17 May 2018


Francis Young. Magic as a Political Crime in Medieval and Early Modern England: A History of Sorcery and Treason. I.B.Tauris, 2018.

The main purpose of this book is to establish magical thinking, and in particular magical treason, as an essential part of the history of the medieval and early modern periods and worthy of detailed study. The author argues that the use of magical processes for political ends has been ignored by historians who have seen magic largely through the lens of social history, and regarded it as a form of ‘superstition’ and witchcraft. Historically witchcraft had been associated with ‘low-status’ individuals, and magic was therefore not seen generally as a significant influence on broader political and national history.

However Young argues that attempted magical acts, and accusations of such acts, played an important role in political, religious and dynastic conflicts up to the seventeenth century. He makes it clear that these involved ‘elite’ individuals, councillors, courtiers, politicians and even monarchs, were of national concern, and were quite unrelated to witchcraft claims, which seldom reached beyond a local context.

He criticises modern historians for a “moralising and rationalist approach” to what they consider a “false and discarded belief system”, concentrating more on why people believed things than what they actually did as a result of that belief: “Passing moral or rational judgements on the private beliefs of long-dead people is a futile exercise that makes for bad history”.

Prior to the fourteenth century magical practices were almost entirely a matter for the church courts, whose penalty for those found guilty were largely limited to excommunication. However as the power of the centralising state expanded into more and more aspects of life, the secular authorities began to see magical acts as being aimed against the court and the monarch, and could now be considered as treason, with the consequential death penalty. One of the results of this was that from being a respectable field of study, astrology began to be considered as a possible threat to the monarch, through its presumed ability to predict the date of the monarch’s death.

There were a number of magical plots against kings and courtiers through the period of the Wars of the Roses, but it was during the English Reformation that magical plots became a major source of concern to the state. This led to a number of Acts of Parliament prohibiting various practices, which have in Young’s view been misrepresented by later historians as Witchcraft Acts, but which in reality had little to do with populist, non-elite witchcraft practices.

Most of these acts of treasonable magic were laid at the feet of Roman Catholics, whose religious practices were already considered dangerously magical by the Protestant establishment, although by the end of the reign of Elizabeth I the actions of extreme Puritan elements also became a matter of concern. Young describes Elizabeth as “perhaps the most magically attacked monarch – at least while on the throne of England – in English History”.

One incident which is described in some detail is the affair of a group of three wax images which were found hidden in a farm in Islington in 1578 – than a small village a couple of miles from London. According to one account a female image bore the name ‘Elizabeth’ scratched into it, and the other two were dressed to resemble courtiers. They had been pierced with quills. They were passed on to the Lord Mayor of London and thence to the Privy Council. There was of course only one man able to counter the evil influence of this ‘effigy-magic’, Magonia’s Honorary Patron, John Dee!

The exact process by which he performed this act of counter-magic is not recorded other than briefly in Dee’s diary where he states “I did satisfy her Majesty’s desire, and the Lords of the honourable Privy Council, within a few hours, in godly and artificial [i.e. skilful] manner”. Young speculates on what this manner might be, based on the books known to be in Dee’s library in Mortlake at the time.

It sees however that Dee’s magical skills were wasted, as it emerged later that the effigies (or effigy, Dee only records one) were part of an attempt at ‘love magic’ by a young Islingtonian who had approached a local magician “to procure unto him the love of any three women whom he would name, and of whom he should make choice at his pleasure”. Fortunately for his indiscretions the youth suffered no more than a short period shame, and the loss of a significant sum of money to the fraudulent ‘magician’.

The accession of James I/VI brought some respite in attempts at magical treason, as he was less concerned about being the victim of magical attacks than previous monarchs; not because he did not believe in such things, but because his belief in the Divine Right of Kings meant that his position as an anointed king put him directly under God’s protection. Of course the main treasonable act of James's reign was the Gunpowder Plot, which served to further identification of Catholics with the ‘Enemy Within’.

The period of the Civil Wars, with the execution of the king and the overthrow of the established order dissipated much of the fear of magical treason, and curiously most of the worries about such plots seemed to be on the Parliamentary side, suspecting that Royalist sympathisers were involved in plots against them. Young suggests that the breakdown in law and order on a national scale during the Interregnum led to a stronger desire to punish wrongdoers locally, and may have been a factor in the East Anglia witch-hunts of 1644 – 1647.

Despite this, by the time of the Restoration in 1660, claims of treasonable magic began to disappear from English public life. Young gives as an example the 1678 ‘Popish Plot’ of Titus Oates, with its allegations of a Catholic plot to poison Charles II, involving a number of individuals whom Oates seems to have chosen at random. Less than a century earlier such a plot would certainly have involved stories of magical treason, but no such claims were made by Oates and his followers. Young contrasts this with the contemporaneous ‘Affair of the Poisons’ in France, which involved allegations of magical plots against Louis XIV, although he notes that this also involved a number of English players.

The final years of the Stuart era saw the almost complete collapse of magical treason as a concept in England, and the establishment view, perhaps helped by Charles II’s involvement with the growing scientific ideas of the period and his setting up of the Royal Society. By the dawn of the eighteenth-century allegations of magical treason were limited largely to satirical insults from one faction to another, something which echoes to this day with politicians being described as having ‘something of the night about them’, or being the ‘Prince of Darkness’, a epithet which the individual concerned seemed only too eager to accept!

This is a fascinating book, not least because of the extensive selection of translated original texts which the author uses to illustrate his arguments; while managing the rare feat of being both scholarly and extremely accessible for the general reader with a reasonable knowledge of English history. – John Rimmer

8 May 2018


Stephen Basdeo. The Life and Legend of a Rebel Leader. Pen and Sword History 2018

Anyone expecting a detailed account of the life and times of Wat Tyler, who famously led the revolt of 1381, will be disappointed for this book, as the author makes clear at the outset, is a cultural history of the man and the revolt. There is a short chapter providing the reader with the salient facts, and if more than this is wanted, then the author points one in the direction of Dan Jones’s best seller of 2009, Summer of Blood: The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.

