Mattoon Revisited
Willy Smith

From Magonia 48, January 1994

mattoon-gasser-cartoonThe main claim to fame of Mattoon, a central Illinois town of about 16,000 souls, is the alleged activity almost fifty years ago of a prankster never apprehended or identified. During a short period at the end of the summer of 1944, more precisely from 31 August to 12 September, this individual, and perhaps some copycats, terrified young women by releasing some kind of gas in their rooms, gas that was never identified, but that gained him the name of the Phantom Gasser of Mattoon.

It is truly remarkable how the episode of the so called “Phantom Anaesthetist” of Mattoon has become a stanchion of contemporary ufological (and other) literature, as a classic example of mass hysteria. Furthermore, it has been used to support opposite contentions. For example, one writer emphasises the differences between the onset of UFO waves and the start of mass hysteria flaps. (1)

Another quotes it to stress the thesis that cattle mutilations have a naturalistic interpretation, (2) namely, the hysteria of the farmers, rather than a bizarre explanation due to UFOs or other preposterous circumstances, thus denying the objective existence of UFOs. Years ago, in a series of papers appearing in the MUFON UFO Journal, the Mattoon incident was cited and used to maintain that “mass hysteria probably has nothing to do with UFO reports”. (3) Probably not, unless one is suggesting that the connection is that both are imaginary events.

Even now, the Mattoon Anaesthetist, like the phoenix, rises from his ashes and is offered again as a convenient example of hysterical contagious illness (4) and somehow associated with other forms of irrationality such as the Anti-Satanist panic.

I wonder how many of those who so freely talk about the ‘anaesthetist of Mattoon” in order to affirm one point or another have really gone to the original literature to inform themselves. Not to be like them, I secured at great cost a copy of Donald M. Johnson’s initial paper (5) and my investment has paid handsomely. Before going into the nifty gritty, I hasten to point out that from the very beginning the intentions of Johnson, who at the time was an undergraduate student at the University of Illinois, (6) seem to have been to “prove” a case of mass hysteria, regardless of the evidence that he himself had found in Mattoon. This is an impression that assaults the reader from the first line when, for instance, Johnson tells that:

“The story begins on the first night of September, 1944, when a woman reported to the police that someone had sprayed her.”

All the preceding remarks are false: the story did not start on 1 September, and she did not report it to the police, but to a friend and to her husband, who called the police.

Now to the details, all provided by Johnson. (5) According to him, and after a careful reading of his paper, the true chronology is as given in Table 1.

FIGURE ONE

mattoon-fig-1

A grand total of 25 cases in 13 days. However, the weight of all these cases is not the same: the case of Mr and Mrs B, for instance, occurring before the key case (Mrs A) supposedly triggering the total sequence, cannot be suspected, as Mr B was the one to feel sick and smell the gas. This was not hysteria, but a real event. As for Mrs C, she was with her daughter, so one could suspect a case of folie a deux but without a stimulus, as again this was prior to any publicity. It seems more rational to accept that this was also a real incident. Considering now Johnson’s key case, Mrs A and her daughter, it is also an episode with two witnesses and, moreover, Mr A coming home much later and unaware of previous events, saw a man run from the window. Hysteria, or plain fact? I think there is no doubt, unless we postulate that Mr A had obscure motives to gain public attention: a prowler was prowling, and scared Mrs A and her daughter. Thus, the sequence, if imaginary, was triggered by a real incident.

No judgement can be advanced for the other cases, as there are no more details. But we have made progress, as we have easily disposed of the totality of the initial incidents. Perhaps the others were prompted by the sensationalist handling by the media, particularly the local paper, the Mattoon Daily Journal-Gazette, the only paper with a large circulation in the city and, according to Johnson, read at the time by 97% of the Mattoon families.

In fact, there is a curious detail here, glossed over by Johnson: the story appeared on the front page (2 September) in a column headed “Mrs A and daughter first victims”. How come? Only one incident was known at that time, apparently considered by the paper and the police as a serious attack, and yet we find this “first” as if the reporter knew there were more to come. Johnson dismisses this as an error, but such a contention does not resist analysis. Too many people see the headlines of a newspaper before it goes to the presses. Was the whole thing an organised effort to bring national attention to Mattoon, otherwise a faceless community in the state of Illinois?

Fortunately, Johnson provides us with detailed statistics of the coverage, in square inches of newspaper space, devoted to the series of events. Although to judge the value or truthfulness of an issue by the press coverage in square inches of print is common usage for the practitioners of the soft sciences, it only indicates the editorial bias of the media, of which we have a daily example in the morning news. And in this case, if there was foul play behind the scenes, the statistics of the column coverage by the Daily Journal-Gazette seem to bear out this possibility.

It is interesting to correlate those numbers to the actual dates and the number of incidents, as reported to the police:

FIGURE TWO

mattoon-fig-2

The significance of this information in supporting a journalistic confabulation becomes glaring when presented in graphic form, where the points represent the newspaper coverage and the bars the number of witnesses:

FIGURE THREE

mattoon-fig-3

The press coverage started on 2 September, when Mrs A’s incident was reported on the front page with a sensationalist headline: “Anesthetic Prowler on Loose”, out of character for the rather conservative Mattoon newspaper, and continued unabated in every issue until 15 September when the story was dropped. The number of reported cases reached a maximum on 10 September, which was the peak of police activity in their efforts to catch the culprit in flagrante delicto. Only one further incident took place (12 September), and since the Daily Journal-Gazette was still carrying the story, it seems self evident that the prankster (and his copycats) were suddenly discouraged by the police attention.

Thus, contrary to Johnson’s assertion that there were two hypotheses (either a “gasser” or “hysteria”) to explain the facts, we have already three: (i) mass hysteria, triggered by an incident real or imaginary; (ii) an organised newspaper buildup, as a prank or for more serious unknown reasons; and (iii) a real “anaesthetist”.

Before discussing those possibilities in some depth, let’s take a moment to examine, as Johnson does, the nature of the reported gas used by the attacker. He says that it did not affect others in the room, a patent falsehood when one considers Mr B’s case (31 August), where the husband was the first to feel sick. Johnson also informs us that one of the effects reported, vomiting, was independently verified, but dismisses this as a symptom of hysteria, as was the excited condition observed in the victims. In fact, the original article (5) transcribes a pertinent passage by Janet: (7)

“I choose, for an example, what happens to a woman somewhat impressionable who experiences a quick and lively emotion. She instantly feels a constriction of the epigastrium, experiences oppression, her heart palpitates, something rises in her throat and chokes her…” (emphasis added).

What Johnson apparently did not realise is that this scholarly opinion requires the a priori existence of a stimulus and the fact is that the appearance of the symptoms as reported is prima facie evidence of the reality of the incidents. Had the victims remained calm and collected after going through such an experience the investigator would have been correct in suspecting foul play. Since the vomiting was a fact, as well as the independent testimony of husbands (or maybe husbands are not independent) that they had really smelled gas, it follows that at least the three initial incidents (31 August and 1 September), and perhaps some of the others had an objective reality.

From a perspective of almost fifty years, it is hard to make a guess as to the real nature of the gas, but from the details reported by Johnson, it is conceivable that the “gasser simply used natural gas, that he either carried or that he just released from sources existing at the homes he visited.

Johnson, whose experience in sociology was probably no more than an introductory course, (6) also considers the victims as a group, and marvels that there are few children in his sample, after he rejects some because of parental influence. We are given some demographic information which is partially transcribed in Figure 3

FIGURE FOUR

mattoon-fig-4

 
It follows that the majority of the victims were women of poor education and modest economic level, their ages peaking for the 20-29 group. No attacks were reported the two high-income areas of Mattoon and all the cases seem to have occurred within a uniform socioeconomic group. As shown in Table 3, the demographic factors are quite at variance with those corresponding to the population of Mattoon at large, as indicated in the last column.
The unavoidable conclusion is that the selection of the victims was not random. This peculiarity leads to two and only two possibilities:

• (1) selectivity by the perpetrator (i.e. hypothesis (iii) is correct);
• (2) selectivity due to the susceptibility of this group (hypothesis (i) is correct).

Let us go back now to the three possible hypotheses and by using Occam’s razor attempt to arrive at a reasonable solution.

(i) Mass hysteria

Johnson concludes that “the hypothesis of hysteria fits all of the evidence, without remainder”. This is only wishful thinking, because nothing is further from the truth if we are going to believe what the same Johnson has reported. The initial incidents,which indeed took place, have not been explained. The word ‘first” in the headline of the Mattoon Daily journalGazette remains cryptic and, in fact, opens even now interesting possibilities. The independently witnessed symptoms, like vomiting and a great degree of excitation, were unexplained then and now (how could they have happened if there was NO gasser to provide the stimulus?).

The lack of cases on 7 and 11 September represents an anomaly, compounded by the fact that the graph shown in Johnson’s paper apparently peaks precisely on 7 September, perhaps because he refers to telephone calls listed in the police blotter and not to verified incidents. As shown in Graph 1, the actual number of incidents peaked on 10 September and, in spite of hammering by the newspaper until 15 September, only one more case was reported (12 September).

The hysteria hypothesis is contrived, and not only fails to satisfy the evidence, but doesn’t explain how people who didn’t know each other, apparently belonging to the same socio-economic and educational level, and perhaps living in the same neighbourhood, could come up with similar descriptions (as, for instance, in the cases prior to 5 September).

All of this suggests the activity of unknown parties localised in a given area. Moreover, the victims were young females, all but one married (hence, friend psychologists, no great possibilities of hallucinations due to sexual frustration), corroborating selectivity by the perpetrator very unlikely to occur with an imaginary gasser.

Of course it may well be that initially, as supported by the evidence provided by the first cases, one or more unknown parties (the copycat is always a possibility), started to terrorise young women perhaps as a prank, perhaps for some obscure sexual motivations, but became scared when the community over reacted, and the state police came into the act. To this day, he is probably recalling with nostalgia these incidents of his youth, and maybe smiling secretly, if he reads the ufological press, every time he is mentioned in pro or con arguments on the existence of UFOs.

The later cases were very likely caused by the journalistic influence and no more than hysterical episodes prompted by the presence of prowlers, which during the period were reported at the rate of 8-10 a week. Author Johnson vehemently denies this, and states that “the hypothesis of hysteria fits all the evidence, without remainder”. Sadly, this points out that Johnson’s main goal was to document a ‘true’ case of mass hysteria come what may, even if it required ignoring that the initial cases were real, and doesn’t say much for his experience as an investigator 

(ii) A journalistic scam

The second hypothesis is daring but quite tenable. That word “first” in the 2 September issue cannot be lightly dismissed, and we must keep in mind that after all, the press controlled the publicity given to the affair, and finally spiked it when it got out of hand. It is quite possible that the original cases (which could have a simple explanation, such as a gas leak) inspired a young reporter to make a name for himself (remember, we are in 1944 during the war years) and devote considerable space to the phantom anaesthetist in the Mattoon Daily Journal-Gazette. The story was picked up by out-of-town newspapers, among others the Chicago Herald-American which, according to Johnson, handled the story most thoroughly and most sensationally, and pretty soon it was out of control.

Perhaps after a while the editor of the paper got wise, but what could he really do, except what he did? That is, backpedal and write “few real” in the 11 September headline, then change the tone toward the jocular (13 September), move the story to page 6 on 15 September and finally let it go by the board.

There is another piece of evidence in favour of this hypothesis: the lack of motivation. Nothing was stolen, the circumstances did not offer gratification to a peeper, and even the victims did not have a reason to come forward with false claims. Yet, our postulated ambitious newspaperman had everything to gain and nothing to lose, a true statement as demonstrated by time. Too bad we don’t even know his byline!

And finally, one must remember that prophetic “first” which appeared on 2 September!

(iii) A flesh-and-blood gasser

As we have already indicated, the first 3 cases (31 August and 1 September) definitely were real incidents, each one with two witnesses and, since they were not publicised until later, they could not possibly have triggered the incidents that followed. As I am not a psychologist, I can hardly argue with Johnson about the suggestibility of young females of low education and social status. But I can assert that items not printed in the local newspaper certainly could NOT have influenced anyone.

