Grendel and Bigfoot: Big Hairy Beasts and Where to Find Them
While we normally chronicle all things weird and wonderful about the American South, we are not averse to occasional side trips into other realms of the uncanny. Given that there are abundant reports of Big Foot and his stinky-ass cousins all over the South, it is not too far afield to inquire about that most famous monster from Old English literature, Grendel.
Once upon a time there was an obscure English scholar of Medieval Literature who wrote an obscure paper about a long forgotten Old English epic poem. The poem was Beowulf and the eccentric academic in question was J.R.R. Tolkien. His resurrection of the epic poem started a major re-appreciation of the poem, first by scholars, then by literary critics in general and finally Hollywood, running out of comic books to make into movies and TV shows, grabbed onto Beowulf and ran with it. At last count, I believe there have been three movies made about Beowulf and more recently a TV series, all of which play fast and loose with the original story–but that’s Holly Weird for you. So, in case you have to read it for a class this fall, be warned that the Germanic hero does not have sex with a demonic Angelina Jolie morphed into a dragon, or anything like it. Read the book.
What set this latest inquiry into monsters is an article I came across by a Dark Age scholar chronicling all the (allegedly) legendary monsters who inhabited Medieval Lincolnshire. Bear in mind, on a dark and stormy night, jolly old England in the Dark Ages could be a pretty scary place and she lists quite a few wyrd and uncanny beasts. No doubt J. K. Rowling could raid her blog for more stuff for her sequels. The original blog post is here: “The Monstrous Landscape of Lincolnshire.”
She posted an old illustration of Grendel, the monster from Beowulf, in the post which immediately caught my eye. She connects Beowulf with a local monster or ogre called a byrs or thyrs in Anglo-Saxon. The illustration from a 1908 book (see below) which included the story of Grendel versus Beowulf is strikingly similar to what most eyewitnesses have described as Bigfoot. Now, admittedly, a modern artist’s conception is not proof that the ancient creature called a byrs and which was the term to describe Grendel was the same beast, but it does set one wondering.
Anyone familiar with either or all of my books, Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground,Dixie Spirits or Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee will know I have an abiding interest in Cryptozoology. It is my belief that, more often than not, these legends of strange or uncanny creatures do have a basis in fact. Animals though long extinct, such as the Coelacanth, manage to confound biologists all the time and fossil hunter are always uncovering previously unknown extinct species. So whenever a biologist vehemently denies the existence of one or another creature as legendary, they should always add the qualifier “for now.”
Over the years there have been quite a few Bigfoot (Bigfeet?) sightings in the Mid-South, although they do seem to have tapered off in recent years. I live in a suburban county to Nashville and while I can’t claim to have seen any giant ape-men (or man-apes, depending on your point of view) I have talked to a few who have. Modern Hendersonville, Tennessee is rapidly building up and developing, but one long time resident remembers the time he was walking along Drakes Creek, before the sports complex was built up along it, and finding large claw marks high up on a tree. He is a veteran hunter and knows quite well bear signs; he insisted to me these claw marks were far too high up on the tree for any black or brown bear to have made, even if they had wandered down from the mountains.
Dating from about the same time period is a report filed with BFRO (Big Foot Research Organization) of a multiple person sighting in Hendersonville. When many of the old farms were just beginning to be turned into sub-divisions a group of six people caught a Big Foot in their headlights rummaging through garbage can. When sighted the eight food creature walked away. As noted above, even in 1965 Indian Lake was by no means wilderness, although heavily wooded in parts. The BFRO Report is posted here. Even now, with decades of development, there are still herds of deer that inhabit the area, so a large biped could still have plenty of big game available to feed on if it didn’t mind all the people.
Just north of Hendersonville, a resident of the Beech area also reported a Big Foot crossing an open field just off of Long Hollow Pike. This too was some time back, but Long Hollow Pike meanders through a hilly region and sits below the Highland Rim, an area more conducive to large creatures living and feeding, with abundant fresh water and game to be had. Some time back I charted most of the published Big Foot sightings and they tended to cluster either along the Cumberland Mountains and Highland Rim area or else in the Smokey Mountain region. With economic development and the disappearance of natural habitats, it may well be that the Tennessee Stink Ape is extinct, or nearly so.
So the Stink Ape, or Wooley Booger or byrs or Grendel may be gone from the scene, but that does not necessarily mean they never existed, and for some they continue to exist in memory.
In Dixie Spirits we investigated the Custis-Lee Mansion, also known as Arlington House, which still stands near Alexandria, Virginia, but we did not explore the many ghosts and haunts of Alexandria proper. Today let’s take a quick look at a famous Civil War ghost down in town.
They say the first casualty of war is the truth. That may well be true, but in the early days of the war, neither side was much concerned with truth, but more with justifying their own actions, as well as portraying the opposite side as the aggressor. Regardless, by the time that Lincoln was inaugurated, the time for rational discussion was already over and the Secessionists moved quickly to surround Washington, DC in the weeks following his installation as President. Lincoln could call for 75,000 troops—but actually organizing, equipping and fielding them to defend the capitol was quite another thing.
Before the war, volunteer militia units were all the rage in the US. In the antebellum era it was fun to be a soldier and many volunteer groups donned colorful costumes, learned to drill like real soldiers and above all, attract the ladies with their displays of martial virtue. Some militia groups developed a reputation for their skill at close order drill and toured the country performing for the public, especially those units who fashioned themselves as zouaves. The original zouaves had been recruited by the French in Algeria and wore colorful oriental style uniforms, but over the years their ethnic makeup was of less importance than their reputation for élan and aggressiveness.
One of the more famous such show units was Colonel Elmer E. Ellsworth’s Cadet Zouaves, originally based out of Chicago. Although he was never able to get into West Point, Ellsworth had studied military tactics with a passion and his fencing instructor in Chicago had been an actual French zouave. Ellsworth was a close personal friend of Lincoln’s and when the call went out for volunteers to suppress the rebellion, Ellsworth wasted no time forming a regiment. He went to New York City, sent out a call, seeking out firemen in particular, and within an amazingly brief time received more than double the number of volunteers than he needed. Although rough around the edges and short on discipline, the 11th NY “Fire” Zouaves were shipped south in short order.
When, on May 23, Virginia officially seceded from the Union, Ellsworth’s regiment was ordered across the Potomac to secure Alexandria and Arlington Heights on the Virginia side of the river. While securing the city, Ellsworth noticed that a Rebel flag was still flying over the Marshall House, a local inn. The flag had been something of a sore point for weeks, being visible from across the river and symbol of Lincoln’s inability to preserve the Union even within the shadow of the capital. Not willing to allow this act of defiance to go unanswered, Ellsworth personally climbed up to the top of the Marshall House and tore down the offending flag from the large flagpole on the roof. As he was descending the stairs, however, the hotel owner, one James Jackson, suddenly appeared without warning and shot and killed Ellsworth with a shotgun at close quarters, for which action he was immediately rewarded with his own death at the hands of Ellsworth’s men. It was still early in the war and the death of a single officer, such as Ellsworth, was still notable news in the North. Ellsworth being a close associate of Lincoln amplified the importance of his death. Soon Ellsworth was hailed as a martyr—the first of many—to the cause of preserving the Union.
In the ensuing months and years following his death, rumors began to circulate that, although dead, Colonel Ellsworth was not really gone from the Marshall House. Some claimed to see him removing the Rebel flag from the rooftop of the hotel, others swore they saw his shade on its stairs, where he was murdered.
It was also said that the ghost of the fire-breathing Secesh James Jackson also haunted the same stairwell in the old inn. The Marshall House and its resident ghosts stood on the same spot until the 1950’s, when it was torn down as part of a modernization trend in the city. Normally, that would be the end of the story, but apparently it is not.
Today the Alexandrian Hotel, a “boutique hotel,” occupies the same space where the old inn stood. It has all the amenities one expects in a modern hotel, plus one more: it is haunted. There are those who claim that it is the restless shades of the Civil War who still roam the new hotel.
Sometimes nothing is actually seen, but people claim to hear the sound of gunshots out in the hallways, as if the Rebel hotel owner and the zouaves who killed him are still having it out in the new building.
On one occasion recently, a couple was riding the elevator when it unexpectedly opened at the fourth floor; no guests were there but they saw a glowing light appear on the wall opposite, then disappear. Later, the visitors found they were not alone in having uncanny experiences there.
According to some, it is the Monaco’s sixth floor that is most haunted, which could be a reflection of Ellsworth’s flag taking venture, although the reports are vague on that score. Regardless, the hotel embraces the site’s haunted heritage and in the past it has offered a “Ghosts of Alexandria Family Package” which includes discounted room rate, a stay on the “haunted sixth” plus tickets for the local ghost tour of the town; check to see whether they still offer that since it has changed management.
In any case, Alexandria and nearby DC are chock full of Civil War era ghosts and haunts, and who knows maybe Colonel Ellsworth will put in a personal appearance.
EDGAR CAYCE, The Sleeping Prophet of Hopkinsville, KY
I discussed the Bell Witch extensively in Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Groundand also a bit more about her and other Tennessee witches in Ghosts and Haunts of Tennessee, so I won’t chew my cud twice on that score—at least not here. However, if you are visiting Adams to get in touch with ol’ Kate, you might want to keep going to visit another town with a reputation for the uncanny and paranormal: Hopkinsville, Kentucky.
