Archive for the ‘folklore’ Category

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.

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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).

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’(……..!!!!!!!!!).

 

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.

Whoa-oh – Who Was Black Betty?

April 30, 2016
Turns out Ram Jam got it mostly right...

Turns out Ram Jam got it mostly right…

 

I’ve done a fair bit of film, TV, and radio work by this point, not a lot of which is particularly relevant to my blog (with the exception of my post last year on Brandon Lee conspiracy nonsense and one other about the inventor of the machine gun that I might blog in future). However,  a few weeks back I was asked by Jed Hunt of Siren FM if there was truth to the claim (on Wikipedia, where else?) that the song ‘Black Betty’ was actually about a gun. The song is best known today in its rock version by Ram Jam, but was originally an African-American folk song (in particular, a prison song). I had not heard of this suggestion, but was intrigued. Could ‘Black Betty’ be an earlier form of or equivalent to the famous ‘Brown Bess’ musket? And could the ‘bam-a-lam/bam-ba-lamb’’ line in the song be a reference to gunfire, or perhaps a soldier’s marching cadence?

 

Well, no. Not in its original, historical context at any rate; obviously any performer or even listener can imbue a song lyric with any meaning they wish. But I can state with a fair degree of certainty that ‘Black Betty’ was not written with guns in mind. Before I go into the detail, please do listen to Jed’s superb documentary programme; his research coincided nicely with my own (I was only asked about the potential firearms connection, but the whole origin story piqued my interest, hence what follows).

 

First, let’s put the gun suggestion to proverbial bed. Firearms, like other tools or machines (not to mention domestic and farm animals!) did receive this kind of ironic female nickname; ‘Brown Bess’ for the British soldier’s musket being the most famous. This was derived from a nickname for a common woman or prostitute, and I have a dead tree article on that subject pending – I will no doubt blog about that in the future). On the face of it, ‘Black Betty’ looks promising; it too was one of several nicknames for a prostitute or fallen woman,

 

… but as he must range, Black Betty, or Oyster Moll serve for a Change : As he varies his Sports his whole Life is a Feast, …

-From ’Wit and Mirth: Or Pills to Purge Melancholy’, by Thom d’Urfey, 1719

 

There is very likely a connection too with generic nicknames for black women in America, especially slaves and servants. So it’s plausible enough. However, unlike ‘Brown Bess’, there is absolutely no evidence that I can find for a gun being called ‘Black Betty’. Someone may have used the name, but if so, it doesn’t seem to have caught on, whereas various other nicknames have survived in print, notably Davey Crockett’s faithful gun ‘Betsey’. I did assess the claim itself, and even the reference cited by Wikipedia doesn’t actually provide any evidence for ‘Black Betty’ being a gun nickname. It just says that ‘Prior to the “Brown Bess”, stocks were painted black.’ This is false; stocks were never painted. Wiki mentions ‘some sources’, but doesn’t say what these are. I certainly can’t find them. So ‘Black Betty’ has nothing to do with guns as far as I can tell.

As ‘Field and Stream’ put it (Volume 36, 1931, page 96); ‘In early frontier parlance, was the musket called “Black Betty” as well as “Brown Bess”? Ans. The term “Black Betty” had allusion to whisky or a bottle of whiskey, and never to a firearm.’

So what did the writer of ‘Black Betty’ intend? On the face of it, simply reading and listening to the original lyrics, they certainly refers to a woman. There’s no real indicator of any double meaning, and the lyrics themselves are both straightforward and sparse, with a lot of repetition. Also, it turns out that one of the original recorded performers was actually asked what ‘Black Betty’ meant. You can download the original WAV file from the U.S. Library of Congress website here and try for yourself to discern the full answer (I’ve placed question marks where I’m uncertain), but the initial reply is clear (I won’t censor the ‘N’ word in this context). What’s interesting to me is that Clear Rock responds immediately, without pausing for thought. It’s clear that he either genuinely believes in his response to the exclusion of other meanings, or has been asked many times and is giving a stock response, sanitised for his (white, free) audience. Regardless, here’s my transcript:

 

Interviewer (interrupting): ‘Clear Rock! Clear Rock, who was Black Betty?’

