Archive for the ‘Plausible’ 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.

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

January 8, 2017

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

 

On page five we read the conclusion that:

 

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

 

And on page eighteen;

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

 

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

 

‘Interviews Conducted on Noise of the Rifle

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

[Question Men Reporting, No.]

Helpful to the enemy 85

Helpful to know when to reload, therefore retain 187

Of no importance 43

—-

315

 

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

 

In defence of their findings, the researchers commented thusly;

 

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

Conscience Bullets – Firing Squads and the use of blank cartridges

June 26, 2016

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

UK:

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

As Wikipedia puts it;

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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.

 

English Muffins Are English, Damn Your Eyes!

October 21, 2015

Oi, America! The Muffin Man would like a word…

As an Englishman and avid consumer of bread related products, I was shocked to my very core recently to read that ‘English’ muffins were actually invented in the US only 100 years ago! The author of the article (published last year) claims that they were derived from the equally delectable British crumpet goes so far as to say that ‘Until the 1980s, our English muffins were virtually unknown in Great Britain’. As a child of the 1980s myself, I couldn’t personally contradict this, though without sending panicked messages to friends and relatives, I felt sure that they would remember them going further back.

The thing is, having tried the utterly delicious Thomas’ English Muffins on trips to the US, I could almost believe this. They are far, far nicer than even the best of our own, crispy yet chewy, with a strong taste and full of lovely holes. Could it be true, I thought? Could the ‘English’ muffin, like the ‘Scotch’ egg, actually be a foreign interloper? After I’d re-evaluated my very existence, I had a thought. Hang on, I said to myself, why would anyone market a product as ‘English’ to (among others) other British immigrants if it didn’t previously exist? What about ‘The Muffin Man’, a folk song dating to at least 1820? Was it really about American-style muffins? I set to work on my usual first recourse, Google Books, and discovered that there were plenty of references that pre-date Thomas’s efforts to both ‘crumpets’ and ‘muffins’ (notably, one of Dickens’ books). Despite the article’s claims, they were clearly different things, quite far back into the 19th century. Ironically, I couldn’t find mention of the crumpet before about 1800, so if anything, the crumpet and pikelet might actually be derivatives of the muffin (which might explain why we no longer have holes in our muffins – see below).

Digging a bit deeper, I found actual period muffin recipes dating back to the 18th century, the earliest being ‘The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy’ by Hannah Glasse (or, “A Lady” as she appears on the frontispiece!), first published in 1747. This makes very clear that the same basic bread product was being made well over a century before Thomas set foot in the US, and quite possibly before that. The oldest recipe even mentions that they should be ‘like honey-comb’ inside, just like Thomas’. There were a couple of references that described muffins as being a form of oatcake, but it’s obvious that many muffins were made with wheatflour, and the title of the 1750s recipe shows that the type of flour was interchangeable.

Having effectively debunked the offending article, this was a bittersweet moment, because without exception, present-day British English muffins DO NOT have ‘nooks and crannies’. Our crumpets have stolen them all. Which is, frankly, a national disaster. Our English muffins are good America, but yours are even better. It was at this point that I discovered that someone had already written up the history of the English muffin. I couldn’t find a transcript of John Thorne’s self-published pamphlet, but I did find this article, which outlines the contents (and provides a recipe, happily).

Why would the article claim that you couldn’t buy muffins prior to the 1980s in the UK? Either they’re plain wrong, or *supermarkets* weren’t selling them until then. If so, it’s meaningless, because until the 1980s supermarkets were nowhere near as dominant as they are today, and local bakers as well as home cooks would have been making their own muffins. They were a staple snack food that transcended class, being a high-calorie working class convenience food sold in the street that became a dainty teatime treat for the well-to-do.

So the English muffin really was an ENGLISH muffin by 1880 when Thomas started his bakery. By this time the muffin in the Americas had evolved into an oven-baked cake (just as ‘biscuits’ had). So the ‘English’ prefix was added to differentiate the parallel product of the same name.

 

None of which changes the uncomfortable fact that American English muffins are by far the best!

[Edited to add – a photo of Thomas’ own bakery cart on their website – http://www.thomasbreads.com/about-us – and backed up by period trade directories, shows that Thomas advertised both ‘English Muffins’ and ‘London Crumpets’ as separate products. Clearly New Yorkers were not swayed by a bit of crumpet…]

Not Quite the Whole Nine Yards

August 14, 2015

An interesting mini update on the old ‘Whole Nine Yards’ chestnut, from this post on firearms site ‘Forgotten Weapons’. The question of the possible machine gun origin for the phrase is raised in the embedded video, and then, in the comments, we find this:

 

“The 350-round belt of 0.50in used in the inboard guns on each side of the M2 .50 gun system of the P-51 Mustang and P-47 Thunderbolt (four guns on the six-gun P-51, six guns on the 8-gun P-47), was exactly 27 feet, or 9 yards, in length when fully assembled.

The 240-round belt used on the outboard guns on each side was 18 feet 6 inches long altogether. But “the whole six and a half yards” doesn’t sound nearly as emphatic.

😉

To figure it for yourself, treat each round of ammunition in its link as being .915 inch in width. A calculator helps.”

 

I had previously said that no such machine gun belt existed, and therefore this origin, despite being the most commonly accepted one, was nonsense. I’m still sort of right on the first point, and entirely right on the second (unfortunately – I’d love this one to be true!).

 

The first problem is that by this chap’s own calculations, this particular ammunition belt is just shy of nine yards – 8.89583 yards to be precise. This might sound like nitpicking, and frankly, it is. If this really were the origin of the phrase, I doubt anyone would care if it was slightly shorter or longer than the exact nine yards, and linked ammunition being flexible, there would be a fair amount of ‘slack’ that could vary the precise length quite considerably (which is I suspect why this myth refuses to die – you can’t actually disprove it by measurement alone, and most people don’t have a spare full belt of .50 BMG lying around…). But hey, I ran the numbers as he suggested, and it isn’t quite ‘the whole nine yards’ to start with.

 

There’s a bigger logical problem with the claim, one that has always dogged it in fact. That is, all of the aircraft claimed were fitted with more than one belt of ammunition, and it wasn’t possible to fire only one gun at a time. So you could never ‘give him the whole nine yards’ unless you experienced a malfunction of all of your other guns. Sure, the phrase could have stuck despite this, but it just doesn’t ring true.

 

Much more importantly than either of these minor gripes is that we already know that the phrase pre-dates the existence of aircraft machine guns by several years. The first machine gun was fired from an aircraft in 1912, whereas the first known incarnation of our phrase (in the form ‘full nine yards’) dates back to 1907.

 

So I’m afraid that, as much as I like the idea, this nine yard long machine gun belt is just a coincidence. It’s possible that Second World War air and ground-crew might have used it to refer to these belts, but there’s no actual written evidence for this, and above all, it cannot be the actual origin of the phrase.
As far as I’m concerned, we have a provisional origin for this phrase, and it’s baseball. If we’re to confirm or refine this conclusion further, we need to look back in time from 1907, not forward.

Buildings burn, people die, but real love is forever…

July 11, 2015
Brandon Bruce Lee, 1965 - 1993

Brandon Bruce Lee, 1965 – 1993

Dear Conspiracy Theorists,

Brandon Lee was killed by a bullet accidentally lodged in the barrel of a revolver that was subsequently propelled from the barrel by a blank cartridge.

Informal testing by a UK forensic provider (supporting the original professional and exhaustive efforts by the Wilmington Police Department) shows that, more often than not;

  1. Even a primer, without a propellant charge, is enough to lodge a bullet in the barrel.
  2. A blank charge equivalent to a ‘full charge’ movie blank will successfully propel that bullet from the barrel with lethal velocity.

Yours,

BS Historian

 

OK, that’s the short version for the casually interested and the hard-of-thinking. Here’s the full story. A few months ago I took part, along with a forensic scientist colleague, in tests and interviews for a documentary series on the subject of conspiracy theories. This aired last night in the UK as part of episode 5 of Channel 5’s series ‘Conspiracy’.

The subject was the tragic death of Brandon Lee, killed by a shot from a Smith & Wesson 44 Magnum revolver* on 31 March, 1993. I was, and remain, a very big fan of The Crow, and by extension of Lee, who made the role his own with tremendous presence, emotion, aggression, and physical ability. I have as much reason as anyone therefore to cry ‘coverup’. If I felt that the star of perhaps my favourite film had been murdered or negligently killed, I would be, as they say ‘all over it’. But in reality, I am convinced, as a firearms specialist, and knowing the impact that this incident had on best practice in the movie industry, that Lee’s death was a somewhat improbable accident that seems less improbable the more you learn about it.

