Forget Hollywood — the true story of the fabled relic, and its owners, is weirder than fiction first published in Illinois Times, June 11, 2008
Bill Homann and the Mitchell-Hedges crystal skull. Photo by Alison Carrick.
Do you feel the love?” asks Bill Homann. He is sitting in an easy chair in the living room of his modest suburban tract home in Valparaiso, Ind.
On a nearby coffee table, the Mitchell-Hedges crystal skull is resting on a towel. The skull appears strangely luminous, reflecting a piercing blue-white light from its eye sockets. “There’s some part of the brain it activates,” Homann says. “The skull is very special, and it has a very special vibration.”
That vibration has surged into mainstream consciousness lately, thanks to references to the skull in this summer’s blockbuster Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Homann has been a denizen of that kingdom for much of his life. He first heard of British explorer F.A. Mitchell-Hedges and his fabled crystal skull in Panama in 1968, while on duty in the Air Force.
Since then the skull has become an icon of the New Age movement, attracting devotees who attribute supernatural powers to the object. Homann says he became curious about the skull after seeing photographs of it. In 1981, he contacted its elderly owner, Anna Mitchell-Hedges, the late explorer’s adopted daughter, who then lived in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada. “I just called up there one day and said I’d like to see it, and she said,‘Well, come on up,’ ” Homann recalls, “so I hopped up and drove to Canada.”
It was the beginning of a friendship that would last more than a quarter-century. “For years after that I’d come up to see her probably three or four times a year,” Homann says. In 1996, he accompanied Anna to Belize so she could revisit the archaeological site where she said she discovered the crystal skull in the 1920s while on expedition with her father.
Homann returned to the location earlier this year to play a role in a Sci-Fi Channel documentary, Mysteries of the Crystal Skull, that aired in prime time last month. The two-hour special cast him as a real-life Indiana Jones in search of an undiscovered crystal skull. His quest took him scuba diving, spelunking, and on a trek to an ancient Mayan ruins. NBC News weekend anchorman Lester Holt served as narrator, even going so far as to provide commentary in the water after diving with Homann in search of the missing skull.
In between action sequences, a parade of self-professed experts ruminated over the significance of crystal skulls, connecting them to everything from Mayan apocalyptic prophecies to the origins of the lost continent of Atlantis.
Homann, a grandmaster karate instructor, gained his newfound fame after inheriting the Mitchell-Hedges crystal skull from Anna last year after her death at 100 years of age. During the last eight years of her life, Anna — a former beautician and motel operator — lived in Chesterton, Ind., and relied on Homann as her primary caregiver.
Porter County, Ind., records indicate that Homann married Anna on July 9, 2002, when she was 92 years old. Homann, nearly 40 years younger than his late wife, is reluctant to talk about their marriage. He prefers to refer to Anna as his mentor and spiritual leader. Though the terms of her estate have not been finalized, he remains in possession of the crystal skull.
“She taught me how to take care of the skull,” Homann says, whose tousled brown hair and mustache give him a youthful appearance. “She knew I would take care of it with every ounce of strength I had.” Homann looks to his late father-in-law, not Indiana Jones, for inspiration. “He’s probably one of the greatest people who nobody knows about,” Homann says. “Mitchell-Hedges said that a life without adventure is a life without living.” Homann has taken those words to heart. His business card describes him as an explorer and adventurer.
DANGER MY ALLY
When Frederick Albert Mitchell-Hedges was born, in Buckinghamshire, England, in 1882, his father, a Victorian banker, expected him to follow in his footsteps. But Mike, as he was called, took a different path. He grew up reading the novels of H. Rider Haggard, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Arthur Conan Doyle and yearned for adventure in faraway places.
He departed for North America at 18 years of age. In Montreal, Mitchell-Hedges chanced upon a wealthy Canadian stockbroker, who introduced him to a New York trader. Soon Mitchell-Hedges found himself keeping the company of Wall Street barons, playing the stock market by day and high-stakes poker at night.
