Worthy of Stories: Voynich

By J Patrick Allen

On a sunny day in 1912, an eccentric book dealer named Wilfred Voynich walked in to a Jesuit college in Italy. What he purchased there would confound antiquarians, historians, and linguistics professors for decades to come: A 246 page book of apparent antiquity containing bizarre images of imaginary plants, bathing women, and occult diagrams.

This archaeological curiosity would become known to the world as the Voynich Manuscript.

Thanks to the miracle of radio carbon dating, we can trace the beginning of the Manuscript’s story to the fifteenth century (somewhere between the years of 1404 and 1438), though who penned it is a mystery. We know that it was at least two authors and a separate illustrator. Thus, the Manuscript was a collaborative work—but of what?

That has been the subject of popular and wild speculation for years. Theories abound from magical texts penned by such stars of history as John Dee and Roger Bacon to extra-terrestrial influence. Far more mundane, some have speculated an attempt to create a written form of a now-dead spoken language, and a codex of that language’s culture. What truly fascinates me, dear reader, is just how thoroughly the book has confounded cryptographers and linguistic scientists. For decades, we inched no closer to truly understanding the manuscript than we were when the whole mess began.

The book’s history is almost as colorful as its pages. Alchemists and doctors, a Pope, and renowned scholars. One of its previous owners has a crater on the moon named after him for his contributions to science. Colleges have held the manuscript, and it was “liberated” from Catholic ownership by the troops of Padre della Patria, Victor Emmanuel, King of Sardinia and Italy. Men of power and learning have long been attracted to its literally arcane allure.

What do we know about the Manuscript?

Its purpose is now believed by many to be medicinal in purpose, utilizing that fascinating Renaissance belief that a truly holistic understanding of the natural world encompassed the physical sciences as well as the occult. It is a book of three parts: Botanical, astrological, and… something else. Alchemical? The last is not truly clear. It illustrates hundreds of nude, possibly pregnant, women residing in baths. In turn, these baths are built in to vessels that greatly resemble illustrations of the kinds of alchemical alembics and sundries found in other manuscripts of the time.

The most exciting thing about the manuscript—something I was unaware of until beginning research for this blog—is that we have the beginnings of a decryption. Stephen Bax, a professor of Modern Languages and Liguistics at the Open University of Britain believes he’s found Rosetta stones scattered throughout the text: Familiar groupings of characters that could potentially be identified with known constellations and plants. Through continued study, he believes that one day we may be able to fully transcribe and read the Manuscript in English.

Who made the Manuscript, and for what cause? Cloistered monks? Italian Witches? Martians? What ever the answers may be, the Voynich Manuscript is certainly worthy of stories.

Further Reading:

Worthy of Stories: Filles a la Casquette

J Patrick Allen

The Casket Girls

In the early eighteenth century, New Orleans was experiencing a population crisis. A request was sent to the king of France for women of a wholesome persuasion. In 1728, a ship docked bearing blessings courtesy of the Bishop of Quebec. I imagine that the men of New Orleans, licking their chops at the hope of finding a wife, were stunned by what walked off the gangplank. Thirteen emaciated, sickly women walked onto the dock, bearing all they owned in the world in thirteen casquettes—the equivalent of a trunk or luggage.

Alas, the nature of the men of the colony of Louisiana, harbored an ill fate for the girls. Though they were under the watchful protection of the local Ursuline nuns, many were placed into abusive marriages or forced into prostitution. New Orleans, it seems, had no use for women of virtue. Insulted and horrified, King Louis demanded their return at once.

The girls were being kept at this time on the third floor of the Ursuline convent on Rue Chartres. They were protected behind sealed windows and a sealed door lest—I assume—they flee to a sinful life. The casquettes, still full of the womens’ possessions, were left in the room for the women to collect their belongings for the journey back home. When the nuns returned for the girls, the casquettes were present but their owners—and the contents within—were not.

The third floor attic has since been supposedly sealed—by locks, by blessings, with the shutters closed with holy nails blessed by the Pope. Despite this, local legend frequently has the Casquette girls breaking free of their bound windows to stalk the night for fresh victims.

Stories tell of paranormal investigators caught in their sleep while watching the convent. Supposedly, the tapes caught a window on the third floor of the convent opening. The next morning there was hardly anything left of the investigators but a greasy smear. Of course, there are no official records of a murder of this kind. It may all be sensationalism invented by New Orleans’ very healthy tourism industry.

Still, the Filles a la Casquette are certainly worthy of stories.

Further Reading:



Worthy of Stories: Cagliostro, Prince of Quacks?

