Archive for the ‘Speculative’ Category

The Winchester House

March 26, 2017

Windows on the INSIDE?! I’m not saying it’s ghosts, but it’s ghosts. (By Kai Schreiber from Jersey City, USA – Uploaded by PDTillman, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9036971)

 

I first read of the Winchester ‘Mystery’ House when planning a trip to California a few years ago; unfortunately I didn’t make it on that trip but I hope to see it one day. Recently I heard of a new graphic novel called ‘House of Penance’, based upon the traditional story attached to the house. The story goes that Sarah Winchester, widow of William Wirt Winchester, heir to his father Oliver’s famous rifle company, believed that she was haunted by the ghosts of all the people killed by her husband’s product. This supposedly led her to build and constantly remodel a house in an effort to placate them, leading to doorways on the outside, stairs that lead to nowhere, that sort of thing. The problem in digging into this one, as you’ll see, is that we have no idea what Sarah Winchester actually thought or believed. We don’t know if she actually suffered with mental ill-health, if she believed in ghosts or spiritualism, nor indeed what she may have thought about the violence committed with her family’s weapon. According to the ‘War Is Boring’ piece, the new narrative here is of gun control. The article admits: ‘There are hundreds of stories about the house and the woman and it’s likely we’ll never know the full truth’ (and clearly the book itself is fiction). However, the author clearly buys the fundamental claim that the house makes no sense and must be the product of some kind of paranormal belief and/or deep psychological problems. We can’t rule that out, but I did wonder if there might be any rational explanations, and it turns out that there are (along with some equally irrational ones that don’t involve ghosts).

 

Fortunately for me, the legendary Joe Nickell comprehensively nailed this one 15 years ago for ‘Skeptical Inquirer’ magazine. I can’t find the text of this on the CSI website, so I hope they don’t mind me linking to this existing Google Groups post containing the full text. The title is ‘Winchester Mystery House: fact vs. fancy’, from the Sept-Oct 2002 issue (vol.26, issue 5, p.20). He covers a lot of ground, but I will just paste in here Nickell’s answer to the main claim; that the weird appearance of the house was an attempt to contain or confuse the dead victims of the Winchester rifle:

 

Fancy: Sarah Winchester’s “curious building techniques” resulted from her desire “to control the evil entities and keep them from harming her.” For example, “One stairway, constructed like a maze, has seven flights and requires forty-four steps to go ten feet” (Smith 1967, 38). Some interior rooms have barred windows, a floor is comprised of trap doors, and there are doors and stairs that lead nowhere (Rambo 1967; Murray 1998, 59).

 

Fact: The winding stair with two-inch steps had nothing to do with ghosts and everything to do with Mrs. Winchester’s severe arthritis and neuritis. The low steps were built to accommodate her diminished abilities (just as elevators were later installed when she was forced to use a wheelchair). The curiously barred interior windows have a simple explanation: they were once exterior windows, but the constant additions to the house relegated them to the inside. The doors and stairs that lead to dead ends are similarly explained. As to the floor with trap doors, those are in a special greenhouse room; they were designed to open onto a zinc subfloor so that runoff from watered plants could be drained by pipes to the garden beneath (Rambo 1967; Winchester 1997; Palomo 2001).

So, the Winchester House was the product of a super-rich, reclusive woman with changing needs and desires, and the near-unlimited funds to meet them. Eccentric? Perhaps. But there’s really no evidence here that Winchester was in any way (literally or figuratively) ‘haunted’ by the victims of the Winchester rifle. Indeed, if she were, why fritter her millions away on housebuilding? Why not donate to charity or to a pacifist organisation? Or become an anti-war/anti-violence/anti-gun advocate herself? As usual in scepticism, we see that credulity abhors a vacuum; in the absence of facts, people will make up stories to explain things that don’t readily make sense.

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Dracula Incarnate as Jack the Ripper?

