“PROJECT BLUE BOOK”, “THE CREATURE OF COFFS HARBOUR” and More Creepy True Stories! #WeirdDarkness
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IN THIS EPISODE: Ufology might seem like a fringe science — but it’s a fringe science our government knows all too well. (Project Blue Book) *** Life in Victorian times was considerably more dangerous than now, if the newspaper reports of the time are anything to go by. (The Art of Dying in Victorian Times) *** It’s easy to a consider single witnesses of a big hairy creature as mistaken or confused, or even fraudulent, as if a practical joke. But add a second witness to the same sighting, and suddenly the encounter becomes a lot more believable. (The Creature of Coffs Harbour) *** Did Mother Damnable—aka Mary Ann Boyer, Seattle’s original taskmistress —really turn to stone after her death in 1873? (The Madam Who Turned To Stone)
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“The Creature of Coffs Harbour” by Tony Healey and The Cropster for The Fortean: http://bit.ly/35BHO6W
“The Art of Dying in Victorian Times” by Maria Pinheiro from The Occult Museum: http://bit.ly/35BIoSa
“Project Blue Book” by Orrin Grey: http://bit.ly/2VLjomI
“The Madam Who Turned to Stone” by Bess Lovejoy for The Stranger: http://bit.ly/2Mg6ES5
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Are UFOs real? The answer probably depends on what you mean by ‘real,’ but whatever those strange lights and shapes in the sky might actually be, there’s no denying that the government has spent a surprising—or perhaps unsurprising, depending on where you fall with regards to various UFO conspiracy theories—amount of time and energy trying to remove the “Unidentified” from “Unidentified Flying Objects.” Reports of UFOs have been with us since before the dawn of human flight, and exploded into the popular consciousness largely following the Second World War, during which time pilots described encounters with unidentified flying objects that were sometimes nicknamed “foo fighters,” a term thought to have been borrowed, at least in part, from the Smokey Stover fireman comics of the 1930s. In light of recently-publicized reports of UFO sightings by members of the Navy from 2014-2015, we’re cracking open the vault to shed some light on the history of Project Blue Book, the American government, and UFOs.
I’m Darren Marlar and this is Weird Darkness.
Welcome, Weirdos – this is Weird Darkness. Here you’ll find stories of the paranormal, supernatural, legends, lore, crime, conspiracy, mysterious, macabre, unsolved and unexplained.
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Coming up in this episode…
Life in Victorian times was considerably more dangerous than now, if the newspaper reports of the time are anything to go by. (The Art of Dying in Victorian Times)
It’s easy to a consider single witnesses of a big hairy creature as mistaken or confused, or even fraudulent, as if a practical joke. But add a second witness to the same sighting, and suddenly the encounter becomes a lot more believable. (The Creature of Coffs Harbour)
Did Mother Damnable—aka Mary Ann Boyer, Seattle’s original taskmistress —really turn to stone after her death in 1873? (The Madam Who Turned To Stone)
Ufology might seem like a fringe science — but it’s a fringe science our government knows all too well. (Project Blue Book)
While listening, be sure to check out the Weird Darkness website. At WeirdDarkness.com you can sign up for the newsletter to win monthly prizes, find paranormal and horror audiobooks I’ve narrated, watch old horror movies for free, plus you can visit the “Hope In The Darkness” page if you are struggling with depression or dark thoughts. You can find all of that and more at WeirdDarkness.com.
Now.. bolt your doors, lock your windows, turn off your lights, and come with me into the Weird Darkness!
PROJECT BLUE BOOK
The first known large-scale study of UFO phenomena by the United States government began in 1947, under the name Project Sign. But even that wasn’t the first time a world government had attempted to get to the bottom of UFOs. A year before, the Swedish military had collected more than two thousand reports of “unidentified aerial objects” over Europe, referring to the sightings with evocative nicknames like “Russian hail” and “ghost rockets,” referring to the fact that many in the Swedish military believed the objects to be Russian tests of German rockets which had been captured during the war.
