Behind the times


We can live a hi-tech life in a technologised world, but we still run on human software.


On the 15th of August 1950, forty year old Carl Walters of Rogersville, Tennessee walked into a store where Alberta and Alta Gibbons, mother and daughter, were drinking soda. He said “This is gone far enough”, and shot Alberta, who was holding her baby. The older woman pleaded for her life but was also shot. Both died.

The Kingsport Times News reported that: “Crime is not normally big news in the Kingsport area, but the ‘hex’ murder of a 21 year-old Hawkins Country wife and her mother on August 16th was the biggest story of the month. … Charged with murder was Carl Walters, who said the women had ‘bewitched’ him”. A few days later, a mob of three hundred men stormed the Rogersville jail to get to Walters. (Their righteous indignation may have been partially fuelled by the presence of a cache of bootleg whisky being kept in the same jail.)

Walters had had a run of dreadful luck and had seen a Dr. Pope to whom he confided that his daughter, as well as he, had been bewitched.

Walters was assessed by psychiatrists and, although his jury did not go for his defence that he was suffering from dementia, on appeal he avoided the electric chair. But his psychiatric status doesn’t particularly interest me, so much as that a man in the mid twentieth century could think in terms of witchcraft, and then the local paper could take for granted that their readership would understand the concept of a “hex murder”. If you think this case must be totally out-of-place by a few hundred years, I have some reading for you.

Rogersville was not backwards. It has been referred to as ‘the cradle of Tennessee Journalism’: Tennessee’s first newspaper had been printed there in 1791; Rogersville’s longest-lasting newspaper started in 1885. The town had had a railroad since the 1860s. There was nothing wrong the roads and communications by the 1950s: indeed, Walters had driven his car to his double-murder and then onto the police station to confess. Radio had been available in the US since the early 1920s and by the 1930s most households had at least one set. TV was everywhere by the 1950s.

Learned accounts of witchcraft include a breeze through the legals, which always include the eighteenth century statutes (in the English speaking regions) which embodied the thoughts of the educated classes: the powers of witchcraft did not exist, so to accuse someone of it made no sense; those who claimed such powers were hucksters who should be prosecuted for selling a non-existent product.

If you Google the last witch in a given area, you’ll probably find the last witch trial. But general belief in the supernatural doesn’t thrive or decline by decree, as Walters’ case demonstrates. Belief in witchcraft, the power of cunning-people, fairies et al. persisted for longer than many realise.

The world in 1950 had access to anaesthetics, antibiotics and a nuclear bomb, and to the physics, engineering, biotech and double-blind experiments which had produced them. It had a whole philosophy of science, from Aristotle to Bacon and Descartes, soon to include Popper and Kuhn.

Walters had used an internal combustion engine every day, but he probably wouldn’t have been able to describe how it worked. Just because we as individuals use technology, it doesn’t mean that we are personally at the forefront of our society’s most technical or progressive ideas.

In fact, our psychological needs usually trump our intellectual ones. On Sunday 22nd August, your editor @MrMMarsh and I joined Helen Czerski on Science Shambles to discuss conspiracy theories and superstition, and why they won’t go away. We concluded that people may can use high-tech devices while not understanding (or even misunderstanding) the science behind them; and that when a worldview becomes part of a person’s identity, they will find it harder to change their minds. Plus, scientific ideas are often hard-to-acquire in the first place, as they can be counter-intuitive. And that in difficult times, people gravitate towards ideas which give them a sense of control, irrespective of whether that idea stands up to scrutiny.

Many people think science is a body of knowledge rather than a mechanism. In reality, scientific endeavour often acts to overturn previous ideas which updates our knowledge. Sceptics are familiar with this idea.

I think everybody could do with learning this in school.

You can’t possibly teach people what to think: in a technological society like ours, there is too much stuff to learn. But you can teach people how to think well.