Monthly Archives: September 2019

Podcast Episode 1: Something Wicked This Way Comes (Part 2). (Transcript)

Hi everyone welcome back to part two of the script for Episode 1 of the podcast. You can catch the episode here!

Check out the previous post , last week for part one of this essay.

ill met by moonlight, John Law…

In March 1612 Justice Roger Nowell was visited by a pedlar named John Law. Law claimed he had been hexed by a witch, causing him to fall ill.
On the 21st March, Law was travelling through Trawden Forest when he crossed paths with Alison Device, a young woman of repute in the area as the granddaughter of Elizabeth Southerns – an elderly wise woman known as ‘Old Demdike’. Her whole family were outsiders, presumed to be witches. Device asked Law to sell her some pins. Law refused – maybe because metal pins in 17th century England were expensive and he didn’t believe she had the money, or maybe because witches used pins to cure warts, for divination, and to cast love spells.

Whatever the reason Law told Device it was not worth the bother of unpacking half his bag on the roadside for so small a sale. They argued for a while, Alizon claiming Law called her a thief, then went their separate ways. Seconds later Law collapsed. John Law struggled back to his feet and stumbled into a nearby inn.

The best guess these days is he suffered a minor stroke, but to add context it was almost half a century before a Swiss doctor called Johan Wepfer began to unravel what caused these apoplexies- as they were then called. There was no real understanding among experts, let alone everyday people to explain what happened to John Law.. so magical thinking did not seem unreasonable. At first John Law didn’t believe he had been hexed, but in the following days his son Abraham convinced him this is exactly what had happened.

Alizon Device, on the other hand needed no convincing. From a family of wise women, folk healers with a magical edge, she truly believed she had supernatural powers, and that day had caused the devil to strike John Law down. When Abraham Law came round and took her to see John. Alizon broke down and confessed to hexing him, and begged him for forgiveness.

On the 30th March 1612 Alizon, her mother Elizabeth, and her brother James were summoned to appear before Justice of the Peace Roger Nowell.

Now if you’re thinking poor Alizon and her family, about to face some Kangaroo court over this nonsense… well… fair enough, but what unfolded next might stretch your sympathies a little. The Demdikes are not the easiest of families to warm up to.

At the summons Alizon fessed up to hexing John Law, stating immediately after their fight, the devil appeared to her in the form of a black dog and asked what he should do?

“What canst thou do at him?” she asked the dog.
The dog answered “I can lame him”. Alizon thought this was a fantastic idea… then 300 yards down the road John Law fell.

Alizon went on to implicate her grandmother, Old Demdike, in the killing of a cow through witchcraft. Her brother James added to their troubles, claiming Alizon had bewitched a young child. Elizabeth mostly stayed silent but when pushed admitted Old Demdike had a strange mark on her, of the type the devil leaves when he sucks your blood.

Next Alizon, maybe hoping to take the heat off of her, maybe out of revenge for a previous dispute turned in another family of wise women from the town, the Chattoxes.

Ten years earlier a member of the Chattox family had broken into the Devise home and stolen from them. Under questioning Alizon accused the matriarch of the family, Anne Whittle, of the murder of 4 men, including her own father, John Devise.

On 2 April 1612 Old Demdike, Anne Whittle and her daughter, Anne Redferne were brought in. Demdike and the elder Chattox quickly confessed to being witches. Redferne refused to say anything, but old Demdike claimed she’d seen Anne Redferne making clay figures, something like voodoo dolls. Another witness, Margaret Crooke, backed this up, claiming Anne Redferne killed her brother by witchcraft after an argument.

“Fear is the main source of superstition, and one of the main sources of cruelty” bringing it back to Bertrand Russell. Would people, in a simpler time be a little terrified at these alleged serial killers turning each other in like this? Honestly, crazy as it all seems now, I could see fear directing a judge into an atrocious ruling. We’ll come to this, but first let’s take a quick ad break.

(Short excerpt from Ishtar’s ‘Space Radio’)

Hi folks welcome back. Where we left off Alizon Device, old Demdike, old Chattox and Anne Redferne had faced justice Roger Nowell on what began as a single charge of witchcraft, and quickly indicted themselves in multiple acts of murder and malice. On April 10th 1612 friends and family got together to discuss what to do now, and the suitably witchy sounding Malkin Tower.

I come Malkin Towers…

The name Malkin tower immediately makes me think of witchcraft. My reasoning there’s a line in Shakespeare’s Macbeth where one of the witches calls to her familiar “I come Greymalkin”. Truthfully grimalkin is a medieval word for cat, and malkin can mean cat, a woman from a low born family, a weakling or even, a mop. I Google image searched Malkin tower and come across a lone tower on a windswept looking hill. Desolate and spooky it looked exactly like the kind of place where wise women would brew potions … then I began to dig a little to find it was a Victorian folly called ‘Blacko tower’ Malkin tower, the home of Alizon’s grandmother old Demdike was demolished long ago, was probably a normal old cottage, the exact location lost to history.

On the 10th April Alizon’s mother Elizabeth called friends and family to malkin tower to plan to save their loved ones. The meeting could have gone unnoticed but for James Device stealing a neighbour’s sheep to provide food. The neighbors reported the theft, and meeting to justice Nowell…who concluded the meeting must have been a coven of witches. He arrested eight more people for witchcraft, following an inquiry on April 27th 1612. Elizabeth Device, James Device, Alice Nutter, Katherine Hewitt, John Bulcock, Jane Bulcock, Alice Grey and Jennet Preston were all brought in. Preston would be tried separately – she lived across the border and fell under the jurisdiction of York.

A digression into being buried alive…

Jennet Preston faced the courts first, at the York Assizes on 27th July. Presiding judges were witch hater James Altham and the desperate to re-locate Sir Edward Bromley. Preston had previously beaten a charge of using witchcraft to kill a child in 1611. She was now charged with the murder of a nobleman, Thomas Lister, four years earlier.
On his death bed, surrounded by family and friends, Lister had cried out

“Jennet Preston lyes heauie vpon me, Preston’s wife lies heauie vpon me; helpe me, helpe me“

What damned Jennet Preston was when she was viewing Lister’s body, laid out in state, he began to bleed profusely. Superstition has it if a corpse bleeds in someone’s presence the deceased is pointing out their murderer from the other side.

Now keep in mind the test for death at this time was to listen for a heartbeat and check for signs of breathing, and this was rarely done by an actual doctor, we shouldn’t be too surprised people occasionally got buried alive… well possibly more than occasionally – we mostly know just the near misses. A few decades after Thomas Lister in 1661, Lawrence Cawthorn, a butcher from London was accidentally buried alive. He had fallen ill and, his landlord knowing he would inherit Cawthorn’s possessions if he died in his property – sent him off to be buried. As the last sod of earth was loaded on the coffin all in attendance could hear Cawthorn screaming so quickly dug him back up, but not quite quickly enough – they opened the coffin to find he had shredded his shroud and beaten his face to a pulp trying to break the coffin open with his head.

Alice Blunden of Basingstoke was buried in 1674 and was far luckier. A group of children heard her screams, and people were able to dig her out in time. The Irish philosopher John Dun Scotus was accidentally buried alive in 1308, only discovered years later from deep scratch marks on the inside of the lid. I digress but to me at least it makes sense the rumours of Mr Lister’s death were greatly exaggerated, and it makes none that he bled on command to indict his killer.

It also strikes me as odd this incident only came up in 1612. Jennet Preston strongly proclaimed her innocence but was found guilty. She was executed by hanging on 29th July 1612. The others all went to trial at the Lancaster Assizes on the 18th – 19th August 1612.

The Pendle witches weren’t the only witch trial that day; The Salmesbury Witches were charged with using witchcraft to murder, and with cannibalism. Sir Edward Bromley was presiding judge. The court clerk was a man named Thomas Potts. Potts would gain fame from the book he wrote on the trial, The wonderful discoverie of witches in the countie of Lancaster – to this day the main source of information on the Pendle and Salmesbury Witches.

The Salmesbury Witches.

The Salmesbury Witches were three women – Jane Southworth, Jennet Bierley, and Ellen Bierley – who were accused of murdering and eating a baby. Their accuser was a 14 year old relative of the Bierleys, Grace Sowerbutts. They were also accused of using witchcraft to make Grace’s life hell. They all proclaimed their innocence.

Their trial began with a prepared statement from Grace Sowerbutts. Grace claimed her grandmother, Jennet, Aunt Ellen and Jane Southworth could transform themselves into dogs. That they had “haunted and vexed her”, in her own words, for years. These vexings took the form of magically picking her up and dropping her atop a haybail by her hair, and hypnotically convincing her to drown herself.

Grace had also claimed they took her to the house of a Thomas Walshman and his wife, taking their baby outside, then sucking the child’s blood. The baby died the following night. Grace claimed her grandmother and aunt had then stolen the child’s corpse, to cook and eat the body.

Thomas Walshman took the stand, and confirmed he had a child who died suddenly. There was an uproar from the public gallery.

“If what this girl says is true then we need to know more, bring her back up and examine her further”

Under further examination Grace lost it and broke down. Her tale unravelled and a distraught Grace finally started to tell the truth. The Salmesbury witches had all been Catholic, but converted to the Anglican church. They were much happier with the church of England. Jane Southworth’s uncle, Christopher Southworth, sometimes aka Christopher Thompson, was a Catholic priest, who covertly ran his own church. When the ladies converted they had a falling out, and he began to plot revenge on them. His plan, to get 14 year old Grace to make the accusation.
Why Grace went along with it isn’t clear, and what happened to her and Christopher has been lost to history, but the Salmesbury Witches were released without charge.

The Pendle witches were not so lucky. They, for one had their own accusatory minor to deal with – 9 year old Jennet Device – Alizon’s sister- was called as a key witness. Even in 1612 the evidence of a child so young was banned, except, thanks to James I, in the case of witch trials. A number of the accused were known Wise Women – pagan folk healers.. Of course a number of guilty pleas had been made already too. Old Demdike, in her 80s when taken into custody, died before the trial started.