If you take Highway 41 up the road apiece beyond Adams, you will soon cross the Tuck-asee state line and come to Hopkinsville, Kentucky, a place equally worthy of note for those who derive joy in being scared out of their wits by paranormal phenomena and other high strangeness.
Hopkinsville, while considerably more urban in character than Adams, is still a quiet town most times and hardly a place one would peg as the epicenter of unexplained events or strangely gifted people. Yet on both counts Hopkinsville can hold its own with places more famous or more populous. For one thing, it is the home of Edgar Cayce, world renown as the “Sleeping Prophet.” Edgar Cayce was an unlikely candidate for notoriety, at least to start with. Born in 1877, in Beverly, just a stone’s throw south of Hopkinsville and his father would knock him about because he was such a poor student in school. When he was very young and wandering in the woods he claimed to see “little folk” cavorting about and occasionally spotted his dead grandfather. He knew grandpa was dead because he could see through him.
At the age of ten he was taken to church and from that time on diligently began reading the Bible. Then, at the age of twelve one day an angel appeared to him in a woodland shack as he was doing his daily Bible reading. The angel told him his prayers would be answered and asked him what he wanted. Cayce allegedly replied that most of all he wanted to be helpful to others, especially sick children. On advice of this same mysterious “lady” he found that if he slept on a school textbook, he would absorb all its knowledge while he slept and he soon became an exceptional student.
By 1892 Cayce was giving “readings” in his sleep relating to people’s health issues, although he tried to support himself with a number of day jobs. Although he never charged for a “reading” at one of his sleep sessions, eventually followers donated enough money to support Cayce that he could concentrate on his readings, which began to expand from health issues in to metaphysics and prophesy.
He moved to Selma, Alabama from 1912 to 1925 and from then to his death in 1945 lived in Virginia Beach, but he was buried in his hometown of Hopkinsville. Edgar Cayce, unlike many mediums, was not dogmatic about his readings and advised people to accept them only to the extent they benefitted from them; likewise he always advised to test them against real world results. When awake, Cayce claimed no conscious memory of what he had said or why he said it. His utterings remain closely studied to this day and some say they have proven remarkably accurate.
Hopkinsville is in the heart of the Pennyrile region of southern Kentucky—or Pennyroyal as some more refined folk prefer to call it—and there is available for traveler’s a “Edgar Cayce Cell Phone Tour” of Hopkinsville, while the Pennyroyal Area Museum has devoted a good part of its exhibition space to Cayce and artifacts relating to him.
Hopkinsville, being part of Bell Witch Country, also celebrates the Old Girl in October every year. There is also the annual Edgar Cayce Hometown Seminar, usually held in March, which celebrates Cayce’s life and readings.
Although recent transplants to Middle Tennessee are only dimly aware of it, the Cumberland Valley and its surrounds were much fought over during the Civil War. Although that is not the origin of the phrase, this section of the South amply earned its moniker The Dark and Bloody Ground during the Late Unpleasantness. Many an old house is home to a resident ghost or two who date back to the dark days of the war. The causes of their continued residence on the mortal plain may differ, but as often as not it is due to their violent or untimely death, being cut down in the prime of life, often with great pain and the awareness they will never to see their loved ones again. Sometimes that agony and anguish are all that remain.
Such, it seems, is the case with Carnton Mansion, the grand home sitting on the southeastern outskirts of Franklin, Tennessee. The very name of the manse is suggestive of death, for in ancient Celtic tradition, a cairn or carn was a place where a warrior would be buried who had died with honor in battle. During the Civil War, late one Autumn day, the mansion would earn its name, a reputation that endures to the present day.
After the fall of Atlanta, Sherman planned his next move; ignoring the still viable Confederate Army of Tennessee, he would conduct a scorched earth campaign across Georgia, destroying everything in his path. Basically, it was an act of terrorism, designed to cow the white civilian population of the South into submission and break their will to resist. The Rebel army, now under General John Bell Hood, at first fenced with Sherman, attacking his rear and threatening his long supply line heading back northward towards Nashville. Then, when Sherman began marching south, Hood began marching north; a bold move not only to draw Sherman’s army after him but also to seize the mass of supplies stockpiled in the strategic city of Nashville; from there he could threaten many other places further north. It was a bold strategy and whatever historians may say about General Hood, he never lacked for either courage or boldness: “all lion” is how one postwar writer characterized him.
