Tuesday, 30 August 2011

The Martyrs’ House, Walsingham, Norfolk


Walsingham – “England’s Nazareth” – became a centre of pilgrimage after Richeldis de Faverches experienced three visions of the Virgin Mary there in 1061, and remained so until the suppression of the monasteries in 1538.  It became one again only in the twentieth century when the Shrine was revived.  The Martyrs’ House is a Grade II* listed building situated in the High Street; its Georgian facade fronts an older building.  It takes its name from the fate of Nicholas Mileham, the last sub-prior of Walsingham, and Thomas Guisborough or Gysborough, a layman.  They were imprisoned in the cellar the night before they were taken to what became known as Martyrs’ Field close by and executed for their part in the 1537 Walsingham Conspiracy, a plan to defend the monasteries against dissolution which was betrayed before it could be implemented.  In 2004 an ecumenical “Chapel of Reparation” was set up in the cellar.

In January 1996 the Anglia Paranormal Research Group, of which I was a member, approached what was then the ‘Sue Ryder Foundation Retreat House’, which occupied the Martyrs’ House.  We had heard of strange phenomena at the premises and wanted to find out what substance, if any, there might be to them.  The reply we received from the manager stated that while there was nobody living or working there with first-hand experience of anything untoward, guests had in the past reported strange events.  One part of the house was more susceptible than any other, and one room in particular.  As a consequence I visited on 28 March 1996 and interviewed two members of staff.  Below are my notes from the time, with the names of interviewees removed.  We did not take the case any further as there seemed to be no current activity, and the accounts I received had little evidential value.

After owning the building for some thirty years, Sue Ryder Care (to which the Foundation had changed its name) took the decision to sell the building as it was making a loss (something that does not surprise me, given that in March 1996 the place was entirely empty of guests).  They closed it on 23 December 2005, making the staff redundant.  A charitable trust was set up to try to raise the £800,000 required to buy the building and retain it as accommodation for pilgrims, but Sue Ryder set a deadline of the end of January 2006.  The fundraising effort was unsuccessful and the Martyrs’ House complex was converted (if that is an appropriate expression) into private dwellings.  One wonders if any strange occurrences were reported afterwards.

1996 notes

The Sue Ryder Retreat House – the Martyrs’ House – is opposite the old entrance to St Mary’s Priory, Walsingham, Norfolk.  It is a large, sprawling establishment comprising a gift and coffee shop and book and bric-a-brac shops at the front, with the Retreat House at the back.  There is accommodation for up to 46 people.  Mrs G___ [Deputy in charge of the Retreat House] described the service provided as B&B, but due to the preponderance of religious imagery throughout the building, it is likely that the bulk of guests would be in Walsingham for spiritual purposes; there were no guests during my visit.  There is a chapel at the back of the complex for residents’ use.  Mrs G___ did not know how long the premises had been owned by Sue Ryder, except that it was at least 15 years.  The building shows evidence of much alteration over time, making dating of individual parts difficult.  During renovations upstairs, wattle and daub walls were uncovered, and part of one is on show.  The tea shop extension at the front had previously been a newsagent, and the gift shop had been a bookshop.  The annex at the back was converted cottages.

Mrs G___ is in her sixth year at the House and has not experienced anything paranormal.  Her boss, Mrs P___ [the Manager of the Retreat House], has been working there even longer, and neither has she.  Anything Mrs G___ told me was second hand.

A presence had been felt in some of the rooms and in one of the bedrooms above the chapel.  Rumours particularly attached to room 17, which is at the front, overlooking the high street and Priory walls.  This room is different to the others in that it is at the top of the building and has a small oval window and severely sloping roof, the heavy oak beams making it seem dark and oppressive.  The other rooms in contrast are small but airy and light.  There is just a roof space above, but no attic.  A Spiritualist medium had visited the room at some point and felt a presence there.  She had blessed the room and pronounced the entity “happier”.  Mrs G___ could not say that she had noticed any change in the atmosphere.  Another guest, a local writer again known to Mrs G___, had felt a presence in room 17 which he thought to be a terrified monk from the time of the Restoration (or possibly Reformation?).

