The World of Victorian Grave Dolls

Curiosities, Death, Graves, Victorians

After experiencing the death of a loved one, especially those who pass away in the midst of infancy or youth, our mourning practises may include collecting mementos, old photographs, writing diaries. And of course, you might make a full-sized effigy of the deceased to place in their room.

 

In the 19thcentury, death played far a greater role in everyday life. Children and adults were frequently and openly exposed to death and deceased loved ones. As we know through examples of hair jewellery, post-mortem photography and death masks, methods of remembrance and memorialisation could be far more direct and graphic. Hair bracelets and wax heads aside, Victorian mourning dolls are one of the more overlooked element of the Victorian grief process.

1860s Wax Mourning Doll

1860s Wax Mourning Doll

By the tail end of the 19thcentury, it was customary for the family of a deceased child to leave a doll at the gravesite. Of course, leaving toys at the grave of a child remains familiar sight, but ‘mourning dolls’ were no shop-bought playthings.

 

The life of the Mourning Doll began at the funeral/wake of the infant, where a wax likeness was made and presented in the child’s own clothes. Often, the doll’s realism was enhanced by wearing cuttings of the child’s own hair. Frequently pictured lying with the deceased on their deathbed, they were also displayed in miniature coffins as an idealised image of peaceful death. Considering that many infant mortalities were caused by disfiguring and draining illnesses such as smallpox, scarlet fever, tuberculosis and diphtheria, the doll offered an idealised reality of their loss. While their child may have departed gaunt and bloody, the wax effigy would look as though it had simply closed its eyes and gone to sleep.

 

Subsequently, these peaceful dolls were often sculpted with flat backs and heads to ease placement in frames, coffins and at the graveside. As the years passed, tastes changes and weather and vandalism played their part, many of these dolls were left and scattered with the years.

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Grave decoration, aside from the obvious towering monuments, was commonplace in the Victorian era. Ceramic hands, books, flowers and wreaths were often placed on graves from the 19thcentury and beyond. These, like most Victorian methods of memorialisation, were rich with symbolism. Many French cemeteries popularised beaded ‘Immortelles’, which were beautifully beaded wreaths which slowly disintegrated into piles of glistening beads over time.

 

However, those that survive today had very different treatments; they were not left open to the elements, but were often kept at home, displayed in the bed of the deceased and cared for and re-dressed as though they were the deceased. To mimic the feel of a real child, these dolls were weighted with sand and heavy cloth. In some ways, these wax infants seem not unlike the popular ‘re-born’ dolls of today, where hyper-realistic silicon babies are collected by doll enthusiasts and grieving parents alike.

 

Those that remain today were preserved in large glass boxes and, typically, depict a child between 0-3 years. Older children tend to have been depicted merely from the shoulders up – Which is understandable from a cost and size perspective! A wax baby might be comforting; a six foot wax teenager is the stuff of nightmares.

little-girls-would-practice-mourning-with-funeral-dolls-photo-u1

Wax likenesses weren’t the only death-related dolls associated with Victorian children. In life, many little girls were presented with so-called ‘Death Kits’, which included a doll and miniature coffin. In play, the child would then ‘practice dressing the doll, laying it out for visitation, placing it in the coffin, and facilitating a funeral. She might also be expected to practise attending to the grief of the doll’s mourners.’ So says The Order of the Good Death’s Louise Hung.

 

These dolls were ideal primers for young women who, should they survive to adulthood, would almost certainly be called upon to care for their own dead.

 

As mortality rates decreased, tastes changed and wartime reduced the popularity of excessive or overly-materialistic mourning, wax dolls lost their popularity. Today, many of us find realistic likenesses unnerving or macabre, but feel compelled to decorate graves with cherubs and photographic likenesses. The days of the wax child may be over, but I’d keep an eye on the ceramic toddler…

 

 

 

Sources

https://victoriantraditions.blogspot.com/2016/04/wax-dolls-montanari-and-pierotti-dolls.html

 

http://www.orderofthegooddeath.com/cabinet-curiosities-victorian-death-dolls

 

http://www.inherited-values.com/2016/10/the-lovely-disturbing-the-history-of-wax-dolls/

 

https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/4814519.kirsty_stonell_walker/blog?page=13

 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victorian_mourning_dolls

The Hand of Glory

Curiosities, Folk Tales

When packing your kit for a casual night of burglary and thieving, you may be tempted to stick with the old tried-and-tested balaclava, torch and crowbar combination.

However, dear reader, may I suggest bucking the trend? Instead, try arming yourself with a tried-and-tested illuminating aid from yesteryear; the severed hand of a hanged man.

