The Spine-Chilling Tale of the Chase Vault

What terrifying secret is sealed within an old family tomb in Oistins, Barbados?

Nestling in the idyllic range of islands making up the Caribbean is the island of Barbados. The most easterly of them, Barbados is also the newest, having been created a mere million years ago when the oceanic plates of the Atlantic and Caribbean collided and a volcanic eruption formed new land in the clear blue sea. First discovered in 1492 by the Portuguese, who were on their way to Brazil, the island was named Isla de Los Barbados (‘island of the bearded ones’) by explorer Pedro a Campos after noting that the fig trees along the coastline gave it a beard-like appearance.

The island was first settled in 1511 by the Spanish, who enslaved the natives. But when outbreaks of smallpox and tuberculosis – the European diseases they had brought with them – led to the Caribs dying out completely, the Spaniards abandoned the island. The English then arrived, on 14 May 1625, in the shape of one Captain John Powell, who claimed the land in the name of King James I, and a few years later Captain Henry Powell (no relation) landed with a group of eighty settlers and ten slaves. The island then remained under British rule until its declaration of independence in 1966.

From the seventeenth century onwards, the nobles of England who had been awarded land on the island began importing thousands of African slaves to work the newly formed tobacco, sugar and cotton plantations. Over the next century, Barbados dominated the world’s sugar industry and the plantation owners became powerful and successful figures throughout the British Empire.

It was one of these landowners, the Honourable Thomas Waldron, who in 1724 built an elegant family burial vault in the cemetery of the parish church in the town of Oistins. It was intended for his married daughter and her family. Seven feet wide and twelve feet deep, and made out of carved coral, the vault was large enough to accommodate the entire Waldron family. The first person to be buried in it was Richard Elliot, the husband of Elizabeth Waldron. He was also the last of the family to be interred there.

Nobody has since been able to explain why Elizabeth failed to join her husband in his final resting place, and nor why the next occupant, Mrs Thomasina Goddard, was a non-family member (unless she was a descendent of the Elliots or the Waldrons by marriage), but what is known is that when the tomb was opened on 31 July 1807 to bury Mrs Goddard, it was found to be empty. The absence of Richard Elliot’s body  was not considered particularly odd at the time, being put down to the work of grave robbers and looters. Rather more unusual was that, soon after Thomasina’s death, the Elliot vault passed into the hands of yet another family after being purchased by Colonel Thomas Chase, one of the most hated men on the island

A plantation owner of unstable mind and volatile temperament, Chase wasn’t popular even with his own family. Within a year of the purchase of the vault tragedy befell the Chase family with the death of the youngest daughter, two-year-old Mary Anna Maria Chase – the result, or so rumour had it, of a fit of violent temper by her father. Nothing, however, was proven, and islanders were left to draw their own conclusions about how the baby had died. On 22 February 1808, the vault was reopened and her tiny lead coffin gently placed on the shelf below the wooden coffin of Thomasina Goddard. Once the funeral was over, Chase ordered his slaves to seal the tomb with a large marble slab set in concrete.

Four years later, on 6 July 1812, the family were back at the crypt for the burial of their teenage daughter, Dorcas Chase, who had died of starvation. While some suggested the young girl had committed suicide to be free of her unpleasant father, others claimed he had locked her in an outbuilding and starved her to death himself. Either way, the marble was cut away and Dorcas’s heavy leaden casket was placed alongside that of her sister inside the family vault.

Just over a month later, Thomas Chase himself committed suicide – although there were claims that his slaves had carried out their often repeated threat to murder him. In a land of cruel employers, Chase had been particularly notorious, and there was no shortage of offers to carry his heavy lead coffin, which would have weighed about 500 pounds, to its final resting place. Presumably people wanted to make sure he had actually gone for good.

Eight slaves carried the casket down the steps of the Chase family vault. As they stepped inside, the men suddenly froze with fear. By the flickering light of their candles they could see that little Mary Anna’s coffin was now upside down, standing on end at the opposite side of the chamber from where it had originally been placed. Dorcas’s had also moved to the opposite side of the vault and only Thomasina’s coffin remained in its former location. The men inspected the vault and could find no sign of forced entry or any other disturbance. The coffins of the two girls were replaced in their previous positions and their father’s casket was settled on the opposite side of the vault. Once the service was over, the men checked for secret passages or other means of entrance before cementing the heavy marble slab back into place, this time using double-strength concrete lest the colonel himself should rise from the dead.

The disturbance was blamed on slaves with a strong grudge against the Chase family. Plantation and slave owners on the islands particularly feared revenge attacks upon their dead, which is why such strong family vaults were built in the first place. In fact, the reverse would have been true: fearing that the evil spirits they called ‘duppies’ might be at work, slaves would stay a long way from cemeteries and graveyards, especially one housing the Chase tomb.

Four more years passed before the next death, a young Chase relative, Samuel Brewster Ames, who died just before his first birthday. On 25 September 1816, workman once again broke open the marble seal, but this time they were unable to push open the wooden doors at the vault entrance. A group of the strongest men on the island were called for and after much effort they managed to force the door open. Thomas Chase’s 500-pound lead coffin had been standing on one end with the top resting against the doors, blocking them. The girls had also been disturbed again while only Thomasina remained peacefully in place.

When the tomb was re-opened a month later, for the funeral of the earlier boy’s namesake, another Samuel Brewster – killed by slaves during an uprising – it was, once again, in complete disarray, with no obvious signs as to how the disruption had been caused.

The next time the tomb was opened was during in 1819 to receive the body of Thomasina Clark, Mrs Goddard’s daughter. By now the mystery of the Chase Vault had spread far and wide, and a crowd of nigh on a thousand curious onlookers were squeezed into the churchyard. The presiding clergyman, the Reverend Thomas Orderson, was accompanied by Viscount Combermere, the governor of Barbados, who was keen to solve the mystery of the disrupted vault, and by island dignitaries such as Major J. Finch, the Honourable Nathan Lucas, Mr Rowland Cotton (a trusted relative of Combermere) and Mr Robert Boucher Clarke. The viscount ordered a thorough inspection of the exterior of the tomb until all present were satisfied it had not been breached. Two masons were then ordered to remove the concrete seal of the marble slab and, accompanied by eight pallbearers, the dignitaries descended the steps.

As the door was pushed open, there was a loud grating sound from inside. This time Dorcas’s coffin was found wedged into the doorway. Little Mary Anna Maria’s casket had been thrown so violently against the wall it had gashed a chunk from the smooth surface. The other lead caskets had been so chaotically disturbed that Thomasina’s wooden coffin appeared to have been smashed in the process and bits of her skeleton lay strewn around the vault.

Chase Vault

It was a horrifying sight: some of the slaves fainted while others were violently sick. Combermere and his shocked party were determined to solve the mystery, however. Lady Combermere recorded the subsequent events in her diary:

In my husband’s presence, every part of the floor was sounded to ascertain that no subterranean passage or entrance was concealed. It was found to be perfectly firm and solid and not even a crack was apparent. The walls, when examined, proved to be perfectly secure. No fracture was visible and the sides, together with the roof and flooring, presented a structure so solid as if formed of entire slabs of stone. The displaced coffins were rearranged, the new tenant of that dreary abode was deposited and when the mourners retired with the funeral procession, the floor was sanded with fine white sand in the presence of Lord Combermere and the assembled crowd. The door was slid into its wonted position and, with the utmost care, the new mortar was laid on so as to secure it. When the masons had completed their task, the Governor made several impressions in the mixture with his own seal, and many of those others attending added various private marks in the wet mortar.

Lord Combermere reasoned that anything disturbing the coffins, even flooding, would leave telltale signs in the layer of sand on the floor. Then a few months later, a woman who had been visiting the cemetery reported a loud cracking noise coming from within the Chase Vault, accompanied by an audible moaning. Her horse became so distressed that it began foaming at the mouth, later needing sedation. Other horses tethered in the churchyard broke free and galloped away in fear, straight into the sea, where they were drowned.

On 18 April 1820, Viscount Combermere and his witnesses all returned to inspect the vault. The ground had not been disturbed in any way. The seals they had made in the cement remained intact and there was no sign of any foul play. But when the marble slab was removed and the heavy vault door slowly pushed open, a scene of complete devastation was revealed.

This time even the lead casket of Dorcas Chase had been smashed and her bony arm hung out through a gash in the side. Once again there was no sign of forced entry, or of someone having gained access via a secret passage, nor had the sand scattered on the floor not been disturbed in any way. There were no footprints.

Combermere wisely decided to give up trying to solve the mystery, such was the hysteria building up across the island and throughout the empire This time he ordered that all the bodies be removed and reburied in separate sites in different churchyards. At the same time, a thorough search was made for the coffin of James Elliot, the first inhabitant of the Chase Vault nearly a century earlier, but it was never found. The tomb has remained empty ever since.

Later on that evening of 18 June, one of the members of the funeral party, Nathan Lucas, was – like Lady Combermere before him – moved to record the events of the afternoon:

… and so I examined the walls, the arch and every part of the Vault, to find every part old and similar. A mason in my presence struck every part of the bottom with his hammer and all was solid. I confess myself at a loss to account for the movements of these leaden coffins. Thieves certainly had no hand in it; and as for any practical wit or hoax, too many were requisite to be trusted with the secret for it to remain unknown; and as for negroes having anything to do with it, their superstitious fear of the dead and everything belonging to them precludes any idea of the kind. All I know is that it happened and that I was an eye-witness …

Over the following two centuries, much has been made of the events at the Chase Vault: every possible reason has been considered. At first it was thought to have been straight vandalism, such was the dislike among the community of Thomas Chase, but as the heavy coffins would take at least six men to move them around, let alone throw them about, and the vault simply wasn’t big enough to accommodate that many people, this was ruled out. The absence of footprints or any signs of entry, forced or otherwise, also appears to rule out human interference.

Earthquakes have been considered, especially as Barbados sits on a seismic fault line, but no quakes had been reported during the period in which the vault was disturbed and there was no evidence of any other damage caused, either in nearby vaults or elsewhere on the island. Some prefer the idea that unseen magnetic forces were at work, especially as the coffins were usually found to be facing in the opposite direction to the one in which they were placed, suggesting they had rotated on their own axis. This may also explain why the wooden casket of Thomasina Goddard remained unaffected until it was smashed to pieces by the others. But lead is not a magnetic material. Furthermore, if such forces had been at work, locals would have noticed its effect on other metals in the graveyard such as iron headstones or steel plaques. The church bell would surely have kept ringing too.

The wildest theory about what had caused the disturbances in the Chase Vault actually came from the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who, maybe unsurprisingly appears to crop up in a number of mystery stories (including two in this book – ‘Fairies at the Bottom of the Garden’, page 000, and ‘Whatever Happened to the Crew of the Mary Celeste?’, page 000). Conan Doyle believed supernatural forces had been at work but was unable to offer any further explanation except to suggest that the coffins had been moved by the spirits of the two family members who had apparently committed suicide and were therefore ‘cursed and restless’ and in conflict with each other. Indeed, since Dorcas and her father have been separated, there have been no other signs of disturbance at any of the new grave locations.

Gas emitted from the decomposing bodies was considered but soon ruled out as incapable of disturbing a heavy lead coffin. The only other suggestion that comes close to fitting the facts would be a flood. Natural flooding of an underground vault would disrupt the coffins, causing them to float around and come to rest in a different place as the water subsided. But that wouldn’t explain why the coffins were standing on end; nor was there any evidence of water damage each time the vault was re-opened. It seems that the mysteries of the Chase Vault have never been adequately explained, and probably never will be. I think we’re going to have to mark this one ‘unsolved’.

Albert Jack’s Mysterious World

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Robert Maxwell – The Bouncing Czech

Mystifying Death of a Media Mogul

Who finally stopped the bouncing Czech? The extraordinary life and death of Robert Maxwell.

In 1940, Jan Ludvik Hoch did what many young Jews in Eastern Europe were doing at that time, and ran away to England to fight the Nazis. The seventeen-year-old refugee then fought his way from the beaches of Normandy to the centre of Berlin. After the war he went on to become a publisher, a Labour MP, a football club owner, company chairman, owner of the Mirror Group Newspapers, owner of the New York Daily Times, embezzler and fraudster, before finally slipping from the back of his yacht and into oblivion. The official autopsy report concluded the cause of death had been ‘accidental drowning’, but, as in life, mystery shrouded the death of Jan Ludvik Hoch, a man who courted controversy from the moment he arrived in England and changed his name to Ian Robert Maxwell.

