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.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Island Life: My Top5 ACNH Spooky Villagers

Pull up a log and help yourself to a marshmallow.

Relaxing on my little island, I take the time to admire the beautiful sunset and sparkling ocean. Sure, I owe a ridiculous amount of money to a Tanuki, and I've been stung by wasps after shaking a tree from the wrong side, but life doesn't get much better than this.
It's just a shame it isn't real life.
Yes, like so many other gamers, I've fallen in love with Animal Crossing New Horizons. Despite everything I planned to do with my time during the national Lockdown that took place this year, most of that time was instead spent playing Animal Crossing*. The question is, why make a blog post about it? Isn't this blog meant to be about ghosties, ghoulies, long-legged beasties and things that go bump in the night? The answer is yes, yes it is, and that's exactly why I've written a post about it. With characters straight out of folklore, mythical creatures and haunted artefacts, Animal Crossing has always had one foot firmly planted in the paranormal. That's actually one of the reasons I, and a lot of other people, love this game so much. With so many subjects to cover, I thought I'd start with the villagers themselves with a Top 5 list. So sit back and relax, as we enter the world of Animal Crossing and I introduce you to my Top 5 Spooky Villagers.

I think you can already see why he's on this list, because clearly Lucky's luck ran out at some point. Wrapped from head to toe in bandages, with only his ears and tail free, this lazy dog villager is well and truly mummified. And if you need more proof that this good boy is among the walking dead, his only visible eye is an unearthly glowing yellow. That's not normal, that's the sort of thing you need to have a serious talk to your vet about.
Some people seem to think that the only animals mummified by the ancient Egyptians were cats, but this isn't the case. While some animals that suffered this fate were beloved family pets that had passed on and were treated the same way in death that any other family member would be, others were sacrifices to various Deities. These included a wide variety of animals, including man's best friend. Evidence of this is recorded every year, one of the biggest finds being found in 2015 when around eight million mummified canines were unearthed by Archaeologists in the catacombs dedicated to Anubis, located in Saqqara, South Cairo.

Coco is a rabbit villager, with the Normal personality and, let's be honest, is a complete sweetheart. A lot of players make the mistake of assuming that her name and appearance are influenced by coconuts, which also have three holes, very similar to the ones Coco has for her eyes and mouth. The truth is a lot darker than that. This charming bunny is actually based on a Haniwa. 
Haniwa are clay figurines of a ritual nature, specifically funerary objects that were buried along with the dead in ancient Japan, or used to mark burial sites. They first started off as simple clay cylinders, but over time they evolved into more intricate forms; human figures, houses, military equipment and even animals. These items were meant to serve or act as a companion for the dead; which of these was Coco's purpose we may never know. Coco isn't the only example of a Haniwa figure to appear in Animal Crossing either, others exist in the form of Gyroids.

Out of all the villagers on this list, Clay is my favourite. He's
adorable, delightful and I discovered him by accident while on a hunt for Pietro. Yes, that's right, I gave up my hunt for everyone's favourite killer clown sheep so that Clay could take the last empty spot on my island. I initially mistook him for a Cub villager, but he's actually a Hamster and comes with the Lazy personality.
Like Coco, he's also based on a type of ancient Japanese figurine and, although sometimes found in graves, a type that's not always of a funerary nature. Clay is based on a Dogลซ figurine, which were made only during Japans Jรตmon period, making some of the oldest of these figurines around 10,000 years old. Their true purpose is debated, but they're considered to be evidence of a form of early religion, having been found in many places. It's possible that they could be depictions of some unknown deity or fetish of some sort, but some historians theorise that they may just have been toys. Even in modern times, these mysterious objects have captured peoples imaginations, inspiring everyone from artists to conspiracy theorists.

Villagers with the Smug personality type can be an acquired taste,
you either love them or you hate them. I can't stand most of them, but I'll make an allowance for Julian because, despite being classed as a Horse type villager, he is actually a Unicorn. And who doesn't like unicorns?
Versions of these mythological beasts have been recorded since the Bronze Age, in countries all over the world. In fact, nearly every country seems to have their own version of the Unicorn, making it a very widely recognised creature. Often seen as a symbol of purity, they're also seen as a symbol of royalty and are a popular fixture on peoples coats of arms. The horn of a unicorn was especially in demand, as it was said to be able to purify poisons and heal all manner of illnesses, the tricky part was getting your hands on one. According to legend, only a virgin pure could tame a unicorn. They were used as bate in hunts, distracting the beast while hunter took advantage of the Unicorns sudden docileness. Smart merchants could make a small fortune selling cut down narwhale horns as the genuine article, the Vikings used to do so regularly. Most people back then had no idea what a narwhale was, it was an easy trick to pull off.

Hans is another Smug villager and is a Gorilla type villager. While
Gorilla types may be one of the most disliked varieties of villagers, I feel like we should give Hans a break. After all, everyone agrees that he's a Yeti, not a Gorilla. 
Also known as the Abominable Snowman, the Yeti comes to us from the Himalayas and is similar to other cryptids such as Bigfoot. Reports of these creatures go back centuries and many people have searched for them in an attempt to prove their existence, including Alexander the Great in 326 BC. Personally I'm split 50/50 on the topic, as I believe that an intelligent creature that's evolved for that type of climate could easily out-fox anyone hunting it and, as previously stated, reports of the Yetis existence go back thousands of years. Even the scientific community seem a little torn on the subject, despite extensive tests having been done on hair that's been found. Traditionally depicted as being covered in white, shaggy hair just like Hans, there are reports of Yetis sighted at lower altitudes with ginger or black hair, and it has been suggested that there may be more than one type of the creature roaming around. I wish I could say that they are entirely solitary creatures, but over the years there have been some reports of them harassing shepherds and attacking their herds.

So what about you, readers? Are any of your favourite spooky villagers in this list, or do you prefer one of the ones I've left off? What are your favourite spooky bits of Animal Crossing lore?
Let me know in the comments below or tag me in a post on Twitter, I love hearing your stories.

*Well, that and Gwent. Lots of Gwent. 

Friday, October 16, 2020

The Art of Terror: Early Haunts

"๐“•๐“ธ๐“พ๐“ป ๐“ฎ๐“ช๐“ป๐“ต๐”‚ ๐“ช๐“ท๐“ญ ๐“ฒ๐“ท๐“ผ๐“น๐“ฒ๐“ป๐“ช๐“ฝ๐“ฒ๐“ธ๐“ท๐“ช๐“ต ๐“ฐ๐“ฑ๐“ธ๐“ผ๐“ฝ ๐“ผ๐“ฝ๐“ธ๐“ป๐“ฒ๐“ฎ๐“ผ, ๐“ถ๐“ธ๐“ผ๐“ฝ๐“ต๐”‚ ๐“ฏ๐“ธ๐“ป๐“ฐ๐“ธ๐“ฝ๐“ฝ๐“ฎ๐“ท ๐“ฒ๐“ท ๐“ฝ๐“ฑ๐“ฎ ๐“ญ๐“ฎ๐“น๐“ฝ๐“ฑ๐“ผ ๐“ธ๐“ฏ ๐“ต๐“ฒ๐“ฝ๐“ฎ๐“ป๐“ช๐“ป๐”‚ ๐“ฑ๐“ฒ๐“ผ๐“ฝ๐“ธ๐“ป๐”‚ ๐“ช๐“ป๐“ฎ ๐“ซ๐“ป๐“ธ๐“พ๐“ฐ๐“ฑ๐“ฝ ๐“ฝ๐“ธ๐“ฐ๐“ฎ๐“ฝ๐“ฑ๐“ฎ๐“ป ๐“ฏ๐“ธ๐“ป ๐“ฝ๐“ฑ๐“ฎ ๐“ฏ๐“ฒ๐“ป๐“ผ๐“ฝ ๐“ฝ๐“ฒ๐“ถ๐“ฎ ๐“ฒ๐“ท ๐“ธ๐“ท๐“ฎ ๐“ฐ๐“ป๐“ช๐“น๐“ฑ๐“ฒ๐“ฌ ๐“ท๐“ธ๐“ฟ๐“ฎ๐“ต ๐“ช๐“ญ๐“ช๐“น๐“ฝ๐“ช๐“ฝ๐“ฒ๐“ธ๐“ท ๐“ฏ๐“ธ๐“ป ๐“ช๐“ท ๐“ฎ๐”๐“ฌ๐“ต๐“พ๐“ผ๐“ฒ๐“ฟ๐“ฎ ๐“ฑ๐“ช๐“ป๐“ญ๐“ซ๐“ช๐“ฌ๐“ด ๐“ป๐“ฎ๐“ต๐“ฎ๐“ช๐“ผ๐“ฎ. ๐“ข๐“ฝ๐“ธ๐“ป๐“ฒ๐“ฎ๐“ผ ๐”€๐“ฑ๐“ฒ๐“ฌ๐“ฑ ๐“ฒ๐“ท๐“ผ๐“น๐“ฒ๐“ป๐“ฎ๐“ญ ๐“ข๐“ต๐“ฎ๐“ฎ๐“น๐”‚ ๐“—๐“ธ๐“ต๐“ต๐“ธ๐”€, ๐“ก๐“ฒ๐“ท๐“ฐ, ๐“•๐“ป๐“ช๐“ท๐“ด๐“ฎ๐“ท๐“ผ๐“ฝ๐“ฎ๐“ฒ๐“ท ๐“ช๐“ท๐“ญ ๐“ช ๐“’๐“ฑ๐“ป๐“ฒ๐“ผ๐“ฝ๐“ถ๐“ช๐“ผ ๐“’๐“ช๐“ป๐“ธ๐“ต." 

 October is here. The nights are dark and cold, the perfect time to snuggle up in the warm, with a hot drink and something spooky. What's winter without a good ghost story? But there are so many to choose from and sometimes you want something new, something you haven't read before. How about a classic ghost story or two? Better yet, how about four in the form of a beautifully written and illustrated graphic novel?

This graphic novel is bought to us by author T.W.Burgess. His first novel was self-published in 2014
and he has since released five others, including Photoghasts, the worlds first AR haunted book. His works have garnered great praise from publications such as Starburst Magazine and Rue Morgue, and have included introductions from Junji Ito, Reece Shearsmith and Corin Hardy. With these books, he has helped introduce us to a wonderful world of spine chilling horror. And now, with the help of a team of amazing artists, that world is about to expand even further. I'd like to introduce you to Early Haunts, a stunning and much anticipated graphic novel which I hope you'll consider adding to your collection. If not for yourself, then for that special spooky someone in your life. This new anthology brings you four little known classic tales of terror, coming to us from mythology and early folklore, and introducing the reader to a carefully curated collection of some of the earliest recorded ghost stories. Some of you may have heard of these stories, but many of you won't have and Early Haunts is the perfect introduction to them for any reader. 

The Stories

The House in Athens
Adapted from the ancient Roman story of the same name, it was found in the letters of Pliny The Younger, a Roman politician and writer. He lived from 61AD to 113AD, which gives you an idea of just how old this story is, making it the earliest recorded ghost story in the book. The House in Athens tells the tale of a terrifying chained apparition stalking a house in ancient Athens and how a man named Athenodorus set out to solve the mystery of this ominous spectre. You'll recognise this chained ghost from Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol, as it was an inspiration for the tormented spirit of Jacob Marley.
It's illustrated by Mike O Brien, who has captured the story wonderfully with his rich colour pallet and sweeping brush strokes. His work has previously been included in Cracked Eye Magazine and at the Bishop's Stortford Museum, among others.

The Tale from Dish Mansion
Originally recorded as The Plate House, by Baba Bunko in 1758, this folktale can trace its origins to a Kabuki play by the name of Bancho Saravashiki. It tells the chilling story of Okiku, a girl doomed to become a tragic and terrifying Japanese spirit known as a Yokai. If she sounds familiar to you when you read this chapter, then you can thank author Koji Suzuki, who seems to have taken inspiration from this tale for his novel, The Ring, thus bringing us another well dwelling spector; Sadako. 
Illustrator Bri Neumann and colourist Bryan Valenza have bought this tale to life with incredible attention to detail and a gorgeously warm colour pallet. 
Bri Neumann has worked in Television, Animation and Computer Games in a variety of different roles, including working for Dreamworks Animation, Nintendo and Rick & Morty, among others.
Bryan Valenza has worked for both indie and non-indie publishers, including DC Comics, Image Comics and Lion Forge.

The Wild Huntsman
The Wild Huntsman has been carefully dapted from the poem of the same name, which was written by the German poet Gottfried August Bรผrger in the 1700s. Based on German folklore, it concerns the tale of a huntsman who, upon going hunting on a Sunday, soon finds himself cursed through his own actions. This creepy poem was a source of inspiration for Washington Irving, when he was writing his own classic ghost story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.
Illustrator Brian Coldrick has brought this chilling tale to life with a cool colour pallet and stunning art style that brings life to the frantic chase depicted in the poem. Known for his brilliant webcomic Behind You, his work also includes monster design for Doctor Who, robotic prosthetics for Lady Gaga and cover art for Locke and Key.

The Death Bride
A chilling Italian gothic horror story, The Death Bride hails from a French anthology of German ghost stories known as Fantasmagoriana. This tale of love and terror was first translated by Jean-Baptiste Benoรฎt Eyriรจs, anonymously for some reason and it was published in 1812. Fantasmagoriana was one of many books read by Mary Shelly during her stay in Geneva with her husband Percy Shelley and Lord Byron, becoming one of her main influences when writing her famous novel Frankenstein.
This story is illustrated by David Romero, a freelance illustrator and animator whos speciality is horror. His haunting artwork adds a dark atmosphere to this story, which brings with it a creeping dread. Very fitting for a story like this. David has worked for many people and companies, including Image Comics and Simply Scary Podcast.

A lot of work has been put into this project, each story has been painstakingly adapted by T.W.Burgess and beautifully bought to life by the artists involved. Simply put, it's a labour of love. The Kickstarter campaign ends on the 6th of November, so you still have plenty of time to get involved and show your support for this exciting project. 

Head over to the Early Haunts Kickstarter now and you can help bring this book to life in the form of an elegantly designed hardback novel. 

There are seven levels of support you can offer. Each brings with it a signed first edition of the book (either digital, physical or both.) and various other goodies, including (depending on the amount pledged.) limited edition bookplates, copies of T.W.burgess' other novels, a copy of the Early Haunts digital sketchbook and a Thank You in the back of the book itself.  The campaign also includes three fabulous Stretch Goals. It's reached the £10,000 goal so all print backers will receive a limited edition art print, but if it reaches £15,000 then they will be able to include AR pages in the book and if it reaches £20,000 then every backer will get a copy of an exclusive bonus comic. T.W.Burgess and Brian Coldrick have been working on a comic adapted from the actual haunting which inspired the classic ghost story The Turn of the Screw, written by Henry James. 

I myself have signed up and am following the campaign with much excitement. How about you, dear reader? Are you already following Early Haunts? What are you excited about the most, what has you hyped for the project's completion? If you arent following Early Haunts on Kickstarter just yet, then I highly recommend you do so. This unique and fascinating graphic novel is an excellent addition to any ghost story or graphic novel collection.
As always, I'd love to hear from you, either in the comments below or by tagging me in a post on Twitter. Plus don't forget to send some extra good vibes and support to team responsible for this beautiful project, by following them on Twitter too. Their profiles can be reached by clicking on their names.

 ๐“ž๐“ท ๐“š๐“ฒ๐“ฌ๐“ด๐“ผ๐“ฝ๐“ช๐“ป๐“ฝ๐“ฎ๐“ป ๐“ช๐“ท๐“ญ ๐“ฌ๐“ธ๐“ถ๐“ฒ๐“ท๐“ฐ ๐“ฝ๐“ธ ๐”‚๐“ธ๐“พ๐“ป ๐“ซ๐“ธ๐“ธ๐“ด๐“ผ๐“ฑ๐“ฎ๐“ต๐“ฏ ๐“ผ๐“ธ๐“ธ๐“ท!

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Ghost Ship: the SS Ourang Medan

The end of September is here and Autumn is in full sway. The leaves are turning, the air is crisp and the nights are dark, so naturally it's time to turn on the central heating or, if you're lucky, stoke up the fire and get stuck into a good ghost story. And, as always, I have the perfect story for you to scare yourself with.

"๐•‹๐•™๐•–๐•š๐•ฃ ๐•—๐•ฃ๐• ๐•ซ๐•–๐•Ÿ ๐•—๐•’๐•”๐•–๐•ค ๐•จ๐•–๐•ฃ๐•– ๐•ฆ๐•ก๐•ฅ๐•ฆ๐•ฃ๐•Ÿ๐•–๐•• ๐•ฅ๐•  ๐•ฅ๐•™๐•– ๐•ค๐•ฆ๐•Ÿ, ๐•ฅ๐•™๐•– ๐•ž๐• ๐•ฆ๐•ฅ๐•™๐•ค ๐•จ๐•–๐•ฃ๐•– ๐•˜๐•’๐•ก๐•š๐•Ÿ๐•˜ ๐• ๐•ก๐•–๐•Ÿ ๐•’๐•Ÿ๐•• ๐•ฅ๐•™๐•– ๐•–๐•ช๐•–๐•ค ๐•ค๐•ฅ๐•’๐•ฃ๐•š๐•Ÿ๐•˜..."

