Inspiration can come at you from so many ways. For me it sometimes comes in the form of a digression in a book that sticks in my head – I wonder why no-one has told THAT story, till I go chase down the rest of the tale. Sometimes something comes from a conversation you’ve had with someone else.
Sometimes the teenage you is looking through second hand cassettes in a 4 for $5 bin. You are planning to spend the afternoon hand writing a legible copy (I did not get my first computer till I was 22) of a university essay on Shakespeare’s ‘Measure for Measure’ from your completely illegible notes – and you may as well grab a seat in the AV lab, borrow a cassette player, and listen to a little music while you work. Among my picks that day was Stevie Ray Vaughan’s ‘Live Alive’, and on that album a cover song with a back story that has always fascinated me. I find the following quirky. I don’t intend any veiled commentary on society, no judgment or praise. I could make the point funerals are for the living, they often reflect the needs and wishes of those left behind, and why I think, most of the time that is OK – but I’ll leave it to you all to join any dots you see fit. I really just mean this as a quirky tale that found its way to me many moons ago.
Willie ‘Wimp’ Stokes jr. was a notorious figure among the underworld of Chicago’s South Side. Though at the time of his passing, Jet magazine listed him as a ‘flamboyant gambler’, and gamble he sure did – it would be reported later that he was a drug dealer working for his alleged kingpin father, William ‘Flukey’ Stokes. If one is thinking back to the Macks from my Christmas podcast, that is OK – I used a photo of Flukey to represent what a modern day mack looked like. One February night in 1984, Stokes Jr was gunned down on his way to a motel on the South Side. Though nowhere could I find any indication that anyone was arrested for the murder, it is to be noted the murder happened at a time when cheap crack cocaine was starting to flood the streets in many US cities, and a number of young gangsters were suddenly looking to elbow into the business – in spite of the few kingpins who had dominated the narcotics business for years. Stokes Jr, just 28 at the time, left a wife and five children behind.
Willie ‘the wimp’s father, Willie ‘Flukey’ Stokes, was also something of a flamboyant gambler – at least on his income tax forms he claimed most of his money came from gambling. He owned a pool hall – and was, at the time of his own death, reputed to be the owner of as many as 40 drug houses, employing around 200 people in his organization. Like his son he cut a flamboyant figure – silk suits, diamond rings with carat counts into the dozens – a taste for Cadillacs. Flukey, for all the damage his ‘gambling’ did in his community was beloved by most – he was well known in the neighborhood for acts of kindness to the elderly (bringing turkeys to pensioners) the poor (no strings attached financial assistance to many needy folk who approached him for help), and the unfortunate (helping re-house a family whose home had caught fire). All the same, at the time of his own death Stokes Snr was facing murder, conspiracy to murder and racketeering charges. He was also thought to be bringing in a million dollars a week from his drug houses.
So when Willie the wimp is gunned down, Flukey put on a funeral which caught the imagination of a number of journalists. There laid out in all his finery was the younger Willie – propped up at the wheel of a Cadillac coffin. Before Willie the wimp had been loaded into the coffin it had been taken to a local panel beaters, and had a genuine Cadillac front grille and boot added to it. Working front and tail lights were installed. A plastic windshield, a big floral steering wheel, a dashboard were added, as were four wheels to the chassis. All up it is believed the coffin, modelled after a 1984 Cadillac Seville, cost Stokes Snr around $7,000. It also had a vanity licence plate W.I.M.P. Willie himself was dressed in a hot pink three piece suit with a matching tie, a rather pimping looking hat, and a giant diamond ring just like his father wore. He went driving into the great unknown clutching what most newspapers report as a wad of $100 bills, and Flukey’s own biography claimed to be $1,000 notes.
When interviewed about the funeral Flukey advised “He (Wimp) had a brand new Cadillac every year for the past eight years or so… Furthermore, one year I was in debt and he sold his Cadillac to help me out, so I owed him one”. Willie the Wimp’s mother Jean added “I think he would have really liked it because that’s the way he was. He was flashy, and he believed in style”
Two years later Flukey Stokes would make the news again, after spending $200,000 on a lavish party to celebrate the 30th anniversary of his wedding to Jean. They hired the Staples Sisters and Chi-Lites to play, and Flukey threw $50 and $100 bills to the guests at one point in the night. It has always astonished me the party was held at the South Side motel where Willie the Wimp was gunned down. Not long after Flukey himself would be gunned down. Having just been acquitted of attempting to kill a rival drug boss, he was killed in a hit organized by his own bodyguard, on his way back from a night at the movies with his girlfriend.
One morning Texan musician and songwriter Bill Carter is reading the local paper, when an article grabs his attention. He shows it to his wife, and co-writer Ruth Ellsworth, commenting “This isn’t a column, it is a song”. That morning, on their two mile drive to the studio the songwriting partners have a song out of it, and cut the track that day. In the studio, Carter’s friend The Fabulous Thunderbirds Jimmy Vaughan, who lays down guitars on the track. Jimmy called his brother, blues legend Stevie Ray Vaughan that night, raving about how good a song Willie The Wimp (And His Cadillac Coffin) is. SRV agreed, adding the song to his live set. And that folks is that tale of Willie the Wimp Stokes.
(Originally titled The Deadly Sophxit of Count Konigsmarck and Princess Sophia Dorothea.)
Hi all the following tale is something I’ve had rattling round for a little while now. I have taken a few shots at writing it under the auspices of a whodunit, but I don’t think there’s any doubt who the murderers are. I then had another run – this time as a faux fairytale, an OG soap opera? I had a line from John Wilmott, Earl of Rochester kicking round in my head about his patron Charles II, and thought what about riffing off that; this is an example of what a crazy, swinging place Europe’s courts were in the late 17th Century after all… but I abandoned all of these.
Then Megxit happened; The Sussexes – Harry and Meghan – announced they were leaving ‘the firm’. In some quarters there was shock, and I understand there was an urgent family meeting. Harry didn’t get thrown into a cell in the Tower of London. There was no clandestine dash for the English channel (like the aforementioned Charles II after his defeat at the Battle of Worcester in 1651). No disguising himself as a servant. No hiding in oak trees for Harry. Public discourse re-centred on whether you wished them well, or thought them a pair of spoilt brats. This brought me back round to this tale again… Imagine you’re a deeply unhappy royal, but it is 1694. Does Sophxit play out any differently?
This tale begins on the evening of July 1st 1694. The setting, Hanover – a Germanic Duchy which would eventually be subsumed into a larger German nation, and whose first family would go on to be kind of a big deal. A handsome young man, aided only by moonlight, sails along the Leine river till he reaches the Leineschloss – the palatial riverside home of the duke and his family. He moors his boat, then cautiously enters the property. The man is Phillipp Christoph, Count Konigsmarck – an aristocratic German born Swede from a long line of mercenaries. His father had served King Gustav II Adolph in the 30 Years War, rising through the ranks to Field Marshall. Phillipp himself had fought the Turks for Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I. At this point in the tale however, he was under the employ of the Elector of Saxony. Tonight he’s been summoned to met his paramour – Sophia Dorothea, princess of Celle – the very unhappy wife of Duke Georg Ludwig.
Sophia, though surprised- she never summoned him – is ecstatic over his arrival. They haven’t seen each other for weeks. She is also a little perturbed and angered at ‘that woman’s’ gall. “Well, clearly she’s still spying on us” I imagine one saying “Never mind, in a day we’ll be out of this nightmare” the other may have replied. With rather less poetic license you can imagine the rest of their night – Konigsmarck had not come to play solitaire after all, nor Sophia to play old maid. I like to imagine Sophia enfolding the count in her arms as he left and whispering “keep safe, hell hath no fury and all” but that is a little anachronistic – Congreve would not publish ‘The Mourning Bride’ till 1697. This is the last time Sophia Dorothea would see Count Konigsmarck – in the following hours he would disappear from the face of the Earth, never to be seen again.
Joining ‘The Firm’.
To explain how Sophia Dorothea found herself in an unhappy marriage, I need to take us back a generation. The first fact worth knowing is there was no German nation in the modern sense until January 1871. People could be ethnically Germanic, but Germany was a collection of feudal states for most of it’s history. Until 1806, they were also overseen by a ‘Holy Roman Emperor’. From 1346 the Emperor was elected by a council from the Elector states – This is important to know later. The second fact is marriages of convenience were very much a thing in the 17th Century, particularly among the aristocrats. Third, this tale concerns two duchies, Brunswick- Celle and Brunswick- Luneberg, afterwards known simply as ‘Hanover’. These duchies were ruled over by two brothers. Fourth their leading citizens of the duchies wanted to see the two areas reunited one day. Now that is out of the way…
Sophia Dorothea’s father was a man named Duke Georg Wilhelm of Brunswick- Celle. Georg W had been engaged to a princess from the neighboring duchy of Rhineland Palatinate (her name was also Sophia, though she hardly gets a mention beyond this point), but he was desperate to stay a bachelor a little longer. He cancelled the engagement – passing her on to his brother, Ernst August, Duke of Brunswick Luneberg. The leading figures of Georg W’s duchy were furious, but when Georg signed a legal agreement stating he would never marry – and would pass his duchy to Ernst, (merging the duchies) on his death, all was forgiven. Georg was not exactly out of the firm, but was free to enjoy his newly acquired freedom. The problem was Cupid laid Georg W low after he crossed paths with the beautiful Frenchwoman Eleonore d’Olbreuse.
Georg immediately knew they must marry and start a family. His own duchy and brother Ernst were unimpressed, so Georg W approached Leopold I, Holy Roman Emperor for permission to marry Eleonore. Leopold gave his blessing, but many years after the fact– at this stage Georg and Eleonore had a child, Sophia Dorothea, now 10 years old. There was a caveat to Leopold’s blessing – Georg W had a daughter, Ernst a son (Georg L) – the two cousins would marry, uniting the duchies. This suited all, but the two cousins themselves, who detested each other.
Complicating matters further, both Georg L and his father Ernst were openly having affairs outside of their marriages. Given what transpires it is worth mentioning Georg L’s double standards with affairs. The key fact to take on however is Ernst, Sophia’s uncle-stepdad, was involved with a lady named Countess Platen.
