Nellie Vaughn: The Vampire who Wasn’t a Vampire

July 21, 2011

Nellie Vaughn was never a vampire. Now, you may be saying, “Well, duh!” but the point is that she was never suspected of being a vampire by her family and friends. Her body was never exhumed*; she was never found to be in an insufficient state of decomposition; her internal organs were never removed and burnt. This all may seem very normal. After all, most people are spared the indignity of being dug up and burned as vampires. What makes Nellie unusual is that nearly a hundred years after her death, she acquired an undeserved reputation as a vampire, and her story illustrates how legends can develop.

Between (roughly) 1790 and 1899, at least a dozen bodies were exhumed in New England because family members and neighbors suspected them of being vampires. Actually “vampire” isn’t the right word. The people involved in these rituals apparently didn’t use the word and, according to George R. Stetson, weren’t even familiar with it. Rather, they were trying to halt the relentless depredations of consumption.** As folklorist Michael E. Bell notes in his excellent book on the subject, Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England’s Vampires, the New Englanders seem to have been practicing a kind of folk medicine by digging up people who had died of consumption and burning their hearts (and sometimes their livers and lungs). Sometimes the ashes were mixed into a solution and given to an afflicted family member as a treatment. The term “vampire” is convenient though, but keep in mind, these were not animated corpses wandering around and sucking people’s blood.

The best known of these New England vampires was the last, Mercy Brown. Her mother Mary died of consumption on December 8, 1883; her sister Mary Olive died six months later on June 16, 1884. Several years later, Mercy’s brother Edwin became ill and left for Colorado, the climate of which was thought to be salubrious for consumptives. For a while, his condition seemed to improve. Meanwhile, Mercy became ill and died at the age of nineteen on January 18, 1892. Around the same time, Edwin’s condition deteriorated, and he returned home to die. Friends and neighbors urged Mercy and Edwin’s father George to have the bodies of his wife and daughters exhumed. George himself did not believe in this superstition, but he acceded to the wishes of his neighbors and, in March, sent a message to Dr. Harold Metcalf, who had treated Mercy, asking him to autopsy the bodies. George did not attend. The two Marys, who had been dead between seven and eight years, were essentially skeletons with some tissue and hair still attached. Mercy, who had been dead for only a couple of months, hadn’t even been buried yet: her body had been stored in a crypt until the ground became soft enough to dig a grave. Dr. Metcalf removed the heart and liver and declared them to be in the condition one would expect. Nonetheless, the neighbors burnt the heart, mixed it with water or medicine and gave it to Edwin. He died shortly thereafter.

The exhumation of Mercy’s body received a great deal of publicity almost immediately. The reporters who wrote about the event were familiar with the word “vampire” and the European vampire tradition and imposed certain sensational elements onto the Mercy Brown story. An article about Mercy Brown was found among Bram Stoker’s papers.

Although Mercy Brown is the best-known of the New England vampires, she was not unique. Similar rituals occurred all over New England, but especially in Rhode Island and the area of Connecticut that borders Rhode Island. Nellie Vaughn was not one of the vampires. According to her death certificate, she died of pneumonia, not consumption; there seem to have been no other deaths in her family that could blamed on her. But somehow, by the 1970s, she had earned a reputation as a vampire. This reputation has attracted visitors and vandals to the cemetery behind the Plain Meeting House Baptist Church in West Greenwich, RI. In 1977, a newspaper article reported that Nellie’s was

the only sunken grave in the cemetery and continues to sink into the earth. “No vegetation or lichen will grown on the grave,” reports a local university professor[,] despite numerous attempts by grave tenders and the curious. Along the bottom of the grave are inscribed the words, “I am waiting and watching for you” (qtd. in Bell 82)

Oooh, spooooky. But a creepy inscription does not a vampire make, especially if the inscription is a perfectly common sentiment looking forward to resurrection and reunion in heaven (and the inscription was probably chosen by Nellie’s parents). There has to be more to it than that, surely. Well, yes, there is.  The historic church is remote and only has a semiannual service. Otherwise, it is boarded up (its apparent abandonment may itself attract vandals). According to a 1982 article in the Providence Journal-Bulletin:

“As far as we can tell, it started 15 years ago when a teacher at Coventry High School told his students that there was a vampire buried in a cemetery off [state route] 102,” reports church historian Evelyn Smith (qtd. in Bell 82).

The teacher didn’t name the vampire or the cemetery. Presumably, he meant Mercy Brown, buried in Exeter, RI, but some intrepid students, armed with this lack of information, went on a vampire hunt and found Nellie Vaughn, buried in West Greenwich, RI. Her age was about right, her date of death was about right, and there was that spooky inscription. Mission accomplished: vampire found.

There’s a problem with this explanation, though. Bell went to West Greenwich and interviewed a number of people, including former town clerk Cora Lamoureux and unofficial town historian and genealogist Blanche Albro. They were understandably upset by the vandalism to the church and graveyard and by Nellie’s undeserved reputation as a vampire. As Blanche said:

[W]e never had one [a vampire] ’til this kooky teacher. And the only reason she started it, ’cause it says, ‘watching and waiting for you’ on her stone in the cemetery (Bell 86).

Notice how the teacher from Coventry, who was a “he” in the newspaper article, has become a “she?” Bell was never able to track down the teacher from Coventry. People said they knew who he/she was–Blanche said her nephew was there when the vampire story was told–but Bell was never able to get a name or details. So, while the story seems plausible and may indeed be true, the “teacher from Coventry” seems to have a whiff of legend about him/her (as does the professor at the local university who reported that no vegetation grows on Nellie’s grave). He or she has become part of the story. Bell equates the teacher with the FOAF (friend of a friend) who tends to be at the center of urban (and rural) legends.

