UFOs, Phantom Helicopters and Contemporary Panics.
Peter Rogerson and John Harney

In Merseyside UFO Bulletin, volume 6, number 2, August 1973, Peter Rogerson wrote:


A few weeks ago, in a collection of clippings on UFO events, loaned to me by Nigel Watson, I discovered a very revealing little news item from the Scunthorpe Evening Telegraph of May 2, 1972:


Illegal Immigrans Suspected.

Lincolnshire police were alerted to be on the look out for illegal immigrants during the early hours of this morning after an unidentified light aircraft was believed to have landed somewhere between Laceby and Barnoldby-Le-Beck. The aircraft was picked up on the radar screen at RAF Waddington shortly before midnight last night. A few minutes later it went off the radar screen between Barnoldby and Laceby. The police were notified and a number of patrol cars diverted to the area to search for the mystery plane. Within 25 minutes every farm and possible landing strip in the area had been checked, but-police drew a blank. A spokesman said: “If an aircraft were to land, it would need at least a reasonably flat meadow and landing lights, but so far we have found nothing.”

Checking stations

Today the police and RAF experts are studying a report on last night’s sighting, and are checking at other radar stations along the coast to see if they picked up any light aircraft activity in the Humber during the night. The police spokesman added: “If the plane did not actually land, but just went under Waddington’s radar screen, it must have been picked up in an adjoining areas. We are not letting this matter rest.”

It is clear that all that was picked up on the radar were some anomalous blips. There was no evoidence to suggest that these blips were produced by a light aircraft, and certainly no reason to suppose that they were proof that illegal immigrants were being smuggled into the country.

What is very striking is the way in which explanations of random anomalies undergo fashions. A few years ago such an echo would have been eagerly interpreted as an extraterrestrial spaceships now it is illegal immigrants. Neither explanation could possibly be justified on the evidence available.

One of the most terrifying things that people can be confronted with is the randoms disturbing event. Faced with one or many such events, there is a general tendency among people to try to fit them into a convenient pattern. Any pattern, however irrational and capricious is better than no pattern at all. Therefore there is a great impetus to see ‘meanings’ behind world events, to hold, for example, that disturbing social change is generated by malevolent conspiracies or to see portents and archetypes in random lights in the sky.

In his book Folk Devils and Moral Panics the sociologist Stanley Cohen discusses the sort of ‘frame of reference’ by which random events are ‘patternised’. The example he chooses is that of the Mods and Rockers panic of 1964, and he points out that a number of quite unrelated events were incorporated into the Mods and Rockers mythology. For example a perfectly ‘ordinary’ climbing accident was headlined in one paper ‘Death of a Mod’. It was also very difficult for people to accept that the outbreaks were examples of random, spontaneous violence. This led to the development of fantastic rumours to the effect that teenage disturbances were being planned at some secret headquarters, or were being fomented by Russian secret agents.

Similar situations develop in the so-called flap areas, where all sorts of minor, random events which under normal conditions would not be noticed, are interpreted as part of the dominant ‘frame of reference’ which in this case is the UFO phenomenon. Within one flap in the North West of England, investigated by a UFO researcher with whom I am acquainted, a variety of random events, such as the disappearance of a dog, were seen as part of the UFO ‘happenings’. In extreme examples such as Warminster, almost any kind of odd random event is seen in terms of the ‘Thing’, and added to the chronicle of the myth.

However the UFO frame of reference is a relatively weak one, still, in popular consciousness, and is easily replaced by other and more immediate threats. The fear of illegal immigrants is clearly a more powerful ‘folk devil’ than any little green man from Mars, and as such his machinations can be seen behind a variety of phenomena often regarded as ufological. For example, some time last year a motorist reported that he had seen, at night, a helicopter land, a car drive up, and several illegal immigrants get out and enter the car. He claimed he could clearly see that the driver of the car was a Pakistani. Unfortunately, he could not possibly have seen the scene in the amount of detail he gave, at that time of night. Indeed the whole story possessed just that air of ‘mystery’ many UFO stories have.

Later, in MUFOB volume 6, number 4, John Harney reported on a new outbreak of phantom aircraft:


Reports in national and local newspapers about a mysterious helicopter making night flights around parts of North West England seen to have been sparked off by incidents involving Cheshire and Derbyshire police in the early hours of Monday 14 January. Cheshire police had a report of a helicopter and were said to have “kept it under observation for some time”. Derbyshire police were informed when the mysterious machine was thought to be heading their way. They are said to have sighted it in the Cat and Fiddle area around dawn.

During the week following 14 January numerous similar reports were published in the press. The phenomena seemed to be centred around the village of Goostrey, Cheshire (near Jodrell Bank). By 22 January, however, the national newspapers had dropped the subject.In spite of police spokesmen and others insisting that the helicopter was real, and reports that the sightings were being investigated at a high level by the Special Branch, it was obvious quite early on that there was no real helicopter behind most of the reports, as they bore all the characteristics of a typical UFO flap.

An obvious clue to the imaginary nature of the helicopter was the vague and inconsistent nature of the published reports. It was said for instances that the machine was seen only at night, yet reports insisted that the helicopter carried no identification markings. Fantastic theories were put forward to suggest reasons for an unidentified, night-flying helicopter.

The Daily Telegraph of 16 January reporteds

“Yesterday more theories flourished about the phantom helicopter. It has already been linked with sheep rustlings smuggling, illegal immigrants and IRA gun and bomb squads. Now it is thought that it might be a ‘home-made helicopter’ which the owner, unable to obtain an air worthiness certificates is flying, and dangerously so – at night or, it is suggested it might be a modern – and wealthy – lover who finds it the most convenient way to reach his mistress or girlfriend”.

However, an item in the Daily Mail on 21 January reported the increasing doubts by senior police officers as to the helicopter’s reality. It also reports “Professor John Cohen, head of the psychology department at Manchester University, said that the first reports of the phantom may have started a rash of them, It is contagious, he said. ‘Plant an idea and you get a kind of visual epidemic’”.

Newspapers on 19 January, reported a further developments motorists on the A51 near Duddon, Tarporley, Cheshire witnessed the landing of an ‘unmarked’ helicopter just before 5 p.m, on 18 January. Nearby was a farmhouse with a white Ford Escort parked in the driveway. As the helicopter took off the car drove out of the driveway. Unlike many of the other reports this one turned out to be a sighting of a real helicopter. The Manchester Evening News (19 January) reported that the machine belonged to the Ferranti company and had landed near Tarporley on a journey north from London, to drop off a passenger.Some time after the flap had died down, there were reports of helicopters seen or heard flying at night in the Merseyside area. These reports were confirmed when they were identified as military helicopters, engaged on various activities. Apparently military helicopters do quite a bit of night-flying, in contrast with civil helicopters, which rarely do so.

To sum up, a fairly typical UFO flap, with a few real helicopters thrown in to confuse matters still further.


Transformation of Ufology, part 2.
A look behind the scenes
Matt Graeber

<<< Continued from Part One

(e-mails from the Ufological upper crust) 

Let’s see what the ‘List’ and the lLeaders’ have to say about this growing internet UFO group phenomenon in their midst. How do they feel about their own organizations dwindling membership, declining journal subscriptions and public appeal in the age of the internet saucer-hucksters? (I have changed the names of the e-mail writer’s on this topic to avoid embarrassing the complacent and/or woefully inattentive). Most e-mail entries cited herein have been capsulized and edited by the author. Additional comments byme in italics.

Matt Graeber to Albert Benson, (a pseudonym) 12/12/2005

Albert, I’m wondering if the list members would be willing to post something on the growing internet presence of the Wisconsin group ( BUFO), that is attempting to” Turn” the Carbondale hoax of 1974 into another Roswell-like incident. There seems to be a rash of crash and non-crash saucer stories that are being promoted as Roswell-like events. If the list would log on to “carbondale,pa. ufo crash”, they can see for themselves how outlandish the yarn has become.

Mr Benson did contact his friends and colleagues on the list concerning the request. Here are several of the replies he received on the matter.

From Rick Yost to Albert Benson & the list: 12/16/2005

Hey Al,

“Particularly the ectoplasm and orbs they found at the portal”….

“The Carbondale crash was first promoted by the late flying saucer evangelist Robert D. Barry. He was PR man for the late right wing preacher Dr Carl McIntire’s 20th Century Reformation Hour ministry. Barry operated its one man press arm. He later had a weekly Saturday midnight TV show, “ET Monitor” on McIntire’s TV station.” They are both passed, now, but looks like other nuts are milking it.”

“By the way, Barry was the first one to report in 1989, about the same time same sort of claims were first made about Roswell, that the Kecksburg PA crash involved the recovery of alien bodies. He later withdrew that claim as an error, which was a surprise to me since I don’t think Bob ever heard a UFO story he didn’t like.” 

I wonder how many young saucer enthusiasts ever heard of the Reverend Carl McIntire or, knew that the Roswell story didn’t include alien bodies until 42 years after the incident was first reported?
Albert Benson to Rick Yost & the list: 12/16/2005

Rick, I’m not talking about Kecksburg, but the Carbondale hoax of 1974. If you are interested to find out more about this blatant nonsense, log on to <carbondale,pa. ufo crash>, and check out the buffoonery at any BUFO site or link. Those pushing this hoax as ” Pennsylvania’s Roswell” are without doubt in need of an urgent reality check”.

To Albert Benson, Rick Yost & the list from Scott Morris a major UFO group leader: 12/16/2005

” My observation of Barry, who used to write regularly for Saga and its UFO magazine, was than nearly everything he said – excluding perhaps banal observations about the weather – could be automatically discarded. Too bad that one of his tall tales is still with us.”

I think the people who log on to the Carbondale UFO crash site should be alerted to this observation by one of Ufology’s major group leaders and long-time researchers.

From Albert Benson to the list 12/17/2005

” It’s bad enough that the bizarre crowd at BUFO ( Burlington UFO & Paranormal Radio) is pushing the Carbondale hoax of 1974 as a genuine occurrence, but they’re not content to confine their idiocy to that alone. Now they’re involved in an internet fantasy asserting that the little town of Olyphant PA. which is located about six miles from Scranton, is situated at the “centre of the universe” and modelled after ancient Egypt by alien race! This would almost be funny if it weren’t for the fact that for the uninformed public and the media, this is what passes for the face of Ufology.”

Albert Benson continues,

“And this type of crap only makes it more difficult to convince the scientific community that the UFO phenomenon is a real mystery that merits the most serious investigation on their part.”

Scott Morris replies on 12/18/2005

Al,” I agree that this is pretty dumb, but it doesn’t amount to anything consequential, much less a problem with scientists. My experience is that scientists who are so willing are perfectly able to separate Ufology’s sensible claims from the absurd ones. Scientists who are hostile simply use the latter as an excuse not to bother with the more substantive issues. Hard as it may be for some to believe, not all Ufologist’s problems are Ufologist’s fault.”

“The Carbondale silliness is perhaps worth noting, but nothing to get worked up about. UFOs and Ufology were long ago relegated to the fringes, and something relegated, even if unjustly, is going to attract fringe types. Surely, we have better things to do with our time than to waste it with ritual denunciations of the many nut jobs and liars who are out there, and have always been out there. They’re certainly an irritation, but they’re also no more than a sideshow.” 

Yet another valuable observation that is limited to the list membership. Scott is correct to point out that the list has far better things to do with it’s time than denounce the internet kooks…However, one wonders ” What might they do that they haven’t already done over the course of the last sixty years?
From Tim Connolly (a list member) to Albert Benson & the list: 12/18/2005

“At least this kind of thing provides fodder for ” Ufology-ology”, which consists of remote-viewing history texts which will be written on distant planets in the future of a parallel universe. 

Egads, more material for BUFO to promote!
Joel Simpson (a list member) chimes in: 12/18/2005

“Watch any established field on investigation ( nutrition, astronomy, genetics, linguistics, etc.) and you’ll always find the same sort of nuts looking for attention, and a great deal of confusion in the media…..” I agree with Tom that the tern “Ufology” as understood by the world at large ( not just by us) covers every conceivable aspect of modern culture, from Bermuda Triangles to flying lights, crystal skulls, dogu statuettes, Uri Geller, exobiology and Nostradamus. I’d rather avoid using it. When asked I certainly never say I research UFOs, and usually mumble something about “A strong interest in cataloguing unidentified phenomena recorded throughout history. 

I fully understand Joel’s embarrassment, and it’s too bad that those visiting BUFO/Carbondale sites and links are not privy to his insightful and candid remarks.

 I would also like to point out that Ufology is not actually an established field of investigation, rather, it is an investigative (and occasionally obsessional) hobby that has produced little if any evidence to verify the physical presence of UFOs in our skies. I certainly wouldn’t put it up there with Astronomy or Genetics, etc. 

 * * * * *

Baseless rumours and distortions that are left unchecked foster beliefs, expectations, fears and suspicions that not only are completely unwarranted, they are dangerous too

So, the question arises, why should the serious UFO researchers feel obligated to point out the absurdities, inconsistencies, contradictions and the fabrications of the many internet saucer zealots, charlatans and hucksters? The answer is quite simple. Not to do so is a failing of character, ethics and moral compass that would serve to protect the unsuspecting and the ill-informed from the distortion of repeatedly reading and hearing about, and finally accepting as true, the suspicions, fabrications and “delusions” that have been bandied about and thrust upon them via the net regarding the true nature of the phenomenon.

For baseless rumours and distortions that are left unchecked foster beliefs, expectations, fears and suspicions that not only are completely unwarranted, they are dangerous too. I’ve read lies about the character and professional efforts of an acting police chief who diligently worked shoulder-to-shoulder with UFO field investigators during the Carbondale PA incident of ’74, while also managing to professionally serve and protect his community, the many volunteers and the policemen under his supervision at the site.

Only to have his name and efforts dragged through the BUFOrian muck and malicious fabrications about him by internet saucer-hucksters like Mary Sutherland, and her investigator Ronald T. Hannivig who not only never met or interviewed the acting police chief, they were not even present at the scene while the incident was being investigated in 1974.

Yet, these same self-appointed experts also alleged that the acting police chief (Francis X. Dottle), wantonly participated in a cover up of the incident by tossing bogus evidence into a pond. They even went so far as to post the malicious remark that this fine public servant was not then (At the time of the incident), nor is he now, a friend of the people in the community he served.

These silly fabrications appeared at the <http://carbondale,pa.ufo crash> site which you may log on to and read for yourself. I ask, is it really inconsequential that a man’s reputation be besmirched by individuals who may be totally deluded and lacking any scruples? Should serious UFOlogists continually turn a blind eye to this sort of behaviour and self-serving promotional propaganda because it might be unpleasant, beneath their dignity and embarrassing to deal with?

Is it not shameful to remain silent and allow this sort of chicanery to infect the minds of young and elderly ill-informed people who search the net for reliable information on the phenomenon? I’ve even received two e-mail forwards from a researcher in which the communiqués sender claims that one internet huckster is involved in fraudulent online business practices and directly involved in the suicide death of a teenage group member.

Naturally, there are two sides (or more) to every story, so I’m currently attempting to learn and verify more about the matter. I’ll report my findings in a future Carbondale Chronicles entry for those who are interested in this rather shocking and sad story.

Is there not a lesson to be learned in the fact, that few European politicians and intellectuals of the day took the national socialist movement in Germany very serious when it first came on the political scene. So, impressionable young people, far too young to remember who Neville Chamberlain and Winston Churchill were, sit at their computer’s keyboard and unwittingly log on to saucer-huckster sites who are like sharks lurking in the internet’s waters for careless surfers to happen their way.

Interestingly, my grandson’s high school French teacher recently told me that 65-70% of his students thought that Germany had attacked Pearl Harbor in 1965 or 67. So, should the serious UFO researchers simply assume that this kind of historical ignorance is limited to today’s high school students? How could serious ufologists be so blind (and passive) as to believe that their not setting the record straight on the chicanery and many lies about the UFO enigma is matter of little or no consequence? If that’s the case, why the hell do they even bother to research the phenomenon at all?

If one thinks it’s silly to compare the absurd online UFO propaganda to that of the Nazi’s, one might do well to recall that well over fifty percent of the adult voting population of this country believe in the ‘reality’ of UFOs and would probably support a candidate who shared in their saucer enthusiasm. Perhaps a candidate who would simply promise to release any and all government papers on UFOs could win a close election, especially if that candidate were also a popular entertainment or sports celebrity.

So, while the studious UFO researcher’s utilize the same internet technology to e-mail pithy and complimentary notes for each others enjoyment, and an occasional pat on the back- many youthful UFO enthusiasts slip into the jaws of the saucer-hucksters deception, delusions, lies and distortions. In fact, in some cases they may even be gobbled up by a hucksters chronic, habitual and/or pathological lying.

But, the rub lies not in exposing the internet huckster(s) as a blemish on the face of Ufology.. it lies in the fact that many serious UFO researchers and organization leaders themselves have participated in their own brand of saucer-huckstering over the years (directly and indirectly- unwittingly and consciously). Moreover, calling attention to the speck in the eye of an internet huckster might provoke a response from the debunkers about the beam in the eye of the UFO organization and/or its leadership.

So, it seems that the boundaries between the proponent UFO camps are not very well defined any longer. There once was a sharp line between the organized groups and the kooky contactee movement. Now it just seems that some of the saucer group leaders and experts are more eloquent spokesman, (a.k.a. Classier salesman) than the internet throng. Yet all seem to be well-versed in the art of putting a particular “Spin” on a UFO incident or the phenomenon in general.

Considering that the organized groups have been doing so for almost 60 years, does point to a habitual behaviour pattern, especially since that pattern of behaviour has produced absolutely no incontrovertible evidence or data concerning the phenomenon’s true nature or origin.

What we have is a great deal of speculative fantasy, which stems not from hard spikes discovered in an objective database but, all-too-human wants, needs and desires concerning the phenomenon’s assumed importance and meaningfulness to mankind, and the equally-assumptive importance of the researcher’s own investigative efforts.

This near-obsessional behaviour pattern was first established by the baby-boomer ” Nuts and Bolts” school of Ufology which is presently on the verge of extinction. The bare bones of their contribution to Ufology will be that they successfully managed to dangle a promised carrot before the noses of the American public, the media and themselves for six decades.

It was they who pampered, endured and invited the hucksters of Ancient Astronaut tales and Bermuda Triangle yarns to their conventions and symposia. They even participated in the proliferation of Saucer-Crash Fantasies and the Abduction Mania. They did all this to promote membership numbers, draw larger crowds to their conventions, make book deals and seek increased journal subscriptions.

One asks, how much ‘objective researching’ is to be found in these business pursuits? ( e.g., what percentage of the monies collected actually went for research, after operating costs and salaries for the group’s top brass were siphoned away?) Moreover, if the internet hucksters are following in the path of the old guard with better and far more dynamic internet UFO presentations to entice the curious and the gullible, is that not but an extension of the sins of UFOlogists past?

The sociologists and folklorists of the future will look back upon the late 20th and early 21st.century’s transformation of Ufology into an “unbridled” entertainment industry (or “UFOOLogy” as it is more accurately described) and realize that the two terms differ only in the addition of one vowel. Ufology is no longer, nor has it ever truly been a purely pseudoscientific pursuit – it has blossomed into a full-blown sub cultural entertainment industry that has profound romantic appeal within our youthful society. Its roots lie in America, which Dr Carl G. Jung once called the land of science fiction and fantasy – but the American UFO malaise is now becoming a pandemic that has spared throughout the entire planet through the world wide web.

The fossil remains of it all will point to a mid-20th century belief in the existence of and pursuit of phantoms of the skies. 21st century UFOOlogy will probably seek out the phantoms through paranormal or spiritually-based investigative avenues, assumptions and beliefs – some of which may be serious, while most will probably be pure humbug. However, the answer will always seem to lie just beyond their grasp, around the next corner, over the next hill. (Much like the nuts and bolts camp’s carrot).

Such is the nature of true phantoms; they antagonise, mesmerize and befuddle the blind man who senses their presence but, can offer no definitive description of them.. except for hearing the curious beating of their wings and catching a faint whiff of their fleeting presence. Could it be that UFOs are modern man’s harpies?

The pantheon of UFO experts will continue to come and go, along with the parade of witnesses and the few remaining organized saucer groups. The UFOs however, will persist and endure the many ups and downs of UFOOlogical fantasy, theorizing, speculation and assumption – and in time, a new generation will take up the quest and start swinging their white canes at the fleeting phantoms. Could it possibly be that the canes will always be far too short, and the answer to the riddle of the UFOs will simply remain beyond our physical and mental grasp?

Example No.5 (UFOs from inner-space?)

Perhaps in some strange way “the UFOs are but a reflection of ourselves”, as James Moseley suggests – aimlessly flitting about like the modern man’s hopes, fears and aspirations on the phenomenon. Perhaps our ancestors were better equipped to assimilate these “signs in the skies”, for in their lifetimes things like these aerial displays were not only anticipated and readily interpreted, they were actually prayed for.

Have we somehow lost touch with the facility of mind that once fostered beliefs in visions, portents, divine warnings and angels yet, search the skies to once again experience? Or is it all just a growing new age mysticism and religiosity appearing in the guise of technological marvels that homotechnos currently beholds in awe, wonder and masked reverence?

Has the emotional and spiritual nature of our inner being been schooled out of us by the customs, demands and the technological advancements of modern-day living? Indeed, does everyone really think that such powerful human emotions would simply dry up and blow away because it was no longer chic or, politically correct to speak of them?

The organized group elites may scoff at such thoughts, in the same manner which they scoff at the internet huckster movement in their midst. They seem to have an overly confident Col. George Armstrong Custer attitude about what they perceive to be nothing more than a small hostile encampment that they “look down upon” from their lofty UFO research headquarters. However, their status in saucerdom, with the press, the entertainment media and the American public’s focus of interest is most assuredly headed for UFOOLogy’s happy hunting grounds.

– Matt Graeber


Organ Snatchers.
Peter Burger

From Magonia 56, June 1996

For almost ten years a horrible story has haunted the world’s media: in Latin America children are robbed of their kidneys and corneas for the benefit of wealthy Americans. On closer examination these horror stories turn out to be based on rumours and legends. Organ-napping, the contemporary version of an age-old and universally known legend.

The first images of the documentary show a man with a wispy beard rocking his head back and forth as if he is in a trance. The camera zooms in on his face, showing us that his eyes lack irises and pupils. The next shot is an indoor scene. A younger relative asks in Spanish: “What did they remove?” The blind man answers: “My corneas”. The boy pulls the eyelids of the right eye apart. Superimposed on the cloudy white tissue the title floats into view: Organ Snatchers.

The name of the blind man is Pedro Reggi. He is 26 years old and lives in a small village 60 miles from Buenos Aires. His corneas, the voice-over says, were stolen during a period he spent in the Montes de Oca mental institution.

Organ Snatchers (‘Voleurs d’yeux’) is directed by French journalist Marie-Monique Robin, one of the most influential disseminators of the shocking message that in Latin America the organs of the poor are stolen for the benefit of the rich. The recipients may be wealthy Americans, but stolen corneas are also procured by transplant surgeons in France. Robin’s message does not fall on deaf ears. Her documentary has been aired in a number of countries and shown three times at United Nations meetings. A re-run on French television in January 1995 drew more than three million viewers.

Robin also sold her story to foreign magazines. In Life (October 1993) she describes Reggi as having “the emaciated face of Jesus Christ”. In a Dutch weekly [1] Reggi features as “the angel-faced boy” who “once had a pair of beautiful brown eyes, where now only two gaping holes remain”.

This last statement is an exaggeration: Reggi’s eyes may look horrible, but anyone can see that they are not gaping holes. What’s more his corneas are still there too, as someone with expert knowledge of eye surgery might tell you. I watched Organ Snatchers with Dutch ophthalmologist Mrs H. Volker-Dieben, board member of the Dutch Cornea Foundation. “The corneas are clouded”, she told me. “This looks like scar tissue caused by old infections, as far as I can judge from the video images. To be completely sure, I would have to examine the eyes myself, using the right kind of lamp”.

So Reggi’s corneas have not been stolen? No, the alleged theft would indeed have left his eye-sockets empty. Normally, to remove the cornea from a deceased donor a transplant surgeon will extract the eyeball in its entirety, replace it with a plastic ball of the same size and eventually glue the eyelids together.

The Dutch ophthalmologist’s observation tallies with medical records that became public after Reggi’s appearance in a previous British-Canadian documentary about organ traffic, The Body Parts Business: Reggi was born with bilateral glaucoma. He lost his eyesight due to eye diseases. [2]

Jeison’s Eyes

The story of Pedro Reggi is not the only controversial episode in Organ Snatchers. On closer inspection the documentary’s emotional climax, the story of 10-year-old Jeison Cruz Vargas, the photogenic little blind boy with the flute, turns out to be equally doubtful.

In the documentary Robin meets Jeison in the Institute for the Blind in Bogota, Colombia. His mother Luz recalls taking Jeison to a hospital in the slums when he needed treatment for diarrhoea; when she saw him again the next day, his eyes had been removed. Her son’s medical file had been destroyed, she says. “It is a hospital for the poor, that’s why things like this are happening here. It’s the worst hospital in the world.”

Ever since Robin went public with Jeison’s story, this version of events has been vehemently contested by both the hospital involved – Salazar de Villeta – and the Colombian government. According to a statement (February 4, 1994) by the Colombian ombudsman for Health and Social Security, Jeison never underwent an eye operation. Barely four months old, he was hospitalised, suffering from severe malnourishment, dehydration and a number of serious ailments, including infection of the eyeball with Pseudomonas and infection of the cornea. Probably because his parents were very poor, they stopped the treatment and took the infant to a herb doctor. The infection destroyed his eyesight.

The row over Jeison’s eyes reached a climax after Robin’s documentary was awarded the Prix Albert Londres in May 1995, the most prestigious distinction for French journalists. Conscious of the fact that statements by Colombian doctors and officials do not carry much weight in France, the Colombian embassy had Jeison (now a 12-year-old) flown to Paris in August 1995 in order to have his eyes examined by two renowned French specialists in ophthalmology and infectious diseases. A pediatrician assessed the boy’s medical records. [3]

In their report the French doctors note that the eyeballs, although atrophied, are still there, as are parts of the cornea. The infection that irreparably damaged his eyesight is quite common for malnourished infants in the Third World. Again, Jeison’s eyes have not been stolen.

Moreover, the doctors argue, it is impossible to remove the corneas from a live donor without causing a severe haemorrhage, and no surgeon in his right mind
would use Jeison’s infected corneas for transplantation as they would kill the recipient. It might be added that with its 28,000 violent deaths per year, Colombia has no shortage of donors anyway. According to Colombian law, everyone is a potential donor unless the family objects. [4]

Embarrassed by the outcome of the medical examination, the Albert Londres jury suspended Robin’s award and promised to take a second, more thorough look at her documentary. [5] Robin, meanwhile, does not budge. To maintain that Jeison’s eyes have been stolen she has resorted to increasingly unlikely conspiracy theories and ad hominem arguments. The files could be forged – after all why did it take the Colombian hospital two years to produce them? “What is worth more” she asked, when confronted with the report, “a mother’s oral testimony, or the word of a group of experts who intervene twelve years after the fact and in whose interest it is to make people doubt the existence of organ traffic (for reasons of professional solidarity, a proven taste for secrecy, international friendships established during the course of their careers)?” [6]

Nor does she think the medical establishment is the only culprit. When I spoke to her in February 1995, Robin claimed that Jeison’s mother and other witnesses and authorities have all withdrawn their accusations under pressure from the United States Information Agency. [7]

In fact the USIA, a government institution that fights anti-American propaganda, does wage a campaign against Robin. Since 1988 it has published a number of reports systematically repudiating allegations of organ theft. This started out as a reaction to cold-war KGB propaganda, in which the United States were held responsible for the murder of South American children. The KGB has vanished but the atrocity stories are still with us and so is the USIA’s anti-rumour campaign. Robin blames the responsible USIA staff officer Todd Leventhal for much of her setbacks, and has even suggested that he was implicated in the theft of her car. She later received death threats by phone and on the Internet. As she repeatedly said to me: “It’s like a thriller.”

Hansel and Gretel

Marie-Monique Robin was not the first to call attention to the organ mafia. Stories about organ-napping first appeared in the world press in 1987. [8] On January 2 of that year a Honduran paper reported that disabled children were sold in the USA as a source of `spare parts’. Thirteen child victims had been discovered in four casas de engordes (`fattening houses’ – shades of Hansel and Gretel). The source of these reports was Leonardo Villeda Bermudez, secretary general of the Honduran committee for social welfare. On January 3, however, this official retracted his allegations, explaining that he had merely repeated the unconfirmed assumptions of social workers.

Later cases in Guatemala and Peru followed the same pattern: alarming but unsubstantiated reports which were withdrawn as soon as they were published. As bad news is more newsworthy than good news however, the initial disclosures were often reported by the press, whereas the subsequent denials were ignored. This is a professional vice of journalists, which may be even stronger in those who have an ideological axe to grind. Unsurprisingly, in the late eighties the horror-stories about organ theft were eagerly picked up and published by the Soviet media, which in the same period gave weight to the rumour that the HIV virus had been artificially created in an American biological warfare laboratory. [9]

The European Parliament too has twice spoken out against organ theft. In 1993 it passed a resolution condemning organ traffic. The resolution was based on a report by socialist Europarliamentarian Leon Schwartzenberg. In this report the former French minister of public health describes the medical, ethical and social consequences of the lack of donor organs and stresses the existence of a homicidal organ mafia.

The very idea that cynical traffickers literally sell the flesh of third world children evokes strong feelings of dismay and compassion. This does not make a detached, clinical took at the facts any easier. Schwartzenberg even disqualified sceptics by classing them with Holocaust deniers: “To deny such traffic is comparable to denying the existence of the gas chambers in the last war.”


In general, organ theft is implausible because clandestine transplantations require numbers of highly skilled medical personnel and sophisticated equipment that are not to be found in the countries where the organ thieves are said to operate

Nobody denies that in some countries (for instance Brazil, India and Egypt) poor people offer their organs for sale. In this respect organ traffic is a reality. Transplantation experts however are not prepared to assume the existence of a large scale mafia-controlled organ trade. Individual cases, like Pedro Reggi’s and Jeison’s do not stand up to scrutiny. In general, organ theft is implausible because clandestine transplantations require numbers of highly skilled medical personnel and sophisticated equipment that are not to be found in the countries where the organ thieves are said to operate. As Eurotransplant’s medical director Guido G. Persijn told me:

Of course it is possible to kidnap people, anaesthetise them and steal one of their kidneys, but to do that you also need a recipient, the recipient needs to have a matching blood group and tissue group. You need an HLA-typing… And how can you be sure that this Mr. X you’ve snatched off the street makes a suitable kidney donor in the first place? Isn’t he suffering from a renal disease, nephritis, HIV? You would need an immense organisation. It’s just not worth it.

Even the strongest evidence for organ theft, such as the reports of kidney-napping in India that emerged in February 1995 [10], is ambiguous at best. Poor inhabitants of a Bangalore village applied for jobs in the city and were robbed of their kidneys under the guise of a routine medical check-up. A specialist, a GP and two middlemen have been arrested. The German magazine Der Stern broke the news with an article headlined ‘Organ theft in India proven for the first time’.
Actually, Der Stern’‘s pictures of Indian men and women sporting huge scars merely prove that India has a markedly higher proportion of inhabitants with only one kidney than richer countries. By March 1995 more thin eighty alleged victims had registered with the Bangalore police. Yet according to the town’s police commissioner only a small fraction of those have really been robbed; the others supposedly sold one of their kidneys and are hoping to receive a higher remuneration by lodging a complaint. [11]

But why wait for conclusive evidence to be found? When I called him in February 1995, Stan Meuwesse, Director of the Dutch branch of the Defence for Children International (an organisation that fights child labour, child slavery, child prostitution and other forms of child abuse) asserted that organ theft is a reality. “The accepted facts and figures about child abuse are so overwhelming, that this has to be true too”, he argued, repeating an argument voiced by other representatives of Non-Governmental Organisations in the human rights field. Who would believe, Meuwesse asked, that 6-year-old Pakistani boys are forced to work as camel-jockeys in the Arab Emirates? Still, this is an undisputed fact.

Meuwesse emphasised that he had never seen a “consistent, reliable, clear” report about stolen corneas and kidneys. All there was to go on are the stories that are being repeated over and over again: stories Meuwesse said, that convince everyone in the children’s rights community.

Legendary Criminals

In Organ Snatchers one of those recurring stories is told by Mexican parliamentarian Hector Ramirez, a member of the parliamentary commission charged with the investigation of illegal organ traffic. Ramirez recounts the case of a little boy who was kidnapped on the market in the Extapalapa quarter and turned up two months later on the same spot, a scar on his back marking the place where one of his kidneys had been extracted.

Ramirez: “His mother had him examined by a doctor. This confirmed her suspicions. When the little boy returned to her family, he brought $2,000 with him. I contacted his mother, but she wouldn’t tell anything at all. She was very scared. With the money she could take care of him.

For lack of names, pictures or documents, it is impossible to check this story. The official report by Ramirez does not mention it. Robin’s team could not locate a single victim or witness in Mexico. The story sounds improbable: why didn’t these supposedly ruthless criminals simply kill the eye-witness instead of delivering him to the scene of the crime with $2,000 – for pocket money? Random acts of kindness like this one have never been reported from other branches of crime.

If this story is convincing at all, the appeal lies not in its realism but in the moral point it makes. The story graphically expresses a message that speaks to the hearts of both poor Mexicans and human rights activists worldwide: Americans think that they can use the inhabitants of Latin America any way they like in return for a little pocket-money.Everything points to Ramirez’s story being a contemporary legend: a tale that surfaces time and again in different forms, but always appears to have happened recently just round the corner from where the story-teller lives. Unreal stories like this one can have real consequences though. In Colombia, Argentina, France, Switzerland, The Netherlands and other parts of the world, organ donations have dropped off as a result of these rumours, claim transplant organisations.

And “it has had a devastating, effect” on international adoptions, says Susan Cox, president of Holt Adoption Services in Oregon, one of the agencies that annually help place about 8,000 children with US parents. In Turkey, officials outlawed foreign adoptions after the organ-thieves myth took hold. [12] As sociologists are wont to observe: Whenever people experience a situation as real it will become real in its consequences. The truth of this dictum is brought out even more dramatically by the Guatemala organ theft scare of 1994.

Lynch Justice for Child Snatchers

Guatemala, March 8, 1994. [13] American tourist Melissa Larson (37) is sipping a glass of pineapple juice in the market of the village Santa Lucia Cotzumalguapa. Suddenly she finds herself surrounded by angry villagers and accused of being a child snatcher. To protect her from the mob, Larson is arrested and smuggled out of the village by the authorities. When the inhabitants find out that she has gone, they turn on her protectors, burning down the police station and setting fire to ten cars. It takes five hundred riot police, army reinforcements and armoured cars to restore the peace. Larson, after 19 days in prison, has a lucky escape.

Less fortunate is 51-year-old June Weinstock, who came to San Cristobal to watch the Easter celebrations. On March 29 villagers spot her photographing children in the market and caressing a little boy. A woman who has lost sight of her 8-year-old son in the bustle looks at Weinstock with suspicion. “Maybe the gringa keeps the boy in her suitcase,” the ice-cream vendor jokes.

Weinstock becomes the centre of an increasing crowd: there is an American child stealer in town! She too needs police protection, as one thousand inhabitants lay siege to the police station. Five hours later she is dragged outside and brutally beaten. Weinstock lapses into a coma and has to be hospitalised. She suffered eight stabwounds, a fracture of the base of the skull and two broken arms. By then the lost boy has been back with his mother for some time.These incidents would never have happened without the rumours that preceded them. Long-haired foreigners were said to prey on children. A street urchin had been robbed of his corneas; his pocket was stuffed with US dollar bills. Eight babies were found with their hearts cut out. One had a hundred dollar bill stuck in the gaping wound with a note saying “Thanks for your co-operation”.

Graffiti warned Americans that they were not welcome: “Gringo child stealers go home”. Hysteria was fuelled in La Prensa Libre (March 13, 1994), Guatemala’s largest circulation daily, depicting the organ trade in the form of an advertising pamphlet. Ten usable organs are displayed like meat in a supermarket, with the prices they would fetch in the United States. The price-tag on the heart reads $100,000; a kidney is worth $65,000 and a cornea would fetch a mere $2,500 on the black market.

A Children’s Exodus

So, where do these stories come from? How did Jeison’s and Pedro Reggi’s families come to believe that their child’s blindness was caused by thieves? Apparently these stories have not been inspired by actual crimes. So, could they be leftist propaganda spread by deceitful journalists, as the US Information Agency has repeatedly suggested? In its most recent report on The Child Organ Trafficking Rumour (December 1994), the USIA does not come down as hard on ‘Soviet front groups’ as it used to; it provides much useful information but still does not explain the phenomenon.

Both parties – humanitarian believers and US Government sceptics, but most of all the believers – underestimate the power of the people themselves to develop and circulate unofficial explanations as a reaction to actual circumstances and tensions. In other words they underestimate their ability to create rumours. These stories originated in Latin American cities, not in a communist-era Russian ministry.

The most detailed study of these rumours has been made by folklorist Véronique Campion-Vincent of Paris. Campion-Vincent, who has been monitoring the organ theft rumour for years, maintains that it is much more than cynical propaganda. Rather, the rumour is the unreal synthesis of two real consequences of the poverty that afflicts Latin America: adoption and organ traffic. [14]

Children from Latin American countries are much in demand on the adoption market. At the times of the attacks on American tourists in Guatemala, on average twenty children per week were adopted from that country, half of them by Americans. Not all requests from American and European couples for the adoption of a Latin American child are met by legal means. Documents are forged, mothers sell their babies and even kidnappings occur. Clandestine foster homes do exist and are frequently discovered by the authorities. The people themselves regard this children’s exodus with mixed feelings: what will the future of the children be like? Do they not rather belong in our country?

As we have seen, the selling of bodyparts belongs to the reality of third world countries too. Rumours about organ theft, says Campion-Vincent, posit an imaginary connection between the two phenomena: according to the rumour, the adoptions serve the organ trade as well.

A third fact of life in Latin America that feeds the rumour is the high level of everyday violence, vividly described by anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes in a chilling chapter of her book Death Without Weeping. [15] Scheper-Hughes shared the life of the poor in a community in North-East Brazil, a region where ‘disappearing’ is a frightful and by no means imaginary way of departing this world. The anonymous bodies of the victims may turn up on the side of the road, their genitals cut off and their eyes plucked out. Violence is such a routine feature of the world these people live in, that they cannot even take ownership of their own body for granted. And so, starting in the mid-1980′s, the anxiety of the poor produced rumours of organ traffic.

It was said that the teaching hospitals of Recife and the large medical centres throughout Brazil were engaged in an active traffic in body parts, a traffic with international dimensions. Shantytown residents reported multiple sightings of large blue or yellow vans driven by foreign agents (usually North American or Japanese), who were said to patrol neighbourhoods looking for small stray children whom the drivers mistakenly believed no-one in the overpopulated slums and shantytowns would ever miss.” [16]

According to Scheper-Hughes, inhabitants of the first and third world hold incompatible views of organ donation:

“While Western Europeans and North Americans persist in thinking of organ transplants as ‘gifts’ donated freely by loving and altruistic people, to the people of the Alto, whose bodies are so routinely preyed on by the wealthy and powerful (in economic and symbolic exchanges that have international dimensions), the organ transplant implied less a gift than a commodity [...] The Brazilian rumours express poor people’s perceptions, grounded in an economic and biotechnomedical reality, that their bodies and the bodies of their children may be worth more dead than alive to the rich and powerful. [17]

These feelings of powerlessness in the face of ruthless exploitation predate the introduction of transplant su-gery. In fact, stories of white killers stalking poor South Americans for their bodyparts fit a native tradition which already existed long before adoption and transplantation became important issues. One of the white ogres that abound in these traditional legends is the ‘pishtaco’ of the Andean Indians, a night prowler who collects human fat. [18] He sells his booty to factories (as a lubricant) or to pharmaceutical companies (as a basis for medication). Indian fat was also said to be used to start up jet engines. The monsters have kept up with the times and are presently hunting for corneas and kidneys.

The EuroKidney Gang

The fear of cutthroat physicians that thrives under the corrugated iron roofs of South America exists as well in American and western European luxury apartments. Although emotions do not run as high as in the third world, the Dutch, for instance, have their own rumours about stolen bodyparts. In 1990 a contemporary legend circulated in The Netherlands that is the mirror image of the Latin American versions. A widely known and believed story told how a businessman or tourist visits Brazil (or Tunisia or Turkey), is anaesthetised by kidnappers and on recovery finds that one of his kidneys is missing. [19]

Since 1992 a new version is doing the rounds, this time starring a child rather than an adult victim. On a daytrip to Disneyland Paris parents lose sight of one of their children. After a while the little boy [20] is found on a bench, pale and dazed, with a big scar marking the spot where his kidney has been extracted.

Such stories surfaced within two weeks of the Paris theme-park opening its gates in 1992. They do not only scare Dutch parents: German, Swiss, Austrian and Swedish parents too fear for their toddlers’ safety in EuroDisney. In spite of this, not one single victim – or his parents – has ever come forward. Disney denies that the incident ever took place (but they would, wouldn’t they?). The story is a textbook example of a contemporary legend. [21]

Typically legend-like too, is the way the story adapts itself to its surroundings. The EuroDisney kidnap scare does reflect a certain amount of xenophobia, but it is not the expression of a people that feels exploited. So, like their Mexican counterparts, the Parisian kidney thieves kindly return their victims to the scene of the crime, but in contrast to their Latin American colleagues, they never give them thousands of dollars for pocket money.

The Blood Carriage

Moral panics caused by tales about strangers who kidnap and kill children have been around at least since the Blood Libel legend accused Jews of mixing their Passover matzo dough with the blood of Christian children. Among those numerous historical rumour panics there is one that is the spitting image of today’s organ theft scare. [22]

Paris, May 1750. The city is in uproar, because under the eyes of the populace police are arresting children on the streets, taking them away in shuttered carriages, destination unknown. The people resist; riots ensue. Police officer Labbe is caught redhanded as he grabs an 11-year old boy. The boy is liberated by the mob and Labbe has to run for his life. He enters a house and tries to hide under a bed, but his pursuers drag him out into the street. Guards come running, prise him from the hands of his captors and take him toa police commissioner’s residence. The people lay siege to his refuge and demand those inside to surrender the kidnapper. In the end, they kick in the door. There is an exchange of gunfire, the furious crowd wrestles Labbé away from his guards and puts him to death with sticks and stones.

In a way the Parisians are not mistaken: policemen do randomly arrest boys and put them in jail without granting them a proper trial. This is part of an operation to clear the streets of vagabonds. As the police receive a reward for every arrested child, they are not particular about the ones they arrest; even those whose age, behaviour or social status does not fit the description run the risk of being apprehended.

Ambiguous situations like these are ideal breeding grounds for rumour, and indeed, in no time rumours do emerge. The children are cut open, it is said, and bled to death in a tub because an ailing prince – or a princess or even the King himself – has to bathe in children’s blood. This story did not originate in Paris in 1750. It was already told about the Emperor Constantine, who refused to be cured in this un-Christian way and saw his health restored by God as a reward for his righteousness.

In Paris, the then king, Louis XV was one of the targets of the rumour. For his atrocities he was compared with Herod, the murderer of the innocent children. According to the French historians Arlette Farge and Jacques Revel, the fact that the people pointed to King Louis as the perpetrator reveals their hatred of a ruler who had turned from a benefactor into a Herod.

The rumour was known in 18th century Antwerp too. [23] Parents used to warn their children against staying out late by telling them about the ‘Blood Carriage’, a beautiful horse-drawn carriage. Inside is a rich lady who offers sweets to children playing in the street and asks them to accompany her to her castle and play with her daughter. If this approach does not succeed, she’ll just drag them inside. In her castle, their big toes are chopped off and they bleed to death in a tub for a king who suffers from a severe illness and can be cured only by the blood of children under seven.

Parisian children forced to donate their blood for an ailing member of the royal family find an exact counterpart in Third World children who are robbed of their organs for the benefit of rich Westerners – in fact, the rumour had not really changed in two and a half centuries. One version of the rumour, that stirred trouble in 1768 Lyon, even involved transplantations. [24] To provide a mutilated prince with a fresh arm, a new child was kidnapped each day. Day after day surgeons tried to graft a new arm, but each time the operation failed.


Earlier versions of this article appeared in the Dutch magazines Wetenschap, Cultuur & Samenleving (April 1995) and Skepter (September 1995), and in my collection of contemporary legends and rumours, Der Gebraden Baby (Amsterdam 1995). Véronique Campion-Vincent, Todd Leventhal and Eduardo Mackenzie were very generous in sharing their opinions and research materials.



  1. Panorama (no. 50, 1993)
  2. Report by Dr Patricia Rey, Buenos Aires, 6 Dec. 1993
  3. Renard, G., M. Gentilini, A. Fischer, Rapport d’examen de i’enfant Wenis Yeison Crus Vargas. Paris, 10 August 1995. For reactions of Robin and other parties involved see: Gillot, Nathalie, ‘Polémique sur l’enfant aveugle.’ France-Soir, 12 August 1995; Nau, Jean-Yves, ‘Un reportage sur les greffes de cornées en Colombie suscite un polemique.’ Le Monde, 17 Aug. 1996; Proenza, Anne, ‘Un document violemment critiqué a Bogota.’ Le Monde 17 Aug. 1995; Bantman, Beatrice, ‘Jeison, aveugle mais pas victime.’ Liberation, 18 Sept. 1995; Fritisch, Laurence,‘C’était une maladie,’ France-Soir, 19 Sept. 1995; Nau, Jean-Yves, ‘Un rapport medical contredit un reportage sur un traffic d’organes en Colombie.‘ Le Monde, 19 Sept. 1995.
  4. Proenza, op. cit.
  5. Mackenzie, Eduardo,’Suspendido premio a Marie Monique Robin.’ El Espectador, 26 Sept. 1995
  6. Bantman, op. cit.
  7. This is contradicted by her one-time collaborator, Colombian human rights activist Hector Torres, who agreed to keep an eye on Jeison’s mother. According to him she has not been threatened. (Proenza, op, cit.)
  8. The most comprehensive overviews of the rumour’s history have been written by Campion-Vincent: ‘The Baby-parts story: a new Latin American legend’ Western Folklore 49, (Jan. 1990), pp.9-25 and Leventhal, Todd: The child organ trafficking rumour: a modern ‘urban legend’. USIA, Dec. 1994
  9. Soviet Active Measures in the Era of Glasnost, USIA, Washington, July 1989, pp.12-13. For a less patriotic perspective on the Aids rumours, see Turner, Patricia A.,  Heard it through the Grapevine; rumour in African-American culture, Berkely [etc.] 1993, pp. 151-164.
  10. Penberthy, Jefferson, ‘An abominable trade’, Time 20 Feb. 1995; Ulli Rauss & Jay Ullal, ‘Nieren-Klau in Indien’, Stern, 23 Feb. 1995.
  11. Leventhal, Todd, ‘The illegal transportation and sale of human organs: reality or myth?’ Paper read at the annual meeting of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, Ghent, 25 Apr. 1995.
  12. Frankel, Mark, John Barry & David Schrieberg, ‘Too good to be true.’ Newsweek, June 26 1995.
  13. Main sources for the Guatemala organ theft scare: ’Foreigners attacked in Guatemala.’ New York Times, 5 Apr. 1994; Carol Morello, ‘A nation in the grip of panic’. Philadelphia Inquirer, 10 Apr. 1994; Mark Frankel & Edward Orlebar, ‘Child stealers go home’ Newsweek, 18 Apr. 1994; Laura Lopez ‘Dangerous Rumors’, Time, 18 Apr. 1994; Gleck, Elizabeth, ‘Rumor and Rage’, People, 25 Apr. 1994; ‘Body parts panic in Guatemala’ FOAFtale News 33/34 (June 1994), pp.17-18; Shonder, John A., ‘Organ theft rumors in Guatemala, some personal observations’, FOAFtale News 35 (Oct. 1994), pp. 1-4.
  14. Campion-Vincent, op. cit.
  15. Scheper-Hughes, Nancy, Death Without Weeping: the violence of everyday life in Brazil, Berkeley [etc.] 1992, chapter 6: ‘Everyday violence. Bodies, death and silence.’ pp. 216-267. Pages 233-239 deal with rumours of organ traffic.
  16. Op, cit, p. 233
  17. Op. cit. p. 238-239
  18. Oliver-Smith, Anthony, ‘The Pishtaco, Institutionalised fear in highland Peru’, Journal of American Folklore 82 (1969), pp. 363-368; Caro, Frank de. ‘The body parts panic and the Peruvian pistaco tradition.’ FOAFtale News 36 (Jan. 1995), pp. 1-2.
  19. Burger, Peter, De Wraak van der Kangoeroe. Sagen uit het Moderne Leven. Amsterdam 1992, pp. 23-2620 Whenever the tellers specify the child’s gender, it’s always a boy. Why?
  20. Numerous collectors of contemporary legends in all parts of the world have recorded versions of the kidney heist legend. See, for example, Brednich, Rolf Wilhelm, Sagenhafte Geschichten von Herute. Munchen 1994, pp 215-217, 310-311; Brunvand, Jan Harold, The Baby Train and other Lusty Urban Legends. New York 1989, pp. 149-154; Czubala, Dionizjusz, ‘The “Black Volga”: child abduction urban legends in Poland and Russia’, FOAFtale News 21 (March 1991), pp 1-2; Goldstuck, Arthur, The Leopard in the Luggage. Urban legends from Southern Africa, Johannesburg, 1993, pp. 99-101; Klintberg, Bengt af, Den Stoma Njuren, Sagner och Rykten i var Tid. Norstedts, 1994, pp. 15-22, 66-68; Seat, Graham. Great Australian Urban Myths, Sydney 1995, pp. 133-135; Toselli, Paolo, La famosa invasione delle vipere valanti e altre leggende metropolitane dell’Italia d’oggi. Milan 1994, pp. 149-164.
  21. Forge, Arlette & Jacques Revel. Logiques de la Foule. L’affair des Enlevements d’enfants Paris 1750, Paris 1988. (English translation The Vanishing Children of Paris, Cambridge, MA, 1991)
  22. Roodenburg, Herman. ‘The autobiography of Isabella de Moerloose: sex, childrearing and popular belief in seventeenth century Holland.’ Journal of Social History 18 (1984/5) pp. 522-524; ‘More on body parts abductions’, FOAFtale News 32 (Feb. 1994), p.10.
  23. Campion-Vincent, op. cit



Visions of Bowmen and Angels.
Kevin McClure

THIS ARTICLE IS ALSO ON-LINE AT http://moremagonia.blogspot.co.uk/2011/09/mufob-new-series-1975-1979.html


In August 1914, Brigadier-General John Charteris was one of the senior officers in the British Expeditionary Force in France. He was a staff officer to General Sir Douglas Haig, working with him at G.H.Q., and also a close personal friend.

