The Cumar Killings: “Wicker Man”

On the Welsh island of Anglesey (Ynys Môn) stands a tall hill named “the Witch”, or Y Gwrach. The hill was a holy site to pre-Roman druidic cults, but since then has become a popular destination for hiking by locals and outsiders alike.

In the 1960s, the sleepy village of Cwmmawr (Cumar in English), lying in the shadow of Y Gwrach, was home to a string of horrific deaths that shocked not only the whole island, but the rest of Britain.

In 1963, the Tindle family came to Anglesey for a week long vacation. George, his wife Martha, and their five children went on a pleasant morning walk. When they came to the foot of Y Gwrach, George pulled out his Kodak camera and began snapping pictures. While looking through the viewfinder, George noticed something—a tower or other small structure—on the top of the hill.

George convinced his family to climb up the hill and investigate. When they reached the top, they found an eighteen-foot wicker statue in the shape of a man. George was puzzled and had a look around while his family ate lunch.

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George Tindle’s photo. The only known image of the wicker statue

George found a circle of stones around the wicker statue, as well as small piles of charred wood and ash. Overgrown paths ringed the statue and the stones. George figured the place had once been the site of some local festival.

Once lunch was finished, the oldest Tindle children, Stewart, aged 10, and Amanda, aged 8, wandered off to look for frogs in a nearby pool. While trying to catch the frogs, Stewart noticed something glimmering at the bottom of the pool. Thinking it might be a coin or a lost toy, he leaned in closer for a look. But at that moment, his mother’s voice called him back.

Stewart and Amanda found a newcomer in the clearing. It was a kindly old man with bright blue eyes. He introduced himself as Alan Rhys and offered the Tindles tea, which he carried in a large thermos. The Tindles gladly accepted and Alan poured everyone large cups of tea.

As they sat around, drinking tea, Alan told the Tindles how he had built the wicker man himself; the Tindles were impressed and admired the statue.

After a pleasant conversation, the Tindles became drowsy. Soon they were all asleep. Alan Rhys stowed each of the Tindles in a duffle bag, which he hid in the bushes. He gathered up all of the Tindles’ things. Then, Alan carried the Tindles down a seldom-used path that took him to his house on the edge of Cumar village.

When the Tindles failed to return home, their relatives in Birmingham alerted the North Wales Police. Eventually, police investigators came to the summit of Y Gwrach. A junior detective, Owen Clarke, noticed a plastic wrapper that someone had been discarded in the tall grass. There was no wicker man nor any trace that one had ever been there.

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Police photograph of Y Gwrach’s summit

Owen spoke to the inhabitants of Cumar. While passing Alan Rhys’s house, he noticed little wicker statues and stylized clay models of human faces in the windows. Recognizing them as symbols of Celtic paganism, the devoutly Anglican Owen Clarke was intrigued. But when he knocked on the door, no one answered. The neighbors said that Rhys was out on one of his regular trips to the mainland.

After weeks of fruitless searching, the police reported the entire Tindle family as missing. Their family back in Birmingham mourned while Owen brooded back in Caernarfon on the mainland.

Two years passed. In 1965, William and Mair Jones, with their 4-year-old daughter Reagan, visited Anglesey over the summer. On a particularly beautiful day, they went for a hike up Y Gwrach. When they came to the top, they found an old man, who greeted them warmly, while he worked on a large wicker statue. The old man, Alan Rhys, asked them to stay for tea. He poured them very generous portions. After twenty minutes, all three Joneses were sound asleep.

As before, Alan Rhys carried the Jones family back to his house. Any sign they or he had been on the summit was meticulously removed.

It was nearly a week before the police came to Y Gwrach. This time, not even Owen Clarke’s keen eyes found a trace the Jones family had been there. As with the Tindles, the Joneses had simply vanished into thin air.

Over Christmas break that same year, the MacDonell family of Scotland visited some friends on Anglesey. Craig and Caitlin, with their two children were driving near Cumar when their car slipped on a patch of ice. They crashed into the ditch beside the road. Fortunately, a local man by the name of Alan Rhys helped pull their car back onto the road. It was a frigid day, so Alan offered the MacDonells tea.

The family sleeping in the back of the car, Alan drove to his house. He parked the car in his carport. He then dismantled it by himself, piece by piece, and sank the dismantled car into the sea, leaving no trace of the MacDonells.

As with the previous disappearances, the police searched but could find nothing. Y Gwrach had man forested gullies on its lower slopes. The working theory was that these families got lost in these gullies and died, perhaps they fell.

On February 2, 1966, Owen Clarke, now a full detective, listened to the dispatcher asking for police units. A large fire had been seen by locals on top of Y Gwrach. Owen was now overly familiar with the hill. He snatched up his receiver and told them he would look into it. Owen drove to the island and arrived around dinner time.

Owen grabbed his flashlight and ran up the hill. There, as a cold winter rain began to fall, As Owen searched the gras and mud, he found the smoldering remains of a fire as well as the stumps of candles.

February 2 is Mary’s Festival of the Candles—or Gwyl Fair y Canhwyllau in Welsh. Its analog in Ireland is Imbolc. In Christianity, the holiday celebrates Christ’s presentation in the Temple. However, Gwyl y Canhwyllau is also a pagan celebration of the coming spring. Candles are used in both the pagan and Christian celebrations.

Following this clue, Owen ordered a thorough search of the hill. While that was happening, he returned to Cumar. This time he met Alan Rhys. When Owen knocked on his door, Alan opened it. He was an old man, gray-haired and with a patchy beard. He had on a sweater and knit hat. He looked Owen Clarke over with piercing blue eyes.

Rhys had been among those townspeople to see the bonfire that night. He described his shock that someone had lit such a huge fire—which was illegal—on such a rainy night. Owen asked to come inside, to which Rhys readily agreed. Alan Rhys’s house was small and dirty. The old man clearly didn’t care to clean the place. Owen found more Celtic symbols, such as replica torcs hanging over doorways and animal statuettes on shelves. They were the only clean things in the house. Owen didn’t care to look in the cellar: he feared it’d be filthier than the house.

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Police photograph of Alan Rhys’s house.

Rhys offered Owen tea. Out of a sense of professionalism, Owen declined, even though tea was exactly what he wanted on that cold night. Sitting down, Owen asked Rhys about his religion. Rhys replied he didn’t have one, but had a certain amount of respect for the beliefs of his ancestors.

