“Ship of ghouls” (Mary Celeste)


In 1872, Capt. David Morehouse of the ship Dei Gratia found the Mary Celeste adrift in the Atlantic Ocean, in excellent shape but with nobody aboard. The Mary Celeste came with a rowboat capable of being rigged for sailing and it was gone.

Mary Celeste’s part-owner, Capt. Benjamin Briggs, was joined by his wife, infant daughter, and seven sailors when the group left from New York City for Genoa. With them were a liquid cargo of 1,701 wooden barrels of pure grain alcohol whose future mission was to fortify Italian wines.

The voyage was relatively uneventful according to Briggs’ log entries, and the group enjoyed ideal weather. There was a significant amount of water in the bilge and cabins of the ship when it was discovered, but this was consistent with a ship that had been sailing for at least 10 days with open hatches and an opened skylight.

Even in the 19th Century, unfounded conspiracy theories could arise around a bizarre event. There were reasonable suspicions about insurance fraud or pirates, as well as more macabre ideas centering on a mass murder-suicide, then there were notions such as ghost ships, a slithering sea serpent, or a mini-rapture.

Investigators quickly dismissed the idea of a violent end on the Mary Celeste because of the ship’s pristine nature and because many valuables remained. Insurance fraud on the part of the owner was likewise ruled out due to lack of evidence.

Another idea was that the captain, family, and crew abandoned the Mary Celeste because of pump congestion and instrument malfunction. Since investigators found the pump disassembled on deck, they surmised the crew may have been attempting to decongest it.

Natural disasters proffered as explanations included a displaced iceberg or a seaquake. However, hydrographical evidence suggests that an iceberg drifting so far south was improbable, besides no other ships had reported seeing one. A seaquake was an unlikely culprit because of the lack of damage to t the ship and its cargo’s sound condition.

Some speculate that a becalmed Mary Celeste began drifting toward reefs of Santa Maria Island. This idea largely falls flat since, if the ship had been becalmed, all sails would have been set to catch any available breeze and the ship was found with many of its sails furled.

Skeptoid’s Brian Dunning makes a case for empty alcohol barrels being the key clue. Nine of the barrels were undamaged but empty. Those nine were encased in red oak, while the others made of white oak. Dunning wrote, “Of the species of wood sold as white oak, the majority have occluded pores. This makes the wood watertight, which is why white oak is used for wine barrels and other barrels intended to hold liquid. The pores in the wood of the 20 or so species of red oak, on the other hand, are open, allowing liquids to seep through the wood. Consequently, red oak barrels should only be used for dry goods. But for some reason the owner of the alcohol used nine of the wrong type of barrel.”

Eventually, these barrels would have become soaked through. Alcohol evaporates fairly rapidly, so the smell would have permeated the ship’s cargo hold. With just .005 percent of the barrels experiencing this seepage, they in all likelihood were buried beneath the white oak barrels and it would have been impossible to determine the cause of the odor.

In this hypothesis, the captain feared an explosion and put himself, his family, and his crew in the rowboat, where they met a watery demise. Probably not involving a slithering sea serpent.



“Pour some sugar in me” (High fructose corn syrup)


I sometimes try preparing new dishes on the weekends. Other times, I am content with oatmeal and orange juice for breakfast, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch, and a frozen pizza for dinner. There are some folks who would deem the latter a deadly diet. These foods are full of high fructose corn syrup, which according to the scary script, can cause obesity, diabetes, heart disease, hyperlipidemia, insulin resistance, and other miscellaneous maladies.

However, there is no evidence HFCS causes excessive weight gain or health issues beyond what ingesting equal quantities of any other sweetener would lead to. The cause of obesity, some diabetes, and other ailments involves taking in more calories than what are burned. Writing for Skeptoid, Brian Dunning put it this way: “When you consume regular sugar the first thing your digestive system does is break the chemical bond and separate it into glucose and fructose. Once saccharides are in your body, it makes very little difference whether they came in as table sugar or as HFCS.”

The white granular substance most of us think of when we hear “sugar” consists of glucose and fructose, which are chemically bound into a larger, more complex molecule called sucrose. HFCS also consists of glucose and fructose, but they are mixed together rather than bound, allowing it to come in different blends. The more fructose relative to glucose, the sweeter the resultant product.

U.S. companies put high fructose corn syrup in many foods since farming conditions in this country are usually better for corn than for sugar. Indirectly, this means the syrup is cheaper for U.S. businesses and, since it is a liquid, HFCS is easier to handle and more affordable to transport. It further has advantages in baking, browning, fermenting, and moistness.

Historically, corn syrup had been so much cheaper than sucrose that companies used it to thicken foods and retain moisture. But initially, corn syrup was seldom used as a sweetener since it was less sweet than sucrose. Then in 1957, food scientists developed a process to convert some of the glucose in corn syrup to fructose, yielding a product that was 42 percent fructose and 58 percent glucose, which substantially increased its sweetness.

