Wednesday, 31 July 2019

Every old woman pronounced for a witch

A short history of witchcraft sceptics

This article first appeared in Fortean Times FT367; June 2018.

It takes courage to challenge the accepted orthodoxy of the day, to take on whatever madness has gone mainstream. In the Europe of the sixteenth and seventeenth century it was witchcraft and the persecution of alleged witches.

Just as important as "How did it happen?" was how to end it. After belief in witches had become so entrenched, how did society manage to talk its way out of it? There survives a rich vein of writings by those who stuck their necks out and expressed scepticism regarding the philosophical, theological and legal justifications for the witch trials. Some were themselves men of the church; many were lawyers or judges who’d found themselves sitting in on witch trials. One was a physician, later seen as a pioneer of psychology.

Most witchcraft sceptic literature was targeted at the men at the top of the social order, the "learned" gentlemen and scholars whose influence and opinion was so important in keeping belief in witches mainstream. For witchcraft trials you needed not just fearful local accusers but also judges and "expert" witnesses - scholars, lawyers, theologians and physicians - to testify that witches existed and did the Devil's work. These "learned men" could be found in surprising abundance.

Witchcraft sceptics generally trod carefully, going to great pains to agree that witches did actually exist. Long sections of their books were devoted to describing in detail the workings of phenomena such as sabbaths and compacts with the Devil, laced with Biblical citations. Works sceptical of witchcraft usually emphasised, though, that witches were likely to be few in number, younger, male and politically influential, rather than destitute, eccentric old women with a warts and pet cats.

Sceptics did not initially try to persuade audiences that there was no such thing as witchcraft, more that almost none of the suspects paraded before the courts were likely to be the real thing, that the judicial process of witchfinding was flawed. Some witchcraft sceptics, though, went further, questioning whether even the Devil existed. As we shall see, sticking out your neck and saying that there were no witches and no witchcraft was dangerous even after the witch craze had supposedly abated.

Scepticism on the existence of witchcraft was official policy in the Catholic Church for centuries. The Canon Episcopi, an influential treatise on Canon law dated to around 1020, condemned belief in witchcraft as part of pagan superstition. The Canon Episcopi’s position was that while the Devil existed, beliefs in witches were “delusions in the mind”, created by the Devil himself. The Canon gave as an example the belief held by certain “wicked” women devotees of the goddess Diana that they rode through the night on “beasts”, except that they didn’t actually do so, they were just gripped by a mass delusion sent by Satan.

This created problems for the late fifteenth century witch persecutors. The most influential witchfinders’ manual, Malleus Maleficarum (The Hammer of the Witches, 1487,) dealt with this by re-interpreting the Canon to insist that the “rides of Diana” were real. The early witchfinding career of Malleus Maleficarum’s author, Dominican monk and inquisitor Heinrich Kramer, ended with him expelled from the city of Innsbruck in 1484, denounced by bishops as “senile and crazy”. Kircher appealed to Pope Innocent VIII, who responded with the Papal Bull Summis desiderantes affectibus. This officially confirmed witches existed, warning that many “of both sexes” had “abandoned themselves to devils.” It empowered Kircher and his associates to prosecute witches, calling on the clergy to support him. This was important in kicking off the European witch craze, which took hold relatively quickly.

The influential witchfinder's manual Malleus Maleficarum, title page from the fifth Cologne edition of 1520

Protestantism inherited Catholicism’s then prevailing witch panic. The upheaval of the Reformation and Counter-reformation, and the wars of religion that accompanied it, fuelled a tense atmosphere in which the denominations viewed each other as vast Satanic conspiracies. Lutheran pastor and witchcraft sceptic Balthasar Bekker, writing at the end of the seventeenth century, noted the ease with which even Protestants of the “True Faith” succumbed to the “error” of thinking that the Catholic Church was the empire of the Devil, while Johannes Weyer (see below) denounced an unnamed Catholic bishop who preached that Martin Luther was literally the son of Satan.

Johannes Weyer, born in what’s now the Netherlands, was a student of the occultist and theologian Cornelius Agrippa before training as a doctor. He became town physician to the Dutch city of Arnhem. He asserted that “uneducated physicians and surgeons attribute what is really their own ignorance and error to witchcraft.”

Portrait of Johannes Weyer, author of De Prasestigiis Demonum, believed to be the first author to use the term "mentally ill". Out of copyright

Weyer’s De Praestigiis Daemonum (On the Illusions of Demons), a rebuttal of Malleus, appeared in 1563 and became a Latin language bestseller. In De Prasetigiis, Weyer argues that there are “magicians of ill repute” and “exorcists” - male heretics who employ the Devil’s power to create powerful illusions through magic. He was careful to make a “distinction of meaning,” to differentiate “magicians” from “witches”. He argued that the Devil’s power was not as great as claimed. Through natural laws, “God has established the limits in which He is willing to tolerate the Devil’s activities.” Most of the deeds attributed to witches were impossible – most witchcraft was psychological in origin. Those confessing to such crimes suffered from the “credulity” of the female sex, “the distorted imagination of melancholics” or were “mentally ill” - Weyer is believed to be the first writer to use the latter phrase.

The Devil, argued Weyer, was an expert at obfuscating the truth, so witch hunters by persecuting the “mentally ill” were playing into the hands of the Devil, with his thirst for “innocent blood.”

One of the odder aspects of De Prasetigiis is its detail on the demons that can be summoned by “magicians” and “exorcists” (but not, he argued, by the poor old women accused of witchcraft). He went into chapter and verse on how readers could summon these spirits to do their will. In a later appendix to De Prasetigiis, titled Pseudomonarchia Daemonum (False Monarchy of Demons), he lists the complex hierarchy of Hell, with statistics on 69 demon kings, dukes, presidents and princes, their powers, how many legions of demons they commanded and the best time of day to summon them.

While influential in the Netherlands, Weyer’s appeals for clemency in De Praestigiis for “poor innocent women punished” went largely ignored elsewhere. The physicians, lawyers and authors of the late sixteenth century waded in to oppose Weyer, among them King James VI of Scotland (later James I of England), who in his Daemonologie (1597) insisted that witches existed and were “most severely to be punished.”

King James also branded as “damnable” Reginald Scot, author of The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584), which was strongly influenced by Weyer. An urban legend persists that King James ordered the destruction of all copies of the book.

The Discoverie
opens by lamenting how “The fables of witchcraft have taken so fast hold and deepe root” in England, to the point where English people “if any adversitie, greefe, sicknesse, Losse of children, corne, cattell, or libertie happen unto them by & by they exclaimme upon witches.”

Scot asks whether those accused of witchcraft are “worthy to die”. Echoing Weyer, Scot also notes “how easily they (witches) may be brought to confesse to that which they never did; nor lieth in the power of man to doo.”

He also introduces the term “witchmongers” – witch hunters and witchfinders, whom he lumps together with “papists.” Many column inches are devoted to “Popish exorcists and other conjurers”. Discoverie, like De Praestigiis before it, also covers thoroughly the appearance of the word “witch” in the Old Testament, going back to the various original Hebrew words later translated as “witch” and what they actually mean.

There are long descriptions of how witchcraft works (allegedly), the Devil’s compacts, how witches are brought to trial, tortured, tried and convicted. There are lengthy critiques of contemporary writers who were defending the existence of witchcraft – of whom there were already plenty. The Discoverie was written at a time when belief in fairies was going out of fashion in educated society in much of England, so Scot compares witches to the fairy Robin Goodfellow (also known as Puck), who “ceaseth now to be much feared”, yet “witches’ charms” are still widely believed.

John Gaule was vicar of Great Staughton in Huntingdonshire at the height of the reign of terror of Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins, during the turmoil of the English Civil War. Hopkins secured himself a commission to investigate witchcraft in the East of England. (He made up the title “Witchfinder General” for himself, it was never official). The total number of his victims, including those hanged, has been estimated conservatively at perhaps 230 or more.