The arguments advanced by Johnson on the nature of the gas are specious, to say the least, and attempt to prove that since the characteristics of the alleged gas are impossible, so is the reality of the anaesthetist. However, when the complaints of the victims and their symptoms are considered in some detail, it becomes very likely that the gas could have been regular cooking gas, accidentally or otherwise released in the rooms. In fact, Mr B reported asking his wife if the gas had been left on when he woke up sick in the middle of the night. I rest my case.

The fact that people reported seeing a prowler who might have been the anaesthetist is dismissed without further ado by Johnson, since prowlers are frequently reported in Mattoon. I agree, but how can one distinguish on sight between a regular prowler and the gasser? The plot of police calls shown in (5) shows almost equal numbers for both events.

Conclusions

What is the bottom line?

Johnson’s conclusion that the Mattoon affair was “entirely psychogenic” is unwarranted and not supported by the evidence. The idea of a journalistic scam is very attractive, has possibilities, and should not be ruled out. It would be interesting to go back to Mattoon and dig in the morgue of the Daily Journal-Gazette to obtain further information about the reporter(s) covering the case. As for the third possibility, the existence of a real perpetrator, it follows from the details of the first three incidents, and perhaps could be corroborated by further study of the records. It is also clear that some of the later cases could have been prompted by the influence of the media, but I doubt that a true hysteria epidemic could have been turned off so suddenly. However, such an abrupt termination would be expected if we had a gasser that felt cornered by the police and decided it was safer to quit.

In a direct application of Occam’s razor, (8) I favour a combination of (ii) and (iii), as reasonable and fitting the information as it has reached us. But one thing is certain: it has been in Johnson’s paper for all these years for anyone to read. It was not a sequence of imaginary events triggered by another imaginary event, not even by a real one (made public only after some of the crucial cases had already occurred). If mass hysteria means what I think it means, and if there is such a phenomenon, definitively the case of Mattoon is not an example; in fact, it is no more than a “gasser”.

——————-

References:

  1. BALLESTER OLMOS, V.J.’Tienen relation los avistamientos OVNIS con la poblacion?’, Stendek, 27, March 1977,31-39
  2. STEWART, J.R. ‘Cattle mutilations: an episode of collective delusion’, The Zetetic, 1,2,1977,55-66
  3. SWORDS, Michael. ‘Hysteria and UFOs: is there a connection?’, MUFON UFO Journal, No. 196, July-August 1984
  4. SANDELL, Roger ‘Satanism Update’, Magonia, No. 46, June 1993, 13.
  5. JOHNSON, Donald M. ‘The “Phantom Anesthetist” of Mattoon: a field study of mass hysteria’, Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 40, 1945, 175-86
  6. The official records of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign show that Donald Max Johnson was a student there, and that he graduated on 15 June 1952 with a Master’s degree in Education. In 1944 he was very likely a freshman, with rather questionable qualifications to investigate the Mattoon affair, which explains the shortcomings of his article. Dr R. P. Hinshaw, listed by Johnson in his acknowledgements, was an Instructor in Psychology during 1944-45, and therefore was able to guide Johnson during the critical period, sponsoring the publication of his article in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology.
  7. JANET, P. The Mental State of Hystericals, Putnam’s, New York, 1901
  8. William of Occam (d. circa 1349): English scholastic philosopher, a Franciscan, sometimes called the Invincible Doctor. He argued that reality exists solely of individual things and that universals are merely the signs by which the mind represents reality to itself. They are identified with abstract knowledge and do not touch reality. Logic, then, deals with signs rather than with realities. Some matters, such as the existence of God, immortality and the existence of the soul are the object of faith alone (The Columbia Encyclopedia). Occam’s razor can be expressed as: “The simplest explanation that covers all the facts is the right one.”

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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.”

::amputate::

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.

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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.

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References

  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

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The Ghost in the Machine.
Roger Sandell

Originally published in MUFOB New Series 3, Summer 1976

During the UFO waves of the 1950′s and 1960′s one of the strongest pieces of evidence for those who believed that UFOs seemed to be mechanical devices, was reports of vehicles allegedly mysteriously stopping in the presence of UFOs. A classic case of this nature is the Loch Raven Dam sighting of 1958, in which two men reported seeing a 100ft, egg-shaped object about one hundred feet above them, and stated that their car and its lights went dead as they attempted to approach it. (1) The Condon Investigation described such cases as “one of the more puzzling aspects of UFO reports”. However, examination by the investigators of a car involved in such a case showed that it had not been exposed to magnetism, as ufologists has suggested.

What neither sceptics nor believers realised at that time was that the stories of strange vehicles stoppages were much older, not only that UFOs, but than the internal combustion engine itself. Stories of this nature were told during the witch mania of the sixteenth century. One such tale tells of a carter whose vehicle became immobilised. After whipping his horses, to no avail, the cart moved when he flicked his whip against one of the wheels. Shortly after, a local witch was seen to have whiplash scars across her face. (2)

Such beliefs persisted until surprisingly recently. Eric Maples’s The Dark World of Witches describes the traditions of the Canewden area of Essex:

“Until well after the First World War the tradition persisted that it was unlucky to take a wheeled vehicle into Canewdon, as it would break down. Boys believed that to cycle through Canewdon was to invite a puncture.”

In the same book Maple describes how in the same area, in the first decade of this century, an elderly villager, believed to be a wizard, was credited with the ability to stop farm machines merely by looking at them.

With the decline of witch beliefs similar stories attached themselves to ghosts. One tale, of the ‘Screaming Skull’, a relic of Bettiscombs Manor in Dorset, allegedly associated with ghostly events, states that one tenant of the manor put the skull on a cart to send it elsewhere, but that the cart would not move until the skull was removed. The ‘Boggarts’, ghostly beings of Lancashire folklore, were said to sit on the backs of carts and increase their weights until the cart became immovable.

One of the most interesting ghost stories of this type concerns the ‘Bell Witch’ poltergeist that haunted a farm in Tennessee in 1817-1821.

“General Andrew Jackson was one of those attracted to the Bell homestead during the period of the haunting. As Jackson’s horse-drawn wagon approached the area the wheels suddenly seemed to freeze and the straining horses were unable to budge it. Jackson dismounted and examined the wheels and axles end was unable to find any reason for this sudden problem. As he stood there scratching his head in bewilderment a voice suddenly rang out from behind the bushes: “All right, General” the voice announced, “Let the wagon move” … To everyone’s amazement the wheels began to turn again.” (3)

Similar tales first began to appear in a modern context during World War II. In Britain in the early years of the war there were various ‘secret weapon’ rumours current, one of which would tell of a motorist driving on a remote road who found his oar mysteriously halted. As he puzzled over this, a soldier (or policeman) would appear and order him to start the car, which would then work perfectly. (4)

With tales such as this, the character of the myth has changed radically. Although at a time of national emergency there was a need for rumours of miraculous deliverance, the mental climate of the period did not allow these to be explicitly supernatural, but had to imply that there was a scientific explanation. In 1914 there had been tales of angels over the Western Front, but in 1940 the rumour had to climax with the appearance of the reassuring everyday figure of the policeman.

As the fear of nuclear war grew in the 1950′s and flying saucer stories began to circulate, the vehicle stoppage myth took on a new charateristic and became symbolic of a force more powerful than the technology threatening mass destruction, a force that would save humanity from itself. In the 1952 film The Day The Earth Stood Still an alien arrives in a flying saucer with a message of peace, and demonstrates his power by stopping all the world’s
machines. Strikingly, this film was made before there were any factual cases of UFO vehicle stoppages.

What form will the myth take next? With the
failure of the space probes to discover any evidence of intelligent life elsewhere, and the revival of interest in occultism perhaps we will see the return of explicitly supernatural vehicle stoppage stories. Already one of the more bizarre Uri Geller tales has him stopping the engine of an ocean liner by his powers, and in Carlos Castenda’s A Separate Reality we find the following allegedly factual account of one of his meetings with Don Juan, the Indian sorcerer:

“What is sorcery, Don Juan?”  “Sorcery is to apply one’s will to a key joint”, he said. “In your car it’s the spark-plug. I can apply my will to it and your oar won’t work.” Don Juan got into my oar and sat down. His laughter became higher. I felt some kind of enveloping force around me. “Turn on your oar now,” Don Juan said. I turned on the starter and stepped on the gas pedal. The starter began to grind without igniting the engine. I spent perhaps ten minutes grinding the starter. After a while Don Juan said he had released the car. It started!

REFERENCES

  1. VALLEE, J. Challenge to Science. For a sceptical analysis of this case see Alan Sharp ‘UFO Evidence in an American reservoir?, MUFOB 6;1
  2. MAPLE; ERIC. The Dark World of Witches
  3. KEEL, JOHN. In the EM Effect a Myth?’; FSR, Nov-Dec 1968
  4. TURNER, S S. The Phoney War on the Home Front

 

 

Visions of Bowmen and Angels.
Kevin McClure

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.


BIBLIOGRAPHY

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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In the Light of Experience.
Thomas E. Bullard

From Magonia 44, October 1982

In Magonia 42 Hilary Evans and Peter Rogerson take me to task as they speak out again in favour of a psychosocial explanation for UFO abductions. Their interests are friendly, but they leave me in need of saving myself from my friends, and my friends from themselves.

To begin on an agreeable note. I agree with much of what they say. Peter Rogerson is quite right to point out that variation is present in abduction narratives. The beings described are far from copies of one another, the plots and details differ as well. Yet the importance of differences depends on their proportion to the similarities, and similarities prevail throughout my sample of reports. The picture is especially clear among the 103 high information, high reliability cases. The ‘ufological filter’ through which the reports reach the literature is a serious concern, but please remember that those 103 good cases are the work of fifty different investigators or teams. the contributions of Budd Hopkins do not swamp all others. An implausibly large cadre of investigators marches in lockstep to the same tune, if they impose the similarities.

I have to disagree with Rogerson when he takes lightly the failure of abduction narrators to exploit the broad range of science-fiction ideas available today, and would have us believe that abductee narratives have about reached their limits. I would not lay any bets. Human imagination is wonderfully adaptive, and likely to defy any limits or prescribed directions set up by unimaginative scholars – assuming of course that imagination rather than experience sets the course of the abduction story.

Rogerson mentions Edith Fiore’s cases as examples of the more varied accounts that come through a less single-minded ufological filter than, say, Hopkins’s. I would point out the case of Dan in chapter 12 of Fiore’s book as a fine example of what imagination can do. Dan claims 627 abductions (give or take one or two?), and recalls a life of high adventure during his days in the Space Marines. He retired to Earth in the body of a boy, but wants to re-enter active duty now that he is once more an adult. Who says imagination is limited? His story illustrates what I would expect if abduction stories were imaginative – Flash Gordon adventures, extraterrestrial Harlequin romances and ego satisfaction tailored to individual needs of the narrators. What I see instead is largely impersonal and often unpleasant. Even the people who feel they benefit from the experience acknowledge that it is difficult, a challenge, a lesson hard to learn no matter how positive the outcome may be.

So yes, we find variety. At the same time we find a core of stability that is absent in 1950s contactee stories. That observation should alert us that abductions are not just contactee yarns with a forced entry and medical examination tacked on. Abductions are like Old Hag experiences in part, like fairy kidnap in part, like epileptic seizures in part, like 1950s space movies in part. Like many things in part, but also coherent with a uniqueness of their own. Say there were twice the usual number of murders in town last night – one with a gun, one with a knife, one with a blunt instrument, one by strangulation and six by axe and those within a one-block area. We do not need Sherlock Holmes to tell us that those six axe murders are probably related, the other four probably not. This same intuition applied to abductions advises that the coherent reports differ in a qualitative way from the largely idiosyncratic accounts.

