25.5.17

THE GHOST IN THE PROJECTOR

Murray Leeder. The Modern Supernatural and the Beginnings of Cinema. Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.

In the cinema of the 1890’s the image of the spectre, the ghost, and the skeleton are regular occurrences. The new trick photography of film was ideally suited to playfully examine our fear of mortality and urge to communicate with the living dead. The claim of Murray Leeder’s The Modern Supernatural and the Beginnings of Cinema is that philosophers and film historians have over-emphasised the break with cinema’s pre-history of magic lantern shows. When film was successfully fed through a projector technology gave us a powerful representation of the modern world. We could dutifully respect but essentially disregard our earlier attempts to arrive there.

But the past is not just another country but a sensibility that influences the present. The Victorian film pioneers were part of a historical continuity that turned a novel toy into an art form and a business were depictions of the spectral still obsessed us. Science was making possible a form of the “modern supernatural.” Early cinema theorists such as Ricciotto Canudo and Bela Balazs were fascinated by the idea of the cinema as a “haunted medium”. Their critical histories have had a long lasting influence. In 1997, critic Peter Wollen wrote of cinema as “an art of ghosts, projections of light and shadow, which seen while we watch them to have the substance of real beings.”

“Spectral turn” is now the academic description for supernatural phenomena and achieved its most intense philosophical exploration in the work of Jacques Derrida. Today we have academic theory covering ghostings and hauntings in many other fields of study. However the beginnings of cinema still remain to be explored, for it has a close relationship with séances, hypnosis, magic shows and the invention of the x-ray. Cinema’s shock of the technological new was considered a powerful tool for recording the soul or spirit of a person. The x-ray was discovered by William Conrad Rontgen in 1895 and the chromo photography of Eadweard Muybridge preceded and co-existed with the film trickery of Georges Melies.


“The former used double exposures to represent contact with the spirit world, and the latter, which made its debut almost at the exact time as cinema, carried profound supernatural implications in its seeming ability to transform living flesh into a memento mori.”

Leeder’s book consists of eight chapters and covers 210 pages in pursuit of its notion of the spectral. Carefully written, insightful, intellectually exciting and very readable, The Modern Supernatural and the Beginnings of Cinema breaks new ground, not just for film studies, but for its many fascinating reflections on the philosophy of science and art, supernatural manifestations’ and our prevalent anxiety and attempts to explain such ‘immaterial forces’. Leeder’s writing style is elegant and concise: serious minded and packed with suggestive ideas.

I particularly enjoyed Chapter 6 bearing the terrific title, 'Melies’s Skeleton, Gender Cinema’s Danse Macabre and the Erotics of Bone'. By using Melies’s short film The Vanishing Lady (1896) as a springboard, Ledder goes on to describe how women were made subjects for erotic scrutiny. In 1896 Life magazine published Lawrence K. Russel’s poem praising the sexiness beneath the skin, as revealed by the x-ray.
“She is so tall, so slender, and her bones –
Those frail phosphates, those carbonates of lime –
Are all produced by cathode rays sublime,
By oscillations, amperes and by ohms.
Her dorsal vertebrae are not concealed,
By epidermis, but are well revealed.
Around her ribs, those beauteous twenty four,
Her flesh a halo makes, misty in line,
Her noseless, eyeless face looks into mine,
And I but Whisper “Sweetheart, Je t’adore.”
Her white and gleaming teeth at me do laugh.
Ah! Lovely, cruel, sweet cathodograph!”
Ghost worlds are the book’s concern and the range and selection of material to illustrate Leader’s argument is very impressive. He effortlessly makes connections with early cinema and modern cinema. (Melies the magician is celebrated in Scorcese’s Hugo of 2011.) One of the additional pleasures of this work is to browse through the long list of notes and works cited at the end of each chapter (it might prove to be unreadable but I delighted in the title of a 1998 book by Bram Dijksta, Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de Siècle Culture.)

Apart from encounters with spectres, we’re given engaging tales of spiritualists, avant-garde artists, showmen and mediums working parallel with the emerging technology of cinema. The Modern Supernatural and the Beginnings of Cinema is a cornucopia of ideas, arguments and images both scrupulously well researched and highly readable. This original exploration of film history makes for one of the most pleasurable books I’ve read in 2017. My only negative is its prohibitively expensive cost – £67.99 for a small hardcover! (Obviously aimed at scholars, students and specialist libraries.) Yet I hope it sells well and eventually there’ll be a cheaper paperback edition for the general reader. – Alan Price







22.5.17

POST-MORTEM EXAMINATIONS

Michael Sudduth. A Philosophical Critique of Empirical Arguments for Post-Mortem Survival. Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

This book offers a detailed critique of the arguments used to defend the notion of survival of bodily death. In the first section of the book Sudduth lays out the classical arguments for the belief in life after death and what that belief make actually entail. In the second section he gives accounts of the sort of evidence relied upon, using as examples near-death experiences, mediumistic communications and memories of past lives. He deliberately excludes cases of apparitions.

In the third and largest section he analyses various arguments for the belief in survival and shows that they are more complex and unclear than is usually thought. I wish I could give a detailed survey of these arguments but I encounter a major problem in doing so, for they expressed not in clear English language prose but rather in the form of quasi-mathematical equations, impenetrable to those of us who have not undertaken university courses in formal logic. I imagine this may well include many people interested in psychical research and the question of human survival of bodily death. This is a great pity because I suspect that Sudduth is making some really important points.

