Friday, 27 March 2015

The Vanished Lighthouse Keepers

The Weird Mystery of Eilean Mor

The Eilean Mor Lighthous at night
What happened to the lighthouse keepers?

Eilean Mor is one of the principal islands in the Flannan Isles, also known as the Seven Hunters, a lonely cluster about 20 miles (32km)  west of the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. Although it means ‘Big Island’ in Gaelic, at 39 acres this isn’t a massive place, but for sailors a forbidding one. It rises 288 feet above the Atlantic Ocean, with perilous sheer cliffs up to 150 foot high. It was here in 1895 that work began on a 75 foot high lighthouse, and from 1899 it commenced beaming a guiding light to sailors up to 25 miles out at sea. In 1971 the last crew of keepers left and the light was automated, and it still shines on today.
 More fiction and speculation has been churned out over this genuinely strange story of vanished lighthouse men than any other island-bound maritime mystery. I was cajoled by some of its less steadfast aspects when writing about it several years ago, relying on versions told by such romancers as Vincent Gaddis in his none the less fascinating Invisible Horizons (1965).  Some of what has been passed off as fact for the past century appears to be anything but. This is regrettable, because the story needs no such embellishment – its truth stands alone in its genuine weirdness. 

As well as Gaddis and others, we can blame the colourful imagination of Wilfrid Wilson Gibson (1878-1962), a prolific poet and close friend of Rupert Brooke. His 1912 ballad, Flannan Isle lies at the root of much of the unnecessary detritus this puzzle has gathered down the decades.
Yet, as we crowded through the door,
We only saw a table spread
 For dinner, meat, and cheese and bread;
            But, all untouched; and no-one there,
            As though, when they sat down to eat,
            Ere they could even taste,
Alarm had come, and they in haste
            Had risen and left the bread and meat,
            For at the table head a chair
Lay tumbled on the floor.
There are shades of Conan Doyle’s fictitious rendering of the Mary Celeste here, and things are not helped by a later stanza which goes:

And how the rock had been the death
            Of many a likely lad:
            How six had come to a sudden end,
            And three had gone stark mad:
            And one whom we'd all known as friend
            Had leapt from the lantern one still night,
            And fallen dead by the lighthouse wall:

Eerie hints of creeping madness, shifting personalities, the wages of loneliness and isolation. Meat and drink to a poet. The three keepers, James Ducat, Donald McArthur and Thomas Marshall, were at the end of a 14-day shift in December 1900 but had been prevented from leaving the island due to bad weather. A passing ship, the steamer Archtor, had found it odd on the night of December 15 that the lighthouse, which was normally visible for 25 miles, was unlit. When the relief tender, the Hesperus, set off to the island, the weather, with mountainous seas, had been so bad that they had to stand off for some time, but when they did finally get a man ashore, the truth became evident, as this telegram of 26th December 1900 reveals, sent by Captain Harvie, the master of the Hesperus, the Lighthouse Tender:
‘A dreadful accident has happened at Flannans. The three Keepers, Ducat, Marshall and the occasional have disappeared from the island. On our arrival there this afternoon no sign of life was to be seen on the Island. Fired a rocket but, as no response was made, managed to land Moore, who went up to the Station but found no Keepers there. The clocks were stopped and other signs indicated that the accident must have happened about a week ago. Poor fellows they must been blown over the cliffs or drowned trying to secure a crane or something like that. Night coming on, we could not wait to make something as to their fate. I have left Moore, MacDonald, Buoymaster and two Seamen on the island to keep the light burning until you make other arrangements. Will not return to Oban until I hear from you. I have repeated this wire to Muirhead in case you are not at home. I will remain at the telegraph office tonight until it closes, if you wish to wire me.
All the real, genuine documentation of this case, including the above, is available at the Northern Lighthouse Board’s website However, you’ll not find any of the other revelations which have clung to the yarn as told by Gaddis and others. One of the strangest is Gaddis’s inclusion of entries from the log kept by the lighthouse men, the source of which he attributes to an article by Ernest Fallon in the August 1929 edition of True Strange Stories magazine. It was by repeating these entries when writing this story some years ago that I incurred the displeasure of the Northern Lighthouse Board. Regrettably, the following words are still being peddled by many ‘unexplained’ websites today: 
December 12th: Gale north by northwest. Sea lashed to fury. Never seen such a storm. Waves very high. Tearing at lighthouse. Everything shipshape. James Ducat irritable. (Later): Storm still raging, wind steady. Stormbound. Cannot go out. Ship passing sounding foghorn. Could see lights of cabins. Ducat quiet. McArthur crying.
December 13th: ‘Storm continued through night. Wind shifted west by north. Ducat quiet. McArthur praying. (Later:) Noon, grey daylight. Me, Ducat and McArthur prayed.’
December 15th: ‘Storm ended, sea calm, God is over all.’

The island from the air: A wild and lonely place.
There are distinct echoes of Gibson’s poem here; ‘And three had gone stark mad’ Gaddis and others claim that these entries were all written in Marshall’s handwriting. The archives of the Northern Lighthouse Board do not corroborate this at all, the handwriting was Ducat’s, and the log seems to have only been kept up to the 13th. There were some final brief notes by Ducat in chalk on the slate written about weather conditions at 9am on the 15th. Whatever befell the men possibly occurred between then and the night of the 15th. Nautical logs are not personal diaries. Any man writing about praying or God, passing facile comments about his shipmate’s moods or even using phrases such as ‘sea lashed to a fury’ would have faced more than a few questions from his practical, no-nonsense superiors ashore. Vincent Gaddis was a decent and highly entertaining writer, but his penchant for invention included such contrived conversations as ‘Looking forward to shore leave?’ asked the skipper, smiling. ‘Aye’, Moore answered, ‘It’ll be good to be back on land for a space where you can see people, talk, and have a drink or two. ’Tis pretty lonely there some times.’ Gaddis wasn’t there; how could he describe a ‘smiling’ Captain or report conversations? These little verbal excursions in his work might add colour, but they’re bogus, and none of these words appear in any of the documents held by the Northern Lighthouse Board.
Yet my original resort to the creepy log book entries had another result. In 2006 I was contacted by none other than Cyril Nicholas Henty-Dodd, (1935 –2009), better known as Simon Dee, one-time high profile British television interviewer and disc jockey who hosted a twice-weekly BBC TV chat show, Dee Time in the late 1960s. (Some suggest that that Dee was the model for the Mike Myers character Austin Powers). Dee was keen to produce a documentary about the Eilean Mor mystery, but when I stripped it back to its factual basics, mysterious though they are, he expressed his ‘bitter disappointment’ and I heard nothing more.
The mystery of the log entries remains. Where did Ernest Fallon get these from? We must conclude that they are an invention. If not, and somewhere they exist, then they are genuinely strange. But Fallon wasn’t alone in his embroidery. Children’s author Carey Miller in his 1977 Mysteries of The Unknown includes the story that when the man, Moore, is sent onto the island from the Hesperus, when he ‘opened the door of the lighthouse three huge birds of an unknown species flew out to sea from the top of the light’. There is no evidence to support this. As ever, for the newspapers of the time this sinister event presented a field day for inventive journalism. It began with a report in The Scotsman dated December 28 1900, stating that one of the cranes on the island had been swept away by the severe weather. The official report contradicts this. Then the Oban Times weighed in with three misnomers on January 5 1901. They reported that there was a half-eaten meal on the table in the lighthouse, (other reports even tell us that it was mutton and potatoes) that a chair had been pushed back as if its occupant had arisen in haste, and that there was an oilskin found trapped in the wreckage of the island’s west crane. The first two claims are entirely spurious and the third appears nowhere else, and in any case, even if the sea had swept away one of the keepers, the loss of his oilskin seems unlikely.
            So the question will remain forever; what really happened? All manner of suggestions have been presented down the years. The paranormal lobby have been busy creating legends of the ‘strange atmosphere’ and peculiar history of the island. Even piracy has been suggested – although they would have been a pretty dumb bunch of Jack Sparrows to attack Eilean Mor. The inevitable sea monster has been cajoled from the deep, time slips, other dimensions, and the evergreen favourite, alien abduction. What a bunch of Venusian tourists would want with three horny-handed Scottish lighthouse keepers is beyond imagination. If their disappearance was not supernatural, then the culprit must surely be the sea. Even though the lighthouse stood over 300 feet above sea level (91m) the sea at Eilean Mor was so violent at times that spray lashed the top of the light. The jetty was reported as battered and the rails were twisted. Perhaps two men had gone out in a storm and a third had seen a huge wave coming and gone out to warn them, with tragic results. We’ll never know. Freak waves are not restricted to Pacific tsunamis. When I sailed through a hurricane in the Pacific, I had no idea how high the waves were, but they towered above the ship like mountains. Two vessels in the South Atlantic in 2001, the MS Bremen and Caledonian Star, both encountered 98ft (30m) freak waves. Bridge windows on both ships were smashed, and all power and instrumentation lost. In 2004, the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory ocean-floor pressure sensors detected a freak wave caused by Hurricane Ivan in the Gulf of Mexico. From peak to trough it was around 91ft high (27.7m), and around 660ft (200m) long. The open sea can be a terrifying place.
The mystery of Eilean Mor continues to inspire creative writers and musicians. Part of Gibson’s poem is quoted in Horror of Fang Rock, an episode in the Dr. Who series (complete with the misspelling ‘Flannen’). The Genesis song The Mystery of Flannan Isle Lighthouse is featured on the band’s compilation Archive 1967-75. The missing men inspired Hector Zazou's song Lighthouse, subsequently performed by Siouxsie on the album Songs From the Cold Seas, and the opera The Lighthouse by Peter Maxwell Davies is also based on the incident.
In 2000, exactly 100 years after they disappeared, silence fell for one minute on nearby Breasclete, west of Lewis, in honour of the three men, in an event covered by the BBC in Scotland.   A reporter with BBC Radio nan Gaidheal in Stornoway, Alasdair Macaulay,  who had researched the incident, said: ‘I have heard about a woman at Crowlista in Uig who had been hanging out her washing on that day. She was said to have seen a massive wall of water coming in from the west. She apparently ran back to the house as this large wave hit the shore. Her washing and washing line were said to have been swept away.’
Such is the all-consuming power of the sea; merciless, inhuman, and forever mysterious.

