Natural disasters come in many forms. From tornadoes, to hurricanes, to volcanic eruptions and everything in between, Mother Nature has many ways to unleash her fury on humanity. Most types of natural disasters come with at least some sort of warning. For example, bad storms can presage a tornado, and hurricanes can be predicated days ahead of time.
However, there is one subset of disaster that occurs with little or no warning. It is silent, invisible, and deadly. Such an event happened in the environs around Lake Nyos in Cameroon, Africa, on August 21, 1986, when the lake released a deadly cloud of CO2 that killed over 1700 people.
Lake Nyos sits in the crater of an extinct volcano. Its lower levels are rich in CO2 bubbling up from the remnants of the volcano. This typically was not a problem, as the heavier waters of the surface layers kept the gas rich deeper waters under enough pressure that it was kept in solution. However, in the days leading up to the tragedy, there had been a lot of rain. This cooler water was denser than the warmer lake water, and essentially overturned the upper layers of the lake, essentially flip-flopping the upper and lower layers of the lake. This made the carbon dioxide rich lower layers rise to the surface and release the deadly gas all at once.
The gaseous cloud quickly swamped the shores of the lake and quickly traveled downhill to the surrounding villages, where people asleep in bed were suffocated without even knowing what had happened. Those who were awake found themselves weak and disoriented. Some 1700 people, 3000 cattle, and innumerable wild animals died in the tragic event.
These days, Lake Nyos is quiet. French scientists installed plastic piping in the bottom of the lake to slowly vent the deadly gasses that accumulate in the depths. This has changed the lake from its former pristine blue color to a rusty red, but that is a small price to pay for preventing the tragedy of 1986 from happening again.
On December 9, 1980, the world was rocked by the assassination of John Lennon by the deranged Mark David Chapman, an act which will give the latter eternal infamy for snuffing out the light of a musical genius. Only four months later on March 30, 1981, John Hinckley Jr. attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan. He wounded the President and three secret service agents. James Brady, one of the wounded agents, died in 2014 due to complications directly stemming from the wound he received in 1981. President Reagan himself came close to death, but ultimately survived. The perpetrator became infamous not only for his attempt on the President’s life, but for the deranged reason he perpetrated the act: he was stalking the actress Jodie Foster, and he thought assassinating the President would impress her enough that she would fall in love with him.
No doubt both individuals were twisted, and their acts inspired feverish coverage in the media that put their names on lips around the world. This inspired another twisted individual to engage in an attempted assassination that is largely forgotten today, but had circumstances been different it might have shook the world a third time and led to another famous name being linked in infamy to the person who violently snuffed out their life. The target was none other than Queen Elizabeth II, and the assailant was a teenager named Marcus Simon Sarjeant, who wanted to become “The most famous teenager in the world.”
The Fake Assassination
On June 13, 1981, Queen Elizabeth II was participating in a parade to kick off the Trooping the Colour ceremony. Mounted on her favorite horse, the then 19 year old Burmese, she had only been riding for 15 minutes from Buckingham Palace when a man among the crowd, 17-year old Marcus Sarjeant, leveled a pistol at the monarch and fired off six shots. Fortunately for the Queen, the weapon was a starting pistol loaded with blank rounds. Guardsmen and police piled on to the would-be assassin. As this was happening, the Queen calmed her started horse, retaining the cool, calm demeanor befitting a British monarch during the whole affair. The procession continued, and the Queen returned to Buckingham Palace by the same route, this time with tighter security.
A Bizarre Plot
Marcus Sarjeant was a former air cadet from Folkestone, Kent. The youth had originally planned to kill the Queen, but he was unable to obtain an actual fire arm. His plan then changed to using a starting pistol to startle the Queen as she rode by, perhaps hoping her horse would throw her in the process. When asked why he fired on the Queen with blanks, he replied “I wanted to be famous. I wanted to be a somebody.”
Sarjeant was later sentenced to five years in prison under the 1842 Treason Act. The teen pleaded guilty to the crime and apologized, but the judge saw fit to sentence him for five years due to the “public outrage” the youth had inspired. The investigation into the matter turned up proof that Sarjeant was fascinated by assassinations and had followed the attempt on Reagan’s life closely. Sarjeant served three years in a mental institution before being released. Upon release, he changed his name and began a new life, apparently abandoning his quest for infamy.
People in every time and place have harbored fears of the restless dead. In medieval England, suicides were given profane burials at crossroads to prevent their tormented spirits from returning to wreak havoc on the community. In Haiti, people live in fear of being made into a zombie, one of the living dead in the thrall of a witchdoctor. And even today in 21st century America, many fear the modern zombie, a walking incarnation of death and pestilence.
But a far older folkloric beast has haunted the feverish dreams of humanity through the ages: the vampire. While the stories vary from culture to culture, the basic concept is the same: a vampire is a person who came back to life after dying, and needs the blood of the living to continue its unholy existence. These beings are, for the most part, regarded as mere superstition today; subjects of horror movies and tv series, nothing more. But as recently as the 19th century, the belief in vampires was very real and they were regarded by many as an urgent threat to the community. The actions superstitious locals took to vanquish this evil remain in various burial sites throughout Europe and in New England, where profane burials of suspected vampires continue to be uncovered.
Skeletons that underwent profane burials meant to protect the community from vampires have been discovered in Poland, Italy, Bulgaria, and New England. The macabre methods used to destroy the undead monsters varied from country to country. In Italy, corpses tend to be found with bricks jammed into their mouths, to prevent them from feeding on the living. In Poland and Bulgaria, the methodology was more variable. The ancient Slavic custom for dealing with suspected vampires was to sever the corpse’s head and lay it on or between its legs.
Another common method would be more familiar to modern audiences: the vampire was staked through the heart, but with a metal rode rather than a wooden stake. Skeletons have also been found buried with a sickle over their neck, so when they rise they would decapitate themselves. Some bodies were buried face down, so that when the corpse reanimated it would dig deeper in the earth rather than be able to emerge and assault the living. Some suspected vampires might be buried in coffins rather than winding sheets, so that they would have a harder time escaping. In New England, a man was found with his head and upper leg bones arranged in a skull and cross-bone pattern.
Disease, Death, and Decomposition
While these methods may seem bizarre and gruesome to modern eyes, in the Middle Ages up through the 19th century, many believed they were the only way to protect their community from destruction. Knowledge of the causes of epidemic disease was non-existent, and such illnesses ran rampant. Two ailments in particular seem linked to the legend of the vampire: rabies and tuberculosis.
Rabies is a virus that spreads via bodily fluids, particularly the saliva of infected animals. It is a mammalian virus, typically spread to humans by dogs, bats, and wolves. While the virus can be dormant for long periods of time, when it becomes symptomatic death is all but assured. It begins with flu like symptoms, but in late stages the symptoms become more extreme and include: hydrophobia (aversion to water), sensitivity to light, aggression, anxiety, delirium, increased saliva production, and eventually, death. It is thought that some of the folklore around vampires developed after outbreaks of rabies, when deranged individuals suffering the late stages of the infection could be found wandering at night due to their light sensitivity, showing aggressive behavior. It is interesting to note that vampires were often reported to shape shift into wolves and bats, two animals associated with the transmission of rabies.
Tuberculosis is perhaps more strongly linked to vampire folklore; after all, rabies has been pretty well known to humans for thousands of years, and while the idea of a virus being responsible was a mystery, people knew that getting bit by a rabid animal caused rabies. Tuberculosis was more mysterious, as its causes could not be as well documented by medical professionals of the day.
Tuberculosis is an airborne bacteria that typically infects the lungs. Onset of symptoms could take months, beginning with a fever and leading to coughing, fatigue, weight loss, chills, and night sweats. It was typically called consumption, because the victims of the disease would typically lose weight, fading way, appearing to be “consumed.” It was not much of a leap to connect the appearance of one infected with TB to that of a person drained of blood, and so the thought arose that someone was stealing their blood. In addition, TB doesn’t spread as readily as, say influenza. It is more likely to spread to people who are in constant contact with an individual, such as family or caretakers. This might explain one piece of vampire folklore that is often overlooked in the modern world: Old World vampires seemed to torment their families in particular, rather than any random stranger.
