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Deep in some long-forgotten tunnel, or some underground repository, or in some obscure railway yard, there sits a huge number of steam locomotives, kept maintained and ready to be pressed into service in times of national emergency.  This story has surfaced time and time again in the UK, with it also being claimed that the Soviet Union and Sweden have their own strategic reserves.

The background to this story is the scrapping of steam traction in the UK in 1968.  Steam locomotives were being built in Britain right up until 9F 2-10-0, number 92220, “Evening Star” was the last steam loco built at Swindon in 1960.  Given the huge longevity of steam locomotives – anything up to 100 years – gave credence to this story.  Why, enthusiasts asked, would we be building steam locomotives up to 1960 only to scrap them eight years later (Evening Star was withdrawn in 1965), particularly when the British Railways “Modernisation Plan” of 1955 had brought in large scale introduction of diesel and electric traction?  The withdrawl of steam traction happened alongside the “Beeching cuts” of the 1960s, when British Railways Chairman Doctor Richard Beeching ordered the closure of thousands of route miles of railway across the length and breadth of the UK.  And so the story of hundreds of steam locomotives being spirited away and mothballed for use in a time of crisis was born.

In 1979 Steam Railway magazine ran the story of the strategic reserve.  The UK had just passed through the “Winter of Discontent” when the country was racked by strikes.  Among those striking were firefighters, and the army was forced to fill in their duties.  The writer of the Steam Railway article immediately pointed to the sudden appearance of British Army “Green Goddess” fire engines on British streets, claiming that they had long since thought to be scrapped to back up the strategic reserve claim.  He also procured a meeting with a spokesman from the Ministry of Defence (MoD) who stated that there was no strategic reserve but perplexingly said “Yes, but those are diesels”.

Following issues of Steam Railway contained letters of lists of supposedly “missing” steam locomotives.  However, it came to light that these engines were largely down to the poor accounting system of BR in the 1960s and as issues went on, other readers were able to account for each and every steam locomotive and the details of where and when scrapped.

People however love a conspiracy theory and the Strategic Reserve refused to die.  Some pointed to the vast reserve of “Austerity” locomotives built during World War II, many of which found their way into ownership of the National Coal Board (NCB – later to become British Coal).  Designed by Robert A Riddles FRSA (who later went on to design BR steam locomotives under nationalisation of the railways), these powerful 0-4-0ST and 0-6-0ST locomotives were purposely designed for hauling freight over short to medium distances in wartime.  Around 1000 were built and apart from these the NCB purchased many more similar locomotives directly from the builders right up until the 1960s.  Some were still working at Dalmellington Colliery, Scotland, right up until the 1980s.

And that they were working so late lends more support to the believers.  Detractors point out that as every year passes, less and less steam locomotive drivers are around.  However, there are plenty of those have driven them in and around collieries and the skill itself is not that difficult to learn and pass on (I’ve driven a steam locomotive on more than one occasion myself).

The Strategic Reserve supporters missed the point; the Austerity locomotives did indeed find their way into the NCB and all can be accounted for, as can locomotives the NCB purchased elsewhere.  Today the ones which are not found on heritage railways, either wholly or in bits, are parked in children’s playgrounds, whilst others have been scrapped.  There is not one locomotive in the UK can not be accounted for.

Yet still it would not die.  Many detractors of the Strategic Reserve claims pointed out that much of the infrastructure needed for steam traction had been destroyed.  The supporters came back pointing out that much of the same infrastructure, such as coaling stages and water towers were still standing. This was true; a steam locomotive tower water tower stood in the throat of Millerhill freight marshalling yard well into the 1980s, and Edinburgh Waverley station retains its huge water tank for replenishing steam locomotives to this day.  But these things merely stood simply because nobody had got around to demolishing them.  As long as they did not interfere with railway workings, there was no point to remove them.  As it was, the water tower at Millerhill was finally demolished only when the yard was remodelled in the 1990s.

In failure of the 1984-85 UK miners strike saw a great many collieries close; not just those deemed uneconomic before the strike, but those who had fallen into disrepair during the strike.  It devastated and effectively closed down the UK mining industry.  With no coal to fuel them, that should have put paid to the Strategic Reserve stories.  The response from some believers was to damn Conservative Prime Margaret Thatcher for ordering the scrapping of the Strategic Reserve locomotives.  Maggie did a lot of terrible things in the eyes of many, the wholesale scrapping of non-existent steam locomotives was not one of them.

One would have thought that would have been an end to the Strategic Reserve myths.  But no, it just would not lie down and die.  Some believers pointed out how the government before the strike had stockpiled coal at power stations, so why not stockpile coal at the Strategic Reserves?  Others argued that coal ships, similar to those which fuelled power stations later in the strike could supply us with the coal needed.

Apart from these arguments supposed sightings of locomotives were reported.  There was a supposed eye-witness account, dated 2005, from a London Underground Line employee being asked to carry out the Health & Safety supervision for two structural engineers of “disused rail tunnels adjacent to LUL running lines”.  The story goes on entering the sealed tunnels, he found three 8F Class 2-8-0 locomotives in each tunnel with rods off and their bunkers boarded over. Engineers allegedly stood on these boards to inspect the tunnel roof. This inspection regime is said to be regular. The supposed location is the Hampstead old Northern line tunnels at the rear end of Finchley depot.

The problems with this story?  Well right away if that was a Health & Safety assessment, I don’t think much of the employees commitment to such, given he and two others apparently stood on timbers which could be up to 40 years old.  No H&S expert worth their salt would ever do anything so foolhardy.  That apart, the only London Transport depot at Finchley is from trams only. But the real clincher is the class of locomotive mentioned. Class 8F was a locomotive type built by the London, Midland & Scottish Railway between 1935-1946.  Being a heavy goods locomotive they were built to the maximum height possible to clear most UK standard gauge tunnels of 12 foot 10 inches. They simply would not fit into the Northern Lines tunnels, which are 12 foot or less diameter in places.

So with the Strategic Reserve of steam locomotives roundly destroyed, what is one to make of the MoD statement “those are diesels”?  If any reserve of locomotives existed, diesels would not make sense.  A national emergency could see supplies of diesel fuel greatly reduced.  In the event of war, refineries and fuel depots would be among the first places to be targeted.  If we are talking a nuclear conflict then the electromagnetic pulse from atomic explosions could knock out solid state components in the locomotives. These things aside, just like steam, all withdrawn diesel locomotives in the UK can be accounted for.  Railway enthusiasts are obsessive creatures and the build details, numbers, withdrawl dates and places of scrapping (or preservation) can easily be found on just a quick internet search today.  There was only ever one withdrawn diesel locomotive in the UK I can think of which would fit the bill and that was the “Warship” class B-B diesel-hydraulic locomotive, D818, “Glory”, which stood at Swindon Works for many years.  This locomotive was scrapped in 1985, apparently in a fit of pique, on the day the government announced the closure of Swindon Works.

Either the MoD spokesman was humouring the Steam Railway journalist, or he was referring to a small number of diesel shunting locomotives at various military depots around the UK at the time.  Hardly a Strategic Reserve capable of running the railways of the UK, and besides, defence cutbacks have put paid to many of these locomotives since.

So what of the claims of the Soviets and Sweden having strategic reserves of steam locomotives?  It is worth remembering that the entire myth came out of the Cold War.  Why Sweden?  Because it is roughly halfway between Russia and the UK.  Sweden has always flatly denied having a Strategic Resource (but then, they would say that, wouldn’t they?).  As for the Soviets, well some Soviet states including East Germany were still relying upon steam traction right up to the late 1980s.  They had no need to hide their steam locomotives, they were using them openly.  The fall of communism has shown absolutely no evidence of any Soviet Strategic Reserve.

Yet the Strategic Reserve stories continue, which is not surprising.  Like any urban myth, it is hard to quash.  And not surprising when one considers that steam locomotives are not the only thing to be considered.  There have been similar stories about a squadron of Spitfire fighter aircraft supposedly buried in an Australian desert.  Although just how the UK government would get them from Australia to the UK at the drop of a hat is beyond me.  Another one involves a load of Sherman tanks dumped in the sea off Scotland, just waiting to be lifted off the seabed during an emergency – which of course Russian submarines and aircraft would never notice.

The Strategic Reserve is a nice myth, but that is all it is – a myth.  And one which people allow their hearts to rule their heads with.  The Steam Railway journalist did as much when he made wild comments about the British Army Green Goddess fire engines, which contrary to his claims were never a secret.  They were well known about.  Just because something is out of sight does not mean it has been mothballed in some covert way.

And yet, Steam Railway made an interesting point at the end of their article.  With the number of heritage railways and railway museums in the UK, could not their locomotives and rolling stock be commandeered in an emergency?  We may have a Strategic Reserve right under our noses and most people do not even realise it.

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I have seen quite a bit online recently about psychics and spirit mediums being derided.

This has grown through two media stories.  That of the newspaper the Daily Mail having to pay out £125,000 in damages to psychic Sally Morgan after libeling her as a fraud without providing proof to back their claims up, and that of the UK television watchdog, Ofcom, fining Psychic TV £12,500 after they made claims that predictions given were wholly accurate.

Certainly, the issue of psychic scam artists and fraudulent mediums must be taken seriously.  However, there is a bigotry at play here, and it is a bigotry backed up by legislation in the United Kingdom.

The public perception of psychics and spiritualist mediums broadly is one of belief or disbelief.  In the latter camp, they are disregarded as the vast majority, if not all of them are merely con artists out to take money from gullible individuals.  This has gone as high as government and on 26th May 2008 the Fraudulent Mediums Act 1951 was repealed and replaced by the Consumers Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008.  Under this legislation, all psychics/spiritualists, whether participating as part of a church or other organisation, or alone, and offering services to the public, must state that their services are “for entertainment purposes only”.

It may actually surprise many readers to learn that many in the spiritualist movement actually support this legislation, for the simple fact it does protect the public from fraudulent mediums/psychics, and in the long term protects the reputation of the genuine ones in the process.  I however have several problems with it, as do some spiritualists, as it smacks of religious bigotry.

The vast majority of those who do not believe in spiritualism take the view that it is lot of nonsense or “mumbo jumbo”.  Yet – and this will equally surprise many – spiritualism is a legitimately recognised religious faith in the UK and many base their beliefs in Christianity.  Why then does the public take the perception that supposedly channelling messages from the dead is unbelieveable, yet praying to an invisible entity is not?  Why think that psychic healing is rubbish, yet the wine and wafer turning into the physical blood and body of Christ is an acceptable notion?

Indeed, there is much in Judeo/Christian (and Islamic) belief which is a lot more fantastical than the beliefs of spirtiualists; from the magical rib-woman, through the big boat with every species on Earth on it, a talking snake / burning bush / donkey, feeding the multitude with a few bits of bread and fish, to the resurrection.  Put in that context, do the claims of spiritualists now seem so very outlandish?

Ah, but I hear the doubters cry, the psychics and spiritualists take money from people.  Ah, but I reply, so do churches, synagogues, mosques and temples, even if it is only in the form of donations.  And the more fundamental churches expect their members to commit to tithing – giving one tenth of their income to the church (this is also true of some synagogues and mosques).  The Church of Scotland, Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church in the UK also ask the faithful to leave money in their wills to the church and “Gift Aid” it so as to avoid tax being paid on their donations.

The organised churches in the UK are multi-million pound industries. The Church of England actually states on its website that it takes £1000 million to run it every year, three quarters of which (£750 million) comes from donations from worshipers.  The Church of Scotland similarly took in £46,340,000 in 2012 and Roman Catholic churches in the UK are estimated to take in  at least £12 million annually.

Compared to those figures, the small amount which psychics / spiritualists earn and spiritualist churches take in must be a drop in the ocean.  And consider that spiritualist churches, unlike other places of worship, do not receive tax relief or exemption.  Many do not even have their own premises but have to hire halls for their services.

Consider also that many spiritualist mediums do not even charge for their services.  Some see it what they do as a “gift from God” and are afraid that if they charge for it, it will be taken from them.  I have no doubt that many of the doubters out there would like to think that all psychics and spiritualists shouldn’t charge. But then, the same could equally be said for ministers, priests, bishops, rabbis, imans, and clergy of all religions. The bottom line is even psychic and spiritualists have to keep a roof over their heads, eat and pay bills as well as anyone else.  And before anyone says that they could get a job, that is precisely what those who do not charge do – they have jobs and give readings in their own time.  Tell me, would you do your job then do another job at night and on the weekends for absolutely nothing?

I also have a problem with the “entertainment” aspect of the law.  If a believer attends a place of worship and feels their prayers have not been answered, do they expect their donation to be returned?  If they do not believe they are forgiven, would they then take their church/synagogue/mosque/temple to court for false representation?  About as likely as anyone going to see a movie which has been hyped up and getting their money back or being able to sue the cinema which screened it.  Yet under the law psychics and spiritualists are under an obligation to return money if the customer is not satisfied, and can indeed be sued.

You may ask why I, as an atheist, should even care about this.  I care simply because I believe in fairness and in human rights.  And spiritualism, a recognised religious faith, has been singled out for unfair treatment.  It has been singled out because it is “different”, non-conformist and steps away from the mainstream, despite the fact that it’s beliefs and claims are no less outlandish than any other faith, and in many cases far less outlandish.  I also care because I am more than a little informed on the subject, unlike the vast majority of the public who are largely uninformed about spiritualism.

Spiritualists do not castigate the LGBT community, do not oppress women, do not carry out the genital mutilation of either gender, do not carry out the ritual slaughter of animals, and as a faith it is not exclusive but wholly inclusive, welcoming all.  Spiritualism is a religion of peace, whose followers have never gone to war nor committed violence in the name of ‘their’ God. The same of many of the above cannot be said of the vast majority of other faiths which society accepts as “normal”.

The United Kingdom is supposedly a democratic society in which we all have rights, and this includes the right to freedom of religion.  The Human Rights Act 1998 Article 9 states;

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in a community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.”

Because their services are being seen in law as an entertainment, believers in spiritualism are not being accorded that right, completely in contravention of UK legislation.

I would therefore argue that the UK government should either remove the stipulation that spiritualists state their services are for entertainment only, or apply that to ALL faiths.  Let us see that phrase, “For entertainment pursposes only” outside of every church, synagogue, mosque, temple, and all other places of worship the length and breadth of the UK, or remove it altogether.

To do any less is nothing short of pure religious bigotry.

Mass Hysteria – we’re all susceptible

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Most people will be aware of the mass panic caused when Orson Welles narrated an adaptation of War of the Worlds by H G Wells on 30 October 1938. For those who do not, the broadcast was given in the form of a news broadcast, telling of an alien invasion, which caused mass panic among 1.2 million listeners in the USA.  Of course, many would think that after that scare, a similar one could ever happen again.  Except it did, nearly 20 years later, and with much more serious consequences.

Leonardo Paez and Eduardo Alcaraz broadcast a Spanish language adaptation of Welles’s play on Radio Quito on 12 February 1949, which broke into the middle of a music programme in the guise of an emergency broadcast. Mass panic was set off in the centre of Quito with people attempting to flee and others looting. To make matters worse Radio Quito had not informed the emergency services who believed the attack was on the outskirts of town, causing police and fire engines to rush out to help. Realising what they had caused, Radio Quito announced that the broadcast was fictional. This merely turned panic to anger. Rioting broke out and the mob advanced on and laid siege to the radio station. Most of those inside had to flee up to the third floor. The station was then set on fire and was well alight when the police and fire brigade were trying to return from the outskirts. Some of the staff at Radio Quito were left with the dilemma of jumping from the third floor or burning to death. There were so many rioters that the government had to send out the army in tanks to clear a path for fire engines to attend the radio station and other fires. The eventual cost was 20 dead, 15 severely injured and US$250,000 worth of damage.

The gullibility of mankind is quite fantastic and as hard as many would find it to believe, it can all too easily lead to mass hysteria.  The truly frightening part of this is that there are none of us who are not susceptible to it, not one.  No, not even me – and not you, the reader either.

The broadcasts of The War of the Worlds are particularly good examples of the power of the media in spreading mass hysteria, and this has always been the case.  For centuries it was in writing.  Then came print, then in the 20th century, radio, television and the internet.  And there were and there always shall be those who believe that if it is in the media, it must be true.

The Book of Revelation and other parts of the Christian Bible talk of the “End Times” when God’s elect will be called up to Heaven in the rapture and there will be a holy war against the Antichrist.  For the greater part of the past 2000 years people have been told at varying intervals that they must prepare for the coming “end times” by the clergy, who stated that the signs of which were clear.  And after all, given that most people for the greater amount of this time were illiterate, they had to trust upon the clergy’s word, and if you could not trust a Man of God, whom could you trust?  So it was at some given intervals, people would gather expecting the end of the world to be upon them.  If disease or a natural disaster struck a people, it was obviously a sign of the end times, which of course was confirmed by the clergy.

At times there were people would actually gather at a given place on a given date, fully expecting to be called up to Heaven.  And while the advent of printing, better education and more widespread literacy curbed the credulity of some, the church still had a firm grip on most, so more and more people were seeing the obvious signs of the End Times.  In 1833 an American Baptist lay preacher, William Miller, predicted that the second coming of Jesus would occur on 22 September 1844.  Miller gained thousands of followers in the USA and the UK who became known as Millerites.  As the great day approached, many left their jobs and sold or gave away their possessions.  When 22 September 1844 came and went without incident, there were many Millerites remained loyal.  Some put forward new dates as predictions, and the movement split into different schisms.  One of these we know today as Seventh Day Adventists.

Many in this day and age may find William Miller’s prediction crazy and perhaps a quaint example of 19th century religious fervour.  It is worth noting however that exactly the same thing happened when Harold Camping predicted the Rapture on 21 March 2011, with thousands leaving their jobs and giving vast donations to Family Radio, which is owned by Camping.  But then the same had happened when Camping had predicted the end of the world in September 1994 – just as thousands had gathered to witness the end of the world many times over the centuries.

Not that it was just the end times which whipped up mass hysteria.  Biblical teachings were abused for centuries to whip up a frenzy against many enemies, be they Mohammedans, Jews, or suspected witches.  The witch hunts which swept across Europe are a particularly brutal example. The number of people killed as witches has been estimated to be at least 200,000 to possibly in excess of 1 million.  This would not have been possible with the support of the people, whipped into fear of the unknown by the clergy.

The Jews are a particularly relevant example of the dangers of mass hysteria.  It was not enough that the early Christian churches accused Jews of being “Christ killers”, in the 12th century they spread the rumour of the Jewish “Blood Libel”.  This particularly odious total lie claims that Jews kill Christians, particularly little boys, to use their blood for ritual purposes such as adding to Passover matzah (unleavened bread). The first claim came from Norwich in 1144 when the body of a little boy named William was found in woods and Thomas of Monmouth accused local Jews of killing the boy in a mockery of the crucifixion. Belief in this was so firm that a cult grew up around the boy and the church actually canonised him as Saint William of Norwich. And if the reader is astounded at medieval superstition, it did not stop there.  The Blood LIbel has continued to see Jews accused and castigated down throughout history as recently as 1928 a four year old little girl went missing in Massena, New York, and a rumour swept the community that Jews had kidnapped and killed her for a blood ritual. The local rabbi was called to the police station, drawing an angry crowd, where he was questioned by police and state troopers who asked him about Jewish blood rituals. It was only while this was going on that the little girl, who had wandered off, was found safe and unharmed. To this day there are people on the extreme right, radical Islamists and conspiracy theorists who maintain that the Jewish blood libel is factual, and there are plenty all too willing to listen and believe them.

On top of the blood libel, there grew a conspiracy of the Jews attempting to take over the world. This is nothing new but equally goes back to medieval times. Wider availability of books and increased literacy however made such claims more widely available to the general public. 1903 saw the publication in Russia of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Nobody knows the author of this document but is widely suspected to be Pyotr Ivanovich Rachkovsky, head of the Paris office of the Russian Secret Service. The Protocols is a fake document, purporting to be genuine notes of a meeting of Jewish leaders discussing their goal of global Jewish hegemony by subverting the morals of Gentiles, and by controlling the press and the world’s economies. From Russia it was quickly printed in several languages and widely distributed around Europe and further afield. Despite being denounced as a fake by The Times (London) in 1921, the Protocols went onto sell millions of copies/ Car manufacturer Henry Ford personally funded the printing and distribution of 500,000 copies of the Protocols across the USA and this is believed to have created the first “red scare” in US history. When the Nazis came to power in Germany, it was claimed to be a genuine document and historian Norman Cohn suggested that Hitler used the Protocols as his primary justification for initiating the “final solution to the Jewish question” in the form of the Holocaust in which six million Jews were rounded up and killed. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is still widely available today, online and in printed versions, most of the latter of which have been printed in Arabic languages by radical Islamists. It is also still held as genuine by the extreme right as being a genuine article, and if you doubt it’s power, consider the New World Order conspiracy theories of the present day, many of which speak of a Jewish-led conspiracy to subvert society by controlling the press and taking over the world’s economies.

As we have seen above, as media evolved, so radio also was responsible for causing panic.  So it was when television came along, it too would become responsible for contributing to mass hysteria.

In 1977 Anglia Television in the UK produced a spoof documentary under the fake name of a series; “Science Report”, calling the equally fake documentary “Alternative 3”.  It was originally meant to be broadcast on 1 April but problems in production led to it’s airing being delayed until 20 June 1977.  Alternative 3 told of an impending worldwide environmental catastrophe and of the USA, UK  and USSR carrying out a “brain drain” to ship the finest minds of the planet to secret bases on the Moon and Mars.  It further claimed that scientists who had previously tried to tell the media had disappeared and included footage purporting to be something alive crawling under the Martian soil.  As Alternative 3 was aired, switchboards at Anglia TV were jammed, are were those of police stations the length and breadth of the UK.  In the days that followed newspapers asked questions about airing such a hoax due to the mass panic it caused.  Believe it or not, there are people to this day who believe that Alternative 3 was genuine.

So you could be forgiven for thinking such a thing could never happen again, right?  Except on 31 October (Halloween) 1992, BBC 1 in the UK broadcast Ghostwatch.  Set in the same “mockumentary” style as Alternative 3, Ghostwatch was actually broadcast under the BBC’s Screen One productions, and included well-known British celebrities such as Michael Parkinson, Sarah Greene, Mike Smith and Craig Charles.  Loosely based on the allegedly true-life case of the Enfield Poltergeist, it was broadcast in the style of a live documentary set partially in studio and partially in a house where poltergeist activity was claimed to have taken place.  There were many depictions of supposed paranormal events in the broadcast, including an actor (Keith Ferrari) making sudden and momentary appearances as the ghost, “Pipes”. The show ended with the poltergeist supposedly taking control of the BBC TV network and possessing host Michael Pakinson, the suggestion being that anyone in the country could be possessed through their televsion set.

As with Alternative 3, Ghostwatch saw switchboards jammed and created mass hysteria the length and breadth of the UK.  This time however the repercussions were to be far more serious.  Martin Denham an 18 year old factory worker with learning difficulties and a mental age of 13 had watched the show.  He had problems with his central heating system causing knocking in the pipes.  Mistaking this for poltergeist activity, he committed suicide, leaving a note saying he wanted to be with the ghosts.  In 1994 the British Medical Journal reported the cases of two 10 year old boys suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after watching the show.  Reactions to the articles cited four further cases among children aged between 8 and 11 years old, as well as in elderly people.

The advent of the internet becoming accessible to all has also been responsible for the spread of mass hysteria since the 1990s.  Perhaps the greatest example of this, albeit along with newspapers, radio and television, was the Y2K scare.  For those who do not know, it became apparent in the 1990s that on the turn of 1 January 2000 most computer chronometers would click over to 1 January 1900.  For the better informed among us this merely meant that the computers would to the greater degree not work properly and would thereby become obsolete.  What followed however were wild media stories of planes falling out of the sky, industrial robots  and computer-driven machinery going haywire, nuclear reactors going into meltdown and a Third World War being starting accidentally by missiles launching by themselves.  There were a great many people took this all too seriously and there were reported cases of people selling up their homes and going to live in remote rural areas.  Of course, 1 January 2000 came and went without incident; apart from computer and software manufacturers suddenly becoming much richer.

Not that it needs the media to stir up panic.  Sometimes word of mouth is all it takes.  Word of mouth would have been largely responsible for the witch hunts which troubled Europe for hundreds of years (as was the case in Salem, Massachusetts, USA in 1692-3) and that would continue down history.  In 1983 school children in Houston, Texas, USA became terrified of being attacked by Smurfs. Yes, the little blue cartoon characters created by Belgian cartoonist Peyo. A rumour swept the city that gangs of Smurfs had armed with guns and knifes had infiltrated schools and were killing students and teachers, the story going that one principal had been killed at one particular school. The wild imaginations of preteen schoolkids got going and some would claim that if you wore blue you were safe, while others claimed that if you wore blue you would be killed. In the event several schools were disrupted as kids refused to go to school, some kept home by more gullible parents and some schools locked their students in. Some well-meaning teachers thought it a good idea to tell the kids that other cartoon characters were being drafted in to fight off the Smurfs, which only made matters worse. The panic only lasted days before it subsided but several schools were affected. In the event, the scare had been started due to a TV report of the arrest of 40 members of a blue jacket wearing youth gang, who called themselves The Smurfs.

