Update: This Lime Tree Bower My Prison…

Hey everyone, just a quick update today. 

As you may know, I’m based in Auckland, New Zealand – the land (one of several) who beat COVID. As some may know, the Rona is back over here for a sequel – and we’re all in lockdown again. 

If anyone is wondering, seeing I held up the Belzoni blog and podcast episode because I lost my voice due to a nasty cold – I was tested just before the lockdown. One of my flatmates brought some kind of virus into the house, then claimed his doctor told him he didn’t need a COVID test. Figuring either he was a liar, or his doctor incompetent – I got myself checked out. It was just a cold.

All the same, as the locations of interest have come up in the news this time, I’ve had six close calls (being at places COVID infected people were at hours before) and am, it appears, surrounded by what the media has dubbed ‘The Birkdale Social Cluster’. 

I feel a little silly when writing about COVID. New Zealand has had a comparatively easy ride compared to much of the world. In the scheme of things I’ve got little to complain about… 

But I did post that update with the plague mask picture a few weeks ago… So I figured some kind of update was in order. And yeah, following the example of Dolly Parton and Elvis Presley (pictured getting his polio shot on the set of the Ed Sullivan Show in 1956) I’ll be getting my first vaccine shot in a little over a week (New Zealand has been slow to roll the vaccination out)

Anyway, the lockdown does give me a little bit of extra time – no weekend shopping expeditions, or meals over at my parents’ place. No Thursday night foodcourt Chinese meal followed by grocery shopping. Certainly no Wednesday night pub quizzes till we’re a couple of lockdown levels down. 

The day job just ticks along, however. I’ve been a work from home person for almost three years now, so the 9 to 5 is very much business as usual. 

Given all that, I’m working away at a couple of extra things. 

First, I’m spending weekends building up a stockpile of podcast episodes. I suffer from seasonal hay fever, so it’s guaranteed I will lose my voice again – some time in the future. I’m looking to record around two dozen of the older blog posts – will keep a handful in reserve + mix the others in with new episodes as we go. 

On that I’m getting the sense those of y’all following the blog are as a rule not following the podcast – and vice versa. On those weeks where I drop an old episode I’ll generally drop a completely new blog post for my readers. 

Second, I’m going to look to get weekly blog posts back up again + start stockpiling a few of those Tales, once I’ve got the podcast episodes well ahead. I’m putting a temporary hold on my ‘Today in history’ one minute video series. When I put the ‘pilot’ up on my personal Facebook, I got some really positive feedback from friends who aren’t history buffs – I can see a place in the world for that project – but it is taking away from this project at the moment so…  

I’m still trying to work out how to get those Patreon episode scripts on here, please stay tuned for that. Next week’s Tale, and Patreon bonus episode are well on track for release. I’ll look to get a non-podcast week blog post in for the week after that – I want to try something a little different on those in between weeks. 

Stay safe out there everyone. I’ll have a new Tale out next week – Simone.


Oh, the silly post title and picture? In 1797 the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge – trapped in his bedroom with a blistered foot due to his wife dropping a pot of hot milk on him – wrote a wonderfully melodramatic poem about not being able to go out on a trek with his friends. I believe there is more to it, truthfully – Mrs Coleridge had just suffered a miscarriage and I always got the sense the two were fighting at the time. If no underlying story it does make Mr Coleridge a rather melodramatic guy I’d dare say…

Well, they are gone, and here must I remain,
This lime-tree bower my prison! I have lost
Beauties and feelings, such as would have been
Most sweet to my remembrance even when age
Had dimm’d mine eyes to blindness!….. “

The picture is of his library, from an article from some time back. His former mansion was up for sale last year for £7 million. The Devon property also of note as it was where Oliver Cromwell planned his revolution.

Giovanni Batista Belzoni – Tomb Raider

Hi all welcome to this month’s YouChoose topic. Raiders of the Lost Ark, the first of the Indiana Jones films had just turned 40 the day I was scrambling for a topic – the film released June 12 1981. Influenced by the serial films of his youth – boys-own adventures with cliffhanger endings which played before the main feature – George Lucas began spitballing the idea in 1973. While the fictional characters are interesting – just look at the picture of Charlton Heston below, as the proto-Jones character Harry Steele in the 1954 film Secret of the Incas – that line of enquiry is possibly best saved for a Tales of Movies and Imagination? In 1973 Lucas worked with fellow writer and director Philip Kaufman to develop a script, The Adventures of Indiana Smith. They discussed real life figures with more than a passing resemblance to Indy. 

