History

The Bath Curse Tablets

When you think of curses you might think of grand legends, dashing heroes, clever heroines, and evil villains. However, many curses were much more specific and much more mundane than you’d expect. A fantastic cache of curse tablets was discovered in Bath, England that date back to the 2nd-4th centuries CE. There were discovered in the Roman Baths and written, most likely, by the Roman occupants.

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There are two basic kinds of curse tablets. First, there are defixiones (binding curses) used to restrain competitors in love, sport, law, and more. The second is ‘prayers for justice’ which is the category many of the Bath curse tablets fall into. Theft (and cursing thieves) is a hugely common theme in these kinds of curse tablets. It makes sense that many of the curse tablets left around Bath and its hot springs would be about theft since hot springs and spas were a great place to filch everything from money to clothes.

The curse tablets were typically made of pewter or lead. Once inscribed, the curser would throw them into the hot springs at Bath. They were also sometimes hidden under the floor or shoved into wall cavities around the baths. Many of the curse tablets found around the baths were to Sulis Minerva, Romano-Celtic goddess, and asked for revenge or for wrongs to be made right.

It was believed Sulis Minerva’s spirit dwelt in the hot springs and that is why so many of the curses asked her directly for help and were thrown into the springs or secreted away in her temple. Minvera was the Roman goddess of wisdom, medicine, commerce, handicraft, poetry, and the arts at large. Sulis Minerva was frequently requested to harm people and her relation to the hot springs brings some connection to the underworld and darkness.

Some of the curses include:

“I have given to the goddess Sulis the six silver coins which I have lost. “It is for the goddess to exact them from the names written below: Senicianus and Saturninus and Anniola.”

Solinus to the goddess Sulis Minerva. I give to your divinity and majesty my bathing tunic and cloak. Do not allow sleep or health to him …who has done me wrong, whether man or woman, whether slave or free, unless he reveals himself and brings those goods to your temple.”

“Docimedis has lost two gloves. (He asks) that (the person) who stole them lose his mind and his eyes in the temple where (she) appoints.”

“I curse (him) who has stolen, who has robbed Deomiorix from his house.  Whoever (stole his) property, the god is to find him. Let him buy it back with his own life.”

Atlas Obscura makes the interesting point that these tablets may have been read aloud as a way of lowering crime, “The Bath tablets may have been displayed publicly and read aloud to the public before being dropped in the sacred pool. Faraone compared the Bath texts to those of the Sanctuary of Demeter at Cnidus, Asia Minor; those texts were set up publicly so that worshippers, who would hear them being read aloud, “might provide missing information about unsolved crimes and … might also bring social pressure to bear upon the alleged criminals … and thereby resolve the conflict.”

One of the most valuable aspects of the curse tablets is their ordinariness. For the most part a lot of what we have from this time are from great people. However, these tablets are basically the daily prayers and wishes of those who lived in the community. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, “The Roman curse tablets from Bath are the earliest known surviving prayers to a deity in Britain.” Additionally, they note “The Roman curse tablets offer also an insight into the extent of bilingualism in the British population under Rome.”

The 130 Roman curse tablets recovered from Bath are on the UNESCO UK register.

The above image is the "The Roman curse tablets from Bath Britain's earliest prayers. These tablets are inscribed on the UNESCO Memory of the World register of significant documentary heritage. They are the only documents from Roman Britain on that list. Complaint about theft of Vilbia - probably a woman. This curse includes a list of names of possible culprits. Perhaps Vilbia was a slave." From the Temple Courtyard. Roman baths, Bath, UK. CC-BY-SA-4.0. Photograph by Mike Peel.

Bog Butter

Besides bodies, butter is another artifact often discovered in the watery, misty bogs of Ireland and Scotland. Bog butter was likely originally placed in a bog for safe-keeping. The acidic, low-oxygen waters of bogs were cool places to store butter and also acts as a natural preservative. So, bogs acted as ancient refrigerators. But why go to so much trouble for butter...and how does it stay, well, butter for hundreds of years?

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Although bog butter served a practical purpose - storing the butter to keep for later, it also had a ritualistic angle as well. Many large hoards of bog butter have been discovered in places with great ritual significance to the lifestyles of the early Irish and Scottish. This theory is also supported by what has been found alongside bog butter such as weapons, jewelry, regalia pieces, wooden sculptures, tools, and even bog bodies. Researchers believed that butter, along with the other items, were offered to regional deities with the hope of securing that deity’s protection. In these instances, the butter was never meant to be recovered.

Dark Side of History posits an interesting theory of how bog butter went from ritualistic to practical, “discovered in a bog by chance by someone who passed by. This unknown person from an unknown time inspected the substance and tasted it out of curiosity, discovering that it was still edible and might have even enjoyed the taste of bog butter, deciding to make more; the technique was very simple after all. The person also realized that butter could be preserved and stashed for leaner times in the bog, and started doing just that.”

Bog butter is somewhat commonly discovered and peat bogs and is usually contained within wooden boxes, animal skins, or earthenware pots. When opened the bog butter reportedly still smells like butter and even as a buttery texture...however eating it randomly is not necessarily suggested, as it could date back as far as the Iron Age!

According to Atlas Obscura, when Andrew Zimmerin, a food historian, tried 3,000-year-old bog butter he noted it as having “a lot of funk” with “a crazy moldy finish.”

Butter was also protected because, according to the Nordic Food Lab, “Butter and other dairy products were frequently used as a form of taxation and rent.” Furthermore, “Butter is valuable: for that reason alone worth hiding, even more so in lawless times. One author gives testimony that treasures were buried inside fats, so when bog butter was discovered it was pierced from all directions to check for valuables”

There are so many examples of bog butter being found likely because of the earlier, ritualistic nature where the butter was never meant to surface again and the fact that sometimes people forgot or died before they could retrieve the bog butter they had purposefully laid in the bog.


Thank you to Friday V for the #Blogstonishing topic suggestion!


This image is not directly related to the story. It is entitled “On the Watershed Bogland near Lochan an Fhitich beneath Sgurr Chòinich. The water I am standing in will flow, slowly at first towards the North Sea via the Allt an Fhitich, Allt Ghariadh Ghualaich, Loch and River Garry, Loch and River Oich and Loch and River Ness. Lochan an Fhitich are hidden amongst the peat hags. A short fair interval on an increasingly foul day, typical of mid altitudes in a Scottish Winter.” Richard Webb / On the Watershed / CC BY-SA 2.0

Copiale Cipher

For quite some time the Copiale Cipher was a complete mystery, seemingly lost to time. The text is over 250 years old and the title ‘Copiale Cipher’ was the only clear aspect of the text. It contained strange symbols, random strings of letters, and other secrets.

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The text was first re-discovered in 1970 inside of an East Germany library. Although several throughout the years tried to crack the code the book once again fell into obscurity. However, in 2011 it fell into the hands of a private collector who passed it off to an international team of academics and cryptographists from Sweden and the United States.

The book itself is quite beautiful. It is bound in stately gold-and-green brocade paper and is believed to have been published between 1760-1780. Is 105 pages, contains 75,000 characters with 90 different cipher letters.

Astonishingly, the cipher was broken in April 2011. Their first step was to transcribe the entire document into something that could be read by a machine. Then, they ran through 80+ languages to see if they could find a match but that ended in failure. It was then that, according to the Christian Science Monitor, the team noticed something important: “The cryptography team realized the Roman characters were "nulls" intended to mislead readers, somewhat like how pig Latin adds the suffix "ay" to words in an attempt to confuse listeners. It was the abstract symbols that held the message.”

From this, they gathered that the symbols with similar shapes represented the same groups of letters. From this practice and in analyzing these lines, the first words broke through the service ‘Ceremonies of Initiation’ then, ‘Secret Section.’

As more and more words and phrases began to be understood it was revealed that it contained rituals, including a German Masonic ritual. The Oculists, the people who are responsible for writing and ciphering the text, were a group of ophthalmologists.

Their links to ophthalmology help make sense of some of the various strange rituals including an initiation ritual that requires the person to read a blank page. Once they confess their inability to read it, they are given a pair of eyeglasses and asked to try again. Then, again after they wash their eyes with a cloth. The imitation ends in an ‘operation’ in which a single eyebrow hair is plucked.

It is believed the purpose of this text was so that the Oculists, who had links to the Freemasons, could pass along the secret Masonic rites which had been banned by Pope Clement XII.

Thanks to Jon L for the suggestion!

Copiale Cipher; scaled page 16/17 18th century - Kevin Knight, Beáta Megyesi, Christiane Schaefer. It is in the public domain.


Colonel Buck's Cursed Grave

Colonel Jonathan Buck was the founder of a town called Bucksport, Maine, known as Buckstown during his life. Colonel Buck founded in the town in 1763 and was a well-known war hero. For most of his life, he was an admired town leader. However, there were some dark things looming in his past that have followed him to his grave.

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Colonel Jonathan Buck was the founder of a town called Bucksport, Maine, known as Buckstown during his life. Colonel Buck founded in the town in 1763 and was a well-known war hero. For most of his life, he was an admired town leader. However, there were some dark things looming in his past that have followed him to his grave.

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As the legends goes, Colonel Buck in his time as a justice of the peace condemned a woman to be burned alive because she had committed sorcery. Although there are several stories that differ, one says the woman cursed him before she burned saying, “So long shall my curse be upon thee and my sign upon they tombstone." As she said this and the flames consumed her, her leg fell off and rolled out of the fire.

Another story holds that the woman’s son was responsible and took the leg the rolled out of the flames and before running into the woods said, “Your Tomb shall bear the mark of a witch's foot for all eternity!”

In 1902, a story appeared in the New England Magazine that really popularized the story. A section of it reads, “All was ready and the hangman about to perform his grewsome [sic] duty, when the woman turned to Colonel Buck and raising one hand to heaven, as if to direct her last words on earth, pronounced this astounding prophecy: ‘Jonathan Buck, listen to these words, the last my tongue shall utter. It is the spirit of the only true and living God which bids me speak them to you. You will soon die. Over your grave, they will erect a stone, that all may know where the bones of the mighty Jonathan Buck are crumbling to dust. But listen! Listen all ye people — tell it to your children and your children’s children — upon that stone will appear the imprint of my foot, and for all time long, long after your accursed race has perished from the earth, the people will come far and near and the unborn generations will say, There lies the man who murdered a woman. Remember well, Jonathan Buck, remember well!’”

Colonel Buck died in 1795  and in 1852 his grandchildren erected a grand monument near his grave site. Shortly after the monument was installed, a strange image (or stain) appeared on the grave. It seems to depict, albeit crudely, a woman’s leg and foot.

It is important to note that many of the witch trials had already ended before Colonel Buck was even born. So, what came first? The strange legend of the woman Colonel Buck inexplicably ordered to burn or the strange stain on the monument?

Thanks to Gracia B for the suggestion!


This photo of the grave is by DrStew82  is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

Genghis Khan’s Tomb

Genghis Khan, undoubtedly, changed the entire course of world history. We’ve heard intense and detailed accounts of his warfare, his power, and even his personal life. However, his death and final resting place remain shrouded in mystery. We believe he died August 18th, 1227...but that is all we know. Because of the mysterious legends and theories on where and what is buried with Khan continue to swirl centuries after his death.

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In addition to not knowing where he is buried, we have no idea how Genghis Khan died which is surprising considering how much information we had of Khan, especially in the last years of his life. We do know that Genghis Khan actually carried quite a bit and his heritage and before his death had requested to be buried following typical Mongol customs - without markings and his body in an open field to be devoured by animals. But because of the mysterious recordings rumors immediately swirled regarding a secret tomb.

The search and evidence for a tomb are prominent enough that National Geographic created a project called ‘Valley of the Khans’ which uses satellite imagery in a gigantic hunt for the gravesite. This is just one of many projects and initiatives of varying sizes that have tried to locate the tomb.

However, recently a break may have been made in the case thanks to folklore. Local folklore in the area asserts that Khan was buried on a peak in the Khentii Mountains (specifically called Burkhan Khaldun). It was on this peak he had hidden from men trying to kill him and vowed to return in his death should he live through the ordeal. BBC quotes Dr. Sodnom Tsolmon, ““It is a sacred mountain,” acknowledged Dr. Sodnom Tsolmon, professor of history at Ulaanbaatar State University with an expertise in 13th-Century Mongolian history. “It doesn’t mean he’s buried there.”

Burkhan Khaldun has been off-limited to researchers (and forbids women), which means that although this may be his final resting place there is no real way of checking.

So, what was his tomb even be like? Well, the most fantastical of stories hold that the tomb would be a vast necropolis nestled deep within the mountains. One of the reasons many theorize that word never got out about the location was because soldiers and those extremely loyal to Khan and his wishes to be left alone is that all the builders were executed. Others say that a forest was planted over the top of the site to completely obscure it.

Like all well-hidden tombs, it is also rumored that if the great Khan had one and it was discovered those who entered would be cursed.  We know this is likely as another tomb for a Mongol military leader was inscribed with phrases like: "When I rise from the dead, the world shall tremble." and Whomsoever opens my tomb shall unleash an invader more terrible than I." The Russian archaeology team that first discovered the tomb ignored these warnings. Three days later Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, the largest military invasion on the Soviet Union. Of course, this may be simply coincidence...but what if it wasn’t?

If the Khan’s tomb exists and was ever found...would you want it opened or not? Thanks to Nolan Bryan L. for this suggestion!

Thanks to Nolan Bryan L. for this suggestion!

The above image is entitled, Burkhan Khaldun mount by Ganzorig Gavaa, licensed under

CC BY-SA 2.0


The Haunted Schooner Jenny

The Jenny is a ghost ship you might not have ever heard of...but its story is worth reading. The Jenny was found frozen inside of an ice-barrier of the Drake Passage in 1840, almost 20 years after it first disappeared in 1823.

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One of the most haunting aspects of the Jenny was the last entry in the log book, “May 4, 1823. No food for 71 days. I am the only one left alive.” The captain, who wrote this message, was found still sitting in his chair with the pen in hand when the whaling ship that discovered the Jenny came upon them. Ironically, the ship that found the doomed Jenny was named Hope.

According to the German Geographical magazine, Globus. While the story is recounted by an anonymous crew member of the Hope, the details seem to match up.

The article recounts the initial experience of the crew of the Hope, they believe the Jenny was caught when in an ice wall and remained hidden until it broke open. The crew of the Hope sighted a battered ship, before they realized it was a ghost ship. Although it was battered, it appeared to be manned...in fact, seven men were even standing at attention on the main deck.

However, as the Hope approaches, they realized that these men were not dutifully standing at attention in the cold, Arctic weather...they were frozen solid.

Captain Brighton, of the Hope, was the first to board the Jenny to investigate. Below deck, he came across the Captain, eerily frozen solid writing his last entry in the ship’s log.

Some reports say that the crew of the Hope buried all those frozen aboard, including the Captain’s wife and dog, at sea. Others say that they left everything as is, except the log book which they took, abroad. Whatever condition the crew of the Hope left those poor souls on the Jenny one thing is for certain: the Jenny still sails on in the Antarctic waters but has never been seen since.

While some believe this story to be entirely fictional...one can only imagine the horror that befell the crew of the Jenny if all this is true.

The above image is an Illustration from a novel The Ghost Ship by John Conroy Hutcheson and is in the public domain.
 

Sawney Bean: A History

According to lore, Sawney Bean and his clan were some of the most fearsome people in all of Scotland. If you believe the hype, the Bean clan purportedly killed (and ate) roughly a thousand people during a 25-year reign of terror. This cannibalistic clan lived in the sea caves dotting Scotland’s south-west coast and terrorized all those who dared pass.

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But before we get to the clan and the thousand dead, let’s talk a little bit about what we know about Sawney Bean, the man that started it all. According to Historic UK, “Sawney Bean was born Alexander Bean in East Lothian during the time of James VI.”  It was believed that during this time and his short time in East lothian that his main trade was as a tanner. He also was married during this time, shortly before he left East Lothian. Young Bean and his wife moved out of town to an isolated cavern named Bennane Cave.

This cavern was said to be about  200 feet deep, and, adding even more secrency to his dwelling, the entrance was completely obstructed during high tide. It as also said to have offshoot tunnels, creating a complicating and confusing web of rooms.

Shortly after the Beans got settled in, Mrs. Bean began having little beans at an astonishing rate. As the mouths to feed grew and grew to 14, Sawney no longer could hawk his meager trade and decided to turn towards the road to steal.

However, the more he robbed the more word spread about the dangers of the road. In an effort to cover his tracks, Sawney and his children began to murder their victims as well. But what to do with the bodies? Throw them in the water? Bury them? Hide them within the cavern?

How about none of the above?

This is where Sawney gruesomely killed two birds with one stone. Instead of disposing of the bodies, he decided to eat them. The Beans would bring the body back to their cave, bucher it accordingly, and salt the meat. This way, the Beans could enjoy a high protein diet without too many trips to town. It was also said that curiously preserved, carved body parts were discovered on nearby beaches.

The Beans and their 14 children grew strong and even acquired a test and craving for human flesh, apparently preferring it to other meats. For 20 years the Beans ruled the area through fear, butchery, and brute force. Their clan continued to grow due to incest and new generations of Bean children grew to help their forebears.

That was, until, one fateful night where everything went wrong. The Beans were on the prowl one evening and a man and woman riding  home from town were on the road alone. They saw their vulnerable victims and pounced from two different directions. One group mercilessly pulled the woman from her horse and were disemboweling her almost immediately. The second group, focusing on the man, were a little slower. He had already realized what fate he might shortly meet if he didn’t act fast. He fled for his life and attempted to run his horse through the throng of strange people. Luckily for him, a large group of about two dozen people were also on their way home from town. They happened upon the horrifying scene and a fight to save the man broke out between the Beans and those on the road. The Beans, not used to victims that fought back or outnumbered them, quickly retreated, leaving behind the mutilated body of their female victim.

Needless to say, the nearby towns were terrified when they heard about the grisly encounter. Police action was taken and the man went to talk about his tale in front of the Chief Magistrate of Glasgow. The Chief and his team put together the testimony from the attacked man, the long missing persons list from the area, and the reports of pickled body parts washing up near local beaches. Knowing how dangerous this situation could be and that there might be another attack, the case was elevated all the way to James I.

James, never one to shy away from a confrontation, quickly made for Ayrshire with 400 men, tracking dogs, and local volunteers. Before the Beans even knew it, one of the biggest manhunts the country had ever seen was searching for them.

As the search wore on, the army and volunteers kept coming up with nothing. However, they caught a lucky break when the dogs caught the scent of decaying flesh near the Bean lair. As the troops entered the water cave, Historic-UK writes ,”Nothing could have prepared them for the sight they witnessed that day. The damp walls of the cave were strewn with row upon row of human limbs and body parts, like meat hanging in a butchers shop. Other areas of the cave stored bundles of clothing, piles of watches and rings and heaps of discarded bones from previous feasts.”

Although they fought, the entire Sawney Bean family (allegedly numbering 48) were captured, rounded up, and marched all the way to Edinburgh. Their crimes were heinous that the normal justice system just couldn’t cut it. The women were burned in huge fires while the men of the family had their limbs cut off and were left alone to bleed to death.

But this legend might not be verifiable. In fact, many believe that the Sawney Bean story was a vehicle for anti-Scottish sentiment. The story, despite historians best efforts, can only be tracked to London-based books. The earliest mention of the Bean clan is over 150 years *after* the events were meant to take place. Now, just because there are no earlier accounts of the story does not mean it is entirely false...but it doesn’t help the validity of this clan.

Others believe this story may originate from actual roadside cannibal killers, like Christie Cleek who terrorized travelers in the mid 1300s. Although he had no clan and operated alone, it was said that he took cuts of his victims to stave off hunger.

 

The above image is of the alleged cave by Tony Page, "English: Sawny Bean's Cave Port Balcreuchan and the cave of Sawney Bean, Ayrshire's infamous serial cannibal. Mr. Bean and his family are credited with killing and eating over 1000 hapless victims in the 16th century - kind of makes Hannibal Lecter look like a pussy cat!" and is liscensed under  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

What Are Number Stations?

Since I began with the show, we have been getting requests to cover number stations. As more and more of these requests rolled in, I realized I had no idea why people found number stations so interesting. So, today I decided to dive a little deeper into the pool of number stations and figure out just why so many of you are so interested in them.

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We’re going to have to go all the way back to the World War II era to get the beginnings of number stations. During the war, these number stations transmitted coded, secret messages via shortwave radio antennas.  While they served a purpose, it’s not like this purpose could just be announced so when casual radio listeners stumbled upon them they were...freaked out, weirded out, etc. The voices counting out the numbers in strange, monotone voices in various languages. It is believed they also use morse code. Other times, the voices don’t even begin until full minutes pass.

An article by the BBC notes, “Starting with a weird melody or the sound of several beeps, these transmissions might be followed by the unnerving sound of a strange woman's voice counting in German or the creepy voice of a child reciting letters in English.”

Why use such unsettling voices in order to convey the message? This is one question that has me scratching my own head.If you are looking to avoid detection and remain secret and unassuming, why use strange voices, especially the voices of a child which would no doubt be out of place. Wouldn’t this call for attention to the fact that there might be some sort of importance to the string of numbers being read?

Mark Stout, a historian at the International Spy Museum, told NPR “That the stations are unlicensed, which makes it hard to figure out where they're broadcasting from. And the mystery only deepens: No government has ever officially admitted to using numbers stations. No one's really sure when the stations began broadcasting, though they're most likely a Cold War-era invention.” Although Stout claims they may have not even begun until the Cold War, there are some that believe they began even before WWII in WWI.

Today, there are still dozens of number stations on the radio broadcasting these codes. Although code-breakers have been trying to break them for decades, it does not appear that any have been broken. In the age of computers, coded messages sent over a lesser-used media might be the best way to convey top-secret, world-changing information. So, that’s why people are still interested in them today!



The above is an image of Shortwave radio station of Finnish Broadcasting Company YLE in Pori, Finland. Completed 1939, in function 1948-1987. Design by architect Hugo Harmia. It is in the public domain.

 

North Berwick Witch Trials

North Berwick hugs the coast of East Lothian, not too far from Edinburgh, in Scotland. Today, if you walked along the streets there, you’d see a small and sleepy fishing town with lovely houses and kind people. This picturesque piece of land is also one of the sights of the most brutal and unforgiving Witch Trials in all of Scotland. In November 1590, David Seton accused his servant, Geillis Duncan, of being a witch. This one accusation was the very start of the now infamous North Berwick Witch Trials. Geillis Duncan was likely accused because she was a well-known healer in the area. Seton tortured Duncan and forced her to name other accomplices and witches.
 

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Geillis, the first to be accused, was a well-known healer in the area. She was suspected (and later accused) of being a witch because some of her healings worked too well, according to local townsfolk. She was officially accused and subsequently tortured by her employer, David Seton. Although at first she claimed innocence and no have no dalliance with the devil, after so much torture the young woman finally broke. She confessed that she was a witch, had sold her soul to the devil, and all of his masterful healings were work of the devil. However, there wasn’t enough for her accusers to be sated. They continued the torture until she would name her coven. Breaking, once again, she named several others...many of them healers in town. The people accused now fit the stereotypes we in the contemporary age are familiar with when it comes to witch-based accusations. For example, Barbara Napier who was the powerful widow of an Earl, Eupherria Maclean the daughter of a local lord, Agnes Sampson a midwife and healer, and Dr. John Fian, a local school master. All of Geillis’ confessions could not save her, though. Gellis Duncan was burned at the stake.

