Author Archives: Simone Toni Whitlow

About Simone Toni Whitlow

Simone has a few different hats on her hat rack: History writer, Project Manager, Teacher, Skip Tracer, Musician... and occasionally collector of random stories, trivia and pop culture.

’Fatty’ Arbuckle

Hey all this is our 2nd instalment on the scandals of Hollywood’s silent era. It stands alone, but if you want to, the prelude and part one (on Olive Thomas) can be found via the respective links. 

And yeah, this one gets pretty adult. I don’t say this often, but probably NSFW… 

The weeks leading up to Labour Day weekend 1921 must’ve been one hell of a roller coaster for Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle. The, in my mind at least, unlikely A lister, had just extended his million dollar a year contract with Paramount pictures – a contract which gave him creative and directorial control of his own movies – for another year. 

This must’ve seemed a lifetime ago from his humble beginnings nine years ago, when he signed up with Keystone Studios for a mere $3 a day. More so for 12 year old Roscoe – sent to live with his abusive drunkard of a father, who’d moved on from the hotel his mother shipped him to. The youngster sang for his keep at that hotel for a year, before dear old dad showed up for him. From singing for your supper to seven figures a year was quite the accomplishment for the young comic. 

Sidebar: To compare – the average unionised male in 1912 was on 70c an hour, double Arbuckle’s starting wage. By 1921 this had risen to $1.25 an hour; annually just over one 357th of Roscoe’s salary (an average working week then 44 hours).

Of course, he had to put in the long hours to make the big money. He was contracted to make six movies a year. With his latest, ‘Crazy to Marry’ out in cinemas, his friend and fellow actor-director Fred Fishback booked Arbuckle and his friends a couple of rooms and a suite at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco for a much needed (and absolutely booze-soaked) getaway. Fate almost intervened just days before, when Roscoe sat on an acid- soaked rag while picking his car up from the mechanic. Suffering second degree burns to both buttocks, Arbuckle cried off – but was enticed to go by Fishback, with a rubber donut cushion and the promise of a wild time. So it was actor and his entourage arrived at the St. Francis, September 5th 1921. More could be said about his penchant for wild nights out, or his marriage to the actress Minta Durfee – the couple long separated but keeping up appearances so as to avoid a scandal of all things – but we should pause to introduce Virginia Rappe. 

Virginia Rappe was born in 1891, to a solo mother – who died when Virginia was 11 years old. Subsequently brought up by her grandparents, Rappe moved out to pursue a career as a model at the age of 16. For some time she was extremely successful in the modelling world, becoming something akin to a supermodel. 

Rappe was also an entrepreneur and influencer with her own clothing line – and an advocate for women’s rights. Inasmuch as she often shared the view that women need not be confined to the typing pool, or cooking and cleaning, and that people should really dress to suit themselves. 

She moved to Los Angeles in 1917, looking for film work, and found employment at Arbuckle’s old haunt – Keystone Studios. Rappe dated the director Henry Lehrman, and found plenty of work – though admittedly mostly bit parts. The couple had split up by 1921, and the work stopped flowing in for her. Virginia’s friend Al Semnacher made the suggestion what she needed was to get out and about – be seen a little out in public. Maybe network a little. Semnacher, Rappe, and a friend of Semnacher’s named Maude Delmont booked a suite at the Palace Hotel for the weekend. 

On arrival at the Palace Hotel, Rappe was spotted by a friend of Arbuckle’s – who sent a message over to Arbuckle’s party the model and sometime actor was in town. Arbuckle sent a message back, inviting the trio to drop by the Hotel St Francis and have a few drinks with them. Rappe showed up by herself around midday, and soon messaged Maude and Al to come join her. The two ladies enthusiastically joined in the fun of Arbuckle’s ‘pyjama party’ and a good time was had by all – till the day took a darker turn.  

There are a number of occurrences not in dispute, so I’ll try to sum those up now. 

Around 3pm, the party in room 1221 in full swing, and with the weight of several gin orange blossoms on her bladder, Virginia went to use the bathroom. Maude was in there with one of the men, and told her to go find somewhere else to relieve herself. Desperate to go, she crossed the hallway to Arbuckle’s room – room 1219. Arbuckle followed her across, and locked the bedroom door behind him. Beyond this, accounts diverge. 

It appears Arbuckle and Rappe were alone together for around 30 minutes. It was soon that Rappe screamed in pain, causing other guests – Maude included – to run to room 1219 to investigate. Virginia may have called out “I am dying, I am dying”. Arbuckle almost certainly told Maude to “Get her dressed, and take her back to The Palace. She makes too much noise!” 

Virginia’s clothes were half torn off of her. This, unsurprisingly, would play a sizeable role in later proceedings. 

Roscoe would later claim he’d gone into his room to change out of his pyjamas, only to find Rappe passed out on his bathroom floor. Being a gentleman, he helped her to his bed. All of a sudden, she became hysterical. She began to scream, and tear her own clothes off. It was at this point he called for Maude – feeling rather put out for making the effort to be a good host to Rappe, and unsure what to do next. 

Maude Delmont took Virginia Rappe away, to another room – where she awoke around midnight, still in unbearable pain. Maude called a doctor, who shot Virginia full of morphine, inserted a catheter and left. The doctor’s opinion? Nothing much was wrong with her a little rest wouldn’t sort out. Dissatisfied with the first sawbones – Maude called a second doctor, who misdiagnosed Virginia with alcohol poisoning. Useless doctors aside,  no one took Virginia to a hospital for three whole days. The entire time she was in agony, and showing no signs of improvement. On admittance to the hospital, Virginia was diagnosed with peritonitis, caused by a ruptured bladder. Within a day, her kidneys would stop working. Virginia passed away. 

In the meanwhile, Roscoe Arbuckle had jumped on a boat back to Los Angeles. He’d left the following day, having well and truly trashed the hotel rooms at the St Francis. He doesn’t appear to have asked about Virginia, and first heard of her passing when L.A. Times reporters showed up at his mansion to question him about the weekend. They wouldn’t be the only people to come with questions.   

On September 11th San Francisco district attorney Matthew Brady sent San Francisco police officers to arrest Arbuckle. From the offset, Roscoe refused to comply with the investigators. Having carried out an investigation, Arbuckle was charged with murder. 

Before the case ever got to a courtroom, the court of opinion had their say on the Fatty Arbuckle case. All across America, his films were pulled from cinemas. At one show in Wyoming, a riot broke out. A group of cowboys in attendance, shot the screen full of holes with their side arms when Arbuckle appeared. The press were just as vicious – newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst particularly. Hearst had his own reasons to go after Arbuckle’s employers. He felt Paramount pictures were mismanaging the career of his mistress – the actress Marion Davies. Regardless of reason, Hearst stated the Arbuckle story sold better than the sinking of the Lusitania. While none of the ‘bottle party’ rumours – yes that means what you imagine it means – started at this time, there was much made of Arbuckle’s wild ‘orgies’, disregard for the alcohol ban, and stories aplenty of how Arbuckle used his size advantage to have his way with several young women on the set of a number of Keystone films. Several Christian groups called for Arbuckle to be executed before the trial could begin. 

The media circus shone a light on Hollywood, and got several people asking what else was going on in Tinseltown? Paramount, feeling the heat from the scandal, fired Arbuckle a fortnight after he was charged. 

Now would be a good time to pause a second. While people were baying for Fatty Arbuckle’s blood – D.A. Brady himself asked for the death penalty – and referring to him in terms such as a ‘vulgarian from the gutter…’, (Rappe’s ex Henry Lehrman summed him up thus) – was there any evidence he actually raped Virginia Rappe?

Well, this was fraught too – but no. Despite a rumour the doctors at the hospital tried to incinerate Rappe’s internal organs, destroying evidence – her body went through two autopsies. Both revealed a small number of bruises on one arm and thigh, but no sign of sexual assault. There was a question of whether her bladder burst because someone put a lot of weight on her, however. It was stated Arbuckle, all 265 lbs of him, effectively crushed Rappe to death while forcing himself on her.  

Oh, and another thing I should mention now, before we get on to the trials. When the police were questioning the party guests, they discovered something odd at Al Semnacher’s house. He had Virginia’s torn clothes in his possession. Semnacher claimed he took them for rags to clean his car with. Some suggest he had them in the hope of extorting Arbuckle, or the studio, but was stymied when the police opened an investigation.

The first trial opened November 18th 1921. Pre-trial hearings determined Arbuckle would be facing manslaughter charges, rather than murder – but that was serious enough for Arbuckle to hire a dream team of top lawyers. I won’t go deep on the trial – this was meant to be a five minute essay on the story, but police witnesses who initially claimed to have heard Rappe scream “I am dying” or even, as a few suggested “he’s hurt me” rescinded their claim. 

Maude Delmont, as per this and all future trials, was not called to testify. That she had put away between eight and ten glasses of whiskey in a little over two hours was one thing which brought her evidence into question – that she was awaiting her own day in court on bigamy charges was another entirely. Al Semnacher, on the other hand laid the framework for Kenneth Anger’s ‘Bottle Party’ claim. He testified Arbuckle bragged to him how, while Rappe was on the bed, he put a sharp piece of ice in her – and Semnacher had to write this down as he was far too embarrassed to say the word – ‘snatch’. 

The prosecution did manage to find a security guard working at Keystone studios, who claimed Arbuckle was always trying to get into the ladies’ changing rooms. They made much of both Rappe and Arbuckle’s fingerprints on the door. A nurse at the hospital testified Rappe stated she had consensual sex with Arbuckle. Another claimed she admitted to having ‘internal troubles’ for six weeks beforehand. The defence claimed Virginia Rappe also had past form for tearing her own clothes off at parties when intoxicated. They also explained away the bruises on the heavy jewellery she was wearing that night. 

At the first trial, Arbuckle gave evidence – his testimony as above. He found her on the bathroom floor, after having vomited in the toilet. The bruises? At one point she fell off the bed. Arbuckle being the gentleman he was, he put her back on the bed. 

After deliberations the jury found 10 – 2 in Arbuckle’s favour. 

But the tale didn’t end there. The case was retried in January 1922, the jury unable to come to an unanimous decision. More witnesses forgot whatever damning evidence they gave the first time. One apparently solid witness, a security guard who claimed Arbuckle bribed him for a key to the ladies’ changing rooms. This witness was shot down by the defence, who pointed out the man was facing charges himself, for sexually assaulting an eight year old. More witnesses were produced to testify Virginia Rappe liked to tear her clothes off when drunk. They claimed she was promiscuous. In spite of this the jury came in 10 – 2 again – but this time in favour of conviction. 

With two hung juries, the district attorney went for a third, and final try on 13th March 1922. It was much the same as the previous two, except this time the defence dream team went all in to prove Virginia Rappe was not a virtuous woman, and as per the mores of the time, not someone who could be raped. They played on her alleged bladder problems, and how she was a loose woman who had, by the age of 30, gone through four abortions. 

In the prosecution’s favour, public perception was now well and truly coloured by events. Arbuckle’s films were not just not showing anywhere – but were banned from being shown. Maude Delmont was touring the USA as a public speaker, lecturing on the evils of Hollywood. There had now been seven solid months of stories in the press about Hollywood orgies, of stars love lives, and of murders. 

Hollywood had gone from a plucky little startup, to the fourth biggest sector in the economy by this time – and some people were starting to worry about the moral effects these folk could have on America.

But Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle’s dream team were absolutely on point this time. By thoroughly branding Virginia Rappe a slut, it didn’t matter terribly to the jury what kind of person Arbuckle might have been. It took them five minutes to find him, unanimously, not guilty. 

I’m a little wary of trying to compare and contrast this tale to the happenings of the ‘Me Too’ era. I don’t believe he was a murderer, but suspect he may have been a creep who tried to take advantage of a drunken party guest. Truthfully, due to what looks like witness tampering, it is very hard to say. Some of the ethics of the day – certain people happy to ban the consumption of alcohol in bars. Many of those same people just as happy to walk away from a victim of a binge-drinking incident, the moment she becomes ‘problematic’ to them – well they are one of the unheralded villains of this tale, quite frankly.  Roscoe Arbuckle was likely a creepy guy. Maude Delmont, Al Semnacher, and those first two doctors were also all kinds of negligent for not getting Virginia the medical help she so clearly needed. 

On a personal level, the trial ruined Roscoe Arbuckle’s career. Sure, he had his supporters – Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton among them – but would never work in front of the camera again. Minta Durfee had no reason whatsoever to stay married to him, and the couple soon divorced. Arbuckle found a little work in Vaudeville, and eventually snuck back in to Hollywood – directing films under the nom de plume Will B. Goodrich. The actors he worked with commented he seemed a broken man, who more or less directed as if on autopilot. He’d die of a heart attack at the age of 46. 

The public perception of Hollywood was much changed for many also, in the wake of the trial. It lifted the curtain, revealing lives which were starkly different to the studio spin. This gave power to those anti drink wowsers who had gotten alcohol banned, and who had been eyeing Hollywood up ever since. 

Update: Under Construction…

Hey all just a quick update. This week’s blog post (on the Roscoe ’Fatty’ Arbuckle, Virginia Rappe case) is running a little behind schedule. The architect (me) drew up the blueprint, only for massive amounts of scope creep to sneak into the build… The minutiae around the case was more than the project manager (also me) was bargaining for – and I’m now arguing with the owners (yours truly) over why we can’t have the room for a piano they want, let alone that precarious looking toilet on the upper floor….

I was expecting to do this one in 2,000 – 2,500 words. To do it justice I probably need to double that. I’m happy to aim for maybe 3,000 words, but don’t want to create a monster like in the featured image (stolen from a Google image search ”House falls on Buster Keaton” if you were wondering. I have no idea what the photo relates to.)

Add to the mix, Auckland, NZ has been in a lockdown for just over 2 months now. As, well prior to COVID I was a work from home person, it hasn’t bought me much extra time in the week. This time has felt like hard time – no complaints about our leadership over here from me, but I am feeling a little drained of late… many of you all have experienced this with ’quarantimes’ too right? (to borrow a phrase from a friend.)

I don’t have some random historical factoid or mini Tale to shoehorn in here so let me awkwardly insert this guy into the mix by pointing out on the upside, my chronic insomnia has more or less disappeared this lockdown, which has been nice.

aaaand… Paul Kern is a Tale I came across a couple of years ago, and put way on the back-burner – as when I began to dig around the story I just couldn’t find anything much by way of reliable sources. I’ve had a Google alert set to his name for just on two years however, as I think his life must’ve been awful, if true.

Paul was allegedly a Hungarian soldier during the First World War. Stationed near Chlebovice, modern day Chechnya in July 1915 (on first glance the Austro-Hungarians fought the Russians around there at this time), he was shot in the head – losing much of his frontal lobe.

Paul Kern survived, but was alleged to have never slept again. A military Wiki page dedicated to him states he returned to Budapest, and lived till 1943… Something not backed up by any Guinness Book of Records, no Jstor or Academia articles. Nothing in the Lancet.

What do y’all reckon? A man who, due to a traumatic brain injury, which it’s implied destroyed the part of his brain which needs sleep, never slept for close to 3 decades? I’m inclined to file it alongside Old Tom Parr and the theft of a 5 tonne wrecking ball from an American construction site in 1973 as wildly inaccurate, but entertaining Forteana right?

Let me know your thoughts below.
I should be back with the next tale before the week’s out.

Spencer Perceval

Hey all, as I’m dropping The Max Headroom Incident as the podcast episode – I’m yet again at a loose end for a blog post for the week. I broke ground on this post 28th September (New Zealand time) – the day it was announced John Hinckley, the man who attempted to kill Ronald Reagan, just to impress Jodie Foster, would be released from prison in 2022. 

This did sway my choice of topic. Please don’t mistake my telling of this tale as having some political motive – perhaps taking a sly jab at Boris Johnson or such. I’m no fan of Boris by a long long way, but there is no such intent here. 

I’m just sharing an obscure tale, on a couple of now obscure figures to pass a little time.

Today’s tale is set in foyer of the British House of Commons. The date, 11th May 1812. Parliament was particularly quiet that day, with only around sixty MPs in attendance. All the same, a handful of merchants were milling around the foyer, waiting to be called in by those assembled. In amongst them, a slight, unassuming man in his early 40s. Our mystery man, of late a regular observer, quietly entered the foyer, taking a seat by the fireplace. 

The reason for the hearings that day, in front of a committee of 60? Well, their contemporary, the Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz once said ‘war is a continuation of politics by other means’. It can go both ways, politics becoming another front in a war just as easily. In 1806, France – then ruled by Napoleon Bonaparte, slapped Britain with a trade embargo. Britain slapped back with an embargo of their own in 1807, hitting the USA while they were at it.  

By 1812, a number of merchants were loudly complaining the embargoes were costing them their livelihoods, and begged parliament to please consider them, before the lost the shirts off their backs. The house agreed to hear from a selection of affected traders and discuss the matter.

The hearings were supposed to begin at 4:30 pm, but all in sundry were waiting on one man, Spencer Perceval.

Spencer Perceval was a lawyer, who entered politics in his early 30s. A Tory he preferred the description “a friend of Mr Pitt” (William Pitt the younger). A devoted family man with 13 children, and an aversion to hunting, drinking or gambling, one imagines Mr Perceval something of an outsider among his party. He became Prime minister in 1809, and lead under trying times. The formerly ‘Mad King George’ III, it appeared again afflicted with his mystery illness. The Luddites protested the mechanisation of their former roles. The ‘Peninsula War’ against Bonaparte in the Iberian Peninsula ground on. Up to a million people would die before the fighting was done. If Spain were his Vietnam, his Bay of Pigs would be The Walcheran Expedition – a failed invasion of the French- controlled Netherlands. 

In an effort to aid their allies Austria, Britain landed 39,000 men on an island called Walcheran, now part of Zeeland. The Austrians had already been defeated and sent packing. The British were defeated, not by the French, but Walcheran fever – believed a mixture of two diseases (malaria and typhus). In the wake of 4,000 deaths to the disease, Britain ceded the island and left.   

