“THE CRIMINAL INVESTIGATION OF A UFO INCIDENT” and More Creepy True Tales! #WeirdDarkness
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IN THIS EPISODE: Hundreds of years after his death, the tomb of William Longespee was opened and what was found horrified the man who opened it… the skeleton of a black rat was found in the skull of Longespee – but that wasn’t the end of the story! (The Rat In Longespee’s Skull) *** Most people are superstitious to at least a tiny degree – avoiding walking under ladders, not opening umbrellas indoors, or having a tingle down the spine every Friday the 13th. Perhaps you have a favorite or “lucky” shirt to wear on special occasions – or a lucky pair of socks. Maybe you have to dress from left to right instead of the other way around. Superstitions may seem silly, but we seem to live with them everywhere – but your superstitions don’t hold a candle to the ones believed by those in the theater. Thespians on and off the stage have some pretty bizarre concepts about what is lucky and unlucky. (Strange Superstitions of the Stage) *** Viking sagas describe the ritual execution of blood eagle, in which victims were kept alive while their backs were sliced open so that their ribs, lungs, and intestines could be pulled out into the shape of bloody wings. The torture method was so grisly that some historians believe it never truly happened. We can only hope historians are correct, because the thought of someone going through it alive is unbelievably terrifying. (The Blood Eagle Viking Torture) *** Physicist Enrico Fermi famously asked the question “Where are they?” to express his surprise over the absence of any signs for the existence of other intelligent civilizations in the Milky Way Galaxy. Although many potential resolutions to this so-called “Fermi paradox” have been suggested over the years, there is still no consensus on which one, if any, is correct. We’ll look at some of the theories as to where E.T. might be found. (Where Might E.T. Be Hiding?) *** Only once in the history of law enforcement and ufology has there been a case where a UFO incident turned into an actual criminal investigation. We’ll look at the Dechmont Woods Encounter. (The Criminal Investigation of a UFO Incident)
SOURCES AND REFERENCES FROM THE EPISODE…
BOOK: “The UFO Mystery Solved” by Steuart Campbell: https://amzn.to/3OsXXnI
BOOK: “UFO Scotland – the Secret History of Scotland’s UFO Phenomenon” by Ron Halliday: https://amzn.to/3Y5nkiA
“The Criminal Investigation of a UFO Incident” by Marcus Lowth for UFO Insight: https://weirddarkness.tiny.us/562ntr6z; and IAN at Mysterious Britain and Ireland: https://weirddarkness.tiny.us/2p8ty2n8
“Where Might E.T. Be Hiding?” by Ben Gazur for ListVerse.com: https://weirddarkness.tiny.us/3yvx7adx
“Strange Superstitions of the Stage” by Amanda Boisen for Ranker: https://weirddarkness.tiny.us/36y34m7b
“The Rat In Longespee’s Skull” posted at The Haunted Palace Blog: https://weirddarkness.tiny.us/yjdxecmn
“The Blood Eagle Viking Torture” by William DeLong for AllThatsInteresting.com: https://weirddarkness.tiny.us/yckwkzew
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Hey, Weirdos. If you played “IDENTIFY THE IMPOSTER” on my Patreon page for tonight’s show, the story title that was a hoax and is NOT one of the stories tonight is: “Time Portal Plagiarism”
DISCLAIMER: Stories and content in Weird Darkness can be disturbing for some listeners and intended for mature audiences only. Parental discretion is strongly advised.
Bob Taylor’s encounter with the mysterious spheres in Dechmont wood near Livingston in Scotland, is probably one of the most written about cases of a close encounter in Britain. The case stands as one of the most intriging in British Ufology.
On the 9th of November 1979, at around 10.30 am, Robert Taylor, a forestry worker employed by the Livingstone Development Corporation parked his pick up off a track at the bottom of Dechmont Law, just off the busy M8 motorway. He walked up the lower slope of the forested hill with his dog, and as he emerged into a clearing an amazing sight greeted him.
Before him in the clearing was a large, circular, sphere like object about twenty feet across. It appeared to be made from a dark metallic material with a rough texture like sandpaper, parts of which were transparent. A narrow flange ran around the outside of the object.
As he approached, two spheres with protruding metal spikes in the manner of old navel mines dropped from the object. They were about three feet wide and made of the same dark metallic substance as the larger object.
The two spheres rolled towards him and flanked him, each rolling at the same time to his left and right foot. With his dog now barking furiously, the spikes attached to the Bob’s trousers and pulled him towards the larger sphere. Bob heard a distinct hissing sound and smelled an acrid smell that caused him to choke.
The next thing he knew he was coming round lying face down on the grass with his dog nearby. The strange objects had disappeared from the clearing, his legs were aching, his trousers were torn and he found he could not speak.
He crawled the rest of the way to his pick up and could not get it started, so had to walk the mile to his home in Livingston. His wife was at home when he arrived in his disheveled state and she quickly phoned the doctor and eventually the Police. The Police treated the matter seriously and returned to the site with Bob. They found ladder shaped marks in the soil where the craft was said to have stood, and marks following the path of the mine like objects.
Although there may be several possible explanations, what has been agreed is that Bob Taylor was a man of character, not given to fanciful stories. He never changed his account, never actively sought publicity, and never gained from any of the publicity generated at the time of the event.
The case remains to this day the only UFO encounter that became a criminal investigation. It is known as the Dechmont Woods Encounter.
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, the strange and bizarre, crime, conspiracy, mysterious, macabre, unsolved and unexplained.
Coming up in this episode…
Hundreds of years after his death, the tomb of William Longespee was opened and what was found horrified the man who opened it… the skeleton of a black rat was found in the skull of Longespee – but that wasn’t the end of the story! (The Rat In Longespee’s Skull)
Most people are superstitious to at least a tiny degree – avoiding walking under ladders, not opening umbrellas indoors, or having a tingle down the spine every Friday the 13th. Perhaps you have a favorite or “lucky” shirt to wear on special occasions – or a lucky pair of socks. Maybe you have to dress from left to right instead of the other way around. Superstitions may seem silly, but we seem to live with them everywhere – but your superstitions don’t hold a candle to the ones believed by those in the theater. Thespians on and off the stage have some pretty bizarre concepts about what is lucky and unlucky. (Strange Superstitions of the Stage)
Viking sagas describe the ritual execution of blood eagle, in which victims were kept alive while their backs were sliced open so that their ribs, lungs, and intestines could be pulled out into the shape of bloody wings. The torture method was so grisly that some historians believe it never truly happened. We can only hope historians are correct, because the thought of someone going through it alive is unbelievably terrifying. (The Blood Eagle Viking Torture)
Physicist Enrico Fermi famously asked the question “Where are they?” to express his surprise over the absence of any signs for the existence of other intelligent civilizations in the Milky Way Galaxy. Although many potential resolutions to this so-called “Fermi paradox” have been suggested over the years, there is still no consensus on which one, if any, is correct. We’ll look at some of the theories as to where E.T. might be found. (Where Might E.T. Be Hiding?)
But first… only once in the history of law enforcement and ufology has there been a case where a UFO incident turned into an actual criminal investigation. We’ll look at the Dechmont Woods Encounter. (The Criminal Investigation of a UFO Incident)
If you’re new here, welcome to the show! While you’re listening, be sure to check out WeirdDarkness.com for merchandise, my newsletter, to enter contests, to connect with me on social media, plus, you can visit the Hope in the Darkness page if you’re 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!