During the earliest weeks of the Great War, he was an involved observer within the B.E.F. as the men retreated from Mons in the face of substantially superior German forces. He also sent home detailed and eloquent letters, a chronicle of that demanding and dramatic time. These were published some 17 years later (At G.H.Q., Cassell, 1931), apparently in their original form, certainly with no hint of rewriting or later addition. The entry for September 5th, 1914, includes the following passage: -

” Then there is the story of the ‘Angels of Mons’ going strong through the 2nd Corps, of how the angel of the Lord on the traditional white horse, and clad all in white with flaming sword, faced the advancing Germans at Mons and forbade their further progress. Men’s nerves and imagination play weird pranks in these strenuous times. All the same the angel at Mons interests me. I cannot find out how the legend arose.”

If a perceptive and open-minded Brigadier-General, knowing his men and the experiences they had been through could not get to the bottom of the stories of angels some ten days after the events are said to have happened, what hope do I have nearly 80 years on? I have plenty of written sources – though there are many more, the tales being told again and again – and the perspective of history in my favour. Yet I can make no promises as to what may have occurred, and cannot say with certainty that any particular, named individual, of perhaps 100,000 soldiers in the B.E.F. at that time, saw any one vision or another. But it is clear to me that the debunking that has in recent years been the only published context for the Mons material has been hopelessly inadequate, if not actually dishonest. It is time to present the contemporary sources – as close to the truth as we can come – however confusing they may be. Now we can evaluate this strange and wonderful story in a new and independent way.

In his marvellous study of wartime myths and legends, The Smoke and the Fire – Myths and Anti-Myths of War, 1861-1945 (Sidgwick & Jackson, 1980) historian John Terraine records that Private Frank Richards – later to be author of the Billy Bunter books – wrote of angels in the context of the retreat from Le Cateau, which was on August 26th, 1914. There are few specific references to dates, but it seems that the 26th or 27th are the most likely. Whatever happened, probably happened then.

On September 29th the Evening News published the Arthur Machen story The Bowmen for the first time: just 17 column inches on page 3 of a London evening paper. Unfortunately, copyright prevents me from reproducing this fine story in full, but Light magazine for 10.10.14 – always very literate for a specialist journal in the Spiritualist field – summarises it well: -

” The Evening News of the 29th ult. contains a remarkable piece of imaginative word-painting by Mr Arthur Machen, the novelist, entitled ‘The Bowmen’. Picturing one of the stands made by the allies early in the war against the overwhelming German host that was slowly pressing them back, he makes a British soldier with some knowledge of Latin recall the motto he had seen on the plates in a certain vegetarian restaurant. “Adsit Anglis Sanctus Georgius” – ” May Saint George be a present help to the English”. The man utters the invocation aloud, and at once the roar of battle seems to die down and in its place he hears a tumult of voices calling on St.George: ” Ha! Messire: Ha! sweet saint, grant us good deliverance! St.George for merry England! Harow! Harow! Monseigneur St.George, succour us.”

And as the soldier heard these voices he saw before him, beyond the trench, a long line of shapes, with a shining about them. They were like men who drew the bow, and with another shout their cloud of arrows flew singing and tingling through the air towards the German host. To their astonishment, the other men in the trench see the ranks of the enemy dissolving like mist, the foe falling not in dozens or hundreds, but in thousands. After the engagement the German general staff, finding no wounds on the bodies of the slain, decide that the English must have used Turpinite, but the soldier who knows Latin knows that St.George has brought his Agincourt bowmen to help the English!”

If you are not familiar with ‘The Bowmen’ then I would commend it to you most heartily, along with most of Machen’s other, marvellous fiction: quite possibly the finest writing on supernatural and horror themes of its period. Actually, this was not the first Evening News piece in which Machen had used legendary figures to make an encouraging and patriotic point. On 17.9.14, a piece of Machen’s appeared under the title ‘The Ceaseless Bugle Call’. Starting with observations on the huge training camps at Aldershot, it waxes lyrical about St.George, and concludes: -

Tuba mirum spargens sanum: wondrous sound the trumpet flingeth. It shall resound till it call up the spirits of the heroes to fight in the vanguard of our battle, till it summon King Arthur and all his chivalry forth from their magic sleep in Avalon: that they may strike one final shattering blow for the Isle of Britain against the heathen horde.”

I find The Ceaseless Bugle Call particularly interesting. It is virtually a trial run for The Bowmen, yet we hear nothing more of King Arthur playing any part in the course of the war. It was The Bowmen that caught the public interest, and the more respectable ‘occult’ and Spiritualist journals wrote to Machen after publication, to ask him what truth there was in the story, and how he had come by these marvellous facts. He responded that the story was entirely of his own making, written as his response to the horrors of the war, particularly the reports in the Weekly Dispatch of 30.8.14. Light and the Occult Review reported this response with little comment and there, for a time, the story rested.

Perhaps the greatest mystery of the way the Mons stories unfolded is the ‘missing link’. How the visions ceased to be reported in October 1914, having been given little or no credence, but then suddenly reappeared – in different forms, in different places – the following spring, over 6 months later. There had been many dramatic events during that time: hundreds of thousands of young men had marched willingly to war, and many of them had died or suffered appalling injuries. The British public had become all too familiar with the names of other places, other battles. Yet it was the few days of the retreat from Mons – a fortunate event, marked by great bravery, but hardly a memorable victory – involving smaller numbers of men, and lower casualties, that became the subject of tremendous attention throughout the summer of 1915. The first of the array of reports I have traced comes from Light magazine, 24.4.15., under the title The Invisible Allies: Strange Story from the Front: -

” In Light of October 10th last we referred, under the title of The Invisible Allies to a remarkable story by Mr Arthur Machen, the novelist, which appeared in the Evening News of a few days before, and which depicted our soldiers at the front as being aided by the spirits of the English soldiers of the past. The soldier about whom the story revolves sees a vision of the Agincourt bowmen and hears their voices. A short time ago we were asked by a well-known publisher if we could tell him anything of the origin of the story, as statements were being made that it was founded on fact. We replied that we thought it nothing more than an effort of that imagination of which Mr Machen’s stories are full. However, being curious on the point, and having a personal acquaintance with the author, we wrote to him asking the question, and were not surprised to receive his answer that the tale was merely a fanciful production of his own. He though it rather curious that any legend should have grown up around his story.

A few days ago, however, we received a visit from a military officer, who asked to see the issue of Light containing the article in question. He explained that, whether Mr Machen’s story was pure invention or not, it was certainly stated in some quarters that a curious phenomenon had been witnessed by several officers and men in connection with the retreat from Mons. It took the form of a strange cloud interposed between the Germans and the British. Other wonders were heard or seen in connection with this cloud which, it seems, had the effect of protecting the British against the overwhelming hordes of the enemy. We wonder what truth there is in the report. Legends spring up quickly, but so far as we have observed there is always some core of truth, however small, at the back of each. Even the ‘Russians in England’ rumour, we understand, was not entirely without foundation. But this legend of Mons is fascinating. We should like to hear more of it.”

This was a simple story. The effect – the protection of the British soldiers – is the same as in The Bowmen, but it occurs as the result of the presence of a mysterious cloud. Only six days later, on 30.4.15., the Roman Catholic newspaper, The Universe, published in London, carried a more detailed and rather different account, headed On A White Horse: St.George and Phantom Army: -

” An extraordinary story, which recalls an incident in the Crusades, reaches The Universe from an accredited correspondent who is, however, precluded from imparting the names of those concerned.

The story is told by a Catholic officer in a letter from the front, and is told with a simplicity which shows the narrator’s own conviction of its genuineness . . .

” A party of about thirty men and an officer was cut off in a trench, when the officer said to his men, ‘Look here, we must either stay here and be caught like rats in a trap, or make a sortie against the enemy. We haven’t much of a chance, but personally I don’t want to be caught here.’ The men all agreed with him, and with a yell of ‘St.George for England!’ they dashed out into the open. The officer tells how, as they ran on, he became aware of a large company of men with bows and arrows going along with them, and even leading them on against the enemy’s trenches, and afterwards when he was talking to a German prisoner, the man asked him who was the officer on a great white horse who led them, for although he was such a conspicuous figure, they had none of them been able to hit him. I must also add that the German dead appeared to have no wounds on them. The officer who told the story (adds the writer of the letter) was a friend of ours. He did not see St.George on the white horse, but he saw the Archers with his own eyes.”

I think we can safely regard this as the basic ‘bowmen’ legend, and it has undeniably close parallels to Machen’s story. Why it should suddenly appear in the respectable Roman Catholic press, apparently in a letter from the front in France, I cannot imagine.

It is not easy to work out a precise chronology, but it seems that the next item of importance to be published was a report in the All Saints,Clifton, Parish Magazine for May 1915. This version – which appears elsewhere, and which I assume to be a correct transcription – comes from the Church Family Newspaper, in its July 1915 issue. It was also reprinted in the same Parish Magazine, in its July 1915 issue. It has the title, An Angelic Guard – Strange Experiences.

” The following account is published in the current issue of the All Saints, Clifton, Parish Magazine: -

Last Sunday I met Miss M., daughter of the well-known Canon M., and she told me she knew two officers both of whom had themselves seen the angels who saved our left wing from the Germans when they came right upon them during the retreat from Mons.

They expected annihilation, as they were almost helpless, when to their amazement they stood like dazed men, never so much as touched their guns: nor stirred till we had turned round and escaped by some crossroads. One of Miss M’s friends, who was not a religious man, told her that he saw a troop of angels between us and the enemy. He has been a changed man ever since. The other man she met in London. She asked him if he had heard the wonderful stories of angels. He said he had seen them himself and under the following circumstances: -

While he and his company were retreating, they heard the German cavalry tearing after them. They saw a place where they thought a stand might be made, with sure hope of safety; but before they could reach it, the German cavalry were upon them. They therefore turned round and faced the enemy, expecting nothing but instant death, when to their wonder they saw, between them and the enemy, a whole troop of angels. The German horses turned round terrified and regularly stampeded. The men tugged at their bridles, while the poor beasts tore away in every direction from our men. This officer swore he saw the angels, which the horses saw plainly enough. This gave them time to reach the little fort, or whatever it was, and save themselves.”

Looking at the development of the accounts of the visions, this is a particularly important piece. It seems to represent the basic ‘angels’ legend, and it bears only a minimal resemblance to The Bowmen. In the ‘angels’ legend, there is no decision by the soldiers to take their chance, no invocation of St.George or any other figure, no foreknowledge of the words to use to call for assistance, such as those on the plate in the vegetarian restaurant. The ‘angels’ have neither leader nor weapons. Indeed, this version of intervention has more in common with the ‘strange cloud interposed between the Germans and the British’, than it does with The Bowmen. The claims of many commentators, and of Machen himself, that all the accounts of visions and interventions at Mons were generated by his brief column in the Evening News can, at times, seem very far-fetched.

Yet nothing in this investigation is straightforward or simple. To anticipate a little, the Society for Psychical Research, in its Journal for December 1915, published An Enquiry Concerning the Angels at Mons. This is an excellent piece of work, and I’ll refer to it again. The Society was swiftly off the mark in writing to Miss M. (actually Miss Marrable, daughter of Canon Marrable) on May 26, 1915

” . . the story is told on the authority of Miss M., who is said to have known personally the officers concerned. Accordingly we wrote to Miss M. to ask whether she could corroborate these stories, and received the following reply, dated 28.5.15.

‘I cannot give you the names of the men referred to in your letter of May 26, as the story I heard was quite anonymous, and I do not know who they were.”

I suspect that Miss Marrable had a busy few weeks answering enquiries about her alleged informants: there are reports of other publications also pursuing her.

Early May saw a fascinating mixture of accounts appearing in the ‘occult’ and Spiritualist press. In Light for 8.5.15, a feature appears headed Supernormal Phenomena at the Battle Front: -

” The following letter from ‘Scota’, a correspondent in Ireland, embodies statements some of which had already been received by us from other quarters: -

Sir, I am very glad that in the last issue of Light you had noticed the story about the intervention of spirit helpers at Mons, for the subject is well worth investigation. It has reached me through three different channels having no connection with each other.

A friend who was in London last autumn read in the Evening News the story of the vision and accompanying shout. She was much struck by it, but was inclined to question its credibility. A few days later, however, she met a young soldier, a private who had been wounded. Directly she heard he had been at Mons she asked, “Oh, did you see the vision, and hear the shout?” He answered, “I did not hear the shout, but I did see the vision and, he added very emphatically, the Germans saw it too, they couldn’t get their horses to come on!” He said that on comparing notes with his comrades afterwards they found that some had seen the vision, and some heard the shout, but very many had neither heard nor seen.

Shortly afterwards this same lady met a member of the family of an officer, General N., who also had been at Mons. He stated that in that rearguard action there was one specially critical moment. The German cavalry was rapidly advancing, and very much outnumbered our forces. Suddenly, he saw a sort of luminous cloud, or light interpose itself between the Germans and our forces. In the cloud there seemed to be bright objects moving: he could not say if they were figures or not, but they were moving and bright. The moment this cloud appeared the German onslaught seemed to receive a check; the horses could be seen rearing and plunging, and they ceased to advance. He said it was his opinion that if that check, whatever its cause, had not come, the whole force would have been annihilated in twenty minutes.

Since then another friend of mine has had a visit from a relative, a young officer home on short leave from the front. He, too, had been at Mons, and told her that the story, as she had heard it, was perfectly correct. He had seen the luminous cloud and the sudden check to the enemy’s cavalry, exactly as General N. had described it, and he said, “After what I saw that day, nothing will make me doubt for one moment but that we shall win in this war.”

The following week, Light published further accounts, from different sources: an interesting variation on the ‘vegetarian restaurant’, and a surprisingly Christian report in this Spiritualist context: -

” In a sermon preached by the Rev. Fielding Ould, vicar of St.Stephen’s, St.Alban’s, he is reported to have said -

I heard a story last week from three sources, and which I think may be true. A sergeant in our army had frequented a house of the Young Men’s Christian Association, and had seen there a picture of St.George slaying the dragon. He had been deeply impressed by it, and when, at the front, he found himself in an advanced and rather isolated trench, he told the story of St.George to his men – St.George, the patron saint of England, whose name the warriors have shouted as their war-cry in the carnage of Crecy, Poitiers, and on many another glorious field. When shortly afterwards a sudden charge of the grey-coated Germans in greatly superior numbers threatened the sergeant’s trench, he cried, “Remember St.George for England!” to his men as they advanced to meet the foe. A few moments afterwards the enemy hesitated, stopped, and finally fled, leaving some prisoners in our hands. One of the latter, who seemed dazed and astonished, demanded to be told who were “the horsemen in armour who led the charge. Surely they could not have been Belgians dressed in such a way!” There are many similar stories of supernatural intervention in the old battles of the world and I, for one, would hesitate to say that they had no basis of fact.”

Mrs F.H.Fitzgerald Beale, writing from Mountmellick, Ireland, says -

” You mention in Light of the 24th ult. that a strange cloud came down at Mons and hid the allies from the Germans. I am pleased to be able to tell you it is true. We have among other wounded soldiers home from the war a soldier of the Dublin Fusiliers who was injured at Mons. I told him of the story and asked him whether it was true. He said, “Yes, I saw it myself. A thick black cloud: it quite hid us from the enemy.” Indeed, all the other men have told me of the miraculous way that crucifixes were preserved. One soldier said that in a wood there was a mound with a large crucifix on top to mark the burial place of a number of soldiers killed in a former war. The trees were swept away by shell fire as if they had been cut down with a scythe, but the crucifix stood untouched. This preservation has been so very marked everywhere, he said, that even the Jews in the trenches were asking for crucifixes from Catholic soldiers, and people were embedding them in the walls of their houses. I hear this from every soldier who has returned.”

In Bladud, The Bath Society Paper of Wednesday, 9th June 1915, The Rev.M.P.Gilson, Vicar of All Saints, Clifton, told of his experiences since he published the earlier account of the ‘Angels’ . . .

” You will, I think, be no less surprised than I have been to find that our modest little parish magazine has suddenly sprung into almost world-wide notoriety; every post for the last three weeks has brought letters from all over the country, not asking merely for single copies, but for dozens of copies, enclosing a quite embarrassing number of stamps and postal orders, the more so since there were no more magazines to be had.”

He goes on to express surprise that everyone is so amazed that miracles should still be occurring, and prayers still being answered . . .

” Why should it seem more strange that a regiment of Prussian cavalry should be held up by a company of angels, and their horses stampeded, and our infantry delivered from a hopeless position, than that an angel with flaming sword should have withstood Balaam, or that St.Peter should have been delivered from the hand of Herod by the intervention of an Angel? Do they really relegate all such miracles to ‘Bible Days’, and believe that when the Church made up the Canon of Holy Scriptures she also brought to a close the age of miracles?”

Bladud also quotes some of the accounts sent to the Rev. Gilson, who passes comments on the developing stories – comments that seem quite perceptive to me. The accounts first . . .

” The first is an extract from an officer’s letter: “I myself saw the angels who saved our left wing from the Germans during the retreat from Mons. We heard the German cavalry tearing after us and ran for a place where we thought a stand could be made; we turned and faced the enemy expecting instant death. When to our wonder we saw between us and the enemy a whole troop of Angels; the horses of the Germans turned round frightened out of their senses; they regularly stampeded, the men tugging at their bridles, while the horses tore away in every direction from our men. Evidently the horses saw the Angels as plainly as we did, and the delay gave us time to reach a place of safety.”

” Another contribution comes from a more unexpected source. A captain in charge of German prisoners states that these men say it is no use to fight the English, for at Mons “there were people fighting for them”, that they saw angels above and in front of the lines, also that it is happening at Ypres.”

” From another source I heard that many prisoners were taken that day who surrendered when there was no call for it. At home it was suggested that they were underfed and did not want to fight. Some of these German prisoners were afterwards asked why they surrendered, ‘for there were many more of you than us; we were a mere handful,’ they looked amazed and replied, ‘but there were hosts and hosts of you.’ It was thought that the angels appeared to them as reinforcements of our ranks.

The St.George story is, I believe, a fiction. It has been enquired into, and apparently it is only based on a perversion of the story of the angels, and that I do believe. The only very astonishing part of it is that so many men were allowed to see them. (If other accounts of the visions agree with these, it is surely noteworthy, adds the Editor of the All Saints Magazine, that the angels appear to have taken no part in the killing: they defended our men, and caused the Germans to flee or to surrender).

Included in the same feature is a report of a sermon given in St.Martin’s Church, Worcester: -

” He told”, says the writer describing his sermon, “about this vision of angels, which had been seen by so many of our soldiers, on that Saturday in August, when the situation looked so hopeless that the Times correspondent wired that the British army ‘had been annihilated’, and the Sunday papers all published it, and if it had not been for the angels there would have been no contradiction of it in Monday’s papers.”

” In particular he spoke of twelve men in a quarry, who all saw the angels, and among the mass of the army some saw and some did not. Two colonels, he spoke of, who said they had seen them, one of whom had until then been an unbeliever. But all saw the unlooked for salvation of the remnant of the army.”

An interesting point there – that the vision was in some way selective. This is not the only time this element is mentioned, and it is not an uncommon phenomenon in reports of paranormal experience.

Another sermon, reported in various church and secular newspapers had considerable influence, presumably due to the status of the preacher. It received wide publicity, and introduced some new elements to the apparent role of the supernatural in the course of the war, in addition to the ‘legions of angels’ version of the retreat from Mons: -

” In a recent sermon at Manchester, Dr R.F.Horton, the well known Congregational minister, told how, in the Dardanelles, the airships of the enemy came over a troopship and dropped bombs. The captain, who was a devout man, gave the order to his crew to pray. “They knelt on the deck, and the Lord delivered them. The eighteen bombs which seemed to be falling from overhead fell harmlessly into the sea.

Dr.Horton then mentioned the story of the ‘Comrade in White’, which was dealt with recently in Light, and passed on to a consideration of the ‘company of angels’ which intervened to save our soldiers in the retreat from Mons. He referred to it as ‘a story repeated by so many witnesses that if anything can be established by contemporary evidence it is established.”

I haven’t found any fuller version of the story of the troopship in the Dardanelles, but this seems to be a good point at which to consider the matter of the ‘Comrade in White’ – or ‘White Helper’ – a figure that moves surely through the battlefields and hospitals of the early part of the war, without any real specifics of places or dates. The first account is from Dr Horton again -

” Now and again a wounded man on the field is conscious of a comrade in white coming with help and even delivering him. One of our men who had heard of this story again and again, and has put it down to hysterical excitement, had an experience. His division had advanced and was not adequately protected by the artillery. It was cut to pieces, and he himself fell. He tried to hide in a hollow of the ground, and as he lay helpless, not daring to lift his head under the hail of fire, he saw One in White coming to him. For a moment he though it must be a hospital attendant or a stretcher-bearer, but no, it could not be; the bullets were flying all around. The White-robed came near and bent over him. The man lost consciousness for a moment, and when he came round he seemed to be out of danger.

The White-robed still stood by him, and the man, looking at his hand, said, ‘You are wounded in your hand.’ There was a wound in the palm. He answered, ‘Yes, that is an old wound that has opened again lately.’ The soldier says that in spite of the peril and his wounds he felt a joy he had never experienced in his life before.”

Then there was . . .

” A letter from Miss Stoughton, whose sister was a nurse in the hospital at Tekleton. ‘There is a wonderful story,’ she writes, ‘of the man called by the soldiers, ‘A Comrade In White’, who is going about at the front, helping the wounded. A man told my sister that, though he had not seen Him himself, he knew many soldiers who had. He was supposed to be ‘The Angel of the Covenant’ – our Lord himself. He has been seen at different places.”

This isn’t exactly first-hand testimony – the writer is the sister of a nurse who spoke to a soldier who knew some others who said they had seen the figure! But it’s interesting to note that there are much more modern cases where similar figures have been involved inguiding or rescuing lost travellers in times of severe danger.

Quite moving is the story of the dramatic rescue of a young boy during battle, supposedly told by a nurse who had served in France (this may have been Phyllis Campbell, who we will discuss later): -

” How did you manage to pick up the child under the German guns? I asked. He shifted a little uncomfortably, then looked bravely into my eyes. “It’s a bit of a queer thing I’m going to say – but it’s true,” he said. “It was a kind of golden cloud between us and the Germans, and a man in it on a big horse – and then I saw the child in the dust on the roadside, and I picked it up.” “Yes, Sister,” he added, “Lots of other chaps saw it too.” There was a murmur of confirmation. “The minute I saw it,” he continued, “I knew we were going to win. It fair bucked me up.”

You can see the sort of structure these accounts have. The following – from Life and Work magazine for June 1915 – is a particularly detailed one, from which I have taken extracts. It is, apparently, from a letter from an unnamed soldier: -

” Strange tales reached us in the trenches. Rumours raced up and down that three-hundred mile line from Switzerland to the sea. We knew neither the source of them nor the truth of them. They came quickly, and they went quickly. Yet somehow I remember the very hour when George Casey turned to me with a queer look in his blue eyes and asked if I had seen the Friend of the Wounded.

And then he told me all he knew. After many a hot engagement a man in white had been seen bending over the wounded. Snipers sniped at him. Shells fell all around. Nothing had power to touch him. He was either heroic beyond all heroes, or he was something greater still. This mysterious one, whom the French called the Comrade In White, seemed to be everywhere at once. At Nancy, in the Argonne, at Soissons and Ypres, everywhere men were talking of him with hushed voices.”

The writer continues, explaining that he expected no such help should he be injured in battle. Then, in an advance on the facing trenches, he was shot in both legs, and lay in a sheell-hole till after dark,

” The night fell, and soon I heard a step, but quiet and firm, as if neither darkness nor death could check those untroubled feet. So little did I guess what was coming that, even when I saw the gleam of white in the darkness. I thought it was a peasant in a white smock, or perhaps a woman deranged. Suddenly. with a little shiver of joy or fear, I don’t know which, I guessed that it was the Comrade in White. And at that very moment the German rifles began to shoot. The bullets could scarcely miss such a target, for he flung his arms out as though in entreaty, and then drew them back till he stood like one of those wayside crosses that we saw so often as we marched through France.

And he spoke. The words sounded familiar, but all I remember was the beginning, “If thou hadst known,” and the ending, “but now they are hid from thine eyes.” And then he stopped and ushered me into his arms – me, the biggest man in the regiment – and carried me as if I had been a child.

I must have fainted again, for I woke to consciousness in a little cave by the stream, and the Comrade in White was washing my wounds and binding them up. It seems foolish to say it, for I was in terrible pain, but I was happier at that moment than ever I remember to have been in all my life before. I can’t explain it, but it seemed as if all my days I had been waiting for this without knowing it. As long as that hand touched me and those eyes pitied me, I did not seem to care any more about sickness or health, about life or death. And while he swiftly removed every trace of blood or mire, I felt as if my whole nature were being washed, as if all the grime and soil of sin were going, and as if I were once more a little child.

