Sunday, July 18, 2021

The Mystery of the Coffin Dolls

Our story begins like a folk-horror novel. It's the summer of 1836 and a small group of boys are roaming the slopes of Arthur's Seat outside of Edinburgh. They're hunting for rabbits but somehow discover something much more interesting when they stumble upon a small, well-hidden cave. It was here that an unknown person had hidden away seventeen tiny coffins, each one containing a wooden doll, shrouded in cotton and lovingly carved. They had been stacked in three tiers, with eight dolls on both of the bottom rows and one lone one on the top. Combined with the coffins, they each measured just under 4 inches. They were in various states of decay, with the bottom row being in the worst condition. The ones on the second row were in a much better shape, but the one on the top was so well preserved that it could have been placed there quite recently. It's clear a lot of care had been put into their creation, but they really are eerie to look at.
Whoever it was that hid these detailed little effigies had clearly expected them to remain a secret, as the cave had been carefully camouflaged behind a loose piece of stone. Still, they didn't take into account the unstoppable curiosity of children on an adventure. Only eight remain today. Some were destroyed by the boys, and others have just fallen apart over the years due to improper care. However, the ones that remained were reported on in an edition of The Scotsman newspaper (July 16th of that same year.), drawing attention to the find. They earned the nickname of the Fairy Coffins, and there was much speculation as to what was going on. Some of the ideas put forward are more likely than others, but let's take a look at them.

National Museums of Scotland




Witchcraft
Thanks to superstition, people are often quick to point a finger at the supernatural whenever anything weird or creepy is found. But the fact remains that dolls, some similar to these, have been used in magical rituals all over the world for thousands of years. They're still used to this day and serve many purposes, from healing to harm. When the dolls were found, witchcraft was actually illegal in the UK and claiming to be a witch or have supernatural abilities could potentially land you in jail. That didn't mean that the craft had died out. It just meant that those involved had to be very careful about how they went about it. The lonely, windswept crags of Arthur's Seat would have been a perfect location to whip up a ritual or two. A lot of people at the time were concerned that that was the case, and even The Scotsman seemed to support this theory in their article, which did nothing to calm those convinced that witches were stalking the hills with ill intent. The use of witchcraft and charms actually ties into our subsequent two theories.

Sailors Charms
Some believed the coffins were placed there by sailors or their family members as a charm designed to keep them safe while out at sea. Sailors tended to be quite superstitious, so the use of charms and the consultation of local cunning folk was not uncommon.
Others believed that the dolls had been made to represent the men who had tragically drowned and were an attempt to give them a burial of sorts since their bodies could not be retrieved. Though land burials for those lost at sea do exist, there's a possibility these were performed by those too poor to afford one.
 
The "Daft Man"
The dolls would appear in the newspapers again in 1906, this time as part of a much more chilling tale. A woman had come forward with a story that she felt was directly linked to the dolls. A person she described as a "Daft Man," who seemed to be both deaf and mute, would sometimes visit her father at his place of work. He showed her father a picture he'd drawn of three coffins on one such visit, each one with a date written under it, 1837, 1838 and 1840. After sharing this cryptic message, he left. Following this, her Father lost one family member on each of those years; a close relative in 1837, a cousin in 1838 and his brother in 1840. The "Daft Man" wasn't seen again until after the brothers funeral, when he walked into the Father's workplace to glower at the poor man before leaving, never to be seen again. The woman believed that her Father had encountered the creator of the Coffin Dolls, that the "Daft Man" was enraged by their discovery but was blaming her Father for it for some reason.

A Hidden War Memorial
In 1820 an event occurred that would go on to be known as The Radical War. Artisans and workers took to protesting and strikes as they sought reforms that would include safer working conditions and better pay. Sadly, the authorities were having none of it. The "War" was brutally stamped out, with some of the ring leaders being sent to the gallows, whilst other supporters were split between transportation to Australia and hard labour in Scotland. Those forced into hard labour were put to work building a new footpath that curved around Arthur's Seat and was named Radical Road, seemingly to mock those tasked with its creation. It's still there today and is a popular hiking trail, although not everyone knows about its sad history. It's hypothesised that the dolls were hidden by the workers as a memorial to the executed leaders and an odd sign of hope to those who wanted to see the cause continued.

Discarded Playthings 
Where they were just toys? Creepy, oddly well-detailed toys that had been forgotten by those who used to play with them. Handmade toys were more common in those days because the big toy-making factories we have today just didn't exist. There are some unusual and flat out disturbing ones out there, including Frozen Charlotte; a jointless, porcelain doll originally meant as a bath toy for young children, but one that would occasionally come with accessories such as a miniature coffin. They really sound familiar, don't they? Frozen Charlotte was first mass-produced in Germany in the 1850s, but it's possible there could have been similar toys around before her and that the ones found in that cave are an example of that. The cave itself seems to have been a small one, so it would have made an excellent den for a child, or small group of children, to play house in. Eventually these children would have grown up, moved away or died, due to the high mortality rate in children of this era. The dolls could have just been forgotten.

Burke and Hare's victims
You might not know what they did, but I bet you've heard of them. In a time when body snatching was rife, William Burke and William Hare became masters of their trade and real-life boogeymen. Local anatomy schools would pay a pretty penny for a fresh corpse, and many poor people turned to grave robbery as a way to pay their rent. But for these two men, digging up the recently deceased wasn't good enough, as the death of one of Hare's lodgers made them realise that they could acquire fresher merchandise by making it themselves. And the fresher the corpse was, the more doctors and medical schools were willing to pay for it. After selling the body of the first lodger, they started to kill, slaughtering 16 people in a period of about 10 months between 1827 to 1828. They were only caught when another lodger became suspicious of their shifty behaviour and stumbled upon the poorly hidden body of their last victim.
Some experts and historians believe the dolls represent these victims, with the dolls on the first two rows being the bodies of those murdered and the one on the top being the lodger who died of natural causes. 



