Unidentified Exploding Object

06 30 tunguskaToday is the anniversary of what is known as the Tunguska Event. It is named for the Tunguska river in a very remote area of Siberia. On June 30th 1908, it was the site of a massive explosion. The blast destroyed 830 square miles (2,150 sq km) of forest. It is the largest such event in recorded history and, even now, no one can really agree on what caused it. Luckily it was such a sparsely populated area that no fatalities were reported, and hopefully this is because there weren’t any.

Because it happened in such an isolated place, and because Russia was facing a period of extreme political upheaval at the time, no one visited the area to investigate the cause until 1921. There are a few eyewitness reports of the event. This is what a man named Semyon Borisovich Semyonov had to say when he was interviewed in 1930:

“…the sky split in two and fire appeared high and wide over the forest. The split in the sky grew larger, and the entire northern side was covered with fire. At that moment I became so hot that I couldn’t bear it, as if my shirt was on fire; from the northern side, where the fire was, came strong heat. I wanted to tear off my shirt and throw it down, but then the sky shut closed, and a strong thump sounded, and I was thrown a few metres.”

Among those who witnessed the event, a few said they had seen an object in the sky, To some it was a red fiery ball, to others it seemed to be shaped like a tube and was blue or white in colour. Many agreed that it was too bright to look at. Most people just heard it and described a noise like thunder, or like artillery fire, or falling rocks. The tremors were recorded all over the world. For three days afterwards, glowing clouds were seen in the night sky, so bright that it was possible to read a newspaper, all over Northern Europe. The name for clouds that glow in a dark sky is ‘Noctilucent Clouds’, which is lovely. Here is a picture of some…

06 30 noctilucent clouds

The explosion is thought to have been caused either by an exploding meteorite or a comet. Leonid Kulik, the first man to investigate the site, expected to find a huge crater in the middle of the area of devastation, but what he found was a clump of trees that were stripped bare but still standing. For miles around the trees had been knocked down in a direction away from the blast. It seems that what ever caused it had exploded in the air, stripping the trees directly below it, with the force radiating outwards when it hit the ground.

Some mineral samples taken in the area suggest a meteorite, but it is far from conclusive. The lack of any obvious impact sites and the reports of glowing clouds suggest a comet. The glow could have been caused by fragments of dust and ice from the comet in the upper atmosphere catching the sun’s rays. I did find an eyewitness report that claimed a new lake had been formed in the explosion, and that it boiled for two days. But this seems to have been dismissed. However, there is a lake nearby called Lake Cheko which may or may not have been created by a fragment of meteorite. A team of investigators from the University of Bologna believe they have identified a large rock, deep in the lake which may be a piece of the meteorite. They also have evidence from the sediment in the lake that it may be only a hundred years old, but because the area is far from any centre of population, nobody can be certain how long it’s been there.

There are many other explanations on offer. Some suggest that a cloud of natural gas, from under the earth’s crust, may have been forced to the surface and then been ignited by lightening. Others that it was caused by a scientist called Nikola Tesla, who claimed to have invented, and therefore perhaps tested, a weapon that could transmit electricity through the air. Among some of the even crazier theories are a black hole colliding with the earth, an exploding spaceship and a nuclear bomb that somehow travelled back in time and exploded over Siberia. What ever happened, we are incredibly lucky that it did not explode over a major city. St Petersburg, Helsinki, Stockholm and Oslo are all on the same latitude, and could easily have been in the path of a comet, meteorite, spaceship or time-travelling bomb.

Paying the Piper

06 26 pied piper 2Today is Rat Catcher’s Day in Hamelin, Northern Germany. It celebrates not only rat catchers, who do a nasty job and deserve to be recognised, but the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin for which the town is famous. There are actually two dates on which this event is commemorated. The other, July 22nd, was first put forward at the beginning of the seventeenth century. But my gut feeling is that it belongs here, between the wild celebrations of Saint John’s Eve and the legend behind ‘Seven Sleepers Day’ which I will tell you about tomorrow. Not everyone realises that it is not just a fairy tale. There is some truth in it.

