the heart of the mystery. Appearing only to the Fawcett family and to those who try to track the expedition’s path, the erotic siren draws white men into the jungle.’

Earlier expeditions in search of Fawcett headed off in quite the wrong direction, the producer contends. The last word of his whereabouts came as he and his inexperienced companions crossed the Upper Xingu, a south-eastern tributary of the Amazon. The repeated rescue missions followed mostly headed deep into the Matto Grosso, theorising that the explorer might have been killed by the Kalapalo tribe. One group even brought back bones said to Fawcett’s, but these proved on examination to be Indian, not European. As late as the 1960s there were those who believed Fawcett might still survive deep in the jungle perhaps worshipped as a god by some Amazon tribe.

This, it now transpires, may have been closer to the truth than anybody thought. Fawcett certainly planned to live on deep in the jungle. ‘The English go native very easily, he once wrote. ‘There is no disgrace in it. On the contrary, in my opinion it shows a creditable regard for the real things in life.’

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