STORY: THE CRIMINAL INVESTIGATION OF A UFO INCIDENT=====
Police would treat Robert Taylor’s report regarding his apparent out-of-this-world encounter as a case of criminal assault. This would make the incident the only UFO or alien abduction case to be part of a criminal investigation.
It is highly probable that one of Scotland’s most famous UFO encounters sometimes referred to as the “Dechmont Woods Encounter”, involved the alien abduction of Taylor, or at least some kind of interaction.
Whether aliens whisked Robert Taylor off from the Dechmont Woods that cold morning or not, it remains one of the most interesting and genuinely strange cases on record.
On the morning in question, Robert Taylor decided to pull his vehicle to the side of the road so he could stretch his legs and allow his dog to do the same. He did so, on a quiet road near the M8 motorway.
It was around 10:30 am as he was walking through the woodland with the 7-year-old red setter, Lara. It was as he was coming up on a clearing among the fir trees that Taylor’s morning, and indeed his life, was about to take a drastic turn.
There, in front of him no further than 12 yards away was a “flying dome” or circular object that was suddenly in his line of sight. It appeared to be floating, slightly above the tops of the trees. The craft was close enough that he could make out the rough sandpaper-like texture of the black metallic material. An aroma of “burning brakes” suddenly seemed to fill the air.
He noticed two objects that had fallen to the ground from the main craft. Taylor would later describe these as looking like Second World War naval mines. Each of the strange objects had spikes all around them. They headed toward him – one to each side – making a strange noise against the ground as they moved. When they were level with him, an attachment with a spike on the end shot out of each one and attached themselves to each leg of his trousers.
Of more concern to Taylor, he could feel a pulling sensation on his body – as if the craft was dragging him towards it. He began to panic and pull back from it, but his body didn’t respond.
As this was happening, a rotten, choking smell filled his nostrils, immediately weakening his resistance to the pull as he gagged on whatever the aroma was. As he seemingly began to lose consciousness, the last sounds he heard was the unsettling hissing of the object and the agitated barks of Lara.
The next thing he knew, he was alone on the clearing floor. The object had vanished. As he picked up his face from the dirt and leaves of the forest floor, he noticed how severely his legs ached. He also realized he couldn’t bring himself to speak in an attempt to calm Lara, who was still barking somewhere in the immediate vicinity.
After gathering his thoughts, Taylor made his way to his vehicle. Although some time had passed, it stood in the spot he had left it. It was a short joy, however. Try as he might, the car would no longer start as if drained of power by an unknown source.
He would continue his journey on foot. When he arrived home, his family was aghast at his torn clothing, as well as the cuts and bruising to his face and arms.
He would inform his wife, Mary, bluntly that he had been “attacked by a spaceship” when she asked what had happened to him, herself in deep shock at the state of her husband.
Unsure what to do, Mary informed her husband’s employer and boss of the incident, Malcolm Drummond. He would always state that Robert was not a person to “make up stories!” He had no doubts whatsoever of his genuineness or lack thereof.
Drummond would order a search of the area where the incident took place using other forestry workers. However, there was nothing untoward discovered. That something had happened to Taylor, though, was surely beyond doubt. With this in mind, the Livingston Police were notified of the attack and would shortly arrive at the Taylor home to investigate.
Given that Taylor had been physically attacked – and he had the shredded clothes and marks to prove it – the police would treat the incident as a crime.
They had Taylor take them back to the site of the encounter so they could see it for themselves. Headed by Detective Inspector Ian Wark, they would discover strange “ladder-shaped impressions” on the ground where Taylor claimed the incident had unfolded. Furthermore, they also noted two “indentation” rows right where Taylor claimed the two spiked objects had moved toward him on either side seemingly corroborating his version of events of him being dragged toward the object.
His torn trousers went off for scientific analysis. The conclusion being that the damage appeared to be in line with a machine-like object gripping and pulling him. In short, every indication so far was that he was telling the truth.
The track marks of the machines and vehicles used by forestry workers in the area were all examined in an attempt to locate a match to the markings in the clearing where Taylor was attacked. None of them matched. Flight records of the air space over Livingston were also examined. No helicopters or small airplanes were overhead that day.
The grounds around where the incident had taken place were even examined in the event that evidence of a crane that might have lifted some kind of machine into the clearing might be found. No such evidence was uncovered, and with the ground being soft from the rain, these markings would have been clear.
Ultimately, although they could not explain the encounter, the police were certain of Taylor’s credibility. Inspector Lark stated that they had “no reason to doubt anything about what he was telling us”, adding that everyone they had spoken to who knew Taylor claimed he “just would not make up a story like that!”
Perhaps because of the police involvement, public interest in the encounter soared, with local and national media coverage. And as we might imagine, with the intense interest, many theories and suggestions as to what actually happened that November morning in 1979 also surfaced. If we take out the possibility that Taylor witnessed a genuine, extraterrestrial vehicle of some kind, what else might explain this most bizarre event?
Some would suggest that Taylor merely suffered an intense illusion, possibly due to an epileptic fit. However, there is no evidence of any such seizures in Taylor’s medical history. And even if something had triggered this one-off fit, it is highly unlikely that he would have recovered sufficiently as quickly as he did in order to walk home from where the incident occurred.
There have also been suggestions that ball lightning might be responsible for the incident, with Taylor perhaps coming too close and ultimately confused by what he was seeing. Once more, however, this explanation is hardly watertight. Not least as Taylor specifically recalled seeing a metallic, machine-like craft as opposed to ball lightning which, even then, would have been easy to identify.
There are others who wonder whether the “machine” witnessed that day was some kind of top-secret military vehicle. If this was the case, though, where was it produced, by who, and whose was it? Was the purpose of the attack on Taylor merely to allow this futuristic vehicle to escape? If this was the case, however, we might expect that something very similar would have entered the public domain in the decades since.
Might this not be a UFO but some kind of vehicle from another dimension, or even the ancient past, that appeared for a very short time due to some kind of rip in time and reality? Might there be some energy forces in this region of Scotland that somehow produce these portals that allow such vehicles to enter ours from another time or from other realms of existence?
Of course, there are some who believe the incident to be a very clever hoax – one designed to attract “UFO tourists” to the area for the financial betterment of the region. However, as Ron Halliday points out, this notion is “fanciful” simply because it was not beneficial for the region simply because the area was largely “industrial, urban Scotland” and, essentially, “not Loch Ness”. Besides, business opportunities were already well on their way to becoming “Scotland’s silicon glen – home to computer and associated industries”.
One skeptic of the case, Stueart Campbell claimed in his book The UFO Mystery Solved, (which I will link to in the show notes) that the markings discovered on the ground were likely from equipment being used in the area by water authority workers. However, when he spoke to these workers (who had indeed operated in the nearby area) they claimed that none of the equipment had been stored in the region Taylor had his encounter. Despite this, Campbell persisted that he “suspected” they were not being truthful, further suggesting they might have used the area to store equipment without permission. As Halliday points out, Taylor was a regular visitor to this area with his dog and claimed he had not once seen any such equipment in the area.
In short, the encounter remains both unexplained and difficult to dismiss convincingly.
There is no doubt that the Livingston Incident is one of the most intriguing and credible on record, whatever the truth of the sighting might one day prove to be. That something strange happened to the 61-year-old Taylor that cold morning in the Dechmont Woods is surely beyond doubt.
Ron Halliday writes that Taylor “made next to nothing (financially) out of the incident, and never tried to capitalize on his fame”. He would elaborate that Taylor even became “thoroughly fed up” with the persistent interest people had in the incident.
We might also note similarities to the Falcon Lake Incident 12 years earlier in May 1967 in the Manitoba region of Canada, in which 51-year-old mechanic, Stefan Michalak happened upon a similar craft in a clearing in the woods while searching for quartz crystal. He would report hearing a strange “hissing” sound, perhaps similar to that described by Taylor, and also complained of a noxious smell similar to sulphur, that he further described as “like burnt electric wiring”.
UFO researcher and former Ministry of Defense UFO Project director, Nick Pope, claims that the case offers “no middle ground!” It is his belief that Robert Taylor is a very genuine witness who had “little to gain and much to lose” by telling of the incident.
Robert Taylor passed away in 2007, but there remains an interest in his story. Not least, because of its apparent authenticity. Incidentally, Taylor would not alter his version of events at any point after the incident.
In the book “UFO Scotland: The Secret History of Scotland’s UFO Phenomenon” (which I have linked to in the show notes), Ron Halliday relays several other UFO incidents that took place around the same time as Robert Taylor’s encounter.
According to one such account told to Halliday, at around 8 pm the night before Taylor’s incident on the 8th November, a Mr. Ferguson was bringing his lorry to a stop in a layby when he saw a “strip of brilliants light” which was “shaped like a ruler” heading in the direction of the Dechmont Law region.
At around the same time, two brothers, Steven and Alan Little, witnessed a spherical, dome-shaped object in the Bellsquarry region of Livingston. The two brothers – who viewed the object from their home – estimated the craft was around 1200 feet from them, seemingly hovering around 150 feet above a nearby road. They would further recall that white, red, and blue lights ran around the outside of the vehicle. The strange craft remained in view for several minutes before it slowly faded from sight. All the while it remained completely silent.
Several hours earlier, at a little before 6 pm, Josephine Quigley, along with four of her friends, witnessed a “circle of lights” that were slowly rotating over the Livingston area. Although she couldn’t make out any intricate details, she did note that it moved too slowly to be a helicopter or an airplane.
The following day – the same day as Taylor ran into the strange apparatus in the woods – strange lights and objects continued to be witnessed by members of the public in and around the Livingston area.
During the morning rush hour, Graham Kennedy was heading west on the A89 road when his attention was captured by an extremely bright light passing overhead as he drove by Bangour Hospital. Even more alarming, the object appeared to head toward his vehicle at great speed, only changing direction at the last moment.
As Kennedy was bringing his car to a stop to avoid a collision following the fast approach of the strange object from above, a nurse, Anne MacGregor, was walking along the A89 on her way to work at Bangour Hospital. As she walked, a strange hissing sound reached her ears that appeared to be coming from above. As she turned her attention upward, she noticed a bizarre, bright light seemingly heading toward the Dechmont Law region. It appeared that the same, bright, yellow light was witnessed by a cyclist several minutes later.
At somewhere between 8 am and 4 pm, Mrs. Scott was stood waiting at a bus stop which faced the Pentland Hills. As she stared lazily ahead, she suddenly noticed a “round silvery object with flashing lights” hovering overhead. She turned to another lady also at the bus stop and asked her what she thought the strange object was. She wasn’t sure other than it was “something out of the ordinary”. As the two women watched the disc-like craft, it suddenly sped off in the direction of Dechmont Law.
The Mann family experienced a strange experience while driving home. Much like them, and Taylor, many others have found themselves suddenly involved in otherworldly incidents while driving on the sometimes lonely roads of the United Kingdom. One of the more interesting, and chilling, is the claims of Garry Wood, from August 1992.
Wood was driving along the A70 with his friend, Colin Wright. They were heading towards Lanarkshire at a little after 10 pm. Suddenly, a dark black object made its way into their line of sight high above them.
As they continued along the road, a bright “wall of light” descended in front of them. The two men appeared to be “caught in the headlights” of this strange light. They believe it was then that they blacked out. The next thing each of the men remembers is that their vehicle had come to a stop and the clock now read 11 pm. It also appeared that the car had changed direction, and now faced the opposite way they had been driving.
Understandably disturbed by the events, each of the men agreed to hypnotic regression. Their comments were both fascinating and alarming.
As their car came to a stop, their bodies stiffened in pain – as though they had received electric shocks. Three beings took the men from the car, and on to the black object, now on the ground. Both men would state the object was “very clearly a spaceship!”
Each was stripped of their clothes and subjected to intricate examinations. At the same time “red-hot poker-like objects” would explode into their eyes. Woods, in particular, said that screams of other people were audible around him.
They appeared to be in the same room.
One of the more recent of these types of accounts took place in January 2005. While driving along the A65-road in North Yorkshire, the Deverow family would share an experience that would change their lives.
Rachel Deverow, her sons, Benjy and Alex, and her mother, Anne, could all see a bright light hovering over their car. The clock read just after 5 pm. They continued on their way towards High Bentham when the light suddenly screeched towards them. In a flash, it then vanished! Shaken, but otherwise unhurt, the family went on with their journey, arriving home shortly after 6 pm.
It wasn’t until the following day that Rachel began to wonder just what had happened on their drive home. She would drive the route again. This time it would take only ten minutes to complete, while it took an hour the previous day. Either that or they couldn’t account for around forty-five to fifty minutes of time.
Reports on the local radio suggested that others had also seen the strange light that evening. Many callers went on air with their information. When Alex Deverow began to experience intense dreams, however, Rachel agreed to go under hypnosis to recover the memories she now suspected was residing in her mind.
Perhaps surprisingly, perhaps not, her testimony under hypnosis revealed all four of the Deverows were victims of alien abduction. Since the incident, they regularly witness strange lights over their farmhouse home. Whether those lights are simply sightings or further abductions, is a question still requiring an answer.
Physicist Enrico Fermi famously asked the question “Where are they?” to express his surprise over the absence of any signs for the existence of other intelligent civilizations in the Milky Way Galaxy. Although many potential resolutions to this so-called “Fermi paradox” have been suggested over the years, there is still no consensus on which one, if any, is correct. Up next, we’ll look at some of the theories as to where E.T. might be found. (Where Might E.T. Be Hiding?)
Plus… Viking sagas describe the ritual execution of blood eagle, in which victims were kept alive while their backs were sliced open so that their ribs, lungs, and intestines could be pulled out into the shape of bloody wings. The torture method was so grisly that some historians believe it never truly happened. We can only hope historians are correct, because the thought of someone going through it alive is unbelievably terrifying. These stories and more when Weird Darkness returns. (The Blood Eagle Viking Torture)
STORY: WHERE MIGHT E.T. BE HIDING?=====
The Fermi Paradox is one of the most puzzling problems about living in our universe. Based on our current understanding of biology and physics, we should see alien civilizations or signs of their existence across the night sky. Yet as far as we can tell, we are alone in the cosmos. Why is this? One reason that we are not finding alien life is that we are not looking in the right places. Since Earth lifeforms are the only ones we know of, scientists have tended to look for life like ours. Perhaps Earth is unusual, and life flourishes in far stranger places than we ever imagined. Here are just a handful of strange places that have been suggested as homes for alien organisms.
Venus: Venus is quiet like Earth, or at least Earth if it was sent to hell. Both planets are similar in size and mass, and the surface’s gravity is comparable. Surely this makes it an obvious place to look for life. When astronomers in the early 20th century peered at Venus through their telescopes, all they could see were dense clouds reflecting sunlight. This led some to picture the surface as a tropical and humid swamp teeming with lifeforms. Unfortunately, when space probes explored the planet, they found its surface temperature was hot enough to melt lead, and its toxic atmosphere had a pressure nearly 100 times that on Earth. Not really somewhere to expect life, then. Except there are parts of the planet that may just harbors organisms. There are places higher in the atmosphere where the pressure is not too great, the temperature is cool enough for liquid water, and there might be less of the ubiquitous sulfuric acid. Single-celled organisms might be able to exist there, caught in the high winds. One theory is that these organisms could live their lives in two stages. When in the right place, they are active and alive, but if they start falling toward the surface as a droplet forms around them, they go into a tough hibernation state that can survive at lower levels. As they dry out on their descent, they become lighter and are carried back into the habitable zone, where they can become active again. A recent observation by the ALMA observatory suggested there were high levels of phosphine in the atmosphere of Venus. On Earth, only life is known to form phosphine, so it was suggested it might be coming from Venusian life. Unfortunately, it seems that this detection was mistaken. If life exists on Venus, we’ll have to look harder.
Under The Ice: One of the reasons astronomers search Earth-like planets in certain orbits around stars is that there is one indisputable fact about life on Earth—it needs liquid water to survive. Too close to a star, and all the water boils. Too far, and it all turns to ice. At least, that was what astronomers thought. Some places outside the habitable zone of our own sun might be concealing vast oceans. The icy moons of Jupiter, like Ganymede, Europa, and Callisto, are covered with layers of ice but underneath may be deep reservoirs of water where life could survive. Europa is only a quarter the diameter of Earth but could have more than four times all the water found in Earth’s oceans under its icy outer crust. It is thought that the massive pressures exerted by Jupiter’s gravity provide the energy to keep this ocean in its liquid form. We know that life can exist in the deepest and darkest parts of Earth’s seas, and so it is just possible that life found a way to survive on these icy moons. Multiple space probes have been and will be launched toward Jupiter to get a better look at its moons and see if life can be detected.
Comets: Comets can be some of the most spectacular sights in our sky. As they plunge from the outer solar system toward the sun, they warm up and blast huge plumes that form illuminated tails behind the comet. Because they have a large amount of ice, could life exist on comets? At first, it seems unlikely. Comets spend the majority of their time far away from the light and warmth of the sun. When at their furthest, temperatures can be just 50 degrees above absolute zero. When at this temperature and with minimal gravity of their own, comets have no atmosphere to speak of. When the Rosetta space mission placed a lander on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in 2015, it detected chemicals strongly associated with biological life. Very few scientists suggested that this could mean that organisms were actually living on the comet. According to the Panspermia theory, comets spread life to other planets as they go about their travels. Most scientists dismiss the idea of comet-based life though – and even less that it had anything to do with the appearance of life on Earth.
Meteorites: Meteorites look pretty when they streak into our atmosphere, but apart from making a wish on a shooting star, most people probably don’t pay them much attention. On the other hand, scientists have long looked at rocks that fell from space to uncover what they might reveal about the solar system. This includes looking for life in them. While most meteorites originate from the asteroid belt and the leftover debris of the formation of the solar system, some come from other planets and moons. When a collision is big enough, rocks from the surface of a planet or moon can be ejected into space, where they wander until they fall to Earth. Several meteorites have been recovered that can be traced to Mars, and inside some of them are microscopic structures that some scientists interpret as fossils of Martian life. In 1996, President Clinton announced the finding of such fossils in a Mars meteorite. The results of this discovery were soon questioned, but other researchers have come to similar conclusions about other Mars meteorites. Others have found the building blocks of proteins in meteorites. Next time you see a shooting star, maybe wish that it has indisputable proof of alien life inside it.
Gas giants: In 1976 Carl Sagan and Edwin Salpeter published a paper examining whether Jupiter could be home to varieties of life. They concluded that Jupiter, whose atmosphere is mostly hydrogen and helium with methane, ammonia, and water, might actually be habitable for aliens. They would just be very alien aliens. Jupiter does not seem a promising place for life at first, given it is far from the sun, has no solid surface, and has high wind speeds. Sagan and Salpeter came up with four types of organisms that might just call it home, however, and all live in the upper atmosphere. The first they call sinkers, which are small organisms that function like algae in Earth’s oceans. Floaters are vast animals kilometers across that move by taking in the gases of the atmosphere and expelling them as jets. They hold on to the hydrogen and helium, however, which helps them to float. They also posit species of hunters and scavengers in the Jovian atmosphere. So far, nothing like this has been found, but other scientists have suggested that gas giants around other stars could be home to exotic life forms.
In Liquid Methane: Titan is the largest moon of the planet Saturn and the second largest in the solar system. It is surrounded by a thick atmosphere that gives the moon an orange and hazy look. It was only when probes reached Titan that its surface was uncovered. This revealed a world with a thick crust of ice, volcanoes that spray water and ammonia, and, most startlingly, lakes. Because the temperature of Titan is well below the freezing point of water, these lakes are not like ours on Earth but instead are made of liquid methane and ethane. Could life survive in these liquids instead of water? Models have been produced which would have organisms in these lakes metabolizing hydrogen and acetylene from the atmosphere to get their energy. These cells would have to be radically different from our own. Earth cells have a phospholipid membrane around them, but these would break up in the hydrocarbon lakes of Titan. It’s just possible that cells of Titan could use acrylonitrile, a molecule found on Titan, to make membranes that would keep them together. Instead of our floppy membrane, these would be flat, hard, and crystalline.
Asleep: What if the reason we are not detecting life is that all the aliens have gone to sleep? That is the suggestion of one team of researchers who have come up with what they call the “aestivation hypothesis.” Why would alien civilizations decide to give up on being active and go into hibernation? According to the research, it is an efficient use of their efforts. We are currently living relatively early in the history of the universe. Only 14 billion years have passed since the Big Bang and galaxies are still relatively active with new stars being born all the time. But one day, the last star will die and there will be none to replace it. Energy will dissipate and the universe will be a colder and darker place. This might be just what the aliens are waiting for. If they store a lot of energy now and go to sleep, they can wake up in the distant future and use their stores of energy to do more work with it due to the prevailing physical conditions of the universe. According to the research, the aliens who do this will get 10 times more work done if they are just willing to wait a bit… Say, several trillions of years.
Black holes: A black hole is probably the last place you want to find yourself. If you slip below the event horizon, there is literally no way that you can escape its fearsome gravity. If a black hole is actively absorbing matter, then the entire region around it will be filled with high energy radiation that would kill most life. However, some researchers say that black holes might just offer sanctuary to organisms. Black holes are not magical entities that just suck up everything around them. They pull in matter by gravity just like any other massive object. This means that if you are traveling at the right speed and in the right direction, you can orbit them like the earth orbits the sun. Planets could form from the matter surrounding a black hole. Even the absence of the sun in a black hole planetary system might not be too much of a problem. The energy needed to support life could come from the searing hot accretion disc which forms around many black holes.