In room 5 a guest claimed to have seen a light around the door, although there was no light on outside the room, and in any case the door was tight fitting. (Despite the claim that there was no light on, presumably there would have been a light on in the passage all night).  Some people then walked through the room and disappeared through the wall.  This was before Mrs G___’s time and she had no more details.

Room 4 is directly below room 17.  One night a visitor was in bed and felt a presence sit on the foot of the bed.

A visitor had seen a nun going up the stairs who had then disappeared, but Mrs G___ felt that this witness was not reliable and the story might not be true.

Things had frequently gone missing, especially building tools and kitchen implements, but they had always turned up.  This could be due to the numbers of people involved.  Building work is carried out by volunteers who do short stints, so that there is a high turnover.  Although tools are supposed to be kept in a central place, they could easily be mislaid.  Similarly there are a large number of kitchen users, so that it would be easy for somebody to put an item in a different place.

On the other hand, it is surprising how many things had gone wrong in the building that were connected with water.  For example, pipes leaked, tanks burst, loos did not work, overflows had become blocked.  These sorts of things happened more frequently than one would expect.  No unusual smells had been reported.

The cellar was reputed to have been used to imprison men overnight prior to their execution at Martyrs’ Field next morning.  It is now a store room, tiled floor, low ceiling, recesses in walls.  It is not much used, so there would not be much opportunity to ascertain whether any activity had occurred there.

The ecumenical chapel had been a barn [so I was told; the leaflet produced by the Sue Ryder Foundation said that it was a derelict cottage] which had been doubled in size and converted only last year.  It had not had an ecclesiastical use prior to this.  It is a functional, not very attractive room.  Above it are two guest rooms, and in one of these a visitor claimed to have seen monks walking across the room, but only visible from the waist up, their lower halves being below the level of the floor (presumably therefore visible in the chapel below?).  It is possible that the ceiling level had been raised during the conversion, but if so, there is no visible evidence.  Mrs G___ did not know which of the rooms it had happened in – room 1 overlooks a small garden and courtyard, room 2 overlooks the annex roof.  The lady concerned lived locally and was known to Mrs G___, who would endeavour to see if she would consent to an interview.  The only other building at the back is a house occupied by a nun who has been resident there for many years, but had never reported any strange occurrences.

The regular cook in the tea shop, J___, was also interviewed.  She said that Walsingham is full of ghost stories.  She was in her fifth year at the shop, but had experienced nothing, although she had heard the rumours.  She did report that she had had a ghost at home, which she had never seen, but had heard clomping up the stairs before disappearing at the end of the passage.  In addition it was always cold upstairs.  However, after some rearrangement of the interior, the phenomena had stopped.  She also said that there was supposed to have been the ghost of a hanged man seen by the Abbey gates opposite.  On the other hand, she had been at Martyrs’ Field in the early hours of the morning, up until 3am, but had never experienced anything.

Update 22 October 2018

On 2 October 2018 I received an email from Mrs Susan Hart concerning the Martyrs’ House which provides some information about the building prior to its occupation by the Sue Ryder Foundation, and a subsequent email on 7 October with more details.  She has given permission for me to use her account here, for which I am grateful, though frustratingly the details of what the paranormal activity, if any, might have consisted of are elusive.

As a teenager during the 1960s, Mrs Hart’s late husband used to stay at the Martyrs’ House each year, and frequently after that.  He loved the house to the extent that in 1976 he purchased it from Lady Pigott, a long-term resident of Little Walsingham.  He only owned it for two years before selling it to the Sue Ryder Foundation in 1978 for £29,000.  Mrs Hart was present when Sue Ryder first came to view the house and says she loved it and wanted to purchase it immediately (as Sue Ryder was a Roman Catholic convert the Walsingham location would have been a draw).

During his time there, Mr Hart was aware of paranormal stories circulating about the house and said that often B&B guests would leave early because of frightening experiences, though Mrs Hart was not able to say what these experiences were.  She characterises her husband as a very strong, outgoing character who was a scientist, and not someone who was gullible or easily deceived.