So in fact most of the book is devoted to the study of how the legend of Wat Tyler has been received through the ages, and in fact this enquiry proves to be both entertaining and enlightening. The author skips over the late medieval period during which time Tyler and his army are depicted, we are told, as “ungodly wretches seeking to overthrow the divinely established social and political order”, and so he begins with the early modern period (from the reign of Elizabeth) when a play more sympathetic to the rebels was published which incorporated the legend that the revolt was initiated after a poll tax collector was done to death for an indecent assault on Straw’s daughter made on the pretext of checking whether she was under sixteen (in this play Straw is mixed up with Tyler). Also during this period a number of Elizabethan ballads covered the subject in the form of broadsides and garlands (where broadsides are the singles and garlands the albums) but these returned to an antagonistic portrayal, perhaps because ballads were not, as is commonly believed, the songs of the common people but rather “part of a popular culture which people from all classes enjoyed”.

During the Civil War two works appeared both of which regarded the revolt as a warning from history, and the later of the two by Cleveland depicted “men such as Wat Tyler and Oliver Cromwell , who seek to overturn existing hierarchies, …like demons from Hell”. Of Cromwell the author notes on more than one occasion that he is a little surprised that the Lord Protector did not make use of the legend. Surely the reason for this is that Cromwell was far from being a radical, as is clearly demonstrated by his words at the Putney debates and his crushing of the Army Revolt.

'Wat Tylers Rebellion', from a Wills cigarette card

The gin soaked eighteenth century was a time of English riots, and it was perhaps alarm at the prevalence of King Mob, which caused the splendidly entitled The History of All the Mobs (1715) to be written since “of late some people have been stirred to riots”. Basdeo describes the work, which cost 6 shillings, as resembling an eighteenth century criminal biography. The indecent assault is again the catalyst for revolt since the poll tax gatherer offers “some rudeness” to Tyler’s daughter and is felled by a blow on the head. The book is free with its facts, concluding with a fake excerpt from Jack Straw’s confession that “in the same night that Wat Tyler was killed, we intended to set fire to the city in four corners….”. So fake news was alive and kicking in 1715! Of course the press of the time was quick to resurrect the phantom of Tyler after the Gordon Riots of 1780, describing the fundamentalist Protestant Lord George Gordon who instigated days of complete mayhem in London because of some mild reduction in Catholic persecution contained in the papist Acts of 1778, as “of higher quality’” than Tyler.

It was only with the French Revolution in 1789 that the spectre of a real revolution in Britain came to properly scare the establishment. The Times of September 1789 described the Parisian insurgents as “in the same habit of mind which possessed Wat Tyler and his levelling companions…” Of course many Englishmen initially welcomed the Revolution, including Edmund Burke. He, of course, did a complete volte face, as much because of the anti-religious turn of the Revolution; his Reflections prompted the famous response of Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man, which attempted to rehabilitate Tyler by declaring that ”the nation owed much to his valour” and by providing a potted history of the events of 1381.

At this point of his career Paine was lauded both in America (without Paine would the American War of Independence have succeeded?) and France, and the book was hugely popular and did much to stimulate the growth of early English radicalism. The response of the English government of the day was to bring charges of sedition against Paine which caused him to flee to France (where he was elected a deputy in the Convention and narrowly escaped the guillotine), and also to initiate Pitt’s Terror, which involved numerous arrests of radicals and even the suspension of Habeas Corpus. Radical societies like the London Corresponding Society battled on, but the Government’s highly effective system of spies won the day.

It was during this period of repression that Robert Southey wrote his long poem Wat Tyler, which depicts Tyler as the champion of the oppressed. No doubt because of the fear of arrest the poem was never published, and the poet forgot his youthful enthusiasm for “the fire of justice”. In fact by the time of his middle-age he was a Tory and Poet laureate, and when someone got hold of the manuscript and published the poem, Southey was roundly mocked as a hypocrite.

The first part of the nineteenth century was taken up with the growing demands for electoral reform. At first the governments position was intractable, and even the Peterloo massacre of 1819 did not evoke any lessening of despotism. As the century wore on the Chartists grew in number, but the movement petered out in 1848. Some Chartists had made use of the Wat Tyler legend and a book by Pierce Egan sold widely; but there was no real backbone in the movement which contented itself in 1848 with delivering a petition to Parliament and accepting the Government’s dictat banning its meeting.

In the second part of the century, the legend was turned into a popular albeit racist and imperialist book by G.A. Henty, but it was only with the arrival of socialism that a more long-lasting literary legacy appears in the form of William Morris’s A Dream of John Ball which according to Basdeo represented “the beginnings of socialism”, and indeed contains a utopian vision where the de-frocked priest and Tyler’s co-leader speaks in a dream to a traveller from the nineteenth century, hoping that “at last all men labour and live and be happy”.

Both Morris and Ball would then no doubt be disappointed to see how things actually panned out. In the twentieth century the legend lies mostly dormant; apart from one 30 minute film, no great screen epics are made, and it is only with the arrival of Margaret Thatcher’s hated poll tax of the 1980’s that the name of Tyler is once more evoked with real passion as the post-war consensus breaks down, with the somewhat ludicrously named MP Jack Straw calling for resistance to the charge.

There is much to admire in this book, containing as it does material from a forgotten cultural history, and showing the way the literature of different ages have responded to the legend. Basdeo has an easy reading style, and although the theme is by its very nature somewhat repetitive, there is plenty of interest in these often forgotten literary pieces, and the author has contrived to pursue a single theme throughout in both a scholarly and entertaining fashion. – Robin Carlile.

3 May 2018


Arthur Versluis, Platonic Mysticism: Contemplative Science, Philosophy, Literature, and Art. State University of New York Press, 2017

Although Platonic Mysticism is written for fellow academics by a scholar specialising in the subject – Arthur Versluis is Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Michigan State University – much of what it has to say has a wider relevance to we Magonians.

Versluis’ twin themes are the disfavour into which mysticism has fallen as a subject for academic study (‘we live in an era of extreme relativism, and one in which subjects like mysticism or transcendence are not in vogue, to say the least’) and, more specifically, how all Western mysticism ultimately derives from the works of Plato (‘The argument in this book is that “mysticism” as a descriptor becomes intellectually incoherent if we don’t recognise and acknowledge its Platonic history and context’).