The investigator’s dilemma is how to focus on that core phenomenon without prejudging its nature. Discrimination of evidence is a necessary evil, since the alternative is a hopelessly muddled sample. I would suggest that not every encounter is an abduction, not every abduction story is genuine, and not every genuine (whatever that may mean) abductee describes the experience in uniform or even accurate terms. Many stories can pass as ‘abductions’ through a lenient filter. Settle for a few content points as an adequate intersection and the list of ‘related’ narratives will never end. A meaningful understanding of the abduction phenomenon requires stricter criteria, specifically attention to the most unique and puzzling materials. Fifty or a hundred reports with a complexity of details but little inclination to imaginative elaboration is mystery enough. the other accounts need explaining as well, and might lend themselves to psychosocial theories already offered, but let’s not confuse an already difficult issue with obvious hoaxes, probable fantasies, or remote analogies.

Which brings us to Hilary Evans and his solution. I argue from the standpoint of a folklorist that too many abduction reports demonstrate a stubborn and unnecessary consistency to be products of the imagination pure and simple. He seems to have little use for folklorists. A century and a half of scholarship has left us with nothing but a ‘free-for-all’ of amorphous materials imposed upon by the half-baked schemes of scholars, no two of whom are in agreement. Folklorists are prone to keep their heads in books, and abstract stereotypical patterns out of a mass of individual narratives while forgetting that the stereotype is a scholarly fiction. The folklorist loses sight of the individual factor in narratives, and makes up rules about non-existent ideals.

Any candid assessment of folklore theory would have to give at least a partial nod to these criticisms. Much toil has produced few results, and scholarship has torn off in wrong directions all too often. But folklorists are not such a bad lot: some of us love dogs and children, most of us bathe regularly (once or twice a week whether we need it or not), and quite a few of us leave our books from time to time and make contact with the ‘folk’.

One thing we have learned about this ‘folk’ is that its members are seldom old goodwives in chimney corners, such as come to Evans’s mind when I speak of ordinary storytellers who forget or fumble their narrative. No. You and I are the folk. Our role as folk depends on the way we communicate, and not on our social circumstances, while our words acquire folklore status more by the channels we pass them along that by their inherent contents. Folklore needs no validation of hoary age. Jokes and urban legends spring up day by day and go the rounds.

left-frame

Folklore scholars once drew arbitrary boundaries between folk, popular and mass culture, but we learned our lesson. the folk show no respect for such distinctions. What matters is how narrators use those ideas, not their ultimate origin or nature

 

Science fiction and forms of communal fantasy are perfectly good sources of folkloric communication, contrary to what Evans implies. Folklore scholars once drew arbitrary boundaries between folk, popular and mass culture, but we learned our lesson. the folk show no respect for such distinctions. What matters is how narrators use those ideas, not their ultimate origin or nature. As long as narrators treat the materials as folklore, they are folklore wherever they come from; old tradition, science fiction, the tabloid press, the TV set, or for that matter, direct personal experience.

The ‘rules’ I referred to certainly lack the status of natural law. Contrary to the title of Alexander Krappe’s famous book, there is no ‘science of folklore’. Folklorists cannot predict how a narrative will change with the certitude of an astronomer who predicts the return of Halley’s Comet. At the same time folklore is not entirely amorphous. If science is not a search for The Truth but, more modestly expressed, a search for order in nature, then folklore scholarship still offers pertinent help in understanding what happens to narratives in circulation. Ultimate questions of why and wherefore may raise conflicts among various schools of thought, but at a lower level of empirical inquiry folklorists have learned something about the dynamics of narratives.

Simple observation makes it clear that narratives vary. People tell the same general story in a variety of ways, whether by accident or design. Some of those old goodwives are formidable narrators who shape their stories into a fine artistic production. Most of the rest of

 us shape them according to our lesser abilities and fallibilities. In either case variation results. We expect to find it in abduction reports because our first reasonable assumption pegs them as products of imagination. The loose construction of the story and the wealth of ideas available from various cultural sources leads us to expect a great deal of variation. When we find a relative lack of it, an anomaly confronts us. An anomaly tells us that something is wrong with our assumption.#

This finding is simply interesting. It does not prove aliens or any other specific explanation, but it calls into question cultural sources working through the usual channels of borrowing and communication. This is a slender sort of conclusion, but it comes about in the right way. It comes from an application of what we know to be a problem, rather than an application of wishful thinking or doctrinaire theory.

I agree that psychosocial theorists attribute abductions to more than folklore, and draw parallels with many form of communal fantasy. I disagree with Evans when he says that folklore ‘rules’ therefore no longer apply. The folklorist’s understanding of narrative dynamics comes from studies of memory processes and the circulation of unofficial communications in society. Much of what happens to folklore as it passes from person to person also happens in the transmission of rumour and gossip, in episodes of mass hysteria, in fads and popular movements – in any human effort to formulate and convey an account of an unusual experience. What is communal fantasy anyway but the action of emotionally charged ideas on a transpersonal scale? Folklorists are at home with these processes, and share an understanding of their regularities with scholars in other disciplines.

Where we truly part company is over his explanation of abduction experiences. He identifies them as a combination of folklore, in the form of shared myth, with deep individual need. The narrator externalises those private needs in a fantasy, but shapes it according to the outlines of some familiar stereotype to give a public legitimacy. Some narrators choose the demonic possession script, others choose abduction, but the underlying cause is the same. The personal factor causes variations, the stereotype or public myth provides stability.

No one would question that a personal element goes into almost every narrative – Freud pointed out the deep motivations behind telling a mere joke, and all of us have recognised more superficial motives in ourselves, like the desire to make others laugh or outdo another narrator. Abduction narratives often engage strong emotions, and clearly express deep needs of the narrator. Yet rather than explaining the minor variations with abduction narratives, this undeniable emotional pressure simply deepens the mystery of why those variations remain so minor. This pressure should crack all containers. The individual with a need to externalise has many cultural frames to choose from, demonological or otherwise, and could choose many abduction-based scenarios to make a fantasy public. Any one of them would serve as well as another. In fact narrators in surprising numbers pick the same scenario. We do not find multiple narrators telling a Dan the Space-Marine story. The space adventurers thrill themselves with a different adventure every time, contactees have a wide range of contacts, but most abductees are stuck in a rut and repeat each other’s abductions like broken records.

Have I led everyone astray by abstracting a stereotypical pattern from the reports, when the pattern is no more than a figment of my scholarly making? I don’t think so. the pattern I found came to light case by case and detail by detail. Examination precedes conference, beings have large heads, and examination rooms have uniform lighting – how abstract can a pattern be when it simply counts specific elements, and recognises some as far more common than others? The pattern emerges because it describes what witnesses report, not because a scholar prescribes what the story ought to be. 

 

left-frame

The psychosocial approach has more the characteristics of a faith than a serious effort to explain abductions by wrestling with the data and proposing step-by-step explanations

 

If anyone is guilty of illegal abstractions it is Evans when he speaks of a ‘shared myth’. The idea of an immutable pattern fixed in the collective mind and capable of shaping consistent abduction reports raises a ghost of scholarship past, and one best left buried. Fifty years ago folklorists might have sympathised with such a notion. Even then patterns like shared myth or tale type were conceived as vague influences, outlines at best, and never floating checklists. The specificity of abduction reports demands no less, if we are to understand how narrators duplicate one another’s stories in so many aspects. A recurrent abduction story that combines shared myth and personal need is a chimera, a monster of instability. Personal needs drive the story away from unity, not toward it. If folklore is so amorphous that it obeys no discernible rules, how can we have a shared myth so static in its pattern, so efficacious in its influence on one narrator after another, that it bonds complex stories together and secures them against the howling forces of variation? Inquiring minds want to know.

Psychosocial theories differ considerably in specific contents, emphasising the psychological side or the sociocultural side to explain abduction narratives. Folklorists adopt this same approach when they explain narratives of extraordinary experience as ideas drawn from tradition, or false experience provoked by tradition-based expectations. Since folklorists have long excluded any other explanation, they deserve recognition as diligent and loyal psychosocial proponents in their own right. Only thanks to David Hufford’s studies of Old Hag tradition has the experience-based narrative re-entered the folklorist’s conceptual vocabulary. He establishes that exclusive reliance on psychosocial answers inadequately accounts for reports of extraordinary encounters.

Yes, our concepts of folklore might need to change even further. Folklore may be developing in ways hitherto unknown, and abduction reports may not behave like folklore as we know and love it. As a folklorist I can take an interest in abductions on the basis of this possibility alone. But if the psychosocial approach is right, these reports must act like creations of the human imagination, be driven by human motivations and derive from human creative processes. If so, these narratives cannot differ in their dynamics from other such creations, folk narratives amongst them. If experiences count for anything, then abduction reports should vary more than they do. To deny the findings of folklore scholarship in this evaluation is to deny experience, a great deal of it by many scholars after long years of enquiry, not into books but into the practice of narrators. On what else but experience can we base our conclusions? Discount it and then we know nothing about any narratives and all theories are worthless. We might as well bring back the mating hedgehogs and mix comic relief with our bemusement.

The psychosocial theorists who dismiss the experience of folklorists offer little in its place. A communal container for an expression of individual needs sounds like a reasonable description, but it leaves too many questions about how it stabilises the narrative. 

I have shown, one element at a time, that stability exists among a sizable sample of abductions reports, and folklorists have shown that variation is rife around narratives such as folk tales and urban legends. These conclusions are limited but demonstrable. From the psychosocial camp I hear many assertions but little proof. The claim that shared myth and personal need can coexist in narratives as stable as we observe runs counter to experience or intuition, yet we must accept this claim as self-evident. I can understand why “there are probably as many PS-hypotheses as there are PS-proponents.” A failure to provide convincing demonstrations for any hypothesis leaves them all unpersuasive. The psychosocial approach has more the characteristics of a faith than a serious effort to explain abductions by wrestling with the data and proposing step-by-step explanations. Those of us who prefer reason to revelation won’t bite.

The abduction phenomena is a genuine anomaly. Whether similar strange experiences provoke similar strange stories, or personal needs somehow motivate people to select the same few story elements out of all the possibilities available to them, the problem remains provocative. Blame aliens, something akin to the Old Hag, Kenneth Ring’s imaginal realm, Jacques Vallée’s control system, an unexpected property of narrative transmission, hedgehogs or anything else. Folklore scholarship certainly cannot pick the winner. It can only point out some probable losers.

Something more than narrative processes, shared myths, media influences, or investigators leading the witness seem necessary to explain the consistency of the narratives. On the other hand experience could hold a body of narratives together, and gets my vote pending any more persuasive alternative. I am presently cataloguing reports from 1986 to the present, and I will be anxious to see if the consistencies I found in the earlier sample hold up in the latter. I will also be interested to see how widespread the genuine differences, such as descriptions of the beings or evolving episodes like the baby presentation, prove to be. The answers will follow as a consequence of evidence, not as an article of faith.

Saving sinners is a bit out of my line; nevertheless, let me step out of character and end with an exhortation to psychosocial proponents, that they do their ideas justice. I object less to the ideas themselves than to their cavalier presentation. Speculative assertions and random examples cannot substitute for consistent arguments backed with convincing evidence, and with the exception of Martin Kottmeyer, psychosocial proponents seem to disdain both. I’m slow-witted. Show me step-by-step how your explanations work, and I’m perfectly willing to believe. As matters now stand, you have accumulated a huge explanatory debt, and like the U.S. budget, the weight of that debt threatens to sink you down the tubes of history unless your repent. There’s still time, brothers.

  

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.

 archway-bridge1

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]

 beachy

 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.

NOTES:

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.

