In the nineteenth century, a myth about the ability of mediums to communicate with the dead grew in popularity. Seances – attempts to communicate with the spirits – were one of history’s more macabre pastimes. From the Victorian era through the 1920s, a rise in spiritualism led to an increased belief in the feasibility of communications with the dead. So seances became a growth industry, and mediums who claimed an ability to contact and speak with the spirits of the departed proliferated.
People have tried to contact and communicate with the dead since the dawn of recorded history. Those who claim an ability to speak with the departed often elicit extreme reactions. Believers think they offer comfort to the bereaved, while skeptics view them as despicable predators, out to exploit the bereaved. The God of the Old Testament falls in the latter camp: Leviticus expressly forbids the use of mediums. The rise of Christianity caused mediums to nearly vanish for centuries, but as seen below, they made a comeback in the late nineteenth century.
In the Victorian era, religion and rationality, faith and science, clashed as never before. It was an intellectually turbulent time, in which new ideas such as the theory of evolution challenged bedrock religious assumptions. Against that backdrop, many of the religiously inclined turned to the supernatural for reassurance and comfort. Mediums met that desire for the supernatural with popular performances that included ghostly materialization, ectoplasm, table rapping, and other spooky stuff. And people ate it up. Audiences ranged from big enough to fill huge theaters, eager for a spectacle, to small ones at intimate private gatherings of bereaved family members and friends, desperate to commune with a beloved departed.
Needless to say, the ability of mediums to communicate with the dead is just a myth. Seances were either outright scams by cynical charlatans and con artists who exploited the gullible and the grieving, or pious fraud by spiritualists who sought to enhance faith in their belief by any means available. It started in Upstate New York, in 1848. There, two young girls, Maggie and Katie Fox, convinced their parents and neighbors that they could communicate with the dead, who answered questions with a series of knocks. Of course, as seen below, the knocks were made by the little girls.
What began as a prank soon turned serious, when an older sister of Katie and Maggie Fox, Leah, saw the potential for profit. So she began to book her younger siblings for sessions with people who were eager to pay for a chance to communicate with their departed loved ones. The girls’ act took off, and soon young Maggie and Katie Fox began to tour America. They kept it up for decades. Other charlatans saw the Fox sisters’ success, and jumped in on the act and claimed to be mediums themselves.
Finally, in 1888, a guilt-stricken Maggie Fox decided to clear her conscience. She confessed to the fraud, and let the world that the whole communication-with-the-dead-through-a-medium thing was just a myth. She demonstrated to an audience just how she and her sister had produced the knocks, with her big toe against a poorly balanced stool. Surprisingly – or perhaps not so surprisingly – even after the con’s originator confessed that it was a con, and demonstrated how the con had been performed, the conned continued to believe in the con. Spiritualism and seances took a hit, but quickly rebounded and became even more popular.
New technologies, as is often the case with many new unknowns, often give rise to fears about their possible negative impacts. Human imagination being what it is, some or many of those fears turn out to be irrational and ridiculous. A prime example of that occurred when the then-new technology of trains that operated on railway lines made its appearance. Although there was widespread optimism about the new technology, there were also widespread fears. Some concerns were reasonable. Others… not so much.
When steam locomotive passenger trains entered service in the first half of the nineteenth century, many feared that their high speeds – at least high by the standards of their era – would prove lethal to passengers. Not lethal in the way most people today might picture, however. New locomotives, such as the Rocket, built by Robert Stephenson in 1829, maxed out at 28 miles per hour. Slow, by today’s standards, but until 1829, it is unlikely that any humans had ever experienced such speeds. So a myth cropped up that such unprecedented velocity was dangerous in and of itself.
In the nineteenth century, the perceived risk of the velocities afforded by trains was not limited to the consequences of a crash or derailment. Naysayers theorized that the bodies of human beings were simply not adapted to or able to withstand travel at speeds any faster than those of galloping horses. In a precursor to concerns about G forces in the era of powered flight, train alarmists birthed a myth in which passengers’ internal organs would get compressed against their backs, with potentially fatal results.