Mrs Hart mentioned that on the first floor landing when she knew the property there were framed photographs showing close-ups of a man’s and a woman’s faces, and she believes their piercing eyes and looks had an influence on guests, who found them unsettling.  When she began staying at the house with him, Mr Hart told her of an extremely frightening experience he had had, so horrible he would not say what it was; it remained a secret, but he continued to maintain it had occurred.

On another occasion, a young student visiting during Mr Hart’s period of ownership was so scared one night that he refused to return to his room, and slept on Mr Hart’s floor during the rest of his stay.  Mrs Hart emphasised that while she cannot provide details of any of these experiences, she is convinced they were genuinely frightening.  I would like to thank Mrs Hart for taking the trouble to get in touch, and I would be glad to hear from anyone who can elaborate on the paranormal history of the Martyrs’ House.

Friday, 12 August 2011

UFOs Over Russia

This article appeared in the British & Irish Skeptic, Vol. 4, No. 2, March/April 1990, pp.7-9. The illustrations which accompanied the article have no credits so I do not know their origin, but they are amusing so I have reproduced them here.

UFOs Over Russia

Are alien visitors taking advantage of glasnost?

There have been numerous reports recently concerning sightings of UFOs in the Soviet Union. The most dramatic have involved aliens perambulating in parks, or even dumping (presumably) unwanted debris from their craft. The bulk of these articles have originated from the official news agency, TASS, which one usually associates with announcements of industrial achievements, or synopses of leadership speeches. As well as fulfilling this prosaic function, it has become a kind of Russian Guardian, chronicling the adventures of aliens, psychic healers and abominable snowmen. This article will examine the Russian UFO stories which have been circulating in recent months.

On 23 June of last year, TASS reported that, according to local newspapers, schoolchildren in the Central European region of Vologda had sighted UFOs on several evenings. On 6 June some children were outside the village of Konantsevo when they saw ‘a fast increasing luminous dot in the sky, which soon turned into a shining sphere.’ The object landed in a meadow and rolled to a nearby river, the children standing no more than half a kilometre away. The sphere split and there appeared ‘something resembling a headless person in dark garb’, its ‘hands’ hanging lower than its ‘knees.’ The craft melted into the air, and the creature headed off to the village. We are not told what became of it. Later, three more spheres touched down in the same meadow, two inhabited. These, like the first sphere, quickly became invisible.

On 11 June, a fiery ball had been seen by one individual above Vologda which ‘showed’ over the city for seventeen minutes but did not attempt to land. Another UFO was spotted by a school pupil the following night. The same TASS report mentions an incident which occurred on 24 April. ‘An enigmatic object allegedly thrice as large as an aircraft flew over the city of Cherepovetsk’, according to a local inhabitant, coasting noiselessly at an altitude of 300 metres, and leaving a ‘large radiant trail.’ It carried blinking red lights.

A remarkable TASS story appeared on 9 July. It referred to an incident the year before when a UFO dumped about 60 kilos of detritus (‘gauzes, balls and glassy pieces’) on a hill near Dalnegorsk in the Soviet Far East. This debris had unusual properties supposedly beyond the capabilities of science on Earth. For example, a gauze heated to 900 degrees centigrade in the open air disappeared, whereas a piece refused to melt in a vacuum even at 2,800 degrees. The material would not conduct electricity when cool, but would when heated. There were other marvels, vaguely reminiscent of the science fiction novel Roadside Picnic, but the UFO proponents did not have it all their own way. There was a dissenting school which claimed that the material was the result of a ‘plasmoid—a plasma product naturally produced by geophysical fields in response to agitation caused by technical experiments or solar-terrestrial physical factors.’ One would have thought that such an important event would have been reported more widely, but there seems to have been no follow up. The story was picked up from the newspaper Socialist Industry. This paper has been one of the main feeds for the TASS UFO stories, which would appear to be an unlikely role for an official organ of the Communist Party’s central committee, mainly covering the Soviet economy.