I took part on the understanding that the programme would not be endorsing the conspiracy theories themselves. Channel 5 did us proud. The format of the series does allow the theorists roughly equal airtime, allowing the viewer to come to their own conclusions. As ever, that means conspiracy fans can come away with their ideas intact, or even enhanced by new nonsense, and sceptics will spot the BS right away. Whether members of the casual audience might end up falling for a given conspiracy theory, I can’t say, and it’s the risk of taking part in this sort of television. I felt, however, that it was important to get the ‘official story’ out there, as the subject I’d been asked about is one for which the ‘signal to noise ratio’ is pretty skewed in favour of at least a cover-up, if not outright conspiracy. And in the case of the Brandon Lee segment, I think it would be hard for any rational viewer to come away believing the Triad conspiracy.

Unlike most of the other participants, we were up against some conspiracist who chose to remain anonymous due to fears of reprisals by the Triads that he believes killed both Bruce and Brandon Lee. No evidence was offered for this at all, save that Bruce Lee was Chinese and allegedly refused to pay protection (or whatever) to the Triads – and that Brandon was his son. That was it. Quite who this shadowy figure was, I have no idea.

The actual conspiracy claims vary (as these things usually do). The most lurid involve either a supernatural curse (!) or planned murder by organised crime. The more plausible accuse the production crew of having accidentally used a weapon loaded with real, live ammunition, which would imply very direct negligence traceable to an individual crewmember (which is not what the investigations into the incident found). The official story also varies, but the core ingredients are always a sequence of mistakes by which a bullet is lodged in the revolver’s barrel, and a blank then fires it into Lee’s body. I would like to establish the definitive version of the story, but first, here’s the ‘received’ version, from Wikipedia;

 

‘In the scene in which Lee was accidentally shot, Lee’s character walks into his apartment and discovers his fiancée being beaten and raped by thugs. Actor Michael Massee’s character fires a .44 Magnum revolver at Lee as he walks into the room. A previous scene using the same gun had called for inert dummy cartridges fitted with bullets (but no powder or percussion primer) to be loaded in the revolver for a close-up scene; for film scenes which utilize a revolver (where the bullets are visible from the front) and do not require the gun to actually be fired, dummy cartridges provide the realistic appearance of actual rounds. Instead of purchasing commercial dummy cartridges, the film’s prop crew created their own by pulling the bullets from live rounds, dumping the powder charge then reinserting the bullets. However, they unknowingly or unintentionally left the live percussion primer in place at the rear of the cartridge. At some point during filming the revolver was apparently discharged with one of these improperly-deactivated cartridges in the chamber, setting off the primer with enough force to drive the bullet partway into the barrel, where it became stuck (a condition known as a squib load). The prop crew either failed to notice this or failed to recognize the significance of this issue.

 

In the fatal scene, which called for the revolver to be actually fired at Lee from a distance of 3.6 – 4.5 meters (12–15 feet), the dummy cartridges were exchanged with blank rounds, which feature a live powder charge and primer, but no bullet, thus allowing the gun to be fired without the risk of an actual projectile. But since the bullet from the dummy round was already trapped in the barrel, this caused the .44 Magnum bullet to be fired out of the barrel with virtually the same force as if the gun had been loaded with a live round, and it struck Lee in the abdomen, mortally wounding him.’

 

To summarise, we have;

 

  1. Dummy cartridges made from live by second unit, one round left with primer unfired.
  2. This round fired in gun, pushing bullet into the barrel (a ‘squib load’)
  3. Revolver not properly cleared/cleaned, stored for two weeks.
  4. Same weapon provided to first unit for the Eric Draven death scene.
  5. Blank cartridge (full load) fired behind the lodged bullet, propelling it with lethal force.

 

In fact, the only book to be published on the making of the movie, written by journalist Bridget Baiss, tells a slightly different story, one that is supported by the only other TV treatment of the case, ‘Unsolved Mysteries’ (series eight, episode 1, broadcast 20 Oct 1995 – see YouTube). This short segment features interviews with the Wilmington Police Department detectives who actually investigated the shooting. Note that the narration implies that only a primer remained, but if you pay attention only to what the detectives say, it matches Baiss’s account exactly. This shouldn’t be a surprise, as Baiss also interviewed both men. All other versions are hearsay.