January 21, 2017
Everyone knows they actually worked together...(Dracula & Jack' by Gene Colan & Dave Gutierrez, from comicartfans.com)

Pfft: everyone knows they actually worked together…(Dracula & Jack’ by Gene Colan & Dave Gutierrez, from comicartfans.com)

 

I like to follow the blog ‘Taliesin Meets the Vampires’ for its reviews of vampire literature and film, but I hadn’t expected it to spark my sceptical interests. After all, it’s mostly fiction, with the occasional uncontroversial reference work. But a recent review of ‘Dracula Incarnate: Unearthing the Definitive Dracula’ had me choking on my Count Chocula. The site very kindly gave the book 4 out of 10, despite poor writing (even the blurb contains an instance of ‘wrote’ in place of ‘written’), the shaky and unoriginal argument that ‘Dracula’ was based on Jack the Ripper, and (wait for it….)  the ludicrous premise that Bram Stoker somehow knew the identity of the Ripper and encoded it secretly in his novel. Wow. I barely know where to start with that, and I’m not sure that I can bring myself to actually buy this self-published gibberish, especially not at £17. Instead, I will just list a few observations based upon the review and other publically available claims. In any case, the author claims on Facebook that this ‘press release’ contains ‘massive amounts of information’, so he shouldn’t be able to counter with ‘read the book’. Note that these claims are only part of the book, which does purport to be a definitive work on the character and apparently does contain some valid information.

 

