Category Archives: Mysterious Disappearances

Pixilated in Cornwall

A Cornish Pixie as imagined in the Harry Potter Chamber of Secrets movie.  Not so handsome but certainly mischievous.

A Cornish Pixie as imagined in the Harry Potter Chamber of Secrets movie. Not so handsome but certainly mischievous.

These days, when someone goes on about pixilation or being pixilated, they are probably talking about problems with their digital photos or some kind of Photoshop software glitch.  Before the computer age, however, being pixilated was a polite way of saying a person was a bit soft in the head—delusional, demented, or just plain crazy.  But it was not always so.  Time was people took pixilation seriously, for it meant the Pixies had put a spell on you—a quite unfortunate turn of affairs generally.

Devotees of the Harry Potter series may picture Pixies as small winged creatures with a bluish cast who are prone towards mischief.  While not entirely accurate, that is still a step up from the Victorian stereotype of cutesy winged diminutive females who flit about flowers and such.  It was the rather arch things that Victorian children’s writers did to the Fairy Folk that led J. R. R. Tolkien to ban all such things from his portrayal of the Elvenkind.  In truth, the ability of the Fair Folk to play with human’s minds in various ways and alter our perception of reality goes far beyond what Tolkien chose to portray.  While still relegated to the realm of fantasy literature, there are enough accounts floating about in the literature to make a case for various such fey folk being real—or perhaps more accurately, inhabiting their own reality.

While I normally devote space here to Southern paranormal mysteries and phenomena, since much of Southern culture and belief is derived from the Celtic realms of the British Isles, I hope I shall be pardoned from devoting today’s discussion to a well known case of pixilation from Cornwall—or at least it was well known in the seventeenth century.

A pixie with red cap according to HM Royal Mail.

A pixie with red cap according to HM Royal Mail.

Anne Jeffries, we are told, was an illiterate girl who entered the service of the Pitt family of St. Teath, Cornwall, when she was nineteen. She was fascinated by the stories of diminutive fairies common to the region and would venture into the night looking and calling out for them.

One day, in 1645, as she was knitting in an arbor by the garden gate, when suddenly fell into a fit. They carried Anne into the house and put her to bed.  She lay unconscious for some time, and it was feared she would die.  When she finally came to her senses, Anne told all and sundry a fantastic story.

Mistress Jeffries related to all who would hear how she had heard a rustling in the undergrowth but assumed it was a young man who was sweet on her, so she called out to him.  But it was no beau he was in the brush.

Anne heard a tinkling sound followed by a musical laugh, then the sound of the gate opening and shutting as six little men all dressed in green came through the garden gate.  She related that the six little men were all quite beautiful. One, with a red feather in his hat, spoke in tender tones to her.  Unafraid, Anne reached out her hand and he clambered onto the palm of her hand and when she lifted him onto her lap, he boldly ascended her torso and began kissing her neck. The other imps followed suite; then one of them put his hands over her eyes (how big was he?), and everything went dark.  Apparently their size might vary at will.  The next thing Anne knew she was swept up into the air and flew to a land far away; opening her eyes, she was Fairyland.

Like Alice in Wonderland, Anne found that she had shrunk in size and she was now the same size as all the wee folk, as well as being clad in their colorful clothing. She later gave a detailed description of this Fairland; it was a realm filled with temples and palaces of gold and silver, bright colored exotic birds and flowers, fish of glittering silver and gold.  All about were gaily clad folk dancing, prancing, or strolling through the verdant scenery.

According to Anne, one of the Pixies had an amorous interest in her.

According to Anne, one of the Pixies had an amorous interest in her.

Anne was surrounded by her six friends, but of the six the one with the red feather made her his chosen beloved. They managed to steal away together and while Anne was discreet in her description of his intent, the suspicion is his interest in her was more than platonic.  Suddenly the other five barged in, followed by a loud crowd. Her pixie lover drew his sword to defend her, but he fell at her feet wounded.

Then the pixie who had originally blinded her again place his hands over her eyes, and once more she was carried up into the air, finally finding herself on the floor of the arbor surrounded a crowd of concerned friends.