All this is why it is used in so many foods and this ubiquity is no cause for concern. For Science Based Medicine, Jim Laidler wrote, “Many of the sources that demonize HFCS list alternative sweeteners — cane sugar, honey, agave syrup, etc. — and claim they are healthier than HFCS, but those claims usually rest primarily on the fact that these alternatives to HFCS are ‘natural’ rather than any data showing that they are safer.” 

None of this alters the fact that a diet high in fructose could contribute to the diseases listed earlier. But the same is true with other sweeteners and those others may even have a more pronounced deleterious effect since one needs less HFCS to get the same level of sweetness. So if I don’t feel like cooking this weekend, I will eat my PB and J without undue worry.

“Photo slop” (Photographic memory)


If I’m remembering correctly, photographic memory refers to a supposed ability to recall nearly everything in precise detail – entire books, exact test questions from 15 years ago, every license plate you’ve ever seen. Its less famous cousin, eidetic memory, refers to being able to recall voluminous and minute details of a mental image.

Eidetic memory has been shown in controlled studies to sometimes exist in small children. But does anyone really possess photographic memory? There are some conditions whose characteristics include amazing feats of memory, but they stops short of being able to remember nearly anything that has ever happened to a person.

One category of amazing recall belongs to some people with savantism, a condition whereby a person has substantial limitations but can counter that with an almost superhuman skill in a specific area. Sometimes that area is memory.

Such persons are usually autistic with low IQs, along with having hampered motor skills, social abilities, and learning difficulties. But they may have a pronounced memory skill, the most common of which is calendar calculation, which is being able to instantly and accurately pronounce which day of the week any date in history occurred.

The second most common skill is an extremely prodigious recollection of items like encyclopedic publications, databases, and maybe even War and Peace. The best-known person with this ability was Kim Peek, the inspiration for Rain Man. Other skills may include instant mathematical calculation of large numbers or being able to reproduce works of art or photos with amazing precision. Artist Stephen Wiltshire, for example, has this ability. Other fantastic feats may include being able to forever reproduce a piece of music after hearing it once.

The above abilities are extremely rare, with only about 300 known cases worldwide. And the super skill is not always memory, and when it is memory, it is usually the ability to recall a specific thing, so this would fail to meet the definition of across-the-board photographic memory.

Even rarer than savantism is hyperthymesia, a condition that causes an overdeveloped autobiographical memory. Persons with hyperthymesia can remember nearly everything that has ever happened to them and can recall scenes in precise detail. They know what they saw and did, where they went, what was on the radio, how they felt that day. For example, they could accurately recite exact conversations they had about the 1976 presidential campaign.

However, this stunning ability still falls short of the supposed photographic memory threshold because they lack such abilities as being able to recall long strings of numbers or the word of every book they’ve read. According to Skeptoid’s Dunning, only about 30 persons have ever been confirmed to have hyperthymesia. The condition can be quite debilitating since those with it are unable to forget even if they want to. Anyone can have hurtful memories, but those with hyperthymesia recall exactly how they felt on their worst days and the pain stays fresh.

Beyond these categories, there are those who through repetition, practice, and mnemonic devices will build their memory and increase their ability to absorb information. This could include memorizing every person to ever serve in Congress or being able to recite the winner of every MLB pennant, batting championship, and ERA title (this was once my specialty).

However, this is distinct from photographic memory, where such abilities would be innate and the facts memorized instantly. A talent of such magnitude only exists with savants and those with hyperthymesia, and again, only within the prescribed limits mentioned earlier.

Eidetic memory – the ability to recall an image in perfect detail – is by contrast somewhat common in children. So far, now one has figured out why this proficiency exists in toddlers and preschoolers but is extinguished in adolescence. At least that’s what I remember hearing.

“Will powered” (Will o’ the Wisp)


The Will o’ the Wisp a natural phenomenon seen by nighttime pedestrians near bogs, swamps, or marshes. They have been described in folk tales as atmospheric ghost lights, with their specifics being tailored to the culture the legends are presented in. The lights are generally portrayed as being wielded by a malevolent entity or prankster intent on misleading travelers with a wayward lantern or torch.

The term “wisp” refers to a bundle of sticks or a paper used as a torch. Will is the male moniker given to the protagonist, who is often said to be sentenced to roam a swamp or marsh to atone for transgressions.

The Will o’ the Wisp has been seen less frequently since the advent of artificial lighting and because many wetlands have been drained and converted to farm acreage.

