A Nude Horse…

Today’s tale begins on a flash forward to Monday January 21st 1985. The setting, a television set at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, New York. Phil Donahue, a television interviewer who cut his teeth interviewing everyone from presidential candidate John F Kennedy to the atheist Madeline Murray O’Hair was treading the boards, microphone in hand. Donahue was a pioneer of what then might have been called the Tabloid Talk show – where a panel of guests discuss an offbeat topic in front of a live studio audience. When you think of those kinds of shows today, no doubt the image of a host pointing a microphone at people to elicit comment comes to mind. Phil Donahue is credited with inventing that kind of audience participation. Other things might also come to mind, like fistfights between grown adults, secret crushes and lie detector tests. While there were questionable characters like Joe Pyne at the beginning of the genre, that era of ‘Trash TV’ was still two years off. 

I don’t know exactly how Phil Donahue planned to handle his topic that day, gay senior citizens. One hopes respectfully? (One can but hope.) It’s impossible to state exactly how the show might have played out in front of a live studio audience. 

What footage I can find is certainly something. Donahue leans towards a dark haired lady and asks “Yes ma’am, and…”

“And um, oh I’m feeling a little…” she replies as she holds her head. 

Donahue replies “I know, I’ve felt that way many…” as the woman sank like a stone. Donahue grabbed for her, to cushion her fall. 

Strangely, another audience member fainted soon after, and another, and yet another. Seven audience members fainted before the show chose to evacuate the audience – and carry on filming with only the crew, and pensioners present. Donahue afterwards blamed the heat inside the studio and participant nervousness. The following day the show issued a press release stating a lot of people were dressed for the winter weather outside, only to come into a heated studio. The heat of the room, and dehydration were the culprits.

On February 1st 1985 a man named Alan Abel came forward. The incident had been a hoax. A group calling itself FAINT – ‘Fight Against Idiotic, Neurotic Television,’ staged the mass swooning because television was getting worse and worse, and somebody needed to take a stand. This almost certainly would have been taken seriously by a large number of people, today’s television always sucks to the people whose own shows have been displaced by some new trend – but for the fact FAINT’s organiser used his real name – and was by then a well known prankster.

How do I know many would have otherwise taken the prank seriously – and thousands might even have become card carrying members of FAINT? Let me ask you one question…

Is a nude horse, in fact – a rude horse?

G. Clifford Prout was a man on a mission. On May 27th 1959 he appeared as a guest on NBC’s Today Show. He was there to discuss something outrageous – the level of nudity among the animal kingdom. One couldn’t take a ride in the country without coming across a naked cow, pig or goat. Why was it in such a god-fearing country, one couldn’t even walk one’s own neighbourhood without crossing paths with a dog, airing what God gave them for all to see? Oh the shame of it!  

The Godly Mr Prout was the head of SINA, the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals (who were in fact against indecency, but apparently SAINA sounded wrong to them.) Prout spoke of the society’s mission to clothe all animals everywhere if they were more than four inches high, and six inches long. In the following days thousands of letters flooded in to the address Prout had given as their headquarters. Many were supportive of the organisation. 

This was the first of many interviews with the press. Prout would discuss the matter of animal nudity, stating “decency today means morality tomorrow.” Another catchphrase that took off was “A nude horse is a rude horse.” We’d discover the society had it’s own marching song, and that the Prouts were a noble family whose lineage could be traced back to 12th century knights – whose horses always rode into battle fully clothed. Otis Prout, Clifford’s forbear fought in the American Civil War, against the North AND the South as he believed so strongly in ‘decency.’ We were told Pickett’s Charge, the ‘high water mark for the Confederacy’ was ‘held up a full two hours as Otis insisted all horses be fully clothed.’ Otis later demanded ‘Give me decency or give me death,’ … so the Confederates shot him. Prout claimed SINA had 50,000 members, and he urged his followers to give out ‘SINA summonses’ to anyone they caught walking their pets unclothed on city streets. 

I’ve already let the (naked) cat out of the bag – of course this too was a hoax. Thousands of people however, wrote in to the society asking to join up. Many sent cash donations – money the pranksters always returned to sender, as hard as that had to be sometimes. One woman in Santa Barbara attempted to donate $40,000 to the society. Perhaps it was the fact Prout kept showing up on serious television shows, and if you were being seriously interviewed by serious people you too must be serious? Whatever the case, a lot of people – even many who approved of a horse’s right to nudity – still believed SINA was a legitimate, if ridiculous organisation.  

The pranksters remained unexposed – pardon the pun – until a 1962 interview with Walter Cronkite went badly for them. One of the crew recognised Prout as the actor Buck Henry. His second in charge at SINA turned out to be the brains behind the scheme – a man named Alan Abel. 

 Abel later stated he came up with the scheme at a crossroads in his life. He was a successful gigging musician who felt there must be more to life than what he was doing. He really wanted to try his hand at writing. Soon after he found himself caught up in a traffic jam that had been caused by a group of cattle who broke free of a paddock. There in the middle of the road, two cows were having sex, unsurprisingly without a stitch of clothes on. Abel looked around at the expressions of the other motorists, which ranged from shock to bemusement – and an idea was born. 

Although SINA had been rumbled, they continued to send out newsletters to their thousands of followers for several years. The newsletters often contained sewing patterns for animal clothes. Buck Henry went on to co-create and write for the TV series Get Smart, to act and direct in a lot of film and television, and would be nominated for an Oscar for a screenplay he co-wrote – the film The Graduate.  

Abel became a writer of books and prolific prankster. He developed a training programme to help executives improve their golf game through learning ballet moves. He created a ‘write in candidate’ for the Presidency in the 1964 and 1968 elections, named Yetta Bronstein. Yetta, a housewife and mother of one, promised a nation-wide bingo programme. She would also put a suggestion box up outside the White House if elected. He had an actor play Watergate leaker ‘Deep Throat’ to a room full of reporters – in the midst of the Watergate scandal. He once faked his own death and funeral, and punked several television talk show hosts by interviewing as ‘Omar,’ the headmaster of a school teaching begging.  


A Nude Horse (Patreon Bonus Episode) is Up.

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This week we visit the eccentric G Clifford Prout, and ask is a nude horse, in fact a rude horse?

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The Murder of William Desmond Taylor

The following is a murder mystery. The date? February 1st 1922. The setting? A posh bungalow at 404 B South Alvarado Street, Los Angeles.

At around 7pm, the occupant – the acclaimed film director William Desmond Taylor – received a visitor in the form of his close friend, the actress Mabel Normand. Taylor and Normand had known each other since 1920. During a turbulent time in Normand’s life the two bonded over a shared love of good books. Taylor, it turns out was Mabel Normand’s rock. Previously, when the actress hit rock bottom via excessive drug use and partying, it was William Desmond Taylor who finally convinced her to check into a sanatorium. She had a cocaine habit for the ages, was reputedly drinking like a fish, and severely burnt out. Many feared she was not long for this earth.

The recent death of Olive Thomas had hit very close to home for her – causing Normand to obsess she was fated to die in much the same way. William Desmond Taylor stepping in and insisting Mabel get some help that Autumn saved her life. 

This night was a ‘school night’, a Wednesday with an early start for both the next day, so the friends did not keep company into the wee, small hours. The couple had a few orange martinis and chatted. Mabel grabbed a book William had promised to lend her. William shared the shocking news that morning, he had to bail his valet, Henry Peavey out of jail. Peavey had been arrested the night before in a public park for ‘lewd conduct.’ At around 7.35pm Mabel bid William adieu, and left for home. 

Just before 8pm, Taylor’s neighbour Faith Cole McLean – a former actress married to the actor Douglas MacLean – was knitting on her porch when a loud noise startled her. Peering across to Taylor’s bungalow, she caught sight of a short, stocky man dressed “Like my idea of a motion picture burglar.” The mysterious figure stealthily vanished into the night. 

At 7.30 the next morning, the peace was shattered at the Alvarado Court Complex. Henry Peavey, Taylor’s valet, was beyond distraught. “Mr. Taylor is dead! Mr. Taylor is dead!” the valet screamed, as he fled the premises. Peavey arrived for work that morning, to discover his boss face down and lifeless on the floor of the study.

The police were called, and wouldn’t get there till a little after 8am. By this time a landlord, several curious neighbours, and at least one employee of Paramount pictures had entered the property. The Paramount employee seized a wire basket full of letters, then left. As the body of the 49 year old director lay in a pool of his own blood – interlopers debated the cause of death. One of the neighbours was convinced Taylor bled out from a haemorrhage of the stomach. When the police arrived, and turned the body over, the cause of death was all too clear. A single bullet pierced his lung, passing up through his body, till it exited, and re-entered the body – striking him in the neck.  

Shocking, tragic news as this was – Paramount Pictures – and the wider film community – were plunged into a mad panic. Taylor was something of an elder-statesman – a well thought of, articulate man with 60 films under his belt – and most importantly, no scandals. At this time Christian conservative wowsers whinged, moaned and protested about content they saw as degenerate – and behaviour from young actors they saw as scandalous. The people who brought America prohibition now wanted to destroy Tinseltown. Hollywood hoped a censorship office might placate then, and wanted Taylor as chief censor. As censor, they hoped he would allow them to continue more or less unabated.

Unfortunately, Taylor’s death opened a Pandora’s box, and left the industry in a no-win situation. Two actresses careers would be ruined, and the path to the restrictive, problematic Hollywood Production Code would be set.

What were the scandals uncovered in the wake of his death? Let’s start with the young ingenue Mary Miles Minter.

At the time of the murder, Mary Miles Minter was a young adult, aged 19. She was already a veteran of stage and screen, having gotten her big break as a child star.
Born Juliet Reilly in 1902, to an actress mother who worked under the name Charlotte Shelby, Juliet got her first role at five years of age. Aged 10 she secured a touring role in a theatre production. As child labour laws restricted ten year olds going on tour, Charlotte borrowed Juliet’s deceased cousin’s name and paperwork. Juliet was rechristened Mary – age 12.

Proof positive early Hollywood also needed a ‘Me Too’ movement – aged 15, Mary worked with, allegedly had an affair with, and allegedly fell pregnant to her middle-aged director James Kirkwood Sr. Following what was at the very least, statutory rape, Charlotte was alleged to have organised an abortion for her daughter. One would rightly imagine her a far more protective mother after this. 

Mary Miles Minter

William Desmond Taylor was the next director she worked with. Taylor and Minter worked on four movies together between 1919 and 1920. Taylor did become a big supporter of and advocate for Mary, and Mary fell in love with Taylor. She wrote William several love letters, and a lace handkerchief with her initials was found at his home. The letters were leaked to the newspapers, who published several of them in their entirety. Though there is no evidence whatsoever to suggest Taylor reciprocated Minter’s feelings, nor that they ever acted on Mary’s feelings – the media speculated the two were secretly an item. Worse, reporters speculated the two had been an item since Taylor was 47, Minter just 17.

And Mary did draw all manner of attention to herself in the wake of the murder. In Hollywood Babylon, Kenneth Anger stated Mary leaned into the coffin, and proclaimed to all in attendance the corpse of William whispered his undying love for her in her ear. This is a silly urban legend, but it is true that on being informed of the murder, Mary insisted someone get a doctor transfuse her own blood into William to revive him. She only abandoned this plan after she was taken to view William’s corpse. 

In the weeks following the murder, media speculation went into overdrive. Reporters speculated William was in fact in a love triangle with Mary and her mother, Charlotte. The question was posed, what if Charlotte had discovered William was secretly having a relationship with Mary, while having a secret relationship with her? For reasons I’ll lay out later I don’t think he did – but it was not known at the time that Charlotte owned a .38 calibre pistol, like the gun used to shoot William. Mary had access to this gun too, and used to threaten to commit suicide, some time prior to William’s murder. Years later, when this detail emerged, Charlotte claimed she’d thrown her gun away into a Louisiana bayou before the murder.

Nor was it common knowledge at the time Charlotte had threatened to kill another director for getting too close to Mary.

Whether mother or daughter carried out the killing or not, the scandal killed Mary Miles Minter’s career. As she moved into young adult roles, Hollywood were in the process of rebranding her as the new Mary Pickford – America’s sweetheart part two. The press undid this, rebranding her something like the public conception of a Lolita. Mary appeared in four more films, before she was let go as her contract lapsed in 1923.

Charlotte remained a prime suspect in William’s murder, until the police dismissed any speculation of love triangles. Investigations uncovered a mutual dislike for one another. Speculation among the public persisted that Charlotte was the murderer. 

Mabel Normand also came under scrutiny, for very different reasons. Similarly, the murder would ruin her career.

Born in 1893, Normand took to acting aged 16, after briefly working as a model for the illustrator Charles Dana Gibson. She caught the eye of Mack Sennett of Keystone studios – the studio which gave Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle his start. A very capable physical comedian who could pull off dangerous pratfalls just as well as Arbuckle, Mabel was something of a rarity – and soon carved out a niche for herself that saw her regularly playing opposite both Arbuckle and Charlie Chaplin. From signing up with Keystone in 1912, Normand acted alongside Arbuckle in 24 movies. 

A ’Gibson Girl’

The investigation shed a light on Mabel Normand’s wild, tempestuous, and often sad life. She was notorious as a party girl, who loved to party into the wee small hours and drink heavily. Ironically the death of Olive Thomas, and the Arbuckle/Virginia Rappe scandal, had led to her seeking help with her drinking and alleged drug use. On the drug use, the press alleged Mabel was a heavy cocaine user. We’ll follow up on that in a moment, but it is fair to say cocaine was a popular drug in the 1920s, and recently, Mabel had begun to look haggard and drawn. Little did the public know, but she had survived a childhood bout of tuberculosis- and would die of consumption just outside of frame of this tale, in her mid 30s.

Her relationships were also full of sorrow. She dated film boss Mack Sennett, who cheated on her and was possibly physically abusive towards her? In the run up to their impending marriage, Mabel caught Mack in bed with another actress. While in a physical fight with the actress, she received a heavy bump to the head that left her in a coma for weeks. 

Setting aside the rumours she too, now uncoupled from Sennett, was sleeping with William Desmond Taylor – cause … well, we’ll come to that in a second – A murder theory was advanced relating to Mabel. The press reported on Normand’s sanatorium stay in the autumn of 1920, and Taylor’s role in getting her there. They also claimed Taylor chased a drug dealer away from Normand. Had this drug dealer sworn revenge on Taylor? The Hollywood rumour mill claimed William Desmond Taylor was upsetting multiple dealers – on a mission to expose all the dealers who ever supplied drugs to Normand. This is all supposition. Of course there were some dangerous characters around Hollywood at this time, including an LA Mafia run by Vito De Giorgio – and the heavily politically connected gangster Albert Marco. 

Being exposed in the papers as an alleged ‘drug fiend’, unlucky in love party girl and confidant of some dodgy characters, Mabel Normand’s career took a serious hit. Failing health – and another incident a few years after Taylor’s murder soon put an end to her career. 

Sidebar: In 1924, Mabel Normand attended a party packed with various rich and famous people. On parking up, she ordered her driver to come get her at a specified time, and if she was too drunk and belligerent, to drag her away. Her driver, Joe Kelly, attempted to do so – but before he could even get close, he got into an altercation with a millionaire oil exec and golfer named Courtland Dines. Their stoush accelerated when Dines struck Kelly with a bottle, Kelly responded by shooting Dines with Normand’s pistol three times, wounding him.
To compound matters, the driver turned out to be an escaped criminal named Horace Greer. Greer fled from a chain gang in San Francisco some time earlier. This scandal was the final nail in the coffin for Normand’s career. 

Before we move on, I must point out much of the talk of William Desmond Taylor’s womanising, and even the speculation he’d been murdered by gangsters, was actually spin from Paramount pictures. They leaked Mary Miles Minter’s love letters, seized before the police arrived. They also paid someone to break into the house after the police had collected evidence – their instructions, to plant Mary’s handkerchief. The studio also played a part in scapegoating Mabel Normand.

Strangely, they also started a rumour a large collection of lingerie was found in Taylor’s home – something we’d take completely differently of the confirmed bachelor now, but then seen as confirmation he was a ladies man. All this was to cover up something they then saw as far more scandalous. Rumours circulated, Taylor had been spotted at both opium dens and in secretive gay nightclubs. The studio explained the opium den away by stating he was researching  an upcoming film. The lingerie tale proof, not that Taylor crossdressed so much as he was a womans’ man.

His back-story would soon be exposed, and that was far more difficult to explain away. 

William Deane-Tanner was born 26th April 1872 to an aristocratic British family in County Carlow, Ireland. One of five children, he was brought up in a large, Georgian manor situated on 50 acres of land. William’s father, Thomas, was a retired army Major. His uncles and grandparents were surgeons and politicians. In his late teens, William left his life of luxury behind to work on a dude ranch in Kansas, USA. In his 20s he moved to New York, took up acting, and dated Ethel May Hamilton, the daughter of a wealthy antiques broker and investor. The couple met through acting circles, and married in 1901. A year later their daughter Ethel Daisy came along. William took up a job in his father in law’s 5th Avenue antique store. 

For reasons never publicly revealed, William was utterly miserable. He drank heavily and regularly cheated on his wife. He exhibited many of the warning signs of depression – or what may well have been episodes of dissociative amnesia. Often distant and unsatisfied with his lot, he sometimes zoned out completely in the company of others. On 23rd October 1908 William Tanner disappeared without a trace. 

Little is known about his life prior to arriving in Hollywood, but it’s speculated he prospected for gold in Canada and the USA, before he joined a troupe of travelling actors. In 1912 Tanner re-emerged as William Desmond Taylor. He soon moved up the ranks in Hollywood, from actor to director. The same year Ethel finally secured a divorce from William. She had no idea where he was, till she and Ethel jr spotted him in a film in 1918. None of this was known to the public at large until after his death.
Few in Hollywood knew of his hidden past either. He was an actor for hire at several studios, then pivoted to directing in 1914. In 1914 he also met the actress Neva Gerber – who had separated from, but not yet divorced from her husband. Taylor and Gerber were an item till 1919, but never married.  

By 1922 Taylor appears to have been in a relationship with a young man named George Hopkins. A set designer, Hopkins worked with Taylor on the film The Soul of Youth. A distraught Hopkins sat next to Mabel Normand at Taylor’s funeral. Several of the couple’s friends did confirm they were a couple after Taylor’s death – Hopkins being out and proud, and a behind the scenes person – he had nothing to lose by this revelation. Incredibly, he was believed to be the Paramount employee sent to grab the basket of letters on the morning of the murder.
Hopkins went on to have a long career in Hollywood, designing sets till the mid 1970s. He won four Oscars for his work. In 1980 his recollections of his time with Taylor heavily featured in a book about his life. 

For one man to commit pseudocide – to fake one’s death – is one thing. William also had a brother, Denis.
Denis was a former military man, who moved to New York in 1903 to be closer to William. The brothers worked together for a while in the antique store. Denis married Ada Brennan – a woman from a well to do family – and had three children with her. A ‘lunger’, he also gave Ada tuberculosis. On 25th August 1912, on his daughter’s fourth birthday, with Ada in a sanatorium – Denis too disappeared. Soon after, William got in touch with Ada, sending money to her and the children every month.
Denis is believed to have been a bit part – a blacksmith – in one of Taylor’s early films. Though his whereabouts beyond this is pure speculation (anyone’s best guess is he died young, in obscurity either somewhere in the USA or Europe – most likely of consumption)— But there has been speculation he became the mysterious Edward Sands.  

Recently arrested valet Henry Peavey was a fairly recent employee, having taken on cook and valet duties six months prior to the murder. He was a replacement for a guy named Edward Sands. Sands, like most everyone in this tale, was a phoney. Born Edward Snyder in Ohio, Sands was a teenage thief, turned sailor, turned member of the Coast Guard. Prior to working for Taylor, he’d deserted his post and shown up in Hollywood – one presumes to find fame and fortune on the silver screen, though I’ve never seen anyone state this explicitly. As Taylor’s cook and valet he affected a cockney accent, and the name we all know him by. 

While Taylor was away on business in 1921, Sands stole several of Taylor’s suits, his car and his cheque book, among other items. He’d first bragged to Taylor’s driver he had information on him that ensured Taylor would not press charges. He intended to bribe Taylor with this information on his return.When William did return, he fired both employees. Six months later, he received a letter from Sands with a ticket from a pawn shop for one of the stolen items. The name on the ticket – ‘William Deane-Tanner.’

While it appears extremely unlikely 45 year old Denis was in fact 27 year old Edward – whose spartan documentation lead back to a troubled young man from Ohio – the rumour has persisted over the years that Sands was his brother. 

Edward Sands was working in Northern California on the day William was killed, but quit his job that same day. He disappeared without a trace on the day of the murder. In spite of Paramount offering a huge cash reward for Sands, in the hopes the manhunt would distract from all the other revelations – he disappeared without a trace. 

While the murder of William Desmond Taylor remains unsolved, there is one final suspect. We’ll come to them in a second.
First however, it should be pointed out the uncovering of Mabel Normand’s alleged drug habit, the alleged love triangle, Mary’s alleged penchant for middle aged men, more fake identities than you can shake a stick at, pseudocides, wife abandonments, and the revelation two male Hollywood creatives were in a loving relationship – all added up to the final nail in the coffin for Hollywood. Outraged conservatives called for film bannings across several states until Hollywood cleaned up their act.
To placate these wowsers, Will H Hays, a former high ranking Republican official, was appointed chairman of the MPPDA, an organisation established to ‘clean up’ Hollywood. 

Now, that final suspect. 

Margaret Gibson & William Desmond Taylor in The Kiss.

Margaret Gibson was an actress who briefly worked with William Desmond Taylor at Vitagraph Pictures. She was on her way up from bit parts to a number of starring roles when, in 1917 she was arrested in a park, selling opium to passers by. She avoided prosecution, but the very public trial killed any hopes she had of ever becoming an A lister. She continued to work, in much smaller roles, under several noms de plume – most notably Patricia Palmer. 

In 1923, Gibson was arrested and charged with participation in a blackmail and extortion ring, which allegedly took millions of dollars from wealthy businessmen across America. A George W. Lasher, an electrical contractor, paid her over $1,100 to keep quiet about a violation of the Mann Act. I couldn’t find anything more specific about his alleged transportation of a minor across state lines for ‘immoral purposes.’ She was also connected to two men who were jailed the week before for extorting $10,000 from an Ohio bank president named John Bushnell. 

Gibson avoided jail, but languished in bit roles till 1929, when she suddenly packed up her belongings and moved to Singapore. She met and fell in love with an oil company executive, and appears to have lived a happy, crime free life. She had no intentions whatsoever of ever returning to the USA, but did return to Los Angeles in the early 1940s – after her husband was killed in a Japanese bombing raid. 

Gibson lived a frugal life on a widow’s pension – in humble accommodation – under the pseudonym Pat Lewis. She lived with just a cat named Rajah for company, let her hedges grow high and unkempt to keep people from looking in, and did her best to never leave the house – for fear of running into anyone who may know her. 

On 21st October 1964, Gibson had a heart attack. Sensing her time was up she called for a priest. In her deathbed confession, she claimed she murdered William Desmond Taylor. Present at the time, a priest and Gibson’s next door neighbours. When this twist in the tale was finally revealed by the neighbours’ young son – now all grown up – he recalled she gave an explanation, but he was far to young to know who William Desmond Taylor even was – let alone take in the intricacies of the murder.  

Did William Desmond Taylor’s killer die in agony, after having been sprawled out on her own floor? In all likelihood we’ll never know. 

The Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle Incident

Content Warning: Discussion of rape occurs in this tale.

The Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle Incident Tales of History and Imagination

The weeks leading up to Labour Day weekend 1921 must’ve been quite the roller coaster for Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle. The comic icon had only just extended his million dollar a year contract with Paramount pictures – a contract which gave him creative and directorial control over his own movies. 

His humble beginnings nine years ago had to seem a lifetime ago. He first signed up to Keystone Studios for $3 a day, around half the wage of an average, unionised man at the time. Rewind further, to Roscoe’s 12 year old self – things were considerably more dire. Sent to live with his abusive drunkard of a father after his mother suddenly passed on; he found his dad had already moved on to the next town. Stuck at a hotel in a strange town, the youngster took any work he could. This included singing for his keep, before dear old dad showed up to collect him a year later. From singing for your supper to seven figures a year was quite the rise for the young comic. 

Of course, he put in the long hours in order to make that big money. He was contracted to make six movies a year. With his latest film, ‘Crazy to Marry’ out in cinemas, his friend the actor-director Fred Fishback booked a couple of rooms at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco, to celebrate. Plans were afoot for a much needed, absolutely booze-soaked getaway. Back to that roller coaster; fate almost intervened just days before – when Roscoe sat on an acid- soaked rag, while picking his car up from the mechanic. Suffering from second degree burns to both buttocks, Arbuckle cried off the getaway – but was enticed to go by Fishback. Fishback even bought his friend a rubber donut cushion to make sitting more bearable.

So the actor and his entourage arrived at the St. Francis, September 5th 1921. More could be said about his penchant for wild nights out, or his marriage to the actress Minta Durfee – the couple long separated but continuing to keep up appearances – but we should pause for a moment to introduce Virginia Rappe. 

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

Rappe was also an entrepreneur and influencer with her own clothing line – and an advocate for women’s rights. Her fame granting her a platform, she often shared her views women need not be confined to the typing pool, cooking or cleaning if they were, or chose to be, working people. She was also a vocal advocate for people dressing to suit themselves. 

Virginia moved to Los Angeles in 1917, in the hope of finding work in the movies. She found employment at Arbuckle’s old haunt – Keystone Studios. For a while, Rappe dated the director Henry Lehrman, and found plenty of work – even if most of it was bit parts. When the couple separated in 1921, work dried up. She was in a rut when her friend Al Semnacher suggested she needed to be seen out and about more. If you catch the attention of the right people, those people will remember why the loved you. Before you knew it, the work would be flowing in again.

Semnacher, Rappe, and a friend of Semnacher’s named Maude Delmont booked a suite at the Palace Hotel over the long weekend. 

On arrival at the Palace Hotel, a friend of Arbuckle’s noticed Rappe – and sent a message to Arbuckle’s pyjama party the model and sometime actress was in town. Arbuckle sent a message back – tell them drop by the Hotel St Francis. Though initially reluctant, Rappe showed up alone around midday. Clearly her kind of scene, she messaged Maude and Al to come join her. Al declined, but the two ladies joined in the fun of Arbuckle’s pyjama party.
A good time was had by all – At least till the day took a turn for the worse.  

Much of what happened is disputed; was actually vigorously disputed in several courtrooms after the fact. The following will get a little icky, trigger warning – we are about to discuss rape.

let’s jump into this tale.  

Around 3pm, the party was in full swing in room 1221. With the weight of several gin orange blossoms weighing heavy on her bladder, Virginia went to use the bathroom. Maude was in there with one of the men from the party. She yelled at Virginia to go find somewhere else to relieve herself. Feeling like she might literally burst, Rappe crossed the hallway to Arbuckle’s room – room 1219. Roscoe Arbuckle got up and – whether intentionally or incidentally we don’t know – followed her over. Once in his room, he locked the bedroom door behind him.
From here the accounts diverge. 

Arbuckle and Rappe were alone together in the room for around 30 minutes, before Rappe screamed out in great pain. Her screams were loud and disturbed enough to bring the party guests in room 1221 – Maude included – running to investigate. Several witnesses would initially claim she screamed “I am dying, I am dying”. Arbuckle called out to Maude “Get her dressed, and take her back to The Palace. She makes too much noise!” 

Virginia’s clothes were half torn off of her when witnesses entered the room. She bore several bruises. All this, surprisingly, would later be open to interpretation. 

Roscoe’s side of the story was he’d gone back to his room to change out of his pyjamas. When he got there, he found Rappe passed out on his bathroom floor. He claims he helped her up and placed her on bed to get some rest. Arbuckle claimed all of a sudden Rappe came to. She began screaming, and tore her own clothes off in a mad frenzy. He then called for Maude. Arbuckle claimed he was only trying to be a good host, and when Virginia went mad, he didn’t know what to do. 

Virginia’s side, as you shall see, is much harder to parse.

Maude Delmont took Virginia to another room – where she fell into a deep sleep. Virginia awoke around midnight in unbearable pain. Maude called a doctor, who shot Virginia full of morphine, inserted a catheter, then left. The doctor was convinced there was nothing seriously wrong with her. A little rest would fix her up. Dissatisfied with the first doctor – Maude called on a second doctor, who misdiagnosed Virginia with alcohol poisoning. In the following days, Virginia only got worse. She was in constant, writhing agony – and not showing any sign of improvement. It took three days for anyone to take her to a hospital.

Admitted to Wakefield Sanitarium on 7th September; Virginia was diagnosed with peritonitis, caused by a ruptured bladder. By 9th September, her kidneys packed in and Virginia passed away. 

In the meantime, Roscoe Arbuckle jumped a boat headed back towards Los Angeles. Having well and truly trashed the hotel rooms at the St Francis, the pyjama party snuck away the following day. He never enquired about Virginia’s health, and only learned of her death when L.A. Times reporters showed up at his mansion asking questions about the long weekend. They were far from the only ones looking to speak with him.   

On September 11th San Francisco district attorney Matthew Brady sent police officers to Los Angeles to arrest Roscoe Arbuckle. From the offset he refused to comply with the investigators. Arbuckle was arrested and charged with Virginia’s rape and murder. 

Before the case even made it to a courtroom, the court of opinion weighed in on the case. Protests sprang up outside cinemas showing Crazy to Marry. A riot broke out at one show in Wyoming. A group of cowboys shot the screen full of holes once Arbuckle entered the scene. The press were also vicious towards Roscoe Arbuckle – William Randolph Hearst’s papers especially.

Hearst had his own selfish reasons to go after Arbuckle’s employers. He felt Paramount pictures were mismanaging the career of his mistress – the actress Marion Davies. Besides personal reasons to stick it to Paramount, Hearst knew well the maxim, if it bleeds it leads. He’d later claim the Arbuckle story sold better than the sinking of the Lusitania. While none of the ‘bottle party’ rumours – yes that means what you imagine it means – preceded the trial; much was made of Arbuckle’s wild orgies and flagrant disregard for the alcohol ban. Tales emerged claiming Arbuckle sexually abused other actresses on Keystone film sets. Several Christian groups called for Arbuckle to be lynched before the trial even began. District Attorney Brady himself was calling for the death penalty for the actor.

As with Olive Thomas’ passing, the Arbuckle case shone a spotlight on Hollywood. As Rappe’s ex Henry Lehrman summed Arbuckle up as ‘a vulgarian from the gutter,’ and stories continued to emerge of Arbuckle and his friends behaving badly – people asked who else was having boozy getaways behind closed doors, and wild orgies? This was still in the prohibition era after all. Paramount head Adolph Zukor, hoping to avoid the opening of a pandora’s box, fired Arbuckle a fortnight later and washed his hands of him. 

While fair to say Roscoe Arbuckle certainly appears a churlish, uncaring vulgarian; was there any evidence he actually raped Virginia Rappe?

The short answer, there was much less evidence than you may think – and disturbingly – by the end of the trials any such evidence would become a moot point. A rumour persisted that doctors were paid to incinerate Rappe’s internal organs – destroying any evidence against Arbuckle. However this was untrue – Rappe’s body was put through two autopsies. Both revealed a small number of bruises on one arm and thigh, but no evidence of a sexual assault. Others asked if Arbuckle might have accidentally killed Rappe by putting his 265 Lb weight directly on her bladder. Again, there was no evidence of this.

But Arbuckle tore her clothes off right? The police almost didn’t have the evidence of this. While questioning the party guests, San Francisco police discovered Virginia’s friend, Al Semnacher, had the clothes in question in his possession. Semnacher claimed he took them as he was always looking for rags to clean his car with. Most writers presume he intended to extort Arbuckle, or Paramount studio with the rags – but the police investigation stymied his scheme.

The trial kicked off on November 18th 1921. Pre-trial hearings determined Arbuckle would face manslaughter charges, rather than murder. This was serious enough, so Arbuckle hired a dream team of top lawyers, much like OJ Simpson would decades later.

The trial was shambolic. In their investigation, the police spoke with a number of partygoers who freely admitted to hearing Virginia screaming in pain. A few witnesses even claimed to hear her say ‘he hurt me,’ in relation to Arbuckle and ‘I am dying.’ When these people were called to give evidence, many of them had come down with a case of amnesia.

Maude Delmont, arguably Virginia’s only friend at the party, was never called to testify. Maude had put away between eight and ten glasses of whiskey in a little over two hours, which brought the acuity of her evidence into question. She was also awaiting her own day in court, facing bigamy charges. The prosecution felt if this was revealed, all her credibility would have gone out the window immediately. Al Semnacher, however did give evidence. His evidence laid the framework for Hollywood Babylon’s Kenneth Anger’s claim Arbuckle had a ‘Bottle Party’ at Rappe’s expense. Semnacher testified Arbuckle bragged to him how, while Rappe was out cold on the bed, he put a sharp piece of ice in her – well he kind of did. Semnacher, it appears was far too embarrassed to say the word – ‘snatch’ out loud – so he wrote the word on a piece of paper.  

The prosecution also brought forth a security guard who worked at Keystone studios while Arbuckle was there. The guard claimed Arbuckle was constantly trying to sneak into the ladies’ changing rooms. They also made much of both Rappe and Arbuckle’s fingerprints on the door at the Hotel St Francis.
The defence called on a nurse from Wakefield Sanitarium, who testified Rappe told her she had consensual sex with Arbuckle. A second nurse claimed she admitted to having ‘internal troubles’ for six weeks beforehand. The defence claimed Virginia Rappe also had past form when it came to tearing her own clothes off at parties while intoxicated. Virginia Rappe, when autopsied was noted to have several bruises on her – what say the defence? They explained away the bruises on the heavy jewellery she wore that night. 

At the first trial, Arbuckle gave evidence. He found her on the bathroom floor, after having vomited into his toilet. The bruises? At one point she fell off the bed. Arbuckle being the gentleman he was, picked her up, placing her back on his bed to recover. 

After some deliberation, the jury found 10 – 2 in Arbuckle’s favour – which was recorded as a hung jury. 

But the tale didn’t end there. The case was retried in January 1922, with the jury unable to come to a unanimous decision. More witnesses forgot potentially damning evidence – it seemed a wave of amnesia had settled over Hollywood at this time. However, one apparently solid witness was brought in. He was another studio security guard, who claimed Arbuckle paid him a lot of money for a key to the ladies’ changing rooms. This was hardly the smoking gun you’d think it would be. The defence revealed this same man was awaiting his own day in court – for sexually assaulting an eight year old child. More witnesses were found who could testify to seeing a drunken Virginia Rappe tearing her own clothes off at parties.

The jury eventually came in 10 – 2 again – but this time in favour of conviction. 

With two hung juries, the district attorney went for a third, and final try on 13th March 1922. This trial mostly played like the first two – forgetful, and untrustworthy witnesses and all. This time there was one big difference. The defence dream team went all in, trying to prove Virginia Rappe was not a virtuous woman. The mores of that time – and sadly another celebrity trial in April 2022 suggests plenty of people still hold similar views if an accused abuser is sufficiently charismatic – all but stated a woman lacking in virtue could not be considered rape-able. Essentially, how could you damage someone already broken beyond repair? The defence played on her alleged bladder problems, claiming it was proof she was a loose woman. They claimed that by the age of 30, the allegedly promiscuous Rappe had gone through four abortions. 

In the prosecution’s favour the public were well and truly convinced Arbuckle was a creep by this time. His films were banned in a number of cinemas. Maude Delmont was travelling the country fronting a wildly successful public speaking tour. She spoke volubly on the evils of the Hollywood film industry. The media continued to pile in too. By the time the third trial came along, the public had read seven solid months worth of exposes on wild Hollywood orgies, the extramarital love lives of their stars, and of course – of a certain murder. But Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle’s dream team were absolutely on point this time. By thoroughly branding Virginia Rappe a slut, it didn’t matter terribly to the jury what kind of person Arbuckle might have been, or what he may have done. It took them five minutes to find him, unanimously, not guilty. 

All the same, whether a just finding or not – it would not resuscitate Arbuckle’s career. In spite of a number of high profile supporters backing him, he never worked in front of the camera again. Arbuckle found a little work treading the boards in Vaudeville. He was eventually allowed back behind the camera – so long as his work was credited to a Will B. Goodrich. Prior to the trial he was long separated from his wife, Minta Durfee. The couple had never split both for religious and good PR reasons – but following the media uncovering Arbuckle’s every indiscretion – Minta saw no reason to stay, and divorced the comic. Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle seemed broken in his final years, and shuffled on till he died suddenly of a heart attack aged 46.

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

Other cases would arise. In 1923 Wallace Reid, a popular romantic lead would die while being weened off morphine in a hospital. Reid had injured himself in a crash a few years earlier, and become addicted to the stuff. The 1926 death of Latin Lover Rudolph Valentino would be shrouded in controversy. An exceptionally pretty man well loved by female moviegoers, he was accused of causing the feminisation of the American male. Some mocked him with homophobic slurs, commented on his jewellery and alleged he wore make up in public. Valentino’s open challenges to several of these commentators to meet him in the boxing ring went unanswered. Following his passing, rumours spread he was a beard for his lesbian wife, and that he himself had been having an affair with fellow Latin lover Ramon Navarro. Navarro, it turns out was gay, and his outing just outside of the scope of this tale ended his career as an actor.
And none of this is mentioning the elaborate show Polish actress Pola Negri put on at Valentino’s funeral.

In 1922, Audrey Munson, a former model turned actress attempted to commit suicide – it should be pointed out after a former landlord killed his wife in 1919 so he could be with Munson – who was none the wiser of his intent. But she was bundled in with all the others. Then in 1926, the pioneering film producer Thomas Ince died in mysterious circumstances while on a boat with, among others, Charlie Chaplin, William Randolph Hearst and Hearst’s mistress Marion Davies. Decades later it would be claimed, wrongly I believe, he was accidentally shot when he got between Chaplin and Hearst – but at the time it was just another odd story in the press.

Then there was the baffling case of William Desmond Taylor. His story was the unravelling of Hollywood – and we’ll tackle it in a fortnight’s time, to bring this series to an end.

Andrei Shkuro’s Carnival of Sorrows

Hey all just a quick reminder.
1. The Hollywood Trilogy is still running, part two set to drop this Wednesday
2. This blog post is available as a podcast minisode on my Patreon. A short video excerpt is below.

When thinking of the Kuban Peoples’ Republic in 1919, I get an image of a world sent topsy-turvy… or at the very least, a world in a sense of flux.
Historically, flux was normal for the Pontic region. In their past they had been under the rule of Turks, Kipchaks, Mongols, even a Lithuanian King for a while. Invasion and subjugation were nothing new. For centuries, the area was part of the great Crimean Khanate – where two million Ukrainians, Poles, Muscovites, and Balkans were ‘harvested’ from the fields then sold into slavery in the East. From these markets one Kipchak slave – Baibars – rose up to become Sultan of Egypt – and of course a young lady from Lviv, Ukraine, (then a region of Poland) named Roxelana, became empress of the Ottoman Empire… but for the vast majority of slaves, existence was a litany of horrors. 

This tale isn’t about these poor slaves, or the slave markets. By the late 17th century, a coalition of affected nations put a stop to that trade. One of these rulers, Peter the Great of Russia, eyed up the region – though a successor of his, Catherine the Great, finally annexed the Crimea and its surrounds in the 1780s. It was strategically important to Russia to take this land, as it gave them access to the Black Sea – which didn’t freeze over in winter as their Northern ports often did. 

If we’re talking flux – a significant group up in the mountains, known as the Circassians – engaged in a guerrilla war against Russia which ran for close to a century. Eventually, an army of 100,000 Cossacks were sent in to massacre them. A largely forgotten genocide occurred, with a number of Circassians escaping to the Ottoman Empire, and vast numbers of Circassians slaughtered in the land they had possessed since at least 1,500 BC. 

At this point, the flux calmed itself down somewhat. The Kuban Cossacks flooded in. Highly effective, highly valued shock troops of the Tsar, these men were often sent to quell discontent. By way of reward, they didn’t pay any taxes. Rightly or wrongly, I get a picture in my head of Dostoyevsky’s the Brothers Karamazov mixed with the movie Copland. It was a quieter, more respectful place under the Cossacks – with some horrid reasons for this tranquility. Of course the First World War broke out – and chaos would spread like wildfire again. The Tsar was forced to abdicate in March 1917. At the same time, the Germans put a cat amongst the pigeons by transporting exiled Communists like Vladimir Lenin, back into the country. It was part of a series of events which ushered in regicide and a Russian Civil War. The death toll of that war was dizzying – well upwards of 10 Million people died in the conflict – possibly more than 12 million. Most were civilian casualties. The Kuban region became part of a decisive, blood-soaked battleground in the conflict – a battleground which included the Caucasus, parts of Ukraine and the Crimea. 

So in this topsy-turvy world, I can imagine one’s surprise at hearing an armoured train full of musicians far off in the distance. Your town has been through a lot of late. The war got closer and closer, till one day the Bolsheviks arrived and took charge. They were cruel kleptomaniacs and repressers of the townspeople, and life was miserable under the Reds. There was then an almighty battle reverberating through the hills, in which many people were killed. The Reds legged it, for the time being – conserving what was left of their force.
As the train draws near, you notice there’s not just one group of musicians on board, but two – a full symphony orchestra AND a full brass band. Alongside the train, a large number of Cossacks on horseback are riding along. These men have such incredible control of their animals they could easily be trick riders in a circus.  On first impression you gaze in wonder. Has a circus really come to town in the midst of this insanity? 

As the train pulls up to the station, you see many Cossack soldiers on board also. Quite a few are blind drunk. In one carriage, drunken revellers are having a merry old time with a group of escorts or women press-ganged into sex work – it’s impossible to tell from your vantage point. A wild orgy is under way for all to see. It occurs to you, this isn’t a circus, it’s the feared ‘Wolf Company.’
A window is flung open and a drunken man sings loudly at you from that window. 

“With my gang I will loot 100 cities. Flow, flow my lovely vodka. You are my joy.” – obviously it’s a ditty better left untranslated to English?
He smashes his empty glass against the station floor, fetches himself another glass full of vodka, then rejoins in the bacchanalia. 

Andrei Shkuro

Word had reached your town from neighbours that these men are magnificent warriors, and definitely not to be messed with. Others outright came out and said it, they were a blight on the town, liberators or not. They, the Kuban Cossack division, are here to liberate the region back from Red to White. They have till now been very effective on the battlefield – but when the fighting stops… well, you better lock up your … well, everything.  

Their noisy, disruptive parties ran on for days on end. The bands kept playing. The alcohol never ran dry. They are a jarring counterpoint to the reality of many – struggling, fearful and suddenly too cash poor to afford a sack of flour.

These men also loot with abandon wherever they land. Their commander promotes the practice. This wins him the undying support of his men – and he genuinely couldn’t give a shit about you and yours. 
That loot, all kinds of cash and belongings taken from often starving people, would be loaded onto boxcars attached to these battle-trains. Trains like this could be pulling as many as 200 boxcars full of others’ prized belongings.

On liberating Rostov-on-Don, locals greeted this commander – the man who just drunkenly sang at you. His name Andrei Shkuro – with a large sum of money to thank him for his service. Unmoved, Shkuro passed the wad of rubles back to an underling, commanding

“Here, go visit the whores.”
He then addressed the crowd. 

“I am shedding blood here to give you a calm life. Do you really think this kind of money will be sufficient?”

Shkuro then went on to demand 10 million rubles from the locals, to ensure his ongoing protection. 

Andrei Shkuro was a dashing warrior who, if you were judging him solely by his battlefield conduct, would have made a great action hero. He was, however, also a sadist who enjoyed watching his men torture and kill, enemies and innocent bystanders alike. Whether inflicting, or watching, in fact, he got off on the suffering of others. Shkuro was also a gross antisemite, who played a prominent role in the more than 1,500 pogroms carried out by both sides against the Jews in Ukraine. Later in life, he wrote a memoir denying his involvement in the pogroms. Accounts of others, such as an officer who recalled Shkuro offered to deal to Britain’s Jews after the war if the politicians wanted him to – well, stories like that indicate otherwise.

By way of a short biography: Andrei Shkuro was born in 1886 to a Cossack family in Pashkovsyaka Village, Kuban. As a young man he was sent off to military school in Moscow, where he excelled. Just like fellow White Army warlord Baron Roman Ungern von Sternberg, Andrei Shkuro made a name for himself as a very capable cavalry officer during the First World War. Like the ‘Bloody White Baron,’ he took on many highly risky missions, from deadly battlefield clashes in Galicia, to ambushing and robbing Austrian contingents who were delivering weapons through enemy land. The young Platoon commander was consistently successful, in spite of picking up several nasty battlefield injuries. The top brass recognised his abilities, promoted him through the ranks. At one point top brass asked Shkuro how he thought his talents could best be utilised? His answer was to carry out hit and run attacks in enemy territory. This led to him carrying out a spate of guerrilla attacks on unsuspecting enemies, and acts of sabotage while far behind enemy lines. 

In the course of the First World War, Shkuro was promoted to Colonel. He was relocated to the Southern Carpathian Mountains, where cavalry units were still widely in use. His command grew to 600 men, and again, he distinguished himself. He was stationed in Persia when the revolution broke out back home. After some time back in the Caucasus, he joined up with Anton Denekin – a Lieutenant General who was forming a resistance movement to fight against the Bolsheviks. Shkuro signed up, later bribing his way up to the rank of Lieutenant General. 

A well-rounded essay would detail the back and forth nature of battle between the Reds and Whites in the region – and that by mid 1919 it looked like the Whites finally had the advantage – and this was all over bar the shouting. The Reds were being forced out of the Donbas, and Caucasus. Tsaritsyn (later renamed Stalingrad) was besieged and was predicted to fall any day now. At the same time, the Whites were pushing far into Ukraine. Moscow would soon be in the sights of the White army.

I might even write at length on the sound thrashing Shkuro dealt to Leon Trotsky’s forces – and how he took out the city of Yekaterinoslav – in a longer form essay. I could even detour to sum up the consecutive war he waged against anarchist and freedom fighter Nestor Makhno. With more column inches to fill I might talk of how Trotsky later rallied the Red Army, just as all seemed lost – and the tide turned against the Whites. If doing so, I’m sure I’d detail the manner in which pogroms against the Jews sharply increased.

The truth is, first, this is a short post focussed on the off-field actions of a man who was brilliant and daring, and behaved like a sociopath both on and off the battlefield. However good he was at fighting wars – standing over locals for protection money, ordering random public beatings and executions, committing hate crimes, press-ganging women into sexual slavery – and, least of all, participating in drunken, days long orgies with your personal harem, two bands and all your drinking buddies while the populace starved around you – is not a good strategy to win the peace. If the people detested him, how long would they put up with his authority? About as long as it took him to roll up to the next town in his armoured train?
Sadly, this was not the reason Shkuro was decommissioned and sent on his merry way. The two generals in charge of the White Army were constantly at loggerheads – and the reorganisation of their forces that led to his firing was much more about their own squabbling than the fact the man was a complete nightmare. In any case, Shkuro was stripped of his commission. His Bacchanalian carnival of sorrows was taken off the road for good. Ultimately the Whites would lose the war to the Reds.

Postwar, while some of the White leaders who escaped the Bolsheviks plied their trade as advisors or as hired muscle for Chinese warlords; others as mercenaries in the Japanese invasion of Manchuria – and one even set himself up as the de facto ruler of Mongolia -Andrei Shkuro found a new carnival. He joined a circus as a stunt rider. He moved to France, joined a troupe, and toured the continent. Like Pablo Fanque he performed tricks atop his horse, to the astonishment of onlookers. One presumes when their train now pulled up in Paris, Berlin, Vienna or Belgrade, they were no longer rolling drunk, full of machismo and demanding exorbitant cash bribes from the mayor? People who met Shkuro the performer observed he was full of fun, lively, still enjoyed a drink or two in company, and could tell one hell of a war story. 

An etching of Pablo Fanque, a Victorian stunt rider most famous now because of The Beatles ‘Being For The Benefit of Mr Kite.’

War interrupted his circus career, as the Nazi’s took over swathes of Europe. The noted anti-Semite and hater of communists volunteered to fight for the Nazis. He was sent into Yugoslavia to wage a guerrilla war against Tito’s regime. In 1945, Shkuro was caught, and handed over to the Soviets – who executed him by hanging on 17th January 1947.  

Andrei Shkuro’s Carnival of Sorrows (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 Kuban People’s Republic in the midst of the Russian Civil War – to meet the diabolical White Army General Andrei Shkuro.

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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.)  

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The Episodes So Far

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Olive Thomas – the poisoned chalice

Olive Thomas: The Poisoned Chalice Tales of History and Imagination

Trigger Warning: This episode deals with premature death (I know, not unusual in this blog)… and sexually transmitted infections (somewhat more unusual in this blog).

Situated northwest of downtown Los Angeles, and covering around 80 square kilometres, Hollywood is a far cry from the community envisioned by it’s founding family. The district was first settled by Harvey Wilcox, a former shoe maker from New York via Kansas, and his wife Daeida. The couple planned to set up a ranch on the land, but soon found they had no aptitude for ranching. Their plan B; to build a community based around their moral outlook.

Harvey was heavily religious, and a prohibitionist -so determined Hollywood would become a Christian settlement; free of the temptations of alcohol, gambling and prostitution. He died in 1891, only four years into the establishment of Tinseltown. Daeida Wilcox Beveridge took the reins following her husband’s passing. She picked up approximately where Harvey left off, announcing free land to anyone who set up a church in Hollywood. All denominations were welcome.

Daeida was devoutly religious, like Harvey – but at thirty years his junior – she had a very different view on what it meant to be God fearing. she wanted to make Hollywood a place of beauty. She dreamt of a cultured town, where cultured people mingled at the theatre. The kind of place where young lovers might meet at a barn dance. The kind of a place where those young lovers might want to find work marry, settle down, and bring up their own families. One early settler to this upscale neighbourhood, H.J. Whitley, was instrumental in helping Daeida build Hollywood. In 1902, Whitley brought a bank to Tinseltown.
Whitley secured electricity, and a post office. With Daeida, he set up a hotel, a market, and Hollywood Boulevard.

Daeida passed on in 1914, a few years after the first movie studios arrived in Tinseltown, but nearly a decade before the famous Hollywoodland sign went up. The people of Hollywood honoured her, in death, as the ‘Mother of Hollywood.’ 

The first Hollywood movie scene was shot in 1908. Directors Thomas Persons and Francis Boggs filmed most of the ‘five act play’, The Count of Monte Cristo in Chicago. Disruptions in shooting led to a relocation to Hollywood to finish the silent film. The first film shot there entirely was ‘In Old California’, a 1910 Western directed by D.W. Griffith. More productions followed in 1911, and by the early nineteen-teens, twenty production companies were operating in Hollywood.

A large number of sunny days each year meant more filming days than back east. It also made for great light to film in. Add a diverse landscape and a rapidly growing population to draw from (California was a rising agricultural and industrial area – full of people looking for work,) and Tinseltown was the ideal place to shoot a movie. 

The late nineteen-teens, up to the Great Depression was a time when people could afford nice things, including distractions from their everyday lives. An emergent film industry focussed on narrative-driven film making, filling a need for escapism for many Americans. This was a boom time for movie makers. But one could imagine the ghost of Harvey Wilcox turning in his grave – figuratively speaking. A booming industry flush with cash, and full of talented, young, well-paid people – rumours soon got out about how decadent Hollywood had become.

And of course sober, religious wowsers – people much like Harvey Wilcox – continued to exist. They were riding high on their recent victory against the demon drink. In 1919, the Government passed the 18th Amendment, banning the recreational use of alcohol. The amendment got teeth soon after, with the passing of the Volstead Act, 28th October 1919.
These killjoys had a new target in their sites – those decadent, and dare I say it – as antisemitism was part of the reason they were targeted – often Jewish, film makers out in Hollywood.

By 1930, the industry would voluntarily bind itself to a set of standards, the Motion Picture Production Code – or the Hays Code as it was informally known.

Will Hays, a former postmaster general briefly associated with the incredibly corrupt presidency of Warren Harding in the early 1920s, was put in charge. For decades this would have a detrimental effect on the movie industry, and long-lasting effects on society as a whole – conservative values making it past the censor far easier than progressive values. Two examples – under Hays code America, miscegenation – couples of differing ethnicities – were barred. A lack of representation normalising mixed-race relationships made it easier for racist lawmakers to continue to enforce real world miscegenation laws. The rule also made for ridiculous situations on film now seen, rightly, as offensive.
Take Anna May Wong. America’s greatest Chinese-American actor was passed over for a role in the 1935 blockbuster The Good Earth – a film about the trials and tribulations of a Chinese family – because MGM had already cast the white Paul Muni in the male lead. They would rather have both leads in ‘yellow face,’ than break miscegenation laws by casting a real Chinese and fake Chinese actor opposite one another. German-American actress Luise Rainer won an Oscar for her portrayal of the housewife O-Lan – something Anna May never really got over.

The LGBTQI+ community were also relegated to characters whose essential nature could only be alluded to in a coded way. Under Hays’ code they were often sinners, baddies or lunatics – and as such had to be punished by the end of the film…

This was a far cry from, for example, Wings – the 1927 film which won the first Oscar for best picture. The film’s protagonists are two male pilots who vie for the love of the same woman – but who slowly come to realise they really love one another. The film reaches a climax after Dave, one of the pilots in gravely injured. Unrequited lover Jack rushes to his side, and the two share their true feelings for one another – then, a passionate kiss – before Dave passes of his injuries.
The ‘bury your gays’ trope would continue under the Hays Code of course – but love in it’s great diversity would be left on the cutting room floor for decades.

How did Hollywood find itself in such an awful, and restrictive state? There were a series of high profile scandals that made moral policing seem unavoidable.

Over the next three episodes, Tales of History and Imagination goes Hollywood, as we delve into three of those scandals.

As we need to start somewhere, let’s begin in the early hours of September 6th 1920. The location, Paris legendary Hotel Ritz – popular amongst the rich and famous for it’s luxuriousness – including being among the first hotels anywhere to have electric lights, telephones in all the rooms and – pertinent to our tale – an en-suite bathroom in every suite.

Among the guests that evening, Hollywood actors Olive Thomas and Jack Pickford. The night before the couple took in Paris’ vivid nightlife. The couple imbibed freely, and one presumes partied hard well into the morning. They returned to their suite, the worse for wear, around 3am on the 6th. As the couple had a flight booked for London that morning, Jack went straight to bed. Olive, was not yet ready to turn in, and took a seat to jot down letter to her mother in the USA. She wrote until Jack shouted at her to turn the light off and come to bed. She turned out the light, and fumbled through the dark to the bathroom. 

Seconds later Jack claimed Olive shrieked “Oh My God!” Before collapsing as if struck dead. What would unfold would go down in the annals of Tinseltown as it’s first great scandal. Sadly, it also proved an early example of how well tragedy sells. But before we jump into that I really should introduce the cast.  


First, our heroine. Olive Thomas was born Olivia Duffy in Charleroi, Pennsylvania, October 20th 1894. When she was aged 12 Olive was sent to live with her grandparents, after her father, James, was killed in a workplace accident. She left school aged 15, finding work selling gingham in a department store. In April 1911 she married Bernard Thomas, a train station clerk, but by the age of 18 she left Bernard – having moved to New York in search of fame and fortune. She made her first big break in 1914, when she won a beauty contest. 

Over the following years, Olive the beauty queen parlayed her win into a lucrative entertainment career. She took work as an artist’s model – featuring in a number of magazine advertisements. This, in turn led to a role in the Ziegfeld Follies – a flashy Broadway dance review which ran from 1907 to 1931 (then intermittently after) that was modelled on Paris’ Folies Bergère by Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. She caught the eye of the impresario, and soon they were an item.

By all accounts she was no great dancer, but Olive was extremely good looking – people commented particularly about her violet-blue eyes, which I can only imagine as similar in colour to Elizabeth Taylor’s. She was also dating the guy in charge – so her profile within the troupe grew, until she caught the attention of the movie people. By 1916, Olive Thomas was cast in small roles in films. In 1917 she caught the eye of Triangle Pictures film producer and innovator Thomas Ince
(an aside but Ince is a man you may know of now for the strange manner of his own death. Before he passed he had largely defined most of the roles in film making and was an early adopter of the modern film set.)
Olive signed up a six year contract with Triangle Pictures in 1917, and quickly became popular with the film going public for her innocent, girl next door characters.

Not meaning to cast shade on Ms Thomas, but real life was anything but girl next door. In truth she was far more interesting than all that. In 1916, while still involved with Ziegfeld, she met and fell in love with Jack Pickford – the only son of the Pickford acting family. Mary Pickford, his older sister, was as much of an A lister as one could be in those days. A film star since 7 years of age, Mary was known as ‘America’s Sweetheart’. She’d go on to win an Oscar, found Pickford-Fairbanks studios with second husband Douglas Fairbanks, and become a founding member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Jack himself was a popular working actor playing ‘boy next door’ types, though nowhere near as famous as his sister.

Olive and Jack secretly eloped in 1916.

Jack and Olive were both heavy partiers. Jack especially was a very heavy drinker, and – according to Hollywood Babylon’s Kenneth Anger – reputedly a heroin addict. He was also far from monogamous. There was a buzz around those in the know in Hollywood he’d contracted syphilis from one one night stand or another while partying. This earned him the nickname ‘Mr Syphilis’ among his friends. There wouldn’t be an effective cure for syphilis till a US marine hospital trialled penicillin in 1943, so Mr Syphilis would only have had treatments like mercury bi-chloride ointments to fall back on. This effectively meant burning off syphilis sores as they arose, slowing the illness. I should mention mercury bi-chloride, first used to treat syphilis in the mid 16th Century by the Swiss Polymath Paracelsus – is also highly poisonous. 

Post-elopement, Olive continued her career. She was popular, though never an A-lister. She had a string of moderately successful films with Triangle, before leaving for Selznick Pictures in 1919. Early in 1920 she played the lead in The Flapper – a film which lent it’s name to the carefree party girls of the Roaring 20s – though her own role was not terribly flapper-ish.

She was signed up to an eight picture a year deal with Selznick, and it appears something may have happened there in the lead up to her French holiday. I’ve yet to come across a detailed explanation, and any explanation by myself would be guesswork – but by time Olive and Jack set sail in August 1920, Olive had been removed from Selznick’s payroll.
Jack continued to party hard following their marriage – but nearly brought himself to disrepute in a different way entirely in 1918. As the First World War ground towards a conclusion, Jack – a Canadian born Canadian citizen – volunteered for the American Navy to avoid being drafted into Canada’s armed forces and sent off to war. A number of sons of wealthy Americans – some of whom were drinking buddies – had been signing up for the Navy – as they had a high ranking connection who would ensure they were not sent to war – and accept a hefty bribe in return.
Jack was among those caught, named and shamed in the press. He avoided a dishonourable discharge, or criminal indictment – but his own image, and the good name of the Pickfords was tarnished because of this. 

He continued to work sporadically, picking up one or two roles a year following the scandal.

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

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

So, back to The Ritz, September 6th 1920. Olive has collapsed in the en-suite – a bottle of poison lays on the floor beside her. Jack calls for a doctor, and proceeds to force water and egg whites down Olive’s rapidly corroding gullet, hoping she will vomit the dangerous substance from her body. It’s not known if she took a tablet of Jack’s ointment (the mercury bi-chloride usually came in tablet form) thinking she’d grabbed a painkiller or a sleeping pill – or if she’d washed a painkiller or sleeping pill down with what she thought was a glass of drinking water – instead imbibing a glass of Jack’s diluted medicine. Mary Pickford, trying to avoid further damage to brand Pickford, later claimed an errant maid must’ve left poison behind after cleaning the bathroom. A doctor arrived, and pumped Olive’s stomach three times. She would not be taken to hospital till five hours after she collapsed. At this stage it was too little, too late. Olive Thomas died of her injuries 10th September 1920.  

Concerned Olive’s death would damage their own reputation, the Pickfords sprang into damage control mode. The day Olive passed, Mary’s recently divorced ex husband Owen Moore fronted up to press. He claimed Olive had been extremely unwell for some time – and died of natural causes. No specific details of her alleged sickness were shared with the press, but the family’s wish for privacy to mourn their loss most definitely was. 

Unsurprisingly, this only urged the press on to muck rake for whatever they could find. Whether true or otherwise – stories emerged of Olive’s last night of Parisian debauchery.
Did Olive and Jack go to a nice restaurant, and from there out dancing – or were they hanging out in shadowy opium dens?
Did they go sightseeing, or were they hanging out with career criminals at fight clubs – where they bet on female bare knuckle boxers – as men bit the heads off live rats? Did Olive drink bootleg rocket-fuel that night, that contained toxic levels of ethanol? This line of the couple hitting seedy clubs run “in defiance of police regulations” as one Ohio newspaper put it, dominated a number of newspapers. One can imagine the pearl clutching back in the USA – sure that Pickford kid is a bad-un… but Olive Thomas? She was the ‘girl next door’ right?

And then, there was the case of a Captain Spalding. An American former army captain named Spalding was sentenced to six months’ prison at La Sante Prison in the week following Olive’s death. His crime? He was caught smuggling cocaine into France. Rumours abounded of this Captain Spalding organising cocaine-fuelled orgies for wealthy Americans in Paris. A rumour did the rounds Spalding had a little black book of clients and Olive’s details were in it. If this Captain Spalding did in fact know Olive, he was unlikely to have had anything to do with her death – A newspaper article ran on the man on the day of Olive’s death covering his capture and trial – ongoing at the time.

But it was cause for speculation. Cocaine was wildly popular among the rich and famous in the 1920s. Coincidentally, it was claimed the American film Studio Famous Players-Lasky had a dealer known as Captain Spaulding who provided the actors with cocaine whenever they needed it – something some Hollywood history bloggers claim Groucho Marx was tipping his hat to in naming his character in the movie Animal Crackers (1931) Captain Jeffrey Spaulding. Hooray for Captain Spaulding indeed.

As we know, if a lie – a lie can certainly travel halfway around the world in the time it takes the truth to put it’s shoes on. Rumours well preceded any sensible examination of facts, and for some, they stuck.

The rumours of Jack’s syphilis also emerged in the days following Olive’s death. Scuttlebutt circulated Olive contracted syphilis from Jack, and despondent at what was almost certainly a death sentence – chose to take her own life. This was the narrative that stuck the most with the public.
People started to blame Jack for her death. Hot on the heels of this scandal, another rumour – Had Jack had taken a life insurance policy out on Olive? Was he a callous murderer?
Could this explain why Jack avoided police questioning in the wake of Olive’s passing (Which he did, unquestionably do)? Did he send his ex brother in law, Owen Moore to make a statement to press as he worried the press would see through his ruse?
This certainly wasn’t helped when Jack Pickford remarried, to a young Hollywood widow and star of Broadway named Marilyn Miller. They married two years after Olive’s passing, which some people said they felt was too soon.
It probably should be noted the couple divorced after five years, due to Jack being an abusive husband. Marilyn herself died young, when surgery on her nasal passages went wrong.

Public opinion fell behind Olive. She was the wholesome girl next door led astray by a Hollywood aristocrat whose crimes included draft dodging, sleeping around, heavy drug use – and quite possibly murder. One could imagine Jack Pickford’s Hollywood career as the boy next door was as good as over. 15,000 mourners gathered outside Olive’s funeral. People clamoured for her old films, which were all re-released at cinemas across America. All became blockbusters in the weeks following her death. 

Another sector of the public – the wowsers who killed legal alcohol – took notice too. Their take was quite different. Olive Thomas was not their focus. The alleged Parisian bacchanalia was. This only served to confirm their belief that Hollywood was a den of iniquity, hell bent on corrupting American society. To them Olive Thomas was a cautionary tale, and, for now, Jack Pickford was the devil incarnate.  

I generally don’t want to speculate on these cases. At a push the accident scenario seems more likely to me, but the case lacks evidence, and has become bloated with wild speculation. Was Jack an abusive husband? Subsequently it appears so. Did he take out a policy on his wife, then intentionally poison her? No evidence has been presented of an insurance policy to date.
Did Jack Pickford take syphilis medication? These is some evidence for this. He returned to Paris in late 1932, for a shopping holiday. While there he collapsed, and died a few days later, on January 3rd 1933. His cause of death is listed as “progressive multiple neuritis which attacked all the nerve centres.” Alcoholism – and it should be pointed out Marilyn Miller claimed Jack was an alcoholic in her divorce petition – can cause neuritis. Syphilis was a common cause of neuritis also – so, pass??

To me Olive Thomas’ case is doubly tragic, first for her early passing and second because her became fodder for a culture war. Next fortnight’s episode, the Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle – Virginia Rappe case is similarly ambiguous – but in my opinion altogether more disturbing.

Somebody’s Darling…

Hi all just a quick blog post today. I’ve got a trilogy of older blog posts set to run on the podcast in the coming weeks, so I thought I’d just write a little. 

Late in 2022, DNA evidence unravelled a couple of longstanding mysteries. First, we discovered the true identity of Australia’s Somerton Man. Second, Philadelphia’s ‘Boy in the Box’ was identified. If you’re unfamiliar with either case, the ‘Somerton Man’ was discovered deceased along Somerton Park Beach, Adelaide, on 1st December 1948. A dead man with no ID on him was odd enough – but rumours circulated the man died of poisoning. 

This happened in the early days of the Cold War. A strip of paper was eventually found in the fob pocket of his pants, which had been ripped from The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam – a book of poetry from Persia’s 11th Century ‘Astronomer Poet’ (who we briefly mentioned in our trilogy on The Assassins) and friend of Hasan-i Sabbah, Omar Khayyam. When the rest of the book was finally located, it had been disposed of, thrown onto the back seat of a stranger’s car. Strangely, it had a code and two phone numbers written in it – a code which remains unsolved to this day. Because of this, a lot of people jumped to the conclusion the man was a spy. 

Over the years, writers have commented that the man was muscular, and appeared to have the legs of a ballet dancer or acrobat. Others pointed towards the two phone numbers on the book. The owner of one of those numbers was a nurse named Jessica Thompson. Much has been made that when she was shown a photograph of the deceased, and was visibly shocked, but claimed not to know the man. Sure, a nurse has probably seen a dead body or two before so may be more hardened to the image than others – but it later emerged a mysterious man had allegedly been at her property asking for her. I’d say she had a right to be a little spooked – and it never stood she too was a spy, in shock at the loss of a comrade.

There were other theories, besides the ‘spy’ line. An ageing veteran named ‘Solomsen’ was suggested, as a local man was sure he’d been drinking with a veteran of that name, who looked like the deceased. A local man, E.C. Johnson was believed to be the Somerton Man – but he showed up at the police station two days later, alive and well. A 63 year old woodcutter named Robert Walsh was suggested – but dismissed based on the fact the body was in his early 40s, and his hands didn’t look like they swung an axe for a living. A missing American ship hand named Tommy Reade was suggested, and dismissed – as Reade looked nothing like the man. This seemed a reasonable guess, as the body was attired in American-made clothing. There were several others suggested, and discounted over the years, for various reasons. 

But the spy narrative remained in peoples’ minds. There was much speculation around Cold War espionage on both sides of the Tasman at this time on to the fall of the Iron Curtain. (something I may come back to some time.) Adelaide may have been of interest to a spy as Australia’s first Uranium mine, Radium Hill, was nearby. It had been discovered back in 1906, and was, in the Nuclear age, a valuable piece of land. A large rocket testing facility was also close, in Woomera – where a combined Australian/English crew were then testing missiles. 

His story, it turns out, had a whole lot less intrigue about it – but is, in my opinion, far sadder. 

Carl Webb was born in Melbourne, Victoria in 1905. The son of a baker, he worked at the family business until it went broke. After this, he trained to be an electrician. In 1941, Webb married Dorothy Robertson and the couple moved to their own house in South Yarra, Victoria. 

Their marriage was highly dysfunctional. Carl was solitary, moody, and violent. It’s been speculated Carl may have suffered from an undiagnosed mental illness, but the trigger was likely the loss of four close relatives over a seven year period. Besides several acts of physical and verbal violence towards Dorothy, Carl attempted, on at least one occasion, to kill himself. Dorothy worked at a pharmacy. Carl got hold of some ether, and attempted to overdose on the substance in 1946. Dorothy tried to nurse Carl back to health, but Carl, yet again turned violent on her. Wisely, Dorothy left – moving to a town close to Adelaide, South Australia. 

In 1947 Carl Webb falls off the radar. He abandoned his family home and became a drifter. It’s thought he had moved to Adelaide, and was trying to find Dorothy. In 2022, his body was identified by DNA samples linking him to living family members. 

It’s likely he was carrying a copy of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam because he was something of a poet himself. Not unlike Khayyam, much of his poetry concerned death. Carl Webb was also a gambler who liked to bet on the horses – so the code possibly relates to horse names. To my knowledge no-one has yet tried to match the letters up to race days to try and determine his whereabouts on the day he took down the code. 

The Boy in the Box is still too new to write much on (as of time of writing this, 9th January 2023,) at least without repeating the mystery as it stood. The four year old boy was named Joseph Zarelli. Given the condition of his body (badly beaten,) and the possibility the person who beat him to death is still alive – police are withholding information on the case at time of writing. If charges are laid, then we may discover more. 

Anyway, these two cases got me thinking about several other stories that might be solved by DNA in years to come. One case which might be familiar to New Zealanders is ‘Somebody’s Darling.’

I needs must tell this story two ways. First there is the urban legend people tend to think of. 

Both tales are located on Horseshoe Bend, Otago in New Zealand’s South Island. This is a stretch of the Clutha river, New Zealand’s second longest river. The timeframe, early 1865. This was, and remains to this day, a remote part of the country – however, at the time Otago itself was in the midst of a gold rush. Gabriel Read, an Australian who tried his hand as a prospector in Victoria and California’s gold rushes in the 1850s, struck gold in the Otago settlement of Lawrence in 1861. Suddenly it was all on. Prospectors from all over turned up to try their luck out in the goldfields. Horseshoe bend itself had around 200 people living there at it’s peak in 1863, but it wasn’t as lucky a spot as others, and by 1865 only around 70 people remained. One remainder was said to be an Irishman named William Rigby. 

The urban legend has it at some time in February 1865, the body of a young man washed up on Horseshoe Bend – and that William Rigby discovered him. The legend states, try as the people of Horseshoe Bend might, they could not identify the young man. The man was buried near the river in Miller’s Flat, in an unmarked grave. According to legend, the fate of the young man played on Rigby’s mind – and he decided if the man could not be returned to those who loved him – at the very least he should be buried among them. It should also be acknowledged he was somebody’s beloved. 

So it was Rigby and a friend, John Ord, built a fence around the grave, then fashioned a gravestone out of black pine with the words “Somebody’s Darling Lies Buried Here.”

Some of this is true. On January 25th 1865 a man named Charles Alms drowned while herding cattle further up the Clyde river. He lived in the Nevis Valley, in the shadow of a mountain range known as The Remarkables (which is, FYI, MY happy place – I haven’t been back to Queenstown since just before COVID, but could happily gaze on the ever-changing Remarkables from a lakeside bar for hours.) He was a butcher by trade, and was officially ‘never found,’ except a public enquiry stated the body at Horseshoe bend was almost certainly him. For some reason, no-one ever came to collect him. 

Rigby heard of the lone grave at Miller’s Flat, and he was heartbroken for the man. A single man himself, who left Ireland for New Zealand after dropping out of a theological college – indications are he was prospecting near ‘Gabriel’s Gully’ in Lawrence when he discovered the grave. The fate of this lone man struck a chord with him, and as he too was a loner, and he worried when he too passed, nobody would tend to his grave. This was the impetus for his act of kindness. 

William Rigby’s act of kindness rubbed off on others. In 1902, the headstone looking much worse for wear, locals upgraded it to a stone marker with the same epitaph. 

Locals talk of the ‘Lonely graves’ there now. Other bodies are buried close to ‘Somebody’s Darling.’ Notably, a man driven to an act of kindness for a stranger. The gravestone next to the mystery man reads “William Rigby – The Man Who Buried Somebody’s Darling.”

Somebody’s Darling (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 briefly discuss three John Does, Australia’s Somerton Man, the USA’s Boy in a Box, and, mostly – New Zealand’s ‘Somebody’s Darling.’

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.)  

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Railway War!

This week we’re riding the rails through Colorado. The date, February 26th 1878. 

Just before 7am, on a chilly winter day, two groups of men boarded a train from the bustling trading town of Pueblo headed for El Moro – a sleepy mining town near the New Mexico border. The men, both on urgent business, were all travelling for the same reason. Theirs was a small world where everyone at least knew of one another, though neither side had apparently met. Both knew what the other was planning – but apparently did their best to ignore other’s presence there. Soon they would be on opposite sides in a war and would know the other all too well. For now though the men took their seats in the carriage and, one presumes, concentrated on the task ahead.

That train, well one very like it anyway, was what all of this business was about. We’ll come back round to this scene. 

But first, as densely packed as this episode is, I needs must make a quick digression. From El Moro we briefly detour to a prison cell in Kommunarka, Russia, 17th September 1938. An academic named Nikolai Kondratiev has been sentenced to death, on the explicit orders of Stalin himself. In 1930 he’d fallen afoul of the authorities – who jailed him for eight years for his economic apostasy. While imprisoned he wrote five books on his theories. By days’ end Stalin will have him executed by firing squad. His dangerous idea that had so offended Uncle Joe? In a nutshell… 

Kondratiev believed capitalist economies, besides their smaller approximately six year long boom – bust waves, had longer, much bigger waves rolling along in the background. Every forty to sixty years an economy in recession from the previous long wave, would innovate by combining existing technologies in new and exciting ways. This technological innovation would create a new boom – and with it new ways of living, working and even thinking about the world. Often the start is a bit shaky, followed by a decades long trend of huge economic growth. Around halfway in, a jarring turning point occurs. From there we enter a decades long collapse which is often chaotic in nature. 

Ideas stagnate, hindered by the people who made a killing from the earlier innovations now deciding to play it safe with their money – principally by putting their money into the finance sector, where it is far less productive.

In a Kondratiev wave, this eventually leads to another big crash. My view, not Kondratiev’s but these decline periods often see the most insane behaviour from desperate entrepreneurs. This is followed by another burst of innovation which creates a boom, and new ways of living, working and thinking about the world. 

This concept riled up Stalin, who only liked economic theories that don’t claim capitalism mutated into new models. His world theory needed an end point where capitalism could no longer adapt – where the workers of the world would finally cast off their chains and take the means of production off the rich. 

The idea Nikolai Kondratiev died for received mixed reviews by economists. A number of well regarded economists took it up, but a greater number discarded it. One problem, you can broadly define these eras, but start and end dates can differ by several years depending on the theorist – It all seems a little fuzzy and unscientific. As a diagnostic tool economists could use to predict the future, Kondratiev waves are too sketchy for most.   

Looking backwards though, Kondratiev waves can occasionally be useful when trying to place a tale in it’s historical context – though all fairness to Mr Kondratiev, it does not explain why two  tycoons came down with a case of brain worms in the late 19th century.  

But anyway, for context – under most Kondratiev models, the first big wave kicks off in Britain some time between 1774 and 1790. The steam engine changed the world, but the factory was the star of the era.

Innovations in the steam engine allowed engines to be used to power a factory full of machines by one long drive shaft. Seven decades earlier, the first commercial steam engines drove pumps in coal mines, keeping mines safe from flooding. This was not just a repurposing of that old technology, a great deal of innovation had gone into to those engines. Steam powered factories led to cheaper production of goods, and more importantly, the development of tool making machinery – which itself drove further innovations. This all made use of other, earlier innovations such as Abraham Darby’s coking process which made the reliable production of iron an affordable alternative to brass. Iron goods could be churned out all day, so long as you had machine operators, and someone to keep the furnace topped up with coal. 

Boat canals appeared across the land to transport goods. This also changed the way we travelled, and how we thought of distance between towns. It changed the way we lived too. Large, industrial cities arose, while agricultural centres withered away. The poet Oliver Goldsmith bemoaned the disappearance of the labouring swain of his imagined Auburn village in his poem The Deserted Village – those folk hadn’t vanished – many of them now worked in dark, dingy factories. They lived in growing industrial centres. One innovation vastly changed how we lived our lives, and how we saw the world.   

In a break from Industrial Revolution models, which put their second wave decades later, the second Kondratiev wave kicked off around 1850 – 

It’s most valuable technology was being seriously developed in the 1820’s, but didn’t take centre stage till the middle of the century. What was this innovation? Someone took a steam engine, and made it drive an iron horse along iron rails. The locomotive would go on to change the world. We’re only really interested in the history of trains in the USA today so I’ll quickly mention the first train in the USA was named Tom Thumb, back in 1827. Tom Thumb had an underwhelming start – it raced against a horse and lost  – but the locomotive age did leave the station proper in 1850. 

Well, at least it did first along the Northern and east coast cities. Throughout the 1850s, several competing railroad barons laid 30,000 miles of track in the region. It was a messy, chaotic affair with many companies using their own track gauges – but adding this critical infrastructure kicked off an Industrial Revolution in the USA. Factories proliferated due to this infrastructure. 

As the century rolled on, Americans were told to go west to find their fortunes. There was huge opportunity in the supposedly uninhabited expanse presidents Thomas Jefferson bought from the French in 1803, and James Polk either bought off England, or mostly seized from Mexico in the mid 1840s. Of course there were already plenty of people on these lands, we’ll put a pin in that subject for now, and come back to some of those Native tribes at a later date. 

In the midst of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln launched the first of several Homestead Acts that gave people free land if they settled it and held onto it for five years. Gold strikes and other mineral windfalls like the California Gold Rush (1848-55) were pull factors that brought people in. Sometimes folk arrived due to push factors; like the thousands of Mennonites who fled Russian persecution in Russia and Ukraine in the late 1870s for the plains of Kansas. They brought a wheat seed with them, Turkey Red, which grew so successfully, Kansas soon produced 1/5 of all American wheat. In places like Wyoming, cattle barons made a killing – radically changing how Americans ate… but their ‘killings’ are another tale we’ll put a pin in for now. 

The railroads boomed post civil war, and played a major role in settling people out west, at least until it didn’t. Rail eventually connected the East and West coasts of America. A side note: the first attempt to do so, the Union Pacific Rail Road, was disastrous. Starting in 1862, the UPRR laid track in places that became inaccessible in winter. They conspicuously wasted a lot of money, and chose awful places for railroad towns along the way. Most of their picks became ghost towns within a couple of years of incorporating. Bringing this back to the Kondratiev wave – 1873 was the turning point of the second wave, and the Union Pacific played a big role.

The UPRR got caught paying off politicians. The scandal crashed the railroad, which took down a bank. The collapse of that one bank wiped out 40 more banks in turn. 5,000 businesses went broke in the wake of the Union Pacific crash. $250 million in 1873 dollars was wiped out almost overnight, leading to the Stock Market closing down for ten days in a row. Unemployment spiked at 14%. A quarter of the then 364 railway companies operating in the USA filed for bankruptcy. The Panic of 1873 was, to that date, the biggest economic downturn in American history. It would take the Great Depression of 1929 to overtake the Panic of 1873, which till then was dubbed The Great Depression. The ghost of the UPRR was resurrected by the diabolical figure of Railroad Baron Jay Gould. Waiting in the wings for his chance, he bought them out for a bargain basement price. 

I’d like to think The Panic was a lesson to the other railway barons on the importance of building railway towns that were worth a damn, in places where people wanted to live; and of not getting involved in questionable behaviour. We’re working our way towards the latter. Of the former, I should mention the railways were not just providers of infrastructure, they were one of the nations’ biggest groups of land developers. They bought land very cheaply – before the 1870s land was just given to them in ten mile square blocks. They built towns as they went, selling on properties for large profits. 

Which finally brings us to the men on a train to El Moro, Colorado. One party was a surveyor named Ray Morley, and A.A. Robinson, the chief engineer for the Atcheson Topeka and Santa Fe railroad. The other, the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad’s J.A. McMurtrie and his work crew.

The Rio Grande railway was the brainchild of General William Palmer – a Civil War hero who found peacetime work in the railroad industry. In 1871 he struck out on his own into the Colorado area – laying a smaller than average gauged, boutique track throughout the state. Palmer was not a terribly well-loved man, owing to having played hardball over which towns would and wouldn’t get trains following the Panic of 1873. This was keenly felt in Canyon City, who Palmer snubbed after they refused to pay him $1 million for a train line. Unlucky in love, General Palmer met and fell in love with the daughter of a Pennsylvanian politician named Mary Lincoln Mellon – known to friends as ‘Queenie.’ She accepted his marriage proposal just two weeks after they first met, but got cold feet and refused to move to some rustic frontier town. He built Queenie the town of Colorado Springs solely to woo her. Queenie married the General, and moved to Colorado Springs – but by all accounts, she hated it there. Their marriage slumped into lovelessness and infidelity. 

General Palmer was, in truth, married to his job – as an obsessive workaholic. This reflected in the culture of the Rio Grande.

The Santa Fe Railroad also started off as the pet project of a larger than life figure – in this case Cyrus Holliday, the first mayor of Topeka, Kansas. But over time, the Santa Fe became a faceless corporation, run by a board of investors in Boston. These board members were initially hands-on, but then the railroad developed the cattle town of Dodge. Dodge was most definitely not Colorado Springs, and soon devolved into the stereotypical Wild West town of western movies – full of saloons, gamblers, working girls and gun fights at high noon. The board decided they really didn’t want to know what was going on in Dodge, and handed all the day to day management over to a general manager. Plausible deniability seemed a good idea to the board. After several failed attempts to clean up Dodge, the town appointed Wild West legends Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson as deputies, calming Dodge down somewhat. 

Throughout the 1870s, a smart, decisive company man – though hardly a larger than life show pony – rose through the ranks of the Santa Fe. The board’s manager on the spot, and soon to be General Palmer’s nemesis was William Barstow Strong. The two men met for the first time in 1877, where Strong offered a decent sum of money to lease the Rio Grande off Palmer – making a lifelong enemy in the process. Strong may as well have asked to rent Queenie while he was at it, as far as Palmer was concerned. 

Though not much is documented about Strong’s personal life anyway – it seems reasonable to leave him simply a big cog in a bigger, faceless machine? 

Both companies had long term plans to push beyond the boundaries of the state – they even hoped to reach the West Coast one day; but both companies were badly hurt by the Panic of 1873. Their plan in the short term appeared to be to work on smaller projects. But, would it really hurt to send someone to look at a path into New Mexico, for future development? 

When it came to plotting out a trans-continental path via the Southwest there was really only one suitable path – to follow the old, treacherous Santa Fe trail, then cross the Raton Pass into New Mexico. This was a difficult path, with a hefty price tag to develop. In the early 1870s General Palmer sent an employee named William Bell out and about with a camera, including out to the Raton pass. At the time he had the area scoped out, and noted a possible route through. This was then put aside for other projects. In 1877 William Barstow Strong sent out Ray Morley, disguised as a Mexican shepherd to survey the pass. Morley did his best to stay incognito, although he got caught out by the owner of the pass, a man named ‘Uncle Dick’ Wooten. Morley and Wooten became friends – Wooten agreeing to sell Morley’s employers the land if they made an offer. Though Morley had been low key, word got out Strong was preparing to make for the pass. Palmer reacted by preparing to send McMurtrie out with a work crew. Neither faction could really afford to take this project on – but both felt they could not afford to miss out on the opportunity to the other. The two companies sent out spies to intercept the others’ messages, and determined to spring into action the moment it looked certain the other would do. So they piled onto a train to El Moro on a cold, snowy February morning. 

Now I should state the Raton Pass incident is only the prelude to our main event – but it does set the scene, and the pace. 

The train pulled up at El Moro in the dark, and the parties disembarked. McMurtrie looked at Morley, and judged the Santa Fe had no work crew – so figured he was free to get a good night’s sleep at the hotel. Little did he know A.A. Robinson had put together a crew from Trinidad, Colorado – another town with an axe to grind over General Palmer’s business practices. Morley, Robinson and the Trinidad crew took a carriage full of tools up to Uncle Dick Wooten’s house. It was after 10pm when they arrived, but Uncle Dick welcomed his friends in. Wooten was allegedly offered $50,000 for the pass, but bargained himself down to $25 a month for groceries until he, then his wife and finally his daughter passed on – and lifetime passes for the family, giving them unlimited travel on Santa Fe trains. Uncle Dick didn’t need the money.  

This stipend would increase over the years, and was up to $75 a month when his daughter passed on in 1930. 

Uncle Dick unearthed the first sod of ground at 2am, 27th February 1878, and the crew got to work laying track in all the key places, working by lamp light. 

In the morning a furious McMurtrie discovered they had been beaten to the punch. He wired the General, who told him to keep the crew there for now. Palmer had McMurtrie searching round for another, overlooked South-western pass, all to no avail, until April. It was then that another opportunity arose, and things went truly off the rails.

If one had ambitions to build a railroad track from Colorado out to the West coast, you could head Southwest to the Raton pass – or you could go west through an area called the California Gulch. This direction made a lot of sense in the 1860s – gold was found in Pueblo in 1859, causing a stampede of 10,000 prospectors to the area. In the following decade $2.5 million, around $100 million today, was extracted from the surrounding area. The area got picked clean of gold within a few years, and most of the prospectors left. A few hardy souls did stay on, with a new plan. Some believed large deposits of silver were out there. Unlike gold, silver usually lurks in dull grey veins below ground, never by itself, but alloyed to base metals. First, you need to dig it out, have someone examine the specimen for silver content –  then send that alloy to a smelter to extract the silver from the rest of the junk. In spite of silver being far more common than gold, it was also far more labour intensive to work.   

Silver had also fallen out of favour in past decades – the USA had a silver standard from the 1780s, based around the Spanish silver dollar – but it became neglected in the 1860s. Silver was then de-monetised during the Panic of 1873. In 1878, with money people looking for more ways to invest their cash in finance – (remember we’re now on the downward slope of the Kondratiev wave, where people do things like this) – the silver standard made a comeback via the Bland-Allison Act of February 1878. 

This was the perfect time for a couple of dirt-poor prospectors to roll up to the general store in Leadville, Colorado. The legend has it these two men were looking for provisions and tools, and in lieu of actual money, promised the proprietor a third of whatever they found with those tools. The proprietor, one Horace Tabor not only took their offer, but threw in a bottle of whisky as well. 

The story goes these two prospectors drank as they walked into the wild, and when they became fall-down drunk, they … fell down drunk – and slept where they lay. The next morning, figuring this was as good a spot as any to start, they dug a hole – and a few feet down struck the biggest silver reserve in the USA to that date. They honoured their promise to Horace ‘Haw’ Tabor, who invested his windfall in other sites, soon becoming one of America’s richest men. Their discovery kicked off a silver rush, which saw the former ghost town population balloon enough for politicians to debate moving the state capital to Leadville. In the future Mayor Tabor would even build an impressive opera house in Leadville.

This was great news for General Palmer. Not only could he make a killing transporting all that alloy to the smelters – he knew there would be a rush of people relocating to Leadville. He stood to make a killing if he could extend his lines from Canyon City out to the mining town. They would have to build through a narrow pass through the high cliffs of the Royal Gorge, but the company plotted this out in 1872. The gorge gets so narrow at times only one track would be possible, and like the Raton pass it is the only way through – but the effort would be well worth it. He presumed Strong would be caught up in the Raton pass for some time – but all the same he quietly gave the orders to prepare for the California Gulch – and entered into confidential talks with the St Louis smelter about getting them connected to his network. 

The spy vs spy activity kicked off again. Both sides sent encrypted telegraphs to their backers, and did their best to intercept the other’s messages. 

On April 19th, Santa Fe chief engineer A.A. Robinson noticed J.A. McMurtrie and his crew – formerly skulking round El Moro since they lost the pass, were nowhere to be seen. He soon discovered they were packing up and waiting for a train to Canyon City, via Pueblo. William Barstow Strong ordered Robinson to do the same – but Palmer’s men refused to sell him a ticket. Strong contacted Ray Morley, then out of town on other business, to get out to Canyon City as soon as he can. Morley booked a private train to Pueblo, waiting for Palmer’s men stationed at the telegraph office to go out for lunch first. He got his train to Pueblo, where, unbeknownst to the enemy, he had a horse stabled. Some time back he’d bought a stallion named King William, cheaply from an English expatriate living in Colorado Springs. Morley galloped into the dark towards Canyon City. 

In the meantime McMurtrie and his gang were on the train, first to Pueblo, then after a changeover  on to Canyon City. On the way he discovered Morley was headed their way – and resolved this time not to rest. As soon as the men reached Canyon City they made for the Royal Pass – only to find Morley beat them to it again. He’d arrived on horseback, then rushed out to hire a work crew. As with the people of Trinidad, all he had to do was mention General Palmer’s name and volunteers lined up to stick it to the general. Morley’s crew had a half hour head start – but at this point there was enough room in the gorge to lay two tracks near one another. This time McMurtrie ordered his crew to start laying tracks alongside the Santa Fe. For now, the two sides slogged along less than a gunshot distant from one another.

The Royal Gorge war began in the law courts. General Palmer filed an injunction, claiming he’d laid claim to the Royal Gorge in 1872. Strong’s lawyers were prepared and countered Palmer never filed a proposed route with the land office, so the claims should go with them; having broke ground first. In the interim the judge ordered the Rio Grande to stop work immediately. J.A. McMurtrie ignored the order and was arrested. His arrest led to a fist fight between the Santa Fe and Rio Grande crews. Tensions escalated with Palmer’s crew cutting Strong’s telegraph lines -and vice versa. The management took to buying the opponent’s workers off them for exorbitant salaries. This all made for an awkward work atmosphere by day – as the two crews continued to build alongside one another. By night the two camps posted armed guards. The guard posts were close enough the guards regularly dared the other side to go on and take a shot. 

As everyone waited on the courts, General Palmer sent a gang up into the cliff tops several hundred feet above the lines. The men built a fort, and threw rocks down at the Santa Fe rails below, causing a landslide. Strong reciprocated, sending Morley up the other side with a gang. They built their own fort, and threw their own rocks at the Rio Grande tracks. Men in forts fired upon men in other forts and waited for things to escalate. 

When the courts came back with a decision, nobody was happy. Both companies were allowed to build their own line. When the gorge reached pinch points where only one line was possible – a gauge which accommodated both companies’ trains had to be used. General Palmer was apoplectic, and lodged an appeal. In the meantime, the state militia was sent in to keep the peace, and the gangs in the forts were ordered out. 

The ugliness continued. The Royal Gorge made up only twenty miles of the journey to Leadville. Once clear of the gorge, the advantage would be Palmer’s. The tracks to Canyon City were Rio Grande tracks, and he could slow the Santa Fe by refusing their cargo on his trains. This caused Strong to go to his backers for more money. He then threatened to build lines alongside every last mile of Rio Grande line. This would cost a fortune, but would have put an end to the Rio Grande. The Santa Fe had bigger trains running on regular sized tracks – so could carry more cargo. Their carriages were more spacious. Both men chased up more money from their backers. Some of that money went into hiring gunslingers for ‘security.’ 

At the time, a war wouldn’t seem altogether unreasonable to either Palmer or Strong. Across the border in Lincoln County, New Mexico, a war broke out between two business factions in July 1878. An Englishman named John Tunstall arrived from Santa Fe and opened a dry goods store in 1876. He threatened to break the monopoly of the Irish, Catholic businessmen then running the county. Tunstall’s 1878 murder kicked off a war that eventually led to the deaths of 23 men, and left dozens seriously injured – including legendary outlaw Billy the Kid. The Lincoln County War was too wild for the lawmen to rein in, and only ended when the army were deployed in 1881. Palmer and Strong knew they could ramp up to a couple of hundred men a side if needed, and if they did so no local sheriff or court could stop them.  

In the meantime the crews built onwards towards Leadville. General Palmer waited for his appeal to reach the Supreme Court. 

By October everyone was still tense. The Santa Fe, by far the wealthier corporation, stayed the course. General Palmer, on the other hand, was nearly broke. His share price had taken a tumble, and financial backers were now demanding he put an end to the feud. William Barstow Strong complicated matters by sending a message to the Rio Grande, offering again to lease the company off them for a thirty year term. Palmer fought the offer, but investors insisted the Rio Grande be leased to the Santa Fe. A figure was agreed upon. General Palmer insisted Strong pay the lease monthly. Strong agreed. Palmer also insisted the Rio Grande keep building towards Leadville. Once the lease ran out, he expected the Rio Grande would take those lines back. Strong agreed to let the Rio Grande continue – but no way would they keep the line to Leadville. 

Panicked, and looking to buy more time, Palmer rushed to Boston in November. He demanded a cash bond of $150,000 to cover any future damage to Rio Grande equipment. This was reluctantly agreed to, but the Santa Fe board told Palmer they would pay half now – the other half when he handed the keys over. Palmer continued to find ways to drag his feet – but this only tanked the stock price further. The investors had enough and demanded Palmer hand the keys over on December 1st 1878. He did so only at the stroke of midnight on December 14th. 

But General Palmer was not done yet. He refused to cash the Santa Fe’s monthly cheques. Palmer would claim the Santa Fe defaulted on their payments. He planned to tear the lease up and repossess the business. Strong responded by putting ticket prices up on all Rio Grande trains. Where the two had co-existing services, this drove business to the Santa Fe trains. Where the Santa Fe didn’t, in towns like El Moro – locals packed up and left in droves. This turned a number of settlements into ghost towns. Colorado newspapers, everywhere but in Canyon City, turned against the Santa Fe. Reporters branded them greedy and heartless. Many of the people of Colorado started to remember General Palmer fondly, and wished he could take his railway back off the Santa Fe. 

Meanwhile, dozens of men of violence loitered, waiting for orders. They drank, got ornery and continued to make locals nervous. Both lines continued towards Leadville.

The supreme court finding loomed, but General Palmer was at the end of his tether. He continued to discard the Santa Fe cheques, and sent his men out to hire an army of gunslingers to repossess his railway. Strong reciprocated by adding to his own army. A fortune was spent by both sides on hundreds of men, guns, and an armoury full of ammunition. Thuggish men like Bat Masterson and Doc Holliday awaited orders at several key locations. Tensions rose and a handful of gunfights broke out between the armies. Then on April 21st 1879, the Supreme Court announced their decision. They sided with the Rio Grande over ownership of the Royal Gorge line. But did this actually meant anything, given the Rio Grande was under Santa Fe control? The Supreme Court gave no opinion on that. In May the armies prepared for war. Strong went to the county clerk to call in the state militia, only to find the Rio Grande had kidnapped him. Again, the telegraph lines came down, cutting off communication with the outside world. On June 11th, General Palmer sent his army to repossess his property.

Palmer’s army closed in on all their stations. Strong’s men fought back, opening fire on the invaders – but as a rule, as soon as they were served legal papers to cease and desist – they laid down their guns and left. After several ugly stand offs, papers were eventually delivered to besieged Santa Fe gunmen.

In Pueblo things looked set to get really nasty – both armies had close to 100 men a side. The Santa Fe army, led by Bat Masterson, were holed up in a roundhouse used to move trains around. The armies exchanged gunfire with one another. Eventually J.A. McMurtrie’s men forced the door open, and men flooded in to take the roundhouse. Papers were served. 

And this is where I have to throw a Deus ex-machina into the mix – or should that be a diabolus ex-machina? A demon on a wire? The constant fighting left the Rio Grande drained of funding. William Barstow Strong still held a lease for their property, and would eventually send in his own people to repossess them back again. Not a lot of business is going on with the Rio Grande when their stations are packed with armed men looking for a fight. To pre-empt Strong, Palmer put the Rio Grande into receivership. He had a friend lined up to be the receiver – but the courts insisted on their own receiver who would refuse to be Palmer’s puppet. 

General William Palmer finally managed to tank his own railway. The Santa Fe looked on – as the diabolical figure of Jay Gould swooped in to pick over the carcass. 

Jay Gould was the King of the American Railway. In a world of larger than life figures, Gould was quiet and unassuming – but due to his terrifying ruthlessness – a formidable figure. He’d been watching the proceedings and decided the best tactic was to buy out Rio Grande shares once they hit rock bottom. With a controlling stake he called Palmer and Strong to his office to lay down the law. 

The Robber Baron’s terms were as follows. Both companies were to cease litigation immediately. The Santa Fe would hand all the Rio Grande’s tracks and equipment back to them free of charge. If they didn’t, Gould would reach into his considerably deeper pockets and build his own lines alongside Santa Fe lines. He would then run those rails as cheaply as was needed to put them out of business. The Rio Grande would get the line through the Royal Gorge, but have to pay the Santa Fe $1.4 million for their trouble. From here on in the Rio Grande would only build north of Pueblo, the Santa Fe south of Pueblo. Neither tycoon had a choice but to accept Gould’s terms of surrender. 

As a coda, somewhere in Leadville, in amongst the hired thugs awaiting orders – is a young man with a singular skill set. He’d come to Leadville with high hopes of finding silver, but ended up moving a lot of dirt around. When the tycoons sent men out to find gunslingers, he happily volunteered – as a skilled sharpshooter – what we’d now call a sniper. I’ve got a few Wild West tales to share over the following year – the next chapter will be much later in the year. This man will intersect with all of them. As a gun for hire he’ll murder dozens of men, before he faces his moment of truth …. But we’ve got a lot of ground to cover before we tell his tale.