According to some sources, including US Air Force Captain Edward J. Ruppelt, the first director of Project Blue Book, Project Sign’s findings were written up in a report known as the Estimate of the Situation, which concluded that many of the flying saucers spotted in the skies were real craft and likely not of this earth. This report was supposedly forwarded to the Pentagon, but was ordered destroyed due to “lack of physical evidence.” In the years since, USAF officers have denied that the Estimate ever really existed, and it has been called the “Holy Grail of ufology.”
From 1966 through 1968, the United States Air Force funded the University of Colorado UFO Project, informally known as the Condon Committee, under the direction of physicist Edward Condon. The Condon Committee examined not only the data gathered by Project Blue Book, but also information from civilian organizations such as the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena and the Aerial Phenomena Research Organization.
The University of Colorado UFO Project released its findings under the formal title “Scientific Study of Unidentified Flying Objects” in 1968. The so-called Condon Report was more than a thousand pages long and is considered by many UFO skeptics to be the definitive word on the scientific study of ufology. In it, Condon writes that, “Our general conclusion is that nothing has come from the study of UFOs in the past 21 years that has added to scientific knowledge.”
So, are UFOs evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence visiting Earth? According to the Condon Report, probably not. Before the report was even completed, the USAF had already tasked the National Academy of Sciences with independently assessing the report’s methods and conclusions. Their findings? That the “hypothesis of extraterrestrial visitations by intelligent beings” provided the “least likely explanation of UFOs.”
Partly as a response to the findings of the Condon Report, Project Blue Book was ordered shut down in December of 1969. While the project, like those before it, ultimately found a few instances of genuinely unexplainable phenomena, it chalked most of the thousands of UFO reports it studied up to misidentifications of either natural phenomena or conventional aircraft, though some of those “conventional aircraft” may have included somewhat unconventional planes that only later went into more common use, such as the then-experimental Lockheed A-12.
At the end of the day, the auspices of Project Blue Book were never officially to prove or disprove the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence. Rather, the project was tasked with determining whether UFO sightings were of phenomena that indicated a threat to national security or a heretofore unknown technological development. Their decision, on both counts, was no.
Today, the more than 12,000 UFO reports collected and studied by Project Blue Book are publicly available under the Freedom of Information Act, so dedicated ufologists can look them over and come to their own conclusions. According to FBI records, an organization calling itself “The New Project Blue Book” contacted the FBI in 1989. On the FBI website are partially-redacted scans of several letters concerning this organization, including one which ends with an ominous PS: “As a sort of ‘ultimate’ challenge—why not ask President Bush, himself?”
Multiple witness yowie cases are always interesting. It’s easy to consider single witnesses as mistaken or confused, but add an extra witness and that possibility becomes a lot less likely.
One impressive dual witness sighting took place just outside Coffs Harbour, N.S.W. in March 2017. Coffs Harbour is a small coastal town located around 540 km north of Sydney. The primary witness – who we will call ‘Dave’ (real name on file with The Cropster and the AYR) – contacted the AYR a few days after his experience and I interviewed him and his wife shortly afterwards.
In September 2016, Dave and his wife Jenny purchased several acres just off a main road around 30km from Coffs. There was plenty of bush nearby and big trees along a creek that ran through the property. The night before the sighting they were woken by their two large, well-trained dogs barking excitedly. That seemed strange because they normally didn’t react to native animals.
On the following evening, shortly after 7 pm – just before dark – they were walking the dogs on a long strip of crown land that runs up a slope adjoining their property. Over a nearby fence, a horse was grazing in a paddock covered with long grass.
Dave takes up the story:
“We walked up beside the paddock, turned around and came back, and we were just walking and talking – and I saw this thing. It was running through the paddock, and we were trying to work out what it was.
“It was getting closer, running on a 45-degree angle past us, because it was heading for these little trees that are nearby. It was [about] 100 metres away, and all I thought was, ‘What’s this thing got around its head? It had this square sort of head, and as it got closer we saw its arms. The grass was quite high so I only noticed the top [of its body]. And as it was running past, Julia said, ‘It’s running upright – what is it?’ And I’m like: ‘Bigfoot?’ It looked like Bigfoot! [Laughs]
“It came running down the hill at 100 miles an hour; it was moving its arms – big, thick arms – big, thick shoulders – it was really thick and wide and was a light brown colour. It was hairy – like a long-haired dog that hasn’t been brushed. When it got closer I could see the hair on its arms going over its hands. I didn’t see its face, but I could see clumps of hair on it.
“I’m six feet tall. This thing was way bigger than me … but it was so thick – too thick for a human – huge. It looked like it would have been way wider than a metre: maybe a metre and a half – hard to tell. It looked square-shaped … out of proportion. It wasn’t a human… I’m pretty big, but this thing would have made me look like a Chihuahua! It would have been a few feet taller than me, but it’s hard to say as it was on an incline in long grass – I wasn’t level with it.
“It felt like we were watching it for a long while, but it was probably 20 seconds or so. It was running from my neighbour’s property. He’s got a plant nursery up there, and might have fruit trees.” [Dave suspects that the creature was taken by surprise when he and Jenny suddenly turned around and retraced their steps: had they continued on, it would have crossed the paddock and entered the trees unseen].
He insists the strange figure couldn’t possibly have been a practical joker in a gorilla suit: “No – he was going too fast … and the detail in the hair … and for someone to wear a suit and run that quick without falling over would have been impossible. It was running downhill … a man in a suit would have lost balance and rolled down the hill. It was out of proportion to a human or any animal.
“It was running like Usain Bolt – way too fast for a human. It was just going! And as soon as it hit a couple of trees it disappeared. And I’m thinking, ‘Okay – we’ll get a better look at it when it gets past the trees.’
“Jenny went inside the house. She was a bit freaked out by it … and I stayed outside and just stood looking at this tree that it ran behind. I waited there until it got too dark. [And didn’t see it again]. I think it must have been [hiding behind the tree] that’s why I stood there looking at it – I didn’t take my eyes off it – but I didn’t see anything. But they are quite big trees they have been planted in a line and [the yowie] just could have found its way back to the bush without being seen … but it sort of disappeared into thin air: as soon as it hit the trees it was gone.
“We went to bed and got woken up during the night by a noise that we thought was our alpacas fighting, but they don’t make that noise: a weird, yelling sort of noise – really loud – and right in our backyard, just where the creek is. It was nearly a full moon, but when I got up to look I couldn’t see anyone down there.
“We went back to sleep and an hour later the same thing happened: the ‘yelling’, the dogs barking, so we didn’t sleep much that night. We haven’t heard it since.
“I went over to the tree next day and stood behind it, [it was big enough to have concealed the yowie] and found a footprint in some cow crap behind the tree. It was basically human shaped. There was an impression of a toe – a big toe impression. That’s what it looked like to me. You can’t really see it in the photos.
“My girlfriend is the greatest sceptic. I love watching those documentaries [about bigfoot] and she makes me turn them off. But when it happened she said, ‘It’s running upright – what is it?’ And when she said that, I thought, ‘It’s got to be a bigfoot! But when you see these things it’s freaky … then you think, well, no one really gets close to them and no one gets hurt by them, so they can’t be that bad.” [Laughs]
Although she was previously very sceptical about things like sasquatches and yowies, Jenny’s account of the incident corroborated that of her partner:
Jenny continues the story:
“I’m the biggest sceptic – I have absolutely no time for that sort of thing – previous to this! [Laughs]
“When Dave looked at something [in the paddock] and said, ‘Oh, look at bigfoot!’ I just said, ‘Oh God’ and rolled my eyes, but then I looked at the horse in the paddock and saw that it was looking at something – and there was this thing running upright. And I turned to Dave and said, ‘Why is it running upright?’
“It was very chunky – a big barrel of a body, big arms. I couldn’t distinguish a head sitting on a neck, if you know what I mean. If you see a human at a distance, you can distinguish a head, neck and shoulders. But this thing was just like a shape.