Rhys dove into a long-winded story about how his family had lived on the island since before the Romans came to Britain. Owen cut him short to ask more about the fire. Owen wanted to know if Rhys saw anything else—movement on the summit or unusual sounds. Rhys said no, he hadn’t.

Aside from being a police detective, Owen was an avid gambler and was very good at spotting tells. Owen later said that as he was talking to Rhys, the man’s nose twitched and his eyes took on a watery character. When speaking of the bonfire, Rhys’s voice changed very slightly, becoming thinner than it had been moments before.

Owen pressed Rhys for more information but the old man held firm and said no more. Owen left sure Rhys was hiding something. But he needed proof. The search of the hill revealed nothing, much to Owen’s mounting frustration.

Over the following weeks, Owen became obsessed with Rhys. Owen spent his free evenings and weekends in Cumar, spying on Rhys from a distance and monitoring his movements. However, his superiors discovered his secret hobby and had him transferred off the island.

On May 1—May Day—another fire was spotted that night atop Y Gwrach. This time, a woman from Cumar, Catherine Llewelyn, had been outside when she saw the fire. She thought she saw shadows moving in front of the flames. And she claimed to have heard drums.

Police detectives found another smoldering pile of ash and branches of hawthorn and blackthorn. However, most disturbing was the blackened human arm—the size of a child’s—lying among thick grass near the ashes. The investigation became a murder case.

Park rangers were enlisted to nightly monitor the summit, which was closed off to visitors for the rest of the investigation.

Owen Clarke was called back to Anglesey in June. When he reviewed the evidence of the fires, he saw na obvious connection. Both fires took place on pagan holidays. Both times symbolic objects were left behind—candles on Candlemas and the branches on May Day. Owen guessed the next fire would be on August 1, or Lammas.

Owen and a small force of police climbed to the top of Y Gwrach on August 1. There, they waited in a hideout for nightfall. However, late in the afternoon, a severe thunderstorm came out of nowhere. The winds whipped water their faces. At last, the team scrambled back down the hill, sure no one would be able to light a fire in this weather.

But when Owen looked back behind him, sure enough a fire blazed. By the time he burst onto the summit, soaking wet and panting, there was no one there. A pile of ashes steamed in the rain surrounded by soggy loaves of bread.

Owen sat in his car, draining a bottle of whiskey as his mind churned over the evidence. He couldn’t let go of Rhys as the primary suspect, even though the man had been questioned multiple times now by different officers. Owen made up his mind: he wouldn’t rest until he had clear proof of Alan’s guilt.

When he entered Cumar, his car was stopped by a lady under an umbrella. It was Catherine Llewelyn. After asking why Owen was there, she divulged her own dislike for Rhys. Catherine was proud of her garden. Rhys, however, had a much better one but had refused to share his secret with Catherine.

After discovering Owen suspected Rhys, she agreed to help in any way she could. It was agreed that Catherine would keep an eye on Rhys and report his movements to Owen. Owen himself returned to Cumar whenever he had any free time.

Weeks passed. September 22 was fast approaching. In old Welsh tradition, September 22 is known as Alban Elfed and is a celebration of the autumn equinox. Owen knew the next fire—and next murder—would happen then.

When the equinox was only days away, Owen caught his lucky break. Catherine Llewelyn called to tell him Rhys had just left on one of his long trips to the mainland. Owen jumped in his car and sped to Cumar. He arrived after sunset.

Throwing all rules out the window, Owen broke into Alan’s home. He tore the place apart, looking for anything incriminating. When he came to Alan’s bedroom, something caught his eye. In a drawer sat a Kodak camera. What was unusual about it was how clean it was compared to everything else in the house. When Owen opened the camera, there wasn’t any film.

Finding nothing more upstairs, Owen checked the cellar. The cellar had cement walls and a packed earth floor. There was nothing in it except a lot of cobwebs and some boxes with nothing of interest in them. What was interesting to Owen were the plates, littered with crumbs, in stacks on the floor and the strong reek of human waste that permeated the air. Owen found a wooden hatch in what he thought was the far wall, but what was really a dividing wall that split the cellar in half.

In this hidden room Owen Clarke found Stewart and Amanda Tindle, Reagan Jones, and Caitlin MacDonell.

All four were dressed in ragged clothes. They were filthy, pale, and showed clear signs of malnourishment. A bucket in the corner was the source of the foul smell.

Everyone froze. No one said a word. Then the reality of the situation dawned on everyone. The captives realized with wild cries that they were free. Owen took them and raced back upstairs. Leaving them inside, Owen ran to his car and radioed headquarters.

Minutes later, almost every available cop in the region descend on Cumar. The locals were roused from their beds by the wail of sirens. After the police chief saw the place for himself, he contacted a judge in Caernarfon on the mainland. By the morning, a warrant for Alan Rhys’s arrest was issued. Alan was arrested later that day trying to cross back over to the island.

The Alan Rhys case gained nationwide fame overnight. Alan Rhys was charged with murder and kidnapping before being moved to Cardiff to stand trial. His four victims were brought to Colwyn Bay for better care at the city’s hospital.

Alan Rhys, a vigorous old man who kept his head during the initial arrest, changed markedly once he was removed from Anglesey. The longer he was gone, the more time seemed to catch up to him. His back hunched and the lines depend on his face. His once sharp mind devolved into a foggy mess. It didn’t take much for the police to get a full confession out of him.

Combined with the fragmented accounts of the four survivors, this appears to be the whole story: Alan Rhys was born to parents who secretly practiced a form of Celtic neopaganism. Ever since he was a young boy, Alan suffered from terrifyingly vivid dreams and visions.

Six years prior to the Tindles’ murder, in 1957 Alan lost his wife and three children to a house fire. Ever since then, he had to relive that night every time he slept. After much searching and performing specific rituals on holy days, Alan believes he contacted Nodens, a Celtic deity of healing, the sea, and death and rebirth. Nodens would give Alan a new family. However, he would have to make a proper sacrifice: a family for a family.

Alan was patient. He had to wait for the right families to come to Anglesey, as he was apparently forbidden or unwilling to take locals. After kidnapping the Tindles, Joneses, and MacDonells, he then sacrificed the “extraneous” members of each family on different holy days.

The four victims he kept alive were the same age and gender as Rhys’s dead family. Stewart and Amanda replaced his two oldest children; Reagan replaced his youngest daughter, and Caitlin replaced his wife. Apparently, on the autumn equinox, Alan was going to perform a ritual that would have bonded his four victims to him forever. What that meant exactly, he never said.

Caitlin said that Alan told her she was an avatar of Sulis, another pagan goddess. Nodens had promised Alan more children from Caitlin. And it was true she was pregnant when taken to the Colwyn Bay hospital. However, she never said who the father was and refused to talk about it.

Alan Rhys was convicted of ten counts of homicide, kidnapping, and sexual assault. The public outcry was so great and the crimes so heinous that Alan Rhys was sentenced to death. He was hanged on December 18, 1966. The press dubbed him the “Wicker Man”.

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Digital scan of a 1966 newspaper headline

Stewart and Amanda Tindles returned to Birmingham, where they moved in with their grandparents. Reagan Jones returned to Ebbw Vale. Caitlin gave birth to a baby boy on January 1, 1967, whom she gave up for adoption.

After being praised as a hero by the nation’s media and awarded for his gallantry, Owen was quietly asked to retire since had been off-duty when he broke into Alan Rhys’s home without a warrant or just cause. Owen Clarke obeyed and went off to live in a house in the Welsh countryside. All that mattered to him was that Alan Rhys was stopped and his victims freed. Anglesey would be troubled by Rhys no more.

There were of course many unanswered questions about the case. How had Alan put all his victims to sleep so easily? No drugs of that potency were found in his home. And how did he hide the bodies of his sacrificial victims so well? Indeed, how did he build and light the wicker men during storms?

The answers to these questions and more were never found by the police.

That brings this chapter to an end. Mourning the losses they suffered, the victims of Rhys returned to their homes. Owen Clarke walked out of the spotlight. Everything was peaceful again. That is until years later when people once more began disappearing on the little island of Anglesey.

But that is a story for another time…

The World Inside the Closet

The names of people and locations in the following article have been changed for the sake of the privacy.

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The home of the Smith family in New Jersey seems like an ordinary, middle-class residence. From the outside it is a two story domicile on a half-acre lot. It is totally normal and from all appearances is constructed similarly to its neighbors. Brian and Jane Smith have two sons, named Josh and Kevin, aged 6 and 4.

Both boys love to explore their house for nooks and crannies. So they were elated when they discovered the eaves closet on the second floor of the house. Subsequently the boys would be gone for long hours at a time. Then they would reappear downstairs, dusty and excited. When asked by their parents where they had been, Josh replied they were exploring caves. Thinking the boys were playing games of imagination, Brian and Jane didn’t worry.

Josh and Kevin made a whole game out of exploring the eaves closet. They would tie handkerchiefs around their mouths to protect from dust and they would both bring along flashlights. They also got in the habit of leaving the door open so they could easily find their way back. Brian and Jane remember hearing both boys refer to a new imaginary friend around this time, one “Mister Scruffum”.

However, one day the boys forgot to close the door behind them after an adventure. Later that evening, Jane wondered where the family cat was, as she hadn’t seen him all day. Josh and Kevin, guessing where the cat had gone, donned their handkerchiefs and grabbed their flashlights and headed inside the closet. Josh even brought snacks and juice boxes for them to eat. He assumed they were going to be gone a long time.

And so they were. Bedtime came and went with no sign of the boys. Brian checked outside while Jane checked the upstairs. She noticed the eaves closet door cracked open. She peered inside to be safe but saw nothing except the few boxes, spare blankets, sleeping bags, and a backup AC unit, all of which blocked her view of either end of the eaves closet. Seeing nothing, Jane closed the door.

The next morning with no sign of either boy, the Smiths called the police. Even before the police arrived, Brian and Jane had figured their sons had gone to look for their lost, beloved cat. When the police arrived and they heard the story, they organized a search of the area and soon after logged Josh and Kevin Smith as missing persons. The hypothesis is that they went off into the nearby woods to look for their cat, who must have gotten outside.

No sign of the Smith boys was found for two days. Brian and Jane feared the worst. Then, in the middle of third day, little footsteps were heard descending the stairs. Brian rushed from the living and saw a filthy Josh and Kevin hobbling down the steps.

Their faces were covered in dust. Their knees were stained and bruised. Both desperately needed baths and were severely dehydrated. Both also needed immediate changes of clothes. The boys, especially Josh, didn’t seem to mind that much. All he was concerned about was that he hadn’t found their cat and he said that once he was ready, was going back in to look.

Brian and Jane, and the police who had already arrived, were perplexed at this. They asked Josh where he and his brother had been. Josh got nervous but eventually told them they had been in the eaves closet. Jane said she had looked there the evening they disappeared. Josh would say no more, but Kevin finally admitted in private to Jane—to whom he was especially close—that the closet was far bigger than it seemed from the outside.

Brian, Jane, and a police detective went upstairs. They opened the eaves closet and had a look inside. The inside of the closet was unfinished, with a plywood floor and exposed ceiling struts with squares of insulation in between. The Smiths began to fear their boys’ imagination had gone too far, to the point of delusion, when the detective shone his flashlight down both ends of the closet. He said he should have seen either end of the closet, but couldn’t even though the entire length of it was no more than 20 or 25 feet. He pulled out the boxes and other stuff and showed the Smiths. Instead of the light of his flashlight reflecting off the insulation that should have been at either end, the darkness inside the closet just kept going.

Brian and Jane were stunned: they had never realized the closet was so big—longer than the room it was in and perhaps even the house—and they swore it had been a very normal closet when they moved in when Josh was a baby.

The eaves closet was too narrow for Brian or the detective to comfortably fit inside, so Jane took the flashlight and crawled inside. She went down the right side. She crawled and crawled for more than a dozen feet, expecting at any moment to find the end. She never did. The police detective followed her outside, walking from room to room and listening to her scuffling movements through the wall. When he reached the end of the house, he could still hear Jane, muffled and increasingly distant through the wall. Brian called Jane back.

The three were more than confused. They had absolutely no idea what was happening or how this was possible. The eaves closet was, as far as they knew, longer than the house was. They tried to come up with all manner of explanations, but after Brian and the detective crammed themselves inside and crawled around for themselves, they all had to accept that the eaves closet was not ordinary.

