Archive for November, 2010

A Proper Charlie

November 22, 2010

Or:

‘We’re Gonna Need a Biggar Boat’

 

 

Reincarnation. It’s what you need, if you wanna be a record breaker. Or was that ‘dedication’? I forget. In any case, there are people out there who think they’ve lived before. Unfortunately virtually all of them want to be the same important historical figures, members of royalty, celebrities, noted fighter pilots, and so on. Even employing the logical gymnastics of the past-life believer, or invoking some $cientology-inspired Thetan-based scenario, this is difficult to explain. The reality of course is that there’s little kudos in claiming to be a medieval peasant who died of the plague aged 37.

 

Members of the reincarnation crowd feel the need to go around telling everyone they can about their glorious past life, perhaps to distract from the tediousness of their current one. The age of the internet has made boring and/or amusing people with such tales far easier. One such claimant is Charles Edward Stuart Boden, who claims to be the reincarnation of his namesake Prince Charles Edward Stuart, a.k.a. Bonnie Prince Charlie.

 

Boden has been bouncing around internet forums and discussion lists for years now, and recently blundered into the JREF sceptical forum, with predictable results. Having failed to take in a single suggestion provided by the sceptics, internet drama ensued, involving an entire forum of reincarnated people. Even they weren’t buying what Charles was selling. Literally. The sceptics however, were hooked. We decided to get hold of a copy of Boden’s book, ‘Descendent of Kings’ and see just how deep the crazy-pool was. You can dip a toe in here, if you choose. Besides some substantial comedy potential, I had in mind an exercise in falsifiability. Would it be possible to pro-actively debunk the past-life related claims contained therein? Or would they be so vague, or so directly based on written history as to be unassailable (though by no means automatically true of course).

 

In this regard it was a disappointment, as it is heavily padded with a lot of biographical and historical information rehashed from existing history books and websites. I wonder why someone who was there would need to draw upon such flawed secondary source material. Though not the focus of my interest, I did check out a sample fact-check and much of it, at least, is basically accurate. However, a total lack of referencing as well as slipshod quoting and structure make it rather difficult to fact-check. There’s also no bibliography, index, or even pagination, and there are a good number of spelling and grammatical errors in the book (‘Bannockburn’ has two Ns, Charles, if you’re reading). The author is also a fan of pointless neologisms, “mediumnic” is a key one, as Charles (re)discovered his supposed past life via the world of Spiritualism (or “Spiritism” as he calls it).

 

As Alice Shortcake on the JREF forum (credit to her also for my title and associated picture) has shown, Boden has also made a hash of his genealogical claims to be directly descended from royalty (aside from the reincarnation thing), to the point of some questionable Wikipedia edits.

 

Now, Boden’s lack of scholarship has no direct bearing on the veracity or otherwise of his past-life claims. If he really was there in the 18th century, his experiences ought to in some way reflect the reality of that period and the experiences of Prince Charlie himself. In line with his other claims, Mr Boden does seem to exercise psychic prescience when he writes;

 

“The historical significance of what is contained within this story, rather than a factor that might help to evidence it, will on the contrary most probably be used as an argument against it.”

 

Uncanny, as that is precisely what I am going to do. Boden also tries to head off critical analysis of his efforts by “those who choose to live in disbelief”. Luckily, belief and disbelief are not the only positions to take. The third way is scepticism – critical analysis based on evidence. I had most success with the first three claims dealt with below. These are all linked, and therefore all stand or fall together.

 

1. Charles (as Charlie) first heard the Jacobite song “Charlie He’s My Darling” in 1746.

The problem is that this song almost certainly wasn’t known by anybody until 1796, when the famous poet Robert Burns’ version was published in the ‘Scots Musical Museum’. The page reproduced at that link is from ‘The Songs of Robert Burns’ (1903). Here are a few of the later versions, all early C19th;

See also this comparison of versions. Now, the version Boden gives us in his book (p5 in the preview version) isn’t much like any of them, and I doubt that it’s because his is somehow closer to the original. Though a 1798 mention of the song suggests that it is a traditional air, there’s no real reason to suspect that any version of it existed before Burns. If there was a purely oral folk version, it would certainly have been in the Scots language (or possibly Scots Gaelic) and wouldn’t have resembled Boden’s wholly modern turn of English phrase. In any case it’s clear that he’s put together lines from the later versions.

 

Perhaps he got it so badly wrong because, as Charlie, he wasn’t there at the time. By the time this song was being sung, he had at the least buggered off to Italy, if not been dead for over a decade. Or perhaps he’s remembering only the version he heard in his present life? In any case, it hardly constitutes evidence of any past existence – if anything, it’s evidence against the probability of that.

 

2. He “…’saw’ a pair of army boots resting upon a stool in front of a fireplace, while a minstrel sat playing this same song”.

OK, this is a minor nitpick in the scheme of things, but ‘army boots’ is an oddly modern description. Boots weren’t worn by European infantry until the mid-19th century. Buckled shoes with hose were the order of the day in the C18th, often worn in British service with gaiters (large spats in this context) of varying lengths and styles. See this chap from the 1742 ‘Cloathing Book’. Perhaps he meant cavalry boots? Conceivably Jacobite cavalrymen or mounted gentlemen may have worn these. Depictions of this are lacking, however, and Charlie himself is never shown wearing anything but shoes or brogues. Besides, Boden doesn’t say “cavalry”, “riding”, “long” or other kinds of boots – he says “army boots”.

Anyway, on to the juicy stuff…

 

3. Charles was able to recognise the skyline of a town he’d seen 250 years previously

Forgive me, I got a bit carried away with this one…

Boden tells us that he heard said song and saw said boots in a specific Scottish town on the retreat from the Jacobite incursion into England in 1746. When Charles visited Scotland in 1997 he drove through Biggar in Lanarkshire and felt that he had seen it before. In his words;

 

“The sight of the entrance to this small town, from the road that we were on as we approached it, hit me like a blow in the stomach. The vision of its row of houses, forming a curve into the main street, was literally the same as the vision of the town which had been in my memory ever since childhood.”