Maxwell joined the British army under a series of aliases, presumably because the War Office had suggested refugee soldiers should serve under invented names in case they should be captured. Because he went by the name of Jones and du Maurier, in addition to Maxwell, it is hard to find out much about what he got up to in the Second World War, although he did earn himself a medal. This was in January 1945 when his unit, the 6th Battalion of the North Staffordshire Regiment, were based at the River Mass in Holland. He had recently been promoted to second lieutenant and his men were tasked with clearing a block of flats occupied by German soldiers. Maxwell led the assault and charged straight for the building, drawing heavy fire. Luckily for him, although not so luckily for his future employees, every bullet aimed at him missed. It was an act of bravery that won him the Military Cross.

But not all of his wartime exploits were quite as distinguished. His authorized biographer, Joe Haines, reveals how Maxwell’s unit attempted to capture a German town by calling for the mayor to meet with Maxwell in a neutral location. He then told the mayor that the German soldiers would have to surrender or face destruction by mortar bombardment. In a letter to his wife, published in Haines’s book Maxwell (1988), he wrote: ‘But as soon as we marched off a German tank opened fire on us. Luckily he missed so I shot the mayor and withdrew.’ Maxwell showed no remorse at killing an unarmed man in cold blood, and it was a sign of things to come.

As the war drew to a close, Robert Maxwell found himself working for the Control Commission, an Allied organization formed to manage the economy, state industry and government of the defeated German people. His natural intelligence and gift for languages had been noticed by the High Command of the Allied forces, and he soon found himself organizing various sections of the West German services, including the national newspapers. Back in Britain, his entrepreneurial spirit was quickly in evidence and he became a shareholder in a London import and export company originally owned by a German, but Maxwell was soon in sole command.

Two years after the end of the war, Robert Maxwell’s company was distributing scientific literature and manuals to both Britain and America after a deal was hatched with the German publishing heavyweight Springer Verlag (later Axel Springer) that established Maxwell in the market place. Another two years would pass before he launched his own publishing company, Pergamon, after securing heavy investment from Springer. Such was his initial success he was able to buy Springer out of the contract and take over as sole owner, while settling into the business of becoming seriously wealthy during the 1950s.

In 1959 he became the Labour candidate for Buckingham and won the seat in 1964 as the new Labour government led by Harold Wilson swept into power. He remained an MP until 1970 when the Conservatives under Ted Heath defeated Wilson at the general election of that year. Maxwell also lost his seat but, by then, had already realized that true power lay in journalism: the pen really was mightier than the sword. In 1969 Maxwell had unsuccessfully tried to buy the News of the World, having been beaten to it by the Australian entrepreneur Rupert Murdoch. Maxwell did not take defeat well and accused Murdoch of ‘employing the laws of the jungle’, claiming he had made a ‘fair and bona fide offer which has been frustrated and defeated over three months of cynical manoeuvring’. In response Murdoch stated that News of the World shareholders had judged him on his record of newspaper ownership in Australia and were confident in his ability. This was a clear slight on Maxwell’s character as well as the start of a bitter and lifelong rivalry between both men.

In 1969 Maxwell had opened negotiations with American businessman Saul Steinberg, who had declared an interest in buying Pergamon Press Ltd (PPL) on the understanding that the company was making vast profits. Discovering this to be untrue, the American, despite months of negotiations, abruptly pulled out of the proposed purchase. An investigation by the Department of Trade and Industry followed, in which inspectors revealed how transactions between private Maxwell companies had been used to inflate the PPL share price. Steinberg issued legal proceedings against the former MP and in 1974 it was discreetly announced in New York that he had received a payment of $6.3 million from Maxwell and his investment bankers. In their 1970 report the DTI inspectors had concluded: ‘Notwithstanding Mr Maxwell’s acknowledged ability and energy, he is not, in our opinion, a person who can be relied upon to exercise proper stewardship of a publicly quoted company.’

He lost control of Pergamon and so the company’s investment bankers appointed a new chairman in the shape of Sir Walter Coutts who, with three independent directors, reversed the fortunes of Pergamon spectacularly and returned control of the company to Maxwell in 1974. Naturally, the ‘bouncing Czech’ as he had become known due to his questionable integrity and to his ability to bounce back from adversity, claimed the credit for the successful turnaround of his company. Coutts was later quoted by a biographer as saying: ‘Maxwell has an ability to sublimate anything that stops him getting what he wants. He is so flexible he is like a grasshopper. There is no question of morality or conscience. Maxwell is Number One and what Maxwell wants is the most important thing and to hell with anything else.’

Building on the success of Pergamon, Maxwell bought Mirror Group Newspapers from Reed International for £113 million on 13 June 1984. Behind the scenes, he had already built up a mini empire consisting of, among other things, a record label, Nimbus Records, a printing company, a book publishing house, half of MTV Europe, 20 per cent of Central Television in Britain, a cable television company and two newspapers, the People and Sporting Life. As his empire, now called Maxwell Communications Corporation PLC, grew so did his interest and influence in politics, especially as one of his various companies published the speeches of Chernenko, Ceausescu, Brezhnev, Andropov, Kadar, Husak and other Eastern European leaders. He also published sycophantic biographies of world figures and used the opportunity to meet and interview them, which caused him to be ridiculed at home but strengthened his links with several totalitarian regimes.

Maxwell also claimed to have influence in Israel and during a magazine interview for Playboy he boasted that it was he who had been responsible for persuading Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir to exercise restraint in the face of Scud missile attacks from Saddam Hussein during the first Gulf War. What’s more, he also boasted of close ties with the Israeli secret service, Mossad; indeed after his death it was revealed that Maxwell had worked with the organization for many years and was known to a handful of elite Mossad agents by his codename ‘the Little Czech’.

Journalists would later point out how Maxwell’s companies would invariably take a downturn financially whenever Mossad was engaging in expensive covert operations, leading to speculation he was an important source of funds. Mossad was even rumoured to have funded Maxwell’s first big business venture, prompting suggestions that the whole of Maxwell’s business empire was in fact a Mossad fundraising venture. Stranger things have happened.

But in early 1991, the Little Czech was beginning to lose his bounce. A recent Panorama documentary for the BBC had drawn attention to the DTI’s conclusion in the 1970s and suggested Maxwell had been bolstering the MCC PLC share price through transactions with secretly owned companies in Lichtenstein and Gibraltar. The inevitable libel writs were issued but a number of biographers followed with similar accusations. During the summer of 1991, Maxwell’s relations with Israel soured when his repeated requests to Mossad to apply pressure on Israeli bankers to refinance his business were ignored. By now even the British Parliament were also keeping a close eye on Maxwell’s international business dealings.

Ministers had known for a long time about Maxwell’s influence with the various world leaders he had connections with. After all, it had been Maxwell who had liaised between Moscow and Tel Aviv during the August Coup of 1991, in which the former head of the KGB, Vladimir Kryuchkov, and other hardline Communists had attempted to oust Mikhail Gorbachev from power. (Who can forget the images being broadcast live by satellite during the early days of Sky Television of Boris Yeltsin standing on his tank with a loudhailer, organizing the defence of the White House in Moscow.) Maxwell had been involved in arranging a meeting between the Israeli secret service and high-level KGB officials, including Kryuchkov, to discuss Mossad support for the plot to replace Gorbachev, the first Russian president to show any sign of being about to work closely with Western governments.

But then, according to the sworn testimony of former Mossad agent Ari Ben-Menashe, Maxwell had made the mistake of threatening Mossad with revealing information about the meeting unless they supported him financially. According to Ben-Menashe, both Maxwell and the Daily Mirror’s foreign editor were long-time Mossad agents, and it had been Maxwell who had informed the Israeli Embassy in London that Mordechai Vanunu had revealed details of Israel’s nuclear capability to the Sunday Times. Vanunu was immediately lured from his Sunday Times-provided safe house in London to Rome where he was snatched by Mossad agents. He was later returned to Israel, convicted of treason and spent the next eighteen years protesting his innocence from prison before finally being released in 2004.

On 21 October 1991, two members of Parliament, Labour’s George Galloway and Tory Rupert Allison, were persuaded to bring up the Vanunu affair, and Maxwell’s part in it, in the House of Commons. Protected by parliamentary privilege, in which they could make allegations without fear of litigation, newspapers began to report a wide range of Maxwell-related intrigues and mysteries.

The Israeli secret service were also concerned by the whole Robert Maxwell situation. And as soon as he began to threaten them, his fate was sealed. Agents quickly agreed to the meeting of ‘great urgency’ called for by a now cash-strapped Robert Maxwell. They were well aware that Israel’s reputation in the West, particularly with America on whom they were heavily reliant, would be severely tarnished should it become known that they were in any way connected with the attempt to prevent democracy in the Soviet Union. Mossad could not longer afford to take any further risks with the Little Czech.

According to Ben-Menashe, in his book The Profits of War published in 1992, Maxwell was instructed to travel to Spain the following day where arrangements for a money transfer could be made. His orders were to sail his yacht to Madeira and wait on it there to receive further instructions. Maxwell breathed a sigh of relief as he left England for Spain, believing his recent growing financial problems were about to be solved and, on 31 October, he boarded the Lady Ghislane at Gibraltar and berthed at Madeira, where he dined alone.

The following day a specialist Mossad team, in Spain to cover a series of Middle Eastern peace talks, were sent south. Maxwell then received a message instructing him to meet instead on the island of Tenerife on 5 April. It is then alleged that Mossad agents boarded the boat near the Canary Islands during the night of 3 April, removed Maxwell to another vessel, interrogated him throughout the following day and then killed him by injecting air into his veins, which would have induced a heart attack.

But that’s not the end of the story, because Ben-Manashe had also claimed that he personally delivered the CIA share of the profits from an earlier arms deal between Iran and Israel to Robert Maxwell in London who, in turn, was supposed to forward it on to America. Instead, the money disappeared into the gaping hole in Maxwell’s balance sheet. Ben-Manashe alleged that Maxwell threatened the CIA with ‘damaging disclosures’ should they press him for the return of the money. Now, I’m no expert in world politics but when it comes to the wrong groups to annoy, the CIA and Mossad are two key ones to avoid, let alone blackmail.

It later transpired that as Robert Maxwell left for the Canary Islands he had also been told he was under investigation by the police for war crimes connected to the revelation about shooting that unarmed mayor in 1945. In March 2001, it was revealed, under the Freedom of Information Act, that weeks before he died detectives had started questioning members of Maxwell’s former platoon but had yet to find any witnesses to the shooting. The former lieutenant was advised six months prior to his death that he faced a possible sentence of life imprisonment if found guilty. The Metropolitan Police file notes: ‘The reported circumstances of the shooting gave rise to an allegation of War Crimes. To some extent, the reporting of the shooting incident was confirmed by Mr Maxwell in an interview he gave in 1988 to the journalist Brian Walden on 30th October 1988.’ Quite clearly there had been two shootings: by boasting of his wartime exploits, Maxwell had shot himself straight in the foot.

Following his death, Maxwell’s body was released to the Israeli authorities, who performed a second autopsy, revealing that the injuries to the body were not consistent with falling off a yacht and that he ‘had probably been murdered’. He was then afforded the honour of a Mount of Olives funeral, the resting place of Israel’s most respected heroes. During the service televised worldwide, the Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir cryptically announced that Maxwell ‘had done more for Israel than can today be said’. A remark that could simply be seen as a nod towards his fundraising efforts for the Israeli secret service – or rather more.

Before the dust had, quite literally, settled on Maxwell’s grave, calls of foul play could be heard. Maxwell’s own daughter, Ghislane, announced on television that his death had ‘not been an accident’. Others insisted he had committed suicide to escape the shame of his collapsing empire, not to mention the jail sentence that would certainly have followed if he had been found guilty of fraud. But his life insurance company quickly paid out a thumping £20 million, indicating that they, at least, were certain Maxwell had not jumped. So, if his insurers had apparently ruled out suicide (and it was very much in their interests, after all, to prove that he had taken his own life), only two options are left to consider. Did Robert Maxwell have a heart attack and fall overboard, or was he murdered by the Israeli secret service? There is further suggestion – put forward by those ever-busy conspiracy theorists – that Maxwell did not die but quietly slipped away from his problems, leaving another poor soul in the water to be found, misidentified and then buried on the Mount of Olives.

Either way, his death was followed by repeated revelations into his controversial business methods and accusations were made with impunity. It began to emerge that Maxwell had used £1 billion from his companies’ pension funds in order to service his debt liability and fund his flamboyant lifestyle. MCC PLC filed for bankruptcy protection in 1992 and Maxwell’s two sons, Ian and Kevin, were declared the world’s largest bankrupts, with debts of in excess of £400 million. In 1995 they were charged with fraud but acquitted in 1996. No doubt neither man was too impressed with his father’s legacy.

Perhaps the final word should come from Lady Coutts, whose husband had rescued Maxwell all those years earlier. After dinner at Headington Hall, Maxwell’s country house and business headquarters near Oxford, the newspaper man was bidding his guests goodbye in some of the nine languages he, by then, boasted he could speak. When it came to Lady Coutts, she deliberately spoke to him in a language Maxwell had no knowledge of, Swahili: ‘Kwaheri ashante sana sitaki kukuona tena’, which means: ‘Goodbye and thank you very much. Now I never wish to see you again.’ And fortunately for her, she never did.

