On African ‘Vampires’

December 10, 2017

The only ‘African vampire’ that I know of…

 

Trying to get back in the habit of posting, and I’m a bit slow on this one, but you probably saw the news around halloween this year that ‘vampires’ were causing problems in Malawi. In fact, it’s still happening. I was interested to read Anthony Mtuta’s take on the phenomenon in the latter account. Mtuta is a lecturer at the Catholic University of Malawi, and believes the vampire mania to reflect the deep divide between rich and poor. He’s clearly onto something. I was not aware of any indigenous African vampire tradition, and wondered if we might be seeing some influence from western pop culture (hence my image choice above). I can’t rule this out as a factor, but have found no evidence of it. The reality is much more interesting.

 

Partway into my research I discovered that Vice News had actually done my job for me with a very well researched article. This confirmed what I had suspected; these aren’t really ‘vampires’ as we know them, except perhaps in the super-inclusive sense of there being a meme of the ‘universal vampire’. There are no stories (ancient or otherwise) of dead people taking vitality from the living in Malawi. In fact, there is no history of bloodsucking revenant belief anywhere in Africa as far as I know (though I could be wrong). What’s being acted upon in Malawi seemed to me a very recent belief with the hallmarks of a modern conspiracy theory or urban myth, with no traditional folklore to back it up. They’re not talking about walking corpses or even ghosts, but living people using needles to steal blood. Vampires of a sort perhaps, but nothing whatever to do with the European revenant tradition and especially not the ‘true’ Slavic vampire.

 

I wanted to nail down just how old these beliefs are, as the Vice article only pushes things back to ‘the 1930s’ with a quote from leading researcher in the field Luise White. I only have access to the Google Books preview of her definitive book, but it looks as though the first written account dates to 1923 (for mumiani – see page 39 of White’s book). White’s interviewees, some of whom were born in the 1890s, claimed that the practice ‘…started after World War I in Kenya and in the 1920s in Northern Rhodesia and Uganda’. A variety of names were used in different countries and languages, including mumiani and banyama which seem to be analogous to ‘vampire’ in the literal sense of an entity that draws blood, and chinja-chinja / kachinja, which White lumps together but may in fact represent a distinct belief (which reads to me like a straightforward mythologising of the ‘western’ serial killer – perhaps the belief has changed over time?). How the current Malawian term anamapopa relates to all this, I don’t know. I can’t find it in any dictionaries. In any case, Mumiani is especially interesting because it seems (p.11) to be connected to the practice of foreigners making spurious medicines from the dead bodies of Africans (ancient Egyptians, to be precise). White doesn’t seem to subscribe to the idea (perhaps because she believes her interviewees), but the 1930s-vintage definition of mumiani makes the origin quite clear I think;

 

‘THE STANDARD Swahili-English Dictionary describes “Mumiani” as “a dark-coloured gum-like substance used by some Arabs, Indians and Swahili as a medicine for cramp, ague, broken bones, etc.”, and further states : “It- is used as an outward application, also when melted in ghee for drinking as a medicine”. It is said to be brought from Persia but many natives firmly believe that it is dried or coagulated human blood taken from victims murdered for the purpose and when a rumour is started that Mumiani is being sought for, the natives in a town are filled with terror and seldom go outside their houses after sunset (Pers. “Mumiyai”, a medicine, with which mummies are preserved).

E.C. Baker in ‘Tanzania Notes and Records’, December 1944, p.108)

 

Variants of the word ‘mummy’ have long referred to folk-medicine preparations made from ancient corpses which, of course, white people had also indulged in as late as perhaps a century prior to this explanation. Interestingly, there was an Indian version of the blood-theft myth current in the late C19th which may be the origin of all of these African variants (White, p.10). In the mid-C19th this was seen as an Indian practice, and the myth was that Abyssinian boys were being killed to produce it. The connection between actual corpse medicine traditions and latter-day myths of blood theft for medical purposes seems clear. White suggests (p.28) that colonial banning of traditional ‘poison ordeal’ rituals in the 19th century might have created a gap in traditional practice that was filled by these stories. This would all fit together as an hypothesis; local tradition is interfered with by foreigners, who then become the butt of a new tradition, itself imported from abroad.

 

In any case, it’s fair to say that the current violence in Malawi is part of an older traditional belief in bloodsuckers, but is nothing to do with the older European vampire (or the even older revenant). It’s just a shame that a practice that seems to have served as a victimless scapegoat in other parts of the world (the dead bodies ‘killed’ as vampires didn’t feel a thing) is mirrored here by one that involves persecuting and harming real, living people.