So, to illustrate how a vampire panic might have begun, say that one member of a family came down with TB. They grew progressively sicker and sicker, only to pass away. Then, another family member falls ill with the same ailment perhaps weeks or months after the original death. If vampirism was suspected, the family might dig up the body of the deceased. Decomposition was not well understood back then, so they might see a body with blood around its mouth that was pushed out by gasses generated by decomposition. It would appear then that the body had been “feeding,” reinforcing the belief in vampires by a combination of observation and ignorance. The next step would be to ritually desecrate the body in order to protect the family and the rest of the family from the undead menace. This, of course, would do nothing to actually stem the tide of infection, but it would give some sense of control over the unknown, and in that sense the rituals were effective.
There is still much to learn about the connection between vampire folklore, profane burials, and epidemic disease. Not every desecrated body is found to have suffered from a TB or any known disease that can be discerned from their remains. Indeed, plenty have been found who are not observably different from any other skeleton buried around them. It is unclear then what the exact criteria were that made a person prone to becoming a vampire. It is clear that generally speaking, becoming a vampire was something that happened to someone, rather than something they did deliberately. In other words, their dead bodies become taken over by some other entity, rather than it being some evil inherent in the person themselves. But this does somewhat run counter to the evidence from Poland that suggests that some who suffered desecration had emigrated from other parts of Europe; so, social class and standing in the community played some role in determining who was a vampire and who wasn’t. It remains to be seen then exactly what people believed about vampires then, and how they conceived of what today are considered ghoulish acts of desecration.
However, the belief in vampires is not limited to the distant past. Plenty of people today seem to believe in the undead. As recently as the mid 2000s, reports have come out of Romania of villagers disinterring the body of a suspected vampire and burning its heart. There are even those who embrace vampirism as a lifestyle. Some feed on blood, human or animal, while others are “psychic” vampires who believe they feed on the psychic energy of the living. Strange, perhaps, but these facts do attest to the lasting impact that vampires have on the human psyche. They appeal to something primal in the mind, the innate fear of death we call carry. Because of that, vampires will remain a part of human culture for time immemorial.
Atlantis of the Sands is a fabled lost city that supposedly existed once long ago along a busy trade route in Arabia. Laden with riches of red silver ore, splendors of large markets, and frankincense as valuable as gold, it may have been a huge emporium and stopping point for merchants. Grand legends told over the years have inspired searches that led to interesting discoveries. It now appears the lost city may have been more than just a legend after all.
Over the last several centuries, this mysterious place has attracted scholars and archaeologists who have attempted to discover its true location. Atlantis of the Sands acquired its nickname because, like its counterpart of the sea, there have been so many grand stories and people who have tried to find it. The original names for the legendary place are Ubar, Wabar or Iram.
Atlantis of the Sands is presumed to have been founded circa 3000 B.C. Located on the banks of a river that no longer exists, the city was a popular destination due to its vast trade markets, availability of resources and abundance of water. Legends describe large walls that boasted towering pillars. This “many towered city,” as described in the Koran, contained palaces and impressive temples. The Koran also attested to the uniqueness of the pillared city: “[Iram]…whose like had not been built in the entire land.”
Ranulph Fiennes wrote and published the book “Atlantis of the Sands: The Search for the Lost City of Ubar” in 1992, which helped to make it quite famous. Bedouin people who live in the deserts say that this city was lost in the Arabian sands when a huge catastrophic disaster occurred.
In Search of Atlantis of the Sands
Archaeologists have attempted to locate the city of Ubar using ancient maps and descriptions from legendary tales. Several inconclusive sightings only served to further the mystery of whether or not the Atlantis of the Sands really existed.
Research into the city of Ubar places the time of its destruction at somewhere around 100 C.E. Many experts think that the people there may have discovered how to farm frankincense, which was highly valuable and produced in the southern Arabian Desert. This theory is supported by the idea that the supposed location for Ubar is along one of the well-known trade routes of the time.
Bertram Thomas and T.E. Lawrence
There have been a number of explorers who have attempted to find the city, including Bertram Thomas, an Englishman. He embarked on an expedition in 1930 to locate Ubar, based on previous research by other explorers. It was Thomas’ notes and research in large part that had an influence on the research of T.E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia. He was an archaeologist, military officer, and diplomat in the near east region. It may have been Lawrence who first described Ubar as Atlantis of the Sands. He had dreams of finding it, but he died unexpectedly in a motorcycle accident.