Lightweight and versatile! Let me tell you about it…

 

A Hand of Glory was of particular interest to burglars and house-breakers of yesteryear. It was a widely-held belief that using the dried and pickled hand of a hanged man as a candle or candle holder would transfer somewhat magical powers to the bearer. While the specifics vary between countries and regions, the desiccated hand generally assisted in robbery.

The hand’s powers were recorded in many 18thcentury documents and varied in inventiveness and severity.

These included, but were not limited to:

  • Possessing the ability to burn forever; providing endless light.
  • Providing a light only visible to the perpetrator and not to the householder.
  • Holding the ability to unlock any door.
  • Magically rendering any person motionless upon presentation of the hand.

 

The most consistent and well known of these abilities was that placing the hand outside or on the doorstep of a house would render all the occupants in such a deep sleep that the burglars movements could not wake them.

While using the hand as a candle holder seems the most practical of setups, there are many stories in which the fingers themselves act as candles. In such accounts, each finger that catches alight signals the number of inhabitants within the house who are sleeping. Subsequently, once the finger begins to burn, that person was believed to be unable to wake. However, an unlit finger could create confusion; the lit fingers could signal that all inhabitants were sleeping, but did not account for everyone within the house. An unlit finger could signal there were no more inhabitants or that one was still awake. There are similar accounts of burglars misjudging the amount of people within the house on account of inhabitants outnumbering flaming fingers.

The practicalities of lighting fingers may not have suited all criminals, so a popular alternative was purported to be bending the fingers around a separate candle which was itself sculpted from the deceased’s fat with the man’s hair as a makeshift wick.

Hand of Glory Varients

Hand of Glory Varients

But how does one create their own hand of glory? Surprisingly, it doesn’t seem to have been a task requiring specialist work, and it was certainly no mean feat to find an abundance of hanged men in the 18thcentury.

When creating your mystical severed appendage, there were rules to be followed. Your hand had to come from a man who was still swinging from the gallows. A right hand is preferred, especially if your chosen felon was a murderer – the right hand being regarded as ‘the hand that did the deed’. However, even severed hands aren’t black and white and some preferred to use the other, as left hands were traditionally thought of as the ‘sinister hand’ in Christian tradition.

Preferably, you should remove the hand at night, unless there’s a mad rush following the hanging. Afterwards, a series of blood-draining, finger positioning, pickling and mummifying follows.

In 1722, Petit Albert recorded how to prepare a hand yourself –

 

‘Take the right or left hand of a felon who is hanging from a gibbet beside a highway; wrap it in part of a funeral pall and so wrapped squeeze it well. Then put it into an earthenware vessel with zimat, nitre, salt and long peppers, the whole well powdered. Leave it in this vessel for a fortnight, then take it out and expose it to full sunlight during the dog-days until it becomes quite dry. If the sun is not strong enough put it in an oven with fern and vervain. Next make a kind of candle from the fat of a gibbeted felon, virgin wax, sesame, and ponie, and use the Hand of Glory as a candlestick to hold this candle when lighted, and then those in every place into which you go with this baneful instrument shall remain motionless.’

 

Examples of ‘Hand of Glory’ usage have been noted all over Europe for around 400 years. The name itself is thought to derive from the French term ‘main de gloire’, a version of ‘mandragore’, meaning ‘mandrake’. Mandrakes have long been regarded as having magical properties. Some historians believe the folk-beliefs surrounding the hand of glory relate directly to these mandrake beliefs. It was thought to be a plant that would grow beneath the gallows of a hanged man, directly from his ‘seed’. Which is a thought to dwell on in itself.

Mandrake

Mandrake

Mandrake leaves were also thought to resemble hands, which is an understandable reference. Similarly, in Saxon times, it is said that mandrakes were thought to shine at night, which similarly may have fed into the legend of the Hand of Glory’s powers.

But how does one protect their household from the mystical powers of a severed hand?

18thCentury householders had several options. A popular option was that, upon finding a burning hand, one could extinguish the flame with sterilised milk or blood, rendering it useless. However, no historical preventative ritual would be complete without an elaborate concoction of animal bits –

‘The Hand of Glory would become ineffective, and thieves would not be able to utilize it, if you were to rub the threshold or other parts of the house by which they may enter with an unguent composed of the gall of a black cat, the fat of a white hen, and the blood of the screech-owl.’

 

Whitby Museum's Hand of Glory

Whitby Museum’s Hand of Glory

 

As most Hand of Glorys have been lost to the fleshy sands of time, there are few remaining today. As far as I am aware, the only remaining hand in the world rests in Whitby Museum where it is very nicely displayed beside a monumental Victorian jet and fossil collection.