Here is a much simplified and therefore perhaps incorrect summary of what I feel are the major points he raises. The first is that the claim that certain paranormal phenomena provide evidence for survival of death relies first on an argument from elimination, in particular that there are only two other alternatives available: the evidence is due to fraud, misobservation, defects of memory etc., or the evidence is due to 'super-psi'. Eliminate these and default you have proved survival. Of course there are any number of alternative logical possibilities, the evidence is due to the actions of mischievous boggarts, daemons, demons, jinns, fairies, aliens, etc. Or maybe the universe is a computer simulation and these are communications from the programmers; perhaps they are communications from the living breathing individuals in alternate worlds, or any number of possible explanations that no-one has ever thought of, including those no human ever will be able to think of, any more than chimpanzees can think of nuclear physics.

The second argument is that in order to account for the evidence certain additional assumptions must be made about surviving entities; that they are fully human personalities with human needs and intentions, that they carry memories of terrestrial life, that they can acquire information from and transmit information to the terrestrial world, and that they desire to communicate and have the means to do so. There is another hidden assumption which I don’t think Sudduth brings out, and that is there must be a one-to-one temporal correspondence between 'their world' and ours in order for communication to take place.


It also strikes me that given these assumptions there ought to be a prediction that as more and more people with a deep interest in psychical research 'pass over' the communications should become increasingly more sophisticated and impressive, perhaps involving cross correspondences dealing with highly technical scientific matters. In reality the bulk of the most impressive evidence comes from before the Second World War and most of it from before the First World War.

The third of Sudduth’s arguments is that the dichotomy between survival and super-psi is a false one. For surviving entities to receive and transmit information implies they must use a process which could be called psi. When someone in a NDE describes what is going on in the operating theatre, or the whereabouts of false teeth or slippers on a hospital roof, no-one sees disembodied eyes floating around, so if genuine this information must come from some form of ESP. The same is true with mediumistic communications.

Take one example, this was something known as the book test, in which the sitter was told by the communicator to go to the library of someone else (presumably their country house library) and to select, say, the sixth book from the left on the third shelf of the fourth bookcase from the right and look at line ten on page 150 where they will find an appropriate message. Now I assume that spirits were not expected to be able to open books and read them, therefore they must have acquired the information through ESP of some sort.

In other worlds it is not survival versus super-psi but survival + super-psi, versus embodied super-psi, with no clear way of distinguishing between them. Sudduth also points out that we have no way of knowing what super-psi ought to look like, so may indeed always look like survival. Sudduth here also notes the role of dissociation, multiple personality, role playing and the like in the production of such communications.

As you will see even from this grossly oversimplified summary, this is a very complex and difficult book, but one that those with a serious interest in psychical research should try and struggle through. Even those sceptical of both survival and psi should find something of value if they persist, the arguments may elucidate that non-paranormal explanations may be more complex and subtle than is usually thought. – Peter Rogerson.


18.5.17

TOO MUCH INFORMATION?

Tobias Churton. Occult Paris, The Lost Magic of the Belle Epoch. Inner Traditions, 2016.

I came to this book as someone unfamiliar with the subject matter, and I was therefore encouraged by the rave reviews on the flyleaf, one of which described the book as “the best introduction to the French occult revival ever written”. However, speaking entirely for myself, I found it packed full of too much detail, much of which which can have no interest to the uninitiated reader, and in consequence I found the book a hard read. This experience, of course, may be different for the cognoscenti, who may find pleasure in learning about the day-to-day minutiae of the leaders of this no doubt important occult movement. I did not. Having said that, there are a large number of interesting pieces of information mixed in with all the minutiae, and the effort of reading it is not without its rewards.

The book narrates the history of the occult movement in Paris during the Belle Epoque, focusing on a number of its leaders. The principal ones among them were Victor–Emile Michelet, whose recollections the author draws heavily on, Edmond Bailly whose bookshop acted as a creative centre for the movement, Stanisas de Guaita , who became Grand Master of the Kabbalistic Order of the Rose-Cross, Joséphin Péladan, a writer who founded a rival order of the Rose+Cross+Catholic and who organised a series of important Salons in the 1890’s, and Gérard Encausse (Papus) who founded a Martinist Order. Much of their inspiration appears to have come from Hermeticism and Gnosticism. It may be recalled that the Early Church had tried and more or less succeeded in stamping out Gnosticism, with any adherents being declared heretics, and so it comes as no surprise to read that the R+C+K was placed on the Index of the Catholic Church. This was one reason behind Péladan’s decision to found the R+C+C but of course this led to a falling out with his erstwhile friend De Guaita.



Were the Catholic Church’s misgivings well founded? It is no doubt the case that the R+C+K prescribed alternative paths to salvation, but in terms of its tenets and its membership, it was nothing if not respectable and this can be seen in the way that the alleged satanic practices of the Abbé Boullan were denounced by de Guaita. The former was a de-frocked Catholic priest who had become involved with the “somewhat sickly cult of Eugene Vintras” which claimed “miracles of bleeding hosts and the spiritual benefits of sexual rites combined with prayers”. De Guaita apparently believed that ex-Abbé Boullan was able to project 'fluid' forces to imprint his evil on female dupes. In return, when Boullan became ill and was close to death, he told his disciple Huysmans that De Guaita was responsible, and the allegation was repeated by Jules Blois, another acolyte of Boullan; Blois stated that De Guaita had “manufactured…poisons with a great science and most marvellous skill, that he volatizes them and directs them into space, that he has even… a familiar spirit at his home locked in a cupboard and which becomes familiar at his command”. The upshot of these allegations was not a libel suite, as one might have expected, but instead two duels from which, fortunately, the protagonists emerged almost unscathed.