 

Having confirmed with his father that he had never before visited the town, the historical source that he turns to to confirm this as evidence of his past life is… a “tourist brochure” he’s given in a pub.

 

The screamingly obvious alternate explanation is a glitch in the Matrix de ja vu. If you’ve convinced yourself that you’re the reincarnation of a famous 18th century wannabe-Scots noble, and you’re visiting the land of his exploits, then chances are you’re going to read some significance into this de ja vu. If Boden had been reading up on Charlie, he would likely have come across the name of the town. Another explanation, for the same reasons, is simple imagination. Boden may not have known that Charlie rested with his army at Biggar, but it was a pretty good bet that he at least passed this way, since Biggar lies on one of the only thoroughfares to/from Scotland (then in particular).

 

Boden states that the approach into Biggar in 1997 was “literally the same” as his 1746 “vision” of it. But what did Biggar actually look like in 1746? Thanks to British military mapping and to National Library of Scotland’s digitisation programme, we can get a good idea. To cover my bases, I also reviewed maps of the same area from 1832.

 

I’ve compiled these together with Ordnance Survey coverage of the town from the present day:

 

 

 

Despite a near-tripling in population between the first two maps, the town remained nonetheless nuclear, in the sense that it had yet to grow outwards along the roads radiating from the marketplace around which it had been established in the medieval period. Though there are little blobs alongside the road on the 1832 map, when zoomed right in, these are clearly trees and not buildings. Since that time however, Biggar (like virtually all UK towns) has changed substantially, creating the “…row of houses, forming a curve into the main street” that Boden describes in 1997. This was nothing but fields until the late 19th century.

 

Could it be the wrong road? Unlikely, as the main road through the town today (now the A702) follows the same route as it has since Roman times.  The only other realistic possibilities are Boghall Road, also empty of structures, and what is now John’s Road, which takes you straight into the heart of the town but again lacks any roadside buildings outwith the main street. Even if Charlie approached not from the south at all, but from the east via Peebles, or the west via Cormiston and Langlees (which would then have taken an even more westerly direction), there is still no curved “entrance” to the town.

 

This is the “curve” that I think Boden is talking about – just after the meeting of the roads into the town from the south-west. Even this far into the modern town, none of the buildings visible in Street View appear on those old maps, and none show any visible architecture older than perhaps the 1840s.

 

Now, there is an even Biggar (ha) issue with Boden’s claim than some discrepancies in mapping (as he might argue). That is, Prince Charles never actually stayed at Biggar.

 

That’s right, I’ve just wasted your time and my own. I’m sorry about that. I fear that Mr Boden has been the victim of the tourist trade. Every vaguely historic residence or town in the country claims to have played host to royalty or celebrity, regardless of any supporting evidence or lack of it. Even places just down the road from each other. It’s rather like past-life people always wanting to be the famous dead people.

 

Note that Charles also swallows the story that William Wallace was also at Biggar, from the same source. This “Battle of Biggar”, like much of what we think we know about Wallace, is actually an invention by the chronicler/story-teller ‘Blind Harry’.

 

But I digress. The fact is that the movement of the Jacobite army and of the Prince in particular was well documented – we know where he stayed and when. Biggar features in historical sources on the ‘45 only as a muster point for Jacobite recruits in and around Lanarkshire; never, so far as I’m aware, as a camp-site for Charles and the forces under his direct command.

 

Not only that, but it’s even highly unlikely that an unrecorded stay was made there, since the closest to Biggar that the Prince’s route to Hamilton Palace took him was Douglas Castle. Biggar lay ten miles in the wrong direction (due east). Even if nearby Carluke’s claim were to turn out to be valid, that’s even further away (15 miles). I’m aware that Google Maps uses modern roads, so for the really keen I checked the actual route onward from Dumfries. This was roughly that of the present-day B7078, from Leadhills to Douglas Castle (where he really did lodge) Hamilton Palace (likewise) and Glasgow (check for yourself here). It’s essentially a straight line, which makes sense given the exigent circumstances. What makes no sense whatever is a detour to Biggar. Unless it was for the excellent fish and chips (which I can vouch for).

 

Phew. Thanks for staying with me through that. We have Charlie’s Skye Boat pretty well sunk by my estimation (shame the same can’t be said of the Corries). But for the sake of completeness, here are the other, less falsifiable claims from the book.

 

4. The ‘Golden Bridge’

Boden has a vision of making a ‘bridge’ in the mud with a gold necklace (as the young Prince), and promising the real thing to a young girl when they grow up. This has no historical parallel that I’m aware of. It’s therefore either secret knowledge from the Akashic Record, or he’s making stuff up.

 

5. Flora MacDonald hid Charlie’s face from prying eyes with her big, floppy, green hat.

We’re lucky enough to have MacDonald’s own narrative of events, which Charles himself appears to draw from for his book. It isn’t short on detail, yet there is  nothing about a hat. Charles himself admits that he hasn’t been able to validate the story. So again, he must either really have been there, or is imagining it. Which is more likely?

 

I would just point out that in the 1891 G.W. Joy painting of Flora, she’s wearing a big green hat…
6. Reincarnation: a game for all the family.

Like all good fictional stories, there’s a big twist at the end of this book. Boden is told by a psychic that his wife is the reincarnation of Flora MacDonald, and perhaps even more extraordinarily, that his son was his arch-enemy the Duke of Cumberland! There’s no historical evidence offered for the son – an apology for bad behaviour that Charles can’t otherwise explain is taken as validation of this new level of dysfunctional family life. But Charles confirms the Flora link by comparing a picture of this painting to his wife. You can see for yourself whether Charles’ missus bears a resemblance to George William Joy’s rendering of Flora in the painting.

