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 Center 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.

Extract from Mysterious World

Albert Jack books available for download here

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

Albert Jack books available for download here

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

Albert Jack books available for download here

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

Albert Jack books available for download here

The Great Loch Ness Con Trick

If the Loch Ness Monster doesn’t exist, how come there have been so many pictures and sightings? And is Nessie really Nellie?

The first documented sighting of a monster inhabiting Loch Ness was by Saint Columba in AD565. According to this, the Christian missionary was travelling through the Highlands when he came across a group of Picts holding a funeral by the loch. They explained that they were burying a fellow tribesman who had been out on the loch in his boat when he had been attacked by a monster. Columba immediately ordered young Lugne Mocumin, one of his own followers, to swim across the loch to retrieve the dead man’s boat.

Detecting lunch was on its way again, the great beast reared up out of the water, at which Columba held up his cross and roared: ‘Thou shalt go no further, nor touch the man; go back with all speed!’ And with that, the terrified monster apparently turned tail and ‘fled more quickly than if it had been pulled back with ropes, though it had just got so near to Lugne, as he swam, that there was not more than the length of a spear-staff between the man and the beast’.

The group of Picts, very impressed by all this, converted to Christianity on the spot. However, as evidence of a monster living in the loch for the last 1,500 years, this account seems about as reliable as the story of the tooth fairy. Not least because St Columba also claimed, a tad implausibly, to have had various other successful run-ins with Scottish monsters, once even slaying a wild boar just with his voice. Nevertheless, many were convinced by the Loch Ness tale.

Then there was silence on the monster front until some strange sightings were reported in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But the Loch Ness Monster, as we have come to know and love it, it wasn’t really ‘born’ until much later – not until 1933, in fact, when (prosaically enough) the A82 trunk road had finally been completed along the western shore of Loch Ness, connecting the western town of Fort William with the busy port of Inverness on the North Sea. Providing easy access for tourists and industry alike, the road also offered a route past the picturesque loch for the first time.

Nearby Inverness had a long-standing and hugely popular tradition of hosting an annual circus. In 1933 Bertram Mills took his circus to Inverness along the new A82 for the first time, where his road crew would have stopped along the banks of Loch Ness to rest and feed the animals. Coincidentally that was when the sightings of the Loch Ness Monster began.

Bertram Mills, ever the entrepreneur, quickly used the local story to his advantage by offering the £20,000 (nearly £2 million pounds today) to anybody who could prove that they had seen the great beast. It was a sum Mills seemed suspiciously unable to afford to pay out. But the public flocked to the area nevertheless, sightings soared and more people than ever before attended his shows in case the monster might make an appearance.

But how could Mills have been so sure nobody could legitimately claim the reward? My theory is that he must have seen the famous photo of a plesiosaur-like creature taken in 1933 near Invermoriston by a Scottish surgeon and had known that it was no monster. At the time, sceptics claimed the photograph was a fake: the creature it showed must be an otter or maybe vegetation floating on the surface of the loch. It was even said to be an elaborate hoax created using a toy submarine. But Bertram Mills had seen an elephant swim before and must have realized the photograph taken was most likely of one of his animals bathing in the loch. Although the financial benefits of staying silent about this were obvious.

Soon afterwards, on 14 April 1933, a Mr and Mrs Mackay claimed that they had seen a ‘large … whale-like beast’ idling in the loch and which had then dived under, causing ‘a great disturbance’ in the water. They had immediately reported the sighting to local gamekeeper Alex Campbell. Campbell, conveniently enough, also turned out to be an amateur reporter for the Inverness Courier. His embellished account of the sighting, entitled ‘Strange Spectacle on Loch Ness’, appeared on 2 May 1933 and brought him instant fame. The world’s monster hunters, not to mention the media, then descended on an remote area of the Scottish Highlands, only previously known for its fishing.

The dial of Loch Ness Monster excitement was then cranked up even further by the Daily Mail, when they sent in a professional team of monster hunters headed by the wonderfully named big-game hunter Marmaduke Weatherall. The Mail ran a daily piece on his efforts to lure the monster from its lair and to bag the beast. And within just two days, the headlines announced he had found unusual footprints on the shoreline.

A cast was sent to the BritishMuseum for identification and the Scots were revelling in the global attention their country was receiving. But the following week they were hanging their heads in shame when the cast proved to be the imprint of a stuffed hippopotamus foot, probably an umbrella stand from some local hostelry or tavern. Weatherall denied any mischief making and it was never proven whether it had been hunter or hoaxer who had laid the false tracks.

The two most compelling photographs of the ‘monster’ are world famous. One depicts a creature with a long greyish neck that tapers into an eerie thin head rising out of the water, followed by two humps. Roy Chapman Andrews, an American explorer and director of the American Museum of Natural History upon whom Indiana Jones was based, went on record in 1935 arguing that he had seen the original picture and that it had been ‘retouched’ by newspaper artists before being published. He firmly states the original picture is of the dorsal fin of a killer whale.

Most other experts disagree. As do I: to my mind, it is clearly the trunk of an elephant, with the first hump being the head and the second its back, almost certainly one of Bertram Mills’s, taken as the circus elephants swam in the loch. Hugh Gray was the photographer: ‘I immediately got my camera ready and snapped the object which was then two to three feet above the surface of the water. I did not see any head, for what I took to be the front parts were under the water, but there was considerable movement from what seemed to be the tail.’ This photograph has been declared genuine by photographic experts and shows no signs of tampering, unlike so many of the others. And that is because, in my view, it is a genuine photograph – of a genuine elephant. No retouching
required.

The Loch Ness Monster
But the best-known photograph is the one taken by surgeon Robert Kenneth Wilson on 19 April 1934. Indeed it must be one of the most instantly recognizable pictures ever taken. From a distance of two hundred yards what has come to be known as the ‘Surgeon’s Photograph’ shows a grey ‘trunk’ of around four feet protruding from the water with a hump directly behind it and clear disturbance in the water around. Once developed and declared genuine, the picture was bought and published by the Daily Mail and the Loch Ness Monster industry was properly born.

Curiously enough, when asked what he thought he had seen, Wilson claimed to have been too busy setting up his camera to take proper note, but thought there was certainly something strange in the loch. The next question then should have been: ‘Why didn’t you wait around for a while to see if it returned?’ because then he may well have seen the elephant surfacing, as it would have had to sooner or later. Then again, perhaps he did, but greed rather than valour influenced the better part of his discretion.

As recently as March 2006, Neil Clark, curator of palaeontology at the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow, has stated (thus confirming something I have believed for many years): ‘It is quite possible that people not used to seeing a swimming elephant – the vast bulk of the animal is submerged, with only a thick trunk and a couple of humps visible – thought they saw a monster.’ Dr Clark also notes that most sightings came around the time of Bertram Mills’ reward offer for evidence of the monster. He himself believes that most other the sightings could probably be explained away by floating logs or unusual waves.

But just as it seemed the eminent professor was about to finally blow the Loch Ness Monster out of the water, so to speak, he was asked by the BBC whether he believed there was a large creature living in the loch. To which he responded: ‘I believe there is something alive in Loch Ness.’ And he’s not wrong, is he? There must be ‘something’ alive in the loch; in fact there are lots of living things swimming around in it. But at least he didn’t go on to say it was a 1,500-year-old sea monster, which it would have to be, as that is the premise upon which this whole story has been constructed.

But to be fair to Dr Clark, the Loch Ness Monster is big business for Scotland. Consultants have estimated it to be worth in the region of £50 million per annum and rising. More that 500,000 tourists travel to the area every year in the hope of sighting the beast, despite Bertram Mills’ reward expiring with him. Some claim the industry has even created 2,500 new jobs. And the Monster Spotting Tour comes in at £15 a head. Dr Clark would not be popular in his home country if he finally dispelled the myth many love and even more rely upon.

Since the elephant-heavy 1930s there have been dozens of sightings of objects of varying shapes and sizes. Even if paddling pachyderms are no longer the likeliest explanation, other theories are possible. Loch Ness is actually a sea lake, fed from the Moray Firth in the North Sea via the River Ness. Furthermore, the Moray Firth is one of the areas of British seawater most frequented by porpoises, dolphins and whales.

Indeed seals and dolphins have been filmed in the loch many times. If the mind wants to see a monster, three partly submerged dolphins swimming in a row could easily provide the illusion of a thirty-foot, three-humped creature in the gathering gloom – especially after a few drams of the local malt. I have myself encountered a few three-humped monsters after a lively evening out before now.

The BBC has used sonar and satellite imagery to scan every inch of the loch and found ‘no trace of any large animal living there’. But, as it has always been the case with myths, legends and fables, while it is possible to prove the positive by producing irrefutable evidence, it is never possible to prove the opposite argument.

We could dam Loch Ness and drain it. We would then be able to take everybody still perpetuating the myth down into this vast new dry valley and show them every nook, cave and rock cluster, but still the hardcore believers would reply: ‘Ah, but Nessie may well be out in the North Sea at the moment just limbering up for another appearance.’ But of course that is not the reason at all. Everyone from Columba (who told that miraculous story, embroidered or otherwise, which led to his canonization) onwards has profited from retelling the tall tale of Loch Ness.

The only surprise is that so many people have, and still do, strongly believe there is an unidentified prehistoric monster living in a Scottish loch. Some argue that is a historical fact; I know it’s just a hysterical one. I’m here to inform you, kids – there is no such thing as the Loch Ness Monster. Just don’t tell anyone it was me who told you.

Extract from Mysterious World

Albert Jack books available for download here

The Missing Men of Eilean Mor

The Mysterious Disappearance of the Lighthouse Keepers of Eilean Mor – What drove three experienced lighthouse keepers to abandon their post one calm day?

It was a cold and gloomy afternoon on the Isle of Lewis and the watchman strained to see the Eilean Mor Lighthouse, located on one of the FlannanIslands, through the mist and rain. Situated on a major shipping route between Britain, Europe and North America, the rocky Flannans had been responsible for so many shipwrecks over the centuries that the Northern Lighthouse Board had finally decided to build a lighthouse there to warn sailors of the peril.

It had taken four long years to build. But on 16 December 1900, just a week after construction had been completed, a report came that the light had gone out. Roderick MacKenzie, a gamekeeper at Uig, had been appointed as lighthouse watchman and his duty was to alert the authorities if he was unable to see the light. He noted in his logbook that the light had not been visible at all between the 8 and 12 December; he was so concerned, in fact, that he had enlisted the help of all the villagers to take it in turns to watch out for the light, until it was finally seen on the afternoon of 12 December.

But when another four days went by and the light failed to appear yet again, MacKenzie alerted assistant keeper Joseph Moore. Moore stood on the seafront at Loch Roag on the Isle of Lewis and stared west into the gloom, looking for the smallest flicker of light, but he also saw nothing. The notion that the brand new lighthouse might have been destroyed in the recent storms seemed highly unlikely and at least one of the three resident keepers should have been able to keep the lamp lit, so Moore summoned help.

The following day, due to high seas, Moore was unable to launch the Board’s service boat, the Hesperus, to investigate. It would be nine agonizing days before the seas calmed sufficiently for the anxious assistant keeper to leave for Eilean Mor.

Finally, at dawn on Boxing Day, the sky had cleared and the Hesperus left Breasclete harbour at first light. As it approached the lighthouse, the boat’s skipper Captain Harvie signalled their approach with flags and flares, but there was no acknowledgement from the shore. As soon they had docked at Eilean Mor, the assistant keeper jumped out, together with crew members Lamont and Campbell.

Hammering on the main door and calling to be let in, Moore received no reply. But it was unlocked so, nervously, Moore made his way inside, to be greeted by complete silence and absolutely no sign of life. The clock in the main room had stopped and everything was in its place, except for one of the kitchen chairs, which lay overturned on the floor.

Moore, terrified of what he might find, was too frightened to venture upstairs until Lamont and Campbell had joined him. But the bedrooms were as neat and tidy as the kitchen and nobody (or indeed ‘no body’) was to be seen. The three lighthouse keepers, James Ducat, Donald McArthur and Thomas Marshall, appeared to have vanished. Ducat and Marshall’s oilskin waterproofs were also gone, but McArthur’s hung alone in the hallway, in strangely sinister fashion.

Moore saw this as evidence that the two men had gone outside during a storm and that perhaps McArthur, breaking strict rules about leaving the lighthouse unmanned, had raced outside after them. Moore and his fellow crew members then searched every inch of the island but could find no trace of the men. Three experienced lighthouse keepers had seemingly vanished into thin air. Captain Harvie then instructed Moore, Lamont and Campbell to remain on the island to operate the lighthouse. They were accompanied by MacDonald, boatswain of the Hesperus, who had volunteered to join them.

With that, the Hesperus returned to Breasclete, with the lighthouse keepers’ Christmas presents and letters from their families still on board, where Harvie telegraphed news to Robert Muirhead, superintendent at the Northern Lighthouse Board: ‘A dreadful accident has happened at the Flannans. The three keepers, Ducat, Marshall and the Occasional [McArthur in this instance], have disappeared from the Island. The clocks were stopped and other signs indicated that the accident must have happened about a week ago. Poor fellows must have been blown over the cliffs or drowned trying to rescue a crane [for lifting cargo into and from boats] or something like that.’ It had been twenty-eight years since the Mary Celeste had stirred the public’s imagination and now there was a baffling new mystery to puzzle the world.

In the seventh century ad, Bishop Flannan, for reasons best known to himself and perhaps his God, built a small chapel on a bleak island sixteen miles to the west of the Hebrides on the outer limits of the British Isles. The group of islands were known to mariners as the Seven Hunters and the only inhabitants were the sheep that Hebridean shepherds would ferry over to graze on the lush grass pastures. But the shepherds themselves never stayed overnight on the islands, fearful of the ‘little men’ believed to haunt that remote spot.

The lighthouse on Eilean Mor, the largest and most northerly of the Seven Hunters, was only the second building to be erected on the islands – over a millennium later. Designed and built by David Stevenson, of the great Stevenson engineering dynasty, the building had been completed by December 1899 and Superintendent Muirhead of the Northern Lighthouse Board had selected 43-year-old James Ducat, a man with over twenty years’ experience of lighthouse keeping, as the principal keeper at Eilean Mor. Thomas Marshall was to be his assistant and the men were to spend the summer of 1900 making preparations to keep the light the following winter.

During that summer, Muirhead joined them for a month and all three men worked hard to secure the early lighting of the station in time for the coming winter. Muirhead later reported how impressed he was by the ‘manner in which they went about their work’.

The lighthouse was fully operational for the first time on 1 December 1900 and on 7 December Muirhead returned to Eilean Mor to inspect things for one final time. Satisfied that all was well, he then returned to the Isle of Lewis. Although he was not to find out until a few weeks later, the light went out only a day after he had left the island.

When Muirhead returned to join Joseph Moore and the relief keepers on 29 December, he brought the principal keeper from Tiumpan Head on Lewis to take charge at Eilean Mor and then he began to investigate the disappearance of the three men. The first thing he did was to check the lighthouse journal. He was very perturbed by what he read.

In the log entry for the 12 December, the last day the lighthouse had appeared to be working, Thomas Marshall had written of severe winds ‘the like I have never seen before in twenty years’. Inspecting the exterior of the lighthouse, he found storm damage to external fittings over 100 feet above sea level.

The log also noted, somewhat unusually, that James Ducat had been ‘very quiet’ and that Donald McArthur – who had joined the men temporarily as third keeper while William Ross was on leave – was actually crying. However, McArthur was no callow youth, but an old soldier, a seasoned mariner with many years’ experience and known on the mainland as a tough brawler.

In the afternoon Marshall had noted in the log: ‘Storm still raging, wind steady. Stormbound. Cannot go out. Ship passing sounding foghorn. Could see lights of cabins.’ This was distinctly odd: no storm had been reported on 12 December and what could possibly have happened to upset an old salt like McArthur?

The following morning Marshall had noted that the storm was still raging and that, while Ducat continued to be ‘quiet’, McArthur was now praying. The afternoon entry simply stated: ‘Me, Ducat and McArthur prayed’, while on the following day, 14 December, there was no entry at all. Finally on the 15 December, the day before the light was reported for the first time as being not visible, the sea appeared to have been still and the storm to have abated. The final log entry simply stated: ‘Storm ended, sea calm. God is over all.’

Muirhead puzzled over what could have frightened three seasoned veterans of the ocean so greatly, and also what was meant by that last sentence, ‘God is over all.’ He had never known any of the men to be God-fearing, let alone resort to prayer. Equally troubling was where such violent storms had come from when no poor weather, let alone gale-force winds, had been reported in the vicinity at any point up to 17 December.

Muirhead also wondered how nobody on Lewis could have known of such a frightening storm when the lighthouse was actually visible (bad weather would have obscured it during the day), and for that matter how the passing boat Marshall recorded on the 13 December had managed to stay afloat in such a gale. Equally, if it had sunk, why had no boat been reported missing?

Finally, Muirhead wondered if a three-day hurricane raging over such a localized area was too unrealistic to consider, or simply if one or even all of the lighthouse keepers had gone mad, which might explain the unusual emotions recorded in the lighthouse log and the men’s subsequent disappearance. He could think of no other reason for them to disappear on the first calm and quiet day following the alleged storm. If they were going to be swept out to sea, surely that would have more likely to have happened during the gale, if they had been foolish enough to have ventured outside, rather than during the spell of calm weather reported in the final log entry.

One interesting thing to note was that the log that week was written by Thomas Marshall, the second in command and youngest of the three men. That is not so unusual but for him to be making insubordinate comments about his principal in an official log is certainly out of the ordinary. Especially as the log was bound to be read at some point by the Northern Lighthouse Board and, of course, James Ducat himself. And to record the aggressive McArthur as ‘crying’ when he would also certainly have read the log himself once the storm had passed seems strangely foolhardy. Yet there it was, in black and white, in the official lighthouse log. The whole point of such a record is to note times, dates, wind directions and the like, not to record human emotions or activity such as praying. The investigators were baffled by this.

Clearly the men on the island had been affected by a powerful external force of some kind, however, and so Superintendent Muirhead turned his attention to the light itself, which he found clean and ready for use. The oil fountains and canteens were full and the wicks trimmed, but Muirhead knew the light had not been lit at midnight on 15 December because the steam ship Archtor had passed close to Flannan Islands at that time and the captain had reported he had not seen the light, when he felt sure it should have been clearly visible from his position.

The kitchen was clean and the pots and pans had been washed, so Muirhead concluded that whatever had happened to the men had taken place between lunchtime and nightfall, before the light was due to have been lit. But there had been no storm on that day, as evidence from the both the lighthouse log and from the Isle of Lewis confirms

Muirhead then decided to make a thorough search of the site and, despite high seas, was able to reach the crane platform seventy feet above sea level. The previous year a crane had been washed away in a heavy storm, so the superintendent knew this to be a vulnerable spot, but the crane was secure, as were the barrels and the canvas cover protecting the crane.

But curiously, forty feet higher than the crane, 110 feet above sea level, a strong wooden box usually secured into a crevice in the rocks and containing rope and crane handles was found to be missing. The rope had fallen below and lay strewn around the crane legs and the solid iron railings around the crane were found to be ‘displaced and twisted’, suggesting a force of terrifying strength. A life buoy fixed to the railings was missing but the rope fastening it appeared untouched and a large, approximately one-ton section of rock had broken away from the cliff, evidently dislodged by whatever it was that had caused the rest of the damage, and now lay on the concrete path leading up to the lighthouse.

Muirhead considered whether the men could have been blown off the island by the high winds but decided this would have been impossible during the calm weather of 15 December. Further inspection revealed turf from the top of a 200-foot cliff had been ripped away and seaweed was discovered, the like of which no one on the island could identify. Muirhead thought that a mammoth roller wave could have swept away the two men in oilskins working on the crane platform but such a freak wave had never been reported before.

Unable to come to a definite conclusion, Muirhead returned to Lewis, leaving a very uneasy Joseph Moore with the new principal keeper, John Milne, and his assistant Donald Jack. In the report he made on 8 January 1901, a sad and baffled Muirhead noted that he had known the missing men intimately and held them in the highest regard. He wrote that ‘the Board has lost two of its most efficient Keepers and a competent Occasional’. And he concluded his report by recalling: ‘I visited them as lately as 7th December and have the melancholy recollection that I was the last person to shake hands with them and bid them adieu.’

At the subsequent Northern Lighthouse Board enquiry, also conducted by Robert Muirhead, it was noted that the severity of the storm damage found on Eilean Mor was ‘difficult to believe unless actually seen’. The enquiry concluded:

From evidence which I was able to procure I was satisfied that the men had been on duty up until dinner time on Saturday the 15th December, that they had gone down to secure a box in which the mooring ropes, landing ropes etc. were kept, and which was secured in a crevice in the rock about 110 foot above sea level, and that an extra large sea had rushed up the face of the rock, had gone above them, and coming down with immense force, had swept them completely away.

But this pathetic attempt by the Board fails to explain why McArthur was there without his oilskins and does not account for his disappearance, unless the Board believed he had run to the cliff top and, on finding his colleagues in the sea, thrown himself in after them wearing just his smoking jacket and carpet slippers. The enquiry also makes no reference to the fact that the damage to the railings and landing platform could have been caused after the men had gone missing on the 15th, possibly even during the heavy storms and gales recorded on the 20 December. Nor does it consider how the heavy rock might have fallen on a calm, still day, knocking two of the men to their deaths.

Later, it came to light that a further piece of evidence had been submitted to the enquiry, but which it had failed to make public. Two sailors who were passing Eilean Mor on the evening of 15 December claim to have been discussing the lighthouse, and why it should be in complete darkness, when they noticed a small boat being rowed frantically across the sea by three men dressed in heavy-weather clothing. By the light of the moon, they watched as the small boat passed closely to them and they called out to the men. Their calls were ignored, however, and the boat made its way past them and out of sight.

Over the years, all the usual theories have been trotted out – yes, including sea monsters and abduction by aliens, not to mention the curse of the ‘little men’ – but staying within the realms of reality and based upon observations made at the time, only two explanations seemed feasible.

The first is that the west landing at Eilean Mor is located in a narrow gully in the rock that terminates in a cave. During high seas or storms, water forced into the cave under pressure will return with explosive force and it is possible that McArthur, noticing heavy seas approaching, rushed out to warn his two colleagues working on the crane platform, only to become caught in the tragedy himself. This would explain the overturned chair and the reason he was not wearing his oilskins. Even so, it seems somewhat unlikely that, while in such a tearing hurry, McArthur would have paused on his way out to carefully close both of the doors and the gate to the compound.

The second theory is that one man in oilskins fell into the water and the other rushed back to the lighthouse to call for help. Both men then fell in while attempting to rescue the first. But once again this explanation fails to explain the closed doors and gate, and is not consistent with the sighting of three men in a boat by moonlight. In 1912 a popular ballad called ‘Flannan Isle’ by William Wilson Gibson added to the mystery by offering all sorts of fictional extras, such as a half-eaten meal abandoned in a hurry – conjuring up images of the Mary Celeste. But this only clouds the very real tragedy of three men losing their lives on a bleak, windy rock in the North Sea, by working to prevent others from losing theirs.

Following the terrible and mystifying events, the lighthouse nonetheless remained manned, although without incident, by a succession of keepers, and in 1925 the first wireless communication was established between Eilean Mor and Lewis. In 1971 it was fully automated, the keepers withdrawn and a concrete helipad installed so that engineers could visit the island via less hazardous means for annual maintenance of the light. Nobody has lived on Eilean Mor since.

The most plausible theory arose by accident nearly fifty years after the disappearance of the lighthouse keepers. In 1947 a Scottish journalist called Iain Campbell visited the islands and, while standing on a calm day by the west jetty, he observed the sea suddenly heave and swell, rising to a level of seventy feet above the landing. After about a minute the sea returned to its normal level. Campbell could not see any reason for the sudden change. He theorized it may have been an underwater seaquake (see also ‘Whatever Happened to the Crew of the Mary Celeste?’, page 000) and felt certain nobody standing on the jetty could have survived. The lighthouse keeper at the time told him that the change of level happened periodically and several men had almost been pulled into the sea, but managed to escape.

Although this seems the most likely fate of the men on 16 December 1900, it is by no means certain and still fails to explain several known clues, such as why the third man disappeared wearing his indoor clothing after carefully closing and latching three doors behind him, or who the three men in the rowing boat could have been. Nor does it account for the strange logbook entries or why the light appeared not be operational for a number of days. The only thing we know for certain is that something snatched those three brave men off the rock on that winter’s day over a hundred years ago, and nothing was seen or heard of them since.

Extract from Gone Missing

Albert Jack books available for download here

Murder, Mafia and The Vatican

The Mysterious Death of God’s Own Banker – Did Roberto Calvi, head of a bank with close connections to the Vatican, take his own life or was there a more sinister reason why he was found hanging under Blackfriars Bridge?