Whitby’s hand was found in the early 20thcentury, hidden in the wall of a thatched cottage in Castleton by stonemason Joseph Ford. It has been in the museum’s possession since 1935 and continues to be a draw to this day.

As hanging and extreme superstitions lost their place in society, so did the Hand of Glory. And although only one hand remains, those of you living in historical houses might find some withered treats within your walls should you ever wish to take on renovations…

 

 

 

 

 

Sources:

Whitby Museum, North Yorkshire

http://myths.e2bn.org/mythsandlegends/origins15607-the-hand-of-glory.html

https://whitbymuseum.org.uk/whats-here/collections/special-collections/hand-of-glory/

https://www.thewhitbyguide.co.uk/hand-of-glory/

 

Images-

https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/morbid-monday-severed-hands

evil.wikia.com

And author’s own.

A Short History of British Screaming Skulls

Curiosities, Death, Folk Tales, Hauntings, Superstition

 

While sounding like a high-school punk band, screaming skulls are a not-uncommon element woven through the rich British tapestry of haunted body parts.

Screaming, or more specifically, haunted skulls make their home in several towns throughout England.

These skulls need not necessarily be attached to a body, but rather exist independently from their corporeal form. Rather than aimless haunting, or haunting in more attractive surroundings, it is said that these skulls are emotionally linked to the houses in which they wish to continue to live.

 

Screaming Skulls are most commonly attributed to those who suffered religious persecution during the Henry VIII’s 16thCentury Reformation, or under Oliver Cromwell’s Roundheads during the English Civil war in the 17thCentury. Immediately prior to their death/undoubtedly violent murder, all owners of future haunted skulls professed that they wished to be buried within the walls of the house in which they lay. When these wishes were ignored and the persecuted individual was laid to rest in a grave, vault or in undesired grounds, the spirit fought back.

Inhabitants of these houses reported strange noises; bangs, crashes and moans and various ‘unexplained happenings’. Once the houses’ occupants made the connection between the noises and the deceased, they frequently disinterred the skull, returning it to the homestead. While the skull rests in the home, undisturbed (on its shelf, stoop or within its case) all is well, yet once one attempts to remove said skull, supernatural chaos ensues.

 

Should one try to dispose of such a ‘screaming skull’ by any means – via physical destruction, throwing into a river, or even by burial – the skull will always return to its house intact. More often than not, the skull delights in its revenge by not only terrifying the perpetrator, but cursing them with bad luck, a poor harvest or illness.

 

While the UK has several such skulls, below are three of our greatest hitters.

Because if you can’t have a top of the pops style countdown on severed heads, what can you truly enjoy in life?

 

The Bettiscombe Skull

Bettiscombe SkullThe Bettiscombe skull is attributed to an unnamed slave from the West Indies whose unfortunate path led him to Lyme Regis, Dorset. The slave was originally thought to have been brought to Dorset to serve Azariah Pinney, a plantation owner and dealer in the Slave Trade.

As with most apocryphal stories of slaves at this time, it is unclear whether the unnamed slave was a victim of, or perpetrator of, a murder. Nonetheless, the deceased’s wishes were to be buried back in his homeland. These were ignored and this supposed ‘faithful black servant’ was interred at Bettiscombe churchyard, in response to which, his haunting began. Supposedly screams were heard from the churchyard, and bizarre noises emanated from the farmhouse. The disturbances only ceased when the body was disinterred.

In 1872, it was published in Dorset “Notes and Queries” that:

 

The peculiar superstition attaching to it is that if it be brought out of the house the house itself would rock to its foundations, whilst the person by whom such an act of desecration was committed would certainly die within the year.”

 

Many attempts were made to re-bury the body, but with little success. Such attempts were so frequent and ill-managed, that after time, only the skull remained. The skull eventually found its resting place back at the farmhouse, in the nook of a staircase.

Or so the legend goes…

In more recent years, the skull was examined by Professor Gilbert Causey of the Royal College of Surgeons. He deemed the skull as not only female, but pre-historic in origin, most probably a sacrificial victim from an earlier settlement. Yet the legend had laid roots and is well known, and well-minded to this day.

The skull’s – and the Pinney family’s – journey is well documented throughout the years and is well-researched by the Dorset County Museum, whose links I have provided at the bottom of this article.

