Saturday, May 14, 2022

From Pittsburgh to Percy Fawcett


Unexpected events kept me from preparing the blog I intended to post describing today's inaugural Greater Pittsburgh Festival of Books.  Not only is the Festival debuting in my hometown, its venues are only blocks away from my high school.  I'm honored to be appearing there as a representative of the mystery writing community, and though my new knee kept me from flying to Bristol for my beloved CrimeFest, it was able to successfully endure a seven-hour road trip.  

What I hadn't counted on was that in not being "back home" in close to three years, my time would not be my own. In other words, the time I'd allocated for writing my MIE column quickly faded off into a multitude of precedence taking family commitments.

So, as a consolation prize, I decided to re-post MIE's most popular blog ever, "The Death of Percy Fawcett," written by our founder, Leighton Gage. It first ran on February 14, 2010 and still receives  regular pot-stirring comments.  Here it is.

Do you notice any similarity between these gentlemen?
No, neither do I.
But Paramount has chosen Brad Pitt to play Percy Fawcett in an upcoming version of David Grann’s non-fiction book The Lost City of Z. It’s going to be, according to them, an Amazonian mystery/thriller.
And that virtually guarantees to muddy the waters still further about the death of the English explorer who was swallowed up by the Brazilian jungle back in 1925.
Grann, in his book, doesn’t really solve the mystery of what happened to Fawcett.
But he does reject the account of Orlando Villas-Bôas.

Orlando, who died in 2002, was a sertanista, a kind of wilderness explorer peculiar to Brazil, and the country’s Indian expert par excellence.  He spent many years living among the tribes, spoke their languages, established first contact with many of them, and was instrumental in determining a just government policy toward all the indigenous peoples.

I knew Orlando Villas-Bôas personally. He was neither a liar nor a boaster, and his life was packed with more adventure than that of anyone I ever knew. Why, then, should he make things up? Orlando claimed (and I believed him) to have heard the true story of what happened to Fawcett from one of the murderers, a member of the Kalapalos tribe.

Grann visited the Kalapalos in 2005 and got an “oral account” of the incident.
Orlando was there 54 years earlier, in 1951, and spoke to people who were there at the time.
Both accounts agree in some regards:  They agree that Fawcett and his men stayed in the village of the Kalapalos. They agree that Fawcett and his companions had a mishap on the river and lost most of the gifts they’d bought to placate the Indians. They agree that most of the members of Fawcett’s expedition were sick by the time they contacted the Kalapalos. (And, therefore, a danger to the tribe.)

Then the two accounts begin to differ.
According to Grann, the expedition set off to the eastward. The tribesmen, he said, warned Fawcett not to go that way, because the region was inhabited by “fierce Indians”. But Fawcett decided otherwise. And disappeared. End of story. (And this is going to make a mystery/thriller?)

Grann, however, does not relate, and perhaps never discovered, three additional precipitating incidents. And those incidents, for Orlando Villas-Bôas, were of more moment than sickness and/or the absence of gifts. According to Orlando:
  1. Jack Fawcett, Percy’s son, urinated in the river upstream of the village, upstream of where the Kalapalos drew their drinking water. It was an affront to the entire tribe to do so.
  2. One of the members of Fawcett’s expedition shot a small animal. They brought it into the village and hung it up by a cord to preserve the meat from insects and small scavengers. One of the Indians came along and tried to remove a piece of the meat. An expedition member pushed him away. Another affront. The Kalapalos share food. Not to do is unacceptable behavior.
  3. A small child approached the white men and started playing with their goods. They pushed the child away. The child came back and did it again. One of the white men, in the European custom of the time, struck the child. And that was the greatest affront of all. The Kalapalos never strike their children.

That final incident, according to Orlando, sealed the fate of Fawcett and his men. The Indians waited until the next morning, allowed the expedition to get some distance down the trail and then ambushed and killed them all.

Orlando told me one thing more: in those days, he said, the Kalapalos didn’t lie. They dissembled, but they never told an untruth. He’d asked a direct question, for which he didn’t receive a direct answer. Thus he knew from the get-go there was something afoot. It took him, he said, hours and hours of conversation to extract a frank account of what had really happened.

We sure as hell aren’t going to get one from Hollywood.

Leighton - Monday
We miss you, Leighton.

Jeff’s Upcoming Events

Saturday, May 14, 11:00 a.m. ET

Greater Pittsburgh Festival of Books


5900 Penn Avenue

Pittsburgh, PA

In person event, register here


  1. Hey, Jeff. It's great you're able to double up: seeing family and being the mystery rep at the book festival. I'm sure both were time well spent and everyone appreciated getting to see you.

    I read Grann's book last year and enjoyed it. My memory is not the best, but I thought Grann left a window of doubt as to Fawcett's fate. I really couldn't see a mystery coming from it though.

    Enjoy the rest of your time in the Burgh!

    1. Hi, Buddy. Pittsburgh misses you (and Sue). We do too. It's been fun being back among the family after so much time lost to the "Great Isolation."

      As for Grann's book and Percy Fawcett, all I can say is Leighton's post attracts an unbelievable audience even 12 years after its posting.