In 1981, a former Trappist monk named Laurence James Downey hijacked an Aer Lingus flight over France. He didn’t want money, and he wasn’t demanding the release of political prisoners. What he wanted was for Pope John Paul II to reveal the dreaded Third Secret of Fatima, first vouchsafed, according to Catholic tradition, to three Portuguese children in 1917 during a series of visions of the Virgin Mary.
Downey thus earned a special place in the curious world of wild history, a tradition that seeks solutions to the past’s more intriguing unanswered questions. It is an often-fascinating world of mystery, anomaly, hidden history, and occult knowledge. But it is one that is suddenly shrinking. More and more of the past’s secrets are being revealed, especially in the laboratory, and the results are considerably different from the drama and romance that are at the heart of the wild historical tradition.
The last secret of Fatima—the others had long ago been revealed—was certainly one of the world’s best-kept secrets; some Catholics had staged hunger strikes to force Rome to reveal it, and even many non-Catholics wondered what sort of apocalypse the Vatican could find literally unspeakable. Nuclear war? Schism? The Antichrist? The associated papal folklore was quite promising: Popes, on learning the secret, were reputed to have fainted or to have been left speechless for days.
Last month, the Vatican finally resolved the matter: Fatima’s remaining secret, it said, prophesied the 1981 shooting of Pope John Paul II. While dramatic, the news fell short of the Apocalypse that had dominated speculation for over 80 years. That the much-feared prophecy had been fulfilled 20 years ago was, for some, anticlimactic.
Only three weeks before the church revealed its Fatima secret, a pair of geneticists announced that they had resolved the mystery of the Lost Dauphin. In 1795, the 10-year-old son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette died in prison. Or did he? As soon as the boy was reported dead, stories arose that the real dauphin had been rescued and a substitute left in his cell. People have been arguing about little Louis XVII for 200 years. Hundreds of books address the mystery, including Huckleberry Finn, and a long line of claimants has intrigued their contemporaries. Indeed, one claimant is buried in the Netherlands under a headstone that identifies him as the heir to the French throne.
But scientists have now compared DNA from locks of Marie Antoinette’s hair with DNA extracted from the heart of the boy who died in the French prison. They match. The Lost Dauphin has been found, and disappointed romantics will have to take what succor they can from the unlikely fact that a succession of people harbored the little prince’s desiccated heart as a curio for so long.
Indeed, disappointed romantics of history had best keep a careful eye out for such succor. Last year, DNA findings also ended speculation about the “real” fate of Czar Nicholas II and his family. That wild history had included the names of the Romanovs’ courageous rescuers, their escape route, a history of sightings, a parade of claimants, a hit movie, and a Pat Boone record.
The accelerating use of modern laboratory techniques in resolving old mysteries is very good news for history. But it may not be such good news for the cause of enchantment. Since at least the Enlightenment, enchantment—a sense of wonder at the anomalous and the seemingly inexplicable—has been in rapid retreat from the world. One of its last redoubts (if one omits the purely spiritual, a quite different category) has been in the odd nooks and crannies of history’s unanswered questions. There, nourished by an infinity of possibility, history is transmuted into the Romantic.
There are compelling themes running through wild history. Among the most common is the Secret Survival. The desire to believe that a particular figure is actually alive, despite reports to the contrary, is a powerful aspect of celebrity. In our own time, JFK supposedly lived on a remote island belonging to Aristotle Onassis, and Elvis has of course been sighted in Kalamazoo, Mich. The belief that the Doors’ Jim Morrison faked his death is virtually interchangeable with once-popular beliefs about the 19th-century Czar Alexander I. He was said to have faked his death to become a monk. Persistent survival stories are attached even to such figures as John Dillinger, John Wilkes Booth, and comedian Andy Kaufman.
Interestingly, not all such alternate histories gain followings. For example, there is an intriguing case to be made that Joan of Arc was not burned at the stake after all, but returned to France, married, raised two children, and died the peaceful death of a country woman. The tale of the post-stake Joan was told exhaustively by Jules Quicherat in 1841, but the material is infrequently cited. What wish is fulfilled by a Joan who survives her burning?
Lost Identity is nearly as popular. Instances are relatively rare—the mysterious identities of Kaspar Hauser and “The Man in the Iron Mask” are the best-known examples—but the enthusiasm is bottomless. Wild histories have turned both figures into secret royalty (though the most likely candidate for the man behind the mask—actually made of cloth—is Gen. Vivien de Bulonde, imprisoned for cowardice). Hauser, the total innocent who turned up in Nuremberg in 1828—only to be mysteriously murdered in 1833—is approaching the transcendent: The point of Werner Herzog’s 1975 film about Hauser is his very lack of an identity or place in the world.
There are many other such themes. Unacknowledged Genius cults honor Wilhelm Reich, inventor Nikola Tesla, and the Earl of Oxford (as the true Bard). Hidden Murder theorists re-examine the deaths of Napoleon, Warren Harding, and Meriwether Lewis. Not all of these themes are necessarily false by any means; many reasonable persons have been drawn to such subjects, sometimes to the benefit of “mainstream” history. But what often marks wild history as a field is its tendency to solve one mystery by positing another, often greater one. The case of Jack the Ripper is a legitimate whodunit, but its wild versions involve not only the British royal family but also the Freemasons. The suicides of Habsburg Crown Prince Rudolph and Mary Vetsera at Mayerling in 1889 are certainly bizarre, but wild history turned them into an assassination with international implications.
Perhaps the most intriguing such case involves a place called Rennes-le-Château, where wild history has grown to unprecedented proportions. In 1885, Beranger Saunier, priest of a poor, remote French parish, was repairing his dilapidated church and found a pair of unusual old documents. He was soon very wealthy. Just why is not known, but proffered solutions have included the Holy Grail, the Cathar heresy, the Knights Templar, the lost treasures of the Jerusalem Temple, and the possible survival of Jesus. And these are the comparatively reasonable elements of an expanding library of wild, cosmic histories.
It would be easy enough to dismiss wild history as tabloid history, but that would be missing the point—not only of the histories but of tabloids as well. Wild history is often a popular art, offering similar satisfactions. The admirable survive death; the lost are found; the guilty accused. Frequently, wild history takes that which is extraordinary but incomplete and fills it out to the most extraordinary dimensions imaginable. The world is then made marvelous again, enchanted.
Comes science with its DNA and its bioarchaeology, its mummy CAT scans, its satellite imaging, its sonar, its computer analysis, and soon lost cities are found, dead royalty turns out really to be dead, pretenders to be but pretenders. The past must then reveal itself in fantasy’s ashes.
But sometimes the past pays its debt. Who would have dared imagine that a child’s heart could have been lovingly saved until it could, in effect, speak for the Lost Dauphin and return him to history?