Socialist Industry is, however, not the only source for TASS’s UFO watch. On 2 August, Trud reported a mysterious burnt spot eight metres in diameter, despite being oval, which had mysteriously appeared on a lawn near Moscow at the end of July. Theories proposed by A. Kuzovkin, chairman of the ‘Ecology of Unknown’ seminar of the Vokrug Sveta magazine, ranged from a UFO landing spot to the site of a lightning strike, although the latter possibility was felt to be shaky due to the fact that the interior of the spot was still green. How this characteristic was consonant with a UFO landing was not made clear. Further happenings were suggestive. A man who took soil samples felt his finger tips burning, and they turned red for several hours. Another fell ill on returning home, and rundown batteries placed on the spot somehow recharged themselves. However, Kuzovkin stressed that although the site could be characterised as that of a UFO landing, ‘that UFO was not a spacecraft with aliens, as many think, but a power plasmoid...’

The following day, TASS quoted Trud’s more mundane suggestion, taken from an interview with the local fire chief, as to how the spot had appeared. Out went power plasmoids, in came a burning haystack, set fire to as a prank (the middle of the spot was unscorched because the fire had been burning from the perimeter and had not had time to reach the inside). The Vologda and Moscow incidents were reported in the Financial Times on 5 August, although the possible solution to the latter was not mentioned.

TASS put out another item on 7 August reiterating the view that the spot was caused by normal means, but using it as a peg on which to hang the views of Vladimir Surdin of Moscow’s Astronautics Institute. He pointed out a few of the human made and natural objects with which UFOs can be confused, and went on to argue that although there might be alien life forms somewhere in the universe, it is odd that no proper contact has been made. ‘It is evident that such a hide and-seek game is meaningless and does not accord with the wisdom of a civilisation, which must be at a higher level of development than our own.’

These reports have been picked up by the US press with great enthusiasm. On 10 August Associated Press carried an article which included a note, gleaned from Socialist Industry, on the experience of a milkmaid in Perm who had been confronted with an alien at 4.30 am. She saw what appeared to be a dark figure riding a motorcycle. When she looked more closely, she realised that there was no bike, instead ‘something resembling a man, but taller than average with short legs.’ It did not possess a proper head, but rather sported a small knob. It became fluorescent and disappeared. A beekeeper saw a pair of fluorescent objects shaped like eggs and as big as aircraft, which hovered at a height of 200-300metres. In mid-July more aliens with no heads were seen by unnamed witnesses.

After a three week gap, TASS carried a short item on 1September concerning a sighting which occurred over the Mangyshlak peninsula in the Caspian Sea. Again Socialist Industry was the source. The report stated that residents had seen a UFO shaped like a cigar but several times bigger than a passenger aircraft, which flew silently over the city until it vanished in clouds above the sea. This one too had tail lights, and these remained in view for a considerable period.

TASS does not have a monopoly in promulgating these stories. On 25 September the British newspaper Today quoted an article from the Soviet Military Review which put forward the view that the US Strategic Defence Initiative should be scrapped because of the possibility of shooting down a UFO by accident: ‘...lack of information on the characteristics and influence of UFOs increases the threat of incorrect identification’, it said. The only way that the danger, with the attendant risk of an alien backlash, could be averted, would be increased international cooperation. An unnamed US Embassy official was asked to respond: ‘It is a novel argument. I am sure the White House will take it onboard in future negotiations.’

But the most famous Soviet UFO incident has to be that which allegedly occurred at Voronezh, 300 miles southeast of Moscow, in October. It received widespread coverage in the western media and highlighted the seeming obsession that the Russians entertain for alien encounters. The story broke in TASS on 9 October, when it announced that a landing in a Voronezh park had been confirmed by scientists. At least three visits had been made, according to eyewitnesses. On one occasion ‘a large shining ball or disk was seen hovering above the park, it then landed, a hatch opened and1,2, or 3 creatures similar to humans and a small robot came out.’ It was claimed that the aliens were three or four metres tall, but with very small heads, as in the Perm encounters. They strolled about near the craft and then went back inside. The experience caused those watching to be filled with fear lasting for some days.

