A Proper Charlie

Or:

‘We’re Gonna Need a Biggar Boat’

 

 

Reincarnation. It’s what you need, if you wanna be a record breaker. Or was that ‘dedication’? I forget. In any case, there are people out there who think they’ve lived before. Unfortunately virtually all of them want to be the same important historical figures, members of royalty, celebrities, noted fighter pilots, and so on. Even employing the logical gymnastics of the past-life believer, or invoking some $cientology-inspired Thetan-based scenario, this is difficult to explain. The reality of course is that there’s little kudos in claiming to be a medieval peasant who died of the plague aged 37.

 

Members of the reincarnation crowd feel the need to go around telling everyone they can about their glorious past life, perhaps to distract from the tediousness of their current one. The age of the internet has made boring and/or amusing people with such tales far easier. One such claimant is Charles Edward Stuart Boden, who claims to be the reincarnation of his namesake Prince Charles Edward Stuart, a.k.a. Bonnie Prince Charlie.

 

Boden has been bouncing around internet forums and discussion lists for years now, and recently blundered into the JREF sceptical forum, with predictable results. Having failed to take in a single suggestion provided by the sceptics, internet drama ensued, involving an entire forum of reincarnated people. Even they weren’t buying what Charles was selling. Literally. The sceptics however, were hooked. We decided to get hold of a copy of Boden’s book, ‘Descendent of Kings’ and see just how deep the crazy-pool was. You can dip a toe in here, if you choose. Besides some substantial comedy potential, I had in mind an exercise in falsifiability. Would it be possible to pro-actively debunk the past-life related claims contained therein? Or would they be so vague, or so directly based on written history as to be unassailable (though by no means automatically true of course).

 

In this regard it was a disappointment, as it is heavily padded with a lot of biographical and historical information rehashed from existing history books and websites. I wonder why someone who was there would need to draw upon such flawed secondary source material. Though not the focus of my interest, I did check out a sample fact-check and much of it, at least, is basically accurate. However, a total lack of referencing as well as slipshod quoting and structure make it rather difficult to fact-check. There’s also no bibliography, index, or even pagination, and there are a good number of spelling and grammatical errors in the book (‘Bannockburn’ has two Ns, Charles, if you’re reading). The author is also a fan of pointless neologisms, “mediumnic” is a key one, as Charles (re)discovered his supposed past life via the world of Spiritualism (or “Spiritism” as he calls it).

 

As Alice Shortcake on the JREF forum (credit to her also for my title and associated picture) has shown, Boden has also made a hash of his genealogical claims to be directly descended from royalty (aside from the reincarnation thing), to the point of some questionable Wikipedia edits.

 

Now, Boden’s lack of scholarship has no direct bearing on the veracity or otherwise of his past-life claims. If he really was there in the 18th century, his experiences ought to in some way reflect the reality of that period and the experiences of Prince Charlie himself. In line with his other claims, Mr Boden does seem to exercise psychic prescience when he writes;

 

“The historical significance of what is contained within this story, rather than a factor that might help to evidence it, will on the contrary most probably be used as an argument against it.”

 

Uncanny, as that is precisely what I am going to do. Boden also tries to head off critical analysis of his efforts by “those who choose to live in disbelief”. Luckily, belief and disbelief are not the only positions to take. The third way is scepticism – critical analysis based on evidence. I had most success with the first three claims dealt with below. These are all linked, and therefore all stand or fall together.

 

1. Charles (as Charlie) first heard the Jacobite song “Charlie He’s My Darling” in 1746.

The problem is that this song almost certainly wasn’t known by anybody until 1796, when the famous poet Robert Burns’ version was published in the ‘Scots Musical Museum’. The page reproduced at that link is from ‘The Songs of Robert Burns’ (1903). Here are a few of the later versions, all early C19th;

See also this comparison of versions. Now, the version Boden gives us in his book (p5 in the preview version) isn’t much like any of them, and I doubt that it’s because his is somehow closer to the original. Though a 1798 mention of the song suggests that it is a traditional air, there’s no real reason to suspect that any version of it existed before Burns. If there was a purely oral folk version, it would certainly have been in the Scots language (or possibly Scots Gaelic) and wouldn’t have resembled Boden’s wholly modern turn of English phrase. In any case it’s clear that he’s put together lines from the later versions.

 

Perhaps he got it so badly wrong because, as Charlie, he wasn’t there at the time. By the time this song was being sung, he had at the least buggered off to Italy, if not been dead for over a decade. Or perhaps he’s remembering only the version he heard in his present life? In any case, it hardly constitutes evidence of any past existence – if anything, it’s evidence against the probability of that.

 

2. He “…’saw’ a pair of army boots resting upon a stool in front of a fireplace, while a minstrel sat playing this same song”.

OK, this is a minor nitpick in the scheme of things, but ‘army boots’ is an oddly modern description. Boots weren’t worn by European infantry until the mid-19th century. Buckled shoes with hose were the order of the day in the C18th, often worn in British service with gaiters (large spats in this context) of varying lengths and styles. See this chap from the 1742 ‘Cloathing Book’. Perhaps he meant cavalry boots? Conceivably Jacobite cavalrymen or mounted gentlemen may have worn these. Depictions of this are lacking, however, and Charlie himself is never shown wearing anything but shoes or brogues. Besides, Boden doesn’t say “cavalry”, “riding”, “long” or other kinds of boots – he says “army boots”.

Anyway, on to the juicy stuff…

 

3. Charles was able to recognise the skyline of a town he’d seen 250 years previously

Forgive me, I got a bit carried away with this one…

Boden tells us that he heard said song and saw said boots in a specific Scottish town on the retreat from the Jacobite incursion into England in 1746. When Charles visited Scotland in 1997 he drove through Biggar in Lanarkshire and felt that he had seen it before. In his words;

 

“The sight of the entrance to this small town, from the road that we were on as we approached it, hit me like a blow in the stomach. The vision of its row of houses, forming a curve into the main street, was literally the same as the vision of the town which had been in my memory ever since childhood.”

 

Having confirmed with his father that he had never before visited the town, the historical source that he turns to to confirm this as evidence of his past life is… a “tourist brochure” he’s given in a pub.

 

The screamingly obvious alternate explanation is a glitch in the Matrix de ja vu. If you’ve convinced yourself that you’re the reincarnation of a famous 18th century wannabe-Scots noble, and you’re visiting the land of his exploits, then chances are you’re going to read some significance into this de ja vu. If Boden had been reading up on Charlie, he would likely have come across the name of the town. Another explanation, for the same reasons, is simple imagination. Boden may not have known that Charlie rested with his army at Biggar, but it was a pretty good bet that he at least passed this way, since Biggar lies on one of the only thoroughfares to/from Scotland (then in particular).

 

Boden states that the approach into Biggar in 1997 was “literally the same” as his 1746 “vision” of it. But what did Biggar actually look like in 1746? Thanks to British military mapping and to National Library of Scotland’s digitisation programme, we can get a good idea. To cover my bases, I also reviewed maps of the same area from 1832.

 

I’ve compiled these together with Ordnance Survey coverage of the town from the present day:

 

 

 

Despite a near-tripling in population between the first two maps, the town remained nonetheless nuclear, in the sense that it had yet to grow outwards along the roads radiating from the marketplace around which it had been established in the medieval period. Though there are little blobs alongside the road on the 1832 map, when zoomed right in, these are clearly trees and not buildings. Since that time however, Biggar (like virtually all UK towns) has changed substantially, creating the “…row of houses, forming a curve into the main street” that Boden describes in 1997. This was nothing but fields until the late 19th century.

 

Could it be the wrong road? Unlikely, as the main road through the town today (now the A702) follows the same route as it has since Roman times.  The only other realistic possibilities are Boghall Road, also empty of structures, and what is now John’s Road, which takes you straight into the heart of the town but again lacks any roadside buildings outwith the main street. Even if Charlie approached not from the south at all, but from the east via Peebles, or the west via Cormiston and Langlees (which would then have taken an even more westerly direction), there is still no curved “entrance” to the town.

 

This is the “curve” that I think Boden is talking about – just after the meeting of the roads into the town from the south-west. Even this far into the modern town, none of the buildings visible in Street View appear on those old maps, and none show any visible architecture older than perhaps the 1840s.

 

Now, there is an even Biggar (ha) issue with Boden’s claim than some discrepancies in mapping (as he might argue). That is, Prince Charles never actually stayed at Biggar.

 

That’s right, I’ve just wasted your time and my own. I’m sorry about that. I fear that Mr Boden has been the victim of the tourist trade. Every vaguely historic residence or town in the country claims to have played host to royalty or celebrity, regardless of any supporting evidence or lack of it. Even places just down the road from each other. It’s rather like past-life people always wanting to be the famous dead people.

 

Note that Charles also swallows the story that William Wallace was also at Biggar, from the same source. This “Battle of Biggar”, like much of what we think we know about Wallace, is actually an invention by the chronicler/story-teller ‘Blind Harry’.

 

But I digress. The fact is that the movement of the Jacobite army and of the Prince in particular was well documented – we know where he stayed and when. Biggar features in historical sources on the ‘45 only as a muster point for Jacobite recruits in and around Lanarkshire; never, so far as I’m aware, as a camp-site for Charles and the forces under his direct command.

 

Not only that, but it’s even highly unlikely that an unrecorded stay was made there, since the closest to Biggar that the Prince’s route to Hamilton Palace took him was Douglas Castle. Biggar lay ten miles in the wrong direction (due east). Even if nearby Carluke’s claim were to turn out to be valid, that’s even further away (15 miles). I’m aware that Google Maps uses modern roads, so for the really keen I checked the actual route onward from Dumfries. This was roughly that of the present-day B7078, from Leadhills to Douglas Castle (where he really did lodge) Hamilton Palace (likewise) and Glasgow (check for yourself here). It’s essentially a straight line, which makes sense given the exigent circumstances. What makes no sense whatever is a detour to Biggar. Unless it was for the excellent fish and chips (which I can vouch for).

 

Phew. Thanks for staying with me through that. We have Charlie’s Skye Boat pretty well sunk by my estimation (shame the same can’t be said of the Corries). But for the sake of completeness, here are the other, less falsifiable claims from the book.

 

4. The ‘Golden Bridge’

Boden has a vision of making a ‘bridge’ in the mud with a gold necklace (as the young Prince), and promising the real thing to a young girl when they grow up. This has no historical parallel that I’m aware of. It’s therefore either secret knowledge from the Akashic Record, or he’s making stuff up.

 

5. Flora MacDonald hid Charlie’s face from prying eyes with her big, floppy, green hat.

We’re lucky enough to have MacDonald’s own narrative of events, which Charles himself appears to draw from for his book. It isn’t short on detail, yet there is  nothing about a hat. Charles himself admits that he hasn’t been able to validate the story. So again, he must either really have been there, or is imagining it. Which is more likely?

 

I would just point out that in the 1891 G.W. Joy painting of Flora, she’s wearing a big green hat…
6. Reincarnation: a game for all the family.

Like all good fictional stories, there’s a big twist at the end of this book. Boden is told by a psychic that his wife is the reincarnation of Flora MacDonald, and perhaps even more extraordinarily, that his son was his arch-enemy the Duke of Cumberland! There’s no historical evidence offered for the son – an apology for bad behaviour that Charles can’t otherwise explain is taken as validation of this new level of dysfunctional family life. But Charles confirms the Flora link by comparing a picture of this painting to his wife. You can see for yourself whether Charles’ missus bears a resemblance to George William Joy’s rendering of Flora in the painting.

 

She actually looks more like this painting, which is actually contemporary and less romanticised than the Joy painting. It doesn’t look entirely UNLIKE her. But why would one reincarnated person resemble their past self, and another not? Because Charles sure as heck doesn’t look anything like his namesake. Charles’ “Spiritist” contact also gives him her psychic impression that Charles’ past-life-wife was “extending her hand to (him) in order to help (him)”. Charles is convinced by Joy’s depiction of Flora extending her hand to Charlie – yet as I’ve said, the work wasn’t painted until 1891; making this an irrelevant coincidence at best.

 

That’s it. Six claims, none of which are remotely convincing by any objective standard. But then like all who fall in love with an idea, it’s clear that Charles’ past life is not something that he’s able to be objective about. We can see that he’s willing to read an awful lot into these dreams, ‘visions’ or outright flights of fancy in order to make them fit his need to believe “until proven otherwise” that he was once someone of international importance and influence. For me, it’s been an interesting exercise in active debunking of “past lives”. For although the onus should always be on the claimant, by their very nature such people don’t see why that should be the case. Of course, if they did, I’d be out of a blog.

 

I hereby dedicate this post to the crazy people of the JREF Forum who stumped up the cash to purchase what may well be the only copy of ‘Descendant of Kings’ ever sold. Thanks to all who contributed to the cause!

Shot Down In Flames

shot down

Well, by skeptics actually, but the effect is much the same*…

Having the misfortune to watch GMTV this morning, I spotted what turned out to be this load of old bollocks, recycled for a UK audience – no doubt because the UK edition of the book they’re hawking was published today (August 3). It relates the story of a young boy who is claimed to have had a past life as a Second World War fighter pilot. This sort of thing (i.e. ‘evidence’ of reincarnated minors) is usually the result of a form of facilitated communication – concerned parents and/or psychologists or social workers who over-interpret a child’s statements and together create an entirely false reality – sometimes to explain some behavioural problem, sometimes just because they want their child to be somehow special.

It’s rather like Cold Reading as used (sometimes cynically, sometimes unknowingly) by ‘psychics’ – you start with something vague and general and whittle it down into a specific, plausible story that could just about fit the facts. This case is no different – as a poster on the JREF forum pointed out several years ago now – the kid had a) very basic awareness of WW2 planes (which many toddlers and journalists have) and b) frightening nightmares about dying in an aeroplane. Everything else, culminating in his ID as a specific individual – Lieutenant (JG) James M. Huston, US Navy – came from his facilitators. And even that information is all public domain stuff – no new historical revelation was made that could have helped validate the claim.

As for the much-vaunted drawings – do we see anything beyond typical toddler-level drawing skills, or a hint of the fighter-pilot knowledge that Gross and the others insist is there? No. We see scrawls – attempts at aeroplanes advanced for his age perhaps, but showing no real detail that might show familiarity with flying the things. And we see tanks – there weren’t many of those involved in Pacific dogfights. All of this ignored to focus on one vague but simple concept – the original dream involving death, fire, and a plane – which can then have the facts forced to fit it later on. The get-out that ‘he was only young’ doesn’t wash – either he’s privy to special knowledge over and above that available to a toddler, or he isn’t.

It’s interesting to note that in the GMTV interview, the boy is emphatic about no longer having the nightmares, and in fact, being unable to remember them. Either reincarnation curses the very young with traumatic memories of their own deaths, only to then take them away, or the nightmares were simply an anxious phase in the boy’s early development, since got over (perhaps even via this ‘unconventional’ therapy, but I doubt it).

Thanks to the international lag in the publishing and publicity of the book over here, some fellow sceptics have already blown the story out of the water. Amazingly, despite claims that the kid had no exposure to aviation or military history before his dreams, it seems that the kid was actually taken to an air museum well beforehand – as mentioned above the excellent Skeptico has a whole blog post about this which, actually, makes my own rather redundant – as it covers pretty much every angle. Even those historical details that have made it through the facilitation process and should therefore be watertight – dependent upon good research – don’t all hold up.

Take the type of fighter flown by Huston – JREFer ‘Gumboot’ has (amongst other things) pointed out that the original claim was for the distinctive gull-winged Corsair fighter – only when the father read that Huston was not flying that type at the time when he died did it change to the radically different Wildcat. The book’s authors address this, pointing out that James Huston’s sister sent them a photograph of him in front of a Corsair – he did fly them at one point. But note that they are modifying the claim – which was specifically that James had died in a Corsair. Whether he flew one at some point (actually pretty likely) is neither here nor there. He wasn’t flying them from the carrier identified by the facilitators, and he didn’t die in one.

Skeptico also details what I’m calling the ‘facilitators’ involved – from the doting father who reinforces what would otherwise be healthy roleplay by buying toys and books, to the published reincarnation proponent who brings the sort of leading questions that can be fitted after the fact to tidbits of historical research. It was only when the child was taken to a therapist that ‘evidence’ of his dreams being related to a past life first emerged, and then snowballed. The same thing has happened many times before, including in the much more serious creation of false memories of sexual abuse. The very young child aspect we have seen recently in the Cold Reading of babies by arch-scumbag and million-dollar challenge loser Derek Ogilvie – his victims were too young to talk at all, yet by focussing on the parents he could convince them that he was reading their child. The same might apply here – the hopes, fears and thoughts of James parents driving the narrative just as much as his own half-formed expressions. For example – the claim that James said his fighter was brought down by a ‘direct hit to the engine’. A toddler would not – could not – have articulated that phrase as written. An alternative explanation is that he was asked by a facilitator how or where the plane was hit, and he gestured vaguely at the front part of his drawing, or of a toy. One follow-up question of ‘was it the engine?’, and a child’s imagination or conception of air-combat (head-on attacks being relatively rare in reality) suddenly becomes an uncanny past-life memory of his own death.

