14. The Ridiculous Hoax That Ensnared Sherlock Holmes’ Creator
It might be reasonable to assume that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the cynical and deductive reasoning Sherlock Holmes, must have been one of those hard to fool skeptical types. In reality, however, the author was nothing like his famous character. Late in life, Doyle became a big booster of spiritualism. In his eagerness to credit anything that would support his beliefs, he became a gullible old fool who fell hard for a ridiculous hoax perpetrated by two little girls. It began in 1917, in the English village of Cottingley.
There, nine-year-old Elsie Wright and her sixteen-year-old old cousin Frances Griffith claimed that they hung around with fairies beside a nearby stream. Their parents scoffed, so to prove it, the girls borrowed Elsie’s father’s camera, and came back half an hour later with “evidence”. When Elsie’s father developed the film, he was surprised to find a picture of fairies dancing around Frances. However, he dismissed it as a prank by his daughter, who knew her way around cameras. When the girls came up with more fairy photos in subsequent months, Elsie’s father finally forbade them to borrow his camera. That should have been the end of it, but as seen below, it was not.
Two years after Elsie Wright and her cousin Frances Griffith photographed “fairies” in Cottingley, things took off. The pictures started going viral after Frances’ mother showed them at a meeting of the Theosophical Society – a New Age spiritualist type group. The photos were clearly questionable, and experts who saw them pronounced them crude cardboard cutouts. However, the existence of Fairies dovetailed with some religious tenets of the Theosophical Society. So the society’s members – who included prominent British figures – began spreading the photos and vouching for their authenticity.
In 1920, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle became aware of the photos’ existence. He was initially skeptical, and went so far as to ask Eastman Kodak for their opinion. However, before he had received a reply from the camera and film manufacturer, Doyle concluded that the photos were real. Before long, Sherlock Holmes’ author was vouching for the photos’ authenticity, en route to becoming a huge advocate for the existence of fairies in real life. It was the start of an awkward journey.
In December, 1920, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published a cringe-worthy article, in which he urged the public to accept that fairies actually exist. The article opened him to significant ridicule from a press that was equal parts puzzled, and equal parts embarrassed for the respected author. None of that dissuaded Doyle, who followed the first article with a second in 1921, describing even more fairy sightings. A year later, in 1922, he capped it off by publishing his most embarrassing book, The Coming of the Fairies.
As it turned out, Sherlock Holmes’ creator should have been more skeptical. In 1983, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffith published an article, in which they confessed that the whole thing was a hoax. They had used illustrations from a contemporary popular children’s book, and simply drew wings on them. The girls had kicked off the prank to get back at adults who teased them for “playing with fairies”. The joke snowballed, however, and got out of hand once the Theosophical Society and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle got involved. Once that happened, they could not think of a graceful way to back out, so they just kept the hoax going, before finally coming clean, six decades later.
In the early nineteenth century, French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck theorized that physiological changes that an organism acquires during its lifetime can be passed on to its offspring. For example, if somebody works out at a gym to build huge biceps, he could pass on huge biceps to his children. The theory became known as Lamarckian Inheritance. It eventually became clear that Lamarck was wrong: traits are passed on through genes that are hard coded with their own instructions, subject to the occasional mutation.
The genes of a particular organism neither know nor care what traits and characteristics the organism acquired during its lifetime. One’s genes might pass on a predisposition for huge biceps if they were already coded for such a predisposition. However, doing arm curls at a gym will have no impact on whether one’s kids will have an easy time developing monster biceps. By the late nineteenth century, Lamarck’s theory had been thoroughly debunked, and only had a limited following within a circle of ridiculous quacks. Then the theory made a surprising comeback in the twentieth century in, of all places, Stalin’s USSR.
10. Reviving Discredited Nineteenth-Century Pseudo-Science in the Twentieth Century Soviet Union
The discredited nineteenth-century pseudo-scientific theory of Lamarckian Inheritance experienced an odd twentieth-century revival in the Soviet Union. In the 1930s, a quack Soviet biologist and agronomist named Trofim Lysenko modified Lamarckism into a theory that came to be known as Lysenkoism. Lysenko falsely claimed to have discovered that, among other things, rye could be transformed into wheat, wheat could be transformed into barley, and that weeds could be transformed into grain crops. It was gobsmacking ridiculous, but he got away with it.
Lysenko’s take might have been laughably ludicrous, but in a sinister twist, he found a powerful supporter for his cockamamie theories: Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. In the bizarre political environment of the Stalinist Soviet Union, criticism of Lamarckian theories came to be treated as criticism of Stalin. As Stalinist terror grew by leaps and bounds, it became clear that if you knew what was good for you, you did not criticize Stalin, or even hint that you might disagree with Stalin.
