Nov 18, 2022 I Nick Redfern

The Sinister World of Alchemy and the Men and Women in Black: Mysterious Transmutation

It's a little-known fact that the late Brad Steiger - a friend of mine for about nine years - had a particular fascination for alchemy. He said: “Helvetius, the grandfather of the celebrated philosopher of the same name, was an alchemist who labored ceaselessly to fathom the mystery of the ‘philosopher's stone,’ the legendary catalyst that would transmute base metals into gold. One day in 1666 when he was working in his laboratory at the Hague, a stranger attired all in black, as befitted a respectable burgher of North Holland, appeared and informed him that he would remove all the alchemist’s doubts about the existence of the philosopher’s stone, for he himself possessed such an object.” In 1852, Charles Mackay wrote of this affair that the Man in Black “…asked Helvetius if he thought he should know that rare gem if he saw it. To which Helvetius replied, that he certainly should not. The burgher immediately drew from his pocket a small ivory box, containing three pieces of metal, of the color of brimstone, and extremely heavy; and assured Helvetius, that of them he could make as much as twenty tons of gold. Helvetius informs us, that he examined them very attentively; and seeing that they were very brittle, he took the opportunity to scrape off a small portion with his thumb-nail. He then returned to the stranger, with an entreaty that he would perform the process of transmutation before him. The stranger replied, that he was not allowed to do so, and went away.”

(Nick Redfern) M.I.B. and Alchemy: a strange link

Mackay continued that several weeks later the mysterious character in black was back. Helvetius implored the MIB to share with him the secrets of alchemy, which, apparently, he did: “Helvetius repeated the experiment alone, and converted six ounces of lead into very pure gold.” Such was the fame that surrounded this event, said Mackay, “all of the notable persons of the town flocked to the study of Helvetius to convince themselves of the fact. Helvetius performed the experiment again, in the presence of the Prince of Orange, and several times afterwards, until he exhausted the whole of the powder he had received from the stranger, from whom it is necessary to state, he never received another visit; nor did he ever discover his name or condition.” Just like every WIB and MIB, Helvetius’ Man in Black forever remained an elusive enigma.

In 1677, Leopold I, the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Austria, suffered something terrible: his precious supply of gold finally became exhausted. This was utterly disastrous, as it was gold, specifically, that Leopold relied upon to pay his troops, as they sought to keep at bay the marauding attacks of the Turks. Help, however, was soon at hand, and in a decidedly curious fashion. Late one night, in November 1672, Leopold was visited by a monk of the Order of St. Augustine, one Johann Wenzel Seiler. Interestingly, it has been suggested that “Johann Wenzel Seiler” was actually a pseudonym that the dark-garbed, cloaked, and hooded character had adopted. Whatever the truth, Seiler confidently said he could banish all of the king’s problems in an instant. The king, who already had an interest in all-things-alchemical, listened carefully to what Seiler had to say. The monk motioned Leopold to follow him to the steps of the palace, which he did. It was on the steps that Seiler did something remarkable. He took a silver medallion, placed into a cauldron of magical liquid, and then extracted it. Lo and behold, it had been transformed into gold. The king was delighted, Austria’s gold problem (or, rather, the sudden lack of it) was solved.

In 1880, Dr. Franz Hartmann, who carefully and deeply studied the controversy surrounding alchemy, said: “…it is stated that this medal, consisting originally of silver, has been partly transformed into gold, by alchemical means, by the same Wenzel Seiler who was afterwards made a knight by the Emperor Leopold I. and given the title Wenzeslaus Ritter von Reinburg.” Interestingly, Hartmann pointed out that many came to believe Seiler was not who he claimed to be, and was soon “regarded as an impostor.” Specifically, this was with regard to claims that Seiler had merely coated the medallion with a gold-colored substance, rather than having literally transformed it into gold. Nevertheless, and despite exiling Seiler shortly afterwards, Leopold – seemingly entranced by Seiler, as are so many that encounter the WIB and the MIB – continued to eagerly employ the skills of this mysterious character, time and again. 

(Nick Redfern) The Women in Black: transmutation

Albert Bender, who started the Men in Black phenomenon, linked the MIB issue to alchemy. It’s decidedly unusual that practically everyone in the UFO community who has ever commented on Bender’s encounters with the dark-suited ones has overlooked something massively important. We’re talking about his family’s links to…a Woman in Black. She was a foul and spectral crone who was obsessed with nothing less than coins. Bender, meanwhile, and as will soon become apparent, had an obsession with alchemy. This issue of a connection between coins, alchemy, Women in Black and Men in Black should not be ignored. It must be said, however, that nearly every UFO researcher who has studied the matter of the WIB and the MIB has done exactly that. It’s time for the matter to be rectified. 

Alchemy is the secret, fabled means by which base-metals, such as lead, can be turned into highly valuable metals, including silver and gold. In centuries past, alchemists toiled night and day to uncover the legendary secrets of the so-called Philosopher’s Stone – the enigmatic substance that could supposedly allow for the priceless transformation to take place. And of particular fascination to both the WIB and the MIB, when it comes to alchemy, are coins and the means by which a fairly ordinary coin can be turned into something much more. Or even into something much less. As we will see in the chapters ahead, alchemy and mysterious, black-garbed visitors to the front-door are regular bedfellows. But, before we get to that, let’s focus on Albert Bender. After all, what better place to start with a discussion of the Women in Black than with the man who made the Men in Black legendary? In 1933, while he was just a young child, Bender’s mother told him the spine-tingling story of a deeply malevolent family ghost. That of a Woman in Black. There were no friendly, fun, night-time tales for young Bender. The story revolved around a second-cousin of Bender who, while only six years of age at the time, moved into a sinister old house with his family. It was a house that sat adjacent to an old, abandoned mine-shaft. The mine was a downright eerie place: it was filled with angular shadows and darkened passageways. Old wooden supports creaked and groaned endlessly, and a multitude of bats and rats called it their lair. 

