Posted on: September 19, 2011

The suspicious death of Netta Fornario on the Isle Of Iona, off the west coast of Scotland, in 1929, has long been a source of fascination to me.  Not just because it is unsolved, but because of Netta’s lifestyle, and her deep involvment in Occult practices.

Netta’s full name was Norah Emily Editha Fornario.  Her father was Italian, a medical practitioner,  her mother English.   Netta belonged to the Alpha Et Omega Temple, an offshoot of the Hermetic Order Of The Golden Dawn, an organisation established in the late 19th century, and dedicated to theosophy, spiritual development and magical rituals, which at one time numbered Aleister Crowley amongst its members.  (Authors E Nesbit, Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood and Bram Stoker were also rumoured to be members).

These days we would think of Netta as a New Ageist, a hippy heavily into alternative healing and white magic.  She was described as having a typically arty appearance, wearing long hand-made tunics, and with her hair braided into two thick plaits.  (I can’t help thinking of the New Age woman on the car insurance adverts, with her hefty lucky crystal).  She was described as being of a cheerful, happy disposition, but prone to embarking on mad whims, such as announcing to her housekeeper that she was going to fast for 40 days (she sensibly stopped after a fortnight!!).  She also claimed she could cure people simply by using telepathy, an extravagent claim which understandably put a great strain on her relationship with her doctor father.

Netta lived in Mortlake Road, Kew, London, but in the late summer of 1929, at the age of 31, she suddenly decided to decamp to Iona, apparently taking enough luggage with her to furnish a small house, which suggested she planned to be gone for quite some time.  Iona has long been associated with spirituality.  St Columba set up a religious retreat there many centuries ago.  Folklore and legends abound on Iona, and it is easy to see why Netta would have been drawn to the place.

Once on Iona, Netta rented a room in the home of a native islander called Mrs MacRae, at Traymore.  The two women struck up an unlikely friendship, and seemed to get along very well.  Netta was fascinated by Mrs MacRae’s many tales about the island, although Mrs MacRae was often a bit nonplussed about her eccentric guest.   Netta had a habit of coming out with startling revelations.  For istance, she told Mrs MacRae that she would often go into trances, and that once she had been in a trance which had lasted a whole week!  To further compound Mrs MacRae’s alarm, Netta said that on such occasions no medical help must ever be sought.

Netta spent her days roaming the island by herself, going for long walks, and communing with the spirits of the island.  Shortly before her death Netta sent a somewhat cryptic message to her housekeeper back in London, informing her that she might not hear from her for a while, as she had “a terrible case of healing” to deal with.  It’s never been entirely clear what Netta meant by that, but her housekeeper must have been used to her coming out with such things.  After Netta’s death the housekeeper was quoted in the press as saying that several times Netta had said “she had been to the far beyond, and had come back to life after spending some time in another world”.

Things came to a drastic head on Sunday 17 November.  Netta got up early (that was unusual in itself), and began to pack up all her belongings.  She told Mrs MacRae that some people were disturbing her telephatically, and that she had received disturbing messages from other worlds.  Mrs MacRae said that she did notice that Netta’s collection of silver jewellery seemed to have blackened overnight.  Netta was thwarted in her plans though.  In those days the island didn’t run a boat service on Sundays.  Netta was marooned on the island for another day.

She seems to have resigned herself to this though.  In fact, after a short spell in her room, she emerged and told Mrs MacRae that she had changed her mind, and that she would be staying indefinately on the island.  Netta’s sudden change of mood can seem baffling at first.  I sometimes wonder if she had simply taken something as a “sign” that she was meant to stay on Iona.  Someone like Netta would find symbolism in just about anything, and her belief in fate/destiny/karma would have been acutely strong.  Hence her air of fatalism at this moment.

The events of the next couple of days are a bit confused.  Netta must have gone out for her walk as usual on Sunday.  There seems to have been some delay in reporting her missing, but I guess everybody was used to Netta disappearing for several hours at a stretch, and would not have found it unduly alarming.  Her body wasn’t found until Tuesday 19 November.  She was found lying on Fairy Mound, a hill close to an ancient ruined village, only a couple of miles from where she had been lodging.  Although close by, the village was fairly inaccessible, and Netta had never visited it on her walks before.

Netta was naked, apart from a black cloak (which was said to symbolise somebody fairly high up in the echelons of the Alpha Et Omega Temple).  She was lying on a large cross, which had been dug out of the hillside, and the knife used for this was found lying close by.  A blackened silver cross on a chain was around her neck.  Her bare feet were cut and bleeding, as though she had been running barefoot across the rough ground.  She was estimated to have died between 10 PM on the 17th, and lunchtime on the 19th.

Mysteriously, her body was covered in unexplained scratch-marks.

Author Dion Fortune, who was a fellow member of the Temple, firmly believed that Netta had been the victim of a murderous psychic-attack, whereby somebody deliberately sets out to destroy a person psychologically.  Dion had experienced these herself, and had written a book, ‘Psychic Self-Defence’, on how to protect yourself from them.  (In his memoirs, Aleister Crowley also claimed to have been a victim of a psychic attack, and also said he had done battle with someone on the astral plane.  Trouble is, Crowley was so full of hyperbole, that it’s very hard to separate out fact from fantasy with what he said).

It’s hard for me when writing about psychic attacks, not to think of the classic British horror film ‘Night Of The Demon’, in which Dana Andrews, as a sceptical psychic investigator, is put under psychic attack by a Crowley-esque character called Julian Karswell (played brilliantly by Irish actor Niall McGinnis).  The film is based on a short story ‘Casting The Runes’ by M R James, in which a slip of parchment engraved with runic symbols is passed to an unwitting victim, who is then marked out, as it were, for demonic annihilation.  The demon appears at a set time, and proceeds to claw the victim to death.

Dion Fortune often worried that “Mac” (as Netta was called by her friends) was getting too heavily involved in the Occult.  “She was going to very deep waters”, Dion wrote in ‘Psychic Self-Defence’ “And there was certain to be trouble sooner or later”.  Dion went further and claimed that Moira Mathers, wife of the Temple’s co-founder Samuel Maddell Matters, was behind the attack on Netta … even though Moira had died 16 months previously!

In an unsolved case like this one, everybody of course has their own pet theories as to what could have happened.  Scottish author and psychic investigator, Ron Halliday, believed that Netta really had been in contact with other worlds.  “I think she did establish contact with another world”, he said, during his own investigation into the case.  He raised many interesting issues, such as the point that Netta was missing for 2 whole days, which does seem odd on a small island.  (Mrs MacRae said she hadn’t raised the alarm immediately, which (as I’ve said before) is understandable, considering Netta was prone to disappearing for hours on her own).  Halliday also points to reports of mysterious blue lights seen in the area where she was found, and that letters of “strange character” were found amongst her belongings and passed to the Procurater-Fiscal, never to be seen again.

Others believe that Netta may have been pursued by somebody she had known in London, and there were rumours of her being seen in the company of a mysterious cloaked figure, shortly before her death.  Could she have been having an affair?  Either in London, or even on the island, it would certainly have complicated things.

IN CONCLUSION: On going over a lot of this my gut feeling is that maybe Netta built up demons in her own mind.  She had spent several weeks  confined almost exclusively to her own company, spending her days in long, solitary walks, with only her own thoughts to occupy her.  Now this of course can be a good thing.  It would certainly be a boon to many creative people.  But Netta didn’t seem to be engaged in anything creative, there was no outlet for all this inner searching.

Perhaps she had got herself into an awkward situation in London, or brushed up against another member of the Temple, and had decided to leave for a while to let the dust settle.  A few weeks away would have been a chance to put everything into perspective, but that doesn’t seem to have happened with Netta, everything got blown out of all proportion in her mind instead.  As I’ve said before, Netta was the kind of person who would have seen signs and portents in everything, she may well have come to believe that somebody was out to get her.

I feel the time of year must also be taken into account.  When she had left London it had been late August/early September, but now it was November, the nights were long and dark, the prospect of spending the entire winter on the island, with nothing to do but stalk its bracing, windswept beaches and hills, must have been daunting.  Her behaviour on her last day suggests she was afraid to stay on the island, but at the same time resigned to it.  Curiously, she certainly doesn’t seem to have made any coherent plans to return to her life in London.

I think Netta may have churned things up in her own mind to such an extent that she had decided to carry out a magical ritual to try and protect herself from whoever/whatever it was she felt was threatening her.  As such she ventured out on a cold November night wearing only a black cloak.  Netta’s lack of practicality had let her down again (remember when she wanted to fast for 40 days!), and this time it would cause her demise.  The official verdict was that she had died from a heart-attack and exposure, which all makes sense.

BUT, having said all that, there were still those mysterious scratch-marks on her body ….



[…] Fornario: Iona’s Occult Mystery” Mysterious Britain & Ireland website, pulled 1/28/13 “Netta Fornario – Death by Psychic Attack?” sjhstrangetales website, pulled 1/28/13 “Occult Mystery on Iona” Mysterious People website, […]

[…] Mysterious Britain & Ireland website, pulled 1/28/13 sjhstrangetales website, pulled 1/28/13 Mysterious People website, pulled […]

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