J Patrick Allen

A new, monthly series by J Patrick Allen–author of Dead West–featuring his investigations into lives and events which are…worthy of stories. It’s your one stop shop for inspiration, and the hankering urge to think, “Hey, I should use that in a story.” Look for it the first Monday of every month, only on 18thwall.com.

There was a legend of a magician, loved by the common people and scorned by the nobility. He traveled all of Europe, collecting a menagerie of hundreds of disciples. He treated the sick and the afflicted free of charge, drawing crowds so thick that the constabulary had to step in. This man knew the secrets of the philosophers and could transmute lead into gold. Born of an exotic origin and knowing of powerful secrets, he came to spread the wealth of his knowledge.

Or did he?

I first hear the name Cagliostro in Hayao Miyazaki’s amazing Lupin The Third adventure, The Castle of Cagliostro. The movie itself was loosely based on the Arsene Lupin novel, La Comtesse Cagliostro or “The Countess Cagliostro.” In truth, Cagliostro had no castle, and his ties to any sort of noble title were tenuous at best. Still, in trying to track down some of the inspirations for one of my favorite Miyazaki movies, I came across some really interesting stuff.

According to his detractors, the “Prince of Quacks” Alessandro Cagliostro was born under the humble name Guiseppe Balsamo. Throughout his history, Cagliostro styled himself as a noble magician and alchemist. Even from an early age he claimed to have secret knowledge of things. At the age of twenty-one he convinced a local silversmith of the existence of a great treasure nearby. All that was needed to acquire it was a small sum of silver to acquire the necessary tools. But when they arrived at the site to begin the dig, Balsamo attacked the silversmith and fled with his money. For his part, the silversmith reasoned that the djinns guarding the treasure must have possessed the young man.

After learning forgery in exchange for an evening with his young wife Serafina, Balsamo took on the name Alessandro di Cagliostro and traveled to London. Here he met the legendary alchemist and occultist, the Comte de Saint-Germain. Here, he was also inducted into the order of Freemasons.

During this time, he spent his days traveling mainland Europe, attempting to win converts to and build lodges for his new style of “Egyptian Freemasonry.” He began acting as a physician for the poor, winning acclaim and adoration from the common folk for refusing to accept payment in exchange for his services. In addition to these small things, he began holding seances. In later years, those seeking to discredit him would lay claim to witness testimonies by disciples and street-children who helped his confidence game by rigging the seances.

One of the episodes for which he is perhaps most famous is a confidence-game plotted in France, involving a lady-thief named Jeanne de Valois-Saint-Rémy, a desperate jeweler, and even Marie Antoinette herself. The necklace in question had been crafted for a particular noble woman who proved unable or unwilling to purchase the finished product. Having gone nearly bankrupt on material cost alone, the jeweler was desperate to unload the necklace. He soon learned that the only people who could possibly afford it were none-other than the royal couple itself.

Multiple times, Antoinette refused the necklace, stating the money would be better spent elsewhere. Jeanne, pretending to be an intermediary for the queen, conned the jeweler into “selling” her the necklace. She then attempted to pawn off the diamonds individually, but was caught and arrested. There is speculation as to Cagliostro’s participation in the events, or whether this was a convenient moment for the Vatican to implicate him in something. After all, Freemasonry was illegal according to the Catholics.

After fleeing France, Cagliostro was picked up by the Roman Inquisition. He died in prison a short time after, suffering multiple strokes in one day.

Several works and testimonies have been produced in the years afterward, supporting or attacking the assumptions that Cagliostro was the man he claimed to be. In present times we are now quite sure that he was what his enemies claimed: A charlatan and a fake, a confidence artist of a scale one simply does not see anymore. He is certainly a product of his time: An age when mysticism was high, and one with the proper connections and charisma could support themselves as a supposed “adventurer.”

Whether he was what he claimed or not, one certainly has to admit that he led an interesting life—a life worthy of stories.

Tell Me More

How to Ruin a Queen: Marie Antoinette and the Diamond Necklace Affair by Jonathan Beckman [Da Capo]

“Occultist, Charlatan, Adventurer—Who Was Count Cagliostro?” by Esther Bergdahl [Mental Floss]

“Cagliostro” [Faust]

J Patrick Allen grew up exploring the American West with his family. He climbed mountains, fished, camped, visited the family cattle ranch, and explored a castle. Author of the Dead West series, JP writes about the monsters we take with us. Every week you can listen to JP on the Rocket Punch Radio podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, and TuneIn, where he and his friends hold roundtable discussions about all things geeky. In 2016 his story “Dragon Shadow” was awarded Best Short Story from the Pulp Ark New Pulp Awards. When he’s not hard at work, he and his wife can be found curled up with a beer and a book or game. And you can find him at his website, https://www.jpatrickallen.net/.