The Netherlands: Visions and Revisions
While the country’s official name is the Netherlands, most people elsewhere call it Holland (even though that term really applies only to two of its thirteen provinces). Just about a tenth the size of California, the Netherlands is still one of Europe’s most densely populated countries (after Monaco and Malta). It has historically been a treasure trove of geniuses—from the Dutch Masters like Rembrandt and Vermeer to such scientific pioneers as Antoni van Leeuwenhoek (1632–1723), who first identified bacteria, and Christiaan Huygens (1629–1695), who proposed the wave theory of light. Indeed, seated in the front row during my talk at a skeptics congress in Utrecht on October 28, 2006, was Gerard ’t Hooft, co-winner (with Martin Veltman) of the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physics
Of course, like people everywhere, the Dutch can also be superstitious—hence the conference theme, “the paranormal.” I spoke on the relationship between Dutch and American psychics and for several days before the event toured the country with noted Dutch skeptic Jan Willem Nienhuys investigating a number of mysteries and legends. These included an Amsterdam woman’s visions, haunted coal mines, the well-known boy-with-his-finger-in-the-dike tale, and more. (Our investigation of a mansion haunted by the ghost of a walled-up nun and a report on our visit to a witch weigh-house should appear in later articles.)
‘Visionary of Amsterdam’
In Amsterdam on March 25, 1945, the day of Catholicism’s Feast of the Annunciation, a woman named Ida Peerdeman (1905–1996) was at home with her three older sisters. After a priest dropped in for a visit, Peerdeman was drawn to an adjoining room where she said she beheld an intense light from which a female figure emerged and spoke to her. Thus began a series of fifty-six apparitions of the Virgin Mary, with messages from her, that allegedly occurred over the next fourteen years (the last on May 31, 1959).
The first twenty-five messages (1945–1950) were of a general nature, with imagery and prophecies that merely reflected the political as well as the spiritual turbulence of the period. In 1950, the Virgin, Peerdeman said, appeared atop a globe and announced, “Child, I am standing upon this globe, because I want to be called the Lady of All Nations” (Messages 1999, p. 75). The following year, she directed that she be depicted in that persona in a painting (see Figure 1), and she advanced a new and “final” Marian dogma, that Mary was to be Coredemptrix, Mediatrix, and Advocate. The message (May 31, 1954) implied that the dogma would be proclaimed by the then-current pope, Pius XII, or at least sometime “in the twentieth century” (Messages 1999, p. 145–146). Neither was the case (Conte 2006).
Several other messages purported to predict future events. However, the statements, like those of French seer Nostradamus (1503–1566), are vague and open to various later interpretations—by a process called retrofitting (i.e., after-the-fact matching). For example, Peerdeman claimed publicly that in one message she had predicted the AIDS epidemic but had mistaken it for cholera (Van der Ven 2002). In fact, the actual reference (December 26, 1947) was to a torpedo-like device causing “terrible deadly diseases,” including cholera and leprosy, and to faces “covered with dreadful ulcers, something like leprosy” (Messages 1999, p. 51). No place or time period was specified. Thus Peerdeman could subsequently claim to have predicted some chemical/biological attack or any of various epidemics, such as smallpox, or, later reaching for a more dramatic matching, AIDS. (For a debunking of other Peerdeman predictions, see Conte 2006.)
Peerdeman also claimed to have had a number of “Eucharistic experiences” that lasted until 1984, effectively supplanting the apparitions. That is, during the Eucharist (Holy Communion), certain visions and supernatural phenomena allegedly occurred. For example, her first experience (in 1958) involved the Catholic belief in Transubstantiation (i.e., that when partaken, the bread and wine of communion actually change into the body and blood of Jesus Christ—not merely figuratively). Speaking of the Host (the consecrated Communion wafer) Peerdeman said (Daily 2003, p. 14):
All of a sudden the Sacred Host began to grow on my tongue, becoming larger and thicker. It seemed to expand and then suddenly it came alive. . . . It resembled a living fish, the way it moved in my mouth. I wanted to take it out of my mouth to see what it was but naturally out of reverence I did not dare.
(The fish is a symbol of Christ and Christianity [Stravinskas 2002, p. 328].)
In Amsterdam, Nienhuys and I visited the chapel of the Lady of All Nations Foundation, where the inspired painting hangs and nuns continue devotion to Ida Peerdeman and her cause. We spoke with one of the Sisters, photographed the painting, and purchased copies of the messages, a biography of Peerdeman, and other materials. Nienhuys also subsequently obtained some relevant articles, which he translated for me.
Many indicators suggest Peerdeman was highly impressionable. The youngest of five children whose mother died when she was eight, she reportedly had an apparitional experience on October 13, 1917, when she was twelve. Returning home from confession, she allegedly encountered a radiant Mary who made a friendly gesture to her. This was repeated on two following Saturdays, although her father admonished her to keep her claims to herself lest she be “ridiculed and considered crazy.” While to the credulous the date seems auspicious, to skeptics it seems suspicious, suggesting imitation: it was the day that, after much publicity, an estimated seventy-thousand people gathered at Fatima, Portugal, where three children claimed the Virgin Mary would appear and work a miracle (Nickell 1993, 176–181).
On subsequent occasions at the Peerdeman home, a series of incidents occurred “that would not have been out of place in a Poltergeist movie.” Lamps began to swing, doors opened and closed, and other phenomena occurred—all apparently without human agency (el-Fers 2002). However, time and again, when properly investigated, such “poltergeist” phenomena have turned out to be the pranks of mischief makers, typically children and teens (Nickell 1995, 79–107). The phenomena attending Peerdeman appear no different.
That Peerdeman was simply acting out repressed hostilities is suggested by certain “demonic torments” she supposedly endured as a teenager. These include a claimed street attack by a man “dressed all in black” who allegedly grabbed her arm and tried to drag her into a canal, and another incident in which an old woman supposedly lured her into the path of an approaching train. Further, she was “severely tormented by demons at home,” on occasion exhibiting the typical, role-playing antics of those who are supposedly possessed: shouting, supposedly showing prodigious strength (lifting a chair over her head), and the like. Once, after “an invisible hand” allegedly choked her, an exorcism was performed, during which the family heard “Satan’s revolting voice” (i.e., Peerdeman speaking in a “changed” voice) cursing the priest (Sigl 2005, p. 13–14). (For more on possession see Nickell 2001.)
Peerdeman’s devotees cite local bishop J.M. Punt’s conclusion that “the apparitions of the Lady of All Nations in Amsterdam consist of a supernatural origin.” In reaching this decision, Punt (2002) cited many reports of “healings” attributed in some way to Peerdeman. The occurrence of so-called miraculous healings is now the usual basis for determining that someone within the Catholic Church is a saint. However, “miracle” not being a scientific concept, such healings are really only held to be “medically inexplicable,” and thus claimants are engaging in a logical fallacy called arguing from ignorance (that is, drawing a conclusion from a lack of knowledge). When properly investigated, “miracle” healings typically turn out to have alternate explanations: spontaneous remission (common to certain illnesses like multiple sclerosis), prior medical treatment, or even misdiagnosis, as well as psychosomatic conditions, the effects of the body’s own healing mechanisms, and so on (Nickell 1993, p. 133–137). The “healings” thus far attributed to Peerdeman appear unexceptional.
In contrast to Punt’s opinion that the apparitions had a “supernatural origin,” an investigating commission found quite the opposite. Appointed by an earlier bishop in 1955, the group included a psychiatrist, psychologist, priest, seminary teachers, and a deacon of Amsterdam’s parishes. According to their report, the committee was “deeply shocked. . . . The messages do not come from Heaven,” they insisted, maintaining that the Holy Virgin had never revealed herself in such a manner. They added, “We recognize therefore that all these revelations in whatever manner have a purely natural origin.”
In explaining, they observed that “Gradually one sees, as it were, a shift in persons.” That is, at first Peerdeman’s experiences were about herself; then later she projected her own persona onto the Virgin Mary. The commission’s president characterized Peerdeman’s visions as “banal, brusque, and ascerbic” (Van der Ven 2002) and concluded that the supposed visionary suffered from egocentricity (Van der Ven 2002). Over the years, the Catholic press reportedly “demonized” her (perhaps appropriately, given the irony of her having acted in a demon-possessed manner), and she was often described by Catholic officials as “an hysteric” (el-Fers 2002). Objectively, there seems to be nothing in the claims of Ida Peerdeman that cannot be explained as the result of imagination, suggestion, or, possibly, pious deception. Haunted Mines
The Netherlands’s Limburg province (the country’s southernmost) rests on coal deposits that are some 270 million years old. Coal was once an important Dutch commodity and was mined in the region, which contains many labyrinthine mines as well as cave systems (Harmans 2005, p. 365).
Nienhuys had learned of a “haunted” mine, the Emma, but it is unfortunately now closed. Nevertheless, we were able to visit, about twenty kilometers to the south, a historical mine, Steenkolenmijn, which is open to the public as a sort of mining museum. (As Nienhuys learned, however, one must be constantly skeptical: this “coal” mine is actually an old marl pit, centuries old, that was converted to a “model mine” in 1917.)
In addition to touring a mine to get a sense of the setting of mine ghost tales, we also visited the Meertens Institute in Amsterdam, which conducts research on language and culture, including ethnology and folklore. There we met with senior researcher Theo Meder who helped us sort out versions of the Emma mine’s ghost tale.
The story is elaborated as a children’s adventure, Kaspar, by Pierre Heijboer, who was himself from the village of Hoensbroek where the Emma mine is located. In the story, Little Jo had just turned fifteen and had gone to work in the mine, even though his grandmother thought this work too dangerous for him. His job was to regulate the weather-doors, leather flaps that regulated air flow.
One day there were no coal cars, but as he sat there he was visited by an old man dressed in a miner’s clothes, wearing a beard, and using a walking stick. He told Jo his name was Kaspar and that he could determine who could see him and who could not. He took Jo through a hole into an old section of the mine that Kaspar said was his domain. Everywhere old supports had fallen and at one place Jo saw, sticking out, the bony hand of a miner who had been killed in a collapse. He also saw fossil trees of the type coal was made from, as well as bright crystals, and other sights. Although hours passed, he was not tired, thirsty, or hungry.
Meanwhile, Jo’s grandmother was worried because he had not returned, especially when she learned that his name-token—kept on a hook during working hours as a safety precaution—was missing. After two days, everyone had given up hope of ever finding him alive again, although his grandmother kept praying for his safe return.
Then on the third day, Jo reappeared. When asked to explain what had happened, he began by saying that no one would believe him. In fact, as his family rejoiced, mine officials had a doctor examine him, and a mine policeman accused him of deserting his post. The miners’ chaplain was also skeptical of his story, but his grandmother knew not to worry about him in the future because he was protected by “Kaspar, the mine ghost” (Meder 2005; 2006a).
Figure 2. Statue of the imagined Dutch boy whose finger, stuck in a leak in a dike, saved his town. (Photo by Joe Nickell)
Obviously, this narrative has a fairy-tale quality, not the least of which is its motif of passing through a hole into a mystical realm. (In Lewis Carroll’s 1865 Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, for example, little Alice falls down a rabbit hole and into a strange land where everything occurs with fantastic illogicality.) Then there is the supernatural figure of Kaspar. Common to Dutch mine legends and myths, Kaspar is a sort of god of the underworld. He is generally malevolent, angry at humans who pillage his rich hoard of coal (Dieteren 1984, p. 33). So when miners arrived at work and found cracked supports, they would suggest, “Kaspar has been here,” or when a coffee can or sandwiches went missing they would suggest, “Well, Kaspar may have taken them” (Lemmens 1936, p. 62).
If the Emma-mine story is based on an actual event, it had to have occurred between 1913, when that mine first opened, and 1936, when a version of the tale appeared in a book of mine legends (Lemmens 1936, p. 77). Meder suggests (2006) that the boy may simply have wandered off, become lost, and fallen asleep, dreaming about the old man or inventing him to provide an alibi for himself.
Asked about haunted mines, our guide at Steenkolenmijn was very dismissive, saying that ghost stories were simply used to scare beginning workers. Even so, Nienhuys did turn up some illuminating tales of mine “ghosts.” One specter proved to be a miner who was covered in chalk, while another was a goat that had been surreptitiously released underground!
Still another tale, “the ghost in the mine wagon,” tells about a miner who was attempting to fraudulently change the tags on coal cars to give himself credit for greater production. Suddenly, his hand was grabbed—in one version by a ghost, in another by the supervisor who had hidden in one of the cars (Nienhuys 2006).
As all these folk narratives about mine ghosts indicate, they have less insight to provide about the reality of ghosts than about the storytellers’ desire to entertain or instruct within their own cultural environment.
Another Dutch folktale is as well known to American tourists as it is otherwise obscure to Dutch folklorists. Americans learn it as children, an idyllic tale of a boy saving his town by plugging a leaking dike with his finger and so preventing a flood. Although not a paranormal tale, it is nonetheless an instructive one to skeptics.
