Tag Archives: Superstition

November 30, 1680 (a Saturday)

The Great Comet of 1680.

The Great Comet of 1680.

On this date, the Great Comet of 1680, known today as C/1680 V1, passed only 0.42 AUs from Earth. It became one of the brightest comets of the 17th century – reputedly visible even in daytime – and was noted for its spectacularly long tail. Reaching its peak brightness on 29 December, it was last observed on 19 March 1681.

Naturally, people thought it presaged the apocalypse. According to The Dutch and Quaker Colonies in America, by John Fiske, 1903 Edition, Vol II, at page 59:

Late in the autumn of 1680 the good people of Manhattan were overcome with terror at a sight in the heavens such as has seldom greeted human eyes. An enormous comet, perhaps the most magnificent one on record, suddenly made its appearance. At first it was tailless and dim, like a nebulous cloud, but at the end of a week the tail began to show itself and in a second week had attained a length of 30 degrees; in the third week it extended to 70 degrees, while the whole mass was growing brighter. After five weeks it seemed to be absorbed into the intense glare of the sun, but in four days more it reappeared like a blazing sun itself in the throes of some giant convulsion and threw out a tail in the opposite direction as far as the whole distance between the sun and the earth. Sir Isaac Newton, who was then at work upon the mighty problems soon to be published to the world in his “Principia,” welcomed this strange visitor as affording him a beautiful instance for testing the truth of his new theory of gravitation. But most people throughout the civilized world, the learned as well as the multitude, feared that the end of all things was at hand. Every church in Europe, from the grandest cathedral to the humblest chapel, resounded with supplications, and in the province of New York a day of fasting and humiliation was appointed, in order that the wrath of God might be assuaged… Newton’s comet looked down, while Dominie Nieuwenhuysen [who was a Calvinist minister] and Dominie Frazius [who was a Lutheran minister] were busy with prayers to avert the direful omen.

The Great Comet of 1680 also has the distinction of being the first comet discovered by telescope, on 14 November 1680.


August 27, 413 B.C.E.

The Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.E.)

On this date, a lunar eclipse caused panic among the sailors of the Athens fleet in Sicily and eventually affected the outcome of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.E.). Just as the Athenian forces were ready to sail home from Syracuse, the Moon was eclipsed. The soldiers and sailors were frightened by this celestial omen and were reluctant to leave. Their commander, Nicias, described by the ancient Greek historian Thucydides as a particularly superstitious man, asked the priests what he should do. They suggested the Athenians wait for another twenty-seven days, and Nicias agreed. The Syracusans took advantage of this, and seventy-six of their ships attacked eighty-six Athenian ships in the harbor, beginning what has become known as the Second Battle of Syracuse. The Syracusans ultimately defeated the entire Athenian fleet and army in September and executed Nicias.

Why do I mention this footnote to the history of ancient Athens? It illustrates that the failure (or refusal) to recognize the natural causes of natural events, such as a lunar eclipse, may seem harmless but can have disastrous consequences.

July 21, 365 C.E.

The Hellenic arc.

Greece is one of the world’s most seismically active countries. The ancient Greeks attributed earthquakes to the God of the Sea, Poseidon, perhaps because so many of them were centered under the waters. On today’s date at about sunrise, the “Cretan earthquake of 365”, an undersea earthquake with an assumed epicenter near Crete and estimated to have been higher than 8.0 on the present-day Richter Scale, occurred. It caused widespread destruction in central and southern Greece, northern Libya, Egypt, Cyprus, and Sicily. In Crete, nearly all towns were destroyed.

Of course, today we know that earthquakes are due to the movement of huge tectonic plates on the Earth’s surface. The Africa plate subducts beneath the Aegean Sea plate along the Hellenic arc (aka Hellenic trench or subduction zone), from the western Peloponnesus through Crete and Rhodes to western Turkey, at a rate of almost 40 mm/year. As a result, shallow-focus earthquakes (focal depths less than 50 km) occur on faults in the boundary-region of the two plates. In the twentieth century, the largest shallow-focus earthquakes to have occurred near the Hellenic-arc plate boundary had magnitudes of about 7.2, but the earthquake centered near Crete in 365 CE was much larger than any Hellenic arc earthquake of the twentieth century. In other parts of the world, convergent-plate tectonic environments similar to that of the Hellenic arc have produced earthquakes of magnitude 8 and larger.

The Crete earthquake was followed by a tsunami which devastated the southern and eastern coasts of the Mediterranean, particularly Libya, Alexandria, and the Nile Delta, killing thousands and hurling ships nearly two miles inland. The quake left a deep impression on the late antique mind, and numerous writers of the time referred in their works to the event.

The Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus described in detail the tsunami hitting Alexandria and other places in the early hours of 21 July AD 365. His account is particularly noteworthy for clearly distinguishing the three main phases of a tsunami, namely an initial earthquake, the sudden retreat of the sea and an ensuing gigantic wave rolling inland:

Slightly after daybreak, and heralded by a thick succession of fiercely shaken thunderbolts, the solidity of the whole earth was made to shake and shudder, and the sea was driven away, its waves were rolled back, and it disappeared, so that the abyss of the depths was uncovered and many-shaped varieties of sea-creatures were seen stuck in the slime; the great wastes of those valleys and mountains, which the very creation had dismissed beneath the vast whirlpools, at that moment, as it was given to be believed, looked up at the sun’s rays. Many ships, then, were stranded as if on dry land, and people wandered at will about the paltry remains of the waters to collect fish and the like in their hands; then the roaring sea as if insulted by its repulse rises back in turn, and through the teeming shoals dashed itself violently on islands and extensive tracts of the mainland, and flattened innumerable buildings in towns or wherever they were found. Thus in the raging conflict of the elements, the face of the earth was changed to reveal wondrous sights. For the mass of waters returning when least expected killed many thousands by drowning, and with the tides whipped up to a height as they rushed back, some ships, after the anger of the watery element had grown old, were seen to have sunk, and the bodies of people killed in shipwrecks lay there, faces up or down. Other huge ships, thrust out by the mad blasts, perched on the roofs of houses, as happened at Alexandria, and others were hurled nearly two miles from the shore, like the Laconian vessel near the town of Methone which I saw when I passed by, yawning apart from long decay.

July 2, 1947 (a Wednesday)

Roswell Daily Record – July 8, 1947

On this date, around 10:00 PM in Roswell, New Mexico, Mr. and Mrs. Dan Wilmot saw an unidentified flying object (UFO). They reported its appearance as “two inverted saucers faced mouth to mouth,” moving at a high rate of speed over their house. This marked the beginning of one of the most publicized and controversial of sightings of UFOs, now called the “Roswell UFO Incident”. There have been more books written on the events that allegedly took place around Roswell in 1947 than on any other single UFO sighting.

It was but the latest in a series of UFO sightings that began on June 25, 1947 when a pilot named Kenneth Arnold reported seeing several objects while flying near Mt Rainier, Washington. His descriptions of the objects that flew like “geese” and moving “like a saucer would if you skipped it across the water” became the term “Flying Saucers”, and thus the age of the UFO was born. Media publicity about Arnold’s report gave birth to a rash of sightings that kept the papers and the public fascinated throughout that summer… and indeed, to this day.

On the morning of July 7, 1947 (according to the Roswell Daily Record, Roswell Morning Dispatch, and Fort Worth Star Telegram), a rancher named William “Mac” Brazel drove the 75 miles from his home to Roswell and reported to the local sheriff, George Wilcox, that he might have recovered the remains of “one of them flying saucers.” Wilcox, according to various accounts, then contacted military authorities at nearby Roswell Army Air Field (RAAF), where Major Jesse Marcel was assigned to investigate. Marcel and a Counter-Intelligence Corps agent, Sheridan Cavitt, drove out to the Foster ranch where Brazel worked as the outfit’s foreman and where he had made the discovery.

Jesse Marcel Sr. presents his “flying saucer” to the press in General Ramey’s office. Note the blackened balloon material to the left of Marcel. (HQ USAF )

Marcel and Cavitt collected wreckage from the crash site in the early evening of July 7. By 8:30 PM or so, they were inside Brazel’s house looking at the debris and trying to determine what it actually was. After filling Cavitt’s vehicle with wreckage, Marcel told Cavitt to go back to the base and he would collect more wreckage, and they would meet later back at RAAF. Marcel filled his vehicle with wreckage.

On the way back to the airfield, Marcel stopped off at home at around 2:00 AM (July 8) to show his wife, Viaud, and son, Jesse Jr., the strange material he had found. Both his wife and son examined the debris Jesse Sr. had brought home. Jesse Jr. later recalled there were pink/purple/lavender symbols along the center sections of some of the small metallic “I” beams among the debris.

Marcel arrived at RAAF early in the morning of July 8th and at 9:00 AM reported to his commanding officer, Col. William H. Blanchard.  Blanchard contacted General Roger M. Ramey of the Eighth Air Force in Fort Worth, Texas, and Ramey ordered the wreckage be flown to Fort Worth Army Air Field. By mid-afternoon, the plane was on its way to Fort Worth with Jesse Marcel Sr. on board.

Around 9:30 AM on July 8, 1947, Blanchard ordered press information officer Walter Haut to compose (who actually wrote it is questionable) a press release on the recovery of a flying disc. No copy of the original press release exists today, but the following is generally thought to be the closest to the original:

The many rumors regarding the flying disc became a reality yesterday when the intelligence office of the 509th Bomb group of the Eighth Air Force, Roswell Army Air Field, was fortunate enough to gain possession of a disc through the cooperation of one of the local ranchers and the sheriff’s office of Chaves County. The flying object landed on a ranch near Roswell sometime last week. Not having phone facilities, the rancher stored the disc until such time as he was able to contact the sheriff’s office, who in turn notified Maj. Jesse A. Marcel of the 509th Bomb Group Intelligence Office. Action was immediately taken and the disc was picked up at the rancher’s home. It was inspected at the Roswell Army Air Field and subsequently loaned by Major Marcel to higher headquarters.

Haut went into town to deliver his press release to the radio stations and newspapers. His first was at station KGFL, where he gave the release to Frank Joyce.

At noon of the same day, the information was put on the AP wire. The only newspapers that carried the initial flying saucer version of the story were evening papers from the Midwest to the West, including the Chicago Daily News, the Los Angeles Herald Express, the San Francisco Examiner, and the Roswell Daily Record. The New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Chicago Tribune were morning papers and carried only the weather-balloon version of the story the next morning.

This is the now famous story that was published on Tuesday, July 8, in the Roswell Daily Record:

RAAF Captures Flying Saucer On Ranch in Roswell Region

No Details of Flying Disk Are Revealed

Roswell Hardware Man and Wife Report Disk Seen

The intelligence office of the 509th Bombardment group at Roswell Army Air Field announced at noon today, that the field has come into possession of a flying saucer.

According to information released by the department, over authority of Maj. J. A. Marcel, intelligence officer, the disk was recovered on a ranch in the Roswell vicinity, after an unidentified rancher had notified Sheriff Geo. Wilcox, here, that he had found the instrument on his premises.

Major Marcel and a detail from his department went to the ranch and recovered the disk, it was stated.

After the intelligence officer here had inspected the instrument it was flown to “higher headquarters.”

The intelligence office stated that no details of the saucer’s construction or its appearance had been revealed.

Mr. and Mrs. Dan Wilmot apparently were the only persons in Roswell who have seen what they thought was a flying disk.

They were sitting on their porch at 105 South Penn. last Wednesday night [July 2] at about ten o’clock when a large glowing object zoomed out of the sky from the southeast, going in a northwesterly direction at a high rate of speed.

Wilmot called Mrs. Wilmot’s attention to it and both ran down into the yard to watch. It was in sight less then a minute, perhaps 40 or 50 seconds, Wilmot estimated.

Wilmot said that it appeared to him to be about 1,500 feet high and going fast. He estimated between 400 and 500 miles per hour.

In appearance it looked oval in shape like two inverted saucers, faced mouth to mouth, or like two old type washbowls placed together in the same fashion. The entire body glowed as though light were showing through from inside, though not like it would be if a light were merely underneath.

From where he stood Wilmot said that the object looked to be about 5 feet in size, and making allowance for the distance it was from town he figured that it must have been 15 to 20 feet in diameter, though this was just a guess.

Wilmot said that he heard no sound but that Mrs. Wilmot said she heard a swishing sound for a very short time.

The object came into view from the southeast and disappeared over the treetops in the general vicinity of six-mile hill.

Wilmot, who is one of the most respected and reliable citizens in town, kept the story to himself hoping that someone else would come out and tell about having seen one, but finally today decided that he would go ahead and tell about it. The announcement that the RAAF was in possession of one came only a few minutes after he had decided to release the details of what he had seen.

Roswell Daily Record – July 9, 1947

Meanwhile, Marcel’s plane arrived at Fort Worth Army Air Field sometime in the early evening on July 8. Waiting for the plane was General Ramey and his chief of staff, Colonel Thomas Dubose. Dubose recalled meeting the plane and taking the debris to General Ramey’s office.

In a press conference at Ramey’s office around 5:30 PM (July 8), several news photographs were taken of the debris from the crash site by reporter J. Bond Johnson of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and others. After the photographs were taken, General Ramey made an announcement that what was being presented as a “crashed disc” was actually the crushed remains of a ray wind [sic, rawin] target used to determine the direction and velocity of winds at high altitudes. The duty weather officer Irving Newton was present and concurred, as he later testified:

I was the only weather forecaster on duty…I received a call from some one in General Ramey’s office by a Lt. Col. or Col. who told me that some one had found a flying saucer in New Mexico and they had it in the General’s office…the General suspicioned that it might be meteorological equipment or something of that nature and wanted it examined by qualified meteorological personnel…as soon as I saw it, I giggled and asked if that was the flying saucer. I was told it was… I was convinced at the time that this was a balloon with a RAWIN target and remain convinced… (HQ USAF Attachment 30)

Marcel was probably a bit embarrassed at this point and could only stand by as the press took the photographs. Another news release was issued, this time from the Fort Worth base, describing the object as being a weather balloon.

On Wednesday, July 9, two articles about the incident were published on the first page of the Roswell Daily Record. The first story follows:

Gen. Ramey Empties Roswell Saucer

Ramey Says Excitement is Not Justified

General Ramey Says Disk is Weather Balloon

Fort Worth, Texas, July 9 (AP) — An examination by the army revealed last night that mysterious objects found on a lonely New Mexico ranch was a harmless high-altitude weather balloon — not a grounded flying disk. Excitement was high until Brig. Gen. Roger M. Ramey, commander of the Eighth air forces with headquarters here cleared up the mystery.

The bundle of tinfoil, broken wood beams and rubber remnants of a balloon were sent here yesterday by army air transport in the wake of reports that it was a flying disk.

But the general said the objects were the crushed remains of a ray wind [sic, Rawin] target used to determine the direction and velocity of winds at high altitudes.

Warrant Officer Irving Newton, forecaster at the army air forces weather station here said, “we use them because they go much higher than the eye can see.”

The weather balloon was found several days ago near the center of New Mexico by Rancher W. W. Brazel. He said he didn’t think much about it until he went into Corona, N. M., last Saturday and heard the flying disk reports.

He returned to his ranch, 85 miles northwest of Roswell, and recovered the wreckage of the balloon, which he had placed under some brush.

Then Brazel hurried back to Roswell, where he reported his find to the sheriff’s office.

The sheriff called the Roswell air field and Maj. Jesse A. Marcel, 509th bomb group intelligence officer was assigned to the case.

Col. William H. Blanchard, commanding officer of the bomb group, reported the find to General Ramey and the object was flown immediately to the army air field here.

Ramey went on the air here last night to announce the New Mexico discovery was not a flying disk.

Newton said that when rigged up, the instrument “looks like a six-pointed star, is silvery in appearance and rises in the air like a kite.”

In Roswell, the discovery set off a flurry of excitement.

Sheriff George Wilcox’s telephone lines were jammed. Three calls came from England, one of them from The London Daily Mail, he said.

A public relations officer here said the balloon was in his office “and it’ll probably stay right there.”

Newton, who made the examination, said some 80 weather stations in the U.S. were using that type of balloon and that it could have come from any of them.

He said he had sent up identical balloons during the invasion of Okinawa to determine ballistics information for heavy guns.

The second story in the Roswell Daily Record on July 9, 1947 was:

Harassed Rancher Who Located ‘Saucer’ Sorry He Told About It

W. W. Brazel, 48, Lincoln county rancher living 30 miles south of Corona, today told his story of finding what the army at first described as a flying disk, but the publicity which attended his find caused him to add that if he ever found anything else short of a bomb, he sure wasn’t going to say anything about it.