 

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More police were brought in. A hole was drilled into the closet at the end of the house. When someone crawled inside, they could see the hole and look through it into the room beyond, yet the passage of the closet continued on, well past the exterior wall of the house.

When a drill was used on the closet walls beyond the boundaries of the house, the drill bored through wood until it reached the end of the bit.

Then, as if that wasn’t enough, police investigators discovered a descending staircase 45 feet down the righthand side. The stairs, made of unfinished plywood like the rest of the closet floor, descended down 7 steps, then the passage continued as normal.

A police officer recommended inviting the American Society of Paranormal and Extraordinary Research (ASPER) to the investigation. The officer had a cousin who worked for ASPER. The head detective agreed, as it would allow the police to continue to investigate the house, which they would not have if they had told a federal agency of the house.

ASPER, a privately-funded research organization with a keen interesting in investigating reports of the paranormal along scientific guidelines, sent a crew equipped with a remote probe. The team set up shop and sent the drone into the closet.  What they found they’ve likened to a cave system or anthill.

Both the left and right sides of the eaves closet continue on to a still undetermined end. They’ve found more staircases, which go both up and down, as well as large “caverns”. The eaves closet is 2 feet high from the tallest point of the sloped ceiling to the floor. These open areas are as tall as 6 feet. The tallest of these even had plywood lofts for added floorspace. The passage of the closet never turns, but always runs straight in either direction. There are ramps found that descend at 45° angles to as much as 15 feet down. As of writing this, there have been found 9 instances where the passage splits in two: one going above while the other goes below the plane of the normal passage. These branched passages always reunite later. There are also 3 instances where a plywood “bridge” crosses a pit filled with squares of fiberglass insulation.

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A segment of the team’s map. It shows a vertically forked section leading to one of the “caverns”. The red “X” signifies prints were found there.

The only unique location found to date lies 100 yards down the lefthand side. The space, measuring only 10 feet long, was unique because the passage actually widened from its regular 3 1/2 feet to 10 1/2 feet. The space, dubbed “the fort” by the ASPER team, reaches an astonishing 16 feet high. There are a number of plywood platforms along the walls, connected by either plywood bridges or ladder rungs made of the same wood as the struts. The place has the haphazard look and layout of a treehouse.

It was at the fort that the next major discovery were made: signs of life. Traces of Josh and Kevin’s adventures were found in the form of hand and knee prints in the dust and discarded juice boxes. But at the fort, signs of someone or something other than the boys was discovered. Strange, lateral markings in the dust and large balls of fur were found in abundance. There was also what looked like a nest or tent made of fiberglass insulation high up among the platforms. Scratches were seen on the ceiling struts.

The cat, by the way, has not been found nor has any discernible sign of it.

After hearing the full story, the ASPER team believes all these markings were made by “Mister Scruffum”, Josh and Kevin’s supposed imaginary friend. They are still on the lookout for more definitive signs of his existence and have found more of the fur balls and thin marks in the dust outside the fort. Josh and Kevin have not given any more details on Mister Scruffum.

Upon these revelations, the Smiths moved permanently into a new house. Josh and Kevin were not happy to leave their home and the source of so many hours of entertainment, but Brian and Jane became worried for their family’s safety.

ASPER bought the house from them to continue their investigation. The police have kept the whole affair quiet, but since I have contacts in ASPER, I am able to share this story with you.

As of the time of writing, ASPER has explored a total of 13 3/4 miles of passages with no end in sight. If this whole story is true—which I have no reason to think it isn’t—this is the strangest, most puzzling, most unexplained discovery made. A dream of mine is to go to the house and see the closet for myself. To date the exploration is ongoing, with new discoveries being made weekly.

If I hear of any groundbreaking revelations, I will of course report them here.

No matter how familiar we are with a place—even one has intimate as our own homes—we can still make shocking discoveries; learn things we never knew about the place. Who’s to say what’s lurking inside your own home? What undiscovered mysteries hide just under the surface, waiting to be discovered. It makes you think what secret worlds might be hiding in your own closet…

Invortus

Invortus
Recreation of a 16th century Italian sketch of Invortus

This next one comes out of a recent rabbit hole of mine: strange stories from the ancient world. And my oh my is it a deep rabbit hole.

The story I chose comes out of a little-known Roman text written by a man named Tullus Trebonius Mundus in 118 AD. The text is titled Codex Primarius Romanus in Latin—which translates to “The Principle Roman Codex”.

The Codex was a monumental work when completed, numbering some 30 volumes. Unfortunately, only fragments survive. However, the Codex is interesting as it gave an exhaustive view of daily life in the Roman Empire, particularly the capital city itself. Not only did it chronicle the daily routines and habits of its citizens, but also some of the stories they told each other. Effectively, the Codex includes what we would today call “urban legends” of ancient Rome.

One of the most interesting of these “urban legends” is of a being named Invortus. No where near Olympian status, this minor deity appeared to people in dreams and trances, offering them wishes. But he always asked a steep price.

This wish-granting demon was nicknamed “the Pauper of Rome” (Vir Pauper Romae in Latin) or “the Fool of the Aventine” (Asinus Aventini). According to the Codex, Invortus had been living in Rome since the most ancient times. The first story to involve Invortus said that he helped to overthrow the Roman monarchy by making a deal with the conspirators. Brutus, one of the Republic’s first consuls, was killed that same year at the Battle of Silva Arsia. That was Invortus’s price for overthrowing a government.

Invortus made his home in a cave in the Aventine Hill that overlooked the Tiber River. During the day, Invortus was in his cave or else down in the sewers and catacombs of the great city. Some said he was guarding an entrance to the underworld that lay beneath the Tiber; others that he did not like sunlight. Invortus appeared as a bald fat man with dark, mottled skin and wearing a senator’s toga. His skin was filthy and he oozed tar, leaving black smears on the ground and on anything he touched.

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Modern garden built on top of Invortus’s cave

Invortus greeted any he met jovially, treating them like long-lost friends. He was indeed a friend to all, rich or poor. He made deals with any who wished, so long as they were at least 25 (25 being the age of full maturity in Roman law). If someone wanted to make a deal with Invortus, he would often come to them in their dreams. But there are a number of instance where people met him at night in the streets of Rome.

