Author Archives: Andrew Kincaid

The Lake Nyos Tragedy

Lake Nyos two weeks after the tragedy--US Geological Survey.

Lake Nyos two weeks after the tragedy–US Geological Survey.

Natural disasters come in many forms.  From tornadoes, to hurricanes, to volcanic eruptions and everything in between, Mother Nature has many ways to unleash her fury on humanity.  Most types of natural disasters come with at least some sort of warning.  For example, bad storms can presage a tornado, and hurricanes can be predicated days ahead of time.

However, there is one subset of disaster that occurs with little or no warning.  It is silent, invisible, and deadly.  Such an event happened in the environs around Lake Nyos in Cameroon, Africa, on August 21, 1986, when the lake released a deadly cloud of CO2 that killed over 1700 people.

Lake Nyos sits in the crater of an extinct volcano.  Its lower levels are rich in CO2 bubbling up from the remnants of the volcano.  This typically was not a problem, as the heavier waters of the surface layers kept the gas rich deeper waters under enough pressure that it was kept in solution.  However, in the days leading up to the tragedy, there had been a lot of rain.  This cooler water was denser than the warmer lake water, and essentially overturned the upper layers of the lake, essentially flip-flopping the upper and lower layers of the lake.  This made the carbon dioxide rich lower layers rise to the surface and release the deadly gas all at once.

The gaseous cloud quickly swamped the shores of the lake and quickly traveled downhill to the surrounding villages, where people asleep in bed were suffocated without even knowing what had happened.  Those who were awake found themselves weak and disoriented.  Some 1700 people, 3000 cattle, and innumerable wild animals died in the tragic event.

These days, Lake Nyos is quiet.  French scientists installed plastic piping in the bottom of the lake to slowly vent the deadly gasses that accumulate in the depths.  This has changed the lake from its former pristine blue color to a rusty red, but that is a small price to pay for preventing the tragedy of 1986 from happening again.

 

Sources:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/august/21/newsid_3380000/3380803.stm

Cameroon's Lake Nyos Gas Burst: 30 Years Later

http://www.geology.sdsu.edu/how_volcanoes_work/Nyos.html

The Fake Assassination of Queen Elizabeth II

By ElizabethIItroopingcolour.jpg: Sandpiperderivative work: SilkTork (talk) - ElizabethIItroopingcolour.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9495405

By ElizabethIItroopingcolour.jpg: Sandpiperderivative work: SilkTork (talk) – ElizabethIItroopingcolour.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9495405

On December 9, 1980, the world was rocked by the assassination of John Lennon by the deranged Mark David Chapman, an act which will give the latter eternal infamy for snuffing out the light of a musical genius.  Only four months later on March 30, 1981, John Hinckley Jr. attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan.  He wounded the President and three secret service agents.  James Brady, one of the wounded agents, died in 2014 due to complications directly stemming from the wound he received in 1981.  President Reagan himself came close to death, but ultimately survived.  The perpetrator became infamous not only for his attempt on the President’s life, but for the deranged reason he perpetrated the act: he was stalking the actress Jodie Foster, and he thought assassinating the President would impress her enough that she would fall in love with him.

No doubt both individuals were twisted, and their acts inspired feverish coverage in the media that put their names on lips around the world.  This inspired another twisted individual to engage in an attempted assassination that is largely forgotten today, but had circumstances been different it might have shook the world a third time and led to another famous name being linked in infamy to the person who violently snuffed out their life.  The target was none other than Queen Elizabeth II, and the assailant was a teenager named Marcus Simon Sarjeant, who wanted to become “The most famous teenager in the world.”

 

The Fake Assassination

On June 13, 1981, Queen Elizabeth II was participating in a parade to kick off the Trooping the Colour ceremony.  Mounted on her favorite horse, the then 19 year old Burmese, she had only been riding for 15 minutes from Buckingham Palace when a man among the crowd, 17-year old Marcus Sarjeant, leveled a pistol at the monarch and fired off six shots.  Fortunately for the Queen, the weapon was a starting pistol loaded with blank rounds.  Guardsmen and police piled on to the would-be assassin.  As this was happening, the Queen calmed her started horse, retaining the cool, calm demeanor befitting a British monarch during the whole affair.  The procession continued, and the Queen returned to Buckingham Palace by the same route, this time with tighter security.

 

A Bizarre Plot

Marcus Sarjeant was a former air cadet from Folkestone, Kent.  The youth had originally planned to kill the Queen, but he was unable to obtain an actual fire arm.  His plan then changed to using a starting pistol to startle the Queen as she rode by, perhaps hoping her horse would throw her in the process.  When asked why he fired on the Queen with blanks, he replied “I wanted to be famous.  I wanted to be a somebody.”

Sarjeant was later sentenced to five years in prison under the 1842 Treason Act.  The teen pleaded guilty to the crime and apologized, but the judge saw fit to sentence him for five years due to the “public outrage” the youth had inspired.  The investigation into the matter turned up proof that Sarjeant was fascinated by assassinations and had followed the attempt on Reagan’s life closely.  Sarjeant served three years in a mental institution before being released.  Upon release, he changed his name and began a new life, apparently abandoning his quest for infamy.

 

Sources:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/june/13/newsid_2512000/2512333.stm

http://news.sky.com/story/guard-i-saw-shots-being-fired-at-queen-10310327

https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=b2czAAAAIBAJ&sjid=SDIHAAAAIBAJ&pg=5467,1663668&dq=marcus+sarjeant+outrage&hl=en

Profane vampire burials

The Vampire, Philip Burne-Jones, 1897

The Vampire, Philip Burne-Jones, 1897

People in every time and place have harbored fears of the restless dead.  In medieval England, suicides were given profane burials at crossroads to prevent their tormented spirits from returning to wreak havoc on the community.  In Haiti, people live in fear of being made into a zombie, one of the living dead in the thrall of a witchdoctor.  And even today in 21st century America, many fear the modern zombie, a walking incarnation of death and pestilence.

But a far older folkloric beast has haunted the feverish dreams of humanity through the ages: the vampire.  While the stories vary from culture to culture, the basic concept is the same: a vampire is a person who came back to life after dying, and needs the blood of the living to continue its unholy existence.  These beings are, for the most part, regarded as mere superstition today; subjects of horror movies and tv series, nothing more.  But as recently as the 19th century, the belief in vampires was very real and they were regarded by many as an urgent threat to the community.  The actions superstitious locals took to vanquish this evil remain in various burial sites throughout Europe and in New England, where profane burials of suspected vampires continue to be uncovered.

 

 Macabre Methods

Lithograph depicting a vampire exhumation.

Lithograph depicting a vampire exhumation.

Skeletons that underwent profane burials meant to protect the community from vampires have been discovered in Poland, Italy, Bulgaria, and New England.  The macabre methods used to destroy the undead monsters varied from country to country.  In Italy, corpses tend to be found with bricks jammed into their mouths, to prevent them from feeding on the living.  In Poland and Bulgaria, the methodology was more variable.  The ancient Slavic custom for dealing with suspected vampires was to sever the corpse’s head and lay it on or between its legs.

Another common method would be more familiar to modern audiences: the vampire was staked through the heart, but with a metal rode rather than a wooden stake.  Skeletons have also been found buried with a sickle over their neck, so when they rise they would decapitate themselves.   Some bodies were buried face down, so that when the corpse reanimated it would dig deeper in the earth rather than be able to emerge and assault the living.  Some suspected vampires might be buried in coffins rather than winding sheets, so that they would have a harder time escaping.  In New England, a man was found with his head and upper leg bones arranged in a skull and cross-bone pattern.

 

Disease, Death, and Decomposition

While these methods may seem bizarre and gruesome to modern eyes, in the Middle Ages up through the 19th century, many believed they were the only way to protect their community from destruction.  Knowledge of the causes of epidemic disease was non-existent, and such illnesses ran rampant.  Two ailments in particular seem linked to the legend of the vampire: rabies and tuberculosis.

Rabies Virus Particles

Rabies Virus Particles

Rabies is a virus that spreads via bodily fluids, particularly the saliva of infected animals.  It is a mammalian virus, typically spread to humans by dogs, bats, and wolves.  While the virus can be dormant for long periods of time, when it becomes symptomatic death is all but assured.  It begins with flu like symptoms, but in late stages the symptoms become more extreme and include: hydrophobia (aversion to water), sensitivity to light, aggression, anxiety, delirium, increased saliva production, and eventually, death.  It is thought that some of the folklore around vampires developed after outbreaks of rabies, when deranged individuals suffering the late stages of the infection could be found wandering at night due to their light sensitivity, showing aggressive behavior.  It is interesting to note that vampires were often reported to shape shift into wolves and bats, two animals associated with the transmission of rabies.

The bacteria that causes Tuberculosis.

The bacteria that causes Tuberculosis.

Tuberculosis is perhaps more strongly linked to vampire folklore; after all, rabies has been pretty well known to humans for thousands of years, and while the idea of a virus being responsible was a mystery, people knew that getting bit by a rabid animal caused rabies.  Tuberculosis was more mysterious, as its causes could not be as well documented by medical professionals of the day.

Tuberculosis is an airborne bacteria that typically infects the lungs.  Onset of symptoms could take months, beginning with a fever and leading to coughing, fatigue, weight loss, chills, and night sweats.  It was typically called consumption, because the victims of the disease would typically lose weight, fading way, appearing to be “consumed.”  It was not much of a leap to connect the appearance of one infected with TB to that of a person drained of blood, and so the thought arose that someone was stealing their blood.  In addition, TB doesn’t spread as readily as, say influenza.  It is more likely to spread to people who are in constant contact with an individual, such as family or caretakers.  This might explain one piece of vampire folklore that is often overlooked in the modern world: Old World vampires seemed to torment their families in particular, rather than any random stranger.

So, to illustrate how a vampire panic might have begun, say that one member of a family came down with TB.  They grew progressively sicker and sicker, only to pass away.  Then, another family member falls ill with the same ailment perhaps weeks or months after the original death.  If vampirism was suspected, the family might dig up the body of the deceased.  Decomposition was not well understood back then, so they might see a body with blood around its mouth that was pushed out by gasses generated by decomposition.  It would appear then that the body had been “feeding,” reinforcing the belief in vampires by a combination of observation and ignorance. The next step would be to ritually desecrate the body in order to protect the family and the rest of the family from the undead menace.  This, of course, would do nothing to actually stem the tide of infection, but it would give some sense of control over the unknown, and in that sense the rituals were effective.

 

Enduring Beliefs

Bela Lugosi as Dracula in the 1931 classic.  His depiction of the infamous vampire brought vampires into the main stream and changed forever how they were viewed.

Bela Lugosi as Dracula in the 1931 classic. His depiction of the infamous vampire brought vampires into the main stream and changed forever how they were viewed.

There is still much to learn about the connection between vampire folklore, profane burials, and epidemic disease.  Not every desecrated body is found to have suffered from a TB or any known disease that can be discerned from their remains.  Indeed, plenty have been found who are not observably different from any other skeleton buried around them.  It is unclear then what the exact criteria were that made a person prone to becoming a vampire.  It is clear that generally speaking, becoming a vampire was something that happened to someone, rather than something they did deliberately.  In other words, their dead bodies become taken over by some other entity, rather than it being some evil inherent in the person themselves.  But this does somewhat run counter to the evidence from Poland that suggests that some who suffered desecration had emigrated from other parts of Europe; so, social class and standing in the community played some role in determining who was a vampire and who wasn’t.  It remains to be seen then exactly what people believed about vampires then, and how they conceived of what today are considered ghoulish acts of desecration.

However, the belief in vampires is not limited to the distant past.  Plenty of people today seem to believe in the undead.  As recently as the mid 2000s, reports have come out of Romania of villagers disinterring the body of a suspected vampire and burning its heart.  There are even those who embrace vampirism as a lifestyle.  Some feed on blood, human or animal, while others are “psychic” vampires who believe they feed on the psychic energy of the living.  Strange, perhaps, but these facts do attest to the lasting impact that vampires have on the human psyche.  They appeal to something primal in the mind, the innate fear of death we call carry.  Because of that, vampires will remain a part of human culture for time immemorial.

 

Sources:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/bulgaria/11153923/Vampire-grave-found-in-Bulgaria.html

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/07/130715-vampire-archaeology-burial-exorcism-anthropology-grave/

http://www.nydailynews.com/news/world/vampire-burial-site-discovered-poland-article-1.1806863

http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/how-fear-undead-led-vampire-burials-sick-murdered-those-born-sign-beast-1526467

http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0113564

Atlantis of the Sands: The Legendary Land of Riches

Atlantis of the Sands is the legendary lost city of Southern Arabia. Wikimedia commons. Public domain.

Atlantis of the Sands is the legendary lost city of Southern Arabia. Wikimedia commons. Public domain.

Atlantis of the Sands is a fabled lost city that supposedly existed once long ago along a busy trade route in Arabia. Laden with riches of red silver ore, splendors of large markets, and frankincense as valuable as gold, it may have been a huge emporium and stopping point for merchants. Grand legends told over the years have inspired searches that led to interesting discoveries. It now appears the lost city may have been more than just a legend after all.

Over the last several centuries, this mysterious place has attracted scholars and archaeologists who have attempted to discover its true location. Atlantis of the Sands acquired its nickname because, like its counterpart of the sea, there have been so many grand stories and people who have tried to find it. The original names for the legendary place are Ubar, Wabar or Iram.

Atlantis of the Sands is presumed to have been founded circa 3000 B.C. Located on the banks of a river that no longer exists, the city was a popular destination due to its vast trade markets, availability of resources and abundance of water. Legends describe large walls that boasted towering pillars. This “many towered city,” as described in the Koran, contained palaces and impressive temples. The Koran also attested to the uniqueness of the pillared city: “[Iram]…whose like had not been built in the entire land.”

Ranulph Fiennes wrote and published the book “Atlantis of the Sands: The Search for the Lost City of Ubar” in 1992, which helped to make it quite famous. Bedouin people who live in the deserts say that this city was lost in the Arabian sands when a huge catastrophic disaster occurred.

 

In Search of Atlantis of the Sands

Archaeological site of Ubar. Source: http://zagadki-istorii.ru/artefakt-43.html

Archaeological site of Ubar. Source: http://zagadki-istorii.ru/artefakt-43.html

Archaeologists have attempted to locate the city of Ubar using ancient maps and descriptions from legendary tales. Several inconclusive sightings only served to further the mystery of whether or not the Atlantis of the Sands really existed.

Research into the city of Ubar places the time of its destruction at somewhere around 100 C.E. Many experts think that the people there may have discovered how to farm frankincense, which was highly valuable and produced in the southern Arabian Desert. This theory is supported by the idea that the supposed location for Ubar is along one of the well-known trade routes of the time.

 

Bertram Thomas and T.E. Lawrence

Remains of Ubar. Source: Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons

Remains of Ubar. Source: Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons

There have been a number of explorers who have attempted to find the city, including Bertram Thomas, an Englishman. He embarked on an expedition in 1930 to locate Ubar, based on previous research by other explorers. It was Thomas’ notes and research in large part that had an influence on the research of T.E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia. He was an archaeologist, military officer, and diplomat in the near east region. It may have been Lawrence who first described Ubar as Atlantis of the Sands. He had dreams of finding it, but he died unexpectedly in a motorcycle accident.

As Thomas began his exploration, he was told many stories about the area by Bedouin guides. They emphasized that it was dangerous to venture there. Additionally, they stated that the city had been destroyed because of the immorality of the people who had lived there, and that if they continued on their journey they would bring evil upon themselves. Thomas was not deterred by these stories, but he died before he could find the city of Ubar. He did, however, find old camel tracks.

 

The Nicholas Clapp Team

Depiction of the Atlantis of the Sands. Source: Pixabay, public domain.

Depiction of the Atlantis of the Sands. Source: Pixabay, public domain.

In the late 1980s the film-maker and amateur archaeologist, Nicholas Clapp, led an expedition to find Ubar based on the work of Bertram Thomas. He utilized the latest research, NASA satellite images, and ancient maps created by previous explorers. Among the members of the Clapp expedition was Ranulph Fiennes, who subsequently wrote the Atlantis of the Sands book.

The NASA images of the Rub ‘al Khali desert were able to see below the surface sand to identify well-worn roads that merchants on camelback had used for trade long ago. Interestingly, the tracks led to one place now called Shisr. The Clapp team decided to investigate and they discovered an ancient structure underneath a 300 year old building. They determined that this was some type of fortress that stood at the heart of a settlement. Pottery, coins, and evidence of many ancient fire pits dotted the area. Research indicates the artifacts date back to at least 2800 BC.

The fortress may have served as the king’s palace and a processing facility for frankincense. It may have also provided protection in times of danger. Eight walls circled the central building and a tower about 30 feet high stood at each corner. Clapp determined that this must be the ancient city of Ubar.

Unfortunately, a great deal of the fortress had fallen into a limestone sinkhole, and they were unable to excavate the rest of it. Fiennes surmised in his book that Ubar was really once a place called “Omanum Emporium” shown on ancient maps of Southern Arabia.

Like so many ancient legends, there are still more questions than answers. Has Atlantis of the Sands been found? Rather than having been smitten by God, did it fall into a giant sinkhole? For now, the legend is still alive, and only the sands of time will tell whether the vast desert will be relinquishing its secrets of this magnificent fabled city.

For more strange mysteries from the past, visit Historicmysteries.com.

Sources:

Atlantis of the Sands

http://www.islam101.com/archeology/ubar.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atlantis_of_the_Sands

http://articles.latimes.com/1992-02-05/news/mn-1192_1_lost-city/2

The Somerton Man: Australia’s Most Baffling Unsolved Case

Police photo of the Somerton Man.

Police photo of the Somerton Man.

The Black Dahlia. Jack the Ripper. The Zodiac Killings. JonBenet Ramsey. The Axeman of New Orleans.

These are some of the most captivating unsolved murder mysteries of all time and they share a common thread: all of the victims are known.

The Tamam Shud, also known as the Somerton Man, case is different. In this instance, the victim is an unknown man with some mysterious items in his possession and no known cause of death.

 

Somerton Beach

 On November 30th, 1948, a couple went for a walk along Somerton Beach in Adelaide, Australia, around sunset. During their walk, they found a man lying in the sand, smoking a cigarette. His head was propped up against the seawall near a set of stairs leading to the nearby road and homes.

Somerton Beach. The place where the victim's body was found is marked with a black X.

Somerton Beach. The place where the victim’s body was found is marked with a black X.

On a warm summer day like this, the couple, John Lyons and his wife, believed the man to be a drunk who stumbled down the stairs. They thought nothing much about the man being dressed in a suit with highly polished shoes.

The couple continued on their walk. A half-hour later, they returned to the scene to find the man lying motionless in the same position they’d found him earlier. Mosquitoes buzzed around his face. The couple joked that he was “dead to the world” drunk.

The next morning, John Lyons learned the man wasn’t dead drunk the night before. He was dead. Lyons saw a commotion on the beach where the man laid the night before and went to investigate the scene.

He found the man lying in the same position as yesterday. There was a half-smoked cigarette resting on the dead man’s collar.

Authorities took the dead man to the Royal Adelaide Hospital where time of death was put at 2 am on December 1st, seven hours after John Lyons discovered him on the beach.

 

The Somerton Man’s Possessions & Autopsy

The Somerton Man's suitcase and personal effects.

The Somerton Man’s suitcase and personal effects.

A full autopsy was performed on December 2nd, but no cause of death was established. It was determined that his pupils were smaller than normal and his spleen was three times larger than normal. His liver was filled with congested blood. His calves and feet resembled those of a ballet dancer.

The man’s last meal was a pasty. Multiple tests of blood and organ tissue failed to find any source of the poison originally believed to be the cause of death.

The man’s identity could not be determined from the autopsy.

The items in Somerton Man’s possession were equally notable for what was found as for what wasn’t.

Investigators found two combs, some matches, a pack of chewing gum, and a pack of Army Club brand cigarettes. Seven of the cigarettes had been replaced by a pricier brand called Kensitas. He had tickets from Adelaide to the beach, explaining how he arrived.

There was no cash or coin, no wallet, no form of ID.

The pocket had been repaired with orange thread yet all of the brand labels had been removed from his clothing.

Fingerprints of the Somerton Man were taken and circulated around the world, but no one could identify the man definitively.

 

The Suitcase and the Scrap of Paper

 On January 12th, 1949, South Australia police discovered a suitcase that belonged to the Somerton Man at the Adelaide rail station. It had been in the station’s possession since November 30th.

Once again, the Somerton Man’s possessions led to more questions than answers. Police discovered the orange thread used to darn the pocket. They discovered a stencil kit used to stencil cargo before shipment. There was a table knife with the handle altered. There was a feather stitched jacket determined to be American in origin.

The suitcase bore no stickers or tags. The labels had been removed from all but three pieces of clothing. The labels left read “Kean” and “T. Keane”, but these clues led to Somerton Man’s identity.

A second search of Somerton Man’s possessions in April 1949 by John Cleland led to the most famous clue in the case. John Cleland’s investigation found a scrap of tightly rolled paper inside a small watch fob packet in Somerton Man’s pants. The original investigation had overlooked the fob pocket.

Police photo of the scrap of paper found among the Somerton Man's belongings.

Police photo of the scrap of paper found among the Somerton Man’s belongings.

Cleland opened up the piece of paper and discovered two words: Tamam Shad.  In English, “It is ended.” These are the last words of the English version of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Khayyam’s rubiayat’s had become popular in Australia during World War II with copies being produced throughout the country.

The police took this clue to mean this was a suicide, rather than a murder. An official murder investigation was never opened. Instead, this was treated as a missing person’s investigation.

 

The Rubaiyat

 The case took a new turn when a copy of the Rubaiyat was brought to the Adelaide police on July 23rd, 1949. A man brought the book into the station, claiming that it had been in his car. The book had been found in the backseat by the man’s brother-in-law during a drive in December and was placed in the car’s glove compartment.

When the man opened the book, he found the last page missing. Prompted by a newspaper article, he brought the book to the police where Detective Sergeant (D.S.) Lionel Leane took possession of it.

In the back of the book, D.S. Leane found a phone number penciled into the cover. There were some capital letters pressed into the cover as well, but the police had a new lead in the case.

The phone number was unlisted but belonged to a nurse nicknamed Jestyn. Her name was never publicly released by the police. She lived a block away from where Somerton Man’s body was found on the beach.

Jestyn was an unwed mother of a 2-year-old named Robin in 1949, though she was living with her future husband at the time. She admitted to giving a copy of the Rubaiyat to a man named Alfred Boxall during World War II as a gift.

Police initially believed that Boxall would turn out to be the Somerton Man, but he was quite alive when they arrived to speak with him. He presented the police with his copy of the Rubaiyat, completely intact with Jestyn’s inscription to him.

Police brought Jestyn in a year later, in 1950, to question her again. She had no recollection of any phone call with Somerton Man. She was shown photos of the Somerton Man. D.S. Leade’s notes state that she was “completely taken back, to the point of giving the appearance that she was about to faint.”

Despite her reaction to the photos, Jestyn denied that she knew the man.

The exact copy of the Somerton Man’s Rubiayat has never been located.

 

SomertonManCodeThe Code

The most tantalizing clue in this case is the code D.S. Leane discovered in the back of the book in capital letters. The code was released to the public, sparking a flurry of amateur codebreakers. Naval Intelligence in Australia attempted to break the code as well, but without success.

The code was determined to read:

WRGOABABD

MLIAOI

WTBIMPANETP

MLIABOAIAQC

ITTMTSAMSTGAB

However, the Australian Navy determined in the 1950s that the code is unbreakable due to the limited sample size. They believed the code to be in English and the letters to represent the first letter of a word.

Attempts in the last few years by Derek Abbott, a professor of Electrical & Electronic Engineering at the University of Adelaide, using computers to decipher the code have been limited by the processing power of a single computer. A single attempt to search for phrases using 5 letters, MLIAB, took over 18 hours to generate a single result.

Professor Abbot has reached out to Google for permission to access their information directly, but Google has refused as of publication.

 

The Prevailing Theories

 There are two prevailing theories regarding the fate of the Somerton Man.

Theory 1: The Somerton Man was the father of Jestyn’s son, Robin. This theory is based on rare genetic similarities between the Somerton Man and Robin, such as the shape of the teeth and the ears. DNA testing has shown that Robin has American relatives.

The theory suggests that Jestyn, unwed at the time, had a child with the Somerton Man. She kept the father a secret when she met her future husband. She then told the Somerton Man that she could no longer allow him to see his child. Devastated, the Somerton Man took his own life using an exotic poison that was undiscovered in the original testing.

Theory 2: The Somerton Man was a spy working for another nation. The code in the book is believed to be a secret message for his spymaster. However, Somerton Man was caught and poisoned by the cigarettes he was smoking.

Since the man was a spy, no nation has come forward to claim him as their agent, even after all this time.

Both theories have their merits, but without more evidence, the identity of the Somerton Man will remain unknown.

 

Skye Vitiritti is a writer of historical fiction and horror novels. Her latest work, My Eternal Crusade: Jerusalem 1183, comes out on March 1, 2017. You can follow her on Twitter @TheWriterSkye or on her website, www.skyevitiritti.com

 

Sources:

Balint, R. (2010) The Somerton Man: An Unsolved History. Retrieved from http://epress.lib.uts.edu.au/journals/index.php/csrj/article/view/1520

 

Dash, M. (2011, August 12) The Body on Somerton Beach. Retrieved from http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-body-on-somerton-beach-50795611/

 

Zyga, L. (2015, June 2) After years of forencis investigation, Somerton Man’s identity remains a mystery (Part 1: History and Code). Retrieved from https://phys.org/news/2015-06-years-forensic-somerton-identity-mystery.html

 

Zyga, L. (2015, June 3) After years of forencis investigation, Somerton Man’s identity remains a mystery (Part 2: DNA, isotopes, and autopsy). Retrieved from https://phys.org/news/2015-06-years-forensic-somerton-identity-mystery_1.html

When the Dead Walked in Haiti: The Strange Story of Clairvius Narcisse

Zombies from the George Romero classic, Night of the Living Dead.

Zombies from the George Romero classic, Night of the Living Dead.

Zombies have taken over the cultural zeitgeist in recent years. They are the go to horror movie monster, dominating media from video games to commercials to TV shows.  Even the government has jumped on the bandwagon, using the phenomena as a way to promote disaster preparedness.  It has gotten to the point that there are some who seriously believe that an outbreak of zombies like the ones seen in movies could happen in reality.

However, this is not to say that zombies are not real, in a sense. The modern zombie cultural phenomenon can trace its origins back to George Romero’s classic 1968 B-movie, Night of the Living Dead.  The low-budget flick depicted a horde of “ghouls,” they were never once called zombies in the movie, attacking hapless victims trapped in a rural farm house.  While Night of the Living Dead was the first modern zombie movie, it was not the first zombie movie.  That honor goes to the 1932 Universal pictures film, White Zombie, starring Bela Lugosi as a sorcerer with a stable full of voodoo zombies to do his bidding.  This movie was the Hollywood interpretation of a longstanding Haitian folk tradition, where bokors or witch doctors use foul magic to enslave the souls of victims.  Far from mere superstition, the voodoo zombie phenomenon was and may still be a very real reality in Haiti, where the dead are said to walk among the living.

 

Clairvius_Narcisse_

Clairvius Narcisse

Clairvius Narcisse, a Modern Zombie?

On April 30th, 1962, a man by the name of Clairvius Narcisse checked himself into the Albert Scheitzer Hospital in Deschapelle, Haiti.  Narcisse had been suffering fevers and body aches leading up to his visit to the hospital, but the tipping point was when he began to cough up blood.  Upon being admitted to the hospital, Narcisse’s condition went downhill rapidly.  He began to suffer from a variety of symptoms: pulmonary edema, hypothermia, trouble breathing, hypotension, and digestive problems.  At one point, his lips turned blue, and he reported that his entire body was tingling.  By May 2nd, Narcisse was pronounced dead by an American doctor and an American-trained doctor, both who were baffled by the man’s sudden rapid deterioration.  His oldest sister identified his body, and Clairvius Narcisse was laid to rest the next day, or so the Narcisse family thought.

Eighteen years later, Narcisse was discovered by his sister Angelina in a village market place, when he approached her claiming to be her long dead brother.  He identified himself with a childhood nickname unknown outside of close family circles, and a subsequent investigation with help from the Narcisse family proved that the man claiming to be Clairvius Narcisse knew other things about the family not known by outsiders.  For all intents and purposes, the man claiming to be Claivius Narcisse was indeed who he said he was.  His story was a strange and shocking one: he claimed to have been turned into a zombie.

 

A Wild Story

According to Narcisse, he was conscious but unable to move through the whole ordeal of being declared dead, being zipped into a body bag, and even during his burial.  Sometime later, Narcisse claimed he was dug out of his grave by a bokor and his helpers, who beat him senseless and transported him to a sugar plantation.  Once on the plantation, the hapless Narcisse and other zombies would labor from sunup to sundown, only stopping for one small meal a day.  This time was passed in a dream-like state, and his memories of the two years he spent on the plantation were fuzzy.  His imprisonment came to an end one day when a fellow zombie rebelled and killed the bokor with a hoe.  Free from the thrall of the witchdoctor, the zombies then escaped.  Narcisse wandered the Haitian countryside for the next 16 years, attempting unsuccessfully to contact his family.  He only returned home after his brother’s death, believing his brother was responsible for the ordeal.

 

The Magic of the Bokors

It is easy to dismiss Clairvius Narcisse’s wild story as a fraud, but to do so would be to show a grave misunderstanding of both human psychology in general and the Haitian culture in particular.  The belief in zombies dates back something like five hundred years in Haiti, and stems from much older African spiritual beliefs .

The word zombie comes from the word Nzambi, meaning “spirit of a dead person.”  This complex folkloric tradition was transported to Haiti with slaves, mixing with Catholic beliefs and other fragments of spiritual traditions to become voodoo.  Haitian slaves brought up in this milieu in the 1600’s believed that upon death their spirits would return to an idealized Africa, but those who committed suicide to escape the horrors of slavery would become zombies, trapped in undeath and bound to an even more horrific form of slavery than that they endured in life.

The Slave Revolt of 1791, the beginning of the Haitian Revolution.

The Slave Revolt of 1791, the beginning of the Haitian Revolution.

After the Haitian Revolution of 1804, the French were driven from the country, and slavery as it had been practiced for over 200 years came to an end.  The practice cast a long shadow though, manifesting in the renewed zombie folklore, where the voodoo bokor took a prominent role, becoming the ones who reanimated corpses with their magic and used them as slave labor.  In a sense, slavery under the French left an indelible imprint on the soul of Haiti, a lingering fear that found its expression in the pervasive belief in zombies.

This is the cultural environment that Clairvius Narcisse grew up in.  He would have known what zombies were, and what it meant to be branded as a zombie; namely, to be labeled a social pariah and outcast. He would have had no reason to lie about his experiences.  With the possibility of fraud discounted, the unsettling explanation for the strange story is that there might well be something to the stories of zombies.  When Dr. Nathan Kline, a psychopharmacologist heard of the case, he sought to verify that Narcisse was who he claimed, and proving that, went on to attempt to figure out what happened.  He dispatched Harvard graduate student Wade Davis to Haiti to find what substance the bokors used to create their undead servants.

 

Zombie Powder and Datura: Ingredients for Zombification

A stuffed specimen of a pufferfish from circa 1710.

A stuffed specimen of a pufferfish from circa 1710.

Davis was able to secure samples of zombie powder from several bokors.  Their recipes for the concoction varied, but three ingredients were constants: ground human bones, plants with irritating hairs, and dried pufferfish.  The bones and plant hairs were meant to irritate the skin of victims, causing them to scratch and open up small wounds that would force the active ingredient of the powder into their blood streams.  The active ingredient is believed to be tetrodotoxin, a deadly poison found in the skin and organs of the pufferfish.  Five hundred times more powerful than cyanide, the poison blocks nerve transmissions, resulting in the same symptoms Clairvius Narcisse suffered in the hospital on the day he was declared dead.  Depending on the dosage, it also causes a state of paralysis that is difficult to distinguish from actual death. However, the victim is fully lucid during the ordeal.

The zombie powder would be blown into the victims face, or applied to the skin on open wounds.  Sometimes, due to the variance of the amount of tetrodotoxin between individual pufferfish, several applications were needed to generate the desired effects. In these cases, the powder could be surreptitiously put into the victim’s clothing.

Once the victim enters into the paralyzed state and is buried alive, the bokor then goes to the grave site and digs up the “corpse,” who has perhaps suffered some brain damage due to oxygen deprivation and most certainly has suffered psychological trauma during the entire ordeal.  These factors can make the newly unearthed zombie more pliable, but the sure-fire next step for a bokor is to feed his new undead servant a paste of sweet potatoes, cane syrup, and Datura, the zombie cucumber.  Datura contains atropine and scopolamine, hallucinogens that induce a variety of psychological effects such as confusion, psychosis, and amnesia.  The hallucinogenic brew keeps the victim pliant to the will of the bokor.  To further sap the strength and will of the zombie, they are fed a salt-free diet.

 

Zombification: the Ultimate Punishment?