Today we’re going to take a brief look at one of these characters. 

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

These are the words of the British Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley – in his poem Ozymandias, published 1818. There’s no doubt Shelley had his own reasons for the piece – for one, it’s a not so subtle dig at the British Empire – perhaps a little smug in their defeat of Napoleon and rapidly accumulating a massive empire – ‘this guy thought he was pretty hot too’. It reflected a trend among the Romantic movement, and in Britain on the whole at the time. Orientalism, a fascination with the East, was very in vogue. Thirdly, Shelley was in competition with another poet named Horace Smith to write the best poem on Ozymandias. Smith’s poem, by the way, is mediocre by comparison.  

Finally, a giant stone bust – seven and a quarter tons of solid rock – 2.6 metres tall, over two wide had recently arrived in the UK. It had been uplifted from the Ramesseum mortuary temple; Thebes, Egypt. Like the poem, it was once part of a larger, 20 tonne statue before it broke in half, leaving it’s legs ‘two vast and trunk less legs of stone’. It’s subject, Ramesses II – a 19th Dynasty ruler of Egypt from 1279 to 1213 BCE.

 Considered Egypt’s greatest king, he ruled long, at the height of the country’s power. Ramesses II, it’s fair to say, had every right to sneer – to invite onlookers to view his empire and despair. The Greeks called him Ozymandias having misheard his full title. The giant bust, also known as the younger Memnon, stood in his tomb – one of a matching pair. 

As far as I can tell we don’t know how the statue broke in half, or how long it lay in the sand. It was broken when France invaded Egypt in 1798. They attempted to steal the bust themselves – but couldn’t work out how to move it to the River Nile. The younger Memnon lay in the sand, a long way inland for the duration of the Napoleonic wars – a hole in it’s chest testimonial to it’s mistreatment by Napoleon’s army. 

In 1815 an Italian giant landed in Egypt on a whole other matter, and on being asked, undertook to steal the statue for Britain. This man, Giovanni Batista Belzoni, is our Indiana Jones. 

Giovanni Battista Belzoni was born in Padua, modern day Italy – November 5th 1778. One of fourteen children, he trained to become a monk, then studied hydraulic engineering. His studies were interrupted by Napoleon’s invasion of the Papal States between 1796- 98. Possibly becoming embroiled in local politics, an order was made for his arrest – so he fled. Belzoni worked in the Netherlands as a barber – his father’s profession – till the Netherlands too became too dangerous. He then packed up and fled to Britain, in 1803.

Napoleon crosses the Alps- Jacques Louis David’s painting cartooned.

While in Britain, the powerfully built, 6 foot 7 tall Belzoni found work as a circus strongman – billed as The Great Belzoni, or sometimes The Patagonian Samson 

Sidebar: (Reports of Ferdinand Magellan’s alleged 1520 encounter with a tribe of giants up to ten feet tall, in Patagonia clearly still had some currency – will probably cover this Tale at length in the future). 

He met his future wife Sarah Bane, who would accompany him on many of his adventures. With the Napoleonic wars on the wane, he left England to resume his career as an engineer – travelling to Spain, then Malta – where he met the Ottoman admiral Ismael Gibraltar (b Ismael Djebel Akhdar, who achieved some degree of fame fighting for the Ottomans in the Greek war of independence). Gibraltar served the Egyptian Sultan Muhammad Ali – an Albanian mercenary who rose through Ottoman ranks – till he had the chance to make himself Sultan of Egypt. Ali was looking to improve irrigation in the fields. Belzoni knew how to build an efficient water wheel, so he made off for Egypt, accompanied by Mrs Belzoni and their servant – a young Irishman named James Curtain.

Belzoni as the Patagonian Samson.

The water wheel in a paragraph- Belzoni arrived, and built some kind of ‘crane with a water wheel’ . It was powered by oxen, and alleged to be four times more efficient than older methods. Ali was impressed by the demonstration … at least until he asked if men could power the wheel, rather than beasts of burden. A group of locals jumped on, with James Curtain – then suddenly let go – whether out of fear or bedevilment we don’t know. Curtain held on, and was thrown by the machine, breaking a leg. If you’re a little lost as to the specifics of this machine – me too. I couldn’t find a diagram for this machine. Belzoni himself, possibly protecting his intellectual property, doesn’t adequately explain it. Whatever this machine was, it was history – Ali wanted no part in the machine, seeing the injury as a bad omen.     