In this atmosphere, where in the Reverend Gaule’s own words, “The country people talk already… of the infallible and wonderfull power of the Witchfinders; then they doe of God, or Christe, or the Gospell preached,” it took courage for him to preach against Hopkins from his pulpit and then publish in 1646 Select Cases of Conscience Touching Witches and Witchcrafts. This opens with what Gaule claims is a copy of a chilling letter he received from Hopkins, in which the Witchfinder General tells him he is coming to his area, and sounds him out on whether he will be well received, whether there are any “sticklers” locally who can be relied upon to pursue witches with zeal.

Select Cases eloquently denounced Hopkins, and how “every old woman with… a dog or cat by her side… (is) pronounced for a witch”. Some of Gaule’s sources include his interview with a “committed witch” who confessed, and one of the witchfinders, “as they call themselves”, adding that “the office of Witchfinding is exceeding doubtful”. Gaule asked whether witchfinders “aim not more at a privat Advantage, then at the publicke Good… Whether he may not give occasion to Defame Ten that are Innocent; before he discover one that is Guilty?”

Like most witchcraft-sceptic works, Select Cases didn’t deny the existence of any witches; “It is safe to believe that there are witches… But very unsafe to pronounce on such and such for witches, and that upon false grounds, as vulgar report, bare superstition, suspected Ancestors, decrepit age... ” Furthermore, “No kind of Witchcraft may be named, which is not found on superstition”, while incubuses in particular were “the height of all fantastical delusions.”

Select Cases was influential in exposing the abuses of the witchfinders. When the regular Norfolk assizes, briefly interrupted by the Civil War, started up again, Hopkins found himself questioned before it. He retired shortly afterwards. Select Cases was also a book whose time had come. In the upheaval of the Civil War, Parliament’s authority over the courts system had briefly slipped; allowing freelance chancers like Hopkins free reign, and now it was looking to re-assert its power.

Sir John Keeling was Sergeant at Law - a junior judge brought in to assist the regular circuit judge in complex cases. It was apparently in this capacity that he sat in on the trial of the “Lowestoft witches” Rose Cullender and Amy Duny, at Bury St Edmunds in 1664. The difficulties he encountered demonstrate the power of expert testimony from those who firmly believed in witchcraft.

Duny was indicted for causing the death of a child, with testimony on “a great Toad” which hopped out of the child’s blanket. Witness evidence, much of it from children, stated that Duny and Cullender had sent imps and “Lice of an extraordinary bigness” to torment them.

Keeling was “most unsatisfied” with the evidence, which he identified as based “upon the imagination only of the parties afflicted.” He arranged a test in which the children, expecting to be touched by a suspected witch, were tricked into throwing fits on cue.

However, counter-arguments from the “most knowledgeable” expert witness - physician, author, philosopher, naturalist and antiquarian Dr Thomas Browne of Norwich – won the day. Dr Browne said that while fits thrown by children were the result of hysteria, their hysteria could be heightened by the “the subtlety of the Devil” that was here at work. The judge didn’t even refer to Keeling’s arguments in his summing up; Duny and Cullender were convicted and hanged.

John Webster’s The Displaying of Supposed Witchcraft (1677) returned to the theme of witchcraft as “a passive delusion of melancholy or fancy” and “utterly denied” all the usual testimony about a “corporeal league made betwixt the Devil and the witch.”

Balthasar Bekker, the son of pastor from what’s now the Dutch-German border, became a Lutheran pastor in Amsterdam and travelled to London, Cambridge, Oxford and Paris. An enthusiastic fan of the philosophy of Rene Descartes, he drew on this in his three-volume Dutch-language work De Betoverde Wereld (The Bewitched World, 1691).

Portrait of Balthasar Bekker by Johannes Hilarides, from 1691. Out of copyright

This questioned “Upon which foundation the Christians in general, and the Protestants in particular, say such extraordinary things of the Devil.” It included an exhaustive study of comparative religion - “The opinions of the Heathens concerning God and spirits”, comparing their doctrines and whether they agree or differ. He concluded of these “Heathen” superstitions about the Devil that “the witchcraft practised among the people proceeds from the same source.” As well as “The witchcraft practised among the Jews” and in India, China, Africa and the Classical world, “very near the same opinions are to be found in America” among Native Americans. His survey of “Heathen” beliefs about the Devil found that “The Opinions and doctrines already mentioned have been most of all introduced in Popery... new inventions of men.”

Of belief in witches, Bekker concluded, “Those Opinions already deeply rooted in the mind as deeply as they can be; before the Holy Bible be ever read”. Over the centuries, witchcraft “consists almost nothing else but the Tricks of Priests.” Furthermore, “Some of the Heathen opinions upon this subject have in the process of time, kept in amongst the Christians”.

De Betoverde Wereld
also took on the army of writers whose intellectual contributions have kept “witchmongering” alive and well - “James the First” and Jean Bodin who “imploy all their skills and capacity to confirm” belief in witches, and to anticipate witchcraft-sceptic opinions with elaborate counter-arguments. (Influential French jurist and demonologist Jean Bodin believed that evil spirits instilled doubt into judges, bewitching them so they showed leniency to real witches in court.)

That Christianity was just another religion among many, possibly sharing much of its “origin” with “Heathen” belief systems, was discomforting. De Betoverde Wereld suggestion that the Devil might not even exist raised questions about even the existence of God. The book caused a Europe-wide sensation. It was a bestseller in several languages, although it never took off in England due to poor business decisions by the publisher of the English edition, The World Bewitch’d (1695) – Part One of the original only, from a French version but approved by Bekker himself.

While witchcraft trials had ceased in the Republic of the Netherlands by the time Bekker was writing, persecution of alleged “witches” still persisted in much of Europe. As a result of De Betoverde Wereld, Bekker was denounced as an atheist, stripped of his ministry and banned from many towns. But the City of Amsterdam continued to pay Bekker his salary and formally kept him in post. He was later inducted into the Royal Society.

Contemporary with De Betoverde Wereld was Lord Chief Justice Sir John Holt, a judge who is known to have presided over at least 11 witchcraft trials as far apart as Suffolk and Cornwall, with every suspect before him being acquitted.

In the case of “Mother Munnings”, up before Holt in Bury St Edmunds on charges of causing her landlord’s death by magic and for keeping imps, it was established that her imps were probably just misidentified balls of wool. Several “witches” accused of having witch’s marks on their bodies, causing lice infestations or making victims contort, throw fits or vomit pins walked free after an appearance before Holt. So strict was Holt in establishing the facts of alleged deeds of witchcraft that the trial of Sarah Murdoch on a “causing to vomit pins” rap - over which Holt presided at Southwark – ended with Murdoch’s accuser tried for “imposture” and her employers charged with assaulting her.

Holt was a man of great influence – he became Lord Chief Justice of the Court of the King’s Bench, and a Privy Councillor – so his rigorous cross-examination of the so-called evidence for witchcraft helped turn the tide of legal opinion against the existence of the phenomenon. But he wasn’t just up against the superstitions of the common people. Many of his recent predecessors on the bench – such as Chief Justice Sir Matthew Hale, judge at the Lowestoft witch trial – were firm believers in the need to prosecute alleged witches, letting through much obviously false testimony.

Christian Thomasisus, a German judge and philosopher, spoke out against witch trails (and trials of atheists) and the use of torture in his 1704 legal textbook Kurze Lehrs√§tze van dem Laster der Zauberei mit dem Hexenprozess (Kurt’s Theorems about the Vice of Sorcery in the Witch Trial).

Witchcraft sceptical works had become rarer by the beginning of the eighteenth century.Witchcraft had fallen out of the judicial mainstream by then. There was less of a perceived need to engage a shrinking witchfinding industry in philosophical argument. The rise of the educated classes speeded the decline of witchcraft, with the errors of the witch trials eventually influencing the development of law.

