September 2015

Since the theme of the last couple of posts has been misreported events giving rise to stories of the paranormal, it makes sense that this one should be about someone who has done sterling work in getting to the truth behind such stories. In their ideal forms, the roles of journalists and historians are similar: establishing with reasonable certainty what exactly happened, why and how, and placing the events into a wider context of significance and influence. This means a lot of legwork and research, so people who are quite lazy, like me, always appreciate it when it’s done properly. Unfortunately, because so many people, many of them journalists, are just as lazy as I am, what more usually happens is that a story is picked up and simply regurgitated without going through any critical evaluation.

Perhaps the best example of this is the legend of the Bermuda Triangle. Put simply, a lot of people believe that there is an area between Florida, Bermuda and Puerto Rico that has an unusually high incidence of unexplained disappearances and freak navigational glitches. The story is usually backed up with examples of aircraft and ships that have supposedly vanished without trace in good weather and with no distress message being received. Almost everybody starts with the infamous Flight 19, a U.S. Navy training exercise that went tragically wrong in December, 1945.

For something that has so pervaded the public consciousness, it seems impossible that the legend could be anything other than of immemorial age, but in fact it dates back only as far as the 1950s. The term ‘Bermuda Triangle’ first appears in an article written for the magazine Argosy by Vincent Gaddis in February 1964, but the first inklings of a mystery were presented by Edward Van Winkle Jones in an associated Press article of 17th September, 1950. Incidentally, in searching for the full text of that article I’ve found three different dates for its publication, which only goes to show how difficult it is to pin down any facts in this case. Ever since Jones’ article, a whole vast industry has been building up, dedicated to publishing and republishing stories of various ships and aircraft that have vanished in the general area of Bermuda. Most of these follow a general consensus that something strange is going on there, but is there really?

Enter journalist and pilot Lawrence J. “Larry” Kusche, who is a man after my own heart. Faced with an enormous body of largely unprovenanced folklore, he did what any historian worth his salt would do and set out to track down as many of the facts in each disappearance as he could. He went back to contemporary newspaper accounts of disappearances, the records of official bodies, most notably the U.S. Weather Bureau, statistics of shipping and aircraft losses, the reports of inquiries and the Lloyds register of shipping. What he did not do was to repeat with embellishment stories that had already appeared in Triangle literature. His findings should be unsurprising.

In many cases, disappearances occurred outside the traditional area of the Bermuda Triangle. A classic example is the Mary Celeste, which set out for New York and was found drifting 500 miles east of the Azores, having never passed within sight of the Triangle. This is usually explained away by positing a larger area extending to the Azores, which is dangerously close to making “The Bermuda Triangle” a synonym for “the sea”. Some ships discussed in the sensationalist literature, such as Lotta, Viego and Miramon, could not even be proven to have existed in the first place. In other cases, weather that had been reported as good by other investigators proved to have been bad to terrible in the accounts of the official weather bureau or contemporary newspapers. The Coast Guard reports into the loss of the Marine Sulphur Queen in February, 1963 could only not conclude a definite cause because of the sheer number of plausible rational explanations they uncovered. In the case of Flight 19, Kusche devoted an entire book to his investigation, which concluded, as did the initial U.S. Navy board of inquiry, that the flight leader became disoriented, decided that he was south of Florida when he was in fact east of it and led his men on a rambling course trending generally northward until they ran out of fuel and ditched in heavy seas. The most damning fact I leave to last. Statistically, disappearances and losses in the area of the Bermuda Triangle form no greater a proportion of total traffic than in any other region. The number of vanishing aircraft and ships is so high there because it’s among the most travelled stretches of ocean in the world. This only emphasises a comment by one sceptic, reported in a article on the subject, that “trying to find a common cause for every Bermuda Triangle disappearance is no more logical than trying to find a common cause for every automobile accident in Arizona”.

So why do I believe this writer’s version of events over those presented by other writers and on television? It’s quite simple really. Kusche goes to reliable sources. He evaluates his sources for trustworthiness, presents the details he finds and tells his readers what he concluded. His investigation is transparent and he only uses facts that can be independently verified from primary sources. From methodology alone a reader can have confidence that the author isn’t trying to pull a fast one. Where he does find an inexplicable mystery, he admits the lack of evidence and moves on, and if he has his facts wrong we can find out because he reveals a clear chain of transmission for them. In a field that can generate vast sums for people prepared to feed the legend, the temptation is very great to repeat stories uncritically, leave out important details and otherwise dupe a reader into false conclusions. Kusche even reports in The Bermuda Triangle Mystery Solved an incident in which a tabloid newspaper openly admitted not referring to his book because it provided rational explanations. The real lesson of his investigations can therefore best be summed up in his own introduction to that work:

Like the body, the mind must be properly exercised or it will become flabby. It must be fed a nutritious diet of accurate information and proper logic. Given inaccurate facts and faulty logic, its powers will decline.

My concern is not so much the mysteries of the Bermuda Triangle, but rather, the mental processes by which people make decisions about such topics. My purpose is to encourage people to think more critically, to be more skeptical, to be more concerned about the quality of what goes into their minds.

…topics of this sort often do have logical answers, if only we work hard enough to find them.

A mystery should be a challenge to investigation. The purpose of research is to solve mysteries, not prolong them.

For the second day in a row I find myself thinking about ghost stories I read about as a boy that I’ve later debunked thanks to the internet. Aeroplanes, particularly very early ones, were almost my earliest enthusiasm, so when I was given a pulp book about strange events I was drawn to two stories that involved aviation. Both of them were nonsense, but each had grown from a kernel of truth, so they serve as perfect examples of how myths are created.

The first of these stories I encountered in this form: during the Second World War, pilots based at an airfield in Scotland began to report sightings of a strange biplane. It looked obsolete, but could always outrun their own machines. The mystery continued until one day the strange aircraft was spotted on the ground on a remote stretch of moorland. A ground party went to investigate and found an old Sopwith Camel that had clearly been parked there for years. At the controls was the pilot’s skeleton, his broken legs trapped under the rudder pedals in a forced landing. When the dead airman was removed, sightings of the ghostly intruder suddenly ceased.

No mention was made of which RAF station in Scotland was involved, the name of the missing airman or any other details that might have shed light on the story (a sure sign of an urban legend, but we’ve all been to Snopes). Fortunately, though, there weren’t that many Highland crashes that matched the decription, and eventually a discussion forum cleared up the whole issue without any effort from me at all. It seems that one or two details had got a little garbled: it was a Pup, not a Camel; the pilot was removed and buried in 1918 and the second discovery of the wreckage took place accidentally during the search for a different crashed aircraft in 1940. I notice no reference to spectral aviators plying the skies over Montrose. Perhaps this story became attached to one I heard once about a ghostly Spitfire that sometimes appears over Biggin Hill. The really interesting thing is that the wreckage wasn’t entirely removed. A lot of it was buried where it lay so that it couldn’t confuse future searches and a wooden cross was later placed as a marker. Somewhere in the hills above Montrose are the buried remains of a Sopwith Pup, waiting to be found.

The second story concerned a bizarre discovery in the Arctic. This one concerns the discovery of a whole formation of American warbirds buried in ice with their magneto switches on and all their controls set for flight. No mention was made in the version I saw of what makes they were, which unit they belonged to, their point of departure or their destination. Again, this is very suspicious, as it makes it very difficult to check the facts. There is, though, only one multiple crash site that even comes close to matching the story, and that’s the Greenland location from which the P-38 Glacier Girl was recovered in 1992. While it’s possible that some of the aircraft hadn’t been completely switched off after their mass forced landing in 1942. it’s more likely that this detail was just included to add mystery to this otherwise straightforward story of pilots being forced to ditch their planes in an inhospitable location.

This brings me to something that’s annoyed me for a long time. I’m prepared to accept that there may be things that science can’t explain, but it seems that people who make that claim rarely give the scientific method a fair chance to provide answers. They leap straight to the paranormal, because it makes for a good story. History is full of such leaps, I think because we prefer a good story to a messy one, a mystery to a prosaic solution.

For as long as I can remember I’ve been fascinated by shipwrecks, so it should come as no surprise that I’ve been interested in all things White Star for years. When Robert Ballard published a book about his 1985 expedition to the Titanic I wasn’t slow to get hold of a copy and pore over it for hours, and I was very taken with the revelation I found there that the whole disaster had been predicted in an 1898 novel by Morgan Robertson. The idea was like a ghost story: the prescient writer foreseeing with uncanny accuracy a tragedy that seemed when it occurred to be so unexpected. He even almost got the name of the ship right. Perhaps this story could prove E.S.P., or time-slips, or something. To be fair to myself, I was only ten at the time.

Thanks to the internet, I recently read Robertson’s novel (The Wreck of the Titan; or Futility), and discovered that fans of the supernatural have been a bit economical with their descriptions. Although his liner does, indeed, sink after colliding with ice in the North Atlantic, the author was more concerned with his hero’s battles with alcoholism and his evil British superiors on board than commentary on maritime safety. His book is overwrought, poorly written and descends several times into anti-semitism, misogyny and xenophobia (the worst kind: Anglophobia). His Jewish underwriter is a sub-Shylock ogre that could have been penned by Julius Streicher. He presents disregard for maritime safety as a trait confined to British lines (ironically, in 1912 the White Star Line was owned by International Mercantile Marine, an American firm). The recipient of his protagonist’s unrequited love –  much of the novel is spent in his realisation that she isn’t worth his tears – is a timid, paranoid and fickle marital opportunist, who is entirely to blame for his drinking problem and subsequent wreck of his career as a U.S. Navy officer. The fight between the unarmed hero and a polar bear on an ice floe is ridiculous and his survival beyond unlikely. Even the disaster itself is mainly caused not by incompetence, but a malicious bid to discredit our noble hero’s forthcoming testimony that the great liner has run down a sailing vessel at high speed and failed to stop. How nobly he turns down the gagging bribe offered by the wicked captain, an RNR officer. How pernicious is that figure’s gift of a large bottle of whisky, and subsequent drugging of his bridge lookout. The Royal Naval Reserve probably wasn’t a Nelsonian paragon in those days, but I doubt that they would have given a commission to someone stupid enough to deliberately incapacitate his own lookouts. I digress. The point is that this wasn’t a literary genius at work, just a man who knew about common practice on the North Atlantic lanes.

This is where the novel really starts to shed useful light on the Titanic disaster. In the officers’ testimony at both inquests it becomes clear that it was normal and expected that a captain would make the greatest possible speed at all times. That Robertson was aware in 1898 that this could be a problem only underlines how myopic was the culture at sea, where each new crossing was expected to be smoother and faster than the last. It also makes the argument presented by Titanic‘s senior surviving crew that events conspired against them to bring about an unavoidable catastrophe ring more than a little hollow. Of course, people being what they are, readers nowadays prefer to see a creepy supernatural premonition rather than a simple prediction based on known flaws in safety procedures. Even the name Titan isn’t much of a reach, given that it was common to call the new superliners by names that emphasised their scale.

This brings me neatly to another great and ill-fated liner with a spooky history. Many years ago, I read in The Usborne Book of the Unexplained that S.S. Great Eastern had been plagued throughout her unlucky career by a mysterious hammering from her double hull, and that when she was broken up the skeleton of a riveter was found sealed between the plates. Nobody ever seems to have identified this person or turned up a contemporary account of the discovery, but a fairly cursory internet search reveals an article from the Providence Evening Press of December 2nd, 1862 that describes an industrial dispute during major repairs. Workmen had been disturbed by a mysterious hammering from the hull, and due to the involvement of a psychic medium they had decided the ship was haunted and unsafe. Captain Paton, the ship’s master, investigated the noise and found a cable tapping against the outer hull. He told the story to a meeting of the Mercantile Marine Association in Liverpool on November 14th of that year and this was reported in the Liverpool Times, so it was hardly a secret.

I suppose that the point I want to make is that everyone loves a good ghost story, but few ever hold up to serious scrutiny. More than that, it’s always worth investigating mysteries of the unknown, because quite often there’s nothing unknown or mysterious about them.