At a loose end, Giovanni took up an offer from the recently appointed British Consul General to Egypt, Henry Salt… There’s a giant statue in the desert, we’ve got a short window of time to grab it before rising waters make it impossible for another year. As the removal was to be done with Sultan Ali’s approval, he jumped at the opportunity.  

The Belzonis and their party left, by boat for Luxor, 30th June 1816. On arrival, 22nd July, Belzoni was blown away by the scene greeting him. He wrote

“It is absolutely impossible to imagine the scene displayed, without seeing it. The most sublime ideas, that can be formed from the most magnificent specimens of our present architecture, would give a very incorrect picture of these ruins… It appeared to me like entering a city of giants, who, after a long conflict, were all destroyed, leaving the ruins of their various temples the only proofs of their former existence” 

And so planning for the removal of the statue began. After viewing the bust within the temple he came up with a pretty basic plan. He brought 14 heavy duty poles with him, He built a cart eight of them. The other poles would be used under the cart as rollers. Using his knowledge of levers, Belzoni manipulated the statue onto the cart – then with a large crew of local men and some strong ropes, they would drag the cart through the sand till they reached the boat – a long, difficult trek, considering the weight they were pulling. The first few steps were no big deal. Finding a trustworthy crew would prove far more difficult.

On approaching the Cacheff of Erments, with his orders to collect 80 men to help him, Belzoni was stonewalled. The Cacheff would do his best of course, but all the men were very busy. Belzoni pointed out he’d spotted many men around town not engaged in work. The Cacheff claimed without help from the prophet Muhammad himself these men wouldn’t take on the task. The statue is too heavy to move naturally. Belzoni insisted he would go find men himself then. The Cacheff promised him a crew- who no-showed the following day. 

The following day, he got another promise, then went over the Cacheff’s head to ensure they showed – and yet another no-show. He finally got his crew, referred to as Fellahs, on the 27th. With his 80 Fellahs in tow, and the magic of physics – four carefully placed levers- he got the statue onto the cart. The Fellahs dragged the bust out of the temple – Belzoni smashing two columns that were in the way – something which would horrify modern archeologists. The statue’s slow journey to the edge of the Nile had begun. 

The 80 Fellahs were doing the heavy lifting, but Belzoni – not yet accustomed to the unforgiving environment – which could get to 50 degrees Celsius – soon became quite ill. He described the daytime heat as ‘inflamed’, the nighttime winds as hardly any better. The rocks around the Ramesseum were hot to the touch and radiating heat up at him. He was ill for days, barely sleeping, and unable to hold down food. By the third day, Giovanni couldn’t even stand, and sent the Fellahs home for the day. On the 30th they were back at it, moving the statue 150 yards. 

They ran into some trouble on the 31st, hitting a spot too sandy to move the statue through, so a change of course to rockier ground was made.

 By 2nd August the statue was close to the pick up point, though now in a danger zone. Every year the Nile flooded and would remain at it’s new height for several months. The statue would be deep under water if they didn’t move it from here quickly. If stuck here they would have to wait atill next year, and have to dig it out before they resumed. At the end of 5th August work stopped with the statue a day’s work from the safety of the banks – but only a few days from the coming flood. 

The next day no-one showed up to work. Word went round the Caimakan, another of the Sultan’s bureaucrats, ordered the Fellahs “not to work for the Christian dogs any longer”, according to Belzoni. Accompanied by a Turkish Janissary, Belzoni left for the town to confront the Caimakan. 

Loud voices soon escalated to the two men coming to blows. The heavily armed Caimakan drew his sword on Belzoni. Belzoni wrested the sword away from him and pinned the Caimakan against the wall, before he could go for his pistols. He shook the Caimakan violently till he begged him to stop, and admitted the stop work order came from the Cacheff. Belzoni immediately left for the Cacheff’s home, up river in Erments – Caimakan’s sword and pistols – in hand. 

His visit with the Cacheff was far more civil. It was just after sunset when he arrived, finding a room full of guests seated for a meal. The Cacheff invited Belzoni to join him. He claimed the men couldn’t be spared from the fields at this time of year. Belzoni countered he would go and get men from the next town to finish the job. The Cacheff would lose all the honour of moving the unmovable statue, to the neighbours who completed the task. Did he want to lose face like this? Whether this argument – or an understandable fear of the furious, heavily armed giant at his table won him over – Belzoni was given his Fellahs back. They would resume the following day. 

