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.

Dr Sweet’s Defence

Doctor Sweet’s Defence Tales of History and Imagination

Content Warning: This week’s post briefly discusses a lynching and other horrific things…

Our Tale this week opens on an ugly siege. The date September 9th 1925. The location 2905 Garland Street, Detroit, Michigan. The eleven men and women inside the house have provoked the ire of the Waterworks Improvement Association – the offence? daring to move in to a ‘nice neighbourhood’. In spite of a police presence, the large mob gathered across the road at the school on the 8th. The mob had grown even larger on the second night. Truthfully the police are only there to say the police were in attendance – and that they tried their best. When ‘Improvement clubs’ or ‘Neighbourhood associations’ are established, the police usually watch impassively. When people are hurt or killed, or properties are razed to the ground, it’s astonishing how often they were dealing with something else – and were sadly facing in the wrong direction at the time. 

Inside, the new owner, his wife Gladys, two of his brothers – and a handful of friends. Heavily outnumbered, at least the besieged had guns and a large supply of ammo.

 Just after 11pm, the Waterworks Improvement Association made their move. Yelling and hollering, the mob descended upon the house – throwing rocks at the property. As two windows were smashed and the mob were getting too close to the property, the besieged fired a fusillade of gunfire into the rabble. A man in the crowd was felled. Panicked, the mob dispersed – A ten year old neighbour later describing how the streets were too narrow to contain their hurried retreat. 

Now, of course, the dozen police officers present did get involved – and arrested the eleven in the house immediately. 

The occupant was one Ossian Sweet – a 30 year old doctor, recently returned from Austria and France. The real reason for the violent reception from the Waterworks Improvement Association? Ossian, Gladys and their young child were all African Americans moving into a white neighbourhood. 

Born in 1895 in Bartow, Florida to working class parents, Ossian grew up well aware of the horrors of a system that continued to discriminate against black Americans. The brief Reconstruction era post US Civil War failed to bring lasting equality. Jim Crow era America reverted to a system apt to subjugate, criminalise, and on occasion – to execute members of a group it saw as either perpetual children or animals. Aged five, Sweet witnessed a horrific lynching while hiding behind a bush. The victim, a black man, was tied to a stake then burned alive in front of a rapturous crowd. As was often the case, onlookers took mementos from the killing – tearing pieces of burnt flesh from the body. Though I couldn’t tell you why this particular man was murdered – somewhere in the order of five thousand Americans – mostly black – were lynched in the Jim Crow era for anything from accusations of murder through to flirting with a white woman. 

Ossian was living in a time of some positive change, however. His grandparents had been slaves, his parents laboured for wages. He would become a physician. The year he was born, Booker T Washington – the famed educator who founded the Tuskegee Institute – gave a speech known as the ‘Atlanta Compromise’. In the speech he called for young black people to take up vocational training in working class trades. He called for young intellectuals to stop agitating against the ‘Seperate but equal’ Jim Crow laws, and to step away from higher education or aspirations of political office. In return he called on the white community to get fully behind the up-skilling of the black community. His biggest rival, fellow educationalist W.E.B Du Bois called the compromise out, pointing out it would embed the black community forever as second class citizens in America. His rival plan – to ensure the ‘Talented Tenth’ – the smartest ten percent of black kids – got higher educations and entered the higher professions. 

Ossian and his brothers were of the ten percent. Aged 13 he was sent to live in Ohio, He studied at Wilberforce University – America’s first black university – in Ohio, before enrolling in medical school at Howard University, Washington DC. 

While in University, Ossian witnessed another horrific incident. A black man was pulled from a streetcar by a white mob, just blocks from his campus. Far from a one off, this was a small part of what became known as the ‘Red Summer’.  

The First World War breaking out in Europe was an economic boon for the Industrial cities in the North of the USA – something especially true of car manufacturers. While the Jeep was a whole world war away, armour plated vehicles – Ford Model T’s among them – were just flying off the production lines. There were barely enough men in the factories as it was, when the USA entered the war in 1917. To keep production lines going, factories sent recruiters into the South to find able-bodied men.

The ‘Great Migration’ a mass relocation north for tens of thousands of black Americans had begun a few years earlier, but this accelerated the process immensely. The African American population of Detroit, for example, grew twenty-fold between 1910 and 1930. While the First Great Migration brought hundreds of thousands of black Americans northwards – it also brought similar numbers of white southerners. Many of these new arrivals carried with them the white supremacist beliefs of the Ku Klux Klan. This led to a rise in white supremacist activity in the North (for example, the Detroit chapter of the KKK alone had 100,000 members – and even nearly got one of their own, Charles S. Bowles, elected as mayor). 

Yeah, these assholes…

Being uncertain times, formerly fringe ideas spread easily in the North – a wave of white supremacist violence towards black people in dozens of cities was the result. Whenever black people tried to band together for protection, they were branded – especially in the press – as Bolsheviks, or at least in league with communists and anarchists. A number of civil rights leaders were socialists, but this was rhetoric meant to scare everyday white people into backing the KKK. The Klan violence had everything to do with some white people objecting to working and living alongside black people, and little to do with ‘reds under the bed’. 

At least 250 black Americans were murdered, hundreds more injured in the Red Summer. Many more besides were left homeless in the wake of the riots. 

Dr Sweet moved to Detroit in 1921, setting up a practice in Black Bottom – an over-populated black neighbourhood. He met, and fell in love with Gladys Mitchell. The two married in 1923 – and for a while moved to Europe – where Ossian continued his studies. On their return – now with a young child – they sought out a home of their own. Time and again they were turned away from white, middle class homes in wealthier neighbourhoods. Though the North was not segregated in quite the same way as the South, local government bodies could enact all kinds of ordinances making it difficult for black people to buy in white neighbourhoods. Sellers would often raise the price for black buyers without consequence too. When the couple bought 2905 Garland Street in June 1925 – in a white working class neighbourhood – they grudgingly paid more than $18,500 for a property valued at only around $12,500 to a white buyer. 

As soon as word got out a black family were moving in – locals formed an ‘improvement association’ under the pretence they were meeting to discuss the neighbourhood’s water pipes. Plans were soon under way to do as numerous other ‘improvement associations’ had before them – to violently force the Sweets out, back into the overcrowded ‘black’ neighbourhoods. 

Now given all that’s been said so far, I’m wary of introducing a ‘white saviour’ figure to this tale – but I needs must introduce Clarence Darrow. Known as ‘the attorney for the damned’, Clarence Darrow really was a remarkable figure. Born in Ohio in 1857, Darrow came from a family of abolitionists and free thinkers – and very much carried on their tradition. I won’t say too much on him today (I’ll come back to Clarence for future Tales) but if you can imagine most stereotypical television geniuses of the last few decades – unkempt, non-conformist, too damn good at their job to be let go for their eccentricities – you’re in the right ballpark for Mr Darrow. His nickname says it all really – if Clarence Darrow couldn’t help you, nobody could. In the wake of the arrests, the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) held fundraisers in cities across the North – and secured the money to hire Darrow to defend the Sweet family and their co-defendants. 

Clarence Darrow

Initially, all eleven accused were tried together. In a courtroom, in front of a dozen white men, Darrow argued not just that the Sweets were defending their property as the law allows them to – but that they were the victims of a system stacked against them due to the colour of their skin. In his autobiography he makes mention of the fact the prosecution called up to seventy five witnesses, who all claimed they were out on the street and saw the shooting – but claimed there was no large crowd of people – just let that sink in for a while. Darrow struggled to find witnesses, due to the neighbourhood closing ranks – but made easy work of the witnesses in cross examination. With the media firmly on the side of the white mob, as well as most of Detroit’s leading citizens, Darrow still secured a hung jury. 

When the case was retried – this time individually trying the Sweets (starting with Ossian’s brother Henry – the shooter, and at the time a university student), Darrow won the case – leading to the State’s attorney dropping the charges against the other defendants. 

Were this a movie, this is the point where the family live happily ever after. They are released immediately. Cut to scene of a party with some hot jazz playing on the gramophone. Perhaps the white saviour lawyer is there as the guest of honour… The neighbours have learnt the foolishness of their ways, and Dr Sweet is welcomed into the community as one of their own. This was, however, real life. Once arrested, the defendants were refused bail. In the dank, miserable jail cells, Gladys Sweet caught tuberculosis – and passed away soon after – but not before she inadvertently passed the disease to their child – who also died from consumption. Ossian Sweet resumed his medical practice, but never returned to 2905 Garland Street. He never really got over the incident, or the loss of his family. Ossian Sweet sold the house in the 1950s, and feeling all too world weary, took his own life in 1960. 