He returned to England in 1906 and married Lilian “Dolly” Clarke. Though the marriage was never dissolved, Mitchell-Hedges confessed to his lax martial commitment in Danger My Ally, an autobiography published in 1954, five years before he died. “I must certainly be among the leading contenders for the title of ‘The Worst Husband in the World,’ ” he wrote. “During the years I have come and gone on my own affairs, racing around the world . . . Dolly was always there, patiently waiting.”
Jim Honey, who collaborated with Anna on the 1995 reissue of the book, contends that Mitchell-Hedges’ wife may have been busy with her own affairs during her husband’s long absences. “Anna told me that they were man and wife in name only,” says Honey, “and that Lilian had actually been the mistress of one of his wealthier friends.”
In any event, Mitchell-Hedges pursued a business career in England for seven years, ultimately losing a fortune in a dodgy business deal. Down on his luck, he returned to America, leaving his wife in a country cottage with just 300 pounds. In New York, he worked for a diamond merchant before heading south, hoping to reach Central America.
During this period, Mitchell-Hedges claimed, he worked as a cowboy in Texas and a waiter at a restaurant in New Orleans. When low wages stalled his travel plans, he resorted to gambling, outwitting a crooked croupier at a casino in rural Louisiana. Crossing the Mexican border in November 1913, he was captured by Mexican revolutionaries fighting under bandit Pancho Villa and presumed to be an American spy. He avoided the firing squad, according to his autobiography, by belting out an off-key rendition of “God Save the King.”
Instead of freeing the British subject, however, Villa ordered Mitchell-Hedges to fight for his cause. Mitchell-Hedges wrote that for the next 10 months he participated in border skirmishes; he was released only after being wounded twice in the leg.
After the British military exempted him from duty in World War I, Mitchell-Hedges returned to New York in 1917, where he briefly shared an apartment with a disheveled Russian journalist named Bronstein. Two years later, an official of the British secret service informed Mitchell-Hedges that his former roommate had been Bolshevik Leon Trotsky.
The intelligence officer implored him to go to Russia and spy on Trotsky, who by then was a leader of the Russian Revolution. Mitchell-Hedges declined the offer, according to his autobiography. But Honey challenges that account. He argues that Mitchell-Hedges was recruited by the British secret service and sent to New York to spy on his rich American friends.
Another theory holds that Mitchell-Hedges was already a British agent when he encountered Villa in Mexico. There is even conjecture that he collaborated in his espionage efforts with American journalist Ambrose Bierce, who disappeared in northern Mexico in late 1913, after reportedly joining up with Villa. According to this bizarre tale, Villa presented the crystal skull to Mitchell-Hedges as a reward for his services.
“There are a lot of things in Danger My Ally he doesn’t say,” says Honey. Those omissions may include the circumstances surrounding the adoption of Anna. Mitchell-Hedges wrote that he informally adopted Anne Marie Le Guillon, a 10-year-old orphan, at the urging of two Americans business associates while visiting Port Colborne, Ontario, in 1917.
Honey scoffs at that scenario. “[Anna] told me that Mitchell-Hedges met her mother in France, while she was staying [with her uncle], who happened to have an antique shop.” The meeting had occurred, Honey says, while the Frenchwoman’s husband was working in Canada, saving money to bring over his wife and family. “Anna was born seven months after her mother arrived in Canada,” says Honey, who says the evidence suggests that Mitchell-Hedges was Anna’s actual father.
There were other dalliances as well. In 1938, Dorothy Copp, an American socialite, sued Mitchell-Hedges for divorce even though he was still married in England. Rumors also circulated about his relationship with Jane Houlson Harvey, his young secretary. His most notorious affair was a six-year relationship with Lady Richmond Brown, which led to her 1931 divorce.
Richmond Brown financed and took part in Mitchell-Hedges’ first two expeditions to British Honduras (now Belize), which were focused on the exploration of Lubaantun, an ancient Mayan ruins. The British adventurer believed that his explorations would ultimately prove a link between the ancient Mayan civilization and a mythological lost continent, or Atlantis.