As Thomas began his exploration, he was told many stories about the area by Bedouin guides. They emphasized that it was dangerous to venture there. Additionally, they stated that the city had been destroyed because of the immorality of the people who had lived there, and that if they continued on their journey they would bring evil upon themselves. Thomas was not deterred by these stories, but he died before he could find the city of Ubar. He did, however, find old camel tracks.
The Nicholas Clapp Team
In the late 1980s the film-maker and amateur archaeologist, Nicholas Clapp, led an expedition to find Ubar based on the work of Bertram Thomas. He utilized the latest research, NASA satellite images, and ancient maps created by previous explorers. Among the members of the Clapp expedition was Ranulph Fiennes, who subsequently wrote the Atlantis of the Sands book.
The NASA images of the Rub ‘al Khali desert were able to see below the surface sand to identify well-worn roads that merchants on camelback had used for trade long ago. Interestingly, the tracks led to one place now called Shisr. The Clapp team decided to investigate and they discovered an ancient structure underneath a 300 year old building. They determined that this was some type of fortress that stood at the heart of a settlement. Pottery, coins, and evidence of many ancient fire pits dotted the area. Research indicates the artifacts date back to at least 2800 BC.
The fortress may have served as the king’s palace and a processing facility for frankincense. It may have also provided protection in times of danger. Eight walls circled the central building and a tower about 30 feet high stood at each corner. Clapp determined that this must be the ancient city of Ubar.
Unfortunately, a great deal of the fortress had fallen into a limestone sinkhole, and they were unable to excavate the rest of it. Fiennes surmised in his book that Ubar was really once a place called “Omanum Emporium” shown on ancient maps of Southern Arabia.
Like so many ancient legends, there are still more questions than answers. Has Atlantis of the Sands been found? Rather than having been smitten by God, did it fall into a giant sinkhole? For now, the legend is still alive, and only the sands of time will tell whether the vast desert will be relinquishing its secrets of this magnificent fabled city.
These are some of the most captivating unsolved murder mysteries of all time and they share a common thread: all of the victims are known.
The Tamam Shud, also known as the Somerton Man, case is different. In this instance, the victim is an unknown man with some mysterious items in his possession and no known cause of death.
On November 30th, 1948, a couple went for a walk along Somerton Beach in Adelaide, Australia, around sunset. During their walk, they found a man lying in the sand, smoking a cigarette. His head was propped up against the seawall near a set of stairs leading to the nearby road and homes.
On a warm summer day like this, the couple, John Lyons and his wife, believed the man to be a drunk who stumbled down the stairs. They thought nothing much about the man being dressed in a suit with highly polished shoes.
The couple continued on their walk. A half-hour later, they returned to the scene to find the man lying motionless in the same position they’d found him earlier. Mosquitoes buzzed around his face. The couple joked that he was “dead to the world” drunk.
The next morning, John Lyons learned the man wasn’t dead drunk the night before. He was dead. Lyons saw a commotion on the beach where the man laid the night before and went to investigate the scene.
He found the man lying in the same position as yesterday. There was a half-smoked cigarette resting on the dead man’s collar.
Authorities took the dead man to the Royal Adelaide Hospital where time of death was put at 2 am on December 1st, seven hours after John Lyons discovered him on the beach.
The Somerton Man’s Possessions & Autopsy
A full autopsy was performed on December 2nd, but no cause of death was established. It was determined that his pupils were smaller than normal and his spleen was three times larger than normal. His liver was filled with congested blood. His calves and feet resembled those of a ballet dancer.
The man’s last meal was a pasty. Multiple tests of blood and organ tissue failed to find any source of the poison originally believed to be the cause of death.
The man’s identity could not be determined from the autopsy.
The items in Somerton Man’s possession were equally notable for what was found as for what wasn’t.
Investigators found two combs, some matches, a pack of chewing gum, and a pack of Army Club brand cigarettes. Seven of the cigarettes had been replaced by a pricier brand called Kensitas. He had tickets from Adelaide to the beach, explaining how he arrived.
There was no cash or coin, no wallet, no form of ID.
The pocket had been repaired with orange thread yet all of the brand labels had been removed from his clothing.
Fingerprints of the Somerton Man were taken and circulated around the world, but no one could identify the man definitively.
The Suitcase and the Scrap of Paper
On January 12th, 1949, South Australia police discovered a suitcase that belonged to the Somerton Man at the Adelaide rail station. It had been in the station’s possession since November 30th.
Once again, the Somerton Man’s possessions led to more questions than answers. Police discovered the orange thread used to darn the pocket. They discovered a stencil kit used to stencil cargo before shipment. There was a table knife with the handle altered. There was a feather stitched jacket determined to be American in origin.
The suitcase bore no stickers or tags. The labels had been removed from all but three pieces of clothing. The labels left read “Kean” and “T. Keane”, but these clues led to Somerton Man’s identity.
A second search of Somerton Man’s possessions in April 1949 by John Cleland led to the most famous clue in the case. John Cleland’s investigation found a scrap of tightly rolled paper inside a small watch fob packet in Somerton Man’s pants. The original investigation had overlooked the fob pocket.
Cleland opened up the piece of paper and discovered two words: Tamam Shad. In English, “It is ended.” These are the last words of the English version of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Khayyam’s rubiayat’s had become popular in Australia during World War II with copies being produced throughout the country.
The police took this clue to mean this was a suicide, rather than a murder. An official murder investigation was never opened. Instead, this was treated as a missing person’s investigation.
The case took a new turn when a copy of the Rubaiyat was brought to the Adelaide police on July 23rd, 1949. A man brought the book into the station, claiming that it had been in his car. The book had been found in the backseat by the man’s brother-in-law during a drive in December and was placed in the car’s glove compartment.
When the man opened the book, he found the last page missing. Prompted by a newspaper article, he brought the book to the police where Detective Sergeant (D.S.) Lionel Leane took possession of it.
In the back of the book, D.S. Leane found a phone number penciled into the cover. There were some capital letters pressed into the cover as well, but the police had a new lead in the case.
The phone number was unlisted but belonged to a nurse nicknamed Jestyn. Her name was never publicly released by the police. She lived a block away from where Somerton Man’s body was found on the beach.
Jestyn was an unwed mother of a 2-year-old named Robin in 1949, though she was living with her future husband at the time. She admitted to giving a copy of the Rubaiyat to a man named Alfred Boxall during World War II as a gift.
Police initially believed that Boxall would turn out to be the Somerton Man, but he was quite alive when they arrived to speak with him. He presented the police with his copy of the Rubaiyat, completely intact with Jestyn’s inscription to him.
Police brought Jestyn in a year later, in 1950, to question her again. She had no recollection of any phone call with Somerton Man. She was shown photos of the Somerton Man. D.S. Leade’s notes state that she was “completely taken back, to the point of giving the appearance that she was about to faint.”
Despite her reaction to the photos, Jestyn denied that she knew the man.
The exact copy of the Somerton Man’s Rubiayat has never been located.
The most tantalizing clue in this case is the code D.S. Leane discovered in the back of the book in capital letters. The code was released to the public, sparking a flurry of amateur codebreakers. Naval Intelligence in Australia attempted to break the code as well, but without success.
The code was determined to read:
However, the Australian Navy determined in the 1950s that the code is unbreakable due to the limited sample size. They believed the code to be in English and the letters to represent the first letter of a word.
Attempts in the last few years by Derek Abbott, a professor of Electrical & Electronic Engineering at the University of Adelaide, using computers to decipher the code have been limited by the processing power of a single computer. A single attempt to search for phrases using 5 letters, MLIAB, took over 18 hours to generate a single result.
Professor Abbot has reached out to Google for permission to access their information directly, but Google has refused as of publication.
The Prevailing Theories
There are two prevailing theories regarding the fate of the Somerton Man.
Theory 1: The Somerton Man was the father of Jestyn’s son, Robin. This theory is based on rare genetic similarities between the Somerton Man and Robin, such as the shape of the teeth and the ears. DNA testing has shown that Robin has American relatives.
The theory suggests that Jestyn, unwed at the time, had a child with the Somerton Man. She kept the father a secret when she met her future husband. She then told the Somerton Man that she could no longer allow him to see his child. Devastated, the Somerton Man took his own life using an exotic poison that was undiscovered in the original testing.
Theory 2: The Somerton Man was a spy working for another nation. The code in the book is believed to be a secret message for his spymaster. However, Somerton Man was caught and poisoned by the cigarettes he was smoking.
Since the man was a spy, no nation has come forward to claim him as their agent, even after all this time.
Both theories have their merits, but without more evidence, the identity of the Somerton Man will remain unknown.
Skye Vitiritti is a writer of historical fiction and horror novels. Her latest work, My Eternal Crusade: Jerusalem 1183, comes out on March 1, 2017. You can follow her on Twitter @TheWriterSkye or on her website, www.skyevitiritti.com
Zombies have taken over the cultural zeitgeist in recent years. They are the go to horror movie monster, dominating media from video games to commercials to TV shows. Even the government has jumped on the bandwagon, using the phenomena as a way to promote disaster preparedness. It has gotten to the point that there are some who seriously believe that an outbreak of zombies like the ones seen in movies could happen in reality.
However, this is not to say that zombies are not real, in a sense. The modern zombie cultural phenomenon can trace its origins back to George Romero’s classic 1968 B-movie, Night of the Living Dead. The low-budget flick depicted a horde of “ghouls,” they were never once called zombies in the movie, attacking hapless victims trapped in a rural farm house. While Night of the Living Dead was the first modern zombie movie, it was not the first zombie movie. That honor goes to the 1932 Universal pictures film, White Zombie, starring Bela Lugosi as a sorcerer with a stable full of voodoo zombies to do his bidding. This movie was the Hollywood interpretation of a longstanding Haitian folk tradition, where bokors or witch doctors use foul magic to enslave the souls of victims. Far from mere superstition, the voodoo zombie phenomenon was and may still be a very real reality in Haiti, where the dead are said to walk among the living.
Clairvius Narcisse, a Modern Zombie?
On April 30th, 1962, a man by the name of Clairvius Narcisse checked himself into the Albert Scheitzer Hospital in Deschapelle, Haiti. Narcisse had been suffering fevers and body aches leading up to his visit to the hospital, but the tipping point was when he began to cough up blood. Upon being admitted to the hospital, Narcisse’s condition went downhill rapidly. He began to suffer from a variety of symptoms: pulmonary edema, hypothermia, trouble breathing, hypotension, and digestive problems. At one point, his lips turned blue, and he reported that his entire body was tingling. By May 2nd, Narcisse was pronounced dead by an American doctor and an American-trained doctor, both who were baffled by the man’s sudden rapid deterioration. His oldest sister identified his body, and Clairvius Narcisse was laid to rest the next day, or so the Narcisse family thought.
Eighteen years later, Narcisse was discovered by his sister Angelina in a village market place, when he approached her claiming to be her long dead brother. He identified himself with a childhood nickname unknown outside of close family circles, and a subsequent investigation with help from the Narcisse family proved that the man claiming to be Clairvius Narcisse knew other things about the family not known by outsiders. For all intents and purposes, the man claiming to be Claivius Narcisse was indeed who he said he was. His story was a strange and shocking one: he claimed to have been turned into a zombie.
A Wild Story
According to Narcisse, he was conscious but unable to move through the whole ordeal of being declared dead, being zipped into a body bag, and even during his burial. Sometime later, Narcisse claimed he was dug out of his grave by a bokor and his helpers, who beat him senseless and transported him to a sugar plantation. Once on the plantation, the hapless Narcisse and other zombies would labor from sunup to sundown, only stopping for one small meal a day. This time was passed in a dream-like state, and his memories of the two years he spent on the plantation were fuzzy. His imprisonment came to an end one day when a fellow zombie rebelled and killed the bokor with a hoe. Free from the thrall of the witchdoctor, the zombies then escaped. Narcisse wandered the Haitian countryside for the next 16 years, attempting unsuccessfully to contact his family. He only returned home after his brother’s death, believing his brother was responsible for the ordeal.
The Magic of the Bokors
It is easy to dismiss Clairvius Narcisse’s wild story as a fraud, but to do so would be to show a grave misunderstanding of both human psychology in general and the Haitian culture in particular. The belief in zombies dates back something like five hundred years in Haiti, and stems from much older African spiritual beliefs .
