The wizard of Mauritius

Port Louis, Mauritius, in the first half of the nineteenth century

Port Louis, Mauritius, August 1782. The French Indian Ocean colony—highly vulnerable to British attack at the height of the American Revolutionary War—is in a state of alert. The governor, Viscomte François de Souillac, has been warned that a flotilla of 11 ships is approaching his island. Fearing that this is the long-awaited invasion fleet, De Souillac orders a sloop-of-war out to reconnoiter. But before the vessel can report, the panic ends. De Souillac is informed that the fleet has altered course and is now steering away from Mauritius. A few days later, when the sloop returns, the governor gets confirmation: the ships were actually East Indiamen, British merchant vessels making for Fort William in India.

All this is remarkable chiefly for the source of De Souillac’s intelligence. The governor had his information not from signals made by ships sailing far offshore, nor from land-based lookouts armed with high-powered telescopes, but from a minor member of the local engineering corps, one Étienne Bottineau. And Bottineau was chiefly renowned in Mauritius (or “Île de France,” to give it its contemporary French name) as a man who won a lot of bets in waterfront taverns thanks to his uncanny ability to foresee the arrival of ships that were anywhere from 350 to 700 miles from the island when he announced their approach.

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Inside the Great Pyramid

The Great Pyramid–built for the Pharaoh Khufu in about 2570 B.C., sole survivor of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world, and still arguably the most mysterious structure on the planet

The Great Pyramid–built for the Pharaoh Khufu in about 2570 B.C. [rear], sole survivor of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world, and still arguably the most mysterious structure on the planet

There is a story, regrettably apocryphal, about Napoleon and the Great Pyramid. When Bonaparte visited Giza during his Nile expedition of 1798 (it goes), he determined to spend a night alone inside the King’s Chamber, the granite-lined vault that lies precisely in the center of the pyramid. This chamber is generally acknowledged as the spot where Khufu, the most powerful ruler of Egypt’s Old Kingdom (c.2690-2180 BC), was interred for all eternity, and it still contains the remains of Pharaoh’s sarcophagus—a fractured mass of red stone that is said to ring like a bell when struck.

Having ventured alone into the pyramid’s forbidding interior and navigated its cramped passages armed with nothing but a guttering candle, Napoleon emerged the next morning white and shaken, and thenceforth refused to answer any questions about what had befallen him that night. Not until 23 years later, as he lay on his death bed, did the emperor at last consent to talk about his experience. Hauling himself painfully upright, he began to speak—only to halt almost immediately.

“Oh, what’s the use,” he murmured, sinking back. “You’d never believe me.” Continue reading

“Tamám Shud”

Mortuary photo of the unknown man found dead on Somerton Beach, south of Adelaide, Australia, in December 1948. Sixty-three years later, the man’s identity remains a mystery, and it’s still not clear how – or even if – he was murdered.

Most murders aren’t that difficult to solve. The husband did it. The wife did it. The boyfriend did it, or the ex-boyfriend did. The crimes fit a pattern, the motives are generally clear.

Of course, there are always a handful of cases that don’t fit the template, where the killer is a stranger or the reason for the killing is bizarre. It’s fair to say, however, that nowadays the authorities usually have something to go on. Thanks in part to advances such as DNA technology, the police are seldom baffled anymore.

They certainly were baffled, though, in Adelaide, the capital of South Australia, in December 1948. And the only thing that seems to have changed since then is that a story that began simply—with the discovery of a body on the beach on the first day of that southern summer—has become ever more mysterious. In fact, this case (which remains, theoretically at least, an active investigation) is so opaque that we still do not know the victim’s identity, have no real idea what killed him, and cannot even be certain whether his death was murder or suicide.

What we can say is that the clues in the Somerton Beach mystery (or the enigma of the “Unknown Man,” as it is known Down Under) add up to one of the world’s most perplexing cold cases. It may be the most mysterious of them all. Continue reading

Three 1950s youths in a medieval plague village

Kersey in 1957. Although Jack Merriott's watercolor presents an idealized image of the village – it was commissioned for use in a railway advertising campaign – it does give an idea of just how 'old' Kersey must have looked to strangers in the year it became central to a 'timeslip' case.

Kersey in 1957. Although Jack Merriott’s watercolor presents an idealized image of the village – it was commissioned for use in a railway advertising campaign – it does give an idea of just how ‘old’ Kersey must have looked to strangers in the year it became central to a ‘timeslip’ case.

Looking back, the really strange thing was the silence. The way the church bells stopped ringing as the little group of naval cadets neared the village. The way even the ducks stood quiet and motionless by the shallow stream that ran across the road where the main street began.

And, when the boys thought about it afterward, they recalled that even the autumn birdsong faded as they neared the first houses. The wind had dropped to nothing, too.

Not a leaf stirred on the trees they passed. And the trees appeared to cast no shadows.

The street itself was quite deserted—not so odd, perhaps, for a Sunday morning in 1957, especially in the rural heart of England. But even the remotest British hamlets displayed some signs of modernity by then—cars parked by the roadside, phone wires strung along the roads, aerials on roofs—and there was nothing of that sort in this village. In fact, the houses on the high street all looked ancient; they were ragged, hand-built, timber-framed: “almost medieval in appearance,” one boy thought.

The three, all Royal Navy cadets, walked up to the nearest building and pressed their faces to its grimy windows. They could see that it was some sort of butcher’s shop, but what they glimpsed in the interior was even more unsettling. As one of them recalled for the author Andrew MacKenzie:

There were no tables or counters, just two or three whole oxen carcasses which had been skinned and in places were quite green with age. There was a green-painted door and windows with smallish glass panes, one at the front and one at the side, rather dirty-looking. I remember that as we three looked through that window in disbelief at the green and mouldy green carcasses… the general feeling certainly was one of disbelief and unreality… Who would believe that in 1957 that the health authorities would allow such conditions?

They peered into another house. More

The strange tale of the Warsaw basilisk

A basilisk–a lethally poisonous monster hatched from a cock’s egg–illustrated in a mediaeval bestiary. Note the weasel gnawing at its breast; only they were impervious to basilisk venom.

A basilisk–a lethally poisonous monster hatched from a cock’s egg–illustrated in a mediaeval bestiary. Note the weasel gnawing at its breast; only they were impervious to basilisk venom.

Few creatures have struck more terror into more hearts for longer than the basilisk: a crested snake, hatched from a cock’s egg, that was widely believed to wither landscapes with its breath and kill with a glare. The example to the right comes from a German bestiary, but the earliest description that we have was given by Pliny the Elder, who described the basilisk in his pioneering Natural History (79AD) – the 37 volumes of which he completed shortly before being suffocated by the sulphurous fumes of Vesuvius while investigating the eruption that consumed Pompeii. According to the Roman savant, it was a small animal, “not more than 12 fingers in length,” but astoundingly deadly nonetheless. “He does not impel his body, like other serpents, by a multiplied flexion,” Pliny wrote, “but advances loftily and upright” – a description that accords with the popular notion that the basilisk is the king of serpents – and “kills the shrubs, not only by contact, but by breathing on them, and splits rocks, such power of evil is there in him.” The basilisk was native to Libya, it was said, and the Romans believed that the Sahara had been fertile land until an infestation of basilisks turned it into a desert.

The Roman poet Lucan was one of the first authors to describe the basilisk. His work stressed the horrors of the monster’s lethal venom.

The Roman poet Lucan stressed the horrors of the monster’s lethal venom.

Pliny is not the only ancient author to mention the basilisk. The Roman poet Lucan, writing only a few years later, described another characteristic commonly ascribed to the monster – the idea that it was so venomous that if a man on horseback stabbed one with a spear, the poison would flow up through the weapon and kill not only the rider but the horse as well. The only creature that the basilisk feared was the weasel, which ate rue to render it impervious to its venom, and would chase and kill the serpent in its lair.

The basilisk was popular in medieval bestiaries, and it was in this period that a great deal of additional myth grew up around it. It became less a serpent than a mix of snake and rooster; it was almost literally hellish. More

Natives of the Red Dragon

The Welsh dragon on the First World War memorial to the men of the 38th (Welsh) division at Mametz Wood.

The Welsh dragon on the First World War memorial to the men of the 38th (Welsh) division at Mametz Wood.

Today is St David’s Day, the national day of Wales, and it seems an appropriate moment to post what remains perhaps my very favourite story among all the thousands of strange tales that I have read.

That is a large claim – I tend to read a fair bit – but I still find what follows so surreal and so magical, in its combination of the gentle, the mundane and the extraordinary, that for me each reading is like immersing myself in a warm bath. All right, it’s pretty hard to credit that it’s literally ‘true’; it helps that it’s a Welsh story, and that I’m a proud Welshman – and that the tale remains all but unknown; the account first appeared in print in 1928, and so far as I can tell has never made it onto the Internet. The names of the characters involved are so common that it would be extremely difficult to check if they were actually real or not; Radnor Forest, though, is real – and is, according to local legend, the place where the last Welsh dragon still lies sleeping (Daniel Parry-Jones, A Country Parson. London: Batsford, 1975). The strange stamps you’re about to read of did exist. No other comment is possible – but then perhaps none is necessary.

Here, then, is the story as I first read it – it is based, as mentioned in the first lines, on an article originally published in the 1920s in a children’s stamp magazine [The Stamp Lover, 1928 p.274]  The best thing to do is simply to sit back and enjoy. More

An abandoned lifeboat at world’s end

Breaking news: a credible solution to the Bouvet Island lifeboat mystery has been found. See comments for 22-27 May 2011, 12 November 2011, 17-20 March and 9 April 2016.

The unidentified whaler or ship's lifeboat found abandoned on Bouvet Island on 2 April 1964

The unidentified whaler or ship’s lifeboat found abandoned on Bouvet Island on 2 April 1964

LongreadsThere is no more forbidding place on earth.

Bouvet Island lies in the furthest reaches of the storm-wracked Southern Ocean, far south even of the Roaring Forties. It is a speck of ice in the middle of a freezing fastness: a few square miles of uninhabited volcanic basalt groaning under several hundred feet of glacier, scraped raw by gales, shrouded by drifts of sea-fog, and utterly devoid of trees, shelter, or landing places.

What it does have is a mystery. More