“The arms seemed to be pumping, swinging. I could see a fur or hair covering. It looked shaggy: longer than, say, a horse’s coat– stringy, shaggy. I interpreted the colour to be caramel-blonde.”
“I thought ‘Why aren’t the horses and cows freaking out?’ If I run full pelt towards any of our animals in the paddock they generally spook. But these seemed pretty calm – they were just grazing – they looked at it, turned back, and kept grazing – it was really strange.
“I’m about five foot seven. I think it would have been at least seven foot [but] it might have been eight or nine feet – but it wasn’t the height that got me so much as that it was so thick – so wide. It was too big and moving way too quickly to be a man in a suit.
“I have no idea what it was. I’m as sceptical as they come – but I know I saw something running upright in the paddock and I have absolutely no explanation for it. I don’t like speculating, but it was not a misinterpretation – it was not a cow, it was not a horse, it was not a person!”
Two witnesses – one open to the possibility and another completely closed. Yet both see and describe the same creature.
It might be worth noting that the way the huge creature “sort of disappeared into thin air” as soon ran behind the tree is very reminiscent of the inexplicable vanishing of the small yowie in Jiggi Valley in 2003.
As skeptical listeners pounce, gleefully, upon Dave’s mention of having watched many documentaries about the bigfoot/sasquatch mystery, I hasten to remind them that Jenny, who’d thought such programs utter rubbish, also clearly saw the huge, hairy biped cross their property.
Life in Victorian times was considerably more dangerous than now, if the newspaper reports of the time are anything to go by.
Plus… did Mary Ann Boyer really turn to stone after her death in 1873?
These stories are coming up when Weird Darkness returns.
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ART OF DYING
The Victorian era was a quirky one, especially when it came to death. For as obsessed as the Victorians were with vitality and beauty, they were just as fascinated with the art of dying.
Cholera outbreaks ravaged England and Europe throughout the late-19th century; typhoid and yellow fever sunk its claws into parts of America. Child mortality rates were on the rise.
And it certainly didn’t help when Queen Victoria entered a perpetual state of mourning upon the unexpected death of her husband Prince Albert. Albert died in 1861—the victim, according to his doctors, of typhoid fever. After his death, Victoria donned her black veil and left it in place until her death in 1901.
With mortality on everyone’s lips, it comes as no surprise that the newspapers of the day saw fit to report on the many strange demises that occurred throughout the world. Headlines boasting “A Strange Death” or “Mysterious Ending” littered papers on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean throughout the late 1800s. Some of these reports are particularly noteworthy for the curious circumstances surrounding the demises.
Here are nine of the strangest deaths that can be found in Victorian-era newspapers. May the poor souls rest in peace, despite their odd deaths having been forever immortalized thanks to the digital age.
It’s not everyday that someone attempts Tarzan-like tree acrobatics, but that is exactly what occurred on August 13, 1912, according to the Times of London.
A woman named Brooker was one of 205 patients at a hospital for the mentally impaired outside of London when she snuck away from supervision.
At first, no one noticed. It was only after the head attendant and nurses began their ritual head count that they realized Brooker had gone missing.
The staff tore across the hospital grounds searching for her, only to find Brooker up in a tree in the recreational yard. Desperate, they first stretched out a blanket into a safety net to break her fall. Yet Brooker refused to budge. The caretakers then placed a fire escape ladder against the trunk and gestured for her to come down.
Brooker promptly climbed to the top of the tree, glanced down at the gathering crowd below her, and took a leap of faith.
She fell toward the outstretched blanket. Unfortunately, “the force of the impact made the blanket touch the gravel beneath, and the woman’s neck was dislocated and the base of her skull was fractured.”
Her death was labeled “accidental” and no blame came to the asylum.
In 1881, Widnes, England, played host to an unfortunate string of events.
One October night, a man called Birchall assigned his servant, Hague, a rather simple task. There was a four-chamber revolver in Birchall’s home, and Birchall asked Hague to retrieve it. The pistol was to be a gift to a policeman.
