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Mysterious Death on Iona, 1929 January 31, 2013

Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback

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17 November 1929 a woman died in mysterious circumstances on the island of Iona in Scotland. She was named Marie Emily Fornario though she more normally went by the name Netta Fornario or simply Mac. Netta, as we’ll call her here, was involved in the occult movements of the day including the Alpha et Omega Temple (a successor of the Golden Dawn) and probably already by the time she got to Iona she was ‘borderline’ as polite psychologists put it. We’ve included here the version of her death described by Alasdair Alpin Mac Gregor in 1955 relying in large part on the testimony of two Ionan-dwelling friends Lucy Bruce and Iona Cammell. It is a tamer version lacking some of the lurid details found in other accounts, but perhaps it is more factual.

One autumn day in 1928, there arrived at Iona in search of accommodation a young lady of Mediterranean origin. That she was of a mind to stay seemed obvious from the quantity of belongings she brought with her. In addition to a great number of trunks and boxes, she had some large packing-cases containing furniture. As most of the island’s summer visitors had already departed, she had no difficulty in finding quarters. Before long she was installed with the Cameron family, at Traigh Mhor, their little farm situated lonesomely at some distance from the island’s village and the customary ferrying-place… Not only was she soon on agreeable terms with the Camerons, with whom she apparently had every intention of indefinite duration, but she had readily made friends with the islanders too. However, she had been some little time in their midst before telling them anything very personal about herself. She did eventually say that her Italian father was a professor of something or other at some Italian university, and that her mother, a London lady of means, had died while she was still a child. With the English uncle and aunt in London, who had brought her up, she had never been happy. They were apt to be impatient with her: they could not understand her temperament. Her father she had not seen for many a year. The passage of time seemed to have intensified her bitterness towards him, apparently for his having married an unsuitable Englishwoman, her mother. The children of such marriages, she held, were so often doomed to misfortune. The Camerons, not unnaturally, were curious about their unusual guest. What could have induced so attractive a creature to have exchanged the gaiety of London for a humdrum existence on an island like Iona? When eventually Mrs Cameron, out of mounting curiosity, asked her why she had left so much behind her, she answered that she had the Call – the Call of the Island – that Call fraught with every prospect of peace and tranquility for which she now yearned. She added that in no way did she regret her coming to Iona. On the contrary, she said that, whenever she saw, at journey’s end, the Isle of her Quest , with its ancient ruins and its early associations with the Blessed Columba, she knew that at last she was to find happiness.

Beach would like to make a short confession here. He once spent three weeks writing on a Scottish island in his far away youth. These places are wild and strange enough to send even the least imaginative out of their heads. And as anyone will have understood reading the above, Nessa was already of a sensitive disposition when she arrived there.

When she arrived she was in anything but robust health. The little exercise she seemed able to take amounted to no more than a daily walk of a few hundred yards along the sandy beach, at no great distance from the Camerons’. Sometimes, owing to fatigue, she did not leave her room for days. Of the mystical poetry she wrote, I have never seen anything. But I have heard from those competent to judge that it was of a very high order. From the day she landed on the island, she interested herself in its folklore, and became increasingly absorbed in the eerie and uncanny aspects of her Hebrideans environment, so recently acquired. The Spell of the Isles – captor of so many – soon had her in thrall. However, she was not long with the Camerons when they and their neighbours discovered – or at any rate imagined that they had discovered – that the stranger within their gates was given to secret and mystical practices. Exactly what these were, nobody could quite say. I am told she was a Rosicrucian. If she as much as whispered the word among the Presbyterians of Columba’s Isle, it would have been sufficient to confirm their suspicions of dangers heterodoxy, suspicions already firmly established whenever it became known that she never retired for the night without two little oil-lamps glowing dimly in her room, and a glass of orange-juice on her bedside table! When, however, she began to speak of visions that she had seen in the heavens, and of messages received from the spirit world, they were quite horrified. To them, that faraway look they had seen in her eyes now denoted either madness or something diabolical. Yet, their native predisposition toward anything of a supernatural character tempered their attitude. On the whole, they were now incredulous; and in this state of mind they remained until the day Mrs Cameron chanced to notice that the jewelry [Nessa] was wearing had become black. Unable to restrain curiosity any longer, Mrs Cameron sought of her the explanation, only to be told that this was always happened to her jewellery when she wore it.

In the more sensationalistic accounts of Nessa’s time on Iona much is made of the blackened jewelry. We are not clear though if it was black because of supposed occult connections with evil or whether it is black because Nessa had been dipping it in the blood of a slaughtered chicken or some such: actually those 1920s occultists rarely went in for that kind of vulgarity/cruelty.

MacGregor goes onto explain some of her strange behavior. She spent one night on the moor after getting lost, she searched out pre-Christian sites for unknown reasons. What is clear though is that strange Nessa was getting closer to the edge of something.

Time passed: and the strange lady with the strange look in her eyes and the strange ways seemed to be getting stranger. Mrs Cameron became positively alarmed when she mentioned that, if she went into a trance, she might remain in it for a week or more, and that, in such an event, nothing in the nature of medical aid was to be summoned.

You can imagine the good Scot clutching at her heart!

Her face now showed nothing of the repose the islanders had noted when she first arrived in their midst. That expression had given way to one of dire distress; and she now spoke hurriedly, if not indeed a little incoherently. At length she told Mrs Cameron that she must quit the island immediately. She had no time to lose; and she must pack at once. Whence came this urgent call, they could not understand. No postman had brought her any letter; and nobody could remember her having received a telegram. Recognising her piteous plight, the kindly Camerons assister her with packing, though it happened to be a Sunday, and they felt themselves contravening the Fourth Commandment. By late afternoon all her belongings were ready to be transported to the pier. As she knew there was no way of leaving the island on the Sabbath, she retired to her room to rest. The hours went by; and towards evening she quietly opened the door to tell Mrs Cameron that her hurried departure no longer seemed necessary. The household noticed that her face, now weirdly pallid, bore an expression of resignation rather than of distress, as though she had just emerged from some stupendous ordeal. She had become quite old in a few hours. The Camerons helped her to unpack, and to settle in once more. Early that night, after chatting pleasantly and rationally with them, she retired to bed.

It is difficult to know how much of the last paragraph to trust. After all, a lot of these memories will have been tainted by what came after. Beach can’t help thinking that this packing stunt was the kind of thing that Nessa, who was clearly a bit of a drama queen, would pull from time to time. Perhaps there is no connection with anything that came after. Anyway on to the blood…

The customary knock on her door the following morning brought no response. She had gone! Whither, no one knew. Neatly arranged in the room were her clothes and jewellery. As the hours wore on, and she did not return, everybody became alarmed for her safety. Soon the islanders were searching the bays and inlets for her, searching the rocks and moorlands – searching for her on what remained of the short, dark northern November day. They failed to find her. The ensuing night was moonlit, calm and frosty. With the coming of dawn, the searchers were out again. Not until the afternoon did Hector MacLean, of Sligneach, and Hector MacNiven, of Maol Farm, find her. She lay between the Machar and Loch Staonaig, in a hollow in the chilly moor. She was quite dead, and, except for a silver chain turned black, quite naked. One hand clutched a knife: the other lay between her head and the cold moor. She had died of exhaustion and exposure. In a trance or, perhaps, in sleep-walking, she had made her way to this remote spot, in response to some mysterious urge.

MacGregor is either being disingenuous or simply dishonest here. He must have realized that Nessa was in the middle of a ritual. Naked… a knife in her hand… Let’s turn to another source, the Occult Review that gives a more sensationalistic, but perhaps on this point, a more honest narrative.

 The mysterious death of a student of occultism, Miss N. Fornario, is receiving the attention of the authorities at the present time. Miss Fornario was found lying nude on the bleak hill-side in the lonely island of Iona. Round her neck was a cross secured by a silver chain, and near at hand lay a large knife which had been used to cut a large cross in the turf. On this cross her body was lying. A resident of London, Miss Fornario seems to have made her way to lona for some purpose connected with occultism. One of the servants at her house in London stating that a letter had been received saying she had a ‘terrible case of healing on’. One newspaper report alludes to ‘mysterious stories on the island about blue lights having been seen in the vicinity of where her body was found, and there is also a story of a cloaked man.’ Occultists no less than the general public will await with interest any disclosures that may be forth coming concerning this occurrence.

It would be fascinating to know whether this cross was just hearsay or part of what the official police report described on the spot. Still this account reinforces the sense that this was a ritual gone wrong. Now back to MacGregor:

How, otherwise [than in a trance], could a woman, unable in the ordinary way to proceed on foot more than a few hundred yards at a time, have travelled so far over territory so precipitous, so broken, so perilous? It looked as though she had been making for the sight of the ancient village we mentioned [a pre-Christian site]. Whereas her heels and much of the soles of her feet were in no way injured, her toes were torn and bleeding. She must have reached that hollow of death by hurrying through the heather and over the rocks on the tip of her toes.

MacGregor suggests levitation to explain the strange wound patterns on her toes! It sounds rather that she was running. Perhaps in the middle of a ritual she had so frightened herself that she was pushed to the edge of hysteria.

The slightly mad but decent Dion Fortune knew Nessa and wrote the following in her Psychic Self Defence.

I knew Miss Fornario intimately, and at one time we did a good deal of work together, but some three years before her death we went our separate ways and lost sight of each other. She was half Italian and half English, of unusual intellectual calibre, and was especially interested in the Green Ray elemental contacts; too much interested in them for my peace of mind, and I became nervous and refused to co-operate with her. I do not object to reasonable risks, in fact one cannot expect to achieve anything worthwhile in life if one will not take risks, but it appeared to me that ‘Mac’, as we called her, was going into very deep waters, even when I knew her, and that there was certain to be trouble sooner or later. She had evidently been on an astral expedition from which she never returned. She was not a good subject for such experiments, for she suffered from some defect of the pituitary body. Whether she was the victim of a psychic attack, whether she merely stopped out on the astral too long and her body, of poor vitality in any case, became chilled lying thus exposed in mid-winter, or whether she slipped into one of the elemental kingdoms that she loved, even as Swinburne swam out to sea, who shall say? The information at our disposal is insufficient for an opinion to be formed. The facts, however, cannot be questioned, and remain to give sceptics food for thought.

DF adds that there were scratches on Nessa’s body. Is this just the wounds to the toes or other injuries? How would you track down the police or the coroner’s report from the time? drbeachcoming AT yahoo DOT com Incidentally some online sources claim that DF blamed mad and rather bad occultist Moina Mathers for killing Nessa in a psychic attack: we’ve found no evidence of this in DF’s writing. We also find it strange that MacGregor who was obsessed with strange ghost lights did not mention any in 1955 if there really had been sightings on the island associated with Nessa. DF is too often taken as the best source for this: she shouldn’t be trusted though unless facts can be double checked, she was in no sense a reliable witness. A more interesting source would be an obituary written by Iona Cammell ‘who a year or two after her death’ wrote an appreciation of Netta in The Atlantis Quarterly. Good luck though getting that… We’ve certainly failed to date.

One final thought. Beach has not the slightest idea what a Green Ray elemental is (see DF above). But occultists and spiritualists had both rechristened fairies as elementals in the late nineteenth century and Iona was seen as a fairy stronghold. Indeed, a member of the FIS lived in the 1930s on Iona (another post another day) and frequently invited friends up to see ‘the mound dwellers’.

PS Having finished writing just come across this report on the net:

Scottish author and psychic investigator, Ron Halliday, believed that Netta really had been in contact with other worlds.  ‘I think she did establish contact with another world’, he said, during his own investigation into the case.  He raised many interesting issues, such as the point that Netta was missing for 2 whole days, which does seem odd on a small island.  (Mrs MacRae said she hadn’t raised the alarm immediately, which (as I’ve said before) is understandable, considering Netta was prone to disappearing for hours on her own).  Halliday also points to reports of mysterious blue lights seen in the area where she was found, and that letters of ‘strange character’ were found amongst her belongings and passed to the Procurater-Fiscal, never to be seen again.