If the modern reader wonders whether the occult movement had strayed into fantasy with these reports, which entertained the whole of Paris, the book nevertheless underlines the importance of occultism to the artistic revival at this time through the influence of Joséphin Péladan. He, most of all inspired the artists around him by arranging a series of artistic Salons in Paris; the last took place in 1895 and drew a crowd of 15,000 on the first day. The book discusses at various points the influence of the occult, and particularly the revival of the occult on various Symbolist artists, but especially upon the musicians Satie and Debussy. The author discusses in some detail Debussy’s understanding and employment of the Golden Section in his music. For Peladan, the revival of La Gnose, would lead to a rejection of materialism and the recovery of spirituality, and it would seem that there is a real link between the occult movement in Paris at this time and the revival of the arts, not least through the endeavours of men like him.

The author also provides a sympathetic portrait of Papus who founded the Martinist Order. This was an attempt to integrate the various strands of the occult such as Martinism, Masonic Templarism and Christian Theosophy within a single initiatic order, and at various times Péladan, De Guaita and Michelet inter alia were members. Papus himself however eventually fell under the benign and saintly influence of Monsieur Phillippe, who practised brotherly love and healing through selfless prayer (and who at one time was close to the Romanov royal family before the advent of Rasputin). Papus really seems to have drifted away from the occult towards a form of Christian piety in action, by attending as a medic to the needs of the Parisian poor, and then by working with the wounded in the Great War, until his death in 1916 aged 51.

To conclude one can see that there is much to admire in the book; the author provides evidence of the link between a number of artists and the movement, and one can surmise that there was some form of spiritual revival that impacted on artists such as Debussy; there is an excellent index (no doubt of use to the academic); there is a wealth of fascinating detail. But for me there is also a welter of not so fascinating detail, which made the read more laborious than it ought to have been. -- Robin Carlile

15.5.17

INTO THE MAGIC FOREST

Lyle Blackburn. Beyond Boggy Creek: In Search of The Southern Sasquatch Anomalist Books, 2017.

Tales of hairy humanoids in North America have traditionally been associated with the forests of British Columbia, Oregon, Washington and Northern California but actually they are reported from all over the country and in this book Lyle Blackburn looks at those coming from the Deep South. He points out that there are still many areas of mountainous forest and scrub in those States.

While many of the accounts in this book are rather fragmentary others are more complete and quite a number come from the liminal zones between habitat and wilderness. Some of the longer stories are quite evocative. One such is of a man hiking on a side trail to the great Appalachian Trail. It will come as no surprise to Magonia readers that this trail was unusually deserted, no other hikers being in sight and the rest huts equally deserted. On this trail the hiker encounters Hairy Humanoids that seem to trail him, preventing him from getting proper rest. When he reaches yet another deserted hut where he beds for the night, he is met by two owls which utter cries, echoed by others, like owl calls he had never heard before. In the night he wakes paralysed as footsteps pad around. Next day he continues on and then seems to re-enter the real world at a shelter where there were many other hikers and officials.

Stories like this and the sheer ubiquity of such reports, with never a body, never any really conclusive evidence, suggests that we are not dealing with 'real' paws and pelts animals here, but as Roger Sandell put it, “the magic forest of a fairy tale inhabited by supernatural creatures”. I would wager that the same areas have tales of UFOs, LITS, ghosts, polts, mystery felines, water monsters and all sorts of things that have no name.

The book is illustrated with some very evocative landscape photographs by the author. – Peter Rogerson.

11.5.17

ILLUSTRATING MAGIC

Owen Davies (ed.), The Oxford Illustrated History of Witchcraft and Magic, Oxford University Press, 2017.

The back cover declares that this addition to the Oxford Illustrated History series tells ‘The 4000-year story of witchcraft and magic – from the ancient world to Harry Potter… and beyond’ – a bold promise to deliver in 300 pages.

In fact, it’s nowhere near as comprehensive as the blurb makes out. (And what does ‘beyond Harry Potter’ actually mean?) The history is almost exclusively European, and the bulk of the book is devoted to a thin – if particularly compelling – slice of that 4000 years, between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries. The focus is very much on witchcraft, and the magic is of the related popular or folk variety; the ‘learned magic’ of the occult traditions of the Late Middle Ages, Renaissance and Enlightenment is only covered where absolutely necessary. So there’s a lot missed out.

Within those limits, however, the book, edited by Owen Davies, professor of social history at the University of Hertfordshire and a specialist in popular magical and religious traditions, provides an absorbing and illuminating study. It consists of nine chapters, each by an expert in the field (two by Davies himself), with plenty of black and white illustrations and eight pages of colour plates.

The book kicks off with ‘Magic in the Ancient World’ by Peter Maxwell-Stuart, lecturer at the University of St Andrews’ School of History, a decent overview of the magical beliefs and practices of the ancient Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Jews, Greeks, Romans and early Christians, examining their common features and differences, and in particular their equivalents of later European witchcraft (maleficent magic practised by individuals within a community against others in that community, or the community as a whole).

Maxwell-Stuart notes that it was the Romans who began to see harmful magic as the particular province of women, a notion that helped shape the Roman Catholic Church’s – and therefore ultimately our culture’s - concept of witches.

