Monday, April 17, 2006

Flashback to my occult roots - part 2

A week ago I mentioned the occult books I read as a child. I promised to write a post debunking some of the things I mentioned in the previous entry. You may want to check out the previous entry, here.

The Bermuda Triangle – This was actually the last of the things I read about that was debunked in my mind (though it had been debunked years before). I had assumed, as a child, that there must have been something weird happening in area known as the Bermuda Triangle, otherwise why would anyone write a book about it?

Charles Berlitz, linguist and grandson of Maximilien Berlitz (Maximilian) who founded the Berlitz Language Schools, is responsible for the popularity of the Bermuda Triangle. The Devil's Triangle was first mentioned in 1950 by E.V.W. Jones in an article about "mysterious disappearances" of ships, airplanes and small boats in the area. George X. Stand wrote of several "strange disappearances" in the area in a 1952 article of Fate Magazine. The next appearance of the Devil's Triangle was in a 1962 edition of the Argosy science fiction magazine. Berlitz was next to mention it, giving it the Bermuda Triangle name.

Central to Berlitz's book was the disappearance of Flight 19. This was a flight of Avenger torpedo bombers that left Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on December 5, 1945. They flew a triangular path. The first leg took them to a bombing area and beyond. The second leg took them slightly north of northwest, and the final leg was to bring them home to Fort Lauderdale. The weather was clear but the seas were rough. The members of the flight were all trainees with little experience in the aircraft, except for an experienced trainer. On the second leg the aircraft became lost, with the trainer taking over the flight. He reported that his compass wasn't working properly. He thought he was over the Florida Keys, but later triangulation put him east of the Florida. The flight had gotten lost, and was running out of fuel. Aircraft were sent up to find the flight. A final radio message had the trainer bring the flight closer together. The aircraft disappeared. A Martin Mariner bomber was one of the airplanes sent to search for Flight 19. It, too, disappeared.

According to Berlitz, the sky was clear, the pilots were experienced, that the pilots reported seeing strange visual effects, the water was calm and that the Avenger was made to float for long periods of time. None of this was true. Berlitz wasn't one to let facts get in the way of the truth. It is pretty clear that the flight got lost, probably due to problems with a compass. They thought they were further south than they were and became confused when the ground looked different from what they expected. Berlitz used this to suggest the flight had slipped through some sort of time/space portal, but it's most likely that they were just in a different position from where they thought they were.

The Avenger torpedo bombers probably ran out of fuel and ditched at sea. The sea was rough, and so the aircraft would have sunk quickly. A recent show on the Discovery Channel (or maybe it was the History Channel) showed how this could have all happened. No one ever found the wreckage. An unidentifiable Avenger was found in 1986 during the search for shuttle Challenger debris.

What about the Martin Mariner? It didn't exactly disappear as Berlitz suggested. It exploded shortly after takeoff, probably due to a problem with fuel vapors. The explosion was seen by another aircraft, and heard from the U.S.S. Solomons, which was operating in the area. All told 14 men disappeared with Flight 19, and 13 men died in the explosion of the Martin Mariner.

In the early 90s I belonged to an Amateur Press Association, sort of the print version of a mailing list (the APA that I belonged to was TAPA, the Toronto Amateur Press Association, the precursor, really, to this blog). I posted an article from the Toronto Star newspaper that suggested methane clouds from the sea floor accounted for the missing ships and aircraft. Up until then I assumed that there were more than the usual number of disappearances in the area. Again, why would someone write about it if there were not. It turns out not to be the case. The Triangle area has busy sea lanes. A lot of ships go through that area every day. There aren't any more disappearances in the Bermuda Triangle than in any other area with similar naval traffic and similar weather patterns. The folks in TAPA pointed this out to me, destroying the first occult "phenomenon" I'd read about.

As an aside, Berlitz, it turns out, lied about some of the ships that disappeared in the Triangle. Some of the ships sank in other areas, while other ships he mentioned simply didn't exist.

The Mary Celeste – The crew of the Mary Celeste disappeared, leaving the ship floating along as a ghost ship. Berlitz put it in the Bermuda Triangle even though the occurrence happened near the Azores. He described the ship as being devoid of humans, and that when the crew of the ship that found the Mary Celeste boarded her they found food on the table, and that the food was still warm.

That account of the Mary Celeste came from a fictional story by Sherlock Holmes writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, which he based on newspaper accounts of the ship. He did change the name to Marie Céleste, which is a spelling that still exists to this day.

Berlitz wanted to suggest that the crew was taken in some sort of paranormal phenomenon. The truth is (probably) a lot less mysterious, but no less tragic. The ship was built in Nova Scotia and changed hands several times due to several bad luck incidents. At the time of the crew's disappearance it was owned by an American company and was carrying a load of 1700 barrels of alcohol. The ship had a crew of seven as well as the captain's wife and daughter.

The crew of the Dei Gratia sighted the ship on December 4, 1872. It had sails unfurled, but it appeared to be drifting. None of the crew was onboard. The ship's papers were gone except for the log book. The compass was destroyed. The sextant and chronometer were missing. There was a lot of water on board and a hatch was open. The lifeboat was missing, but it had not been ripped from the ship. When the ship was finally taken to Genoa, where its cargo was bound, they discovered that nine of the alcohol barrels were missing.

