Sunday, October 25, 2009

Ghost Ship The Mysterious True Story of The Mary Celeste and Her Missing Crew by Brian Hicks

Brian Hicks' "Ghost Ship" gives a marvelously fresh look at the most famous mystery in maritime history--the Mary Celeste and her missing crew. Most accounts focus solely on the mystery, and Mr. Hicks does not neglect that in any way, he explores the various theories in a candid, matter-of-fact style purged of sensationalism and supernatural trappings, but he also gives us much more. For the first time, the cast of characters in this tragedy do not appear as merely names printed on the page, they emerge as real people, with feelings, hopes, and dreams. For example, we learn that Captain Briggs longed to give up the seafaring life as it cost him so much precious time out of his son's childhood, but feared he could not earn enough money to properly support his family.

The mystery began on the afternoon of December 4, 1872 when the crew of the Dei Gratia, a brigantine out of Nova Scotia bound for Gibraltar, spotted a ship meandering aimlessly, bucking like a bronco in a rodeo, atop the white-capped waves. For over an hour they watched her erratic progress and even tried to signal her before Captain Morehouse decided to send three of his men to investigate. What they found would fast become a legend, that would soon take on a life of its own, growing and gaining embellishments in the years to come.

There was not a soul on board the Mary Celeste. The ship was completely seaworthy, with only minimal weather damage obviously suffered after the mysterious disappearance of her crew, there were no signs of a struggle, violence, or any discernible reason why the ship should have been abandoned. The log was still in place, the last entry dated November 25, 1872 showed all was well aboard the Mary Celeste. In Captain Briggs' cabin the impression of a child's sleeping form still marked the mattress, and a sewing machine, a child's toys, and Mrs. Briggs' prized melodeon (a small piano-like instrument), and feminine apparel showed that the Captain had been traveling with his wife and child. In the sailors' quarters their sea chests were found undisturbed and their foul-weather gear oilskins, were found hanging on the wall pegs, and, most chilling of all, for sailors never went anywhere without them, their pipes had also been left behind. And the cargo, 1,701 barrels of industrial alcohol bound for Genoa, Italy, lay in the hold undisturbed. But of the ten souls who sailed aboard the Mary Celeste there was not a trace nor conclusive proof of their fate.

Scores of theories have been advanced, from the ludicrous to the logical, and there have been numerous hoaxes throughout the years, but to this day the mystery remains unsolved. Pirates, mutiny, murder, insurance fraud, waterspouts, a disappearing island, fear of an imminent explosion in the cargo hold due to the alcohol, UFOs, a giant squid plucking the crew off the deck one by one, sailing into another dimension via a vortex in the Bermuda Triangle, or some connection to the lost city of Atlantis and the Great Pyramids of Egypt, have all been advanced at one time or another to explain the mystery, but all ultimately fail to fully convince. Mr. Hicks explores the various theories and the hoaxes, both intentional and unintentional, including the furor created and confusion caused by the publication of the short story "J. Habakuk Jephson's Statement" by Arthur Conan Doyle three years before he found lasting literary fame with his creation of Sherlock Holmes. He also offers a theory of his own, which I will not spoil for prospective readers by revealing here, I will merely say it is entirely logical, but logical does nothing to dispel the tragedy.

Mr. Hicks also relates the history of the ship after it became famous, or rather infamous. The Mary Celeste went on to garner a reputation "as wholesome as that of a haunted house," finding a crew willing to sail on her became a serious challenge, and she changed hands several times, always being sold at a loss and failing to earn a profit for her owners. She ended her life in 1885, intentionally impaled on Rochelais Reef, off the coast of Haiti, as part of an insurance scam. Her scant remains were found on the reef in 2001 by divers in an expedition funded by novelist Clive Cussler. In warm, crystal clear Caribbean blue waters her remains lie on white sands amidst coral, conch shells, and schools of tropical fish; when she died the Mary Celeste truly did go to paradise.

I highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in the Mary Celeste. If you only know the story from brief chapters in books of unsolved mysteries, I urge you to let Mr. Hicks tell you the whole story from the Mary Celeste's conception, her life story through her infamous immortality, and the squalid years that followed and ended in a blatant act of fraud within sight of the island of voodoo.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Case of the Cottingley Fairies by Joe Cooper

In England, 1917 in the quiet little Yorkshire village of Cottingley, two young girls, Frances Griffiths aged 10 and her cousin Elsie Wright aged 17, took a series of five photographs that remain the subject of controversy to this day. The photographs showed the girls posed with fairies that they swore were real. To many eyes, the alleged fairies look like homemade paper dolls, drawn, coloured, cut out and secured in place, perhaps with hatpins, sticks, or string, but they garnered such distinguished supporters as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, devout spiritualist and famed creator of Sherlock Holmes, and Edward Gardner, a leader in the then popular Theosophist movement founded by Madame Blavatsky. Both Conan Doyle and Gardner were utterly convinced of the photographs' authenticity and penned books in their defense. After the pictures were published in the Strand Magazine in 1920, they became the subject of intense public scrutiny and debate that continued for decades.

Researcher Joe Cooper had the opportunity to spend time with, question, and interview both Frances Griffiths and Elsie Wright as elderly women during the last years of their lives. And though he seems somewhat predisposed to believe them, and admits to having a personal belief in fairies and nature spirits, his book does a good and thorough job of documenting the history, mystery, and controversy of the Cottingley Fairies episode from start to finish, and it makes an interesting read for anyone with an interest in spiritualism, fairy lore, spirit photography, or the Cottingley Fairies in particular. Apart from the books by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Edward Gardner, this is the only book-length account of the case I have read, though it is frequently featured in books about unexplained and paranormal or supernatural phenomena.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Possessed The History & Mystery of The Watseka Wonder by Troy Taylor

In 1878 the sleepy little farming community of Watseka, Illinois woke up when events occurred that remain unexplained to this day.

Fourteen year old Lurancy Vennum began to suffer mysterious spells in which she would fall into an eerie, corpse-like catatonic trance during which she claimed to converse with angels and spirits. Sometimes she would speak in unknown voices, supposedly those of the deceased. These peculiar spells lasted anywhere from two to eight hours and Lurancy's health suffered as a result, often she was assailed by sharp, stabbing stomach pains that made her double up and scream in agony. Her desperate parents consulted doctor after doctor in search of a cure, but none could discern a physical cause for Lurancy's suffering. In the end, the insane asylum--in that era a fate worse than death--seemed the only realistic alternative.

Before Lurancy could be sent away, her father received a visit from a Mr. Roff who implored him not to make the same mistake he had and send his daughter to the asylum. Mr. Roff went on to explain that he had had a daughter named Mary who had been similarly afflicted, though in a much more violent fashion than Lurancy. Mary had suffered violent seizures from infancy and had also developed a compulsion to cut and bleed herself (bloodletting was still a common and acceptable medical treatment at the time). Like the Vennums, the Roffs had spared no expense to find a cure for their daughter, she had even spent 18 months at a fine sanitarium taking the then fashionable "Water Cure" (immersion in tubs of hot or cold water as the doctor prescribed, tight wrapping in sheets soaked with cold water, and ice water douches) before the family was forced to conclude that the asylum was their only choice. In the 19th century, insane asylums were unsanitary, inhumane places that did not treat the mentally ill, but restrained and imprisoned them instead, incarceration behind their walls was literally a living death in a very real and horrible hell on earth. Mary Roff died in the asylum in 1865 at only 18 years of age. Afterwards, her desolate parents turned to spiritualism for consolation.

Mr. Roff begged Mr. Vennum to allow him to bring a spiritualist doctor, a certain Dr. Stevens, to see Lurancy and Mr. Vennum, willing to do anything that would save his daughter, agreed. When he called, Dr. Stevens found Lurancy in the grip of spirits, an old woman and a tormented young man alternately possessed and spoke through her. She later told the doctor that she disliked these spirits taking control of her as they were troubled and bad. In the presence of her distraught parents and Mr. Roff, Dr. Stevens hypnotized Lurancy and told her that she had the power to control which spirits took over her body and, if she must play hostess to spirits of the dead, she should invite a good entity in. After reviewing several possible candidates, Lurancy announced that there was a young woman who wanted to come in and that she claimed that she could help her in a way no other spirit could and "her name is Mary Roff."

The following day Mary Roff took over the body of Lurancy Vennum for a possession that was to last for several months. She treated Mr. and Mrs. Vennum with courtesy but as strangers, she failed to recognize them as her parents or their house as her home, nothing from Lurancy's life seemed familiar to her. She exhibited signs of severe homesickness and begged repeatedly to be allowed to go home. The Vennums could not bear to see her suffering and allowed her to go home with the Roffs.

When she saw Mary's mother and sister Minerva, Lurancy fell on them in a heartfelt frenzy of weeping, kissing, and hugging. She seemed to know everything about the Roffs, little known family anecdotes and history, things that only Mary and her intimate family would have known, and she recognized Mary's possessions and friends. According to witnesses, not once was she ever mistaken or deceived.

Some months later a quiet struggle began as Lurancy began to re-exert control of her body. Mary announced that Lurancy would soon return, healthy and completely cured, and go home to her parents, and this indeed is what happened. It all ended as suddenly as it began and Lurancy returned to her parents a healthy, happy young woman with little memory of the past months beyond a feeling that she had passed them in sleeping or dreaming.

Troy Taylor's book, which begins with a lengthy (51 pages) chapter on the history of spirit possession, is a quick and intriguing read (136 pages altogether) that does not solve the mystery of "The Watseka Wonder," but presents all the known evidence and allows the reader to make up their own mind. It also includes several photographs of people and places involved in the mystery and letters from the participants, family members, and investigators.