Word of mouth when mixed with the media can be downright dangerous.  In 2000 the tabloid newspaper The News of the World started a campaign to name and shame 150 paedophiles in the UK.  Forget any notion of the altruistic aims of the editorship, they were merely trying to sell newspapers.  What followed was a series of vigilante attacks on completely innocent men and women.  In a frightening parallel to the witch hunts of old, many were targeted merely because they lived alone and / or chose not to become involved with their local community.  People within the LGBT community were attacked, the ignorant masses believing that gay must equal paedophile.  Nature and landscape photographers were beaten up.  The satirical magazine Private Eye carried a cartoon of a man running from a baying mob with the caption “I’m a PAEDIATRICIAN, you idiots.”.  The following week, it actually happened; a woman doctor had her office burned out and part of her sign vandalised – the part which read “Paediatrician”.  Following a great many police complaints the News of the World dropped it’s campaign, but the damage was done and attacks continued for some time to come.

These are just some of the instances of the power of mass hysteria, although there have been a great many more.  Be it the Nibiru end of the world prophecy of 21 December 2012, the New World Order, or marauding bands of feral smurfs, people can be gullible, and it only takes the slightest rumour to get them frightened.  And when people are frightened, they can get ugly.

I said earlier that we are no different, and if you doubt that I want you to try a little experiment.  Picture in your mind, right now, a UFO and an extraterrestrial alien.

I am telling you right now, that the vast majority of you immediately pictured the classic “flying saucer” and “grey alien”.  We all know these things do not exist but once an idea is planted in our minds it is very hard to remove, and that in itself is a form of mass hysteria.

Still think you’re not as susceptible as any of those involved in the above examples?  🙂

The wonderful world of Urban Myths.

hitchhiker

“I went to that new Chinese place last night. Lovely meal.”

“Oh you don’t want to eat Chinese.”

“Why ever not?”

“Mate of mine, he had a friend went for a Chinese meal. Started choking. Rushed to hospital, they found he was choking on a bone.  When they got it out, it was a rat bone it was.”

Many people may recognise the above story in another guise.  Sometimes it is a Chinese restaurant, sometimes it is Indian. Sometimes it is a rat bone, and sometimes the bone came from a cat.  Sometimes the individual concerned survives, and sometimes he chokes to death.

The fact is there never was a restaurant, of any ethnicity.  There never was anyone choked, was rushed to hospital, or died. There was never any bone, be it from a rat or a cat.

This story is an urban myth; one of the most fascinating and entertaining forms of modern folklore.  And all the more so because so many people believe it and are all too willing to pass it on, maintaining that it is absolutely genuine.  Indeed, when I pointed out the fallacies in this tale to one woman once, she became quite irate and adamant that it really did happen.

This type of urban myth is known as a “FOAFtale”; being the acronym of “Friend Of A Friend”.  The narrator of the story never knows the person the incident supposedly befell. It is always a friend-of-a-friend, a friend’s brother, sister, mum, dad, third-cousin-twice-removed.  There is never any newspaper, police or medical evidence to back the story up.  It just gets started by some fantastical storyteller, passed by someone gullible enough to believe it without checking the facts, then because human beings can be gullible, it takes off from there.

It is not lost on me that the bone in the Chinese meal / curry tale has racist connotations.  It is not the only such tale.  Another one is of the couple driving in an old-style Volkswagen Beetle through an area with a large black population.  They are set upon by a bunch of black men and the boyfriend hits the gas and guns the car away with one black guy hanging on to the back until they get away from him.  When they get home and the boyfriend is examining the damage to his car, he finds four severed black fingers in one of the vents of the Beetle, which of course is always white, cut off by the engine fan.  Firstly, a grown man could not get his fingers into the vents in the back of a VW Beetle.  Secondly, even if it were possible, he would have to have really long fingers to reach the engine fan.  Thirdly, if the fan cut the fingers of, then logically they would not be stuck in the vent, as the fan would come between the two.

The above story is in fact a racist twist upon a 1960s urban myth which was equally bigoted against hippies.  The original has a guy driving past Stonehenge in England in a Ford Zephyr, or similar fast car of the time.  He sees a hippy standing trying to thumb a lift by the side of the road. He slows down to give the hippy a lift, then notices a mad look in his eyes, and suddenly speeds up and drives off, noticing the hippy waving and gesticulating wildly in his rear view later.  A little later he pulls in for petrol and the pump attendant, about to fill the car, either recoils in horror or faints. Wondering what is wrong, the motorist gets out and finds the hippy’s fingers or hand wrapped around the passenger door handle.

Prejudice in urban myths stretches across the English Channel to France and other countries on the continent (readers outside of Europe more than likely have their own regional variations).  There is the story of an English couple whom a friend knows or is related to who are travelling through France with their dog, which being France, has to be a poodle.  They are hungry and finally find a restaurant who will admit them and their dog.  Knowing little french and enjoying a glass of wine while perusing the menu, they don’t want to leave their pampered pooch out of the meal.  So pointing to the dog, they try to ask the waiter to feed him too.  After a look of misunderstanding, the waiter leads the dog into the kitchen, where they think it will be fed.  A little later the waiter comes back with a huge tureen, which he lifts the lid off to reveal, yep, you’ve guessed it, the cooked dog.

It is quite easy to poke holes in this story immediately.  Why would an English couple knowing little French ever try to travel through that country?  This story comes from the days before “pet passports”, so how would they get their dog across the Channel at a time when there were strict border controls on dogs in the first place?  Of course, one would hard pressed even nowadays to find any restaurant which would admit any dogs unless they were guide dogs.  Finally the actual cooking of the dog is nothing less than pure anti-French bigotry.  In this story one can see clear parallels to the bone in the Chinese meal / curry FOAFtale.

Another story is of a British family (friends of a distant aunt’s close friend, etc) touring the continent.  In this case the elderly grandmother is with the family. Somewhere in France, Italy, Spain, or some other corner of the continent, they find the old lady has died in her sleep.  Wishing to take her home to Blighty to have her buried, the manager of the hotel / guest house agrees that the family can wrap her in the bedroom carpet, which they do, and string the body to the roof rack of the car.  Driving back across the continent, they stop somewhere for lunch one day, and when they go to continue the journey, somebody has stolen the carpet – complete with granny inside.

For a start in most counties across the globe, and certainly in Europe, a death certificate would be required.  As it was a sudden death, an autopsy may have to be carried out.  And what callous bastard would be insane enough to wrap their grandmother in a carpet and strap them to the roof rack?  What hotel / guest house manager would even allow that without contacting the police?  As totally absurd as this story is, it still does the rounds to this day and there are people gullible enough to believe it.

There is an older variant of this tale which has a family travelling across Europe and a female family member (always female for some reason), either a grandmother, mother, or more commonly a daughter takes ill with either a contagious disease or poisoning in a hotel and dies in the night.  The family go off to get the authorities but when they come back there is no sign of the daughter, the room she was staying in has been completely redecorated and the hotel staff all deny any knowledge of ever having seen met any of the family ever before.  The parents go to the room they were in to show police their luggage in there.  Except their keys don’t work and when the manager uses the pass key, that room too has been redecorated and there is not one piece of luggage or clothes in the room.  Alternatively there is a further twist to this story in which one policeman spots an earring lying on the floor, he lifts it and turning to the mother, she is only wearing one earring matching the dropped one.  The manager then confesses to disposing of the body to save the reputation of his hotel.

It is believed that the above urban myth can be traced to an obscure horror story, which has been retold at some point as fact.  And it is not the only time this has happened.

In the USA there was the story of a man in old fashioned clothes suddenly appearing in the middle of Times Square, New York City in 1950.  Looking around himself in astonished wonder, the man suddenly appreciates the danger he is in with the bustling traffic, attempts to get to safety but is knocked down and killed.  His body taken to the city morgue, the police go through his pockets and find a beer token for 5 cents from a saloon (which subsequently is unknown even to older residents), a bill for keeping a horse and washing a carriage from a livery stable on Lexington Avenue which is not listed in any address book, $70 in out-of-date yet crisp banknotes, business cards with the name Rudolf Fentz giving an address on Fifth Avenue, and a letter sent to the Fifth Avenue address dated June 1876.  A Captain Rihm of the NYPD goes to the Fifth Avenue address and finds it is a business.  Further tracking leads him to a Rudolf Fentz Jr, whom he subsequently discovers has died but his widow is still alive in Florida.  When he contacts her, she tells him that her husband’s father, Rudolf Fentz Sr, had gone out for a walk one day in 1876 and never returned.  A subsequent search of missing persons for the year 1876 shows that a record for a Rudolf Fentz tallies exactly with the man killed in Times Square in 1950.

The above story is was believed by a great number of Americans, particularly New Yorkers, for many years.  Some even claimed to have seen Rudolf Fentz appear and being knocked down in Times Square in 1950.  With the UFO flap years of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, it appeared in many books and was held up as proof of a timeslip, or an eddy in the space-time continuum.  It still makes the rounds as an urban legend and in paranormal literature to this day.  In fact, the entire story was from a short story I’m Scared by American Sci-Fi author Jack Finney, and was first published in Collier’s Magazine on 15 September 1951.  Yet such is the gullibility of mankind, there are people to this day will quite adamantly tell you that the Rudolf Fentz case was genuine.

If any readers have never encountered the oldest urban myth of them all, then I will assume you have been living in caves all your lives, because it can easily be reckoned everyone has encountered it in one form or another; the phantom hitch-hiker.

One of the most common versions of the story is that a driver on a lonely road sees a teenage girl trying to hitch a lift by a crossroads.  Being the gallant type and afraid for the girl’s wellbeing, he stops and offers to drive her home. While driving along she shivers and the driver gives her his sweater which she drapes around her shoulders.  At her house, she thanks him and says he need not come to the door as her parents would be angry, and runs off.  The following day the driver realises that he never got his sweater back and sets out for the girl’s home.  When he gets there a woman comes to the door and he explains the situation to her.  The woman suddenly breaks down in tears and says “That was my daughter.  She was killed at the crossroads a year ago yesterday.” Incredulous and not believing her, the mother leads the man to the nearby graveyard, where her daughter is buried.  And there, draped across the girl’s gravestone is the man’s sweater.

The phantom hitch-hiker takes on a great many forms.  In some of these there is the horror story of the girl in the car while her boyfriend goes to get petrol who suddenly hears thudding on the car roof.  Then lights suddenly goes on and a voice on a megaphone tells her to get out the car slowly then run to the light.  When she does so, she reaches police and an ambulance and turns to see a maniac on the roof of the car, thudding on it with her boyfriend’s severed head.  A campfire ghost story, sure.  But you would be amazed just how many people think that it actually happened.

Some places are very proud of their phantom hitch-hikers.  On Unst in the Shetland Isles, Scotland The White Wife is described as an apparition of an old lady who stands by the road late at night, trying to wave down a lift, always from young male drivers.  Once she gets in the car she sparks up a conversation with the young man, telling him things about his life and family which only he could know.  Startled, when she stops speaking, the young man will turn to look at her – only to find an empty seat beside him.  The White Wife is so famous that Valhalla Brewery named one of their strong ales after her.

As I have said, the phantom hitch-hiker is the world’s oldest urban myth.  European versions of it can be traced back to the 1700s, and involving horse-drawn carriages, and the illustration attached to this article is a wonderful 19th century cartoon based on the subject.  It is thought however to be Chinese in origin, with a man encountering a woman or girl who asks him to accompany her home, but insists she walk behind him. When they get to her home, she has disappeared.

Reading these stories, the reader must think that people were completely gullible in the past.  Human nature however does not change.  The internet hosts more hoax stories than we have ever had in the past.  Even a quick trawl through Facebook any day is almost certain to throw up one story or another which are blatant hoaxes.  Some are harmless enough in their own way, such as saying something is bad for you when it is not.  Others are downright cruel and the products of sick minds, including stealing pictures of sick children, and even children who have subsequently died, and putting them on spurious posts saying if they get 1 million “likes” then the kid will be cured.

Investigative pages such as Snopes and Hoax-Slayer have done little to nothing to convince people that they have been had, with the result that many of these tales are destined to become urban myths in their own right.  Indeed, when I recently pointed someone on Facebook to a Snopes page refuting their post that the energy drink Red Bull was dangerous, they angrily rounded on me and insisted that Snopes must be wrong.  Some people not only prefer to be fooled, they would happily shoot the messenger who points out the fallacies they believe in.

Is that however so surprising?  The entire phenomenon of urban myths and FOAFtales shows us that not only the vast majority of people gullible, many want to be fooled.  There are a great many people in the world who have what I call “Fox Mulder Syndrome”; like the poster in the office of the character in the TV show The X Files, they want to believe, and woe betide anyone who dare to question that belief.  We live daily surrounded by misconceptions of “well known facts” and as well as Snopes and Hoax-Slayer, TV shows such as Mythbusters and QI have done nothing to ever change that.

Urban myths have been with us since time began.  They will be with us until time ends.  And love them or hate them, they all make up part of our wonderful tapestry of folklore.

A pointer to this fact is the story that every year the average person swallows six spiders while the y are sleeping.  That story was in fact a deliberately created myth started by two scientists who posted it on the internet to see how far it would go.  Sorry folks, but that latter part, about the two scientists, is in fact just another urban myth – or is it? 😉

 

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Out of the annals of Victorian London came many dark tales.  Of dastardly crimes committed in dark alleys and thick fog.  Of murky characters who perhaps had a link to either gentry or royalty.  Perhaps one of the most curious cases which was to haunt the entire reign of Queen Victoria however was the mysterious, apparently superhuman, and much feared figure of Spring-heeled Jack.

The first recorded case came in October 1837, only four months into Victoria’s reign, when a girl named Mary Stevens was walking across Clapham Common from visiting her parents in Battersea, when she was accosted by a tall figure wearing dark clothing who gripped her tightly, kissed her face all over and ripped her clothes with hands, which she described “cold and clammy as those of a corpse”.  Mary screamed out causing her attacker to flee the scene and bringing many nearby residents to her assistance.  Nobody saw the character and a search of the area showed no sign of anyone suspicious.

The following day a man of the same description was said to have jumped in front of a carriage, causing the driver to lose control, resulting in his severe injury.  Several witnesses gave the statement that the unharmed man jumped a 9 foot high wall while babbling in high-pitched laughter.  From then on many rumours spread of a man attacking people (usually young girls) and then getting away by impossible leaps across high walls and even buildings, and the public gave the spectre a name, Spring-heeled Jack.

With a great many stories circulating, on 9 January 1938 Sir John Cowan, Lord Mayor of London, at a public meeting he gave in the Mansion House, read out an anoymous letter of complaint he had received concerning the menace.  In this the writer, described only as “a resident of Peckham” wrote;

“It appears that some individuals (of, as the writer believes, the highest ranks of life) have laid a wager with a mischievous and foolhardy companion, that he durst not take upon himself the task of visiting many of the villages near London in three different disguises — a ghost, a bear, and a devil; and moreover, that he will not enter a gentleman’s gardens for the purpose of alarming the inmates of the house. The wager has, however, been accepted, and the unmanly villain has succeeded in depriving seven ladies of their senses, two of whom are not likely to recover, but to become burdens to their families.

At one house the man rang the bell, and on the servant coming to open door, this worse than brute stood in no less dreadful figure than a spectre clad most perfectly. The consequence was that the poor girl immediately swooned, and has never from that moment been in her senses.

The affair has now been going on for some time, and, strange to say, the papers are still silent on the subject. The writer has reason to believe that they have the whole history at their finger-ends but, through interested motives, are induced to remain silent.”

Cowan was sceptical.  However at the meeting one person stated that “servant girls about Kensington, Hammersmith and Ealing, tell dreadful stories of this ghost or devil”.  The press got hold of the story and published this report and several other stories and on 11 January the Lord Mayor showed a crowd gathering a huge pile of mail he had received with regards to Spring-heeled Jack.  More and more letters poured into the Mansion House, from all over the suburbs of south London, suggesting that Jack certainly got around.  One correspondent claimed that in Stockwell, Brixton, Camberwell and Vauxhall. several people had died of fright and others had had fits; meanwhile, another reported that the trickster had been repeatedly seen in Lewisham and Blackheath.  The Lord Mayor maintained that there was mass hysteria responsible to some extent, and this must certainly be true.  However when a trusted friend told him of a girl in Forest Hill being scared into fits by “a figure in a bear’s skin” he was sure that it must be one person or more dressing up to deliberately scare young girls.  The police therefore were instructed to hunt the person or persons concerned and a reward offered.  The attacks apparently continued throughout south London, with no arrests and no-one coming forward with information.

The first authenticated report of Spring-heeled Jack occurred on the night of 19 February 1838.  It was then 18-year old Jane Alsop went to answer the door of her parents home in Bearhind Lane when someone was hammering on it and shouting for a bright light, purporting to be a policeman, saying “we have caught Spring-heeled Jack here in the lane”.  Jane went into the lane with a lit candle but was confronted by a large figure who threw off his cape.  According to Jane Alsop’s report, the figure emitted blue and white flames from his mouth and his eyes were “were light red balls of fire”.  He apparently wore a skin-tight white costume of a material like oilskin and a large helmet.  He grabbed Jane and started tearing at her clothes with “metallic-like” claws.  Jane screamed and made a getaway for her parents home but was caught on the steps by the creature which tore at her neck and arms with claws.  She was rescued by one of her sisters, whose appearance caused the assailant to flee.

On 28 February 1838, 18-year old Lucy Scales and her sister were walking along Green Dragon Alley after visiting their brother, a Limehouse butcher, when she spotted a tall, cloaked figure standing at an angle at the entrance to an alley before them.  As they approached the figure he shot a ray of blue flame into Lucy’s face, blinding her and causing her to drop to the ground in fits.  On hearing one of his sisters screaming, their brother ran to the scene and found Lucy lying having fits on the grounds. It was only later that Lucy’s sister told her that her assailant was tall, gentlemanly, dressed in a cloak and carrying a bullseye lamp, not unlike those the police of the time carried.  He had made no attempt to make good his escape but instead walked calmly away from the scene.

The Times (London) reported the Jane Alsop attack on 2 March 1838 and carried after that an account of a trial of the trial of one Thomas Millbank, who had been boasting in a bar, The Morgan’s Arms after the attack that he was Spring-heeled Jack.  He had been wearing white overalls and a greatcoat, which he dropped along with the candle outside the Alsop family home.  He was acquitted purely on the testimony of the victim, Jane Alsop, who maintained that her attacker could spit flame while Thomas Millbank could not.

Spring-heeled Jack attacks were not confined to London, and nor were to be ultimately (more of which later).  The Brighton Gazette of 13 April 1838 carried a story from Rosehill, Sussex, in which a gardener had been terrified by some unknown creature “in the shape of a bear or some other four-footed animal”. The animal growled, scaled a garden wall then chased the gardener some distance before he escaped by scaling a wall.  The Times carried the story the following day claiming in sensationalist style, “Spring-heeled Jack has, it seems, found his way to the Sussex coast”

Around this time another unsubstantiated story arose of Spring-heeled Jack attempting the same ruse as he had on Jane Alsop.  Only this time the servant boy of the house in Turner Street was wary and called out for help.  As ever he was temporarily blinded by a spurt of blue flame.  It was claimed that the servant who came to the boy’s assistance watched as the figure jumped over two-storey houses to make his escape.  The serving boy’s description tallied with those of Jane Alsop, except he described a large red “W” across the torso of the assailant.

By now the city was in terror of Spring-heeled Jack and armed vigilante gangs were springing up.  Even the Duke of Wellington, by this time 70 years old, got involved, arming himself with a brace of loaded pistols and patrolling the streets searching for the monster threatening the honour of young women.  Extra police squads were put out, partially to look out for Jack but also partially to keep the peace and watch out for excesses from the vigilantes roaming the streets.  Spring-heeled Jack had by now entered popular subculture, appearing in many of the “Penny Dreadful” popular story papers of the time, which all too many believed to be verbatim and appeared in shows in cheap theatres.  He even replaced the Devil in some Punch and Judy shows.  Unsubstantiated stories continued including one form Northamptonshire in which he was described as “the very image of the Devil himself, with horns and eyes of flame” and there were a plethora of reports of attacks on East Anglia mail coaches.  Yet there was no arrest of the elusive Spring-heeled Jack and another substantiated report was not to occur for 39 years.

On an August night in 1877 Private John Reagan had not long taken over sentry duty outside the powder magazine of Aldershot Barracks, 37 miles south-west of London, when heard a noise and went to investigate.  He saw a tall, cloaked figure advancing upon him and Private Reagan levelled his rifle and offered the challenge, “Halt.  Who goes there.” and started retracing to his sentry box.  Before he could fire the figure was upon him and gave him several slaps across the face.  Another sentry fired at the assailant but his shots had no effect.  The figure is then claimed to have made his escape “with astonishing bounds.”

The following autumn a tall figure in sheepskin was chased by an angry mob in Newport Arch, Lincolnshire.  It was claimed that again, just like Aldershot, shots fired at him appeared to have no effect and that he made his escape in superhuman leaps and bounds.

In 1888 a man was seen first on the roof of then scaling the steeple of St Francis Xavier’s Church in Liverpool.  It was claimed that he leapt from the steeple and disappeared behind a row of houses, yet a mob of 100 people found no sign of a body or any person in any of the surrounding streets.  Some reports say that this was the last sighting although others claim that he was seen jumping from rooftop to rooftop around William Henry Street, Liverpool in 1904.

From there Spring-heeled Jack disappeared just as mysteriously as he appeared, leaving only questions of just who and what he may be.  These have been many and varied, ranging from him being an evil spirit, a demon, the Devil himself, to an alien from another planet, or just plainly a clever hoaxer or several hoaxers.

The Mayor of London, John Cowan, was certainly correct when there was more than a little mass hysteria at play.  Mass hysteria can be a very powerful thing.  Consider how it has been and continues to be responsible for the killing of millions of people on the flimsiest of reasons since time began.  People can be ugly and never more ugly when they are frightened.  Add to this that most of us have vivid imaginations and can be gullible and the tiniest rumour can soon grow to a scare of massive proportions.  The mass panic surrounding the Orson Welles 1938 radio broadcast of War of the Worlds, the 1977 screening of the hoax documentary Alternative 3 and the 1992 screening of the BBC play Ghostwatch are prime examples of this.

So it is if one actually looks at the authenticated cases of Spring-heeled Jack, they do not tally with claims of an assailant leaping over walls and even buildings.  In the Jane Alsop case, there is no mention of any such escape.  The discovery of the overalls and greatcoat of Thomas Millbank, plus his boasts in The Morgan’s Arms point to him almost certainly being the attacker.  Why Jane Alsop maintained that her attacker could spit flames is open to conjecture.  But the fact that such stories were being rumoured on the street, along with a sudden and violent attack may have given her that impression.  Having been handed a lit candle, it is not outwith the bounds of possibility that Millbank may have blown on the flame in front of her eyes.  Whatever the answer, if he was at it seems Jane Alsop’s assailant, then his subsequent acquittal would have left him free to attack again.  This is important as it is the same year, 1838, that most of the attacks took place.

Similarly in the Lucy Scales attack, her sister witnessed the attacker walk calmly away, with absolutely no mention of wild leaps and bounds.  It was only rumour and some Penny Dreadfuls of the time which were to make such claims, which are all too sadly repeated in the more disreputable paranormal literature of the present age.

The actions of the creature which chased the gardener in Rosehill, Sussex appears by its actions to have been some species of cat and not at all attached to the Spring-heeled Jack mystery, no matter what The Times claimed.  This story is interesting in itself however as it would appear to be an “Alien Big Cat” sighting, which are usually associated with the latter part of the 20th century rather than the early 19th century.

The unsubstantiated report of the servant boy in Turner Street mentions a large red “W” on the costume of the attacker.  This led many at the time (as it does to some today) to point the finger at Henry de La Poer Beresford, 3rd Marquess of Waterford.  Beresford was in the news almost constantly in the late 1830s for his drunkenness, public brawling, gambling and pulling cruel jokes upon people.  In 1880 the writer E Cobham Brewer publicly named the Marquess by stating of him “used to amuse himself by springing on travellers unawares, to frighten them, and from time to time others have followed his silly example”. Brewer, more famous for his Dictionary of Folklore and Fable added to this claim the fact that the Marquess was a notorious misogynist. There are some in the paranormal field who hold to this belief to this day, that the Marquess started it and others copied him thereafter.  This is open to speculation.  Beresford was certainly in London around the same time but one does not see what it would have profited the Marquess to make such foolhardy attacks, particularly the scandal which possible capture would have caused.  However, if he were as dissolute a drunk as is claimed, it possibly did not care for the consequences.  There is no proof either way over Beresford’s involvement and it seems this claim may be as much a great unknown as possible gentry links to the Jack the Ripper murders.

As to the 1877 attack upon the sentry at Aldershot Barracks, some have claimed that the sentry who fired had his rifle loaded with blanks.  Given that they were guarding one of the most important powder magazines in England, one can hardly lend any credence to such a claim, especially at a time when there were no laws banning the ownership of firearms in England.  In his 1922 memoirs Forty Years On, Lord Ernest Hamilton states the incident took place in winter 1879 after his regiment, The 60th Rifles, had been stationed at Aldershot.  Furthermore he states that similar incidents took place when his regiment was stationed at Colchester, where sentries had been given orders to shoot the “night terror”, and that they were pranks carried out by one officer, Lieutenant Alfrey.  At that time it was still quite more common for English soldiers to wear breastplates and helmets, which may explain why the bullets had no effect.