 

The Tunstead Farm Skull

Tunstead Farm, known locally as ‘Skull Farm’, sits in a quiet hamlet in Derbyshire that dates back to the 13thCentury.dicky2

According to local legend, there are many options as to the owner and ‘haunter’ of the head:

Firstly, a (as ever) unnamed young woman was murdered in the same room as the skull is kept. Secondly, a man named ‘Ned Dixon’, a spurned ancestor of the farm’s owners or thirdly, and most dramatically, a murdered sister.

The most gripping of these potential haunting sources originates with two sisters, both enamoured with the same man. In jealousy, one murdered the other. On her deathbed, the murdered sister proclaimed that her bones would never rest.

As referenced in the blog ‘Ludchurch’ (linked below), the 1895 work ‘Household Tales and other Traditional Remains’ went on to say that:

 

‘Her bones are kept in a cheese vat in the farmhouse which stands in a staircase window. If the bones are removed from the vat trouble comes upon the house, strange noises are heard at night, the cattle die or are seized with illness.’

 

The skull, nicknamed “Dickie” was also said to be a supernatural guardian of the farmhouse and forces knocking noises to herald the approach of strangers. Supposedly, Dickie’s rappings have also heralded deaths in the family and further issues with livestock.

 

As with most other haunted skulls, all is well unless Dickie is removed, in which case auditory chaos reigns. Superstitions concerning Dickie’s power over the farmland, that in 1870, following issues with a railway company and unsuccessful (on account of Dickie’s intervention) building work, a Lancashire poet wrote:

 

Neaw, Dickie, be quiet wi’ thee,lad,

An ‘let navvies an’ railways a ‘be;

Mon tha shouldn’t do soa, its to bad,

What harm are they doin’ to thee?

Deed folk shouldn’t meddle at o’

But leov o’ these matters to th’wick;

They’ll see they’re done gradely, aw know-

Dos’t’ yer what aw say to thee, Dick?

 

After several instances of theft and frenzied return, Dickie remains at the homestead where she occupies her usual spot by the kitchen window.

 

The Wardley Skull

The Wardley Skull has two potential roots – one fanciful, one probable.

Wardley SkullThe less-likely legend surrounds the skull- that it is the cranium of Roger Downes, a shamed member of the family owning Wardley hall who, after escaping a murder trial, drunkenly attacked a watchman who swiftly beheaded Downes with a swipe of his rapier.

(This would be improbable, nigh impossible – hence the unlikely legend.)

The Wardley Skull follows the tradition of persecuted clergy, reportedly belonging to a Catholic priest, Father Ambrose Barlow who was hung, drawn and quartered in 1641. His severed head was subsequently put on display at Lancaster Castle, later being stolen by a Catholic sympathiser and secreted within the walls of Wardley Hall.

The skull lay undiscovered until the 18thCentury where the legends surrounding its power begun to take hold.

It is said that, believing it to be an animal skull, a servant of Matthew Moreton (the then owner

 

of Wardley) hurled the skull into the Hall’s moat. That night, a particularly strong storm broke out. Both the skull and the Hall’s owner were displeased with this turn of events, with the owner demanding the draining of the moat and the safe return of the skull.

Although not open to the public, the Wardley skull remains protected in a niche beside the main staircase, preserved behind glass.

 

While Morris Dancing, Cheese-Rolling and the burning of treacherous effigies atop bonfires have maintained their twee popularity over the years, I put my vote in for the return of a greater British tradition. A good, haunted skull. If anyone needs me, I’ll be disinterring some clergy…

 

Sources/Further Reading:

https://dorsetcountymuseum.wordpress.com/tag/pinney-family/

https://ludchurchmyblog.wordpress.com/places-of-interest-in-cheshire/the-cursed-skull-of-tunstead-farm/

https://www.paranormaldatabase.com/reports/skulls.php?pageNum_paradata=1&totalRows_paradata=28

http://www.real-british-ghosts.com/screaming-skull.html

http://www.landcas.org.uk/wardleyhall.html

https://hauntedpalaceblog.wordpress.com/2016/08/13/screaming-skulls-folklore-fact-and-fiction/

Haunted England – Christina Hole (1940)

The Guinness Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits – Rosemary Ellen Guiley (1992)

 

 

The Curious Case of Edward Mordake’s Demon Face

Curiosities, Folk Tales, urban legends

 

You think you’re having a bad day? Well, imagine how bad you’d be feeling if you had a second face on the back of your skull, whispering ‘things one would only speak about in hell’ as you slept. What if the face delights in your suffering and ultimately results in your suicide?

It would be doubly bad if you were also fictitious.

But let’s not allow such trifles as ‘truth’ to hamper our enjoyment of emotionally abusive apocryphal parasitic heads.