Hague immediately set off to fetch the gun. He found it on a table, lifted it to his face for close inspection, and promptly shot himself through the mouth.
While a neighbor rushed to the scene with the police, a servant picked up the gun with the intention of demonstrating what had happened during Hague’s self-shooting. Then, in an absurd case of irony, the servant managed to duplicate Hague’s fate.
According to the Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette, “the firearm went off and shot her through the mouth. Both are dead.
Children are prone to placing random objects in their mouths, and Victorian children were no different. On October 1, 1897, one poor family living just outside of London in the village of Brockley learned how lethal this habit could be.
According to The Blackheath Gazette, a Mrs. Cereche had placed her darling girl, Alice, on the floor to crawl around. Not long after, Mrs. Cereche realized that young Alice had snatched something up from the floor and stuck the object in her mouth.
The infant began to cough and Mrs. Cereche began to panic. She called for her local doctor, Dr. Forster, who attempted to extricate the object from the infant’s throat to no avail. By 7:00 A.M. the following morning, Alice was pronounced dead.
It was not until Dr. Forster performed a post-mortem examination on the child that he discovered Alice’s cause of death: a brass paper fastener, caught in the infant’s windpipe.
Most would never think to worry over a little spring cleaning. According to one article from The Church Weekly, however, even the most mundane household task has the capacity to harm.
It was a cool spring morning in 1898 and Louisa Maria Langridge, a horse-keeper’s wife, set about tidying her house. She entered the scullery to wash some clothing. But when Louisa moved a bottle of liquid ammonia to another shelf, it exploded in her hand. The corrosive chemical splattered everywhere, soaking her skin and burning her face.
The article cites Dr. Edward Fish, the leading doctor at the local Guy’s Hospital. He had never before heard of ammonia exploding in such a fashion, but surmised that the heat generated by the scullery’s copper pot fire had caused the chemical to bubble up and burst from its bottle. Louisa’s official cause of death was bronchitis, caused by inhaling the ammonia vapor.
One peaceful morning on May 22, 1896, an unnamed French woman tended to her flower garden. While walking back into her house, she tripped and tumbled to the ground, a pair of garden scissors still gripped in her hand.
“Curiously,” as an article in The Westminster Budget claimed, “she stumbled and fell, so that the scissors in her hand went through her neck, severing the jugular vein.”
The wound was allegedly so severe that the poor woman died not three minutes later from the abrupt blood loss.
For one woman, Mary Agnes Lapish, the Australian outback proved too much to tackle after a long night of drinking. According to an 1893 article in the Sydney Morning Herald, Lapish stumbled her way down the streets of West Melbourne toward her neighborhood at Abbott Street, Moonee Ponds.
She never made it back to her bed.
The following morning, locals found Mary’s body suspended from a barbed wire fence. The City Coroner, Dr. Youl, remarked that an intoxicated Mary must have been trying to clamber over the fence when she slipped became twisted up in the wire, suffocating over the course of the night.
While an actor’s career often leads to challenging new roles, it’s unlikely that Anado Contreras wished to marry fiction with stone-cold fact when he went to work one night.
According to California’s The Daily Courier, the deadly performance occurred on April 25, 1888, in Arandas, Mexico. Contreras was putting on the performance of his life. He reached the part in the play in which he was meant to feign his death. He opened his mouth in preparation to declare the words, “I die, I die!” and subsequently perished of natural causes right there on the stage.
It’s uncertain how long the crowd sat there thinking that Contreras’ slump was just part of the play. Nor is it clear precisely when his fellow actors realized something was dreadfully wrong. In either case, Contreras never did leave that stage alive.
On a Wednesday night in 1892, Martha Roundtree was at work at a restaurant. She’d just finished cleaning the floors when she was struck by a terrible spell of sneezing. In fact, she sneezed so hard that her intestinal hernia ruptured, bursting a hole in her stomach.
Martha was whisked away to the hospital for surgery, where doctors did what they could. But by late Saturday afternoon of the same week, Martha was dead, as the operation proved faulty.