 

This account actually complicates the sequence of events slightly, and in that respect might be something of a gift to those predisposed to CT. But it’s the actual official story, so I present it here. It follows essentially the same sequence, the crucial difference being in the (re)manufacture of the live, blank and ‘dummy’ cartridges that caused the fatal shot. Bear with me on this;

 

  1. BLANK cartridges (¼ load) made from live by second unit (by pulling bullet, emptying propellant, and adding black powder and some form of wadding).
  2. DUMMY cartridges later made from the same blanks (by firing them & inserting a bullet into the now-empty case). One cartridge accidentally left unfired, but a bullet was inserted bullet anyway, creating a low-powered, live round.
  3. Flawed dummy cartridge fired in gun, pushing bullet into the barrel (a ‘squib load’)
  4. Revolver not properly cleared/cleaned, stored for two weeks.
  5. Same weapon provided to first unit for the Eric Draven death scene.
  6. Blank cartridge (full load) fired behind the lodged bullet, propelling it with lethal force.

 

Note that although this version of events may seem even less plausible on the face of it, it does have the advantage of negating the main point of contention regarding the official story. That being the possibility of a primer alone being sufficient to propel the bullet far enough into a revolver barrel for it to a) not block the cylinder from revolving and b) not be noticed by crewmembers. In this version, this factor becomes irrelevant.

 

This was the version that we chose to replicate in our testing. Note that the type of blank cartridge is irrelevant. We made our own, but factory-made blanks may have been used. Provided the case is properly wadded, and a propellant charge equivalent to (or frankly, even less than) a ‘full charge’ movie blank is used, the bullet will be driven from the barrel.

 

However, as already stated, it IS perfectly possible for a primer (especially a magnum primer) to do this, making even the popular version of the story still plausible. I know, because I’ve tried it, multiple times. There is enough variance in the manufacture of primers and bullets, for a bullet to lodge partway out of the chamber, or all the way out of it. Our first attempt lodged the bullet clear of the cylinder, but only a centimetre or so down the barrel, making it visible to anyone observing normal safety precautions. However, it is clear that not everyone on set was observing them, so this sequence of events remains at least plausible.

 

Here’s the thing – as interesting as it is to have the (likely) details, they aren’t actually that relevant to the CT. Once again, and this bears repeating, our tests showed that, more often than not;

 

  1. Even a primer, without a propellant charge, is enough to lodge a bullet in the barrel.
  2. A blank charge equivalent to a ‘full charge’ movie blank will successful propel that bullet from the barrel.
  3. A bullet fired in this way retains more than enough velocity to fully penetrate a 10% ordnance gelatin block approximately 12″ deep.

 

Thus either version of the story, or some other variation of it, could have resulted in the death of Brandon Lee. No conspiracy theory is required, nor is there any evidence to support one.

 

It was an emotional experience taking part in this filming. When our ‘dummy’ bullet popped into the barrel, I began to feel a little odd. When, shortly afterward, the blank blasted the bullet from the barrel and through the ballistic gel in front of me as though it wasn’t there, I had to suppress a tear at the thought of what happened that day. I had wondered what we’d do if, as many have claimed, this wasn’t actually possible. There would be no question of faking anything. Nor could I really have withdrawn from filming by that point. We would have been obliged to state that we thought it was possible, but no, we couldn’t recreate it for the cameras. As it was, Channel 5 got multiple successful shots. Was it flawless? No. Out of six attempts, two failed as a result of the small propellant charge lodging the bullet too far into the barrel. When trying just the primer, out of several attempts, one did block the cylinder. To me, this doesn’t make the official story any less plausible; but it does make it all the more a tragic roll of the dice. The proverbial ‘golden BB’. You could follow the same series of mistakes, and still narrowly avoid killing Lee (especially when the revolver being pointed at him, against best practice, is factored in).

 

There’s one silver lining to Brandon’s death. It’s used as a cautionary tale across the fields of cinema and of firearms. It’s impossible to quantify, but in death, he will have saved countless lives.

 

*Gun nerdery alert. I believe the revolver used was not, as is usually claimed, a Model 629 (stainless steel), but a Model 29 in nickel plated finish with 6” ‘pinned’ barrel and recessed chambers. This is what we used in the documentary. However, movie lighting and the level of polish on the screen-used prop make the two impossible to distinguish for certain. Note that, in yet another layer of misfortune, the original movie script called for an AMT Automag – a semi-automatic pistol for which there would have been no need to make dummy rounds (they would not be visible unlike in a revolver’s open cylinder) and therefore, no accident.

