Hey all, this episode’s going to be a little different – the setting, a modern duplex in Auckland, New Zealand. Our subject, a rather worn out looking writer. Our protagonist has had a rough couple of weeks – First, the excruciating stomach pains which sent her to hospital. A battery of tests showed all the things the pain wasn’t. The pain went away. Our subject’s health concerns were not yet done, however. “Oh, on that other thing we were concerned about” the doctor asked, mysteriously omitting ‘the other thing’ – “those pills are still on offer”. “Yes” the writer replied “Let’s give them a go. Can’t hurt right?”.
Six days later my blood pressure shot up to 170/110. It took four days for the pills to fully leave my system, and my blood pressure to return to normal.
This all led to a situation where I either had to dump this week’s blog post, or postpone the following week’s combined blog/podcast episode …. or I could go off script and share a couple of Tales I have intended to write, but have shelved for different reasons.
This week, two Tales which never were … till they suddenly were after all.
I picture this tale opening with a couple of probation officers banging on rock and roll impresario Johnny Otis’ door, presumably at some ungodly hour. Otis is a fascinating man, though not the subject of this tale. It’s probably pertinent to state he started as a drummer in a swing orchestra, and became a club owner, talent scout, radio DJ, band leader and record producer extraordinaire. Throughout the 1950s most of Los Angeles best music had some connection back to Mr Otis. He was also a part owner in a chicken farm with a man who died fighting alongside Fidel Castro in Cuba, and lost two fingers in an accident while making chicken coops. Otis would later lend his voice, and pen to the civil rights movement, and front a church which was pro- multiculturalism, pro-LGBTQI+, and generally welcoming to all.
Otis was also the son of Greek immigrants, who never felt accepted as ‘white’, but did feel great kinship with the African American community. He once stated “Genetically I’m pure Greek. Psychologically, environmentally, culturally, by choice, I’m a member of the black community” Most people just presumed he was a light-skinned black man. Though not directly related to our protagonist, this is kind of interesting… considering.
So, back to the door knockers. Otis opens the door. The officers demand to know where they can find Ron Gregory. ‘Who?’ Asks Otis. ‘This guy’ an officer answers, thrusting forward a photograph of a young Chicano man singing and dancing among the crowd, on a crowded dance floor.
“That’s Lil Julian Herrera!” Otis replied, perplexed.
Little Julian Herrera was one of the first Chicano rock and roll stars to come out of East LA. Fronting his band, the Tigers, the young doo wop star was already making a name for himself, when discovered by Otis in 1956. In 1957 his ballad ‘Lonely, Lonely Nights’ seemed set to make Herrera rock and roll’s first Chicano superstar (this was just before Richie Valens broke through), when he was charged with rape. In the course of his trial, a number of skeletons – far less shocking things I must say than the rape of a young woman – came flying out of the closet.
His real name was Ronald Gregory. At the age of 11, or 13 (depending on the storyteller) Ronald, a Jewish kid of Hungarian extraction, ran away from his parents and hitch hiked from Massachusetts to Los Angeles. Somehow, he ended up getting taken in by the Herrera family of Boyle Heights, East LA. He appears to have found kinship with the Herreras, and Mexican American culture – and was reborn as Julian.
Having served his time in prison, Julian was back on the mic by the early 60s – but things were never the same again. He cut several records, which bombed. Played a handful of shows, to increasingly smaller crowds. In 1963, he called on a friend – a sax player named Bernie Garcia – to say he was in some kind of trouble, and needed to get out of town in a hurry. He had some shows booked across the border in Tijuana Mexico. Did Bernie want to come with him? Bernie didn’t.
This was the last anyone ever saw or heard of Little Julian Herrera.
As much as I want to write more about Little Julian Herrera, there is precious little written about him. We know he was a runaway – but I’ve never seen a hint of anyone ever looking into the Gregory family. Were they good or terrible parents? What was the incident that spurred Ronald to hit the road? Did they look for their son? Did they reach out to him in prison?
Likewise I couldn’t find anything on the Herreras – much less why Julian stopped in Boyle Heights in the first place. The neighbourhood was a mix of Mexican, Japanese and Jewish Americans – Julian was Jewish. Was he en route to see his grandparents, an aunt and/or uncle? Did he know anyone in the Chicano community?
One thing mentioned, those who knew Julian mentioned he never worked (he was 19 and a long time out of school at the time of the rape) and no-one really knew what he did in the daytime. Again this begs questions of just what he was doing with his days? Was he involved in organised crime? Was he already working up a third secret identity?
Did anyone have a motive to kill him? If no-one else one could imagine the family of the 17 year old girl he raped in Griffith Park had ample reason. There are apparently stories he was murdered in Elysian Park, or that he worked for many years in a gas station in National City, California under an assumed name … but no-one seems to have made any real headway so far.
The Halifax Gibbet.
Ok, let me break this one down. I had a plan for a short tale stylistically akin to Hannibal in Bithynia. The setting for this one, a clearing 500 yards from the border in the town of Halifax. The date, some time in the 1600s. A young man, caught stealing horse shoes from the blacksmith, has spent three days on display for all in the town stocks. This is only the beginning of punishment. This evening he will meet the fate first meted out to one John of Dalton in 1286. The tale would cut back and forth between the young man’s feelings of apprehension, the incidents in his life which brought him here. Musings on the prosperity, and inequality in this town – and the way in which this led to the aristocracy of the region to hold on to cruel, archaic laws – albeit enforced by a remarkable machine.
The piece would intersperse with hints at the machine. Ultimately it would take up to 100 victims, 56 recorded cases from 1538 till Oliver Cromwell, of all people, put a stop to it. I would muse on there being nothing new completely without precursor. Edinburgh had it’s Maiden. Conrad, the young, attractive king of Swabia was rumoured to have met with a precursor in Italy. Chinese and Persian lore suggests something altogether earlier still. I would avoid dropping the famous device, or the man it is named after, which just gives away the game.
I might drop another hint or two “Just imagine”, our young protagonist thought… “Imagine being Mary, Queen of Scots. They say their first attempt failed, and they had to go again… Isn’t one attempt barbaric enough?” At least this will be quick. But will it be painless? What if I find myself staring up into space, longing for the things I’ve lost?
Finally the young man is led, more accurately dragged, kicking and screaming to the machine. Up onto the stone base, then pinioned in place under two upright beams – four feet distant, 15 feet tall. At the top, a large axe head fitted to a heavy wooden block. The block held in suspension high above him by a length of rope threaded through a pulley. Guillotine, meet your ancestor, the Halifax Gibbet.
The Halifax Gibbet was a very real punishment faced by those living on the manor of Wakefield – of which Halifax was a part. An arcane law left over from the Anglo-Saxons, known as Infangthereof, gave the lord of the manor the right to try and execute anyone caught stealing more than 13 1/2p worth of goods. Most lords ceded this right over time. Most lords hung thieves.
We don’t know how the Halifax Gibbet came about. We know John of Dalton was it’s first victim. We know the names of 51 other victims, and how many were proto- guillotined from 1538 till Cromwell put a stop to the practice in 1650.
A replica stands today, bearing silent witness to someone’s cruelty, and ingenuity.
Why was this tale abandoned?
In short I see myself as a storyteller with a couple of History degrees. My Tales are historical, true as best we can tell, and usually told with a view of exploring some wider context … but if anyone asks me what I do – I’m a storyteller. History involves so much more around differing perspectives, historiography, much more work in amongst the primary sources than I usually do. I’m normally ok using a literary device, like the anonymous thief, so long as I’m clear he IS a device to get the story moving.
But the day I sat down to write on the Gibbet I’d just finished a Smithsonian article by historian Mike Dash on how everyone now thinks Gavrillo Princip came across and murdered Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie by chance, as he stopped at a deli for a sandwich. For one, he’d be lucky to find a sandwich in Sarajevo in 1914 (people there ate other things entirely). For another it suggests chance, where it seems Princip was posted there deliberately – believing the motorcade could still travel that way.
The sandwich idea came from a documentary, Days That Shook the World. The documentarians possibly got the idea, in turn, via a Brazilian novel about a 12 fingered secret agent who meets with Princip just prior to the assassination. This article gave me a little food for thought about such literary devices as the Gibbeted thief.
Touch wood, I’ll have next week’s Blog and Podcast simulcasting for you all… if not on Wednesday, then by week’s end – Simone.