The Austin Weekly Statesman wrapped up the account succinctly: [Martha Roundtree] “now occupies a grave at the cemetery, the result of a sneeze.”
It was a lovely affair—until the champagne arrived.
According to a 1903 article in The Scranton Republican, a grand European ball turned deadly for one glamorous partygoer. Veronine was a Russian heiress attending a ball in Vienna, Austria, which happened to be set in a theatre.
While Veronine danced in the theatre pit below, a party-goer in one of the theatre boxes above made a terrible error: he bumped a champagne bottle off the box’s ledge and sent it plummeting to the crowd below.
The glass bottle fell 60 feet, striking the pretty heiress as she whirled about the dance floor. According to the article, Veronine died instantly, her life ended by a rogue champagne bottle.
Veronine’s inheritance subsequently went to a distant relative, as her father apparently suffered a “demented condition.”
THE MADAM WHO TURNED TO STONE
Mary Ann Boyer was a foul-mouthed woman of the sea. In the 1850s, she sailed with Captain David “Bull” Conklin on his whaling ship off Alaska, until he got tired of her nagging and abandoned her in Port Townsend. She made her way to the tiny village of Seattle and began running the Felker House, Seattle’s first hotel, a two-story structure at Jackson Street and First Avenue South whose pieces had been carried here in the hold of a ship. And after she died, Boyer’s bones soaked in the flooded earth of the old Seattle Cemetery. When they dug her up, the undertaker discovered that her body had turned to stone.
That’s the legend, anyway.
The real Mary Ann Boyer exists only in the scrawls of old census records, scattered accounts from early historians, and the reminiscences of an old admiral. The woman peering out from the balcony of the Felker House in a photo taken around 1868—a small, stout figure in voluminous petticoats—might be her, but we don’t know for sure. The Felker House, which some say was also a brothel, burned down in the Great Fire of 1889. Today, the city’s only mark of her is a grave in Lake View Cemetery, a flat headstone placed close to a road, supposedly because the men couldn’t carry her petrified body any farther.
They say she kept rocks in her apron to throw at people, and that she cursed constantly in five languages—English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Chinese, plus a smattering of German. That’s partly how she earned her nickname: Mother Damnable.
There are two main stories told of her life, and both involve her yelling at men. In 1854, Seattle’s territorial government held a lynching trial at her hotel, transforming her rooms into a makeshift court. They racked up a large bill for food and lodging, but when the prosecuting attorney demanded a receipt, Boyer flew into a rage. She filled her arms with wood for her stove and began hurling pieces of it at the lawyer, shouting, “You want a receipt, do you? Well, here it is!” As the pioneers told it, no one ever asked her for a receipt again.
The second story dates from the days when the US Navy’s Decatur was anchored in Elliott Bay, protecting settlers from hostile Native Americans. As part of their efforts to defend the settlement, the men of the Decatur tried to clear a new road through town. But every time they passed the Felker House, trouble met them in the form of Mother Damnable. (Some say the bushes they tried to chop down were essential for protecting the privacy of her establishment.) In his memoirs, the lieutenant of the Decatur, Thomas S. Phelps, called Boyer a “demon in petticoats” and “a terror to our people, who found her tongue more to be dreaded than the entire Indian army recently encamped in our front.”
Phelps describes his encounter with the “demon” this way: “The moment our men appeared upon the scene, with three dogs at her heels, and an apron filled with rocks, this termagant would come tearing from the house, and the way stones, oaths, and curses flew was something fearful to contemplate, and, charging like a fury, with the dogs wild to flesh their teeth in the detested invaders, the division invariably gave way before the storm, fleeing, officers and all, as if old Satan himself was after them.”
After several aborted attempts, the ship’s quartermaster, a man named Sam Silk and “a veritable old-time salt,” according to Phelps, confronted Boyer. When his speech about the necessity of the road was cut short by a torrent of abuse and a piece of wood aimed at his head, he changed his tack.
“What do you mean, you damned old harridan, raising hell this way? I know you, you old curmudgeon,” he said. “Many’s the time I’ve seen you howling thunder around Fell’s Point, Baltimore. You’re a damned pretty one, ain’t you?”
As Phelps tells it, “The effect was magical. With one glance of concentrated hatred at Silk, she turned and flew like the wind, scattering sticks and rocks on all sides, and, with her yelping dogs, disappeared within the house, never again to be seen by one of the Decatur‘s crew.”
This anecdote is one of the better pieces of evidence that Boyer was indeed a madam (she didn’t exactly keep public records). An article in the Pacific Northwest Quarterly by MOHAI’s public historian, Lorraine McConaghy, notes that Fell’s Point was then Baltimore’s red-light district. McConaghy also points out that Phelps compares Boyer to “a prototypical Madame Damnable, a Frenchwoman living at Callao, a seaport in Peru, who seems to have run a bordello there.”
In fact, while historians usually say Boyer’s nickname stemmed from her filthy language, the truth is more complex. The phrase “Mother Damnable” dates back at least to the mid-17th century in England; there’s a ballad called “Mother Damnable’s Ordinary” recorded by the London Stationers’ Registry in July 1656. According to the folklorist Steve Roud, a “flurry of mentions” of Mother Damnables occur around that time, and the term always refers to a madam or a witch. (It’s worth noting that settlers referred to Boyer as “Mother” or “Madam.”) When the settlers of Seattle dubbed Mary Ann “Damnable,” they probably weren’t just making reference to her foul mouth, but placing her within a particular tradition of unpleasant women.
Boyer’s unpleasantness, of course, is part of why everyone loves the story of her turning to stone. It seems like divine retribution, proof that God has a sense of humor. And yet the transformation also seems to prove that her stubbornness, her hard-as-nails attitude, carried on past the grave. While the rest of the city’s pioneer dead fell victim to worms, she grew ever more impenetrable.
And the tour guides, guidebooks, historians, and librarians who repeat this story aren’t making it up.
The tale goes back to undertaker Oliver C. Shorey, who founded what later became the funeral home Bonney-Watson, now the city’s oldest continually operating business. In 1884, Shorey got the contract to dig up the bodies from the old Seattle Cemetery, which was being turned into Denny Park. (The cemetery was known for flooding, leading the coffins to bob around in the ground and turning the bodies black.) In a Seattle Post-Intelligencer article from August 22, 1884, Shorey describes what happened when he dug up Boyer:
*****We discovered that the coffin was very heavy, weighing at least 400 pounds and it took six men to lift it out of the grave. On removing the lid to the coffin we found that she had turned to stone. Her form was full sized and perfect, the ears, finger nails and hair being all intact. Her features were, however, somewhat disfigured. Covering the body was a dark dust, but after that was removed the form was as white as marble and as hard as stone.*****
Shorey’s description makes no mention of the smile that some say beamed from Boyer’s face, and which makes her preserved body seem like that of an incorruptible saint. It’s also worth noting that he describes her coffin as weighing at least 400 pounds, not the 2,000 that is sometimes recorded. But the real question is, could she really have turned to stone?
It seems highly unlikely, given that she was underground for only 11 years. It’s more probable that her body was coated with adipocere, a substance sometimes called “grave wax” that can develop when fat decomposes in wet soil. Adipocere is not uncommon, and is often described as gray or white, although it’s usually a bit softer than stone—more like clay, plastic, or cheese. Yes, corpse cheese.
Shorey’s description of what he saw might also have been influenced by a peculiar 19th-century craze. When his shovel bit into the dirt of the Seattle Cemetery in 1884, reports of petrified corpses had been in the newspapers for years. The most famous case came in 1869, when two laborers discovered what appeared to be a 10-foot-tall stone giant buried on a farm in Cardiff, New York. (“I declare,” one of them yelled out, “some old Indian has been buried here!”)
