Monthly Archives: October 2020

The macabre death of Antoine Lavoisier

Hi folks this week I am sharing a rather macabre tale. I should state up front, while this tale features a real, historical figure and his death, it could very well be a tall tale. Please proceed with caution dear reader. Take this with a grain of salt. Today’s tale revolves around the final moments of Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier (26 August 1743 – 8 May 1794), aristocrat, philanthropist, and father of modern chemistry.

Among his achievements, Lavoisier defined the properties of a number of elements and set the stage for the periodic table. He was partially responsible for the metric system of measurement. Lavoisier was a campaigner for social change, advocating for better street lights in Paris, an aqueduct to bring Parisians clean water, and for cleaner air – Lavoisier believed gun powder particularly was a pollutant and dangerous to people in ways beyond the obvious. He was a man who understood the importance of science in his, and future societies – founding two schools – the Lycee Lavoisier, and the Musée des Arts et Metiers.

Antoine Lavoisier

Unfortunately Antoine Lavoisier also lived in the time of the French Revolution. His scientific and humanitarian work should have granted him immunity from mob justice, but he owned shares in The Ferme Générale – the company who collected taxes for the crown. With poverty and taxation driving forces behind the revolution, the last thing you wanted to be come the reign of terror was a tax collector, or profiteer from public taxes.

On 24th November 1793 Lavoisier was among a group of 28 citizens arrested for tax fraud. Found guilty, he was sentenced to be executed on 8th May 1794. Lavoisier allegedly begged for clemency due to his scientific accomplishments and public works, but the judge was alleged to have said “La revolution ńà pas besoin de savants” – the revolution does not need scholars. The revolution didn’t need stenographers either apparently, so we have to trust the eyewitness accounts …. but there is something of the spirit of the reign of terror in the judge’s comment is there not?

The method of execution would be the guillotine – a newfangled decapitation device proposed as a more humane alternative to the axe, by the physician and politician Joseph-Ignace Guillotin. It was designed by another French physician, Antoine Louis. It should be noted there were earlier machines of a similar type, the 16th century Halifax Gibbet the notable example. Under the shadow of the blade, legend has it, Antoine Lavoisier had one final experiment to carry out. The following, if true, seems absolutely horrific to me – just imagine all those thousands of victims of the guillotine, in the wake of their apparent demise.

Lavoisier’s final experiment sought to answer the question what happens to a human being after their head is separated from their body? The ultimate answer is clear, but does the shock of the blade instantly end them, or does a head look up in silent horror at it’s decapitated body for a time? History is full of urban legends on the subject, all easily dismissable. Mary Queen of Scots’ lips allegedly kept moving for fifteen minutes after her beheading. Today we might put that down to the last bursts of nerves and synapses, in her time people wondered what she was trying to tell them. Similarly it was claimed Sir Everard Digby, conspirator in the Gunpowder plot to kill Mary Queen of Scot’s son, James I, loudly proclaimed his innocence for some time after his noggin was cleft from his body. Antoine Lavoisier proposed to answer this question by blinking once a second for as long as he could.

On 8th May 1794, an assistant nearby to conduct his final experiment, Lavoisier kneeled down under the blade and steeled himself for the deadly impact. The blade fell. The assistant knelt down and began to count
“Un- duex – trois – quatre… still blinking…. Sinq – six – sept – huit -nuef – dix. I have no idea if the assistant counted ‘Mississippi’s’ or not in between – onze Mississippi- douze Mississippi – treize Mississippi … but it is believed Lavoisier blinked up to 20 times before he expired. Whether there is any truth in this is anyone’s guess- though it seems far more likely than the account of Charlotte Corday, the assassin who stabbed the pro revolution polemicist Jean-Paul Marat while he took a bath. In the wake of her execution her cheeks allegedly flushed red with indignation. Cardiologists state a brain can survive four seconds without blood flow if decapitated from a standing position, and up to twelve seconds if reclined when the blade fell.

France would use the guillotine as a form of execution from 25th April 1792 to September 10 1977 – the final execution one Hamida Djandoubi, a Tunisian national who tortured and murdered his ex-girlfriend, Elisabeth Bousquet. They would officially abolish execution by guillotine in September 1981.

Hamida Djandoubi, the last person guilotined by the French.