UCL history lecturer Sophie Page takes the story on into the Middle Ages, the period in which the relationship between the Church and magic was defined, as pagan sources of sacred power were replaced by Christian equivalents (saints instead of local deities, and so on). According to Page, ‘magic was the name given to a class of inappropriate sacred rituals, which were excluded from normative Christian practice’, and it became characterised as an ‘antisocial and even demonic activity’.



Page also examines the ‘extraordinary influx’ of Arabic, Greek and Jewish magical texts into Europe following the reconquest of Spain in the eleventh century, and how it ‘transformed the status of late medieval magic from an illicit activity into a branch of knowledge’ and led to what has been described as the twelfth-century renaissance.

She shows that magic and sorcery – which wasn’t initially considered counter to Christian doctrine and was only prosecuted when it caused harm – came to attract the Church’s hostility as a consequence of the combating of large-scale heresies such as that of the Cathars. This led to a hardening of attitudes against anything outside normal Christian teaching, a process culminating in a decree by Pope John XXII in 1326 that equated the practice of magic with heresy.

Page’s chapter sets the scene for what is the core of the book, three complementary chapters that cover the period of the witch-hunts and trials. The concentration on this episode isn’t only because it’s most popularly associated with the term ‘witchcraft’ but also because, in Davies’s words, it’s one ‘around which swirls much misunderstanding, misinformed opinion, and dubious facts’, in particular the inflated number of executions and the misconception that it was a medieval phenomenon – its heyday was rather the early modern period, between about 1580 and 1700.

The first of the three chapters, by James Sharpe, Professor Emeritus of Early Modern History at York University, is on demonology, ‘the intellectual system that expressed the framework within which educated Europeans between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries understood and debated witchcraft’.

Sharpe makes the important point that, while the vast majority of societies in history believed in witches or their equivalent, only in late medieval/early modern Europe did they come to be viewed as an organised, subversive sect – the ‘new phenomenon’ of the ‘demonic witch’ that emerged around 1400. Tracing the development of ideas about the interaction between humans and demons from early theological conjecture to the hard-line dogma of the Inquisition, Sharpe pinpoints the trial of the Knights Templar as an important milestone in the development of the demonic conspiracy idea and he, too, highlights John XXII’s conflation of heresy and magic as a turning point.

Interestingly, Sharpe shows that recent research suggests that the notorious witch-hunters’ handbook Malleus maleficarum was nowhere near as influential as has been thought, noting that the Spanish Inquisition cautioned its judges not to believe everything that the book said!

The witch trials and hunts themselves are dealt with by Rita Voltmer of the University of Trier, Germany. She shows that their conduct, scale and intensity varied greatly across Europe, as did the kinds of activities that led to accusations of witchcraft: ‘A global paradigm cannot cover the linguistic, religious, cultural, economic, and political influences on local, regional, and territorial witch trials.’

Like most contemporary historians, Voltmer eschews the terms ‘witch craze’ – invented in the nineteenth century for ideological motives in Protestant vs. Catholic polemic – as creating an erroneous impression of events being driven by hysteria; in context, ‘believers and hunters acted in a level-headed and logical manner’.

Rather than the millions of victims bandied about in some sources, the current estimate is that between 40,000 and 60,000 people were executed for witchcraft, about half in the Holy Roman Empire, where witch-hunting was fiercest. Voltmer provides tables breaking down the trials and executions by territory. She confirms that the majority – some 75-80 per cent – of victims were female, although the ratio between the sexes varies both chronologically and geographically, and in some regions most executions were of men.

Examination of that core period is rounded off by an engrossing chapter, ‘The Witch and Magician in European Art’, by Charles Zika, cultural historian at Melbourne University, which analyses way that the imagery and iconography of witchcraft developed and changed from the late fifteenth century to the end of the eighteenth, and how art both reflected and helped shape popular concepts of witches and their activities.


Owen Davies himself has two chapters, both very informative. The first, ‘The World of Popular Magic’, widens the scope to look at forms of folk-magic other than witchcraft (much of which was intended to counter the actions of witches), from the kind that could be practised by anybody, through that associated with specific professions (such as blacksmiths) to the ‘one-stop shop’ provided by professional cunning-folk.

The second, ‘The Rise of Modern Magic’, is a comprehensive, if rather breathless, gallop through the history of occultism from the ‘occult enlightenment’ of the late eighteenth century to the ‘new golden age’ of the late nineteenth/early twentieth century - basically from Mesmer to Crowley – and on to modern witchcraft.

The only chapter that steps away from Europe is ‘Witchcraft and Magic in the Age of Anthropology’ by Robert J. Wallis of Richmond University, and even here the focus is on what Western anthropology tells us about the West’s attitudes to and understanding of magic and witchcraft, the beliefs and practices of the indigenous peoples discussed serving only to illustrate the anthropologists’ methodology and theorising. As Wallis observes, incisively, ‘Witchcraft and magic are things against which the West has defined itself for 500 years or more.’ This looking-glass reversal, using the indigenous magical practices to shed light on European science - essentially an anthropological study of anthropologists – made this chapter, for me, the most thought-provoking.

Wallis takes us through the development of anthropological and ethnological study of witchcraft and magic, beginning with the late nineteenth century ‘armchair anthropologists’ such as Sir James Frazer (of Golden Bough fame), who saw magical beliefs and practices as evidence of cultural primitiveness and placed them in a progressive, evolutionary paradigm that begins with simplistic animism and, after passing through totemism and polytheism, ends in the sophistication of monotheism (and after that, many would say now, atheism). Subsequent generations of anthropologists, based on fieldwork among indigenous cultures, developed more positive views of the psychological and social needs that a belief in magic fulfils, while taking it for granted that the magic doesn’t actually work.