Dust: One of the reasons that we are not finding life in space is because we are looking at planets and not at space itself. Computer models produced by physicists in 2007 said that interstellar dust that is electrically charged could organize itself into something that behaves in a very life-like manner. Atoms in space often exist as a plasma of charged ions, having had electrons stripped off by radiation. Unlike the familiar plasma of the sun, this plasma can be cold, which allows the ions to interact relatively non-violently. The simulations of such plasmas in low-gravity environments showed them forming into filaments that corkscrewed a little like DNA. Once you have structures that can self-assemble, that looks like life. Different forms of filament were studied and were seen to evolve over time as they created more copies of themselves. Maybe aliens are out there; they were just more out there than we ever imagined.
Stars: Perhaps the most extreme form of alien life ever suggested by a serious researcher could be lurking within the inferno of active stars. If they exist, then they would not be made from ordinary matter or even objects that have been discovered. Cosmic strings and magnetic monopoles would be needed for life to evolve within stars. Both of these are theoretical ideas in physics, but many scientists suspect that they might exist in the universe. Researchers have suggested that cosmic strings might be captured within the gravity of stars. Once inside the high temperature of a star’s interior, which is also filled with strong magnetic fields, the strings and monopoles would be twisted into complex forms. These shapes might be able to replicate themselves using other strings and monopoles. This is analogous to DNA copying itself. The self-replicating strings could then make copies of themselves with slight variations. Over time, the complexity of these stringy lifeforms could continue to grow into something very like life as we recognize it. Intriguingly, the authors of this research suggest that such lifeforms might be detectable as they influence the energy output of the stars they inhabit. So if the sun ever looks brighter than you expect, it might just be our neighbors saying hello.
STORY: THE BLOOD EAGLE VIKING TORTURE=====
The Vikings didn’t come into towns walking on moonbeams and rainbows.
If their sagas are to be believed, the Vikings cruelly tortured their enemies in the name of their god Odin as they conquered territory. If the suggestion of a blood eagle was even uttered, one left town and never looked back.
Viking sagas details blood eagle as one of the most painful and terrifying torture methods ever imagine. The story describes how:
“Earl Einar went to Halfdan and carved blood-eagle on his back in this wise, that he thrust a sword into his trunk by the backbone and cut all the ribs away, from the backbone down to the loins, and drew the lungs out there…”
One of the earliest accounts of the use of the blood eagle is thought to have occurred in 867. It began a few years before, when Aella, king of Northumbria (present-day North Yorkshire, England), fell victim to a Viking attack. Aella killed Viking leader Ragnar Lothbrok by throwing him into a pit of live snakes.
In revenge, Lothbrok’s sons invaded England in 865. When the Danes captured York, one of Lothbrok’s sons, Ivar the Boneless, saw to it that Aella would be killed.
Of course, simply killing him wasn’t good enough. Ivar’s father Ragnar had — allegedly — met a gruesome fate by a pit of snakes.
Ivar the Boneless wanted to make an example out of Aella and strike fear into the hearts of his enemies.
Thus, he committed the damned king to the blood eagle.
Modern scholars debate how Vikings performed this ritual torture and whether they even performed the gruesome method at all. The process of the blood eagle is indeed so cruel and grisly that it would be difficult to believe that it could actually be carried out. Regardless of whether it is merely a work of literary fiction, there is no denying the fact that the ritual was stomach-churning.
The victim’s hands and legs were tied to prevent escape or sudden movements. Then, the person seeking vengeance stabbed the victim by his tailbone and up towards the rib cage. Each rib was then meticulously separated from the backbone with an ax, which left the victim’s internal organs on full display.
The victim is said to have remained alive throughout the entire procedure. What’s worse, the Vikings would then literally rub salt into the gaping wound in the form of a saline stimulant.
As if this wasn’t enough, after having all of the person’s ribs cut away and spread out like giant fingers, the torturer then pulled out the lungs of the victim to make it appear as if the person had a pair of wings spread out on his back.
Thus, the blood eagle was manifested in all its gory glory. The victim had become a slimy, bloody bird.
King Aella was not the last royal to face the blood eagle.
One scholar believes that at least four other notable figures in Northern European history suffered the same fate. King Edmund of England was also a victim of Ivar the Boneless. Halfdan, son of King Haraldr of Norway, King Maelgualai of Munster, and Archbishop Aelheah were all believed to victims of blood eagle torture because they were victims of Ivar the Boneless.
There were two main reasons Vikings used the blood eagle on their victims. First, they believed it was a sacrifice to Odin, father of the Norse pantheon of gods and the god of war.
Second, and more plausibly, was that the blood eagle was done as a punishment to honorless individuals. According to the Orkneyinga saga of the Vikings, Halfdan was defeated in battle at the hands of Earl Einar who then tortured him with a blood eagle as he conquered Halfdan’s kingdom. Similarly, Aella was tortured in vengeance.
Indeed, even the stories of the blood eagle — true or not — would have emptied out any village just by word of mouth before the Vikings could even make ground there. At the very least, the rumors of such torture would have established the Vikings as a divinely fearsome lot — and not to be trifled with.
Victims of the practice died in the 800s and 900s, possibly into the 1000s. Written accounts, often embellished and told for entertainment during long winter nights up north, didn’t come about until the 1100s and 1200s.
Writers of the Viking sagas heard stories and wrote them down. Perhaps they embellished the ferocity of Vikings to make them sound more heroic.
However, there may be merit to the blood eagle story.
The poets who wrote them down were very specific in the method used. Surely, someone actually tried this torture method because of the gory details that someone described. One Danish historian, Saxo Grammaticus, relays the ritual as merely the means of carving an eagle into a victim’s back and other details were added later and, “combined in inventive sequences designed for maximum horror.”
Either the blood eagle was an actual thing, or it was a propaganda tool. But either way, it was terrifying.
The Vikings employed other torture methods aside from the blood eagle.
One was known as Hung meat, which was just as nasty as it sounds. Vikings pierced the heels of victims, threaded ropes through the holes, and then strung them upside-down. Not only was piercing the heels horrendously painful, but the blood ran down to their hearts.
The fatal walk was another gruesome testament to torture. A victim’s abdomen was sliced open and a bit of intestine was pulled out. Then the torturer held the victim’s intestines as the victim walked around a tree. Eventually, the entirety of the victim’s intestinal tract would wrap around the tree.
Whether it was a blood eagle, hung meat, or a fatal walk, the Vikings knew how to make examples out of their enemies.
When Weird Darkness returns… most people are superstitious to at least a tiny degree – avoiding walking under ladders, not opening umbrellas indoors, or having a tingle down the spine every Friday the 13th. Perhaps you have a favorite or “lucky” shirt to wear on special occasions – or a lucky pair of socks. Maybe you have to dress from left to right instead of the other way around. Superstitions may seem silly, but we seem to live with them everywhere – but your superstitions don’t hold a candle to the ones believed by those in the theater. Thespians on and off the stage have some pretty bizarre concepts about what is lucky and unlucky. We’ll take a look at some superstitions of the stage, up next.
STORY: STRANGE SUPERSTITIONS OF THE STAGE=====
Any activity, after a period of time, will develop folklore, superstitions, or nervous traditions, but few mediums have such a long list of mystical failsafes than theater. Perhaps it’s simply a product of how long theater has been an art form – originating in Greece in the 6th century BCE – or perhaps there’s something about stage performance that invites the attention of… others. Ghosts, demons, spirits of misfortune – the world of theater plays host to all sorts of phenomena and portents of ruin. But where do all these weirdly specific rules, rituals, and folktales come from? Let’s dive into the strange, sometimes paranoid world of theater superstitions.
Perhaps one of the most complex theater traditions relates to the gifting of flowers. The type of flowers you gift (and when you gift them) matters, as superstition claims these stipulations could have a direct effect on the actor’s performance and the success of the entire show. For example, giving an actor a bouquet of flowers before a show could tempt fate for accidents and poor performance – unless it’s opening night, in which case, it’s good luck. The end of a show’s run, in many ways, is considered a form of death, as the cast and crew put the show to rest on closing night; therefore, the tradition of giving the lead actors and director flowers from graves after the curtain falls on the final show became a common practice to signify the passing of the production. Some also claim that, because historically actors were not always fairly compensated, pulling flowers from graves was a cost-effective gift option.
Many consider green the color of wealth, prosperity, health, and growth; however, if you’re a fan of color theory or believe in the spiritual aspects of colors, you know green has a dark side: envy, jealousy, death, and hatred. After all, some people are just “green with envy.” In the case of green’s bad luck on stage, there’s an even deeper, more specific reason many actors avoid it at all costs. France’s greatest playwright, Molière, first rose in popularity in his 20s during the late 1650s. Molière wrote many controversial works of art, and they were often censored for how they mocked society, the monarchy, and the church. The French religious community was continually in an uproar over his work, all while Molière was quietly living with tuberculosis. Despite his worsening condition, however, he continued performing. Despite the controversy surrounding his work, Molière’s last show took place in 1673 before King Louis XIV. The playwright was clad in a beautiful, brilliant green, though he coughed and gasped throughout the performance. He insisted on completing the show, even as he collapsed and suffered a hemorrhage. Upon returning home, he died quietly, still wearing his green costume. Likely because of his controversial status, he was refused last rites, causing many to speculate that Molière’s soul failed to arrive in heaven. Since then, actors have avoided wearing the color on stage, perhaps fearful they might suffer Molière’s same tragic fate.
Even if you didn’t have the pleasure (or misfortune, depending on who you ask) of being a theater kid, most people have heard of the “Don’t say Macbeth on stage” rule. Or, at the very least, they know there’s something up with the play itself. Shakespeare’s Macbeth, first performed around 1606, was ostensibly doomed right out the gate. There seem to be two prevailing theories for this: The first is that, allegedly, a local coven of witches took offense to the playwright’s use of real magical incantations and placed a curse on the whole production; the other theory posits that the incantations themselves cursed the play, a byproduct of Shakespeare including spells he didn’t fully understand. Whatever the true cause – and regardless of whether or not you believe in such powers – Macbeth was plagued by tragedy from the start. Shortly after its debut, the actor portraying Lady Macbeth suddenly died, forcing Shakespeare himself to assume the role. Real daggers would mysteriously replace harmless props, and one such instance resulted in the death of the actor playing King Duncan. But the play’s bad luck isn’t just confined to the 17th century. The year 1849 saw the infamous New York Astor Place Riot, the product of a rivalry between English actor William Charles Macready and American actor Edwin Forrest (both playing Macbeth in opposing productions), ultimately resulting in 20 deaths and more than 100 injuries. More notable accidents relating to Macbeth include unexplained deaths, inexplicable suicides, actors falling off the stage, broken orchestral instruments, and falling stage weights. According to Dr. Anjna Chouhan of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, a more reasonable explanation for the recurring tragedies is simply a matter of statistics, saying “It tends to run for longer than, say, Cymbeline. When you have more performances, it’s statistically more likely that things will go wrong.” Wherever you land on the spectrum of belief, there is a way to break the Macbeth curse: Although the origins are unclear, legend says you must simply go outside the theater, turn around three times, and spit on the ground – curse (hopefully) broken! Honestly though, I’m not sure how you go about obeying this particular superstition if you are actually putting on a performance of Macbeth – I can imagine the spittoons outside the theater would need to be emptied every hour on the hour.
Typically, the “rule of three” is considered pretty neutral – whether it’s Newton’s three rules of motion or Christianity’s Holy Trinity, sets of three appear often and generally don’t suggest ominous notions; however, theater superstition takes an uncommonly negative stance on threes, especially where candles are concerned. Originating from the days before electricity, when humans relied on fire for light, you would always find candles lighting the stage for set dressing, visibility, or usually both. The unlucky nature of open flames in a place filled with distracted actors and audience members likely had much more to do with accidental fires than anything supernatural. And how could we forget the common use of highly flammable materials and chemicals throughout the ages (looking at you, Victorians) that open flames certainly had no business being near? Fires aside, however, the legend claims the person closest to the shortest candle of the three would be the next to marry or the next to die. You may think marriage hardly sounds like a curse, but flipping a coin between marriage and death is quite the gamble. These days, with modern safety procedures, flame retardant materials, sprinkler systems, and fake candle props, the three-candle rule isn’t a common worry anymore. But some legends can’t be so easily extinguished, even by time.
For example… always say “break a leg”, not “good luck”. The story behind this particular theater superstition is a bit confusing, to say the least. Theories about its origin range from Ancient Greece (where audiences wouldn’t clap but instead stomped long enough to break their legs) to the notion that spirits would wreak havoc on your wishes and make the opposite come true if you said “good luck.” The phrase’s very first published mention comes from 1921, when literary essayist Robert Wilson Lynd wrote the article “A Defence of Superstition” and posited that wishing someone good luck could push their luck too far and cause the opposite. Instead, he offered a version of reverse psychology he believed would appease the spirits of fate by wishing the worst. The phrase “break a leg” appeared once more in 1939 in Edna Ferber’s autobiography, A Peculiar Treasure, where she talks of understudies sitting backstage hoping that principal actors would break their legs so they could finally perform. This reference seems to align with the most popular theory behind the phrase. In theater’s early days, ensemble actors would queue to perform and, while not performing, would stay behind the “leg line.” Being in the leg line meant you wouldn’t get paid, so many ensemble actors would hope a performing actor would break their leg, opening up a spot for one of the leg-line performers. Over time, the saying seemed to stick and became shorthand for wishing an actor the opportunity to perform and get paid. These days, the phrase is so ingrained that saying “good luck” before a performance may earn you some frowns or even complaints that you’re “jinxing” the show.
Unlike some of the more paranormal superstitions on this list, the rule against whistling backstage actually comes from old backstage safety procedures. Dating back to the 17th century, before theater’s electrification, backstage staff would cue scene changes, music changes, special effects, and stage entrances with distinct whistles or ringing bells; in fact, these whistles have been found notated as “W” in prompt books from the late 19th century. Some historians suggest that whistling as a form of communication actually stems from nautical traditions of whistling on ships to indicate the lowering of sails and cranes. Because theater seasons tended to align with shipping trade off-seasons, many dockworkers and sailors would get jobs as stagehands due to their experience with ropes, rigging systems, and repairing canvas backdrops. Considering how large and heavy set pieces could be and the potential dangers of mishandled props or stage weights, whistling at the wrong time could obviously lead to confusion and on-stage accidents. All it would take is an absentminded whistle to accidentally cue a stage change with hazardous consequences. These days, with the advent of electric light cue systems and intercoms, whistling is no longer used to cue backstage changes; however, this practical use of whistles has now been replaced with superstition, causing many to believe whistling backstage could attract accidents or even tragedies. But then, if you are backstage during a performance, you’re supposed to remain as quiet as possible anyway – so not whistling just seems like a common-sense decision.