According to the earliest sources, on this day in 1284, one hundred and thirty children from the town were led away by a mysterious piper and were never seen again. This is, of course, not a cause for celebration, it’s awful. But it’s a curious tale and its lack of explanation has made it the subject of much speculation. The story tells us that the town was plagued by rats. The piper was employed by the mayor of the town to lure the rats away. He achieved this by charming them with a tune from his pipe and led them all to the river, where they drowned. The mayor then refused to pay the agreed sum and the piper left promising revenge. He returned on June 26th, the feast day of John and Paul and this time he played a different tune. The adults were all in church as he led the children away. Up to three children were left behind to explain what had happened. One was lame and couldn’t keep up, One deaf, who could not hear the tune. The other was blind and could not see where he was going. In one version the children disappear into a mountain, in another they are drowned in the river like the rats.

06 26 pied piper

We know there is some truth in this story because the earliest written records from the town of Hamelin dating from 1384 begin ‘ It is a hundred years since our children left.’ also there was a stained glass window in the church commemorating the event which dates from around 1300. Unfortunately, it was destroyed in 1660 but the above illustration is a drawing of it dating from 1592.

The earliest written accounts do not mention rats at all, this part of the story didn’t appear until the sixteenth century. So what we have is a tale of how the children of the town were lured away by a man in a multi-coloured (pied) costume who played them a strangely irresistible tune. Some think that the children were the victims of a plague and that the piper symbolises death. Others think that the piper was a member of some odd religious sect who lured the children away. It is true that some of the features of the Pied Piper, the trance inducing music and the colourful clothes, reminded me of the people who were thought by some to have been responsible for the dancing plagues that I wrote about a few days ago. A rather uncomfortable theory is that, at a time when everyone was grindingly poor, perhaps unable to provide enough food for all their children, they may have been sold into slavery. Another explanation is that ‘children’ does not necessarily refer to very young people. It may just mean people who were born in the town. Around that time an area of Eastern Europe was being resettled following a war and young people may have been lured there in hope of finding a better life.

The tale of the Pied Piper and the missing children has now been told and retold for well over seven hundred years and has undergone many changes. It is one of the stories collected by the Brothers Grimm and it appears in a poem by Robert Browning. Like many folk tales, it has received the Victorian treatment and been re-purposed as a story with a moral message. It’s hard to know what a child is supposed to take away from this story though. The children of Hamelin are victims and really can’t help what happens to them. It is good to learn that we shouldn’t renege on a promise, but probably if we learn anything from this story it is not to live in a time when the previous generation has taken loads of stuff and then decided not to pay for it. Hmmmm…

Don’t Stop Me Now

06 24 dancing plague 2Today is, as I mentioned yesterday, the feast day of Saint John the Baptist but, as I’ve already mentioned that, lets have a look what happened on this day in 1374 in Aachen, Germany. There was a sudden outbreak of Saint John’s Dance. A Dancing Plague was not an uncommon occurrence, there are many instances between the seventh and seventeenth centuries and their true cause is not known. The outbreak in Aachen was a pretty serious one. People began to dance hysterically and also to experience hallucinations. More and more people were drawn in and over the ensuing days thousands were involved. They danced until they were exhausted. They danced until and fell to the ground twitching and foaming at the mouth. Then, they got up and danced again. The plague spread to nearby towns and onwards across Europe for the next two years. The victims certainly were not enjoying their dancing. They were in pain. They often screamed for help and begged for mercy. Dancing Plagues were seen as a curse from Saint John or from Saint Vitus, but we can only guess at why they happened.

Several explanations have been put forward for the cause of the outbreaks. Ergot poisoning has been suggested. Ergot is a fungus that grows on wheat which would certainly have caused convulsions and hallucinations, but more commonly limbs were affected resulting in gangrene. You’d think if that had happened as well, someone would have mentioned it. It is also quite possible they occurred because people were under a great deal of psychological distress. Europe had been devastated by the Black Death and, in the area around Aachen there had been a terrible flood that washed away all the soil and would have made growing crops very difficult. Similar conditions preceded another outbreak of the Dancing Plague in Strasbourg in 1518. Some people probably just cracked and went crazy and then others followed suit.

No successful cure was really found. Many thought it was caused by demons and tried exorcism. Oddly, some people thought that music could be the cure. Some musicians were engaged to encourage the dancing in the hope that those afflicted would just become exhausted and stop. Others tried to play music to match the pace of the dance, hoping that if they gradually slowed the tune, they could bring the dance to a halt. In the Strasbourg outbreak, a special stage was constructed in the centre of the town in an effort to contain the dance. It didn’t work. Putting the dancers in such a prominent position only encouraged more to join in. Some attempts were made to remove things that seemed to upset the afflicted and make the dancing worse. For example, they seem to have been especially troubled by the sight of anything red. They also had a particular aversion to pointy shoes.