Originally published 21st February 2019 on the Tales of History and Imagination Facebook. Copyright 2019 Simone T. Whitlow

Robert the Bruce and the Spider

Hi all just a quick note today. I normally do mini tales like this on the social media accounts – sometimes weekly, and try to keep the blog for blog posts, but I’m mindful the page is getting a lot of traffic from other places at the moment.

This man is Robert the Bruce, (1274 – 1329). In 1306 he was crowned King of Scotland, and would go on to throw off the shackles of English rule. His decisive moment, the Battle of Bannockburn, 23 – 24 June 1314, where Edward II’s much larger force was destroyed by the Scots. His victory was fraught with struggle, with a few missteps and defeats.

There’s a legend, if true it lacks things like dates which could classify it as history – that after an early defeat from which he was lucky to survive – Robert the Bruce hid out in a cave for three months. Utterly dejected, and thinking of fleeing for the continent, Robert observed a spider weaving a web. The spider would run a line out, then pitch off for another angle. Sometimes it succeeded. Often it failed, crashing to the ground. Every time the spider would dust itself off and get back on the web though, till it had the entranceway covered.
It’s said, most notably by 19th century author Sir Walter Scott, Robert the Bruce learned a lesson in the cave, telling his followers “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again” while recalling the spider to them. I’m choosing to ignore that particular phrase seems to come from an educationalist called Thomas Palmer, in the 19th century… and choosing to ignore that Robbie probably had to knock down the spider’s handiwork so he could escape the cave. One could conclude a spider can achieve just fine – till some lumbering man with a sword comes through, knocking your whole web down.
But I will leave it to you to cast those lines. I’m really only using the tale as a plot device to say I’m planning a little casting myself in November – not lines but pods. I’ve felt quite unhappy about my own attempts to run a Tales of History and Imagination podcast in the past – The format of those first few episodes is far from great. As some aspects tightened up, I all but lost my voice… then it appears I went and hid in a cave for a while. In November I’m putting together a series of ten podcast episodes, and we’ll see how it goes from there. The plan at the moment is to record and mix a season at a time during four week breaks from the blog – and material from the blog to mostly fill the podcast. I’m hoping to get some blog posts in reserve over the Christmas break, so the blogs are seamless moving forwards.

Spotify signing Joe Rogan to their platform, then announcing they suddenly had podcasts (well, you know, they’ve had podcasts on there for years) has led to a spike in clicks on the old episodes, and has lit a fire under me in this regard. Otherwise I’d have left this till Christmas/New Year.

In the meantime, check out my Daily Halloween series, from tomorrow, till Halloween itself, 10am New Zealand time. – Simone.

Samuel Parnell and the fight for the 8 hour workday

Hi all I feel like telling a local tale for once this week. Please be prepared, dear reader, for one this will feature more New Zealanders than normal on this channel… for another it won’t be the usual quirky, obscure or horrible fare I peddle most weeks.

The man in the featured photo today may be familiar to some Kiwis out there, if not, his name was Samuel Parnell – and we owe him a huge debt of gratitude.

Parnell was born in London in 1810. Though from a wealthy family, he gravitated towards a career as a tradesman – apprenticing as a carpenter. He trained at a time of increasing militancy from the growing trade union movement. You see unions were outlawed during the Napoleonic wars, and the immediate years afterwards – the country needed to present a united front to Bonaparte if they ever hoped to defeat him – but that ban was lifted in 1824, and unions popped up all over the sceptered isle. I would not do the topic, or my subject, justice here to attempt to summarize- but in 1834 Parnell came out of his time and took a job at a large joinery firm in Holborn. At around the same time the case of the Tolpuddle Martyrs brought a lot of disparate unions together under the Utopian Socialist Robert Owen and his Grand National Consolidated Trades Union.

The Tolpuddle Martyrs were a group of six agricultural workers from Tolpuddle, Dorset who took an oath to a union organization – and were arrested and deported to Australia for their troubles. The backlash was massive, and intense – and the crown eventually relented, repatriating the six back to the United Kingdom. Most of the group returned in 1838; all but James Hammett – detained on assault charges, and sent home in 1839.

This iteration of unionism would lose steam in the late 1830s however, as Chartism – the call for the right to vote for all men over 21 (without criminal convictions, or a mental illness so not quite universal) – overtook the movement for several years. It was in this brief flowering, and petering off of the unions that Parnell grew to maturity in.