Allegedly a photo of one of the dead crewmen,
it's source is untraceable and therefore unreliable.
Sometime in 1947, ships in the Malacca Straight started to receive
distress calls from a Dutch merchant ship, which had run into 
trouble. This wasn't unusual in that area, but the content of the messages was. "All officers, including Captain dead, lying in the chartroom and on bridge. Probably whole crew dead." came the panicked message from the ships radio operator. This was followed by a string of garbled morse code, utterly untranslatable, as if the sender was so hysterical that they couldn't send properly. Minutes of silence followed before one last message was transmitted from the stricken vessel. Just two words. "I die." After this, there was nothing but radio silence. The ship, the SS Ourang Medan, couldn't be hailed. Coordinates had been given during the distress calls and an American vessel, by the name of the Silver Star, decided to check the situation out. Understandably unnerved by the chilling distress calls, they still hoped that they might save someone, anyone. Their hopes of finding survivors were soon dashed as they sighted the ship. The Ourang Medan was dead in the water, floating with the tide, nobody in sight. Once again all attempts to hail the crew were met with silence. Apprehensively, the rescuers boarded the silent vessel and were greeted with a sight beyond their wildest nightmares. Below deck, the ship was so cold that the rescue team could see their breath, it was like walking into a meat locker. Highly unusual for such a hot part of the country. But what truly sent chills down their spines wasn't the temperature, every member of the Ourang Medan's crew was dead. Bodies littered the decks. Twisted and contorted, their faces frozen in expressions of terror, as if they had seen something truly horrific in their final moments. Not even the ships dog had been spared, a fearful snarl forever fixed upon its face. It was the sight of the radio operator, slumped at his station, that sent the rescue party running. After much discussion it was agreed that they would at least tow the stranded ship back to port, so that the authorities there could investigate it properly. Before they could do so, thick smoke began to billow from the depths of the Ourang Medan. Fire soon followed the smoke and the crew of the Silver Star barely had enough time to cut their tow ropes and get themselves to a safe distance before an explosion rocked the other ship. It's said the force of the explosion was so strong that the SS Ourang Medan was actually lifted from the water as it was torn apart, sinking, never to be found.

A rumoured photo of the SS Ourang Medan, photographer unknown

The Truth Behind the Tale
There's nothing quite like a good ghost ship story, is there? And in my opinion, the tale of the Ourang Medan is just that, a scary story. But would it surprise you if I told you that some people believe that it's not a story, that the events I just told you about really happened? Not an old urban legend, it seems to have first appeared in a Dutch-Indonesian newspaper in 1948, but also appears in two American papers, one also in 1948 and another later in 1952. It worth mentioning that these articles differ from the version of the story we have now, with the first article neglecting to name the rescue ship and the American articles including a miraculous sole survivor, who tells his rescuers that the ship was carrying badly packaged chemicals which leaked and killed the crew, before dying himself. While stories do change over time, some people believe that this is a sign that the tale was deliberately changed as part of a cover-up. The rescue ship, the Silver Star, was indeed a real ship, but there is no sign of the SS Ourang Medan ever having existed. There is a Coast Guard report floating around, but that's highly likely to be fake, as it was made in 1954 and the incident itself happened in 1947. That's an 8-year gap between events. Oddly, the Ourang Medan was also referenced by the CIA in a report in 1959. Although written in 1959, the report wasn't released to the public until 2003 and you can read that report as a pdf here. So whats going on here? Three conspiracy theories have grown around this story. 
Theory one: The most popular of the three states that the Ourang Medan was part of a massive cover-up, one that resulted in it being wiped from all registration and shipping records, and even from the ships log of the Silver Star itself. Some theorise that the ship wasn't even Dutch, but was instead a disguised American military ship, covertly moving a newly developed and unnamed chemical weapon from one location to another. This ties in nicely with the Sole Survivor from the American articles, who claimed the ship was carrying chemicals. Conspiracy theories aren't really my vibe, but you know me, I would never mock anyone for their theories and I love a good mystery. So it's no surprise that I've sat and thought about this story. It is worth noting that out of the two theories, this one seems the most realistic, since the sinking of the SS Ourang Medan and it's mysterious cargo coincides with the year that the Cold War started. In this period, if a country had developed a new weapon, then they would want to transport it around secretly. The chemical weapon part is where it gets interesting, as to have the effect on the Ourang Medan's crew that it had, then it would have to be a nerve agent of some sort. While the chemical weapon known as VX could have had that effect and did need to be stored in cold temperatures, explaining the why the ship was like a walk-in freezer below deck, it wasn't developed until the 1950s, in Britain. But that doesn't mean they, and other countries, wouldn't have been working on it before then. Meaning the SS Ourang Medan, if real, could have been transporting an early prototype of the weapon. If it were an unknown chemical weapon, then another possible culprate could be an extract of Oenanthe, a type plant also referred to as Hemlock Water Dropworts. In ancient Sardinia, this plant was used for its neurotoxins, usually when sacrificing the elderly. If administered in high enough amounts, it twists the face in death, causing something referred to by scientists as the Sardonic Grin. This might sound cheery, but it's actually less of a cheerful smile and more of a twisted grimace; teeth bared, eyes wide, sounds familiar doesn't it? It's the exact look that the crew of the Ourang Medan had on their faces in death. 
Theory Two: Something in the ships boiler had malfunctioned, or was on fire and was leaking carbon monoxide gas. This seems incredibly unlikely, because the side effects of CO poisoning would have had the crew sending out a distress call long before they reached the stage they did as would a fire. Some of the Ourang Medan's crew were outside in the fresh air, where CO gas would have dissipated and, even though they would have been feeling a bit queazy, they wouldn't have been reduced to twisted corpses. Also, if the boiler was releasing enough CO to incapacitate the crew that quickly, then the rescue party from the Silver Star would also have been affected to some degree when they went below deck. They were not. They also reported no signs of smoke, which would have flooded the ship had there been a fire below deck.
Theory Three: Aliens did it. Out of all of the theories, this is (for me at least) the most far fetched of the bunch. Some people strongly believe that what happened on the Ourang Medan was a violent chance encounter with Aliens, which resulted in the gruesome deaths of all aboard and resulted in the ship exploding. Sadly this theory crops up a lot when something mysterious, with no apparent explanation, occurs. No signs of UFO activity or unexplained lights in the sky were sighted or reported by any of the other ships in the area.

The Ourang Medan in Popular Media
Oddly, although there are a lot of films based around the subject of ghost ships, there are none about the Ourang Medan. This is a shame, since the story would, if made by the right people, make a brilliant horror movie. The closest you'll find is The Man of Medan, an excellent game made the company Supermassive Games. The game itself is based around the idea of...well, I won't tell you. It may have been released last year, but you'll find no spoilers here. Available on PC, PS4 and Xbox One, it's well worth a download if you enjoy a story-driven adventure/survival horror game with multiple endings based on your actions during the game.

So, what do you think, readers? A chilling tale to scare your friends or a true story that has been covered up? Personally, I'm hoping it is just a story, because after referring to the theories about it as conspiracy theories, I'm going to be very embarrassed if the first one turns out to be true. And completely mortified if the third one turns out to be true. Have any theories of your own, or anything to add to the ones I've mentioned? Let me know in the comments below, or link me in a Tweet

Friday, August 28, 2020

Killer Unknown: the Villisca Axe Murders

The daybook, Chicago, 14th June 1912.
 Public domain

Every town has it's haunted house, a grim-looking place where terrible things have happened or are
rumoured to have had happened. But not many can boast of a crime quite like the Villisca Axe Murders of 1912. A crime so brutal that it replaced the recent Titanic disaster on the front pages of many American newspapers. People were fascinated by true crime, even 108 years ago.

June 9th, 1912.
The Moore family returned to their home after an enjoyable, but busy, day out. The family was made up of Josiah (43 y/o), Sarah (39 y/o) and their four children, Paul (5 y/o), Boyd (7 y/o), Katherine (10 y/o) and Herman (11 y/o).
Joining them were Lena (8 y/o) and Ina Mae Stillinger (12 y/o), two of Katherine's friends, who had been invited over for a sleepover. They'd spent the day at their local church, attending a Children's Day event organised by Sarah and they didn't get home until late, around 9:45 or 10:00.
It's not known what time they all went to bed, but it's safe to assume they had some tea first and spent some time unwinding before they did. Eventually, the household would go to bed, the Moores and their brood in their own rooms upstares and the Stillinger girls in the guestroom downstairs.
None of them would ever wake up.

June 10th, 1912
The Moores neighbour, Mary, has started her day. But, as she goes about her morning routine, she can't help but notice that something is missing and that something was the Moores. See, at that point in the morning, the children should have been out and about, starting their daily chores. To Mary's growing concern, as the morning went on there was no sign of life over at the house next to hers. She assumed that the family had fallen ill and went to check on them. The curtains were still drawn and the house seemed dark. Mary first tried knocking on the door, then calling out to the people inside, but got no response. Her attempt to let herself in was met with something unusual; a locked door. It was unusual because in those days, in those sleepy, safe little towns, people would leave their doors unlocked. They had nothing to fear, or at least thought they didn't, but what would be discovered inside that house would have the whole town locking their doors and windows. Unable to get in, Mary called Ross Moore, Josiah's brother and owner of a spare door key. And, being the good person she was, while Ross let himself into the house, Mary fed the families chickens, thinking she was doing her friends a favour. She wasn't expecting him to come running out, calling to her to call the police.
Inside the house had been ominously silent, Ross may have been expecting to find something grim but nothing could prepare him for the horror contained inside that building. Wandering around the ground floor, calling for his family, he came across the guestroom and its chilling contents. And having guessed why the family was nowhere to be seen, he fled.
Photo by Jennifer Kirkland, CC BY-ND 2.0

Town Marshal Horton and his men arrive to discover a human abattoir and a rapidly growing crowd of onlookers. A search of the house reveals that somebody has taken the families axe from the woodshed and, starting with Josiah and Sarah, killed everyone. These murders were methodical and precise. Everything seems to indicate a lot of anger and most of this rage seems to have been aimed at Josiah. Mr Moore had been struck at least thirty times, with both the blade and back of the axe. The force of the blows rained down upon him were strong enough to pop his eye right out of its socket and the murderer had gone out of his way to demolish Josiah's face. Investigators even found chunks gouged out of the ceiling above the bed, where the axe had been swung back so far that it had struck it. After finishing of the adults, he went after the children and, after he was finished, he went back to the parent's room to beat Josiah's face into an unrecognisable mush. Once he had done so he went downstairs and killed Lena and Ina Mae. And this is where it starts to get weird. Or weirder. You see, killing someone with an axe, especially when using such extreme brute strength, is going to make a lot of noise. And yet no one woke up, except for possibly Lena Stillinger. She was found lying sideways across her bed and there were signs of a struggle, defensive wounds on her arms. But other than Lena, it looks like everyone just slept through the carnage. Sarah, tucked up in bed with Josiah didn't stir as her husbands head was caved in. The children didn't wake as their siblings, in the same room as them, had their short lives ended. And Ina Mae Stillinger didn't wake as her sister fought off her attacker. Stranger still, after finishing off his victims, the killer had covered their faces, mirrors and other reflective surfaces with bedsheets and items of clothing. This could indicate two things. The first possibility is that it was an act of remorse, the killer knew they'd done wrong and this was some strange way of showing respect to the victims, much like wrapping a body in a burial shroud. The second possibility is that he was covering his tracks, much like how serial killer Andrei Chikatilo would put out his victim's eyes for fear that they somehow contained his image burnt onto them. Is it possible the killer thought this act could prevent him from being caught? For some reason, the killer also removed a 4lb cut of bacon from the pantry, only to discard it in the living room along with the murder weapon, which he propped up against the wall. Was this some bizarre attempt at making the murders look like a robbery gone wrong, or had the killer intended to take it with him but forgot it or changed his mind? Police also found a bowl of bloody water, as if the killer had tried to wash himself clean, before leaving and locking the door behind him.
Doctors on the scene work out that the crime had been committed sometime between 12:00 am and 5:00am, but it doesn't seem that they looked into why no one had woken up while it was happening. 
Considering how much of a shambles the investigation was, it's possible that they did look into it but the evidence was lost. 