 

 

 

 

Blue is the Colour: The Hypno-Show Controversy. Michael Goss

From Magonia 53, August 1995

“Y’know… Hypnotism is Not Just About People Making Fools Of Themselves On Stage,” confides the head-and-shoulders caricature, speaking word balloon-wise from the bottom right foreground of the “Biff Weekend” cartoon strip. “It’s Also About Flogging Videos.” (1)

Sure enough, there are the self-help home-hypnosis videos cascading down from the top of the frame like comic gifts from a benevolent Creator. But as far as many of us are concerned, hypnosis is not about them. It is about shows in which our conspecifics make fools (nay, prats) of themselves, with more than a little help, we’re led to believe, from a vibrant young man who is billed as a stage hypnotist. (Brief digression in acknowledgement of political correctness: I dare say there are also vibrant young women stage hypnotists, but they don’t seem to make the headlines. Again, my remark should not be construed as evidence of prejudice against vibrant, not-so-young stage hypnotists, though it’s true they don’t get on TV so often) (2) 

The aforementioned head-shoulders/bottom-right-foreground Biff caricature had a more than accidental resemblance to Paul McKenna. As purveyor of both self-improving home-hypnosis videos and a superior TV-friendly hypno show (reputedly watched by 12 million viewers each week) he has earned the tribute of being turned into a cartoon caricature. This isn’t a comment on his act, nor upon the man himself. What it means is that he’s so well known as to be instantly recognised even when reduced to cartoon character format. If Mr McKenna’s rise to celebrity and (also reputedly) astronomical wealth is unparalleled in the annals of TV history, it is mainly because he was the first to crack the televisual tabu against broadcasting shows such as his. In consequence he has become a household name. Another, more predictable consequence has been the swarm of stage hypnotists (vibrant, male, young or youngish) anxious to acquire some of what he’s got vis-a-vis the celebrity, the cash, the overall kudos. This is where the trouble starts, if it starts anywhere… 

The Hypnotic World of Paul McKenna is, as I just wrote, TV-friendly – which means it is tailored to be suitable for TV and specifically for peak-viewing times. What he makes his subjects get up to is seldom more than risqué; if you want something more “adult”, try Brookside. ‘Adult’ shows are what many of his would-be, yet-untelevised rivals earn their living from. When not billed as ‘comedy hypnotism’ (to distinguish it from ‘tragic hypnotism’, of course) their acts may be advertised by that very term: adult. Some titillate with by-lines like: “not for the easily outraged” – nudge-nudge, wink-wink… say no more. (3) Basically, these are acts that span the gulf between the sexually implicit and sexually explicit.  

Taking the susceptibility, amenability or even the collusion of volunteers for granted, the content of a hypnotic stage act may seem unpredictable: determined or limited, that is, only by the inventiveness of the performer (and perhaps what or how much he thinks he can get away with). In practice, it tends to be the very opposite – predictable or predictable within a little. As Paul McKenna once admitted, all the performer can present are variations upon certain well-known themes. Certain stunts with or without minor variations have become stereotyped ingredients of hypno-shows: The X-Ray Specs (where giant lens-less joke spectacles cause subjects to ‘see’ everyone about them in the nude), negative hallucination scenarios, the When You Wake Up You Will Be Elvis/Madonna/Michael Jackson, et cetera. (4) When it comes to sex routines, aficionados may expect the following: 

  • Being More Than just Good Friends with a Stranger: this has to be classed as potentially embarrassing for the subject(s) but otherwise innocuous. Even safe-as-milk TV shows may feature suggestions which have entranced volunteers cuddling or fondling one another, unscreened variations may involve more vigorous gropings, fumblings, kissing. As the wily hypnotist may word the suggestion so that the focus of each subject’s amorousness is the person beside them – and as that person may belong to the same sex – this shades over into:
  • Homoerotic Behaviour: again, TV performers may engage in modified versions of this, male is told to stroke another’s knee… and so forth. (For maximum effect, pick two macho types for this experiment. Oh, won’t they look disgusted at themselves and each other when you snap ‘em out of it?!) The macho-man is also useful for: 
  • Cross-Dressing: the subject is handed female attire (the saucier the better) and puts it on in the hypnotically inspired belief he’s getting into his own clothes. Illustrative example: one recently reported show ended with “a tattooed trawlerman” in fishnet tights and Basque; for good measure he was told to respond to a musical cue by leaping into the air with a cry of, “I believe in fairies”. (5) .The direct opposite to having subjects dress in specially provided and uproariously inappropriate clothes is to have them take off their own, hence:
  • The Striptease: this, as far as I’m aware, is not judged suitable for television although mostly restricted to (a) male subjects only who even then (b) strip down to their underpants only and (c) usually as a finale to the show. (Perhaps once you have reduced a bunch of guys to their underwear, the audience won’t expect you to cap that achievement. There again, they might hope you’ll try.) In some venues, however, the strip may continue and become absolute, witness the reported comment of one subject’s embarrassed girlfriend: “You saw everything when Jack took his clothes off.” (6) A kind of sexual-discriminatory code operates to protect female subjects from exposing themselves in the same way or to the same extent. Still, under the ever-popular hypno-illusion they are the World’s Greatest Stripper, they may lose all except bra/pants and some reports speak of women going topless. (7) Arguably and assuming he could find a subject who would comply, a hypnotist who went beyond these sartorial confines would be risking more than a few cancelled bookings. However, he could always fall back on good old:
  • Simulated Sex: most definitely not suitable for TV as we know it today and an easy target for journalists composing one of the “sick sex hypno show” pieces in which this article of mine is interested. Subjects engage in what critics of 1920s Negro dance styles referred to as ‘dry screwing’ with a variety of unlikely objects, in which cuddly toys frequently figure. In one case summarised by Magonia, the female victim thought she was enjoying the services of Patrick Swayze when in fact what she was enjoying was whatever services you can expect from an inflatable doll when you haven’t taken your clothes off. (8) On the same (low) level is:
  • Oral Sex: well, not really, but the female subject who thinks she is sucking at a lolly/ice cream is actually gobbling away at a vibrator. (9)

Before the atmosphere steams up completely, a few things ought to be conceded. These reports all come from papers consciously, industriously and mayhap deviously constructing “sick sex porno-hypno show” articles. This may not disbar them as evidence, but it should be taken into account. More important are the non-hypnotic suggestions of those who claim that hypnosis has little if anything to do with anything that the subjects do (or did … or are alleged to have done). Their argument would be that nothing occurred here that might not have occurred without hypnosis. Also, there is a difference between acted-as-if (simulated) acts and actual, for-real (performed) acts. Even agreeing that some hypno-shows may include volunteers who are capable of gross exhibitionism, people who don’t need to be hypnotised to perform in a “hypnotic” manner – admitting also that for them hypnosis may be a fair excuse for behaving irresponsibly and coarsely – I would still question a too-general application of this hypothesis. 

Let’s leave that difficult question for the moment. The published evidence affirms that certain stage hypnotists spice up their acts with routines which are sexually implicit or explicit.

In most cases, the sexuality remains a hint. The hypnotist implies he can make his subjects do anything (‘sexual things’) but is careful not to risk putting that notion to the test. This is a sort of verbal lubricity, the audience being invited to think that if the performer can get his volunteers to behave as outrageously as they are seen to do then he could also get them to do a lot more outrageous (‘sexual’) things besides. Such appears to have been the ploy utilised by the hypnotist re-christened by the Sun of 12 January 1994 ‘Watt Sleaze’. His opening address to the audience implied he was willing to live up to such a soubriquet, holding out the promise that anyone who took part might have their greatest sexual fantasies realised. “If you want a sex orgy”, the headline quotes him as announcing, “well shut the doors and start right away.” (10) Disappointingly from the reporter’s point of view, perhaps, nothing in the act that followed came close to the orgiastic. The performer merely pointed the audience’s collective imagination in one direction and then headed off in another.

Elsewhere, though, stage hypnotists appear to sell the idea of their power over the subjects by frankly sex-orientated routines. It is hard to think otherwise about a recent Sunday Mirror report of an ‘adult’ show staged by Alex Tsander in which we are told of women instructed to think they were having sex on a train, copulating with a pink toy elephant (not that the colour makes much difference), having the biggest orgasm of their lives and licking the hypnotist’s boots every time he cued them with the word, “Grovel”. (11)

It was, in the opinion of Dr Sue Blackmore who accompanied the reporters, “a tawdry display of manipulation”, wherein the hypnotist “exploited his power for too long… Many of the tricks seemed designed for his own gratification”, and were “more like humiliation than entertainment”. Then we have the delightful scene in which, by way of a change, the hypnotist became the one to suffer from an induced suggestion. Under the spell of thinking that he was negotiating a future booking, he handed the undercover reporters “a sick album of snaps of his past stunts at pubs, clubs and private parties”, encouraging them with the promise that if hired, “I can make it as blue as you like”. 

mesmerism

Ever since the days of the animal magnetists, stage hypnosis has passed through cycles of popularity. Each has been accompanied by recriminations and accusations of harm to volunteer-victims.

There is a possibility that the performer thought he had to sell himself – thought that his supposed customers wanted it blue and wouldn’t book him unless he could prove that, as in the Chelsea FC song, Blue is the Colour. What the future holds for acts like his, though, may bring blues of the old-fashioned sort. 

Ever since the days of the animal magnetists, stage hypnosis has passed through cycles of popularity. Each has been accompanied by recriminations and accusations of harm to volunteer-victims. Currently we are seeing the latest and greatest manifestation of this two-way process, with reports of traumas, severe mental disturbances and emotional as well as occasional physical harm done to subjects. (12)

There is no point in pretending this is a non-issue. There is no point in pretending that hypno-act volunteers deserve whatever they get purely because they are volunteers and have therefore exposed themselves to avoidable risks. There is no point in pretending there are no risks or that all the reported cases of harm, physical and emotional, are fabrications. things have started to go wrong. 

 A name of someone for whom it went wrong, allegedly – a name which crops up like a memento mori whenever the press engage in another minatory treatment of stage hypnosis – is that of the late Sharron Tabarn. Her obituary reads: age 24, mother of two – volunteered as subject in unlicensed pub hypno-show at Leyland, Lancashire; instructed by hypnotist that she would awaken from her trance as if 10,000 volts had passed through her (or words to that effect). Found dead in bed five hours later. Coroner’s verdict: epileptic seizure, death by natural causes.

I have been working quite hard to avoid saying that Sharron Tabarn died as a result of that hypnotic suggestion. I feel safe in saying that something of that kind was implied, however, since practically every account I have seen of the case has already done so. Mrs Tabarn’s mother, Margaret Harper, went further than that. Pointing out that her daughter hadn’t suffered a seizure before, she was quoted as stating that “Hypnosis brought on her fit”. Mrs Harper went on to launch the Campaign Against Stage Hypnosis, an organisation which has become increasingly prominent as the newspaper coverage of the hypno-show controversy progresses. This, of course, owes much to the way journalists target useful, quotable persons and organisations when researching their material – persons to whom they can say, “What is your reaction?” and get a usable, quotable reply. (We often get the feeling that the interviewer has a better-than-vague idea of the answer before the question is asked; also that the person concerned has been chosen to respond to that question because the interviewer already has a better-than-vague idea of what the answer will be.) Another obvious source for “reaction quotes” on hypno-shows, was, of course, Paul McKenna. Towards the proposal to implement a ban on stage performances he was, unsurprisingly, not sympathetic, even when reporters laid the fact of the Tabarn case in front of him. “It’s like saying that because only one restaurant is responsible for food poisoning, all restaurants should be banned.” (13)

Mr McKenna’s opinion was sought again in November 1994 when an out-of-court settlement made 25-year-old Ann Hazard about £20,000 richer, though most would agree it was a poor return for what happened after she’d volunteered as a subject during a stage hypnosis show at Glasgow’s Pavilion Theatre some six years before. (14) At one point in the performance, Mrs Hazard asked hypnotist Robert Halpern if she could use the lavatory and was allegedly told to go by the quickest route or exit. (15) Hypnotised subjects sometimes respond with dreadful over-literalness to suggestions. It appears that in Mrs Hazard’s case taking the ‘quickest exit’ involved jumping off the four-foot stage, whereupon she broke her leg in two places. 