But, wait, there’s more! Now Nellie’s become a ghost, and why? because she’s pissed that people think she’s a vampire. Charles T. Robinson, in his book New England Ghost Files, reports on the experiences of Marlene Chatfield, who has had several ghostly encounters with Nellie. On one occasion, a woman’s voice said, “I am perfectly pleasant.” As notes, this “must be some kind of ghost code for ‘I am pure evil,’ because red scratches then appeared on [Marlene’s] husband’s face, prompting him to leave the cemetery.” On another occasion, Marlene met a young woman in the cemetery who said she was with a local historical society. When they got to Nellie’s grave, Marlene asked the woman what she thought of Nellie’s reputation as a vampire. The woman said it was silly. Then her behavior changed, and she began repeating the phrase “Nellie is not a vampire.” Marlene freaked out and hurried back to her car. When she looked back, the woman was gone! [cue spooky music]. Marlene believes that Nellie’s ghost returns because she is troubled by her reputation as a vampire. This is why she assures people that she is perfectly pleasant. Her assertion would be more compelling if she didn’t then attack people.

For those keeping score:

  • Nellie is a vampire
  • No she isn’t
  • The story was started by a teacher from Coventry
  • Maybe it wasn’t
  • A college professor said no vegetation grows on the grave
  • Maybe he didn’t
  • Nellie’s ghost appears because she’s unhappy that people think she is a vampire
  • She claims to be perfectly pleasant
  • She isn’t

This, gentle reader, is how legends are born and grow. One woman Bell interviewed not only believed that Nellie Vaughn was a vampire but that the semiannual service at the Plain Meeting House Baptist Church was a black mass attended by devil worshipers. Because of vandalism, Nellie’s gravestone has been moved to an undisclosed location (it had been broken up). Now that no one knows where the grave is, grass grows on it.

I keep saying that Nellie Vaughn’s reputation as a vampire is undeserved, but, let’s be fair, Mercy Brown doesn’t really deserve the reputation either. The poor girl lost her mother and her sister, watched her brother get sick and then died herself at nineteen. Then people hauled her out of her temporary crypt, cut out her heart and liver and burnt them. And it didn’t help her brother. Because of Mercy’s fame, her grave has also attracted vandalism (at one point her gravestone was stolen) and stories of hauntings.

But while we know that she was thought to harbor some sort of evil influence, there is something odd about her story as well. I’ve given the chronology above: Mercy’s mother and sister died years before Mercy began showing symptoms of consumption, and, although she predeceased her brother Edwin, he became ill before she did. Therefore, Mercy herself could not conceivably have been responsible for her mother’s and sister’s deaths nor for her brother’s illness. This doesn’t seem entirely logical and doesn’t fit with the pattern of European vampires. None of the contemporary reports explains this discrepancy, but it seems likely that the malevolent force that was held responsible for consumption infected the dead in much the same way that consumption itself infected the living. It may have moved from one corpse to the next. The corpse with the (reasonably) fresh heart was the one that was currently infected by the evil.

*Actually, her body was moved from a family plot to a public cemetery, but the exhumation had nothing to do with vampirism.

**I use the non-medical term “consumption” advisedly. While “consumption” usually refers to primary pulmonary tuberculosis, it could also be applied to other respiratory ailments.



Bell, Michael E. Food for the Dead: On the Trail of New England’s Vampires. New York: Carroll and Graf, 2001. Will be reprinted in Oct. 2011. Currently available as an e-book.

Stetson, George R. “The Animistic Vampire in New England.” American Anthropologist 9 (1896): 1-13.

TAM Happens in Vegas, But I Won’t Leave It There

July 10, 2011

This week I’ll be attending The Amaz!ng Meeting 9 (TAM9) in Las Vegas, Nevada. TAM9 is the annual conference of The James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) that brings together skeptics and critical thinkers for several days of talks, panels and myriad activities. Each year TAM gets bigger and bigger whilst expanding content, diversity and attendance.

This year’s schedule contains two keynote addresses that are open to the general public. The first is given by Neil deGrasse Tyson, host of Nova ScienceNow and director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History. Dr. Tyson brings a passion for astrophysics and a strong, persuasive message of the necessity for science education and communication to the general public. The second keynote is Richard Dawkins, evolutionary biologist, prolific bestselling author and director of the Richard Dawkins Foundation. Dawkins is a foremost speaker on the importance of evidence-based thought in science and public life. He has the distinction of being perhaps the world’s best known public atheist.

The rest of the TAM9 schedule is the most varied and diverse yet. Included are artists, poets, scientists, activists, journalists and television personalities. The full schedule is here. The program covers immense ground in critical thinking, from Phil Plait to Jennifer Michael Hecht to Carol Tavris to Sarah Mayhew to Bill Nye to Adam Savage to Elizabeth Loftus to Skepchick bloggers to the hosts of MonsterTalk, and many, many more. The schedule is full and appeals to a wide variety of skeptics, not just serious scientists and intense science enthusiasts. This program emphasizes critical thinking for people across disciplines.

Beyond the official TAM program, there’s a full slate of fringe events which emphasize the diversity that TAM represents this year. Side trips are planned to Red Rocks and the Grand Canyon as well as daredevil activities. There are meetups for myriad subgroups, including various nationalities, vegetarians, LGBT folks and others. The most notorious of the unofficial events is Penn Jillette’s Bacon and Donut Party, which is a fundraiser for JREF.

The diversity of the official and non-official schedules of TAM9 elucidates the changing face of skepticism. No longer are cries of the skeptical movement as a bastion of privileged white men accurate or productive. This year’s Amaz!ng Meeting holds promise to be one that moves beyond talk of inclusion into one of outreach.

TAM9 will be held at the South Point Hotel, Casino and Spa from July 14-17. I will be posting daily blog updates from Las Vegas throughout the conference. If you have any particular questions for interviewees or issues you’d like me to address, please leave me a comment here or through Twitter.

This entry is cross-posted at SheThought.


The Good Cat Spell Book Reviewed by a Cat (with pictures of cats!)

June 30, 2011

Oh hai. I iz Jesse, also known as Dr. Whitey-Cat, a very educated cat and new contributor to this thingy. Not only does I haz doctorate, I iz expert on homeopafee and iz member of teh Illuminati. I tellz you about dat later, if you iz good. I am here to appeal to the underrepresented skeptical feline demographic.

I haz sleeped on many grate books. I speshully liek Shakespeare and Chaucer. Dey iz just teh right size. I haz also sleeped on/rubbed against some very silly books. Recently I came across dis:

The Good Cat Spell Book by Gillian Kemp. I am sure she is very nice witch what loves her kittehs, but I fink she got into some bad catnip. Do ergot grow on ‘nip? Teh hole book is based on a faulty premise: cats iz magic, and by using dem in you spellz, you can harness der magic. See, cats IZ magic, but our magic iz a sooper seekrit. You no can haz our magic. You iznt magic. Also, she think you can find out stuff and do stuff using a kitteh, but here’s teh ting: we no care if you want to get you freak on wiff teh UPS guy. We lieks our hoomins; maybe we even wubs dem (maybe), but if it don’t affect us, we don’t care. Also, spellz to bond wif you cat? You no need spellz for dat; you need fish. Dats real magic!

Cats are believed to possess the power to bewitch people. (p. 1)


But people can bewitch cats, too. (p. 1)


A familiar is an animal companion who helps his person in their magical work. Your cat is your familiar because the pair of you loves each other. (p. 1)

If your cat haz speshul magic powrz, shouldn’t you be your cat’s familiar? Just sayin’. We iz NOT no one’s familiars.

As your familiar, bound to you by enduring love, your cat delivers your wishes. (p. 1)

Holy crap, I tink maybe I iz Teh Secret! But yes, we will fulfill your wishes if you wish to feed us, pet us, play with us, entertain us, do whatever we want, or get bited.

You and your cat’s patience and respect for each other will release and channel magic. (p. 1)

Yes, as a speesheez, cats iz known for our patience (I haz a sarcazm).

Cats of either sex symbolize the abundant, maternal essence we call upon for help. (p. 2)

???!!!11!!?? Look, lady, I may not haz any harbls (cuz teh ebil vet Dr. Mengele stoled dem when I was little itteh bitteh kitteh), but I iz sooper butch apex predator, and don’t you forget it! Don’t make me mount you (srsly, cuz I don’t want to make crazy kittens).

Cats’ eyes represent the clairvoyant eyes of inner intuition through which we see the truth to discover ourselves and our place in the world. (p. 2)

Inner intuition is way better than outer intuition.

If you look into their eyes you will see the true, clear sight of omniscience, the seed of divine knowing. (p. 2)

True. You may also see eye boogers, but don’t touch em: dey is omniscient eye boogers.

…[Y]ou can invoke the power of [Egyptian cat goddess] Bast to help protect your familiar from harm and to bring your cat a long and happy, healthy life in your care. (p. 2)

Oh, good. Go for it.

For thousands of years…the things [cats] have discarded from their own bodies have been used for magic. For some spells, you’ll need whiskers, milk teeth, fur, and claws that your cat has shed. Store them in a small “cat magic” trinket box until you require them for sorcery. (p. 3)

I already haz a “cat magic” box where I stores things I haz discarded from my own body. Help yourself.

Your familiar may be trying to tell you something through his behaviour, giving you clues you can follow to enhance your magic. (p. 3)

I AM trying to tell you sumfing: feed me, pet me, rub my belly, play wif me. When I perch on my food bin and howl in Siamese? A sooper subtile clue dat I has a hungry. I don’t give a hairball for your magic.

When your cat is lazing in a sunbeam, he may be trying…to tell you something or someone sunny is about to enter your life, to bring light and happiness to you. (p. 4)

Wow. Look, I iz a cat. I likes warm and I likes naps. Get your own sunbeam!

[Your cat’s behavior tells you what to wish for:] Wish it if you want it. (p. 4)

See, I am Teh Secret!

She den gives some false eteemologees of  “puss” (no is Egyptian) and “cautious” (no is related to “cattus”) and starts bibbling about the Egyptians:

Egyptian figures and paintings of the period show cats wearing earrings and jeweled collars, and thousands of mummified cats have been found in tombs and buried along the Nile. (p. 7)

Look, de Egyptians were great. Glad we domesticated dem. Did you know the pyramids was designed by cats, not aliens? Dey is artistic representations of the piles we make in our litter boxes. We didn’t bild teh pyramids, though. Phew, what a lotta work. But the Egyptians were teh original crazy cat ladies: see, we don’t like earrings; most of us don’t liek collars; and we HATE being sacrificed.

…[S]ince white cats often have one eye a different color from the other, they always have been considered magical and more capable than any other cat to predict good fortune. (p.10)

When I lived in a “foster home” wiff 200 cats (crazy cat lady), I knowed a Angora wif one green eye and one blue eye. He wasn’t dat speshul.

If your familiar is a white cat, it is believed you will have exceedingly good fortune your whole long life. Within twelve months after you acquire your white cat, someone in your close family will marry. (p. 10)

Nope. Why I care if your awkward second cousin finally caught a man?

A deaf white cat with blue eyes is said to be especially psychic because her impeded hearing is directed inward to her inner ear, psychic centre. (p. 10)

You no know what a inner ear is, do you?

And blue-eyed cats of any color are said to be especially magical because like blue sky over nighttime darkness, they symbolize divine eternity and immortality. (p. 10)

And white, blue-eyed cats who hear good and meow in Siamese iz the most bestest and most magicalest of all. Dat isn’t “believed” or “thought” or “said.” It’s teh truth.

You will have a male visitor if your cat washes his face with his right paw over his right ear. If he washes his face and left ear with his left paw, expect a female visitor. (p. 16)

lol. Do you know how many tiems a day we washes our faces (bof sides)? You must live in Grand Central Station!

Dere is a bunch of spells for tings cats don’t care about. Most of dese involve your cat and lit candles and sometimes burning stuff. Iz I the only one dat tinks dis is maybe a safety hazard? Den dere is spells dat encourage you to put lipstick on your cat’s pawsie to take his pawprint. You put lipstick on my pawsie, you hole house be coverd in pawprinz–bloody pawprinz!

After teh spellz comes “Felinodamancy: Cat Divination.” Here’s a example:

Seat your cat on your lap, and tell your familiar that you wish him to divine your future by answering a question…. Ask your familiar to respond by blinking once if the answer…is yes, twice for no. Alternatively, ask your familiar to purr an odd number of times for yes and an even number of times for no. (p. 62)

First, yu know how long we can go wifout blinking? Also, dats not how purring works. We purrz, den we go sleep. We don’t go “purr, no purr, purr, no purr, purr, no purr.” Unless you pet kitteh, he purrs; you stop pet, he stop; you pet kitteh, he purrs, etc. But den, you control how many tiems kitteh purrs and dats cheating.

To find out if you get wut you want, yu put treats in food bowl, den counts how many treats is left saying “I will get what I want” and “I will not get what I want” until “the last line spoken with the last treat gives you your answer.” I no care how many treats you put in my bowl, you will never get an answer. I leave no treats behind. I encourage yu to try though.

Dere iz a sekshun on reading your cat’s aura. I can see in teh dark; i no see no auras.

Den dere iz cat astrology.

If you have no idea of your cat’s day of birth, reading the following descriptions will help you determine whether your cat is ruled by an Air, Fire, Water, or Earth Sign, which in turn will help you deduce which is your cat’s most probable birth sign. (p. 75)

Dat seem kinda circular, but OK, we no know when my friend Gavin was borned.

But we fink maybe his sign is “Derp.” Anyways, we looked frough the descriptions and he fit every element and every sign and also he no fit every element and every sign. Weird. Dere is some real specific stuff though, like “Taurean cats have thick necks, a solid stature, and a particularly furry tuft between their ears” (p. 82). So, liek, no Siameses or Abyssinianses was born between April 20 and May 20?

In short, I give Teh Good Cat Spell Book dew claws down. I give it 2 whiskers (on a scale of alots of whiskers) because she lieks cats, but she no understand us. Here, haz some moar magic:

Stackable kittehs iz stackable

A stackable kitteh

Mysterious cat iz mysterious

Slightly out-of-focus cat is slightly out-of-focus

My visit to the TruthCon…in video form!

June 30, 2011

Tim Farley, or as I like to think of him, Novellatron 2.0, has created a vimeo site for the Atlanta Skepticamp. Below is the talk-version of my Skeptical Inquirer article:

All They Want is the Truth: TruthCon 2011 from Atlanta Skeptics on Vimeo.

If you want to see the vids as they appear (a couple hundred MB at a time), visit the site!

Check out Tim’s, an invaluable skeptical resource. More coming soon!


Skepticamp Atlanta: Live, Online, All-Nude!

June 10, 2011

Oh well, 2 out of 3 is not bad.

Tomorrow, Atlanta Skeptics are leaving the bar (for once) to put on a two-day online extravaganza: Skepticamp 2011: This Time It’s Personal. We will be streaming live on the Internet, so you may be able to see my talk or Eve’s talk. I’ll be doing a bit about my visit to the TruthCon at 1:00PM Eastern, while Eve will go at 1:30 and will be talking about the history of profanity.

I am embedding a widget linky doodad below, but in case that does not work, you can click on this link to get to the live web stream. Remember to ask questions in the chat and to introduce yourselves?


    Vodpod videos no longer available.

My Skeptical Inquirer article, “All They Want is the Truth,” is online

June 9, 2011

Several moons ago, I visited the TruthCon, a convention with a difference. It brought together a wide variety of extraordinary claims together under one roof. I was unable to write about it here because I was reporting on it on behalf of Skeptical Inquirer. Well, it’s up now and ripe for your delectation. Enjoy!

All They Want is the Truth

(I should mention that I am also going to be appearing on the conspiracy theory panel at the upcoming CSICon in New Orleans in October. You should really come. It’s going to rock out!)


TAPS paraMagazine, Part 2: TAPS the Ripper

May 30, 2011

Yesterday, I began my review of TAPS paraMagazine. Today, I am going to discuss an article that has nothing to do with the paranormal but which illustrates why competent writing is so important.

The article on Jack the Ripper is credited to Rev. Jonathan Tapsell. The only information about the author is that he is from “London, England, Great Britain” (oh, that London, England). There is no other biographical information and no explanation of his title of “Rev.” My investigoogling turned up no more information, except that he is the author of Porn-Again Christian: One Englishman’s Startling Adventures in the UK Sex Trade! Having read the product description, I can’t figure out what the “Christian” part has to do with anything. Oh well.

The article’s description (which, to be fair, may not have been written by Tapsell) begins, “Jack the Ripper was the world’s first media serial killer.” Wow. Wait, what’s a “media serial killer”? Does he kill media? “Oh my God, stop stabbing that newspaper!” Is it media with a penchant for homicide? “Oh my God, that newspaper is stabbing prostitutes!” The blurb goes on to describe Jack the Ripper as a “shadowy figure whose scarlet tracings wreaked terror in Victorian London, and whose name conjures up dark, fear-filled foggy streets.” Nice alliteration. The phrase “scarlet tracings” may be borrowed from the book White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings by Iain Sinclair.

The article proper begins,

To this day experts on the Whitechapel murders (Ripperologists) disagree on the number of victims, but generally it is seen as five women, although according to some theories this figure could be higher. (p. 25)

This is a weak, awkwardly-worded opening that lacks context, but the problems with the writing are just beginning. When he begins considering suspects, Tapsell says,

From his official notes kept at the Public Records Office, Sir Melville Macnaughten [sic*] was quoted in the press during a later interview in 1894, stating that one suspect was a man called Cutbush….” (p. 26)

I’ve read and reread that sentence and still can’t make sense of it. Does the information come from Macnaghten’s notes or an interview? I assume it must have been from the report he wrote in 1894. According to Wikipedia, this report wasn’t publicly available until 1959; however, it seems that Frank Abberline, the detective who led the investigation, may have mentioned Macnaghten’s report in an interview. You’d never guess this from what Tapsell actually says. Tapsell then mentions that Macnaghten thought the most likely suspect was a man named Druitt:

Mr. M. J. Druitt, a doctor of about 41 years of age from a fairly good family, disappeared at the time of the Miller’s Court murder. His body was found floating in the Thames on 31st December….

Montague Druitt is one of the classic suspects. He was born in 1857, and would have been thirty-one at the time of the murders. Educated at Oxford, he soon went into teaching, and also practiced law as a barrister. (p. 26)

Are these two Druitts the same guy? On the one hand, their ages are different, they have different professions, and their names are not identical (M. J. versus Montague). On the other, could there have been two M. Druitt’s who were suspected of the murders and who both drowned in the Thames in 1888? The confusion over profession apparently came from Macnaghten, but Tapsell does nothing to clarify. The information he gives is very confusing.

He also mentions the work of “Laura Richards, a ‘pretty blonde’ who is the former Head of analysis for Scotland Yard’s Violent Crime Command.” I have no idea why “pretty blonde” is in quotation marks nor why her hair color and level of attractiveness are relevant to her position with Scotland yard or the validity of her work.

Tapsell’s own favored candidate is Francis Tumblety. After four whole paragraphs of discussion, Tapsell feels confident in concluding “Jack the Ripper died in St. Louis, Missouri in 1903 and is buried in Rochester, New York.” Case closed.

Or maybe not, as there is an “Editor’s Addendum,” five more paragraphs discussing another suspect. Presumably based on the Discovery Channel’s documentary “Jack the Ripper in America” (part 1 available here; critique of the show here), the addendum presents the investigative work of Ed Norris, radio host, former police officer and convicted felon, who believes that James Kelly was Jack the Ripper. The addendum doesn’t actually mention the Discovery program, but it seems fairly clear this where the information comes from. For instance, Roberts mentions that Kelly, after returning to Broadmore Asylum after a long absence, said he disliked “skanks.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “skank,” meaning “A person (esp. a woman) regarded as unattractive, sleazy,sexually promiscuous, or immoral,” is slang of American origin which first appeared in 1967. However, in the documentary, Norris does say the notes on Kelly mentioned “sqanks,” although he does not provide a full context. It seems that “skank” may come from “skag,” which first appeared in the 1920s (Kelly returned to Broadmore in 1927). While no credit is given to the documentary, readers are invited to “Learn more about James Kelly on the web: http//” That site (minus the “www”) gives an unsourced but detailed timeline of the events of Kelly’s life; however, it does not include some of the information mentioned in the TAPS article (such as the “skank” reference).

So, there you have it: a poorly-written, confusing, badly-sourced article that makes a bold claim which the editor undercuts in a poorly written, badly-sourced addendum.

*Tapsell mispells the names of Macnaghten, Frank Abberline (he adds an extra “b”) and Patricia Cornwell (he also calls Cornwell an “author and pathologist.” Although she worked as a technical writer and computer analyst with the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of Virginia, she was never a pathologist: her degree is in English). The proofreading in the magazine is quite appalling. Aside from spelling, punctuation and grammar errors, some information is simply missing. When discussing the man he believes committed the murders, Tapsell says, “Tumblety was arrested for–what was then punishable as misdemeanor–and prosecuted.” He doesn’t actually say what crime it was (it was “gross indecency“). In another article, a “Demonology F.A.Q.,” a sentence begins at the bottom of one column, but never concludes: “My functions include…investigating claims of paranormal activity, speaking to” That’s it. The next column begins a new paragraph: “I am on a committee that put on a conference for clergy and laity….”

Review of TAPS paraMagazine

May 29, 2011

From time to time, Bob and I buy and sometimes even read fringe publications. We use them to illustrate logical fallacies and (occasionally) sound critical thinking (no really, it happens occasionally). I was looking through some of the notes I’ve made on a couple of these publications and thought I might share them with you, gentle reader, lest you be tempted to pick up one of the magazines for your own reading pleasure.

Up first, TAPS paraMagazine (March/April 2010). Everyone’s favorite Ghost Hunters, Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson, are pictured next to the magazine’s name, but, aside from a paragraph or two on the “Founders” page (5), they seem to have little direct involvement in the magazine, although they, along with Steve Gonsalves, are listed as “senior staff.” Gonsalves is also listed as the Art Director.

(For a tl;dr capsule review, scroll to the end.)

So, okay, The Name: paraMagazine: who came up with that? Is it beyond a magazine? beside a magazine? I suspect they didn’t think that one through very carefully.

Overall, the magazine is rather self-serving and self-promoting: there are ads for TAPS-related events and products as well as stories (and a cartoon) that promote TAPS. Fair enough: TAPS is part of the title, after all. On Ghost Hunters, however, the members of TAPS argue that their method of investigation is scientific and even skeptical (wow, I can hear you cringing), so what else do they advertise in a magazine to which they attach their corporate name, individual names and likenesses? Well, on the inside cover, there is an advertisement for DVDs from Reality Films. Any conspiracy you can think of, Reality Films has a video about it: Lies & Deception: UFO’s [sic] & the Secret Agenda (What They Don’t Want You to Know); UFOs and Close Encounters (The Most Amazing Encounters of Alien Abductions, UFO Visitations and Government Cover Ups in History!); The Truth Injection (more new world order exposed; Swine Flu Conspiracy, New World Order, Totalitarianism, Financial meltdown, and more…); The Conspiracy to Rule the World: From 911 to the Illuminati; Angels, Demons & Freeemasons: The True Conspiracy (666, New World Order); Inside the Freemasons: The Grand Lodge Uncovered (Freemasons on Freemasons [is anyone else imagining the world’s worst porn?]); Secret Societies and the Global Conspiracy: The Ultimate Conspiracy 3 DVD Set! (Discover the Secret Origins of the Knights Templar, Fremasonry, The Bilderbergers, Serpent Cults, the Illuminati and MORE!).

Not sure about conspiracies, but you’d like to cure all illness and live forever? Well, there’s an advertisement for Covenant of Silence: The Secret of Immortality Revealed by Nicholas D. Collette:

All throughout history, elite secret societies have guarded the knowledge of how to manufacture the true “Elixir of Life”, which restores youth, prolongs life, cures disease, and opens the gateway to extraordinary psychic power…. After 12 years of researching these texts and experimenting in the lab, correct methods have been discovered which don’t involve the use of corrosive chemicals or dangerous acids…. Experience the power of the true Elixir of Life for yourself, and open the gateway to the paranormal!

So it turns out alchemy is true. Yay. I suppose this is mostly silly, but it is also potentially dangerous as it claims the Elixir can cure illness (though it apparently can’t cure dangling modifiers).

Perhaps it’s not fair to judge the magazine by its advertisers. So, let us look at the magazine itself.

The magazine is edited by Scotty Roberts, and his “From the Editor” is the reader’s first introduction to the prose one can expect from this periodical. If Scotty Moore ever took a creative writing class, he should sue his teacher. Heck, he should sue all his English teachers:

The Mag you now hold in your hands is the product of an evolution. It started as a big dream of its founders and went on to reality, coursing it’s way through the Pillars of Hercules of the business and creative process–the good, bad and ugly (p. 4, emphasis added).

He goes on to say that their goal is to become “the finest paranormal magazine on the market,[sic]  today.” They will accomplish this, in part, “[b]y offering a more journalistic approach.” You will note the apostrophe error I have bolded above, as well as the unnecessary comma. I feel a bit petty pointing these errors out, but the poor quality of the writing, punctuation and grammar are quite distracting. Glancing through my notes, I see that I have recorded at least 14 apostrophe errors. Every possible mistake you can make with apostrophe has been made: possessive “its” has been given an apostrophe; the contraction “it’s” lacks an apostrophe; non-possessive plurals have apostrophes; possessives lack them. Then there are the awkward attempts at rhetorical flourishes, as when Roberts imagines his magazine traveling through the Strait of Gibraltar for some reason.

One of the magazine’s more serious articles is called “The Resonance Factor: The Role of Vibration and Consciousness in The Infrastructure of Reality” by Larry Flaxman and Marie D. Jones. A better title might be, “She Blinded Me with SCHMIENCE!”  To be honest, I’m not quite sure what the authors are trying to say. They are taking real science that I suspect that they don’t really understand and trying to apply it to everything: ghosts, UFOs, The Secret, Bigfoot–everything. And it all has to do with resonance and vibrations and sound. Somehow resonance connects “Let there be light” and the Big Bang theory:

The term resonance really is much more encompassing than one might initially realize…. Judeo-Christian tradition refers to the Word as the first utterance of the Creator, from which all of creation sprang forth. Science points to the Big Bang as the explosive moment of the birth of our universe. (p. 9)

See? The article starts vague, and uses many weasel words and the weaselly passive: “some believe,” “is generally believed,” “studies have shown,” “may indeed be,” “may also work,” “research has shown.” You get the idea. Eventually, they discuss some real scholarly-sounding articles, but I’m not sure the quotes, which are probably taken out of context, actually have anything to do with what the authors of this article are saying. One of the experts they cite is Amit Goswami, who appeared in the film What the Bleep Do We Know!? In general, the article doesn’t make much sense; it is hard to understand, but it sounds all sciencey. Since most normal people can’t understand scholarly scientific articles (I include myself), the fact that it doesn’t make sense may actually lend it credibility to some readers (I do not include myself): they expect science to not make sense, so stuff that doesn’t make sense must be science.

An article about orbs (16-17) starts out more promisingly. For starters, the author, Rosemary Ellen Guiley, is actually a professional writer. The content of her works may be questionable, but she is a more competent writer than some of the other contributors. Secondly, she briefly gives rational explanations for the appearance of most orbs; however, eventually she says, “even the hardest skeptics acknowledge that at least a tiny percentage of orb photos cannot be explained” (17). I suppose this is technically true, but the implication seems to be that if these orbs haven’t been explained they are therefore inexplicable. Of course, this is not true: while we may not have sufficient information to formulate a firm explanation, we don’t have to assume that the explanation must therefore be ghosts or aliens or quantum energy farts. Naturally, Guiley isn’t content to say, “huh, we don’t know what that is. The video just isn’t clear enough.” No, she, citing Miceal Ledwith and Klaus Heinemann, authors of The Orb Project, suggests they might be “images of spirit manifestations, or emanations of spirits” (17). She also cites physicist William A. Tiller, another alumnus of What the Bleep, who suggests that orbs may indicate an “unfolding of ‘communications manifestation,'” whatever that may mean. In the end, Guiley concludes that “Orbs should not be dismissed outright. There may be much more behind them than we realize.” Or, you know, maybe there isn’t.

Stay tuned for “Review of TAPS paraMagazine, Part the Second,” in which we will encounter a new Jack the Ripper, who eviscerates the English language and dumps her entrails over her shoulder. We will also discover how a Ph.D. in medieval English literature makes one a qualified paranormal researcher.

tl;dr capsule review: One of the cats barfed on the magazine. A harsh assessment, but fair.