  1. The Ripper was almost certainly not Francis Tumblety (and if he was, we’ve no way of proving it). No-one knows, or indeed is likely to ever know, who the Ripper was. Tumblety isn’t even an original suspect, in fact he’s one of the most favoured. Which is a bit like saying that I am likely to win the lottery because I’ve bought a ticket: I’m more likely to win than someone who hasn’t entered, but I’m still facing odds of millions to one… In fact I would argue that it’s almost the other way around; we’ve reached ‘Peak Ripper’, a point where each new suspect simply adds to the list of people that the Ripper almost certainly wasn’t. It’s telling that even the Ripperologists (and I don’t mean that as an insult, just that this ought to be right up their dark alley) haven’t bothered commenting on the book despite being contacted by Struthers. These guys will happily spend ages reading and writing about claims that are either demonstrably false or can never be proven; but an Irish author hiding the answer in a vampire novel can be discounted out of hand even by the most rabid Ripper-hunter. If the author wanted to excite Ripper students, he should have come up with a previously unknown suspect that hasn’t already been analysed and talked to death.
  2. The code theory itself is such an obvious stretch. Claiming encoded information in the anagrams allows tremendous leeway to construct the message one wants to exist. Similar unscientific and subjective approaches have given us ‘The Bible Code’ and the myriad wishful-thinking interpretations of Nostradamus. I can’t say it better than the Taliesin Meets the Vampires review; ‘The author takes the phrase “Undertakers Man” and rearranges it to ARDENT UNMASKER, suggesting that Tumbelty could be the undertakers man and he is, therefore, being unmasked. However run the phrase through an anagram app and we also gets “Eastman drunker” and “errant unmasked”. Indeed there are hundreds of possible outcomes (the free software I used only gave you the first 400 outcomes). Nowhere is it suggested that there was a key in the notes to allow decoding and so it appears that the author ran phrases from the notes through an anagram programme and then picked the outcomes that would lend credence to his theorem.’‘ Ardent unmasker’? Really? The other phrase from novel that the blog relates is the phrase ‘Bells at Sea’ somehow meaning SELL A BEAST, which in turn is somehow connected to one of the Ripper’s’ murders. Honestly, you could any published book and apply the same approach to find any number of ‘hidden’ meanings that would be nothing of the sort. It’s the linguistic equivalent of reading tea leaves.
  3. Secrets this well hidden are indistinguishable from nonsense. Assuming for one moment that the above ‘information’ really was encoded by Stoker, who really did know who the Ripper was; why on earth would he risk no-one ever figuring it out? The other claims covered in the review are not even from the published novel ‘Dracula’, but Stoker’s private notes and another bastardised edition (see below). The notes are very much written in note form and were not published until 2008. Stoker had no way of knowing that anyone outside his family would even read them, much less understand the supposed ‘code’ contained therein. He certainly could not have foreseen them being annotated and published more than a century later. If it was his intention to pass on the Ripper’s identity in his notes, why not just write it down and leave it there, for people to discover after his death. A code this obtuse and obscure, even if it were real, would be indistinguishable from gibberish, as the ‘Taliesin’ quote above makes clear. Oh, that’s right, because it was a ‘super secretive “high level” plot’. Yep, this guy has cobbled together the world’s first Ripper/Dracula conspiracy theory.
  4. Jesus Christ, the exclamation marks! The Taliesin blog remarks upon their use within the published book, and the Amazon book preview and linked email to the JTR forums demonstrate it amply! This alone would drive me mad in trying to read the whole book! Also, what’s with the long……………….. lines of periods? (!)
  5. Some basic errors. In his email to the admin of the Casebook.org forums the author states; ‘…it was not a coincidence that Dracula’s arrival at Whitby and the first “Ripper” killing both took place on August 7th‘. He’s right, it is no coincidence. Because the first of the five ‘canonical’ Ripper murders took place in the early hours of 31st of August 1888. His connection of Dracula’s death by knife to the throat and heart is nonsensical in any case, but the real ‘…reason why Dracula was destroyed, [and] not by a wooden stake (as most people believe)…’ is because in 1897 the trope of a wooden stake had yet to take hold. In the excised chunk of ‘Dracula’ later presented in short story form as ‘Dracula’s Guest’ has a vampire staked with an iron stake. Indeed, the folklore is all over the place on this score; nails, ploughshares, knives, swords, and yes, various species of wood. See Paul Barber’s ‘Vampires, Burial & Death’ for the definitive details on this. Whether the ending of the novel is ‘ambiguous’ or not is subjective, but even as a child of seven when I first read an abridged version, I was pretty clear that Drac wasn’t coming back… (the movies notwithstanding).
  6. The total lack of evidence for any conspiracy theory (perhaps it’s all in the book?). The quote ‘…every book must contain some lesson, but I prefer that the readers should find it out for themselves’ is simply a statement about fiction writing. The preface to the 1901 ‘edition’ (Icelandic rewrite as ‘Taliesin’ says) that has got various people before Struthers excited is simply a tongue-in-cheek piece of make believe and an acknowledgement of the debt owed to the real-life Ripper murders as partial inspiration for his novel. The quote ‘..the strange and eerie tragedy which is portrayed here is true, as far as all external circumstances are concerned’ has been taken out of context. Read the whole preface; he is pretending that his own story might be real, a bit like Dan Brown pretending that his novels are based on real events. Don’t believe me? Read the whole preface. For example; ‘Everyone who participated in this remarkable story is well-known and respected. Jonathan Harker and his wife, who is a respectable woman, and Dr. Seward have been my friends for many years…’. He is writing about his own FICTIONAL characters as though they are real. Thus we cannot take the claim that the plot really took place literally. It is an allusion to the real events of 1888 framed as a meta-narrative device.
  7. The author has also made other superficially sensational claims that are also just spins on well known facts. The influence of Baring-Gould’s ‘Book of Werewolves’ is very well understood by just about anyone that knows the novel, and it is only one source used by Stoker. ‘Carmilla’ is very influential indeed, for example. As Dacre Stoker implies, to say that Dracula came from any one source, and especially one one geographical place is nonsense. Good way to get into a local paper to promote one’s unpublished book though…

 

I noted that the author, Andrew Struthers, claimed to be presenting his research at the 2016 World Dracula Congress, but a check of their website shows that he applied to attend, but apparently ultimately was not invited as either a keynote or ‘workshop’ speaker. Frankly, the guy appears delusional. Take this Facebook exchange with the admin of The Dracula Society:

 

‘This will come to be known as one of the most important books ever written………it is the story of a terrible nightmare that enveloped Victorian England in 1888. It is Stoker’s TRUE story of MAD DOCTOR JACK…….known the world over as THE RIPPER!!!’

 

To which the official response was;

 

‘Sorry to break the news to you, Andy – but Dracula a) isn’t about Jack The Ripper and b) is fiction..’

 

Challenged by another commenter to provide some evidence that doesn’t require buying and drinking his ‘snake oil’, Struthers goes on to claim that established Dracula scholars (notably Dr Elizabeth Miller, whose book ‘Dracula: Sense and Nonsense’ I heartily recommend) ‘are reading’ the book, but offers no actual endorsement. Incidentally, he also thinks he’s found ‘Dracula’s grave’, by which he clearly means the grave of Francis Tumblety, which has never in fact been lost…

 

So as yet there is no validation, peer review, or acceptance of his work. I’m not sure there will be either, since his hypothesis really nothing more than an amalgamation of Robert Eighteen-Bisang’s claim that Dracula was primarily based on the Ripper (already a reach), the commonly held preference for Francis Tumblety as a suspect (for which there is no evidence), and Stephen Knight’s mental idea that the Ripper murders were covered up by the authorities in an elaborate conspiracy. Ironically, this book about Dracula is actually a ‘Frankenstein’s Monster’(……..!!!!!!!!!).

 

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.

Tomb of Dracula?

June 14, 2014

is-dracula-story-real-vampires-daughter-and-tomb-found-in-naples-stone

Well, no, it isn’t.

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!

head

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;

effigy

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.

Slicing the Upper Crust

March 24, 2013

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?

Sanity Clause

December 23, 2012

OK, this one actually IS relevant to the season. This is a fascinating piece on the ‘links’ between shamanism, drug-taking, and the modern figure of Santa Claus. Not because of the hypothesis itself, which is pretty tenuous to say the least, but for the fact that it’s actually self-debunking. It starts out making specious connections between the (pre)historic reality of spiritual leaders taking drugs to (amongst other things) experience flight, and the folkloric/fictional activities of St. Nicholas and his derivatives. But the last third or so makes pretty clear that there’s no evidence for any of it, and those who actually work in the relevant historical fields aren’t convinced. Ronald Hutton’s comments should carry particular weight. Even the editor has left a qualifying ‘may’ in the title. Thus, no journalistic standards have been compromised, and yet I wonder whether most readers won’t still come away with the impression that Santa = Shaman.

Whilst part of me wants to rant about this, actually I wonder if this isn’t a clever way for everyone to enjoy this story. My own work on the vampire killing kits ended up being reported in a similar way, and despite my best efforts, many would still have failed to pick up the message I’ve been trying to convey (they’re not ‘real’, but they’re still worthy of interest). But the comments on the above article demonstrate a good deal of incredulity and some actual scepticism, so people are thinking critically about this kind of bold historical claim.

 

 

You’ve Got Red On You

December 22, 2012

‘Santa vs Zombies’ by Victor Negreiro

(Nothing to do with my title, which is a ‘Shaun of the Dead’ reference)

Why is Santa Claus’ tunic red? Because of Coca-Cola? S’Nope! To conceal the wounds he sustains in battle, of course! OK, perhaps not. But that explanation really has been offered on many an occasion to explain why the British ‘redcoat’ was so clad, especially in the US. A seamless seasonal link there, I think you’ll agree. The implication being that the British army that fought the American Revolution comprised thousands of scared impressed conscripts who would rout at the drop of a hat, were it not for the tyrannical discipline of their officers. Even the British have made this claim, probably because until relatively recently, soldiers were very much looked down upon in British society, such that a slight against their courage wouldn’t necessarily be a slight against the army or the Empire. Francis Grose, in his  ‘Military Antiquities’, states (though I can’t find the original source he cites online);

‘Julius Ferretus, a writer of the middle of the 16th century, in his Treatife on the Military Science, fays, that foldiers commonly wore a fhort red fagum, or frock, which colour was chofen that they might not be difcouraged by the fight of the blood from their wounds.’
-Grose, Military Antiquities, 1788 (p.6)

So this idea was a contemporary one. Nevertheless, it’s pretty dubious. Military uniforms were bold solid colours because for line infantry (riflemen and light infantry being a special case) there was no tactical need for anything that would blend in. It was also a bonus for officers and general staff to be able to see where their men were on the black powder-filled battlefield, and for the men themselves to be able to tell each other apart in close quarters. More significantly, in an age before chemical dyes, there was also quite a limited colour palette to choose from. Hiding your sucking chest wound had nothing to do with it. A fellow WordPress blogger has a good summary of why this claim is bogus. It points out that blood is in fact quite visible against red fabric, something I can vouch for having seen period uniform still bearing obvious blood stains. But I’m just as interested in where these things come from as debunking them. So where does this red herring originate? Well, it’s actually pretty ancient – 1st Century A.D. ancient, in fact:

‘They used to wear red tunics in battle to disguise and hide the blood from their wounds, not that the sight of the wounds would terrify them, but it might make the enemy a little more confident.’
-Valerius Maximus on the Spartans

Of course we have no way of knowing whether the Spartans really did this, but as another practical warfighting race, like the British later on, it seems pretty unlikely. The claim was recycled five hundred years later by an ecclesiastical scholar of the ancient world;

‘The reddened (russata) garment, which the Greeks call Phoenician and we call scarlet, was invented by the Lacedaemonians so as to conceal the blood with a similar color whenever someone was wounded in battle, lest their opponents’ spirits rise at the sight.’
-Isidore of Seville, Origines XIX, xxii, 10

Intriguingly, Isidore also says that Roman soldiers were known as russati because of the similarly red tunics that they wore; a direct foreshadowing of the British ‘redcoats’. I suspect our missing link here is a later writer, perhaps at the height of the British Empire in the Victorian period, deliberately drawing an analogy between the armies of the two empires, just as Valerius had by referencing the Spartans. The russati/redcoat connection would have reinforced this Britain=Rome meme, and might even have inspired the appropriation of the old Spartan/Roman myth. Now, this could be used by both proponents and enemies of a given country/empire, depending how it’s spun. Valerius and Isidore give a positive angle, but perhaps more logical is the negative version in currency by the 19th century, and presumably earlier:

‘English children are, perhaps, still taught that French soldiers wear red trousers in order that the sight of blood may not frighten them in war-time ; and doubtless French children imbibe a similar theory regarding the English red coats.’
-J.A. Farrer in ‘The Gentleman’s Magazine’, 1885**

Farrer’s summary is actually very comprehensive, although I couldn’t find the original source for this claim of his; ‘Lycurgus, the Spartan lawgiver…chose it, according to Xenophon, because red is most easily taken by cloth and most lasting;’ Which is a shame, because it would predate even Valerius (Xenophon being active c300 BC) Nevertheless, it’s still far closer to the truth than the blood thing, for which there is no evidence and no plausibility. After all, I can’t see this chap being overly worried about a spot of blood on his cloak, can you?

 

 

Expanded references; *Wardle, D. Valerius Maximus’ Memorable Deeds and Sayings: Book 1. Oxford University Press (Clarendon Ancient History Series): Oxford and New York, 1998, p57, Ch.6 para.2. **Farrer, J.A. Curiosities of Military Discipline, The Gentleman’s Magazine, Vol.258-259,1885, p.133.

Aaaaagh! Vampire log!

July 31, 2012

Or is a saintly log? Surprisingly good preservation is often cited in folklore and history as evidence for a) vampires and revenants or conversely b) the very pious, depending largely upon one’s social status. If you’re a peasant with retarded decomp, you’re a tool of the devil, whilst if you’re a dead abbot or similar, you might even get canonised.

The deceased tree member in question seems to have attracted the interest of the superstitious because the locals expect wood to rot underground or in water. Well, sometimes it does. Other times, not so much. It depends entirely on the conditions involved, included the levels of oxygen in the water. The fact that they equate the decay rate of wood with that of metal shows a misunderstanding of how things decompose. I’m no expert myself, but I would certainly consult one before leaping to the conclusion that I had a magical garden fence.

More Hidden Music?

May 14, 2012

My scepticism as to the ‘hidden’ music of Rosslyn Chapel is well-documented. The same people have also tried to show hidden music in planets, plants, and even the DNA of customers. Now it’s the turn of artwork by, and you can probably guess this one, Leonardo Da Vinci. It’s his ‘Portrait of a Musician’ (not, as the Daily Record states, ‘The Musician’), and you can see the inscription of interest in this hires version of it.

