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, October 31, 2023

A dangerous beauty

The Greek island of Thera -- often known by its Italianized name of Santorini -- is the southernmost of the Cyclades, an island chain in the Aegean Sea southeast of mainland Greece.  Like much of the region, it's a stunningly beautiful place.  In fact, one of Thera's names in antiquity was Καλλίστη -- "the most beautiful one."

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Pedro Szekely from Los Angeles, USA, Santorini, Greece (38051518795), CC BY-SA 2.0]

The steep, rugged, rocky terrain, though, didn't happen by accident.  Thera and the other Cyclades formed because they sit near the margin of the Hellenic Subduction Zone, where the northern edge of the enormous African Plate is being shoved underneath the much smaller Aegean Sea Plate.  The result is the formation of an island arc, where the material in the subducted plate is pushed downward to a depth were it melts, and the blobs of magma rise toward the surface to create a chain of volcanoes.  (Most of the islands in the Caribbean, the Aleutians, and pretty much the entirety of the nations of Japan and Indonesia were formed this way.)

This makes it a dangerous place to live.  It was the site of the Minoan-era city Akrotiri, which became prosperous because of being a central port for the copper trade out of Cyprus (the Latin word for copper, cuprum, actually means "metal from Cyprus").  It was second only to Crete as a center of civilization for the Minoan Empire, and was famed for its art, especially elaborate and beautiful frescoes, pottery, and sculpture.  Many of the houses there had running water carried by bronze pipes, and geothermal heat.

The geothermal heat might have clued its residents in that something was going on underground.  All of the high times came to an end with a colossal eruption of the volcano just offshore in around 1600 B.C.E. 

[Nota bene: this is not what inspired the myth of Atlantis, despite the claims you see all over the place on the interwebz.  Plato made it clear that the legend said Atlantis was "west of the Pillars of Hercules" (the Straits of Gibraltar), somewhere out in the Atlantic (thus the name).  But... allow me to stress this point... Atlantis never existed.  Because it's a myth.]

Anyhow, the eruption of Thera not only destroyed pretty much the entire island, but blew an estimated forty cubic kilometers of dust and ash into the air, triggering atmospheric and climatic effects that were recorded by contemporaneous scholars in Egypt and China and draw comparisons from modern geologists to the Mount Tambora eruption of 1815 that caused "The Year Without A Summer."  The eruption generated a tsunami that devastated coastal cities all over the Mediterranean, including the Minoan city of Knossos on the north shore of Crete.  (The Minoan civilization limped along for another couple of hundred years after this calamity, but was finally finished off by a massive earthquake in 1350 B.C.E. that destroyed Knossos completely.)

Here's the thing, though.

The volcano off the coast of Thera is still active.

A paper last week in Nature Communications looked not at the enormous 1600 B.C.E. eruption, but a much smaller eruption in 1650 C.E.  The leadup to this eruption, however, was about as ominous as you could get.  People noticed the water in the seas off the north coast of Thera boiling and changing color -- and dead fish rising to the surface as well, cooked in situ.  Sulfurous gases wafted over the island.  This was followed by a cinder cone emerging from the sea, which proceeded to fling around molten rocks and ash plumes.

Then... boom.

The new research suggests that what triggered the eruption was a landslide, similar to what kicked off the famous Mount Saint Helens eruption of 1980.  In this case, though, the landslide was underwater, off the northwest flank of the volcano.  This landslide did two things -- it displaced huge amounts of water, generating a twenty-meter-high tsunami, and it took the pressure off the top of the magma chamber, causing it to explode.

The combination killed seventy people and hundreds of domestic animals -- horrible, but nowhere near what the island proved itself capable of 3,600 years ago.  The study found that the magma chamber is refilling at a rate of four million cubic meters per year, meaning with regards to subsequent eruptions -- to invoke the old cliché so often used in connection to active volcanoes and tectonic faults, it's not a matter of "if," it's a matter of "when."

Unsurprisingly, the people in the region seem unaware of the time bomb they're sitting on.  "Local populations, decision-makers, and scientists are currently unprepared for the threats posed by submarine eruptions and slope failures, as has been demonstrated by the recent 2018 sector collapse of Anak Krakatau and the 2022 [Hunga Tonga] eruption," the authors write.  "Therefore, new shore-line crossing monitoring strategies... are required that are capable of being deployed as part of rapid response initiatives during volcanic unrest and which enable real-time observation of slope movement."

It remains to be seen how this could help the almost two thousand people who currently live on the slopes of the island, many of them living in houses sitting on layers of fused ash deposited there during the 1600 B.C.E. eruption.  It's something we've seen here before; people like living in tectonically active regions because (1) the terrain is often dramatic and beautiful, (2) volcanic soils are good for agriculture, and (3) people have short memories.  If the last time things went kablooie was almost three hundred years ago, it's easy for folks to say, "What, me worry?"  (Witness the millions of people living near the terrifying Cascadia Subduction Zone, about which I wrote three years ago.  As well as all the people in the aforementioned countries of Japan and Indonesia.)

Anyhow, that's our rather ominous scientific study of the day.  The Earth is a beautiful and dangerous place, and nowhere does that combination come into sharper focus than the Greek islands.  Makes me glad I live where I do -- despite the cold winters, at least I don't have to worry about the place blowing up.


Monday, October 30, 2023

Bending the light

One of the coolest (and most misunderstood) parts of science is the use of models.

A model is an artificially-created system that acts like a part of nature that might be inaccessible, difficult, or prohibitively expensive to study.  A great many of the models used by scientists today are sophisticated computer simulations -- these are ubiquitous in climate science, for example -- but they can be a great deal simpler than that.  Two of my students' favorite lab activities were models.  One of them was a "build-a-plant" exercise that turned into a class-wide competition for who could create the most successful species.  The other was a striking simulation of disease transmission where we started with one person who was "sick" (each student had a test tube; all of them were half full of water, but one of them had an odorless, colorless chemical added to it).  During the exercise, the students contacted each other by combining the contents of their tubes.  In any encounter, if both started out "healthy," they stayed that way; if one was "sick," now they both were.  They were allowed to contact as many or as few people as they wanted, and were to keep a list of who they traded with, in order.  Afterwards, we did a chemical test on the contents of the tube to see whose tubes were contaminated, then used the list of trades to see if we could figure out who the index case was.

It never failed to be an eye-opener.  In only five minutes of trades, often half the class got "infected."  The model showed how fast diseases can spread -- even if people were only contacting two or three others, the contaminant spread like wildfire.

In any case, models are powerful tools in science, used to study a wide variety of natural phenomena.  And because of a friend and fellow science aficionado, I now know about a really fascinating one -- a characteristic of certain crystals that is being used as a model to study, of all things, black holes.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Ra'ike (de:Benutzer:Ra'ike), Chalcanthite-cured, CC BY-SA 3.0]

The research, which appeared last month in Physical Review A, hinges on the effects that a substance called a photonic crystal has on light.  (We met photonic crystals here only a few weeks ago -- in a brilliant piece of unrelated research regarding why some Roman-era glass has a metallic sheen.)  All crystals have, by definition, a regular, grid-like lattice of atoms, and as light passes through the lattice, it slows down.  This slowing effect happens with all transparent crystals; for example, it's what causes the refraction and internal reflection that make diamonds sparkle.  A researcher named Kyoko Kitamura, of Tohoku University, realized that if light could be made to slow down within a crystal, it should be possible to arrange the molecules in the lattice to force light to bend. 

Well, bending light is exactly what happens near a black hole.  So Kitamura and her team made the intuitive leap that this property could be used to study not only the crystal's interactions with light, but indirectly, to discover more about how light behaves near massive objects.

At this point, it's important to clarify that light is not gravitationally attracted to the immense mass of a black hole -- this is impossible, as photons are massless, so they are immune to the force of gravity (just as particles lacking electrical charge are immune to the electromagnetic force).  What the black hole does is warp the fabric of space, just as a bowling ball on a trampoline warps the membrane downward.  A marble rolling on the trampoline's surface is deflected toward the bowling ball not because the bowling ball is somehow magically attracting the marble, but because the marble is following the shortest path through the curved two-dimensional space it's sitting on.  Light is deflected near a black hole because it's traversing curved space -- in this case, a three-dimensional space that has been warped by the black hole's mass.

[Nota bene: it doesn't take something as massive as a black hole to curve space; you're sitting in curved space right now, warped by the mass of the Earth.  If you throw a ball, its path curves toward the ground for exactly the same reason.  That we are in warped space, subject to the laws of the General Theory of Relativity, is proven every time you use a GPS.  The measurements taken by GPS have to take into account that the ground is nearer to the center of gravity of the Earth than the satellites are, so the warp is higher down here, not only curving space but changing any time measurements (clocks run slower near large masses -- remember Interstellar?).  If GPS didn't take this into account, its estimates of positions would be inaccurate.]

In any case, the fact that photonic crystals can be engineered to interact with light the way a black hole would means we can study the effects of black holes on light without getting near one.  Which is a good thing, considering the difficulty of visiting one, as well as nastiness like event horizons and spaghettification to deal with.

So that's our cool scientific research of the day.  Studies like this always bring to mind the false perception that science is some kind of dry, pedantic exercise.  The reality is that science is one of the most deeply creative of endeavors.  The best science links up realms most of us would never have thought of connecting -- like using crystals to simulate the behavior of black holes.


Saturday, October 28, 2023

Bishop Hatto and the mice

To round out our week of looking at odd and creepy tales, today we're going to consider one of the most famous: the story of the evil Bishop Hatto.

Hatto was a real person, and was Archbishop of Mainz in the late tenth century C. E.  He had a reputation for being a dreadful human being, grasping, greedy, and cruel, and in fact had a tower built on a small island in the Rhine (near present day Bingen am Rhein) to control shipping traffic.  The top of the tower had a platform for crossbowmen, and ships were forced to pay tolls to pass the island -- or risk having his bowmen pick off the sailors from their high vantage point.

So Bishop Hatto got richer and the poor got poorer (as they are wont to do).  Things reached a peak in the mid-970s, when a famine struck central Europe.  Rather than use his considerable wealth to ease the suffering of the peasants, he took this as another opportunity to fatten his own coffers, storing up what grain there was and jacking up the prices to wring as much cash as he could from the desperate.  Finally, the peasants had had enough, and according to the best-known version of the legend, plotted to rebel against and depose Bishop Hatto.  But they didn't take into account the bishop's cunning, nor the fact that he had paid informants to keep him apprised of what was going on.  Well aware of what was being planned, he put forth a proclamation that he'd relented and would give away the grain to anyone who needed it.

Relieved, the peasants showed up at Hatto's massive grain storage barn -- only to find that it was empty.

And the doors were barred behind them.

Hatto then had his soldiers set fire to the barn, and as the peasants died screaming, the bishop laughed and said, "Listen to the mice squeak."