Although the dancing plague in Aachen is pretty well documented, I’ve found it hard to get to the historical accounts as medieval German isn’t one of my strong subjects but I did find a few fragments suggesting that those who started the dancing were not the townsfolk at all. They are described more like a band of travelling pilgrims of a peculiar dancing sect who wore colourful clothes They sought out holy places to perform their rituals. One chronicler notes that ‘in their songs, they uttered the names of devils never before heard’. Another that ‘many dance manias turned into mass orgies.’ It seems to be the Czechs and Bohemians that were regarded as responsible for the plague as they were considered well known for ‘sexual immorality including annual festivals involving the free partaking of sex.’ So it may have been, for some, just a more attractive proposition than praying in church, especially if you could blame it on a plague.

Incidentally, I found out the dancing plague is not the town of Aachen’s only claim to dancing fame. In October 1959 it possibly opened the first discothèque. That is, a dance hall in which records were played instead of having a live band. So it also may have employed the first DJ, a man named Klaus Quinine who called himself DJ Heinrich. I’d love to be able to say he rolled in from Bohemia with a crate of twelve inch remixes under his arm. But I can’t.

Throbbed like a Wounded Snake

06 18 moonOn the 18th June 1178, in Canterbury, just after sunset, five monks were gazing up at the moon when something very unusual happened. No one knows what is was, but it looked like this…

“There was a bright new moon, and as usual in that phase, its horns were tilted toward the east; and suddenly the upper horn split in two. From the midpoint of this division a flaming torch sprang up, spewing out, over a considerable distance, fire, hot coals, and sparks. Meanwhile the body of the moon which was below writhed, as it were, in anxiety, and, to put it in the words of those who reported it to me and saw it with their own eyes, the moon throbbed like a wounded snake. Afterwards it resumed its proper state. This phenomenon was repeated a dozen times or more, the flame assuming various twisting shapes at random and then returning to normal. Then after these transformations the moon from horn to horn, that is along its whole length, took on a blackish appearance.”

We know this because it was written down by a chronicler called Gervase of Canterbury. He had the story directly from the eyewitnesses. It must have looked as though the world was about to end. They must have been terrified. Sadly, as it happened more than eight hundred years ago, we can only guess at what really happened. There are a couple of theories though.

In 1978, a geologist called Jack B Hartung published an article suggesting that what the monks had witnessed was a comet or asteroid colliding with the Moon forming the 14 mile wide crater on the far side of the moon, now called the Giordano Bruno Crater. I mentioned Bruno only a few of days ago. A man whose entire body of work was banned by the Catholic Church between 1600 and 1966. Yet in 1961, he had a crater named after him. Which just goes to show, you can’t please all of the people all of the time.

06 18 giordano bruno craterThe crater was certainly formed relatively recently as the impact marks are still visible on the lunar surface. But in geological terms, recently means any time in the last 350 million years. While 18th June 1178 is certainly a date within the last 350 million years, it is odd that no other historical records anywhere have anything to say about it at all.

More recently, in 2001, a graduate student at the University of Arizona, called Paul Withers, did a bit more research. He calculated that a crater of that size would have been caused by an object that was somewhere between a half and two miles across. It would have thrown around ten million tons of debris into the Earth’s atmosphere. It would have caused a week long meteorite storm. There would have been maybe 50,000 meteorites an hour raining down all over the planet. Yet a search of historical records from Europe, the Middle East, China and Korea finds no mention of it.

It is much more likely that what the monks saw was an exploding meteorite, directly between them and the moon, hurtling straight towards them. Still pretty exciting, but with less catastrophic potential. Such an event would only be visible if you were in a very specific spot, or at least within a mile or so. This would explain why only five people saw it.

I love historical descriptions of events that are completely mystifying to us. They paint such a fascinating picture, yet explain nothing. I enjoy the gulfs of understanding between us and our predecessors as much as the similarities. If you’re in the mood for more unexplained phenomena from history, there are more here.

