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.
It’s been a while, but my old nemesis Rosslyn Chapel, not to mention my actual nemesis Stuart Mitchell (who threatened to sue me my over my criticism of his made-up ‘code’) have made a (relatively) recent comeback in Susan Calman’s 2019 ‘Secret Scotland’ series, which I am just catching up with. Sadly, the production team made no effort to research the reality of the situation, and afforded Mitchell one last hurrah in episode 1 (Edinburgh) before he (unfortunately) passed away in 2018, not long after filming must have happened. Calman and the producers seem to swallow this without question. She even breaks down in tears after hearing the ‘Rosslyn Motet’. I really like her as a comedian and she’s an excellent presenter as well, but she is clearly something of a ‘believer’, going by her reaction to the ghost aspect of the same episode. I won’t rehash the Music of the Cubes nonsense (and trust me, it is total nonsense). If you want to catch up on that, there’s a whole series of old posts here; if you’re short on time, this was my original debunk. I also recommend Jeff Nisbet’s excellent article.
Instead, I want to address a much older claim; that the Chapel contains depictions of maize (American corn) and aloe, and therefore proves arcane or otherwise lost medieval knowledge of the Americas. It categorically does not. This BBC article absolutely nails it, so read that, but I will quote the most important bits below
“Dr Adrian Dyer, a professional botanist and husband of the Revd Janet Dyer, former Priest in Charge at Rosslyn Chapel, meticulously examined the botanical carvings in the Chapel…Dr Dyer found that there was no attempt to represent a species accurately: the ‘maize’ and ‘aloe’ carvings are almost certainly derived from stylized wooden patterns, whose resemblance to recognisable botanical forms is fortuitous.
Much the same conclusion was reached by archaeo-botanist Dr Brian Moffat, who also noted that the carvings of botanical forms are not naturalistic nor accurate. He found a highly stylised Arum Lily the most likely candidate for what has been identified as American maize.
As for the ‘aloes’, Dr Moffat points out that the consumer would never have seen the plant, only the sap which was used medicinally.”
There you are. Given the total lack of any other evidence for these plants in Europe prior to the mid-16th century, I would certainly accept the opinion of two qualified scientists over those who dreamed up this theory. Speaking of which, where did this one come from? There are two near-contemporary competing claims. The earliest reference seems (based upon this reference) to be plate 23 of Andrew Sinclair’s 1992 book ‘The Sword and the Grail: Of the Grail and the Templars and a True Discovery of America’. It is then independently made in 1996’s ‘The Hiram Key’ by infamous Rosslyn ‘scholars’ Knight and Lomas (2nd edition, 1998, p. 79). In this book Robert Lomas claims that Brydon had the revelation about the carvings in his company and quotes him supposedly verbatim. They also claim that Dyer’s wife agreed that the carvings represented aloe and maize (p. 302), despite Dyer’s own debunking of this. To be clear, Sinclair, Knight and Lomas were all card-carrying ‘alternative history’ types, alleging all sorts of far less plausible, yet far more bonkers ‘alternative facts’, perhaps the craziest of which is that the moon was built by humans (Knight). All three are proponents of the idea that Earl Henry Sinclair ‘discovered’ America before Columbus, hence being keen on the idea that the Chapel, which was founded by the Sinclair family, provides evidence for this within its carvings. Sinclair also claimed that the Holy Grail was secreted at Rosslyn. Brydon, archivist for the Commandery of St Clair (a chapter effectively) of the Grand Priory of the Knights Templar in Scotland, apparently agreed that the carvings represented aloe and maize. He doesn’t seem to have actually made this claim directly, only as quoted by Knight and Lomas, who don’t reference Sinclair and imply that the claim originates with Brydon. As a prominent Knight Templar and an advocate of attracting attention and funding to the Chapel, Brydon had a vested interest in tolerating this form of dubious history. The same is true of the Rosslyn Chapel Trust, who continually walk a tightrope between actual and BS history due to their overarching remit to keep the visitors coming. This, no doubt, is why Trust Director Ian Gardner happily endorses the maize/aloe theory in the Secret Scotland programme. Oddly, their website can’t seem to make up its mind; one page uncritically accepts it, another (very similarly worded) page is much more circumspect, triggering Betteridge’s law of newspaper headlines (that if the claim is phrased as a question, the answer is always “no”). Yet another, an interview with a stonework conservator, falls into the “I’m not saying it’s aliens, but it’s aliens” trope, by denying that stone conservators take a view on such things, and then immediately siding with the believers. Finally, and rather insidiously, a quiz for children states outright that the carvings show maize and corn, and invite the reader to engage with the theory that the Chapel builders knew of these plants.