Since the 1980s, however, there has been a rise in ‘auto-ethnography and experiential’ anthropology, in which the anthropologist fully participates in, and accepts the reality of, the magical belief system – a trend that Wallis puts down to the influence of feminism, which led to a questioning the assumption that the anthropologist can be truly objective: ‘Magic is a form of consciousness which must be encountered not just studied’, and rationalism ‘only one way of understanding the world’. (Peter Maxwell-Stuart points out in his opening chapter that ‘magic is entirely rational within its frames of reference’.) Ironically, this marks a return to animism, interpreted more positively.



The final chapter, by the Dutch historical anthropologist Willem de Blécourt, looks at the portrayal of witches in cinema and TV. I’m not entirely sure of its relevance, in terms of what it tells us about the contemporary image of the witch, as de Blécourt’s analysis is somewhat limited. He restricts his study to films and TV shows that depict witches in a modern setting, on the grounds that those set in the past ‘demand a rather tedious juxtaposition with the reconstructions made by historians, which as a rule have escaped the attention of film writers, directors, and producers.’ It’s a pity, as that ‘tedious juxtaposition’ may well tell us much about modern conceptions of witches and witchcraft, through the mismatch between them and the historical reality. For example, I was struck by the prevalence in the films and TV series he discusses of the notion that witches are set apart from ‘normal’ humans, as a separate ethnic or hereditary group – something not found either in the historical concept of witches or in modern Wicca – and an exploration of how and why this theme entered the modern popular consciousness could be enlightening.

Not that the chapter is without interest – de Blécourt draws some interesting cultural insights from the motifs and themes in his chosen films and shows – but it only skims the surface of the subject. The suspicion is raised that the chapter is really there to get the magic (!) words ‘Harry Potter’ into the book. In fact, de Blécourt gives the Potter movie series short shrift, regarding the books on which they’re based derivative of earlier literary and cinematic sources and (ironically given their condemnation by Evangelicals) Christian themes of redemption and resurrection. He devotes most attention to the 1960s-70s sitcom Bewitched and older movies such as Bell, Book and Candle and I Married a Witch.

All of the chapters are readable and don’t assume any background knowledge, making Witchcraft and Magic a good introduction for a general readership, while those with a special interest in the subject should find it informative. All in all, Owen Davies succeeds in delivering an excellent, extremely useful work – if not quite the one promised by OUP’s publicists. -- Clive Prince.

9.5.17

FAIR WEATHER FRIENDS

Gordon Tripp. The Weathermen: Their Story. The Book Guild Ltd, 2017.

The author's interest in the weather and in the meteorologists who advanced the study of it was first inspired by his mother's interest in the subject. When he joined the Royal Air Force as a navigator he became seriously interested as he realised that the weather was "literally a matter of life and death".

After a brief review of ancient ideas about weather, which included astrology and tended to ignore the gradual increase in scientific observations and ideas, we are informed that "the process for recording weather data in a more systematic and scientific way can be seen to start around the beginning of the second millennium".

In the early years of the gradual development of meteorology as a science its study depended on estimates, but the gradual introduction of instruments for measuring and recording the weather made it possible to keep accurate records and to introduce mathematical methods for making forecasts. The early inventors of these instruments included Galileo (1564-1642), who although best known for his telescopes, also invented a thermometer. Daniel Fahrenheit (1686-1736) made thermometers for which he devised the scale which was given his name. Toricelli (1608-1647) was credited with the invention of the mercury barometer.

For only 143 pages this book conveys a surprisingly large amount of relevant historical and technical information. There is also plenty of information about the major characters involved in the development of the science of meteorology.

Perhaps most notable of these was Admiral FitzRoy (1804-1864), who is perhaps most usually remembered as the man who, as captain of HMS Beagle, enabled Charles Darwin to make his scientific observations and develop his theory of evolution. We are told that FitzRoy, being a fundamentalist Christian, who interpreted the Bible literally, was greatly upset by the publication of The Origin of Species because "for him, the book was the most awful blasphemy for it was seen as striking at the very roots of Christianity".

In the 19th century the increasing amount of shipping was making it ever more important to obtain weather reports and forecasts. One obvious problem was that forecasts were often inaccurate, because of lack of information and accurate scientific theories about the development of weather systems. Shipowners were enraged when they kept their vessels in port to avoid storms which never materialised.

There were also occasions when disaster struck because of failure to predict a storm. One notable example occurred in 1859 with the loss of the steam clipper Royal Charter on which 400 of those on board died. 342 other ships were lost in this storm. FitzRoy showed that the storm could easily have been forecast because of exceptional pressure and temperature differences recorded beween his northerly and southerly weather stations.

Disasters also occurred because of the actions of irresponsible shipowners who sent unseaworthy vessels to sea in bad weather. Even a disaster in 1871 in which 28 colliers were wrecked with the loss of over 80 lives only stiffened the resistance to change among owners, many of whom were MPs: "It was not until 1876 that the Merchant Shipping Act was finally passed."

I highly recommend this book to all who are interested in weather, and the history of shipping. -- John Harney

6.5.17

GIVING WITCHES A BAD NAME

Summer Strevens. The Yorkshire Witch: The Life and Trial of Mary Bateman. Pen and Sword History. 2017.

