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.

12 Doomed Facts About the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald

The wind in the wires made a tattle-tale sound
When the wave broke over the railing
And every man knew, as the captain did too
'Twas the witch of November come stealin'
-Gordon Lightfoot, "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" (1976) 

On November 10, 1975, two ships made their way in tandem across the stormy waters of Lake Superior. One was the Arthur M. Anderson, led by Captain Jesse Cooper. The other, captained by Ernest McSorley, was the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald.

The ship was last seen on radar around 7:15 p.m. All 29 men on board were lost with it, and today, more than four decades after the most famous shipwreck in Great Lakes history, the cause is still a mystery.

Here's what we do know about the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald, and what happened to it that fateful day:

1. IT WAS THE LARGEST SHIP ON THE GREAT LAKES.

The large cargo vessels that roamed the five Great Lakes were known as lakers, and the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald was, at the time, the biggest ever built. It was constructed as a “maximum sized” bulk carrier and spanned 729 feet—the first laker to reach that length—sat 39 feet high with a width of 75 feet, and weighed more than 13,000 tons without cargo. It was christened on June 8, 1958, and made its first voyage on September 24 the same year. 

2. THE SHIP WAS OWNED BY AN INSURANCE COMPANY.


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Great Lakes Engineering Works of Ecorse, Michigan, was contracted to build the ship in 1957 by Northwestern Mutual Insurance Company, which had invested heavily in the iron and minerals industries. With the commissioning of the Fitzgerald, Northwestern Mutual became the first American insurance company to build its own ship—at a cost of $8.4 million, the most expensive price tag for a freighter at the time, according to Michael Schumacher’s The Mighty Fitz.

3. IT WAS NAMED AFTER THE HEAD OF THE COMPANY.

The chairman of Northwestern Mutual had a long history with the Great Lakes shipping industry. Edmund Fitzgerald’s grandfather captained a ship on the lakes, his father owned a shipyard, and they both had ships named after them. After construction of the Fitzgerald was complete, Northwestern Mutual placed its charter with the Columbia Transportation Division of Oglebay Norton Company, based in Cleveland. 

4. THE SHIP'S MAIN JOB WAS HAULING IRON ORE. 


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Most lakers traversing the Great Lakes and the connecting waterways carry massive amounts of raw materials such as rock, salt, and grain. The Edmund Fitzgerald generally loaded taconite, low-grade iron ore, from mines on the shores of Minnesota and transported the pellets to steel mills near Detroit and Toledo, Ohio.

5. "THE FITZ" WAS WELL-KNOWN EVEN BEFORE IT SANK.

Its impressive size made the ship popular with boat-watchers, and over the years it garnered many nicknames, including “The Queen of the Great Lakes,” “The Toledo Express,” and the unfortunate “Titanic of the Great Lakes.” Crowds would watch as the massive freighter moved through the locks at Sault Ste. Marie in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The “Soo” Locks, which connect Lake Superior to Lake Huron, allowed the Fitz to reach ports on the lower Great Lakes.

6. THE SHIP RAN INTO A DEADLY STORM ON LAKE SUPERIOR.

November is a brutal month on the Great Lakes. Frequent storms and hurricane-force winds can batter even the toughest-built freighters. On November 9, the Fitz was loaded with 26,116 tons of iron ore pellets at the Burlington Northern Railroad Dock in Superior, Wisconsin. It left at 2:30 p.m. A second ship, the Arthur M. Anderson, sailed 10-15 miles behind the Fitzgerald as a precaution, and the two ships remained in radio contact until just after 7 p.m. on November 10.

Gale warnings had been issued by the National Weather Service the previous day, and by the morning of the 10th, the advisories had been upgraded to an official storm warning. 

As swells reached 35 feet and winds raged at nearly 100 mph, the ship contacted Coast Guard officials in Sault Ste. Marie and said they were taking on water. Later, a blizzard obscured the Fitz on the Anderson’s radar, but Captain Ernest McSorley, who was on his final voyage before retirement, assured a crew member on the Anderson at 7:10 p.m. that, “We are holding our own.” It was the last anyone heard from McSorley or the Fitzgerald.

7. NO DISTRESS SIGNAL WAS SENT.

After that, there was nothing on the radar. No radio contact. The ship was approximately 15 miles north of Whitefish Point when it seemingly vanished. Captain Cooper, on the Anderson, was in contact with the Coast Guard and made it to Whitefish Point sometime after 8 p.m. with no sign or word from the Fitzgerald. Later, the Anderson made its way back into the storm to search for the ship, but found only a pair of lifeboats and debris. 