The Konigsmarck brothers. We’ll come back to this lot in a second, but first let’s discuss Count Konigsmarck. He has quite a fraught backstory too. Konigsmarck was brought up at court, and knew the rest of this cast well. Both he and his brother, Karl, were sent to England in their mid teens, around 1680. They were sent off to learn courtly skills and mingle, but both brothers soon got into trouble. Phillipp’s trouble involved losing huge sums of money through gambling. Karl’s trouble was on a whole other level. The two brothers began associating with several high society Britons- including Charles II. Karl had become smitten with Elizabeth Seymour, Duchess of Somerset. Elizabeth was – you guessed it – caught in a loveless, arranged marriage to a wealthy, cheating husband – the wealthy landowner and MP Thomas Thynne. On 12th February 1682, Thynne was travelling in a carriage through Pall Mall, when three men with pistols – Christopher Vratz, John Stern and George Borosky gunned him down. The three men were captured, and named Karl Konigsmarck as the man who hired them to make the hit. The assassins would hang, Karl walked free – but both young men were outcasts in England from this point on. Both returned to Europe and joined Leopold’s army. Karl would be killed in action fighting the Turks in Greece in 1686. As an aside, not long after Thomas Thynne’s murder, a poem circulated through London.
“Here lies Tom Thynne of Longleat Hall Who ne’er would have miscarried; Had he married the woman he slept withal Or slept with the woman he married.”
Let the Dangerous Liaisons begin. In 1688, after eight years service in the wars with the Turks, Phillipp Konigsmarck returned to the court of what was then Hanover. The ladies of the court fell for this dashing, young soldier. He became a close friend and confidant of Sophia Dorothea – a sympathetic ear who would keep tales of Sophia’s horrible husband, hideous uncle/stepdad, and terrifying mistress of uncle/stepdad – Countess Platen, confidential. Konigsmarck also began an ill advised affair with Countess Platen himself.
The young count soon realized; one, he had fallen in love with princess Sophia – and two, Countess Platen is a dangerous lunatic he should have never become involved with. He took on a new military commission and left Hanover, hoping the countess would forget about him.
On his return to the court in the spring of 1690 he began wooing the princess. The countess, meanwhile resumed her wooing of the count. When left unrequited she hired spies to follow the couple, and intercept their letters. By 1693 Countess Platen stopped even attempting to repair the broken seals on the couple’s love letters. Phillipp resumed his affair with the countess, hoping to placate her; at the very least to stop her from spilling the beans on them. Phillipp and Sophia make the decision to run away together; to start a new life elsewhere- far away from courtly life. This presented a problem for the two. Phillipp was lousy with money, and currently broke – he had not been working, while wooing two ladies. Sophia, upon marrying Georg L, ceded all her possessions to her husband.
Phillipp took a commission with the elector of Saxony, in Dresden in May 1694. Sophia sat tight and waited for Phillipp to make some money. 1st July, at the urging of a counterfeit letter, Phillipp returned to Hanover. Possibly aware it was a trap, Phillipp had saved a month’s worth of wages. Most of the court were away at their summer house at the time – Georg. L included. Tomorrow morning they would run away – and begin a new, happier life together. The following day Count Konigsmarck was nowhere to be found. A distraught Sophia Dorothea eventually hears the scuttlebutt from the markets “the witches of Dresden…” lured Phillipp away.
So…. what happened? Let’s work through the facts – and suppositions – of the case. There are at least five possibilities. It’s generally accepted the counterfeit letter came from the countess. She had spies watching the couple, who reported to her that the couple were planning to abscond the following day. It is established fact also that Countess Platen informed her other lover, the uncle/stepdad Ernst, of the two lovers’ plan. Ernst ordered four cavaliers to arrest Count Konigsmarck immediately. The four men caught him outside the palace, swords were drawn. When the men eventually faced trial they claimed the count had drawn his sword, a fight broke out, and the count got stabbed to death in the melee.
What happened to the body? Who the hell knows? That is the real mystery. The four suspects were never on record on this matter. One theory has his body thrown into the Leine river, or immolated, or buried on the property. There was excitement in 2016 when bones were dug up on the site, but DNA proved the bones belonged to five separate men (none Phillipp) and a selection of animals.
Possibility one is simple as this, manslaughter. Count Konigsmarck, the battle hardened soldier of fortune thought he could fight his way out of an awkward situation and the four men got the better of him. It was, at most, a case of manslaughter.
Two, when Ernst August sent the cavaliers out to stop Konigsmarck, did he give the order to murder him before the elopement uncovered his dalliances, causing him embarrassment? He may have wanted him out of the way for this reason. Besides personal embarrassment, Hanover had only just been appointed an elector state, who help choose the Holy Roman Emperor. A scandal involving their royals may have jeopardized that position.
Three, well that ‘hell hath no fury’ motive is also out there. Countess Platen was jealous, and involved in high level stalking behaviour. She had laid this trap for the couple, does it not make sense to go that one step further. Did she kill Count Konigsmarck, solipsisticly to say ‘if I can’t have him, no-one can’?
Four, did Georg Ludwig know of the affair, and order the assassination? An elopement certainly would have left him a cuckold. Working counter to this, Georg L seemed unaware of the affair till after the affair was exposed. As soon as he heard, he divorced Sophia Dorothea. He exiled her to house arrest in Ahlden Castle, another family possession. She was kept prisoner until her death 32 years later. Here’s my reason to doubt Georg as the mastermind – he divorced and imprisoned her six months after Count Konigsmarck disappeared. Perhaps Georg was an endlessly patient man? I doubt it.
