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 Black Hand

Hi everyone, today I thought we’d go to the opera. What you can hear in the background is Enrico Caruso’s Una Furtiva Lagrima – from Gaetano Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore. (Readers, if you’re adverse to hitting the play button on my podcasts, that’s okay… you can play the track here on YouTube.)

Let me pause myself a second so you can hear Caruso sing a little.

The first thing we should note – this was recorded in 1904. It sounds like a guy hollering into a horn to cut a groove into a wax disc, cause this is how records were made then. The first microphones didn’t appear till 1920 – and wouldn’t completely replace hollering into a horn till 1925. The second thing, to my ear at least – is that this Caruso kid could really sing. Signed up to the Gramophone company in 1904, Enrico Caruso became the first superstar of the recording age, and the first recording artist to make a million dollars. This was a far cry from his humble beginnings.    

Born 25th February 1873, in Naples Italy – Caruso grew up in a poor, though not terribly impoverished family. His early years as an artist were hard. There’s a promotional photo of Caruso wearing a sheet like a toga – not for Verdi’s Aida. His only shirt was at the laundromat being cleaned. In the 1890s Caruso took whatever gigs he could, till his big break came with a role in La Boheme at Milan’s La Scala. 

Caruso first played New York’s Metropolitan Opera House in 1903. He became a regular there for most of the rest of his life. Though he bought a fancy villa in Italy, he spent much of the rest of his life living out of an apartment at New York’s Knickerbocker Hotel.

On November 16th, 1906, Enrico Caruso got into a difficult situation while at the Central Park Zoo’s monkey house. It was alleged a lady was minding her own business when pinched on the bum. The situation escalated quickly. She protested she had been assaulted – Caruso, just a frantic, protested his innocence. The police arrived, arresting the opera singer. 

Thoroughly embarrassed, a tearful Caruso was bailed the following day.

The police officers would likely have judged him simply as an Italian – an ethnic group White America had yet to bestow whiteness upon. Though a number of Italians had settled in America, prospered and distinguished themselves, far too many white Americans were apt to treat Italian immigrants as a criminal class. Caruso was charged, his case going to trial.

The trial was an absolute mess. First, the victim – an alleged Mrs Hannah Graham of 1756 Bathgate Avenue, the Bronx – refused to testify. What’s more she’d lied to the police about her name and address. The trial continued, regardless. 

The police stated Caruso was a serial sex pest, bringing forth two more women – one who remained veiled and anonymous throughout. Both women claimed to have been been sexually assaulted by the singer. 

The judge noted the witnesses, and police testimony were unreliable; but also stated he was compelled by law to find Caruso guilty. He was charged a $10 fine, then released. More than a century before the Me Too movement this amounted to an embarrassing incident for Caruso – though it did no significant harm to the singer’s career. 

I can’t say with any authority if Enrico Caruso enjoyed pinching womens’ bottoms or not. Nor can I say if his arrest provided the impetus for what followed – His arrest may have had nothing to do with it –  but Enrico Caruso received a terrifying letter soon after. 

The writer knew things Caruso might want to keep secret. It would cost him $2,000 to keep them quiet. Caruso paid. Days later a letter arrived demanding $5,000. The blackmailers threatened to hurt him if he didn’t pay. They would force him to drink undiluted lye water, which would burn his oesophageal tract and end his singing career. On the letter, random pictures which may have included daggers, skulls and their trademark – a black hand. Caruso was willing to pay at first, but a detective convinced him that if he paid, the blackmailers would keep coming back. 

The detective set a trap for the blackmailers – he’d impersonate Caruso and meet with the thugs himself. Two men, Antonio Misiano and Antonio Cincotto, arrived expecting a payday. Instead they copped a vicious beating from the detective. 

All the men involved in this plot, the singer, the cop and the standover men had one thing in common – all were Italian immigrants who had arrived in, or just before a wave of four million Italians coming to America. In 2021’s Mussolini’s Hat I discussed how the history of Sicily created an environment the Mafia could thrive in – and how one young mafiosi embarrassing Benito Mussolini in public led to a purge which set the scene for the Castellammarese War, and the American Mafia we all know. This week we’re going back to just before the Castellammarese War to view the mob from another angle. 

First, let’s recap some of that episode.

For thousands of years, Sicily was a place where a deep distrust of authority was advisable. It is a strategic point in the Mediterranean, close to trade routes, and an ideal base to fight Barbary pirates from. The environment also makes Sicily a perfect place to grow crops. This made the island highly sought after by invaders. This, in turn made the island a two tier society, where the lower rungs were often enslaved – and the upper rung were foreign invaders overly eager to enforce their authority. 

First it was Phoenicians, then concurrent Ionian and Doric Greek invaders; then Carthaginians, Mamertines, Romans, Northern barbarians. The Byzantines were there for a while, followed by Normans, Arabs, the Angevin French, Spaniards and Austrians. Many of the invaders treated the locals horrifically. To fight back, locals formed secret clans.

Typically these groups turned to guerrilla warfare whenever oppressed or whenever their honour was insulted. In 1282, the Norman king Manfred was deposed by the Angevin French, who soon drew the ire of the clans after a French soldier raped and killed a woman in Palermo. Her husband took vengeance on the soldier, which rapidly escalated into an all out war. The locals, known popularly as the Sicilian Vespers, killed 4,000 French, ousting them. Rather than declare freedom, they invited a relative of Manfred back. An unsubstantiated rumour arose that a slogan, “morte alla Francia Italia anela’ – (death to France is Italy’s cry,) went viral – then birthed the acronym MAFIA from it’s first letters. I’m dubious of this claim, but shadowy organisations conduct secret, shadowy business. It’s hard to disprove entirely.

The word mafioso – meaning an honourable man who lived by a code of honour, and who had a distrust of authority – came into parlance in the 19th century. By then the clans were already called families. Their boss, the capo di famiglia. In 1860 these families leant their considerable muscle to Giuseppe Garibaldi’s Red Shirts to rid Italy of the Spanish Bourbons. Free at last, mafiosi were initially given a great deal of power over Sicily. The removal of the oppressors led to a power vacuum and crime wave took off – perpetrated by non mafia and mafia alike. King Victor Emmanuel asked mafiosi to step in and police the island – putting them in the position of both lawmaker and criminal. Several Capo’s, now above the law, became very rich and powerful. 

In Mussolini’s Hat, we discussed how the Fascists clashed with the mafia. In 1925, after a mafiosi swiped the fez from his head, to peals of laughter from the crowd, Il Duce put a thug named Cesare Mori in charge of his war with the mob. Mori leaned on them until several heavy hitters fled to the USA. These fugitives established the vast criminal organisation we think of today. This week  we’re taking a couple of steps back. Our gangsters were something different altogether.

Those blackmailers became known as The Black Hand. This was originally a name which related to the act of blackmail itself, but over time became related to them personally. 

They were mostly unaffiliated thugs, or mobsters with a price on their head back home. The late 19th century Mafia Don were going nowhere themselves. Many had taken over the large agricultural estates abandoned by the Spanish. They were doing well out of local criminal rackets. Another element was they were often called in to arbitrate over conflicts – which led to a lot of people owing capo’s big favours. These favours were often called on to great effect when a mobster wanted to run for a political office. Francesco Cuccia, the capo, and mayor of Piana dei Greci is a prime example. Why risk all that in a move to the USA, when life was so good for them in Sicily? 

This was a small part of the picture of life in a free Sicily. Wealth gravitated upwards, and most Sicilians continued to struggle as they had under the old regime. 

In 1890, the USA opened their gates to newcomers from Europe. Many “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” to quote Emma Lazarus – arrived in search of the American dream. Four million Italians would be among them. Most were everyday folk looking for a better life. Some did extremely well – others less so. A small number, maybe a couple of thousand, were violent criminals willing to do what it took to succeed in America. No Sicilian Capo are believed to have sent envoys to set up shop – but plenty of small time mobsters saw great opportunities in replicating the Sicilian model. 

New Orleans had mobsters arrive early on, and became the first city to hold an investigation into Black Hand organisations. By 1890, two rival families were locked in a war for control of the city’s stevedore business. This may have flown under the radar, but on October 15th 1890, police chief David Hennessy – was gunned down by several men brandishing sawn off shotguns. Hennessy was ambushed walking home from work, and managed to return fire on his assassins, before being dropped. He lived just long enough to blame the Italians for his murder – but not name the killers. We think one side believed the chief was a dirty cop in cahoots with the other side, so they had him whacked to level out the playing field.  

As police harassed the Italian American community, and rounded up suspects – the media had a field day with tales of shadowy criminal organisations who take a blood oath, and commit horrific acts. Fear, then anger bubbled over in New Orleans. A long, messy murder trial of nine suspected assassins led to a series of mistrials – so an angry mob gathered outside the court house and lynched eleven Italians leaving the court house.

Across the country, from Chicago, to New York, to Philadelphia; independent Black Hand mafiosi groups operated with impunity – mostly against their own people. They sent threatening blackmail letters, and kidnapped children. From 1906, these Black Hand groups took to fire bombing Italian businesses who refused to pay them. Within Italian communities the Black Hand were prolific, but were a hazy rumour – at most – to other Americans. In 1903, this changed when a wealthy Italian contractor living in Brooklyn got a blackmail letter – but before we speak of him – I should introduce that detective who spoke with Caruso. 

Joseph Petrosino was born in Salerno, Italy in 1860. When young he lost his mother to a streetcar accident, and in 1873, he emigrated to New York with his father and brother. The family settled into a poor neighbourhood in Lower Manhattan, which had previously been almost exclusively Irish. Generations earlier, the Irish arrived in America, only to find themselves othered by white Anglo-Saxon protestants. They weren’t bestowed as white until they became useful as enforcers of the status quo in the police forces – Policing cities a new trend following the abolition of slavery. As interlopers on ‘Irish land,’ and considered definitely not of the status quo – Italians faced terrible harassment in the neighbourhood. Irish parents, often policemen, regularly set gangs of their own children out after the Italian kids. A young Petrosino learned to fight very well on his way home from school. 

He was also disadvantaged academically. He was an extremely bright kid, but spoke little English, so was put in a class with children much younger than himself. Petrosino got bored, and left school after graduating the sixth grade. He worked several jobs before a role came up as a rubbish collector. The sanitation department, odd as this may seem now, was then run by the police department. The young collector impressed enough cops to secure himself a position in the police force in 1883. At only 5.3” tall, an exception had to be made for his height, though as a powerfully built, barrel-chested guy – Petrosino otherwise fit in well. As a token Italian kid, on an Irish force, opportunities for promotion were non-existent. Petrocino spent his early years working as a beat cop, though clearly capable of a lot more. 

His big break came in 1895, when Theodore Roosevelt –  yet to run for Vice President, and at a loose end – took a job as police commissioner of New York. As commissioner, Roosevelt cleared out as many corrupt cops as he could find. In their place he promoted on merit. Petrosino had a great arrest record, was tough and resourceful – so was promoted to detective sergeant, the first Italian American to do so in America. 

Once a detective, Petrosino’s career took off. A workaholic, he went well over and above for the role. An innovator of undercover police work, he became a master of disguise. He allegedly carried the dossiers of thousands of known criminals in his head, and was notorious for collaring some fugitive or other in a bar, having recognised him while out on other business. Although he worked alone, his arrest rate was regularly higher than anyone else on the force. A glory-hound, he pursued notoriety for his arrests in the papers – As a tough cop whose arrests led to seventeen murder convictions in a year, a man who sent a hundred killers to the electric chair – he accrued an aura of invincibility about him. Criminals were terrified of Joe Petrosino. 