Albert Jack

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Gone Missing is available as an ebook now

Gone Missingth

Contents

Mystery 1 – The Missing Lighthouse-Keepers of Eilean Mor
Mystery 2 – The Mary Celeste Mystery
Mystery 3 – What Happened to Glenn Miller?
Mystery 4 – The Lost King of France
Mystery 5 – The Missing Navy Diver – Buster Crabb
Mystery 6 – John Dillinger – The FBI Did Not Get Their Man
Mystery 7 –  Agatha Christie’s Real Life Mystery
Mystery 8 – The Invisible D.B. Cooper     
Mystery 9 – Who was the Real Mona Lisa
Mystery 10 – The World’s Strangest Unsolved Crimes

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St Valentine’s Day Massacre

Who was really behind the notorious mass shooting in Prohibition era Chicago?

On the evening of 14 February 1929, Chicago police made a grisly discovery. Inside a garage complex at 2212 North Clark Street lay the bodies of seven well-dressed men, who had all been brutally executed.

The investigators were puzzled. The victims were all mobsters with violent reputations who worked for the Irish bootlegger George ‘Bugs’ Moran. As Moran’s gang were known to be feuding with other gangsters, they should have been heavily armed and fully prepared for one of the shootouts that were becoming increasingly common in Prohibition era Chicago. How had so many of them ended up unarmed in a run-down warehouse in the back streets of the city? And why had none of them fought back – indeed, how could such experienced criminals have been led so tamely to their fate? It was a mystery to the police and a mystery to Bugs Moran. The American press and public wanted to know what could have possibly led to the horrific events of that bleak winter’s night.

The place to start in any murder investigation is motive: finding out who would benefit most from the killing. The motive in this instance was obvious, and the person likely to benefit most from the killing seemed pretty obvious too. It was the height of the Prohibition years and many mobs and gangs were competing for the lucrative (and illegal) trade in alcohol, drugs, gambling and prostitution. Bugs Moran had formed an impressive smuggling and supply racket in Chicago. He also had a small army of followers, mainly from the Irish community. Taking on the Irishman would be akin to going to war, which ruled out all the small-time operators. For a suspect, the investigators kept returning to one name and one name alone, Al ‘Scarface’ Capone.

Capone’s gang of Italian mobsters were well known to the authorities. His network of prostitutes, gambling dens, smugglers, bootlegging of illegal alcohol and his protection rackets had created an impressive empire and he was estimated to be worth in the region of $65 million, a staggering sum of money in 1929, worth approximately $7.2 billion today. He was a force to be reckoned with in Chicago and his policy of expansion through killing his business rivals placed him top of the list of suspects. It seemed obvious that he was behind it. But he denied all knowledge. His rival, Moran, had neither been killed nor even threatened, and the men lying dead in that garage were mere foot soldiers whose death could not have benefited Capone in any way. He had also been in Florida on Valentine’s Day.

Even the single eyewitness to the shooting couldn’t shed any light on the identity of the perpetrators. The police had found Frank ‘Tight Lips’ Gusenberg lying amongst the carnage and choking on his own blood. He was rushed to hospital and, on finally regaining consciousness, was immediately asked who had shot him. Gusenberg carefully looked around the room before replying, ‘Shot? Nobody shot me!’ He died soon afterwards and the general belief was that he had recognized somebody in the room, although his silence hadn’t helped him survive.

The police returned to the scene and tried to piece together the events leading up to the shooting from what little evidence they had. It was statements from the inhabitants of North Clark Street that provided their first real breakthrough. Several residents confirmed they had heard gunfire but swore they had then seen two uniformed policemen leading two civilians away at gunpoint. The two ‘suspects’ had been handcuffed and bundled into a police car and then driven away. Reassured that the police were already present and everything appeared to be under control, no one made any effort to report the matter to the authorities. But the Chicago police had no record of any shootings or arrests made in North Clark Street on the night of 14 February. The investigators followed up every clue and lead they had, but they were all dead-ends and no convictions were ever secured for the brutal murders in the warehouse on that cold February night.

Despite the fact that there was no proof linking Capone to the massacre, Bugs Moran had got the message. He promptly moved his gang out of the North Side, leaving all business in that area for the Italians. But he had already made a major error by commenting publicly to a journalist, ‘Only Capone kills like that.’ These five short words were a serious breach of the gangster code of silence, after which even his own gang members began to lose respect for their boss.

Moran became an increasingly marginalized and desperate figure. In 1946 he was finally arrested for robbing a bank messenger of $10,000, a far cry from the high-level crime and luxurious lifestyle he had enjoyed during the Prohibition years. Moran was sentenced to ten years imprisonment but immediately rearrested on his release. He was given another ten years at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary, where he died of cancer in 1957. His body lies in a pauper’s grave within the prison walls.

The St Valentine’s Day Massacre also led to the downfall of Al Capone himself because it brought his activities to the attention of the Federal government. Despite no evidence being found to connect him to the killings in North Clark Street, the gangster was soon convicted on charges of income tax evasion and, in 1931, sentenced to eleven years at the notorious high-security prison at Alcatraz.

While in prison, Capone’s mental health began to deteriorate: towards the end he was convinced that the ghost of James Clark, one of the St Valentine’s Day victims, was haunting him. It was the only clue he ever gave of any involvement in the killings. After his release, Capone spent the last five years of his life quietly in his luxury estate in Miami, Florida. On 25 January 1947, he died of a heart attack thought to have been caused by the third-stage complications of syphilis.

Meanwhile the garage on North Clark Street – the site of the infamous events – was demolished; the area is now a landscaped car park for a nursing home. The infamous wall Moran’s men were shot against was dismantled, sold at auction and shipped to Canada where it was rebuilt in the toilets of a Vancouver theme bar, the BanjoPalace. When that business closed down, each brick of the famous wall was sold off, as macabre souvenirs.

The St Valentine’s Day Massacre itself remained a mystery until recently. The true events of that fateful night were discovered long after the deaths of everybody involved. In January 1929 Jack ‘Machine Gun’ McGurn, one of the Capone mob, was making a telephone call on the street when Peter and Frank Gusenberg’s car drew alongside. When the two Moran mobsters recognized McGurn, they opened fire, but missed him, which was to prove to be a major error for the brothers. Both Capone and Bugs Moran were struggling for control of the bootlegging business in Chicago and the tension between them had begun to degenerate into street warfare. But with many other mobsters muscling in on the action, it was sometimes unclear who was responsible for which act of violence. This time there was no mistake; McGurn knew exactly who had tried to kill him.

Capone was already aware of the might of Moran’s army and a month or so earlier had secretly discussed with an associate how to eliminate the ‘Moran risk’. When he was allegedly warned he would ‘have to kill a lot of people to get to Bugs Moran’, Capone joked that he would send plenty of flowers. So when ‘Machine Gun’ McGurn approached his boss with a plan to avenge the phone-box shooting, Capone saw the perfect opportunity to start eliminating Moran’s gang, from the bottom upwards.

With the boss’s authorization, McGurn created a six-man team headed by Fred Burke with the intention of luring the Gusenbergs, with as many of Moran’s other henchmen as possible, into a trap. Burke, a little-known Capone man at the time, invited the brothers to a warehouse meeting, claiming to have many crates of hijacked bootleg whiskey for sale.

Both Capone and McGurn left town to make sure they had watertight alibis. The meeting was to take place on the night of 14 February and, with more of Capone’s men placed as strategic lookouts along the surrounding streets, the plan swung into action. Four of McGurn’s gang pulled up at the deserted garage, watched by Moran’s lookouts who, deciding the coast was clear, signalled for the seven-strong Gusenberg gang to approach. But after they were inside, two more of McGurn’s gang dressed as Chicago police officers approached in a stolen patrol car. Moran’s lookouts fled the scene, fearing a police bust, while Capone’s remained in place, on standby in case the real police should arrive.

Inside the garage, the fake patrolmen found the suspicious-looking group and ordered them to drop their weapons. All of the gangsters complied, McGurn’s men believing their captors were the relatively harmless police force, many of whom were already on the mob’s payroll anyway. However, as they lined up, Capone’s four men peeled away, leaving the seven Moran men alone against the wall. Within a split second the gangsters dressed as policemen had opened fire using two Thompson submachine guns. They were quickly joined by the remaining gangsters, who pumped bullets into their surprised and defenceless rivals. All seven – James Clark, Adam Heyer, Johnny May, Al Weinshank, Frank and Peter Gusenberg and Dr Reinhardt Schwimmer – were left either dead, or bleeding to death, on the garage floor. The gunfire had attracted the attention of other residents in the street, but they were soon comforted to see two uniformed policemen in a patrol car ‘arresting’ those responsible. But when neither of the policemen were ever seen again, it led to one of the bloodiest murder mysteries the world has known and, ultimately, not a single conviction was ever secured.

Extract from Mysterious World

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Weird and Wonderful World

Weird and Wonderful World is available as an ebook now

Weird & Wonderfulth

Contents

Mystery 1 – The Famous Aurora Spaceship Mystery
Mystery 2 – Beware of the USOs
Mystery 3 – Try to See It from My Angle: The Bermuda Triangle
M
ystery 4 – The Magnetic Strip
Mystery 5 – The Strange Case of Kaspar Hauser
Mystery 6 – The Piano Man
Mystery 7 – The Terrifying Affair of Spring-heeled Jack
M
ystery 8 – The Dover Demon
M
ystery 9 – It’s Raining Frogs
Mystery 10 – The Men Who Cheated Death

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Mysterious World

 

 

 

 

Mysterious World is available as an ebook now

Mysterious Worldth

Contents

Mystery 1 – Bigfoot
Mystery 2 – Crop Circles
Mystery 3 – Who Killed Marilyn Monroe?
Mystery 4 – The Loch Ness Monster
Mystery 5 – The Death of Robert Maxwell
Mystery 6 – Will the Real Paul McCartney Please Stand Up
Mystery 7 – The Awful Fate of Edgar Allan Poe
Mystery 8 – The St Valentines Day Massacre
Mystery 9 – The Chilling Tale of The Chase Vault
Mystery 10 – Fairies at the Bottom of the Garden

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Does Bigfoot Exist?

What made the oversized tracks found in Bluff Creak, California, and other parts of America? A giant ape or just a big jape?

In 1924, a group of miners working in the Cascade Mountain Range in the state of Washington were startled to see a huge simian creature staring at them from behind a tree. Panic-stricken, one of the men fired at it and although the bullet appeared to hit the giant ape in the head, the beast ran off, apparently unharmed. Soon afterwards another of the miners, Fred Beck, spotted it again on the edge of a canyon and again fired, this time hitting the creature in the back. The group watched as it fell over the ridge. They scrambled at once down into the canyon below, but could find no trace of the creature’s body.

However, that evening as it grew dark, the men heard strange scratching noises outside their log cabin and saw shadowy gorilla-like faces at the window. The terrified miners barricaded the door but soon the creatures were hammering at the roof and walls. Heavy rocks were thrown and the cabin rocked from side to side. The men began shooting through the walls in all directions but still the hammering continued, only ending as the sun rose the next morning. The miners packed up at once and left the cabin, vowing never to return.

It was only after Eric Shipton famously photographed a giant footprint on the Menlung Glacier of Mount Everest in 1951, putting his pickaxe alongside to show its size, that interest in giant apes began to gather pace. During the 1953 expedition to Everest, when Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tensing were the first to successfully climb the mountain, both men reported seeing oversized footprints. Although Hillary later disputed that these were yeti tracks, there was so much interest in finding out more that the Daily Mail sponsored a ‘Snowman’ expedition in the Himalayas the following year. Keen to discover more about America’s very own yeti-style legend, John Green tracked down Fred Beck in the late 1960s and interviewed him for his book On the Track of the Sasquatch, and the Bigfoot mystery took even firmer root in America.

The word ‘Sasquatch’, applied to the large, hairy hominid in its North American manifestation, was first coined much earlier – in the 1920s – by J. W. Burns. While working as a schoolteacher at the Chehalis Indian Reserve on the Harrison River, he had learned that Native American Indians used the words soos-q’tal and sokqueatl to describe the various ‘giant men’ of their legends. To simplify matters, Burns decided to invent one name to cover all such creatures, and through one of his articles – ‘Introducing British Columbia’s Hairy Giants’, published in MacLean’s Magazine in 1929 – ‘Sasquatch’ passed into wider use.