 

Clear Rock: ‘”Black Betty was a old nigger woman on that Goree Farm right out from Huntsville, but(?) she threw(?) her hip(?) cutting a tree down and I(?) never knew(?) her(?)’

 

Interviewer: ‘Black Betty was(?) a(?) tree(?) cutter(?)?’

 

Clear Rock: ‘Yes sir-a.’

 

In case there were any doubt, the Library of Congress also have transcribed notes from the same field trip. It doesn’t give us the full quote, but confirms that ‘Black Betty’ was a ‘tree cutting song’, and with this quote confirms that Betty was, in the mind of this performer at least, a real woman:

 

‘Black Betty was a old nigger woman right outa Goree’.

 

As these notes then state, Goree was a state prison farm for women. If Betty was ‘old’ in the 1910s or 20s, and if the song’s lyrics reflect her real history, she must have had her mixed race baby somewhere else, because Goree only opened in 1911. Of course, there is the chance that there never was a real, individual ‘Black Betty’. That does not mean that the song isn’t about ‘her’; we’re talking here about meaning, not historical reality (but once again, Clear Rock certainly claimed she was real).

 

The above isn’t the earliest known recording, so there is room for a more original interpretation. However, it’s damn close. Clear Rock did perform with his contemporary James ‘Iron Head’ Baker on one of two versions recorded by the latter during a December 1933 research trip by U.S. musicologists John and Alan Lomax to Central State Farm, Sugar Land, Texas. Clear Rock’s words carry as much weight as any of his contemporaries, and he appears to have been the only singer to have been drawn on the meaning behind the song. He would surely have been aware of any subtext or double meaning, yet chose to identify ‘Black Betty’ as a specific woman. Of course, he may have deliberately withheld a deeper meaning.

 

Certainly the Lomaxes thought so, despite the answer they’d recorded (twice) from Clear Rock. They wrote in their book, American Ballads and Folk Songs that:

 

“Black Betty is not another Frankie, nor yet a two-timing woman that a man can moan his blues about. She is the whip that was and is used in some Southern prisons. A convict on the Darrington State Farm in Texas, where, by the way, whipping has been practically discontinued, laughed at Black Betty and mimicked her conversation in the following song.” (In the text, the music notation and lyrics follow.)

 

Note that the convict that they refer to is probably not Iron Head, as he was an inmate at Central State, not Darrington. The version written down is also different. Still, as Wikipedia relates;

 

‘John Lomax also interviewed blues musician James Baker (better known as “Iron Head”) in 1934, almost one year after recording Iron Head performing the first known recording of the song. In the resulting article for Musical Quarterly, titled “‘Sinful Songs’ of the Southern Negro”, Lomax again mentions the nickname of the bullwhip is “Black Betty”. Steven Cornelius in his book, Music of the Civil War Era, states in a section concerning folk music following the war’s end that “prisoners sang of ‘Black Betty’, the driver’s whip.”

 

Lomax was quite correct. ‘Black Betty’ was a name for a whip or whipping post, and it’s plausible that the ‘bam-ba-lam’ line might be a reference to the flogging that was common in prisons until the early twentieth century. However, note that ‘American Ballads and Folk Songs’ was published in 1934, five years before Clear Rock was asked this very question and stated that ‘she’ was ‘an old nigger woman’. So one of the original performers of the song basically contradicted Lomax’s assumption that the song was about the whip. At the very least, it’s about both. Also, it’s not clear that any of the interviewees were necessarily asked about the Black Betty of the song. Nonetheless, I do have to give Lomax’s opinion a lot of weight, and they had decades to change their mind on this point, yet every edition of that book asserts the whip. For example:

 

‘She was the whip used in Southern prisons.’ (Lomax 1940, 60-61).

 

We must also recognise that the way oral and musical tradition works means that even if the writer of ‘Black Betty’ only had a woman in mind, the whip was definitely a current meaning at that time. Thus, as soon as someone performs the song, it’s going to become about a whip as a dual meaning with the woman directly referred to in the lyrics.

 

So there you have it; Black Betty was a woman, and may also have been a prison whip. However, the 2012 liner notes for the 1933 recording featured on the ‘Jail House Bound’ record confuse things still further:

 

‘7. “Black Betty” (AFS 200 Side B) by James “Iron Head” Baker with R.D. Allen and Will Crosby singing back up; recorded in December 1933 at Central State Prison Farm in Texas. Lomax claimed that this song was about the whip used to punish prisoners rather than a tale of a woman, but both Alan Lomax and Bruce Jackson found prisoners who argued that “Black Betty” was actually the prison transfer truck.’