It’s a Mystery

04 30 kaspar hauserToday might be the birthday of Kasper Hauser. I say ‘might’ because of the great mystery surrounding his sudden appearance in the town of Nuremberg in 1828. The boy carried with him two letters. One addressed to the captain of the 4th squadron of the 6th cavalry regiment, Captain von Wessenig. The anonymous author said that the boy was given into his custody as an infant on October 7th 1812 and that he instructed him in reading, writing and the Christian religion, but never let him “take a single step out of my house”. The letter stated that the boy would now like to be a cavalryman “as his father was” and invited the captain either to take him in or to hang him. The second letter seemed to be from his mother to the person who had written the first. It stated that his name was Kaspar, that he was born on 30 April 1812 and that his father, a cavalryman of the 6th regiment, was dead. Both letters were in the same handwriting and it is now generally supposed that Kasper had written both of them.

When spoken to he would only repeat the words “I want to be a cavalryman, as my father was” and “Horse! Horse!”. He seemed physically healthy but intellectually impaired and he soon became the subject of much curiosity. He would eat no other food but bread and water.

People generally assumed that he had been raised half wild but Kasper proved to be a quick learner and later he was able to tell a different story of his previous life. He said that for as long as he could remember he had been kept in a small darkened cell with a bed of straw and two horses and a dog carved from wood to play with. Each morning he found bread and water next to his bed. Sometimes the water would taste bitter then he would sleep for longer and wake to find his straw had been changed and his hair and nails had been cut. He said that, not long before his release, he had been visited by a man who concealed his face. He had taught Kasper to walk, to write his name and to repeat the words “I want to be a cavalryman, as my father was.” but he didn’t know what it meant.

04 30 kasper's drawingKasper was given into the care of a schoolmaster called Georg Friedrich Daumer, who found out that he had a talent for drawing. That’s one of Kasper’s drawings on the left. Daumer also conducted some odd experiments on him, including some sort of magnetic experiments. Some believed, at that time, that the body was full of magnetic humours that could be drawn about to some effect, but more of that next month when it will be Franz Mesmer’s birthday. Kasper claimed that the north pole of the magnet made him feel as though his stomach was being drawn out and that he could feel a current of air coming from him. The effects of the south pole, he felt less keenly, but said that it blew upon him.

Kasper suffered a number of mysterious wounds. The first, he claimed had been inflicted by the man who had visited him in the cellar whilst he was captive. On October 17th 1829, he was found in the cellar of Daumer’s home with a severe wound on his forehead. He claimed he had been attacked whilst sitting on the privy. The trail of blood showed that he had first fled to his room before climbing through a trap-door into the cellar. This has led to speculation that he inflicted the wound on himself with a razor that he afterwards took back to his room before hiding in the cellar. Kasper was taken to another house where he was kept under guard, but later suffered another wound to the side of his head. He claimed he had been standing on a chair, reaching for a book, when he fell, knocking down a pistol on the wall which had gone off. Both of these incidents happened shortly after Kasper had been accused of lying, which was something that he did frequently.

In 1831, an English nobleman took an interest in Kasper Hauser and gained custody of him. His name was Philip Henry Stanhope who was half brother to the adventuring Lady Hester Stanhope, who I wrote about in March. Stanhope had Kasper removed to Ansbach but, although he continued to pay for his upkeep, concluded that Kasper was a fraud. On 14th December 1833, Kasper returned home with a deep stab wound in his chest. He claimed that a stranger had stabbed him then given him a bag. After a search, a violet purse was found which contained a folded note written in mirror writing. This is what it said:

Hauser will be

able to tell you quite precisely how

I look and from where I am.

To save Hauser the effort,

I want to tell you myself from where

I come _ _ .

I come from from _ _ _

the Bavarian border _ _

On the river _ _ _ _ _

I will even

tell you the name: M. L. Ö.

04 30 kasper's noteThe note was folded into a triangular shape, in a way that Kasper always folded his own letters. It also contained one grammatical and one spelling error that were typical of him. Also, although he seemed keen for the purse to be found, he never asked what was in it.

Kasper died from his wound three days later. No one really knows what happened. His death was as mysterious as his sudden appearance. Some accused Stanhope of being complicit in his murder. Others, that he stabbed himself to gain attention. Some have speculated, as they did in his lifetime, that he was the son of the Duke of Baden, who had been switched at birth so that someone else could inherit his title. Recent DNA tests have proved inconclusive but the story is an unlikely one. Probably, we’ll never know Kasper’s back story but he has inspired numerous works in print and on film, including Werner Herzog’s ‘The Enigma of Kasper Hauser’ which is where I first came across him back in the 1980s.


