The child murder that gave voodoo its bad name

An engraving–probably made from a contemporary photograph–shows the eight Haitian

An engraving–probably made from a contemporary photograph–shows the eight Haitian “voodoo” devotees found guilty in February 1864 of the murder and cannibalism of a 12-year-old child. From Harper’s Weekly.

It was a Saturday, market day in Port-au-Prince, and the chance to meet friends, gossip and shop had drawn large crowds to the Haitian capital. Sophisticated, French-educated members of the urban ruling class crammed into the market square beside illiterate farmers, a generation removed from slavery, who had walked in from the surrounding villages for a rare day out.

The whole of the country had assembled, and it was for this reason that Fabre Geffrard had chosen February 13, 1864, as the date for eight high-profile executions. Haiti’s reformist president wished to make an example of these four men and four women: because they had been found guilty of a hideous crime—abducting, murdering and cannibalizing a 12-year-old girl. And also because they represented everything Geffrard hoped to leave behind him as he molded his country into a modern nation: the backwardness of its hinterlands, its African past and, above all, its folk religion. Continue reading

Lost in the Taiga

The Siberian taiga in the Abakan district. Six members of the Lykov family lived in this remote wilderness for more than 40 years–utterly isolated and more than 150 miles from the nearest human settlement.

Best ofSiberian summers do not last long. The snows linger into May, and the cold weather returns again during September, freezing the taiga into a still life awesome in its desolation: endless miles of straggly pine and birch forests scattered with sleeping bears and hungry wolves; steep-sided mountains; white-water rivers that pour in torrents through the valleys; a hundred thousand icy bogs.

This forest is the last and greatest of Earth’s wildernesses. It stretches from the furthest tip of Russia’s arctic regions as far south as Mongolia, and east from the Urals to the Pacific: five million square miles of nothingness, with a population, outside a handful of towns, that amounts to only a few thousand people. When the warm days do arrive, though, the taiga blooms, and for a few short months it can seem almost welcoming. It is then that man can see most clearly into this hidden world–not on land, for the forest can swallow whole armies of explorers, but from the air. Siberia is the source of most of Russia’s oil and mineral resources, and, over the years, even its most distant parts have been overflown by prospectors and surveyors on their way to backwoods camps where the work of extracting wealth is carried on.

Karp Lykov and his daughter Agafia, wearing clothes donated by Soviet geologists not long after their family was rediscovered.

Thus it was in the remote south of the taiga in the summer of 1978. A helicopter sent to find a safe spot to land a party of geologists was skimming the treeline a hundred or so miles from the Mongolian border when it dropped into the thickly wooded valley of an unnamed tributary of the Abakan, a seething ribbon of water rushing through dangerous terrain. The valley walls were narrow, with sides that were close to vertical in places, and the trees swaying in the rotors’ downdraft were so thickly clustered that there was no chance of finding a spot to set the aircraft down. But, peering intently through his windscreen in search of a landing place, the pilot saw something that should not have been there.

It was a clearing, 6,000 feet up a mountainside, wedged between the pine and larch and scored with what looked like long, dark furrows. The baffled helicopter crew made several passes before reluctantly concluding that this was evidence of human habitation—a garden that, from the size and shape of the clearing, must have been there for a long time. It was an astounding discovery. The mountain was more than 150 miles from the nearest settlement, in a spot that had never been explored. The Soviet authorities had no records of anyone living in the district.

The Lykovs lived in this hand-built log cabin, lit by a single window “the size of a backpack pocket” and warmed by a smoky wood-fired stove.

The four scientists sent into the district to prospect for iron ore were told about the pilots’ sighting, and it perplexed and worried them. “It’s less dangerous,” the writer Vasily Peskov notes of this part of the taiga, “to run across a wild animal than a stranger,” and rather than wait at their own temporary base, 10 miles away, the scientists decided to investigate. Led by a geologist named Galina Pismenskaya, they “chose a fine day and put gifts in our packs for our prospective friends”—though, just to be sure, she recalled, “I did check the pistol that hung at my side.”

