Thursday, May 12, 2022

The Ghosts of the Real Downton Abbey


Highclere Castle

Where is the real Downton Abbey?  The setting for the iconic television show is Highclere Castle in Berkshire, England.  Few fans of the show may be aware of the castle’s connection with ghosts and the occult.

The castle’s best-known resident was the Fifth Earl of Carnarvon who financed the expedition to find the tomb of Egypt’s King Tut.  In 1922, the Earl called archaeologist Howard Carter to Highclere to tell him that the funds had dried-up for further excavations. But he agreed to a final dig. On the 4th of November, Carter discovered a staircase beneath the sand leading to the sealed tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun. The Earl travelled to Egypt immediately. Lord Carnarvon and Howard Carter broke the seal of the mummy’s tomb together.

Fifth Earl of Carnarvon

The Earl of Carnarvon didn’t live to see Tutankhamun’s most precious treasures removed from the burial chamber, he died at the Continental Savoy hotel, Cairo, in April 1923.  Some said he was the victim of the “Mummy’s Curse.” At the very moment of Lord Carnarvon’s death all the lights in Cairo went out and at his English home Carnarvon’s dog let out a great howl and dropped dead. 

Though the curse is scoffed at by many, Lord Carnarvon himself might well have believed in the possibility of such a curse. Carnarvon was a believer in spiritualism and the occult. He was an active member of the London Spiritual Alliance. On numerous occasions Carnarvon organized séances in the East Anglia Room at Highclere Castle.

In his published memoirs the sixth Earl of Carnarvon says that his father became “keenly interested in the occult”.  “My father said, 'If we sit round the table holding hands, I believe we shall achieve a levitation.' 'What does he mean?' I whispered to my sister. 'I think he hopes the flowers on the table will rise several feet into the air,' she replied, and they did.”

The current Countess of Carnarvon recounts having seen the ghost of a footman who committed suicide in the castle. “I turned and saw a man coming towards us out of the gloom,” she explained, “He seemed slightly undefined.” At that point, she told her son, who was driving a toy car, to go faster, and they ended up crashing through a door. The unexplained figure, however, just stayed at the doors watching them.  After the encounter, Lady Carnarvon asked an Anglican monk to bless the castle. After the monk blessed the property, she said that she never saw the ghost again.

The footman isn’t the only ghost that has been seen at the castle. Lady Carnarvon’s father claimed to have seen a “well-dressed lady” who greeted him by saying, “good evening”. 

Tuesday, May 03, 2022

Lost Inca Gold

 Museo de Oro del Peru

     When Spain conquered the Inca Empire, between 1533-1553, she came into possession of an almost endless supply of gold and silver.  One story from the conquest of Peru will suggest the wealth of the Incas.  As a ransom, the hostage Inca Emperor Atahualpa filled a twelve by seventeen foot room with objects of pure gold.  A second room was filled with silver.  The gold and silver were melted down into bars by the Spaniards who, in all, collected 13,000 pounds of gold and 26,000 pounds of silver.  The ransom did Atahualpa no good.  He was murdered by the Spaniards.  This was only the beginning.  The Spanish conquerors, initially fewer than four hundred men, under the command of Francisco Pizzaro, ravaged the land, killing and torturing in a frenzy of gold lust.  Sometimes the Incas had their revenge.  One hapless Spaniard was executed by having hot molten gold poured down his throat.  “Since you love gold, you shall have as much as you want”, said the Incas.

    Cuzco’s Temple of the Sun, was the most revered shrine in the empire.  Only three Spaniards ever saw the temple in its full glory.  These men were sent by the Spanish commander, Francisco Pizzaro, to speed up the collection of the royal ransom.  The temple had gardens in which everything…trees and grass and flowers, animals, birds, butterflies, cornstalks, snakes, lizards and snails were all made of hammered gold.  The main room of the temple held the high altar, which was dedicated to the sun.  The four walls of the room were hung with plaques of gold, from top to bottom, and the likeness of the sun topped the high altar.  The likeness was made of a gold plaque twice as thick as the plaques that paneled the walls and was composed of a round face, surrounded by rays and flames.  The whole thing was so immense that it occupied the entire back of the temple, from one wall to the other.  The disc was positioned to catch the morning sun and throw its rays into the gold-lined temple, filling the room with radiant light.

    On either side of this enormous golden sun were kept mummies of former Inca kings, which were so well preserved that they seemed alive.  The mummies were seated on golden thrones and looked directly out at the visitor.

    Five other rooms made up the temple complex.  The first of these rooms was dedicated to the moon, the bride of the sun in Inca mythology.  It was entirely paneled in silver and a likeness of the moon, with the face of a woman, decorated it in the same way that the sun decorated the larger building.  The bodies of long dead queens were displayed in this temple just as those of the kings were kept in the other.

     The room nearest to that of the moon was devoted to the stars.  This room was hung with silver and the ceiling was dotted with stars.  The next room was dedicated to lightning and thunder and was entirely covered with gold.  The fourth room was devoted to the rainbow.  It was entirely covered with gold and the rainbow was painted across the entire surface of one of the walls.  The fifth room was reserved for the high priests.

     The reigning emperor’s private quarters were similarly gold studded.  Outer and inner walls were sheathed in gold and the Inca’s palace had a golden garden similar to that of the Temple of the Sun.  When receiving visitors, the Inca sat on a golden stool.  He ate from golden platters and drank from golden goblets.

     The first three Spaniards to see the temple did not remove the holiest religious symbol of the empire, the golden disc of the sun, though they reported its existence.  Subsequently the disc vanished, hidden before the main part of the Spanish army arrived.  It has never been found.     The Spaniards conquered Peru over the course of several decades in an atmosphere of civil war and chaos.  Throughout the period the Inca scurried about trying to hide the most sacred religious items from defilement.

      One of the highlights of Peru’s capital is the outstanding collection of Inca artifacts in the basement vault of the privately owned Museo de Oro del Peru or Peruvian Gold Museum.  As extensive as the gold collection is it’s sobering to realize that these are merely crumbs.

Paititi (The Treasure of the Lost City)

Gold, Murder and Monsters in the Superstition Mountains

Monday, May 02, 2022

Railroad Lore: “The Wreck of the Old 97.”

 Fast Mail Train

   After the Civil War, railroad ownership In Virginia was consolidated and people and freight began to move seamlessly throughout the state.  The next seventy years marked the heyday of rail traffic in Virginia.  Two spectacular train wrecks during this period contributed to Virginia’s railroad lore. 

   Seventeen year old Myrtle Ruth Knox had recently joined a company of opera performers and was dreaming of a successful musical career.  Her dreams were cut short on April 26, 1890 when her train crashed into the train depot in Staunton.  The tracks west of Staunton drop eighty feet before reaching the train station.  Two miles into the steep down-grade the train’s breaks were applied, but nothing happened.  The train did not slow down, in fact it went even faster.  The cars shook violently until the train jumped the tracks and slammed into Staunton’s train depot.  The building collapsed and toppled over into the railways cars.  Miraculously, there was only one fatality, young Myrtle Ruth Knox.  A new station was built in 1902, only to be abandoned in 1960.  The structure has since been the home of a number of restaurants.  The ghost of Myrtle Ruth Knox is said to wander around the station’s platform.   

   Virginia’s most spectacular rail disaster inspired the famous railroad ballad “The Wreck of the Old 97.”  On September 27, 1903, the Southern Railway train number 97, the so called “Fast Mail”, was running behind schedule.  The Fast Mail had a reputation for never being late.  Railroad company mangers instructed the train’s engineer, Joseph A. Broady, to get that train back on schedule and make up the one hour he was running behind (the company had a contract with the government which included a financial penalty for every minute the train was late reaching its destination).  Steep grades and tight curves made many places along the route potentially dangerous.  Signs were posted along the way warning engineers to slow down.  But Broady disregarded the signs and took one particularly steep grade at excessive speed.  Because he was going too fast, Broady couldn’t reduce his speed before reaching the curve leading into the Stillhouse Trestle near Danville.  The 97, the Fast Train, derailed and plunged into the ravine below. The train exploded in flames.  Eleven people died, including Broady. 

   The disaster served as inspiration for songwriters and singers for generations and “The Wreck of the Old 97” became one of the most popular railroading songs of all time.  While railway company officials placed blame for the wreck on Broady, denying that he had been ordered to run at unsafe speeds, the ballad disagrees and begins, “Well, they handed him his orders in Monroe, Virginia, saying, ‘Steve, you're way behind time; this is not 38 it is Old 97, you must put her into Spencer on time.’”

Virginia Legends and Lore