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The Winchester House

March 26, 2017

Windows on the INSIDE?! I’m not saying it’s ghosts, but it’s ghosts. (By Kai Schreiber from Jersey City, USA – Uploaded by PDTillman, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9036971)

 

I first read of the Winchester ‘Mystery’ House when planning a trip to California a few years ago; unfortunately I didn’t make it on that trip but I hope to see it one day. Recently I heard of a new graphic novel called ‘House of Penance’, based upon the traditional story attached to the house. The story goes that Sarah Winchester, widow of William Wirt Winchester, heir to his father Oliver’s famous rifle company, believed that she was haunted by the ghosts of all the people killed by her husband’s product. This supposedly led her to build and constantly remodel a house in an effort to placate them, leading to doorways on the outside, stairs that lead to nowhere, that sort of thing. The problem in digging into this one, as you’ll see, is that we have no idea what Sarah Winchester actually thought or believed. We don’t know if she actually suffered with mental ill-health, if she believed in ghosts or spiritualism, nor indeed what she may have thought about the violence committed with her family’s weapon. According to the ‘War Is Boring’ piece, the new narrative here is of gun control. The article admits: ‘There are hundreds of stories about the house and the woman and it’s likely we’ll never know the full truth’ (and clearly the book itself is fiction). However, the author clearly buys the fundamental claim that the house makes no sense and must be the product of some kind of paranormal belief and/or deep psychological problems. We can’t rule that out, but I did wonder if there might be any rational explanations, and it turns out that there are (along with some equally irrational ones that don’t involve ghosts).

 

Fortunately for me, the legendary Joe Nickell comprehensively nailed this one 15 years ago for ‘Skeptical Inquirer’ magazine. I can’t find the text of this on the CSI website, so I hope they don’t mind me linking to this existing Google Groups post containing the full text. The title is ‘Winchester Mystery House: fact vs. fancy’, from the Sept-Oct 2002 issue (vol.26, issue 5, p.20). He covers a lot of ground, but I will just paste in here Nickell’s answer to the main claim; that the weird appearance of the house was an attempt to contain or confuse the dead victims of the Winchester rifle:

 

Fancy: Sarah Winchester’s “curious building techniques” resulted from her desire “to control the evil entities and keep them from harming her.” For example, “One stairway, constructed like a maze, has seven flights and requires forty-four steps to go ten feet” (Smith 1967, 38). Some interior rooms have barred windows, a floor is comprised of trap doors, and there are doors and stairs that lead nowhere (Rambo 1967; Murray 1998, 59).

 

Fact: The winding stair with two-inch steps had nothing to do with ghosts and everything to do with Mrs. Winchester’s severe arthritis and neuritis. The low steps were built to accommodate her diminished abilities (just as elevators were later installed when she was forced to use a wheelchair). The curiously barred interior windows have a simple explanation: they were once exterior windows, but the constant additions to the house relegated them to the inside. The doors and stairs that lead to dead ends are similarly explained. As to the floor with trap doors, those are in a special greenhouse room; they were designed to open onto a zinc subfloor so that runoff from watered plants could be drained by pipes to the garden beneath (Rambo 1967; Winchester 1997; Palomo 2001).

So, the Winchester House was the product of a super-rich, reclusive woman with changing needs and desires, and the near-unlimited funds to meet them. Eccentric? Perhaps. But there’s really no evidence here that Winchester was in any way (literally or figuratively) ‘haunted’ by the victims of the Winchester rifle. Indeed, if she were, why fritter her millions away on housebuilding? Why not donate to charity or to a pacifist organisation? Or become an anti-war/anti-violence/anti-gun advocate herself? As usual in scepticism, we see that credulity abhors a vacuum; in the absence of facts, people will make up stories to explain things that don’t readily make sense.

Quick BSH – Caynton Caves

March 9, 2017

For some reason the media (and social media) have gone nuts today over ‘Templar’ caves in Shropshire, due to a series of photographs by the talented but historically misinformed photographer Michael Scott. The caves are almost certainly mid-19th century in date. This isn’t just speculation; a local historian was able to find a ‘smoking gun’ source written within 30-odd years of the caves’ construction. They certainly have nothing whatever to do with the Knights Templar. BSH rule of thumb; if someone says something or someone is connected with the KT, it/they almost certainly aren’t.

 

Wikipedia has it right on this occasion;

 

‘Claims of a Templar connection are without foundation. There are no records of any Templar holdings in vicinity of the caves and the nearest house of the Order was the preceptory of Lidley some 25 miles to the west. Nor is there anything structurally or in the iconography that points to a Templar association.’
The suggestions of ‘druids and pagans’ using the site ‘later’ may well be correct, but if so they were Neo-Pagans, with no direct connection to their ancient inspiration (and apparently no awareness of their own local history).

Have the CIA Stopped Staring At Goats?

January 29, 2017
If you stare too long into the goat, the goat stares back... From http://chainsawsuit.com/comic/2010/03/09/psychic-goat-2/

If you stare too long into the goat, the goat stares back… From http://chainsawsuit.com/comic/2010/03/09/psychic-goat-2/

 

I recently read this article (or at least the opening paragraph, as it’s behind a paywall), entitled ‘Declassified CIA report claims psychics are real’. This didn’t surprise me; Whilst US government research in this area from the 1970s to the 1990s (best known in the form of ‘Project Stargate’) had concluded that there was no reliable intelligence value in psychic phenomena, they stopped short of actually debunking any of it. Their interest was whether psychics and remote viewers could obtain useful intelligence, not how this might be possible (that is, a small ‘psi’ effect was as much use to them as none at all). No doubt many involved believed (emphasis on believed) that there was some real effect going on here. This has led a lot of believers to wield this as proof that such things have been proven to exist. This could not be further from the truth, as there is still no evidence for ‘psi’. The article title is also (unintentionally) misleading, because although the document in question was part of a recent release of declassified CIA files, it was already widely available. The article, ‘An Assessment of the Evidence for Psychic Functioning’ by Jessica Utts was classified at all (only the copy held by the CIA was). It was actually published in 1995, and was quite the media sensation. It was also roundly debunked in a CSICOP article the following year, and I suggest that anyone interested in this subject reads the whole thing. Utts was hired by the group contracted to research psychic phenomena for the US government, but Ray Hyman, who authored the debunk, was the other evaluator. He does not agree with his former colleague, to put it mildly. None of the evidence that they reviewed proved significant. Utts claims are based in statistics, sure, but it’s a meta-analysis. This might seem more valuable than a lone study, but in fact there are a number of reasons why one meta-analysis should not be trusted. As Hyman puts it;

