She Who Dares

07 22 hoorayI started this blog on July 23rd last year, with the hope of finding something interesting to tell you about each day of the year, so today’s post will be my last one, for the foreseeable future at least. It’s been difficult to find something that I’m happy to finish on. Looking back at some of my favourite recurring themes over the last twelve months, I probably wouldn’t be happy with anything less than a daredevil hoaxer, with a side interest in alchemy, who also happened to be a woman. Unfortunately, no such person exists, but if I ever write a work of fiction, I know what the central character is going to be like. In the mean time, here is a picture of me celebrating my achievement with a cake and a massive sword..

07 22 maria spelteriniBut I do have a daredevil to tell you about. On this day in 1876, Maria Spelterini, walked over the Niagara Gorge on a tightrope. It was the last of four crossings that she made as part of the celebration of the US centennial. If you’re thinking this story might have a tragic end, it doesn’t. She lived until 1912. Several people crossed the gorge in the second half of the nineteenth century but Maria was the only woman. She made four crossings between the 8th and the 22nd. She walked across and she danced across. She crossed it backwards, she crossed with a paper bag on her head and she crossed with large peach baskets strapped to her feet. Honestly, you can see them in this photograph. On July 22nd, she crossed with her ankles and wrists manacled.

Unfortunately, I can tell you very little else about Maria. Most sources insist that she was Italian, but there is one that suggests she was German. She seems to have begun her career in her father’s circus at the age of three and to have performed around Europe and Russia. I also found a report that she crossed the bay at Jersey City, on a wire 125 ft high, in a thunderstorm.

The bridge that you can see in the background is was once used by the Underground Railroad to secretly transport enslaved African Americans to freedom in Canada. The Niagara Suspension Bridge was the first permanent bridge to cross the gorge and it opened in 1855. But before that, there was a temporary bridge, which is worth a mention. It was built by a rather flamboyant character called Charles Ellet Jr. In order to bridge the gorge, he first had to get a rope across. He thought about towing it across on a steamer, he though about attaching it to a cannonball or rocket and firing it across. In the end, he decided to run a competition.

The first child to fly a kite across the gorge and tie the kite string to the other side would win $5. Young people flocked from nearby towns to participate. The $5 was won by sixteen-year-old Homan Walsh, who flew his kite from the Canadian side of the river. The kite string was used to pull increasingly heavy lines over the gorge until they managed to secure a cable that was almost an inch thick. Charles wanted to use the cable to transport materials across without having to take them down to the river. They tested it with an 07 22 ellet's basketempty metal basket, but it kept getting stuck halfway. The whole operation had attracted quite a crowd of onlookers so, to assure them it was going to work, he climbed into the basket himself and was hauled across. He spotted that the cable had been flattened and the basket’s rollers were getting stuck. He fixed it and was pulled over to the other side. So Charles Eller Jr was the first person to cross the gorge. The basket worked very well after that. In fact, people used to pay him a dollar to ride in it. Even though he had been expressly forbidden to do so, he sometimes took around a hundred and twenty-five passengers a day.

When the bridge was finished, he was the first to cross it, in his horse and buggy, standing, like a gladiator. The 700 ft bridge only had railings along one third of its length. In the first year of its operation, $5,000 had been collected in tolls. Charles and the bridge company fell out over the money. He ended up mounting cannons on the bridge and claiming ownership of it. Eventually he was paid off and someone else built the permanent bridge.

07 22 mary toftAs I couldn’t find the ideal candidate for my last post, I’d like to leave you with a hoaxer and an alchemist, neither have birthdays that I can celebrate, but both are women. Firstly, Mary Toft was born about 1701 in Godalming, Surrey. When she was about twenty-five, she managed to convince some fairly eminent physicians that she had given birth to rabbits. At first she brought forth only parts of animals, but later seemed to produce whole rabbits. I won’t go into the details of how she did this, because it’s fairly disgusting and it’s a wonder she didn’t develop some sort of infection. Mary had been pregnant, but had miscarried after, she claimed, she had seen a rabbit whilst out working in the fields. After that, she had become obsessed with rabbits and couldn’t think of anything else. There was, at that time, a widely held belief that a child could be physically affected by what its mother had seen during her pregnancy. A similar story was ascribed to the mother of Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man. Many thought a woman capable of producing a small, mouse-like creature known as a ‘sooterkin’. Some doctors believed Mary, others were more sceptical, especially when she later gave birth to a pigs bladder that smelled of urine. When she finally admitted the hoax, it ruined the reputations of those who had believed her. Mary was imprisoned for a while, but then released, as no one could think of anything to charge her with.

Finally, I want to tell you about a lady who is variously called Mary or Maria the Jewess or, alternatively, Mary or Miriam the Prophetess. According to tradition, Mary was the sister of Moses, but she could have lived at any time up the the first century AD. She is known as the first alchemist of the western world. None of her writing survives. But it is referred to in the works of later alchemists, in connection with the first description of acid salt and 07 22 bain marierecipes for turning plants into gold. She in credited with having invented several items of chemical apparatus, including a sort of double flask. The outer flask in filled with liquid that can be used to heat whatever is in the inside flask. So if you put water in the outside flask and heat it up, whatever is on the inside can never get any hotter than the boiling water. It is still used today by chemists who require gentle heat for their experiments. And by me, for melting chocolate. This type of apparatus still bears her name. It is a ‘bain marie’, Mary’s bath.


Mountebank Distributing his Wares on the StageLast month, when my laptop was broken, I thought all my notes for this blog might be lost forever. So I was scratching round for something to write about and came across Robert Chambers article about mountebanks. He then went on to describe a bunch of fascinating people that I’d never heard of. Mountebanks were quack doctors who travelled about pedalling their cures and often performed operations on stage in front of an audience. As I wrote about Franz Mesmer yesterday, the link between medicine and theatre is still on my mind.