[edited to add – note that the documentary got the details of Lee’s death right in terms of it occurring during the scene where Eric returns to the apartment to find the gang members there – but the reconstruction shows him in full Crow regalia. In fact this was a pre-Crow scene with Lee in ‘civvies’. Note also that for this scene he was carrying a prop bag of groceries in which an explosive squib had been fitted to simulate the bullet impact. This later led to confusion over a pyrotechnic ‘squib’ (which did not contribute to his wound) and the ‘squib load’ of the lodged bullet in the gun barrel.]

Further Reading

This is Baiss’s book, originally published in 2000. Recommended reading for any Crow or Lee fan. You may be able to read the section on Lee’s death as part of the Google Books preview here.

You’ll Go Blind!

December 2, 2013

No, not that bit of BS history. I’m referring to a breathtaking post on the wonderful BoredPanda.com about decidely un-‘PC’ advertising. Some of them are pretty appalling by today’s standards, but not really very surprising. What did surprise me were the supposedly official Sega ads relating gaming with masturbation. They seemed very crude, and very risque for the relatively late timeframe of the early 90s.

I wondered if they might be spoofs, and the style reminded me very much of anarchic British schoolboy humour magazine ‘Viz’. I went a-Googling, and sure enough, they really were from Viz. More interestingly though, they weren’t fake. They actually were commissioned by Sega UK. But for the very specific (and at that time, appropriate) audience of Viz readers. They wouldn’t have dreamed of putting these anywhere mainstream, and they could hardly offend anyone in a magazine featuring such sophisticated characters as ‘Fat Slags’ and ‘Buster Gonad’. As an aside, I have a pet theory that today’s internet humour (“none of us is as cruel as all of us” ring any bells?) owes a lot to the sort of misanthropic toilet humour found in its pages.

So these ads aren’t quite in the same league as the others. In context, they aren’t at all shocking (though the also wonderful UsvsTh3m disagree). They would only be seen (at the time) by those who would ‘get’ them. They’re not sexist or racist, and they were set in a context that was far more potentially offensive to a casual observer. A concerned parent or partner would probably assume them to be fake. I actually think it’s possible that a bold company could pull a similar stunt today. Say, via the Onion or the Daily Mash. In fact, there are probably examples that post-date this one. Any suggestions?

Peter Dickowitz and the Premature Burial Theory of Vampirism

August 25, 2013

The Premature Burial Antoine Wiertz

The Premature Burial by Antoine Wiertz (1854)

Apologies to those readers who have subscribed to the blog; I know I’ve been very slow with my updates so far this year. I can’t promise regular content, but I can promise that it will keep coming! This latest is about vampires again, I’m afraid!

So, I recently read a piece in BBC History Magazine (Sep 2013, p.36) by Dr Richard Sugg of Durham University, quite rightly pointing out the link between historical reports of vampire or revenant activity and maladies that we now know to be sleep disorders. However, his first cited example raised an eyebrow with me.

The article references an unnamed American journalist, writing in 1870, who describes his own brush with a ‘vampire’ in a Hungarian village called ‘Hodmir’. This presents us with our first problem, as whilst spellings of ‘foreign’ places are frequently all over the place at this time (see ‘Dracula’ itself!), I can’t find reference to any such place. However, I was able to track down the source, a letter to the New York based World newspaper, in an edition dated June 1 1870. Sadly this isn’t available online, only in archive or microfilm form.

Fortunately, aside from the sections quoted by Sugg, the complete thing is available online in a contemporary California paper, the Daily Alta for July 24 the same year. According to contemporary journal The Nation, the author of this letter is a “William St. John”. I’ve had no luck tracking down any such person, either. The letter crops up again nearly twenty years later in the Globe-Democrat and a literature review that references it,  and again in the New York Evening Telegram for June 28 1889.

Now, the account itself reads superficially like a bona fide account of a folkloric case of vampirism, i.e. an educated observer recording the superstitious activities of eastern European peasants who are digging up dead bodies and misinterpreting differential decomposition as vampirism. The man describes a very believable account of his own sleep paralysis, but it his subsequent story about supposed local vampire activity that poses real issues. Have a read.

Vampire fans will recognise many details from the famous story of Arnod Paole, an incident that occurred not in Hungary in the late 19th century, but in Serbia in 1731-2. The original source is ‘Visum et Repertum’, published in January 1732. The Serbian girl ‘Stanoska’ that Sugg refers to was actually a ‘victim’ of Paole’s at this same time (i.e. 1731, rather than the 1738 cited in the article. She appears as ‘Stanacka’ in the English translation.

