Sunday, 10 February 2013

A terrible case of healing - the death of Netta Fornario

“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.”

-          Dion Fortune, Psychic Self-Defence

The ancient Isle of Iona has long held a reputation as a spiritual haven and has been described by many as a "thin place" where Heaven and Earth appear to be separated by only the finest gossamer veil.

Physically situated in the Inner Hebrides, the Isle is most often associated with wind and rain, rugged and wild beauty. Spiritually it is often described as a place of raw elemental power, intense inner peace, faeries, visions and strange sanctuary. Founder of the Waterboys and Findhorn Archivist Mike Scott has written a beautiful song, Peace of Iona which nicely captures some of the spiritual side of the place.

It was here that Columba, the great great grandson of legendary Niall of the Nine Hostages, settled and built a monastic community, the impact of which would be felt like waves down through the ages. In 563, he set sail with twelve companions in a coracle to find a place to settle and build a new spiritual community. On the eve of Pentecost they landed off the west coast of Scotland on the island we now call Iona.  The first thing he and his companions did on landing was to erect a high stone cross. In the months that followed they built a modest monastery, which was to be their life home. From here his community was to nurture a centre which shone light during the dark times and which truly rooted and established what we now call Celtic Christianity. It was here that the wonderful Book of Kells was created which is now displayed in Trinity Library, Dublin, one of the few great lights in the Dark Ages.

I think it is important to acknowledge that Iona had been a sacred place to the Druids long before Columba climbed off his coracle. I like to see Columba as being one in a line of people who have connected deeply with the spirit of the place and interpreted the spiritual impulse of the time. Christians, Druids, magicians, mystics, poets and artists continue to this day to tap into the spirit of the place. However, for the purposes of this article, I’m going to focus on the faery aspects of Iona and their possible link with the death of Netta Fornario.

Now, growing up in the north of Ireland, my mother’s family came from the country and were forever warning me and the other children to be wary of the realm of faery and banshee. The older uncles and aunts would often scare and inspire us in equal measure with late night tales of the Celtic twilight. To them there was a tangible risk that the faery folk could cause real danger to those who got too close to them. There was a strong sense engendered in us that Willie Yeats’s Come away, O human child! To the waters and the wild…” was not something we should heed if we cared at all for our souls.

For Netta Fornario, one of Dion Fortune’s close colleagues, that same message had either not been heard or was foolhardily ignored with the aim of achieving what she called “a terrible case of healing.” This is the story of that person.

Netta Fornario was born in 1897 in the Victorious City, Cairo. Netta's mother was a Mancunian, Norah Edith Ling, and her father was Dr Giuseppe Nicola Raimondo Fornario from Naples, Italy.  When her mother died the year after her birth, her father returned to working in Egypt, leaving Netta under the care of her maternal grandfather, Thomas Ling, a wealthy tea dealer and Protestant zealot.

The 1901 Census shows her living with his family in Streatham then within the London Borough of Wandsworth. At this point, her deceased mother’s names Edith and Norah were added to Netta’s original name. 

At the age of 14, Netta was living away from home in boarding school. She has been sent to the Ladies’ College, 2 Grassington Road, Eastbourne for a proper Victorian ladies’ education. With a touch of typical xenophobia from the time, scrawled in the margin of the 1911 Census record is the fact that Netta has an “Italian father” and “English mother”. Not surprisingly, none of the other 11 people on the Census form have any reference to the nationality of their parentage written into the margins of the form!
Netta spent some of her time as a young adult staying in Italy as an Italian citizen. However, in July 1922 she returned to Bishop's Stortford in Hertfordshire, having been granted British citizenship. As an interesting point, this was at the same time as Dion Fortune’s first Dr Taverner stories, were being published in the Royal Magazine. These fictionalized accounts of Theodore Moriarty’s adventures seem fully congruent with the circumstances surrounding Netta’s death some seven years later. Alongside Dion Fortune, Netta was one of a number of students of Moriarty, having been an officer in one of his Co-masonry lodges in West London. Bishop's Stortford was of course the location of The Grange, where Moriarty often met and taught his students.