 

‘…drawing conclusions from meta-analytic studies is like having your cake and eating it too. The same data are being used to generate and test a hypothesis. The proper use of meta-analysis is to generate hypotheses, which then must be independently tested on new data. As far as I know, this has yet to be done. The correlation between quality and outcome also must be suspect because the ratings are not done blindly.’

 

All we know is that the analysis produced results slightly better than chance. We don’t know why, and in the absence of any supporting evidence, we should not assume it’s anything paranormal. There’s another good assessment on The Straight Dope, where they point out that even if Utts was right that there was a statistically measurable psychic effect, it was woefully unsuccessful;

 

‘Utts said the “psychics” were accurate about 15% of the time when they were helping the CIA. Fifteen percent? Is this supposed to convince us to pay them to help the United States government? Utts says she thinks “they would be effective if used in conjunction with other intelligence.” My intelligence tells me that 15% accuracy isn’t much help no matter what it’s used in conjunction with–that’s an 85% failure rate! So 85% of the time, spies would be wasting their time and resources on incorrect information. We’re supposed to be happy with that? And that’s presuming she’s right about the 15%.’

 

Far from seeing this new release of detailed material as somehow proof that ‘psi’ is real, I take it as a tacit acknowledgement that the US government no longer has any interest in this area. If they did, I’m sure they could find a way to keep it classified for longer.

Dracula Incarnate as Jack the Ripper?

January 21, 2017
Everyone knows they actually worked together...(Dracula & Jack' by Gene Colan & Dave Gutierrez, from comicartfans.com)

Pfft: everyone knows they actually worked together…(Dracula & Jack’ by Gene Colan & Dave Gutierrez, from comicartfans.com)

 

I like to follow the blog ‘Taliesin Meets the Vampires’ for its reviews of vampire literature and film, but I hadn’t expected it to spark my sceptical interests. After all, it’s mostly fiction, with the occasional uncontroversial reference work. But a recent review of ‘Dracula Incarnate: Unearthing the Definitive Dracula’ had me choking on my Count Chocula. The site very kindly gave the book 4 out of 10, despite poor writing (even the blurb contains an instance of ‘wrote’ in place of ‘written’), the shaky and unoriginal argument that ‘Dracula’ was based on Jack the Ripper, and (wait for it….)  the ludicrous premise that Bram Stoker somehow knew the identity of the Ripper and encoded it secretly in his novel. Wow. I barely know where to start with that, and I’m not sure that I can bring myself to actually buy this self-published gibberish, especially not at £17. Instead, I will just list a few observations based upon the review and other publically available claims. In any case, the author claims on Facebook that this ‘press release’ contains ‘massive amounts of information’, so he shouldn’t be able to counter with ‘read the book’. Note that these claims are only part of the book, which does purport to be a definitive work on the character and apparently does contain some valid information.

 