Unable to follow her sports interests, given over to moods of irritability and to nightmares, she decided to take legal action. This was not without precedent. In March 1952 a 23-year-old shop assistant named Diana Rains-Bath had brought an action for negligence and assault against a stage hypnotist and had won damages, though the sum eventually awarded to her wasn’t the sort that anyone could retire on. (16) As already mentioned, the Hazard affair ended in an out-of-court settlement – and also a press conference and more calls for a ban on stage hypnosis. Glasgow Council had already pre-empted this, vetoing such displays in all halls and theatres under its jurisdiction. More significantly, the case strongly implied that in future stage hypnotists might be held liable for any proven harm incurred by folk who took part in their acts.

By now it was evident that some newspapers were on the lookout for scandalous, if possible lubricious hypno-stories, inviting readers to contact them at once with personal anecdotes of “life-changing” experiences at stage shows. Typically, these invitations were appended to articles critical of hypnotic entertainments in tone if not in direct statement and it was understood that when they talked about “life-changing” experiences, they meant ones which had changed somebody’s life for the worse.

When challenged by the media on the subject, stage hypnotists have an endearing way of agreeing that there are rascals who ignore local licensing requirements and guidelines, the 1952 Hypnotism Act and much else besides. They freely admit there are a few who get volunteers to perform unsuitable and sometimes dangerous stunts. But of course, the interviewee scrupulously declares that he is not one of the reprehensible band. So far, one of the few stage hypnotists who might say that and be believed was also the best known, Paul McKenna.

Ignoring a few less-than-mesmerised TV pundits, the press had always been good to Paul McKenna. Most found him an ideal subject for cosy ‘human interest’ articles. In the best tradition of celebrity journalism, we heard all about his Kensington flat, his days as a disc jockey, his girlfriend (how he proposed to her – and where); even the man who made his waistcoats came in for a mention. (17) Interest in TV’s latest star was sustained between the end of his first series and the start of the next (autumn 1994) by carefully timed articles of this homely kind. On 1 July 1994 a Sun ‘exclusive’ by Peter Willis announced that McKenna had just clinched a £2.5 million, two-year deal with ITV (designed, it was said, to prevent his defection to the BBC) which would enable him to branch out – “hypnotism will take a back seat for now as he concentrates on more widely ranging family shows”. (Of these, we’ve seen no sign so far.) October brought another Sun ‘exclusive’ revealing that he was holding secret hypnotherapy sessions to combat the Duchess of York’s stress and also her recurring weight problem. (18) In all this time, no hint of scandal. As we’ve seen, McKenna’s only contact with anything resembling it took the form of well-considered ‘reaction quotes’ arising from other folks’ alleged misfortunes or misdemeanours. Writing about him in Fortean Times that same year, I remarked on the odd fact that there’d been so few complaints about him. That disguised the truth, which was that I hadn’t heard of any at all. (19)

Making such a statement probably brought down a curse on me, on Paul McKenna or upon both of us. With his second Carlton TV series at the end of its Monday night run, the dailies for 14 December 1994 named him in the context of what sounded a notably serious hypno-scandal which took on added significance from the coinciding announcement of a governmental decision to review the rules relating to stage hypnosis performances.

Chris Gates (aged 26) had allegedly been transformed from a robust fishing and martial arts enthusiast to someone with the mental state of an eight-year-old after having taken part in a McKenna show at High Wycombe the previous March. Acting and presumably believing he was only eight, the sufferer couldn’t be expected to furnish the press with much information on the matter, but his girlfriend could and did. On stage, Mr Gates had responded to instructions to become a ballerina; he had taken part in one of the most popular seen-on-TV McKenna routines, a spoof version of “Blind Date”. But according to his girlfriend, he had also been left unattended in a ‘regressive’ state throughout the show’s interval and thereafter suffered a noticeable psychiatric deterioration. He complained of headaches – of being scared of God – of someone controlling his thoughts – of voices in his head. He refused to wash his hair or to hang clothes in his wardrobe for reasons plainly outside the realms of rationality. Hospitalised at last for (it was said) acute schizophrenia, Mr Gates was described today as, to all intents, an eight-year-old needing adult supervision and whiling away his time with puzzle-books. (20)

Solicited for ‘reaction quotes’ yet again (but under somewhat less positive circumstances than usual) Mr McKenna denied ever having used regression techniques on stage. He also pointed out, quite legitimately, that Mr Gates’s mental troubles might have surfaced even had he not taken part in the High Wycombe show: “He ‘blames hypnotism’” ran one attributed remark, “but there was never any evidence to prove that.” Evidence notwithstanding, the implied relationship between the two events – between Mr Gates taking part in the hypno-show and the onset of his mental disturbances – seemed suspiciously causal. This was heightened, arguably, by a Charing Cross Hospital consultant psychiatrist’s opinion that the “emotional impact” of the trance may have triggered the subsequent breakdown.

There was an element of glee in some quarters that at last someone had “got something on McKenna”. (Too brash, you see – too self-satisfied. Too successful.) His figurehead role in his profession – and let’s remind ourselves that the public has come to identify Paul McKenna with stage hypnosis and vice versa – gave the allegations immense weight as regards the campaign to ban such shows. How this episode will affect his career as a mass-entertainment celebrity remains to be seen. At the time of writing (February 1995) we are waiting for news of the Government’s assessment of the rules regulating hypno-shows. It seems likely that changes will be introduced; the future for the McKenna wannabees isn’t bright and the Man himself may have to make a few revisions to his act. The question, as always, comes down to whether new laws need to be implemented or whether existing ones could be more effective if they were more vigorously enforced.

For instance and limiting discussion to ‘sick sex hypno-porno shows’ – aren’t these events already covered by existing laws? I confess to being quite confused by all this. What follows are a few random and quite likely refutable thoughts on the topic.

Suppose for a moment that the Hazard case had been settled in court instead of outside one. Suppose also that the verdict had been the same, that is, in favour of the complainant. (As it might have been: the Rains-Bath case could provide a valid precedent, showing as it does that injured subjects can win damages from a hypnotist.) Since it appears that hypnotists can be held liable for actions performed by their subjects against their own safety or against their own interests, could the latter be construed to encompass sexual acts carried out as per hypnotic instigation which the subject retrospectively felt were damaging to his/her emotional health or social status? If so, might a woman pointed out in the streets of her home town as someone who’d publicly simulated sex with a fluffy pink elephant sue on grounds of emotional harm or similar?

I suppose she would have to show that, in a normal state of consciousness sans the specific hypnotic instruction, she would not have simulated sex with said fluffy elephant. That connects with one of the most recalcitrant questions concerning hypnosis: can or can not a person be made to carry out acts other than what would or might be performed in his/her normal state of consciousness? Again, the act of volunteering to be hypnotised might be taken as consent to the act – unless (in a form of diminished responsibility plea) the subject counter-argued that she consented only to the act of being hypnotised, not to the act which came out of it, responsibility for which is down to the suggester, the hypnotist.

So the volunteer-subject argues that she did not know what being hypnotised would lead her into. Might it not be shown that the act of attending an ‘adult’ show and of volunteering to take part in it was tantamount to prior awareness? That anybody attending such a show would have some inkling of the things she might be involved in as a result of volunteering, so that in effect the subject acquiesced in a process which carried a strong possibility of emotional distress?

The Hypnotism Act 1952 clearly states that a licence is required from the local authorities controlling other forms of entertainment before an exhibition, demonstration or performance of hypnosis can take place. (21) Prosecutions arising from contravention of this or other parts of the Act seem rare. Licensing authorities vary in their willingness to think hard before granting hypno-show authorisation; Westminster Council is said to be diligent about examining the content of each performers act but others appear to be less bothered. It has been suggested that not all performers and/or promoters are aware of the need to obtain such a licence and that some quietly ignore it; the Leyland (Lancashire) show in which Sharron Tabarn took part was described in at least one press report as “unlicensed”.

All this may be incidental, beyond indicating that stage hypnosis is regulated under existing entertainment licensing laws. Other laws, notably those regarding public decency, govern what may be staged in places to which the public are admitted. I’ve been talking about suggested actions of a sexual nature; this, after all, is what press coverage of “sick sex hypno shows” presents as one of the chiefest causes for concern. Are these shows not covered by those laws? Realistically, perhaps, those laws may be unenforceable. They may be too expensive in terms of legal costs to be enforced. Many pub striptease acts play fast and loose with the laws of pornography, for example; the offenders could be prosecuted but (unless someone complains strenuously) they seldom are. The same might apply to some stage hypnosis shows.

In any event, all these finicky little problems go away if we follow a particular trend in current thinking about hypnosis, namely that hypnosis doesn’t really exist. A few paragraphs back, I slipped in the phrase, ‘normal state of consciousness‘, the understanding being that the hypnotic state is not normal, but ‘altered’ or somehow ‘different‘. The school of thought just alluded to proposes that it isn’t. “Hypnosis may stand as a term of convenience, but it is not a genuinely distinct state. You may even consider it to be a “cultural invention … a fantasy, like the belief that you are possessed by the devil”. So says Dr Graham Wagstaff of Liverpool University in an interview with a rather unconvinced Peter Hillmore (22)
Dr Wagstaff is not the first researcher to suggest that ‘hypnosis’ is an invention (and perhaps an unnecessary one); the experimental work of Theodore X. Barber in the 1960s aroused considerable discussion as to the extent to which the phenomena put forward to establish the discrete character of the hypnotic state could be duplicated, even simulated, by non-hypnotised persons.
(23)
But it is Dr Wagstaff who has emerged as a leading proponent of the idea that we may not need to consider hypnosis as anything more than a spurious name for a collection of psychological mechanisms, not as an authentic or unique condition. Speaking in an edition of Equinox just before Christmas 1994, he went as far as to say that before too long the word would have dropped out of usage and the concept itself out of sight. Along with it, presumably, would go any notion of prosecutions or regulations to do with hypnosis. You can’t prosecute and don’t need to regulate what does not exist.

So hypnosis does not exist – the stage volunteers aren’t hypnotised – the routines they perform are not “hypnotic”. If there is no concession to the idea that “hypnotic suggestions” are carried out in a state other than normal, surely any indecent act performed is punishable, the offender blatantly transgressing the “Indecency Laws” and without any extenuating excuse, such as the averral that they would not have performed that act in a “normal state”?

Equinox: The Big Sleep was a good programme, if you ignored the unhappy attempt to capitalise on the title by staging it as a Chandler PI case complete with sardonic Marlowesque voice-over. Dr Wagstaff was one of the best things on it, especially in a segment where he replicated a number of ‘characteristic’ or ‘typical’ hypnotic stunts with a man who was not hypnotised. (He freely confirmed that he wasn’t. Ah, but perhaps he’d been hypnotised to say that. Ah, but Dr Wagstaff affirmed that he hadn’t.) The biggest obstacle to his propositions gaining more attention is that most of us persist in wanting to believe that hypnosis is a genuinely unique state. Stage performers owe their living to that attitude. We get a buzz out of supposing that subjects do what they do because of hypnosis, even if sometimes we harbour a few suspicions that they may only be ‘acting’ or ‘pretending’ to be hypnotised. 

The Big Sleep also had Dr Wagstaff at a Blackpool hypno-show and interviewing some of the people who’d taken part as volunteers in it. Since hypnosis doesn’t exist, evidently, it follows that people can’t be hypnotised – so what had caused them to do all the crazy things they did? Compliance … task motivation … et cetera. Dr Wagstaff went over this when he talked to Peter Hillmore, making the point that TV shows like The Generation Game prove “many people are more than happy to make fools of themselves to please the compere”. Does this mean that Bruce Forsyth is really a hypnotist? Is Paul McKenna really Bruce Forsyth? While you’re about it, savour the televisual irony that one of the more amusing routines in the last series of ‘he Hypnotic World of Paul McKenna’was a spoof version of… The Generation Game’.

