Today’s tale is set in the city of Strasbourg – then part of the Holy Roman Empire – the date, mid July 1518. Frau Troffea, a local woman for whom there is little description of in the public domain – so I choose to picture her as a medieval Toni Basil – comes waltzing out of her home, down the streets of the city. Dancing to the beat of an unknown drummer, she spun and twisted, thrusting limbs akimbo in what at first seemed a dance of joy…. She shook and pirouetted till she collapsed out of sheer exhaustion. Not done yet, she dusted herself off, and continued to dance the night away – into the next day, and the next – till a week after striding out in public, she found herself joined by 34 other dancers – all moving and a grooving to the same silent reel. At this point it was clear to all the medieval flash-mob were having anything but a great time. Several dancers screamed for help – others appeared to be zoned out, in a trance.
By the time the great dancing plague of 1518 was done with Strasbourg in mid August, around 400 people had danced themselves to death. The incident remains a matter of conjecture to this day, though medical experts have a pretty clear idea what caused this plague. More on that soon.
Dancing plagues were very much a medieval occurrence, though likely were that era’s manifestation of a mass hysteria incident – something we continue to see to this day in different forms. Strasbourg was one of several such incidents. The earliest accounts come from Christian preachers who were later canonized, and as such carry the usual distortions found in hagiographies. In one tale, from the 7th century, French Bishop Eligius became so incensed with a group of dancers disturbing the solemnity of the vigil before the feast of St Peter, he cursed the group to dance non-stop for a year. Legend has it, a year to the day these poor dancers gave out -most of them dropping dead of exhaustion. Another legend tells of the missionary Willibrord travelling through Waxweiler, Germany in the 8th century. He spotted a group of revelers dancing in a graveyard, and sociopathically cursed the group to dance forever. Three days later, he would be back in Waxweiler, where, after some begging and cajoling from the families of the dancers – he cured them of their dance fever.
On Christmas eve 1021, a large group of parishioners broke into an uncontrolled dance in the town of Bernburg. They continued till exhausted. Another early case involves a large group of children dancing their way from Erfurt, Germany to the neighboring town of Arnstadt – some 20 kilometers away. In 1278 in Maastricht, a group of 200 dancers congregated on a bridge over the river Meuse – dancing till the bridge gave way under them. The dancing plague, however wouldn’t go truly viral till the 1370s, when the phenomenon would occur in dozens of cities across Germany, Eastern France and the Netherlands. Villagers would dance as if in great joy, all the while screaming in pain and begging the clergy to cast the demon out of them.
Back in Strasbourg the authorities tried to make sense of the plague. In trying to come up with an explanation, they discovered Frau Troffea was ordered to do the housework by her husband just prior to breaking into dance. After flat-out refusing to clean the house, she hot-footed it out the house and down the road. Their best guess, based on this evidence, was in the heat of summer the townspeople were suffering from hot bloodedness. They needed to dance the sanguine infection out of their systems if they hoped to recover. The order was given to bring in musicians, and professional dancers from neighboring towns. Stages were built. The doors to the dance halls were thrown wide open. A massive dance party raged on for a month, till everyone was all danced out – and hundreds had died.
What could have caused such an incident?
In a 2009 article for the Lancet, historian John Waller suggested the dancers had descended into an altered state of mind. Having discounted ergot poisoning – Ergot is a fungus which gets into flour by growing on rye stalks, and can cause hallucinations and involuntary movements – he suggests a psychological cause. Strasbourg had been through a couple of particularly awful years. Recent harvests had been poor, leading to a leap in the cost of grain. The region was wracked with multiple diseases at the time also, from bubonic plague to leprosy to an outbreak of syphilis. Surrounded by doom and gloom, the town’s mass nervous breakdown took the form of a dance to the death. In the years since we have seen similar phenomena in ‘June Bug’ infections, mysterious poison gas bandits, Tanzanian laughing plagues, German Coca Cola ‘poisoning’s, an outbreak of Tourette’s-like symptoms in an upstate New York high school, spates of headaches, nausea and hearing damage among Americans in Havana Cuba, catatonic trances among refugees in Sweden – and so on. It is very likely we can add the dancing plagues of medieval Europe to the list of psychogenic, rather than physical – or even metaphysical – phenomena.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Hey everyone, this was – almost – this year’s Christmas post. I just wasn’t feeling it this year. On first draft though inspiration struck. I present this as I think it still has some value right? – An actual Xmas post will drop on the 25th.
Hi all, Merry Christmas to you all. After reading the following you may well wonder why I’m not wishing everyone a hearty ‘Bah humbug’. You see, I’ve been wracking my brains for a suitable tale to tell this year – I didn’t even have a subject for this year’s Christmas day blog until I hit the first draft of this post. The following is a blog on things which happened Christmases past – and why none of the following made the cut. The actual Christmas blog will drop Christmas day.
One – The Stone of Destiny.
On Christmas eve 1950, four students from Glasgow, Scotland met at a Lyon’s Corner House in London – an open 24/7 complex full of pubs, foodcourts and barber shops – to plot the theft of the Stone of Destiny; sometimes referred to as the Stone of Scone. For lack of a reliable backstory to this artefact, it is worth mentioning a story from the bible. Jacob was on the run from his brother Esau – who was out to kill him for usurping him as his father’s favourite son. One night he laid his head on a rock, and had a vivid dream where he climbed a magical ladder to heaven. Up the top Jacob meets God, who tells him his progeny are destined to rule the world, but he best get busy spreading his seed far and wide. He would go on to have twelve children, who would each lead one of the twelve tribes of Israel. The rock he slept on would be blessed, declared a relic, and eventually taken into the temple of Jerusalem.
Forward to Scotland in the 1290s. The Scots believed the prophet Jeremiah, famous in the bible for authoring a few Old Testament books, and loudly predicting Babylon would invade Israel, to the disbelief of his leaders (he would be proved correct in 586 BCE) – secreted the rock away before the Babylonians attacked. Somehow, in spite of Jeremiah escaping to Egypt, they believe said rock made its way to Ireland. No one knows when exactly the Stone of Destiny appeared in Scotland, but it is assumed most, if not all Scottish Kings were crowned atop this mythical piece of rock, as legend has it the stone was on their soil by the mid 600s AD.
This is, at least until the Scots fell afoul of England’s King Edward I, known to historians as Edward Longshanks, among other names. Another sobriquet, The Hammer of the Scots. A constitutional crisis arose when Scottish King Alexander III and his three heirs all died within a few years of one another. With 14 rival claimants, Longshanks was called upon to decide who should be king. He picked John Baliol, sparking an insurrection. Most of the Scottish lords backed Robert de Brus – grandfather of future king Robert the Bruce (mentioned in another recent blog post). Drawn into the conflict, Longshanks just took over the nation of Scotland for himself – and following the 1296 Battle of Dunbar – stole the Stone of Destiny. The stone was incorporated into English ceremonies, insinuating any time an English monarch was crowned, they were de-facto named ruler of the Scots too.
The Bah Humbug moment?
Don’t get me wrong, Edward Longshanks is the kind of historical monster I could spend days on. I am also a sucker for any tale where the underdog – in this case the four students – succeed against the odds. Let’s not understate the importance of the removal of the stone from Westminster Abbey either. In 1950, less than 1% of Scots backed the politicians calling for devolution – a conscious uncoupling from the British Empire. The removal of the stone sparked a conversation which led to a number of referenda, where Scotland secured their own parliament, but fell short of completely devolving. The 1979 vote (to leave) had too few voters to count, the 2014 vote saw a narrow victory to the stay campaign.
Essentially though, the tale itself is a bit of an anti-climax. Ian Hamilton, Gavin Vernon, Kay Matheson and Alan Stuart worked out how long it took security to do their rounds, then just nicked the stone while the guard’s back was turned. The stone got accidentally broken in half on the journey – and buried in a field in Kent for a while – then dug up and secreted away to Arbroath Abbey, Scotland. It was found four months later, and returned to London. These four students did a miraculous thing, in my opinion – but every time I have tried to write this tale – the labyrinthine nature of the backstory just seems to rob the impact of their deed somewhat.
Two – How The Onedin Line Brought down a Despot.
The following is a tale I have carried around with me for decades. The Onedin line, to the uninitiated, was a British television show which ran from 1971 to 1980 in the UK. In New Zealand in the late 1980s and early 90s it’s majestic theme music greeted me as I arrived home from school. My mum often watched the repeats on a late afternoon timeslot, if not on night shift that day. My family came from a village across the river Mersey from Liverpool, where the show was set (though not filmed). I come from a family with an interest in history, and the Onedin Line touched on a number of historical events which would have affected the fictional shipping line. From Coffin Ships to The Atlantic slave trade, and beyond, the popular soap opera was an insight to the issues of the time. I don’t think I appreciated the show terribly at the time.
The Romanians, however, were on my mum’s side. Legend has it they loved the Onedin Line from the get go. They would not have a legitimate feed to the show for long however.