But over a century after Lord Chief Justice Holt, being a witchcraft sceptic in the East of England in the early nineteenth century could still be a thankless task. One such local witchcraft sceptic, Richard Grey of Aldeburgh, practiced as a lawyer in London before inheriting money and returning to his native Suffolk, making it his mission to travel around (often sleeping rough) for the next 20 years trying to convince whoever would listen that neither witches nor their imps existed.

This was not a popular idea. When he came to the Suffolk fishing port of Orford in the early years of the nineteenth century, they so didn’t like his ideas about the non-existence of witches that they tied him to a stake and piled up wood around him, ready to set fire to him. He only escaped when he promised never to show his face in Orford again.

See also: The Heksenwaag (the Witch Weigher), Oudwater, the Netherlands - Fortean Times, FT 255, 2009.

On Witchcraft: An Abridged Translation of Johann Weyer’s De Praestigiis Daemonum, edited by Benjamin G. Kohl and H. C. Erik Midelfort, translated by John Shea, Pegasus Press, Asheville,1998

Pseudomonarchia Daemonum, Johanes Weyer, English translation, edited by by Joseph H. Peterson

Sir John Holt (1642-1710) a Biographical Sketch – with especial reference to his witchcraft trials, Tim Holt-Wilson, 2001

The Displaying of Supposed Witchcraft, John Webster, 1677

Lowestoft witches trial report

The World Bewitch’d (abridged 1695 English translation of De Betoverde Wereld by Balthasar Bekker)

The Discoverie of Witchcraft, Reginald Scot, 1886 facsimile

Select Cases of Conscience Touching Witches and Witchcraft, John Gaule, London 1646

Account of Richard Gray of Aldeburgh from The Folklore of East Anglia, Enid Porter, BT Batsford, London 1974

Thinking With Demons, The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe
, James Sharpe, 1999.

Demon Lovers - witchcraft, sex and the crisis of belief, Walter Stephens, University of Chicago Press, 2002

© Matt Salusbury 2018

Tuesday, 12 March 2019

A big cat sighting from Mellis

Mellis, on the edge of Suffolk not far from Diss, is famous for having the biggest unfenced common in England, with rare orchids growing on it. It's not to be confused with another Suffolk village, Mells, which is on the edge of Halesworth by the Halesworth golf course. Somebody in Suffolk Highways Department did apparently confuse Mellis with Mells once. There was said to be a sign pointing to "Mellis" which was in fact pointing to nearby Mells, with the "I" crossed out in marker pen by a helpful local resident (allegedly).

I recently met a man who had relatives in Mellis, who told me of a big cat sighting he had there back in 2012. I hear more and more historical reports of big cats seen in Suffolk from that year, it seems as if there was a 2012 big cat wave in the county that no one noticed at the time.
My witness had just got up and was in his garden, looking over nearby fields - he thinks it was probably wheat, still growing as it was early summer. It must have been around 7am.

Suddenly, he saw in the field a black big cat. He described it as like a "muscular" domestic cat, with the same proportions and the same pointed ears, only HUGE. It was so huge that it was carrying a hare in its mouth - not a rabbit, a hare. I've seen a hare up close to my own domestic cats when they were out walking near my house, and the hare (an adult male, I think) was bigger than my small tortoiseshell female cat. Dog owners who have dogs who chase rabbits and hares (despite their efforts to stop them) tell me that in order to accommodate a hare in its mouth, a big cat would have to be "spaniel-sized" at the very least.

Our massive big black domestic cat had long teeth and "eyes like the Devil", with which he looked at our witness. He was glad he only got a look at him for "seconds", he told me, so disturbed was he by what he saw. After giving him a casual glance, the big cat sauntered off and disappeared among the crops.

Some big cat investigators believe that Britain's big cats aren't escaped black leopards or pumas or lynxes and their descendants after all, but really huge feral cats who've somehow gone gigantic. Recent camera trap footage of Scottish wildcats picked up a wildcat that was almost four feet long, so it is possible.

According to the Big Cats in Britain Yearbook 2007, at around 8.30 am on 11 August of that year, a witness driving through Mellis Suffolk, driving along Main Street to join the A143 at Wortham, saw a "large black cat, long and wiry," in field, for 30 seconds before it "crouched down and slunk off into the undergrowth.

Friday, 27 April 2018

Mystery tree crab officially discovered

Artist's impression of the tree crab now known as Kani maranjandu, back in 2011 when it was still a mystery animal. From Pygmy Elephants (Matt Salusbury, CFZ Press 2013)

The "mystery" tree crab described to me by a local eyewitness I interviewed over a decade ago turns out to be a real animal after all, and has been formally scientifically described.

Back in 2011 I was in Kerala, on the trail of a cryptid (unknown animal), the kallaana or pygmy elephant, said to be a type of Asian elephant that reached only five feet (1.5m) in height at the shoulder in adulthood. (See my report on my Kerala expedition here.)

As often happens in the hunt for mystery animals, the search for one cryptid throws up reports of another. I talked to award-winning wildlife photographer Sali Palode, who said the local Kani tribal people had shown him the mystery tree crab and he'd been able to photograph it. There were then photos by Sali of the mystery tree crab on his website (in the "insects" section!)

Sali in my interview – with his agent, Badhan Madhavan, translating from English to Malayalam – told how Kani elder Kamalsanan had led him to the tree crabs, and how the Kani used parts of the tree crab as a medicine for ear complaints. The Kani have an excellent reputation for traditional medicine. The receive royalties for medicines made from the leaves of the "jeevani" shrub, which grows in their lands, which turns out to me a miracle wonder drug stimulant.

Sali's description – of a quite large crab with long legs, purple in colour and with yellow front claws – turns out to have been entirely accurate. He also described how they moved very fast among the trees – as his website says, "the speed with which this crab scrambles up a tree is phenomenal."

This description of the animal's behaviour led some of the arthropod experts to whom I spoke to speculate that Sali was confusing it with yet another local cryptid – a large arboreal "tarantula-type spider" that remains as yet undescribed by science. Carl Marshall, an arthropod expert, told me he thought from its description this could be a Peocilatheria tarantula.

Sir David Attenborough was contacted by my colleague Richard Muirhead to ask him his opinion about the possibility of tree crabs living in the Keralan forests. He didn't have a problem with the idea, saying he'd found crabs living in the forests of Madagascar, saying "there is nothing strange about finding crabs in the Madagascan forests – or indeed in Kerala."

Sali described the crabs as living in "gaps" in trees, which turned out to be accurate too. Crabs need water to breed – this they do in hollows in the trees where rainwater gathers.

Recently, a survey of freshwater crabs in the region took place, begun in 2014 under the leadership of Dr Biju Kumar. The surveyors befriended the Kani, who led them to the arboreal tree crabs, known in the Kani language as "maranjandu." A male and a female specimen were captured, leading to the discovery that it was not just a new species of crab, but a who new genus. It's been formally given the Latin name Kani maranjandu. (See the write-up in
Phys.Org here
. ) One of the photos of the tree crabs in the report is by Sali Palode.

The description of the Kani and my witness Sali Palode turns out to be entirely accurate. This phenomenon is well known in cryptozoology circles (cryptozoology being the study of as yet unknown animals) – an animal of often "ethno-known" – known by a local ethnic community but disregarded by mainstream science, often regarded as a local superstition, until it turns out to be absolutely true. The okapi and the gorilla were both once "ethno-known" mystery animals before the descriptions by local people were confirmed.

The tree crabs were discovered in Kottor Reserve Forest, which is not far from the Keralan capital, Trivandrum and has an elephant rescue centre. But I predict that there's another population of the tree crabs awaiting discovery in another nature reserve nearby, the Neyyar Peppara reserve, which is where Sali saw and photographed them.

I went into Neyyar Peppara with Sali and Kani guide Mallan Kani in April 2011, having been given permission by Wildlife Warden Sharma of the Kerala Forest Department.