Crime Scene or Circus?
Photo by Jennifer Kirkland, CC BY-ND 2.0
The local law enforcement's half-hearted attempts at investigation pretty much ensured the killer would never be found and the suspect list they came up with was based on rumours and mudslinging rather than actual evidence. They didn't rush to start a manhunt, believing that it would be a waste of time and the killer would be long gone. Some even dismissed the case as just part of a string of similar murders that had been taking place at the time. Worse yet, in a time where forensic science was still developing and relied on an untampered with crime scene, the police didn't properly secure the building. All they did was warn the crowd outside not to go in and made no real attempt to stop them when they started to do so anyway. It was a small town and news travelled fast. The crowd that had been outside when the police arrived had swelled in numbers. Driven by morbid fascination, they ignored the police and proceeded to enter the house. Over 100 people treated a tragic crime scene full of gore as a sideshow, wandering around the house like it was a museum and, most likely, destroying vital evidence. The desecration didn't stop there, as one of the ghoulish visitors took a chunk of Josiah's crushed skull home with them, as a souvenir. 
All this while the families of the dead watched on in grief and horror.

The Suspects
Despite the lack of real evidence, there was no shortage of suspects, with people being blamed left, right and centre. There were seven suspects in total, most of it comes across as a bit of a witch hunt. In some cases, it looks as if the police were trying to cover up their incompetence at the crime scene by desperately scrabbling for someone to blame. But, as you'll see, there are a couple of potential suspect here.

Sam Moyer
It's said that when a murder happens, it's usually perpetrated by someone the victim knows. And the Moore's definitely knew Moyer, as he was a family member, Sarah's brother. He became a suspect when it came to light that he'd often threatened the life of his brother-in-law, but his alibi was a solid one and resulted in him being cleared of all charges at the inquest.
It's worth noting that while Sam had a history of threatening Josiah, there are no reports of those threats being extended to his sister, nieces and nephews. 

Henry Moore
Henry's surname is just an odd coincidence, since he was in no way related to the victims. I've mentioned before that there was a slwe of violent axe murders being commited at the time, which some consider the Villisca murders to be a part of. Henry was one of the suspects for those murders, incriminating himself even further when he took and axe to his own grandmother, wife and infant child.
Despite this he wasnt officially charged for the Villisca murders, remaining only a suspect and it's worth pointing out that the murder of his family was one fueled by greed. He'd taken out insurance on each of them and it appears that he was hoping to pass the murders off as one of the many commited at that time, so that he could make a claim.

Reverend George Kelly
To the people of Villisca, Reverend George was a bit of an oddball and a creep. A travelling minister, he attended the same church event that the Moores did before their deaths and left Villisca sometime around 5:30am, not long after the murders had happened. What made people even more suspicious of him is that he'd often been seen peeping through peoples windows and had been accused, multiple times, of asking young girls to pose for naked for him. Young girls around Lena Stillinger's age and up. He was also completely obsessed with the crime, bothering the families and the police with letters and attempting to sneak onto the crime scene, when it was secured, by pretending to be a policeman. He even told a P.I. that he'd been around the house the night the murders took place and may have witnessed it, but the police didn't bother to take him into custody for the murders until 1917. That's a whole five years after the murders took place. After hours of interrogation, they got a confession out of him and sent him off to court. He would go to trial two times and be acquitted on both occasions. At the first trial, the jury looked at his history of mental illness and refused to sentence him. At the second he went back on his claim that he'd committed the crime, insisting that the police had beat the confession out of him. 

Andrew Sawyer
Andrew was a railroad worker, a bit of a loner, with no link to the Moore family. And like the rest of the nation, he was fascinated by the murders that had taken place, but fascinated to the degree that his constant talking about it unnerved his co-workers enough that they complained to the crew's foreman. The foreman, a man named Dyer, took him aside to speak to him about it, hoping to solve the strange problem. He was shocked when Andrew admitted to being in Villisca the night of the murder and told him that had heard it happen, but ran away for fear of being blamed for it. As a transient, he would have made the perfect scapegoat. Dyer was so unnerved by this that he immediately reported the man to the police. Despite his bizarre claims, Andrew was able to provide the police with a pretty solid alibi, as on the night of the murders he had been arrested for vagrancy in Osceola, Iowa. This lead to him being dismissed as a suspect.

Paul Mueller 
A European immigrant, Paul Mueller was never arrested or charged for the Villisca axe murders and is a relatively new suspect in the case, having been suggested as the murderer in Bill James and Rachel McCarthy's 2017 book The Man from the Train. Evidence against him includes him being tracked in a year-long manhunt, accused of killing a family in Massachusetts in 1897.

Frank F. Jones
Out of all the people on this list, it seems that Mr Jones had an actual reason for wanting Josiah Moore dead. An Iowa State Senator living in Villisca, before he turned to politics he had owned a store there. And who worked for him? None other than Josiah. Josiah who turned out to be so good at his job that he would go on to leave Jones' employment and open a store of his very own, taking a lot of high paying customers with him in the process. On top of that, there was an unfounded rumour going round that Josiah was having an affair with Jones' daughter in law. 
Although he went uncharged for the murders, many of the locals, including the father of the Stillinger sisters and Ross Moore himself, still strongly felt that he was the guilty party. It was suggested that he'd hired someone to commit the deed, rather than risk dirtying his own hands and reputation. Josiah's family and their friends? Collateral damage. But who could he hire to do such a terrible thing? Well, that would be William Mansfield, the next suspect on our list.

