Beware the prowling ghost (Book Review)

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Middleton_spirits of industrial ageRegarding paranormal research, there is no comparison between the work that comes out in print (paper or digital) and the mostly crap posted online from paranormal groups or the media. You are hard-pressed to find anyone online who knows what they are talking about when it comes to solid paranormal scholarship and writes well. Here’s another example – A new book by Jacob Middleton called Spirits of an Industrial Age: Ghost Imposture, Spring-heeled Jack and Victorian Society. It was available to borrow for free from the Kindle lenders library (if you have a Prime membership). So I “borrowed” it for as long as I wanted.

I’ve read a lot of paranormal books, a lot on the web, even “long-haired” academic-type books and papers but I must have missed the fascinating story about the prowling ghost phenomenon of the 19th century. I had an incomplete idea about these old-time spooks. As far as I knew, there was only one Spring-heeled Jack who harassed people of London for a while. I didn’t know his origins or his ultimate fate. (I’m still waiting for Mike Dash’s book to come out.)

In today’s paranormal pop culture, we seek haunted spaces. Middleton’s book describes a strange time where “ghosts” wandered the streets looking for people to frighten. They hid behind hedgerows and in dark alleys. They had no purpose except to be surprising and scary. People really did wear white sheets! (No mention if they said “Boo!”)

The prowling ghost was a well-known phenomena on the outskirts of the big towns in Britain. This book explores the particularly British phenomena in some of its more famous manifestations and how this related to society at that time. In several respects, it is an incredibly interesting and thought-provoking story not many American paranormal researchers know of.

People living in Hammersmith in the early 1800s half expected to meet a specter when out alone at night. There was no public lighting at this time so travel after dark was a serious hazard. The Hammersmith ghost manifested repeatedly in the 1820s and 30s – his identity (presumably multiple) was not resolved. This “ghost” and others like it sought out people to victimize. The goal seemed to be to elicit a good scare but in some cases, there was physical assault. Obviously, women were particularly vulnerable. There is not a lot of info about this aspect, given that the most lurid details were often left out of newspaper accounts, but there is ample suggestion that sexual assault was certainly perpetrated. Females were often targeted, their clothes ripped and skin scratched by long nails or claws of the “ghost”.

Depiction of the Hammersmith Ghost (Wikipedia)

Depiction of the Hammersmith Ghost (Wikipedia)

The tale of the Hammersmith ghost spread beyond the locals. This was not a normally behaved ghost. It seemed an obvious hoax; someone (or more than one) was deliberately doing this. The most common guess was that it was bored aristocrat boys who, if caught, were able to buy their way out of trouble. Besides, law enforcement was lax. Often, gun fire would not draw police attention since it was so common. As fear in the town increased, so did vigilanteism as the citizens had to take matters into their own hands.

The Hammersmith ghost activity came to a crescendo when it resulted in a mistaken death. Thomas Millwood was shot in what was judged to be a case of mistaken identity. He was mistaken for the ghost because he was wearing a bricklayers light clothing. The shooter, Francis Smith, was repentant, but was to be hanged. He was pardoned due to sympathy for the man who thought he was shooting the troublesome “ghost”.

Several more such tricksters appeared. The most famous off all these terrorizing characters was Spring-heeled Jack (1837 onwards). While this book contains excellent info about the Jack phenomena — such as documentation that almost all remarkable traits of Spring Heeled Jack (claws, flame, jumping, etc.) appeared to have precedent from earlier marauders — it is not a definitive book on Jack. What it does do is place Jack into the tail-end chronology of prowling ghosts of Britain.

The term “spring-heeled jack” eventually became a personification of any threat, attack, or display of aggression by an assailant. Even though some attacks were real, it appeared Jack was very much an early urban legend generating lurid tales for the newspapers and penny dreadfuls.

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Army barracks were often the reported locations of ghost sightings with armed soldiers reporting a “spring-heeled jack”. Guards would see apparitions in the night temporarily forgetting their fellow officers were not beyond playing tricks. Confronting a ghost was a brave act.