Starting with the second of these themes, Versluis traces the history and evolution of Plato’s mystical philosophy from the man himself, via the Neoplatonic philosophers of the early centuries AD – particularly Plotinus - on to the fifth/sixth-century writings attributed to Dionysius the Areopagite that brought Platonism into Christianity and which exerted a huge influence on all subsequent Christian mysticism, all the way through to the modern era and the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson and C.G. Jung.

Interestingly, Versluis includes in his survey of ‘Christian mystics’ figures influenced by Neoplatonism who are usually considered part of the occult tradition, such as Marsilio Ficino, Pico della Mirandola and Giordano Bruno. He recognises the connections with other esoteric and religious streams, observing that ‘It is probable that Platonism, Gnosticism, and Hermeticism are all variants on a theme.’ As to where Plato got his ideas, tantalisingly Versluis slides in that ‘In essence… Plato himself conveyed essential aspects of the secret initiatory traditions inherited from Egypt by Greece.’

At first glance, there appears to be a contradiction between Versluis stating, on the one hand, that ‘for our purposes, Platonism and mysticism are different terms for the same thing’ while on the other cautioning that this ‘should not be understood as suggesting that there is no mysticism in other traditions’. However, it’s a matter of terminology: it depends what you mean by ‘mysticism’, or rather what Versluis means by it in different contexts.

His definition, adopted after some discussion, is that mysticism is about ‘religious experiences corresponding to the direct cognition of a transcendent reality beyond the division of subject and object.’ However, his central argument is that, as all Christian mysticism – which was, of course, all there was for most of Europe’s history – can be traced back to Platonism, the two were effectively synonymous, something that he shows was taken for granted by scholars until the beginning of the twentieth century. Only then was the definition widened to take in the transcendent aspects of other, particularly Asian, religions.

Versluis acknowledges the influence of Eastern traditions, most obviously Buddhism, on modern concepts of mysticism. He considers that Buddhism ‘offers natural complements’ to the Western mystical tradition; indeed, towards the end of the book he writes that Platonism and Buddhism are ‘fundamentally the same’.

But for Versluis, the tragedy isn’t that the Platonic origins of mysticism have been eclipsed, but that the entire subject has fallen into academic disrepute - or worse: ‘What we are considering here is much stronger than simply ignoring mysticism: it is academics seeking to excommunicate those who study and take seriously the category “mysticism”.’ He cites critics such as the religious historian Daniel Dubuisson who reject the study of mysticism as, by definition, incompatible with scientific or historical scholarship.

This, Verluis explains, is a consequence of ‘the ascendancy and ultimately the hegemony of leftism and materialism in the modern academy’; he quotes Victoria Nelson that ‘the greatest taboo among serious intellectuals… is the heresy of challenging a materialist worldview.’ According to this worldview, mystical experiences are merely psychological and social constructs, an attitude that leads to what Versluis calls the ‘externalist fallacy’, the notion that the esoteric aspects of religion can be understood – and can only be understood - by studying them from the outside.

Versluis rips into that attitude which, he argues, is merely ‘an assertion by discursive rational consciousness that it alone exists and has validity’ - or, more pithily, is ‘based on just saying so’. Even more damningly, ‘It is, in the end, a confidence game.’

Versluis’ conclusions about that confidence game do, of course, apply equally to other esoteric, paranormal and Fortean subjects that are considered beyond the academic pale. Summarising an argument of Jeffrey J. Kripal, he writes of ‘an enduring strain of scientific rationalism that privileges only discursive rationalism, and for which all the various aspects of esoteric religion – mysticism, cosmological traditions, the paranormal – are anathema and relegated to the large trash can typically marked as “the irrational.” This is true despite those theories and findings of contemporary physics that seem to brush up against and even overlap what we would term esoteric religion.’

In the closing chapters Versluis looks at ways of resolving the conflict between these two seemingly incompatible worldviews, to engage with mystical and esoteric traditions while maintaining an analytical perspective. There are fascinating chapters on the relationship between literature and mysticism – Versluis sees literary works, which enable the reader to connect with the consciousnesses of others, as initiatory - and Platonism’s influence on Western art, from the Renaissance to (more surprisingly) the Hudson River School of American artists.

Finally, Versluis sketches out an approach for uniting the esoteric/experiential and exoteric/analytical perspectives: ‘Contemplative science’, a new form of mysticism which ‘results from engaging our faculty of inward observation to reflect upon its own nature.’ Seeing Buddhism as offering the ‘most sophisticated model’ for such a science, Versluis looks towards a scientific religion or religion of science, citing recent research, including brain-imaging studies of Tibetan Buddhists that present neurological evidence for the mystical state, which ‘suggests that the future in the area of consciousness studies may be transreligious, drawing practical aspects and larger metaphysics from Buddhism, while also drawing on the extant and venerable tradition of Platonic mysticism in the West.’

There’s much in Platonic Mysticism to mull over. It isn’t always an easy read – the parts analysing and defining the mystical experience are, perhaps unavoidably, heavy going - but Arthur Versluis succeeds in revealing the hollowness and intellectual dishonesty of the materialist-rationalist worldview and offers a way to reconcile proper scientific rigour with the transcendent, as well as unifying Western and Eastern mystical traditions. -- Clive Prince

29 April 2018


Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. Frankenstein or `The Modern Prometheus': The 1818 Text. Edited by Nick Groom. Oxford World's Classics Hardback Collection, 2018.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, that eloquently written short novel, was published 200 years ago this year. It’s a ‘monster’ text that obdurately refuses to lie down and die in print: a bestseller on its first appearance and never out of print; indirectly engendering so many film, TV, radio and stage adaptations. Such is the power of this unforgettable work. Such is also perhaps its unfortunate power to spawn things outside of the control of Mary and her ancestors. I have nothing against some of the Frankenstein adaptations. The 1930’s James Whale film versions are truly remarkable; Hammer’s attempts are iconic though a bit creaky, and the playful Young Frankenstein musical is currently playing in London’s West-end. Yet on re-reading Frankenstein I do feel that the transition to other media creates problems, distortions, aberrations and a mis-reading of the story.

The spirit of the Gothic imagination and the philosophy of the Romantics has been played down or ignored. In Frankenstein it’s not simply the horrific consequences of Victor Frankenstein’s experiment that matters for his nineteenth century science and our new scientific century, but an account of a timeless individual tragedy. The fate of the scientist and his being leaves a deep and poignant mark on our culture, raising more questions than answers.