The name given to the supposed vampire himself, ‘Peter Dickowitz’, is clearly a corruption of ‘Peter Plogojowitz’ (Petar Blagojević), another Serbian case from 1725. This was reported by an official called Frombald who visited the village of Kisiljevo. His report was published in the Austrian newspaper ‘Wienerisches Diarium’ on 21 July that year.

Both of these historical sources are well documented, both appear in the very Paul Barber book (‘Vampires, Burial, and Death’) that Sugg cites in his article, and both owe their fame to Dom Augustin Calmet’s book ‘The Phantom World’, originally published in 1746.

Where this story parts company with its cobbled bits of real folklore is in “St John’s” claim that the ‘vampires’ unearthed by the locals were not the usual differentially decomposed corpses, but victims of premature burial. Not only that, but the poor buggers were apparently murdered right in front of his eyes! At this point alarm bells were ringing in my head, as the idea that vampire folklore originated with live burial is an idea as old as the vampire phenomenon itself, but one that, along with porphoria, was consigned to the wastebin of folklore studies years ago. Live burial did happen, and fear of it was something of a Victorian preoccupation, so it made sense at this time to associate the two. But there’s just no evidence for a connection with vampirism (apart from this suspect account), and as Sugg himself points out, folkloric vampires are now known to be corpses whose signs of decomposition are misinterpreted by their would-be ‘slayers’ to create scapegoats for perceived ills in their community (sleep paralysis no doubt being one of these). Back to the story, what are the chances of not one, but TWO premature burials occurring in the same graveyard? Why the hell didn’t this guy report these murders (not the supposed live burial, the staking, decapitation and burning of the victims) to the authorities? Hungary in 1870 was a civilised European country and part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; I don’t care how remote this rural village might have been, opportunities to report these killings would have been plentiful and readily investigated by local law enforcement. The answers to those questions, by the way, are ‘slim’ and ‘because he made the story up’.

So how did genuine 18th century history end up being reported as current affairs in 1870? Well, I have a theory. I mentioned that both source stories appeared in Calmet’s  ‘Phantom World‘ in 1746. Well, this was first published in English in 1850, and like the 1870 story, also places the Plogojowitz/Dickowitz case in Hungary. Chances are that our Victorian letter-writer used this, as well as perhaps his own experience of sleep paralysis, as the inspiration for a sensationalist cock-and-bull story that would appeal to the educated audience as a cautionary tale about the hazards of superstition.

Note that none of this actually undermines Sugg’s argument that sleep paralysis would have reinforced and even originated incidences of ‘vampirism’. But it’s definitely not the best source to use to make that argument. I fired off a letter to BBC History Magazine, so we’ll see if they do anything with it.

 

Wears the Soap?

February 16, 2013

No, I haven’t failed to spellcheck – it’s an old joke

I’m an RSS subscriber to Retronaut, which if you haven’t come across it already, is a wonderful depository for old photos of all kinds. I recommend it heartily, even if sometimes there are a lack of references for those of us interested enough to find out more. A recent update included some bizarre images of supposed devices designed to curb masturbation, like this one;

No, it’s not part of a steampunk Gonzo costume…

Like the sole commenter at time of writing, I was rather sceptical that these were genuine, and if they were, that strapping them to people was really a ‘thing’ that was done with any regularity. They remind me of the spurious torture implements that were either made up entirely or fancifully replicated in order to titillate and shock Victorian sensibilities (a post on that subject coming up when I can find time to write it).

However, these pics also came from the V&A and Wellcome Trust, both august and scholarly heritage institutions, which gave me pause for thought. I also found more contextual images on the Wellcome’s website, showing people actually wearing the devices, and with original captions describing them as ‘counter-onanism’ contraptions. So I thought I’d dig deeper, and found the amusingly-titled ‘Masturbation: The History of a Great Terror’ by Jean Stengers and Anne Van Neck. This makes clear that such devices were widely known about at the time, and that there was even something of a medical controversy about them – some doctors advocating their use, others decrying it. So whilst you might not have been clapped straight into one of these the first time you were caught choking the proverbial chicken (or for that matter, polishing the bean), this does indeed seem to have been a real practice. The above-linked source also details the other methods used to prevent masturbation, and explains the general attitude that it was somehow a harmful practice. Of course, we still don’t quite know the scale of usage of these devices, and it seems likely that only the most well-off parents would consider purchasing them.

We’ve come a long way since then. But then again, we still eat Cornflakes

(More about this chap at my link above and at Cracked.com)