Ghost lights are perhaps the most infamous and beloved superstition within the theater world. Often a simple bare bulb standing vigil over the stage when all other lights have been turned off, ghost lights likely began as a practical safety tool. Many theaters feature an orchestra pit between the stage and the audience – essentially a small cliff just asking to be accidentally walked off. The lone light provides visibility near and around the stage, so even if staff should return after closing, they can safely navigate the normal bumps, ledges, and uneven places common on stages. In regards to the ghost light’s supernatural function, reasons vary wildly: many believe the emotions and energy on stage can somehow charge the very building itself, attracting wandering spirits; the most common purpose is to chase away mischievous spirits that may linger in such a liminal place that sees hundreds or even thousands of patrons every single day. Others insist the bulb lights the way for ghosts still hanging around, keeping them happy and calm or even providing them a place to dance and perform when the theater is empty. Thousands of personal accounts of supernatural activity often mention seeing shadowy figures or other weird occurrences near the light. Whether ghosts are truly drawn to these lonely lights or they simply prevent easily avoided accidents, you’ll find most theaters employing ghost lights in honor of this long, fascinating tradition woven into the fabric of Western theaters.
Beware the ghost of Thespis! While few people today are likely familiar with the name Thespis, plenty know the derivative term “thespian.” But who was the actual Thespis? Little is known about this ancient, elusive figure, but according to what little historical information is widely available, Thespis lived in the 6th century B.C. as an Ancient Greek poet and singer of dithyrambs, songs about stories from Greek mythology. Most importantly, however, Aristotle cited him as the first performer to speak dialogue on stage as a character in a story. In fact, Thespis won the first-ever documented competition for best tragedy in 534 BCE at the City Dionysia in Athens. So, if Thespis was possibly the first-ever Western stage actor and inventor of the Greek drama, why would we need to fear his very ancient spirit? The legend likely finds power from the common belief that theaters are inherently haunted places. Many theaters throughout the world have ghost stories – some are haunted by past famous actors or the victims of great tragedies. For the supposedly haunted theaters without a named ghost to wander their halls, the ghost of Thespis has become a placeholder spirit to blame for a number of accidents and misfortunes. Hauntings attributed to Thespis’s ghost often include a trickster element, from flickering lights and mysteriously moving objects to unexplainable noises or voices and shadowy figures.
Never bring a peacock feather onstage. Peacock feathers have long been the showstoppers among bird feathers for time immemorial. Many cultures, especially Eastern cultures, consider the feathers to be tokens of good luck – but that belief is hardly universal. For some, the distinctive eye shape at the top of a peacock feather bears too striking a resemblance to the famous “evil eye” from Greek culture. Although many cultures have some variation of an evil-eye curse, the idea remains relatively the same: you can fall victim to an evil-eye curse if a person casts a malevolent gaze upon you. Most people know of the evil eye due to the popular amulet often worn on jewelry, which features a distinct eye-shaped, blue-and-white bead. Because Western theater has deep roots in Greek and British history and superstitions, the fear of evil-eye imagery has found its way into theater culture itself. Some people believe having peacock feathers on stage invites the evil eye in and could bring misfortune or even personal injury to the person the evil eye faces.
And finally… never bring a mirror onstage. Mirrors have long been a source of superstition, whether they break and cause seven years of bad luck or serve as a portal for spirits to enter the mortal world. While these tales may still apply to the theater world, mirrors are also forbidden for their logistical issues, as well as the belief they will distract particularly vain actors. Having a mirror under bright stage lights can illuminate places not meant to be seen, cause technical issues for certain effects, or blind actors during their performance. Although some productions have found ways to incorporate mirrors and break the superstition, many others still refuse to use them, whether for mystical reasons or to avoid the hassle they can cause during a performance.
I don’t typically think of myself as superstitious – but being reminded of these theater beliefs, and looking back fondly on my days on the stage, all throughout school as well as community theater… I have to admit, I kinda miss it. Even if you don’t believe the superstitions, they were kind of fun to take part in – they were a kind of unofficial ceremonial part of being in the theater. You don’t know why you did or said such things – you just did, because you were in the theater. I kinda want to go audition for a play now.
Up next… hundreds of years after his death, the tomb of William Longespee was opened and what was found horrified the man who opened it… the skeleton of a black rat was found in the skull of Longespee – but that wasn’t the end of the story! (The Rat In Longespee’s Skull)
STORY: THE RAT IN LONGESPEE’S SKULL=====
In 1789, Bishop Shute Barrington authorised the remodelling and reordering of Salisbury Cathedral. The man he hired for the job was the famous architect and rival of Robert Adam, James Wyatt. As part of the plan, Wyatt oversaw the repositioning of the Cathedral’s tombs, from different parts of the Cathedral into the nave. One of the tombs, that of William Longespée (which had been originally placed in the Trinity Chapel, the chapel being at the time of his death the only part of the cathedral to have been completed) was opened. Why Wyatt decided to open up Longespée’s tomb is not known, it could have made it easier to move or it might have just been out of sheer curiosity. Whatever the reason, the tomb was discovered to contain a rather surprising guest – the well-preserved skeleton of a black rat, positioned in of all places inside Longespée’s skull! To add to the mystery of how the rat got into the tomb in the first place was the fact that on testing, traces of arsenic were found in its body. So, what terrible secret did the rat reveal, was Longespée murdered or was there a more innocent explanation and is it possible that we will ever know the truth?
Born around 1176, William Longespée was the illegitimate son of Henry II. For a long time, his mother was believed to have been Rosamond with whom Henry had an infamous affair. It was only with the discovery of documents in the twenty-first century that it was revealed that his mother was in fact, Countess Ida de Tosny, later the wife of Roger Bigod, 2nd Earl of Norfolk.
William gained his nickname ‘Longespée’ from his great physical size and his use of oversized weapons. He was acknowledged by Henry and given the honour of Appleby in Lincolnshire in 1188 and the right to use the coat of arms of his grandfather, Geoffrey of Anjou. In 1196, Richard gave William permission to marry the immensely wealthy and sought-after heiress, Ela of Salisbury, 3rdCountess of Salisbury and granted him the title and lands of the earldom. William and Ela had six daughters and four sons.
William was raised with his half-brothers and although he chose to fight alongside Richard I in Normandy, it seems that his loyalty lay with John. William was one of the few people that John trusted and William served him well as both a diplomat and a commander. There was only a brief period of time when William’s faith in John was tested which was in the Baron Wars when John fled to Winchester on the arrival of Louis of France on English soil. Maybe William did for a short time believe that John had lost or perhaps he was disgusted with John’s cowardly behaviour, it is hard to tell. Suffice it to say, William returned to John’s side, eventually pledging his loyalty to John’s son, Henry III. William along with William Marshal fought to establish the young king in his rightful place. Longespée also played his part in bringing the siege of Lincoln to a satisfactory conclusion and was granted the title of Sheriff of Lincolnshire and given the role of castellan of Lincoln Castle. This honour led him to a bitter enmity with the previous castellan, the shrewd and indomitable Nicholaa de la Haye: the female sheriff of Lincolnshire.
Over his lifetime, Longespée held a number of important positions including the High Sheriff of Wiltshire, Lieutenant of Gascony, Constable of Dover, Lord Warden of the Ports of Cinque, Warden of the Welsh Marches and Sheriff of Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire An outstanding and fearless soldier, Longespée took part in many conflicts but he will always be known for one in particular, which is the Battle of Damme.
