Lisbon earthquake

Catastrophic Lisbon earthquake of 1755

The city of Lisbon was for centuries the gateway to the Americas, Africa and Europe. A cosmopolitan city of palaces, opulent churches and people from all corners of the globe. In front of the royal residence, was the river Tagus clogged with ships bearing spices, precious metals and….slaves. But this picture of unbridled wealth came to a sudden end in November 1755 when the city was hit by an earthquake, tsunami and fire.

The day when hell rained down on Lisbon was the 1st November. This was All Saints Day when the city’s mainly Catholic population was in church. By all accounts it was a sunny and very pleasant morning when at 9am, citizens heard an ominous subterranean thunder. Lisbon shook for about three minutes with buildings collapsing everywhere and people crushed beneath the rubble.

Then the sea retreated far from the harbour. It returned with an immense wave of about fifty to sixty feet in height. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of people had rushed to the harbour to escape toppling structures in the downtown area. But sadly, they’d dashed headlong into the tsunami.

DISCOVER: Aftermath of the fire at Notre Dame in Paris

The scene in churches across the city was utter carnage. At the Igreja do Carmo, a massive convent, overlooking the city, hundreds of worshippers died during mass when the church roof collapsed on their heads. The ruins have been kept to the present day as a grim reminder of what happened.

Because so many churches had candles burning that day, fires spread very quickly. It was also claimed that robbers and other criminals engaged in widespread arson to distract from acts of theft. Whether deliberately caused or not, the inferno raged in the city for six days. In every corner of Lisbon there were half-burnt bodies lying around for long afterwards.

DISCOVER: A horrific day trip to Georgian London

The Lisbon earthquake literally rocked 18th century opinion. On one side, it bolstered the arguments of those who saw a divine hand in natural events. Lisbon was being punished for its hubris. On the other side were the great thinkers of the Enlightenment. People like Voltaire who penned a sarcastic satire titled Candide where he mocked the idea that we lived in the best of all possible worlds – as the horror in Lisbon only too clearly evidenced.

On the plus side, the Lisbon earthquake gave a big boost to the study of earthquakes leading to our modern day understanding of these deadly phenomena.

werewolf England

A real-life werewolf in England

Just after the Second World War, England experienced a series of grisly murders carried out by a man who came to be known as the Moon Killer. Showing all the characteristic traits of a werewolf, he claimed that the lunar cycles influenced his behaviour and turned him into a homicidal maniac.

Allan Whitcomb Dennis was found guilty of a series of murders after telling police that “the moon does strange things to me“. He was eventually linked to three killings in the city of Birmingham over a seventeen year period. The press dubbed him the “Moon Killer”.

A werewolf in England strikes for the first time

His first crime was on Friday, 10 March, 1933. Aged only 17, he later confessed to the murder of his own baby niece. But at the time, he escaped conviction even though the baby’s mother – his sister – accused Whitcomb Dennis of slaying her child. One account claims that at the time, a medical report asserted the child had died of an epileptic fit.

But ten years later in 1943, Whitcomb Dennis told all to a police officer while doing military service during World War Two. Incredibly, he wasn’t believed and instead was discharged from the army on psychiatric grounds and committed for a while to a mental hospital in south Wales.

Two more deaths linked to this werewolf in England

In 1948, he struck again. Now released from the mental hospital, he murdered an elderly lady, Harriet Mills, who lived a few doors down from his family home. There was a thumbprint sized bruise on her neck and evidence of having been hit by a blunt instrument. Somehow, the jury returned a verdict of accidental death.

It took another killing eighteen months later to finally reveal the Moon Killer. On Thursday 30 March 1950, Ivy Watkins was murdered. Unlike the Mills case, there was clear evidence of a break in – through the coal cellar – and the victim had a pillow over her face and streaks of dried blood across her head. Again, there were bruises on this victim’s throat, as with Mills, but also bite marks.

DISCOVER: Were the lunar landings really faked?

The police carried out routine investigations and questioned Allan Whitcomb Dennis. He had difficulty explaining why there were scratches on his face and all over his arms. Clearly, Ivy Watkins had not expired without a good fight. Although eventually, sadly, succumbing to the werewolf.

At his trial, both Whitcomb Dennis and his sister, the mother of the child he had killed, ascribed his violence to the moon. A psychologist told the court that he was aware of cases where lunar cycles influenced the behaviour of certain people. The jury found him guilty of murder but insane. He was committed to Broadmoor, one of the most fearsome psychiatric institutions in Britain.

FIND OUT MORE: The real Jack the Ripper

Old Stinker – a new werewolf in England

In 2016, there was something of a werewolf scare in the north of England with sightings of a beast dubbed ‘Old Stinker’. Also referred to in the local media as The Beast of Barmston Drain.

As in the United States, England is occasionally gripped by alleged sightings of huge mammals that it’s claimed pose a real threat to people, especially those who are weaker such as children and the elderly. In this case, people around the city of Hull claimed to have seen an eight-foot high half man/half dog creature carrying off its prey.

An American Werewolf in London

In 1981, the movie An American Werewolf in London was released in cinemas. It included a dramatic transformation scene that shocked audiences at the time. And of course it went on to be used by Michael Jackson a couple of years later in the video for Thriller.

Strange Evidence Tony McMahon

Finding primitive humans – Strange Evidence

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!

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?

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
  • Escobar’s Ghost
  • 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?

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.

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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 through the centuries

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.

DISCOVER: Gruesome body of a saint on display

GRAVE ROBBERS: A revolutionary act

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.

Dog dung used to make books look good!

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.

READ THIS STORY: The 18th century transgender diplomat who caused a scandal

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!

Join me to discuss the Knights Templar at the Bradford Literature Festival

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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!