Of course he broke up a lot of Italian crime rackets – one big one involved criminals befriending new arrivals from the old country, taking out life insurance on them, then knocking them off for the insurance money. This press attention made him approachable to many Italians, who otherwise would have been wary of speaking to the police. 

This played a part in that case mentioned earlier. On 3rd August 1903, a wealthy contractor named Nicola Cappiello received a letter stating if he didn’t pay $2,000, the Black Hand would dynamite his house, and kill his family. He ignored the letter. Two days later, a second letter arrived. He was now as good as dead, but could still save his family if he paid the blackmailers. Days later, several groups of strange men arrived at his home. They informed Cappiello he had a $10,000 price on his head, but if he paid them $1,000, they could make the threat go away. Old friends appeared at his door to beg him to pay the money, accompanied by terrifying strangers. He gave in, and paid them – but then the blackmailers were soon back, now asking for $3,000. 

Exasperated, he turned to Petrosino for help. 

Petrosino was quick on this case, arresting the five men responsible. 

But this case was important for three reasons. First, it convinced Petrosino a network of blackmailers were forming into a crime family in New York – he would declare war on this family. Second, the story was picked up by the press, who reported the case far and wide. The Black hand were no longer a shadowy rumour – they were now a national threat. Third, possibly in relation to point two – the Black Hand threw themselves headlong into a years long crime spree – escalating their activities.  

The first wave consisted largely of dozens of child kidnappings in Italian neighbourhoods. With so many cases, Petrosino turned to the commissioner for help. He begged for his own squad – and was eventually given five men. His crew collectively were known as The Mysterious Six. Over the years, his crew – named The Italian Squad, would become around 40 strong. As press publicity around the ‘Black Hand Fever’ of the summer of 1904 spread, and onwards – some poor, young Italians turned to organised crime. The system was racist and stacked against them, why not climb the crooked ladder to success? 

One case of note to come across Petrosino’s desk was an early one – but it likely had ramifications on the end of his life. In April 1903, a man’s naked, nearly decapitated body was found stuffed inside a barrel on the East side. The victim was a counterfeiter named Benedetto Madonia. After investigation, the murder was tied back to a Sicilian man named Giuseppe Morello, and his gang – the 107th Street Mob. 

Morello, known as ‘The clutch hand’ for his right hand which resembled a lobster claw – was a bona fide mobster. The nephew of the Don of Corleone, Sicily, he likely fled Sicily to avoid a murder charge in 1892. A terrifyingly cold-blooded killer, he ran his business out of a bar on 107th Street, where he would order the deaths of anyone stupid enough to cross him. He personally was responsible for the deaths of dozens of men. He formed alliances with other heavy hitters, like the suave Ignacio ‘the Wolf’ Lupo – and his Morello family would eventually morph into the Gambino family – the first of New York’s Five bona fide Mafia families.

Madonia had crossed the Clutch hand while counterfeiting five dollar notes; so Morello likely ordered a heavy named Tomasso ‘The Ox’ Petto, to carry out the murder. A dozen men were arrested and charged, but all had to be let go when the trial turned into a circus. One of the mobsters, a man named Vito Casco Ferro, fled back to Sicily after the trial. He, it seems was responsible for the circus, when he swapped out one of the mobsters for an average Joe who looked a bit like him. The decoy was only revealed, to much clamour, on the trial date – when he produced evidence of his true identity. This brought the whole prosecution case into question. It’s been claimed Ferro carried a photograph of Petrosino on him for the rest of his life, in the hope one day he’d get to murder him. 

The war, meanwhile, raged between the Italian Squad and Black Hand groups. Thousands of Italian Americans in New York alone were blackmailed, had their children kidnapped or had their businesses firebombed, but things took a serious turn for the WASPs of New York in 1908 – when they started to send threatening letters to people outside the Italian American community. 

A panic ensued, which could easily have turned into another New Orleans incident. ‘White Hand’ groups of Italian Americans, tired of being branded criminals, came together to fight the Black Hand. In towns outside of New York, a few White Hand groups – and a gang of Pinkerton detectives in a place we’ll return to, had some luck with this method – but the White Hand soon ran out of steam. 

In 1907, another bona fide high ranking Mafiosi named Enrico Alfano showed up in New York. Having fled a murder charge in Sicily, he arrived as a crew member on the ship The California. By chance, Petrosino stumbled across the mobster while meeting with a journalist at a restaurant. Though alone, and outnumbered by the crew of mobsters with Alfano, Petrosino bellowed his name across the restaurant, before beating the living daylights out of the mobster. He arrested Alfano, who was then deported to Naples to face charges. This was not terribly unusual – by this stage Petrosino had arrested many men later deported in a similar manner. 

In 1907, politicians gave the police a new tool to deal with Black Hand criminals and other mobsters. If an Italian criminal made it into the country, and it could be shown within three years of their arrival that they had a criminal record back home, the authorities could now deport them back to Italy.   

But while all of this was going on, threats continued to the rich wasps. Reports on, for example the stress induced death of Daniel B Wesson, the 81 year old heir to the Smith & Wesson fortune – ratcheted up fear among the general public. Police Commissioner Theodore A. Bingham was pressured to put an end to the Black Hand. Heavy media criticism was levelled against the Italian Squad, who, not that you’d know it,  were actually on a roll with their arrests. It had to be strange times for Petrosino, a lifelong bachelor who – it turns out had been secretly courting a young widow named Adelina Saulino for a decade. The couple married in 1908, had a child, and for a brief time enjoyed what is traditionally considered a ‘normal’ family life. 

In the meantime, Commissioner Bingham chased funding to create a secret team of top detectives to go out there and deal a killing blow to the Black Hand by any means necessary. The politicians at Tammany Hall refused to fund the scheme, but one wealthy patron – possibly a victim of black hand letters – paid for Bingham’s secret service. 

As 1908 rolled into 1909, Joseph Petrosino disappeared from public view. Some claimed he’d taken ill and had been bed-ridden for weeks. In the meantime, a 48 year old Jewish Italian merchant boarded a cruise ship bound for Italy.

That man, of course was Petrosino. He was the head of Bingham’s Secret Service – and on his way to Italy to meet with police commissioners, criminal archivists and confidential informants. Bingham’s plan was to send a man to collect the criminal histories of around a thousand known thugs, to make copies, then send the records back to New York. While there, Petrosino was also tasked with getting the names of all the serious criminals serving time in Italy, so immigration could have a watch list. Thirdly, he was to set up a spy network to observe the Italian Mafia. 

Things started out OK – but while still on mainland Italy, Commissioner Bingham let the cat out of the bag with a flippant comment to reporters that Petrosino could be in Sicily for all he knew. Though he was moving through the country using a series of nom de plumes, he was about to visit Palermo – his only backup a pistol. There were dozens of mobsters in the city who he had arrested, beaten up and seen convicted – any of whom might seek revenge. One of these criminals, Vito Casco Ferro, had risen through the ranks of the Sicilian Mafia. He was now Don Vito, boss of bosses. 

Don Vito rose through the ranks through his smarts, and a sense of brand awareness. He insisted on a level of customer service from his heavies while running protection rackets. His men were nice, respectful young men who offered protection against the other brutish thugs who would come looking for money if they weren’t there. Many locals felt if you have to pay someone, then the nice guys should be the ones to get paid. Many locals appeared to have genuine admiration for Don Vito.  

Which isn’t to say he couldn’t be brutal – he most certainly was to become a Mafia Don. In his lifetime he’d face over 60 charges, and only go away on the last charge – we’ll discuss that in a fortnight. 

Petrosino pushed on in his mission, in spite of the danger. He sensed things were due to turn very ugly, but had a job to complete. One night he wrote a letter back to Adelina stating something he would explain when he got home had left him deeply disturbed. He was feeling quite depressed, and couldn’t wait to return to America. We don’t know what upset him. He reached Palermo, and soon had criminal records transcribed for 350 criminals on his list. These were sent back to Bingham.  

Then March 12th 1909, things went horribly wrong. 

Joseph Petrosino had a busy day ahead – collecting records, meeting with Palermo’s top cop, then holding a mysterious rendezvous with a stranger. 

Petrosino seemed unaware that the night before a former member of the Morello gang sent a telegram to someone in New York about something. Nor would he have known two men he’d arrested in New York picked him out of a crowd, then met in a bar with two other gangsters. A group of people who later got amnesia briefly recalled their conversation about the detective. A young child had been tailing him around the city for days on behalf of someone. This detail had not escaped the eye of police detectives also charged with tailing Petrosino. 

Then there were those rumours Don Vito – who officially was out of town staying with a politician friend – was in Palermo. 

Truthfully, dozens of people only had to pick up an Italian newspaper to know he was there. His arrival made headline news. Besides that, other people just knew. Years later it was revealed on the day he sailed for Italy, Ignacio Lupo knew of his trip. Lupo was another one who had reasons to end Petrosino. He’d threatened the detective once, who showed up on the floor of one of his legitimate businesses, and beat him to a pulp in front of his staff. How he knew is pure speculation. The Italian Squad knew, and one of them may have spoken with someone? Perhaps Petrosino was seen boarding the ship by one of Lupo’s underlings? 

There were many criminals, and at least one politician, who wanted revenge. And whoever they were, two men followed Petrosino out of a restaurant that night – shots were exchanged – and Joseph Petrosino got the worst of it. Witnesses heard the shots, saw Petrosino fall, then saw the men running away. When the gravity of what they saw hit the witnesses … suddenly no-one saw a thing. 

Sicilian Police vigorously pursued several suspects in the murder of Joseph Petrosino and arrested over a hundred suspects – but silence pervaded. Petrosino’s body arrived back in New York to something akin to a state funeral. 250,000 people packed the streets to honour him – considerably more than President William McKinley or the actor Rudolph Valentino. Two of his colleagues risked life and limb to return to Sicily to help in the case. They were too bamboozled with it all – though they came home with several hundred more criminal records – but none the wiser as to who killed their boss. 

Nothing happened with those records for quite some time. Commissioner Bingham lost his job, and his replacement didn’t want to act too soon – giving Bingham any recognition whatsoever for work he’d begun. They did eventually pick up their game, to some real success against the Black Hand organisations – but by this point another threat was on the horizon. 

Next fortnight we’ll return to this – and look into that story a little. Mussolini’s Hat was done a long time back, and needs a serious revamp. Let’s shelve the episode I had planned for a few weeks and talk about the mob a little longer.   


Charles Delschau’s Memoirs (Patreon Episode) is up!

Hey everyone, my latest Patreon bonus episode is up on the Patreon channel. My $2US a month patrons have access to a 10 minute podcast episode, and a full script. Non patrons, check out the 2 minute Video excerpt below.

This week we travel to Texas, to discuss Charles Delschau’s remarkable memoirs, and the Tale of the Sonora Aero Club

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The Episodes So Far

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The following is the tale of a loving wife and mother. A philanthropist and a catalyst for change both within a stuffy old establishment, and among a wider nation. The tale of a figure of great fascination in her own time, especially to Europeans. It is the story of someone who rose from – well we don’t know enough about her beginnings in Rohatyn – a town near Lviv, Ukraine to say humble beginnings- but our protagonist did ascend the heights, from slavery to royalty.