Perceval was, among other issues, against granting greater rights and freedoms to British Catholics. He did, however, approve of the abolition of slavery. All in all he was an interesting guy, in charge in interesting times – and well liked in the house. 

Today, as was sometimes the case, he was running late. The sun was out, the prime minister was full of the joys of spring, and insisted on walking in to work that day. 

Back at the House of Commons, the examination had begun without the boss. James Stephen, MP for Grinstead was busy interrogating Robert Hamilton – a potter who claimed the embargo was threatening to send him to the poor house. 

At 5:15 Perceval arrived, quickening his pace towards the debating chamber. Removing his coat he glided through the lobby towards the door. Suddenly, as if out of nowhere, the stranger rose from his seat, drew a pistol and fired a shot straight into the prime minister’s chest. Perceval hit the floor, exclaiming “I am murdered”. The assassin was subdued and questioned – where he admitted his guilt, and told a tale of woe to the authorities. He was rather hastily tried two days’ later at the Old Bailey.

So, who was this mysterious assassin, and why kill the prime minister of Britain?

John Bellingham is something of a mysterious figure – though largely so down to poor record keeping. He is believed born in 1769, probably in Huntingdonshire, then brought up in London. He was taken on as an apprentice to a London jeweller – but by the age of 16 found himself on a ship bound for China. The ship, The Hartwell, struck trouble on this, maiden voyage. The captain came into conflict with the crew – who mutinied. Captain Edward Fiott captured the mutineers and made for the Cape Verde islands off modern day Mauritania to hand them over to authorities – but accidentally hit the desert island of Boa Vista – putting a stop to their mission. 

The crew of the Hartwell were rescued, and returned to England. 

The records are sketchy as to his whereabouts until the late 1790s. A man with the same name opened a tin factory in the mid 1790s which went bust soon afterwards. I’m personally extremely dubious that this was our guy. In 1798 Bellingham shows up as an accounts clerk working in London. Around 1800, he secured a role as an agent for an import-export business, and was sent to Arkhangelsk Russia – formerly Russia’s main trading port with Europe. His 1812 testimony states by 1804 he was a merchant in his own right, trading with the Russians. 

Whatever the path which led Bellingham to Arkhangelsk, he claims he was there in 1804, when accused of causing another merchant’s bankruptcy. Official documents put the incident two years earlier.  In 1802 a ship – more ‘coffin boat’ than sea-worthy vessel if the tale is to believed – named The Sojus wrecked while travelling from Russia to England. The ship was insured – allegedly over insured – through Lloyds of London. It was likely to have been overloaded and decrepit, and as such a win-win for the rival merchant. Get to England safely, you sell your goods, make your money and try your luck again next voyage. The ship sinks – for the low, low cost of a few hundred lives the merchant could care less about – the merchant gets their payout from the insurer. Davy Jones’ locker, more often than not, gets to keep the evidence. The merchant buys another broken down old vessel and gets to roll the dice again. 

The rise of the coffin ship in itself is a horrifying subject which widowed many sailors wives – and criminalised thousands of seamen who chose to breach contract when confronted with the hole-ridden old nag they were meant to sail on. We’ll save that for another day. 

In this case the crew survived the wreck and were rescued in their entirety. Lloyds refused to pay the merchant, and rightly or wrongly, Bellingham was accused of tipping the insurers off to the fraud.  He was ordered to recompense the rival merchant at a cost just shy of 5,000 roubles. He couldn’t pay, and served time. On release he travelled to St Petersburg, where he tried to have the governor of Arkhangelsk, General Van Brienan, impeached for having him wrongly jailed. This led to a further prison term. All up he spent six years in prison in Russia, before being released. 

Bellingham was suddenly homeless, left to beg for food on the streets of St Petersburg. He managed to successfully petition the Tsar to pay for his ticket back to England, and was repatriated in 1809. 

During his incarceration he was bankrupted by his creditors. Also during his incarceration, he reached out to the British Attorney General Lord Granville Leveson-Gower on multiple occasions to ask for help. Leveson-Gower contacted the governor of Arkhangelsk to request Bellingham be released. The governor convinced the attorney general Bellingham was guilty, so the crown left the Russians to it. 

On his return, Bellingham doggedly pursued the crown for reparations – and when that went nowhere, took to sitting in the gallery at the House of Commons with a pair of opera glasses. He was there to stalk Lord Leveson-Gower – who was the likely original target for assassination. In April 1812 he took his coat to a tailor, who he paid to make an inner pocket big enough to conceal his pistol. It’s a mystery as to why he shot Spencer Perceval instead that day, but is generally speculated he mistook the prime minister – himself a former attorney general as it turns out – for his intended target. 

Evidence was presented as to Bellingham’s insanity – for the most part in the form of his letters demanding reparations, and witnesses who claimed he told them he had a £100,000 payout coming, from which he’d buy a country estate in the west of the country. Bellingham chose to brush that away in his own defence, in the hope others would see he had a legitimate right to recompense – denied him by the authorities. On 13th May a jury of 12 men found him guilty of murder. The judge, Sir James Mansfield ordered him to hang. His body subsequently to be given to a medical school to be anatomised in front of trainee doctors. 

Curiously, some members of the public did believe John Bellingham was within his rights to murder a politician. Rene Martin-Pillet, a French author present at the execution later wrote of the mood of the crowd. Rather than the usual buzz which attended a hanging, the crowd was allegedly somber. Many in attendance felt Bellingham was the real victim, treated abysmally from his arrest in Russia, to his execution. Politicians weren’t listening to the people. This murder might just teach a few of them a little humility. 

Martin-Pillet wrote that a collection was taken for his widow, who suddenly found herself rich beyond her wildest dreams. 

John Bellingham’s skull is kept at the Pathology museum at Queen Mary University, in London. A distant relative of his, Baron Henry Bellingham, is a Tory politician who sits in the House of Lords. In 1997 Bellingham, not yet a Lord, lost his seat in the House of Commons to a Labour politician. A UKIP politician who split the right wing vote, caused the loss. The UKIP candidate was Roger Percival – a distant relative of former prime minister Spencer Perceval. In 2012 Baron Bellingham expressed shame and sorrow for the actions of his forbear in a poorly attended public ceremony, commemorating the 200th anniversary of the murder.  

 Spencer Perceval’s family were granted £50,000 in compensation by approval of both Houses of Parliament – to be paid out at £2,000 a year to his widow, Jane. 

The Max Headroom Incident

This week’s tale is set in the Windy City – Chicago, Illinois. The time, a very specific 9.14pm on 22nd November 1987. The city’s sports fans are tuned into WGN TV’s Nine O’clock News as Dan Roen discuses the latest round in the Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions rivalry – (I’m told the two American Football teams have been at war with one another since 1930, having met 183 times at time of writing… on this day the Bears won 30 – 10). As select footage played from the game, the signal suddenly cut out – replaced by a bizarre, distorted pirate signal. In place of the hulking footballers, a man in a suit, wearing a familiar mask to trick or treaters that year. Bobbing up and down for joy, the figure stood in front of a sheet of corrugated iron, which rotated back and forth behind him. Before the intruder could say anything, one of the technicians at WGN TV wrestled control back from the hijackers, changing uplink frequencies. Back to a rather shocked Roen, in the studio…

Well, if you’re wondering what’s happened – so am I”
This would be the first of two bizarre incidents on Chicago television that night.

The second incident occurred at 11.15pm on PBS affiliate WTTW (channel 11). The channel was in the midst of Doctor Who’s Horror of Fang Rock serial (to the uninitiated, Doctor Who is a Sci-Fi show from the UK featuring a time travelling alien called The Doctor. From time to time The Doctor dies, and is reincarnated, with a new actor taking the lead. This episode featured fourth Doctor Tom Baker – Whovians reading this would hardly need me to tell them that – their knowledge tends towards the encyclopaedic). In the middle of a scene, an intrusion forced its way onto the airwaves.

Tom Baker, the 4th Doctor, surrounded by Daleks.


Whereas the first invasion lasted a mere 25 seconds, this one would carry on for close to one and a half minutes. The intruder – a man with a rubber Max Headroom mask – would speak this time, though the signal would be highly distorted. Having disparaged sports caster Chuck Swirsky, sung a line from The Temptations 1966 hit ‘(I know) I’m Losing You’, hummed the theme for 1960s cartoon Clutch Cargo, waved around what looks like a rubber dildo, dropped the catchphrase from the new, New Coke ads the real Max Headroom fronted, and put on a welding glove stating ‘my brother has the other one on’ – the video cuts to ‘Max’, bare bottomed, stating ‘Oh no, they’re coming to get me’ before a woman with a fly swatter emerges to spank him. The intrusion then cuts out. It is quite an action-packed minute and a half.

That the hijackers chose Max Headroom to front their intrusion may carry political meaning, although it could just as likely have been a convenient disguise – Headroom masks were everywhere just the month before – a lot of people dressed as Max for Halloween. Max Headroom, the character seems the perfect avatar for the crime however.