 

Wikipedia reports that:

 

‘In an interview conducted by Alan Lomax with a former prisoner of the Texas penal farm named Doc Reese (aka “Big Head”), Reese stated that the term “Black Betty” was used by prisoners to refer to the “Black Maria” — the penitentiary transfer wagon.

 

Robert Vells, in Life Flows On in Endless Song: Folk Songs and American History, writes:

 

‘As late as the 1960s, the vehicle that carried men to prison was known as “Black Betty,” though the same name may have also been used for the whip that so often was laid on the prisoners’ backs, “bam-ba-lam.”’

 

I would call this ‘unconfirmed’. I can’t tell when Bruce Jackson interviewed prisoners, but his book was published in 1972, and the earliest references I can find are 1960s. Jackson’s interviewees may not have heard of ‘Black Betty’ being a whip simply because whipping had long been discontinued. Perhaps the name jumped from whip to truck? After all, the use of the whip had been officially discontinued by the time Iron Head, Clear Rock and Lead Belly were performing the original version of the song. It’s logical enough that it might survive as another inanimate (well, sort of animate!) prison object of misery.

 

Strangely, when I did my usual Google Books trawl, by far the most common usage of ‘Black Betty’ in the nineteenth century was in reference to a bottle, usually a bottle of alcohol. However, this doesn’t seem to be current in early-mid twentieth century U.S. prisons, so can I think be discounted along with the gun explanation.

 

tl;dr – the Black Betty of the song was a woman, possibly also a prison whip, and may later have become the prison wagon. ‘She’ has never been a gun, a bottle of alcohol, or any other object that those of us not imprisoned and engaged in cutting trees might imagine.

 

Hairy Bikers? Hairy BS, more like.

April 18, 2016

I’ve just watched the ‘Hairy Bikers’ new TV series on British pubs, and to my surprise, made it nearly all the way through the episode without any really obvious nonsense. Then, in the last couple of minutes, they mentioned the practice of ‘Ale Conners’ sitting in beer in leather breeches to test how sticky (and therefore sugary) it was.

It took me all of twenty seconds on Google to find something debunking this obvious load of old trousers!

Cursed Be He That Moves My Bones: The Saga of Shakespeare’s Skull

April 2, 2016
Is this William Shakespeare's skull? Nah.

Is this William Shakespeare’s skull? Nah.

 

 

Tldr for the youngsters; Shakespeare’s skull probably wasn’t stolen, and if it was, the skull in Beoley church almost certainly isn’t it. 

 

The Tomb

You’ve probably seen the press about a recent UK TV documentary on Shakespeare’s missing noggin. I actually have yet to catch up with the programme itself, but it did pique my interest, just in case there was some BSery afoot. In fact, for the most part, it was pretty responsible, and there’s actually some critical assessment of two claims. Firstly, and this is what’s got most of the press, they test historical claims that Shakespeare’s skull was stolen from his grave in 1794. These claims were first made in an an anonymous article (actually a story; see below) published in the Argosy magazine in October 1879 (you can read it here thanks to archive.org), and then again in an 1884 pamphlet written by the same man, later determined to be the Rev. C.J. Langston (aka Charles Jones), entitled ‘How Shakespeare’s Skull Was Lost and Found’. No-one seems to have taken these seriously either at the time or later, until recently that is.

 

The Channel 4 team have produced some interesting evidence that might support that, although it’s far from as conclusive as the show and those involved are making out. As an aside, I have to say that I pretty much agree with the church’s reasons for not opening it; The theft story wasn’t really very plausible at face value (see below), and I really don’t get why the ‘tomb’ was such a mystery to people (as it seems to have been) purely on the basis that the stone with the words on it is much shorter than those of his family next to it. Some even speculated (no doubt with tongue in cheek) that Shakespeare was buried standing up! But anyone that’s spent any time looking at church burials knows that graveslabs are rarely uniform in size, material, shape, engraving etc, unless the family deliberately planned it out ahead of time.

