Saturday, April 15, 2023

Remembering the TItanic

I had to take a break on my Victorian magician posts so I can talk about something near and dear to my heart, the sinking of the Titanic, which happened 111 years ago today. Almost everyone knows the story of the Titanic, the largest streamliner of its time, carried almost 2,225 passengers and sinking in the North Atlantic, leaving nearly 1,500 dead. I wonder what it would have been like to be on that fatal cruise. Most of us would ask for a quick death, or at least a painless one, but the Angel of Mercy was nowhere to be found. Crew and passengers struggling to decide who will leave the sinking ship in the lifeboats, shortly after the iceberg struck the ship (approximately 11:40 ship’s time on April 14th) and the eventual sinking about 2:20 am. Three hours. Three hours to decide who will live and who will die. 

When John Jacob Astor IV was travelling with his wife, and seeing the mayhem that was surrounding him, he quietly helped his wife, her nurse and maid into a lifeboat. When he was told by a Titanic crew member that he should join them because she was in a “delicate condition” he declined, saying that no man will leave the boat until all the women and children are off first. He later was said to have asked the lifeboat number so that he could find them later. There would be no later. John Jacob Astor IV was found floating dead in the water days later and was taken aboard the Mackay-Bennet on April the 22nd. 

In this small article I have noted only one of the countless heroic acts that happened in the early morning hours on April 15, 1912. I have in my possession an interesting artifact, an original copy of the Wreck Commissioners report of the bodies of the crew and passengers that were recovered by the Mackay-Bennet. This is the listing for Astor:


CLOTHING – Blue serge suit; blue handkerchief with "A.V."; belt with gold buckle; brown boots with red rubber soles; brown flannel shirt; "J.J.A." on back of collar.

EFFECTS – Gold watch; cuff links, gold with diamond; diamond ring with three stones; £225 in English notes; $2440 in notes; £5 in gold; 7s. in silver; 5 ten-franc pieces; gold pencil; pocketbook.


When we read about those who passed with during the Titanic sinking, we usually call them victims, but so many of them they are heroes. They died so many others may live. 

You want to know what is most heartbreaking about this disaster…the lifeboats were only 60% full.

Sunday, February 5, 2023

The Story behind the Legend…

Almost everyone knows of Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Most of my readers have watched a movie or two including Tim Burton’s version and of course the Disney cartoon. Irving’s famous story led him to acclaim both in Europe as well as America, but what about the man behind the story and what led him to create one of the best pieces of fiction in early American history. 

Irving grew up in Manhattan, New York, one of 8 children in the household. Washington was named after the famous general George Washington. Irving met George Washington himself at the age of 6 when Washington was inaugurated in 1789. They say that the President laid a hand on the head of young Washington and blessed him, an incident that must come across as more of a prophecy instead of a chance meeting. Young Washington was meant for greatness. 

An outbreak of yellow fever in Manhattan in 1798 gave the Irving Family a reason to go stay with family friends in Tarrytown. It is during this time that young Washington heard of a nearby town named Sleepy Hollow, which was known for its large Dutch community, and their ghost stories. He also visited with friends in Johnstown, New York and on the journey to Johnstown he will cross the Catskill Mountains, which will also affect him and will be instrumental in Irving’s writing. 

Irving started his writing career in 1802 at the age of 19. He started by writing letters that were published in the New York Morning Chronicle under the pseudonym of Jonathan Oldstyle. He wrote letters about the social style of New York as well as the theater scene. This makes me think of Lady Whisteldown in Bridgeton. By 1804 he traveled throughout Europe and by 1806 he traveled back to America in hopes of becoming a lawyer. When he was in law school, he began hanging out with a group that called themselves “The Lads of Kilkenny “, a literary movement that published a magazine named Salmagundi. The magazine was an instant success gaining Irving accolades for his writing. It was in Salmagundi that Irving gave New York the nickname of “Gotham”, such as Gotham city in Batman. Gotham is an Anglo-Saxon word meaning “Goat’s Town”.

By 1809 Irving completed A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty, under the pseudonym Diedrich Knickerbocker. This was his first major book and was a lampoon on New York politics and local history. This gave him the limelight and other publishing firms started to take notice of him. He became one of the first editors that would publish Francis Scott Key’s poem "Defense of Fort McHenry" which we know today as the Star-Spangled Banner. Irving joined the war in 1814 when British troops attacked Washington D.C. The war crippled his family’s merchant business and in 1815 he traveled to Europe in hopes of keeping the family business alive. What he thought would be a quick jaunt became 17 years. 

