Monthly Archives: February 2016

The Mystery of Skeleton Lake

Roopkund Lake By Schwiki - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35324114

Roopkund Lake
By Schwiki – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35324114

The soaring heights of the Himalayas have long sparked the imagination of human beings. While Everest is the highest peak among the massive mountain chains, and has in the last one hundred years become the site of a bleak open graveyard, there are other, stranger places tucked among the peaks who have no less of a grisly history. One such place lay among the Garwhal Himalayas, at a dizzying height of 16,000 feet. There is a lake, Roopkund Lake, that has played host to a macabre mystery that has gone unsolved for 1200 years, until now.

Surrounded by glaciers and bleak stretches of rocks, the approximately six foot deep lake is generally covered in ice and snow most of the year. When the snow melts in the warmer months, it reveals a gruesome secret: skeletons, hundreds of them, scattered in and around the lake. Some of the bodies still have bits of flesh and hair stuck to the otherwise bare bones.

Explanations of where the unfortunates came from have varied over the years. Some believed the dead were victims of some strange ritual murder performed on the shores of the high lake. Others believed attendees of some ritual were perhaps killed by a sudden epidemic, or perhaps killed themselves in a suicide ritual. In the 19th century, some speculated that the bodies belonged to the army under General Zorawar Singh of Kashmir, who disappeared returning from the battle of Tibet in 1841.

All seemed plausible, until 21st century technology revealed several details about the mystery bodies. A team with the National Geographic magazine retrieved several of the skeletons and took them to the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad, India, where genetic tests were run. The results were revealing. The skeletons were made up of men, women, and children, and all were of Indian descent, and dated from 850AD. Some were Brahmins from the region of Maharashta.  The lake has long been the site of a pilgrimage every twelve years called the Nanda Devi Raj, where the devout worship the Goddess Nanda. Judging by the diversity of the skeletons and the probably presence of Brahmins amongst the dead, it is likely that the victims were a group of such pilgrims.

Examinations of the bones showed that the victims were struck a killing blow to the head by something round. The lack of injuries to any other parts of the bodies ruled out deaths by violence or avalanche. Researchers then concluded that the victims died when huge hailstones fell on them from above in what must have been a freak hailstorm.

There are more mysteries to be solved about what exactly happened at Skeleton Lake. The site is in danger from the hundreds of hikers who visit it every year. Bones have a tendency to disappear, or they are rearranged or otherwise desecrated by visitors.

 

Sources:

Alam, Aniket, “Fathoming the Ancient Remains of Roopkund,” thehindu.com. June 29, 2004. The Hindu. January 15, 2016. http://www.thehindu.com/2004/06/29/stories/2004062905461200.htm

“National Geographic expos solves Roopkund skeleton mystery,” archive.deccanherald.com. October 20, 2004. Deccan Herald. January 15, 2016. http://archive.deccanherald.com/Deccanherald/oct302004/n12.asp

“Roopkund lake’s skeleton mystery solved: Scientists reveal bones belong to 9th century people who died during heavy hail storm,” indiatoday.intotoday.in. May 31, 2013. India Today. January 15, 2016. http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/uttarakhand-roopkund-skeleton-lake-mystery-solved-bones-9th-century-tribesmen-died-of-hail-storms/1/277681.html

 

Provincetown’s Black Flash

A beach front art class in 1940. Could some of the summer visitors, such as these, been responsible for the panic that gripped the town in 1939, or was something more sinister at work?

A beach front art class in 1940. Could some of the summer visitors, such as these, been responsible for the panic that gripped the town in 1939, or was something more sinister at work?

Shadowy figures have long haunted the pages of history. From ghosts to goblins to things less mentionable, the human psyche has a habit of inventing monsters to inhabit the dark reaches of the unknown. Several such figures have been chronicled on this site: the Halifax Slasher, the London Monster, and Spring-Heeled Jack, to name a few. Today, we’ll be adding another cloaked and hooded terror to the rogue’s gallery, this one known by a name straight out of a comic book: the Black Flash.

The year was 1939. The winds of war were blowing in Europe as Nazi tyranny began its spread. German submarines lurked off the Atlantic Coast, and the American public feared the growing likelihood of war. It was out of this atmosphere that the Black Flash appeared in Provincetown, Massachusetts. The village was tormented for a few weeks in the fall, scaring children and leading to a puzzle that still has people scratching their heads: who, or what, was the Black Flash of Provincetown?

