Humans are very good at assigning value to things, the more rare, the higher the significance. But truly valuable things have one other quality in common: a dash of the unexpected. And when it comes to history, those are the stories that deserve to be told. Because they take us off the beaten path, put us off balance, and give us a fresh view of something we thought we understood. And in the process, they offer a perspective that’s more than a little disturbing.
The latest episode of the Lore podcast demonstrates that Sweden is the source of more than just Abba, meatballs, and a madcap Muppet chef. No, host Aaron Mahnke recurs to one of his favorite topics and traces the country’s staging of witch trials. Rather than rehearse a familiar narrative, though, Mahnke emphasizes the salient differences marking Sweden’s witch hunts. Children played an unusually prominent role, both in giving accusing testimony and suffering physical abuse (especially at the hands of one evil, torturing priest) and execution. “Suffer the Children” is stuffed with dark elements, folkloric and historic. The fabled island of Blakulla, reachable only by magical flight and purported to be the site of devil-attended witches’ sabbaths, is discussed. Mahnke also hearkens to the Great Noise, an ignominious peak of the witch panic (circa 1668-1676) that included “the largest execution on a single day for any recorded witch trial.” The October appropriate of this week’s episode is cemented when Mahnke invokes an Easter/Halloween holiday hybrid in which children dress up as witches and engage in trick-or-treat-style traipsing from door to door. Episode #183 makes for quite a bewitching listen, and is not to be missed this Halloween season.
Mention Nevada to most people and they’ll talk about the Vegas Strip–slot machines, neon signs, fake pyramids, and all-you-can-eat buffets. And sure, that’s a part of Nevada, but it’s not the entire picture. The larger story is older than the lights of Vegas, and much more dangerous than the risk of sunburn or dehydration. It’s a tale filled with big dreams, bigger losses, and more than a few disasters along the way. Yes, you may think you know Nevada, but right around the corner is something wholly unexpected and downright terrifying.
In this week’s episode of the Lore podcast, host Aaron Mahnke explores the dark history of the Silver State. In the mining boomtown of Virginia City, a hotel built over the site of a deadly mine-fire becomes the scene of a series of haunting incidents (later in the episode, Mahnke discusses some other hotel ghosts, the ominously denominated “Red Lady” and “The Stabber”). In the town of Genoa at the end of the 19th Century, a criminal strung up on the “Hanging Tree” by a mob of savage vigilantes levels a generational curse against his persecutors just prior to his lynching. These central narratives lead to a host of unnerving anecdotes (Mahnke’s last account of a cursed Genoan is an absolute goosebump-raiser). A perfectly chilling episode for the Halloween season, “Ever-Present” establishes the ghostly and Gothic as continuous threads running from America’s shadowed past.
But some discoveries are more significant than others. In fact, sometimes the breaking of earth is just the first of many steps down a new road, the start of a journey rather than the end. And sometimes the thing that’s been hidden in the dirt has the power to change lives–just not in the way you’d imagine.
For the month leading to Halloween, Aaron Mahnke’s Lore podcast presents weekly episodes that put an premium on the eerie. October’s first offering, “Unsettled,” goes ghostly: in 1660’s England, the discovery of scattered teeth and skull fragments beneath kitchen floorboards precipitates visitation by a spirit given to enigmatic statements (but who eventually makes clear that he has been murdered in that very house). The subsequent investigation into this cold case is bound to give listener’s chill bumps. This central narrative also ties into a larger theme explored by the episode: the curious intersection of spectral events and courtroom drama. Final verdict: “Unsettled” is an exemplary episode, one that explores the fascinating borderland between the factual and the supernatural.
Everyone loves a good outlaw story. From the bandits of the Wild West to the tricksters of modern adventure films, there’s something attractive about the bad characters. And our obsession with them has been going on for a lot longer than you might believe. So long, in fact, that many of the most legendary criminals throughout history have become archetypes of an entirely new type of folklore. Because some of them even became heroes.
The latest episode of the Lore podcast focuses on hero outlaws–rebels against oppression and foreign occupation who captured the hearts and minds of the masses. Host Aaron Mahnke invokes notable names such as Spartacus, Robin Hood, and Ned Kelly, as well as some lesser-known Irish figures who fit the description: daring deeds, clever escapes, and ultimate, untimely demises (often stemming from betrayal by an associate). A good portion of the narrative is devoted to the story of the English thief “Honest” Jack Sheppard, whose attempt to escape his execution by hanging fails in a most ironic manner (the incident also connects with a famous English writer). Mahnke shares a lot of colorful history here via his oral portraits of these larger-than-life outlaws whose renown only grew posthumously. But by Mahnke’s own admission, there’s a shortage of the dark lore that listeners have come to expect from this podcast. All told, a very entertaining yet somewhat atypical episode.
For as long as humans have been around, there have been people gullible enough to believe anything, and others who are willing to take advantage of that. And while modern con artists tend to focus on fraud of some kind, their predecessors sometimes leaned heavily into a different world altogether. A world where anything was possible, and an understanding of what made people tick included understanding what made them feel fear: the world of folklore.
The game’s afoot in the latest episode of the Lore podcast, as host Aaron Mahnke travels the crossroads of con artistry and folklore. The bulk of the narrative is devoted to the story of Joseph Brown, a savvy, superstition-exploiting scammer in early 19th Century England who could have inspired countless Scooby-Doo villains. Mahnke also details Brown’s orchestration of schemes involving the practices of porch watching and fortune telling, but the tale steadily veers away from the folkloric into base criminality and legal-system machination. Matters pick up again in the closing segment, concerning the so-called “Yorkshire Witch” Mary Bateman, an opportunistic thief and fraud whose hoaxes included “The Prophet Hen of Leeds” (wait until you get a load of what this allegedly magic chicken lays). Mary’s eventual execution brings the narrative full circle, and ties the episode together nicely. While relatively light on folklore, “Confidence” is a bold foray into the sordid world of dark crime.
We have this uncanny knack of seeing opportunity and doing whatever we can to benefit from it. It’s a skill that mixes being in the right place at the right time with quick thinking and a lot of risk. If it’s pulled off right it can alter lives forever. But not every opportunity is golden. In fact, many of them represent trips into uncharted territory, where a myriad of dangers wait to shatter our dreams. So grab your warmest coat, pack your bags, and follow me on a journey into the folklore of one of the last great frontiers. We’re headed to Alaska.
Episode 178 of the Lore podcast basks in the (land of the) Midnight Sun. After dropping some familiar nuggets from geography and history class (the Bering Strait; Seward’s Folly), host Aaron Mahnke takes the narrative in more unexpected directions. Natural disaster combines with supernatural aura, as Mahnke relates tales of demonic attack, vanishing tombstones, haunted saloons, and a shipwreck averted by the intervention of a seemingly ghostly figure. The episode’s titular theme is well woven throughout, and Mahnke’s final thought concerning the opportunistic nature of folklore makes for a poignant conclusion. Lengthy but fast moving, and filled with a mother lode of northern lore, “Opportunity” is an episode that listeners should seize upon the very first chance they get.
It seems that music has always been a controversial topic. From the halls of Athens to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, music has been seen by some as art, and by others as a threat. But few arguments have lasted as one in particular, a claim that has been used for centuries to strike fear in the hearts of good people and to hold back progress in a field that has given us so much beauty. Some music, it seems, belongs to the devil.
Episode 177 of the Lore podcast, “Strings,” draws the listener in right from the opening moment, as host Aaron Mahnke references a secret code embedded in Plato’s writing (every twelfth line has a reference to music). From there, Mahnke goes on to discuss the role music played in the witchcraft panic of centuries past (a time when the phrase “dance with the devil” had an ominous significance). The curious careers of Giuseppe Tartini and Niccolo Paganini, a pair of Italian violinists alleged to have experienced a fiendish influence, are considered. Appropriately enough (although this reviewer wishes Mahnke had ended by delving into the Satanic Panic surrounding 80’s heavy metal), the episode concludes with the story of the legendary Robert Johnson, whose meteoric rise to blues guitar mastery conveyed quite a whiff of brimstone. Fans might be wary about playing this devil-dealing episode backwards, but I’m betting that they won’t hesitate to listen to such a finely haunting arrangement more than once.
