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.

The Many Deaths of Glenn Miller

The Many Deaths of Glenn Miller Tales of History and Imagination



Glenn Miller was a trombonist, composer, band leader and late 1930s – early 40s musical icon whose work is utterly impenetrable to me. Not that I mean I can’t dissect it, and regurgitate some horrific approximation as background music (podcast listeners, much of the music this episode is stolen from Mr Miller) I mean in terms of, in the era of the swing orchestra full of heavy hitting bands led by people like Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton and Fletcher Henderson – all bands sure to get everyone up on the dance floor – 

It was the comparatively restrained, in my opinion, polite music of The Glenn Miller Orchestra that dominated the pop charts like nobody else. 
(Edit: in the process of putting this episode together I may have subsequently fallen for his polite music. This bears mention)

Culturally I don’t possess the touchstones to judge his music in any meaningful way. I can say, however, the man was a superstar. If you are to go by the 59 top ten records he released – or the seventeen number one Billboard or Hit Parade records he dropped between 1939 and 1943, he must’ve been a constant and well-loved presence on the radio. If you go by the hollering crowds on a 1939 Carnegie Hall concert I listened to while writing this Tale, crowds most certainly did cut a rug or two to his songs. Music charts change their names, what they measure, and how they measure it over time so you may not see his name alongside Elvis, The Beatles, Madonna or Drake for that matter – but the guy was a huge star in his time – as big as anyone. He even featured in a couple of Hollywood movies.

On 7th December 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour, Hawaii. The subsequent entry of the USA into World War Two changed everything for Miller. At 38 years of age, he was never going to be drafted into the armed forces, but he felt he needed to do whatever he could to help. Glenn Miller walked away from an income of between $15,000 and $20,000 a week (that’s upwards of $250,000 USD weekly in 2022) and enrolled in the army. His civilian band played their last show in Passaic, New Jersey on 27th September 1942 – before Captain (later Major) Miller left to head the then Army Air Force’s dance band. The superstar band leader was off to keep morale high among the troops, a service he carried out with distinction.

I’m leaving a lot of biography out, so the following is a quick rundown. Glen with one n is in fact his middle name – He was born Alton Glen Miller in 1904, in Clarinda, Iowa. When young his family moved to Nebraska, then Missouri, then Colorado. He paid for his first trombone by milking cows after school. Upon leaving high school, Glenn moved to LA to become a professional musician. He studied music with a man called Joseph Schillinger, who had developed a structured, mathematical system of music theory that I’m told takes years for an already capable musician to master. Before his big break, he cut his teeth playing with several bands and on sessions, as well as playing in the orchestra pits for a couple of Broadway musicals. He married his high school sweetheart Helen Burger in 1928; the couple were still married in 1944, where we rejoin the Tale proper. 

We pick up the tale on 15th December 1944. The location, an airstrip in Bedford, England. Glenn is due to board a plane to Paris, France – specifically a UC-64 Norseman – a single engined,  tough little craft designed to handle even arctic conditions. Paris had been liberated by the Allies on August 24th. The war in Europe would slog on till 9th May 1945, so a large number of soldiers stationed on the continent needed entertainment on Christmas Day. 

Miller was hitching a ride by convincing a friend, an American officer named Lt Colonel Norman Baessell, to let him jump in a spare seat. The flight contained just himself, Baessell and a 22 year old pilot, Flight Officer John Morgan. The rest of the band would arrive separately on a later, scheduled plane. Around midday, though an extremely cold, foggy winter day, the call was made it would be safe enough to make the flight that afternoon. This was in spite of the fact that several other flights that day had been cancelled on both sides of the English Channel. Hours later, the Norseman took off for Paris. No one on that flight was ever seen or heard from again. 

When a superstar disappears mysteriously, theories – some mad, some not – develop. Today we’re looking at some of the many possible deaths of Glenn Miller. 

One: The Secret Agent. 

Let’s start with one of the, probably, crazier suggestions. The Norseman did in fact land in Paris that day. The band were supposed to meet up with him on the 18th but 18th December came and went with no sign of their leader. His compatriots reported him missing, but he was not acknowledged as missing till December 24th – the day before the planned Christmas concert. This was done because he was a spy on a classified mission, and someone higher up was concealing the disappearance for as long as they could. 

Where was he exactly, and what was he doing? 

In this case, not so much spying as diplomacy. He had been secreted away to the front to meet with high ranking Nazis to discuss a peace treaty between the USA and Germany. Perhaps he said the wrong thing, or the Nazis also knew he was a spy all along, or someone just decided it was worth more to the war effort to capture the band leader than discuss peace?

What happened to him afterwards? I don’t know, maybe Hitler didn’t like his rendition of Lili Marlene, and immediately wished he’d snared Dame Vera Lynn instead? This theory usually ends with Major Miller, blindfolded, in front of a Nazi firing squad. 

Do I think this is likely? There is no evidence whatsoever that he was a spy. All manner of other plots have been revealed in the years since the war. One example, James Bond writer Ian Fleming discussed using famed occultist Aleister Crowley to ensnare deputy fuhrer Rudolf Hess – a man with heavily occult leanings. Before Crowley could be put to use, Hess took off in a plane for Scotland. Completely unsanctioned by Hitler, he hoped to make peace with Churchill. Hess was arrested, then brought back to London by an agent named Brinley Newton John – the father of Australian pop star Olivia Newton John. 

Another plan which leaked years after the fact was Winston Churchill’s Operation Unthinkable – a plan which would have seen the Allies finish the Nazis, then re-arm Germany to help them defeat the USSR. I imagine this plan being unveiled to a roomful of weary politicians to a chorus of ‘Good lord, Winston – have you lost your mind?’ Had he ever tried to implement it. 

Besides this, one only has to look at the Instrument of Surrender documents the UK, USA and USSR spent the first half of 1944 writing, then fine tuning. The document was a very clear statement of exactly what the Allies needed from Germany to accept their surrender. With the USA so adamant on terms of surrender – would they really go behind their allies backs, especially this close to the end of the war in Europe?

There is no evidence – and that which can be stated without evidence can be dismissed as easily.  This theory also runs contrary to good sense. 

Two: A Hail of Bombs…

On the morning of December 15th 1944 the RAF 149 squadron took to the skies on a mission to bomb the Siegen Railway yard in Germany. A dangerous task, the slower moving Lancaster bombers would be escorted by a bodyguard of smaller fighter planes on the mission. 138 Lancaster bombers took to the sky, flying towards their target. 

A Lancaster bomber

When it came time for the fighter planes to launch, it was decided the weather was too dangerous. This was a daylight bombing mission requiring precision. People would see them coming. If they could see them at a distance, the risk of being shot out of the sky increased considerably. Knowing they could take another run at the railway tomorrow, the bombers were called home. 

The Lancasters had flown out fully loaded with bombs – including many 4,000 lb blockbuster bombs – often referred to as cookies. It was extremely risky to land with these in the cargo bay. A long way from a convenient bombing range to offload their cargo, the order was to drop their payloads over the English Channel. This seemed risk free, only an idiot would be out in that weather. As one they dropped their cookies, creating one hell of a shock wave. 

In Avro Lancaster NF973, a navigator named Fred Shaw was looking into the fog beneath him when a lone UC64 Norseman appeared. Flipped upside-down, the plane suddenly took a nose-dive into the fog. Shaw did report the incident, as did two other airmen, but the RAF chose to do absolutely nothing. Really what could you do? Had a plane been hit by friendly fire there was little chance of finding survivors – especially in the middle of a war, in diabolically terrible weather that to venture out into would be putting others’ lives at risk.

Of course the weather was much improved the following day. The squadron flew back out, bombing the living daylights out of Siegen. You can buy prints online of the December 16th 1944 bombing, if you wish to see the damage a squadron full of blockbusters can do. There wasn’t much left of the site. 

Was Glenn Miller accidentally taken out by friendly fire? Possibly – although questions have been asked whether Miller’s plane could have been in this airspace at the same time. Outwardly it appears so, but a Miller family investigation suggested the Norseman would not have been in that airspace till at least 90 minutes after the bombs were offloaded. 

Three: The Brothel…

I don’t believe there is any serious evidence for the following theory, but it is often talked about – so here goes. The history of sex work in Paris would provide a wealth of material for anyone interested in the topic. In the thirteenth century King Louis IX tried to curb prostitution in the city by designating just nine streets where brothels were allowed. The crown followed his lead in allowing, but restricting the practice throughout the following centuries. By the 19th century brothels were known as ‘Maisons de Tolerance’. They were allowed to operate if ran by a female brothel owner, were discreet in the way they carried out business, and if they hung a red lantern in the window when they were open for business. This is from where the term red light district originates. When World War Two broke out, Paris alone had 117 such Maisons. 

Invading Nazis added to the number of brothels – in an extremely problematic way. Though I don’t believe this pertinent – I don’t know where else I’ll ever get a chance to share the following. In 1940, Reinhard Heydrich – easily one of the most sadistic men in history (he was the chief architect of the Holocaust) had a problem. I doubt that guy cared whatsoever for the victims if horny Nazis were raping their way through captured territory. He did, however want to ensure what still equated to rape was safe for his men. 

Three issues occupied his mind. First, if the men caught venereal diseases they might be taken off the battle field. Second, if left to their own devices with the native populations, several officers might have their heads turned by a modern day Mata Hari – some spy on a mission to seduce them. Thirdly, Heydrich in a ‘what Paul says about Peter tells us more about Paul than about Peter’ moment, was convinced if men were banned from sex entirely, they would all turn gay – something the party could not tolerate.  

So, a man considered a cruel, feckless monster even for a Nazi, hatched a plan to create a franchise of 500 brothels across occupied territory. Upwards of 34,000 girls and women were press ganged into sexual slavery. They were regularly tested for VD – the poor women taken away and shot if unfortunate enough to catch something. Pregnancy would be ‘treated’ the same way. The Nazis ran nineteen brothels in Paris during the war. 

I doubt it is alleged Glenn Miller was at a Nazi brothel. For one, a number of sex workers known to have slept with Nazis were kicked to death in the streets post-liberation. Others had their heads shaved and were paraded through the streets in the back of wagons. 

French women, heads shaved and paraded for collaborating with Nazis

But it has been alleged by some he arrived safely, then sought out the services of sex workers amongst the red light district. In the throes of passion he suffered a massive heart attack and died in the escort’s arms. Presented with this tragedy, the top military brass made the decision to hush up the incident. It was bad morale when they needed morale high. 

This claim started to circulate in English-language newspapers around 1997 after a Far-right German conspiracy theorist named Udo Ulfkotte wrote an article. He claimed he’d just stumbled across a classified US military document while writing a book on German post-war spies. As best as I can tell the alleged document itself has never been published, or verified anywhere – but a far-right grifter had a new book to sell, so any publicity is good publicity??

Beside this, what happened to Lt Colonel Baessell and Flight Officer Morgan? – Did they too drop dead of cardiac arrest at the same brothel? They are real, verifiable people who left loved ones behind. Their disappearance is an awkward spanner in the works for this theory. 

Four: Mechanical Failure

Sometimes mysteries have simple explanations. The weather was atrocious, so much so that flights were being cancelled everywhere. The Norseman was designed for this kind of weather, but, end of the day it was a single engine craft. Many aviation experts believe the answer is as simple as ice on the engine brought the craft down somewhere over the English Channel. 

Five: …….

I have one final theory to share. Do I place much trust in it? It struggles with the same issues as the spy and brothel theories – what happened to the pilot and the Lt Colonel? It is somewhat more believable by virtue of it coming from a family member. Let’s overlook the eerily prescient letter he wrote one of his two brothers on 12th December 1944 stating “barring a nosedive into the channel, I’ll be in Paris in a few days”. This could signify something, or just be one of those strange coincidences. We don’t know if it reflected something he regularly said to family when flying out – if so how can you weigh the one time he was right against the hundred he wasn’t? It does, however, lend a little weight to this final theory if taken on face value. 

Another letter, written to his younger brother Herb, did have his brother wondering if he covered up the true nature of his death for patriotic reasons. 

Glenn’s letter to Herb, written in mid 1944, stated he was having great difficulty breathing. He was feeling increasingly ill, and despite eating very well – losing a lot of weight. Others near the bandleader echoed this sentiment, particularly towards the end of his life. My eyes not being the greatest, and live photos of shows in September 1944 often being a little blurry, I think he had lost a noticeable amount of weight prior to his death. Glenn Miller was a smoker from a young age, and  some – Herb among them, have suspected he was dying of lung cancer. Their belief, he was secreted away to an Army hospital somewhere in Britain, where he was kept isolated from the other patients. For the sake of keeping up morale among the troops, he died, anonymous and alone in some hospital bed so a heroic narrative could be told to the public. 

Of course either way, had he died of cancer his family were nowhere near. The war, though months from an end was still being fiercely contested – The Battle of The Bulge kicked off in Belgium and France the day Miller was reported missing. It wasn’t terribly safe to travel to his bedside – but at least a final phone call to his family should have been possible otherwise? 

Of course, having disappeared on route to a mission – the Christmas show, he did die a hero, and was awarded a Bronze Star, posthumously. 

What happened to Alton Glen Miller, superstar band leader, trombonist, composer and war hero? Your guess is as good as mine, though I suspect the simplest answer the most likely.   

Update: When The Swallows Come Back to Capistrano…

Hey all just a quick update. I’ve got this week’s blog post written, and the corresponding podcast episode recorded. I’m in the midst of putting the final mix, and background music together tonight. It might arrive a little late (Thurs, maybe Friday?) due to a couple of things I’ve got going on at the moment. 

Those things are little things, mostly. I always run the script for podcast episodes twice. When I got to the second run on this one, an arborist had set up two houses down to cut down some trees. Thinking I’d come back to it in a days’ time, a weather bomb settled in over much of New Zealand and we had close to a week of rain clanking against the metallic (tin?) weatherboards.

I don’t want to sound hard done by on this count. I’d take the rain over the heatwaves in the Northern hemisphere any day. In fairness to other parts of New Zealand, the country has had flooding. The news reported last night that a couple of houses in Wellington, situated on a cliff above a motorway may need to be demolished before they tumble down a heavily eroded cliff face – we’ve personally had nothing more than a little debris, a motorway bridge nearly closed, and panicked neighbours tying their kids trampolines to fence posts and the like. 

Background music has been fun this episode. I’d originally planned to use only music from the artist in question (we’re doing a musician’s Tale this week), but to reimagine some of his hits. An imitation wind-up music box cover of one song will make the cut. A Barrel-house piano cover of another might do yet, but it’s probably too messy

Our subject, who I accuse of being somewhat too ‘polite’ for my own tastes in the episode, turns out to be quietly subversive in ways I couldn’t have imagined before starting this.

For one, who else in 1940 was doubling trombone lines with a theremin?? At least I think that’s going on in When The Swallows Come Back to Capistrano???

The main reason I’m a little off target, however, is I’ve had an opportunity come up in my day job that I couldn’t pass on. It’s a more interesting role with better pay; and though the team I’m currently working for are all nice people (for one, they allow me to list this blog and podcast in my annual development plan), the other team have always been a joy to work for whenever I’ve had the opportunity. So yeah, add to the rain, chainsaws and theremins, a couple of nights writing a covering letter, then learning some of the basics of a job I’ve never done before – that week’s grace I had has taken a bit of a hit. 

Which brings me to my little change of plan. The new role comes with a steep learning curve that might knock me off my writing/researching/recording targets for a month or so. I’m pretty well on track to complete the script for next fortnight’s post/episode (on Major General Smedley Butler and the Wall Street Putsch). The one after, looking at The Johnson County War could do with a little bit more time, so I’m planning on moving it towards the end of the year. 

My current thought; put research to one side for a little while. After Wall Street, split the blog and podcast for a month or so. For the podcast, record a handful of pre-existing blog episodes (Frau Troffea’s Dance With The Devil, The Bagradas Dragon and The Sin Eater all seem good to record) 

For the blog I was thinking one of two directions. 

  1. Now could be a good time to write up some of those strange history/Forteana canon pieces everyone has read at some time – i.e. Kaspar Hauser/Tunguska Incident/Time Slips/The Man in the Iron Mask/Spontaneous Human Combustion/D.B Cooper etc. or
  2. I have an idea I was saving for the future, based around several short tales from English history (not too much to say on that right now, but I will say too few people talk about what happened to Oliver Cromwell’s head, for one…)

Both involve putting upcoming tales on Jorgen Jorgensen- the ‘Dog Days King’, and an odd story of vengeful Tally Sticks on hold till 2023. Most everything else should be fine, and on time this year.  

The Ghost & The Darkness

The Ghost & The Darkness Tales of History and Imagination


The human history of Kenya, were we to know it fully, would certainly be one of the longer histories out there. On the continent’s East, below the ‘Horn of Africa’, certain simian ancestors of ours, such as homo habilis and homo erectus have been found to have thrived there. Fossil records in the region show an abundance of human apes as early as two million years ago. Pre human primates were there even longer – perhaps first settling in Kenya 20 million years ago. 

As early as 300,000 years ago some species of human, possibly homo-sapien, were beginning to develop traits we think of as what differentiates us from the other animals – primarily they started to make and use tools – and possibly even traded goods with neighbouring villages. “Hey I’ve got several chunks of obsidian, wanna swap for some of those colourful pigments you’re hoarding?”

Over a long, Neolithic period, nomadic groups of humans came and went. Over time the weather changed, becoming wetter and more alluvial, and hunter-gatherers began to stay local, keep livestock and grow crops. Groups of Proto- Khoisan and Bantu tribes settled in the region. By the first century there were cities along the coast, famed in the region for their iron work. They traded with the Arabs, among others.

I mention this as far too many histories glancingly acknowledge there were native people on the land, but history truly starts when Arabs colonised the coast in the 7th Century – Or perhaps pick up from the Portuguese arrival in the 15th Century. The Portuguese almost immediately began warring with the Arabs for control of the land. Some accounts may start with tales of the explorer Vasco da Gama narrowly avoiding death at the hands of an unscrupulous Arab pilot. Those same chroniclers – my main source for this tale among them – are far less apt to tell how, in 1502 da Gama attacked The Mira – a ship laden with hundreds of Indian pilgrims on their way home from Mecca. The explorer set fire to the captured ship, immolating 300 innocent travellers. That tale is too deep a rabbit hole for today’s episode. My point however, not only is Kenya a land with a long long history, often poorly acknowledged by writers of a certain era – It is a place where, by and large, humankind thrived for millennia.  

We do need to know, however, the British Empire showed up in 1888 and laid their own dubious claim to the region. In 1890 they set about building a railway through the land via Uganda. It was this task which brought Lt Colonel John Henry Patterson to Tsavo, Kenya in March 1898. Among his tasks – the construction of a stretch of railway through dense forest – and a bridge over the Tsavo river. No-one was expecting the sudden arrival of a pair of man-eaters days after Patterson’s arrival. For the following nine months the two lions, later named The Ghost and The Darkness, would prey upon the men building the railway.

Only days after Patterson arrived, the first few imported Indian workers disappeared. Late at night, while everyone was sleeping, a sole lion crept into a tent. Seizing a sleeping man by the head, the lion would drag the man kicking and screaming into the forest, where the leonine pair chowed down on the hapless victim. Patterson – not atypical of a 19th century colonial – ignored early reports from the workers on the encroaching lions. The coolies (his wording) – well paid as they were, must have fallen foul of bandits in a nearby town. This didn’t concern Patterson. If we’re to take Patterson’s account as gospel, the terrified men were convinced the lions were vengeful spirits of departed native chiefs opposed to the construction of the railway – all fairness to the man, he was right in doubting they were demons at least. 

Three weeks after his arrival, an incident occurred that he could no longer ignore. A jemader – one of the supervisors – named Ungan Singh was seized by the throat as several other men looked on in horror. Singh attempted to fight back, but was nowhere near as powerful as the lion. The following morning Patterson, accompanied by one Captain Haslem – a guest of his – went out  to investigate. Along the way they came across several pools of blood, where the lion possibly stopped to play with his meal. When they finally came across Singh’s remains, they were greeted by a large pool of blood, scraps of flesh, several bones and the more, or less intact head of the unfortunate jemader. This, especially the terrified look on Singh’s face, shook Patterson into action. 

For many nights following, Patterson took to perching in one tree or another, a rifle and a shotgun by his side. Come hell or high water he was going to bag the lions. The Ghost and the Darkness, however, had the better of him. At the time, the men were split across several camps along the railway line. Whatever camp he was watching, the lions would attack elsewhere. Patterson would get himself settled in, only to hear a blood-curdling scream several miles down the track. Daytime excursions through the heavy undergrowth also came to nil, though a number of daylight attacks did occur. In one case, a travelling salesman narrowly escaped death when one of the lions took out his donkey – but got caught up in a rope the donkey was carrying. The rope tangled up with several oil tins. The din of the rattling tins as the lion tried to free himself spooked the lion – giving the salesman time to scramble up a tree to safety.

It would be a distraction to the tale to cover Lt Colonel Patterson’s atrocious refusal to pay the employees the sum agreed upon, or willingness to take workplace injuries for what they were in detail. He was utterly convinced the men were lying to him about their capabilities, and constantly swinging the lead. Patterson was always ordering them back to work, injured or not, for a quarter of their previously agreed wage. Workplace relations reached a low point when several men conspired to kill Patterson and leave his body for the lions. Suffice to say, intent to murder aside, he was not a swell chap to work for. Add to this the arrival of the lions was enough to send many of the men running for completely different reasons.

In an attempt to keep the workers there, and to make the workers feel safe, Patterson had circular boma – thick, thorny fences – built around the work camps. The lions were not put off at all by the fences and soon both lions took to forcing their way through the boma for a midnight snack. 

For those who remained, the following few months were terrifying. The Ghost and The Darkness prowled from camp to camp. One night they raided the hospital. All the while Patterson spent his night in the trees, a couple of guns constantly at his side. At times he tied goats to trees, even left human remains where they lay, in the hope an easy meal would entice the lions. One night he recalled staking out a deserted camp only to hear screams from the direction of the recently relocated hospital. That night the lions leapt the boma, eating an unfortunate water-carrier in front of the man’s horrified colleagues. 

This brazenness was yet another thing which could be said of these lions. If someone had a gun, and was nearby, gunfire, yelling, the clanking of anything metallic meant nothing to them. If they decided this was the spot they were going to enjoy their meal, no-one was going to disturb them. 

The aforementioned attempt to mutiny and dispose of Patterson in September 1898 finally brought a little help. Those higher up in the organisation were called in to arrest the conspirators. Following the arrest, and punishment of the mutineers the top brass were suddenly far more interested in the goings on in Tsavo. 

Patterson had, by this stage, built a cage – half of which held some poor railway worker or other as bait. The other half was a trap to contain one of the beasts. For several days the lions ignored the trap. They did burst through a boma one night, however, picked out a victim and dragged the poor man into the jungle. For weeks Patterson, now aided by several military officers, staked out several camps at once. The lions continued unabated – with increasing impunity. They had now taken to staking out the Tsavo railway station for a fresh meal. One night the railway inspector fired fifty shots at one of the lions, convinced he hit the animal. 

The following morning men went out to track the beast down. A trail was left in the sand that resembled a dragging limb – had the conductor struck the beast in the leg, causing it to limp off? To their shock the trail was left by a human arm dragged along the ground as the lion strode off, carrying a half-eaten torso. Said torso had been discarded some way down the track.

Towards the end of the year, the railway employees finally refused to go back out, going on strike till the company built them lion proof accommodation. For three weeks work came to a standstill while huts were finally constructed. The district officer, Mr Whitehead, also arrived with soldiers to help hunt down the lions. Three weeks of strike was more than enough disruption for him. On his late night arrival at Tsavo station, Whitehead nearly fell prey to a lion. He escaped with deep, long gashes down his back from one of the duo taking a swing at him. The police superintendent arrived soon after to help also. 

It would be Patterson himself who finally took down the lions. The first was shot and killed on 9th December 1898. Patterson bagged the second 20 days later – the latter requiring eleven shots to put down. At just shy of ten feet, nose to tail – both were on the large side – as the mane-less Tsavo lions often are. Lt Col. Patterson made several claims in his 1907 bestseller as to the death toll from “…no less than twenty-eight Indian coolies, in addition to scores of unfortunate African natives…” to 135 victims. Scientists examining their remains have more recently put forward a lower figure of around 35 victims of their reign of terror. 

But what caused this reign of terror? 

While the encroachment of the British into their territory to build their railway seems the most obvious answer, it ignores the fact locals lived nearby for millennia. Lions did occasionally eat a human, but generally they avoided people, and vice versa. The favoured meal of the Tsavo lions, was zebra, wildebeest or antelope. 

One possible reason they turned man-eater relates back to Mr Patterson’s hero, Vasco da Gama. When da Gama and the Portuguese took notice of this region of Africa at the tail end of the 15th Century – subsequently taking over from the Arab interlopers. They were always on the lookout for slaves to import to Brazil. Brazil was their cash cow. Local slave labour was scarce. The Conquistadors brought European diseases, like smallpox, with them. These diseases went through native populations in the Americas, wiping out up to 90 percent of the population. Needing people to enslave and quite literally work to death in the plantations and mines, they imported millions of Africans to Brazil. 

(Sidebar: I have covered some of this history in Njinga of Ndongo and Henry ‘Box’ Brown). 

When the Sultan of Oman finally got the better of Portugal, expelling them from Eastern Africa in 1698, they continued the practice of selling slaves. On the island of Zanzibar, where Sultans would reign and continue to co-exist well into British times, a slave market flourished. 40,000 to 50,000 mostly Bantu people from Central Africa were brought to the island to be sold to wealthy Egyptians, Persians, Arabs and Indians. A third of the haul stayed on the Tanzanian island to replace the slaves worked to death that year in their own plantations. Many slaves also died on their way to the market, their bodies unceremoniously dumped on the way. One place which became a regular dumping ground was the Tsavo river. 

The British allowed Zanzibar to remain a protectorate – free to govern themselves, with a handful of restrictions, throughout the 1880s and 90s. They finally cracked down on their slave trade in 1897. Did the start of the slave trade give Tsavo lions a liking for human flesh? Did the end of Zanzibar’s slave trade cut off the flow of The Ghost and The Darkness’ favoured snack, forcing them to look for an easy meal elsewhere? 

Another possibility is the lions were simply following the principle of adapt or die. 