The journey to Fairyland apparently had lasting effects.  Anne soon found she now possessed the powers of clairvoyance and healing, with the first person to be healed being the mistress of the Pitt household. Anne became very religious and as fame of here healing powers spread, folk came to her for treatment from as far afield as Land’s End and London. She also appeared to be able to exist without human food. The son of the family, Moses Pitt reported that she forsook the family victuals and was fed by the fairies from harvest time to Christmas.

Unfortunately, she developed her power of prophecy at the height of the Puritan Revolution.  One of her prophesies foretold of the King’s ultimate victory, and the humorless Puritans had her arrested and committed to prison in 1646.  The Puritan magistrate ordered that she not be fed, but it didn’t seem to affect her at all. In 1647 she was detained in the house of the Mayor of Bodmin and still was not fed; but in the end she was released unharmed.

At the Pixie House in Tintagel, Cornwall one can stock up on all things Pixie related.

At the Pixie House in Tintagel, Cornwall one can stock up on all things Pixie related.

Anne Jeffries case was in unusual in many respects, not least because her prophecy of the return of the King came true.  Some may doubt that Anne was abducted by the wee folk and that she actually visited a magical Fairyland.  But then strange things happen when pixies are involved, and Cornish pixies are stranger than most.

Red Amanita Muscaria mushrooms are traditionally associated with fairies, elves and pixies.  Magic mushrooms indeed!

Red Amanita Muscaria mushrooms are traditionally associated with fairies, elves and pixies. Magic mushrooms indeed!

Katherine Bruggs, in her classic Dictionary of Fairies (1976), relates this and other Fey tales of the Fair Folk.  For many uncanny accounts from this side of the Atlantic, read Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground and Dixie Spirits!

Dixie Spirits via Sourcebooks

Strange tales of unexplained phenomena and paranormal activity in the Mid-South.

Strange tales of unexplained phenomena and paranormal activity in the Mid-South.

 

 

Abraham Lincoln and Ancient Aliens

President Lincoln was one of the many prominent men of his day who attended séances; he also believed in prophecy and other psychic phenomena

President Lincoln was one of the many prominent men of his day who attended séances; he also believed in prophecy and other psychic phenomena

I normally don’t write about UFO’s and Alien sightings, restricting my researches to paranormal phenomena, but I have delved into the subject on occasion as it relates to the South. In Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground, for example, I investigated the UFO sightings over the Tennessee Valley in the early 1900’s and a “dark day” in Memphis, while in Dixie Spirits I also chronicled a very credible close encounter in West Virginia. Then there are those strange events which may not be supernatural but which certainly defy all attempts at rational explanation, such as rains of blood and gore, aerial showers of snakes and other land going animals, as well as the Mothman enigma, which itself seems to transcend traditional categories. So while I have an abiding interest in UFO’s and the possibility of Aliens visiting our planet, I generally have left those investigations to those with the resources to properly probe them.

via turbosquid

Artist’s conception of a mothership. Did one such ship hover over Memphis, Tennessee in 1904? See Chapter 37 of Strange Tales of the Dark & Bloody Ground.

That is why, when I was contacted by the folks at the Ancient Aliens series on The History Channel to come on their show and discuss my researches on Abraham Lincoln and the paranormal as published in The Paranormal Presidency, I was a bit bewildered how I might fit into their show’s format. Nevertheless, last summer I did an interview with the folks at Ancient Aliens and discussed quite a bit about Lincoln’s beliefs in the paranormal and allied subjects, as well as also discussing Ambrose Bierce, whose Civil War career I have researched extensively, the results of which should be published later this year or early next. Bierce, although known as a cynic, in fact was fascinated by the bizarre, the unexplained and the unusual—in other words, a man after my own heart. As honored as I was to be on their show, however, I wondered how my own expertise would fit into their show’s concept. Well, the wait is over; earlier this month the History Channel aired an episode entitled “Aliens and the Civil War.”

Ambrose Bierce as he looked during the Civil War.  Was his war wound a source of his interests in the bizarre and unexplained?  The Ancient Aliens show thinks so.