Such ridiculous fears eventually simmered down as train travel became common, and nobody got their hearts or lungs flattened against their backs. However, they were replaced by yet another ridiculous fear, this one of a danger to the mind instead of the body. By the 1850s, Victorians worried that the steady increase in train speeds, combined with the rattle and jarring motions within railway cars, injured passengers’ brains and drove people insane. Just like today, the nineteenth century had no shortage of sensationalist media, and it did its best to whip up the myth about the risks to sanity posed by train travel.
Before Long, Any Random Weirdness Committed on Trains Was Attributed to This Myth
An illustrative example of the ridiculous belief that trains drove people insane occurred in 1865, during a train journey from Carnforth to Liverpool in England. An armed passenger went crazy and began to attack windows to get at passengers in other compartments. When the train slowed down and stopped at its next station, the lunatic calmed down. When the train got underway again, he went nuts, only to calm down once more when the train stopped at the next station. The pattern of berserk rage while the train was in motion, followed by a return to relative calmness when it slowed down and stopped, was repeated until the train reached Liverpool.
Contemporary newspapers and mental health professionals linked those bouts of madness to train travel. However, rather than reason that he was a mentally disturbed individual, for whom train travel was a trigger, they concluded that train travel was the cause of his mental illness. The myth persisted, well into the twentieth century, that the speed or motion of trains made people go nuts. The pattern of flawed analysis that confused causation with correlation, repeated itself. Somebody would act crazy or in a socially unacceptable way in a train, and the train’s speed or motion would be blamed for the craziness.
This myth has it that Germany’s invasion of the USSR in WWII, which ground to a halt because of Russia’s winter, would have succeeded if it had only started a month or two earlier than its actual launch date of June 22, 1941. The reason it did not start earlier, goes the myth, is because Hitler got entangled in the Balkans. He invaded Greece and Yugoslavia in April of 1941, which delayed the launch of invasion of the Soviet Union. The first flaw with this myth is that it gives winter top billing for stopping the German advance.
However, other factors such as fierce Soviet resistance, the overextension of German supply lines as the Wehrmacht plunged ever deeper into the USSR, and autumn rains, had already brought the German advance to a halt before the first snowstorms. The Germans had to regroup, which gave the Soviets a needed breather, before they resumed the advance on Moscow. Hitler’s soldiers were unprepared for the terrible Russian winter when it arrived, but that was only one factor, and not the main one, for the German advance’s halt.
Hitler’s Invasion of Russia Was Delayed by Weather
The main flaw of the Balkans invasion myth is that, if the invasion of the USSR had been launched two months earlier, in April instead of June, it would have been even less successful. It would have ground to a halt earlier, after it advanced a shorter distance. The Germans advanced as rapidly and plunged as deeply into the USSR in the summer of 1941 because the months-long dry weather perfectly suited their Blitzkrieg style of maneuver warfare. It permitted breakthroughs followed by aggressive exploitation via deep armored thrusts, as supplies hurried forward to maintain the advance, and infantry rapidly followed to consolidate the gains.
If the Germans had invaded in April, 1941, their advance would have churned to a standstill after only a few weeks because of the Rasputitsa, the Eastern European mud season. In that stretch, unpaved roads – nearly all of the USSR’s roads – become useless. Caused by rain in the fall and snow melt in the spring, the Rasputitsa would have brought an early Barbarossa to a stop or crawl as attackers and their supply chain struggled to move through a sea of mud. In the meantime, the Luftwaffe would have been grounded by the transformation of its dirt airfields into fields of mire. That would have given the Soviets time to regroup while they waited for the roads to dry and the German offense to resume. The need to account for the Rasputitsa dictated the German invasion’s start date, not Hitler’s Balkans entanglement.
A myth crops up from time to time that Scotts were enslaved in the New World. It is true that some Scottish prisoners were sent against their will to the Caribbean and North America. However, they were not sent there as slaves. They crossed the Atlantic as indentured servants, bound to serve for a fixed term, typically seven years, and not as slaves bound for the rest of their lives. Some regained their freedom before the seven years were up, thanks to the financial assistance of family or friends who helped buy out their indenture contract. After their indenture was up, many went on to have prosperous and successful lives, sometimes as slave owners themselves.
