Content warning! This tale contains macabre, ghoulish subject matter – as one may expect on a Halloween Tale. Proceed with caution.
Taphophobia is the name given to the irrational fear of being buried alive; the word deriving from the Greek taphos (meaning grave or tomb) and phobos (fear). In 2020 it is accepted by most this IS an irrational fear – science and medicine has come along far enough to detect even the tiniest signs of life. For most our history however, this has not been the case. In 1895, J.C Ouseley, a physician of whom I could find little information but many citings, stated his belief that even at the end of the 19th century 2,700 English and Welsh were prematurely buried each year. Others countered this was an exaggeration – the real figure was only around 800 a year – only! Of course for most our history, life was determined by a heartbeat or signs of breathing. As it became possible to restart a stopped heart or lungs – mouth to mouth resuscitation was first used on drowning victims in France in 1740, and chest compression in the USA from 1903 – people in those states were re-categorized ‘unresponsive’. Proof of life focussed on brain death – something not defined in a modern sense till 1968.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone a great many poor souls were buried prematurely. Nor should it surprise anyone there are a few horrifying signs of folk who came to while six feet under, and fought desperately to escape entombment.
In July 1661, Lawrence Cawthorn was one such victim. A journeyman butcher, working at London’s Newgate Market; single, and without property – he lived at a Mrs Cook’s boarding house. When Cawthorn fell ill his landlord contrived to have him declared deceased as soon as possible. For one his ‘passing’ would free up a bed for a paying resident – an ailing Cawthorn hadn’t paid rent for a few days. Also, with no next of kin, Mrs Cook would inherit Cawthorn’s possessions – but only if he died in her premises. He must not be allowed to be taken to hospital. Three days after falling ill – sans condensation on the looking glass placed under his nose – Cawthorn was pronounced dead, and sent to the undertaker. As the last sod of earth was placed down, a tortured scream was heard from below. The undertakers dug down as frantically as they could, but it was all in vain. They cracked the coffin lid to find Lawrence Cawthorn passed. In his panic he had shredded his funeral shroud and beat his face to a pulp trying to head-butt the coffin open.
Alice Blunden of Basingstoke, buried in 1674, appears a luckier tale, till you hear her story in it’s entirety. Having overdosed on poppy water, an opiate developed by the polymath Nicholas Culpeper, Blunden was pronounced deceased – when in fact in a deep coma. Two days after her burial, a group of children playing in the graveyard heard her screams. The children would not tell anyone for a day, finally spilling the beans to their school headmaster – who alerted the undertaker. The undertaker Blunden out. She was still alive but in a bad way. Collapsing from the stress of her ordeal she was again pronounced dead – and re-buried. Again she came to, her screams alerting locals the following night, however this time she did pass on. When she was disinterred a bloodied and bruised Blunden was found inside – this time having left deep scratch marks on the inside of the coffin lid.
I have one final Tale to tell you all this Halloween; let’s discuss Hannah Beswick (1688 – 1758)– a Taphophobe from Birchin Bower, Lancashire.
Hannah was born to a wealthy family in Lancashire in 1688, and actually had good reason to fear premature burial. When young her brother John passed, or appeared to have passed on. At his funeral, just prior to the lowering of the top on the coffin, someone noticed John’s eyelids were fluttering, and called a stop to the burial. John was re-examined by family doctor Charles White, declared alive after all, and would make a full recovery. This experience left deep emotional scars in Hannah, and she insisted that when she passed efforts be made to keep her above ground long enough to confirm she really was dead. She approached doctor White, tasking him to ensure this happened.
Hannah would pass in 1758, and White would keep his word…. well kind of.. To preserve her body while out in the open, White – a man with a love of cabinets of curiosities – embalmed her. Having mummified her body through an experimental method he never recorded – but was sure to have killed her had she simply been in a coma – for one her blood was drained, her organs removed. Her body was then placed inside the frame of a grandfather clock.
Hannah’s will made it clear she was not to be buried until certain she was dead, but one would infer she was to be buried thereafter. For over a century her body would be kept by doctors, then Manchester Museum, while family members fought over her will (and hidden fortune, but that is a story for another day) – and Hannah Beswick, the Manchester Mummy would not be officially declared deceased, and interred till 22nd July 1868. Happy Halloween all. Stay safe when trick or treating. We’ll be back to a post a week next Tuesday.
