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Unraveling the Unexplained: When Fortean Fodder is Too Good to be True

David Lang heard the sound of the horse-drawn buggy winding down the country road toward his family home; his guests were later than he had expected, but the arrival of Judge Peck and his brother-in-law was welcome all the same.

Lang’s wife and his young girls were already outside, and as Lang emerged from the front door, he waved in the direction of the approaching carriage, stepping off the porch and into the grass of his front yard.

And then, Lang just vanished.

Lang’s disappearance took place in full view of all who were present, and it would be several moments before the sound of his wife’s voice finally broke the stunning silence. As the judge and his companion leaped off of their buggy, Lang’s family had already descended on the area of the yard where the jovial Mr. Lang had been seen marching toward his arriving guests. There were no holes in the yard into which he could have fallen, nor were there any other traces or evidence that might explain how he had disappeared. After a sudden, frantic search, Mrs. Lang became hysterical, and was led back into the home as she wailed.

Days, and then weeks would pass, but no sign of Lang ever surfaced, apart from one occasion where one of his daughters, standing by the circle of yellowed grass that marked the spot where he vanished, thought she could hear her father’s voice, though faintly, calling to her. Lang’s disappearance would mark one of absolute strangest cases involving a person’s unexplained disappearances ever recorded.

It would, that is, if it were true. However, there appears to be no evidence whatsoever that this is the case.

Renowned Fortean historian Jerome Clark wrote of the incident, noting its similarity to other widely discussed mysteries for which there appears to be little, if any evidence to substantiate them:

“Some tales marketed as “true mysteries’ began less as hoaxes than as jokes or science fiction – in other words, as tales that, though they may not have been intended to be taken seriously, took on lives of their own and over the decades reincarnated in print as records of events that, it was assumed, someone somewhere had validated. Two of the most famous are a couple of mysterious-disappearance cases, the victim usually identified as David Lang in one and as Oliver Lerch in the other. Like true folktales these sometimes changed in the telling. While their origins are murky (Lang) or unknown (Lerch), it is certain that neither man ever lived, much less left the Earth in such singular fashion.”

Clark similarly categorizes cattle mutilations (of which there have at least been a few rather odd cases) and disappearances in the infamous Bermuda Triangle under the same classification of “pseudomysteries”, noting that their constancy seems to be due, in part, to the exotic attraction of the downright weird, pared with a general lack of scientific or historical literacy to compliment such “magical” interpretations of reality:

“These sorts of pseudomysteries flourish in part, of course, because people are drawn to exotic novelties and, moreover, enjoy being scared in comfort and safety. Few people possess the specialized knowledge that would expose the foolishness of the assertions made by the mystery-mongers. It took concentrated research into Naval, Coast Guard, and other nautical archives to uncover the prosaic events behind Triangle lore, and only veterinary pathologists could pronounce with certainty on the causes of the cattle deaths that fired rumors of sinister mutilations.” Historians and archaeologists easily demolished nearly all the evidence Erich Von Daniken and other writers offered in support of early space visitors, but to a historically illiterate audience – a large one, unfortunately – Von Daniken’s theories seemed perfectly reasonable.” 

Jerome Clark

Clark may sound like a hardened skeptic to the unfamiliar reader; to the contrary, the two quotes featured here appeared in the introduction to his book Unexplained! Strange Sightings, Incredible Occurrences and Puzzling Physical Phenomena, 2nd Edition (Visible Ink Press, 1999). Among students of the unexplained (including this author), it is widely regarded among the finest troves of unusual phenomenon–some more credible than others–ever to appear in a single volume. And like this author, its contents help to illuminate the fact that, among the very best Fortean researchers, a healthy sense of skepticism must be present at all times.

Granted, while the seemingly impossible should most often be treated as such, there are other instances of weirdness that have been documented over the centuries which might bear some truth after all.

Another classic story involving seemingly otherworldly events of this sort had been that of the green children of Woolpit, an English town whose name stems from the archaic wulf-pytt, which literally meant “pit for trapping wolves.” It was in such a pit that, as the story goes, a pair of unusual children were found one morning some time far back in the 12th century. They wore unusual garments, spoke an equally unusual dialect, but strangest of all, had an eerie greenish color to their skin. As catalogued by Ralph of Coggeshall and William of Newburgh (the latter possibly having learned the story from the former, hence identifying its common source), the children would only consume legumes once brought into the care of the Woolpit locals, and claimed to have come from an alien place called “St. Martin’s Land”.

Having little other recollection of how they found their way into the pit, the young duo explained that they remembered following a herd of their father’s cattle into a cave, whereupon they became disoriented. After some time, they began to follow the sound of bells ringing in the distance, and believing this might lead them back home, they followed the sounds until a light began to appear in the distance, presumably leading them to some location near Woolpit. Hopelessly lost at this point, the children were discovered in one of the town’s wolf pits sometime thereafter.

Caitlin Schneider, writing for Mental Floss, noted that there are factors which might explain at least some elements of the story:

If the story is based on actual events, there are a few plausible explanations for the green tint. One theory is that the children had arsenic poisoning. The story goes that their caretaker, an earl from Norfolk, left them to die in a forest near the Norfolk-Suffolk border. Another more likely (and less depressing) culprit is chlorosis, a type of iron-deficiency spawned from malnutrition that leads to a greenish complexion.

It could be that some elements of the story are true, in other words, while perhaps some others were mere embellishments that were perhaps added onto successive retellings of the story that occurred over the ages.

Other origins for such “pseudomysteries” would seem to be more convoluted. Returning to the odd story of David Lang and his non-existent disappearance, some commentators have noted the story’s similarity to an Ambrose Bierce story, “The Difficulty of Crossing a Field.” A 1953 FATE Magazine article discussed this similarity (as discussed here), although it made the assertion that Bierce’s story had been inspired by the real-life disappearance, whereas the opposite was more likely the case.

Within the annals of Forteana, there have been many similar “mainstays” which formed the pillars of oddity that uphold belief in the supernatural… though time and time again, many of these alleged incidents have turned out to be merely the stuff of the imagination.

With the vastness of our known universe, the likelihood that plenty of unknowns would exist seems high. However, for such true mysteries to become apparent, from time to time it may require a stripping away of the more sensational “pseudomysteries” that often overshadow their significance.

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Micah Hanks is a writer, podcaster, and researcher whose interests cover a variety of subjects. His areas of focus include history, science, philosophy, current events, cultural studies, technology, unexplained phenomena, and ways the future of humankind may be influenced by science and innovation in the coming decades. In addition to writing, Micah hosts the Middle Theory and Gralien Report podcasts.
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