On Silver Bullets, Werewolves, and Gévaudan

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

Then in he pat a silver crucky [sixpence],

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

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

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

It will you fell.”’

 

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

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

 

‘And how a witch, in shape of owl,

Did steal her neighbour’s geese, sir,

And turkies too, and other fowl,

When people did not please her.

Yankee doodle, &c.

And how a man, one dismal night,

Shot her, with silver bullet,*

And then she flew straight out of sight,

As fast as she could pull it.

Yankee doodle, &c.

How Widow Wunks was sick next day,

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

Where foresaid ball went through her !

Yankee doodle, Sec.

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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‘sup niggas?

Aaaaaah! Ghost dog!

I trust readers will recognise my title for what it is (an ironic Shaun of the Dead quote), and not go all drama-llama on me. That aside, I had to post about this pathetic piece of ‘news’

Ghost of the Dambusters dog: Picture ‘shows long-dead Labrador’ at memorial to WWII heroes

More in the form of a video from the Beeb (shame!) here.

If it’s a ‘long-dead’ dog, then why the blue blazes is one of the schoolgirls in the grainy photo touching the bloody thing? We don’t even get the usual photographic anomaly – what this ‘story’ boils down to is a real, flesh-and-blood dog wandering over to a group photo (‘appearing from nowhere’) and then wandering off again (disappearing, ‘never to be seen again’). Well, if that’s the photographer being quoted, who was only visiting RAF Scampton, why the hell would he see it again?? If he’s saying that no-one ever saw it again, how the heck does he/anyone know? Black labs are hardly rare, and tend to all look alike (racist black mark #2 against me I fear). I seriously doubt that none have ever visited since.

The idea that you can precisely measure a ‘dog-sized’ area of depressed temperature is hilarious.  I find it odd that despite claiming that the group’s aim is ‘to debunk rather than prove’, it seems that Mr Drake’s mind is made up in this case despite the flimsy evidence, when he’s quoted as saying;

‘There is definitely paranormal activity there.’

Not so much evidence of the paranormal. More evidence that school choirs make field trips and black labradors like people. Newsflash.

This may be great PR for Scampton and may help keep the memory of 617 Sqn alive as the quoted historian says (although the words ‘end’, ‘justifies’ and ‘means’ spring to mind), but let’s not forgot that it also generates more publicity for the ghost hunting group coming up with these claims.

“Wee Annie” at Mary King’s Close

annieTerrifying, I think you’ll agree.

The historic site (now tourist attraction) of Mary King’s Close in Edinburgh has long been associated with superstition and fear ever since its supposed closure and sealing off after “the plague”. In fact as the current tour guides SHOULD tell you according to their own script (but might not), the death of the close was gradual, the plague no worse there than anywhere else in the city. It was at least partly occupied until the beginning of the 20th century. In the late 90s it was reopened to one of the many city and ghost tour companies that operate nearby, and in 2003 as another of the lucrative tourist attractions on the tourist route of the Royal Mile.

Things seem to have started out well, with actual historical and archaeological research being done (though to this day pretty inaccessible to the general public outside of the venue – some stuff is with RCAHMS) under the direction of a actual academic and professional historians/archaeologists. The apparent mission statement was to “separate fact from fiction“. But although the new tour draws upon this research and purports to tell the “real stories” of the “real people” that lived there, the superstitious folk history of the Close is alive (or should that be undead?) and well. Ghost-hunting events are regularly held, the media is courted with ghost stories and spooky photos, and at least two ghost stories are incorporated into the main guided tour. In fairness, it’s still not as OTT as many of the other city tours in this regard.

I’m going to focus on perhaps the most famous ghost of the close – “Wee Annie”. She was even featured on Billy Connolly’s World Tour of Scotland – he has apparently since become rather more sceptical (or in fact, cynical!). In the constant retelling of the story, details such as the ghost’s age vary, but the basic elements are fairly consistent. There are many media reports with two things in common – very little info and very little in the way of scepticism. I’d been told this tale on a prior visit and on that occasion, I regret to admit, coughed the word “bullshit” when the story of Annie came up. The second time around I resolved to be more fair-minded about it, and asked the tour guide whether a historical girl called Annie had been found to live in this part of the close. He asserted that this was indeed the case, that she had been the daughter of the merchant that owned that very house. I didn’t think to ask him for his sources, and besides, I was conscious of appearing to be a bit of a git. Later, I decided to contact the person that oversaw the historical side of the research. As predicted, the guide was wrong. There was a reference found to a family with a little girl, but she wasn’t left to die, wasn’t called Annie or Anne, and there’s no evidence that the family even lived in that house, or even that part of the close. I don’t think the guide was lying. I suspect he was a victim of “script creep” and Chinese Whispers conveyed by his colleagues. These are common problems with guided tours, even in environments where academic support is to hand (and in this case, they have long since moved on to other projects).