National Museums of Scotland
Will the mystery of the Coffin Dolls or whoever tucked them away in their little tomb ever be solved? Probably not. Maybe, sometime in the future, another stash of dolls will be found and give us more clues. Sadly the way in which the surviving dolls were discovered means we'll get no hint from them since they were found by bored children and not Archaeologists. I'm no expert either, but I favour two theories; Witchcraft and the memorial for Burke and Hare's victims. As I've previously stated, the area would have been perfect for a witch to practice their craft. It was quiet and, for the most part, offered the privacy they would have wanted to do whatever it was they were doing. But I also like the idea that someone out there wanted to honour the poor souls cut down by Burke and Hares greed, even if no one else would ever know about the memorial.
If you want to see the dolls for yourself, then you're in luck because you can! They're on display at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, which is now open again. Depending on Lockdown rules and if you're able to safely travel, then why not stop by and pay them a visit? 

While you're here, why not head down to the comments and share any stories you might have about these dolls or similar ones? What theory do you think is most likely? Or, if you want, tag me in a Tweet and let me know there. 

Saturday, June 5, 2021

Sleep Paralysis: Science vs Supernatural

You wake up, but something's wrong. You're snug in your bed, surrounded by the silence and darkness of the night, unable to tell whether it's very early or very late. You're wondering why you woke up when you realise that you can't move. Try as hard as you can, you can't even twitch a finger. Then, out of the corner of your eye, a shadowy figure starts to stalk across the room towards you, and fear starts to kick in.
While this sounds like the start of a horror movie, many people experience this in real life on a nightly basis. Reading this, you yourself might be personally acquainted with this phenomenon.
But what's happening here?

The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli, 1781, public domain

This is Sleep Paralysis 
This sleep disorder is so common that it's recognised by most medical bodies. It's featured in movies and books. It's been scaring people for centuries but these days, thanks to the internet and social media, more and more people share their experiences with it and are helping each other to cope. It's an unpleasant thing to suffer from, especially for those unfortunate folks who experience it on a near-nightly basis.
A Sleep Paralysis attack usually starts with its namesake, paralysis. A victim will wake up but find themselves unable to move. This is scary enough on its own, but it often comes with the feeling of being touched in some way, plus various visual and audio hallucinations. People have seen shadow figures, aliens, monsters, ghosts and a hag-like figure, to name a few. Audio hallucinations include static and other electrical noises, hissing, indistinct whispering, growling, screaming and sometimes clear voices. Pressure is often felt on the body, commonly on the chest, and is associated with something sitting on the victim. These experiences, combined with the inability to produce sound, to call for help, add up to a truly nightmarish situation. Thankfully, scientists and medical experts have done quite a bit of research into the subject, giving us an explanation for what's happening.

The Scientific Explanation 
Sleep Paralysis is classed as a type of Parasomnia. Your body is completely relaxed in sleep, so you don't move around too much or act out your dreams while in the REM stage of your sleep cycle. Think of it as a built-in failsafe; your body slips into a harmless form of temporary paralysis to protect you. But when the brain and body slip out of sync, Sleep Paralysis can occur. The brain wakes up early, becoming conscious while the body is still relaxed. Unfortunately, this often happens while the brain is still transitioning to or from REM sleep, resulting in audio and visual hallucinations. Sleep paralysis can occur as you're waking up, but also as you're falling asleep.
Sleep Paralysis is frightening, but harmless, and can last anywhere from seconds to a minute or so. An exact cause has yet to be discovered. Still, studies have shown many possible causes for this, including but not limited to sleeping on your back, poor sleeping patterns, food or drink consumed before bed, insomnia, anxiety and PTSD.

Sleep Paralysis and the Paranormal
Sleep Paralysis has been recorded for thousands of years, but we didn't always have science to explain what was happening. This has lead to it being blamed on things that go bump in the night and explains why some people refer to it as Old Hag. In the past it was believed that the pressure some sufferers feel on their chest was caused by a witch as she sat there, attempting to suffocate her victim or harm them through magic. This belief mostly appears in Europe and America, and some still believe it today. But if you think the spooky side of Sleep Paralysis beliefs and folklore is limited to witches, then you're wrong. Historically, in some countries, it was also seen as a sign of a vampire attack. Ghosts, spirits, demons, and Shadow People have often been seen as possible causes in many cultures. People believe them to be the cause and blame the whole thing on possession or attempted possession. In alleged encounters with Aliens, Sleep Paralysis is very common, with the victims believing Sleep Paralysis is the precursor to a visit or even part of an abduction.


Thankfully science has solved this spooky medical mystery for us, revealing anything experienced just to be a waking dream, but it's still a fascinating subject. My own experiences stemmed from anxiety, combined with an appalling sleep schedule and a nasty habit of sleeping on my back. As a teen I found it terrifying, as I had no idea what was happening, but as an adult I understand what's going on and what caused it. When having an attack, I'm prone to auditory hallucinations. I tend to close my eyes as tightly as possible when I realise what's happening and try to move my fingers, as I find that can snap me out of it. And while I'm working on that, I have to put up with whispering voices, the sound of movement in my room and a feeling of static. I've felt what felt like someone leaning on me, but that's rare. Rarer still, for me, are visual hallucinations. I've only had that happen to me once, and it happened at the worse possible time because I wasn't even in my own home; I was sharing a hotel room with a friend at a convention. Everything was fine at first, the room lit by the streetlights outside and myself just lying there trying to move my fingers. But, for whatever reason, this time around I didn't bother keeping my eyes closed and got to see a shadow figure come crawling out of the bathroom. It dragged itself across the room, between our beds and paused for one all-to-long moment before crawling under my hotel bed. Then I managed to move my pinky finger and I was up in a flash, and everything was normal again. The only reason I didn't check under my bed was that it was one of those solid block beds, and it didn't have anything to check. Yup, my first and (thankfully) only visual experience left me shaken, and I've got a lot of respect for those who suffer from visuals regularly.