In contrast to previous efforts, there’s actually some musical notation on that piece of paper. However, there’s no actual claim in the article that they’ve managed to decipher it. They are ‘…working on trying to find a piece of music which fits…’. And we all know where fitting the facts to the evidence leads. We also know that these guys did not find the musical notes in question. They were uncovered in 1905 after restoration work, and have been plainly visible since.

Finally, there’s the claim that the first word (but not, apparently, the second) of the phrase ‘Agnus Dei’ appears backwards on the same part of the painting. All sources I could find state that the text reads ‘CANT. ANG.‘, for ‘Cantum Angelicum’, a work by the supposed subject of the painting, Franchino Gaffurio. Even if that interpretation is itself highly speculative, I can’t see the letters resolving into ‘AGNUS DEI’ any way you cut it. You can just make out the letters in this zoomable version of the painting, and this Wikimedia version. I thought I’d have a bash at mirroring it myself. Here’s the original;

You can see the large capital ‘C’, and then what has traditionally been read as ‘ant’, all one discrete word. There’s then a space, and a very clear capital ‘A’ followed by the ‘n’ of ‘ang’, with a horizontal line below. You can just barely make out the lower case ‘g’ that follows it (look for the tail in faded, brown ink if you’re struggling).

Now, here’s the mirrored version;

The only way in which I can see what they’re seeing is if I ignore what is now the first bit entirely, and take the ‘A’ as the first letter of ‘Agnus’, ignore the gap and then interpret the next letter as ‘G’ by ignoring the horizontal stroke of the ‘t’, keeping the ‘n’ but calling the ‘a’ a ‘u’, and then somehow taking the reversed ‘C’ as an enormous deformed ‘s’.

See what you can see.

A Ripper of an Idea

May 8, 2012

Another day, another Jack the Ripper suspect, this time put forward by former solicitor John Morris. As ever, we’ve no more reason to believe this suggestion than any of the dozens of others that have been advanced, sometimes repeatedly, over the years. At least the name appears to be a new one, even if the idea of the Ripper being a woman certainly is not.

Be wary of definitive statements about 120-year-old cold cases;

‘There’s absolutely no doubt that the Ripper was a woman.’

It’s pretty clear that there is, I’m afraid. The list of proof reads like a textbook definition of ‘circumstantial evidence’, and are not necessarily even established facts. I’m no Ripperologist, but in 20 minutes of investigoogling found some problems with the claims made in the press piece. Firstly;

‘Three small buttons from a woman’s boot were found in blood near Catherine Eddowes’

…is true, but lacks some important context. The actual source reads;

‘Sergeant Jones picked up from the foot way by the left side of the deceased three small black buttons, such as are generally used for boots, a small metal button, a common metal thimble, and a small penny mustard tin containing two pawn-tickets.’

Note that the boot association comes from a policemans’ attempt to describe the objects in the absence of a photograph, and the fact that the buttons were found with various other objects you might expect to find in a woman’s handbag or pocket. It’s far more likely that the buttons were loose and in the victim’s possession than it is that they were somehow torn from the killer’s person.

That a Victorian journalist thought arranging items in some kind of order was a ‘feminine’ trait reveals far more about Victorian attitudes to gender (and possibly our own if we’re prepared to set store by them) than it does about our elusive killer.

Finally, I’m not sure how we can know that Mary Jane Kelly had ‘never been seen wearing’ the clothes found in her fireplace, as one witness does describe a hat and jacket, and another (contradictory) witness specifies a pelerine (cape) and skirt. Eyewitness testimony being notoriously unreliable, of course.

I should reserve judgement until someone (not sure I can face another Ripper book) has analysed the main thesis and evidence for it. But on past form, I can’t hold my breath. We will almost certainly never know who Jack the Ripper was, and it’s no coincidence that scholarly study in the area is more concerned with the social historical context of the killings than it is with the futile search for the actual killer. Personally, my money’s still on the Phantom Raspberry-Blower.