  1. The Ripper was almost certainly not Francis Tumblety (and if he was, we’ve no way of proving it). No-one knows, or indeed is likely to ever know, who the Ripper was. Tumblety isn’t even an original suspect, in fact he’s one of the most favoured. Which is a bit like saying that I am likely to win the lottery because I’ve bought a ticket: I’m more likely to win than someone who hasn’t entered, but I’m still facing odds of millions to one… In fact I would argue that it’s almost the other way around; we’ve reached ‘Peak Ripper’, a point where each new suspect simply adds to the list of people that the Ripper almost certainly wasn’t. It’s telling that even the Ripperologists (and I don’t mean that as an insult, just that this ought to be right up their dark alley) haven’t bothered commenting on the book despite being contacted by Struthers. These guys will happily spend ages reading and writing about claims that are either demonstrably false or can never be proven; but an Irish author hiding the answer in a vampire novel can be discounted out of hand even by the most rabid Ripper-hunter. If the author wanted to excite Ripper students, he should have come up with a previously unknown suspect that hasn’t already been analysed and talked to death.
  2. The code theory itself is such an obvious stretch. Claiming encoded information in the anagrams allows tremendous leeway to construct the message one wants to exist. Similar unscientific and subjective approaches have given us ‘The Bible Code’ and the myriad wishful-thinking interpretations of Nostradamus. I can’t say it better than the Taliesin Meets the Vampires review; ‘The author takes the phrase “Undertakers Man” and rearranges it to ARDENT UNMASKER, suggesting that Tumbelty could be the undertakers man and he is, therefore, being unmasked. However run the phrase through an anagram app and we also gets “Eastman drunker” and “errant unmasked”. Indeed there are hundreds of possible outcomes (the free software I used only gave you the first 400 outcomes). Nowhere is it suggested that there was a key in the notes to allow decoding and so it appears that the author ran phrases from the notes through an anagram programme and then picked the outcomes that would lend credence to his theorem.’‘ Ardent unmasker’? Really? The other phrase from novel that the blog relates is the phrase ‘Bells at Sea’ somehow meaning SELL A BEAST, which in turn is somehow connected to one of the Ripper’s’ murders. Honestly, you could any published book and apply the same approach to find any number of ‘hidden’ meanings that would be nothing of the sort. It’s the linguistic equivalent of reading tea leaves.
  3. Secrets this well hidden are indistinguishable from nonsense. Assuming for one moment that the above ‘information’ really was encoded by Stoker, who really did know who the Ripper was; why on earth would he risk no-one ever figuring it out? The other claims covered in the review are not even from the published novel ‘Dracula’, but Stoker’s private notes and another bastardised edition (see below). The notes are very much written in note form and were not published until 2008. Stoker had no way of knowing that anyone outside his family would even read them, much less understand the supposed ‘code’ contained therein. He certainly could not have foreseen them being annotated and published more than a century later. If it was his intention to pass on the Ripper’s identity in his notes, why not just write it down and leave it there, for people to discover after his death. A code this obtuse and obscure, even if it were real, would be indistinguishable from gibberish, as the ‘Taliesin’ quote above makes clear. Oh, that’s right, because it was a ‘super secretive “high level” plot’. Yep, this guy has cobbled together the world’s first Ripper/Dracula conspiracy theory.
  4. Jesus Christ, the exclamation marks! The Taliesin blog remarks upon their use within the published book, and the Amazon book preview and linked email to the JTR forums demonstrate it amply! This alone would drive me mad in trying to read the whole book! Also, what’s with the long……………….. lines of periods? (!)
  5. Some basic errors. In his email to the admin of the Casebook.org forums the author states; ‘…it was not a coincidence that Dracula’s arrival at Whitby and the first “Ripper” killing both took place on August 7th‘. He’s right, it is no coincidence. Because the first of the five ‘canonical’ Ripper murders took place in the early hours of 31st of August 1888. His connection of Dracula’s death by knife to the throat and heart is nonsensical in any case, but the real ‘…reason why Dracula was destroyed, [and] not by a wooden stake (as most people believe)…’ is because in 1897 the trope of a wooden stake had yet to take hold. In the excised chunk of ‘Dracula’ later presented in short story form as ‘Dracula’s Guest’ has a vampire staked with an iron stake. Indeed, the folklore is all over the place on this score; nails, ploughshares, knives, swords, and yes, various species of wood. See Paul Barber’s ‘Vampires, Burial & Death’ for the definitive details on this. Whether the ending of the novel is ‘ambiguous’ or not is subjective, but even as a child of seven when I first read an abridged version, I was pretty clear that Drac wasn’t coming back… (the movies notwithstanding).
  6. The total lack of evidence for any conspiracy theory (perhaps it’s all in the book?). The quote ‘…every book must contain some lesson, but I prefer that the readers should find it out for themselves’ is simply a statement about fiction writing. The preface to the 1901 ‘edition’ (Icelandic rewrite as ‘Taliesin’ says) that has got various people before Struthers excited is simply a tongue-in-cheek piece of make believe and an acknowledgement of the debt owed to the real-life Ripper murders as partial inspiration for his novel. The quote ‘..the strange and eerie tragedy which is portrayed here is true, as far as all external circumstances are concerned’ has been taken out of context. Read the whole preface; he is pretending that his own story might be real, a bit like Dan Brown pretending that his novels are based on real events. Don’t believe me? Read the whole preface. For example; ‘Everyone who participated in this remarkable story is well-known and respected. Jonathan Harker and his wife, who is a respectable woman, and Dr. Seward have been my friends for many years…’. He is writing about his own FICTIONAL characters as though they are real. Thus we cannot take the claim that the plot really took place literally. It is an allusion to the real events of 1888 framed as a meta-narrative device.
  7. The author has also made other superficially sensational claims that are also just spins on well known facts. The influence of Baring-Gould’s ‘Book of Werewolves’ is very well understood by just about anyone that knows the novel, and it is only one source used by Stoker. ‘Carmilla’ is very influential indeed, for example. As Dacre Stoker implies, to say that Dracula came from any one source, and especially one one geographical place is nonsense. Good way to get into a local paper to promote one’s unpublished book though…

 

I noted that the author, Andrew Struthers, claimed to be presenting his research at the 2016 World Dracula Congress, but a check of their website shows that he applied to attend, but apparently ultimately was not invited as either a keynote or ‘workshop’ speaker. Frankly, the guy appears delusional. Take this Facebook exchange with the admin of The Dracula Society:

 

‘This will come to be known as one of the most important books ever written………it is the story of a terrible nightmare that enveloped Victorian England in 1888. It is Stoker’s TRUE story of MAD DOCTOR JACK…….known the world over as THE RIPPER!!!’

 

To which the official response was;

 

‘Sorry to break the news to you, Andy – but Dracula a) isn’t about Jack The Ripper and b) is fiction..’