Now, I want to put a fifth suspect on the table – I said I would not mention her again – but I need to in order to tie this to the Sussexes at the very least. Ernst August’s wife, Sophia the elder, scorned by Georg W, and in what one would imagine as unhappy a marriage as anyone else in this tale – Her husband was cheating on her with Countess Platen after all – well she had a dream.
Discontent with her lot in life, married to a petty duke of a tiny duchy, she daydreamed of a time when herself, or her son would run the larger archipelago to the north-west. This did not seem such a crazy daydream. Her grandfather had been James I of England. In 1685 Charles II died leaving 14 illegitimate children, but no heirs. The crown passed to his brother James II, who was deposed in the ‘Glorious Rebellion’ of 1688. This saw a joint rule by James II’s daughter Mary, and the Dutch Import William of Orange. The line of succession had gotten a little complicated of late, and Sophia the elder’s daydream was seeming less and less blue sky thinking, more a genuine possibility – just so long as a giant scandal didn’t break out about her cheating husband, cheating daughter in law, and surrounding rogues gallery. I can’t count her in, but I certainly can’t ignore she too has a motive.
By 1702 both Mary and William of Orange had died. The crown passed to Mary’s sister – Anne. Anne fell pregnant 18 times – and suffered six miscarriages, five stillbirths, and none of her remaining children lived beyond two years of age. When Anne died on August 1st 1714, the crown passed to one Georg Ludwig, of an obscure German duchy, henceforth known as George I of England, whose family sit on the throne of England to this day.
How do I feel about the Sussexes and Megxit? Well, I am glad for the couple that it is 2020, not 1694 – and I wish them well.
“A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree, and he turns away. Show him facts and figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.” Leon Festinger- ‘When Prophecy Fails’
“The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones.” John Maynard Keynes – ‘The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money’.
Hi all welcome back to the blog. If you haven’t read last week’s blog on Sabbatai Zevi I’d suggest go check that out first. This week we’re headed in an arc back in that direction as the tale goes on.
Today we join our tale towards it’s climax, at a suburban home in Oak Park, Illinois. The time and date, 6pm, 21st December 1954. A dozen or so suburbanites – just regular Americans really – gather round the lady of the house, convinced she has supernatural powers. They’ve been camped out at the house for several days now. Many have sacrificed everything to be there. Earlier in the day they may have sung Christmas carols on the lawn to onlookers. They stood outside for some time, gazing skyward, hoping their visitor from Clarion, Sanada, would just arrive already. Perhaps feeling the glare of the camera, they retreated inside. If Sanada can traverse galaxies, surely he’ll have no trouble finding 847 West School Street.
The dozen or so people in the house believe the world will end tonight, deluged by a giant flood. They are the select few to be saved by an alien race who have looked down on Earth for eons. Curious onlookers and reporters have been gathered outside all day, waiting to see what happens, when nothing happens after all. Inside, amongst the believers, a small group of interlopers, led by the psychology lecturer Leon Festinger. The lady with the direct line to the aliens? Festinger identifies her as Mrs Marian Keech – in the years since she has been identified as Mrs Dorothy Martin. One presumes the other named figures in this tale are Noms de Plumes also.
Dorothy Martin was a woman who believed in various forms of mysticism. From a young age she’d been drawn to the Theosophical movement of Helena Blavatsky. This led to her studying an American offshoot which would influence later New Age spiritualist movements, Guy and Edna Ballard’s ‘I AM’ movement. From there she discovered ‘Oahspe: A New Bible’, a spiritualist tome, allegedly written by ‘automatic writing’ (where the writer is merely the conduit for a supernatural force providing them the information) by John Newbrough in 1882. This finally led Dorothy to Scientology. Something about the writings of it’s sci-fi author founder L. Ron Hubbard just clicked with her.
In April 1954 Martin begun trying to use automatic writing to speak with her deceased father. She, allegedly, found more than she was looking for. First she claimed earthbound spirits were speaking through her, but she soon claimed she was receiving ‘Astral messages’ from across the universe. First the mysterious ‘Elder Brother’ spoke through her, then aliens from the planets Clarion and Cerus. By mid April she claimed she was in constant contact with a Clarion alien called Sanada.
Word spread among other spiritualists of her conversations with Sanada, and Martin gained a small following. On 23rd July 1954 Sanada stated they would fly past Lyons Field on 1st August. A dozen people went to see the aliens. No-one saw a spacecraft that day, but Dorothy and a number of others recalled a strange man who stopped to speak with them. The man subsequently disappeared into thin air. While seven attendees walked, now convinced Dorothy was a grifter, the others were swayed by lecturer and former missionary ‘Dr. Thomas Armstrong’ and his wife that something strange happened. ‘That man was odd. He must have been one of them. He must’ve wiped our memories of the spacecraft right?’
2nd August Sanada wrote through Dorothy, confirming the doctor’s hypothesis. He also warned Dorothy, for the first time, something bad was about to happen.
Sanada wrote though her again on the 15th August. There wou soon be a huge flash of light in the sky, followed by a flood which would engulf North and South America. On the 27th August, Sanada stated the whole world would flood. He provided a date – 21st December 1954. Dr. Armstrong sent notice of the revelation to as many newspapers as he could. One paper, The Lake City Herald ran the story in a small article on their back page in late September. Professor Festinger happened to be reading the Herald that day. Spotting an opportunity to study the effects on a group of a strongly held belief being obliterated – surely there couldn’t be a great flood, let alone UFOs on the 21st? – he devised a plan to infiltrate the group.
In the months leading up to 21st December, Dorothy picked up several new followers…. besides Professor Festinger and his assistants. There was ‘Fred Purden’, a student who fell out with his parents over joining the group. He is so tied up in preparing for Armageddon he will flunk his whole year. There is ‘Laura Brooks’, who has given away all her earthly belongings – cause who needs Earth stuff on Clarion, right? – is new. ‘Susan Heath’, a fanatic who has fallen out badly with her dorm-mate and been banned by her college from proselyting, another acolyte. As the day draws near those who work made a pact to hand in their notice. ‘Mark Post’ walked out of the hardware store. ‘Edna Post’ was running a daycare centre – the extremely judgmental look from her boss makes is abundantly clear she has no job to return to if Sanada doesn’t come. ‘Bertha Blatsky’ packed in her job as a secretary. Dr. Armstrong is fired.
21st December played out as follows.
10:00 AM. Dorothy gets a message. “At the hour of midnight you shall be put into parked cars and taken to a place where ye shall be put aboard a porch(UFO)” Dorothy is told, be prepared for a message every hour on the hour. Throughout the day members arrive, the press set up. Onlookers gather and some well wishers pop into the house to wish them well on their journey. There are no messages from Sanada.
11.15 PM. A message from Sanada finally comes. He tells them to put on their overcoats and prepare to leave. They will send another message when they were overhead. Followers remove any metal on them, including underwires in their bras and zips, as forewarned by the aliens.
12.00 AM Nothing happens. 12.05 AM one of the followers notices one of the clocks on the wall still says 11.55, they all decide it mustn’t be midnight yet after all. 12:10 AM. Sanada sends a message, something akin to traffic is hell, will be there as soon as we can. 12:15 AM the phone rings. It is not ET phoning, but reporters. ‘What has happened?” ‘Have the aliens arrived yet?’
At 2 AM a younger follower leaves, stating his mother told him she would call the cops if he wasn’t back by 2. Unshaken, the others state this is probably a good thing, he had the least commitment of the group anyway. At 4 AM the first seeds of doubt crop up. One of the followers bitterly comments they have given up everything, burned every bridge. They know they should leave but have nothing to return to. They have to stay, till the bitter end.
At 4:45 AM FINALLY!!! A new message from the aliens. They are no longer coming, but wanted to explain how big a thing these believers did tonight. Through their show of great faith they have saved the planet. Earth will no longer flood – the people of Earth can thank them alone that humankind is again in God’s good graces.
5:00 AM, a P.S. from the aliens. This news is “…to be released immediately to the newspapers.” They do, finding little tidbits along the way which fit with their narrative. ‘There were small earthquakes in Italy, and California that night… they were the first rumblings of the great disaster Dorothy and her followers averted.
At this point – I should drop back in to the story on Sabbatai Zevi, to add a little bit of context I conveniently left out last time.
Sabbatai Zevi claimed a number of times that the world was coming to an end, and he was there to usher in a new, golden age. In 1648, when he first announced he was the true messiah, he also claimed the world was coming to an end. When thrown out of Smyrna, circa 1651, he had built up a large following – many of whom had sacrificed everything to follow him. Many physically followed him across Europe.
Going from strength to strength, a bandwagon effect happened. More people on board made it less crazy to follow the heretic. Add to this the more people gave, the more justifications came explaining why you should follow him. Tales arose of Sabbatai performing miracles. The movement took on a life of it’s own. By the time he returned to Smyrna to make his Jewish New Years speech (sorry I didn’t mention he went to Smyrna to make it) he was welcomed as a hero, a local boy made good, among the Jewish diaspora there. This built on top of his, already inflated, image.
With flow on effect on top of flow on effect, across Europe Jewish populations began to party. The messiah had come. He was going to defeat the Turks – then lead us back to Jerusalem. Many thousands of them packed up their belongings and made the pilgrimage to see the great Sabbatai Zevi. In cities where trade was largely dependent on the Jewish community, like Amsterdam and Hamburg, they all but ground to a halt.
When he was arrested and taken to Adrianople, Muslim citizens mocked the Jews in the streets with chants of “Is he coming, Is he coming?” If they didn’t feel committed to this guy yet, this mockery sure pushed some over the edge. To almost all the Jews this guy was their guy. Thousands of Jews picketed outside his prison, demanding his release. The assassination plot may have been the last straw, but Sultan Mehmet IV was feeling immense pressure over this. The last thing he wanted was a civil war or a bloody insurrection. The Turks saw their best chance to get out of this mess bloodlessly was to try to trick Sabbatai Zevi into converting to Islam.
And, when he did, of course a number of these ‘donmeh’ would follow suit. The longer you are committed to something, the harder it is to accept hard truths about that thing, or person. Even if this runs contrary to everything you have previously stood for. Did the absurdity of their conversion matter? No, because when one is suffering from cognitive dissonance – the word was coined by Prof. Festinger by the way – you find a way of bending reality to reflect your ‘facts’. It is dangerous to think of the cognitively dissonant as dumb – they are smart enough to seize little bits and pieces and dissimulate them into a narrative which matches their preferred reality. The post truth society is not a new thing – it pops into existence numerous times over history. It never really leaves us.
To re-iterate Leon Festinger’s quote at the top of this piece. Someone with a conviction is a hard person to change. Tell them you disagree, and they turn away. Show them facts and figures and they question your sources. Appeal to logic and they fail to see your point.
If only there were a figure in recent memory who epitomized this phenomenon.
The year is 1666, the setting Adrianople in the Ottoman Empire – modern day Turkey. A middle aged preacher named Sabbatai Zevi, held captive since his arrival there, mulls over a difficult choice. Tomorrow he will be brought before the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet IV and be told to make a choice, a Monty Hall problem if ever there was one – though in his case there is no ‘behind one door there is a car, behind the other two doors, goats’ option. If only there were goats. Every door, it seems had a ravenous tiger behind it- well figuratively. For close to a decade Zevi, a rogue Kabbalist rabbi, has been claiming to be the true son of God, and messiah. It is his proselytizing which has got him into this mess. Tomorrow he must choose instant execution, a trial by arrows or the turban. Before we speak a little on how he chose, first we should tell the tale which brought him here.
Sabbatai Zevi was born in Smyrna, Ottoman Empire in late July or early August 1626. He was born to a Sephardic Jewish family; meaning his ancestors had been given a similar Monty Hall problem in Spain or Portugal, following the Alhambra decree of 1492. The Christian rulers, having finally ousted the Umayyad Muslims, then turned to the region’s Jewish citizens and offered them the chance to 1. Convert to Christianity and stay, 2. Remain Jewish but abandon their belongings and leave immediately or 3. Be executed. Sabbatai’s ancestors chose to remain Jewish, and moved to the other end of the Mediterranean.
Sabbatai was intensely religious, studying to become a Rabbi. In his studies he discovered a series of mystic Jewish texts called the Kabballah – you may recall this was the sect Madonna became enamored with in the early 2000s. While, by and large Jewish in their tenor, these texts were heretical as they claimed to give the practitioner a direct line to God. In 1648 Sabbatai claimed he had spoken with God, and God revealed he was Sabbatai’s true father. He had been born to lead the Jewish people back to the Holy Lands, thus bringing about the end of days, and eternal life hereafter. When it became clear to the Rabbinate of Smyrna that this charismatic young heretic was getting a following they sent him packing. Ultimately this would not stop him.
Over the next few years the charismatic Zevi gathered a large following among the Jews of Europe and the Middle East, known as the Sabbateans. Sabbatai was hardly the first claimant for the title Jewish messiah in history, and would not be the last. He did however have some backing in Christendom, for their own, eschatological reasons. As Zevi was building his following, increasing numbers of Christians – often referred to as Millenarians, believed the world was about to come to an end. The victory of Puritanism in the English Civil War- Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army deposing and executing Charles I in 1649 had been a sign. The next sign would be when the 10 lost tribes of Israel returned to the Holy Land. These Christians did not believe Sabbatai was the messiah, but thought his success would bring on the return of their messiah – so they got in behind him. Both groups believed 1666 would be the year it all happened.
On Jewish New Year 1665, Sabbatai Zevi made a public statement, surrounded by his followers. The messiah was ready to start the revolution. He would travel to Constantinople
“riding on a lion, with a seven headed dragon in its jaws”
His second in charge Nathan of Gaza upped the ante, stating Sabbatai would place the Sultan’s crown on his own head. Well…. Little did he know how prophetic that statement would be. The Ottomans caught wind of the speech, and kept a close watch for his arrival. On arrival Sabbatai Zevi was arrested. It seemed initially he would simply be left to rot in jail, but a few months after he was jailed, Sabbatai was caught trying to order a hit on a rival Jewish messiah from within prison. The Vizier of Adrianople, the Sultan’s top administrator in the city, had him brought before himself. This is when Zevi was given his choice.
Door one, the Vizier ceases all messing around with him, Sabbatai would be impaled. This, by the way is effectively what happens if he makes no choice at all.
Behind door two? Well, Sabbatai claims to be the messiah, and to have supernatural powers. Tomorrow he can prove it to the Sultan. Zevi is to stand before a company of archers while they empty their quivers into him. A son of God can surely stop all the arrows in mid air right?
Door three, since Sabbatai has shown such interest in the Sultan’s headwear, he will find one of the Sultan’s turbans laid out for him on a table. Put on the Sultan’s ‘crown’ accepting if you do you will be renouncing your claims to divinity, and your Jewish faith. In doing so you will be converting to Islam.
Well, maybe this option is more car than goat- or raging tiger. The turban comes with a fancy house, a big salary, and a job with very few duties. Before you scroll down, dear reader- first, what would you choose? In Zevi’s place are your beliefs worth dying for? Second how do you think he chose?
Short answer, Sabbatai Zevi was no martyr, he picked up the turban, adjusted it to make sure it wasn’t crooked, then went into the next room to say hello to Sultan Mehmet IV, his new boss.
Now there is a coda worth mentioning, as it relates to something in next week’s blog. I will explain it in that episode, but for now I mention it in passing. What happened to the Sabbateans? Surely there were mass suicides, riots, disavowals of the Messiah? Actually a large number of the followers also converted to Islam, adopting the name ‘the Donmeh’. Sects of donmeh are still around today.
This Tale is a script for an episode of the Tales of History and Imagination podcast. Click here for the episode
Act III Looking back at the aftermath of the eruption, it had worldwide ramifications on crops, which led to famine and disease all over the globe. The deaths from starvation have been estimated at around a million, but when you add the death toll from disease, especially the cholera epidemic which spread much more freely because of the disaster – the death toll in the aftermath may be as high as 10 million. In China the unseasonable weather killed off large numbers of trees, crops, water buffalo, and people. Changes in weather patterns caused the Yangtze basin to flood. This does not seem one of the bigger floods the basin has had throughout history, but it certainly added to the misery of the year without a summer.
Torrential downpours throughout south and central Asia allowed localized cholera outbreaks to spread like wildfire – all the way from Bengal to Moscow. Europe was at the tail end of the Little Ice Age when Tambora exploded – and this still had massive effects, causing crop failures across the continent – from riots in Switzerland, protests in France, Germany and Ireland. Climate change refugees in Wales packed up their belongings en-masse and headed for the towns and cities of England looking for opportunities. The Irish, decades away from a worse famine still were hit heavily. Eight weeks of non-stop rain ruined crops, and led to a typhus epidemic across Ireland which took an estimated 100,000 lives. What crops did survive became costly commodities. Now oats were a favorite for horses – much needed for transport and agriculture at this time. Suddenly it became extremely costly to keep a horse. Many horses subsequently were put down.
In Germany post Tambora, necessity proved the mother of invention for a German Baron and civil servant named Karl Von Drais. Drais was a prolific inventor who tried his hand at numerous inventions including an early version of the typewriter. He also worked as a forestry official. A responsibility of his job was to go round the forest checking the tree stands- platforms from which hunters could shoot from – were still safe. One day while thinking about how long a distance it was to walk from tree stand to tree stand, Drais comes up with an idea.
Now, to say Karl Von Drais invented the bicycle is not entirely accurate. In 1790 or 91 a French aristocrat named Comte Mede de Sivrac was reputed to have made the first wooden horse. Named the Celerifere, then later the Velocifere, these vehicles were two wheeled contraptions with no steering wheel, and no pedals. This meant sitting along the crossbar and building up momentum by running like you were Fred Flintstone in his car, then picking your feet up as the bike got some momentum. To turn you had to pull a wheelie and place the wheel back down in the direction you hoped to go. These devices were very popular among a set of people who liked to have races down long, paved roads like the French Champs Elysees. Drais innovated on the velocifere, adding a turnable front wheel, a padded seat, and padded elbow rets allowing the rider to put more weight on the vehicle. His bike, first developed in 1817, and exhibited the following year was called the Laufmaschine, later the velocipede. On its first test Drais too the bike out on a 14 kilometer roundtrip ride, and made the journey in a little over an hour.
The laufmaschine was definitely a step in the right direction, but only had limited appeal. To develop a new technology is a great thing, but if the infrastructure is not quite there is can prove troublesome. Most of the roads at the time were unpaved, and deeply scarred by track marks for carriages. Riding a bike along the more worn roads was quite dangerous. Many figured it was safer to ride them along footpaths. It was safer for riders, but not so much for pedestrians. While the ‘dandy-horse’ enjoyed some initial popularity, safety concerns saw them banned from the USA to Britain, Germany, and parts of India, something we are now seeing in cities around the world with electric scooters. This did Baron Von Drais no favours, nor did his growing sense of empathy for the proletariat, leading to his denunciation of his title, growing rifts with society, and eventual death in poverty in Baden in 1851. Coincidentally two blocks down the road from a then six year old Carl Benz. Drais’ idea would be picked up however.
In 1839 a Scottish inventor named Kirkpatrick MacMillan is believed to have invented a mechanism allowing riders to pedal a velocipede, however the design did not take. In 1863 a French blacksmith called Ernest Michaux did away with Flintstones motion by adding a rotary crank with two pedals to the front wheel of a velocipede, creating the first modern bicycle. While these bikes were also popular at first – in 1868 in the USA it was noted a few coach makers began mass producing bikes, young students at Harvard and Yale universities fell in love with the bicycle, and riding schools popped up everywhere – the bike was still too cumbersome for most, and many cities were unwilling to lift their bans of the bicycle.
In 1871 British engineer James Starley innovated by creating a much faster, lighter, more efficient bicycle. Often referred to as the Ordinary – Starley had named it the Ariel – but better known, owing to it’s large front wheel and smaller back wheel as a penny farthing (in reference to the big penny and smaller farthing). Starley’s bicycle was a big step up, in more ways than one – and spurred a resurgence in the late 1870s.
The danger in taking a header, to tumble head first over the handlebars, still had many concerned. Various inventors worked to build a safety bike, which put the rider on two wheels of the same size, and moved the gears to the back wheel via a chain. James Starley’s nephew, John Kemp Starley finally broke the mold in 1885 with the Rover Safety bike – the great precursor of most of the bikes we ride today.
There is so much could be said about the bicycle. Perhaps that it allowed women a level of freedom of movement in western societies, which helped the first wave feminists- especially after the safety bike – coordinate better. Despite moral panics, men often claiming riding a bicycle could cause ‘bicycle face’ effectively something like telling a child not to pull faces in case the wind changes and they get stuck that way- the pioneering feminists took to their bikes, and won the right to vote, in some cases property rights, the right to their own earnings, run their own businesses and enter professions. One could point out, bicycles led to employees being able to move further away from their places of employment – which in turn led to the rise of suburban living, and all the good and bad that entails. You could make a point that as bicycles became really popular in the 1880s, governments finally began throwing some serious money behind laying paved roads everywhere. The aforementioned Mr Benz’s invention, the motorcar only around the corner; and with the limitations of rail becoming apparent by this time bikes literally paved the way for the later automotive boom. One could point out a story of two brothers, bicycle builders by trade, using their expertise to create, and test an incredible flying machine at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina on December 17th 1903. One could also point out another bicycle maker in New Zealand, 25 year old Richard Pearse, used his expertise to probably beat the Wright brothers to the punch, on March 31st 1903.
I am very wary of overselling the upside to Mount Tambora in this act – make no mistake all up over 10 million people died as a result of the eruption, and subsequent year without a summer – but it did create a need, and necessity being the mother of invention, we did step up. That one invention did help usher in important steps towards a more equal society, gave many freedom to roam, and helped usher in the transport innovations of the 20th century.
OK, let’s make this final act a short one. To borrow from the godmother of rock and roll, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, during the year without a summer there were strange things happening every day. During the long long winter Hungary had brown snow. Red snow fell, intermittently in the north of what is now Italy. To anyone in the vicinity of the recent Australian bushfires, including New Zealanders on 5th January 2020 when the sky turned an unbelievable amber hue – the sunsets were otherworldly in the year without a summer. In the North East of the USA, particularly around New England strange things were happening every day. Throughout spring and summer 1816 a ‘dry fog’ settled over much of the area, turning the sky red all day long. Wind wouldn’t move the fog on, nor would rain dampen it. On June 6th 1816 snow fell in Albany, New York and Dennysville, Maine – in the middle of what would usually be summer. Frosts settled in the fields, particularly in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and upstate New York; ruining crops throughout the region, as early as May 1816. In July ice began to form in rivers and lakes in Pennsylvania. By August 1816 frosts were killing two thirds of corn crops as far south as Virginia – including recently retired president Thomas Jefferson’s plantation, Monticello. This upheaval was a major push factor leading to many farming families packing their lives into wagons and heading for pastures new.
In Norwich, Vermont the Smith family, previously from Sharon, Vermont and struggling as it was to maintain their 100 acre farm, were driven off the land due to crop failure. Mr Smith senior had set his stop loss point as a third year of ruined crops, and the year without a summer obliged. By March their apricot trees had been hit by a heavy frost, and all crops were wiped out. The Smiths headed for Palmyra, New York, a 300 mile journey in the middle of the summer snowstorms. One of the Smith family, Joseph Jr, hobbling all the way on crutches, due to a bone infection caught several years earlier.
Now I’m not going to explore this one too much further, as it has always been supposition the year without a summer had a massive impact on young Joseph, and the turn he would make a little later in life – just imagine if the world suddenly turned surreal, and if you were religiously inclined. Imagine maybe you weren’t terribly religious, but lived in a time when science could not explain the supposedly eschatological weather raging across the world – well something like the year without a summer my just provide you with your Damascene moment.
The Smith family made their way down to Palmyra, in the midst of an area which became known as the ‘Burned over district’ – a collection of towns in the west of the state, which became populated by many evacuees from New England whose farms had failed, and some of whom had divergent religious beliefs to begin with – and who became a hotbed in the years following for what came to be known as ‘the second great awakening – a radical, largely protestant religious revival in the area.
Joseph Smith was a little different from these groups. In the spring of 1820, Smith would later claim he was wandering through a place he would later name ‘the sacred grove’. He was wondering just which newfangled religious group he should join when he claims some great evil nearly overcame him – but literally Deus ex machina, God and Jesus flew down from the heavens to tell him not to join any of them, because they were all fakes. Of course in 1823 an angel called Moroni apparently flew down to tell him of a new bible he himself must bring into existence, via a golden book, a magical breastplate, and magic stones which had been buried in a hill near his home.
This Joseph Smith, fifth son of Joseph Smith Snr, charged over his life multiple times for dishonesty offences and disorderly behavior. The man who conspired to murder a Missouri Governor, and who would meet his own end being shot to death by an angry mob while held in jail for treason- would go on to create the Mormon church. Perhaps I have not dug deeply enough into the man’s writings to say Smith himself listed 1816 as an influence on his philosophical outlook, but one has to wonder. What can be said for certain is the resettlement caused by Mt Tambora in the Northeastern United States created an enclave of religious radicalism – from which the church of latter day saints emerged.
Ok folks that’s this episode. The podcast will be back in two months’ time, while I write the next season, get some incidental music for the show, and start promoting this season. In the meantime I have two months’ worth of weekly blogs scheduled to publish every Tuesday 10am New Zealand time at historyandimagination.com. As always, thanks for tuning in. If you liked this episode please share with anyone you think will enjoy the show. Let’s get this channel growing. Music by New Zealand’s Ishtar. See you again soon.
This Tale is part two of a two part series. To read the rest of this story click here