A small Union army was deployed to slow Hood as he marched northwards, to give time for the Yankees to gather more troops to defend Nashville. General John Schofield, a classmate of Hood’s from West Point days, was placed in charge of this Yankee force and basically his task was to hold the lion’s tail without being devoured. At Columbia, then Springhill and finally at Franklin, Schofield’s men conducted a fighting retreat. While most historians portray the Autumn Campaign as a done deal and that a Southern defeat was inevitable, in truth it was a very near thing. Had circumstances just been a little different at any point; had orders been obeyed, had the Yankees marched or fought just a little less heroicly; had one Yankee brigadier not disobeyed orders, or some Rebel pickets not been quite so fatigued—at any point just a feather-weight of difference in the chain of circumstance–and we would be celebrating John Bell Hood as a brilliant commander and victor. But that was not to be.
Others have chronicled the Autumn Campaign in great length; we needn’t go into it here. Our concern is with the aftermath. On the afternoon and evening of November 30, 1864, the two armies clashed on the outskirts of Franklin, Tennessee. Both sides fought and bled and died with uncommon courage, and by the early hours of the following morning the blood-soaked fields of Franklin found the Confederates in possession of the terrain. It was a Pyrric victory, however, for Hood’s army was decimated in the process: five generals, twenty colonels and thousands dead or grievously wounded, incapable of combat—all to fight the Yankee rearguard.
Even before the battle was over, however, the wounded began to make their way to Carnton Mansion, on the eastern flank of the battlefield. All through the night and on into the next day, the wounded and dead were brought in a steady stream to the stately antebellum mansion. The owner of the home, Randall McGavock, had served in the Confederate army but accepted a parole to look after his family and was a non-combatant; of course that did not prevent him from opening his home to the wounded.
By the following day, the dead were being piled in Carnton’s yard like cordwood; the back porch held the bodies of no less than five generals, while the moans of the suffering could be heard everywhere. For the dead and dying at Carnton, the victory at Franklin did not seem so glorious.
In time, the McGavock’s home was cleaned of the awful carnage and the blood—where it would go away. In one room that had served as the operating room for surgeons, try as they might, they could not wash or bleach the blood from the floorboards; the stains always came back and cannot be erased. They linger there to this day. There were other things that linger about Carnton as well; some of a spectral nature.
Inside the mansion, several spirits have been detected by successive occupants of the mansion and more recently by visitors as well. On the second floor, for example, a presence some called “the general” could be felt and occasionally seen. In the graveyard, even to this day, visitors sometimes spot a man in Confederate garb. Other spectres have been observed elsewhere in the mansion or on the surrounding grounds. Many are the eyewitness accounts that recount encounters with the ghosts of Carnton. Some of these apparitions are well known; others just passing shades, as anonymous as many of the graves on the grounds.
Many speculate about the sightings reported at Carnton; a few doubt them, most do not. What is certain, however, is that for many of the men who fought and died at Franklin on November 30, the Battle of Franklin will never be over.
Let’s see: we have looked at Thomas Jefferson and UFO’s and Abraham Lincoln and just about all things paranormal; let’s look at another Southern president’s supernatural encounters: George Washington. Since there is quite a bit out there about George and the uncanny, this promises to be a two part-er, at least.
Today we’ll look at the Washington Prophecy, which is as important as it has been underreported. This obscure incident from the American Revolution uncannily fore-shadows, not only the American Civil War, but possibly both world wars as well. For now for more about Washington and the Civil War, see Chapter 16 of Ghosts & Haunts of the Civil War.
Let us go back, then, to the winter of 1777, the “year of the three sevens” and the time when the American Revolution almost collapsed. It was a starving time for Washington’s army at Valley Forge: the troops were ill fed, ill clothed and freezing in their hovels. The Continental Congress, as Congress does today, did nothing to help. The well fed politicians were little concerned with those who were fighting and dying at the front; they were very concerned about protecting they and their rich patron’s wealth and privilege and not the Republic. The troops were starving, barefoot, were not being paid and on the verge of mutiny. Washington begged and pleaded for blankets, clothing and food, all to no avail; he was in fact on the verge of resigning as commander of the army. Against this background occurred an uncanny incident which has long been rumored about, but which we have a lone witness to its truth.
Our sole source for this incident was a soldier named Anthony Sherman. His account was first published in the 1840’s, in an obscure journal now unobtainable at any price. Fortunately, his account was reprinted after the Civil War in the National Tribune, a newspaper published for the benefit of Union veterans, mainly to enable them to get pensions from the Federal Government. As with the VA today, veterans and widows were often frustrated dealing with the government that they had defended, fought, and died or were disabled protecting. His account, having been told well before the Civil War, gains additional credibility thereby.
Sherman (no relation to the general) was an ordinary soldier, posted to Washington’s headquarters at Valley Forge at the time. One day, General Washington emerged from his private quarters, where he had been alone for some time. Emerging visibly shaken, he began to relate what he had experienced to a trusted aide (Sherman does not say whom, but it was likely Alexander Hamilton). Sherman was close enough to the two to hear what Washington said, and what the general had to say remained seared into Sherman’s memory.
Washington, alone at the time, was in his office praying. Now in normal times Washington was not an overly religious. Washington was a product of the enlightenment, when most educated gentlemen regarded God (if they regarded him at all) as a sort of divine “clock-maker” who wound up the universe and then stood back and watched it move on its own. However, the winter of 1777-78 was “the time that tries men’s souls” and that winter Washington if fact prayed quite a bit for divine guidance.
Washington was in his office, alone, when he became aware of a presence in the room. He said it was “a singularly beautiful being,” with whom the general tried to communicate. After he addressed the figure several times, she finally responded. The room’s walls seemed to disappear and his surroundings became luminous.
‘Son of the Republic, look and learn,’ she said to Washington, and then spread out her hand in a sweeping gesture several times. Each time an angelic being dipped water from the ocean and cast it over the continents of Europe, America, Asia and Africa. On the third such cast “from Africa I saw an ill-omened specter approach our land,” Sherman heard Washington say. The imagery as reported later was complex; visions of war and destruction, the blasting of trumpets and other scenes which seemed to presage war and ultimate victory. Clearly, at least part of this version related to the Civil War.
Not surprisingly, ever since this account was first published, there have been professional debunkers ever eager to disprove its veracity. One industrious researcher located the records of a young officer of the Revolution and triumphantly announced the story a fake, because the Anthony Sherman in question had been at Saratoga and not at Valley Forge. Of course, debunkers always go for pat answers and the fact that there very well may have been more than one soldier named Sherman in service during the American Revolution never entered his closed mind. Any researcher or genealogist dealing with old records is aware how fragmentary such records often are: muster lists and service records get lost, court house archives burn up in fires and the like. But the professional debunkers prefer to ignore such realities in their quest to prove their a priori assumptions.
When dealing with prophecy, of course, we are always dealing with a two edged sword. Prophecies are generally committed to paper years after the events have come true, they often have cryptic symbolism and when based on only one reporter’s account it is easy enough to discount. In this case, while another version of the prophecy seems to have been previously published well before the war, that original publication, like many early American periodicals, has not survived. The earliest extant publication is by an erstwhile Philadelphia journalist and dates to the eve of the Civil War, when many such prophecies about the onset of war were in the air.
Even so, the account as published on the eve of war related to far more than just the onset of the Civil War. For one thing, “the singularly beautiful being” also says to Washington, ‘Son of the Republic, the end of the century cometh; look and learn.’ If this were just propaganda meant for the northern public on the eve of Civil War, why would it refer to future generations?
Moreover, the beatific being also interprets the visions he has seen thusly: ‘Son of the Republic, what you have seen is thus interpreted. Three great perils will come upon the Republic. The most fearful is the third, but in this greatest conflict the whole world united shall not prevail against her.’
While the first conflict she mentions is easily dismissed as the Civil War, the second and third are not. While one can put whatever spin on them one wants, it takes no Nostradamus to interpret the second and third “perils” as the two world wars, and the third conflict in particular as World War II, which was indeed the “greatest conflict” and where indeed for a time it seemed the Axis Powers would take over the “whole world.” The professional debunkers of this prophecy conveniently leave out these parts of the prophecy, which clearly do not fit their smug theories and which, if they do not “prove” it, certainly give the prophecy much greater credibility to the modern reader.
As to who or what the “singularly beautiful being” may have been, several theories have been put forward. Some say the apparition was an angel; others say it was the Virgin Mary, who has been known to appear and deliver prophecies in that manner; more recently, the show Ancient Aliens theorized that she was an Alien (of course). However, the 1859 version makes no such assertions, so the reader is left to add their own speculations to the others.
Of course, as with any prophecy, one is free to believe or disbelieve, or to interpret it as one wishes. However, prophecies, it should be remembered, are not inevitable–they are warnings. While one can always ignore a warning, it is generally not wise to do so.
While I normally write on paranormal topics rather than on UFO’s, where they involve a Dixie mystery, I sometimes make a detour to investigate various unexplained aerial phenomena. For example, in Strange TalesI researched the time one or more UFO’s buzzed the Tennessee Valley at the beginning of the twentieth century (multiple reports of that) and also rare Fortean falls of blood and gore in Tennessee and Kentucky. In Dixie Spirits I reported on a close encounter in West Virginia that Joe Nichol and his professional cynics have tried to explain away with a unique combination of arrogance and ignorance. Moreover, down in Pascagoula, Mississippi, I have written about the “singing river” mystery, of which I reported only a fraction of the weirdness known from that area; while I didn’t bring in any theories about alien beings being responsible, others have, citing numerous UFO, USO and close encounters in the area; what the truth behind all that phenomena around Pascagoula may be is still unresolved, but definitely something is, or has been, going on there that defies ordinary scientific explanation.
While there is a certain overlap between paranormal phenomena, cryptozoology and UFO’s, as a rule these are discrete and separate fields of inquiry. For one thing, most scientists do not take paranormal or supernatural accounts seriously and tend to dismiss them all, either as hoaxes or “delusions of the masses” when they can’t rationalize them away; whereas most scientists take the possibility of extraterrestrial life quite seriously, even if they might not accept the evidence of UFO investigators. The SETI program is quite well funded and other scientific programs have also been searching the skies for proof of life elsewhere in the universe—even on mars.
So when I learned of Thomas Jefferson’s own interest in unsolved celestial phenomena, it piqued my interest. Jefferson was very much a man of the enlightenment and he kept an open mind to many mysteries that lacked easy answers. He was one of the first, for example, to recognize that mammoths and mastodons roamed America and it is not generally appreciated that one of the goals of the Lewis and Clarke expedition was to go “looking for the elephant” and see if any still lived in the unexplored western territories at that time.
So we should not be surprised when, in 1800, Jefferson learned of a strange aerial sighting, he was moved to publish a report of it in a scholarly journal. We are beholden to Thomas J. for an accurate account of one sighting in Louisiana. Jefferson’s original correspondent was a gentleman planter named William Dunbar, a Scotsman by birth and a naturalist, astronomer, ethnologist and explorer living in Natchez, Mississippi at the time. In searching the Jefferson Papers, it turns out that one part of Dunbar’s missive to Jefferson survived, on Indian sign language, but not apparently his separate enclosure on the UFO, so we just have Jefferson’s summary of it. Like Jefferson, however, I will attempt to give an objective account of the sighting without too much speculation.
On night of April 5, 1800, an object was seen pass over Baton Rouge. It came from the southwest, flying low overhead and moved at an extremely high rate of speed, disappearing out of sight within a quarter of a minute. Eyewitnesses described it as being “as big as a house” and 70-80 feet long and being only some 200 feet above their heads when it passed.
It was described as being “wholly luminous but not emitting sparks” and Jefferson gives a vivid description of its luminosity: “of a colour resembling the sun near the horizon in a cold frosty evening, which may be called a crimson red.” When it passed overhead a considerable degree of heat was felt “but no electrical sensation,” by which I take Jefferson to mean that it was not ball lightening or similar phenomena. Immediately after it passed to the northeast a violent rushing noise was heard, indicating it was passing faster than the speed of sound; apparently the force of its passage bent trees before it and a few seconds later a loud crash was heard, “similar to that of the largest piece of ordinance” and a shock, like an earthquake, was felt as well.
Observers rushed to where the object landed and while the area plant life was burnt to a crisp and the ground much torn up, apparently there was no object found and Jefferson’s description does not indicate an impact crater either. What was it? Well, the simple answer would be a meteor of some sort. But if so, why was no debris from it found. Curious onlookers swarmed the area apparently, but no follow up report of finding a meteorite or fragments thereof were found. It was obviously very large and low flying, so one would expect a considerable zone of destruction if it had exploded above the ground, along the lines of the Tunguska explosion in 1909. Yet apparently that was not the case, since the nearby witnesses lived to tell the tale. Another curious fact emerges from Jefferson’s report; it sounds as if it were flying almost parallel to the ground; surely most meteors or other space debris would be falling at an acute angle, if not a near vertical angle.
I myself have seen a bright object come down a few years back. To the best of my knowledge no one else saw or reported it and it made no sound; like Jefferson’s UFO it disappeared within a few seconds. But it descended at a forty-five degree angle and while luminous it was not close to the ground. It may have been a small, bright meteorite, for if it been the size of Jefferson’s object it would have been noticed when it impacted. Of course, we cannot be certain that Jefferson’s object did indeed crash; it may have exploded mid-air and disintegrated into nothingness. Then too, it may have pulled up at the last moment and climbed up out of its gradual but supersonic descent; but if the latter, it would have to have been a manned craft and not simply some inert rock or fragment of a comet. This may have been the first such sighting, but apparently it was not the last. Checking recent accounts, there are evidently quite a few sightings of strange lights and aerial phenomena in the Baton Rouge area, pretty much ongoing, some of which have been recorded by camera or cellphone.
In an article on the University of Chicago website, Penelope, the blogger makes a similar point to mine, only does some interesting calculations:
Distance from impact:
porous stone: 1500 kg/m3
maybe a bit more if some kind of craft, i.e., a semi-hollow metal object
The U. of C. blogger notes that: “if it was a house-sized object coming in at a meteoric speed, it would have been a huge event, with no survivors for miles, flattened trees, etc.” They point out that the object which created Arizona’s Meteor Crater would have been about 50 meters in size, or only about twice the size of the object reported by Dunbar. So, where’s the beef, as it were?