Ambrose Bierce as he looked during the Civil War. Was his war wound a source of his interests in the bizarre and unexplained? The Ancient Aliens show thinks so.

First off, I must say they did an excellent job of dovetailing what I had to say about Lincoln with other material relating to Alien contact and the Civil War. As is usual for this show, much of what they have to say is highly speculative; nevertheless, I thought much of what they argued was interesting, making connections between events and phenomena which I had not previously thought related to one another. Besides the Lincoln segment that I was on, they also discussed some other unusual phenomena which I have previously written about in Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War, although my take on the incidents was different. There was, for example, the vision of Washington at Valley Forge and his later appearance at the Battle of Gettysburg, which I discussed in the Chapter “Behold a Pale Rider”—although their account of Washington’s visitation at Gettysburg differs from my research.

While attending one seance Lincoln was given a "ride" on a piano by, a "physical" medium.

While attending one seance Lincoln was given a “ride” on a piano by, a “physical” medium.

The part of The Paranormal Presidency which they chose to excerpt from my longer interview revolved about Lincoln’s involvement with Spiritualism, in particular with a young psychic named Nettie Colburn—better known under her married name, Nettie Colburn Maynard. Although mainstream historians frequently label Nettie as a “charlatan,” my researches in the archives and other primary sources proved otherwise; likewise, some of the claims of other spiritualists about Lincoln’s involvement have been verified, at least in part. How deeply Lincoln was involved in the movement, however, remains subject to debate, but there is no question that he did attend séances and visit psychics, with and without his wife. That the “spirits” that contacted Lincoln’s psychics and advised the President could possibly be Alien life forms is something I had never thought of, but Ancient Aliens makes a case for these and other psychic encounters being due to the remote telepathic actions of extraterrestrials. Likewise, their tying Ambrose Bierce’s traumatic head would into a possible cause of his being psychically informed by Aliens may seem a stretch, but not totally dissimilar to Lincoln’s own near death experience being the possible cause of his own belief in premonitions and similar paranormal experiences.

Were Aliens in contact with Lincoln through the medium Nettie Colburn? (artist' s conception of an alien somewhat upset with the Bad Hair Guy).

Were Aliens in contact with Lincoln through the medium Nettie Colburn? (artist’ s conception of an alien somewhat upset with the Bad Hair Guy).

Bear in mind, the Ancient Aliens theories remain highly speculative, but some of the ideas they put forth in the episode “Aliens and the Civil War” are highly original and in some cases I think worthy of further investigation. Traditionally, UFO’s and the belief in Ghosts and the paranormal have been regarded as mutually exclusive. For one thing, most scientists accept the premise that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe; most of them have yet to accept the premise that earth has been visited by them.

In contrast, scientists as a group reject the supernatural or anything that resembles it and most reject any aspect of the paranormal as “delusions of the masses.” However, as theoretical physicists delve deeper into such things as Quantum Mechanics, and posit parallel worlds, alternate realities and similar seemingly incredible scientific theories, some scientists are no longer smugly scoffing at different types of paranormal phenomena, such as remote sensing, precognition, telekinesis and other things hitherto rejected as impossible. The possibility is growing that psychic communication at a distance, or foretelling the future may eventually be found to have a basis in reality, no matter how fantastic they may seem today.

All this reminds me of something that William Herndon, Abraham Lincoln’s law partner, once said about Lincoln’s unorthodox beliefs. He said that Lincoln did not so much believe in the supernatural as in the supra-natural; that what we may regard as defying the laws of nature may just be a part of the natural world which we cannot yet comprehend. Have aliens been in contact with us, by psychic or other means? Who is to say; what today may seem fantastic, may yet prove true.

“Aliens and the Civil War” aired on April 10, 2015 but you can see it on the Ancient Aliens Website: http://www.history.com/shows/ancient-aliens/videos/aliens-and-the-civil-war

My latest book, Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife is due for release by The University of Tennessee Press later this year or early next.  Look for it at better bookstores everywhere.

The Ship of Yule: The Twelve Ghosts of Christmas, 9

The doomed schooner Rouse Simmons, known as The Christmas Tree Ship.

The doomed schooner Rouse Simmons, known as The Christmas Tree Ship.

In his famous ballad, The Wreck of the Edmond Fitzgerald, Gordon Lightfoot posed the question, “does anyone know where to love of God goes, when the gales of November come early?” The sad fact is that not only that ship, but many other vessels that ply the Great Lakes have fallen prey to the unpredictable weather that besets the great northern waters. No fate was more sad, nor more tragic, nor its aftermath more eerie, that the doom of the Christmas Tree Ship.

For many years it was a tradition on the northern waters that one or another schooner, or similar sailing craft, would sail north, cut a load of fragrant fresh evergreens and then sail southward to Chicago to eager families awaiting the ship’s arrival to put up a tree in their home. It was a long-standing tradition and the arrival of the Christmas Tree Ship came to be an annual ritual in Chicagoland, and its arrival always marked the beginning of the Christmas season there.

November of 1912 started off no different than any other year. The schooner Rouse Simmons that year made the journey to the northlands, where the crew cut the trees and hauled them onboard, ‘til the deck was stacked high with them. The skipper, Herman Schuenemann, was known locally as “Captain Santa:” a gruff old salt, he had a heart of gold and sold his trees direct to the people on the docks, even giving some free to the needy who had not the money to buy them.

That November was a particularly bountiful harvest. They say some worried deckhands asked the captain if they may have cut too many, to which he is said to have replied, “don’t worry boys, the folks waiting on the Clark Street docks will buy ‘em all!” They say some of the sailors, looking at the red sunset on the horizon, refused to take ship with Captain Santa and stayed behind.

On November 23, 1912 the good ship Rouse Simmons set sail, rounding the Upper Peninsula and making its way south towards Chicago. They were making good time, they say, when foul winter hit. It was one of those gales that Gordon Lightfoot warned about; high winds bearing cold, cold air and more snow and ice than you would expect at that time of the year. The rigging became encased in crystal sheaths and impossible to use, while the sails were torn to shreds by the howling icy winds. Top heavy with trees, the ship was listing to one side when folks along the shores of Lake Michigan caught sight of her.

Folk near Two Rivers, Wisconsin, could see the crew from shore, begging and pleading for help. Though it was worth a man’s life to try, the folks on shore launched a boat to rescue the crew. They caught a glimpse of the ship in the tossing seas, but then it became lost to view. Amidst the fog, the snow and the sleet, they couldn’t find the missing ship and returned to shore, lest they too share its doom.

Weighed down with ice-laden trees on deck, taking water and her sails in tatters, the Rouse Simmons went down off the coast of Wisconsin. But though she disappeared between the waves that year, that was not the last folk on the lakes saw of her. For weeks after the ship went down, the ship and its skipper kept being sighted on the lake, and well into December she was expected to land any day, simply delayed at some port, they thought. What those folk saw on the lake has never been explained, as the Rouse Simmons by that time was on the lake bottom with all her crew.

Like any good Flying Dutchman, however, there are continuing reports of an old three-masted schooner sighted on stormy nights, especially in late November; but the ship over the years has continued to send physical reminders as well.

For years afterwards, pieces of Christmas Trees would wash ashore or come up in fishermen’s nets on Lake Michigan. One time, a message in a bottle washed up ashore, supposedly the last message from Captain Santa. Another time, a local fishing boat hauled up in its nets the wallet of Captain Santa himself. Somehow, the good ship Rouse Simmons just would not go away.

True, divers did eventually find the wreck at the bottom of the lake, but no sign of the crew was found aboard, and reports of a ghostly sailing ship, tossed upon angry inland seas continue to be told. Who knows, perhaps some day, some way, the ghosts of Captain Santa and his crew will finally make it back to port in time for Christmas.

For more classic ghost stories, see Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground, Dixie Spirits, and my latest book, Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee.

Halloween Hauntings, Part 7: The Difficulty of Crossing a Field

October 24, 2012         The Thirteen Days of Halloween, Post 6

In the 1880's in Sumner County a man disappeared in broad daylight before eyewitnesses.  Since then many have tried to solve the mystery.