We didn't encounter any tree crabs, tarantulas or pygmy elephants, but we did have an encounter with a stampeding herd of guar – wild bison. We briefly stopped off at Mallan's house – the Kani are allowed to live in the forest reserve – where I saw some of the edible plants he had growing in his forest garden, including three kinds of ginger – ginger, wild ginger and "Bali ginger", arrowroot for making biscuits, cashews and mangos.

Access to the Kani is usually restricted, so I was granted to rare privilege of being allowed to go into their reserve. At the end of the day we stopped for a late lunch of fresh coconuts in one of the Kani settlements – the Kani whose house we stopped at went up a tree to cut coconuts for us.

There are 13 Kani hamlets in the forests of the Neyyar Peppara Wildlife sanctuary, these are usually of between 10 and 20 families. The last census, in 2002, put the Kani population of the south Indian state of Kerala at 16,000, with another 48 Kani settlements in the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu. The Kani language is related to Malayalam (the official language of Kerala) with some elements of the Tamil language. There is controversy around whether the Kani language is a dialect of Malayalam or a language in its own right. Their religion is said – by others – to be ancestor worship with elements of Hinduism and Christianity. The name "Kani" just means "people who live in the forest."

The Kani turned out to be entirely right about the tree crabs. I was a bit sceptical about that other "ethno-known" Keralan cryptid, the kallaana pygmy elephant. Experts on elephant ecology told me they thought it likely that these were misidentified young elephants who had "poor body condition" during the dry season and who took on a wrinkled, emaciated appearance that made them look older than they were. But if the Kani are right about the tree crab, perhaps we should take heed of their description of the pygmy elephant and the mystery tree tarantula.

After all, the Western Ghats hill range where the tree crabs live is a biodiversity hotspot. Burrowing frogs were discovered there a few years ago, while new species of gecko are discovered there so often it's hardly even news.

There's another Keralan cryptid – outside the range of the Kani and further north, in the tea plantations of Malabar. This is the pogeyan – a mystery grey-brown coloured leopard without spots. Its name means "the cat that comes and goes with the mist" in the Malayalam language.

You can read about all these Keralan cryptids, and much more, in my book Pygmy Elephants, available here.

Friday, 2 March 2018

West Suffolk mummified cat safari

This article first appeared as a Fortean Traveller piece in Fortean Times FT 363, February 2018

Moyse's Hall's newest mummified cat, recently acquired mummified cat, shortly before it went on display along with the others mentioned in this article. Photo: courtesy Alex McWhirter, Moyse's Hall Museum.

It was once common practice for cats or kittens to be walled up (sometimes alive) during the building of houses, to bring good luck and to ward off fires and evil spirits. They are still being uncovered, usually from spaces in roofs or around chimneys. (King James VI of Scotland, in his 1597 philosophical dissertation on witchcraft Daemonologie, discusses how malevolent spirits or “spectres” that trouble houses are most likely to enter them via the chimney.) Those entombed cats that haven’t rotted away mostly date from the 17th and 18th centuries and have been naturally mummified and preserved, giving them a scary, skeletal look, like hairless gremlins.

One such specimen turned up at The Trading Post curiosity shop in Wells, Somerset in 2012, (Daily Mail, 9 May 2012,) brought in by a customer who found it during restoration of their 300-year-old house. There’s a mummified cat on show at The Stag Inn pub in Hastings, while the one you can see at Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, was found wedged up an organ pipe.

Although mummified cats on display in the British Isles are a bit unevenly distributed, fans of the slightly gruesome with moderately strong stomachs can take in an easily do-able cluster of them in the western half of the county of Suffolk. They’re even handily all on the same bus route. If you’re doing the West Suffolk mummified cat safari by car, it’s all within easy reach of the A134.

The best place to start your West Suffolk mystery cat cluster tour is at its epicentre in Bury St Edmunds. (Just “Bury” to locals, always pronounced “berry”.) There are two mummified cats and two mummified kittens on display in Bury’s 12th century Moyse’s Hall, now a museum. It also has some examples of an Elizabethan regional speciality in its public collection – witch bottles. These are earthenware bottles filled with pins, needles and nails and concealed as a protection against witches.

Mummified cats already on display at Moyse's Hall in Bury

Moyse’s Hall’s mummified kittens are part of the Barley House Hoard, from a farm in the mid-Suffolk village of Winston. This hoard of objects deliberately dropped into a space near the chimney date from around 1650 to 1730 and includes six felines in total, with a rat (sadly currently not on display at Moyse’s Hall), many shoes, pigs’ trotters, goose wing bones with notches cut in them and plenty else besides that presumably brought good luck. The scored goose bones could have been some form of crude almanac recording saint’s days.

The Barley House Hoard is one of four “spiritual middens” in the county of Suffolk, accumulations of stuff found in houses dropped into spaces around the chimney for good luck, sometimes spaces specially built into a dwelling.

Other such Suffolk lucky hoard of stuff deposited in spaces near chimneys include Cutchey’s Farm – a broken firkin lid, horseshoes, padlocks, stirrups, a shoe with a hole in it, through which a rat skull was found protruding, along with loads of other stuff. Archaeologist Timothy N D Easton described (in Historical Archaeology, 2013, 47, 1) how Cutchey’s Farm’s then owner, facing a run of financial bad luck after parting with the hoard in the 1980s, begged for the return of the “lucky” items. They eventually settled on the re-internment of a single child’s shoe.

Suffolk hoards of lucky charms have also been pulled out of houses at Hestley Hall – broken pots, chicken’s feet, fruit stones and a lot else besides – and Earl Soham – over 30 shoes from the 1830s, gloves, a bottle containing a horse medicine made from hornbill glands from India, a pair of braces, a framed mirror, a bunch of lavender. Earl Soham’s 19th century hoard was less about good luck – it had turned into a sort of early time capsule.

Another six mummified cats were discovered by builders doing work on a house in Fakenham Magna, not far from Bury, in 1972. (They’re not on display anywhere as far as I know.) The builders reported being scared by strange tapping noises and footsteps while working on the property.

Also in Bury, a few minutes walk from Moyse’s Hall, is The Nutshell pub – allegedly Britain’s smallest public house – which has a fine, leathery specimen of a mummified cat hanging from the ceiling, along with all the foreign banknotes that have ended up there over the years. Should you find yourself in the pedestrianized centre of Bury, The Nutshell is well worth a visit.

The magnificent mummified cat hanging in tiny Nutshell Pub, also in Bury

In its bar that’s just 15 feet by 7 feet, it’s almost impossible not to get pulled into one of the conversations that’s going on there, often among Bury’s tiny “alternative” community. If you can’t fight banter with even better banter, it’s not for you.

Ask nicely for permission to photograph their magnificent mummified cat, and whatever you do, do NOT touch it. Like a lot of East Anglian mummified cats, there’s said to be a curse attached to it. I heard an apocryphal tale about The Nutshell’s mummified cat being stolen, as a result of a prank by “other ranks” in a locally-based military unit, only for it to be returned not long after by a grim-faced off duty soldier (out of uniform but still identifiable by his haircut) who turned up at the pub at opening time and handed it back without a word.

From Bury bus station, the Chambers 753 bus takes you on an uneventful 35-minute drive to Lavenham. Most of the rural rides round here are on double deckers, so enjoy the view.

You know you’ve arrived in the village of Lavenham, with its 321 listed buildings, when the houses all go a bit mental – suddenly every building is a half-timbered eccentric wonky-angled extravagance with insane overhangs, often painted in bizarre colours. Look down any side street and every building in it has just the same level of medieval madness. It used to be one of the Wool Towns, where immensely wealthy wool magnates settled. While it’s a town no more, most of its 15th and 16th century Wool Town era houses still stand.

Suddenly things start to look a bit mental when you enter Lavenham

Head straight for Lavenham’s white painted Guildhall with its elaborately carved timbers. It once housed a jail, but now it’s a National Trust property and local museum whose magnificent mummified cat is worth the price of admission alone.

He goes by the name of Rameses. He was found hidden in a roof in one of the nearby houses. So magnificently well preserved is he that he still has the tips of his ears and most of his whiskers. None of the staff could tell me why he’s called Rameses, although I suspect it’s something to do with Egyptians and mummification – Egyptologist Robert Gayer Anderson and his twin brother Thomas settled in Lavenham in the 1920s and raised money to save the Guildhall.

Ramesses the mummified cat on display at Lavenham Guildhall

If you have time to kill in Lavenham before the 753 bus (from The Swan pub) takes you onward to your next mummified cat stop in Sudbury, there’s the De Vere House. This 14th century red brick and half-timbered residence was world famous even before it featured as Harry Potter’s decaying birthplace and ancestral home in the film of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1. Check out also the Market Square, which stood in for the market square of Bury St Edmunds in the not particularly historically accurate witch-burning scene in Hammer House of Horror’s Witchfinder General, starring Vincent Price.

The De Vere house in Lavenham, already famous before it became a Harry Potter location

Next stop Sudbury, birthplace of the painter Thomas Gainsborough (his most famous painting, Mr and Mrs Andrews, was painted in a landscape on the edge of Sudbury.) Gainsborough’s statue stands in the town’s market place, not far from Gainsborough’s House, now a museum, at 46 Gainsborough Street.

The fortean traveller to Sudbury, however, would be more interested in a very steep hill down by the River Stour. Here there are highland cattle grazing in nearby fields by the riverbank and swans gliding down the river. Here is Walnut Tree Lane, one of the very few slopes in Suffolk so steep that if you’ve come here by bike you absolutely have to get off and walk, as I did. At the end of this lane is the Mill Hotel. Even though there was a wedding reception about to start when I dropped in, the very welcoming receptionist had absolutely no problem with my request to crouch down by the floor in the corner and photograph their mummified cat.

Mummified cat in the floor of the Mill Hotel, Sudbury

It’s on display in a glass-topped casket set in the floor. Its skin is a ghostly white; it’s curled up with its head looking over its shoulder, a fang revealed. It’s a fine specimen in a good state of preservation, apart from a few large holes chewed in it by some kind of insect. It was found in 1975 and reburied in its casket by the then Mayor of Sudbury, after Canon Peter Schneider of the Church of England reportedly declined to perform a religious ceremony for a dead cat. Now it’s on display under thick glass in a recess in the corner of the floor in the lobby, where it was found.

As far as I’m aware, for the next nearest mummified cat on display you’d have to go all the way to King’s Lynn, over 40 miles north of Bury in North Norfolk, where there’s one at The Red Cat pub and hotel. However, dedicated mummified cat spotters can take the Beestons 91 bus from Sudbury bus station all the way to Ipswich, which has good train connections and whose Ipswich Museum has a modestly-sized Egyptology gallery complete with two mummified and embalmed Egyptian cat mummies.

Egyptian cat mummies in Ipswich Museum

The bus journey from Sudbury to Ipswich on the Beeston 91 double decker bus – run by England’s oldest private sector bus company – takes just over an hour and it’s quite a ride. There aren’t may stops on the A1071 road that takes you through South Suffolk, so the driver has his foot down on the gas pedal most of the way.

This article is an update (on 2 March 2018) of the article that appeared in Fortean Times, with an additional photo of the newly acquired mummiified cat at Moyse's Hall and additional information on the Gayer Anderson twins.

Travel information

Moyse’s Hall Museum, Cornhill, Bury St Edmunds, open every day, adults £4,
Lavenham Guildhall, for opening times, adults £6.50.
The Nutshell, The Thoroughfare, Bury St Edmunds, pub opening hours,, Walnut Tree Lane, Sudbury
Ipswich Museum, admission free, open Tuesday to Sunday,

Chambers 753 bus service – Bury St Edmunds to Lavenham (35 minutes), Lavenham to Sudbury (30 minutes). Buy on the bus day tickets for unlimited travel on their network at £9 for adults. .
Beestons 91 or 91C bus service from Sudbury bus station to Ipswich (buy tickets on the bus.) .
Neither bus service runs on Sundays.

Trains from Bury St Edmunds to Ipswich, Cambridge or Peterborough
Trains from Sudbury to Marks Tey (change for London Liverpool St)
Trains from Ipswich to London, Norwich, Cambridge, Peterborough

See also my earlier report, "Mummified cats in He Say Land" on this blog

Words and all images except the top on from Moyse's Hall, © Matt Salusbury

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

The Kindness of Strangers

This article (without the above illustration, in a slightly shorter version) first appeared in Fortean Times Christmas 2017

'TIS the season for giving, with professional fundraisers and chuggers rattling collecting tins, whether virtual or in the physical universe. At this time of year it’s worth noting that delinquent altruism ain’t what it used to be.

Delinquent altruism? Older Fortean Times readers will recall its regular round-ups from the days when cash was still king, featuring the phenomenon of random strangers who regularly seemed to hand out banknotes indiscriminately to bystanders in the street.

Back in 2003, for example, a man who wanted to share his stock market winnings emptied just under US $10,000-worth of dollar and yen banknotes from shopping bags into the streets below the TV Tower in Nagoya, Japan. He reportedly said, "I have too much money. I don't need it," (Times of India, December 24 2003.)

Some mystery benefactors preferred to post money through letterboxes - such as the woman seen posting at least £600 in £20 notes in envelopes through letterboxes of houses in Ramsgate, together with notes saying, "a gift to you." (London Evening Standard, 4 April 2001, FT 153;20). Others slipped banknotes under motorists' windscreen wipers. New London, Connecticut resident Felix Pope was among those who found a $20 bill in that way one morning in April 2000, while noticing all the other cars in the street had $20 bills under their wipers too. (FT 153;20.) The practice was still going strong around Christmas 2005 in Birmingham, where a "Secret Santa" paid parking tickets, leaving cash with Christmas cards under windscreen wipers along with the penalty notices issued. (Metro December 21 2005).

A more inventive mystery benefactor threw wads of Italian lira denominations out of a light aircraft over a busy square in Rome in 1977. (Reveille, 7 January 1977).

An elderly, smartly-dressed man in the trilby known as Goldfinger left at least £18,000 in gold sovereigns in people’s gardens in Portsmouth in 1992. Much of this was handed into Hampshire Police. They tracked Goldfinger down, interviewed him and decided he’d obtained his money honestly, was of sound mind and at liberty to give it away. (The News [Portsmouth], 4, 8, 24, 28 October 1991.)

Identikit picture of the man known as "Goldfinger" sought by Hampshire Police after he left gold sovereigns and silver Dutch guilders in gardens in Portsmouth. Hampshire Police, released into the public domain

The "Good Samaritan" of Rochester, New York wore a cape and a black hat with a plume as he handed out one $100 bill to each passer-by in June 1987. He reportedly said he'd had tried giving out money dressed in ordinary clothes, but people had been too scared to take it. (FT 59;38) A mystery man in a ski-mask and a three-piece suit experienced similar difficulty giving away money to puzzled bystanders in McCook, Nebraska, in 1986. (Houston Chronicle, 30 November 1986). And it was a “smartly-dressed man” who handed out at least a grand in fivers to passers-by in Keighley, Yorkshire in 2002. (FT 166, January 2002.)

More sinister was "The Riddler" a middle-aged man in glasses and a suit giving away at least one new tenner in "prizes" to any child in the parks of Benfleet, Essex, who could answer his cryptic riddles. Last seen in 1987, he'd been active for many years, eluding police after a chase through woodland. (FT 59;38)

I've kept an eye on delinquent altruism since I found myself involved in the "Free Shop", an anti-capitalist stunt in London’s Oxford Street just before Christmas 2003. It was basically a help-yourself secondhand shop where everything was given away. I was a little perturbed to find not one but two police photographers from the Met's Forward Intelligence Team photographing me, although Constable DM 603 who came along from Marylebone nick did tell us, "Very well done."