As the public fascination for the giant apeman grew, the media began to report sightings on a regular basis. In 1958 road construction worker Ray Wallace was amazed when his colleague reported finding huge footprints in the dirt at Bluff Creak in northern California, the area they were working in. The local press descended and soon the story was front-page news all over America. Casts were made of the prints, which experts declared genuine. The first newspaper to carry the story, the Humboldt Times of Eureka in California, used the name ‘Bigfoot’ in their headline, and the word has since become synonymous with America’s favourite mystery creature. When more tracks were found, Sasquatch hunters flocked into the now famous Bluff Creek area to see what else they could discover.

It wasn’t until Ray Wallace’s death, in December 2002, that the mystery was revealed. Members of Ray’s family requested that his obituary should announce that, with his passing, Bigfoot had also died. Ray Wallace immediately became one of the most controversial characters in Bigfoot history when it was revealed that he (along with a handful of his close friends and co-workers) had made the tracks. Investigators soon found out that all of the tracks appeared in areas Ray had worked in. In the early days that had been in Washington State, where the first footprints had been found, while over twenty years later discoveries were being made further south, in California. Bigfoot had not been on the move, Ray Wallace had. Family members produced dozens of different oversized foot moulds made out of wood or clay that Ray would have spent weeks crafting and honing.

His buddies, by then rather elderly pranksters, showed in television documentaries how they had created the vast footsteps: holding on to a rope tied to the back of a logger’s truck being driven very slowly had enabled them to take the giant steps that had so fooled expert analysis. In much the same way as crop-circle makers simply enjoy confounding the experts (see page 000), so did Ray and his pals.

Bigfoot Hoaxers at Work
However, despite The New York Times running the news as a headline story, many Bigfoot researchers have discounted the revelation (not altogether surprising – cynics might say – when their credibility was on the line) and even tried to discredit the Wallace family, threatening them with legal action. One poor haunted soul who spent his adult life in search of Bigfoot evidence wondered why anybody would put so much time into ‘messing with people’s heads’. The answer, of course, is because it is fun. Fun, and surprisingly easy.

Nonetheless, a number of scientists and leading members of the Bigfoot Field Research Centre (BFRC) are, instead, stating that the footprint moulds produced by the pranksters are themselves the fake, not the tracks. In a bizarre piece of reverse logic, some are insisting the Wallace family must prove their claims. John Green, described as one of America’s foremost Bigfoot researchers, loftily remarked of Wallace that if he had revealed the footprint mould during his lifetime he ‘would, of course, [have been] called upon to prove himself’. I am unable to see how anybody can become a ‘foremost researcher’ when they have discovered exactly the same amount of genuine evidence of Bigfoot as I have – that is, absolutely nothing.

It was, after all, John Green who interviewed Albert Ostman in 1957 and fell for his tall (in more senses than one) story. Ostman said he had been looking for gold in British Columbia during the gold rush of 1927, when he had been kidnapped by an adult male Sasquatch. The beast gathered up the man in his sleeping bag and carried him several miles. He was then dumped on the ground and realized, shortly afterwards, that he was being held by a family of four who would not let him leave their camp. After six days of captivity, he concluded he was being considered as future husband material for the young female, so he fired his rifle into the air, distracting the family for long enough to make his escape.

When Green asked why Albert had not told his story before, the ageing gold prospector replied that he thought nobody would have believed him. And few did, except John Green and his vast fan base of Bigfoot believers ready to leap to his defence on every issue. But Green did finally concede, in 2007, that he ‘would not believe the story if he were told it today’.

Take another established piece of ‘proof’ – the footage of a female Sasquatch filmed by Roger Patterson in Bluff Creek. The story goes that in October 1967 Patterson and his friend Bob Gimlin were riding through the creek when their horses reared up and they were both thrown to the ground. As they picked themselves up, they noticed a ‘huge, hairy creature walking like a man’ about thirty yards ahead of them. Patterson grabbed his cine-camera and began filming the beast as she loped away, pausing only once – and looking directly into the camera lens as she did so – before disappearing from view. The film has become world famous and has been studied by zoologists, crypto-zoologists, palaeontologists, biologists, anthropologists, archaeologists, Uncle Tom Cobbley and all. And you will be unsurprised to hear that opinion is divided about whether it is genuine footage (Bigfootage?) or not.

Leading scientists did, however, conclude at the time that there was ‘nothing in the film that leads them, on scientific grounds, to suspect a hoax’. Having now made my own detailed study of the film, using ultra-slow, frame-by-frame-pausing technology obligingly provided by Sony (namely, the DVD player in my front room), I can now add to the debate. To my albeit untrained eye, the creature looks suspiciously like a man in a monkey suit on his way to a fancy-dress party.

Seasoned Bigfoot researchers nevertheless regard the film as a significant piece of evidence, saying that to suggest that it was a hoax would be ‘demonstrably false’ – that old double-negative rhetoric again. But even non-researchers, including the physical anthropologist Grover Kranz, confirm the film does depict a ‘genuine unknown creature’. Another prominent primate expert, John Napier, is still not entirely convinced but once revealed: ‘I could not see the zipper then and I still can’t. Perhaps it was a man dressed up in a monkey costume; if so it was a brilliantly executed hoax and the unknown perpetrator will take his place with the great hoaxers of the world.’ So does this mean if he can’t see the zip, it can’t be a monkey suit? Or had the hoaxer compounded his/her cleverness by inventing an early form of Velcro?

In 2004, Greg Long revealed in his book The Making of Bigfoot that the grainy clip was in fact an elaborate hoax. Long claims he had managed to trace the monkey suit to costume maker Philip Morris, a gorilla suit specialist from North Carolina. In the book, Morris states he sold the suit to Roger Patterson for $435, and when he saw the Bigfoot photos on the television and in the newspapers a few weeks later, he recognized the suit as the one he had made. Morris claims never to have revealed this information before because to break ‘client confidentiality’ in such a public manner would have lost him customers. It might have saved millions of research dollars, though.

Greg Long revealed the man in the suit as Bob Heironimus – a friend of Patterson’s – who subsequently told the Washington Post: ‘It’s time people knew it was a hoax. It is time to let this thing go … I have been burdened with this for thirty-six years, seeing the film-clip on television numerous times. Somebody’s making lots of money out of this, except for me. But that is not the issue, the issue is that it is finally time to let people know the truth.’

John Green, of course, immediately went on the offensive, calling him a liar and declaring Greg Long had made ‘a fool of himself’. And while Heironimus was a known associate of Patterson and has passed two lie detector tests and Greg Long has found several independent, but supporting, witnesses, John Green still has yet to provide a single piece of evidence for his case that the film is of a genuine, if as yet unidentified, hairy giant.

Step forward, then, Roger Patterson himself. Unfortunately, he can no longer be called upon as he died in 1972. However, the other witness to the Bigfoot sighting, Bob Gimlin, is still alive. Bob no longer speaks personally about the film as he is ‘fed up with the whole Bigfoot thing’, but his solicitor, Tom Malone, issued a statement to the Washington Post in response to their story about Heironimus’s revelation: ‘I am authorized to tell you that nobody wore a gorilla suit or monkey suit and that Mr Gimlin’s position is that it’s absolutely false and untrue.’ Which seems clear enough, but it is quite possible Gimlin didn’t know about Patterson’s hoax and was simply used to increase its credibility. Even if he was in on the act, Gimlin has always maintained the film to be genuine and so any revelation now, forty years after the event, would be somewhat embarrassing for him.

In 1969, another set of tracks was reported – in Bossburg, Washington – that, on closer inspection, revealed the giant beast’s right paw was in fact club-footed. Experts argued that this indicated that the tracks were very likely to be the first genuine piece of evidence to support the existence of the Sasquatch. Professor John Napier, whose book Bigfoot was published in 1973, wrote: ‘It is difficult to conceive of a hoaxer so subtle, so knowledgeable – and so sick – who would deliberately fake a footprint of this nature. I suppose it is possible but so unlikely I am prepared to discount the idea it is a hoax.’ Straight from the school of ‘If I couldn’t think of it then nor could anybody else’, and with such imaginative minds on the trail of Bigfoot, it is hardly surprising he has managed to elude us for so long.

Despite sightings of Bigfoot reported in every American state except Hawaii and Rhode Island, the creature’s natural habitat is said to be the remote woodlands and forests in the Pacific Northwest of America and Canada. The Rocky Mountains have provided many sightings, as have the Great Lakes. But if this is the case, how could he have got to Florida, California and other southern states? The Sasquatch would have had to leave the cover of his remote woodland hideaway, and it is difficult to imagine how such a creature could travel so far without leaving behind at least some credible evidence. You would certainly spot him in the Greyhound bus queue.

But, unfortunately for the wonderfully named Texas Bigfoot Research Center (TBRC), it turns out that most of the evidence found, such as blood or hair samples, footprint casts or photographs, usually turn out to be fake and never, as yet, from an unknown creature. Investigators at TBRC say they receive reports of over one hundred sightings each year in Texas alone, while on the homepage of their website Janet Bord states: ‘If the skeptics are right and there is no such creature as Bigfoot, then it is a fact that thousands of Americans and Canadians are either prone to hallucinations, or are compulsive liars or unable to recognize bears, deer and vagrants.’ Quite how tramps became involved is anybody’s guess.

Also on the homepage of the TBRC website is something that bears further examination. One Rick Noll is quoted, stating his reasons why no firm evidence for the existence of a big, hairy, part-man, part-simian-type monster has been found:

  1. No one is spending enough time in the woods,
  2. Not many people know what to do in searching, overlooking things, or vice-versa, seeing things that aren’t significant [sic] to the task,
  3. There are not many of these animals around,
  4. They, like most animals in the forest, know how to camouflage themselves quickly and easily,
  5. Most encounters with humans are probably mistakes on the part of the Bigfoot, yet researchers are trying to fill in the picture with them as to being something significant.

So there you have it. Those are the reasons the TBRC claim there is, to date, still no credible evidence of the existence of Bigfoot. So how is it then that, despite the use of the whole spectrum of technology – from heat-seeking cameras with night vision to thermal imaging – nobody has confirmed the existence of Bigfoot?

Bigfoot enthusiasts apart, the group of people keenest to obtain as much information as possible of the apeman’s existence would be the US government. And as they have surveillance equipment that can detect a small nuclear warhead buried in the desert somewhere near Baghdad, it is fair to assume they would have picked up one of the thousands of Sasquatch that have to exist if all the Americans and Canadians who claim sightings are not lying.

Such a large number of sightings does suggest that Bigfoot, or a relative of his, could well be out there; indeed I, like Janet Bord, refuse to believe that so many people can be lying. But hundreds of small, circumstantial and improvable reports do not add up to a single, solid fact. It is like pouring thirty separate measures of Jack Daniels into a large glass. Added together they do not make the drink any stronger in flavour; it still tastes exactly the same. But if you drink it all – as I have discovered through experimentation for this very investigation on your behalf – you will fall over. Scientifically speaking, weak evidence should not become any stronger just because there is lots of it, although it can affect your judgement in the end.

But the Texas Bigfoot Research Centre is not the only organization dedicated to finding firm evidence: there are many others throughout America. On 27 December 2003, for example, the Pennsylvania Bigfoot Society (PBS) hosted their fifth annual East Coast Bigfoot Conference (ECBC), and the keynote speaker, Stan Gordon, veteran researcher and the founder/director of the Pennsylvania Association for the Study of the Unexplained (PASU), concluded his opening speech linking Bigfoot sightings with known UFO activity in the same areas – although he stopped short of announcing: ‘Bigfoot is a spaceman.’ Which I would have done, just for the headline.  leave in ‘There is no doubt the evidence suggests there is something out there,’ he assured the audience, as they sat there hanging on his every word, then continued: ‘We just don’t know what it is.’

Another speaker at the conference, Paul Johnson, a chemistry professor at Duquense University in Pittsburgh, thought he knew: ‘Bigfoot is a quantum animal that moves freely between the real world as we know it and a quantum world outside the reach of conventional laws.’ He went on to explain how that, in quantum physics, electrons do not follow the normal rules of physics. Although he admitted his ideas were unconventional, he also noted (contradicting himself in the process) that nothing as large as Bigfoot could behave like an electron in reality, which was a relief because everybody knows that a living being is unable to dematerialize and then reappear in perfect working order in another place. Unless, of course, you are travelling on the starship Enterprise,and then you can.

Another speaker at the ECBC, Janice Coy from Monroe County, Tennessee, claimed her family had developed a relationship with a family of Bigfoot (or should that be ‘Bigfeet’?) since 1947. Her grandfather, having stumbled across an injured Bigfoot, had bandaged its broken leg and allowed it to recover in a barn at the family farm. She claims to have even held a baby Bigfoot in her arms and explained that for years she had tried to obtain photographic evidence, without success. She picked up on Paul Johnson’s quantum theory and suggested that was the reason none of her photographs ever returned to her with images any clearer than a ‘shapeless fuzz’. And no one likes to see a shapeless fuzz now, do they.