In the end, Jefferson’s report of a UFO leaves more questions than answers. What was it? Did it somehow recover from its rapid descent and peel off, leaving only burnt vegetation and blasted ground behind? Well, the honest answer is we simply don’t know and unless more information surfaces, we must continue to categorize it as an unidentified flying object.
Thomas Jefferson, Transactions, American Philosophical Society, vol. 6 Part 1 (Philadelphia, 1804), p. 25. Jefferson mentions an illustration, but none of the sources I consulted had it.
While I write true accounts of supernatural places and things, I am as fond as the next person of a good horror story, not to mention credible science fiction or well executed fantasy (the latter category, I’m afraid, is rarely well executed though). However, as I am hip deep in true accounts of the paranormal—or at least what I believe to be true—I get miffed at the widening gap between supernatural fictional and the real thing. Fiction writers are certainly entitled to use literary license in crafting their tales to entertain us and after awhile, I understand it gets difficult to come up with something new and original in the horror genre; but I also think tales of the supernatural should have some relationship to reality, however remote.
So today, boys and girls of all ages (as they used to say), we are going to provide a bit of a reality check—or surreality check—and correct some misconceptions which have arise about the undead, or at least in folk beliefs about them, versus the ever growing pop myths that seem to have snowballed out of control in recent years. I don’t expect to change any minds in Hollywood, much less in the ComiCon universe, but I least I can provide a bit of fresh air here and there to the stale stereotypes that have become dogma in pop horror.
I have met many people, from all walks of life, whom I believe have genuinely experienced some kind of paranormal event. I do not have much truck with professional psychics, but I have on rare occasions met or known people who may well have genuine psychic abilities. While there are a lot of fakers around, and even more self-delusional believers, unlike the professional debunkers, I am willing to genuinely keep an open mind about the many phenomena which science is unable to adequately explain. And there is a lot out there which science can’t explain.
So it is with accounts of the undead, a generic term for the belief that dead bodies may sometimes, somehow, reanimate. There are accounts I have come across which are credible enough for me to be willing to consider the possibility, even if hard evidence may be lacking, or if most of it is more folklore than fact. Can such things be? I don’t know for certain; of all paranormal phenomena it is the most elusive and even credible cases are few and far between. Yet western society, not to mention other world cultures, has a deeply engrained believed that such a thing is possible. One only to look to the New Testament and the story of Lazarus, as an example that the claim of bringing the dead back to life has been made. If you believe in the Bible, then you cannot reject the notion out of hand. Outside of Christianity, of course, there were people who were called necromancers—a type of sorcerer who specifically claimed to be able to reanimate dead corpses—although not necessarily with the soul still in it. So this whole thing is not a recent invention of some Hollywood hack; it has a background, a tradition, even if the hack writers have much abused it lately.
Modern pop horror is silly with stories of both zombies and vampires, both of which have a solid grounding in western beliefs, and it is these two types of undead which we are focusing on presently and which I propose to vent my peeves upon.
First off, let us deal with the notion that vampires can be good or romantic, or somehow friendly or misunderstood. There are whole rows of paperbacks in bookstores dedicated to vampire romances these days, even broken down into equally popular sub-genres, such as teenage vampire romances. If there are such things as vampires that roam the night, let us understand what they really are: they are dead bodies, lifeless corpses, which have been reanimated by a demonic spirit. Nothing more, nothing less: so any notion that they are somehow misunderstood or lost, or in need of your company, is utter nonsense.
The belief that a malevolent spirit can somehow occupy a dead corpse originated in Eastern Europe in the Dark Ages and goes back to the split between the Eastern Church and the Western one. In Christianity one of the seven sacraments is Extreme Unction or Last Rights and while it can be administered to almost anyone who feels in need of spiritual healing, it has traditionally been administered to the dying. The trouble came in when they tried to determine how late one could administer the sacrament to a dying person; in other words, when does the soul leave the body? In the Western Church, they used the rule of up to one hour after clinical death; however, the Eastern Orthodox Churches were quite a bit more generous as to how long the soul might reside in the dead body and allowed up to thirty days to administer the sacrament.
