Apocalypse Then

05 19 four horsemen of the apocalypse vasili korenApocalyptic scare stories have probably been around for as long as people have had the time to sit about making them up. They might be caused by anything from the general awfulness of humans to an unforeseen computer glitch. The earliest reference I could find comes from an Assyrian clay tablet that dates from around 2800 BC. It has this to say:

“Our Earth is degenerate in these later days; there are signs that the world is speedily coming to an end; bribery and corruption are common; children no longer obey their parents; every man wants to write a book and the end of the world is evidently approaching.”

Sound familiar? Humanity has been clearly on a downward trajectory for around five thousand years. So it really is quite remarkable that we’re all still here. I’ve mentioned a few apocalyptic visionaries over the course of the last ten months and none of them have done very well out of it. Yet still they keep coming. Today I want to tell you about something that didn’t happen on this day in 1910. On this day no one was poisoned by Halley’s Comet. This will of course, come as no surprise to you. But it was once a genuine concern for quite a lot of people.

05 19 halley's cometHalley’s comet is named after Sir Edmund Halley who was first able to successfully predict its return in 1758, using his friend Isaac Newton’s newly discovered laws of gravity and by searching historical records. Now that we know the comet returns regularly, every seventy-five years or so, we can see that it has heralded several significant events. It appeared just before the Battle of Hastings and features on the Bayeaux Tapestry. William the Conqueror took it as a sign of his victory. Maybe King Harold thought the same thing, I don’t know, history is written by the victors. The appearance of the comet in 1222, heading westward across the sky, may have encouraged Genghis Khan to follow in its wake and invade Europe. Perhaps the comet was the original Star of Bethlehem. Even if it wasn’t, its appearance in 1301 probably inspired this painting of the nativity by Giotto di Bondone.

05 19 adoration of the magi giotto

In 1910 the comet was predicted to come so close to the Earth that our planet would actually pass through its tail. By then, scientists were able to make a spectroscopic analysis of the comet. They concluded that one of the substances present in the comet’s tail was a poisonous gas called cyanogen. An astronomer, named Camille Flammarion, told everyone he thought that the gas would extinguish all life on Earth. Other astronomers were quick to disagree, but it was too late. Churches held all night vigils. People panic bought every gas mask they could find. They stopped up their doors and windows in an effort to keep the gas out. In Rome, people panic bought oxygen so they could keep themselves alive until the earth passed through the comet’s poisonous tail. In the months leading up to the event it was possible to buy anti-comet umbrellas, even anti-comet pills that were supposed to provide protection from the worst of the radiation. Of course, no one died of comet poisoning. Some people were arrested for cashing in and selling worthless sugar pills, but were not charged, as their victims actually campaigned for their release. Flammarion still insisted though, that he had been able to smell the gas in the comet’s tail. He said it smelled of burning vegetables, or a marsh , or of acetylene.

The poisonous gas was not the only thing people were worried about back in 1910. There was a person who wrote to the Royal observatory who was concerned that the comet would cause the Atlantic and Pacific oceans to swap places, flooding the Americas and the Sahara desert. Apparently an unspecified shepherd in Washington State went mad in an unspecified way. I did try to research this, but all I came up with was a report that six people in Washington had been arrested after they went a bit comet-happy and a picture of a German Shepherd dog in a gas mask. But then there was a gold prospector in Southern California named Sam. He thought that the comet had been sent by God to punish mankind. Sam sought atonement in suffering. He set up a cross at the entrance to his mine and began to nail himself to it. He nailed both of his feet and one of his hands, but then he had a bit of a problem. He begged his fellow miners to nail up his remaining hand, but no one would help him. Instead, they pulled out the other nails and packed him off to hospital for a bit of a rest.

Two year’s later, an astronomer named Sze zuk Chang Chin-liang, began to worry, somewhat belatedly, that the comet might be a transparent object. He thought that it had no tail at all, and that what we could see were the sun’s rays shining through it. His problem was, that it might act a bit like a magnifying glass and focus the rays from the sun on our planet and burn us all up. Halley’s Comet is due to return in 2061. So far, no one seems to have suggested that it will kill us all. But I predict that someone will.

Hen of Doom

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESFirstly today, I feel I must apologise in advance, as I have a completely awful person to tell you about. At least five humans and one hen will be seriously harmed in the tale I am about to tell you. Mary Bateman was a terrible woman with no redeeming qualities and she was hanged on this day in 1809. But her story is morbidly fascinating. This hen, however, is not the Hen of Doom. She’s my hen and her name is Lillian. She’s just been enjoying some dandelion leaves, which are her favourite.