When scientists examined the teeth of the two beasts, it was noticeable neither had taken on a larger boned animal, like a wildebeest, in quite some time. The expected wear and tear simply wasn’t showing on their chompers. One of the pair however – for the life of me I couldn’t tell you if Ghost or Darkness – had three broken incisors, a missing canine tooth and an abscess under another tooth. The man-eater would have been incapable of bringing down a wildebeest or zebra, and was likely in constant agony. Some poor, slow moving human however, was manageable. 

Patterson went on to do other things. He became a war hero in World War One, leading the Jewish Legion – five battalions of mostly Jewish soldiers, against the Ottoman Turks. He also discovered a completely new species of antelope – the eland – only after shooting one of course. He commanded a battalion of Ulster Unionists in Ireland, just prior to the First World War and saw action in the 2nd Boer War. Patterson was a prominent Zionist who argued for a Jewish state in Palestine. His final wish was to be buried in Israel. Benjamin Netanyahu, a fan of Patterson, facilitated this for both his and his wife’s remains in 2014. 

The Ghost and The Darkness suffered a somewhat less dignified fate. They were skinned, their hides becoming trophy rugs of Patterson until 1924, when he sold them to the Chicago Field Museum. They were taxidermied and placed on display in a diorama in 1925. You can still visit the remains of these remarkable beasts today.   

The Infernal Machine

The Infernal Machine Tales of History and Imagination


Trigger Warning, This Tale discusses gun violence. If an account of a mass shooting is likely to upset, it’s fine to give this one a miss. I’ll be back in a fortnight with a tale of Kenyan wildlife and other things.

This week’s Tale begins on the Boulevard du Temple; in Paris, France. The date, 28th July 1835. The Boulevard is a street many of us might feel we know, even if – like myself – you’ve never visited the City of Lights before. A man named Louis Daguerre pointed a new-fangled device out of a window in 1839, shooting down at ‘crime boulevard’ as the street was then known. In doing so he shot the first human – with a camera. The mirror image, known as a Daguerreotype, regularly makes it onto content-farm articles on early photography. Though ant-like, at least one person is discernible in the otherwise quiet street scene.

One must imagine the scene in July 1835 rather differently. The street was overflowing with soldiers in their best attire. This was the day King Louis Philippe I, a man not generally given to displays of pomp and wealth, inspected the Paris National Guard as they stood to attention. Two week’s after that more famous revolutionary date, July 14th, which commemorates the 1789  storming of Bastille prison – people were out in force to celebrate the July Revolution of 1830, which swept him into power over the rightful heir – His eleven year old 2nd cousin.     

At around midday the king was nearing 50 Boulevard du Temple with an entourage which included three of his sons and a collection of high-ranking officers. A sudden flash was seen from a third floor window, accompanied by a rain of gunfire. Tearing through the crowd, this rapid-fire burst of lead felled eighteen bystanders, badly injuring 22 more. Of the survivors, many were so badly wounded they required amputations. It’s intended target, the King, escaped with only a cut to the forehead. The assault ended just as drastically as it begun. The weapon responsible had partially backfired, injuring the assailant, who then fled the scene leaving a telltale trail of blood behind. 

The killer, a Corsican former soldier named Giuseppe Marco Fieschi – who served in the French army in Napoleon’s time. He went off to fight in Russia with the Grande Armee who had been so decimated by both weather and Russian counter attack. This must have been a truly harrowing, traumatic experience for anyone to live through. Post war, Fieschi signed up as a mercenary in the service of the former King of Naples. When an attempt to overthrow the current Neapolitan regime went badly, he fled to France as a refugee.

Soon after his arrival, he was arrested and jailed for ten years for cattle theft. Embittered, he became embroiled in revolutionary circles upon his release. With two other plotters, Fieschi built a weapon known as ‘The Infernal Machine’ for the sole purpose of killing Louis Philippe. It had twenty five barrels aligned side by side, all set on the same downward trajectory. Each was full of shot, and would fire simultaneously on a single trigger. While this sounds in effect vaguely like a machine gun – the infernal machine was a volley gun – capable of firing just the once before it needed re-loading. Volley guns could be found in use as early as the fifteenth century, but were rarely used – A cannon loaded with grapeshot could imitate a volley gun, while a volley gun couldn’t fire cannon balls. The name ‘the infernal machine’ says all you need to know, however. A year before the release of the first truly effective assault rifle, the Drayse needle gun, the world was still in the era of the blunderbuss and the musket. A gun which could kill or wound forty in the blink of an eye was absolutely hellish.   

Before we move on from this infernal machine, I should point out Fieschi was soon caught, his accomplices rounded up, and all were sent to the guillotine – another new-ish technology with a surprisingly long history of antecedents.

From one infernal machine to another.

The machine gun came about, believe it or not, with all the good intentions in the world. Richard Gatling built his Gatling gun, the first working machine gun – in the hope of saving lives. Gatling was a North Carolina native who mostly invented farming equipment. One day he read an article stating more soldiers died in war from disease than in battle. This left him aghast. He believed he could save millions of lives in the future if he could create a machine which let a few men do the work of several units. Gatling hoped this innovation would lead to less soldiers on the battlefield, and therefore less death. The Gatling gun debuted in 1862, in the midst on the extremely bloody American Civil War, where more – not less, soldiers were sent out to fight. The Gatling gun had a hand crank which powered it, so was still a way off from machine guns as we know them, but it was used to horrific effect in several wars from the 1860s till the turn of the century. It was used to gun down thousands of Zulu, Chinese, Japanese, Spaniards, Chilean, Native Americans and Filipino among others. A fully automated reloading mechanism would come along and it’s inventor, William Cantelo, would have even more blood on his hands…

Who?? You ask…

I’m being a little facetious- maybe? Let’s reset the stage. 

This tale restarts in the late 1870s. Neighbours of the Tower Inn, a Southampton pub, have wondered aloud for months the origin of an ungodly noise coming from the pub’s basement. The landlord, one William Cantelo, was a man of varied interests. The son of an Isle of Wight publican and brush maker, William studied engineering as a younger man. On arrival at the coastal town, he set up a foundry specialising in making boat propellers. He soon diversified, buying a pub. Besides his business interests he also found the time to play in the local brass band. An endless tinkerer, Cantelo set up a workshop in the tunnel beneath the pub. 

We already know what he was working on down there. Machine guns were the thing that year. Gatling invented his gun through poorly thought out humanitarian motives. A new-found drive among seven European nations to conquer and exploit the life out of Africa from around 1870, (kicking into high gear in 1885) was the main driver for many recent military innovations. The other side of that ledger, European armies had seen a marked drop in young men signing up for service after the Crimean War. This, more than anything, necessitated new methods of killing people at scale. After Gatling, Swedish inventor Thorstein Nordenfelt built a hand-cranked gun in 1873. William Gardner, an Ohio based former army captain built his Gardner Gun a year later. These weapons were a step in the right direction, but if someone could make something fully automatic – possibly loading the next bullet off the energy generated from the gun’s recoil? – that was the holy grail. 

Some time in 1880 it was said, William came up from his basement to announce he had finally solved that problem. He was the inventor of the world’s first true automatic machine gun. When some young chap faced off against a wall of angry locals waving their Assegai, Akrafena or Trumbash at them, that young man could rest assured that he had a Cantelo Gun, and they have not – as Hilaire Belloc might have said in a different future timeline. His two sons and daughter must also have been quietly overjoyed at the prospect of a decent night’s sleep, free of the rat-a-tat-tat from father’s infernal machine. It’s claimed soon after, William announced to his family he was going on a well-earned holiday. Given the same sources claim his sons helped him pack his gun for travel, it’s far more likely he left on a business trip – and hoped to find a buyer for the weapon. Little did his children know, but as he set off, this was the last time they would ever see him. 

Well, the last verified time in any case. He never returned home. His children did their best to find him, but were unsuccessful. They hired a private investigator, who confirmed William sailed to the USA, but could not trace him further. Their snowy-haired, bushy-bearded father was lost to them. 

Then, in 1882 a rather remarkable man man emigrated to the United Kingdom. Born in Sangerville, Maine in 1840, Hiram Maxim was quite the up and coming engineer. He created an asthma inhaler, a mouse trap, a curling iron for one’s hair, and steam pumps. He had a disputed claim to having really invented the electric light bulb. Years later, but before the Wright Brothers’ first flight in Kittyhawk, a prototype aeroplane he was working on broke free of it’s tethers and flew – though it’s a stretch to say it was a controlled flight. In 1885, he invented the world’s first automatic machine gun – the Maxim gun. One day Cantelo’s sons were reading the morning newspaper when an article on Maxim jumped out at them. “That’s father” one said, astonished at the photo of the snowy-haired, bushy-bearded man. 

What’s more, that gun of his – that infernal machine – was the spitting image of Cantelo’s weapon. 

The young men pursued Maxim in an effort to prove his ‘true’ identity. Maxim refused to give them the time of day. This culminated in an attempted ambush at Waterloo station in 1885 when the boys rushed towards him yelling ‘father’. Maxim hurriedly boarded his train. 