Genrikh Silanov, head of the Voronezh Geophysical Laboratory, was quoted as saying that he had identified the landing site by means of biolocation, discovering a circle twenty metres in diameter, plus two mysterious pieces of rock. These did look like sandstone, but upon analysis it was discovered that they could not have originated on earth, although Silanov did concede that further analysis was needed. Biolocation was also used to track the route taken by the aliens, and it was found that the scientists’ and onlookers’ descriptions coincided. The report ends by saying that there had also been sightings of ‘a banana- shaped object in the sky and a characteristic illuminated sign, as described in the US Saga magazine. It is unlikely that residents of Voronezh could have read the magazine.’ Alas we are given no more information about either the object or the sign, but numerous journalists misread this throwaway ending, and assumed that the aliens who landed did so in a flying banana.

The Associated Press weighed in with a crib of the TASS item on the same day, throwing in references to the Perm milkmaid and Moscow haystack for good measure. Not to be outdone, TASS issued another release on 10 October saying that the reports had been confirmed in the current issue of Soviet Culture. More details, including names of several children who witnessed the events, were given. The aliens had landed on 27 September in a park crowded with people, with several dozen people waiting at a bus stop nearby. At 6.30 ‘they saw a pink shining (sic) in the sky and then spotted a ball of a deep-red colour about ten metres in diameter.’ This ball circled the park, disappeared, reappeared and then hovered. A crowd which rushed across to it saw a hatch open in the lower half of the craft, with a humanoid standing in it. The figure was about three metres high, had three eyes, and was wearing a silver suit with a disc on its chest and bronze boots. The alien seemed to look the place over, the hatch closed and the sphere descended. After it had landed, the hatch reopened and two creatures, one of which seemed to be a robot, came out.

The first one spoke, at which point a triangle, about 30 by 50 centimetres, appeared on the ground. It suddenly disappeared. The alien touched the ‘robot’ and this began moving in a mechanical fashion. One boy screamed but was quelled by a look from the alien, which paralysed him. The alien’s eyes were shining, and the crowd screamed. After a while, both the ball and the creatures disappeared, but we are not told in what manner. In about five minutes, though, they were back, the alien carrying what looked like a gun, a tube about 50cm long, by its side. This was directed at a sixteen year old boy, presumably the one who had been paralysed, and he vanished. The alien went inside the ball, it ascended, and the boy reappeared at the same time.

Later, militia officers and reporters interviewed the witnesses, and found their stories to be consistent. Residents of Putilin Street also took the opportunity to mention the fact that they had seen UFOs between 23 and 29 September, presumably the other two contacts mentioned the previous day. The children at the park were still afraid, the report continued, and the affair was to be investigated by scientists, physicists and biologists. The same day the story circulated widely in the world’s press. The Washington Post used the TASS material, but fleshed out with an interview with a Moscow scientist. After mentioning that the aliens had arrived in a ‘banana-shaped object’, the paper mentioned that the Communist Party’s youth newspaper had published two photographs on its back page, one of a ‘derby-like object’ and the other ‘a bizarre ovoid flying over the flats of the Far East.’ The scientist stated that hitherto the study of UFOs had been seen as an occupation of bourgeois scientists, but recently it had achieved much more popularity, with an increase in the number of sightings. Silanov’s observations were quoted, and the Post journalist added drily, ‘Silanov could not be reached for any further incomprehensible comment.’ An Associated Press release the same day quoted a TASS duty officer as saying ‘it is not April Fool’s today.’ It transpired, though, that Soviet Culture had been the only major national daily in the Soviet Union to publish the story that day.

The Guardian recounted the TASS story but added information on another incident gleaned from Anatoly Listratov of the department studying anomalous phenomena at the All-Union Geodesical Society. He reported a sighting of a UFO by two pilots. One had been blinded, the other later died of cancer. Listratov added that officers engaged on space and missile work had reported a number of sightings. The following day, 11 October, Today provided a profile of The Aetherius Society which mentioned the Voronezh episode, although devoting more space to a South African encounter in which a UFO had been shot down and its two occupants captured alive. Yes, we were being invaded, according to the Aetherius Society, but the aliens were friendly. This was known because the Aetherians’ founder president Sir George King was receiving messages from them by telepathy. Spokesperson Chrissie Aubry called on Britain’s Ministry of Defence to open its UFO files. ‘TASS never jokes and if they take it seriously so should the authorities here,’ she said.