The bogeyman of Spring-heeled Jack was replaced in society by fear of a more notorious Jack in the late 1800s. The prowling ghosts disappeared as society evolved greater personal security measures.

If there is one concept that all paranormal researcher should understand is that ghosts are a product of their time. To those of us used to hearing about the transparent, amorphous, contemporary shadow person or ghost, the physicality of the Georgian and Victorian “ghost” descriptions are strange. They were solid, like people. Many of them WERE people. There were misperceptions, of course, sightings of people who were going about their business in the dead of night but in unfortunate clothing or circumstances for which they were mistaken as a paranormal marauder. Most people assumed they were hoaxes. But even when you know it’s a fake, the surprise encounter can be disarming and intimidating.

Speaking of surprising encounters, funnily enough, nudity was considered ghostly. Nude, likely disturbed, people running around in the night were mistaken for ghosts. In several instances Middleton points out that deviant sexual activity was conflated with the supernatural. Again, we see things through the lens of that time.

The book can be a bit wandering in places, the chronology was difficult for me to track, maybe because some ghosts made return appearances, but I learned so much that was new to me. The sociology of ghosts is fascinating; ghosts live off of human belief.

Expecting a low-quality amateurish piece like so many paranormal books out these days, Spirits of an Industrial Age is surprisingly well done. I enjoyed it so much that I purchased it as a Kindle e-book because I didn’t want to give it up!

If I could teach a class about paranormal history to today’s Dunning-Kruger suffering ghost hunters, I would include this book. An important addition to the cultural study of ghosts (as well as history and historical crime), it’s well worth the price for those of us that love real ghost stories. Ghost back in those days were WAY more interesting than the mists and floating balls of dust today. Ghosts then were far more exciting, but potentially more dangerous because they were “real”.

A Bigfoot book that is incredibly relevant 30 years later

Rendition of unknown bear that may represent the Yeti
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Once again, I’ve finally gotten around to a classic cryptozoology text. MAN! I missed out on this one for so many years. John Napier’s Bigfoot: The Yeti and Sasquatch in Myth and Reality ©1972 is one of the best Bigfoot texts I’ve read. I’m sure it’s because Napier was a scientist, a paleoanthropologist and primatologist – one of the first who paid serious attention to the idea of Bigfoot (Sasquatch and Yeti).

Bigfoot research has not progressed much. We still have no better evidence than we used to. As Napier notes, eyewitness accounts are the “lifeblood of the Bigfoot phenomenon.” Therefore, this book is TOTALLY relevant today and should be required reading for those weekend “squatchers”. The best parts of the book were the places where Napier says pretty much exactly what I’m thinking, and the parts where he nails down ideas about the creatures that have come to pass decades later.

Napier’s “Bigfoot” in the title is indicative of the defining characteristic – the big foot – and includes both the Yeti and Sasquatch. The Yeti preceded the North American Bigfoot/Sasquatch for public attention. The 1951 Shipton expedition introduced the Yeti to the public with the revelation of the clear photograph of a footprint. Napier obtained the original uncropped negative and discovers all is not as neat as it seems. The Shipton track is not human or ape and it’s not certain that the photo represents the print as it was made by whatever made it. Napier lists many options of animals that could have made the snow track only for it to be distorted by the elements and mistaken for what it is not.

Napier points out important cultural aspects of the Sherpas who tell the tale of the Yeti. He delivers some surprising conclusions such as the Sherpas are not all that great at identifying animals as people think, they aren’t particularly terrified of the Yeti as popularly depicted, and their narratives are garnished with traditional folklore themes that make it extremely difficult to discern a real animal from a legend. The stories contain popular folklore motifs such as backwards-turned feet, hair so long it impedes vision, and breasts so large they are slung over shoulders out-of-the-way. Silly stuff.

