Houdini’s “Girl Detective” – The Real-Life Ghost-Busting Adventures of Rose Mackenberg

Front cover 2“I’ve unmasked a thousand frauds!”

– Rose Mackenberg, 1951

This forthcoming book is an anthology of articles originally published as a series in several North American newspapers during 1929. The author was a woman named Rose Mackenberg, who was among the most prolific real-life “ghost busters” of the early-mid 20th century.

Rose was part of Harry Houdini’s team of skeptical “spook spies” who investigated fraudulent spiritualist activity, gathering evidence for Houdini’s crusade against the 1920s “ghost racket”.  She was already an experienced private investigator when she started working with Houdini, who then taught her the many tricks of the ghost racketeers.

Rose would travel from town to town, infiltrating the local phony seance subculture in disguise and using false names, including “the Reverend Frances Raud” (“F.Raud”) and “Allicia Bunck” (“all is a bunk”, “bunk” being ’20s slang for a con game). Once she had gathered enough evidence of “spirit fraud”, Rose would pass the proof on to Houdini, who would proceed to expose the con-artists when he arrived in that town.

It was sometimes dangerous work, as Rose and her colleagues were caught up several times in violent clashes between pro- and anti-Spiritualist groups. In February of 1926 she presented evidence, alongside Houdini himself, before a Congressional committee investigating the ghost racket.

After Houdini’s untimely death eight months later, Rose continued his work, exposing all manner of phony spirit mediums, the purveyors of “love and luck charms” and other fraudsters throughout the Great Depression and then the 1940s and ’50s. She also began performing lectures and demonstrations warning people away from being suckered by this cruel type of con game.

Stay tuned for a publication announcement for Houdini’s Girl Detective: The Real-Life Ghost-Busting Adventures of Rose Mackenberg!

The Secret of Johnny Coulon, the “Unliftable Man”

Was This The Original "Vulcan Nerve Pinch"? (1921-1970s)

… for when he touched earth so it was that he waxed stronger, wherefore some said that he was a son of Earth.

– Apollodorus, Library, 1-2 A.D.

Was This The Original "Vulcan Nerve Pinch"? (1921-1970s)

After his retirement from boxing in 1914, former bantamweight champion of the world Johnny Coulon (5 ft, 110 lbs) hit the vaudeville circuit demonstrating his apparently mysterious power to resist being lifted into the air.

The act was simple; the tiny Coulon would first allow himself to be lifted by his “opponent”, typically a big heavyweight boxer, wrestler or weightlifter.  The opponent would initially have no difficulty at all hoisting the smaller man into the air, especially as Coulon would tense his body into a straight vertical line and bear down upon the lifter’s wrists, effectively assisting in the lift.

Coulon would then apply his special counter-grip, in which he lightly seized the would-be lifter’s right wrist (over the pulse-point) with his left hand and placed his right index finger on the left side of the lifter’s neck, near the carotid artery. The results were always the same; regardless of how much he strained and struggled, the lifter couldn’t budge Coulon from the floor.

Here’s the only known newsreel film footage of Johnny Coulon in action, dating to 1921:

In 1920, after refining the act by touring American music halls and saloons, Coulon departed for Paris where his apparently “occult” abilities attracted a great deal of media attention. This was the height of the post-Great War Spiritualism craze; a time of peak popularity for seance sittings and interest in the “world beyond”. While Coulon was wowing Parisians with his seemingly mysterious ability, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was making international headlines promoting a set of photographs purporting to show two English schoolgirls playing with real fairies.

In this rarified environment, Johnny Coulon’s act was reportedly closely scrutinized by committees of physiologists, psychiatrists and other specialists led by Professor Charles Nordmann, who ran a battery of tests including wetting the tips of Coulon’s fingers and having him stand with his toes elevated on a small board, to change his center of gravity.

The committee concluded that a mysterious combination of physiological and psychological forces were at work, “not in the nature of an electric current and not in the nature of any force known to physiologists”:

In the dark wall which, till now, has resisted all attacks of experiment, the enthralling mystery of the relation of body and soul, of mental and material force, the phenomenon discovered by Johnny Coulon is perhaps the decisive breach through which science may perhaps soon enter to victorious attack.

