The Wold Newton Meteorite: An Extraordinary Stone and the Birth of a Superhero

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Deriv; Painting of a meteor, 1860 and an illuminated man

The Wold Newton Meteorite: An Extraordinary Stone and the Birth of a Superhero

In a remote part of North-East England called the Yorkshire Wolds, an incident took place on Sunday 13th December 1795 that not only became talking point of late 18th century London society but also gave birth to a modern literary legend. However, as is so often the case, the real facts associated with this event are just as intriguing as the fictional tales that subsequently arose from it!

Wold Newton Fiction: Radioactive Tarzan

In the early 1970s, the American science fiction author Philip José Farmer (1918 - 2009) was engaged writing the ‘biographies’ (as if they were real-life people) of two well-known fictional characters, namely Tarzan and Doc Savage (the latter is better known in the US than the UK). Farmer was toying with the idea of whether they and similar superheroes of pulp and popular fiction were in any way related since, if they were real, their paths would have inevitably crossed in life. In addition, Farmer was intrigued with how these characters originally gained their superpowers.

Book covers for Tarzan novels, 1912 and 1914

Book covers for Tarzan novels, 1912 and 1914 (Public Domain)

His suggestion, explained in Tarzan Alive (1972) and Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life (1973), was that in 1795 a radioactive meteorite fell near Wold Newton, with the radiation causing genetic mutations to the occupants of two passing coaches, which were passed on to their descendants in the form of extremely high intelligence and strength, along with an exceptional capacity and drive to perform either great good – or evil.

According to Farmer, 19 individuals “were riding in two coaches past Wold Newton... A meteorite struck only twenty yards from the two coaches... The bright light and heat and thunderous roar of the meteorite blinded and terrorized the passengers, coachmen, and horses... They never guessed, being ignorant of ionization, that the fallen star had affected them and their unborn.”

The people in the first coach were said to be John Clayton, the third Duke of Greystoke, and his wife Alicia, nee Rutherford, sister of the eleventh Baron Tennington; the eleventh Baron himself, George Edward Rutherford and his wife Elizabeth Cavendish; Honore Delagardie and his wife Philippa Drummond; and Fitzwilliam Darcy and his wife Elizabeth Bennett. (And you thought the latter two were just characters in Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice!)

In the second coach were Sir Percy Blakeney, better known as The Scarlet Pimpernel, and his second wife Alice Clarke Raffles; Sir Hugh Drummond, brother of Philippa, and his wife Georgia Dewhurst; and Doctor Siger Holmes and his wife Violet Clarke Raffles, the sister of Alice. A friend of Holmes, a young medical student called Sebastian Noel, was accompanying the coaches on horseback and there were also four coachmen present: Louis Lupin, Albert Lecoq, Arthur Blake and Simon MacNichols.

As these families intermarried in the years that followed; this reinforced the radiation-induced mutated gene, eventually producing what Farmer calls a “nova of genetic splendor, this outburst of great detectives, scientists and explorers of exotic worlds, this last efflorescence of true heroes in an otherwise degenerate age.”

The list of people included in Farmer’s “nova of genetic splendor” includes Phileas Fogg (from Around the World in 80 Days), the adventurers Allan Quatermain and Professor Challenger, the ‘gentleman thieves’ A J Raffles and Arsène Lupin, the criminal mastermind Fu Manchu and his adversary Sir Denis Nayland Smith, Bulldog Drummond and his nemesis Carl Peterson, Lord Peter Wimsey, Doc Savage, his cousin Patricia Savage and Monk Mayfair  (one of Savage’s assistants), Tarzan of the Apes, Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty, James Bond and Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the private eyes Nero Wolfe, Philip Marlowe, Lew Archer, Travis McGee and Sam Spade, the First World War secret agents Richard Hannay and G8, the French detective Monsieur Lecoq, Bruce Clarke Wildman, the time-traveler in The Time Machine, and the 1930s crime-fighting vigilantes The Shadow and The Spider.

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