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Time RestoredThe Harrison timekeepers and R.T. Gould, the man who knew (almost) everything$

Jonathan Betts

Print publication date: 2006

Print ISBN-13: 9780198568025

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2010

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198568025.001.0001

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(p.406) APPENDIX FOUR Summary of the Content of Rupert Gould’s first two books on Unsolved Scientific Mysteries

(p.406) APPENDIX FOUR Summary of the Content of Rupert Gould’s first two books on Unsolved Scientific Mysteries

Time Restored
Oxford University Press


The Devil’s Hoof-marks

The first, and one of the most popular, of the mysteries Gould describes in Oddities is one he first read about as a boy in the Summer of 1900. On holiday with the family and staying at a large old house in Haslemere, he came across an account of the mystery in an old newspaper in the library of the house.

The story concerns the much-publicized appearance, across the county of Devon in February 1855, of a long series of hoof-shaped prints in the snow, said by the more melodramatic members of the community to be the tracks of the Devil himself. Many locals refused to go out at night and there was much local alarm. The tracks, which were very well documented, seemed to run in a single row continuously, as though made by a bi-ped placing one foot directly in front of the other as it proceeded, but apparently crossing high fences, over rooftops, rivers and enclosed courtyards without interruption.

The discussions of this case over the years have been as heated, and the explanations have been as many and various, as they have been bizarre: from the tracks of a kangaroo to fake hoof-marks made by a band of gypsies, intent on frightening a rival clan. It was certainly not one to which Gould was prepared to offer a definite solution, though he did point out that the explorer Sir James Ross had observed similar ‘hoof-marks’ on the icy and desolate island of Kerguelen in the South Atlantic, in 1840, marks they supposed were those of an abandoned pony, though none could be seen.

A theory put forward by one Thomas Fox in the Illustrated London News from 1855, published at the time of the sightings, and illustrated by Gould in Oddities, was that the footprints were in fact made by a rat, the front paw prints converging together at the front (‘knock-kneed’ in style), the straight back prints joining the rear end of the front prints to form the kind of horse-shoe shape ‘∩’ that was seen. A very comprehensive summary of the many writings on this mystery, edited by Mike Dash and extending to no less than 80 pages, is to be found in Fortean Studies Volume 1 (1994).392

(p.407) In the 1960s one of the more likely explanations was published by Alfred Leutscher,393 and recently reiterated by David Sealy, a retired member of the Natural History Museum’s staff (South Kensington).394 Sealy incidentally, remarks of Gould’s work in analyzing unsolved mysteries, that: ‘he was one of the first to do so in a properly scientific, and sceptical, manner. He gave no support to any supernatural explanations … His books are classics of their kind’. Leutscher’s ‘complete’ solution attributed the footprints to a kind of wood mouse.

According to the theory, the marks were actually made in the opposite sense from that proposed by Fox: the rear prints of the mouse being closer together and turned out, the prints in front joining the rear and effectively elongating them, forming a U shape, similar to the horse-shoe shape but formed with the animal proceeding with the open end of the marks forward. If this is indeed the solution to the mystery, then Gould was very close to the answer with the theory of the paw marks of the rat.

On 13 February 1935, a short summary of The Devil’s Hoofmarks was given by Gould in one of his radio broadcasts on the BBC’s Children’s Hour as The Stargazer. This much-abbreviated version of the story was then published in his Stargazer Talks (1943) and an updated version appeared a year later, in 1944, in a second edition of Oddities. The chapter in this second edition, and the summary in the Stargazer Talks, included a note that it had been pointed out to him, that statistically it would have been impossible for any one creature to have made all the footprints in such a short space of time and that there must have been quite a number of such creatures about that night. This perhaps supports the theory that the animal could have been a rodent of some kind, which would also seem a very likely candidate for the footprints on the remote and barren Kerguelen Island.

The Vault at Barbados

This chapter details the story of a burial vault, cut out from solid rock within the churchyard of Christ Church, Barbados, which was said, between the years 1812 and 1820, to have been troubled with the coffins being moved about within the vault by ‘unknown forces’. Five times this is reported to have occurred, in spite of the entrance to the vault being sealed by several independent and respectable people, the seals being intact before each inspection. After the fifth time, the bodies were moved to burial in the ground and the tomb left empty. Noting similar cases on record in England and one on an island in the Baltic, Gould considered all logical explanations based on the evidence he had, including earthquakes and flooding, and was unable to find any convincing answer attributable to causes either human or natural.

(p.408) Touching on the possibility that the cause may have been supernatural, Gould regarded himself ‘unqualified to comment’ (being sceptical of such explanations, and a wholehearted disbeliever in Spiritualism), and instead cited, amongst others, the famous author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a confirmed spiritualist, who had himself written an account of the mystery and with whom Gould had corresponded on that subject. Conan Doyle was a wholehearted believer in the psychic nature of this phenomenon and was certain the cause had been threefold.

First the movement was partly due to spiritual ‘forces desiring the more speedy decomposition of the bodies’ (hence ensuring these were moved from the vault to the ground); second, there were physical forces causing the movement, which had been derived from the ‘effluvia’ emitted by the men who had carried the coffins into the vault, and whose ‘effluvia’ was then trapped in the sealed space ‘as in the cabinet of a genuine medium’; and thirdly Conan Doyle declared that because two of the bodies were of people who had committed suicide ‘there remains a store of unused vitality which may, where circumstances are favourable, work itself off in capricious and irregular ways …’.

Resisting the temptation to dismiss these explanations out of hand, Gould carefully considered each, before concluding their improbability, though pointing out that he is not a total disbeliever in ‘supernatural phenomena’: ‘on that subject I neither affirm nor deny anything’.

Nevertheless, he had a very healthy scepticism about ‘genuine mediums’ and there was a polite tension between the two authors on the subject. Conan Doyle wrote to Gould in 1930, after having read his views on spiritualism as expressed in Oddities and its sequel Enigmas, stating, that ‘I think every remark you make upon it is open to question.’ This prompted Gould to answer sharply that he hadn’t intended to attack spiritualism, but that ‘if I ever do so, it will be in a book entirely devoted to the subject’, though he doubted he was impartial enough on the matter, adding conclusively ‘I have very few human sympathies and I find it difficult to understand the mentality of the average believer in spiritualism. To my mind they are mostly credulous, imperfectly educated and ill-balanced; the raw material from which, in all ages, religious and other bodies have been formed—sometimes by fanatics and sometimes by charlatans. So long as ordinary life is drab, and men fear death, such leaders, however fantastic their teachings, will never entirely lack a following.’ Conan Doyle replied on a postcard, simply stating that the seances he had witnessed had been very carefully observed.395

Unable to make even tentative suggestions as to a solution to the mystery of the coffins, Gould left the question of the Vault at Barbados unanswered. However, in modern times, the mystery was studied again by Joe Nickell, a leading sceptical investigator of the paranormal, who came to a rather (p.409) startling conclusion concerning the matter.396 Nickell cites Gould extensively, but points out a significant flaw in his research, the fact that Gould made no attempt to research at Barbados himself, nor to find someone to do it for him, relying only on secondary sources. After considerable research carried out for him on Barbados, and following up research on the backgrounds of those involved in the narration of the mystery, Nickell concludes that in fact there never were any ‘primary sources’, and that the occurrences never actually happened! The theory suggests that the whole story was in fact created by those reporting it, mostly known Freemasons, as an allegory on the ‘secret vault’ of Freemasonry, though this solution too is treated with scepticism by some paranormal researchers.397 The vault itself is real enough though, and remains empty to this day on Barbados.