 

Anyway, to the evidence; the GPR plot (see the image on the The Guardian’s coverage here) shows conclusively that 3 feet down, the Shakespeares are actually buried in a series of individual graves, not a family vault as had been assumed previously. Secondly, it proved that William’s grave is just as long as the others under the slabs (duh!), and that his head isn’t up where the stone is (again, duh – Christian burials typically have the head at the west end of an east-west oriented grave). So far, so good; this is good solid archaeology telling us something new and confirming other things that we probably knew.

 

However, for some reason the investigators decide that the blank slab over the head end of the grave is somehow significant. Again, I don’t really see why, unless you’re wanting the theft story to be true. A church floor is a very practical structure, and a grave or memorial slab is in some ways just another paving slab. If for whatever reason someone (or their family) decides that they want a small slab with a particular inscription, there still needs to be a paving slab to fill the gap, and I personally think that’s what we’re seeing. It’s obvious that the documentary is in love with the idea of Shakespeare’s skull having been stolen, even as it dismisses most of the same story. It’s pointed out that the original 1879 Argosy story about the alleged theft does correctly talks about lifting a slab and rummaging around in the dirt, rather than descending into a family vault, and takes this to mean that there could be something in the story. I don’t follow the logic here; this could easily just be a correct guess. No-one reading the story could confirm whether this description of the ‘tomb’ was correct, nor would they care.

[Edited to add 3.4.16:] Fellow sceptic Eve Siebert at VirtualSkeptics.com (about 30mins in) is also sceptical of the documentary’s confident conclusion. Though she hasn’t actually seen the documentary itself, the point she makes doesn’t require her to. She makes the convincing case that Langston’s Argosy article was never intended to be factual, and is definitively a fictional short story. She also suspects that this was the origin of what is now (since perhaps the 1940s) local folklore (now of course international folklore thanks to the internet!). I think she’s right. If you look through any issue of the Argosy, it’s pretty clear that every issue is essentially a compilation of short stories and poems. If you read the actual story, it’s really no different, except perhaps for a Da Vinci Code style ‘BASED ON TRUE EVENTS!!!’ tone. It’s likely that he was inspired by recent vocal attempts by those seeking to confirm purported likenesses (and by phrenologists as the documentary says) to exhume the skull. Having attracted some attention, Langston then adapted this story, with an additional section about having rediscovered the skull, into the 1884 pamphlet, where it is more difficult to see the fictional context.

This means that regardless of the geophysical evidence, people are trying to prove a fiction. It would be like astronomers looking for the galaxy ‘Far, Far Away’, or an historian deciding to follow in Robert Langdon’s (Langston, Langdon… spooky!) footsteps to discover the truth of the Da Vinci Code. Now, Eve also notes that Benjamin Radford (also a prominent sceptic) has written a piece on the case. This actually supports the claim by discussing the very real background to celebrity skull theft. However, Radford does not actually support the claim that Shakespeare’s skull has been stolen. Quite frankly, if it has somehow been removed from the grave, it would be coincidental with the yarn spun by Langston, which some allege may actually have been intended to raise money for his church roof (see here).

Back to the geophysics. The disturbance of the ground at the ‘head’ area is interpreted by the geophysicist (Erica Utsi) in the documentary as a box-like brick or stone repair. Archaeologist Kevin Colls goes several steps further – much too far in my view – and takes it as confirmation that the theft happened as described. Even if he’s right though, I should point out that GPR cannot confirm detect the presence of organic materials, so it is not actually possible to confirm whether or not the skull is missing. I think there’s a reasonable chance that the account really was the exercise in Victorian trolling that it reads as (see the original book here), and that some other excavations in the church floor might account for the disturbance. Until and unless the church allows the grave to be opened, this is as close as we’re likely to get, and for many the proof that the head end of Shakespeare’s grave has been monkeyed with will be enough to confirm the myth.