The boat ride home was eventful. The boatman nearly crashed the boat into some rocks, and Belzoni feared they would drown. The boatman regained control at the last minute and they proceeded back to the site. 

The Fellahs returned the next day, moving the statue into safe territory. Work was paused 9th August, when Belzoni was struck with vertigo and started bleeding profusely from his nose and mouth. They returned to work on 10th August and had the Younger Memnon safe, and ready for collection on 12th August 1816. 

This was hardly Giovanni Batista Belzoni’s only adventure in Egypt. While waiting for the boat to arrive, he travelled down river, looking for other treasures. Over the following three years, employed by Henry Salt, he raided a number of tombs – removing several large treasures.  Destroying several artefacts he deemed of less value in the process. This includes the mummies he crawled over in one tomb raid, which turned to dust beneath his weight. Belzoni commented their taste was less than pleasant. 

He was the first modern explorer to enter the burial tomb of the Pharaoh Khafre. He discovered to the tomb of Tutankhamen’s successor, a man known as Ay, of whom little is known – another later pharaoh chiselling his name off all monuments. In 1817 he completed a mammoth task of clearing many tonnes of sand from the blocked entranceway to the Temple of Abu Simbel. Belzoni wrote

“From what we could perceive at the first view, it was evidently a very large place, but our astonishment increased when we found it to be the most magnificent of temples, enriched with beautiful intaglios, painting, colossal figures…” He goes on to describe, as the first person to enter this temple in at least a thousand years, it’s scale and adornments – the ceiling 30 feet high, held up by pillars five feet thick. The walls covered in art depicting wars with their Southern neighbours. 

He entered the tomb of Ramesses I, the founder of the 19th dynasty. While on this mission he discovered the far more richly adorned tomb of Seti I, long buried under the sand and forgotten. In the tomb, besides all manner of treasures and a mummified bull, was an exquisite alabaster sarcophagus. Of course he stole this Egyptian treasure for his English boss – under the tacit approval of the Albanian warlord who declared himself Pharaoh..  

The Belzonis returned to Britain in 1819, where they exhibited some of their ill gotten gains. They became instant celebrities, who publicly lectured about their adventures, on a stage set out to look like an Egyptian tomb. In his show Belzoni would tell his tales of audacious engineering feats, conflicts with the locals, and grave robbing in unhealthy temperatures. He would perform stunts like unwrapping a real mummy for the crowd. Giovanni wrote a book on his adventures in Egypt and Nubia. Soon bored, however, he set off for Timbuktu. When Morocco refused him entry, he landed off the coast of Guinea, West Africa, with a plan to trek through Benin

Giovanni Batista Belzoni died December 3rd 1823 in Gwato, Benin – most likely of dysentery, though fellow adventurer Richard Francis Burton claimed he was robbed and murdered by locals. 

The ‘New Atlantis’?

Hey all, my voice is still very strained, very gravelly – unable to hold together while projecting for more than four words in a row. Were we talking ‘husky’ I’d just hit record, but we’re not… On the upside, I had NO VOICE at all a week ago, so I’m on the mend. 

I’ll get to Mr Belzoni and his tomb-raiding ways as soon as is possible. Ditto Mr Otzi and his pre-historic cat and mouse game – for the Patreon feed. 

In the meantime – I can write at least. Let’s blog something today. Yeah, I’m avoiding William Brydon and all those other obvious topics from the ‘graveyard of empires’ – best folk like me shush a little and let the folk who served in Afghanistan tell their stories, free of my noise I think…. 

The legend of Atlantis comes down to us from the Greek philosopher Plato in the 4th Century BC. Somewhere out beyond the pillars of Hercules (the Strait of Gibraltar), 9,000 years before the philosopher’s time, an island of favoured people lived. They lived morally, and extremely well till they discovered vice and all that other good stuff in life. These vice-loving Atlanteans developed an imperialistic attitude and made war with the people of the Mediterranean, conquering down to Egypt on one side – Italy on the other. Athens, of course fought back and expelled them – then Zeus – enraged with these interlopers – drowned Atlantis in a flurry of earthquakes and floods. 