Naturally, many people felt compelled to try to duplicate Coulon’s abilities, and it was reported that, for a time, no work was getting done in Paris because the smallest staffers at every office were being press-ganged into “Coulon lift” experiments.

When approached for comment by journalists, escapologist and arch-skeptic Harry Houdini replied:

It’s hokum! It’s the principle of the fulcrum and a matter of leverage. Coulon is in stable equilibrium and his subject isn’t. Coulon keeps his subject at arms’ length to get the best advantage of the leverage. Furthermore, the trick has been played before!

Houdini was referring to the “Georgia Magnet” act, which had, in fact, been a very popular vaudeville attraction dating back to the 1880s, but which had apparently been largely forgotten by the second decade of the 20th century.  During the act’s late-Victorian heyday, several young women had enjoyed successful showbiz careers employing similar tricks of leverage and misdirection to create the illusion of superhuman powers.

As it happened, however, although Johnny Coulon never publicly explained his methods, Houdini was only partly correct in attributing the “Coulon effect” strictly to leverage.

It’s likely that the scientific committee and other observers had been misdirected by the notion of “occult energy”, and perhaps also by the position of Coulon’s left hand on the lifter’s “pulse point”, into overlooking the fact that Coulon’s right forefinger pressed firmly into his opponent’s sensitive vagus nerve at the moment of the attempted lift.  Simultaneously, Coulon’s right elbow was effectively aligned with his own right hip.

This pressure exerted a force of counter-leverage – invisible to the eye and probably not even noticed by the would-be lifter in the midst of his exertions – which effectively put the lifter in an impossible position. The greater their exertion, the stronger the counter-leverage via Coulon’s skeletal alignment and the greater the painful pressure against the lifter’s vagus nerve – a sensitive pressure point, regardless of size and muscular strength.

Experiments demonstrate that the left-handed “pulse point” grip was largely a matter of misdirection and showmanship; the liftee’s left hand can be limp at their side and the lifter still won’t be able to hoist them, as long as the liftee’s right hand and arm are properly aligned.

Even an exceptionally strong and aggressive lifter, who might be able to “fight through” the painful nerve pressure, would find Coulon impossible to raise due to the alignment of his elbow and hip.  Extreme force would simply lever Coulon’s upper body slightly backward over his own center of gravity, breaking the optimal vertical line alignment and making him even harder to lift.

Thus, by setting the rules of the “test”, Coulon was able to combine an insurmountable leverage advantage with a painful disincentive to being lifted.

Was This The Original "Vulcan Nerve Pinch"? (1921-1970s)

The general public eventually tired of the novelty and Coulon retired from show business, opening a successful Chicago gymnasium. For many decades thereafter, he would challenge visiting heavyweights including boxers Muhammad Ali and Jack Johnson to lift him into the air, and no-one ever managed the trick.

Was This The Original "Vulcan Nerve Pinch"? (1921-1970s)

Johnny Coulon, the Unliftable Man, died at the age of 84 years on October 29, 1973.

Note: an earlier version of the above article originally appeared on the Past Tense blog during November of 2014.  The updated article is published here by permission of the author.

Did Houdini and Doyle Really Investigate Supernatural Mysteries?

The new TV series Houdini and Doyle teams these two very famous figures, together with pioneering female police constable Adelaide Stratton, investigating apparently supernatural mysteries in early Edwardian London.

Obviously, the series is a work of fiction inspired by some historically real characters and situations, with a lot of creative license applied. For example, whereas the real Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle were, in fact, friends for a few years, that friendship actually occurred during the early 1920s rather than circa 1901, and of course the premise of their working together to solve “supernatural” crimes is entirely fictional.

It’s true, however, that Houdini and Doyle did investigate paranormal claims, individually and from very different perspectives.  Both men had a long-standing interest in the nascent religion of Spiritualism – the purported practice of communicating with the spirits of the dead.