I suppose I slept, for when I awoke this feeling was gone, I was a man, and I wanted to know what I could do for my friend to help him or to serve him. He was looking towards the stream, and his hands were clasped in prayer: and then I saw that he, too, had been wounded. I could see, as it were, a shot-wound in his hand, and as he prayed a drop of blood gathered and fell to the ground. I cried out. I could not help it, for that wound of his seemed to be a more awful thing than any that bitter war had shown me. “You are wounded, too”, I said faintly. Perhaps he heard me, perhaps it was the look on my face, but he answered gently: “This is an old wound, but it has troubled me of late.” And then I noticed sorrowfully that the same cruel mark was on his feet. You will wonder that I did not know sooner. I wonder myself. But it was only when I saw his feet that I knew him.”

The identification of the figure with Jesus Christ was not an uncommon one, but I am rather intrigued by the ‘transformation’ of personality mentioned above. Whatever we call these accounts – wishful thinking, imagination, hallucination, spirit or divine intervention, or whatever – they are perhaps closer to traditional forms of religious experience than the visions involving interventions by non-human figures in military battles. They made popular reading, and no doubt brought hope and some comfort to those at the front in France, and to those at home

Before we return to the continuing development of the stories of angels and bowmen as they emerged in August and September of 1915, a little time should be spent with Phyllis Campbell, a lady who was, apparently, a nurse at front-line hospitals in France.

Over the past ten years or so, I have managed to find most of the important books and references relating to Mons, but one item has eluded me – Miss Campbell’s booklet Back of the Front, published by George Newnes Ltd in 1915. I gather that even the British Museum Library doesn’t have a copy, and apart from some extracts, all I have seen is a flyer showing the front cover! However, she received a lot of publicity, particularly via Ralph Shirley, editor of the Occult Review, and played her part in the growth of some of the more extreme legends.

In this particular instance, I tend to concur with the opinion of the sceptical writer, Melvin Harris, and I am unwilling to accept her unsupported testimony. Her work had appeared in the Occult Review before the war, and it is clear from her accounts of atrocities supposedly committed by the advancing Germans that she was prone to believing what she wanted to believe. I don’t suppose she was alone in that publicising the horrendous practises of the Bosch did wonders for Army recruitment. Anyway, some excerpts from her writing will convey her approach – bearing in mind that the content was, in 1914 and 1915, quite acceptable to many of her readers. From Light, 7.8.15 -

” The Occult Review for August publishes an article by Miss Phyllis Campbell, a nurse who was in the Mons retreat. She tells of a great outburst of pious enthusiasm on the part of the French wounded, some of whom were in a state of great exaltation of mind. They clamoured for ‘holy pictures’ – the little prints of saints and angels so common in Catholic countries – but were unanimous in selecting St Michael or Joan of Arc. A wounded English soldier – a Lancashire Fusilier – asked for ‘a picture or medal of St.George because he had seen the saint on a white horse leading the

British at Vitry-le-Francois when the allies turned.’ An RFA man, wounded in the leg, claimed to have seen a man with yellow hair, wearing golden armour and riding on a white horse with his sword upraised. He endorsed the account given by the fusilier that the phantom cavalier led the British troops. The French troops maintained that the figure seen was that of St Michael. Many of them professed also to have seen Joan of Arc.

That night (writes Miss Campbell) we heard the tale again, from the lips of a priest this time, two officers, and three men of the Irish Guard. These three men were mortally wounded; they asked for the sacrament before death, and before dying told the same story to the old abbe who confessed them.

In the Occult Review article – The Angelic Leaders – she stresses that she had written to its Editor about the stories of visions before the publication of The Bowmen in the Evening News. There is no confirmation of this; it would have been remarkable had a field nurse been able to stop and send out a letter amidst the havoc of retreat, and even more remarkable had the astute Ralph Shirley not used such a report if it had been offered him. The following piece is apparently taken from Back of the Front, reporting on how she was moving around France with the Army hospital, and recounting what soldiers had supposedly said to her, in her own, gory style . . .

” For forty-eight hours no food, no drink, under a tropical sun, choked with dust, harried by shell, and marching, marching, marching, till even the pursuing Germans gave it up, and at Vitry-le-Francois the Allies fell in their tracks and slept for three hours – horse, foot and guns – while the exhausted pursuers slept behind them.

Then came the trumpet call, and each man sprang to his arms to find himself made anew. One man said, “I felt as if I had just come out of the sea after a swim. Fit, just grand. I never felt so fit in my life, and every man of us the same. The Germans were coming on just the same as ever, when suddenly the advance sounded, and I saw the luminous mist and the great man on the white horse, and I knew the Boches would never get Paris, for God was fighting on our side.

Poor Dix, when he came into hospital with only a bleeding gap where his mouth had been, and a splintered hand and arm, he ought to have been prostrate and unconscious, but he made no moan, his pain had vanished in contemplation of the wonderful things he had seen – saints and angels fighting on this common earth, with common mortal men, against one devilish foe to all humanity. A strange and dreadful thing, that the veil that hangs between us and the world of Immortality should be so rent and shrivelled by suffering and agony that human eyes can look on the angels and not be blinded. The cries of mothers and little children – the suffering of crucified fathers and carbonized sons and brothers, the tortures of nuns and virgins, and violated wives and daughters, have all gone up in torment and dragged at the Ruler of the Universe for aid – and aid has come.”

The Society for Psychical Research was also interested in Miss Campbell’s reports. As part of their enquiry they reported that,

” We wrote some time ago to Miss Campbell asking whether she could give us any further information or put us in touch with the soldiers to whom these experiences had come, but we have not heard from her.” So far as I can establish, she made no further claims, and it was left to others to eagerly back her accounts when they could be used in support of their own contentions. But even so, if anyone comes across a copy of Back of the Front, I’d still be delighted to own one!

Miss Campbell’s contributions aside, by July 1915 the initial impetus of the reports had slowed down. Even the religious press only printed versions of earlier accounts – often set in the context of religious events in history – and many commentators began to wonder at the lack of witness testimony for which a witness could actually be identified. August saw two apparently promising testimonies in the Daily Mail. The first appeared on the 12th, and was a report of an interview with a ‘wounded lance-corporal’.

” I was with my battalion in the retreat from Mons on or about August 28th. The German cavalry were expected to make a charge, and we were waiting to fire and scatter them . .

The weather was very hot and clear, and between eight and nine o’clock in the evening, I was standing with a party of nine other men on duty, and some distance on either side there were parties of ten on guard . . An officer suddenly came up to us in a state of great anxiety and asked us if we had seen anything startling . . He hurried away from my ten to the next party of ten. At the time we thought that the officer must be expecting a surprise attack.

Immediately afterwards the officer came back, and taking me and some others a few yards away showed us the sky. I could see quite plainly in mid-air a strange light which seemed to be quite distinctly outlined and was not a reflection of the moon, nor were there any clouds in the neighbour hood. The light became brighter and I could distinctly see three shapes, one in the centre having what looked like outspread wings; the other two were not so large, but were quite plainly distinct from the centre one. They appeared to have a long, loose-hanging garment of a golden tint, and they were above the German line facing us.

We stood watching them for about three quarters of an hour. All the men with me saw them, and other men came up from other groups who also told us they had seen the same thing.

I remember the day because it was a day of terrible anxiety for us. That morning the Munsters had a bad time on our right, and so had the Scots Guards. We managed to get to the wood . . . Later on, the Uhlans attacked us, and we drove them back with heavy loss. It was after this engagement, when we were dog-tired, that the vision appeared to us.”

The Society for Psychical Research wrote to the Lady Superintendent of the hospital at which the man had been treated, to whom he was said to have told his experience before it was published, and asked her if she could give details of his whereabouts. She replied on 28.10.15:

” The man about whom you enquire has left here and has failed to answer my letter and postcard. I do not therefore know his present whereabouts. When I hear from him again I will write to you.”

There is nothing to suggest that the witness was ever located, but nor was the report disproved; this was a time of high casualties in France. The situation was a happier one than the Mail found itself in later in the month. The SPR enquiry tells the story well: -

” One other piece of alleged evidence in support of the ‘Angels of Mons’ may be briefly dismissed. In the Daily Mail for August 24, 1915, there appeared a communication from G.S.Hazlehurst stating that a certain Private Robert Cleaver, 1st Cheshire Regiment, had signed an affidavit in his presence to the effect that he “personally was at Mons and saw the Vision of Angels with (his) own eyes.” Speaking of his interview with Private Cleaver, Mr Hazlehurst said:

” When I saw Private Cleaver, who struck me as being a very sound, intelligent man, he at once volunteered his statement and had no objection to signing an affidavit before me that he had seen the Angels of Mons. He said that things were at the blackest with our troops, and if it had not been for the supernatural intervention they would have been annihilated. The men were in retreat, and lying down behind small tufts of grass for cover. Suddenly, the vision came between them and the German cavalry. He described it as a ‘flash’ . . The cavalry horses rushed in all directions and were disorganised”.

In the Daily Mail for September 2, 1915, there appeared a further communication from Mr Hazlehurst to the effect that in consequence of a rumour that Private Cleaver was not present at the Battle of Mons, he had written to the headquarters at Salisbury for information as to his movements, and received the following reply:

” From – Records Office, Cheshire Regiment. 10515 R.Cleaver.

With regard to your enquiries concerning the above man, the following are the particulars concerning him. He mobilised at Chester on August 22, 1914. He was posted out to the 1st Battalion, Expeditionary Force, France, with a draft on September 6, 1914. He returned to England on December 14, sick.”

Mr Hazlehurst concludes:

The battle of Mons was in August, 1914, and readers will draw their own conclusions. Information sworn on oath is usually regarded as sufficiently trustworthy for publication, but apparently not in this case.”

Much more intriguing is a letter sent to Arthur Machen by a Lieutenant-Colonel whose identity was apparently known to the Daily Mail, and who was present at the Retreat from Mons. It appeared in the issue dated September 14th, and seems never to have been refuted. It is worth mentioning that some historians have placed the publication of this account a year earlier, which would render it as vital evidence for a pre-Bowmen provenance for the stories. However, it definitely appeared over a year after the events that it reports. Nonetheless, its simplicity, and lack of specific identification of individualssomehow lend it a credibility not possessed by some other reports: -

” On August 26, 1914, was fought the battle of Le Cateau. We came into action at dawn, and fought till dusk. We were heavily shelled by the German artillery during the day, and in common with the rest of our division had a bad time of it.

Our division, however, retired in good order. We were on the march all night of the 26th and on the 27th, with only about two hours’ rest. The brigade to which I belonged was rearguard to the division, and during the 27th we were all absolutely worn out with fatigue – both bodily and mental fatigue.

No doubt we also suffered to a certain extent from shock; but the retirement still continued in excellent order, and I feel sure that our mental faculties were still . . . in good working condition.

On the night of the 27th I was riding along in the column with two other officers. We had been talking and doing our best to keep from falling asleep on our horses. As we rode along I became conscious of the fact that, in the fields on both sides of the road along which we were marching, I could see a very large body of horsemen. These horsemen had the appearance of squadrons of cavalry, and they seemed to be riding across the fields and going in the same direction as we were going, and keeping level with us . . .

I did not say a word about it at first, but I watched them for about twenty minutes. The other two officers had stopped talking. At last one of them asked me if I saw anything in the fields. I then told him what I had seen. The third officer then confessed that he too had been watching these horsemen for the past twenty minutes. So convinced were we that they were real cavalry that, at the next halt, one of the officers took a party of men out to reconnoitre, and found no one there. The night then grew darker, and we saw no more.

The same phenomenon was seen by many men in our column. Of course, we were all dog-tired and overtaxed, but it is an extraordinary thing that the same phenomenon should be witnessed by so many different people. I myself am absolutely convinced that I saw these horsemen, and I feel sure that they did not exist only in my imagination . .”

Quite rightly, the SPR Enquiry juxtaposes the above with this letter from Lance-Corporal A.Johnstone, late of the Royal Engineers, which was published in the Evening News of 11.8.15: -

” We had almost reached the end of the retreat, and after marching a whole day and night with but one half-hour’s rest in between, we found ourselves on the outskirts of Langy, near Paris, just at dawn, and as the day broke we saw in front of us large bodies of cavalry, all formed up into squadrons – fine, big men, on massive chargers. I remember turning to my chums in the ranks and saying: “Thank God! We are not far off Paris now. Look at the French cavalry.” They, too, saw them quite plainly, but on getting closer, to our surprise the horsemen vanished and gave place to banks of white mist, with clumps of trees and bushes dimly showing through them . . .

When I tell you that hardened soldiers who had been through many a campaign were marching quite mechanically along the road and babbling all sorts of nonsense in sheer delirium, you can well believe we were in a fit state to take a row of beanstalks for all the saints in the calendar.”

The summer of 1915 saw the publication of several books and booklets dealing with Bowmen, Angels and related issues. They included a fair amount of debate, and not a little name-calling. As I’m trying to stick to source material here, rather than the minutiae of opinions and attitudes, I won’t detail the comings and goings of the various writers; but I will summarise the best-sellers among them.

The first to appear was a 15-page booklet, gloriously titled The Angel Warriors at Mons, Including Numerous Confirmatory Testimonies, Evidence of the Wounded and Certain Curious Historical Parallels, An Authentic Record by Ralph Shirley, Editor of the Occult Review. It was published by the Newspaper Publicity Co., 61, Fleet Street, London, E.C. It covers the basic ‘Angels’ stories, and includes a number of excerpts from the vivid writings of Phyllis Campbell, as well as some interesting accounts of other battlefield visions: the Virgin Mary at Suwalki, and the Battle of Edge Hill.

The next to be published – on 10.8.15 – was The Bowmen and Other Legends of the War by Arthur Machen himself, published by Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton Kent & Co. This appeared in two separate editions, the second being the better value as in addition to reprinting The Bowmen itself, it also includes five further short stories in a similar vein: The Soldier’s Rest: The Monstrance: The Dazzling Light: The Little Nations and The Men From Troy. Some of these are, in my hopelessly biased opinion, quite beautiful. Why they are described as ‘Other Legends of the War’ I cannot say – so far as I’m aware, they are all completely original.

The controversial part of Machen’s book is the 51-page Introduction, which tells the story of the development of The Bowmen as the author himself saw it: his point of view being that he was its author, not its historian. He fairly quotes evidence from both sides of the ‘event’ hypothesis – vision vs. hallucination – but still stays with his belief that there was no ‘event’ at all. This Introduction is beautifully crafted, and well worth reading in its entirety.

There were, of course, many who believed in the legends, and their views found a popular outlet in On the Side of the Angels – the Story of the Angels at Mons – an Answer to ‘The Bowmen’, by Harold Begbie. I understand that Mr Begbie was quite a notable author at the time, but his writing displays limited critical faculties. His contention is that whether the visions occurred or not, it was not Machen who originated them. Begbie marshalls most of the ‘pro-event’ material, from the fairly reputable down to the worst of the vague and rewritten, but actually adds little to the canon of stories with which the public was already familiar. Nonetheless, it was clearly influential at the time.

Various other publications appeared in 1915 and 1916, while the various stories and opinions held the public imagination to a remarkable degree. Few of them made contributions of any great originality, but an honourable mention must go to a skilful and elaborate parody, Find the Angels – The Showmen – A Legend of the War, by T.W.H.Crosland, published by T.Werner Laurie, 1915. This exquisitely parodies Machen’s Introduction, includes The Showmen itself, and various appendices taking shots at Machen, Begbie and the rest, and ending with some verses parodying Kipling in ‘The White Feather Legion’. I do admire Mr.Crosland’s skill!

One way and another, I think I have presented most – if not all – of the relevant material that appeared in Britain between the retreat from Mons itself, at the end of August 1914, and Christmas 1915. Other than these, there were opinions a-plenty, many quite critical, considered and convincing. Were I playing sceptic – as I often do when commenting on strange events and phenomena – I would weigh those comments heavily in the balance. But that isn’t my aim in compiling this account. To round oof this collection of evidence – and not-quite evidence – there are some other, later reports that deserve a hearing . . .

There is a little-known report in the Grays and Tilbury Gazette for 25.8.17., of angels on the home front: actually, at Grays Thurrock, a place not famed for drama, romance or mystery, situated on the Thames in Essex. Here, at a relatively optimistic stage of the war, were seen the ‘Peace Angels’.

” All Argent Street was out after them”, said one speaker. “They appeared over the Exmouth, two of them sitting on two rainbows with ‘Peace’ in between. Then they faded away, leaving only the rainbow.” Another observer said that the angels had, “roses wreathed in their hair.” It seems that children, in particular, were taken with this attractive story.

Moving on some years, on 17.2.1930 the Daily News published the following strange tale: -

” The British really saw in 1914 what they called the Angels of Mons, if a story by a former member of the Imperial German Intelligence Service is to be believed. This officer, Colonel Friedrich Herzenwirth, whose narrative is published in a newspaper in New York, says:

‘ The Angels of Mons were motion pictures thrown upon ‘screens’ of foggy white cloudbanks in Flanders by cinematographic projecting machines mounted on German aeroplanes which hovered above the British lines.’

The reports of British troops during the retreat from Mons on August 24th, 1914 – that they had seen ‘angels the size of men’, which appeared to be in the rearguard of the retreating army – were attributed by psychologists to mass hypnotism and hallucination. Colonel Herzenwirth says the object of the Germans responsible for these scientific ‘visions’ was to create superstitious terror in the allied ranks, calculated to produce panic and a refusal to fight an enemy which appeared to enjoy special supernatural protection. But the Germans miscalculated.

‘ What we had not figured on’, adds the Colonel, ‘was that the English should turn the vision to their own benefit. This was a magnificent bit of counter-propaganda, for some of the English must have been fully aware of the mechanism of our trick. Their method of interpreting our angels as protectors of their own troops turned the scales completely upon us. Had the British command contented itself with simply issuing an Army order unmasking our trickery it would not have been half as effective.’

The next day, in the same newspaper, the following appeared:

” Following is a message received yesterday from our Berlin correspondent.

‘ A prominent member of the War Intelligence Department in the present German Ministry declares that the story is a hoax, Herzenwirth himself a myth or, if existing, a liar. It is officially stated that there is no such person.’

Mr Arthur Machen, the author, told the Daily News yesterday that the whole story of the apparitions was a legend invented by himself. It arose, Mr Machen said, from a story called The Bowmen, which he wrote and which was published on September 29, 1914.

” The story told how, during the retreat from Mons, some English soldiers in the trenches saw the advancing Germans dropping down by whole regiments. That, they supposed, was due to the fact that one of them said, half in a joke, ‘May St. George be a present help to the English!’

The tale is that St.George came along bringing with him the ghosts of the bowmen of the old days, and the Germans were supposed to be pierced by ghostly arrows. Nothing particular happened for the next few months, but some time in 1915 it was pointed out that people were taking the story as true. Then they began to turn the bowmen into angels. They elaborated the story and changed it about in all sorts of ways.”

The next, very peculiar tale comes from Fate magazine for May 1968. It is taken from a letter from a Rev.Albert H.Baller of Clinton, Mass. who was apparently lecturing on Unidentified Flying Objects to a group of engineers in New Britain, Conn. in 1955 or 1956, when one of the engineers gave him this report: -

” He said that he was in the trenches near Ypres in August, 1915, when the Germans launched the first gas attack. Since it was the very first, neither he nor any of his buddies knew what it meant when they looked out over no-man’s-land and saw a strange grey cloud rolling towards them. When it struck, pandemonium broke out. Men dropped all around him and the trench was in an uproar. Then, he said, a strange thing happened. Out of the mist, walking across no-mam’s land, came a figure. He seemed to be without special protection and he wore the uniform of the Royal Medical Corps. The engineer remembered that the stranger spoke English with what seemed to be a French accent.

On his belt the stranger from the poison cloud had a series of small hooks on which were suspended tin cups. In his hand he carried a bucket of what looked like water. As he slid down into the trench he began removing the cups, dipping them into the bucket and passing them out to the soldiers, telling them to drink quickly. The engineer was among those who received the potion. He said it was extremely salty, almost too salty to swallow. But all of the soldiers who were given the liquid did drink it, and not one of them suffered lasting effects from the gas.

When the gas cloud had blown over and things calmed down the unusual visitor was not to be found. No explanation for his visit could be given by the Royal Medical Corps – but the fact remained that thousands of soldiers died or suffered lasting effects from that grim attack, but not a single soldier who took the cup from the stranger was among the casualties.

It is certainly not to my credit that I have not remembered the engineer’s name. I do recall that on later enquiry that evening I discovered he was a man of some standing in his profession, known for his complete honesty and integrity.”

This story, with its vague provenance, has all the trappings of an ‘urban legend’ or ‘foaftale’, but I have not encountered it elsewhere. I am intrigued by the similarities to the ‘Comrade In White’ accounts, and as there is clearly some awareness of World War 1 legends in the USA, I wonder if any reader may have come across others?

The final original account I think worth presenting is this quiet, unassuming, and at least signed letter to The Spectator, which published it on 19.10.1918, some three weeks before the Armistice. It is not the first report to claim that some particular element of an event was seen only by the Germans: -

” Sir – Much has been said at various times about alleged superhuman interventions in our favour when, in ‘that dire autumn’ of 1914, our heroic ‘Contemptibles’ were in retreat, pressed hard by overwhelming forces. To myself nothing has come in the way of evidence on that subject with such a claim on attention and, I think, on credence as what I heard not many weeks ago from my friend (he allows the mention of his name) the Rev.W.Elliott Bradley, Vicar of Crosthwaite, Keswick, a reporter whose accurate memory and sober sense I entirely trust.

He got a practically identical account of a certain incident of that crisis from each of three soldiers, old Contemptibles, to whom he talked on three separate occasions. The first two men were, at different times, in a V.A.D. hospital near Ulverston, where the Rev.Bradley was rector between three and four years ago. The third man was seen not many months ago working on a farm near Keswick after discharge from the Army. Mr.Bradley asked in each case whether the soldiers recalled ‘anything unusual’ at the crises of the retreat. And each man without hesitation gave this answer. The Germans were coming on in massed formation, and the men of the thin British line were preparing to sell their lives dear: it was the only thing to do; the Teuton host could not help walking over them on the way to Paris. Suddenly the grey masses halted; even the horses of the cavalry jibbed and reared; and the collision did not take place. German prisoners, taken a little later, were asked why they failed to attack on such an advantage.

The answer was straight and simple: they saw strong British reinforcements coming up. Such was the story told, without leading or prompting as to detail, by these three isolated witnesses at first hand. Two, if not three, added quietly the comment, “It was God that did it.”

As my friend pointed out to me, the incident was the more impressive because all the men agreed that our soldiers saw nothing. The vision was not given to them, though their nerves might well be strained to an imaginative exaltation by their tremendous position. It was the Germans, in the full consciousness of their overmastering force and seeming easy certainty of victory, whose “eyes were opened”. I may add that what was seen was of a kind to suggest fact rather than subjective phantasm. The delivering host appeared not as ‘winged squadrons of the sky’ but as British soldiers, neither less nor more. At this hour of mighty victories, let us not forget the Supreme Disposer who, as I for one humbly believe, intervened in mystery and mercy then. (signed) Handley Dunelm, Auckland Castle, Bishop Auckland.”

The best contemporary investigation was – as has so often been the case – that conducted by the Society for Psychical Research. There is much to be said for a comprehensive knowledge of the field, an open mind, and the persistent application of common-sense. Here are some excerpts from the conclusions of the SPR Enquiry: -

” Summing up the evidence at our disposal, the following conclusions may be drawn:

a. Many of the stories which have been current during the past year concerning ‘visions’ on the battlefield prove on investigation to be founded on mere rumour, and cannot be traced to any authoritative source.

b. After we have discounted these rumours, we are left with a small residue of evidence, which seems to indicate that a certain number of men who took part in the retreat from Mons honestly believe themselves to have had at that time supernormal experiences of a remarkable character . .

In the main, the result of our enquiry is negative, at least as regards the question of whether any apparitions were seen on the battlefield, either at Mons or elsewhere. Of first-hand testimony we have received none at all, and of testimony at second-hand we have none that would justify us in assuming the occurrence of any supernormal phenomenon. For we cannot make this assumption until we have established at least a strong probability that the observed effects are such as only a supernormal phenomenon could produce, and in the present instance, as I have tried to show, all our efforts to obtain the detailed evidence upon which an enquiry of this kind must be based have proved unavailing.”

I cannot disagree with those conclusions, but I hope that, still, there may be further evidence still to come to light. Should it do so, I will be happy to rewrite this account accordingly. In the meantime, it is most important of all to remember that the legends we are discussing come from a time and place of tremendous courage, and dreadful suffering: almost impossible for us, now, to imagine. Any quality or worth this account may have is dedicated entirely to those who then fought on our behalf. If there really was some element of divine intervention, they had earned that, and more besides.

I still don’t know what happened during the Retreat from Mons: I doubt that I ever will. Perhaps the most vital point of dispute is whether Arthur Machen’s story The Bowmen was responsible, as Machen himself believed, for all the stories and legends of supernatural intervention that appeared from March 1915 onwards. My personal view is that there was rather more to it than that, and I concur with the opinion of the SPR in effectively suggesting that the men of the B.E.F. – or a number of them, anyway – were aware of reports of a ‘cloud’ or of ‘angels’ before the publication of The Bowmen on 29th September 1914. It would be helpful to know what flow of private correspondence there was between the B.E.F. and home that September: whatever there was seems not to have yielded any relevant reports. On the other hand, I doubt that Machen, among the many writers covering the war, alone received a secret tip-off, unknown to the rest of the press. I am sure that he genuinely believed that all the legends sprang from his own.

He may have been right, but there do seem to be two separate stories of intervention – the ‘Bowmen’ and the ‘Angels’- though there are certainly later accounts in which both appear, the two forms having apparently been amalgamated. Anyone familiar with the development of folklore will be aware of how easily such changes occur. But the initial formats and characteristics of each story are quite different, and it is hard to see how the one could have emanated from the other. There is no written record of any sort of ‘intermediate’ version, bridging the two.

I have, earlier, made the point that if one does not accept Machen’s explanation, and decides instead that there was either an event, or a belief in an event, then there are physical factors to be taken into account. There are strong arguments put involving the hallucinatory effects of extreme fatigue. I must agree with those who suggest that a combination of tiredness, discomfort and fear, prolonged over an excessive period, can effectively trigger an ASC (altered state of consciousness) of one type or another. This effect would be heightened among an interactive group, though oddly enough the ‘angel’ reports refer consistently to the sudden, almost surprise nature of the phenomenon. It is the ‘Bowmen’ reports, presumably of fictional origin, that stress the positive decision to seek supernatural intervention.

In the end, we all have our own thresholds of belief and acceptance, and responses to the Mons material will continue to vary, as they have already done for many years. So long as any conclusions are drawn on the basis of the breadth of the available source material, which I hope I’ve been able to present, I will have no strong reason to disagree with any of them.


I’ve included a good many references to newspapers and periodicals in the text, but I think it may be useful to collate details of books, booklets and pamphlets to which I’ve either referred while writing this account, or which I know exist, and are relevant, even though I’ve never seen them. I am indebted to the Imperial War Museum’s Booklist No. 1256A: The Angels of Mons, for several of these references, though even they have few of them in their library. I’ve marked with an asterisk the titles that I haven’t actually been able to find.

  • Altsheler, J.A. The Hosts of the Air: the story of a quest in the Great War. Appleton, London. 1915. *
  • Begbie, H. On the Side of the Angels. Hodder and Stoughton, London. 1915.
  • Campbell, P. Back of the Front. Newnes, London. 1915. *
  • Charteris, J. At G.H.Q. Cassell. 1931.
  • Churchwoman, A. The Chariots of God. Stockwell, London. 1915.
  • Corbett-Smith, A. The Retreat from Mons – by one who shared in it. Cassell. 1917. (An early personal account, which makes no mention of any strange or supernatural event).
  • Crosland, T.W.H. The Showmen: A Legend of the War. Laurie, London. 1915.
  • Garnier, Col. The Visions of Mons and Ypres: their meaning and purpose. R.Banks, London. 1915. *
  • Machen, A. The Bowmen and other Legends of the war. Simpkin Marshall, London. 1915.
  • Pearson, J.J. The Rationale of the Angel Warriors at Mons during the retreat and the apparitions at the battles of the Marne and the Aisne. Christian Globe, London. 1915. *
  • Phillips, A.F. and Thurston Hopkins, R. War and the Weird. Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent & Co., London. 1916.
  • Shirley, R. Angel Warriors at Mons: an Authentic Record. Newspaper Publishing Co., London. 1915.
  • Stuart, R. Dreams and Visions of the War. Pearson, London. 1917. *
  • Taylor, I.E.  Angels, Saints and Bowmen at Mons. Theosophical Publishing Society. 1916.
  • Terraine, J. Mons. Pan. 1962.
  • Terraine, J. The Smoke and the Fire. Sidgwick & Jackson. 1980.
  • Warr, C.L. The Unseen Host – Stories of the Great War. Alexander Gardner, Paisley. 1916.

Thanks . . . are long overdue to many friends and fellow writers, who have contributed to this account in one way or another: particularly by remembering to send me the cuttings and references that have added so much to the variety of sources I have been able to provide. There are many others, but I must mention Michael Goss, Granville Oldroyd, Hilary Evans, Mark Valentine, Andy Roberts, Bob Skinner, Robert Rickard, and Eleanor O’Keeffe and the SPR. Most of them have probably forgotten just how much help they gave!

Kevin McClure 1994


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The American Way: A Cock-and-Bullard Story. Dennis Stillings

Originally published in Magonia 35, January 1990

As editor of Artifex, like most editors, I have become something of a clearinghouse for gossip, rumor, and inside information about all sorts of things relating to anomalies, witnesses, and those who investigate them. In regard to the extraterrestrial abduction scene and those involved, I have heard many impressive anecdotes from very reliable sources that have led me to regard many of the abductionist claims and claimants as highly suspect. Furthermore, in my personal interactions with some of the abductionists, I have observed behaviours and heard statements made that have led me to believe that their claims must be taken with a very large grain of salt indeed. A sampling of these statements and observations follows:

Item: Reliable. Source (RS) and Well-Known Abductionist (WKA) went to investigate the report by members of a family that they had seen “aliens in yellow space suits on the road.” There were “several flashing lights.” It was rainy and misty. RS checked on this by calling the county highway department to see if they had any people out at that place and time. Sure enough, a crew had been doing emergency roadwork. They had several Caution signs with them and were wearing the traditional yellow slickers due to the wet weather. RS passed this information on to WKA, who categorically refused to accept the explanation.

Item: RS (with Ph.D. in psychology) witnessed one of WKA’s hypnotic regressions for the purpose of confirming an abduction experience. It was clear to RS that WKA was recursively leading the subject, subtly suing him according to a predetermined programme, which WKA had written out on a notepad held in his hand.

Item: RS told me of a case of a New York woman who became extremely upset over WKA’s attempts to coerce her into believing that she had been kidnapped by aliens when she knew better; she was so upset, in fact, that she flew out to California to see a recommended therapist in order to recover from what amounted to a brain-washing experience.

This particular case, as well as the one just above it, is highly relevant to the issue of who really “homogenizes” the reports of the abduction experience. In spite of claims that these reports – coming directly from the victim – are essentially identical, we have this only on the word of the abductionists. As far as I know, no proof of this exists.

The purpose in bringing these anecdotes to the reader’s attention is to indicate that the level of reliability of American researchers in these areas might not be as high as Bullard implies. In relation to some of these items, Bullard’s invocation of Hufford’s important book [1] and its conclusions seems inappropriate – unless he wishes to apply its lessons to the abductionists themselves. I see little reason to believe that the abductees are “taken at their word” by the abductionists, or that the abductionists are giving us the pure, untouched reports of their subjects. A moderately close reading of Hopkins’ Missing Time and Intruders reveals that the subjects very often try to indicate that their experiences had a dreamlike or imaginary quality.

This is always glossed over or reinterpreted. Jungian explanations for the alleged similarities among the abduction reports depend on the reliability of what we are told by the investigators. I no longer believe that what is claimed by the investigators is reliable, therefore the similarities can probably be accounted for by a much more parsimonious explanation: the similarities are merely an artefact of the Procrustean techniques being used by the abductionists. In addition, much is made of the claim that typical abduction reports have been obtained by individuals not subjected to regressive hypnosis. For some reason, which is not at all immediately obvious to me, this is supposed to be proof of the objectivity of the experience. I am afraid that the significance of this claim needs to be spelled out more clearly.

The as yet ill-defined altered state of consciousness obtained by means of formal hypnotic induction is but one of several altered states available to the individual on his own. Autohypnosis, as well as altered states induced by more or less chance interactions with the environment, must be considered. The entire psychological history of the individual must also be taken into account.

Item: WKA has said to a number of people that he is “on a mission,” and that the abduction problem “is why I’m here.” Actually, having watched him say this myself, he really says it to no one; he sort of gazes upward with unfocused eyes as he says it. Item: I told a Well-Known Skeptic (not specifically a UFO sceptic) that I had heard no reports of abduction cases from any of my paediatrician friends. It seemed to me unlikely that these professionals would not have heard of abduction cases if they are of the ubiquity claimed by the abductionists. WKS said “It’s a cover-up!”

I know a number of paediatricians pretty well. They are sensitive, imaginative people who listen sympathetically to what children have to say, no matter how bizarre the story might be. Paediatricians frequently deal with the wild tales of children and use the imaginative content as part of therapy. It is unlikely that a paediatrician would take a story of alien abduction at face value. They would, however, not suppress such material.

Item: WKA (who is not a professional psychologist or counsellor) cautions victims about whether or not they should have children (due to the genetic experiments done on them by aliens), or whether they might not have to terminate intimate relationships because their ‘significant other’ “will not be able to understand the experience.” Aside from the prosaic fact that such counselling by unlicensed persons is illegal, unethical, and irresponsible, these abductionist recommendations are highly reminiscent of suggestions made by cult leaders to their recruits.

Item: In the little-known ET Bag Lunch Case, Well-Known MJ-12 person finds mysterious items that he is sure resulted from the visitation of an alien spacecraft. Having access to a UFO-buff high up in the administration of an aerospace corporation, he manages to have their laboratories do an analysis. The items turn out to be aluminium shavings, an old insulator, and part of a brown paper bag.

Item: Long before William L. Moore debunked himself at the 1989 MUFON meeting in Las Vegas, he got off to a strong head start, in 1972, by publishing, in consultation with Charles Berlitz, the perfectly fantastical book The Philadelphia Experiment. [2] This book speculates that, during the war, the U.S. Navy was in possession of some sort of relativistic electromagnetic device that would not only render an entire ship and its crew invisible, but teleport it to a distant location as well! Ufologists who have been reminded of the fact of this book have looked at Moore’s claims and reliability through new eyes. (The prominent biophysicist Otto Schmitt was heavily involved in electromagnetic experimentation with the navy during World War II. He has some 60 patents in this area, many of which are still classified. When I mentioned the Philadelphia Experiment to him he claimed [between chuckles and head-shaking] that he had never heard of such a thing, even by way of rumour. For various good reasons, I do not think he was hiding anything. Conspiracy buffs will, of course, think otherwise.)

The above items, in combination with the unwarranted enthusiasm among some American ufologists for the moribund MJ-12 and Gulf Breeze cases seem, in my opinion, to justify European ufologists’ dismay at the current condition of American ufology.

Along these lines, I also do not completely share Bullard’s characterization of European ufology vis-à-vis American ufology. Bullard claims that Americans “work from – the bottom up, wallowing in facts, often content just to accumulate and enumerate them.” They are often “satisfied to cobble together a few unsystematic generalizations and prefer to isolate phenomena rather than relate them.” On the other hand, European ufologists work from the top down, conforming data to theory. With regard to Europeans, I tend to regard this as somewhat true; however, the recent work of Hilary Evans [3] and Terence Meaden [4] – of singular importance to current ufology – do nothing of the sorts. [5]

Persistent objections from sceptics are met with the response that the sceptic is an ‘armchair ufologist’, yet nothing is presented that is the least inducement to get out of one’s armchair.

Both of these investigators proceed by way of gathering data, constructing models, and then allowing fresh data to strengthen or modify their hypotheses. In the case of American ufology, it is hard to see in what way the ETH, which dominates American UFO thinking, is not a ‘top down’ approach. The ‘top down’ approach is also characteristic of the abductionist method. It also characterizes recent American books on abductions that dismiss objections based on the problems of hypnosis, folkloric and mythological parallels, science fiction sources, and psychology, with a mere snort and a wave of the hand. Such objections are never raised by the abductionists themselves in their strongest possible form and then systematically refuted. They are scarcely raised at all. One is instead requested to accept the abductionists’ word that such objections are utterly irrelevant. Persistent objections from sceptics are met with the response that the sceptic is an ‘armchair ufologist’, yet nothing is presented that is the least inducement to get out of one’s armchair.

Budd Hopkins’ paper on ‘stewpot thinking’ [6] which Bullard cites, is an undistinguished and poorly thought-out critique of the use of traditional comparative methods (dismissed as ‘stewpot thinking’) in elucidating UFO and ET cases. Hopkins’ fundamental error in this paper is to compare problem-solving within a paradigm (discovering the source and cause of Legionnaires’ Disease) with problem-solving, where no paradigm exists (ufology). In the former case, one has a well-established and agreed-upon methodology; controversy may revolve around details, but the investigators pretty much all agree on the direction that solution of the problem will take. ‘Stewpot thinking’, in this case, might be inappropriate, but not always. Very often, the ‘stewpot’ thinker, seeing both the trees and the forest, perceives relationships unnoticed by his more linearly thinking colleagues. In nascent science, such as the development of electrical theory in the 18th century, analogies and comparisons with earlier models (hydrodynamics and alchemy were favourites) often prevail until the paradigm is established. It is in no way extraordinary or defective to lay the groundwork for clarifying and understanding a problem by using ‘stewpot thinking’.

Actually, the most important aspect of Hopkins’ essay is that it palingenetically models one of the first steps a cult or religion takes after it becomes established: it denies its relationship to any past religion. The Church Fathers were at pains to deny any relationship between Christianity and the Egyptian religion, but even the Church Fathers had a hard time maintaining this position and finally developed the theory that the Devil had caused other cultures to mimic Christianity in order to undermine the faith. Because of Hopkins’ remarkable recreation of this theological pattern, I strongly recommend that his paper be read.

Bullard’s arguments often seem to undercut his own discipline. As he says, “if the only evidence is a text, fiction counterfeits truth to perfection.” This may be so on occasion, but as a matter of fact, fiction rarely counterfeits truth to perfection, or to anything approaching it. We may not be able to provide an absolute, definitive proof that the story of Little Red Riding Hood is fiction, but there are several criteria of comparative method, long used in textual analysis and literature studies, that may be applied internally to any text that will lead us to regard it as either true, partly true, or mainly fictional. I do not understand what Bullard could mean here, and I sincerely hope that I have misread him. He appears to be making an unjustifiably strong statement that can be true only in the most absolutist sense.

One of the very best criteria for distinguishing between fact and fiction in abduction reports (as in many other kinds of anomalies reports) is the criterion of “information richness.” Let me give you a homely example. A drunk of no great intelligence, teetering on a bar stool, leans over to his buddy and grumbles, “If Tommy Kramer hadn’t busted his knee, we could all be going to the Super Bowl.” If this were overheard by a Martian, he would obtain, in this one sentence, (1) immediate, useful information about the nature of human beings and (2) a number of puzzles that would motivate further investigations, which might lead to additional real information.

The Martian would at least know, or soon be able to know, that a ‘Tommy Kramer’ had something called ‘knees,’ that they get broken, and that circumstances surrounding the physical condition of a ‘Tommy Kramer’ determines whether or not these humans will all go somewhere called ‘Super Bowl’. This level of information richness – and this is a pretty minimal example in human terms – is not to be obtained from ET contact. Nor is much ordinary information about contemporary human life obtained from myth and folklore which, like ET contact reports, tend to have an abstract, formalistic, and timeless character.

It is extraordinary that Bullard, as a folklorist, should fall prey to expressing such a concretism as, “In comparing folklore and abductions, many features fit but at the same time many do not. … Fairies do not fly spaceships or use eyelike scanning devices.” Don’t they? Representations and reports exist in which creatures, not fairies, perhaps, but certainly, creatures very similar to one or another variety of the ‘Little People’ do fly spaceships. [7] And eyelike scanning devices can be traced back a very long time indeed. They have significant representation in early myth and folklore, and have been used by mythical entities for ‘scanning’. [8]

I fully agree with Bullard that merely pointing out mythological or folkloric parallels does not prove that – very strictly speaking – something didn’t really happen. And if a single parallel were the only criterion for distinguishing fact from fiction, we would have great difficulties in certain cases. For instance, the tale of the flight of Mary and Joseph into Egypt with the infant Jesus could well be true, and it is almost a certainty that many ordinary families of three have had to make similar perilous journeys. Yet we also know that the traditional details surrounding Jesus’ birth and childhood closely parallel the circumstances surrounding the birth of many mythological or semi-mythological heroes. Thus one archetypal motif – the flight to avoid persecution by the representatives of the old order – is brought into connection with another theme: the birth of the hero. [9]

The ‘success’ of the rationalizations of the ETHers derives from the fact that once an arbitrary will behind a phenomenon is assumed, anything can count as evidence

Other folkloric themes and motifs may be assembled around a story, each severely reducing the probability of the story being a true and literal account of an historical event. From pursuing this exercise, we can even come up with why such stories are structured the way they are. (Needless to say – I would hope! – such themes and motifs abound in the abduction material.) Furthermore, comparative material having the very same motifs may even be obtained from the dreams of modern people. And if such motifs are the persistent stuff of dreams, I would suggest that they do not deal with matters of objective external reality. There are several other relevant tests for distinguishing real reports from mythic and folkloric confabulations. Bullard is blowing smoke from Freud’s real, cigar here.

At bottom, the ‘success’ of the rationalizations of the ETHers derives from the fact that once an arbitrary will behind a phenomenon is assumed, anything can count as evidence. This, combined with what Norman Mailer once referred to as “a logic that doesn’t know where to stop,” takes the ETHer wherever he wants to go. The ETH is extremely difficult to falsify, making it a fertile breeding ground for every sort of fantasy. The knowledge vacuum we confront in contemplating ETs and UFOs stimulates the imagination into providing ‘answers’ derived from psychological and cultural sources. If the imagery has a strong archetypal component, it will be driven by energies that arise from the very roots from which myth and folklore grow. The unconscious always tends to personify its contents and express the psychodynamics involved in dramatic form.

In closing, I would like to address the specific criticisms made against me by Bullard. First of all, I have never articulated to myself, much less published, a comprehensive Jungian theory of UFOs and ETs. I doubt very much that it could be done. The attempts I have seen have been virtually complete failures. I merely believe that there are certain aspects of UFO reports that lend themselves readily to Jungian treatment. Even if the ETH turned out to be true, this would not invalidate a Jungian approach to certain aspects of the subject. Human psychology is, after all, involved.

Contrary to Bullard’s hopes or fears, I do not have any fundamental ‘answers,’ and I have never claimed to have any – nor do I know where Bullard got the idea that I did. Jung, not I, first asserted that the world was in such dreadful shape [10] that a salvation myth, such as the one developed from extraterrestrial beliefs, was needed. I would, however, second his opinion. Nor am I the originator of the idea that there might be a parapsychological component to the UFO and its associated physical evidence. This idea has been entertained by, among others, Jung, I. Grattan-Guinness, Manfred Cassirer, Michael Grosso, Peter Rojcewicz, George Owen, and last, but not least, Jerome Clark. Clark, who now wishes to distance himself from his book on the Jungian/parapsychological explanation of UFOs and UFO reports, is one of only two people I know of who has attempted to put forward such an interpretation in a full-length book. [11]

Not only did Clark write an entire 272-page volume in this vein, but in the course of the work (in addition to putting forward a vigorous defence of the reality of the Cottingley Fairies) he formulated actual “Laws of Paraufology.” The First Law of Paraufology is: The UFO mystery is primarily subjective and its content primarily symbolic; the Second Law is that the ‘objective’ manifestations are psychokinetically generated by-products of those unconscious processes which shape a culture’s vision of the otherworld. Existing only temporarily, they are at best only quasi-physical. [12] Laws, no less!

Now, I appreciate the fact that Clark has disavowed this book, although I believe that this was due mainly to his intuition that its superficial and formulaic use of Jungian ideas for an understanding of UFOs was weak and unsatisfactory. But the point I really want to make is that, if Bullard wants to critique a substantial statement of the Jungian/parapsychological interpretation, why doesn’t he take aim at Clark’s book, rather than at the few very sketchy and tentative remarks I made in the Magonia article? Never mind that Clark no longer believes in what he wrote in The Unidentified, it is still the best example of what Bullard doesn’t like. If I didn’t know better, I would suspect that both Clark and Bullard want to hang Clark’s book around my neck!

I consider my ideas about the role of archetypal psychology and parapsychology in understanding UFO and ET reports to be merely attempts at opening up, and keeping in mind, alternative perspectives – no more than that.

In summary, I have to agree with those European ufologists who consider American ufology to be a frightful mess. Bullard’s paper goes far, in my opinion, toward supporting this view. It does nothing to refute it. I certainly would like to see the American Way return to action: Truth, not uncriticized fantasy; Justice – for the abductees; and the return of the empirical, pragmatic American ufological brain, the real victim of Abduction. There are signs that this is happening.



  1.  David J. Hufford. The Terror that Comes in the Night: An Experience-centered Study of Supernatural Assault Traditions. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982.
  2.  The Philadelphia Experiment: Project Invisibility. Grosset & Dunlap, 1972
  3.  Alternate States of Consciousness: Unself Otherself and Superself. Aquarian Press, 1989.
  4.  The Circles Effect and Its Mysteries, Artetech Publishing, 1989.
  5.  Actually, when it comes to the gathering of facts, it is rare indeed that no ‘top-down’ hidden agenda is involved – rare enough that may be seriously doubted whether pure fact-gathering ever takes place.
  6.  Budd Hopkins, ‘Stewpot Thinking’, MUFON UFO Journal, 251, March 1989, pp.8-9,12
  7.  Bullard Might well benefit from a perusal of Michel Meuger and Claude Gagnon’s excellent book, Lake Monster Traditions, (Fortean Tomes, 1988). Meuger documents, by actual field studies, the transformation of traditional folklore creatures into machines.
  8.  See Tony Nugent’s discussion of the three Graea in relationship to the Pascagoula case in his paper ‘Quicksilver in Twilight: A Close Encounter with a Hermetic Eye’, in Cyberbiological Studies of the Imaginal Component in the UFO Contact Experience, Archaeus Publications, 1989, pp.109-124.
  9. A very recent example depicting the birth of the hero and the flight into the wilderness may be seen in the television special, Shaka Zulu.
  10.  I leave it to our European friends to evaluate Bullard’s counter: “when has the world ever not been in dreadful shape?” Nietzsche once remarked that “if there was a God he would not allow the twentieth century to have happened”.
  11.  Jerome Clark and Loren Coleman, The Unidentified: Notes Towards Solving the UFO Mystery, Warner Paperback Library, 1975. The other full-length Jungian book attempting to account for UFOs is by Gregory L. Little, The Archetype Experience, Rainbow, 1984
  12. Clark and Coleman, pp. 235ff, 242



Jumpers and the Killer Monk of Beachy Head. Michael Goss

From Magonia 55, March 1996

Go to the N19 district of London, ask someone the whereabouts of Suicides’ Bridge. Unless that person is a stranger like yourself, the chances are heavily in favour of your being directed there right away. No painful brow-furrowing or other symptoms of urgent memory-searching, no doubt or vagueness; the answer will be with you in an instant.

Everyone in this part of North London seems to know that the metal-railed bridge carrying Hornsey Lane over the Al between Archway and Highgate is … Suicides’ Bridge. Look down from it into the vertically sided chasm below: you have the prospect of a long, straight drop onto a ceaselessly busy road and you will be inclined to agree that anyone who made the jump would be committing suicide. If the fall didn’t kill them, the traffic surely must… But perhaps you will be told the story I have heard on three occasions (and from three different people) concerning an unsuccessful jumper whom neither fall nor traffic accounted for. He plummeted onto the Al and lived. Lived on a permanent cripple, for he landed on his feet so that his legs were crushed and shortened concertina-fashion by the impact. It may be true, for all I know. More certainly the people who tell the story talk as if it was – and with a sort of macabre pride.

Suicides’ Bridge is remarkable chiefly because it is a high place with a sheer drop which an unusually high number of people in and around N19 are alleged to have selected as their point of exit from this world. Asking why so many have chosen this place and not somewhere else may seem redundant. It shares with other suicide venues dealt with in this article certain features that a suicidal person might regard as practical recommendations. Besides offering the aforementioned sheer drop to near-certain oblivion, it is accessible; you can get there easily – just walk onto it and once on you will find little or nothing (and probably nobody) to stop you from jumping off.

And once word gets around that a particular place is associated with an unusually high suicide rate – once this has passed into popular credence and perhaps, as in N19, into popular parlance, so that place will be colloquially known as Suicide Bridge, Pool, Leap or whatever – the likelihood is increased that would-be suicides will accept it in exactly these terms. Some will try to make use of its advertised facilities, thereby reinforcing the image. Given time and repetition of events, a species of suggestion might operate to which even persons uncursed by thoughts of self-destruction might succumb. Somebody finding him- or herself at this place might suddenly become oppressed by its associations – might spontaneously and without premeditation jump to their deaths.


Look down from it into the vertically sided chasm below: you have the prospect of a long, straight drop onto a ceaselessly busy road and you will be inclined to agree that anyone who made the jump would be committing suicide

 Yet apparently it takes more than being in a high place with a sheer drop to endow a place with the nominal, popular title of being a Suicide venue. Dr Jacqueline Simpson, current President of the Folklore Society, tells me that in Worthing there are three very similar multi-storey car parks. One of these has been favoured by potential (or actual) suicides, logging by her guess perhaps a dozen over a twenty-year period; the other two, despite being to all intents and appearances just as suitable for that purpose, have no comparable record (either no suicides whatsoever, or at most just a few). [1] Similarly, I recall that at one time Waterloo Bridge stood out from all competitors spanning the Thames. If you wanted to jump off a London bridge, you went to Waterloo. Again: why?