Plato’s student Aristotle was convinced Atlantis was a device dreamt up by Plato, so he could talk further on what made a good or bad society. Over time many others commandeered the Atlantis myth, dreaming up increasingly complex tales. Sir Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis gives a passing description of a modern recording studio – hundreds of years before we’d even record sound. Sir Thomas More’s Utopia described a land, thought to reflect some realities of living in a monastery – but to my eyes seems more aligned with democratic-socialism. The explorer Alexander von Humboldt was convinced Plato was writing about the Americas. Writer, politician and fringe theorist Ignatius Donnelly was the first to write Atlantis was a super-advanced prehistoric empire in the Southern Hemisphere. It’s people lived in a golden age, taught all the other peoples everything they know, and were so much better than the rest of us. He was, of course popular and influential with people like Helena Blavatsky and Rudolf Steiner.

A master race from a mystical land, with a mythical history one could leverage to rally discontented masses around – nothing bad could come of that, right?

Whatever the Graham Hancocks of the world have to say on the matter, however much some rocks off Bimini look like a formerly giant harbour wall, or how many pre-historic Britons did actually live on Doggerland – Atlantis was just a tall tale from a guy whose hobby horse was a fictional republic (a republic, by the way which looks terribly like a fascist state. If you haven’t read ‘Republic’ you may be in for a surprise). 

But every once in a while, something happens in our real-life history which evokes Atlantis. Rather than bringing up Plato’s moral however, it often brings about the worst, pseudo-Atlantean behaviour in us.

Our Tale proper begins July 1831, in the waters southwest of the Sicilian coast. Fishermen, used to trawling these waters for their living are shocked to find the sea strewn with dead fish. Stranger still, their usual catch are not just dead, but appear to have been boiled alive. This didn’t bode well. Yes, something had saved them the bother of casting nets and lines – and technically these fish were edible – but they carried a stench of sulphur so heavy it could take you off your feet. 

On July 10th the reason for the dead fish asserted itself, as a volcano thrust out of the sea. For several weeks lava flowed out of the mouth of the volcano. It sprawled outwards till it collided with the sea – where the sea hissed, and bubbled, and gave to it. It quickly settled into a substantial clod of solid land – just shy of a kilometre across, and 20 metres tall at it’s apex. Sicily, whose history we’ll zip through in a month’s time, were then under the rule of the French House of Bourbon. On a normal year they would’ve laid claim to this island immediately – but the island were dealing with a deadly cholera epidemic that was far more urgent than some new land. All the same, they did send Michele Fiorini, a customs official out to land on the live volcano on July 17, 1831. That way they could stake a claim to it. 

Others were very interested in the new land. The world of 1831 was not terribly far removed from the world I wrote about in The Batavia some time back. Refrigeration in the home was still a long way off- so spices from the east, to mask decaying meat was a necessity. European sailors made dangerous, eight month voyages out to the East for spices, and a range of other goods. The Suez Canal, which did away with the need to nearly circumnavigate Africa, was still four decades away. At this point in our history, The sea ports of the Ottoman Empire were still a major player – where one could buy Eastern goods to one’s heart’s content. The sea lanes which took you to Modern day Turkey zipped past this new island. But there was one, age old problem – Pirates. 

Piracy was a problem in the Mediterranean for longer than we’ve had written history. The latest batch of pirates, privateers from ‘the Barbary coast’ in the North of Africa. Barbary pirates, from places like Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli made a healthy living picking off European merchant ships – often with the backing of one or other European nation to pick off their rivals (doesn’t this still sound familiar in this day and age). In 1830, France invaded Algiers – citing the time their ruler, Hussein Dey struck the French Consul in the head with a fly whisk, as a fair provocation – slowing piracy considerably. The European powers had been through this all before. Spain, or the USA or someone would come in and clear out the pirates – but they would always return. If only there were a free clump of land to establish a naval base… Someone could rule the Mediterranean from there.

Enter Captain Sir Humphrey Fleming Senhouse, of the British navy. On word of a new island, he jumped onboard the cutter The Hind, and sailed out to the clod of earth. On August 3rd 1831, Senhouse disembarked with a British flag – naming it Graham Island, after the first lord of the Admiralty, Sir James Graham. This act of imperialistic brown nosing would later earn Senhouse his knighthood. Not long after, the island spewed more lava and grew to four square kilometres. It grew to 60 metres in height, and now had two lakes. Bravo Humphrey! One imagines King William IV saying. Sicily, plague or no plague, decided an island of this size is worth the fight, and sent out a couple of war ships. ‘Fair’s fair, we were here and named it after King Ferdinand while you lot were still out playing bowls’ I imagine them saying.  