Brazel was brought here late yesterday by W. E. Whitmore, of radio station KGFL, had his picture taken and gave an interview to the Record and Jason Kellahin, sent here from the Albuquerque bureau of the Associated Press to cover the story. The picture he posed for was sent out over AP telephoto wire sending machine specially set up in the Record office by R. D. Adair, AP wire chief sent here from Albuquerque for the sole purpose of getting out his picture and that of sheriff George Wilcox, to whom Brazel originally gave the information of his find.

Brazel related that on June 14 he and an 8-year old son, Vernon, were about 7 or 8 miles from the ranch house of the J. B. Foster ranch, which he operates, when they came upon a large area of bright wreckage made up on rubber strips, tinfoil, a rather tough paper and sticks.

At the time Brazel was in a hurry to get his round made and he did not pay much attention to it. But he did remark about what he had seen and on July 4 he, his wife, Vernon and a daughter, Betty, age 14, went back to the spot and gathered up quite a bit of the debris.

The next day he first heard about the flying disks, and he wondered if what he had found might be the remnants of one of these.

Monday he came to town to sell some wool and while here he went to see sheriff George Wilcox and “whispered kinda confidential like” that he might have found a flying disk.

Wilcox got in touch with the Roswell Army Air Field and Maj. Jesse A. Marcel and a man in plain clothes accompanied him home, where they picked up the rest of the pieces of the “disk” and went to his home to try to reconstruct it.

According to Brazel they simply could not reconstruct it at all. They tried to make a kite out of it, but could not do that and could not find any way to put it back together so that it would fit.

Then Major Marcel brought it to Roswell and that was the last he heard of it until the story broke that he had found a flying disk.

Brazel said that he did not see it fall from the sky and did not see it before it was torn up, so he did not know the size or shape it might have been, but he thought it might have been about as large as a table top. The balloon which held it up, if that was how it worked, must have been about 12 feet long, he felt, measuring the distance by the size of the room in which he sat. The rubber was smoky gray in color and scattered over an area about 200 yards in diameter.

When the debris was gathered up the tinfoil, paper, tape, and sticks made a bundle about three feet long and 7 or 8 inches thick, while the rubber made a bundle about 18 or 20 inches long and about 8 inches thick. In all, he estimated, the entire lot would have weighed maybe five pounds.

There was no sign of any metal in the area which might have been used for an engine and no sign of any propellers of any kind, although at least one paper fin had been glued onto some of the tinfoil.

There were no words to be found anywhere on the instrument, although there were letters on some of the parts. Considerable scotch tape and some tape with flowers printed upon it had been used in the construction.

No strings or wire were to be found but there were some eyelets in the paper to indicate that some sort of attachment may have been used.

Brazel said that he had previously found two weather observation balloons on the ranch, but that what he found this time did not in any way resemble either of these.

“I am sure that what I found was not any weather observation balloon,” he said. “But if I find anything else besides a bomb they are going to have a hard time getting me to say anything about it.”

In 1978, Major Jesse Marcel voiced his suspicion that the debris recovered at Roswell was “not of this world.” The wreckage was switched, according to him, for the weather balloon that appeared in the press photos. The debris “was not a weather balloon. Nor was it an airplane or a missile.” Consequently, Roswell morphed from being an almost forgotten incident to the most famous UFO mystery of all time. Witness accounts began to surface of outer space aircraft and alien autopsies.

The truth about Roswell may be “out there”, but it has been shrouded by faulty and conflicting memories, hoaxes…and sometimes, deliberate lies. To be considered part of a valid explanation, any and all evidence presented must be able to withstand critical analysis. There is much that cannot.

The best explanation to date remains the 1994/95 Air Force report and Project Mogul. For years, the Air Force had dodged the whole Roswell UFO Incident simply because it was considered a waste of time and not in their interest. In 1994, as a result of an inquiry by New Mexico Congressman Steven Schiff, the Air Force was forced to research the event. In early 1995, the US Air Force released its lengthy report called The Roswell Report: Fact versus Fiction in the New Mexico Desert. It identified the Roswell debris as remnants of a long-range, highly secret, balloon-borne low-frequency acoustic detection system called “Project Mogul” — an attempt to sense Soviet nuclear weapon explosions at tropopause altitudes. Among overwhelming evidence was the fact that the radar targets carried by the balloons were partly manufactured by novelty and toy companies in New York, whose inventory of decorative icons seems to have been remembered many years later as alien hieroglyphics (q.v., “pink/purple/lavender symbols”) on the wreckage.


  • Benson Saler, Charles A. Ziegler, and Charles B. Moore. UFO Crash at Roswell: The Genesis of a Modern Myth. (Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997).
  • HQ USAF. The Roswell Report: Fact vs. Fiction in the New Mexico Desert. (Washington D.C.: US Government, 1995).
  • Carl Sagan.  The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.  (New York, NY: Random House, 1995), pp. 81-96.

June 30, 1908 (Julian calendar/old style: a Tuesday)

The above picture was taken by a Russian expedition to the Tunguska site in 1927, finding trees littering the ground like toothpicks.

On this date, a large rocky asteroid or perhaps an icy comet entered the atmosphere traveling at an estimated speed of about 33,500 miles per hour and then detonated in the sky near the Podkamennaya Tunguska (Stony Tunguska) River in remote Siberia, Russia (60° 54′ 59″ N, 101° 57′ 0″ E). During its quick plunge, the 220-million-pound space asteroid/comet heated the air surrounding it to 44,500 degrees Fahrenheit. At 7:14:28 AM (local Siberia time), at a height of about 28,000 feet, the combination of pressure and heat caused the asteroid/comet to fragment and annihilate itself, producing a fireball and releasing energy equivalent to about 185 Hiroshima bombs. The aerial explosion explains why there was no impact crater – the great majority of the cosmic object was consumed in the explosion.

Reconstruction of the Tunguska Event. (William K. Hartmann)

The massive explosion packed a wallop. The resulting seismic shockwave registered with sensitive barometers as far away as England. Dense clouds formed over the region at high altitudes which reflected sunlight from beyond the horizon. As a result, night skies glowed, and reports came in that people who lived as far away as Asia could read newspapers outdoors as late as midnight. Recent studies of so-called night-shining clouds sometimes linked to space shuttle launches suggest that it was, in fact, a comet that caused Tunguska.

Locally, hundreds of reindeer, the livelihood of local herders, were killed, but there was no direct evidence that any person perished in the blast. Locals believed the blast was a visitation by the god Ogdy, who had cursed the area by smashing trees and killing animals.

Due to the remoteness of the blast and the chaotic conditions prevailing inside Russia at the time, the first scientific expedition to the area would have to wait for 19 years. In 1921, Leonid Kulik, the chief curator for the meteorite collection of the St. Petersburg museum, led an expedition to Tunguska. But the harsh conditions of the Siberian outback thwarted his team’s attempt to reach the area of the blast. In 1927, a new expedition, again lead by Kulik, reached its goal.

This is rare, raw footage from the 1921 Tunguska expedition as well as modern day footage showing the aftermath of the huge Tunguska explosion in 1908.
While testimonials may have at first been difficult to obtain, there was plenty of evidence lying around. Eight hundred square miles of remote forest had been ripped asunder. Eighty million trees lying on their sides in a radial pattern acted as markers, pointing directly away from the blast’s hypocenter. When the team arrived at ground zero, they found the trees there standing upright – but their limbs and bark had been stripped away. They looked like a forest of telephone poles.

Tunguska Event location (click for larger image).

Such “debranching” requires fast moving shock waves that break off a tree’s branches before the branches can transfer the impact momentum to the tree’s stem. Thirty seven years after the Tunguska Event, branchless trees would be found at the site of another massive explosion – Hiroshima, Japan.


June 17, 1864 (a Friday)

The Martian mummy hoax in 1864:

The story began in the 17 June 1864 issue of Le Pays, Journal de l’Empire, one of the most important French newspapers at the time of Emperor Napoléon III, as a letter sent by an unnamed correspondent to a French journalist; its title was “Un habitant de la planète Mars” [“An Inhabitant of the Planet Mars”]. Other letters were then published twice a month in that paper until 06 January 1865. And a book with the same title, by author Henri de Parville, was soon published in Paris, probably in April or May 1865, by Hetzel, who was from 1863 the publisher of Jules Verne; it had apparently both a hardback and a softcover edition. De Parville, whose full name was François Henri Peudefer de Parville (1838-1909), was a popular science writer, a contributor to some newspapers, an author (for instance, in 1883 he wrote a book about electricity and its applications), and a manager of a popular science magazine. He had apparently some importance, for a prize of the Académie des Sciences bears his name.

A Martian mummy, from the French astronomer Camille Flammarion (1881).

Besides a preface and a postscript by de Parville (hereafter P), which will be considered later, the book consists of the 14 letters sent to him by the unnamed journalist from Richmond (hereafter N = narrator); they bear no date, except for the last one, dated 27 September [1864] , which is the only one which did not appear in Le Pays.

The [alleged…] events take place in the “Arrapahys country, several miles from James Peak”; no other precise location is given, but the given route locates them probably somewhere in Colorado. (A quick Google search gives indeed the James Peak in the Arapaho National Forest, at some 60 km WNW of Denver.) Workers of (or for) the wealthy landowner Mr. Paxton are searching for oil in his estate. One day, they discover in a Paleozoic terrain a strange egg-shaped rock which measures some 45 yards [35 m] and the surface of which seems enameled. Mr. Davis, a geologist from Pittsburgh, begins its study. News of the discovery spreads, and interested people are arriving on the spot, despite its isolation and the war [the American Civil War, of course].

A scientific committee decides to dig a hole in the rock, in which they find a cavity, from which is extracted a white metallic jar bearing curious drawings, then several other such containers. Next a grave is discovered behind a metal plate. It contains the calcified mummy of a strange being:

some parts seemed carbonized and the short legs were damaged during the extraction, the head was intact, no hair, instead a smooth, coriaceous skin, a triangular-shaped brain,..[]…instead of a nose a short trunk, a small mouth with some teeth, two orbital cavities with the eyeballs removed in the past, as limestone had formed in there…

There are also some objects, particularly metal rods. The plate bears several drawings: ‘rhinoceros’, ‘palm tree’, “very successful representation of a star similar to the Sun as drawn by children”, other ‘stars’ which are identified as the planets and the biggest of which shows evidently the Martian origin of the being. Money is collected so that the work can be continued, with several meetings of the scientific committee on the site. It consists of specialists from various disciplines and is chaired by the geologist Newbold, and has some journalists as guests, including N. During the first meeting, a vote by the committee decides that the creature is an extraterrestrial.

In order that the whole world shares proofs of the event, Paxton decides to offer the engraved plate to the Royal Society in London and the mummy to the Institut de France in Paris, while the United States keeps the egg-shaped rock and the various artifacts. And N is assigned the mission to bring the mummy to France, he writes in his last letter to his friend P.

However, nothing comes during the following months. Here we must go
back briefly to the preface, where P had written that he had received the letters very mysteriously twice a month: early on the morning, opened on his desk. And we jump again to the postscript: six months later, another letter comes from Richmond, in which N wonders for not having received news from France, and this letter is signed… Henri de Parville! P wonders if de Parville had been his own correspondent, writing by night in some altered state. Last clue: his postscript is dated… 1 April 1865 (April Fool’s Day).

An identical story was published in La Capital, a Rosario, Argentina newspaper on 13 October 1877. This time the discovery, again attributed to Paxton and Davis, occurred near the Carcarana River, near whose banks the egg-shaped object lay half-buried. The body and related artifacts were put on display in a local tavern and later lost.

Many nineteenth-century newspapers routinely published outrageous yarns, often set in some distant place inaccessible to a skeptical reader who might seek verification.

The French “mummified Martian” hoax might have inspired the “Cardiff Giant,” the 10-foot statue planted and uncovered in 1868-1869 in an upstate New York farm as an alleged petrified ancient giant man. The “Cardiff Giant” was the creation of New York tobacconist and outspoken atheist George Hull. He decided to create the giant after an argument with a fundamentalist minister about the passage in Genesis 6:4 that there were giants who once lived on Earth.


  • Jerome Clark. Unexplained!: Strange Sightings, Incredible Occurrences and Puzzling Physical Phenomena, 3rd Edition (Canton, MI: Visible Ink Press, 2012).
  • Henri de Parville. Un habitant de la planète Mars (Paris, France: J. Hetzel, 1865).

May 28, 585 B.C.E.

A Total Solar Eclipse over Turkey

On this date, the Battle of Halys, also known as the Battle of the Eclipse, took place at the Halys River (present-day “Kızılırmak” river in Turkey) between the Medes and the Lydians. The final battle of a fifteen-year war between Alyattes II of Lydia and Cyaxares of the Medes, the battle ended abruptly due to a total solar eclipse. The eclipse was perceived as an omen, indicating that the gods wanted the fighting to stop. Since the exact dates of eclipses can be calculated, the Battle of the Halys is the earliest historical event of which the date is known with such precision.  (This date is based on the proleptic Julian calendar.)

According to Herodotus (Histories, 1.74):

In the sixth year a battle took place in which it happened, when the fight had begun, that suddenly the day became night. And this change of the day Thales the Milesian had foretold to the Ionians laying down as a limit this very year in which the change took place. The Lydians however and the Medes, when they saw that it had become night instead of day, ceased from their fighting and were much more eager both of them that peace should be made between them.


  • Herodotus, translated by Robin Waterfield, (1998). The Histories. New York: Oxford University Press.

May 18, 1910 (a Wednesday)

On this date, thousands of people took to their roofs, huddling for comfort and praying for salvation. Many believed the end of the world was near. The source of their anxiety was the return of Halley’s Comet from its 75-year odyssey through space.

Comet Halley

Many scientists were excited by the opportunity to increase the knowledge of astronomy. By late 1909, several of the world’s major observatories had geared up for Halley’s appearance. The public, too, eagerly awaited the moment when the comet became visible to the naked eye. Scientists had calculated it would appear between May 18 and 19, predicting that Halley’s tail would possibly sweep across Earth.

The tabloids jumped in, and discussed the catastrophic effects of the gaseous comet on the Earth’s atmosphere, causing many to panic. Despite a number of previous documented appearances having caused no deaths, the 1910 return of Halley’s Comet was widely perceived as a threat to mankind, allegedly due to noxious vapors emanating from its tail. This may be the first apocalyptic panic founded on a scientific, rather than religious misapprehension. In actual fact, the tail of Halley’s Comet never came any closer than 400,000 km to the Earth’s surface, and would not have been harmful at any distance.

May 5, 840 C.E.

Louis the Pious, contemporary depiction from 826 as a miles Christi (soldier of Christ), with a poem of Rabanus Maurus overlaid.

On this date, a solar eclipse occurred that literally scared Louis the Pious, Holy Roman Emperor and King of the Franks, to death.

The third son of Charlemagne, Louis the Pious inherited a vast empire when his father died in 814. His reign was marked by dynastic crises and fierce rivalry between his sons. A deeply religious man who earned his nickname by performing penance for his sins, Louis reportedly became terrified of an impending punishment from God after witnessing a solar eclipse that lasted six minutes. According to legend, this caused him to waste away and eventually die on 20 June 840. His death plunged his fractured kingdom into a civil war that ended with the historic Treaty of Verdun, dividing Western Europe into the three major areas we now know as France, Germany, and Italy.


April 10, 1901 (a Wednesday)

On this date, Duncan MacDougall, MD, performed his first experiment to test a hypothesis, to wit, “If personal continuity after the event of death is a fact, if the psychic functions continue to exist as a separate individuality after the death of brain and body, then it must exist as a substantial material entity.” This implies that this entity should have mass, so MacDougall asked himself, “Why not weigh on accurate scales a man at the very moment of death?”

The following is an extract of a letter written by Dr. MacDougall to a Richard Hodgson, MD and dated 10 November 1901, describing MacDougall’s first experiment. The letter was published in May 1907, along with a report of his subsequent experiments, in the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research:


Interestingly, in a commentary published with the report, the editor of the Journal wrote that he “does not share the hopes which many entertain regarding the possibility of ‘weighing a soul,’ but this does not preclude his [MacDougall’s] recognition of the value of experiment, whatever its outcome. The main point is to have a definite conclusion established, whether it be negative or affirmative.”

According to The New York Times, MacDougall was a “reputable physician” and “at the head of a Research Society which for six years has been experimenting in this field.”