Doyle’s interest was that of a devout believer in the supernatural who was concerned about the widespread practice of “spirit fraud” or “playing the ghost racket” – the con-game of using magic tricks and psychological manipulation to hoax “suckers” into paying for fake psychic communication with the dearly departed.  From Doyle’s point of view, this represented an intolerable perversion of a noble spiritual practice, and he conducted a number of investigations into the practices of spirit mediums to try to determine if they were being honest about their abilities.

Doyle was not, however, experienced in the techniques of deception, relying instead upon his powers of observation and deduction – which were rather less than those of Sherlock Holmes – and his sense of an individual’s character.  Although he believed in the scientific method, he wanted and expected it to prove that paranormal events did, in fact, take place.  As such, he was frequently deceived by ghost racketeers and even by much simpler and more innocent hoaxes, such as the famous Cottingley fairy incident.

In 1922 Doyle led a defection of members from the Society for Psychical Research, on the grounds that the Society had become too skeptical.  His enthusiastic endorsement of a number of people and events later proved to have been fraudulent did no lasting good to his reputation. His biographers point out, however, that – although Doyle himself denied it – his passion for the subject of Spiritualism may well have been fired by the fact that he lost seven family members shortly after the end of the First World War.

Harry Houdini, for his part, professed a willingness and even an eagerness to believe in spirit communication, but also possessed a lifetime’s training in methods of artful misdirection, concealment and other forms of trickery.  He attended numerous seances, but in each case he quickly saw through the magic tricks being employed.

Like Doyle, Houdini became very angry when he saw the naive trust of seance attendees – many of whom were recently bereaved – being taken advantage of by ghost racketeers, particularly after his mother died in 1913.  Unlike Doyle, he saw evidence of spirit fraud everywhere, and so he began a crusade against the fraudsters.  Houdini quickly gained notoriety among the subculture of ghost racketeers and took to attending their seances in disguise before loudly exposing their tricks.

Later, he would engage a team of private detectives, referred to as his “secret service”, whose job was to travel the USA gathering evidence of spirit fraud, which would be passed on to Houdini for his exposés.  One of his most trusted and experienced detectives was Rose Mackenberg, who went on to become among the most prominent “ghost breakers” of the 20th century.

Although Houdini and Doyle liked and admired each other, exchanging frequent letters and even vacationing together, they never agreed on the “spiritualist question”.  Doyle was actually convinced that Houdini was among the greatest “physical mediums” in the world, mistaking Houdini’s skill at magic illusions for evidence of actual psychic powers.  Houdini, adhering to the magician’s code, was unable to explain to his friend exactly how the tricks were really done, though he assured Sir Arthur that they were performed by strictly natural means.

Matters came to a head when Lady Doyle – herself a “psychographic medium”, meaning that she produced “automatic writing” believed to be dictated by a spirit guide – conducted a seance in which she attempted to channel the words of Houdini’s much-beloved mother.  Houdini maintained a polite facade, but inwardly he was unconvinced; Lady Doyle’s automatic writings were in English, a language his late mother had barely spoken, and were headed with a cross, a symbol unlikely to have been used by the devoutly Jewish Cecelia Weiss.  Also, the day of the seance happened to have been his mother’s birthday, but that fact was not mentioned in the writing.

Although it’s sometimes assumed that Lady Doyle was deliberately attempting to con Houdini, that’s not necessarily the case; given the right circumstances of belief and emotional investment, it’s entirely possible that she genuinely believed that her automatic writing was being dictated by a discarnate spirit.  Houdini did not believe, and exited the situation as gracefully as he could, not wishing to offend his friends.

After Sir Arthur publicly (and, probably, sincerely) proclaimed that Houdini had been converted to Spiritualism by this seance, however, Houdini had no choice but to vehemently dispute that claim.  Their former friendship quickly turned to bitter rancour and they waged a public relations feud via their newspaper articles, lectures and investigations, each man becoming, in effect, the champion of his own side. Sir Arthur argued vehemently in favour of spiritualism, while Houdini countered with exposé after exposé of prominent mediums, right up until his untimely death in October of 1926.