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;
‘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.
‘…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…
‘…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…
‘…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.
‘…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.
‘…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.
You might think that I’ve avoided a pun title, but in fact ‘bone‘ is a British military term for ‘not very good’. So this one literally wrote itself. I miss a lot of documentary TV these days, but I managed to catch the first episode of Channel 4’s ‘Bone Detectives’ documentary series, and enjoyed it, but a few things bothered me. Firstly, and this is not uncommon in documentary television, especially not with major archaeological discoveries, because unless you’re Time Team, these don’t happen in real time. You inevitably have to re-hash information that’s well known in the field but is hopefully new to most of your audience. In this case the human remains in question were excavated between 2004-5 and have been pretty widely reported since, even by the tabloids. They were also published in detail in 2015 by a team including Jacqueline McKinley, who (thankfully) appeared throughout the programme. The remains in question were fascinating (see above) – an older woman in a deliberate semi-flexed pose, holding a piece of chalk to her face with one hand (with her mouth open) and apparently pointing at something. For those interested (and TV never gives us any further reading or sources, because god forbid TV isn’t the only way to learn things), the book is ‘Cliffs End Farm Isle of Thanet, Kent: A mortuary and ritual site of the Bronze Age, Iron Age and Anglo-Saxon period with evidence for long-distance maritime mobility’ by Jacqueline I. McKinley, Matt Leivers, Jörn Schuster and Peter Marshall (2015). My link only provides the contents, acknowledgements etc, not the actual text of the monograph. Depending where in the world you are, you may be able to read the Google Books preview.
Anyway, back to the TV version. As a relatively sensational show, the programme wants us to think that we are discovering something new along with the presenters, archaeologists and scientists, when in fact nothing new is being determined. They go so far as to recreate – possibly even fake outright – in a lab setting, an isotope analysis of a tooth from the site, before presenting existing data on an A4 printout. No analysis is happening, but you wouldn’t know that as a viewer. All of this data is available in McKinley’s book. It’s enough to make one long for the days of Time Team (a programme with which McKinley and Wessex Archaeology were previously associated). The whole format with a fake ‘nerve centre’ studio and team of three presenters is presumably meant to evoke ‘CSI’ and similar fictional shows, but it compromises the actual archaeology, for me at least. Some of the people involved have some serious expertise (mortician and museum curator Carla Valentine is criminally underused in this first episode) – show us the finds and let them tell us what they’ve discovered. You don’t have to sex it up to this extent. Of course, once a show like this has been made, the gutter press then jump on the bandwagon and reinforce the idea that the media have somehow uncovered new evidence or some amazing new interpretation of it.
This leads me to the other annoying aspect – the levels of speculation involved. Inevitably, when trying to make prehistoric archaeology ‘relatable’ to a modern general audience, there was a fair bit of speculation and storytelling in this programme. Some of this was taken from McKinley’s work and was therefore legitimate (if still speculative), whereas some was no doubt encouraged by the producers and over-reaches the facts or (in the case of point 1) is outright incorrect. Some points that stood out for me;
The name of the Isle of Thanet has *bugger all* to do with the Greek God of death Thanatos. Even Wikipedia (referencing the Oxford English Dictionary of Placenames) has the correct, British, etymology of the name. This is invoked to strengthen a questionable hypothesis about Thanet being some sort of Bronze Age island of death and the white cliffs being somehow part of this, hence the lump of chalk see point 3).
McKinley et al are upfront in the book about the significance of the chalk lump that the same skeleton is holding close to her face. It is undoubtedly a deliberate pose by those that buried her, but with no known parallel and no known significance. As they put it, its meaning is ‘currently unfathomable.’ They speculate that it could be a reference to the practical purposes of chalk, or might ‘signify origins by representing chalk bedrock, chalk cliffs etc.’ They further speculate ‘symbolism associated with purity, renewal or [that] may [it] have been ascribe [sic] healing power.’ This is already a massive reach, as the comparison is actually with white quartz pebbles found in ‘much later early Christian graves’ whose symbolism is revealed in the Bible. This likely has nothing to do with Bronze Age Britain, but at least it’s qualified as speculation. In ‘Bone Detectives’ however, the chalk piece is emphatically connected to the chalk cliffs of southern Britain, which are in turn connected to a fanciful story of how Thanet was seen as a mystical island of death by foreigners. This is based on an account by Procopius of Caesarea about the British Isles in general, *not* about Thanet specifically (he wouldn’t have known where Thanet was). This appears for some reason (the text doesn’t reference it) as an epilogue in the archaeological monograph. Once again, hearsay about Britain as an island, recorded by a 1st century CE Greek who had never visited Britain can have nothing to do with this Bronze Age site on the smaller, specific island of Thanet. This is why the programme was keen for ‘Thanet’ to tortuously derive from ‘Thanatos’, the Greek god of death (as noted, it doesn’t). This despite the fact that the source itself is talking about how native Britons see their own island, not how foreigners see it. Even Procopius himself is far from convinced that the story he relates is true. You can read a translation here (scroll down/ctrl-F ‘Procopius’).
The programme claims, probably in order to heighten topical parallels with modern Britain as a country of immigrants (as earlier media coverage also did), that the skeleton is pointing out to sea, where some of the people who were buried in the pit originated (some were not native to Britain). By contrast (perhaps her thinking has moved on?) McKinley’s book points out (ha) that the sea ‘lies to the south-west, not the south’ and instead suggests that the elderly female skeleton may be pointing at the central enclosure of the site, which is thought to have been used for ritual feasts. She proposes that the connection is in terms of feasting to aid the passing of the dead. Plausible, with supporting ethnographic parallels (which she references), but ultimately, we don’t know. In any case, and regardless of the foreign people buried near her (but not adjacent to her) why would a native Briton be pointing out to sea? If she were somehow pointing out to sea, for all we know she was pointing as a warning against invasion – or any number of other explanations. Given that the pit was regularly re-opened (or uncovered) to add more remains and/or change things, the posing of the older woman could have been done unilaterally by an individual – even as a sort of prank (again, for all we know – I’m not suggesting that this actually happened). It’s also possible that the gesture of a raised index finger is what was significant here, and not the trajectory described by the finger itself.
This one is down to the archaeologists unfortunately – McKinley’s hypothesis that the pit was not just a ritual deposit but evidence of a sacrifice is very sound, indeed she covers this possibility in the book as the more likely of two explanations, the other being execution. She leans toward a ritual explanation because of the other human and animal remains in the pit, its situation near a compound thought to be for ritual purpose, and because getting killed by a sword in the Bronze Age was pretty uncommon, implying that she was somehow special (along with her relatively advanced age and the care taken in her burial). It’s all suitably circumspect and academically reserved. But in the TV show it’s all much less tentative; not only was this woman definitely a sacrifice, it’s stated that she was likely a willing sacrifice, because she had no defensive wounds on her hands or arms. This despite it also being stated that injuries to soft tissue do not (obviously) appear on bone, and so are invisible. Given that the woman was posed after death, it is just as likely that she was killed unwillingly (she was definitely killed – she has multiple edge weapon wounds to the top of her skull) with her hands bound or arms pinned by a third party.
I can’t help feeling that there’s a happy medium between this fluff and tedious archaeological monographs that only specialists read. In fact, I think that happy medium is probably the internet – you can find out way more with judicious Googling than you do in this episode (see my in-text links above).
Surprisingly, I had never heard of Hungarian serial killer and alleged ‘vampire’ Béla Kiss until I watched a recent episode of ‘The Great War’ on YouTube. It’ s fantastic series, and I thoroughly recommend it. However, I was immediately sceptical of the suggestion that Kiss had ‘drained’ his victims of blood and was a ‘vampire’. This is frequently claimed by vampire universalists; people who like to lump absolutely everything they can under the vampire umbrella, regardless of cultural or historical context. The connection between vampires and serial killers is often made, but is entirely spurious other than in handful of cases where killers actually do drink the blood of their victims. Even this doesn’t make them ‘vampires’ per se. More ‘wannabes’ really. Anyway, back to Kiss. I had a good dig about, and the claim of blood-draining/drinking seems to originate with Monaco and Burt’s ‘The Dracula Syndrome’ (1993). Kiss appears on page 156;
‘…what intrigued investigators more were a series of sharp wounds on the necks of each victim — each of whom had been drained of her blood. Other, more fortunate women began to come forward to identify Kiss as their evil, vampire attacker.’
Unless readers can find any earlier claim, I’m calling this one BS – a cheap attempt to make Kiss seem more, well, ‘evil’ and ‘vampire’ than just a plain old nasty murdering f*ck-head. In fact, the whole book appears to be part of the ‘true crime’ movement to romanticise serial killers as somehow other-worldly beings. Which is not to say that the story of a First World War killer that disappeared isn’t interesting; you should definitely check out ‘The Great War’ video on Kiss and the rest of the channel for that matter.
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.
I like to follow the blog ‘Taliesin Meets the Vampires’ for its reviews of vampire literature and film, but I hadn’t expected it to spark my sceptical interests. After all, it’s mostly fiction, with the occasional uncontroversial reference work. But a recent review of ‘Dracula Incarnate: Unearthing the Definitive Dracula’ had me choking on my Count Chocula. The site very kindly gave the book 4 out of 10, despite poor writing (even the blurb contains an instance of ‘wrote’ in place of ‘written’), the shaky and unoriginal argument that ‘Dracula’ was based on Jack the Ripper, and (wait for it….) the ludicrous premise that Bram Stoker somehow knew the identity of the Ripper and encoded it secretly in his novel. Wow. I barely know where to start with that, and I’m not sure that I can bring myself to actually buy this self-published gibberish, especially not at £17. Instead, I will just list a few observations based upon the review and other publically available claims. In any case, the author claims on Facebook that this ‘press release’ contains ‘massive amounts of information’, so he shouldn’t be able to counter with ‘read the book’. Note that these claims are only part of the book, which does purport to be a definitive work on the character and apparently does contain some valid information.
The Ripper was almost certainly not Francis Tumblety (and if he was, we’ve no way of proving it). No-one knows, or indeed is likely to ever know, who the Ripper was. Tumblety isn’t even an original suspect, in fact he’s one of the most favoured. Which is a bit like saying that I am likely to win the lottery because I’ve bought a ticket: I’m more likely to win than someone who hasn’t entered, but I’m still facing odds of millions to one… In fact I would argue that it’s almost the other way around; we’ve reached ‘Peak Ripper’, a point where each new suspect simply adds to the list of people that the Ripper almost certainly wasn’t. It’s telling that even the Ripperologists (and I don’t mean that as an insult, just that this ought to be right up their dark alley) haven’t bothered commenting on the book despite being contacted by Struthers. These guys will happily spend ages reading and writing about claims that are either demonstrably false or can never be proven; but an Irish author hiding the answer in a vampire novel can be discounted out of hand even by the most rabid Ripper-hunter. If the author wanted to excite Ripper students, he should have come up with a previously unknown suspect that hasn’t already been analysed and talked to death.
The code theory itself is such an obvious stretch. Claiming encoded information in the anagrams allows tremendous leeway to construct the message one wants to exist. Similar unscientific and subjective approaches have given us ‘The Bible Code’ and the myriad wishful-thinking interpretations of Nostradamus. I can’t say it better than the Taliesin Meets the Vampires review; ‘The author takes the phrase “Undertakers Man” and rearranges it to ARDENT UNMASKER, suggesting that Tumbelty could be the undertakers man and he is, therefore, being unmasked. However run the phrase through an anagram app and we also gets “Eastman drunker” and “errant unmasked”. Indeed there are hundreds of possible outcomes (the free software I used only gave you the first 400 outcomes). Nowhere is it suggested that there was a key in the notes to allow decoding and so it appears that the author ran phrases from the notes through an anagram programme and then picked the outcomes that would lend credence to his theorem.’‘ Ardent unmasker’? Really? The other phrase from novel that the blog relates is the phrase ‘Bells at Sea’ somehow meaning SELL A BEAST, which in turn is somehow connected to one of the Ripper’s’ murders. Honestly, you could any published book and apply the same approach to find any number of ‘hidden’ meanings that would be nothing of the sort. It’s the linguistic equivalent of reading tea leaves.