Edward Mordake (sometimes cited as ‘Mordrake’) first appeared in ‘official’ publication in 1896, in Gould & Pyle’s ‘Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine’. He was purportedly a 19th century gentleman who was ‘heir to one of the noblest peerages in England’, and an accomplished musician and scholar. He was born with a case of polycephaly, or craniopagus parasiticus (depending on your reading of the legend), which resulted in the growth or a parasitic face behind his own. His ‘main face’ was said to be so chiselled and beautiful that it was referred to as being an Antinous – “arguably the most notorious pretty boy from the annals of classical history”. However, his parasitic face was that of a beautiful woman, “lovely as a dream, hideous as a devil” that possessed a form of independent sentience and intelligence.

The initial report recounts – “The female face was a mere mask, “occupying only a small portion of the posterior part of the skull, yet exhibiting every sign of intelligence, of a malignant sort, however”. It would be seen to smile and sneer while Mordake was weeping. The eyes would follow the movements of the spectator, and the lips “would gibber without ceasing”. No voice was audible, but Mordake avers that he was kept from his rest at night by the hateful whispers of his “devil twin”, as he called it, “which never sleeps, but talks to me forever of such things as they only speak of in Hell.”

Mordake is said to have attributed the parasitic face to a curse or punishment as a result of the wrongdoings of his ancestors. It was reported that he begged his physicians to dispense with the face, even if it resulted in his death. Yet his pleadings were to no avail, and, driven mad by his attached ‘fiend’, committed suicide by poisoning at the age of 23. Yet, before doing so, he made sure to leave instructions as to the treatment and burial of his body, requesting the destruction of the ‘demon face’ and to be ‘interred in a waste place, without stone or legend to mark his grave.’

Like most perpetuating urban legends, there are no sources cited in the original text. Gould and Pyle cited only that the story of Mordake had been taken from ‘lay sources’, or, word of mouth. While this original printed source is from a medical background, its authenticity can be hugely brought into question when considering the other accounts within the work, many of which are similarly unreferenced and untraceable.

While the story of Mordake appears to be little more than hearsay, many academics (and the hard-working people behind ‘The Museum of Hoaxes’) have followed the crumb-trail to a further, earlier source – that of The Boston Post in 1895. The Wonders of Modern Science: some half human monsters once thought to be of the Devil’s brood,’

The article, as penned by poet and fiction writer Charles Lotin Hildreth is a collection of descriptions of ‘human freaks’ as catalogued by the (non-existent) ‘Royal Scientific Society’. ‘stand-out’ characters include ‘The Fish Woman of Lincoln’, the ‘Four-eyed man of Cricklade’ and ‘Half Human Half Crab’. However, the illustrations included to assist the reader’s imagination are worth viewing for their bizarre artistic merits alone. Last in Hildreth’s list, just after the ‘Norfolk Spider’, is that of ‘Mordake and his “Devil Twin”’, later being lifted word-for-word for Gould & Pyle’s publication. Mordake is not exactly in credible company.

While printed as a standard newspaper report, the presentation of fiction as non-fiction was commonplace in 19th century news culture. While amusing to a contemporary audience, such creative efforts led to multiple urban legends and hoaxes being accepted as fact into contemporaneous and contemporary culture. It must be considered that Hildreth was a prolific author of science fiction and lurid gothic poetry; images presented in his ‘Wonders of Modern Science’ article would not sit out of place within his other literary creations.

Sadly (or thankfully, however you look at it), Mordake was categorically a creation of Charles Lotin Hildreth, and arguably his most successful creation. Nonetheless, images of Mordake perpetually circulate on social media, usually attacked to a black and white photograph of a two-headed man (see pictures). However, the image is that of a wax effigy created some time after Mordake came to the public fore, and is simply an imagined likeness.

Still today presented as a human ‘oddity’ or meme, images of Mordake’s wax likeness circulate as fact and are still featured in novelty publications and wax museums to this day.

 

 

Further Reading/Sources Used

hoaxes.org/images/hoaxarchive/mordale_article.jpg

snipes.com/fact-check/edward-mordrake/

hoaxes.org/weblog/comments/edward_mordake

thehumanparvels.com/from-the-archives-edward-mordake-poor-edward/

 

Picture Sources/Referenced Texts

hoaxes.org

curioustendency.blogspot.co.uk/2011/10/edward-mordrake-was-he-truly-real.html

Vout, Caroline. Power and Eroticism in Imperial Rome. Via Wiki.

Invoking the Owlman

Cryptozoology, Curiosities, Folk Tales, Superstition, Uncategorized

 

The 1970s birthed not only teletext and space invaders, but also everyone’s favourite regional owl-beast. While the rest of the world were indeed playing ‘that funky music’, visitors to the Cornish village of Mawnan were preoccupied with the sighting of a nightmarish hooter.

On the night of April 17th 1976, two young sisters on a camping holiday with their parents found themselves by the 13th century church of St Mawnan and St Stephen. To their terror, above the bell tower, appeared a huge owl “with pointed ears as big as a man”, glowing eyes and black, pincer-like claws. The girls were so shaken by this feathered vision that their father packed up their bags and abruptly put an end to their holiday.

Thus, the Owlman of Mawnan began his reign of terror. Ish.

The image of the Cornish Owlman gripped tabloids and eccentric occultists alike, with sporadic sightings of the beast continuing well into the early 80s. However, most, if not all, information pertaining to this gripping tale of regional terror came from one man; self-styled ‘wizard’ and ‘paranormal researcher’, Tony ‘Doc’ Shiels.

Shiels is an interesting and incredibly lucky (ahem) researcher. In the 1970s alone, Shiels claimed to have personal one-to-one chats with a plethora of magical creatures and was fortunate enough to catch Nessie on film on the second day of his visit. It appears Shiels was a man of many talents, operating as a professional entertainer, artist, poet, playwright and prolific writer. Again, in 1976, ‘The Shiels Effect’ was one of his plethora of publications; this one concerning how to hoax UFO and paranormal effects.  He also penned several works on conjuring and stage magic – alongside his more recent efforts of an autobiography, ‘Monstrum! A Wizard’s Tale’, published in 2011. He’s a divisive character, with Magonia Magazine reporting that Shiels purchased his doctorate ‘in the USA for $5’

But Shiels was not simply a reporter within the Owlman legend. As with many other obscure and mystical monsters of the 70s, he was fortunate to come into contact with the beast itself. After his brush with the young campers, the Owlman revealed himself to Shiels, recounted stories and disappeared into the ether.

Shiels continued to document his Owlman experiences in a series of interviews and investigations following the initial bell tower sighting. The sisters – later identified as June and Vicky Melling – produced sketches, which were then re-interpreted by Shiel’s artistic hand. The originals, as with much evidence relating to cryptozoology, are nowhere to be found.  Later, Jonathan Downes, the Director of the Centre for Fortean Zoology (‘The world’s largest mystery animal research group’) furthered research into the Owlman, interviewing several eyewitnesses and increasing the documentation of reported sightings. His work ‘The Owlman and Others’ includes further ‘eyewitness’ descriptions of the Owlman, all similarly dramatic. A later duo of witnesses described the beast as ‘horrible, a nasty owl-face with big ears and big red eyes. It was covered in grey feathers. The claws on its feet were black. It just flew up and disappeared in the trees.’

Regardless of Downes research and his commitment to the Owlman brand, it is understandable how the majority of people – those who did not dismiss the sightings as fraudulent from day one – believe the Owlman to be simply…an owl.

The most common dismissal of ‘Owlman’ is that the huge bird in question was a Giant Eagle Owl. The solution of Barn owls has been thrown around for some time, but considering the average wingspan is around 80-95 cms with no recorded giant examples, they remain in the clear. However, Giant Eagle Owls are essentially flying toddlers, with an average wingspan of 138-170cms. The largest individuals weigh in at around 6 ½ pounds, making them one of the the heaviest owls in the world. While not in possession of glowing eyes, they are suitably scary animals with Birds Britannica stating that they combine the power of ‘a real eagle with the terrifying impact of an owl’s nocturnal strike.’

While not native to the UK, Eagle Owls have been kept as far back as the 1600s and all sightings and current breeding pairs are as a result of escaped pets. They remain popular within the UK, with Birds Britannica quipping that they are currently ‘as common on housing estates as rottweilers.’ On average, 60-70 eagle owls are lost annually with two-thirds not being recaptured.

Whether you believe events at Mawnan can be dismissed as a simple hoax and an owl-less night, the Eagle Owl theory remains popular with debunkers. Despite the proliferation of these ginormous owls into the populous, they remain decidedly owl-sized and are not currently threatening camping trips or family life.

To my knowledge, at least.

 

 

Further Reading:

Owls, Mike Toms. Collins New Naturalist. Harper Collins. 2014

Birds Britannica, Mark Cocker & Richard Mabey. Chatto & Windus, 2005

The Owlman and Others (30th Anniversary Expanded Edition), Jonathan Downes. Cfz. 2006.

http://magoniamagazine.blogspot.co.uk/2013/12/monstrous-tales.html

http://www.paranormal-encounters.com

Satan Speaks: The Devil’s Handwriting

Curiosities, Folk Tales, Satanism, Superstition, Uncategorized

In 1896 John Ashton published his work ‘The Devil in Britain and America’. Within it, he reproduced a curious image from 1532 (some claim 1539), accompanied with the explanation ‘Facsimile of the only known specimen of the Devil’s handwriting.’.

devils-handwriting-scan-2

In Ashton’s introduction, his main gripe with previous works concerning Satanism and witchcraft was that such works were not only repetitive, but that none were illustrated. Thanks to Ashton’s pictoral obsession, this devilish calligraphy was re-introduced to the western world.

Ashton himself was not the originator of the image, merely the reproducer. The writing itself first appeared in Teseo Ambrogio degli Albonesi’s snappily titled ‘Introductio in Chaldaicam Linguam Syriacam, atque Armenicam, et decem alias linguas’, which, for non-Latin buffs, roughly translates as ‘Introduction to the language of the Chaldean, Syrian, and Armenian, and the ten other languages.’

Understandably, this is far from being some Encyclopedia Satanica; rather an early (western) study into Syriac and Armenian languages, with a hefty glossary of alphabets and brief studies into the roots of European languages. If you’re so inclined, there are many full, free copies available online. Just remember to brush up on your Latin fluency beforehand.

 

Albonesi’s satanic calligraphy is said to have come about by the conjuring abilities of Ludovico Spoletano, an Italian man of which little else is known. It would seem that Albonesi himself may have encountered the story via his correspondence with the French linguist, Guillaume Postel, with whom he discussed many supposed ‘magical’ alphabets.

It is said that Spoletano summoned Satan himself and asked him a series of questions. The Devil, famous for his consideration and compliance, answered by writing his responses on a piece of paper in his own hand. However, Satan is said to have delivered his answers by levitating the man’s pen and quickly scribbling his answers.

 

The Devil’s answers have never been deciphered as they follow no known, coherent languages. Most notably, the script contains a series of pitchfork characters, some upright, some upturned – which, understandably, has created very powerful images in the thoughts of the devout and occult-minded alike. Contemporary linguists and cipher-enthusiasts have continued to study the ‘devils handwriting’. The writer behind ‘ciphermysteries.com’, interpreted the script as possessing bat-like symbols, in keeping with the devilish theme of pitchforks, and is potentially based on a Latin or Italian root. However, even they conclude that the text makes little sense and may well be ‘nothing more than a joke making fun of Albonesi or Postel’!

 

Ashton himself comments that, although the responses have never been deciphered, he was ‘told by experts’ that ‘some of the characters may be found…(in)…Amharic, a language spoken in its purity in the province of Amhara’ (Amhara being an ethnic division within Ethiopia). As interesting as such an Ethiopian root may be, it is his final comment that undoubtedly grips the imagination. Amharic, he adds, ‘according to a legend, was the primeval language spoken in Eden.’

 

While there are many reported instances of man directly communicating with Satan, there are few that have retained considerable interest over the centuries. It would seem that the fact that this (supposed) interaction produced, tangible, physical ephemera has led to the myth’s longevity.

For what may well be a cipher of pure gibberish, the devilish curiosity of Satan’s handwriting has garnered interest for over 500 years. While it may never be deciphered, its hellish place has been truly reserved in paranormal and occult history.

 

 

 

Further Reading:

https://archive.org/details/devilinbritaina01ashtgoog

https://archive.org/details/IntroductioInChaldaicamLinguSyriacA

http://ciphermysteries.com/2013/03/30/the-devils-handwriting

 

Image courtesy of cipherfoundation.org

Born With a Veil: The Curious Talisman of the Caul

Curiosities, Folk Tales, Superstition, Uncategorized

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Like most twenty-somethings, I am in possession of a 100 year old amniotic sac. Thanks to this slice of dried-out tissue, I’ve never feared drowning.

 

As much as I’d adore to leave this post as simply the tag-line alone, I feel some context is needed. 

My preserved piece of amniotic sac is what is commonly referred to as a ‘caul’ and is only marginally weird. Stick with me.

 

A caul is a piece of the amniotic sack that is attached to the baby’s person after birth. Many accounts make particular reference to its presence on a baby’s face; hence, why a caul birth can also be referred to as being ‘born with a veil’. The caul may adhere itself during birth or gestation, but the effect is the same and most ae easily removed by simply peeling it from the baby’s face/person after birth.

Nowadays, a caul birth is incredibly rare, with estimates sitting around the 1 in 80,000 range. Some very patient midwives who endured my questioning all agreed that en caul births are ‘almost always premature births’.