While we therefore cannot be certain of the circumstances of their initial acquaintance, what we do know is that at some stage after her return to England, Netta got involved with the Alpha et Omega section of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, Dion Fortune and Co-masonry.  At this stage of her life she was known to be a vegetarian with long dark hair often worn in plaits, wearing alternative Art and Crafts Movement clothing. She and Dion Fortune seem to have shared a penchant for rejecting the fashions of the time. Netta also wore extensive silver jewelry. Regrettably, no public photographs appear to be available of her. Not much else is really known about Netta’s life, except perhaps her obsession with the writings of Fiona Macleod (the pseudonym of William Sharp). The first detail we get is when she turns up on the Isle of Iona, which is the crux of our story.

I was initially made aware of Netta’s Iona story by the person I call Hestia, who is mentioned briefly in my blog entry entitled Dion Fortune’s Legacy. We were talking about Boughton’s beautiful and magical opera, The Immortal Hour , much-loved by Dion Fortune, when Hestia mentioned what she had heard from old Inner Light colleagues regarding Netta’s death. I subsequently discovered additional supplementary information from Francis King’s and Ithell Colquhoun’s writing which has informed this article.

As the quotation which opens this article shows, Dion Fortune speculated whether Netta had been on an astral expedition from which she never returned. Indeed DF has alluded in Psychic Self Defense that Netta's association with Moina Mathers had something to do with her death. In reality, Moina had been dead for about a year and half at the time of Netta’s death, yet DF also draws attention to scratches found on Netta's body which had allegedly also been found on other victims of Moina’s supposed “psychic attacks.” Not unreasonably, some have suggested that Moina's physical death did not prevent her from manifesting results at a later time.

Many others have been intrigued by the story of her final days. For example, playwright Chris Lee has recently toured Scotland with a well received play The Mysterious Death of Netta Fornario - a fictional account based on the final days of Netta’s life. The mystery of her life (and death) still captures the imagination and there a drive remains to uncover the truth.

I have gathered together evidence from several of these sources to piece together the following account. It appears that Netta left her home of 73 Mortlake Road, Richmond, Surrey in either August or September 1929 to travel to the Isle of Iona to perform a magical healing ritual. She took a large amount of luggage with her, which included enough furniture to furnish a small house.

It was suspected that Netta’s trip to Iona was driven at least in part from her burning interests in the writings of Fiona Macleod mentioned earlier.

Of key importance to this story is Fiona Macleod’s article, Iona. She relates the story of living on the island as a child and visiting her friend, Elsie, whom she hadn’t seen for a long time. When Fiona arrived at the house, Elsie’s mother said her daughter had not been seen for some time. This puzzled Fiona. She knew that if Elsie had departed by the ferry to the Isle of Mull, she would surely have heard about it. Iona was small and everyone knew everyone else’s business and whereabouts.

Elsie's mother then continued by saying that her daughter thought she had been in communication with spirits of monks from Columba's time. She felt they had been hostile to her. As a result Elsie had only felt safe at one particular part of the island, a place where the spirits of the monks were somehow unable to go. Elsie's mother continued talking and explained:

"The monks are still the strongest here... except over by Staonaig ......there's a path that no monk can go. There, in the old days, [the monks] burned a woman. She was not a woman but they thought she was. She was one of the Sorrows of the Sheen... It's ill to any that brings harm to ‘them’ [i.e. the faeries]. That's why the monks are not strong over by Staonaig way."

Netta was reportedly fascinated-- if not obsessed-- with this story and its landscape. Loch Staonaig is a freshwater loch at the south end of Iona and close to it is the path where the monks were said to be unable to travel. Was it solely a coincidence this is where Netta’s dead body was found?

It has been postulated by a couple of old Inner Lighters-- and more recently again by Steve Blamires in his book, The Chronicles of the Sidhe -- that Netta was compelled to perform a ritual to either bring peace to the faery woman who had been burned there by the monks, or to bring healing to the monks who had committed her murder.

Either way, on arrival on the island, we know she took lodgings with Mrs MacRae in Traymore. McRae reported that Netta would roam the island’s beaches and moorlands every day, trying to contact the spiritual side of the island each night through trances. She confided with MacRae that prior to visiting Iona she had undergone a deep trance that had lasted a full week. Netta instructed MacRae that if she did enter such a long trance state, under no circumstances should a doctor be called.

Mrs McRae reported that on Sunday morning, the 17th November 1929, Netta started to act increasingly odd and out of sorts. She had risen early and started packing her things with the aim of returning immediately to London. She told MacRae that certain un-named people were disturbing her from a distance through telepathic means. She then told McRae about a rudderless boat that went across the sky and messages she had been receiving in her trances from the other worlds through the veil. At the time MacRae also observed that, in addition to the strange behaviour, Netta's silver jewelry had mostly turned black overnight.