On one occasion the Sasquatch family, realizing the camera was present on a nearby tripod, used long sticks to retrieve food from a place out of range of the lens. On another occasion, the roll of film Janice submitted to a commercial processing lab returned to her after the film had been mysteriously overexposed, and every image lost for ever. She also claimed she was trying to obtain DNA evidence to provide comprehensive proof of the family’s existence; no one asked her why she didn’t just pinch a couple of hairs from the baby she had held in her arms. That would have been enough to prove her bizarre claims. But that’s enough about the ECBC, so let’s move on.

Where DNA testing has been carried out on purported evidence, none has been proven to come from an unknown beast. Usually Bigfoot hairs are found to have come from bison or other common animals. The absence of fossil evidence is another powerful argument that Bigfoot does not exist, although believers counter this by suggesting that the absence of fossil evidence is not yet evidence of fossil absence, and so it goes on and on and on. But the fact remains that not a single hair, bone, tooth, nail or claw has ever been found that belongs to a giant hairy man-like being that cannot be explained, and yet there is plenty of evidence found in similar areas that bears, moose, deer and even dinosaurs and hairy mammoths have left their traces behind them. So why not Sasquatch, if there is one?

The late professor Grover Krantz, a reputable anthropologist, was one of few scientists to state publicly that he believed in Bigfoot. He personally interviewed hundreds of witnesses, studied film footage and photographic evidence and inspected many plaster casts of footprints and other imprints. He estimated that between 200 and 2,000 Bigfoot lived in the Pacific Northwest of America and dedicated his life to proving it, but he never turned up any credible evidence that could be regarded as anything approaching proof. However, the professor was unabashed, once suggesting that most animals hide before they die and their bodies are quickly devoured by scavengers, noting that he had ‘yet to meet anyone who has found the remains of a bear that was not killed by human activity’. Which is a fair point, but then he hasn’t met everybody yet, has he?

It was Grover Krantz who announced to the world that the club-footed prints had offered the ‘first convincing evidence that the animals were real’. He also said of other tracks he had studied that a ‘push-off mound’ was ‘impressive evidence’ to him. This was a small mound of soil, present in some Bigfoot tracks, that Krantz had decided was created by the ‘horizontal push of the front foot just before it leaves the ground’. He stated with authority that no artificial rubber or wooden mould would leave such an impression.

More recently, in 2005, a story was told of a young Bigfoot that had been accidentally caught in a bear trap. A boy and his father had taken the beast back home and put him in a cage, but when the Bigfoot became distressed, the boy’s father let it go. In a world where everybody now has video cameras, even on their mobile telephones, it is a hard to believe that their first instinct wouldn’t be to take a close-up picture of the creature. Quite frankly, although this story is reported as genuine, if it turns out to be true, then I will shave my head and become a French monk.

So, in summary, what is still needed is a carcass. That would be ideal, although any Sasquatch fossil or bone would do – just something more convincing that the plaster mould of an oversized footprint made by a carved wooden or plastic shape strapped to the foot of a prankster being pulled along by a slow-moving truck to help create the effect of giant footsteps that ‘man could not possibly have made’. Even the apparently genuine footprints look suspicious to me. Look again at the assessment of the small mound of earth focused upon by the expert Dr Grover Krantz – caused ‘by a horizontal push of the front foot just before it leaves the ground’. Now go and have a walk across your living room like I just did, and notice how your front foot never leaves the ground, until the other one passes it of course, but by then it is your back foot. So what is he talking about?

As every single apparently credible piece of material evidence of Bigfoot has turned out to be a hoax, then there is nothing else for it – we do need a carcass. Indeed Krantz himself believed this would be the only way to finally remove any doubt in people’s minds as to the existence of Bigfoot, and he called for hunters to bring one in. But that also worries me, because what if the one that is shot turns out to be the only one? Hold your fire after all, fellas …

Either way, the search, for some, will continue and groups of people known by their initials, including Central Ohio Bigfoot Research (COBR) and the Gulf Coast Bigfoot Research Organization (GCBRO), will continue to flourish and attract new members and devise new acronyms. I might even start my own group and call it the Time Wasters And Tricksters Society, of which I am told by some that I am perfectly qualified to be the president. Because if enough people continue to insist Bigfoot, or Sasquatch, is alive and well somewhere in the wilderness, there will always be hoaxers leaving clues for them to find. In reality, it will remain as impossible to prove Bigfoot does not exist as it is to prove you do not have a invisible, silent, pink lion standing in your garden, looking at you right now and thinking, ‘Lunch.’ You can’t prove there isn’t one, you know. After all, any absence of evidence for invisible, silent, pink lions is not yet evidence of their absence.

Albert Jack – President TWAT


Extract from Mysterious World

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The Mary Celeste Mystery

The Mary Celeste was a ghost ship found off the coast of Portugal in 1872. Why she had been abandoned has been the subject of endless speculation ever since.

One calm, quiet afternoon in December 1872, seaman John Johnson peered through his telescope, from the deck of the Dei Gratia (or ‘Thanks to God’ in English). Alarmed by what he had seen, he shouted down for the second mate, John Wright, to join him and the two men stared at the ship sailing erratically on the horizon. They then summoned the captain, David Reed Morehouse, and first mate, Oliver Deveau. Morehouse at once recognized the Mary Celeste, which had put to sea from New York only seven days before the Dei Gratia. Despite the absence of distress signals, Morehouse knew something had to be wrong – no one appeared to be guiding the vessel  – so he steered his ship closer. After two hours, Morehouse concluded the Mary Celeste was drifting so he despatched Deveau and some deckhands in a small boat to investigate, and one of the most puzzling sea mysteries of all time began to unfold, for the brigantine was completely deserted.

It was later recorded – although not by Deveau himself, who kept his information for the later inquest he knew he would have to attend – that the boarding party came upon mugs of tea and a half-eaten meal left out on the table, and a fat ship’s cat fast asleep on a locker. Mysterious cuts had been made in part of the railing, some strange slits had been cut into the deck and a blood-stained sword was discovered under the captain’s bed. Two small hatches to the cargo hold were open, although the main one was secure, and nine of the 1,701 barrels of American alcohol were empty. A spool of cotton was balanced on a sewing machine and, given the slightest movement, would clearly have rolled off if the sea hadn’t been so calm. A clock was turning backwards and the compass had been broken, but there were no signs of a violent struggle and, even more mysteriously, no sign of Captain Briggs, his wife, daughter, the single passenger, or any of the seven-man crew. Curiously, the vessel’s sexton, navigation book, chronometer, ship’s register and other papers were all missing, while the captain’s log lay open and ready for use upon his desk. It appeared that the people on board the Mary Celeste had simply vanished in the middle of eating their breakfast, never to be seen again. This is the story that became the accepted version of events, but as we delve into the truth of the tale we will try to find out what really happened and how the legend has grown to become one of the greatest sea mysteries of all time.

Following the discovery of the ghost ship, people’s imaginations were working overtime. The Boston Post reported on 24 February 1873 that ‘it is now believed that the brigantine Mary Celeste was seized by pirates in the latter part of November, and that the captain and his wife have been murdered’. Two days later, The New York Times concluded that ‘the brig’s officers are believed to have been murdered at sea’. And ever since then speculation about the crew’s sudden disappearance has been the subject of many a seafaring yarn, with stories of mutiny, giant whales, sea monsters, alien abduction, and much more, and yet the truth of what happened to the people on board the doomed ship, discovered halfway between the Azores and the Portuguese coast on that calm December afternoon, has remained a mystery.

Frederick Solly Flood was the attorney general for Gibraltar, where the Mary Celeste had been taken by Morehouse and his crew, and the advocate general for the British Admiralty Court. He was an arrogant, excitable character, infamous for his snap decisions, who had lost his son’s entire inheritance on a horse called ‘The Colonel’ in the 1848 Epsom Derby. At the inquest into the Mary Celeste, Flood decided that the crew must have broken into the cargo hold and drunk the nine barrels of liquor before murdering the captain and his wife and abandoning ship. He had to rethink his ideas after it was pointed out that the Mary Celeste’s cargo was of denatured alcohol, a mixture of ethanol and methanol similar to methylated spirits, and more likely to kill than to intoxicate.

Unabashed, Flood revised his conclusion to suggest a conspiracy between the two captains, who knew each other, to defraud the Mary Celeste’s owners. According to this theory, Briggs had killed his crew just before Morehouse was due to intercept the Mary Celeste and then stowed away with his family on the Dei Gratia while Morehouse claimed the salvage rights to the Mary Celeste and the two scurrilous captains split the money. It was then pointed out to the hapless attorney general that Briggs part-owned the ship himself and that the entire salvage money would have been less than his original investment. Solly Flood went back to the drawing board and decided that, if Briggs hadn’t been involved, then Morehouse must have killed the entire crew to gain salvage rights to the ship himself. Eventually, after many months of slander, the Admiralty stepped in and exonerated Morehouse of all responsibility, compensating him and his crew. Oliver Deveau must have read in despair what had been attributed to him by the newspapers, to which a vengeful Flood had been quick to leak details of the case.

Other theories were also dismissed since giant sea monsters, despite a penchant for sailors, were not known for taking a ship’s papers and navigational instruments, and nor were the aliens who had apparently abducted every living being on board except the cat. Neither were they picked off the deck one by one by a giant sea squid, nor blown into the sea by a passing whale that sneezed, and most clear-thinking people have ruled out any connection with the Bermuda Triangle (see ‘Try to See it from My Angle: The Bermuda Triangle’) as the Mary Celeste’s path didn’t cross it. Piracy was also ruled out as nothing of value had been stolen and mutiny considered unlikely as the small crew of professional and disciplined sailors were on the short voyage voluntarily and Captain Briggs himself was known to be well liked by his men. In March 1873, the court finally had to admit they were unable to determine the reason why Captain Briggs had abandoned the Mary Celeste, a conclusion that caused a sensation as it was the first time in history a nautical inquest had failed find a satisfactory explanation.

It was Solly Flood’s rantings in court that alerted the English media to the mystery of the Mary Celeste. When news reached London, a certain young doctor took a keen interest in the reports, using them in a short story, ‘J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement’. The yarn, published in January 1884 by the prestigious Cornhill Magazine, featured a mystery boat called Marie Celeste, not Mary Celeste, captained by a man called Tibbs, not Briggs. Many features of the fictional account are close to the true story of the Mary Celeste. Equally, many details – such as the half-eaten breakfast, or the abandoned boat in perfect condition floating serenely on still waters – were a figment of the writer’s imagination. And as the imagination belonged to the young Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, it was extremely convincing. With his appealing mixture of fact and fiction, Conan Doyle had inadvertently created a mystery that would occupy thousands of minds over the next century and provoke endless hours of debate.

Just when the conspiracy theories surrounding the Mary (not Marie) Celeste were beginning to die down, an interesting new lead emerged. In 1913 Howard Linford came across some old papers of Abel Fosdyk, a friend of his who had recently died. Among them was what claimed to be a first-hand, eyewitness account of what had happened to the captain and crew of the Mary Celeste. According to this account, Abel Fosdyk, due to unfortunate circumstances, had had to leave America in a hurry and had persuaded his good friend Captain Briggs to stow him away on the Mary Celeste. He also describes how Briggs had asked a carpenter to install a new deck-level on board so that his wife and daughter would have a viewing platform away from the dangers of a working ship’s deck.

Fosdyk then tells how Briggs, while at sea, became involved in a good-natured argument with two of the crew about how well a man could swim while fully clothed and to conclude the matter all three jumped into the calm water for a race. Unfortunately, they were then attacked by passing sharks. When the rest of the crew raced up on to the new temporary deck to see what the commotion was, it promptly collapsed, throwing everybody to the sharks. Everyone apart from Fosdyk himself, that is, who clung on to the platform, which drifted to the coast of Africa where he was saved. According to Fosdyk, he had been unable to tell the story during his lifetime for fear of being recognized and hauled back to America.

However, Fosdyk had got many of his facts about the ship and crew wrong. He claimed the crew were entirely English when in fact the crew list confirms four were German. Also, he described the Mary Celeste as a vessel of six hundred tons when in reality it was less than half that size. Finally, it is highly unlikely Briggs, a responsible sea captain, would jump fully clothed into the sea with two of his crew, leaving the rest of his men, his wife and two-year-old daughter on board to fend for themselves should the three swimmers run into trouble. Especially as, given the set of the rigging when the boat was discovered deserted by the Dei Gratia, it must have been sailing at a speed of several knots at the time, leaving the swimmers far behind. Whether Fosdyk invented the story and left it to be discovered among his papers upon his death, or whether his friend Howard Linford created the myth, is unknown.

