Werewolves = Serial Killers?

Beast of Gevaudan (1764). Not to Scale (Wikimedia Commons)

When I last wrote on the Beast of Gévaudan, I said that I couldn’t rule out the involvement of one or more human murderers whose actions could have been conflated with several wolves and possibly other wild animals killing French peasants between 1764 – 1767. I meant that literally; the Beast was a craze, and it’s perfectly possible that one or more victims was in fact the victim of a murder. We have no evidence for that, of course, and certainly not for the claim, sometimes made, that the whole thing was the work of a serial killer. This was recently repeated in this otherwise very good video from YouTube channel ‘Storied’ (part two of two; both parts feature the excellent Kaja Franck, who I was fortunate to meet at a conference some years ago). Meagan Navarro of the horror (fiction) website Bloody Disgusting states the following:

“The Beast of Gevaudan or the Werewolf of Dole, these were based on men that were serial killers and slaughtered, and folklore was a means of exploring and understanding those acts by transforming them into literal monsters.”

The ‘werewolf’ of Dole does indeed appear to be a deluded individual who thought he was able to transform into a wolf and was convicted as such. However, this is not the case for Gévaudan, which is a well-documented piece of history, not some post-hoc rationalisation for a series of murders as she implies. The various attacks that comprise the story were widely reported at the time and in some detail (albeit embellishments were added later). No-one at the time suspected an ordinary person of the actual killings, and the only sightings consistently refer to a large beast, sometimes detailing how the kills were made. The idea of a human being in control of the Beast somehow was mooted at the time, as was the werewolf of folklore, but never a straightforward murderer. Of course, the idea of the serial killer was unknown until the late 19th century, and it wasn’t long after this that a specious connection was made. In 1910 French gynaecologist Dr. Paul Puech published the essay (‘La Bête du Gévaudan’, followed in 1911 by another titled ‘Qu’était la bête du Gévaudan?’). Puech’s thin evidence amounted to;

1) The victims being of the same age and gender as those of Jack the Ripper and Joseph Vacher. In fact, women and children (including boys) were not only the more physically vulnerable to attack generally, but were the members of the shepherding families whose job it was to bring the sheep in at the end of the day. This is merely a coincidence.

2) Decapitation and needless mutilation. The latter is pretty subjective, especially if the animal itself might be rabid (plenty were) and therefore attacking beyond the needs of hunger alone. The relevance of decapitation depends upon whether a) this really happened and b) whether a wolf or wolves would be capable of it. Some victims were found to have been decapitated, something that these claimants assert is impossible for a wolf to achieve. I can’t really speak to how plausible this is, although tearing limbs from sizable prey animals is easily done and if more than one animal were involved I’ve little doubt that they could remove a head if they wished. So, did these decapitations actually take place? Jay Smith’s ‘Monsters of the Gévaudan: The Making of a Beast’ relays plenty of reports of heads being ripped off. However, details of these reports themselves mitigate against the idea of a human killer. Take Catherine Valy, whose skull was recovered some time after her death. Captain of dragoons Jean-Baptiste Duhamel noted that “judging by the teeth marks imprinted [on the skull], this animal must have terrifying jaws and a powerful bite, because this woman’s head was split in two in the way a man’s mouth might crack a nut.” Duhamel, like everyone else involved, believed that he faced a large and powerful creature (whether natural or supernatural), not a mere human. Despite the intense attention of the local and national French authorities, not to mention the population at large, no suggestion was ever made nor any evidence ever found of a human murderer and the panic ended in 1767 after several ordinary wolves were shot.

3) Similar deaths in 1765 in the Soissonnais, which he for some reason puts down to a copycat killer rather than, you know, more wolves. This reminds me of the mindset of many true crime writers; come up with your thesis and then go cherry-picking and misrepresenting the data to fit.At the very least then, this claim is speculative, and should not be bandied about as fact (in fact, the YouTube channel should really have queried the claim). So, if not a serial killer, then what? French historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie argues that the Beast was a local legend blown out of proportion to a national level by the rise of print media. Jean-Marc Moriceau reports 181 wolf killings through the 1760s, which puts into context the circa 100 killings over three years in one region of France. That is, statistically remarkable, but within the capability of the country’s wolf population to achieve, especially given the viral and environmental pressures from rabies and the Little Ice Age respectively that Moriceau cites. If we combine these two takes, we get close to the truth, I think. ‘The’ Beast most likely actually consisted of some unusually violent attacks carried out by more than one wolf or packs of wolves that were confabulated and exaggerated as the work of one supernatural beast, before ultimately being pinned by the authorities on several wolves, three shot by François Antoine in 1765 and another supposedly ‘extraordinary’ (yet actually ordinary sized) Jean Chastel in 1767.

Mary Pannell the Ledston Witch

Berkshire ‘witch’ Mother Dutten feeding her own blood to her familiar spirits, taken from ‘A Rehearsal both Strange and True‘ (1579) – (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Almost every county in the UK has some story about a tried or convicted 16th or 17th century witch; it’s an unfortunate part of our history. Yorkshire has several noted ‘witches’; one with a surprisingly persistent local legacy is Mary Pannell (or Panel, or Pannel, or Pannal, or Pennell), supposedly a local ‘wise woman’ or sometimes just an ordinary girl with some knowledge of herbal medicine, who offered medical help to William Witham of the local Ledston Hall (renamed ‘Wheler Priory’ in ‘Most Haunted’ for security reasons), and supposedly ended up executed for witchcraft and/or for killing Witham when he died in 1593. Pannell’s story is still current in local news and oral tradition, she has her own (not very good) Wikipedia entry, and even featured in TV’s ‘Most Haunted Live’ 2007 Halloween Special. Her story has appeared both in print and online, but the oldest is an internet version from 1997 (this version revised 26.4.2006; the Internet Archive only has the 2000 version onwards). 

The first thing I should tackle are the modern embellishments introduced to the story in the retelling. First, William Witham was not the young son of the owner of the Hall, he was the owner, and was 47 when he died! Witham did have sons, two of which were also called William, but one died in infancy years earlier and the other survived his father and went on to have his own son. There is also no evidence that Pannell was an employee of Witham’s (a claim that has expanded in very recent versions to include Witham taking advantage of her). In fact, we know nothing about Pannell for sure, although (as Wikipedia informs us) it’s possible that she may be the same ‘Marye Tailer’ of nearby Kippax who married a John Pannell in 1559 (see these parish records, p. 11). Anyway, these modern changes have likely crept in to make Pannell and Witham more sympathetic victims of the unthinking posh folk who in some versions of the story kill their own innocent son and an innocent woman who was trying to help. Originally, Pannell is an evil woman to be feared; today she is feared in death as a wronged spirit, but otherwise pitied as a victim of prejudice and ignorance. 

The good news is that Mary Pannell did exist circa 1600, and was indeed believed to be a witch, as proven by Edward Fairfax’s 1622 manuscript ‘Dæmonologia: A Discourse on Witchcraft’ (p. 98):

“…that the devil can take to himself a true body, or that he can make one of this man’s leg, the second’s arm, and the head of the third (as a great divine hath lately written), or that he can play the incubus and beget children, as the old tale of Merlin, and our late wonder of the son of Mary Pannell* (not yet forgot) seem to insinuate.”

Unfortunately, the footnote on the same page containing the above details i.e. that Pannell was executed in 1603 and ‘bewitched’ William Witham to death was added by Grainge, based on an earlier source (see below). Fairfax’s original manuscripts (there are several versions) do not include any of this. We do know from unrelated period records that William Witham of Ledston Hall did die in 1593 and, again, that Pannell existed and was thought a witch; but there is no primary evidence connecting these facts. It’s by no means clear that Pannell was actually executed, or even tried for witchcraft. Court records for that area and period don’t survive, and unlike other witchcraft suspects, there are no other primary sources to fall back on. The earliest version of Pannell’s own story (most likely Grainge’s source) dates to 1834, over two centuries after the fact. This is Edward Parsons’ ‘The Civil, Ecclesiastical, Literary, Commercial, and Miscellaneous History of Leeds, Halifax, Huddersfield, Bradford, Wakefield, Dewsbury, Otley, and the Manufacturing District of Yorkshire’ (p.277):

“William Witham, who, from the pedigree of his family, appears to have been buried on the ninth of May, 1593, was supposed to have died in consequence of the diabolical incantations of an unfortunate being called Mary Pannel, who had obtained a disastrous celebrity in this part of the country for her supposed intercourse with malignant spirits. About ten years after the death of her imagined victim, she was apprehended on the charge of sorcery, arraigned and convicted at York, and was executed on a hill near Ledston hall, the supposed scene of her infamous operations. The hill where she died was long afterwards called Mary Pannel’s hill, and was regarded with abhorrence and alarm by the ignorant rustics in the neighbourhood.” 