 

She actually looks more like this painting, which is actually contemporary and less romanticised than the Joy painting. It doesn’t look entirely UNLIKE her. But why would one reincarnated person resemble their past self, and another not? Because Charles sure as heck doesn’t look anything like his namesake. Charles’ “Spiritist” contact also gives him her psychic impression that Charles’ past-life-wife was “extending her hand to (him) in order to help (him)”. Charles is convinced by Joy’s depiction of Flora extending her hand to Charlie – yet as I’ve said, the work wasn’t painted until 1891; making this an irrelevant coincidence at best.

 

That’s it. Six claims, none of which are remotely convincing by any objective standard. But then like all who fall in love with an idea, it’s clear that Charles’ past life is not something that he’s able to be objective about. We can see that he’s willing to read an awful lot into these dreams, ‘visions’ or outright flights of fancy in order to make them fit his need to believe “until proven otherwise” that he was once someone of international importance and influence. For me, it’s been an interesting exercise in active debunking of “past lives”. For although the onus should always be on the claimant, by their very nature such people don’t see why that should be the case. Of course, if they did, I’d be out of a blog.

 

I hereby dedicate this post to the crazy people of the JREF Forum who stumped up the cash to purchase what may well be the only copy of ‘Descendant of Kings’ ever sold. Thanks to all who contributed to the cause!

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Nazi Flying Saucers – “New” Evidence?

November 20, 2010

“ZOMFG!!!!11” – Oberleutnant Hans Gullibal, July 1944

Just a quick reality check on the recent stories claiming new evidence for the tired old Nazi flying saucer schtick. All of the articles reference a piece in the Nov 2010 issue of German popular science magazine ‘P.M.’.  Unfortunately no-one seems to have read the actual article properly. It’s also behind a paywall. Luckily the text is out there online. The article is headed by a piece of concept art for the new alternate history/sci-fi movie “Iron Sky”, which seems to be the impetus behind this press interest in the whole idea. I’ve reproduced a Google Translate version of the actual text below. It is nothing more than a summary of what’s claimed and known about WW2 and later attempts to build saucer-shaped aircraft. Contrary to the claims that P.M. have reported Nazi breakthroughs in anti-gravity technology, of new eyewitness testimony, and of the Canadians recreating a flying example of such a saucer*, none of this is in the actual article. It’s just a rehash timed to coincide with a movie, nothing more.

*actually the conventionally-powered, well-documented, and none-too-successful VTOL Avrocar for which there is no evidence of Nazi inspiration (only claims online, as the P.M. piece says).

The lesson here is to ALWAYS go back to the source. DO NOT trust the mainstream media to accurately report anything, but particularly anything esoteric. They rarely get it right. I expect this kind of thing from the tabloids, but the Daily Telegraph ought to know better – particularly as they quote the phrase “strong evidence” from the P.M. piece, which as far as I can tell, is a total misrepresentation. See what you think (in the original German here):

 

PM world of knowledge
The mystery of the ‘kingdom’ flying disc
It was called V7, and spread terror across the world: this wonder weapon the Nazis wanted the threat of defeat in World War II averted. It did not work – but the myth still lives V7
New York, December 1944: In the canyons of Manhattan flower speculation as to whether a German attack is imminent in the metropolis – was flown by nuclear slices. The New York Times has a “mysterious floating ball” reported and taken photos of blurred objects, which seem to race away at high speed. London panicked want those discs have observed in the low-level flight under the Thames bridges. 

The Allies were half a year before landing in Normandy, the German world front was on the verge of collapse – and yet even had the Americans fear that it could succeed with the German secret wonder weapons, prevent their imminent defeat yet. Goebbels propaganda machine of its own people conjured up in the end the tale of the “final victory” was also the enemy action. Hitler had not developed by Werner von Braun legendary V-2 rocket fire since September 1944 on the British capital? A deadly missile, which achieved bypassing enemy radar screens in just 320 seconds you target – without any warning.
The V in V 2 was in the Nazi propaganda for “retaliation”. Even if the so-called V-weapons in the war ends were not yet mature technology: some of them had great potential, so that the United States and the Soviet Union were able to further develop intercontinental ballistic missiles or cruise missiles. Others were from the outset only the satisfaction of wishful thinking in his headquarters. A special role here was the “V7” too, also known as the “kingdom of flying disc.”

Since the lost Battle of Britain was the German air force struck and Air Minister Goring under pressure. Therefore, he called out to 1941, all experts and invited them on to new, bold developments in order to secure the German air superiority. But the Nazis turned on all the money taps. An important role played in planning the model of a vertically strartenden circular disc, the young designer Andreas Epp and his supporters, the legendary World War I fighter pilot Ernst Udet had Goering presented shortly before. With a dual strategy, the idea can be realized: In the Breslau and Dresden, the German aircraft factories were aircraft engineer Richard Miethe and Italian turbine expert Giuseppe Belluzzo prepare the testing, at the Skoda works in Prague and their colleagues Otto Habermohl Rudolf Schriever.

In February 1944, led the Prague developers through the first successful test of the disk. On the maiden flight of different reports are circulating. Some projects the disc can be shot with more than 2000 km / h through the air, for others they just made a few lame jumping movement. But certainly played up the propaganda ministry, the event and claimed a breakthrough in the development of new wonder weapons. Most documents have been destroyed over the window in the turmoil of the last year of the war or were lost, but the fifteen months from the test flight until the armistice was sufficient to put the immortal myth of the super fast flying disks in the world.
For the aviation historian Peter Pletschacher, the evolution of the flying disc has studied, it is a matter of “psychological warfare at its best”. The speeds indicated were “impossible and then complete rubbish” was. The disc research could not have as often claimed, had priority because it is mentioned in the reference works of this period only in passing. The sensational effect on the enemy Pletschacher leads to the fact that the Allies would have had the greatest respect from the Germans and especially in the technical field they were confident everything. For example, the French seized 1945 jet engines from BMW, which were cited as the world’s most powerful, and built it into their own military machine.