I haven't included any treatment or coping advice because I am not a medical professional or an expert. This post is simply meant to be informative. I can only encourage you to do your own research into that or to contact a doctor. While there may be no magic cure for Sleep Paralysis, with help it can be got under control. 
The NHS website dedicated to the subject suggests seeing your doctor if you've become scared to sleep because of your Sleep Paralysis attacks, are experiencing anxiety because of it, or suffering from tiredness due to lack of sleep.

Friday, April 30, 2021

Cryptid Corner: The Owlman of Mawnan

 For thousands of years, people have been recording sightings of mysterious creatures. Some of these critters may be survivors of a bygone age or even species yet to be properly discovered and named. Others are just mind-bogglingly weird, unexplainable or flat out terrifying like the subject of this blog post.
America has the Mothman. We have...THE OWLMAN OF MAWNAN.



The Story
The beast stood like a man and was as tall as one too, with dark feathers, sharp talons, glowing red eyes and a gaping maw of a mouth. Its appearances were accompanied by spine-tingling hissing and screaming noises, as well as loud hoots while it soared through the sky. While it sounds like a monster from a bad B movie, this potential cryptid caused quite a stir when it was first sighted. 
It was spotted in April 1976 by June and Vicky Melling, who were on holiday in the area with their parents. The two children were exploring on their own and decided to investigate Mawnan Church. As they approached they started to hear weird noises and, looking up, spotted a huge creature flying around the steeple. It appeared to be half-man half-bird, with dark feathers and fearsome glowing red eyes. Terrified, they ran back to the campsite to tell their parents, who were so unnerved by this story that they called off the holiday, going home three days early. The girls' father, Don, would later approach Tony "Doc" Shiels, a local paranormal researcher and magician. While Don was unwilling to allow Shiels to interview the girls, he was eager to share their story and a picture drawn by June. Fascinated by the tale, Shiels would investigate the sighting. The story would be included in a small pamphlet written by Anthony Mawnan-Peller, which was mostly sold locally and was titled Morgawr: The Monster of Falmouth Bay.
The next sighting happened in the July of the same year. Two teens, Barbara Perry and Sally Chapman, were camping in the area and had the shock of their lives when they encountered the creature. It was the eerie hissing noises that drew their attention to the Owlman, which stood not too far from their campsite and was apparently unimpressed by their presence there. Probably because they were laughing at it; Barbara and Sally were aware of the Owlman story and were convinced it was someone in a costume until it took off into the air with a hiss and a screech, flying off over the woods. The shocked girls huddled in their tent for safety and reported what they'd seen the following morning. What they described was near identical to what June and Vicky had seen, but with the addition of pincer-like talons. Like Don Melling, they would go to Tony Shiels with their story.
Sightings have continued over the years, in 1978, 1989, 1995, the 2000s and the most recent sighting was in 2019, by a couple of paranormal investigators.
The Owlman isn't the only thing haunting the location, as there have been quite a few reports of glowing orbs being sighted around the churchyard. Whether these are corpse lights or spirits remains to be seen.

 Mawnan Church - Photo by Tim Green.
CC BY 2.0

The Theories

The Paranormal
It's been suggested that the Owlman is a creature linked to the occult rather than some kind of naturally occurring entity. Some have pointed fingers at artist Max Ernst, who visited the area in the 1930s with a small group of friends and performed summoning rituals there. One of the things allegedly summoned was said to be part nightjar, part human. While there's no real evidence of this creature, Ernst would become fascinated with birds, to the point that his own artistic alter ego was a humanoid bird named Loplop, and it has been said (though not by Ernst.) that these are linked to the Owlman. This fascination with bird creatures would be shared by artist Leonora Carrington, who was dating Ernst at the time of his visit to Mawnan and was believed to be one of the party members there with him. Her works have also included dark bird-like figures, though not as much as Ernsts. Curiously though, by some strange coincidence, the first 1976 Owlman sighting took place around two weeks after the death of Max Ernst. Many people believe that this and Ernst and Carrington's avian fascination are proof that they summoned the Owlman. Whether or not there is a link, the two artists remain synonymous with the Owlman, even after their deaths.
Other theories have suggested that the Church and its grounds lay directly over a leyline. These mysterious and fascinating energy lines have been linked to many hauntings and creature sightings over the years, so if this is true then it's no surprise that paranormal events have occurred there. Another popular paranormal theory is that the creature is of extraterrestrial origins, as Cornwall was a hotspot for UFO sightings throughout the 1970s.

The Hoax
This theory claims that it was all faked by Tony "Doc" Shiels. But with so many people involved, this theory can't be proven. It seems to be based on the fact that he was the only one investigating the sightings at the time. While he may have known some of the witnesses, there's no way he knew all of them, as some were tourists from outside of the UK. Thanks to the pamphlet that was published, anyone living in or visiting the area could have read the story and claimed that they had seen the creature. Take Barbara and Sally, for example. Both of the girls are known to have read about the Owlman. With this in mind and the common knowledge that if you saw something then Shiels was the man to go to, then surely any potential false claims lay with the witnesses, not the investigator.