 

A figure in black

School children on their way home from class were the first to report the black phantom. They claimed that a tall figure, dressed all in black, would appear from nowhere and disappear just as fast. Huge, and impossibly fast, it seemed the creature aimed only to frighten, a job it did exceedingly well.  The adults in town didn’t take the accounts very seriously, at least until one of their own saw the ghostly figure.

Mary Costas was walking by town hall one night in October when a tall figure dressed all in black jumped out of the bushes in front of her. The creature had glowing blue eyes, silver ears, and could jump impossibly high. The frightened Costas ran into a nearby coffee shop for help. A group of men who ran outside to look for the creature found nothing. Police who arrived at the scene thought the whole affair a big joke, despite Costas being genuinely frightened.

After Costas’ terrifying encounter, several more townspeople saw the monster. Reports were scattered all over town; as police received a call from a resident on one end of town claiming they had seen the beast running through their yard, another call would simultaneously come in from the opposite end of town. Even police began to believe the monster might be some sort of devil.  Townspeople knew the beast by various names: the Provincetown Phantom, the Devil of the Dune, and the name by which the apparition is known to history, the Black Flash.

 

A story grown with each telling

The Black Flash made radio news broadcasts around the world. It was the perfect sort of story for the radio broadcasts of the day, where news programs elbowed room on the dial along with serials and pulp dramas. The story grew and grew with the telling; the monster went from merely jumping out to frighten people to full on attacking hapless townspeople, spewing blue fire as it did so much like the legendary Spring-Heeled Jack. Here it is good to note how much the story has grown from those early reports. It entered into the folklore of the area and became more and more embellished over time. Many details that will be found on various sites about the monster and its attacks come from this oral tradition. The story as it exists today claims that the monster tormented Provincetown for the entire duration of the War, from 1939 to 1945, and that it was only stopped after children poured a pot of hot water on its head. In reality, the panic only lasted a few weeks in the fall of 1939.

As for Provincetown residents at the time, while a significant minority lived in fear of the Devil of the Dunes, most wrote the whole affair off as hogwash. They attributed the happening to a prank pulled by a local track star, or perhaps a left over tourist looking to stir up trouble.  Chief of Police Anthony Tarvers claimed the Black Flash was simply four teens playing a trick on the town. One boy sat on the shoulders of another. They wore a long cape and a flour sifter over their face; the device’s handles were the large silver ears that victims reported. The case, it seems, was closed.

 

A case of collective delusion?

While it would seem that the initial reports of the Black Flash were, as the Chief of Police stated, the work of four bored teens playing a Halloween prank, what can be made from the other “attacks?” And of the exaggerated abilities of the monster? After all, it would be difficult for anyone to make the leaps attributed to the monster with another person on his shoulders, not to mention sprinting at the speeds the monster was said to sprint.

It seems likely that, while a group of pranksters started the panic, from there the idea of a monster spread to those who were vulnerable: uneducated adults, particularly women, and children. Time and again, in cases of mass hysteria and collective delusion, these are the groups who are primarily affected. This can be seen in such cases as the Halifax Slasher, the Mad Gasser of Mattoon, and the laughter epidemic that struck Tanganyika in the 1960s.

The environment was ripe in Provincetown for such a panic to take root. Nazi subs lurked in the Atlantic, and news from overseas made the possibility of American being sucked into another global conflict more and more possible. America was still in the midst of the Great Depression as well. These stressors provided fertile ground for a collective delusion to take root. The idea spawned from this bout of collective delusion has proved to be hardy, as it moved from an odd incident that burned out within a few weeks in 1939 to a part of Rhode Island folklore, one likely to inspire chills among residents of Provincetown and beyond for decades to come.

 

Sources:

Desroches, Steve, “The ‘Black Flash’…The Legend Lives On.” Provincetownmagazine.com. October 26, 2011. Provincetown Magazine. January 30, 2016. http://provincetownmagazine.com/2011/10/26/the-black-flashthe-legend-lives-on/

“Fall Brings Out The “Black Flash.” http://advocate.provincetown-ma.gov/Default/Scripting/ArticleWin.asp?From=Search&Key=PRO/1939/10/26/1/Ar00103.xml&CollName=EVT_PREDEFINE&DOCID=22254&Keyword=%28black~+and+flash~%29&skin=Provincetown&AppName=2&PageLabel=1&ViewMode=GIF&GZ=T

Muise, Peter, “The Black Flash of Provincetown.” NewEnglandFolklore.blogspot.com. August 01, 2009. New England Folklore. January 30, 2016. http://newenglandfolklore.blogspot.com/2009/08/black-flash-of-provincetown.html

 

 

 

The Red Death: The Pellagra Epidemic in the Early 20th Century American South

A victim of Pellagra

A victim of Pellagra

Mysterious diseases have plagued humanity throughout our history. In ancient days, there was little that could be done to explain, let alone stop, the ravages of epidemics. Such scourges as small pox, cholera, and the bubonic plague killed huge numbers of people and disappeared as quickly as they came, leaving ancient cultures reeling in their wake.

In the 20th century, mankind  began to get a better handle on the causes of disease. Even so, a mysterious disease ravaged the American South. Its symptoms were horrific and debilitating: red, peeling skin, diarrhea, mental problems up to and including dementia, and ultimately in many cases, death. The disease was pellagra, a disease caused by niacin deficiency, and it roared through the South throughout the first half of the twentieth century, killing upwards of 100,000 people before it was finally stopped.

 

A mystery disease

Pellagra was first described in Spain by Gasper Casal y Julian in 1735. The disease was mainly seen in Southern Europe and the Mediterranean during the 18th and 19th century. In particular, the disease was studied in Italy and Spain. Gaetano Strambio in particular studied the disease extensively. He proved that pellagra was more than only a skin disease. He was the first to connect pellagra to diet, claiming the cause was spoiled bread and polenta.  Another Italian physician, Cesare Lobroso, determined in 1869 that pellagra was caused by a poison present in spoiled corn, initiating the connection between corn and pellagra that would continue into the mid twentieth century.

When the disease appeared for the first time in American in 1902, it left doctors baffled. Experts were divided from the beginning of the outbreak—some suspected spoiled corn was the culprit, in keeping with Lobroso’s determination almost fifty years earlier, while others thought the disease was spread by insects or contaminated water. The one point of agreement was that pellagra was most prevalent among the poor. Early studies suggested that the disease was spread by some as yet unknown pathogen. In 1914, the US Public Health Service dispatched Dr. Joseph Goldberger, who had success fighting previous epidemics, to South Carolina to study the pellagra plague. His findings would cause a political tumult that would delay the needed methods to stop the disease for years.

 

Dr. Joseph Goldberger

Dr. Joseph Goldberger

The Three M’s

Dr. Goldberger examined institutions such as prisons and asylums were pellagra raged unchecked. He found that, while patients and inmates at these institutions often suffered from pellagra, their nurses and guards did so only rarely. If pellagra were infectious, this should not be the case. Dr. Goldberger concluded that the difference between the inmates and their caretakers lay in their diet. While guards and nurses had access to a greater variety of food, their charges’ diets primarily consisted of cornmeal, molasses, and small bits of fatty pork back. This was similar to the traditional diet of the Southern poor, called the three M’s: meal, molasses, and meat.

Extrapolating his results to the broader population, Dr. Goldberger realized that the traditional Southern diet itself was the cause of the epidemic, particularly among poor populations who did not have access to wider variety of foods. This revelation caused a ruckus among Southerners, especially the political class. The post Reconstruction South was still sensitive over its defeat in the Civil War, and saying that the cause of the horrific disease ravaging its population was due to economic factors was seen as a slight against Southern pride and the idea that the South would rise again to its former greatness.

Dr. Goldberg struggled against this blowback at first, but he found that the forces who favored the infectious theory of pellagra’s spread were too intransigent to be convinced. He devoted himself to figuring out what specific deficiency was behind the disease. He died of renal cancer in 1929 before finding that which he sought. The final revelation came in 1937, when it was found that niacin deficiency, among others, was the cause of pellagra. The subsequent enrichment of flour with niacin and other b vitamins virtually eliminated pellagra in the United States.

 

The law of unintended consequences

The question remains: what caused the pellagra epidemic to occur so suddenly in the early 20th century? There were likely multiple causes. It is a given that the poor Southern diet mixed with a reluctance to admit that the cultural touchstone were both factors in extending the epidemic. However, the diet was nothing new in the South, and while it is not entirely known how widespread pellagra was before 1902, there is no evidence of it being to epidemic proportions before the 20th century.

Looking to another, similar disease can shed some light on the beginning of the epidemic. Beriberi, a deficiency of the nutrient thiamin, became epidemic in the Far East in the 1880s, shortly after a new method for milling rice was developed.  Similarly, a new method of milling corn was developed around 1900. Called degermination, it removed the germ of the corn, resulting in a product that was more stable but lacking in many of the nutrients present in corn milled the traditional way. This explained then why pellagra was more common in institutions, where corn meal was the primary food source. It also explained why the disease was more common in mill workers, who ate corn meal shipped from the Midwest that had undergone the degermination process. It was less common among rural farmers, who ate corn prepared in traditional stone mills.

So, then it was a confluence of factors that brought about the pellagra epidemic. Cultural bias, technological innovation, and long standing tradition conspired to produce an epidemic that sickened millions and killed around 100,000. Largely forgotten today, the southern pellagra epidemic is a case study in both the importance of good science and the strength of tradition in the study of disease.

 

Sources:

Bollet, Alfred Jay. “Politics and Pellagra: The Epidemic of Pellagra in the U.S in the Early Twentieth Century.” The Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine 65 (1992) 211-221. Retrieved from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2589605/pdf/yjbm00051-0058.pdf

“History of Pellagra.” UAB Libraries. Reynolds-Finley Historical Library. Retrieved January 15, 2016. Retrieved from: https://www.uab.edu/reynolds/pellagra/history

Tuttle, Grace. “A Mysterious Epidemic: Pellagra in South Carolina.” Library.sc.edu. August 5, 2014. South Carolina Digital Newspaper Program. January 15, 2016. https://library.sc.edu/blogs/newspaper/2014/08/05/a-mysterious-epidemic-pellagra-in-south-carolina/

 

A Prophet Reborn as a Con Artist: The Strange Story of Moses of Crete

Moses Breaking the Tablets of the Law by Rembrandt.

Moses Breaking the Tablets of the Law by Rembrandt.

Every couple of years, a doomsday preacher makes headlines by announcing that the end of the world is near.  The majority (myself included) laugh them off as cranks, but a minority are at the very least afraid that they might have something, while an even smaller minority take their dire predictions seriously. When the day inevitably comes and goes without incident, the faithful are left to try and rationalize their prophet’s failure, while the bulk of his followers move on. Then the next doomsayer makes his prediction, and the cycle begins again.

The doomsday prophet trend is far from a modern phenomenon. Perhaps since humans have been able to conceive of the larger world and their place in it. Certainly there are many, many examples in history of doomsday prophets who have led their people to ruin and destruction in the name of misguided belief. This is not a topic explored much here on Oddly Historical, so I thought I might begin with a rather obscure false prophet from the 5th century CE. While not a doomsday prophet per se, he shared much in common with such modern day “holy” men: a messiah complex, a message that attracted a devoted following, actions that led to the destitution and/or demise of his followers, and a complete inability to take responsibility for his actions. His name was Moses of Crete, and in 448 CE he claimed he would lead the Jews of Crete to the Promised Land.

 

Moses, Reborn

Many devout today look to scripture to try and calculate when the end will come. There was a similar trend in the 5th century among the Jewish community, except rather than attempting to calculate the end of time, devoted Jews attempted to use the Talmud to calculate when their Messiah would come. The Jews had been scattered after the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70 CE after a Jewish revolt in Palestine. Many longed to rebuild what had been lost, and to have their Promised Land returned to them.

A man among the Cretan Diaspora claimed he could do just that. His origins have been lost to history, but he came out of obscurity to fulfill the Talmudic calculations of a Jewish messiah. He asserted that he was Moses. Not any Moses; the Moses, the Old Testament figure who led his people from the bonds of slavery to the Promised Land of Palestine.

Moses of Crete said he would do the same for the Jews of Crete. He traveled all over Crete, attracting followers all the while. He persuaded his followers to give up all of their property and follow him, promising that if they did so he would part the seas and lead them over dry land back to Jerusalem.

When the time came for the miraculous event, Moses led his faithful to a high cliff over the sea. What followed was a scene of horror: the foremost of the faithful threw themselves off the cliff into the seas below, smashing themselves on the rocks or drowning in the tumultuous seas. If it weren’t for fisherman nearby, more would have died. Those who survived returned to tell the remaining faithful of their prophet’s failure. When the enraged followers tried to find their former leader and punish him for his deception, they found he had slipped away without a trace. His disappearance, as sudden as his arrival, led many to believe that Moses of Crete had been a demon made flesh, bent on the destruction of the Cretan Jews. In reality, Moses was a con artist and a deceiver who, like his modern day counterparts, played on the vulnerabilities of his audience to bend them to his will. Diabolical he may have been, but his evil was very human.

 

Sources

Lendering, Jona. “Moses of Crete (448 CE).” Livius.org. January 30, 2016. http://www.livius.org/men-mh/messiah/messianic_claimants18.html

“Pseudo-Messiahs.” JewishEncyclopedia.com. 2002-2011. January 30, 2016. http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/11425