Early in the morning of 18 June 1982, in a scene redolent of a real-life Da Vinci Code, the body of Roberto Calvi, chairman of one of Italy’s most influential financial establishments, the Banco Ambrosiano, was found hanging from scaffolding under London’s BlackfriarsBridge by a passing postman.

Calvi’s pockets were full of stones and, bizarrely, a brick had been pushed into the zip of his trousers. The smartly dressed banker was carrying nearly £10,000 in cash in three different currencies in his jacket pocket – lire, Swiss francs and pounds sterling. The man who provided banking facilities for the Vatican, earning him the media nickname of ‘God’s Banker’, had, apparently taken his own life. It seemed pretty clear to most people that he had committed suicide, but had he? Others were far more doubtful, especially on discovering that Calvi was supposed to have been in Milan at the time. Indeed his passport was back there, and he had made no plans to travel to London at all.

Milan was where Roberto Calvi had been born, on 13 April 1920, just as Europe was recovering from the aftermath of the Great War. It was at the end of the Second World War that Calvi joined the Banco Ambrosiano, becoming gradually promoted within the organization and, in the mid 1960s, acquiring the patronage of an important shareholder,  Sicilian-born Michele Sindona, known to his associates as ‘the Shark’.

Sindona had begun his working life as a tax accountant, but he soon switched to less law-abiding pursuits and began to assist his Sicilian associates in their smuggling operations. When he moved to Milan, he quickly impressed Mafia bosses with his tax-avoidance skills and in 1957 started work with the Gambino family by managing their growing profits from heroin smuggling. By the end of the first year, Sindona had not only actually bought his first bank, but he had also become firm friends with Giovanni Battista Montini, the future Pope Paul VI, who was among those who grew to rely upon the Sicilian’s financial acumen, profiting considerably from it.

By the time Montini became pope in 1963, Sindona had enlarged his Mafia-related banking empire. In 1968 he began moving vast sums through the Vatican Bank, which operated outside Italian law, to secret Swiss bank accounts. He had made himself indispensible to the Mob while somehow managing to retain an air of innocent respectability, even being named ‘Man of the Year’ in 1974 and widely regarded as the ‘saviour of the lira’. Throughout this time, Sindona had been grooming Calvi as his natural successor. He even introduced him to Propaganda Due, a powerful Masonic lodge, also known simply as P2, before Calvi was appointed chairman of the ailing Banco Ambrosiano in 1971. And with that appointment, Roberto Calvi had joined the Shark in highly infested waters.

The maverick P2 Masonic lodge in Milan was formed in 1877; by the 1960s and 70s it was regarded by some as something of a state within a state, and by others as a shadow government. Its members formed an elite of nine hundred influential Italians, including forty-three members of parliament, nineteen of the top judges and magistrates, fifty-eight university professors, forty-eight military generals, the heads of the Italian secret service, key banking regulators, important civil servants tasked with running government enterprise, and leading Italian businessmen, including the man who was to become the most powerful Italian since Julius Caesar, Silvio Berlusconi.

During the Cold War, members of P2 genuinely believed they could form an underground government in opposition should Communism take hold of their country. Vatican officials and the Mafia were also thought to have a large representation at the lodge. Now, not wishing to wake up with a horse’s head in my bed, I am going to proceed with rather more caution from here onwards.

Through his association with P2 and its grand master, Licio Gelli, Calvi began to transform the small-time Milanese bank into a big player of international repute, and he soon found himself dining with princes and kings. With such influential and powerful new friends, Calvi took very little time in establishing the Banco Ambrosiano as an important financial institution. Beneath its respectable surface, however, Calvi’s bank was taking the lead in an international money-laundering business. During the early 1970s, it began establishing shell companies all over the world, moving vast sums of money between them in a range of deals brokered by Gelli for his P2 network.

As the profits from drug smuggling grew and the money flowed in, Roberto Calvi’s laundering activities increased while the powerful Gelli kept a watching brief, making deals and keeping records. Then in 1974 disaster struck. In April that year, a sudden and unexpected stock market crash, known as ‘Il Crack Sindona’, destroyed most of Sindona’s banking empire, with profits falling by as much as 98 per cent in some cases. Sindona personally lost over $40 million and he was struggling to keep control of his network when one of his investments, the Franklin Bank, was declared insolvent.

Charges were then brought against Sindona relating to fraud, mismanagement and poor loan policies. When Francesco Mannoia, a Mafia member turned police informer, testified that much of Sindona’s money consisted of the proceeds of heroin trafficking, the Gambino family, determined to see the return of their ill-gotten gains, turned to Calvi and his Banco Ambrosiano and put pressure on them. Further intrigue followed when the Holy See, part of the Vatican business organization, was said to have lost $40 dollars themselves during Il Crack Sindona, placing the Vatican quite clearly in the same boat as the Mafia drug lords, whether they realized it or not.

By the close of the 1970s, Roberto Calvi was in the thick of the action, and busy setting up shell companies in Panama and the Bahamas. In 1980, no doubt in recognition for his good service, Calvi was enrolled in P2 as a full member and immediately began atoning for the mistakes of his predecessor Michele Sindona in an attempt to return some of the money lost during the banking disaster of 1974.

Banco Ambrosiano became a clearing house for politicians and businessmen alike who wanted to buy protection from government officials or American law enforcers, who were, by now, taking a close interest in Italian drug traffickers. Licio Gelli acted as deal broker and Roberto Calvi was tasked with finding a means of spiriting millions of dirty dollars away from the reach of investigators and returning them as legitimately earned income. The aborted takeover of the Rizzoli Group during 1980 was in fact a cover for one of these money-laundering deals.

The idea was that Calvi, Gelli and other powerful members of P2 would buy up a controlling number of Rizzoli shares and deposit them with Rothschild Bank in Zurich. Calvi then arranged for his bank to lend $142 million to a Panama-based company called Bellatrix. The mysterious company, which later turned out to exist in name only, then bought Rizzoli shares at ten times their value, generating a huge income for P2 members and investors and filling their Swiss accounts. When Rothschild executives realized what exactly was going on, they were alarmed to find they had been caught up in the transaction without their knowledge. According to one executive director, he was told by a senior board official that ‘we have to find a way out of this or I may end up in LakeZurich’. But within a few days, the windfall profits had been released into the accounts of the P2 organizers of the deal that Roberto Calvi had facilitated, at which some of them, key Calvi allies, immediately fled Italy, financially secure for life.