Indeed, there is a clear scientific reason for Will-o’-the-Wisp sightings. They occur when phosphine, diphosphane, and methane all oxidize as they produce photon emissions. Once phosphine and diphosphane mixtures ignite oxygen and methane, the results produce ghostly images. Furthermore, phosphine produces phosphorus pentoxide, which in turn forms phosphoric acid upon contact with water vapor. This causes the viscous moisture described by witnesses.

Additionally, the apparent retreat of the Will o’ the Wisp when approached can be explained by the disturbing of the air by nearby moving objects, which causes gasses to disperse. This was observed in 1832 by Major Louis Blesson, who noticed that water was covered by iridescent film and, that during the day, bubbles were observed rising from the wetlands. That night, Blesson observed bluish-purple flames in the same areas and concluded that it was connected to rising gas.

There is also a school of thought that some Will o’ the Wisp occurrences may be geologic in origin, as they might be piezoelectrically-generated under tectonic strain. The hypothesis holds that strains which move cracks in Earth’s crust could also heat up rocks, vaporizing the water contained within. Rock or soil containing quartz, silicon, or arsenic, could likewise produce electricity, which would then rise to the surface, resulting in the haunting image. If true, this could explain why the lights often seem electric or erratic.

Further, the phenomenon may result from the bioluminescence of forest dwelling microbes, insects, and larger animals. The eerie glow emitted from some fungal species during chemical reactions form white rot and this could also be interpreted as atmospheric ghost lights.


“Cavalier approach” (Precognition)

Man: 'Doctor I think my life is out of chronological order', Doctor: 'Good morning, how can I help'

In my NCAA Tournament pool this year, I picked Virginia to win the national championship. Psychics also make some correct predictions and others whose wording is vague enough that they claim a shaky prognostication victory. More often, however, they whiff on their picks, as do those who claim no psychic ability, such as stockbrokers or pool entrants, like the year I picked Michigan State to win it all and the Spartans were bounced in the first round.

There have been attempts to bring scientific validity to the concept of precognition, the term for knowing something before it happens. These experiments employ galvanic skin response or MRI measurements. One researcher, retired Cornell professor Daryl Bem, has his worked published in a peer-reviewed publication of the American Psychological Association.

For his experiments, he modified a priming test. Instead of showing subjects a word like “ugly” or “beautiful” before they viewed a picture of something revolting or lovely, he showed the picture first, then measured the response time, and finally showed subjects the word.

There are major flaws with his conclusions that some precognition was observed. Bem has no way of knowing if the readouts generated by the subjects’ physical responses were caused by the stimulus received. He had to assume this to be the case, which is the begging the question fallacy. This occurs when one assumes the truth of one’s conclusions rather than supporting them with separate evidence.

After evaluating Bem’s nine experiments, psychologist James Alcock alleged that they contained other crucial errors. He accused Bem of changing procedures at random points during the experiments and combining results of assorted tests. This enabled Bem to cherry-pick favorable results, resulting in skewed final numbers. He also failed to employ the null hypothesis, which holds that there is no relationship between two measured items until proven otherwise. Moreover, the Skeptic’s Dictionary cited five researchers, who tried and failed to replicate Bem’s findings.

While Bem used MRI, parapsychologist Dean Radin monitored a person’s skin conductance before, during, and after viewing photos that were either calming or upsetting. He then tried to determine if the subjects’ autonomic nervous system responded appropriately before subjects saw the image. The tests were measured by a blip on a screen hooked up to a skin conductance measuring device. Radin concluded that most persons are about to see an evocative image, they will respond before that picture appears. However, the results were at best and mixed bag, and even the seeming successes again require begging the question; Radin assumes blips on a screen are caused by psychic means instead of being a psychosomatic or other physical reaction.

The Bem and Radin experiments put forth no explained mechanism through which precognition would work. And even if there is a mystery method that some psychics have magically accessed, they aren’t using it to warn of terrorist attacks and earthquakes, or even cash in on Virginia’s victory.

“Con-fusion” (Plasma infusions)


I have a great fondness for schlocky black-and-white monster movies and have seen hundreds of them, but have yet to come across a flick called Dracula Meets Ponce de Leon. But that plot is playing out in real life, as some merchants are offering young-blood plasma transfusions that supposedly reverse or slow aging.

The FDA cautions against trying this, and if that’s inadequate incentive, your accountant advises the same. The treatment comes at $8,000 per intravenous session. The FDA states there is “no proven clinical benefit of the infusion of plasma from young donors in the prevention of conditions” that companies offering the transfusions claim to treat.

Some studies indicate that plasma transfusions may be beneficial – though that’s far from certain – but even if real, those advantages do not include arresting the aging process. Angela Chen of The Verge interviewed Michael and Irina Conboy, whose studies revealed possible benefits, but their research dealt with neither  humans nor transfusions. Meanwhile, the biotech company Alkahest is testing a plasma product on Alzheimer’s patients, but the results are still unknown and the goal is not to be eternally young. By contrast, those hawking the Fountain of Youth in plasma form transfuse patients with donations from the young and purport that the donor’s vim and vigor comes with it. But again, there has been no adequate plasma screen, so to speak.

Most research on young blood transfusions has been conducted in mice and the results are mixed. But even when the data seems promising, researchers are still unsure of the long-term results. Moreover, many times developing products look good in lab but fail to translate into human use. Along those lines, Nicole Westman wrote in Popular Science that research on rats has shown that the older ones benefit from a supply of younger blood, but most of those studies use a technique which surgically joins the circulatory systems of the animals. This means when the younger blood flows into the older animals, the rodent recipients also benefit from accessing the younger rats’ organs and systems.

Jesse Karamzin, founder of the transfusion company Ambrosia asked Inverse’s Sara Sloat, “If it works so much in mice, could it work in people as well?” However, much of the research that Karamzin is basing his optimism on was conducted by Tony Wyss-Coray, who has not endorsed the practice of trying it on people. Wyss-Coray injected mice with plasma from other mice and from people, but doesn’t see the benefits extending to human-to-human transfusions. He cites the lack of evidence it would work and he thinks it unethically raises a false hope.

By contrast, he founded Alkahest in hopes of developing drugs from plasma transfusion research instead of selling the plasma itself. The goal is to improve the quality of life as opposed to the quantity. He seeks not a Fountain of Youth but a way to conquer debilitating diseases that accompany aging.

“For Whom the Bell Toils” (Tennessee witch)


According to legend, a farm family near Adams, Tenn., was tormented in the 1810s by a ghost or similar spirit that came to be known as the Bell Witch. She assaulted familial patriarch John Bell and caused the dissolution of the engagement of his daughter, Betsy. Among the curious visitors who came to investigate was Andrew Jackson, who like most everyone else got spook and high-tailed it out of there. During the multi-year ordeal, furniture slammed into walls and other objects, while shrieking, staccato laughs and demented songs were heard. The apparition entered bedrooms and pulled both hair and sheets during the terrifying nights.

The spirts was not just spooky, but deadly, as the demise of John Bell is attributed directly to the Witch. Family member discovered him deceased one early morning in 1820 with a vial of undetermined liquid next to him in bed. The witch taunted the grieving family members with an admission that she had done it.

The nightmare Started when John saw a hideous dog-rabbit hybrid one night. This odd encounter was followed in the next few days by scratches at the doors and windows, sounds that next moved inside. What began as whispers grew louder and became a disembodied female voice that sang hymns, quoted scriptures, and proved capable of carrying on a conversation, unlike most ghosts, who can only moan or utter disjointed communication via a medium.

However, these tales are almost exclusively from one source, which itself has little in the way of substantiation, documentation, or backup, That work is the Authenticated History of the Bell Witch, written by Martin Ingram in 1894, 75 years after the eerie events. The terrifying tome is based entirely upon the supposed diary of John Bell’s son, Richard. Richard was 6 when the trials started but wrote nothing down for 30 years, and died soon after doing so. However, Ingram never produced the diary, which seems to have disappeared like Mormonism’s golden plates. The alleged Bell manuscript had never been referenced until Ingram mentioned it in 1891, more than 30 years after the putative author’s death.

In his book, Ingram claims the Saturday Evening Post ran a story about the Bell Witch in 1849. But investigators searching for the article never found it. Researcher Jack Cook poured over microfilm of the periodical for several years on either side of 1849 and found no such article. Like the diary, this alleged source has yet to be verified.

Other than Ingraham’s writings, the story of John Bell’s murder at the hands of the Bell Witch was never described in any published account, nor was a future president identified as leaving the Battle of New Orleans to go ghost hunting.

Another issue with the disappearing diary is that its vernacular parallels Ingram’s’ writing. In the Skeptical Inquirer, Joe Nickell noted several consistencies that seem too voluminous and exact to be coincidental.

Bell and Ingram both made reference to the witching events as “high carnivals” and “the greatest of all secrets.” Both refer to one’s facial features as “physiognomy” and characterize John Bell as “always forehanded, paid as he went.”

Additionally, both authors use multi-page paragraphs consisting of sentences that ramble for more than 100 words. And both use distinctive words (or possibly non-words), such as declamation, vociferator, beneficience, and felicity, lodgement, unregenerated, and mordacity. Both also reference the same Biblical stories. Nickell wrote, “Applying to samples of both texts a standard readability formula based on the average length of independent clauses together with the number of words of three or more syllables shows that ‘Bell’ and Ingram had reading levels….at the sophomore level of college.”

So the Bell Witch might make for a good story, but not good history. Ingram would have been better off using it as inspiration to pen an admitted work of fiction rather than trying to pass it off as the documenting of an actual occurrence.