Tag Archives: folklore

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/

 

 

 

 

 

Feeding the Body to Save the Soul: The Bizarre Custom of Sin-Eating

Peasant_FuneralDeath is as much a part of living as being born. This morbid fact has been handled very differently by cultures throughout history. Much has been written on this site about mummification, from the accidental to the deliberate. Certainly mummification was a method among many cultures to attaining eternal peace in the afterlife. Christian cultures, on the other hand, believed that eternal life came in the spiritual realm. While it was important in many Christian sects to have a body buried whole and in consecrated ground, they believed that said body would be raised at judgment day and transmogrified into a new body that would meet God face to face. This is why the custom of profane burial in England and other parts of Europe was considered one of the ultimate sanctions—a body that was desecrated and buried in unconsecrated ground would not be able to participate in this great resurrection.

There were other strange customs in England surrounding the treatment of the dead. Like the profane burials, it was a collision of Christian theology and local folkways. Unlike the profane burials, it was not meant as a punishment toward the deceased but rather a way to absolve the deceased of any sins. This was done by having another person—dubbed a sin eater—take upon themselves the burden of that wickedness, by quite literally eating their sins.

 

Bread, salt, and milk (or beer)

Most funerary practices involve food in some way shape or form. Some cultures have specific meals that are traditionally eaten after a funeral, while in more modern times it’s customary to eat a meal after a funeral but it is not necessarily limited to traditional fare. The corpse is generally not present for such meals, depending on tradition.

In the custom of sin-eating, however, the corpse is very much present for the meal. In fact, it is central. The custom, which was mainly practiced in parts of Wales and Scotland, generally involved hiring an impoverished local  to eat a meal over the body of the dead for the grand sum of six pence. The meal itself varied a bit from region to region, but generally speaking it consisted of bread, salt, and beer. Some regions swapped the beer for milk.

The idea was that, by consuming the food over the corpse, the sin-eater would take upon themselves the sin of the deceased. The custom was usually employed when someone died unexpectedly. Naturally, this did not sit well with local church officials, who saw it not only as superstition but perhaps as an affront to their own authority. Still, many priests looked the other way, since the custom lasted from at least the 17th century to the late 19th and early 20th century.

 

The Life of a Sin-Eater

Every community in areas where sin-eating was practiced had a village sin-eater. Typically these individuals were low status members of the community, who were desperate enough to take on the sins of others for money. With their ritual uncleanness came social stigmatization. As the village sin-eater partook in the ritual more often, they became more and more unclean in the eyes of their peers.

However, not all sin-eaters were social pariahs or poor, desperate beggars. The last known sin-eater, Richard Munslow, passed away in 1906. Running counter to the general trend, he was a prosperous farmer in the area around Shropshire village. So, not all the sin-eaters were necessarily outcasts, but neither was it an acceptable occupation. No mention seems to be made about what their fate would be for taking upon themselves the sins of others when their own death came. Perhaps if they were fortunate some kind soul would eat their sins and take that burden upon themselves, leaving the sin-eater in peace.

 

Sources:

Brown, Erica. “Soul Food and Sin-Eating: Folklore, Faith, and Funerals.” ShapWorkingParty.org. 2009/10. The Shap working party on Education in Religions.  November 1, 2015. http://www.shapworkingparty.org.uk/journals/articles_0910/browne.pdf

“Last ‘sin-eater’ celebrated with church service.” BBC.com. September  19, 2010. BBC News. November 1, 2015. http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-shropshire-11360659

“Sin eaters and sin eating.” Logoi.com. 2007. November 1, 2015 http://www.logoi.com/notes/sin-eaters.html

Veronese, Keith. “The Weird but True History of Sin Eaters.” Io9.com. April 30, 2013. Io9. November 1, 2015. http://io9.com/the-weird-but-true-history-of-sin-eaters-479990066

 

A Ghoulish Apparition: The Bizarre Legend of Arizona’s Red Ghost

"07. Camel Profile, near Silverton, NSW, 07.07.2007" by Jjron - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons -

“07. Camel Profile, near Silverton, NSW, 07.07.2007” by Jjron – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons –

Belief in ghosts is widespread throughout human societies. Every major civilization in history has had some belief in the supernatural, even in our own modern world of science and technology.

While the supernatural itself has not been proven, and probably never will be, some ghost stories do have roots in tangible reality. This factual basis has been distorted by retelling and the passage of time, until all that remains is a small kernel of truth. One such story was the  infamous Legend of Bunnyman Bridge, in Virginia. The horrific stories of murder and mayhem surrounding the bridge sprang from a very odd pair of incidents that occurred nearby involving a man in a bunny costume, wielding a hatchet.

Something similar occurred in Arizona, in the late 19th century, when a huge, terrifying beast with a ghoulish passenger was said to terrorize the residents of the high country. This apparition, sometimes seen in remote parts of the state to this day, became known as the Red Ghost.

 

An Apparition at Eagle Creek

The year was 1883, the place an isolated ranch near Eagle Creek, in Arizona. One morning, two men rode out to check the cattle, leaving their wives to tend the children. Later that morning, one women went the the spring to draw up water, while her friend remained at the house with the children.

Soon after she left, one of the ranch dogs began barking frantically. The woman in the house heard her friend scream. She looked outside to see a huge, red-haired beast with a ghoulish rider on its back. Badly frightened, she hid int he house, keeping the children close until the men returned.

That night, after a short search the men found the woman’s trampled body. The next morning, they found cloven hoof prints and long red hairs near where her body was found.

 

More attacks follow

A few days later, a party of miners near Clifton, Arizona received a rude awakening. something huge thundered toward them, screaming. Its huge bulk collapsed their tent. When they managed to clamber out of the ruined tent, they caught a glimpse of something huge running away into the night. Later, they found cloven hoof prints and long red hairs.

A few months later, a rancher on the Salt River by the name of Cyrus Hamblin came across the beast while he was rounding up cattle. He recognized the creature as a camel, but to his horror he saw that there was a skeletal body strapped to its back. Despite his reputation as an honest man, few believed him.

Weeks later, the Red Ghost was spotted again by miners, this time near the Verde River. They fired at the beast but missed. As the camel fled, a piece of its passenger fell of. It was soon identified by the miners as a partially mummified skull, with bits of hair and skin still clinging to the bone.

 

The Death (and Birth) of the Red Ghost

For the next ten years, the legend of the Red Ghost grew, as legends tend to do. Then, in eastern Arizona, a rancher rose one morning to find the huge animal grazing in his garden. One shot from the rancher’s trusty Winchester, and the infamous Red Ghost was no more. When he examined the body, he found that the camel had scars on its back from where rawhide straps had been used to secure the body of a man. But how did a camel, let alone one with a human body strapped to its back, end up in Arizona?

Camels are nothing new in North America; point of fact, they evolved here, before spreading to Asia across the Bering Strait. The camels who made that long trek survived, while their forebears in North America went extinct with this continents other large mammals, no doubt in large part due to humans hunting them for food. Ten thousand years later, the camel had become a domesticated beast of burden, prized for its many adaptations to desert life, its toughness, and its strength.

Photograph of the US Camel Corps at Drum Barracks in San Pedro, California.

Photograph of the US Camel Corps at Drum Barracks in San Pedro, California.

By the mid 19th century, the United States was undergoing a rapid expansion into its southwest territories. Since most of the area is rugged, arid land, some proposed that the camel could aid in this expansion due to its unique adaptations. In addition, the camel could help in pacifying local Native American tribes, who were understandably unhappy with white settlers moving onto their land.

In 1848, Henry Wayne, a Quarter Master Major with the United States Army, suggested that the War Department import camels into the Southwest. Two years later, none other than Jefferson Davies, then Secretary of War and Mississippi stat senator, lobbied Congress on the matter. Despite initial resistance, Congress eventually pass a bill in 1854 appropriating $30,000 to import the beasts of burden.

Seventy-two camels arrived in the early part of 1857. despite camels being suited to the Southwest, it soon became clear that they carried some distinct disadvantages. Camels are notoriously surly animals, and have an independent streak that led them to wander off at night. In addition, their scent frightens horses who aren’t accustomed to it. Soldiers hated  the beasts. The experiment lasted until the outbreak of the Civil War, where the remaining camels were sold or released int the wilderness. Soon after, sightings of wild camels began to be reported.

So, the sightings of a camel wandering the deserts of Arizona were based in historical fact. What, then, of the other facet of the strange story, the Red Ghost’s gruesome passenger?

 

The Skeletal Rider

The Red Ghost’s passenger was said to have been a young soldier who was afraid of camels, which naturally made learning to ride one difficult. To make him confront his fear, his fellow soldiers tied him to a camel, and then smacked it on the rump. Once the beast was off and running, they couldn’t catch up with it or its hapless rider, and both disappeared into the desert.

So what should we make of this story? Is it merely a legend, a ghost story, or is it a true story of an unfortunate soldier and his unwilling mount?

As with the Legend of Bunnyman Bridge, there is a grain of truth to the story that has become distorted by retelling. The particular grain of truth here is that yes, camels were roaming loose in Arizona during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These became fodder for all sorts of stories, becoming part of the region’s folklore, no doubt due to their odd appearance, and surly disposition. It is also good to remember that most of the settlers had never seen a camel before, and so seeing such a large, strange animal would have been a frightening experience.

The gruesome tale of the camel and his dead rider is likely nothing more than a legend based on frightening encounters with odd, unknown animals. These encounters have left an impression on the folklore of the area, because some still claim to see the Red Ghost and his ghoulish rider to this day.

 

Sources:

Aker, Andrea, “The Legend of Red Ghost.” ArizonaOddities.com March 12, 2010. Arizona Oddities. October 18, 2015. http://arizonaoddities.com/2010/03/the-legend-of-red-ghost/

Hawkins, Vince. “The U.S. Army’s ‘Camel Corps’ Experiment.” ArmyHistory.org.  National Museum United States Army. October 18, 2015. https://armyhistory.org/the-u-s-armys-camel-corps-experiment/

Weiser, Kathy. “Old West Legends: Ghost Camels in the American Southwest.” LegendsofAmerica.com. October 2012. Legends of America. October 18, 2015. http://www.legendsofamerica.com/we-ghostcamels.html

 

 

 

A Blood Sucker in Glasgow: The Gorbals Vampire Panic

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

“Southern Necropolis gatehouse, Glasgow” by Stephen Sweeney – From geograph.org.uk. 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.

 

Sources:

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.” BBC.co.uk. March 22, 2010. BBC News. March 1, 2014 <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/scotland/8574484.stm>

English, Paul. “Before Hollywood Went Vampire Crazy, Scots Kids Hunted Them In Graveyward.” DailyRecord.co.uk. March 27, 2010. Daily Record and Sunday Mail. March 1, 2014 <http://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/uk-world-news/before-hollywood-went-vampire-crazy-1054391>

Hobbs, Sandy. “The Gorbals Vampire Hunt.” HeraldScotland.com June 23, 1989. Herald Scotland. March 1, 2014. <http://www.heraldscotland.com/sport/spl/aberdeen/the-gorbals-vampire-hunt-1.623152>

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

Delphine LaLaurie — The Murderous Mistress

The LaLaurie Mansion, from a 1906 postcard.

The LaLaurie Mansion, from a 1906 postcard.

More often than not, when you hear the word “serial killer” you think of a man, since the vast majority of serial killers are, indeed, men. However, the fairer sex is not immune from murderous instincts; in fact, some of the most notorious serial killers in history were women. Among their number is the wealthy New Orleans socialite Marie Delphine LaLaurie, better known as Madam LaLaurie, whose mansion has gone down in the eccentric history of New Orleans as a house of horrors.

 

A cruel mistress.

On April 10, 1834 a fire broke out in her mansion. While neighbors and firefighters struggled to put out the flames, LaLaurie herself went about the mansion trying to save her valuables. Rescuers began to question where all the household slaves were, and why they weren’t helping to fight the fire. I also imagine they were curious as to why an elderly slave was chained to the stove.

Rumors had abounded before the fire of LaLaurie’s alleged cruelty towards her slaves. Certainly slavery itself was a cruel institution, but slave holders were expected to treat their slaves with some minimum degree of humanity. This evidently didn’t exclude slave holders from using whips and chains to discipline their slaves, so to be considered “cruel” back then meant very much going above and beyond.

Said rumors were probably in the back of the rescuer’s minds as they put out the fire. They headed up the stairs toward the attic, guided by the words of the elderly kitchen slave who had told them about her fellow slaves who were sent to the attic, never to return. Some believe the slave set the fire in the kitchen herself to try to draw attention from the outside world to Madam LaLaurie’s cruelty. If that was her intention, the plan worked.

 

House of horrors

Rescuers broke down the attic door and found a scene straight out of the worst modern day horror movies. Accounts vary, and many are more folklore than fact, but regardless what was inside was terrible enough to make hardened firefighters become sick to their stomachs. Slaves were bound in chains to the wall, with collars around their throats. Some were locked in dog cages. All of them showed signs of starvation and maltreatment, and some were horribly mutilated. One man had had his genitals removed in a crude sex change operation. One woman’s limbs had been broken at the joints which were then reset at odd angles, resulting in a crab-like appearance. Another woman’s limbs had been removed and strips of her flesh had been stripped away in sort of a striped pattern. A man had been vivisected (autopsied while alive) and lay on the makeshift operating table with his organs exposed. Buckets of organs and blood were scattered all over the room.

Now I should mention that descriptions these rather more horrific and specific tortures came later, as near as I can tell. They may not have (and hopefully didn’t) occur. Legends have a way of taking on a life of their own, facts be damned. Regardless, the fact seems to stand that Madam LaLaurie and her husband committed atrocities against their slaves that were shocking even to the culture of the day that regarded them as nothing more than property.

Not long after the discovery, Madam LaLaurie was forced to flee her home as an armed lynch mob attacked the mansion when word spread of the attic room and its grisly contents. LaLaurie and her husband fled in a carriage and escaped to Paris, France. On December 7, 1842 Madam LaLaurie died in Paris, allegedly of wounds sustained during a boar hunt. She was never punished for her crimes.

 

Sources:

“Delphine LaLaurie.” Wikipedia.org. May 12, 2014. Wikipedia. May 18, 2014. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Delphine_LaLaurie

“A torture chamber is uncovered by arson.” 2014. The History Channel website. May 18 2014, 12:14 http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/a-torture-chamber-is-uncovered-by-arson.

“History of Delphine LaLaurie.” Nola.com. http://www.nola.com/lalaurie/history/intro.html

The Mona Lisa of the Seine

L'inconnue_de_la_Seine_(masque_mortuaire)In large cities the world over, the sight of a body floating down a river is not all that uncommon. People could end up in a watery grave for any number of reasons, accidental or otherwise. Many times, they are unfortunate souls who see no other way out of the torments of life than to end it all by their own hand. One such unfortunate soul, or so the legend goes, went on to lend her face to a medical tool that would save thousands of lives. This is the strange story of L’Inconnue, also known as the Mona Lisa of the Seine.

 

A haunting beauty

The body of a young woman was found floating down the Seine River in Paris, France during the waning years of the 19th century.  The corpse was duly fished out of the waters and taken to the morgue. She was put on display, as was the custom at the time, in the hopes that someone may be able to identify her. The story would have ended there if the pathologist examining the girl hadn’t been taken by her unmarred beauty, which in and of itself was surprising because water is not known to be kind to corpses.. He found no signs of foul play, and ruled her death a probable suicide. He took a plaster cast of her pretty, serene face and its secretive smile.

Soon enough, the death mask became a fad. Hundreds of copies were made, and the more fashion conscious among Parisian Bohemian society clambered to own a copy. Folks of the day compared the anonymous girl’s smile to the famously secretive smile gracing the Mona Lisa’s lips. People speculated as to why the dead girl looked so oddly happy, despite being found dead and floating down a river. The fad grew to the point where young women copied the dead girl’s look, seeing her as the epitome of beauty. She was the Marilyn Monroe of her day. The unknown woman’s notoriety and status as an ideal representation of beauty lasted up until the 1920’s, when more lively women took her place.

However, that is not the end of the unknown woman’s cultural life. Her face was used as the model for Resusci Anne, a mannequin used to teach CPR. Resusci Anne was designed by Peter Safar and Asmund Laerdal in 1958. In 1960, the dolls were used in the first round of CPR courses. The fact that the unknown woman’s face has been reproduced hundreds if not thousands of times and been used the world over in CPR training has led people to give the death mask the nickname “the most kissed face in history.”

 

Doubts don’t stop the legend from living on

However, not everyone buys into the story, thinking that it was more folklore than fact. They point to the fact that the woman in the mask looks too peaceful to have suffered a horrific death by drowning. While fiction would like to portray drowning as a peaceful, beautiful way to die, the reality is far from it. It’s an ugly, hard way to die that leaves behind a bloated, rapidly decaying corpse. Not to mention, if the victim jumped (or was pushed) to their death, impact with the water could cause tremendous physical injury, depending on the height of the fall. Even if the corpse had been pulled from the river only moments after death, the corpse would not be a pretty one. It seems more likely that the mask was made using a model, and the story was concocted in order to sell masks.

But perhaps not. We simply don’t know. It isn’t likely a corpse could be so pleasant to behold after floating in a river for no one knows how long, but it’s possible that happenstance conspired to to produce a beautiful corpse. The mystery lives on, and it’s that lack of knowledge that keeps people returning. The Mona Lisa of the Seine smiles on, her secrets her own.