 

Challenged by another commenter to provide some evidence that doesn’t require buying and drinking his ‘snake oil’, Struthers goes on to claim that established Dracula scholars (notably Dr Elizabeth Miller, whose book ‘Dracula: Sense and Nonsense’ I heartily recommend) ‘are reading’ the book, but offers no actual endorsement. Incidentally, he also thinks he’s found ‘Dracula’s grave’, by which he clearly means the grave of Francis Tumblety, which has never in fact been lost…

 

So as yet there is no validation, peer review, or acceptance of his work. I’m not sure there will be either, since his hypothesis really nothing more than an amalgamation of Robert Eighteen-Bisang’s claim that Dracula was primarily based on the Ripper (already a reach), the commonly held preference for Francis Tumblety as a suspect (for which there is no evidence), and Stephen Knight’s mental idea that the Ripper murders were covered up by the authorities in an elaborate conspiracy. Ironically, this book about Dracula is actually a ‘Frankenstein’s Monster’(……..!!!!!!!!!).

 

Taboo’s Company

January 15, 2017
The 'Pirates' version.

The ‘Pirates’ version of the EIC trademark…

The 'Taboo'...

…and the ‘Taboo’ effort. Art imitating art?

 

I’ve started watching the BBC’s new period supernatural drama ‘Taboo’, and right away noticed something weird about the depiction of the East India Company in the show. It’s not the setup for them being a sort of Georgian version of OCP from Robocop, although that is historically dubious in itself. No, what I noticed was the bizarre choice of the EIC ‘logo’ from the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ movies. As the Radio Times points out, the company trademark (or ‘bale mark’) symbol did change over the decades, but they seem to think that the one used here is a real historical one. It absolutely isn’t, it’s the exact same one from the ‘Pirates’ movies. Given the casting of Jonathan Pryce, I half wondered if this was some sort of weird spinoff/crossover effort, but that seems to be coincidental. The correct bale mark is the heart-shaped one with the ‘4’ shape on top (an old merchant’s symbol), and ‘VEIC’ for ‘United East India Company’. The only real change was a move from curved segments to quarters, see here.

The late-18th century version of the genuine EIC trademark.

The late-18th century version of the genuine EIC trademark.

for 1813 (the year that the programme is set in) would be the one I’ve posted above. This was used on their currency, stock and property in a similar fashion to the Board of Ordnance ‘broad arrow’, though frankly I haven’t seen the ‘heart’ on anything dated post-1808 (anyone that knows the real history here, please do comment). Certainly it was dropped from the Company’s firearms and replaced by a lion rampant from that date onwards. I’m also not sure that it’s appropriate plastered all over their HQ as it is in ‘Taboo’ – I suspect that the coat of arms should be the official ‘logo’ in that context (see this page). I have a nagging feeling that some researcher simply bashed ‘east india company’ into Google Images, which is dominated by the Disney EIC ‘logo’ in screengrabs, merchandise and wiki pages, and assumed that it was one of the real historical variants. If so, how incredibly lazy can you get? If not, what’s the big idea here? Why connect your dark gothic adult historical drama series with a series of light-hearted family movies based on a theme park ride? Yes, I realise most people won’t know or care, but if I thought like that, I’d never write anything here!

I’m not the only one, in fact. Some people on Reddit have also spotted this, and one theory is that they chose the fictional logo to emphasise that this is a fantasy version of the company, but a) what would be the need, and b) why go to the trouble of seeking copyright permission from Disney to use their version, when you could easily design your own. Wait, you did seek permission from Disney, didn’t you, BBC? BBC….?

The gun that goes ‘PING’ didn’t get soldiers killed. But they thought it might…

January 8, 2017

 

The clip ejecting from an M-1 Garand rifle in a period photograph.

The clip ejecting from an M-1 Garand rifle in a period photograph (my title is a Monty Python reference…)

 

One of the most persistent firearm myths out there is that American soldiers fighting in the Second World War (or in Korea for that matter) were at risk of getting shot by the enemy because of the distinctive ‘ping’ sound made by their rifles. The M-1 ‘Garand’ was ahead of its time as a military self-loading rifle, but unlike modern rifles it did not feature detachable box magazines. Instead it was loaded with eight round metal ‘en bloc’ clips. These were inserted into the open action from the top and retained inside until the last round was fired, at which point the clip would eject (along with the empty case of the last shot) with a distinctive ‘ping’ sound (you can clearly hear this in the movie ‘Saving Private Ryan’, for example, and see it in slow motion in this Forgotten Weapons video). Now, this idea of the ‘ping’ being a fatal flaw really is a myth, in that there’s no evidence that it ever happened. However, there’s a bit more to it than that…

A lot of ink and pixels have been expended arguing the ‘M-1 ping’ myth back and forth, and some have even tried to practically demonstrate why it’s a silly idea. Tactical trainer Larry Vickers recreated a scenario for his ‘TAC TV’ series, and more recently YouTuber ‘Bloke on the Range’ has tackled the myth. The Bloke shows just how difficult it would be to even hear the ‘ping’, without the various other loud noises associated with battle. Soldiers have only recently begun to wear any kind of hearing protection after all. Not to mention the very obvious fact that soldiers rarely fight alone. If a German or Japanese soldier did manage to take advantage of the ‘ping’ window of opportunity, he’s likely to get shot by another GI. More importantly, the Bloke shows how easy and quickly one could reload following the ‘ping’. At all but the closest ranges, this really is a myth and a total non-issue. As Bloke points out, there is no actual historical evidence for this ever having happened, and for every claim that a veteran experienced it, there is an ‘equal and opposite veteran’ saying the opposite. This is typified by an exchange in ‘American Rifleman’ magazine in 2011/12 (reproduced here). I’m not sure that I’ve ever actually read a first-hand account either; it’s always a relative, a friend, or a friend-of-a-friend, and therefore being told and retold decades after the fact. Hardly ideal. At this point, I would normally call ‘case closed’ as Garand expert Bruce N. Canfield has done online, in no uncertain terms.

 

 

However, it’s more complicated than just the bare facts. Sometimes, myths intrude into reality by being thoroughly embedded in thought and practice. There is no doubt whatever that whether this ever happened or not, quite a lot of soldiers in the ‘40s and ‘50s clearly DID believe that this was a real threat. This is proven by a fascinating document scanned and uploaded by the Garand Collector’s Association. This 1952 ‘Technical Memorandum’ (ORO-T-18 (FEC)) is entitled ‘Use of Infantry Weapons and Equipment in Korea’, and was written by G.N. Donovan of ‘Project Doughboy’. This was an effort by the Operations Research Office of the John Hopkins University to gather feedback on the practical usage of US military weapons in the then-current Korean War.

 

On page five we read the conclusion that:

 

‘The noise caused by ejection of the empty clip from the M-1, despite the fact that at close range it could be heard by the enemy, was considered valuable by the rifleman as a signal to reload.’

 

And on page eighteen;

‘One other complaint about the M-1 was the noise made by the safety. Half the men had a nagging fear that some day the noise made in releasing the safety would reveal their positions to the enemy, yet only one-fourth objected to the distinctive noise the empty clip made when ejected. They were quite willing to retain the noise of the clip even though the enemy might be able to use it to advantage, because they found it a very useful signal to reload.’

 

Now, the question that prompted this response was rather a leading one (page 51):

 

‘Interviews Conducted on Noise of the Rifle

  1. Is the sound of the clip being ejected of possible help to the enemy or is it helpful to you as an indication of when to reload, or is it of no importance?

[Question Men Reporting, No.]

Helpful to the enemy 85

Helpful to know when to reload, therefore retain 187

Of no importance 43

—-

315

 

But, the answers speak for themselves. Twice as many soldiers surveyed thought that the noise was helpful to the enemy, as thought it unimportant. Many more again thought it was actually a useful audible indication of an empty weapon, bearing out the Bloke’s results that yes, you can hear the ping if you’re close enough, but no, you probably can’t successfully rush a chap before he can get another clip into his rifle.

 

In defence of their findings, the researchers commented thusly;

 

‘Results of these interviews show that there is great uniformity in responses to questions asked, and all numerical estimates of such items as range of firing, load carried, etcetera, have been found to cluster around a central point with comparatively little scattering. Thus it is felt that the results are reliable and can be fairly said to represent what the infantryman believed he did. The fact that these were group interviews further increased the reliability of the results, since any apparent exaggeration by one man was quickly picked up and questioned by others. In this way the men themselves provided a check on the accuracy of their answers.’
In other words, if other soldiers thought it impossible for the enemy to take advantage of the ‘ping’, they would have said so. This is probably true, although interviewees are likely to behave differently under observation and questioning, so one can’t rely on this 100%. There was also no recommendation made with respect to this perceived ‘flaw’ with the weapon, and no comment from officers on the issue (interestingly they did point out that the noisy safety could be carefully operated not to make noise). However, again, the numbers here speak for themselves, along with the later anecdotal evidence. Once again, some soldiers really did believe that it was possible for the enemy to hear your ‘ping’, rush your position, and kill you. And there’s no reason to believe that such a thing is impossible. For example, in an incident that occurred in Afghanistan in 2008, a skirmish between a British patrol and a small number of Taliban came down to just such a one-on-one situation, with a British officer and Taliban fighter positioned just feet from each other with only a river bank in the way. Realising his weapon was empty, the attacking officer opted to use his bayonet (and the element of surprise) rather than take time to reload, and killed the (admittedly already wounded) enemy. If we imagine a similar engagement where one party is armed with a Garand, it would be eminently possible to hear the final shot and the clip go ‘ping’, close the distance, and kill the unfortunate soldier. There are many other scenarios in which this could happen, but all would involve a lull in firing, being isolated from one’s squadmates (or at least in their firing line, preventing them from shooting past you), running out of ammunition at just the wrong moment, and a certain amount of bravery and/or luck on the part of the defender. It may have happened, it may never have happened; on that question the balance of the evidence suggests that it did not. However, and this is an important caveat, I think it’s important not to insist that this claim is a total myth as Canfield has done, stating that it is ‘…so silly as to not be worthy of serious discussion’ (this is not intended as a slight, I have done the same many times). The implication is that no-one with any knowledge of the subject would make them claim, but we now know that many of the actual guys who fought with this rifle DID believe it. They just thought that the noise was more likely to ensure that they had ammunition in their weapon than it was to result in them being caught without. Of course, there is also the fact that soldiers are people, and people believe all sorts of weird things…

Secret Squirrels

December 3, 2016
It's no good, Secret; your codename has been linked. We're going to have to come up with some disinfo...'

‘Bad news Secret; your code-name has been leaked. We’re going to have to come up with some disinfo…’

 

Pressures of work have kept me away for a long time, but I’m hoping to get back to posting at least sporadically. Now, I recently read an interesting claim on the SOFREP website about the nickname for spies and intelligence operatives ‘secret squirrel’. As in, ‘that Mr Bond; he’s not actually a clown, he’s a ‘secret squirrel’ (spy). If you’re not interested in this world or its history, you may not have heard the name, but it was one I’d heard and intuitively understood. The linked explanation (which in fairness the author makes clear is hearsay) is along the lines of it being a tongue twister code phrase that German operatives wouldn’t be able to pronounce. A bit like that bit at the end of ‘The Great Escape’ where the Germans trick the escapee by speaking English in a German accent…

This sounds very much like post hoc fabrication to me. Whilst I can’t say for sure how this phrase was coined, nor can I disprove an anecdote from the intelligence community itself; this kind of claim is not likely to have left any written evidence, and if it had, it would likely still be classified! But there’s a tangible reason why this is very likely untrue. As people of a certain age will know, there is an old cartoon series about a spy squirrel, called, er, ‘Secret Squirrel’. It must be at the very least contemporary with the source of this tongue-twister explanation, since he was not himself of WW2 vintage, but had allegedly heard it from someone who was. For what it’s worth, I was using the phrase in daily speech well before I read this new rather redundant explanation. It’s an obvious thing to call spies. So I very much doubt that a tongue twister had anything to do with it, and if I had to speculate myself, I’d say this guy has been sold a shaggy dog story (or perhaps the original teller believed it himself, who knows?). Anyway, I thought I’d point out the (to me) obvious real origin in case this new version grows ‘legs’ on the internet.

Conscience Bullets – Firing Squads and the use of blank cartridges

June 26, 2016

I’ve been following Indy Neidell’s brilliant video series ‘The Great War’ on YouTube, and a recent post on that channel prompted me to write this. In the video, one of Indy’s viewers asks about firing squads and how the shooters were selected, how they coped with taking part in such a traumatic event etc. In his answer, Indy quotes from Victor Silvester’s autobiography, ‘Dancing Is My Life’ (1958):

 

‘The victim was brought out from a shed and led struggling to a chair to which he was then bound and a white handkerchief placed over his heart as our target area. He was said to have fled in the face of the enemy. Mortified by the sight of the poor wretch tugging at his bonds, twelve of us, on the order raised our rifles unsteadily. Some of the men, unable to face the ordeal, had got themselves drunk overnight. They could not have aimed straight if they tried, and, contrary to popular belief, all twelve rifles were loaded. The condemned man had also been plied with whisky during the night, but I remained sober through fear.’

 

Grim stuff. My own interest was piqued by the oblique reference to the practice of having one rifle loaded with blank (a cartridge with a powder charge but no bullet, or a bullet that will break up on firing – used for military training). This has understandably been condemned as a myth, on the basis that it just doesn’t seem plausible. Guns recoil, and (then) modern military rifles recoil very stoutly. A blank cartridge, having no bullet and therefore building up no pressure on firing, gives no recoil at all. As such, any firing squad member who was issued a blank would know immediately upon firing that he had been the ‘lucky’ one and need face no moral qualms about taking aim at a fellow soldier and human being. Additionally, every other firer would immediately know that they had fired a live round, and so unless they had deliberately ‘aimed off’ so as not to strike the victim, would know that they had caused or at least contributed directly to his death.

 

However, this is not reason enough to dismiss the practice as a myth. Why? Quite simply because regardless of the practicalities, we know that blanks were used in firing squads. There are many examples, but I have a note of a very relevant one from a First World War veteran whose testimony appeared on the BBC’s own ‘The Great War’ documentary. This man, tasked with shooting deserters with his SMLE rifle, reported that:

 

‘…some were loaded with ball, others with blank…one knew by the recoil if it had been loaded with ball or not.’

 

Rifleman Henry Williamson, London Rifle Brigade, published in “Voices of the Great War” (p.89, another reference reported on Arrse) tell us that:

 

“We didn’t know what the rifles were loaded with, some were loaded with ball others with blank. Then we had the order to fire and pulled the triggers, we knew by the recoil if it was loaded with ball or not.”

 

Not all sources report blanks, and as we’ve seen some state otherwise. However, later in the 20th century it had become formal doctrine for both UK and US forces. Both of the references below were found by posters at the arrse.co.uk forum:

 

US:
13. The officer charged with execution will…(g) Cause eight rifles to be loaded in his presence. Not more than three and nor less than one will be loaded with blank ammunition. He will place the rifles at random in the rack provided for that purpose.
US Army procedure for executions, 1947.

 

UK:

(c iii) Mean-while the DAPM will change the places of the rifles, unload two of them and reload them with live rounds which have had the bullets removed from them or with blank ammunition. The DAPM will carry the rounds in question.

-Military Provost Manual 1963, Chapter XXVIII, Section 4, 704

 

This source also makes clear that the firers were not to handle or inspect the rifles allocated to them. Clearly the intent was that they should not discover, nor should other shooters be able to determine (without confabulation) which of them had been given the blank.

So we have plenty of evidence that blank rounds were used by different militaries and in different periods, despite the obvious fact that any soldier would realise he’d fired a blank. What gives? The solution to this apparent paradox lies in the psychology of killing. Consider why up to twelve men were used to execute a prisoner. Only one shooter is needed to kill a man, in fact an officer was always on hand to deliver the coup de grace, as Silvester himself reports. So why so many firers? Plausible deniability for the men. Even without a blank, each man could tell himself that his shot had not been the fatal one, or that even if he had not been there, the prisoner would still have died. In fact, it’s an incentive to fire precisely on the order given, so as not to shoot early or late, and consequently become aware of the effect of your individual shot on the unfortunate target.

 

I’m not saying that this worked exactly; clearly Silvester suffered greatly from his involvement in these squads. But it allowed something of a coping mechanism for the horrible task at hand. If we then at least claim that one rifle was loaded with blank, that gives each shooter an additional way to rationalise their participation, and may even function as an incentive to willingly take part. If there is a 1 in 12 chance that your shot definitely won’t kill anyone, you’re more likely not to desert yourself, foment further mutiny, or to fire in a disorderly and therefore unseemly fashion.

 

This is not mere supposition on my part. In a 1943 (22 Nov, p.6) issue of LIFE magazine, Captain William Hastings of the U.S. Army Air Forces wrote on the ‘myth’ of the firing squad blank. However, he makes clear that the only myth here is that the shooter might not know whether he had fired a live round or not. He confirms the issue of blank cartridges:

 

‘The story on the German spy execution (LIFE, Nov.1) by a French firing squad gave credence to a popular myth that members of a firing squad do not know whether they fire a blank or live cartridge. A man firing a blank knows full well that it is a blank since there is no recoil. He can, however, later claim that he fired a blank regardless of whether his rifle was loaded with ball or blank ammunition, as long as it is generally known that some of the rifles contained blank cartridges’.

 

As Wikipedia puts it;

 

‘This is believed to reinforce the sense of diffusion of responsibility among the firing squad members, making the execution process more reliable. It also allows each member of the firing squad to believe afterward that he did not personally fire a fatal shot–for this reason, it is sometimes referred to as the “conscience round”.’

 

A version of this practice dates back to the American Civil War, when the single weapon might be charged with powder only, or up to half might be so loaded:

 

‘Only half of the guns were loaded, but no man among the executioners knew whether or not his was a blank charge’.

-‘The life of Johnny Reb, the common soldier of the Confederacy by Bell Irvin Wiley, 1943, p.228.

 

Perhaps surprisingly, it was last used as recently as 2010, in the U.S. state of Utah, whose standing practice is as follows:

 

‘On the command to fire, the squad fires simultaneously. One squad member has a blank charge in his weapon but no member knows which member is designated to receive this blank charge.’

 

Again we see the reasoning behind the issue of a blank cartridge, as well as emphasis on the importance of firing simultaneously. This is meant to be a group effort in which no one individual is wholly responsible.

 

In the UK, capital punishment was finally fully abolished in 1998 (for the remaining capital crimes of treason and piracy at sea), and the last execution by firing squad was that of German spy Josef Jakobs in 1941. If you visit the Tower of London, you can see the chair in which Jakobs became the last person to be executed at the Tower, and the last to be executed in this way by British authorities (two U.S. servicemen were executed at a British site under U.S. jurisdiction the following year). There is no evidence to suggest that a blank cartridge was used in Jakobs’ case. Perhaps it was not thought necessary where British soldiers were executing an enemy spy? Nonetheless, the chair remains a stark reminder of former systems of justice in which prisoners might be shot dead for their crimes. In the case of First World War soldiers who decided that they could not face the horrors of war, that death would come at the hands of their comrades, perhaps even their friends. Blank cartridges were no myth, but their effectiveness remains difficult to assess. How can we possibly measure psychological trauma of this kind? The First World War was a conflict so horrific as to challenge even the most deeply rooted justifications for war, and levels of desertion or mutiny were high. From the perspective of those in authority therefore, firing squads were a brutal but effective way to keep soldiers in line and see the war through to its bloody conclusion in 1918.

Link – Griffins were not Dinosaurs

June 7, 2016

I don’t normally post links or reblog, but this was so good (and my latest effort so held up by external factors I won’t bore anyone with) that I had to post it. I’ve always been sceptical about claims that Dragon mythology is based on Dinosaur fossils, and this post by Mark Witton roundly debunks one of these – that the Griffin of Ancient Greece was inspired by real Protoceratops fossils. This is reminiscent of similar attempts to explain away folklore using modern science, like the specious link between the disease porphyria and vampirism. Science can explain big chunks of folklore, like the ‘old hag’ or ‘night mare’ (indeed vampires too) being explicable by means of sleep paralysis. But people in the past, indeed people now, are more than capable of inventing things from whole cloth, and we still need to apply critical thought to convenient explanations like the Dinosaur/Griffin.