24 Feb 2013: ANL writes: More than anything else, I think that what you have here is a medical mystery: “When she arrived she was in anything but robust health”. The blackened (oxidized) silver jewellery indicates highly acidic sweat, which in turn indicates acidosis, an excessive amount of acid in the blood. Among many other things, metabolic acidosis can be caused by coeliac disease or a liver problem. If untreated, acidosis can lead to an acute confusional state in which patients may experience disorientation, agitation and hallucinations: “she began to speak of visions that she had seen in the heavens, and of messages received from the spirit world…….that faraway look they had seen in her eyes now denoted either madness or something diabolical.” I rest my case.’ AB has an explanation for the green ray which is very revealing: Beach in case your natural scholastic tendencies haven’t already unearthed the solution to the Green Ray or somebody else hasn’t already beaten me to the punch let me inform you it’s supposedly the region of wavelengths of energy on which the fairy universe specificaly operates. Why even the likes of Don Juan Matus were wary of it’s supposedly because in essence green energy’s also the frequency of the vegetational universe so you’re essentially dealing with entities who may at times resemble human beings but actually have little understanding and often completely no sympathy for animal kind and if anything’re as the emissaries of the plant kingdom dedicated to tempting animal kind to cross the threshold of vegetational existence where the assimilation and merging of such non-plant energies with their own can supposedly lead to interesting possibilities such as the Venus fly catcher. The peculiar thing though’s Iona’s supposedly derived from the same root as Yew and therefore associated more with the red end of the spectrum which’d suggest the island was strongly associated with cthonic powers supposedly making things more clearcut between the parties and less open to confusion or deception but Marie Emily’s fate suggests differently. Then KR who revisits some of this material. A few thoughts I had on this: 1. Perhaps Samuel Mathers took revenge for his wife after her death? 2. Why does no one ever wonder if the islanders themselves, or someone of them, or some group of them, decided to get rid of this strange (to them) woman, who might have been seen as a witch? Could some, or someone of them, have thought she was committing sacrilege by practicing her beliefs at their ancient sacred places? Couldn’t this, protection of the native islanders, be a reason why there was inadequate investigation? Perhaps “they” carved the cross nearby, re-sanctifying the area following the “witch-killing.” 3. She had “dreamy eyes” and odd ill spells and times of staying for hours on end in her room. She had a sudden great fear that she must leave, then was ok to stay. Could she have been epileptic, primarily of the petit-mal trance type? Some have an aura before an attack, which is a kind of warning sensation. Some have mostly petit-mal seizures, meaning that they seem to lose consciousness of their surroundings for small amounts of time, but don’t go into obvious convulsions. (Flickering lights, some were said to be seen on the island, sometimes bring on a seizure.) Later on in life, this can change to grand-mal. If she had petit-mal seizures, her physician-father might have considered committing her to an asylum, then the medically-proper thing to do to epileptics, which would have given her good reason to run away, and stay away from him. Her grandfather was insistent that she remain under the care of her brother, or a husband: he could have been simply old-fashioned and traditional regarding “woman’s place” in society, but he also could have been concerned about her odd trance-states. She, on the other hand, might have combined her occult research with hope for a cure:there is a “curative well” on the island. Suppose she took a dip in the well, something she could only do in the middle of the night to keep from being seen by islanders? Thus the nudity. If she had a grand-mal convulsion after wandering in the dark trying to get back to her lodgings afterward, she could have died from that, plus exposure. A superstitious islander, or islanders, seeing a nude woman wandering in a black cape might have some reason to think her a witch. Perhaps the “strange man” was an islander in the garb of a monk, doing what he thought was necessary to rid the holy isle of a witch? :) I should write a novel…I have no reason to suspect epilepsy, except that it would explain a few of the unexplained details: her oddness/ deliberate seclusions/dreaminess, her grandfather’s will, her father’s estrangement, her “sudden feeling that she needed to escape” or something bad might happen (aura) her change of mind (either the aura left, or she seized without witnesses and recovered,) her self-imposed inability to go far from her lodgings routinely, her night wandering and nudity (seeking and bathing in the healing well.) Her dabbling in occult things might have been begun in an understandable effort to see her difference (as someone who “tranced out”) as something positive, and purposeful, not an illness. Keeping company with persons who believed in falling into trance states for occult purposes, would give her a group of fellows who would not panic when she did it. A group less likely to insist upon incarcerating her where medical “experts” would regularly fry her brain or put a hole in her skull.  Not that she didn’t come to believe in her powers herself: after all, SHE really DID “trance-out” and “mind travel” to somewhere else (lights were on, nobody home) they probably only pretended: she likely could tell the difference. It is possible that after her first grand-mal seizure, she left, escaping before anyone made the connection to “fits” instead of “deep and mystic dangerous trance” to seek refuge, solitude, and healing whilst pursuing her interest in fairy-lore. Okay, enough. My imagination, as you see, is quite vivid. Was she epileptic? We will never know. Also, ph affects silver. Epileptics often have acidic skin ph, which will turn silver jewelry black. Of course, people whose skin is mildly acidic for other reasons, and also some lotions and creams and cosmetics, will also cause silver to quickly blacken and tarnish. Dampness and chloride (salty water and moist seaside air) can also rapidly tarnish silver. Not that odd really.’ Thanks AB, KR and ANL!

31 March 2012: Laura from faeryfolklorist writes (in an email that got lost) ‘What a strange day it’s been, started my day researching the fairies of Iona and ended up thoroughly intrigued by the Nessa Fornario dead mystery… hence how I came by your blog post today! What a wonderful coincidence that you posted it today! I look forward to reading the rest of your fairy related posts. An Iona Anthology by Marian McNeill (1952) tells of a lady visitor who fell victim to the fairies of the fairy hill on Iona. She apparently slipped out one night to the fairy hill naked carrying only a knife with which to open the hill, and she was found dead in the morning beside the fairy hill (Sithean Mor, it’s just by the road to Machair – aka Angels’ Hill where Columba spoke with the angels). According to the story she was buried at Reilig Odhrain – any ideas if Nessa was buried there? The book then gives a wonderful poem about the lady by Helen Cruickshank, which can be found here.  Now as you can see, this seems to be based on Nessa’s death, strange indeed!! The location has changed, but the knife and nudity definitely suggest it’s the same lady. I thought the knife part strange immediately as in folklore a knife is generally used to stop a fairy hill closing rather than be used to open a hill. The hill also has other fairy stories associated with it, so I guess in later years perhaps it was thought Nessa was taken by the fairies?’ Laura then adds after a visit to Iona: ‘I visited Iona a couple of weeks ago and located what is said to be MEF’s grave, according to Geoff Holder’s book on Mysterious Iona. Have attached a photo. Interestingly there is a tradition on Iona to leave stones on graves, it seems to be a sign of respect and good wishes, and quite a few had been placed on her grave so she has obviously not been forgotten, or this is the grave of someone else, though the dates do seem to match up!!’


Thanks Laura!