It’s interesting that this earliest written version suggests that Pannell was convicted of witchcraft in general, not of killing or even necessarily bewitching Witham specifically. Anyway, there are many later sources but all either reference each other or don’t cite a source at all, making Parsons ground zero for the legend. This makes it all the more frustrating that we don’t know his source, and certainly no period records survive today that would enable us to check this (perhaps they did in the 1830s but it seems unlikely). As Jim Sharpe states in his 1992 book ‘Witchcraft in Seventeenth Century Yorkshire: Accusations and Counter Measures’ (p. 2), ‘for the years between 1563 and 1650 assize records do not survive in quantity outside of the south east…’. This is ironic, because Sharpe is (in the same volume, p. 4) one of several scholars to treat the Grainge footnote in Fairfax’s Discourse as though it were a 17th century primary source rather than a 19th century secondary one, stating “In 1603 a woman named Mary Panell [sic], whose reputation for witchcraft stretched back at least to bewitching a man to death in 1593, was executed at Ledston.” Again, all we know is that Pannell existed at that time and was thought a witch. Gregory J. Durston includes the same details on p. 79 of his 2019 book on specifically (and ironically) witch trials, and doesn’t even bother to give a reference. Regardless, I have to assume, given Parsons’ repeated use of the word ‘supposed’ and his snide dig at ignorant locals, that he was in fact recording an oral tradition, perhaps related to him by said locals, or by members of Parsons’ own social class, scoffing at the superstitions of their peons (although as Fairfax shows, some of the upper class also believed in witchcraft).  

Grainge’s 1882 footnote is actually cribbed from his own 1855 book ‘Castles and Abbeys of Yorkshire’, in which he disagrees with Parsons on the method and location of her execution;

“In 1608 [sic], Mary Pannell, who had long been celebrated for supposed sorceries, was hung at York, under the impression, that, among other crimes, she had bewitched to death William Witham, who died at Ledstone, in 1593.”

However, he (or his publisher) also ballsed up the date, so it’s possible that he was mistaken and didn’t necessarily have access to alternative sources of information. Or he may have been deliberately correcting Parsons. The assumption that she was actually executed at York makes more sense for the time and place; witches were typically executed in the town or city of their conviction/incarceration. Incidentally, there’s no reason that Grainge would consider that Pannell was actually burned; this punishment was very rare for witchcraft suspects in England. The very suggestion doesn’t appear until 1916 with J.S. Fletcher’s ‘Memorials of a Yorkshire Parish’ (p. 97). 

Shortly after the 1882 Grainge version, we encounter another fascinating piece of Mary Pannell folklore in ‘Topography and Natural History of Lofthouse and Its Neighborhood…’, Vol. 2 by George Roberts, 1885, p. 177

“On the right of the road there is a hill covered with wood, called Mary Pannal Hill. Upwards of two hundred and fifty years ago, when the country was covered with forest, when our villages and hamlets were scantily populated, and when superstition reigned in the place of education, Mary Pannal, clad as a gipsy, haunted this neighbourhood, hiding in the old quarries or sheltered nooks in the forest, and gaining a precarious living by begging or pilfering – being, in short, a poor, outcast, homeless, wandering mendicant. In winter time , the old villagers say, she would beg coals of the cartmen as they passed from the pits at Kippax to Ledsham or Fairburn, bewitching all those who refused to supply her with bits of coal, so that the horses could not get up the hills with the load. The drivers, however, devised a simple remedy; they got whip – stocks of wiggan, which enabled them to defy the powers of the witch and surmount the hills without trouble. In those days witches were put out of the way on very slender testimony. They were feared and abhorred. Ridiculous tests were employed to assist in detection; one test being to throw the suspected one into deep water, and if she sank and was drowned it was a sign that she was innocent, but if she floated it was a sign that she was guilty, and she was forthwith taken and executed. This kind of demonopathy prevailed for several centuries. For various acts of supposed witchcraft , and especially for having “bewitched to death ” one William Witham – one of the ancient race of Withams , owners of Ledstone Hall, — Mary Pannal was condemned to suffer on the gallows. The local tradition is that she was taken to the top of the hill, which still bears her name, and which is within full view of the windows of Ledstone Hall, to be hanged on a tree; but each time she was suspended on the cord, it snapped and let her to the ground unhurt, the cord being bewitched. The hangsmen were baffled, but whilst consulting and marvelling one amongst another, a bird of the crow tribe flew over, muttering slowly as it flew, “A withy, a withy, a withy!” whereupon the hangsmen got a flexible withy of wiggan from the adjoining thicket, and suspending the witch upon it, the execution was immediately consummated. Old inhabitants of Ledstone can remember seeing the identical tree felled.”

NB a ‘wiggan’ is another name for rowan, which was thought to have apotropaic properties against witchcraft.

From this we learn that there was a local tradition not just of the hillside where Pannell was supposedly executed, but of a specific purported hanging tree as well. Based on this description it had that reputation for some time prior to being cut down before Parsons ever wrote down his version of the story. Although this story was related in 1882, the ‘old inhabitants’ mentioned would have been young people when Parsons first recorded the basic story. 

A couple of decades later (by which time various heraldic and genealogical sources have picked up the story, having never done so prior to Parsons and Grainge) several periodicals (‘Autocar’ mention it also, with the authentic-seeming quotes referencing the phrase ‘devilish arts’ and the word ‘sorceries’; common enough period terms that they could easily have been adapted from other cases. One example, an account of the trial of Isobel Young, even includes the Scots word ‘pannell’, as in a panel of accused people (although that’s probably coincidence and not the source of these references to Mary Pannell). If not this, it’s likely to have become associated with Pannell’s story in the same way as the phrase ‘counsell and helpe’ did in 1918 when it was implied to be a phrase from Pannell’s trial but was actually borrowed from a 1916 source that referenced Pannell and the phrase separately (it’s actually from a York Archdeaconry ‘Article’ against witchcraft in general). Regardless, I can’t find any pre-1913 or post-1922 instance of any variant of ‘sorceries and devilish arts’ with reference to Pannell. 

We then encounter a gap in the storytelling record until the early (1997) internet version that I mentioned at the beginning. It maintains the basic elements, the 1916 claim of Pannell being burned at Ledston, and adds new embellishments of Witham the boy, Pannell the non-witch herbalist maid, and her ill-fated attempt to help him (plus new aspects to the ghost story):

“Turning left towards Kippax we arrive back on the Roman Ridge Road at a crossroads called ‘Mary Pannell’. It is named so after the unfortunate woman who was burned here as a witch.

Mary Pannel or Pannell was a maid at Ledston Hall towards the end of the 16th century. She, like many others, had a knowledge of ‘old’ medicines and prepared a lotion to be rubbed upon the chest of the young son of the house, one Master William Witham Esq. who was suffering from a chill. His mother mistakenly gave it to the lad to drink and poisoned him. She blamed Mary and accused her of being a witch. This was in May 1593. Mary was tried in 1603 at York and convicted. She was burned to death on the hill that bares [sic] her name that same year. Local tales tell that she haunts the hill and its Roman road leading a horse. Anyone who witnesses the apparition will have a death in the family soon after

At this crossroads was an Inn which survived from medieval times until the beginning of this century – only short sections of stone wall mark it’s existence today.”

This more recent version started out in 2002 as simply;

“Mary Pannell, of Ledston, lived in a small hut and mixed enchantments and made curses and is said to have had dealings with evil spirits. She is said to have bewitched to death William Witham, Esq., of Ledston Hall, in 1593, and was convicted in York in 1603 and put to death by burning on Mary Pannell Hill, on the edge of Castleford.”

By 2004 it had been revised based on information from ‘John & Carol’ to fit the earlier (1997) version, albeit with the ‘health warning’ that it was a ‘local legend’;

“She is said to have bewitched to death William Witham, Esq., of Ledston Hall, in 1593, and was convicted in York in 1603 and put to death by burning on Mary Pannell Hill, on the edge of Castleford. Local legend has it that Mary was a maid who knew a little about medicine. She gave a lotion to rub on a child’s chest for a chill but the mother (an important person of the time) gave it to the child to drink. The lotion killed him and Mary was burned as a witch for it.