Doyle, who passed away four years later, never lost his belief in Spiritualism and also continued to believe that Houdini had been a master medium in denial.



Houdini and Doyle, Episode 4: Spring-Heel’d Jack (reviewed)

Edwardian-social-issue-of-the-week: mass hysteria

“Supernatural” crime: Spring Heeled Jack attacks!

Cards on the table; we here at The Ghost Racket are massive, long-term Spring Heeled Jack fans and we’ve been eagerly anticipating Houdini and Doyle’s take on London’s “leaping ghost” for many months.  How does it compare to the frustrating SHJ storyline in the 2015 Jekyll and Hyde series?  Read on …

Episode 4 opens, curiously, with a newsboy hawking the latest London buzz; automotive omnibuses are soon to replace the good old horse-drawn variety.  Automobile magnate Barrett Underhill should be on top of the world, but instead he’s perturbed by a sinister note quoting Moby Dick, which is slipped under the door of his 7th-floor hotel room:

From Hell’s heart, I stab at thee!

Later that night, Underhill is roused by strange flutterings and scratchings at his window.  Investigating, he opens the window and gazes out over the London roofscape – but then, just as he glances upward, a demonic, bat-like figure hurls itself at him from above, sending him plummeting to his death!

The next morning Constable Stratton summons Houdini and Doyle, and they learn that the  hotel doorman spotted an uncanny winged figure leaping or flying from the roof moments after Underhill fell.  Houdini, scoffing at the suggestion that a demon might have been to blame, leaps to the conclusion that it was simple misadventure; the startled doorman, Houdini suggests, mistakenly associated the coincidental overhead flight of a large bird with the man’s accidental, or perhaps suicidal, death.  Stratton and Doyle aren’t so sure – after all, Underhill was just about to make a great deal of money from the automotive omnibus deal, and had also just received an overtly threatening, anonymous note.

Stratton, meanwhile, receives a mysterious telegram and temporarily excuses herself from the case, claiming illness.

Investigating Underhill’s business rivals leads Houdini and Doyle straight into a confrontation with a Mr. Tuttle, the owner of London’s largest horse-drawn bus company.  Tuttle is a surly man who seems to have had both motive and method for murder.  Doyle, however, pursues the supernatural angle and notes that the hotel doorman’s description, and the circumstances of Underhill’s death, are highly reminiscent of the legend of Spring Heeled Jack.  Just then the two amateur detectives encounter Lyman Biggs, a cheerily verbose tabloid newspaper reporter who decides the “leaping demon” angle is far too good to pass up.

Shortly thereafter, a slumlord is pursued through the back alleys by an agile, shadowy, blue-fire-breathing phantom.  The landlord’s body is found  the next morning, gruesomely impaled on the railings of a high fence.  Then Jack strikes again, smashing through the window of a wealthy Russian woman’s apartment and slashing at her with his claws before leaping off into the night.

Within days, London is paralysed by the fear that Spring Heeled Jack has returned.  Doyle notes darkly that his reappearance has always betokened some great disaster, while Houdini takes the opportunity to demonstrate how easily mass hysteria can be conjured by briefly convincing a roomful of people that they’re endangered by an invisible gas.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s family is swept up in the general Spring Heeled Jack panic, as his young son Kingsley becomes tearfully convinced that Jack is stalking him; Doyle seems unable to comfort the boy beyond telling him to keep a stiff upper lip.

Houdini, Doyle and Stratton are eventually able to eliminate Mr. Tuttle as a suspect – he did write the threatening note, but cannot have committed the Spring Heeled Jack attacks. Pursuing a lead offered by the Russian woman, the trail then leads to a circus acrobat, Vladimir Palinov, who was both a jilted suitor of the woman’s and a recently evicted tenant of the landlord’s, but who seems to have had no connection to Underhill the automobile magnate.

That night, Lyman Biggs, the journalist, is confronted by Spring Heeled Jack, who drops from the shadows above; but Biggs quickly recovers his composure and berates the costumed figure before him for “nearly giving the game away”.  “Jack” then pulls off his mask to reveal the face of Harry Houdini; as it turns out, Palinov the acrobat confessed that Biggs had hired him to impersonate Spring Heeled Jack in order to “goose the story” and sell more papers.  Biggs himself, therefore, has accidentally just admitted to orchestrating the plot to the disguised Houdini.

Later, however, while being interviewed in prison, Biggs claims that the slumlord’s death was a tragic accident.  Palinov had only been trying to scare him, and the panicked victim had slipped and impaled himself on the railings while trying to escape.  Biggs also insists that he had nothing to do with the attack on Barrett Underhill, and, in fact, that he had never even heard of Spring Heeled Jack until he overheard Doyle describing the demon to Houdini.  At that point, he conceived the plan to bring the legend to life, so as to profit by fear-mongering through his newspaper stories.

In the final shot, a mysterious, dark figure is watching Houdini and Doyle from the rooftops …


  • This is the first episode in which we start to get a real feel for Houdini, Doyle and Stratton as characters of significant depth.  Doyle’s “stiff upper lip” reserve, which has sometimes registered as rather wooden, is now starting to make more sense; he’s terrified that he’s going to lose his comatose wife Touie forever, and doesn’t know how to deal with that fear (or with his children’s fears).

There’s a very strong scene in which Houdini and Doyle debate the nature of fear and the best way to deal with it; Houdini, fulfilling his role as the brasher, more outwardly emotional of the two, urges Arthur to admit his terror, telling him that this is the only way it will lose its power over him.  Arthur is then, in a rather touching interlude, able to tell his son that it’s all right to be afraid.

  • The Adelaide Stratton character is still a bit of an enigma; she’s often almost as reserved as Doyle, but in this episode we at least learn that she is (or has been) married.  The mysteries of her past relationship(s) seem to be being set up as a major through-line for the series.  Despite excusing herself from the investigation early on, she does have a bit more to do in this episode than previously.
  • The pattern develops apace; Houdini consistently jumps to the wrong conclusion straight off the bat, but he’s also consistently right about the ultimate solution being non-supernatural.  Doyle’s more cautious approach – as befits a trained physician and the creator of Sherlock Holmes – admits more possibilities, though he’s very apt to get side-tracked looking for paranormal explanations where none actually exist.  Stratton can see both sides and basically serves as the referee, though again, it would be nice to see her display more of an independent set of personality traits and motivations.
  • After the disappointment of the Jekyll and Hyde treatment, in which Spring Heeled Jack was presented as a rather hapless, ineffectual character, it’s wonderful to see justice done to Jack in a fairly major TV series.  His appearances are all suitably mysterious and dramatic and the writer obviously did his homework regarding the actual folklore.  Some of the “historical sketches” Doyle produces to explain the legend to Houdini are closely inspired by actual 19th century SHJ-related art, although one sketch is, rather cheekily, based on the monster from the 1957 movie Curse of the Demon!

Jack’s acrobatics are also very pleasingly handled – it’s a good bet that a parkour-trained stuntman executed his street gymnastics of vaulting and side-flipping over walls, etc.  Dynamic stuff and, again, just what we were hoping for in watching Spring Heeled Jack in action.

  • It’s implied that the “great disaster” foreshadowed by Spring Heeled Jack’s appareance in early Edwardian London is the pollution that will follow once automobiles fully replace horse-drawn vehicles.  It’s also implied, though, that virtually any two events can be tied together via the confusion of correlation with causation …


‽ ‽ ‽ ‽ ‽ ‽ ‽ ‽ ‽ _

Nine ibangs out of ten for our favourite episode so far!  Plenty of action and mystery, some welcome character development and the whole thing moves along at a cracking pace.

“Tarzan and Jesus” – a Parable from Tom Robbins’ “Another Roadside Attraction” (1971)

Another Roadside Attraction

Jesus was sitting on a rock in the desert, meditating and reading the Law, when Tarzan came riding up on a goat. Tarzan was munching nutmeg seeds and playing the harmonica. “Hi, Jesus,” he yelled.

Jesus jumped like he was stung by a scorpion. “You startled me,” he stammered. “I thought at first you were Pan.”

Tarzan chuckled. “I can understand why that put you uptight. When you were born, the cry went through the wor1d, ‘Great Pan is dead.’ But as you can plainly see, I’m hairy all over like an ape. Pan was a shaggy beast from the waist down. Above his belly button he was a lot like you.”

A shudder vibrated Jesus’ emaciated frame. “Like me?” he asked. “No, you must be mistaken. Say, what’s that you’re eating?”

“Nutmeg seeds,” said Tarzan, grinning. “Here, I’ll lay some on you.”

“Oh, no thanks,” said Jesus. “I’m fasting.” Saliva welled up in his mouth. He pressed his lips together forcefully, but one solitary trickle broke over the flaky pink dam and dripped in an artless pattern into his beard. “Besides, nutmeg seeds; aren’t they a narcotic?”

“Well, they’ll make you high, if that’s what you mean. Why else do think I’m gumming them when I’ve got dates, doves and a crock of lamb stew in my saddle bag? If you ask me, you could use a little something to get you off.”

At the mention of lamb stew, Jesus had lost control of his lake of spittle. Now he wiped his chin with a dusty sleeve, embarrassment coloring his dark cheeks as the rosy-fingered dawn colors so many passages of Homer. “No, no,” he said emphatically. “John the Baptist turned me on with mandrake root once. It was a rewarding experience, but never again.” He shielded his eyes against the radiant memory of his visions. “Now, I’m what you might call naturally stoned.”

Tarzan, who had climbed off his goat, smiled and said, “Good for you.” He sat down beside Jesus and mouthed his harmonica. A jungle blues. “You gotta blow a C-vamp to get a G sound on one of these,” he said. He did it.

Obviously distracted, Jesus interrupted. “What did you mean when you said that Pan was a lot like me?”

“Only from the waist up,” corrected Tarzan. “Above the waist Pan was a highly spiritual dude. He sang and played sweeter than the larks; and his face was as full of joy as a sunny meadow in spring. There was a lot of love in that crazy rascal, just as there’s a lot in you. Of course, he had horns, you know. And cloven hooves. Good golly, Miss Molly, how those woolly legs of his could dance! But he stunk, Pan did. In rutting season you could smell him a mile away. And he’d take on anything. He would’ve screwed this nanny goat if he couldn’t find a nymph.” Tarzan laughed and ran the scale on his harmonica.

Jesus didn’t appreciate the references to carnal knowledge. He made an attempt to get his mind back on the Law. But whenever his formidable intellect voyaged on the roiling sea of Hebrew instruction, it drew the image of Pan like a dory behind it.

Finally, he shoved Moses aside and asked, “But you say he was a lot like me.”

“I said that, didn’t I, man? I said he was like you, but different, too. Pan was the god of woodlands and pastures, the deity of flocks and shepherds. He was into a Wilderness thing but he was also into a music thing. He was half man and half animal. Always laughing at his own shaggy tail. Pan represented the union between nature and culture, between flesh and spirit. Union, man. That’s why we old-timers hated to see him go.”

The newsboys of paranoia hawked their guilty papers in Jesus’ eyes. They were the same shrill urchins who would be hawking when Jesus would predict his disciples’ betrayal and denial; when, in his next-to-last words, he would accuse God of forsaking him. “Are you blaming me?” he asked. His stare was as cold and nervous as a mousetrap.

By this time, Tarzan was pretty loaded. He didn’t want any unpleasantness. “All I know is what I read in the papers,” he said. He waved his harmonica to and fro so that it twinkled in the sunlight. “Do you have a favorite tune?”

“I like anything with soul in it,” Jesus replied. “But not now. Tell me, Tarzan, what did my birth have to do with Pan’s demise?”

“Jesus, old buddy, I’m not any Jewish intellectual and I can’t engage you in no fancy theological arguments such as you’re used to in the temples. But if you promise, Scout’s honor, not to come on to me with a thick discussion, I’ll tell you what I know.”