Haiti is a tiny country situated at the end of an island. Land is at a premium, and land rights are taken very seriously. By Rémi Kaupp - Own work. Sources of data:NASA SRTM3 for terrain (public domain);NASA SWBDfor coastlines and lakesNGDC ETOPO1 for bathymetry (public domain);NGDC World Data Bank IIfor borders and rivers (public domain);VMap-0for miscellaneous data (public domain);UN map of Haiti for checking, 2008Locator map: File:Karibik Haiti Position.png.Created using this tutorial by User:Sting., GFDL,

Haiti is a tiny country situated at the end of an island. Land is at a premium, and land rights are taken very seriously.
By Rémi Kaupp – Own work. Sources of data:NASA SRTM3 for terrain (public domain);NASA SWBDfor coastlines and lakesNGDC ETOPO1 for bathymetry (public domain);NGDC World Data Bank IIfor borders and rivers (public domain);VMap-0for miscellaneous data (public domain);UN map of Haiti for checking, 2008Locator map: File:Karibik Haiti Position.png.Created using this tutorial by User:Sting., GFDL,

Haitian folklore claims that the bokors used their zombies as slaves to perform free labor on their plantations.  However, people who go through the ordeal of zombification are not likely to make the best manual laborers.  Many would be more or less vegetables, depending how long they were underground, and those who weren’t would be suffering the effects of Datura and might well be out of their minds.  It is clear from Narcisse’s account that bokors would extract physical labor from their slaves, but given the high unemployment rate in Haiti both then (and now,) cheap labor not suffering under the effects of zombification was not in short supply.  If this was the case, there was little economic incentive to turn someone into a zombie. If that were the case, zombies would be mass produced.

The motivation to create zombies, far from being for economic reasons, stems from the social norms of Haitian culture.  Rooted in ancient memories of the horrors of slavery, to become a zombie is to become the ultimate slave.  It is to literally lose one’s self, and to become an automaton of flesh at the beck and call of another.  Zombies are not made to create a labor force, but rather to punish those who break the social norms.  It is the ultimate punishment for those who refuse to play by society’s rules.

A good example of this is Clairvius Narcisse himself.  Due to his extraordinary story, it is natural to see him in a sympathetic light, but those who knew Narcisse before his untimely death likely would not have shared the sentiment.  Narcisse was a difficult man to deal with, to say the least.  He regularly fought with family members.  He fathered children out of wedlock and refused to be responsible for them.  He became wealthy at the expense of others, and drew much jealousy in his village for being among the first to upgrade his house from a thatch roof to a tin roof.

None of this in itself warranted the punishment of zombification, but his most serious infraction came when he refused to give up his share of the family land to his brother, who was trying to support a family.  Haitians, living on an island nation that has historically relied primarily on agriculture to support itself, take matters involving land rights very seriously.  They could quite literally be life or death for a family who cannot access land needed to support itself.  So, when Narcisse refused to give his land to his brother who was in need, he crossed a line and his punishment was to be turned into a zombie.

 

Zombies:  A Haitian Phenomenon

It is clear from the story of Clairvius Narcisse and others that the zombie phenomenon is very real in Haiti.  However, this does not mean that zombie-phobes out there need to hole up in their zombie apocalypse bunker just yet.  Zombies in Haiti stem from a deeply rooted cultural system that grew out of the horrors of slavery and colonialism.  It is an outgrowth of the Haitian psyche and the mish-mash of cultural, spiritual, and religious influences that came together in the tiny island nation.

Put short, zombies can only happen in Haiti.  Certainly, dosing an American with tetrodotoxin and then dosing them with Datura would induce the medical effects noted earlier in the article, but without growing up in the cultural context of Haiti, the effects would be limited to their physical and psychological components.  They would lack the spiritual and social connotations they have for someone brought up in a culture who believes deeply and wholeheartedly in zombies.  To Clairvius, and other poor souls who have fallen victim to zombification, the process is the culmination of their deepest cultural anxieties.  The horror they must have felt would have been increased to the nth degree compared to that of an outsider, because in their minds they would suffering the worst fate a person could suffer: losing their soul and becoming a mindless slave.

In the end, zombies can be seen as a product of a culture deeply influenced by slavery, rather than the product of magic or sorcery.  While the pharmacological factors at work in the process cannot be ignored, in the end a person becomes a zombie in their own mind.  The rituals and medications given simply act as vehicles who bring the cultural belief embedded into the person’s mind into their reality.  It is not clear whether the practice continues in modern Haiti.  As secret and taboo as the ritual was, it is very possible that zombies are still being created in remote parts of Haiti even today, unbeknownst to the outside world.

 

Sources:

Atwill, Mark.  Haitian Zombies.  Isciencemag.co.uk. January 30, 2014. I, Science. February 5, 2017. Retrieved from: http://www.isciencemag.co.uk/features/haitian-zombies/

Ginalis, Elizabeth. Zombification Process. Sites.duke.edu. 2014. Nathan S. Kline’s Zombi in Haiti. February 5. 2017. Retrieved from: https://sites.duke.edu/ginalisgh323/zombification-process/

Hahn, Patrick D. Dead Man Walking: Wade Davis and the Secret of the Zombie Poison. Biology-online.org.  September 4, 2007. Biology-Online. February 5, 2019. Retrieved from: http://www.biology-online.org/articles/dead_man_walking.html?mobile=on

Mariani, Mike. The Tragic, Forgotten History of Zombies. TheAtlantic.com. October 28, 2015. The Atlantic. February 5, 2017. Retrieved from: https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/10/how-america-erased-the-tragic-history-of-the-zombie/412264/

 

 

 

 

 

Grad School Begins!

I wanted to update my loyal readers about what is going on in my personal life and what that means for this site. As you have likely noticed, and I said in a previous post, posts have been a little spotty in the last few months. One thing that surprises me about this is that the number of views has only gone down slightly even though the site is not being updated regularly. Even so, I’m trying to keep the wheel turning by posting every other week, give or take, and I have some other ideas for future directions I’d like to take this blog. This includes potentially starting a Facebook page, writing a line of ebooks, and even an Oddly Historical YouTube channel.

Those ideas are, for now, just that: ideas. But I wanted you guys to know I am still thinking about my regular readers and how I can make this site better for you guys. I really enjoy sharing weird history, but real life tends to intervene a lot when it comes to hobbies such as this. Which brings use to the whole point of this little blurb. Apologies for burying the lede here, but it’s not an “actual” article so hey, whatever. I am starting grad school in two days. Actually, I’ve already started: I completed two out of four modules for the first lesson. I am attending school online for a Masters of Public Health, all while working full time. So, I am going to be really busy for the next couple of years, and then probably really busy looking for a job after completing my degree.

Even so, I will still try to update this blog on a semi-regular basis. Some of the articles might be shorter than they have in the past, and I’m toying with some ideas of posts devoted to strange pictures from the past with some blurbs explaining what is going on. Just a simpler way to get some content out to you guys. Or maybe some bizarre artwork from the past. Perhaps more personal updates, and off the cuff, personal opinion posts about stuff I’ve written about in the past. We will see! If you have any ideas for content you’d like to see, let me know in the comments. I always enjoy hearing from you guys!

The Plain of Jars

CC BY-SA 2.5,

CC BY-SA 2.5,

The mists of time conceal many ancient cultures from even the most clever and determined modern archaeologist. While there are many who left behind written fragments that give scientists something to go on, many more failed to develop a system of writing. The lives of millions of men and women, with all of their struggles and triumphs, faded into the shadows of history, leaving behind only a few tangible scraps for their descendants to piece together. Some of these “scraps” might indeed be large, but their size makes them no less enigmatic than the smallest artifacts. Such is the case in Xieng Khouang province in Laos, where a high plateau is dotted with clusters of sandstone jars. The mysterious artifacts, some measuring as much as 9 feet tall, are the most tangible remains of a prehistoric southeast Asian culture about which little is known.

 

A long standing mystery

The Plain of Jars, as the site became known, was first studied by French archaeologist Madeline Colani in the 1930’s. She discovered that the jars were spread over the plain in a pattern that initially seemed to have no rhyme or reason, with as many as one to one hundred pots in each site. It was later found that most of the pots were placed in prominent areas, with commanding views of the surrounding area. Each pot was fashioned from a single stone, some being well formed while others were rather crude. There was also an assortment of small artifacts found in and around the pots, including bronze and iron tools, cowry shells, and glass beads. Many of the pots appeared to have been robbed. One site had a prominent cave, where Colani found bones and ashes.

This led Colani to hypothesize that the entire complex was a funerary site. Many Southeast Asian cultures practiced secondary burial, where a corpse is left to rot before being cremated. This allowed the soft tissues to decay, leaving behind bones and ligaments. Archaeologists believe that the bodies of nobles were thus exposed in the pots, while the poor were laid out in a trench. After cremation, the ashes of nobles along with their expensive belongings were placed back in the jars. So, the plain of jars is quite possibly a large set of funerary urns.

Similar sites in Northern India and Vietnam have led archaeologists to hypothesize that the builders of the Plain of Jars traded widely. The Laotian Highlands are rich in salt, a valuable resource in the ancient world. The accepted belief is that these people traded upon caravan routes, exchanging salt for beads, cowry shells, and other luxury goods. It appears that the stone jars represent the works of a thriving prehistoric culture dating back nearly 2,000 years. More research to unravel the enduring history of who these people were needs to be done, but unfortunately a modern conflict left the Plain of Jars the most dangerous archaeological site on Earth.

 

Bombs and mines

From 1964 to 1973, American bombers pounded Laos, attempting to destroy Viet Cong supply routes passing through the country as part of the ongoing Vietnam War. Over the course of nine years, American planes hammered the country with two million tons of bombs and other munitions. Xieng Khouang Province was targeted by some 63,000 sorties. The area is carpeted with unexploded bombs from this blitz, leading to thousands of deaths a year from farmers and other locals accidentally detonating bombs.

The Plain of Jars is itself is well within the danger zone, hampering efforts to excavate the area and find more about the culture who produced the strange urns. Efforts to clean up the site are ongoing, but the remains of a massive modern conflict could well hamper efforts to understand this ancient site for years to come.

 

Sources:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/laos/1478626/History-haunts-the-Plain-of-Jars.html

http://plainofjars.net/prehist.htm

http://www.unescobkk.org/culture/wh/ap-sites/plain-of-jars/

The Serpent Mound–Ohio’s Mysterious Effigy

A photo of the Serpent Mound, taken from an observation tower on the site.

A photo of the Serpent Mound, taken from an observation tower on the site.

The ancients achieved amazing feats of engineering with the most basic tools and techniques, leaving structures that their descendants would puzzle over for centuries to come. Many such structures come readily to mind—Stonehenge, the Great Pyramids of Giza, and the Nazca Lines are just three of the most famous.

However, the building of such structures is not often associated with the Native Americans of North America, with the exception of the massive pyramids built by the Aztecs and Mayans in Central America. Contrary to popular belief, the indigenous tribes of what is now the United States did engage in massive projects that could rival even those of the Old World. One of these massive structures is located in Adams County, Ohio. Dubbed the Serpent Mound, the huge effigy remains an enigma to this day.

The Serpent Mound is one of hundreds of mounds built by Native American tribes in Ohio. Most mounds are conical structures used to bury and memorialize the dead, while some of the more massive mounds are effigy mounds, meant to be representations in earth of various animals. The Serpent Mound is among the largest and best preserved of these effigy mounds. Measuring 1330 feet in length and 3 feet in height, the mound is a depiction of an undulating snake with a curled tail, possibly with its jaws open to swallow an egg. There is some dispute as to what the effigy is meant to depict, with some claiming it is not a serpent at all but rather a stylized depiction of a comet streaking through the sky. This is indeed an interesting interpretation, since there is a meteor crater nearby, but no one knows for sure.

The egg. Taken from the footpath circling the site.

The egg. Taken from the footpath circling the site.

“No one knows for sure,” is a phrase that seems to hover over the Serpent Mound, an effigy shrouded in mystery. Even its age is in dispute. When archaeologist Frederic Putnam studied the mound in the late 19th century, he found nothing in the mound itself that revealed who made it or why. However, conical mounds situated nearby contained artifacts belonging to the Adena culture, who lived in the area from 800 BCE to 100CE. So, Putnam concluded that the site was the work of the Adena. However, evidence uncovered in 1991 disputed this age when radiocarbon dating performed on charcoal found within the mound found it to be only 900 years old. This evidence suggested that the presence of the Adena mounds nearby was happenstance, and the earthwork really was the work of the so-called Fort Ancient culture, who lived in the area from 1000CE to 1500CE. But this finding was itself overturned when a study performed in 2014 found new radio carbon dates suggesting the effigy was constructed around 300 CE, putting it firmly within the time period of the Adena culture.

So which age is right? It is difficult to tell, and more work is needed to pin point the age of the Serpent Mound as closely as possible. However, the difference in the two dates could stem from maintenance performed by later tribes who continued to utilize the site after the Adena passed into history. So, it is possible that the Fort Ancient peoples rebuilt sections of the mound, leaving behind charcoal remnants that were found by the 1991 study.

An illustration of the Serpent Mound site.

An illustration of the Serpent Mound site.

If this is the case, it might explain the age of the effigy but it leaves many other questions. Why did the Adena build the mound in the first place, and what is it meant to represent? Clearly the mound served a ceremonial purpose rather than that of a burial place. Curves in the structure show different alignments with the sun, such as with the summer and winter solstices. Could the mound be a sort of gigantic calendar, meant to help Adena and later priests track the motions of the sky? And if it was ceremonial, what sorts of ceremonies were conducted there? These questions might never be answered, as the builders left no written language explaining their thinking. All that remains is the earthwork they left behind, a silent enigma among the green hills of southern Ohio.

 

Author’s Note: The photographs included in this post were taken by me when I visited the Serpent Mound in 2010. I wanted to include a bit about my own feelings and thoughts from visiting the site. Some report visiting this particular mound as a spiritual experience–in fact, I accidentally interrupted a very nice woman who was meditating on the site, who said it gave off good “energy.” I had no such feelings myself, but I did find myself in awe when I was standing up on the observation tower, visualizing the Adena using little more rudimentary tools to transport the dirt and build the mound. Keep in mind, they didn’t have the wheel nor beasts of burden. Everything they built was with sheer manpower. This must have been an extremely important site to warrant such an output of blood and sweat. The Serpent Mound had the feel of the sacred, and it is a unique experience I am glad to have had.

 

Sources:

https://www.ohiohistory.org/visit/museum-and-site-locator/serpent-mound

http://ancientearthworksproject.org/1/post/2014/07/new-radiocarbon-dates-suggest-serpent-mound-is-more-than-2000-years-old.html

http://archive.archaeology.org/9611/newsbriefs/serpentmound.html

The Strange Life and Mysterious Death of the Mad King, Ludwig II of Bavaria

Portrait of Louis II, King of Bavaria --- Image by © Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis

Portrait of Louis II, King of Bavaria — Image by © Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis

Dreamers and idealists exist in every profession and strata of society. With their heads in the clouds and their feet only occasionally on the ground, these people look at the world not as it is, but see it as it never was. Sometimes their idyllic ways are harmless, but other times they can lead to great trouble for both themselves and people who depend on them.

Among history’s most famous and tragic idealists is King Ludwig II of Bavaria. The ruler of Bavaria from 1864 to 1886, King Ludwig II believed in the ideals of a bygone age, where benevolent kings ruled over their subjects by the Grace of God. A romantic in every sense of the word, Ludwig found the world he lived in so far different from what he believed it should be that he renounced it and built a world of his own. His idealism would lead his country to deem him mad, and strip him of his throne. Soon after, he died under bizarre circumstances, the exact cause of his death remaining a mystery even 130 years later.

 

Upbringing and early life

Ludwig II as a boy, with his parents.

Ludwig II as a boy, with his parents.

Ludwig II was born August 1845 to Maximilian II of Bavaria and Marie of Prussia. The royal couple were aloof with Ludwig and his brother Otto. They were strict with their boys, emphasizing duty above all else. Despite this restrictive environment, Ludwig II showed early that he had a vivid imagination. He enjoyed playing dress up, play acting, and loved art. He was generous with his possessions as well. Ludwig tended to keep to himself, and already was beginning to see himself as a divine sovereign. These traits would shape and define Ludwig for the rest of his life.

In 1864, Ludwig II was crowned king at the tender age of 18, yanked out of his idyllic life into the rough and tumble life of politics. The unprepared boy king two years later found himself embroiled in the German War with his uncle, the King of Prussia, who promptly conquered both Bavaria and Austria. The king had gone from sovereign to vassal within two years.

But even as this was going on, Ludwig II was seemingly more engrossed in his fantasy world than the harsh realities of life at the head of a constitutional monarchy. He became fascinated by the works of Richard Wagner, a composer whose operas and music presented an idealized vision of ancient Germany and brought to life the ancient stories of his homeland. When he became king, Ludwig became Wagner’s friend and patron, helping the composer to reach new heights of fame.

 

Castles, madness, and the death of a king

Photochrom print of Neuschwanstein Castle, from 1890.

Photochrom print of Neuschwanstein Castle, from 1890.

King Ludwig II never felt like he was a “real” king. Kingship in the 19th century was far different than kingship in the medieval era Ludwig idolized. Bavaria was a constitutional monarchy, with many legal restrictions placed upon monarchical power. Ludwig was frustrated by these constrictions on what he felt was the divine rule of a king. In his mind, he envisioned an ideal holy kingdom, much like that of King Arthur and his knights, which far from being a story for Ludwig was a historical fact and the blueprint for what a kingdom should be. Since reality was far from this ideal, Ludwig isolated himself more and more in a world of his own creation.

He began grand construction projects of so-called “fairy tale” castles, magnificent structures built to evoke romantic feelings of a bygone era of chivalry.  He began in 1875 to sleep during the day and to wake at night. He receded more and more into his dream land of chivalric ideals, identifying with one of King Arthur’s knights, a man named Parzival (also spelled Percival) who was so pious and faithful that he became the Grail King.

A pious man himself, Ludwig deeply identified with his fictional counterpart’s struggles with sin and sensuality. Particularly, Ludwig struggled with homosexual urges. He had been engaged to his cousin, Duchess Sophie Charlotte, in 1867. He repeatedly pushed back the date of the marriage, but eventually broke it off completely. He never married and remained, so far as anyone knows, a celibate bachelor the rest of his life. Driven by his struggles and piety, Ludwig went as far to remodel his own castle, Neuschwanstein, to make it into the Castle of the Holy Grail, bringing his fantasy of being Parzival into the real world.

However hard the king tried to isolate himself from the world, he could not escape the hard realities. The king had squandered his fortune on the castles and the other trappings of his fairy-tale world, and was squandering the state coffers as well.  The Bavarian government intervened in 1885. He was declared insane and deposed from the throne. The former king was interned in Berg Palace while the government decided what to do with him. Only a day later, Ludwig II was found floating in the lake, dead, along with this psychiatrist Bernhard von Gudden.

 

What happened to the Mad King?

Ludwig II’s death was a mystery from day one. The king, who was a strong swimmer, was found floating in waist deep water. The Bavarian government claimed that the king had killed himself by drowning, and his psychiatrist ad died trying to save him. Few have bought this explanation, given the king’s piety. Many believe he was murdered by an assassin. Some fishermen on the lake claimed they heard gun shots that day, along with his psychiatrist who witnessed the killing. In the 21st century, some want to exhume the king’s body and use modern technology to examine him, but the House of Wittelsbach, his family, refuses and claims the murder allegations are false. Unless and until they relent, the mystery of who killed the Mad King Ludwig II will remain unsolved.

 

Sources:

“King Ludwig II of Bavaria,” neuschwanstein.de. 3/6/16. Bayerische Verwaltung der staatlichen Schlosser Garten und Seen. http://www.neuschwanstein.de/englisch/ludwig/biography.htm

 

Paterson, Tony. “Murder mystery of mad King Ludwig.” Independent.co.uk. 11/9/2007. Independent. 3/6/16. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/murder-mystery-of-mad-king-ludwig-399742.html

 

“The Death of King Ludwig II.” Lib.cam.ac.uk. 2009-2011. University of Cambridge. 3/6/16. http://www.lib.cam.ac.uk/deptserv/german/spotlight4.html