The 2003 "Free Shop" in London's Oxford Street

Since that apparent golden age of random strangers handing out money and gifts in the street, the practice seems to have declined. This is partly down to enforcement by the likes of the British Transport Police, whose Chief Inspector David Dickson was telling Londoners as of 2004 that they were fuelling the capital's drug trade if they so much as gave their unwanted Day Travelcards to ticket touts in Underground stations. (Metro 1 March 2004).

Like a lot of phenomena that were once cool, the act of showering random bystanders with gifts in the street has become increasingly commodified, examples from more recent years have the whiff of a gone-wrong marketing stunt about them.

A case in point was the "cash mob", the rain of banknotes leading to a stampede in London’s busy Covent Garden shopping zone back in September 2006. The two people throwing a grand’s worth of fivers into the air turned out to be winners of a competition to advertise the show Brotherhood on the FX TV channel, promoted by the MySpace website. The victors won the right to throw a grand in the air and keep as much as they could catch. (London Lite, 28 September 2006.)

Another commodified "random" giving operation to emerge in recent years was "Tips for Jesus", a tipping syndicate, named from notes left behind along with cash tips of up to $6000 in restaurants and strip clubs across the US and Mexico a few years ago. There were suspicions that some “Silicon Valley people” were somehow involved. (BBC Radio 4 Today, 21 February 2014).

The latest "random acts of kindness" sensation was the Hidden Cash Guy, who led many a local resident on "scavenger hunts" through clues via the Twitter handle @HiddenCash to envelopes (or Pez dispensers, or Angry Birds toys) stuffed with on average $50-100. These had been left mostly in public parks across San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and New Haven, Connecticut and numerous other cities throughout 2015, after which they ceased. Hidden Cash Guy was outed as real estate investor Jason Buzi, together an associate. (Huffington Post, 10 June 2014).

Random acts of kindness today seem, well, a little less random. A contemporary example is Kindness Week, in which primary school children are encouraged by their teachers to do "random" acts of kindness, along the lines of dropping off biscuits in decorated boxes in doorsteps around their village. Benhall Primary School in Suffolk was one of many institutions exhibiting such behaviour with the blessing of their deputy headteacher in March of 2015. (East Anglian Daily Times 10 March 2015.)

But wait! People may not randomly throw cash around in the street anymore, but subversive giving’s alive and well, thanks to the wonders of web platform-based crowdfunding. Recent high-profile examples include successful industrial tribunal cases brought by "precarious workers" including cycle couriers, university cleaners and Deliveroo workers organised as the Independent Workers of Great Britain. Previously way beyond their budget, their legal actions are now crowdfunded within hours of launching. Giving out money in the street seems to have been replaced by the much more subversive practice of mass donations that give a two-fingered salute to authority by supporting underdogs in otherwise impossible struggles.

© Matt Salusbury

Monday, 18 December 2017

The Mystery Lights of Suffolk

Matt Salusbury hears of a possible geological explanation for "Jenny Burnt Arses"

This article first appeared in Fortean Times, FT 360; December 2017

Lampland Marshes, south of Walberswick, by day

The East Anglian coast - coastal Suffolk in particular, but also North Essex and Norfolk – are especially rich in mystery light phenomena.

These mystery lights, traditionally assumed to be alive or at least directed by some malign intelligence, were known variously across the region as hob-o-lanterns, hobby lanterns, lantern-men, will-o-the-wisps, Jack-o-lanterns, Jenny Burnt Arses, Joan the Wad, Spunkie, Pinket or corpse candles.

They all delighted in leading travellers astray at night, particularly in marshes or churchyards. To be "well-led" in Suffolk dialect was to become beguiled by hobby lanterns into dangerous terrain and left in a confused state. A Ms Tish Spall from the Suffolk village of Westleton told her local Women's Institute she'd been the victim of one such incident in nearby Westleton Walks one night sometime before 1922, when hobby lanterns had led her over a mile away from the path. (Customs and Sayings recorded by the Women’s Institute in 1922, Leiston Press, Leiston 2008).

Uniquely East Anglian phosphorous-rich Red Crag strata - red sand with fossil sea shells

In some hobby lantern traditions, these glowing entities were the souls of unbaptized children, or of the drowned. Some could disguise themselves as beautiful girls. On the Slaughden peninsula near the Suffolk fishing port of Aldeburgh, there were said to be lights associated with nameless "things" that pelted you with shingle. Some advised that if you lay down and held your breath, it would make the hobby lanterns go away. Others advised that on no account should you whistle at the hobby lanterns, to do so would spell your doom.

The standard modern explanation for will-o-the-wisps is that they were just misidentified jets of ignited marsh gas – methane. James Wentworth Day reported that these mystery lights were once so common in Syleham, right on the Suffolk bank of the River Waveney on the border with Norfolk, that the phenomenon was known as Syleham Lights. Wentworth Day added these were most probably self-igniting plumes of marsh gas, and after the Syleham Marshes were drained, these were much diminished. (Here are Ghosts and Witches, James Wentworth Day, Batsford, London 1954.)

There's a similarly perfectly logical explanation offered for the "devils" with whom the seventh century East Anglian Saxon missionary St Botolph fought magical duels before driving them out of Iken, the spot on the Alde Estuary not far from Aldeburgh where he established a monastery. The explanation goes that the devils were just plumes of marsh gas, and by having the marshes drained, St Botolph cast them out. (That's if the whole episode happened in Iken, and not somewhere near Lincoln, as some scholars claim.)

A glowworm signalling to a potential mate in Dunwich Forest

A bizarre explanation for hobby lanterns appeared to talk hold in Norfolk in the 1890s, when contemporary naturalists such as RJW Purdey suggested that a series of mystery lights seen across the county were in fact luminous barn owls who'd picked up a dusting of phosphorescent fungus after roosting in trees scattered with fungal spores. Charles Fort in his book Lo! was especially dismissive of this "luminous owls of Norfolk" hypothesis, pointing out its numerous flaws.

Then there are the "corpse candles", glowing lights associated with churchyards, assumed to be the souls of the dead, while East Anglia's Black Shuck – its phantom black dog with glowing red eyes – is also known as "the Churchyard Beast", particularly within the county of Suffolk. (Meanwhile the Shuck in Hatfield Peverell, Essex, had a tendency to explode). The churchyard at Burgh St Peter, in the southern end of Norfolk near the River Waveney, has a history of anomalous churchyard mystery lights known as the Devil's Flashes.

Another candidate for East Anglia's lantern men and hobby lanterns is some sort of St Elmo's fire phenomena. The blue glow of the luminous plasma that is St Elmo's fire, sometimes accompanied by a buzzing noise, is usually associated with pointy, metal objects like weathervanes or ship's masts, but it's also been recorded during thunderstorms around cow's horns and even on leaves and grass.

The "Felixstowe Glowing Object Mystery" makes the front page of the Ipswich Evening Star, 21 September 1965

Many of these out-of-way places behind the coast where mystery lights were seen were on smugglers' routes. In the industry's peak in the late eighteenth century, local smuggling syndicates such as the Hadleigh Gang and the Syzewell Gang could mobilise 200 men and 100 horses at short notice, and fight pitched gun battles with the Excisemen and the regiments of dragoons garrisoned locally to support them. It's scarcely surprising, then, that so many odd lights were reported signalling at night!

The mother of all East Anglian mystery light incidents, the Rendlesham Forest Incident (RFI) of Boxing Day 1980 seemed to involve mystery lights bouncing around the forest floor and leading US Air Force security astray, complete with missing time experiences, in a manner more reminiscent of the mischievous hobby lanterns than currently fashionable explanations such as space aliens, multidimensional time travellers or some sort of nefarious Cold War disinformation cover story.