After the war, the legend began operating independently of the legendary kingdom of flying disc and became increasingly bizarre forms. Probably because so many Nazi bigwigs were in hiding in South America, could be heard soon, Hitler and his followers had settled with their discs in the Antarctic and in tunnels under the ice waiting for her return to Germany. You have to understand that 1938das German research vessel “Swabia” was leaked on the then abandoned Antarctic in order to claim territories for Germany. The supporters of the theory of Hitler’s escape call our territory therefore “Neuschwabenland.
to test U.S. maneuvers with the aim of the cold war, new fitness equipment in the ice, gave the legend of 1946, more food. Did the Americans track down their old nemesis in his icy bunker? The high point of the absurd Mythenstrickerei, when it was finally, Hitler had withdrawn his wheels on the moon and waiting there on the day of his revenge. The trip into space would have allowed a new sensational drive technology, the “Vril” was called and was supposed to accelerate to 40,000 mph.

Fantasy and hysteria were no limits. Seasoned U.S. pilots gave sworn statements from 1947 through encounters in the air with unknown flying objects, UFOs shortly. The Air Force would even have been involved in a fight with a disk. Now also had a comic artist and Hollywood film makers their material. Martians in flying races visited the planet Earth, of course, just as philanthropists. Fearing that was when the media reported the same year by a UFO crash in Roswell, New Mexico.
Like nearly all other incidents of this kind, it turned out well as the optical illusion in Roswell.There only a weather balloon had fallen. The UFO-believers did not care and declared the city a place of pilgrimage. He has remained until today. This year were 150 000 visitors came to Roswell. Recently, word of the foundation stone for a “global Ufology Congress Centre” set.
The UFO paranoia of the 1940s had a twin, namely the fear of UFOs (Unidentified Submarine Objects): amphibious flying discs, which start in water, the water surface in the sky to shoot and then return back into the sea. The mystery investigator Lars A. Fischinger has investigated the phenomenon. Dozens of such phenomena from the past 50 years he has taken under the microscope. In Antarctica, for example, wanted an icebreaker crew have watched as UFOs broke through seven meter thick ice layers. Other windows have disappeared without trace in 8000 meters. Many of these incidents occurred during the Cold War in the waters between the Soviet Union and the Scandinavian countries. The suspect was brought low, Fischinger, that was like at the end of World War II from the tense international situation resulting psychological stress, people made vulnerable to hallucinations and hysterical reactions.
The UFO craze after the Second World War, not least been fueled by the developers of the flying disc itself. “The engineers wanted to make important,” says expert Pletschacher. Said Rudolf Schriever was allowed in the 1950s, the “mirror” contradicted his attempts to explain in Prague, where he claimed boastfully: “Flying saucers are not a gimmick. They are of greatest importance, the development of aviation technology. “By contrast the much more qualified professionally Giuseppe Belluzzo from Breslauer test group in 1944 warned that disk-shaped missiles were unstable due to their high center of gravity, particularly with increasing size.
From the shady promises Schriever and other engineers who were in the construction of the flying disc, and personal blogs pretended at least to let Canadian military researchers impress so they decided to be a replica, which they called “Avro Canada VZ-9AV”, short “Avrocar”, missed. In the years 1960 and 1961, the Canadian disc was tested 75 hours. The propeller pushes the air down and away backwards, allowing the construction and excavation were taken. Instead of the expected 480 km / h reached the plane to just pace 50, where he stumbled drunk out how and forth – probably just like his predecessor, Prague in 1944.

This result expected cost Canadian taxpayers five million dollars. The Smithsonian Museum today in the U.S. capital of Washington issued Avrocar model was not built for nothing: it is the evidence for all the doubters and deniers, that the kingdom flying disc was a technological dud. As a propaganda tool they struck the other hand like a nuclear bomb. Their impact, we must even 65 years after the war, marvel at, while the disc is more powerful myth. Not even the Reich Propaganda Minister would be the dream.

The Truth Behind Zombies

November 10, 2010

“What do you mean ‘what’s historical about zombies’?”

My title is that of a recent halloween special from the Discovery Channel. It’s the sort of semi-serious documentary that we’ve seen done countless times for the ever-popular vampire, but relatively rarely for my personal favourite, the zombie. “Fear File: Zombies” from the History Channel (2006) is the only other I’ve come across. Perhaps zombies are catching up with mainstream popularity – aside from Halloween theming, Discovery probably had an eye on the superb TV adaptation of “The Walking Dead” graphic novel series. Anyway, the show was pretty good overall. They got Max Brooks (who I was lucky enough to get to sign my copy of ‘The Zombie Survival Guide’) to contribute, and involved the ‘Zombie Research Society’, who seem to be ‘legitimate’ in the sense that they “study” zombie lore as an intellectual exercise – not because they think it will actually happen. I’m tempted to join.

As ever though, it fell short in a couple of areas. Brooks did factor in a virus-based origin for version of the zombie, but his inspiration is well known to be the slow, lumbering re-animated cannibalistic corpse created by director George Romero for his 1968 ‘Night of the Living Dead’. Brooks’ reply whenever asked about the eternal fast/slow zombies issue makes this very clear .

So its odd that the programme focused almost exclusively upon the ‘zombie as virus’ where fear of scientific research is the key idea, and “zombies” are created from living humans, turned in a matter of seconds and retaining their speed, co-ordination and strength (in some cases, more so – please don’t ever bother watching the “remake” of “Day of the Dead”). Not at all like the “living dead” first seen in the Romero films.  They used lots of clips from “28 Days Later” but none whatsoever from Romero films (despite the infamous lack of copyright that he has over ‘Night’). They didn’t even MENTION Romero.

They also conflated Romero “ghouls” (to use his original choice of name) with the Haitian zombie. I don’t have a problem with that (particularly as its likely origin as a slavery metaphor is briefly explored) – though many claim that Romero’s “Living Dead” have nothing to do with the Haitian zombie, the parallels and cinematic precedents are obvious. The zombies in 1932 movie ‘White Zombie‘ are even referred to as the “living dead” at one point in that movie. By 1975, TV Guide was referring to NotLD’s monsters as “zombies”.

There are important differences between the two, notably the notion of a puppetmaster magician behind it all, that make the Romero zombie and indeed the virus/plague zombie, much closer to the vampires of Matheson’s novel ‘I Am Legend’ (1954) – Romero’s acknowledged main inspiration. Another way to look at it is that Romero and post-Romero zombies are both part of the ‘survival horror’ sub-genre – movies featuring Haitian style zombies are more mainstream straight horror movies.

In any case, to completely ignore Romero’s role in reinventing the zombie as we know it, and skip from the Haitian zombie straight to the post-28 Days Later viral version, makes this a far from complete survey of the fictional roots of the modern zombie.

My other problem with the show is the uncritical acceptance of the “zombi powder”/Tetrodotoxin/puffer fish poison paralysis hypothesis pushed in the 1980s by Wade Davis, who makes facetime in this programme. Just as vampire fans had to put up for years with out-of-date ideas being presented as current by documentaries like this, so are we faced with Davis’ problematic findings given as fact.

Though a trained scientist, Davis seems to have fallen far short of the scientific method in the testing and peer review of his work. No data from his first supposedly positive test for the toxin in question, nor from a subsequent negative test were ever published. Instead he published anecdotal findings in an anthropological memoir entitled  “The Serpent and the Rainbow” (a movie was later made based upon it). Many refutations have been published, from an exchange of letters in New Scientist to a series of articles.

The definitive academic work on the Zombie in folklore and fiction (‘American Zombie Gothic’) also covers the controversy. Here’s the abtract from ‘The Ways and Nature of the Zombi’ byAckermann and Gauthier, published in The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 104, No. 414 (Autumn, 1991), pp. 466-494:

“This article presents a review of zombiism and our personal investigations on the hitherto little-known spirit zombi. The Haitian zombi is of African origin. Numerous references zombis or zombi-like entities are found in Equatorial and to Central Africa and in the Caribbean. There are two types of zombis, the zombi of the body, or living dead, and the zombi of the soul. Both are closely related to the Haitian concept of a dual soul, which is also of African origin. Properties of the spirit zombi are described. Zombi stories or sightings may be explained by the observation of vagrants or exploited mentally ill. The various “zombi powders” so far studied seem to belong to the domain of sympathetic magic, and their pharmacological effectiveness remains to beproved.”
Full article here (paywalled).

And some of the main issues:

“Davis’s thesis is problematic in several respects: (1) many characteristics of the flesh-and-blood zombi can be explained by mental disorders, notably amnesia and catatonic schizophrenia (Bourguignon 1959; Dewisme 1957:138; Mars 1945, 1947; Metraux 1968:249; Simpson 1954); (2) one of his eight zombi powders did not contain any puffer fish; (3) only two zombi powders contained small, apparently innocuous, amounts of tetrodotoxin (Booth 1988; Davis 1988a:194, 1988b); (4) it is not clear which samples were studied in which laboratories and what the exact results were; (5) most samples contained human remains and a confusing variety of ingredients of weak or uncertain effect (Davis 1984, 1988a:107); and (6) the poison was administered in a seemingly ineffective way: in at least three instances, the powder was to be strewn on the ground in the path of the intended victim or on its doorstep, over a buried magic candle.”

Essentially, whilst the Haitians involved believe in the power of the powder, the actual toxin content is low to non-existent in all samples tested. Thus the “hypnotic” hypothesis also offered in this documentary is closer to the mark, though the actual active hypnosis aspect is overplayed. See Derren Brown’s “Tricks of the Mind” for a good explanation of the more mundane reality of hypnosis, of which a substantial component is make-believe and playing along.

As the article puts it;

“Zombification thus appears as a case of sympathetic magic, a kind of perverse homeopathy.”

Some go even further;

“The controversy involves the role of a powerful poison called tetrodotoxin in the creation of zombies. Davis’ critics say there is either no tetrododoxin or little in the samples of zombie powder brought back by Davis to support his hypothesis. But there is more to it than that. The pharmacologists are accusing Davis of not playing by the rules by suppressing information that fails to bolster his case, while playing up a number of unconfirmed experiments that are repeatedly cited in his work as “personal communications.” Some of the critics seem especially irked because Davis sought out their assistance but allegedly refuses to listen when told his conclusions are not supported by the evidence. “I feel like I’ve been taken for a ride,” says [C.Y.] Kao [of State University of New York Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, who is also quoted in the article as saying ‘”I actually feel this is an issue of fraud in science.”
‘Voodoo Science’, Science, New Series, Vol. 240, No. 4850 (Apr. 15, 1988), pp. 274-277

There’s more where that came from (thanks to JREF forum posters for some of these);