ES, with assistance from Mina the Cat (pictured below)

Ghost Hunters Slash Fic. Really.

May 10, 2011

Yeah. It’s come to this. Writing about Ghost Hunters slash-fic. The “slash” does not mean that they finally met a ghost who was capable of carving them up. (Man, I’d totally record that episode.) It is a pairing of two characters in a TV show or movie and then making them have sex with each other. Want Kermit and Miss Piggy to get it on? Think that Shaggy and Scooby could build a relationship on something more than Scooby-Snax? Hell, you could even have Marge Simpson do it with the Church Lady. The possibilities are endless, and with your imagination and access to the Internet you can not only make it happen but also traumatize strangers!

But Ghost Hunters? Really? Yeah.

It feels like Jason is looming over him, menacing and Grant gets the strangest feeling that Jason is pissed, maybe wants to hurt him, and he tries to get a hold of himself, because it’s just Jason. His friend. He’s pissed, yeah, but not at him. Grant forgets, and takes another deep breath and holds it for a second even though that means they’re pressed against each other again. He lets it out slowly and he doesn’t think, he just does what feels right, and melts back against the wall and lets his head tilt to the side. And Jason just sort of goes with him, pressing him back and nosing at his cheek, a touch so soft Grant barely feels it. Jason whispers, “Grant” and sighs, and Grant thinks Jason is smelling his neck.

Two words: Neck odor. Sexy!

The comments are even better:

“ever since i started watching ghost hunters, i’ve always wanted to write some jason/grant. they are just too in love. <3333333”

But equally, no, even more disturbing is Tango/Steve fic (from Tango’s POV):

It’s too easy just to lean a little closer, brushing my mouth against his. One of us pushes harder, adding more pressure. I’m not sure which of us did it, but then Steve is kissing me hard, pushing me back until my back bumps up against a wall. His hands flit around me, either unsure of where to settle or unable to decide which part of me to hold on to.

His neck. Grab his neck with both hands and squeeze hard.

Of course, if you are gunning for actual throw-up, I recommend dwelling on the idea behind this image. In the end, they both look a little too much like Nintendo characters for me to take too seriously.

But the depths of hell can be only reached when you tag along with the boys from Paranormal State:

“Can I say, ‘I love you’ without implying that I want to marry you and bear your children through weird future-science?” Sergey panted mindlessly as he felt the squishy flesh giving at the back of Ryan’s throat to accommodate his member.

And this makes me wonder….is there Deadliest Catch slash fic? Dirty Jobs slash (gag) fic (“This time Barsky has to shave more than his head…”; aka, “Splendor in the Pooh”)? 60 Minutes slash fic?

There. I’m pretty sure I’ve hurt you. You’re welcome.


Dowsing for King Arthur

March 31, 2011

A few weeks ago, Bob suggested I write a post on the “historical” King Arthur. My immediate reaction was “meh.” Arthur is, of course, quite important to medieval literature: the Matter of Britain is the subject of many important works of Middle English, including Laȝamon’s Brut, the Alliterative Morte Arthure, the Stanzaic Morte Arthure, The Awntyrs off ArthureSir Gawain and the Green Knight and many more. Finally, in the late Middle English period, Sir Thomas Malory produced Le Morte d’Arthur, in which he brought together disparate stories from French and English sources and attempted to tell the whole tale from beginning to end. As you might expect, Malory’s work has some organizational problems. For instance, I distinctly recall that Lancelot killed the same knight three times in thirty pages. Nonetheless, Malory’s compilation has become the story of Arthur that we all know.

I have from time to time read about the “historical Arthur,” but my main reaction is, “I don’t care” because even if (and it’s a big “if”) Arthur existed, he is so far removed from the Arthur we know as to be unrecognizable. A historical Arthur would have nothing in common with Malory’s king; he’d have precious little in common even with Geoffrey of Monmouth‘s.

Recently, though, I’ve been thinking a bit more about the historical Arthur. From time to time, I have watched the BBC series Merlin, which has absolutely nothing to do with anything remotely historical. However, the actors who play Merlin and Arthur in the series, Colin Morgan and Bradley James, also appear in a program in which they gallivant across Wales in search of “The Real Merlin and Arthur,” although Merlin gets pretty short shrift. They arrive late everywhere, but–hey–the scenery is pretty and so are the actors.

Their first stop is the Arthurian Collection in Mold, Flintshire, which houses over 2000 books related to Arthur. Unfortunately, they arrive after the library has closed. Regardless, author Scott Lloyd gamely tells the actors about the documentary evidence for Arthur’s existence. Here it is:

Want to see it again? It’s like this: Arthur is supposed to have fought the Germanic invaders of Britain, briefly halting the Anglo-Saxon advance. This would place him in the late 5th and early 6th centuries. Arthur is first mentioned in the 9th century.  The Old Welsh poem Y Gododdin mentions a warrior named Gwawrddur who, though mighty, was “no Arthur.” Unfortunately, Y Gododdin survives in a manuscript from the 13th century. Although there is scholarly debate over the date of composition, it may be as late as the 9th century. Even if the poem is much earlier, say 6th or 7th century, it has undergone extensive changes in its oral and written transmission. There is no way to know whether the almost throwaway reference to Arthur is original.

A more substantive account of Arthur appears in the Historia Brittonum, usually (though quite possibly erroneously) attributed to a Welsh monk named Nennius. The Historia Brittonum is a disorganized mish-mash of material written or compiled in the first half of the 9th century. Arthur is mentioned as a dux bellorum (leader of battles) who fought with the kings of Britain against the Germanic invaders. This would suggest that he was not himself a king, even if he existed. Nennius associates Arthur with a number of wonders or marvels and twelve battles. Of course, the wonders are of extremely dubious historicity, but the battles are questionable as well. Although people have tried to make connections, most of the battles cannot be identified. Furthermore, Nennius claims that Arthur personally killed 960 men in one battle, which seems a tad unlikely.