In British Honduras, colonial authorities granted his party exclusive rights to excavate Lubaantun and the adjoining 70-square miles of tropical wilderness. Employing local tribesmen, Mitchell-Hedges’ team slashed and burned a swath of rainforest to uncover an ancient city of six square miles, including an elevated citadel, stone pyramids, terraces, ball courts, burial mounds, and an amphitheater.
The excavations yielded more than 1,000 artifacts, including pottery and figurines, which the British Museum and the Museum of the American Indian in New York received in return for their support of the project. But there were no contemporaneous reports of the crystal skull’s being discovered at Lubaantun.
In his autobiography, Mitchell-Hedges mentions that “Sammy,” his nickname for his adopted daughter, accompanied him on his final expedition, in 1926 and 1927. Anna herself affirmed in a 1968 letter to an art conservator who was then studying the object that she had found the skull during that period. But then she changed her story.
Photo by Alison Carrick
SHE WAS JUST 17
According to Anna’s later version, she discovered the skull at Lubaantun on her 17th birthday, Jan. 1, 1924. “She was told never to go on top of this one pyramid because the rocks were so loose,” Homann says, “but she heard if you got on top of it, you could see the sea. When everybody [else] was taking a siesta in the middle of the afternoon, her and a couple of Mayan kids climbed up on top of it. The sun was just right and it hit the top of the skull and she saw a light in there.”
After he reprimanded Anna for her disobedience, Mitchell-Hedges became curious about her discovery and began excavating the ruins stone by stone, an arduous task that supposedly took months to accomplish.
Anna stuck to this final story until she died last year. She repeated it to a reporter for The Record, a newspaper in Kitchener, as recently as 2005. In that account, she described descending through a narrow passage to retrieve the skull: “They lowered me by two ropes,” she said. “They put towels under the ropes so they wouldn’t hurt me. I was so terrified — there were scorpions and other awful things down there. I saw the skull, picked it up, stuffed it in my shirt and they pulled me out.”
Much to her chagrin, her father promptly gave the crystal skull to the local Mayan priest. A few months later, a Mayan boy found the skull’s missing detachable jawbone. In her revised version, the priest returned the skull to Mitchell-Hedges during the 1926-1927 expedition out of gratitude for supplies and medical assistance he provided to the tribe.
The problem with Anna’s story is there is no way to confirm it. None of the other expedition members reported the find. Moreover, there are no known photographs of her with her father at Lubaantun. Mitchell-Hedges himself didn’t mention the crystal skull until 1954, when he published his autobiography. Even then, he did not indicate that Anna found the skull. Instead, he cryptically commented: “How it came into my possession I have reason for not revealing.”
In his typically hyperbolic manner, Mitchell-Hedges referred to the artifact as the Skull of Doom. “It is at least 3,600 years old and according to legend used by the High Priest of the Maya when performing esoteric rites,” wrote Mitchell-Hedges. “It is said that when he willed death with the skull, death invariably followed. It has been described as the embodiment of evil.”
Archaeologist Jane MacClaren Walsh of the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, D.C., asserts that the Mitchell-Hedges crystal skull is far more modern and less lethal. “I am fairly certain that the skull was made in the early 20th century, with high-speed lapidary tools,” says Walsh, who analyzed it last November. “We found tool marks left by high-speed diamond-coated rotary cutting tools, which would not have been available to pre-Columbian carvers. There are a number of skulls that have been carved in Europe and in Mexico that are quite similar to the Mitchell-Hedges skull, and there is no mystery about how they were carved. I don’t know of any scientific evidence that quartz [crystal] is imbued with special powers, certainly not supernatural powers.”
A clue to the provenance of the Mitchell-Hedges crystal skull appears in a July 1936 article published in Man, a British anthropological journal. One of the two skulls that were analyzed came from the collection of the British Museum; the other artifact was cited to as being “in the possession of Mr. Sydney Burney,” a London art dealer. In late 1943, Burney is reported to have put the skull up for auction at Sotheby’s, the famed London auction house. The bidding, however, failed to meet Burney’s asking price.