  1. ‘Zombie fish eaters?’, Garlaschelli, Chemistry in Britain, Nov. 2002 – also available online (though with an horrific background).
  2. ‘Clinical findings in three cases of zombification’, Littlewood and Douyon, The Lancet, Volume 350, Issue 9084 , 11 October 1997, Pages 1094-1096 (online here).
  3. ‘Tetrodotoxin and the Haitian zombie’, Yasumoto and Kao, Toxicon Volume 24, Issue 8 , 1986, Pages 747-749
  4. ‘Tetrodotoxin in “zombie powder”‘, Yasumoto and Kao, Toxicon Volume 28, Issue 2 , 1990, Pages 129-132 (NB that Kao and Yasumoto concluded that “’the widely circulated claim in the lay press to the effect that tetrodotoxin is the causal agent in the initial zombification process is without factual foundation’.)
  5. ‘Evidence for the presence of tetrodotoxin in a powder used in Haiti for zombification’, Benedek and Rivier, Toxicon Volume 27, Issue 4 , 1989, Pages 473-480
  6. ‘Tetrodotoxin and the zombi phenomenon’, Anderson, Journal of Ethnopharmacology, Volume 23, Issue 1 , May-June 1988, Pages 121-126
  7. ‘Zombies and Tetrodotoxin’, Hines, Skeptical Inquirer Volume 32.3, May / June 2008

All are critical in tone. Even those who laud Davis’ contribution to the anthropology of zombification acknowledge that he fell short with the actual science behind the process.

I can’t be too hard on Discovery however, since even the sceptical organisation CSI (formerly CSICOP) has endorsed Davis’ hypothesis without reservation. Unfortunately the rebuttal to this piece from that organisation’s own journal, is not accessible online (see Hines above).

It’s also the standard journalistic method as applied to many documentary programmes, as I’ve commented before. A sort faux neutrality based on the idea that all viewpoints may be valid. Hence rival beliefs and opinions are presented with equal weight without any real analysis of either. Fictional aspects of the zombie may be a matter of opinion (personally I favour slow ones), but the reality need not be.

Paranormal Investigations Live

November 2, 2010


Perhaps “Least Haunted” would have been more appropriate

 

I never thought I would miss ‘Most Haunted’, but Living TV’s ‘Paranormal Investigations Live’ (henceforth PiL) plays like one long deleted scene from that venerable series. No entertaining histrionics by OTT mediums, just lots of mooching about in the dark. Amusingly for me, it also “stars” the “Ghostfinder Paranormal Society” (GPS), whose co-founder Ian Wilce got a bit annoyed with some of my comments a while back (as related recently on BadGhosts.co.uk).

Ian’s foam-flecked, swivel-eyed face hasn’t made the big-time sadly – that honour falls to his mate Barri Ghai, who seems a bit nicer. BadGhosts.co.uk have the team and PiL pretty well owned, but I’ve had my eye on this new show for a different reason.

Though Most Haunted and its ilk have made historical claims in the past, this new show is (I believe) the first to recruit an “historian” as an in-studio expert alongside a psychologist or parapsychologist. The quest for historical accuracy seems a bit redundant when the very premise of your show defies rationality, but hey, parapsychologist and sceptic Ciaran O’Keefe did a decent job being the voice of reason – why not have a proper fact-checker? However, given the live format, I’m not sure how any historian hope to verify or falsify the inevitably vague statements produced by any kind of ghost-hunt? There’s a big risk that you’ll end up just providing “hits” by fitting facts and stories to what’s being said – just like a sitter at a psychic reading.

Now, the guy they’ve chosen, Ashley Cowie, seems like a nice chap, and I’d rather not character-assassinate the guy. But if he’s going to be pimped as an “historian”, we should look at his credentials and his approach. to avoid accusations of “ad hominem”, I’ll then focus on what he actually says on the show.

Cowie is billed as a specialist in “symbols, lost artefacts, and architecture”, though his bios (e.g. this one) don’t hint at any qualifications or experience relevant to the role of historian. In fact he’s a former businessman with no academic publications to his name. He has had two books published on (where else but) Rosslyn Chapel. The ‘Rosslyn Matrix’ is a speculative interpretation of one of the drawings carved into the wall of the crypt/sacristy. You know you’ve made it into the speculative history pantheon when pseudohistorians extraordinaire Knight and Lomas are referencing you.

His other book ‘The Rosslyn Templar’ deals with (sigh again) the Knights Templar and their links with the chapel. If it deals strictly with the 19th century invention of those links, it’s a worthwhile effort, but Rosslyn specialist Jeff Nisbet is not impressed. The promotional angle for the book also sees Cowie apparently renouncing his scepticism over the KT and Rosslyn (see the Scottish Sun), so I have to wonder whether this book isn’t as speculative as his first. Cowie seems to have landed the PiL gig based on this Da Vinci Code bandwagon-jump, and his status as resident historian for STV’s “The Hour”.

He does hold an elected fellowship of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, which requires that you have two existing members as sponsors, carry a vote from the current membership, and pay a £40 membership fee, you’re in too. We can’t know on what basis Cowie was accepted, but the two books and telly appearances would probably do it, considering that even tour guides have managed to land an “FSA Scot” after their name.

However, I don’t think academic chops were top of the list when hiring a PiL historian. As the Scottish Sun put it;

“HUNKY historian Ashley Cowie is Scotland’s real-life Dr Robert Langdon.”

and

“..female fans flock to his book signings”.

Yup, sex appeal and the Da Vinci Code. Incidentally the vaults he’s talking about in that article were thoroughly investigated in the 18th and 19th centuries and were found to be empty, so I have to wonder what findings he’s waiting for.

Now, there’s no reason why an amateur historian, good-looking or otherwise, can’t do good work. We can’t reasonably expect a serious historian to touch a show like this with a 40-foot pole. So how does Cowie acquit himself on the show itself? What claims are made, and how does he deal with them?

The subject of the “hunt” was Castle Menzies in Scotland. It doesn’t start well for Cowie’s approach when he states:

“I don’t personally believe in the supernatural, however I think it’s really important that in subjects like this we remain open-minded. For as little evidence as there is to say that there is a supernatural element or dimension out there, there’s no evidence to say that there isn’t. so as long as there’s speculative evidence out there I think it’s so important that we remain open-minded, either way”.

