I’m on season five of Strange Evidence airing on a TV channel near you. Most likely you’ll catch it on the Science Channel so look out for it!
In this clip from Strange Evidence below, the team and I look at an unexplained incident in south east Asia where some bikers chanced upon what looked like a three foot human. Was he a long lost cousin of ours startled by the sound of those roaring bikes in the jungle?
Go to 59 minutes exactly to see that segment of the show – or knock yourself out and watch from the start – it’s a great show!
Other episodes of Strange Evidence season five to whet your appetite:
Curse of the Zombie Graveyard
Hunt for the Nuclear Monster
Church of the Death Eaters
When Bigfoot Attacks
America’s Atomic Aliens
Nuclear Demon Mummy
I really enjoyed participating in the Strange Evidence episode on the ghost of notorious drug dealer Pablo Escobar. His luxury residence was being dynamited after his death when somebody filming the demolition picked up a white, translucent figure wafting through the rooms. So – had Pablo come back to haunt his pad one last time?
You can see me at 33 minutes here talking about Pablo Escobar on Strange Evidence
As the opening titles to Strange Evidence explain – the series is based on our surveillance culture. We are being watched all the time by fixed cameras in multiple locations. Most of us also have smartphones and record every aspect of our lives.
So it’s hardly surprising that every so often something is caught on camera that defies explanation. On Strange Evidence, we look at the footage and then the options getting expert opinion on what might be going on. And there’s some pretty crazy stuff as you’ll see that gets captured on phones and cameras.
Grave robbers have been with us for a very long time. From Ancient Egypt to the 20th century. But their motives have often differed. Some were looking for treasure while others simply wanted to desecrate the last resting place of a hated individual.
GRAVE ROBBERS: Ancient Egypt
The looting of ancient Egyptian tombs occurred frequently in ancient Egypt. Indeed, going right back to the early dynastic period when the pyramids were being built.
Everybody knew that wealthy elite Egyptians were buried with treasures they could take to the afterlife. It was just far too tempting to leave all that gold and those jewels locked away in a tomb with a decaying mummy.
The rich tried to ensure that theft of their belongings wouldn’t happen by placing blood curdling curses above the door to their tombs or constructing elaborate ways of protecting their grave. But it just didn’t seem to work.
Because many of the robbers – were the tomb builders themselves!
In 1115BC, a man called Amenpanefer and his mates went on trial for being grave robbers. He was a quarry worker and knew the tombs well. The ideal person to lead the operation. Unfortunately he was caught and more than likely executed in a particularly barbaric way. I suspect impalement may have been involved.
Sadly, looting of ancient Egyptian graves is happening on a pandemic scale today. And grave robbers are also systematically stripping archaeological sites from Latin America to China.
In Italy, tombs from the pre-Roman Etruscan civilisation have been plundered for so long, it’s almost a family business passed down through the generations.
One group of looters chanced upon an Etruscan tomb while building a garage for their home – and somehow neglected to tell the authorities of their good fortune.
But the forces of law and order caught up with them when they tried to sell their ill-gotten Etruscan gains on the black market.
Smashing up graves is not always about financial gain. Some grave robbers snatch the skeletons and artefacts of the dead to denigrate them. This is pretty much what happened to the kings of France after the 1789 French Revolution.
They were buried in the basilica of St Denis for centuries – but up they came and out the door their bones went in the revolution. I visited the basilica earlier this year to see what was left of the royal tombs after the revolutionary grave robbers had finished. This is a short film I made below.
GRAVE ROBBERS: To advance the cause of medicine (and make money)
The most infamous examples of grave robbers are those early 19th century ghouls who sold cadavers to dissecting rooms in London, Edinburgh and other cities.
All in the cause of science and getting their palms crossed with silver!
This was at a time when London’s graveyards were full to capacity. So much so that the dead were buried on top of each other and the most recent burials weren’t that far from the surface.
Two enterprising rogues in Edinburgh – William Burke and William Hare – took to selling corpses to the anatomist Robert Knox. Realising that fresher bodies sold for more, they started to murder their subjects. Eventually, they were both arrested and put on trial.
Hare gave evidence against Burke who was hanged and then submitted to the indignity of being publicly dissected in front of an audience of paying medical students. Gruesomely, the anatomist Professor Munro wrote a note confirming the dissection with Burke’s own blood drawn into a quill from the dead man’s head!