In 1817, Irving visited the man who became an inspiration for all his future writing, Sir Walter Scott. In 1819 he started publishing The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent which would be published in New York under a seven-volume series. In the first volume Irving recalled the Catskills Mountains of his youth and published “Rip Van Winkle”, a story that he wrote in one night. Within the six volumes would be his most prolific piece, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is a great story to tell around Halloween. It has all the trappings of a good gothic ghost story. A protagonist who is out of his element, a town that has a secret and an antagonist who may not be what he seems. And with all of that, enough history to make it believable. Irving remembered his trip to Tarrytown, the nearby Sleepy Hollow and the old Dutch community. And with that, he started to write. The greatest inspiration for the story itself, comes from Sir Walter Scott in a poem he wrote called The Chase, in 1796, which was a translation of The Wild Huntsman which is a translation of a German poem by Gottfried Bürger. The poem is about a wicked hunter that is hunted by the devil himself and the poem is believed to have been part of the inspiration for The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.  The legend of a headless horseman is not new. Tales of a headless specter on horseback can be seen in multiple legends, including Nordic and Irish. The Dullahan is a mythological figure out of Ireland. This headless ghost is seen on a black horse, sometimes carrying his own head up high or sometimes  the head is tucked under the arm. The Dullahan is also seen as a headless coachman driving a hearse to collect the dead. 

Irving also drew elements from the Revolutionary War for Sleepy Hollow.  The revolutionary war was recent history and familiar to the people living in America at the time.   He painted the picture of the desolate landscape from The Battle of White Plains which occurred in October, 1776. Irving writes about the area south of the Bronx River where Loyalist Rangers and Hessian Jägers were said to have patrolled, and the headless horseman is one of the Jägers that was killed and beheaded by Continental militias. In the Legend of Sleepy Hollow this headless corpse was recovered by the Van Tassel family and buried in an unmarked grave. As Irving wrote it:

“Indeed, certain of the most authentic historians of those parts, who have been careful in collecting and collating the floating facts concerning this spectre, allege that the body of the trooper, having been buried in the church-yard, the ghost rides forth to the scene of battle in nightly quest of his head; and that the rushing speed with which he sometimes passes along the Hollow, like a midnight blast, is owing to his being belated, and in a hurry to get back to the church-yard before daybreak.”

Ichabod Crane’s ride as he tries to evade the headless horseman is open to interpretation, was the headless horseman indeed a spirit or was it Brom Bones in disguise?  After the horseman hurled his pumpkin towards Ichabod, no one knew of the fate of the schoolmaster. Gunpowder, his loyal steed, was seen eating grass near his master’s house. Ichabod’s hat, and the smashed Jack-o'-lantern, were seen nearby. But what became of Ichabod? Was he scared away by headless spirit or was he spirited away by paranormal forces at work? Either way, without Ichabod Crane, Brom marries Katrin Van Tassel and they will live out the rest of their days forever. 

Along with the Turning of The Screw, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, ends ambiguously. Both of these stories are ghost stories that may or not be filled with ghosts. Washington Irving’s story is both gothic and American. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, along with Rip Van Winkle, will make Irving a legend in literature alongside other greats of the time period including Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns.

Friday, December 9, 2022

A Goodnight for a Ghost Story

“The story has held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as, on Christmas Eve in an old house, a strange tale should be essentially be…” 

Not the words of horror maestro Stephen King, or perhaps from the legendary Peter Straub, who unfortunately passed away last year. But another genius who was not recognize in his own time, Henry James. 

James was known for such works as ‘The Portrait of a Lady’, and ‘the Wings of the Dove’ , he perfectly captured a time when ~ on Christmas eve there were no presents in sight and no merriment to be had, instead it was time for a ghost story.  

Acknowledged for his literary modernism, penned the novel The Turn of the Screw’ in 1898. In his later years, James wrote what motivated him to create such a story, and it was none other than the Archbishop of Canterbury, Edward White Benson. James wrote in a letter to A.C. Benson, son of Edward “Your Father repeated to me the few meager elements of a small and gruesome spectral story that had been told him years before and that he could only give the dimmest account of.” 