 

The documentary claims no evidence of works undertaken in this area, despite extensive restoration work in the 1880s. However, this cuts both ways; there’s also no record of any repair to the damage caused by the alleged theft, either! It’s also not true. With just a bit of online research, I’ve identified one episode that would account for this GPR anomaly, recounted in ‘Shakespeare’s Lives’ by Samuel Schoenbaum (p.340 – the primary sources given are Anon. Shakespeariana, Monthly Magazine, 45 (1818), p.2 and the recollections of one James Hare from the Birmingham Weekly Post). In 1796, work on creating an adjacent grave for the rector, Dr Davenport (actually his wife, who died long before him) caused a collapse into Shakespeare’s tomb. More than one observer peered in to see what they could see, which after more than 200 years in the earth under a church floor wasn’t a great deal, though one did claim to have seen the remains, including the skull. These accounts don’t say at which end of the tomb the collapse occurred, but given that we now know one end is basically solid earth (with graves cut into it), and that there’s a brick or stone wall at the head of the graves, this wall was either constructed or at least repaired when the vault was built. This would explain why a box-like support would be needed underneath the grave and floor slabs, as the existing material supporting the blank ‘head’ slab would have collapsed (creating the hole that people were peering into). By the way, as far as I can tell, Stratford church has no crypt per se apart from that left by the demolition of the old charnel-house, so the ‘vault’ (also called a ‘grave’ elsewhere) mentioned was likely just a fancier lined version of Shakespeare’s, rather than the sort of family vault in a crypt that we tend to imagine. Hence workers would have lifted slabs and started digging, inadvertently weakening the earth wall of Shakepeare’s grave, before installing the brick or stone wall to shore up the older interments before finishing the vault for the new ones. Ingleby also claims that the repairs made included a new stone. The area would also have been disturbed to bury Davenport’s son in the same year, his daughter in 1821, and finally Davenport himself (aged 92!) in 1841. That’s apart from any other repairs that might have necessitated disturbing Shakepeare’s grave.

 

In any case, despite Colls’ wishful thinking, the GPR work is not conclusive evidence of the claimed 1794 break-in. Note that the alleged theft wasn’t actually reported by anyone until the 1879 article, long after those alleged to have committed the crime had died without ever admitting anything. If it really happened, there ought to be some other record of the break-in, unless of course one is looking to cry ‘conspiracy!’. The theft would have been a major undertaking, and one difficult to cover up, even if the culprits had got away with it.

 

Incidentally, I did appreciate the hypothesis presented that Shakespeare’s ‘curse’ on his grave slab might be based upon a very real post-Reformation fear of being exhumed, disarticulated, and placed in a charnel house. There was even a reference to Romeo & Juliet to support this. Of course, Shakespeare could just have been playing the dramatist.

The Chandos portrait, attributed to John Taylor, oil on canvas, feigned oval, circa 1610 (NPG)

The Chandos portrait, attributed to John Taylor, oil on canvas, feigned oval, circa 1610 (NPG)

The Skull

The second claim is much more recent, and in my view even less robust. The 1884 book claimed that the skull had been returned; not to Stratford, but to St Leonard’s Church in Beoley (the name of the church isn’t given, but it is clearly indicated). It also stated that the skull had been rediscovered on the basis of a piece that had been cut out by the thief in order to be able to do just that on a return visit. The new claim is that the skull has since been rediscovered by a Richard Peach, who published an article in The Village magazine in October 2009. This seems to have made few waves, but a few years later, actor and author Simon Stirling really went to town on the idea in his 2013 book ‘Who Killed William Shakespeare?’. You may or may not be able to read the relevant chapter in the Google Books preview, but I will summarise the claim here.

 

Having decided that the 1884 book was accurate in its claims and that the Beoley skull must definitely be the one described, Stirling proceeds to confidently list various features of the skull that prove it. Some appear in an article in a Goldsmiths College student magazine; some are only in the book. The problem is that they don’t prove anything and in many cases aren’t even visible (at least to my eyes). Here they are;

 