04 22 florence cookToday, I want to tell you about Florence Cook. She was born in the East End of London in about 1856. I’m not sure of the date, but she died on this day in 1904. Florence was a celebrated medium who made her name contacting the dead, so today seems like an appropriate day to remember her. She was most well known for contacting a spirit guide called Katie King who had a remarkably physical presence for a spirit form beyond the grave.

As a child, Florence claimed that angels spoke to her. Then, when she was fifteen, she attended a séance held by her parents where she became the focus of ‘activity’. At first she performed at private séances and according to her own account, loud knockings were heard, objects flew around the room, a table was flung against a wall and Florence herself was lifted to the ceiling and carried over the sitters. She began to develop her abilities under the guidance of two other mediums, Frank Herne and Charles Williams. Frank had a spirit guide called John King and Florence claimed to contact his daughter Katie King.

Now I need to go back a bit and tell you more about John and Katie King. Because Frank and Florence were not the first people to contact them. Back in the 1850s, an American Spiritualist called Jonathan Koons claimed to be in touch with John King. But John King was not the name he had in life. He was actually the spirit of Sir Henry Morgan, a Welsh buccaneer who had died in 1688. He was very sorry for all the terrible things he’d done when he was alive and had returned to our earthly realm to prove the existence of the spirit world as a sort of penance. I’ve no idea why he changed his name. Anyway, John King also introduced Jonathan’s audience to his daughter Katie, the spirit of Annie Owen Morgan.

As another aside, and because I like it when I find links between my posts, Jonathan Koons was the originator of the ‘Spirit Cabinet’ that was later used to great effect by the Davenport Brothers. Their act fired the imagination of John Nevil Maskelyne who was, in turn, a big influence on Georges Méliès. The Davenport Brothers also claimed to have manifested Katie.

04 22 katie kingIn the hands of Florence, Katie did actually physically manifest herself. She walked around the room, she spoke to people, she touched them. She even allowed herself to be photographed. Katie Cook is the most photographed spirit ever. There are more photographs of Katie King than there are of Florence Cook. The two look remarkably similar. In early manifestations, only Katie’s face appeared. Florence had a home made ‘spirit cabinet’ which was made from a cupboard that was large enough for her to sit inside. She would be bound to a chair and shut inside the cupboard. There was a hole cut in the door near the top and that was where the face would appear, covered with linen. Afterwards, the door would be opened and Katie would be still tied to the chair.

Eventually, Katie appeared as a whole being, clad in white flowing robes. She could walk around the room and talk with people whilst Florence was apparently in a trance, concealed behind a curtain. On at least one occasion, Katie had allowed one of the sitters to look behind the curtain and see Florence sitting in her chair in a trance. When Florence awoke, it seems that Katie disappeared. Of course, she may have had an accomplice.

In 1873, she was exposed as a fraud by William Volkman. He grabbed hold of Katie during a séance and there was a bit of an altercation. Attempting to touch a spirit being was absolutely not done. Some of the other sitters, and perhaps the spirit herself attacked Volkman and he was left with a bloody nose and had part of his beard was torn off. Afterwards, Florence was found to be in a state of distress, but still tied to her chair. There was no sign of Katie or the clothes she had been wearing. Volkman’s accusation of fraud didn’t really stick, especially after it was discovered that he was very close friends with another medium called Mrs Guppy, who really hated Florence.

In 1874, Florence was investigated again by chemist and physicist William Crookes. She stayed at his house and was willing to be subjected to any test Crookes could devise for her. He had her wired into an electrical circuit to find out whether or not she moved from her chair. The spirit Katie allowed herself to be weighed, measured and even have her pulse taken – Yes, I was surprised she had one too. It was discovered that Katie varied in weight and height but was always taller than Florence. Crookes also took forty-four photographs of Katie. Unfortunately for us, his family destroyed most of the pictures along with the glass plate negatives after he died. Crookes had co-discovered the chemical element thallium and become rather famous, they didn’t want his reputation blackened by spiritual nonsense.