Calvi was now heavily involved in the banking/political/ religious/criminal melting pot that featured in every part of the Italian way of life during the 1960s and 70s, and many mysterious disappearances that took place during that era have remained unsolved. Indeed, knowing he knew something about everything, Calvi was becoming increasingly concerned for his own safety, paying up to 4 million lire a day for a personal armed guard and bullet-proof car. He had become further alarmed when, in 1978, Pope Paul VI died and was replaced by Pope John Paul I. By then Vatican officials had resolved to clean up their image. As soon as Pope John Paul I had taken office, he took the unprecedented step of ordering Vatican books and records to be opened for scrutiny, pledging to end corruption and fraud.

He also announced he intended to modify the Catholic Church’s position on the use of contraception. Sadly, John Paul I died within thirty-three days of becoming pope, officially of a heart attack, although many believe that he was poisoned in an attempt to keep the Vatican ‘on side’. All of which, of course, was strenuously denied by Vatican officials. Despite the suspicious circumstances of his death and calls for an autopsy, John Paul’s body was embalmed within one day. It was claimed at the time that a papal autopsy was prohibited under Vatican law, overlooking the fact that an autopsy had been carried out on Pope Pius VIII on his death in 1830, also allegedly of poisoning.

When John Paul II, the first Polish pope, assumed control following the sudden demise of his predecessor, funds from the Vatican and CIA began to be channelled via Banco Ambrosiano to Poland to support the burgeoning Solidarity Movement headed by the revolutionary shipyard worker (and later president) Lech Walesa. Pope John Paul II made many speeches that were supportive of the Polish people, who were still, at that time, caught in the iron grip of the Soviet Union. As chairman of Banco Ambrosiano, the perceived conduit between the Vatican and the Polish revolutionaries, Calvi may well have made important enemies in Russia during this time. After all, shortly afterwards an assassination attempt was made on the Pope himself in Vatican Square, thought to be a direct result of his interference in Eastern Europe.

Calvi, realizing he was in it up to his nail bag, is reported to have commented to a friend at that time: ‘The only book you’ve got to read is The Godfather. That’s the only one that tells you how this world is really run.’ But the net was finally closing in on organized crime in Italy. The Bank of Italy produced a report on an investigation into the activities of Banco Ambrosiano, concluding that bank officials had illegally exported several billion lire. During the subsequent trial in 1981, Roberto Calvi was found guilty, fined nearly 20 million lire and given a suspended four-year prison sentence for siphoning 27 million lire out of Italy in violation of currency laws.

His P2 connections facilitated Calvi’s release on bail pending appeal and, remarkably, he even kept his position as chairman of Banco Ambrosiano but the banker insisted he was innocent of all charges and was being manipulated by others. During his spell in prison in 1981 prior to being tried, Calvi is known to have taken the unusual step of asking to see the magistrates hearing his case in the middle of the night. The men duly obliged and Calvi said he would volunteer information about the funding of Italy’s political parties and their connection with both organized crime and the Roman Catholic Church. But he limited his information to a $21 million loan to the Socialist Party, and claimed he needed more time to gather further information and supporting evidence. So at a stroke Roberto Calvi had made enemies of the Italian Socialist Party, organized crime and the Vatican, not forgetting the Russians, who viewed somewhat dimly his financial arrangements with Lech Walesa and his Solidarity Movement.

The following year, in June 1982, Banco Ambrosiano dramatically collapsed after it was discovered that between $700 million and $1.5 billion had been spirited away, much of it via Vatican sources and their Institute for Religious Works (commonly known as the Vatican Bank). Following the bank’s collapse, it came as no surprise that the Vatican agreed, in 1984, to pay $224 million in compensation to the 120 creditors of the failed bank.

Most of the compensation found its way to the island of Sicily, perhaps very wisely too in the circumstances. Extraordinarily, the Vatican managed to remain out of the scandal, citing its compensation payment as ‘recognition of its moral involvement’ in the bank’s collapse. Calvi himself was by now exceedingly twitchy, stating in a rare interview for La Stampa that he felt threatened. ‘In this sort of atmosphere any barbarity is now possible. Many people have a lot to answer for in this affair,’ he said to the newspaper, before announcing cryptically, ‘I am not sure who yet, but sooner or later it will all come out.’ He went on to confide in his lawyers: ‘If the whole thing ever does come out, it will be enough to start the Third World War.’ Clearly a reference to the anti-Communist activities of the Vatican and P2 members.

Shortly afterwards, on 10 June 1982, Calvi disappeared from his Milan home, having shaved off his trademark moustache and acquired a false passport in the name of Gian Roberto Calvini. He was armed with cash in three currencies, including Swiss francs, indicating his intention to travel to that country, and a single black leather briefcase stuffed with documents. A Calvi confidant from Sardinia, Flavio Carboni, who had recently been paid $11 million by Calvi to provide ‘security’ arrangements, then spirited the banker out of Italy using a speedboat, helicopter, eight private planes, three false identities and fourteen separate safe houses. Roberto Calvi must have been exhausted by the time he checked into Chelsea Cloisters residential hotel in London on 13 June. He was found hanging under the bridge only five days later.

Against this background of intrigue on an international scale, it is extraordinary that a British coroner concluded that – despite the middle-aged banker suffering from vertigo and requiring the agility of an Olympic gymnast to reach the position he was found hanging from under Blackfriars Bridge – Calvi must have committed suicide. The fact that the only time anybody, short of said athlete, could reach that part of the bridge was at high tide, and by boat, seemed not to trouble the coroner; and neither did the bricks found in Calvi’s pockets, nor the small matter of his hands being tied behind his back.

And that’s not all. Any dust or other bits of debris that would have clung to Calvi’s clothing as a result of Calvi clambering along the scaffolding under the bridge was not taken into account. And neither was the medical evidence of Professor Keith Simpson, despite being the man who had pioneered forensic investigation, who concluded that Calvi had been strangled and not hanged, as there was no evidence of the type of neck injury associated with a drop. The fact that police officers found enough barbiturates to fell an elephant in Calvi’s room at Chelsea Cloisters – suggesting that the banker could have committed suicide, painlessly, sitting comfortably in bed in his pyjamas and dressing gown, had he wanted to end his life – was also overlooked. Quite rightly, a second inquest overruled the first, but even this one only provided an open verdict. So, what did happen to him then? And why was all this evidence seemingly overlooked?