Though hardly the most uplifting tale, the story of Ossian Sweet is something that keeps coming back to me. Not to say he wasn’t a remarkable guy (to become a doctor requires a high level of smarts. To remain calm in the face of a raging mob incredible toughness), but I think that his experience was not uncommon makes it chilling to me. There is something of this also feels far too current for comfort.     

As a final word; Clarence Darrow appealed to the better nature of the jury when he said “To me this case is a cross section of human history; it involves the future, and the hope of some of us that the future shall be better than the past”.

While in the box, Ossian Sweet also made a statement,  
“I opened the door, I saw the mob and I realised I was facing the same mob that had hounded my people throughout our entire history. I was filled with a fear that only one could experience who knows the history and strivings of my race” 

February 2022 is Black History Month. As a pakeha (white) New Zealander I’m far from the best person to be telling tales like this. Luckily there’s no shortage of African American historians out there – shining a light on African American history in a way I could only dream of. I found this British site covering their own Black History Month (the practice started in the USA as a week only in 1926, the UK started observing the month in 1987) 

The American site, for African American History month is here, and has several other sites which observe the month in their about section.

Update: This week is delayed – new blog/episode tonight?

Hi all just a quick note. As some of you may know I’ve been a work from home person since before the pandemic. You may also know I rent a place where I have a couple of flatmates to help me pay someone else’s mortgage… The flatmates are normally not work from home people, and in the summer time (is a pretty humid low 30 degrees celsius in New Zealand at present) I’m normally able to work with the office/bedroom door wide open.

This summer I’ve managed precisely three days of this, between one of my flatmates workplaces allowing employees back in the office, and omicron finally arriving on our shores. We’re not currently in a lockdown, but a red light in a traffic light system which recommends people work from home when they can under red.

I have to keep the door shut when others are in the house for privacy reasons. The windows in the room have security locks on them, so I can’t throw those wide open either.

Anyway, long story short – I’ve been losing a couple of hours every day at present to aerate the room, get a shower, wait for the temperature to drop and get a dehumidifier running before I can head back up and get to podcasting. The current episode is maybe 3 hours from completion as I type this so should hopefully be up tonight NZ time.

Sorry for the delays everyone

Premium Content: The Salmesbury Witches

Hey all I’m taking the paywall off the next two Premium Tales. The podcast episode can be found on my Patreon.
Normally you can access the bonus scripts here for $1.00 a month, the podcast episodes for $2.00 (USD)


Jane Southworth, Jennet Bierley and Ellen Bierley stood in the dock, shackled and bound. The setting, the Lancaster Assizes, August 18th 1612 – where the Demdikes and Chattoxes were tried for witchcraft. Accused of wielding magic with malicious intent, the ladies are accused of murdering then eating a baby. Their accuser, a fourteen year old relative of the Bierleys named Grace Sowerbutts. Eating a baby was one thing, but ‘The Salmesbury Witches’ had the temerity to magically bully young Grace – and that was more than she could take. 

For years Jennet, Aunt Ellen and their pal Jane made Grace’s life a living hell. They transformed into dogs to frighten her. Whenever feeling at ease, they psycho-kinetically seized her by her hair, levitated her above a hay bale – then unceremoniously dumped her atop the bundle. Some times they would fly her over a barn and threaten to leave her on the roof. One time the ladies hypnotised her into trying to drown herself. Grace was terrified, sooner or later, they would murder her.

Furthermore, there was that murder and cannibalism charge. Once, Grace claimed – the Salmesbury Witches took her to the house of a Thomas Walshman, his wife and their baby. The ladies snuck into the house and kidnapped the baby. Once free and clear, they sucked the baby’s blood. The young child was then returned. The witches departed. This was bad enough, but – the court heard the child passed on the following night. Days later Jennet and Ellen returned – removing the body from its grave. They then cooked and ate part of the body – the remainder being turned into a magical ointment used to shape shift. 

Thomas Walshman took the stand, confirming he did indeed have a young child, recently passed. 

Grace Sowerbutts, delivered her evidence – and was a shockingly effective witness. Even on an action-packed day full of outlandish tales of murder, a tale of brazen pedicide and cannibalism particularly chilled the gallery. As it turned out, the extremity of the crime actually saved the ladies. The people in the public gallery were so horrified, they demanded young Grace be recalled. They needed to hear every last detail of the heinous crime. 

And when young Grace was recalled – she completely fell apart on cross examination.

Why falsely accuse family of witchcraft and murder? One word, revenge. 

Lancaster County may have been thin on the ground of actual, bona fide witches, but there was no shortage of recusants in the area. England first turned Protestant in 1534 after King Henry VIII railroaded the Act of Supremacy into law. Increasingly frustrated with his marriage to Catherine of Aragon (the couple failed to make an heir together – something the King put down to God punishing him for marrying Catherine – who was originally betrothed to his deceased older brother Arthur) Henry tried to get a divorce, so he could marry Anne Boleyn – one of Catherine’s ladies in waiting. When the Pope refused to allow the divorce, the nation became Protestant overnight. Henry’s daughter Mary I reverted England back to Catholicism during her reign (1553- 58). Her persecution of Protestants earned her the nickname ‘Bloody Mary’. Elizabeth I reverted the kingdom back to Protestantism with the Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity in 1559. 

The current King, James I, was Protestant. After a cabal of Catholic plotters attempted to blow him up in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, James rushed his own legislation through – The Popish Recusants Act of 1605. Catholics were barred from public office, were required to swear an oath of allegiance to the monarch, and risked the loss of up to a third of their land if they didn’t attend a Church of England sacrament at least once a year. In 1612 orders were sent out to all the justices of the peace in Lancashire to make lists of recusants in the area. 

As such, many Catholics kept their religious affiliations secret. These recusants covertly attended underground churches, run by secretive priests. Jane Southworth’s uncle Christopher Thompson was one such priest. 

Christopher and Jane Southworth belonged to an aristocratic recusant family in the region – the family Patriarch Sir John Southworth of Salmesbury Hall. Sir John was openly Catholic, and refused to denounce his faith. This led to multiple arrests and fines. The family were almost completely openly, or covertly Catholic – this included Christopher – a Jesuit preacher who assumed the surname Thompson and went off the grid in to avoid the authorities. Sir John’s son, the recently deceased John Jr was married to Jane. The couple made quite a scene when they walked away from Catholicism, and began attending Anglican masses. Infuriated, Sir John disinherited John jr. 

As Grace was questioned in detail by a couple of justices of the peace, it became clear the charges, originally aimed at eight women – five of whom weren’t tried for lack of evidence – had come by way of Christopher. The defections of John jr and Jane led to further defections from Christopher Thompson’s church. To get revenge, and likely to discredit the apostates before he lost all his flock, Thompson groomed Grace in her outrageous lie.

Judge Sir Edward Bromley dismissed the case, finding Jane Southworth, Jennet and Ellen Bierley not guilty. His closing remarks “ God hath delivered you beyond expectation, I pray God you may use this mercy and favour well; and take heed you fall not hereafter: And so the court doth order that you shall be delivered“

The Pendle Witches (Part Two)

The Pendle Witches (Part Two) Tales of History and Imagination

This week, let me begin with a personal digression. For a little over a decade I rented a place my friends and I referred to as the ‘Beach House’. In a few ways it was what one imagines – a ramshackle old house in a neighbourhood with the word ‘Bay’ in the title. Sure enough you got sea breezes – and could smell the salt in the air out in the courtyard – that sea air was potent enough, by the way, that it rusted ordinary padlocks in nothing flat. Occasionally a passing seagull would drop a present on the roof of your car. Occasionally on a very quiet night you’d swear you could hear the waves lapping at the shore. The naming of the property was just some pompous, facetious, Hyacinth Bucket level nonsense though and we knew it. The worst house on a posh street, we were a long way from the beach. The house was on a stretch of road where our side slumped into a wooded hovel, hemmed in by trees – with never enough sunlight. The other side of the road, however, was occupied by business owners and executives. Their houses stood proud and tall on a hill. Stunning properties with the stunning sea views one expects of a real ‘beach house’. 

I mention this as Alizon’s grandmother, Old Demdike, lived in a property with the suitably witchy name, Malkin Tower. A cursory Google of the name brings up a beat up old tower atop a hilltop. Brooding, solitary and windswept, it looks precisely the kind of place a coven of witches might engage in malicious activity round a steaming cauldron. This however is a Victorian folly called Blacko Tower, built in Pendle Hill by a mill owner who, not unlike my former neighbours, wanted a million dollar view of the valley – some time around 1890. 

When I tell you Alizon’s interview with Justice Nowell went horrifically badly, and 10th April 1612, friends and family gathered at Malkin Tower to plan their next move – they met at an ordinary 17th century cottage. 

Which is precisely what happened. 