There is little to no doubt Cantelo and Maxim were different people. In a world full of snowy-haired, bushy-bearded people, and few cameras, both men did have some photos to compare one another. To my eyes the men look nothing alike, though Cantelo could almost be latter-day, bearded Roger Taylor of Queen in a ‘famous people are all ageless vampires’ meme. There is copious paperwork proving Maxim existed. The man also wrote an autobiography which discusses his earlier life in detail, which led to reporters speaking with people who knew him as a young man. 

What is interesting, perhaps, is the two men almost certainly met. Maxim was in Southampton in the 1870s. He viewed Cantelo’s boat propellers. Cantelo, it was said, was concerned Maxim would steal ideas from him. Also of interest, Maxim knew one thing the Cantelo children didn’t. While he was making guns and planes in the United Kingdom, a man claiming to be Maxim was travelling the USA – trying to sell a gun suspiciously like his Maxim gun to anyone who would see him. Was this William? One tiny piece of evidence located by a web sleuth in our time suggests it could be. The man may have had prior form – A William Cantelo, also of Southampton, faced charges of attempting to pass off counterfeit promissory notes in the mid 1870s. 

So, if Cantelo wasn’t Maxim, and murdered for his gun (a possibility) did he spend the rest of his life travelling the United States perpetrating various confidence tricks? If so we may get a glimpse of what his life might have been like much later in the year when we pick up the story of several other Infernal Machines, and one of history’s most dastardly scoundrels – A mysterious man known to friends as ‘Zed Zed’. 

The Georgia Guidestones

Edit: 8 July 2022 – Hi there I can see a lot of traffic coming to my blog/podcast looking for this post at the moment. The following piece was originally written, on the fly over a couple of hours in late November 2020. It’s not as in depth as I’d like it to be but I think it does cover what the Guidestones were.

Future readers, I bumped this back up the top of the feed in the wake of the unwarranted destruction of this fascinating structure, vandalised at a time when the American right wing was going through a Christian fundamentalist, and in some cases outright fascist phase. A blockhead named Kandiss Taylor had run to become Republican challenger for Governor in Georgia, promising to remove the Guidestones. A few days after she failed in her bid, some vandal attempted to blow them up, necessitating their removal.

Recent news reports about mysterious monoliths appearing as if out of nowhere, first in Utah, then in Piatra Neamt, Romania, then on a mountain in California has me thinking about an older tale in 2020 …. and of course 2001 A Space Odyssey, how do you not think A Space Odyssey with those things? The following tale is set in Georgia, USA – which of course has been on the minds of many folk of late too – for completely different reasons.

In July 1979 a man described in all the literature only as elegant and grey haired, wearing an expensive suit, walked into the offices of the Elberton granite finishing company, in Elbert County, Georgia. Meeting with company president Joe Fendley, he introduced himself as a representative of a “small group of loyal Americans” who wished to commission a remarkable monument. Said monument would be erected in the county, for the use – perhaps even the salvation of future generations. The man gave his name as R.C. Christian, possibly a bastardization of Rosicrucian – a secret society who claimed to hold all manner of occult and restricted knowledge, who almost certainly never existed in 1614 when pamphlets about them first circulated throughout Western Europe. Rosicrucian sects, however, soon willed themselves into being – grifters couldn’t pass up on that grift, seekers couldn’t pass up occult and esoteric knowledge. Sects exist to this day. Up front I should say I see little of their philosophy in the following tale.

Why did this group of R.C Christian, whoever they were, want to build their monument in Elbert County? According to Mr Christian, because their granite was amongst the best in the world.

The mysterious Mr Christian explained to Fendley his group had planned this monument for 20 years, and intended it – a set of guide stones with more than a passing resemblance to England’s Stonehenge – to be a guide to a future, post apocalyptic society. Living in the nuclear shadow of the Cold War era, where theories of mutually assured destruction could go out the window over a misunderstanding, an errant spy plane, or even a flock of geese – this may not have seemed completely mad. To me it still doesn’t entirely. The guide stones would be set up as a virtual Swiss army knife for the survivors of Elbert County. They would act as sundial, astrological calendar, compass, a kind of Rosetta Stone, and a set of moral instructions to future generations. It went without saying of course they must be built strong enough to withstand a catastrophic event.
To stand almost twice as high as the slabs in Stonehenge, and containing over 250,000 lbs of granite, this project presented quite the payday for Joe Fendley – however he was convinced R.C Christian must be some kind of nut. Apprehensive, Fendley quoted a price several times higher than he would otherwise have quoted. The stones required were several times larger than anything they had hewn before. There was so much technical knowledge required in this, and such precision they would, needs must, call on several experts. All kinds of special equipment would have to be brought in from out of state. Without batting an eyelid Christian agreed, and the two men shook on the deal.

R.C Christian then left, on Joe Fendley’s recommendation to meet Granite City Bank president Wyatt Martin – a banker he could trust to keep his details confidential. As it turns out, Wyatt is the only person in this tale who came to know the identity of Mr Christian. To date he has kept his word. I presume he is still alive, though would now be 90 years old. Martin confirmed to Fendley, Christian had the money to complete the project, and set up a labyrinthine payment system to obscure the client’s identity.

By October, Christian had bought five acres of land to build the guidestones on, and construction began. R.C. Christian stayed incognito during the process, but kept tabs on the build via numerous phone calls, letters and the occasional meeting with Mr Martin. Martin commented the letters came from different parts of the country every time, and were never postmarked from the same place twice. Christian often called from an airport lounge. The two men did, however, dine on several occasions, and kept in touch till a few days shy of September 11th 2001. Martin assumed Christian, now appearing in his 80s, had simply passed on.

Work started on the monument in late 1979, concluding March 22nd 1980. The flurry of work was met by a flurry of vocal concern the Devil had come down to Georgia and was setting up shop, accusations Fendley and Martin had concocted the whole scheme as a publicity stunt (both men took lie detector tests to prove otherwise), and an invasion of witches, who appropriated the site for their own purposes – and could be heard chanting as the company worked.

On completion it was a sight to behold. Six giant granite slabs stood a little over 16 feet high, and six feet wide, with a large capstone keeping them together. Slots in the edifice would mark out summer and winter solstices via the first beams of daylight. Another slot would beam the midday sun to a spot on a calendar, marking out the date. A modern day Decalogue, a ten commandments, was written out on different panels in English, Spanish, Swahili, Hindi, Hebrew, Arabic, Chinese and Russian, as well as four ancient languages – Babylonian, Classical Greek, Sanskrit and Egyptian hieroglyphs.
A short distance away from the monument proper, an explanatory tablet is laid in the ground. It is believed to have a time capsule buried beneath it, to be opened at an, as yet, undisclosed time. It bears a message which immediately brings forth Thomas Paine and the founding fathers.
“Let these be guidestones to an Age of Reason”

The ten commandments, or guidelines are as follows. They are fascinating, and disturbing in equal measure.

• Maintain humanity under 500,000,000 in perpetual balance with nature.
• Guide reproduction wisely — improving fitness and diversity.
• Unite humanity with a living new language.
• Rule passion — faith — tradition — and all things with tempered reason.
• Protect people and nations with fair laws and just courts.
• Let all nations rule internally resolving external disputes in a world court.
• Avoid petty laws and useless officials.
• Balance personal rights with social duties.
• Prize truth — beauty — love — seeking harmony with the infinite.
• Be not a cancer on the earth — Leave room for nature — Leave room for nature.

One cannot miss the eugenicist leanings of the first two guidelines. However one envisions a post-apocalyptic world population, it is hard not to presume we would build up again – and soon be overloading the planet through our numbers. One and two combined make it clear a culling of those of perceived lesser value would be called for. The call for diversity may suggest the author didn’t view the world through a white supremacist lens, perhaps an ableist or LGBTQI+ phobic one? Of course this may not have been the case – the US declaration of independence for example stated all men are born equal, yet contains the signatures of several slaveholders. Further clarification is needed.

Three and four call to dismiss many of the traditions of old, and to start anew. Build a new lingua franca, and dismiss many of the old ideas which have been holding society back. There are strains of secular humanism in this – something reflected in ideologies from LaVeyan Satanism, to a number of philosophers of the Age of Reason. Five and six have been taken as a call for a new world order – a one world government trope popular in many anti-Semitic conspiracy theories to this day. You cannot help recognize this may have reflected the world of 1980. In an effort to avoid further wars between France and Germany as much as to enrich the region, much of Western Europe had formed a European common market – and would soon forge a formal European Union of 28 nations via the Maastricht Treaty of 1993. The United Nations, similarly was meant to oversee the interests of all nations. These were two of many treaties and agreements moving the world towards something altogether more unified and interdependent. Besides economic reasons to do so, it was believed such arrangements made a third world war less likely.
7 and 8 don’t seem terribly out of place with a small c conservative, either then, or now.

Nine suggests a believer in deism – a belief in a higher power in the universe, but one which does not meddle, and is utterly disinterested in our moral lives. Again this suggests an author familiar with the writings of the founding fathers – many of whom expressed deist beliefs in their letters. Ten, clearly reflects environmentalism. It’s all quite a philosophical hodgepodge.

As one could imagine, such a list drew criticism from across the board. Alt right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones had the monument pegged as ‘Satanic’. After a coven of witches adopted the site, numerous Christian groups claimed much the same. In 1981 a UFO magazine called UFO Report claimed the true purpose of the monument would be revealed in 30 years’ time.

Mark Dice – a conservative pundit now more famous for demanding Starbucks put a T shirt on the topless siren on their logo, and for picking a fight with Korean pop groups – demanded the guidestones be “Smashed into a million pieces”, claiming they are proof of a New World Order in vitro. The Georgia Guidestones have been defaced a number of times by anti NWO protesters.

Which leads us to the question, who was R.C. Christian?



A few names have been put forward from the legendary plane hijacker ‘D.B. Cooper’, to an Iowa doctor named Herbert Kersten. A documentary that appeared online in 2015 indicates, at the very least, Kersten – whose 2005 obituary states he was a learned man and an environmentalist – at the very least owned an address Wyatt Martin mailed to. One name often suggested is television mogul Ted Turner. Turner was then living in neighbouring Atlanta, but had grown up in Savannah Georgia. He started his working life managing his father’s billboard company out of Macon, Georgia. At various points in his life he has expressed all points in the 10 guidelines. He has given to various causes, including $1 Billion to the United Nations, and $125 Million to his own foundation, concerned with ways of curbing population growth. He is also clearly concerned with end times, having a programme pre-prepared to announce the end of the world – in a vault – awaiting the announcement to press it’s all over.

As of the day of writing, neither the creator of the monoliths, or Georgia Guidestones has come forward.

The Childe of Hale – a Short Tale

The following is just a quick blog post I threw together this morning, needing something for the week – and having recently tied of a bunch of standby posts to planned podcast episodes for the 2023 season. 

In 1617 Gilbert Ireland, Sheriff of Lancashire, was presented before King James I of England. He’d made the journey south for a rather auspicious occasion. A loyal servant of the crown, Ireland – a wealthy landowner – was due to be knighted. One imagines him being ushered in to meet his majesty. At the main doors, a giant porter waved him and the other knights through – one imagines to a hushed sense of awe from the guests. The ceremony proceeded as one might expect – one after another those honoured took a knee, were tapped on the shoulder by the sword-wielding monarch, and were invited to ‘arise sir’. 

At some time that day it is thought Ireland sidled up the King and said something to the effect of “Jim, you think your porter’s a big man – you should check out my bodyguard back home. He’s head and shoulders above your boy. Strong as an ox too!” King James, clearly was intrigued.

Growing up in New Zealand as I did, but to parents from this region (myself born in a village called Eastham Village, across the Wirral from Liverpool – my father also from Eastham Village, my mother from Birkenhead) as a youngster I heard the tale of this big man, whose portrait hung in Speke Hall – home of the Ireland family. His name was John Middleton – though he came to be known as the Childe of Hale. 

Born in 1578, one legend has it the young John Middleton was an average kid. Of average size, intelligence and talents, he longed to be something more. The story I was told is one night he lay down beside the Humber Estuary between two lines he’d etched in the dirt. ‘God willing, in the morning I will be as tall as these lines are long’ he stated, before drifting off to sleep. I couldn’t find an origin for this tale, but did find a similar story from the diary of an 18th century traveller, stopping one night at Hale. Locals there claimed John did go to bed one night, wishing to be ‘the greatest man in England’. The next morning he woke up a giant. While clearly more than a little hagiographic – it does suggest at some stage he had an abnormally rapid growth spurt. 

Almost certainly true, the legend he was so tall, he slept with his feet hanging out the window of the cottage he rented off Gilbert Ireland. There was just one spot in his home where the Childe could stand upright – something tourists can confirm to this day. Not only is the thatched cottage still in existence, you can rent it out for a long weekend for £650 at time of writing. 

Not a lot can be said of John Middleton’s life. I know a ‘modern descendant’ of his was still living in his cottage in the 19th century, who himself was ‘well over six feet tall’. I know no specifics of his immediate family. The collection of parish records of all births, deaths and marriages was mandated in England in 1538, so that information should be available to anyone who cares to dig – had it survived long enough to be digitised. At some point in his life, his landlord took him on as a bodyguard. Given Ireland was employed as sheriff, which required him to collect rents, taxes, fines, to execute writs, guard prisoners and, on occasion, to gather juries and run a county court – he probably had his fair share of adventures. The one we do know of was the time King James I called Middleton and Ireland down to London in 1620. 

I cannot say if he did in fact tower over James’ giant porter, though one imagines he did – The Childe definitely left an impact on the king. He wrestled the King’s champion wrestler, easily beating the man – breaking the wrestler’s thumb in the exchange. King James was so impressed, he awarded The Childe of Hale a £20 cash prize – which according to one online calculator was equivalent to an average 400 days wages for a skilled tradesman, and could have bought the Childe either two horses, ten cattle, 368 kilograms of wool or eleven quarters of wheat (I presume the calculator means the old definition of quarter i.e. a quarter of an imperial ton). 

On the way home, his companions either swindled him out of the entire sum, or outright robbed it off of him. Returning home destitute, John Middleton died three years later. 

The infamous diarist Samuel Pepys recalls a trip through Hale in his diaries. He was shown a life sized sketch of Middleton’s hand. He claimed “…from the corpus to the end of his middle finger was seventeen inches long. His palm 8 inches and 1/2 broad”. His grave was unearthed in 1768 by a schoolmaster and parish clerk noted as a ‘Mr Bushell’. He measured Middleton’s bones, estimating his height at 9.3”(2.82 metres). Bushell claimed his thigh bones alone were as long as an average man’s leg from hip to foot. If he were, in fact this tall, he would have been ten centimetres taller than the officially recognised tallest man in history, Alton Illinois’ Robert Wadlow – who stood at slightly over 8.11” at the time of his untimely death. 

Robert Wadlow, the officially recognized tallest man in history.

Sketches of both his hands, four portraits and a walking stick 5 feet 2 1/2 inches high remain as testament to the big man. A gravestone marks his resting place stating “Here Lyeth the Bodie of John Middleton, The Childe Nine Feet Three”. Modern day experts estimate his height at closer to 7.9”, still a gargantuan figure by anyone’s measurement.         

Spencer Perceval

Trigger Warning: The following episode discusses gun violence – particularly the assassination of a head of state. Note for the readers, I’ll get a blog only post up tomorrow – It’s Matariki in New Zealand (Maori New Year) so I have a day off to write.

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. 

Update: Just cause I haven’t done one for a while…

Hey everyone, just dropping a quick update today. I hope wherever you are reading from life is treating you well in these crazy times. 

I’ve currently put both the blog and podcast more or less on autopilot for a month while I work on the next block of posts/episodes. I’m hoping if I can get a few months ahead of schedule – things like catching something horrid like COVID, or working myself into burnout via my day job, or an Autumn getaway to Queenstown are all -hopefully -mitigated against.
Or, for that matter, those times where you pick a subject based on a compelling read – say the strange death of British boxer Freddie Mills – and the possible connection to the serial killer ’Jack the Stripper’. A week into that one (worked up in 2020) I came across far too many small details that didn’t match verifiable timelines to trust anything else the author had to say. Then other details started looking dubious.

Not that I’ve ever (knowingly) published a dodgy article, but I have hurriedly thrown something else together a couple of times when a topic seems iffy on further research,
…. or occasionally became suddenly tone deaf (I didn’t want to publish my piece on Tamar of Georgia – a Seljuk conquering, Christian warrior queen, just days after a vile Islamophobe murdered 51 New Zealand muslims, injured 49 more in Christchurch, New Zealand)
Time for quality control and enough material to quickly sub a piece would be a godsend.

Block two will contain five fortnightly episodes – four of which are locked in – one I may replace. The main text I need for the fifth is only available in hard copy, and costs hundreds of dollars.

I was going for an 8 episode/8 episode/ whatever is left before Xmas schedule this year, but the ballooning out of the Assassins series into a three parter messed the schedule up a little. 

The break following the next block will be much the same as this – podcast a couple of older blog posts yet to be turned into an episode,  with a new blog-only post the day before. I’m hoping to everyday podcast followers there’ll be no discernible interruptions till my month off at the end of the year, and to my readers just a couple of odd points where a new post without an attached podcast episode is followed soon after by an old one with a podcast player attached to it. 

Some, like the updated Carrington Event, will be revamped and added to considerably. Others, probably not so much so.

I was planning on dropping a podcast episode on The Bagradas Dragon in a few weeks’ time with a blog post on ‘Mr Whoppit’. I’ve shelved both for now – listeners can tell no doubt my voice sounded a little strained on Carrington – It was done towards the end of a long day of recording. My voice was on it’s last legs by time I got to those episodes, and had little projection left in me. Bagradas was much the same. I’ll run it again while doing the new episodes and reschedule for the next break. 