Oh dear. Your standard appeal to ignorance in the form of “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”, with the old “open mind” canard thrown in. This ignores the total lack of any real evidence of the paranormal in over 100 years of investigation. To quote mentalist Ian Rowland:

“In cases where prior knowledge is available, the alternative to ‘an open mind’ is not ‘a closed mind’, it is ‘an informed mind’. In such contexts, any appeal to ‘keep an open mind’ is an appeal to prefer ignorance over knowledge.”

We even get the oft-heard line “I’m a sceptic but…” in this PiL video.

Several fairly outrageous claims are made during the programme. Namely;

 

1. A secret mentally disabled son of a Menzies chief died falling down some stairs.

The only vaguely new aspect to this show are the spurious pieces of ghost-hunting technology used by the GPS team. One of these is the “Ovilus” which is basically a Magic 8-Ball seemingly guest-voiced by Stephen Hawking. It does nothing more than chuck out random words from a limited dictionary, which in this case yields at one point the words “fell” and “sorry”. Now, the usual routine with a random word, letter, idea or emotion hit upon by (say) a psychic would be to have it “validated” by someone. Usually this is someone associated with the site who’s desperate for visitor figures or PR exposure, or a cast member who’s been fed this information. In other words there’s a list of supposed ghost stories and an attempt is made to fit each piece of “evidence” to one of them. This would be an opportunity for a resident historian to critically assess the claim against what’s known of the history. Instead, the words are fitted to a story “of a boy who fell down the stairs” (quote from the Twitter feed) BY THE HISTORIAN HIMSELF. He repeats a supposed ghost sighting of a young boy in ‘period clothing’ who was;

“…the son of a clan chief who was a bit demented and was kept in the top story. And that’s a FACT”.

Cowie does at least point out that the story relates to a different part of the house, but again stresses the importance of an “open mind” – the implication being that the words could have come from the dead son.

The big question is – where is our historian getting his information? More on this later.

 

2. A daughter of a Menzies chief who is having a lesbian affair with her own step-sister is kidnapped by the devil.

Classic stuff. To quote Cowie;

“Apparently one of the daughters of one of the Menzies chiefs was having an affair with a step-daughter. so the two lesbians were going to make their way into the woods to go and have an appointment with the devil which was orchestrated by the chief’s wife. Now the chief made…the step-daughter…carry a cross, and made her daughter carry a book, the bible. Somewhere on the way to the cave, they swapped items, so the wrong person, the daughter was actually kidnapped by the devil, as the story goes, entered the cave and was never seen again.”

I had to “LOL” at the pseudo-incestuous lesbianism, which is anachronistic even if you postulate some smutty folklore propagated by locals about the lord and lady at the big house. However, the swapping of the holy items smacked of authenticity, so I checked up on it and found that IS closely based on “real” history – or rather, folklore:

“Local tradition, accentuates the feminity of the locality of Weem. Below the cave with a spring in it, is a rocky fissure which is- said to communicate with Loch Glassie, two miles away in the moor above. The story is that the lady of the district sent her daughter and stepdaughter, or by another version, her two daughters and her step-daughter to seek a calf that had strayed into the rock. She protected her own child with a cross as a talisman (or a bible, other version), but during their wanderings the child handed the talisman to the step-daughter. They followed the lowing of the calf until it led them to the cave into which the younger sister entered, but only re-appeared as a mangled body floating at the head of Loch Glassie. In the ballad describing the incident, the one who enters complains of being retained by “iron gates,” and says that “the man of the red hood ” is between her and returning.”

This in turn bears some resemblance to an old Gaelic ballad. Rather crucially, the innocent pursuit of a stray animal is omitted and replaced with the lesbo-fest. I note with interest the emphasis on the feminine in the link above, which originates in a 1901 summary of highland legends in the ‘Celtic Magazine’. Sometimes a “red hood” is just a red hood – however this hint of Freudianism may be the origin of this very 21st century modification to the story.

 

3. A room in the castle was used for burning babies.

Over to Ashley;

“Somewhere between the 13th and the 17th century, one of the clan chiefs, erm, was attempting to birth a son, and apparently he had three females, or indeed three female offsprings [sic] who weren’t any good, y’know? Because of course if a female was to be born, went away and married a neighbouring clan and…the lands and titles could be lost. So the clan chief put the mother down to the room, his wife down to the room and the first three babies, all born as girls were literally thrown onto the fire. Now, this sounds like a made up story, but there are actual printed reports from maids to the wife, who had their fingers chopped off for revealing their story to locals around Aberfeldy and Weem. So you know, there’s some substance in that, and it was a common practice.”

This is bullshit. Cowie should have gone with his instinct on this one. By this logic every female child of every highland clan would have to be killed or kept secret for life if there was no male heir. Renaissance attitudes to abortion were somewhat flexible, but the nobility are no more likely to resort to multiple infanticide – a crime punished as murder – in the pursuit of an heir, than we are today. In fact dormancy or passing on of titles and lands, whilst avoided if possible, nonetheless happened all the time.

For their part, the investigating team are told nothing about any of these “facts”. Oh, except that it’s called the “Baby Burning Room”. As a result they seem to place some significance upon the fireplace in the room, and seem mystified by its great height. I can only assume that they haven’t visited many historic properties, since grand fireplaces were pretty much de rigeur in big stone-built rooms that require a lot of heating.