The Mistaken Identity
It could have been an owl. To be exact, a Eurasian Eagle Owl. 
These birds aren't native to the UK and are one of the largest owl species out there. With a wingspan of 6ft (7ft in some rare cases.), an owl of this breed would look massive while airborne.  They also make a lot of different noises, including hisses, screeches and hoots. Sound familiar? The only difference is that they don't have glowing red eyes, gaping holes where their mouths should be and aren't as tall as a man. However, if seen by those unfamiliar with them or at dusk, it's possible that the eyes could be deceived. It's been theorised that the Owlman was nothing more than an escaped pet, perhaps looking for a place to roost, which would explain why it was so interested in the steeple of the church.



So is the story of Cornwall's Owlman over? Very probably not, but only time will tell when, or if, it will be seen again. Thankfully, if this beast is seen, it isn't a sign of ill omen, unlike its moth-like counterpart in West Virginia. The Mothman seems to have been the herald of disaster. The Owlman is just a jerk who likes scaring people. 
But does it exist? Bird/Human hybrids are common in folklore and appear worldwide in myths, legends and even religious beliefs. It's no surprise that one should appear in the UK. As someone who loves a good folktale or urban legend, I'd love to think it exists, but the sceptic in me wants more proof before I believe in it. What about you, dear readers? What's your opinion on the Owlman of Mawnan? Fact or fiction? Let me know in the comments below, or tag me in a Tweet!

Thursday, April 1, 2021

On the Road Again: Top 5 Haunted Roads

Photo by Myself, Wales, 2 years ago,
lost down a creepy country lane.
I really should have named this post "On the Road Again-ish", or perhaps "On the Road Again: Soon", because at the moment I'm unable to be on the road at all. But, like many people in Lockdown, I'm making plans for when I can travel again. Lists of places I dearly want to visit have been written, road-trip playlists have been made and maps have been bought. 
Most of our roads have been the sites of more modern accidents, but many of them have also been built through ancient sites, forgotten settlements, over Roman roads and old buildings. It's no surprise that even the most innocent looking country lane might come with a few spooks attached. And it's those roads that I'm going to introduce you to in this post. There are so many that are apparently haunted, it would have been near impossible to include all of them, so here are my Top 5 Haunted Roads.*




The B3212, Dartmoor, Devon.
Dartmoor is a beautiful place, bleak and full of mystery, So it's no surprise that even the roads have ghosts here, if you can call what haunts the B3212 a ghost.
For decades, drivers and cyclists have been victimised here by a pair of hands that grab their steering wheel or handlebars in an attempt to drive them off the road. No body, just a pair of hairy, disgusting hands with an unexplained dislike of motorists. This spirit isn't always visible either, sometimes not bothering to show itself when it strikes, confusing and terrifying drivers as they feel their steering wheel wrenched out of their control by the spirits steely grip. You could blame these sometimes fatal accidents on speeding drivers, but apparently the Hands aren't afraid to go after stationary vehicles as well. In 1924 a couple camping by the road claimed that the hands had tried to break into their caravan during the night. Then, in the 1960s, a motorist who had stopped to glance at her map found herself confronted by the hands. The creepy mitts were pressed against the windscreen of her car, on the outside rather than inside, much to her relief.
Most hauntings have a cause or story behind them, but the Hairy Hands of the B3212 don't have a solid one. It's been blamed on many things, including witchcraft and the vengeful ghost of a motorist killed in an accident.
Don't worry too much if you find yourself driving down this road though, there hasn't been a sighting for years.** The last one seems to have been in 2008, when a driver found the Hands clasped firmly over hers while driving.

The B1249, East Riding, Yorkshire
Sometimes referred to as a ghost, sometimes as the Werewolf of the Wolds; whatever it is that stalks around the B1249, it's something straight out of a horror movie. 
First reported in the 1960s, this creature made its grand entrance into the paranormal world by trying to break in through the windshield of a lorry travelling along the road. The driver was left shaken but unharmed and described his assailant as hairy, with glowing red eyes. It's easy to consider this a very vague description, but keep in mind the fellow was trying to avoid crashing at the time. I doubt his life or drivers insurance covered Cryptid Attacks. A better description of the beast didn't come along until 2016, when it was spotted by a motorist close to the nearby village named Halsham. She claims that it was a dog-like creature with a human face and that was bigger than her car.
Could this have been a real wolf? Nope. Wild wolves in England were wiped out in the 15th century, and the ones we did have didn't resemble a bigger, meaner version of Houska Castles resident dog beast.

The A75, Kinmount Straight, Scotland
When driving along a road at night you have to be ready for anything. In 1962, Derek and Norman Ferguson discovered that "anything" included a large spectral hen, which flew towards the windscreen of their vehicle and vanished before impact. The duo didn't have much time to recover from this encounter though, as soon they started to witness other phantom animals, including ghostly cats and dogs. These were wandering the road, appearing to be too large and feral to be normal creatures. Derek and Norman also saw another vehicle, a furniture van, swerving along the road. Some versions of the story claim that this van was also a ghost, but I think it's far more likely that it was a normal furniture van and that the driver was experiencing the same things as Derek and Norman.
Other sightings include mysterious figures that wander in front of drivers, a withered hag who runs screaming towards cars, phantom horse and carriages and a group of ragged people dragging a handcart behind them. This last group of medieval-looking individuals have the dubious honour of scaring one lorry driver onto quitting his job. I've not been able to find out just what it was about this gaggle of soggy strangers that spooked him so badly, but I'd love to find out.

