Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

James Tootle and the Cumbrian Cursing Stone

I find it curious how easily the human brain is lured into magical thinking.  We are wired to notice patterns, and to make inferences; and it's all too easy to forget that correlation does not imply causation.  The idea of certain items bringing good luck is a natural outcome of our desire to find root causes when we observe patterns, and even intelligent, highly educated people can fall for it.  I still remember the time I forgot to wear the red woolen hat I always wear to Cornell hockey games, during one of Cornell's winningest seasons -- and the guys lost.  And the people I sit near, in section C, blamed me.  "Wear the Big Red Hat next time, for crying out loud," one of them told me -- hopefully in jest, but I'm not really all that certain.

Of course, it isn't always good luck we're talking about.  Objects can be associated with bad luck, too.  And this brings us to James Tootle and the Cumbrian Cursing Stone (which sounds like the name of a rather demented children's book, but isn't).

James Tootle was a councillor in England, serving on the Carlisle and Cumbria County Councils.  He was serving in that capacity in 2001, when a local artist, Gordon Young, came up with the idea of memorializing a famous curse dating from the 16th century.  The curse, which at 383 words is too long to reproduce here, was aimed at the Border Reivers, a rather bloodthirsty group of highwaymen who terrorized Cumbria back in Shakespeare's time.  Young decided to engrave this bit of British history on a 14-ton granite stone, and the memorial was duly ensconced in an underpass near Carlisle Castle.

Well, Tootle didn't like it.  In fact, he blamed the stone for the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in 2001, and the massive Cumbrian floods of 2005, and petitioned to get the stone removed.  (What the stone was doing from 2002 to 2004 remains to be seen; maybe it was resting in between calamities.)  And despite the lack of further bad news in Cumbria after the flood episode, Tootle kept suggesting the stone be destroyed, and the suggestion kept being rejected.

And now, James Tootle has died.  And locals...

... are suggesting the stone did it.

Oh, come on.  You'd think if the stone was that pissed off, it'd have knocked Tootle off years ago, rather than waiting and taking the chance that the council would finally cave in to his demands and destroy it.  It took ten years for the stone to get rid of him?  I don't know about you, but that seems like the slowest-moving curse I've ever seen.  First, it precipitates two bad events, four years apart; does absolutely nothing for six years after that; and then causes one guy to kick the bucket.  As a bad luck charm, the Cumbrian Cursing Stone kind of sucks, doesn't it?

But now, of course, I've put myself in peril by criticizing it.  And look where that got James Tootle.  I might have, oh, twenty or thirty years to sit here and gloat; but then that stone will clean my clocks.  You'll see.  That'll warn people to be more cautious, when it comes to the Cumbrian Cursing Stone.  They'll probably put it on my gravestone:  "Here Lies Gordon, Who Died Of Old Age And The Aftereffects Of Ridiculing A Rock."

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