Alan Murdie and Robert Halliday have already revealed in the pages of Fortean Times how a Mr G Fell recalled an 1882 incident from his boyhood in Sudbourne. (It’s just north of Rendlesham and is home to the Captain’s Wood nature reserve.) Fell describes encountering hobby lanterns "on certain nights" in two local fields. "They look like a dull red light, like a lantern with the glass smoky. It moved to and fro across the field, about walking pace" according to Fell. Whatever it was disappeared whenever Fell and his boyhood chums approached within 100 yards (30 metres), lighting up again when they withdrew. ("Magic Lanterns," Alan Murdie and Robert Halliday, Fortean Times, December 2005, which quotes East Anglian Miscellany 1933-43.)

As also noted by Murdie and Halliday, Orford Ness, a few miles east of Sudbourne as the crow flies but over on the other side of the River Alde, at the end of the same narrow spit of land that starts at Slaughden, is Lantern Marshes. This features in a map of 1600 as "Lanterne Marsh", which seems to predate any beacon or lighthouse.

Since then, mystery lights have seldom left Orford alone. Two men saw in the 1970s “a pair of lights” over the coast near Orford Castle. The lights were hovering quite close to the water, and these darted away at “an incredible speed” as they approached. More recently, in the autumn of 1999, a “green meteor” was seen in the night sky heading towards Orford Ness. A strange hum has also been reported in recent times on the Ness.(See Paranormal Database's Orford Ness report.)

There’s also a Lampland Marshes marked on today's large-scale maps immediately south of the old Suffolk fishing village at Walberswick. There were said to be jack-o-lanterns in Eastbridge (now on the edge of the Minsmere RSPB reserve, to the south and a little inland) and at nearby Dunwich Walks, appearing in winter. There are stories of fairy lights, ghosts and weirdness around the church at Martlesham, near Martlesham Creek on the Deben estuary near Woodbridge.

One of the problems with the "ignited marsh gas" explanation is that by no means all of the local mystery lights, though, are anywhere near a marsh. Recently I talked to a retired geologist, Bob Markham, formerly of Ipswich Museum, who came up with another perfectly logical explanation for East Anglia's abundance of mystery lights, although a nicely left-field one. It's the geology. (Pers. Com, telephone interview with Bob Markham, 5 April 2017.)

Markham told me that the mystery lights seen so often in East Anglia are possibly something to do with the strata round there being "of recent age", so recent in fact that there is still decaying plant and animal material in it, including phosphorous, which breaks down into – among other substances – phosphine gas.

(PH3, also known as more officially as phosphane) rises through the strata and ignites on contact with other gases including oxygen. Bob says there's also some tectonic activity underground, which produces energy that can ignite phosphine plumes. He noted that glowing lights were observed during the Great English Earthquake in Colchester, North Essex in 1884. (I've encountered inexplicably glowing patches of ground in Dunwich Forest at night, which may be something to do with this process.)

Compared to the rest of the British Isles, the East Anglian coast does have some very young strata indeed, some of the youngest strata on these islands, in fact. There's no stretch of the East Anglian shore that's over 3 or 4 million years old. (The Red Crag formation, a uniquely East Anglian phenomenon, is a phosphorous-rich mix of sand and broken seashells dates from around that era. Also from that epoch is the Corraline Crag limestone formation, a type of limestone, which is found only in coastal Suffolk and nowhere else in the whole world.)

Much of the heavily eroding clay cliffs of North Suffolk were laid down between 1.8 million years ago and 450,000 years ago (a period known locally by a wonderful local name, the "Ipswichian Interglacial".) These include the younger "glacial clay" left by a receding Ice Age. The cliffs at Lowestoft (North Suffolk) are a mere 150,000 years old. Much of East Anglia's North Sea coast was laid down in the Devensian glacial period, also known as the last glacial period, the most recent Ice Age, which ended only 16,000 years ago, the mere twinkling of an eye geologically speaking. (See Two million years on the Suffolk Coast, Tim Holt-Wilson, Touching the Tide Landscape Partnership Scheme, 2014.)

Some of the East Anglian coastal strata are younger still - the peat deposits at Slaughden (now underwater) are a piddling 8,500 years old, the soil in the shingle spit at Orford Ness started developing just 7,000 years ago, receding seas at nearby Aldeburgh left behind land that's only of a 3,000-year-old vintage. There are plenty of sites where the land is so young that there's still an abundance of animal and vegetable matter still decomposing down there, percolating up to the surface as inflammable phosphine gas. It's noteworthy that some of the geologically more recent sites in the above list - Slaughden, Orford Ness have a rich tradition of association with mystery lights.

Lantern Marshes near Orford, surrounding the obsolete Cobra Mist top secret over the horizon radar project

As for the churchyard corpse candle phenomenon, Markham's somewhat grisly explanation is even more straightforward. There's a lot of "decomposition" still in progress in churchyards. As the bodies of the not-so-recent dead break down, phosphine gas rises to the surface. So what we're seeing with churchyard anomalous lights is not the souls of the dead moving around at night it's actually the gas released from their bodies, long after "dust to dust, ashes to ashes." Yuck!

Case closed on the mystery lights of the East of England, then? Er, no. There's a whole bunch of local mystery lights that can't be explained by phosphine gas plumes. There are several accounts of mystery lights that bounce along the beaches and appear to react to people or even fire "laser beams" (as did the mystery light of the Rendlesham Forest Incident.) Fortean Times's own Jenny Randles has documented how in 1975 a glowing light came out of the sea at Sizewell and partially paralysed postman Thomas Meyer, who was walking with his dog. Randles speculated that some kind of not-yet understood "meteorological tsunami” was at work. (See "UFO Casebook - my dog saw a UFO", Jenny Randles, Fortean Times, FT 280;31, October 2011.)

Nor do marsh gas and St Elmo's fire account for the tendency of Suffolk’s will-o-the-wisps and hobby lanterns to move in zigzagging figures of eight, or for the characteristic of the invisible lantern men to not only lead you astray with their phantom lights, but also to dash a traveller’s own lantern out of their hand and “burst it all to pieces.” The Slaughden shingle-throwing “things,” whatever they were, had snatched the lantern from the hands of a shepherd on at least one occasion. Lamp-snatching hobby lanterns – who led you off the path after extinguishing your own lamp – were said to be at large around Dunwich too up until around 1924.

A contributor to the Paranormal Database website described an encounter from January 2010, on the path from Hollesley - it's stuck out on a Suffolk peninsula, so out of the way it's the location of an open prison – leading to the equally remote Shingle Street beach nearby. She watched with her partner as a greenish glowing ball of light danced around the path and the marsh behind the beach.

The following month, also at Hollesley, a local woman reported seeing two mystery lights while sitting on top of an old World War Two pillbox on a still, cold misty night, "the light began moving in spurts of quick arches" and "slow figures of eight", it "bobbed back and forth" and resembled "those lightning/plasma balls you get in novelty shops." ("Bablylonian Angel," comment of March 2010 in response to the article "Magic lanterns", Robert Halliday and Alan Murdie, December 2005 on Fortean Times website, now been taken down.)

Other local mystery lights clearly outside the capabilities of ignited plumes of phosphine gas sound more like something from the realms of ball lightning.

Damage to the door of Blythburgh Church, allegedly caused by the claws of the "Devil in dog form."

These include the luminous balls of light seen passing through walls of the Queen's Head pub at Blyford. Blyford is near Blythburgh, Suffolk, whose church was the site of a visitation by the "Devil in dog form" back in 1577. Blythburgh's black dog, which also appeared further north in the town of Bungay earlier same day, appeared during a "tempest", careered around the church and left three parishioners dead from being "blasted" or from strange burns, also suggestive of some type of ball lighting phenomena.