The A616, Stockbridge Bypass, Sheffield
With the amount of fatal accidents along this road, a few ghosts are to be expected and, due to all the spooky happenings experienced at this location, it has become known as one of the most haunted roads in the UK. But the thing is, the hauntings started way back in the 1980s, before the road had even been completed. The first people to see anything were a couple of security guards. While on patrol, they came across a group of children in old fashioned looking clothing. They approached the kids to find out what was going on, only for the mischievous spooks to vanish into thin air. What happened the following night lead to the shaken security guards calling in the police. While they were walking the site they encountered a sinister-looking figure, described as a monk, sitting on a half-built bridge. This same figure would later appear again to a couple of policemen who had come to look into the strange happenings. They were sitting in their car and had been sceptical, up until they noticed the hooded figure outside peering in at them. When they got out to confront the Monk, he had vanished, but there was no way for him to run and hide without them seeing him. This encounter left them baffled and even made it into their official police report. Property around the bypass was once owned by monasteries, which could explain a monk's presence since it's possible he lived and worked there. As for the children, some have theorised that they may be the spirits of kids who worked and died in nearby mines. Whatever the cause, sightings continue to this day, with people reporting children running in front of their cars and the monk watching them from the side of the road.

The M6, Mid to North UK
Another one of the UK's most haunted roads, it's known as the longest and busiest in the country, but it's also one of the oldest. The M6 has been built through ancient battlefields, burial sights and over the old Roman roads that used to be there. And while we know the Roman roads are no longer there, apparently nobody told the Romans that. There are multiple reports of people seeing Roman soldiers marching along or across the road and, while that's not overly frightening, it certainly is distracting. Not what you want while you're doing 60mph on a busy six-lane motorway. Other spooks along this road include a phantom lorry speeding down the road in the wrong direction and things watching people from the bushes along the side of the road. What are these things? Nobody knows. Only their eyes have been seen. The road between Junctions 16 and 19 has been called Cheshire's Bermuda Triangle due to it being one of the UK biggest accident blackspots. This has lead some to believe the road is, to some degree, cursed.


Out of all the haunted roads on this list, the B3212 has to be my favourite. I read about it when I was in junior school, and it was the first time I realised that ghosts weren't just limited to creepy old houses. To a child, that's big news.*** I was both terrified and fascinated. When it's safe to travel again, Government guidelines allowing, I'm looking forward to revisiting it.
What about you, dear readers? What's your favourite haunting on this list, or have you got another favourite that I haven't included? Have you ever experienced anything on any of the roads I chose? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below or tag me in a Tweet.




*No Phantom Hitchhikers included. As much as I love them, that's a post for another day.

**I had a quick Google and all the news turned up was articles about Easter eggs, dog grooming, hair colour trends and, oddly, Bradley Cooper.

***This information also coincided with my discovery of the Black Shuck, both stories were in the same book. The end result was little me trying to convince my friends that ghosts were following our coach over the foggy Yorkshire moors when we were on a week-long school trip and getting scolded by a teacher. I did possibly experience something paranormal on that trip, but nothing Hand or Shuck related. A tale for another time, perhaps.

Sunday, February 28, 2021

The Revenge of Zona Shue

Normally when a murder victim helps to convict their killer, they do so via forensics. Zona Shue went one step further when she allegedly returned from beyond the grave as a ghost and provided evidence that helped convict her murderous husband. This is the story of the tragic young bride who would become known as the Greenbrier Ghost.