The Battle of Damme occurred during the 1213-1214 Anglo-French War. On the 30/31 May 1213, Longespée commanding the English forces (comprised of 500 ships) accidentally came across a large French fleet under the supervision of Savari de Máuléon in the vicinity of the port of Damme in Flanders, whilst most of the French crew were ashore pillaging the surrounding villages and countryside. Encountering limited resistance, Longespée captured the 300 French ships at anchor and looted and fired at a further 100 beached ships. Phillip II, who was at this time besieging the city of Ghent as part of his strategy for the suppression of Flanders, on hearing the news immediately marched back to Damme. Phillip managed to drive off the English landing forces but decided that to be on the safe side it was advisable to burn the remainder of his fleet to prevent them from falling into English hands. Longespée’s actions put an end, for the time being, to any designs the French might have had on England. It was also extremely lucrative “Never had so much treasure come into England since the days of King Arthur”. The Battle of Damme earned its place in the history books as the first great English naval victory.
Longespée had an eventful life. He had survived wars, civil unrest, his brother King John’s notoriously capricious nature and being held for ransom. In 1224, Longespée left England for Gascony to help protect England’s interests in the region. On the return journey in 1225, a violent storm blew up and Longespée’s ship was nearly lost. Shipwrecked, he managed to make his way to the monastery on the Île de Ré where he took refuge. He remained there for a few months until he was able to return to England. Longespée died at Salisbury Castle, not long after his return.
Longespée was buried at Salisbury Cathedral in 1226, the first person to ever be buried at the cathedral. The cathedral must have held an important place in his heart. Both he and Ela had taken a strong personal interest in the new building, laying down foundation stones in 1220.
Longespée’s tomb is an extremely beautiful one. Sculptured in the Gothic style, the altar is made of wood with a marble recumbent figure lying on top. William looks to his right and the effigy is remarkably lifelike. He wears chain mail, a military cloak and a flat headpiece. Only his eyes and nose are visible. His head rests on a pillow. In his left hand, he holds a shield showing seven lions, the coat of arms of his grandfather. The edge of the slab is decorated with English trefoil foliage. Both the altar and figure would have originally been brightly coloured (traces of the paint can still be seen) and gilt. Who would have thought that such a peaceful image could have hidden such a dark secret?
The discovery of the rat led many people to surmise that Longespée had in fact been murdered. Those that accepted this supposition then turned their attention to who could have been responsible and why. One possibility could have been jealousy. Someone at court might have been envious of Longespée’s power and authority – he had after all become even more prominent in Henry III’s court after the death of William Marshal. Unfortunately, there is virtually no evidence to support such a hypothesis with the exception of a comment made by Roger of Wendover in his work, the first Flores Historiarum. In his account Roger of Wendover points the finger at the influential Hubert de Burgh, accusing him of poisoning Longespée.
So, what would have been de Burgh’s motive? De Burgh rivalled (and possibly exceeded) Longespée for political influence. Could he have wanted to become even more powerful or was there another reason why de Burgh wanted Longespée out of the picture? One theory that has also been put forward is that during Longespée’s sojourn with the monks at the Île de Ré, he was believed to be dead and that de Burgh took the opportunity to try to win the hand of his ‘widow’ Ela. His plans were destroyed by the arrival of the very much alive Longespée, de Burgh exacted his revenge and murdered him. On the surface this story could sound plausible, casting a greedy and morally corrupt de Burgh into the role of arch-villain, but on looking at it in more detail there is one significant problem. At the time de Burgh was married to Margaret, the sister of Alexander II, King of Scotland. Was he planning to win Ela and then murder his wife? It seems unlikely and it is strange that there is only one mention of de Burgh as a murder suspect. Surely if the uncle of the king died in suspicious circumstances it wouldn’t have gone unnoticed! In any event, even after Longespée’s death, Ela did not remarry. She was awarded the title of Sheriff of Wiltshire, a role she held for two years before retiring from the world to Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire (an abbey she founded) in 1238, becoming its Abbess in 1261.
Another possible reason for the presence of arsenic in Longespée’s body is that the arsenic had been ingested or absorbed long before he died. Arsenic as both a poison and a medicine has been in use since antiquity. Indeed, the Greeks used arsenic to treat ulcers and abscesses and many apothecary shops would stock arsenic as a matter of course. Arsenic was used in a variety of ways and in different quantities according to the illness or disease as well as a “corrosive for treating wounds of people and animals”. When Longespée arrived at Île de Ré after the shipwreck he could have been severely injured and very ill. Maybe the monks healed him using an arsenic-based treatment and maybe he was accidentally given too much. We will never know but it is definitely a theory that should be taken into consideration.
There is another plausible scenario. Could it be that Longespée hadn’t been poisoned at all but that it was the rat that had ingested the poison? At the time of Longespée’s burial, Salisbury Cathedral had not been completed. Material used in the construction of the cathedral including paints could have contained arsenic. The rat could have chewed on something containing the poison and then managed to get into the tomb with Longespée whilst his remains were being interred. The rat could have then eaten Longespée’s head – a grisly thought to be sure – and got into the skull where it subsequently died. Such a hypothesis is perfectly plausible. If you wish to see the rat for yourself, its remains are today displayed at Salisbury Museum.
Although believing that Longespée was murdered adds an air of mystery and romance to his story, in my opinion, I think that it was more likely that the rat somehow managed to get into his tomb. There is just not enough evidence to support the poisoning claim, although much depends on how reliable you view Roger of Wendover as a source. Most modern historians do not have a high opinion of his trustworthiness, with an entry in the 1911 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica stating that “Wendover is a copious but inaccurate writer…Where he is the sole authority for an event, he is to be used with caution.” With that word of warning ringing in your ears, I leave you to make up your own mind on the mystery of the tomb of William Longespée.
Thanks for listening. If you like the show, please share it with someone you know who loves the paranormal or strange stories, true crime, monsters, or unsolved mysteries like you do! You can email me anytime with your questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org. WeirdDarkness.com is also where you can find all of my social media, listen to free audiobooks I’ve narrated, visit the store for Weird Darkness t-shirts, hoodies, mugs, phone cases, and more merchandise, sign up for monthly contests, find other podcasts that I host like “Retro Radio – Old Time Radio in the Dark”, “Micro Terrors; Scary Stories for Kids”, “The Church of the Undead”, and more. WeirdDarkness.com is also where you can find the Hope in the Darkness page if you or someone you know is struggling with depression or dark thoughts. Also on the website, if you have a true paranormal or creepy tale to tell, you can click on TELL YOUR STORY. You can find all of that and more at WeirdDarkness.com.
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 Criminal Investigation of a UFO Incident” by Marcus Lowth for UFO Insight, and IAN for Mysterious Britain and Ireland
“Where Might E.T. Be Hiding?” by Ben Gazur for ListVerse.com
“Strange Superstitions of the Stage” by Amanda Boisen for Ranker
“The Rat In Longespee’s Skull” posted at The Haunted Palace Blog
“The Blood Eagle Viking Torture” by William DeLong for AllThatsInteresting.com
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Now that we’re coming out of the dark, I’ll leave you with a little light… (1 John 3:16) “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.”
And a final thought… “You can wear a mask for so long until you really think the face you’re wearing is you, when actually, the real you is hiding behind the mask. You can wear your mask for so long until you totally lose touch with the real you.” – Shamarion Whitaker
I’m Darren Marlar. Thanks for joining me in the Weird Darkness.