Mary was born Mary Harker, at Asenby near Thirsk in North Yorkshire in 1768. She worked as a servant in Thirsk and then in York as a dressmaker. She seems to have left both jobs under a cloud, with suspicions of theft. In 1788, she moved to Leeds, which was then a rapidly expanding industrial town. She continued to work as a dressmaker but began to supplement her income with fortune telling. In 1792 she married a wheelwright called John Bateman. He’d only known her for three weeks. It wasn’t a very smart move on his part, but he doesn’t appear to have been a very smart man. There was the occasion when Mary went to his workplace with a forged letter bringing news that John’s father was on his deathbed. He rushed to his father’s side and was delighted to find that he was perfectly well. He was in for another surprise when he returned. Mary had sold all their furniture. Not long after that, he left again, to visit friends. When he came back, she’d sold all his clothes. John didn’t like his wife very much and he left her to join the army. Unfortunately, she followed him.

In 1799, he was demobilised and they returned to Leeds. There, Mary took up a new career as a ‘screwer down’. This means that she would find some credulous person and persuade them that there was an individual who wished ill on them, or make a woman believe that her husband was about to leave her for someone else. She would then offer, for a fee of course, to have them screwed down so that they would find themselves magically unable do harm or to leave. She frightened people into paying up and they often had to sell their belongings in order to do so. Mary did not claim to do the work herself. She told everyone she was just an intermediary for a Mrs Moore. Mrs Moore did not exist and neither did her victims’ enemies. No one really needed screwing to anything, apart from perhaps Mary Bateman.

By 1803, she was working in a shop that belonged to two sisters called Kitchen. When one of them fell ill, she brought medicine which she claimed came from a country doctor. The woman got worse and she died. Following this, the other sister and also her mother became ill, both were nursed by Mary and also died. There was no inquest and it was thought that they died of cholera, but Mary claimed it had been the plague. Everyone got frightened and their house and shop were locked up for a time. But when someone did eventually go in, it was found that all their belongings had been taken and the accounts were missing. Based on what I’m going to tell you about in a minute, it is quite likely that Mary poisoned them.


But first, I want to tell you about her hen. I don’t have a picture of either Mary or her hen, so here is Lillian again, with her friend Annis the duck.

In 1806, she claimed that she had a hen that had laid an egg with the words ‘Crist is coming’ written on it. She had the egg to prove it. She had been rather taken up with the antics of Joanna Southcott, had obtained one of her ‘seals’ and now rather fancied herself a prophetess of doom. She had been granted a vision which told her that the hen would lay fourteen such eggs and that the last one would mark the beginning of the Apocalypse. More eggs were laid, news spread and crowds turned up to see the miraculous hen. They were charged a penny a time for the privilege. Not only that but, like Joanna Southcott, she began to sell paper seals that would guarantee entry into Heaven at the End of Days. Fortunately, a sceptical doctor managed to get hold of one of the eggs and he saw that the inscription had been written in ink. Though you’d think the spelling would have been a clue as well. Authorities were notified and Mary was caught red-handed, shoving an egg up the poor hen’s bottom so that it could be ‘laid’ later.

Undeterred by the negative publicity, Mary continued her criminal career. She invented a new imaginary helper. A Mrs Blythe, who lived in Scarborough. Also in 1806, she met William and Rebecca Peruga. Rebecca was a nervous woman who believed she was possessed by evil spirits. Mary agreed that was definitely the case and offered the help of Mrs Blythe. Mary showed them the instructions that she had received from Mrs Blythe, explaining that the letters must immediately be burnt. Mrs Blythe first sent four guinea notes and gold coins which Mary was to sew to each corner of Rebecca’s bedspread. The Perugas must then, in exchange, send four guinea notes to Mrs Blythe, via Mary. Next, William was instructed to nail two horse shoes to the door. They later received further requests to send to Mrs Blythe: money, some cheese, china, silverware, tea, sugar and finally some bedclothes as the lady was now unable to sleep in her own bed because of the battle she was having with Rebecca’s evil spirits.

Then, another letter arrived, predicting illness in the Peruga household. To combat this, Mary asked them to give her half a pound of honey. Into it, she mixed a special medicine and also gave them powders which they were to mix into a pudding and eat. No one should eat it but them and if there was any left, they should destroy it. As all correspondence with Mrs Blythe was also destroyed, it was clearly Mary’s intention that they should poison themselves and destroy the evidence. Rebecca died on May 24th 1807. William survived, and began to get better once he stopped eating the puddings.

