Monday, 10 November 2014

Bridge Jumping

Today, the BBC put an article on its website concerning the first bungee jump from Clifton Suspension Bridge. This reminded me of another attempt to jump from this famous bridge dating from 1887.

Lawrence M. Donovan had reached a certain level of fame in the United States for jumping from famous bridges. In 1886 he’d jumped from Brooklyn Bridge and then in November of the same year, he jumped from the New Suspension Bridge over the Niagara River.

Then, in June 1887, he jumped from Westminster Bridge in London, with rumours that he was planning on jumping from the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol.

The police were on their guard to prevent this from happening, and so it was that on the 22 June 1887 the Bristol Mercury ran a story about how a man was taken into custody after an attempt to reach the bridge.

The paper informs us that Superintendent Thatcher told Donovan that “any person going to the Clifton bridge with an intention to jump from it would be regarded by all in their rational senses as contemplating suicide, and it was the duty of the police to protect him against himself.” Donovan was refused bail. On his trail the following week, Donovan gave assurances that, we he to be bailed, he would leave Bristol immediately and make no further attempt to jump from the bridge.

No more is reported on the subject until suddenly in the Spring of the following year. Donovan was back in Bristol for a fortnight and had made clear his plans to jump. The six months that he was bound to keep the peace from his previous visit to Bristol was now over, and he was free to return and try again.

First, he said he would jump on Saturday 10 March 1888. He was foiled by the presence of police, and so it was the following day when he tried again.

The Bristol Mercury for Wednesday 14 March reports that “last night, the darkness and the rain being considered favourable to the plan, which was to elude the vigilance of the police [...] Donovan resolved to achieve his object.”

According to the man who drove Donovan to the bridge, at around 8.15pm, “the American then left the wagonette, took off a heavy overcoat, which he threw into the river, climbed the balustrade and having held on for a sufficient time to steady himself, he dropped feet foremost into the water.”

There are two contrasting testimonies about what happened then. The driver said a boat on the river picked Donovan up, while Donovan himself said he swam to shore and received help from someone living in a cottage near the river.

However, the police on duty – both on the bridge and below it – said no one had made a jump from the bridge. On the following day, the Bristol Mercury ran a piece throwing doubt on Donovan’s version of events (which they printed in full) saying that the only witnesses were in the employment of Mr Baker, a local showman who Donovan had been staying with. They were unable to find anyone living by the shore of the Avon who’d seen anything.

Furthermore, the doctor who saw Donovan at the hospital reported no injuries, no bruising or anything of the sort you might expect from a jump like this. Donovan’s claim that the force of landing was absorbed by zinc plates in his boots that had been charged up with electricity was dismissed by a doctor as “simply a superstition.”

Meanwhile, the police officers on duty reported seeing no one jump. One, on duty between eight and nine in the evening, did see Mr Baker drive onto the bridge, but was sure he did not stop halfway since he followed it across. Interestingly, the officer on the shift before this one also saw Mr Baker drive across (going the opposite way) at 7.45pm.

Finally, and perhaps most tellingly, was the witness statement from the cab driver who took Donovan to hospital noticed that the American’s shirt wasn’t wet and said that “he went off the bridge about as much as I did.”

Lawrence Donovan was discharged from hospital the day after his alleged jump, but he was not to be deterred. Barely one month later, he tried again. Seven hundred people had turned up to watch, but the police presence made it impossible.

As far as I can tell, he made no further attempt on the Clifton Suspension Bridge, and his career was to come to a sudden and sad ending when, in August 1888, he died jumping from Charing Cross Bridge in London.