We left off last week with Alizon Device being interviewed by justice of the peace Nowell for bewitching a pedlar named John Law. Alizon broke immediately. As soon as Alizon confessed to selling her soul to the devil, and to hexing John Law, she’d unwittingly confessed to being part of a criminal organisation. Witches always belong to covens after all. Roger Nowell wanted to know who else belonged to the Coven? After some questioning Alizon claimed her grandmother once used witchcraft to kill a neighbour’s cow. When Nowell turned his attention to Alizon’s mother Elizabeth, she held up to the interrogation for longer, but eventually broke – admitting she’s seen a ‘witch’s teat’ – an odd lump from which a witches familiar, or even the Devil may suck a witches blood – on the grandmother Old Demdike.

James, who was thought of as ‘simple’ further dug Alizon’s grave, claiming she’d confessed to bewitching a child to him once. 

 Knowing they were in trouble, the women then attempted to divert attention from themselves, towards the Chattox family – the other clan of wise women in the village.   

The Chattoxes were, similarly, a matriarchy run by an ageing grandmother – who was also believed by locals to have supernatural powers. Their matriarch was Anne Whittle aka old Chattox. She had two daughters, Elizabeth and Anne Redfern. 

The two families had been at odds with one another for over a decade – after the Chattoxes broke into Malkin Tower in 1601 and stole clothes and oatmeal from the Demdikes. The Demdikes soon cornered Anne Redfearn’s husband, John, demanding a year’s supply of oatmeal, or they would retaliate. John agreed to their terms, and kept to his word, until he could no longer afford to pay them. Soon after John was struck with an illness and died. On his deathbed he accused the Demdikes of murder. 

Alizon shared a tale with Nowell, of Anne Whittle, the matriarch. Anne had gotten into an argument with a Higham village local named John Moore. Moore was telling people in the village Old Chattox had turned his ale sour. In retaliation Old Chattox allegedly murdered Moore’s young son using something like a clay voodoo doll. She went further. Old Chattox had killed four men she knew of, including her own father. For now Alizon was detained, Elizabeth and James released. Orders were sent to bring in Old Demdike and the Chattoxes. The two elders immediately confessed to selling their souls to the devil – and eventually, the other charges laid against them. Old Demdike, Old Chattox and Anne Redfearn were marched to the dungeon below the Assize court and chained to a wall, next to Alizon. They’d remain there till the trial.  

The gathering at Malkin Tower on Good Friday 1612 might have gone unnoticed, but for a stolen sheep. A large gathering required food – so James Device stole, then butchered a neighbour’s sheep. Gossip soon spread about the theft, and the meeting – and as gossip often does, it got exaggerated in the retelling. A strategy meeting soon became a black mass, full of demonic rituals – and of course plans to seek vengeance against the Justice of the Peace. As soon as word got back to Justice Nowell on 27th April, he arrested the remainder of the family, including nine year old Jennet Device. Eight more people; Elizabeth Device, James Device, Alice Nutter, Katherine Hewitt, John and Jane Bulcock, Alice Grey and Jennet Preston were charged with witchcraft and multiple acts of murder. 

A trial date of 17th August 1612 was set at the Lancaster Assizes for all but Old Demdike – who became ill in prison and died, and Jennet Preston.

Preston lived in York, and faced charges of murdering a man named Thomas Lister four years earlier. She had beaten an earlier accusation, of murdering a child by witchcraft, so was already known to the two judges, James Altham and Sir Edward Bromley. This time she was facing a dying man’s last words, and what then counted as post-mortem evidence. On his death bed, the nobleman Lister allegedly exclaimed 

“Jennet Preston lyes heauie vpon me, Preston’s wife lies heauie vpon me; helpe me, helpe me”
before he took his last breath. Preston was brought before his ‘corpse’. Lister’s body, it was said, condemned her by bleeding for all to see. In 1612 a bleeding corpse was seen less as a sign the patient may still be alive, more a sign they had crossed back to the land of the living to ensure their killer was punished. A bleeding corpse was thought a sign of the guilt of the person before the body. As discussed back in ‘Buried Alive’ it’s estimated hundreds of poor souls were buried alive every year in the UK alone. 
This malicious tale was uncovered in the wake of Jennet’s arrest, as the justices made local enquiries.

This was evidence enough for Altham and Bromley. Jennet Preston was tried 27th July 1612 in York, found guilty, and hanged on the 29th.  

It has to be said Altham and Bromley were the last two judges the Pendle witches wanted presiding over their case. James Altham was a true believer in witchcraft, Malleus Maleficarum, and Daemonologie. He detested witches, believing the only good witch was a dead witch. Bromley was far more level headed, but hated being stuck in the North of England. No doubt he tired of the numbers of recusants (secret Catholics who refused to convert to Protestantism) regularly paraded before him in the North. It was the lifestyle in the North that bored him. Bromley wanted a promotion, and a relocation down to London. Something shocking involving a coven of witches may well be a chance to impress King James. These Assizes were his ticket back to ‘civilisation’. 
The Pendle Witches got Bromley.

On 17th August, the Pendle witches were brought before the court. For the most part it went as you might expect. Old Chattox was accused of the murder of Robert Nutter. She pled not guilty, then sat there as her earlier confession was read back at her. A boarder at her house, James Robinson was also called to confirm everyone believed her a witch. The verdict? Guilty. The developmentally challenged James had confessed all kinds of things for the family, including two murders among his own crimes. His confession was also read out in court. Nine year old Jennet Device was called to give evidence, and further damned her older brother. Likewise, a guilty verdict was returned. 

Anne Redfearn beat the charge of helping Old Chattox murder Robert Nutter – there was insufficient evidence. Unfortunately for her she was also charged with the murder of Robert’s father, Christopher. Though no evidence of this murder was presented, several witnesses were called to confirm Anne was a witch. This was enough for Bromley. Guilty, next!

Next was Jane and John Bulcock – guilty of murdering Jennet Deane, and of attending the Malkin Tower meeting. Again, they were damned by nine year old Jennet Device. She put them at Malkin Tower on the night, and that alone was good enough. Alice Nutter, the only defendant not to come from the peasant class, refused to make a statement beyond a pleading not guilty in the murder of Henry Mitton. She was found guilty. As was Katherine Hewitt. Both Hewitt and Alice Grey were accused by James Device of murdering a child named Anne Faulds. Based on nothing more than the testimony of a developmentally challenged young man, Katherine was found guilty, while Alice was let go – on the exact same evidence. 

Alizon was the only ‘witch’ to face an accuser in court. When told to look on John Law she broke down and reiterated her guilty plea. 

Alizon’s mother Elizabeth’s case was slightly more dramatic than the others. All along she maintained her innocence, but her life was literally in the hands of her nine year old daughter, Jennet. Whether Jennet had been coached (quite likely) or – as has been suggested was an imaginative kid who loved the all the attention the case brought her… of for that matter, as the folklore suggests – an unpopular kid whose head was suddenly turned by the attention she suddenly got
Whether she was aware of the implications of her star testimony – well, all of that’s all up for debate. What was absolutely certain, her testimony was damning. 

Elizabeth was accused of the murder of two men (James and John Robinson – one presumes a different James to the witness who damned Old Chattox). She was also accused of being an accomplice in the murder of Henry Mitton. As Jennet was brought forwards, Elizabeth lost all composure. She yelled and screamed hysterically at the young child – warning her to stop and tell the truth immediately before she damned the whole lot of them. For God’s sake child, think what you’re doing before you kill the lot of us! Elizabeth was restrained, then removed; kicking and screaming from the courtroom. Jennet proceeded to tell the court mummy had been a witch for some three of four years. She had a spirit familiar who took the form of a brown dog. The familiar was called Ball. Mummy had magical powers, and often spoke with Ball. (Ball of course spoke back). 

What did mummy and Ball discuss? Mummy asked Ball’s help many times to murder other villagers. 

Elizabeth Device was found guilty. The guilty were executed on August 20th 1612, by hanging. You may be pleased to know Sir Edward Bromley’s hard work didn’t go unnoticed by the King. Though it didn’t happen overnight, he did get his promotion, and moved to London in 1616. Jennet Device, of whom I’m not sure if she really deserved a comeuppance – well, at least if she were coached by unscrupulous adults – she too got her comeuppance.
In 1634 a 10 year old boy named Edmund Robinson accused Jennet of murdering a woman named Isabel Nutter. Again, the court took the testimony of a child as gospel, and Jennet was found guilty. Unlike her family, she was never hanged for her crime, but she did spend the rest of her natural life behind bars for the alleged crime. 

Witch trials continued in England till 1716. The last women executed for witchcraft was a Huntingdon woman named Mary Hicks, and her nine year old daughter Elizabeth. At that point in time few Britons believed in witchcraft anymore. All laws regarding witchcraft were finally repealed in 1735. By the end of Britain’s witch hunting era some 500 ’witches’ were executed in England, and 4,000 in Scotland. Close to 90% of the executed were women.
Several attempts have been made to pardon the Pendle Witches, recently in 1998 and 2018. Governments have refused to overturn the convictions, and at time of writing a petition is live, to be presented to Queen Elizabeth directly. At the time of recording this episode a petition had gone live to demand the Scottish parliament pardon all their executed witches. I, for one, believe it is well past time the victims of the witch hunts were acquitted.

The Pendle Witches (Part One)

The Pendle Witches (Part One) Tales of History and Imagination


One March day in 1612 Justice Roger Nowell of Pendle Hill, Lancashire was called upon by a complainant with a weird tale to tell. As a justice of the peace – an office created by Simon de Montfort in 1285 – his role was to decide what behaviours constituted illegal, or merely obnoxious behaviour in the community. The complaint brought to him today, was one being heard more and more in England since a young King of Scotland got a promotion, and brought some strange ideas South with him. By and large, these complaints came to nought, so Justice Nowell could be excused if he had no idea of the level of harm this meeting would unleash.

The complainant was one John Law, an aged pedlar from Halifax. On 21st March he’d been travelling through Trawden Forest when accosted by a young woman named Alizon Device. Device coming from a family of ‘Wise women’ – pagan folk healers – Law was wary of her, and when she stopped him to ask if he had pins for sale, Law became increasingly uptight. It was well known witches used pins in arcane rituals like curing warts and casting love spells after all. Besides, it was well known the Device clan were poor (she was returning home from a day of begging in the town) and metal pins were quite expensive – why go to the bother of unloading his bag if the young lady didn’t have any money?

 Because of this, Law stated it was hardly worth his bother to sell her any pins that day. Alizon lost her temper, yelling something at Law, the specifics of which have not been recorded. Law retaliated by calling Alizon a thief. The two went their separate ways – till soon after John Law keeled over, as if struck by a curse. The pedlar managed to stumble on till he reached a tavern, from which a doctor could be called.    

A pedlar

John was content to leave things be, but his son Abraham insisted he go to the authorities to lay a complaint. Alizon was brought over to the Law household to see what she’d done to the pedlar, for which she apologised. For Abraham this still wasn’t enough. Witches should not be allowed to simply curse whomever they please, not least of all Abraham’s beloved father. Alizon, her mother Elizabeth, and especially her grandmother Elizabeth Southernes – known as ‘Old Demdike’ were well known practitioners of maleficent practices and lifelong troublemakers. The complaint laid, justice Nowell called for a constable to bring Alizon before him as soon as possible.   

Before we get to Alizon’s trial, we should step back and discuss witchcraft itself. The Devices may be the lead characters in this tale – but for these episodes we’re looking at witch hunts in the United Kingdom in general.

Without going too deep, the concept of witches goes way back in antiquity – one of the earliest books to mention witches is the Old Testament of the Bible. 1 Samuel mentions Saul, the King of the Israelites approaching the ‘Witch of Endor’ to contact the deceased prophet Samuel. Saul needed to know what would happen in an upcoming battle with the Philistines. The witch tells him not just Saul, but his whole army will be destroyed. The prophecy proved correct. Elsewhere, in the book of Exodus, Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments, and a handful of other advice including “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”.  From here the inter-relation between witchcraft and prevailing (increasingly Christian) doctrines of society has been complex. Broadly, in ancient history witches were largely to be feared, and occasionally used by powerful people as either an oracle of future events – or to put a hex on an enemy – often with deadly effect. 

Medieval society largely had the hang-ups – and dare I say this of the church? Some degree of common sense from the church to guide them. Notably, St Augustine of Hippo (354- 430 AD) who saw witches as competitors for the hearts and minds of the people, but didn’t believe they had any supernatural powers. As such he urged the church to treat them as heretics rather than dangerous monsters in league with the devil. This viewpoint was the dominant view of witches throughout the most of the Middle Ages – tax the witch a penance, rather than burn them at the stake. A number of big name monarchs followed suit. Charlemagne, a Frankish king who could very fairly crown himself Emperor of much of Europe in 800 AD stated 

“If anyone, deceived by the devil, shall believe, as is customary among Pagans that any man or woman is a night- witch and eats men, and on that account burn that person to death… he shall be executed” 

His call for tolerance and protection of witches was echoed by others. The Canon Episcopi, of 900 AD enshrined Augustine’s views witches were basically harmless. In 1080, after king Harald III of Denmark ordered a mass culling of witches following a year of crop failures, Pope Gregory VII wrote a strongly worded letter to the King demanding he stop the cull immediately. The Lombards of Northern Italy outlawed the murder of witches in the Middle Ages. In 1100, King Kalman of Hungary expressly banned witch hunting in the country, his reason “witches do not exist”.

But this all slowly changed in the late Middle Ages. 

Again there is a lot to cover here, the broad strokes however are:

First, in 1204 a marauding group of crusaders on their way down to retake Jerusalem got waylaid and wrecked their friends and allies, The Byzantine Empire at Constantinople – modern day Istanbul, Turkey instead. Their occupation of the city opened up a world of forgotten books – long banned by the church in Europe, but kept alive in Byzantine and Islamic circles. From the mid 14th Century onwards Renaissance Occultism – centred largely around the writings of the semi-mythical magician Hermes Trismegistus, and the Neo-Platonists (far too big a field to plow today, we’ll come back to Hermetic orders some day) – suddenly become very in vogue with the wealthy classes. The study of magic suddenly became popular, subversive, and just a little dangerous. 

Second, sects of Cathars arrived in Europe from Bulgaria – providing a direct challenge to the Catholic Church. 

Though nominally Christian, they took on elements of Zoroastrianism – especially the view all of history is played out in front of a cosmic dualist battle of the good powers vs the evil powers. They also adopted Manichaeism to a degree – a 3rd century religion founded around a Persian holy man called Mani. They believed churches should not tax their flock, men & women are equal, and priests should live simple lives, unencumbered by wealth. This was seen as dangerous and subversive for reasons you may guess, and the Cathars were soon murdered and driven out en masse. The widespread persecution of Cathars was an important building block to the witch hunts. 

And of course there was much more religious turmoil in this time that you could shake a stick at – some, like the siege of Münster we’ll come back to later. There were also rulers like Philip The Fair, King of France – who used witchcraft allegations politically. Between 1304 and 1307, he first kidnapped a Pope, justifying his actions by declaring the man a witch – then caused the arrest and destruction of the Knights Templar – effectively because he owed them a lot of money he didn’t want to pay back; but again justified because Philip said they were in league with the Devil. 

The invention of the printing press of course also gave legs to all kinds of dangerous ideas in a way internet users could imagine today. All manner of heretical thought gained popularity in this era, and spread far more easily than they would have through word of mouth alone. While I’m choosing to skip much of this, one book in particular changed the game considerably in regards witchcraft. 

In 1486, a Dominican monk named Heinrich Kramer wrote a book called Malleus Maleficarum “The Hammer Against the Witches”. The book compiled a growing list of conspiracy theories levelled against the witches in recent decades. Claims of human sacrifice, wild, orgiastic get togethers in their covens. Demonic ‘familiars’ who would take on animal form and provided a link to the other side. Kramer highlighted many alleged tales of cruel behaviour aimed at their fellow humans by malicious witches. He explained witches were in league with the devil. They were granted supernatural powers, but in exchange they were expected to wreak havoc on ordinary people. Kramer’s book shocked the book-reading public, and for some time was Europe’s second best seller behind The Bible. It kicked off a witch hunting craze which ultimately led to hundreds of thousands of Europeans being executed in the most horrific of ways.

But, by and large, England never fell down that rabbit hole in quite the same way – Nor as early as Mainland Europe did. That needs a brief explanation before we return to the Device family. 

While it’s unfair to say James I of England (1566- 1625) was the first British king to go after witches – Cinaed “Kenneth” McAlpin, arguably Scotland’s first king, was witch mad. Henry Tudor also used witchcraft allegations for political purposes –

It is very fair to say his hatred of witches led to the witch hunting craze which in turn led to the likes of Witch-finder General Matthew Hopkins only decades after his passing. While several reasons would factor in people dobbing in others as witches – from personal grievance, to professional envy (as the field of medicine grew, many male doctors looked at these mostly female folk healers as competitors who must be done away with) – James I seemed very much a true believer. 

In 1589 James, then King of Scotland only, was betrothed to Anne of Denmark – his future wife. The couple had been trying to get together for some time, but the rowdy North Sea had other plans for them.

Claims of supernatural interference soon crept into this tale when the Admiral originally tasked to sail Anne to Scotland accused a local politician of incompetence- and things took an odd turn. Admiral Peder Munk was in charge of the fleet of 18 ships. They set sail on 18 September 1589. After a couple of odd incidents, like cannons firing by themselves, a bad storm set in, forcing the fleet, tempest tossed – and some springing leaks – to seek shelter in Norway.  

James impatiently awaited Anne’s arrival, penning a sonnet ‘A complaint against the contrary wyndes that hindered the Queene to com to Scotland from Denmarke.’ It was hardly John Donne’s ‘A Valediction Forbidding Mourning’, but it’s certainly a sonnet. While waiting, an advance ferry which reached the River Forth in Scotland before the storm set in, was pummelled by the tail end of the storm – causing it to collide with another ship and drown all aboard. On board, a courtier named Jane Kennedy. Jane had come to Scotland to serve the new Queen. First James sent a group of diplomats to Denmark, then set sail himself – directly to Anne. The party eventually made it back to Scotland, but were almost scuttled in the tempest – where one ship was sunk. 

Back in Denmark an investigation was held into the disastrous voyage. Admiral Munk pointed the finger at the Danish minister of finance, Christoffer Valkendorff, who he stated had under-equipped the royal ship for the voyage. Valkendorff rebutted this was not the case – all the blame lay squarely at the feet of a coven of witches who met at the home of one Karen Vaevers. Their meeting, to curse the voyage. At the time, a woman named Ane Koldings was already in prison – already charged with another, unrelated charge of witchcraft. Awaiting her execution she was tortured into admitting her part in the plot. Ane claimed the coven sent small devils up the keel of the royal ship, forcing the ship to take shelter. She also named five accomplices – one of whom was the wife of the then mayor of Helsingor (the ‘Elsinore’ Shakespeare sets Hamlet in – we’ll come to the Bard soon). 

All up thirteen women were burnt at the stake for their alleged part in the storm. 

News of the Copenhagen Witch Trials reached King James back in Scotland. Shocked by the revelations, he set up his own tribunal. The tribunal found a vast conspiracy directly related to the storm, in Scotland – the incident coming to be known as the North Berwick Witch Trials. This incident bred a lifelong preoccupation with witches for the King – which included his own treatise on witchcraft – Daemonologie – first published in 1597, and reprinted after he became King of England, in 1603. 

A learned review of all that had been said of witches, demons and more besides – the book was meant as a guide to both uncover witches, and protect those who – in James’ view – had been wrongly accused. Daemonologie would instead act as a guidebook for future witch-finders, like Matthew Hopkins, who personally had 300 Britons executed. The treatise, whether rightly or wrongly, also became a guide to a number of public officials looking to win favour with the King, and move up the ladder. This is something we’ll discuss in part two. One clear example of a public figure pandering to the King’s obsession to obtain fortune and favour came by way of William Shakespeare. 

“So foul and fair a day I have not seen…”

Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Macbeth may not have had it’s first public viewing till 1611, just prior to our main tale – though it’s believed it’s first performance was at court, before the King, in August 1606. The play is, in small part a vindication of King James ascent to the English crown, as well as his ancestors’ to the Scottish title. In act one, scene three the three witches may greet Macbeth “All hail, Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter” but they also address his friend Banquo – a real life ancestor of James “Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none.” Later in the play, when Macbeth approaches the witches – to speak with their masters – for advice on how to handle the coming rebellion; he’s shown a succession of kings who “art too like the spirit of Banquo”. 

This procession of future kings, of whom Macbeth exclaims “what, will the one (bloodline) stretch out to th’ crack of doom?” Appear to the tyrant – at one point holding ‘twofold balls and treble sceptres’, indicating Banquo’s successors – James and his kin – were fated to become Kings of a United Kingdom all along. 

Pertinent to our Tale, many of the rituals we see from the witches themselves come directly from Daemonologie. All the talk of ‘scale of dragon, tooth of wolf, witches mummy, maw and gulf’ corresponds to the treatise. The witches also carry out a supernatural assault on the ship ‘The Tiger’ – recently home in real life following a harrowing 569 days at sea. In real life the Tiger too was ‘tempest-toss’d’, and at one point set upon by pirates. The captain and several crew were murdered by Japanese pirates near Indonesia. It harkens back to, and reinforces James’ experience of bringing Anne back to Scotland, and casts shade the way of the humble folk healers yet again. 

Before we wrap up part one (I’ll be back with part two in a week’s time) we should quickly come back to Alizon Device, our protagonist. On 30th March, Alizon, her mother Elizabeth and brother James were all brought before Justice Roger Nowell to answer John Law’s accusation. Had Alizon denied the charge, events may have played out very differently. Unfortunately for all involved, Alizon herself was a true believer. Bursting into tears she confessed to the hexing. She stated following her altercation with the pedlar, a demon in the form of a black dog suddenly appeared alongside her, asking 

“What should I do to him?”
“What canst thou do to him?” She replied
“I can lame him”

Three hundred yards down the road, John Law was seized by an ‘apoplexy’ in the parlance of the day, and tumbled to the ground as if struck by a lightning bolt. 

I’ll be back next week, a week early, to conclude this Tale.  

Back January 19th.

Hi everyone, just a quick update – happy new year to you all!

The blog and podcast will be back on January 19th. For the first sprint of the year I’m planning to look at
Witch hunts
A man besieged by his local ’water improvement association’
Samurai
Phantom airships
Real airships used in terrible ways
An African warrior queen (podcast episode, will also drop a new blog post that week as the blog has already covered Njinga)
Pseudocide
A heretic
A cult of infamous assassins
and the mystery man of Europe, known to his friends as Zed Zed.

Over the break I’ve been balancing regaining mojo with writing ahead. The blog scripts for the first five episodes of 2022 are locked and loaded. The sixth is halfway done. The first three episodes of the podcast are recorded – I’ll be mixing and editing the following week.

On the podcasts, and the dreaded day job – I’m trying to keep a couple of episodes ahead on the podcast in 2022, but trying not to get too far ahead on the recording as I’m looking to replace my Blue Yeti straight into an old laptop recording rig with a better quality microphone, into a recording console. As the dreaded day job always needs people to do overtime January through to March I’m trying to pay for the gear through as much overtime as I can manage round everything else. I don’t think I’ll still be a couple of months ahead come the first planned break in April, but am hoping to keep all of the balls in the air till then.

Sorry all, I’ll finish the Xenophon tale in the coming weeks as well. Back soon – Simone

Update: Premium Blog Content.

Hey all, Happy Holidays. I hope you’re all keeping well.

Seeing there was just a flurry of visits to the site from folk I figured I should really drop an update note. I was planning on setting a page up, then making that page private again – but got called away for a minute (am over at the folks over Xmas).
When I came back there was a notification from WordPress telling me the site was experiencing crazy high visitor numbers all of a sudden.

Today I’ve dropped the scripts for four of the five Patreon episodes onto a ’Premium Content’ feed. The fifth, The Enfundu, was already released free to air. Someone asked me if could make those scripts available as they weren’t into podcasts… I figured why not… if the system allows for it.

I was planning on bulk releasing the Patreon scripts, with a new post on January 19th – but the cat’s out the bag now I guess?

None of the regular posts will be put out as ’premium’, only the Patreon posts. The bulk of new content will be free to air. All the older material will stay free to air. Where the Patreon (podcast episodes with attached scripts) costs US $2 a month to sign up. Script only will be available for US $1 a month.

I’m hoping to drop part two of the Xenophon saga early next week, and will be back to regular blog posts and podcast episodes 19th January 2022.

Merry Xmas, take care all. – Simone.

The Miser of Marcham Park

The Miser of Marcham Park Tales of History and Imagination


Hi all, welcome to the official 2020 Christmas Tale of History and Imagination. Merry Christmas all, I hope this post finds you all well. Today’s post begins in Canongate churchyard, Edinburgh, Scotland. The date is 1841. A young writer meanders through the graveyard, perusing the tales to be seen on the  markers. No doubt he looked on the resting place of the ‘Father of Economics’ Adam Smith. Smith’s tomb is substantial, but bears the simple engraving

Here are deposited the remains of Adam Smith, author of the Theorey (sic) of Moral Sentiments and Wealth of Nations.”

So much more could have surely been said about one of the great philosophers of his age; perhaps a novelist in this day and age might pause and wonder who was Smith’s one true unrequited love (he never married or had children, as evident in his spartan epitaph). “He uncovered the invisible hand that moves the market, but dismissed the hand of Cupid pulling at his heartstrings: Adam Smith, The Wealth of Romance”.  

He must have stopped to view the gravestone of the poet Robert Fergusson. A well-liked man about town whose works were starting to really gain some attention, Fergusson’s career was suddenly cut short after he took a suspicious tumble down a stairway. In spite of his protests, Fergusson was taken to hospital, where he would die of a head injury days later. His stone bears an epitaph from his friend Robert Burns.

No Sculptur’d marble nor pompous lay
No storied urn, nor animated bust,
This simple stone directs Pale Scotia’s way
To pour her sorrows o’er her poet’s dust”


It was, however, another gravestone entirely which caught the author’s imagination. A simple block of granite, inscribed

“Ebenezer Lennox Scroggie
Mean Man
1792 – 1836.”


The headstone made an impact on the writer, a 29 year old Charles Dickens. He is said to have wondered what kind of monster Mr. Scroggie must have been to have earned the appellation ‘Mean Man’, especially in an age full of mean men not remembered so. I don’t know if Dickens enquired about Scroggie, though we now know him to have been a rather hedonistic young man who matured into a successful vintner, whiskey maker and corn merchant. He was of note in 1822 for supplying the food for a royal visit to Edinburgh, and was the British Navy’s sole supplier of whiskey. It’s been suggested Dickens misread that day, that the grave actually said ‘Meal Man’, but we’ll never know. During a construction project in 1932, Scroggie’s grave marker was inexplicably lost. What is certain, as the tale percolated in Dickens’ mind Scroggie gave way to Scrooge, and one of the great characters of Victorian literature was born.  

Charles Dickens.



I’ll have a little more to say on Dickens’ 1843 novella ‘A Christmas Carol’ later, but first should address – if Ebenezer Scroggie lent his name to the character of Scrooge, but not his actual character, just who was the narrative source for the old miser? The answer most often given, John Elwes – member of Parliament for Berkshire.  

John Elwes was born John Meggot on 7th April 1714 to Robert and Amy Meggot (nee Elwes) in Southwark. Born to a wealthy, but extremely parsimonious family (it was said Amy accidentally starved herself to death over several years in an effort to save as many pennies as possible on the groceries), John found himself orphaned as a young boy, and in charge of a £100,000 fortune – just shy of $22 Million US now. As a result, he had a far more comfortable childhood than many of his peers. Having studied at Westminster School, John left on the Grand Tour – mixing with foreign aristocracy and making a name for himself as an excellent horseman. Tiring of the company of the likes of Voltaire, John returned to Britain, where he continued to live the high life.

a contemporary depiction of John Elwes.

His world view changed drastically however by the middle of the 18th century. As wealthy as John was, his ageing uncle, Baronet Harvey Elwes was considerably wealthier than he, and was a renowned cheapskate to boot. The Baronet had never married, nor fathered a child. The only heir to his £250,000 fortune was young John, pampered rich kid that he was. In all likelihood in an effort to win fortune and favor from uncle Harvey, John changed his ways – first changing his surname to Elwes, then adopting his uncle’s skinflint ways. When Harvey died in 1763, he left a further £250,000 to his nephew –  $53 Million, according to a University of Wyoming currency converter. For a reason never stated, John Elwes never went back to his freewheeling ways – instead choosing to live a lifestyle that would make a Hetty Green or John Paul Getty blush.

Let’s start with candles – probably the least of his sins as a tallow candle was both hideously expensive, and smelled awful when lit. Elwes was notorious for never using candles when moving around his stately home at night. He would much rather bang into the furniture and put his fate in the lap of the Gods when traversing stairs than waste an average weekly wage on several hours of candlelight. Most nights Elwes would also sit in the kitchen with the help, as they would insist on lighting a fire – and he refused to get a second fire going.

in fairness to John Elwes, speaking in terms of lumens of light, a modern LED is 500,000 times cheaper to run, per lumen than a tallow candle then was.


Worse, Elwes refused to fix a growing number of leaks in his roof. This was in spite of the fact the water getting into the house was starting to rot it out from under him, not to mention all the ruined antique furniture the leaks caused.

John Elwes always looked a mess. He wore the same suit for months on end, both day and night, till his clothes turned to rags. Wigs being popular in his day, he refused to buy one. His wig some worn out old rug salvaged after some passing pedestrian tossed it into his grounds. He would often refuse to catch a cab if raining, instead tromping through the deluge, then sitting round soaked at the other end, as he was also too cheap to dry his clothes in front of a fire. He kept food till it went moldy or putrid, and was well known for going out to meet friends – then taking a pancake and a hard boiled egg out of his jacket pocket, to avoid spending money at a restaurant or tavern.

One tale has it, one dark night while walking home, John Elwes took an awful tumble. A doctor was called to dress his injuries – deep gashes to both his legs. Elwes not only refused to let the doctor treat the second leg, he wagered the cost of his treatment on his untreated leg healing sooner. By chance it did, thus saving Elwes the cost of treatment – something he crowed about for some time.

In 1772, Elwes would be elected member of parliament for Berkshire, a job he’d hold for the following twelve years. A complete maverick who voted for whichever side pleased him that day, he drew derisive comments from other parliamentarians such as he could never be a turncoat as he only owned the one coat to start with. He eventually stepped down from the, then, unpaid job as it was costing him too much money to serve.

Georgian Architecture.

While John Elwes is widely considered the model for Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge, I think it is fair to point out in some ways he was far from a real life Ebenezer. Dickens’ Scrooge is shown on Christmas eve counting his money, while his employee Bob Cratchit froze in the ante room. For a start we know he never denied his help a fire for themselves. Scrooge is visited by his nephew Fred, then two charity collectors, all out after something from him – the men are met with an aggressive response – Fred himself sent packing with a ‘Bah! Humbug!’. Elwes WAS known to give to charity, and invest in the upgrade of parts of London. Much of the Georgian architecture present in London owes to his redevelopments. He may have never had one true, lost love such as Scrooge’s Belle – but he had relationships with at least two women, who bore him illegitimate heirs. Nor would he have let Bob Cratchit’s poor son, Tiny Tim, suffer unnecessarily – or been spoken about on his passing by his debtors as an unforgiving ogre. To others John Elwes was a very caring man, who often gave out loans knowing full well he’d never see the money back. He still passed on, finally in 1789, leaving a £500,000 fortune – $81 Million in 2020 money, but he did spend a lot in making others happy. His biographer Edward Topham summed him up, stating “To others, he lent much, to himself he denied everything”.

Given that, maybe on a normal year I’d suggest we all need to be a little more like the real life Scrooge – to find a little joy in giving – but, hell this has been anything but a normal year. Eat, drink and be merry I say – life’s too short not to. Take care out there, and a Merry Christmas all. “God Bless us! Every one” as Tiny Tim states in that, most famous of Christmas Tales.



Xenophon in Mesopotamia: Part One

Today’s tale is set in Mesopotamia, modern day Iraq, much of Syria and parts of Turkey. The date? 405 BC. Mesopotamia is an empire which predates the written word – in fact laying claim to the first known work of literature – the Epic of Gilgamesh.

An empire credited, among a few others of simultaneously inventing the wheel. 

And an empire; because it was situated on incredibly fertile land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, grew several of the most powerful empires of the ancient world. Their history is long, and complex – the earliest known parts pre-dating our story by over three millennia – and our own time five and a half thousand years. 

It encompasses Sumerians, Akkadians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Ur Empires and many more dynasties besides. It’s rulers include Ur- Nammu, who built the first law code. Hammurabi – often mistaken as the first law maker, but an important pioneer of Talionic law codes everywhere. Sargon of Akkad, a man with a mythical origin story (the illegitimate son of an unknown father and a high priestess, he was cast away in a reed basket down the Euphrates long before anyone had ever heard of Moses) and the first ruler in history to whom we can give a personal name. 

And many more. Various Rimushes, Shulgis, Rim-Sins, Kurigalzus, Nebuchadnezzars, Shamshi-Adads, Tiglath-Pilesars, Ashurbanipals, Sennacheribs, Esarhaddons and more besides… many impressive and terrifying figures. 

Which is a long-winded way of saying, when thinking of Mesopotamia, think of an ancient USA in it’s scale and dominance over other states – only the nation has been dominant for over three thousand years as the point of this Tale.  

The dynasty we’re concerned with is the Achaemenid Empire. This Persian kingdom rose to prominence in the wake of a successful war against the neighbouring Medes (believed to be the modern day Kurds) in 559 BC. Soon, their king, Cyrus was not just in charge of the entire region – but had extended the empire’s traditional borders into the Eastern Mediterranean, establishing the largest empire known to humankind to that date in the process. His son Cambyses conquered Egypt, and Cambyses son Darius in turn added much of Northern India to the club. The Tales around Xerxes, and his clashes with a little group of upstarts across the pond who invented democracy – well, much of that can be saved for another Tale. Suffice to say the Achaemenids ruled from 559 BC till Alexander the Great demolished Darius III’s army at the Battle of Gaugamela in 331 BC. 

In 405 BC Darius II was King of what was then called the Persian Empire. He ruled at a time when Egypt was successfully rebelling against them, but Athens and Sparta were at each other’s throats – and as such less a threat to his Eastern Mediterranean holdings. Unwell, he called for his sons Artaxerxes and Cyrus the younger to his bedside. 

The Greek sources don’t state what Atraxerxes did prior to his father’s passing – we know he was the dauphin, hand picked by Darius to take over the family business. Cyrus had been stationed in Lydia, modern day Turkey as the local Satrap – running the region and keeping an eye on the Greeks across the pond. Cyrus had given support, in turns to Athens, then Sparta – in the process making friends in the Greek world. His job in Lydia had come about via the displacement of his predecessor – a man called Tissaphernes. Due to the demotion of Tissaphernes, Cyrus also made a number of enemies at home. 

It should also be pointed out, he had allies who would like to see Cyrus the younger crowned in place of Artaxerxes – knowing their own position in society would receive a bump up the ladder. Others, no doubt wanted a man of action who would fight to maintain their grip on Egypt. Artaxerxes had a reputation as a ‘fair’ ruler – not a bellicose one. 

So one could imagine the arrival of Cyrus in 405 BC, with 300 Greek mercenaries in tow, caused quite a scene. 

Cyrus did attempt a coup on the eve of his brother’s coronation, which failed miserably. After much consideration King Artaxerxes pardoned his brother, reappointing him Satrap of Lydia and exiling him Thousands of miles North of Babylon. This proved foolish, and leads to the subject of today’s Tale. 

In 401 BC, Cyrus called upon his supporters, forming an army which at the least ran to tens of thousands of soldiers. A vital component of this army, ten thousand Greek mercenaries. Among this motley crew, which contained both Athenians and Spartans, a young Athenian soldier and philosopher named Xenophon. 

Xenophon

Born around 430 BC, we know precious little about Xenophon’s early life. He was born in an idyllic village outside of Athens called Erchia, to a wealthy, land owning class. He received a philosophical and martial education in line with other young gentlemen of his time, and studied under the philosopher Socrates; who he later counted as a close friend. When approached about joining the grand army Cyrus was gathering together, Xenophon sought Socrates’ advice. Socrates was a veteran of the Peloponnesian War in the 420s BC, having fought in several battles – but he was also purportedly the wisest of all men. Wise in knowing what he didn’t know, that he didn’t know if this campaign was a good idea or not – he advised his friend to seek advice at the Oracle of Delphi. The Pythia (priestess) advised Xenophon should sign up – so he did. 

It bears mention up front it was a terrible idea, but few outside of the high command knew Cyrus planned to march into Babylon. They believed they were being called on to conquer the Pisidians – a people in the South-West of modern day Turkey who thus far had remained independent, in spite of several attempts to conquer them. They suspected following this, they would be called on to defeat Tissaphernes – who had been sabre rattling for a war for a few years now. No-one suspected they would be called on to overthrow the king. 

Tissaphernes watched intently as the army rolled through the Pisidians, onwards into Lydia. He could guess, based on the size of the army, they were looking to seize power. He called on Artaxerxes to gather an even bigger army to put a stop to them.

The army rolled through Lydia, then inland to Phrygia – where Alexander would ‘untie’ the Gordian Knot centuries later. As they moved on they collected thousands more troops. Near the river Marsyas the army stopped for a month while another mercenary general, Clearchus, arrived with a thousand hoplites, eight hundred Thracian Peltasts, and two hundred Cretan archers. A Syracusian general arrived soon after with three thousand hoplites. An Arcadian with a further thousand. From there to Cilicia, near the border of modern day Syria – where the Cilician queen begrudgingly handed Cyrus a large tribute of gold – soon after handed to the army, covering four months’ worth of pay. 

Moving south, they faced a number of aggressive states. Several men were killed by locals on their way to the city of Tarsus, so the army retaliated by pillaging the city, and enslaving whoever was unlucky enough to still be there. The local king, Syennesis, brokered a peace with Cyrus – at the cost of further aid to the ever growing army.

But it was also at this point that Cyrus’ army began to realise this force was well in excess of what was needed for the mission. Many refused to go any further – judging an attack on Babylon suicidal. Some of the generals – Clearchus primarily – tried to force his men to continue, but was assaulted by the men. Hours later a tearful Clearchus made an impassioned plea to his men to continue on their mission – begging them, but stating ultimately wherever they chose to go he would follow. After some consideration, and a pay rise, the army continued on it’s way. They marched south, through rugged terrain. Often crossing massive rivers. At one Syrian fortress, where Cyrus expected a battle from the Satrap Abrocomas, they found the fort empty. Rumour had it the soldiers had all left to join up with Artaxerxes’ own growing army -already rumoured to be 300,000 strong. Further on they demolished the palace of the Satrap Belesys with little bother. 

From here they marched alongside the Euphrates, through increasingly inhospitable terrain. Not far from Babylon they reached a prosperous town named Charmande. Exhausted and running on fumes, the men made for the market for provisions. While recuperating, tensions arose between factions in the army – one of Clearchus’ men getting into a fight with one of Menon’s (a rival general) men. This soon escalated to both factions facing off against one another. 

Moving on it soon became apparent somewhere in the order of 2,000 of the enemy were travelling ahead of them, slashing and burning anything which could provide sustenance. Orontas, a relative of Cyrus, offered to take a few thousand horsemen out to track these vandals down and kill them – which Cyrus happily assented to. However, as Orontas prepared to leave, he was stopped in his tracks and arrested. A letter had just been intercepted – addressed to the King. Orontas was a spy for Artaxerxes, and had written ahead to advise he was on his way. This was sensible if he hoped not to be killed by ‘friendly fire’ from Artaxerxes’ men, but it’s interception was damning for him. Cyrus put his relative on trial before the men. He freely confessed to the treachery – was found guilty – and was led away, never to be seen again. 

Soon after, on a dusty afternoon, the two armies faced off, near the town of Cunaxa – just 70 miles North of Babylon. I’ve read varying accounts of the battle – one claiming Cyrus’ combined force of just over 110,000 was dwarfed by Artaxerxes combined forces of 1,200,000 men. Most modern sources estimate Cyrus’ army at closer to 13,000 – Artaxerxes at around 40,000. In all tellings Cyrus was heavily outnumbered. The two armies faced off against one another – Cyrus’ crew positioned with the non-Greeks on the left, the Greeks on the right – closest to the river. Cyrus positioned himself in the middle, alongside his 600 strong bodyguard. On the opposing side Artaxerxes took a middle position, amidst his 6,000 bodyguards. He similarly had his army arranged in a flank either side. 

Then, the battle was on. To quote Xenophon’s ‘Anabasis’

“…with the forward movement a certain portion of the line curved onwards in advance, with wave-like sinuosity, and the portion left behind quickened to a run… Some say they clashed their shields and spears, thereby causing terror to the horses; and before they had got within arrow shot the barbarians swerved and took to flight.”

The left wing of Artaxerxes’ army basically folded. Horses spooked at this wave of caterwauling mercenaries who had broken into a sprint towards them, and took off, riderless -mowing through their own ranks. The Hellenes, as Xenophon refers to his collection of Greeks, made quick work of the Persians who stayed to fight. They were easily outclassed. Having lost few men, the Hellenes would turn back around and enter the affray with the other wing of their army. 

The battle in the centre was a whole other story. Cyrus scanned for his brother before riding out. On reaching the front line, again Xenophon

“Attacking with his six hundred, he mastered the line of troops in front of the king, and put to flight the six thousand (bodyguards) – cutting down, as is said, with his own hand their general, Artagerses. 

But as soon as the rout (by the Hellenes, turning round and headed towards the other Persian wing) commenced, Cyrus’s own six hundred themselves, in the ardour of pursuit, were scattered, with the exception of a handful… his table companions, so called. “

Cyrus sited his brother

“Unable longer to contain himself, with a cry, “I see the man” he rushed at him and dealt a blow at his chest, wounding him through the corselet (chest-plate)”

But

“As Cyrus delivered the blow, some one struck him with a javelin under the eye severely… Cyrus himself fell”.

The man who dealt the killing blow was named Mithridates (not OUR Mithridates from several months back). Though he likely saved the King’s life, Mithridates would be put to death by scaphism – essentially tied between two boats naked, covered in milk and honey – and left prone for the insects to devour over several days – for his troubles. Artaxerxes wanted the honour of killing Cyrus so badly the poor guy couldn’t go unpunished in his view. 

Meanwhile, on the battlefield – The Hellenes, having demolished much of the opposing army, took a defensive position. The battered Persians ceded the field to the victorious mercenaries after attempting one last time to take them on. The Hellenes pursued them back to their base. They had won the battle, but with Cyrus dead – had they lost the war? They would not discover his death till the following morning. Returning to their camp they found it ransacked. They bedded down for the night. 

The following morning they were advised of Cyrus’ passing. Ariaeus – the man most likely to replace him in the event of Cyrus’s death, had fled with the Non-Greek contingent. He had no plans to wear the crown of Persia, and planned to escape before the Persians could regroup and come after then with an even bigger army. 

Later that morning, Phalinus – a Hellene in Tissaphernes employ – came with a message for the mercenaries

“The great king having won the victory and slain Cyrus, bids the Hellenes to surrender their arms; to be taken themselves to the gates of the king’s palace, and there obtain for themselves what terms they can”

The Hellenes, the Ten Thousand – as formidable and battle-hardened as they were, suddenly found themselves thousands of miles from home. Vastly outnumbered. Completely lacking in the geographical knowledge to get themselves home safely. 

Suddenly they were rudderless. Strangers in a strange, hostile land. We’ll conclude this Tale in a week’s time. If I overshoot and don’t get part two out before the 25th, Happy Holidays all. 

A ’Time Machine’

Hi everyone, apologies for the drop off in new content… I’ve hit the wall, and needed a little time to get my mojo back. It’s all 9 to 5 stuff. My day job continues to keep me gainfully employed regardless of New Zealand’s recent four month lockdown – but the job is one that gets increasingly stressful as stress, anxiety, depression and boredom grows among the clientele. 

In short, sorry all I’m exhausted and needed a couple of weeks off.

The next proper blog post is a week away, so I figured – in the interim – I’d bundle a few of the following social media posts together. As you may know the blog still gets many more readers than the podcast gets listeners, so I trialled the following on my personal Facebook, over a Saturday. 

Wherever the play counter was at, I’d write a short tale about something that happened in that year. I’d close the post off with a call to action ‘share this episode’ or ‘go leave us a five star review’ etc. 

It did give the podcast a little bit of a bump.
It wasn’t entirely unsuccessful, though we didn’t get anywhere near modern history in the process.

1286. 

On 19th March 1286 Alexander III, king of Scotland took a moonlit ride to join his second wife, the then pregnant Queen Yolande. It was her birthday the next day. Alexander had been away on business and really wished to be with his wife to celebrate her special day if at all humanly possible. The weather was rough. His advisors told him to stay in Edinburgh for the night – but the king would have none of that. 

While travelling through the town of Kinghorn, in Fife, Alexander’s horse took a tumble down a steep, rocky embankment – killing him. 

Alexander’s only direct heir was his unborn daughter – who was miscarried, likely due to the shock of his sudden death. A constitutional crisis broke out. Alexander had three children from a previous marriage (he was married to the 10 year old daughter of Henry III of England aged 11 himself – they had 3 children together before she passed on)

All three heirs died a few years before Alexander, all having barely reached adulthood. 

Some called for his three year old grand-daughter Margaret, the ‘Maid of Norway’ to be brought to Scotland to be crowned. Others, most notably England’s King Edward ‘Longshanks’, wanted Edward’s buddy John Balliol on the throne – a man not well loved by the Scots. 

This led to a conflict which looked something vaguely like the movie Braveheart – which eventually led to the reign of Robert the Bruce, beginning in 1306. 

Moonlight rides can be dangerous – stay home with my podcast instead (link to an episode attached).

A Few Hours Later, 1314.

To tell the following I need to start in 1099 – with the fall of Jerusalem to a marauding pack of lunatics we now call the Crusaders. From this point in time, the holy city was open to Westerners, and pilgrims began to flock there. A great number of these folk travelled in small groups, with large sums of money, through hostile lands. Unsurprisingly, robberies and murders were commonplace. 

In 1118, a French knight named Hugues de Payens formed a company with just seven of this friends and family. Their purpose – to protect the pilgrims from bandits. The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and the Temple of Solomon, better known as the Knights Templar set up a headquarters at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Demand for their services soon grew, and the order would have as many as 20,000 employees working for them at their peak. 

Besides protection, the Knights Templar provided a form of banking, where one could leave a sum of money with them at the start of their journey. A promissory note was drawn, which could be cashed at the other end. This led to the knights offering other banking services – like cash loans to the rich and powerful. The crusades had run their course by the end of the 13th century. At this point, however, the Knights Templar were anything but poor fellow-soldiers. The organisation was worth one hell of a lot of money – and a number of unscrupulous rulers began to plot how to confiscate said wealth from them. 

Philip IV of France was known as Philip the Fair, a moniker which by modern usage seems laughable. He taxed churches, which seems fair I guess? Though he did so solely to line his own pockets. In 1303 the man had a pope kidnapped. Pope Boniface VIII was eventually released, but was said to have died from the trauma of the kidnapping soon after. 

On Friday October 13th 1307, a proposed origin for the Friday the 13th legend – Philip, heavily in debt to the Templars, had them declared heretics and arrested. 

Which brings us to 1314. 

In March 1314. After a lengthy investigation by Pope Clement V, the Knights Templar were disbanded. It’s leaders sentenced to death. On March 18th Geoffroi de Charney, Hugues de Peraud, Godefroi de Gonneville, and their Grand Master Jacques de Molay were led to a purpose built platform on a tiny island in the Seine, then burnt at the stake – just across the water from Notre Dame Cathedral. This horrific immolation was observed by the general populace – many of whom saw the execution as a day’s entertainment.  

A Quick Post at Lunch.

If you’re wondering, the tally on Tales the podcast is 1323, the year the remains of the Lighthouse of Alexandria finally fell into the sea… every click much appreciated… 

That Afternoon… 1345.

Hey everyone… what to choose? Around this time a lot could be said about royalty, and battles and such. The Hundred Years’ War is in full swing. Estonia is in the middle of an uprising against the Teutonic Knights who arrived in the Baltic in the late 12th Century (a lesser known Holy Crusade) and claimed these pagan lands for Jesus, the church, and of course themselves. These were the kinds of battles Roman von Ungern-Sternberg’s ancestors would have cut their teeth on (of course on the Teutonic Knights side). 

Let’s do one about everyday folk. 

In March in the city of Amsterdam, Catholics go on a Stille Omgang – a silent walk. This started because of the most unremarkable of ‘miracles’. 

On 15th March 1345, a man lay dying in his home in the city. A priest was called to administer last rights. One presumes confessions were taken, though I’ve no idea what the man confessed to. Last rites were given. The man was given a host – that round piece of consecrated bread Catholics take to represent the body of Christ, but the dying man vomited ‘Jesus’ back up – at which point the mangled host was tossed into the fire. 

The next day, the maid found the host atop the ashes – completely untouched by the fire – Oh what a miracle! she exclaimed. 

For the following two hundred years a march was held through the streets of Amsterdam. The partially masticated bread paraded through the streets inside of a wooden box – just as if it were the arc of the covenant. People marched behind, carrying banners celebrating the day a man died, and spat out the host in his dying gasps.

As the Netherlands fought for freedom from the oppressive (Catholic) Hapsburgs, Protestantism became the new state religion. Such pageantry was banned – however a silent walk took the place of the previous, carnivalesque romp through the city. 

The deceased’s former home is now a chapel.

The following Morning, 1456. 

Hey all, thanks for sharing and listening. The dial was at 1456 this morning. 

In 1456 the Ottoman Turks, now well entrenched in Constantinople/Istanbul were headed for the Balkans – and would make war with Albania that year. Skandebeg, king of Albania – who we should probably talk about one day (a future distant relative, Zog of Albania, has been on my to do list for years), sent the considerably larger army packing.

Halley’s Comet graced us with it’s light for several days. Sticking with the Ottomans, they had moved on towards Hungary and were besieging Belgrade when the comet appeared. Pope Callixtus III was certain the comet was an evil omen – but that with enough prayer that bad energy could be directed the Turks’ way. He gave orders to pray for misfortune for the Ottoman invaders. 

I’m going to put a pin in the comet for the future too…People lose their minds whenever it comes near us – even in far more enlightened times.

That same year Callixtus would re-affirm Portugal’s rights to plunder and enslave down Africa’s Western Coast. The Portuguese would also stumble upon the Cape Verde Islands in 1456 – a then uninhabited archipelago off the coast of West Africa. Antonio de Noli, the Genoese explorer sent out by King Afonso V of Portugal, was convinced he’d stumbled upon the ‘Fortunate Isles’ both Ptolemy and Pliny wrote about – where the Greek heroes who had lived especially noteworthy lives were to spend eternity. Decades later they would become a demarcation point between the places the Portuguese could plunder and enslave, and the places the Spanish could plunder and enslave – following the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494). 

Vlad the Impaler also became Prince of Wallachia in 1456 – after killing then current prince Vladislav II in hand to hand combat. Both men showed up to the battle with armies, but chose to settle their disagreements in a one on one fight. 

As you can see 1456 is quite an action-packed year. Thank you all for the shares, we’ll have to do this again sometime? 

Right, back soon as I can – Simone.