William Mansfield
I chose to place Mansfield after Jones on this list, because of their possible link to each other. He was a deeply unpleasant person and one who wasn't just a prime suspect for the string of axe murders that had been going on, some even suspect him of being a potential suspect in the Axeman of New Orleans killings. He even killed his own wife, parents-in-law and infant child with an axe just two years after the Moores murders. Yet he wasn't investigated for killings in Villisca until 1916 and was quickly acquitted as he had a seemingly solid alibi. A witness would later come forward stating that he'd seen Mansfield in Shenandoah, Iowa, heading to the train station. If this is true then it blows Mansfields alibi clear out of the water, but he was never re-arrested. At the same time of his first arrest, Frank Jones was pushing for the arrest of Reverend Kelly, an investigator at the time believes this led to Mansfields release and the subsequent trial of Kelly.

A Crime Unsolved.
There are few crimes as chaotic as the Villisca Axe Murders, with the surviving family members being failed so abysmally by those who should have been supporting them and solving the crime. Even with seven suspects, no killer was ever bought to justice. I'll leave it to you to make up your mind which one of the accused committed the crime, if any and I'd love to hear your theories in the comments. Or, as always, if you'd prefer to do so, then you can tag me in a post on Twitter. Personally, I side with the theory that it was Jones and Mansfield. Being popular in the community, Josiah Moore would have been an even bigger thorn in Jones' side had he decided to jump into politics as well, not to mention the rumours about the alleged affair would have damaged Jones' families reputation to a degree. Out of everyone on that list, Jones was the only person to have a real reason to want Moore out of the way, Mansfield was the perfect tool to get the job done and Reverend Kelly was the perfect sacrificial lamb. I'm not saying Kelly was an angel. Far from it, he was a complete dumpster fire of a human being who had already had numerous complaints raised against him for his odious behaviour, but he'd never shown signs of being violent before and seems to be the only person to be interrogated to such a degree that he admitted to the crime. Kelly was a very scrawny, malnourished looking man whom I doubt would have had the strength to kill one person with an axe, let alone do that amount of damage. Mansfield could though, and proved it by committing a near-identical crime two years later when he slaughtered his own family. It would also make sense that Jones would approach someone who didn't live locally to kill the Moores.
Photo by Jennifer Kirkland, CC BY-ND 2.0

One thing has always fascinated me though; why didn't the family wake up? Again, the murders wouldn't have been quiet. If they were sleeping naturally then they would have woken up, there would have been panic and screaming, and survivors. One theory does come to mind and that is that the family had been drugged. Barbiturates were readily available in many forms in those days, buying them was as easy as buying a packet of sweets. You picked your poison and you paid for it. If the family had a late tea planned for when they got home, Sarah probably would have prepared it in advance and left it out ready to reheat, making it easy for a home intruder to slip something a bit stronger than salt and pepper into the mix. There is a theory that instead of entering the house after everyone had gone to bed, the killer was already hiding in the house when they got home, in the attic. When searching the house for clues, the police found cigarette butts up there, adding weight to this theory, but they also could have come from one of the many townfolk who trudged through the house that day. However, the possibility of someone lurking up there, waiting for the unfortunates below to go to bed, ties in very well with the family being drugged, since the suspect would have had to enter the house to do so. It also adds another level of horror to the situation. Even if the family had locked their door, they wouldn't have escaped.

A Murder House in Modern Times
These days, the Moores home remains unlived in, but not completely abandoned. It would seem that the Moores never left. Visitors to the house have reported the sound of children playing and running from room to room, doors slamming on their own and opening just as easily, plus unexplained banging and dripping noises. The temperature will drop without warning, a feeling of darkness and heaviness will invade the atmosphere, and both shadow figures and an odd mist have been seen roaming the halls. Evidence has been caught on camera too. Subsequently, the house is on most paranormal enthusiasts bucket list and has featured on many ghost hunting programs and documentaries.
The strangest thing to happen in the house to date (other than the hauntings and the murders.) would have to be the accident that occurred there in 2014. honestly, I can't think of any other way to describe it than as an accident, but a visitor staying the night for a paranormal investigation stabbed himself, in the chest. There was no warning that it was going to happen and he didn't give a reason as to why he'd done such a thing, but the police did out foul play. Because of the building bloody history and alleged hauntings, a lot of people have linked the visitors odd behaviour to that, but he would appear to be the only person who has felt the need to harm themselves in the house.
Speaking of paranormal investigations; the house had various different owners after the 1912 tragedy, until it was bought in 1994 and renovated. All modernities were stripped back and the house returned to it's early 1900's glory, to how it would have been when the murders occurred, complete with historically accurate furnishings, decore and accessories. The owners now allow people to visit the house, running daytime tours and night experiences that allow you to sleepover. And if you're unable to travel to Villisca for a tour (or are just too scared to.), you can take a virtual tour of the house instead. 

Photo by The Man-Machine, CC0 1.0

Have you visited the Villisca Axe Murder house? Have a story of your own to tell, maybe some evidence of the paranormal or just your own theories as to who committed the terrible deed? Let me know in the comments below or tag me in a Tweet! As always, I adore getting comments from you guys and hearing any fascinating stories you have to tell.

Friday, July 31, 2020

Fae on Film: The Cottingley Fairies.

The Fae are a big part of our folklore, having seemingly existed for as long as we have written records.  For creatures that may or may not exist, they are important to us, continuing to be a big part of our culture and some religions to this day. They also have a fascinating duality to them; the dark creatures of our folklore and the glittering nymphs of our fairytales. And it's those saccharine sweet Fairytale Fairies that we'll be looking at today. The darker Folks will get a blog post of their own another day.
The Victorians (or at least those who could afford to be) were a desperately romantic bunch, clinging to magic and mystery in a world that was rapidly becoming swamped by industry and science. Spiritualism was still finding its feet in the world, all that was mystical or paranormal was being sought out. So, when in 1917, photos came to light of two young girls posing with seemingly real fairies, people were delighted. These photos are iconic. Chances are you've seen them before and, even if you weren't aware of where they came from, you were most likely charmed by them. It's hard not to be. Like something from a fairytale, innocent-looking girls surrounded by crowds of delicate, dancing Fairies. Although, by modern standards (either photoshop, CGI or a man in a Bigfoot costume) they're clearly fake, in the 1900's photography was still an ever evolving art. 