Public transport did not operate from the island on the ‘Lord’s Day,’ so Netta had no choice but to wait on Iona until Monday. At some time later on Sunday she went to her room and when she returned she appeared far calmer to McRae with what was described as “a look of resignation” on her face. She said that she had changed her mind and would remain indefinitely on Iona.

The next day McRae noticed that Netta was missing. A few days before Netta’s disappearance, she sent a letter to her housekeeper, Mrs Varney, at Richmond, stating, “Do not be surprised if you do not hear from me for a long time. I have a terrible case of healing on.” 

She was eventually found on the Tuesday, by what the locals described as a ‘faery mound’ to the South of Loch Staonaig. She was wearing only a black cloak, lying on a large cross that had been cut from the turf with a knife that was close at hand. A blackened silver chain with a cross hung around her neck and her body showed some unaccountable scratch marks. Her death certificate says she died between 10.00pm on 17th and 1.30pm on 19th November 1929. The cause of her death was recorded as “exposure to the elements” but I suspect they didn’t really know. Iona had a general practitioner but not a specialist Pathologist or the laboratory to work up accurately the cause of her death. 

At her family’s request, she was buried by the islanders the following Friday with a small and rough tombstone etched with the letters M.E.F, for Marie Emily Fornario. At the time, stories circulated across Iona of strange blue lights reportedly being seen near her body along with a man dressed in a long dark cloak. A number of Netta’s letters were taken by the local police, who passed them on to the Procurator-Fiscal for his consideration. It is not known what happened to these letters; their contents have never been revealed in the public domain. 

Netta died with the sum of £424 18s and 6d in her estate -- worth roughly £25,000 in today's money.

Interestingly, in 2001, the strange case of Netta Fornario was again in the media. The Scotsman reported Ron Halliday, a self proclaimed psychic and private paranormal detective, was reinvestigating the circumstances of her death. The outcome of this reinvestigation doesn’t appear to be available.

In truth, it is unlikely we shall never really know the full circumstances. Whatever Netta Fornario was aiming to do on her stay on the Island of Iona, her story is a sad and salutary note that reminds us to be extremely careful when dealing with the world of faery. Caution is imperative for sanity and safety. Obsession, coupled with a gung-ho approach and carelessness, can get you into more than a spot of bother.

The story of Netta Fornario’s grim end has in the past regrettably overshadowed one important and lasting contribution that she left for walkers of the Western Way.

Under the name that DF knew her by, Mac Tyler, she published an erudite and enlightening analysis of The Immortal Hour, an opera written by English composer Rutland Boughton from the works of Fiona MacLeod.  It is an operatic faery tale in which magic plays an important role. In the story, the faery folk are anything but the mischievous spirits they are often cast as. Instead they are presented as a powerful and proud race of immortals who are feared by humans for the interference they can bring to mortal lives. The music, together with the words and Netta’s analysis, provide great food for thought and (cautious) adventure.

My next blog post will repost her analysis, which is now out of copyright. In the meantime, I feel compelled to offer up a short section of Mike Scott’s healing song Peace of Iona to the memory of Netta Fornario:

“Peace of the glancing dancing waves
Peace of the white sands
Peace of Iona

Peace of the singing winds
Peace of the stones
Peace of Iona...”

Síocháin Iona M.E.F.

Further interest:

Blamires, Steve. The Chronicles of the Sidhe. Cheltenham, Skylight Press (31 Oct. 2012).

Colquhoun, Ithell. The Sword of Wisdom. London (24 Aug. 1975).

Fate of an Iona Visitor - London Woman Found Dead. Oban Times, (30 Nov. 1929).

Fortune, Dion. Psychic Self-Defense. London, Society of the Inner Light (Trading) Ltd., 1997 (1930).

Iona Mystery - London Woman Found Dead. Mysterious Circumstances.' Glasgow Herald, (27 Nov. 1929).

King, Francis. Ritual Magic in England. London, New English Library, (1972).

Knight, Gareth, Dion Fortune and the Inner Light. Leicester, Thoth Publications (2 Aug. 2000).

The Springtime of Dion Fortune

There she is staring out at you...or maybe that should be "in to you"! Whether writing as Violet Firth, Violet M Steele...