When meeting them in the waking world, he always asked politely for a penny, since according to the Codex, he always claimed poverty. Giving Invortus a penny was seen as a courtesy: to refuse would be to incur his malice. And Invortus had a wicked sense of humor.

One freedman, Hippocrates, who refused to give Invortus a penny was later taken to surgeons with a burning pain in his colon. When the surgeons drugged him, they found ten copper pennies lodged in the man’s rectum. Hippocrates survived the surgery, but his bowels never did work the same again.

When one did make a contract with Invortus, they were bound to it. Invortus was clever and an expert in legalism. There was no loophole that one could exploit to escape their contract. And the price that Invortus asked always had unexpected consequences.

There was really only one thing that would prevent Invortus making contact with someone. Invortus loved filth: he was filthy himself and lived in dark, disgusting places. Therefore, it made sense he hated baths. There are no instances of Invortus ever entering a bathhouse or getting too near a water reservoir.

There is an account of a young man, Valerius Nummus, fleeing his debt to Invortus by hiding in a public bath. Valerius  hid in the baths for two days. Thinking Invortus had left, Valerius exited the building. At once, the man was struck by a runaway cart and killed.

The stories written in the Codex make it appear Invortus was active all times of the year. Though, his favorite time to mingle openly with the people of Rome was during the festival of Saturnalia in December. During this 6-day long celebration was marked by public feasting, pranks, gift-giving, and the reversal of social norms. Masters served their slaves, that sort of thing. Understandably, Invortus loved this. He would spend the holiday going to the evening feasts and spending long hours of the night at the orgies of wealthy men and the brothels of the poorest neighborhoods. It became a tradition as well not to bathe on the last day of Saturnalia. Romans would also drop pennies down wells or fountains to please Invortus.

The most famous historical event Invortus is linked to in the Codex is the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD. The young emperor Nero sought Invortus fervently. The palace was in a perpetual state of Saturnalian lopsidedness with the emperor parading around dressed as a slave girl. Every day, slaves dumped pennies into the cities’ fountains and some slaves were sent down into the sewers to find Invortus.

At last, Invortus appeared to the emperor in a dream. Nero asked to be made the best harp-player in the Empire. In return, he promised to give Invortus yearly offerings. In addition, Invortus asked for one tenement building in the city to be given to him. It was agreed and when Nero woke up the next morning, he found he could play the harp like no other. He shocked the palace slaves and visiting senators by his extraordinary skill, moving many to tears by the beauty of his music.

All was well for Nero for about a month. Then for a building project, Nero sent men to tear down a certain tenement building in poor condition. Nero had quite forgotten this was the building he had given to Invortus. That night a fire started in the upper floors of the building. The fire spread, raging for 6 days and devouring much of the city of Rome.

As the flames rose higher and higher, Nero stood by a window, playing his harp. With each passing moment his prodigious skill left him. Nero wept, not so much for his city but for the gift he had now lost.

Mundus’s Codex treats Invortus as if he were a curiosity, though one that was still around. The author had not made up his mind if Invortus was real or a popular myth among the city’s residents. However, there is one source outside of the Codex that mentions Invortus, though only in passing. An account of work done in the city during the reign of Emperor Theodosius I (379-395) states that a “cave on the Aventine, long associated with a pagan spirit of the [Tiber] river, was filled with rubble and sealed in with cement”. There is a good chance this is referring to the home of Invortus.

That is the last textual reference to Invortus. For all we know, the Fool of the Aventine was buried by rubble in his cave. There are anecdotal rumors of occultists in the Renaissance seeking Invortus in the ancient sewers of Rome. And even today, some theorize Invortus now lives in the Vatican Archives where he offers wishes to the Vatican. As is his way, he asks for little presents in return or promises which prove unexpectedly hard to keep.

This may all be fairy tale talk. But many in the ancient world took Invortus’s existence seriously. He was a genie, of sorts, with a twisted sense of humor. Who knows if this mythical granter of wishes was ever real or just a story the people of Rome told themselves to explain the often capricious nature of life.

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The Roman sewers: once home to a wish-granting demon?

Pokoliszaj Castle

This “haunted” castle is in Hungary near the Romanian border. Built in the 1200s, Pokoliszaj Castle has a peculiar history. From a portal to Hell to dozens of iron coffins, Pokoliszaj has been an enigma ever since it was built.

Believed to have been constructed sometime during the reign of King Béla IV (1235-1270), Pokoliszaj sits atop a craggy hill in eastern Hungary. The surrounding area is sparsely populated and heavily forested.

Folklore has always abounded concerning the area long before the castle was built. Old tales of man-eating ogres stalking the forests, the silhouettes of human figures seen at night, sleep paralysis, and accounts of strange, half human half-animal monsters have existed since at least the Christianization of Hungary in the 10th century.

Though the position of the castle is easily defensible, it remains unclear to most mainstream historians why the castle was built. The area was even more lightly populated in the 13th century and the Pokoliszaj region was not threatened enough by invasion to warrant the building of such a substantial stronghold.

The outer walls are roughly hexagonal in shape with four primary towers. The inner bailey is divided up into many small sections by internal walls and watchtowers. A circular wall surrounds the inner bailey, in which sits the two largest buildings of the castle: the keep and the church.

Aside from these two buildings, the only other structure still standing is a small stone outbuilding near the church.

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Pokoliszaj Castle’s exterior wall

Why Pokoliszaj is called the “Inverted Castle” is because the castle’s fortifications are all turned inward rather than outward. That is to say, the castle’s outer walls have crenellations on both sides of the ramparts and an unusual number of inward-facing arrow loops. Projecting guard towers protect the inside face of the main gate, rather than the outside.

All these features combine to give the impression that this castle was built to keep people in, rather than keep them out.

The story only gets stranger from here. Housed in the outbuilding in the inner bailey, is a deep hole, about four feet in diameter. This mysterious hole lies at the physical and figurative center of the castle.

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Could this be a gate to the underworld?

This fabled “Pit of Pokoliszaj” has for centuries been believed to be either bottomless or a gateway to the underworld. No records of anyone—past or present—seeing the bottom exist.

The pit became infamous when, according to legend, King Béla offered freedom to any convicted criminal who volunteered to be lowered into the pit on a rope. One man, known only as János, step forward. János was given a torch and lowered into the darkness on a strong rope. Soon, the light of his torch disappeared in the depths of the pit.