So history doesn’t support the claim. What about other evidence? It’s always best to go back to source – in this case I couldn’t find any footage from the actual event. Anecdotally, there seems to have been a ghost story about a little girl with the plague walled up within a house in the Close – a friend heard this from the guide on her school trip there back in the early 80s (when I believe the Council provided limited access) and in fact, still believed the old folk tale about the inhabitants being abandoned in this way. The oldest version you’ll find online is fully-developed dates from 1998. The guy in the video wasn’t actually there but heard the story second-hand. Not ideal, but better than version many more generations old and potentially corrupt. Here it is (transcribed below);

“About six years ago there was a Japanese medium down here. She was touring the UK with Japanese television – they were doing a whole series of articles on psychic phenomena. They came to Edinburgh and someone suggested they ask permission to come down here. It was granted, the city official who brought them down told me this story. It was a lady he said, I brought this lady down here with one cameraman, and he said to her “right I’m going to take the cameraman into this room behind me, probably used for the butler or housekeeper – they invariably had a separate pantry. And he said “I want you to come in”. But she stopped at the door there, “oh no” she says, “I’m not going to come in”. The guide says “why not?”. The lady says “well, I sense there’s great sadness in that room. I feel the room is full of very very sick people”. But then two minutes later she changed her mind, she walked in. The guide says “well, two minutes ago you wouldn’t go near the place, why’ve you suddenly gone in?” “Oh” she says, “a little girl’s asking me.” Guide says “what little girl?”. “Oh” she says, “she’s standing here beside me”. Of course the guide says “oh yeah?” <sarcastic> “What does she look like?” She says well, she’s told me her name was “Annie”, she’s about 8 years old, very ragged clothing, she’s very dirty, and she’s crying.” “Now” she says, “I’ve asked her why she’s crying, the child says ‘well, I’ve the sickness'”. Now that is how they’d have referred to the plague they merely called it “the sickness”. This child says “I’ve got the sickness, I’ve been taken away from my family, I didn’t even have time to bring a doll with me”. The Japanese medium says to the cameraman, “go up to one of these tat shops on the Royal Mile and buy a doll. And she put it in the room and she said to the guide “you will never see the child again”. She explained (that) in Japanese culture, it is very important that the ancestor’s spirits are at rest. And she said “when we come across this kind of thing, we leave a symbolic gift. Once the doll was put there, she’s never been seen since.”


There’s a much more modern (hence shorter!) retelling as part of the Ghost Hunters International TV programme. Note that the tour guide (not, as billed, an “historian”) is unequivocal about “Annie’s” existence, story, and status as a ghost. Real people, real stories? Hmm. He doesn’t even mention the psychic, interestingly, but let’s stick with her for a moment.

The psychic in question, Aiko Gibo, seems to have made a career of touring the world giving tourist attractions the gift that keeps on giving – that of ghostly publicity. What’s interesting is her specialism (or lack of imagination, depending upon your point of view) seems to have been seeing ghostly little girls. For instance;

“…Aiko Gibo – a psychic from Japan who was visiting us, said the ghost of a little girl was present…She said that the girl’s ghost was tugging her right hand.”

Sound familiar? How about this?

“The psychic was standing still, her arms held in front of her. She claimed that a little girl was tugging on her right thumb — an accurate description of one of the ghosts she was supposed to be seeking.”


No names are given in those cases, you’ll notice. Did Gibo actually provide one herself at Mary King’s Close? Who knows. If she did venture a name, was it actually “Annie” right off the bat? Or was it the old “I’m getting an “A”-name” psychic schtick, refined into “Annie” after the fact? Again, all we have is the oral tradition presented at Mary King’s Close. In fact the very basis for the psychic’s claim is flawed. At the time she visited (and sometimes even now) guides would tell visitors the same thing Edinburgh locals believed – that people with plague were walled up in the close and left to die by the authorities. “Knowing” this, it wouldn’t even take a “psychic” with a penchant for imagining lonely little girls to “see” one here. As (ironically) the tour company now running the place are at pains to point out this just didn’t happen. Plague victims were quarantined in their homes, but they were afforded supplies and medical care (such as it was in those days) and if they recovered (as some did) they would have been permitted to leave. The Close was only finally abandoned wholesale when the City Chambers were built over the top of it (and even then some remained). You could of course rationalise that it was just this girl that was locked in a room. But the obvious explanation is that this is just a modern descendant of the whispered tales of imagined horror exchanged by bored locals in that part of the city from very early on. It only takes a generation or two for people to forget the reality and begin concocting a folk explanation for mysterious places (and of course for “ghost” sightings).

Thanks largely to Gibo, Annie and the growing tasteless mound of dusty toys are both now long-standing fixtures of the tour and associated publicity. As the authors of an Edinburgh guidebook have commented;

“It’s hard to tell what’s more frightening – the story of the ghostly girl, or the bizarre heap of tiny dolls and teddies left in a corner by sympathetic visitors”.

Annie and the close have entered the digital age with an equally tasteless MySpace marketing site. And you know you’re on to a winner when the Most Haunted buffoons roll up outside. Amateur ghosthunters have had a field day since then. One group (featured on this blog before and a charming bunch) even claims to have recorded “EVP” evidence. Listen to it for yourself and see if it sounds like “she’s a good girl”, as they claim, or something other. I propose “it’s a load of poo”. At least mine has the right number of syllables. Even the “professionals” of the Most Haunted team found nothing more than anecdote – some from staff to the effect of nondescript creepy feelings, noises, apparitions etc, and one from a member of the crew who claims that one of the toys from the shrine flew past his face. Ciaran O’Keefe (who would later out Derek Acorah as a fraud) does well to point out that this is far from secure evidence. Acorah doesn’t even get the well-publicised story right, calling the girl “Mary” (probably conflating the name of the woman for which the Close is claimed to be named (itself a dubious claim) with its most famous ghost. If you’d like to see them, the relevant sections of the episodes are here and here (timecode 6:35, also 8:30).

It’s worth noting that these people (and indeed visitors) may not imagining all of their feelings of dread, lowered temperatures etc. O’Keefe, Richard Wiseman, Chris French and others (online articles available for any interested readers) are still looking into the possibility that environmental factors can create “hauntings” – that natural electromagnetic fields, infrasound, certain lighting conditions etc, might trigger these ghosty responses in us, in specific locations. It seems likely that imagination and suggestibility still play a large part however (e.g. one experiment showed that people will report a lowering of temperature even where none has occurred).

So I think what we have here is an interesting survival of a piece of folklore – the original ghost story was an emotionally powerful way of retelling the old myth that the mysterious mostly-abandoned Close was a) the result of the authorities’ disdain for common people and b) haunted as a result. And the MKC attraction perpetuates it despite the fact that their tours were designed specifically to debunk the myths of the Close, and even cites that research to enhance the “truthiness” of the story. As a money-making (though not for profit) company, it’s easy to see why they would retain such a great piece of marketing. Sex may sell, but so do ghosts! Even my misinformed tour guide later made noises to the effect that the Annie story’s veracity didn’t really matter – it was just an exemplar for the sort of short, brutish, poverty and disease-ridden lives that a majority of people in Edinburgh/Scotland’s history have suffered. And a way to raise money (see also here) for ill young children at an Edinburgh hospital. Needless to say, it also maintains the attraction of the place to a wider range of visitor types and therefore helps keep the funds coming in. Periodic ghost “sightings” and other press and media work must help keep heads above water too. But do these ends justify the means? Does misrepresenting facts of history and of science justify the money it brings in? Are we content to prostitute unique pieces of built and cultural heritage in order to help keep them going? I suspect the answer is “yes”, but we don’t all have to like it, and we should try for better.

NB A very interesting discussion of this issue (mentioning MKC) can be found here.

Haunted Hangars

aces-highOk, so Eddie’s not a ghost, but you get the picture…

I don’t know if it’s their proximity to the proverbial heavens, a high stress working environment and the prospect of imminent flaming death, but the flying services have always been even more superstitious than the British Army and Royal Navy. UFOs, time travel, and of course, ghosts. Not just Spiritualists and other fans of the paranormal, but aviation enthusiasts, journalists (mainstream as well as aviation specialist), and otherwise down-to-earth types thrill to tales of haunted airbases and service spirits – caring little for the “normal” bounds of good taste and respect for the dead. For the latter reasons, as well as academic reputation and PR worries, many museums are wary of such things – others see no harm in it and even staff take part in “investigations”. I’ve chosen to dissect two little jaunts taken by the “Ghost Club” to the former RAF East Fortune in Scotland, now their National Museum of Flight. These are – the first investigation in 2005 and the second, the following year. Note that the website design makes referencing very difficult (hell, it makes even READING difficult too!). So you can either read just my assessment, or the original reports in their entirety (bloody good luck to you).

These reports follow a pretty typical “paranormal investigation” template. A spooky setting, a smattering of research, lots of imagination and whatever technological gizmos you can muster all combine to give the illusion of meaningful research and essentially, a form of entertainment. Think “Most Haunted” meets “Ghostbusters”. As evidence-gathering exercises, these as essentially worthless, but are arguably harmless and I suppose help keep these people off the streets. But often they stray into the misrepresentation of history, and that’s where my interest is piqued. I’ll start with what they do get right – skipping right to the end of the second report they are quite correct to say that Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding was a member of the very same Ghost Club. Surprising and disappointing perhaps, but to a sceptic, this only serves to prove that rank, status and/or education level are no barrier to flights of fancy.  Credulity is an equal opportunity employer. In fact to cite a notable individual in an area outisde their professional expertise is a False Appeal to Authority – Dowding, nor any other  officer, was/is qualified to pronounce upon matters paranormal. Their testimony is no more or less vulnerable than anyone elses – which is to say since the evidence for the paranormal is wholly anecdotal, it is more telling about the way the human mind works than how “spirits” manifest (or otherwise). Any weight it carries in this regard (as in the relevance of his profession) is diminished when you consider that he became convinced of such things only when he had retired from the RAF (rather as with Victor Goddard, who I covered in this writeup).

The “evidence” gleaned by the elite ghost hunting team itself is far from impressive. Most of the content amounts to anecdotal evidence of “strange feelings” and sightings. Old places are creepy – why does this equate to “haunted”? Evolutionary psychology is just one alternate hypothesis that doesn’t violate the laws of physics – parapsychology has unearthed plenty of others. The “obvious cold spots and breezes” (felt and measured) and the spirit “orbs” (aka dust) reported in report 2 should need no explanation, taking place as they do in a drafty 60-year old building not intended to have lasted this long. One member is reported as being cold relative to the hot hangar – if you’ve ever touched another person (must avoid obvious jibe) you’ll know that they can feel very cold to the touch if your own body temperature is quite high – it’s all relative. Various ailments are mentioned, including a headache, aches and pains and so on. The rational explanation for these is good old fashioned imagination, as well as the much greater attention being paid to one’s own senses, plus the extra significance attributed to this. If you have a headache anywhere else, you don’t assume it’s a ghost causing it. Do you?

As for gizmos, the prized PKE meter, er, I mean “Tri-Field Meter” – detects electromagnetic fields, which are all over the place, mainly where man-made electrical equipment is to be found (obvious or hidden) – even this team admits that their readings at East Fortune were unremarkable. Even if they had decided that they were – since there is no reason to believe that a putative ghost gives off EM radiation, I’m not sure of the point to even looking for it – other than to feel like Egon Spengler that is.  As sceptic RemieV points out, if the meter fails to register your own “soul”, why on earth would it detect a disembodied one?! Similar applies to the reports of a failing camera and torch. This sort of report is typical of these investigations, but for it to even begin to tell us anything, you’d need to know whether the same result is repeatable in different (“non-haunted”) locations. This is rather like the feeling that you might be psychic just because you think of a friend at the time the phone rings. How many times does that torch not work properly when there no suggestion of a “spirit” in the vicinity? Are you sure the batteries are fresh? The contacts clean and not bent? Are you using rechargeable batteries that have drained since being charged or are nearing the end of their lives/got only a partial charge? Etc etc. Whilst on the subject of electronics, it seems that EVP was a total bust – there’s usually some muffled sound that you can pretend is a word or phrase, but apparently not in this case.

The scratch on the neck “manifestation” towards the end of report 2, well, you can conduct your own experiment here. Gently scratch your skin with your nail – the sort of scratch you might absent-mindedly make whilst hanging around a spooky old building in the dark. Notice a lack of any red mark. Watch your skin. Concentrate… See the red mark “manifesting”? See how it fades as well? Amazing! Spirit wounds!

On to the historical “content”. The intuition of “RAF Officers marching past the Education Building and heading up towards buildings at the top of the base” is not an auspicious start. It’svague enough to mean just about anything, and is not really falsifiable/verifiable. However, it’s worth noting that you’d be more likely to see maintenance personnel in these areas than officers – the entire modern day museum site consists of the technical part only. That the psychic “felt the atmosphere and (sic) that end of the hangar heavier” might mean something, if only they had bothered to a) quantify what “heavier” means and b) attempt to measure this heaviness in some way.

There are some specifics to work with. Visitors, staff and the “psychic” claim to have seen ghostly figures in the Bristol Bolingbroke and Twin Pioneer aeroplanes. Clearly I can’t prove that they were mistaken, but I can point out that the Bolingbroke (Canadian-built Blenheim bomber) had no combat history – it was a trainer and target tug. The “Twin Pin” served in Borneo – no information is available online as to any casualties, but equally there’s no reason to expect that this mostly civilian-operated aircraft should attract dead people. Then there’s the German aircraft engine, which the writer admits to knowing, in advance, to be attributed to Rudolf Hess’s Messerschmitt fighter. Despite this, the answers they get are so wrong it’s not even funny. They get a yes to an impossibility – that the spirit could be associated with both the engine and a nearby airframe, and the pendulum gives the wrong year. Same story with “did you give a false name?” (it’s well known that Hess did) – a “no” to “is the false name starting with “A” results in some truly acrobatic post-hoc rationalisation that the spirit must have given a false, false name! Guess either the idiomotor effect – http://skepticwiki.org/index.php/Ideomotor_effect – wasn’t kicking in that night, or the person with the pendulum wasn’t the one with the knowledge.

Now, there might conceivably have been deaths (and by extension, ghosts) associated with the service histories of these exhibits, but these people have not even shown this to be a possibility by researching the airframes. Heck, these figures might be the ghosts of plane-spotters! Or, you know, figments of imagination.

It probably won’t be a surprise at this point that none of the names brought forth by either investigation checks out . Many are just first names (Archie?!) or even nicknames, and where a full name is provided, they go to no effort at all to verifiy it. At least “Most Haunted” admits when it’s been unable to verify names. If you aren’t going to research your findings, why even bother? East Fortune’s casualties are well documented and accounted for, and it would be a simple matter to check anything less vague than a forename – which may be part of the reason why we get so few full names – Martyn Reynolds and Walter Jackson. The former does not appear in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission database, whilst the more common Walter Jackson name appears three times. None of these tally with wartime casualties at East Fortune – and there isn’t even a “Peter T” among the WW2 casualties at the base (and no matter how “low” his rank, he wouldn’t have been wearing a “beret” either). This is easily checked with publically accessible sources (not least the museum itself). The question and answer session with pendulum would also seem to contain verifiable info – a well-known woman local to the area that lived in a big house and flew on Concorde with the title of “Lady” and who died in her 60s? Come on people, at least pretend to take this stuff seriously – do some damned research! The figure with “fair hair” and “a cap” seen by the psychic near the Concorde is just hilariously vague and unhelpful, whether you’re believer or sceptic. As for a mechanic called “Ruggers” – what a great move. Nicknames! Why didn’t she think of this wheeze sooner? And then the devastatingly evidential “Derek discovered…hangar 1 had been used for maintenance during WW2 – Derek did not have previous information of this.” – the majority of the whole frickin’ SITE was used for maintenance – the barracks and admin buildings were some distance away and aren’t part of the museum.

602sqn1

The group’s “psychic” converses at one point with a spirit of a member of 602 (City of Glasgow) Squadron. There’s a suggestion that he was a mechanic, though he is said to be keen to “get away from the mechanics”, which is contradictory. In any case, this squadron was not based at East Fortune in the year given, nor indeed any other. The final question “is there still flying here” with the response “don’t be daft” is rather interesting, as the site (though not that location) is still used to operate microlights and visiting aircraft for the annual airshow. Later on in the first report and again in the second, we see “misses” like these rationalised as “hits” with the claim (by a member of staff no less) that East Fortune was a “sister base” to Drem. This is not true in any meaningful sense. In WW2, RAF East Fortune was a bomber aircrew *training* station, Drem an operational fighter base. Exchange of staff between the two would have been limited to recreation – Drem held dances and other entertainments. The reason that the team keeps moving the goalposts and applying their “findings” to nearby Drem is that is was a classic fighter station, precisely the sort of place most people think of when someone says “WW2 airfield”. Thus all the vague military aviation-related pronouncements apply better there. This is a classic tactic of Cold Reading (though this is not that as such) – to shift the meaning and/or emphasis of a statement to help the sitter find some significance where none exists. The “Group 2” exchange in the first report seems to show that this group were aware, or were made aware during their visit, that this was no fighter station and they (the psychic) was barking up the wrong tree. I suspect that this group’s attached member of staff had told or reminded them of this (unintentional cold reading again), but of course I can’t know that. The pseudo-cold reading happens elsewhere – rather transparently, in report 2 – when a mention by the psychic of a visit by a Rear Admiral is forced to fit the facts that Royal Navy involvement at the site was during WW1 and in the flight of the R34 airship immediately afterward; a truly monumental level of wishful thinking. Certainly there was no “Captain Lucas” associated with the R34 as is suggested. This sort of detail is not difficult to verify/discount . Note that their pet psychic still doesn’t get with the programme even after a previous visit – she “sees” a member of aircrew with a non-existent RAF rank (Captain) who gives a date of 1939, which the group admits is two years before the base actually (re)opened. I suppose this at least suggests she’s not a conscious fraud, or she’d have done a little Googling or at least remembered the previous visit! Yet another example is the name Billy Green (still no match with available records) in report 1, which is made into a “hit” by assuming that the spirit must be a dead relative of one of the club members (also called “Billy”). With this approach, you can make anything meaningful, and if you don’t check it out, you can live in blissful and wilful ignorance of reality.

The dedication to memory of the servicemen and women of the world wars shows respect I suppose, but if we’re going to Appeal to Emotion, I don’t think this activity is respectful at all. I think this misdirected hero worship – bearing in mind the paucity of evidence for life after death, let alone ghosts themselves, is little more than pissing on their graves. Goodness knows how their living relatives and descendents feel about it. And I really don’t know what to make of the playing along with this charade by museum staff. Allowing access is one thing – to actively encourage and join in with vague feelings of ghostiness, quite another. Whilst there remains a possibility that strange feelings are caused by environmental factors like infrasound, it’s made clear that at least one staffer actually claims to have seen actual apparitions. If they are sincere about this, they’re as credulous as the “Clubbers”. If they were simply playing along, then they’re exploiting these people a la Yvette Fielding in Most Haunted. Regardless, personally, I don’t find the later assurances that this person “verified” this “very correct” information, particularly authoritative. Simply working at (especially managing!) a museum doesn’t qualify one to pronounce on historical matters (not today, at any rate), even if you do think that your dog can see dead people. And if it were possible, as claimed, to confirm facts, why isn’t this verification given in the report?

Well, that about wraps it up. Deeply unimpressive stuff, even by the standards of believers. I mean, ghostly stomach rumbles? Really guys, why even publish this stuff online? It’s enough to keep the true believers interested I guess. I’ll leave you, dear reader, with a final quote – “By now, most of the circle members were experiencing facial discomfort.” I imagine you know how they feel by this point…

Your mother tucks cots in hell.

exorcist

Geddit? Cots? Beds? Hospital corners? Okay, it’s another lame and contrived pun title. But I’m standing on the shoulders of giants here;

Surgical Spirit! Spooked managers call in exorcist to Derby’s new Royal Hospital!“, enthuses The Sun.

“National Haunted Service”, tabloids The Times.

Chaplain to ward off hospital ghost“, chortles the Guardian.

As well as the less amusing;

Hospital calls in exorcist after ghost spotted“, from the Telegraph and..

“Such an intriguing story”, from the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme, laughing up its collective sleeve.

If the email reproduced in the press is accurate, I share their contempt and amusement. The NHS manager states that they are going to bring in outside “help”, and have the ghost “exorcised”. But I think we have treat such reports with as much scepticism as their contents. The source of the story is the Sun, for goodness sake – why are other, supposedly respectible papers, simply repeating the story? In fact, why are they even giving this the time of day? This is cat-stuck-up-tree stuff, isn’t it? I assume it’s because of the obvious implications – that the much-maligned NHS is yet again incompetent, and/or wasting taxpayer’s money. Quality of course aside, we have the actual statements from the hospital, most importantly a published denial;

“”There is absolutely no truth in what has been reported in the media that an exorcism has been arranged.

“We will be talking to staff in the department to listen to their concerns. We respect our staff and always listen to their views to help put minds at ease.”

The BBC reported similarly;

“If we receive information from staff we always take it seriously and are working with the hospital chaplaincy to put people’s minds at rest.”

Sounds pragmatic to me – acknowledging staff worries whilst not endorsing claims of ghosts. Much as I might wish they’d just tell these people to get a grip, it doesn’t exactly contribute to a good working environment, does it? I can’t know, obviously, but I suspect the manager in question has been asked to have a word with herself about her use of email and her management decisions. Would this have happened without the press focus? I don’t know. I would certainly hope so.

Although the story has been exaggerated and/or the hospital has backed down from actively endorsing the existence of ghosts, I can’t help but agree that this incident shows the level of superstition and lack of critical thinking in public life, and I personally don’t think that irrational beliefs should be pandered to just to make a tricky human resources issue go away. Yet the facts of the case beyond the hysterical email (which surely must have made matters worse for those affected) calling in the God Squad is arguably a reasonable response to a real problem (if not a real ghost). If there’s superstition in your neighbourhood, who you gonna call? It looks like they’ve decided to go with their own chaplaincy service, which appears to be Church of England and therefore less likely to focus on the driving out of spirits. In fact, a “modern” chaplain is more likely to patiently explain various religious viewpoints on “spirits” and reassure people that regardless of these, they won’t be harmed and can go back to work. At “worst”, he’d probably offer a prayer to help lay to rest any “spirits” that were there or people thought were there. Even the loony Catholic dude in the interview below says that an exorcism wouldn’t even be deemed appropriate in this case and that prayer would be used instead. Sure, I would have preferred that they roust out a parapsychologist to explain why they might think they’ve experienced ghosts – isn’t that a better form of reassurance? But how likely is the average NHS manager to know about such things?

this sort of thing is tough to debunk, but not because there’s any evidence that ghosts exist. In fact, it’s difficult for that very reason – the andecdotal evidence we get makes for few specifics from the witnesses themselves. But cases like this do attract specific claims from third parties, often about the likely nature of the ghost in question. This time The Sun (and those lazy sources quoting it) say;

“Experts said the spirit could be the ghost of a Roman soldier killed on the spot where the original hospital was built in the 1920s. Developers ignored protests and covered over part of one of Ancient Britain’s main Roman roads.”

Experts? O RLY? Which experts might those be?

“Ian Wilce, of the Ghost-finder Paranormal Society, said: “There are lots of sightings on such sites.”

Ah, right. THOSE experts. The orb-hunting, tape-recorder toting dust-botherers with too much time on their hands and over-active imaginations. See Counterknowledge’s piece on this story for more on “haunted” Derby.

Well, your friendly neighbourhood BS Historian decided to see what Roman remains are in the area. There are none recorded under that hospital (see here also). The main areas of activity – settlement, industry, and military sites, are further north and west – our Roman ghost is somewhat off the beaten track. The proximity of the Roman road is debatable, since only short sections are ever excavated. Plotted on a map, they DO roughly align with the (very large!) hospital site. You could plot an imaginary course that would wibble the road through the ghost’s lair. However, this blog is about evidence, and the evidence we have does not confirm the hypothesis. No report or news article appears to exist  (online, at any rate) showing another section of Roman road found at the site. Or ANY archaeological find, for that matter (if you have more info – add a comment below). Again, the road MIGHT run under the hospital building in question, but it’s as (more?) likely that it lies some distance away and bypasses the site entirely. All this is rather academic in any case. Yes, IF ghosts existed, it COULD be a Roman soldier wandering about for some reason. Or given the many other periods of occupation in the city, it could be the spirit of ANY human being from any time in the last 12000 years or so! Or someone from the future, from another planet, or any other made-up BS you care to concoct.  And as for the supposed local protests about “covering over” or otherwise disturbing an ancient site (clearly meant to imply local fears of revenge from the other side!), I can find no reference to any such complaints – which would have been ill-founded in any case, since no section of road was found. Without a co-incidental archaeological site under the hospital, this is basically the old indian burial ground urban myth theme, recycled for a British audience.

father-jack1What? Ghosts? Feck off!

But I return once more to the reaction of the media to this story, which is more worthy of despair than the spooktacle itself. Radio 4 actually went as far as to draft in the obligatory nutso clergyman that the media turn to in these situations (Bishop Bonkers, where are you when we need you?). Speak up for our corporeally-challenged friends this time was Dom Antony Sutch, a monk-turned parish priest who is apparently rather easily convinced of paranormal phenomena. I was going to quote from it, but I think the whole thing should be preserved for the embrassment of all concerned. I’ve inserted my own commentary;

____________________________

Interviewer (Edward Stourton) “…do you find this credible, this story?

Sutch – “I do indeed, I do indeed, I have no doubt about it at all. Firstly I trust people, they don’t make these things up, or if they do it’s usually just one or two..

Me – this is the most important statement this guy makes, and it’s the key to this whole story, and indeed a big part of the experience of the paranormal full stop.  Undue acceptance of *anecdotal evidence* with the automatic assumption that if it’s not a real ghost, the witness must be lying. I thought religion tended to teach quite emphatically that people are fallible, but hey, I’m an atheist and a sceptic, what do I know?

…I believe in life after death, therefore I believe there is the possibility of such things, I believe in the power of evil, I think it exists,  and I have the source of that, the original, is Jesus casting out demons.”

Me – He’s very sure, isn’t he? No actual evidence though – he’s Captain Didactic. We’re to take all this on faith. Note that he knows no more about this particular case than we do. Less, arguably. Yet he’s still wheeled out as some sort of expert. To paraphrase Futurama – he is an expert. He’s an expert in baloney.

Int – “You have to be trained in a particular way to be an exorcist do you not?

Sutch – “You do indeed, because evil can be remarkably powerful, extremely devious almost by definition, therefore you have to be somebody of some spiritual strength, ability to understand what’s going on and how to counrteract it. And I’ve had the…privilege I suppose of knowing a couple of exorcists, and one of them told me the most terrifying story of how long it took to expel a demon, but the thing that slightly worries me is normally demons possess people, so this may not necessarily be evil, it could be a disturbed Roman soldier, certainly a disturbed soul, but I don’t think you need an exorcist, you probably just need somebody to pray, to put the spirit to rest.”

Me – Right. And it COULD be the Ghost of Christmas Effing Past – why speculate on what sort of ghost it is, when there’s no evidence that there even is a ghost. Note that he takes the Roman soldier “theory” on board without a second thought. Anecdotal evidence is king, apparently.

Int – “So it’s a job that could be done by someone like yourself in fact?”

Sutch – “well, er.. em em em ha ha, I don’t think I’m worthy of such things, I’m too frightened of evil and suchlike, somebody who is certainly is aware of what is going on, obviously has a fairly strong psyche so that they can counteract any attempt by the spirit to enter them”.

Me – Some sort of ghost chastity belt would seem to be in order…

Int – “But it’s very interesting the distinction you make…do, are you saying that the sort of ghosts that we talk about in ghost stories, spirits…walking in buildings, are slightly different from demons that possess people?

Me – Why on EARTH are you taking this man at face value? This is nonsense!

Sutch – “I would certainly think so yes, I would say that erm demons trying to possess somebody is a very different world, as it were, a very different reaction is needed, to a to a spirit that is…ill at ease, that has been disturbed at rest, and is trying I..as I see it to return to the other world.”

Int – “So this could just be a spirit that ‘s unhappy rather than one that’s actually evil?”

Sutch – “I, I would imagine so yes, I think that if it was a..a..a demon trying to, as it were, wreak havoc, I think we would be far more frightened and people would be more aware of it.

Me – Based on WHAT, exactly? How many people have proven injuries resulting from ghosts? Any recorded evidence of objects being moved or damaged by ghosts? What? What is the evidence for either demons, or ghosts?

Int – “Well it’s intriguing stuff. Dom Antony Sutch thank you very much indeed for talking to us, and I should add that while we were conducting that interview, we’ve had another word from the hospital, we the programme have spoken to the chaplain in Derby, but she refuses to confirm or deny any of the details…the mystery continues…”

_________________________

As a regular listener to this programme, and bearing in mind his co-presenter’s laughter, I’m pretty sure neither presenter believes this guff. So why do they interview him under the pretense that they do? Why do we patronise people like this? For entertainment? So as not to hurt people’s feelings? What’s the harm in questioning his claims and yes, even his beliefs? In what other sphere would BBC journalists give the interviewee this easy a ride?

There you have it. No evidence for a ghost, no reason to think it might be a Roman soldier, and no evidence that an exorcism went ahead. But the media have shown themselves to be willing to exploit believers for cheap laughs and/or cheap thrills, whilst maintaining  faux neutrality. At least I’m honest in my pisstaking! And once again they fail to actually aid understanding of the most likely reasons for experiences of this sort.

More here, from PlanetHumanism – including another bandwagon-jumper babbling about a “psychic sensitivity gene”.


There but for the grace of God(dard)…

People who subscribe to alternative views of history, or for that matter anything generally thought of as “paranormal”, are often regarded as gullible or stupid. In fact the human mind and senses are highly fallible, and without critical thinking skills literally anyone can end up “drinking the kool-aid“. Teachers, academics, presidents, the CIA and British Intelligence have all bought into baseless ideas that are no more valid than the bloke down the pub who swears that dogs can’t look up, yet seem to make perfect sense to them at the time.

And the rest of us in turn, because of our respect and admiration for authority figures and professional people in general, are more likely to sit up and take notice. But this is fallacious reasoning, and to argue that something contrary to established knowledge might be genuine solely on this basis is to appeal to false authority. We should be just as sceptical about claims made by authority figures, and this does not require that we belittle their recognised achievements in their respective fields.