The Flannan Isles, sometimes referred to as the 7 Hunters, are a tiny group of islands on the outside of the Outer Hebrides – a string of islands in the North of Scotland. The group are named after the 7th century bishop of Kallaloe, and later saint, St Flannan – whose feast day was eerily close to the dates of this tale; December 18th. St Flannan put a chapel on this, otherwise uninhabited island in the 7th century. In 1899 the authorities put a lighthouse nearby.
Uninhabited, hilly and rocky, covered only by grass … people generally had little to do with these islands. For centuries Shepherds would use the islands to store sheep away from poachers. They themselves never stayed overnight – folklore warned of malevolent spirits on the islands. The lighthouse keepers were another case entirely. Until the house was automated in 1971, a crew of three lighthouse keepers was stationed at all times. On regular shifts a fourth keeper was dropped off, who would make the 150 foot climb to the cliff top; allowing a brief respite for one of his comrades. On Boxing Day 1900 Captain James Harvey docked to drop off lighthouse keeper Joseph Moore and return one of the others to tha mainland. What the two men found was unexplained and disturbing.
On reaching the island, sometimes called Eilean Mor, Harvey sounded the horn to alert the keepers of their arrival. After a lengthy silence he shot off a flare, still to no avail. Harvey sent Moore to the island on the lifeboat.
Having negotiated the steep cliffside and entered the lighthouse, Moore found a scene akin to that of the Mary Celeste. The lights were on but no one was home. The door wide open, only two coats taken from the hangers. Had all three men gone out into the inhospitable winter weather, surely one of them must have half froze to death? A half eaten meal lay on the table, the food already mouldy. James Ducat, Thomas Marshall and William McArthur had simply vanished. On returning to the boat, Captain Harvey mounted a search of the island, but nothing could be found of the three men. The authorities were contacted, and superintendent of lighthouses Robert Muirhead made his way to Eilean Mor the next day. That Ducat, Marshall and McArthur had somehow all fallen into the sea and drowned was most likely, but what Muirhead discovered gives an air of mystery to this tale.
On checking the logbook, Muirhead found the following entries – recorded by Thomas Marshall. On 12th December a violent storm pummeled the island, Marshall noting “severe winds the likes of which I have never seen before in 20 years”. The tempest was so terrifying it broke head lighthouse keeper James Ducat, who had become struck mute by it. William McArthur, by all accounts a hardened seafarer, spent the entire day weeping uncontrollably. The tempest raged the following day. Marshall simply notes the three men prayed for deliverance. Nothing is written at all on the 14th. On the 15th December 1900 Thomas Marshall simply wrote
“Storm ended, Sea calm. God is over all”
On the high cliff face a crane was set up. Muirhead found its ropes unfastened, splayed out on the rocks below. Logic states it most likely the lighthouse keepers were taken by a rogue wave, while on the rocks, recovering the ropes. One of the men may have stayed in the lighthouse and, perhaps noticed the massive wave coming at his comrades- this would at least explain why one ran out without his coat on. The odd thing was there was no once in a century storm on the days mentioned. A storm did hit the island on the 17th, though nothing as bad as the three experienced keepers described. Had they simply lost track of the days?
While the fuzzy outlines of this tale make sense – three men somehow became disoriented and were washed out to sea – and the real mystery may be what sent these men into their spiral? Ergot poisoning? a gas leak? mass hysteria combined with a long history of superstition surrounding this spooky, windswept isle? I can’t conclude the tale without sharing one final tidbit. In the seven decades following the disappearance of Ducat, Marshall and McArthur many a lighthouse keeper has claimed, in the dead of night to hear ghostly voices on the wind, whispering the names James Ducat, Thomas Marshall and William McArthur.
Originally published on Tales of History and Imagination’s Facebook page 21st January 2019. Edited 2020. Copyright 2019 Simone T. Whitlow
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.
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
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.
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.
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…
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.
Hey folks the internet tells me you all like lists, so I thought I’d fill a gap in the schedule with a short list, of short tales. This week’s tale is a triptych – a little like the Francis Bacon piece I borrowed for the featured image today…
One – Pirates!
Our first tale takes place on a Merchant vessel, off the coast of Honduras in 1717. This was an unsettling time to be a sailor in the Caribbean – The War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714) was a great time to be a privateer, but the resolution of the conflict (Philip V was allowed to ascend to the throne, but ceded numerous territories to Britain, Savoy and Austria) left many said privateers out of work. Large numbers of British and American pirates flooded into the Caribbean, making easy pickings of the merchant ships sailing through the region.
Picture this, the crew of a merchant vessel is completely blindsided by pirates. In the early hours of morning a boarding party sidled up to them in a sloop. Before the crew could react all hellfire and thunder breaks loose – as large, heavily bearded men threw the sailors around like rag dolls, brandished swords in their faces and corralled the crew onto the quarter deck. The crew are then forced onto their knees, then poked and prodded. “Look at the noggin on that one” I imagine one pirate commenting – “he’d do you right Pete”. I get an image of Pete passing comment that he must be a smart man, big headed people always are, while he runs a length of twine around the man’s forehead. I picture another passing one of the men over. “Nah, far too threadbare. I do have standards, you know”. The crew beg the pirates for mercy, “Please spare us, take anything you wish – we just want to make it home to our loved ones”
A particularly terrifying pirate steps forward, demanding “Who’s the captain?” This pirate is Benjamin Hornigold – an up and coming buccaneer with five ships and 350 men under his command. Among his men one Edward Teach – known to history as Blackbeard.
“Why, sir… I… I am. Please sir, as a good Christian I beg you, spare our lives” The captain responded, meekly.
“Well, captain. What size hat do you wear?”
The night before Hornigold and his crew were out carousing. A good time was had by all. The drinks flowed, and the men partied into the wee small hours – when it struck them as a smart thing to do to throw one’s hat into the air – on a moving ship – with a wind strong enough to send the hats scattering. From there the hats all sank to the bottom of Davy Jones’ locker. As daylight came, and the men worried that sailing on bareheaded would lead to disaster, a plan was hatched to steal all the hats from a merchant ship spotted in the distance.
The pirates took the hats they needed, and nothing else. They returned to their own ship and let the merchant ship return to their business.
Two – Mr. 380.
Though really not big on ‘Big History’, I’ve heard it said a student once asked the anthropologist Margaret Mead what she considered the first sign of civilization. Her answer? A broken femur which has healed. In my time I have read a sum total of three books on Big History, little specific to anthropology, so am in no way qualified to offer an opinion – but I think it is a great anecdote to open my next short Tale…. Which is definitely not Big History.
The Lombards were a tribe of Germanic people who conquered and ruled much of Italy from 568 AD, till they were conquered themselves in 774 AD by the Frankish king Charlemagne. They are of indeterminate origin – their own 8th century historians stating they were from Southern Scandinavia – but Roman historians in the 1st Century BC count them among the Suebi, a group which originated in the Elbe river region of modern Germany and the Czech Republic. Their name lives on in the Northern Italian region of Lombardy.
Over two seasons 1985-86 and 1991-92 a group of archeologists came across, then excavated a Lombard graveyard in Veneto, Northern Italy. They uncovered 164 bodies, buried between the 6th and 8th centuries AD. One is of particular interest to our next tale.
The man in tomb T US 380 is a man of mystery. Examination of his remains suggest he was a warrior – not uncommon for a Lombard male. At the time of his death he would have been somewhere between 40 and 50; for this time and place in history that was a reasonably good age to make it to. His grave was not filled with earthly treasures, or his favorite horse, or a team of slaves to serve him in the afterlife. By all accounts T US 380 was an average Joe – in all ways but one – Mr. 380 was missing his right hand, and part of his forearm. In place of the missing limb, it appears he had a knife attached to his stump.
No-one knows exactly how Mr. 380 lost his limb. It looks like it was removed in one heavy blow – though it could have been done in battle, or it could have been an amputation of a limb too badly damaged to heal itself. There is a possibility Mr. 380 had a hand cut off as punishment for theft – this was not unheard of among the Lombards. The stump showed signs of a callous built up, suggesting a (probably leather) device used to attach the blade. Signs of wear on the man’s teeth and shoulder suggest a daily routine of using his teeth, and spare hand, to fasten the prosthesis with laces.
In medieval times people generally didn’t survive amputations. If the blood loss didn’t kill you, the post amputation infection would likely finish the job. Margaret Mead’s rationale at the top of this tale – if a group takes care of it’s damaged members, cares for them, nurses them back to health – then that’s a civilized society. There is no question the Lombards were a civilization, but knowing their tough as nails, warrior reputation – Hardcore History’s Dan Carlin for one described them as like an Outlaw Biker gang – it is remarkable to think of the group of people who handled the tourniquet, who sewed him back together, and who nursed Mr. 380 through the inevitable days of normally deadly fevers.
Three – Doll Babies.
In November 1983 a wave of madness broke out across America, leading to a number of riots and physical altercations. The tale most often told took place in a Zayre department store in Wilkes- Barre, Pennsylvania. 1,000 Adults pushed, and punched, pulled hair and tussled with one another. Boxes flew across the store, shelves were sent sprawling over. Weapons may have been used on one another. Store manager William Shigo, surrounded by the melee grabbed a baseball bat, climbed atop the counter and yelled at the horde to leave immediately. His requests fell upon deaf ears as the assembled continued to beat the living daylights out of one another, hoping to defend their prized item. This scene played out at toy shops all across the United States that year. Of course opportunists swooped in, buying up stock then selling on the black market for huge mark ups. Some parents drove hundreds of miles looking for this elusive item. Others resorted to bribery. Zayre resorted to issuing tickets to lucky parents, then serving the lucky ones out back, but this hardly solved the problem. What was the cause of all this kerfuffle? This thing, a Cabbage Patch Kids doll… If I may offer an opinion, a doll as ugly as the behavior of the parents willing to beat another parent down to get one.
Legend has it the Cabbage Patch Kids started their lives as ‘Doll Babies’, developed by Martha Nelson Thomas of Louisville, Kentucky. Thomas was a folk artist, specializing in doll making. She developed her doll babies some time in the early 1970s, and would exhibit them at local art and crafts fairs in the area. Though running a business, she appears to have had no intention of ever selling in large numbers.
In 1976 she met a then 21 year old Xavier Roberts at a fair. Roberts, an aspiring artist living in Georgia convinced Thomas to let him sell some of her dolls in his state for a cut of the profits. The two would do business till 1978, when they had a falling out. It was at this point that it’s alleged Roberts stole Thomas’ idea, and began working towards scaling up the business. Martha would begin a protracted legal battle with Xavier in 1979.
In 1982 Roberts signed a contract with toy company Coleco to produce the re-branded ‘Cabbage Patch Kids’. While the agreement was to mass produce the dolls, they had two things working against them. 1. Production was always to be a little laborious – no two dolls were alike, from their appearance to the packaging which contained a personalized name for each of the dolls and 2. This angle contributed to the dolls becoming the most desired toy of Christmas 1983.
Martha Nelson Thomas would settle her $1 Million lawsuit against Xavier Roberts in 1984, out of court for an undisclosed sum. In the meantime Xavier Roberts continued to rake in much more money than that. There was now a 9 month waiting list for one of the dolls – and the price had skyrocketed from $30 to $150 per doll.
Content warning! This episode mentions sudden death, multiple suicides… and may have turned out to be one great big shaggy dog tale in itself. Reader discretion advised.
Hi all welcome back, let’s do part three of the Dorothy Kilgallen Tale. Parts one and two can be found on the links.
To state categorically John F Kennedy was not assassinated by some cabal, or some bigger power than Oswald, is a bit of a stretch. While the Warren Commission found no evidence of a conspiracy, the 1979 US House Select Committee on Assassinations stated their view a second shooter was involved. This conclusion rested largely on acoustic evidence that has been disproved in recent years as better acoustic modelling came along. The Assassination Records Review Board, tasked in the 1990s to preserve evidence, found inconsistencies which leave the door open to a conspiracy, most notably they claimed the photos of Kennedy’s brain were not the correct photos. They also question an inconsistency between the accepted story of Kennedy having been struck from behind, with eyewitness accounts which suggested a far bigger hole in the back of his head – suggesting a second shooter, in front of the president.
Conspiracy theorists often point to the number of people connected to the Kennedy assassination in some way, who died young, is on the high side – some theorists claiming as many as 104 suspicious deaths. This list includes people like Mafia Don Sam Giancana, often implicated as a conspirator -gunned down in his apartment in 1966. Lee Bowers – a witness who died in a car crash in 1966. CIA agent Gary Underhill – an agent Jim Garrison claimed had information on the killing, who committed suicide in 1964. FBI bigwig William Sullivan, who was accidentally shot while out hunting in 1972. David Ferrie – a friend of Oswald’s who claimed not to know him, who was considered a possible co-conspirator by Garrison, and who also committed suicide in 1967. George de Mohenschildt – a Russian American heavily questioned by the Warren Commission as a friend of Oswald’s, whose testimony helped link him back to the attempted assassination of General Edwin Walker. He committed suicide in 1977, after contacting George H.W Bush (a friend of a friend) to ask he call the CIA investigation into him off.
Two unusual deaths were Rose Cheramie, brought into hospital with minor injuries after being hit by a car. Rose claimed, two days before the assassination to have been travelling with two Italians who told her they were travelling to Dallas to kill the president. She would die in 1965, again struck by a vehicle. Joseph Milteer, a high ranking member of the Georgia KKK was secretly tape recorded 13 days before the assassination, claiming a hit was being prepared for the president. He would die in a freak heater explosion in 1974.
The magic of statistics shows a lot of the people who died on this list died of natural causes, some (i.e. mobsters) lived lifestyles that upped the risks of being murdered. When you adjust for everything else, the number is about what one can expect for the sample size, at that time.
I did have screeds of notes on motives – who would want JFK dead, and why. Last week, with news of the worst American president ever catching COVID, I redacted that section – not wanting to be accused of having an agenda in choosing this topic. For the record, I’m quite open about my disdain for Mr. Trump. I am erring on the side of caution however, dear reader you know the lore around this – a lot of people, on paper at least had a motive to conspire to kill Kennedy. Some had the wherewithal to hatch such a plot.
All this is to say, while I am disparaging of Dorothy Kilgallen’s findings, I personally believe there are enough inconsistencies to allow for any number of possible cabals to have taken Kennedy out. I will say Jim Garrison’s 1967 attempted prosecution of the businessman Clay Shaw – the only person to be tried for the murder of President Kennedy, seems baseless and quixotic to me. Oliver Stone’s film on Garrison’s quest, which hinted at a cabal made up of…. Well, pretty much everyone except Garrison himself seemed to get together to kill the president one afternoon – well, common sense tells you the more people involved, the higher the probability someone would have spilled the beans by now. To date, no-one of any substance has spilled the beans. But, back to those deaths. Some were very strange. One in particular seemed to spook Dorothy.
Bill Hunter was far from a conspiracy theorist. The journalist from California went to Dallas to cover the killing, and subsequent investigation. He wrote a sixteen page special report on the assassination, “Three Days in Dallas”, where he concluded Oswald killed Kennedy, Ruby then killed Oswald. Hunter gave no indication of conspiracy at work. He enters the conspiracy as one of the 104. On 23rd April 1964, Hunter was hanging around the press room of the Long Beach police department, when he was accidentally killed by a police officer Creighton Wiggins. Initially claiming he’d accidentally dropped his handgun, which then discharged into Hunter, he changed his story to claim he was playing quick draw with another officer, Erroll Greenleaf. Greenleaf testified this was nonsense as he had his back to Wiggins at the time. When Hunter’s partner on the Dallas story, Jim Koethe, was murdered in a home invasion – the invader karate chopping him in the throat. A further air of mystery surrounded Hunter when Tom Howard – one of Jack Ruby’s attorneys, who let Hunter and Koethe into Ruby’s apartment – died aged only 48, of a heart attack. This led to Dorothy giving her friend Florence Pritchett-Smith (who initially introduced Dorothy to Kennedy) a copy of her manuscript of the chapter on the assassination, as insurance should she be accidentally shot by a dueling policeman too.
Which brings us back to the scene on the morning of 8th November 1965, what was so odd about Dorothy Kilgallen’s death?
First, let’s sketch the scene out again. If you recall, her hairdresser Marc Sinclaire arrived at 9am to find Dorothy was not yet up. When he checked her bedroom on the 5th floor – she was not there. Her body was found in the 3rd floor master bedroom. She was sitting up in bed in a blue robe Sinclaire had never seen before. Her makeup was still on. A decorative hairpiece was still in, as were her false eyelashes. If you recall episode one, Robert Ruark’s novel The Honey Badger was open beside her. All of this was strange for a number of reasons.
First to the room, as discussed in an earlier episode, Dorothy and husband Richard Kollmar had an open marriage. The couple had all but split because Richard was foolish with Dorothy’s money, and slept around – some say a lot. Whether due to the lucrative nature of Dorothy and Richard’s morning radio show, or a concern for their reputation, or out of a desire to give their three children a normal upbringing – or Dorothy’s Catholicism making divorce very difficult – at some point both began living more or less separate lives, only giving the appearance of a loving relationship to the general public. One particular incident seemed to really upset Dorothy – finding Richard in bed with another woman in their 3rd floor master bedroom. Dorothy swore she would never sleep in that room again. Since that day she slept in a fifth floor room, Richard on the 4th floor.
Her appearance was rather unlike her also. That she wore a robe Sinclaire didn’t recognize could mean something – or she could have just bought a new robe. She was, however, meticulous about removing her makeup, hairpiece, and false eyelashes every night. The book also seemed odd. Robert Ruark’s posthumous final novel had been a big hit that year – Dorothy, a voracious reader, had already finished The Honey Badger months ago. What was really odd, however, Dorothy had exceedingly poor eyesight and could not read without her glasses. Her glasses were nowhere to be found. A light had been left on.
After some time the police arrived to examine the scene. Strangely, an officer had been parked outside the residence when Sinclaire arrived, but disappeared soon after. They would find no sign of foul play – no signs of a struggle, no bruising, cuts, or other marks. Her body would be transported to the coroner, not in her own borough of Manhattan, but Brooklyn – where a number of writers claim the office was infiltrated by the Mafia. They would find Dorothy had suffocated from a deadly mixture of barbiturates and alcohol – the same fate as Marilyn Monroe. A Dr. James Luke actually carried out the autopsy, however a Dr. De Meo, to Dr. Luke’s consternation ended up with their signature on the document. Samples of Dorothy’s fluids from her brain and stomach were kept, and examined decades later. when examined by modern machinery, the tests showed three different kinds of sleeping pills – and a dosage in the blood equivalent to between 15 and 20 pills in her body.
Though determined an accidental overdose, Dorothy’s death would be re-examined in 1966. After an 8 month investigation, the case was closed, having found no evidence of foul play.
A few other strange elements need to be discussed, however. First, the manuscript Dorothy was so concerned over – and all her notes concerning the Kennedy assassination – all disappeared in the course of the investigation. You recall Bill Hunter’s death prompted her to give a copy to her friend, writer and socialite Florence Pritchett-Smith? She died the following day, of a cerebral hemorrhage. Dorothy’s backup manuscript was never found among her belongings.
On the night before Dorothy’s funeral Dorothy’s friend and producer Bob Bach – the man you recall had drinks with her on the night she passed; the same man who dropped her off to meet the ‘mystery man’ – he sat with estranged husband Richard Kollmar. Asking Richard just what he made of the whole hullabaloo over Kennedy’s assassination, and Dorothy’s death – what had Dorothy found exactly? Kollmar replied “Robert, I’m afraid that will have to go to the grave with me.”
If this Tale feels a little cyclical – we’ve gone all around the world to find hints of a conspiracy, but nothing of substance, let me add to that feeling. I started this tale with a quote from Dorothy herself, about Marilyn Monroe. If you recall, Marilyn died under similar circumstances. Both ladies were insomniacs, and used sleeping pills. Both would become linked to John F Kennedy – though for very different reasons. Both deaths have been speculated over, writers asking did these ladies die because they knew too much? I personally have to say, I don’t know. I believe it possible they were murdered to protect the guilty. I believe it possible Kennedy was assassinated by a wider conspiracy, though it is more probable Oswald acted alone. I’m a firm believer extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence to move from possible to probable… but in Dorothy’s case one piece of evidence does speak to me a little louder than the others – the light. She wrote of Marilyn “If she was just trying to get to sleep, and took the overdose of pills accidentally, why was the light on? Usually people sleep better in the dark” While this may have been the case for Marilyn, it certainly was for Dorothy – it represents her actively reflecting on her own needs when drifting off to sleep. Take your pills, turn off the light, wait for the pills to kick in. I’m unconvinced she found anything of note on her friend the president, but I feel it highly likely she was murdered for things others believed she knew.
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.
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.
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’.
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.