Myths and Mysteries of New Mexico: True Stories of the Unsolved and Unexplained (book review)

August 5, 2015

As I perused a Borders bookstore recently, a book caught my eye: Myths and Mysteries of New Mexico. As a longtime New Mexican (and investigator of strangeness and mystery in the Land of Enchantment and worldwide), I bought it immediately.

The book has 13 chapters, including bits on Billy the Kid, the 1947 Roswell UFO crash, the “Lost Adams” gold, “the Half Man” (Bigfoot), Santa Fe’s Loretto Chapel staircase, a short section on ghosts, some historical unsolved murders, and so on. I own several books on New Mexico mysteries; unfortunately many of them are poorly researched and are content to merely repeat other writers’ stories and myths. I expected this book, written by cultural anthropologist Barbara Marriott, to be of a higher caliber. Unfortunately, I was disappointed.

Marriott makes an attempt to bring New Mexico’s history and mysteries to life, often by creating fictional or semi-fictional narratives (often with made-up dialogue). This helps the reader envision the scene, but because she freely mixes real, fictional, possibly fictional, and anonymous characters, the reader is often forced to guess which characters are historical figures, and which were created just to tell the story. Adding to the confusion, some characters are introduced only by their first names (Stephan, Phillip, Freddie, etc.) and others are completely anonymous. In fact there are many anonymous stories and anecdotes–no names, no dates, and few details–which again leaves readers wondering what to make of them. Some of the reports were apparently taken directly from the files of the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization (BFRO), which Marriott unfortunately mistakes for a serious scientific enterprise.

The book’s title is a bit of a mystery in itself, promising unsolved and unexplained myths and mysteries. While some chapters clearly qualify (such as the Lost Adams gold and the legend of “weeping woman” La Llorona), others seem a bit of a stretch. For example the work done at Los Alamos on the Manhattan Project was secret at the time, but hardly seem to qualify as a modern “true story of the unsolved and unexplained.”

The book is sprinkled with far too many errors. Some of them are typographical: one appears in the book’s very first paragraph, where New Mexico’s “Choco Canyon” is mentioned (it’s Chaco Canyon); elsewhere, for example, W.W. “Mac” Brazell–the rancher who found debris from the 1947 Roswell crash-is misidentified as “Mark Brazell.”

The book’s more serious mistakes would only be obvious to those knowledgeable about the subjects Marriott covers. For example, as someone who is familiar with the subject of Bigfoot, I can tell you that errors appear on nearly every page of her chapter on the topic.

For example, in her discussion about the authenticity of a famous Bigfoot film (shot by Roger Patterson in 1967) Marriott states, “Accidentally, the film speed was set at 18 frames per second, which produced fuzzier pictures but eliminated the possibility of fakery because it captured a pattern of walking motion that a human being could not possibly duplicate” (p. 128).

Actually, no one knows at what speed the Patterson film was shot. The model he used, a Kodak K-100 16mm, can shoot a range of between 16 and 64 frames per second (fps). Before Patterson filmed his Bigfoot, he had been shooting unrelated footage at 24 fps. But Patterson later claimed he found the camera was set at 16 fps. In fact, the Bigfoot film could not have been shot at the speed Marriott claims because the Kodak K-100 model does not have a setting for filming at 18 fps.

Marriott makes another blunder when she states that the walking motion seen in the “Bigfoot” could not be duplicated by a man in a costume; in fact it was duplicated over a decade ago by anthropologist David Daegling. The results were published in Skeptical Inquirer magazine and elsewhere (it’s also available on the Web). For a full discussion of these subjects see Daegling’s 2004 book Bigfoot Exposed, pages 109-111 and 123-128. Marriott’s claim doesn’t even make sense on its face: even if the film had been somehow shot at 18 fps that would not eliminate the possibility of fakery. Marriott simply does not know what she’s talking about, and did not do her research. (The author in fact used some of my research on Bigfoot as a reference; I wish she’d contacted me for more, as I could have saved her some embarrassment.)

There are many more problems in this and other chapters. I won’t bore the reader by enumerating them, but the problem is that most of these factual errors and mistaken assumptions would not be noticed by the average reader, who would assume that the author (or editors) had checked the facts. I’m not an expert on some of the other subjects that Marriott covers, so I don’t know if they are all as poorly researched as this one, but it seems likely that other experts would find similar flaws.

I expect the book would have been better had the author actually visited New Mexico to research the book. It’s not clear she ever set foot in the state, and about three-quarters of her references are to Web sites (including Wikipedia). It’s tempting to surf the Web for information, but such armchair research is no substitute for actually visiting the locations and interviewing people.

Even the book’s cover is oddly slapdash: the face of a green-turbaned mystic and his hand (in 1950s pulp style), hovering over a political map of the United States, as if he’s hypnotizing the entire state of New Mexico (highlighted in green). Surely the cover designer could have found some image relevant to New Mexico, or at least the Southwest. The book is illustrated with fewer than a dozen photos and illustrations, which is a shame because many of the chapters would have benefitted from interesting visuals. New Mexico’s mysteries deserve better. For readers who just want a sample of some interesting New Mexico-related stories and don’t care about whether what they are reading is accurate or not, the book will probably do. Readers who want historical or factual accuracy will find Myths and Mysteries of New Mexico a messy disappointment.