Also on 11 October, Associated Press reported how a drawing by a child who had witnessed the events at Voronezh had been seen by millions on television. The drawing took the form of a ‘glowing two-legged sphere with a smiling stick figure inside.’ Film of the landing site was also broadcast. An eyewitness gave further details of the main alien. It merely had a hump, not a head and shoulders. This it could not turn, but could only swivel its middle eye. It also had two holes rather than a proper nose. An aviation engineer from the area said that he and his colleagues had found intense magnetic activity at the landing site. A list of items detracting from the credibility of the story was also presented in the TV programme. No adult witnesses had appeared, although an apartment block overlooked the park; the story spread only after an article appeared in a local newspaper a week after the event was supposed to have occurred (uncharacteristically TASS had not quoted a source in its 9 October release); and Silanov’s rocks turned out to be terrestrial after all. The TV reporter concluded that more research was needed, distinguishing between experts and ‘Voronezh enthusiasts’. TASS hit back with a release the same day on the US reaction to Voronezh, listing the TV shows which had mentioned it. One critic had been dismissive, saying that glasnost had gone too far, and asking what the Academy of Science thought of it all. Others admitted that the TASS involvement had given the story credibility. There were also questions about biolocation. A NASA representative said that they did not have enough information with which to form an opinion, but pointed out that the Russians had not been in touch with them to discuss the case. The conclusion seemed to be that the story was not taken particularly seriously. It was a very candid release, not at all defensive, considering how much prestige TASS had invested in the story.

The Washington Post the same day rehearsed the main events, and after the banana joke, wondered what had happened to all the people who were supposed to have been waiting for a bus when the UFO landed. It also quoted the Yugoslav news agency Tanjung, which appeared as po-faced as TASS was supposed to be: ‘If the Soviet press and TASS news agency are to be trusted, aliens have carried out a real invasion in the Soviet Union over the past few days.’ In view of this, it wondered, where was a reaction from the Defence Ministry? After this the story seemed to slip from sight.

So from apparently sketchy articles in local newspapers, these alien stories spread until they reached international prominence, and just as suddenly disappeared. Commentators outside explained the UFO fever in the Soviet Union variously as the effects of glasnost or a deep need in the Russian psyche for mystery. Whatever the reason, it is true that Russian UFOs are part of a much livelier paranormal movement than exists in the West. Despite being the homeland of dialectical materialism, these phenomena have always been taken seriously. The difference is that now we can hear about it more easily. The episode still leaves one wondering about TASS, though. During the Voronezh incident especially, people seemed inclined to give the agency the benefit of the doubt, simply because it was TASS. Later, however, an Associated Press article carried a quotation which casts this view into question. Complaining that he had been misquoted, Silanov said: ‘Don’t believe all you hear from TASS’.

Tom Ruffles is a commercial analyst, but finds parapsychology rather more interesting.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Romancing the Stone

This was my first article in The British and Irish Skeptic (shortly to change its name to The Skeptic), edited by Steve Donnelly and Toby Howard. It appeared in Vol. 4, No 1, January/February 1990, pp.16-17. The title was mine, a nod to the 1984 film. The illustration is the one the editors chose to accompany the article.

Romancing the Stone

The lure of alchemy continues...

You might be forgiven for thinking that alchemy had been consigned to the dustbin of history. If the Times Higher Education Supplement [1] is to be believed, it is currently undergoing a resurgence of interest, albeit for its role in the growth of modern-day chemistry rather than any intrinsic merits in its methodology. At the recent annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement’s of Science, its History of Science section held a session on gunpowder. It emerged that alchemy has a respectable pedigree.

There are two variants, stemming from Egypt and China. The former propounded the familiar Aristotelian notion of the elements of earth, air, fire and water, and the possibility of combining them in such a way as to produce gold. The latter, together with Greek ideas, formed a synthesis which was imported into Europe by Arab migrants and gave rise to such words as alkali, alcohol and naphtha. Ironically the Chinese interest in gunpowder originated in alchemical research into immortality. Richard Gregory of Bristol University is quoted as saying that Newton ‘probably spent more time on his alchemical and biblical studies than on his laws of motion, gravity, optics and colour, and mathematics’, although whether he is being admiring or quizzical is not made clear.