9. When Bad Science Was Elevated to Political Faith
In the Soviet Union of the 1930s and 1940s, criticism of the ridiculous Lamarckian Inheritance theory was treated not as academic, but as political subversion and deviancy. The logical chain was chilling, and lethal: Comrade Stalin endorses Trofim Lysenko. Trofim Lysenko endorses Lamarckism – or at least his take on Lamarckism. You disagree with Lamarckism. Therefore you disagree with Comrade Stalin. It follows that you are a subversive, a Trotskyite, a foreign spy, fascist agent, or capitalist stooge seeking to sabotage the USSR.
Soviet scientists who scoffed at the quackery of Lysenko and his revived Lamarckism were arrested by the dreaded NKVD, the KGB’s predecessor. They were brutally interrogated, tortured, and sent to the gulag where many died or executed outright. Over 3000 mainstream biologists were fired, jailed, arrested, or executed in a campaign instigated by Lysenko to eliminate his scientific opponents. The Soviet Union had once been at the forefront of genetics, but research in that field, which disproved Lamarckian Inheritance and showed up Lysenko as a quack, was wholly abandoned. It was revived after Stalin’s end in 1953, by which point the Soviets had fallen decades behind.
The harmful effects of tobacco are well known and understood nowadays in most of the world. However, ridiculous as it might sound to modern ears, there was a time in centuries past when not only was tobacco not seen as a negative, but was instead viewed as absolute positive. Back then, tobacco’s ills and risks were unknown, and it was actually considered healthy and good for you. When tobacco was first brought from the New World to the Old, it was lauded as a cure for many ailments.
The supposed health benefits of tobacco were not lauded only by quacks and charlatans, but also by respected members of the mainstream medical establishment. Tobacco was first introduced to Europe by the Spanish, circa 1528. From early on, it was described as a “sacred herb” because of its supposed medicinal properties, as claimed by various Native Americans. Before long, European medical practitioners were treating the newly introduced plant as a miracle cure for sundry ailments, from headaches and colds to cancer.
7. When Blowing Smoke Up the Rear Was Not Just a Figure of Speech
Today, when somebody scoffs at another that “you’re just blowing smoke up my a**“, it is a figure of speech that the addressee is insincerely complementing the scoffer, telling him what he thinks he wants to hear. However, centuries ago, blowing smoke up one’s rear end was meant literally, to describe a medical procedure in which a tube or rubber hose was inserted in a person’s behind, through which tobacco smoke was blown. In the 1700s, doctors routinely used tobacco smoke enemas, in the mistaken belief that they had healing properties. Blowing smoke up the behind was thought to be particularly useful in reviving drowning victims.
The nicotine in tobacco was thought to make the heart beat faster, thus stimulating respiration, while smoke from the burning tobacco was thought to warm the drowning victim from the inside. It made intuitive sense: the drowned person was full of water, so blowing air, in the form of tobacco smoke which was full of healing properties, would expel the water. Hiccup was when the water was in the person’s lungs, which are not connected to his or her bum. Thus, blowing air up the drowning victims’ rears and into their bowels did little to expel water from their lungs.
6. The Ridiculous Belief That Tobacco Enemas Could Revive Drowning Victims
When doctors back in the day practiced medicine by blowing tobacco into people, some preferred sticking a smoking tube directly into the lungs through the mouth or nose. However, most doctors preferred to shove a tube up the patient’s rear end, instead. Although medically useless, belief in the effectiveness of tobacco smoke enemas in reviving drowning victims, or even those presumed dead, was widespread. So widespread, that medical kits for blowing smoke up the behind were found at routine intervals along major waterways, such as the River Thames. There they waited, like modern defibrillators, ready for use to revive the drowned and bring the (presumed) dead back to life.
Blowing smoke up the behind was used to not only revive the drowned, but to also treat colds, headaches, hernias, abdominal cramps, and even heart attacks. Tobacco smoke enemas were also used on typhoid fever victims, and those dying of cholera. While the treatment was useless for the patient, it was quite dangerous for the doctor, especially if he blew smoke up the patient’s rump with his mouth instead of using a bellows. If a doctor inhaled instead of exhaled, or if gases in the patient’s bowels escaped (i.e.; if the patient farted) fecal particles could get blown back into the doctor’s mouth or his lungs. Such a mishap, particularly when treating a cholera patient, could prove fatal for the doctor.
5. A Ridiculous Explanation for a Mysterious Phenomenon
A strange new phenomenon cropped up in 1976 in Wiltshire, England. It started with crops in a local wheat field getting flattened in a circular pattern. Soon, mysterious circles of flattened crops, in increasingly elaborate patterns, began appearing in other fields throughout Britain. Once the phenomenon became widely known, it attracted self-declared experts, who offered mystical, magical, and pseudo-scientific explanations for the mystery. Theories ranged from secret weapons testing, to restless spirits and ghosts acting out, to Gaia, the primal Mother Earth, expressing her distress at what humanity had done to her planet.
Early on, one of the more ridiculous explanations – and one that gained the greatest currency – revolved around space aliens. Presumably, extraterrestrials had created the crop circles and left them behind as a means of communicating with humanity in some as yet un-deciphered code. That line of reasoning of aliens being behind the circles was supported by the fact that only a decade earlier, mysterious circles had appeared in Australian crops. Many had attributed the Australian circles to UFO landings, labeling them “[flying] saucer nests”.
Wiltshire, where the first British crop circle appeared, is located near Stonehenge. It is a region rife with ancient burial mounds and marker stones. New Age types had long that claimed those landmarks were linked to others throughout Britain via “leys” – mysterious energy paths. For years, the region had also been a hotbed for UFO watch parties – England’s Roswell, if you would. So it seemed apt that the first crop circles, or saucer nests, would appear in its vicinity.
It was not long before ridiculous theories combining Stonehenge, ancient Druids, mystic energy paths, and the recently revealed crop circles, were combined in a complex explanation for the phenomenon. The circles themselves became magnets for New Age mystical tourism. In reality, however, the crop circles had been the brainchild of Doug Bower, an English prankster. One night in 1976, he had been drinking with his friend Dave Chorley, and the two got to talking about UFOs, aliens, flying saucers and the mysterious Australian circles. Midway through the conversation, Bower suddenly said: “Let’s go over there and make it look like a flying saucer has landed“.
3. Revealing the Truth Behind Crop Circles Wrecked Some Ridiculous Careers That Had Been Based on Explaining a Not-So-Mysterious Mystery
As friends, Doug Bower and Dave Chorley, confessed in 1991, when they finally revealed the mystery of Wiltshire’s crop circles to assembled media, it had all been incredibly easy. As they demonstrated to print and TV journalists by creating other crop circles in just minutes, all it took was rope, a wooden plank, and a wire to help them walk in a straight line. That was all there had been to the mystery that became central to the lives of many for years on end: a pair of pranksters out for a laugh.
A “cereologist” – a crop circle “expert” who had made a living for years by writing and lecturing about the phenomenon, was called in. He declared the circles authentic. Then the hammer was dropped on him when it was revealed that it had been a simple hoax and prank all along. As Bower and Chorley explained, they had created all crop circles up to 1987. Then other pranksters discovered how to make their own circles and patterns, and joined in on the fun.
Ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus (535 – 475 BC) advanced the notion that the essence of the universe is constant change. To that end, he coined the phrase “no man ever steps into the same river twice“. It illustrates that everything, like the ever-moving droplets of water drifting downstream on a river, is in constant motion and flux, even if the motion is not readily perceptible. He also advocated a “unity of opposites”, whereby the universe is a system of balanced exchanges in which all things are paired in a relationship with those things exhibiting contrary properties. Unfortunately, Heraclitus is better known today for his ridiculous demise than for his contributions to philosophy.
A highly introspective man, Heraclitus did not come by his philosophy through learning at the hands of another philosopher, but was self-taught. Critical of other philosophers, had a dim view of humanity, loathed mobs and democracy, and preferred rule by a few wise men – a concept that Plato later distilled into the notion that the ideal ruler would be a philosopher-king. Deeming wealth as a form of punishment, Heraclitus wished upon his fellow Ephesians, whom he hated, that they would be cursed with wealth as punishment for their sins.
Given his views on the rest of mankind, Heraclitus was a misanthrope. That misanthropy led him to avoid contact with other people for long stretches, during which he wandered alone through mountains and wilderness, surviving on plants and what he could scavenge. As Diogenes summed him up: “finally, [Heraclitus] became a hater of his kind, and roamed the mountains, surviving on grass and herbs“. His ridiculous end came as a result of his affliction with dropsy, or edema – a painful accumulation of fluids beneath the skin and in the body’s cavities.
Doctors could offer neither cure nor relief, so Heraclitus, the self-taught philosopher, sought to apply his self-teaching skills to medicine and heal himself. He tried an innovative cure by covering himself in cow dung, on the theory that the warmth of the manure would dry and draw out of him the “noxious damp humor”, or the fluids accumulated beneath his skin. Covering himself in cow manure, Heraclitus lay out in the sun to dry, only to be immobilized by the cow dung drying around him into a body cast. He was thus unable to shoo off a pack of dogs which came upon him and ate him alive.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading