The London Lawyer Who Tried to Contact Mars via Telegraph

Photo illustration, Mental Floss. Rugby antenna, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain. Other images iStock.
Photo illustration, Mental Floss. Rugby antenna, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain. Other images iStock.

Earthlings often like to imagine Martians as belligerent, as in the War of the Worlds radio broadcast of 1938 or the 1996 movie Mars Attacks!. But for Dr. Hugh Mansfield Robinson, a London lawyer and former town clerk of Shoreditch, the Martians were a gentle people who only wanted peace.

Sure, the inhabitants of the Red Planet might look a little alarming—they were often more than 7 feet tall with huge ears and large shocks of hair, according to Robinson—but other than that they were much like humans, living in houses and driving cars, and enjoying simple pleasures such as drinking tea and smoking pipes.

Robinson knew all this because he had been telepathically communicating with a Martian woman named Oomaruru since the early 1920s, or so he claimed. In March of 1926, he had also held a séance with a psychic researcher and a medium whose hand wrote the Martian alphabet and drew a sketch of Oomaruru. A British newspaper, the Sunday Referee, later described the drawing, saying she had a “whimsical, half-smiling mouth, dark, penetrating eyes, curious nose, and very large ears.”

Though this all of this may sound absurd today, at the start of the 20th century, many scientists believed in the possibility of life on Mars. The discovery of what astronomers identified as canals on the Red Planet (first observed by Giovanni Schiaparelli in 1877) had excited imaginations, and with inventions like the telephone and radio, science was continually turning what had once seemed impossible into the possible. Furthermore, the rise of Spiritualism in the 19th century—based on the idea of communication with the dead—remained popular, with notable advocates like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle encouraging people to believe contacting the beyond was a worthwhile pursuit. Was contacting Mars really so much of a stretch?

EARTH TO MARS

A 1926 memo from the Central Telegraph Office concerning Dr. Hugh Mansfield Robinson
BT Archives

In October 1926, Robinson decided to take his communications with Oomaruru to the next level—by going to the post office. At the time, London’s General Post Office had recently opened Rugby Radio Station, which served as a global radio telegraph hub.

A memo unearthed from London’s Central Telegraph Office explains that Robinson made arrangements to transmit a message for a standard long-distance rate of one shilling, six pence per word (then about 35 cents).

“Dr. Mansfield Robinson is singularly serious in this business, and we may expect other messages from him,” the memo reads. “I do not think we could have any conscience pricks as regards taking the money for he is perfectly sane and seems to have devoted his life to the study of possible intercommunication with the planet.”

The transmission, scheduled for 11:55 on the evening of October 27, used Robinson’s requested wavelength of 18,240 meters. It consisted of three words: Opesti, Nipitia, Secomba. Their meanings remain a mystery.

A handwritten letter from Dr. Hugh Mansfield Robinson to a telegraph office concerning his Mars transmission
BT Archives

Postal clerks stood by with a receiver tuned to a wavelength of 30,000 meters, which Robinson said was the Martian’s preference. Sadly, they received no response.

Undeterred, Robinson waited two years for the Red Planet to get close to Earth again. And then in October 1928 he made another attempt.

Once more, the post office agreed to dispatch his message. A memo states that its reasons were “mainly in order to obtain free publicity for Rugby.” Officials reasoned that press coverage would promote its rate far more efficiently than paid advertising.

This time, the messages read, “M M Lov to Mars x Erth" and "M M God is lov." They were transmitted at 2:15 am on October 24.

Again, no discernible message from Mars came through.

Robinson blamed the equipment. “The wavelength of 18,700 meters used by the post office does not go through the heavy-side layer of rarefied air, and therefore the signals are reflected around the earth,” he told the Associated Press. “The Martians were very annoyed that the signals could not come to them. They were sitting up for hours to receive signals.”

In December, Robinson made another attempt. This time he used a radio tower from Brazil, armed with wavelengths of more than 21,000 meters.

Unfortunately, changing hemispheres did not change the results.

WORLD PEACE VIA TELEPATHY

Robinson’s mission went quiet until January 1930, when he apparently dispensed with radio communication and reported that he’d telepathically conducted an interview with Oomaruru for the United Press. In his alleged conversation, she suggested opening a College of Telepathy. She also expressed dismay at the lack of world peace after nearly 2000 years of “listening to the teachings of Jesus.”

Telepathy, Oomaruru believed, would make the world a better place. Not only would it help humans reach Mars, it would also help simplify communication right here on Earth. Robinson believed it was the “missing link in progress.” He was frustrated by the inefficiencies of the telephone (wrong numbers, busy signals), which would disappear, he said, “when the world learns to telepathize.”

Six months later, a United Press correspondent reported that Robinson had opened the College of Telepathy, staffed with six teachers and a telepathic dog named Nell. To help build the student body, Robinson offered free tuition for a month to the first seven pupils. He explained that each would be required to have “complete chastity and abstinence from flesh, alcohol and tobacco, coupled with good health and a desire to seek spiritual development.” Nell’s role was not clarified.

The article also noted that at the time of its writing there was only one student, named Claire. In addition to meeting the aforementioned requirements, she also signed a membership declaration in which she agreed to obey its rules, keep its secrets (unless “compelled by a competent court of justice”), and use her powers for the benefit of others.

No further details on attendance or successes were ever reported in the press. However, Robinson made headlines again in 1933 after claiming to be telepathically in touch with Cleopatra, who was living on Mars as a farmer’s wife. This may not have pleased his own wife, who once told reporters that she wouldn’t allow his experiments to be conducted at home. “There will be no foolishness around this house,” she said.

Robinson continued his telepathic communications with Oomaruru and Cleopatra for a few years, but died in 1940 at age 75 without ever having made radio contact with Mars. For the last several years of his life, at least, it seems he respected his wife's wishes and kept the foolishness to a minimum.

The Legend—and Truth—of Silverpilen, Stockholm's Spooky Ghost Train

iStock.com/Willowpix
iStock.com/Willowpix

Public transportation is a marvel of modern technology and a boon to city life. But if you’ve ever stood on a subway platform for a half an hour, you know there are caveats. For the people of Stockholm, you can add “haunted” and “will teleport you to another dimension” to the list of potential train complaints.

The Swedish legend of Silverpilen (or "Silver Arrow") goes back to the 1960s, when the Stockholm Metro purchased eight trains made out of aluminum. The material was standard enough for the time, but most Stockholm Metro cars were painted green. The transit authorities decided to leave these bare, which made them stand out from the rest of the cars. That wasn't the only thing that made the trains seem unusual: the interiors were laid out a little differently, and were missing the usual graffiti and advertisements. Soon, a legend was born: for Stockholm's commuters, any component of public infrastructure so pure—so unblemished—must have been a ghost.

An aluminum train said to be Stockholm's Silver Arrow
Stockholm's Silver Arrow
Maad Dogg 97, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Of course, any good ghost train needs a ghost train station. According to legend, the train’s destination was an equally unsettling, totally abandoned station known as Kymlinge. In Stockholm there’s a saying that loosely translates to: "Only the dead get off at Kymlinge." As the corresponding story goes, once you board the Silver Arrow, you never get off. Not because you get murdered, but because the train gets stuck in some kind of time loop and rides on for eternity.

In another version of the legend, the train does stop eventually, but only once a year. At that point, all the passengers have been on the train for so long that they appear to be among the undead, and are unleashed on the city in some kind of scenario out of The Walking Dead.

The truth of Silverpilen, and Kymlinge, is perhaps more interesting: The city of Stockholm was running the stripped-down train as a test. If the public didn't seem bothered by the bare-bones trains, the local transportation agency figured they would be free to construct a cheaper fleet.

But the people of Sweden thought the Silver Arrow—a nickname that seems to have popped up soon after the trains were introduced—looked derelict, and frankly downright dystopian. The creepiness factor was such that even if the train was running and relatively empty compared to a grimy, old, familiar green train, Stockholm locals avoided it. So while the metro used the trains as backups during rush hour for several decades, they were never very popular.

As for Kymlinge, construction on the station began just a few years after the so-called Silver Arrow started running. It was never finished, because the expected demand for the station, tied to a nearby redevelopment project, never arrived. The bare look of the station must have reminded people of Silverpilen—or people just figured if you come across an abandoned, half-finished subway station, and you already have a creepy ghost train, you’re going to pair them up.


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What’s so wonderful about the story of Silverpilen is that, unlike many urban legends, all the major pieces are real: there really is a silver train and a never-finished abandoned subway station. In fact, the cars of the Silver Arrow train weren’t decommissioned until the 1990s. Despite the fact that the train hasn’t been seen on the tracks for generations, the legend has been passed down, and younger generations of Swedes still whisper about its ghostly presence.

And there's still at least one place the out-of-service cars can be seen: at the Stockholm Police Academy. They’re used to train rookie cops on how to deal with in-process crimes on metro trains—though we're guessing that training does not include ghostbusting.

A version of this piece originally appeared on the Let Me Google That podcast.

The Truth Behind Italy's Abandoned 'Ghost Mansion'

YouTube/Atlas Obscura
YouTube/Atlas Obscura

The forests east of Lake Como, Italy, are home to a foreboding ruin. Some call it the Casa Delle Streghe (House of Witches), or the Red House, after the patches of rust-colored paint that still coat parts of the exterior. Its most common nickname, however, is the Ghost Mansion.

Since its construction in the 1850s, the mansion—officially known as the Villa De Vecchi—has reportedly been the site of a string of tragedies, including the murder of the family of the Italian count who built it, as well as the count's suicide. It's also said that everyone's favorite occultist, Aleister Crowley, visited in the 1920s, leading to a succession of satanic rituals and orgies. By the 1960s, the mansion was abandoned, and since then both nature and vandals have helped the house fall into dangerous decay. The only permanent residents are said to be a small army of ghosts, who especially love to play the mansion's piano at night—even though it's long since been smashed to bits.

The intrepid explorers of Atlas Obscura recently visited the mansion and interviewed Giuseppe Negri, whose grandfather and great-grandfather were gardeners there. See what he thinks of the legends, and the reality behind the mansion, in the video below.

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