There have been lots of theories about the Mary Celeste. The most likely is that the captain had ordered the hatch open at a moment when the ship was becalmed. The empty barrels had leaked alcohol. Opening the hatch caused a rush of fumes and steam. The captain, who was inexperienced at shipping alcohol, panicked, thinking that the ship was about to explode. He probably ordered everyone off the ship quickly. In his haste he failed to have the lifeboat secured to the ship with a stout line. They pushed off from the ship. At some point a breeze came up pushed the ship away. The crew couldn't keep up, and the ship sailed off without them. Eventually the crew died of dehydration and/or exposure. In 1873 two lifeboats washed up on the Spanish shore. One had a single body and an American flag. Another lifeboat had five bodies in it. No one ever identified the dead.

The Oak Island Money Pit – The Oak Island Money Pit captured the imagination of many people over the years, including FDR. The problem with it is that while the story of the money pit has it discovered by a boy in 1795 and investigated by several companies up until 1849, there is no written account of the money pit before 1857. It has all the hallmarks of folklore.

Why would someone bother to protect their buried treasure with a water-filling trap only to leave a block and tackle over it? For that matter, why would someone set up a water filling trap for their treasure such that there didn't seem to be a way to get past the water? I mean, what would happen if the pirates (or Knights Templar, or Freemasons, as some have suggested!) came back and found their hole filled with water? What would they do?

So many holes now dot the area of the money pit that no one can find the original shaft. There are a lot of sink holes on the island. Folks have dug into other areas of the island only to have it fill with water. There's a honeycomb structure beneath the upper soil layers, forming natural sinkholes that are linked to the sea. It's very likely that the holes that were dug filled with water naturally.

What about the artifacts pulled out of the hole? The cryptic stone with strange writing is nowhere to be found. In fact, it seems to pop in and out of history: it disappeared soon after it was found, only to pop up again in the early 20th century at the same time as a new team was looking for funding for more digging. The auger team in the 19th century were able to tell what they were augering through based on "feel", so the only proof that they were digging through a treasure chest was how the auger "felt" and the small piece of gold chain that somehow managed to get stuck to the auger's bit. This, too, showed up when a team was looking for funding.

The coconut matting that was supposedly used as a wick to draw up water? Well, there's no doubting the fact that coconuts are not indigenous to Nova Scotia. In the 19th century coconut matting was commonly used as dunnage, basically the equivalent of bubble wrapping to protect cargo. It's not a stretch to speculate that ships threw this stuff overboard prior to arriving at port and that it made its way into the honeycomb channels under the island.

A team sent a camera into one of the holes in the 1970s. They reported capturing images of treasure chests and a severed human hand. Experts have looked at the footage and have not been impressed. There's no sense of scale. The lighting is so bad that you can't easily make out what you are seeing. The "hand" is likely a rock formation. People have died searching for the treasure, but everyone who died in the process in the last 150 years was recovered. It's impossible for a severed hand to have lasted even 150 years in salt water.

The money pit is most likely a piece of folklore that caught the attention of treasure hunters. The story grew each time a new company needed to raise funds to dig for the treasure. The stories took a life of their own, to the point where people assumed there was a treasure.

Here are two links to some good skeptical sites dealing with the money pit:

Kaspar Hauser – The tricky part about the Kaspar Hauser mystery is that he did exist and that the things that happened to him after he appeared in Nurnberg, Germany in 1828 did happen. The questions still remain: who was Kaspar Hauser, and why was he killed?

A number of theories popped up during his life, including the possibility that he was related to the House of Baden. Due to some facial resemblances some thought his parents were Karl Ludwig Friedrich, Grand Duke of Baden and Stephanie de Beauharnais, adopted daughter of Napoleon I of France. Because Karl Friedrich had no male heirs, his successor was his uncle Leopold I of Baden. Leopold's mother was believed to have been involved in Hauser's captivity.

Others believe that Kaspar Hauser was nothing more than a con artist. He claimed to have eaten nothing but bread and water, but he could not have survived into his pre-teens on such a diet. He presumably knew only a few words, but learned to speak fairly quickly. He was attacked in 1829 by a hooded man with a mask, but apparently only Hauser saw his assailant.

No one knows why he was killed. He was stabbed in the lung, but could have survived it if the doctor who inspected him hadn't stuck a finger into the wound to see how deep it is. Still, it's not likely that his attack was faked due to its severity.

In November 1996 the German magazine Der Spiegel reported that an attempt to match Hauser's blood genetically with the House of Baden failed. The blood came from Hauser's pants. Those pants were probably not Hauser's but from an exhibition in Berlin in 1905. (The photos in This Baffling World were probably from this exhibition.) However, in 2002 the Institute for Forensic Medicine of the University of Munster analyzed hair and body cells that were also alleged to belong to Hauser. The university determined that the six samples had a 95% match to the genes of Astrid von Medinger, a descendant of Stephanie de Beauharnais. This strongly suggests that Kaspar Hauser was the legitimate heir of the House of Baden, and thus was likely killed to stop him from claiming his birthright. We will probably never know for sure who Kaspar Hauser was and what his motives were.

Digging up the truths behind these legends is fun, but I have to admit that it's not as much fun as believing these legends are real. As complicated as modern life is, there's something appealing about the world being just a little more complex, just a little bit stranger. Debunking these legends speaks volumes about humanity, though. If we can't have strange vortices eating ships and aircraft, it's perhaps a good thing that some people still believe that those vortices exist. Life would be a little more boring if those legends did not exist.

(I do wish the world was a little less interesting with regard to the Judeo-Christian creation myth and the organized opposition to evolution, but that's an argument for another post...)

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