The National Police Gazzette: New York, 11 September 1886, p 16
“A Daring Jump,” The Canaseraga Times, Friday, 12 November 1886
“The Projected Dive From The Suspension Bridge,” Bristol Mercury, 22 June 1887
“The Hero of Brooklyn Bridge and Niagara Falls in Prison,” Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette, 30 June 1887
“Leap from Clifton Bridge,” Bristol Mercury, 14 March 1888
“Another Attempt to Jump from the Clifton Bridge,” Lichfield Mercury, 6 April 1888
“Fatal Dive by Donovan,” Gloucester Citizen, 08 August 1888

British newspaper clippings from The British Newspaper Archive
American newspaper clippings from Fulton History

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Guy Lyon Playfair on Project Stargate

An old website, Skeptical Investigations has recently got a new look, some new content and a new name, “Skeptical About Skeptics.” It aims to demonstrate that high-profile skeptics aren’t necessarily engaging with the data itself but are, in fact, towing a party line to maintain the status quo. It’s a wide-ranging site that covers a lot of topics, many of which I know little about. But there is one topic that I’m fairly well-read on and, in that instance, this website gets it considerably wrong.

The topic in question is the US military investigation into remote viewing as a means of gathering intelligence. During its life it went under a series of names, but is now generally referred to as Project Stargate.

There are two articles on Skeptical about Skeptics about Project Stargate. The first is Military Remote Viewing: The Story, and the other is The Stargate Conspiracy. I’d like to take some time to address the issues Guy Lyon Playfair raises.

The first of these concerns itself mostly with the unfair handling of the RV project by skeptics. Certainly, from the very beginning there have been people in the US government who were aware of the project, were not impressed by its results, and wanted it shut down. That’s not really in any doubt. But Playfair considers this behaviour to be “paradoxical.” He cannot imagine why anyone would want to shut down a program that was getting such good results. One possible explanation escapes him: they were getting such good results.

Guy Lyon Playfair lists a few examples of the remote viewers’ successes, and I think it’s worth looking at these in more detail. But I begin, though, I need to reply to the point that Playfair makes in both articles that only a small percentage of the remote viewing sessions have been declassified. He quotes Hal Puthoff saying “file cabinets full of data that probably won’t be declassified in our lifetime.” But Hal, speaking in 2000, was not to know that four years later the CIA would release four CD-ROMs contained about 17,000 more documents. Of course, there are still some things that remain secret (for example, none of the sessions aimed at China have been declassified) but the idea that only a small percentage has been made available is untenable.

Of the successes that Guy Lyon Playfair writes about, only one seems to be backed up by original documentation. On the “Military Remote Viewing” page, he writes that psychic was able to locate a crashed Soviet aircraft in Zaire. President Carter mentioned this in 1995 and there is a memo from May 1979 which talks about a psychic choosing a location “which appears to be a crash site.”

He mentions the case of Charlie Jordan. In this case, a team of remote viewers were given the task of locating the fugitive Customs Supervisor Charles Jordan, who’d been on the run for some years. While most of the viewers were Mexico or Florida, one remote viewer said he was in Lovell, Wyoming, which is very near where he turned out to be. This session took place on the 10 April 1989, and on the 16 June 1989 Charlie Jordan was arrested.

Playfair implies that the credit should go to the remote viewers for the arrest, but the book “The FBI” by Ronald Kessler says that he “was caught when his case appeared on America’s Most Wanted and tips came in that gave the FBI probable cause to search the home of Jordan’s parents. There, agents found a videotape Jordan had made when his wife gave birth to a baby [...] The videotape showed the couple’s license tag number. It also showed the name of the hospital imprinted on a pillow case at the hospital where Jordan’s wife gave birth.”

So, it seems that the remote viewers were not involved in the capture of Charlie Jordan, and that episode of America’s Most Wanted, aired a few months before this particular project began, could be how one remote viewer (although, to be exact, she was a psychic medium, not a remote viewer) was able to guess so close to his location. It would be useful to see the show to understand the kind of information it contained.

On the “Stargate Conspiracy” page of Skeptical About Skeptics, there are a few more examples. Playfair writes that McMoneagle gives details about projects to find the hostages Dozier, Higgins and Buckley. I’ve already written about the remote viewers’ unsuccessful attempts to remote view Gen. Dozier. As for the other two, the story that the original documentation reveals is, if anything, even worse than that.

LTC Higgins was kidnapped in South Lebanon on 17 February 1989. At first, in that same month, there was a spate of half a dozen remote viewing sessions on him, but it wasn’t until later that year that he was targetted repeatedly. Between September and December 1989 he was the target several times as part of a larger project regarding the Lebanon Hostage Crisis.

A recurring theme of these sessions was that Higgins was about to be released. Throughout these four months, it was reported that his captors would release him in two weeks’ time, or he will be the next to be released.

In the end, he was never released at all. In late August 1989, the US authorities received a video from Hezbollah apparently showing the death of LTC Higgins. On the following days, the remote viewers were asked to view Higgins and determine if he was dead or alive. Of the four remote viewers, two said he was still alive, another couldn’t tell, and the fourth didn’t answer the question.

Finally, William Buckley was kidnapped in Beirut on 16 March 1984. The remote viewing team conducted eleven sessions targeting him and, interestingly, this information was passed onto the CIA.

This positive report was written at the end of April, but it concluded by saying that the remote viewing sessions had stopped since the CIA could no longer supply the remote viewing team with any new leads. I thought the whole point of remote viewing was to avoid the need for intelligence gathered on the ground.

The next attempt at remote viewing Buckley was in July of 1984. One viewer said Buckley was in good health and would be released around the 22 (this was on the 17 July). The other also spoke about Buckley’s release, saying it would take place south of the Commodore Hotel.

Buckley was never released and was never in good health. He was systematically tortured and died in captivity, his death being announced on 4 October 1985.

Next, Guy Lyon Playfair mentions Joe’s claims regarding a Soviet submarine and predicted where Skylab was going to fall. The submarine “hit” was towards the end of six sessions with an interviewer who was not blind to the target. Joe mentioned a submarine in the first session, but it wasn’t until the fifth that he talks about a submarine again. At this point, the interviewer asks him to talk in more detail about the submarine.

Joe’s version of event is that he described a huge submarine of a type never seen before in a land-locked hangar and was ridiculed for it by officials. In the original documents, though, once he finally starts talking about submarines, he describes alterations being made to an existing one, rather than a brand new one. Also, the sketches resemble more the old Delta type of submarine than the new Typhoon class (although it could be argued it resembles neither). Finally, the US officials giving this tasking would’ve already known about a submarine being built there, due to information from satellite photographs in 1977.

Top, Joe's drawing of the submarine he viewed.
Bottom, drawings of a Delta class submarine above a Typhoon. Source.

As for the Skylab prediction, there’s no sign of it in the declassified papers. But since Joe, in his book, describes it as a task he set himself and not an official request, perhaps that’s not surprising.

I’ve written elsewhere in some detail about the US remote viewing program. While I have some admiration for the project and its attempt at trying something new, it seems clear that almost all the claims of success have been exaggerated greatly. And those few that aren't exaggerations and do appear to be accurate, well, isn’t that to be expected in twenty-three years?

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Pet wanted: Dead or alive

It is the hundredth anniversary of the start of the First World War, and on Sunday 28 June 1914 the Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated. I wanted to read the contemporary reports, so I looked at the Times newspaper for the following Monday. At first, I glanced over the classified adverts on page one and noticed this:

Quite why anyone would want the pet returned to them, dead or alive, baffled me. After a bit of thought, I assumed it was because they owner wanted to know its fate, even if it were dead, rather than never finding out. But for a while there I was scratching my head over the motives behind this advert.

Friday, 27 June 2014

Japanese schools in revolt

Keio University in Tokyo is one of the most prestigious in Japan. It’s also the oldest seat of further education, being able to trace its roots back to a School of Western Studies established in 1858.

But in 1888, it was one of a couple of schools suffered from student rebellions, as the students went on strike to complain about the teaching methods. One of the foreign teachers there, Rev Arthur Lloyd, wrote to a newspaper in England about the then current demonstration.

Rev Arthur Lloyd, from The Open Court, 1912

“The Tokyo students have lately taken to rebellion. A few weeks ago, the students at the Methodist School at Azabu rebelled and struck against their teachers. I believe this was owing partly to the unpopularity of their new principal and partly to alleged favouritism as between Christian and non-Christian students. However, unfortunately, after a strike the students were victorious. Several obnoxious teachers were dismissed to please the students and after several concessions had been made, the boys condescended to come back to their duties.”

Rev. Lloyd notes that this successful strike was followed by another in the same region of Tokyo: Azabu. This time, in the school where he was teaching: the afore-mentioned university, or Keio Public School as it was then known.

“Our new manager, Mr Koidzumi, is a terrible new broom; unfortunately, he has been appointed senior manager. The consequence was that he introduced all manner of new rules into the school, especially some rules about daily marking, which were most obnoxious to the students. With the exception of two classes, the whole school struck and now the conflict is raging. Forty of the ring-leaders have been expelled, more than 300 boys have already left the school, and I am not at all sure how the result is going to turn out.”

This letter, written on 21 February 1888, goes on to explain that the foreign teachers have no say in the matter: it is an issue purely between the Japanese. Whatever sympathies he had with his students, he thought the strike was worth facing down, if only to stop the rebellions spreading to other schools. He also wonders if the new younger generation, with their multi-cultural education were perhaps looking down upon their monolingual parents and their Confucian education.

Although the letter was written in the midst of the troubles, with no solution in sight, Rev Lloyd did write about this again. In his book “Every-day Japan” he explains how it ended. The book was written in 1909, and a couple of details don’t match the contemporary report, but this is what he wrote:

“The biggest affair of this kind that I remember was in 1885 or 1886, when the whole of the great Keiogijuku College, with the exception of one class, went out on strike over some grievance about class-marks, and refused for more than a month to receive the instructions of their professors. When the strike was finished, students and professors had a grand feast of reconciliation in the playground, where speeches were made and toasts drunk. A short time ago I still possessed a big photograph of this entente cordiale established between teachers and taught.”

What a shame he didn’t still have the photograph to include in the book. It would have been a beautiful reminder of a turbulent period of change in Japanese society. Rev Lloyd goes on to tell the readers of his book that this events all happened decades ago.

“School strikes on a very small scale do indeed still take place from time to time, but they are mild affairs when compared with the heroics of the past. The go-ahead student of twenty years ago is the go-ahead parent of to-day, and has succeeded in re-establishing over his children that parental authority which for the time slipped from the grasp of his old-world father ; and the crude teacher of the early days has made room for the better trained teacher of to-day, so that the whole atmosphere of the Japanese school has undergone a change for the better.”

“Rebellious Schoolboys In Japan,” Bury and Norwich Post, 1 May 1888, page 5
Lloyd, Rev. A, (1909) “Every-day Japan,” Cassel and Co. Ltd, p 272-273
Clement, E. W. (1912) "The Late Rev. Arthur Lloyd (With Portrait).," The Open Court: Vol. 1912: Iss. 4, Article 8

Friday, 20 June 2014

How to make a legend

An article in the Spring 1995 edition of The Psi Researcher describes how, in the 1950s, a group of psychical researchers got caught up in popularising an almost-certainly fictional local legend.

Tony Cornell (the author of the article) and three friends went to the Ferry Boat Inn in St Ives, Huntingtonshire, on the 17 March 1953, having heard that a ghost of a lady in white appears there every year on that date: the story being that one of the flagstones on the floor of the pub is over her grave.

They set up a Ouija board on a table in the bar, and began trying to contact the spirit, to the mild amusement of the few regulars who were in the bar at the time. During this seance, they contacted a woman called Juliet, who was hanged in 1050 because she loved a man called Thomas. As closing time approached, the psychical researchers asked Juliet if she would appear if they held another seance later that evening. She said yes and, so it was, that at 11pm another seance was begun back at their hotel.