In the meantime, the French had shown up. Constant Prevost, a French geology professor just so happened to be in the area, with an artist to sketch the new island. Where Sicily named it Ferdinandea a week after it’s appearance, and the British Graham Island – Prevost named the clod Ile Julia, in an essay to the Société géologique de France. This was in honour of it’s July appearance. Now in the news, the public began to speculate. “What if this is the first of many islands to pop up, and next thing there is a mountain range from Sicily to Africa?” “What if this is Atlantis, rising from the waves?”. Unsurprisingly, the French also staked a claim. 

Finally, enter Spain, cause what’s a colonisation without Conquistadors?

For five months the four European nations parked up warships offshore. Politicians made arguments to their successive governments, and to the general public through newspaper articles – all claiming themselves as the rightful claimant. Diplomats glared at one another and all involved wondered when the Cold War would go hot?

In the meantime, tourists arrived at this God-forsaken lump of basalt. They marvelled at it’s geography – ‘It has not one, but two lakes don’t you know?’ The house of Bourbon had plans drawn up for a holiday resort on the lakeside. 

The world held their breath in anticipation of yet another ugly European war.

Then Ferdinandea/Graham Island/Ile Julia/whatever name the Spaniards had for the island sank back into the ocean as quickly as it had risen. 

I’m fairly sure many a modern commentator had something to say on the ethics, practices and hubris of the time. How could one not allude to Zeus and his thunderbolts? As a species we’re so often the worst man! I’m completely unconvinced, were it to rise again – and it could – there wouldn’t be another race to claim the island. In 2000, Prince Carlo di Bourbon – one of two claimants to the vacated throne of The Two Kingdoms of Sicily – paid divers to make the six metre journey to the top of the island to plant a flag, and secure a plaque in the name of his bloodline. 

OK, that’s all for today. I’ll get that podcast/blog post up as soon as my voice returns. 

Update: The Dreaded Lurgy…

Hi everyone just a quick note, I should’ve really posted here first as most of Tales traffic comes directly here – sorry little fluey and not thinking clearly. 

On that count, apologies – this week’s content is going to be a little late. I’ve caught a nasty cold and can barely speak outside of my vocal fry register at the moment. This week’s blog post is written. All the art is done. Most of the music for the podcast too. 

Same for the Patreon episode. 

I wasn’t able to lay down narration, however, before the dreaded lurgy struck. FYI I’m based in New Zealand, where we’ve had no COVID in the community since late February. It is a cold of some description. 

In the meantime I’m doing the things I can – writing for the next couple of posts. I’ll bulk record a load of stuff when my voice returns, and try to use some upcoming annual leave to get an episode or two ahead so I’ve always got a little slack in the timeline moving forwards… And of course drinking lots of fluids, taking my medicine. Thumbing through a Selwyn Raab book from the dining room table – if you need a clue to the podcast topic/s for the second part of this month. 

I’ll be back soon with Giovanni Batista Belzoni- Tomb Raider (and Otzi, for the Patrons). 

Simone. 

Ungern’s Army

Warning! Today we talk of a monster, doing monstrous things amidst a crumbling empire.   


Today’s tale begins in the Mongolian city of Urga – 1st February 1921. The city, home to Mongolia’s spiritual leader, the Bogd Khan; around 60,000 locals, traders, diplomats – and a private army of Chinese invaders from a little over a year before – has been on tenterhooks for months.

I really need to step back a little and explain those Chinese first… don’t I?

Mongolia was in a precarious way – to say the least. For well over a century, the former home of Genghis Khan was a vassal state to one or other of her more powerful neighbours – Russia and China. The failure of China in 1911 – Emperor Puyi deposed, their government giving way to several quarrelling warlords – 

And Russia in 1917 – the Romanovs deposed by a democratic regime in vitro, but soon thrown into a civil war on Comrade Lenin’s return –

Left Mongolia free to hew their own path. They did so for a while, till it became clear no-one in power knew how to run an economy. Mongolia turned to China for help. 

This put them under China’s orbit again … but it doesn’t quite explain their current situation. Two Chinese warlords, Xu Shuzheng and Duan Qirui were two of many to build their own army after the Emperor fell. In the First World War, Xu and Duan were allowed to keep their army – under the auspices of helping Britain and France. When someone needed someone to risk their lives and dig a trench near enemy lines, Xu and Duan’s army obliged. This was their main role in the war. 

With the war over; their real plan – to seize a chunk of China for themselves, as Zhang Zuolin, the self appointed ‘King of the North-East’ had done – became too nakedly obvious. Xu and Duan were suddenly scrambling for an excuse to keep their militia. 