March 25, 970 C.E. (Good Friday)


According to the Lotharingian computists, on this date the world was going to end.  They believed they had found evidence in the Bible that a conjunction of certain feast days prefigured the end times. Supposedly, it was on this day that Adam was created, Isaac was sacrificed, the Red Sea was parted, Jesus was conceived, and Jesus was crucified. Therefore, it naturally followed that the End must occur on this day!

The Lotharingian computists were just one of a wide scattering of millennial cults springing up in advance of that first Millennium. The abbot of Saint-Benoit of Fleury-sur-Loire sent a letter to his king complaining about the Lotharingians:

For a rumour had filled almost the entire world that when the Annunciation fell on Good Friday, without any question, it would be the End of the World.

The millennial panic endured for at least 30 years after the fateful date had come and gone, with some adjustment made to allow 1,000 years after the crucifixion, rather than the nativity.

March 20, 1904 (a Sunday)

The root of all superstition is that men observe when a thing hits, but not when it misses.

— Francis Bacon (1561-1626), English lawyer and philosopher

Zen stones

On this day, the American psychologist, author, inventor, social philosopher, and poet B(urrhus) F(rederic) Skinner was born. He developed the theory of operant conditioning — the idea that behavior is determined by its consequences, be they reinforcements or punishments, which make it more or less likely that the behavior will occur again. His principles are still incorporated within treatments of phobias, addictive behaviors, and in the enhancement of classroom performance (as well as in computer-based self-instruction).

B.F. Skinner and quote.

Skinner believed that the only scientific approach to psychology was one that studied behaviors, not internal (subjective) mental processes. He denied the existence of a mind as a thing separate from the body, but he did not deny the existence of thoughts, which he regarded simply as private behaviors to be analyzed according to the same principle as publicly observed behaviors. To further improve the objective scientific value of observed behaviors, he invented the “Skinner box”, or operant conditioning chamber. It was a small, soundproof enclosure in which an animal could be isolated from all distractions and outside influences, responding only to the controlled conditions within the box, and is still used today.

Skinner’s analysis of human behavior culminated in his work Verbal Behavior (1957). He was a prolific author who published 21 books and 180 articles. In a June, 2002 survey, B.F. Skinner was listed as the most influential psychologist of the 20th century (Review of General Psychology, June, 2002, pp. 139-152). He was named “Humanist of the Year” in 1972 by the American Humanist Association.

One of Skinner’s most interesting and famous experiments, a classic in psychology, examined the formation of “superstition” in one of his favorite experimental animals, the pigeon. Skinner placed a series of hungry pigeons in a cage attached to an automatic mechanism that delivered food to the pigeon “at regular intervals with no reference whatsoever to the bird’s behavior.” He discovered that the pigeons associated the delivery of the food with whatever chance actions they had been performing as it was delivered (accidental reinforcement), and that they subsequently continued to perform these same actions:

One bird was conditioned to turn counter-clockwise about the cage, making two or three turns between reinforcements. Another repeatedly thrust its head into one of the upper corners of the cage. A third developed a ‘tossing’ response, as if placing its head beneath an invisible bar and lifting it repeatedly. Two birds developed a pendulum motion of the head and body, in which the head was extended forward and swung from right to left with a sharp movement followed by a somewhat slower return.

Skinner suggested that the pigeons behaved as if they were influencing the automatic mechanism with their “rituals” and that this experiment shed light on human behavior:

The experiment might be said to demonstrate a sort of superstition. The bird behaves as if there were a causal relation between its behavior and the presentation of food, although such a relation is lacking. There are many analogies in human behavior. Rituals for changing one’s fortune at cards are good examples. A few accidental connections between a ritual and favorable consequences suffice to set up and maintain the behavior in spite of many unreinforced instances. The bowler who has released a ball down the alley but continues to behave as if she were controlling it by twisting and turning her arm and shoulder is another case in point. These behaviors have, of course, no real effect upon one’s luck or upon a ball half way down an alley, just as in the present case the food would appear as often if the pigeon did nothing — or, more strictly speaking, did something else.

It is easy to see other human parallels of this type of behavior. A person playing a slot machine may alter the way he puts money in the machine and the way he pulls the handle if he thinks that doing these things a certain way will bring him luck. Independent of these behaviors the machine will occasionally pay off (reinforcement). Such a situation allows the person to develop a superstitious behavior, such as not looking at the machine while he pulls the handle. Observation of a gambling casino will reveal a large number of people displaying their superstitious behaviors at the slot machines. Each person’s superstition may be unique to him, as each of Skinner’s pigeons had a unique superstition.

Human superstitions are quite abundant. A college student in an elevator may keep pushing the button of his floor as if this would cause the elevator to move faster. A card player may pick up his cards one at a time as if to improve the hand he was dealt. A businessman may wear a “special” tie when going to an important meeting.

Many ancient beliefs involve superstition. For example, the rain dance: once when someone was doing the so-called rain dance, it started to rain. This person thought that perhaps their dance affected nature. After this rain dance was reinforced intermittently on a frequent enough schedule it became established as a superstitious behavior.

However, the pigeons’ behaviors were later reinterpreted as behaviors that improve foraging efficacy (analogous to salivation in Pavlov’s dogs), which suggests that the pigeons’ behavior does not correspond to Skinner’s intended meaning of superstition.  Nevertheless, Skinner’s early account is notable in two respects. First, it recognized the possibility of superstition occurring outside the human realm. Second, and linked to this, Skinner emphasized the behavioral aspect of superstition: “The bird behaves as if there were a causal relation between its behavior and the presentation of food, although such a relation is lacking.”  That is, he focused on there being an incorrect response to a stimulus (behavioral outcome), rather than the conscious abstract representation of cause and effect (psychological relationship), with which human superstitions are often associated.