Today marks the death of Sir William Read who died in 1715. He wasn’t destined to be a knight. Originally, he was either a tailor or a cobbler and he was barely literate. He somehow became a mountebank and travelled the country peddling his wares. His specialities were diseases of the eye and the removal of tumours. He did all this with the aid of a substance he called ‘styptic water’ which was, I believe, designed to stop bleeding. In fact, you can still buy styptic pencils today for the same purpose, so perhaps it worked. Anyway, he managed to rise to the position of eye doctor to Queen Anne and her successor George I. People didn’t like him very much. When he was knighted, Beau Nash, a dandy from Bath turned down the offer of a knighthood because he did not want to be associated with Read. Beyond that, I couldn’t find out very much about him, apart from the fact that he published a book about eyes which was mostly lifted from someone else. But it does give me the opportunity to tell you about a couple of Robert Chambers mountebanks.

05 24 gustavus kattafeltoGustavus Katterfelto was a Prussian conjurer, scientific lecturer and mountebank who travelled about England and Scotland towards the end of the eighteenth century. He found fame in London during a flu epidemic in 1782. Part of his performance included a solar microscope, which he used to project images of micro organisms found in water, on bread or in cheese. He claimed these were the insects which caused the influenza. Unfortunately, people started to think he might be releasing the insects and actually causing the disease. He quickly took out an advertisement announcing that all his insects had died in a rain storm. Then, three days later, he took out another announcing that he himself had caught influenza. Not long after that he claimed to have found the cure, which he would sell at five shillings a bottle. Among his other claims were, that he had discovered the secret of perpetual motion and that he had launched the first hot air balloon fifteen years before the Montgolfier brothers. Katterfelto lectured on electricity and magnetism and performed with a black cat, who he claimed was evil. When the cat later gave birth kittens, its offspring were very much in demand. Marie Antoinette may have had one of them. The kittens that he kept would sometimes magically convey themselves into the pockets of his audience members, but they might also find that they had been relieved of their money and watches at the same time.

After he had outworn his welcome in the capital, he took off on a less successful tour of the provinces. In Shrewsbury, he accidentally set a haystack on fire with a hot air balloon and was jailed when he couldn’t afford to pay for the damage. I was delighted to find out that he performed, and was well received in Whitby, which, you might have gathered, is my home town. One of his favourite tricks there was to put his daughter in a massive steel helmet and lift her to the ceiling with a giant magnet.

05 24 james grahamThe other mountebank I want to tell you about today is James Graham, who operated in London at the same time as Katterfelto. Graham studied medicine in Edinburgh, but never took a degree. He travelled to America where he learned about the principles of electricity from a friend of Benjamin Franklin. He left before the revolution and travelled Holland, Germany and Russia before setting up in Bath in 1776. By 1780, he had opened his ‘Temple of Health’ in London. There, he offered electrical and magnetic cures with a heavy emphasis on the electrical. You could sit on an electric throne, put on an electric crown or soak yourself in an electric bath. He sold medicines with names like ‘Electrical Aether’ and ‘Nervous Aetherial Balsam’ and gave medical lectures. These he performed with the aid of a succession of ‘Goddesses of Health’, who were supposed to represent physical perfection. One of his goddesses was Emy Lyon, who later became Emma Hamilton, mistress of Lord Nelson.

The following year, he opened another premises, his ‘Temple of Hymen’ in Pall Mall. This held his most impressive piece of equipment. His ‘Celestial Bed’. The bed was designed to help couples who were having difficulty conceiving a child. It was twelve feet by nine and was surmounted by a dome filled with fresh flowers, automata, a pair of live turtle doves and also a large mirror. The mattress could be tilted into a favourable position and was filled with fresh wheat or oat straw, rose petals, lavender flowers and, just for good measure, hair from the tails of the best English stallions. If you think this all sounds a bit much, I want to tell you that it was also a musical bed. The movements of its occupants would cause organ music to play which increased in intensity with their ardour. You could hire this bed for fifty pounds a night. That was an exorbitant sum in the 1780s but there were plenty of aristocratic families who desperately needed an heir and who were probably so riddled with syphilis that they were having difficulty producing one. I was a bit sad that I couldn’t find a picture of it, but then I came across this lovely re-imagining of Graham’s Celestial Bed by an artist called Tim Hunkin.

Graham was a great showman but sadly not very good with money and, by 1784, he was bankrupt. Two years later, he was back in business and promoting ‘earth-bathing’. He claimed that bathing in soil was the secret to immortality. That a person could absorb through their skin, all the nutrients they needed. He claimed that he had survived for two weeks immersed in his earth bath, with nothing but a few drops of water for sustenance. He even gave lectures whilst burieded up to his neck in a flower bed. In later years, he became extremely religious and founded the New Jerusalem Church. He was its only member. In 1792, he began to experiment with prolonged fasting as a way of extending his life-span. He died two years later. He was forty-nine.

Burning Down the House

02 27 borley rectoryWinter is almost over and the days are definitely getting a bit longer here. Soon, I’ll be able to look forward to getting home from work before sunset. But, until then, maybe there’s time for just one more ghost story. Today, I want to tell you about Borley Rectory in Essex, a Victorian mansion that was built in 1862. It was built to replace a previous rectory that had burned down in 1841. Borley Rectory became famous as the ‘most haunted house in England’. On this day in 1936, it was destroyed by a fire.

The church at Borley may date, in parts, from the twelfth century. It served a small rural community and not far away, there were the ruins of an old house called Borley Hall which had once been the seat of the Waldergrave family. A local legend spoke of a Benedictine monastery in the area and a monk there who had begun a relationship with a nun from a nearby convent. They were discovered. The monk was hanged and the nun bricked up alive in the walls of her convent. Many people claimed to have seen the ghost of the nun. In fact, she had been seen so often that, in what would become the garden of Borley Rectory, there was an area known as ‘Nun’s Walk’.