A year later he sold the artifact to Mitchell-Hedges for 400 pounds, according to a note in the files of the British Museum. Anna explained this discrepancy by saying that her father had loaned the skull to Burney to help finance one of his Central American expeditions. In 2005, she told the Kitchener, Ontario, Record: “My father was livid when he saw the ad in the paper for that auction.” Anna claimed that Mitchell-Hedges quickly bought the skull back.
In the latest issue of Archeology magazine, Walsh describes the Mitchell-Hedges crystal skull as “a veritable copy of the British Museum skull, with stylistic and technical flourishes that only an accomplished faker would devise.” The two skulls are nearly identical in shape, size, weight, and clarity of the quartz. The main difference is that the teeth of the British Museum artifact are etched into the crystal, whereas the Mitchell-Hedges skull has a detachable mandible and its choppers are carved in precise anatomical fashion.
Homann dismisses Walsh’s opinion. He notes that there is no accurate way to judge the age of quartz sculpture. This leaves the origin of the artifact shrouded in uncertainty, he says, adding that the tool marks Walsh found had already been discovered in previous tests conducted at Hewlett-Packard laboratories in Santa Clara, Calif., in late 1970.
“They found more mystery than not,” Homann says of the most recent analysis of the skull by the Smithsonian. “The Mitchell-Hedges skull is an enigma,” he says. “People say this and people say that — but when it really comes down to it, how it really got here is a mystery. Somebody made this. How they did it nobody knows.”
From 1964 to 1970, Anna loaned the skull to Frank Dorland, a San Francisco-based art conservator. Dorland took numerous castings of the skull and examined them under a microscope. His other contributions were less scientific.
He speculated that the Mitchell-Hedges skull would have taken 300 years to carve by hand and that it might date back to ancient Egypt, Babylon, or Tibet. Dorland also reported witnessing paranormal phenomena that he attributed to the skull. “The first time I kept the skull in my home overnight . . . I was awakened by unusual noises in the house,” Dorland told Richard Garvin, author of The Crystal Skull. “It sounded like a large jungle cat was prowling through the house, accompanied by the sound of chimes and bells. When we got up the next morning, our possessions were strewn all about the house. Yet, all the doors and windows were still closed and locked from the inside.”
At Dorland’s urging, scientists at Hewlett-Packard determined that the detachable jawbone and the cranium were cut from the same block of quartz, but the experts couldn’t determine exactly how the skull was created.
Regardless of the findings, Anna apparently became upset when she heard that Dorland had arranged for the skull to undergo laboratory testing without her permission. According to Garvin’s account, she rode a Greyhound bus to California to retrieve the skull and return it to Kitchener, where she then owned and operated a motel.
In the years that followed, a stream of pilgrims visited Anna and the crystal skull in Kitchener, including actors Peter O’Toole, Shirley MacLaine, and William Shatner.
Carol Davis, a Canadian psychic, added to the lore of the Mitchell-Hedges skull by purportedly channeling its message to the world. In one session, Davis began emitting a high-pitched hum after allegedly tuning in to the skull’s transmitting frequency. She then began speaking in a strange staccato voice: “You seek to know the origins of this receptacle, which you call the crystal skull,” she said. “I tell you that it was made, many, many thousands of years ago by beings of a higher intelligence. It was formed by a civilization which existed before those you call the Maya. This receptacle contains the minds of many and minds of one. It was not made using what you call the physical. . . . It was molded into its present form by thought.”
The Mitchell-Hedges crystal skull has not always been cast in such a glowing light. In 1962, Anna implied that the skull was more burden than blessing. “Sometimes I am sorry I did not inter the skull with my father as he wished,” she told Fate magazine. “I think that may have been the best place for it. It is a thing of evil in the wrong hands. . . . I believe that anyone can will another to death through the Skull of Doom. When I sell it, I want it rather to go to a museum or something like that where it can do no harm to anyone.”
But in later years Anna changed her mind. In the 2005 interview, she attributed her longevity to the skull. “I take care of it,” she said, “and it takes care of me.” She also pooh-poohed the idea of institutionalizing the talisman. “It’s not for a museum,” she said. “It’s for someone kind, who has done a lot of good . . . who will do what I did with the skull. At the time, she intimated that the skull would go to Homann on her death.