“You have my word,” said Jesus. He squinted in the agreed direction of Paradise, whereupon he noticed for the first time that an angel was hovering over them, executing lazy white loop-the-loops against the raw desert sky. “That angel will report everything it hears,” thought Jesus. “I’d better mind my P’s and Q’s.”

Tarzan spotted the angel, too, but paid it little attention. The last time he bad eaten nutmeg seeds he had seen a whole dovecote of them. One had landed on his head and pissed down his back.

“In the old days,” Tarzan began, “folks were more concrete. I mean they didn’t have much truck with abstractions and spiritualism. They knew that when a body decomposed, it made the crops grow. They could see with their own eyes that manure helped the plants along, too. And they didn’t need Adelle Davis to figure out that eating plants helped them grow and sustained their own lives. So they picked up that there were connective links between blood and shit and vegetation. Between animal and vegetable and man. When they sacrificed an animal to the corn crop, it was a concession to the obvious relation between death and fertility. What could be less mystical? Sure, it was hoked up with ceremony, but a little show biz is good for anyone’s morale. We were linked to vegetation. Nothing in the vegetable world succumbs. It simply drops away and then returns. Energy is never destroyed. We planted our dead the way we planted our seeds. After a period of rest, the energy of corpse or seed returned in one form or another. From death came more life. We loved the earth because of the joy and good times and peace of mind to be had in loving it. We didn’t have to be ‘saved’ from it. We never plotted escapes to Heaven. We weren’t afraid of death because we adhered to nature and its cycles. In nature we observed that death is an inseparable part of life. It was only when some men – the original tribes of Judah – quit tilling the soil and became alienated from vegetation cycles that they lost faith in the material resurrection of the body. They planted their dead bull or their dead ewe and they didn’t notice anything sprout from the grave; no new bull, no new sheep. So they became alarmed, forgot, the lesson of vegetation, and in desperation developed the concept of spiritual rebirth.

“The idea of a spiritual – invisible – being was the result of the new and unnatural fear of death. And, the idea of a Supreme Spiritual Being is the result of becoming alienated from the workings of nature; when man could no longer observe the solid, material processes of life, and identify with them; he had to invent God in order to explain how life happened and why death happened.

“Now just a minute,” snapped Jesus.

“Maybe I should run along,” said Tarzan, sticking his harmonica into the myrrh-stained Arab silk that girded his loins.

“No,” said Jesus. “If you have more to say, then out with it. Where does Pan fit into this blasphemy? And I?”

“If you’re sure you want to hear it. Confidentially, you look a bit under the weather to me, pal. You could use a pound of steak and some fries.”

“Do continue,” sputtered Jesus through his drool.

“The point is, J.C., we had a unified outlook on life. We even figured out, in our funky way, how the sun and moon and stars fit into the process. We didn’t draw distinctions between the generative activity of seeds and the procreative cycles of animals. We observed that growth and change were essential to everything in life, and since we dug life, when it came time to satisfy our inner needs we naturally enough based our religion on the transformations of nature. We were direct about it. Went right to the source. The power to grow and transform was not attributed to abstract spirits–to a magnified ego extension in the sky–but was present in the fecundity of nature. We worshiped the reproductive organs of plants and animals. ‘Cause that’s where the life force lies.”

Jesus kicked a pebble with the worn toe of his sandal. “I’ve heard of the phallic and vegetation cults,” he said. “Not very sophisticated. My father expects more of man than a primitive adoration of his carnal natures. He must rise above…”

“Rise to what, Jesus? To abstractions? And alienation? Your scroll there, your book of Genesis, says that in the beginning was the Word. The simplest savage could see that in the beginning was the orgasm. Life is reproduced from life, while resurrection–the regeneration of seeds, the return in the spring of the leaves that fell in the autumn–is of matter, not of spirit. Unsophisticated? Maybe it’s unsophisticated to venerate mountains and regard rivers as sacred, but as long as man thinks of his natural environment as holy, then he’s gonna respect it and not sell it out or foul it up. Unsophisticated? Hell, it’s going to take science a couple of thousand more years to determine that life originated when a cupful of seawater containing molecules of ammonia was trapped in a pocket in a shore rock where it was abnormally heated by ultraviolet light from the sun. But we pagans have always sensed that man’s roots were inorganic. That’s why we had respect even for stones.”