The character had come about in 1985 as British TV station Channel 4 wanted to launch a music video program, a little like the shows on MTV. Rather than use a real life ‘Talking head’ they looked to create an AI – but that proving too expensive, they settled on adding prosthetics to the sharp-featured Matt Frewer. He was dressed in a shiny fibreglass jacket, filmed him in intense light in front of a computer generated background, and his voice was occasionally ‘glitched’ with pitch shifting and a digital ‘stutter’. The creators; George Stone, Annabel Jankel, and Rocky Morton then concocted an elaborate backstory to the character. This in turn spawned a weekly action show based around the character.  

In a dystopian near future, run by large TV corporations, crusading reporter Edison Carter chases down a story that ‘blipverts’ – 3 second advertisements designed to keep people on the channel – are killing some of the audience. While uncovering the truth, Carter has an accident, leaving him comatose. His last memory, seeing a sign on a carpark entrance ‘Max Headroom 2.3 metres’. The Channel downloads his memories into an AI avatar to replace him – however the character (Headroom) is the opposite of the humble Carter. Max Headroom is the very image of an arrogant, swaggering news host. A movie, then several seasons of the action show were wonderfully subversive critiques of the evils of consumerism, politics and modern life in general. Carter and Headroom brilliantly antithetical characters, played like a modern Jekyll and Hyde. The edgy critique (which coincidentally had dealt with the takeover of a TV channel in one episode – a crime referred to as ‘zipping’ and carrying a death sentence), had gotten the show cancelled only a month prior to the Max Headroom incident. ‘Network 23’, in this case ABC television, were not amused.


While in real life, you can’t be executed for ‘zipping’ a channel – it is a serious crime all the same. The Federal Communications Commission were called in to investigate. The FBI joined the investigation soon after. If a perpetrator were to be caught, they could face a $100,000 fine, a year in jail – or both. After extensive investigation, and an interrogation of everyone the authorities believed had the skills to hack the network – they came up empty-handed. This doesn’t mean internet sleuths have given up on the mystery. One name often put forward is former punk rocker and indie filmmaker Eric Fournier. Fournier filmed a series of shorts in the 1990s around the fictional character Shaye St John – a former model who had to rebuild herself with prosthetics after a horrific train accident. A compilation of these quirky (or disturbing, depending on which side of the fence you sit) shorts was released on DVD in 2006, with an accompanying website which remained online till 2017. Many have commented on the similar sense of humour. Fournier cannot confirm or deny, having passed on 2010.

Shaye St John.


Another lead often discussed is an anonymous Reddit thread from 2010. The poster claimed he was part of the hacker community in the 1980s, when he met two brothers he called J and K. The poster was convinced the two were behind the hijacking, having bragged of a big caper just days before the intrusion. They were allegedly capable of carrying out the hijack, and Max’s character, inability to keep to a single topic for more than a few seconds, and general sense of humour seemed very like ‘J’. The thread, now archived, has an update from 2013 that the police located ‘J and K’ following the post, and were able to eliminate them from the list of suspects. To date no-one has been charged with the Max Headroom incident.  

One may ask why was this prank taken so seriously? Sure, a number of viewers were upset by the intrusion – one commenting it felt like someone had thrown a brick through his window. The laws were only recently beefed up to deal with incidents like this in an effort to protect all manner of large networks. Imagine if you will, the hackers found a way into the power grid, traffic lights or air control systems at an airport. However, stunts like the Max Headroom incident can cause some real panic in their own right. While this incident, the 1986 ‘Captain Midnight’ protest (where satellite dish salesman John MacDougall took over HBO in protest of them blocking satellite dish owners from watching for free), or the 1987 intrusion into a soft-core porn film on the Playboy channel with bible verses, by an engineer for the Christian Broadcasting Network named Thomas Haynie are all almost comical, other examples are less so.

In 1966, a Russian hacker in the city of Kaluga made an on air announcement, that the USA had launched nuclear missiles at the USSR. A British hacker caused a mass panic among the gullible in 1977 when he hacked a Southern Television news bulletin in alien voice to announce himself as Vrillon, representative of the Ashtar Galactic Command. In Poland in 1985, four astronomers hacked their TV stations with messages in support of the ‘Solidarity’ labour movement, which would eventually overthrow their communist rulers. In 2006, Israel, then at war with Lebanon hacked Hezbollah’s Al Manar TV to broadcast anti Hezbollah propaganda.  



Olive Thomas – the poisoned chalice

This week’s Tale is part one of a four-part series on scandals of Hollywood’s Silent film era. It’s due to run on the non-podcast weeks.

When I think of Olive Thomas and her sojourn in Paris, a tiny part of me wonders how she found the ‘City of Light’? Did she and hubby Jack Pickford, (of the superstar acting family of the era, most notably including Mary Pickford) play tourist, wandering the expansive, well lit boulevards which were masterminded by Baron Haussmann. Did they stop along the way to take in statues, fountains and historic buildings? Did they ride in a hot air balloon or cruise the Seine river by pleasure boat? Make the pilgrimage to the Louvre – the former palace rebranded an art gallery in the 1790s, or view the splendour of the palace of Versailles?

Was Olive afflicted, as so many Asian tourists allegedly are, by ‘Paris Syndrome’? A sense of culture shock which leaves one with an intense feeling of ‘Meh-ness’ at Gay Paree? 

One thing I know for certain, both Olive and Jack did experience Paris’ vivid nightlife on the night of September 5th 1920. The couple drank, and partied, and arrived at their Hotel Ritz suite, presumably the worse for wear, around 3am on the 6th. Jack, it is said, went straight to bed. The couple had a flight booked for London that morning, and he needed a little shut eye. Olive, not yet ready to turn in, took to writing a letter to her mother back in the USA – at least until Jack shouted at her to turn the light off and come to bed. She turned out the light, and made her way in the dark to the bathroom. 

Seconds later Jack claimed to hear Olive shriek “Oh My God!” and collapse as if struck dead. The unfolding event would go down in the annals of Tinseltown as it’s first great scandal, and proof that sometimes, tragedy sells. Before I get into that too deeply I really should introduce the cast? 

Paris

Olive Thomas was born Olivia Duffy in Charleroi, Pennsylvania, October 20th 1894. She was sent to live with her grandparents at the age 12 when her father, James, was killed in a workplace accident. She left school aged 15, to work in a department store; and married Bernard Thomas, a train station clerk, in April 1911. By the age of 18 she’d left Bernard, moving to New York to make her fame and fortune. Her first big break came in 1914, when she won a beauty contest. 

Over the following years, Olive parlayed her win into a lucrative entertainment career. The win opened doors for her as an artist’s model – her painted image featuring in several magazine advertisements. This, in turn led to a role in the Ziegfeld Follies – a flashy Broadway dance review which ran from 1907 to 1931 (then intermittently after) established after the model of Paris’ Folies Bergère by Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. She was soon dating the impresario, which in turn saw her move up the pecking order at the Follies. By 1916, Olive was appearing in films – and after she came to the attention of the film producer Thomas Ince in 1917 – she signed up to a six film a year contract with Triangle Pictures. She often played innocent, girl next door types.

Her real life was anything but girl next door – though that IS why they call it acting I guess? In 1916, while still involved with Ziegfeld, she met and fell in love with Jack Pickford – the only son of the Pickford acting family. Mary Pickford, his older sister, was as A list as one could be in those days. A film star since 7 years of age, she would be known as ‘America’s Sweetheart’. She’d win an Oscar, found Pickford-Fairbanks studios with second hubby Douglas Fairbanks, and become a founding member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Jack himself was a popular working actor playing ‘boy next door’ types. The couple secretly eloped in 1916.

Jack and Olive were heavy partiers, Jack especially. He was an extremely heavy drinker, and – according to Hollywood Babylon’s Kenneth Anger – reputedly a heroin addict. He was also far from a one woman man. It was rumoured he’d contracted syphilis, an STI for which there would be no effective known cure for till a US marine hospital trialled penicillin in 1943. As it was, it was reputed ‘Mr Syphilis’ as he was known in Hollywood circles – used mercury bi-chloride as an ointment on his syphilis sores as they arose. It’s worth mentioning now that mercury bi-chloride, first used to treat the condition in the mid 16th Century by Paracelsus – is highly dangerous if ingested. 

To take us through to September 6th… Olive continued to have a career – nothing Earth-shattering. She left Triangle for Selznick pictures for an eight picture a year deal. She had a string of moderately successful films, one of which – The Flapper – lent it’s name to the carefree party girls of the Roaring 20s. Something may have happened in the lead up to her and Jacks’ cruise to France however, as she was off their payroll by time the couple set sail in August 1920. Jack continued to party, drink, ingest drugs and play the field. In 1918 he created a scandal of his own when he – a Canadian born Canadian citizen volunteered for the American Navy to avoid being drafted into Canada’s armed forces and sent off to World War One. He volunteered knowing a number of sons of wealthy patricians were doing the same, then paying generous bribes to Naval brass to keep from getting sent off to fight. Jack was one of a number of these ‘slackers’ caught out, and named and shamed in the press. He avoided a dishonourable discharge, or criminal charges – but his image was tarnished, as was the wider Pickford families’ good name. 

Sidebar: It’s probably worth a quick mention Mary Pickford’s ‘good name’ could have done with a little more tarnishing, truthfully. Though she did participate in a lot of charity work, she was also a fan and supporter of Benito Mussolini, Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan – not exactly the nicest of people, to put it mildly. 

Mary Pickford, Hollywood pioneer and big fan of fascist dictators.

So it was the couple left by ship to Europe in mid August 1920 – Olive possibly let go of her contract. Jack still working, but down to one or two films a year at this point. 

And, here we rejoin the tragedy at the Ritz. Olive has collapsed – a bottle of poison at her side. Jack called for a doctor, and proceeded to force water and egg whites down Olive’s rapidly corroding throat to try to purge the dangerous substance. It’s not known if she took a tablet of Jack’s ointment (it usually came in tablet form) thinking it was a painkiller or a sleeping pill – or if she’d washed a pill down with a dissolved tablet left in a glass – thinking she was downing water. Mary Pickford would later claim an errant maid must’ve left some poison out after cleaning their room, in an effort to absolve Jack and save her family brand from further damage. A doctor would arrive, and pump Olive’s stomach three times, then – five hours after she collapsed – have her taken to the hospital. At this stage it was too late, Olive Thomas would pass on 10th September 1920.      

Not meaning to trivialise Olive’s tragedy, she’s just passed after all, but the waves in the wake of her passing were something to behold. The Pickfords immediately sprang into damage control mode. On the day Olive passed, Mary’s recently ex husband Owen Moore made a press announcement – hoping to stop the press muck-raking. He stated Olive was extremely unwell when the couple left for France – inferring she’d died of natural causes. Just a moderately successful 25 year old actress dying suddenly of a mystery illness we don’t feel the need to explain to you – nothing to see here folks. Please don’t poke around the Pickfords facade in their time of mourning. 

But poke around the press did. Stories emerged, whether true or not, of Olive’s night of Parisian debauchery. Was she hanging out in disreputable dens with the criminal underclass – where the entertainment ran from women bare knuckle brawling to darker-skinned men biting the heads off live rats? Did she drink rocket-fuel containing high amounts of ethanol? Were these seedy clubs being run “in defiance of police regulations” as one Ohio newspaper claimed?

Probably not. But American papers announced this in the tradition of Yellow journalism they were then so well known for. 

But then, there was the case of a Captain Spalding – a former American army captain sentenced to six months’ prison time at La Sante Prison in the week following Olive’s death. His crime? Organising cocaine-fuelled orgies. It was rumoured his little black book had Olive’s contacts in it. 

And then, the rumours of Jack’s syphilis emerged. Scuttlebutt circulated Olive must have contracted the disease from Jack, and in a moment of despondency – taken her own life. People started to blame Jack for her death. This was followed by another rumour – that Jack had taken a life insurance policy out on Olive – and some began to look askance at him now as a possible murderer. Questions arose about the way Jack avoided police questioning in the wake of Olive’s passing. This wouldn’t be helped any when Jack Pickford remarried, to a young Hollywood widow named Marilyn Miller. Marilyn herself would die young, though at that point she was recently divorced from Jack (turns out he was physically abusive to Marilyn) and on the operating table having surgery on her nasal passages. 

Public opinion soon fell behind Olive. She was the wholesome girl next door led astray by this family of dodgy Hollywood aristocrats. 15,000 mourners gathered outside her funeral. Her movies – all honesty I have no idea if she was any good as an actress, and best as I can tell next to nothing of her work survives – suddenly looked a whole lot better to the public. Her films, re-released all became blockbusters. 

When the wowsers who banned alcohol in America via tireless rallying for the 18th Amendment – followed by the Volstead Act found themselves at a loose end, Hollywood would become their next target. I won’t get into the various reasons behind this, not least of all that waspish killjoys were also racist killjoys who detested the number of Jewish folk involved in the movie industry – but for now it suffices to say the tragedy of Olive Thomas was an early parable trotted out by that crowd.  

While there is a lot of rumour and supposition in this Tale – it probably does bear to mention Jack Pickford, of who it was only ever rumoured he had syphilis – did return to Paris in late 1932. He collapsed as suddenly as Olive had, and died days later, January 3rd 1933. The cause of death, “progressive multiple neuritis which attacked all the nerve centres.” This could well have been caused by his alcoholism, but it’s worth pointing out it is often caused by syphilis also. 

The Enfundu

Hey all, as I’ve got a podcast episode for the perennial ’Willie The Wimp (and his Cadillac Coffin) dropping this week, I’d intended to write a new post to go out alongside it.
Truth is I’m a little burnt out. I’m also a little behind on schedule for the Patreon episode (recorded, both music and narration – just in need of a couple of hours editing)
The Podcast episode of this script will go up on the Patreon channel late today, possibly tomorrow.
Sorry, slightly less than exclusive content this week – you’ll still have to join up to get the accompanying podcast episode. – Simone

Our tale this week begins, like a lot of tales honestly could – with Britons abroad, behaving badly. I can’t get to our villain without mentioning the mechanisms which enabled his rise to power. 

In 1888 The Imperial British East Africa Company were the latest private British corporation established to exploit foreign land, labour and assets. Fronted by Sir William Mackinnon – a wealthy Scottish ship owner, the IBEACO were sent off with Queen Victoria’s blessing to seize whatever they could in the region. The ‘scramble for Africa’ – no, the ‘Rape of Africa’ seems far more apt – was underway, and the capitalists of Britain were keen to exploit this opportunity. 

The British empire proper, in this case were happy to sub-contract. They had recently entered into an agreement with Germany that the Germans could have the land now Tanzania, if Britain could get her hooks into what is now Uganda and Kenya. The crown was tied up in South Africa at the time, but didn’t want to let the opportunity pass. So it was the IBEACO were sent in to take control of 639,000 square kilometres of sovereign land – to govern, tax and exploit it independently. While there, they were tasked with building a railway line through the country. 

They arrived to find a sizeable portion of the land, the Kingdom of Buganda, engaged in a four- way civil war – split along religious lines. King Mwanga II was increasingly worried about the spread of Christianity throughout his nation. In 1885, in an effort to eject these ideas from his country, he had an Anglican bishop named James Hannington murdered, followed by a number of Christians at his court. This led to the war. The IBEACO backed a combined Christian and Muslim side – leading to victory for the coalition. Mwanga got to keep his crown, but was now under the thumb of the British – and forced to convert to Christianity.

Mwanga would, rightly, state “The English have come; they have built a fort; they eat my land; they have made me sign a treaty; they curtail my powers; and I get nothing from them in return.”

He would also try his luck again, in 1897- only to be defeated by Britain proper (they took the reins from the IBEACO in 1893). More could be said of Mwanga, not least of all that one of his objections to Christianity was he was a gay or bisexual man who objected to being told gay love was sinful. He died in exile in The Seychelles in 1903. 

This is something of a trend, when it came to British rule in Uganda. Take advantage of warring factions by backing the bigger, meaner guys. Grant those people all kinds of privileges, and let them do the grunt work wherever possible. The British preferred certain tribes, such as the Acholi, who were excellent warriors – over the likes of the Baganda – who they feared may lead another uprising if trained by them. Certain men, such as the physically imposing son of a Kawka tribesman, and well regarded Lugbara ‘witch doctor’ – were a shoe in for a role of enforcer.

Idi Amin was born anywhere between 1923 and 1928 – with 1925 the most quoted year of birth. He was born to a Kawka tribesman who abandoned the family when Idi was young. His mother, Assa Aate, was a traditional healer who had served tribal royalty. Idi completed four years of schooling, then took up whatever casual labour he could find, before a British officer saw the potential in the 6.4” tall, solidly built young man. He was recruited for the Kings African Rifles in 1946. He fought for the British empire against several secessionist groups in Kenya in the 1950s, including the Mau Mau rebellion – and was promoted to lieutenant- the highest rank ever given to an Ugandan serviceman to that point (and one of only two in the army). 

In 1961, he was transferred home, and tasked to deal with gangs of cattle rustlers. His brutal takedown of the rustlers singled Idi Amin out as a possible future leader, and laid out – in retrospect- just what a despotic thug he would be. 

As Idi Amin rose to prominence among his own people, the British were preparing the Ugandans for independent rule. Their governor at the time, Sir Andrew Cohen, lifted a raft of taxes, tariffs and restrictions; encouraged Ugandan farmers to form collectives to maximise bargaining power, and set up development funds – all with a view to leaving them in a good position to run their own affairs when Britain left. Plans were made to hold elections in 1961, then to hand the reins back to the people. 

The man who became Prime Minister, Milton Obote, was troublesome – and would use a 1969 assassination attempt to declare himself dictator outright – but this is not his story so we’ll skip his tale. What’s pertinent to our story is he was another divisive figure, and he favoured young Idi. In 1965 Obote and Idi Amin were implicated in a plot to smuggle ivory and gold into Uganda from the Democratic republic of Congo. Obote disestablished the largely symbolic but possibly dangerous post of President, and – to shore up support – promoted Amin to Army Commander.