Hearing his words, one of the poor unfortunates in the burning barn came to a gap in the wood and shouted, "Mice?  You'll rue your words, Hatto... before this night is over, the mice will come to take their vengeance on you!"

Undaunted, Hatto returned to his residence, and what the legend says happened next is hardly a surprise.  He was settling down for the night, and heard rustling and squeaking -- hordes of rats and mice, swarming up the stairs.  He fled, but they followed him, and eventually he made his way across the Rhine to his tower.  But the mice swam after him... and there was nowhere for him to go.  He was cornered and eaten alive.  And ever since then, the tower on the little island has been called the Mäuseturm -- "Mouse Tower," in German.

Bishop Hatto about to meet his fate (from The Nuremberg Chronicles, 1493) [Image is in the Public Domain]

There are four problems with this legend.

The first is that there's no contemporaneous historical record indicating that Hatto was nibbled to death by mice.  However, given the dearth of any records at all from the tenth century, perhaps we can set that one aside.

A more troubling issue is that the original name of the tower wasn't Mäuseturm -- it was Mautturm (which, more prosaically, means "toll tower").  The renaming of the tower to Mäuseturm seems to have happened much later, and as a sort of play on words that works way better in German than it does in English.

Third, there is no historically credible source documenting Hatto being all that much worse than any other medieval religious or secular leader.  After all, this was a time when being nasty to peasants was right up there with fox hunting and falconry as the favorite sport of the nobility.  There had been an earlier Archbishop of Mainz -- also, confusingly, named Hatto -- whose reputation for being an unmitigated asshole was much better documented.  (Among many other things, he promised Count Adalbert of Babenburg safe passage through his lands, then captured him and had him beheaded, and later plotted unsuccessfully to murder Henry, Duke of Saxony.)  This Hatto's nasty reputation may have besmirched the later Hatto's -- and for what it's worth, Hatto I is also reputed to have come to a bad end, having died after being struck by lightning.

Fourth, the whole eaten-by-mice thing is the punchline of the stories of two other allegedly nasty medieval rulers -- Popiel of Gopło and the Count of Wörthschlössl, each of whom has his own "Mouse Tower" (still standing to this day) where he allegedly met his grisly fate.  To judge by the legends, German mice did nothing but run around all the time looking for cruel peasant-abusers to eat:

Mouse 1: Hey, bro, we gotta get going.  We're supposed to go eat the Count von Wienerschnitzel tonight.

Mouse 2: Seriously?  I've still got indigestion from the archbishop we ate last night.  Can't we find, like, a nice salad bar or something?

Mouse 1: Dude.  Get your ass up.  We're mice, and we eat evil German magnates.  I don't make the rules.

Mouse 2 (*sighs heavily*): Fine.  But I'm fucking well taking tomorrow off.

So for those of you who like tales of divine and/or rodent-mediated vengeance, the whole Bishop Hatto story is kind of a non-starter.  Kind of a shame, really.  It'd be nice if evil people got such a swift comeuppance.  I can think of a few who would be good candidates, if any modern mice who read Skeptophilia are casting about for victims to devour.


Friday, October 27, 2023

The curious legend of Prester John

The majority of dubious historical claims have at least some basis in fact.  As we've seen many times here, stories about real people in the past may grow by accretion into some weird amalgam of fact and fiction, but usually there's at least a small kernel of truth buried in there somewhere.  While President Taft never actually got stuck in his bathtub, and Catherine the Great of Russia didn't die while attempting to have sex with a horse, there's no doubting that Taft was seriously overweight and Catherine had a well-deserved reputation for promiscuity.

It's seldom that there's a claim of a historical figure that was widely believed to be true, and yet is one hundred percent woven from whole cloth.  But that is the situation with one of the oddest stories to come out of medieval Europe -- the legend of Prester John.

The whole thing started in the twelfth century, with the German bishop and historian Otto of Freising's Chronica de Duabus Civitatibus (Chronicle of the Two Cities), published in 1145, in which he mentions in passing that he'd heard from a Syrian colleague, Bishop Hugh of Jabala, about a Christian kingdom somewhere to the east of the Byzantine Empire.  It was ruled, he said, by a king called Prester (or Presbyter) John, and this monarch might be someone the crusaders could turn to for support in returning the Holy Land to Christian control.

The story attracted little attention -- mostly, of course, because no such kingdom (or king) existed -- until fifteen years later, when a letter came to Pope Alexander III, alleging to be from Prester John himself.

To say the letter was unbelievably fulsome and self-aggrandizing would be a vast understatement.  Prester John bragged about how amazing his kingdom was -- the very pinnacle of Christendom.  His was the wealthiest kingdom on Earth, he said, and had no poverty or violent crime.  The place was governed by the wisest of counsellors, all according to (of course) the Bible.  It was the home of fantastic beasts, including elephants, lions, tigers... and cyclopses.  Everyone lived a life of the utmost propriety, and sexual immodesty was unheard of.

I don't know about you, but that last bit sounds a little restrictive for my tastes.

Prester John as depicted in Hartmann Schedel's Nuremberg Chronicle (1493) [Image is in the Public Domain]

Alexander, on the other hand, thought this sounded just peachy keen, as did a good many of the other European leaders of the time.  The letter was copied multiple times, and Prester John's kingdom became a stand-in for heaven on Earth.  Alexander decided to try to contact this magnificent monarch, and hand-wrote a letter of greeting which he entrusted to someone named "Master Philip," who was then sent out to try to find Prester John's kingdom so he could deliver the letter.  