This battle, the battle of Mount Badon, is, however, almost certainly historical. It is mentioned by Gildas, a 6th-century British monk, in De Excidio et Conquestu de Britanniae. Gildas says that he was born in the year of the battle of Mount Badon, so he would have been a younger contemporary of Arthur’s if Arthur had existed. Guess who isn’t mentioned in Gildas. I’ll give you a hint: it’s the same guy who isn’t mentioned in any works by Anglo-Saxons, such as Bede‘s Chronica Maiora (725) and Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (731) or the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (begun in the 9th century). They mention other characters from the “historical” Arthur’s story, such as the British king Vortigern, who invited the Germanic mercenaries to Britain. Indeed Bede was probably the first to mention Vortigern. Two manuscripts of Gildas name him, but these are from the 12th and 13th centuries. Bede and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle also mention the twin brothers Hengest (stallion) and Horsa (horse). Both Beowulf and The Fight at Finnsburg also mention a fella named Hengest, who may or may not be the same guy.

The “historical” Arthur is largely the creation of Geoffrey of Monmouth in the Historia Regum Britanniae, but Geoffrey was writing in the 12th century, more than half a millennium after Arthur’s time. In addition, Geoffrey’s work is not considered historically accurate by any credible authority.

So, that is the documentary evidence: bupkis. Some people cite archeological evidence to support Arthur’s likely existence, and indeed settlements and earthworks have been uncovered from the right time period, including the South Cadbury hill fort in Somerset and Tintagel in Cornwall and several others. But, come on, we know the 5th and 6th centuries existed; we know the Britons fought the Germanic invaders. Evidence of hill forts is not evidence of Arthur.  A few objects have been found with direct, but questionable, links to Arthur. In 1191, the monks of Glastonbury discovered the bodies of a man and woman, along with a lead burial cross that identified them as Arthur and Guinivere. The bodies and the cross disappeared during the Reformation. Most believe this was a pious hoax. At the time, the monks were trying to raise funds to rebuild Glastonbury Abbey which had been gutted by fire. Occasionally, the cross allegedly makes a reappearance, but such glimpses are also the result of hoaxes.

Amateur historians Alan Wilson and Baram Blackett have found another grave of Arthur. They identify Arthur with Athrwys ap Meurig. This is the opening paragraph of their official website:

King Arthur I son of Magnus Maximus of the late 4th Century AD and King Arthur II of the late 6th Century AD, can both trace their family lines back to the British Emperor Constantine the Great, and continue on back to the Holy Family itself which entered Britain in AD 37. Both King Arthur’s continue tracing their bloodline all the way back to King Brutus, himself a great grandson of Aeneas of Troy.

Neither the Da Vinci Code-ish content nor the grammar fill me with confidence. Nor does the fact that they’ve also found the Ark of the Covenant. But let’s look at their findings objectively. In 1983, they discovered a burial stone that reads “Rex Artorius, Fili Mavricius,” which supposedly means “King Arthur, the son of Mauricius (Meurig).” In 1990, they discovered an electrum cross that reads “Pro Anima Artorius,” “for the soul of Arthur.” The problem is, as the Bad Archaeologist points out, that “Rex Artorius, Fili Mavricius” actually means “King Arthur Mauricius, of the son” and “Pro Anima Artorius” means “Arthur for the soul.” Oh dear. This is not terribly complicated Latin grammar, although one could imagine that it might fool people who put apostrophes in plurals.

There is one inscription that definitely seems not to be a hoax or a forgery: the Artognou stone found at Tintagel. Actually, there are parts of two inscriptions on this piece of slate. Only the letters “AXE” survive from the one inscription. The other reads “+ PATERN… COLIAVIFICIT… ARTOGNOV… COL… FICIT…” The Celtic Inscribed Stones Project translates the inscription as “Artognou descendant of Patern[us] made [this]. Colus made [this].” Artognou and its Old Breton and Old Welsh cognates Arthnou and Arthneu do look a bit like Arthur. This similarity was enough to get people excited, even such an august body as the Archeological Institute of America. The name Arthur may come from the Roman gens name Artorius or it may be a Celtic name which derives in part from arto/arth, meaning “bear.” If it is the latter, then it does share an element with Arthneu, but it is not the same name. Now I admit I know virtually nothing about the Celtic languages; however assuming that “Arthur” and “Arthneu” are close enough to be considered the same guy because both names contain the element “arth” seems to be like assuming that Thorbjorn and Arnbjorn are the same guy because both names contain the element “bjorn,” which means “bear.”

In short, the archeological evidence isn’t much stronger than the documentary evidence. Is there any other kind of evidence? Well, back in Wales, the actors may have found “spiritual” evidence.  On the second day of their trek, they arrive in Gwynedd at the supposed site of the Battle of Camlann, where Arthur was mortally wounded. There they meet Santa’s disreputable older brother, Laurence Main

a Druid in a fetching miniskirt, who uses ley lines to dowse for Arthur’s burial site (another one). So, they’re walking around in the dark (they arrived late again), and their rods cross once they run into a tree. It is also possible that Main is unconsciously indicating to them where their rods should cross. At any rate, they hit one of the major ley lines and, Main explains, if it were day time and wintertime with no leaves on the tree, they could see the church where Arthur was buried. What more proof do you need?

The actors seem somewhat disappointed that they didn’t find definitive evidence of a historical Arthur, but at the end, Colin Morgan makes what I think is an excellent point:

Maybe it doesn’t matter because…the legends are always going to be there. They’re always going to be reinvented and reinterpreted, and maybe you don’t need a final answer because that’s what it’s all about: the stories are there to be enjoyed.

And that’s always been true. From very, very early on, the Arthurian legends have looked back nostalgically to a time that never really existed. Every age has reinterpreted the stories to fit the time and culture. A real Arthur probably never existed, and if he did, he had almost nothing to do with the king we know.