Idi Amin began stacking the army with South Sudanese troops – another outsourcer- though clearly those men carried no tribal affiliations with the other power brokers. In 1970, Obote grew suspicious of Amin and demoted him, so Idi led a rebellion – and took over the country himself, January 25th 1971. 

Now, I could wax lyrical on our villain, detailing monstrosities and absurdities – his ‘state research bureau, the private army he used to enforce his rule. The countless tortures and executions – some estimates run to half a million victims of his reign. The massacre of Lango and Acholi soldiers in their barracks at Mbarara, in July 1971. The intelligentsia just ‘disappeared’, dissenters were silenced. 50,000 Asian citizens were given a day to leave everything behind or face death in August 1972. A business owning class, their removal tanked the Ugandan economy. As His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hajj Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of all the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea; and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular began to ramp up in the mid 1970s many of his own trusted men defected to the United Kingdom. 

There was the political re-orientation towards other authoritarian regimes, like Gaddafi’s Libya, and the USSR. There was the falling out with Israel and plans for war with the Israelis. He let a hijacked aircraft land in his nation. Yoni Netanyahu- brother of Israeli president (at the time of this episode) Benjamin Netanyahu led the rescue mission – and was killed in action. 

There was his underground prison torture chamber, surrounded by an electrified moat. It was packed so tightly that many of the deaths there were due to suffocation. Many more suicides from those who could take it no more, who decided the moat was a better fate. A reputed cannibal, who kept body parts in his freezers, he was apt to fly into rages and kill his own aides. Some times this went beyond farce – Frank Kalimazo, a former employee caught the premature announcement of his own murder on the radio, while attending his own daughter’s wedding. Not unlike Henry VIII, he had six wives – and when inconvenienced killed one of them. His fourth wife’s body was dismembered, then dropped off at a hospital. 

But enough of this monster, our hero is The Enfundu. 

In 1978 a buzz was going round the villages. The Enfundu came in from the jungle, into Jinja near Kampala – and demanded to speak with the Governor and police commissioner. He shared his deep political insights with the two and departed. Word spread about this meeting – something the two bureaucrats denied – and soon thousands of people claimed they too had been approached by the Enfundu. The Enfundu’s message? The short version, Idi Amin’s cruel reign of terror was nearly up. Opposition was rising, and people would soon take up arms and depose the despot. 

Victor Hugo once stated ‘Nothing of more powerful than an idea whose time has come’. Sometimes, as in the case of King Mwanga and Christianity it can be an awful idea – only leading to persecution for members of your own society. In other cases it can lead a people to a brighter tomorrow. 

Unsurprisingly, Idi Amin launched an expensive press campaign against The Enfundu – stating tales of Enfundu’s were patently ridiculous. He threatened to put anyone caught telling the Tale in front of a firing squad. He took the situation seriously enough, however that he sent out a death squad to find and kill the dissident. At one point he sent out a press release the Enfundu was caught, and awaiting sentencing in a Kampala jail. 

At this point, if The Enfundu were help captive it no longer mattered. No more than the murder of Bishop James Hannington. Ideas are harder to kill than Enfundus. Amin knew this, and became increasingly paranoid. He changed his security regularly. Large sections of his army revolted in November 1978, leading to a civil war, which spilled out into Tanzania. Amin ordered troops into Tanzania after the rebels – leading to a war with the Tanzanians. He was crushed, and had to flee the country. Like Mwanga tried decades earlier, Amin would make an unsuccessful attempt to re-take Uganda, in 1989. He spent most of the rest of his life in exile in Saudi Arabia. 

But who was the Enfundu, you may ask? In the native tongue of the people of Kampala it means tortoise. An eminently wise, talking tortoise was, according to thousands of people – wandering the nation fomenting revolution. This was not the first talking animal to criticise the government. Milton Obote would have a lizard who just hated him. The tortoise wouldn’t be the last – Yoweri Museveni – the current president, has a talking cat who sings his praises to all in sundry. Sadly, Uganda had a homophobic goat in the 1980s, who travelled the nation preaching that AIDS was God’s punishment for homosexuality- we all know what King Mwanga II would have done to that goat in his time – and that asshole goat would have had it coming. 

In a world of QAnon’s, filled with all kinds of dangerous nonsense and misinformation – the tale of The Enfundu may not seem as surprising, or unlikely anymore. To my thinking the talking tortoise is no less unlikely than William Tell refusing to bow to Gessler’s hat, or John Frum appearing to the Ni Vanuatu to give them the courage to stop listening to their colonisers – to give up Western ways, and start marching the airstrips to summon cargo from heaven. Perhaps more outlandish, sure but, end of the day it’s the idea which matters. Whichever avatar that idea adopts, it may not be the best representation – but it’s always the one the people need.     

Willie the Wimp (and his Cadillac coffin)


Inspiration can come at you from so many ways. For me it sometimes comes in the form of a digression in a book that sticks in my head – I wonder why no-one has told THAT story, till I go chase down the rest of the tale. Sometimes something comes from a conversation you’ve had with someone else.

Sometimes the teenage you is looking through second hand cassettes in a 4 for $5 bin. You are planning to spend the afternoon hand writing a legible copy (I did not get my first computer till I was 22) of a university essay on Shakespeare’s ‘Measure for Measure’ from your completely illegible notes – and you may as well grab a seat in the AV lab, borrow a cassette player, and listen to a little music while you work. Among my picks that day was Stevie Ray Vaughan’s ‘Live Alive’, and on that album a cover song with a back story that has always fascinated me. I find the following quirky. I don’t intend any veiled commentary on society, no judgment or praise. I could make the point funerals are for the living, they often reflect the needs and wishes of those left behind, and why I think, most of the time that is OK – but I’ll leave it to you all to join any dots you see fit. I really just mean this as a quirky tale that found its way to me many moons ago.

Willie ‘Wimp’ Stokes jr. was a notorious figure among the underworld of Chicago’s South Side. Though at the time of his passing, Jet magazine listed him as a ‘flamboyant gambler’, and gamble he sure did – it would be reported later that he was a drug dealer working for his alleged kingpin father, William ‘Flukey’ Stokes. If one is thinking back to the Macks from my Christmas podcast, that is OK – I used a photo of Flukey to represent what a modern day mack looked like. One February night in 1984, Stokes Jr was gunned down on his way to a motel on the South Side. Though nowhere could I find any indication that anyone was arrested for the murder, it is to be noted the murder happened at a time when cheap crack cocaine was starting to flood the streets in many US cities, and a number of young gangsters were suddenly looking to elbow into the business – in spite of the few kingpins who had dominated the narcotics business for years. Stokes Jr, just 28 at the time, left a wife and five children behind.

William ‘Flukey’ Stokes snr.

Willie ‘the wimp’s father, Willie ‘Flukey’ Stokes, was also something of a flamboyant gambler – at least on his income tax forms he claimed most of his money came from gambling. He owned a pool hall – and was, at the time of his own death, reputed to be the owner of as many as 40 drug houses, employing around 200 people in his organization. Like his son he cut a flamboyant figure – silk suits, diamond rings with carat counts into the dozens – a taste for Cadillacs. Flukey, for all the damage his ‘gambling’ did in his community was beloved by most – he was well known in the neighborhood for acts of kindness to the elderly (bringing turkeys to pensioners) the poor (no strings attached financial assistance to many needy folk who approached him for help), and the unfortunate (helping re-house a family whose home had caught fire). All the same, at the time of his own death Stokes Snr was facing murder, conspiracy to murder and racketeering charges. He was also thought to be bringing in a million dollars a week from his drug houses.

So when Willie the wimp is gunned down, Flukey put on a funeral which caught the imagination of a number of journalists. There laid out in all his finery was the younger Willie – propped up at the wheel of a Cadillac coffin. Before Willie the wimp had been loaded into the coffin it had been taken to a local panel beaters, and had a genuine Cadillac front grille and boot added to it. Working front and tail lights were installed. A plastic windshield, a big floral steering wheel, a dashboard were added, as were four wheels to the chassis. All up it is believed the coffin, modelled after a 1984 Cadillac Seville, cost Stokes Snr around $7,000. It also had a vanity licence plate W.I.M.P. Willie himself was dressed in a hot pink three piece suit with a matching tie, a rather pimping looking hat, and a giant diamond ring just like his father wore. He went driving into the great unknown clutching what most newspapers report as a wad of $100 bills, and Flukey’s own biography claimed to be $1,000 notes.


When interviewed about the funeral Flukey advised “He (Wimp) had a brand new Cadillac every year for the past eight years or so… Furthermore, one year I was in debt and he sold his Cadillac to help me out, so I owed him one”. Willie the Wimp’s mother Jean added “I think he would have really liked it because that’s the way he was. He was flashy, and he believed in style”

Two years later Flukey Stokes would make the news again, after spending $200,000 on a lavish party to celebrate the 30th anniversary of his wedding to Jean. They hired the Staples Sisters and Chi-Lites to play, and Flukey threw $50 and $100 bills to the guests at one point in the night. It has always astonished me the party was held at the South Side motel where Willie the Wimp was gunned down. Not long after Flukey himself would be gunned down. Having just been acquitted of attempting to kill a rival drug boss, he was killed in a hit organized by his own bodyguard, on his way back from a night at the movies with his girlfriend.

One morning Texan musician and songwriter Bill Carter is reading the local paper, when an article grabs his attention. He shows it to his wife, and co-writer Ruth Ellsworth, commenting “This isn’t a column, it is a song”. That morning, on their two mile drive to the studio the songwriting partners have a song out of it, and cut the track that day. In the studio, Carter’s friend The Fabulous Thunderbirds Jimmy Vaughan, who lays down guitars on the track. Jimmy called his brother, blues legend Stevie Ray Vaughan that night, raving about how good a song Willie The Wimp (And His Cadillac Coffin) is. SRV agreed, adding the song to his live set. And that folks is that tale of Willie the Wimp Stokes.

Update: Moving Pictures…

Hey all, just a quick update. 

Tales of History and Imagination have a YouTube channel – we have for a while, but I’ve held off on advertising it as it previously was a mess. 

The podcast episodes Podbean loads to YouTube have always sounded tinny to my ears, possibly due to a low bit-rate? I haven’t looked into the whys and wherefores of them…

Last weekend, while I was working on other projects, I made my own videos, by creating thumbnails – then altering them slightly to look like Audiograms, on iMovie. 

I then added the podcast episodes to the videos and uploaded. 

Please show the YouTube channel some love and hit the button below – we currently have a quality over quantity five followers over there. If video is your thing, I’d love for you to join them.

Prelude: Scandals of Hollywood’s Silent Era

Hey everyone, on in-between weeks (i.e. weeks I don’t publish a podcast episode) I’m resuming blog only posts. The plan will be to run several series on those weeks. 

The on-weeks will be completely unlinked to the series. The weeks I drop a podcast episode, the subject could be anything; maybe the time Kazakhstan imprisoned a bear for 15 years for mauling campers, or the tale of a Flemish man as tall as Andre the Giant, who turned pirate after the Hapsburgs murdered his family – or the American soldier of fortune who became an Afghan prince…. You come here often, you know the kinds of things. The alternating weeks, on the other hand, may run four or 5 posts on, say, Old Hollywood scandals – Yeah, let’s start with that.

This post is part one of a five part series on old Hollywood scandals, scheduled to run fortnightly, in between the podcast weeks.  

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Lying northwest of downtown Los Angeles, on a 80 square kilometre plot, Hollywood is a far cry from the community envisioned by it’s founding family. The district was first settled by Harvey Wilcox, a former shoe maker from New York via Kansas, and his wife Daeida. The couple set up a farm on the land, but finding farming wasn’t for them, drew up plans for a community. A Prohibitionist, Harvey wanted Hollywood (the name contributed by Daeida) to be a Christian neighbourhood, free of alcohol, gambling and prostitution. Harvey died four years after establishing the community, in 1891. Following her husband’s death, Daeida Wilcox Beveridge took an active role in the development of the district. From the short write up I found of her, Daeida’s focus was to build a place of beauty. She died in 1914, a few years after the first movie studios moved to Tinseltown. 

The first movie to be shot in Hollywood was all the way back in 1908. Directors Thomas Persons and Francis Boggs had filmed most of the ‘five act play’ in Chicago, but headed out to Hollywood to complete the silent film. More productions would follow in 1911, and by the early nineteen-teens, twenty production companies would be settled there. The large number of sunny days each year, and great light for filming in, combined with a diverse landscape and rapidly growing population (California on the whole was a rising agricultural and industrial area at the time) made Tinseltown the ideal place to film. 

An emergent film industry, (booming in part due to the USA enjoying a large economic upswing in the nineteen-teens up to the Great Depression) was a great thing for Hollywood, and Los Angeles in general. One could imagine Harvey Wilcox turning in his grave, however. With the film industry came all manner of scandal. By 1930 the industry would be bound to a set of standards, the Motion Picture Production Code – or the Hays Code as it was informally known. The code would be enforced by Will Hays, former postmaster general to one of the USA’s more scandal-ridden presidents himself, Warren Harding. The code would, in part, be felt necessary due to a number of high profile incidents involving Hollywood’s leading figures. As these figures were prevalent in the Silent Era their Tales are less well known these days – but I figured it might be fun to take a look at a few of them. 

Over the next four fortnights I intend to delve into the tales of Olive Thomas, William Desmond Taylor, Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, and the events surrounding the death of Thomas Ince. These four really are the tip of the iceberg, but make for interesting subjects due to the levels of ambiguity in their stories. I’ll possibly run through a handful of others and cover the Hays Code itself as an epilogue if you all dig this series.. Let me know in the comments as we progress.  

I’ll have a ‘regular’ blog post, podcast episode, and Patreon bonus episode next week – but we’ll break ground on this series the week following. 

Mussolini’s Hat, and the Rise of the Mob

There’s a popular myth that states the 35th President of the United States, John F Kennedy killed the hat.
Now there is a tiny kernel of truth to this. A quick glimpse of his inauguration, Jan 20th 1961, it’s noticeable he is – besides Vice President Lyndon Johnson and the man he beat for the job, Richard Nixon – surrounded by a sea of top hats. It was clear in the photo who the new stars, and who the old guard were. Milliners claimed this was the death knell – men everywhere chose to forgo headgear. Hat shops closed across the nation. Careful analysis does reveal a different picture. 

For one, newspaper articles from as early as 1923 show a growing disdain for hats among youth. Of particular note, World War Two had a measurable impact on hat wearing. The Hat Research Foundation (the very existence of a foundation looking into ‘hat research’ may suggest hats were already in trouble) surveyed male non-hat wearers across the USA to ask why they no longer wore a hat. Nineteen percent replied because some bullying drill sergeant yelled at them if they didn’t during the war. In civilian life they no longer had to put up with that kind of hectoring bullshit. 

The late 1940s and 1950s in general were a time when many could, and did, push back against established order and conventions. It was also a time when, for the USA at least, there was plenty of money, and lots of jobs to go round. Youth culture – this may seem strange to say now – was on the rise. I say ‘youth culture’, the term evolutionary psychologists used at the time to examine the lives of those not yet fully fledged adults, but not kids either – But from it’s coinage in 1944, the word ‘teenager’ is a far better fit for the point I’m trying to express. 

Let’s Sidebar this: The concept of the ‘teenager’ was one rooted firmly in marketing. High schoolers had new-found freedoms, coming from after school and weekend jobs. Technology was making huge leaps forward in every which direction at the time too. This led to the kids having their own money to buy their own radios, and record players for their bedrooms. A combination of the rise of the suburbs in the 1950s necessitating adult car ownership, and a sudden glut of new vehicles, as prewar car manufacturers returned to their original line of business – led to a teen car culture. Teens, with money in their pocket, bought up all the old cars.

 In short, as a new class of consumer; music, movies and fashion began reflecting their tastes in an effort to capture their money. The teenagers were now tastemakers – and they weren’t crazy about hats. Rock and roll is the thing this year Daddy-o. Did the rock and rollers wear hats? These new actors like Brando and James Dean? Frank Sinatra may have said “Cock your hats, angles are attitudes” once, but even he went bare headed on his own show in 1960 – when he welcomed the new King, Elvis Presley, back after his stint in the Army. Elvis of course had his magnificent quiff on display – a haircut which arose in the 50s, in defiance of the earlier ‘short back and sides’ of the past. It defied anyone to cover it with a stupid hat. 

And finally, it’s worth pointing out, hats of a certain kind were once popular because they denoted one of a certain social status. In recent years hats had become far more ubiquitous, diminishing that status. This is not to say when Gene Chandler donned a cape, top hat and cane to sing ‘The Duke of Earl’ in late 1961 people didn’t get the implication. In that garb he was Prince Charming “we’ll walk through my dukedom and a paradise we will share”. The fact remained, anyone could go buy a top hat and play the Duke of Earl – should they choose. 

In short, John F. Kennedy was, at most the final nail in the coffin of the hat makers. All this is to say the following tale may seem ridiculous now – I think in part that is because we’ve forgotten the importance of the hat in times past.

Today’s Tale doesn’t begin in an American milliner’s circa 1961, but in mid 19th Century Sicily. It will double back stateside before we’re done, however.


The Island of Sicily has always been exactly the kind of place which breeds cells of local partisans with a deep distrust of authority. In past blog posts, namely the episode on Hannibal and the blog post on the Bagradas Dragon, we’ve touched upon the way the island was invaded, then ruled by Phoenicians, Greeks, pirates, Carthaginians and Romans – but that is only the beginning. Byzantium invaded in the 6th century – The Byzantine Emperor Justinian using Sicily as a staging post to attempt a reconquest of the Western Roman Empire from the Ostrogoths. The Muslims invaded in the 9th Century, bringing lemon, pistachio and orange trees with them. The Vikings were next – in their ranks, one Harald Hardrada. The Normans invaded in the 11th century- and brought Count Roger I, and his son Roger II, the latter of whom may get his own Tale of History and Imagination one day. 