In the meantime, I recorded an episode on former British PM Spencer Percival when I first got the Rodecaster recording console. It’s been partially mixed for a while, just sitting in reserve on the off chance I caught COVID and was unable to record for a while. I’ll get that finished in the coming days. 

Re: Mr Whoppit – he is a little bear who has fascinated me for some time. Some time just before the daredevil Donald Campbell’s Bluebird was salvaged from Lake Coniston, my parents were on holiday somewhere in the North Island of New Zealand – possibly Napier or Hastings, when they met Campbell’s widow at a hotel bar one night. Conversations with the folks about their holiday led me to the aforementioned magical talisman. I thought he might make for a quirky tale, but I’m just not hitting the tone I want with the piece right now. I’ll come back to him, and have something else up in a few weeks for the readers. 

Thanks for your continued readership/listenership all. – Simone

The Carrington Event

The Carrington Event Tales of History and Imagination


“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”
― Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Strange, magical things were afoot in Boston, Massachusetts on September 2nd 1859. It is 9.30 am at the telegraph office on 31 State Street and the air is positively electric – quite literally electric. Telegraph operators fired up the machine that morning. It immediately began firing sparks at them. Operators from across the USA similarly dodged electrocution by telegram. Some telegraphs did set fire to nearby objects. Urban legend has it several operators got electrical shocks and burns – though no academic sources I’ve read have ever back up this claim. If no-one was seriously injured though, it would have been a miracle.
At 31 State Street they simply unhooked the batteries. To everyone’s shock and astonishment, the telegraphs kept running as if possessed regardless. A telegraph station in Portland, Maine had the same idea, and shared their disbelief with State Street.

That night people stared up at the sky in wonder. That, in the dead of night it was bright enough to read a newspaper is one thing. The Aurora Borealis – the northern lights normally only ever seen at far north latitudes – could be seen in the tropics. As far afield as Cuba and Hawaii people took in the light show. On the same night the Aurora Australis, the southern lights, were on display as far north as Santiago, Chile.
The following day the New York times reported

“With this a beautiful tint of pink finally mingled. The clouds of this colour were most abundant to the North East and North West of the zenith… There they shot across one another, intermingling and deepening until the sky was painfully lurid”

You may wonder what on earth could cause such a thing. Some at the time attributed it to the divine. Others guessed at scientific causes including volcanoes all over the planet expelling massive amounts of gas all at once and a meteor shower turning to a pink mush when it struck our atmosphere. While many of the day’s greatest scientists spitballed questionable ad hoc theories, an amateur astronomer in Surrey named Richard Christopher Carrington had a pretty fair inkling what caused the phenomenon.

On the 28th August 1859 Carrington was staring up at the sun, 150 million kilometres from the Earth. The son of liquor barons, Carrington had trained in astronomy, and secured work in the field – but left, finding the role too restrictive. For five years he had studied the universe privately – in that time becoming particularly interested in solar flares. Why wouldn’t one be interested in solar flares? They are explosions of energy 1,000 times more powerful, on average, than an atomic bomb. Carrington observed several solar flares over the following days, till a particularly large one cut loose on September 1st. This caused the Coronal Mass ejection.

One should never stare directly into the sun, but were you to look at a photo of the star, the Corona is a huge ring of plasma surrounding it. This is the halo you see in a solar eclipse. It is super-heated matter (usually a basic gas like hydrogen, nitrogen or oxygen) that has become so hot it has split from it’s electrons, becoming an ionised gas. Occasionally, when a solar flare is powerful enough, it ejects a wave of plasma out into the wilds of space, followed by a powerful wave of electro-magnetic energy.

Of course Earth is a tiny spheroid, a long long way from the sun. The odds of getting hit by a coronal mass ejection are extremely low – but this wave – now known as the Carrington event, did hurtle towards us. Capable of moving at staggering speeds, The Carrington Event cleared the 150 million kilometers in a little over 17 hours. The experts of the day, Lord Kelvin included, dismissed Carrington’s explanation as preposterous. Over time scientists unravelled enough, especially around the sun and radiation to prove Carrington’s theory correct.


(Sidebar:Kelvin had no clue radiation was even a thing for most of his career, leading to such gaffes as his theory the Earth was between 20 and 100 million years old based on his comparisons of the estimated temperature of the Earth’s core vs the cooling of a cup of tea. That unstable elements break down till they eventually stabilise into lead, giving off vast levels of energy in the meantime, was a game-changer)

The Carrington event would be the most powerful of it’s kind – scientific measurements of nitrogen levels in ice show, at least in the last 500 years, the solar storm of 1859 was twice as powerful as the next most powerful CME to hit the earth.

This all begs the question, what happens if Earth is hit with a Carrington event part two? Sure it would make for some beautiful scenery. A lesser CME appears to have hit Earth in 774 AD, and though little surviving appears written about it, The Anglo Saxon Chronicles mention a ’burning cross in the sky’ at night. It was as good a reason as any for the people of Northumbria to depose their unpopular king, Alhred. There were strange lights in the sky across Europe, January 25- 26 1938. Some Roman Catholics took this as confirmation the second ’secret’ given to three young girls in Fatima, Portugal was coming true.

(Another Sidebar: We’ll have to cover ‘Our Lady of Fatima’ at some point, but suffice to say in October 1917 thousands of people in Fatima looked into the skies one day and claim to have seen something like a blockbuster movie play out across the heavens. Three young girls in attendance, who had been filling the minds of locals with stories of visitations of angels for months before ‘the miracle of the sun’ claimed angels had left them three secrets. The second secret was a second world war would happen if people didn’t stop offending God. In January 1938 one did not need a gallery of angels to predict WW2.)

Writers the world over recorded ’fire in the sky’ at night for up to three days in March 1582, in yet another solar storm. This particular one is thought to have cleared some degree of space junk out of the way between Earth and the Sun, making subsequent CMEs all the more stunning.

Of course before there was an abundance of electronic technology, a coronal mass ejection was pretty much a beautiful light show. The levels of radiation it brought were considerable, but under Earth’s atmosphere not life threatening (outside of the Earth this could be another story – A 1989 solar storm hit cosmonauts in the Mir space station, hitting them with a year’s maximum intake of solar radiation in a couple of hours.) What the Carrington Event pointed to, with the telegraph lines – played out again in Solar storms of 1872, 1882, 1903 and 1909, to name but a few – is CMEs damage electrical infrastructure. The New York Railroad Storm of May 1921 started fires in Telegraph stations, damaged phone lines and undersea cables. Electricity in peoples’ houses becoming more of a thing, many New Yorkers experienced blackouts as their fuses blew.

The 1989 storm took this up a notch, taking out The entire power grid in Quebec, Canada for nine hours. More worryingly, a smaller solar storm on May 23 1967 took out US spy satellites monitoring the Northern Hemisphere. The purpose of these satellites was to pick up rockets launched from the USSR. An attack on these satellites alone would be considered a declaration of war. While scientists tried to work out just what the hell happened, the world briefly edged towards nuclear annihilation.

But one doesn’t even need to think of nuclear war to be concerned about the possibility of Carrington Event part two. Over the years we have built massive amounts of inter-connected infrastructure which is dependent on both power and electronics. From records to monetary systems, traffic lights to communication systems. All aspects of our lives, even the personal stuff – photos and music saved in digital code to the cloud – and especially electricity – it is all vulnerable to attack from a CME

In a 2011 National Geographic article, Daniel Baker of The University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics estimated if The Carrington Event hit the USA alone in 2011, it would cause 2 Trillion dollars of damage. Of course an event that large would affect most of the world. We have only become more reliant on vulnerable technologies since 2011 too. One only has to think of recent disasters, the San Francisco earthquake in 1989, The Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, closer to my home – the Christchurch earthquakes of 2011 – these all took years to rebuild from – multiple trillions of dollars worth of damage to infrastructure across the globe would cause catastrophic effects that could take generations to recover from.

One final thing. In 2012, that apocalyptic Mayan year some people held their breath cause the Mayan calendar came to an end – That year was scarier than many of us imagine. In 2012 the Earth only narrowly avoided being hit by another CME, this one nearly as big as the solar storm of 1859.

Originally posted 19th July 2019 on the Tales of History and Imagination Facebook page. Tweaked heavily 2022 for a ’From the Vaults’ episode of the podcast.

Bearcat

Hey all I’m ‘taking a break’ for a month – well, more accurately going into writing and recording mode for a month. On the podcasts front I’m set to release two ‘from the vaults’ episodes – The Bagradas Dragon (blogged last year) and a heavily edited Carrington Event (from back in 2019 on the blog)… as well as a couple more re-uploaded versions of those early podcast episodes. 

I also have a couple of blog posts set to drop over this break. Like this post, all will be a little out of my usual wheelhouse. 

