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.

Tailor-Made Terror: The Mystery of Koumpounophobia, the Fear of Buttons

iStock
iStock

Paul is an IT consultant who lives in Georgia. Some years ago, he agreed to meet a woman that a friend of his thought would be perfect for him. They went on a date. She was nice, but Paul told his friend it wasn’t going to work out because she had been wearing a shirt with buttons. Lots of buttons.

Since childhood, Paul has had an aversion to buttons. When his parents took him to church and he was forced to wear a dress shirt, he insisted on covering the line of buttons with a necktie so he wouldn’t have to see them. As an adult, he leaves his work attire buttoned almost to the top, leaving just one undone so he can pull it over his head. That way, he won’t have to touch the rest of them. “The ones I hate most are the four-hole, iridescent buttons,” Paul tells Mental Floss, describing one of the most common types of plastic clothing buttons. “But they are all degrees of disgusting.”

Paul suffers from koumpounophobia, or a fear of buttons—a phobia so rare that only one clinical case has ever been documented in psychiatric literature. Unlike more common ailments like a fear of snakes or heights, those afflicted with koumpounophobia find it difficult to practice avoidance. Buttons are everywhere. On clothes. In stores. Stuffed in closets. Lurking in laundry hampers. If sufferers can somehow avoid wearing them, they’re still distressed by the sight of them on others. A hug from a button-wearer can provoke as much anxiety as the feeling of a spider crawling up an arachnophobe’s leg.

Despite his apprehensions, Paul agreed to see his date again. But before their relationship could continue, he had to sit her down and explain his affliction. “This is weird,” he told her, “but if we keep seeing each other, you need to make an effort not to wear buttons.”

 
 

Koumpounophobia had its moment in the spotlight in 2007, when The Wall Street Journal intimated that Apple co-founder Steve Jobs hated buttons. The evidence, according to the paper, included Apple’s debut iPhone, a touchscreen-based device that would revolutionize telecommunications, as well as Jobs’s wardrobe, which consisted mostly of black turtlenecks. While not a disclosed phobia, the button-free preferences of Jobs (who died in 2011) has led some observers to speculate his aversion might have led to radical tech innovations that changed the course of history.

For most koumpounophobes—which may number just one in 75,000 people, a fraction of the 9 percent of Americans who suffer from specific phobias—their disgust for buttons simply changes the course of their day. They avoid looking at, touching, wearing, or thinking about buttons, an aversion that idles at the intersection between terror and repulsion, according to Wendy Silverman, Ph.D., the director of the Yale Child Study Center Program for Anxiety Disorders.

Buttons are seen on a sleeve in close-up
iStock

"There is linkage between phobia, fear, and disgust," Silverman tells Mental Floss. What people think of as fear may instead be a strong loathing. Either way, it results in avoidance behavior. In 2002, Silverman co-authored and published the only clinical paper [PDF] chronicling a case study of an adolescent presenting with a button avoidance.

At the time, Silverman was in clinical practice at Miami's Florida International University and agreed to see a mother and her 9-year-old son. The mother said that her son had struggled with his school uniform, which included a button-up shirt. He refused to touch the buttons or look at them. He didn’t like the smell of them.

“He had the feeling they were just gross,” Silverman says. “Because of the uniform, he was forced into enduring them. They caused extreme distress.”

Silverman learned of a telling incident that happened when the child was 5 years old: During a kindergarten art lesson, the boy had run out of buttons to glue to his poster board. Walking up to a giant bowl of them on the teacher’s desk, he slipped. The bowl tipped over, scattering buttons everywhere.

It’s easy to imagine the embarrassment of the boy, eyed by his classmates after sending the stockpile of buttons flying. But Silverman says that such inciting incidents are hard to come by. For most phobics, they can’t always remember that pivotal moment when an innocuous object became a threat. Memory is unreliable, and therapists don't typically find that learning the origin of a fear aids in helping to treat it. “Typically, it’s not common for kids presenting with a phobia to have experienced a direct event like this. Many times, it’s just them observing someone else or hearing about it.”

A red button appears on red fabric
iStock

According to Silverman, the child had a hierarchy of distaste. Small plastic buttons provoked the strongest reaction; large, jean-style brass buttons were only minimally troubling. The Jobs theory aside, electronic-style buttons—like the kind used on computer keyboards—don’t seem to be a trigger. “It’s a gradient common in phobias,” she says. “If you have a fear of dogs and see a poodle, that’s different from seeing a big dog that’s not on a leash.”

Silverman ruled out obsessive-compulsive disorder in the child’s case, as he didn’t claim any repetitive or persistent thoughts about buttons, and decided to initiate exposure therapy by slowly introducing him to physical interactions with buttons, a common approach for phobias. When he handled them, he received positive enforcement from his mother. Yet his anxiety increased: All he wanted to do was prevent anyone from assailing him with buttons. For years, that was his coping mechanism.

“Avoidance behavior, over time, just makes it worse,” Silverman says. “The mother was buying special clothes and he was allowed to avoid them.” Left untreated, koumpounophobes can come to find that buttons will begin to exact increasing influence over their lives.

 
 

In order to get Ronald, almost 4, to wear buttons, his mother Viv tries to make a game out of it, buttoning her own shirt as he buttons his. Sometimes this works; other times, he becomes so distressed that she gives up. What concerns her most is that Ronald spends his time in preschool being extremely wary of children wearing buttons.

“The way we see it happening is that he just avoids any child with buttons and has a tendency to play by himself at school,” Viv tells Mental Floss. “The teachers probably just don't see the pattern because who would think to tie whether he likes a kid or not to what the kid is wearing? They probably think of him as a bit antisocial.”

A man buttons his shirt
iStock

To hate buttons is to avoid people wearing buttons, something that can have significant social implications for both children and adults. Paul is, in a sense, one possible future for Ronald. His phobia dictates his moods, his relationships, and his stress levels. Forced to wear buttons, he likens it to someone with anxiety over flying. “You sit on the plane but you don’t like it,” Paul says. “It’s not comfortable. You’re aware of it the whole time.”

He has little influence over how others wield buttons. If a person wearing buttons comes in for a hug, he’ll perform only the bare minimum in return. “A side hug, maybe,” he says. His wife—the same woman to whom he admitted his phobia 10 years ago—will sometimes put a button in her mouth to annoy him. People find his discomfort over fasteners funny.

“I’ve had people at work leave buttons on my desk," Paul says. "I don’t like it. A box of random buttons is gross. It’s not there for any reason.” Gratuitous shots of buttons in movies or on television annoy him. “It’s like, why are you showing this in close-up?” If he's forced to touch a button, he’ll wash his hands. “It’s like, ‘I gotta get this button off of me.’”

Contamination might be one possible explanation for why button phobics react the way they do. Paul remembers chewing on his collar as a child. Maybe, he says, a foul-tasting button made him regard all buttons as something off-putting and dirty. It’s enough to provoke unease, but not quite on the level of phobias that can cripple a person’s activities.

“Most people with a button phobia don’t meet diagnostic criteria in terms of distress and disability,” Graham Davey, a professor of psychology at the University of Sussex, tells Mental Floss. "So in this sense, button phobia will usually be only a mild phobia and can usually be addressed by simply cutting off all the buttons from clothing before wearing those clothes … But I have known people whose discomfort with buttons is generally down to feeling constricted by them, so it may represent a very unusual form of claustrophobia.”

 
 

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which suggests modulating thought processes away from the unhelpful behavior, is one way to address an avoidance of buttons. Exposure therapy, a common technique used in CBT, subjects patients to an escalating series of encounters with the thing that causes them distress. If someone has a fear of flying, they might start with looking at a picture of an airplane before sitting in a grounded aircraft and then, ultimately, taking off. In the case of the 9-year-old boy in Miami who was brought in hating buttons, exposure wasn't enough.

"He was still having distress reactions," Silverman says. So she switched to focusing on the disgust portion of his aversion. She instructed him to imagine buttons falling on him and to consider how they felt, looked, and smelled, forcing him to analyze his own feelings and regard them as disproportionate to the objective harmlessness of the objects. His distress, measured verbally by the boy on a one-to-nine scale, began to decrease.

A pile of buttons
iStock

At follow-up at six and 12 months, the boy reported only minimal discomfort when exposed to buttons. The clear plastic kind, once the most troubling, were worn without incident on a daily basis.

While Viv has not pursued professional help for her son, she has shown Ronald videos on button-making that didn’t seem to produce much anxiety. They also made buttons out of Play-Doh. “Maybe we’ll try again,” she says, “after we get through potty training.”