They were ruled for a while by the Holy Roman Empire, and the French duke Charles I of Anjou. The Spanish colonised them for some time – and finally the French House of Bourbon. This never ending cycle of colonisation by one group or another led to groups of partisans developing – with the aim of protecting the locals from the next corrupt or cruel invader, and generally harassing whoever was in charge at the time. 

In 1282, the Anjou French, having deposed Roger’s grandson Manfred – colonised, then proceeded to treat the locals appallingly. After a Sicilian woman was raped and murdered by a French soldier, The Sicilian Vespers rebelled, killing 4,000 French colonists in retribution. After a long war with the French, they could have won their independence, but chose to put another relative of the Rogers back on the Sicilian throne instead. There is a legend the phrase Morte Alla Francia Italia Anelia! – Death to the French is Italy’s cry arose at this time. The phrase later shortened to M.A.F.I.A. It is likely to be the origin of the term. 

Persisting through time, groups much like the Sicilian Vespers were always in the background. They were there to join up with Giuseppe Garibaldi’s red shirts – an army 1,000 strong – when they landed in Sicily in 1860, hoping to free Sicily from the Bourbons. 2,000 mafiosi lent them their muscle, and were instrumental in the establishment of an Italian nation. A popular play in Italy in 1863, ‘I Mafiusi de la Vicaria‘ introduced the phrases mafia and mafiosi to the common lexis. 

From the 1870s onwards a power vacuum arose in Sicily. This led to an increase in violent crime, particularly a spate of violent robberies by highwaymen. Though the mafia were responsible for much of this crime, they were called upon by the king of Italy to bring the bandits under control. This era legitimised Mafia power in Sicily, laid the foundations for what they became (criminal overlords) – and would lead to the likes of Francesco Cuccia – both mayor of the town of Piana dei Greci, and mafia Kingpin, by the 1920s.

The 1920s also saw the rise of the man known as Il Duce. Benito Mussolini was born in 1883, to socialist parents. He was named after Benito Juarez, the left-leaning president of Mexico who took over the nation following the disastrous reign of Emperor Maximilian (put a pin in that one). Benito himself was a staunch socialist, renowned journalist and public intellectual until he had a falling out with the left in 1914. He was reading a lot of Frederick Nietzsche – particularly Thus Spoke Zarathustra. To Mussolini God was dead, morality meaningless. Having fallen down that rabbit hole he was convinced he himself was the Ubermensch Italy needed to mold a new society.
Gone was any sense of egalitarianism, communal ownership and class warfare – replaced by a cruel, syllogistic, imperialistic, white supremacist style of ultra nationalism which came to be known as fascism.  

As a populist politician he got his foot in the door – backed largely by dissatisfied World War One veterans who coalesced round him as ‘black shirts’.

Promising to resurrect the Roman Empire, Mussolini and 30,000 Black Shirt thugs marched on Rome in October 1922 – demanding the government resign and appoint him leader. 

Fast-forward to 1924. Benito, a minority leader, stacked the cards in his favour via the Acerbo Law – which replaced proportional representation in elections with a system which ensured the party with the most votes got 2/3 of the votes by default. As his was now that leading minority, this law gave him carte blanche to rule as he saw fit. This made Il Duce impossible to vote out for the rest of his life. From there he went about dismantling democracy and doing away with his enemies – and, not unlike Donald Trump, planning a series of public rallies throughout the nation. 

In May 1924 Benito Mussolini arrived in Piana dei Greci, with a large security detail. His first port of call was a meeting with Mayor Francesco Cuccia. The two men made small talk till Cuccia leaned towards Il Duce and whispered in his ear

You are with me, you are under my protection. What do you need all these cops for?

Mussolini was taken aback by this, taking it as impudence he would need protection from a mafiosi. Cuccia felt insulted that Mussolini refused to dismiss his large police escort. The two men parted ways. Cuccia soon upped the ante, ordering all but a handful of villagers to stay away from the Piazza during Mussolini’s upcoming speech. Mussolini was left preaching to what is variously described as around 20 ‘village idiots’ in a largely empty public square. Now this PR disaster might have been swept under the rug, or at least isolated to him, were it not for another incident, in another Sicilian town a few days’ later. 

Picture if you will another piazza, this time full of inquisitive villagers. Sense the carnivalesque, that buzz in the air when large groups of people gather for an event. Many of those people are dissatisfied with their lot in life – there’s no agrarian land reform for these poor farmers, no socialism, no utilitarianism – not while under the yoke of the mafia overlords. This is just the fertile ground Mussolini needs to plough if he ever hopes to outright declare himself dictator. Imagine if you will, Mussolini – self styled Ubermensch, stepping out to address the awed crowd- in full regalia. Topped off with a trademark black fez- worn by himself of course, and the elite Arditi shock troops who distinguished themselves in the Great War. A number of Arditi, decked out in their black hats and black shirts, followed proto-fascist poet and fellow Ubermensch Gabriele D’Annunzio into the Croatian town of Fiume in 1919. They laid claim to the town in the name of something very much like the Fascist regime Mussolini is so intent on creating – but THAT is yet another Tale I must cover sometime in the future.

There’s a hushed silence, Il Duce prepares to work the crowd up into a hate-filled frenzy

Then, some fleet-footed mafiosi skips past his wall of cops, hot foots it up to the podium, and swipes Mussolini’s hat. 

Imagine the pathos, this alleged strongman left bare headed in front of the large crowd. The police left dumbstruck, as the mobster bolted out of the town square with his hat. I imagine the crowd bursting into peals of laughter as this ridiculous man is stripped of his plumage in front of everyone. This simple act is Emperor’s new clothes stuff. This is something equivalent to throwing a milkshake over, or cracking an egg on the head of a fascist today. Mussolini was furious.  

On 3rd January 1925, Benito Mussolini dropped all pretence that Italy was still a democracy. The fascist dictator, his hands already bloodied in the deaths of several prominent socialists, made the eradication of the Mafia a top priority. He gave a local police officer named Cesare Mori the power to do whatever necessary to destroy this age old society. Mussolini telegrammed Mori

 “Your Excellency has carte blanche, the authority of the State must absolutely, I repeat absolutely, be re-established in Sicily. Should the laws currently in effect hinder you, that will be no problem, we shall make new laws

Mori took this to heart, arresting hundreds of mafiosi for anything from associating with known criminals through to murder. Mayor Cuccia was an early arrest. Cuccia and his brother were both charged with the murder of two socialist activists a decade earlier and sentenced to lengthy prison terms without so much as a trial. Thousands of mobsters did get their day in court however, where they were displayed in iron cages for all to see. Under the Iron Prefect’s (as Mori came to be known) reign of terror, 1,200 mafiosi were jailed for a range of offences, real and imagined. A large number of liberals and leftists in Sicily were also jailed – as ‘suspected mafia’. 

This did not bode well across the Atlantic. The United States of America absolutely had some problems with criminal groups from Italy before Mussolini’s crackdowns. ‘Black Hand’ organisations, involved largely in shaking down members of their own community for protection money (most famously the opera singer Enrico Caruso) had been operating since the 1890s. The Provenzano’s of New Orleans, and the Morello’s of New York were leaving murdered opponents in discarded barrels for the public to stumble across well before this. Italian American detective Joseph Petrocino was sent to Sicily to investigate mob connections between the two countries in 1909. 

However, this mafia witch hunt undoubtedly escalated the growth of the mob in an unprecedented manner. The USA had tightened it’s borders via the National Origins act of 1924, but numerous gangsters snuck in regardless – the ferries which ran day-trippers back and forth from Cuba a favoured method. 

To add to this, the USA itself had provided the mob with the perfect pathway these mobsters needed to grow their organisations exponentially. 

On January 16th 1919, partially of the belief that such a law would help reduce poverty, and largely through the rallying of several religious institutions, American politicians ratified the 18th Amendment – effectively banning the production, importation, transportation and sale of alcohol in the country. The National Prohibition Act, better known as the Volstead Act was written to law in October 1919, giving law enforcement authority to enforce the liquor ban. As America was thirsty, and many otherwise law abiding Americans recognised this legislation as idiotic – organised criminal gangs suddenly had a large market to cater to, at considerably less risk than other illegal activities. 

This was a boom time for the likes of Joseph Bonanno – a 19 year old Sicilian kid who’d fled Mussolini’s purges and snuck into New York via Havana, Cuba. The nephew of the Don of Castellammare del Golfo, Sicily, he found a home in Salvatore Maranzano’s crime family. These rapidly gentrifying criminals would eventually expand to a point where they went to war with one another over their territories – the Castellammarese War of 1930- 31. A lot of the ‘moustache Pete’s’, the more old school mobsters who didn’t believe in doing business with Irish or Jewish gangsters, were wiped out. This left the so called ‘Young Turks’, Bonanno included, free to organise the Five Families we all know today when we think of the mob.