The London Lawyer Who Tried to Contact Mars via Telegraph

Photo illustration, Mental Floss. Rugby antenna, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain. Other images iStock.
Photo illustration, Mental Floss. Rugby antenna, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain. Other images iStock.

Earthlings often like to imagine Martians as belligerent, as in the War of the Worlds radio broadcast of 1938 or the 1996 movie Mars Attacks!. But for Dr. Hugh Mansfield Robinson, a London lawyer and former town clerk of Shoreditch, the Martians were a gentle people who only wanted peace.

Sure, the inhabitants of the Red Planet might look a little alarming—they were often more than 7 feet tall with huge ears and large shocks of hair, according to Robinson—but other than that they were much like humans, living in houses and driving cars, and enjoying simple pleasures such as drinking tea and smoking pipes.

Robinson knew all this because he had been telepathically communicating with a Martian woman named Oomaruru since the early 1920s, or so he claimed. In March of 1926, he had also held a séance with a psychic researcher and a medium whose hand wrote the Martian alphabet and drew a sketch of Oomaruru. A British newspaper, the Sunday Referee, later described the drawing, saying she had a “whimsical, half-smiling mouth, dark, penetrating eyes, curious nose, and very large ears.”

Though this all of this may sound absurd today, at the start of the 20th century, many scientists believed in the possibility of life on Mars. The discovery of what astronomers identified as canals on the Red Planet (first observed by Giovanni Schiaparelli in 1877) had excited imaginations, and with inventions like the telephone and radio, science was continually turning what had once seemed impossible into the possible. Furthermore, the rise of Spiritualism in the 19th century—based on the idea of communication with the dead—remained popular, with notable advocates like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle encouraging people to believe contacting the beyond was a worthwhile pursuit. Was contacting Mars really so much of a stretch?

EARTH TO MARS

A 1926 memo from the Central Telegraph Office concerning Dr. Hugh Mansfield Robinson
BT Archives

In October 1926, Robinson decided to take his communications with Oomaruru to the next level—by going to the post office. At the time, London’s General Post Office had recently opened Rugby Radio Station, which served as a global radio telegraph hub.

A memo unearthed from London’s Central Telegraph Office explains that Robinson made arrangements to transmit a message for a standard long-distance rate of one shilling, six pence per word (then about 35 cents).

“Dr. Mansfield Robinson is singularly serious in this business, and we may expect other messages from him,” the memo reads. “I do not think we could have any conscience pricks as regards taking the money for he is perfectly sane and seems to have devoted his life to the study of possible intercommunication with the planet.”

The transmission, scheduled for 11:55 on the evening of October 27, used Robinson’s requested wavelength of 18,240 meters. It consisted of three words: Opesti, Nipitia, Secomba. Their meanings remain a mystery.

A handwritten letter from Dr. Hugh Mansfield Robinson to a telegraph office concerning his Mars transmission
BT Archives

Postal clerks stood by with a receiver tuned to a wavelength of 30,000 meters, which Robinson said was the Martian’s preference. Sadly, they received no response.

Undeterred, Robinson waited two years for the Red Planet to get close to Earth again. And then in October 1928 he made another attempt.

Once more, the post office agreed to dispatch his message. A memo states that its reasons were “mainly in order to obtain free publicity for Rugby.” Officials reasoned that press coverage would promote its rate far more efficiently than paid advertising.

This time, the messages read, “M M Lov to Mars x Erth" and "M M God is lov." They were transmitted at 2:15 am on October 24.

Again, no discernible message from Mars came through.

Robinson blamed the equipment. “The wavelength of 18,700 meters used by the post office does not go through the heavy-side layer of rarefied air, and therefore the signals are reflected around the earth,” he told the Associated Press. “The Martians were very annoyed that the signals could not come to them. They were sitting up for hours to receive signals.”

In December, Robinson made another attempt. This time he used a radio tower from Brazil, armed with wavelengths of more than 21,000 meters.

Unfortunately, changing hemispheres did not change the results.