But then Peter Hillmore came back with what sounds a nice objection pointing towards a distinction. In The Generation Game contestants know what they are doing is making them look ridiculous; they laugh at themselves as they do it. In hypno-shows you rarely see participants laugh at themselves. The laughter is directed at them and they often appear confused by it. Or as Mr Hillmore wrote, the volunteers “continue with their absurd actions in spite of the laughter, not because of it”. (24) 

One more thing: as the audience, we are doing the laughing – not merely condoning the act, but encouraging it. If we’re worried about hypno-shows, we ought to remember that we aren’t forced (or hypnotised) to watch them. There is evidence that audiences, familiarised through what they have seen on TV or elsewhere, expect to be shown certain tricks like the now cliched “X-Ray Specs” routine. ‘All Your Favourites’, promised a poster for a hypno-show in Thurrock recently – implying that we not only knew all about hypnotists’ routines, but have connoisseurs’ preferences among them. Performers sometimes admit to feeling the pressure of their public’s expectations. “Audiences love it”, said Andrew Newton of his men-stripped-to-underpants trick. “When I used to do late-night spots in Liverpool, they used practically to demand it.” (25) And there are some venues where the audience demand tricks more audacious than that. Outside TV’s enchanted circle, more overt sexual stunts may become standard items. People want to see them and they aren’t happy if they don’t. The hypnotist who doesn’t oblige, the hypnotist who doesn’t come up with the simulated sex routines, risks being the hypnotist who doesn’t get many bookings.

Is there a case for redefining where the responsibility for what goes on at ‘hypno-porno’ shows lies? Is there a need for new laws to control what goes on or might go on at these shows? Is this all a waste of time, because hypnosis doesn’t exist?

Is there a lawyer in the house

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

NOTES: 

1. Guardian Week-end supplement, 11 Feb. 1995, p. 6 

2. Female stage hypnotists do not appear to have been over-prevalent at any period in entertainment history. In Mystic London (1875) the Rev. Charles Maurice Davies writes of seeing a Miss Chandos, “a very pretty young lady indeed, of not more than 18 or 20 years of age” with “a Mystic crop of long black curls, which waved about like the locks of a sibyl” and his phraseology suggests there were others who, like her, bid for popularity on the mesmeric public-lecture circuit at this time. Miss Chandos evidently made adroit use of her girlish charm: “When she asked for volunteers I thought the room had risen on masse”, wrote Davies (slightly miffed that he was too far back from the stage to get a go). “Everybody wanted to be mesmerised.” Perhaps the best-known and most successful female stage performer is or was Pat Collins, who enjoyed Hollywood modishness in the early 1960s and capped it with a cameo role in Divorce American Style (where she hypnotises Debbie Reynolds, of all people). 

3. “Not for the easily outraged”: as mentioned in ‘The Human Zoo’ columnist Jon Ronson’s “It’s a trance of a lifetime” (Guardian Weekend, 31 Dec. 1994) which followed an evening at FiFi’s Palace of Dance near Dudley with rubber-clad stage hypnotist Alexxx. 

4. The X-Ray Specs routine was popularised (if not actually invented) by the American George Kreskin. Practically all stage hypnotists currently performing have incorporated it into their acts. Negative hallucinations are ones which prevent the subject from seeing (or appearing to see) any object which the hypnotist designates as invisible, e.g. as where the performer suggests that he himself or some other person will be invisible to the subject. A good way to create the illusion of things moving psycho-kinetically.

5. “Lads Strip for Gay Bathtime” (Sun, 11 Jan. 1994, pp 22-23). This was part of that paper’s three part end amazingly sexsational exposé of stage hypnosis.

6. David Jack, “How hypnotist made my man strip naked for sick sex show …as shocked crowd watched” (Sunday People, 1 May 1994, pp 10-11). Ah, but how many of them walked out? Among the other alleged hypnotic indiscretions of this subject was a confession that he wished his girlfriend would get on top more often and “do more of the work”

7. Until comparatively recently (in most venues, at least) the World’s Greatest Stripper involved female subjects in no-thing more outrageous than mimicking a bump and grind routine, the hypnotist specifying “… but you will not take off your clothes”. (This was traditionally accompanied by a knowing took that told the audience that unless he’d said that, the subject certainly would have taken off her clothes.) In an interesting but questionable incident at the Wallasey nightclub Tramps in 1980, two females instructed to dance to that old favourite “The Stripper” were said to have ignored the hypnotist’s injunction and actually went much further than many professional striptease artistes and had to be hustled off stage (“The Stripnotist”, Sun, 23 June 1980, p. 11). The fact the volunteers were both go-go dancers may or may not have some bearing on these events. Ironically, the hypnotist reported here as distraught (“It was awful… I just want to forget all about it.”) and as taking a pride in having a “family” act was Les Power – a name which featured in the same paper’s “sick sex hypno show” series of Jan. 1994.

8. As reported by John Rimmer (Magonia 51, Feb. 1995, p. 20), taken from the Sunday People, 24 Dec. 1994. (interesting sexological point: can an inflatable doll ever be used for anything other than simulated sex?)

9. Allegedly featured (and condemned, of course) in the Alex Le Roy act described by Chris Blythe in the Sun’s “Dirty Trancing”, 10 Jan. 1994. Mr Le Roy’s tete-a-tete with the reporter elicited much boasting of sexual conquests accredited to hypnosis. By contrast, Andrew Newton’s with Gary Bushel) for the Sun ‘s TV Super Guide (no date, late 1994?) produced the complaint that “The pubs are full of third-rate hypnotists ripping off my act” and also the threat of taking Paul McKenna to court for pirating his ideas. However, it also included a cautionary tale of an unnamed hypnotist whose typically unprofessional act included the vibrator/oral sex stunt.

10. This was the last of the three-part Sun expose cited in Note 5 above.

11. “Hypno show began as fun but it ended in sex shame”, by Hilary Knowles and David Rowe, Sunday Mirror, 18 Dec. 1994, pp 14-15.

12. Since at least 1983 several newspapers have quoted Dr Prem Misra, a psychotherapist who to some extent specialises in treating the negative after-effects of stage hypnosis performances. See, for example, Anthony Howard’s ‘Blunder the Spell!’ (Daily Mirror, 2 March 1994, p. 3) where Dr Misra was said to have handled sixteen ‘severely disturbed cases’ among hypno-show volunteers. This article was published just prior to Dr Misra’s appearance on BBC1′s Here and Now programme in which the dangers of such shows provided the theme.

13. Daily Mirror, 29 March 1994, “The show must go on says McKenna”; cf. “Paul: Stage Ban is Unfair”, by Caroline Sutton, 2 April 1994 – possibly the Sun

14. Many national papers for 4 November 1994 carried reports on this case; my summary uses material from the Guardian, Daily Mirror and Sun of that date.

15. The career of Robert Halpern, perhaps the most oft-publicised Scottish stage hypnotist, has provided the theme for numerous press reports, including some which make him sound worthy of the cliché ‘no stranger to controversy’. It appears a matter of fact that his shows revived the declining fortunes of Glasgow’s Pavilion Theatre; in its 4 September 1980. issue The Stage & Television Today (p. 3) credited him with achieving 95% capacity audiences in the 1400-seater venue over the traditionally dead summer season. Occasionally criticised by older members of his own profession but something of a folk-hero amongst younger Glaswegians, Mr Halpern suffered from a general concern over possible bad after-effects among hypno-show volunteers (News of the World, 24 April 1983, p. 3) and more recently a series of eight scheduled London performances was terminated after just three shows when Westminster City Council reacted to alleged complaints of sexual innuendo, etc. (Sunday Scot, 26 May 1991.)

16. In March 1952 at Sussex Assizes, shop assistant Diana Rains-Bath sought damages for negligence, breach of contract and assault from American stage hypnotist Ralph Slater relating to her participation as a volunteer in one of his Brighton Hippodrome performances in 1948. It was alleged that during the show Slater had jerked her head sharply and painfully forward (presumably to rehypnotise her – Miss Rains-Bath had spontaneously slipped out of trance at the time) and had also forgotten to cancel the successful suggestion that she was a baby crying for its mother. Miss Rains-Bath was subsequently treated for depression and anxiety neurosis by Dr J S Van Pelt of the British Society of Medical Hypnotists who, it transpired, was mounting a campaign against stage performers. This was one detail emergent from the lively exchange between the doctor and Mr Slater, who took over the conduct of his own defence when his counsel withdrew, being unable to concur with the direction in which Slater wished the defence to proceed. Miss Rains-Bath was initially awarded £1,000 damages on the negligence plea, £107 special damages and £25 for assault. However, in July 1952 a Court of Appeal overturned the negligence plea award, allowing only that for damages to stand and in December that same year it was announced that Miss Rains-Bath had dropped the special damages claim. The case is believed to have been a factor in the passing of the 1952 Hypnotism Act which received the Royal Assent on 1 August that year and became operative on 1 April 1953. Most national dailies carried reports of the hearing; this summary is compiled from those in The Times, 1, 12, 14, 21, 25 and 27 March, 20 July and 13 December 1952.

17. “Star Paul Casts A Spell On His Friends” (People Magazine, 21 November 1993, pp 12-13) was composed almost entirely of snap-quotes from persons close to Paul McKenna professionally or socially. In case you were worried about it, the tailor of the McKenna waistcoats at this period in his life was Tom Gilbey.

18. Sun, 20 October 1994, pp.26-27. If we believe the reports of certain papers (which a lot of us don’t) this was not the Duchess of York’s first experiment with hypnotherapeutic weight-loss. Claims of similar ‘secret treatments’ (though not with Mr McKenna) were made in November 1986 – and subsequently denied. Come to think, I haven’t seen any actual confirmation of these more recent (Sun) claims, either.

19. ‘The Hipster of Hypnosis‘, Fortean Times, 74, April/May 1994, p. 53.

20. This summary includes Pascoe Watson’s ‘McKenna’s Trance Left My Boyfriend Like A Child’ (Star, 14 December 1994, p. 11) and – more detailed, if only because there were more pages – ‘My Man Became A Child After McKenna Hypno Act‘, by Roger Kasper and John Chapman (News of the World, 18 Dec. 1994, pp. 13-15)

21. Clause 1 (1) states that “any authority in an area empowered to grant licences for the regulation of places kept or ordinarily used for public dancing, singing, music or other public entertainments of the like kind” shall also have the power “to attach conditions regulating or prohibiting the giving of an exhibition, demonstration or performance of hypnotism on any person at the place to which the licence relates”.

22. ‘Peter Hillmore’s Notebook‘, The Observer, 29 January 1995, p. 25

23. Theodore X Barber, Hypnosis: A Scientific Approach. New York, Van Nostrand, 1969. In his first chapter of Hypnosis for the Seriously Curious, (New York and London, W W Norton, 1976, paperback edition, 1983) Kenneth S Bowers provides a review of the evidence that hypnotic behaviour can (in his words) be faked.

24. Cf the remark from Dr Prem Misra (note 12, above): “The fun is always at the expense of the individual.” I think it may be legitimate to point out that when interviewed in the wake of their hypno-performances the majority of volunteers affirm that they enjoyed the experience, even if they are now aware of having made themselves look a trifle foolish.

25. Roger Tedre, ‘Hypnotism takes the country by trance‘, The Observer, 6 November 1994, p. 13. Andrew Newton was perhaps the first of the ‘younger generation’ of stage hypnotists to attract national publicity. Apart from the success of his late-night Liverpudlian shows (see main text) he managed to obtain a licence that enabled him to become the first hypnotist to perform on a central London stage in 35 years (“All eyes on the hypnotists seeking West End fame”, The Observer, 16 January 1987) and ushered in the TV boom from which Paul McKenna benefited greatly with a one-hour, one-off ITV programme in December 1993. He now has his own series on Sky TV.

Variation Enigmas; Folklore Rules. Thomas Bullard & Hilary Evans

In Magonia 41, November 1991 American folklorist Thomas (Eddie) Bullard questioned earlier suggestions that the level of  ‘variation’ in abduction reports was not of great significance. He felt that there was a limit to the variations between dufferent reports and this led to the suggestion that there was an objective source behind them. 


Variation Enigmas, by Thomas Bullard

Dennis Stillings writes (Magonia 39) that “concerns about variation … seem to me to have only peripheral significance when dealing with abduction accounts.” He adds that variation has no bearing on the central meaning of folklore, while personal, social and cultural modifications are irrelevant to the underlying experience. He objects that I have taken both variation and lack of variation in abduction reports to support a case for genuine aliens. I regret that my remarks have been vague and confusing, because I consider the issue of variation has a great deal to do with our understanding of abduction reports. Let me try to explain again why:

Stillings says “it is the mysterious central meaning or experience that we are trying to get to”, and here we agree. Only the professional sceptics know what abductions are a priori, the rest of us have to rely on evidence. Most abduction evidence is anecdotal, the claim narrated by an alleged eyewitness. We outsiders have to evaluate that claim and decide if it is truth, fiction, fantasy, lie, error, or some mixture of these possibilities.

A test for authenticity often comes down to comparisons: is the abduction story unique, or suspiciously uniqueness-starved?

Martin Kottmeyer has demonstrated that science fiction parallels abduction on many counts. Other writers have demonstrated the likeness of these reports to folklore, religion and mythology. For example, the pattern of shamanic initiation experience compares step-by-step with abductions: The candidate separates from his usual environment (missing time), suffers symbolic death and rebirth at the hands of powerful unfriendly beings (examination by aliens), gains knowledge and powers from friendly beings (implant, conference), and returns with a magical vocation (psychic powers and a mission). An abduction story that is too much like cultural influences or psychological patterns more probably represents a fantasy based on those sources than a record of genuine alien kidnap.

Case closed and game over? Not quite. If abduction stories can be traced to the patterns and motifs of other stories, or to the psychological underpinning of all stories, these very ties identify abductions as folklore, pure and simple. There is no escape. As long as abduction reports are psycho-social phenomena such as fantasies, lies, errors, or whatever, with a basis in borrowed form and content, these stories share a likeness in kind with other folklore and should obey its rules.

Where folklorists’ methodologies apply, so must their cautions. Over 150 years of experience has made clear to folklorists how easy it is to misuse comparison, and they are no longer eager to charge into a search for origins or deep meanings on the basis of appearances alone. The same pattern of shamanic initiation is also broad enough to cover the student who leaves home for college, dies to old friends and gains new, loses cherished beliefs and learns higher truths from professors intimidating or nurturing, then emerges with a head full of implanted knowledge ready for a new life. No one would conclude that the college student is a fantasy because the initiation pattern fits, but many people would condemn abductions on no better evidence. Now, that’s cheating. We all know beforehand that college students exist, whereas abductions are very much in question and cannot be denied by such double standards for evidence. 

Demonstration of the similarity of abduction to folklore in terms of form and content is necessary but far from sufficient to prove a relationship. If abductions are folklore, in the full sense of narratives based on other narratives or composed from belief, then abduction reports should act like other folk narratives. Herein lies the significance of variation. Folk narratives vary with exuberance, they adapt not only to locale and narrator, but interchange parts until every imaginable permutation of content appears in circulation. Whole new cycles of a given story evolve, with the pattern adapting different content, or the same content outfitting a different story framework. This rapid and vigorous change is the nature of real folklore. Too many people are unaware of this central property of folk narratives, since most people are still victims of the ‘storybook fallacy’ – the misconception that the printed text of the narrative is the only ‘right’ version. Nothing could be further from the truth. That printed text represents the work of the folkloric taxidermist, who stuffs the narrative as it lived for one moment only and shoves a stale carcass in the reader’s face as if to say here is the alpha and the omega, the narrative as it was, is and will be.

Abductions contrast with the expected course of folk narratives by remaining relatively constant from narrator to narrator over decades. Yes, the stories differ here and there. The aliens are not always dwarf greys, or the ships of similar design, or the narratives of equal length. Yet these loosely constructed, complex and bizarre stories have potential for florid variation if they are indeed fantasies feeding off cultural influences. The media have taught us many possible space adventures: the episodes and the events of abductions could change places without harm to the story. It should change all the more if the narrators are gifted fantasizers. Instead, these people curb their imaginations and stay within narrow bounds, never realising the potential of their subject matter, seldom even forgetting or fumbling the narration as most ordinary storytellers do. Abduction reports violate the folklorists’ expectations even when such extenuating circumstances at hypnosis and media influence are taken into account.

The dramatic pattern common to many folk narratives would be served just as well with different content in the same dramatic roles, so this pattern cannot account for the peculiar stability of the reports. Something is clearly peculiar here.

Similarities are important in science, but so are differences. Anomalies signal that something is wrong with our conceptual paradigm, and abduction reports flash that signal to the folklorist by their stability. What I expect is variation; what I see is the opposite. Here at last is some unambiguous evidence. It tells me that these reports do not act like folklore. That may not sound like much of an answer, certainly not the answer I want, but I can hold on to it with confidence.

I too would like to reach into the heart of the mystery and know its meaning, but I must approach by steps and not by leaps. This step does not answer the question of meaning or the nature of the experience, but evidence must come before meaning, and at least now I know something important about the nature of the evidence available to me.

I know that abduction reports do not act like normal folk narratives. This finding weighs against the hypothesis that these reports are psychosocial products in the same class as other folklore. On the other hand, if abduction reports begin in experience and reflect a common experience with some accuracy, then the stability makes sense. So does a degree of difference. Two people seldom describe the same experience in exactly the same way, and abduction reports would only mystify us further if narrators broke this rule too. A modicum of variation reassures us on that account. This is what I mean by some variation being proper for real experience, but the more striking fact is that great potential for change goes unrealized. The narrow variations in abduction reports operate within a remarkable framework of unexpected stability.

Whether the source of folklore lies in eternal psychological roots or some other explanation, swarms of variants are the living manifestation of folklore

The psychosocial solution for abductions requires that the reports be folklore in some sense. Advocates of this idea point for support to the parallels between abductions and other lore, but these advocates cannot play the game by half the rules. They must acknowledge the folklore process as well as the product. An artificial separation of the two equals self-delusion not evidence. In fact the personal, cultural and social modifications are essential parts of that process, integral to its reality and necessary to its understanding. Whether the source of folklore lies in eternal psychological roots or some other explanation, swarms of variants are the living manifestation of folklore. These variants are an empirical fact that theory must accommodate or die trying. Archetypal roots do not abolish the profusion of variety in folk narrative, nor the mystery of too little variety in abduction reports.

I do not claim to know the ultimate nature of the reports, whether the answer comes up aliens or something else. I admit that the consistency of the reports may be an artefact, a quirk of error in my study or the investigations-on which it was based. Maybe cultural influences or the media are to blame, maybe folklorists underestimate the capacity of some narratives to stabilise. I won’t deny these possibilities, but I will doubt them. So much of the abduction evidence is slippery, elusive and ambiguous that a firm anomaly, even indirect in its implication, makes a welcome addition to the argument. Variation – or rather the lack of it – offers one small foothold in a sea of spectacular maybes. I cannot ignore it; those who do are more determined to sink than swim. 

After all, a platypus also looks like a duck here and there, but it doesn’t act like one. The original solution to this problem was to ram the reprobate into unsuitable categories, or dismiss it altogether. Are we ready to break with old tradition and learn at last from past mistakes.


 In the following issue, Magonia 42 March 1992, Hilary Evans responded vigorously to Bullard’s argument:

Folklore Rules; OK?  

The trouble about Eddie Bullard, he’s such a nice fellow, we all want to help him in this distressing situation he’s in: the situation, that is, of not sharing the same view on abductions as the rest of us. He’s such a reasonable fellow, we feel, surely we have only to murmur a few reasonable words to have him come over to our way of thinking? And when he doesn’t, we tell ourselves it’s only because he keeps bad company. Left to himself…

Should we bother? Why don’t we leave him with his delusions, if he’s happy with them? Except he obviously isn’t; it clearly distresses him to see the rest of us so wrong-headed in our ideas. And we, for our part, if we are honest (and we are, chaps, aren’t we?) we ask ourselves: if someone so fair-minded as Eddie Bullard doesn’t share our ideas, could our ideas just possibly be mistaken?The fact is that, irrespective of our concern for Eddie Bullard’s peace of mind, he is the perfect object to bounce our ideas off and see if they come back to us intact.

What Bullard believes:

Bullard’s argument can be summarised as follows:

  • 1: those who favour a psychosocial explanation for the abduction experience (‘PS-proponents’ from here on) refuse to accept the abductions-are-real hypothesis (AAR from here on) because of the parallels with folklore.
  • 2: their argument is invalid, because it does not conform to the rules of folklore.
  • 3: therefore, in the absence of any reasonable alternative, the AAR-hypothesis is the more probable explanation

I think he is mistaken on three counts:

  • First, I don’t think there are any such rules.
  • Second, even if there were, I don’t think we would be obliged to respect them.
  • Third, PS-proponents do not base their position solely on the parallels with folklore.  

Rules? What rules? I see no rules…    

It doesn’t surprise me that Bullard, as a professional folklorist, wishes to think of his subject as possessing what, if it lacked them, might leave him feeling improperly dressed: namely rules. So he wags his finger at the PS-proponents, accusing us of seeking to ‘play the game by half the rules’. But from what I can see of folklore, it is the most amorphous, least defined of subjects. School-of-thought after school-of-thought has sought to impose its scheme of things on the subject, and to no avail. Folklore remains a free-for-all field where hardly any two players are wearing the same shirts.

We can see this in a matter particularly relevant to abductions, the question of diffusion: how does folklore – myth, rumour etc. – proliferate? Do they spread by some subtle contagion? Do they manifest spontaneously here and yon triggered by some Jungian archetype mechanism? Is some Sheldrakean process at work?

In her classic work, Mythes de Guerre, Marie Bonaparte presents us with a shoal of foaftales from WW2, showing how the same stories (with variations) arose – seemingly spontaneously and simultaneously – on both sides of the line. She is inclined to account for both the synchronicity and the variations on psychoanalytic grounds; others will prefer to think that some kind of diffusionist process is at work; yet others will have yet other suggestions. The point is that as things stand, it’s anyone’s guess how myths are created: the field is wide open.

And so it is, I suggest, with the similarity con variazione which so disconcertingly distinguishes the abduction experience. There is no user’s guide which presents us with a handy set of rules. 

On not having too much respect for the rules

Even if there existed a set of rules bearing the imprimatur of the Folklore Society or some such recognised authority, it is by no means certain that we could, or even should, respect them. Folklore, as Bullard recognises, is a constantly developing thing; and even if rules could be derived from past experience, they might well need to be modified in the light of later experience.

This is especially likely to be true of abductions, because for all the parallels with folklore, they display many features which have no precedent in the past. Bullard concludes this is because abductions are not folklore at all, but real experience. But this conclusion is not the only one possible. There are at least two valid alternatives. Abductions may not conform to traditional folklore for either, or both, of two reasons: first because they represent a new development in this constantly developing field of study; and/or second, because they are not just folklore, but folklore-plus, and it is this plus which is responsible for their unprecedented character.

Goodbye Goodwife…

“Something is clearly peculiar here,” says Bullard in the course of his paper, bothered by the ‘peculiar stability’ of the reports. Indeed it is. But couldn’t it be that abductions – even to the extent that they are folklore experiences at all – are not the kind of folklore Bullard is used to? He speaks of the abduction experient as ‘seldom forgetting or fumbling the narration as most ordinary storytellers do’ (my italics) – conjuring up an image of the old goodwife in the chimney corner sending the young ‘uns at her knee to their beds trembling at the tale of Johnnie Rimmer’s hairbreadth encounter with the Mersey Devil…But suppose abductees aren’t like that? Suppose they are telling their stories not as spine-tingling winter’s tales but out of some gut-churning inner need? Why should we expect them to do as ‘most ordinary storytellers’ do?

See, once again, the pitfalls into which Eddie-Head-in-Book is liable to trip if he doesn’t look up from his How To Be A Folklorist manual. For when he says ‘these reports do not act like folklore’ what he is really saying is ‘these reports do not act like the folklore I’m used to’.

Not just folklore, but folklore-plus

But Bullard is on the wrong foot anyway if he supposes the PS-proponents interpret abductions solely in terms of folklore. This of course is nonsense, and I can’t believe Bullard really thinks so. But what other conclusion can we draw from his definition of what he supposes to be the PS position:

If abduction stories can be traced to the patterns and motifs of other stories, or to the psychological underpinning of all stories, these very ties identify abductions as folklore, pure and simple.

Neither Vallée nor Méheust – to take the two most prominent exponents – has ever offered or would ever offer so simplistic an interpretation.Rather, folklore is to them as to all PS-proponents just one of several realms of experience which contribute to our understanding of abduction stories. We look also to other forms of communal fantasy. Méheust’s first book, after all, was about flying saucers and science fiction, an avenue which Kottmeyer too has explored with convincing results. Science fiction has much in common with folklore, but it cannot possibly qualify as folklore despite the obvious links and relevancies.

Other parallels have been drawn with witchcraft, with convent hysteria, with the convulsionaries and the visionaries, with demon possession and revivalist epidemics, with all kinds of communal fantasy.

So – and I think I speak for all who prefer some kind of PS explanation, however much we may diverge as to which particular form of it we may espouse – the abduction experience is never simply folklore: it is always folklore with an admixture.

‘swarms of variants’ (?) 

Bullard states – and surely we all agree – that ‘swarms of variants are the living manifestation of folklore’. It could hardly be otherwise: for what is folklore, but the accumulation and distillation of lots and lots of bits of individual lore. From a host of one-of-a-kind instances, the individual elements are filtered out and the shared elements retained, so that a stereotypical communal experience can be abstracted and defined. But this stereotype is no more than a convenient fiction: it is a Platonic ideal, which never exists in its pure form except in the minds of those who fabricate it, never more than a part of the overall experience – the ‘highest common factor’ as we were taught at school.

Each abduction is at once a shared ‘story’, broadly conforming to a pattern, and an individual experience, whose relevance is only to the individual’s needs, preoccupations, hopes and fears. To suggest that the individual abduction is a ‘folklore experience’ would be nonsense – but then no one is making any such suggestion. What the PS-proponents are suggesting is that the composite abduction experience – the depersonalised and sanitised abstraction – can be paralleled with certain folklore themes, and that this can help us understand what is happening in individual instances.

In the section devoted to the PS approach in his Encyclopedia of UFOs, Jerry Clark was both fair and perceptive. It is an excellent position statement, particularly since it is made by someone who does not share that position. But he makes a fundamental error – which Bullard also, albeit only implicitly, seems to be making: Clark speaks of the PS hypothesis, but this is as much an abstraction as the stereotype abduction.

What there is, is a psychosocial approach: but though there are many who favour that approach, there are probably as many PS-hypotheses as there are PS-proponents.

As I see it, the abduction experience is an admixture of ‘folklore’ – in the form of a shared myth – with a deep and often very serious individual need. The individual draws on the folklore themes to give his private experience the necessary public ‘credentials’. By creating a fantasy scenario whose broad outline will be recognised by the consensus as ‘an abduction story’, he obtains a degree of legitimacy for the experience as a whole – and therefore for those elements which are purely personal to himself: just as in other forms of behaviour such as seeing visions, dissociation of the personality, trance communication and channeling, stereotypes have come into being, which serve as sustaining structures for individual experiences which lack the strength to stand on their own. 

A choice of scripts

Some see visions, some are possessed by demons, some are abducted by aliens. Each of these behaviours is chosen, subconsciously, because it is felt by the individual to be an appropriate way of externalising an internal dilemma, crisis or whatever. And it is this internal, personal core which causes the variations, so the abduction experience of Kathie Davis will conform to the folklore model only so far as it is necessary for it to qualify as something that others will recognise (or, it may be argued, where she herself can feel justified in distancing herself from the experience, in effect saying it wasn’t me, it was THEM).

If the PS approach is correct, what we would find is that all abduction experiences tend to share a number of common factors, and to differ in individual details. Which is just what we do find.

This doesn’t by any means imply that the PS approach is correct. There are still other problems: for example the remarkable specificity of some details which, it is argued, could not by any reasonable explanation have been known to the individual, and which can therefore only be the result of a real experience. If this is so, it is a formidable challenge to those of us who question the AAR position: but such extraordinary claims need to be supported by something more convincing than the Gee-Whiz assertions of the Believers.

If such support should be forthcoming, many of us might have cause to rethink our positions, just as we would do if a UFO were to touch down in Mortlake churchyard. Bullard may turn out to be justified in his AAR belief. But if so, it will need to be on stronger grounds than by appeal to the rules of folklore. 

As Phil Klass reminds us, abductions are a dangerous game: one of the greatest dangers comes from those who play the game thinking they know the rules.

 Bending the rules

As Phil Klass reminds us, abductions are a dangerous game: one of the greatest dangers comes from those who play the game thinking they know the rules. Hopkins tells us he has consulted a number of leading psychologists, and one and all have assured him there is no known psychological model for abduction behaviour. Therefore, according to the psychological rule-book, no psychological explanation can be valid; therefore – the reasoning goes – abductions must be real.

But psychology, like folklore, is concerned with drawing communal conclusions from individual experience: and while it can formulate helpful guidelines in respect of what is communal, what is individual defies formal rule-making – which is why, even after 100+ years of psychology as a formal field of study, we have on-going controversies about psychoanalysis, about hypnosis, about possession, about multiple personality. Hopkins’s touching faith in the psychologists’ faith in their rule-book has led him into the AAR cul-de-sac: Eddie Bullard’s similar faith in the folklore rule-book has led him into the same dead end.

But there is more to abductions than the rule-books know of. Seen en masse, it may look as though a huge communal game is in progress on the abduction playing-field. But look more closely, and you will see that each player is playing a little game of his own, and if there are any rules, they are of his or her own making. 


 

Catflaps. John Harney and John Rimmer

From Magonia 43, July 1992

John Harney writes:

You’ve probably heard stories about dogs, rats and cats disappearing through the back doors of Chinese or Indian restaurants, and being slaughtered, stewed, and served with curry and rice. Police and RSPCA inspectors have wasted a great deal of time investigating such allegations and, so far as I am aware, not a shred of worthwhile evidence has ever been found to support them.

But have you heard that there is a foreign country where cat fur is the height of fashion? I don’t mean big cats, such as leopards, but ordinary household moggies. This country is ……….. [Fill in the name of your least-favourite country.]

You don’t believe it? Well, that’s what it says in my local paper (Bracknell News, 21 May 1992). It’s the lead story, under the banner headline: ‘Fur Traders Target Cats’.

Some weeks previously, a resident of Bracknell, Berkshire had called the police after seeing two men trying to entice a cat into a black plastic bag. Since then “the number of cats going missing locally has soared”. It is rather irritating, though, that we are not given any indication of the number of cats involved. The matter is being pursued by an organisation calling itself Bracknell Petsearch, which has uncovered some startling ‘facts’.

The ‘massive increase in the number of cats going missing’ is ‘easily explained as a blip on the statistics until” – I really like this detail – “it is noticed that each month the colour of the eats going missing changes. Last month tabbies and tortoiseshell animals were being reported lost. So far this month black cats are in the majority.”

Yes, but how do we know they are being captured by fur traders? The main evidence is a black plastic bag full of skinned cats found at the local junction with the M4 motorway. This revelation came from Bracknell Petsearch co-ordinator Lynda Martin who said the discovery had been made by ‘a local RSPCA volunteer’.

“That information came from a very good source,” she said: “Nothing was officially reported because it is difficult to do anything with a bag of dead animals.” Mrs Martin believes the traders have targeted Bracknell recently, stealing the cats, skinning them inside a van, and then fleeing with the pelts to their base in London along the M4. “Those pelts would then be smuggled out of the country to dealers abroad.”

There are other curious details in this story. The reporter alleges that “Scotland Yard reckons a trade in cat skins is raging in London, with the pelts being flown out to unscrupulous fur traders abroad.” If this were true, the tabloids would be full of it, but they don’t seem to have noticed. Local police and RSPCA officials have received no evidence of skinned cats and made the usual non-committal statements when approached by the paper.

It will be interesting to see if this story spreads to other areas. Keep an eye on your local paper — and don’t believe everything you read in it.

John Rimmer continues:

But surely we can believe everything we read in the Barnes Mortlake and Sheen Times, after all it is owned by one of our most respected media dynasties, the Dimblebys, no less. Well judge for yourself. The 19 June 1992 edition carried the front page headline “Cat Snatch Fear After ‘Spate’ of Missing Pets” accompanied by a photograph of local pet-owner Victor Schwanberg holding an appealing looking cat who is not otherwise identified.

The story conforms to the Bracknell pattern, complete with a mysterious “woman who was seen stroking a cat and then snatching it and putting it in a bag”, according to vet Donald Cameron, “someone has also reported seeing five dead cats laid out on the pavement”. The vet declares: “Cat fur fetches a high price abroad,” – in those mysterious countries which have no cats of their own? – “it is used to make gloves and small toys”. High-priced small toys presumably.

The only real fact of the story seems, as in the Bracknell case, to be some alarm about the number of cats going missing in the area. Now I can confirm that there are often small, sad notices attached to trees in this neighbourhood appealing for the return of lost pets (including dogs), but I have always assumed that this was due to the number of very busy roads and the amount of open spaces, parks and commons in the area. Mr Schwanberg, one of whose cats went missing, lives on the Upper Richmond Road, part of London’s notoriously dangerous and grossly over-used South Circular Road.

The item concludes with a quote from a Mrs Joan Wearne of an organisation called Petwatch (it is not clear whether this has anything to do with Bracknell’s Petsearch) who claims that the cats are skinned and their fur sold in Italy and Germany, but the police “do not want to know”. As if to confirm her claim a police spokesman commented “we would not record stolen cats, but we are not aware of a problem”. Obviously evidence of a cover-up!

Shortly after reading this I discovered that the latest issue of Folklore Frontiers discussed a report which appeared in the 24 April 1992 issue of The Mail, Hartlepool, where Mrs Wearne also puts in an appearance. Warning of the dangers of the catnappers she reverts to an older, racialist, theme. She announces that a ‘Yorkshire printer’ found the remains of several cats next to a mincing machine in the basement of a building which used to be an Indian restaurant, while a ‘Manchester policeman’ (highly specific these descriptions) found 200 dead cats in a skip.

So what is going on here? I rang the Barnes and Mortlake paper and spoke to the reporter who had written the story. I was particularly concerned, because in the following week’s paper there were letters from obviously distressed pet-owners in the area. Unfortunately she seemed unimpressed by the thought that she may have been sold a pup (sorry!) on her front page scoop. “I was only reporting what people told me” she explained. I had always thought that journalists considered `printing things people told you’ mere public relations, and journalism involved going out and finding the facts. I pointed out the startling coincidence of a virtually identical story appearing in three local papers in different parts of the country and the unliklihood of catnappers in both Barnes and Bracknell leaving dead cats neatly lined up at the sides of the road. “Maybe that’s how they operate”, she said. Well maybe, but didn’t she think that in view of this extra information she might consider taking the story a little further, if only to reassure anxious local cat-lovers? No, but if I wanted to write a letter to the editor, they would publish it on their correspondence page.

I find it disturbing that after playing on many local peoples’ fears with a front page lead story presented with all the authority of Dimbleby Newspapers, the reporter was not prepared to do any further checking when presented with new evidence that made the story look decidedly dubious, and was prepared to leave any further coverage to the vagaries of the letters column.

So what it going on? Why do cats in the North-East end up in the curry, whilst cats in the South-East are skinned and their pelts flown hundreds of miles across Europe? Could it be because these alarmists feel that traditional racist slurs about Indian restaurants are unlikely to be taken seriously in the liberal climate of Richmond and Barnes, whereas concern about the fur-trade and ‘animal rights’ might produce a greater sense of shock? And in how many more local papers have variants of this story appeared?

*********************************

1. Folklore Frontiers, edited by Paul Screeton, 5 Egton drive, Seaton Carew, Hartlepool, TS25 2AT

More on catnapping HERE

 

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.

catinabag

“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.

whitechapel1

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.

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References:

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