Flight into the Future!
With this in mind, let me relate the story of Air Marshal Sir Robert Victor Goddard, Royal Air Force. With a distinguished military career and a knighthood behind him, it will have come as a surprise to many in 1951 when he claimed in a Saturday Evening Post newspaper article to have physically travelled through time. He reprised the tale in his 1975 book “Flight Towards Reality” and it has occasionally resurfaced ever since. The story goes that in 1935, his Hawker Hart light bomber encountered a storm somewhere above an abandoned RAF airfield near Edinburgh, later re-activated as Drem. Goddard saw yellow-painted aircraft and a modern monoplane; neither of which were then in RAF service. The mechanics he could see were wearing blue coveralls instead of the RAF brown de rigeur in 1935. The dilapidated buildings had been renovated and more constructed. The implication of these apparent discrepancies is that Goddard had been propelled forward in time by around four year, as by 1939 the airfield would have been populated with the yellow-painted Hawker Harts (by now relegated to training duties) and Airspeed Oxford monoplanes of 13 Flying Training School.

The Evidence
This, like many paranormal claims, is rather difficult to explain if taken on face value. We have no idea how closely this version of events corresponds with what actually happened that day, and not because of any deceit on Goddard’s part. Without doubt he believed what he was writing; it was completely real to him, and he lived through the events in question. Why even question the word of an honourable military professional? Well, like all of us, he was fallible, and his impeccable credentials did not qualify or prepare him to deal with paranormal experiences. In addition, the stakes here are high, and so must our standard of evidence be. If what’s described really happened, it has earth-shattering implications for the way we understand the universe. No evidence of time-travel, nor even a theoretical basis for it has been found.

Unfortunately, no corroborating reports were made of a swirling vortex appearing in the Firth of Forth, and no physical evidence generated. We have only Goddard’s anecdotal account to go on, and I have to note that this was written sixteen and then forty years after the fact (the article, then the book). The possible (but more boring) explanations are myriad; he may have misremembered the year of the incident or aspects of what he saw on the ground at the time. Both seem unlikely for a trained military pilot, but the post hoc construction or modification of memories is a very real issue for psychologists and oral historians. Rather more likely, given the elapsed time between incident and report is that he misinterpreted what he saw on the ground.

The three Avro 504N trainers Goddard specifies had ironically been replaced in RAF service by 1935; 13 FTS certainly didn’t operate them, yellow or no. The other aircraft, the “high-tech” monoplane, was a configuration as old as the biplane. Flight testing of the new breed, including the famous Hawker Hurricane was underway that very year. Goddard later supposed that he saw a Miles Magister trainer, which first flew in 1937, but the first Miles monoplane was airborne in 1933. Nonetheless, it is admittedly unlikely that any of these aircraft, anachronistic or not, could have been parked at Gullane/Drem in 1935; though not “completely useless as an airfield” as one source puts it, it was essentially disused.

A Rational Explanation
My own offered scenario is that after the blind-flying and violent manoeuvring brought on by he storm, Goddard was seriously disorientated and ended up above a completely different aerodrome. Air navigation in the 1930s was still achieved by dead reckoning; map and compass, and required that landmarks were a) visible, and b) correctly identified. Otherwise one could very quickly end up way off course. If Goddard wasn’t over Drem, where was he? The most likely candidate for me is Renfrew Aerodrome, then home to the Scottish Flying Club. Not only did the club make use of Avro 504s, but other civil aircraft were regular visitors. Many of these would have been brightly coloured, and monoplanes were in common use. In fact an antecedent of the Magister Goddard thought he saw was photographed at Renfrew that very year. From the air they would have been indistinguishable. And as maintenance staff were civilians, the objection to prematurely blue RAF overalls would no longer apply. Although Renfrew is on the wrong side of the country (70 miles away from Drem), such a deviation in course is far from impossible in a 400-mile cross-country journey like Goddard’s. Though somewhat unlikely in ordinary circumstances, I would venture that this version of events is nonetheless rather more likely than the physics-defying mid-air appearance of a door into the future.Because of the credibility lent to Goddard’s story by his service history and status, it continues to be occasionally and uncritically reported, most recently in a wholly credulous article in the Scottish local magazine “East Lothian Life”. The events even made it onto the big screen in a 1955 film starring Michael Redgrave and Denholm Elliott, and just might have inspired the fantastically poor 1980s time-travel film, “The Final Countdown“. (Worth a look to see F-14 Tomcat jets dogfighting with Second World War aeroplanes).

A bonus ghost story…
After leaving the RAF and writing about his hair-raising flight, Goddard went on to be a noted figure in the UFO community, coining the term “Ufology“. He’s also supposed to have taken a photograph of a ghost. Given the obvious similarity to the chap next to him save for the service cap, the most likely explanation for this is a simple double exposure on a relatively primitive camera. Having realised he was not wearing his cap (the “ghost” is bare-headed), he replaced his cap after the photographer had already opened his shutter and before the plate was fully exposed (several seconds). The effect was fully understood, and used to create amusing images.

What can we learn from the experiences of people like Goddard? That even the most intelligent, professional, reliable, capable and rational people can in the right circumstances lapse into magical thinking. By learning about critical thought and scepticism we can strive to avoid this, whatever our professional and personal backgrounds.