Self rebranded the Bureau of Frontier Defence, they took to ‘monitoring’ the border with Mongolia. On October 23 1919, Duan and Xu rolled across the border with ten thousand troops in tow. They kidnapped the Bogd Khan, and posted armed guards everywhere. Through gunboat diplomacy they convinced the leadership it was in Mongolia’s best interests to put them in charge. Mongolia was now run from Maimaichen, the, now heavily fortified, Chinese enclave of Urga. Their new kings, two Chinese warlords who dared to dream big. 

Xu and Duan might have remained in power for some time, but for the arrival of another army, in October 1920. 

Baron Roman von Ungern-Sternberg was an ousted White Army General, who travelled to Urga to avoid a certain death. Like China, Russia had imploded. A vicious civil war which took up to nine million lives was still raging. Tens of thousands of soldiers of late fighting alongside one another, now bifurcated into the Communist Reds, and Royalist Whites. As a Russian cavalry officer, Ungern had fought with distinction on the Eastern Front – he was an untouchable killing machine at a section of the front which saw a 300% loss of life a year – before being jailed for violence against another officer while on leave. Needing dangerous men on the battlefield more than violent offenders in jail cells, Ungern was released and ultimately sent to the border towns of Siberia- to the wild and lawless places. His mission, to collect whatever Cossacks, Buryat, Mongolians, Tatars, Kipchaks and various other really tough guys he could find on the steppes – and build an army. So he did, and when things fell apart they, ultimately became HIS army. 

For some time, Ungern ran a Fiefdom in the Dauria region – on the border of Siberia and Mongolia. He ruled with an iron fist, shaking down passing travellers, punishing wayward locals, and destroying any Reds who encroached onto his patch. 

Roman von Ungern-Sternberg was soon famous across the nation for his cruelty, fearlessness, and extreme violence. If one spoke of ‘the bloody White Baron, everyone knew who they were talking about. 

He was also a well known zealot, though the nature of his zealotry was complex, and totally self serving. For Ungern, the divine right of kings was everything. One does not unseat a monarch without facing the wrath of God – as a minor aristocrat whose ancestors were employed as enforcers in Estonia, this scans. Beneath that sat an unschooled religious underpinning- part Christianity, part Mongolian Buddhism – acquired either from his wandering in the nineteen-teens, or via an eccentric uncle who was a fervent spiritualist. Ungern saw himself as the latest in a long line of ancestors – crusaders, Teutonic Knights and Baltic pirates; who did well for themselves through violence, most often for a monarch.

Also of note, he was a vile anti-Semite whose army flew a swastika flag before the Nazis even adopted that symbol. 

In Russia, as the Whites crumbled before the Reds, and it looked like Dauria would soon be overrun – Ungern wrote to the Bogd Khan asking permission to enter Mongolia. The captive Khan welcomed him, hoping the Buddhist warlord might rid his nation of their captors.

Back to February 1921. This wouldn’t be Xu and Duan’s first rodeo with Ungern. In October 1920, an exhausted Ungern, newly arrived, led his ragtag bunch in an attack on Maimaichen. The Chinese repelled them, but were horrified at their ferocity. Led by a tall, sinewy, wraith-like figure – horrifically scarred, and with shark-like eyes – this group moved swiftly – killing without a moment’s thought. Ungern particularly, in his blood red Mongolian silk jacket, made for an easy target – but it appeared bullets wouldn’t even touch him. After several suicidal charges, they left the defenders shaken – some wondering if they weren’t facing off against some supernatural force. 

Urga in 1921

Ungern’s Army set up camp near the Kherlen river – living in tents as a 40 below zero winter set in. For months, Xu and Duan’s army looked up to the hills at night. Eerie signal fires lit every single night for one purpose – to remind them what was coming. This gnawed at them, till they took their frustrations out on the non-Chinese residents. Xu’s Army looted homes. They beat locals. One day they executed 50 Mongolian holy men. The other residents of Urga started looking up to the signal fires hopefully, this new army can’t be worse than the current lot?

Then, one night in February ….

Ungern had personally reconnoitred Maimaichen a month earlier – legend has it killing three guards on his way out with nothing more than a bamboo cane. This time they were well rested, and were coming at the city with a clear plan.