The word zombie comes from the word Nzambi, meaning “spirit of a dead person.” This complex folkloric tradition was transported to Haiti with slaves, mixing with Catholic beliefs and other fragments of spiritual traditions to become voodoo. Haitian slaves brought up in this milieu in the 1600’s believed that upon death their spirits would return to an idealized Africa, but those who committed suicide to escape the horrors of slavery would become zombies, trapped in undeath and bound to an even more horrific form of slavery than that they endured in life.
After the Haitian Revolution of 1804, the French were driven from the country, and slavery as it had been practiced for over 200 years came to an end. The practice cast a long shadow though, manifesting in the renewed zombie folklore, where the voodoo bokor took a prominent role, becoming the ones who reanimated corpses with their magic and used them as slave labor. In a sense, slavery under the French left an indelible imprint on the soul of Haiti, a lingering fear that found its expression in the pervasive belief in zombies.
This is the cultural environment that Clairvius Narcisse grew up in. He would have known what zombies were, and what it meant to be branded as a zombie; namely, to be labeled a social pariah and outcast. He would have had no reason to lie about his experiences. With the possibility of fraud discounted, the unsettling explanation for the strange story is that there might well be something to the stories of zombies. When Dr. Nathan Kline, a psychopharmacologist heard of the case, he sought to verify that Narcisse was who he claimed, and proving that, went on to attempt to figure out what happened. He dispatched Harvard graduate student Wade Davis to Haiti to find what substance the bokors used to create their undead servants.
Zombie Powder and Datura: Ingredients for Zombification
Davis was able to secure samples of zombie powder from several bokors. Their recipes for the concoction varied, but three ingredients were constants: ground human bones, plants with irritating hairs, and dried pufferfish. The bones and plant hairs were meant to irritate the skin of victims, causing them to scratch and open up small wounds that would force the active ingredient of the powder into their blood streams. The active ingredient is believed to be tetrodotoxin, a deadly poison found in the skin and organs of the pufferfish. Five hundred times more powerful than cyanide, the poison blocks nerve transmissions, resulting in the same symptoms Clairvius Narcisse suffered in the hospital on the day he was declared dead. Depending on the dosage, it also causes a state of paralysis that is difficult to distinguish from actual death. However, the victim is fully lucid during the ordeal.
The zombie powder would be blown into the victims face, or applied to the skin on open wounds. Sometimes, due to the variance of the amount of tetrodotoxin between individual pufferfish, several applications were needed to generate the desired effects. In these cases, the powder could be surreptitiously put into the victim’s clothing.
Once the victim enters into the paralyzed state and is buried alive, the bokor then goes to the grave site and digs up the “corpse,” who has perhaps suffered some brain damage due to oxygen deprivation and most certainly has suffered psychological trauma during the entire ordeal. These factors can make the newly unearthed zombie more pliable, but the sure-fire next step for a bokor is to feed his new undead servant a paste of sweet potatoes, cane syrup, and Datura, the zombie cucumber. Datura contains atropine and scopolamine, hallucinogens that induce a variety of psychological effects such as confusion, psychosis, and amnesia. The hallucinogenic brew keeps the victim pliant to the will of the bokor. To further sap the strength and will of the zombie, they are fed a salt-free diet.
Zombification: the Ultimate Punishment?
Haitian folklore claims that the bokors used their zombies as slaves to perform free labor on their plantations. However, people who go through the ordeal of zombification are not likely to make the best manual laborers. Many would be more or less vegetables, depending how long they were underground, and those who weren’t would be suffering the effects of Datura and might well be out of their minds. It is clear from Narcisse’s account that bokors would extract physical labor from their slaves, but given the high unemployment rate in Haiti both then (and now,) cheap labor not suffering under the effects of zombification was not in short supply. If this was the case, there was little economic incentive to turn someone into a zombie. If that were the case, zombies would be mass produced.
The motivation to create zombies, far from being for economic reasons, stems from the social norms of Haitian culture. Rooted in ancient memories of the horrors of slavery, to become a zombie is to become the ultimate slave. It is to literally lose one’s self, and to become an automaton of flesh at the beck and call of another. Zombies are not made to create a labor force, but rather to punish those who break the social norms. It is the ultimate punishment for those who refuse to play by society’s rules.