Napier refreshingly debunks several baseless ideas that mystery-mongering researchers love to use. For one, the idea of prehistoric survivors is not a good one. I agree. Though monster hunters like to say that myth has some basis in fact, that is not necessarily so, not when other evidence goes against the idea. He is blunt that scientists aren’t hiding information on Bigfoot. Scientists are not only “gossipers” (true – we love to share our discoveries) but also extremely curious. Bigfoot would be too big, wondrous and fantastic a discovery to hide. And, there is nothing threatening about the discovery of Bigfoot that would overturn biology. However, the scientific community pays little attention to ideas that have no merit. After examining what little there is on Bigfoot, science concludes there is nothing there to pursue. Bigfoot is not commonly spoken about because there is nothing scientific to talk about. Napier does note that no harm exists in looking into it, if interested, mainly because the public is interested and wants to know what experts think.

Monster worship is common across cultures. We must consider that our monster tales are a part of the evolution of our culture; it has nothing to do with intellectual ability. There will always be monsters to fear or love. That does not necessarily mean they are real animals. Bigfoot, Napier says, does not have the obvious social purpose or symbolism as some legends do. Here he means the Sherpa tales. He does not address the more current idea that Bigfoot in America is symbolic for freedom, habitat preservation, and the great American forests. The legend of Bigfoot undoubtedly exists. It’s when reality is extrapolated from the tales that we get into trouble. As we see over and over with paranormal-based TV, drawing inferences from someone’s imaginative hypothesis is really bad science. Reliable information connects to a foundation of what we already know to be true. For example, we can judge the idea of Bigfoot in terms of paleontology, physiology, evolution, ecology and psychology. (In an interesting tidbit, Napier says he rejects Ostman’s famous tale of being kidnapped by a Bigfoot family because his description of their meatless diet does not correspond to that of an animal of such proportions.)

Speaking of the Ostman story, Napier tells of an earlier Yeti version, that of Captain d’Auvergne, who was injured in the Himalayas, was rescued by a yeti, taken to a cave, and nursed back to health. He also relates the story of the Minnesota Iceman. While reading the tale of the frozen dead hairy man, I could not help but think that serial hoaxer Rick Dyer was a fan of this traveling sideshow tale as well. It’s curious how the stories seem to repeat themselves (look up Patterson and Roe).

Napier is clear that Bigfoot was big business. In America, it was a commodity to be exploited. Never so much as now, 30 years after this book came out. Napier also blatantly notes that the monks in Nepal were shrewd to capitalize on the Yeti legend to get money for facilities. Nepal government charged handsomely for Yeti hunting permits. The Yeti was exploited for tourism in Nepal just as it still is in Siberia and its relative is in the American Northwest.

For all the serious expeditions that were funded to look for the Yeti five decades ago and the money ponied up today to look for Sasquatch, NONE have been successful in bringing back a worthwhile contribution. Except one… Bryan Sykes who collected DNA in the Himalayas. I was fascinated that Napier notes the following about the description of the Yeti – the local monks called it a bear, three-quarters of the reports describe a partially quadrupedal animal, and for all intents and purposes, Yeti sounds like a bear. Indeed the Sykes results came back “bear” but a unique bear. This portion of the book feels like a prediction come true.

The core question of the book is “Is Bigfoot an idea or an animal?” The “true” answer, of course, is “both”. Many animals account for Bigfoot sightings but the idea of Bigfoot has outgrown even its huge features. Bigfoot is bigger than ever.

I did not expect such a fine treatment of this subject, so very much in tune with my own thoughts, when I decided to check out this book from my local university library. Add this book to your Bigfoot library.

The long and short of The Making of Bigfoot

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making-of-bigfoot-book-10632larThis is a brief review of Greg Long’s Making of Bigfoot. I don’t have the extra time or feel it’s worth the effort at this point to write much in detail. But in a nutshell, Long goes in search of the truth about Roger Patterson and his famous Patterson-Gimlin film of 1967 that he contended showed a female adult Bigfoot/Sasquatch striding across a creek bed.

I liked, disliked, and was ambivalent about this book.

It took me a while to get to it (published 2004) because it make a wave at the time but not a blockbuster wave enough to prodd me into reading it. And I’m sure I was busy with raising two young kids at the time.

The book was mostly an array of interviews with major and minor characters in the saga of Patterson’s Bigfoot explosion. My first observation is that it would have been better (and shorter) if not for the extraneous travel log details about popping open diet sodas and eating burritos and chocolate donuts. In places it sounded like old Nancy Drew books –  the pair checking into a hotel and talking over the evidence, one reinforcing the other.

I STILL don’t know what the side stories about Merritt’s western town and the various rockabilly band tales were about or what relevance that had. There was a good bit of what seemed like superfluous details. Maybe I just missed the point.

The hard-hitting part of the story were the various statements made by witnesses like Merritt, Heironimus, DeAtley and Radford that shed light on Patterson and his life. Was he a cheat and a crook? Yes, that seems perfectly clear. He skimmed off other people and didn’t feel very guilty about it. Was he talented? Yes. In many ways. I think he was perfectly capable of pulling off a hoax.

The story of the film is laid out as a contrived money-making venture. I see the case that way too. Bob Heironimus’ story sounds plausible. No story is air-tight. It’s been a long time and memory is fallible. The kicker for me is the William Roe story. This was first brought to my attention in Abominable Science but Long mentions it as “the script” to the Patterson film. And, indeed it is.

There are a few pickup truck loads of circumstantial evidence here that paints Patterson and Gimlin in a poor light. There are also inconsistencies and loose ends and tangents. In the end, the book falls short because the true bottom line is not clear. There is no Bigfoot suit.

Ten years later and there is nothing new come to light. The film is still THE PG FILM and is disputed same as before. There is NO better evidence of Bigfoot at all. The BEST explanation right now is that it’s a guy in a suit and this was staged by Patterson.

Would this book make an objective reader more convinced that Patty the Bigfoot in the film was a hoax? Yes. It would. Is it definitive? No. I’m not sure it could ever be because the witnesses are dying and the physical evidence is lacking. Worst of all, the history and facts are all wrapped up in egos and belief which means selective reading of the evidence and some cognitive dissonance.

Worth a read but annoying in many parts. I want to see the damn suit.

Abominable Science is Cryptozoology Book of the Year

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Who am I to say that? Well, nobody special, really. “Best books” is subjective. My favorite books include National Velvet (because I read it 35 times or so), Watership Down, The Hobbit, and Jane Austin stuff but I won’t quibble if they aren’t yours too.

When it comes to nonfiction works, the criteria is slightly different. Nonfiction can contribute significantly to the body of literature in a field. A commendable piece brings something new and enlightening – a fresh view, uncovered evidence, updated imagery. My choices of best nonfiction have substance, credibilty, and are groundbreaking must-have books to those interested in a particular field.

Thus, some of my favorite books in the cryptozoology/paranormal realm are Ben Radford’s Scientific Investigation of the Paranormal and Tracking the Chupacabra. These were excellent examples of scholarship and much needed in the literature. They also were praised by many others. I also favorite must-have books such as Sagan’s Demon-Haunted World and Origin of Species because of their tremendous insight and inspiration as well as quotable and beautiful language.

You can see the Doubtful News cryptozoology section of our bookstore here.

It’s hard for me to pick favorite books since it depends on the subject area and the mood I’m in that needs to be satisfied. But there is NO DOUBT that one of the most important cryptozoology books ever is Abominable Science by Loxton and Prothero. It’s impressive and important – a MUST-HAVE if you call yourself a cryptozoologist. But it was ignored by the Bigfooters (arguable not part of the field of cryptozoology because of their narrow niche) or panned by a small portion of cryptozoology believers who seemed too joyous in ripping it apart. If you haven’t gotten a copy, you are missing out.
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I am so adamant about it because it’s impressive. I had heard about the book around its inception. I caught peeks into the process here and there as Dan and Don worked diligently to produce a high quality volume. Care, scholarship and new information – that counts for a lot in nonfiction. Nature thought so. So did the Wall Street Journal and Inside Higher Education. See Publisher’s Weekly, The Scientist, and other reviews here. When was the last time a crypto book got such praise and widespread notice!? Abominable Science was an outstanding accomplishment.