A sense of embarrassment can often stifle such attempts to cope. Paul has seen a therapist for general issues relating to looming middle age but has avoided the button topic, fearing it will sound ridiculous. Sufferers find it easier to practice avoidance, customizing tasks in an effort to reduce exposure. While cognitive therapy and exposure may work, the sufferer has to want it to work.

Paul has learned to iron shirts that are already buttoned up so he doesn’t have to touch them. More distressing than that is the fact his young daughter is beginning to exhibit signs of koumpounophobia. “She’s started to have the same aversion to buttons which has caused a bit of concern for me,” he says. “I’m trying to introduce buttons into her world so she doesn’t have to deal with the constraint.” But Paul also admits he’s most comfortable when his family’s closets are button-free, or close to it. “I can’t remember a time when I didn’t hate buttons wholeheartedly,” he says.

The Body of Australia's Somerton Man—a 70-Year-Old Cold Case—Might Be Exhumed

The grave of the Somerton Man in Adelaide, South Australia
The grave of the Somerton Man in Adelaide, South Australia
Michael Coghlan, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

In the 70 years it has been open, the Somerton Man case has produced more questions than answers. Police still don't know exactly what led to the death of an unidentified man on an Australian beach in late 1948, who killed him, or what the murderer's motives were. But a new development in the mystery could finally reveal the story's most glaring missing puzzle piece: the victim's identity. As The Australian reports, South Australia's new attorney general Vickie Chapman is considering exhuming the corpse of the Somerton Man so that investigators can extract and test his DNA.

The case dates back to December 1, 1948, when a swimmer stumbled upon a lifeless body propped up against a seawall on the beach. After the victim arrived at a local hospital, it soon became apparent that identifying him wouldn't be as easy as thumbing through his wallet. He had no ID, and all the labels on his clothing had been removed. The most striking thing about the man was his outfit: a suit, suggesting that he was a well-off businessman, and polished dress shoes. It was unusual attire for the beach.

The autopsy didn't make matters any clearer. Doctors concluded that the man had likely died of heart failure, but significant internal bleeding suggested that it was poison, not natural causes, that led to that failure. If it was poison that killed him, it would have been a fast-acting and fast-disappearing substance, since no traces of it were found.

The Somerton Man cipher
The Somerton Man cipher

There was one more clue: After a more thorough re-examination of the body by a pathology expert, investigators found a previously unnoticed pocket in the waist of the man's pants. It contained a piece of paper with the words Tamám Shud—Persian for "It is ended." They were able to trace the page back to the book from which it had been torn, a copy of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (a Persian book of poetry), which had an inscrutable series of letters scribbled on the back cover. Military experts were unable to crack the code—assuming the letters even were a code—and it remains undeciphered to this day.

Someone had also written a phone number on the back of the book. That number led them to a nurse named Jo Thomson. With no friends or family members coming forward to claim the body, Thomson was the first and only lead in the case. She claimed she had never met the victim nor had she given him the book, but when she was shown a plaster cast of his face, she reportedly came close to fainting.

The case was ignored for years, but in 2007 Derek Abbott, a professor at the University of Adelaide, decided to give it a second look. Thanks largely to his efforts, authorities may be closer than they've ever been to identifying the Somerton Man.

According to Abbott's theory, Jo Thomson had an illegitimate child with the Somerton Man before he died, which would explain why she was hesitant to admit that she knew him. When Abbott found an old photograph of Thomson's son Robin, he noticed that the boy shared some distinguishing features with the Somerton Man: Both had canines positioned right next to their front teeth, and the upper hollows in their ears were larger than the lower hollows. Both of these features are hereditary and only appear in 1 percent or less of the population.

Adding another intriguing layer to the story: Abbott married Rachel Egan, Jo Thomson's biological granddaughter, after getting to know her during his investigation. If his hunches are correct, the three children he now has with Egan are the great-grandchildren of the Somerton Man.

Abbott plans to test his theory by analyzing DNA from the Somerton Man's exhumed corpse and comparing it to Egan's. If Egan isn't a match, Abbott hopes the DNA could eventually lead him to someone alive today who is. But if the two are a match, it would provide some closure to a murder mystery that has baffled Australia for decades.

Interest in the case has been heightened by a new documentary called Missing Pieces: The Curious Case of the Somerton Man, which screened recently in Adelaide. Chapman has said the state government would consider requests to exhume the body as long as the costs were privately met. While no time frame for the body's disinterment has been set, Abbott told The Advertiser that if money is an issue, crowdsourcing the project is always a possibility.

[h/t The Australian]

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