The Pendle Witches (Part One)

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

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

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

A pedlar

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

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

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

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

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

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

But this all slowly changed in the late Middle Ages. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back January 19th.

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

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

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

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

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

Update: Premium Blog Content.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merry Xmas, take care all. – Simone.

The Miser of Marcham Park

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

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

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

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

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


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

“Ebenezer Lennox Scroggie
Mean Man
1792 – 1836.”


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

Charles Dickens.



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

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

a contemporary depiction of John Elwes.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Georgian Architecture.

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

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



Xenophon in Mesopotamia: Part One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Xenophon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cyrus sited his brother

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

But

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A ’Time Machine’

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

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

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

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

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

1286. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Few Hours Later, 1314.

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

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

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

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

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

Which brings us to 1314. 

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

A Quick Post at Lunch.

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

That Afternoon… 1345.

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

Let’s do one about everyday folk. 

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

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

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

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

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

The deceased’s former home is now a chapel.

The following Morning, 1456. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right, back soon as I can – Simone.

The Campden Wonder – The strange ‘murder’ of William Harrison

Today’s Tale begins on the night of 16th August 1660 in the town of Campden, Gloustershire. William Harrison – the 70 year old steward of Viscountess Campden – has left on a two mile walk to the town of Charringworth, but never returned. Sent to collect the rents for his ladyship, a job Harrison had done for some years (a well paying, but hazardous job) – he would have carried a considerable sum of money on the way home. Worried some ill has befallen her husband, Mrs. Harrison sent a servant, John Perry, out to look for his master. Neither man would return that night.

The next morning William’s son, Edward, set off for Charringworth. On his way he met Perry, who stated William never arrived at the town. This was hardly the case. Stopping at the village of Ebrington – halfway between the two towns – a man recorded only as Daniel stated William stopped to chat with him on his way home, then carried on his way. The two men detoured to the town of Paxford, where no-one had seen him, but someone had seen a hat, band and comb abandoned on the road back to Campden. Heading back towards home they found the items, and identified them as William’s.

The items hacked up and covered in blood, the two men scoured the neighboring fields for any sign of William. Whatever misfortune had befallen him, they hoped against hope to find him alive – taking cover among the crops, or hiding up a tree. Before long half the village of Campden came out to help, searching up hill and down dale for the rent collector. Their efforts were for naught. William Harrison was declared missing, presumed deceased.

On 18th August John Perry was brought before the Justice of the Peace, on suspicion of having murdered his master.

Under questioning Perry claimed he left home between 8 and 9 pm, stopping to speak with a William Reed on the way. He shared with Reed his fear of being on foot on that road so late at night, then turned back – telling Reed he would borrow Edward’s horse and ride to Charringworth. Perry arrived home and took a rest in the hen roost instead. At around midnight he ventured back out, on foot – but finding himself enveloped in heavy fog, he wandered till he got lost. Perry then went to sleep under a hedgerow. At daybreak the servant rushed to Charringworth – finding William had collected £23 in rent (around $4,666.00 USD in 2020) from Edward Plaisterer, and had stopped by, then left William Curtis’ home – though William hadn’t been there to greet him.

The Justice of the Peace asked Perry why he felt afraid to travel the road at 9pm, but not at midnight? Perry explained the moon was high above at midnight so he could see his surroundings better. Why did he return home and not check if his master was back – not once it turned out that night, as the men pressed him for answers, but three times – Perry answered he could see a light on in his chamber window, so he knew his master had not returned.

Perry was arrested, and taken to jail, where he was further interrogated. To his jailers he repeated his tale, but to one prisoner he told of seeing his master killed by a tinker, another that a servant of another well heeled Campdenite was the murderer. John Perry claimed William’s body was stashed in town, right under the noses of the searchers. When brought back before the Justice of the Peace and presented with this evidence Perry clamed William was murdered but he was not the killer. When asked who killed him, Perry pointed the finger at his own brother and mother.

Ever since Perry took up employment with the tax collector, his mother, Joan, and brother, Richard were on him to rob Harrison. The Perry’s were so poor and impoverished, while old William was lording it around, as rich as Croesus – all from the collection of rents. It was only just they ambushed him one night and lightened his pockets. Neither Harrison nor the Viscountess would miss the stolen money. Perry refused to be party to such a scheme. His family, however eventually wore him down – “what if you just told us at what time he collected the rents, and what routes he took? What’s the harm in that?” John Perry gave in, providing his kin with the route for the 16th. Perry claimed on the night of the murder he was sent out to look for his master. At a distance of ‘about a bow’s shoot from Campden Church he claimed he met Richard, who led him to the scene of William Harrison’s assault. With Joan guarding him, Harrison was splayed across the roadside asking his attackers spare his life. Richard responded by strangling the life out of him.

The Justice of the Peace gave the order to arrest Richard and Joan Perry immediately.

On August 25th 1660 Richard and Joan Perry were interrogated. They denied the charges, all the while John was in the room, constantly refuting their claims of innocence. Unfortunately for Richard he’d also been carrying a length of string at the time of his arrest. When he slyly tried to dump the string on his way to the Justice, it was assumed he was trying to hide the murder weapon. The three would all be tried twice for murder; the first trial inconclusive due to there being no body. On the second trial the following spring all three were found guilty and hanged from the gallows.

Had the story ended thus it wouldn’t have been terribly remarkable. Though rare, servants did occasionally knock off a master and decamp with the money. What makes this tale – often referred to as The Campden Wonder – is in 1662 William Harrison reappeared. Very much alive after all, he disembarked a ship from Lisbon, Portugal with quite the tale to tell.

Harrison claimed he made it to Charringworth on the 16th and did his rounds, but came back a little light. Many of the tenants were still out in the fields. All the same, having collected £231, he was on his way home when accosted by two highwaymen outside of Ebrington. He tried to fight the two men off with his cane, but his attackers drew swords, stabbing him in the thigh. Bound in irons, his pockets emptied, Harrison was taken to a house, then later a ship – where he was nursed back to health. Six weeks later, Harrison states he was sold to pirates from the Barbary Coast, and taken to The Ottoman Empire – modern day Turkey. One might ask why Turkish pirates would pay for a slave of Harrison’s age – he lied and told the pirates he was a doctor by trade. Harrison claims he was purchased as a slave by an 87 year old physician, who took pity on him as a fellow healer.

William Harrison claimed his master lived for close to two more years. On his master’s passing , he took his sole possession – a silver drinking bowl the doctor had given him – and pawned it for his passage home.

Much has been made in the years since as to the veracity of William Harrison’s tale. It is clear three innocent people were wrongly hanged. Everything else is up for interpretation. In the most likely scenario, William took the rent money and ran. He left his old life behind and jumped a ship for somewhere warmer, or more exciting , or where he simply planned to live out the rest of his days with a secret love – far, far away, where no-one knew them. Perhaps he lived the high life till the money ran out, or he fell out with his paramour, or he grew homesick. Had he travelled to Portugal, he would have arrived a little over a year after the nation declared a truce with neighboring Spain. The two nations having uneasily concluded a 20 year war for Portuguese independence.
In 1662 Portugal were inundated with soldiers, mostly Scottish veterans of Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army. Cromwell’s interregnum had been a military regime. At one point – the nation being split into 11 administrative regions, each run by it’s own ‘Major General’ – Britain was run by a military junta. Charles II, who took the throne the year Harrison disappeared, was quick to disband many units – and send many more out to help his allies abroad. You can’t help but wonder if the restoration of the king was a motive in William’s disappearance – or the arrival of a large number of his countrymen a reason to hot foot it back to his homeland?


But, of course it is possible he was kidnapped by a couple of ‘Knights of the Road’. Though highwaymen predated this era, the release of large numbers of soldiers from their commissions on Charles II’s return caused a boom in aggravated robberies along isolated roads at night. These men needed a wage, and in the absence of one, turned to crime – kicking off the golden age of the Highwayman. One still wonders, why all the effort to keep William alive, then to sell him to Ottoman pirates?

Some writers suggest Edward Harrison was behind the robbery. It’s been suggested Edward hatched a plot to kidnap his father, to get him out of the way. Once he was gone, Edward would be the man of the house, and may even pick up his father’s lucrative rent collection duties. If William was sent far enough away, surely the plot would never be uncovered? In the absence of a body, it must have seemed, no hapless helpers – say, the Perry family? – would ever be held responsible. His disappearance would just become another obscure mystery, waiting to be stumbled upon by history writers hundreds of years later?

This many years after the Campden Wonder I doubt we’ll ever know what really happened.

The Strange Life, and Death of William Desmond Taylor

This third instalment in our pre-code, silent era Hollywood drama begins February 1st 1922. The setting? A posh bungalow at 404 B South Alvarado Street, Los Angeles – now a parking lot for a men’s clothing store,  but back then an enclave of Hollywood wealth and privilege. Around 7pm, the occupant – the acclaimed film director William Desmond Taylor – received a visit 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 had bonded over a shared love of books. Whether an item or not, Taylor was a rock to Normand – convincing the actress and party girl to check into a sanatorium when she hit rock bottom. Whether a cocaine habit, drinking like a fish, illness or a combination of all of the above were responsible, Normand was burnt out to the point where others feared she was not long for this earth. To compound matters, the recent death of Olive Thomas hit very close to home for her. William Desmond Taylor’s insistence she get some help and/or convalescence that Autumn probably saved her life. 

This night was a ‘school night’, a Wednesday with an early start for both the next day, so Mabel grabbed a book William promised to lend her. The couple had a few orange martinis. William shared the shocking news he had to bail his valet, Henry Peavey out of jail that morning – after Peavey was arrested for ‘lewd conduct’ in a public park the night before. 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 actor Douglas MacLean – was knitting on her porch when a loud noise startled her. Peering across at 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 at the Alvarado Court Apartment complex was disturbed by a rather shaken Henry Peavey. “Mr. Taylor is dead! Mr. Taylor is dead!” the valet screamed, as he ran from the premises. While looking for Taylor, Peavey discovered his boss face down and lifeless on the floor of his study. The police were called, but wouldn’t get there till a little after 8am. By this time a landlord, a couple of curious neighbours, and at least one employee of Paramount pictures had entered the property. The Paramount employee seized a wire basket full of letters. The body of the 49 year old director lay, face down in his office, in his own blood – while the assorted interlopers discussed if his cause of death was a haemorrhage of the stomach, as one suggested, or not. When the police turned the body over, they found Taylor was shot. The bullet pierced his lung, striking him in the neck on it’s way out. 

While this alone was shocking news, it opened a Pandora’s box for Paramount, leaving them in a no-win situation, The ensuing scandals ended the careers of two actresses, and ushered in the Hollywood Production Code era, helmed by former Postmaster General Will H. Hays. This itself was a direct complication of the murder. The industry were now well aware the Christian conservatives who harangued politicians to ban alcohol would win their crusade to censor the industry. Taylor himself, a well thought of, articulate director with 60 films under his belt, was the man the film industry hoped to appoint chief censor when that day came. 

If hoping to tell this story as both a murder mystery and a continuation of the trilogy we have several aspects we need to tackle. The first of these is the alleged women in Taylor’s life. 

Mary Miles Minter was a young actress who started out as a child star, but in her late teens was repositioned as the next Mary Pickford (in other words, America’s sweetheart). Born Juliet Reilly in 1902, to an actress who went under the name Charlotte Shelby, Juliet got her first acting role aged five. Aged 10 she secured a touring theatre role which would’ve contravened child labour laws, so Charlotte borrowed her dead niece’s name and paperwork, and rechristened Juliet as cousin Mary – age 12. At 15, Mary worked with, allegedly had an affair with, and allegedly fell pregnant to her middle-aged director James Kirkwood Sr. Charlotte was alleged to have organised an abortion for her daughter. One would imagine her a far more protective mum after this. 

Mary Miles Minter

The next director she worked with was William Desmond Taylor. Taylor and Minter worked on four movies together between 1919 and 1920. Taylor was a big supporter of and advocate for Mary. Mary fell in love with Taylor, then in his mid 40s. She wrote him several love letters. A lace handkerchief with her initials was found at Taylor’s home – but more on that later. Though the newspapers would report the two were secretly an item, there is no evidence whatsoever to suggest Taylor reciprocated Minter’s feelings, nor that the two acted on Mary’s feelings. Some papers also speculated Taylor was dating both Mary and Charlotte at the same time – begging the question was Taylor killed by one or other spurned lady? Again, people in the know stated Charlotte and William detested one another. 

Mary did draw all manner of attention to herself however, in the wake of the killing. 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. While untrue, on being told of his death, she insisted someone transfuse her blood into William, in the hope he’d revive. She only abandoned this plan when taken to view his corpse, and it was all too apparent he was never coming back. 

The hullabaloo around Mary – the press disclosing several details about her which flew in the face of her carefully constructed, demure public image – eventually did her no favours. She made a handful of films following the murder, but was let go once her contract lapsed in 1923. Following the Whodunnit line, Charlotte was considered a suspect in William’s murder. The threesome line was followed up on and eventually dismissed. As was the real line, of their well known mutual dislike for one another. Speculation persisted that Charlotte, herself a gun owner, was the mysterious figure disguised to look like a movie burglar, seen on William’s porch by Faith McLean that night. At one point it looked like the police would charge Charlotte, but there just wasn’t enough evidence. 

Mabel Normand also came under scrutiny, for similar – yet very different reasons. 

Born in 1893, Normand became an actor aged 16, after briefly modelling for the illustrator Charles Dana Gibson. She soon caught the eye of Mack Sennett of Keystone studios – where Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle had got his start. A very capable physical comedian who could pull off dangerous pratfalls just as well as Arbuckle himself, she was something of a rarity in her time – and soon carved out a niche for herself that saw her regularly play opposite both Arbuckle and Charlie Chaplin. From joining Keystone in 1912, Normand acted alongside Arbuckle in 24 movies. 

A ’Gibson Girl’

Mabel had something of a wild, tempestuous, and sad life. Starting with wild, she was very much the party girl. She loved to party, drink heavily, and occasionally play dangerous pranks on her co-workers. When first the death of Olive Thomas, then the Arbuckle/Virginia Rappe scandals broke, she could empathise with both women. To be blackout drunk enough to drink poison, or to find oneself in a situation like Rappe did were things which could have happened to her at her most hedonistic (though it does bear a quick mention she believed her friend Arbuckle was innocent). 

She had also become an item with Mack Sennett, who may have been physically abusive to her. Just prior to their impending marriage, Mabel caught Mack in bed with another actress. She fought with the actress, and somehow got a heavy bump to her head that left her in a coma for weeks. 

There were rumours she was also a heavy cocaine user – something which could have led to her looking haggard and worn, as mentioned at the top of this tale. It could have just as easily been her childhood bout of tuberculosis coming back for her however. She would die, not terribly out of the frame of this tale – of consumption – in her mid 30s. 

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 which was advanced was when Taylor convinced Normand to get medical help in the autumn of 1920, he also chased away a drug dealer who swore he’d get his revenge on Taylor. Hollywood gossip had it not only had William Desmond Taylor upset this one dealer – he was making noises he was going to expose all the dealers who 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 – which would soon be taken over by the heavily politically connected Albert Marco. 

Being exposed in the papers as a ‘drug fiend’, and of infidelity; 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 at this point, to drag her away. Her driver, Joe Kelly, attempted to do so – but before he could even get to Mabel, he got into an altercation with a millionaire oil exec and golfer named Courtland Dines. Dines struck Kelly with a bottle, Kelly responded by shooting Dines with Normand’s pistol three times, wounding him. Compounding matters, the driver turned out to be an escaped criminal named Horace Greer, who’d 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 with this Tale, 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 prior to police arriving at the scene of the murder. They also paid someone to break into the house after the fact, to leave Mary’s handkerchief. The studio made a sacrificial lamb of party girl Mabel Normand too. Strangely, they also started a rumour a large collection of lingerie was found in 49 year old bachelor Taylor’s home – something we’d take completely differently now, but was then taken as confirmation he was a ladies man. All this was to cover up something they saw as far more scandalous at the time. For starters, he’d been spotted at both opium dens and secretive gay nightclubs. The studio did their best to explain both away by stating he was researching  upcoming films. His back-story was far more complex than all that however. 

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 the daughter of a wealthy antiques broker and investor, Ethel May Hamilton. The couple met through acting circles, and would marry 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 shared, it appears 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, sometimes zoning out completely in the company of others, he mysteriously vanished 23rd October 1908. 

Little is known about his life prior to Hollywood, but it’s speculated he prospected for gold in Canada and the USA, before joining up with a troupe of travelling actors. In 1912 he re-emerged as William Desmond Taylor, in Hollywood. This was the year Ethel finally divorced William – though she hardly knew where he was till she and her daughter saw him acting 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 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, he 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 a behind the scenes person, he had nothing to lose by this revelation. More controversially, he was also likely the Paramount employee ordered to grab the basket of letters on the day of the murder. Hopkins went on to have a long career in Hollywood, designing sets till the mid 1970s, and winning four Oscars for his work. In 1980 his recollections of his time with Taylor heavily featured in a book about the man’s 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 in 1903 moved to New York to be closer to William. For a while the brothers worked together in the antique store. He 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, and while Ada was in a sanatorium, he disappeared just as William had. Soon after, William got in touch with Ada, and took to 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) – there has been speculation he became the mysterious Edward Sands.  

The allegedly lewd 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 called 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, but 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 bragged to Taylor’s driver he had information on him that ensured he wouldn’t get in trouble for his sudden behaviour – indicating his intent to bribe Taylor with said information. William fired both employees on his return. 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 highly unlikely 45 year old Denis was in fact 27 year old Edward – whose spartan documentation does 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 on Northern California on the day William was killed, but quit his job that same day. He too disappeared without a trace on the day of the murder – in spite of Paramount offering a huge cash reward in the hopes a manhunt would distract from all the other revelations suddenly leaking out everywhere. 

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 Hollywood creatives might just be in a loving, same sex relationship was the final nail in the coffin for Hollywood. Pressure from outraged members of the public led to film bannings across several states. Careers were ended. To placate these wowsers Will H Hays, a former high ranking Republican official who I hope to come back to next year for a completely different Tale, 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 worked with William Desmond Taylor for a short time 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 becoming an A list celebrity. 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 may have taken 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, but Lasher possibly transported a minor over state lines for immoral purposes – this information subsequently falling into Gibson’s lap. 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 again avoided jail, but languished in bit roles taken on under false names till 1929, when she suddenly packed up her belongings and moved to Singapore. She met and fell in love with an oil company exec, and appears to have lived a happy, crime free life with no intentions whatsoever of ever returning to the USA. She did return to LA in the early 1940s, after her husband was killed in a Japanese bombing raid. 

Gibson lived a frugal life from a widow’s pension – in humble accommodation – under the pseudonym Pat Lewis. She lived with just a cat called Rajah for company, let the hedges grow high and unkempt to keep people from looking in at her, 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 and confessed to the murder of 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 did give an explanation, but he was far to young to know who William Desmond Taylor was – let alone take in the intricacies of the murder.  

Did William Desmond Taylor’s killer die in agony, sprawled out on the floor, much like he had? In all likelihood we’ll never know. 

Update: Sisyphus pushes them rocks…

Hey all just a quick update. Sorry I’ve been a little sketchy on the release dates of late. I think owing to feeling more than a little like Sisyphus pushing that rock up the same hill, day in day out for weeks now – I’ve been feeling more worn out than usual of late. This’ll sound very first world problem-ish, it’s mostly lockdown fatigue. As a work from home person anyway the big difference has been the inability to escape ’the office’ for 13 weeks now, but it was more of a difference than I’d planned on.

I’ve got the final episode in the Hollywood Silent Era trilogy set to drop next Wednesday, and a podcast episode. I’ve got two subsequent podcast episodes set to go after that for 2021, a rough draft for the following blog post (we finally make it to ancient Mesopotamia) – and I’ve got a clear plan for an Xmas blog this year.

I’ll look to drop a couple of mini blog posts on the in-between weeks.

Sorry again all, hit the wall and needed a breather – Simone.

What goes up…. The Ballad of Franz Reichelt


Warning! This week’s tale deals with death by misadventure, which some readers may find disturbing.

Today’s tale is set on a freezing cold morning, 57 metres above the ground, in Paris, France. The date February 4th 1912. Our subject, one unfortunate soul we’ll come to in a few minutes. Before I even begin this tale, I needs must take you all on a flight of fancy. Let’s go buzz a few historical rooftops.

Flight has been a near universal obsession in human societies, for almost as long as we’ve had myths. Just pick a culture and tales emerge. The Greeks had the Corinthian hero Bellerophon, who tamed and rode Pegasus, the winged horse. They also had Daedalus, the engineer held captive by King Minos. Daedalus built a magnificent pair of wings held together by wax, and managed to fly from Crete to Naples. His unfortunate son Icarus flew too high on his wings – finding out the hard way mortals should never fly too close to the sun. His wings melted, Icarus tumbled to his death below.

Icarus


The Persians, whose Zoroastrian God Ahura Mazda is little more than a massive pair of wings attached to a humanoid torso, believed their mythical Shah, Kai Kawus built an eagle-powered throne – flying the contraption all the way to China. In Islam, Muhammad made a night flight from Mecca to Jerusalem and back on the winged steed Buraq.
Maori legend tells of the demigod Tawhaki, who either climbed a giant vine or flew on a kite to the tenth level of Heaven. English lore tells of a King Bladud, the mythical 9th century BC father of Shakespeare’s King Lear. Having magically cured himself of leprosy in the town of Bath, Bladud built himself a giant pair of wings – then flew back to his ancestral homeland, Troy. He ran into some trouble – quite literally – when he slammed into the Trojan walls, dying from the blunt force trauma. Hindu, Sanskrit and Jain texts all mention Vimana – flying cities – in their folklore.


Given this obsession to soar like an eagle, it should not surprise anyone that our species did attempt to take to the skies. The earliest attempts seem nearly as mythological as the myths, though rarely as successful as a Daedalus or Kai Kawus.

In 559 AD Yuan Huangtou, captive son of the King of the Northern Wei (a Chinese kingdom) was forcibly tied to a giant kite from a tower. He survived the flight, but died a few years later of malnutrition, still a captive to the same kite flyers. In 875 AD the Andalusian polymath Abbas Ibn Firmas was said to have flown a few hundred yards in a glider of his own design. As the tale is told the contraption was something like a large pair of wings. Many writers with expertise in aviation consider this the first legitimate human flight in history, although it was not completely successful – when Firmas finally landed he landed badly, injuring himself.
In the 11th Century, Eilmer of Malmesbury – a Benedictine monk with knowledge of Firmas’ flight – attempted the same, by jumping from the top of Malmesbury Abbey with some kind of glider attached. He survived the ordeal and appears to have glided 100 yards or more before crashing to the ground.

While a handful of polymaths, notably ‘Doctor Miribilis’ – Roger Bacon; and of course Leonardo Da Vinci hypothesized flying machines without ever building one, a handful of intrepid inventors did try their hand at a flying machine. Between Da Vinci in the 1480s and someone else we’ll mention soon in 1853, somewhere in the order of 50 flying machines were tested. All but a dozen badly injured or killed their pilots. A few may have glided some small distance – but for the most part don’t qualify as having achieved controlled flight.


Our Tale of History and Aviation takes a huge leap in 1799. This was the year an English Baronet named George Cayley enters the race. By working out the laws behind aerodynamics, he sketches a design for a glider which is capable of flight. After unsuccessfully politicking for a society for aerodynamics – and half a century of tweaks and adjustments, including an 1848 glider which flew like a kite with a 10 year old boy in it – Cayley successfully flew a glider across the moors in Scarborough. Technically, his coachman – unnamed to history – did, and was so terrified by the ordeal he handed in his notice that same day. Cayley, like fellow inventor William Henson, theorized a heavier than air machine could take to the air more successfully with a propeller, driven by an internal combustion engine – but both men were hamstrung by the limits of the technology available to them.


To make an already long story short, internal combustion engines appear in the mid 1860s. In the 1870s French inventor Alphonse Penaud makes a model plane with a propeller, and wind up torsion engine. It flies hundreds of feet before running out of steam. Clement Ader, another French inventor, makes a glider with a built in engine. Over the following 17 years he takes it up on a handful of ‘tethered’ flights – essentially getting it airborne but unable to fly anywhere due to the ropes. Felix Du Temple fails to launch a monoplane, pushing it down a ski ramp, in 1874. This was the first failed attempt to launch a powered airplane. Frenchman Victor Tatin made another model in 1879, with twin propellers and a tiny internal combustion engine. Tethered to a stick, it took off and flew in circles till it ran out of fuel. A host of other inventors – the Lilienthal brothers, John J Montgomery, Alexander Mozhaiski, even machine gun entrepreneur Hiram Maxim made machines that edged closer to powered flight. This continued till March 31st 1903, when a young farmer and inventor named Richard Pearse made a powered flight of several hundred metres. He made a second flight later that year, witnessed by half his rural village of Waitoki, New Zealand – this time staying aloft for a few kilometres, before crashing into a gorse bush.


Pearse was, of course, a dead end in the tale – all development flowed from the Wright Brothers successful flight at Kitty Hawk, December 17th 1903. Yes I’m ignoring other claimants like Gustave Whitehead and Alberto Santos-Dumont for exactly the same reason. Furthermore, the Timaru Herald dug up an interview with Pearse from 1911 which suggests his flight may have been after 1909 and at the earliest, just after a 1904 world’s fair- though Pearse was suffering from a debilitating mental illness at the time which would institutionalize him for the rest of his life – while many eyewitnesses knew exactly how old they were when they saw him fly. Orville and Wilbur Wright officially flew a motorized plane first, in December 1903. Others soon followed suit, and an industry was born.

The Wright Brothers

By 1912 a new challenge emerged. If you’re sending increasing numbers of people into the sky,  in machines apt to break down on occasion, what measures are in place to save those people? This is where our protagonist, Franz Reichelt comes into focus – balancing precariously on the edge of the 187 foot high first floor of the Eiffel Tower.

Franz Reichelt was born in Wegstädt, Bohemia (modern day Czech Republic) on 16th October 1878. Moving to Paris in 1898, he set up a dressmaking shop which catered largely to Austrian tourists on holiday in Paris. Unmarried, he lived alone in a 3rd floor apartment on rue Gaillon. In 1909 Reichelt found a new calling after a spate of aviation fatalities left him aghast – one presumes the September 1909 deaths of Eugene Lefebvre and Ferdinand Ferber (the 2nd & 3rd people to die in a powered aircraft, respectively). He decided a parachute must be developed to give these pioneers a fighting chance.

Parachutes were not an entirely new concept. ‘Professor of Technology’ Louis-Sébastien Lenormand coined the term in 1783 when he exhibited his first model – safely jumping from atop Montpelier Observatory. Lenormand envisioned the parachute as a safety device, for use in burning buildings. Others, including Andre-Jacques Garner, saw an alternate use in hot air ballooning (another way, of course for humans to fly, one I don’t have the column inches to explore today). Most of these devices were fixed (i.e. they could not fold away) and bulky, and as such of no great use to pilots.

Lenormand parachutes to safety.

In 1910 Aero-Club de France offered a reward of 5,000 francs to any inventor who could build a foldaway parachute which could be used from a plane. Reichelt quickly submitted his prototype wingsuit. Soon after the deaths of Lefebvre and Ferber, he made a suit with a canopy that – when opened – would unleash a pair of giant silk wings. He tested it by throwing tailors dummies out of a fifth floor window above his apartment. The initial tests were successful. When he took his wingsuit to the Aero-club, they turned Reichelt away. The judges believed the canopy too weak to withstand a jump from a plane. It didn’t help that the device weighed 70kg either. In 1911, the Aero-Club increased their prize to 10,000 francs, adding the stipulations the parachute must not weigh more than 25kg, and that the prize must be claimed within three years. Suddenly the race was on.

In 1911 Grant Morton, a 54 year old stuntman who made his career by jumping out of hot air balloons, made the world’s first skydive – jumping from a Wright Model B near Venice Beach, California. He made the jump with a ‘throw out’ type chute better suited to slower- moving craft, like hot air balloons. Californian balloonist Charles Broadwick and Russian inventor Gleb Kotelnikov were both making huge strides with knapsack parachute designs. It was likely Reichelt also felt pressured by fellow Frenchman Gaston Hervieu – who tested a number of dummies attached to chutes from the first floor of the Eiffel Tower in 1911. As Reichelt pared down his materials to make the 25kg cutoff, making a succession of failures – Hervieu threw a model from the tower, which landed softly below. Were the dummies responsible for this sudden run of bad luck? It appears twice in 1911 Franz Reichelt donned the suit himself, and leapt to the ground 30 feet below. On the first occasion he fell heavily into a pile of hay and walked away uninjured. On the second occasion he broke his leg.

All the while, he continuously petitioned authorities to allow him to test his dummies from the Eiffel tower also. He was now convinced the fault lay, not in the design, but the height he was testing the suit from. If he could get a few hundred feet higher, the chute was bound to work. This brings us to February 4th 1912. The temperature was at an icy zero Celsius. There was a wicked cross-wind. Franz Reichelt finally had permission to toss a dummy off the ledge, while assorted press milled around on the nearby Champ de Mars.
Knowing the time had passed for dummies, today was make or break – and with an unyielding belief in his suit – Reichelt climbed the guardrail. For forty seconds he stared down. Failure meant certain death, but to succeed meant plaudits beyond his imagination. Just think of all the lives the wingsuit would save in the future. His name would be remembered for eternity. He would be 10,000 francs better off. So, here we go, Trois – Duex – Un……..


A body in free fall plummets at 9.8 metres per second, picking up a further 9.8 metres every second till it hits terminal velocity – for a human that’s a cruising speed of around 55 meters a second – 200 kilometres an hour. An online ‘splat calculator’ which factors in Reichelt’s 72kg frame estimates his fall time at 3.41 seconds – enough time for the poor man to realize his suit had failed miserably. Franz Reichelt fell like a stone, hitting the ground below with a dull, heavy thud. Film footage of the incident shows a group of men picking up his body, then casually measuring the sizeable crater he left beneath him. Needless to say Mr. Reichelt did not win the prize.

While it’s tempting, and indeed a little callous to think of Franz Reichelt’s Tale as little more than a Darwin award in the making – I feel obliged to point out his quixotic story is slightly more than that. Whether motivated out of a genuine need to help others (in this case saving pilots) or by that big paycheck, what’s for certain is he lived at the tail end of a time where some private citizen could invent the next big thing in the back of a shed. Right up till the postwar period, when the USA had a lot of money to throw at research into everything one could imagine – and an understanding if they wanted to keep hegemony, innovation hubs full of the newest, greatest things were necessary – lots of people a little like Franz Reichelt built much of our world from their sheds, spare rooms and kitchen tables. I desperately want to remember him as a pioneer more than a punchline, though I fear the tides of history are against me on this one.