Jesus looked up sheepishly from the pebbles he’d been kicking. “But you hadn’t been saved,” he protested.

“Didn’t need to be,” said Tarzan. “Wasn’t of any use to us.”

“Well, in the old days the female archetype was the central religious figure. Man had the power of creation, but it was in women that we observed the unfolding of the life cycle: reproduction, death and rebirth. So we celebrated the sensuality of God the Mother. Agriculture is umbilically tied to the Great Belly. Whereas the domestication of animals, a later pursuit, is more of a phallic activity–it was a step away from God the Mother and a step toward God the Father. But a harmonious balance was maintained. And Pan personified that balance. He kept things unified, him with his beautiful music and his long red erection.

“But when you came along, well, the way I hear it is your coming represented the triumph of God the Father over God the Mother, victory of the Judaic God of spirit over the old God in flesh. Your birth-cry signaled the end of paganism, and the final separation of man from nature. From now on, culture will dominate nature, the phallus will dominate the womb, permanence will dominate change, and the fear of death will dominate everything.

“Pardon me, Jesus, ’cause I know you’re a courageous and loving soul. You mean well. But from where I swing, it looks like two thousand miles of bad road.”

Jesus looked to the heavens for guidance, but he saw only the angel, hangin in front of their parley the way a sign hangs in front of a TV repair shop. “Then that explains why you have withdrawn into your private nirvana,” he said at last.

“You might say that,” said Tarzan, standing up to stretch. “Why beat my head against a penis abstraction? And you, what are you doing out here in this snaky wilderness, frying your butt on a hot rock?”

“I’m preparing myself for my mission.”

“Which is…?”

“To change the world.”

Tarzan slapped his side so hard he bent his harmonica. “The world is perpetually changing,” he roared. “It doesn’t do much else but change. It changes from season to season, from night to day, from ice to tropics. It changes from a pocketful of cosmic dust to the complicated ball of goof and glory it is today. It’s changing every celestial second with no help whatsoever. Why do you want to stick your nose into it?”

“The peoples of the world have become wicked and evil,” Jesus said gravely. “I believe, in all modesty, that I can eradicate their evil.”

“Evil is what makes good possible,” said Tarzan, hoping that he didn’t sound too trite. “Good and evil have to coexist in order for the world to survive. The peoples haven’t become evil, they’ve lost their balance and become confused about what they really are.”

He jumped on the back of his goat and gave it a smack. “I’m afraid, Jesus baby, that you’re gonna confuse them all the more.”

The jungle yogi started to ride off, but Jesus leaped up and grabbed the goat by its tail. “Whoa, no, whoa,” he called in his rich olive-green baritone. The animal stopped and Tarzan looked Jesus in the eye, but Jesus had difficulty articulating the activity in his brain. “If you think carnally then you are carnal, but if you think spiritually then you are spirit.” He just blurted it out, but it didn’t sound too bad, and the odor of the goat obscured any desire he might have had to develop his idea more comprehensively.

Tarzan rattled the nanny’s rib cage with his heels and she bolted out of the prophet’s grasp. “Any law against thinking both ways?” he asked. He began to ride toward the south.

“You’re either for me or against me,” yelled Jesus.

“Well, adios then. I’ve got to beat it on back to the Congo. Jane promised to lay out a luau when I returned. Been gone two weeks now, a-riding over the good earth and a-playing for anybody who’d listen. Bet Jane’s as horny as a box of rabbits. Git along, nanny!”

The goat galloped off in comic-strip puffs of dust. Jesus returned to his rock and shooed an entwined pair of butterflies off the Law. His heart felt like the stage on which some Greeks had acted a messy tragedy. So occupied was he with swabbing the boards that several minutes passed before he thought to look after the angel. When his eyes found it, it was flapping erratically in the high, dry air, first soaring after the disappearing strains of Tarzan’s harmonica and then returning to hover over Jesus, back and forth, again and again, as if it did not wish the two to part–as if it did not know whom to follow.