Zona and Erasmus Stribbling Shue, 1896, image in Public Domain


Elva Zona Heaster was born and raised in Greenbrier County, West Virginia. Known to her friends and family as Zona, we know very little of her life before her murder as precious little has been recorded. What is known is that, in 1896, Zona met a man by the name of Erasmus "Edward" Stribbling Shue, known to those who made his acquaintance as Trout. The two fell in love. It was a good old fashioned whirlwind romance. Suitably swept off her feet, Zona married Trout not long after. This seemingly happy marriage was short-lived. Less than three months later Zona was dead.
It was January 1897, and Trout was working as a blacksmith. Apparently trade was good because although he claimed his wife was unwell, he was too busy to go home and check on her himself. He still found time to visit the local errand boy's home and hired 11-year-old Anderson Jones to check on Zona. What the poor boy found probably left him with some serious PTSD. Zona was home, but she was a little worse than unwell. Her body lay face down on the floor at the bottom of the stairs; her legs together, one arm tucked under her, the other stretched out, her head twisted to the side at an unnatural angle. An oddly neat corpse, but still a terrible sight for one so young to witness. Anderson fled the scene, running all the way back to Trout to tell him what had happened before running to tell his mother, who called for the local doctor.
Doctor George Knapp took around an hour to reach the Shue's home. This delay allowed Trout to get there before him. Upon his arrival he discovered that the grieving husband had been busy. He had carried Zona's body upstares, wasting no time in washing and dressing her for her funeral in a high collared dress and veil, preventing the doctor from getting a good look at her face and neck. Trout was wailing like a banshee, cradling his wife's upper body and head. Doctor Knapp did notice what looked like bruising on the girl's neck, but any attempt made to get a better look at her only seemed to distress Trout even more, so he gave up. Knapp would initially put Zona's death down to an Everlasting Faint, an old fashioned and rather whimsical way of saying she'd had a heart attack. For reasons unknown he would later change the cause of death to Childbirth. There's no evidence that she was pregnant, but Knapp had been treating her for "Female Trouble." This doesn't mean she was pregnant, because in those days "Female Trouble" could be anything from a headache to cramps.
If Doctor Knapp thought Trout's behaviour was a bit extreme, it only got worse. By cart, Zona's body was moved to her parents' house for an open casket wake before her funeral, a final chance for her friends and loved ones to say goodbye. Trout refused to leave her side, specifically the upper half of her, even on the journey there. The high collared dress and veil were now accompanied by a huge scarf, which Trout refused to remove, telling anyone who would listen that it had been her favourite. At the wake itself, he covered much of Zona's head with a pillow on one side and wadded up bedsheet on the other, apparently to make her more comfortable. If this wasn't odd enough, his mood seemed to constantly swing from pantomime level grief to barely restrained excitement. People were meant to be able to view the body and say their final farewells, but Trout patrolled the coffin-like a guard dog, not letting people get too close and virtually chasing them away when they did. It was all quite bizarre to those who witnessed it, and people were already becoming quite suspicious.
Mary Jane Heaster,
image in Public Domain
Enter Mary Jane Heaster, Zona's mother. 
Mary Jane wasn't just heartbroken. She was filled with rage. She'd never liked Trout and had objected to the marriage from day one. She refused to accept the verdict of a natural death, seeing how suspicious the whole situation was. Everything Trout had done was off, from his behaviour at the funeral to how he'd treated Zona's body. Preparing the body for burial wasn't the husband's job; it was traditionally done by the women in the family or community where they lived. It wouldn't have been done before the doctor had had a chance to check the body over. There was also the chance that Mary Jane was aware that Trout had been married twice before, with the first wife divorcing him for being abusive and the second one having died under mysterious circumstances after Trout "accidentally" dropped a stone on her head while doing some DIY. Suspicions alone weren't enough to get Trout arrested, and it looked like he was going to get away with murder, quite literally.
Mary Jane would soon experience something that convinced her that her instincts were correct. Between the wake and the funeral, she managed to get close enough to the coffin to see her only daughter and removed the sheet at her head. It wasn't at all clean. It smelt very unpleasant and had odd stains, a strange thing to have near a loved one's body. Why not use a clean one? Why use something that was little more than a dirty rag? Despite her dislike for Trout, she approached him and attempted to return the sheet to him, but he told her that he didn't want it. For reasons unknown, Mary Jane decided that she would wash the sheet rather than throw it away. As she soaked it, the stain seeped out into the soapy water, turning it an unpleasantly bright shade of red and staining the sheet itself pink. Mary Jane took it as a bad omen, proof of her suspicions that her daughter had been murdered. But what could she do? Zona had been buried, and Trout had gone his merry way, probably intending on skipping town like he had when his last wife had died. A devoutly religious woman, Mary Jane did the only thing she could think of doing. She prayed. Every night for four weeks. She prayed for answers, for her daughter to give her some sign from the beyond, for anything that would help her bring Trout to justice.
And then, one night, Zona returned.
She appeared in an ethereal glow, freezing the air around her and, for four nights, this desperate and angry spirit would describe to her mother how her husband had ended her life. He had been an abusive monster, she told her mother. He had thrown a tantrum because she hadn't cooked the meat he wanted for dinner. In his rage, he had strangled her and then broke her neck. One night, while recounting her story, Zona's spirit even twisted her head around a full 360⁰ degrees to demonstrate how broken her neck was. This horrified Mary Jane, yet at the same time bought her a sense of purpose. There was always the risk that nobody would believe her fantastical story. She stood to lose a lot if they didn't; her reputation would be in tatters, her family would be a laughing stock and there was the very real chance of being sent to a sanatorium. But to Mary Jane the visitations were all the proof she needed to drag her son in law straight through the courts and onto the gallows. It was a risk she was willing to take and that's why, when morning came, she marched into town and into the office of John Preston, a local prosecutor. In a situation where many would have laughed in her face, Mr Preston chose to listen to Mary Jane, sitting with her for hours as she explained the situation. And it seemed to some degree that he took her seriously, maybe not about the ghost but definitely about the possibility of Zona having been murdered. 
Preston began an investigation immediately, starting by reinterviewing people who'd been involved in the case. When talking to Doctor Knapp, he hit gold, as the doctor finally admitted that he hadn't properly examined the body and explained why. This was all Mr Preston needed to have Zona's body exhumed for an autopsy. Trout was furious, strongly objecting to the situation. He grew even more agitated when he found out that, as next of kin, he would have to be present as it was performed. He knew he'd be arrested, he said, but boasted that they wouldn't be able to prove that he did anything. Not the sort of thing you expect an innocent man to say.
The autopsy was performed by Doctor Knapp, and it quickly became clear why Trout had been so desperate to hide Zona's neck and face. Her windpipe was crushed, the bones broken, and the tendons mangled. The blanket and pillow had been needed at her funeral because the damage was so severe that her neck couldn't support her head's weight. Even though she'd been buried for over a month, the bruises from her husbands hands still showed on her neck. Just as Zona's ghost had suggested, her death had been a violent one. These injuries might seem a little too extreme to have been inflicted on her by another person, but we must remember that Trout was a blacksmith. As a result, he easily had the strength to snap his wife's neck, just as her ghost had described.
You can't send a person to jail on suspicions and a ghost story, but those autopsy results changed everything and the case went to court on the 22nd of June, 1897. Trout, convinced that he'd walk free, plead not guilty. The Defence tried to use the ghost story to get the case thrown out of court, questioning Mary Jane on her experience. All attempts they made to embarrass her or get her to back down failed. She stuck to her story, changing nothing about it. In all probability it was probably the autopsy results that swayed the jury, but their decision was unanimous, GUILTY.
Erasmus Stribbling Shue was sentenced to spend the rest of his life locked up in the infamous West Virginia State Penitentiary, narrowly avoiding the hangman and a lynch mob that had formed outside.
Three years later, the flu swept through the prison, claiming Trout's life. Like many serving sentences there, he was buried in an unmarked grave. No records were kept, so its location is unknown. Zona is a different story. Not only is there a state historical marker near the cemetery where she's buried, but also a grave to visit if you are so inclined.