There's more mysteries like this than you can shake a stick at in the 600 pages of  THE MAMMOTH BOOK OF UNEXPLAINED PHENOMENA
(Constable & Robinson.Little Brown, UK) or Running Press Inc. USA.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015


The Mystery of Netta Fornario: 
Iona's Occult Enigma

It could be the first page of a disturbing screenplay. We’re on a bleak, windswept remote Scottish island. At a spot known as the Fairy Mound, a crude cross has been carved out of the boggy peat. Upon this earthen crucifix, covered only with a strange cloak, lies the naked lifeless body of a young woman. A blackened silver chain with a cross hangs around her neck. She holds a knife in her dead hand. Her frozen expression is one of sheer terror, and both her hands and her feet are swollen and bloody.  But this is no screenplay. The year is 1929, and this is the opening scene of a bizarre and enduring mystery.
     The year 1931 saw the publication of a book with the astonishingly cumbersome title; take a deep breath … A Last Voyage to St. Kilda. Being the Observations and Adventures of an Egotistic Private Secretary who was alleged to have been 'warned off' That Island by Admiralty Officials when attempting to emulate Robinson Crusoe at the Time of Its Evacuation.  It was written by the Private Secretary to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Alasdair Alpin MacGregor (1899 - 1970). McGregor was a travel writer, poet and expert on Scottish folklore. Unfortunately, like the ‘worst poet in British history’ William Topaz McGonagall, although McGregor was a decent writer with an elegant, ornate style, he was frequently parodied, especially by prominent Scottish writer Sir Compton Mackenzie, one of the founders of the Scottish National Party.
     Yet due to Alasdair McGregor’s total immersion in the more esoteric and mystical aspects of Scottish history we are able to thank him, and subsequent researchers, for his detailed descriptive account of one of the strangest of all Caledonian conundrums, a bizarre, unsolved occult murder in 1929 on the isolated, ancient island of Iona. If this had been a screenplay, it would have made a memorable companion to The Wicker Man. But let’s get back to the body on the fairy mound.
   She was the 33 year old Norah Emily Editha Fornario (known as Netta Fornario). Her mother was English and her father was an Italian medical practitioner, with whom Netta did not get along. This estrangement may have been due to the variance of opinion between a qualified doctor and a daughter whose idea of curative physiological efficacy was firmly rooted in the world of the psychic and the occult. Earlier in life she had joined the famous circle of practitioners in ‘magick’, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, there to become a close friend of British occultist and author Violet Mary Firth Evans, better known as Dion Fortune (1890-1946).
Violet Mary Firth Evans, a.k.a. Dion Fortune
    Born in Bryn-y-Bia, Llandudno, North Wales, Fortune’s nom de plume was inspired by her family motto Deo, non fortuna, Latin: "by God, not fate". Two of her novels, The Sea Priestess and Moon Magic, became highly influential to the faithful of the Wiccan religion, especially upon leading Witch Doreen Valiente[1]. Yet the work which has the most relevance in Netta Fornario’s struggles (Fortune referred to Netta as ‘Mac Tyler’) with the spirit world would be Fortune’s Psychic Self Defence[2], a manual on how to protect oneself from psychic attacks which would be published the year after Netta’s death.
    A serious student of the occult, Netta was a member of the Alpha et Omega Temple. This had its origins in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, co-founded as an intended ‘elementary branch of the Rosicrucian Order[3]’ in London in 1888 by Dr. William Wynn Westcott, a London coroner and Freemason, and Samuel Liddell Mathers (1854-1918). Mathers' research had one ultimate aim; the ‘Great Work’ of self-realization. It was all-embracing, including the Tarot, Enochian magic, alchemy, ceremonial Magic, Kabbalah, astrology, Egyptian Magic and divination. Mathers, who had married Mina Bergson, sister of the French philosopher Henri Bergson, moved to Paris, and considered himself as the undisputed chief and leader of Golden Dawn. To be a member, one had to swear an oath to Mathers, but not everyone went for the idea. Mathers eventually forced Westcott in London to resign after accusing him of faking a document.
   The Golden Dawn attracted some bizarre hangers-on, (as well as intellectuals such as the poet William Butler Yeats) and one of Mathers’ young protégés was given the mission of retrieving the Order’s archives from Westcott. The ex-communicated Golden Dawners must have had a nasty shock when the loud, demanding emissary arrived at the  London temple at 336 Blythe Road, because it was none other than ‘the Beast’ himself, Aleister Crowley, dubbed by Yeats, who had also fallen foul of Mathers, as a "mad person whom we had refused to initiate". Crowley, in full Highland dress, brandishing a sword and wearing a mask, was met by Yeats on the doorstep and hostilities ensued. The Police were duly summoned to invigilate in a desperate confrontation which saw Yeats demanding Crowley’s arrest as an intruder, whilst Crowley waved his Claymore around insisting that Golden Dawn’s London adherents be evicted from the building. Eventually, Mathers went on to establish his own magical order, the Alpha et Omega, and in order add a dash of Celtic flavour to his background, augmented his surname with ‘MacGregor’. Although he finally departed for the spirit world in 1918, Alpha et Omega’s membership carried on the ‘Great Work’ regardless, led by Mathers’ widow, Mina, now to be known as Moina Mathers.
McGregor Mathers
   Netta Fornario’s good friend and fellow Temple initiate Dion Fortune had serious issues with Moina Mathers, claiming she was the victim of a magical attack. Fortune left Alpha et Omega and formed her own offshoot organisation which eventually became known as The Society of the Inner Light. Like Fortune, Netta believed telepathy was a defensive method by which people could be cured. Shortly before her death on Iona she sent a message to her housekeeper at her home on Mortlake Road, Kew, London, asking her not to expect to hear from her for some time as she had "a terrible case of healing on". Whether or not the healing was for herself or some other psychic victim seems unclear.
   Looking at the voluminous and arcane spiritual history of the Island of Iona, it is little wonder that this is where Netta would be drawn in order to embark on a psychic struggle with dark forces. The ‘dark force’ in question has been suggested by some researchers to have been Moina Mathers. If so, she was projecting her evil scheme from beyond the grave, because when Netta arrived on Iona, Moina had been dead for 16 months.
Off the West coast of Scotland, 3.5 miles long and one mile wide, the island of Iona is famous as the place where, in 563AD, the grandson of the Irish King Niall, St Columba, landed with 12 followers to found a monastic community and build their first Celtic
Moina Mathers
Church. With the usual zeal of unwelcome Christians, Columba set about converting the Scottish Pagans, and anyone else within missionary distance. He seems to have enjoyed much success. According to a survey in 1549 it became clear that Iona’s graveyard was the place to be for local leaders, because its graves include those of  48 Scottish Kings, 8 Norwegian and 4 Irish, including King Kenneth I, Donald II, Malcolm I, Duncan I, Macbeth and Donald III.
Columba had some odd ideas about the opposite sex. Like most patriarchal religionists, he was no champion of equal rights. For example, he banished cows from the island, claiming "where there is a cow there is a woman, and where there is a woman there is mischief".
When his work force arrived to start building his Abbey, the stonemasons’ and carpenters’ wives were kept apart with the cattle on the nearby long rocky island of Eilean-nam-Ban, ‘the Women's Island’, where they were billeted in in huts, the ruins of which are still visible today. Columba liked to spend time meditating on the Hill of the Angels - Cnoc nan Aingeal. The Hill of Angels is adjacent to the Sithean, the Fairy Mound, where Netta Fornario would meet her death. It has become known as Iona’s paranormal hotspot, and in the Bronze and Iron Ages the surrounding hills had been the centre of pagan rituals.
   For a pioneering Christian, Columba certainly seems to have had a cruel streak. Legend has it that he insisted that he needed to bury a living person in the foundations of the chapel. This is not a vacancy everyone would apply for, but Columba’s close friend, Oran, volunteered to be buried alive.  During the burial ceremony, however, Columba asked for Oran’s face to be uncovered so that he could say a last ‘goodbye’ to his friend. By this time, and hardly unexpected, Oran, who was still alive, had gone off the idea of his cadaver propping up the foundations. In no uncertain terms, feeling rather upset down there in the pit, he’d changed his mind. So much so that his Christianity took leave of him and he began blaspheming, so Columba had him covered up again, and, apparently, poor Oran’s bones are still down there. St Oran’s Abbey was duly built and was restored in the 20th century, so mind where you tread.

Towards the  end of the 8th Century AD the illustrious Book of Kells[4] was produced on the island. But the Monks were in for a nasty shock, when those sons of fun, the Vikings, arrived. Murder ensued, and plunder saw many of their treasures stolen. In 1203, Ranald, son of the mid-12th century Scottish warlord, Somerled, invited Benedictine monks and Augustinian nuns to settle on Iona. The so-called ‘Black Nuns’[5] under Prioress Beathag, followed the teachings of St Augustine of Hippo, in Egypt, who died in 430. Following the reformation the abbey remained in ruins until 1899.
Iona is indeed a mysterious place packed with spiritual and religious significance, with Templar knight gravestones, Megalithic remains and prehistoric burial sites. The island has been referred to by many as a boundary between life and death. It was a place where the living often arrived to prepare for their final journey. Perhaps this strange aspect of its history is what attracted Netta Fornario.


The newspaper The Scotsman, of 27 November 1929 described Netta as ‘This alien woman, who dressed in the fashion of the Arts and Crafts movement - with long cape and hand-woven tunic …’ As being a ‘magician’ wasn’t what we’d call a ‘proper job’ back then, one has to wonder where wizards found the time, and indeed the money, to follow their craft and set up temples in such expensive locations as London. Undoubtedly most of them had private incomes and came from well-heeled families. As to Netta’s means of support, although she was a writer and journalist[6] of sorts, there is a very interesting snippet of information which can still be accessed on line[7] from the New Zealand newspaper The Otautau Standard and Wallace County Chronicle, Volume V, Issue 214, 8 June 1909, Page 7. It reads:
            ‘The will has just been proved of Mr. Thomas Pratt Ling, of Bracondale, Dorking, tea merchant, in which he left £12,000 upon trust for his granddaughter, Marie Nora  Emily Edith Fornario, provided that she shall remain under the guardianship of his  son George or other person approved by his trustees and shall not forsake the English  Protestant Faith, or marry a person not of that Faith, or marry a first cousin on either her father’s or her mother’s side, under penalty of losing one-half of her interest in  this sum, and he also provided that the income should be paid to her in the United    Kingdom, unless for a cause to be certified by medical certificate, or other cause to be  approved by his trustees, she shall not be in the United Kingdom.’

Whether or not Netta had access to what was then a substantial fortune (considering the demand to remain a Protestant) is unclear. According to Netta’s Kew housekeeper, Mrs. Varney, her tenant always seemed a bit unorthodox, yet cheerful, but stated she had no faith in doctors. Mrs. Varney also said that 'she was always curing people by telepathy'. When Netta announced to her housekeeper that she was about to embark on a 90 day fast, after a fortnight Mrs. Varney talked her out of it.
    She knew from Netta that because of her interest in the occult, she had planned to go to Iona. She left Kew at some time in September 1929 accompanied by a lot of luggage, as well as furniture in packing cases. Mrs. Varney suggested that there was enough to furnish a house. When she finally arrived on Iona, she went into lodgings with a Mrs MacRae in Traymore. Mrs. Macrae told Netta tales of Iona’s mysterious happenings and in return the lodger impressed her with her knowledge of the occult, referred to by Mrs. McRae as 'mystical practices'. Apparently Netta walked across the Island’s beaches and moorland each day, and at night went into trances, trying to make contact Iona’s 'spirits'.
The Abbey Cloisters

    According to the version told of her death by Alasdair Alpin MacGregor[8] in 1955, his information came from friends Lucy Bruce and Iona Cammell, who lived on Iona. The Cammells were part of shipbuilding family, Cammell-Laird.  It lacks some of the more sensational aspects of other accounts, and, rather oddly, landlady Mrs. McRae seems to have been replaced by a Mrs. Cameron. On Sunday 17th November 1929 Netta started to act more strangely.
 “Before long she was installed with the Cameron family, at Traigh Mhor, their little  farm situated lonesomely at some distance from the island’s village and the customary ferrying-place … Time passed: and the strange lady with the strange look in her eyes  and the strange ways seemed to be getting stranger. Mrs Cameron became positively alarmed when she mentioned that, if she went into a trance, she might remain in it for a week or more, and that, in such an event, nothing in the nature of medical aid was to be summoned. Her face now showed nothing of the repose the islanders had noted when she first arrived in their midst. That expression had given way to one of dire distress; and she now spoke hurriedly, if not indeed a little incoherently. At length she told Mrs Cameron that she must quit the island immediately. She had no time to lose; and she must pack at once. Whence came this urgent call, they could not understand.   No postman had brought her any letter; and nobody could remember her having  received a telegram. Recognising her piteous plight, the kindly Camerons assisted her with packing, though it happened to be a Sunday, and they felt themselves contravening the Fourth Commandment. By late afternoon all her belongings were            ready to be transported to the pier. As she knew there was no way of leaving the island on the Sabbath, she retired to her room to rest. The hours went by; and towards  evening she quietly opened the door to tell Mrs Cameron that her hurried departure no  longer seemed necessary. The household noticed that her face, now weirdly pallid, bore an expression of resignation rather than of distress, as though she had just  emerged from some stupendous ordeal. She had become quite old in a few hours. The    Camerons helped her to unpack, and to settle in once more. Early that night, after chatting pleasantly and rationally with them, she retired to bed.”
There was further concern when Netta’s landlady noticed that the silver jewellery her guest had been wearing had turned black. Another report states that she ‘had to leave for London immediately’,  adding that 'certain people' were disturbing her telepathically, and went on talking incoherently about a 'rudderless boat that went across the sky' and 'messages she had received from other worlds'’.
When her landlady knocked on Netta’s door on Monday morning there was no reply. She was missing.  Her body was found a day later close to an ancient village ruined village. Later, stories began to circulate about sightings of strange blue lights near to where she was found, with further reports of a mysterious man wearing a cloak.
The Fairy Mound

   She was found on the Fairy Mound to the south of Loch Staonaig.  Apart from a black cloak she was naked, lying on a large cross cut from the turf with a knife which was nearby, but some reports say she was holding a knife, or, alternatively, a large steel knife or ritual dagger was found close by. Aspin MacGregor tells us: “Not until the afternoon did Hector MacLean, of Sligneach, and Hector MacNiven, of Maol Farm, find her. She lay between the Machar and Loch Staonaig, in a hollow in the chilly moor”. Around her neck was a blackened silver chain with a cross and there were scratch marks on her body and her feet and hands were bloody. Her death certificate indicates she died between 10.00pm on 17th and 1.30pm on 19th November 1929. Many versions of the story say her death came through heart failure, but given the wild, raw weather of the location exposure and hypothermia seem more likely causes. She was buried by the islanders on the following Friday.
What really happened has never been established. Some suggest she was schizophrenic and had imagined she was being psychically attacked. Perhaps it was some form of suicide. However, her good friend Dion Fortune wrote of her in Psychic Self Defence;
            “ … it appeared to me that ‘Mac’, as we called her, was going into very deep waters, even when I knew her, and that there was certain to be trouble sooner or later. She had evidently been on an astral expedition from which she never returned. She was not a  good subject for such experiments, for she suffered from some defect of the pituitary body. Whether she was the victim of a psychic attack, whether she merely stopped out  on the astral too long and her body, of poor vitality in any case, became chilled lying thus exposed in mid-winter, or whether she slipped into one of the elemental   kingdoms that she loved … who shall say? The information at our disposal is insufficient for an opinion to be formed. The facts,   however, cannot be questioned, and remain to give sceptics food for thought.”

In 2001 author Dr. Ron Halliday, a leading investigator into the paranormal who has written about the case in his book Paranormal Scotland re-examined the case of Netta Fornario and believed she may have been 'killed by black magic'. He came to a similar conclusion to Dion Fortune’s, that she may have been ‘out of her depth.’
As in all cases like this, cold logic and common sense can often provide a less than mystical solution. But death by telepathy? Death by psychic attack? Could it be possible? The CIA thought so and invested in such a project. Does telepathy work? As forteans we keep an open mind, but there is a coda to Netta Fornario’s sad tale. It came from Netta’s father in Italy. On December 5 1929, The Scotsman reported: "He was unable to account for his fears, yet could not shake off the feeling that something was wrong. Two days later a telegram arrived announcing that the dead body of his daughter had just been discovered."
We shall never know what really happened. But as Lord Byron said; “Where there is mystery, it is generally suspected there must also be evil.”

Geoff Holder’s Guide to Mysterious Iona The History Press; 2007
In British Library there is Memories of the Deep: Four sea idylls written by M. Fornario, author Gertrude Bracey, London: Boosey & Co, 1917.


[1] Unusual for a Witch, according to  “Doreen made posthumous history in June 2013 when the city of Brighton and Hove awarded her a blue plaque to commemorate her life and honour her achievements. The plaque is the first in the world awarded to a Witch and the building upon which it has been placed, where she lived for many years in Brighton, is thought to be the first council block in the UK to have a blue plaque as well, making double history. “

[2] Fortune, Dion: Psychic Self Defence Red Wheel/Weiser; Revised edition edition (2001)

[3] Still going strong today, you can join The Rosicrucian Order, AMORC, which is a community of Seekers who study and practice the metaphysical laws governing the universe

[4] The Book of Kells (Irish: Leabhar Cheanannais) sometimes known as the Book of Columba, is an illuminated manuscript Gospel book in Latin, containing the four Gospels of the New Testament together with various prefatory texts and tables.

[5] Iona was one of only two Augustinian nunneries established in Scotland. The other was at Perth. The nuns wore black habits; the Gaelic word for nun is cailleach-dhubh, ‘the veiled and black-robed woman’. The locals on Iona called their nunnery an eaglais dhubh, ‘the black church’.

[6] A good example of Netta’s writing, her review of an opera, The Immortal Hour - by Rutland Boughton (1878-1960)can be found at She also appeared in the Occult Review in 1928 where she published ‘The Use of Imagination in Art, Science and Business’

[7] Netta Fornario’s inheritance notice can be seen at  

[8] MacGregor, Alasdair Alpin  see his The Ghost Book: Strange Hauntings in Britain, Robert Hale, London 1955.

Published in the UK by Constable & Robinson, USA by the Running Press Inc. 600 pages of bizarre mystery.

Monday, 23 March 2015


The Bizarre Mystery of the Somerton Man

I remember walking through Somerton Park, a suburb of Adelaide in South Australia, back in the early 1960s. The mainly residential seaside suburb is home to the Somerton Park Beach, and whilst enjoying a cold beer there that hot day, I had no idea that this was the location of what remains as the most perplexing mystery in Australia’s criminal cold case records; the enduring enigma of the ‘Somerton Man’, or as they refer to him down under, the ‘Unknown Man’.

In an age of high-tech CSI, DNA and advanced forensic science, we like to think we’re pretty clever at solving murder cases. There’s usually a clear motive, a list of potential suspects soon builds up. Was it the wife/husband? Was there a girlfriend/boyfriend? A mugger, a robber? The starting point is usually the identification of the victim. Yet what happens when absolutely no-one knows whose body it is? This is a mystery laden down with curious clues, hints and false leads, none of which provide an explanation or a conclusion.
Perhaps no-one noticed the smartly dressed middle aged man who stepped from the Melbourne train at Adelaide station at 8.30 am on the morning of November 30th 1948. It had been a long journey. He bought a one-way ticket for the 10.50 am train to Henley Beach, but the ticket was never used. He was carrying a small brown suitcase which he deposited in the station’s left luggage room at around 11 am. At 11.15 am he bought a 7d (seven pence) bus ticket outside the station for a bus going to Somerton, but he got off somewhere along the route. Some researchers suggest that he alighted at Glenelg, close to the St. Leonard’s Hotel. Between 7pm and 8pm that night several witnesses claimed to have seen the man. He stopped somewhere to buy a pasty. This much is known so far. Now the mystery kicks in.
December 1st in southern Australia is regarded as the first day of Summer. It was warm on the evening of Tuesday November 30 when a couple decided to take a stroll along Somerton Beach. John Bain Lyons was a local jeweller and as he ambled along the sands in the direction of Glenelg with his wife at 7 pm, 20 yards away (18.22 m)   they spotted a smartly dressed man reclining on the sand, his head propped up against the sea wall. He seemed quite relaxed with his legs outstretched and crossed. Mr Lyons had the impression that the man might be drunk, as the reclining figure lifted up his right arm which then fell back down. It seemed as if he may have been attempting to light a cigarette, but abandoned the idea.
The beach where the body was discovered, propped up on the rocks.

Half an hour later, a young couple were out for a walk along the Esplanade, and they had a view of the beach from above, and the reclining figure was still there with his left arm laid out across the sand. His shoes were clean and well-polished, his suit looked immaculate, yet it seemed an odd sartorial choice as beachwear. He appeared to be sleeping, but with a swarm of mosquitos around his face, inspiring the young man to comment “He must be dead to the world not to notice them…”

But the man on the beach was in the deepest sleep of all. He was dead. The following morning, when the jeweller John Lyons emerged from the sea after a cooling swim, he was joined by two men and a horse as they gathered around the dead man, still in the same position as Lyons had seen him the night before, legs crossed and outstretched. There was an un-smoked cigarette behind his ear, and a half smoked stub resting on his collar. There were no signs of violence.
Three hours later the body was taken to the  Royal Adelaide Hospital, where Dr. John Barkley Bennett estimated the man had died, possibly from heart failure, at around 2 am. There was a dramatic twist, when the Doctor announced that he suspected the man had been poisoned. The dead man’s pockets were emptied but did not reveal much. To begin with he had no cash or wallet. What was found were two combs, a box of matches, a pack of chewing gum, a pack of Army Club cigarettes and seven Kensitas cigarettes. But there was another puzzle. Any maker’s name labels or tags in his clothing had been carefully cut away, and one of his trouser pockets had been stitched with orange thread.
A contemporary press report
The police had no leads as to the corpse’s identity. The local press reported that the man found on the beach was ‘E. C. Johnson’, but Johnson turned up alive on December 3rd[1]. A full autopsy and a post mortem were carried out. John Dwyer, the pathologist, found a quantity of blood mixed with the remains of the pasty in the man’s stomach. Further examination revealed the dead man had unusually small pupils, his liver was distended with congested blood, and the spleen was three times normal size. With these results, suspicions of poisoning arose. Yet no cause of death was found, and expert chemical analysis on the man’s organs revealed nothing. So who was this dead man? At the subsequent Coroner’s inquest, the evidence of one expert, who had inspected the man’s legs and feet, suggested his well-developed calf muscles and oddly shaped, pointed feet hinted that this man may have even been a ballet dancer.  The cadaver was preserved with formalin and a cast was made of his bust for future examination. The corpse’s fingerprints were taken and circulated around the world, but with no result.
Christmas 1948 came and went with the Unknown Man resting in the morgue. Then, in January 1949, the suitcase he had left at the railway station was discovered. When police opened it, the mystery deepened. There was a reel of orange thread. Of the few items of clothing, the name tags had been removed, but on three the name ‘Kean’ and ‘Keane’ remained. There was a stencil kit, the kind of thing used to stencil names on packing crates, a coat, stitched with a peculiar feather stitching, and a table knife with the shaft cut down, and six pence. Although the names ‘Kean’ and ‘Keane’ looked like good leads, the police could trace no-one, and the local press suggested that the labels were deliberately left as red herrings. Once again the investigation was stalled.
But the strangest evidence, which would give this case its mysterious title, came when the Emeritus Professor of Pathology at the University of Adelaide, John Cleland, was brought in during April 1949 to examine the corpse. Sewn into the waistband of the trousers was what has been referred to as ‘a secret pocket’. It contained a tightly rolled, small piece of paper bearing the printed words, ‘Tamám Shud’.  A reporter for the Adelaide Advertiser, Frank Kennedy, recognised the words as Persian. They were from a popular work written in the 12th century, The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. The two words come at the very end of the English translation by Edward Fitzgerald of this popular book of poetry, after the final verse, and mean, literally, ‘It is over’. The slip of paper appeared to have been torn from a book, and the seemingly fruitless hunt for the original copy began. The police began to suggest that this may have been a suicide. But there was much more yet to come.
The final words of this famous book are TAMÁM SHUD; 'it is ended'.
In June 1949 the body was buried in a plot of dry ground and sealed under concrete, a precaution in case it needed future exhumation. On July 23 a man from the Glenelg area visited the Adelaide Police station and presented a a very rare first edition copy of Edward FitzGerald's translation of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám published in 1859 by Whitcombe and Tombs in New Zealand.. His odd story was that the book had been tossed into the back seat of his car by persons unknown. The torn extract matched the ripped space in the book. The identity of the man who found the book was kept secret, and has remained so.  In the back of the book police found five lines of letters written in pencil, and a telephone number. The number was that of a 27 year old nurse who had trained in Sydney's North Shore Hospital and now lived not far from where the body had been discovered.  Soon local media began to refer to the mysterious lines of letters as ‘code’. Was our man a spy?
Attention now focused on the new lead, the nurse. Her real name was Teresa Powell, but was referred to by the media as ‘Jestyn’. She appears to be as mysterious as the rest of the case, as her real name was not revealed until 2002. In 1949, when police interviewed her she gave a false surname, ‘Mrs. Thompson’, although it turns out that she wasn’t actually married. When shown the plaster cast of the deceased man’s bust, she thought that it might be a man she knew called Alf Boxall, yet wasn’t certain, although she claimed she once gave a copy of  The Rubáiyát to Boxall at the Clifton Gardens Hotel in Sydney in 1945 when he was serving as a lieutenant in the Water Transport Section of the Australian Army. Apparently she behaved very oddly when questioned, and almost fainted[2]. She need not have worried, because Boxall turned up, very much alive, and he brought his copy of  The Rubáiyát, a 1924 Sydney edition, with him. He knew nothing of the dead man and had no connection to him.
The extensive international publicity[3] rolled on as detectives around the globe investigated, but the man remains, to this day, unidentified. Yet as the Cold War developed, the attention focused on the possibility of poisoning, a favourite weapon in espionage circles,  and the strange ‘codes’ written in the back of The Rubáiyát.  The Adelaide coroner, Thomas Cleland, was informed by an eminent professor, Sir Cedric Stanton Hicks[4] that it was possible that a very rare poison had been used which would have decomposed ‘very early after death’. When Hicks appeared at the court hearing, he stated that the poisons he had in mind were so deadly and secret that he would not speak their names out loud, so jotted them down on a slip of paper and passed them to the coroner. They were digitalis and strophanthin. Hicks suggested the latter as the culprit. It originates from Ouabain, a Somali "arrow poison" which is also named g-strophanthin,  poisonous cardiac glycoside. Extracts containing Ouabain have long been used by Somali tribesmen to poison hunting arrows[5].
So, who was the Unknown Man and was he a spy? At Woomera, they were testing missiles and gathering intelligence. Our man died in Adelaide, which is the closest Australian city  to Woomera. Many see this as a connection. It is also possible that he caught his train at Port Augusta, which is much closer to Woomera. Then there is the bizarre pencilled ‘code’ in the back of The Rubáiyát. What does it mean?


Code specialists around the world, including some of the best intelligence experts, even astrologers, have been wrestling with these random characters for decades, so far, without success.  
There is still an aura of uncertainty around the nurse, ‘Justyn’ and her relationship with Alf Boxall. It seems that Boxall’s army career may also have involved military intelligence. Justyn died in 2007 and some believe that her real name was kept under wraps as it (or perhaps even her nickname) may have been a key to decryption of the ‘code’. Also, according to a 1978 TV documentary[6], when she gave Boxall her copy of The Rubáiyát she had written out verse 70:

Indeed, indeed, Repentance oft before
I swore—but was I sober when I swore?
And then and then came Spring, and Rose-in-hand
My thread-bare Penitence a-pieces tore.

 Just a young, romantic gesture - or something more cryptic?
In 1947, the year before the mystery man alighted in Adelaide, the United States Army's Signal Intelligence Service was carrying out Operation Venona, during which they discovered that the Soviet embassy in Canberra had been in receipt of top secret information leaked from Australia's Department of External Affairs. In 1948 U.S. banned the transfer of all classified information to Australia. Spies would have had to work much harder that year.
The more you dig into the murky undergrowth of Tamám Shud the denser the tangled roots become. For example, three years prior to the death of the ‘Unknown Man’ the body of Joseph (George) Saul Haim Marshall, a 34 year old from Singapore, was found in Ashton Park, Mosman, Sydney in 1945, with an open copy of the The Rubáiyát (reported as a seventh edition by publishers Methuen) laid on his chest.
Ashton Park, Sydney
It was recorded that he’d committed suicide by poison. However, Methuen only issued 5 editions of The Rubáiyát, so either this was a reporting error or a copy of the NZ Whitcombe and Tombs edition. It may be some kind of synchronicity or simple loose association, but a quick look on Google Earth reveals that Sydney’s Ashton Park is a short walk from Clifton Gardens. It was in Clifton Gardens, just two months after the dead Marshall was found with a copy on his chest that Jestyn gave Alfred Boxall a copy of The Rubáiyát. So who was Joseph (George) Saul Haim Marshall? It transpires that his brother was the famous barrister and Chief Minister of Singapore David Saul Marshall. Joseph Marshall’s inquest was held on August 151945. A woman testified at the inquest. She was Gwenneth Dorothy Graham. Within a fortnight of testifying,  she was found naked and dead in a bath face down, with her wrists slit.
Omar Khayyám seems to have had a lot to answer for.
Also in 1949, as the Adelaide police were still scratching their heads over the Unknown Man, at Largs North, just 12 miles (20km) along the beach from Somerton, where he’d been found, another bizarre case unfolded. A two-year old boy named Clive Mangnoson was found dead, his body in a sack, on 6 June 1949. It was established that the child had been dead for 24 hours. Keith Waldemar Mangnoson, his unconscious father, was lying alongside him. The man was taken to hospital suffering from exposure and weakness, then ended up in a mental institution. Father and son had been missing for four days. It gets even weirder; the two were discovered by Neil McRae, who said he had established their location in a dream the previous night. As with the Unknown Man, the coroner did not believe the boy had died from natural causes.
Then came the revelation by the boy's mother, Roma Mangnoson, that she’d been threatened by a masked man who almost ran her down outside her house in Largs North’s Cheapside Street. The man was driving a battered, cream coloured car, saying that "the car stopped and a man with a khaki handkerchief over his face told me to 'keep away from the police’ or else.'" She believed this to be connected with the fact that her husband had been to identify the Unknown Man at Somerton, who he believed to be someone he had worked with in 1939 named Carl Thompsen. Local dignitaries, including the mayor of Port Adelaide, A. H. Curtis, and J. M. Gower, the Secretary of the Largs North Progress Association received some strange, anonymous phone calls, threatening an ‘accident’ should they ‘stick their nose into the Magnonson affair’. The distraught Mrs. Magnonson was so affected by her meetings with the police that she required subsequent medical attention.
South Australia’s Major Crime Task Force still regard this as an open case. The Unknown Man’s bust is held by The South Australian Police Historical Society, and it contains strands of the man's hair. Unfortunately, after being embalmed the chemicals used may have destroyed much of the DNA. In any case, a recent request to exhume the body was refused. Witness statements appear to have disappeared from police files, and the suitcase found at Adelaide Station and its contents were destroyed in 1986. There have been approaches from people in Eastern Europe who believe the Somerton man might be one of many missing from the area during the Cold War. But it looks as if we may never know who he was and how he came to die on that beach. So let’s give the last word to our 12th century Persian poet, Omar Khayyám;
‘They change and perish all - but He remains…’ Tamám Shud; ‘It is ended.’

ON LINE: As this is an Internet cause célèbre with dozens of links a simple Google of Tamam Shud will give you all you need.
Feltus, Gerald Michael The Unknown Man, Klemzig, South Australia, 2010, ISBN 978-0-646-54476-2.
Greenwood, Kerry Tamam Shud - The Somerton Man Mystery, University of New South Wales Publishing, 2013 ISBN 978-1742233505
Stephen King frequently refers to this case in his novel The Colorado Kid, which in turn inspired the series Haven.

[1] By early February 1949, there had been eight different "positive" identifications of the body. Some thought it was a missing stablehand and two men from Darwin thought the corpse was of a friend of theirs, and others suggested he was  a sailor or a Swedish man. Police from Victoria suggested the man was from their state, as his the laundry marks were similar to those of dry-cleaning firms in Melbourne. Following publication of the man's photograph in Victoria, 28 people claimed they knew his identity.
[2] Retired detective Gerald Feltus interviewed Jestyn in 2002 and found her to be either "evasive" or "just did not wish to talk about it," He agreed not to disclose her identity or anything that might reveal it. Feltus believes that Jestyn knew the Somerton man's identity.
[3]  this site offers a selection of press coverage on the case.
[4] Often mis-named as ‘Stanford Hicks’, Sir Cedric Stanton Hicks came to Adelaide in 1926 after an outstanding student career at the University of Otago in New Zealand, war service and a research studentship at Cambridge. He was appointed Professor of Human Physiology and Pharmacology from 1927, a position he retained until 1958 when he became Emeritus Professor. He was knighted in 1936 for his services to medical science.
[5] A sufficiently concentrated quabain dart can fell a Hippopotamus causing respiratory and/or cardiac arrest. Only one creature is immune to its effects; the Galapagos Tortoise.
[6] Inside Story, presented by Stuart Littlemore, ABC TV, 1978.