Secrets this well hidden are indistinguishable from nonsense. Assuming for one moment that the above ‘information’ really was encoded by Stoker, who really did know who the Ripper was; why on earth would he risk no-one ever figuring it out? The other claims covered in the review are not even from the published novel ‘Dracula’, but Stoker’s private notes and another bastardised edition (see below). The notes are very much written in note form and were not published until 2008. Stoker had no way of knowing that anyone outside his family would even read them, much less understand the supposed ‘code’ contained therein. He certainly could not have foreseen them being annotated and published more than a century later. If it was his intention to pass on the Ripper’s identity in his notes, why not just write it down and leave it there, for people to discover after his death. A code this obtuse and obscure, even if it were real, would be indistinguishable from gibberish, as the ‘Taliesin’ quote above makes clear. Oh, that’s right, because it was a ‘super secretive “high level” plot’. Yep, this guy has cobbled together the world’s first Ripper/Dracula conspiracy theory.
Jesus Christ, the exclamation marks! The Taliesin blog remarks upon their use within the published book, and the Amazon book preview and linked email to the JTR forums demonstrate it amply! This alone would drive me mad in trying to read the whole book! Also, what’s with the long……………….. lines of periods? (!)
Some basic errors. In his email to the admin of the Casebook.org forums the author states; ‘…it was not a coincidence that Dracula’s arrival at Whitby and the first “Ripper” killing both took place on August 7th‘. He’s right, it is no coincidence. Because the first of the five ‘canonical’ Ripper murders took place in the early hours of 31st of August 1888. His connection of Dracula’s death by knife to the throat and heart is nonsensical in any case, but the real ‘…reason why Dracula was destroyed, [and] not by a wooden stake (as most people believe)…’ is because in 1897 the trope of a wooden stake had yet to take hold. In the excised chunk of ‘Dracula’ later presented in short story form as ‘Dracula’s Guest’ has a vampire staked with an iron stake. Indeed, the folklore is all over the place on this score; nails, ploughshares, knives, swords, and yes, various species of wood. See Paul Barber’s ‘Vampires, Burial & Death’ for the definitive details on this. Whether the ending of the novel is ‘ambiguous’ or not is subjective, but even as a child of seven when I first read an abridged version, I was pretty clear that Drac wasn’t coming back… (the movies notwithstanding).
The total lack of evidence for any conspiracy theory (perhaps it’s all in the book?). The quote ‘…every book must contain some lesson, but I prefer that the readers should find it out for themselves’ is simply a statement about fiction writing. The preface to the 1901 ‘edition’ (Icelandic rewrite as ‘Taliesin’ says) that has got various people before Struthers excited is simply a tongue-in-cheek piece of make believe and an acknowledgement of the debt owed to the real-life Ripper murders as partial inspiration for his novel. The quote ‘..the strange and eerie tragedy which is portrayed here is true, as far as all external circumstances are concerned’ has been taken out of context. Read the whole preface; he is pretending that his own story might be real, a bit like Dan Brown pretending that his novels are based on real events. Don’t believe me? Read the whole preface. For example; ‘Everyone who participated in this remarkable story is well-known and respected. Jonathan Harker and his wife, who is a respectable woman, and Dr. Seward have been my friends for many years…’. He is writing about his own FICTIONAL characters as though they are real. Thus we cannot take the claim that the plot really took place literally. It is an allusion to the real events of 1888 framed as a meta-narrative device.
The author has also made other superficially sensational claims that are also just spins on well known facts. The influence of Baring-Gould’s ‘Book of Werewolves’ is very well understood by just about anyone that knows the novel, and it is only one source used by Stoker. ‘Carmilla’ is very influential indeed, for example. As Dacre Stoker implies, to say that Dracula came from any one source, and especially one one geographical place is nonsense. Good way to get into a local paper to promote one’s unpublished book though…
I noted that the author, Andrew Struthers, claimed to be presenting his research at the 2016 World Dracula Congress, but a check of their website shows that he applied to attend, but apparently ultimately was not invited as either a keynote or ‘workshop’ speaker. Frankly, the guy appears delusional. Take this Facebook exchange with the admin of The Dracula Society:
‘This will come to be known as one of the most important books ever written………it is the story of a terrible nightmare that enveloped Victorian England in 1888. It is Stoker’s TRUE story of MAD DOCTOR JACK…….known the world over as THE RIPPER!!!’
To which the official response was;
‘Sorry to break the news to you, Andy – but Dracula a) isn’t about Jack The Ripper and b) is fiction..’
Challenged by another commenter to provide some evidence that doesn’t require buying and drinking his ‘snake oil’, Struthers goes on to claim that established Dracula scholars (notably Dr Elizabeth Miller, whose book ‘Dracula: Sense and Nonsense’ I heartily recommend) ‘are reading’ the book, but offers no actual endorsement. Incidentally, he also thinks he’s found ‘Dracula’s grave’, by which he clearly means the grave of Francis Tumblety, which has never in fact been lost…
So as yet there is no validation, peer review, or acceptance of his work. I’m not sure there will be either, since his hypothesis really nothing more than an amalgamation of Robert Eighteen-Bisang’s claim that Dracula was primarily based on the Ripper (already a reach), the commonly held preference for Francis Tumblety as a suspect (for which there is no evidence), and Stephen Knight’s mental idea that the Ripper murders were covered up by the authorities in an elaborate conspiracy. Ironically, this book about Dracula is actually a ‘Frankenstein’s Monster’(……..!!!!!!!!!).
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;
Even a primer, without a propellant charge, is enough to lodge a bullet in the barrel.
A blank charge equivalent to a ‘full charge’ movie blank will successfully propel that bullet from the barrel with lethal velocity.
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;
Dummy cartridges made from live by second unit, one round left with primer unfired.
This round fired in gun, pushing bullet into the barrel (a ‘squib load’)
Revolver not properly cleared/cleaned, stored for two weeks.
Same weapon provided to first unit for the Eric Draven death scene.
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;
BLANK cartridges (¼ load) made from live by second unit (by pulling bullet, emptying propellant, and adding black powder and some form of wadding).
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.
Flawed dummy cartridge fired in gun, pushing bullet into the barrel (a ‘squib load’)
Revolver not properly cleared/cleaned, stored for two weeks.
Same weapon provided to first unit for the Eric Draven death scene.
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;
Even a primer, without a propellant charge, is enough to lodge a bullet in the barrel.
A blank charge equivalent to a ‘full charge’ movie blank will successful propel that bullet from the barrel.
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.]
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.
UPDATE 3 (2020!) – I’ve since realised that Vlad III is almost certainly not buried at Snagov either. See this article.
UPDATE 2 – This article received a lot of online media attention, but somehow I didn’t receive a pingback from Discovery News. Their coverage can be found here.
UPDATE 1 – Not long after I posted this, another sceptic weighed in and managed to spot that the tomb in question is indeed well-known – unsurprisingly given the context, it’s one of the Ferrillo family, Matteo Ferrillo, Count of Muro. There’s absolutely no doubt about it, and anyone from the church in question, or any Italian medieval scholar, could have told the ‘researchers’ this. Unbelievable nonsense that once again, the press fail to fact-check in any way.
It’s been a while, but this one’s brought me out of First World War-related work to comment. The Daily Mail (sigh) is reporting that the grave of Vlad III – the historical Dracula – may have been found. There’s little to go on, though a full view of the tomb in question can be seen here. The tomb was noted by a university student, but the connection is being made by one Raffaello Glinni. He’s the claimant here, and you’ve not heard the last of him…
There are basic errors with the piece – Vlad was not a ‘Count’ like his fictional namesake, he was a voivode (prince). The ‘Carpathians’ were not a Transylvanian family as the 4th image in the Mail gallery implies, they are a mountain range! I can’t wait to see the reality TV show ‘Keeping Up With the Carpathians’. Dracula did not ‘disappear’ in battle, but was likely decapitated and buried at Snagov monastery (though there is some question over this). But these are incidental. The claim itself is built on a premise that is by no means certain, namely that Vlad III had a daughter who supposedly decamped to Italy as a child, at some point ransomed Vlad (by all accounts quite dead by this point) back, and had him buried in a church in Naples. This in itself is an extraordinary claim, as it’s far from clear that Vlad even had a daughter – see this tree of the House of Basarab, of which the Draculesti were a subset. No Maria, no daughter. The historical status quo is that Vlad had only sons.