Photo by Jimmy Emerson, DVM - CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Personally I'd like to believe in Zona's vengeful spirit, but I think this mystery has a much more earthly origin; a heartbroken mother determined to avenge her beloved daughter, one who was prepared to go to extreme lengths to do so. Like I previously said, she was a very religious woman and would have sworn an oath over a bible in court. It's unlikely that she would have willingly lied over something so important to her faith. However I'm still sceptical about her having seen an actual ghost. I believe that when Mary Jane removed the sheet from her daughter's coffin, she saw what had done to her, and it pushed her over the edge. Whatever the truth is, Mary Jane took it to her grave with her, swearing up until her death that her story was true.
What do you guys think? Ghost or dream? Have you heard of any similar stories? Let me know by tagging me in a Tweet or by leaving a comment below.

Friday, January 29, 2021

January update

This years January update is going to be a little short and a bit of an odd one for me, because I genuinely don't know what this year will bring. Not knowing what the year will bring means I can't make any solid decisions, but what I can do is promise you a monthly dose of spooky to send chills down your spine; paranormal events, true crime, strange history and facinating folklore. What I would desperately love to do is visit and investigate some of the places I write about personally. I can't rule that out as a possibility, but it depends on Government guidelines and how safe it is to do so considering current events.

Whatever happens, keep you eyes peeled for monthly posts, follow me on Twitter and Instagram for updates. And, most importantly, stay safe out there.

 

Sunday, December 20, 2020

The Nameless Thing of 50 Berkeley Square


Photo by Myself

 

"For a man's house is his castle and each man's home is his safest refuge." - Sir Edward Coke.


As the old saying goes, home is meant to be a sanctuary, a refuge from the outside world and the troubles it may bring. Unfortunately, for a long time, for those who dwelt there, 50 Berkeley Square was anything but a safe haven.
A terraced townhouse, with four storeys and a basement, 50 Berkeley Square was built in the 1750s and is located in Mayfair, London. Due to its age, it's a Grade II listed building. It's a pretty enough building, unassuming and built in the same style as it's attached neighbours. It's the story I'm about to tell you that makes it stand out as anything other than a lovely old building, for it seems that something terrible lurks behind its well-kept exterior. Something straight out of a gothic horror novel.



The Nameless Thing of Berkeley Square

Photo by Myself
At first things were quiet in Berkeley Square. People lived seemingly happy lives and nothing seemed amiss. Then the stories started. One tells of a child brutally murdered by a servant. Another that a boy who lived there went mad and was locked in the attic by his family, fed through a hole in the door until he finally died. The most well-known story is that of the girl who flung herself to her death from the houses highest window, desperate to escape her abusive uncle and seeing no other way out. Although there was no proof that any of these things had happened, the stories spread like wildfire and the building became known as the neighbourhoods haunted house. Whichever tale was told, it always ended with the dead child, boy or girl returning as a shadowy figure or brown mist that haunted anyone who lived there.
It wasn't until 1840 that these stories became anything other than that, just stories told around the fireplace on dark, cold nights. That year Sir Robert Warboys met some of his friends at their local pub. Stories about 50 Berkely Square had been doing the rounds and the boys were fascinated by them, but Robert thought them to be little more than fairy tales. Pint followed pint, their talk about the house continued and, eventually, someone dared Sir Robert to stay the night in the house to prove that it wasn't haunted. Not one to back down from a challenge, he headed straight to the old building from the pub, more than a little worse for wear. Despite this, he still somehow managed to persuade the Landlord of the house to allow him to stay the night. It's possible that the Landlord didn't want a drunken Sir Robert making a scene on his doorstep, or that perhaps he was concerned about the young man getting hurt out on the streets while he was so vulnerable. Why he allowed it, we'll never know, but the little sleepover came with two conditions; if Robert saw anything at all he was to ring the servants bell which would summon the Landlord, and he was to keep a pistol on him at all times. Robert, no doubt, thought this was an attempt to unnerve him, but the Landlord supplied the pistol himself, to ensure that Robert would stick to their agreement. He headed to his room on the second floor, armed with the firearm and a candle. I'd like to think that the Landlord didn't have an inkling about the events to come, that he really did give Robert the pistol just to scare him. Not long past midnight, the bell began to ring. The frantic chiming stopped, only to be followed by a single gunshot. The Landlord found poor Sir Robert huddled in the corner of his room, his face twisted in fear and his lifeless hand still clutching the pistol. There was no sign of whatever had scared him to death, but there was a bullet hole in the wall where he'd fired at it.
In 1874 the house was bought by a Mr Myres. Due to get married, he intended for the house to be a family home, despite its reputation. Sadly, his fiance jilted him at the altar and all of his grand plans for the house came crashing down around his ears. Heartbroken, his behaviour became increasingly eccentric. Mr Myres became a complete recluse, seeing nobody except for a small handful of servants. He would lock himself in the attic and sleep there all day. At night he would leave his hidey-hole, to stalk the rooms of his home, shouting and wailing, with only a single candle to light his way. This erratic behaviour continued for years until his death in 1874. During this time the house began to fall into disrepair, resembling the haunted house everyone believed it to be. We don't have any personal accounts from Mr Myres, if any diaries were kept over this time period then his family most likely got rid of them. They probably considered them the ramblings of a madman. As this story continues, you'll see that there was a method behind the madness of Mr Myres. Whatever haunts 50 Berkely Square only seems to be active at night. 
In 1872, we got our first description of the horror that lurked within the home. It's not clear whether Mr Myres was in the property at the time, or if he chose to accept a very rare visitor. Whatever the situation, Lord George Lyttelton came to stay the night. Fascinated with the story and determined to solve this mystery, he was given the same room that Sir Robert Warboys had slept in. While tucked up in bed, he heard something shuffling about in the shadows and further inspection revealed the intruder to be what looked like a grotesque, shadowy ball with grasping tentacles. And it was heading straight for him. Fortunately, George had taken a leaf out of Lord Roberts book, although he had upgraded from a small pistol to a rifle. Before the creeping menace could get any closer to him, he opened fire on it. By all rights, he should have hit it. There was no earthly way he could have missed, but there was nothing earthly about the Nameless Thing. To his dismay, Lord George discovered that bullets don't work on ghosts. Investigating the room, all George found was bullet holes, used cartridges and little* else. What he saw that night could not be explained and only added to the buildings terrifying reputation.
Photo by Myself
You'd think with everything that had happened, people would stay away from 50 Berkeley Square and its Lovecraftian occupant. No such luck. People continued to live there, raise their children there, despite being aware of the stories. In 1879, Mayfair Magazine posted an article about another incident that had allegedly occurred at the residence, this time costing two lives. The family living in the house at that time had been preparing for a visit from their eldest daughters fiance, a man known as Captain Kentfield. Everything was going smoothly, until the maid tasked with preparing a room for the gentleman started to scream. The family hurried to her aid, but found her huddled on the floor, hysterical and repeating "Don't let it touch me! Don't let it touch me!" Unable to bring her to her senses and seeing nothing that could have caused such a breakdown, they sent her away to a hospital or asylum. She was dead by the following afternoon, presumably from shock. An attempt was made to put off Captain Kentfield's visit, but he insisted on staying anyway. If there was something dangerous lurking in the home of his beloved fiance, then he was going to find it and dispose of it. History chose to repeat itself and the Captain went the same way as Sir Warboys. Shortly after everyone had retired for the night, the household was woken by screaming and gunshots. Poor Captain Kentfield was found sprawled on the floor, his face a contorted in fear, dead as a doornail.
With this tragedy, everything seemed to go quiet until 1887. At this point the house had been empty for some time and, if any terrifying paranormal activity had occurred, there had been nobody there to witness it. Still known as the streets haunted house, it was locked up and shuttered, keeping its secrets to itself until that fateful Christmas Eve when two unsuspecting sailors broke in, looking for shelter.
Edward Blunden and Robert Martin were on shore leave and had been enjoying a good evening out at the local pubs. Such a good evening that they were more than a little tipsy and had managed to spend the money they'd put away to pay for their lodgings that night. By chance, they eventually found themselves in Berkeley Square. Number 50 had a To Let sign outside of it. It appeared to be empty. It was far from ideal, but they'd been wandering around all night. Cold, tired and desperate, Blunden and Martin broke in via a basement window. Their plan was to stay in the house and sneak out in the morning. Choosing a room on the second floor, they made themselves comfortable and drifted off to sleep. The sound of footsteps awoke them. They echoed down the hallway, approaching their room and the two men assumed they'd made a mistake, that the house wasn't empty after all. As the door creaked open, they were already scrambling to their feet with excuses at the ready. What entered the room sent them into mindless panic. Not a human, but a slimy, slithering, tentacled monstrosity. As they scrambled to escape, Blunden and Martin were separated. Martin managed to get out the door and fled into the night, seeking help. Blunden was not so lucky, as the advancing creature was between him and the door. Running screaming through the streets, it didn't take Martin long to find a policeman. Together they returned to the house, to find and rescue the man left behind. As you can guess, they were too late. Edward Blunden lay dead outside of the house, on the pavement below the broken window that he had jumped from in his terror. Some versions of this story tell of a more gruesome fate for the poor sailor. That he'd jumped from the window and landed on the iron railings instead. Or that his body was found in the damp, dark basement, torn to shreds.


