First, for those of you who did not see the update I made to my earlier blog post about the Bat Creek Stone, I want to make sure everyone is aware of what I learned yesterday from the curator of archaeology at the Ohio Historical Society, Brad Lepper. After reading Scott Wolter’s recent claim that the Smithsonian had turned over ownership of the Bat Creek Stone to the Eastern Band of the Cherokee, Lepper contacted Dr. Bruce D. Smith, the Smithsonian’s curator of North American archaeology, who confirmed that the Bat Creek Stone remains the property of the Smithsonian Institution and was not returned to the Cherokee. Instead, it is on loan to the Cherokee for a temporary exhibit. Therefore, debate about how to best exploit the stone or whether to bury it is moot since it does not belong to the Cherokee and cannot be altered or destroyed without Smithsonian permission.
This is very good news because the Bat Creek Stone is an important artifact in the history of nineteenth century archaeological fraud and deserves to be protected.
Now on to two other topics.
Giorgio Tsoukalos dropped a few pearls of wisdom during his live tweeting of last Friday’s Ancient Aliens (Feb. 7). First, we learned that he is a good company shill for Prometheus Entertainment and repeatedly asked his followers to goose the ratings for Prometheus’ Curse of Oak Island, promising to live tweet the finale (which he did) so the show could earn a second season. Kathleen McGowan, the widow of Philip Coppens who believes she is the descendant of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, chimed in on Twitter and also shilled for Oak Island, as she had been doing consistently since January.
I’d be very interested to know why a “guest” on Ancient Aliens—none of the pundits are officially cast members—would devote so much of her Twitter feed to promoting another program on which she does not appear. Could it be because McGowan appears on multiple Prometheus programs? Is there something more than just corporate good will?
Tsoukalos also praised Brien Foerster for “doing great work” with his DNA research into elongated skulls, in apparent violation of Peruvian antiquities export laws. Tsoukalos seems to be OK with smuggling human remains to have them used by a Nephilim-Bigfoot believer as proof of a weird creationist agenda. He also called on creationists and proponents of evolutionary science to “meet in the middle” in the wake of the Ham-Nye debate. I’m not quite sure what that means. Presumably it refers to aliens, but it could equally well refer to the Catholic idea of directed evolution, which would undercut the ancient astronaut theory.
I’d also like to play up a difference between Tsoukalos and Jason Martell. Martell’s Ancient School promises to teach subscribers “when the ancient aliens will return,” but Tsoukalos contradicts Martell’s cash grab, tweeting “Who said they ever left? I think we’ve been monitored since the dawn of time.” So does that mean that Jason Martell is wrong? Or is Tsoukalos wrong? Or is it possible to hold two contradictory ancient alien ideas simultaneously? I’m not paying $17 a month to find out.
Finally, I want to talk a little bit about something that’s been bothering me since I read the Atlantic’s piece on the paranormal research laboratory at the University of Virginia yesterday. If you ever wondered what Thomas Jefferson spinning in his grave would sound like, I imagine UV’s Division of Perceptual Studies would be the people to ask.
What bothered me was an anecdote provided by psychiatry professor Jim Tucker in which he discusses a “compelling” case for reincarnation. This is the story of James Leininger, a Louisiana boy whose parents reported that he began having strange dreams in the year 2000, at the age of 2. Tucker believes this is evidence that Leininger is the reincarnation of a World War II fighter pilot. The story apparently was very big around 2004 or 2005, when it was featured on network television, and then again in 2009 when the Leininger family released a book on the story.
At around age 2, James experienced terrible nightmares, almost nightly, of violent plane crashes. During the day, he relayed extremely vivid memories of this supposed Air Force career. He recalled the name of a real aircraft carrier stationed in the Pacific during World War II (“Natoma”). He claimed to have a friend on the boat named Jack Larsen. He had memory of being shot down by the Japanese and dying near Iwo Jima.
According to the Atlantic and paranormal researchers, it took Leininger’s father Bruce “three or four” years to confirm his son’s impressions by diligently searching records until he discovered that a pilot named James Huston had been shot down.
The story is a key piece of evidence in Tucker’s new book, Return to Life: Extraordinary Cases of Children Who Remember Past Lives (2013), and Tucker investigated the case personally.
“It seems absolutely impossible that he could have somehow gained this information as a 2-year-old through some sort of normal means,” Tucker said in an NPR interview, and the Atlantic confirmed that a “Google search” failed to find any references to James Huston published before Leininger’s statements. Therefore, the reporter, Jake Flanagin, suggests that this constitutes good evidence in favor of reincarnation.
Flanagin should have exercised a bit more skepticism. It took me less than two minutes to undermine key aspects of the Leininger story, notably the “impossibility” of finding the information by “normal” means.
The details the child supposedly knew about World War II aircraft emerged only after he and his family had visited an aviation museum, the Cavanaugh Flight Museum, where the child became “obsessed” with the World War II exhibit. Tucker found evidence that Leininger’s father began doing web searchers for “Natoma” when his son was 28 months old, but he believed this to be evidence that the elder Leininger had begun researching his son’s claims, dismissing the idea that “this Christian couple in Louisiana [would be] faking a case of past life memories despite potential derision by friends and neighbors…” This despite the fact that the Leiningers used their sons claims as a springboard for media appearances, including on network television, as well as an eventual book deal. Tucker provided a blurb for the 2009 book. This is not necessarily evidence of ulterior motives, but it does weigh against the claim that it was impossible that they could or would fake it.
Tucker also declined to identify the child’s claim that “James” or “me” was piloting the plane as evidence that the child was projecting himself into a fantasy, despite the fact that the child’s name was in fact James. Instead, the elder Leininger and Tucker searched for someone named James who would match the story, creating a confirmation bias. Thus Tucker interpreted the child’s claim at age three that he was “the third James” as evidence that he knew that James Huston’s father had also been named James, despite the fact that the child did not know the surname of these men named James.
But here’s the thing I found that Tucker did not: The story of Jack Larsen, supposedly so obscure that neither the elder Leininger nor Tucker was able to learn of him without extensive archival research and the assistance of a veterans’ group, was not so obscure. Larsen had told his story in Kay B. Hall’s anthology World War II (University of Arkansas, 1995), which collected the oral histories of World War II veterans. Would it surprise you to learn that nearly all of the details attributed to the statements of the young James Leininger could be found in Jack Larsen’s oral history, in somewhat jumbled form, or that differences between the accounts seem to reflect attempts to fill in gaps in the narrative with generalized World War II material that was later found to be incorrect?
The order of events in Larsen’s interview, however, does not reflect the child’s claims. Larsen’s lost engine occurred in Michigan, before being sent to the Pacific. Larsen never mentioned losing anyone during the many Pacific missions he described. However, all of the raw materials were there to create a superficially convincing narrative that could not easily be checked.
Obviously, I can’t prove that anyone intentionally or unconsciously faked the claims, but nearly everything revolves around James Leininger’s father’s self-reporting. Let’s, for the sake of argument, presume someone tried to fake the story. Not particularly careful at first and looking for attention, let’s say someone takes out Hall’s 1995 book and selects a random oral history. The Leininger family lived in the San Francisco area when their son was born in 1998, before moving to Texas in 2000 and then to Lafayette, Louisiana not long after. (The exact timeline varies by source.) A copy of Hall’s World War II anthology was in the holdings of Stanford University near San Francisco. Copies could also be found at major libraries in Texarkana and Houston, Texas and in New Orleans, Louisiana, according to WorldCat. Copies may have been available elsewhere as well.
Perhaps not being too careful about it, the individual fails to check whose information is being appropriated or whether the people are still alive. Taking notes, the individual creates a story that he or she talks about with the child, providing details that the child repeats, sometimes in distorted form or out of context. This might have occurred for any number of reasons, and any number of people could have been responsible. This is of course merely a hypothetical.
Heck, it might have been entirely innocent and due only to reinforcement and feedback… Let’s say the kid goes to the museum, becomes obsessed with World War II airplanes, and someone involved with the child goes to the library and reads Hall’s World War II to help indulge the child’s interest by sharing what veterans had to say about flying in the planes. For whatever reason, someone fixates on Larsen’s story, and tells the child about it, feeding back into the child’s dreams and fantasies.
After the child starts to get attention for this story, Bruce Leininger continues to do research about the era and the Natoma Bay in order to gather new information. Because he is talking about this research, the child picks up on what his father is talking about and incorporates it into his developing story. Mistakes and errors, such as confusing the F4F and the F4U go unnoticed due to a lack of expertise. As the research progresses, other significant errors and problems with the story emerge, notably the fact that Jack Larsen isn’t dead, requiring a change of interpretation to allow what is now a strong belief in reincarnation to continue.
Perhaps significantly, the Leininger family originally put forward the idea that their son was remembering the life of Jack Larsen, until in 2002 the elder Leininger learned Larsen was still alive. It was after this point that the child’s alleged statement that Iwo Jima was the place “where” his plane had been shot down was replaced with the claim he said it was “when” he had been shot down. Around this time the person shot down becomes “James” rather than Jack Larsen, and the story is retroactively reconfigured. What had previously been interpreted as James (“me”) dreaming about the life of Jack Larsen now became James (“me”) dreaming about “James” remembering Jack Larsen. The story holds together only because, by coincidence, the person who did get shot down was named James—one of the most common names of the era. The child never utters the dead man’s last name, despite knowing Larsen’s, until after Bruce Leininger was able to find someone whose name fit the developing (and changing) story.
I of course can’t say that’s how it happened, and the discovery of the 1995 oral history doesn’t categorically exclude reincarnation. It’s possible that no one involved knew anything of the 1995 book, but the coincidence of details strikes me as suspicious. The very fact that this material existed before the child began his alleged past life dreams, and included nearly all of the facts found in those dreams in jumbled form, calls into question the value of the Leininger case for past life studies, at least until the researchers involved with the story run down all possible sources where the Leininger family could have obtained their information. The situation is made worse by the fact that most of the accounts rely on us assuming the honesty and accuracy of the Leiningers’ self-reporting of James’s statements, which of course is impossible to prove.
This is one of the troubles I have with all fringe studies—there is a lack of deep literature review and a failure to investigate the possibility of contamination, hoaxing, or fraud. Tucker, for example, did enormous research tracking down World War II records to “prove” the reincarnation, but did not look to see what material could potentially have been accessible prior to the family publicizing the “reincarnation.” I obviously can’t accuse the Leiningers of hoaxing the story, but to say this is impossible because they are Christians is to wilfully blind oneself unnecessarily. What is more likely, that a child is the reincarnation of a World War II pilot, or that someone close to the child read Jack Larsen’s oral history? Or, perhaps even more likely, that the story was continuously created and recreated through the mutual interaction of the child, his parents, internet searches, and books?
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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