There other differences between human superstitions based on psychological relationship and animal superstitions based on behavioral outcome:

  • First, humans, as opposed to animals, often spend considerable time justifying why they are not reinforced each time they do their superstitious behavior. (“I have some questions about that so- called virgin we sacrificed to the volcano god.” “I lost the golf match today because my lucky hat doesn’t seem to work two days in a row.”)
  • Second, humans spend more time than animals trying to convince others to adopt their superstitious behaviors. Children often carry on many of the superstitions of their parents.
  • Finally, as Herrnstein (1966) points out, “Human superstition, unlike that of animals, arises in a social context.” The acquired superstitions in humans are not as arbitrary as those of animals. Rather they are molded by the person’s culture. Thus, although it is possible to develop a superstition about Wednesday the 11th, it is more probable in our culture to be superstitious about Friday the 13th.

It has only been with the advent of the scientific method that people have been able to distinguish between that which is superstitious and that which has a scientific basis.


  • B.F. Skinner. “‘Superstition’ in the Pigeon,” Journal of Experimental Psychology 38: 168-172 (1948).
  • Kevin R. Foster and Hanna Kokko.
    The evolution of superstitious and superstition-like behaviour,”
    Proc R Soc B 276 (1654): 31-37 (January 2009). DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2008.0981
  • R.J. Herrnstein. “Superstition: A corollary of the principles of operant conditioning,” in W. K. Honig (ed.), Operant Behavior: Areas of Research and Application. (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1966) pp. 33-51.

January 3, 1924 (a Thursday)

Colossal Statue of King Tutankhamun

On this date, two years after British archaeologist Howard Carter and his workmen had discovered the tomb of the Pharaoh Tutankhamun near Luxor, Egypt, they uncovered the greatest treasure of the tomb — a stone sarcophagus containing three coffins nested within each other. Inside the final coffin, made out of solid gold, was the mummy of the boy-king Tutankhamun, preserved for more than 3,000 years.

Previously, on 26 November 1922, Carter and fellow archaeologist Lord Carnarvon had entered the tomb, finding it miraculously intact. Lord Carnarvon, the English Earl who funded the Tutankhamun expedition, died less than six months after the opening of the tomb. And so began the legend of the Curse of King Tut.

As news of Lord Carnarvon’s death was reported around the world, stories of the curse began to surface almost immediately. It was reported that the tomb had contained an ancient Egyptian curse: “They who enter this sacred tomb shall swift be visited by the wings of death.” Despite the fact that no such hieroglyphic text existed, the public seemed fascinated by such misinformation — they preferred the dramatic story of the curse reported in the newspapers, rather than listening to experts and scholars.

At this point in time it was not easy for the media to receive direct information regarding what the excavators were doing in the tomb, as access was restricted to only a select few. Journalists therefore had limited resources for information and perhaps for this reason several stories were invented.

In the beginning only the one death was attributed to the curse, but soon the fatality of anyone even remotely connected with the tomb was ascribed to the same cause. In fact, only six individuals directly associated with opening of the tomb had died after 10 years. Perhaps most important is that the discoverer of the tomb, Howard Carter lived more than 17 years after discovering the tomb and then died at the age of 64.

While it is true that the ancient Egyptians did in fact engage in the use of various types of curses and threats — some even were directed specifically against trespassers who attempted to violate the tomb — the tomb of Tutankhamun did not possess such protection. Despite all this, the legend of the Curse of King Tut lives on.

December 5, 1484

Summis desiderantes, 5 December 1484

On this date, Pope Innocent VIII’s notorious “Witches Bull” (Bull Summis desiderantes) was issued, officially commencing the witchhunts. Historians estimate that, as a result, from 600,000 to more than 9 million victims were put to death over the 250 years of the witchhunts.

The principles the Pope outlined in this bull were later embodied in the Malleus Maleficarum (“The Hammer of Witches”). Two Dominican inquisitors, Jacob Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer, compiled it and submitted the book to the University of Cologne’s Faculty of Theology for their approbation on 9 May 1487. This is usually taken as the date of publication, although earlier editions may have been produced in 1485 or 1486. The book itself was not specifically ordered by the Catholic Church but was written to lend credence to and enforce the bull. To help its credulity the writers then attached the letter of approbation from the University of Cologne, signed by four of its professors.

The Malleus was published in a number of editions, thirteen times from 1487 to 1520 and revived another sixteen times from 1574 to 1669. The book was popular throughout Europe with at least sixteen German editions, eleven French editions, two Italian editions, and several English editions; the English editions however, did not appear until much later, e.g.: 1584, 1595, 1604, 1615, 1620 and 1669. For its time, the Malleus was the lead authority available to the masses on the subject of witchcraft, and soon became accepted by both Catholics and Protestants.

The book itself is divided into three sections, the first proving that witchcraft or sorcery existed, the second describing the forms of witchcraft, and the third describing the detection, trial and destruction of witches. The first two sections are thought to have been the work of Sprenger, who as a distinguished theologian put together the theological and intellectual components of the book. Section three and the practical components of the book are most likely the work of Kramer, who had conducted a campaign in the Tirol during the early 1480s and had gained much experience as a trial judge. There is little original material in the book, being mainly a codification of existing beliefs and practices, with substantial parts taken from earlier works such as Johannes Nider’s Praeceptorium and Formicarius (1435).

Interestingly, Pope Innocent VIII died on 25 July 1492, leaving behind him numerous children (Octo Nocens pueros genuit, totidemque puellas; Hunc merito poterit dicere Roma patrem – “Eight wicked boys born, and just as many girls, so this man could be entitled to be called Father of Rome”), towards whom his nepotism had been as lavish as it was shameless.