I could find very little online regarding even the claim, let alone any supporting evidence for it. However, the same story does appear on the website of another paranormal group to visit the castle;

“Room 15 is another little room that has never been liked. Tori calls it the ‘childbirth’ room and has seen a woman covered in blood here. John informed us that other sensitives also associate this room with childbirth and it was, in fact, a servant’s bedroom. He went on to tell us the gruesome tale as to why the first born and heir to all the Menzies and other important families’ wealth and lands were boys. Simple – if the first born was a girl she was killed at birth. A wealthy family stood to lose everything if the first born was a girl and she then married. A servant would be instructed to throw the infant onto a fire and would then be exiled and told not to mention the deed on pain of death! This would have been commonplace even in the 1800s.The fact that this little room was a servant’s room did not tie in with the spirit impressions gained by more that one of the team. A ‘lady’ or noble woman in an expensive/embroidered dress had been mentioned before by Katrina and Tori. She was pregnant and in labour, kneeling in the doorway facing the stair, begging for help as others were rushing up the stairs. This was thought a little odd if the room was for servants.

However, in discussion one evening  John mentioned that room 15 was indeed linked with childbirth. There is an account of a servant being implicated in the disposal of an infant.  He has read various written accounts from the castle and he has deduced from the various stories that room 15 is the room meant. He also went on to say that the lady of the house would have been kept imprisoned during her first preganncy. The pregnancy would have been kept secret until the birth just in case a deformed child or worse, a girl, was born.”

So this story must come from “John”, who is the “curator” of the Castle. More on him (and the reason for my scare quotes) later.
4. In the 1745 Jacobite rising, English soldiers beat and abused a daughter of the clan chief in one of the rooms of the castle, for which they were summarily killed and dismembered.

As the clan chief remained neutral during the ‘45 having been pardoned for his part in the previous rising, the likelihood of his murdering three Government soldiers without censure is therefore slim. It also seems unlikely that such a story wouldn’t appear in one of the many history books available via Google Books, as once again this story’s online footprint is tiny.

I could find only two instances online. The first is PiL’s own website, which admits – in direct contradiction to Cowie’s claims on camera on the night, that the claim is implausible and should be regarded as “hearsay”. Not only that, but the show’s own website dates the same story to the Wars of the Kingdoms in the mid-17th century (and yes, I’ve searched for the story in both eras).

The second reference is telling – it’s from the same paranormal investigation site as the last one. We see the claim that “spirit” informed this other team of the story;

“During our first ever investigation at the castle we were informed by ‘spirit’ that a group of men had raped and murdered a girl (possibly the Laird’s daughter) in the stables (the stables no longer exist). The culprits (soldiers) were stabbed fatally in the back (dirked) by the Laird or on his command and were taken into what is now the shop area to die. Each of the men was taken in one by one and the one following didn’t know the fate of the man who had gone in before. They were then cut up and fed to the dogs. We were told that the shop didn’t look like it does now as it didn’t have the door to the outside and once had a window on the far wall. 6 soldiers had been involved and executed.”

Once again the “curator” at the site supposedly confirmed a version of this story subsequently;

“We had initially thought the story to be too far fetched and even omitted the bits about dismemberment form the website.

However, we were told soon after that there is a hand-written document somewhere in the castle detailing a similar crime although the curator can’t remember if it was the Laird’s daughter or not who had been the victim. This information is not in the public domain. John also informed us that execution was done by means of being dirked (stabbed in the back) and this is again something we didn’t know but to be honest  is probably easy to find out about.”

Given the similarity of the story as reported by the ghosthunters to the one reported on PiL by Cowie, either the “curator” is borrowing his stories from the “findings” of the ghosthunters, or the latter are retrofitting their ideas to stories told to them afterward.

 

5. A clan chief fell from his horse and injured his leg and head, going mad and dying thereafter.

As with the other stories there is little to nothing to be found about them online, including clan and castle history on Google Books and archive.org. There is another “psychic” claim regarding a middle-aged “imposing” gentleman who supposedly died in a similar way. It’s not as good a match though. In any case it’s another example of Cowie obligingly fitting a story to ghost-hunting “results” in order to create a “hit”. This time it’s a word (“leg”) and a funny feeling (in a team member’s leg) coming out of a seance.

So, we have one genuine story given a lurid modern makeover, and four others that seem to originate with the “curator” of the castle – perhaps even with ghost-hunting groups that have come before PiL. Of course it is claimed that there are actual documents to support these stories, but if so they are not in the public domain and have not been drawn upon by historians.

Cowie is likely doing nothing more than repeating what he’s been told by the same “curator”. This would certainly parallel the way that “research” is typically done for shows like this – the incumbents are uncritically used as expert sources, and whatever traditional folklore or modern myths they provide are used as material for the show. It makes sense from a TV production point of view. Time and money are short – why do your own research when people associated with the site have existing knowledge? It’s also suspicious that the house’s alarm system goes off at one point, yet the “curator” claims that he turned it off and is the only one with the code.

So who is this “curator”? That would be a John Jack, who is not a curator or historian by background, training, or qualification, but actually holds the job title of “Castle Administrator”.
Any genuine sources from the castle are therefore being interpreted by someone without the skills to do so. I’ve have seen how stories surrounding historic properties are modified or even created out of thin air by front-of-house staff and tour guides to please the visitors. It’s often about sensational stories, not historical accuracy. Increasingly, they also welcome paranormal groups either for publicity or income, just as Castle Menzies has. The Castle Administrator is not only facilitating requests by paranormalists – he’s actively courting them.

I would suggest that the upshot of all this is Mr Cowie’s being reduced to the role of patsy for the publicity-hungry Castle caretakers and the PiL production team. He’s there to legitimise the stories told by the former and link them to the ‘results’ generated by the latter’s ghosthunting teams, distracting the viewer from the total lack of any meaningful “hits”. Potentially useful for boosting viewer and visitor figures (though that remains to be seen) – not so good for objective investigation or for that matter the public’s understanding of what is an important historic building. We’ll see whether PiL survives its ratings, and if so, whether they persist with their historian idea.