Monthly Archives: September 2014

Ancient Rock in a Modern City–The London Stone

"LondonStone". Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

“LondonStone”. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

England is home to many wondrous and strange bits of history. Spring-heeled Jack–a mysterious figure well known for his propensity to spit blue fire and leap over walls in a single bound–prowled the area around London nearly two hundred years ago (and some say he does until this day.) London was home to Jeremy Bentham, a noted philosopher, whose remains still reside within the city limits to this day. And there was the story of Samuel Pepys, whose diary helped reconstruct events of the Great Fire of London, and his wheel of cheese.

There are far older things in London, though, things of which very little is known. Take, for example, the London Stone. The hunk of limestone, about 27 inches wide, 17 inches high, and 12 inches front to back, now resides behind a grate attached to, of all things, a sporting goods store. A rather inglorious fate for something whose destruction, according to legend, would mean the end of London.


Mysterious origins

The earliest mention of the London Stone comes from around 1100, when it was known as “Londenstane.” But even then, the stone was considered ancient and was believed to have some sort of mystical power. At the very least, it was considered the heart of ancient London.

In more recent times, experts have postulated that the stone might be the remains of an important Roman building. It may also have been the central milestone of Britannia, from which all others were measured. Some have suggested that it might be an Anglo-Saxon way marker or the remains of a stone cross. Others say it was placed in the center of London by Brutus the Trojan, the legendary founder of London. No one really knows for certain how old the stone even is, as even today there is no way to date it.


A link to London’s ancient past

"Jack Cade on London Stone" by editor:Howard Staunton; artist Sir John Gilbert (1817-1897) - Works of William Shakespeare (London:Routledge, 1881) vol 8. Licensed under Public domain v

“Jack Cade on London Stone” by editor:Howard Staunton; artist Sir John Gilbert (1817-1897) – Works of William Shakespeare (London:Routledge, 1881) vol 8. Licensed under Public domain

For as little as is known about the stone, it still bears the weight of history. The stone could well have been a part of London since its start. At the very least it has survived civil wars, fires, two world wars, the Cold War, and still exists into the 21st century. Shakespeare mentioned the stone in several of his plays, including one involving the Kentish rebel Jack Cade, who entered London with his followers and struck the stone with his sword, proclaiming himself “Lord of London.” Grooves remain on the stone where Cade allegedly struck it.

After the Great Fire of London, Christopher Wren spotted foundations below the stone, and was convinced it was merely a part of a much larger structure. While today that idea is regarded as fanciful thinking, it shows just how much the London Stone has inspired the imagination of generations of people. Even the bit about the stone being linked to the fate of London (“So long as the Stone of Brutus is safe, so long will London Flourish.”) comes to us from 1862; hardly an ancient prophecy.

But then the stories themselves are what make the Stone, which is really nothing more than a big hunk of limestone, so fascinating. It is a tangible link to London’s ancient past, a reminder of the ages since a tiny town built in swampy land became a metropolis respected all around the world.



Coughlan, Sean. “London’s heart of stone.” May 22, 2006. BBC News. September 27, 2014.

“London Stone.” Museum of London.

A Mad Man in the Night: The Halifax Slasher

Modern day Halifax "Halifax 310805". Via Wikimedia Commons -

Modern day Halifax
“Halifax 310805”. Via Wikimedia Commons –

The city of Halifax, England was tormented for nine days in November and early December 1939 by a razor wielding maniac. The marauder lurked among the shadows of the factory town, lunging out at unsuspecting passersby to slash them with his blade before disappearing without a trace.

At the height of the incident, police received so many calls from victims of the madman that they believed there could be as many as three slashers at large on the streets of Halifax. But when the panic from Halifax began to spread to other towns and cities, as far away as London, the theory that the mayhem was the work of a single madman began to stretch credibility. Clearly, something else was at work. As we will see, the real truth behind the strange happenings in Halifax are stranger than even the motives of a rogue with a razor who got his jollies slashing women’s clothes.


A reign of terror begins

The evening of November 16 was like any other for Gertie Watts and Mary Gledhill. Mill workers, the pair were walking home, no doubt looking forward to an evening of relaxation. But the night had other plans. The next time anyone laid eyes on them, the pair were frantically knocking on the door of a nearby house, blood running down their faces from cuts on their heads. They told the Good Samaritans inside a strange story about a man who appeared out of the shadows and slashed them before disappearing as quick as he came.

The no doubt shaken residents called the police. A quick investigation revealed no physical evidence, other than the cuts, of any attacker. The local paper, the Halifax Courier, ran the strange story the next day.

Five days later the mysterious attacker reared his head again. Mary Sutcliffe was attacked on her way home from her job at Mackintosh’s Queen’s Road factory. She pushed her attacker away, but after the altercation she found a cut on her wrist, which she thought might have come from a razor. While she was able to describe her attacker, it did little good for the police who rushed to investigate the incident. They could find no trace of the attacker, as if he had disappeared back into the shadows that gave him life.

On the 24th, a man named Clayton Aspinall fell under the madman’s razor. Again, the assailant could not be located by the police. The Halifax Courier reported on the attack the next day. Police offered a $10 reward for any information leading to the arrest of the Halifax Slasher.

The odd series of events took a new dimension on November 25, when Hilda Lodge reported being attacked on her way to buy vinegar from a shop near her home. This time, word of the attack spread quickly and a large crowd gathered, eager to take a pound of flesh out of the mysterious slasher. As the crowd worked itself into a frenzy, it turned on one of their own. A man by the name of Clifford Edwards was denounced as the Halifax Slasher. Although the reasons for the accusation remain unclear, the danger to Mr. Edwards was very real. Surrounded by an angry crowd, the innocent man was in serious danger of being lynched right then and there. Luckily, police were able to rescue him before the worst happened. He was escorted home, and his role in the story ended there.

Two nights later, another attack occurred not far from where Hilda Lodge’s home. The victim this time was a nineteen year old woman named Beatrice Sorrell. She appeared at the fire station on Gibbet’s Street with a cut in her sweater sleeve and two shallow wounds in her arm. Oddly calm for a woman who had just confronted a madman, she reported to the flummoxed firemen that a man had jumped out of a dark yard as she was passing buy and attacked her. Another mob gathered, eager to track down the slasher. But, par for the course by this point, neither they nor the police could find any evidence. Despite the show of force, the slasher struck three more times that night.

The next reported attack was out of character for the Slasher because it happened in the morning. The morning of the 28th, Constance Wood was standing by her front gate when a man in a rain coat ran by. He happened to bump into her, knocking her to the ground. She felt a pain in her left arm, and found two small scratches on her arm and a tear in her sweater. She raised the alarm and another mob descended on the scene, hunting for tall men in rain coats. By this point, the results of their search were predictable: they found nothing.


The Slasher changes address

By November 30th, police in Halifax were swamped. The sheer volume of attacks suggested that there might be as many as three slashers at work in the city. Mobs armed with canes, clubs, and just about anything else that could be used to brain someone roved the streets on the hunt for the elusive madman. Put short, the city was in a panic and it was too much for the local authorities to deal with. So the overwrought police department turned to the famous Scotland Yard for help with the case.

Meanwhile, the slasher changed address. Thirty-five miles from Halifax, eighteen year old Winifred Walshe reported that the madman attacked her in her backyard, leaving her with a five inch gash on her left arm. Not long after the Walshe attack, he struck again in Manchester, slashing a fourteen year old four times on the arms after leaping out at her from a dark corner. Another attack occurred in Lancanshire, fifty miles from Halifax.

The most dramatic of the Slasher’s exploits outside of Halifax came from Brentford, five miles outside of London. Marjory Maple, fourteen, staggered into a candy shop, blood dripping from a dozen cuts on her arms.

Taking the attacks in Halifax and those outside together, the Slasher had been responsible for eighteen attacks in eight days. Police in the towns outside Halifax were on the watch for accomplices or imitators which they believed were responsible for the attacks.

Back in Halifax, police deputized eighty citizens. Private citizens cruised the town looking for any suspicious activity, and local stores sold out of canes, bats, and anything else that could be used as a weapon. Halifax was under siege by the invisible attacker, and on the verge of a complete panic.


Confessions roll out, and the panic ends

However, in the first week of December, reports of Slasher attacks took a nose dive. As quickly as it had began, the panic ended. Mostly, this was brought about by a series of shocking confessions from the victims of the Slasher. Many came forward and said that they were not attacked. Worse, many confessed that they faked their wounds.

Hilda Lodge was among the fakers. Her wounds came not from a madman with a razor but rather nothing more threatening than a broken vinegar bottle.

Beatrice Sorrell used a razor to slash her coat sleeve and then she cut her arm until the blood flowed freely. She did the stunt because she was upset with her boyfriend. She had read the reports of the slasher in the paper, and imitated the attacks for the attention.

As for the fourteen year old in Manchester who suffered the five inch gash in her arm? It was caused by a madman with a razor, but rather she suffered the injury in an accident.

However, not all of the “victims’ were fakers. Constance Wood, who was knocked down outside her gate by a running man in a raincoat, genuinely believed that she had been attacked. Her wounds, two small scratches and a tear in her sweater, probably came from falling to the ground. But she and her neighbors were in such a state of paranoia–fueled by the newspaper reports of the slasher and the general panic in the town–that they believed a Slasher attack was inevitable. So, when Constance Wood had a run in with what, under normal circumstances, would have just been a very rude man, she interpreted it as an attack by the madman and perceived her injuries accordingly.



By the end of the panic, police logged between 200 and 400 reports related to the Halifax Slasher. Eighty men were deputized to help investigate the huge influx of reports, while hundreds more took to the streets on their own to hunt down the elusive attacker.

The vigilante mood among the general public made the police’s work that much harder. On at least two occasions, the police had to save a man denounced as the slasher from mobs intent on lynching them.

Once it became clear that there was no attacker, the police turned their attention to the alleged “victims” themselves. In January, 1939, three young women and a young man were convicted of malicious mischief and sentenced to a month in jail for their fake reports. One of the youths sentenced was none other than Beatrice Sorrell, who made her report in a fit of pique against her boyfriend. Hilda Lodge also received a four week sentence for her false report.

If there was not a real attacker on the loose in Halifax, what happened? The first impulse is to label it mass hysteria and call it a day, but the case doesn’t fit the parameters of a mass hysteria outbreak. Most damning for the case of calling it mass hysteria is the fact that there were no reports of illness. Mass hysteria is an outbreak of usually short-lived symptoms with no biological basis. Victims didn’t reports being ill; they reported being attacked. It might seem like a quibbling distinction since there was no real attacker, but it is an important one.

Hitler and his idol, Mussolini. Hitler's saber rattling and the memories of WWI may have been part of the stressors that caused the Halifax Slasher incident.

Hitler and his idol, Mussolini. Hitler’s saber rattling and the memories of WWI may have been part of the stressors that caused the Halifax Slasher incident.

Rather than mass hysteria, the Halifax Slasher case should be classified as a collective delusion. Although it was not truly an outbreak of a conversion disorder, the panic in Halifax had similar stresses underpinning it. The victims were mostly low class women who lived in poverty, working grueling factory jobs. Adding to the stress was the grim news from Europe of German expansionism under the iron hand of Adolf Hitler. Talk of potential war with the German strongman was on a lot of lips. After the horrors of World War I, another massive war was not a pleasant prospect in the least.

So the backdrop against which the victims lived was ripe for an outbreak of mass hysteria or collective delusion. But why did it take the form of a madman with a razor as opposed to, say, poison gas? While it can be hard to tell for certain, in the immediate aftermath of the panic there was speculation that the initial attack that started the panic was genuine, and that all of the others after that were simply a result of panic at the prospect of being attacked.

It is an intriguing possibility, and it sounds plausible. Oftentimes panics and hysteria radiate out from an index case who suffers genuine symptoms of a disease. Or, in this case, a genuine attack. However, police at the time found no evidence for any attacker. The only witnesses were the victims themselves. In the absence of any corroborating evidence, the first attacker hypothesis remains just that, a hypothesis.