04 22 william crookes and katie kingHe did send copies to friends, but we don’t know what they are meant to show. He did sometimes have Florence dress up like Katie so he could photograph her and compare the two. All his surviving photographs certainly do bear a striking resemblance to Florence, but he was convinced that he was not being duped. Her Supporters claimed that Katie was bound to look like Florence as she was borrowing some of her energy to manifest herself. Personally, I don’t believe in spirit mediums and I don’t know what it was that convinced William Crookes that she was genuine. It may have been that he was complicit with her for reasons we don’t understand, some claim they were having an affair. It could be that Florence was just really, really good.

Katie left Florence in 1874. Florence did appear again, in 1880, with another spirit guide, but she was caught out. Katie, however had a longer career. In 1875, she was apparently manifested and photographed by Jennie and Nelson Holmes at a séance in New York. But a woman called Eliza White later claimed that she had posed for the photos. She also appeared in Winnipeg, Canada in 1930. Her most recent manifestation was in Rome in 1974.

Tilting at Windmills

04 17 windmillI have a mystery to tell you about today. On this day in 1897, a UFO crash landed in Aurora, Texas. Or did it? It is claimed that the crash caused one fatality… the pilot. There is supposed to be an alien body buried in the local churchyard.

Between 1896 and 1897 there were several reported sightings across the USA of a cigar-shaped airship. On April 17th at about 6 am, according to a contemporary newspaper report, the early risers of Aurora spotted the airship. It was travelling much closer to the ground than it had been at previous sightings and much more slowly, about 10 – 12 miles an hour. There seemed to be something wrong with its machinery and it was getting lower all the time. It passed right over the town square and headed north. Then it collided with a windmill belonging to a man called Judge Proctor. The windmill was completely destroyed, along with a water tank and the Judge’s flower garden. The debris was scattered over several acres.

It seems the only person on board was the pilot. The report says that the body was badly disfigured, but enough was recovered to prove that: ‘he was not an inhabitant of this world’. A Mr T J Weems, an officer of the United States Signal Service, was of the opinion that the pilot had come from Mars. The pilot had with him, papers that were written in undecipherable hieroglyphs. The ship was too badly wrecked for anyone to tell what it was like or how it worked, but it seems to have been made from a metal resembling a combination of aluminium and silver. It was estimated to weigh several tons. The report, of April 19th 1897, goes on to say that the town was full of people picking up pieces of the wreckage and that the pilot’s funeral would be the following day.

The wreckage from the crash was dumped in a well that was underneath the wrecked windmill. In later years, the new owner of Judge Proctor’s property, Brawley Oates, cleaned out the well, because he wanted to use it. Afterwards he developed a severe case of arthritis which he blamed on poisoned well water. In 1957, he sealed up the well and put a building on top of it.

It is possible that the entire thing was a hoax. The newspaper report, which appeared in the Dallas Morning News, was written by a resident of the town called S E Haydon and he may have made the whole thing up. The town of Aurora was having a pretty tough time. Their cotton crop had been destroyed by boll weevil. Much of the town had been destroyed in a massive fire. There had been an outbreak of ‘spotted fever’ which had almost wiped out the people who hadn’t died in the fire. The town was quarantined. Then they were bypassed by a planned railroad. It may have been Haydon’s attempt to save a dying town. He never sent a follow up story. He might have written a second report about the alien’s funeral, but he didn’t. It was also later claimed that Judge Proctor had never even had a windmill.

But then, in 1973, an organisation called ‘MUFON’ which likes to investigate the sites of alleged UFO crashes, turned up two more eyewitnesses. Mary Evans, who had been fifteen at the time, remembered her parents going to the crash site. She had been forbidden from going but she remembered that an alien body had been found. Charlie Stephens, who was ten, had seen the ship pass over, trailing smoke. He too had not been allowed to go to the crash site, but his father had gone to town the next day to see the wreckage. MUFON checked out the cemetery and found a grave marker that seemed to show some sort of flying saucer. They also picked up readings with a metal detector. They asked for permission to dig up the grave but they were refused. Later, the grave marker mysteriously disappeared and was replaced by the three-inch pipe. Their metal detector no longer picked up any readings. They concluded that the metal had been removed from the grave, but they couldn’t rule out a hoax.

In 2008, a television programme called ‘UFO Hunters’ investigated again. They were allowed by Tim Oates, grandson of Brawley, to unseal the covered well. They found no debris, but they did find unusually large amounts of aluminium in the water. They also found the remains of a windmill base. It had been there after all. They investigated the cemetery but, as in 1973, were refused permission to dig. They found the grave, using ground penetrating radar, close to other 1890s burials. But the grave was so badly deteriorated that they couldn’t tell what was in it.

I don’t want to draw any conclusions about this story, because I like a mystery. Perhaps is was a hoax to raise the profile of the town. Perhaps it was a military experiment gone wrong. The US Signal Service were quite enamoured of balloons at one time. Perhaps it was a crashed space ship from another world. In an infinite universe, all things are possible.

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.

Suspicious Circumstances

02 16 felix faureOn this day in 1899, French President Félix Faure died. This is one of those events I was in two minds about mentioning, because someone dying is rarely good. But the circumstances surrounding his death, speculation about the circumstances and later, related story are morbidly fascinating. A word of warning, In today’s post, Faure is not the only one who will die in unusual circumstances.

Faure became President rather unexpectedly in 1895 after the previous President resigned. He was chosen as the least offensive candidate. France was, at that time, a fairly new republic and he felt he was being rather looked down on by the leaders of other European countries. He was a man who took great care of his appearance, often changing his clothes three times a day. He thought a special presidential uniform would lend him more gravitas on state occasions. What he wanted was a hat with white plumes, a blue coat embroidered in gold with oak leaves, laurels and pansies, with trousers to match. For evening wear, he would swap the trousers for white satin breeches, silk stockings and silver buckled shoes. Luckily, before he ever wore it, someone pointed out that it was all a bit much. They said it might make him look like he fancied himself as a dictator.

In 1897 he began an affair with Marguerite Steinheil, whose husband he had commissioned to paint his portrait. On February 16th 1899 she was visiting him at the Elysée Palace. The two of them were alone in a drawing room when the President’s aides heard screams. They entered the room to find Faure lying of the sofa struggling to breathe. He died later that evening and was found to have suffered a cerebral haemorrhage. There were soon rumours that Marguerite had been found half naked, that the president had one of his hands entangled in her hair and she had to be cut free. It is generally thought that he suffered his fit at a critical juncture while they were engaged in sexual activity and widely reported that she was fellating him at the time. A French newspaper was quick to report that: “Felix Faure passed away in good health, indeed from the excess of good health…”. The incident led to a lot of black humour and play on words involving the French word ‘pompe’. Mme Steinheil was dubbed ‘la pompe funèbre’. ‘Pompes funèbres’ means ‘the funeral care business’ but pompe funèbre means ‘funeral pump’. He also received the epitaph “Il voulait être César, il ne fut que Pompée” which means “He wished to be Caesar, but ended as Pompey”. Or, if you read it another way “He wished to be Caesar, but ended up being blown.”

In case you’re feeling a bit sorry for Faure, in 1898, he was asked to give a speech to the French auto-industry which was, at the time, the largest in the world. Here is what he said: “Vos voitures sont bien laides et sentent bien mauvais!” – “Your cars are very ugly and they smell very bad”. In case you’re feeling sorry for Mme Steinheil, this happened in 1908:

Her husband and her stepmother were both found murdered in her apartment. Her husband strangled, her stepmother suffocated. Marguerite herself was found gagged tied to the bed. She claimed that four people in black robes, three bearded men and a woman with red hair, had broken in, attacked them and stolen some jewellery. There were no signs of a break-in and Marguerite was tied only loosely. She later changed her story and said that it had been the work of a servant. A pearl from a necklace that she had reported stolen was found in his pocketbook. But it was later established that she had put it there. After that she tried to blame one of her husband’s models and then the son of her housekeeper., but both had alibis. A jeweller came forward to say that Mme Steinheil had sent him some of the stones that she claimed had been stolen to be reset. The judge called her stories ‘a tissue of lies’ and yet somehow, she was acquitted. No one could properly establish how or why she might have committed the murders. It was supposed that she may have had an accomplice, but no one else was ever arrested. Mme Steinheil moved to England under an assumed name and remarried. The murders remain unsolved.