Almost from the start, people reported hearing unexplained, heavy footsteps in the house. The first incumbent of the rectory, the Reverend Henry Dawson Ellis Bull died in 1892 and his son, Harry Bull took over the living. He had a large family of fourteen children and, in 1900, four of his daughters claimed to have seen the nun in the garden. But when they tried to approach her to talk to her, she had disappeared. Others said they had witnessed a coach driven by two headless horsemen.

The second Reverend Bull died in 1928 and Reverend Guy Eric Smith moved in. His wife was clearing out a cupboard in the house when she came across a brown paper package. Opening it, she found a human skull. After that, there were a number of incidents. More footsteps, servants bells ringing even though they had been disconnected and lights appearing in the windows of rooms that were empty. Mrs Smith thought she saw a 12 27 harry pricehorse-drawn carriage. In 1929, the couple wrote to a newspaper called the Daily Mirror about their experiences and asked to be put in touch with the Society for Psychical Research. They sent a reporter and also arranged for a psychical researcher called Harry Price to visit them. As soon as he arrived, new phenomena appeared. Stones were thrown and spirit messages were tapped out on the frame of a mirror. These sort of occurrences ceased as soon as Harry left the property. The Smiths left Borley about a month later.

The new Rector, Lionel Foyster, was a distant cousin of the Bulls. He moved in with his wife Marianne and their adopted daughter Adelaide in 1930. Lionel Foyster kept a record of the strange events that happened between then and October 1935 which he sent to Harry Price. Bells rung mysteriously, windows were smashed, stones and bottles were thrown. Writing appeared on the wall that seemed to appeal to Mrs Foyster for help. Adelaide was locked in a room that had no key and Marianne reported that she had been thrown from her bed. Reverend Foyster tried twice to conduct an exorcism, but it was no help. On the first occasion, he was struck in the shoulder by a fist-size stone. These incidents made their way into the Daily Mirror where they attracted the attention of several psychic researchers. The Foysters left Borley in 1935 when Lionel became ill.

Borley Rectory remained empty until 1937, when Harry Price took out a year long rental on the property. He gathered a team of forty-eight researchers who stayed there, mostly at weekends, and reported anything unusual. In 1938, the daughter of one of his researchers conducted a séance in Streatham, London and seemed to make contact with two spirits connected to Borley Rectory. One was a French nun called Marie Lairre who had left her order to marry a member of the Waldergrave family from the now ruined Borley Hall. But she had been murdered in a building that once stood on the site of the rectory. The second was a spirit called Sunex Amures who told her that he would burn down Borley Rectory that very night, March 27th 1938, and that the bones of a murdered person would be found. This did not happen.

02 27 ruined rectoryOn February 27th 1939, the new owner of the Rectory, Captain W H Gregson was unpacking some boxes in the hall when he upset a lighted oil lamp. The fire spread quickly and the house was badly damaged. Insurance investigators concluded that the fire had been started deliberately. A local woman claimed to have seen the nun looking out of one of the building’s upper floor windows during the fire. The house was left a ruin. In 1943, Harry Price returned and conducted a dig in the cellar of the rectory. He found two bones supposed to be that of a young woman. They were buried, with ceremony, in a churchyard, but not at Borley. They refused the remains because they believed them to be the bones of a pig.

Now, I need to tell you that there was no written information about the hauntings at Borley Rectory prior the the involvement of Harry Price. Someone who remembered the Bull family, Louis Mayerling, tells us how much Harry Bull’s fourteen children all loved the story of the ghost nun and exploited it at every opportunity. They claimed to have a magic piano that was played by spirits, but in fact it was one of the children hidden behind it, plucking at the strings with a poker. They found they could set off the servant’s bells by prodding at them through a nearby window. No doubt later occupants found they could do the same.

Certainly the discovery of a skull in a cupboard is a bit weird, but once you realise that the rectory garden had once been part of the cemetery, it’s exactly the sort of thing that might have been dug up by accident and held on to as a curiosity. The Smiths had written to the newspaper hoping that all the phenomena could be properly investigated and reasonably explained. Instead, they got Harry Price, who they rather suspected was responsible for the increased activity during his visit. Price did very well financially when he wrote two books about the hauntings at Borley Rectory. Marianne Foyster later admitted that she had faked some of the psychic phenomena to cover up the fact that she was having an affair with their lodger, Frank Peerless. Peerless himself probably faked some of the others. The house’s final owner, Captain Gregson, had bought the property for £500, but he had it insured for £3500.

Until the house fell down completely, the ghostly nun was still sometimes seen through the windows of the upper storey, even though there was no longer any floor there for her to stand on. With so many people having obviously faked the psychic evidence, it is now impossible to know whether the most haunted house in England was every really haunted at all.

Cock Lane

02 01` cock laneOkay, I’ve been looking forward to telling you about this for ages. It’s another hoax story, but it went on for quite a long time and it’s been hard to choose a suitable date to hang it all on. It involves usury, a ghost and accusations of murder. It’s a story worthy of Charles Dickens. But what is really brilliant about it is not so much the details as the name. Today I give you… Scratching Fanny, the Cock Lane Ghost.

It all begins with a man called William Kent from Norfolk. His wife died in childbirth and he began a relationship with her sister Fanny. Church law forbade the couple to marry, so they moved to London, hoping to pass for man and wife. William took up a new career in usury (which means he was a loan shark) and managed to secure them a place to live in Cock Lane, near Smithfield Market. As part of the deal, he lent twelve guineas to his new landlord, Richard Parsons. They shared the house with Parsons, his wife and their two daughters.

The first sign of anything untoward was when William was away from home, some time in 1759. Fanny was several months pregnant and it was thought to be a good idea if the Parson’s eldest daughter Elizabeth, a girl of eleven, stayed with her while he was away. The two heard scratching and knocking noises in the night. At first it was thought to be a cobbler at work next door. But when they heard the noises on a Sunday, it was clear that it was not. Then the landlord of a nearby tavern visited the house. He caught a glimpse of a ghostly figure on the stairs and ran home terrified.

02 01 cock lane roomIn 1760, William and Fanny moved away from the house. But then, just before their child was born, Fanny caught smallpox and died. Fanny’s family didn’t approve very much of William and, when they found out she had left all her money to him, they liked him even less. When William and Fanny left Cock Lane, he was still owed money by Parsons, their landlord. In 1761, William sued Parsons and got back the three guineas he was owed. That was when the noises started again at Cock Lane. Richard Parsons’ new tenant, Catherine Friend, was driven from the house by them. They sounded like a cat scratching at furniture and seemed to emanate from Elizabeth Parsons, who also suffered from fits. Her father Richard enlisted the help of a local preacher, John Moore, to try to get to the bottom of the mystery. All the wainscotting was removed from around Elizabeth’s bed, but nothing was found. It had been generally decided that the first ghostly manifestations had been down to Williams first wife, coming to warn her sister of her imminent death. Now they believed Fanny was haunting them as well.

It was not uncommon, in the eighteenth century, to believe that, if a ghost appeared, it was because it had some message for the living. The two men devised a way of communicating with the ghost. One knock for ‘yes’ two for ‘no’. The ghost told them that Fanny had not died of smallpox, but had been murdered by William with a dose of arsenic. Now, Fanny’s sister Anne had complained that she had not been able to see her sister’s body because the lid of the coffin was screwed down. This was seen as more evidence against William. If they had seen her body, they would have been able to easily tell whether or not she had died of smallpox.

The story of the ghost soon spread all through London and William Kent was suspected of murder. Determined to clear his name, William attended a séance on January 12th 1762 at Cock Lane. The ghost of Fanny was again asked if William had poisoned her, and the reply was yes. When asked if Kent should be hanged, it also answered in the affirmative. William leapt up saying: “Thou art a lying spirit, thou are not the ghost of my Fanny. She would never have said any such thing.”

More seances followed throughout January, sometimes at Cock Lane and sometimes elsewhere. Public interest in the story grew, especially when everyone found out that the manifestations were centred around Elizabeth Parsons. During the seances, Elizabeth would be put to bed and everyone would sit around her waiting for the noises to start. Not all the seances were successful. If someone sat too close to the bed, the ghost would not communicate. When someone looked under the bed with a candle, the ghost would make no noise. Yet, when the street outside the house in Cock Lane was thronged with people all intent, after paying a small fee to Mr Parsons, on gaining an audience with the ghost, they were not disappointed. In retrospect, it was all very suspicious, but people still weren’t sure.

On February 1st, 1762, a very eminent crowd indeed were gathered together to observe Elizabeth and her ghost, at the house of Rev. Aldrich of Clerkenwell. Among the company was Dr Samuel Johnson, who is famous for writing a dictionary and was not at all prone to flights of fancy. It is from him that we have the following account:

For an hour all was quiet. They left the room for a while. At a previous séance the ghost had promised that it would accompany a person into the vaults of the church at Clerkenwell where Fanny’s body lay buried. It further promised that it would reveal it’s presence by knocking on the coffin. They thought they would test this out. While they were debating this, they were called back to the séance by a group of women who had remained with the girl. Elizabeth told them that she could feel Fanny’s spirit “like a mouse upon her back”. They asked her to keep her hand above the covers, where they could see them, then entreated the spirit to touch them, to make a noise, anything to indicate its presence. Nothing was heard. Then, they told the spirit that someone was, at that moment, entering the crypt and would expect its presence there. The people dispatched to the church returned at one in the morning, having heard nothing. They tried questioning the girl, but she would admit nothing. A couple of hours later, she asked to go home. Dr Johnson’s conclusion, and that of everyone else present was that: “the child has some art of making or counterfeiting a particular noise”.

02 01 cock lane ghostAfter that Elizabeth was tested several more times and it was found, as you might expect, every time her hands were visible the noises stopped. Eventually, she was told that if the ghost did not manifest, her father would be sent to Newgate Prison. That was when a couple of the women who were attending her saw her hide a small piece of wood inside her bodice. After that the noises were clearly heard. It was obvious that Elizabeth was making the noises herself and also clear exactly how she was doing it. William Kent was at last free of suspicion. A pamphlet was written (naturally) possibly by the poet Oliver Goldsmith called ‘The Mystery Revealed’. He probably also did the rather splendid drawing below, mocking the whole affair. If you look closely, you can see on the wall, pictures of the Bottle Conjurer and Elizabeth Canning who I have also mentioned recently.

02 01 goldsmith's drawingIt isn’t clear what became of Elizabeth Parsons, but her father was put on trial, along with several others, and sentenced to be put in the stocks. But people felt quite sorry for him and rather than throw things they left him money.

I said at the beginning of this post that it was the sort of thing Dickens would like. In fact, he did know this story. He probably had it from his childhood nurse, Mary Weller. He mentions the Cock Lane Ghost more than once in his novels, especially Nicholas Nickelby.

Super Size Me

01 31 mastodonThe brilliance of January 31st has proved a bit elusive, so I’m going to tell you about an exhibition that you could definitely have seen on this date if you were in London in 1842, and again in 1843. It was at the Egyptian Hall which was a rather unusual, but now sadly lost, building in Piccadilly. The main exhibition hall was very large and Dr Albert Koch, a fossil collector from St Louis, had something really big to exhibit. In 1840, he had discovered an almost complete skeleton of a mastodon in Missouri. The mastodon was a large mammal, related to the mammoth and the elephant that, up until 10,500 years ago, ranged across the northern hemisphere. His specimen, Mastodon americanum, would have stood somewhere between seven and ten feet high. Koch had reassembled the bones and then added a few extra bits, according to his own fancy.

01 31 koch's missouriumThe result was impressive. He took the bones from no less than three mastodons and added extra vertebrae and ribs. He even added some extra pieces made from wood. Koch had constructed an animal that was thirty-two feet long and fifteen feet high. As a final touch, he added the tusks, but he put them on upside down so they looked like horns curving over the animal’s head rather than pointing down and outwards. He named his new animal ‘Missourium’. Koch had already had some success hauling his monster all over the United States. Although in Philadelphia, a leading fossil expert, Dr Richard Harlan, had gently suggested that he might be able to do a bit better job of it when he’d done a bit more research.

At the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, Koch’s exhibit was extremely popular. But it did draw the attention of England’s foremost anatomist and palaeontologist, Sir Richard Owen. Owen was immediately suspicious. It seemed to have far too many ribs and its horns looked like upside down elephant tusks. Of course, he was completely right. In February, he read a paper to the Geographical Society, in which he said that Koch’s Missourium was a mastodon that had been incorrectly mounted. In April, Koch had the gall to address the same society, insisting that it was definitely a new species. None of this affected public interest in his monster and the exhibition remained until the summer of 1843. Then Koch moved on to Ireland and Germany, where he met with equal success.

01 31 mastodon skeletonIn 1844, Koch returned to the United States, but stopped over briefly in London where he sold his Missourium to the British Museum. He sold it for $2,000, with a further $1,000 to be paid every year for the rest of his life. Maybe they were hoping he wouldn’t live quite so long as he did, because they paid $23,000 in the end. The British Museum knew perfectly well they were buying a fake. As soon as it arrived, they took it all apart, removed all the extra bits, reassembled it, put the tusks on the right way round and correctly labelled it Mastodon americanus. They had themselves a very fine specimen. It is still in the collection, at the Natural History Museum in South Kensington.

08 05 koch's sea monsterIt wasn’t very long before Koch was up to his old tricks. Later that year, he was on the road with a 114 foot long sea serpent he had named Hydrarchos. We mentioned the creature back in August when we wrote more about sea serpents. Koch’s skeleton was soon identified for the fake it was, the fossil of an extinct whale with the bones of at least four other animals added to it. When he travelled to England with it, he met a similarly frosty reception. He eventually sold it in Germany.

Dr Albert Koch was thought of as a complete fraud. He wasn’t even really a doctor of anything, it was a title he awarded to himself. It’s a pity his career took a wrong turn, because early on, he actually discovered something quite important. In 1838, he had found the bones of a mastodon along with arrow heads. It proved that this animal had lived alongside, and been hunted by, early man. But no one believed him.

I Predict a Riot

01 06 crystal setI’ve found two hoaxes that happened on this day and, as I can’t choose between them, I’m going to have to tell you about both. You may have heard of Orson Welles’s famous broadcast of a play based on HG Wells’s ‘War of the Worlds’ and about the widespread panic it supposedly caused. I wrote about it back in October. Well, the BBC have a prior claim. It happened back in 1926, only four years after the BBC had begun to broadcast. The programme was listed in the Radio Times as “7;40: – The Rev. Father Ronald Knox – ‘Broadcasting the Barricades’, SB from Edinburgh.” What the Reverend Knox had written and broadcast was what he called ‘a burlesque’, by which he meant a parody, of a BBC broadcast. It was about a massive riot in London. He thought it was all far too over the top and silly for anyone to believe. But he was wrong.

Listeners from all over the country would have been tuning in on a crystal set, like the one pictured above. They were tricky things to use and it would have been easy to miss the beginning of the programme, where it was clearly announced that it was “a work of humour and imagination, enlivened by realistic sound effects.” It began with what seemed like the end of the previous programme, an improving talk on Gray’s Elegy that everyone was probably hoping to have missed. Then there was a bit of static followed by what sounded like a live news report from Trafalgar Square. A demonstration by the unemployed had turned violent. People were sacking the National Gallery. This was not really so very long after the Russian Revolution in 1917, so it sounded like just the sort of thing people were afraid might happen here.

There was an interlude featuring live music from the Savoy Hotel’s house band which was followed by a report that people were throwing bottles at the ducks in St James’s Park. Then, there was a rustling of papers as though more news was coming in and the announcer said: “One minute, please. From reports which have just come to hand, it appears that Sir Theophilus Gooch, who was on his way to this station, has been intercepted by the remnants of the crowd still collected in Trafalgar Square, and is being roasted alive… He is now being roasted alive by a crowd in Trafalgar Square.” This way of announcing the same thing twice was, at the time, characteristic of the BBC.

Next came the news that the Minister for Transport, Mr Wotherspoon, had been captured and was being hanged from a lamp post on the Vauxhall Bridge Road. The announcer later apologised and corrected this statement; it had, in fact, been a tramway post. A bit more music was interrupted by the report that the demonstrators were advancing on Whitehall with trench mortars. After that, the listeners were told that the Houses of Parliament had been blown up and Big Ben destroyed. The announcer further explained that the building was built from magnesian limestone from Yorkshire, a material which is unfortunately liable to rapid decay. An unnecessary piece of information which was, again, typical BBC. Then, the music from the Savoy Hotel returned, but was interrupted by the sound of a large explosion. The announcer cut back in to say that the Savoy Hotel had also been blown up. Finally, He announces that the mob are advancing on the BBC. But luckily order was restored when everyone just sat down in the waiting room and started reading the Radio Times.

People didn’t really know what had just happened. Knox thought he had put enough clues in the script to make people realize it was all a joke. The leader of his gang of rioters, Mr Popplebury, was constantly referred to as: “Secretary of the National Movement for Abolishing Theatre Queues”. An organisation which, if it existed at all, was unlikely to spearhead a revolution. But many people had just never come across satire, they didn’t understand it. A further problem was that they had no way of getting any sort of news until the papers arrived the following morning. This would be further exacerbated by a heavy snowfall the following day. It meant lots of people were unable to get their usual Sunday newspaper and that increased the worry that something might really be wrong. Many reached for they telephones. They called the BBC, they called newspaper offices, some even called the Admiralty and demanded that they send a battleship up the Thames to sort it all out. The Savoy Hotel had hundreds of calls. Some were worried about friends who were staying there, but others just wanted to know if they should cancel their reservations. At 9.00 pm the BBC had to broadcast an apology to the listeners who hadn’t realised it was all just a bit of silliness, and assure everyone that London was safe.

By Monday, the newspapers were full of the story. They saw the BBC as a threat to their monopoly on the news and were delighted by the opportunity to show them as a dangerous and irresponsible organisation. John Reith, who was director of the BBC, was not annoyed at all. He was interested in raising the profile of the company and Knox’s broadcast had certainly done that. In fact, it wasn’t long before they were planning to make a similar programme for April Fool’s Day.

01 06 bottle hoaxMy second hoax took place exactly 180 years earlier. Person or persons unknown advertised, in several newspapers, an event which was to take place at the Haymarket Theatre on January 16th 1746. There would be, on stage, a person who would do several unusual things. If any member of the audience were to come on stage, wearing a ‘masked habit’ he would be able to tell them who they were. Also, he would take a walking cane, that any of the spectators could provide, and play on it, the sound of any musical instrument. Most surprisingly of all, he would climb into a quart bottle (that’s two pints) and when he was inside he would sing a song. Whilst he was inside the bottle, anybody would be able to come and pick it up and look at it. They would see that it was just an ordinary bottle.

The theatre was packed. Among the audience was the Duke of Cumberland, the brother of the king. It’s hard to know what people really expected to see, but at 7.00 pm, the lights went up and nothing happened. There was no music to entertain the crowd and they began to get restless. Eventually a hapless theatre employee had to go on stage and tell everyone that if the performer didn’t turn up soon, everyone would get their money back. One audience member shouted out that they would pay double if he would crawl into a pint bottle. Then things turned a bit nasty. A lighted candle was thrown on stage. The Duke left hurriedly. Those who remained behind gutted the theatre. Benches were ripped out, the scenery smashed and the boxes destroyed. They dragged all the debris out into the street and made a huge bonfire.

At first, the theatre staff were under suspicion, but they claimed it had all been organised by ‘a stranger’ and it’s hard to imagine what they could possibly have gained from it. The likely explanation is that somebody did it for a bet. The Duke of Portland, the Earl of Chesterfield and the Duke of Montagu (who’s house I mentioned yesterday) were possible candidates. It was later claimed that the performer in question had been unable to attend because he had agreed beforehand to perform the trick privately to a gentleman for the sum of £5. When he was inside, the gentleman had corked up the bottle and taken him away. There was even an advertisement stating that people should go to the Haymarket Theatre on January 30th, where they would be able to see him climb out of the bottle.

Woman of the Apocalypse

12 27 joanna southcottToday I want to tell you about Joanna Southcott. She was born in Devon some time in April of 1750. The official date of her death is December 27th 1814. Joanna was, during her lifetime, a prophetess with thousands of followers. Some continued to believe the things she foretold long after her death. Perhaps some still do.

In 1790 she was working in a draper’s shop in Exeter. Her employer was a Methodist and she spent a lot of time talking with the Methodist ministers who frequented the shop. They were impressed by her intelligence and she came to have a rather inflated sense of her own importance. Then one morning, whilst sweeping out the shop, she found on the floor, a seal with her own initials on it. She felt it was a sign from God. In fact, she came to believe that she was the woman spoken of in the Book of Revelation, who would give birth to the second Messiah. The Woman of the Apocalypse. The Book of Revelation comes right at the end of the New Testament. It describes what will happen at the end of days and is every bit as mad as Joanna was. Here is what it has to say about the Woman of the Apocalypse:

12 27n woman of the apocalypse1. And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars:
2. And she being with child cried, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered.
3. And there appeared another wonder in heaven; and behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads.
4. And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth: and the dragon stood before the woman which was ready to be delivered, for to devour her child as soon as it was born.
5. And she brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron: and her child was caught up unto God, and to his throne.
6. And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she hath a place prepared of God, that they should feed her there a thousand two hundred and threescore days.

She thought this gave her the authority to sell documents which were basically passports to heaven. The pieces of paper could be bought for anywhere between twelve shillings and a guinea and were folded and sealed. Anyone in possession of one would be one of the 144,000 spoken of in the Book of Revelation who would be saved. They would also reign on earth alongside Christ for a thousand years. Those without a seal would spend a thousand years in hell. The seals were bought as quickly as she could produce them and those who bought the seals were forbidden to open them. The less credulous people who opened the seals to find out what was inside, often found only a blank piece of paper. Her trade in seals rather tailed off though when one of her ‘elect’ was hanged at York for murder.

Things took an unusual turn when, at the age of sixty-four, Joanna announced that she was pregnant. Her thousands of followers became very excited and clubbed together to purchase an expensive cradle for the new Messiah. The announcement also brought all sorts of gifts for the miraculous baby from her chosen followers. Midwives fought for the privilege of being responsible for the delivery. The birth, Joanna predicted, would take place at midnight on October 19th 1814. The appointed hour came and went and no child appeared. The failure was accounted for by a lack of faith among her followers. Though some claimed that a child had been born and had ascended straight to heaven. Eventually, it became clear that Joanna was quite ill. She died, probably on December 27th 1814. This is not certain, as her followers kept her body for quite a long time after she died, believing that she would rise again. A post-mortem revealed that she had suffered from a condition called dropsy which had caused fluid to accumulate in her abdomen, giving her the outward appearance of pregnancy.

Joanna may not have left us a new Messiah but she did leave something else. She left a mysterious sealed box and strict instructions that it was only to be opened at a time of the nation’s direst need. The box could also only be opened in the presence of twenty-four bishops who had spent a fixed amount of time studying the writings and prophecies of Joanna Southcott beforehand. Although she still had many followers, there have never been twenty-four bishops willing to give credence to her claims.

12 27 harry priceIn 1927 a psychic researcher called Harry Price was sent a mysterious box that allegedly had belonged to Joanna. He began by asking people who claimed to be mediums to guess what was inside. Documents were an obvious and fairly popular guess. He then had the box x-rayed and the images showed, among other things, books, coins, a dice box, a pair of earrings and a horse-pistol. Price did try quite hard to get some bishops to come and attend the actual opening of the box but no one was very interested. He did open it though, much to the consternation of Joanna’s remaining followers. The objects inside, as well as those mentioned included a lottery ticket and a piece of paper printed on the River Thames on February 3rd 1814. The books turned out to be romantic novels. Price found the objects to be of historical significance and concluded that they certainly had belonged to Joanna Southcott. Though had he not known it, he would never have guessed that they were the belongings of a prophetess. If you want to know more about the opening of the box and see one of the x-rays, you’ll find it here.

Her followers claimed that this was not the box that Joanna had meant and that they still had another box in their possession that contained the real secret. Around the time of the First World War, a group of them had got together and bought several properties in the town of Bedford. There, they collected all the gifts that had been given to Joanna for her expected miraculous child. They also prepared a room for the twenty-four bishops who would one day come to open the box. The last surviving member of the group died in 2012. Their box may be now lost somewhere in the depths of the British Museum.

Life in the Shadows

12 02 phantasmagoriaToday I am assigning a birthday to somebody who doesn’t have one. Yesterday I mentioned Paul Philidor who first brought Madame Tussaud and her waxworks to London. I don’t know when he was born, only that it was some time in the eighteenth century, I don’t know quite when he died, it was either 1828 or 1829. I don’t even think Paul Philidor was his real name.

The conjuring of ghostly apparitions, with the aid of a projector of some sort, for pleasure and profit, had been happening since at least the middle of the seventeenth century. By the eighteenth century, other elements were being incorporated and the séance with lantern show was becoming something of an art form. One of its leading proponents was Johann Georg Schröpfer, who also had no recorded date of birth, so I might as well tell you about him too. Schröpfer was an occultist who presented himself as a necromancer who could raise the spirits of the dead. Beginning in 1768, he gave seances in his café in Leipzig. His was a multi-sensory experience. He would begin by giving his audience a special punch to drink. I don’t know what was in it. Then they would be taken into a darkened room in which there was a black altar with candles placed in skulls. They would be made to stand inside a magic circle. Schröpfer would light incense and begin his invocations. The lights would go out and the whole room would start to shake. Then his audience would see ghostly images appear, in the smoke of burning incense, which would speak. Of course, Schröpfer had a whole team behind the scenes to help him produce his startling effects. Though this does not seem to have prevented him from starting to believe in his own powers. He went a bit strange and his life did not end well.

By the 1780s, men of a more scientific persuasion had begun to publish books debunking Schröpfer’s work and exposing his methods. Although they were intended for scientific study, they also served as ‘how to’ handbooks for anyone else who wanted a go.

Paul Philidor was a follower of Schröpfer’s methods. We first hear of him in Berlin in 1789 where he was giving séances using magic lanterns and conjuring tricks to persuade his audiences that he had supernatural powers. He was exposed as a fraud and two years later he was in Vienna where his show ran for a year. He called his apparitions ‘Schröpferesque Geisterscheinings’ in homage to the man who had inspired him.

In 1793, he turned up in Paris. France was then several years into the Revolution and people were particularly interested in seeing ghosts of their martyred heroes. By now he was no longer claiming that the ghosts were real. In his introductory speech he said “I am neither priest nor magician; I do not wish to deceive you; but I will astonish you.” Despite this, his performance did still seem to be quite unsettling, as he was able to back project his images onto a screen which was not seen by the audience, as it was lowered after the lights went out. By moving his magic lantern away from the screen he was able to make it seem as though the spirit was rushing at the crowd. He also employed more that one slide at a time to he could make the ghosts seem to move and change.

It seems Philidor misjudged his audience though, as he got into trouble for depicting Robespierre as a devil and make it seem (though he swore it was an accident) as if the spirit of Louis XIV was rising towards heaven. As this was pretty much in the middle of the reign of terror, only months after the king and queen had been guillotined, it didn’t go down too well and Philidor disappeared pretty sharpish. He may have been imprisoned and then liberated by the same Dr. Curtius who rescued Marie Tussaud.

Whatever happened, it is likely the same man who arrived in London in 1801 calling himself Paul de Philipsthal. He set up a permanent show at the Lyceum Theatre called ‘Phantasmagoria’. As well as his projections there was an exhibition of automata including a mechanical peacock, something called ‘the beautiful cossack’ and a ‘self defending chest’ which shot anyone who tried to open the lid. The following year, he exhibited alongside Madame Tussuad at the Lyceum. I’m not quite sure what happened to him after that. Philidor is a rather shadowy figure, who disappears and reappears not unlike his ghostly projections. It’s been rather difficult to tell which stories belong to him and which to his predecessor, Schröpfer or his successor, Robertson, but I hope I’ve done him justice here.12 02 phantasmagoria

Someone at the Door

11 27 berners street hoaxToday I am celebrating the anniversary of the Berners Street Hoax. It all started when a young man called Theodore Hook bet his friend one guinea that he could, within a week, turn any house in London into the most talked about address in the whole city. Whether he picked a house at random, or had some particular grudge against the lady who lived at 54 Berners Street isn’t clear. But here is how events unfolded on November 27th 1810:

At five o’clock in the morning, a chimney sweep arrived. The maid, who answered the door, told him that no one in the house had arranged to have the chimneys swept and sent him away. Almost immediately, another sweep arrived, then another, then another. Soon there were twelve chimney sweeps outside number 54. As soon as they had been sent away, wagons of coal began to arrive, blocking the whole road. They were followed by several cooks, at least one of whom had a massive wedding cake. Doctors, lawyers and priests arrived, having been informed that someone in the house was dying. An undertaker turned up with a made-to-measure coffin. Tailors arrived in Berners Street, so did boot makers, artists, furniture makers and upholsterers. A dozen coach and horses tried to pull up outside the house, so did several drays bearing barrels of beer. The street was so full of people that no one could get near the house. Still, more tradesmen were arriving, There were forty fishmongers with cod and lobster, forty butchers with legs of mutton and at least twelve pianos were being delivered.