Indenture was undoubtedly unpleasant, but it was not slavery. The claim that those individuals were slaves is a revisionist tactic by some Scottish nationalists to distance Scotland from the transatlantic slave trade. Slavery is instead cast as an English enterprise, in which Scotts were the first victims. That is untrue, and Scotland was significantly involved the slave trade. For example, as late as the 1830s, with slavery in the British Empire on its last legs, slave owners with Glasgow addresses claimed ownership of well over 10,000 men, women and children in the Caribbean.
False Historic “Facts” in Support of a False Historic Narrative
To shore up the myth of Scottish slaves in the New World, advocates often point out the descendants of Scotts in Caribbean islands like Jamaica. However, such individuals are overwhelmingly descended from indentured servants who entered into indenture voluntarily, not from Scottish prisoners forcibly sent to the island by the English. Caribbean planters preferred Scottish laborers, who were viewed as hard workers and more honest than indentured servants from other parts of the British Isles. However, they were indentured servants, not slaves.
Advocates of the myth also point out the proliferation of Scottish surnames in Jamaica – Campbell, for example, is the most common Jamaican last name – to support their position. In reality, Scottish names are common in Jamaica not because the island held many Scottish slaves. They are common because many mixed race children were born from sexual violence visited upon black slave women by white slave owners and their overseers. Many of those predators were Scotts, and many of their enslaved offspring and human chattel took their surname.
Indentured Servitude Differed Greatly From Chattel Slavery
Marriages or long term relationships between black slaves and indentured servants, whether Scots or otherwise, were rare in the New World. For a white indentured man, any children he fathered upon a slave woman became the slaves of her master. For a white indentured woman, pregnancy was dangerous. It constituted breach of contract, and could entail harsh criminal penalties such as whipping, and extra time added to her indenture as punishment. However, unlike black slaves, white indentured servants, whether Scottish or otherwise, could look forward to an end of their term of service. That created tensions between the two groups. Especially since white indentured servants were not above racial prejudice against blacks.
Racism enabled many indentured servants to feel less bad about their circumstances. Bad as things were, they were at least free, unlike the enslaved blacks. Black slaves in turn often mocked the prejudice of white indentured servants, and pointed out how little value they had to their white masters despite their skin color. As a rule of thumb, white indentured servants who survived their indenture integrated into mainstream white society, or forged their own communities. Of those who did not return to Britain, many became smallholders with their own farms, and tried to compete with the large slave plantations. Some prospered, and joined the colonial elites – something that was not an option for black slaves.
The myth of Irish slavery is similar to that of Scottish slavery, but is even more pernicious. Odds are that within the past few years, you have come across this meme or a variant thereof on social media. Frequently posted by somebody who prefaces statements with “I am not racist, but…“, the meme asserts that Irish Americans were enslaved just like African Americans. Yet, they have fared much better than blacks, and their descendants never complain about it. In reality, the main reason why Irish people do not complain about their ancestors’ enslavement is that their ancestors were never enslaved.
Irish Americans have fared better than African Americans because the Irish in America never faced the generations of institutionalized racism to which blacks were subjected. Irish immigrants in America often had it rough, but they were never enslaved. In Colonial America, many poor whites – Irish and others – were indentured servants, either willingly via contract, or reluctantly because of a court sentence. Benjamin Franklin, for example, had been an indentured servant. While indentured servants were exploited, their indenture was for a fixed term, typically seven years. Afterwards – provided they were white – they could do as they pleased, equal under the law to their former contract holders and everybody else.
The treatment of Scottish and Irish indentured servants differed greatly from that of black chattel slaves. The latter were subjects of a unique institution that was based on race, had no end date, and was hereditary. Unlike indentured servitude contract holders, slave masters owned their black slaves outright, for their entire lives. Slave status attached to the slaves’ children from birth to death, as well. Blacks were enslaved. Irish Americans were not. Unsurprisingly for a racist myth, the untrue narrative of Irish American slavery grew from racist roots. Irish historian Liam Hogan traced the myth back to a 1990s book by Holocaust denier Michael A. Hoffman, that became a huge hit with white supremacists.