The exact number of the accused and murdered is unknown, however somewhere between 70-200 witches were accused during this time in North Berwick and from several surrounding areas. Young women, like Geillis, who were known healers soon found themselves swept up in the madness.  North Berwick became the epicenter of a rash of witch accusations and trials, with local gossip saying that the Devil met with many in the North Berwick churchyard at the witching hour. According to Witchcraft and Witches.com, “on Halloween of 1590, the Devil had the witches dig up corpses and cut off different joints or organs which were then attached to a dead cat and thrown into the sea in order to call up the storm which had nearly shipwrecked the King’s ship.” It is the implication that the witches of North Berwick had conspired against the king that would continue to raise the madness.

The reason James VI was in a ship in the first place was because he was journeying to Denmark for his new wife, Anne of Denmark in 1589. However, storms during the crossing proved too severe and the ship and the king were forced to retreat. James, unable to find a suitable solution, was convinced that his misfortune was caused by the menacing witches of North Berwick, which he had her rumors about.

James’ interest in witches, magic, and the occult is a very storied one and difficult to go into (and, honestly, deserves its own post) so, to make things simple here I will say that James wrote a book called “Daemonologie” which explored these strange subjects and some time later began a distinctive crusade against the wonders which he once wrote about.

Agnes Sampson, who I mentioned above, was personally inspected and interviewed by King James at his palace, Holyrood House. According to records, she was fastened to the wall of her cell with an iron instrument consisting of four sharp prongs forced into the mouth, two on the tongue and two on the cheeks. This instrument has many names, including the “Witch’s Bridle” and the “Scold’s Bridle.” If you think it would be hard to make a confession or defend yourself with this kind of contraption, you would be correct. After wearing this, being denied sleep, and other misfortunes she eventually confessed and was strangled and burned as a witch.

The trials in North Berwick would produce a pamphlet entitled “Newes from Scotland” which detailed the King’s role in the recent trials and began a rash of witch accusations, trials, and burnings.

 

This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 100 years or less. You can view it here.

Historically Horrible Houseguests

If you’re going to be a houseguest there are some easy rules to follow - don’t make a mess, don’t insult the host, and, perhaps most easy to follow, don’t kill anyone. Sadly, for a group of folks in Glencoe, Scotland in 1692 their houseguests decided to not follow these rules. In fact, they massacred their hosts, members of the MacDonald clan.

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Derek Alexander, the head of Archaeology at the National Trust for Scotland is leading a research team to find out why, in the late 17th century, the Glencoe branch of the well-known and respected MacDonald clan were brutally murdered.

In a new archaeological undertaking Alexander and his team will be “trying to find remains that tie the landscape to the story of the massacre.” The story, it seems, we do know.

In Glencoe, Scotland roughly 70-80 people, most linked to the MacDonald clan, lived in several farm settlements. These people lived a modest life by farming, raising cattle, and engaging in some light, but typical for the time, tribal stealing from other clans (usually cattle).

Their standard life took a major turn in early February, 1692 when two companies of soldiers (a total of roughly 120 men) came to Glencoe with orders to lodge there and throughout the valley. It was a duty of the people to house and feed soldiers, so this act in and of itself was not incredibly surprising.

However, after two relatively uneventful weeks the commanding officer of all the soldiers, Robert Campbell of Glenlyon, “carried out secret orders to "put all to the sword" in Glencoe.” The people of Glencoe and even the soldiers, seemed to have no idea of these gruesome orders.

On the night of February 13th, a brutal blizzard blew through Glencoe, causing whiteout conditions. It was during this time that, according to BBC, “systematically killing everyone they could. 38 lay dead the next morning, including the chief, MacIain. Many more escaped into the hills, some finding shelter before the elements could kill them, some, including MacIain’s elderly wife, dying on the mountainside.”

However, the low number (38 would be less than half the village) is attributed to soldiers being disgusted with their orders and horrified at an order towards people who had been taking care of them for two weeks and warning families ahead of time. Sadly, roughly 40 people froze to death before they could reach the safety of the next village, although some remained alive to tell the tale.

But what was the reason behind this horrific mass-murder? The village chief not swearing his oath of allegiance to the King. It was a punishment and warning to other Highlanders the price of not swearing fealty and acknowledging the king. Although, the villagers claimed that the reason for missing the deadline was not recklessness or a feeling of superiority, but heavy snow which cased travel delays. Others claimed it was a punishment for the rebellious Highlanders who were also Catholic.

The archaeological team from NTS is currently working through three sites, specifically three farm settlements where the remains of building foundations are. Although the researchers are still in the early stages at the sites, they hope to find the archaeological evidence that aligns with this mythic story.

The archaeological study and research is still in its early stages, and we will be sure to keep you updated!

 

This above image is entitled "Some sun breaks through onto the Buachaille Etive Mòr on an otherwise cloudy day" and is part of the Highlands, although not tied to the current archaeological search. It is by Graham Grinner Lewis and is liscensed under CC BY 2.0. 

The Victorian Game of Gobolinks

Many of you are probably at least somewhat aware of the power of inkblots and the human mind. Or, at least, the implied power of them as set up by Hermann Rorschach, who created the inkblot test in 1921. However, there was a victorian precursor to this practice of interpreting inkblots: Gobolinks.

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As defined by a book on the subject, titled "Gobolinks, or Shadow Pictures," Gobolinks are a "veritable goblin of the ink-bottle." Although this book wasn't published until 1896, the idea of Gobolinks had been popular since the 1700s, when it was originally known as klecksography (a fancy word for inkblot art). These once sloppy drip-marks began to become art work in and of themselves and made famous by artists like Justinus Kerner (who was also a physician). 

These goblins of the ink bottles became unique creatures - not purposefully made by the artist but willed into the world through the ink itself, but still abled to be interpreted. The Gobolinks book also made this art form into a game. 

Here's how it works:

1) Players have to 'create' ink blots

2) The paper with the blot would then be folded in half, to create a symmetrical image.

3) Players then have to write a rhyme based on the image

4) The chosen judge then assesses which blobs are the best, the winning blob is then declared a "booby".

As this game was popular at parties, the writers of the book suggested that people should wear outfits that are as symmetrical as possible, to mimics the in blots they'd make.

Gobolink Examples:

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Gobolinks also have a bit of a strange, creepy side. Perhaps it is how symetrical the blots are that make people just a hair uncomfortable...but a follow-up book by different authors in 1907, Blottentots, was written and seemed to, as Atlas Obscura notes "embrace the inherently shadowy, otherworldly look of inkblot creations."

Blottentot Example:

So how did ink blots go from accidental artwork to a party game to physiological test? In 1921, not long after the popularity of gobolinks and inkblot games had ebbed away, Herman Rorschach published "Psychodiagnostics." Rorschach believed that what people perceived in strange, ambiguous inkblots could have the potential to reveal differences in their basic personality structure.

Instead of the ink blot game that asks players to come up with an imaginative poem or rhyme based on the blot, Rorschach asked "What might this be." Based on their answers, he believed he could learn, psychologically, more about people.

For example, if a patient repeatedly sees fighting/violence in the inkblots they likely have a very different mind from someone who sees dancing/athletic activity in the same inkblots. Based on this, he set out to devise a precise system for scoring his test, like whether the test subject was interpreting color, form, or movement. The product of this final test was the previously mentioned Psychodiagnostics, in which he studied 300 mental patients and 100 control subjects.

Inkblot Test:

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And that is how have inkblots have remained in culture for over 300 years. From art to games to psychological tests. Although, I have to say, Gobolinks might be my favorite incarnation of the inkblot.

 

All the images are public domain, provided by the Archive:

Gobolinks

Blottentots

Inkblot Test

Sick Outfit, Girl!

Have you ever heard of tuberculosis? Let me jog your memory. Tuberculosis, also known as TB today, is a bacteria that is spread through the air by someone coughing, sneezing, or....spitting (yuck). TB begins mildly enough, common symptoms include cough, fever, night sweats, and weight loss and could remain mild for many months. This, of course, leads to delays in awareness knowing you're sick which delays treatment and means you're out in the world infecting more people. This will later lead to more severe chest pain and a prolonged cough producing...sputum, and coughing up blood. Throughout the disease it attacks the lungs and also damages other organs, until victims finally waste away. During the 1800s TB began to reach epidemic levels throughout Europe, at this time it was known as "consumption".  Long story short, it isn't pretty...unless you're a fashionista. 

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Why mention fashion? Well, TB had a long history at the forefront of culture in the Victorian age. As we know, the Victorians could get a little...morbid. So, it is no surprise that they romanticized this slow, all-consuming disease that paled the victim and rouged their cheeks and lips.

Carolyn Day noticed the importance of TB in Victorian fashion so much she literally wrote the book on it, "Consumptive Chic: A History of Fashion, Beauty and Disease. “Between 1780 and 1850, there is an increasing aestheticization of tuberculosis that becomes entwined with feminine beauty.”  Day surmises that TB, or consumption, was adopted into Victorian fashion because it "enhances those things that are already established as beautiful in women.” The thinness, rosy lips and cheeks, pale skin, and the overall appearance of delicacy. Thus, the popular way to do your make-up was to lighten your skin, redden your lips and color your cheeks pink.

TB didn't just influence makeup and what was currently considered in-vogue appearance wise, it also changed what women wore. For example, tight corsets with voluminous skirts especially made to emphasize how waifish women's waists were (try saying that 3x fast).

But in the later 1800s, germ theory came to the forefront and the way TB was viewed was changing...and so was the fashion. In fact, in America and Europe alike many of the campaigns aimed at reducing disease were targeted to women's fashion. Doctors went as far as to decry long, trailing skirts as spreaders of the disease. Medical professional warned that voluminous skirts, so recently in fashion, were capable of sweeping up germs on the street and bringing the disease into the home. So, the voluminous skirts of the earlier half of the century began falling out of favor. That wasn't all that was lost - corsets also fell out of favor because of their restrictive nature and the idea that they could hamper blood circulation. 

We even see a few, lingering effects of TB fashion today. A common way to cure or improve health was to sunbathe for a few hours a week, which lead to being tan to being in-vogue. Additionally, after women lost their trailing skirts and hemlines were raised, shoes became much more of a fashion statement since they were almost always visible. 

And so ends the abridged version of how tuberculosis influenced American and European fashion...even to today!

The above image is liscensed under Public Domain. 
 

Why Mummies Fascinate Us

"The Mummy" has survived several iterations - ranging from bad to good throughout cinematic history. But what is it that has kept mummies in the forefront of our minds for so many decades?

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First - what is a mummy? Well, mummies began in Egypt from natural causes, but these natural mummifications soon became purposeful and religious rites. Egyptians saw death, and the corpse, as important steps on the road to the afterlife. The first step is to halt, as much as possible, the typical process of decomposition. This was done by removing the organs and treating the now-emptier body with palm wine and spices. However, the heart was left - as it was necessary to the afterlife. Once all this had been done, the now-hollow body was left out in the sun to dry for about 40 days. The body was then wrapped in layer after layer of linen, interwoven with little amulets. Finally, the body was coated in resin and sealed in its tomb.

Okay, so now that we roughly know what an Egyptian mummy is and the process we can begin to figure out why they are exactly so important to horror-culture.

The infatuation first began when English archaeologists began uncovering them in the 18th and 19th centuries. In fact, the discovery of mummies and Egyptian culture during the time of mummies created a bit of a mania, specifically Egyptomania, in England and surrounding countries who were hungry for a piece of the lore.

One of the reasons could be very simple - mummies are real. While the curses and re-animation part may be an invention, mummies are very real artifacts. We cannot hide from them, claim to know their power, and we don't even totally know how they were created in the first place. They hold a certain horror that only physical objects can claim.

Not to mention, there appears to be a loose 'proof' of a curse related to disturbing the tombs of great mummies. Take, for example, the entering of King Tutankhamen's tomb in 1922. Those associated with the tomb would die in grisly ways. After the tomb was discovered, opened, and infiltrated Lord Carnarvon, who was Howard Carter's main backer died. George J Gould, who toured the tomb, got a fever whilst exploring it and died. Oh, but that's not it. The trail grows longer. In fact, it might have survived decades. The airplane crew that transported the treasures taken from the tomb to the British Museum in 1972 perished. However, Carter himself died of natural causes at a relatively decent age (64). But still, the rash of deaths associated with the tomb are tough to forget. Not to mention, it wasn't only Tut's tomb that carried curses.

The mummy also acts as a go-between for the living and the dead. And, as we know, re-animation of the dead is one of humans most feared components when it comes to creating a really scary monster.

 

The above image is a Mummy of an upper-class Egyptian male from the Saite period, taken by Keith Schengili-Roberts. It is liscensed under Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike. 

One of Sweden's Most Infamous Unsolved Murders was Probably Committed by a Vampire

Okay, okay..."probably" might be a bit of an exaggeration, but it was one of the top theories. In Sweden, it is known as the "Atlas Vampire Murder", named for the neighborhood in Stockholm where it took place in 1932. Even today, over 50 years later, the case is still as cold, and enthralling, as it was in the 1930s.

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Lily Lindstöm was the victim of this killer. She was a thirty-two year old prostitute that often entertained guests in the comfort (and likely safety) of her own home. While, at first, it may seem strange that she invited men up to her apartment, it does make a little sense -- home field advantage. She might have even had friends or neighbors in the building that would have helped her, should one of her johns make a bad move.

In fact, one of her friends and downstairs neighbor, was the last to see her alive. Minnie Jansson was also a sex-worker and saw her just days before her body was found. According to Minnie, Lily had knocked on her dorm to get some condoms. When her friend didn't visit the next day, Minnie began to get nervous as the two talked quite often. She called the Stockholm police and they made a visit to Lily's apartment a few days later.

On May 4th they entered her apartment and the Stockholm police beheld a horrific scene. To avoid being too graphic, you can read all the grisly details here. But, in summary - Lily was face-down on her bed. She was not wearing any clothes, and, instead, they were neatly folded on a chair near her bed. According to the police, it appeared she had been dead for roughly 2-3 days. There was also proof she had sexual contact shortly before death. The cause of death were repeated blows from a blunt object to her head.

I'm sure you are wondering, a little, where exactly the "vampire" part of this unsolved crime comes into play. Well, in addition to the horrific way Lily met her end, it was determined that most (if not all) of Lily's blood had been completely drained. Furthermore, saliva was found on her neck. And, after further investigation of the crime scene, a blood-stained gravy ladle may have been used to consume her blood.

Thus this haunting murder was more than just a tragedy - it may have been committed by a true monster (or, at the very least, a seriously deranged person who believed they were a monster.)

No one was ever charged for death. It was believed her last customer was the perpetrator, but after interviewing many of her regulars the police came up empty. And they also had another lingering question - where did all her blood go? Because it wasn't in the apartment.

Over the years, many different theories have come forth. Some are more realistic than others. For example, some believed it was a police officer who was able to throw the others off his tracks by creating an elborately weird crime scene. However, the little evidence found does not seem to wholly support this theory.

This remains one of the creepiest, and truly most bizarre unsolved cases, that Stockholm has ever seen. It continues to grip many people to this day and you can even see some of the evidence, which remains on display. You can see the picture here.

The above picture is from the early Gothic vampire novel, "Carmilla". It is liscensed under public domain and is unrelated to the above story.

John ‘Babbacombe’ Lee, the Un-Hangable Man

The death penalty isn't really that prevalent in the 21st century. However, for centuries the death penalty, and even public executions, were completely the norm. And, for most of that time, they were believed to have as close as a 100%-death guarantee as possible. Unless, of course, you're Babbacombe Lee.

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Now, don't go feeling sorry for ol' Babbacombe Lee. He was first on the stand to hang for the absolutely brutal murder of Emma Anne Whitehead Keyse in November of 1884 in the small village of what became his nickname: Babbacombe.

Although he cried his innocence, the circumstantial evidence was enough to paint him guilty, as well as a large unexplained cut on his arm. He was sentences to hang at Exeter prison. Per usual, the executioner tested the mechanics of the trap door below the scaffold, the rope, etc. All in all, it was set to be a perfectly normal day at the job.

That was until they tried to hang Babbacombe three times, and each time the trap stuck.

In fact, this was so bizarre that Babbacombe had his death sentence commuted to a life sentence. British Home Secretary, Sir William Harcourt, said of this decision "It would shock the feelings of anyone if a man had twice to pay the pangs of imminent death.”

He went on to serve 22-years in prison and was, surprisingly, released in 1907. But, for a long time nothing was known about the rest of his life.

Until a 2009 study found this man's final chapter. According to this study, his grave was placed in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It was believed he died in 1945 and lived a completely different, almost normal life in America - even starting a new family. He deserted his wife and two daughters in Britain after his release from prison and they went on to workhouse, which was not an easy life in England during the early 20th century.

Whether he was a murderer or not, one thing is for certain: he was a very lucky man.

The above image is liscensed under Public Domain - it has nothing to do with the above story and is, in fact, the Execution Of Lord Ferrers At Tyburn.

 

Curiosities Coming to Light at the Harvard Museum

The Harvard Museum is renowned institution dedicated to anthropology. Recently, it’s going through some big changes to re-establish its role in the field of study. For one day only some of its odder holdings will be showcased to celebrate the museum’s 150th anniversary.

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It’s called “All the World is here: Harvard’s Peabody Museum and the Invention of American Anthropology” and the exhibit opens in April. It will feature approximately 600 objects!

Some of the curiosities that will be featured will be Lewis and Clark’s grizzly bear claw necklace, the infamous Fiji mermaid, and prehistoric earthwork. However, some items, like the mermaid, will soon be re-established so they can be permanently viewable by the public.

The museum currently houses over 1 million artifacts, but only a fraction are currently on active display. This is a push to show-off and share with the public all the museum has to offer.

Jeffrey Quilter, the Peabody’s director, says These collections are never dead. They’re constantly being revitalized by people who come back with new ways to study them.” This is a certainly a lively way to prove that.

It is interesting to note that P.T Barnum curiosities still provide wonder for those who view them, just as they did when they were actively carted around the world.

Human Sacrifice, Hierarchies, and Mimetic Theory

Human sacrifice seems pretty abhorrent to us nowadays, but back in the ancient day it was a fundamental  part of societies. Link

In a study of ninety-three cultures across Asia, Oceana, and Africa it has been concluded that sacrificial practices helped establishing authority and set up the class based systems we still recognize today. For each of the cultures studied, the researchers recorded the presence (or absence )of human sacrifice and the level of social hierarchy. Unsurprisingly, cultures that had little differences when it came to wealth and status were labelled as being egalitarian while those with strict hierarchies passed down generations, as having high social stratification...and a higher likelihood to prize sacrifice.

Sacrificial victims were typically of low social status (like slaves) while the scarifiers were often highly regarded individuals such as priests and chiefs. This instilled a sense of fear in the lower classes that prevented them from causing a stir or rising against the ruling class.

Often sacrifice was viewed as some kind of "social catharsis."

I'm sure if he was living today, Rene Girard would have probably yelled "of course!" In 1961, he published the seminal work "Deceit, Desire, and the Novel" in which he explores this idea as one of the lynch pins of society throughout the ages.

Girard posits that we "borrow" our desires from others. No, you don't really want Fuji water because of some chemical reason...but because you've been conditioned to think it's better to drink by other people. You don't desire the object, you desire to be the model- to have the power of knowing what to desire and what not to desire. Sound strange? Well, of course it is - it is a theory after all.

So, wait - what does this have to do with sacrifice? Well this theory is based on the idea that desire is a struggle which ultimately leads to violence. Girard himself says, "If there is a nomrla order in societies, it must be the fruit of an anterior crisis." Let's say there is something wrong in this ancient society - not enough rain, a plague on the crops, a sickness that won't stop circulating. Someone who is "the other" in some way (even if it is as unavoidable as hair color) will be blamed and sacrificed. The ruling class, who at least has some sway over the masses, riles others against this baseless "other" until the sacrifice is made. Once the sacrifice has been made and things get better, the victim is then sacrelized  and, you guessed it, if things go wrong again they'll sacrifice a similar "other".

But what happens if the sacrifice doesn't "work"? Well, they just decide that it wasn't enough to sacrifice one person and go after more...

This image is from wikimedia commons and is licensed under creative commons.

One of the World's Most Mysterious Books is Being Cloned

The Voynich Manuscript, a mysterious compilation of drawings of strange plants, naked figures, elegant prose, and other wonder-inducing facets, has stumped the best cryptographers in the world. The manuscript was carbon dated and is believed to have originated some time between 1404 and 1438. The manuscript itself is named after famed antiquarian, Wilfrid Voynich who acquired it around 1912 from a collection of books belonging to the Jesuits in Italy, and then exposed it to the public.

However, we still don't quite know who penned the original. Many believed it was the work of 13th century English Franciscan, Roger Bacon, who was so deeply interested in alchemy and magic it eventually secured him a jail cell. As previously noted, because it was carbon dated to be from the early-mid 1400s, this is impossible.

On top of not knowing the exact date, or author...we have no idea what the intent was. The strange drawings and prose lead some to believe it may be the key to eternal youth, an elaborate joke, or even something left behind by an alien. Or, is it simply a collection of herbal medicine and cures? Though, it should be noted, none of the plans drawn have ever been identified.

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The book is currently housed under lock-and-key (okay, and a vault) in Yale University's Beinecke Library and is allowed to emerge from the shadows only once in a blue moon.

Siloe, a small publishing house deep in northern Spain, decided they wanted to get their hands on this elusive and intriguing manuscript.After a 10-year fight for access, it has secured the astonishing right to clone the document.

Director of Siloe, Juan Jose Garcia, says "Touching the Voynich is an expereince...It's a book that has such an aura of mystery that when you see it for the first time..it fills you with an emotion that is very hard to describe."

But just because Siloe got access, don't count yourself lucky enough to get a hold of it as an individual just yet. Siloe most likely was finally awarded access because it specializes in making facsimiles of old manuscripts. However, you might be able to get your hands on a reprint - they have the rights to make exactly 898 replicas of each work it clones. You might have to spend a pretty penny though, as Siloe is currently pricing the copies, once completed, at about 7,000 to 8,000 euros. Oh, and there are already almost 300 pre-orders!

The process will be a long one, though. It will take about 18 months to make the first facsimiles.The book contains over 200 pages, including several large fold-cutouts, so it is not an easy process.

And their intense attention to detail makes this process, and the finished product, even more realistic.They will be specially treating the paper with a paste developed by the company and give it a special treatment to make it feel like the stiff, hard parchment of the original. The pages will also be artificially ages and all the imperfections will be re-created.

Jokingly, Garcia quotes one of his business partners as saying..."the author of the Voynich could also have been a sadist, as he has us all wrapped up in this mystery".

An Adventurous Mummy

Manfred Fritz Bajorat's body, missing since 2009, has finally been found in a yacht off the coast of the Philippines. It is not unclear just how long Bajorat's body has been at sea, but it is estimated to be years. link

His body was discovered by two fishermen who stumbled upon the boat in late February. They noted that the mast had been broken and much of the cabin was underwater.

Bajorat's corpse was near the radio and telephone. He may have been attempting to make a mayday call, but that is just speculation. However, one thing is for sure: he's been mummified. Or, well, naturally mummified. The dry ocean winds, warm temperatures, and salty air have worked to do this.

Police are now working to retrace his last voyage(s) and reach out to anyone who may have known him.

 

The above image is unrelated to the story and is from Flickr User Ierdnall it is licensed under Creative Commons.