The 3,000-pound “giant” was in fact a hoax perpetrated by a New York cigar maker named George Hull. An avowed atheist, Hull had recently gotten into an argument with a Methodist revivalist who claimed that giants had once walked the earth (hey, it’s in the Bible). Hull had decided to create his own giant out of gypsum, telling the men who cut the stone from a quarry near Fort Dodge that it was for a memorial to Abraham Lincoln. He swore everyone else involved to silence, and buried the figure on his cousin’s farm.
Sure enough, after the discovery, the townspeople beat a path to the farm, and Hull started charging admission. Before long, he’d sold the giant to a group of businessmen, who successfully fended off interest from P. T. Barnum. (When his offer was refused, Barnum made an exact copy and exhibited it in a New York museum. The new owner of the real fake giant, one David Hannum, supposedly coined the phrase “There’s a sucker born every minute” in reference to those who paid to see Barnum’s copy.)
Supposedly, Barnum even eventually tried to buy Boyer’s body.
A rash of copycat petrified corpses followed, made of substances such as limestone, concrete, and hardened gelatin. Even Mark Twain got into the act. The October 4, 1862, issue of Nevada’s Territorial Enterprise carried an article by Twain (then Samuel Clemens) “reporting” the discovery of a petrified man in the mountains south of Gravelly Ford. Apparently, every limb and feature of the fossilized man was perfect, “not even excepting the left leg, which has evidently been a wooden one during the lifetime of the owner.” Even though the “stony mummy” was described as having his “right thumb resting against the side of the nose” (that is, thumbing his nose), most of the newspapers that reprinted the story gave no hint that it was a hoax, encouraging the discovery of other petrified people across the land.
Such tales may go back to an 1858 hoax in the Daily Alta California, in which a letter from a local doctor described the misadventures of a prospector named Ernest Flucterspiegel, who turned to stone after drinking the fluid inside a geode. (Apparently, the man’s heart resembled red jasper.) Even newspapers of the early 20th century described petrified corpses, although, strangely, it’s not something you hear much about today. The 1860s were a time of intense interest in human origins (Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species was published in 1859), and many of the early petrified corpses were described as mind-bogglingly ancient. One, with the stub of a tail, was even briefly thought to be evolution’s “missing link.” Embalming also started in earnest in America only after the Civil War, and it’s possible that some undertakers weren’t used to seeing the condition of embalmed remains. In any case, Boyer’s petrifaction story reads vaguely like a fairy tale, and it secured her an immortality she might not otherwise have enjoyed.
Yet another story has it that Mary Ann Boyer was never moved at all, and she still rests beneath the grass at Denny Park. However, Shorey’s yellowed reburial register (kept at the Seattle Municipal Archives) records her removal in his careful cursive. Other records show that Boyer’s body was moved to the old Washelli Cemetery—which later became Volunteer Park—and then in 1887 to Lake View Cemetery, where she continues her slow decay today.
That is, unless she really did turn to stone.
SHOW CLOSE, CREDITS, A LITTLE LIGHT, AND A FINAL THOUGHT==========
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Do you have a dark tale to tell of your own? Fact or fiction, click on “Tell Your Story” on the website and I might use it in a future episode.
All stories in Weird Darkness are purported to be true (unless stated otherwise), and you can find source links or links to the authors in the show notes.
“The Creature of Coffs Harbour” by Tony Healey and The Cropster for The Fortean
“The Art of Dying in Victorian Times” by Maria Pinheiro from The Occult Museum
“Project Blue Book” by Orrin Grey
“The Madam Who Turned to Stone” by Bess Lovejoy for The Stranger
Weird Darkness theme by Alibi Music.
WeirdDarkness™ – is a registered trademark. Copyright ©Weird Darkness 2020.
If you’d like a transcript of this episode, you can find a link in the show notes.
Now that we’re coming out of the dark, I’ll leave you with a little light… “Anxiety weighs down the heart, but a kind word cheers it up.” – Proverbs 12:25
And a final thought… “You can suffer the pain of change, or you can suffer remaining the way you are.”
I’m Darren Marlar. Thanks for joining me in the Weird Darkness.