But in those thirty days, especially in a colder climate, the dead flesh may still be viable and without visible signs of decay. What if the soul leaves the corpse; don’t you then have an empty vessel, suitable to be occupied by something else? Enter the vampire: an empty vessel reoccupied, not by the soul of the deceased, but by a demonic entity which has the power to reanimate the corpse and imitate the living. It is in the nature of demons to roam the earth seeking the ruin of souls; what better way to do so than to take the shape of a deceased and pass among human society with its true nature undetected? The business about sucking blood was a later addition: it is the life force which a demon seeks to drain and blood, itself a mysterious substance, is but the symbol of that life force. Novelist D. H. Lawrence wrote about “emotional vampires:” these are flesh and blood humans, not dead corpses, who gain strength and vitality by draining others of their emotional sense of well being. Doubtless we have all encountered an “emotional vampire” at one time or another and just not realized it: a co-worker or a relative who seems to leave all those around them drained of energy or strength. This is not supernatural, but I’m afraid is all too common.
Many years ago I read an account by the famed archaeologist A. J. B. Wace, the noted excavator of the city of Mycenae, famous from Homeric legend. He was engaged on a survey once in a less explored part of Greece, seeking out Late Bronze Age tombs. Most of the tombs had long ago been robbed of their contents, nut he came across one where the skeleton was still intact, with a bronze arrowhead still lodged in the chest where the heart would have been. With nothing else of value left in the tomb, Professor Wace took the arrowhead and also removed the skull from the skeleton for anthropological analysis. He thought nothing of the days work, until that night, and on succeeding nights, his camp was disturbed by an invisible intruder, apparently intent on vandalizing the camp. Professor Wace and his British team could make no sense of it as they had found nothing of value worth stealing; but the local Greeks workers claimed to know what was afoot: the excavators had taken the skull of a vrykolakas—the Greek version of the vampire.
People who have led a sinful life, who have been excommunicated or been buried in unconsacrated ground; all these are potential causes for a corpse to reanimate and become a vrykolakas. The activities of the vrykolakas are almost always harmful, although they may seem tame compared to the Hollywood version: it varies from merely leaving their grave and “roaming about” at night, to engaging in poltergeist-like activity, up to causing epidemics in the community. One local villager even claimed to have seen a headless skelton walking along the dirt track that led from the tholos tomb where had Wace gotten the skull and arrow towards their camp. The disturbances in camp nightly became more violent and were threatening to disrupt the expedition; so even though the British team had seen nothing themselves, they discretely put the skull back in the tomb and replaced the arrowhead in the ribcage of the skeleton. Once done, the disturbances ceased as suddenly as they had begun and for years afterwards the Greek villagers referred to the incident as “St. George the Vampire.”
In Strange Tales of the Dark and Bloody Ground, I relate the case of the discovery of a corpse in East Tennessee where the body was almost perfectly preserved but had a wooden stake through its heart—the traditional method of disposing of a vampire. I was at a loss to explain it, since vampires are traditionally an Eastern European or Near Eastern phenomenon and Anne Rice’s novels notwithstanding, not generally present in the South. However, after the book was published, I came across a reporter for a Tennessee newspaper whose family were of Armenian extraction and sheinformed me that in the earlier part of the twentieth century—about the time of the discovery of the “Vampire of Bradley County”—that there were indeed Armenian folk in that part of the South. In Armenia they tell of the Dakhanvar who dwells in the mountains and sucks the blood from the soles of peoples feet. So perhaps the mountains of East Tennessee have their own Dakhanvar. Who knows?
Insofar as that other popular undead monster goes, the zombie, the evidence, of sorts, is actually much better—although, here again, not what Hollywood would have you believe. I credit George Romero with his black and white B movie horror classic, Night of the Living Dead, for having introduced the business of zombies becoming cannibals. I grant you it was a stroke of genius and upped the horror level of zombies immensely: but really people, can’t you think of something original here? Everyone since Romero has basically been ripping his idea off. I will confess that I and most of my family do following the Walking Dead series on TV, which is exceptionally well rendered; but in general, the cannibal zombie plague trope is way, way overdone and I sincerely hope Hollywood will give this one a rest very soon.
That being said, there is in fact some basis to the traditional Voodoo belief in zombies. It has long been believed that Voodoo practitioners can curse people to death and that if they are really in need of household help, will dig up the corpse and, via their magical powers, reanimate the corpse. Several years back, an anthropologist studying Voodoo in Haiti uncovered persons who were believed to be zombies. The real zombie, I should add, is not cannibal, or anything like it; it serves a master’s bidding, mostly doing hard manual labor. In theory, unlike the vampire, a zombie is an empty vessel: it has no soul but it also has no demonic spirit inside. It is just a mindless automaton, a piece of dead flesh made to do drudge work. The anthropologist, however, did not find any walking dead; rather, he found persons who had been slipped a mickey by the local witch-doctor, gone into a death like trance, even been buried, then dug up and kept under the influence of the drugs and been virtually turned into slave labor. Are there such things as genuine zombies out there somewhere? I don’t know; but I certainly hope not.