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The Moon

This excerpt is from a story I read last week:

It could have been the wind. They hoped it was, but the next time they heard it they knew they were wrong. That long, sad cry was the sound of a lone wolf howling at a full moon. Nervously people in the small German village of Bedburg double-checked the latches on their doors and windows, then rushed back to the warmth and security of their fireplaces. To those people on that night in 1589, the cry was the sound of death … one they had heard for the past 12 years.

Every spring this lone wolf returned to their part of the Rhine Valley and stayed until the first snows of winter came. Every year, at this time, it would kill more villagers. At first it had only been a nuisance to the farmers, attacking a few of their sheep and cattle. In time it began to turn on people as well and over the years had left a bloody trail of corpses behind. During its seasons of attacks, the bodies of at least a dozen children and two women had been discovered in the forest outside the village as well as the bodies of nine men found with their throats ripped open.

The villagers knew this was no ordinary wolf because it behaved in such an odd way. For some unaccountable reason it ate only the bodies of the women and children it killed, not those of the men. Also, it only attacked during the time of the full moon and then only during the warmer months of the year. This was especially peculiar because wolves usually turn into man-killers only in the winter, when there are fewer animals around to eat. Finally, after each attack the animal disappeared without leaving a trace – no tracks, no animal droppings, none of the usual signs.

In 1589, after years of frustration, a hunting party of villagers and their dogs finally picked up the fresh scent of the wolf not far from the mangled remains of its latest victim. It was already October and the men knew time was running short. If they didn’t get the animal now it would be gone with the first signs of winter, only to return the following spring.

This time they were lucky. The dogs were able to keep on the scent and eventually trapped the animal in a steep ravine. The hunters got ready for the kill, moving slowly in an ever shrinking circle on the cornered wolf. When they got ready to strike, they saw something that first stunned, then bewildered them.

Instead of a wolf they found a man scrambling around on all fours, snarling and clawing back at the dogs and their owners. He was a local woodcutter named Peter Stumpe who had lived in Bedburg for years. Now he was barely recognizable. He had the strength of ten men and it took at least that many to tie him up and drag him off to the nearby city of Cologne, where he would go on trial for the wolflike killings of Bedburg’s citizens.

A squat, husky man, Stumpe did have a reputation around the village for bizarre behavior. Still, it had never occurred to anyone that it could have been a human being who committed those savage killings, much less that it was Peter Stumpe. And no one could have been prouder of such vicious crimes than he.

During his trial he eagerly described in bloody detail how he killed his victims and he claimed what helped him to do it was a magic wolf pelt given him by the Devil. He said when he put it on during a full moon it turned him into a vicious wolf and gave him the urge to kill women and children for food and any men he felt had offended him, for revenge.

Obviously a totally insane person, Stumpe was found guilty of witchcraft and was executed at the wheel, a death at least as horrible as those he inflicted on others. His bones were broken, and, finally, he was beheaded. With his death the villagers of Bedburg were free forever of the terror of the wolfman. To commemorate this they erected a small monument on the spot where Stumpe was executed. Anyone visiting Bedburg today can still see it, a plain pole on top of which sits the carved wooden figure of a wolf.

For all his claims, Peter Stumpe was no werewolf in the horror movie sense. No claws sprouted from his fingertips, hair did not cover his body, and none of his teeth turned to fangs. He was the victim of lycanthropy, a bizarre kind of mental illness in which the sufferer believes the full moon has the power to turn him into a bloodthirsty wolf. During most of the sixteenth and part of the seventeenth century, it was a serious problem in Europe. During that time there were about 30,000 cases of attacks by individuals who thought somehow the moon had turned them into wolves.

Does the moon have the power to cause this kind of delusion? If you go by legend and folklore, the answer is yes. Man has always considered the moon to be the source of many mysterious powers and forces. During solar eclipses, for example, when the moon passes between the earth and the sun, momentarily blocking out the sun, the ancient Chinese thought the moon was a live creature gobbling up the sun. To scare it off they would set off firecrackers. In those days fireworks were taken a lot more seriously.

In New Guinea and parts of Africa, mothers still hold up their children to a full moon in the belief that it will help a child grow straight and strong. In some parts of Scotland, women curtsy to a full moon for luck and in Germany many women would never go out on a bright moonlit night for fear of giving birth to a lunatic child.

In fact the word lunatic itself comes from luna, the Latin word for moon, because of the belief that anyone who was crazy was somehow under the control of the moon This is probably the most well known of all moon legends and is the basis for bits of horror folklore such as the werewolf.

For years scientists dismissed all this talk about the moon driving people crazy as a lot of superstition. It didn’t make any sense to them that a huge hunk of dead rock, circling this planet at a distance of more than 200,000 miles in space, could have anything to do with people on earth being crazy or sane. At the same time no one bothered to check and see if there could be any truth to this ancient belief.

Finally, in 1951, Dr. E. Beamer-Maxwell, a psychiatrist, decided to settle the question once and for all. She figured that if the full moon did drive people mad, then more people would be sent to mental hospitals during that phase of the moon than any other time of the month. As a simple test, she checked back through ten years of admission records at the hospital where she worked. As a result of her search, she found there was a big jump in the number of mental patients not once a month, but twice a month. These two times always coincided with the two main phases of the moon, when it is full and when there is a new moon, that is, when the moon disappears completely from the night sky.

Other equally skeptical scientists copied her experiment in attempts to prove her wrong but in every case they got the same results. It began to look as if that old belief about the moon’s causing insanity had some truth to it after all.

An even more disturbing discovery was made in 1972 by a Florida psychiatrist who found a link between the moon and murder. As a young intern working with mental patients, Dr. Arnold Lieber had heard stories about the moon driving people mad and he himself had noticed strange outbursts among mental patients during both full and new moons. He never forgot this and years later he decided to see if there was any connection between the moon and the ultimate act of insanity, the murder of one human being by another.

He and psychologist Carolyn Sherin decided to do a little scientific detective work by going over 14 years of crime records in Miami. They carefully noted when each murder took place and fed all this information into a computer. The computer did a month-by-month breakdown of murders and then drew them on a graph as up and down waves. Lieber noticed a steady pattern from one month to the next. The number of murders always shot up during full and new moons then settled back down again.

In reading through the descriptions of the murders they noticed something else. Not only did the number of murders increase during the moon’s two phases, they were more bizarre. The most extreme example was a series of murders, which was double the usual number, that took place in two months in 1970.

One was particularly strange. A couple of men walked into a local bar, quietly ordered two sandwiches and, after eating, pulled out pistols, announcing it was a stickup. Everything went smoothly until a waitress, who had acted quietly and calmly at first, suddenly went berserk. She began running around, waving her arms and screaming unintelligibly. Completely unnerved, one of the holdup men panicked and began emptying his pistol at her. By the time the fourth bullet hit her she was dead.

This was just one of a whole chain of exceptionally strange killings reported at this time. On checking astronomical records Lieber found not only was there a full moon out during this time but another rare galactic event was also going on. The earth, the moon, and the sun were all exactly in a straight line with one another, something that happens only a few times in a century. Perhaps this lineup of planets boosted the moon’s strange powers.

Not all records of moon behavior end in total insanity or death, however. Sometimes merely odd behavior is the result. Charles Hyde was a good example of this. In 1953, Hyde was a quiet man who earned his living digging ditches in Cornwall, England. He was known for being a hard worker, a good husband, and a loving father. He was also known for one other thing. “He gets this moon trouble, acting very strangely and going off for a week at a time,” his wife said at his trial.

Hyde was on trial because he had been caught breaking into a house on the night of a full moon. His lawyer had what he thought was a good excuse for Hyde’s behavior. He claimed his client was subject to fits of what could only be called moon madness, meaning he lost all control of himself during a full moon. For that reason, the lawyer said Hyde couldn’t be held responsible for his actions. The judge agreed and put Hyde on probation for his moon-inspired crime.

A few moons later Hyde dropped out of sight. He surfaced at a French Foreign Legion outpost in Algeria. Even there the moon continued to have upsetting effects on him because after only a few months the Legion sent him home. Back in England he was arrested but at the pleading of his wife and lawyer he was released on probation once again. During the next full moon his luck changed for the worse. He was caught breaking into his brother-in-law’s house and put on trial once again. This time the judge had little sympathy for Hyde’s fit of moon madness and sentenced him to a year-and-ahalf in prison.

It’s not only the human mind that is sensitive to the powers of the moon; the body is as well. Old-fashioned doctors would never operate on a patient during the time of a full moon if they could avoid it. The reason offered was that people bled more at this time than any other time of the month.

For years doctors either followed this belief or ignored it completely, performing operations when they felt like it. Finally, in the 1950s one doctor did what no one else had done. He decided to find out if this was just another superstition or was based on fact. For two years he kept careful records of all the operations he did, making special note when there was heavy bleeding. Then he went back over the records looking for a bleeding pattern and found it. In four out of five cases the operations with the greatest blood loss were always done at the same time of the month – when the moon was full.

Another bit of folklore doctors have also discovered to be true is that more people are born during the full moon. The most elaborate investigation to support this idea was one in which doctors went over the records of more than half a million births; month after month they found the greatest number of babies were always born within 24 hours of a full moon.

As a matter of fact, every living thing seems to respond to the mysterious force of the moon. In the animal world one of the most spectacular examples is the mating of a small sea creature called the palolo worm. A green or brown worm usually measuring a few inches long, the palolo spends most of the year living out of sight among the coral reefs around the Fiji and Samoan Islands in the South Pacific. They only show themselves twice a year, about one week before the full moon in the months of October and November. At those times they rise to the surface of the ocean by the millions so that all anyone can see for miles around is one huge mass of wiggling, swimming worms. After their

second appearance in November, they disappear until the next October. They are so precise in their mating habits that local people use the event as part of their calendar.

Other sea creatures equally sensitive to the energies of the moon are the fiddler crab and the oyster. In fact, it was the oyster that in the past 20 years or so stirred up people’s interest in moon power. It began in 1953 when Frank Brown, a biologist from Illinois, wondered how a creature as stupid as an oyster knew when to open and close its shell.

As the high tide rushes in, the oyster opens up, straining from the seawater the tiny organisms it eats. As the tide rushes out, the oyster closes up tight to keep from drying up. Brown had some oysters shipped from Connecticut to his laboratory in Illinois so he could study them at his convenience. First, he noticed that though far from their native ocean, the oysters opened and closed like clockwork in time with the Connecticut tides. Brown figured the oysters had some built-in memory that triggered their feeding times.

A few weeks later, however, the oysters suddenly started opening up three hours later than usual. He couldn’t figure this out until, checking some astronomical data, he found the answer. It was the tidal pull of the moon!

The moon controls the oceans’ tides with a strong gravitational pull. This pull tugs at the oceans and actually shifts around billions of gallons of water, thus causing high and low tides. During the daily rotation of the earth, every part of the planet feels this pull whether it is ocean or land. By doing a few quick calculations, Brown figured out that this high-tide force of the moon hit his part of Illinois about three hours later than it hit the Connecticut shoreline. This is what the oysters sensed. So the threehour shift in their routine was nothing more than their adjustment to high-tide time in Illinois.

Brown tried this new discovery out with another sea creature, the fiddler crab, so-called because one claw is larger than the other and crudely resembles a fiddle. These crabs show a sixth sense about tides. Once the tide has gone out they scavenge the beach for food. Somehow they also seem to know enough to leave the beach just before high tide hits and thus avoid being swept out to sea. Brown had some Connecticut crabs sent to his laboratory and found that, like the oysters, they too sensed the three-hour tidal time difference and adjusted their schedule to fit.

Other investigators have found that even plants have some kind of sensitivity to the energies of the moon. For example, the Old Farmer’s Almanac recommends planting many crops around the time of a full moon to get better harvests. Many old-fashioned farmers still follow this system. They find that vegetables such as lettuce, tomatoes, and carrots planted during the full moon grow faster and are more lush than non-moon crops. One reason for this, scientists have found, is that seeds planted around the time of the full moon absorb more water. As a result they start growing more quickly than plants normally do.

Because of these discoveries about how the moon can have such a wide array of strange effects on living things on earth, no one laughs anymore at those old moon folk tales and superstitions. At the same time no one has yet solved the mystery of how the moon can do all these things. Some suspect that at the heart of the moon’s power is its tidal force which moves around the earth’s massive oceans on a daily basis. Since the human body is about 80 percent water, it may be that this force can have an effect on people similar to the one it has on the oceans.

Perhaps the human body has its own lunar tides that ebb and flow on a daily basis, controlling what happens to the brain and body. Since the moon’s tidal force is particularly strong at the time of both full and new moons, it may trigger many of the peculiar effects scientists have noted. It may be that for some people, sanity is a delicately balanced state of body and mind and during the strong tidal force of a full moon this balance is upset; the lunar tides of the body get stirred up and there is more pressure on the brain, resulting in bizarre, violent behavior.

This same tidal force could be what stirs up the blood so that it is hard to stop bleeding on full moon nights, or determines when a woman will give birth. It certainly is the power that rules the lives of simpler creatures like the oyster and fiddler crab and perhaps the even simpler life of the tomato plant as well.

But it is not the whole answer to the moon power mystery. The more man learns about the moon, the more complicated the mystery seems to get. Even our landings on the moon have shown that the moon can have control over machines as well as men.

Sitting on the moon right now is a robot left behind by the Apollo 14 astronauts in 1971. Its job was to take different kinds of measurements of moonquake activities and atmospheric changes and broadcast these back to earth. Because of its Tough journey to the moon, some parts of the robot never worked at all, but it was in good enough shape to do a few chores on the moon.

Finally in 1976 the robot had a complete breakdown. It stopped doing anything, including broadcasting to earth. It was almost forgotten by earth scientists when suddenly two months after its breakdown the robot started up again. Not only was it doing all of its old work smoothly, but the parts of it that had never worked before were operating beautifully as well. It was as though someone or something had turned off the robot, fixed it completely, and turned it on again.

Experts were trying to figure out what had brought new life to the robot when it shut down again, this time for good. When a reporter asked a space scientist what had caused this odd series of events, all the expert could offer as an explanation was that some “mysterious force” on the moon had taken control of the robot. What this force was he didn’t know!