In the 1880’s in Sumner County a man disappeared in broad daylight before eyewitnesses. Since then many have tried to solve the mystery.

In the late nineteenth century, famed American author Ambrose Bierce penned a classic tale of the paranormal, called “The Difficulty of Crossing a Field.”  In it he tells the tall tale of an Alabama farmer, named Orion Williamson, who one day disappeared into thin air while walking across a pasture in the 1840’s.  While Bierce’s story was a work of fiction, he based it on a story emanating out of Tennessee, published in the 1880’s by a famed teller of tall tales whose pen name was “Orange Blossom.”

In the original version of the story, the farmer’s name was not Orion Williamson but David Lang.  Orange Blossom—also known as Joe Mulhattan—was renowned as a teller of tall tales.  He was such a good spinner of yarns that “Mulhattan” became synonymous with a tall tale.  In fact, there are those who believe that Joe Mulhattan, or Orange Blossom, was a fictitious creature created by bored newspaper editors to fill space in their papers.

Joe Mulhattan, who wrote under the nome de plume of "Orange Blossom" was a traveling salesman who became famous as a teller of tall tales in the late nineteenth century.

Joe Mulhattan, who wrote under the nome de plume of “Orange Blossom” was a traveling salesman who became famous as a teller of tall tales in the late nineteenth century.

However, legend though he became, Joe Mulhattan was a real person, if larger than life at times.  The story of David Lang’s disappearance, which first appeared in the Cincinnati Inquirer in the early 1880’s, certainly fits in with Mulhattan’s modus operandi.  What made Orange Blossom so good at what he did is that he threw in a grain of truth with his puffery to make his tales plausible.

Ambrose Bierce, who had a certain perverse affection for humbug and hoaxes, took Mulhattan’s tale and crafted his own version of it.  Since that time, the legend of David Lang has been added to by various hands, notably a version of it in Fate Magazine in 1953, by mystery novelist Stuart Palmer.

Ambrose Bierce as he appeared in his later years, when he penned "The Moonlit Road."

Ambrose Bierce as he appeared in his later years, when he penned “The Moonlit Road.”

 

 

But is there any basis to the tale of a farmer disappearing into thin air?  Well, maybe.  Joe Mulhattan was a drummer—traveling salesman—who traveled all across the country.  He would hear a story from locals, then after a few drinks, would spin it into a yarn that even a master of humbug such as P. T. Barnum would be amazed at.

I had read the tale of David Lang as a boy in New York; by a curious coincidence, some years back, when I moved to my present abode, it was only a few miles from Gallatin, Tennessee, where David Lang disappeared.  Contrary to what others have written, neither Stuart Palmer nor Ambrose Bierce invented the story; and neither did Joe Mulhattan.

It turns out that while engaged as a traveling salesman, Joe Mulhattan was staying at a hotel in Gallatin, when he was forced to stay in town a few days longer than planned by torrential rains.  While holed up in the hotel he heard the story of David Lang from locals; with time on his hands he penned a letter to the Inquirer and the story has grown in the telling from then till now.

 

Researchers have tried to track down David Lang and verify the story, alas with no success.  They therefore deemed it a complete hoax; census records prove there was no such person as David Lang or any Lang family in Sumner County, Tennessee in the 1880’s.  True enough; but pouring through the county archives, I checked the tax rolls for that period and found a notation for a man named LONG with the notation in parenthesis (Lang); apparently the Yankee drummer’s ears heard the name pronounced one way, although it was written another.  There were no Lang’s near Gallatin in the 1880’s but several families of Longs.

In the decades since Mulhattan spun his yarn and Ambrose Bierce turned it into a classic tale of the Unknown, the story has not only grown in the telling and re-telling but inspired an opera based on the Uncanny Occurrence in Sumner County, Tennessee.

The Ambrose Bierce story has been turned into a modern opera. The author? Why David Lang of course!

The Ambrose Bierce story has been turned into a modern opera. The author? Why David Lang of course!

So, did a man go walking across a field in rural Sumner County one summer day and disappear into thin air?  Like I said: well, maybe.