The Ships Seen on the Ice

As noted in Chapter 3, a particular professional interest of Gould’s was the history of the discovery and charting of the Polar Regions; it was something he made a great specialization of and his research and writings on that subject, which span his whole adult life, are widely respected to this day. Since the early days of marine exploration, one of the most important aims of Arctic voyaging was to try and discover a route through the semi-frozen seas over the top of the North American continent. This was the much-sought ‘North-West Passage’ which it was hoped would provide a quicker and safer route to the Pacific than having to sail south round the notoriously dangerous Cape Horn at the tip of South America.

Perhaps the most well-known of all the expeditions to search for the N.W. Passage was that embarked on by Sir John Franklin, in the two H.M. Ships Erebus and Terror, in 1845, the ill-fated expedition which famously ended in disaster, all men dying either by illness, starvation or freezing to death. After July that year nothing was heard of the expedition and from 1848 a long series of search parties, several of them funded by Lady Franklin, Sir John’s wife, were sent to discover their fate. Finally in 1857, one of Lady Franklin’s expeditions, commanded by Captain F.L. McClintock R.N. in the ship Fox, found conclusive evidence of the disaster in the form of a note left by the last survivors in April 1848. This stated that Franklin had died the previous year, to date 23 others had perished, and that the remaining men had abandoned the ships to chance their luck trecking south, as they must have known, to almost certain death.398

The question Gould poses in this chapter is ‘What became of the abandoned ships, Erebus and Terror?’. Eskimos who had been interviewed by McClintock had stated the ships were both soon crushed by the ice and sank, but Gould questions the veracity of much of the Eskimos’ evidence and the subject of (p.410) this chapter in Oddities, the mystery of ‘The Ships seen on the Ice’ provides another possible answer to the ships’ fate.

In 1851 the English brig Renovation was sailing westward in the north Atlantic when some of the crew, and a passenger on board, witnessed the passing of a large ice-floe upon which were two abandoned, three-masted ships, one heeled over, the other upright. They corresponded perfectly in size and description with Franklin’s ships Erebus and Terror and Gould concludes they may well have been the lost vessels. Unfortunately, the sighting was not reported to the proper authorities (the Admiralty) for some time and the extensive enquiry that followed, studied in detail by Gould for clues, was inconclusive. One of the most thoroughly researched accounts of Franklin’s last expedition was written by Richard J. Cyriax399 in the 1930s, following a huge amount of research and much interesting correspondence with Gould.

When anyone presumed to write upon a subject Gould regarded as his own, he tended to consider them ‘guilty until proven innocent’. Cyriax, who had read this chapter in Oddities and had found Gould’s chart 5101 referred to in Chapter 3, wrote to him in 1932 and quickly gained his confidence and respect. In due course Gould would come to regard Cyriax as the pre-eminent authority on Franklin and would draw the four maps for Cyriax’s book, eventually published in 1939. However, one of the few aspects of the Franklin story the two experts never quite agreed upon was the question of the ‘Ships Seen on the Ice’: Gould always maintained his belief in their being Franklin’s ships. In 1930 he confirmed this view in a letter to the Times400 and his second edition of Oddities, in 1944, reaffirms it, though recognizing the counter view of his friend Richard Cyriax. Cyriax simply didn’t believe they could have been Franklin’s and concluded that the Eskimo accounts should be believed and that both ships sank in Arctic waters. This is now generally accepted as the most likely fate of the two ships, though it leaves the question open as to the identity of the ships on the ice.

The Berbalangs of Cagayan Sulu

This strange little story covers just six pages in the book, and is in some ways the most peculiar among this collection of peculiarities: in a sense it is perhaps the ‘joker’ in the pack. The subject is entirely taken from one article, written in 1896 by one E.F. Skertchley, a resident of Hong Kong, and published in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, a highly respected sponsor and Gould’s sole reason for including what would otherwise be regarded as ‘an old wives tale’. It is a story that Gould first heard narrated to him and his brother by M.R. James many years before at Kings College, Cambridge.

Skertchley’s article focuses on the little island of Cagayan Sulu (actually the island of Cagayan, in the Sulu Sea) in the Philippines. After some reassuringly (p.411) straightforward descriptions of the people and culture of the place, things suddenly take on a rather weird and wonderful direction. Continuing his matter-of-fact tale of ordinary folk, Skertchley describes a small village in the centre of the island where, in dracula-style, there exist a community of folk, the Berbalangs, who are able to transmutate into ghouls with illuminated eyes and ghostly sound effects, killing and eating their human victims. He himself witnessed the death of a resident which was apparently associated with a ‘visitation’ by the Berbelangs.

Needless to say, the mystery Gould discusses in this chapter is not the likelihood of the Berbelangs having supernatural incarnations, but how and why these people managed to stage the appearance of ghosts and convince an apparently sane and logical English observer that they were indeed what they appeared to be. He concludes that, whatever the deception, Sketchley was correct in supposing that the Berbelangs were ‘a most unpleasant people’ and that as ‘American civilisation’ has now reached the Philippines, a thorough scientific analysis should clear up to what extent they really did have unusual powers. No evidence can be found of any systematic research having been carried out however.

Orffyreus’ Wheel

The chapters on the Arctic (ships seen on the ice) and Hydrography (doubtful islands) were naturally of professional interest to Gould, but only the subject of this chapter, on matters mechanical, can be said to have been a passion of his. Gould was also fascinated by—and very critical of—those who believed in things which the real scientific evidence proved were impossible or at best were highly unlikely to exist.

He notes: ‘Such is the flat-earther, the circle-squarer, the Ten Tribes man, the Jacobite, and the man who, measuring the Pyramids with a foot rule (or more commonly, relying on similarly-accurate measurements made by other people) establishes to his own satisfaction that the early Egyptians were only a little lower than the angels …’. Gould’s chapter continues: ‘Among this happy band (one can hardly add “of brothers”, for in general one crank hates another most whole-heartedly) an honoured place will, I think, always be found for the man who is convinced that he has discovered the secret of “perpetual motion” … That place is his of right, because, like the King, he never dies. He is always with us—and there are always a good many of him’.

‘Orffyreus’, the German pseudo-scientist J.E.E. Bessler (born 1680), the subject of this chapter, was one such. Bessler, working in the early eighteenth century, created a number of perpetual motion machines, but unlike the legions of other cranks who have, over the centuries, claimed such impossibilities, Bessler’s machines appear to have undergone considerable scientific scrutiny (p.412) and were never fully explained. The first machine, shown at Gera in 1712, was a wheel of about 3 ft in diameter and 4 in. thick, encased in canvas and which, without any external supply of power, was apparently capable of accelerating up to a certain limit, at which point it could lift a weight of several pounds.