Amazingly, Philip returned alive.

Less amazingly, he reported to Alexander that he had been unable to find Prester John's domain.

The letter Alexander had received was, of course, a forgery.  To this day historians don't know who wrote it.  However, it almost certainly originated somewhere in Europe -- not, as it claimed, in the "far Indies" where Prester John supposedly dwelt.  But just about everyone who heard about the letter thought its contents were nothing short of the literal truth, and belief in Prester John himself attained cultlike status.  Theologians preached that Prester John's armies were going to march in and rescue the disastrous Fifth Crusade, bolstering the faltering Christian control over Palestine.

That, of course, also never happened. 

Astonishingly, a failed prophecy or two, an unsuccessful attempt to locate the kingdom itself, and exactly zero evidence it ever existed other than an obviously forged letter, were not enough to undermine people's belief in the legend.  By the middle of the thirteenth century, concern about the Islamic control over the Middle East was superseded by the more pressing concern that the Mongols under Genghis Khan and his successors were basically running roughshod over everyone between Mongolia and eastern Europe.  However, Pope Innocent IV preached that there was nothing to worry about because Prester John was going to stop the Mongol armies in their tracks.

When that also didn't happen, Innocent switched gears and said that tragically, the Mongol armies must have overrun and conquered Prester John's kingdom.

You'd think at some point, folks would have said, "Hold on a moment... maybe the problem here is that Prester John and his kingdom don't exist."  But that is to seriously misjudge people's capacity for rationalizing a complete lack of evidence when they really want to believe something.  When the Europeans actually talked to the Mongols, and the Mongols said they'd never heard of Prester John, instead of giving up on the idea, the Europeans basically went, "Oh, okay!  We get it now!  Prester John must be somewhere else!"

So -- and I swear I'm not making this up -- they decided that since he didn't live in India or central Asia, he must live in Ethiopia instead.

The legend persisted all the way into the seventeenth century, when Portuguese missionaries did a fairly thorough exploration of Ethiopia and found out that the Ethiopians (1) had never heard of Prester John either, and (2) had no interest in being converted to Catholicism.  At that point, people pretty much looked around with shocked expressions and said, "Wow!  I guess the whole thing was made up!  Who could have guessed?"

So at long last, they got the right answer.  But it took five hundred years.

I've always been astonished at how far you can be dragged along by a combination of credulity, wishful thinking, and confirmation bias, but the legend of Prester John has got to set some kind of record.  Recall that there never was any real evidence of his existence; it started out from one bishop telling another, "Hey, I've heard about this guy out east..." followed by a forgery that made claims which aren't even within hailing distance of plausibility.  After that, it was off to the races -- for over five centuries.

It'd be nice if we'd made some progress as a species since then, and I suppose in some ways we have, but human frailties don't just go away.  However much we've learned -- and as easy as it is to laugh at the ancients for their gullibility -- we still can be pretty damn fact-resistant.  After all, consider the sad state of affairs that a significant fraction of American voters think Donald Trump is honest.

I can only hope that it won't take five hundred years for them to figure that one out.


Thursday, October 26, 2023

The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall

To continue with the seasonally-appropriate spookiness that's occupied us all week, today we're going to look at one of the more curious ghost stories I've heard -- the tale of the "Brown Lady," named after her drab clothing, who has been allegedly seen many times in Raynham Hall Manor in Norfolk, England.

I first ran across the story in a collection called 50 Great Ghost Stories by John Canning, which from the inscription inside the front cover -- "October 29, 1977 -- Mon cher ami -- mieux vaut tard que jamais -- Amélie" -- I received three days after my seventeenth birthday from a family friend.

It's a pretty cool book, although (like many of this ilk) it mixes myth and folklore with stories that actually have some historical veracity.  The tale of the Brown Lady is one of the second type, because the people involved are actual historical figures, although the evidence for the haunting itself is still a little on the sketchy side.

The facts of the case are pretty well documented.  Lady Dorothy Walpole (18 September 1686 - 29 March 1726), who was the sister of Robert Walpole, the first prime minister of England, was married to Charles Townshend, 2nd Viscount Townshend.  Townshend had been married before, to one Elizabeth Pelham, by whom he had five children; he and Dorothy Walpole had seven more, the youngest of which was the mother of Charles Cornwallis, who signed the surrender at the Siege of Yorktown and ended the American Revolutionary War.

Dorothy Walpole wasn't happy, however, partly because Charles Townshend was more interested in growing turnips (I shit you not) than in devoting himself to his wife and family, and also because supposedly he had a nasty temper, which I would too if I had to eat turnips.  Be that as it may, Dorothy Walpole Townshend sought solace elsewhere, but unfortunately for her, she chose Thomas Wharton, 1st Marquess of Wharton, as a lover.

Well, the story goes that either Townshend or Wharton's wife (the legend varies) caught Dorothy and Thomas in flagrante delicto, and Townshend decided the only proper response was to lock his wife up in Raynham Hall to prevent her from cheating on him again.  She stayed there for the rest of her life, dying in 1726 at the young age of forty, possibly of smallpox -- although if she was never allowed outside her room, you have to wonder who she caught it from.

Be that as it may, once Dorothy Walpole Townshend's sad and short life had ended, people started to report the presence of a specter haunting Raynham Hall.