From the get-go Samuel Parnell hated giving 12 to 14 hours a day, six days a week to his employer. One can understand this – in an age where working lives were still brutish and short, where does leisure fit into a life, let alone a work week? He approached the union, but the union refused to back his crusade for a shorter work day. Parnell left his job to pursue self employment. In 1839 he fell in love with Mary Ann Canham and soon married. 11 days later the couple set sail for Wellington, New Zealand aboard The Duke of Roxburgh.

1840 sketch of Petone by Captain W. Mein- Smith.

On 8th February the ship anchored at Britannia Beach – now called Petone. A shipping agent named George Hunter struck up a conversation with Parnell. Hunter needed to build a store, so he could launch his business. He heard Mr Parnell was handy with a hammer and a chisel. Parnell’s reply has become New Zealand lore.

I will do my best” Parnell stated “but I must make this condition, Mr. Hunter, that on the job the hours shall only be eight for the day … There are twenty-four hours per day given us; eight of these should be for work, eight for sleep, and the remaining eight for recreation and in which for men to do what little things they want for themselves. I am ready to start to-morrow morning at eight o’clock, but it must be on these terms or none at all”

A little flustered, Hunter retorted

“You know Mr. Parnell, that in London the bell rang at six o’clock, and if a man was not there ready to turn to he lost a quarter of a day”

We’re not in London” was Parnell’s reply.


Sometimes origin stories are as simple as this – Parnell later commented “the first strike for eight hours a-day the world has ever seen, was settled on the spot”. This is, of course, a little disingenuous of me – the concept of ‘8 hours labour , 8 hours recreation, and 8 hours rest’ was something Parnell borrowed from Robert Owen – Owen first articulating the idea in these specific words in 1817. Newly established employers fought against the eight hour day, employees adopted the eight hour day en-masse – the small populations of Europeans in New Zealand, and shortage of skilled workers particularly, gave the workers an advantage. Parnell remained actively involved in the spread of the concept.

It is also fair to say I’m mythologizing, were I to present New Zealand as some workers’ paradise thereafter – unions had numerous other battles to fight, some as bloody and costly as the battles fought overseas. The 1912 Waihi gold miners strike – fought over low pay and work conditions which led to very few miners ever seeing their 40th birthdays – escalated till 10% of News Zealand’s police force were sent in. In a gunfight between miners and police, 12th November 1912, a miner named Fred Evans was killed and a couple of police officers wounded. The 1951 Waterfront dispute – a strike action which ran for 151 days, after decades of conflict between dock workers and employers, clamed no lives but was similarly violent. Unions continue to fight for workers rights, employers for more from the workers, at lower wages. For now, let’s not make the great the enemy of the good, however. Back to Mr Parnell…

the 1951 Waterside dispute.

In the 1870s concepts of an 8 hour day, or 40 hour work week increasingly became a goal of unions across the globe. People started to look for ground zero of the 8 hour work day in practice, and Samuel Parnell, quite rightly I believe, asserted himself as the originator, stating in an 1878 letter to the New Zealand times ‘The eight-hours system was established in New Zealand in the year 1840, either in February or March, by myself’.

In 1890, the 50th anniversary of the 8 hour work day in New Zealand, the New Zealand labour unions honoured Parnell, parading through Wellington in his honour – Parnell given pride of place on a horse drawn carriage. He would die later that year, the labour movement honouring him in death with a large funeral procession.

We have observed Labour day in New Zealand on the fourth Monday of October, annually since 1900. Regardless of political affiliation, or lack of downwards movement in work hours (John Maynard Keynes for one would be horrified we don’t work a 15 hour work week in 2020) it is always worthwhile stopping a few minutes to think on Samuel Parnell and his contribution, to our own lives and of those before us.

The New Colossus

Hi there folks, I’m doing something different this week. The tale of Dorothy Kilgallen goes on a short pause till I get a chance to review what I still had to cover about John F Kennedy, in the light of day. I still need to speak a little on why some people wanted a sitting president dead – but the worst president in America’s history coming down with Coronavirus – still clearly ill despite his claims otherwise – gives me reason to pause. I don’t do this out of deference for Trump, I just don’t want to release something that could be misconstrued as an allegory for or against the old bastard, when it’s not.

Laugh not dear reader – I wrote Willie the Wimp and his Cadillac Coffin well before the murder of George Floyd. I meant no overt political commentary. It was just a fun story about a couple of larger than life characters that have fascinated me for many years. In the wake of Floyd Mayweather jr’s generous donation of a gold coffin to the Floyd family, Alt Right shit-posters began commenting on their forums. Imagine my joy at an email from WordPress telling me I was trending, several thousand clicks in a few minutes. Then imagine my disgust when I found out why Willie the Wimp was being shared by folk like that … Their comments for the most part ran along the lines of ‘this is why black people should not be allowed to have money’… though in language I don’t feel at ease repeating in this post.

Yeah, I’m being a little overly cautious. Everything is political at the best of times, more so right now. This week please permit me to be overtly so.

In the weeks leading up to the American election I have no doubt many bloggers, podcasters and YouTubers will release content about previous American elections – to directly comment on the coming election. I had a note in my scrapbook – The Election of 1876. America, I fear you’re staring down the barrel of a repeat to that constitutional crisis this year – Trump’s Alt Right militias ‘observing’ the ballot boxes has the stench of the Southern militias employed by the Democrats (Non-American readers, broadly speaking the two parties swapped positions on a couple of things since 1876). Tampering with post boxes, the restriction of places to cast your ballot in Texas etc. it all seems all too familiar already. Mark Chrisler beat me to the punch on this week’s episode of The Constant. He does the story far better than I ever could. Also, as an American his critique should carry more weight for you all. Anything I say, however well intentioned, I am some interloper from Hobbitland after all.

All the same, Americans I urge you to vote early, vote Biden – and be very vocal in your demands that Donald Trump be removed from office when – if he hasn’t popped his clogs from the great plague of 2020 – he refuses to leave office.

All that said, I suppose I should write something historical with the rest of this post?

Let’s talk about the statue the French gave the USA, why I think it’s intended meaning is a noble one… and why I think the meaning subsequently placed on the statue by the followers of the poet Emma Lazarus is not only also permissible on this occasion, but truly aspirational.

The statue being constructed in France, 1884.


This week’s tale starts at a private home in Versailles, France. The date, June 1865. The French jurist, poet, historian, and anti-slavery activist Edouard de Laboulaye called a meeting of fellow abolitionists to his home. An extremely vocal commentator against slavery, and a big fan of the Union who had written three books on the USA – Laboulaye was ecstatic at the news the Union had won the Civil War. Slavery was over. Decency had won. At the meeting he proposed the construction of a giant statue in honor of the USA’s great achievement.

Based on the Roman figure of Libertas, ‘Liberty Enlightening the World’ would symbolize an America Laboulaye hoped would finally be a nation of equals – having thrown off the British crown in 1776, and now slavery in 1865. It would serve as a symbol of friendship between the two nations. Thirdly, Laboulaye hoped the fervor for democracy and freedom would strengthen the resolve of his own nation to, once and for all, cast off their own despot. For context, France’s first President was a man named Charles-Louis Napoleon Bonaparte. The nephew of the more famous Napoleon, he decided he really didn’t want to leave office, so proclaimed himself King in 1851, hanging in there till 1870.

Laboulaye famously brought the sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi on board. With a proposed deadline of 1876 – the centenary of the Declaration of Independence. Planning began. France would build the statue, the USA would construct the podium. Work, however would not start on the statue till 1875 – Bartholdi bringing in Alexandre- Gustave Eiffel and Eugene Viollet-de-Duc to help with the framework. While it’s believed Bartholdi based Lady Liberty on his own mother, I’ve also read he recycled sketches for a statue proposed for the Suez Canal but never used. It is possible her face is in fact Egyptian. Given where I’m headed I like that idea. The statue wouldn’t be completed in Paris till 1884. It was then packed into over 200 crates and shipped off to the USA.

On the American side, construction was much slower. A site was chosen on Bedloes Island – a former fort for the Dutch, then quarantine station for smallpox sufferers, then summer house for the Scottish Earl of Cassilis, and most recently, Fort Wood – which withstood British attacks in the war of 1812. The star-shaped walls of the fort would mark out the shape and position of the podium itself. Beyond this, work was slow. Public interest in the statue was very limited, not helped no doubt by the Jim Crow laws enacted in the post 1876 South, and lynchings making an absolute mockery of the statue’s raison d’être. Had The New York World’s Joseph Pulitzer not put his weight behind the project it would have fallen completely flat. Auctions, crowdfunding campaigns and exhibitions were put on to get the money together. In 1883 an exhibition was put on, showing various plans for the statue, and containing dramatic readings of poetry written for the occasion. Mark Twain and Walt Whitman wrote for the exhibition, as did 34 year old poet Emma Lazarus – a former student of Ralph Waldo Emerson who was on the rise. Her piece, The New Colossus, was something else.