When the Whitechapel murders took place in 1888, the public of course tied in the murderer to Spring-heeled Jack.  Indeed, it was the public who first referred to the murderer as “Jack”, which was picked up by the press.  It was only after these initial reports that newspapers received anonymous letters from someone signing themselves “Jack”.  There is not even any solid evidence that the Whitechapel murders were carried out by one person and it is perfectly possible that one legend grew out of another, purely as a result of public mass hysteria.

The claims of Jack leaping from the spire of St Xavier’s Church are equally spurious and appear to have been sensationalised.  Richard Whittington-Egan – author of a book on Jack the Ripper and several local history books about Manchester and Liverpool wrote the following report;

“An elderly man, still living, has also told how, one night in 1888, when he and a number of his fellow-members of Everton’s St Francis Xavier’s Boys’ Guild were playing in the school-room, someone came rushing in with the news that the dread Spring-Heeled Jack was in Shaw Street. Out into Haigh Street ran the boys, and up William Henry Street. When, however, they reached Shaw Street, they saw no sign of the weird creature, although an excited crowd told them that he was crouched on the steeple of a nearby church.”

So we have the testimony of one old man, many years after the event, with no mention of someone leaping from the spire and no mob of 100 people.  The St Xavier’s sighting could easily have been misidentification, which mixed with hysteria surrounding Jack, led to suggestion of a bird being mistaken for a man, which if there were a “leap” could have been the witness mistaking the bird flying off from the roof.  Should anyone doubt this, consider how many normal aircraft and birds have been mistaken for UFOs, particularly in “flap” years.

Likewise, the final accounts in 1904 are equally spurious and secondhand.  The above account of Spring-heeled Jack in William Henry Street, Liverpool, only appeared in the Daily Mirror in 1967.  There had in fact been a supposed poltergeist outbreak in the William Henry Street area in 1904.  The London-based newspaper The Star (not to be confused with the later newspaper of the same name) reported;

“The exploits of a reputed ghost have kept several streets of Liverpool in an uproar this week. Lurid stories of the doings of the notorious Spring Heeled Jack who some years ago frightened half the women and children of the city were recalled by present scenes. Pieces of brick, old bottles and other missiles came hurtling down the chimneys of the haunted house. Where they came from baffled the vigilance of watchers. The annoyance was so persistent and the terror among the neighbours so great that the residents of the house left hurriedly and the place was closed.”

This was obviously at odds with other reports of a character jumping from roof to roof and eluding all capture.  In fact, the “Liverpool Jack” was indeed captured.  Sixty years after the event, a Mrs Pierpoint, who had been a girl in Everton at the time told of the true events of the time.  The character had in fact been a mentally disturbed individual who would climb onto the roofs of houses and would then throw bricks and slates down on the streets below and down chimneys.  Mrs Pierpoint stated “(he) was a local man slightly off balance mentally… He had a form of religious mania and he would climb on to rooftops of houses crying out: “My wife is the Devil!’ They usually fetched police or a fire-engine ladder to get him down. As the police closed in on him, he would leap from one house roof to the next. That’s what gave rise to the “Spring-Heeled Jack” rumours.” 

Given the timescale, it is more than likely that there were several assailants, the first of these perhaps being Thomas Millbank, and others perhaps copying him.  Alternatively there may have been people who caught up with the myth, thought it funny to emulate Spring-heeled Jack.  Or perhaps it was just a string of unconnected assaults, sightings of unusual people, and supposed sightings which became carried along on the legend.  Whatever the truth, there was in all likelihood no Spring-heeled Jack, but the legend grew out of fear and mass hysteria, and ended with one pitiful mentally ill individual who was obviously a danger to both himself and others.

Or did it end there?  In 1986 a man named only as Mr Marshall, a travelling salesman, claimed to have had an encounter with a man in what appeared to be a black ski-suit on the Wales-South Herefordshire border.  He claimed the man leaped in huge, inhuman bounds and as he passed him, slapped him across the cheek before leaping off.  More recently Mr Scott Martin and his family were travelling home to Stoneleigh in Surrey by taxi, when all on board apparently saw a “dark figure with no features” run across the road in front of the cab before quickly scaling a 15 foot high wall near Nescott Cottage on the Ewell Bypass.

Once something becomes firmly rooted in public subculture, it is obviously extremely hard to remove it.

Christianity has its own demons.

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On 6 January 2009, a woman accused of witchcraft and of passing on AIDS to several men with whom she had extramarital affairs was stripped naked, blindfolded, gagged, tied to a pole and burned alive on a pyre built of petrol-soaked truck tyres.

A man and his son were burned alive after neighbours accused the father of casting spells on a local leader to bring about his death.

Wilson Okore, 29, was sentenced to 50 years imprisonment after hacking to death a forest warden whom he accused of casting spells a give a woman headaches.

Shocking, isn’t it, the insanity which fundamentalist religion can create?  And no doubt the reader will automatically think that these atrocities were committed by radical Islamists.  Except they were not.  The people who carried out the above murders were all deeply devout Christians in Papua New Guinea, itself a Christian country which does little to nothing to deter such acts.

Admittedly, Papua New Guinea suffers from a strange mixture of (predominantly Roman Catholic) Christianity, Animism and ancient tribal beliefs (similar to that which gave rise to Voodoo in Haiti) and Christian missionaries have been known at time to step in and try to rescue those accused of witchcraft.  However the country’s Witchcraft Act of 1971, which makes the practice of “Black Witchcraft” illegal, along with superstitious fears from a largely ignorant populace make such atrocities all too common.  It is not helped either by the said people actually being indoctrinated by a faith which tells them Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” (Genesis 22:18, KJV)

One does not doubt for one moment the dangers of fundamentalist Islam and the radicalisation it all too often produces.  But even today, in 2013, Christianity has its own catalogue of horrendous acts, sometimes in countries which either sanctions these acts, or otherwise cannot or will not prevent them, and which are all too often played down by the mainstream media.

Gambia is a predominantly Muslim country which however has a sizeable and very vocal Christian minority.  The president of Gambia, Yahya Jammeh, who seized power in a coup in 1994 is Islamic but always quick to curry favour with the Christians in the form of gifts to their communities.  Like Papua New Guinea, Gambia has an obsession with witchcraft which is shared by both the Muslim and Christian communities.  Christian sects in Gambia produce fantastical tracts in comic strip form with bizarre stories of what happens to witches.  One of these, the “true life story” of Alhaji Diiejo, a cocoa famer, depicts him praying to a “magic god”, cimbing into a pot and turning into a snake with a human head, by which means he poisoned the crops of neighbouring farmers.  A hunter however steals his pot, making it impossible for him to turn back into a man, and he is forced to confess all his sins before being driven off to a secret location by his son.

This is only one of many such tracts printed and distributed in Gambia telling outright and utterly fantastical nonsense as “true”.  It is not the first time I have encountered Christians who are all too willing to blaspheme their own faith by openly lying.  It would seem that the belief is that the ends justify the means.  And readers may baulk at such fantastical nonsense.  However the Christian natives of Gambia are all too willing to believe them.  It is hardly surprising then that when one of President Jammeh’s aunts died suddenly in 2009 and he blamed it upon witchcraft, that in scenes with disturbing echoes of the Salem, all too many were ready to co-operate with the paramilitary police in a witch hunt which became so serious that hundreds of Gambians fled across the border into Senegal.

Witchcraft apart, President Jammeh also has a strong religious aversion to homosexuality, which is equally supported by Gambia’s Christians.  Homosexuality is illegal in Gambia and can bring a jail sentence of up to seven years.  Jammeh has often threatened to legislate beheading for gays and has ordered military chiefs to root out and dismiss gay service personnel.  Were this persecution not bad enough for Gambians, it has even stretched to visitors from other countries who have been prosecuted.  Of the many cases perhaps the worst example is that of Frank Boers, a 79-year-old man from the Netherlands, who was arrested at Banjul’s international airport after photographs of him naked with two Gambian men were found on his person.  Mr Boers was fined 100,000 Gambian Dalasis (GB £1,800 / US $2,777), which he could not pay and was imprisoned for two years.  At no time did anyone from Gambian’s Christian communities speak out, just as they do not speak out against the random beatings of people suspected of homosexual activity, in a country which has no LGBT organisations.  In fact, if anything Gambian Christians are all too ready to support – and take part in – these atrocities.

If Gambia is bad enough, Uganda is a completely different kettle of fish.  And there is no excuse of it being a Muslim country.  Uganda is 85% Christian, under the leadership of Yoweri Museveni, himself a deeply devout Christian.  Freedom of religion is the official line in Uganda.  However, all religions have to register with the state and some minority beliefs, condemned as sects, are strictly proscribed.

The treatment of the LGBT community in Uganda is not only shameful, it is frightening.  Gays and lesbians are routinely rounded up, dragged out of their homes and meeting places by police, savagely beaten, murdered and “disappeared” by the authorities.  The only difference between this treatment and the atrocities in the dark days of Idi Amin’s dictatorship is that when it comes to gays, the vast majority of the Ugandan public support this state terrorism.  Moreover, Ugandans at times attack gays with savage beatings and burn down their houses, which the authorities not only do nothing to deter but are wholly in support of.

Homosexuality in Uganda is a crime, currently punishable by up to 14 years imprisonment.  In 2009 however, Ugandan Member of Parliament David Bahati tabled the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which calls for the death penalty for same-sex acts and relationships.  Bahati based his Bill upon his deeply-held Christian beliefs, claiming “we do not hate homosexuals but the sin that it is in them.”  Despite these words, Bahati’s supporters make their feelings about homosexuality (primarily among gay men) more than clear.  One of these, Pastor Moses Solomon Male (the irony is not lost on me either) tours the country on his mission, Understanding the Challenges of Homosexuality (Sodomy), in which he tells young children among others “Those homosexuals … They call it anal sex. It ruins the anus. And they say they enjoy it,”. He even goes as far as to claim that gay men groom children for sex, openly accusing them of being child abusers.  It is only my opinion but it seems to me that if anyone is abusing kids, it is someone giving Sunday School youngsters graphic descriptions of anal intercourse.  Although it has since been vehemently denied, there have been claims linking the American evangelist preacher Scott Lively to support for the Anti-Homosexuality Bill.  On 12 December 2012 Pope Benedict XVI received Speaker of the Ugandan Parliament, Rebecca Kadaga, who also supports the Bill, and bestowed his blessing upon her.

The Bill has been struggling through the Ugandan parliament since it’s introduction in 2009, with many revisions being written into it, due in no small effort to international pressure being put upon Uganda, not least from other countries within the British Commonwealth.  It has the support of both the parliament and the people however and may yet become law.  Even if it does not, the treatment of the LGBT community in Uganda, largely caused by fundamentalist Christian belief, remains shameful.

In 2012 there was a failed attempt to highlight the atrocities of Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Liberation Army.  Kony has been indicted several times on war crimes and crimes against humanity, not least for abducting over 600,000 children to turn into child soldiers, great many of whom had to kill their own parents.  It is not known just how many deaths Joseph Kony and the LRA are responsible for but it may well be in excess of 1 million.  Kony is a self-proclaimed “spokesman for God” who has operated in several countries including  Uganda, South Sudan, Central African Republic and Congo, but at one time sought to turn Uganda into a Christian theocracy.  Uganda has had a truce with the LRA since 2008 but as far as the treatment of the LGBT community goes, their aims remain the same.  The plan in 2012 was to turn Joseph Kony into a “celebrity”; to plaster his name and image around the world in an effort to make the world aware of him and the crimes of him and the LRA.  It failed completely to gain momentum.  One can only help but wonder if the same would have happened had Kony and his murderous band of terrorists been Muslim?  The western media certainly bears a responsiblity for continually posting sensationalist (and at times false) stories about Muslims when they should have been highlighting the LRA.

Anyone reading this will have noticed that so far I have concentrated upon Papua New Guinea and countries in Africa and may be forgiven for thinking that the atrocities mentioned happen due to religious propaganda feeding the fears of ill-educated people in developing countries. The same however cannot be said for modern, industrialised, developed countries, and one in particular; the Republic of Ireland.

Roman Catholicism has had a firm grip upon Ireland for hundreds of years.  Even centuries of British rule did nothing to lessen the power of the Church of Rome upon the Irish people.  Thankfully, things do appear to be changing.  However there are places where it still remains extremely strong, not least in the matter of abortion.  Abortion is completely illegal in Eire and attempting to procure an abortion can carry a sentence of life imprisonment.  Even if the woman is pregnant from the result of rape, including incestuous rape, procurement of an abortion would still be deemed illegal within the laws of the Irish republic.

The official line of the law in Eire is that abortion is is illegal unless it occurs as the result of a medical intervention performed to save the life of the mother.  Where actual cases may stand de jure (in law) however can often be very different to the de facto (in reality) circumstances.  A landmark case occurred in 1992 in which a 14 year old girl, known only as “X” was pregnant following rape and became suicidal.  The girl’s family planned to travel to England for her to have an abortion but before leaving her mother asked the Garda (the Irish police) if DNA evidence would be admissible as the rapist was denying responsibility.  The Attorney General, Harry Wheelan, when informed sought an injunction to prevent her travelling.  During the case of Attorney General vs X however, this was overturned and it was established that a risk to the mother’s life did indeed include if she were suicidal.  In the event X miscarried before the procedure could be carried out.  The law was still however that women in Ireland may travel to procure an abortion, even if suicidal.  A great many women do indeed travel, mostly to England.  None attempt to cross the border into Northern Ireland for the simple matter that the ruling Protestants in British NI are as equally anti-abortion as their Roman Catholic neighbours in the Irish Republic.

It is not always clear either what constitutes putting the woman’s rights at risks and balancing those against the rights of the unborn child.  Matters concerning this came to a head in October 2012 with the death of Savita Halappanavar.  A 31 year old Hindu woman from India, Savita was 17 weeks pregnant when she began to miscarry.  She was taken to University Hospital, Galway, where she begged for an abortion as she feared for her life.  This however was refused as the heart of the foetus was found to still be beating, even though it was non-viable as a child.  Her husband has since claimed that when Savita asked for an abortion, she was continually and arrogantly told “This is a Catholic country.”  If true, the bigoted and dare I say racist connotations of that are clear for all to see.  Three days after admission, with no heartbeat present, the foetal remains were removed.  The damage however was already done.  Savita suffered septicemia and organ failure, from which she died four days later.  The case of Savita Halapannavar is still being investigated as I write this.  It has however created outrage not only in Ireland but on a worldwide scale and have increased calls for Irish women to have greater right to abortion.

Cases of child abuse by clergy are of course by no means limited to Ireland but due to the Roman Catholicism being all but the state religion there, it has had more than it’s fair share of scandals, for which the Irish parliament, the Dail, never seems to be done apologising for.  Why they do so is beyond me.  It is not they who should be apologising for these acts but rather the Roman Catholic Church who should be doing so.  Not only is the Vatican unwilling to do so however, in many such cases they have been known to protect the offender and often very reluctant to part with compensation to victims.  In 1994 serial child abuser Father Brendan Smyth, was protected so much while on the run in Ireland that his case ultimately led to the collapse of the government.

The church in Ireland ran a great many institutions, schools, homes and the infamous “Magdalene Laundries” which, under the guise of being charitable institutions, destroyed the lives of thousands who were physically, sexually and psychologically abused, sometimes a mixture of all three.  There are people suffering to this day due to the abuse they received in these institutions, abuse which the Roman Catholic church in Ireland, and right to the heart of Rome, all too often are in denial about, are covering up, or worst of all, blame the victims for.  Sadder still is the reaction from some of the populace who would like it all to just disappear.  It must be hard for them; nobody likes to think that something that has been an integral part of their life from birth is rotten to the very core.  During one case brought against the church in Ireland I was so saddened to hear one man in Dublin tell TV cameras “They should let it drop. It was thirty years ago.”

The cases of child abuse by Roman Catholic clergy are of course way too numerous to list in this article.  I will say however that it is a problem which seems to be endemic within the church and which they do little to nothing to redress.  Perhaps the most astounding statement came on 10 June 2010, when Pope Benedict XVI, in a speech concerning the “Year of the Priest”, stated, “We too insistently beg forgiveness from God and from the persons involved, while promising to do everything possible to ensure that such abuse will never occur again.”  Did you notice that?  “and from the persons involved”.  Far from recompensing people for abuse by clergy, the Pope was actually asking victims to forgive their abusers.  As for ensuring that abuse would never happen again, it continues unabated, often by clergy who try to claim their victims “enjoyed” their abuse or were “asking for it”, or anything else but admit that they or the Roman Catholic Church could ever be at fault.  In 2002, Cardinal Pell, Archbishop of Sydney claimed that “abortion is worse than priest abuse… …because abortion always destroys a human life.” A little advice to Cardinal Pell; a good life includes quality of life, and through stealing that quality from victims, the number of lives which abusive clergy have destroyed is countless, but it must run into millions.

And I would stress here that while the Roman Catholic Church is the largest perpetrator of these crimes, they are not the only ones.  I doubt that there is any Christian denomination, anywhere in the world, which has not had an abusive member of clergy.  Certainly in my home country, there have been a number of abuse cases come to light in former Church of Scotland homes, and I have read of quite a sizeable amount of such cases in Protestant churches in the USA and elsewhere.

Another problem with Christianity, as with any religion, is the mania it can and does create, sometimes with terrible consequences, including death.  When one reads of people being killed in a stampede to get “special anointing oil”, you may think it happened in Islamabad, or perhaps Amritsar?  Except that is exactly what happened on 5 May 2013 at the Synagogue Church of All Nations in Ghana when the said oil was being handed out by the controversial Prophet TB Joshua.  And again, we need not look to Africa for such fanaticism.  Let us not forget that Jim Jones and his followers at Jonestown, who all committed suicide, as well as the Branch Davidians in Waco, were mostly American or British.  Even without looking too far in history, in 2011 American Christian radio broadcaster Harold Camping predicted that the “rapture”, when God’s “elect” would be called up to Heaven would take place on 21 May that year.  He gathered a great many believers, some of whom gave up their jobs and/or sold their homes and gave the money raised to Camping’s Family Radio channel.  When the date came, there was at least one serious incident when one mother attempted to slit the throats of her two children. Thankfully both survived.

Leaving aside obvious cases of psychosis where offenders have claimed “God told me to do it / the Devil made me do it”, Christianity can end in serious consequences.  In one case in London a few years ago a woman and her partner hacked her younger brother to death believing him to be “possessed by demons”.  Several such cases have also occurred all around the world.  Christianity can even raise the ugly head of religious bigotry, where others are killed purely for not being Christians.  Whilst most of those involved in religious strife in both Northern Ireland and to a lesser extent Scotland could not seriously be described as Christians (many don’t see the inside of a church from the day they are wed until the day they are buried), some indeed do and believe that they are “killing for Christ”.  Likewise we have the odious matter of a tiny minority, and I emphasise that it is a minority, of US military personnel who honestly believe that they are on a modern day crusade against Islam.  Should anyone doubt this, I can assure them that I have indeed encountered one such individual who maintains that Muslims have been killing for over 1000 years and that “there has to be a reckoning”.

And let us not forget attacks upon abortion clinics, abuse hurled at women attending them – without knowing the facts – and attacks, and/or enticing violent attacks upon the LGBT community, all because it is “Biblical”.  And I’m not talking in Uganda either.  Such attacks happen in the UK and the USA on a daily basis.  I have even recently heard one TV evangelist preach to fathers to “punch the gay out” of their sons.

I would be the last to deny anyone their faith.  I recognise that the Christian church, whatever my views of it may be, is and remains an important part of life for millions of people.  I equally recognise that Christianity can indeed be an enormous force for good in the world, whether speaking out collectively against all sorts of wrongs or individually as good members of clergy who are ever there to support those in some of their darkest hours.  But if anyone claims that Christians can do no wrong, I would suggest that they take in the above, which is but the tip of the iceberg of abuses and atrocities carried out by Christians in the modern age, and think long and hard upon them.

And should there be any who would play the “no true Scotsman” fallacy of claiming “These aren’t true Christians as a Christian would not do that.” then you must admit equally that whenever any Muslim carries out an atrocity not supported by the Qur’an, they must, by equal measure not be a “true” Muslim.  You cannot have it both ways.

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In the 1970s department stores such as Woolworth’s were selling cheap prints  of paintings in the UK and elsewhere.  Among popular items were the Chinese Lady (who for some strange reason had green skin), a naked woman in a forest, and the Crying Boy.  The latter of these was a print of a painting of a little urchin boy in ragged clothes, with a sad look, big eyes and tears running down his face.  Why anyone would actually want such an object on their walls is beyond me. But it was the 1970s and there’s no accounting for taste.

The story of the “curse” of the crying boy dates back to 1973 when a fire officer in Rotherham, England, Alan Wilkinson, had recorded 50 house fires in which there had been copies of crying boy prints which had survived the flames undamaged.  Being a rational man, Alan Wilkinson had put each and every fire down to human carelessness and did not offer any opinion on how the prints survived.

From then on, rumours of “crying boy fires”, in which such a print had survived infernos started spreading.  It was not however until a media story in appeared in 1985 that it became legend.  Popular British tabloid newspaper The Sun, under the then editorship of Kelvin Mackenzie, carried the story on 4 September 1985 under the headline “Blazing Curse of the Crying Boy”.  The story ran that the cottage of Ron and May Hall in Rotherham had been gutted by a chip pan fire.  The house was apparently utterly destroyed, yet their print of the crying boy was hanging on the wall, completely unscathed.  The couple blamed the blaze upon the print, claiming that it was cursed.  The article in The Sun carried a photo of the popular print, which had been signed by one G Bragolin, with the caption “Tears for fears… the portrait that firemen claim is cursed.” and claimed up to 500,000 had been sold.  Alan Wilkinson, or any other fire officer for that matter, had never claimed the prints were cursed.  But then, far be it from The Sun or Kelvin Mackenzie to let facts get in the way of a good story.

Enter our old friend mass hysteria.  On 5 September 1985 The Sun ran a follow up story claiming they had been inundated with phone calls from people claiming they too had experienced fires where crying boy paintings had survived, while others who had copies of such prints were now afraid their homes may be cursed.  Stories and claims poured in of houses being gutted by fire with crying boy prints surviving.  While others claimed that they had lost loved ones after purchasing such prints and one woman claiming that her son had caught his “private parts” on a hook after she had bought and hung a crying boy print.  One woman claimed to have tried to destroy her print on a bonfire, and it simply would not catch.  This was followed up by security guard Paul Collier who claimed he threw his two prints onto a fire and found that they were not even scorched after an hour.

The hysteria continued up and down the country, with stories of fires and wild claims of supernatural happenings in houses with crying boy prints.  It was around this time it emerged however that they were not all of the same painting as the one in the Hall’s cottage, as reported in The Sun.  Some of the paintings came from a series entitled Childhood by the Scottish artist Anna Zinkeisen, who had died in 1976.  And not all of the stories surrounded crying boys. There were crying girl prints as well as some of girls holding posies of flowers.

Then came another fire in Rotherham in which a council house was destroyed and one of Zinkeisen’s crying boy prints apparently survived.  Despite South Yorkshire Fire Brigade issuing a statement to the effect that the blaze had started due to an electric fire being left too close to bedding and any connection to the painting was purely coincidental, public fears would not be allayed, particularly after a fire in an Italian restaurant in which another crying boy print apparently survived.  It was then that Kelvin Mackenzie took a decision that, while it made good copy, he must at least for a while regretted.

In a leader in The Sun, Mackenzie told his readership “Enough is enough” and invited anyone worried about crying boy prints to send them to their offices and that the newspaper would destroy them for them.  It could not have been more successful – the prints soon were all over the offices of The Sun, stacked in a 12 foot high pile, inside and on top of cupboards and filling an interview room.  In the end Kelvin Mackenzie and his staff were left with in excess of 2500 crying boy prints to dispose of.  No doubt he felt like crying himself, particularly when both London and Thames Valley Fire Brigades refused to participate in a mass burning on the roof of the newspaper’s offices.   Apart from the dangers involved in such a foolhardy stunt, who could blame them?  Due to the sensationalism of The Sun fire brigades the length and breadth of the UK had been called out on false calls by more gullible crying boy print owners, afraid the prints were going cause their homes to burn down at any second.

Never daunted and always one for effect, Mackenzie organised a mass burning of the prints on a piece of waste ground on 31 October – Halloween.  Accompanied by Sun Page 3 girl Jane Moore, the prints were driven out to the site near Reading, doused with an accelerant and set alight.  Oh, strangely enough – not one survived.  The Sun claimed that the Halloween burning had broken the curse and, naturally enough, the calls and letters quickly subsided.

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The story however did not die there.  The Curse of the Crying Boy continued on, having become an urban legend to some extent.  From the mid-80s onwards there have been stories of people claiming that a friend of a friend (of a friend of a third-cousin-twice-removed) had a fire in which there house was destroyed and their crying boy print survived.  Other claims included bizarre paranormal events allegedly taking place in houses with crying boy prints.