The Pendle Witch Trials…

First up was Anne Whittle. Accused by Alizon of murdering four men she pled not guilty on the charge of killing Robert Nutter. Unfortunately she had made a confession earlier, which was read out to the court. A boarder at her house was also called to the stand. He stated he recalled Nutter claiming she turned his beer sour before he died. A tearful Anne broke down in court, admitted guilt, and begged God’s forgiveness.

Elizabeth Device, Alizon’s mother, was accused of the murders of two men by herself, James and John Robinson, and of helping Old Demdike kill Henry Mitton. She plead not guilty. 9 year old Jennet Device was called in to give evidence and Elizabeth lost all composure and had to be escorted out, screaming at Jennet to stop what she was doing before she signed the family’s death warrant. Unfortunately no one challenged the child’s evidence – Jennet told the court Elizabeth had been a witch for 3 or 4 years, and had a familiar – a brown dog called Ball, who she called on to hex her victims.

Her son James also gave evidence against Elizabeth, though accused of being a witch himself, pleading not guilty to the murders of Anne Townley and John Duckworth. Jennet took the stand again to accuse James. Elizabeth and James Device were both found guilty.

Anne Redferne, daughter of Anne Whittle, also known as Chattox was found guilty the following day of the murder of Robert Nutter’s father, Christopher, based on the evidence of the now deceased Old Demdike. The Bulcocks, Jane, and her son John were up next. They were dragged into this mess because they had attended the Malkin tower meeting- something they denied. Again 9 year old Jennet Device gave evidence against them and they were found guilty of the murder of a woman called Jennet Deane.

Alice Nutter, who had come to the malkin towers meeting to support the family found herself entangled with the murder of Henry Mitton. She was also found guilty. Katherine Hewitt and Alice Grey, both also attendees at the Malkin towers meeting were accused of killing a child called Anne Foulds. Hewitt was found guilty, while Grey was let go, found not guilty.

Finally it was Alizon Device’s turn. The woman who started the whole witch hunt off by wishing ill on the pedlar John Law. This was pretty much a non event. Device sincerely believed she had harmed Law and tearfully confessed to hexing him that day in the forest. She was found guilty. All but Alice Grey were sentenced to hang, a sentence carried out the following day. When I mentioned to my mum I was doing a podcast on the Pendle witches she was particularly interested in the testimony of young Jennet, and said she learned at school Jennet Device gave evidence to get in with the in crowd… sold out her family to be popular. It backfired, she was shunned the rest of her life. I couldn’t find this in the sources, maybe it had become a cautionary tale not to dob your parents in for stuff? Who knows? It does seem very possible though.

There is evidence though a Jennet Device faced a witch trial herself in 1634. Accused by a ten year old boy, Edmund Robinson, she was found guilty of the murder of Isabel Nutter…. The same Nutter family who allegedly lost several family members to the older Devices…. The boy’s evidence was later found to be false, but she seems to have spent the rest of her life in jail regardless. Sir Edward Bromley’s work did please the king, and he got his promotion in 1616.

So that was the tale of the Pendle witches, I hold to my interpretation that it was the result of a combination of primitive superstition, political opportunism, petty revenge, and possibly a need by some young, unreliable witnesses to fit in and/ or be agreeable to authority figures. While, in my opinion there was all kinds of crazy in play here it is also worth noting that in 1998 when it came before parliament to pardon the Pendle Witches, British Home Secretary Jack Straw refused to do so.

On 27th August 2008 the Swiss Parliament ruled the 1782 beheading of Anna Goldi – generally accepted as the last execution for witchcraft in Europe – a miscarriage of justice, and exonerated her. This prompted supporters of the Pendle witches to try again, but yet again the British Government refused to overturn the convictions.

I hope you found this episode interesting. Please subscribe to our podcast, give us a positive review on whatever podcaster you are listening in on. Please share our podcast round with anyone you know who likes history and strange tales. Please follow us on the Tales of History and Imagination podcast Facebook page, more social media pages coming soon – and drop me a line. Music has been provided by Ishtar, who incidentally had a song about Pendle Hill in their set in the mid to late 2000s, research, writing and all that production stuff by me. Thanks for listening, and I will see you in two weeks for more tales of History and Imagination.

[Outro music- ‘Space Radio’ by Ishtar]

This Tale is part two of a two part series. To read the rest of this story click here.

Podcast Episode 1: Something Wicked This Way Comes. (Transcript)

Hey everyone go check out for the First of our Podcasts! The internet tells me people like choice, so I am posting the transcript on here for the readers out there. It’s long so I’m posting in two parts.

Hi folks and welcome to Tales of History and Imagination, my name is Simone. Today’s tale is about a woman named Alizon Device, and her untimely death on 20th August 1612. This is a tale of witchcraft, allegations of murder and of 10 executions. On the teaser for this podcast I quoted the philosopher Bertrand Russell…

Fear is the main source of superstition, and one of the main sources of cruelty. To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom”

Irrational fear definitely helps explain this story, but it really is only one element. Political opportunism and scapegoating are factors, not to mention the lengths a young outsider will go to just to fit in with the crowd. I should also point out, while witch hunts took a massive number of lives in Europe – the figure I was told when younger of 600,000 dead is now thought an exaggeration, the ballpark is still in hundreds of thousands- In England only around 500 people were executed for witchcraft. That a single case lead to 2% of the countries’ total executions makes the story of the Pendle Witches significant.

We’ll get to the case but first today I’m going to spend a little time looking at how we got to the witch trials in England – and while I want to mention a few European milestones, I’m not jumping into the witch trials at Navarre, and Wurtzburg and such.. it is too deep a rabbit hole. I should also say up front – do I believe in witches? Well, I believe many witches were folk healers with pagan beliefs. And, yes I believe some witches wished people misfortune- but that leaves you a long long way from proving anything supernatural. I do believe the witch hunts were an atrocity.. so, without further ado. Welcome to episode 1, Something Wicked This Way Comes.

[Theme music plays, an excerpt from Ishtar’s ‘The Enemy Within’]

Witches in Antiquity.

So, by way of background.. Tales of Witchcraft go all the way back to antiquity. The old testament of the bible mentions witches. In 1 Samuel, written possibly as early as the 10th century BC, King Saul calls on the witch of Endor to summon the ghost Samuel to help the Israelites defeat the Philistines. The witch instead prophesied the deaths of Saul and his sons, which is what the bible says happened. It should not surprise anyone the writers of the bible didn’t love witches… in Exodus, just after dealing with the 10 commandments, the book states “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”. If you were to sum up early responses to witches, early people viewed them as frightening, mysterious, but at times useful.

Stories of persecution and execution of witches go way back in antiquity in a number of civilizations – as do stories of turning to witches for assistance. In Ancient Greece for example anyone who was anyone would travel to the Oracle of Delphi for advice on matters of importance. On the flipside you get stories such as the public execution of Theoris of Lemnos and her family in Athens for practicing witchcraft in the 4th century BC. What she did exactly was not recorded by the statesman Demosthenes, but she was believed to practice folk healing, and may, possibly have poisoned someone. Nearly 200 years later Plato would write in his ‘Symposium’ that he saw practitioners of magic as maleficent beings, but tied their powers to the God Eros.

Some earlier philosophers actually courted public belief in their magical powers. Pythagoras had some believing he could be in two places at once, could make predictions, and could bite poisonous snakes before the snakes could bite him. Thales of Miletus surely was risking life and limb a little when he predicted a solar eclipse, and used this knowledge to bring about a truce with the warring Medes in 585 BC. The Medes, thinking it was an open from the gods to cool it stopped. Empedocles was so intent on proving himself supernatural to the locals he jumped into the volcano at Mt Etna, thinking when he disappeared the people would think he flew into the heavens and was a God. When his sandal got thrown back out somehow the people just realized he’d jumped into a volcano, and burned to death… but, we are getting off track a little… so.

In Ancient Rome it was a capital offense to use witchcraft to blight crops, or destroy one’s flocks or herds, but a great many Patricians would privately consult witches for political or military advice. The writer Plutarch is one example of a guy who believed in omens, even if he was suspicious of witches and magicians. Some apparent folk healers and the like of course pitched themselves as miracle workers and messianic types in the Roman empire. One gets the sense Jesus was one of many, presuming his reality, plying a trade in healing the sick, casting out demons, and flashy shows of magic.

The Middle Ages

The rise of Christianity brought changes to the view of witches especially as the religion extended out into Europe and met with pagan religions. While Christianity may have started from “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” – seen practitioners of any opposing set of beliefs as a threat, but in the 5th Century AD, St Augustine robbed witches of any perceived power by stating belief in witchcraft was primitive superstition, and witchcraft a bit of a nonsense. At a number of church synods, notably at Elvira Spain in 306 and Ankara Turkey in 314 witchcraft had been proclaimed a sin you could take a penance for, rather than something to be executed for. It became the greater heresy to believe in witchcraft than to practice anything resembling witchcraft for much of late antiquity and the early middle ages.

This is not to say there weren’t incidents. Witch hunts clearly occurred during this era, otherwise why make laws banning witch hunts? Charlemagne – the de-facto first Holy Roman emperor, crowned in 800 AD– shocked at news of a spate of recent witch hunts, proclaimed

“If anyone, deceived by the devil, shall believe, as is customary among Pagans that any man or woman is a night- witch and eats men, and on that account burn that person to death… he shall be executed”

In 1100 King Kalman of Hungary banned witch hunts stating “witches do not exist”. The Lombards, of which Charlemagne had once been king, made it clear killing witches would bring dire consequences… A number of other medieval rulers, however did come to see witchcraft as a danger. In 1080 Pope Gregory VII wrote a strongly worded letter to Harald III of Denmark demanding he stop the widespread murder of witches. King Harald had gotten it into his head witches had caused a spate of storms and crop failures. Charlemagne’s son, Louis the Pious called for all witches and sorcerers to be killed. In Scotland Kenneth MacAlpin – the Pictish king often thought the first king of Scotland called for sorcerers and witches to be burned to death, if they attempt to invoke spirits.

In 900AD, the Canon Episcopi, a church document dealing with Pagan beliefs re-iterated St Augustine’s views, witches don’t exist. It stated definitively the bigger crime is the heresy in believing in such things. From here on for the next few centuries though, in an effort to be consistent – the church began to prosecute witches as heretics – mostly imposing fines.

The Road to Malleus Maleficarum

From around 1300 a belief began to grow that witches were engaged in malicious behaviour; meeting in secret covens to have mass orgies, and eat babies. A Christian cult known as the Cathars had become very popular in Southern France and Northern Italy their brand of religion probably having arrived from Armenia, Persia or the Byzantine Empire via Bulgaria. Threatened, the church became less forgiving of anything considered heretical, the Cathars themselves eventually all but annihilated. From the 15th Century stories began circulating that witches made pacts with the devil and were obliged to carry out wicked deeds and spread misfortune. By this time the crusades in the Near East had opened up access to classical texts lost to the west but preserved by Islam, while some of these texts fed a rise in Renaissance occultism among the upper classes of Europe, it also reinforced negative views towards witchcraft among the scholastic movement.

Now, on occasion accusations of witchcraft were political – Pope Boniface VIII, who died in 1303 not long after being kidnapped and released by the King of France – was posthumously tried for witchcraft, among a raft of other, more serious charges. When the Knights Templar became a little too wealthy and powerful, as the first multi-national corporation to speak of and a money lender to kings – King Philip the Fair, the same pope kidnapping king of France arrested and executed them for heresy and witchcraft, on Friday the 13th October 1307. It is clear Philip 4th liked to excuse his own bad behaviour by claiming his enemies were witches.

In 1486 a Dominican monk and inquisitor named Heinrich Kramer wrote an important book called Malleus Maleficarum, “the hammer against the Witches”. It was a huge best seller, second only to the Bible throughout Europe. It laid out an argument for future, and ongoing inquisitions against witches – covens, human sacrifice, deals with the devil.

All that said, in England concerns over witchcraft were not great…. up till the era of the Stuarts. The Tudor king Henry 8th, possibly more driven by a need to enforce loyalty since making himself head of the Church of England, passed a witchcraft act in 1542 which allowed him to confiscate a witches land, and even put them to death. His daughter, Elizabeth 1st changed the law only allowing the death penalty if someone used witchcraft to murder another. These laws appear largely unused.

Daemonologie… and how to drown a cat….

King James I of England, presided over a time of a great number of witch trials, and this is the time our tale is set in. In 1589 James, then just king of Scotland, was betrothed to Anne of Denmark. In Anne’s first attempt to cross the North Sea she was almost scuttled by a violent storm. James then sailed to her with a fleet of ships. The two of them then almost drowned on the way back – with one of James’ ships was sunk on the return voyage.

The Danish admiral who had attempted the first crossing was sure the bad weather was being caused by witchcraft – he had insulted the wife of a Danish official back in Copenhagen and was sure she had hexed them. This was added to by an official investigation, which pointed the finger at Danish minister of finance, Christopher Valkendorff, for having cheaped out on the ships, but he had managed to defend himself by claiming the incident must be down to witchcraft instead. Several prominent women were tortured, eventually owning up to the attempt on Anne’s life, and twelve women were burnt on the stake as a result.

On his return to Scotland, King James called for his own tribunal, and, unsurprising when you use torture to force confession, found a number of witches. Under torture James’ alleged conspirators confessed to tying a dead man’s genitals to a cat, calling on the devil to kill the royal couple, then throwing the cat into the ocean, among other things.

The North Berwick witch trials themselves deserve an episode, especially the tale of Gellis Duncan, a maid working for one David Seaton whose accusation and torture of Gellis seems more driven out of jealousy and a need to control Gellis – who had of late taken to sneaking out of the house at night, and if you can’t openly punish her for meeting up with a paramour then why not punish her for attempted regicide instead right?

James I wrote a treatise against witchcraft, daemonology, in 1591, which though more nuanced than many of the witch trials were, did state witchcraft had been going on for as long as we have existed and advocated for witch trials. When James claimed the English throne he enacted a witchcraft act in England. But did magistrates believe witches were evil? Some yes, some were no doubt company men, willing to do what the boss asked of them. In 1605 William Shakespeare wrote one of the greatest witch hating, propaganda pieces ever in Macbeth – In the a play the virtuous Macbeth is lead astray by three witches to kill the king and take the crown. Misled by the 3 weird sisters and fuelled by ambition Macbeth sinks Scotland into a repressive tyranny, until the forces of good. children of his slain former friend Banquo, helped by a cast Scottish Thanes and English soldiers defeat him and make all well in the world again – Banquo was an ancestor of James by the way.

Now, Lancaster in the North East of England was a lawless borderland, where theft and violence was common. It was a stronghold of a number of underground Catholic churches, churches who came out of hiding briefly in the reign of Elizabeth’s sister Mary, then went underground in Elizabeth’s reign. There were a number of wise women, the types of folk healers often accused of witchcraft. There were two local judges in the area, Sir James Altham- a virulent witch hater, and Sir Edward Bromley, who was desperate to win James I’s favour and be promoted to a better position closer to London.

By 1612 James was king, and concerned Catholics particularly meant to do him harm, sent out orders to the Justices of the peace to make lists of recusants – those who refused to take part in the protestant church proceedings. In Pendle, Lancaster, this order fell on Roger Nowell.
Now this seems a good place to split this script up…

Sorry folks this is a long one… the podcasts ARE wordy. I’ll post part two next week. In the meantime please go take a listen at

This Tale is part one of a two part series. To read the rest of this story click here.

The Nature Boys part Two: eden ahbez

There was a boy
A very strange enchanted boy
They say he wandered very far
Very far
Over land and sea
A little shy and sad of eye
But very wise was he

And then one day
A magic day he passed my way
And while we spoke of many things
Fools and kings
This he said to me
“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn
Is just to love and be loved in return.

-eden ahbez, Nature Boy.

Hi folks welcome back to Tales of History and Imagination. This week’s blog will be the last one for around a month, so I can put the time into getting the podcast up and running. I’ll post updates here as I have things to post about. The plan still is run the podcasts fortnightly, and blogs on the weeks in between.

Our tale this week is a quick glimpse at a counterculture figure of the 1940s, and how he contributed one of the most compelling works to the Great American Songbook.
Our tale this week begins with a man in a suit trekking through the wilderness calling out at the top of his lungs. There was a meeting something like this, but this part is largely a work of my imagination, a plot device to get us into the tale. As it is my device I imagine him middle aged, out of breath, a little pissed he has ruined a nice pair of shoes on this fools errand, all to find some guy he is told “you will know him when you find him: he looks a lot like Jesus. Oh he may be naked when you come across him”. The man in the suit, in the employ of Capitol records, is trekking up the hills of Mount Lee, California, through Griffith Park. He has been searching for weeks for this messianic-looking figure, and no ruined loafers, mountain lions, or human nakedness is going to stop him in his mission. He is looking for a man, a very strange, enchanted man, and he will find him.

The search had started in the wake of a Nat King Cole concert at California’s Lincoln Theater, earlier in 1947. Nat King Cole had yet to go solo, yet to break the colour barrier. As part of the Nat King Cole trio the crooner was killing it on vocals and piano- it is easy to forget he was primarily a pianist, but if you check old footage of the trio he had monster chops on the ivories. In attendance that night an unusual, long haired man, also a piano player, who had managed to blag his way into the after-party. The strange man had tried at numerous points in the night to catch the attention of Cole, but was rebuffed at every advance. At his wits’ end he finally handed what he had been trying to pass to Cole all night, a crumpled up piece of paper, to Cole’s valet. The valet handed it on to Cole’s manager, who eventually passed the paper on to Cole himself. On the paper a song, a very strange, enchanted song… now, dear reader I will have posted a link below to the song on Spotify, please hit the link and listen…. 72 years on it remains haunting, romantic (in the literary sense, the protagonist could be a Byronic hero, the music is powerful, and exotic)… otherworldly. You will thank me for this, even if it is not exactly your bag. Clearly the piece struck Nat King Cole as something special. Taken by the piece he added it to his live sets, and the crowds went crazy for it. The title of the song – Nature Boy. The narrative of the song, I met a mystical traveller and we spoke of many things. He left me with this piece of advice

“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn, is just to love, and be loved in return”

Crowds went mad for the new song, with it’s peace and love message, mysterious character, exotic score which seems at once reminiscent of Dvorak and of Yiddish folk music. Nat King Cole knew he absolutely must cut a track of this… but who the hell was the mysterious, long haired stranger who had given him the song? He would need the writer’s permission. An all points bulletin was sent out to everyone in the know in Hollywood, find this man immediately.

After some searching they worked out who the man was. Going by the name eden ahbez – all deliberately written in lower case as ahbez himself believed only two words deserve to be capitalized – God and Infinity – ahbez had been born George Alexander Aberle in 1908 to a Jewish father, Scottish mother, and promptly abandoned in a Jewish orphanage in New York. Aged around 10 he was adopted by the McGrew family of Chanute, Kansas, where he grew up, and eventually joined a dance band, first as a pianist, then band leader, as a young adult. In 1941 he moved out to Los Angeles, where he took up part-time work as a pianist at a raw foods restaurant and supermarket in Laurel Canyon, called The Eutropheon. Established in 1917 by John and Vera Richter, John having come up through John Harvey Kellogg’s Battle Creek Sanitarium, the Richter’s were firm believers in the health benefits of eating only raw fruit and vegetables. The sources I have read on the Eutropheon all state the restaurant became a meeting place for the alternative lifestyles of Laurel canyon and the surrounding areas at the time. The groups in particular appear to be early bodybuilders, who had set up a gym nearby, socialists – the Richters were vocal supporters of former senator, trade unionist, activist and 1912 third party (socialist party) presidential candidate Eugene Debs, and the Nature Boys. It was the latter that ahbez, if not one of them already, would soon join up with.

A group of proto-hippies, living mostly in caves and primitive cabins in the Palm Springs area, the Nature Boys followed the teachings of William Pester – the Hermit of Palm Springs. Himself a follower of a 19th century back to nature movement in Germany called the ‘Naturmenschen’, Pester had arrived in the area in 1906. He wore his hair long, had a big, bushy beard at a time when most men were clean shaven, preferred nudity to clothing, ate only raw fruit and vegetables, studied eastern spiritualism, and believed we must cast off all the restraints of the modern world for a simpler life, closer to nature. In the photos today I have attached a 1917 picture of Pester rocking out on what looks like an Appalachian dulcimer. Tell me he is not a guy who would look completely at home hanging out with Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, at Woodstock, or at the Red Dog Saloon in the 1960s? Pester, however would pass on in 1963 a few years prior to the summer of love.

In 1941 eden ahbez would, indirectly, become an acolyte of Pester’s (Pester was in jail at the time. Having come from Germany he was accused of being a German spy in 1940, and when that didn’t stick, was accused of having sex with a minor, and jailed till 1946) and joined the Nature Boys.
Back to the man in a suit, now sweating profusely – I imagine the contract in his hand now looking as crumpled as the piece of paper ahbez had handed to Cole’s valet, eventually caught up with eden ahbez- clothed in a white toga apparently, camping out under the first L in the Hollywood sign.. not far from where Peg Entwhistle jumped – that is definitely another tale I MUST tell sometime. Ahbez granted his permission to record the song, which though semi-autobiographical, he explained was a tribute to William Pester.

In August 1947 Nat King Cole headed into the studio to cut the track. The recording was epic, Cole at his coolest. Capitol, for all the bother of finding eden ahbez killed the song in its tracks, deciding it just didn’t jive with the image they wanted to present of Nat King Cole. In 1948, however, fate intervened. The American Federation of Musicians, under orders from union boss James Petrillo, called a lengthy strike for all studio musicians. The strike was in reaction to the 1947 Taft-Hartley act, which was in itself a knee jerk reaction to ‘The great strike wave of 1945-1946’ an unprecedented wave of industrial action across post-war America. Needing something, anything to release Capitol records took a punt on Nature Boy, releasing the track on March 29th 1948. It went to number 1 with a bullet and stayed there for 7 weeks. This was just the crossover hit Nat King Cole needed. ahbez saw around $20,000 in royalties, somewhere in the order of $200,000 by today’s standards. He would give around half the money to friends, and likely lost the rest of ih in 1951, when a composer called Herman Yablokoff took out a plagiarism suit against ahbez, claiming he stole his song “shvayg mayn harts” (hush my heart). ahbez claimed the melody had come to him “as if angels were singing it” while he was out camping in the mountains. Yablokoff claimed the angels must have bought his record then. The song would be covered, later by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Rick Astley (yes he who is never going to give you up, let you down). David Bowie recorded an incredible version for the soundtrack to Moulin Rouge. Recently Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga recorded a version – one could imagine the shock of ahbez, had he lived to see her meat dress – avowed vegetarian that he was.

For some time eden ahbez was a celebrity. Journalists, similarly to the man in a suit went out of their way to find this messianic looking figure who had scored a monster hit on his first try. In these interviews ahbez would often extol the virtues of living the Nature Boy lifestyle. As a coda, eden ahbez, ahbe to his friends, died in 1995 in a car crash.

The great Pre-Raphaelite artist, iconoclast and writer William Morris, a man with somewhat hippy leanings himself once wrote.

“History has remembered the kings and warriors, because they have destroyed; art has remembered the people because they created”.

I take his point. When spitballing ideas for these tales it could be easier to pick up, say, the tale of Charles ‘The Hammer’ Martel, and his victory over the Umayyad Caliphate at The Battle of Tours, 732.. or the epic battle between the Russians and Swedes at Poltava in 1709. While I tend to get a little lost in the fog of war with these tales- I don’t think you’ll ever get a blow by blow description of any battle from me- I know which are more important in the big scheme of things… but, c’mon don’t tell me these moments of social history are not a little intriguing? Who would not have wanted to have spoke of many things, fools and kings, with the Nature Boy?

Ok folks, back to the blogs in around a month, meantime I’ll be posting updates on the podcast here, as things fall in place- Simone

This Tale is part two of a two part series. To read the rest of this story click here.

Originally published 11th August 2019 on the Tales of History and Imagination Facebook page. Copyright 2019 Simone T. Whitlow.

The Nature Boys, Part One… A Supermarket in California

“What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for I walked down the sidestreets under the trees with a headache self-conscious looking at the full moon”
Allen Ginsberg – A Supermarket in California.

Hi folks welcome back to this week’s Tale of History and Imagination. Since completing the piece on Altamont (if you haven’t read yet please scroll down the page a little – it was a 4 parter) I have been a little curious about something I know, or suspect I know, only the outlines of. Being a little time poor for a few weeks I haven’t done all the spade work on this yet, but I figured this week I’d share my thought process, and next week look at a chunk of it. I had a question:

If you take it that the fallout from The Altamont free concert was the beginning of the end for the hippy, peace and love mass movement (and let’s face it there was quite a bit going on in 1969 that contributed) – then where does the hippy movement begin? Who were the first hippies?

Now, on a page in a notebook I keep on my bedside table I have a brainstorm, a mind map. It contains the outlines of my current knowledge on this question. In the middle, encircled “who was Hippy patient zero?” In a circle close to this are a handful of names. One of these ‘Ken Kesey and The Merry Pranksters’. Now Kesey, an author whose best known work “One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest” became a major film in 1975, starring Jack Nicholson and featuring a cast which included Taxi’s Danny Devito and Christopher Lloyd, was definitely an early hippy. He had come from the Beat Generation, and thus was a bridge between the two movements. He was an early adopter of LSD. With his entourage of non-conformists which included the Grateful Dead (then called The Warlocks) ,he, and his ‘merry pranksters’ hopped aboard a psychedelic patterned bus in 1964 and travelled the USA spreading peace, love… and acid. The Red Dog Saloon, a bar in the largely abandoned former gold mining town of Virginia City, Nevada is also in this circle. All the cool people hung out there. There was a sense of commune about the place. People did a lot of peyote there, and many of the jam bands which became associated with the summer of love got their starts playing there.

In an outer circle I have a handful of philosophers. Now Diogenes of Sinope has to be considered right? Living in Greece in the 4th century BC, he had come from a well off family, but very publicly walked away from materialism when he ‘defaced the money’ then hit the road, leaving all he owned behind. Diogenes lived in a turned up barrel, or tub. He hung out with the animals – having all but joined with a pack of stray dogs. He did outrageous things like walking through the streets in the middle of the day with a lantern proclaiming he is looking for an honest man, but cannot find one. He was a fierce critic of society, feuded with Plato for a while, and challenged authority wherever he could. Legend has it Alexander The Great just had to meet Diogenes when travelling through Corinth on his way to conquer the world, so he made his way out to the barrel. Spotting him sunbathing and staring intently at a human bone he came rushing up asking the philosopher if there was anything he could do for him.

“Yes” Diogenes replied “Stand out of my sunlight” A little taken aback Alexander replies “If I were not Alexander I should wish to be Diogenes”. Unimpressed Diogenes replies “If I were not Diogenes, I would still wish to be Diogenes” and went back to staring at his bone. I think at least in terms of anti-authoritarianism Diogenes would have found kinship with the hippies?

In this circle I have several other philosophical names- Epicurus, who lived in a commune and believed in a lot of the same peace, love and nature messages of the hippies. The Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama who pondered on the meaning of existence while sitting under the Bodhi tree, who gave up a life of comfort for something more meaningful, and whose philosophies filter down to the hippies. Ditto Lao Tse, who dropped some seriously laid back wisdom in the Tao Te Ching for the Chinese people in the 6th Century BC, before jumping on the back of an oxen and riding off into the sunset.

Much closer to the centre I have the Mazdakian movement written down. I currently do not know a lot about Mazdak, here’s what I can tell you, off the top of my head. Mazdak was a Zoroastrian priest with a commune in Persia around the early 6th century. Though Zoroastrianism was still the religion of choice in the empire, his brand was quite heretical. He preached peace, love, communal living, free love, and a vegetarian diet. More down to politics than anything else Mazdak fell foul of the authorities and the Mazdakians were rounded up. Mazdak himself hung upside down and used for target practice by the archers some time around 528 AD.

Closer again, the Merrymount colony of Quincy, Massachusetts. The Merrymount colony turned on, tuned in and dropped out. They found free love, eschewed much of their clothes, fell in love with nature and grew their hair long… till the Puritans showed up in the 1620s and told them to get a haircut and a real job. I have a little question mark next to Henry David Thoreau , author of the transcendentalist novel Walden (and last weeks opening quote). A bigger question mark next to St Francis of Assisi. A big circle around their precursor, The Beat Generation. Both movements were similar, and a number of beatniks, maybe most notably the poet Allen Ginsberg, who struck up a close friendship with Bob Dylan and was heavily involved in the anti-war movement.

The Nature Boys, however – a group who largely centred round a raw foods supermarket in Laurel Canyon, Southern California are the group which most interests me at the moment. In my opinion they are absolutely fascinating, and on occasion pop up in some odd cultural places…. And no I don’t mean
styling and profiling, jet plane riding, rolex wearing, womanizing professional wrestlers.

Next week, the Southern California Nature Boys, and the story of eden ahbez – the non-capitalization is very deliberate, he thought only God and Infinity were important enough to have capital letters.

This Tale is part one of a two part series. To read the rest of this story click here.

Originally published 28th July 2019 on the Tales of History and Imagination Facebook page. Copyright 2019 Simone T. Whitlow.

The Carrington Event.

“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”
― Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Hi folks welcome to this week’s Tale of History and Imagination. First thing I should say, I often play fast and loose with the quotes and today this is especially true. Sorry fans of Henry David Thoreau. Second I am putting the Somerton man topic to one side for a while – it is a multi- parter, and I am stretched thin as it is at the moment. Once the podcast is up we’ll take a trip to Sommerton beach, I promise.
This week I wanted to do something a little different. Let’s just jump in and I’ll explain why I am fascinated by this tale at the end.

The date of today’s tale, September 2nd 1859. The location, many – but let’s start off where I started the first blog – in Boston, Massachusetts. It is 9.30 am at the telegraph office on 31 State Street and the air is positively electric – quite literally electric. The telegraph operators, like many others across the country had fired up the machine that day only to find sparks coming from the telegraph machines. In some cases the sparks had set fire to nearby objects. Any time I have heard this story operators got electrical shocks or burns – though none of the dozen secondary sources I have read on this make this claim. In Boston, if you remember my bit on Samuel Morse, the home of the telegraph – they simply unhooked the batteries. Imagine their shock and amazement when the telegraphs kept running anyway. The air was so charged that day, that the machines kept on going, as if they were somehow possessed. A telegraph station in Portland, Maine had gotten the same idea, and shared their amazement with 31 State Street. Across much of the USA this behaviour was observed.

That night people stared up to the sky in amazement. That, in the dead of night it was bright enough to read a newspaper is one thing, but the Aurora Borealis, the northern lights normally only ever seen at far north latitudes, could be seen in the tropics – reports coming from places as far afield as Cuba and Hawaii. On the same night the Aurora Australis, the southern lights were on display. As far north as Santiago, Chile people stared in wonder, and perhaps a little dread. The New York Times wrote, the following day

“With this a beautiful tint of pink finally mingled. The clouds of this colour were most abundant to the North East and North West of the zenith… There they shot across one another, intermingling and deepening until the sky was painfully lurid”

You may wonder what on earth could cause such a thing. Some at the time, no doubt attributed it to the divine. Others at the time put forward suggestions which included volcanoes giving off a massive amount of gas all at once, or a meteor shower turning to a pink mush in our atmosphere. An amateur astronomer in Surrey, UK by the name of Richard Christopher Carrington had a pretty fair inkling what had caused the phenomenon. On the 28th August 1859 he had been staring out 150 million kilometers away, at the surface of our sun. for five years he had spent many an hour staring out to space, and had noticed solar flares – explosions of energy with an average power rating of 1,000 atomic bombs going off- before. Carrington observed a number of solar flares over the following day, till there was a particularly large one on September 1st. This was the one which caused what is now known as a Coronal Mass ejection. I’m not super clued into science (hence not Tales of Science and Imagination) but my understanding is the Corona is a huge ring of plasma which surrounds the sun – this is the halo you can see in a solar eclipse. Occasionally, when a solar flare is powerful enough, it ejects huge sums of plama out of the Corona, out into the wilds of space- often followed by a powerful wave of electro-magnetic energy. Of course we are on a tiny spheroid, a very long way from the sun. We rarely get hit, but this wave – hereafter known as the Carrington event – hurtled towards us, clearing 150 million kilometers in a little over 17 hours. At the time the experts of the day, Lord Kelvin included, dismissed Carrington’s explanation as preposterous. Over time he was proved Oll Korrect, in the Boston speak of the time. Carrington’s event would be the most powerful of it’s kind – scientific measurements of nitrogen levels in ice show, at least in the last 500 years, his solar storm was twice as powerful as the next most powerful event to hit the earth.

But what would happen if we got hit with a Carrington event part two? It would be pretty right? Free electricity? Well… this is how I got to thinking this story would make a good post.

Last weekend I got thinking about the precariousness of the ones and zeros which make up our lives so much these days. First it was going through a collection of CDs full of legal downloads from the iTunes store. When iTunes first came along I was an early adopter- and I spent a tonne of money on my music collection – several hundred CDs worth of music. In 2015 I was sent into a mad panic when my laptop died, taking many gigabytes of data with it. Of course the music library was still on the cloud – I could still download it when I got a new hard drive. I only got as far as the letter E. Spotify had been the new thing for a little while, and iTunes will be up there forever right? Last month Apple announced they were closing down the platform. A second incident jumped out at me – waiting round at my parents’ place to go out shopping with my mum, I stopped to look at the photo albums they have over there – actual physical wooden boxes, with glass covers, and wood bound volumes which sit like upside down files in a filing cabinet. Volume after volume of family memories, some going as far back as my great- grandparents. We may curate our lives in an almost hyper-graphic intensity these days, but you know there is something more ‘real’ to one of George Eastman’s kodak moments… or at the very least, less transitory. Well the scary news is, if Carrington part two happens we may well lose our cloud based existence as easily as I lost that hard drive. Add to this any travel requiring a GPS would be impossible, GPS would bite the dust. Satellites would become useless space junk. The electrical grid, wherever the CME hit, would become worthless as transformer after transformer blew. Potentially we could be plunged back into the past for years.

In a 2011 National Geographic article I read, Daniel Baker of The University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics estimated the costs of such an incident, if it hit the USA in 2011, at 2 Trillion dollars. Of course we have only become more reliant on vulnerable technologies – electronic banking among them – since then. Oh, and in 2012, that apocalyptic Mayan year, the Earth only narrowly avoided being hit by another CME almost as big as the solar storm of 1859.

This week’s Tale of History and Imagination is brought to you by well… anywhere which sells solar storm proof external hard drives I guess?

Catch you all next week, for another Tale. As always please share us around, like, comment.

Originally posted 19th July 2019 on the Tales of History and Imagination Facebook page. Copyright 2019 Simone T. Whitlow.

Lord Timothy Dexter

Jaques. “Is not this a rare fellow, my lord? He’s as good at any thing, and yet a fool.”
Duke Senior. “He uses his folly like a stalking-horse, and under the presentation of that he shoots his wit.”
William Shakespeare – As You Like It.

Hi folks welcome back to Tales of History and Imagination. This week I figured it was time to get back to a few one parters. Tonight’s piece is a re-working of a question I answered on Quora a few years ago. Generally most of my writing on that site was off the cuff – 15 minute compositions in quiet time, while I was temping at a job that often had an hour in the doldrums in the middle of the day, and managers who encouraged me to jump on a quiz site or answer a Quora question or two till the phones started ringing again. I did delete, or hide dozens of my answers after this job however in case it looked really bad to a prospective employer. This one is still up. The question that day was.

“Who is the most foolish person ever to live on Earth?”

Other answers were mostly stories of hubris – successful, seemingly clever folk who were doing well – till something stupid, or unfortunate happened. Some guy who let his dream girl get away. Politicians who found that power corrupts (to corrupt Lord Acton’s quote)…. One writer stated anyone who bought modern art – something which doesn’t sit too well with me, I love a lot of modern art – but I get what he means. Two Billionaires going to war over a work of art – the victor spending tens of millions is, in my opinion, not foolish so much as grotesque that two people would have that much money to buy something so functionally ‘useless’ (to corrupt Oscar Wilde’s quote). My thought process: let’s write a short piece on a world class dullard who succeeded in a huge way BECAUSE he was a fool. No folks, I am not taking a sly dig at the 45th president of America – May I present to you ‘Lord’ Timothy Dexter.

Timothy Dexter was born to a poor farming family in Malden, Massachusetts on January 22nd 1747. Seeing I am writing this on the 4th of July (in the USA at least) as a random aside the small town of Malden was an early antagonist of British taxation, and boycotted British tea in 1770. Back to Lord Dexter, his family barely subsisted on their farm, and took Timothy out of school, aged 8, to labour alongside his family. At the age of 16 the emancipated Timothy took off for the coastal city of Newburyport, Massachusetts, where he found work as an apprentice leather-dresser (a job which involved colouring and working tanned leather into a usable state). Aged 21 he met, and fell in love with Elizabeth Frothingham, an older, wealthy widow. Dexter gave up his job at the tannery and moved in to a house on the wealthy side of Newburyport.

How did the wealthy people of Newburyport see Timothy Dexter? Well, think back to the CBS TV series The Beverly Hillbillies – think of the snooty, nonplussed neighbours living next to Kirkeby Mansion, the house used for the series… and Dexter was a Clampett. The circles Dexter found himself moving in found him uncouth, poorly educated – not ‘one of us’. In the spirit of the ‘real housewives of…’ genre, rather than shun Dexter, they decided to be sly, and duplicitous, and feed him bad business advice till he had spent Elizabeth’s fortune, and had to move back to the poor side of town. How did that work out for them? Well… let’s say I could have answered ‘Lord’ Timothy to a Quora question ‘Who was the luckiest person ever to live on Earth?’

In 1775, tensions between Britain and the 13 colonies who would become the first version of the USA broke out into all out war. Needing funds to fight the redcoats, the Continental Congress began issuing paper money, known as ‘Continental currency’ to fill their war chest. They would issue around $241 million in these promissory notes. During the war of Independence these notes took a hiding and become all but worthless, in part down to some people expecting the British would win the war, but mostly cause the Continental Congress printed way too many of these dollars. There was a saying at the time ‘not worth a Continental’ for something of little or no value. At the start of the war Timothy had a little money to play with, and members of the wealthy set urged him to buy as many bills as he could. Dexter bought a lot of Continental currency, and in spite of expectations came out of the War of Independence extraordinarily wealthy. This scenario would play out time and time again.

Warming pans were a wonderful idea in places which had icy winters, long before we had electric blankets. One might imagine them worthless in the tropics. On bad advice Dexter began shipping them to the West Indies. They did become a massive seller there however, as a frying pan shaped object on a long pole was the perfect ladle to stir molasses with in the Caribbean nations. “While you’re at it why not sell them woolen mittens?” someone said, and Dexter, not understanding his incredible luck, sent container loads of mittens there. This time a passing merchant ship on its way up to Siberia saw an opportunity and bought the lot, selling them on for a healthy profit to the Cossacks who had begun colonizing the freezing Siberian Tundra a century and a half ago. What else could the Caribbean Islands need? “Cats would be a capital idea young Timothy! Who doesn’t love cats?” – I imagine a Milburn Drysdale type saying to him. Well I don’t know if they loved cats, but the many ships coming and going from the plantations had left the Caribbean with a rodent problem, and cats were just what they needed. On a whim Dexter bought a huge pile of whale bone, 340 tonnes of the stuff, not even knowing what he had bought. The following season corsets became all the rage on the continent, and again he made a killing.

One day someone said to Dexter, you should put all of your money into sending coal to Newcastle, England. Not knowing coal mining around Newcastle had been a huge part of the economy since the 13th century, and odds were the coal Dexter was looking to buy had come from there in the first place. Dexter sent boatloads back over. Luckily for him there was a miners strike at the time, and Newcastle needed the coal to power its industrial factories and boat yards. Again what should have been ruinous turned a handsome profit.

Now in middle age, Timothy spends some of his fortune on a mansion worthy of the Clampett clan, and began to decorate his home with gaudy wooden statues of great men from history. He took on the appellation ‘Lord’ claiming himself the first ‘lord of the younited states’. Though to date he seemed not to have questioned the advice of others, or picked up any sense of how much others loathed him, the penny began to drop for him. Ironically it appears to have been prompted out of his mistrust of a few recent, real friends he had picked up. In an effort to test them he faked his own death and plotted to watch the reaction of the crowd at the funeral. His family were in on the ruse, and were coached on how to mourn for him. The funeral was a massive affair, with over 3,000 attendees (mostly curious to hear a few stories about crazy old Lord Dexter). When Dexter saw his wife laughing and talking with people at the wake he lost it, and in the kitchen began to cane Mrs Dexter for not mourning him enough. This brought in onlookers and the game was up.

One final thing I should mention about Lord Dexter, towards the end of his life he wrote a book titled ‘A Pickle for the knowing ones or plain truth in a homespun dress’, a thankfully short book (it completely lacks punctuation, and some of the spellings are enough to make someone who studied medieval literature all through university (me) want to pull my hair out at times. The short version is Lord Timothy Dexter planned to leave his wisdom for others to wonder at, but instead complains about politicians, the church, and his wife. The book went through 8 editions, along the way picking up a page full of commas at the end, with instructions to “distribute them as you pleased”. If you are wondering the photo I sent out earlier in the week is an excerpt, and yes, the book is available for download on Google Books. If looking for unintentional comedy I will always recommend Pedro Carolino’s ‘English as She is Spoke’ before ‘A Pickle for the knowing ones’ but it is ok. Lord Timothy Dexter, the man who sold coals to Newcastle died October 23rd 1806 at the age of 59.

Thanks as always for checking out our page, and welcome to our new followers. As always folks please like, comment, share. Recommend Tales of History and Imagination to a friend who digs the quirkier stories from our past. Check in with us again next week for more Tales of History and Imagination – Simone.

Originally published 5th July 2019 on the Tales of History and Imagination Facebook page, based on an earlier piece I wrote for Quora. Copyright 2019 Simone T. Whitlow

Altamont, Part Four: The Ballad of Meredith Hunter.

Hi folks welcome back to our final episode on the Altamont Free concert of Dec 6th 1969, and the killing of Meredith Hunter. We have quite a bit to get through today. There are several elements I would love to break down further, but am skipping through a few things today so as to keep the train a rolling. If you have any questions please shout out below – I will answer best that I can.

I should also mention I almost put a simple black screen up as the main photo today. As a quick historical side note, English author Laurence Sterne first did something like this in 1759 in his novel ‘The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman’ – a character ‘Yorick’ (no, not the one from Hamlet) dies, followed by a black page… Alas poor Yorick! This seemed clever, then on reflection seemed a little tacky. Instead I went with one of the few photos I could find of Mr Hunter.

At the Skyview memorial lawn cemetary in East Vallejo, California, there is a simple grave – lot 63, grave c. The plot holds a young man killed in December 1969, and as of 2006, when film maker Sam Green made a short documentary, titled Lot 63, Grave C, the plot remained unmarked. It was hardly as if the young man didn’t have loved ones left in the wake of his killing, but they did not have much money – and were so heart broken by his death they kept their distance. His mother, Alta May Anderson, had struggled her whole life with schizophrenia, and the killing sent her into a tailspin. For years she turned to electro-convulsive therapy. From what I have read, after this she seemed a shell of her former self to her nearest and dearest. His sister, Dixie, could not bring herself to attend the murder case against her brother’s killer. She was heavily suspicious that in the case of a white man charged with killing a black man the white man would walk – a little on this later – and did not want to go through the pain of seeing this happen. A short, solidly built Hells Angel named Alan Passaro was tried for her brother’s murder, but would be acquitted.

It was Dixie who had plead with her brother, 18 year old Meredith Hunter, not to go to the Altamont Free Festival that day. She was not worried about biker gangs so much as that it was on the rural edges of Alameda County – a place which seemed to her somewhat regressive in it’s racial views. Remember that it is 1969. To add a little context, just six years prior, President John F Kennedy had ordered the National Guard in to the University of Alabama to arrest, if need be, Alabama’s Governor George Wallace. Wallace was physically blocking the entrance of two black students around the same age as Hunter, who were there to complete their student registration to the all white college. Wallace was a hair’s breath from arrest when he backed down. Five years prior, in Mississippi, three civil rights activists were detained and murdered while travelling through the area and enrolling black people to vote. Perhaps most pertinent in a way, and please note I am pulling a small handful of examples from a very disturbing history here, this was 14 years since a young boy from Chicago – Emmett Till – was kidnapped and tortured to death for daring to speak to a white woman who worked in a store – again in Mississippi. The act of miscegenation, of mingling of the races for sexual reasons, was thought bad enough by some that even an attempt to miscegenate was an offence worthy of a lynching. The teller’s husband, Roy Bryant and his friend J.W. Milam brutally murdered Till, and – being two white men having killed a young black boy, were also acquitted. I stress this case as, at the time Hunter was dating a young white woman called Patti Bredenhoft.

Hunter did pay some heed to his sister, packing the Smith and Wesson revolver in the boot of his step-father’s Mustang. He drove over to Patti’s and the two drove off for the concert. As a child I had heard he was a pimp, and Patti one of his girls – this is untrue – he was an Arts student. I had also heard he was way more fearless than he should have been maybe, having taken methamphetamine that day. The latter was true.

Picking up the tale from just after the Jefferson Airplane incident. The bikers had rocked up through the crowd on their hogs, just whizzing past Hunter and Bredenhoft. They were nearby when violence erupted out front and singer Marty Balin was knocked unconscious. Patti had, at this point, had enough and gone back to the car. Meredith wanted to hang around, and just prior to the Rolling Stones set decided he would head back in to catch them. The two had words, Meredith was the more forceful of the two. He grabbed his gun, and the two made their way back to the stage – what could go wrong?

What could go wrong? Everything, and it happened very quickly. Why it all unfolded is a little subject to guesswork – following the incident the president of the Oakland chapter Ralph ‘Sonny’ Barger did state on KSAN Radio San Francisco “When they (the concertgoers) started messing over our bikes they started it” He went on to say their bikes represented their everything. Was this wave of violence caused because someone tipped a bike over? In any case the Rolling Stones had only just began their set when the group of Hell’s Angels at the front of the stage advanced, again on the crowd, like a phalanx of Greek infantry. The crowd out front dispersed. Meredith Hunter had climbed atop a speaker cabinet at the side of the stage before this, and may have felt safe up there, but a Hell’s Angel reached up, grabbing him by the ear and throwing him to the ground. Hunter back peddled as best he could, trying to put some distance between him and his assailant. He drew his pistol and pointed it in the general direction of his assailant, when the heavy set Alan Passaro appeared on his left flank. Passaro grabbed his shooting hand, disarming him, then stabbed Hunter twice in the back. Hunter stumbled, with Passaro following him down, stabbing him all the way. A pack of five Hells Angels surrounded Hunter and laid into him.

Bredehoft struggled to stop one of the men, but was shrugged off. Hunter plead with them “I wasn’t going to shoot you” but the men laid into Hunter till he stopped moving. A young, brave bystander named Paul Cox did step up, doing his best to stop the assault, but was powerless. He did eventually manage to get Meredith Hunter away from the scene of the beating, and in to a medical tent. A helicopter was called in but he passed before the copter could arrive. Meredith Hunter was one of four fatalities that day, though the only one not to die as the result of an accident.

Post Altamont the zeitgeist changed considerably. No doubt this incident was just one of several to shock the American public – the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, April 4 and June 5 1968 respectively, the images coming out of Indochina and rising death toll – less I suspect the 3 million Vietnamese and similar numbers in Cambodia – but an eventual death toll of 58 thousand Americans, with a high number coming back wounded – Politicians refer to the Dover test when accepting one too many coffins had flown in to Dover Airforce base, well the Dover test had come some time back. In August 1969 a hippie ‘family’ led by Charles Manson had slaughtered Sharon Tate and the LaBiancas. With the trial of the Chicago Seven around the corner (long story short they were anti-war protesters involved in a violent battle with Mayor Richard Daley’s police force outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention), and the acceptance of a number of cultural icons to the 27 club soon after, it felt a little like things had gone from Bob Dylan’s The times are a changing, to 10 years after’s I’d like to change the world, but I don’t know what to do…
The hippie movement and flower power faded, and the 1970s would be much edgier.

Alan Passaro was charged with murder, and brought before a jury. The jury saw the film footage from the day, saw Passaro as a man who brought a knife to a gunfight and decided he had acted in self defence. Alan Passaro would, mysteriously, be found drowned in the Anderson Reservoir, Morgan Hill California in 1985 – a wad of cash totalling $10,000 on him at the time. He lays buried under an impressive gravestone, if the photo on Find a Grave is anything to go by.