8. ALL 29 CREW MEMBERS DIED. 

Along with the captain, the other crew members of the Fitzgerald included porters, oilers, engineers, maintenance workers, cooks, watchmen, deck hands, and wheelsmen. Most crew members were from Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Minnesota.

9. THERE IS STILL NO DEFINITIVE EXPLANATION FOR THE SINKING.

The treacherous weather conditions are an obvious factor, but experts differ on what they think specifically caused the accident. Following the wreck, the U.S. Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board agreed that the tragedy was likely due to faulty cargo hatches, which led to flooding. Predictably, there are still those who harbor other theories, including unsecured hatches, maintenance troubles, massive waves, structural issues, and yes, even aliens. Author and Great Lakes historian Frederick Stonehouse posited that the ship likely hit a shoal and took on too much water before plunging into Lake Superior.

10. THE TRAGEDY WAS IMMORTALIZED BY A CANADIAN FOLK SINGER.

Gordon Lightfoot, who had released 10 albums from 1966 to 1975, was inspired to write the ballad “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” after reading an article about the tragedy in Newsweek. He included the song on his 1976 album Summertime Dream, and the nearly six-minute single reached #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts that year and became Lightfoot’s second-most successful hit.

11. FAMILY MEMBERS REQUESTED A SYMBOLIC MEMORIAL FROM THE SHIP.

The U.S. Navy and Coast Guard deployed planes and cutters with magnetic anomaly detectors, sidescan sonar, and sonar survey to find the wreckage. In May, a Navy underwater recovery vehicle was sent to the site, and on May 20, 1976, the ship was spotted 535 below the surface of the lake.

In the decades since, only a handful of people have been able to see the wreck, which lies in two pieces. A pair of divers made their way down in 1995, the same year a crew—with help from the Canadian Navy, the National Geographic Society, Sony, and the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians—retrieved the ship's bell at the behest of the families of those who were lost. The Canadian government has since prohibited access to the site. 

In eerie archival tapes below, you can hear Anderson skipper Jesse Cooper correspond with the Coast Guard, and see video of the wreck.

12. THERE'S AN ANNUAL REMEMBRANCE DAY.

The annual Edmund Fitzgerald memorial ceremony takes place on November 10th at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point. The recovered and restored bell will toll 29 times for each member of the Fitzgerald's crew, and a 30th for the estimated 30,000 mariners lost on the Great Lakes.

For more on the story and the ship, visit S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald Online

This article originally appeared in 2015.

Two Harvard Scientists Suggest 'Oumuamua Could Be, Uh, an Alien Probe

ESO/M. Kornmesser
ESO/M. Kornmesser

An odd, cigar-shaped object has been stumping scientists ever since it zoomed into our solar system last year. Dubbed 'Oumuamua (pronounced oh-MOO-ah-MOO-ah), it was first seen through the Pan-STARRS 1 telescope in Hawaii in October 2017. 'Oumuamua moved at an unusually high speed and in a different kind of orbit than those of comets or asteroids, leading scientists to conclude that it didn't originate in our solar system. It was the first interstellar object to arrive from somewhere else, but its visit was brief. After being spotted over Chile and other locales, 'Oumuamua left last January, leaving lots of questions in its wake.

Now, two researchers at Harvard University bury a surprising suggestion in a new paper that analyzes the object's movement: 'Oumuamua could be an alien probe. Sure, why not?

First, astrophysicists Shmuel Bialy and Abraham Loeb argue that 'Oumuamua is being driven through space by solar radiation pressure, which could explain its uncharacteristic speed. But for that theory to work, they calculate that the object must be unusually thin. Bialy and Loeb then analyze how such a slender object might withstand collisions with dust and gases, and the force of rotation, on its interstellar journey.

Then things get weird.

"A more exotic scenario is that 'Oumuamua may be a fully operational probe sent intentionally to Earth vicinity by an alien civilization," they write [PDF]. They suggest that ‘Oumuamua could be be a lightsail—an artificial object propelled by radiation pressure—which also happens to be the technology that the Breakthrough Starshot initiative, of which Loeb is the advisory committee chair, is trying to send into space. "Considering an artificial origin, one possibility is that 'Oumuamua is a lightsail, floating in interstellar space as a debris from an advanced technological equipment,” they write.

Their paper, which was not peer-reviewed, was posted on the pre-print platform arXiv.

Loeb is well known for theorizing about alien tech. He previously suggested that intense radio signals from 2007 could be the work of aliens who travel through space on solar sails. However, Loeb acknowledged that this theory deals more with possibility than probability, The Washington Post noted. “It’s worth putting ideas out there and letting the data be the judge,” Loeb told the paper last year.

[h/t CNN]

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