A good example of this is Clairvius Narcisse himself. Due to his extraordinary story, it is natural to see him in a sympathetic light, but those who knew Narcisse before his untimely death likely would not have shared the sentiment. Narcisse was a difficult man to deal with, to say the least. He regularly fought with family members. He fathered children out of wedlock and refused to be responsible for them. He became wealthy at the expense of others, and drew much jealousy in his village for being among the first to upgrade his house from a thatch roof to a tin roof.
None of this in itself warranted the punishment of zombification, but his most serious infraction came when he refused to give up his share of the family land to his brother, who was trying to support a family. Haitians, living on an island nation that has historically relied primarily on agriculture to support itself, take matters involving land rights very seriously. They could quite literally be life or death for a family who cannot access land needed to support itself. So, when Narcisse refused to give his land to his brother who was in need, he crossed a line and his punishment was to be turned into a zombie.
Zombies: A Haitian Phenomenon
It is clear from the story of Clairvius Narcisse and others that the zombie phenomenon is very real in Haiti. However, this does not mean that zombie-phobes out there need to hole up in their zombie apocalypse bunker just yet. Zombies in Haiti stem from a deeply rooted cultural system that grew out of the horrors of slavery and colonialism. It is an outgrowth of the Haitian psyche and the mish-mash of cultural, spiritual, and religious influences that came together in the tiny island nation.
Put short, zombies can only happen in Haiti. Certainly, dosing an American with tetrodotoxin and then dosing them with Datura would induce the medical effects noted earlier in the article, but without growing up in the cultural context of Haiti, the effects would be limited to their physical and psychological components. They would lack the spiritual and social connotations they have for someone brought up in a culture who believes deeply and wholeheartedly in zombies. To Clairvius, and other poor souls who have fallen victim to zombification, the process is the culmination of their deepest cultural anxieties. The horror they must have felt would have been increased to the nth degree compared to that of an outsider, because in their minds they would suffering the worst fate a person could suffer: losing their soul and becoming a mindless slave.
In the end, zombies can be seen as a product of a culture deeply influenced by slavery, rather than the product of magic or sorcery. While the pharmacological factors at work in the process cannot be ignored, in the end a person becomes a zombie in their own mind. The rituals and medications given simply act as vehicles who bring the cultural belief embedded into the person’s mind into their reality. It is not clear whether the practice continues in modern Haiti. As secret and taboo as the ritual was, it is very possible that zombies are still being created in remote parts of Haiti even today, unbeknownst to the outside world.
I wanted to update my loyal readers about what is going on in my personal life and what that means for this site. As you have likely noticed, and I said in a previous post, posts have been a little spotty in the last few months. One thing that surprises me about this is that the number of views has only gone down slightly even though the site is not being updated regularly. Even so, I’m trying to keep the wheel turning by posting every other week, give or take, and I have some other ideas for future directions I’d like to take this blog. This includes potentially starting a Facebook page, writing a line of ebooks, and even an Oddly Historical YouTube channel.
Those ideas are, for now, just that: ideas. But I wanted you guys to know I am still thinking about my regular readers and how I can make this site better for you guys. I really enjoy sharing weird history, but real life tends to intervene a lot when it comes to hobbies such as this. Which brings use to the whole point of this little blurb. Apologies for burying the lede here, but it’s not an “actual” article so hey, whatever. I am starting grad school in two days. Actually, I’ve already started: I completed two out of four modules for the first lesson. I am attending school online for a Masters of Public Health, all while working full time. So, I am going to be really busy for the next couple of years, and then probably really busy looking for a job after completing my degree.
Even so, I will still try to update this blog on a semi-regular basis. Some of the articles might be shorter than they have in the past, and I’m toying with some ideas of posts devoted to strange pictures from the past with some blurbs explaining what is going on. Just a simpler way to get some content out to you guys. Or maybe some bizarre artwork from the past. Perhaps more personal updates, and off the cuff, personal opinion posts about stuff I’ve written about in the past. We will see! If you have any ideas for content you’d like to see, let me know in the comments. I always enjoy hearing from you guys!