In the wake of the Second World War, Romania – who were a democratic monarchy till overrun by a fascist organisation early in the war – fell under the control of the USSR. From 1947 the nation would be ruled by a communist assembly. Also early in the regime, a young man named Nicolae Ceausescu began his climb to the top of the party. Ceausescu was a member of the Romanian communist party from before the war – having made a name for himself as a capable street fighter – and was in jail for the duration of the war for ‘anti-democratic behaviour’. From the mid 1960s Romania allowed their people a somewhat westernized lifestyle – to enjoy some television, theatre, music and art from the capitalist world – but in 1971 Ceausescu travelled to North Korea and China. He fell in love with their brand of communism, especially their unaccountable strongmen, and methods of propaganda. The then head of the state council, and future president came back with a 17 point plan, the ‘July Theses’. He banned all foreign television.
In the wake of the ban, fans of The Onedin Line found a workaround, in higher powered aerials which tuned in to feeds from nearby capitalist nations. They followed the saga of the Onedin family. No doubt they picked up many other shows as well, the news especially. As Ceausescu ruled as he saw fit, the people tuned in their sets, and rolled with it. They suffered through abortion and divorce bans which would flood their orphanages with children – (children subsequently sold off to well off foreigners) – and a poorly timed power grab for oil supremacy, which put the country in the poor house by the mid 80s. As austerity bit, all the while their own media selling a message everything was fine, the fans of Onedin saw news coverage of thawing relations between the Cold War rivals – Glasnost and Perestroika – ‘openness’ and ‘restructure’… and then, on 9th November 1989 – the fall of the Berlin Wall. Try as he might to deny it, the Onedin watchers saw it – they knew the world had changed, and the time was right to take to the streets to demand their freedom.
The revolution was quick. On Christmas Day 1989 Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife were tried for their despotism and personal enrichment in the face of massive poverty, and executed by firing squad.
The Bah Humbug Moment?
Besides it being not at all Christmas-y? The only evidence I could find that this ever happened is that a BBC television documentary was made in 1992, outlining the Onedin watcher’s role in the revolution. I am dead certain this is where I picked the tale up from in the first place. Could I find a copy of the actual doco? Not a chance. I may be awful when it comes to footnoting, but I always fact check. Sorry Onedin Line.
Three – Dodgy medieval kings reinforce their ‘divine right to rule’ via Christmas coronations.
Umm, yeah let’s just jump to the Bah Humbug Moment….
It is true medieval kings claimed their right to govern over a people was God’s will. According to the ‘divine right of kings’ doctrine, not only were they on the throne “By the grace of God” but their rule was preordained – the thuggish warlord who has just invaded your nation and sat himself down on the old bosses chair was all part of God’s plan from before you were born. Many saw Christmas – the day the apparent King of Kings was born in a little town called Bethlehem – as a portentous date to take the crown. If the warlord who now runs our land was crowned on such a holy day – they must be extra blessed by God right?
It’s true several high profile warlords ascended to the throne on this day. Charlemagne, king of the Franks was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 800 AD. Stephen I founded the Kingdom of Hungary in 1000 AD. The Danish warrior Sweyn Forkbeard is crowned King of England in 1013 AD – Sweyn would hold onto the position for a little over a month, before being deposed by Aethelred. Mieszko II of Poland was crowned Christmas 1025. As was Polish king Boleslaw II in 1076. William the Conqueror was crowned in 1066. Roger of Sicily – someone I have been fascinated with since reading Bertrand Russell’s thoughts on the man… but for whom I’ve yet to make the time to read up on – ditto, 1130. Add to this list King Baldwin I of Jerusalem, on 1100 AD.
The problem is it is a list, not a Tale. Often there is no mystery in their motives. It doesn’t even mark out a trend, as many more rulers weren’t crowned on Christmas. Does it have an arc? Any plot to speak of? Any kind of emotional payoff? No, it is a list. Yes I could have taken one of these sword wielding lunatics and spun a decent short biography on them? Oh yes, I could have – but maybe I have plans in the new year for a project along those grounds (hint, keep your eyes peeled on the social media accounts in, probably late January).
Would the piece have made for some useful pub quiz knowledge? Maybe, but probably no more than this none-piece. For the pub quizzers out there you may add one more to the list… kind of. King Clovis I of the Franks was not crowned on Christmas, but he was famously baptized into the Catholic faith in 508 AD.
Four – [Subject name redacted: Work in progress]
I do have one topic for a prospective Christmas story. It is a tale of human endurance, and breaking barriers. It’s a tale of how small acts can inspire massive paradigm shifts. Furthermore it is incredibly pertinent in this day and age. Where it falls over though…
Put simply, I ran out of time. This tale was taking me out into waters I don’t know terribly well, and need to put some time into studying. There is nothing terribly complex in the tale itself, but I am – embarrassingly – unschooled on the cast of characters, or the chronology of events following this juncture. I’ll probably need two weeks to get everything together on it – minimum. I’m hoping to return to this topic some time in 2021. I will also need to use my free monthly articles from various science journals fairly cannily too on this one, just FYI.
So there we go, sorry folks I feel like this week’s post is more lump of coal than stocking stuffer. I did discount several other topics. Washington crossing the Delaware felt like the cast were too well known for a blog mostly featuring obscure figures. I played round with West Point Military Academy’s Eggnog Riots for a little while, but I just wasn’t feeling it. I even revisited that famous soccer game on the Western Front, Christmas 1914. I felt the only thing I could add to the mix, ultimately, was to colourize, then cartoon some old black and white photographs.
I also toyed with the idea of writing on John Elwes, the probable real life inspiration for …. actually, no, he’s perfect.
Give me a couple of days folks. Don’t Google him, it’ll ruin everything! Post coming December 25th.
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.
Hi all, I’m writing week to week again and will likely do so till I take a break at Christmas – when I can build up a stockpile of Tales again. I am hoping to get back on the weekly blog cycle again now the podcast is back up, and can be listened to on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts,Podbean, Stitcher, Tunein radio… and hopefully a few more pod-catchers to follow. Episode one, on Martial Bourdin, is up now.
Recent news reports about mysterious monoliths appearing as if out of nowhere, first in Utah, then in Piatra Neamt, Romania, then on a mountain in California has me thinking about an older tale…. and of course 2001 A Space Odyssey, how do you not think A Space Odyssey with those things? The following tale is set in Georgia, USA – which of course has been on the minds of many folk of late too – for completely different reasons.
In July 1979 a man described in all the literature only as elegant and grey haired, wearing an expensive suit, walked into the offices of the Elberton granite finishing company, in Elbert County, Georgia. Meeting with company president Joe Fendley, he introduced himself as a representative of a “small group of loyal Americans” who wished to commission a remarkable monument. Said monument would be erected in the county, for the use – perhaps even the salvation of future generations. The man gave his name as R.C. Christian, possibly a bastardization of Rosicrucian – a secret society who claimed to hold all manner of occult and restricted knowledge, who almost certainly never existed in 1614 when pamphlets about them first circulated throughout Western Europe. Rosicrucian sects, however, soon willed themselves into being – grifters couldn’t pass up on that grift, seekers couldn’t pass up occult and esoteric knowledge. Sects exist to this day. Up front I should say I see little of their philosophy in the following tale.
Why did this group of R.C Christian, whoever they were, want to build their monument in Elbert County? According to Mr Christian, because their granite was amongst the best in the world.
The mysterious Mr Christian explained to Fendley his group had planned this monument for 20 years, and intended it – a set of guide stones with more than a passing resemblance to England’s Stonehenge – to be a guide to a future, post apocalyptic society. Living in the nuclear shadow of the Cold War era, where theories of mutually assured destruction could go out the window over a misunderstanding, an errant spy plane, or even a flock of geese – this may not have seemed completely mad. To me it still doesn’t entirely. The guide stones would be set up as a virtual Swiss army knife for the survivors of Elbert County. They would act as sundial, astrological calendar, compass, a kind of Rosetta Stone, and a set of moral instructions to future generations. It went without saying of course they must be built strong enough to withstand a catastrophic event. To stand almost twice as high as the slabs in Stonehenge, and containing over 250,000 lbs of granite, this project presented quite the payday for Joe Fendley – however he was convinced R.C Christian must be some kind of nut. Apprehensive, Fendley quoted a price several times higher than he would otherwise have quoted. The stones required were several times larger than anything they had hewn before. There was so much technical knowledge required in this, and such precision they would, needs must, call on several experts. All kinds of special equipment would have to be brought in from out of state. Without batting an eyelid Christian agreed, and the two men shook on the deal.
R.C Christian then left, on Joe Fendley’s recommendation to meet Granite City Bank president Wyatt Martin – a banker he could trust to keep his details confidential. As it turns out, Wyatt is the only person in this tale who came to know the identity of Mr Christian. To date he has kept his word. I presume he is still alive, though would now be 90 years old. Martin confirmed to Fendley, Christian had the money to complete the project, and set up a labyrinthine payment system to obscure the client’s identity.
By October, Christian had bought five acres of land to build the guidestones on, and construction began. R.C. Christian stayed incognito during the process, but kept tabs on the build via numerous phone calls, letters and the occasional meeting with Mr Martin. Martin commented the letters came from different parts of the country every time, and were never postmarked from the same place twice. Christian often called from an airport lounge. The two men did, however, dine on several occasions, and kept in touch till a few days shy of September 11th 2001. Martin assumed Christian, now appearing in his 80s, had simply passed on.
Work started on the monument in late 1979, concluding March 22nd 1980. The flurry of work was met by a flurry of vocal concern the Devil had come down to Georgia and was setting up shop, accusations Fendley and Martin had concocted the whole scheme as a publicity stunt (both men took lie detector tests to prove otherwise), and an invasion of witches, who appropriated the site for their own purposes – and could be heard chanting as the company worked.
On completion it was a sight to behold. Six giant granite slabs stood a little over 16 feet high, and six feet wide, with a large capstone keeping them together. Slots in the edifice would mark out summer and winter solstices via the first beams of daylight. Another slot would beam the midday sun to a spot on a calendar, marking out the date. A modern day Decalogue, a ten commandments, was written out on different panels in English, Spanish, Swahili, Hindi, Hebrew, Arabic, Chinese and Russian, as well as four ancient languages – Babylonian, Classical Greek, Sanskrit and Egyptian hieroglyphs. A short distance away from the monument proper, an explanatory tablet is laid in the ground. It is believed to have a time capsule buried beneath it, to be opened at an, as yet, undisclosed time. It bears a message which immediately brings forth Thomas Paine and the founding fathers. “Let these be guidestones to an Age of Reason”
The ten commandments, or guidelines are as follows. They are fascinating, and disturbing in equal measure.
• Maintain humanity under 500,000,000 in perpetual balance with nature. • Guide reproduction wisely — improving fitness and diversity. • Unite humanity with a living new language. • Rule passion — faith — tradition — and all things with tempered reason. • Protect people and nations with fair laws and just courts. • Let all nations rule internally resolving external disputes in a world court. • Avoid petty laws and useless officials. • Balance personal rights with social duties. • Prize truth — beauty — love — seeking harmony with the infinite. • Be not a cancer on the earth — Leave room for nature — Leave room for nature.
One cannot miss the eugenicist leanings of the first two guidelines. However one envisions a post-apocalyptic world population, it is hard not to presume we would build up again – and soon be overloading the planet through our numbers. One and two combined make it clear a culling of those of perceived lesser value would be called for. The call for diversity may suggest the author didn’t view the world through a white supremacist lens, perhaps an ableist or LGBTQI+ phobic one? Of course this may not have been the case – the US declaration of independence for example stated all men are born equal, yet contains the signatures of several slaveholders. Further clarification is needed.
Three and four call to dismiss many of the traditions of old, and to start anew. Build a new lingua franca, and dismiss many of the old ideas which have been holding society back. There are strains of secular humanism in this – something reflected in ideologies from LaVeyan Satanism, to a number of philosophers of the Age of Reason. Five and six have been taken as a call for a new world order – a one world government trope popular in many anti-Semitic conspiracy theories to this day. You cannot help recognize this may have reflected the world of 1980. In an effort to avoid further wars between France and Germany as much as to enrich the region, much of Western Europe had formed a European common market – and would soon forge a formal European Union of 28 nations via the Maastricht Treaty of 1993. The United Nations, similarly was meant to oversee the interests of all nations. These were two of many treaties and agreements moving the world towards something altogether more unified and interdependent. Besides economic reasons to do so, it was believed such arrangements made a third world war less likely. 7 and 8 don’t seem terribly out of place with a small c conservative, either then, or now.
Nine suggests a believer in deism – a belief in a higher power in the universe, but one which does not meddle, and is utterly disinterested in our moral lives. Again this suggests an author familiar with the writings of the founding fathers – many of whom expressed deist beliefs in their letters. Ten, clearly reflects environmentalism. It’s all quite a philosophical hodgepodge.
As one could imagine, such a list drew criticism from across the board. Alt right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones had the monument pegged as ‘Satanic’. After a coven of witches adopted the site, numerous Christian groups claimed much the same. In 1981 a UFO magazine called UFO Report claimed the true purpose of the monument would be revealed in 30 years’ time.
Mark Dice – a conservative pundit now more famous for demanding Starbucks put a T shirt on the topless siren on their logo, and for picking a fight with Korean pop groups – demanded the guidestones be “Smashed into a million pieces”, claiming they are proof of a New World Order in vitro. The Georgia Guidestones have been defaced a number of times by anti NWO protesters.
Which leads us to the question, who was R.C. Christian?
A few names have been put forward from the legendary plane hijacker ‘D.B. Cooper’, to an Iowa doctor named Herbert Kersten. A documentary that appeared online in 2015 indicates, at the very least, Kersten – whose 2005 obituary states he was a learned man and an environmentalist – at the very least owned an address Wyatt Martin mailed to. One name often suggested is television mogul Ted Turner. Turner was then living in neighbouring Atlanta, but had grown up in Savannah Georgia. He started his working life managing his father’s billboard company out of Macon, Georgia. At various points in his life he has expressed all points in the 10 guidelines. He has given to various causes, including $1 Billion to the United Nations, and $125 Million to his own foundation, concerned with ways of curbing population growth. He is also clearly concerned with end times, having a programme pre-prepared to announce the end of the world – in a vault – awaiting the announcement to press it’s all over.
As of the day of writing, neither the creator of the monoliths, or Georgia Guidestones has come forward.
Hi all, first up, a quick update on the podcast reboot. Four of the first six episode scripts mixed well, two need re-doing. I’ve recorded some background music. With a few long nights coming up I think we’ll be on track for weekly blogs Tuesdays, podcast episodes Wednesdays, come early December.
I was thinking of a couple of quick topics, for continuity’s sake – 600 or so words of ephemera to drop this week. Something interesting, a little quirky, and the kind of thing that on a rare occasion might pop up in a Tuesday night pub quiz…. But then the Twittersphere dropped something on my doorstep I couldn’t ignore. Harry Styles wore a dress in a Vogue Magazine cover shoot, and conservative/right wing talking heads lost their minds. Whether ‘Marxism’, ‘Post-Modernism’ or ‘wokeness’ was to blame – according to the hack commentators of the Alt Right – the world was going to hell in a handbasket. Thank you Harry. For some time I watched with glee as Ben Shapiro unintentionally undercut many of his own previous rants on the subject, in accidentally admitting gender is largely a social construct after all – all because someone yelled at him “what about men in kilts?”
But then, I started thinking of the timing of this kerfuffle. This week is Transgender Awareness week. Mid week, November 20th, is something altogether sadder – Transgender Day of Remembrance – the date chosen for it’s proximity to the anniversary of the brutal murder of Rita Hester, a beautiful transwoman who lived in Boston, was beloved by family, friends and the Boston rock scene, and who deserved so much more in life.
Now, all fairness to Harry Styles, I have no idea if Harry identifies as transgender – if I should refer to Harry as he, she, they, ze or some other pronoun. It could be Harry was just cosplaying David Bowie on The Man Who Sold the World. Whatever Harry’s scene is I wish him/her/them/ze only love. My main focus this week – when bad actors spread bad info, as a history writer it is my duty to share real narratives. What follows is a collection of tales of *Trans awareness.
Father in heaven, who did miracles for our ancestors with fire and water, You changed the fire of Chaldees so it would not burn hot, You changed Dina in the womb of her mother to a girl, You changed the staff to a snake before a million eyes, You changed [Moses’] hand to [leprous] white and the sea to dry land. In the desert you turned rock to water, hard flint to a fountain. Who would then turn me from a man to woman? Were I only to have merited this, being so graced by your goodness. . .
Kalonymus Ben Kalonymus – ‘Even Bochan’ (1322).
Kalonymus Ben Kalonymus, aka Kalonymus, son of the elder Kalonymus, seems as good a place as any to start. Born to a well to do Jewish family in Arles, France in 1286, young Kalonymus did as all well born Jewish boys did in his time – he received an extensive education in religion and philosophy. He would go on to distinguish himself as a translator, specializing in the classical Greek and Roman writers whose works re-emerged in Europe following the Fourth Crusade. His one true love however appears to have been satirical poetry. When it came to writing attack poetry Kalonymus was quite the pistol.
Even Bochan is one such piece, and it fascinates me. I wonder if, in a time which lacked the vocabulary to discuss it like we can now; did other likeminded readers come across the work and find some kinship, or comfort in the work? The poem starts off like much of his work, a statement of some injustice in the world, expounded– in this case that Jewish boys were cursed with responsibilities and boring study, while the girls got to take it easy. While he starts off with
“Woe to him who has male sons. Upon them a heavy yoke has been placed, restrictions and constraints.”
The piece pivots, Kalonymus begging God to transform him into a woman, before stating
“If my Father in heaven has decreed upon me and has maimed me with an immutable deformity, then I do not wish to remove it.”
Kalonymus is resigned to his reality, that for a well to do Jewish kid in 1322, he can never become she. He will have to live with the facade his creator gave him. In an age where he can become she, and was she all along deep down I’d suspect most transgender people would read Kalonymus Ben Kalonymus’ deep gender dysphoria in the piece. Even Bochan is widely considered the first written expression of gender dysphoria in our history. More importantly it signals for those who could do nothing about those feelings, they buried their sorrows deep and moved on best they could.
Which is not to say some people with these feelings didn’t live at least some of their life in a gender other than the one assigned them at birth. Fast forward to Oxford, then London in the 1390s. Let’s talk about Eleanor Rykener.
As we get into openly transgender people, and I try to explain their historical lives using modern concepts and constructs, I step into a hornet’s nest. I feel from the evidence available she/her is probably suitable with Eleanor – but when in doubt I’ll use spivak pronouns, ze/hir, or they/their.
Most of what we know of Eleanor is from hir recorded confession after being arrested for sex work. We know ze was christened John Rykener. We know John transitioned to Eleanor while in the employ of a woman named Elizabeth Brouderer. Brouderer taught Eleanor the art of embroidery, and allegedly pimped Eleanor out to local men. Ze would move on to Oxford where ze took up embroidery work, then for a while worked as a barmaid, before returning to sex work. At the time of hir 1395 arrest it was clear some of hir sexual partners were clients, but Eleanor appears to have had a number of romantic partners also. It is not clear from the historical record if Eleanor lived 24/7 as Eleanor, unfortunately all we have is a sliver of information. It is a fascinating glimpse nonetheless. Stepping way back, and taking a macro viewpoint, it’s clear the transgender experience is hardly the work of postmodernism, socialism or ‘wokeness’. Trans people go way back, long before Kalonymus or Eleanor Rykener.
In Ancient Mesopotamia (Iraq on the modern map) a sect of priests who worshipped Ishtar, the goddess of love, sex and war are pertinent to this tale. The Gala were considered male, presented as feminine, and spoke and sang in a dialect reserved only for women. This presented a template for other ancient societies, such as the Galli – eunuch priests originally from Phrygia (Asia Minor) who spread across the Greek and Roman empires. Worshippers of Cybele, the mother of the Gods; they presented as female. In fact when you look around the world you are hard pressed not to find similar figures. In African history trans people are defined as a part of everyday society in Sudan, Benin, Kenya, Ethiopia, and among the Bantu long before postmodernism stepped in. The Indian Hijra date back to antiquity, and were both venerated as supernatural while demeaned as a class similar to untouchables. Thailand’s Kathoey are similarly ancient. Numerous third gender peoples exist in native American tribes, including the Nadleehi and Ihamana. Pacific nations have Fa’afafine (Samoa) fakafefine (Tonga) fakafifine (Niue) and vakasalewalewa (Fiji). All were around before written history. My homeland, New Zealand is not exempt and is notable for electing the world’s first openly Transgender mayor, Carterton’s Georgina Beyer. Ms. Beyer would be elected in 1995, later serving in parliament, stating she started life as a stallion, became a gelding, a mayor… and was now a member (of parliament, of course). Ancient China considered their eunuch class a third gender. Many eunuchs presented as feminine. I could go on; a 5,000 year old male-bodied skeleton in a Prague, Czech Republic grave, buried in full female attire. A Tenth Century Viking grave in Birka, Sweden – containing a high ranking FTM (female to male) trans warrior. That time the Emperor of Rome begged the surgeons of the land for gender reassignment surgery.
Yeah, I should probably expand on that one.
Varius Avitus Bassianus, born in Emesa (now Homs, Syria) made the jump from high priest of the temple for the Syrian sun god Elah-Gabal to Roman Emperor, aged only 14 – in 218 AD. The reign of the re-named Elagabalus was not terribly long, or distinguished in any way. The new emperor seemed far more interested in extravagant, hedonistic parties, executing generals and forcing the people to worship Elah-Gabal – a variation on the Middle Eastern god Baal. Elagabalus’ reign ended in the Emperor’s murder by their own guards just four years later. What is pertinent to this tale however – the teenaged Baal worshipper dressed as a woman, insisted on being addressed ‘My Lady’, and asked several Roman surgeons to devise an ancient method of genital reassignment surgery.
I could, in all honesty. bring up tales of thousands of interesting transgender figures – but I want to refocus. Much of the criticism of growing transgender visibility by the Shapiros’ and their ilk is their very presence in American society erodes what it means to be an American. I’d counter trans people have added to their societies fairly proportionate to their numbers in society – approximately 0.6% of the population according to estimates from UCLA’s Williams Institute. Setting aside Civvie street for a moment, around 15% of transgender Americans have served in America’s armed forces. Some, like former SEAL Kristin Beck served with distinction. For a moment however, let’s step back in time a little. Of note, up to 400 women served on either side of the American Civil war, disguised as men. A handful, most notably Union soldier Albert Cashier, lived the rest of his life as a man.
Recently, questions have been posed about the Father of the American Cavalry Casimir Pulaski. Born in Warsaw, Poland in 1745 to an aristocratic family, Pulaski made his name as a soldier. He served with distinction for the Polish- Lithuanian Commonwealth, but finding himself on the losing side of the War of the Bar Confederation (sorry folks too big a field to plough already today, I’ll come back to it another time) at a time when Benjamin Franklin was looking for the best soldiers Europe had to offer, Pulaski packed his bags and moved to the USA. Like the similarly fascinating, openly gay Field Marshall Frederick Wilhelm Von Steuben; Pulaski found a shambles in need of a lot of direction. Throughout 1778 he organized the cavalry into a finely tuned force. Like Von Steuben, his innovations would remain in place for decades. Pulaski would distinguish himself particularly in battle in Savannah, Georgia – where he would die from a gunshot wound. In 2019 his DNA would be examined by the Smithsonian, finding Casimir Pulaski was either transgender or intersex.
Though it is true the interdisciplinary field of studies known as Transgender Studies began in the 1990s, it is also clear people were beginning to form theories around what made transgender people tick as early as the start of the 20th century. The first female to male surgeries were carried out in the first decade of the 20th century possibly starting with German Israeli author Karl Baer in 1906. Male to female operations followed in the early 1930s with Dora Richter ad Lili Elbe. Much early study was carried out in Germany by the German physician and sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld. Hirschfeld’s work at the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft was ground-breaking, but most of his writings were lost in the Nazi party’s ascent to power. In May 1933 the Institut’s extensive records would be burned in the streets, the Institut itself destroyed, and his transgender employees – of whom Richter was one – executed. Hirschfeld himself was on a world speaking tour when the institut was attacked, and would die in exile in 1935.
Another German sexologist, Dr Harry Benjamin, would move studies further from the late 1940s. Benjamin would write a book, The Transsexual Phenomenon (1966) which would become the bedrock for treatment of Trans patients, and focus on aligning the body to the brain, rather than vice versa. Dr Benjamin would come to prominence some years before this book when one of his patients, a former G.I. now known as Christine Jorgensen, became the talk of the town in 1952. Around this time a number of sex change pioneers would gain international prominence such as Roberta Cowell (her surgery carried out by famous New Zealander and Father of Plastic Surgery Harold Gillies), Coccinelle and April Ashley.
Of course transgender people would be actively involved in the growing LGBT rights movement in the 1960s, taking an active role in the Cooper Do-nuts Riot (1959), Comptons Cafeteria Riot (1966), Black Cat Tavern Riot (1967) and the Stonewall Riots of 1969 which brought Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson to prominence.
Which is not to say transgender people face no discrimination today, seeing they helped fight the good fight in the 60s, and beyond. While the world has become more liberal and ‘woke’ as a general rule – and 86% of American Blue Chip companies offer healthcare today which covers Transgender transitions; a plethora of other figures tell of the work which needs to be done. 90% of trans people in America have reported some form of workplace harassment or bullying. They are twice as likely to be unemployed as cisgender Americans. Three times more likely to become homeless. One 2013 study based around Washington DC found a quarter of respondents faced trouble using restrooms at work, over half reported the same problem in general public spaces, with 54% of respondents reporting needing to see a doctor for a related UTI or kidney infection. All up bathroom intolerance costs Washington DC over a million dollars a year in lost productivity from trans employees needing to go see the doctor. This barely scratches the surface. Then of course there are hate crimes, and in particular murder. This brings us to Transgender Day of Remembrance – in 2020 commemorated on November 20th (the day before I began writing this post).
Every year somewhere near the end of November transgender people and their allies commemorate Transgender Day of Remembrance – a day when they pay their respects to trans people killed in hate crimes around the world. When I first heard of TDoR around a decade ago the numbers murdered ran around 200, in 2020 three hundred and eighty six trans people were murdered, with at least 37 of those people in the United States. Method of murder particularly is often shocking. Stabbings, torture, immolation. There is a particular savagery to many of these killings. This brings me to my final segment in this essay – the story of Rita Hester.
Rita Hester was a transwoman living in Boston Massachusetts. Originally from Hartford, Connecticut, Rita’s family state they can’t recall a time when Rita wasn’t Rita – she was just born that way. As a young adult who found Hartford unaccepting of her she moved to Boston, where it appears she found kinship not so much with the LGBTQI+ community as the largely heteronormative rock scene in the city. On November 28th 1998 Hester was found barely alive in her apartment, having been stabbed 20 times by an unknown assailant. She would die in hospital hours later, and the police would initially file her as a ‘John Doe’. News coverage, similarly, reported in ways one would not expect in 2020. LGBTQI+ newspaper Bay Windows reported of the death of a “transgender man” followed by the Boston Globe, who reported on “a man who sported long braids and preferred women’s clothes”. It was the Bay Windows coverage which prompted the TDoR movement. When criticized, they doubled down on December 10th 1998 reporting on an ‘Alston Man’ and ‘dead-naming’ her (referring to Rita’s birth name). Days later a group of around 50 trans folk marched on both newspapers in an angry protest. To this day Rita’s death remains unsolved.
For anyone who is interested in studies and articles on transgender people there is now a lot out there on the internet. I recommend clearing a few afternoons and just diving in. Somewhere out there is a dissertation this author wrote on trans people – though in a different field (business management – I have three University degrees, the most recent a business degree majoring in Project management).
Hi all, just dropping a quick note here today. Work on a rebooted podcast is going a little slowly – I think, like a lot of people, the US election has been the only show in town over the week just past. When your country, Americans, is the hegemon – the most powerful nation on earth – I think we are all in some ways de facto Americans. We live under the same neo-liberal experiment you ushered in. Our dollar is tied to yours due to the Bretton Woods agreement of 1944. Your nation exerts a soft power on other ‘western’ nations in a myriad of ways from the jeans we wear, hamburgers we eat and music we listen to – to some of the scarier stuff i.e. when I see people I know posting Ben Shapiro and other Alt Right grifters on social media. The world has, on some level, been watching apprehensively to see who our new president is this week. I’ll let you all guess if I’m pleased with the outcome (if you follow me here, you know that I am).
Anyway, I’ve got ten topics for the podcast, FYI all existing posts. I’m still hoping to launch in early December. So far I’ve recorded six scripts, mixed three of them. I’m looking to find some time next week to record the theme and background music for those episodes, then on to do the final four. I’m hoping to restart the blog series at the same time, and at least until Christmas, will be running week to week. I suspect my choices of blog topics will be swayed to Tales I think of as ‘oldies but goodies’ – stories that have been with me for decades now. I’m really not sure if they’re anyone else’s oldies but goodies however.
This week (yes I’m launching this a little early, I know this should have been Tuesday) I’m compiling some of my off the cuff Facebook ads into a post. At my day job this year my personal development plan revolves almost entirely around the blog and podcast, and one of the things which has come from that is to up my weekly social media game, including by dropping weekly ads. I normally write these in my morning tea breaks, fact check and find a picture at lunch, then release later that day. It’s still early days in rolling these out, check out the few I’ve done so far below.
There is a Tale goes thus… On 28th July 1900 Italy’s King Umberto I sat down to a restaurant meal in the town of Monza, Italy. Nothing seemed extraordinary about the meal until the owner of the restaurant came out to meet the king.
The two men were doppelgangers, mirror images of one another.
The king and the restauranteur got to talking. Both were named Umberto. They shared a birthdate, and birthplace (Turin). To add to the weirdness, both men had married on the same date – 21st April 1868. Both women were named Marghareta – though I’m not sure if Umberto the restauranteur also married a cousin. The day of Umberto’s coronation, 9th January 1878, was the day Umberto the restauranteur opened his business.
The monarch was deeply moved by the experience of meeting his brother from another mother he invited him to come sit with his party at a track and field meet he had to attend the next day.
Neither man would see that day’s end. Umberto the restauranteur was murdered by robbers in the wee small hours while locking up the shop. The king would be assassinated by the anarchist Gaetano Bresci, in retaliation for the brutal massacre of protesters in Milan in 1898…
Why a Tale of Doppelgangers, Facebook followers? This page now has it’s own evil twin… a Twitter profile If you are a Twitter person please follow our ‘evil twin’ profile also – Simone
Two: What’s His Line?
Next week. (sorry folks, I could only find one very murky black and white still to turn into a colour cartoon this week). The man in the white suit should be familiar to all right? Colonel Harland Sanders, a Kentucky gas station franchisee who began selling fried chicken at his store… and who subsequently founded what we now call KFC.
The other man is John Charles Daly. Daly was the reporter who, on December 7th 1941 informed the USA of the attack on Pearl Harbour. As a special reporter he covered a lot of big news during World War Two – and moved on to host a gameshow in 1950 called What’s My Line?
On What’s My Line? a panel of very sharp media personalities would try to guess the occupations of the contestants. Most were everyday Americans. One contestant would always be a celebrity – and the panel would wear blindfolds in that round.
Sanders appeared on the show in 1963 as an everyday American. He had around 600 stores across the USA at the time, but had yet to sell the business to a corporation who took KFC worldwide- it was only when he sold in 1964 that he became a brand ambassador, and everyone came to know his face.
Daly and Sanders make a cameo in the next tale, which will likely run for two weeks. Next week will be a whodunnit that touches on a number of infamous deaths.
Three: I was tardy…
Hey all I really wanted to share a picture with you all today of Myron T Hendrick, but I guess the man’s tardiness knew no bounds, including having his photo taken? Instead I find myself sharing a picture of this man, Robert Bacon.
And yes folks I know I could make the same point, a very similar one at least, using Seth McFarlane – of whom there are a load of photos… Seth didn’t seem old-y World-y enough…
My mini Tale today: The rather stern looking man in the photo is one Robert Bacon; a former businessman turned secretary of state for the William Howard Taft and Teddy Roosevelt governments. In 1909 he served as the American ambassador to France – concluding his term in 1912, with a plan to return to the USA and run for senate. In early April he had his voyage home booked in… but his return was delayed till April 20 by his late replacement – the aforementioned Mr Hendrick. When I look at Mr Bacon’s stern visage I can imagine him wanting to cuss Hendrick out as every kind of lazy, shiftless bastard imaginable. I bet he was all smiles however – I can even imagine a big old hug for Hendrick – when he finally arrived. Hendrick’s slowness saved Bacon’s life. The ship he was forced to miss was the Titanic. This is my way of saying sorry, this week’s tale is likely to be a little late. This one took me days in working out how I structure this tale. Some time tomorrow evening NZ time I’ll drop part one of my tale on What’s My Line’s Dorothy Kilgallen.
Four: House Moving…
Hi all just a quick update. We’ve been packing up and lifting so many boxes, tables, chairs and wardrobes here that…. well we’re probably a long long way from having guns like strongwoman Katie Sandwina (1884- 1952) …. but if we stopped the takeaways we definitely would.
The house/office move continues. Writing remains on pause. In the meantime I am finding time here and there to edit some already done, and half done pieces.
Normal service will resume shortly. Keep yourselves all safe out there – Simone
Five: Swan’s Arch.
Hi all just a quick note. The picture today is local to me …. Westies will perhaps recognize it as that weird arch sticking out of the grass in Central Park Drive, on the way to Henderson. It’s known as ‘Swan’s Arch’. It was built by British immigrant Henry Charles Swan early in the 20th Century.
We don’t know when exactly Henry arrived in New Zealand with his wife Edith, but we know the couple moved to the leafy North Shore suburb of Devonport. Henry, it appears bought a large plot of land around Henderson creek in the 1890s without telling Edith, and a sailing boat. Swan jumped on his boat in 1900, telling Edith he was off to sail round the world alone, just like Joshua Slocum had done a few years earlier. Instead he sailed up the creek, moored his boat there, and engaged in an affair with his true love – growing fruits and vegetables…. It appears Henry loved gardening more than he loved Edith.
Swan lived on his boat, but built a brick shed to house his library. The archway was the entrance. Edith lived till 1940 in a house in Devonport, completely unaware of her husband’s dishonesty – believing he must have been lost at sea.
Why do I tell you this today?
Well, for one I have a rare New Zealand tale to drop next week – followed by a week’s worth of Halloween Tales to drop….. and I’ll be taking a month off the blogs to restart the Tales of History and Imagination podcast. There are a couple of things I need to develop that are in my can’t do yet bucket, to do a podcast some justice. I was going to do that over Christmas – but it seems since Joe Rogan has signed up with Spotify, the podcast episodes already made have been accruing dozes of listens + I should really fix + re-launch sooner rather than later.
I’ll be back, I’m no Henry Swan… though all fairness to Henry I bet he told Edith he’d be back too.
Unlike Henry Swan, I will drop in with something new next week. Have a great week all.
The following was originally released in four parts, on the Facebook page, in June 2019. I’ve heavily edited, & collated the piece into one blog post.
One: That Dick Cavett Interview…
Hi folks, I should say up front I thought I understood Altamont. In researching this Tale, I found out much of what I thought I knew was superficial, or wrong. I think it’s also worth spending a little time on the reason I came to revisit the infamous concert – old episodes of The Dick Cavett show on YouTube. As with episodes of What’s My Line? I’m a sucker for good, old television, and in 2019 I was regularly binge watching old interviews on The Dick Cavett show. Some clips (Segregationist Governor of Georgia Lester Maddox storming off for example) are historically important, others (Orson Welles, John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix) perhaps less so, but make great viewing for a pop culture junkie like myself.
The episode in question was filmed in 1972. The setting, backstage at Madison Square Garden. The Rolling Stones – last stateside as a band in December 1969 – had returned. Cavett is speaking with bassist Bill Wyman; and clearly has a question which must be asked.
Cavett “What’s running through your nervous system right now? Are you worried, are you scared? Do matinees give you the willies or anything?“
Wyman replies he’s just tired. Cavett asks would they play so many concerts so closely together in the future, Wyman replies they have done this many before. Cavett continues… “You’re still protected from the…” Wyman runs him off at the pass. He states he’s just a little tired this tour. Cavett “I wonder what’s happened on this tour that made it this way?” Wyman replies “Just the energy…“
Knowing when to pivot, Dick Cavett changes tack. He asks Bill Wyman if the age range in their audiences has changed. talks a little about Tom Jones and middle aged ladies. Is Bill a chain smoker? Would he go back to school if the Rolling Stones came to an end? who are all the children backstage? Bill Wyman relaxes into the conversation. Not yet done however… Cavett.
“Has there been anything on this trip that’s scared you, or any bad moments when you were worried that something was going to happen? ….. menacing…”
Wyman, after a drawn out, Freudian pause “No, just seeing the cops beat kids up scares me sometimes you know“
“Was there much of that this time?“
“Not as much as usual but we have seen it. They seem to grab guys out of the audience, take them out and they go through a whole thing on the way with sticks and it’s pretty rough you know, they don’t deserve it.“
Cavett asks if too much security is a problem, Wyman replies that sometimes they “get up front and cause trouble“
Dick Cavett moves in, he deindividuates asking about “the guys in the group” rather than “you” but all the same, he knows he’s landed the hook. Now is the time to reel his catch in.
“Do you guys in the group talk about Altamont ever, and what happened there, or has it faded?“
Bill Wyman answers.
“We talk about it yes, but, I’d sooner forget about it you know. It was just a very unfortunate thing. It was the last show of the tour and we all weren’t going to do it, it was just a live concert.. a free concert that was set up a few days before and – (long freudian pause) – I mean there was 300,000 people there, and there was only 30 people fighting. I mean almost all the audience never even saw it, didn’t even know what was going on you know?”
Yes he was minimizing “what was going on” He passed the responsibility for this last concert to some ‘other’, as they almost weren’t going to play that day. Honestly, from a business perspective I can get that too, you wouldn’t want “what was going on” to define your band – Just think for a second if Great White came to town would you want to go and see them? Now if you said yes, would you still want to go see them if a nationally syndicated reporter asked them to recall gig at the Station Night Club, Rhode Island, February 20th 2003, where malfunctioning pyrotechnics set fire to the club, killing 100 people and injuring 230 more? It puts me off.
What I can also see in Bill Wyman’s reply is he does still think of Altamont, and probably very much doesn’t want to think about it. There’s a look on his face that implies the day was the stuff of nightmares. Keith Richards also downplayed the incident, but rumours abound during the 1972 tour he carried a loaded 38 caliber pistol with him at all times, just in case “the security” -oh and we are not talking about the police – sought revenge.
The Altamont Speedway Free Festival, at Altamont Speedway Northern California, December 6th 1969, had other acts lined up. Santana, Jefferson Airplane, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young all on the bill. The Grateful Dead were meant to be the penultimate act, before the Rolling Stones helicoptered in to play their set, but they declined to play. The assault on Marty Balin was the final straw for them. Jerry Garcia, frontman of The Grateful Dead commented, in a British interview in 1970 that Woodstock and Altamont were “two sides of the same coin“.
“It’s like two ways that kind of expression can go of a huge number of people and no rules…One of the ways, obviously can go to a terrible bummer like Altamont, nd one of the other ways is to an immensely enjoyable scene like Woodstock. And they both had their extremes, but they were both, sort of characterized by this heaviness, this sort of historical heaviness“.
I get that to be honest, to my mind Woodstock, August 15- 18 1969 seemed the cultural zenith of the 60s counter-culture, peace and love movement. The poster, “3 days of peace and music” a bird perched on a guitar neck seems so apt. Altamont, then, had to be it’s nadir – a scene out of Dante’s Inferno “Abandon all hope ye who enter here”. It turns out this was not exactly the case.
Two: You Can’t Always Get What You Want
When one thinks big, open air concerts in the 60s, people generally think of a little thing called Woodstock – named after the town in Ulster, New York. Woodstock actually happened 43 miles (70 km) Southwest, on a 600 acre dairy farm in Bethel New York, but the advertising had already gone out, they quickly needed to find a new spot. Anyway Bethel doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. 32 acts performed at Woodstock. 400,000 people attended. Despite the occasional bursts of rain, people danced, got high – some involuntarily, they put flowers in their hair and got closer to nature. It took on the aura of the high point of the hippie counterculture movement.
Of course some of this is us looking through rose tinted glasses at the 3 day concert – held August 15 – 18, 1969. On the morning of the 16th, 17 year old Raymond Mizsak was accidentally run over by a tractor on its way to empty the port-a-loos. He died before he could be airlifted to a local hospital. Food was terribly scarce – were it not for a local company bringing in tonnes of Granola at the last minute there would have been nothing provided whatsoever. Back to the toilets, there was a ratio of 1 toilet to every 883 people. The traffic jam caused by the concert is still on record as one of the 10 worst traffic jams of all time. For all the peace and love there was a little violence – notably Pete Townshend of The Who beat up a stage invader with his guitar. Besides the death of Raymond Mizsak, two others died of drug overdoses.
In the aftermath, the people of Bethel got rid of the town supervisor at the next election. The people clearly stating the concert was their reason for punishing him in the polls. A couple of musicians who played the event were clearly buzzing from the experience however.
Soon after Woodstock, Jefferson Airplane’s Jorma Kaukonen and Spencer Dryden got together to plan a similar gig, on the West Coast this time. They decided to ask fellow Woodstock alumnus The Grateful Dead– and The Rolling Stones – arguably the second biggest band in the world behind The Beatles at the time, to be on the bill. Both bands signed on. The Stones likely did so because they were heavily criticized for the high ticket prices on their 1969 tour of the USA – and this was a free concert. They were also filming a documentary, and footage of a large, open air concert would look fantastic. The Grateful Dead? Well they were friends. They gigged incessantly, notching up over 2,300 concerts in their career. They played the two big, open air concerts of the 1960s – 1967’s Monterey Pop Festival and Woodstock, so it made sense to include them on the third.
With next to no planning time, the organizers scrambled to find a venue. San Jose State University (in California) had a large practice field that could be used to host large concerts, but the university were not interested in renting out the field. San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park was mooted, and sent out as the likely venue to the other acts on the bill. However there was a scheduling problem. On 6th December Kezar Stadium – located in a corner of the park – was booked for a football game between the San Francisco 49’ers and The Chicago Bears. (if you are wondering the 49ers beat the Bears 42 to 21). To have two large activities going in the park at the same time would be a logistical nightmare. Sears Point Raceway in Sonoma California looked promising but organizers ran into two problems. First, the owners wanted $300,000 up front, and they did not have the cash to spare. Second, the owners of the raceway were Filmways Inc – a film and TV production company, best known now as the creators of a much of CBS ‘rural’ content – Mister Ed, Petticoat Junction, The Beverley Hillbillies, and my personal favorite – Green Acres. Filmways wanted to film and distribute the concert – the Rolling Stones refused as they were intent on their own crew filming for their documentary Gimme Shelter.
On the 4th December 1969, Altamont Speedway, a motor racing track in Tracy, California was suggested. Running out of options, the organizers signed up to put on the concert at the poorly set up venue.
Three: A large visible space…
Hi all, this week let’s bake a disaster. What’s the recipe? First add a hazy, dusty day, hanging over a drab, colourless landscape. Picture Woodstock in your mind’s eye, out at Max Yasgur’s farm. It is lush and verdant, till the sky opens, then it turned terribly muddy – but there is still something very ‘age of Aquarius’ about it. People tuning in to mother nature, love, music and narcotics. If you were a young searcher looking for Rousseau’s hypothetical ‘State of nature’ before the world corrupted humanity, you could almost imagine it among those buzzed out, drenched, half naked kids, on that lush, green farm. Altamont was no Woodstock. Grace Slick, of Jefferson Airplane describing the atmosphere
“The vibes were bad, something was very peculiar, not particularly bad, just real peculiar. It was that kind of hazy, abrasive day.”
Next add a sprinkling of next to no preparation. With less than two days to prepare there are far too few toilets. A shortage of medical tents will prove very problematic as the day wears on also. At Woodstock there was no shortage of tents, something which came in handy in dealing with many cut feet and, allegedly, burnt eyeballs from tripping kids looking up at the sun. More on first aid later. The stage would prove a massive headache for organizers. It was far too low – just four feet off the ground, constructed in a dip owing to the slope of the racing track itself. The organizers had no security barriers to keep the concertgoers a safe distance away so a ball of string was run at chest height, in a line in front of the stage, to mark where the crowd should stop. Making up for the lack of barriers, the Hells Angels were stationed front and centre to keep the crowd back.
Now add security. The Hells Angels were hardly new to doing concert security, having worked many shows without incident. Altamont was a difficult gig for them for a number of reasons. First, their role was poorly defined. The Rolling Stones then tour manager, Sam Cutler, stating
“The only agreement there ever was…The Angels would make sure nobody tampered with the generators”.
They came to the concert with no idea just how much they would be required to do.
Second, they agreed to be paid in $500.00 worth of beer, to be provided on the day for them – around $3,400 now. Adding a large amount of alcohol to the mix would prove disasterous. Third, no provision was made for a safe place for the Hells Angels to park their bikes.
Add to the bowl an expectation 100,000 people would attend, sprinkle in 200,000 excess concertgoers. Stretched resources would suddenly be stretched beyond breaking point. One way in which this played out is The Hells Angels had to call in reinforcements. The reinforcements had nowhere to park their bikes but at the side of the stage – more on that later. Another way this led to disaster… well I should mention the final ingredient. Drugs and alcohol.
Drunken Hells Angels were one thing – no doubt their judgment was impaired by the beer; the drugs were far more concerning. Early in the day a large amount of LSD, laced with speed was passed through the crowd. The crowd was full of tripping fans, nothing new there, but the speed was giving many of them really bad trips. With far too few medical staff, treatment was slow – and the preferred treatment at the time – the anti-psychotic drug Thorazine – ran out early on in the day. Many a concert goer became strung out and increasingly paranoid in this hazy, dusty scene. Now mix ingredients thoroughly.
Santana were the first act up. They got through their set with no major incidents, in spite of growing tensions between the crowd and the Hells Angels. Jefferson Airplane had barely started when a flurry of violence broke out, out front. Rumour has it a concertgoer had knocked over one of the motorcycles at the side of the stage. The Hells Angels retaliated in a flurry of punches, then by bringing out pool cues, striking audience members. Vocalist Marty Balin jumped into the crowd to intervene, only to be knocked unconscious by a gang member.
Guitarist Paul Kantner grabbed a microphone and addressed the crowd. “Hey man, I’d like to mention that the Hell’s Angels just smashed Marty Balin in the face and knocked him out for a bit” Sarcastically he addressed the security “I’d like to thank you for that.”
A brooding- looking Hell’s Angel named Bill Fritsch – a former hippy, one time San Franciscan poet, one time left wing progressive, almost appeared in Kenneth Anger’s film ‘Lucifer Rising’, till his scene was cut AND associate of Charles Manson- grabs a microphone and fires back.
“Is this on? If you’re talking to me, I’m gonna talk to you.” Kantner: “I’m not talking to you, I’m talking to the people who hit my lead singer in the head.” Fritsch: “You’re talking to my people.” Kantner: “Right.”
All the while Hells Angels continued to trade blows with audience members in front of the stage.
Santana drummer Michael Shrieve reported back to the Grateful Dead what just happened, and the Dead decided they’d seen enough. They packed up and got out of there.
The fighting died down while country rock act the Flying Burrito Brothers played their set, but soon after violence erupted – and escalated. Where early in the day medics were de-escalating bad trips, they were now dealing with a number of seriously wounded concert goers- the injury of the day, fractured skulls. To paint the Hells Angels as the only ones dishing out violence is wrong. Denise Jewkes, singer for cult San Francisco rock band The Ace of Cups, in attendance as a fan, and six months pregnant, was treated for a fractured skull – her injury the result of someone in the crowd throwing an empty bottle. All the same, concertgoers who dared get close to the front were beaten senseless with pool cues and bike chains. A woman was at one point was dragged across the stage by her hair.
A young man in a lime green suit wandered off to his car, a Ford Mustang, and popped the boot, grabbing a 22 calibre Smith and Wesson revolver. He headed back to the show, feeling more secure for his six shooter.
As night set in a helicopter carrying the stars of the show, The Rolling Stones, arrived. Their start time was delayed by the late arrival of Dick Cavett’s (1972) guest Bill Wyman – he missed the copter. Out front it must’ve looked like a blood bath but the Stones were going out to play, regardless. The helicopter prepared to take off, now laden with members of Jefferson Airplane, ready to beat a hasty retreat. The Stones kicked off their set. The helicopter, now airborne, hovered for a second above the venue as a shaken Jefferson Airplane looked downwards. Journalist Joel Selvin describes the scene
“The pilot circled over the crowd for one last view of the stage. They looked down. The crowd in front of the stage spread apart before their eyes. A large, visible space opened and quickly closed up again. They watched as the mass of people spread apart and fused back together in a single seamless movement. They had no idea they had just witnessed the killing of Meredith Hunter”.
Four: The Ballad of Meredith Hunter.
At the Skyview memorial lawn cemetary in East Vallejo, California, there is a simple grave – lot 63, grave c. The plot holds a young man killed in December 1969, and as of 2006, when film maker Sam Green made a short documentary, titled Lot 63, Grave C, the plot remained unmarked. It was hardly as if the young man didn’t have loved ones left in the wake of his killing, but they didn’t have much money – and were so heart broken by his death they kept their distance. His mother, Alta May Anderson, had struggled her whole life with schizophrenia, and the killing sent her into a tailspin. For years after she turned to electro-convulsive therapy to manage her depression over her loss. After the killing she was a shell of her former self. His sister, Dixie, couldn’t bring herself to attend the murder case against her brother’s killer. She was heavily suspicious that when a white man is charged with killing a black man, the white man walks – a little on this later. She did not want to go through the pain of seeing this happen. A short, solidly built Hells Angel named Alan Passaro was tried for her brother’s murder, but would be acquitted.
It was Dixie who plead with her brother, 18 year old Meredith Hunter, not to go to the Altamont Free Festival that day. She was not worried about biker gangs so much as that it was on the rural edges of Alameda County – a place which seemed to her somewhat regressive in it’s racial views. Remember that it is 1969. To add a little context, just six years prior, President John F Kennedy had ordered the National Guard in to the University of Alabama to arrest, if need be, Alabama’s Governor George Wallace. Wallace was physically blocking the entrance of two black students around the same age as Hunter, who were there to complete their student registration to the all white college. Wallace was a hair’s breath from arrest when he backed down. Five years prior, in Mississippi, three civil rights activists were detained and murdered while travelling through the area and enrolling black people to vote. Perhaps most pertinent in a way, and please note I am pulling a small handful of examples from a very disturbing history here, this was 14 years since a young boy from Chicago – Emmett Till – was kidnapped and tortured to death for daring to speak to a white woman who worked in a store – again in Mississippi. The act of miscegenation, of mingling of the races for sexual reasons, was thought bad enough by some that even an attempt to miscegenate was an offence worthy of a lynching. The teller’s husband, Roy Bryant and his friend J.W. Milam brutally murdered Till, and – being two white men having killed a young black boy, were also acquitted. I stress this case as, at the time Hunter was dating a young white woman called Patti Bredenhoft.
Hunter did pay some heed to his sister, packing the Smith and Wesson revolver in the boot of his step-father’s Mustang. He drove over to Patti’s and the two drove off for the concert. As a child I had heard he was a pimp, and Patti one of his girls – this is untrue – he was an Arts student. I had also heard he was way more fearless than he should have been, as he was high on methamphetamine. The latter was true.
Picking up the tale from just after the Jefferson Airplane incident. The bikers flew through the crowd on their hogs, just whizzing past Hunter and Bredenhoft. The couple were nearby when violence erupted out front and singer Marty Balin was knocked unconscious. Patti had, at this point, had enough and returned to the car. Meredith wanted to hang around, and just prior to the Rolling Stones set decided he would go back in to catch them. The two had words, Meredith was the more forceful of the two. He grabbed his gun, and the two made their way back to the stage – what could go wrong?