The telling of a ghost story one Christmas Eve became one of the classic ghost stories of the Victorian Age, of all time actually.

The strange fiction author H.P. Lovecraft, wrote his Christmas time horror story ‘The Festival’. In the story, a young man returns to his hometown seeking his birthright, and terrible fates await him. Lovecraft, set the scene, as only Lovecraft could do:

“It was the Yuletide that men call Christmas though they know in their hearts it is older than Bethlehem and Babylon, older than Memphis and mankind. It was the Yuletide, and I had come at last to the ancient sea town where my people had dwelt and kept festival in the elder time when festival was forbidden; where also they had commanded their sons to keep festival once every century, that the memory of primal secrets might not be forgotten.”

As Lovecraft’s protagonist makes his way through the ‘shallow, new-fallen snow’ … did the young man walk there, did he take a bus or a train? Lovecraft never said, but that is not important...

The town of Kingport, a fictional town, was inhabited only in Lovecraft’s mind, like Derry in King’s imagination. The town itself becomes a minor character in the story:

 “Beside the road at its crest a still higher summit rose, bleak and windswept, and I saw that it was a burying-ground where black gravestones stuck ghoulishly through the snow like the decayed fingernails of a gigantic corpse. The printless road was very lonely, and sometimes I thought I heard a distant horrible creaking as of a gibbet in the wind. They had hanged four kinsmen of mine for witchcraft in 1692, but I did not know just where.”

In ‘The Festival’ there is an encounter by firelight that changes everything. 

All the world is familiar with Charles Dickens immortal classic ‘A Christmas Carol’. In the story, the central character Ebinezeer Scrooge is visited by three specters, although Dickens used the word “haunted” by these apparitions, which is nearer to the truth. 

As the ghost’s paint pictures of Scrooge’s life in the past, present, and the future, he is struck by certain dread. In the final haunting, Scrooge witnesses the last of the spirits that is pointing to a lonely site: 

“A churchyard. Here, then, the wretched man whose name he had now to learn, lay underneath the ground. It was a worthy place. Walled in by houses; overrun by grass and weeds, the growth of vegetation's death, not life; choked up with too much burying; fat with repleted appetite. A worthy place! The Spirit stood among the graves, and pointed down to One. He advanced towards it trembling. The Phantom was exactly as it had been, but he dreaded that he saw new meaning in its solemn shape.” 

In this tale, Scrooge makes amends saying:

"Spirit!" he cried, tight clutching at its robe, "hear me. I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been but for this intercourse. Why show me this, if I am past all hope?"

Scrooge avoids his fate, a desolate early grave.

A Christmas Carol is one of the most ghostly tales you can tell at Christmas that has a happy ending. 

But there is no happy ending for The Turn of the Screw’:

“ … the cry of a creature hurled over an abyss, and the grasp with which I recovered him might have been that of catching him in his fall. I caught him, yes, I held him-- it may be imagined with what a passion; but at the end of a minute I began to feel what it truly was that I held. We were alone with the quiet day, and his little heart, dispossessed, had stopped.”

Happy Christmas everyone …. Time for a good ghost story.

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Spiritualism and Feminism

For the past few months, it has been my pleasure to be giving nighttime tours by lantern light at the beautiful Villa Montezuma in San Diego, CA.  At the end of the tour, we gather in the music room and I give a talk on what is Spiritualism. One of the points that I try to make is the importance of the women’s movement and Spiritualism and how they went hand-in-hand with each other during the Victorian time period into the 20th Century. The Fox sisters and their famous spirit communication in Hydesville, NY in 1848 will start a movement that is still going on today. Their alleged rappings from a spirit caused a sensation and people from all over came to witness them in action. This would only be the beginning.

Starting in the mid nineteenth century, sentiments were changing about mainstream religion and places such as upstate New York became an epicenter for alternative spirituality. Groups such as radical quakers, who believed that all were equal despite race or gender started to embrace facets of Spiritualism and these ideals will carry into other circles. 

As Spiritualism grew, women took to the forefront of the movement and séance circles and Spiritualism churches started to grow. Abolitionist and social activist Sojourner Truth, herself a freed slave, will embrace Spiritualism and will be the leader of a Quaker community known as Harmonia in 1857. Truth will be a great orator for the equality of both African Americans and Women’s rights during the mid to late 19th Century. The Civil War only made Spiritualism more attractive to many after the carnage of the war left great scars upon America. When Willie, the favorite son of Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln, passed away from typhoid in 1862, Mary started to hold seances in The White House in hopes of communicating with their son.

One of the most fascinating and controversial women of the movement was Victoria Woodhull. Woodhull was a sideshow clairvoyant and through her oration skills and her business savvy, became the owner of the first woman-owned stock brokerage house as well as the first publishing house. Woodhull also ran for President of the United States in 1872. Her running mate was Frederick Douglass. Though this presidential run was more of a publicity stunt than an honest run for the White House, Woodhull held center stage in both Spiritualism camps and American politics. 

So, why are these women lost in obscurity? The answer may be found in the records of Spiritualism themselves. The Spiritualist movement had no leader and no true tenets or testaments of faith. There is no roster of followers and so there is no true number of how many followed this alternative spiritual movement. People interested in the history of the feminist movement may be familiar with Sojourner Truth and Victoria Woodhull but so many more are lost in the annals of time; the small voices that had a roar in the circle of Spiritualism and women’s rights. 

Thursday, June 30, 2022

The Deep - a blend of history, magic and storytelling

Welcome to The Deep? The Deep is a mixture of bizarre magic and dark storytelling built around disasters on the water and the superstition of sailors. During The Deep we will commune with the dead using arcane artifacts and unlock secrets long forgotten as we make our way through time and space and make connections with those who have passed beyond the veil. Come with me, Charles Spratley, historian, paranormalist, and storyteller, as we plunge into The Deep.

Saturday, August 27 at 2:30pm

The Los Angeles Maritime Museum
600 Sampson Way (Berth 84, San Pedro, CA 90731

$59.95 includes presentation, admission to the wonderful museum, and very light refreshments

Please note: All sales are final. There are no refunds or exchanges, but you are free to give your spot to a friend if you are unable to attend

Monday, May 30, 2022

On Jinn

I would like to take a moment, my dear friends, to talk about the Jinn. I had the honor of doing a lecture at Chapman University a couple years back on the subject but I believe it is worth revisiting due to its immense subject matter, as well as it is a great platform for me to address how the rest of the world looks at the paranormal in general. 

Jinn are best known as an Arab or Islamic phenomenon even though it predates Islam by hundreds of years. The jinn is a spirit creature, not a ghost, and can possess great power. According to ancient beliefs, jinn are created by God. For as man was created by clay, jinn were born of smokeless fire, or the hot desert wind. Traditionally, there are five categories of jinn: Jann, Jinn, Shaitan, Ifrit, and Marid.  Jann and Jinn are sometimes interchangeable and is a collective term for various types of jinn. Jinn may be good or evil, except the Shaitan, which are always evil for they are the chief servants of Iblis (think of Iblis as the equivalent of Satan in Christianity). Marids are the most powerful of the jinn.  But not all jinn are evil, and some can be quite good. There are stories of jinn who become Jewish or even Christian and have human spouses and children. Some may even shape change with the most common shape being the snake and the least being the wolf.

The jinn are believed to haunt dark places and desolate locales in the desert. One would think that the Bedouins would be frightened of the jinn, but they are usually thought of as the most knowledgeable and the least afraid of these spirits of the air. One of the most well know jinn stories that I have come across involves the Queen or Mother of all jinn, Aisha Qandisha (there are many spellings for this, I chose one of the most common). She is viewed as the Lilith character in Morocco, giving birth to the jinn. Another famous story is the story of King Solomon from the Old Testament. Not only is it told in occult circles that Solomon used jinn to build his beautiful temple but that the beautiful queen of Sheba was half jinn and that Solomon laid a trap for her in hopes of seeking out her true identity. But the most well-known jinn is the one that most people are familiar with thanks to popular media, Pazuzu. Pazuzu was made famous by the movie the Exorcist, and portrayed as a demon in possession of a young woman. The problem is that Pazuzu isn’t a demon, he is a jinn. He struck terror in the hearts of the city dwellers of Eridu, Ur, Nippur, Uruk, Akkad as well as other cities in ancient Samaria over 6,000 years ago. Pazuzu is first mentioned by the Sumerians and is later identified in Assyrian and Babylonia mythology as the son of Hanpa. 

Another type of jinn which is well known in the West is the ghoul or ghoula. These jinn inhabit desolate places such as graveyards or abandoned cities and sustain themselves on human flesh. It is no wonder George Romero didn’t use the word zombie in his original Night of the Living Dead in 1968. Romero used the term ghoul, much more fitting than the shambling hordes that we see on movies and television today.

The stories of jinn have been around for thousands of years and permeate our literature and even our religious texts. Jinn take the place of ghosts in Arab society, and most likely a haunting is not that of a deceased person, but it is that of a jinn. Given the stories that I have heard over the years, I would cross the desert with respect and reverence, and beware the hot desert wind of the jinn.

Monday, January 24, 2022

Dark Angel

Every great once in a while, my regular studies and my pursuit of the strange and unusual collide, and this week has been very fortuitous. As many of you know, I am going back to school, working on an advanced degree in history, and I am putting together an academic paper on the history of the Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union. In order to cover this subject thoroughly you need to cover the early designers of rocketry, going back to before the Second World War, and one of the most brilliant, yet infamous, designers was John Whiteside Parsons, also known as Jack Parsons. Parsons and his friends of fellow scientists were students at Caltech in Pasadena, and in the late 1930s picked up the interesting moniker of “The Suicide Squad” due to the less-than-safe early chemical propulsion experiments they conducted. This forced them to go to the nearby canyon, the Arroyo Seco (remember this from a previous article), to conduct their work.  Their work became extremely successful and it was Parson’s designs that earned him and fellow scientists grants which helped them start up JPL, Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. 

So where does this become weird? What many do not know is Jack Parsons was the head of a lodge of the Ordo Templi Orientis, an esoteric group of mystics that started in the 1920s under Aleister Crowley. For those of you, who are not familiar with occult studies, Crowley’s name may not ring a bell, but if you look him up, you will be surprised. Crowley was a very unusual man who was famous for his esoteric writings and studies in magick, particularly sex magick. Parsons joined the OTO in 1940 and was the head of their lodge by 1943, with the aid of Aleister Crowley, who wrote to him and gave him guidance.  If you want to know a different side of Parsons, here is an entry from the diary of Jane Wolfe, a silent film actress and disciple of Crowley:

Unknown to me, John Whiteside Parsons, a newcomer, began astral travels. This knowledge decided Regina [Kahl] to undertake similar work. All of which I learned after making my own decision. So the time must be propitious. Incidentally, I take Jack Parsons to be the child who "shall behold them all" (the mysteries hidden therein. [Liber al [vel Legis,] [Chapter] 1, 54-55). 26 years of age, 6'2”, vital, potentially bisexual at the very least, University of the State of California and Cal. Tech., now engaged in Cal. Tech. chemical laboratories developing "bigger and better" explosives for Uncle Sam. Travels under sealed orders from the government Writes poetry — "sensuous only," he says. Lover of music, which he seems to know thoroughly.

Okay, Parsons might be a little off his plane of axis, but I really haven’t gotten to the truly strange part of the story yet. Jack Parsons had an unusual house guest in 1946. A house guest by the name of L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of the Church of Scientology. Parsons and Hubbard were known for throwing these large lavish parties that frowned upon by the older genteel folks of Millionaire’s Row, the street on which Parsons resided. Parsons and Hubbard supposedly worked on magick together in the Mojave Desert on something occultists refer to as the Babylon Project. Honestly, the more I read about their relationship, the more I am concerned about the veracity of the sources and feel that the writings are more propaganda or smear campaign on Parsons but more likely Hubbard. Hubbard will eventually run off with Parsons’ on again/off again girlfriend Sara E. Northrup (of the Northrup-Grumman aeronautics company) and they will marry in 1946. 

What happened to Parsons? In June, 1952, while working on an experiment in his home lab, an explosion went off, taking off part of his face and blowing an arm off. He was rushed to the hospital but later succumbed to his injuries. There were speculations about murder and suicide but nothing truly concrete. There was a syringe found on scene with morphine, raising suspicions that Parsons was narcotized. It was eventually ruled an accident. So, we close a chapter on the history of aviation and the Space Race with the brilliant, and disturbed, mind in rocketry, Jack Parsons. Occultist and founder of JPL, one of the greatest think tanks of scientists to this day. Hubbard? I don’t know…I think he wrote some books….