Her ghost, leading a horse, is supposed to haunt the Pannell Hill and it is claimed that anybody seeing her will have a death in the family. [Submitted By: John & Carol]” 

The story also appears in ‘Horrible Histories: Gruesome Great Houses’ (2017) by Terry Deary who like other 21st century writers is keen to ‘reclaim’ Pannell as a village ‘wise woman’, i.e. a magic practitioner and not simply an innocent herbalist. This fits the modern popular view of witchcraft suspects as well-meaning ‘white witches’ targeted by the patriarchy (although any pagan will tell you that there’s no such thing as ‘black’ or ‘white’). Mary’s popularity in ‘Mind Body & Spirit’ books and online has turned her into something of a meme, but in this case I don’t think that’s all she is. 

The geographical evidence – the hill being named after Mary Pannell – is important here, especially in light of the folklore recorded by Parsons and Roberts. It’s not much of a hill and is therefore often confused with the more noticeable and spookier-looking wooded western slope of the adjacent Sheldon Hill (often locally called ‘Mary Panel Wood’). Despite this it is an officially named location, appearing on the current footpath sign directing walkers from nearby Kippax and on Ordnance Survey maps drawn up in the late 1840s (labelled separately to Sheldon Hill). For the name to appear on official government maps, the name must have been quite long-standing. Although all of the written evidence for the Witham story (and ghostly Mary) centres around the early 19th century, it’s quite plausible that it could be 18th century or even older. It’s more likely that it emerged within living memory of Witham, local folklore to explain his untimely death, which may have attracted extra and sustained local attention due to the fame of his daughter, Lady Mary Bolles. Whether there was any historical connection between Pannell and Witham, we will probably never know. At the very least, Mary Pannell really existed, was really thought to be a witch, and the story of her and William Witham is genuine folklore, not some recent urban myth. 

The Witch of East Somerton

By JB Ladbrooke, from ‘Ladbrookes views of the churches in the county of Norfolk’ (found here)

This is a fun one. I’ve recently learned from this Atlas Obscura post about the ruined Norfolk church at East Somerton village. As local tradition goes, the tall oak tree growing in the middle of the nave sprouted magically from the wooden leg of a witch that was buried there. Yes, I know, pretty silly, but I couldn’t help look into this anyway. I was initially curious as to how old this legend really was and ended up looking at the whole thing. Other than the physical impossibility of a wooden leg becoming a tree of course; I think we can take that as read. Disclaimer; this is not intended as a dig at Atlas Obscura; I am a fan of the site and have worked with them a couple of times. They are careful to call it a ‘legend’ and also use the phrases ‘said to be’, ‘said to have’ and ‘it’s believed’. 

The first thing to cover is what this 13th-15th century building actually is. It’s described as both a church and a chapel, and several sources state that it used to be a church before becoming a chapel for the residents and workers of the nearby Burnley Hall. In fact, the Hall wasn’t even built until 1710, by which time the chapel was already derelict, and it seems that this is a misunderstanding of what a ‘chapel’ in this context actually is. East Somerton (dedicated to St Mary but not dubbed ‘St Mary’s’) was always technically a satellite church or ‘chapel of ease’, dependent upon the nearby Holy Trinity church at Winterton, which was the actual parish church from the beginning (see here and here). So, the East Somerton site is still a ‘church’ in terms of historic purpose and function, but was never actually dubbed ‘St Mary’s Church’ (‘Chapel of St. Mary’ seems to be the correct name) nor was it ever East Somerton’s parish church per se. All of this confused me during research (some sources can be read as implying both a church and a chapel in the village), so I thought I’d try to clear it up for others. 

I then looked at when the chapel was actually abandoned and when it became a ruin, in case these dates didn’t line up with the witch narrative. However, most sources (including Heritage Gateway, referencing Batcock’s ‘The Ruined and Disused Churches of Norfolk’, available here) do state that it was already in ruins by the late 17th century. There are later references to the chapel (for example these and from the 1760s), but these persist until at least as late as 1821, by which time we know for sure the chapel was ruined. These references are clearly nominal, referring to the fact that the chapel site and its former function were still in theory part of the rectory overall. So I am quite content to say that it was indeed ruined by the end of the 17th century (meaning that a tree could have started growing there). Certainly, by 1781 the building had been ‘made use of as a barn’ and had been ‘in ruins many years’ (from ‘The History of Norfolk’, p. 46). However, there is no sign of a tree in 1822 in J.B. Ladbrooke’s lithograph of the site (see above and linked here). As an aside, the place being ruined and roofless by that time is on the face of it at odds with its second life as a barn. Perhaps it fell into greater disrepair in the meantime, or perhaps the roof was partly intact. Or maybe landowner just wasn’t that fussy and used it for storage despite its ruined state. Anyway, there’s also no mention of a tree in the 1824 book ‘Views of the Seats of Noblemen and Gentlemen’; just of the undergrowth that we see in the contemporary artwork. It’s not until 1875 that we read in the ‘Post office directory of the Norfolk counties’ (p. 445) of ‘a large tree growing in the midst’ of the ruins. 

Which brings me to the tree itself. If it was ‘large’ in 1875, could it have been seeded during the witch trial era? This could make the legend an old one, perhaps even based upon some actual historical event, and of course for believers in the paranormal, it would vindicate the whole story. Well, based upon the available evidence the tree is no more than 1.5 in trunk diameter (less than that, I suspect). That would equate to a 471 cm circumference which, divided by the 1.88cm growth rate for the average oak tree, gives an approximate age of 250 years. That would place the tree as a sapling in the mid-to-late 18th century and make it too young to fit the story. Witch trials were halted by the Witchcraft Act of 1735, operated under the new Enlightenment assumption that magic wasn’t real and so anyone claiming to practice it was a fraud. The last trial in England for actual witchcraft took place in 1716, by which time belief in such things was well on the slide (hence the new law, repealing the 1604 Act under which Mary Hicks and her daughter had been prosecuted and executed). This brings me to perhaps the biggest problem with the East Somerton witch tale; no convicted witch would have been buried in consecrated ground, much less in the nave of a church!  

The historical background to this story is also lacking. There’s the total lack of any evidence (online, at any rate) for any witch being tried or even suspected in this area. Most local stories about witches usually at least relate to a specific case; not so here. Then we have a lack of references even for the story itself; nothing any further back than this 1992 book. That in itself does not of course mean that the story isn’t an older oral tradition; it probably is. All we actually have is the story, which is likely a local legend that grew as the tree did, although it is unlikely to be even as old as the tree, given that the site was covered in other foliage earlier in the 19th century (and probably wasn’t noticeable until mid-century). I don’t think a tree growing inside the church is going to attract much attention as long as the place is overgrown, until such time as it becomes prominent. We know it’s at least 30 years old, and as the tree was large enough to be remarked upon in 1875, I suspect that the myth arose some time in the Victorian period (although it could of course be more recent). 

As for the ‘ghostly monks’ mentioned in the Atlas Obscura entry, I don’t know where that comes from, but I haven’t even seen that claimed anywhere else. That one debunks itself really, since East Monkton was never a priory, abbey, or monastery. 

The Muffin Man?

This is an odd one. Some idiot has claimed as fact a stupid joke about the ‘muffin man’ of the child’s song/nursery rhyme actually being an historical serial killer and some credulous folk (including medium.com) have fallen for it. Snopes have correctly debunked it, yet despite a total lack of any evidence for it being the case, have labelled it ‘unproven’. I hope they figure out that this isn’t how history works. The onus is on the claimant to provide a reference. They aren’t going to find a definitive origin for a traditional song like that that would allow the (patently ludicrous) claim to be disproven. It’s moderately endearing that Snopes had to find out via furious Googling that ‘muffin men’ were a real thing. I learned this when I was a child. Maybe it’s a British thing that Americans have lost their cultural memory of. The very concept of the muffin man is very clearly enough to debunk this bollocks on its own. The muffin man was a guy who went door to door selling tasty treats that kids enjoy, not some ‘Slenderman’ bogeyman figure. It would be like suggesting that there was a serial killer called ‘Mr Whippy‘. Anyway, this Jack Williamson guy is just another internet attention-seeker who will hopefully disappear forthwith. As for Snopes, I can’t fault their article, but I suspect their ongoing foray into political fact-checking has made them a little gunshy of calling things ‘False’ without hard evidence.

Count Cholera 2: Revenge of the Half-Baked Hypothesis

These two get it.
(from https://www.theverge.com/2020/4/20/21227874/what-we-do-in-the-shadows-season-2-hulu-preview)

As I noted in my first post on Marion McGarry’s Dracula=Cholera hypothesis, I’m always wary of criticising ideas that have been filtered through the media (rather than presented first-hand by the author or proponent), because something is almost always missing, lost in translation or even outright misrepresented. So when a kind commenter directed me to this recording of McGarry’s talk on her theory that Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ was inspired by Stoker’s mother’s experience of the early 19th century Sligo cholera outbreak, I felt that I had to listen to it (I never did receive a reply to my request for her article). Now that I have listened, I can confirm that McGarry is reaching bigtime. The talk adds very little to the news reports that I referenced last time and covers much the same ground, including spurious stuff like the novel having the working title of ‘The Undead’ (‘undead’ already being a word as I noted previously). There is some new material however.

Early on McGarry references recent scholarship regarding the historical figure of Wallachian ruler Vlad III being the inspiration for the Count and the novel that features him. She is right about this; Stoker did indeed only overlay Vlad’s name and (incorrect) snippets of his biography onto his existing Styrian ‘Count Wampyr’. However, needless to say, just because ‘Dracula’ was not inspired by the historical Vlad III, it does not follow that it/he was inspired by cholera. As I noted before, Stoker did not invent the fictional vampire, and had no need of inspiration to create his own vampire villain. The only argument that might hold weight is that he was inspired to tackle vampirism by his family history. McGarry’s main argument for this hinges on the fact that Stoker did research for his novels in libraries. As noted last time, this actually works against her theory, since we have Stoker’s notes and there is no mention of his having read around cholera in preparation for writing ‘Dracula’. Whereas we do have his notes on his actual sources, which were about eastern European folklore; vampires and werewolves. The aspects that Stoker did use, he transplanted almost wholesale; it’s easy to see, for example, which bits he lifted from Emily Gerard. Stoker did not in fact do ‘a great deal’ of reading; he found a couple of suitable books and stopped there. Which is why the only other new bit of information from this talk is also of limited use. McGarry cites this 1897 interview with Stoker, claiming that ‘…the kernel of Dracula was formed by live burials…’ This is not, in fact, what Stoker was asked. He was asked what the origin of the *the vampire myth* was, not the inspiration for his taking on that source material:

“Is there any historical basis for the legend?”

Stoker, who was no better informed on the true origins of the Slavic vampire than any other novelist, answered:

“It rested, I imagine, on some such case as this. A person may have fallen into a death-like trance and been buried before the time. 

Afterwards the body may have been dug up and found alive, and from this a horror seized upon the people, and in their ignorance they imagined that a vampire was about.”

Yes, this has parallels with cholera victims being buried prematurely, but it is by no means clear that Stoker was thinking of this when he made this response. Certainly, he does not mention it. There is every chance that this is purely coincidence; plenty of others at this time lazily supposed, like Stoker, that vampire belief stemmed from encounters with still-living victims of premature burial, or (apocryphal) stories of scratches on the inside of coffin lids. Stoker’s family connection with premature burial is likely a coincidence. Had he included a scene involving premature burial, or even a mention of it in the novel, McGarry might be onto something.

McGarry tries to compare Stoker’s victims of vampirism with descriptions of cholera patients; lethargy, sunken eyes, a blue tinge to the eyes and skin. Unfortunately the first two fit lots of other diseases, notably tuberculosis, and the third symptom doesn’t actually feature in ‘Dracula’ at all. I have literally no idea why she references it. She also tries to link the blue flames of the novel with German folklore in which ’blue flames emerge from the mouths of plague victims’. I have never heard of this, nor can I find any reference to it. I do know, however, that Stoker took his blue flames from Transylvanian folklore about hidden treasure; taken again from Emily Gerard (Transylvanian Superstitions), confirmed once again by Stoker’s notes. If there is folklore about blue flames and cholera, no reference appears in his notes, and it is most likely coincidence.

In an extension of her commentary that storms preceded both outbreaks (cholera and vampirism) McGarry asserts that the first victim of cholera presented on 11 August – the same date as Dracula’s first British victim in the novel, the evidence being William Gregory Wood-Martin’s 1882 book ‘The History of Sligo County and Town’. This is not correct. Lucy, Dracula’s first victim, does indeed receive her vampire bite on 11 August. MEanwhile however, back in the real world, the first case of cholera in Sligo was identified on 29 July 1832. Wood-Martin mentions 11 August only because a special board was created on that day, precisely because the first case had happened some time previously. McGarry does admit that 11 August ‘..may have been randomly chosen by Stoker’, yet still lists this piece of ‘evidence’ in her summing up, which is as follows;

‘It cannot be a coincidence that Bram Stoker had Dracula tread a path very similar to cholera; a devastating contagion travelling from the East by ship that people initially do not know how to fight, a great storm preceding its arrival, the ability to travel over land by mist and the stench it emits, avenging doctors and Catholic imagery, the undead rising from the dead, all culminating in the date of august 11th of the first victim.’

Just to take these in order;

  1. ‘It cannot be a coincidence’ It can absolutely be a coincidence. All of this is literally coincidence without any evidence to support it. This is not how history works. 
  2. ‘…a path very similar…’ Dracula comes from Western Europe. Cholera came from the Far East. Both are east of the British Isles, but the origins of the two contagions are hardly identical. The ship aspect I dealt with last time; this is how people and goods travelled across continents at that time. Not to mention that all of these similarities with cholera are similarities with any disease – and most agree that the idea of the vampire as contagion is a legitimate theme of ‘Dracula’ (indeed, historical belief in vampires has strong ties to disease). There’s nothing special about cholera in this respect. The same goes for idea of people not knowing how to fight these afflictions; all disease outbreaks require learning or relearning of ways to combat them. One could just as easily claim similarity in that cholera had been fought off previously, and that Van Helsing already knows how to defeat vampires; just not necessarily this one… 
  3. ‘…the ability to travel over land by mist and the stench it emits…’ earlier in the talk McGarry claims that Stoker invokes miasma theory in ‘Dracula’. In fact he doesn’t. Bad smells abound, sure, but the only mention of miasma in the novel is metaphorical (‘as of some dry miasma’) and relates to the earthy smell of Dracula’s Transylvanian soil, not to the Count himself. Nowhere is smell cited as a means of transmission, only biting. ‘Dracula’, famously, takes a very modern, pseudoscientific approach to vampirism, even if its counter is good old-fashioned Catholic Christianity. Speaking of which…
  4. ‘…avenging doctors and Catholic imagery…’ as noted, ‘Dracula’ does treat vampirism as a disease, so the doctors follow from that; not bearing any specific relation to cholera in Ireland. As for Catholic imagery, well, Stoker was from that background, and Dracula is very overtly Satanic in the novel. You need religion to defeat evil just as you need medicine to defeat disease. Once again, this is coincidence.
  5. ‘…the undead rising from the dead…’ how else does one get the undead? Seriously though, I’ve dealt with this above and previously. Stoker chose to write about vampires, therefore the undead feature. 
  6. ‘…all culminating in the date of August 11th of the first victim.’ Except it doesn’t, as I’ve shown.

I make that a 0/6. The themes identified by McGarry in Stoker’s book stem from his choice of vampires as the subject matter, and his take is shaped by his knowledge, upbringing, etc etc. Was he in part inspired to choose vampires because of family history with cholera? Maybe; it’s plausible as one of many influences (not, as McGarry implies, the main or sole influence) but there is literally zero evidence for it. 

Dead Woman’s Ditch – Only Half Right

The Ditch in question. Note the lack of dead woman.
Stephen McKay/Wikimedia Commons
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dead_Womans_Ditch_(geograph_2880447).jpg

My wonderful wife has just amused me with an interview aired this morning on This Morning conducted Josie from Big Brother, wearing an hilariously rubbish halloween Ghostbusters costume and apparently fending off two ‘ghost hunters’ with a boom microphone. The story is this one, reported in local and national news, despite the fact that it didn’t even ‘happen’ recently and is literally not ‘news’. The couple in question, who I won’t name because it’s wicked to mock the afflicted, host this hilarious Geocities-esque ghost website, complete with ‘The Exorcist’ autoplay WAV file. It’s like a parody of ghosthunting activity, bless them.

All of the reports make it seem that the couple are claming to have actually heard a ‘spirit’ shout at them to ‘fuck off’, but when pressed, they reveal that they ‘heard’ the abuse on their ‘EVP machine’. When asked about obtaining the recording, they claimed to have since lost it, as it was uploaded to their ‘old website’. However, none of the Wayback Machine copies of their site going back to 2005 have any sign of a recording from Dead Woman’s Ditch and has virtually nothing on that ‘case’. 

What *does* appear on their 2005-6 website is a transcript from a *different site*, taken on 28 August 2004 – Walford’s Gibbet on Exmoor, a long way away from Dead Woman’s Ditch and, as the ghost hunters themselves point out, unrelated; the ‘Dead Woman’ in question is not Jane Shorney, wife of John Walford. In fact there *is* no ‘Dead Woman’ – it’s just a traditional local name for a prehistoric earthwork. It’s actually amusing that locals are imputing some ghostly/tragic significance to the site based purely on its colourful name.

The clips from Walford’s Gibbet sadly haven’t been archived, but the transcript is as follows;

Christine: It’s getting a bit muddy here ….  I think I’ll go up here

E.V.P.: F@~k off you bastards.

The F@~k off can be heard clearly you must listen closely to make out the you Ba:~?$%ds

So is this the ‘old website’ recording they meant? If so, it’s from the wrong place. If not, where is the evidence of the Dead Woman’s Ditch version – and why would the ghost behave in exactly the same way at two unrelated sites?

The Bronze Sword in the Stone?

Not the stone you’re looking for… Molds for bronze swords and other items, from the Nordheimer Hohl, Neckargartach, Stadt Heilbronn, c. 800 BC, Lettenhohl sandstone – Landesmuseum Württemberg – Stuttgart, Germany. Wikimedia/Daderot

 

I’ve been catching up on Arthurian legend/history recently, and have twice come across the interesting suggestion that the “sword in the stone” could have originated as an idea from the Bronze Age practice of casting a sword in a stone mould. Interesting, but ridiculous. This idea seems to originate with Francis Pryor, an eminent archaeologist of prehistory (not, in fact, the Migration Period/Dark Ages), who raises it in his ‘Britain A.D.’ series, and again in a Time Team special

 

The biggest issue here is one of time; 1,200 years (minimum) to be precise. The casting of bronze swords ceased around 600 BCE in Europe. Yet the story of the sword in the stone doesn’t appear until Robert de Boron’s poem Merlin, written circa 1190-1210 CE. This is the relevant section, from a later (C15th) Middle English translation;

 

“Some of the peple yede oute of the cherche where ther was a voyde place. And whan they com oute of the cherche, thei sawgh it gan dawe and clere, and saugh before the cherche dore a grete ston foure square, and ne knewe of what ston it was — but some seide it was marble. And above, in the myddill place of this ston, ther stode a styth of iren that was largely half a fote of height. And thourgh this stithi was a swerde ficchid into the ston.

Whan the gode man that sange masse herde this, he toke haly water and caste upon the stith. And the archebisshop lowted to the swerde and sawgh letteres of golde in the stiel. And he redde the letteres that seiden, “Who taketh this swerde out of this ston sholde be kynge by the eleccion of Jhesu Criste.”

 

Before this story there is no prior tradition of swords in stones in folklore or history that would imply any continuity at all between the practice of casting bronze swords and this late 12th/early 13th century story. As the Bronze Age is literally prehistoric, there could be no written tradition of cast bronze or copper swords, and we have no dated examples from the historical era. There is a tangential link to swordmaking insofar as the sword in the poem/story was driven through a blacksmith’s anvil and *then* into a hard stone (a “perron” or mounting block), but anvils (and indeed blacksmithing) have nothing to do with the making of bronze swords. If anything this hurts Pryor’s hypothesis because the sword isn’t just in a stone – it’s in an iron anvil. If de Boron was trying to evoke ancient swordsmithing, why introduce that element?

There is also the point that bronze swords were also cast in sand or clay moulds; it was much easier to press an existing sword into these materials to create a disposable mould than to laboriously chisel the correct shape out of stone. Stone sword moulds (which had the advantage of being reusable) are not common (and of course clay and sand are unlikely to survive), and were used early in the (pre)history of bronze swordmaking (see Wileman, 2014, p.109). So the ‘meme’ of swords emerging from stone moulds is by no means secure, and would have to have to survived even longer than the end of the Bronze Age to the early 12th century. Even if this knowledge had somehow survived (let’s say a mould had been dug up somewhere or found re-used in a wall or something), I also have to question the likelihood of a medieval poet coming across such arcane and ancient knowledge. Stone moulds were used to make metal objects until the 18th century, but never iron or metal swords. At best, for this hypothesis to work we would have to assume that de Boron was inspired to imagine a sword stuck in a stone by the mistaken belief that swords were cast rather than forged, or simply by having seen another metal object being cast. Even then, we have zero evidence of this, and may as well speculate (off the top of my head) that Tony Scott was inspired to direct the film ‘Top Gun’ because he had a toy helicopter as a child. It has a chance of being true, probably isn’t, and adds nothing to our understanding of the story. Pryor’s suggestion might carry more weight if we were talking about an early Welsh folkloric story of Arthur that might reflect some oral tradition, or even the late 1st Century pseudohistories that fleshed out the King Arthur that we know today. But here we know that de Boron came up with the idea in the process of writing a fictional story based upon those prior tales. Perhaps Pryor did not realise that the sword in the stone was part of the French romantic Arthurian tradition and not any kind of traditional British version. Therefore, not only is the idea that a Medieval author somehow possessed knowledge of prehistoric swordmaking implausible, it isn’t even necessary to explain a wholly fictional aspect of the lore.

 

This sort of retrofitting of the evidence is a constant theme in the never-ending quest by many to historicise Arthur (who very likely never existed by the way – a post for another day perhaps). To quote the brilliant Bad Archaeology blog:

 

“It starts with an assumption that there was a Camelot to be found and that there was an Arthur to hold court there, then goes out to find the evidence. Without the later stories of ‘King’ Arthur, there is nothing in the archaeology of these places that would lead us to postulate the existence of such a character. We bring our later preconceptions to bear on the interpretation of the data, which is definitely Bad Archaeology.”

 

In closing, I should point out that there is a much more likely historical inspiration for the medieval sword in the stone. It’s a medieval sword. In a stone. I speak of the sword of Saint Galgano, which actually predates the fictional Arthurian version both as an extant (and genuine) artefact and as an historically attested incident (by which I mean it was known prior to de Boron putting pen to parchment). As this academic article suggests, it’s possible that de Boron heard of this sword and stone and used that as his inspiration. This is still somewhat speculative, but far more likely than Pryor’s bronze sword claim which, as far as I can tell, has never been proposed in a scholarly fashion at all. 

The Mummies of St Michan’s – the ‘Crusader’, the ‘Nun’ and the ‘Thief’…

1 - C19th 1888
The vault in 1888…

2 - C20th
…in the early 20th century…?

3 - 21st
…and in the present day.

 

Myth: the mummies of St Michan’s are a crusader, a thief, and a nun who died aged over 100

Reality: the ‘crusader’ is an anonymous 3-400 year-old Irishman, the thief might have been a murderer but could be neither of those, and there probably was a nun, but we don’t know which body is her – if any!

 

I have been meaning to write something about the mummies of St Michan’s church for years now, and this recent sad tale of head theft is a good reason to do it now, not least because of the disgustingly racist comments that have sprung up about it. Just as I was going to (word)press, the head and one of the loose skulls from the vault had been recovered, although of course the damage to the corpse where it has been torn/cut off is permanent. by the logic of the rabid internet loons, apparently the only possible culprit for the desecration of a ‘crusader’ must be a Muslim immigrant or a ‘liberal’. The BBC article does a decent job of relating the break-in and desecration of the corpse, but makes no mention of the important fact that the ‘Crusader’ is definitely not one. A crusader I mean. It’s definitely a corpse. The crypt at St Michan’s has been home to unusually well-preserved (naturally mummified) corpses for some time, with particular attention in modern times to three mummies, dubbed ‘the thief’ (the very tall body in the middle, whose right hand and both feet are missing), ‘the nun’ (currently said to be the left of the three in the middle of the vault) and yes, ‘the crusader’ (arranged transversely behind her, against the wall). Don’t ask me why the other exposed mummy on the right doesn’t have a special identity. There’s a weird tradition that visitors should touch the hand of the ‘crusader’ for good luck. I don’t believe in superstition, but I touched him anyway. After all, how often do you get actively encouraged to touch dead people?