After a half hour of continued descent, distant sounds, like animals roaring, came echoing up the shaft. Then the rope jerked and bucked, threatening to break loose from the workers’ grips. The rope was pulled up as quickly as the men could. They found however that János was missing: the rope had been cut. János was never sen or heard from again.

After János, no criminal ever volunteered to enter the pit. Those who had committed the most heinous crimes were thrown down the Pokoliszaj pit. The executioners claimed you could listen to their screams for the better part of an hour, the screams growing fainter and fainter as the prisoners tumbled down through endless darkness.

Worse yet, local legends tell that nightmarish creatures would sometimes crawl out from the pit. Various countermeasures were devised over the centuries, from offering sacrifices, plugging the hole, or annual hunts by local warriors. None worked until Béla built the castle. This seems to have checked the pit’s harmful influence on the region and its inhabitants.

The Pokoliszaj Preservation Society based in nearby Debrecen has been influential in consolidating all the legends concerning Pokoliszaj and studying the castle. Of great interest to them has been the keep. The castle’s church—while an excellent example of early Gothic architecture—was almost completely destroyed in an inferno sometime in the 1400s or 1500s.

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The interior of Pokoliszaj chapel

The keep is five stories tall with a sizable undercroft. The first two floors seemed to have been devoted solely to barracks-style living spaces for perhaps a hundred men. Wooden outbuildings would have held even more men, but these are almost completely gone. 

The upper three floors of the keep are filled with numerous hallways that twist and turn in no coherent pattern like a maze. All along the halls are heavy doors which lead to small, unadorned cells. Many of doors are scratched on the inside and so are the walls of the cells. Analysis has shown that the general coating of grime in many of the cells is partially made of dried blood.

In the keep’s undercroft,  fifty iron coffins have been found over the years. These coffins were most likely additional means to restrain the castle’s unusual inmates. A wood engraving found by the preservation society shows ten tall, naked humanoid figures with unusually long nails being bound and sealed in the coffins.

None of the castle’s rooms stand out from each other except for an unusually large room at the top of the north tower on the fifth floor.

This room is called the Bride’s Room because of a metal engraved plate found there that depicts a woman in a long gown and a veil that covers her face. While the cells measure 4 feet by 7 feet, the Bride’s Room measures 1,000 square feet with three accompanying side rooms for storage and hygiene. The room was comfortably furnished, with a four-poster bed, couch and table, and tapestries—many of which are now completely destroyed.

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The bride’s bed

It appears Pokoliszaj Castle had a very dignified guest. And it was a guest who lived there—albeit one who couldn’t leave—since the door to the Bride’s Room locks only from the outside.

The castle was thought to be inhabited by an unnamed order of monastic knights. Whenever a monster would be spit out of the abyss, it would presumably either be killed or imprisoned.

Another telling of the story has it that the knights would eventually go insane—even transform into hideous shapes—after their long vigil over the pit and they would be imprisoned in the keep’s many cells.

For all we know, the knights were successful for many years until the appearance of the mysterious “bride”. Apparently, early in the morning after All Saint’s Eve sometime in the late 13th or early 14th centuries, a knight discovered the veiled bride laying unconscious on the precipice of the pit. She was brought up and locked in the storage room that would eventually become her bedchamber.

Nothing is known about the bride. She apparently never gave the knights any information about her origins or purpose. No one knows her name to this day. But it is clear the knights treated her with respect, even if they remained suspicious or fearful.

However, at some uncertain time years later, a local popular version of the Pokoliszaj myth tells how the bride gave birth to her son. This son, described as a pale boy who grew to manhood in hours, brought about the destruction of the castle by releasing his mother and all the other prisoners of Pokoliszaj.

It is true all the cells were found open, many of the doors hang on busted hinges. This may be due to time or force, we do not know. The iron coffins previously mentioned had their lids thrown off by extreme force from the inside.

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Iron coffins found underneath the keep

It is clear something happened at Pokoliszaj Castle that brought it to its end.

When the castle fell and what caused its fall is still unknown for certain. It is known a fire destroyed the church around 1450. It was never rebuilt afterwards, indicating 1450 as the date the castle fell. It could be that the castle was attacked by enemy forces unaware of the castle’s true inhabitants. This may be unlikely, since 15th century Ottoman chronicles tell how Turkish armies avoided the region when attacking Hungary.

Pokoliszaj Castle was always a forgotten place, even in the 13th century when it was built. There are few records of its existence. One is a letter from the chief architect to Béla reporting delays in construction.

Another reference comes from a record of royally-controlled castles in Hungary from 1435. The name “Pokoliszaj” appears at the end and it has a strange little mark beside it, like an asterisk. What this means is anyone’s guess.

Pokoliszaj Castle was left to rot for centuries until the conservation society formed in 1989 to keep the castle from falling into total ruin. The Pokoliszaj Preservation Society played a large part in uncovering the castle’s story, and thus they contributed a large amount of material to this post.

Even with all the preservation society’s efforts, mysteries shroud the castle. What lies at the bottom of the pit? How much of the legends are true? Did this “bride” character really exist, and if so, who was she and what hand did she have in the castle’s fall? If the stories are true, then we are looking at Europe’s first ever supermax prison. It also begs the question: where is the bride and her child now?

Who knows when these questions will be answered. There is a lot of room for conjecture. Are we looking at a former prison to monstrous beings or a completely misunderstood, secluded castle that fell to invaders sometime in the 15th century?

What do you think?

Wormwood’s Sting

For our first look into the supernatural, we’ll investigate a story that involves a peculiar piece of art and a string of disappearances, tragic accidents, and murder.

The story of Wormwood’s Sting begins in 1907 with Spanish-born painter Alonso de Fitella arriving in Paris. De Fitella was an early explorer of the Cubist style of art. He spent his first few years churning out paintings which all failed to gain any attention. His works were overshadowed by those of the now well-known Picasso. Feeling desperate and suicidal, Alonso ceased painting. In 1910, he vanished.

His small number of friends couldn’t find him at his apartment or his usual haunts. Where Alonso had gone was revealed later. He had taken to the streets and spent three weeks sleeping in gutters, fraternizing with prostitutes, getting drunk on absinthe, and reportedly drawing paintings made of fecal matter and his own blood on alley walls.

Later rumors among painters who knew de Fitella said that the man had fallen in with a cult and had taken part in their ritual orgies. De Fitella never confirmed this. If they are true, it may explain what followed. After three weeks, Alonso suddenly reappeared much to his maid’s shock one morning. She came in to find him clean-shaven and sitting at the breakfast table.

While at first relieved, Alonso’s maid—a woman named Chantal—soon became worried by her employer’s new behavior. De Fitella, who now drank absinthe daily, would simply sit in his study in front of a blank canvas for most of the day and night. When this behavior went on for three days and nights, Chantal told Albert Laurence, Alonso’s only real confidant and financial patron. When confronted by Albert, de Fitella replied that he was, “Letting the work speak to him and take full shape in his mind before he put it on the canvas.” The very next night, while sitting alone in his workshop, Alonso de Fitella sat up and began to paint. By all accounts, de Fitella completed the painting in that one night. Around five in the morning, Alonso set down his brush and scrawled his characteristic sigil on the back of the canvas. Then he stepped back to survey his work.

It was a distinct break from his previous work done in a surreal, Neo-Romantic style. It was dark, mysterious, and powerful: de Fitella knew immediately this was his masterpiece. Christening it Wormwood’s Sting, de Fitella set about contacting art galleries and patrons. But after a private viewing was held, the audience greeted the painting with disgust or mocking laughs.

Wormwood’s Sting depicts a young boy in a school uniform standing alone in a forest. He holds a bright red balloon in his hand. In front of him is an absinthe plant and immediately behind him is a bush covered in mistletoe. In the background is a dark and foreboding-looking forest. The truly strange aspects of the painting begin with the boy. Each viewer sees his expression as something different. Some say he is upset, others that he is scowling. A few have said the boy looks down right malevolent and that his expression makes them unsettled.

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A purported photograph of Wormwood’s Sting. The date and photographer is unknown

Stranger still, about one in seven viewers claim they see a tall, dark figure standing among the trees in the background. These same people see the boy as being deeply upset, even on the verge of tears. Thew shadowy figure deeply disturbs these viewers, who often feel cold regardless of the ambient temperature when looking at the painting.

The only interested party at the viewing was a man who ran a house of horrors attraction outside Paris. He offered de Fitella well below the asked price and promised to, “Hang that monstrosity where it belonged.”

Branded a lunatic by the entire European high art community, Alonso de Fitella set fire to his apartment a month after the private viewing. Both de Fitella and his maid Chantal died in the fire. Miraculously, a shelf had fallen on Wormwood’s Sting, shielding it from the flames. Though when it was found, the painting was damaged by soot. Because de Fitella had no immediate family, the painting was put in a warehouse for longterm storage.

As it happened, Herbert D. Wade, an American art collector on vacation in England, heard about the bizarre last work of de Fitella and purchased it for a small fee. Wormwood’s Sting was shipped to England, where it was brought onboard the RMS Titanic with Wade.

We all know the fate of the Titanic, so suffice to say Herbert Wade did not survive the accident. His recent purchase, however, did somehow. The painting was found onboard the RMS Carpathia, one of the rescue ships of Titanic passengers. Wormwood’s Sting was left to rot in a Brooklyn warehouse for more than twenty years. There, the painting was left wrapped in sheets of brown paper in a forgotten corner.

In 1935, the Umberhill Art Gallery in Boston uncovered receipts of Herbert Wade’s purchase of a then unknown work of art titled Wormwood’s Sting by an unheard of painter. Umberhill began an investigation to find this lost painting. So it was not until 1937 that the painting was found in the New York warehouse. When the sheets of brown paper were cut and pulled away, the Umberhill collectors were divided in reaction. Some were revolted and felt they had wasted their time while the rest were intrigued by this bizarre painting that at once drew them closer and yet made them shiver. It was decided to take the painting and hang it as the centerpiece of a new exhibit celebrating macabre themes that Halloween. Umberhill did not recognize the sigil on the back of the painting and so they did not know the painting’s creator, further adding to the intrigue.

Wormwood’s Sting generated instant interest. Journalists and art critics crowded around it at its first-ever public unveiling. However, like with the Umberhill collectors, the critics were deeply divided in their reactions. Some were so disturbed they had to leave Umberhill immediately, citing nausea and sudden paranoia as the causes for their departure. Others called the painting “trash” and wondered why the gallery ruined their otherwise tastefully macabre exhibit with it. And yet others found the painting off-putting, but not to the point where they had to leave. Instead these people reported that they found the boy’s expression menacing and there was something else—something ethereal—that they found disturbing, yet they could not name exactly what it was.

It was here at Umberhill that three of the painting’s strangest features were first documented. The first was the shadowy figure I mentioned earlier that a small number of people see lurking in the background. Some critics mentioned the strange figure to their colleagues, but these people said they saw only trees and nothing that looked remotely like a human shape. This of course puzzled the crowd. The second was Wormwood’s Sting aversion to being captured on camera. All photographs were found out afterwards to be blurred beyond recognition. Often times the streaks made odd patterns. Some even claimed to have seen ghost images of decaying faces or elongated human figures in the photos. To date, not a single clear photograph or video recording of Wormwood’s Sting exists.

The third trait has to do with the boy. This is one of the painting’s most elusive features and may simply be do to this journalist’s bad memory. When the man came back from using the bathroom he yelped with fright. When asked what was wrong, he claimed that the boy’s expression had changed to one of hate and that he was now staring right at the journalist, who was standing in a different place from before.

After its mixed reception, Wormwood’s Sting was removed from public display to a small private room. In the years following 1937, the painting acquired an infamous reputation as the “bewitched painting of Boston” and drew visitors from all over the American Northeast.

The trouble began almost immediately. Phil Mack, the nightwatchman at Umberhill, gave numerous reports of hearing a boy crying at night when there was no one else there. In addition, he sometimes heard what he described as, “Bone-chilling, malevolent laughter”. Phil, a retired policeman and no coward, grew more and more scared of the building and thought of quitting. Umberhill management did not take his complaints seriously and soon Phil stopped reporting the sounds, though he claimed in his journals that he still heard them. Umberhill told Phil that the crying were stray cats and the other noise might be construction noise or engines backfiring.

The curators at Umberhill started telling similar stories. They were scared to be in the room alone with the painting; the janitor hated cleaning the room and he became very irritable when he did so; one of the curators who had been perfectly healthy up to 1937, was checked into a mental asylum with schizophrenia in 1944. Things remained the same until 1947. One curator, Mary White, complained to her coworkers of troubled sleep and strange dreams. These dreams were apparently so bad she started seeing a therapist. In the dreams, she said she was lost in a dark wood and being chased by an evil presence. These dreams changed over time, to where she was routinely assaulted by a shadowy figure—the same figure some people saw lurking in the background of Wormwood’s Sting.

White’s condition worsened when she started seeing a small boy holding a balloon in different rooms of her house while she was awake. At night, the boy would speak to her, telling her things she never repeated to anyone. Mary stopped being able to sleep at all. She became more and more paranoid that an evil, shadowy figure was stalking her in the waking world. When no therapy or medication helped, Mary took matters into her own hands. She came to Umberhill one morning intent on destroying the painting. Pulling a knife, Mary rushed at it. But according to witnesses, Mary was unable to land a single strike, even though she slashed at Wormwood’s Sting again and again. It was as if an invisible force was preventing her from doing so. Sobbing uncontrollably and nearly mad with lack of sleep, Mary White slit her own throat then and there. She died while being rushed to the nearest hospital.

Mary White’s death was a turning point for both Umberhill and Phil Mack. The art gallery’s sinister reputation hurt its number of visitors over the following years. Phil Mack had been living with the haunting sounds for the past several years; apparently having taken his managers’ advice and summed them up to rational sources. He had, however, started drinking heavily to compensate. But after White’s death, Phil’s personality changed rapidly. He wrote in his journal that he began seeing blood seep out of the painting some nights. Other times, he would see the specter of Mary White, her throat slashed and bloody, wandering the halls of Umberhill. Phil grew very protective of the painting. He would stand guard over it when he felt the spirit of Mary White was around, since he thought she would try to destroy it. Phil kept these developments to himself. Outwardly, he grew more and more distant from his coworkers and his own family. None of Phil’s coworkers noticed anything: Phil had always been a quiet man. However, he treated his family worse and worse. Phil had married a woman named Nancy, who was some twenty years his junior. By 1950, Phil, who was over fifty, had three children between the ages of six and eleven.

Phil kept a closer and closer watch on his children. He only let them leave the house for school or for supervised walks. He never gave a real explanation for this, though it was revealed later from his journals to have been from a deep fear of a shadowy figure that he feared was stalking his children. In mid April, 1951, the local school noticed none of the Mack children had attended school for a whole week. An officer was dispatched to the Mack residence but was shouted at by Phil, who refused to let the officer enter. The next week, two more officers were sent, this time with a warrant to search the home. When they arrived they made a grisly discovery that shocked the entire city of Boston.

Inside the home were all five members of the Mack family, dead. All were seated. The three children on the sofa and Phil and Nancy in chairs. All the children and Phil had been shot. Nancy, who was tied to her chair, had had her throat cut. On the wall facing the family was a mysterious glyph, etched into the drywall with a bloody knife point.

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An artist’s rendering of Alonso de Fitella’s personal insignia

After a lengthy investigation, this is what police assumed happened. Phil had sat each of his children down and shot them all in the head. Nancy either came home to find her children dead or else was bound and made to watch. Phil had then beaten her and then cut her throat with such ferocity it nearly removed her head. He then used the knife to carve the glyph into the wall, take a seat, and shoot himself. Red balloons had been tied to the wrists of his two sons.

Phil’s journals lead police to scrutinize Wormwood’s Sting. On the back they found de Fitella’s personal sigil which was the same they’d found on Mack’s wall. Umberhill was shut down and the painting taken as evidence. The “Mack Massacre” as it was called, shocked Boston. The Macks were a respectable, middle-class family. Phil Mack had been a trusted police officer and by all accounts, a kind husband and father.

Umberhill remained closed and the building demolished by popular request a year later. Umberhill management were arrested for withholding evidence for both the Mary White suicide and the Mack deaths. No one was officially charged however and none of them went to prison. After a few years, the city forgot about Umberhill and Phil Mack. Wormwood’s Sting was forgotten. The case was closed in 1957 after being ruled a murder-suicide caused by over-drinking and Phil’s traumatic memories as a young soldier in World War 1.

No one knew where Womrwood’s Sting had gone. Of course, only a handful of people remembered the painting and even fewer cared about its whereabouts. This changed in 2005 with the death of 98-year-old Gerda Ross. Ross died in her Natick, Massachusetts home in her sleep on the night of August 9th. In her home was found Wormwood’s Sting.

 

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A picture of the Ross home taken around 2005

It hung in the old home’s main parlor and was wreathed in dried mistletoe and nettle. Ross had built a kind of altar in front of the painting. On the table were seemingly random objects including several bones—which turned out to be animal—an empty bottle of absinthe, an old shoe from a school uniform, the coat Mary White had worn when she died, and Phil Mack’s key ring from his days as the Umberhill security guard. How Gerda Ross got these last two, and the painting itself, remains a mystery.

Gerda Ross herself was something of a mystery. Living by herself except for a single butler, Ross was very wealthy and lived in her family’s 19th-century manor house. Despite her wealth, Ross had allowed the house and its grounds to fall into shambles. Ross’s bedroom, dining room, and parlor were kept in perfect condition while other rooms were allowed to rot. Neighbors kept away from the house and local children told each other stories of the child-eating witch in the old house. Though none of these rumors have proved true, it is clear Gerda Ross was an unusual woman. The only odd event to be reported in the Ross house is the disappearance of Gerda’s butler in 2002.

With this third finding of Wormwood’s Sting, much of the painting’s past—including its creation in 1910 by Alonso de Fitella—came to light. Attracted no doubt by the painting’s colorful story, a private collector in New York City bought the painting at an auction in 2007. The painting has been in New York ever since.

I haven’t managed to find anything about this New York collector. They value their privacy. So I have no updates about Wormwood’s Sting. Have the same strange occurrences followed it to New York? Who’s to say. But it is obvious that this final work of a tormented, forgotten artist has long outlived its creator and has garnered its own, sordid reputation. Whether all these events are connected to the painting is of course not definitively proven. But there are certainly enough stories to make one think that something—perhaps supernatural—is going on with that disturbing picture of a young boy and his shadowy stalker.