They got more details, such as her surname (Tewslie) and that she was a Norman. She died when she was nineteen and that Thomas (whose surname was Zoul) was twenty-one at the time. Thomas finally died when he was fifty-two.

And there it would have ended. The information was vague and generic and Tony writes that he had immediate doubts about Tewslie being a Norman name. This little episode was forgotten and would’ve stayed that way had the owner of the Ferry Boat Inn not contacted Tony in January of the following year suggesting another seance.

Tony agreed, and news of this began to appear in the local press. He started getting calls from journalists, and he found himself being misquoted as the media milked the story for all it was worth. Even The Daily Mail carried the story on the 16 March.

On the 17th, the psychical researchers arrived at a pub already full of journalists and photographers, and a steady stream of customers kept arriving. At 11pm, the pub emptied out and the seance could begin in peace (although the reporters were still present and many people stayed outside and tried to watch through the windows). The local vicar arrived, claiming the legend was bunkum. All of this must have made contacting the dead a bit more difficult than usual, since it wasn’t until 12.35am that the Ouija board spelt out “I am Juliet” and the seance could begin.

Now a couple of details changed. Her death was 552 years ago, not nine hundred as before. Juliet spelt her surname as “Tewsley” this time and, considering that the seance included a stranger in the group, Tony wonders if this new spelling was due to someone pushing the glass who was unaware of the previous spelling.

The researchers asked if the river came up to this spot in her time, and she said yes, and it was 10 metres across (but metres didn’t exist until 1797). Juliet then said she would try and materialise, but nothing happened. They packed up and went home at 2am, having brought in a great deal of business for the pub, but achieved little else.

After this, the story spread through Reuters and Associated Press around the world. The local vicar wrote up a history of Juliet and Thomas based on the transcripts of the two seances with more details added, and then explained that there’s no evidence either person existed.

Tony writes that similar investigations occurred in 1955 and 1956 without him, and he comments that since then the legend has appeared in books, with one author calling it “probabaly the longest established ghost in any English hostelry.” The same book (Haunted Pubs in Britain and Ireland by Marc Alexander) also describes how the landlord of the Ferry Boat Inn had expressed a wish that he has something like the Loch Ness Monster to bring in customers, and then a customer told him about the White Lady. Tony remarks that, if accurate, this explains a lot.

Other writers have added to the story, with details about dogs not liking the bar, doors that open and close and old-fashioned music that only women can hear. By the time Guy Lyon Playfair writes about it in 1985, Juliet’s surname has a new spelling: Tousley.

As part of his initial investigation, Tony investigated the names that came through and also asked local people if they knew about the legend. Regarding the names, Juliet didn’t really exist in England until the 16th century. The surname has a Celtic root “Tew” but Tony came to the conclusion that “Juliet Tewslie” couldn’t possibly be a Norman name.

Thomas is also rare for Norman times, becoming more common in the medieval era, but Zoul is a Norman name, derived from Zouch.

When he questioned local people, none of the elder inhabitants had ever heard of the story and the person who’d apparently told the landlord, Dr Hurst, said he couldn’t remember where he’d heard it. Tony was unable to find anyone who’d heard of it before 1953.

As for the messages of unverifiable details, questionable names and a few historical inaccuracies, Tony concludes that they were answered by the people who’d asked them: the researchers: “The suggestion that there was the ghost of a woman at the Inn was enough for those who applied their minds to the question to produce unconsciously a dramatic sketch about Juliet and Thomas, which has been added to by all and sundry ever since.”

Tony wrote in 1995 that he’d recently returned to the pub and that it had been carpeted, apart from the flagstone that apparently was over the woman’s grave. Whether that’s still the case, I don’t know. One thing is noteworthy: searching for the pub on the internet, there are many sites that don’t mention the ghost at all. Maybe, now that St Patrick’s Day is more popular in England, there’s no need for a ghost to increase business on 17 March.


Cornell, T. “The Making of a Legend,” The Psi Researcher, no 16, Spring 1995