His skeleton is still on display plus death mask and a book bound with leather made from Burke’s own skin. Nice! Unsurprisingly, the tale of Burke and Hare has inspired movie makers.
GRAVE ROBBERS: Twentieth century celebrities
Grave robbers are still very active in the 20th and 21st centuries. Celebrities have been targeted in recent decades in the hope of securing a quick cash windfall. As was the case of the legendary comedian Charlie Chaplin whose coffin was stolen in 1978 and then ransomed.
His widow Oona refused to cough up the six-figure sum demanded and the two robbers were apprehended not long afterwards. They were two jobless car mechanics – Roman Wardas and Gantscho Ganev – who reportedly wanted to use the money to open a garage!
Another 20th century comedian to be exhumed by grave robbers was the British celebrity Benny Hill. He died in 1992 and not long after his funeral, grave robbers got it into their heads that his coffin included some of his personal jewellery.
He was re-interred but this time with a slab of concrete on top and the grave robbers did not attempt a second break-in.
Before the advent of synthetic products, some very odd natural materials had to be used for processes we take for granted today. Take curing leather bindings on books. In the good old days, getting a nice brown sheen on the cover of books was achieved by using dog dung.
And that dung had to be supplied by somebody. Well, there were people on hand happy to provide the raw materials!
The people who collected dog dung for books
Collecting dog dung for a living has to be about the most revolting job ever created. I’ve been re-reading the works of a Victorian Londoner called Henry Mayhew who, in 1851, published a book describing the appalling ways in which people were forced to make a living. The scraping of “Pure” (the slang word for dog excrement) from the streets has to be the worst.
Why on earth, you may reasonably ask, was dog dung referred to as “Pure” and what possessed anybody to go out and collect it? Well, it’s all to do with turning animal skins into leather. In the Victorian period, this would be done at a tannery.
That would be a workshop where animal skins were delivered to be cleaned; the fat and hair scraped off and then fermented using dog or pigeon dung.
Needless to say, tanneries stank. I mean, really reeked. And so they were normally placed out of the centres of town by the 19th century – though not always. The leather created using dog dung transformed goat and calf skins into book covers, gloves and other quality items.
So, if you have a leather bound book from the Victorian era, I’m afraid dog dung may have been involved in its production. Canine excrement was essential for quality books.
The supply of dog poo was done by people called “Pure Finders”. The brown stuff was called “Pure” because it cleansed and purified the animal skins turning them into leather.
Getting dog dung for books was good business
In 1851, Mayhew tells us that Pure Finders could make between eight and ten pennies per bucket – and maybe more if the quality was good. The highest price was for something described as the “dry-limy-looking sort”. That apparently had more alkaline and so reacted better with the animal skins to make good leather.
There was always a temptation to doctor the dung to make it look more “limy”. That was done by mixing a bit of mortar with it. I can’t imagine how that was done – actually I can but I’m trying not to!
A lucky Pure Finder might have an arrangement to regularly clean some kennels and could make ten to fifteen shillings a week – good pay in the 1850s. But most had to scour the streets picking up what they could find. Their income was pretty miserable – this was a job you did if you’d fallen on hard times.
A typical tannery in the south London district of Bermondsey might employ 300 to 500 tanners – and in addition, retain 20 or so Pure Finders. Many of the finders were struggling to keep out of the workhouse by doing any job on the streets that was available. Mayhew heard about one finder who was totally unaware up until he died that he was the beneficiary of a vast legacy of thousands of pounds. Lawyers even placed advertisements in the newspapers to find him.
Fittingly, this man’s name was Mr Brown – I’m not kidding.
Tony Robinson is a TV historian and presenter in the United Kingdom and a few years back, he broadcast a series on horrible jobs in history. Here is his episode on the Victorians!
If you’re in the United Kingdom on 30 June, 2018 then make your way to the Bradford Literature Festival in the county of Yorkshire – where the mysteries of the Knights Templar will be revealed.
Tony McMahon and Professor Helen Nicholson
I’m sharing a platform with Professor Helen Nicholson, a globally recognised expert on the Templars and author of several amazing books on the subject. She has recently written a well received work on the everyday life of the Templars, an angle you may not have explored previously.
Click HERE to get your tickets to The Knights Templar at the Bradford Literature Festival!