The Theories
The story of 50 Berkeley Square is one of England's most infamous haunts, but, let's be honest, it would have been a lot easier to work out what was going on if it wasn't for the fact that so many of the witnesses were drunk, dead, or an awkward mixture of the two. Unable to classify the Nameless Thing as a ghost, it's now considered to be a Cryptid. Thankfully it hasn't shown its slimy face for decades. Realistically, if it were a living thing, then it's most likely dead. Despite its Cryptid status, many theories have been put forward as to what it could have been; a malevolent spirit, some demonic thing conjured through dark magic, even a rogue octopus mutated by the terrible pollution in the River Thames and ye olde London's putrid sewers. The enraged octopus theory is easily ruled out. Octopi are brilliant creatures, but you don't often find them dragging themselves onto land to terrorise us, let alone dragging themselves up three sets of stairs to target only one room of a house. They also lack the ability to dodge the amount of bullets that the Nameless Thing did, and they certainly couldn't dismember a fully grown man. The theory of some evil spirit being summoned has often been blamed on Mr Myres or some other nameless resident. However, I think we can all agree that while Myres was a troubled man, he wasn't some kind of demon summoning occultist. The possibility that it was just some evil spirit that had moved into the house, perhaps lured there by its early tragedies? Very possible. Famous paranormal investigator, Harry Price, was convinced that the haunting was caused by an extremely malevolent poltergeist. Given the right environment, a strong enough poltergeist may well be able to cause that amount of havoc.
Allegedly not much has happened in the house since Edward Blunden's unfortunate demise, however rumours persist. There are some reports that during more recent decades, certain rooms on the second floor were closed off, unusable for unnamed reasons. Sadly, I don't think there's any evidence proving these true or false, but I'd love to see it if there is. If it's just a hoax, then it's very long-lived and has fooled a lot of people that aren't easily fooled, but then so did the Cottingley Fairies. And, before you wonder, we can rule out anyone being influenced by H.P Lovecraft. His stories weren't published until 1923, so it's more likely that the story of 50 Berkeley Square could have influenced him, had he heard it.
Cryptid, spirit or rogue cephalopod; we will never really know what haunts (or haunted) the dark corners of 50 Berkeley Square. Perhaps that's for the best.

What do you think, readers? Have you heard any other stories about this haunting that I haven't covered? What do you think caused the haunting? Let me know by tagging me in a Tweet or in the comments below!









*"Lyttel" else. Hehe.