Emma Lazarus

As a child of Sephardic Jewish immigrants, and a strong advocate for the Jewish refugees arriving in America at the time, having fled the pogroms of Eastern Europe – Lazarus had a very different take on the significance of the statue that would greet those on their way to be processed through Paris Island.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Her moving poem, as exquisite a Petrarchan sonnet as anyone ever wrote, struck a chord with a number of literary types. They felt it gave a purpose to the giant edifice. This is not to say they were racists, dismissing the original meaning; just the newspapers in America never mentioned the purpose of the statue in their coverage. Without that meaning the statue must have seemed a massive folly to all. A lot of writers and their milieu clicked with Lazarus’ interpretation. So it was immortalized in a plaque in 1886 and America never looked back right?

Not exactly. When Grover Cleveland opened the landmark in 1886, Emma Lazarus’ poem garnered not so much as a mention. While Lazarus’ work won the hearts of other writers, she went more or less unnoticed by the general public. Emma Lazarus would pass on, most likely from Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1887. She was only 38 years old at the time of her passing. Her obituary never mentioned The New Colossus. The meaninglessness of this giant folly did not escape African American press either, one writer in the Cleveland Gazette stating

“Shove the Bartholdi statue, torch and all, into the ocean until the ‘liberty’ of this country is such as to make it possible for an industrious and inoffensive colored man in the South to earn a respectable living for himself and family … The idea of the ‘liberty’ of this country ‘enlightening the world,’ or even Patagonia, is ridiculous in the extreme”

In 1901 Georgina Schuyler, a friend of Emma Lazarus, was thumbing through a book of poetry in a bookstore – when she came across The New Colossus. It struck her not only did her work need immortalizing, but Lady Liberty needed the rehabilitation such a poem would provide. Once a symbol of hope, equality and liberty for all, then really of nothing in particular save maybe a little jingoism, re-christening the statue a ‘mother of exiles’ seemed a really good thing. As Laboulaye hoped the statue would move his Frenchmen back towards liberty, Schuyler no doubt hoped for a kinder, more welcoming America. After two years of campaigning the plaque, bearing the poem, was attached to the base of the statue.


Statues are more hagiography than history, in my humble opinion. They capture spin. They are erected for a specific purpose. Sometimes that purpose is as horrid as the subject – monuments to Confederate General, and KKK Grand Wizard Nathan Bedford Forrest an example of a statue being erected as a clear threat to the African American community – ‘stop demanding your civil rights, or we will have to resurrect this asshole’. Sometimes a statue is put up out of toadyism – the myriad statues of Queen Victoria of Britain built on her 50th and 60th jubilees prime examples. Occasionally it really as simple as a wish to honour someone – a proposed statue to New Zealand suffragette Kate Shepherd, planned for the grounds of our government buildings an example of this. I personally love all the proposed meanings for the Statue of Liberty, but feel they are aspirational goals at best at the time of writing.

While we’re discussing immigrants, rest in peace Edward Van Halen (1955 – 2020); a half Dutch, half Indonesian kid whose family arrived in America in 1962 with little more than $50 and a piano. It is easy to present Eddie as proof positive the American Dream is achievable; he would revolutionize the electric guitar, sell over 60 million records and have a hand in some of the best rock music of the late 70s and 1980s. When interviewers cared to ask him, he also spoke candidly on his childhood. He attended a mixed race school where black kids were segregated from the white mainstream. As a Eurasian he was counted as black and bullied by the white kids – in one interview he recalled feeling like an animal in a cage. His classical musician father Jan struggled to find the kinds of jobs available to him in Holland, and spent years working lowly paid janitorial jobs. The family were too poor on arrival to rent their own place, so the four of them had to cram into a single room in a house co- tenanted by two other immigrant families. Eddie became wildly successful but his tale is undeniably also one of opportunity denied by mainstream America for not being ‘one of us’.

The ‘Last of the Guitar Gods’, Edward Van Halen.

Please America, get out and vote. Be kind to one another. Value diversity, and right the wrongs of your past. I’m stepping off my soapbox – Normal service will resume on this channel next week.