A 2000 book written by a non-historian, who claimed with zero evidence that Irish slaves were branded like cattle, further amplified the Irish slavery myth. For good measure, he added the salacious but equally untrue tidbit that Irish slave women were sold to stud farms. That is simply untrue. Incidentally, the photo used in the most prevalent Irish slavery meme is neither of Irish people nor of slaves. It is a 1908 photo taken in Barbados of people known locally as the “Redlegs of Barbados” – folk of mixed African and European ancestry. None of the mixed race people pictured were slaves – slavery had been abolished decades earlier. Nor did any of them have an Irish surname.
Has the Effectiveness of WWII Resistance Been Exaggerated?
A common myth romanticizes the WWII resistance movements, particularly in Western Europe. The gist is that resistance was widespread and that the efforts of those clandestine groups tipped the balance in the Allies’ favor, and spelled the difference between victory and defeat. It is true that Eastern European resistance movements, such as the Soviet and Yugoslav partisans, contributed materially to victory with intense sabotage and guerrilla activities. However, the greatest contribution of Western Europe’s resistance lay in intelligence gathering: their sabotage and guerrilla efforts were negligible.
It took great courage, and the men and women of the Western European resistance risked their lives on a daily basis. However, their impact was more symbolic than substantive. It contributed more to the locals’ pride and self-esteem after the war because they had done something, than to actually winning the war. The disparity between the resistance movements in Eastern Europe and the Balkans versus those of Western Europe is due to the manner in which the Nazis treated their conquered subjects in different parts of Europe. Jews excepted, German occupation of Western Europe, while severe, never approached the levels of psychotic cruelty and mindless brutality meted out to the conquered in Eastern Europe and the Balkans.
The Resistance in Western Europe vs in Eastern Europe and the Balkans
Western Europe’s communists made a drastic turn from acquiescence to German occupation during the period of Russo-German friendship, to fierce resistance after Hitler attacked the USSR. The rest of the civilian populations in the main did not exhibit a willingness to risk the horrific reprisals and atrocities the Germans were prepared to inflict upon restive subjects. It was not due to lack of courage, but lack of incentive. Because they were not treated as atrociously as were, e.g.; Soviet or Yugoslav civilians, Western Europeans’ backs were not as much against the wall to where they felt they had nothing to lose. So they never flocked to the resistance in the kinds of numbers that transformed it into a mass popular movement as happened in the Balkans and the USSR.
During the war, the resistance in Western Europe was not as widespread or intense as is often depicted in film or fiction. Far more people were willing to accept German occupation and make the best of a bad situation, than were willing to resist and risk German vengeance. For example, far greater numbers of Frenchmen collaborated with the German occupiers than joined the Resistance. Indeed, membership boomed only after the successful D-Day landings, after which late arrivals swelled the resistance ranks.
In 1976, people in Wiltshire, England, were baffled by a wheat field whose crops were mysteriously flattened in a circle. Soon, mysterious circles of flattened crops, in increasingly elaborate patterns, began to appear 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 weapon tests, to restless spirits and ghost, to Gaia, the primal Mother Earth, distressed at what humans had done to her planet.
Early on, one explanation that gained great currency was that the circles were created by space aliens. Presumably, extraterrestrials were trying to communicate with mankind in code. Needless to say, all the pseudo-scientific and mystical explanations were pure bunk and a myth. The argument that aliens were behind the circles was buttressed by the fact that a decade earlier, mysterious circles had appeared in Australian crops. Many had attributed the Australian circles to UFO landings, and labeled them “[flying] saucer nests”.
Wiltshire, in southwest England and where the first British crop circle appeared, is located near Stonehenge. The region is full of burial mounds and ancient marker stones. New Age types had long 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 nearby.
Before long, theories that combined 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, the crop circles were the brainchild of Doug Bower, an English prankster. One night in 1976, while drinking with his friend Dave Chorley, the duo began to talk about UFOs, aliens, flying saucers and the mysterious Australian circles. As seen below, it turned out to be a momentous conversation.
The Cringe Moment When a Crop Circles “Professional” Was Confronted With the Reality That The Whole Thing Was a Myth and Hoax
As Doug Bower and Dave Chorley downed the booze and shot the breeze one night in 1976, Bower suddenly had a brainstorm. Midway through the conversation, he suddenly said: “Let’s go over there and make it look like a flying saucer has landed“. As they confessed in 1991, it had been incredibly easy. They demonstrated their technique to print and TV journalists, and created other crop circles in mere minutes. All it took was rope, a wooden plank, and a wire to help them walk in a straight line.
A “cereologist” – a crop circle “expert” who had made a living for years from books and lectures about the crop circles phenomenon, was called in. He declared the circles authentic. Then the hammer was dropped on him, when it was revealed to 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.
When France fells to the Nazis in 1940, Switzerland was completely surrounded by Axis-controlled territory. The Nazis wanted to gather all ethnic Germans into a single country, and that included Switzerland’s German speakers. Hitler was appalled that the German-speaking Swiss felt closer to their French and Italian speaking countrymen than they did to Germany. He opined that “Switzerland possessed the most disgusting and miserable people“, and that the Swiss were “a misbegotten branch of our Volk‘. He considered democratic Switzerland an anachronism, and ordered plans drawn for its conquest and absorption into the Third Reich.
The result was Operation Tannenbaum. It envisioned a two-stage conquest with 21 German divisions – a force later deemed excessive and downsized to 11 – plus 15 Italian divisions. It would begin with conventional attacks from Austria, southern Germany, and occupied France, assisted by paratroops dropped behind Swiss lines. They would overrun lowland Switzerland, where most of the population and economic activity was located. In the meantime, the Italians to the south would mount diversionary operations. As seen below, contra the myth that Switzerland was an impregnable mountainous fortress, its conquest by the Germans was quite feasible. Indeed, Swiss children are taught in Swiss schools that the narrative of Swiss impregnability is just a myth. Switzerland has been successfully invaded and conquered many times in its history.
Operation Tannenbaum focused on the early conquest of the more important parts of Switzerland. Once that was done, follow up attacks were to be made against Swiss army remnants in the “National Redoubt” – a fortified zone in Switzerland’s mountainous south. Much has been made of Switzerland’s mountainous terrain as a defensive feature, to the point that a myth grew that the Swiss are practically invulnerable to attack. This, despite the numerous invaders who had conquered Switzerland, from the Romans to the Habsburgs to multiple French, Austrian, and even Russian armies that crisscrossed Switzerland during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Against a potential German invasion in WWII, the Swiss army planned to take advantage of topography and retreat into the country’s mountainous parts.
Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of the Swiss did not live high up in the mountains. They dwelt instead in the lower parts of the country, in valleys and foothills that were readily accessible to German invaders. Cutoff up in the mountains, one can only guess how long the Swiss forces in the National Redoubt might have been able to offer sustained resistance. Partisan and guerrilla warfare would have been an option. However, that would have required the Swiss to be markedly different from other Western Europeans whose countries had been occupied by the Nazis. They exhibited little willingness to risk the massive reprisals and atrocities Hitler’s Germans were ready to inflict on restive subjects.
A German Conquest of Switzerland in WWII Was Quite Feasible
A common myth about Switzerland in WWII is that the Nazis feared a massive guerrilla war up in the Alps if they invaded. However, there is little reason to assume that such a war would have been waged. Bad as Nazi rule was in Western Europe, the Germans did not treat Western European – unless they were Jews – as atrociously as they did the Eastern European Slavs. Western Europeans thus never felt that their backs were to the wall and that they had nothing to lose. Not to the same extent as did, say, the Soviets or Yugoslavs, who responded with a fierce and widespread partisan resistance that had no equivalent in Western Europe. Despite Hitler’s dislike of the Swiss, he and the Nazis nonetheless saw them as Germans, to be incorporated into the Reich as fellow citizens.
The Swiss were thus unlikely to have been treated with the wanton cruelty that triggered widespread resistance in the East. Instead, the Nazis would probably have treated them better than they did other Western Europeans: they were ethnic Germans, after all. Fortunately, the order to execute Operation Tannenbaum was never given. While it would have emotionally gratified Hitler to invade, there was no need to do so. The Swiss had no aggressive designs, and surrounded on all sides by Axis territory, there was no security threat of occupation by the Allies to use it as a base for attacking Germany. Switzerland had no resources that were not readily available to the Germans via trade. Also, Swiss banks, combined with Swiss neutrality, made the country a convenient center for currency exchange and other international financial transactions that were useful to the Germans.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading