Historic America Reviews

The Lost City of Z

Written and directed by James Gray, The Lost City of Z (2016) traces the life of British soldier and explorer Percy Fawcett. Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) is compelled to scour the Amazon for evidence of a lost civilization. Along the way, he’ll repeatedly abandon his wife Nina (Sienna Miller) and his children and overcome resistance from skeptical colleagues, all to ultimately come up empty handed. It is based on a book of the same name by David Grann.

I’ve been looking forward to seeing this film since its release, because it’s one of those real life stories more incredible than fiction. Percy Fawcett’s adventures inspired both Indiana Jones and Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel The Lost World (1912). Unfortunately, The Lost City of Z was less an adventure film and more a plodding, meandering biopic that never quite finds its footing.

As the film opens, we see Percy Fawcett at the cusp of the British upper class. He is a major in the army, but has no medals; he goes on a hunt and kills the stag, but is not invited to dine on it. We see he’s skilled, daring, and willing to take risks. However, this isn’t quite an introduction.

The film makers assume their audience already knows who Percy Fawcett is, but he is a relatively obscure historical figure, especially to American audiences. It’s crucial to quickly establish the identity of the main character and why he is important. Otherwise, you lose the audience’s attention.

Thirteen minutes into the film, a plot finally appears. We learn Fawcett’s father was a gambling drunkard, and he is told that if he completes his mission to map the Bolivian border it will redeem his family name.

Mysterious America

Witchcraft in England and Colonial America

The following is an excerpt from my new book Witchcraft in Illinois: A Cultural History. As a cultural history, I discuss how beliefs migrated from various parts of the world, most notably England (since the majority of Illinois pioneers were English or Scots-Irish). Order it today on or

American society incubated during a time of great social and political upheaval in England. Protestants and Catholics, Parliamentarians and Royalists, alchemists and natural philosophers all fought over the hearts and minds of their fellow Englishmen. It was dissenters seeking to purify the Church of England from Catholic influence (Puritans) who landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620. The social rifts that chased the Pilgrims to America led to a series of civil wars in England between 1641 and 1651, which climaxed in the beheading of King Charles I on January 30, 1649.

At the beginning of those wars, most clergy and commoners embraced a fundamentally supernatural worldview. They believed invisible forces could and did influence their lives. Charms and conjurations, though against the law, were regularly used in rural England. Witches were people who, with the help of the devil, manipulated the natural world to wreak havoc on the social and natural order. They used maleficium (malevolent or harmful magic) to spread blight and disease, poison food and kill livestock, all with the aid of occult powers.

By 1640, English elites were increasingly skeptical of the existence of magic and witchcraft. The days of Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger’s Malleus Maleficarum (1487) were long gone. Keith Thomas, in Religion and the Decline of Magic, argued that a growing number of mostly Protestant elites, during the seventeenth century in particular, rejected the idea that the devil could influence people, let alone grant them occult power.

Mysterious America Reviews

The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts

The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts by Owen Davies was first published in England in 2007. A paperback was released in the United States in 2009. The Haunted is not a traditional or linear history. Davies looks at trends spanning several centuries, from the Reformation to the present day. By exploring these trends, he hopes to explain how and why England has become so “haunted.”

Debates over ghost belief reveal much about England’s social and intellectual history. Davies makes a compelling argument that being haunted by the dead is part of the human condition, at least for a significant portion of the population, as all attempts to eradicate ghost belief over the past 500 years have failed.

Davies divides his book into three parts: Experience (what did ghosts look like, where were they found, and how have people tried to find them?), Explanation (how have people made sense of ghost sightings?), and Representation (how have people sought to replicate or reproduce ghosts and ghostly phenomenon?). The Haunted runs the gamut of English (and some Continental) cultural and intellectual experience, but its organization opens these topics to the reader in an easy to digest format. Every chapter explains the key players, arguments, and trends, while offering plenty of primary examples.


Ghosts: A Natural History

Originally published in Great Britain in 2012, Ghosts: A Natural History (2015) by Roger Clarke is an exploration of the subject framed by a taxonomy of eight varieties of ghosts. Each chapter is a micro history of one or two prominent ghosts and trends in ghost hunting, from the seventeenth century Tedworth House and eighteenth century Hinton House, to the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall and the Borley Rectory in the twentieth.

Through these locations and events, Clarke traces a history of not just ghosts but the people fascinated by them. With the exception of the haunted German U-boat, U65, all of the discussed locations are in Great Britain. Clarke describes the British Isles as being particularly overrun with spooks and specters.

Ghosts: A Natural History is a wonderful book, rich with fascinating places and characters. Clarke brings to life the people involved in these events, some of whom may surprise you. For instance, I knew Royal Society member Joseph Glanville was convinced of the reality of witchcraft, but I didn’t know he felt the same about ghosts. Likewise, I was amused to read that his contemporary, Robert Boyle, father of modern experimental science, joined Glanville in investigating poltergeist activity at the Tedworth House and what became known as the “Devil of Mâcon.”

Religion is another interesting aspect of this book. According to Clarke, much of England’s ghost belief springs from latent Catholicism or former Catholic sites. When Catholicism was suppressed in England and the Church’s property confiscated, many rectories, graveyards, and monasteries were left to decay–attracting a reputation for being haunted. With one notable exception, Protestant ministers tried to stamp out ghost belief, since ghosts were supposedly souls trapped in purgatory–a thoroughly Catholic notion. However, John Wesley, founder of Methodism, not only believed in ghosts, but poltergeist activity plagued his family home at Epworth as a child.


Man and the Natural World: A Meticulous History

man-and-the-natural-worldIn Man and the Natural World: Changing Attitudes in England 1500-1800, historian Keith Thomas argued that English sentiments regarding the natural world progressed from exploitation in the sixteenth century to conservation in the nineteenth. Before 1500, the prevailing worldview in England had been that wilderness was something to be subdued and civilized. After 1800, the prevailing belief was that wilderness needed to be saved from misuse by humanity.

The English view of nature prior to 1500 was theologically-based. According to scripture, God created each animal and plant to serve man and subordinate to his wishes and needs. Animals were considered to be automaton without souls, and previously wild animals had to be broken in order to use them as labor and food. Many classical scholars also taught that human beings were unique and separate from the animal kingdom. According to Aristotle, only mankind possessed reason.

The common man used religion and morality to distinguish himself from animals. Evil spirits almost always took the form of an animal, and the devil appeared as a goat. Likewise, mankind’s bodily impulses were negatively equated with animals and considered things to be subdued. Englishmen also labeled outsiders as bestial. Anyone who wasn’t Christian was considered worse than a beast and in need of civilizing. The aristocracy also put the poor into this category. However, Thomas was careful to point out that this “uncompromisingly aggressive view of man’s place in the natural world… was by no means representative of all opinion in early modern England.”

Historic America Reviews

Hurricanes and Society in the British Greater Caribbean

51znevyguwlHurricanes and Society in the British Greater Caribbean, 1624-1783 by Matthew Mulcahy is a revealing look at an obscure topic. Historians rarely give weather such an in-depth treatment, so it’s interesting to see how these weather events affected Britain’s Caribbean colonies. Quite a bit, as it turns out. Hurricanes influenced colonists’ morale, their perception of the natural world, health, social order, and economy. Hurricanes were an ever-present disruptive force that compelled colonists, and plantation owners in particular, to change the way they did business. They also caused an untold amount of damage to crops, human capital (slaves), and shipping throughout the region. Colonists had to rebuild and replant after every major hurricane in addition to meeting their basic survival needs, which put strains on every other aspect of colonial life.

Hurricanes undermined colonists’ morale by challenging the concept of improvement and by testing their faith that they could “dominate and transform” nature. British colonists came to the Caribbean with a sense they were pursuing a divine mission, so when hurricanes destroyed everything they built, their faith was shaken. “The threat from hurricanes helped create a sense of fragility and uncertainty among colonists as the possibility of violent destruction and chaos hovered over the region each year,” Mulcahy argued.

Central to the colonists’ sense of themselves was the belief they were taming and improving nature, but the destruction wrought by hurricanes demonstrated that nature would not be so easily tamed. Ironically, some of the “improvements” made to the Caribbean islands, such as the cutting down of trees, made colonists more vulnerable to the storms. Taken together, these effects caused some colonists to question whether they could successfully transplant English life and culture to the Caribbean.