If there was a real-life Halifax Slasher who started the trouble that followed that cold November night, he never showed his face again. After the nine days of panic in 1938, no other reports of a mad phantom with a razor blade came out of Halifax.



Bartholomew, Robert E. Little Green Men, Meowing Nuns, And Head-Hunting Panics: A Study of Mass Psychogenic Illness and Social Delusion. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc. 2001. pgs 15-16

The Associated Press. “British Put Three Girls in Jail for ‘Slasher’ Stories.” St. Petersburg Times. January 24, 1939

The Associated Press. “England’s Phantom Slasher Just a Fake.” St. Petersburg Times. December 15, 1939

The Associated Press. “Scotland Yard Thinks ‘Slasher’ is Phantom; New Tales of Attacks.” The Lewiston Daily Sun. December 1, 1938

The Associated Press. “Shadow Slasher Stalks Women in Another Town.” The Milawukee Journal. November 29, 1938

Glover, David. “Terror Reign of Halifax ‘Slasher.’” Halifax Courier. April 24, 2013. Retrieved from:



Mystery from the Bronze Age: The Uffington White Horse

Uffington-White-Horse-satOur world is dotted with mysterious structures built by our ancient ancestors. These buildings often remain enigmas, as the people who built them have long since passed into history and, in many cases, didn’t leave written records to explain themselves.

England is no stranger to such odd structures. Stonehenge is perhaps the most famous, but the British Isles are dotted with many ancient stone circles. The ancients who inhabited the area left their mark on the land in many ways, including massive horses carved out of chalk. The strangest of these massive glyphs is the highly stylized Uffington White Horse.


An ancient secret

Wiltshire is home to four white horses, but the Uffington White Horse is the most eye catching. The other three more closely resemble an actual horse, but the Uffington white horse is stylized, and could possibly have been meant to represent something else entirely. However, the hill has been known as “White Horse Hill” since the 11th century. The figure is composed of ten feet wide curving lines, and measures around 365 feet long, twice the length of the rest of the horses in the area.

No one knows exactly why the horse was carved out of the Earth. It could have been meant to mark the territory of a local tribe. Or it could have been the work of a cult devoted to the horse goddess, Rhiannon. Another possible explanation is that the horse could be an homage to the sun god Belinos, who was often depicted on horseback or in a chariot.


Dates, revised

For a long time, archeologists believed that the Uffington White Horse dated to the Iron Age. However, a dating technique developed in the 1990s changed that perception. Optical stimulated luminescence dating (OSL) is used to show how long its been since soil has seen sunlight. The horse was made by digging out soil from the hillside and filling the resulting trench in with chalk. Testing of the underlying soils dates them to between 1200 BC and 800 BC, putting the mystery structure in the Bronze Age. As for any other insights, no more seem to be coming. The White Horse will remain an enigma for years to come.



“The Uffington White Horse.” May 6th, 2014. Wiltshire White Horses. September 18, 2014.


Mollie Fancher–The Brooklyn Enigma

Mollie Fancher in bed.

Mollie Fancher in bed.

History is populated by many strange and wonderful people. There was Jeremy Bentham, who lives on today as a mummy in the University of London, per his last will and testament. Elmer McCurdy was a two-bit outlaw who only became famous when his mummy popped up in a carnival side show and was discovered while filming an episode of the $6 Million Dollar Man. Giovani Aldini and Luigi Galvani performed ghoulish experiments that advanced the human understanding of how bodies function and simultaneously helped inspire a work of horror that remains a genre staple even today.

Not every strange story from history is quite as entertaining as the ones mentioned above. Some are as odd as they are sad. Mollie Fancher, better known as the Brooklyn Enigma, would fall into the latter category. She was held up as an example of the paranormal acting in the real world by some, and as an example of a rare and little understood mental illness by others. Whatever the case may be, the story of Mollie Fancher remains one of the more mysterious to emerge from the 19th century.


‘a child of sorrow’

Mary J. Fancher, known as Molie, was born in Attleboro, Massachuesetts on August 16, 1848. She and her two surviving siblings moved with their parents, James and Elizabeth Fancher, to Brooklyn, New York in 1850. A few years later, she was enrolled in a private school. The first trauma in  Mollie’s sad life occurred in 1855. Her mother died, and her father remarried and abandoned his children. Mollie’s aunt, Susan Crosby, took over care of the children.

Mollie suffered terribly during this time. She was described as ‘a child of sorrow’ before these traumatic events, and required special care, although it wasn’t clear exactly what her affliction was. Despite this, by all accounts she remained in good health until around age 15.

In 1864, Mollie was finishing her work at the Brooklyn Heights Seminary. Nearing graduation, she was looking forward to moving onward and upward with her life. She had looks to go with her brains–she was tall and slender, with a good complexion and an overall air of frailty that was the Victorian feminine ideal. Two months before graduation, this ideal of feminine frailty began to manifest in several health complaints, including nervous indigestion, weakness of the chest and frequent fainting spells. More seriously, she stopped eating and her already slight frame began to waste away even further. She was forced to drop out of school. Now, these types of complaints were not uncommon among Victorian women of a certain age and social standing, mostly because the frail, sickly role for women was reinforced by the culture of the time, including novels and plays. However, in Mollie Fancher these complaints were rooted in a deep seated mental illness that would only completely show itself after two accidents.

The first was minor only in comparison to what would follow. Mollie’s doctor prescribed horseback riding to cure her nervous indigestion. Horseback riding was commonly prescribed for all sorts of nervous complaints among women for centuries. If it seemed to work, it was probably because riding horses allowed women freedom and control they didn’t often get in their daily life. Whatever the case, Mollie’s prescription proved less than therapeutic. She was thrown from her horse in May 1864. She hit her head on a curbstone, knocking her unconscious. She also broke several ribs. For the next year, she suffered headaches and pains in her side. She might have recovered from this trauma and gone on to live a relatively normal life, if the second accident hadn’t occurred on June 8, 1865.

Mollie had agreed to a marriage prior to the second accident. On June 8, she was finishing up some shopping related to the coming wedding. She went to step off a street-car on her way home, The conductor signaled the coachman to move on, and when the car lurched forward she lost her balance and fell. Her dress was caught on a hook on the rear of the car and she was dragged a city block before anyone noticed her. She was unconscious when they found her, and her ribs were broken. She was put to bed to heal. Her suitor broke off the marriage plans, although it isn’t clear whether that had anything to do with her injuries. she would remain in bed for the rest of her life.


Bizarre symptoms and alleged clairvoyance

It was after Mollie took to bed that her case went from sad to plain bizarre. Her fifty-one years in bed were characterized by many varied and strange ailments that baffled observers and physicians alike. The symptoms that began shortly after her accident remained almost a constant for the rest of her life–namely, trances and violent spasms. Those early months were characterized also by lock jaw, vision problems, and fainting spells. She lived on remarkably little food, once reportedly going seven weeks without eating (although that should be taken with a grain of salt, because there were times she was force fed.)  More modern doctors characterize the illness as a kind of hysteria. While that was a catch all term for any behavior deemed unladylike in Mollie’s day, today hysteria refers to conversion disorder, where strong pent up anxieties are converted into physical symptoms. This is similar to how the people in Mattoon believed they were the victims of gas attacks, and showed symptoms such as fainting, dizziness, and vomiting. Mollie’s was a form of motor hysteria, which was more common to pre-20th century societies where the belief in demonic possession and witchcraft were more common. One more modern example of mass motor hysteria was the Tanganyika Laughter epidemic, where a fit of laughter (among other symptoms) started in a girl’s school and spread throughout the country over several months.

The strangest stories about Mollie Fancher, who would come to be known as the Brooklyn Enigma, occurred in a nine year period from 1866-1875. During this time, she lay with her arm drawn up over her head, her legs twisted, and her eyes closed. Despite this, she managed to write 6500 letters, sewed fine embroidery, kept a diary, and made wax flowers. Quite a lot for a bedridden woman with one usable hand. She was also said to be able to read writing from great distances, read minds, and give prophecies. She became a sensation in a country obsessed with the supernatural. Spiritualism was in vogue in America and Britain at the time, and the belief in ghosts, spirit communication, and other supernatural phenomena were at an all time high. Mollie Fancher became something  of a celebrity.


Many Mollies, but which one was real?

Doctors, then and now, dismiss the supernatural claims as so much hookum. But the psychiatric phenomenon at play was almost as strange, and as controversial in psychiatric communities, as the paranormal. In 1875, Mollie fell unconscious for a month, and when she awoke had no memory of the previous nine years. None of the letters or works of art seemed familiar to her, and she resumed conversations where they had left off nine years before. In Mollie’s mind, the works of those nine years were from someone else, someone dead. This mysterious person was dubbed “Madame X.”

Strangely enough, the trend continued. Mollie split into several selves. The Mollie who awakened after the nine year period and the month’s unconsciousness was dubbed “Sunbeam” for her rosy personality. Sunbeam was the primary personality. This was the Mollie that saw visitors and attempted to recreate the artistic feats of her previous, more clairvoyant alternative.

Four more Mollies would emerge in 1876, and they would remain with her the rest of her life. Sunbeam ruled the daylight hours, but her “sisters” emerged after 11pm. The transitions were not easy. They were punctuated by trances and fits, as if the personalities fought to take over control.

Idol was the first personality to take over at night. She was jealous of the daytime Molly, and had a habit of undoing her embroidery or otherwise sabotaging Sunbeam’s artistic efforts. The two personalities wrote letters to one another, in different handwriting. Idol’s experience seemed to constitute Mollie’s early childhood to the time of the first accident. Every night, she resumed her life right where she left off. Rosebud came after Idol, and couldn’t be more different than her more surly counterpart. She spoke and behaved like a seven year old child, and when asked claimed she was seven. She only remembered what happened when she was present, but unlike the other personalities she was more given to wandering. She appeared first in 1875, and only appeared intermittently until 1886 when she took up a more permanent residence. Personality three was named Pearl, and she was a sweetheart, presenting with an age of about 17 or 18. She remembered events in Mollie’s life up until about that age, but she couldn’t remember the accidents. Finally, Ruby was a more outgoing version of Mollie, with a quick with and robust energy. She couldn’t care less what daytime Mollie got up to.

Mollie’s case was, obviously, a very complex one. Today she is diagnosed as suffering from Multiple Personality Disorder, an extremely rare condition where a person’s self fragments under extreme emotional strain. Less than 100 true cases have been diagnosed, and there is some debate in psychiatric circles as to whether it exists at all. Mollie’s case might have been a good candidate for study, had scientists of the day paid more attention. Unfortunately, the supernatural trappings made many in the growing field of psychology shy away from it, and so a great chance to understand the workings of the mysterious human brain was lost. As for Mollie, she and her various selves succumbed to illness in February 15, 1916, taking her secrets with her.




Stacey, Michelle. “The Puzzling Story of Mollie Fancher and Her Times.” April 7, 2002. Chicago Tribune. September 18, 2014.


Walsh, Anthony A. “Mollie Fancher…the Brooklyn Enigma: The Psychological Marvel of the 19th Century.” (1978) Faculty and Staff-Articles & Papers. Paper 28.


The Day the Golden Gate Bridge (Allegedly) Almost Collapsed

The Golden Gate Bridge

The Golden Gate Bridge

Few bridges are as iconic as the Golden Gate Bridge. Spanning across the strait of the Golden Gate, the massive structure stands as a testament to the power of American ingenuity. The 75 year old structure stretches from an impressive 1.7 miles. The bridge span is supported by suspension cables anchored in a pair of towers that stand 746 feet tall. Two 7,000 foot long cables stretch over top of the towers and are anchored in bedrock at either end of the bridge.