It was also a mine in which, years earlier, a despondent young woman slit her throat and, as the blood cascaded forth, threw herself into the depths of one of the darkened, old shafts. Her battered and torn body was finally recovered and taken into the house in which Bender’s cousin lived, before being buried in the local graveyard. The woman, noted Bender, was said to have been a definitive witch, one that “lived alone with a great many cats” and who “was said to prowl about only at night.” Bender added that: “My cousin wore a coin on an unbroken chain around his neck constantly, even to bed. After having lived in the house a few months, his parents noticed his health was failing. He would not eat, and claimed he saw a lady in black in his bedroom at night. Of course, they thought it all nonsense and that he was only dreaming, but soon they began to have sleepless nights when the boy would scream out in his sleep and they would find it necessary to go and comfort him.”

In the early hours of one particularly fraught morning, Bender’s cousin awoke the whole family; he was wailing like a veritable banshee. His parents raced to his room and noticed that the coin had been unhooked from the chain and was now positioned on the pillow. According to Bender, the boy told his mother and father that “the lady in black was trying to choke him and take his coin away from him.” The local doctor in town dismissed the boy’s words with a wave of his hand, and said the entire thing was down to nightmares and nothing else. Very soon thereafter, the doctor would be proven catastrophically wrong.With no end in sight for the boy’s malignant night-terrors, both parents elected to sleep in their son’s room, alongside him, until things finally calmed down and normality was hopefully restored. On the fourth night, they were woken up by the horrific sight of a hooded, female form - dressed completely in black, and with sickly-looking skin – that slowly and silently glided across the room, right in the direction of the boy. A bony hand moved slowly down to grasp the coin, at which point the boy’s father jumped up, lit a candle, and firmly thrust it in the face of the Woman in Black. Bender said: “They could see a pale, chalky-white face staring at them.” 

(Nick Redfern) M.I.B., W.I.B., and ancient alchemy 

In an instant the terrifying hag screamed at both parents; its wild and hostile eyes flashing quickly from father to mother and back again. Suddenly, it was gone – and so was the coin. Not surprisingly, the terrified family vacated the house within a week. The boy, to the relief of everyone concerned, quickly recovered. John Keel, commenting on the Men in Black mystery, said that Albert Bender “explored” the domain of alchemy. Bender did far more than that: he was absolutely obsessed with the subject and its centuries-old secrets. Amongst Albert Bender’s most cherished books were Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It, too, is tied to alchemy. On closely related territory, Bender was particularly entranced by the literary work of Edgar Allan Poe; one of Bender’s favorite of all authors. And, for Bender, a particular, stand-out story of Poe’s was The Gold Bug. There's a connection there, too.

Another favorite story for Bender was H.P. Lovecraft’s The Alchemist. It’s a dark and twisted tale of a man, one Charles le Sorcier, who uncovers the secrets of the Philosopher’s Stone and alchemy, and uses it to massively prolong his life. He does so as a means to kill each and every successive heir to the Antoine family castle when they reach the age of thirty-two. It was one Count Antoine – of that same family - who, centuries earlier, killed le Sorcier’s father, a wizard named Michel Mauvais. On top of that, Bender had an obsession with Bram Stoker’s gothic fantasy, the acclaimed Dracula. Not only was Stoker, himself, deeply interested in alchemy, but, in the pages of his classic novel, so was the fictional, Transylvanian vampire count himself. Thus, we see that, in reality, Albert Bender’s exposure to the blackest mystery of all did not begin in the early 1950s, which was when he received a visit from three menacing MIB that rivaled anything ever written about by his hero, Edgar Allan Poe. The reality of the situation is that it all began two decades earlier, in the 1930s, and with a Woman in Black, one who had a thing for coins, and for making them disappear, too. 

(Nick Redfern) Always dressed in black

There is another issue, too. According to the legend, the Woman in Black who haunted the Bender family “lived alone with a great many cats.” In a strange fashion, so did Albert Bender. At the height of his UFO research in the early 1950s, the solitary, unmarried, girlfriendless Bender converted his attic-based abode into what he proudly called his “chamber of horrors.” It was a room filled with all manner of gruesome paintings of demonic entities, monsters, and human skulls. An “altar” to the underworld was constructed as Bender sought ways to contact the very darkest things lurking and prowling on the “other side.” And, he adorned a portion of one of the walls with no less than ten paintings of large black cats, all with staring, hypnotic eyes. While, today, admittedly, we are forced to speculate, it seems likely that (A) he was conversant with tales of both the Women in Black and the MIB. (B) Bender had an awareness of the WIB connection to the transmutation of coins. (C) Bender had a keen knowledge of alchemy. And (D) he had an obsession over black cats, too. Albert Bender very likely knew far more about this menacing, black-shrouded mystery woman that plagued his family than has previously been suspected or realized. It doesn't seem that alchemy caused Bender any problems, though: he lived for almost a century.

Nick Redfern

Nick Redfern works full time as a writer, lecturer, and journalist. He writes about a wide range of unsolved mysteries, including Bigfoot, UFOs, the Loch Ness Monster, alien encounters, and government conspiracies. Nick has written 41 books, writes for Mysterious Universe and has appeared on numerous television shows on the The History Channel, National Geographic Channel and SyFy Channel.

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