Nevertheless, when the Strand Magazine published the papers in 1913, they raised more questions about the mystery than they answered. Then in the late 1920s, in Chambers Journal, a young reporter by name of Lee Kaye interviewed John Pemberton, another alleged only survivor of the Mary Celeste claiming to be able to reveal the shocking truth of what had really happened to the captain and crew. The public demanded to know more and the press eventually tracked Pemberton down and published the story alongside a photograph of the old sailor. Lawrence Keating turned the story into a book, The Great Mary Celeste Hoax (1929). The book was a worldwide bestseller until it was revealed that the journalist Lee Kaye, the sailor John Pemberton and the author Lawrence Keating were all one and the same. The photograph of Pemberton that Keating had given the press was of his own father.

But setting all the hoaxes and theories aside, what really did happen to the Mary Celeste? Let’s consider the evidence in a bit more detail.

In 1861 the first ship to emerge from the yard of Joshua Dewis shipbuilders on Spencer Island, Nova Scotia, was christened the Amazon. Launched as the American Civil War was gathering pace, she proved to be trouble right from the start. Her first captain, Robert McLellan, died before the ship went anywhere. Her second captain, John Nutting Parker, sailed her into a weir at Maine and during the subsequent repairs she caught fire. The ship passed through many hands with equal bad luck before being bought by J. H. Winchester & Co of New York for $2,500 during 1871.

Captain Benjamin Spooner Briggs bought a third share in the boat, intended to be his retirement fund. Briggs was born on 24 April 1835 in the town of Wareham, Massachusetts, and was a man of strict religious beliefs and a dedicated teetotaller being described as ‘of the highest character as a Christian and an intelligent and active shipmaster’. After a $14,500 refit, she re-emerged in New York’s East River proudly bearing a new, hopefully luckier name. The rechristened Mary Celeste was ready for her maiden voyage.

In 1872, Briggs prepared to take his new ship to Genoa with a cargo of denatured alcohol (intended for use by the Italians to fortify their wines). He enlisted his first crew, engaging Albert Richardson, a Civil War veteran who had served twice before with Briggs, as first mate. Second mate Andrew Gilling and steward Edward William were also of solid and reliable reputation. The four ordinary seamen were all German, two being brothers who had recently survived a shipwreck that had destroyed all of their possessions.

On Saturday 2 November 1872, after the barrels of alcohol had been loaded and made secure, Captain Briggs is known to have dined with his old friend Captain David Morehouse, skipper of the Dei Gratia, who had a cargo of petroleum to transport to Gibraltar a little over a week later. The two ships would be taking an almost identical route across the Atlantic, although the two men did not expect to see each other again before they returned to New York. As the weather was particularly stormy in the Atlantic, Captain Briggs was forced to wait before he risked venturing out on the open sea and he finally set sail on the afternoon of the 7 November.

According to the captain’s log, later found in Briggs’s cabin, the voyage was uneventful until the last entry recorded on the 25 November, which noted that the ship had reached St Mary’s Island (now called Santa Maria), east of the Azores. At that time the weather was deteriorating badly and the ship had been speeding along on a northeasterly wind towards the Azores. Captain Morehouse later testified that these strong winds soon turned into a torrential storm with gale-force gusts. This may explain why Captain Briggs had sailed Mary Celeste to the north of St Mary’s Island in the hope of finding some relief from the harsh weather. Nothing else is known of the fate of the Mary Celeste or her crew, and nothing is known of their whereabouts between 25 November and 4 December when the crew of Dei Gratia found the Mary Celeste adrift halfway between the Azores and the Portuguese coastline. However, the official evidence provided at the subsequent enquiry in Gibraltar provides plenty of clues.

Oliver Deveau, the seaman in charge of the boarding party, found no lifeboat aboard the Mary Celeste, despite the generally accepted belief that the lifeboat remained secured to the deck, which added to the intrigue. There may have even been two lifeboats on board when the ship left New York. He found that the front and rear cargo hatches had been removed and placed on the deck with sounding rods nearby, suggesting the hold was being measured for water intake, or perhaps being aired, at the time the crew disappeared. Only one pump was working and there was a great deal of standing water between the decks, with another three and a half feet in the hold. However, despite his noting that the ship was a ‘thoroughly wet mess with the captain’s bed soaked through and not fit to sleep in’, Deveau declared the ship seaworthy and sound enough to sail around the world in his view.

He also recorded that although some of the rigging and the foresails had been lost, they had not been lashed properly and might have come adrift at any point. The jib, foretopmast staysail and the fore lower topsail were set and the rest of the sails were all furled, suggesting the crew were already making ready to raise anchor and were in the process of setting the sails at the time they disappeared. There was ample fresh water and food in the galley, but curiously the heavy iron stove had been knocked out of its retaining chocks and was lying upturned on the deck.

A large water barrel, usually held in place, was loose and rolling free and the steering wheel had not been lashed into position (normal procedure when abandoning ship). There were strange cuts on the rail and hatch where the lifeboat tied to the main hatch had been axed free, rather than untied, and part of the railing had been hacked away to allow the lifeboat to be launched quickly. The apparently bloodstained sword, previously reported had, in fact, been cleaned with lime, which had oxidized the blade red. Solly Flood had known this, but chose to withhold that information from the court. Finally, and mysteriously, the ship was missing the American flag so proudly displayed as she left New York. It is clear the Mary Celeste was abandoned in great haste but the question is why Captain Briggs would desert a perfectly good ship for a small lifeboat? What happened on board to cause an experienced captain and crew to jump off the ship and into a tiny lifeboat, where they would be in far greater danger, when it must have been obvious the Mary Celeste was no danger of sinking?

James H. Winchester, part owner of the ship, suggested at the time that the cargo of raw alcohol could have given off powerful fumes and that this might have gathered in the hold and formed an explosive cocktail. He speculated that a spark caused by the metal strips reinforcing the barrels rubbing against each other could have ignited this, or that perhaps a naked flame used to inspect the hold could have caused a vapour flash, not strong enough to create any fire damage but frightening enough to suggest to the captain and crew that the whole cargo was about to explode. Furthermore, Oliver Deveau stated at the salvage hearing that he thought something had panicked the crew into believing the ship was about to sink and so they had taken to the lifeboats. The theory fits the evidence almost perfectly, but does not explain all the water found on board or the heavy water butt and iron stove being knocked out of their secure fastenings. The clock with backwards-rotating hands was not as mysterious as first thought after Deveau explained that it had been placed upside down, evidently by mistake.

A more recent theory, though, has at last provided a far more credible explanation as to what happened on board that morning – one that even the ingenious Conan Doyle would not have dreamed up. Not a waterspout or tornado at sea, but a seaquake (see also ‘The Disappearance of the Lighthouse Keepers of Eilean Mor’). Could an offshore earthquake finally provide the answer mystery lovers have spent over a hundred and forty years searching for? The United States Naval Research Laboratory have recorded that a major seaquake has occurred within a short distance of the island of Santa Maria every year since records began. On 1 November in 1755, just over a century before the Mary Celeste was found, an earthquake along the same fault line destroyed the port of Lisbon in Portugal. Falling buildings and the subsequent tsunami killed approximately 100,000 people. The section of ocean bed known as the East Azores Fracture Zone is thirty to forty miles southwest of Santa Maria, while approximately twenty miles northeast of the island lurks the Gloria Fault. The area is one of the seaquake capitals of the world and the Mary Celeste was berthed right on top of it on the morning of 25 November 1872.

Dr Lowell Whiteside, a leading American geophysicist, was asked in an interview to confirm if a seaquake might have taken place near Santa Maria on 25 November 1872. Whiteside started by pointing out that, as seismological instruments were not then available, the only earthquakes recorded would have been the ones that were strong enough to be obvious, or in which there had been survivors. He went on to confirm: ‘The Azores is a highly seismic region and earthquakes often occur, usually they are of moderate to large size.’ He then added: ‘An 8.5 magnitude seaquake did occur in the Azores in late December 1872 and that was recorded. This was the largest in the area for over one hundred years and it is probable that many large fore-shocks and after shocks would have occurred locally within a month either side of this event.’ The 8.5 magnitude earthquake in December 1872 was reported on every island of the Azores, such was its scale, but fore-shocks and aftershocks would not necessarily have made the news and therefore would not have been recorded.

Newly armed with evidence of a major earthquake and ‘highly probable’ fore-shocks at exactly the time Mary Celeste was known to be in the area, investigators appeared to have hit upon a perfect solution to the mystery. A seaquake would cause a vessel the size of the Mary Celeste to shudder violently and, when directly over the fault line, to bounce up and down as the waves are forced vertically towards the surface. This would explain the topsails being partly set as the two crew members high in the rigging would certainly have been thrown off and into the sea. Other sailors have witnessed craft caught in a seaquake and report that at times the ship would be completely surrounded by a wall of water, explaining why Mary Celeste was wet through and also why the captain’s bed was unmade. No doubt Captain Briggs was thrown awake from his bed to find his crew panicking at the commotion that would have appeared without warning and from a previously calm sea.

The violent bucking would have dislodged the heavy stove and water butt, and sent hot ash and smoke around the galley. The thundering noise would have been terrifying and the whole event something even an experienced crew like the one on Mary Celeste would never have been through. Nine barrels of alcohol could easily have been damaged in the process, causing nearly five hundred gallons of pure alcohol to spill into the bilge, sending fumes and gases roaring around the hull, making for a terrifying noise and the frightened crew could have removed the hatches to investigate. As the fumes billowed out, part could have ignited, either by the stove coals or metal sparks from the hatch lids, creating a blue vapour flash that wouldn’t necessarily have resulted in fire damage. Any amateur investigator can recreate this effect by removing the lid of an empty rum or brandy bottle and dropping in a lighted match. The resulting vapour flash will often force the match straight back out. Placing rolled-up paper balls in the bottle will also prove that no burn damage is caused by such an event. Old sailors called this trick ‘igniting the genie’. But if you want to try it at home, then do it outside – and don’t set light to your mum’s curtains.

In the circumstances, it is easy to see how Captain Briggs and his crew could have feared a major explosion of the cargo, believing the volatile alcohol to be responsible for the ship’s unnatural behaviour rather than a seaquake, something of which comparatively little was known at the time. Given these conditions, Briggs would undoubtedly evacuate his family and crew to a safe distance in the lifeboat and this was obviously done in great haste, the captain only stopping to pick up his navigational instruments but retaining the presence of mind to gather the ship’s papers and registration documents. Whether deliberately or by accident, the lifeboat was not secured to the mother ship by a length of rope, as would be normal in the case of evacuation.

But the drama would have soon been over and the confused crew may well have sat in the lifeboat watching Mary Celeste, with her partly set sails, calm, afloat and in no apparent danger. The captain would then have a big decision to make: either head in the lifeboat to Santa Maria Island and explain why he had abandoned a perfectly seaworthy ship with its valuable cargo on the evidence of some strange bouncing motions and a few ghostly blue flashes, or start after his ship in the hope of catching her up and regaining command. What has been rarely connected to this story is the fact that in May the following year fishermen discovered a badly damaged raft washed ashore in Asturias in Spain, with five badly decomposing bodies and an American flag on board. For some investigators this proves Captain Briggs attempted to catch up with his ship in the lifeboat, with tragic consequences.

Without the inventive fiction of Arthur Conan Doyle, with his half-eaten breakfast, sleeping cats or delicately balanced reels of cotton, the story of the Mary Celeste is not as ghostly as it seems. The theory that she was caught up in a frightening seaquake and abandoned would seem to silence any conjecture about supernatural goings-on. No doubt, however, various storytellers or creative Hollywood minds will bring new theories to our attention in the continuing debate about the fate of Mary Celeste’s crew. Perhaps they will reintroduce aliens, hungry sea monsters or a giant man-eating bird of prey, but for this investigator the answer is found in the violent seaquake that caused Captain Briggs to abandon ship and then drift to his death with his wife, baby daughter and remaining crew.

Although the most famous, Mary Celeste is by no means the only ship to have been found deserted at sea. In April 1849, the Dutch schooner Hermania was discovered floating off the Cornish coast, near the Eddystone Lighthouse, without her mast. In this case, the lifeboat was still firmly lashed to the deck and all personal belongings were in the cabins. However, the captain, his wife and daughter and all the crew members were never seen again. Six years later another ship, the Marathon, was found adrift with no hands on deck and in perfect condition.

So what became of the most famous ghost ship in history? After being released by the authorities in Gibraltar, she returned to New York where J. H. Winchester promptly sold her. On 3 January 1885, she ran on to the razor-sharp rocks at Rochelais Bank in the Gulf of Gonave and was wrecked. Unfortunately for her new owner, Gilman Parker, his insurance company decided to send an investigator to inspect the wreck, before paying his claim for $30,000. The investigator found the cargo to have no value at all, made up as it was of cat food, old shoes and other rubbish. It turned out that Parker had unloaded the small part of the cargo with value and then had set fire to Mary Celeste.