Facing His Demons

02 06 charakterkopfToday is the birthday of sculptor Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, who was born is 1736 in Wiesensteig in the south west of Germany. He is best known for a series of head sculptures which all depict extreme and rather disturbing facial expressions. He was raised in Munich by his uncles and it was from them that he first learned sculpture. After that he went to study at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. Messerschmidt was extremely good with the current, flamboyant baroque style, he earned lots of commissions and became Court Sculptor the the royal house of Habsburg.

Later, he became very interested in the art of Ancient Rome and the classical proportions that were associated with it. By 1765 he had earned enough money to take himself to Rome to study classical sculpture. Whilst there, it seems he astounded other artists with his ability to carve freestyle into wood. We don’t know much about his time in Rome. Only a single story that he recounted to a visitor towards the end of his life, when he had become very reclusive and strange. According to Messerschmidt, he was carving a tree trunk into the likeness of a statue of Hercules when a Spanish artist suggested that he was using the power of an evil spirit to make his sculptures. Messerschmidt hit him.

When he returned to Vienna, he began to work in a more classical style. He began to eliminate the elaborate drapery and fine jewels that were common to the baroque style and concentrate on the facial features. Although his work had changed significantly it was still very much admired. He was showing the character of the person, rather than the things they owned. He made a bust of his neighbour, Franz Anton Mesmer. Mesmer was an odd character who believed that all living things possessed tides of energy and that he could control these tides to cure hysterics. Messerschmidt must have seen lots of troubled people coming and going at his neighbour’s house.

In 1774, he expected to inherit the position of Professor of Sculpture at the academy in Vienna. This did not happen. He was passed over because people had started to find him unusual. They said that for the three years he had: “shown signs of confusion”. He was still working but they saw evidence of: “a not perfectly healthy imagination”. He had come to believe that all the other professors were his enemies and people were worried that he would be a danger to students. Messerschmidt packed up all his belongings and moved back to his home town for a while and then on to Pressburg, now called Bratislava.

02 06 messerschmidt yawningThe accusations were rather veiled and non-specific but we know that in 1771 he had begun to work on a series of heads. The head sculptures are mostly life-size, are probably all of him and show a range of extreme facial expressions. Many of them look as though they are in severe pain. It was a project that would consume him for the rest of his life. He would make sixty-four of them. He still continued to support himself with commissions that people were perfectly happy with, so he was not entirely unhinged. But his heads are very odd indeed. They’re not like anything else.

In 1781 he was visited by a writer called Friedrich Nicolai, who found him to be intelligent, but eccentric. He seemed to own nothing except a bed,, a flute, a tobacco pipe and an Italian book on proportion. When questioned about the heads, he told Nicolai that he was haunted by spirits. Most particularly by the ‘Spirit of Proportion’. The Spirit of Proportion was envious of him because he was able to easily represent an almost perfect human figure in stone. Because of this it was causing pain in every part of his body as a punishment. The heads he made were to scare the demon away. Their expressions were copied from his own face. He would stand in front of a mirror, pinch himself really hard in the ribs until he grimaced, then reproduced the face he pulled on one of the heads. He had, he said, perfected sixty-nine grimaces for this purpose. Nicholai understood that his faces intentionally displayed some animalistic qualities because animals knew better how to scare away evil spirits than humans.

His heads, which were later called ‘character heads’, fall loosely into four categories; reasonably normal human expressions, a group with more extreme animalistic expressions, but varying hairstyles, a group of bald-headed figures with virtually no neck, and a group with the neck extended, often with the face pinched up in the middle. We’ve no idea what order he made them in. All the titles they have were given to them by others after his death. They are things like ‘Afflicted with Constipation’, ‘Beak Head’ and ‘ The Incapable Bassoonist’. We can only guess at what his influences were. Probably early Roman portraiture Perhaps works on physiognomy by men like Giambattista della Porta who I mentioned the other day. Maybe the work of his Viennese neighbour Mesmer. Or it might also have been the carvings in Vienna Cathedral, which are pretty strange.

After his death in 1783 his heads were treated with, at best, curiosity and at worst derision and disgust. By the end of the nineteenth century, papier-mâché replicas were being displayed in freak shows and game booths. He was thought of as a mere caricaturist and likened to Hogarth. In the twentieth century, there has been much speculation about whether or not he was insane, and if he was, what the nature of his insanity might have been. But we’ll never know because, apart from his odd conversation with Friedrich Nicolai, he left no clues. If you want to see more of his work, there’s a great video here.

02 06 messerschmidt heads engraving