Exposed to the Elements: A Strange 1920s Death on the Scottish Island of Iona

The graveyard at St. Oran's Chapel
The graveyard at St. Oran's Chapel
IrenicRhonda, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The woman’s body lay still atop a cross cut into the earth, naked except for a silver chain with a cross around her neck. The police who arrived at the scene that day in November 1929 knew she was not one of them; the Scottish island of Iona is small, and her exotic looks suggested she came from a sun-drenched place far from the misty spit of land the cops called home. If she had been an Ionan, she certainly would not have ventured into the area around Loch Staonaig at night—it was known to be the domain of the fairies.

Though they were law enforcement, the Scottish police may have been chilled by the fact that the body was found next to a fairy mound. Dotted throughout the British Isles, these enchanted hills are often the remnants of Iron Age Celtic structures that have been covered by vegetation over time. Even stranger, the corpse was said to have been covered in small, unidentifiable scratches.

THE HAUNTED ISLE

Her name was Nora Emily Fornario, although friends called her Netta or Mac. The 33-year-old occultist, who had come over from England some three months prior, nurtured a lifelong fascination with magic. Born in Egypt in 1897 to an Italian father and an English mother, she'd spent her adolescence in Italy before moving to London. The British capital was then experiencing a blossoming of interest in esotericism; occult orders had sprung up all over the area, attracting such high-ranking intelligentsia as William Butler Yeats and the infamous Aleister Crowley. Netta became a member of the Alpha et Omega offshoot of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and an officer in a Co-Masonry lodge in West London (a Freemason lodge that admitted both men and women). Members of many of these orders dedicated themselves to learning ancient magical rites, going into meditative trances, summoning spirits and demons, and participating in intricate ceremonies that could last for days.

The island of Iona, located in the Inner Hebrides on the west coast of Scotland, is said to be one of the spots on Earth where the veil that separates our world from that of the spirits is thinnest. It was a sacred place for the ancient Celts and early Christians alike, being the location where the Celtic Christian illuminated manuscript the Book of Kells was created. Netta reportedly heard about Iona from a story by her favorite author, Fiona Macleod (a pen name for William Sharp), which describes the area around Loch Staonaig as one where the fairies roam free.

Netta told her maid that she was heading to Iona to perform a magical healing ritual and would stay indefinitely. On the island, she found lodging at an isolated farm with an older woman named Mrs. MacRae. With her wild dark hair, clothing inspired by the Arts and Crafts Movement, and extensive silver jewelry, Netta had a distinctively metropolitan look that stuck out in rural Iona. MacRae reported that the young woman spent her days wandering the island's beaches and moorlands. At night, she would enter into mystical trances in hopes of contacting Iona’s spiritual realm. Netta told MacRae that she once fell into a trance that lasted an entire week, and should the same happen during her stay, under no circumstances was a doctor to be called.

MacRae had become used to Netta’s eccentricities, but one Sunday morning in mid-November, she noticed her lodger’s behavior had become frantic. She had the wide-eyed look of someone who was deeply frightened. Netta explained to MacRae that she believed she was being psychically attacked from a distance.

A RUDDERLESS BOAT

Psychic attack—similar to a curse—was a hot topic among early 20th-century occultists. Netta’s friend, the famed magician Dion Fortune, even wrote a book teaching readers how to defend themselves from such attacks, called Psychic Self Defense. In it, Fortune discusses Netta’s demise, saying that she “was going into very deep waters [...] and that there was certain to be trouble sooner or later.”

That Sunday, Netta told her host of a rudderless boat she saw fly across the sky, and terrifying messages she received from beyond the veil while in trances. MacRae noticed that all of Netta’s silver jewelry had mysteriously turned black overnight.

Netta hurriedly packed up all of her belongings and told MacRae that she must leave at once. But ferries to the mainland didn’t run on Sundays, and Netta was forced to wait for the next morning. Upset, she went to her room to rest. When she came back out later she seemed calmer, with a look of resignation on her face. She told MacRae that she had changed her mind, and would remain on Iona.

The following day, MacRae went to check on Netta and found her room empty. When several hours passed without any sign of the young woman, a search party of locals went out to comb the bays, rocks, and moors. But there was no trace of Netta. It wasn't until the next afternoon that a pair of local men reportedly discovered her body on a hillside near Loch Staonaig, a knife lying nearby, and the silver cross—blackened like the rest of her jewelry—around her neck.

Netta’s death certificate states that she died between 10 p.m. on November 17 and 1:30 p.m. on November 19. There was no obvious evidence of foul play. In Psychic Self Defense, Dion Fortune recounted that Netta was “especially interested in the Green Ray elemental contacts, too much interested for my peace of mind.” In certain streams of Western esotericism, the "Green Ray" is said to represent divine nature; elemental is another word for fairy. Chillingly, the cause of death listed on Netta Fornario’s death certificate is “exposure to the elements.”

There were strange reports around the time of Netta's death, but nothing conclusive about what might have caused it. The night of her disappearance, locals said that they saw flashing blue lights emanating from the area where Netta’s body was later found. Others claimed they saw a strange man dressed in a long black cloak. Newspapers mentioned a packet of weird letters the police had discovered among Netta's possessions—but it's not clear what messages they contained, or whatever became of them.

When family members were uninterested in claiming the body, islanders pooled their funds and had Netta buried in a small graveyard near St. Oran's Chapel. She remains there to this day.

A MEDICAL MYSTERY?

Over the course of a century, several theories have arisen to explain the true cause of Netta’s death. The first and most obvious is that the young woman was psychologically disturbed, suffering from hallucinations and paranoia. Her imaginings drove her out into the cold wilderness unprepared, where she met her fate exactly as the coroner said.

The scratches on her body, if they existed (they seem to have been a later addition, and some argue that only her feet were scratched up), are a bit more difficult to explain. It could be that she fell into some brambles, but the posthumous examination didn't contain any reports of thorns being found in her skin. Iona did not harbor large predators, such as foxes, that might have tried to scavenge the body, and no bite marks were found either.

Some internet skeptics go deeper. One theory classifies Netta’s death as a medical, rather than a paranormal, mystery. In this explanation, her suddenly blackened jewelry is a sign of acidic sweat, which could point to acidosis (a medical condition in which body fluids contain too much acid, and which can be caused by diabetes among other ailments). If left untreated, acidosis can lead to confusion—and in severe cases, death. By this analysis what Netta needed was not psychic help, but a doctor.

Ninety years later, it's unlikely any of these theories will ever be confirmed. Whether her death was caused by fairies, a medical crisis, or something yet to be uncovered, Netta took the secrets of her last evening to her grave. Unless more information is uncovered, it may well remain one of Iona’s many enigmas.

A Shrine to Brine: The Mysterious Case of Missouri's Highway Pickle Jar

iStock.com/MorePixels
iStock.com/MorePixels

No one knows how it started. No one knows who was responsible. Some may even have dismissed it as an aberration, a glitch in the scenery that would soon be corrected. But eventually, drivers in and around Des Peres, Missouri who took a highway off-ramp connecting I-270 North to Manchester Road began to notice that a jar of pickles was sitting on a dividing barrier on the ramp. And it wasn’t going anywhere.

Since 2012, the pickle jar has confounded drivers and internet sleuths alike, according to Atlas Obscura. Some have speculated that someone was trying to send a secret message or share a private joke. Perhaps someone pulling off to the side due to car trouble felt the need to place the brine-filled jar on the concrete wall and then forgot about it. Maybe someone thought it would be a kind of three-dimensional graffiti, incongruous amid the bustling traffic. Maybe it’s an indictment of commerce.

Whatever the case, once the pickles appeared, advocates refused to let them go. Jars that end up toppled over or otherwise damaged are replaced. Sometimes they reappear in protective Tupperware or with a holiday-themed bow. Sightings are photographed for posterity and posted on a Facebook fan page devoted to the jar, which currently has over 4200 members and has morphed from a place to theorize about the mysterious jar's origins to a place where people swap pickle-related recipes and stories.

There are dry spells—no one has posted of a pickle sighting in several months—but followers remain optimistic the jar will continue to remain a presence in Des Peres even if the motivation for placing them near the roadway remains as murky as the briny juice inside.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

Why is Punxsutawney's Groundhog Called Phil?

Brett Carlsen/Getty Images
Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

A groundhog has been making weather predictions in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, since 1886, but we've only been calling him "Phil" since 1961. Before that, the critter was usually just called the "Br'er Groundhog" or "The Punxsutawney Groundhog." Most sources (including the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club) say he eventually earned the moniker "Phil" as homage to "King Philip," but that explanation is as dubious as it is vague.

The problem is that they never specify which King Philip. The tradition of foretelling the weather with a marmot's shadow has its origins in Germany, but Deutschland hasn't seen a "King Philip" for more than eight centuries. France, Greece, Spain, and even the Wampanoag people of New England have all had a King Philip, but it's very unlikely that a small Germanic Pennsylvania community would ever name their beloved groundhog after any of these kings, either.

Rather, the name might actually refer to a prince—and it may have gotten its start thanks a pair of heinous murders and some good old-fashioned small-town competition.

In 1953, Punxsutawney sent two baby groundhogs to Los Angeles's Griffith Park Zoo. The critters had been named after Britain's new reigning couple, Queen Elizabeth II and her husband, the future Prince (not King!) Philip. While the zoo gladly welcomed Liz and Phil with open arms, the state of California did not. The California Department of Agriculture declared the baby groundhogs "agricultural pests" and demanded they be "destroyed." The animals were summarily killed.

Back in Pennsylvania, people were deeply insulted. (The Punxsutawney Groundhog Club went so far to say that the groundhogs had been "executed.") The head of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club, who worried that the killings could spark an international incident, told the Los Angeles Times, "I'm going to ask [my Congressman] to take the matter up with the State Department so we won't get into complications with England. Killing these groundhogs was an insult to the royal family." Indeed, a congressional representative would issue a statement criticizing California. The two groundhogs were eventually buried back home.

Eight years later, the name "Punxsutawney Phil" first appeared in newspapers. It's possible that this new moniker was a shout-out to one of the dearly deceased royal groundhogs. (That, however, is a matter of speculation.)

Regardless, the new name was also a necessity. Multiple Pennsylvania towns—such as Quarryville and Pine Grove—also had their own prognosticating woodchucks, and the towns were stuck in a vicious debate over who was home to the real sage. Adopting a new name was not only good branding, but also a practical way to help differentiate the different groundhogs. (The competitors would also get unique names: Octoraro Orphie and Grover.)

Eventually, Punxsutawney would get a huge PR boost from the 1993 movie Groundhog Daythough it was always home to the leading marmot. On Groundhog Day in 1904, the Pittsburg Press reported, "The ticket-sellers in the various railroad offices noticed a surprising increase in receipts this morning. First-class rates to Punxsutawney went so fast that the advisability of raising the price was considered. All the cold weather interests were off to the lair of the groundhog to see him see his shadow."

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER