Skeptics in the Pub – The Canalhouse – 12 May 2015

Skeptics in the Pub returns to The Canalhouse with something a little different. Comedian Iszi Lawrence brings her podcast The Z-List Deadlist to the live arena.
While we all know about people like King Henry VIII and Winston Churchill, The Z-List Deadlist celebrates those interesting lives that didn’t have quite such a large impact on history. Since it’s a night for sceptics, Izsi has selected four special people who will be interesting to those of a sceptical bent. In fact “the ghost of Sue Perkins” (her words) describes it as a night of woo-mania!
Before the main event, Iszi opens with the truth about 5/11. Who knew that there were conspiracy theories about bonfire night? Apparently, when Guy Fawkes et al were discovered it was the first time that the basement of the houses of parliament has ever been searched.
There was also a government monopoly on gunpowder, so where did these “terrorists” get it from? Tom Cecil, who persecuted a number of the conspirators, thought that King James was far too lenient to Catholics and so wanted to make him an enemy of them.
Probably one of those to be filed with the fake moon landings and 9/11 inside job conspiracies. With the craziness out of the way, it’s time to start the Z-List Deadlist.
Fist up is Helen Duncan who was a medium. She was famous for levitating tables, ghosts, ringing bells across the room and making ectoplasm appear. However, she couldn’t convince noted sceptic Harry Price.
He ran some tests on her but she wouldn’t let him x-ray her. With good reason as it turns out because her “ectoplasm” was little more than regurgitated cheesecloth and x-rays would have shown it there in her stomach.
Helen is really interesting as she was the last woman in the UK to be tried as a witch under the 1735 legislation. It was 1943 and Helen was holding séances for the sailors lost in the sinking of the HMS Barham. However, the Royal Navy hadn’t yet announced the fact that the ship had sunk. Clearly the families of the crew had told her all about it.
Rather than try her as a traitor and risk leaking the news of the ship’s sinking, they used the legislation that had been instigated to stop people pretending to be witches. Hence, if Helen could have proved that she had any magical powers then she would have been acquitted. She couldn’t and so was sent to jail.
Next up is Joanna Southcotte. She was born in 1750 and in 1780 she wrote the first of nine books of wonder that were dictated by the holy ghost.
5 years after she died, 200 people gathered to beat a black pig to death because it was described in her 5h book. She also left behind a box that was to be opened by 23 bishops at a time of great national emergency.
There were those who wanted it opening during the Crimean War and even more who wanted it opening during the First World War. However, it was out old friend Harry Price who opened it in 1927. All he found was a gun and some old receipts.
The Panacea Society claim that this wasn’t really her box at all and that that her real box is buried under Lord’s Cricket Ground. The ground was built near where she was buried. At 64 she also claimed that she was going to give birth to the second coming of Christ (hence the connection to Lord’s) but unfortunately she died shortly after this proclamation.
Following a quick beer break, we learn about Henry Prince who lived from 1811 to 1899 and died standing up. Apparently, this would make it easier for him to resurrect himself.
While he was still alive, he became a curate and would often take to dividing his congregation into those who he thought were saved and those who would be damned. Then, in 1843, in Weymouth, he announced that he was the messiah. Of course he did this while naked.
He then set up his “abode of love” in the village of Spaxton. Inside was a large spinning table like a roulette wheel. There would be women lying on it and whoever ended in front of Henry would be his wife for the week.
Many of these women were not exactly poor and he would take to writing letters that were supposedly from the holy ghost asking them for money. Even after his death, his cult continued to spread.
Finally we have Mary Toft. She claimed to have been assaulted by a rabbit and then 10 days later she gave birth to a rabbit. Then she continued to give birth to rabbits. This extraordinary story spread all the way to the court of the King and even across the channel.
The King sent a doctor to investigate this fantastic claim. However, the doctor believed her story. So, the King sent a second doctor. This one took samples from the rabbits to test whether they had ever been alive.
At the time, hardly anything was know about pregnancy and childbirth. For example, John Merrick, the elephant man, believed that he looked the way he did because his mother was frightened by an elephant when she was pregnant.
Eventually, a third doctor was sent and he brought Mary back to London. When they locked her up, there were no longer any rabbit incidents. When they threatened to perform surgery on her to get to the bottom of the matter, she admitted that she’d made the whole thing up. However, the King let her off rather than risk any further embarrassment to his doctors.
Iszi then asks the audience to vote for their favourite. So, a room full of sceptics has to decide between a medium, a woman with a magic box, a cult leader and someone who gives birth to rabbits. The cult leader wins the popular vote, although Mary Toft is a close second.
Iszi was absolutely brilliant, a perfect mix between humour and education. In fact it was just like an adult version of Horrible Histories and you can’t get much better than that.
Skeptics in the Pub returns on 9th June at 7:00pm at The Canalhouse where Sophie Scott will be talking about “getting brain sex wrong”