 

Peter Somerville-Large pegged the ‘crusader’ as a ‘seventeenth century Dubliner’ in ‘Dublin, the Fair City’ (1996) and I am convinced that he was right. The bodies in the vault are at most 400 years old, but after only a century or so, local people thought that they must be much older. Sir Arthur Vicars had this figured this out 1888 in his ‘An account of the antiseptic vaults beneath S. Michan’s Church, Dublin, : read at the annual meeting of the Royal Archaeological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, at Leamington’ (1888, p.79-82):

 

‘This chamber contains altogether ten coffins, two on the left, four on the right, and four in the centre without lids. The centre one contains the body of a lady brought here about the year 1790. All these have once been covered with black velvet, some of which still hangs on the sides in strips. It is a popularly received idea that these bodies are several hundred years old, and people go even so far as to say that the body of a man with his legs crossed in the coffin nearest the wall is a crusader. The absurdity of this wild notion is obvious when we look at the coffins, which we have reasons for thinking are the original ones in which the bodies were first placed. They are of the ordinary shape of the present day, of which I believe I am correct in stating one of the earliest examples known is that of Lancelot, Bishop of Winchester, buried in 1626 in S. Saviour’s, Southwark, whose coffin was discovered in 1830 (Gent’s Mag., Aug., 1830, p. 171). Everyone knows now that the cross-legged crusader theory is long since exploded. There is not much to guide one in guessing the date of the coffins in S. Michan’s, but I should scarcely think that there are any prior in date to about the end of the seventeenth century, if indeed so early ; the greater number are much later than that. We were informed by the sexton that in another of the vaults, some years ago, he saw ” E. Rook, 1690,” marked in nails on the lid of a coffin of a child. The lock of this vault being out of order we were unable to visit it, though I have since had this statement corroborated by another ; but whether or not my informants mistook the 1790 for 1690 will, however, never be ascertained, for the coffin in question has since fallen to pieces. I don’t remember, however, having seen any dates on my previous visits. At all events, whatever their dates may be, the coffins must certainly have been here many years, and quite long enough to set people wondering how it is that time and the usual process of decay seem to have had no effect on them.’

 

Note that the ‘nun’ was, in 1888, claimed as the ‘middle’ corpse, not the one on the left. This must surely be a mistake, because the middle mummy is very clearly extremely tall and physically robust – one of two men out of the four mummies. The present building is no older than perhaps 1750, but the church itself is older. It was founded in 1095, making the crusader story plausible on the face of it, but only assuming that there were older vaults of some kind there previously such that the body could have been disinterred and reinterred in the new vaults. Which seems unlikely. Irish author Leon Ó Broin in his ‘Miss Crookshank agus Coirp Eile’ (1951) came to the conclusion that St Michan’s crypt was first opened in 1686, and that the oldest of the three corpses dated from 1780. My research suggests that interments actually started from 1641 onwards. ‘A story of Dublin: the people and events that shaped the city’ (John McCormack, 2000) mentions the repair and re-use of the vaults below the church circa the arrival of Thomas Wentworth in 1633. The earliest written accounts (there is another, also from 1822, in the New Monthly Magazine) make no mention of a ‘crusader’ or knight, so it seems that particular legend emerged at some point between 1822 and 1888:

 

‘Among these remnants of humanity, for instance, there is the body of a pious gentlewoman, who, while she continued above ground, shunned the eyes of men in the recesses of a convent. But the veil of death has not been respected. She stands the very first on the sexton’s list of posthumous rarities, and one of the most valuable appendages of his office. She is his buried treasure. Her sapless cheeks yield him a larger rent than some acres of arable land ; and what is worse, now that she cannot repel the imputation, he calls her to her face ” the Old Nun.” In point of fact, I understood that her age was one hundred and eleven, not

including the forty years that have elapsed since her second burial in St. Michan’s. Death, as has been often observed, is a thorough Radical, and levels all distinctions. It is so in this place. Beside the Nun there sleeps, not a venerable abbess, or timid novice, or meek and holy friar, but an athletic young felon of the 17th century, who had shed a brother’s, blood, and was sentenced for the offence to the close custody of St. Michan’s vaults. This was about one hundred and thirty years ago. The offender belonged to a family of some consideration, which accounts for his being found in such respectable society.

 

-(‘The Vaults of St. Michan’s’ in The New Monthly Magazine and Literary Journal Vol.5, p.395)

 

This account matches up very well date-wise; the oldest of the displayed bodies (whether or not the ‘felon’ is one of those still displayed) being from c.1710. If we assume that the ‘nun’ was correctly identified as either the left or right hand female body in 1822, this raises the fascinating possibility that the ‘thief’ in the middle may indeed be a criminal; but a murderer, not a thief. In any event, this story was apparently forgotten by 1888, and it’s perhaps less credible that this knowledge would have persisted after 130 years. Still, there’s potential for some consistency around the story here, if indeed the 1888 account is in error – it does seem to be at odds in this respect. The other accounts can be reconciled as the crusader being the one at the back, the criminal in the middle, and the nun next to him (most likely his left). Also mentioned in 1822 are the bodies of John and Henry Sheares, executed for their part in the 1798 Rising (only 16 years earlier than this source). These two were still being shown to visitors in 1888 and, I believe, until shortly before I visited in 2009. They now reside in a different vault, having been moved to the vault nearest the entrance in the 1850s.

 

The only constant in all of the accounts is the ‘nun’, the titular ‘Miss Crookshanks’ of Ó Broin’s book. Note that I haven’t actually been able to read this, because it’s in Irish, but from comments elsewhere and judiciously translated Google Books snippets, it seems that Ó Broin did in fact debunk the existence of a nun or any woman of this name. But let’s give the benefit of the doubt and see what else we can say. One might think that this woman having been interred only 40 years before the anonymous 1822 account above, that we could be sure of her identification as a 111-year-old nun called Crookshank. Wright (1825) reinforces this;

 

‘In one vault is shown the remains of a nun, who died at the advanced age of 111 : the body has now been 30 years in this mansion of death, and although there is scarcely a remnant of the coffin, is as completely preserved, with the exception of the hair, as if it had been embalmed. In the same vault are to be seen the bodies of two Roman Catholic clergymen, which have been 50 years deposited here, even more perfect than the nun.’

-’An historical guide to the city of Dublin’ by George Newenham Wright (p.62).

 

This puts the nun/Crookshank’s approximate year of death at 1795. As to the clergymen mentioned, I have no idea whether any of the remains in the current vault might be these men, or even if that ID was correct at the time. Richard Robert Madden’s 1842 account of Miss Crookshank suggests a much older corpse, relocated twice; first from her own tomb (presumably also within the specially preservative vaults, or perhaps another sepulchre on site?) and then in what was then recent times to a different vault (possibly the current one) – shortly before Wright saw her:

 

‘One of these bodies, “whose antiquity is of an ancient date,” for the tenants of European sepulchres, is still existing in the same vault in which the Sheares’ remains are interred : the remains are those of a person, in former time renowned for her piety — a member of a religious community — of the name of Crookshank. Some sixty or seventy years ago, the wonder-working effects produced by this good lady’s remains, used to bring vast numbers of visitants to her tomb — till the spirit of whiskey unfortunately mingled a little too much with the spirit of veneration for the virtues of the nun, and the rudiments of a fine ” pattern” were spoiled by the intervention of the authorities. Poor Miss Crookshank’s relics, from that period till about the year 1816, when I first saw them, were visited only by curious boys and scientific gentlemen. In the month of February in the present year, after a lapse of twenty-six years, I found the remains of the nun removed from the place where they were originally deposited, as likewise those of John and Henry Sheares, and deposited in what is called the parish vault. Up to the time of the removal, which took place some five or six years ago, the remains continued, I was informed, in the same perfect state in which they have been long known to exist. But the exposure to the air, consequent to the removal of her remains, and those of the Sheares on the same occasion, had proved injurious to them, and to the latter especially.’

 

That’s a lot of potential for misidentification. I do think that this veneration of the unusually well-preserved nun is interesting in light of the present-day traditional of touching the finger of the ‘crusader’. I’m not aware of this kind of veneration of a corpse that wasn’t some sort of saint, priest, or nun, so I do wonder if the practice has been transferred over the years from one corpse to another. Possibly more than once, even. It’s possible that the age of the corpse before relocation got confused with its age at death. An ‘old mummy’ isn’t necessarily old in lifespan terms.

 

In any case, the broken jumbled corpse currently identified with the ‘nun’ was examined for the TV show ‘Mummy Roadshow’ in 200 (aired 2003) and shown to have been a female no older than 60 years old when she died, and not the over 100 years of age that both 19th century written sources and modern oral tradition hold. The findings are detailed in the book ‘Mummy Dearest’ (2005) by the same guys (Ron Beckett and Jerry Conlogue). Their theory as to why the ‘nun’ was thought to be so old is interesting, but I found it surprising that within a single generation, local people could have forgotten that this woman was actually half that age when she died. Beckett and Conlogue’s findings on the ‘nun’ were as follows;

 

‘She had a multitude of bumps on her arm, which sort of gave her the appearance of great age. We were not sure how her legend originated, but from what I saw inside her skull, she was not close to 122 years old. In fact, from the sutures in the skull plates, she appeared to be no older than sixty, and perhaps as young as her thirties. As for being a nun— we weren’t able to determine this. The bumps turned out to be very interesting. When we took a closer look, we noticed the nun had two elbows on her left arm, which suggested this was a mix-n-match mummy. We asked our friend, pathologist Larry Cartmell, about the bumps, and he thought they could be calcium deposits, probably a result of chronic kidney failure. He also added that the arm did not belong to the nun, because its owner would have had these awful bumps all over his or her body. You could see how this condition would have made someone believe this was an incredibly old woman, but the evidence pointed to someone much younger.’

 

Now, here I note that the fourth mummy, the one with no traditional backstory, turned out to also be female. The book states that they weren’t able to say any more about this one, and given that in 1888, this corpse was the nun/Miss Crookshank, I’m not sure how significant this conclusion actually is. We only know the relative positions of these three bodies, so there’s a reasonable chance that this is actually ‘her’. Interestingly, looking at the photos from 1888, recent times, and sometime in between (early 20th century I think – the poses are very similar and there is still some velvet hanging from the right hand coffin) you can see that the jumbled body on the left has been extensively messed with (broken up, in fact) and its coffin replaced between the first and second photos (and then rearranged between the second and third). This might support the idea that this body was a ‘supporting cast member’ of sorts and not the precious ‘nun’, who looks virtually identical and intact in all three images. Contradicting this however is the 1842 account suggesting that the nun was moved (not so much that she had deteriorated, as it’s fair to say that any of these may well have seen better days by 1822). The female on the right does not look as though she’s moved since her coffin broke apart – but perhaps that began when she was moved to this position, which could have been from elsewhere within this vault, or, if she was ever the ‘nun’, from the other vault mentioned. The fact is that we just don’t know which, if either of these, might originally have been the real-life Miss Crookshank, or if she even existed.

 

‘Mummy Dearest’ continues on the subject of the ‘thief’:

‘As for his hand, it was definitely severed cleanly, which indicated that he probably lost it after he died. We didn’t think this was done as punishment, which was the story that had long been circulating about this person.’

 

Note that Vicars in 1888 thought this, the middle of the three then and now, was a female corpse, but also believed it to be a post-mortem injury.

 

‘Given that his feet were sawed off so that he could fit in the coffin, it is just as likely that his hand was removed and sold to a medical student.

 

Finally, on the ‘crusader’:

‘Because he was a large individual, we surmised he simply did not fit into the one-size-fits-all coffins of the middle ages [sic]. It was not uncommon back then for a body to be crammed into a coffin too small for it. What we did not expect to find was that the feet and legs were much smaller, proportionally, when compared to his hands. As we looked closer, we also found that he had an extra pair of knees (and no, he didn’t have four legs). When Jerry’s X-ray showed two spines, it was clear that we were dealing with two corpses here – or at least one corpse on top of another partial one. Of course, there was one big question we couldn’t help but ask: Was he (or they) really a crusader? When crusaders returned from the Middle East and died, their legs were crossed when they were buried. This mummies’ legs were crossed, which was probably how the story originated. But we noticed that his pelvis had split apart at some point, and whoever had put the pieces back together had crossed the legs. This did not preclude him from being a crusader, but it didn’t prove anything, either. The definitive answer came courtesy of a fabric sample I found in his chest cavity. I was able to remove it with the endoscope, and then sent it to be carbon-dated, along with a sample of lung tissue. The numbers that came back said he had lived two hundred years after the crusades.

 

Frankly, I find even this unlikely. Even a date of c.1565 (assuming we call the Sack of Alexandria the latest of the crusades) would be far older than any of the other evidence would support, and would pre-date the present vaults themselves by at least a century. I suspect that the actual C14 dates were older, given that the authors talk about ‘the middle ages’ (a fellow blogger suggests 1364, but this would be less than 100 years after the last proper crusade). Of course this body could have been reburied and might in fact be older, although I think it unlikely. In any case, the only available scientific dating definitely didn’t give a date consistent with the crusades.

 

The St Michan’s section of the book (I recommend getting hold of it for the many other mummy stories included) closes with the musing ‘I wonder if St. Michan’s would have let us investigate the mummies had they known the the outcome of our study.’ The authors suggest that the custodians of the vaults, relying on the income that it generates, would not change their story, but the leaflet I have from 2009 is very upfront about the age of the vaults and the reality of the crusader (‘…in reality he never lived to see the Crusades!’). Worryingly though, interviews with the clergy following the recent theft show no sign of this sceptical attitude. This enlightenment period Dubliner is back to being misidentified as an ‘800-year old crusader’.

 

I should note that not everyone shares my scepticism. The article ‘Bodies preserved from the days of the Crusades in St Micham’s Church, Dublin’ (L M McKinley. J Pathol May 1977 (Vol. 122, Issue 1, Pages 27-8). This focuses only on the remarkable preservation in evidence (the author’s area of expertise and interest), not on the age or history of the bodies. Oh, and the author couldn’t spell ‘Michan’. Suffice to say that he didn’t carry out his due diligence on this one.

 

In passing/closing, I should note that the recent theft is not the first time that a head has been stolen from the vaults. Vicars relates the story ‘many years ago’ (from his 1888 perspective) of the head of John Sheares was stolen ‘for a wager’ but was recovered and replaced. Sadly, I doubt that the same is true this time, but I also find the suggestion that it must be muslims/immigrants/liberals rather unlikely and the outrage misplaced. This poor dead person may not have been a ‘crusader’, but he was a human being deserving of some respect and dignity (and that’s coming from someone who has no real problem with the managed display or even the ritualised touching of the corpse).

Spanish Civil War Bollocks

No, not this Spanish Civil War bollocks. Although this is very likely also bollocks…

 

I recently came across an odd claim in the comments section for a YouTube video (yes, yes, I know) on the subject of the Second World War. Having investigated, the commenter was referring to this story as reported in a 2012 thesis entitled ‘Desertion, Control and Collective Action in Civil Wars’ (p.165-6);

 

When asked to explain to an American journalist how he had blown up a tank, another militiaman replied, “echando cojones al asunto”—applying courage (literally testicles) to the matter, according to the Left Republican leader Régulo Martínez who set up their interview. Martínez relates, “A week later, I was shown a copy of an American paper in which I read that Madrid militiamen had invented a new anti-tank device called ‘echando cojones al asunto.’”

 

The furthest back that I could trace this was a 1979 oral history book by Ronald Fraser, which relates the story in the original Spanish (i.e….un periódico americano en el que se decía que los milicianos de Madrid habían inventado un nuevo dispositivo antitanques llamado “echando cojones al asunto”…).

 

So this may well be a period claim and not something concocted later, although oral history is often unreliable due to the passage of time. However, as the claim relates to an actual US print newspaper, if it’s true then we should be able to locate something in online newspaper archives. Disappointingly (I did rather want this one to be true!) yet unsurprisingly, none of the available archives yielded any result. In fact I couldn’t find a single English language reference. When you think about it though, the very claim itself strains credulity. Why would a foreign journalist who did not speak Spanish simply repeat a phrase in that language for his readers without asking what it meant? Anyone with even a passing familiarity with Spanish knows what ‘cojones’ means, and the US was at that time not without its connections to Spain and the Spanish language. It’s also a rather convenient meme/informal propaganda piece that says to fellow Spaniards that ‘the outside world knows nothing of our troubles and isn’t helping’. Bottom line – there’s no evidence for this one and it’s likely to be a piece of Spanish wartime lore. Shame really!