The most famous of the encounters was with novelist Frederick Maryatt, who was a friend of Charles Dickens.  Maryatt's daughter, Florence, wrote in 1891 about her father's meeting with the Brown Lady :
…he took possession of the room in which the portrait of the apparition hung, and in which she had been often seen, and slept each night with a loaded revolver under his pillow.  For two days, however, he saw nothing, and the third was to be the limit of his stay.  On the third night, however, two young men (nephews of the baronet), knocked at his door as he was undressing to go to bed, and asked him to step over to their room (which was at the other end of the corridor), and give them his opinion on a new gun just arrived from London.  My father was in his shirt and trousers, but as the hour was late, and everybody had retired to rest except themselves, he prepared to accompany them as he was.  As they were leaving the room, he caught up his revolver, "in case you meet the Brown Lady," he said, laughing.  When the inspection of the gun was over, the young men in the same spirit declared they would accompany my father back again, "in case you meet the Brown Lady," they repeated, laughing also.  The three gentlemen therefore returned in company.
The corridor was long and dark, for the lights had been extinguished, but as they reached the middle of it, they saw the glimmer of a lamp coming towards them from the other end.  "One of the ladies going to visit the nurseries," whispered the young Townshends to my father.  Now the bedroom doors in that corridor faced each other, and each room had a double door with a space between, as is the case in many old-fashioned houses.  My father, as I have said, was in shirt and trousers only, and his native modesty made him feel uncomfortable, so he slipped within one of the outer doors (his friends following his example), in order to conceal himself until the lady should have passed by.
I have heard him describe how he watched her approaching nearer and nearer, through the chink of the door, until, as she was close enough for him to distinguish the colors and style of her costume, he recognised the figure as the facsimile of the portrait of "The Brown Lady."  He had his finger on the trigger of his revolver, and was about to demand it to stop and give the reason for its presence there, when the figure halted of its own accord before the door behind which he stood, and holding the lighted lamp she carried to her features, grinned in a malicious and diabolical manner at him.  This act so infuriated my father, who was anything but lamb-like in disposition, that he sprang into the corridor with a bound, and discharged the revolver right in her face.  The figure instantly disappeared -- the figure at which for several minutes three men had been looking together -- and the bullet passed through the outer door of the room on the opposite side of the corridor, and lodged in the panel of the inner one.  My father never attempted again to interfere with "The Brown Lady of Raynham."
Now, to be fair, Florence Maryatt isn't exactly what you might call an impartial witness.  She was heavily into spiritualism, and was the author of books with titles like There is No Death and The Spirit World.  So I'm inclined to take anything she says with a grain or two of salt.

Which, of course, I would have anyhow.

Maryatt, however, wasn't the only one to claim seeing the Brown Lady in person.  In 1936, a photographer named Hubert Provand, who worked for Country Life magazine, was taking photos of Raynham Hall for a feature article.  They were setting up for a shoot of the wide interior staircase when Provand's assistant, Indre Shira, pointed at "a vapoury form gradually assuming the appearance of a woman moving down the stairs towards us."  Provand took a photo of the apparition, which has since become one of the most famous ghost photographs ever:

The incident was investigated by Harry Price, a noted paranormal researcher whose reputation for accepting questionable evidence led to his leaving the skeptical and science-based Society for Psychical Research, and founding his own rival organization, the National Laboratory of Psychical Research, because the obvious answer to skepticism is to start a group that will see things your way.  (One of the more famous examples of Price's dubious approach to investigation was the debacle of Borley Rectory, the "most haunted house in England," the evidence for which subsequent inquiries found was almost entirely fabrication.)

For what it's worth, which is probably not much, Price declared the Brown Lady photograph authentic, saying "the negative is entirely innocent of any kind of faking."  But like Florence Maryatt, he's not exactly the most reliable source of information.  Further analysis showed that the image is most likely a double exposure (note the pale lines above the stair treads, and the double reflections on the bannisters).  The ghost figure itself shows a lot of similarity to a traditional Madonna statue, down to a foggy impression below the face that appears to be hands folded in prayer.

Even if the photograph is a fake, of course, it doesn't mean that the other accounts aren't true.  But at the moment, the story doesn't have much to recommend it -- other than a second-hand and probably biased account, and a famous photograph that is almost certainly a fake, the Brown Lady doesn't really hold up to scrutiny.

It's still kind of a cool story, however, and I'd love to visit Raynham Hall myself.  If I ever get to go, however, allow me to reassure Dorothy Walpole Townshend that I plan on being entirely unarmed, and even if I were to bring a gun for some reason, I'd never dream of shooting her in the face with it.  I mean, it's all very well to get scared in those kinds of situations, but that kind of breaches the rules of etiquette even so.


Wednesday, October 25, 2023

The phantoms of Jedburgh Abbey

Jedburgh Abbey is a ruined Augustinian monastery near the town of the same name in Roxburghshire, Scotland, only ten miles from the border with England.  It has quite a storied history.  It was founded in 1118 by King David I (whose father, King Malcolm III Canmore, defeated the notorious Macbeth; whether Birnam Wood ever actually came to Dunsinane is another matter entirely).  It became one of the wealthiest abbeys in the Scottish border counties, and its abbot also made the mistake of supporting William Wallace.  This was a bad combination back then.  After Wallace's tragic defeat at the Battle of Falkirk in 1298, the victorious English ransacked and pillaged the abbey.  It recovered, only to be sacked several more times, and finally burned (along with nearly the entire town of Jedburgh) in 1523.

Even so -- and despite the Scottish Reformation pretty well doing away with all the Catholic monasteries in Scotland -- part of the building was still used as the parish kirk.  Finally, in 1871, it was deemed unsafe, and a new church was built; the remains of the abbey became a historical landmark, where it attracts tourists lo unto this very day.

It also is the home of a particularly terrifying pair of specters -- which, if you believe the ghost hunters, still sometimes can be seen stalking around the abbey grounds.

Jedburgh Abbey from the River by Thomas Girtin (1799) [Image is in the Public Domain]

King Alexander III of Scotland (1249-1286), whose great-great grandfather David I founded Jedburgh Abbey, had a terrible time of it even judging by medieval Scottish standards, where life was (in Thomas Hobbes's immortal words) "solitary, nasty, poor, brutish, and short."  He became king at age seven -- never a good way to start -- and his first years were dominated by a fight for power between two factions both determined to gain control over the young monarch.  He married Margaret Plantagenet, daughter of King Henry III of England, but this only served to give Henry incentive to demand fealty from Alexander, entangling Scotland in another of the long conflicts it had with its neighbor to the south.

Along the way, Alexander had what would turn out to be his only real victory; in 1263 the Scots defeated the invading force of King Haakon IV of Norway at the Battle of Largs, and in the treaty that ended the conflict, Scotland gained ownership of the Hebrides and the Isle of Man. 

But after that, things started to fall apart.  Alexander's wife Margaret died in 1275, and all three of his children by her had followed their mother into the grave by 1284.  As was typical of the time, Alexander started casting around for a second wife.  His only heir was his grandchild, the daughter of his deceased eldest child Margaret who had married King Eric II of Norway, grandson of the defeated Haakon IV -- but the girl (also named Margaret) was an infant... and still lived in Norway.

Here's where it takes an even darker turn.  Alexander fell for a woman named Yolande de Dreux, the daughter of a French nobleman.  Yolande reciprocated his attention, but there was a snag -- she was already betrothed, to a French knight named Eranton de Blois.  There's no historical certainty about what happened next, but according to the legend, Yolande conspired with one of her father's henchmen, the Comte de Montbar, to get de Blois out of the way, and he did -- via a dagger in the back.

The Abbot of Jedburgh demanded an investigation, but (predictably) nothing came of it.  Yolande was engaged to marry King Alexander, and the ceremony took place in the abbey church on November 1, 1285.

Everything was going forward with the typical medieval pomp and solemnity until the door of the church flew open with a bang, and an uninvited guest strode up the aisle, wearing armor and a tattered and bloodstained cloak.  When he reached the front of the church, the king said in a furious voice, "Who are you?"

At this point the figured lifted its visor, to reveal the decaying visage of a corpse.

De Montbar collapsed to the floor, writhing, and Yolande recoiled -- because, of course, they both recognized the dead man's face.  The specter pointed at Yolande and said, "Ask her.  My curse be on you and on her, the curse of the assassin's victim, treacherously ambushed and foully slain.  Hear me well, unhappy king.  Before three months have passed, they will sing masses for your soul in Jedburgh Abbey and she will be left a widow.  She will suffer the hatred of her people and will forever be reminded of her crimes."

Three months turned out to be an underestimate, but not by much.  On March 19, 1286, the king rode out after dark to join his wife at Kinghorn in Fifeshire, and the next morning was found at the bottom of a steep, rocky embankment with his neck broken.  Pragmatic folks said his horse lost its footing in the dark and threw its rider to his death; the more imaginative said it was the curse being fulfilled.  However it was, the whole thing propelled Scotland into chaos.  Alexander's granddaughter, Margaret, "Maid of Norway," died on board ship during the crossing to Scotland in 1290, leaving no heir to the throne.  The following years of civil war and repeated invasions from England (including the one that ultimately led to the brutal execution of William Wallace) only ended in 1306 with the coronation of Robert the Bruce.

As far as the rest of the "curse," it kind of... didn't happen.  There's no indication that Yolande was hated; she returned to France, where she remarried to Arthur II, Duke of Brittany, had six children of whom five reached adulthood, and lived to age 67 (neither of those a bad accomplishment back then).  She had received land in Scotland as a dowry for her first marriage and continued to manage it from over the Channel, apparently untroubled by the sordid story that was attached to her name.

But as for Alexander, death didn't bring him any peace.  Both his ghost and de Blois's have been seen on the abbey grounds, despite the fact that even the harshest versions of the legend didn't attach anything blameworthy to either one, and the spirits of the two people who were the real bad guys (Yolande and her murderous co-conspirator de Montbar) are nowhere to be found.  I guess there's no justice to be had, even in the afterlife.

Anyhow, that's today's creepy story, to continue in the same Halloween-y vein we've been in all week.  It makes a good tale even though the great likelihood is that large parts of it were made up after the fact.  But if you ever get a chance to visit Jedburgh, keep an eye out for phantoms.  A medieval king with a broken neck and a bloodied corpse in armor.  Shouldn't be hard to spot.


Tuesday, October 24, 2023

Duplicating the crone

A pretty common belief in many different cultures is that inanimate objects can have, or can be imbued with, supernatural powers.

It's not like I haven't dealt with this topic before, here at Skeptophilia.  We've had posts about do-it-yourself voodoo dolls, a haunted wine cabinet, a cellphone that received texts from Satan, and a child's doll named "Robert" which shifts positions by itself, not to mention "giggling maniacally."

And that's just scratching the surface.  If you start asking people you'll find everything from the common and fairly innocuous belief in good luck charms (or in items that bring bad luck), all the way up to belief that there are objects that are cursed and/or inhabited by evil spirits capable of serious damage.

So far, nothing too unusual, although still examples of magical thinking that it'd be nice for the human race to jettison.  But just recently, there's been a technological twist added to all of this medieval superstition.

What if someone used a 3-D printer to make a perfect replica of a cursed object?

Of course, it opens up the question of "why would you want to?", but as we've seen over and over, asking that is not sufficient to dissuade people from doing something.

Brent Swancer, over at Mysterious Universe, tells us about some people who decided to copy a cursed object that's been nicknamed "the Crone of the Catskills." Here's how Swancer describes the object:
[The Crone is] a strange hand-carved statue supposedly found by some hikers stashed away and abandoned, quite possibly hidden, in a dim cave somewhere in the Catskill Mountains of New York.  The doll is creepy to say the least, with a length of filthy cord wrapped around its neck and rusty nails driven into its eyes, and it seems like the sort of thing most people would cringe at and leave lying where it was, but in this case the hikers took it home with them.
According to Swancer, the unnamed hikers lived to regret bringing it back with them, as immediately bad stuff began to happen, like bumps, thuds, and bangs, a feeling of being watched, and worst of all, "odd smells such as that of stagnant water or decay."

If you're thinking "what kind of idiot would find something like that and then bring it home?" it bears mention that I did something kind of similar a few years back.  My wife and I were hiking in the Finger Lakes National Forest not too far away from our home, and were a good ways off the beaten path, when I stepped over a log, and noticed that on the end of the log was...

... a Mardi Gras mask.

It was in perfect condition, and in fact looked like it had been placed there only moments before.  It was in October, the weather was cool, and we hadn't seen anyone else in the woods during our entire hike, so it's not like this was exactly a well-traveled part of the National Forest. So it was pretty bizarre, to put it mildly.

I said, "Hey, Carol, come take a look at this."

I picked up the mask, and put it over my face.  She regarded me with a raised eyebrow and said, "You do realize that if you were a character in one of your own novels, you'd be about to die right now?"

Undaunted, I brought it home, and hung it on the wall in my office. I did have a bit of a turn the next morning, when I walked into the room and found the mask in the middle of the floor.

Turned out the elastic loop had come loose.  So I reconnected it, and it's remained there quietly ever since.  No bumps, thuds, or bangs, and the only bad smells are when my dog decides to roll in Eau de Dead Squirrel and then comes to take a nap in my office.

Anyhow, all of this is just to say that if I'd found the Crone of the Catskills, I'd probably have taken it home, too.  The hikers who found her donated the Crone to the Traveling Museum of the Paranormal and Occult, and even afterwards it continued to do spooky stuff.  The Museum's owners, Dana Matthews and Greg Newkirk, report that after the Crone was obtained, furniture was found knocked over, there was the "smell of fetid pond water," and more than once they opened the place up in the morning to find small muddy footprints on the floor leading to and from the case the Crone occupied.

The Crone of the Catskills

So far, so good.  But the next thing that happened I have to admit I find a little baffling.  A pair of paranormal researchers, Karl Pfeiffer and Connor Randal, decided that it'd be a good idea to use a 3-D printer to make a replica of the Crone.

Havoc ensued.  The printer malfunctioned and a part of it "melted."  Other equipment broke down, or went missing entirely.  People in the room with the replica reported "a sense of dread" coming from the thing, and a "burning sensation" from touching it.

So apparently, the 3-D printer hadn't just copied the Crone's appearance, it had also copied its ghostly hanger-on.

Now, as a diehard skeptic, it's to be expected that I think this sounds a little silly.  But allow me to ask any true believers in the studio audience: how exactly could this work?

I mean, even if you accept that an object can be imbued with a "force" (whatever that means), isn't the usually accepted explanation that it's tied to the object itself?  If you made a copy of the object, you wouldn't expect a piece of the "force" to get knocked loose and attach itself to the replica.  Or at least, I wouldn't.  I didn't think that 3-D printers could make copies of ghosts, you know?

Which, honestly, is a good thing.  Just think of what would happen if you put a 3-D printer in a haunted house, and the ghosts got a hold of it and started duplicating themselves.  In short order, you'd have what paranormal researchers call "a shitload of ghosts."  It'd be a catastrophe, much like what happened in the Lost in Space episode "The Space Destructors," wherein Dr. Smith created an android who then began to create more androids, which was especially awful because the machine was programmed to make them look like Dr. Smith, or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof.

So it'd be unfortunate if the 3-D printer did make a copy of the evil spirit haunting the Crone of the Catskills.  That being said, if Pfeiffer and Randal have any extra copies of the Crone hanging around, I'd love to have one.  I've got a nice space on the shelf in my office where she could reside.  Also, if all she does is push furniture around and leave muddy footprints on the floor, my dog pretty much has that covered already.

I might even see if I can make a replica of my mysterious Mardi Gras mask, and we can do a swap.  I have to warn you, though, that the mask's antics are even less impressive than the Crone's.  "Falling on the floor once in four years" is really not that much of a superpower.


Monday, October 23, 2023

The strange tale of Christopher Round

When I was maybe twelve years old, the highlight of school was getting the monthly Scholastic Books sale flier.

It had dozens of books, at prices that seem ridiculous by today's standards -- on the order of $0.99 for a paperback.  Even back then, I loved scary stories, and it's through Scholastic that I got my first copies of collections of stories by H. P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allen Poe.

Back then, in 1972, I saw a book in one month's flier I just had to get. It was called Haunted Houses, by Bernhardt. J. Hurwood, and at that point was a new release.  When it arrived a few weeks later, I read it eagerly, simultaneously scaring the absolute shit out of myself and running for the first time into such classic tales as the canine ghosts of Ballechin House, the screaming skulls of Calgarth, and the weirdly open-ended story of Nurse Black.

There was one story in the collection, though, that struck me as more sad than frightening.  It was titled "The Tragic Ghost of Cambridge University," and made enough of an impression that when I bumped into a reference to it yesterday on a website called "Ghosts that Haunt Seven Cambridge Colleges and the Stories Behind Them," I recognized it immediately -- and went to dig up my copy of Haunted Houses (yes, I still have it) that I hadn't looked at for something like thirty years or more.

It tells the tale of an academic fellow named Christopher Round, who was pursuing a degree in classics at Christ's College.  He was brilliant but shy, one of those sorts whom you barely notice until he says something, and then it turns out to be perceptive and interesting, much to your surprise.  This was why his classmate Philip Collier -- similar to Round in intellect, but outgoing, genial, and strikingly handsome -- outshone Round in just about every way you can imagine.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons The wub, Christ's College, Cambridge - First Court 03, CC BY-SA 3.0]

No one else in their class was even close to the same caliber, but when it came to a competition, Round always came in second.  Even after graduation (both with honors -- but guess who got first place?), the rivalry continued, because both of them were accepted as Fellows of Christ's College.

Both applied for a professorship in Greek.  Once again, Collier won, and Round was forgotten.

All through this, their interactions were at least superficially friendly.  Round wasn't the combative type in any case, and it's doubtful that Collier even realized the damage he was doing.  From the outside, it looked like a perfectly ordinary relationship -- outgoing guy and his quiet, second-fiddle sidekick.

The final straw came when Round fell in love with a woman named Mary Clifford.  Mary was high society, and beautiful, and for a time it looked like things were at last going to turn in poor Christopher Round's favor.  But fate had other plans in store.  Mary's parents took her on a trip to Italy, and while traveling she bumped into a fellow Brit who was on holiday...

... Philip Collier.

When she returned, she reluctantly told Christopher Round that she'd fallen madly in love with his rival, and in fact, had accepted a proposal of marriage.  Round was devastated, but his habit of making light of his anger and jealousy once again triumphed.  He forced a smile and wished Mary well.  Relieved that he'd taken it so easily, Mary went her way, feeling like disaster had been averted.

But only a few weeks later, Round was walking back to his flat past the Fellows' Swimming Pool when he heard a noise.  Coming from the other direction was Philip Collier -- staggering drunk.  As he watched, Collier stumbled and fell in.  Although a good swimmer while sober, Collier was flailing, and reflexively Round looked for some way to help him.  There was a long wooden pole with a hook on the end lying along the hedge, used for catching things out or pushing them along the surface of the pool, and he picked it up, intending to hook Collier's clothing and help him out.

Then he thought, "Why should I do this?"  And before he could stop himself, he struck Philip Collier in the temple with the hook, and watched as his rival sank beneath the water and drowned.

Round expected to shine now that the man who had eclipsed him his entire adult life was dead, but it didn't happen.  Instead, he was consumed with remorse.  Mary Clifford, for her part, didn't go running back to him; it's uncertain if she was so sunk in grief herself that she couldn't think of romance, or if she perhaps suspected Round's role in Collier's death.  No legal investigation was ever launched.  Collier's death was ruled as accidental, so there was no worry about a hangman's noose looming in the future.

But Christopher Round was never to be the same.  He threw himself into academics, but even without Collier there to outshine him, he was unable to stand out.  He lived the rest of his life in obscurity, and his role in his rival's death only became known because he wrote out a full confession, with instructions that it was only to be unsealed fifty years after his death.

But his sad, remorseful ghost still haunts Christ's College, especially the grassy lawn by the swimming pool where Philip Collier died.  To this day, students see his stoop-shouldered figure at night, dressed in nineteenth-century garb, walking heavily along the pool, and finally disappearing without trace behind the yew hedge.

Good story, isn't it?  It's a staple in the "true tales of hauntings in Britain" books and websites, often alongside the more famous tales I alluded to at the beginning of this.

But there's just one thing more you might want to know.

It's fiction.

I'm not saying this because I'm being my usual snarky, skeptical self.  The tale of Christopher Round and Philip Collier is the subject of a novel called A College Mystery by Alfred Ponsford Baker, published in 1918, and there is no indication anywhere in the book that Baker thought it was a true story.  Worse still, for those who want it to be real, is the fact that there doesn't seem to be a mention of the story anywhere before the publication of Baker's book.  And a thorough scouring of Christ's College records from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries shows no one named Christopher Round or Philip Collier, not only as Fellows (which surely would have been recorded -- especially Collier, who supposedly was appointed as Professor of Greek) but even as students.

So what is conveniently left out of the account in Hurwood's Haunted Houses -- and just about every other recounting of the story of Christopher Round -- is that the whole thing comes from a work of fiction.

It's funny how the urban legend tendency works, isn't it?  Something that might have started as an up-front made-up story that no one really takes seriously grows through accretion and somehow gains the veneer of veracity.  And once that happens -- once it's told somewhere as a True Tale of the Supernatural -- few people even think to check into the story's antecedents and see if it holds any water.

Just as well.  Christopher Round's sad, ill-fated, and ultimately tortured life is better off as a fictional tale, and even the murder victim Collier doesn't come off as very praiseworthy.  Makes a good story, though -- even if the whole thing seems to have sprung from the mind of a British novelist.