Related in a text of 1865, it begins:
Many years ago, there lived in Haarlem, one of the principal cities of Holland, a sunny-haired boy of gentle disposition. His father was a sluicer, that is, a man whose business it was to open and close the sluices, or large oaken gates, that are placed at regular distances across the entrances of the canals, to regulate the amount of water that shall flow into them. . . .
One lovely autumn afternoon, when the boy was about eight years old, he obtained his parents’ consent to carry some cakes to a blind man who lived out in the country, on the other side of the dike. . . .
Returning home, the boy stopped to pick some flowers, but, with dark falling, his attention was drawn by the sound of water trickling. He quickly understood the danger: the dike had sprung a leak!
Quick as a flash, he saw his duty. Throwing away his flowers, the boy clambered up the heights until he reached the hole. His chubby little finger was thrust in, almost before he knew it. The flowing was stopped! Ah! he thought, with a chuckle of boyish delight, the angry waters must stay back now! Haarlem shall not be drowned while I am here!
But as night fell and the air became chilled, “Our little hero began to tremble with cold and dread.” Soon, not only was his finger tired, but his entire body began to fill with pain. When no one answered his cries for help, he called on God for assistance. “And the answer came, through a holy resolution: ‘I will stay here till morning.’” He suffered on, uncertain he could even draw away his finger if he wanted to. Then,
At daybreak a clergyman, returning from the bedside of a sick parishioner, thought he heard groans as he walked along on the top of the dike. Bending, he saw, far down on the side, a child apparently writhing with pain.
“In the name of wonder, boy,” he exclaimed, “What are you doing there?”
“I am keeping the water from running out,” was the simple answer of the little hero. “Tell them to come quick.” It is needless to add that they did come quickly. . . . (Dodge 1865)
It’s an inspiring little story. Unfortunately, Dutch folklorists do not know of the tale from oral tradition or even an old schoolbook, but rather from an American children’s novel published in 1865 by Mary Mapes Dodge (1831–1905) (Harmans 2005, p. 19). Titled Hans Brinker or the Silver Skates, the novel presents the tale in a chapter titled “Friends in Need.” Immediately following the narrative, a character claims the story is “really true.” Another replies, “True, of course it is. I have given you the story just as Mother told it to me years ago. Why, there is not a child in Holland who does not know it.” But this may be no more than what literary scholars call verisimilitude (from the Latin veri similitudo, “resemblance to truth”), an often-used technique, or ploy, of fiction writers (Holman 1980, 459).
Still, another reason for thinking Dodge may have had a source for the finger-in-the-dike narrative is her abundant use of source material throughout the novel. This includes not only such works as Macaulay’s History of England (1849–61), Charles Mackay’s Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions (1841), and—since Dodge had not been to the Netherlands before writing her novel—various reference works reflecting Dutch art, science, and society. It also includes children’s literature like Clement Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (1823) and certain collections of fairy tales, including those by Hans Christian Andersen (1805–1875) and Grimm’s Fairy Tales (1812–14). Indeed, the brother and sister in Dodge’s novel, Hans and Gretel, evoke the Grimm brothers’ fairy-tale siblings, Hänsel and Gretel.
Yet, if the statement were true that “there is not a child in Holland who does not know it,” why can no trace of it now be found earlier than Dodge’s 1865 text? My own search—aided by Center for Inquiry, Director of Libraries Timothy Binga—failed to turn up any antecedent of the finger-in-the-dike motif (neither a comprehensive Internet search, nor any other). Small wonder that Dutch folklorist Theo Meder (2006b) calls the boy in the tale “the Dutch hero that never was.”
Nevertheless, as a concession to American tourists, the Dutch Bureau for Tourism placed a statue of the imaginary lad at Spaarndam in 1950. Its inscription is in Dutch and English: “Dedicated to our youth, to honor the boy who symbolizes the perpetual struggle of Holland against the water” (see Figure 2). Although the boy has no name in Dodge’s narrative, he is now typically referred to by the name of the main character in the novel, Hans Brinker. (While in Spaarndam, I sampled a beer spoofingly called Hansje Drinker; its label pictured a boy using his finger to plug a leaking beer barrel.) In 1954, a Dutch author rewrote the Dodge narrative, and—in keeping with the location of the statue—relocated the adventure in Spaarndam (Meder 2006b).
In this way, what appears to have begun as a lighthearted example of American fakelore is slowly metamorphosing into a bit of Dutch verisimilitude.
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