As the intruders scrambled up the mountain, heading for the spot pinpointed by their pilots, they began to come across signs of human activity: a rough path, a staff, a log laid across a stream, and finally a small shed filled with birch-bark containers of cut-up dried potatoes. Then, Pismenskaya said,

beside a stream there was a dwelling. Blackened by time and rain, the hut was piled up on all sides with taiga rubbish—bark, poles, planks. If it hadn’t been for a window the size of my backpack pocket, it would have been hard to believe that people lived there. But they did, no doubt about it…. Our arrival had been noticed, as we could see. The low door creaked, and the figure of a very old man emerged into the light of day, straight out of a fairy tale. Barefoot. Wearing a patched and repatched shirt made of sacking. He wore trousers of the same material, also in patches, and had an uncombed beard. His hair was disheveled. He looked frightened and was very attentive…. We had to say something, so I began: ‘Greetings, grandfather! We’ve come to visit!’ The old man did not reply immediately…. Finally, we heard a soft, uncertain voice: ‘Well, since you have traveled this far, you might as well come in.’

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A visit to the underworld: the unsolved mystery of the tunnels at Baia

Baiae and the Bay of Naples, painted by J.M.W. Turner in 1823, well before modernization of the area obliterated most traces of its Roman past. Image: Wikicommons.

Baia and the Bay of Naples, painted by J.M.W. Turner in 1823, well before modernisation of the area obliterated most traces of its Roman past. Image: Wikicommons.

Now revised and updated to September 2016.

There is nothing remotely Elysian about the Phlegræan Fields; nothing sylvan, nothing green. The Fields, which lie on the north shore of the Bay of Naples, are part of the caldera of a volcano that is the twin of Mount Vesuvius, the destroyer of Pompeii, a few miles to the east. The volcano is still active, but, today, its most obvious feature is this barren, rubble-strewn plateau. Fire bursts from the rocks in places, and clouds of sulphurous gas snake out of vents that lead up from deep underground.

The Fields, in short, are hellish, and it is no surprise that they have always been associated with all manner of strange tales. Most interesting, perhaps, is the myth of the Cumæan sibyl, who took her name from the nearby town of Kyme – Cumæ – a Greek colony that flourished in about 550 B.C., when the Etruscans still held sway much of central Italy and Rome was nothing but a city-state ruled over by a line of tyrannical kings.

Sulfur drifts from a vent on the barren volcanic plateau known as the Phlegraean Fields, a harsh moonscape associated with legends of prophecy.

Sulphur drifts from a vent on the barren volcanic plateau known as the Phlegraean Fields, a harsh moonscape associated with legends of prophecy.

The sibyl, so the story goes, was a woman named Amalthæa who lurked in a cave on the Phlegræan Fields. She had once been young and beautiful –beautiful enough to attract the attentions of the sun god, Apollo, who offered her one wish in exchange for her virginity. Pointing to a heap of dust, Amalthæa asked for a year of life for each particle in the pile, but (as is usually the way in such old tales) she failed to allow for the vindictiveness of the gods. Ovid, in Metamorphoseshas her lament that “like a fool, I did not ask that all those years should come with ageless youth as well.” Instead, she aged but could not die. Virgil depicted her scribbling predictions of the future on oak leaves that lay scattered about the entrance to her cave, and states that the cave itself concealed an entrance to the underworld.

The best known – and from our perspective the most interesting – of all the tales associated with the sibyl is supposed to date to the reign of Tarquinius Superbus – Tarquin the Proud. He was the last of the mythic kings of Rome, and some historians, at least, concede that he really did live and rule in the 6th century B.C. According to legend, the sibyl travelled to Tarquin’s palace bearing nine books of prophecy that set out the future of Rome. She offered the set to the king for a price so enormous that he summarily declined – at which the prophetess went away, burned the first three of the books, and returned, offering the remaining six to Tarquin at the same price. Once again, the king refused, though less arrogantly this time, and the sibyl burned three more of the precious volumes. The third time she approached the king, he thought it wise to accede to her demands. Rome purchased the three remaining books of prophecy at the original steep price.

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Murder in the Potala

The Potala Palace, Lhasa: home to nine successive Dalai Lamas, a number of them suspiciously short-lived.

The Potala Palace, Lhasa: home to nine successive Dalai Lamas, a number of them suspiciously short-lived.

Few buildings inspire awe in quite the way that the Potala Palace does. Set high on the great Tibetan plateau, against the looming backdrop of the Himalayas, the vast structure rises 400 feet from a mountain in the middle of Lhasa, taking the uppermost apartments on its thirteenth floor to 12,500 feet above sea level. The palace is at once architecturally striking and historically significant. Until the Chinese occupation of 1951, it was also the winter home of the 14th Dalai Lama, believed to be the reincarnation of a long line of religious leaders dating back to the late fourteenth century.

For Buddhists, the Potala is a holy spot, but even for visitors to the Tibetan capital it is hardly the sort of place one would expect to find steeped in intrigue and corruption. Yet during the first half of the 19th century, the palace was the scene of a grim battle for political supremacy fought between monks, Tibetan nobles and Chinese governors. Most historians of the country, and many Tibetans, believe that the most prominent victims of this struggle were four successive Dalai Lamas, the ninth through the twelfth, all of whom died in unusual circumstances, and not one of whom lived past the age of 21.
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The mystery of the five wounds

St Francis receives the stigmata. From a foil plaque on a 13th- century reliquary.

On September 14, 1224, a Saturday, Francis of Assisi—noted ascetic and holy man, future saint—was preparing to enter the second month of a retreat with a few close companions on Monte La Verna, overlooking the River Arno in Tuscany. Francis had spent the previous few weeks in prolonged contemplation of the suffering Jesus Christ on the cross, and he may well have been weak from protracted fasting. As he knelt to pray in the first light of dawn (notes the Fioretti—the ‘Little flowers of St Francis of Assisi,’ a collection of legends and stories about the saint),

he began to contemplate the Passion of Christ… and his fervor grew so strong within him that he became wholly transformed into Jesus through love and compassion…. While he was thus inflamed, he saw a seraph with six shining, fiery wings descend from heaven. This seraph drew near to St Francis in swift flight, so that he could see him clearly and recognize that he had the form of a man crucified… After a long period of secret converse, this mysterious vision faded, leaving… in his body a wonderful image and imprint of the Passion of Christ. For in the hands and feet of Saint Francis forthwith began to appear the marks of the nails in the same manner as he had seen them in the body of Jesus crucified.

In all, Francis found that he bore five marks: two on his palms and two on his feet, where the nails that fixed Christ to the cross were traditionally believed to have been hammered home, and the fifth on his side, where the Bible says Jesus had received a spear thrust from a Roman centurion.

Thus was the first case of stigmata—the appearance of marks or actual wounds paralleling those Christ received during Crucifixion—described. Later stigmatics (and there have been several hundred of them) have exhibited similar marks, though some bear only one or two wounds, while others also display scratches on their foreheads, where Christ would have been injured by his crown of thorns. Through the centuries, stigmata has become one of the best-documented, and most controversial, of mystical phenomena. The extensive record makes it possible to compare cases that occurred centuries apart.
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An ice cream war

The Turkish flag flown, and rifles used, by Mullah Abdullah and Gool Mohammed in their two-man war against the British empire launched at Broken Hill, New South Wales, on 1 January 1915

The Turkish flag flown, and rifles used, by Mullah Abdullah and Gool Mohammed in their two-man war against the British empire launched at Broken Hill, New South Wales, on 1 January 1915

The war seemed a very long way away to the citizens of Broken Hill that January 1.

It was the height of the southern summer, and the Australian silver-mining town baked in the outback desert heat, 720 miles from Sydney and half a world away from the mud and blood of the Western Front. The First World War was less than five months old, and only a fool would have accused the hardened miners of Broken Hill of lacking patriotism, but on that first day of 1915 they wanted nothing more than to enjoy a rare holiday with their families and forget about their troubles—not just the war, which Australia had joined alongside Britain on the day it was declared, but also the grim economic times that were closing mines and putting miners out of work.

More than 1,200 men, women and children clambered aboard the makeshift train that would take them a few miles up the line to Silverton for the annual town picnic. But for Broken Hill that New Year’s Day, war was not 12,000 miles away; it was just over a ridge a mile or two along the track, where a couple of Afghans had raised the Turkish flag over an ice cream cart and were preparing to launch a two-man war. Continue reading