 

A more specialised birth with a similar root name is that of an en caul birth. Despite incredibly rare and requiring specialist intervention, images of such babies are frequently shared across medical social media accounts. An en caul birth is when the child is delivered within a fully intact amniotic sac. Understandably, these images are very striking and are frequently misinterpreted by non-specialised media outlets. It should be noted that as dramatic as these photos are, medical professionals usually rupture the membrane artificially, immediately prior to delivery if it were intact. This means that the baby’s airway would not be obstructed, avoiding further risk of trauma. Understandably, this was not a possibility in years gone by, hence why caul births were infrequent but not completely uncommon.

 

Due to the rarity of caul births, many cultures latched onto the image of the veiled baby and began to view cauls as possessing extra significance or other-worldly powers. Subsequently, cauls were frequently preserved – predominantly by drying and attaching said membrane to a piece of paper, or similar flat surface. Through preserving them, they could be kept upon one’s person for a variety of positive or healing properties.

 

There are varying worldwide examples of superstitions attached to a birth caul, for example;

Roman midwives were known to have taken cauls and sold them at high prices to lawyers as a talisman to aid them in legal victory. In Croatia (supposedly Dalmatia, in particular) cauls were sometimes placed under the pillow of a dying person with the belief that such an act would soothe their passing. In Belgium, it was believed that if the caul was buried in a field, the child would have a long and lucky life, they were also used in potion making in a variety of cultures, mostly for curing diseases such as malaria.

 

Not all preserved birth cauls are presented like my own – my flimsy object d’art is adhered to a piece of paper, which seems to have been the norm for most preserved cauls (from what I’ve seen within the UK). To preserve one in such a manner is incredibly easy, with the midwife requiring to do little other than press a piece of paper across the baby’s face; the caul would then adhere to it and your fibrous keepsake would be removed intact.

 

However, there are some excellent examples of creative caul presentation. The Pitt Rivers museum in Oxford has in its collection a glass rolling pin from 1855 which once contained a child’s caul. Despite its decidedly domestic purpose, it too was used by a sailor and is decorated with scenes of ships under full sail. A more delicate method of preservation can be found in London’s Victoria and Albert museum. Within its current, displayed collection is a small gold locket with engraving from 1597. Within the heart-shaped locket lies part of the caul of John Monson, who most probably received the trinket as a baptismal gift. This is not to say that Elizabethan baptism gifts were exclusively restricted to bits of desiccated tissue (as delightful as that image may be), as spoons, cups and things made from precious metals were most common.

 

In the UK, as with many other European countries, the caul is most associated with sailors. It has been a long-standing maritime superstition that to be in possession of a baby’s caul is to protect oneself from drowning. Understandably, due to the scarcity of such objects, sailors for centuries have been paying extortionate amounts for cauls, carrying them as added protection on voyages. A sailor, as recorded in Henderson’s ‘Folk-Lore of the Northern Counties’, paid fifteen pounds in the 19th century for a caul which he then kept as a talisman for thirty years.

 

In literature, Dicken’s David Copperfield features a scene where David’s own caul is auctioned – with the character noting that he ‘felt quite uncomfortable and confused, at part of myself being disposed of in that way’ with the caul being purchased by an old woman who ‘never drowned, but dies, triumphantly in bed, at ninety-two’.

 

Despite our modern ambivalence to the whereabouts of a partial amniotic sac, there remains a small group of people who interpret their own caul births as a sign of their special-ness.  This (predominantly online) community collectively refer to themselves as ‘Caulbearers’. This community often see themselves as overly empathetic with the ‘sensation of precognition’ and potentially in possession of an array of (predominantly wet) supernatural abilities; such as the ability to find underground water supplies, predict weather changes, anticipate bountiful catches/harvests etc. Additionally, Caulbearer.org makes the claim that ‘The purpose of the caulbearer is to serve mankind, and to guide men and women to understand themselves and the world and universe within which we live.’

 

Cauls understandably became less prized as the mechanics of birth become less mysterious, however their curious nature still prompts occasional interest. Primarily through nifty lists of famous faces that were once covered by a membrane –

So, I’ll leave you with the fun fact that Napoleon, Liberace, Lord Byron and Sigmund Freud were all ‘caulbearers’, and none of them died by drowning. Coincidence?
(Yes).

 

 

Further reading:

 

www.caulbearer.org

 

http://england.prm.ox.ac.uk/englishness-sailors-charm.html

 

https://www.babymed.com/labor-delivery/en-caul-baby-birth

 

https://www.popsugar.com/moms/Photos-Babies-Born-En-Caul-41499029

 

http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O11007/locket-unknown/