It wasn’t just the tradespeople either, the spectacle had attracted quite a crowd. They found it hilarious. The people who had arrived expecting to ply their various trades were less amused. Poor Mrs Tottenham, who lived at 54 Berners Street was verging on insanity. Then, the Lord Mayor of London arrived. He had received a letter, as he thought, from Mrs Tottenham saying that she had been summoned to appear before him, but she was ill, and would he do her the great favour of visiting her at home. When he saw the crowds, his coach was turned around and he went straight to Marlborough Street Police Office to tell them what was going on. Officers were dispatched to restore order to Berners Street, but at first it was impossible. It was chaos. The sight that greeted them was six large men struggling with an organ, surrounded by wine porters, barbers with wigs, dressmakers and opticians. The street was still heaving at four in the afternoon. Then, at around five o’clock the servants started to arrive. They all had letters of commendation and were expecting to gain employment.

Among the more noteworthy of Mrs Tottenham’s visitors that day were the Governor of the Bank of England and the Chairman of the East India Company. They had both received letters alluding to the fact that the lady had knowledge of fraud that was being perpetrated, accompanied by a suggestion that they visit number 54. The Duke of Gloucester received an invitation to visit a dying woman who had once been a confidential attendant of his mother. No doubt all three of them had some skeleton in their closet that they did not want revealed and they hastened to the address.

11 27 theodore hookWhat Theodore Hook had done, along with perhaps two accomplices, was to write to around a thousand different tradesmen, professionals and noteworthy people asking them to attend 54 Berners Street on November 27th at a specific time. Then, he and his friends that sat all day in a house across the road and watched the drama unfold. Although he never publicly admitted to being responsible, everyone knew it was him. Afterwards he was suddenly, and conveniently, taken ill for a couple of weeks, then took off on a convalescent tour of the country. By the time he returned, the fuss had died down a bit and he was never charged with anything for the trouble he caused.


11 21 piltdown skullOn this day in 1953 the famous archaeological specimen, known as the missing link, Piltdown Man was finally and irrevocably proved to be a hoax. The skull fragments of Piltdown Man were found in a gravel pit in Piltdown, East Sussex in 1912 by a man called Charles Dawson, an amateur archaeologist and collector. He claimed to have found part of the skull in 1908, the rest was recovered in the company of his friend Arthur Smith Woodward, keeper of the geological department at the British Museum. It was hailed as the fossilized remains of a previously unknown species of early man, the evolutionary missing link between apes and humans. The ape-like jaw, combined with the relatively large brain cavity supported the belief that human evolution began with the brain.

11 21 examining the skullAlthough there were plenty of people willing to vouch for its authenticity, there were, from the beginning, others who were doubtful. They thought it looked more like the skull of a modern human with the jaw bone of an ape stuck on the bottom. In 1923, a German anthropologist called Weidenreich concluded that it was the cranium of a modern human and the jaw of an orang-utan with the teeth filed down. But, so soon after the First World War, probably no one wanted to hear what a German had to say about it, which is a shame because he was absolutely right. In fact, there was quite a bit of national pride involved when it came to believing that the earliest known human had been an Englishman.

Then, in 1953, tests were carried out that proved Piltdown Man had the skull of a medieval human, the lower jaw of an orang-utan that was about 500 years old and some fossilized teeth from a chimpanzee. The bones had been artificially aged with a solution of iron and chromic acid. When they examined the teeth under a microscope, it was obvious that some of them had been filed down to make them seem more suited to a human diet.

So, it was not just that someone had found the skull and jawbone near to each other and assumed they went together. Someone had done it on purpose. Who exactly it was and how many people knew about it will probably never be known for certain. Suspects include Dawson himself and his friend Woodward, even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who visited the site, has had the finger of suspicion pointed in his direction. For a while a man called Hinton, who had a grudge against Woodward was thought to be the perpetrator. It’s true that he might have enjoyed making Woodward look like an idiot and, in 1976, a case belonging to him was discovered at the Natural History Museum which contained bones stained in the same way as the Piltdown skull. More recently it has been suggested that Hinton was responsible for creating another, even more unlikely find that turned up at the Piltdown site. It is a stained elephant bone which was roughly fashioned into the shape of a cricket bat. It could be that Hinton knew the whole thing was a hoax and planted the cricket bat in an effort to discredit the whole affair But in fact, at the time, the bat was just accepted as genuine along with everything else. Of course the first Englishman had played cricket.

Over the last few years, suspicion has swung back towards Dawson. An archaeologist from the university of Bournemouth, Dr Miles Russell, who investigated some of Charles Dawson’s other ‘finds’ discovered thirty-eight of them to be fakes. It seems Dawson had form. They include a peculiar reptile-mammal hybrid ‘discovered’ in 1891. Its teeth had been filed down in a similar way to those found on the Piltdown jawbone. He also provided a Roman statue, which was uniquely made of cast iron and a flint nodule with a toad inside it.

As to how one might acquire a medieval human skull and 500 year-old orang-utan jaw, there is also some evidence against him. In 1911, a collection of animal bones from Borneo, bought by the British Museum, lists the jawbone of an orang-utan skull as ‘missing’. When the skull was examined it was found that the bone was unusually thick, suggesting that it’s owner had suffered from Pagett’s disease. A similar skull went missing from the collection of Hastings Museum in the 1900s. In 1889, Dawson had been one of the co-founders of the Museum and remained strongly connected with it. If you need any more evidence that he was a little unusual, he also claimed to have seen a sea serpent in the English Channel in 1906, investigated incipient horns in cart-horses (don’t know, sorry) and, in later life, was reported to experimenting with phosphorescent bullets to deter Zeppelins.