Parker was promptly charged with fraud and criminal negligence, a crime punishable by death in 1885. Then a legal technicality forced prosecutors to withdraw the charges laid against Parker and his associates and they were released, but the Mary Celeste still exacted her revenge. Over the next eight months one of the three conspirators committed suicide, one went mad and Parker himself was bankrupted and died in poverty. And so the story of the Mary Celeste ends, leaving us with not only one of the best-loved and intriguing mysteries in seafaring history, but also one of the most tragic.

Extract from Gone Missing

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Albert Jack’s Other Books – US   UK


The Mysterious D. B. Cooper

What happened to famous hijacker who jumped off a plane and into thin air carrying a fortune in banknotes?

The offence on the face of it was a simple one, but the mystery surrounding its aftermath has passed into legend. On 24 November 1971, a man going by the name of D. (‘Dan’) B. Cooper hijacked a Boeing 727 on a domestic flight and demanded $200,000 from its owners, Northwest Orient. Confident they would catch the hijacker, the company agreed to pay the cash in exchange for their passengers.

But the hijacker had other plans. After the aircraft had taken off again, minus its passengers and with D. B. Cooper $200,000 richer, he strapped himself to a parachute and jumped out into the cold night. He was never seen or heard of again, so if he survived the jump, it had been the perfect crime. If not, of course, he had been the perfect idiot. Either way, D. B. Cooper became an instant celebrity among the tie-dyed, hash-smoking hippies of the early 1970s, when hijacking had rather more of a romantic/revolutionary feel about it than it does today when terrorists are suspected at every turn. Despite one of the biggest manhunts in American history, including amateur investigations, books, TV documentaries and films, nothing more is known about D. B. Cooper today than was known on the day of his daring, airborne stunt.

So let’s look at the events in a bit more detail. At 4 p.m. on that particular day in 1971 – the fourth Thursday in November, Thanksgiving Eve – a soberly dressed businessman approached the counter of the Northwest Orient Airline at Portland International Airport and bought a one-way ticket to Seattle for $20. The businessman, who gave his name as D. B. Cooper, was allocated seat 18C on Flight 305, which left on time at 4.35 p.m., climbing into the cold, rainy night with thirty-seven passengers and five flight crew on board.

Shortly after take-off, the passenger sitting in seat 18C beckoned to an attractive young stewardess, Florence Schaffner, and passed her a note. This was such a common occurrence between businessmen and the flight crew that Schaffner, believing Cooper had given her his phone number, simply smiled and placed it, unread, in her pocket. The next time she passed seat 18C, Cooper whispered, ‘Miss, you had better read that note. I have a bomb.’ She duly read the note and rushed to the cockpit to show Captain William Scott. The captain then instructed Schaffner to walk to the back of the plane and, so as not to alarm the other passengers, quietly sit next to Cooper and try and gather more information. As she sat down, the hijacker opened his briefcase and wordlessly revealed a device consisting of two cylinders surrounded by wires. It certainly looked like a bomb to the young stewardess.

Captain Scott then radioed air traffic control with Cooper’s demand of $200,000 in used notes, together with four parachutes; two for him and the others for two of the crew he intended to take with him as hostages. The FBI were alerted and ordered Northwest Oriental’s president, Donald Nyrop, to comply fully with Cooper’s demands. After all, they reasoned, where was he going to go? No one could survive jumping from a jet passenger airliner and survive. There was also the safety of the other passengers to consider, together with the negative publicity such a hijacking would generate if the company refused to comply; Nyrop felt $200,000 was a small sum to pay in the circumstances. Cooper then instructed the pilot to stay in the air until the money and parachutes were ready, and soon heard Captain Scott announce to his passengers that a small mechanical problem would require the jet to circle before landing. The rest of the passengers remained unaware of the hijacking and Flight 305 finally landed at 5.45 p.m. at its intended destination.

Once Cooper was satisfied that the money, all in used $20 notes, and the parachutes had been delivered, he allowed the passengers to leave. At 7.45 p.m., with only the pilot, co-pilot, flight attendant and himself remaining on board, Cooper told Captain Scott to fly towards Mexico. He instructed him to fly at a low altitude of 10,000 feet (instead of the usual 30,000 feet), and with its landing gear down and the wing flaps set at 15 degrees, thus indicating a detailed knowledge of flying. Unknown to him, however, the plane was being closely tracked by two United States Air Force F-106 jet fighters, using a state-of-the-art radar detection system.

As the flight crossed southwest Washington, Cooper then ordered the pilot to slow his speed to 150 knots and the rest of the crew to remain at the front of the plane with the curtains closed. At 8.11 p.m. the rear door warning light came on and this was the last anyone saw of the mysterious D. B. Cooper. Even the air force pilots shadowing Flight 305 in their jet fighters failed to see him jump.

After landing safely in Mexico at Reno airport, the intended destination, the crew waited in the cockpit for ten minutes for further instructions. None came and air traffic control also confirmed they had not received any instructions from Cooper. Cautiously Captain Scott called the hijacker over the intercom and, on receiving no response, nervously opened the cockpit door. Cooper had vanished, having taken everything with him, including his briefcase bomb, the canvas bag full of $20 notes, his hat and coat. All that remained were the three unused parachutes. Cooper had done the unthinkable. He had jumped out of a commercial passenger jet and into the cold, wet night, thousands of feet above the ground. He had completely disappeared, never to be seen again. Nobody could prove he had survived and therefore got away with his crime, but, as even the FBI admitted, nobody could prove he was dead either.

The FBI calculated that the likely landing area for the skydiving hijacker was southwest of the town of Ariel, close to Lake Merwin, thirty miles north of Portland, Oregon. The eighteen-day manhunt that followed failed to reveal a single trace of the hijacker, but then all the FBI had was a description of a fit, six-foot, olive-skinned man, of Mediterranean appearance, clean shaven and wearing a dark suit, which narrowed the search right down to about a billion people, worldwide. They had some work to do.

It was soon apparent to the authorities that they were dealing with a meticulously planned crime, well thought out in every detail. First of all, Cooper had had no intention of taking any hostages with him: his request for four parachutes was simply to ensure that no dummy parachutes were delivered. Cooper had also worked out the weight of the ten thousand $20 notes as twenty-one pounds. If he’d asked for smaller denominations, they would have weighed considerably more and created a risk when landing, while larger denominations would be harder to pass on, thereby creating a risk of being caught. Hence $20 bills were perfect for Cooper’s purposes.

He also knew that the Boeing 727-100 has three engines, one high on the fuselage immediately in front of the vertical tail fin and two others on either side of the fuselage just above the horizontal tail fins. This meant that neither the engine exhausts nor the intakes would get in the way when he lowered the rear steps and threw himself out into the night, which led to speculation he had targeted Flight 305 specifically for its engine layout.

Cooper also insisted the pilot did not pressurize the cabin, knowing he would be able to breath naturally at 10,000 feet (but no higher) and reducing the risk of air rush as the door was opened. And as he was fully aware of the 727’s minimum flight speed with a full load of fuel, as well as the wing-flap settings required, and appeared to know that the 1,600 mph F-106 fighters would no longer be able to escort the jet once the aircraft speed had reduced to around 150 knots, this gave Cooper the window of time he needed to jump unseen, suggesting to many he was either a serving or retired airman.

The only mistake he made was to leave behind eight Raleigh cigarette stubs, his tie and tie pin, but even this evidence has led the police nowhere. There were also sixty-six fingerprints on the plane that could not be matched to the flight crew or any of the other passengers. Considering the number of people travelling on a commercial airliner in the course of a few weeks, this was regarded as unreliable evidence, although an exhaustive check with FBI records revealed no match anyway and D. B. Cooper’s real identity remained unknown. That he could recognize McChord Air Force Base as the Boeing 727 circled Seattle–Tacoma airport also provided a clue, as did his lack of a regional accent observed by the ticket agent who allocated his seat. This all led FBI investigators to conclude Cooper was local and with a background in either military or civil aviation, possibly from McChord Air Force Base itself.

Appalling weather the day after the hijacking interrupted the search through the vast wooded area Cooper had probably landed in. But the full-scale land and air search that took place over the ensuing weeks revealed no trace of Cooper, the distinctive red and yellow parachute or, most importantly, the cash. The police search team did discover the body of a missing teenager but Cooper himself had vanished, which seems to disprove the theory he had been killed during the jump or on landing. The FBI even checked the national database for any criminal by the name of Dan Cooper, or D. B. Cooper, in order to find out if, on the off chance, this otherwise meticulous and thorough hijacker had been stupid enough to buy a ticket in his own name. He wasn’t, although a genuine Dan Cooper in Portland did receive an uncomfortable few hours of questioning before being released without charge.

DB Cooper

The FBI circulated a wanted poster throughout the States, with an artist’s impression of Cooper based upon witness accounts, but it c s, the FBI interviewed over 1,400 people, but to no avail. The story held the popular imagination for a long time, the newspapers ridiculing the unsuccessful FBI investigation in the process. Eventually the hijacker, named as ‘John Doe, aka Dan B. Cooper’ was charged, in his absence, with air piracy at a federal court in 1976. (John Doe is the generic name America gives to persons, or bodies, unknown; for instance, unclaimed raffle-tickets are listed as belonging to ‘John Doe’ until claimed.)

The American public, on the other hand, was in the process of elevating D. B. Cooper to the status of a legend as the mystery around him continued to grow. Bars in the area of Ariel and Lake Merwin set up D. B. Cooper shrines, which remain to this day, and hold D. B. Cooper ‘days’, with local parachute clubs even re-enacting the jump on the day before Thanksgiving every year.

That is what we all like most about this sort of history. Nobody was hurt, it involved extraordinary courage and nothing has been found since. Not even Cooper’s hat, coat and briefcase. And that is why we all want Cooper to still be alive, and not to have been lying at the bottom of Lake Merwin all these years. We like the idea of Cooper jumping out of a passenger jet with the loot, landing and then dusting himself off, picking up his briefcase, putting on his hat, pausing only to straighten its brim, and being back in the office by nine.

But the FBI do not share our warmth towards the mystery man. Agent Ralph Himmelsbach spent eight years at the head of the investigation and was unable to hide his bitterness, calling Cooper a ‘dirty rotten crook’, a ‘rodent’, and nothing more than a ‘sleazy, rotten criminal who threatened the lives of more than forty people for money’, oh – and ‘a bastard’.

Himmelsbach once snapped at a journalist who enquired about Cooper’s growing status as a hero. ‘That’s not heroic,’ he shouted. ‘It is selfish, dangerous and antisocial. I have no admiration for him at all. He is not admirable. He is just stupid and greedy.’ Himmelsbach retired from the FBI in 1980, his work incomplete, to run his own charm school in the Deep South. In his subsequent book, Norjack – The Investigation of D. B. Cooper, Himmelsbach tried to promote what is known as the ‘splatter’ theory, meaning Cooper had been killed as he hit the ground. This is dismissed by most, as the body, highlighted by its bright red and yellow parachute, would have turned up sooner or later. When pressed by reporters about why the body had not been found despite a legion of police, the Army Reserve, volunteers and boy scouts all searching, Himmelsbach surprised everybody, including, I imagine, the FBI, when he insisted they had all been looking in the wrong area all the time, despite the Feds re-enacting the jump in an effort to pinpoint Cooper’s drop zone.

In 1980 an eight-year-old boy was playing by the river and discovered a bag of cash totalling $5,800, all in $20 notes. His father, aware of the D. B. Cooper mystery, immediately took the cash to the police, who checked the serial numbers and confirmed this was part of the missing money. Hopes of a conclusion were dashed on discovering the cash was found nearly forty miles upstream of where the police now believed Cooper to have landed. As did the geologists who claimed, having studied the notes and assessed their rate of deterioration, that the money must have been placed in the water in about 1974, three years after the hijacking. Despite these discrepancies, Himmelsbach considered this evidence proved his splatter theory. He claimed Cooper must have landed in the lake on that dark night and drowned. But the resulting search by scuba divers with modern sonar equipment failed to find any further clues.

Few people outside the FBI believe this theory. Instead many believe Cooper’s careful plan included dropping a few bags of money at a later date to serve as a red herring. It would appear that Cooper had thought of everything, which is why he is probably still at large. The hijacker had a further stroke of luck when on 18 May 1980 the volcano near the site of his purported landing, Mount St Helens, erupted with such force that the landscape was changed for ever, no doubt concealing many undiscovered clues. But there is, however, one more important piece of evidence for us to consider.

In 1972 an embarrassed FBI produced a 34-page booklet detailing the crime and, more importantly, including photographs of the money and listing every single serial number of the ten thousand notes. The booklet was sent to every bank and financial institution in America, with copies to the national media. But, despite rewards on offer of up to $150,000 for the production of just one solitary note, none have ever turned up in the American system (with the exception, that is, of the $5,800 discovered in the water). Like Cooper, they have simply vanished.

