Solving the Lead Masks of Vintem Hill
For a long time, I've wanted to do an episode that doesn't just give the results of my findings, but instead follows the process of researching and putting together an episode. A lot of times that's hard to do, because most subjects include way more information than can be squeezed into twelve minutes, much less include my research and development process. But I finally got one that's just right. It came from Brazil, back in 1966, when the bodies of two men were found on a hillside. By itself, it might not have been a very interesting case for the police, until they examined the bodies. Each item that they found made the case stranger and stranger. It became known as the lead masks of Vintém Hill.
The idea first came in through my email, as most subjects do, from a listener who'd heard of it and thought it sounded interesting. Dead bodies found on a hilltop in Brazil wearing strange lead masks. I jotted a few notes and put it in my folder. And then one day, while looking for a future episode, I came upon it, and it sounded cool enough that I did a few web searches. Morro do Vintém, or Vintém Hill, is a green prominence in the relatively wealthy Rio de Janeiro suburb of Niterói. I haven't been there, and I always like to get a good geographic feel for a location. So I looked it up on Google Earth, studied the angles, and looked at as many photographs as I could find.
A great place to start any research project is Wikipedia. You'll usually get the popular version of the tale, plus sometimes a few useful references. The story goes that on August 20, 1966, a boy was flying a kite on the hill when he found two dead bodies. Police were summoned and found the two men, Manoel Pereira da Cruz (32) and Miguel José Viana (34), who were electronics repairmen in Campos dos Goytacazes, which is pretty far away, about 200 kilometers to the northeast. They were said to be wearing business suits and raincoats, with a package containing an empty water bottle and two small towels. But the oddest thing of all is that they were wearing lead masks. There was no clue what the lead masks were, or what the cause of death might have been.
The men are believed to have had enough cash on them to buy a cheap used car, around 3,000,000 cruzeiros, which is hard to convert because the inflation rate was staggeringly high in 1966. They took a bus to Rio. On their bodies were receipts for the raincoats they were wearing (since it was raining that day), and a receipt for a bottle of water, needed to return the bottle later to get their deposit back. However, most of the money was unaccounted for, as they had only a small amount left on them. When police questioned the clerk who sold them the water, she said they seemed agitated and concerned about the time, and that it was getting dark and starting to rain. They hitched a ride up the hill with two unidentified men in a Jeep.
And one final touch: they were found with a small notebook. On one page was a list of electronics part numbers, presumably pertaining to their repair business. Some authors have interpreted these as encrypted codes with a special meaning. Normally I'd follow that up to make sure, but (1) I didn't see a photograph of their part numbers; (2) the time needed to research Brazilian electronics parts numbers from 1966 was probably past the point of diminishing returns; and (3) one contemporary author said he'd already done it with a couple of the codes and found them to be legit. So I decided to let that slide. Unfortunately, I almost always have to leave certain threads like this unfollowed, due to time constraints.
On the other paper of interest was written the following:
which is unusual grammar, and translates in English to:
This clue seems to be as close as the police ever got to finding a motive or a cause of death. No capsules were found, and if the men had taken any capsules (possibly poisonous), then we never learned the reason or what they were. According to all the reports I could find, toxicology tests were never done on the bodies, and the reason given was that the coroner was too busy. So what about these lead masks?
Were these some kind of tribal masks, welding masks, costume masks, or what? Turns out they were thin sheets of lead, cut by hand into the shape of sunglasses, without the stems. They were found either on the ground or on each man's face, I couldn't quite find where. I had enough keywords to do some Google image searches, and there are police photographs of both men (probably driver's license photos), as well as some crime scene photographs showing the men laying in the tall weeds with police officers working alongside. The masks were photographed separately. They were crude, as if they were cut with tin snips from scrap lead sheets. How could I find out more about them?
This happened in Brazil, so most of the primary literature is going to be in Portuguese. Any original newspaper items are going to be pretty hard to find, since I don't read Portuguese. Right away, I knew that was going to be a problem. In my experience, whatever was contained in the original English accounts that someone wrote is probably what's going to be repeated over and over again in all the English language literature, since using an existing English reference is a lot easier for English writers than translating from the original Portuguese. Pretty much every time I've had a story that took place in a non-English speaking country, and I've gone to the trouble to bring in my own translators, I've found that the English version is often incomplete, sensationalized, and wrong in some respects. I figured that was going to be the case here as well.
Unfortunately, my Brazilian help was not able to find anything more in Portuguese language news archives than what you and I could find on Google.com.br. In fact, many of the blog posts (which constitute the bulk of the online information available about this case) are translated versions of each other with no new information. English and Brazilian blogs both describe these eye shields as being similar to what's used to protect against radiation.
Ummm.... no. They're not. I dug to find as many different radiation shields and masks as I could to see if there was anything like these lead eye shields. Masks for working in high radiation environments cover your whole head or face, and incorporate goggles so you can see what you're doing. These were the opposite; leaving the entire head and face unprotected, but blocking and blinding the eyes. There is no environment in which such shields would be useful.
The best we were able to find were secondary sources, which means articles written about the original articles. The earliest we could find, in either language, came from Charles Bowen writing in Flying Saucer Review in March, 1967. Since there was so little information to go on from the finding of the bodies, Bowen focused on reports of incidents before and after. Several days after the bodies were found, at least two respectable newspapers in Rio reported that a resident said she saw a round orange UFO going up and down above Vintém Hill on the night that the men went up there.
I couldn't figure out any logical reason to connect the reported UFO with the deaths of the men. For one thing, people report UFOs all the time, especially after something unusual happens. The resident had no evidence at all, no photographs, and neither did anyone else. UFOs have never been known to kill people, so whether it was there or not, I just couldn't find any logic to correlate the two events. Since the men had written notes describing that they'd taken capsules, it seems that we have a much more likely explanation for their death. Again, I rued the fact that no toxicology tests had been done.
What struck me as more interesting were the events that Bowen found reported before the men died. He had an article translated from O Cruzeiro, a weekly tabloid magazine in Rio. I read all I could find about the magazine, and it seems that at the time, O Cruzeiro reported mainly on celebrities, sports figures, and what we'd usually think of as tabloid news. The reporter claimed that Manoel and Miguel had, along with their friend Elcio Gomes, built some device in Manoel's garden that exploded about two months before the deaths.
Bowen, it seemed, had really done his homework. Among the articles he had translated was a report that another man, also an electronics technician, had been found dead atop a different hill four years before, also with a similar lead mask. Unfortunately Bowen did not provide any details about the cause of death, and I had no corroborating source. But it does seem like something was afoot among the local electrical repair community.
Exactly what Elcio Gomes told police, it turns out, when they questioned him a second time. Apparently these men were all part of a local group that called themselves "scientific spiritualists". Gomes said the three of them were interested in trying to contact Mars, and that the explosion had been the unfortunate failure of some device they'd built in pursuit of their spiritualist interests. Compounding this was a book found in Miguel's home workshop, where police found the tools and scrap used to cut the lead masks, with passages highlighted pertaining to "intense luminosity" related to spirits. Someone expecting to be exposed to "intense luminosity" might well choose to protect his eyes with lead shields.
Bowen also found that two weeks after the deaths, the newspaper Folha de São Paulo published a statement by a self-described "professor of yoga" who stated that the local spiritualist community would often take psychedelic drugs, and it was his opinion that Manoel and Miguel had died due to an accidental overdose. The professor of yoga's statement was anecdotal of course, but it did suggest a version of events that seems to fit the limited amount of information available.
This was pretty much the point where I simply couldn't get any further with the research. Without better access to documentation that might well no longer exist, we can't do much but speculate. It seems possible that Manoel and Miguel were part of a group interested in triggering spiritual experiences with psychedelic drugs, possibly on specific hilltops, and possibly expecting very bright lights along with the experience. And that's where I'm going to leave the story, still in the Unsolved file.
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