Since being passed the mantle, Homann has continued to accentuate the positive, referring to the artifact as the Skull of Love. According to its new keeper, the skull possesses the power to open “the heart chakra of man to a universal consciousness of love that goes between all things, all humans, all mineral life, all animal life, realizing that we’re all connected, and all one.”
Good vibrations, however, have not been enough to prevent a court battle over the skull.
As her spouse, Homann is entitled to full ownership of the Chesterton, Ind., residence he held jointly with Anna, but the rights to her other assets — including the crystal skull — are being contested in probate court in Porter County, Ind. Under the terms of the will she signed in Canada on April 4, 2001, Anna bequeathed her estate to a dozen family members, mainly nieces and nephews who live in Ontario. Her holdings include many other objets d’art from the collection of her father. Besides the skull, they include a mirror allegedly owned by Marie Antoinette and a goblet that supposedly dates back to the era of England’s King Henry VIII.
Citing state law, Homann has filed a claim for half of his late wife’s heirlooms. “When Anna died, the only assets she had in her name alone was this long list of artifacts,” says Richard J. Rupcich, the Valparaiso attorney who is representing Anna’s Canadian family members. “The skull is the one with the most notoriety, but it might not even be the one that’s worth the most. The appraiser who appraised it — and it is in the court’s records — says it’s worth $3,000.”
On the other hand, Rupcich reckons that the skull could fetch millions, judging from the publicity it received in the Indiana Jones film and because of its sacred status among true believers. The skull is also valuable because it could generate income through public and private exhibitions or sponsorships.
“It’s hard to find a market value for a [crystal] skull,” Rupcich says. “It’s not like you can go out and list a house based on comparables in the neighborhood. There aren’t a lot of skulls around. It makes it difficult to appraise the value of these things — so who knows what it is worth?”
To its current keeper, however, the skull is priceless. “It could be worth a dollar or a billion dollars, but the thing is, it’s not to be sold,” says Homann. “It’s Mitchell-Hedges’ wish that it is only to be given to the right person to carry on this work that it’s supposed to do.”
Because of the approaching end of the Mayan calendar, on Dec. 21, 2012, Homann believes that it is critical for him to retain guardianship of the skull. His concerns are based loosely on a 19th-century German translation of a Mayan sacred text known as the Dresden Codex, which prophesies that 13 Mayan crystal skulls must be united before that date to avert a cataclysm of global proportions.
“There are people who really believe this stuff,” says Rupcich. “To me, it’s scary.” Despite his skepticism, the attorney does not question Homann’s sincerity. “I think actually he’s a pretty good guy. . . . I don’t think he’s a con man.”
In court filings, Homann never refers to himself as the owner of the crystal skull. Instead, he calls himself its “caretaker” or “keeper.” He declines to talk about his 2002 marriage to Anna, other than to say that the nuptials were performed so Anna, a Canadian citizen, could qualify for health-insurance coverage in Indiana.
In the event of his death, Homann has indicated that custodianship of the skull should pass to his son Brett, who runs the family-owned karate school in Crown Point, Ind. Rupcich doesn’t know when the probate case will be settled or whether the crystal skull will ultimately be sold off by order of the court.
Until the estate is settled or the predicted apocalypse occurs, Homann plans to dutifully protect the crystal skull and continue to promote its alleged mystical powers. As a part of his efforts, he wants to help build a cultural center in Belize to preserve the customs and language of the Mayans.
Last month, he says, he traveled to the Cannes Film Festival with the crystal skull and had a tête-à-tête on a luxury yacht with the French finance minister to discuss some of these issues.
This month, he is scheduled to confer with Hopi and Mayan spiritual leaders in Sedona, Ariz. “I’m finding that, by following in what I believe in, things are falling into place,” Homann says. “It’s just like opening up the doors. I’m just going with where it goes. I’m going to follow that adventure and exploration and myself and the world.
“It’s fun, too.”