How can you précis Frankenstein? Not so much examining how Victor did what he did: but why did he do it in first place? Was it hubris or just a desperately honourable attempt to connect better with humanity? Create a man. Be a god: only to become a tortured and guilt-ridden creator.

“Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein can be summed up in one short sentence: a mad scientist loses control of a daring experiment with devastating consequences. It is a contemporary myth comparable to that of Dr.Faustus, Robinson Crusoe, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Dracula: the definitive modern parable of the dangers of scientific and technological progress.”

Nick Groom is spot on. Groom then continues to write what’s probably the most brilliantly comprehensive introduction to Frankenstein that I have ever read. Even if you’ve read the book (Probably more know the myth than have actually read the text) you have to buy this finely produced OUP annotated edition to enjoy Nick Groom’s distillation of Frankenstein’s ideas and challenges: especially so as this is the first raw 1818 edition - the 1831 version had cuts made by Percy Shelley and Mary slightly softened its power.

So how would I describe Frankenstein? If I’d written the introduction I might have begun with. “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein can be summed up in several sentences. A young man, shielded from life, irresponsibly creates life. He wants to be-friend and parent a being. He does it on his own, without his sperm, a woman’s eggs and womb, but through alchemy, transplants and modern chemistry. But he has an over- idealised view of friendship. Frankenstein’s attempt to escape from human separateness results in a creature, he should, but won’t or can’t love. Its ugliness, consisting of patchwork parts of other bodies, is immediately rejected. Ironically this split-off projection of himself also wants friendship. Through his ‘God supplied’ electricity he galvanises into life a corporeal thing with a soul as lonely as his own.”

“I created a rational creature, and was bound towards him, to assure, as far as was in my power, his happiness and well-being. This was my duty; but there was another still paramount to that. My duties towards my fellow-creatures had greater claims to my attention, because they included a greater proportion of happiness or misery. Urged by this view, I refused, and I did right in refusing, to create a companion for the first creature. “

When the dying Frankenstein speaks of his motives to Captain Walton, on board his ship, at the North Pole, I can’t help but think that Victor was wrong. That he negated his duty to provide the creature with a mate. With his now godlike powers he could have easily done it, and then a newly satisfied (though probably not sexually so) ‘monster’ would have taken the hand of his woman and disappeared from Victor’s life. Yet Frankenstein says no to his creature, ceases playing at God and the price he pays for that is the murder of his bride Elizabeth on their wedding night.

“You, who call Frankenstein your friend, seem to have knowledge of my crimes and his misfortunes. But, in the detail which he gave you of them, he could not sum up the hours and months of misery which I endured, wasting in impotent passions. For whilst I destroyed his hopes, I did not satisfy my own desires. They were for ever ardent and craving; still I desired love and fellowship, and I was still spurned. Was there no injustice in this? Am I to be thought the only criminal when all human kind sinned against me? ’’

Captain Walton, as witness to the terrible existence of two beings, and ironically also desiring friendship himself, listens to the creature’s sad complaint. It feels like irresponsibility falls on both sides, neither should have desired revenge. Yet in that effort to destroy one another arises the question – what does it mean to be human? Who, or what created us? Can we create something better that will not be agonisingly skewed between good and evil? Or tolerate our imperfect selves and resist putting a re-born fallen angel back in its place?

In our rapidly developing age, of even more sophisticated artificial intelligence, Frankenstein intentions (Of a dual human and non-human functioning) will continue to attract and repel with equal power. As for Frankenstein the book, we must forget the bolts in the neck. See a tragic being before us and not a monster. And ignore the Herr Frankenstein merchandising. Shelley’s masterpiece ought to be obligatory reading for all science undergraduates before they enrol on their courses and again on graduation day.

21 April 2018


Mark Rees. Ghosts of Wales; Accounts from the Victoria Archives. History Press, 2017
Wendy Hughes. The A-Z of Curious Sussex. History Press, 2017.

When reading books of ghost stories, particularly those related to a specific location, it is often the case that the stories are retold and edited in a way that sometimes bears no relationship to any original account or testimony, and we are often presented with a homogenised and rather standardised narrative. In his reviews of such books, Peter Rogerson often pointed out that the modern ghost story is as much a product of the heritage industry than of any kind of psychical research, and an entry in a Good Ghost Guide is now as essential to any pub as an entry in the Good Beer Guide.

In Ghosts of Wales Mark Rees attempts to circumvent this processing by bringing us the original, unedited narratives from contemporary sources, or at least contemporary sources as recorded in the newspapers of the era. Because this is a boxes-within-boxes situation, where we will never really be able to access the source. However the newspaper accounts given here are probably about as far as we will ever be able to delve at this remove.

The majority of the stories here are from the latter part of the Victorian era, and this probably relates more to the coverage of local newspapers in the Principality as to the number of actual reported supernatural occurrences. Many of the stories describe experiences which are common to ghostly reports in other parts of the world, although some are specifically Welsh. A chapter on the ‘Ghosts of Industry’ recounts supernatural tales from the iron-works and coal-mines of South Wales. Stories like the haunting of the Morfa Colliery at Port Talbot after a mining disaster bear stark evidence of the trauma that such an incident wreaks amongst the local community, and gives some clues as to how the trauma resolves itself.

Late Victorian Wales also seemed to have had its own breed of ghost-hunting enthusiasts well before the era of ‘Reality TV. One local councillor in Cardiff had his own programme of pavement politics, sweeping the streets clear of ghostly manifestations and calling for a “course of systematic investigation, the whole thing to be followed up, if possible, to some real conclusion” and that the investigators should be “honest, conscientious and honourable”. Well, we’ve all heard these promises from politicians before, and it seems like most such, little came of it.

The ghost ‘with a mission’ is featured here. Members of a local Friendly Society, refusing to pay the funeral allowance for a member, on the grounds that he had committed suicide, found their lodge meetings disturbed by ghostly noises, and one committee member assaulted by the spirit of the deceased on his way home one dark night. As the reporter commented “such at least was the account he gave in tones of horror, at the first public house he came to after this terrific encounter”.

In many of these incidents we see the phenomenon of the ‘flash-mob’, with up to several hundred local people assembling at the site of a supposed haunting, often spending the night there, shouting, throwing stones and banging pots and pans, even firing guns. The leniency to this activity displayed by the local constabulary contrasts remarkably to reactions to much less riotous escapades today!

Although reading the original newspaper accounts gives a much closer look at the people and places involved, it also means that the reader has to plough through some of the most turgid prose know to man, from reporters who thought that the world hung on their every word, and were probably being paid per line. Also jarring to the modern ear are the casual, almost libellous, comments on individuals – usually those of the ‘lower orders’: “he engaged a new servant – a somewhat dull and ingenuous maid of twenty-six”.

I suppose reading some of the original documentation does explain why subsequent writers have found it necessary to edit and smooth out much of the narratives of these experiences, but it is essential that we do occasionally trouble to look at the earliest possible sources if we are to understand the background to them, whether they be supernatural or psycho-social. Mark Rees does an excellent job in reminding us of this.

The A-Z of Curious Sussex is perhaps more at the ‘heritage industry’ end of the spectrum, with brief accounts of historical curiosities, legend and folklore attached to various localities in East and West Sussex, alphabetically from Albourne to Yapton. These range from dramatic shipwrecks, gruesome crimes, historic battles and the usual quota of haunted inns, to the disputed origins of banoffee pie, the self-made legend of Grey Owl and the moving story of the pioneer of reading systems for the blind.

I was particularity interested in the legend of the pyramidal grave of ‘Mad Jack’ Fuller in Brightling churchyard, supposedly buried in his imposing tomb sitting at a dining table in full evening dress, complete with a bottle of claret; as a very similar tale is told about the pyramid covering the grave of William Mackenzie in St Andrew’s Churchyard in Rodney Street, Liverpool. Is this perhaps a recurring theme to explain eccentrically designed monuments?

The author does not burden the reader with the apparatus of scholarship, but the stories are well told and will interest anybody who is familiar with this part of the world, and reinforces the feeling that there are few places in these Islands without a legend or two to entertain us. – John Rimmer

13 April 2018


Folk Religion of the Pennsylvania Dutch: Witchcraft, Faith Healing and Related Practices by [Orth, Richard L.T.]Richard L. T. Orth. Folk Religion of the Pennsylvania Dutch: Witchcraft, Faith Healing and Related Practices. McFarland, 2018.

Books on witchcraft frequently refer in passing to the ‘Powwowing’ of the Pennsylvania Dutch, but the reader is seldom told anything about it. The present study is by a folklorist who was brought up in that culture, so he knows the subject from both inside and out. It is evidently a combination of folk beliefs going back to prehistoric times, together with material published in German about two hundred years ago.

The traditional view, almost everywhere, posits the existence of black witches and white witches, though these actual terms have not been used very often. If a child falls ill, if a cow gives bloody milk or none at all, this is presumed to be due to a curse laid by a ‘black witch’. There are various cures available, but often the sufferer will go to a ‘white witch’, who may be termed a wise woman, a cunning man, a witch doctor, or, among the Pennsylvania Dutch, a hex doctor. “The art of white magic in the Dutch Country is referred to as 'Braucherei' or, more popularly, Powwowing.” No doubt much of this is due to paranoia, but clearly, in a society where everyone believes in cursing, some people will try to do it, a point historians often overlook.

Unlike in previous centuries, there are printed texts available for both cursers and blessers. Now, the ‘Dutch’ are mostly descended from immigrants who spoke a dialect of German. Among the books that they brought with them from the old country was one known as The Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses. This was reprinted in the New World and eventually translated into English. It is generally believed to have been written by the Devil, and anyone who inadvertently reads a passage must immediately read it again backwards, or risk damnation. Personally, I think this unnecessary: on examination, it proves to consist primarily of illustrations of talismans inscribed with what must have originally been Hebrew characters, but are too corrupted to make out; the instructions beneath each include invocations, written in Roman character, but evidently from a Hebrew archetype ruined by successive miscopyings. It must have been the work, in the first instance, of a pious if slightly unorthodox Jew, though expanded by later authors, mostly Christians. The title shows that it was meant to be a secret instruction of God, given after the public ones for the use of a select few only.

For the faith healers there was Der lange Verborgene Freund, 1819, written by a local, John George Hohman. This was later put into English as The Long Lost Friend. Its underlying principle was that “certain illnesses and afflictions were believed by the Pennsylvania Dutch to be evil in origin, from either a witch or the Devil himself, and a person so afflicted could not very well be cured by home remedies or medicine.” So to be a successful healer, or even a successful patient, one had to believe in both God and Satan. To the complaint of some people that the use of the Lord’s name in Brauching was blasphemous, he responded with the words of Psalm 50:15 “And call upon me in the day of trouble: I will deliver thee, and thou shalt glorify me.”

One highly regarded protection formula among them was the celebrated SATOR AREPO TENET OPERA ROTAS, about whose origin they had some peculiar ideas: “The late Reverend Thomas Brendle, a foremost authority on folk medicine among the Pennsylvania Dutch, once stated that Hohman’s SATOR formula was traced to 200 BC in India.” A twelve-page Pennsylvania tract of the 1820s said “This is the song (first letter of each word used) sung by those three men, Shadrack, Mesack and Abednego, those that were allowed to be placed in the fiery furnace by King Nebuchadnezzar; then did God send [his] holy angel.” In fact, it is almost certainly a near-anagram of Pater Noster, 'Our Father', twice. I suppose that Protestants would believe almost anything except its Roman Catholic origin.

Also popular was the Himmelsbrief, a single leaf in German, but later translated and printed (in Pennsylvania) in English: “A Letter Written by God Himself, and Left Down at Magdeburg …” This protected one from all kinds of disasters, and so was often framed and hung on the wall; soldiers from the Dutch Country would carry them into war. Baptismal certificates would often be hung on the wall in perpetuity, to become eventually a reminder of one’s ancestors; sometimes, though, they would be buried with the individuals. They acted as passports to heaven by proving that they were baptised. -- Gareth J. Medway

9 April 2018


Joel Martin and William J. Birnes. Edison vs. Tesla - The Battle over their Last Invention. Skyhorse Publishing, 2017.

If you were asked, right now as in a conversation, who do you think were the greatest inventors of all time, who would come in the top places of your list? It is a good bet that Thomas Edison would come top, or thereabouts, on most people's lists. Nikola Tesla would be there too, along with such luminaries as Leonardo da Vinci, Alexander Graham Bell, Benjamin Franklin, Guglielmo Marconi, the Wright brothers, James Watt and Galileo, amongst several other candidates.

Thomas Edison (1847 - 1931)is best known for his successful inventions of the incandescent electric light bulb, the motion picture camera and projector, and the phonograph. Nikola Tesla (1856 - 1943) is remembered as the genius engineer who pioneered alternating current (AC) electricity generation and distribution. As an indication of how prolific both men were as inventors, Edison had 1,093 U.S. registered patents by the end of his life, and Tesla's total was around 300 patents worldwide. By contrast, Benjamin Franklin, who invented the lightning rod,bifocal lenses and other useful devices, never took out a single patent, believing that all knowledge should be freely available.

It is common knowledge that Edison and Tesla developed a fierce personal and commercial rivalry, which is alluded to in the title of this book. Their greatest battle, fought in the 1880s and early 90s, was "the war of the currents" over the relative merits of Edison's preferred direct current (DC) system against Tesla's AC. Edison's hard edge showed itself in his efforts to demonstrate that AC was more dangerous. To this effect, he publicly electrocuted several animals, such as stray cats and dogs, unwanted horses and cattle, and a circus elephant who had recently killed three men. Then an actual human victim, a condemned prisoner, was executed in an AC-powered electric chair, taking ten minutes to die in appalling agony. It was gruesome. Of course it would never be allowed today.

This battle came to a climax with the award of the contract for lighting the 1893 Chicago World Fair to Westinghouse with Tesla's AC system, decisively beating Edison's General Electric bid with a much lower price and superior technology. After this, AC became the accepted standard for power distribution and lighting. Edison, a proud and stubborn man, deeply resented this loss, although his company was soon forced to adopt the AC system into its business.

The 'last invention' was something altogether more bizarre and esoteric: a 'spirit telephone', meaning a device that could be used to communicate with departed spirits of dead loved ones. From the beginning of the book, in the foreword, introduction and first chapter, the game is given away. The 'spirit telephone' did not work, and no model of it exists today. But the story of Edison's concept of how it might work, and biographical details of both men's lives, are fascinating and inspiring to read.

It is not a major criticism of the book to say that there is a good deal of repetition throughout its chapters. The same themes, such as Edison's belief in 'life units' or what we today might call 'quantum particles', are repeated several times. This may be partly due to the book having two authors, Joel Martin, a leading author in the paranormal field, and William J. Birnes, an author and expert in the field of UFO research. One gets the impression that certain chapters were written separately, perhaps as magazine articles, which may explain the repetition of facts and explanations which had already been given in previous chapters. However, that means in effect that the book is readable and accessible. To their credit, the authors do not over-complicate the science, thereby appealing to a much broader potential readership.

Edison and Tesla were like chalk and cheese with regard to their personalities and qualities. Edison laboured long and hard at his inventions to make them successful and viable commercial products, most notably in the case of the incandescent lightbulb. It took hundreds of 'failures' to find the right material for the filament: carbonised bamboo fibre. He became a consummate entrepreneur and industrialist, becoming extremely wealthy. Tesla was a natural genius who got all of his futuristic concepts and intricate designs of machinery as complete images in his mind. He too became very wealthy, but his last few years were lived in cheap hotels and he died in relative poverty.

One appreciates Thomas Edison all the more for reading about his formative years. Born in 1847, in that year three of his siblings died. He was bright and inquisitive by nature. His mother, a qualified teacher, took him out of school at an early age and taught him at home. 'Natural philosophy' and chemistry were two of his favourite subjects. He made a lab at home to do experiments. Then, at age only 13, like his hero the British scientist Michael Faraday, he left his education to go out into the world of work. He got a job on the Great Trunk Railroad selling goods from a tray to passengers on the journey from Port Huron, Michigan where he lived, to Detroit and back again.

His enterprising nature soon showed itself. Using some space allowed to him in the boxcar, he set up a compact printing press and produced a small newspaper for sale. Then in the same space he started doing some chemistry experiments. In one of these he mixed nitric acid with sulphuric acid to produce nitroglycerin. He showed the beaker to a military man who, horrified, threw it out of the train where the substance exploded, nearly derailing the train. In another experiment he set fire to the boxcar, whereupon the irate train conductor extinguished the flames and kicked young Tom off the train with all of his stuff. In the process, it is reported, the conductor boxed his ears or possibly pulled him up by them. Whatever the cause, Edison later became very hard of hearing, which may have explained his appearance of aloofness.

Edison went on to become an expert telegraph operator, and soon found ways to improve on its function. He moved to Boston, which was the equivalent of today's 'Silicon Valley' for technological innovation, working for the Western Union Telegraph Company. In 1869 he left to become a full-time inventor. By 1870 he had two shops where he repaired telegraph equipment, and by 1876, aged 29, he had set up 'America's first industrial research lab' at Menlo Park, NJ.

Nikola Tesla was born in Croatia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in 1856, and eventually, after advanced education and experience in engineering and physics, decided his future lay in the USA to develop his world-changing innovations in the emerging field of electricity. To the young Nikola, Edison was a titan of invention and a great source of inspiration. In the American Magazine of April 1921, Tesla is quoted as saying these revealing words: "One of the great events in my life was my first meeting with Edison. This wonderful man, who had received no scientific training, yet had accomplished so much, filled me with amazement. I felt that the time I had spent studying languages, literature and art was wasted; though later, of course, I learned this was not so."

Compare those words of praise to the opprobrium expressed by Tesla's letter to The New York Times in 1931 just after Edison had died: "He had no hobby, cared for no sort of amusement of any kind and lived in utter disregard of the most elementary rules of hygiene. . . His method was inefficient in the extreme, for an immense ground had to be covered to get anything at all unless blind chance intervened, and, at first, I was almost a sorry witness of his doings, knowing that just a little theory and calculation would have saved him 90 percent of the labor. But he had a veritable contempt for book learning and mathematical knowledge, trusting himself entirely to his inventor's instinct and practical American sense."

It is a remarkable fact that Tesla worked for Edison's companies. In 1882 he got a job with the Continental Edison Company in Paris, in charge of the installation of incandescent electrical lighting. His talent was soon spotted, and he was used for troubleshooting engineering problems and improvements to generating dynamos and motors. That is what led to his being invited to work for the Edison Machine Works in New York, where he arrived in June 1884. After six months of distinguished service he left suddenly over a dispute about unpaid bonuses he felt entitled to for special projects he had completed. One version of events is that Edison told him personally he did not understand American humour.

Tesla had to overcome many hardships and setbacks, with all the trouble of finding suitable investors for his major projects. In 1887 he developed a self-starting induction motor that did not need commutators, avoiding the problems of sparking and costly maintenance. George Westinghouse invested in Tesla's designs and paid him very well as a consultant. A major success they achieved together was the 1893 contract to construct a 2-phase AC generating system at Niagara Falls.

All of this success made Tesla a very wealthy man over many years. Despite his wealth, his main motivation and life purpose was his work. He fell in love only once in his life, while young, and after that it appears he had no other relationships with women. All through his life he kept virtually the same weight of 64 kilos, despite being about 6ft 2ins tall. In appearance he was handsome and charismatic, but he had none of his rival Edison's cold aloofness and pride. One of Tesla's best friends was Mark Twain, who liked to visit the lab to see Tesla's experiments and demonstrations.

In 1898 Tesla demonstrated a remote-controlled boat at Madison Square Gardens, using newly discovered radio wave technology. He tried to sell the concept of a radio-controlled torpedo to the U.S. military, but they were not interested. Or it may have been on the advice of a certain Thomas Edison serving as a consultant on the Naval Advisory Board.

By 1901 Tesla was ready for his most ambitious project to date: wireless transmission of high-voltage electricity, and for this he received a massive investment from the famous magnate J.P Morgan, equivalent to over $4 million today. This financed the construction of Wardenclyffe Tower in Long Island, NY, as an experimental radio broadcasting station. Tesla was by then in another battle with Marconi to be the first to transmit a radio signal across the Atlantic. Marconi won that particular challenge, but Tesla developed even greater ideas.

It seemed that he had found the way to produce electricity so cheaply and abundantly that it would not need to be metered. By a combination of solar power and using the earth itself as a giant dynamo, Tesla was sure it could be done. But he needed more investment to achieve, and both Westinghouse and Morgan were hard-headed entrepreneurs who quite obviously wanted to create income streams from their investments. Whether or not Tesla's scheme would have worked is moot. There would certainly have been dramatic lightning effects around the towers, and the military were afraid that a beam of highly charged particles could be used as a weapon or cause massive damage accidentally They were also concerned about German spies in the early 20th century as the tensions that led to the World War I, started to mount. So, the military destroyed the tower with explosives before it could be proven to work.

Perhaps it is ironic that Tesla, despite being a man of peace, could conceive of robotic weapons, 'death rays' and even 'AI' (Artificial Intelligence). His visions were well ahead of their time. They are happening right now, in our time, as technology accelerates exponentially. The authors cite the first case of a remote-controlled robotic device being used by police to kill an armed and dangerous sniper in Dallas, Texas, in July 2016.

In recent times there have been at least two incidents of 'intelligent' weapons systems going seriously awry, according to Martin and Birnes. First, the 3 July 1988 shooting down of Iran Air Flight 655 by a missile fired from the USS Vincennes in the Gulf, and then the downing of TWA Flight 800, a Boeing 747, shortly after takeoff from JFK International Airport on 16 July 1996 with the death of all 230 people on board. The book goes into some detail on these events, as a kind of tangent to the discussion of Tesla's advanced weaponry concepts. A brief online check on TWA Flight 800 and the cause of the crash indicates that the official enquiry blamed an exploding fuel tank, sparked by a short-circuit. The authors, and many other writers and researchers, are insistent that the cause was a submarine-launched missile aimed at a drone as part of a US Navy exercise of leading edge weaponry that went wrong. They claim eyewitness verification and forensic evidence.

Edison also envisioned the future, with high-speed trains powered by electricity, electronic books and the 'internet' of shared information. He predicted that peace would eventually come through technology, after a few violent upheavals. Let's hope he's right, but it will also take Tesla's vision of clean, free energy and wise use of power to bring it about. According to this book, both men were offered the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1912 but turned it down because neither could bear to share it with the other.

Towards the end of the book there is more explanation of the concept and technology for the 'spirit telephone'. It is a bit of an anti-climax compared to the real achievements of both men. There's very little on Tesla's design, if it ever existed, and even Edison's experiments have no detailed records. Probably they were destroyed by his family or agents to remove this dubious device from the record. The idea in principle was that departed spirits of humans might retain packets of memory as energy quanta after death. No one expected spirits to vocalise, but it was thought they might be able to respond by simple yes/no raps, leading to a more sophisticated type of Morse code.

Edison's experiment used a light beam focused on photoelectric cells, with a meter to show any subtle fluctuation to indicate the presence of a spirit. He had corresponded with the British scientist Sir William Crookes, an expert in spectroscopy, or analysis of the components of light, about detecting the energy of auras. Crookes, in later life, became interested in spiritualism. Edison was sceptical, but even so mediums were present to do their rituals to attract the spirits. It's all quite nebulous. Some say it was a hoax all along to provoke Tesla. Who knows? It was the confluence of the Great Age of Spiritualism with the Age of Science and Industrialism.

It is certainly true that Edison had a profound near-death experience on his deathbed in 1931. Awakening from a coma, he said that he had seen the 'other side' and it was totally blissful.

As for Tesla, when he died alone in his cheap hotel room we don't know his final moments. His body was found by a chambermaid two days after he died with a 'do not disturb' sign on the door. Some of the greatest pleasure he had in his last years came from going out every day to feed pigeons, and one particular white pigeon that came to the window of his small hotel room needing care and attention. He wrote: "I loved that pigeon as a man loves a woman, and she loved me. As long as I had her, there was purpose to my life."