Towards the end, Calvi hadn’t known which way to turn. He had made many enemies, albeit without intending to, and, in Mafia terms, knew exactly where all the bodies were buried – perhaps quite literally. As we have seen, Calvi had become the financial link between the Mafia, the Vatican, P2 and the Italian state. Even the Russians wanted information from the banker. And those who didn’t need his help any more and felt he knew too much preferred him to be silenced for ever. He was a wanted man, whichever way he faced.

During the weeks prior to his death, Calvi had certainly been keeping dubious company, dangerous enough for investigators not even to glance in the direction of the Vatican to begin with. But Roberto Calvi had been a close associate of the powerful American archbishop Paul Marcinkus, head of the Vatican Bank and heavily involved in the international money movement effected by Banco Ambrosiano. Marcinkus had been criticized by many in the Pope John Paul II’s inner circle and they had called for his removal. The Pope had swiftly closed ranks around Marcinkus, enabling the Vatican’s diplomatic status to protect him. Even when Italian authorities later issued arrest warrants for Marcinkus and two senior Vatican officials, declaring them ‘socially dangerous’ and demanding that, if apprehended, they be denied bail to prevent them fleeing the country, the limitless immunity of the Vatican gave them safe sanctuary.

Five days before his own disappearance, on 5 June 1982, Calvi wrote in desperation to the Pope. In a letter made public during recent years by Calvi’s family, the banker pleaded with the pontiff, declaring him to be his ‘last hope’. He also gave a thinly veiled warning that the collapse of his bank would ‘provoke a catastrophe of unimaginable proportions in which the Church will suffer the gravest damage’. Calvi used the opportunity to remind the Pope, or perhaps inform him for the first time, of the assistance his bank had provided the Vatican in funding both political and religious dealings with power makers in the East and West and of the banks in south America he had created to channel Vatican funds to help halt the expansion of Marxist ideology on that continent. Calvi felt betrayed by the Vatican, claiming he had been abandoned by ‘the authority for which I have always shown the utmost respect and obedience’. He ended by informing the Pope of financial irregularities in Vatican bookkeeping, presumably manipulated by Archbishop Marcinkus.

Could that letter, tacitly threatening to reveal Marcinkus’s fraud, have effectively signed Calvi’s death warrant, while investigators were all looking in other directions, at the Mob and Propaganda Due? Casting blame upon P2 does make a great alternative conspiracy theory. After all, P2 members were believed to have addressed each other as ‘friar’. Could this be why the ‘Black Friar’ (‘black’ because he had betrayed his fellows Masons) was found hanged at BlackfriarsBridge in London? The bricks in his pockets were certainly a Masonic symbol. Furthermore, new members are warned that betrayal of P2 secrets would result in death by hanging and the cleansing of the corpse by the tides.

Certainly Calvi had suggested to investigators that he was prepared to peel back the clandestine layers of P2’s skin. But would ‘punishing’ one of their number so publicly, in the middle of one of the world’s busiest cities, and with such overt symbolism, be worth the risk? Possibly not, as the Italian government disbanded the Masonic lodge shortly afterwards. At a stroke, the century-old secret society vanished, although many believed this was simply a cover-up for the Calvi killing as plenty of P2 members were also members of Parliament.

The Mafia were also heavily implicated in Calvi’s death. Indeed they had lost the most in his money-laundering disaster and mobster Flavio Carboni featured as a key figure during the final stages of Calvi’s life. From the beginning of 1982, the little Sardinian, who once boasted he would become the richest and most powerful man in Italy, became his constant companion and security adviser. The relationship renewed Calvi’s access to real power, via Carboni’s secret-service connections, and the banker felt it could afford him some protection. He understood the advantages of hidden power, such as the Mafia and Propaganda Due possessed, but was also well aware of the downside of losing favour. As the infamous American Mafioso informer commented to US officials when he broke the omertà (Mafia code of silence): ‘It is time I left our government and joined your government.’ Calvi was on the brink of doing the same, and expected Flavio Carboni to be the man who could enable it.

On 27 April 1982, the deputy chairman at Banco Ambrosiano, Roberto Rosone, left home for his office at 8 a.m. As he stepped into the street, a man with a pistol emerged from a doorway and fired directly at him, wounding Rosone in each leg. But armed guards posted at the Rosone residence had been alert to the possible danger and immediately returned fire, killing the would-be assassin outright.

Was Calvi trying to rid himself of those around him who knew too much about his activities, or, instead, was the net closing in on him? What is known is that the banker rushed to the hospital bedside of his deputy with the customary bunch of grapes – in this case trodden, fermented and presented in a bottle – and is reported to have exclaimed: ‘Madonna! What a world of madmen. They are trying to frighten us, Roberto, so that they can get their hands on a group worth 20,000 billion lire.’ Calvi was said to be shocked to hear later that the would-be murderer had been identified as the feared Roman gangland figure Danilo Abbruciati, who emerged as a key Carboni ally when it later became known that, the day after the shooting, Carboni had paid an associate of Abbruciati, Ernesto Diotavelli, $530,000.

Flavio Carboni was soon in possession of a Calvi-funded cool $11 million, safely hidden away in a Zurich bank account, and a cigarette smuggler called Silvano Vittor was then employed as Calvi’s personal bodyguard. Vittor, Carboni and Calvi all met up in Zurich five weeks after the shooting and Calvi was smuggled to Austria where he boarded a private jet to London disguised as an executive of Fiat Motors. In London, Calvi thought he would be safe and would be able to meet with the Italian magistrates to provide them with detailed information about the international money laundering by both the Mafia and the Vatican Bank in return for immunity from prosecution. But, instead, the very men he had paid to look after him delivered the banker into the hands of London Mob boss Francesco De Carlo, a seemingly respectable banker otherwise known as Frankie the Strangler.