“Why did he do it? He had everything to live for…” If suicide is an act from which we attempt to distance ourselves – as we do, not always but frequently; if we profess ourselves unable to understand why a particular person killed him- or herself; and if we mutter sadly that the reason is lost in that individual’s private self, then the mystery is magnifies when we see so many people committing suicide, at different times but in the same place. What looks in individual cases like a private psychological mystery may now appear a general, metaphysical one. So we may begin to speculate that there could be Something about those places that encourages – no, forces – folk to commit suicide.

Our forefathers would have understood this. They would have been able to attach a name to the entity who urges humankind to self-destruction; wasn’t it known that suicide could only come from the prompting and tempting of the Devil? That certainty declines alongside the decline of belief in a quasi-material Satan. One of the great ironies about Spiritualism’s rise in the 19th century was a revivification or refinement of the old belief that suicide was a product of external, disembodied influence, a phenomenon that occurred at the instigation of demonic spirits, savage revenge-bound ghosts and elemental forms which might or might not hold some relationship to the other, more tractable varieties.

“I have … touched on the power of suggestion by Elementals, who, when being the spirits of those who have committed suicide or have been murderers or particularly evil-livers, seek to lure to destruction anyone who comes under their malign influence”

wrote Jessie Adelaide Middleton. [2] Hers was a personal approach, but not untypical of what many Spiritualists believed. And suppose these murderous spirits, or something like them, haunted certain high and lonely places, mesmerising the susceptible – and perhaps the less susceptible, likewise – into acts of self termination! Wouldn’t this explain the way so many suicides seem to “cluster” at particular, notorious locations?

One of the finest exponents of this idea was Elliott O’Donnell (1872-1965), author of more than thirty books of ghost stories. That total, by the way, ignores almost as many pieces of outright fiction and historical studies; it relates purely to what he claimed were true ghost stories. A goodly number of these starred a familiar hero, an endangered but undaunted investigator who rolled up his sleeves and took on the most malevolent phantoms imaginable in hand-to-hand combat. This sterling figure was none other than Elliott O’Donnell.

Vengeful, malevolent phantoms were an Elliott O’Donnell speciality and he had a particularly fine line in terrible elemental spirits who haunted pools, streams and crags, luring the unsuspecting to their doom. It is possible that he owed this preoccupation to an episode during his Dublin undergraduate days when, according to him, he was throttled by a homicidal phantom (not for the last time, either; O’Donnell seems to have suffered more than most ghost-hunters from spirits with a capacity for GBH). It is still more likely he copped it from the literary trend popularised by William Hope Hodgson in Carnacki the Ghost-Finder (1913) or Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence, two elementally challenged occultist detectives whom O’Donnell appears to have been determined to act in real life. [3]

There is the chief and obvious difference between O’Donnell and Carnacki or John Silence: he was real, they weren’t. His first-person testimonies may have been as fictional as theirs – one hopes! – but they were no less amazing. And there is some magic about O’Donnell’s writing that has made people want to take him at face value.

I don’t dwell upon Elliott O’Donnell for the pleasure of contemplating his fascinating larger-than-life persona, nor yet for the fun of calling him a wonderful liar, which isn’t an appropriate term to use when you are dealing with one who valiantly extended the great tradition of the Victorian First-Person-Attested Ghost Story well past its sell-by date. In my case, it would be crass ingratitude to write of him like that; I can’t forget that at the age of fifteen I thought his Trees of Ghostly

Dread the best book ever written. My motive is that for some time I suspected him to be the originator of a story which typifies the way that recurrent suicides are blamed upon occult influences: the Killer Monk of Beachy Head.

Jutting into the Channel near Eastbourne, Sussex, Beachy Head is a high place and one with a terrible reputation for suicides. The first time I ever saw it – as a child and in the misty distance – my parents solemnly informed me it was “the place people jump off to commit suicide”. That conditioned my feelings towards Beachy Head for ever more. It was only a matter of weeks ago when researching this article that I realised that I had never questioned this scenario. That Beachy Head had an unhealthily high suicide rate I didn’t and couldn’t doubt – but was it really as high as everyone seemed to pretend?

So I rang Eastbourne Police and asked – hesitantly: was it true that Beachy Head had or has a larger-than-usual number of suicides? The person at the other end plainly thought she was dealing with a fool. “Yes. A look in the newspapers will tell you that.” Not having the leisure to do so in any meaningful depth, I will quote some figures given by a journalist writing in 1976. According to him, Beachy Head averaged ten deaths a year, of which six would be ‘clear cases of suicide’; accidental falls, according to the same source, ‘are rare’, making the former figure a cautious under-estimate. [4]


 Jutting into the Channel near Eastbourne, Sussex, Beachy Head is a high place and one with a terrible reputation for suicides. The first time I ever saw it – as a child and in the misty distance – my parents solemnly informed me it was “the place people jump off to commit suicide

Rising to some six hundred feet at its tallest, Beachy Head might need nothing else to recommend it to would-be suicides. Notwithstanding, the large number has been tentatively blamed on the vengeful spirit of a monk left homeless when his monastery was sacked by Henry VIII’s officers. Hunted down mercilessly, shackled and hurled from the cliff, he is now supposed to haunt the Head, malevolently enticing susceptible victims to leap to their deaths.

Just when the Killer Monk stepped forward to provide a supernatural explanation for the Head’s deadly consistency is hard to establish. He does not appear to figure in any of the great Victorian or Edwardian collections of “true ghost stories” and, as I said before, at one time I suspected him to be another of Elliott O’Donnell’s productions, carrying as he does that writer’s trademark by being a merciless, malevolent spirit who seeks awful revenge upon the living. The truth is, though, that the only reference to Beachy Head I have found in O’Donnell appears at the start of chapter XXXIII in Haunted Britain (Rider, 1948). This doesn’t deal with any malevolent monks but (c/o an account published ‘some years before the last war’ by the Sunday Chronicle) with a filmy-white female figure seen by four people in the act of precipitating itself from the cliff edge. ‘A remarkable feature in many of the Beachy Head tragedies, and one that has never been satisfactorily explained, is that when the bodies of suicides have been found, the left shoe has been missing,’ concludes O’Donnell. As far as I am aware, no other investigator picked up that detail. It could be the key to everything.

Had Elliott O’Donnell a better tale than this to tell, he would surely have told it. Had he known anything of the Killer Monk in 1948, he would surely have been on his case. Still, we are talking about an author of too many titles (and of too many ephemerally published ones) for most researchers to hunt down. I would not be totally surprised to learn that the Killer Monk managed to creep into one or two of them; as it is, I can only repeat I have found no sign of him and have to conclude therefore that he came from somewhere else.. .probably.

Significantly, though, at least two accounts from now-defunct popular magazines point to an episode that may have promoted the “Killer Monk” image. [5] I have not found this story elsewhere, but knowing how such magazines routinely go to previously published accounts for their material I suspect there exists a much longer version which theirs helped to “feed back” into wider circulation. For certain, the Killer Monk incident enabled these writers to dramatise the fierce and fatal image that Beachy Head evokes for press and public alike.

The story dealt with the climax of an exorcism on Beachy Head in 1953, an event attended by one hundred people who gathered beneath wooden crosses and then illumination provided by the flashing of the lighthouse below. The real drama came when medium Ray de Vekey cried out that he “saw” a “bearded man … with a flowing robe with a cowl, like a monk … He is calling us a lot of fools .. Fools, I will sweep you over!”

Mr de Vekey began to struggle towards the cliff edge and had to be restrained from going over it. Later he would allege that he had been pulled or lured to this certain destruction by an ‘elderly monk with black markings on his habit and his arms and legs in irons’. His consolation was a sure feeling that the evil influence had been driven from the place. Tragically and bathetically, just three weeks later the headland claimed yet another victim.

This incident alone offered to give useful form and substance to the as yet ill-defined and unnamed Horror of Beachy Head. The Monk was a comprehensible personification of evil; he assigned cause to a series of separate acts of self-murder which, inevitably, might otherwise have been self-contained mysteries. The legend’s internal logic showed that the putative Monk had a terrible motive for his actions; through him, the victims had a motive for theirs. It all made sense.

And yet he does not appear to have succeeded in establishing himself as a popular sort of folk-demon. By this I mean that the Killer Monk of Beachy Head never became a widely circulating story. Being unable to find more on it than I have used to write the foregone summary, I asked Jacqueline Simpson whether she had heard this or any other legend of the kind concerning Beachy Head. As a keen and informed student of Sussex folklore (not to mention being authoress of The Folklore of Sussex, Batsford 1973) she seemed well placed to comment, the more so as she resides about fifteen miles westward along the coast from the monk-haunted head-land. 

Dr Simpson replied that she had heard no legends of any kind of ghost haunting Beachy Head – was unaware of any published reference to such – and added that none of the people to whom she had passed on my enquiry had heard of it, these including an enthusiastic collector of Sussex lore and books as well as a man with a long-standing investigative interest in the paranormal events of that county. Even allowing for the possibility that earlier folklore writers may have shunned placing so unsavoury a subject as suicide before their readers, she was inclined to regard the Killer Monk as a quite recent phenomenon, a quite-recently invented story and most likely no older than the de Vekey seance. The possibility that he was essentially invented by Ray de Vekey escaped neither Dr Simpson nor myself.

The Killer Monk of Beachy Head has all the indications of being a modern legend, then, but he cashes in on two antique motifs. The story is one of many exploiting the dramatic possibilities of the Dissolution with its cast of dispossessed monks and abbots. This epic drama has been a resource of folk-narrative for centuries; the Dissolution can be invoked as background for tales of tragedy and violence or more specifically as the rationale for a haunting. Most of all, it explores the belief that the injury and insult inflicted on the Church and its followers at this time would be sternly, strongly avenged. Usually this takes the form of a curse on those who usurp Church property; the new owners of the alienated abbey are prostrated by financial ruin, their children die in tragic accidents, the family line is extinguished etc. But here the revenge is more direct and a lot more physical.

In summary: the Killer Monk of Beachy Head is a modern legend whose precise source is unknown to this writer, but one which, on the evidence assembled here, was most likely a promotion of journalists around 1953. This nightmare-figure professes to explain the Head’s proven bad record of suicides, constituting itself around popular awareness that the place has such a record and the suspicion that it is sufficiently abnormal to require an abnormal explanation. In structure, it utilises a motif which is traditional (the curse of the Dissolution) but also literary – the latter by reference to concepts found in O’Donnell and most notably those relating to the immaterial existence of violent “elementals” whose sole pleasure lies in the destruction of humans. Ultimately, the Monk does not explain Beachy Head’s record, but testifies to the old credo that suicide is so aberrant an action that it must come about as a result of external and supernatural influences.

We can call him a bit of a failure, too. Melodramatic as he is, the Killer Monk does not appear to have penetrated Sussex folklore, oral or printed, to any appreciably deep level. I would have little excuse for writing about him were it not for the way he fits into a pattern which traces a narrative trend in the visualisation of suicide.

The Killer Monk is a symbolic expression of what we would like to blame suicide upon. Like the old-time Satan, he is supposed to be an immaterial enemy who operates on a mental level, tempting victims to jump off a high place. But he is also a Maniac figure, a disembodied version of what can be found in more contemporary legends which also offer to solve the mystery of why certain places are contaminated by so many suicides. The London Underground, which according to a BBC documentary suffers a couple of reported suicides each week, [6] has or had its own Platform Maniac whose dark doings I described back in the May 1985 issue of Magonia and more recently in Folklore Frontiers. [7] The Platform Maniac is not depicted as a ghost or disembodied entity – far from it: he is made all the more horrible for being human (and utterly, psychotically insane). Yet in practical terms he is as insubstantial as a phantom. Even his penchant for shoving victims to their doom beneath oncoming trains is in full conformity with the muscular activities of the ghosts and “elementals” that O’Donnell wrote about. From traditional ghost to modern urban maniac is but a short … step. (I nearly wrote “jump” there.)

Then I am reminded of The Golden Gate Murders, a 1979 movie which has been shown several times on British television. Set around San Francisco’s most famous feature (which no one needs reminding is also infamous as one of the world’s most popular sites for suicide attempts) the film stars Susannah York as a nun who teams up with a detective to investigate the death of a priest. Like many before him, he is thought to have ended his life by jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge; the nun insists that not even the most depressed Catholic priest would commit the deadly sin of suicide. In its unassuming way, the plot explores our reluctance to believe that anyone could do such a thing, even if we don’t regard suicide as a deadly sin in the heroine’s strict Catholic terms. it also airs our suspicion that when a particular place becomes notorious for the numbers who do so, what looks like self-murder is in fact murder by Entity or Entities Unknown.

Susannah York was right, as it turned out. I hope I’ll spoil the pleasure of nobody who has yet to see the film if I give away that the priest did not jump off the Golden Gate Bridge: like all too many of those who went before him, he was pulled or pushed off. And by a veritable urban maniac who resides in the secret; steely recesses of the great structure.

The suicidal were once thought victims of the Devil’s temptation. Your modern Maniac is no psychologist and doesn’t bother with enticement, suggestion, mesmerism or anything like that. He simply grabs hold and pushes.


1. Personal communication (9 September 1995) from Dr Jacqueline Simpson, whom I would like to thank for information and comments on which I have drawn in this article. On the anomaly of why one of these car parks should be so distinguished Dr Simpson has no theory, although she notices that the fact it is opposite the offices of the local paper might influence the choice of someone wishing to exit with a certain amount of publicity.  

2. Jessie Adelaide Middleton, The White Ghost Book (Cassell 1916). The remark is made in context of (or advertisement for) the existence of similar suicide-ghost stories in her other books.

3. Richard Dalby’s ‘Elliott O’Donnell’ in Book and Magazine Collector 22 (December 1985), pages 38-43, offers an excellent short introduction to the life of the man who was, despite formidable competition from the likes of Harry Price, Britain’s best-known ghost-hunter. Best of all, it gives what the writer claims is a complete bibliography of O’Donnell’s work – a canon of such vast extent as to deter the hope of ever finding, let alone reading, all of it.

4. Anthony David (see note following)

5. Anthony Davis. ‘Curse of Beachy Head’, Titbits, 29 January-4 February 1976; Paul Grant, ‘Is Beachy Head Haunted by a Killer Monk?’, Weekend (no date, but some time in 1975). Any discrepancy in my version is likely to have occurred as a result of combining these two accounts.

6. I quote this figure – which I hope is an average – from a BBC documentary of the London Underground which was shown on 17 May 1989. The interviewee spoke of the investigation of these suicide reports as “a messy job but someone’s got to do it”.

7. Michael Goss, ‘The Maniac on the Platform‘, Magonia 19 (May 1985), pages 3-6 and 22; ‘September 1994: the news isn’t very good‘, Folklore Frontiers 23 (October 1994), pages 3-6. The latter was inspired by a report in The Guardian (13 September 1994, page 3) of a belligerent and plainly deranged man’s attempt to push a woman under a train at London Bridge station. For a more free-ranging study of legendary assailants, see my The Halifax Slasher and Other ‘Urban Maniac’ Tales’, a paper originally delivered at the Perspectives on Contemporary Legend Conference, Sheffield, 1988 and subsequently published with revisions in A Nest of Vipers. Perspectives an Contemporary Legend Vol. 5, edited by Gillian Bennett and Paul Smith (Sheffield Academic Press 1990), pages 89-111.





Deep Secrets: Reviewing the Conspiracy Literature. Peter Rogerson

From Magonia 60, August 1997

Shortly before his untimely death our colleague Roger Sandell had planned to write a major article on the growing influence of conspiracy theories and fusion paranoia. If anything, since his death conspiracy theories have come in even further from their ancient home on the wilder shores of politics, into the cultural mainstream. They form the core of such cult television series as The X-Files and Dark Skies, to say nothing of the numerous commercial spin-offs. Recent issues of both Fortean Times and Big Issue, the magazine sold by the homeless, have featured articles ‘proving’ that the Apollo moon landings were faked. 

Peter Rogerson looks at some recent books that point to disturbing trends below this recent wave of interest.   

While I am not in a position to write that major article that Roger would have done, I am taking the opportunity of commenting on a series of books about conspiracy theories and related topics which have recently been published or reissued. Vankin’s is a reissue with a new introduction and comprises a general review of the topic. The compilation edited by Thomas consists of reprints from back issues of the conspiracy-oriented magazine Steamshovel Press. Lamy’s and Parfrey’s are analyses of the cultural and political milieu in which conspiracy theories flourish; Cohn’s is a long-awaited reprint of his critique of one particularly malignant conspiracy theory, and the rest present individual theories. 

Vankin’s subtitle, ‘From Dallas to Oklahoma’, points to the American origin of most contemporary conspiracy theories. While there is a long tradition in American politics of what the historian Richard Hofstander calls ‘the paranoid style’, it was the Kennedy assassination which in the mid-twentieth century brought conspiracy theories out from the fringes of the radical right. While some of these theories clearly involved ‘realistic’ notions of actions by small groups of political malcontents, many showed the classic hallmarks of Manichean conspiracy theories. A contributor to Popular Alienation sums these up well: 

“The need at the root of all conspiracy questing is to find the root of human pain and suffering… which is held to flow out of some central fountain running in rivulets throughout the world. In most conspiracy theories evil is seen as a metaphysical absolute, almost a substance which can poison life through viral contamination”. 

I would summarise the essence of such Manichean theories as the belief that ‘history as we know it is a lie’ (as the opening titles to Dark Skies puts it), a delusion imposed upon us by a malevolent ‘other’. The real history is very different: there is nothing random in history, all is controlled by ‘them’, and all the pain and suffering in the world is caused by the terrible others, who are the incarnation of cosmic evil. They are simultaneously subhuman and superhuman, possessed of preternatural powers and largely undefeatable. The conspiracy theorist is an illuminous, who can penetrate the maze of deception and see ‘them’ for what they are. The theorist is a soldier in the army of the righteous, filled with what Lamy calls millennial rage. 

This line of thought can be seen in the writings of many who present the Kennedy assassination in essentially religious terms; as an American crucifixion, the slaying of the civic saviour by the incarnate forces of evil who have since usurped the land. The powers of the slayers is immense. They can fix all the evidence – the Zapruder film, the body, the autopsy reports – and wipe away all traces of their own guilt because they control everything. 

Their identity varies according to time and place: witches, Christians, Moslems, Jews, communists, capitalists, liberals, humanists, Catholics, Freemasons, homosexuals, scientists, child-abusers, illuminati, Grays, Nazis, multinationals. Sometimes they are protean creatures merging elements, and flowing into each other: Jewish-communist Freemasons, American bankers in the Vatican. 

This protean nature extends to the conspiracies themselves. Kerry Thornley served with Lee Harvey Oswald in the Marines and wrote a novel in which the central character was based on Oswald before the assassination. He now claims that both he and Oswald were the products of a Nazi breeding experiment, and that he has been bugged by an implant since birth allowing strangers to know of his sexual experiences. Thus the Kennedy assassination merges with stories of mind control and abuse. Another veteran figure on the fringes of the assassination field, Mae Brussel, daughter of celebrity rabbi Edgar Maggin, shortly before her death in 1988, began to link the Kennedy assassination to an international Nazi-Satanist conspiracy associated with CIA mind control. This point of view is shared by an anonymous Popular Alienation contributor who alleged that the false memory hypothesis was being promoted by the CIA to hide their mind control experiments. 

Mind control and child abuse form the central allegations of TransFormation of America, in which the former wife of a country music entertainer claims to have been sold into CIA slavery by her paedophile father, and been the sexual plaything of several US presidents, the mistress of a senator, and abused by several foreign leaders, whilst also acting as a CIA courier. This collection of allegations is known as Project Monarch, and no doubt we will be hearing more of it. Mind Control is fast becoming central to conspiracy theories, and Jim Keith mentions the rumours surrounding Timothy McVey. The point being emphasised here is that people do bad things because ‘they’ make them do it. This concept forms a sort of secular possession, with Nazi-Satanists and so forth replacing the devils and demons of former centuries. 

There are other trends, and Vankin and Popular Alienation have them to meet all tastes. Vankin notes, for example, William Bromley, who has linked conspiracy theories with ancient astronaut speculation. There is the ubiquitous Lyndon La Rouche who lies at the heart of about half the conspiracy theories going and who has a particular fixation with the wicked British, who are the heirs to a conspiracy launched by a group of renegade Templars led by Robert the Bruce! Then there are the Collier brothers who believe that the press agency joint election reporting service in the USA just makes up the figures. 

The volume of Popular Alienation I have reviewed is a re-print of the bulk of the contents of issues 4 to 11 of the journal Steamshovel Press, along with a selection of extra material. This magazine was originally started by people who saw themselves as part of the Beat Generation, disciples of Alan Ginsberg and William Burroughs. It is now a strangely eclectic conspiracy source and I can give no better description of its contents than by quoting from the rear blurb: 

“Abbie Hofman’s death seen as an assassination; the role of President Nixon and George Bush in the death of JFK; Black Holes and the Trilateral Commission… Danny Casolaro and the INSLAW octopus; Mothman, Roswell, Area 51; Bill Clinton and Carol Quigley; the Gemstone File [which claimed that Aristotle Onassis was responsible for the JFK assassination, amongst other things]; anti-gravity; Ezra Pound; Holocaust revisionism; Bob Dylan and mind control…” 

Well, you get the picture. Some of this stuff is possibly true, some of it quite loopy, and quite a lot of it rather sinister. Increasingly those conspiracy theories which used to have a more or less left-wing perspective have become dominated by the agendas of the groups associated with the American freelance militias, which in turn reflect the mixture of macho armed anarchism, anti-feminism and racism associated with the nineteenth century anarchist Proudhon, with a dash of Christian fundamentalism thrown in. 

The conspiracy theories are part of the apocalyptic tradition, they are the signs indicating that the Enemy is on the verge of total victory and only the ‘Saving Remnant’ can stand against it

The general theme of these theories is that the free people of the United States are about to be sold out to UN dominated slavery in the ‘New World Order (an infelicitous phrase used by George Bush, meant to refer to the Pax Americana, but given quite a new meaning by conspiracy theorists). Behind this plot is a mysterious conspiracy, usually referred to as the Illiminati. The original Illuminati were a small, pseudo-Masonic group set up in eighteenth-century Bavaria, dedicated to radical Enlightenment views; a sort of vague populism mixed with sexual liberation. They entered into American politics when they were used as a code word for the Federalist to attack Thomas Jefferson, and others thought to be too friendly towards the French Revolution. Today the term seems to be used as little more than a synonym for any sort of vague elite, or, more sinisterly, as a code word for Jews. 

Jim Keith began his conspiratorial career promoting the Gemstone Files, but has now become a major spokesman for the militias. Black Helicopters over America is a remarkable example of political paranoia. It starts with UFO-like sightings of mysterious black helicopters which first entered the American consciousness in 1973 at the time of the cattle mutilations panic. They have since become a part of UFO lore, and feature as a mysterious, brooding, spying presence in the experiences of abductees like Debbie Jordan and Katarina Wilson. From the late 1980s the helicopters became politicised, as the carriers of the shock troops of the UN invasion; another old fantasy which began in the fevered imaginations of 1960s segregationists who assured their audiences that the UN troops would be Congolese. [For further discussion of the significance and power of the image of the helicopter, see 'The Curious Connection Between Helicopters and UFOs', by Dennis Stilling, in Magonia 25, March 1987] 

Both Keith and Grant Jeffrey display one of the classic signs of paranoia: the inability to accept any kind of evidence which would contradict their views. Both see the UN as being dominated by the communists, rhetoric from the Red-baiting years which has surely been overtaken by events. Probably Cuba is the only country left in the world with a believing communist government, the Confucian regimes of China, Vietnam and Laos merely use communism as a nostalgic slogan. Keith and Jeffrey’s answer to that is that the Reds have not been defeated, they are simply playing possum and just waiting to pounce. The death of devils is surely as hard as the death of gods. (Gordon Creighton’s Flying Saucer Review promotes a similar theory in Britain.) 

For Jeffery the ‘Evil Empire’ is not just a secular enemy, but the very domain of the Antichrist, and he has plenty of Biblical passages – all torn out of context – to prove his point. Like most apocalyptic Biblical interpreters he is unable to grasp the fact that Biblical writers were writing about the events and concerns of their own time, and not some inconceivably remote future. The apocalypticism typified by Grant Jeffrey, born from the imagination of Hal Lindsey and others of that ilk, crops up everywhere. Near-death experience prophet Dannion Brinkley had visions of the Antichrist inaugurating the New World Order, although fundamentalist surgeon Maurice Rawlings sees the NDE itself as part of Satan’s wily attempts to lore us into the New World Order. 

This is the sort of atmosphere in which the militias and survivalist move. Philip Lamy describes their world view as ‘Millennium Rage’, the notion as summarised by Keith in Black Helicopters.., and OK Bomb, that the evil Clinton is about to inaugurate the reign of terror, and all that stands against him are “Conservative pro-Constitutionalists, Christian religious fundamentalists, the second American militia movement…” etc. Lamy, in his important book, argues that these images appeal primarily to those whose lives have been upturned or threatened by social change. 