But this fact alone does not mean Cooper is dead, as most countries around the world, especially developing nations, trade in dollars and so the money could have turned up anywhere. But the police expected at least one to have turned up somewhere over the years, and that leaves investigators even more baffled. For nothing to have been seen or heard of Cooper, dead or alive, nor for a single bank note to have reappeared, is hard to imagine. And yet this quite literal vanishing into thin air is exactly what did happen.

The problem about the carrying out the perfect crime is that then everyone wants to try it too. The following year produced no fewer than four copycat jumps and although one, the first effort, did end in a splatter landing, the following three hijackers all landed safely but were arrested at the scene or soon afterwards. But then there was a new and interesting development. On 7 April 1972, four months after the Cooper hijack, a man checked in as James Johnson on United Flight 855 travelling from Newark to Los Angeles. Just after take-off, Johnson put on a wig, fake moustache and sunglasses and gave the stewardess a note. This read:

Land at San Francisco International Airport and taxi to Runway 19 Left [a remote part of the airport].

Send for a refuelling truck, but no other vehicles must approach without permission.

Direct United Airlines to provide four parachutes and a ransom of $500,000 in cash.

The captain carefully followed the instructions and the aircraft was soon back in the air again, this time heading for Provo in Utah. After an hour and a half, Johnson instructed the captain to reduce altitude, speed and depressurize the cabin, in a carbon copy of Cooper’s plan. Except that a co-pilot glanced around the cockpit door just in time to see Johnson expertly slip on the parachute, open the rear door and jump.

The FBI started their investigation the minute the aircraft landed at Provo. This time they had a cast-iron clue. Johnson had left a single, clear fingerprint on an in-flight magazine. They were initially baffled as Johnson had no criminal record and no match was found for the print. But then they had a breakthrough. In a telephone call to the FBI in Salt Lake City, a young man gave the police the detailed plan of the hijacking, including details not yet made public.

He claimed his friend Richard McCoy Jr had boasted about the plan to him, and the preparatory details he described were in fact identical in every way to those of the hijacking of Flight 855. McCoy was twenty-nine years old, married with two young children and studying law at BrighamYoungUniversity. He was also a Vietnam veteran, former green beret helicopter pilot and specialist parachute trooper. The FBI checked his service fingerprint record and found an exact match to the print found on the plane. The handwriting on the ransom note also matched McCoy’s samples in his military file. This time they had their man.

Two days later, McCoy was arrested at his home where police found a parachute suit and a bag of cash containing $499,970. The FBI asked the trial judge to make an example of McCoy to deter further copycat hijackings and the young man received a sentence of forty-five years without parole. But within months he had escaped from prison. He was eventually tracked to a house in Virginia Beach, where he was shot dead during the ensuing gun battle to rearrest him.

The similarities between the two crimes, in particular the evident flying expertise in each case, led to speculation that McCoy himself was in fact D. B. Cooper, and certainly the tie left behind by Cooper was similar to McCoy’s BrighamUniversity tie. It seems pretty unlikely, though: how would the D. B. Cooper money turn up in the river two years after McCoy’s death, for instance? Although it might explain why no money ever re-entered the system, as McCoy may have stashed it away for the future and it has remained hidden ever since.

The truth is that the identity of D. B. Cooper remains a mystery and each year the American media remind the public by way of anniversary articles and features, although to this day nobody has ever produced a credible theory, backed up with indisputable evidence, as to the identity or whereabouts of either Cooper or the money.

Extract from Gone Missing

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Agatha Christie – The Queen of Mystery

How did the world’s favourite crime writer become involved in a mystery of her very own?

Agatha Miller was born in 1890, the youngest child of a wealthy American businessman. But after her father contracted double pneumonia, he was unable to provide for his young family and sank into a depression, dying when Agatha was only eleven. The poverty-stricken Millers almost lost their home as a result. The lesson was a harsh one for the young Agatha, and her continuing sense of financial insecurity was later to have disastrous consequences.

At a dance in Devon in 1912, Agatha, now an attractive 22-year-old, met a tall, dashing young army officer. Archibald Christie had trained at the Royal Woolwich Military Academy in London and had been posted to Exeter soon after he had been commissioned. Over the next two years, they slowly fell in love. When war broke out in 1914, Archie was sent to France. During his first return on leave later that year, the couple quickly got married. While Archie served in Europe, Agatha became a voluntary nurse at the Red Cross Hospital in Torquay and spent her many free hours (not many casualties were sent to Torquay) reading hundreds of detective stories.

She was desperate to be a writer like her elder sister Madge, whom she idolized and whose stories were regularly published in Vanity Fair. In a moment of inspiration Madge challenged her to write a good detective story, Agatha’s favourite genre. At the time, Torquay was full of Belgian refugees, and her first story featured a Belgian detective – one Hercule Poirot – who would become one of the most popular fictional detective characters in the world.

After the war ended, Archie started work at the Air Ministry in London, and the couple had a daughter in 1919. The Christies were struggling to make ends meet and so Agatha decided to approach a publisher with The Mysterious Affair at Styles, her first novel. John Lane at Bodley Head read and liked it. He persuaded the inexperienced young writer to sign a five-book deal with them, heavily weighted in their favour. She grew to regret this, however, when despite the book’s success and sales of 2,000 copies in America and Great Britain, she received only £25 in royalties.

Her final book for Bodley Head, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926), had a controversial twist – the book’s narrator turned out to be the murderer – and it received lots of attention in the press as a result. That same year, Agatha moved publishers. Collins offered her an advance of £200 for her first book, an impressive sum in the postwar 1920s.

The Christies moved into a new house in Berkshire which she called Styles, after her first novel. Flushed with her growing success and sudden minor celebrity status, Agatha failed to notice her husband’s increasing resentment at her refusal to share any of her new income with him. Despite the fact that they were now comfortably off, she insisted on careful economy and thrift, something clearly related to her own father’s previous loss of wealth. Unknown to Agatha, Archie now began to spend a lot of time with Nancy Neele, a secretary and ten years her junior, whom he had met on the golf course.

But as her financial situation improved, other aspects of her life took a turn for the worse. In April that same year, Agatha, en route to visit her mother in Torquay, felt a strong premonition that she was dead. Then, upon her arrival in Torquay, she was informed her beloved mother had, in fact, died suddenly and unexpectedly, from bronchitis. Later that year, returning from a foreign holiday, Agatha got wind of her husband’s adultery. She immediately confronted Archie and collapsed in shock when he admitted that he had indeed been having an affair for the previous eighteen months. Agatha begged Archie to stay so that they could try to save their marriage, but Archie refused, moving out of the family home and into his club in London.

Then, on the morning of 4 December, a cold and wintry day, the Surrey police were called to the scene of a motor accident at Newlands Corner in Guildford. Agatha Christie’s car had been found halfway down a bank and partly buried in some bushes. The headlights were blazing, a suitcase and coat had been left on the back seat but there was no sign of the author. Upon discovering that the police suspected either suicide or murder, the press descended on Guildford and the Christies’ Berkshire home, thrilled at the prospect of a real-life mystery. By the following morning, the disappearance of the still relatively little-known author was a front-page story on every national newspaper. Agatha Christie was suddenly big news.

In one of the finest publicity coups of all time (intentional or otherwise, but for her publisher the cheapest), members of the public were offered rewards for sightings, and newspapers revelled in their ongoing real-life whodunnit, with new ‘evidence’ regularly being reported. Some observers suggested that it must have been Archie – with much to gain from his wife’s death – who had been responsible for her disappearance. But then it was discovered he had been at a weekend party with his mistress. The focus then moved on to Nancy Neele, and she was hounded by the press, eager to find a culprit. For ten days Surrey Police combed the area for evidence, and reports of sightings continued to pour in. People scoured her books for clues (the police actually dredged a pool that featured in one of Agatha Christie’s books and in which one of her characters had drowned) and followed the story avidly in the newspapers

The breakthrough finally came when, after ten days, the head waiter at the Hydropathic Hotel (now the Old Swan Hotel) in Harrogate, Yorkshire, realized that the mysterious novelist he had been reading about for nearly two weeks looked exactly like a stylish female guest who had booked in under the name of Mrs Neele, claiming to be from South Africa. For ten days ‘Mrs Neele’ had been singing, dancing and enjoying the company of the other guests while, like them, also following the Agatha Christie mystery in the newspapers.


Agathachristie

The police were called and Archie Christie travelled to Harrogate to identify his wife. In a scene that could have come straight from a Christie novel, Archie placed himself at a table in the corner of the dining room, hidden behind a large newspaper. From there he watched his wife enter the room, pick up the papers containing her picture and the story of the continued search, and sit at another table. The hotel manager later said that as Archie Christie approached his wife, she ‘looked distant as though she recognized him but could not remember where from’.

So as the police were scouring the hills around Guildford on their hands and knees, Agatha had been alive and well up in Yorkshire rather than lying dead at the bottom of a lake somewhere in Surrey. Needless to say, the police were not impressed; indeed some newspapers claimed the whole thing had been a publicity stunt. The press pack raced to Harrogate nevertheless, but few believed Archie when he informed them that Agatha was suffering from memory loss. There was a public backlash with demands for the police to be repaid the estimated £3,000 cost of the search for the missing novelist – indeed Guildford residents blamed the next increase in their rates on her. Reviews of her next book, The Big Four, were spiteful as a result, but Agatha Christie was now nationally famous and sales of this new work topped nine thousand copies. The whole affair was a marketing man’s dream, with all of Agatha’s earlier books being reprinted and enjoying healthy sales.

But the personal outcome for the author was not so positive, as Archie promptly divorced her and married Nancy Neele. In 1930 Agatha met and married archaeologist Max Mallowan, with whom, having learned her lesson, she immediately shared her resources. None of the parties involved ever spoke of the writer’s mysterious disappearance again.

But the debate continued. Could Agatha Christie have had a nervous breakdown? After all, how could she have read about her disappearance in the newspapers and not even recognize a picture or description of herself. For that matter, how could the other guests not have recognised her earlier? Many commentators have suspected a conspiracy – a pact of silence between the writer and her fellow guests.

It was only after the death of Agatha Christie, in January 1976, that the mystery was finally unravelled. It is obvious from the detail that the whole affair was in fact far from a publicity stunt. Indeed Agatha was mortified at seeing so much made of her disappearance. The great mystery of the 1920s, involving the crime writer who was to become one of the most famous and successful in the world, is in fact an easy one to solve.

In 1926, as we have seen, Agatha Christie’s world was thrown into turmoil by the sudden death of her mother and the breakdown of her marriage. The mixture of grief, anger and humiliation that she felt following these events led Agatha to the verge of a nervous breakdown and, for the first time in her life, she began to behave irrationally. On the morning of Friday 3 December, Agatha and Archie had a major argument about Archie’s intention to spend the weekend in Surrey at the house of a friend. He didn’t want her to accompany him because, as the writer later discovered, Nancy Neele was going to be present. Such a public breakdown of her marriage was incredibly humiliating and so – fuelled by despair, vengeance and plain old attention seeking – Agatha, assisted by her sister-in-law Nan, hatched a plot worthy of one of her own novels.

At 10 p.m. on 3 December, after Archie had left for the weekend, Agatha drove to Newlands Corner, parked on the edge of the road and pushed her car down the bank, leaving a suitcase and coat on the back seat and the headlights on, presumably to ensure the car would be discovered. Carrying a second suitcase, she then walked or received a lift to West Clandon station nearby, from where she caught the train to London. After staying the night with Nan, she wrote a letter to Archie’s brother Campbell and posted it at 9.45 a.m. on the Saturday, informing him she was travelling to the hotel in Harrogate. She addressed the letter to his office, knowing it would not arrive until at least Monday morning. In the meantime, she was fully expecting the car accident to ruin Archie’s weekend, and that of the other guests who, she presumed, would all be out looking for her rather than having fun without her. When Campbell received the letter on Monday morning, she thought that everything would then die down, and she herself, no doubt, already had her own story worked out about how she could explain the events to her own advantage and to Archie’s further misery.

Unfortunately, when Campbell opened the letter that Monday, he hardly looked at it and then managed to lose it, leaving Agatha’s whereabouts unknown and the so-called mystery in the hands of the frenzied press. Agatha, clearly alarmed that her mind games had rapidly become so public and out of her control, decided to lie low to consider her next move. Perhaps she would have continued to hide – clearly she hadn’t expected anybody to recognize her; or perhaps she would have fled abroad to escape the growing scandal.

It is intriguing to think what Agatha’s next real-life storyline would have been if the head waiter at the Harrogate Hydropathic Hotel had not finally recognized the author. But let us be grateful that he did, because some very fine stories subsequently began to flow out of this now famous author. I am off out now to leave my car at Beachy Head to see how many of you come looking for me. If, after a week or so, nobody has tracked me down, try the Old Swan at Harrogate. I don’t want to be left there too long.

Extract from Gone Missing

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