The following year Bessler exhibited at Draschwitz a similarly constructed but larger wheel, 5 ft in diameter and 6 in. thick, which accelerated up to 50 revolutions per hour and could raise a weight of 40 pounds. A third, still larger machine, exhibited at Meresburg was 6 ft in diameter and 1 ft thick. A committee of eminent men were allowed to examine the machine (though not internally) and considered it a true perpetual motion, though the eccentric, fanatical Bessler had many opponents and satirists regularly published pamphlets denying his claims. In 1717 in Hesse Cassel, when under the patronage of the Landgrave of that principality, he built his largest wheel, which was then subjected to particularly close scrutiny by a Dutch scientist who described it to his friend Isaac Newton in terms of astonishment. The machine was also seen by many other learned gentlemen, including the London instrument maker John Rowley who, after close inspection and experimentation with it, was convinced he had seen a real perpetual motion machine.

Bessler himself described in principle the action of his machine in a publication of 1719, but this only further compounds the mystery as what he describes is the old fallacy of the ‘over-balancing wheel’, the absurdity of which is explained in detail by Gould. If this really was what was inside Bessler’s wheels then, Gould concludes, it is only surprising they appeared as convincing as they did, but he also suggests Bessler may have deliberately given a false description to mislead those wishing to discover the real secret within. Over seventy years after Gould’s careful summary, we are no further in our understanding of the curious matter of Orfyrreus’s wheel.

Gould concludes the chapter by remarking of the eccentric Bessler: ‘he passes from our sight … an exasperating and yet pathetic figure—morose, self-centred, childishly passionate, vacillating and yet tenacious, his own worst enemy, forgetting the duties of ordinary human intercourse in his passion for mechanism and wrecking his life as a result. Non Defecit Alter’ (the Latin loosely translating as ‘when one goes, another takes his place’, or perhaps, in the modern vernacular, ‘there’s always one’)

Crosse’s Acari

The Englishman Andrew Crosse was a scientific amateur who appeared, in 1836, to have created life during carefully controlled electrical experiments. Working on the artificial formation of crystals, he discovered in his sealed (p.413) and sterilized apparatus the gradual appearance of hairy, six or eight legged mite-like creatures (Acari), sometimes appearing in very caustic solutions, and definitely appearing to be living, moving about at will. The assumption was that these creatures had been created as a result of the electrical experiments and the matter became the subject of great controversy and religious outrage.

It had never been Crosse’s intention to generate living creatures in this way and he was always perplexed both by their appearance and by the reaction of people to them. Crosse described the great care he took to keep the experimental equipment free from ‘infection’ by external agents and he was certain that the mites were a product of the electrical experiment itself. Gould naturally enough observes that however careful Crosse may have tried to be, it is impossible to discount the possibility that the Acari were mites which, as ova, had simply found there way into the apparatus, though he doesn’t express an opinion either way. In a postscript in the second edition of Oddities, Gould quotes his friend Dr A.C. Oudemans as saying he was certain the acari were simply the common Glycophagus domesticus which is very tenacious of life and capable of getting into tins which appear to be hermetically sealed, though Gould remarks that, in his opinion the theory does not go quite far enough to cover all the reported facts.

The Auroras and other Doubtful Islands

On this subject (if not on the islands themselves!) Gould was on the firmest possible ground and, among the fine collection of stories that make up Oddities, this is perhaps one of the best. During his years (1916–1928) as an Assistant to the Hydrographer, he made a professional specialization of it and wrote on the subject several times during his life (it will be recalled his first presentation to The Sette of Odd Volumes was on this subject). The chapter tells, amongst other things, of the discovery and careful charting of a group of islands, the Auroras, in the South Atlantic (between the Falkland Isles and South Georgia) in the eighteenth century, ‘islands’ which were then seen again several times by other ships, their appearance described and whose co-ordinates were checked and confirmed for ‘new and correct’ charts of the area, but which never actually existed.

It was the celebrated Captain James Weddell, whose name is now immortalised in the Antarctic sea named after him, who, in 1820, first cast doubt on the existence of this group of islands. One explanation for the extraordinary charting of these non existent land masses is what Gould refers to as ‘expectant attention’, that is that having been told by one misguided observer of the existence of an island in a certain position, later navigators imagine they encounter it, mistaking icebergs, cloud formations, mirages etc for solid land, and confirm the existing authority. Conversely, examples are given of (p.414) very real islands that, for various reasons, appear and/or disappear and are therefore difficult to chart, an example being Garefowls Rock, which disappeared, leaving the last surviving colony of the now-extinct sea bird, the Great Auk, without a home.

Then there are islands the existence of which has long been doubted but which have subsequently been found and accurately charted. The historic problem for navigators of establishing the longitude accurately, before the mid-eighteenth century, and the solution of the problem by John Harrison naturally also gets a mention here. An example of a doubted island which proved to exist is that of Bouvet Island, discovered first by the Frenchman J.B.C. Bouvet de Lozier in 1739 who guessed it to be a cape on the long imagined great southern continent.

In fact Bouvet Island has the distinction of being the remotest place on the earth, being over 1,000 miles from any other land and having an area of ocean surrounding it very nearly as large as the whole continent of Europe. So it is not surprising that subsequent searches for it failed, including one in 1843 by Captain James Ross, whose ships by coincidence were the Erebus and Terror, which soon afterwards would sail with Franklin to the Arctic, never to return. The story of how countless expeditions searched for, and failed to find the likes of Bouvet island remind one of the great numbers of years and lives spent charting the oceans and coastlines of the world. By the many non-maritime and non-technical among us today, these charts and maps seem to be taken utterly for granted, as though they simply occurred as a fact of nature, like the coastlines themselves.

Not that every detail of the world’s coastlines are certain, even today. This chapter in the first edition of Gould’s Oddities was itself partly responsible for inspiring the search for Thompson Island, said to have existed (and shown on Admiralty charts) about 45 miles from Bouvet island in an area which Gould observed had not yet been systematically searched. As a result of the chapter in Oddities, and just 4 months after the book appeared, in August 1928, the Norwegian ship Norvegia was dispatched to cover this area and conclusively determined the island was non-existent, after which its presence on Admiralty charts was removed. Then again, even in the second edition of Oddities, there remained the question of the existence of Dougherty Island in the South Pacific, which if it was real, would be even more remote than Bouvet Island. The evidence for it was provided by a number of nineteenth century sources, but Gould then cites many more recent, unsuccessful searches for it, supposing ‘expectant attention’ may again be the basis of its charting. However, in 1944 he could only leave the question of its existence open and it is only in more recent years that it has been established that no such island does in fact exist.

(p.415) Mersenne’s Numbers

Mathematics was another of the academic subjects which held great fascination for Gould, though, uncharacteristically, his summary of its usefulness rather dismisses the whole subject, stating that Maths in general is of limited utility. He describes the theory of numbers in particular as ‘so utterly devoid of practical value, and so remote from the normal interests of even the majority of mathematicians, that most of the latter have discreetly left it alone’. On the subject of numbers, the famous ‘Fermat’s Last Theorum’ is discussed. Those interested in maths will recall that in recent years this topic has been in the news and a book has appeared on the subject.

A theorem is a mathematical statement professing to be true but not necessarily having a mathematical proof that it is so. The ‘Last Theorum’ of the great French mathematician Pierre de Fermat (1601–1665) states that the equation Xn + Yn = Zn only holds true if n = 2 and that any higher power than 2 can never be applied. In other words, as Gould summarizes it, ‘the sum of the squares of two whole numbers can be a square, but the sum of two cubes can never be a cube, the sum of two fourth powers can never be a fourth power and so on, for ever’. Fermat claimed to have a proof of this theorem, adding the tantalizing remark in the margin of his copy of the theorum ‘I have found a wonderful and valid proof. This narrow margin cannot contain it’. Gould believed him, ‘the balance of evidence seems to be in his favour. It awaits rediscovery’. In fact it was only many years after Gould’s death that Fermat was proved right, by the extraordinary travails of a young English mathematician, Andrew Wiles, in 1995. The book about this exciting rediscovery, written by Simon Singh, was published by fourth Estate in 1997, hot on the heels of their most celebrated best seller, Longitude, by Dava Sobel (1995).

Mersenne’s numbers concerns the question of prime numbers, that is, numbers which cannot be divided by any other number into ‘whole parts’, and composite numbers, that is, those which have factors, or numbers which they can be divided by. Perfect numbers are composite numbers where all the factors added together happen to equal the number itself, and perfect numbers are very rare. For example, there are only eight perfect numbers in all of those up to 2,305,843,008,139,952,128.

The largest perfect number known at the time of the second edition of Oddities, in 1944, (a number which ran to no less than 77 figures!) was calculated independently by three different people: R.W. Hitchcock in 1934, Gould himself in 1935 and by E.T. (Teddy) Hall (1924–2001), an 18-year-old school boy from Eton College who corresponded with Gould, and invited him to lecture at the school in 1942. Teddy Hall, incidentally, went on to have a distinguished scientific career. Most notable was his analytical work on Piltdown (p.416) Man and the Turin Shroud which revealed both as fakes, and his service on the Board of three national museums, the National Gallery, the British Museum and the Science Museum. He was also an avid horologist and collector, so it is not surprising he and Gould were keen correspondents, notwithstanding Hall’s young years.

It was the computation of perfect and prime numbers that concerned Mersenne and ‘Mersenne’s numbers’ form a statement (similar to a theorem but with limitations) summarising the basis on which a certain mathematical expression will result in a prime number and when it will result in a composite number. The statement was described as: ‘one of the unsolved riddles of higher arithmetic’, but no one yet knows how Mersenne (or Fermat, as it is also believed by some experts that Mersenne was passed the statement by him in correspondence) calculated and proved the statement to be true. Gould finally lists three other theorems for which there was (1944) still no proof: Euler’s Biquadrate Theorum, Goldbach’s Theorum and Lagrange’s Theorum.

The mathematician and ‘metagrobologist’, David Singmaster, and Jeremy Gray of the Open University have kindly looked at this chapter of Oddities and have made a number of interesting and useful comments. In general, Singmaster observes that ‘Overall, we are still as mystified by Fermat’s results as Gould was …’. He notes that ‘a great deal has happened since Gould wrote in 1928 … [but his] … article is an excellent exposition of the material for its time. There is nothing cranky or quirky in it. With hindsight, we now know that the exact details of Mersenne’s conjecture are not very important, so I might cavil at Gould’s strong interest in it, but this is certainly not a major fault’. He also notes: ‘Euler’s conjecture was disproved in 1967 when Lander and Parkin used a computer to discover 275 + 845 + 1105 + 1335 = 1445’, and that ‘Goldbach’s Theorum remains unsolved, but quite close results have been obtained’. Gray points out that Mersenne was a Minimite Friar and lived in Paris, not Nevers, but apart from ‘one or two mistakes’ is generally impressed and able to give the coverage a clean bill of health.

The Wizard of Mauritius

This chapter tells of the well-authenticated case of a native of Mauritius who was able to foretell the arrival of ships en route to the island long before they could possibly be seen by naked eye or telescope. Gould first encountered a reference to this story in David Brewster’s Letters on Natural Magic, ‘one of the most wonderful books ever written’ he says, which, coming from Gould, is saying something. The subject of the chapter’s title is a Frenchman by the name of Bottineau, who claimed he had, by 1764 on the island of Mauritius, mastered the art of ‘Nauscopie’, the ability to detect the arrival of ships approaching from below the horizon, by observing closely the effects on the atmosphere. Twenty years later, by which time he had returned to (p.417) France, Bottineau was seeking to make his fortune by selling his services to the highest bidder and had found a notable, and ultimately notorious, supporter in Jean Paul Marat (later famously murdered in his bath after his excesses during the French Revolutionary regime known as the Terror). In recommending Bottineau to the British government, Marat cited the extraordinarily strong evidence supporting Bottineau’s ability to detect the arrival of ships three or even four days before their arrival over the horizon. This was supported by certificates, quoted by Gould, from the Governor and Officers of the garrison at Mauritius. Of even more importance, was Bottineau’s ability to detect land, several days before arrival, when on board a ship.

Gould concludes from the surviving evidence that he has no choice but to accept that Bottineau, somehow, was indeed able to do what he claimed. As to how he did it, and whether he himself even understood the process, Gould points out that there are many precedents even today of phenomena which we accept but cannot explain, giving as an example the curious fact ‘that a freely-suspended piece of paper, exposed to strong sunlight, will always tend to turn so as to set itself north and south. This fact has been repeatedly verified; but, so far, it has not been explained’. He especially chides the scientific community for being critical of the ill-educated observer/discover of an undoubted phenomenon for his being unable to explain it. He cites the case of people with the ability to dowse for water (which Gould regarded as perfectly proven) using their innate sensitivity with great effect, but being quite unable to say how it works.

And so it was with Bottineau, who could only state that, on the approach of vessels some miles below the horizon, he was able to discern a very distinct kind of atmospheric effect. Unfortunately, unable to find a sponsor in France or Britain, Bottineau died in obscurity and the whole question of the Wizard of Mauritius remains unanswered to this day, though at least two others, one on Mauritius and one on Tristan da Cunha, are on record as also having the same skill. Gould ends the chapter by suggesting that the matter could be relatively easily resolved if a researcher would only go to the island with a powerful camera and record the effects on the horizon when the arrival of ships, determined by radio, is known, but this has not yet been accomplished.

In more recent times however, Gould had a notable admirer who took a particular interest in this chapter in Oddities. No less a figure than Lord Louis Mount-batten had read Oddities and had expressed a great interest in having research done to find an explanation for Nauscopie. Since Mountbatten’s assassination in 1979 however, it does not appear that the matter has yet been taken any further.401

The Planet Vulcan

In 1859 the amateur astronomer M. Lescarbault observed what he believed was a planet, within the orbit of Mercury, passing across the face of the Sun. (p.418) He did not announce it at the time however. Then, a few months later, U.J.J. Leverrier, the Director of the Paris Observatory, reported that by studies on the anomalous motion of the planet Mercury, he had determined there may be matter—perhaps a small planet or maybe a belt of asteroids—close to the Sun. Now hearing of Lescarbault’s observation, Leverrier visited him, satisfying himself that Lescarbault had indeed observed something in the nature of a celestial body within the orbit of Mercury. So impressed were the scientific community with this amateur’s discovery of a new celestial body, which he dubbed the planet Vulcan, that he was immediately awarded the Legion d’honneur. However, the ‘discovery’ was immediately challenged and unfortunately for Lescarbault and Leverrier, the planet refused to make further appearances when it should have done.402

It is still uncertain what Lescarbault saw; Gould suspects it may after all have simply been a sun spot, but if it were a celestial body it could only have been a relatively small asteroid. Even by 1944, the date of the second edition of Oddities, it was uncertain exactly what there was orbiting the Sun within Mercury’s orbit. Of Gould’s coverage of this subject, Dr Robin Catch-pole of the Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge, comments that it is ‘an excellent and interesting assessment that compares well with modern discussion’.403


It was inevitable that Gould should wish to include a discussion of this remarkable soothsayer in Oddities; He chose the engraving of the prophet as the frontispiece to the book and the subject is the epitome of what fascinated him; it would have been conspicuous by its absence.

The piece begins with the salutary reminder that, since the early nineteenth century when an Act of Parliament (still in force in 1944) was passed on the subject: ‘every Person pretending or professing to tell fortunes … shall be deemed a Rogue and Vagabond …’ after which Gould introduces a gallery of such rogues by way of introduction. Interestingly he refuses to include Mother Shipton, stating ‘She is as much of a myth as Robin Hood’, the two sources for her existence both being of more than doubtful provenance.

Pointing out that even scientific men such as the first Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed, practised Astrology, Gould notes that the Astronomer cast the horoscope for the foundation of the Observatory in 1675, but reminds us that Flamsteed hardly took it seriously (see p. 312).

Gould then comes to Nostradamus, and with him the author’s candid admission that he believes the phenomenon of prophecy can, in certain instances, be possible. ‘For the rationale of the matter, I cannot do better than refer to Mr J.W. Dunne’s remarkable book An Experiment with Time. He shows, in a manner which arouses my respectful envy, the possibility of (so to (p.419) speak) remembering the future as we do the past’. The essence of Dunne’s subject is the observation that, occasionally, aspects of dreams we experience when asleep can actually appear in life the following day or soon afterwards. Gould evidently experienced confirmation of this phenomenon, and the present writer has to admit to having noted similar occurrences following dreams, occurrences which it stretches the imagination to ascribe to coincidence.

The coverage in Oddities of the prophesies of the Frenchman Michael Notredame (1503–1566)—Nostradamus in the Latin form—is quite brief. Beginning at the age of about 50, he wrote his prophesies in the form of rhymed quatrains and arranged them in sets of one hundred that he termed centuries. The first three centuries were published in 1555 with seven more a few years later. They were written in a difficult style and Gould avoids the tendency of the credulous to fit every one of the statements to later events, preferring to cite only four examples. All four seem on the face of it to be very extraordinary in how they fit the events they appear to predict, the fourth, relating to activities of Louis XIII of France and Henri, second Duc de Montmorency, executed at Louis’s instruction in 1632, is so completely described in the 18th quatrain of the nineth century that Gould is wholly convinced that it was indeed prescient: ‘in my submission, anyone who believes that this prophecy was fulfilled by pure chance is a much more credulous person than the one who, after examining the evidence, forms the conviction that Nostradamus possesed, and exercised, the power of foretelling the future’.

Ian Wilson, author of the book Nostradamus, the Evidence,404 was ‘genuinely surprised how good and sensible it is, and I wish I had known of it when writing my book’. He observes that ‘Gould’s chapter was genuinely innovative … and almost certainly the first into the English language with the information he put forward’. He continues ‘Gould is undoubtedly very well-informed for his time. For instance, knowing about the editions with faked Mazarin prophesies. Also the spuriousness of Mother Shipton, etc. But the real star is his information on the Montmorency execution. I have to confess that I had not previously given that particular quatrain much attention. And looking up Peter Lemesurier’s book on Nostradamus I see that even Lemesurier, who … has lived and breathed Nostradamus for decades, was unaware of executioner Clerepeyne. He thought “dere peyne” was something to do with “bright fire.”’

ENIGMAS (1929)

There were giants in those days

The opening chapter looks at historical reports of people of very large stature, subject of personal interest to Gould who himself stood 6 ft 4½ in. tall (p.420) without his size 13 shoes on. The main part of the chapter discusses a race of men discovered in sixteenth century Patagonia (southern Argentina) of very large stature, said to average 7 or 8 ft tall but with some estimated at 10 or 12 ft, and seen by such notable explorers as Ferdinand Magellan and Francis Drake. However, travellers in the following century only occasionally reported seeing inhabitants of unusual size and, sifting the evidence, Gould concludes that while the Patagonians were undoubtedly of very large stature, perhaps averaging 7 ft or more, they probably were never quite the size people had imagined they saw.

Three Strange Sounds

An odd collection of unexplained reports, the first of which tells of the peculiar sound made by the ancient Egyptian statue of Memnon on many recorded occasions in ancient times, always at dawn and ‘a thin strident sound, like the breaking of a harp string’. Gould considers the likelihood of natural, and deceitful, causes, and wonders, if deception was at the root of it, how the sound had been created, and why. He concludes that the sound was more likely to have been a natural occurrence, perhaps owing to differential expansion in the rock.

The second strange sound concerns a phenomenon observed in the 1820s by Captain Parry during experiments to measure the velocity of sound in low temperatures, while on one of his voyages of Arctic exploration. In a particular experiment with cannon shooting blanks, the observers at some distance from the cannon consistently heard the report of the cannon, after which they heard the command ‘fire’. There has never been a clear explanation for this observation, but one suggestion (made by Gould’s friend Professor A.W. Stewart) noted in the second edition, was that as sound travels faster in warmer air, the report of the gun (which would be carried at a higher strata as its projection was up into the atmosphere) would arrive sooner than the shout, which would have carried closer to the ice and hence through colder air.

The third strange sound is that of the ‘Barisal Guns’, not guns at all but sounds like the report of a gun heard in the Indian village of Barisal and surrounding area, though sometimes heard in many parts of the world, including in England, and with no logical explanation. Gould lists many of the suggested explanations, including fireworks, actual gun fire, bamboos bursting in jungle fires, thunder-claps, the collapsing of riverbanks, globular lightening, landslips, submarine eruptions and so on, However, all fail to fit the circumstances, though he admits it may be possible the sounds are caused by a variety of these causes at different times. He concludes (1946) that there is sufficient evidence of an unexplained phenomenon to warrant an investigation by the newly formed Ministry of Defence.

(p.421) Old Parr and Others

Here Gould looks at the subject of great old age (something, sadly, he never experienced personally), and considers the likely veracity of records of reputedly very old people, some pretty well documented. Some can clearly be discounted as absurd, such as seventeenth and eighteenth century deaths recorded, without further comment, of English people aged 120, 133, 138 etc., and one record of a man in Hungary who is said to have died in 1724 at the age of 185. In the nineteenth century, however, the general view then formed that it was virtually impossible to reach an age exceeding 100 years, though the increasingly reliable records of births and deaths began to prove otherwise. Gould then focuses on three rather extraordinary cases, though it must be said that in this chapter the evidence for real ‘enigmas’ seems weak. The cases all occurred in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and the difficulty of verification of evidence and the likelihood of exaggeration, both intentional and unintentional, makes it difficult to go beyond saying that these were almost certainly people who lived to over 100 years old. In truth, chapters such as this one are as much of interest for the marvellous asides and ancillary information Gould provides as for the specific cases he cites.

‘Old Parr’, from Alderbury in Shropshire, was said to have been 152 years old at his death in 1635. Such was his celebrity as an old man in his final year that he was brought to London and introduced at court. Consequently more details of his life and supposed age have survived for scrutiny. He died in London and was buried in Westminster Abbey after a post mortem by the famous William Harvey, discoverer of the circulation of the blood.

Katherine, Countess of Desmond is said to have died in 1604 at the age of 140. She is known to have survived her husband by 70 years, but even this, along with much circumstantial evidence, and the fact that the couple had a daughter, cannot positively confirm her great age, nor even necessarily push it as far as 100.

With the example of Christian J.Drakenberg, who reputedly died at 146, Gould has rather more documented evidence. He was born in Blomsholm in Norway in 1626 and was a sailor by profession. There is a period in the chronology of his life when it has been suggested he died and another assumed his identity, but Gould considers this hypothesis and discounts it for a number of reasons. However, as in all these cases, he can only provide the evidence and leave us to make up our own minds.

The Landfall of Columbus

Then we move to material which is wholly Gould’s forte, and on which we can relax in the knowledge that the evidence he provides has been sifted with truly professional expertise. This chapter, which had in fact been substantially published already in the Geographical Journal in May the previous year (1928), (p.422) contains a thorough discussion of the much debated question of where in the Americas, or more precisely which island in the Bahamas, Columbus first sighted when he made landfall from across the Atlantic.

The several well documented and debated possibilities, ‘the Big Six’ as Gould dubs them, including Watling Island, in modern times the most favoured site, are all carefully considered. Columbus’s own reported log of progress, and his detailed descriptions of the features of this first island and others he could see, and subsequently visited in turn, are all looked at. The probability of changes to the shorelines and geographical features of the existing islands is also factored in to the equation. Gould concludes by proposing an entirely new choice, that of Conception Island, which he regarded, on the balance of probability, the true landfall of Columbus, and modern opinion now supports this view. In research carried out in the late 1980s by Dr Steven Mitchell, a professor of geology at California State College, he and three teams of volunteers visited the Bahamas and studied all the islands in question, both on land and on approaching by sea, also revisiting the historical evidence of Columbus’s stated course and stops. Although not absolutely conclusive, what they found supported the Conception Island theory more strongly than the other possibilities. Nevertheless, in the second edition of Enigmas, Gould notes that he ‘extensively recast’ the writing of the chapter.

Bealings Bells

In contrast to the previous earthly and maritime mystery, is this chapter concerning the very well and carefully documented nineteenth century cases of poltergeist-type hauntings at a house in Bealings in Suffolk, one at Greenwich in London and one in Stapleton, near Bristol where, in each case, the servants bells were constantly being rung. The source for the mystery is a book published by the unfortunate owner of the Bealings house, Major Edward Moor, F.R.S. Moor, needless to say, had all the obvious solutions to the strange events pointed out to him by his friends and neighbours but which he steadfastly assured them had been disproved as the explanation.

In his book, Moor cited other cases he was able to find, including one which occurred at Greenwich Hospital in 1834, and rumours of which were still current, Gould tells us, when he was studying there (then the Royal Naval College) in 1911. Lt William Rivers, in whose apartments the servants bells were ringing, recorded the whole strange story of how they rang, how the Clerk of Works and the bell-hanger, with all servants and others dismissed from the building, had both witnessed the ringing, including the violent operation of the bell handles (untouched by human hand) in all the rooms, and were completely unable to explain it.

The ‘haunting’ ceased, as suddenly asit had begun, 4 days later. The Stapletone case, of July 1836, was very similar. One afternoon the bells in all rooms in the (p.423) house began to ring. All the servants were gathered together in one room and the house was thoroughly searched to no avail. The bell-hanger was called, but could give no explanation, so the bells were tied up that night and while the wires continued to move for much of the night things had ceased by the morning. Although the whole system had been newly installed just a year before, the whole thing was redone and the problem disappeared. Gould has no explanation but remarks that if these were hoaxes, which is the immediate assumption, then they were all carried out with very great skill.

The Strait of Anian

Returning to Gould’s professional metier, Hydrography, this is the story of how the sixteenth century navigator Gaspar de Corte Real in 1500 described the St Lawrence river as the Straight of Anian, believing it to connect to the Pacific. Gould narrates how this non-existent straight continued to be shown on charts and was believed in by some navigators and cartographers for more than two centuries. The question is related to the story of The Ships Seen on the Ice, (in Oddities), inasmuch as it concerned the issue of a northern route through to the pacific, where a northwest passage over North America was being sought. So much did navigators wish to believe in such a straight that Gould is able to cite no less than ten accounts by deluded (or downright deceitful) navigators who claimed to have sailed down it and reached the Pacific.

The Victoria Tragedy

The second edition of Enigmas (1946) replaces the chapter on the Strait of Anian, which Gould fears ‘may be of insufficient general interest’, with an account of the sinking of the battleship Victoria, while on manoeuvres in the Mediterranean on 22 June 1893. The tragedy, which Gould describes as the Naval counterpart to the Charge of the Light Brigade, resulted in the total loss of the Flagship of ‘the world’s crack fleet’, her Commander in Chief Sir George Tryon and half the ships company, some 365 men. Victoria sank because the ship was rammed by the second flagship Camperdown when following Tryon’s specific, but disastrous instructions on the manoeuvres that ship was to make. The ‘enigma’ in the story is how on earth could Tryon make such a mistake in his calculations, and why on earth did the commander of the Camperdown obey Tryons orders to the letter, knowing his ship must surely cause the disaster it did. Gould notes that the story ‘has often been told, sometimes, temperately and accurately’. But he believes that the drawing he adds, showing the actual course of the fleet along with Tryon’s intended manoeuvres, is a fresh contribution to the subject.