William decided to take a closer look at the notes and coins that had been sewn into his wife’s bedspread. He found only copper coins and cabbage leaves. He pretended that he wanted to buy another bottle of medicine from Mary, but he took a Constable with him. Mary was arrested and her bottle of medicine was found to contain a mixture of rum, oatmeal and arsenic. Finally, the law had caught up with her and she was hanged for murder on March 20th 1809 at York. Her execution was attended by around 5,000 people, many of whom still believed that she had supernatural powers and would be saved by some sort of divine intervention. She was not.

Her body was taken to Leeds Infirmary where is was put on public display at threepence a time. It raised thirty pounds for the hospital, so there must have been 2,400 visitors. That was not the end of Mary’s post-mortem career. Her body was dissected and a large part of her skin was tanned, cut into strips and sold as curios. Her skeleton was used for anatomy lessons and afterwards put on display at the Thackray Museum in Leeds. It was removed in 2015 and is now in the care of the University of Leeds.


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.

Beware of False Prophets

12 10 johannes stoefflerToday is the birthday of Johannes Stöffler, who was born in 1452 in Justingan, in what is now southern Germany. Stöffler was a scholar who, in time, became parish priest of his home town. But in his spare time he made astronomical instruments, celestial globes, clocks and orreries. One of his globes still survives in a museum at the Old Castle in Stuttgart, it’s a beautiful thing. He also wrote a proposal for changing the calendar on which the Gregorian Calendar would eventually be based. But these things are not why I want to talk about him today. As well as being excellent in the fields of mathematics and astronomy, he was also interested in astrology. Although astronomy and astrology are now two very different things, until the late sixteenth century, they were basically the same, so we can’t hold that against him. But he did do something pretty stupid.

In the year 1499, he predicted that, on February 20th 1524, a universal flood would cover the whole earth. He based his prediction on the fact that, on that day, most of the known planets (there were only six) and also the sun would be in conjunction in the constellation of Pisces. As Pisces is the sign of the fish, he felt this was an indication that the whole world would be drowned. There were, at that time, plenty of people who enjoyed predicting the end of the world, just as there are now but Stöffler was pretty prominent. By 1507, he occupied the first ever chair of astronomy and mathematics at the University of Tubingen and, in 1522, he was made rector.

As the date of his prophecy drew ever closer, more and more people heard about it. Panic set in. Over a hundred pamphlets were published on the subject. The value of waterside properties plummeted and people began to build boats.

Not wanting to be outdone, English astronomers announced that there would indeed be a flood, but it would begin on February 1st, in London. A fortress was built at the Priory Church of St Bartholomew the Great and equipped with two months worth of supplies. When the day came, 20,000 Londoners headed for the hills and waited. Nothing happened. Everyone went home. The astrologers had to admit they were wrong. They said that they had been out by a hundred years and, in fact, the flood would come on February 1st 1654, thus absolving themselves of any personal responsibility.

Their failure did nothing to dampen fears among the landowners and nobles of continental Europe. Economically, it was an excellent time for boat builders and merchants were doing a roaring trade selling emergency supplies. Rivers were full of new boats packed to the gunwales with food and water. One of the biggest was an ambitious three-storey ark, built on the Rhine, for a German count called Von Iggleheim for his friends and family. Early on the morning of the 20th, he boarded his ark and had his servants drag all the supplies aboard. The spectacle drew quite a lot of interest. Some were just curious, others were there to jeer. Then… it began to rain. It didn’t rain a lot, but it was enough to panic the crowd. They rushed to board Iggleheim’s ark and any other boat nearby. Hundreds were killed in the ensuing chaos. When the count refused to let anyone aboard, they dragged him off his boat and stoned him to death.

The year 1524 would eventually prove to be one of the driest on record. Stöffler was also forced to revise his prediction. He said it would actually happen in 1528. It was a bit reckless of him to predict a date within his own lifetime, because it didn’t happen then either and people sort of stopped believing he could predict the future. But according to one story I read, he once predicted that, on a certain day, his life would be put in danger by a falling body. Wisely, he chose to spend the day inside. Whilst indoors, having a discussion with friends, he reached up for a book. The whole shelf came loose and hit him on the head, he was quite badly injured. This is a great story and I wish I could corroborate it with a more contemporary account, but I can’t, so I hope it’s true.

In 1530 his whole university was forced to relocate to the countryside due to a plague epidemic. He removed himself to Blaubeuren. Where he died in 1531. Of the plague. It’s a pity he couldn’t have predicted that instead.