Around the world, countless cultures have viewed the forest as a place of darkness and danger. From the foot of Mt. Fuji to the depths of Germany, people all throughout history have looked at the shadows between the trees as the home of something to be avoided at all costs. The woods have always been a place that demands respect; whether the true danger comes from ancient forest deities, or the inherent risk of entering the wilderness unprepared, the best course of action might just be to never set foot inside at all. Because if we do, we might not come back out.
In episode 176 of the Lore podcast, host Aaron Mahnke leads an excursion into the woods, and they are unlovely, dark, and deep. “Rooted” covers a lot of forested territory, ranging through Roman, Hindu, and Norse mythology, Grimm fairy tales, Arthurian legend, and Scandinavian folklore. The second half of Mahnke’s narrative is devoted to the “Witch Woods” outside Salem (accused practitioner Giles Corey is said to have hid out there at one time). Mahnke relates Caroline Howard King’s mid-18th Century encounter with an uncanny farmhouse in a clearing in the woods (an event that King would later record in her memoir When I Lived in Salem). The episode’s Gothic trails all converge into a concluding promo for Mahnke’s latest venture, the audio fiction podcast Bridgewater (which premieres on August 6th). Before traveling on to Bridgewater, though, loyal listeners will easily get lost in the strange sylvan spaces visited in this highly enjoyable installment of Lore.
We humans are really good at judging things by appearance alone. But clearly there is so much more to our world than what we can see on the surface. That hasn’t stopped us from leaning into that flaw, so much so that it’s become entirely automatic, like a compulsion or a mindless habit. A habit that has led us to do dark and terrible things.
Heads up: Episode 175 of the Lore podcast delves into the pseudoscience of phrenology (the attempt to read skull bumps as indicators of mental traits). Host Aaron Mahnke does a fine job of sketching the history of such mindful endeavor, noting its positive (its application to crime fighting) and negative (its racist dichotomies) components. The central theme of Mahnke’s narrative is that people often take matters too far, which leads to a recounting here of some ghoulish cases. Listeners learn of the skullduggery surrounding the corpse of the renowned composer Joseph Haydn, whose grave was robbed and his head stolen (by an associate with phrenological leanings). Mahnke closes the episode with the tale of a woman with a literal hole in her head (a wound traced to the craziest of causes), whose treatment by an unscrupulous, zap-happy doctor sounds like something right out of Frankenstein. The lore shared in “Head Case” is more of the strange-criminal than the supernatural variety, but the podcast’s fans will still go crazy for this episode.
But just like our innate need for a place to live, sometimes that new life in a new place required new stories to make it all come together. Folklore evolves, it grows, and sometimes it’s invented from scratch to help a people feel a better sense of community. And one place in particular is famous for its stories, both in the ones they made up and the ones that are too amazing to believe.
In the latest episode of the Lore podcast, host Aaron Mahnke leads listeners on a tour of weird Wisconsin. The various tales related range from the interesting (e.g. an anecdote concerning the rescue of a famous sideshow figure from a hotel fire) to the unnerving. There are ghost stories galore, including one involving reported sightings of an executed murderer whose postmortem condition will put you in mind of a legendary Washington Irving character. A wild outbreak of seeming poltergeist activity results in the blaming of a girl named Mary with possibly Carrie-like abilities. The longest stopover here is in the haunted town of Whitewater; nicknamed “The Second Salem” and featuring a water tank of unsavory repute known as the Witches Tower (pictured above), the place certainly justifies the attention Mahnke gives to it. The only issue with the episode’s narrative is that it breaks off in its back end to promote and present an extended clip of a new podcast (Haunted Road) from Mahnke’s production company. “From Scratch” shifts ground abruptly and lacks closure, but its first half mines a rewarding vein of lore in the Badger State.