 Today’s tale picks up in the middle of the squared circle, Madison Square Garden – The date January 23rd 1984. Hossein Khosrow Ali Vaziri, a stockily built Iranian, Greco-Roman wrestler with an Olympic pedigree (both as competitor and coach) was knocking the living daylights out of Terry Bollea; a large, muscular man who once played bass guitar in a bar band. Perhaps unsurprisingly Hossein is dominating, sitting on top of a splayed out Bollea’s back in a submission move known as ‘The Camel Clutch’. Just 28 days prior he’d done the same to long time champion Bob Backlund, winning the World Championship belt. 26,292 people in attendance looked on in horror, as the heel looked set to take out another hero – a ‘face’ in backstage parlance.

Then Terry Bollea did what countless other professional wrestlers hadn’t before. He stood up, breaking the Camel Clutch. Hulking up with the other man still clinging to his back, he rallied, pounding Hossein into the turnbuckle. Bollea leapt over the supine man, crossing the ring and ricocheting back off the ropes before going airborne. Landing his signature ‘Atomic Leg-drop’, he went for the pin. One- two- three, and Terry Bollea, known to people everywhere as Hulk Hogan was crowned WWF champion. An ecstatic crowd – most of whom, one presumes, still believed Professional Wrestling to be real, were on their feet as The Hulkster left the arena victorious. His opponent, The Iron Sheik, skulked off, ignominiously defeated.

This isn’t to say some people weren’t aware Pro Wrestling was performance art – Rumours swirled around wrestling’s authenticity as early as 1934, when a match at Wrigley Field was advertised as a ‘shoot match’ – a bona fide punch up (as opposed to all the other ‘fake’ matches on the bill). Wrestling organisations did generally do their best to dispel these rumours however. Case in point, in December 1984, a wrestler named David ‘Dr D’ Schultz slapped 20/20 reporter John Stossel into the middle of next week, for implying wrestling was less than genuine. Whether ordered by WWF owner Vince McMahon or not, there was nothing fake in the way Dr D manhandled Stossel. He left Stossel with a ringing in his ears that lasted eight weeks. Nothing Kayfabe either about the $280,000 settlement to Stossel’s subsequent lawsuit. This is not about Dr D, the 1987 incident when the aforementioned Iron Sheik was pulled over by a state trooper with cocaine – and more shockingly, arch foe Hacksaw Jim Duggan in his car – or the time in 1989 when Vince McMahon gave evidence to politicians that wrestling was indeed acted more than competed – why pay additional taxes for hosting sporting events if you can avoid it? This is about the rumour which persists about this match, and another, earlier wrestler. 

Hulk Hogan v Iron Sheik was a choreographed move to replace an old-school favourite. Bob Backlund was the title holder and as such the face of the company, for in excess of 2,100 days – but he was not the kind of telegenic you need when the company owner wants to take over the world. There was just something Everyman-ish about Bob Backlund. Hulk Hogan, an alleged 6.7” musclebound superhero who ‘trained, said his prayers and took his vitamins’, was just the guy to helm the company under such circumstances. He could sell out arenas. Kids would love him. He was extremely merchandisable. 

At this time faces battled heels so Backlund needed to lose to Sheik so Hulk could take the belt and hold on to his newly acquired ‘face’ status. 

There’s a tale Verne Gagne, a longtime friend of the Iron Sheik (he’d given him a start in the business, as well as his name and gimmick) and rival wrestling promotion owner approached the Iron Sheik before the match. Legend has it Gagne offered the Sheik $100,000 to not just win the match, but break Hogan’s leg – thus stalling the upward trajectory of the WWF. 

Needless to say the Iron Sheik, a legitimate tough guy, could have beaten Hogan and taken the payday. He quite possibly could have twisted him into a human pretzel, breaking one appendage or other. He didn’t. One only presumes he was professional, and loyal to whoever was paying him – that is IF this conversation did in fact occur. Verne’s son Greg for one denies it ever happened. For now let’s presume it happened, it makes a useful plot device. What would’ve happened if the Iron Sheik disobeyed the McMahons, took the money, and decided he’d keep the title? The following compares apples to oranges somewhat (given the way WWE soon took off with Hogan as a figurehead), but it signals one way the McMahons might have solved the problem of a rogue champion. 

Edward ‘Bearcat’ Wright was more than a transitional wrestling champion, he was also the first African American to hold a world wrestling title belt. Born in 1932, Ed was the son of Ed ‘Bearcat’ Wright Senior – a professional boxer who, though never a world champion, did face a handful of top pugilists such as ‘Ambling Alp’ Primo Carnera, Max Baer and an aging Jack Dempsey. Edward jr, a tough, rangey, 6.6” tried his hand as a pro boxer – winning all eight of his matches before turning to professional wrestling in 1959. 

Bearcat was wrestling on the cusp of a change in pro wrestling. Prior to him black wrestlers fought other black wrestlers, white wrestlers wrestled whites, and never the twain shall meet. Jim Crow era segregation was still very much a thing. Rock and roll shows featuring black and white musicians together on the bill, playing to mixed crowds often ended in riots. As blogged some time back, Jesse Belvin, perhaps the greatest rock and roller you’ve never heard of may have died as a result of a show he played in Arkansas in 1960. Performing art or fighting art, Bearcat and others like Bobo Brazil, who fought white wrestlers, were groundbreaking. There were occasions where the old rules applied, such as Gary, Indiana. Bearcat broke ground by refusing to wrestle another black wrestler that night. Bearcat and Bobo both got massively over with the crowds. In other words crowds loved them. It was unsurprising both men were soon packaged as Faces. 

Bearcat soon found himself wearing the world championship belt, first in 1961, beating Killer Kowalski for the Big Time Pro Wrestling title. The title of interest to us, however, belonged to  Worldwide Wrestling Associates (WWA), a Hollywood based organisation then run by the LeBell brothers. 

Though professional wrestling is pre-determined (as opposed to outright fake, wrestlers often do take heavy bumps in the ring), it can often hold an odd, Coney Island mirror up to society. Because of this I suspect the World title match between Bearcat and Classy Freddie Blassie, on August 23rd 1963, was an attempt to cash in on the upcoming March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The top civil rights leaders marched with at least a quarter of a million supporters on the capital to demand the many civil and economic rights still denied them. Though organised by the ‘big six’ most of us remember best one particular leader. Dr Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech was then, still is breathtaking. At a time when many would marvel at Dr Kings eloquence, the WWA could smugly claim – you wanna see equality? Bearcat is our World champion.
Bearcat and Blassie did face off five days before the march, and Bearcat did get the better of Blassie – a well hated heel who in real life was so hated he was stabbed on 21 occasions by fans as he entered the ring; was once doused by an acid thrower; and lost vision in an eye after getting struck in the face by a hard-boiled egg. I can’t imagine the fans were anything but ecstatic at the win. 

Soon after the March on Washington, the WWA approached Bearcat to tell him his reign was set to be a short one. He was to drop the belt to another face named Edouard Carpentier – a stocky white man known as ‘The Flying Frenchman’. It was at this point Bearcat went on a very real winning streak, pinning all who stepped up against him. While none of the wrestlers WWA wanted to give the belt to stood a chance against Bearcat in a real fight, the organisation had one card yet to play. 

The LeBell brothers who ran the WWA included one ‘Judo’ Gene LeBell. LeBell was a former champion judoka, stunt man and genuinely extremely tough individual. As a pro wrestler he was a known shooter – a guy who could genuinely beat someone up in the wrestling ring. Legends around the man state on the set of the TV show The Green Hornet, LeBell beat Bruce Lee in a tussle – carrying him across the set in a fireman’s carry. His 1991 stoush with Steven Seagal on the set of the film Out for Justice led to LeBell (allegedly) choking the Aikido master out, making Seagal lose control of his bowels. Just days before a planned match between Bearcat and Classy Freddie Blassie, LeBell was in the ring to fight a very real boxer vs martial artist match against a fighter named Milo Savage. LeBell choked Savage into unconsciousness. 

Now the Savage match may have been an inspiration for the LeBells’ – Gene was supposed to face off against a boxer named Jim Beck, who had been bad-mouthing the Asian martial arts. At the last minute, he pulled a switcheroo, the higher ranked Savage stepping up unexpectedly. 

So, on December 13th 1963 Edward Bearcat Wright made his way to the arena in the expectation he would yet again face off against Classy Freddie Blassie, ignore all instructions, and pin the man in the middle of the ring. Instead he found himself facing off against a shadowy figure in a black mask. 

“Gene… is that you?” I imagine him asking, rather cautiously. Sensing something bad was about to happen, Bearcat exited the squared circle, refusing to re-enter. After being counted out, he was stripped of the title, which was subsequently passed to Flying Frenchman Carpentier. 

I’d like to be team Bearcat, and report this did not adversely affect his career – but of course it did. He found his future options restricted, and would – like many pro wrestlers sadly do – pass on young, at just fifty years of age. If it is of any consolation whatsoever he was inducted into the WWE hall of fame in 2017.