The conspiracy theories are part of the apocalyptic tradition. They are the end signs, indicating that the enemy is on the verge of total victory and only the ‘saving remnant’ can stand against it. This siege mentality clearly links groups such as the Branch Davidians with the wider militia and radical right community. The survivalists studied by Lamy saw themselves as the remnant in the wilderness. There is an eagerness for a catastrophe which would cleanse the world: a great simplification, the kind of purification extolled in the disaster movies, in which the wicked are thrown down and the righteous exalted in some suburban apocalypse. Lamy places the contemporary apocalyptic tradition in the context of the millennialist currents in American history. This encompassed a range of historical precedents from the benign, meliorative visions of those who saw the American republic itself as a new beginning; the lore of the wilderness (surely a factor in survivalism); the millennialist movements of the Native Americans, such as the Ghost Dance; up to its reappearance in such forms as the Unabomber manifesto and the X-Files.

This brings us back to the visions which I reviewed in ‘Blood, Vision and Brimstone’ (Magonia 53, August 1995), and testifies to the real social power of the rejected folk culture of the ‘New Age’, which, like the term New World Order, itself has clear millennialist overtones. Whether the likes of John Mack or Kenneth Ring might ever be the focus of a millennialist cult such as that of Herb Applewhite, we shall just have to wait and see. 

The Oklahoma bomb was a product of this culture. Jim Keith in OKBomb reviews the rumours surrounding it. Much of the time he raises what seem like sensible points, but eventually falls into paranoid traps. For conspiracy theorists the notion of terrorists from their own tradition is unthinkable, and alternatives were suggested ranging from the claim of one militia leader that it was the work of the Japanese acting in revenge for the Tokyo subway gassing which itself was the work of the CIA. Others suggested it was a government act of provocation, a sort of modern Reichstag fire which could trigger the great UN crackdown; or our old friend mind control, as outlined by Mark Pilkington in Magonia 58. In passing, it has to be pointed out that while in some sense minds are being controlled all the time – by parents, schools, public authority, the media, etc. – there is no evidence of the sort of superhuman mind control as envisaged by conspiracy theorists ever having been, or possibly being, successful. 

If I were to speculate on the motives of the Oklahoma bombers it would be to suggest a compound of propaganda by the deed, and an act of provocation with the intent of trying to provoke the authorities into some ill-judged overreaction and act of repression which would confirm their views and radicalise their followers. 

The post-Oklahoma scene is also discussed in Adam Parfrey’s collection of writings. Although not endorsing the militias, he concludes they have been made the subject of a great deal of hysteria, and that they are no match for the powers of the corporate state. Here he echoes the views of some commentators on Waco: with the old Red Empire gone the American state needs new enemies against which to define itself; whereas for many groups of citizens the state itself has become the enemy. 

The line between tragedy and farce is very fine, and one of the most surreal images in Cult Rapture must be the meeting between the survivalist, ‘identity-Christian’ (and what that means is the subject of a future review) and Presidential candidate for the far-right Populist Party, James ‘Bob’ Gritz (the model for Rambo), and a little old lady in tennis shoes who channels an alarming, nine-foot tall fascist reptilian called Hartoon. Rambo meets Reptilian. Strange days indeed! 

Behind much of today’s conspiracy theories lies the old Big Lie of antisemitism, symbolised by that notorious fraud, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It is a sad thought that when Norman Cohn’s masterful tracings of its origins, and the strange Russian rightists who manufactured it by plagiarising Joly’s Dialogues in Hell, was first published thirty years ago, it was a dissection of a long dead literary corpse. This new edition must be seen more as a stake to be driven through the heart of a newly risen vampire, which I have seen on the shelves of the New Age section of Manchester’s Waterstones’, its nakedness hidden by the covers of Behold a Pale Horse or hiding in the work of David Icke. 

The necromancers who have disinterred this foul thing are behind many of today’s conspiracy theories, using them as bait to trawl the youngsters who follow The X-Files and the like. Conspiracy theories throw a film of confusion over history, about which many people are not terribly informed anyway. If you can persuade people that Marilyn Monroe was murdered by the CIA, or if you can persuade them that the Apollo astronauts never really landed on the Moon, then perhaps you can persuade them that there was no Holocaust, and that maybe Adolph Hitler wasn’t as bad as they say after all. 

By working their way into the fears and prejudices of people whose minds have already been prepared by a diet of conspiracy theories, these hate-mongers are likely to find a more rewarding way of spreading their ideas than trawling a few thuggish football fans. We must not let them.

 Books reviewed in text:


Click on the cover images to buy the books from Amazon 

  • Jonathan Vankin, Conspiracies, Cover-up and Crimes from Dallas to Waco. Illuminet Press, 1996.
  • Kenn Thomas (Ed.) Popular Alienation; a Steamshovel Press Reader. Illuminet Press, 1995.
  • Philip Lamy. Millennium Rage; Survivalists, White Supremacists and the Doomsday prophecy. Plenum Press, 1996.
  • Jim Keith. OKBomb; Conspiracy and Coverup. Illuminet Press, 1996.
  • Adam Parfrey. Cult Rapture. Feral House, 1995.
  • Norman Cohn. Warrant for Genocide; the Myth of the Jewish world conspiracy and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Serif, new ed.,1996.
  • Jim Keith. Black Helicopters over America; Strike Force for the New World Order. Illuminet Press, 1996.
  • Grant R. Jeffrey. Prince of Darkness; Antichrist and the New World Order. Bantam, 1995.
  • Cathy O’Brien and Mark Phillips. TranceFormation of America. Reality Marketing Inc., 1995.


The Case of the Vanishing X-15 Pilot. Curtis Peebles

 First published in Magonia 88, May 2005


 The publication of Ann Druffel’s book, Firestorm: Dr. James M. McDonald’s Fight For UFO Science, was met with a mixed reception among believers and skeptics alike. The book gave an inside account of the highly respected atmospheric physicist’s involvement with UFOs. At the same time, many readers objected to Druffel’s attempts to include Roswell and MJ-12 in the account, as well as the book’s technical and historical errors. McDonald’s notebooks, in which he recorded his day-to-day activities, formed the basis of the book. These notebooks included summaries of numerous phone calls, notes on trips, events in his struggle with the University of Colorado UFO study, headed by Dr. Edward U. Condon, and McDonald’s efforts to arrange congressional hearings on UFOs. [1] 

In reading Firestorm, I was surprised to discover an account of a UFO incident involving an X-15 flight. I had long been interested in the history of this research aircraft. With a maximum altitude above 350,000 feet, the X-15 was the first attempt by the U.S. to build a vehicle able to reach the edge of space. I also knew of UFO sightings involving the X-15. I had not heard of this story, however, and was astonished by the alleged details of the case. This was not simply a claim that an X-15 pilot had seen a UFO, but rather that he had been abducted in flight. [2] 

The story grew out of McDonald’s involvement with the congressional UFO hearings. He was politically ambitious, and was skilled at influencing men of power. As a result McDonald stage managed the hearings, to the extent that he actually selected the five individuals who would testify. McDonald called them on July 8, 1968, to confirm they could be available. They were: Dr. Robert L. Hall, Dr. Robert M. Wood, Dr. Carl Sagan, Dr. Robert M.L. Baker, and Dr. J. Allen Hynek. [3] 

Dr. Wood indicated there might be problems with his attending. (In fact Dr. Wood eventually had to bow out.) During the conversation, however, Wood told McDonald a remarkable abduction story. McDonald’s handwritten text, as best as can be determined, read: 

“Said heard of Gene May an X-15 pilot 5-8 years 15 min flight, yet came back 3 hours later. Said he was taken aboard UFO. Was examined by psychologist Edwards AFB Fellow at Vandenberg whom Bob knows, also knows Gene May. Douglas test pilot checking out X-15, 5-8 years [So I recounted Piccard. Urged he look for him….” [4] 

Wood was the Deputy Director for Research and Development at the Douglas Missile and Space Division at the time of the conversation. The source of the abduction story was a colleague who worked at Vandenberg AFB. Wood considered him to be “very reliable.” In Firestorm, Wood also said that his source knew May very well, who was described as having been involved with the X-15 program for several years. From the date of the conversation, and Wood’s account, the abduction supposedly took place between 1960 and 1963. Although McDonald made a note of the story for future reference, he apparently never followed up on the case of the vanishing X-15 pilot. 

Initially, the X-15 abduction story was nothing more than an amusing anecdote. The flaws in the tale were apparent to anyone familiar with the X-15 program. I told several individuals the story. They all recognized the flaws, and were amused by the story. Then, during a conversation, I mentioned the tale to a retired X-15 engineer, and was surprised to learn that Wood’s account was not the first time this story of an X-15 pilot being taken aboard a UFO had been told. 


An Engineer at Giant Rock 

During the early 1960s, Kenneth W. Iliff was a young NASA engineer working on the X-15 project at what was then called the NASA Flight Research Center (now the Dryden Flight Research Center). He would subsequently have a forty-year career with NASA, earned a PhD, and retiring as the Chief Scientist at Dryden. The NASA facility was a relatively short distance from Giant Rock, where annual UFO conventions were held. These events attracted the interest of some of the NASA engineers, and they made the pilgrimage to the site. Iliff went to Giant Rock in two consecutive years. As best he can remember after four decades, these were in 1963 and 1964. Both times he was accompanied by Lowell Greenfield, who was a fellow NASA engineer. 

Iliff recalled that Giant Rock was at the end of a long and poorly-maintained dirt road. Parking was somewhat disorganized, and several light airplanes had landed at the dirt airstrip. The crowd numbered at least several hundred in Iliff’s estimation. Most were UFO believers, many with family members. However, there were a significant number of people who were merely curious, and who, like Iliff, did not have strong opinions about UFOs. There were also quite a few “promoters,” as Iliff called them, selling various UFO items, such as books that they had written and published. George Van Tassel, who organized the yearly conventions, was asking for large donations of over $100 to complete the “Integratron.” (This was a significant sum in the early 1960s.) The money was also to be used to buy a road grader. Iliff recalled that the Integratron was described as duplicating the “jawbone of the ass” in the Bible. 

The Giant Rock conventions were legendary because of the speakers recounting their UFO adventures, and Iliff and Greenfield attended several of their presentations, which were given in a large tent. The account which Iliff most vividly recalled was by a speaker who claimed to have been involved with the X-15 program for the past several years, and that he was on active duty with the Air Force at Edwards AFB. Greenfield was aware of his presentation, and made sure that he and Iliff were there for his talk. Iliff recalled there were about 70 or 80 people on hand. As with the other speakers, he had books for sale at the back of the tent. 

The main part of his talk dealt with his experiences during an X-15 flight. The man said that he had been in the NASA control room, with an important function to perform. His story was that on this particular flight, the X-15 had been successfully launched from the B-52, fired its engine, and began the initial part of the flight plan. Suddenly, all communication with the X-15 and its pilot were lost, including telemetry, voice transmissions, and radar tracking. The X-15 had vanished without any warning. 

A search operation was immediately launched, the speaker said, using both the regular chase planes and additional aircraft. Despite the search, no trace of the X-15 or its pilot could be found. Everyone at Edwards was very shocked and despondent. The speaker then said that after a long period of time, several hours as Iliff recalled, the X-15 suddenly reappeared on its planned flight trajectory. The aircraft was intact and the pilot was fine. The X-15 made its normal landing approach, and touched down on the lakebed at Edwards. 

The speaker said that everybody involved in the control room and the search operation were elated at the safe landing, and that an impromptu celebration began. It was at this point that the speaker pointed out to the other people in the control room that something extraordinary had occurred. The X-15 could not fly for more than 15 minutes, and there was no way that it could have stayed aloft for as long as it had. He said the others in the control room abruptly realized that he was right. 

He claimed that all the participants were sworn to secrecy about what had happened. The speaker said that, despite the security oath, he had to tell the truth about what had happened on the flight. The X-15 and its pilot had been taken aboard a UFO intact, examined for several hours, and then returned to where the aircraft had been flying. 

Dr. Iliff is not certain that the speaker said that the X-15 story was in the book he had for sale at the back of the tent. This was Iliff’s impression, however. He recalled later, “I was so shocked by his bald-faced lie that I left immediately and did not actually open the book.” 

After returning to the Flight Research Center, both Iliff and Greenfield told the story to co-workers, and they enjoyed “many good chuckles.” It was clear to all that the incident never happened. Some checking was done to see if the person ever had actually been at Edwards or had been associated with the X-15. Dr. Iliff’s recollection was that he had said that he was an officer, but after so many years he cannot be sure. Iliff also cannot now recall his name, or the name of his book. Iliff does recall that he and Greenfield were able to find some evidence that the person had been stationed at Edwards at one time. Iliff pointed out that this did not mean he ever had had any official capacity with the X-15 program. [5]

The ‘survivor story’ of the X-15 pilot has more to do with traditional melodrama than early flying saucer myth

There remain a number of unknowns regarding both the Giant Rock story that Dr. Iliff heard, and the similar story that Dr. Wood told Dr. McDonald several years later. The author’s attempts to identify the speaker and the title of the book were unsuccessful. Another open issue is the development of the story. By the early 1960s the idea that flying saucers were responsible for the disappearances of aircraft and their crews was already part of flying saucer mythology. The implications were that these disappearances were indications of the aliens’ hostile intent, and that the abductions were carried out to gain samples of both human technology and humans themselves. There were no claims that individuals or aircraft which had “disappeared” ever came back, however. 

The “survivor story” of the X-15 pilot has more to do with traditional melodrama than early flying saucer mythology. Given this, another possibility is that it was influenced by popular culture. The 1960s was a golden age of television science fiction. Shows such as The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, and Star Trek were in first run at this time. All three programs had an episode with elements similar to the X-15 abduction story, but any direct connection is, at best, tentative. 

In The Twilight Zone episode “And When the Sky Opened,” the X-20 and its three man crew were put into orbit, but disappeared from radar for 24 hours. After landing, each of the crewmen disappears one by one, with not even the memory of their existence or that of the X-20 remaining. The only hint of aliens is in the final narration, which says that “something or someone took them somewhere.” The episode was first telecast on December 11, 1959. The Outer Limits had an episode involving the X-15 as a plot element, titled “The Premonition.” In the story, the X-15, its pilot, and his wife are caught in a time warp. There is no hint that aliens are involved. A bigger problem with this being an inspiration for the abduction story is that the episode was first telecast on January 9, 1965. This was after Iliff recalls attending the Giant Rock convention. 

The closest match is the “Tomorrow is Yesterday” episode of Star Trek. The Enterprise travels back in time to the 20th century, and is intercepted by an F-104. The aircraft is damaged during the encounter, and its pilot is then beamed aboard. However, there is the same problem in timing, as this Star Trek episode was not telecast until January 26, 1967. Again, this is several years too late. [6] 

Another possibility is that the story was based on the events of a real X-15 flight, which was then embellished with a bogus UFO encounter. There was an X-15 flight during which the control room abruptly lost all telemetry, voice transmissions, and radar tracking data from the vehicle. The X-15 seemed to have vanished. It was eight minutes before a chase plane pilot spotted the X-15 as it made an emergency landing on Mud Lake. No flying saucers were involved in the incident, however. Capt. William J. Knight had experienced a failure of both Auxiliary Power Units (APUs), which supplied electrical and hydraulic power to the vehicle. This failure was caused by electrical arcing from an experiment, which overloaded the APUs and caused them to drop off line. This caused all radio and radar contact to be lost with the control room. With only an emergency battery still working, and little control over the X-15, Knight was able to restart one of the APUs, and land successfully on Mud Lake. 

The circumstances of Knight’s X-15 flight were similar to those told by the speaker at Giant Rock (but without aliens). The possibility that this was the original source of the abduction story has the same problem as The Outer Limits and Star Trek episodes. The X-15 flight took place on June 29, 1967. When Dr. Iliff was specifically asked if this could have been the inspiration for the story, he said that the flight took place long after he had heard the story. [7] 

A final unknown in the case of the vanishing X-15 pilot was how Gene May’s name became involved in it. Dr. Iliff said that he was “90 percent sure” that the speaker did not name the pilot involved in the alleged incident. Iliff was completely certain that if the speaker had mentioned Gene May, he would have remembered it. In Dr. Wood’s account, however, the pilot was specifically identified as Douglas test pilot Gene May. 

Ultimately, the story is a minor issue. It did not play a role in the development of the flying saucer myth. The story also does not seem to have been repeated in any later publication. Yet, it is a tale which has value. The importance of the story is not due to the narrative itself, but rather in what it says about the believers’ views of what represents evidence, and how this is weighed. 

“Truth” vs. the Facts 

The Gene May abduction story makes clear the role of the “sighting” in the flying saucer myth. In the 1940s and 1950s, when the belief system originated, Air Force reports and documents from other agencies were classified. As a result, the sighting reports collected by the believers were the only evidence available. These testimonials of what the witnesses had seen and experienced had to be judged on subjective grounds, such as the witnesses’ status, perceived reliability, and “sincerity.” Those sightings judged to be “real” flying saucers were then collected, and published in the believers’ books as “proof” that flying saucers were interplanetary spaceships. This was the standard format of the flying saucer books published beginning in the 1950s, and continuing into the 1970s. 

When documentary evidence indicated that the sighting was in error, did not occur as described, or was totally false, it was ignored or dismissed by the believers. If proof was lacking, the writers could claim that this was because of the “cover-up” by the Air Force. The cover-up also meant that believers also had an excuse for not fully investigating a sighting. The Air Force had removed all the evidence, and silenced all the witnesses. As a result, there was no use in making follow-up investigations of a report. 

Both of these effects can be seen in the case of the vanishing X-15 pilot. Dr. Wood was told the story of Gene May’s abduction by a colleague at Vandenberg AFB. Dr. Wood judged the source to be “very reliable,” as he said that he knew Gene May well. Dr. Wood was employed by Douglas, as was May. Dr. Wood could have followed up the abduction story by making a phone call to company headquarters, and asking about May’s involvement with the X-15 program. He could have also called the NASA Flight Research Center or Edwards AFB, and inquired about any records of May’s X-15 flights. Dr. Wood, it appears, did none of these things. He simply accepted the source’s account, and told Dr. McDonald about it. 

More than half a century after the birth of the flying saucer myth, both the world and beliefs about flying saucers are very different. The UFO related documents in the Blue Book files, as well as those of the FBI, CIA, NSA, and other government agencies, are now available. The Freedom of Information Act has been in effect for some thirty years, while the 25-year rule allows anyone to simply ask for the release of old classified material. The end of the Cold War also means that many subjects once considered too sensitive to be discussed can now be openly talked about, by both sides. [8] 

The same fundamental changes are also true of the flying saucer myth. In the mid to late 1970s, the traditional mythology began to be replaced by stories of crashed saucers, cattle mutilations, underground bases, secret treaties, reverse-engineered alien technology, abductions and hybrids, disinformation, free energy, and the whistleblowers. The Roswell incident became the center of the flying saucer belief system, while the Air Force cover up was replaced by MJ-12 and the secret government. Dr. Wood himself was representative of this change, as he is now one of the primary supporters of the bogus MJ-12 documents. 

Despite this fundamental change in the mythology, for the believers, the eyewitness is still the primary evidence. Indeed, in many cases, it is the only acceptable evidence. If the eyewitnesses are contradicted by scientific analysis, historical records, or other factual evidence, it is the eyewitnesses who should be believed. The “truth” of the sighting is thus preserved in the face of mere facts. Such sighting reports thus become a secular version of religious miracle stories. [9]

Without Roswell, not only claims of a secret government, but the whole basis for the exopolitics myth no longer exists.

This mindset continues over three decades after Dr. Wood told Dr. McDonald about the X-15 abduction. When Druffel was researching her book, she talked to Dr. Wood. He provided more information about the case, but Druffel apparently never made any efforts to check the story. Again, it seems, the source was considered very reliable, the incident had been covered up, and so there was no point in further research. 

A possible reason for the uncritical acceptance of such eyewitness accounts was made clear in unguarded comments by several figures involved in “exopolitics.” The first of these was by Dr. Michael Salla, during a debate on the UFO Updates web site regarding the validity of Robert Lazar’s claims of seeing captured alien flying saucers. In a reply to a posting by Dr. Bruce Maccabee, Dr. Salla wrote: 

“How can we find out what’s going on with SAP/CAPs if we ignore the very whistleblowers telling us what’s happening because we can’t confirm their school records or some other arbitrary criterion a parsimonious researcher stipulates as a necessary condition? One might think they are doing ‘good science’ by raising the evidentiary bar up high that only watertight whistleblower testimonies make it over the hurdle. In the process, you eliminate witnesses like Lazar, and all you have left are those like former FAA Air Chief John Callahan with some records of radar sightings of fast moving UFOs around a Japanese Jumbo jet, and evidence that the government didn’t want the FAA seriously investigating this. If that’s the sort of hard evidence with credible whistleblower testimony that will be universally accepted, then this field of UFO research will grow very very slowly, lose innovative researchers capable of understanding what’s going on in the SAPs/CAPs dealing with ETV/EBE research, and become increasingly irrelevant to the general public who seek answers to what is happening.” [10] 

The implication of Salla’s posting seemed to be that all the “good” witnesses had no evidence to back up their tales. In contrast, all the witnesses who could document who they are and what they saw could only provide “run of the mill” sightings which were little different from those collected a half century ago. An even more damning admission was in an essay posted on the web site of Alfred Lambremont Webre, J.D., M.Ed. (Canada), who describes himself as “…an author, futurist, lawyer (member of the District of Columbia Bar), peace advocate, environmental activist, space activist and is known as the founding father of exopolitics.” The essay, titled, “Exopolitical review of Peter Jennings’ Primetime TV show ‘Seeing is Believing’,” was written by “PJ, Exopolitics Advisor and Researcher.” In the essay, “PJ” notes that the special “deframed” the Roswell claims (i.e. accepted that the debris was from a Mogul balloon). He then wrote: 

“Without Roswell or other such crashes, there is little evidence or logic to validate the issue of a secret government.” [11]

Here, the implications were even more far reaching. A case can be made that without Roswell, not only claims of a secret government, but the whole basis for the exopolitics myth no longer exists. Moreover, popular ufology itself for the past three decades also becomes nothing more than an ever expanding spiral of fantasy, delusions, mistakes, hoaxes, and wishful thinking. This spiral also brings us back to the Gene May abduction story. 

The Life and Times of Gene May

Looking back on the story he had heard at Giant Rock, Dr. Iliff commented that, “I was astonished that any one would tell such an absolute lie when it was easy to check his assertions.”

When the X-15 program started in 1954, it was simply the latest in a series of research aircraft. This changed with the launch of the first satellite, Sputnik 1, by the Soviet Union on October 4, 1957. In the post-Sputnik political environment, the X-15 became “America’s first spaceship,” and the program engineers found themselves working in a fishbowl of press attention. The rollout of the first X-15 on October 15, 1958 was a press event. On hand were Vice President Richard M. Nixon, senior Air Force, NASA, and North American Aviation officials, as well as X-15 pilots A. Scott Crossfield (North American), Capt. Robert White (Air Force) and Joe Walker (NASA). [12] When X-15 flights began in June of 1959, the press was on hand at Edwards AFB to report the events. In addition to newspaper and television coverage, there were also books published during the early 1960s on the program. One of these was X-15 Diary, written by Richard Tregaskis. Published in 1961, the book describes Tregaskis’ day-by-day, first-hand observations and experiences covering the X-15. He had access to the pilots, engineers, and other personnel. He described the goals, achievements, and problems they experienced. [13] 

This was a remarkable degree of access for a reporter, but it highlighted the fact that the X-15 program was being conducted in the open. The flight plans, flight transcripts, pilot debriefings, flight maps, and other internal documents for each flight were unclassified. As Dr. Iliff later noted, only some of the aeronautical data from the flights was actually classified at the time. This material has subsequently been declassified; there are no classifications or export control restrictions on X-15 program information. 

In the years since the X-15 program ended in 1968, additional books have been published. These include X-15 pilot Milton O. Thompson’s book At The Edge Of Space, as well as Robert Godwin’s X-15 The NASA Mission Reports, and Dennis R. Jenkins and Tony R. Landis’ Hypersonic: The Story of the North American X-15. These and the other later books on the X-15 also include flight logs of its 199 missions. These provide such information as dates, pilot names, as well as the speeds and altitudes reached by the X-15 for each flight. Hypersonic lists not only this information, but also the names of the B-52 pilots and launch panel operators, the chase plane pilots, and the NASA 1 ground controller for each X-15 flight. 

Had Dr. Wood, Druffel or the readers of Firestorm checked any of these sources, they would have discovered that Gene May is never once mentioned in any of them as having any connection with the X-15 program. May never appeared at any press conferences; he never gave a speech or interview, never flew a chase plane, was never aboard the B-52 launch aircraft, never served as NASA 1, and never, ever, flew the X-15. 

Gene May was born on September 28, 1904, less that a year after the first powered flights by the Wright Brothers. May subsequently became an experienced airline pilot. May then joined Douglas Aircraft Co. as a test pilot in 1941. Over the next five years, he test flew the A-20, A-26, and XB-42 light bombers, the AD-1 Navy attack aircraft, the C-74 and C-54 military transports, and the DC-6 airliner. [14] He had a reputation of being able to note the subtle features of an aircraft’s behavior, and then communicate this to the engineers in terms they could understand. He also had the wisdom to know when to back off. By the late 1940s, he had accumulated some 10,000 hours of flight time. 

May was then selected as the test pilot for the Douglas D-558-I Skystreak. This was a Navy-sponsored jet-powered research aircraft designed to fly at speeds approaching Mach 1. May was now 42 years old, and a grandfather. In all, he made a total of 121 flights in the Skystreak, including the airplane’s only supersonic flight, on September 29, 1948. This was the day after his 44th birthday. 