On Silver Bullets, Werewolves, and Gévaudan

This reminds me, I must re-watch ‘Brotherhood of the Wolf’…

One of my YouTube subscriptions is Trey the Explainer, who does good stuff on history, natural history, evolution, and cryptid creatures, among other things. His latest Cryptid Profile is especially relevant to my interests, because it covers the ‘Beast of Gévaudan’, and I have by coincidence just finished helping with a forthcoming documentary about La Bête. I fully support his conclusion that this was a classic cryptid/social panic case, with anything and everything being identified/misidentified as the beast in question. It was very likely several wolves and/or wolf-dogs, possibly a hyena, possibly a lion or other escaped big cat, and possibly even all of the above. I won’t even rule out the suggestion of a human murderer or two in the mix somewhere. What it wasn’t was a single creature with a supernaturally hard or charmed hide. However, Trey gets a few facts wrong about werewolf and silver bullet mythology. Firstly, there’s no evidence that any of the creatures killed and recovered were actually dispatched with a silver bullet, and some good evidence that they weren’t (such as not being mentioned at all in period sources, notably an autopsy report). Suspected ‘Beasts’ WERE shot at with silver bullets but importantly, they apparently did not work. A Madame de Franquieres wrote to her daughter-in-law on the Beast:

 

‘The express sent to Aurillac relates that M. de Fontanges has had many encounters with the ferocious beast, of which you have no doubt heard, that traverses the Gevaudan. He has passed places where she often goes; he was forced to stay three days in the snow for fear of meeting her. She crosses, without wetting her feet, a river thirty-six feet wide. He claims that she can cover seven leagues in an hour. The peasants do not dare to go out into the country unless in groups of seven or eight. We can not find anyone to herd the sheep. She does not eat animals, only human flesh; men she eats the head and stomach, and women over the breasts. When she is hungry, she eats it all. We tried to shoot him with bullets of iron, lead, silver. Nothing can penetrate. We must hope that in the end we will overcome it.’

-M.”° de Franquières à M.”° de Bressac, Grenoble, 14 March 1765 – see the French original here (p.138).

 

This is supported by another source from 1862 (see here): that reports the use of ‘almost point blank’ folded silver coins, also to no apparent avail. Of course it’s possible that some poor wolf did slink away and die, but either wasn’t the Beast or wasn’t the only ‘Beast’ abroad at that time.

Trey is also under the impression that this incident is the source of the belief that silver bullets can kill werewolves. This is true insofar as there are no written accounts of silver bullet use against canids until Gévaudan, despite modern claims that the silver bullet aspect was only introduced in more modern times or even in fictionalised accounts. The source above proves otherwise. The story certainly helped to spread the idea and perpetuate it into the era of mass literacy and supernatural fiction. However, the idea that this is ground zero for silver bullets versus werewolves is untrue in the sense that the belief applied by no means just to werewolves, but rather to a range of supernatural or charmed targets (although as I’ve previously noted, not vampires until 1928). As such, it predates Gévaudan, meaning that there is in fact no source for the slaying of werewolves with silver bullets. For as long as silver bullets were ‘a thing’, they would have been seen as effective against werewolves or wolf-like supernatural beasts. I should note here that nowhere in the historical literature is the Beast of Gévaudan claimed to have been a loup-garou or werewolf. There are no accounts of it shifting shape, no accusations made of any people suspected to be the Beast. However, historians have noted in period reports werewolf traits such as a foul stench, unusually long claws and teeth, ‘haunting’, ‘sparkling’ or glowing eyes, and an erect posture (see Jay Smith’s ‘Monsters of the Gévaudan: The Making of a Beast’, p.21).

So where does the silver bullet myth come from? The oldest references that I’ve found are in Scots and American poems (1801 and 1806 respectively), and relate to yet another class of supernatural being, albeit one with close ties to the werewolf; that of the witch. The very earliest is the 1801 Scots poem ‘A Hunt’ by James Thomson:

 

‘Quoth he, “I doubt there’s something in’t, Ye’re no’ a hare.

Then in he pat a silver crucky [sixpence],

And says, “Have at ye now, auld lucky ;

Although ye were the de’il’s ain chucky,

Or yet himsell, If it but touch of you a nucky,

It will you fell.”’

 

The sacred cross on the face of the penny was significant. Other accounts mention that the projectile has actively been blessed. A Swedish story from the Gösta Berlings Saga mentions bullets cast from a church bell. But the silver itself seems to have had a divine and magical significance, one that stretches back to ancient times (notably the Delphic Oracle, see this fantastic collection of references). In the German folk tale ‘The Two Brothers’ for example, the witch is shot at with three ordinary silver buttons.

My next source, ‘The Country Lovers‘ (published by Thomas Green Fessenden in 1804) comes from the United States:

 

‘And how a witch, in shape of owl,

Did steal her neighbour’s geese, sir,

And turkies too, and other fowl,

When people did not please her.

Yankee doodle, &c.

And how a man, one dismal night,

Shot her, with silver bullet,*

And then she flew straight out of sight,

As fast as she could pull it.

Yankee doodle, &c.

How Widow Wunks was sick next day,

The parson went to view her, And saw the very place, they say,

Where foresaid ball went through her !

Yankee doodle, Sec.

*There is a tale among the ghost-hunters, in New England, that silver bullets will be fatal to witches, when those of lead would not avail.

 

More Germanic folklore, recorded in 1852 (Benjamin Thorpe’s Northern Folklore, Vol.III, p.27), related that a witch, if shot with silver, would receive a wound that would not heal, and would have to resume its human form. Witches were commonly thought to shapeshift into animal form, hence the overlap with the werewolf. The ‘Witch of Schleswig’ was also known as ‘The Werewolf of Husby’,

Beyond witches, silver bullets might help against other entities. One story includes a shot used against the magic itself rather than the offending creature’s body; in this case a group of fairies;

 

‘In a Norse tale, a man whose bride is about to be carried off by Huldre-folk, rescues her by shooting over her head a pistol loaded with a silver bullet. This has the effect of dissolving the witchery; and he is forthwith enabled to seize her and gallop off, not unpursued.’

 

Frank C. Brown recorded (from North Carolina) a variety of uses of silver (bullet and otherwise) against black magic of all sorts. Ghosts are also associated with silver bullets, as in Washington Irving’s ‘Tales of a Traveller’, Vol.2 (1825), which references a (fictional) pirate ghost. Collections/indices of American folklore also reference ghosts as well as witches (e.g. ‘Kentucky Superstitions’ (1920).

However, the very oldest written accounts were made in reference to ordinary human beings that have been protected (or have protected themselves) by magical charms. These were known as ‘hardmen’, and were typically powerful or noteworthy men with a literal aura about them. One such was John Graham of Claverhouse, Viscount Dundee, who led the Jacobites at the Battle of Killiecrankie in 1689. As Sir Walter Scott wrote in ‘Tales of My Landlord’ (1816, p.69):

 

‘Many a whig that day loaded his musket with a dollar cut into slugs, in order that a silver bullet (such was their belief) might bring down the persecutor of the holy kirk, on whom lead had no power.’

 

The same went for 17th/18th century Bulgarian rebel leader ‘Delyo’, and ‘…an Austrian governor of Greifswald, on whom the Swedes had fired more than twenty balls, could only be shot by the inherited silver button that a soldier carried in his pocket’ (see here). The oldest of all pertains to an alleged 1678 attempt upon the life of English King Charles II.

My point is really that the whole silver bullet myth is misunderstood today. It’s not like the wooden stake that’s specific to vampires or, for that matter, wolfsbane for wolves, conkers for spiders (yes, that’s a genuine belief too). The silver bullet is not specific to werewolves, vampires, or any other target. It is really an apotropaic – it works against magic itself, whether negating the charm of protection around a corporeal enemy, dispelling a ghostly apparition, or breaking fairy magic to free a captive. It’s the ultimate in supernatural self-defence, but it’s only a footnote in the story of the Beast of Gévaudan. It neither originated with the Beast, nor killed it.