This is not a book for Wiccans, occultists or historians of the esoteric. Indeed, the ‘witch’ of the title should always be in quotes as it refers to one of the most barefaced charlatans of all time – actually considerably more than just a brazen hustler. Mary Bateman (1768-1809), was not only a plausible and accomplished confidence trickster – focusing on duping the superstitious and believers in charms and curses – she was executed for murdering one of her victims, although the evidence of her life and modus operandi suggests strongly that she was, in fact, a serial killer. Even with the quotes, Bateman the ‘witch’ gives witches a bad name.

As a poverty-stricken child in the north of England, Bateman kept company with gypsies and learned at least the outward trappings of fortune telling, which was to become rather useful over the years. However, her preferred method of trickery was to convince her dupes that they were being cursed, then relieve them of not only their money, but often pretty much everything they owned, almost down to the last flannel petticoat, in payment for her services as a ‘witch’ – the remover of curses and the healer of physical and mental ailments. She preferred to create the problem, then offer to solve it. And, with some ingenuity, she claimed not to perform this herself, but to be merely the intermediary between her clients and, first, one ‘Mrs Moore’ and then a ‘Miss Blythe’, both adepts in the arts of witchcraft. Neither of these prophetesses actually existed, of course, and both were said to live at such a distance from the victims – and Bateman herself – that investigation into their operations was unfeasible. (For example, while Bateman and her clients lived in the Leeds area, Miss Blythe was believed to be a resident of Scarborough, some 67 miles away. While this is no distance at all on today’s A64 route, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries it was conveniently remote.)

In Summer Strevens’ account, it soon becomes clear that Bateman simply couldn’t help herself. She was a compulsive liar and con-artist, with an almost admirable audacity, beginning with petty theft – which, before she went freelance and polished her act, got her serially fired as a domestic servant – before moving on to more serious crimes. Much, much more serious crimes, though not occasionally without their comedic, not to say surreal, aspects.

One of her more bizarre activities was to claim to own a hen that laid eggs that bore the words: ‘Crist [sic] is coming’. This cannily tapped into the current End Times hysteria, then whipped up by the 'prophetess’ Joanna Southcott (who might have been seriously deluded but was no money-grabbing con). Bateman did very nicely out of her miraculous eggs until a curious local physician witnessed her re-inserting one such egg into the backside of the unfortunate hen. (Presumably part of the show was to get the credulous to witness the laying of the egg for themselves.) While she escaped the clutches of the law on this occasion, what outcry there was seemed to be mostly focused on the cruelty to hens – odd, one might think at such a brutal time.


Bateman did very nicely out of her miraculous eggs until a curious local physician witnessed her re-inserting one such egg into the backside of the unfortunate hen

Indeed, Bateman frequently escaped the law, though often by the skin of her teeth. One of her tricks, when caught, was to swiftly repay monies or goods stolen – but secretly by using resources newly thieved from someone else! Mary Bateman never, ever passed up an opportunity to deceive, even attempting to extort money while in the condemned cell awaiting her execution.

Conning the credulous was bad enough, but Bateman turned to poison – the preferred method of despatch for female murderers at that time, as arsenic was freely available for pest control, among other legitimate domestic uses.

Although she caused the death of several known victims, and presumably was behind the demise of many whose names have long since disappeared into the mists of history, she was finally undone by bringing about the hideous death of 46-year-old Rebecca Perigo.

Suffering palpitations and depression – which were only worsened when the friendly ‘witch’ Bateman told Rebecca she was cursed – she and her husband William obeyed all her demands. Even the most bonkers ones. Bateman rather cleverly interspersed apparently senseless demands, such as hammering metal into beams in a certain configuration – thus reinforcing the aura of folklorish spells - with more obvious ones, such as giving her money, food, furniture and all manner of other useful stuff. Not that she ever demanded anything for herself. Miss Blythe of Scarborough’s letters did the dirty work.

It goes without saying that every letter ended with the emphatic instruction to burn it after reading, though Bateman couldn’t resist adding little faux-magical demands, such as having to burn it in the fire of a pub after buying a pint first.

The Blythe/Bateman demands began to get somewhat odd, including the delivery of a new bed (Miss Blythe found she could no longer sleep in the one she had), and the Perigos were not only running out of resources to fuel the long con, but perhaps were also beginning to listen to those around them who were less gullible. So it was time for Bateman to revert to her Plan B. Eliminate the ‘marks’.

Basically she supplied the Perigos with some special honey, which they were to take when ill – and she covered all possibilities by having Blythe prophesy that they would be very ill indeed. And to ensure the swift fulfilment of the prophecy, they were also to eat a pudding made with a paste she provided. Rebecca took a great deal of the pudding, and as she began to be violently, appallingly sick, then obediently resorted to the magic honey… William took a tiny bit, felt ill and desisted, while watching his wife die horribly. But Bateman’s plan had backfired. He was still alive.

When a physician fed some of Bateman’s paste and honey to a cat and then a dog, and they died, it was only a matter of time for Mary Bateman. Even so, Miss Blythe maintained a grip on the widower, spinning an ever-more elaborate web of lies to extort yet more from the bewildered, grief-stricken man. In the end, even he knew he’d been had, and when Mary demanded he meet her in a lonely spot, he turned up – but together with the Chief Constable of Leeds. Even then, she used all her wiles, staging an act of vomiting and accusing Perigo of giving her a bottle of poison (which she had taken along herself for obvious reasons). Later it was shown to contain oatmeal and arsenic.

Finally, it was all up with Mary Bateman. Details of her trial are scant, and in any case she, as was the way at the time, had no counsel for the defence, nor was she permitted to speak up for herself. It was just a matter of waiting for the noose.

One of the oddest aspects of Bateman’s criminal history is the role – or conspicuous lack of it – of her husband, John. From the very beginning of their marriage he must have known his wife was up to no good: with some regularity their home would suddenly contain goods manifestly not their own. Even more startling, he himself was a victim of his wife’s con when, in order to get him out of the way, she presented him with a letter, purportedly from his father who lived many miles away, saying he was very ill and to come to him immediately. When John arrived and found his father perfectly well and denying all knowledge of a letter, surely the game was up. But through it all – which included serial moves from area to area to escape her victims – John seemed to accept his wife’s eccentric relationship with the truth and basic, grim criminality.

Certainly over the years he must have benefited from her cons. At her trial for the murder of Rebecca Perigo, it was revealed that she had extorted from the Perigos, among incidentals such as items of clothing and a goose, ‘six strokes of malt’ – a ‘stroke’ was about two bushels in dry measure or 16 gallons/73 litres – ‘seven strokes of meal’, and 60lbs (27kg) of butter, plus two barrels of 327 litres. (presumably full but with what goes unmentioned)… Within the confines of the circles she moved in, and conned, this was literally heavy-duty. She had also extorted no less than £70 in hard cash – about twice the annual wage of the average servant.

Unsurprisingly, John Bateman was himself arrested for theft and fraud, though being of good, sober character and a hard worker, he was cleared. This is despite the fact that he had been actively involved in his wife’s activities, such as collecting the bed for Miss Blythe from a pub as part of a ‘long con’, and of course he knew the reason for their moonlight flits from house to house. Cleared of any personal wrong-doing as he was, however, did him little good in the end. He ended his life in extreme poverty, his wife of many years having died under circumstances of the gravest ignominy on the gallows.


Summer Strevens suggests that John Bateman’s escape from the law, and his wife’s grisly fate, were results of the then universal view that as a woman was naturally loving and nurturing, when she turned bad she was extra-wicked for upturning the natural order of things, and therefore deserved the fullest fury of the law. While this sort of sexism was indeed prevalent, the fact remains that men were also, of course, found guilty of an astonishing array of crimes. It’s still a mystery why John Bateman was not one of them.

While incarcerated in the Female Prison in York (now the world-famous Castle Museum, though you’d search the captions in vain to discover this), Mary Bateman was allowed to nurse her youngest child, and indeed even moved the hardened prison officers by her show of maternal tenderness. Incredibly, she had, apparently, been a good mother to her family – apart that is from setting a somewhat extreme example of how not to live a respectable life.

Even in jail she tried to extort money, apparently, while – with every evidence of genuineness – repeated literally to her dying breath that although she had been a thief and fraudster, she had never killed Rebecca Perigo. Quite clearly, though, she had, and would have also killed Mr Perigo, just as she had despatched many others over the years either for pure profit or to keep them quiet when they became suspicious about her activities. Does this make her a sociopath or a psychopath?

Summers thinks that broadly speaking, either term could have applied to Bateman, but basically we know so little about her emotional background and day to day behaviour that it must remain a matter of conjecture. We do know, though, that throughout she rarely acted in the heat of the moment (unlike a sociopath, apparently, though some psychiatrists would argue with this interpretation) and was described by contemporaries as having ‘an air of placidity and composure… her manner of address was soft and insinuating, with the affectation of sanctity…’ She was also, more to the point, the perfect picture of trustworthiness and possessed of charm and plausibility. Whatever psychological category she might or might not fit into, she was fully equipped to be the near-perfect conwoman.

Her execution in York in 1809 was something of a big event, though estimates of the size of the crowd – Trump-like – varied from 5,000 to 20,000. Even at the lower estimate that’s still a lot of near-hysterical bayers for blood. Many took along the children to make a day of it. Although not tried as a witch (in any case witchcraft in England was seen as a felony and not devil worship) but as a common criminal, Bateman’s reliance on ‘prophecies’ – not to mention miraculous eggs – and herbal ‘remedies’ had earned her the title of ‘the Yorkshire Witch’. The macabre theme continued after her death, as her body was dissected and her skeleton, skin and tongue found their way into various museums. Her skin was used to bind books.

It is on the topic of her post-mortem adventures that the author becomes slightly frustrating. While admirably denouncing the salacious desire to ogle Bateman’s skeleton, the mention of a three-dimensional reconstruction of her face for a television documentary succeeds in whetting the appetite. Yet apart from the cover picture, taken from a pamphlet after her death – and again, though curiously flipped, inside – there is no image of Mary Bateman in the book. The illustrations are disappointing, for even if we would deny we share any of that early 19th-century crowd’s lust for grisly detail, surely the very reason we picked up a book about a woman designated by such an intriguing nickname is that we want to get to know this remarkable Yorkshire Witch woman. That tantalising 3D image would do nicely. We want to look at her face and search for any signs of shared humanity. Or lack of it. It might be a fruitless exercise – it usually is – but that’s what we want to do. Sorry.

It’s worth a read, certainly, for social historians and criminologists – Strevens is a meticulous researcher – and is engaging enough. But the rest of us might need a little more. – Lynn Picknett



2.5.17

JOURNALISTS ON THE PARANORMAL

Annie Jacobsen. Phenomena: The Secret History of the US Government’s Investigation Into Extrasensory Perception And Psychokinesis. Little Brown, 2017.

Leslie Kean. Surviving Death: A Journalist Investigates Evidence for an Afterlife. Crown Archetype, 2017.

These two books by award winning journalists take very different approaches to the subjects they discuss. Annie Jacobsen is a cool, detached outsider, not willing to align herself with any of the factions involved. Her book has a long list of notes, and bibliography, the latter including the list of people she interviewed. Leslie Kean on the other has written a far more committed, not to say polemical work, in favour of the possibility of life after death. Unlike Jacobsen, who stands outside the narrative, she is at the heart of it. They reflect very different schools of journalism, the detached and the involved.

Jacobsen’s book traces, or tries to trace, the involvement of the US government defence agencies in the study of remote viewing and other paranormal abilities from the end of the Second World War onwards. It presents a cast of interesting characters, not least the notorious Henry 'Andrija' Puharich, who seems to be at the centre of flow charts which link almost all the weirdness of America from the 1950s to the 1980s. The book mainly concentrates on the various experiments in remote viewing conducted from the 1970s through to the 1990s. Some of this latter is more familiar territory having been covered by others such as Jim Schnabel in his 1997 book Remote Viewers and the autobiographies of the various participants.

The problem with all of this is that everyone involved has their own agenda and it is difficult to know to what extent the various interviewees are exaggerating or downplaying or spinning their own role. The book has been subject to a number of hostile reviews from aggrieved individuals who feel that their own role has been downplayed. Some of these, one suspects, are those who did not want to cooperate with Jacobsen because they were planning their own books.

I also note that despite being given an almost wholly uncritical treatment in this book, Uri Geller has joined in the whiners. Others in the paranormal community automatically reject any treatment of the subject short of gushing devotional literature.

Such people will find no such fault with Leslie Kean’s book as she investigates stories of children with past life memories, near death experiences and mental and physical mediumship showing the same uncritical attitude as was shown in her book UFOs: Generals, Pilots, and Government Officials Go on the Record.

The views of believers are presented unchallenged, and several have their own pieces. Those of skeptics are also unchallenged; they are simply not mentioned at all. There are no references to James Alcock, Ray Hyman, Susan Blackmore, Richard Wiseman etc. One could read this book without even being aware that a number of claims in it are contentious to say the least.

In the introduction Kean refers to the notorious Scole case in a completely uncritical manner, despite the fact that even within the promotional accounts there was cumulative evidence suggestive of fakery. Among those critical of Scole was long time SPR stalwart Alan Gauld, who contributes a chapter on mental mediumship to this book and had email correspondence with Kean, so I doubt she is unaware of this fact. 

The section on physical mediumship shows a similar lack of critical thought, the amazing materialisations of Eva Carriere alias Marthe Beraud are presented without any indications of the fact she was accused of fraud on a number of occasions. The photographs in the article I link to speak for themselves.

Kean however has seen ectoplasm herself, which was something of a surprise as that, it is usually thought of having vanished from the scene more or less since the war. Kean has also seen (or rather not seen) a full form materialisation (p337). To me this makes sad reading as to the depths of credulity that the emotionally vulnerable can fall.

Of course, in a sense modern accounts of physical mediumship should be much easier to investigate than those of Home and Palladino due to the development of non-invasive infra-red and night vision photography however as in the case of Scole mediums will almost certainly come up with some excuse as why they should not be used.

In a sense I am being unfair to Kean, but only because she insists that she is writing as an investigative journalist; she isn’t, she is writing as someone deep in grief for the loss of both her brother and her lover Budd Hopkins. A more honest and deeply personal account of such a grief and the interest in the paranormal generated by such is Justine Picardie’s If The Spirit Moves You, (Picador, 2002)

Of course not everything presented here can be dismissed as easily as physical mediumship and perhaps the most puzzling cases are those of children with alleged past life memories. It is a pity then that in one case vital corroborative evidence should go missing. One possible non-paranormal explanation is provided by research which suggests babies and toddlers understand far more language than they are able to articulate. Perhaps if that is the case they pick up information from radio and TV programmes which are simply unremembered background noise to adults.

It would take far more time and efforts than a book reviewer has to check the accuracy of accounts in their books, but there are worrying signs in both. It certainly does not reassure that in Jacobsen’s the pioneer parapsychologist Joseph Banks Rhine is constantly called, even in the index, James Banks Rhine, surely something an editor at Little Brown should have picked up, or that Martin Gardner’s lifetime religious faith is presented as a sort of death bed conversion. Equally Kean makes one extraordinary looking claim that I could investigate. On page 146 of her book we read:
“Lisa Randall, theoretical physicist from Harvard University, and Raman Sun drum, theoretical particle physicist at the Maryland Centre for Fundamental Physics, uses a five dimensional model to explain the phenomena we find in dying. At death, the four dimensional aspect of reality changes into the fifth dimension”
This is referenced to an alleged article 'Four Dimensional Brain in a Five Dimensional Bulk', Physical Review Letters 83, p4690. It is a piece of theoretical physics with no reference to brains or the afterlife at all. It might be that reference to a three dimensional 'brane' has somehow got transferred into four dimensional 'brain'.

If both of these books contain such easily checkable errors want else might lay hidden.

The fact is that any journalist seeking to explore such topics in depth would be committed to years of research at our friends at Archives for the Unexplained and the libraries of at least a dozen other institutions, even before the long job of interviewing all manner of folks pro and con, and always taking on board not to believe anything that anyone tells and not even trust ones own senses. -- Peter Rogerson


MAGONIA RECOMMENDS