  1. A missing piece from the base. Yes, in the 1879 and 1884 accounts, the Shakespeare skull (if indeed that skull was his, or was anything more than a figment of the author’s imagination) was missing a piece. But as Stirling admits, the original piece was cut from the forehead, not the base!
  2. A ‘darkly discoloured region’ on the right brow that supposedly matches a ‘star-shaped’ scar seen in the death mask (probably a fake in any case!) and which ‘appears as a groove on the Davenant bust’. I’m not seeing this, personally, and in any case the Davenant bust is not from life, or even death, being generally dated to the mid-18th century (one lone scholar claims it to date from Shakespeare’s lifetime, but has been roundly criticised).
  3. A fracture also in this area, apparently also seen on the Davenant bust. This is very clearly a post-mortem fracture (if you think there’s doubt over that, just wait).
  4. Two parallel scratches from this area across the forehead, allegedly also seen on the Davenant bust, as well as Dugdale’s (very rough!) sketch of same, and the Chandos portrait (the likeness with the best authenticity, but still not 100% verified). I can just about see what he means here, but I strongly suspect pareidolia. Even if there’s something there, for these scratches to be visible in soft tissue, there would have to be two fairly massive scars visible on the portrait and bust.
  5. An ‘uneven forehead’ and ‘roughly oval depression, mid-brow’, bizarrely blamed on the thumbs of an over-enthusiastic Elizabethan midwife by Stirling. OK, he’s lost me again. Where??! His composite image comparison can be seen in the Goldsmiths article as figure 18. Apart from anything else, the region he highlights on the skull in the book is NOT the forehead but the crown of the head (he even references the fontanelle in the book. This is very high up on the head).
  6. Indentations/scratches on the left side of the skull (figures 17 & 18 in the article). These he conflates with the ‘uneven forehead’ defect (still not on the forehead by the way!). Like the others, these may well reflect a wound on the skull, if not on Shakespeare’s actual head. Funnily enough, this is the only feature that I think I can see a parallel for on any of the images; the Chandos portrait (see high res image here). Hardly conclusive though.
  7. Another fracture in the left eye socket, supposedly reflected by ‘relaxed skin’ over the eye on the (probably fake) death mask and seen in Droeshout and Chandos portraits. Sorry, not seeing this either.
  8. A broken ‘fissure’ (he means suture) on the right side of the skull (left as we look at it), supposedly also evidence of some traumatic injury and which apparently accounts for ‘the protruding left eye of the death mask and possibly the swollen caruncle visible in the posthumous portraits…’. These separated sutures are incredibly common in old skulls, especially on either side (see the skull pictured here) and are an artefact of the drying out of the bones and damage sustained over time.
  9. Finally, a claim made in the article and not the book; that ‘The outline of the broken maxilla on the left side of the face is reproduced as a jagged grey line running down the cheek’ in the depictions. These breaks on the skull are obviously post-mortem. If Stirling is suggesting a portrait made from the corpse, then such fractures (which would be perimortem according to his murder theory) are not going to be visible through soft tissue.

 

Stirling clearly has a predilection toward pattern recognition. In the same article he identifies a depiction in a painting of a tied piece of cord as somehow a representation of a dragonfly. Having decided that this must have been the artist’s intent and not his subjective interpretation, he then proceeds to read some dark significance into this secret ‘dragonfly’ symbol. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar…

 

Let’s take stock. In 1884 Langston identified a skull in his own crypt as Shakespeare’s on the basis of an article that he himself had written, claiming (for the first time) that Shakespeare’s skull had been stolen and relocated. There was no corroborating evidence, and it would have been impossible for anyone to check this unless the author (Langston), who also controlled access to the vault (being the vicar) allowed it. No one seems to have done so. At some point local lore identified a skull in that vault as the one in question, despite the fact that it didn’t have the diagnostic piece of bone ‘clipped’ from the forehead (which, by the way, would have been very hard to take  from the skull without massive damage). Over a century on from Langston’s writing, (2009) a local man photographed this skull and published an article under the assumption that it is the same one, Finally, in 2013 someone else (Stirling) lists certain features and defects on this skull that (very) subjectively resemble those on artistic depictions of the man himself, only two of which are confirmed as being authentic and are still only artist’s impressions of a man who was already dead when they were made; almost certainly not from his actual corpse. Even worse, none of these likenesses are confirmed to have been made when Shakespeare was alive (or even from his corpse). That’s a pretty flimsy chain of evidence not only for this being Shakespeare’s skull, but also Stirling’s theory that he was murdered.

 

This was just my assessment of the book chapter & article. Before having seen the documentary, I rather suspected that as well as confirming the theft (which they sort of did), the makers would also try to perpetuate this claim. I’d also found this article, which lamented that the diocese in question had refused permission to DNA test the skull in question for the documentary. This seemed to suggest that the filmmakers were going to play the old ‘they won’t let us test it, therefore our theory is correct!’ card. So, I decided to start looking at the book’s claims on face value, without being swayed by the documentary. Then I read this summary of the documentary and archaeological team’s findings.

 

The team were granted access to the crypt to laser scan the skull and carry out a forensic anthropological analysis. The results revealed that this skull belonged to an unknown woman who was in her seventies when she died.

 

This would definitely torpedo Mr Stirling’s entire book thesis, as the skull seems to be the lynchpin of his broader argument that Shakespeare was murdered. Reading this interview, it appears that Stirling refuses to accept Wilkinson’s findings, and even accuses the makers of the show of ‘cognitive dissonance’ and ‘confirmation bias’ on his blog. Readers familiar with the phenomenon of pareidolia will find these comments somewhat ironic. The onus is surely on the claimant to show that this skull is Shakespeare’s, and not on the TV producer or anyone else to prove that they aren’t. It’s also unfortunate that he goes on call into question the professionalism of the expert involved, Dr Caroline Wilkinson of Liverpool John Moore’s University (whose PhD is in Facial Anthropology). Doubly so because he was happy enough to use evidence produced by the same expert in his book (even if the reconstruction in question was of the dubious death mask). Clearly the conditions imposed on her analysis weren’t ideal. The team weren’t permitted to physically analyse or even touch the skull, and the laser scan itself was therefore incomplete, because the skull could not be touched (pretty ironic given that the skull had clearly been moved in 2009).

 

Nonetheless, watching the actual documentary, you can see that they got right into the ossuary/vault and were able to closely scan most of the skull. There was easily enough coverage of the salient features, when combined with photography, to make an assessment. The shape of the cranium is clear both in the photos and the 3D render, and it’s a gracile, smooth forehead lacking in brow ridges. Incidentally, if the Davenant bust really is a likeness of Shakespeare, it’s a poor match for the skull, as the profile photo in this article shows. Otherwise, as Wilkinson points out, not only are the teeth missing (not surprising given the damage sustained) but the actual bone of the upper jaw has resorbed. In other words, there are no spaces for the teeth. That’s a pretty definitive indicator of total tooth loss, not something we’d expect on a well-to-do middle-aged playwright.

 

Now, Wilkinson is a leading academic in her field, and is not likely to allow herself to be misrepresented in a TV documentary (she’s appeared in a number of them). She is clear that the skull appears to be of an elderly female rather than a middle aged male. Like any responsible academic, she did caveat her conclusions (‘I would be somewhat cautious’). So yes, there’s room for doubt that the skull might be a particularly feminine and prematurely aged male. But even then, is that a match for what we know of Shakespeare? I’d say not, but then comparing a partial skull with artistic depictions made after the fact is fraught with difficulty. But again, the onus must be on the claimant. Even if the documentary didn’t 100% prove that the skull wasn’t Shakespeare, Stirling is very far from proving that it wasn’t. Therefore our provisional conclusion has to be that it probably isn’t.
Overall, not a bad documentary with some interesting information, and I do agree that the Beoley skull is almost certainly NOT Shakespeare’s. However, as I’ve explained above, they really haven’t shown, as press reports claim, that ‘Shakespeare’s head appears to be missing’ nor that ‘the skull was probably stolen from what is a shallow grave by trophy hunters’. I think the anomaly they’ve identified is just as likely, if not more so, to reflect some other building work, possibly repairs made following the documented collapse in 1818.

 

Edit to add:

In researching this article I came across a joke, a version of which I’d heard or read previously, and that is very appropriate here; even more so if another candidate for his skull is ever claimed in the future! In this, a gullible collector is accused of having acquired a fake Shakespeare skull, and is shown another, larger skull also purported to be as Shakespeare’s. He responds that his skull:

 

‘…is of Shakespeare certainly, but of Shakespeare as a child about twelve or fourteen years old ; whereas this is that of Shakespeare when he had attained a certain age and had become the greatest genius of which England is so justly proud’.

-Frank Leslie’s Lady’s Magazine, Vol.14-15, 1864, p.287 (but also various period newspapers).