 She was no action hero. She never burnt a bath-house to the ground while crammed full of Drevlian warlords like Olga of Kiev; but was impressive in other ways. For one to survive what she did, and thrive after, shows a remarkably cool headed, brave, and adaptable character. The Ukrainians thought Roxelana – our heroine – remarkable enough, that on gaining freedom from the USSR in 1991, they built a bronze statue of her in Rohatyn. Ukraine, in looking for heroes and role models from their past, saw fit to include Roxelana in their pantheon.   

 Before we get to Roxelana, Hurrem, or Haseki Sultan – all names she was known by – we need to detour to mid 13th century Anatolia, modern day Turkey to add a little context.

At an unspecified date in the mid 1200s, a Turkish warlord named Ertugrul made his way to Anatolia, accompanied by his tribe of ‘four hundred tents.’ Like the Seljuks who arrived a few hundred years earlier, they were Steppe people – in their case from Uzbekistan. More likely than not, they were refugees, who suddenly had to flee the Mongol hordes. Initially, the Seljuks gave the Turks some of their land to settle in, but in the course of a couple of generations, the Seljuks lost their prominence – while the Turks rose to prominence in the region. Ertugrul’s son, Osman graduated from warlord to king. In a dynasty which ran for 37 Emperors, Osman – Uthman in Arabic – would be their first; and lend his name to the dynasty. Uthman soon becoming Ottoman to western ears.

By their seventh Sultan, Mehmed II, the land was all theirs – with the fall of the Eastern Roman Empire. In 1453, Mehmed’s armies conquered the Byzantines at Constantinople – renaming the city Istanbul. He arrived with a numerically superior army and navy, but succeeded where many other large armies failed by using cannons and bombards as wall breakers. The fall of Constantinople ushered in a new age of warfare where the most impressive of defensive walls no longer guaranteed you victory. 

Not that I buy into ‘great man’ theories of history, but Mehmed II was an impressive commander, whose actions changed the world. As impressive as Mehmed was, a legend pervaded that their tenth Sultan would really be something else entirely. 

Sari Saltik was a Turkish Dervish who travelled deep into the Balkans, proselytising Islam to the people. His hagiography became wildly popular with Islamic children for it’s tales of adventure. One day, Sari Saltik allegedly came across a magnificent European city, with a beautiful church. Atop the church roof a golden sphere. To the saint, the sphere looked just like a golden apple. As he sent men up to bring him the golden apple, the prophet Khizr was said to have appeared and warned him to leave the apple where it was. That apple was only to be picked by the tenth Sultan – who will be their greatest conqueror. 

Time rolled on, and with a couple of Ottoman Sultans engaged in empire building – the presumed location of the golden apple moved upwards and westwards. As Emperor number ten came into focus with his coronation in 1520, the apple was believed to be in Hungary. That emperor, a man named Suleiman, would become a great conqueror – much to the chagrin of European kings who hoped for a peaceful emperor next. The son of the bellicose Emperor Selim I, he continued in that family tradition, personally leading five major campaigns. However, as we will see he was an altogether more complex individual than his father, and many of his other ancestors. We’ll come back to Suleiman the Magnificent in a moment.  

In 2022’s The Old Man of the Mountain, we briefly mentioned the Crimean Slave markets, when discussing a Mongol raid into modern day Bulgaria in the 1220s. This was a mission to punish the Kipchaks – another steppe people who had gotten on the Mongols’ bad side. One boy captured and sold off to a wealthy Egyptian through those markets, rose through the ranks to become the leader of a movement which overthrew the Egyptian ruling class. Known as Baybars, he became the first in a long line of Mamluk sultans. The slave markets, established in the 12th century, would continue until 1769. 

By 1475, Venice and Genoa – two Italian maritime nations – were ejected from their established bases in the Crimea, having briefly taken over the Black Sea slave trade. Control was passed over to the Giray Tatars – a Crimean vassal state of the Ottomans who were of Mongol origin. From just before this handover, in 1468, until Russia finally put a stop to them in 1769 – the Tatars of the Crimean Khanate ‘harvested the steppes’ of Ukraine and Southern Russia for tens of thousands of villagers every year. Their ideal target were young women, who could be sold into domestic work, or into sexual slavery. From Baybars’ time up till the abolition of the Crimean slave trade, around 6.5 million people were rounded up and sold. The slaves lives were generally harsh, and thoroughly miserable – their treatment often cruel. A Lithuanian observer told of domestic servants who were branded on their foreheads or cheeks like cattle. They also told of people locked in cold, damp dungeons when not engaged in work. 

Many also died on their way to market, a fate considered a blessing by the Ukrainians and Russians they preyed upon. Evliya Çelebi, a Turkish courtier and traveller writing in the mid seventeenth century stated it was a wonder any slaves got to market, they were so poorly treated on the slave trails. Success stories like Baybars, were extremely rare.

On an unspecified winter day, when the Tatars could quickly traverse the frozen rivers on horseback – a band of slavers flooded into Rohatyn. The two most likely years 1509 or 1516 – two years they definitely reached Rohatyn. They slashed and burned everything in sight, killed anyone who fought back, then rounded up any villagers they deemed saleable at market. The prisoners, our hero included, were forcibly marched for weeks to the Black Sea port of Caffa. If captured in 1516, Roxelana would have been thirteen – very young, but at a push, as capable of taking care of herself as most adults on the long march. If captured in 1509, aged six, it doesn’t bear to think of how terrifying this must have been for the young child. Legend has it, recorded with less evidence than the tale of Sari Saltik’s golden apple – she was the daughter of a preacher. Other tales suggested a name, Aleksandra Lisowska – also without evidence. Soon her birth name would be deleted. Her religion supplanted by Islam. 

Transported to the Caffa Slave Markets, she would have been examined like livestock, bought as part of a bulk purchase, then put onto a ship for a ten day voyage – to the slave markets of Istanbul.

We don’t know where Roxelana spent the following years until 1520, though we know she would have been taught about Islam, and learned the basics of Ottoman language and culture. We can also guess her owners saw something special in her – seeing her as just the kind of slave a Sultan would pay them a lot of money for. This possibly affected the level of training the young girl had. 

The sultans kept harems of the only best quality slaves, kept separate from the men in Istanbul’s Old Palace. One important reason for the slaves was to keep their bloodline going. 

In the early years of the Ottoman Empire, emperors chased old world authenticity, by strategically marrying children to foreign royals. As their kingdom grew, and their neighbours’ golden apples looked far too good to resist, this caused a problem. What if they declare war on the princess’s homeland – and that princess turns saboteur on them? What if, God forbid, a princess murders her own children to deny any further Ottoman emperors? 

Around 1400, potential Ottoman emperors stopped marrying. When it came to love or procreation Sultans courted slaves from the harem. A sultan would be expected to have many favourites over their reign. Once a favourite became pregnant, that favourite would be elevated to a much higher position in the harem, with a large bump in pay. She would take on much of the responsibility of bringing up the child. The sultan would, typically dump her for a new favourite.

When a sultan passed on, there was no regulated order of succession, and the male children often fought one another to the death for the top job. Suleiman’s father not only went to war with his brother, but personally deposed his own living father to take the crown. In 1402 the emperor Bayezid I lost a war against the warlord Tamerlane, which led to a succession crisis. His son Mehmed I fought a bloody four-way civil war with his remaining brothers. Bayezid himself had his younger brother strangled upon becoming Sultan, to avoid getting into a civil war.  

This made for complex dynamics at court. 

Another element to this is young, would be Sultans usually turned to outsiders as their top advisors and generals. Many enslaved boys were brought up in Istanbul’s New Palace, and trained to be advisors. Suleiman’s top advisor was a young Greek or Albanian man given the name Ibrahim. A close friend since childhood, Ibrahim Pasha would become Suleiman’s Vizier and a top general. 

In September 1520, while making plans for a European invasion, Selim I died suddenly. Suleiman, then a 25 year old father of four and governor of Manisa – rushed back to Istanbul to take the reins. His mother, a former slave named Hafsa, rushed ahead of him to prepare his ascension. 

Around this time, as Suleiman took charge unopposed, someone – possibly Ibrahim – bought and gifted Roxelana to the Sultan.

Were this Suleiman’s tale, we’d discuss his quest for the golden apple. He led five major campaigns personally, and oversaw several others – vastly expanding Ottoman territory. By 1526 he ruled much of Hungary after a heroic victory at Mohacs. He captured Rhodes and Corfu. He defeated the Persians, and unsuccessfully faced off against Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in Vienna, Austria. Today we’re interested in his wife. 

In Manisa, royal protocols around dumping favourites once they bore you a child were looser – he had a favourite in the mother of one of his children – a beautiful Circassian named Mahidevran. When Roxelana arrived at the harem, a clear pecking order was in place. Hafsa, Suleiman’s mother ruled the roost, followed by Mahidevran. Roxelana found allies in the harem – she was very likeable, and apparently a ray of sunshine; the name given to her in the harem, Hurrem – meaning the joyful one – is testimony to that. 

The one ally she absolutely won over though was the Sultan – by all indications, one day he crossed the road from the new palace to the old palace looking for somebody to spend a little time with – and when he saw Hurrem, the Sultan was thunderstruck. They spent time together, then spent a little more time together, and at some time Mahidevran was said to have become insanely jealous and attacked Hurrem – scratching up her face and tearing out tufts of hair. Once Suleiman found out, he was furious with Mahidevran. Ignoring all the things we don’t know, and some of the things we do – like the couple’s massive power imbalance alone should give us pause for thought before saying this – but it appears the couple may have fallen in love. By the fall of 1521, Hurrem bore Suleiman their first child. 

When he was away chasing golden apples, the couple exchanged love letters. Roxelana’s survive – only scraps of Suleiman’s do. Of course when he returned, in spite of the dump the concubine and get yourself a new one rule, the couple remained together. In spite of others in his court gifting him a pair of beautiful Russian concubines, Suleiman was now pretty much a one woman man. Between military campaigns they had more children – six all up. Roxelana rose to prominence in important circles – by 1526 the Venetian ambassador Pietro Bragadin wrote she was “young but not beautiful, although graceful and petite.” – As if Bragadin’s observations meant a jot to the Sultan. 

With growing prominence, Roxelana took on the role of Suleiman’s eyes and ears in the kingdom while he was away. Her role as a diplomat also increased over the years – by the 1540s she was in regular contact with King Sigismund II Augustus of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth – one of Europe’s great powers at the time. 

Despite the couple living in separate palaces for years, in 1530 they were officially recognised as a couple at the circumcision of the three eldest sons. No mere operation, this was a nearly three week long party with half the known world’s dignitaries on the guest list. Among the feasts, fireworks, performers, large scale war re-enacters, and exotic dancers – the acknowledged first couple were on display. They would not move in together, and officially marry until some time soon after the death of Suleiman’s mother, Hafsa. When they did, it was the first time in anyone’s living memory an Ottoman Sultan had married. 

Now of course they were hated by some – For one the Sultan’s elite Janissary troops – a group apt to riot over extended times of peace – detested Roxelana. As did a number of Istanbul’s wealthier citizens, who spread rumours she must be a witch – how else could she have won the Sultan’s heart if she hadn’t hexed him? 

And then there were those rumours she was a Machiavellian schemer, responsible for several high profile executions – including Suleiman’s closest friend Ibrahim Pasha, and Mahidevran’s son,  Mustafa. The former had been in charge of the 1532 invasion of Persia – and had largely been responsible for the invasion taking far too long, and the victory coming at an eye-wateringly high cost. Some say Suleiman had him garrotted in March 1536 because Roxelana convinced him to do so. Others say Ibrahim had become haughty and arrogant, and a liability on the battlefield. Contemporary sources claim Suleiman executed Mustafa in 1553 because he was caught plotting to kill his father and declare himself Sultan. 

But Roxelana had a lot of fans too. She brought back marriage among the women of the Old Palace – playing matchmaker to hundreds. This led to an uptick in marriages in general. She sponsored mosques and hospitals, and schools – improving the living standards in the empire. The Haseki Sultan complex, built between 1538 and 1551, contained a mosque, school, hospital, and soup kitchen. She established foundations to pay for her public works for generations after her passing. 

The couple had a long, apparently happy marriage. Roxelana never lived to see her children fight it out for the crown. There was no fight, though succession was messy. With Mustafa strangled, Mehmed dying of smallpox, and Bayezid dying of also getting on Suleiman’s bad side while plotting to take out his brother – Selim II, an unlikely contender popularly known as Selim the Drunk – ended up last man standing. Roxelana, or Hurrem, or possibly Aleksandra? Pre-deceased Suleiman by a little over eight years, passing of an unknown illness in April 1558. 

Over the following weeks I’m planning to move us from domesticity of a kind – to warring samurai, a murder mystery, corporations fighting literal wars against one another, filibusters, conmen and all manner of other things… so please excuse me sharing one final tidbit. Though much of Suleiman’s letters have been lost to time, one poem he wrote his wife comes down to us. He wrote the ode under his pen name, Muhibbi… and I think it rather telling of their relationship. 

“Throne of my lonely niche, my wealth, my love, my moonlight.
My most sincere friend, my confidant, my very existence, my Sultan, my one and only love.
The most beautiful among the beautiful…
My springtime, my merry faced love, my daytime, my sweetheart, laughing leaf…
My plants, my sweet, my rose, the one only who does not distress me in this world…
My Istanbul, my Caraman, the earth of my Anatolia
My Badakhshan, my Baghdad and Khorasan
My woman of the beautiful hair, my love of the slanted brow, my love of eyes full of mischief…
I’ll sing your praises always
I, lover of the tormented heart, Muhibbi of the eyes full of tears, I am happy.”

Update: Cyclone Gabrielle & (Probable) Delays

Hi everyone, just thought I’d drop a quick update. This week’s blog/podcast episode is likely to be a day or two late.
You may know, New Zealand was pummelled last week by a tropical cyclone. I came out of it fine – myself and my loved ones are all safe and sound. None of us found ourselves in flooded homes, though my brother may still be getting all his power from a diesel generator at time of writing. We were extremely lucky to come through unscathed. At time of writing there have been eleven deaths. Thousands of people have lost their worldly belongings to flooding. A couple of billion dollars worth of damage has been done to homes, land and infrastructure like a number of roads…

Please don’t think I’m complaining when I say several days of heavy rain and howling winds have put me a couple of days behind schedule. The noise bled into my mic too much, so I had to wait out the storm to record the next one. Apologies to everyone for the delay – I think I’ll have this week’s episode up Thursday night NZ time – Friday at the very latest.

If anyone is curious, that head start I got this year has mostly gone into preparations for a three parter that will drop in April. I’ll probably be sitting an exam for my day job some time around then and figured a little breathing space to study would be useful. The scripts for those three needed a tonne of re-writing… and as it’s a topic I have blogged about in the past, I’ve written three shorter blog pieces to go up blog-only those weeks also.
Well, technically not quite blog only – I’ve recorded those blog posts as Patreon minisodes to bulk up the Patreon a little to folks who prefer to listen.

Anyway, sorry folks, please hang in there, the next one is coming.

(Note: Featured image is just a stock picture I had around – not of the cyclone.)

The Island

On January 1st 1739 the French ships Aigle and Marie were fumbling through the lowest, most inhospitable regions of the Southern Atlantic Ocean when they found something quite remarkable. Their captain, a young man named Jean-Baptiste Charles Bouvet de Lozier had set off with dreams of wealth, fame and power. He believed that somewhere south of the Equator lay a massive continent. And Bouvet, well, he’d just found something no-one else had ever seen before… 

At this point in time westerners already knew something of Australia. A small number of historians believe the Portuguese had sighted the continent as early as the 1520s, but evidence for this is questionable. In 1592, a Dutch sailor named Jan Huyghen van Linschoten made his way to India, came across a group of Portuguese sailors in possession of the maps needed to reach the Far East, then stole those maps. These maps, with instructions on trade winds and the known hazards of such a voyage had, prior to this theft, exclusively belonged to the Portuguese. The Dutch were finding their sea legs at the time – and were soon to pioneer the modern corporation; and soon Dutch trading ships would regularly sail to the Spice Islands, and beyond. Why wouldn’t you when profits of up to 1,000% could be made from the cargo? 

It took until 1606, for one of their own – Willem Janszoon, to sight Far North Queensland. The Spaniard Luis Vaz de Torres arrived just months later, and mapped out stretches of the North of the country – as well as a stretch of water later named the Torres Strait in his honour. In 1611, the Dutch adopted the practice of travelling along the ‘roaring 40s’ – a latitude where the wild winds helped cut travelling time considerably. This also put them on a path to hit Australia’s West coast if they misjudged their longitude (a regular occurrence.) Because of this more explorers were sailing alongside, and mapping parts of Australia’s West coast.

Notably there was Dirk Hartog; who found a place to land in 1616. He provided evidence of landfall to later settlers, by accidentally leaving a pewter dinner plate behind. Frederick de Houtman nearly hit an Atoll off the coast in 1619. At some time we needs must come back to Houtman himself, – his misadventures in Aceh – that atoll, and the 1629 wreck of the flagship Batavia on ‘Houtman’s Abrolhos.’ That will be a very long one, for now let’s put a pin in that – but note in 1629 a Dutch ship was in these waters. Very bad things happened on the atoll. Their lifeboat also sailed most of the length of the West Coast of Australia – and Australia received it’s first two European settlers. 

There were several others besides. Abel Tasman’s visit in 1642 filled in much of the picture. William Dampier’s visit in 1699 is interesting for other reasons. He is someone else we’ll put a pin in for now. 

Cook, Bass and Flinders (all mentioned in my previous post on Jorgen Jorgensen) would all come later – but by Bouvet’s time, Europeans knew of a land mass roughly as big as Europe was down there. Many of Europe’s great thinkers reasoned there had to be much more besides – if only for balance’s sake – there had to be as much land below the equator as above it in their considered opinion. Bouvet lobbied to go out and claim that land for France, and the French figured where was the harm in sending the young man? Bouvet left for parts unknown, believing if he found the fabled ‘Terra Australis’, the French crown would appoint him governor of Terra Australis. As Governor he would attain the fame and fortune he desired. 

On December 10th 1738, Bouvet’s ships dipped below the 44th Parallel well into the ‘roaring forties.’ They sailed into a deep blanket of fog which took several days to pass through. As the fog started to clear, Bouvet was greeted by several massive icebergs. He wrote they were “Floating rocks which are more to be feared than land.” On New Year’s Day, the ships were as far as one could possibly be from human contact, when they discovered – “a very high land, covered with snow, which appeared through the mist.” 

Bouvet was unable to circumnavigate the island, let alone land. It would’ve been one hell of a task to do either at the time. The seas were exceedingly rough, the air exceedingly foggy, and the sea full of moving ice blocks as tall as skyscrapers. The island itself was surrounded by steep cliffs that reached thousands of feet high into the air at their highest points. Just how inhospitable the island was would become apparent to later explorers. With 93% of the island covered by ice year round, you couldn’t grow any food there. The seas around the island made landing with supplies extremely dangerous. Add to that, those sheer cliffs are dangerous to climb, even with mountaineering gear – as they are highly prone to avalanches. Also, the island contains an active volcano that goes off every couple of years. South Africa sailed to the island in 1955, thinking it a good place to set up a weather station. They couldn’t find a flat plane large enough to set one up. Three years later, an American icebreaker stopped by the island, discovering it had grown an extension out the back due to a recent eruption.  The island now had a significant flat area to set up that weather station.  In the ‘Dog Days’ of a Southern summer, the island reaches an average of only two degrees Celsius. This does not take into account wind-chill. Winds of 50 knots are considered mild on the island. Wisely, Bouvet noted where he believed the island to be on the map – claimed it in the name of France, and moved on. 

He sighted Antarctica soon afterwards, and attempted to land there for twelve days, before giving up on that too. By then a large number of his men were dying of scurvy, so the Aigle and Marie quickly made for the Cape of Good Hope.

Bouvet took down the coordinates to the island incorrectly – not that anyone else was in a rush to go there – but this was noted by other explorers – like the whaling ships who were venturing out into these waters at the end of the century. The Island was re-discovered in 1808 by a British whaler named James Lindsay. Lindsay named the island after himself, then too, promptly lost the island. Like Bouvet, he recorded incorrect coordinates. In 1822 the American adventurer Benjamin Morrell claimed to have landed there, and to have even scaled the island’s high cliffs. This is questioned by some, not least of all as he was using Lindsay’s co-ordinates, which were out by several hundred kilometres. 

Correct co-ordinates were finally locked down by the British in 1825, but no-one was known to have actually landed on the island till a Norwegian ship arrived in 1927. They too claimed this inhospitable rock, and put two huts on the island. Both huts were found flattened by the winds when they returned two years later. Some time after that, Norway did put a weather station there, on the landmass that was belched out by the volcano in the late 1950s. 

The Norwegians gave the island the name it is known by now. They christened it in honour of it’s original discoverer – Bouvet Island.  

Although Bouvet Island is the most remote point on Earth – 1,600 kilometres from the nearest trade route, another couple of hundred kilometres again to the nearest landmass (South Africa and Tristan de Cunha to the North, Antarctica to the South) – it has two short Tales relating to it I would like to share with you today. 

First there was that lifeboat. I don’t think we need to spend more than two minutes on this part of the tale – but it certainly added to the island’s aura of mystery for some time.

In 1964 South Africa were still sniffing around Bouvet Island (this will be an ongoing theme), though they had not been back since 1955. This new extension was already christened Nyrosa (meaning new mound in Norwegian) and claimed sight unseen by Norway, but clearly South Africa were never too worried about who claimed to own this island. Besides the American Icebreaker, who never made landfall, no-one was known to have been there in the years since. 

On Easter Sunday two ships approached the Nyrosa. They waited three days for the winds to die down enough to send a helicopter out to the island. 

Onboard the helicopter, a British adventurer named Allan Crawford. He’s now best known for his work on the world’s most remote inhabited island – Tristan de Cunha – and his advocacy in returning the people of Tristan de Cunha back to their island years after a volcanic eruption saw them evacuated to England in 1961; but for our purposes, Crawford was a well thought of South Seas adventurer. 

What Crawford saw there puzzled the world for half a century. 

Near the point where the helicopter landed, a lagoon had formed. A handful of fur seals had made their way up there, and were bathing in the water – next to a half-submerged life boat. On the rocks bordering the lagoon, two oars and a 44 gallon drum. There were no markings on the boat, drum, or oars to suggest who these items once belonged to. A search of the barren island yielded no further clues. No bodies were to be found. The crew having around 45 minutes to do a quick survey of the land, and to take rock samples – and to fend off a gang of enraged Elephant seals also on the Nyrosa – and not too happy to see strangers in these parts; their search was not exhaustive, but the men felt safe concluding there were no human beings, dead or alive to be found on the island. 

For decades the lifeboat remained a mystery. The closest trade route lay 1,600 kilometres to the North, so if the crew of some ship mutinied and jettisoned their captain – like Bly on the Bounty – could anyone really row a lifeboat that distance, through the worlds roughest seas? If so, why? If it was flotsam washed ashore, and this goes with the ‘Bly hypothesis’ too – how did the boat make it up steep cliffs still several hundred feet high on the Nyrosa in one piece? It must have landed with a full crew to haul it up the cliff. If this is the case, where are the signs of a makeshift camp? Surely, if you have a sizeable party you leave a couple of people to set up camp while others explore and so forth? 

If there were people who landed with the vessel, and then negotiated the steep incline, where were their remains? Were they all killed and eaten by a gang of 4,000 Lb Elephant seals? If they had landed there and gotten the better of any seals congregating there at the time till someone rescued them, where was the evidence of seal remains?

Had they explored further inland, and gotten buried by an avalanche? 

If, rather than a mutiny, a shipwreck had occurred, surely someone would have noticed a missing ship between 1955 and 1964, right?

Ultimately, it appears the murkiness of the Cold War obscured the answer, to the west at least, for half a century. In October 1958 a Russian whaler named Slava 9 (not to be confused with their Slava class missile cruisers) was near the island, when they decided to make landfall. A group of men landed on the Nyrosa, but then the weather took a turn for the worse – these men were left to fend for themselves on the island for several days till safe to send a helicopter for them. I guess in this case the biggest mystery is why the men didn’t have the boat upside-down on land as a shelter – as Shackleton’s men did on Elephant Island in 1916, as their boss sailed for help on South Georgia Island (I know, put a pin in that one too)… 

Our final Tale this week takes place 3am Oslo time, 22nd September 1979. Our location, an uninhabitable Island on the same line of Longitude as Oslo – which is to say it was also 3am on Bouvet Island. In the dead of night, a massive double flash was detected close to the island.

There are a few reasons we know there was a flash, and think we know what caused it. In 1963 most of the world’s nations agreed to a partial nuclear test ban. Signatories were no longer allowed to test a nuclear bomb above ground, in space or underwater. You could – and a number of countries continued to do this – test a nuke by digging a very deep hole in the ground then setting the bomb off down the bottom of that hole. This does not produce the signature double flash, a flash unlike anything else known in nature. 

To look out for people testing regardless, the USA launched twelve reconnaissance satellites – The Vela satellites – which detect both that flash, and any increased radiation in the atmosphere. 

In the wee small hours, Vela satellite 6911 detected the flash from it’s orbit. It was not the only device to pick up the incident that day. At the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico – nearly 10,500 kilometres to the Northeast – a fast moving ionospheric disturbance was detected. The ionosphere being the layer of our atmosphere that sits between the air we breathe and the wilds of space – coronal mass ejections like the Carrington Event are the normal natural cause for such readings. This was no coronal mass ejection on or around 22nd September 1979. The US Navy’s SOSUS devices – a network of underwater sound recorders, also picked up the heavy thud from the Vela incident, as it came to be known. The thud registered as far out as a device near Prince Edward Island, Canada. 

In Melbourne, Australia, 9,100 kilometres to the East, high levels of iodine 131 radiation showed up in the thyroids of sheep. A relatively unthreatening side effect of a nuclear detonation (iodine 131 has a half life of 8 days and is even used as a treatment for thyroid cancers in humans.) The element is known to show up in the thyroids of grazing animals following a nuclear detonation. The sheep were on farms in South Australia on the day of the Vela Incident. The meat-works – unbeknownst to the public – sent monthly thyroid samples to the US Government from the 1950s to the 1980s. 

This all added up to the high likelihood someone had detonated a nuclear weapon, on or near the most remote location on Earth. 

So just what happened, and who are the most likely suspects? With much of the USA’s documentation still classified, officially we can only catch glimpses – such as a handful of comments left in notebooks by former President Jimmy Carter. These comments can be found at his presidential library. We’re also told US scientists were shipped out to Bouvet Island. They checked the scene of the alleged crime – They could say something like a nuclear device appeared to have been detonated there – but they couldn’t 100% rule out ‘other natural phenomena.’

 There are currently two schools of thought. First, Vela 6911 – a ten year old satellite in need of calibration – malfunctioned after being struck with space junk. Or someone nearby, who as far as anyone knew did not have nuclear weapons, tested a nuke there. It just so happened one of Bouvet Island’s neighbours WAS secretly developing nuclear weapons at the time. 

If one were to ask today, who are the nuclear armed countries; certain lists come up. The USA, United Kingdom, France and Russia of course are top of the list. India and Pakistan – Two neighbouring countries who have gone to war with one another four times since 1947 – each have a cache of nukes, worryingly. Another nation with border disputes with India (though when these conflicts break out, the weapons employed by agreement of both nations are limited to bamboo poles and rocks – I couldn’t make this stuff up) is China. 

North Korea is now a member of this club, although a long time coming they most certainly were not a nuclear power in 1979. The former Soviet states of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine all had nuclear weapons in the Cold War era, but when the Iron Curtain fell, they handed those weapons back to Russia. Several NATO countries, namely Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey play host to nuclear warheads also.

There are almost certainly two other nations – one who has admitted to having nuclear weapons, and another who, to this day kinda-sorta deny having them – normally followed by a sly wink just to say ‘just kidding, of course we do – don’t even think of messing with us.’ 

The first is South Africa. From the early 1980s, it was known they were a nuclear power. Officially, they dismantled all of their weapons in 1991. With Apartheid coming to an end, their fear of invasion from another country lessened. From as early as 1961 we know South Africa began secretly enriching their own uranium deposits. In 1977 they went further, building a testing site in the Kalahari desert in the Northwest of the country. IF a nuclear bomb was detonated near Bouvet Island it almost certainly has something to do with South Africa – but it can’t have been solely a South African enterprise. This is where that other country comes in. 

Israel are long suspected to have nuclear weapons also. One can understand why they feel they might need such a doomsday device. One hopes if so it is only as a deterrent. The story of the modern Zionist movement forming in the late 1890s, and their progress towards establishing a state in Palestine is a long tale – but suffice to say an Israeli state was in existence by 1948. That state fought five major conflicts with it’s Arab neighbours in the years since – the First Arab- Israeli War of 1948, the Suez War of 1956, the Six Day War of 1967, the Yom Kippur war of 1973, and in 1982 Israel pre-emptively invaded Lebanon. These wars have all been fought over Israel’s continued presence in the Levant. The moment they were rumoured to have a cache of nukes – and a plan of last resort if attacked code-named ‘The Samson Option,’ tensions in the region eased. There was another reason for that, and more on that in a second. 

Israel had a nuclear reactor – The Dimona reactor – as early as 1956, built with French assistance. It’s believed they started working on building a bomb as early as 1966. On the other side of the ledger, when Egypt started hiring former Nazi scientists who had worked for the Nazi nuclear effort – it is alleged Mossad hired former Nazi super-soldier Otto Skorzeny to assassinate these scientists. Officially Israel ‘neither confirm, nor deny’ if they have nuclear weapons. 

If they do it is almost certain they collaborated with South Africa. In 1977 South Africa swapped 600 tonnes of uranium with Israel, for just thirty grams of tritium gas in return. Israel had no uranium deposits. Tritium gas is an extremely rare isotope of hydrogen that is used to help fuel a nuclear explosion. Tiny trace amounts can be found in the atmosphere, but typically it needs to be generated by irradiating lithium in a nuclear reactor. This element had been a stumbling block for South Africa, as they had no nuclear reactor of their own. 

So it probably transpired a joint Israeli – South African mission set sail from Cape Town to a mysterious, inaccessible island more than 1,600 from a single witness. If the USA discovered this at the time, why might they keep quiet about it? 

If they did, and I am only speculating – it likely had something to do with Israel. Jimmy Carter had only just brokered a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt a year earlier, at the Camp David peace accords. The fallout of the Six Day and Yom Kippur wars hit western nations hard – after Arab oil producing nations struck back at them by ramping up oil prices – causing the OPEC crisis that persisted throughout much of the 1970s. Nations who backed Israel had to opt for carless days. Economies were hit by massive inflation. In New Zealand a questionable right wing politician who successfully became prime minister by smearing his opposition as ‘Cossacks’, reacted to the crisis with a bona-fide far reaching socialist program around oil, gas and power generation known as ‘Think Big.’ 

In 1979 Jimmy Carter was preparing to run for re-election against a mediocre, conservative actor who once was a CIA asset during the blacklist era. His opponent was almost as out of his depth in the role as Trump turned out to be, but elections are lost by one side through voter dissatisfaction more than they are ever won by the other through bright ideas – and Carter looked set to lose in a landslide regardless. If it were disclosed Israel had secretly built a nuclear bomb so soon after peace talks, it could have completely unravelled the peace process, doomed Carter to a one term presidency, damaged world economies – and sullied the president’s legacy. It isn’t inconceivable the man knew more than he let on to, and just chose to keep certain things quiet? 

As with the tale of the lifeboat, will time reveal, or perhaps confirm what happened during the Vela Incident? Only time will tell.  

Yasuke (Patreon Episode) is up!

Hey everyone, my latest Patreon bonus episode is up on the Patreon channel. My $2US a month patrons have access to a 15 minute podcast episode, and a full script. Non patrons, check out the 2 minute Video excerpt below.

This week we travel to the Japanese court of the warlord Oda Nobunaga, and meet Yasuke, the African Samurai.

You can sign up to my Patreon from just $2US a month (plus any goods and services taxes your country may change.)

The proceeds help me pay costs associated with the blog/podcast (yearly WordPress and Podbean membership; my monthly membership to an art app called Bazaart, that I use to edit and resize images; and any books downloaded for the channel via the Kindle store and Audible audiobooks.)  

Just a reminder all, and I say this as someone who hates shilling my own content, if money is tight please don’t feel pressured to sign up. I appreciate all of you for dropping by. If my work resonates with you though, please share Tales of History and Imagination with just one other person you think might enjoy it too. Creative endeavours grow best by word of mouth. 

The Episodes So Far

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The Dog Days King

The Dog Days’ King Tales of History and Imagination

Hi everyone welcome back, to season four of the podcast. This week we’re delving into the picaresque, and the life of one Jorgen Jorgensen – a man whose trajectory in life was akin to the character in Sinatra’s That’s Life. A puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn and a King. Jorgensen was all of the above and more besides. For a start you could add explorer, spy, war tourist, gambler… and another word my humble pop filter will despise – a prisoner. We’ll get to Jorgensen in a moment, but first we need to visit Britain’s House of Commons, the year 1779.

Britain had quite the problem having arisen from both it’s changing demographics, and from the rise of their middle classes following the Glorious Revolution of 1688. 