Rant Score, Lowestoft. The Bird's Eye fish finger factory at the bottom was the scene of a mystery light incident. Also shown is Gulliver, the UK's tallest wind turbine

The Blyford glowing light that was seen floating around the Queen's Head in 1969 was pursued by a group of people, with some accounts describing these lights disappearing into a wardrobe, observed by the landlady but not the landlord. (No one had heard of any such incident when I visited the Queen's Head earlier this year.) A fitter in the kitchen of the Bird's Eye fish finger factory at the bottom of Rant Score, Lowestoft, a steep alley descending from the High Street to the Suffolk port's harbour, felt a touch on his shoulder when working there in 1970 and saw that it was caused by a floating, glowing blue ball that then passed through a wall. A friend, who lives in Oakley, on the Norfolk border near Diss, and a long way inland, told me he'd seen something like ball lightning travelling along the Waveney River there.

I've even experienced strange, anomalous lightning flashes on the Suffolk coast myself, walking at night in Dunwich Forest. Something lit up a clear, cloudless night sky with white light. I assumed it was lighting far out over the North Sea, somehow refracted through invisibly distant clouds or reflected by the water or something. Except that my friend in Oakley told me he'd experienced exactly the same thing, only many miles inland. My girlfriend and a taxi driver who was driving her towards the coast from Darsham Station (it's on the main road, about four miles inland from Dunwich) one night a few years back also saw red lightning, a rare but recognised phenomenon also known as a sprite.

The Felixstowe Fire Demon

Another East of England mystery light incident that definitely doesn't make the "marsh gas or phosphine gas explanation" category is what the front-page headline of Ipswich's Evening Star newspaper of 21 September 1965 described as the FELIXSTOWE GLOWING OBJECT MYSTERY. Given the industry that's since grown up around the Rendlesham Forest Incident, it's surprising that the Felixstowe Glowing Object Mystery of over half a century ago has been almost completely forgotten, becoming as obscure as the East Anglian airship wave of 1909. Although just like Rendlesham, the Felixstowe Glowing Object Mystery seems to have acquired some extra embellishment in the telling.

The "Glowing Object Mystery" involved three Felixstowe residents in their early twenties – lorry driver Geoffrey Maskey, his girlfriend Mavis Forsyth and Maskey's neighbour Michael Johnson. It was Maskey who was driving them all one night down Walton Avenue, then a fairly quiet road on the edge of town, just two years before the first container cranes were installed that started Felixstowe's transformation into northern Europe's biggest container port that it is today. The "last street-lamp" on Walton Avenue, where they stopped for Johnson to get out, presumably for a quick wee in the nearby woods, is now right by the huge roundabout where container lorries leave the port for their onward journeys. (“Felixstowe Glowing Object Mystery”, Evening Star, Ipswich, 21 September 1965.)

The Ipswich Star report opens by describing a "high-pitched humming noise... a great orange tinted object moved across the sky... a man staggered from a hedge and collapsed." The humming noise was heard as Maskey and Forsyth waited in the car for Johnson.

The sound was quickly followed by a "long oval object in the sky… a dull orange colour". The glow from it lit up most of Walton Avenue for about half a minute. It was then that Forsyth and Maskey realised their friend was still in the woods, and in a panic, they reversed the car back to look for him. At this point, Johnson emerged staggering from the bushes and collapsed. His friends noticed "a lump and marks on his neck," and he was “mumbling about a man in the flames getting him,” before he lost consciousness, so his friends dragged him into the car and drove him to Felixstowe Hospital.

There, Johnson was diagnosed as suffering from "a severe shock" and transferred to the better-resourced Ipswich and East Suffolk Hospital. As the paper went to press, the hospital still wasn't letting visitors in to see Johnson.

By the time the American Monsters website wrote it up in 2011, the "Glowing Object" had morphed into "The Felixstowe Fire Demon." Details had attached themselves to the story that weren’t in the original Evening Star report. A normally dark night became "Stygian blackness", Johnson was given amnesia and couldn't recognise his friends when he finally regained consciousness in hospital in the morning. Additionally, Johnson had acquired “unusual burns” on the back of his neck and a bruise above his ear.

The account in American Monsters goes way beyond a "man in the flames trying to get him," this has become an "unseen force" that compelled Johnson to walk out of the car at Walton Avenue and head into the woods, where he encountered "a humanoid being" with "large sloping eyes that were glowing in the darkness." The creature was "engulfed by orange flames" and caused Johnson to black out.

Was there really a "man in the flames" that early autumn night on Felixstowe's Walton Avenue? While the "Glowing Object Mystery" seems to have strayed into UFO territory, it does have elements that are sounds more in the local tradition of hobby lanterns than actual scary occupants of craft from outer space.

The last lamppost on Walton Avenue, Felixstowe, as it is today

The humming sound that accompanied the event suggests some sort of electromagnetic phenomenon. (As we saw above, buzzing sometime accompanies manifestations of St Elmo's Fire.) And Johnson's confused, "mumbling" state could well have been the result of some hitherto unexplained electromagnetic effect on his brain, triggering "severe shock" and possibly even delirium and hallucinations.

The Defence Intelligence Staff's later declassified report Unidentified Aerial Phenomena in the UK Air Defence Region: Executive Summary (2000, also known as Project Condign) concluded that the small proportion of UFOs that were not misidentifications were Unexplained Aerial Phenomena (UAP). The report stated that these were most likely some kind of unusual meteorological phenomena not fully understood by modern science. It called these “Buoyant Plasma Formation,” similar to ball lightning, capable of producing some kind of unexplained energy field or plasma. Possible causes for UAPs could include super-heated meteorites hitting the atmosphere and creating exotic plasmas from the gases there. These UAPs do sound awfully like a description of what happened over Walton Road, Felixstowe on the September night in 1965.

In any event, the strange orange glow was back in the skies over Felixstowe on the hot summer night of 1 July 2006, when witnesses reported two “orange orbs” over Old Felixstowe and the skies to the north. A witness described these orbs as "moving extremely fast, they appeared to chase each other. The objects were watched for around ten seconds before dropping behind the horizon, disappearing from view."

© Matt Salusbury 2017

This article was adapted from the chapter on hobby lanterns from the forthcoming Mystery Animals of the British Isles: Suffolk (CFZ Press, 2018)

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Teach in Poland in EL Gazette

Centralny, the Palace of Science and Culture, a gift from Stalin in the 1950s, still dominates the centre of Warsaw. I remember it from my visit to a very different Warsaw 29 years ago!

My article on working conditions, pay and job opportunities for English language teachers in Poland - both native speakers and locally recruited Polish English teachers - is now on the website of EL Gazette, the newspaper for the English Language Teaching industry. Yes, I'm still writing for them, as a freelance.

The feature is the result of my visit to Warsaw in July. I would like to thank Danka Soltyska, Peter Whiley, J Neil Russell, Marek Kiczkowiak, Mike Pilling, Mark Krzanowski and to Elzbieta Jarosz, Iatefl Poland secretary for their help in talking to me for this article, as well as some other English teachers who preferred not to be named. I did thank all the above people at the end of my article, but this was cut out of the final version - I'm not editor at EL Gazette anymore, so I no longer have control over these things!

I'll put the full text of the article here shortly, with some more links.

One of the many branches of the Empik Schools chain of language schools. Empik is the dominant school chain in Poland, it grew out of a bookshop and department store operation. (This one, at Centralny, is above one of its stores.) Empik didn't respond to my enquiries. I heard that one of their selling points is experienced and qualified Polish English teachers rather than native speakers.

Students enrol on Polish-medium sciences degree courses for the next academic year in the Polytechnica (Warsaw Technical University), in the Great Hall, rebuilt in its original style after its destruction in World War Two. These students will have English for Academic Purposes courses and English language support in addition to their main subjects taught in Polish.

The glass roof of the Politechnica's Great Hall

Lincoln Language School, one of the many smaller chains of language schools, has a branch in Central Warsaw. These chains are nearly all Polish-owned, multinational chains are rare in the country.

The Sirena, the mermaid - the emblem of Warsaw – shown here on a bridge over the Vistula River.
All photos: Copyright Matt Salusbury