 

Guided Tour BS

January 30, 2016

Not too long ago now, arch-debunking website Snopes posted a great article on the nonsense that’s peddled by museum and heritage site employees;

http://www.snopes.com/2016/01/07/museum-piece/

These traditional stories and myths are a particular fascination of mine, from the joke that became the origin story of ‘Humpty Dumpty’, to the much more famous Tower of London ravens. I have a fair bit of experience as a tour guide myself, and have had to edit or even throw away scripts I’ve been given. A friend and I have come up with a little game called ‘Hence the Expression’, in which we dream up the most ludicrous and/or amusing stories possible about a site we happen to be visiting. As well as sharing the article, I thought I’d also tell my own favourite story of museum/heritage site BS.

I was on a museum staff trip to a historic house in Scotland a few years ago, and we were subjected to several of these dubious stories on the guided tour. One story had clearly been invented by the guides to explain something that they had no information about; the dining table in the main hall. This table had a removable/reversible top, and the story went that in medieval times, diners would flip the table top when they’d finished a course, to allow the dogs to clean it for them. This is so patently ridiculous that if I hadn’t had it earnestly relayed to me in person by the guide, I would assume it was a joke. But my favourite was the guide’s explanation for the old saying ‘lock, stock, and barrel’. This is one of the few sayings that actually has a really well documented origin, but this guy was trying to convince us that it originated with the Olden Days ™ practice of removing the expensive door lock from one’s property and installing it in the door of the new property. I was stunned by this. Not only had I never heard this claim, I’d never heard of the idea of moving locks between buildings. Even on the face of it, this made little sense, and there was awkward silence from our group. I was wondering how to respond to this, if at all, when my boss at the time loudly remarked ‘NAAAAH!’. I actually felt bad for the guide as we all tried hard not to laugh. But it was instructive in terms of how myths come about even in a world where we can find out the correct answer with a few minutes on Google. Imagine how prevalent myth-making was before the printed word!

Polish vampires

November 29, 2014
One of the Drawsko 'vampires', aka 'Individual 49/2012' a 30–39 year old female with a sickle placed across the neck (PLOS ONE)

One of the Drawsko ‘vampires’, aka ‘Individual 49/2012’ a 30–39 year old female with a sickle placed across the neck (PLOS ONE)

I don’t normally do ‘heads up’ posts, but this is too cool not to point out;

http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0113564

It’s a superbly researched scientific paper on some deviant burials from Drawsko in Poland that have been in the news lately, including some spectacular photos that alone constitute some great confirmatory evidence for the folklore regarding the ‘killing’ of ‘vampires’ in eastern Europe. Anyone that’s read Paul Barber’s seminal ‘Vampires, Burial and Death’ will be smiling as they read it. We’ve had plenty of prior finds, but these are so clear and well-preserved that there’s no room for doubt; people were trying to stop these dead people from coming back to hurt them.

I must admit that I had not come across the suggestion that simply being an outsider to a community might mark you as a potential vampire, but as the paper points out, this has been claimed in the Polish language literature. These findings came as no surprise to me; we pretty well *knew* from the folkloric record that suspected vampires were typically members of a given local community. As logical as it would seem for many to be outsiders, I can recall few cases where vampires are incomers. The paper does an excellent job of confirming what many of us already suspected, in the context of the vampire as (to borrow from George A. Romero) a ‘blue collar’ monster; both vampire and victim were working class Slavs, not middle-class English real estate agents!

By properly assessing a group of roughly contemporary burials from the same settlement, the authors have built a representative picture of vampirism that shows it didn’t matter how old or what sex you were; vampirism was apparently a more democratic stigma than witchcraft (as well as being a less harmful one; at least ‘vampires’ were dead when they were scapegoated and ‘killed’). They also put the cemetery in context, including a really nice table comparing/contrasting with other investigations in the region.

The authors do somewhat conflate ‘vampires’ with revenants in general, which I’m usually wary of, but it’s hard to argue with in this context. These burials are in the Slavic heartlands, and date to the heyday of the ‘true’ vampire. So these remains have more right than many to be called ‘vampires’. Needless to say, I’m a lot more excited about these burials than the more famous ‘vampire of Venice’.

Congratulations to Lesley A. Gregoricka, Tracy K. Betsinger, Amy B. Scott, Marek Polcyn on an outstanding piece of work; so good to see serious academics taking on such a populist subject.