Everything – everything could go wrong – and it happened very quickly. Why it unfolded is a subject to guesswork – following the incident, president of the Oakland chapter Ralph ‘Sonny’ Barger stated on KSAN Radio San Francisco
“When they (the concertgoers) started messing over our bikes they started it”
He went on to say their bikes represented their everything. Was this wave of violence caused because someone tipped a bike over? In any case the Rolling Stones had only just began their set when the group of Hell’s Angels at the front of the stage advanced, again on the crowd, like an Athenian phalanx. The crowd out front dispersed. Meredith Hunter had climbed atop a speaker cabinet at the side of the stage before the surge, perhaps feeling safer up there – but a Hell’s Angel grabbed him by the ear and threw him to the ground. Hunter back peddled as best he could, putting some distance between himself and his assailant. He drew his pistol and tried to back himself away from the bikers, when the heavy set Alan Passaro appeared on his left flank. Passaro grabbed his shooting hand, disarming him, then stabbed Hunter twice in the back. Hunter stumbled. Passaro followed him down, stabbing him all the way. A pack of five Hells Angels surrounded Hunter and laid into him.
Bredehoft struggled to stop one of the men, but was shrugged off. Hunter plead with them “I wasn’t going to shoot you” but the men continued to strike Hunter till he stopped moving. A young, brave bystander named Paul Cox did step up, doing his best to stop the assault, but was powerless. He eventually managed to get Meredith Hunter away from the scene of the beating, and to a medical tent. A helicopter was called for but he passed before it could arrive. Meredith Hunter was one of four fatalities that day, though the only one not to die as the result of an accident.
Post Altamont, the zeitgeist changed considerably. No doubt this incident was just one of several to shock the American public – the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, April 4 and June 5 1968 respectively, the images coming out of Indochina and rising death toll – less I suspect the 3 million dead Vietnamese and similar numbers in Cambodia and Laos – but an eventual death toll of 58 thousand Americans. and a high number of wounded – Politicians refer to the Dover test when accepting one too many coffins returns to Dover Airforce base, well the Dover test had come some time back. In August 1969 a hippie ‘family’ led by Charles Manson slaughtered Sharon Tate and the LaBiancas, in an attempt to start a race war in the USA. With the trial of the Chicago Seven around the corner (long story short they were anti-war protesters involved in a violent battle with Mayor Richard Daley’s police force outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention – edit. 2020. with the release of the film on Netflix maybe I should have- still should? write a post on them), and the acceptance of a number of cultural icons to the 27 club soon after, it felt a little like things had gone from Bob Dylan’s The times are a changing, to 10 years after’s I’d like to change the world, but I don’t know what to do… The hippie movement and flower power faded, and the 1970s would be much edgier.
Alan Passaro was charged with murder, and brought before a jury. The jury saw the film footage from the day, saw Passaro as a man who brought a knife to a gunfight and decided he had acted in self defence. Alan Passaro would, mysteriously drown in the Anderson Reservoir, Morgan Hill California in 1985 – a wad of cash totalling $10,000 on him at the time. He lays buried under an impressive gravestone, if the photo on Find a Grave is anything to go by.
I could not find much on Patti Bredehoft. She did give a 2005 interview to The Sunday Times, where she claimed not to have made much of her life – and of course discussed her infamous second date with Meredith Hunter. FYI their first date was to see The Temptations.
The Hell’s Angels blamed the Rolling Stones for the outcome of the concert. Keith Richards may have been well advised to carry a gun with him on their 1972 tour, and perhaps Bill Wyman was wise not to say too much. The Hells Angels did hatch a plot to assassinate Mick Jagger in revenge. Their plan, to assemble a death squad, hire a boat, and sail to his house on Long Island. On the day of the assassination, a storm set in and a group of Hells Angels eventually made it back to dock, the worse for wear, and by all accounts lucky not to have drowned. They gave up on killing Mick after this. This story made it to the FBI via an informant in their organisation in 1985, and was made public knowledge in 2008 – Mick himself only found out how lucky he had been when the public did.
Which brings me round to Mick Jagger himself – could he do better than Bill Wyman, on that Dick Cavett interview, which started this cycle? In 1995 Rolling Stone Magazine’s Jann Wenner met with the Rolling Stone and asked the following.
“After the concert itself, when it became apparent that somebody got killed, how did you feel?”
“Well awful. I mean, just awful. You feel a responsibility. How could it all have been so silly and wrong? But I didn’t think of these things that you guys thought of, you in the press: this great loss of innocence, this cathartic end of the era… I didn’t think any of that. That particular burden didn’t weigh on my mind. It was more how awful it was to have had this experience and how awful it was for someone to get killed…”
This Tale is also Episode Four of Season One of the podcast. Click here to listen to the episode.
Originally posted in four part May – June 2019 on the Tales of History and Imagination Facebook page. Copyright 2019 Simone T. Whitlow
Content warning! This tale contains macabre, ghoulish subject matter – as one may expect on a Halloween Tale. Proceed with caution.
Taphophobia is the name given to the irrational fear of being buried alive; the word deriving from the Greek taphos (meaning grave or tomb) and phobos (fear). In 2020 it is accepted by most this IS an irrational fear – science and medicine has come along far enough to detect even the tiniest signs of life. For most our history however, this has not been the case. In 1895, J.C Ouseley, a physician of whom I could find little information but many citings, stated his belief that even at the end of the 19th century 2,700 English and Welsh were prematurely buried each year. Others countered this was an exaggeration – the real figure was only around 800 a year – only! Of course for most our history, life was determined by a heartbeat or signs of breathing. As it became possible to restart a stopped heart or lungs – mouth to mouth resuscitation was first used on drowning victims in France in 1740, and chest compression in the USA from 1903 – people in those states were re-categorized ‘unresponsive’. Proof of life focussed on brain death – something not defined in a modern sense till 1968.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone a great many poor souls were buried prematurely. Nor should it surprise anyone there are a few horrifying signs of folk who came to while six feet under, and fought desperately to escape entombment.
In July 1661, Lawrence Cawthorn was one such victim. A journeyman butcher, working at London’s Newgate Market; single, and without property – he lived at a Mrs Cook’s boarding house. When Cawthorn fell ill his landlord contrived to have him declared deceased as soon as possible. For one his ‘passing’ would free up a bed for a paying resident – an ailing Cawthorn hadn’t paid rent for a few days. Also, with no next of kin, Mrs Cook would inherit Cawthorn’s possessions – but only if he died in her premises. He must not be allowed to be taken to hospital. Three days after falling ill – sans condensation on the looking glass placed under his nose – Cawthorn was pronounced dead, and sent to the undertaker. As the last sod of earth was placed down, a tortured scream was heard from below. The undertakers dug down as frantically as they could, but it was all in vain. They cracked the coffin lid to find Lawrence Cawthorn passed. In his panic he had shredded his funeral shroud and beat his face to a pulp trying to head-butt the coffin open.
Alice Blunden of Basingstoke, buried in 1674, appears a luckier tale, till you hear her story in it’s entirety. Having overdosed on poppy water, an opiate developed by the polymath Nicholas Culpeper, Blunden was pronounced deceased – when in fact in a deep coma. Two days after her burial, a group of children playing in the graveyard heard her screams. The children would not tell anyone for a day, finally spilling the beans to their school headmaster – who alerted the undertaker. The undertaker Blunden out. She was still alive but in a bad way. Collapsing from the stress of her ordeal she was again pronounced dead – and re-buried. Again she came to, her screams alerting locals the following night, however this time she did pass on. When she was disinterred a bloodied and bruised Blunden was found inside – this time having left deep scratch marks on the inside of the coffin lid.
I have one final Tale to tell you all this Halloween; let’s discuss Hannah Beswick (1688 – 1758)– a Taphophobe from Birchin Bower, Lancashire.
Hannah was born to a wealthy family in Lancashire in 1688, and actually had good reason to fear premature burial. When young her brother John passed, or appeared to have passed on. At his funeral, just prior to the lowering of the top on the coffin, someone noticed John’s eyelids were fluttering, and called a stop to the burial. John was re-examined by family doctor Charles White, declared alive after all, and would make a full recovery. This experience left deep emotional scars in Hannah, and she insisted that when she passed efforts be made to keep her above ground long enough to confirm she really was dead. She approached doctor White, tasking him to ensure this happened.
Hannah would pass in 1758, and White would keep his word…. well kind of.. To preserve her body while out in the open, White – a man with a love of cabinets of curiosities – embalmed her. Having mummified her body through an experimental method he never recorded – but was sure to have killed her had she simply been in a coma – for one her blood was drained, her organs removed. Her body was then placed inside the frame of a grandfather clock.
Hannah’s will made it clear she was not to be buried until certain she was dead, but one would infer she was to be buried thereafter. For over a century her body would be kept by doctors, then Manchester Museum, while family members fought over her will (and hidden fortune, but that is a story for another day) – and Hannah Beswick, the Manchester Mummy would not be officially declared deceased, and interred till 22nd July 1868. Happy Halloween all. Stay safe when trick or treating. We’ll be back to a post a week next Tuesday.