WORLD PEACE VIA TELEPATHY

Robinson’s mission went quiet until January 1930, when he apparently dispensed with radio communication and reported that he’d telepathically conducted an interview with Oomaruru for the United Press. In his alleged conversation, she suggested opening a College of Telepathy. She also expressed dismay at the lack of world peace after nearly 2000 years of “listening to the teachings of Jesus.”

Telepathy, Oomaruru believed, would make the world a better place. Not only would it help humans reach Mars, it would also help simplify communication right here on Earth. Robinson believed it was the “missing link in progress.” He was frustrated by the inefficiencies of the telephone (wrong numbers, busy signals), which would disappear, he said, “when the world learns to telepathize.”

Six months later, a United Press correspondent reported that Robinson had opened the College of Telepathy, staffed with six teachers and a telepathic dog named Nell. To help build the student body, Robinson offered free tuition for a month to the first seven pupils. He explained that each would be required to have “complete chastity and abstinence from flesh, alcohol and tobacco, coupled with good health and a desire to seek spiritual development.” Nell’s role was not clarified.

The article also noted that at the time of its writing there was only one student, named Claire. In addition to meeting the aforementioned requirements, she also signed a membership declaration in which she agreed to obey its rules, keep its secrets (unless “compelled by a competent court of justice”), and use her powers for the benefit of others.

No further details on attendance or successes were ever reported in the press. However, Robinson made headlines again in 1933 after claiming to be telepathically in touch with Cleopatra, who was living on Mars as a farmer’s wife. This may not have pleased his own wife, who once told reporters that she wouldn’t allow his experiments to be conducted at home. “There will be no foolishness around this house,” she said.

Robinson continued his telepathic communications with Oomaruru and Cleopatra for a few years, but died in 1940 at age 75 without ever having made radio contact with Mars. For the last several years of his life, at least, it seems he respected his wife's wishes and kept the foolishness to a minimum.

The Real Case of Spontaneous Combustion That Inspired a Death in Dickens's Bleak House

iStock.com/GeorgiosArt
iStock.com/GeorgiosArt

In The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth: And Other Curiosities from the History of Medicine, medical historian Thomas Morris presents a collection of bizarre but fascinating stories culled from the pages of old medical journals and other accounts. In this tale, he discusses the final moments of an aristocratic older women, Countess Cornelia di Bandi, whose demise would provide fodder for Charles Dickens over 100 years later.

 

Do human beings ever burst into flames? Two hundred years ago, many people believed that they could, especially if the victim was female, elderly, and a heavy drinker. Spontaneous human combustion became a fashionable topic in the early 19th century, after a number of sensational presumed cases were reported in the popular press. At a period when candles were ubiquitous and clothes often highly flammable, most were probably simple domestic fires in which the unfortunate victim’s subcutaneous fat acted as supplementary fuel. Nevertheless, the circumstances in which some were discovered—with the body almost totally incinerated, but nearby objects left untouched—led some to believe that these conflagrations must have another, more mysterious, cause. Numerous theories were put forward to explain the phenomenon: some supernatural, others scientific.

One of the true believers in spontaneous combustion was Charles Dickens, who even killed off Krook, the alcoholic rag dealer in Bleak House, by means of a fire that left nothing of the old man except an object looking like a “small charred and broken log of wood.” Dickens had read everything he could find on the subject and was convinced that its veracity had been proved. His description of the demise of Krook was based closely on that of an Italian aristocrat, Countess Cornelia di Bandi, who was consumed by a fireball in her bedroom. Her case was reported in 1731 by a clergyman called Giuseppe Bianchini, and subsequently translated by a famous Italian poet and Fellow of the Royal Society, Paolo Rolli:

"The Countess Cornelia Bandi, in the 62nd year of her age, was all day as well as she used to be; but at night was observed, when at supper, dull and heavy. She retired, was put to bed, where she passed three hours and more in familiar discourses with her maid, and in some prayers; at last falling asleep, the door was shut."