He was also involved in the initial test flights of the Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket. This aircraft used both a jet engine and a rocket engine, and was designed to fly above Mach 1. Although both aircraft shared the same designation, they were completely different designs. The Skystreak had straight wings and a stubby, cylindrical fuselage. The Skyrocket had an elongated bullet-shaped fuselage with swept-back wings, tail and stabilizers. May made a total of 133 flights in the Skyrocket. His last test flight was made on December 1, 1949, in a D-558-II. 

Accounts vary as to why May, who was then 45-years old, left flight testing. The popular consensus was that he failed his flight physical, and was removed from the program. Another suggestion made was that May had done a great many very dangerous things while at Douglas, and he felt that his luck had about run out. May continued to work for Douglas Aircraft Co. for several more years. He was named the Chief of Flight Operations at Douglas’ Tulsa Oklahoma plant, where B-47s were being built under license from Boeing. According to a magazine article, May was checked out in the B-47 in 1951. However, this did not apparently involve any test work, but rather was simply a check ride in an aircraft. 

May left Douglas in about 1953, becoming a vice president at Superior Cutter Co., which made cutting tools. In 1957, May was working at R.L. Polk. He left Polk in about 1959, and returned to flying. May was hired as a pilot for Alamo Airways in Las Vegas, Nevada. He flew Cessna 310s, which were small twin-piston engine light aircraft. Gene May died on December 5, 1966, at 62 years of age. [15] 




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  1. Ann Druffel, Firestorm Dr. James M. McDonald’s Fight For UFO Science (Columbus, North Carolina: Wild Flower Press, 2003).
  2. Curtis Peebles, “Fireflies, dynamic pressure and the X-15 UFO sighting,” Magonia, June 2002.
  3. Druffel, Firestorm, p. 235-237, and Paul E. McCarthy, Politicking And Paradigm Shifting James E. McDonald And The UFO Case Study, PhD Thesis, University of Hawaii (December 1975), p. 186, 187.
  4. McDonald notes on a conversation with Dr. Robert M. Wood, July 8, 1968. The “Piccard” mentioned in the notes is Don Piccard, who was a famous balloonist in the 1950s. It is not clear why McDonald was suggesting Wood try to find him.
  5. Handwritten notes provided by Dr. Kenneth W. Iliff. In trying to recall the events of more than forty years before, Iliff also made a list of the important details that he was sure the speaker had said: He was in the control room for the X-15 flight; the X-15 mysteriously disappeared during the flight he was monitoring; the X-15 reappeared in flight, hours after it had disappeared; he was the first (and perhaps only) person to notice that the X-15 could not have stayed aloft for over 15 minutes. He also emphasized that the X-1, the first aircraft to fly Mach 1, was originally called the “XS-1” (for “experimental supersonic”). Iliff though that the speaker made such a big point of this, for no obvious reason, in order to establish his credibility. Greenfield and Iliff satisfied themselves that he had at one time been stationed at Edwards.He was selling a book at the Giant Rock convention.
  6. Information on the details and air dates of these episodes was tracked down by Sue Henderson. When Dr. Iliff was asked about these shows, he said that in the 1960s he had been a regular viewer of these programs, and that if the Giant Rock story had any similarities to these episodes, he would have recognized it.
  7. Dennis R. Jenkins, Tony R. Landis, Hypersonic The Story of the North American X-15 (North Branch, Minnesota: Specialty Press, 2002), p. 124, 125, 127, 247.
  8. In September 1998, I attended a historical seminar on the U-2 overflight program. The speakers included a former CIA U-2 pilot, CIA, Air Force, and Lockheed personnel involved with the program, and a retired Colonel of the Soviet Air Defense Forces.
  9. “Conspiracy? Kecksburg UFO” The History Channel, March 6, 2005. In the show, a scientific paper was noted in which the path of the object was calculated from a pair of photographs. The photos and calculations not only showed the sighting was of a meteor, but also allowed its orbit to be calculated. This scientific evidence was dismissed by the believers, as it contradicted the 40-year-old eyewitness accounts.
  10. “Re: UFO Whistleblowers & Special Access Programs,” Tue, 22 Feb 2005 12:59:07-1000, ttp://www.virtuallystrange.net/ufo/updates/2005/feb/m23-014.shtml “SAP/CAPs” stands for “Special Access Programs/Controlled Access Programs.” “ETV” is “Extraterrestrial Vehicle,” while “EBE” is “Extraterrestrial Biological Entity.”
  11. P.J., “Exopolitical review of Peter Jennings’ Primetime TV show ‘Seeing is Believing,’”
  12. http://exopolitics.blogs.com/exopolitics/2005/03/exopolitical_re.html.12. “X-15 Stars In Roll-Out, Then Goes To Work,” Los Angeles Skywriter (October 24, 1958) p.3. This is the newsletter for North American’s L.A. facility.
  13. Richard Tregaskis, X-15 Diary, The Story of America’s First Space Ship (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1961). Tregaskis was also the author of the book Guadalcanal Diary. Other books on the X-15 published in the early 1960s were X-15 pilot Scott Crossfield’s Always Another Dawn, Jules Bergman’s Ninety Seconds to Space, and Myron Gubitz’s Rocketship X-15.
  14. This alone should have been a giveaway that the Gene May abduction story was false. May had been a Douglas test pilot. The X-15 was built by North American Aviation.
  15. Scott Libis, Douglas D-558-1 Skystreak (Simi Valley, California: Naval Fighters Number fifty-six, 2001) p. 34, 35, 44-46. Additional information provided by Scott Libis.


More Catflaps. John Rimmer

Originally published in Magonia 51, February 1995.

At one of the seminars at a recent conference on ‘Moral Panics’ I raised the topic of the cat-skinning rumours that we have touched on from time to time in Magonia. They seem to be an example of the way an urban legend can be turned into a moral panic. It has many of the features of both genres. Implicit in it is xenophobia: the phantom villains are usually foreigners or other outsider groups like gypsies. The fact that the British rumours so often seem to identify the culprits as being from other European nations, perhaps links in with current ‘Europhobe’ attitudes and fears — worry over loss of British identity in the European Union, and continuing concern over perceived cruel attitudes to animals in other European nations. Current campaigns over the transport of live farm animals, bullfighting and hunting of songbirds are helping to reinforce this stereotype in the minds of many British people.

One way in which this fear and suspicion has fed into discussion over public policy has been the current debate over British quarantine laws ostensibly intended to keep rabies out of the country. The Channel Tunnel incorporates the most elaborate system of fences, traps and electrified sections to prevent French wildlife making it under the Channel. However, a recent Parliamentary committee has recommended that the laws should be revised or scrapped altogether. This suggestion has produced a hostile reaction from animal protection groups in Britain, despite the fact that rabies cases in Western Europe are now very rare indeed. Many critics feel that the quarantine laws are now less a practical defence against animal disease than a symbolic attempt to prevent “infection from less happy lands” to misquote John of Gaunt, and maintain Britain’s island status against such intrusions as the Channel Tunnel itself, and the threatened European super-state.


“We have had a few complaints since we started stocking it. It’s all down to your sense of humour”.

Indeed, the catnapping scare does now seem to be on the verge of transformation into a fully-fledged moral panic. A participant at the conference told of recent events in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Here a local shop was selling small toys made of fake-fur which looked like a cat’s tail popping out of a paper bag. Some sort of balancing mechanism made the tail wag about when the bag was moved. Soon, after press attention was called to this novelty by the sight of children standing outside the shop laughing at the ‘cat in the bag’, a campaign was started by the local paper to ‘ban this cruel toy’. Amazingly, the shop complied and the item was withdrawn from the shop window and from sale.

Amazing coincidence department: Literally minutes after typing the above paragraph, a copy of my local free-sheet, the Richmond and Twickenham Informer dropped through my letterbox, and there on page 18 was a story headed ‘Fur flies over sick moggy toy’. [1] The ‘cat in a bag’ had arrived at Mayfair Cards, Kingston-upon-Thames, where it was spotted by ‘Teddington window cleaner Doug Petts, 62, browsing for some early Christmas gifts’. “It’s disgusting” the appositely named Mr Petts said, “If this is someone’s idea of a joke they must have a sick sense of humour. I found it offensive”. An RSPCA spokeswoman contacted by the Informer claimed that the animal charity had received a ‘flood of complaints from all parts of the country’. “We are particularly upset because there has even been a suggestion that this toy was actually approved by the RSPCA. That is completely ridiculous”. The manageress of Mayfair Cards has responded to the complaints by putting up a sign saying ‘This is not a real cat – please don’t do it at home with your pet’. Concludes Wendy Bragg, 25: “We have had a few complaints since we started stocking it. It’s all down to your sense of humour”.

When we started writing about the cat scare – after it featured in our local paper in Richmond-upon-Thames, we had no idea of its long history. Now Gareth Medway, has sent us photocopies from a book published in the 1930s, which recounts the legend-panic in its most extreme form.

Elliott O’Donnell is better known for his books of classic ghost stories, but in 1934 he published Strange Cults and Secret Societies of Modern London. [2]

In assessing the credibility of the book, Gareth Medway comments: “The interesting thing about this book generally is that whilst almost everything in it is over the top, those societies and events that O’Donnell claims to have been personally involved with are far more implausible than those where he invokes some witness. The only reason I can think of for this is that when he had been told a story by a witness, they would know if he altered it too much; whereas when he himself was the witness he could let his imagination run wild. Thus a Pagan Lesbian sect, the Gorgons, are described in such a way that they might have been real, his informant having been a woman, of course. ‘The Gots’, whom he had investigated personally (he says) break the boggle-barrier for me. Anyway. I think the skinned cats stories are probably narrated much as they were told to him.”

“Police protection is of little use against these organisations, because they are so subtle and secretive, and they number amongst them some persons who are outwardly thoroughly respectable and law-abiding”

Here then, in O’Donnell’s own words, is his account, compare it to the stories from Richmond and Bracknell reported in Magonia 43:

Some years ago a shocking case of cruelty to cats was reported in the Press. Somewhere in the East End, of the exact locality I cannot be quite sure, a man saw a sack lying on the ground, and noticing it move he opened it. To his horror it was full of skinned cats, some of whom were still alive. The man told the police, but the culprits were never caught. It was surmised at first that they were a gang of foreign East Enders, who made a living out of flaying cats alive, for the sake of their skins; the skins being of more value when taken off a living, healthy animal. Afterwards, however, it was mooted that these cat-skinners belonged to a cult out to get thrills from any and every kind of cruelty; and that they were responsible for the skinned dogs that had, from time to time, been found floating in the Thames. It was said, by the way, that they had meant to throw the sack of cats they had skinned into the Thames, but were prevented.

Soon after reading about all this in the Press, I met, quite by chance, a school teacher in the East End who was able to confirm it. She told me she had learned, from some of her pupils, that secret societies existed by the riverside in the City, and as far east as Dagenham, who made a practice of stealing cats and skinning them alive. If the cats were fine and healthy, they sold the skins to foreign Jewish fur merchants for a few pence a skin; and if they were poorly nourished they skinned them alive all the same, just for the fun of it.

“Bodies of cats and dogs are constantly to be seen floating in the Thames,” she informed me, “and no one ever queries how they got there or thinks of examining them. If they were examined a large percentage of the cats would be found to be minus their skins… Dogs are often stolen from the humble homes and sold to doctors, medical schools and vets. I have been told these things as facts,” she went on, “but there it ends. It is impossible to discover any details about the secret societies, because of intimidation. The children, who tell me about them, make me promise I will never give them away. They say if it leaked out they had told me about the cats, they would go about in fear of their lives. Police protection is of little use against these organisations, because they are so subtle and secretive, and they number amongst them some persons who are outwardly thoroughly respectable and law-abiding. The police probably know of their existence, but they find it as difficult to prove anything against them as they do to lay hands on the people who smuggle dope into the Port of London.”

“And the various societies for the protection of animals, can’t they do anything?” I asked.

“The same applies to them,” the schoolmistress responded. “I have told some of them about the skinning of cats, and they want to know names which I cannot give them. It is useless for them to send officials to make enquiries, because the societies are always on the alert. they spot strangers at once and take very good care that they discover nothing. After all, the majority of people do not trouble about their cats because they are of no monetary value. they would rather say nothing about the loss of their cat and enjoy immunity from malice than take any action that might antagonise the secret organisations.”

Later, describing a case of cruelty to children, O’Donnell reports that a woman living in the King’s Cross district of London (nowadays notorious for drugs and prostitution) told him of secret societies of young people:

“Their chief delight was in being cruel to children and animals”. The woman, who was the caretaker in a house O’Donnell was considering renting, told him of a recent court case, in which a nurse maid employed by a West End doctor was charged with cruelty towards the doctor’s children. This had caused a great deal of interest in the King’s Cross area because “the girl belonged to a secret society of young people whose homes were mostly in this neighbourhood, and who were known to do all sorts of wild and savage things”. Apparently many members of these societies were in service with wealthy families in the West End, “I know that they always very much resent taking their employers’ Pekinese dogs out for constitutionals, and hate having to clean up after them”.

What is most remarkable about O’Donnell’s account is the way it mirrors exactly the preoccupations of modern legends and panics. The ‘secret societies’ which contain `outwardly respectable and law-abiding’ people corresponds exactly to Joan Coleman’s description of Satanic cults sheltering wealthy aristocrats who are the main organisers and instigators of the groups’ atrocities. Here too we see the alleged indifference of the police and the impotence of animal protection societies in the face of a lack of evidence and a wall of silence.

The cat-skinning culprits are, of course, foreigners, or even ‘foreign Jewish fur merchants’. I have no idea how practical cat-fur would be for clothing – not very, is my guess – but the modern catnapping tales also point the finger of suspicion to fur traders. It is perhaps relevant that concern has been expressed that the present day anti-fur trade campaign has attracted some unwelcome anti-Semitic elements.


Elliott O’Donnell was reporting from the East End of London. An area which to most of his readers would have a remote, violent and sinister reputation, and which in many people’s minds would still be over-shadowed by the memory of Jack the Ripper

Elliott O’Donnell was reporting from the East End of London. An area which to most of his readers would have a remote, violent and sinister reputation, and which in many people’s minds would still be over-shadowed by the memory of Jack the Ripper. Even as late as the 1930′s it bore scars of terrible poverty, and was dominated by immigrant communities: Chinese, Jews, ‘Lascars’, a frightening `underclass’ which, to quote Roger Sandell earlier in this magazine, would seem like “a modern ‘Dark Continent’ awash with idolatry and witchcraft”. No wonder respectable West End matrons worried about their little Pekinese when they were entrusted to servants who had emerged from this urban hell! (All this youthful torture and mayhem was taking place, it is worth pointing out, without the influence of television or video nasties.)

It was doubtless the case that some domestic servants did feel resentment against their wealthy employers, and perhaps occasionally took out their anger against a pampered pet – understandable if, as may have been the case, the pet was costing almost as much to keep as the servant was earning to maintain a family. What is interesting is that such acts, if they were taking place, were ascribed to a secret society organising random acts of cruelty, rather than to a possible combination of personal resentment and class hostility. After all, a violent East End secret society the wealthy West End lady could not do much about apart from whisper about in shocked and muted tones; acknowledging the personal hostilities and resentments of her staff might involve paying them more money and treating them better. Far easier to blame it on the mysterious men in the shadows of Limehouse or Whitechapel!

The June 1994 issue of that excellent magazine Foaftale News has a round-up of stories of birds of prey attacking and/or carrying away domestic animals and even children. It describes reports from the Northcliff suburb of Johannesburg, where residents were convinced that cats were being caught and eaten by spotted eagle-owls living in the area. Although an ornithologist claimed that the owls would be incapable of picking-off anything bigger than a rat, one Northcliffe resident was adamant that she saw “an owl in our driveway stalking our cat”. The bird was chased away but next day the cat had vanished. Another resident tied two great panics together with the comment “at least it’s nature taking its course and not something sinister like Satanists who steal and torture cats”. It is perhaps no coincidence that this report should also be coming from a society still divided rigidly along lines of class and race, but undergoing massive social and political change.

As we read more about the Cat Flap, it seems what we first though of as a few mildly amusing examples of silly-season stories in local papers are turning out to be symptoms of something very significant. There are clear links to other topics which we have looked at in the past, from Satanism to animal mutilations and secret cults. It seems like our society – perhaps any society – needs monsters within. In many cases this is as a form of social control: “look at the terrors that are going on outside your front door, aren’t you lucky to have us (police, secret police, KGB, Gestapo or any other oppressive control system you care to name) looking after you”. But in other cases we create the monsters to explain worrying random events. Is it easier to believe that acts of cruelty and violence are random separate incidents caused by a complex of unknowable social and personal stimuli, or that they are organised in a rational way by secret organisations that control their members with ruthless efficiency? In the latter case we may feel that there is the hope – remote but always there – that these master criminals, or whatever, will actually be caught, and the evil they are orchestrating will end. Paradoxically we may be creating monsters of uncontrollable violence to control the frighteningly random and chaotic universe we see around us.



1. Birch, Colin. ‘Fur flies over sick moggy toy’, Richmond and Twickenham Informer week ending 2 december 1994, p.18.

2. O’Donnell, Elliott. Strange Cults and Secret Societies of Modern London, Philip Allan, 1934

The Strange Case of Mr Esther Rantzen and the Demon Headmaster.
John Rimmer

First published in Magonia 66, March 1999 as “Ah yes, I remember it… Well…?”

For well over twenty years Esther Rantzen has been a dominant figure in British television, at one time being spoken of as a possible candidate for the post of Director-General of the BBC, although her star has declined recently. In the 1970′s her programme That’s Life was the top-rated non-soap programme on BBC television. With its combination of consumer campaigning and a seemingly endless search for phalliclly-shaped root vegetables, it became a pioneer of ‘victim television’ in this country. Amongst its many campaigns it took on the issues of bullying at school, and ME. 

In recent years it has emerged that Esther Rantzen’s daughter is an ME sufferer. And now, according to a newspaper story last year, Rantzen’s husband, the television producer and broadcaster Desmond Wilcox was allegedly a victim of school bullying. In November newspapers carried a story that at the launch of a telephone helpline for stammerers Wilcox revealed that he too had been a stammerer when a boy at Cheltenham Grammar School. 

“Stammering was the first disabling condition of my life”, he is reported as saying (Daily Telegraph, Friday, November 13th., 1998). 

“I stammered so badly until the age of thirteen that I was almost locked into silence. It was wartime and very little sympathy was available. He then went on to make a remarkable allegation: “The onlyteachers who were left behind were women who had not volunteered and men who were drunk and a Jesuit priest who was the headmaster. 

“I can’t remember his name but I have his face in my mind. I don’t know why I’m protecting him or the others as it is more than they offered me … The school I was at thought stammering could be beaten out of people. I held the record for the number of times I was caned. The headmaster was the beater but it was not unusual in those days to be caned. As a stammerer you were thought of as a malingerer and a faker.” 

A deplorable story, and it is certainly true that many children have been put through an experience of total misery by parents and schoolteachers who have thought that stammering could be cured by such crude methods. The only problem with Wilcox’s experiences though, is that they appear never to have happened. Three days (16th November) later this account of life at Cheltenham Grammar School was challenged in the correspondence column of the Daily Telegraph by another Old Boy, a Mr Peter James of Cheltenham: 

“Sir – Desmond Wilcox’s claim to have been beaten by the Jesuit headmaster of Cheltenham Grammar School in the 1940′s for stammering must be a mental aberration. the Headmaster at the time, Geoffrey Heywood, was a gentle caring man who led a dedicated staff and was certainly no Jesuit. For the sake of surviving teachers and their families, Mr Wilcox should think again.” 

The next day the Telegraph returned to the subject. In a piece by their entertainment reporter Jessica Callan (chosen to cover the story presumably on the basis of Wilcox’s occupation) more Old Boys and teachers challenged Wilcox’s version of events. Bob Beale, the school’s deputy Head from 1976 to 1986 told the Telegraph that many former pupils and teachers were upset by the allegations: 

“It has caused a lot of distress. He mentioned that there were drunken staff during his time but there was only one teacher, a botanist, who liked to drink. He was never drunk during the school day but he was quickly removed from his part-time post. I don’t know what Mr Wilcox is thinking of.” 

Others recalled that the headmaster, Mr Heywood, was the very opposite of the enthusiastic beater Wilcox described, and was not a Jesuit. In the letters column of the 19th November more former pupils join in to defend Mr Heywood. After pointing out that the headmaster before Heywood, and well before Wilcox’s time at the school, was a strict disciplinarian, Lord Christopher of Leckhampton recalls: 

“As a disciplinarian Geoffrey Heywood was the other side of the coin. If he had a weakness it was perhaps that he was not quite hard enough on us. His toughest punishment was a letter to one’s parents suggesting that the school and his son were wasting each other’s time.” 

Another correspondent denied that the headmaster at the time was a Jesuit, noting: 

“Geoffrey Heywood was a caring headmaster, an active member of the Church of England, who must have been proud of the excellent academic record of his school” 

A retired physics teacher, Julia Edwards also dismissed the claims, saying “The headmaster certainly was not a Jesuit. I can safely say no teachers were drunk when I was there. It was an excellent school”. (The suggestion that the teacher was a Jesuit is interesting, as in largely Protestant Britain Jesuits have a sinister reputation as teachers, brainwashing the children in their charge into an unquestioning Catholicism: “Give me a child until he is seven…”, etc. and many people would readily accept that a Jesuit would behave in such a way.) 

However, despite this flood of contrary memories Wilcox was sticking to his side of the story. In his conversation with Jessica Callan he denied that his recollections were at fault: 

“I am afraid my experience was one I remember vividly as you might imagine. The headmaster wasn’t Geoffrey Heywood. I can’t remember his name and wasn’t in a position to remember it at the time. My memory is my memory. He didn’t wear Jesuit robes. He may have been trained by Jesuits, but he was fond of telling us he was a Jesuit, which is why I remember it clearly. I don’t think many schoolboys can remember the name of their headmaster 50 years later.” 

He then makes the very significant remark that “no-one invents this kind of experience from their childhood.” 

Apart from the fact that I think many schoolboys (and girls) can remember the name of their headmaster fifty years later (a point that a number of other Telegraph readers made – in my case, L. W. Warren, Alsop High School, Liverpool, 1955 – 1959) it is certainly true, as any Magonia reader knows, that people do “invent that kind of experience from their childhood”; in many cases experiences far more remarkable and traumatising than being caned by a drunken Jesuit. Wilcox, like many others, fails to distinguish between ‘inventions’ that are the deliberate work of the conscious mind, and unwitting ‘inventions’ that arise through complex and hidden psychological processes. 

One of the factors behind such processes is that we are increasingly living in a victim culture, where being victimised is seen as in itself conveying some sort of moral authority. This is an attitude which Desmond Wilcox’s wife Esther Rantzen has probably done more to promote in Britain than almost anyone else. The essence of victim culture is that any of the many misfortunes of life are the fault of someone else: parents, teachers, the government, authority figures of one kind or another. Being a victim also delegitimises any criticism or examination of the claims of victimhood. We see this in the protests of ‘victims’ of alien abduction and their investigator/promoters, that their claims are not amenable to critical examination, and that any attempt at sceptical analysis simply prolongs their ‘abuse’ at the hands of the aliens. This reached its obscene apotheosis in Budd Hopkins’ declaration in Intruders that rejection of the claims of alien abduction was comparable to Holocaust denial.

Being a victim also allows you to identify with others who perhaps have more justifiable claims on that status. Wilcox’s apparently quite genuine childhood stammering did not prevent him from becoming a successful television presenter, a role in which it is rather difficult to appear as a victim. Now we must assume that Mr Wilcox has not just made up his memory of traumatic schooldays – we would soon be hearing from Messrs Sue, Grabbitt and Runne if we assumed otherwise – as apart from anything else it would be foolish to invent a scenario which could be so easily checked. So obviously he does genuinely believe that these beatings happened, just as many people believe they are victims of violent Satanic abuse or UFO abductions. 

This was not a memory induced by hypnotic regression or prolonged interviewing by an obsessed therapist, but it appears to be as false as those that are. In the context in which Desmond Wilcox ‘recalled’ these events it clearly helped him to empathise with those suffering from stammering who would make use of the helpline he was inaugurating. It could be that an identification with a successful public figure who had undergone a traumatic experience as a result of stammering and had ‘survived’ and ‘recovered’ would encourage other sufferers to come forward who would not otherwise have done so. It could seem that if these memories were unconsciously fabricated the motivation behind that process might have been to identify with and help stammerers; a few uneasy memories, misplaced recollections and overwrought might-have-beens were woven together to produce a moral fable with Wilcox as the hero overcoming misfortune and an example to other victims. 

However, the Daily Telegraph’s conclusion, in an Editorial on 18th November was not so accommodating. Drawing a comparison between Wilcox and disgraced MP Ron Davies of Clapham Common infamy, it concluded: 

“Ron Davies denounced his violent father before the Commons, and justified his own misconduct with the all-purpose excuse ‘we are what we are’. So to Mr Wilcox: ‘My memory is my memory’. That might be a suitable motto for Mr Wilcox, but the desire to be seen as a victim of child abuse does not make the claim true … Mr Wilcox is not the first to demonise a headmaster. What is new is the therapeutic maligning of the dead in the name of self-righteous, self-validating memory. Perhaps we need a new term for cases like Mr Wilcox’s: recovered psychobabble syndrome.”