Sometimes we need to look no further than history for horror stories and unsettling mysteries. All the events in this blog are true and historically accurate. If you missed part one of my Halloween week, go check that out here.
Warning: The following blog contains images that some readers may find upsetting. Please continue at your own discretion.
- The Donner Party
Our first tale comes from the winter of 1846. A group of pioneers led by George Donner and James Reed left from Independence, Missouri towards Bear Valley, California. Instead of taking the more common route along the Oregon Trail, the pioneers followed a newer route called the Hastings Cutoff, which cut across Utah and southern Nevada.
This new route slowed the party and they became trapped by heavy snowfall at Truckee Lake, high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Sixty members and associates of six of the original families camped out by the lake. 21 members and associates of the Donner family, whom had formed an animosity with a number of the other families, had set up camp further down the path at Alder’s Creek.
Little food remained and the worsening conditions began to kill of the wagon trail’s oxen one by one. While the lake had not frozen over, none of the pioneers were experienced in trout fishing. Desperate bartering began, mainly over the remaining oxen and the carcasses of the animals that had already succumbed to the cold. As 1847 rolled around, the number of pioneers at the lake and the creek began to fall. In one last attempt to reach safety, a party of 17 left the lake on improvised snow shoes. Known as the Forlorn Hope party, most of the 17 were snow-blind within 3 days and within a week they began to die.
This is when the cannibalism began. The starving survivors began to feed on the flesh of those who died, storing some of it for the days to come. The two Native Americans among the party refused to partake in this practice and quietly left after the group leader, William Eddy, warned them that the others were planning to kill them. The two would later die after the party came across them a few days later.
On January 12th, the survivors found a Miwok encampment. After a few days of recovery, Eddy made it to a ranch on the edge of Sacramento Valley. Survivors at the lake and creek were rescued over the February and March. However, no-one would forget the actions that had been taken by those starving survivors.
- Elizabeth Bathory
You may have heard of Elizabeth Bathory. She is the one many claim bathed in the blood of young girl in order to keep her youth, While this is most likely a fiction created years after her death, the truth is likely to still send a shiver down your spine.
Born into a noble Hungarian family, Elizabeth was betrothed to the heir to one of the most powerful families in Hungary. They married four years later and Elizabeth displayed her competency, managing her husband’s estate after he was made commander in chief of the military. She is also known to have defended her husband’s lands against marauding Ottoman troops and provided support for destitute women who had suffered at the hands of the Ottomans.
However, at the same time she was making herself a positive reputation, rumours were beginning to fly. The king ordered an investigation into the unsettling stories of Elizabeth’s atrocities and 300 witnesses were interviewed. Bathory’s first victims appeared to be local peasant girls, many of whom had been sent to her to receive etiquette lessons. However, they were instead tortured in all manner of ways, ranging from mutilation to death by temperature manipulation and biting. Witnesses also testified watching relatives die or seeing torture marks on the dead.
During her trial, a witness claimed that Bathory had killed or tortured 650 young girls, due to a lack of evidence, the official count of charges remained at 80. Now comes the saddest part, Bathory was imprisoned while her collaborators were tortured and executed. Due to her noble standing and the power of her family, the mastermind got away lightly. She died four years later.
- The jumping Frenchman of Maine
Something weird was happening to a number of lumberjacks in northern Maine in 1878. George Miller Beard, a noted neurologist, observed that these men would follow any order without question, displayed signs of echolalia and echopraxia, and were generally easily startled, hence the jumping. It only seemed localised to the French Canadian and lumberjack populations settled around Moosehead Lake in northern Maine.
The cause of this disorder is still unknown. It is distinct from similar tic disorders such as Tourettes and many have argued that it could have been a culture-bound disorder. However, we may never know what caused the jumping Frenchmen of Maine.
Over the last few years, we have seen many films about cults (The Master, The Sacrament (which is actually based very heavily on Jonestown), and Sound of my voice) but as I just noted, many draw their inspirations from real life organisations. One of the most notorious cults is Jonestown. Officially known as the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project, Jonestown was a religious commune led by Jim Jones in northern Guyana. The project was founded in Indiana in the 1950s and slowly began to spread across America throughout the 60s and 70s. In 1973, the project started a mass migration to a new settlement in Guyana. At this time, media pressure was building against the project as investigators began to uncover alleged abuse within the Temple.
In 1978, US Congressmen Leo Ryan and a number of other delegates flew into Guyana to inspect Jonestown. This had been prompted by the murder of Bob Houston, who had been found dead days after calling his ex-wife and discussing the possibility of leaving the Temple. During Ryan’s visit, in which Jones and the other leaders attempted to convince him that everything was fine, a number of Temple members asked if they could leave with him. Jones was forced to let them go with Ryan for the sake of keeping up appearance. However, there were complications as the party size had grew and things began to go downhill after a last minute defector, Larry Layton, turned out to be a Jonestown spy and attempted to kill a number of the defectors as their plane began to taxi. Almost at the same time, a number of the Temple’s security team appeared from the jungle around the landing strip and opened fire on the party as a whole. The attack only lasted a few minutes but 5 people were killed and 11 wounded. Leo Ryan was among the dead as were a number of media personnel who had accompanied him.
Despite Ryan saying that we would make a good report to Congress, Jones and the other leaders believed that they had reached the end of the road. From the ‘death tape’, a 44 minute tape of the leader’s meeting. A large metal tub with grape Flavor Aid (a drink similar to Kool-Aid) was mixed and subsequently poisoned. After receiving confirmation that Ryan was dead, the mass suicide of over 900 Jonestown members began. The smaller contingent of members at the headquarters in Guyana’s capital is thought to committed suicide around a similar time. This is considered the biggest pre-9/11 single loss of American life in a deliberate act.
Today, Americans will be heard to use the idiom ‘drink the Kool-Aid’ which refers to someone with unquestioning beliefs. This stems from the Jonestown mass suicide.
These events really happened and these people really existed. More often than not, history is worse than even our more depraved and talented minds can create.