As a postscript, after his death in 1943 the FBI, under the directorship of J. Edgar Hoover, broke open the safe in Tesla's room and took away all of his papers. When the newly formed Yugoslav government requested his papers for the proposed Tesla Museum in Belgrade, it seems that at least one set of papers was retained. These were Tesla's designs for what could have been his greatest invention: an antigravity device. He had theorized that excited quartz crystals, at the correct frequency, could be directed to levitate an object, negating the effect of gravity. It was the start of World War II and he had enthusiastically tried to sell the design to the U.S. military without success. The Russians were interested and offered $25,000. It was never made, as he became ill and died with no further progress.

The notes on anti-gravity devices were sent to General Nathan Twining of Air Materiel Command at Wright Field base, outside Dayton, Ohio. Debris from the so-called 'UFO crash' at Roswell, New Mexico in 1947, were sent to the same base, and the same General was responsible for the investigation. Was there a meaningful connection? Did the military in the USA, or elsewhere, manage to create an anti-gravity aircraft, or spacecraft? Or was it really an extraterrestrial spacecraft with alien bodies inside? All the evidence points to a hoax or cover-up story, as so often happens. But the 'spirit telephone' hasn't been invented yet, and probably never will be. – Kevin Murphy

5 April 2018


Sharon A. Hill. Scientifical Americans; The Culture of Amateur Paranormal Researchers. McFarland, 2017.

Sharon Hill opens the introduction to this book with a question that sceptical researchers of anomalies are often asked: if we are sceptical about such phenomena, why are we researching and writing about them? Hill’s answer is that she loves the ‘idea’ of such things, even if she does not accept their reality. And this ‘idea’ is promoted vigorously through the mass media in all its forms.

Hill is writing from an American perspective, which perhaps differs from the development of anomaly studies in Britain and Europe. I have commented previously that many of the influential critical voices in Britain have come from within the UFO and paranormal research movement itself, as researchers have found that the problems raised by the phenomena cannot be explained adequately by the literalist narrative of the believers. In the US, by contrast, the high-profile sceptics seem to have approached the subjects from the outside, almost as missionaries bearing the light of Sagan’s ‘candle in the dark’.

There is a little bit of this attitude in Hill’s approach, and at times in describing the workings of ghost-hunting groups in particular, she does give slightly the impression of someone finding themselves looking at the curious habits of a remote tribe, and at times gives the impression that her main criticism of amateur anomaly research is that it does not lead to a PhD. Generally though, she is prepared to give an objective view, although I doubt may of the members of the groups she describes would credit her with that.

By ‘scientifical’ Hill means researchers who operate in what they claim is a ‘scientific’ way, but without really understanding the implications of that claim. Old-time ufologists like your reviewer, will remember from the distant past such things as ‘UFO detectors’ which were advertised in the saucer magazines of the sixties and seventies. These were predicated on the principle that UFOs operated using some vaguely defined sort of electromagnetic, antigravity motor that would cause a compass needle to swing when approached by a UFO. This would create an electrical contact which would set of a buzzer and/or a flashing light.

This is the very epitome of ‘scientifical’. It looked the business, - ‘sciency’ as Hill terms it - there were lights and buzzers, and something happened which could be noted down with great accuracy in a UFO report. But it wasn’t science. It didn’t really demonstrate anything other than your group was a bit more scientifical than the next one, especially if your UFO detector had a flashy aluminium case.

Using ‘sciency’ words and giving themselves ‘sciency’ titles is another way in which groups validate their existence, with roles such as ‘director of research’ or impressive organisation titles like ‘nation research committee’, and so on. Hill suggests that these are a form of ‘cargo-cult’ whereby aping the style and outward appearance of a scientific organisation, the ‘cargo’ - solutions to the mystery under investigation – will somehow arrive, but without the complex scientific structure that produces real solutions.

A great deal of this book looks at the many ‘ghost hunting’ TV shows that seem to dominate American cable channels, and have a presence on this side of the Atlantic as well. Most of these involve people with massive amounts of ‘sciency’ gear spending the night in suitably spooky locations. There are many “did you hear/feel/see that” exclamations in these shows, but despite all the gadgetry on display, little or no real scientific findings are ever produced. She is particularly scathing about ‘sciency’-sounding language, and in particular the bandying of the word ‘quantum’ by people who have no idea at all what it means, which effectively is most of us.

Hull describes these groups as ARIGs – Amateur Research and Investigation Groups. Although she considers that they all share the same ‘scientifical’ approach to their topics of study, she accepts that there are differences of emphasis between and within the various interest groups. Cryptozoology in her view has a better grasp of scientific principles than some other ARIGs, pointing out in particular figures such as Karl Shuker and Loren Coleman. Of course, the basic principle of cryptozoology – that there are large humanoid primates unknown to science living in remote parts of the world – may be difficult or impossible to prove and is likely false, but even if true it does not break any fundamental laws of science in the way that telepathy or the presence of humanoid aliens on earth does.

One important point she makes is the danger that ARIGs may present to the people they encounter in their investigations. In some of his reviews of books describing investigations into poltergeist phenomena, Peter Rogerson has expressed concern at the actions of certain unqualified investigators, with agendas of their own, getting involved with what are often very troubled people, and imposing their own interpretation onto the individual’s experience.

Hill points out, “most of the ghost investigators I’ve spoken with have stories of clients that are clearly in need of mental health assistance and do not have a solid grasp of reality”. This is particularly crucial with poltergeist cases, which often involve young and vulnerable people in a complex and sometimes troubling family dynamic. No ‘ghost-hunting’ group should be allowed within a mile of such cases.

Hill notes that many ARIGs “reject any intellectual approach” claiming that genuine solutions can only be found through active field-work, and dismissing any critical approach as “armchair research”, a criticism often heard in the fields of ufology and cryptozoology. She might also have added that any intellectual attempt to examine historical or sociological contexts to anomalous phenomena if often dismissed as “literary criticism”.

I have no doubt that this book will enrage many members of ARIGs, and as I said, at times the author does perhaps adopt the tone of someone setting foot in a rather alien environment and looking with surprise and puzzlement at the fauna she finds there.

Perhaps a deeper involvement in some of the research areas would have helped her get a rounder view, and be able to appreciate both the constructive work that has been done by some ARIGs – her focus on American groups has rather limited her view here - as well as understand the motivations of the people involved in such groups. Overall though, she raises many valid criticisms, which members of such research groups would do well to consider. – John Rimmer.