I could not find much on Patti Bredehoft. She did give a 2005 interview to The Sunday Times, where she claimed not to have made much of her life – and of course discussed her infamous second date with Meredith Hunter. FYI their first date was to see The Temptations.

The Hell’s Angels blamed the Rolling Stones for the outcome of the concert, Keith Richards may have been well advised to carry a gun with him on their 1972 tour, and perhaps Bill Wyman was wise not to say too much. The Hells Angels did hatch a plot to assassinate Mick Jagger to get revenge. Their plan was to get a death squad together, get hold of a boat, and sail to his house on Long Island. On the day they planned this a storm set in and a group of Hells Angels eventually made it back to dock, feeling the worse for wear, and by accounts lucky not to have drowned. They gave up on killing Mick after this. This story made it to the FBI via an informant in their organisation in 1985, and was made public knowledge in 2008 – when Mick himself only just found out how lucky he had been.

Which brings me round to Mick Jagger himself – could he do better than Bill Wyman, on that Dick Cavett interview which started this cycle? In 1995 Rolling Stone Magazine’s Jann Wenner met with the Rolling Stone and asked the following.

“After the concert itself, when it became apparent that somebody got killed, how did you feel?” Jagger replied.
“Well awful. I mean, just awful. You feel a responsibility. How could it all have been so silly and wrong? But I didn’t think of these things that you guys thought of, you in the press: this great loss of innocence, this cathartic end of the era… I didn’t think any of that. That particular burden didn’t weigh on my mind. It was more how awful it was to have had this experience and how awful it was for someone to get killed…”

Thanks for tuning in guys. Next week I’ve got a short piece coming. Ever look at some slick sales person and think “they are so persuasive I bet they could sell coals to Newcastle”? Let’s do a quickie looking at how we’re all looking at that wrong. Sorry for the delay this week folks, I did get burned out from too much going on between the day job, the blog and writing for the podcast and put my typewriter away for a few days. Not long now. As always, like, comment, share – Simone

This Tale is part four of a four part series. To read the rest of this story click here for parts one, two and three.

This Tale is also Episode Four of Season One of the podcast. Click here to listen to the episode

Originally posted 30th June 2019 on the Tales of History and Imagination Facebook page. Copyright 2019 Simone T. Whitlow.

Altamont, Part Three: A large visible space…

Hi all welcome back to my series on Altamont. Last week we looked at how the concert came about. Tonight I want to look at what actually happened at The Altamont Free Concert. The easiest way I can think of breaking it down is to think of the elements as a recipe for disaster.

First add a hazy, dusty day, hanging over a drab, colourless landscape. Picture Woodstock in your mind’s eye, out at Max Yasgur’s farm. It is lush and verdant, till the sky opens, then it turned terribly muddy – but there is still something very ‘age of Aquarius’ about it. People tuning in to mother nature, love, music and narcotics. If you were a young searcher looking to find Rousseau’s hypothetical ‘State of nature’ before the world corrupted humanity, you could almost imagine it among those buzzed out, drenched, half naked kids, on that lush, green farm. Altamont? Not really. Grace Slick, of Jefferson Airplane described the feel

“The vibes were bad, something was very peculiar, not particularly bad, just real peculiar. It was that kind of hazy, abrasive day.” And yes, it looked it, just check out the photos from the first two weeks.

Next toss in a sprinkling of next to no preparation. With less than two days to prepare there is nowhere near enough in the way of toilets or medical tents. The stage could not be built up to a reasonable height, so it sat just four feet off the ground, in a dip. There were no security barriers to keep the concertgoers at a safe distance so someone took a ball of string and ran a single piece of string – not even thick string but a piece of twine – chest high, in front of the stage. To make up for the lack of barriers the Hells Angels were placed out front and centre to stop people getting too close. Initially this was by pushing them back, which escalated to punching and kicking, then on from there.

Now add to the mixture an expectation of 100,000 people, exceeded by twice this number. Stretched resources would suddenly be stretched beyond breaking point. One way in which this played out is The Hells Angels having to call in reinforcements. The reinforcements had nowhere to park their bikes but at the side of the stage – more on that later. Another way this led to disaster… well I should mention the final ingredient. Drugs and alcohol.

Now last time I mentioned the Hells Angels were paid in beer, and by all accounts they were mostly drunk early on in the day, leading to impaired decision making. Early on in the day a large amount of LSD, laced with speed got passed through the crowd. The crowd was full of people tripping all over the place, but the speed was giving many of them really bad trips. With far too few medical staff at the venue treatment was slow – and the preferred treatment at the time – the anti-psychotic drug Thorazine – ran out early on in the day, leaving many a concert goer strung out and increasingly paranoid in this hazy, dusty scene. Now mix ingredients.

I don’t think I could give a blow by blow account of the day. The short version though. Santana, the first act up got through their set with no major incidents, in spite of growing tensions between the crowd and the Hells Angels. Jefferson Airplane had barely gotten started when a flurry of violence broke out, out front. Rumour has it a concertgoer had knocked over one of the motorcycles at the side of the stage. The Hells Angels retaliated in a flurry of punches, and by bringing out pool cues, striking audience members. Vocalist Marty Balin jumped into the crowd to try to cool things down, only to be knocked unconscious by a gang member.
Guitarist Paul Kantner grabbed a microphone and addressed the crowd.
“Hey man, I’d like to mention that the Hell’s Angels just smashed Marty Balin in the face and knocked him out for a bit”
Sarcastically he addressed security “I’d like to thank you for that.”

A brooding- looking Hell’s Angel by the name of Bill Fritsch, himself apparently a former hippy, one time San Franciscan poet, one time left wing progressive, almost appeared in an art film called ‘Lucifer Rising’, till his scene was cut AND associate of Charles Manson- grabs a microphone and retorts
“Is this on? If you’re talking to me, I’m gonna talk to you.”
Kantner: “I’m not talking to you, I’m talking to the people who hit my lead singer in the head.”
Fritsch: “You’re talking to my people.”
Kantner: “Right.”
All the while Hells Angels trade blows with audience members in front of the stage.

Santana drummer Michael Shrieve reported back to the Grateful Dead what had just happened, and they decided they had seen enough. They packed up and got out of there.

Everyone calmed down again while country rock act the Flying Burrito Brothers played their set, but soon after violence erupted. Where early in the day medics were de-escalating bad trips, they were now dealing with a number of seriously wounded concert goers- the injury of the day, fractured skulls. Now to paint the Hells Angels as the only ones dishing out violence would be wrong. Denise Jewkes, singer for cult San Francisco rock band The Ace of Cups, in attendance as a fan, and then six months pregnant, was treated for a fractured skull – her injury the result of someone in the crowd throwing an empty bottle. As the violence erupted during the following sets. People were beaten with pool cues and bike chains. A woman was at one point dragged across the stage by her hair. A young man in a lime green suit wandered off to his car, a Ford Mustang, and popped the boot, grabbing a 22 calibre Smith and Wesson revolver. He headed back to the show, feeling more secure for his six shooter.

As night set in a helicopter carrying the stars of the show, The Rolling Stones, arrived. Their start time was delayed by the late arrival of Dick Cavett guest Bill Wyman – he had missed the copter. Out front it must’ve looked like a blood bath but the Stones were going to get out there and play regardless. The helicopter prepared to take off, now laden with members of Jefferson Airplane, ready to beat a hasty retreat. The Stones kicked off their set, the helicopter, now airborne, hovered for a second above the venue as a shaken Jefferson Airplane looked downwards. Journalist Joel Selvin describes the scene

“The pilot circled over the crowd for one last view of the stage. They looked down. The crowd in front of the stage spread apart before their eyes. A large, visible space opened and quickly closed up again. They watched as the mass of people spread apart and fused back together in a single seamless movement. They had no idea they had just witnessed the killing of Meredith Hunter”.

Ok folks, final part next week – As always, like, share, please comment 🙂 – Simone

This Tale is part three of a four part series. To read the rest of this story click here for parts one, two and four.

This Tale is also Episode Four of Season One of the podcast. Click here to listen to the episode

Originally posted 20th June 2019 on the Tales of History and Imagination Facebook page. Copyright 2019 Simone T. Whitlow.

Altamont Part Two: You Can’t Always Get What You Want

Hi folks welcome back to Tales of History and Imagination, in it’s new Wednesday timeslot. Tonight I am picking up where we left off on the Altamont Free Concert of December 6th 1969. Last week I took you through a shaggy dog tale about a 1972 television interview on the Dick Cavett show which caught my attention (FYI if you ever find yourself with a little time to kill his show makes for great watching). Tonight I want to look into how, and why the concert came about.

Now, when you think big, open air concerts in 1969, generally people think of another gig – one which has taken on legendary proportions – a little thing which came to be known as Woodstock – named after the town in Ulster, New York. Woodstock actually happened 43 miles (70 km) Southwest, on a 600 acre dairy farm in Bethel New York, but the advertising had already gone out, they quickly had to find a new spot. Anyway Bethel doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. 32 acts performed at Woodstock. 400,000 people attended. Despite the occasional bursts of rain people danced, got high – some involuntarily, put flowers in their hair. It took on the aura of being the high point of the hippie counterculture movement.

Of course some of this is us looking through rose tinted glasses at the 3 day concert – held August 15 – 18, 1969. On the morning of the 16th 17 year old Raymond Mizsak was accidentally run over by a tractor on its way to empty the port-a-pottys. He died before he could be airlifted to a local hospital. Were it not for a local company bringing in tonnes of Granola at the last minute there would have been a huge food problem – there was none put on. There was a ratio of 1 toilet to every 883 people. The traffic jam caused by the concert is still on record as one of the 10 worst traffic jams of all time. Pete Townshend beat up a stage invader with his guitar. In the aftermath the people of Bethel got rid of their town supervisor for letting the concert go ahead, at their first opportunity. They were not happy with all that peace, love and music. A couple of musicians playing the event were clearly buzzing from the experience however – not long after Woodstock, Jefferson Airplane’s Jorma Kaukonen and Spencer Dryden got together to talk about staging a similar gig, on the West Coast this time. While spit-balling ideas the idea to include the Grateful Dead – another band to play Woodstock – and The Rolling Stones – if anyone is unsure who they are? They were arguably the 2nd biggest band in the world behind The Beatles at the time, was suggested. Both bands signed up. The Stones likely because they had been criticized for their high ticket prices on their 1969 tour of the USA (this was to be a free concert, thus buying them some atonement). The Grateful Dead? Well they gigged incessantly, notching up over 2,300 concerts in their career. They had played the other two big, open air concerts of the 1960s – 1967’s Monterey Pop Festival and Woodstock. They also had, by most accounts a shocker of a set at Woodstock, so maybe this was to be their atonement for that?

With very little time to get the concert together the organizers scrambled to find a venue. San Jose State University (in the actual state of California) had a large practice field that had put on large concerts, but were not interested in renting out the field. San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park had been mooted, and sent out as the likely venue to the acts on the bill. There was a scheduling problem however – The night of the 6th December Kezar Stadium – which is located in a corner of the park, was booked for a football game between the San Francisco 49’ers and The Chicago Bears – if you are wondering the 49ers beat the Bears 42 to 21. This presented a logistical nightmare, to have two large activities going on there at the same time. Sears Point Raceway in Sonoma California looked promising but they run into two problems. First, the owners wanted $300,000 up front. Second, the owners were Filmways Inc – a film and TV production company, perhaps best known now as the creators of a lot of CBS ‘rural’ content – Mister Ed, Petticoat Junction, The Beverley Hillbillies, and my favorite of this list – Green Acres. Filmways also wanted to film and distribute the concert – but the Rolling Stones were filming a documentary film of their own, which came to be known as Gimme Shelter, so that was a no-go.
On the 4th December 1969 Altamont Speedway, a motor racing track in Tracy, California was suggested. Perhaps feeling beggers can’t be choosers, or should that be You Can’t Always Get what You Want? Altamont became the site for the gig. Logistically it was far from perfect – like Woodstock it had far too few toilets. Unlike Woodstock – oh I should add, at Woodstock there were medical tents galore – full of people who had cut feet, and many kids on bad acid trips, and legend has it a few kids who had burnt their eyeballs from staring into the sun while high – there was little room for medical tents at Altamont.

The stage was too low, something which meant that security would have to be situated, in force up front of the stage – just to stop fans from falling forwards onto the stage.

Now, onto security – As much as Mr Wyman had criticized the police presence up front at concerts on the Dick Cavett interview that started this tale, it would be The Hells Angels who were to provide security for the concert. They were hardly new to this kind of work, and had done security for many of the acts other shows before without incident. However a couple of other things may have added to the mix to make Altamont the mess it was. First, their agreement to handle security was pretty loose. The Rolling Stones then tour manager, Sam Cutler, stated
“The only agreement there ever was…The Angels would make sure nobody tampered with the generators”. There is a good chance they had no idea how much they would be required to do, at the poorly set out venue. They also agreed to be paid in $500.00 worth of beer, to be provided on the day for them – around $3,400 now – a fair amount really if provided in bulk, say in kegs?

OK, we’ve hit the 1,000 – 1,500 word mark, I will pick this up next Wednesday. It totally jumps out at me this topic, Spring Heeled Jack, and John Frum are all longer form and really should have been made as podcasts – after this one (and by my reckoning there will be 2 more parts, what actually happened, and a look into the real story of Meredith Hunter) I’ll start doing some shorter topics… then on the weeks in between the Podcasts! Just to update I am recording ‘Rough Men Stand Ready’ this weekend, hope to get the revamped ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’ done early next week, “Shoot you are only going to kill a man” I hope to have ready to go by the following weekend. Hopefully a few more scripts written ahead of launch too… these are only working titles by the way.

See you all next week, meantime please like, share, comment. – Simone

This Tale is part two of a four part series. To read the rest of this story click here for parts one, three and four.

This Tale is also Episode Four of Season One of the podcast. Click here to listen to the episode

Originally posted 12th June 2019 on the Tales of History and Imagination Facebook page. Copyright 2019 Simone T. Whitlow

Altamont, part one: That Dick Cavett interview…

Hi folks welcome back to Tales of History and imagination. Apologies ahead of time if this feels like a little too much of a teaser – this tale will be at least 2 parts, possibly 3. The upside however is I will be writing part 2 on Wednesday night… come hell or high water…. or another thunder storm knocking out my Google Mesh system, like it did this Wednesday just passed. I did have something else in mind for this week’s topic, but I was watching recordings of the Dick Cavett show on YouTube a few weeks ago and this jumped out at me. The episode in question was filmed in 1972. In one scene Dick is backstage at Madison Square Garden just prior to a show by the Rolling Stones. This was their first tour back in the USA since 1969. Dick Cavett is interviewing Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman, and he clearly has a topic on his mind that he must discuss.
Cavett “What’s running through your nervous system right now? Are you worried, are you scared? Do matinees give you the willies or anything?”
Wyman replies he is just tired. Cavett asks him would they play so many concerts so closely together in the future, Wyman replies they have done this many before. Cavett goes in for
“You’re still protected from the…” at which point Wyman either lets Cavett know his pause was an enjambement…. or maybe he just doesn’t want to talk about who he is still protected from, telling him he is just a little tired this tour.
Not done yet Cavett asks “I wonder what’s happened on this tour that made it this way?” Wyman replies
“Just the energy…”
Dick Cavett changes tack somewhat. He asks Bill Wyman if the age range in their audiences has changed. talks a little about Tom Jones and middle aged ladies. Is Bill a chain smoker? Would he go back to school if the Rolling Stones came to an end? who are all the children backstage? Bill Wyman relaxes into the conversation. Not yet done however… Cavett.
“Has there been anything on this trip that’s scared you, or any bad moments when you were worried that something was going to happen? ….. menacing…”
Wyman, after a drawn out, Freudian pause
“No, just seeing the cops beat kids up scares me sometimes you know”
“Was there much of that this time?”
“Not as much as usual but we have seen it. They seem to grab guys out of the audience, take them out and they go through a whole thing on the way with sticks and it’s pretty rough you know, they don’t deserve it.”
Cavett asks if too much security is a problem, Wyman replies that sometimes they “get up front and cause trouble”
Then Dick Cavett moves in, subtly in his deindividuation “the guys in the group” but all the same, he’s moving in for the kill just as surely as Tom Cruise’s Lt Kaffee swooped in on Jack Nicholson’s Col Jessup in A Few Good Men. This is his “Did you order the Code Red?” moment.
“Do you guys in the group talk about Altamont ever, and what happened there, or has it faded?”

“We talk about it yes, but, I’d sooner forget about it you know. It was just a very unfortunate thing. It was the last show of the tour and we all weren’t going to do it, it was just a live concert.. a free concert that was set up a few days before and – (long freudian pause) – I mean there was 300,000 people there, and there was only 30 people fighting. I mean almost all the audience never even saw it, didn’t even know what was going on you know?”

Now this little segment made me sit right up and reach for the tablet. Ok play that right back. Yes he was minimizing “what was going on” He passed the responsibility for this last concert to an unknown other as they almost weren’t going to play that day. Honestly, from a business perspective I can get that too, you wouldn’t want “what was going on” to define your band – Just think for a second if Great White came to town would you want to go and see them? Now if you said yes, would you still want to go see them if a nationally syndicated reporter asked them to recall the February 20th 2003 concert at the Station night club, Rhode Island where a fire started from malfunctioning pyrotechnics, set fire to the club, causing the deaths of 100 people and injury of a further 230? It puts me off.

What I can also see in Bill Wyman’s reply is that he does still think of Altamont, and probably very much doesn’t want to think about it. There is a look on his face like that day was the stuff of nightmares. Keith Richards had similarly gone on record to downplay the incident, but it was rumoured that during the 1972 tour he carried a loaded 38 caliber pistol with him at all times, just in case “the security”, oh and we are not talking about the police, sought revenge.

The Altamont Speedway Free Festival, at Altamont Speedway Northern California, December 6th 1969, had other acts lined up. Santana, Jefferson Airplane, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young were all on the bill too. The Grateful Dead were supposed to be the penultimate act, before the Rolling Stones helicoptered in to play their set, but they declined to get up there. Marty Balin, vocalist of Jefferson Airplane getting punched out by security was the final straw for them. Jerry Garcia, frontman of The Grateful Dead commented, in a British interview in 1970 that Woodstock and Altamont were “two sides of the same coin”.

“It’s like two ways that kind of expression can go of a huge number of people and no rules…One of the ways, obviously can go to a terrible bummer like Altamont, nd one of the other ways is to an immensely enjoyable scene like Woodstock. And they both had their extremes, but they were both, sort of characterized by this heaviness, this sort of historical heaviness”.
I can get that to be honest, to my mind Woodstock, August 15- 18 1969 seemed the cultural zenith of the 60s counter-culture, peace and love movement. The poster, “3 days of peace and music” a bird perched on a guitar neck seems so apt. Altamont, then, had to be it’s nadir – a scene out of Dante’s Inferno “Abandon all hope ye who enter here”

Sorry folks, I did warn you – quite a long intro and we’ve only just scratched the surface. I will be back to do part two THIS COMING WEDNESDAY!!! If my Google mesh has another freak out I will be typing this on the free Wifi at the Mobil station if I have to. Next episode talk of greed, security, free beer and the tragic story of the young man in the green suit, one Meredith Hunter.

This Tale is part one of a four part series. To read the rest of this story click here for parts two, three and four.

This Tale is also Episode Four of Season One of the podcast. Click here to listen to the episode.

Originally posted 9th June 2019 on the Tales of History and Imagination Facebook page. Copyright 2019 Simone T. Whitlow