One thing I thought it worth expanding upon is what amounts to the usual schtick in selling paranormal cases to the world-weary punter – the idea that hardcore sceptics have been swayed by James’ story – in this case they’ve not looked further than one of their fellow co-authors, who despite claiming to be a ‘rationalist secular skeptic‘, is iobviously not familiar with the relevant literature and has developed a ‘blindspot’ for this case. This can happen to any of us, particularly if we become emotionally invested in a story – but his disbelief about other fanciful ideas does not validate this one. For example;

“I’ve heard people say, oh, he must have been coached, or influenced by watching TV. But this was a child in his diapers, still sucking on a bottle. How could he be coached to know the flight characteristics of World War II era fighter planes? How could he know the names of the ships and the sailors who had taken part in a certain battle at a certain time?”

Gross (a fiction author and automotive writer) clearly doesn’t understand how this works – it’s not that the child himself is expounding upon such complex topics – the original statement could be as simple as ‘Airplane crash on fire, little man can’t get out’ (one of James’ actual comments). The facilitator then shows the child a picture of a certain aeroplane (as we know the father actually did), and the child nods or otherwise indicates agreement or disagreement. Then (say) a picture of a particular pilot. Again, agreement. The facilitator, without lying (or necessarily even intending to deceive) can then legitimately claim that a toddler knows about a specific incident in history. The exact method of arriving at a given final claim won’t be accessible to the rest of us unless the facilitator makes logs of each session or the father writes meticulous diary notes. Even then, what James actually said on a given occassion, and how that might otherwise have been interpreted by someone not invested in a pre-determined outcome (in this case making a child appear to be a reincarnated fighter jock). Then there’s this ‘evidence’;

“There were other odd things — when she sent James Leininger a drawing that her mother made of James Huston — the child asked where was the other picture? The other picture — buried up in the attic for sixty years — was a drawing of Ann. Her mother had made two drawings when they were children. How could James Leininger have known that? Ann was stunned. No one knew about that other picture. Except her dead brother.”

So like Cold Reading, it’s not even funny. The kid says something like ‘where’s the other picture?’ – he could have been referring to almost anything. The sister, filling the role of the sitter in my psychic analogy, seeks the meaning of this, discounts all other interpretations, and goes straight for the least likely – that the child somehow knows about a hidden second drawing of the sister. She supplies the meaning. If she had asked ‘what picture?’ and the child had said ‘you’, that would be more like it. Or if she had taken him to the house and he had made a beeline for the attic. Or any number of confirmatory things beyond blind faith that when he says ‘other picture’, he means what she imagines he means.

Reading Gross’s heartfelt testimony, it’s also apparent in his use of the words ‘cynical’ and ‘nay-sayer’ that he takes the word ‘skeptic’ to mean closed-minded, just as the believers do. This one exception has slipped through his scoff-net, therefore he stands by it. That’s not what scepticism is (read ‘should be’ – I’m as guilty of it as any!). The idea is to form a provisional conclusion based upon the available evidence and the nature of the claim – to keep that open mind – but not so open that your brain falls out. Gross continues to disbelieve reincarnation despite having “no reasonable explanation for James Leininger/Huston”. If this is true, how is he a sceptic? If I had come to the same conclusion, I would no longer be sceptical about reincarnation – I would (provisionally) be convinced of its veracity. Or at least have a burning desire to try to confirm or debunk that conviction – what issue could be more important than life after death, if we had anything like evidence that it might be true?

The saddest part of all this for me is that relatives and colleagues of the dead pilot have been taken in along with everyone else. It’s easy to see why people in their 80s would on some level want to believe that their long-dead loved-one had a fresh start in a new body – and that they might live to experience the same thing. So they buy into the same fantasy as thousands of others, because it brings quick-fix comfort and hope. Isn’t it enough to simply pay our respects to the dead? To grow up and live our lives with some of them as role models? To keep fiction in the ‘fiction’ isle?

*With apologies to Blackadder II.