By Elsie Wright (1901–1988) - Scan of photographs, PD-US

Francis Griffith (10 years old) had travelled to England from South Africa, to stay with her Aunt,
Uncle and 13-year-old cousin, Elsie Wright. The two soon became best friends, inseparable. So, how are these children responsible for one of the worlds most famous hoaxes? The same way many hoaxes start. It was a prank. With a beautiful garden to play in and only a sparkling brook separating it from the local woods, they could let their imaginations run wild. So it's somewhat unsurprising that when they were told off for continuously coming home with torn pinafores and muddy shoes, they chose to blame the whole mess on the fairies they claimed lived at the bottom of the garden. No matter how many times they were scolded, the girls insisted it was because they'd been playing with the fairies and told their parents that they could prove it, if Elsie's father would just lend them his camera. After a quick lesson on how to use it, the girls trotted off with the camera, only to return an hour later. And, when the glass plates from the camera were developed, they showed the girls interacting with what appeared to be Fairies. Elsie's father immediately called the girls out on it, correctly guessing that the Fairies were paper cut-outs, even going as far as to search their rooms and the garden for evidence when they insisted the little people in the photos were real. Unable to find anything, he confiscated the camera. Elsie's mother, while shocked, believed the photos were real. Nothing her husband could say could convince her otherwise, but she still wanted to get proof and took the photos to Bradford with her, where she attended a meeting held by the Theosophical Society, who were dedicated to investigating the paranormal. When the lectures had finished, she pulled the speaker aside and explained the whole situation to him. Taking a look at the photos, he was so convinced of their authenticity, that he took them to their annual conference and put them on display for all attending to see. One of the many people attending that conference was a Mr Edward Gardner.
Edward Gardner
Gardner was fascinated but, like Elsie's Father, also a little sceptical. He was the first person to take the photos to an independent expert to be examined, although the expert became convinced that the photos were real after finding no evidence that the glass plate had been tampered with. And it's here that the innocent prank turns into a full-on hoax, as word of the photos and Gardner's testing of them reaches the ears of Sir Conan Arthur Doyle; creator of Sherlock Holmes and enthusiastic seeker of the paranormal. As convinced as everyone else that the girls had produced evidence of the existence of Fairies, he wanted to bring the photos to an even wider audience. As a contributor to The Strand Magazine, he contacted the Wights to ask for their permission to publish the photos and an article about them. And when he gained permission from the surprised family, he contacted Gardner. Working together, Gardner and Doyle would go on to get the photos checked out by more photography experts. Only one of these was convinced the whole thing was faked, so they disregarded his opinion, choosing to go with the majority. 
1920 bought more fairy photos. Doyle was busy and asked Gardner to visit the girls, investigate their story further and secure more evidence. The trip was a success. The girls agreed to take more photos, but on the understanding that they would be allowed to do so alone. The fairies, they explained to Gardner, would only appear to children and only then when there were no adults present. This allowed them to set up some hastily made paper models and shoot a few photos. One can assume that it also gave them some time to panic in private and discuss what on earth they were going to do, because the prank had
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
gone too far. They weren't just fooling their parents anymore, there were serious intellectuals involved and they thought the photos were real. Three photos were taken and these would be the last ones the girls ever produced. Even when Gardner visited them again in 1921 with a medium in tow, the girls told him there were no fairies present at that time. This didn't matter to Doyle, however. He proceeded to publish a second article on the subject, and even used the photos to write a book, The Coming of the Fairies, which was published in 1922. Both the article and the book were met with mixed reactions, the Cottingley Fairies fame had started to wane with that of the supernatural. Some people were still convinced, but others were sure they were faked, even calling into question the Fairies "fashionable" hairstyles as evidence of this. Even though people had lost interest, the story didn't end there, not for Elsie and Francis. For decades after they would have to put up with people wanting to speak to them about the fairies, but these people only wanted to know if the photos were fake and how they'd done it. I've got to give them credit, they were as brave as they were clever, admitting nothing. Even when James Randi got involved in the 1970s, pointing out that the Fae in the photos were identical to those published in a book from the 1900s, a book the girls were most likely to have owned, they said nothing. It wasn't until 1983 that the photos were officially debunked, with Elsie admitting they were faked. Her father had been right when he'd said they were paper cutouts and Randi was right when he'd spoken about the book. The girls had traced the books illustrations, colouring them in and mounting them on hairpins. This allowed them to stand the Fairies up without fear of them falling mid-photograph. They maintained the hoax out of pure embarrassment, Elsie reported. After fooling Gardner and Doyle, the articles and the book, it was easier to keep up the ruse than admit that it was false. And Francis? Francis swore the photos were genuine to the very end.

By Frances Griffiths (died 1986) - Scan of photograph, PD-US

I can only wonder how that felt for Elsie and Francis, to live their whole lives haunted by what started as a harmless bit of fun, to live with the knowledge that if they told the truth then it wouldn't be a few people laughing about it but hundreds of them, mocking and jeering. The dread of knowing that they'd go down in history not as the Boy Who Cried Wolf but as the Girls Who Cried Fairy. In Victorian times, a persons reputation was everything and once that reputation was damaged, they would either become a joke to their peers or be shunned completely. And, of course, they would have known that it wasn't just their reputations at risk, but Gardner and Doyle's too.
I don't know about you, but I'm fond of the Cottingley Fairy photos. The images speak of a more innocent time, something a lot of us left behind in our own childhoods. They must have had so much fun taking those first photos, before it all spiralled out of control. At the same time, there's something sad about them and I think that feeling stems from knowing the story behind them and what the girls went through for their entire lives.

What do you guys think? Sympathetic, or serves them right? Harmless prank turned hoax to save their reputations, or malicious prank stemming from a string of lies? Let me know in the comments below or tag me in a Tweet, you guys know I love to hear from you!