This site repeats the claim and expands upon it, suggesting that the mysterious daughter was adopted by the widow of Vlad’s contemporary and fellow resistor of Ottoman rule, George Skanderbeg, and given refuge at the court of King Ferdinand I of Naples, where she changed her name to sort-of-but-not-quite conceal her heritage. ‘Maria Balsa’ supposedly means ‘Daughter of the Dragon’ in ‘Old Romanian’. As far as I can tell, whilst balaur is Romanian for ‘dragon’, ‘Bal’ certainly isn’t. Why this supposed daughter would need to conceal her identity, and if she did, why she’d choose a Romanian-derived name, are anyone’s guesses. It’s claimed that both men were members of the Order of the Dragon, but I can’t confirm that either, and I’m pretty sure it’s not true. Elsewhere Alfonso D’Aragona is instead claimed as Maria Balsa’s Dragon Order benefactor. He really was part of the Order, but so what? Lots of European nobility joined the order – it’s a bit like the Freemasonry trope of later on; just because a politician was a Freemason doesn’t mean he’s neck-deep in whatever paranoid historical conspiracy one might dream up.
The Maria Balsa story is several years old, dating to 2012. It was featured in season 6, episode 9 of Italian TV series ‘Mistero’ in 2012, entitled ‘La Figlia Segreta di Dracula’ i.e. ‘The Secret Daughter of Dracula’. From what I’ve seen of the series online, it’s very much ‘Ancient Aliens’ territory; ghosts, alien abduction, and so on. The original claim relates not to the church mentioned in the Mail article (Santa Maria La Nova), but to a different structure; Acerenza cathedral. Guess who made it, and also appears in the ‘documentary’? Yep, Raffaello Glinni. At the time, he claimed that Vlad was buried under the cathedral; clearly he’s revised his hypothesis since then. There’s another madcap suggestion regarding Acerenza, which is that a statue of a monster biting the neck of a woman is also relevant, and supposedly relates to the story of Lilith and the pop-culture suggestions that she might be a progenitor of vampires. The historical Vlad III has absolutely no connection to vampires, folkloric or fictional, beyond the limited connection made by Bram Stoker, so this is a total red herring. The statue itself doesn’t even appear to be that of a dragon, but rather a lion. Glinni also claims that a carved head in Acerenza cathedral with a beard and pointy teeth must also be Vlad, despite no resemblance and the fact that pointy teeth are a feature of the 19th century literary vampire. Bram Stoker took only Dracula’s name and status as a medieval antagonist of the Turks from real history. We would not expect an historical depiction of Vlad III to have vampire teeth!
Note also the entirely co-incidental saint with serpent/dragon – nothing to do with Dracula or the Dragon Order
Billed as a ‘medieval history scholar’ in the new article, Glinni is actually a lawyer by profession. His name took me to his site, which is sparse but getting there in terms of BS History Bingo. Knights Templar? Check. Freemasonry? Check. Da Vinci? You bet. Gibberings about non-specific magical vortices? Not looking too good. In fact it’s looking like the use of ‘secret history’ to support speculative archaeology. There is an historical document from 1531 indirectly referenced here, which is apparently cited in a 1958 book by D’Elia and Gelao. There’s even a page reference of p.289/290. The only D’Elia/Gelao book I can find is this from 1999, where Maria Balsa is indeed referenced. There’s no doubt that an historical figure of that name existed (wife of Giacomo Alfonso Ferrillo, Count of Muro and Acerenza), and she was apparently Slavic. But if this 1531 chronicle that supports not just this claim but the new tomb suggestion exists, I can find no reference to it. If any Italian speakers can unearth it, please comment below.
So the underpinnings of this story are pretty questionable. What of the new evidence? Do we have anything else to go on? Well, like the Acerenza carving, the effigy on the Santa Maria La Nova tomb also looks absolutely nothing like the surviving depictions of Vlad;
Which leaves…what? Well, supposedly, the big revelation is in the carved stone dragon on this tomb:
‘Medieval history scholar Raffaello Glinni said the 16th century tomb is covered in images and symbols of the House of the Transylvanian “Carpathians,” and not the tomb of an Italian nobleman. “When you look at the bas-relief sculptures, the symbolism is obvious. The dragon means Dracula and the two opposing sphinxes represent the city of Thebes, also known as Tepes. In these symbols, the very name of the count Dracula Tepes is written,” Glinni told reporters.’
A dragon was certainly the main element in the badge of the Order of the Dragon to which Vlad III’s father belonged. We don’t actually know what Vlad III’s personal coat of arms was, but he may have used the same emblem. But this was a dragon curled around on itself with its own tail wrapped around its neck. The badge varied, but none of the extant Order dragon depictions resemble this Italian carving. The Thebes/Tepes connection seems to be entirely spurious; I can find nothing on it. The sphinxes are simply artistic convention in European art. Thebes itself is a Greek placename, Tepes a Turkish Romanian (thanks Michael!) word for ‘impaler’. Where’s the connection? And why would anyone bother to ‘encode’ a vague reference to a member of the Dracul family. Either they wanted people to know he was buried there, in which case make it clear, or they wanted him forgotten, in which case don’t slap a dragon on his tomb. For that matter, it would be pretty tricky to build a huge monumental tomb, complete with effigy, for someone you’re keeping anonymous. But if Vlad’s daughter was amongst friends in Naples, with the Dragon Order connection, why would they use a generic dragon and not their proper symbol? Is the tomb even anonymous? I find it hard to believe that a splendid monumental tomb like that isn’t recorded as being that of a known Italian noble.
I’m afraid the whole thing is ‘Da Vinci Code’ level conspiracy, not real history. No-one would be more excited than me to discover that Vlad’s final resting place had been discovered, but this ‘news’ is a long way from that. Glinni and co have requested permission to open the tomb, which is something we’ve seen in other outlandish claims about the dead. It’s rare that permission is ever granted, which means the claimants get to a) keep making their claims and b) blame the authorities for suppressing secret knowledge. It’s win-win for this kind of nonsense.
I caught some of ‘Paul Hollywood’s Bread’ today on TV, and heard him pronounce that the phrase ‘the upper crust’, to mean the British upper class, originated with the practice of giving used bread trenchers to the poor. As we’ve seen before on this blog, this kind of etmylogical literalism is usually bogus – phrases very rarely arise in this convenient, pat way, and if you hear an explanation of this sort, chances are it’s outright BS, or is at the least unprovable/unfalsifiable. But they’re appealing, easy to understand, and to remember, which is why they’ve been ‘going viral’ since well before the internet even existed (it just makes the process easier!). In this case, a TV reviewer was taken in.
This one is no exception – fortunately I don’t have to embark on an essay about it though, because Phrases.org has this one nailed, the key sentence being this one;
‘The term ‘upper crust’ didn’t in fact come to be used figuratively to refer to the aristocracy until the 19th century.’
The fact is we can’t know what was in the head of the person who coined the phrase, but the trencher explanation is at least no more likely than any other you care to dream up. In fact, it’s arguably less so, since the use of bread trenchers was long dead by this time. The earliest Google Books reference for the origin (as opposed to the phrase) is 2001, and Snopes has it appearing as part of a hoax list dating to 1999. I could find no references via the Google news archive either. It’s possible that it was in oral circulation prior to ’99, but my money’s on that list, which seems to me to have been an exercise in seeing what historical tomfoolery one could get away with in a single email forward (though elements of it certainly did pre-exist the list).
It amazes me in this day and age that TV researchers either don’t bother to take 10 seconds to check something like this. But then I suspect that, like the tour guides Phrases.org mentions, they’re more interested in storytelling and traditional history than in the real thing. But when you’re recreating historical breads as the focus of your programme, why do you need this extra fluff?