Ironically, it was the Mafia themselves who would eventually solve the mystery of the death of ‘God’s Banker’. During the bloody Mafia war of 1981–3, as in-fighting rose to new levels of viciousness – entire families being wiped out to avenge acts of disloyalty both real and imagined – several high-ranking mobsters in both Italy and America, once safely under arrest, became valuable informers. In July 1991, one of these, Francesco Marino Mannoia, testified by video link from America (where he was living on a US witness protection programme) that he had been told on two separate occasions that the death of Roberto Calvi was murder, not suicide:

‘I remember I was on the run at the time and hiding at a villa in the countryside when news of Calvi’s suicide in London appeared on the television. With me at the time was Ignazio Pullara [a member of the Mafia] who told me in a very excited manner that he knew Calvi had been murdered. Then, a while later when I was in jail in Trapani, Sicily, I spoke to Ignazio’s brother Gio who also told me Calvi had been murdered by the Mafia. When I asked him why, I was told it was because he had been given a large amount of money from drugs and contraband cigarette sales to launder but he had failed to do so. After that he was considered to be no longer reliable and Cosa Nostra [the Sicilian Mafia] could not trust him any more.’

The Italian police subsequently re-opened the case and in 1998 they exhumed the body of Roberto Calvi. In 2002 new forensic methods confirmed the banker had indeed been killed and Roberto Calvi’s family were finally able to claim the $10 million the banker’s life had been insured for. By then Frankie the Strangler was already in prison, but for other crimes. He had been given a 25-year jail sentence at the Old Bailey in 1987 after being captured following Britain’s largest-ever heroin smuggling bust. As he began his sentence in a maximum-security British prison, he listened in horror at the stories filtering back about the true extent of the Mafia war in the early 1980s, including the slaughter of women and children. It was at this point that Frankie finally decided to start cooperating with anti-Mafia prosecutors. As he later told the court, ‘I just don’t want to be a part of Cosa Nostra any more.’

Other Mafia supergrasses, known as pentiti (‘those who have repented’), then came forward; one was another senior Mafia member called Antonio Giuffre, who confirmed to the police that the reason for the Mafia murdering Calvi was ‘poor money laundering’ and offered other information that directly led to the arrest, in 2004, of five people for the murder of Calvi. These were Giuseppe ‘Pippo’ Calo, a convicted gangster; Flavio Carboni and his former girlfriend, Manuela Kleinzig, who was charged with providing Carboni with a false alibi; Silvano Vittor (Calvi’s bodyguard in London); and Ernesto Diotallevi, the head of the most dangerous criminal network in Rome and the man paid $530,000 the day after Calvi’s deputy had been shot in Milan.

Carboni immediately protested to the Italian newsagency Apcom that Roberto Calvi had close links to the Vatican and suggested the financier may have been killed on orders from the Church. Pointing the finger of blame directly at Archbishop Paul Marcinkus, he stated, ‘Perhaps the Vatican would have wanted him [Calvi] dead, but I didn’t.’ However, by the time of the arrests, Paul ‘the Gorilla’ Marcinkus was back in America leading a quiet life and still protected by Vatican diplomatic immunity. He has never spoken about his time in charge of the Vatican Bank. In fact, Marcinkus never said a word about anything right up until his death in 1990 – of ‘undisclosed causes’.

At the pre-trial hearings in December 2005, De Carlo, speaking from behind a security screen, explained how at the time of Calvi’s death he had been travelling from London to Rome: ‘A few days before Roberto’s death I heard that Bernardo Brusca [a leading Sicilian family member] wanted to see me. I also heard Pippo Calo wanted me to “do something for them”.’ He continued: ‘But when I saw them a few days later they told me things had been taken care of and they didn’t need me after all. I didn’t ask what they had wanted me for, it didn’t seem necessary. Calo just kept saying that a problem had now been resolved. That is how it works in the Mafia. We never said anybody had been killed, we just say a job has been taken care of.’

So, a quick recap then. We have the murder of Roberto Calvi following the collapse of Italy’s leading independent financial institution; we have the shooting of the bank’s deputy chairman, Roberto Rosone, and the death of his would-be assassin, the Roman gangster Danilo Abbruciati. Then we have the payment, the day after the shooting, of $530,000 to Abbruciati’s lieutenant Ernesto Diotavelli by Calvi’s friend Carboni, who both now stand accused of murdering Rosone’s boss. In addition, we have characters such as Frankie the Strangler and Marcinkus ‘the Gorilla’.

Other elements of the story include the Vatican’s involvement in international money laundering and even in the suspected murder of Pope John Paul I, who may have threatened to reveal the truth. In 1986 Calvi’s black leather briefcase, containing all his secrets, turned up and the Vatican bought it without explanation – for $40 million. A London-based Italian antiques dealer, said to be about to reveal the identity of Calvi’s killers to London police investigators, was himself murdered in 1982. We have Propaganda Due, the secret Masonic lodge whose members – including prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who was certainly involved with Roberto Calvi – benefited from the fraud Calvi assisted the Vatican with. At the time of writing, the only defendant in court to hear the charges being presented has been Flavio Carboni, who later told Sardinian journalists: ‘I know as much about Calvi’s murder as I do about the killing of Jesus Christ.’

On June 6, 2007, after nearly two years of hearing evidence, argument and the detailed defence of the five standing trial, the presiding judge, Mario Lucia d’Andria sensationally drew an end to the proceedings when he threw the case out of court, arguing ‘insufficient evidence.’ However, the court did rule that Roberto Calvi’s death should be treated as murder and not suicide. A conclusion that asked more questions than it answered. Legal experts argued that there were many people, including senior mafia members and Vatican officials who had a clear motive for Calvi’s murder and who would benefit fro his silence. Observers also noted that as twenty five years had passed, since the hanging banker had been discovered, prosecutors had found it almost impossible to present a credible case. After all, key witnesses had been either unwilling to testify, unable to be found or were no longer alive.

The Calvi family’s private investigator, Jeff Katz, claimed that senior figures, both commercial and political, had escaped attention and to bring evidence against them would be impossible. He also conceded that it was ‘likely’ that the Mafia had been involved but suspects were either dead or missing. The surprise verdict failed to put an end to the matter as the Roman prosecutor’s office opened a second investigation naming others, some of whom were already serving life sentences on unrelated matters. On May 7 2010 there were further acquittals due to lack of evidence and on November 8 2011 the Court of the Last Resort, better known as the Court of Cessation, confirmed the acquittals and closed the files. There is now very little, if any chance at all, that the mysterious death of the financier found hanging under Blackfriars Bridge miles from his native land, will ever be solved. Although we all have our own suspicions, don’t we.

Albert Jack books available for download here