The span, one of the seven wonders of the modern world, has become the number one land mark of the city of San Francisco. It has appeared in movie and television shows and attracts tourists from all over the world. San Francisco is understandably proud of its landmark. In 1987, the city held a massive celebration to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the bridges’ opening. That day, a frightening occurrence on the Bridge burned the celebration into the public memory as the day the Golden Gate Bridge (supposedly) almost collapsed.


A day of celebration turns scary

On May 24, 1987, the Golden Gate was closed to vehicular traffic and opened for pedestrians. Proud locals flocked to the bridge, eager for the rare chance to cross the span on foot. About 300,000 people swarmed to the bridge, with another half million or so waiting for a chance to have their turn.

However, a the masses of people jammed on the bridge made it impossible for many at the center to move. Unbeknownst to people on the bridge, but obvious to onlookers from afar, the sheer weight of so many people caused the Golden Gate to sag about seven feet and flatten out. Folks on the bridge only noticed that the wind was making the bridge sway, making some folks feel sick, and starting the panicked notion that the bridge might collapse. City officials closed the bridge and gradually broke up the human gridlock at the center of the bridge. Relieved of the massive weight, the Golden Gate resumed its original shape.


But could it have really collapsed?

Legend has it that the Golden Gate came “this” close to collapsing that day, and that some combination of luck and the actions of city officials prevented what would have been the greatest engineering disaster in human history. The horror of hundreds of thousands of people plummeting to their deaths in the icy waters of the San Francisco Bay hundreds of feet below is certainly dramatic, but was there any chance for it to happen?

It turns out the odds of that happening weren’t too likely. All bridges, but especially suspension bridges, are designed to move both vertically and horizontally. The Golden Gate was designed to move 16 feet vertically and 27 feet horizontally, which you will notice is far more than the seven feet the bridge dipped that day. In addition, by the time of the 50th anniversary celebration, upgrades to the bridge structure allowed it to support 5700 pounds per foot, with an additional safety factor of 150%. In other words, the bridge could support at least 5700 pounds (bridges and other structures are always over-engineered, to account for possible unknown or extreme circumstances.)

So, while there is no doubt that seeing the Golden Gate flatten out under the weight of hundreds of thousands of people, there was very little danger of the bridge collapsing. The legend is just that, a legend.



Rosenbaum, Dan. “Golden Gate Bridge.” San Francisco Travel.

Tung, Stephen. “The day the Golden Gate Bridge flattened.” San Jose Mercury News. September 13, 2014.


The Monkey Man of Delhi

Illustration based on witness accounts of the Monkey Man "Monkey Man". Via Wikipedia -

Illustration based on witness accounts of the Monkey Man
“Monkey Man”. Via Wikipedia –

Collective delusions and mass hysteria can occur in any society, but India’s deep seated belief in the supernatural makes it particularly vulnerable.  Among the strangest was the outbreak of panic in Delhi that occurred in 2001, when residents reported a mysterious attacker, described as a monkey man with iron claws.


Monkey man mania

The nights in Delhi in May, 2001, were sweltering. The region was suffering under a heat wave, and the local state run power company couldn’t keep up with demand. The city would suffer periodic rolling black outs to try and keep the system from giving out entirely.

The mystery attacker first struck one hot night in early May in Ghaziabad, a city near Delhi. By mid May, the panic spread to East Delhi and the rest of the city.The attacker was described as a four foot tall creature with a hairy body, monkey-like facial features, and metal claws. It would appear out of the darkness and rake victims with its razor sharp claws before disappearing back into the night. The victims were primarily men sleeping on the roof of their homes in an attempt to escape the oppressive heat.

Police initially believed the attacks were the work of mass groups of miscreants who capitalized on the heat and darkness to work their mischief. Locals, however, insisted it was a creature of some sort. They ascribed amazing feats to the monster, claiming it could leap off buildings and that it could run far faster than a human. Police contacted the local zoo to see if perhaps a chimp or other ape had escaped, but every animal was accounted for.

With more reports rolling in and the overwhelmed police at a loss, the Chief of the Delhi Police issued a shoot to kill order to all officers. He also put a 50,000 rupee price on the monster’s head.

Meanwhile, skepticism began to mount. Descriptions of the monster began to vary wildly. Reports of a more cat-like creature began to filter in, while one woman claimed that the beast transformed from its original simian form to a cat right in front of her eyes.

Absurd as such reports may be, the panic had very real consequences. Monkey man mania was directly responsible for two deaths. The first was a man who panicked when e believed the monkey man was after him. He jumped off the roof of his building to escape the imaginary threat. The second was a pregnant woman who was sleeping on her roof when she heard her neighbors scream that the monkey man was attacking someone. She tried to flee but tripped when she was running down stairs. She died later that night.

Mob violence came close to killing another. A wandering Hindu mystic named Jamir was practicing rituals in a nearby wood when a mob attacked him and beat him senseless. He was about four feet tall, hairy, and wild-looking. To a panicked mob, he would have easily met the description of the monkey man. The mob dragged him to the police station, where there was nearly a stampede as people tried to get a glimpse of their to-that-point invisible tormentor.

By May 25, the police had fielded 397 calls from alleged victims of the simian menace. No culprit in the case was ever found.


A unique case

What makes the Monkey Man of Delhi an interesting case of mass hysteria was not the subject of the panic – although it was bizarre – but rather the victims. Males outnumbered females by a 3:1 ratio, which turns what you would expect from a mass delusion case on its head. The first victim was male, and males were more likely to sleep on the roofs of homes while the women and children slept inside, so they could realistically believe that they would be more likely to fall victim to the phantom attacker.

Most of these victims were in the lower socioeconomic classes. They lived in cramped quarters in the best of times, but during the hot nights of the heat wave their living conditions would have become unbearable. The nights were deep and dark as the state run power plant cut electricity. It would have been blacker than pitch when most people were sleeping. It’s quite possible that many of the cases of alleged attacks came when people tripped or otherwise injured themselves when getting up to go and relieve themselves.

It is also possible that some of the cases were actual animal attacks. Monkeys do live in the city, and they’ve been known to attack people from time to time. A few of the cases were animal bites, although it is unclear whether they were monkeys. In any case, in a hysterical climate like the one that descended over Delhi during the panic, any animal bite could have been construed as an attack by the monkey man.



The Associated Press. “’Monkey Man’ Spawns Hysteria in New Delhi.” June 19, 2001. USA Today. March 10, 2014. <>


“Mysterious ‘Man-Monkey’ Strikes Delhi.” May 15, 2001. BBC News. March 10, 2014. <>


“’Monkey-Man’ Fears Rampant in New Delhia.” May 16, 2001. CNN. March 15, 2014. <>


Verha SK. Srivastava DK. “A Study on Mass Hysteria (Monkey Men?) Victims in East Delhi.” Indian J. Med. Sci. 2003; 355


Paul Ogorzow–The S-Bahn Murderer

A Type 477 train, used during the war. Ogorzow likely accosted and killed his victims on similar trains. "S-Bahn Berlin Baureihe 477" by Michael Dittrich - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

A Type 477 train, used during the war. Ogorzow likely accosted and killed his victims on similar trains.
“S-Bahn Berlin Baureihe 477” by Michael Dittrich – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Nowadays, the Nazis are seen as the epitome of evil. No other regime in history, save for maybe Stalin’s, are as reviled. It is easy to forget then that normal people continued to live their lives in the iron grip of Nazi power. Average Germans worked, went to school, got married, and traveled. Trains were a popular means of transportation at the time. Quick, safe, and relatively inexpensive, they were favorites especially for city dwellers.

If average Germans lived their lives, so to did the criminal element who preyed on them. Again, this is something that is often forgotten about the Nazi regime; criminals though they were, they had to deal with crime among their own people. One often forgotten case sheds light on daily life under the Nazi regime, and shows just how much their ideology warped their view of the world. Paul Ogorzow was a serial killer who preyed on women riding trains in the eastern districts of Germany. He came to be known to history as the S-Bahn Murderer.


Gruesome killings

The citizens of Berlin in 1940 were living with rationing, nightly blackouts, and the first regular Allied bombing raids. To add to their plight, the bodies of women who had suffered horrific abuse began to appear. Gerda Ditter’s body appeared in October, strangled and stabbed to death. In November, another young woman was thrown from a moving train. And on December 4, two more bodies were found, thrown from a moving train. One woman survived, the other didn’t.

On December 22, the body of Elisabeth Bungener was found with a fractured skull close to the railroad tracks. A week later, the body of another woman who suffered a fractured skull was found near the tracks. Another body was found in January 1941. After that, the killer disappeared for five weeks. Then on February 11 Johanna Voigt’s body was discovered, also with a fractured skull. The final victim, Frieda Koziol, was found five months later in July.


The hunt for a killer

While the infamous S-Bahn Murderer was on his rampage, he was being pursued by the Kriminalpolizei (aka ‘Kripo’), Berlin’s serious crime unit. But they had a tough row to hoe. Their biggest antagonist wasn’t the S-Bahn murderer, but the blackout. The killer’s victims weren’t the only bodies that appeared around the railroad tracks; in fact, in December of 1940 alone there were 28 deaths attributed to accidents on the railway. These were direct results of the blackout—people were hit by trains either when crossing tracks or when they accidentally stepped off train platforms. In addition, the blackouts had sparked a crime wave in Berlin, distracting from the investigation and adding to the body count as well.

Besides the blackout, the investigators were hampered by the Nazi regime. The government did not want word of the killings to cause fear among the general populace, and so they tamped down on reporting. This deprived the investigation of any tips from the general public.

Other hindrances to the investigation came from biases that shaped the investigator’s outlook. There was a tendency to trust people in uniform who held an official position. Paul Ogorzow worked for German Railways, and his uniform proved as a kind of shield.

A bigger bias though was the racial prejudices the Nazis became infamous for. Some believed the killer had to be a Jew, because large numbers of Jews worked on German Railways. Others thought it might be a British Agent attempting to sow fear in the capital. Given the Nazi’s tendency toward bizarre espionage, it at least seemed plausible. Another theory was that the killer was one of the thousands of foreign workers who were brought to Berlin to fill the need for labor. Given the large numbers of foreigners in the city, this seemed plausible.

That is, until a serious look at German Railway employees netted one name again and again. Paul Ogorzow was known among his coworkers for his hatred of women and his slacker tendencies—he had a habit of wandering off during his shifts. If it were not for his coworker’s suspicions, the Kripo may not have looked at him at all, because he was a married man with two children. Not to mention, he was a Nazi party member.

Ogorzow was brought in and subjected to intense questioning. He eventually cracked and confessed to eight murders and several assaults. His weapon of choice seemed to be a length of lead cable. In a bizarre attempt to save himself, he claimed that a Jewish doctor’s treatment for gonorrhea had awakened his murderous urges. The Kripo didn’t buy it, nor did the government. It seems that Ogorzow’s Nazi allegiance cloud not save him. He was executed by guillotine (some sources say by firing squad) the same month he committed his final murder.



Moorhouse, Roger, “Paul Ogorzow—The Nazi Serial Killer.” July 31, 2010. Accessed September 8, 2014.

“Paul Ogorzov.”





The Mysterious Baghdad Battery

Illustration of the three parts of the Baghdad Battery By Ironie (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Illustration of the three parts of the Baghdad Battery
By Ironie (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The world is full of mysterious objects, both ancient and modern. The Georgia Guidestones loom over the countryside in the state of Georgia, reminiscent of the ancient stones of Stonehenge on the Salisbury Plain in England. The stone balls of Costa Rica are just that; giant stone balls that, until about seventy years ago, were lost in the thick jungles of Central America. No one knows exactly who built them or why.

The same can be said for a strange object that long resided in the museum of Baghdad in Iraq. The Baghdad Battery remains an archeological puzzle yet to be unraveled.


A puzzling find

German archeologist Wilhelm Konig discovered an object that was, at first glance, unremarkable, at Khujut Rabu near Baghdad in 1938. The jar was about five inches long and made of clay. Inside was a copper cylinder encased in an iron rod. There were signs of corrosion on the inside, and evidence that it had once contained an acidic substance like vinegar. There was also evidence of an asphalt stopper on the top. Konig concluded from this that the object was a battery, which ran counter to what anyone then (or even now) thought was possible with the technology of the time. No one had too much time to debate the matter though, because only the next year Hitler’s Germany invaded Poland and kicked off the Second World War.


More than seventy years later, and still no explanation

About a dozen of the so-called batteries have been discovered so far. While tests have shown that the contraptions could function as a battery, if a very weak one, so far a functional use for them has not been discovered. Some suggest they were used for electroplating, but no objects from the period have been discovered that show signs of being electroplated. Others have suggested that they might have been used as a sort of religious parlor trick, to make a worshiper feel a tingle or a mild shock when touching an idol. However, no idols containing a Baghdad battery have so far been discovered. Also, no wires or similar apparatus to hook the batteries up was discovered, although some were found with thin needles, leading to the suggestion they might have been used in conjunction with a form of acupuncture therapy.

Function aside, no one is even sure how old the pots even are. They were originally dated to around 200BC, to a time when the Parthians occupied the region that is now Iraq. However, the Parthians were not known to be great scientists, whatever their battlefield prowess might have been. However, there are questions as to whether the Parthian connection is genuine, because the pots are similar in design as those of the Sassanian culture.

The fact is that more research needs to be done to tease out exactly what the Baghdad batteries were and how they were used. But Iraq is not exactly a stable place by any means, and that makes doing archeology difficult. Since it isn’t likely the troubled region will solve its problems anytime soon, the Baghdad batteries will remain an enduring mystery.

Frood, Arran. “Riddle of ‘Baghdad batteries'” February 27, 2003. BBC News. September 6, 2014.

A Blood Sucker in Glasgow: The Gorbals Vampire Panic

"Southern Necropolis gatehouse, Glasgow" by Stephen Sweeney - From Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

“Southern Necropolis gatehouse, Glasgow” by Stephen Sweeney – From Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

People have told vampire stories for at least as long as civilization as existed. While the popular image of vampires today is of well coiffed, moody young people who spend more time brooding over romance than draining the living of their lifeblood, the vampires of ancient times were fearsome monsters. The closest a modern vampire story gets to the ancient archetype is the blood sucker who started it all: Dracula, the titular monster of Bram Stoker’s classic gothic novel.

While there are few today who believe that vampires – brooding teenage or the more traditional style nosferatu – are real, the fascination remains. There is no room in the modern world for beasts of that bygone age, who are no restrained to popular culture. But despite the modern skepticism toward creatures of the night, an odd episode took place in 1954 that illustrated the hold vampires have over the imagination, even in a time of expanding technological and scientific knowledge. Pint-sized vampire hunters, carrying improvised weapons and their parents in tow, turned out in the Gorbals district of Glasgow, Scotland. They scoured the Necropolis, a vast cemetery housing 250,000 of Glasgow’s former citizens, looking for an iron toothed vampire they claimed had killed two children.



Iron toothed vampire on the prowl

The strange story began the evening of September 23, 1954. Constable Alex Deeprose responded to a call telling him of trouble in the Southern Necropolis in Gorbals. This was not the first time the constable had been called about mischief in the old cemetery. The ancient monuments were often the targets of vandals.

But Constable Deeprose didn’t find vandals when he arrived that evening. Instead, he found hundreds of children between the ages of five and fourteen, many of them armed with anything that could be remotely called a weapon. Many had brought dogs to aid them in their search. The constable was shocked to find out what had brought the crowd to the home of the dead. The children told him that a vampire with iron teeth lived in the cemetery, and the fiend was responsible for the deaths of two children.

The constable was understandably perplexed by the story. If two children had been killed anywhere in Gorbals, he would have known about it. In fact, no child murders were reported that year. Luckily for the Constable, cooler heads prevailed before the situation could get out of control. The headmaster of a nearby primary school managed to convince the crowd that the entire story was ludicrous and that no iron toothed vampire existed anywhere, let alone inside the Necropolis.

The crowd dispersed at sunset, but like clockwork the next night (and the night after), the crowds gathered again to hunt for an elusive creature with a macabre appetite.



The playground rumor mill

The bizarre panic began not in the cemetery, but on the playgrounds and classrooms of Gorbals. At the time, the causes for the panic were not entirely clear. But one look at the Necropolis and it is easy to see how impressionable children could believe that a vampire could take up residence there. It was a gloomy bone yard of looming headstones and Gothic architecture. Nearby, the furnaces of the iron works at Dixon Blazes cast eerie shadows over the tombs.

But as to why exactly the children believed a vampire had taken up residence among the ancient tombs, parents and officials both were at a loss. It wasn’t long though before they came up with a scape goat: American comic books. Specifically, horror comics like EC Comics and Tales from the script, both comics that are infamous for their lurid and graphic subject matter. Members of Parliament were so convinced by this explanation that they passed the Children and Young Persons (Harmful Publications) Act of 1955, which prohibited horror comics or any other type of medium that was deemed harmful to children.

However, some free speech advocates were quick to point out that none of the stories in horror comics at the time featured a child-eating vampire with iron teeth. What parents, officials, and priests all seemed to miss in the outbreak of hand-wringing that followed the Gorbals vampire panic was that well known local folklore stories contained a vampiric beast with iron teeth.

Her name was Jenny with the Iron Teeth, and she was the subject of a Scottish dialect poem called “Jenny wi the airn teeth.” The poem was told from the perspective of a mother who was trying to get her restless child to sleep. She tells the poor kid that Jenny would come after him and bite a chunk out of his side with her iron teeth before carting him off to her lair if he would not get to sleep. This poem was commonly recited in schools in the Gorbals area.

This use of scary bogeys to control children’s behavior is pretty common. It is a good way for parents to keep children away from dangerous places or behaviors without having to resort to the tired cliche: “because I said so.” An example of another, more common, urban legend that had its origins in the same era as the Gorbals vampire panic is the legend of the Hookman. The story is about a pair of teenagers who go off to a local Lover’s Lane. On the way, they hear a radio broadcast about a madman with a hook for a hand who escaped from a local insane asylum. The girl is afraid, but the boy has his mind on what’s going to happen when they park. After they reach their destination and start to make out, the girl hears a noise and convinces her irritated boyfriend to turn the car around. When they arrive home, the boy gets out to let his girlfriend out of the car, only to find a hook hanging from the door handle.

The story was meant to scare teenagers away from the practice of parking. Whether it was effective or not was anyone’s guess. Jenny with the Iron Teeth and another local bogey, the Iron Man, performed much the same function. Children were warned that if they misbehaved, the Iron Man would come for them. They were also warned to stay away from the cemetery, because the Iron Man lurked there. Mostly likely the real reason was due to how close the cemetery was to the iron works, not to mention that the place was regularly vandalized so unsavory characters likely hung out in the area.



The origin of the panic

The local folklore and parental warnings to stay out of the cemetery provided fertile ground for a panic. It is difficult to say exactly what caused the panic to start with. Perhaps one of the school children sneaked into the cemetery against his parent’s will, and saw someone lurking among the headstones which he interpreted as the legendary Iron Man. Then, when he returned to school and told his friends of the event, it spread from his group of friends to other students through the process of Chinese Whispers, changing with each retelling.

Then, by the end of the day, the story morphed from a sighting of the Iron Man to that of an iron toothed vampire who ate children. The collective delusion caused enough excitement that hundreds of children (and a few of their no doubt bewildered parents) turned out to the cemetery to investigate.

What is interesting about this case is that two types of collective delusions were at work. The first was an immediate community threat panic. The playground community felt that they were under direct threat of an enemy they themselves invented out of the folklore they all shared. This initial panic was the catalyst for another type of collective delusion that swept all the way to Parliament: a moral panic. The belief that the traditional values were under threat from something authorities found distasteful – horror comics in this case – brought about a panicky action to address the threat. In this case, the action was to ban those comics entirely.

It goes to show that anyone–child, adult, or member of Parliament–can fall victim of a collective delusion.



Westwood, Jennifer. Kinsghill, Sophia. The Lore of Scotland: A Guide to Scottish Legends. Random House. 2012. Pgs 186-187

Nicolson, Stuart. “Child Vampire Hunters Sparked Comic Crackdown.” March 22, 2010. BBC News. March 1, 2014 <>

English, Paul. “Before Hollywood Went Vampire Crazy, Scots Kids Hunted Them In Graveyward.” March 27, 2010. Daily Record and Sunday Mail. March 1, 2014 <>

Hobbs, Sandy. “The Gorbals Vampire Hunt.” June 23, 1989. Herald Scotland. March 1, 2014. <>

“Hundreds in Grim Hunt for ‘Monster.’” The Sydney Morning Herald. September 26, 1954

The Bath School Disaster: America’s Deadliest School Attack

Bath Consolidated School before the attack.

Bath Consolidated School before the attack.

Violent attacks in our nations schools have, sadly, become a fact of life in the United States. At least once a week during the school year, the news reports on a student gunning down their teachers and classmates. While it may seem that school attacks are only a recent phenomena, the worst school attack in US history occurred in 1927, in a sleepy little town called Bath, Michigan.


A small town dispute turns ugly

Bath was home to fewer than 300 people in 1927. It was a rural community made up of farmers and blue collar workers. Everyone knew everyone else. With such far flung residents, it made sense then that the local school district should build a consolidated school, in order to house all the local students under the same roof. The new school, built in 1922, was a fully modern facility and far more spacious than the earlier country schools it replaced. However, improvements are not free, and the township decided to raise property taxes to cover the bill.

Any tax increase is bound to rub some folks the wrong way, but no one was more worked up over the hike than Andrew Kehoe, a local farmer. He was known for his stubbornness and tendency to overreact. Locals reported that Kehoe once shot a dog for barking too much and beat his own horse to death because it was lazy. He also liked to use dynamite to clear stumps and rocks from his property. Needless to say, this was a man without a sense of proportion.

But the only thing that could get Kehoe worked up faster than lazy livestock or tree stumps was taxes. So when the property tax hike was voted through, Kehoe went on a crusade. He joined the school board to try and get the new taxes taken off the books. But it went further than that. The stubborn farmer fought tooth and nail against just about any spending related to the school. He ran for town clerk in 1926, no doubt hoping the office would put him in a position to overturn the hated taxes, but his stubbornness as a school board member came back to haunt him. He lost the race, and not long later received news that his farm was in foreclosure. Kehoe was a man in a bad spot. Soon, his resentments led him to form a horrific plan to get back at the community he felt had wronged him.


Dynamite found under the school after the attack.

Dynamite found under the school after the attack.

A horrific attack

Kehoe used his knowledge of explosives and his background as an electrical engineer to execute his plan. Over the next several months, Kehoe gained access to the hated school and hid large amounts of dynamite within.

By May 18, Kehoe was ready to execute his plan. At 8:45 that morning, an explosion rocked the tiny village of Bath, collapsing part of the school and killing children and teachers inside. Kehoe killed his wife and destroyed his farm with explosives. He then climbed into his truck, also rigged with explosives, and drove to the school. He conversed with the superintendent near the ruined building, as rescue operations began. He triggered the bombs in his truck, killing himself, the superintendent, and a few bystanders, including a seven year old boy.

At the end of the day, 45 people—38 of them children—lay dead. A good chunk of the school lay in ruins, and the tiny town was shell shocked. As bad as it was, it might have been worse. Investigators found 500 pounds of dynamite and gunpowder in the school that failed to detonate due to faulty wiring. If these bombs had detonated, the entire school and many buildings in the downtown area would have been flattened, effectively wiping Bath off the map.



Peters, Justin. “We Still Look at Ourselves as Survivors More Than Eighty Years Later, Remebering the Deadliest School Massacre in American History.” December 18, 2012. Slate. September 1, 2014.


“School Dynamiter First Slew Wife.” The New York Times. May 20, 1927.