 

Sources:

Grange, Jeremy. “Resusci Anne and L’Inconnue: The Mona Lisa of the Seine.” BBC.com. October 15, 2013. BBC News Magazine. May 11, 2014. <http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-24534069>

The Desecration of Early’s Church

800px-Bible.malmesbury.arpSmall towns play host to all sorts of strange happenings, which often give birth to legends. The real story often gets distorted to the point that folklore outweighs fact. Nevertheless, a seed of truth remains in the legend. In this way, odd bits of our shared history can persist for years and years.

Such is the case with the story of an odd incident that took place in the rolling hills of eastern Ohio over 150 years ago. The protagonists in this odd little play were a group of local hoodlums known by an ominous name, the Sons of Belial, a family by the name of Early, and, some say, God himself.

 

The Sons of Belial

John Early Sr. and his wife moved to Guernsey county in 1844. He bought a plot of land just north of the Tuscarawas county line, where he built his family a log cabin. A devoted Methodist minister, Early used an acre of property to build a meeting house (later known as a church) and a family cemetery. Early Sr. was interred in the family cemetery in 1853, alongside one of his sisters. After his death, the family continued to live on the land and parishioners continued to attend the church.

Enter the Sons of Belial. The diabolically named group was comprised of three men whose names are lost to history. They were notorious for their gambling, drinking, and all around unsavory behavior. Their haunt of choice was a place south of Newcomerstown named, appropriately enough, Whiskey Springs.

If the Sons of Belial sound more like boys being boys than anything diabolical, rumors about their activities cast a more sinister shadow. Local gossip from the day pinned the murder of a teacher, family name Hevelow, on the group. The teacher disappeared on the road from Coshocton to Newcomerstown. It wasn’t until 1859 that his skeleton, later identified by his sister, was turned up by a farmer’s plow. There was no hard evidence linking the Sons of Belial to the killing, but locals believed they’d killed the man for his pay.

The ruffians took a special interest in the Early family. It isn’t clear why. Perhaps it was due to the family’s pious nature, or there was some dispute between the family and the Sons that was lost to history. Nevertheless, the Sons of Belial were blamed for ruining the family corn field and breaking a new plow. They also allegedly stole plow horses, which they tied up near an embankment, resulting in the horses falling over the edge.

Their most infamous act was also directed at the Early family. It was a diabolical act of desecration that would go down in local legend.

 

A blasphemous act. A divine punishment?

Sometime in the early 1860s, parishioners arrived Sunday morning for their usual worship services. What they found was a scene of horror. Someone had slaughtered a lamb over the altar, spilling the blood all over an open Bible. Services were suspended, and the church goers spent the day cleaning out the mess and letting the house of worship air out. They resumed services the next week. Some wanted revenge, but a member of the Early family counselled the parishioners to let God have his revenge, as he surely would for such an act of blasphemy.

The legend goes that the Sons of Belial committed their despicable deed after a night of drinking. They stole the baby lamb from a local crippled child, and sacrificed it over the open Bible. One of the men reportedly shouted: “John Early, come forth from your grave!” Allegedly, not long after the words left his lips, a tongue of fire surged in through the door and struck the blasphemer blind and dumb.

Legend has it that the Sons of Belial did indeed suffer the wrath of God. The first died blind in an infirmary. The second died such a painful death that he allegedly thrashed hard enough to break down his bed. The third died a peculiar death, the details of which weren’t recorded.

 

Fact or folklore?

The church itself no longer stands. The blood stained Bible was last seen in 1964, when it was briefly on display in The Newcomerstown News’ office. After that, it was lost.

The whole affair sounds more like folklore than fact. It is based on the memories of witnesses who only reported on the events years later. I personally don’t doubt that a desecration took place, but some parts of the story, particularly the supernatural elements, ring hollow. Still, it is an interesting story, especially one telling detail that definitely smacks of invention more than fact but is intriguing nevertheless. It is said that the Bible was open to the Book of Galatians, which contains this passage: “Be not deceived, God is not mocked; for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” (Galatians 6:7)

 

Sources

Casteel, William. “Desecration of Early’s Church Remains Local Legend.” Daily-Jeff.com. August 24 2010. The Daily Jeffersonian. Accessed on: February 6, 2014. Retrieved from: http://daily-jeff.com/local%20news/2010/08/24/desecration-of-early-s-church-remains-local-legend