In 2002 investigative journalist David Clarke joined a group of young people on the Reality TV series Scream Team to investigate the Curse of the Crying Boy.  They went to Wigan in Lancashire where a crying boy print had survived a blaze in a roadside cafe.  The owners, although hard-headed realists, believed all too well in the curse by now and refused to let the print, one of Anna Zinkeisen’s, back in the premises.  Following a trance medium allegedly making contact with someone named “Din”, “Don” or “Dan”, a little boy who it was claimed died in a car crash, it was decided to destroy the print by fire outside.  Needless to say, the print simply would not burn.  Despite being doused with petrol, it took three attempts for it to ignite.

David Clarke followed this up with an excellent article on the Curse of the Crying Boy in Fortean Times magazine (issue 234, April 2008), and I thank him for his research, without which this article would not have been possible. In that article David went at lengths to dispel any myths about any crying boy curse, but far from the story lying down, it just seemed to fan the flames, as it were.  Soon the letters pages and the internet were full of Crying Boy fires, paranormal activities and even wild claims about the source of the curse.  Among these included that the little boy was crying because he was an orphan (he is always depicted in ragged clothes), or that he had been physically and/or sexually abused and was now either disturbed or seeking revenge in the form of fire-raising.  Needless to say all of these claims are pure conjecture, without one shred of evidence or any basis in fact.

In fact, there is no proof there ever was a crying boy model.  Various theories abound but most of these come from the annals of the paranormal, are obscure, and not at all convincing.  Besides, given the works of Anna Zinkeisen, we are not just looking for one crying boy but at least six, as well as crying girls and girls carrying posies of flowers.  The original artists may well have drawn the children from their own memory, or more likely from imagination, particularly if they were contracted to produce kitsch for department stores.

And still it continued, through the 90s, into the noughties and up to the present day.  Enter again The Sun, copy dated 12 January 2011, in which Steve Punt claimed “Solved: The Curse of the crying boy”.  In a terrible article, Punt related how he had taken a crying boy print to the Building Research Establishment (BRE) near Watford, where it had been subjected to a naked flame.  This was filmed and the flames, two foot high at times, scorched one side of the print but it did not ignite and the fire petered out without damaging it.

So what of Punt’s claim to have solved the mystery?

“But it turns out there is a reason why paintings often survive fires relatively undamaged: It is to do with the string on the back burning through first.  The painting falls face-down, giving it protection from smoke and heat.”

As one ever ready to apply Occam’s Razor, there may be something to this theory, for a number of paintings surviving the fires.  What however of those where owners maintain that their premises were gutted, and the print was still hanging on the wall?  Steve Punt’s hypothesis certainly cannot explain those instances.  Besides, in the controlled fire at BRE, one theory put forward is that the prints may well be covered with a fire-retardant coating.

Add to this that Steve Punt is a comedian, and a pretty left-wing comedian at that, and it seems that his theory of the string burning through may well have been said just for a laugh – with the joke being on one of Britain’s most right-wing sensationalist tabloid newspapers.

I have always been of the mind that the crying boy prints have been coated in some way which makes them flame-retardant, and the filmed burnings on both Scream Team and at BRE would seem to confirm that.  To that we can add the actual statement which South Yorkshire Fire Brigade released to ally fears in 1985:

“The reason why this picture has not always been destroyed in the fire is because it is printed on high density hardboard, which is very difficult to ignite.”

Add the two, high density hardboard back and flame-retardant coated front, and you have one print that is going to be particularly difficult to burn.

Despite all explanations, stories of the Curse of the Crying Boy continue, and no doubt shall do for a long time to come.  It is now an urban legend, firmly stuck in the public imagination, so don’t be surprised the next time you hear of a friend of a friends cousin’s granny’s house burning down and her crying boy painting being the only thing to survive.

Have you heard or experienced a fire or unexplained occurance concerning a Crying Boy print?  If so, please leave your story below.   Do NOT however, on any account, send your prints to me.  It’s not that I believe the curse or am in any way afraid, it’s just that they are bloody awful and I can’t stand the damned things.

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Giordano Bruno was born Filippo Bruno in Nola, Campania (then part of the Kingdom of Naples) in 1548.  He was the son of Giovanni Bruno, a soldier, and his wife, Fraulissa Savolino.  His parents deciding he should have a future in the church, his parents had him privately educated in an Augustinian monastery in Naples and he joined the Dominican Order at the Monastery of San Domenico Maggiore, Naples, where he took the name Giordano, after Giordano Crispo, his metaphysics tutor.  He was ordained as a priest in 1572, at age 24.  If his parents thought his future in the church secure, Giordano was soon to show he had very different ideas.

Even while he was studying Giordano’s freethinking and enquiring mind often landed him in trouble.  As a priest his actions and statements were to raise more eyebrows.  He had statues and icons of saints removed, retaining only a crucifix and would make reading recommendations to novice priests which the church frowned upon.   Whilst controversial, these acts where not considered blasphemous.  However a copy of the writings of Erasmus, then banned by the church, annotated by Bruno were found in his privy and he was accused of the Arian Heresy; that God the son (Jesus) was separate from and subordinate to God Almighty.  This denied the Trinity, which is precisely why the church had banned the writings of Arias and Erasmus upon the subject.  Hearing that an indictment was being prepared against him, Giordano Bruno fled Naples, at one point shedding his habit whilst on the run.

Bruno was becoming notorious by this time due to his controversial ideas and kept travelling.  1579 found him in Geneva and it was feared by some he may convert to Protestantism, which he had no intention of doing.  He dressed in ordinary civilian clothes, so that he may not be recognised as a priest and for a while enjoyed a quiet life.  In this liberated atmosphere, Bruno was able to voice his more controversial views on theology, including doubting the virginity of Mary, mother of Jesus, and describing many Roman Catholic beliefs, such as transubstantiation – that during mass the wine and wafer literally become the blood and body of Christ – as “childhood nonsense”.  He coined the phrase “Libertes Philosophica” – the freedom to speak, to dream, to philosophise.  Then he published a strong attack on the work of Antoine de la Faye, a distinguished professor of the city.  He and his publisher were arrested and at his trial defended his publication.  He was offered the right to take the sacrement, which at first was refused but later accepted.  Nevertheless he left Geneva and headed for France.

He first went to Lyons then continued to Toulouse, where he took his Doctorate in Theology and was elected by the students to lecture in Philosophy.  He attempted to re-enter the fold of the Roman Catholic Church at this time but the Jesuit priest he approached refused him absolution.  Religious strife broke out in 1581 and Bruno relocated to Paris.  Bruno had a fantastic memory and it was in Paris he demonstrated how it was all done on a system of mnemonics, and not through witchcraft as some within the church were claiming.  He published De umbris idearum (On The Shadows of Ideas, 1582), Ars Memoriae (The Art of Memory, 1582), and Cantus Circaeus (Circe’s Song, 1582).  On The Shadows of Ideas was dedicated to Henry III, King of France.  In those days a dedication was approved beforehand and was a way of protecting oneself from fear of litigation or accusations of heresy.  Little wonder then that Henry III called Bruno to court.

In 1583 Henry III sent Bruno to England with letters of recommendation as a guest of the French ambassador, Michel de Castelnau.  Here he became acquainted with the works of fellow freethinkers, including the poet Philip Sidney and those who surrounded themselves around the Astrologer to Queen Elizabeth I, John Dee, although there is no proof he ever met the latter.  Bruno applied for a post at Oxford University but was turned down because his views clashed with those of John Underhill, Rector of Lincoln College, and George Abbot, who would later become Archbishop of Canterbury.

It was during his time in London that Bruno would voice his views most controversial to any Christian church, be they Roman Catholic or Protestant; that he upheld the Copernican model of the Earth rotating around the sun.  The Christian churches in the 16th century strongly held the view that the Bible was the completely accurate and infallible word of God, and if held a geocentric view of the universe, then that must be true.  George Abbot would often deride Bruno, stating “that the earth did go round, and the heavens did stand still; whereas in truth it was his own head which rather did run round, and his brains did not stand still”.  Not content with this Abbot falsely accused Giordano Bruno of plagiarising the works of the philosopher and astronomer Marsilio Ficino.

It was during his time in London however that Bruno published his most important works, and the ones which were then considered the most controversial.  These were the La Cena de le Ceneri (The Ash Wednesday Supper, 1584), De la Causa, Principio et Uno (On Cause, Principle and Unity, 1584), De l’Infinito Universo et Mondi (On the Infinite Universe and Worlds, 1584) as well as Lo Spaccio de la Bestia Trionfante (The Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast, 1584) and De gl’ Heroici Furori (On Heroic Frenzies, 1585).

In these works not only did Giordano Bruno openly support the Copernican model, he stated that as the Earth revolves around the sun, the apparent movement of the stars was but an illusion created by our own observation due to the Earth revolving on it’s axis and it’s journey around the sun.  Giordano Bruno was grasping relativity 500 years before Albert Einstein was even born.  Following the observations of Nicholas of Cusa, Bruno also stated that if God were infinite the universe would thus reflect this fact in boundless immensity; “The universe is then one, infinite, immobile…. It is not capable of comprehension and therefore is endless and limitless, and to that extent infinite and indeterminable, and consequently immobile.”

More than this, Bruno asserted that if the universe were infinite then our sun must be a star and just one such star around which planets rotated, and that space being infinite, there must be countless other such systems within the universe. Moreover, he strongly asserted that if there were life on Earth, then it logically followed that there was a high probability of life on other planets.  All everyday common stuff to us nowadays.  However in 16th century Europe some scoffed and ridiculed such views.  Others however took them all too seriously as heresy and blasphemy.  Bruno’s pamphlets cost him many friends and saw a great many accusations of all sorts laid at his door.  Even to this day there are some who claim he was working as a spy, using the name Fagot, to report Roman Catholics to the viciously anti-Catholic Secretary of State Francis Walsingham.

When an angry mob attacked the French Embassy in London in 1585, sensing worse to follow, Bruno returned to Paris.  There he found an equally tense situation, which he himself did not help by publishing 120 theses against Aristotelian natural science and pamphlets attacking the mathematician Fabrizio Mordente.  In 1586 he was involved in a violent quarrel over Mordente’s Differential Compass and, no longer finding himself in favour, departed for Germany.

The tide was turning badly against Giordano Bruno.  In Germany he was refused a teaching post at Marburg, but eventually managed to gain such a post at Wittenberg.  However, when he repeated his criticisms of Aristotle there, he soon found himself once more unwelcome and had to move once more.  1588 found him in Prague, where nearing penury, he obtained 300 Taler from the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II but was again refused a teaching position.  He gained a brief teaching position at Helmstedt but had to flee again following excommunication from the Lutherans

During these wanderings Bruno also wrote works on magic and the occult including De Magia (On Magic), Theses De Magia (Theses On Magic), De Vinculis In Genere (A General Account of Bonding), De Imaginum, Signorum, Et Idearum Compositione (On The Composition of Images, Signs and Ideas).

Bruno then received an invitation from Giovanni Moncenigo, Patrician of Venice, who wished to be schooled in methods of memory.  He went first to Padua in 1591, where he taught for a short while but was unsuccessful in applying for Chair of Mathematics, which was subsequently given to Galileo Galilei.  He therefore accepted the post with Moncenigo in Venice in 1592.  It did not go well however and after a mere two months, made his host clear that he intended to leave Venice.  Unhappy at the teaching he received, Giovanni Moncenigo reported Giordano Bruno to the Venitian Inquisition.

Bruno was arrested on 22 March 1592 on various charges of blasphemy and heresy.  Among these, backed by Moncenigo’s statement, were his belief in the plurality of worlds; that life existed on other planets, as well as several claims of personal misconduct.  Bruno defended himself well, making the point that some claims were philosophical, denying others but admitting some doubts to certain dogma.  And he may well have been cleared, had the Roman Inquisition not wished to try him too.  After heated negotiations, Bruno was transferred to the Roman Inquisition in February 1593.

The trial of Giordano Bruno was to stretch on for seven years.  The charges of Blasphemy and Heresy were listed as;

  • holding opinions contrary to the Catholic faith and speaking against it and its ministers;
  • holding opinions contrary to the Catholic faith about the Trinity, divinity of Christ, and Incarnation;
  • holding opinions contrary to the Catholic faith pertaining to Jesus as Christ;
  • holding opinions contrary to the Catholic faith regarding the Virginity of Mary, Mother of Jesus;
  • holding opinions contrary to the Catholic faith about both Transubstantiation and Mass;
  • claiming the existence of a plurality of worlds and their eternity;
  • believing in metempsychosis and in the transmigration of the human soul into brutes, and;
  • dealing in magics and divination.

 

Bruno used the same strategy as he did in Venice.  And while the Roman Church was happy to accept his philosophical points, they stressed his need to recant the Copernican model, his assertion that there were other worlds and that life may exist on these other worlds. That was asking too much and he steadfastly refused to recant.  On 20 January 1600 Pope Clement VIII declared Giordano Bruno a Heretic and the Roman Inquisition passed the death sentence upon him.  Bruno is said to have made a threatening gesture and replied in Latin, “Maiori forsan cum timore sententiam in me fertis quam ego accipiam (Perhaps you pronounce this sentence against me with greater fear than I receive it).”

On 17 February 1600 Giordano Bruno was taken to the Campo de’ Fioro in Rome, where he was publicly burned at the stake.  Before this execution his tongue was cut out, it being stated “his tongue imprisoned because of his wicked words”  Perhaps the Church truly was therefore afraid of Libertes Philosophica.

The amazing ruse of Operation Mincemeat.

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In the winter of 1942-1943, the British Army pushed steadily across north Africa, determined to oust Field Marshall General Irwin Rommel and the German Afrika Korps.  As part of this campaign a ruse was carried out whereby the corpse of a dead serviceman was placed in a blown-up scout car in a minefield facing the German 90th Light Division near Qaret el Abd.  The body had papers on it giving false locations of British minefields.  Rommel fell for it and his panzer divisions were lured into areas of soft sound where they were bogged down and had to abandoned.

With Rommel on the run, British High Command were already planning an invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe from the south.  The obvious objective would be to cross the Mediterranean Sea and take Sicily, and thence onto mainland Italy.  The trouble with that plan was it would also be obvious to the Italians and the Germans.  Flight Lieutenant Charles Cholmondeley and Lieutenant Commander Ewen Montagu, members of a top secret security committee came up with the idea for an even more daring ruse.

Named Operation Mincemeat, the plan was to have a body washed up on a shore, disguised as a British Army Officer, carrying faked documents showing a planned Allied invasion of Sardinia and Greece, in the hope that the Axis powers would take the bait and leave Sicily largely unguarded.  The chosen location for the drop was off the coast of Spain.  Spain was neutral at the time but the ruling Falange Party were sympathetic to and close allies with both Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.  It was therefore more than likely that they would share any intelligence with the axis powers.

A fake identity was prepared for this officer of Major William Martin. This was not as easy at it appears.  Nazi intelligence were aware of the identity of the higher-ranking British officers, so they could not make the fake appear to high ranking, yet the Nazis were unlikely to believe a low ranking officer would be privy to and carrying such sensitive information.  Major Montagu came up with the idea of making the fake Major Martin an expert on landing craft on the staff of Combined Operations Chief Lord Mountbatten.  The rank was changed to Captain-acting-major and the impression was to be given that he was on his way to head a training camp in Algiers.

The briefcase attached to the body by handcuffs contained a letter from Lord Mountbatten to Andrew Cunningham, commander of the Mediterranean Fleet, asking that Major Martin be sent back to London as soon as possible, containing the reference “bring some sardines with you”, hoping that the Nazis would see this as a coded message about an invasion of Sardinia.  All however rested on one key document; a letter from Vice-Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Archibald Nye, to the Commander in Tunisia, General Harold Alexander, giving up-to-minute information about the planned invasions of Sardinia and Greece.  These faked orders indicated there would indeed be an attack upon Sicily, but purely to create a diversion from the main objectives of Operation Husky – the fake name given to the Sardinia/Greece invasion. Nye’s letter stated there was a good chance of making the Nazis “think we will go for Sicily – it is an obvious target and one about which they must be nervous.”  The briefcase also contained London theatre ticket stubs, a letter about an overdrawn bank account, a picture of his fianceé, love letters, a party invitation and a letter from an “uncle” complaining about rationing.

Now all they needed was a body, but not just any body.  They wished to make it look as if the Major had been the victim of an air-crash at sea.  A pathologist was consulted who suggested a victim of pneumonia and exposure, the fluid-filled lungs of whom would look like drowning and damage to body tissues caused by cold would be consistent with long exposure in the icy waters of the North Atlantic Ocean.  They eventually did find such a body but attempts to photograph it and alter the photograph to make it look pre-exposure proved impossible.  It was then a stroke of luck took place.  Montagu spotted an officer who bore an uncanny resemblance to the dead man and, without exposing the purpose, convinced him to pose for a photograph to add to the identity papers of “Major Martin”.

With the Nazis finally vanquished in north Africa, on 30 April 1943, the British Submarine HMS Seraph surfaced under cover of darkness 1600 yards off the northern coast of Spain.  They unstowed a the container, filled with dry ice to preserve the body, now clad in an officers uniform, life vest and with the briefcase attached by handcuffs, removed him and slipped him into the waters.  Now all counted on the body being washed up or otherwise found by the Spanish authorities.

On 3 May 1943 London received a communique from the British Naval attaché in Madrid that the body of a Major William Martin had been found by Spanish fishermen off the coast of the town of Huelva, apparently the victim of a plane crash into the ocean.  This attaché knew nothing of the top secret Operation Mincemeat and merely reported that major had been given a military funeral after Spanish authorities had carried out and autopsy and other “legal formalities”.  There was cause for tentative celebration.  Given that the body had been in the hands of the Spanish authorities, it was more than likely that the briefcase had been opened and the contents shared with Nazi intelligence in Spain.  The only hope now is that they would fall for it.  Within a few weeks of the funeral, the personal effects were returned to London, where British Intelligence examined the briefcase and orders and ascertained that they had indeed been opened.  Prime Minister Winston Churchill was sent the simple message, “Mincemeat swallowed whole.”

On 10 July 1943 Allied forces stormed onto Sicily and were met with only token resistance, enabling them to very quickly take the entire island.  Intelligence reports back to London indicated that Operation Mincemeat was a complete success.  The Axis powers had bolstered their defences in Sardinia and Greece, leaving Sicily almost wide open and giving the Allies an open door into Italy.  It was not long before the end for the Axis powers were in sight.

It was only after World War II that it became apparent just how successful Operation Mincemeat had been.  A memo from the German Naval Commander Admiral Dönitz stated “The genuineness of the captured documents are above suspicion”.  He also recorded in his diary however that not everyone was convinced.  An entry states “The Führer (Hitler) does not agree with the Duce (Mussolini) that Sicily is the most likely invasion point.  He believes that the discovered British orders confirm that the planned invasion will be launched mainly against Sardinia.”  Mussolini had seen through the ruse but Adolf Hitler obviously had not, and being unwilling to listen as he was, had taken the bait hook, line and sinker.

As to just whom “Major Martin” was has been open to speculation ever since Operation Mincemeat.  The official line, which has been restated in a Freedom of Information request in 2010, was that he was Glyndwr Michael, an alcoholic vagrant from Aberbargoed, Wales, who apparently died after ingesting rat poison.  Further support for this comes in the fact that this unlisted, homeless man is named on the village war memorial.

However, in The Secrets of HMS Dasher, John and Noreen Steele pointed out that HMS Dasher, a US-built escort carrier, exploded in the Firth of Clyde on 27 March 1943, which they attribute to the accidental discharge of a torpedo from a British submarine.  In this work they state that the submarine which carried out Operation Mincemeat, HMS Seraph, was berthed in Blyth, Northumberland, at the time but after the sinking of HMS Dasher, was quickly dispatched right round the northern coast of Scotland to the Holy Loch, which is entered from the Firth of Clyde.  They further claim that the body of the Welshman would have been too badly decomposed for use and a fresh body was obtained from the 379 dead from HMS Dasher.  They identify this man as 37 year old sailor John “Jack” Melville.  In 2004 a memorial service for Jack Melville in which Lt. Cmdr. Mark Hill, CO of the naval squadron in Cyprus, referring to a movie about Operation Mincemeat stated, “In his incarnation as Major Martin, John Melville’s memory lives on in the film, ‘The Man Who Never Was’. But we are gathered here today to remember John Melville as a man who most certainly was.”

The Ministry of Defence of course maintain that Major Martin was indeed Glyndwr Michael, but if this were the case, why take HMS Seraph all the way to the Holy Loch, where the official line is that was where the body was prepared for its final journey?  Anything else apart, if John and Noreen Steele are correct, taking a submarine up the North Sea and around the north of Scotland was taking an extreme chance during World War II.  This Scottish connection have led to another unconfirmed claim that Major Martin may have actually been an unknown vagrant from Aberdeen.

Vagrant or serving sailor, we shall never know.  All we do know for certain is that a dead man played a vital part in defeating one of the most dangerous regimes in human history, and for that the UK, Europe and the world owe him an enormous debt.

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Following the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus in 1492, the race was on for Europeans to claim what they could of the “New World”.  As a naval race, the English were in the forefront of this.  Sir Humphrey Gilbert explored and detailed much of the eastern seaboard of North America and claimed Newfoundland in the name of Elizabeth I, Queen of England in 1583.  However, that expedition cost him his life when his ship hit heavy storms attempting to return across the North Atlantic Ocean.  Gilbert had meant to establish a permanent English colony in the Americas and that task now fell to his stepbrother, Sir Walter Raleigh, under a grant from Queen Elizabeth in which it was agreed in March 1584 that one fifth of any recovered treasure would go to the crown.

Two ships under Raleigh’s command, captained by Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe set out in April 1584 and sailed across to Florida. Turning north, they progressed 125 miles north until coming to a sheltered cove where they landed.  The land they were on turned out to be an island rather than part of the mainland, and it was named Virginia Island, in honour of Queen Elizabeth, “the Virgin Queen”.  The island would later be renamed Roanoke.  Game was plentiful, the land fertile and Native Americans living there were welcoming, with their leader, Granganimeo, becoming very friendly with Amadas and Barlowe.  It was therefore decided this would be the base for a new English colony.

In the spring of 1585 seven ships under the command of Sir Richard Grenville with a hundred men landed on Roanoke to set up a permanent base there.  A year later Sir Francis Drake, who had been working as a privateer (legal pirate) plundering Spanish ships, set in at the settlement with his fleet of 23 ships.  He found few settlers had survived and those who did were starving.  Crops had failed and had had to turn to the local tribes for support.  The friendly Granganimeo had died and his son Pemisapan, who disliked the colonists was now chief and tried to destroy them.  Other tribes had joined in and many colonists died in the fray.  Others succumbed to disease and starvation.  Drake decided to evacuate the colony but when a storm hit, fifteen men were left behind.  No trace of them was ever seen again.

In these days of empire building greed was a powerful driving force.  The survivors of the first settlement had reported large deposits of copper ore on the islands and rich pearl oyster beds along the coast.  So it was decided for Sir Walter Raleigh to send a second expedition in 1586.  This second wave of settlers included women and on 18 August 1586 a little girl was born to a couple named Dare on the island, the first European child to be born on American soil, and was christened Virginia.  Shortly after her birth, her grandfather, John White, an agent of Sir Walter Raleigh, set sail for England before winter set in, leaving 120 men and women, and baby Virginia, on the island with the promise to return the following year.

England at this time however was on the brink of war with Spain.  Sailing was hazardous due to constant attack from French and Spanish ships and in the spring of 1587 the English government banned vessels from leaving English ports.  Anxious to return, in 1588 White convinced two captains to break the law and they set out across the North Atlantic.  They had to abort this sailing when they got into a hostile encounter with a French vessel and had to return.  Open warfare broke out when the Spanish Armada set sail for England in July 1588 and although the English thwarted this attempted invasion, all ships remain impounded for a further two years.

It was not until spring 1590 that Sir John White managed to sail for America, almost four years since he left the Roanoke colony.  When he arrived in August that year, he was met with complete silence where there should have been a bustling, industrious colony.  Many homesteads the settlers built were gone, the wood used to build a sturdy palisade, which was broken and burned in places.  The huts inside this had been ransacked and no sign of any belongings survived.  The village was deserted but there were several new graves.  One sailor then found a carving on a corner post of the palisade, which read simply “Croatoan”.  White thought this may refer to a tribal village some fifty miles distant but could not be sure.

In worsening weather and with superstitious and nervous crews, White decided to abandon his search for survivors.  No trace of any of them, nor their belongings was ever found.  White was unable to convince anyone to finance another expedition and he went to his grave not knowing what became of any of them, including his little granddaughter, Virginia.

Most people assumed that the settlers had been wiped out by hostile Native Americans, disease, cold, or a mixture of all three, and certainly archaeologists found signs of all three when excavating Roanoke in the 1980s.  However, of the dead found they came nowhere near to the 120 settlers who were left there in 1586.  More importantly, no child’s grave was ever found among them.

When colonisation for the Americas began in earnest, some Native Americans were not surprised by the arrival of white Europeans and they spoke of an entire tribe of blue-eyed, white-skinned people who had lived in the area now known as Virginia in the time of their fathers or grandfathers.

Is it possible therefore that the survivors of the Roanoke settlement gathered their meagre belongings, travelled to the mainland, assimilated with friendlier Native Americans purely in order to survive?  And if so, is it possible that little Virginia Dare grew to become the first European, the first of many, to interbreed with the Native Americans?