The following morning, the maid noticed that her employer had not appeared at the usual time and tried to rouse her by calling through the door. Not receiving any answer, she went outside and opened a window, through which she saw this scene of horror:

"Four feet distant from the bed there was a heap of ashes, two legs untouched from the foot to the knee with their stockings on; between them was the lady’s head; whose brains, half of the back part of the skull, and the whole chin, were burnt to ashes; amongst which were found three fingers blackened. All the rest was ashes, which had this particular quality, that they left in the hand, when taken up, a greasy and stinking moisture."

Mysteriously, the furniture and linen were virtually untouched by the conflagration.

"The bed received no damage; the blankets and sheets were only raised on one side, as when a person rises up from it, or goes in; the whole furniture, as well as the bed, was spread over with moist and ash-coloured soot, which had penetrated the chest of drawers, even to foul the linen."

The soot had even coated the surfaces of a neighboring kitchen. A piece of bread covered in the foul substance was given to several dogs, all of which refused to eat it. Given that it probably consisted of the carbonized body fat of their owner, their reluctance to indulge is understandable.

"In the room above it was, moreover, taken notice that from the lower part of the windows trickled down a greasy, loathsome, yellowish liquor; and thereabout they smelt a stink, without knowing of what; and saw the soot fly around."

The floor was also covered in a “gluish moisture,” which could not be removed. Naturally, strenuous efforts were made to establish what had caused the blaze, and several of Italy’s best minds were put to the problem. Monsignor Bianchini (described as “Prebendary of Verona”) was convinced that the fire had not been started by the obvious culprits:

"Such an effect was not produced by the light of the oil lamp, or of any candles, because common fire, even in a pile, does not consume a body to such a degree; and would have besides spread it-self to the goods of the chamber, more combustible than a human body."

Bianchini also considered the possibility that the blaze might have been caused by a thunderbolt but noted that the characteristic signs of such an event, such as scorch marks on the walls and an acrid smell, were absent. What, then, did cause the inferno? The priest came to the conclusion that ignition had actually occurred inside the woman’s body:

"The fire was caused in the entrails of the body by inflamed effluvia of her blood, by juices and fermentations in the stomach, by the many combustible matters which are abundant in living bodies, for the uses of life; and finally by the fiery evaporations which exhale from the settlings of spirit of wine, brandies, and other hot liquors in the tunica villosa [inner lining] of the stomach, and other adipose or fat membranes."

Bianchini claims that such “fiery evaporations” become more flammable at night, when the body is at rest and the breathing becomes more regular. He also points out that “sparkles” are sometimes visible when certain types of cloth are rubbed against the hair (an effect caused by discharges of static electricity) and suggests that something similar might have ignited the “combustible matters” inside her abdomen.

"What wonder is there in the case of our old lady? Her dullness before going to bed was an effect of too much heat concentrated in her breast, which hindered the perspiration through the pores of her body; which is calculated to about 40 ounces per night. Her ashes, found at four feet distance from her bed, are a plain argument that she, by natural instinct, rose up to cool her heat, and perhaps was going to open a window."

Then, however, he lets slip what is probably the genuine cause of the fire:

"The old lady was used, when she felt herself indisposed, to bathe all her body with camphorated spirit of wine; and she did it perhaps that very night."

Camphorated spirits (a solution of camphor in alcohol) was often used to treat skin complaints, and as a tonic lotion. The fact that it is also highly flammable is, apparently, quite beside the point.

"This is not a circumstance of any moment; for the best opinion is that of the internal heat and fire; which, by having been kindled in the entrails, naturally tended upwards; finding the way easier, and the matter more unctuous and combustible, left the legs untouched. The thighs were too near the origin of the fire, and therefore were also burnt by it; which was certainly increased by the urine and excrements, a very combustible matter, as one may see by its phosphorus."

So it was the “internal heat and fire” that caused the countess’s demise. Only an incorrigible skeptic would point out that an old lady who was in the habit of bathing in inflammable liquids, before going to bed in a room lit by naked flames, was a walking fire hazard.

Book jacket for The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth
Dutton/Penguin Books

Excerpted from The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth: And Other Curiosities from the History of Medicine by Thomas Morris. Copyright © 2018 by Thomas Morris. Published by arrangement with DUTTON, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

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