The answer may be given in another reference to Professor Gregory, printed in the Daily Telegraph, in an article which also concerns the British Association [2]. It states that CSICOP speakers at the annual meeting would be demonstrating how ‘stories about spoon-benders, ghosts, UFOs and communication with the dead can be exposed. In this context, Professor Richard Gregory, of Bristol University, will describe how, in the light of 17th century science, people stopped believing in alchemy and witchcraft. Superstition faded, and the modern scientific method was born.’ Alas Gregory’s pronouncement seems to be a non sequitur, else CSICOP would not feel compelled to expose cases which flagrantly have not been subjected to current scientific methods.

It does seem that there is a belief in certain religious quarters that alchemical processes can occur, though in this context it can hardly be said that these are precursors to modern science. Two recent news items give details of supposed miraculous transformations in Texas [3], California and Medjugorje in Yugoslavia [4]. The Californians had been on a pilgrimage to Medjugorje, where miracles linked to sightings of the Virgin Mary had allegedly occurred. The description of the Texas incident does only state that ‘dozens reported that the silver beads on their rosaries turned to a gold colour’. The participants in the Californian and Yugoslav events appear to have been more specific, and asserted that the metal had changed from silver to gold (or copper). Happily for the owners, who might have had their faith tested by the power of Mammon, a jeweller who examined one such rosary said that the colour change was due to tarnishing.

Perhaps here the matter would rest, except for an odd story which appeared in the Guardian earlier this year [5], concerning a bizarre little organism called Thiobacillus ferro-oxidans. It would seem that it lives, by some unspecified means, on inorganic matter, and can liberate precious metals (including gold) as a by-product of eating spoil heaps containing such small quantities of the desired materials that it would not be economically viable to recover them mechanically. This may not be exactly what ancient alchemists had in mind, but I am sure that it can be seen as the transmutation of something worthless into something valuable. It so happens that the philosopher’s stone turns out to be organic.

There has to be a catch, and not just the possibility that the main beneficiary would be South Africa, the largest gold supplier and therefore the possessor of the biggest spoil heaps. It transpires that T. Ferrooxidans has a very low tolerance of temperature variations, making industrial applications too expensive and complicated. The article largely concerns the efforts of a team at King’s College London to improve the organism so that it will flourish in a much wider temperature range. Unfortunately, it claims, commercial exploitation of the new version had been slow due possibly to an unconscious aversion to the prospect of using organisms in an industrial process(presumably brewing does not count?).

By definition, of course, this loose usage of the term ‘transmutation of elements’ is about the closest one can come to the alteration of one element into another by chemical means. An element is denned as a substance which cannot be changed into or from simpler forms, except by a change in its atomic nucleus. In theory it would be possible to produce gold from cheaper elements, but the energy required to do so would be so expensive that the technique would not be viable whilst substantial stocks could be dug out of the ground.

However, I came across a reference to an alleged Russian process [6] which claimed to be able to turn lead into gold in an atom smasher at a very cheap rate (about $600 per oz) as opposed to previous processes which produced gold at a cost of between $3,000and $3 million per oz, a considerable reduction and one which would have significant consequences for the world market. However, this item appeared in 1980, and nothing seems to have been heard of the process since. Fool’s Gold perhaps?


1. Martin Ince, ‘Rich seam of explosive ideas amid the mumbo-jumbo’, Times Higher Education Supplement, 15 September 1989.

2. Roger Highfield and Adrian Berry, ‘Britain needs major initiative on science’, Dally Telegraph, 11September 1989.

3. ‘Hundreds of people stay in St John Neumann Roman Catholic church, Texas to talk about alleged miracle’, Associated Press, 17 August 1988.

4. Robert Sheaffer, ‘Psychic vibrations’, The Skeptical Inquirer, Vol 14, No 1, 1989, pp. 23-24.

5. Dan Van Der Vat, ‘Answers lie in the soil—How science is harnessing the microbe to turn base metal into gold’, The Guardian, 28 February 1989.

6. ‘The escalating price of gold could make nuclear transmutation economically sensible, and the Soviets may have a method’, Cleveland Plain Dealer, 27 January1980.

Tom Ruffles is a commercial analyst, but finds parapsychology rather more interesting.