In last year’s post on The Bottle Conjuror, I briefly touched upon the Glorious Revolution – and while it really deserves it’s own episode – we need to know the following today. In 1688, a Dutch aristocrat named William of Orange sailed an armada of ships more than twice the size of the Spanish Armada down the River Thames. For months he’d made his intentions clear, he was going to be the next king of England. A growing number of British aristocrats, displeased with their King, James II, were happy to sanction the invasion. In return they expected the Royal family to be less autocratic – to give politicians more sway – and to allow wealthy Britons to pursue capitalism more freely. 

Under the old system, if you had a brilliant idea that could somehow improve the world and make yourself rich in the process; the idea could still be killed the instant a monarch refused to grant a patent. One often quoted example is of William Lee – a 16th Century clergyman and inventor, who made a knitting machine. The reverend had fallen for a local woman who knitted to make money, and who either was far too preoccupied by knitting, or was very slow at it – so was ‘always busy’ when he came calling. Lee, smitten with the lady – invented a machine that automated the process, speeding the job up considerably. 

It should have been a no-brainer to patent this machine. An effective labour saving device, it could have sped up the production – giving thousands of women thousands of hours of their lives back (possibly to date a Reverend Lee, or possibly the lady just wasn’t that into the reverend so thousands of hours of ‘washing her hair that night’, till the reverend took the hint?)  

but if this didn’t hook the royals, how about the fact increased productivity equals more product, equals more trade – equals more sales – equals more tax money in the Royal Coffers?

None of this impressed Elizabeth I. She worried the machine would lead to skilled artisans losing their valuable skills forever, and, so declined the patent. When Elizabeth died soon after, and Lee’s business partner got involved in a coup attempt against her successor, James I, Lee fled to France – who in turn loved his invention and granted that patent – England’s loss was France’s gain. 

Anyhow, long story short – a greater freedom to pursue inventive ideas, combined with offshoring a lot of agricultural work to the colonies, and a rising coffee house culture where ideas could percolate like coffee beans among inventors; and finally having all the pre-requisite concepts needed for an industrial revolution – meant the Industrial revolution came to Britain first. It also meant Britain was became urbanised and industrialised, and experienced the rise of a wealthy, powerful middle class. The middle classes were determined to have their say in this new Britain – a top priority for them was more laws to protect all the shiny new things their new-found wealth was buying.

On one hand, a group of people with some things already, suddenly had more things – and were becoming increasingly serious about protecting those things. On the other hand, many people moving to the cities were headed in the other direction. The former villagers lost old community ties when they moved. In hard times, those former connections had banded together to help those in need – but the tyranny of distance made this more difficult. Many also had to work new factory jobs, and the unskilled jobs particularly, did not cover their basic needs when times were good. Add job loss, or sickness and suddenly times were dire for many. This led to a sharp rise in what we now think of as petty crime.

The law codes moved with these changes – in favour of the rich. Even minor crimes became hanging offences. By the end of the Eighteenth Century, 220 crimes carried the death penalty. At the time of this meeting in Parliament in 1779, people were looking for an answer to the ‘Bloody Code’ as it later became known. Owing to a squeamishness in executing a starving person for thieving a meal, 35,000 people were sentenced to death, but only 7,000 executions actually occurred. ‘Just lock em up’ wasn’t working terribly well for them either, and the prisons were overflowing. Prisoners had to be moved en-masse to prison boats until an answer could be found.  

Speaking to Parliament that day, one of the rock stars of Pacific exploration, and head of the Royal Botanical Society – Captain James Cook’s former botanist, Joseph Banks. 

We don’t need to go into detail on his speech – we have a half hour podcast episode, and an infamous Filibuster still to speak of – but we need to know Banks had been on Cooks voyage which put New Zealand and much of the East Coast of Australia on the map in 1770. He loved Australia, and saw huge potential there. Based on the land he’d seen – Banks imagined a land teeming with farmland. He suggested parliament save hanging for the more serious offences – and to start shipping petty criminals out to Botany Bay, in their colony of New South Wales. 

This wasn’t an entirely new idea. Before the USA separated from the empire, 60,000 convicts were sent over there as indentured labourers. If they survived a couple of years of back breaking work (many didn’t) they might even become land owners themselves at the end of their servitude. 

In May 1787, the first eleven of many convict ships, set off for Australia. In excess of 160,000 men, women and children would be shipped out to the prison colonies between 1787 and 1868. 

Now we’ve added some context, let’s discuss Jorgen Jorgensen. 

Jorgen Jorgensen was born in Copenhagen, Denmark on 29th March 1780. His family were comfortably middle class. His father, Jorgen sr. was so well thought of as a watchmaker, he was contracted to make timepieces for the Danish Royal family. While Jorgen’s family expected the boy would set up a business like his father on adulthood, as a child he’d longingly sighted a Dutch East India-man setting sail for faraway lands. From that day on he dreamed of becoming a sailor. At 14 his father partially relented and apprenticed him to an English Collier named the Janeon – a coal carrying vessel which rarely voyaged. After four years, Jorgensen had enough of that and quit. He signed up for a whaling ship headed for South Africa. 

This gave Jorgensen his first experience of life at sea – and a part of the world he’d come back to later in life. First on a whaling ship called The Fanny, then on The Harbinger, which on at least one occasion carried convicts to Algoa Bay – he worked the waters around the Cape of Good Hope. In 1798 – well before Napoleon lost two thirds of his fleet at Trafalgar – he survived being fired upon by a French gunship. In 1801, Jorgensen finally got a chance to go exploring, when the Lady Nelson arrived at the Cape, en-route to Sydney Australia. They needed men, so Jorgensen – now going by John Johnson – signed up for the voyage. 

In Sydney, Jorgensen met the famed explorer Matthew Flinders. He travelled on the Lady Nelson as it sailed southwards into what is now the state of Victoria; surveying Port Phillip on the way, before crossing the Bass Strait to Van Diemen’s Land – now Tasmania. They surveyed much of the shoreline, before setting up camp in Risdon – where another group of explorers entirely would senselessly massacre a large group of aboriginals in 1804. He helped found a settlement down a ways – at the now state capital, Hobart. They explored the Derwent river, Jorgensen taking time out between missions to wander inland near Sydney with a French explorer who was determined to claim he’d been further inland than any other European. Once it seemed they reached that point, one would upstage the other by taking just another twenty paces, before the other reciprocated. 

This first visit to Australasia sounds like one big boys own adventure. Jorgensen took time out to join a sealing ship headed to New Zealand. Once back, he spent time as a chief officer on a whaling ship that travelled between both countries. Two decades before the Weller brothers arrived in Sydney themselves and started buying up their own whalers – such as the Billy O’ Tea, now famous thanks to Tik Tok sea shanties – Jorgen Jorgensen was out on Tasmania’s Derwent river, harpooning the first whale ever killed on that river. One presumes many a Sea Shanty were sung onboard Jorgensen’s whaler – well before Soon May The Wellerman Come?  

After an eventful couple of years, he sailed for London in 1806. Along the way, he convinced two Maori, and two Tahitians’ to join him on the voyage homewards. His plan was to bring them to someone in England who would show them western ways, especially Christianity. Once schooled, the four would be sent back as brand ambassadors for European ways. Back in London, he met royal botanist Joseph Banks – and handed his guests over. Banks found them a home among the church – but tragically, all four guests would be dead within the year.  

In 1807, Jorgen returned to Copenhagen to a hero’s welcome. The locals were ecstatic this local boy done good was back, with tales of his many adventures – but Jorgensen was far from ecstatic. The town was a mess! Denmark was a neutral party in the Napoleonic wars, albeit a party with a large collection of war ships. The British worried Napoleon would invade Denmark just to get his hands on their ships – so twice, first in 1801, then again in 1807 – The British navy sidled up to Denmark and bombed their fleet to smithereens. Jorgensen was incensed at this act of terrorism, and convinced eight of Copenhagen’s wealthiest citizens to buy him a gun-boat. With a crew of 83, and 23 big guns – Jorgen Jorgensen set sail as a privateer on the Admiral Juul – his mission, to rob and incapacitate any British ship that crossed his path. 

Jorgen Jorgensen’s war started out well. From the get-go he captured three merchant ships in open waters – but then he decided to try his luck along the British coast. Just outside of Yorkshire, he ran across two large British war ships – the Sappho and the Clio. Jorgensen engaged the two ships in battle, and managed to hold his ground for around 45 minutes before – the Admiral Juul all shot to pieces – he saw it prudent to surrender before he was sent to Davy Jones locker. He was taken to a jail cell in Yarmouth. 

He was not there for terribly long. Jorgensen has claimed he was a double agent – having been approached by a British spy back in Copenhagen – but he was also a notoriously unreliable narrator. It is as possible someone high up who knew him and liked him – like Joseph Banks – caught wind of his capture, and figured why not make use of him elsewhere? Either way, he was called to London and asked what he could do to help the British war effort?

A suggestion was made by Jorgensen to let him sail to Iceland. 

High up in the North Atlantic and Arctic oceans, Iceland had suffered greatly over the course of the Napoleonic wars. Then a colony of Denmark,  they were only allowed to trade with the Danish. Denmark now had fewer ships left to do things like trade with remote Northern outposts. This left Iceland bereft, in the midst of a great famine. Jorgensen planned to brave the waters and land a ship full of supplies. He was to set up a trading post between the two countries, and wage a soft-power operation while there. While saving the Icelanders from starvation, he’d convince them the Britons were not so bad after all. When Jorgensen sailed off, most people expected he’d run afoul of the weather, or a Danish warship – and never be seen again. He did, however, land at Reykjavik safe and sound.  Having offloaded his cargo, he sailed back to Liverpool, England – this time to pick up two ship loads of supplies. 

While he was away, the Governor of Iceland – a man named Count Von Tramp – heard about the shipload of British goods and forthwith barred all merchants from trading with him. When Jorgensen returned, he was bluntly ordered away, and told in no uncertain terms he was not to return. He stated his ships would pack up and leave in the morning. 

The following morning – a Sunday when it appears all of Iceland, barring Count Von Tramp and his cook, were at church – Jorgen Jorgensen landed with twelve armed men. The men marched straight to Von Tramp’s residence and arrested the governor. When the congregation left church that morning, they found their governor deposed – and that Jorgen Jorgensen had declared himself King of Iceland.   

In his brief reign as King, Jorgen Jorgensen brought in a raft of policies that radically changed the nation. First, he halved income tax, then forgave all debt owed by anyone to the Danish crown. He took money from former Governor Von Tramp’s coffers, and invested it in upgrading the schooling system. He also radically changed the nature of work in Iceland. For centuries workers had been tied to the land – herding sheep primarily for the European wool markets. Though surrounded by oceans teeming with fish, the Danish crown had refused to grant the people permission to fish full-time. For one thing, the Danish felt they really needed the wool. For another, they didn’t fancy Iceland becoming wealthy enough to no longer need them. Jorgensen not only lifted that embargo, but he threw government money at the nascent industry. He had a fort built, established a small army – and realising he needed to win the clergy over – he gave all the priests on the island a hefty pay rise. 

Where earlier government was autocratic – Jorgensen set up law courts and announced he would establish a system of elected government to help him rule as soon as practical to do so. 

Unsurprisingly, the people of Iceland loved their new king, and, for the most part – embraced the new regime enthusiastically.  

He did one other thing, however, which left the British fuming. All his changes would have brought prosperity over time – but in the meantime, Iceland desperately needed money. To raise funds,  Jorgensen set a tariff on British imports. Two months’ into King Jorgen’s reign, the British warship the HMS Talbot showed up in Reykjavik harbour to find out what in the hell was going on in Iceland. Jorgensen boarded the Talbot, and returned to London to plead his case. When Joseph Banks, furious with him, refused to help him – Jorgensen went into hiding. He was arrested a few weeks later, and had his parole revoked. He was then sent to Tothill Fields Prison, London. As his two month reign roughly coincided with the hottest time of year, when the ‘Dog Star’ Sirius hangs over Iceland’s night skies – Jorgen Jorgensen became their ‘Dog-Days King.’ Historically the phrase refers to a time when the world is altogether too hot and clammy, and people feel altogether too languid to get much done. His brief reign was anything but. 

Sadly for the people of Iceland, life returned to their old normal and would stay so until an independence movement made headway in the 1840s.  

Jorgensen was released from jail in 1811. He was briefly in Tothill, where he met an Irish political prisoner named Count Dillon. Dillon was from a dissident family who had never given up on the idea of Irish independence- and who had been involved in both the American and French revolutions. He was being held at his majesty’s pleasure, as the British feared he could foment a rebellion in Ireland. In the midst of the Napoleonic wars this could have been catastrophic, for one it could give Dillon’s ally, the ‘Little Corporal’ a staging post to invade Britain. Dillon’s conversations with Jorgensen haunted him for the rest of his life. 

Most of his time behind bars was spent on a prison boat on the Thames. 

Once released, Jorgensen turned to writing for a living, and drinking heavily while gambling for solace. His lifestyle wildly swung from wealth to poverty as he burned through his earnings. This included a large state lottery win Jorgensen and a syndicate of 15 others won. For a while he moved to Portugal, but got involved in gambling there – and one day got badly beaten up. He made his way back to England, only after joining a crew of a navy vessel sent out to capture privateers, then either becoming ill, or faking illness so as to be invalided back home.

 In the closing days of the Napoleonic wars, the British government again called on Jorgensen, employing him as a spy. Once back in London in 1813, he’d come across the dissident Count Dillon one day in a coffee house. The Count shared with Jorgensen a French and American plot underway to liberate Australia, using a fleet of heavily armed warships. Jorgensen took this information to the colonial office, who were not terribly interested at the time. Count Dillon took command of a small fleet, and that fleet wrecked off the coast of Cadiz, Spain en route to Australia. An American fleet then showed up in Australia soon after, wrecking seventeen whaling ships before they were stopped. Authorities started to wonder if Jorgen Jorgensen could be of use to the war effort after all? They found him in a debtors prison, and arranged for his release. 

Jorgensen was given a mission. He was to make his way to the European mainland, and write reports on the goings on in Europe. Given a large sum of money, and a wardrobe of new clothes, Jorgensen drank and gambled away nearly all of this money before he even set sail. He had to hitch a ride on a friend’s ship. He drunkenly made his way throughout the continent like a character in a picaresque novel – a real life Barry Lyndon or Candide – surviving largely on his wits and charm. He drank and gambled, often losing his shirt one night, then charming a new set of clothes from some aristocrat in the next town the following day. 

Though not personally involved in the Battle of Waterloo, he was in Belgium when the battle occurred. He was close enough to the action to watch it from the sidelines, and then spent three days wandering the fields in the wake of the battle.

Postwar, now back in England, Jorgensen planned to move to South America – but every time it looked like he might get the funds together to move – he would get drunk and gamble his money away. In 1820, he stole bedroom furniture from his landlady – and was given a seven year prison sentence in Australia. Friends in high places stepped in, and it was agreed his sentence would be waived if he left Britain immediately. Jorgensen was given the money to do so, but fell upon old habits and lost it all at the gambling table. He was re-arrested, and sentenced to death – which in turn was commuted back down to time in an Australian penal colony. So it was King Jorgen Jorgensen, the first European monarch to set foot in Australia, arrived in shackles in 1825. 

His time in Australia doesn’t seem nearly as bleak as much of his life prior – barring one major blot on his reputation. He was transported to Tasmania, where he resumed his earlier work – going out on expeditions into the wilderness to map out the island. For a while he was deputised to go fight the outlaws who escaped from prison camps, and were making trouble for the settlers. Disappointingly, he became involved in the ‘Black war’ where Tasmanian settlers all but wiped out the Aboriginal population on the island. He was on the colonisers’ side. In 1835, Jorgen Jorgensen was granted a pardon, but chose to stay on in Australia – at this point he was settled on his own land, and married to an Irish convict named Norah Corbett. He was living an uneventful, but happy life. 

Jorgen Jorgensen, one time King of Iceland died in Australia, 20th January 1841.  

From Patreon: The Salmesbury Witches

Hey there readers and listeners, I’m on holiday till January 25th 2023, so I’ve programmed the following posts to drop weekly until I’m back.
In September I went through my Patreon page, and re-recorded the episodes on there with new narration (I’d upgraded my podcasting rig a ways early in 2022.)
While doing so I made the first Four Episodes free to all till February. This is Four of Four.

I also put those four episodes up on YouTube in full, using iMovie, so you can listen to the episodes.

If you’d like to support Tales and get your hands on extra content, it costs just $2 US a month (plus any applicable goods and services taxes your country may charge.)
This gives you access to one guaranteed episode a month on the first of each month. If you can help me exceed my first target of $500 a month, I’ll up that to two episodes a month. If we get over $1,000 I’ll add more stuff (specifics to be confirmed.)
The free channels (blog and podcast) will always be free of charge. I’ve got 23 blog posts, with 23 accompanying podcast episodes planned for 2023 via the free channels.

This episode can be found Here on Patreon

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“

From Patreon: Owney Madden

Hey there readers and listeners, I’m going on holiday till January 25th 2023, so I’ve programmed the following posts to drop weekly until I’m back.
In September I went through my Patreon page, and re-recorded the episodes on there with new narration (I’d upgraded my podcasting rig a ways early in 2022.)
While doing so I made the first Four Episodes free to all till February. This is Three of Four.

I also put those four episodes up on YouTube in full, using iMovie, so you can listen to the episodes.

If you’d like to support what I do, and would like to get your hands on some extra content, it costs just $2 US a month (plus any applicable goods and services taxes your country may charge, if any.)
This gets you access to one guaranteed episode a month on the first of each month. If you can help me exceed my first target of $500 a month, I’ll up that to two episodes a month. If we get over $1,000 I’ll add more stuff.
Of course it goes without saying I’m keeping the free channels going, free of charge. I’ve got 23 blog posts, with 23 accompanying podcast episodes planned for 2023 via the free channels.

This episode can be found Here on Patreon

Today’s tale begins April 24th 1965. The setting, Greenwood Cemetery in Hot Springs Arkansas.

One imagines the scene as the town come to pay their respects to one of the good guys. Owen Vincent Madden, had arrived in the town in 1936, in an effort to turn his poor health around in their famed healing waters. A wealthy businessman from Leeds, England – by way of New York – Owney fell in love with the relaxed pace of life in Hot Springs. Somewhere, the charming, middle aged bachelor fell for Agnes Demby – the 34 year old shop clerk and daughter of the postmaster. Though certain rumours persisted about the man, he soon became a pillar of the community. Owney Madden passed away of emphysema, aged 73, and many a gangster and civilian alike would mourn his passing.

I’ve seen it written in the weeks following his funeral, the people of Hot Springs would be surprised and horrified at news of the monster who walked among them. I’ve no doubt some were, but we are talking about Hot Springs – a then corrupt town, and known safe haven for gangsters on the lam. It was the place where US Attorney Thomas Dewey finally handcuffed the legendary mob boss Lucky Luciano – when he couldn’t do him for multiple acts of murder, Dewey got Luciano for his part ownership of a brothel. I believe a lot of locals were aware of his past, and it would be naive to say Owney either pulled the wool over all their eyes – or that in some form or another he didn’t have some racket or other going there. Naive as this is also going to sound, I also believe, he was also a much better man in his later years than he had been when in New York.

So who was this man? And what was this mysterious past which may have shocked some in the community? Let’s explore that today.

Owen Vincent Madden was born in Leeds, England on December 18th 1891, to an Irish family. The Maddens emigrated to New York in 1902, settling in the tough Irish American neighbourhood of Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan. With an over-abundance of street gangs in the neighbourhood, it was no surprise that by the age of 11, Madden was a member of a group known as the Gopher Gang. Even at this young age, Madden was well known as a handful – his favourite weapon, a length of lead pipe.

As he reached his teens, Madden ascended through the ranks, but nearly found his career derailed in his late teens. He killed William Henshaw, a store clerk who made a pass at a young woman he’d laid claim to. Though Henshaw’s murder took place in front of dozens of witnesses, Henshaw himself living just long enough to ID his killer – the collective amnesia of the witnesses was something to behold, and Madden walked without conviction.

Following his release, the Gopher Gang upped their violence game, taking over the protection rackets in other neighbourhoods and rubbing out rival street gangs. This was hardly all one way traffic. The Hudson Dusters were a rival gang, formed by an ex Gopher Gang member named Goo Goo Knox. On November 6th 1914, the Hudson Dusters ambushed several Gopher Gang members outside the Arbor Dance Hall. Three Gophers were killed, and Madden was shot anywhere between six and eleven times, depending on whose recollection you read. Madden survived, and sought revenge – which led to him being sentenced to 20 years at Sing Sing Prison before the year was out. By the end of 1914 both gangs would be disbanded in a wave of murders, drug overdoses and incarcerations.

When released in 1923, Owney found a different world waiting for him. Shaking down shopkeepers for protection money was so yesterday. The 1920s were all about bootlegging.

As I state in the main episode (the original upload ran alongside Mussolini v The Mob) .. this will be a little meta…

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

Madden soon found employment as hired muscle for a bootlegger called Larry Fay. He arranged the import of whiskey from Canada, smuggled in the boots of American taxi cabs. Having learned the ropes, Madden set up a rival operation. Big Bill Dwyer was another rival bootlegger, who had several shipments hijacked from under his nose. Dwyer was then made an offer he could not refuse by Madden – to hand his whole business over – which he did.

Madden soon turned profits into ownership of several speakeasy’s – Most notably the Cotton Club.

In 1920, the former world heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson opened a supper club on the corner of 142nd Street and Lennox Avenue, Harlem. Johnson struggled to keep the club open during prohibition, and turned to Madden for a quick sale. Johnson remained, nominally, the owner of the re-branded Cotton Club – which took off under the guidance of the mobster. Though a largely segregated club, open to white patrons only unless the guest a celebrity like Langston Hughes or Paul Robeson (this was still the Jim Crow era), many of the greatest black performers of the era played there – from bandleaders like Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson and Chick Webb to featured singers and dancers like Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Lena Horne, The Mills Brothers, Billie Holliday, Bessie Smith, the Nicholas Brothers and the Dandridge Sisters.

The Cotton Club was well up there with The Savoy Ballroom as the hot tickets in town. It was always full of celebrities, had a fantastic range of alcohol available, and some of the greatest swing music ever.

It was here that Madden met, and for a while dated Mae West. He’d fund her first play, ‘Sex’ in 1927, when no-one else would. She would comment Owney was “Sweet, but oh so vicious”. He also took George Raft on as a driver. The stylish Raft would leverage his friendship with Madden to launch a career as a Hollywood actor.

By 1931, Madden had become extremely rich out of bootlegging, and various other criminal activities. After a brief stint back inside in 1932 – he’d caught the attention of authorities after putting a $50,000 price on the head of a gangster and child killer called Vincent ‘Mad Dog’ Coll – but went away for a minor parole violation – He turned his hand to promoting boxing matches. On June 14th 1934, Max Baer – a boxer of some renown, later the father of Max Baer jr, (Jethro in the TV show The Beverley Hillbillies)

Faced off against Primo Carnera – a two metre tall monster, called The Ambling Alp, who still holds the record of winning more fights by KO than any other world heavyweight champion.

The fight, was extremely one-sided, with Baer knocking Carnera down eleven times in eleven rounds. It’s long been speculated Madden fixed the bout to maximise gambling profits.

The mid 1930s were a time of relative peace – the Castellammarese War of 1930- 31 led to mafiosi setting up a ‘Commission’, which ensured some peace and stability – but Madden knew it wouldn’t last. The mafia were soon likely to muscle the likes of himself out of the market. He was feeling a little old, and suffered aches from his many gunshot wounds. Possibly with the blessing of Lucky Luciano and Frank Costello, he closed shop and retired to Hot Springs Arkansas. Some point out he may have been sent there by the Mob to set up a gambling house – it is notable soon after moving to town Madden paid for a wire service to be laid in the town, allowing bookies to get the horse racing results.

Whatever the case, he arrived in town, and sought out hydro treatment for his gunshot wounds. He met, and fell in love with Agnes Demby – who almost certainly knew her husband’s past life. Beneath the surface, Hot Springs was a corrupt place, with it’s fair share of illegal gambling and prostitution – their mayor Leo P. McLaughlin was later found to be controlling much of the trade. For 30 years Madden, at the very least gave the impression of living the life of a modest, legitimate businessman. His bar, The Southern Club, did well. Whether gone legit or not, he had many visits over the years from Frank Costello, Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky and Joe Adonis.

On the flip side, this Owen Madden was no longer a man of violence. He lived in a modest house with his wife. He was active in the community, and supported a number of local charities. He was a well known, and well liked figure, often seen round town – the trademark Fedora hat of the gangster replaced by the big, slouchy cap of the country gentleman. Whether completely clean or not, he was a remarkable figure for having gone into an idyllic semi-retirement when most of his contemporaries were either jailed or murdered.

From Patreon: Otzi

Hey there readers and listeners, I’m going on holiday till January 25th 2023, so I’ve programmed the following posts to drop weekly until I’m back.
In September I went through my Patreon page, and re-recorded the episodes on there with new narration (I’d upgraded my podcasting rig a ways early in 2022.)
While doing so I made the first Four Episodes free to all till February. This is Two of Four.

I also put those four episodes up on YouTube in full, using iMovie, so you can listen to the episodes.

If you’d like to support what I do, and would like to get your hands on some extra content, it costs just $2 US a month (plus any applicable goods and services taxes your country may charge, if any.)
This gets you access to one guaranteed episode a month on the first of each month. If you can help me exceed my first target of $500 a month, I’ll up that to two episodes a month. If we get over $1,000 I’ll add more stuff.
Of course it goes without saying I’m keeping the free channels going, free of charge. I’ve got 23 blog posts, with 23 accompanying podcast episodes planned for 2023 via the free channels.

This episode can be found Here on Patreon

This week’s bonus tale is a murder mystery, and will leave way more questions than answers. As we get going you’ll see why.

Our tale is set today in the distant, pre-historic past, somewhere on the border between modern day Austria and Italy. We can place the story somewhere in the ballpark of 5,300 years ago. Our protagonist, a man of about 45 years of age. Dark-eyed. Decked out in goatskin clothing topped off with a bearskin hat. Thought slight, weighing somewhere around 110 lbs and standing 5.2” to 5.3”, he was clearly engaged in physical labour his entire life and was all muscle. The high levels of arsenic found in his system suggest he may have been involved in metallurgy.

More advanced civilisations were already just into the Bronze Age at this stage. Arsenic could poison metallurgists when making arsenical bronze – where tin (then super rare) would be substituted for the toxin. Copper itself often has some level of arsenic in it, if taken from a less than pure source. While Central Europe was still at the end of the Stone Age, our man was found with a copper axe. We presume it is super rare.

He may have suffered from his heavily worn down teeth. He certainly had aches and pains, suffering from arthritis in his neck and hip. Furthermore, the mystery man lived with tapeworm in his belly. The condition of his hair and nails show extreme stress in the last four months of his life. One may ask, was this stress related to his eventual death. We can say his stress levels were enough to have made him very unwell in the months leading up to his murder. He was also nursing broken ribs at the time of his death, suggesting some time in the last few weeks of his life he’d come of second best in a fight, and been given quite a beating.

And there are a couple of other things we should mention – and will do as we go on.

Now, a little on the setting before we come back to the main tale. Just an FYI, we’re going to run a couple of scenarios today.

Parts of Europe became habitable to Homo sapiens as the ice sheets melted, between 26,500 and 19,000 years ago. A handful of us had hung around the edges of the Mediterranean from around 45,000 years ago. The Neanderthals, clearly much tougher than us, were living on the continent itself 300,000 to 600,000 years ago, and would either integrate with homo sapien invaders, or be killed by them when we finally arrived en masse. DNA records indicate a little bit of both – most Europeans are between 2 – 3% Neanderthal.

Around 8,000 years ago something looking like a city first sprang up in Europe, Lepenski Vir, in Serbia an early example. As people put down roots, these societies diversified – some taking specialised roles. These roles of course included people of violence – people who protected the towns and people who attacked other towns. The area in question was headed in that direction – people congregating in small villages close to water, and increasingly turning to farming wheat and barley for a living.

We believe, based on DNA tests, our mystery man may have lived around modern day Piedmont, Italy, near the Alps- at least a few articles claim some Piedmontese people alive today have DNA matching his. Isotope testing of his teeth suggest he lived just south of the Alps, in Italy. The Romans, millennia later, called the people living in this region Ligurians, stating they were culturally Celtic – but we know the area was overrun by Celts two and a half millennia after our man’s time. It doesn’t automatically stand that he was Celtic.

So, let’s run a few scenarios. All take place somewhere around 5,300 years ago. Based on berries found in his stomach found halfway up the mountain at a certain time of year, the earliest this could be is June, the latest August.

Our man, Otzi is the name we gave him, has been under great stress over the last four months. We don’t know exactly what has happened – whether it’s down to theft, love interests, village politics or any number of reasons, scenario one has it he’s come info conflict with someone else in the tribe, and a blood feud has developed. Probably living largely hand to mouth, he is unlikely to have been able to ‘take to the mattresses’ till the situation calms down. Sooner or later he has to return to his work – variously guessed at as specialist hunter, shepherd or metal prospector. One day Otzi heads off for work, and never comes back.

Pollen in his digestive tract, probably floating atop the water, suggests he was in the foothills before the attack happened. That he had a bag and a fanny pack full of tools, his copper axe, a net to trap birds with, and a box containing fire-lighting material. He also carried a short knife and a half-finished bow with him. Let’s come back to that bow, and his half finished quiver of arrows in a second.

Either in the valley, or perhaps even in his village, we know he was set upon by a gang. The blood of four other men would be found on his knife, few usable arrows and clothes. Their first clash, it appears, is up close and personal. An attacker went for Otzi with a knife – leaving a nasty defensive wound across his right palm. Clotting around the wound suggests his death was as much as three days after the initial attack. The knife-wielding attacker also manages to leave Otzi with several shallow cuts to the chest. Being met by a thug with a knife, Otzi fought for his life, and got himself out of that situation. He may have drawn the blood of his attackers now, or possibly later on – then ran back into the hills.

Scientists believe over the following three days, in a deadly game of cat and mouse, Otzi would ascend to around 8,000 feet – where the yew trees could be found – descend back into the valley, then head back up the mountain again – where he would die. One possible reason for heading up could be to grab a spar off a yew tree to make a bow and some arrows. Yew makes for excellent bows and Otzi’s half finished bow would have been a deadly weapon. Taller than him it would have had a pull weight of around 90 lbs – more than enough to take down an attacker from a distance. For three days his pursuers chased after him. Sometime in his final hours, Otzi had a large meal of Ibex meat. An hour later his attackers caught up with him. Clutching his knife he turned away and scrambled for the summit – only to be struck in the upper back with an arrow. This shot would have killed him, striking an artery. His attacker approached the body, dealing the killing blow to the Iceman – crushing his skull with a blunt object.

While it’s tempting to paint a picture of Otzi coming home from the mountains to find a band of marauders attacking his village, two inter-related points suggest to me he was killed by someone from inside the fold. First, his killer took back the shaft of the arrow, and second he didn’t pillage what must have been an extremely rare copper axe. If the posse were from another village, who there would be the wiser as to who this axe belonged to? – but if they were found with a murdered man’s axe on them in the same village – is this not strong evidence of their guilt? Similarly, if the body was found with a familiar-looking arrow in him, is that itself not a smoking gun – so to speak?

Second, there is a suggestion Otzi didn’t die alone, but had been involved in a war with a neighbouring tribe, possibly over disputed land. From the moment groups of people left hunting and gathering to domesticate animals and grow crops, a problem arose over the question of who owned that land. We were a long way from war as we know it – The Battle of Megiddo in 1479 BC is generally the first accepted war with armies – the two sides Egypt and the kingdom of Kadesh. Archeologists have found battle scenes with a couple of dozen dead on either side as early as 13.400 years ago in Jebel Sahara, Sudan – and increasingly since humans began farming around 12,000 years ago. Scientists base this claim on the blood on Otzi’s cape. It suggests he may have been carrying a wounded comrade shortly before his death. Perhaps the winners didn’t pillage because the situation didn’t allow for it. Where were the other bodies? One possibility is they were there, but as Otzi fell in a sheltered location, he was never taken along by the glacier. Never picked apart by the wolves and other predators.

A third possibility suggested is he was a human sacrifice. Some experts claim Otzi was himself a Celt, and was taken up into the mountains by the other villagers as a blood sacrifice to the Gods. The reason his expensive axe was left behind? It was a gift left for the Gods. Though the ancient celts left no written records, Roman writers such as Pliny the Elder claimed they committed large scale blood sacrifices, and even cannibalised the bodies of their enemies in war. If this is the case, one presumes Otzi did not go willingly to his death.

His Tale, as patchy as it is, may have gone completely forgotten were it not for two mountaineers coming across his body, high up in the Otzal Alps in September 1991. A confluence of increasingly hot summers, and a particularly wild Saharan windstorm which carried across the Mediterranean up into the Alps, where the sand freed him from his suspended animation.

As fascinating as Otzi is, tantalisingly so seeing we know so much about him – yet so little, I also find his discovery more than a little disturbing. As anthropogenic climate change kicks in only more Otzi’s will appear, such as Kwäday Dän Ts’ìnchi – “The Long Ago Person Found“ as named by the Inuit when a body emerged from the mountains of British Colombia in 1999, and unearthed tombs of Steppe people from the Altai Mountains – Scythian, Sarmations and many other besides. As our world teeters closer to ecological tipping points, the discoveries of these ice mummies may be a window into a past world – but their appearance also portends nothing good for the human race – to put it mildly.