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Imagineering cryptids: The Cryptozoologicon (Book review)

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It’s not been the best year for the fans of real live cryptids. Not only did we NOT find Bigfoot again, we had a better explanation for the Yeti, and Sasquatch DNA samples that were a bust (Sykes) or a joke (Ketchum). The book Abominable Science inserted itself as the premier scholarly book on the topic. Unfortunately for the “knowers,” who have an indestructible belief that the mysterious creatures are out there, their evidence and conviction clearly suggests otherwise. Serious scholarly researchers are happy to have that excellent resource and now we have another lovely skeptical and highly entertaining book to add to our collection. The Cryptozoologicon by Naish, Conway and Kosmen. It is unique with brand-new original artwork and imaginative writing. I loved it. But then again, I would…

cover“Cryptozoologicon” means the Book of Names of Hidden Animals. This is Volume One. More volumes are possibly on the way (at least one more). The authors seemed to have great fun with this one.

The introduction is cryptozoology in a nutshell, with a smart, skeptical, scholarly point of view – the kind I prefer. Each entry is a summary of what is known or conjectured about the cryptid. Then the authors crank up the fictional biology to 11 and even push the limits of popular cryptozoo-ers (1), while remaining generally within the confines of zoology, to indulge in descriptions and illustrations of the proposed animals.

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Speculative paleozoology done by professionals (Book Review)

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all yesterdaysLast night, I simply could not read any technical stuff before bed so I browsed my Kindle looking for some entertaining reading. The thing is, I don’t really do much fiction, almost everything I have is nonfiction. Then I came across “All Yesterdays: Unique and Speculative Views of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals” by Darren Naish, C.M. Kosemen, John Conway, and Scott Hartman. This was it, the perfect hour’s entertainment before bed perusing fascinating artwork and professional commentary regarding speculative reconstruction of prehistoric (and modern) animals. It was a lovely blend of nonfiction with a good dollop of fiction and I very much enjoyed it.

This book shows what might possibly (very likely) is off (completely wrong) about artistic reconstructions of dinosaurs, plesiosaurs and pterosaurs. Fun stuff. You will learn that animals are reconstructed “shrink-wrapped” and naked. It’s sort of because that’s all the evidence we have and must guess at the soft tissue adornments and coloration. But what if we got a bit creative. That’s what this book does. Fun stuff. Sometimes silly, but thought provoking. What if these animals behaved in a completely different way than we expect? Well why not draw that?

The last section is enlightening as real animals are portrayed in a way that mimics how we would interpret prehistoric animals – shrink-wrapped, with no fat or characteristic soft parts (like pointy cartilage ears), no fur, and out of context.

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From the Amish to Voodoo: Unusual comparative religion (Book Review)

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It is my opinion that public school children should be taught a class in comparative religion.

I recall a cursory review of the history of Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Buddhism as part of social studies but Americans are pretty clueless about other religions besides their own. That’s a societal flaw. I’m not particularly interested in common religions; I have a general idea how they practice. But uncommon religions are pretty darn strange, and even more interesting to me when they involve occult practices or bizarre ideas. It’s about time I found out more about them.

GBA_stollznowKaren Stollznow’s book God Bless America [on Kindle] is subtitled “Strange and Unusual Religious Beliefs and Practices in The United States” so I was pretty sure it would contain some zingers. This book is a parade of information about the lesser known and controversial (OK, weird) religious beliefs of America and it is suitable as a text for a class on world religions. The title is not very fitting because it’s not about God so much as about the people who invest themselves in these unusual belief systems. Stollznow goes to meet many of them firsthand. They would have creeped me out.

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