In essence, Tryon’s manoeuevres for the fleet that day had arranged the ships in two lines sailing together, parallel with each other, with Victoria and (p.424) Camperdown each leading one of the lines. The intention was that at the appropriate moment both lines should turn, through 180°, towards the other line, and sail back the way they had come, with both lines now naturally much closer to one another. A very simple manoeuvre, but the fatal mistake Tryon had made was to miscalculate the initial distance between the lines. They were too close together and the first two ships to turn, Victoria and Camperdown, simply ran into each other, Camperdown ramming Victoria just behind the bow and opening a huge hole in her side. Gould summarises the considerable quantity of evidence given at the Court-martial which formed the enquiry into the disaster, and dismisses the malicious rumour that Tryon had been drunk that afternoon. Nevertheless, he can only conclude that Tryon himself was correct in some of his last words, overheard just before the ship sank, when he remarked ‘Its all my doing—all my fault’.

The Last of the Alchemists

In what is by far the largest chapter in the book, spanning 75 pages (over a quarter of all the Chapters) Gould considers the evidence that in the past there have been chemists who, in spite of the received wisdom that it is impossible, have turned base metal into gold. He points out that no less a figure than Robert Boyle (1627–1691) ‘the founder of modern chemistry’ believed such a process might be possible. He reminds us that Boyle, ‘By his rejection of all fanciful theories, and his patient accumulation of facts and observations … showed himself possessed of a scientific mind in the true and only sense of the term’.

Only a few examples of alleged transmutations are given, while Gould states that he could give many more. The Belgian, Jean Baptiste van Helmont (1577–1644)—‘generally regarded as the greatest chemist of the 17th century’—(and who first coined the term ‘gas’) recorded having derived pure gold by mixing mercury with a small piece of yellow stone (‘the philosopher’s stone’), of a size considerably smaller than the resulting gold. Johann Frederic Helvetius, Physician to the Prince of Orange, described in great detail how he too had been given a small piece of ‘the philosopher’s stone’ and how, still very sceptical, he had mixed it with half an ounce of lead and had produced the same quantity of pure gold.

Another case is that of the young chemist James Price (1752–1783) sometimes dubbed ‘The Last of the Alchemists’ (quite incorrectly, as Gould points out there were many ‘pretenders’ after him). Elected a Fellow of the Royal Society at the tender age of 29, he committed suicide just 2 years later, and his claim to have carried out the transmutation of gold rests entirely on one account he wrote, published in 1782. Many of his experiments to this end, carried out at his house in Guildford, were witnessed at every stage by distinguished ‘natural philosophers’ and scientists, and none could discover a deception.

(p.425) Gould tells us the experiments were of three kinds: transforming mercury, with a certain powder, into silver or gold, transforming silver, with a powder, into an alloy of silver and gold, and making an amalgam of mercury with one of these powders (all of which he prepared himself) resulting in the formation of pure silver or gold. News of Price’s achievements gained him great notoriety, but he refused either to explain the process or to divulge how he prepared the powders. A rumour began that the mercury he used already had some gold dissolved in it, and sceptical scientific opinion gradually began stacking against him.

It appears that the President of the Royal Society, Sir Joseph Banks now put pressure on Price to either prove and explain his experiments to the Society in the proper way or resign, on the basis that he was bringing the Royal Society into disrepute. Price returned to Guildford, and within a few months he wrote his will, and took his own life. Gould then considers the various possibilities for what the real circumstances were surrounding this desperate solution. A deliberate deception about to be discovered? Lunacy, brought on by monomania? Did he, in fact, believe he had really managed the transmutations, but now began to fear he had himself been deceived by the suppliers of his materials?

Also included in the chapter are tales of deluded would-be alchemists from the mid-nineteenth century, including the French alchemist Theodore Tiffereau. His claims, Gould summarises, ‘can be dismissed with out much difficulty as the product of defective knowledge crossed with imperfect technique’. A similar case was that of Dr. S.H. Emmens of New York, who not only claimed to be making gold from another alloy he had discovered (‘argentaurum’), but was actually selling it to the United States Mint! The New York Herald tried to expose what they were certain was a fraud by challenging Emmens to a public demonstration of his process, which he accepted, but no expert was prepared to be associated with such an event. Emmens published the story of his work in this field, without giving any clue as to how the process was supposed to have worked, except that it involved a ‘force engine’ and the physical hammering of silver, which already contained traces of gold.

As recently as 1924 there appeared in the press an account of a German professor Dr A. Miethe, who claimed he had accidentally created small quantities of gold from mercury by the prolonged action of a high-tension electric current on it. This discovery seems to have been verified by experiments then carried out by Professor H. Nagaoka of Tokyo who believed that he had eliminated the possibility of accidental errors. Gould states however, that it was observed by F.W. Aston in 1925, that from the known isotopes of mercury, any gold obtained from it must have an atomic weight of 198 or over, but that Miethe’s gold had an atomic weight of 197.2, that of ordinary gold, concluding it could not have been produced by transmutation.

(p.426) However, the chapter ends by pointing out that at that date, in the 1920s, atomic theory was so rapidly changing, with new discoveries constantly being made, that ‘one day perhaps we shall scrap the theory of the immutability of the elements and come, like the old alchemists, to regard them as varying forms of the same essential substance’.

New South Greenland

Back with Gould’s professional expertise, this is the story of the American navigator Benjamin Morrell who claimed to have discovered land in the Antarctic regions he named ‘New South Greenland’ during what was apparently a remarkable voyage made in 1823. His credibility as a navigator and reporter, however is very much in question; Gould tells us right at the outset that Morrell was popularly known as ‘the biggest liar in the Pacific’, and his accounts were often either inaccurate, or made up from the accounts of places he had from other navigators. Gould thus rather spikes his own guns, as the mystery, if it be one, seems likely to be simply an exaggeration or a poor record of the voyage. Nevertheless, the chapter proceeds to look at what Morrell said, in an attempt to sift out what may indeed be truth from fiction in the account. In fact, some parts appear to Gould not to be as incorrect or anomalous as other commentators have suggested, and he points out that at the time of writing (1929) modern knowledge of the Antarctic was ‘still largely defective’.

The subject of the title appears in Morrel’s account on 19 March 1823 when he states that they were close in with the north cape of an island he names New South Greenland, though no land has ever been recorded in the position he gives. Gould notes three distinct types of solution already expressed by various authors on this claim. First that he was simply lying, second that he did indeed sight land which has not yet been recorded on charts, and third that his estimated longitude was too far to the east and that in fact he sighted the island known as Graham land, shown in both the maps he illustrates this story with. On the first, Gould comments that as Morrell had nothing whatever to gain by this small claim in an otherwise very large account, it seems highly improbable. On the second, Gould considers this most unlikely too, though comments that no later explorer had subsequently come within 60 miles of the position, so one cannot be certain. The third point does seem an attractive answer, given the similarities of the ‘coastline positions’ shown in Gould’s map, which seem to echo Graham land’s coastline, 14 degrees to the West. But Gould points out that Morrel’s account is, at times, so very specific about Longitudes that it seems likely he had a chronometer for determining them, and if so, an error of 14 degrees would be very difficult to explain. Nevertheless, of the three theories, the third is the only one that makes any (p.427) kind of sense to Gould and it is this he suspects as the answer, ending the chapter with the observation that, at some future date, better knowledge of that part of the Antarctic may help us come to a more certain conclusion about what it was Morrel really saw.

Abraham Thornton Offers Battle

In the second edition of Enigmas, Gould considered the chapter New South Greenland had also been of ‘insufficient general interest’, and replaced it with the amazing story of the trial, in 1818, of a young Warwickshire bricklayer Abraham Thornton. The case itself, which was really more of an oddity than an enigma, was simple enough: Thornton was accused of having raped and murdered a young woman who he had attended a dance with one night; the evidence of many of the fellow dance-goers and neighbours producing a wealth of material for Gould to analyze.

The timings of the various pieces of evidence was naturally paramount, Gould reminding the reader of the rather uncertain timescales in use in the country at that date, making a clear sequence of events difficult to establish. Nevertheless, after much deliberation by the Jury, in the absence of definite incriminating evidence, Thornton was found ‘not-guilty’, a verdict Gould considers fair, but one which the Magistrate and many of the local people felt was unjust. Thornton should have hanged for what was obviously murder.

The curious part in the story now appears, as the brother of the dead girl was persuaded by the Magistrate to invoke and ancient legal device, ‘The Appeal of Murder’, a system of appeal (usually by the next of kin of a murder victim) against a not guilty verdict. Though ancient and very rarely invoked, ‘The Appeal of Murder’ had never been formally removed from the statute books and was thus still legally valid. The traditional response to this ancient ‘The Appeal of Murder’ was a ‘Wager of Battle’ in which the relative and the accused would literally fight it out to the death, or until one or other admitted defeat. If it were the accused they would then effectively be guilty and would be hanged. Appeals of Murder were occasionally heard at this time, but it had become customary for the accused to forego his right to battle and face a second Jury.

In this case however, Thornton refused and offered battle: the relative was a meek young labourer, no match for the well built Thornton, and the relative was obliged to decline. Though officially ‘off the hook’ Thornton was then obliged to emigrate, the community at large still convinced of his guilt. The ancient system of Appeal of Murder, and its counterpart Wager of Battle were, as a result of this case, abolished the following year by Act of Parliament.

(p.428) The Canals of Mars

In the final chapter of Enigmas Gould treads on controversial ground. At the outset he grabs the attention by engaging in an amusing discussion of the likelihood of there being life on other worlds. More seriously he then looks at the belief, in some serious astronomical circles, that linear marks, first observed in 1877 by G.V. Schiaparelli of Milan, on the surface of the planet Mars may in fact be artificial canals. This was compounded in 1881 by the same astronomer’s claim that these canals now appeared to be double parallel canals. At first these claims were met with disbelief, but were then increasingly taken seriously, especially after the American astronomer Dr Percival Lowell supported the findings.

The key to understanding these observations is of course to consider just how accurately we see with our eyes, and this point is made clearly by Gould. He cites his own drawing of the various versions of the canals, interpreted from a number of sources, which he did to illustrate this very chapter in the book. The very close work entailed two weeks’ intense drawing and he reported at the end of the period seeing ‘canals’ in all sorts of unlikely places, even on the billiard table! The illusion, undoubtedly caused by eyestrain he says, disappeared after a few days rest. Again the conclusion is that with increasingly good photography, this enigma should soon be laid to rest once and for all.

When sending copies of the book to the Astronomer Royal, Sir Frank Dyson, and his Assistant, William Bowyer at the Royal Observatory, Gould remarked405 ‘you will notice that, with the courage of ignorance, I have tackled the problem of the Martian canals’, and to Bowyer,406 ‘I expect the essay on the canals of Mars will get me into a good deal of hot water—however, I rather enjoy controversy’ to which Bowyer replied: ‘Canals on Mars is a dangerous subject if one is seeking peace and quietness, and I should not be surprised if you found yourself up against some rather strong minded observers both for and against’.

However, a postscript in the second edition makes no mention of hot water, Gould only notes that one Dr G.S. Brock FRSE suggested to him the possibility that the phenomena observed by Schiaparelli might in fact have been as a result of incipient disease in his eyes and did not in fact exist at all. Dr Robin Catchpole has commented again: ‘Gould … rightly draws attention to the extent to which the human brain as much as the human eye, seeks out pattern and order where there may be none!’ He notes: ‘The best telescope images of Mars are obtained with the Hubble Space telescope and it is very difficult to see any similarity between the Hubble images and those labouriously reproduced by Gould …The bottom line: the “canals” are a figment of the imagination and Gould (p.429) would not have been at all surprised to see the hubble and even the images obtained by satellites in orbit around Mars. He might even have been delighted to see that there are indeed large channels almost certainly carved out by the flow of water, but these are not seen in the drawings nor are they man made’.


(392.) Mike Dash (ed.), Fortean Studies, Vol. 1, John Brown, London, 1994, pp. 71–150.

(393.) Alfred Leutscher, ‘The Devil’s Hoof-marks’, Animals, Vol. 6 No. 8, 1965, pp. 297–299.

(394.) David Sealy, ‘Trailing the Devil’, The Skeptical Intelligencer, Vol. 6, 2003, pp. 11–18

(395.) Correspondence between Doyle and Gould on this subject can be found in the archives of the Scott Polar Research Institute, ref MS 397/4/1–8.

(396.) Nickell, Joe, with John F Fischer, Restless Coffins, Secrets of the Supernatural: Investigating the World’s Occult Mysteries, Prometheus Books, Buffalo, N. Y. 1991, pp. 129–188.

(397.) Lionel & Patricia Fanthorpe, Tales from the Crypt, Fortean Times, April 2000.

(398.) Ann Savours, The Search for the North West Passage, Chatham, London, 2003

(399.) Richard J Cyriax, Sir John Franklin’s Last Arctic Expedition, Methuen, London, 1939, reprinted by The Arctic Press, Plaistow and Sutton Coldfield, 1997.

(400.) The Times, 20 September 1930, p. 6.

(401.) Yvan Martial, ‘Bottineau et sa nauscopie’, L’Express (Mauritius) 6 September 2004.

(402.) Gould records one further appearance, reported by an eccentric American weather-prophet named Tice, who Gould describes jokingly, in the first edition of Oddities, as ‘the Lord Dunboyne of his day’. In his copy of the book, annotated for the second edition, Gould notes here ‘This might have landed me in a libel action…substitute ‘John Partridge’.

(403.) http://seds.lpl.arizona.edu/nineplanets/nineplanets/hypo.html which, in Appendix 7 discusses Hypothetical planets.

(404.) Ian Wilson, Nostradamus, the Evidence, Orion, London, 2003.

(405.) Ibid. Ref. 120, Gould to Dyson on 14 December 1929.

(406.) Ibid. Ref. 120, Gould to Bowyer on 3 October 1929.