The hills lit up as if several thousand soldiers were carrying torches towards them. This was a distraction, and a massive overstatement of their numbers. Meanwhile, 500 men crept up to the edge of the city – and waited for the artillery to be moved into position. A panicked group of sentries spotted them, and fired upon them with machine guns. As bullets mostly whizzed just above their heads, Ungern’s Army broke into two flanks. One returned fire, while the other advanced, and vice versa. 

They soon breached the Chinese defences and overran the town. In the clamour, the Bogd Khan’s personal zoo broke from their enclosures – stampeding wild animals adding to the chaos. The Bogd’s prize elephant would be found 100 miles away, days later. As Ungern’s Army swept Xu’s Army back; a contingent of Tibetan monks – lent Ungern by the Dalai Llama, stormed the Bogd Khan’s compound. Within minutes – fighting with swords and bows – these commando monks butchered most of the 150 jailers, and carried the Bogd Khan to safety. 

As the sun rose, what was left of Xu’s Army took whatever vehicles they could, and fled Urga. Some were picked off by the men in the hills. A Pocket of resistance, who fled to the Russian quarter, fought against Ungern’s sabre wielding army with knives and meat cleavers. They were cut to shreds. 

The last Bogd Khan.

Now, if the people of Urga were rooting for these newcomers, and hoping for freedom – for many the celebrations would be short lived. Ungern’s Army swept the city, murdering anyone they suspected of working for Xu. While they were at it, they killed any Russian immigrants with even tenuous links to the Reds. Anyone suspected of being an enemy of the new regime was put to death. Hangings were commonplace. The town market was turned into a giant bonfire – one poor boy was roasted alive in a baker’s oven. 

Ungern then, true to form, ordered a pogrom on the Jews of Urga. Only then did he turn his attentions to finding what was left of General Xu’s army, and ridding all of Mongolia of their presence. 

Inexplicably, the people of Urga – surrounded by evidence Ungern was a monster – welcomed him as a saviour figure, and a living god of war. On 22nd February 1921, in an ostentatious parade he reinstated the Bogd Khan as king – though he was now a puppet for Ungern himself. Ungern’s army reopened workplaces and public facilities. He had the city streets swept clean, till Urga shone. He instituted law and order in the city – even if punishment was cruel and unusual – lawbreakers being forced to perch on a roof top for weeks on end, or go out, naked and unarmed into the wild – where on at least one occasion the guilty parties were eaten by wolves. He floated a new currency, ‘Barons’ – currency tied to the Mexican peso with sheep, cows and camels on the notes. Urga, at ease, declared Ungern the reincarnation of the fifth Bogd Gegen- putting him on the same pedestal as the Bogd Khan himself.

Had he remained a relatively benevolent dictator, this Tale may have ended differently. It doesn’t. Like all megalomaniacs Ungern had dreams of ruling the world. In his case, he dreamt of reinstating all the cruel and feckless kings deposed in, and prior to the Great War. He planned to do this by rallying tens of thousands of like minds into a grand army, which would sweep Asia, then Russia – where he still hoped to reinstate Nicholas II’s brother Michael to the throne. From there they would invade the democratic nations of Europe. Behind this network of monarchs he imagined himself, the all powerful puppet master. Ungern sent out correspondence to a number of like minded warlords throughout the region. 

This period of relative quiet also allowed Ungern time to get paranoid, and look for trouble where there was none. He established the ‘Bureau of Political Intelligence’ to purge Mongolia of dissidents, under the direction of the sexually sadistic Colonel Sipailov. Sipailov’s end game the sexual gratification he got out of torturing people to death, but also to go after the wealth of his victims. He deliberately targeted somewhere between 250 and 300 of Mongolia’s wealthiest citizens. His witch hunt led to an exodus of wealthy Mongolians, which in turn plunged the nation into an economic depression. 

In mid 1921 the Red Army sent thousands of troops to Dauria, for a planned invasion of Mongolia. The Reds had offered the Chinese help when Ungern showed up in Mongolia in October 1920, but China were pretty sure then could handle them. At the time the Red Army had enough on their plate anyway- but the dust was starting to settle for them, and they could afford to spare the soldiers. At the same time Ungern was planning an invasion of Dauria. He consulted two fortune tellers – one of whom told him he had 130 days left to live, the other ‘130 steps’. Under the weight of the augurers, but convinced he was a supernatural force himself – Ungern prepared his army for the invasion. 

On June 1st Ungern’s army crossed the border, and faced off against the Fifth Red army, 35th Division at the town of Kiatkha. Commanded by the Latvian Konstantin Neumann, the 35th division were also battle-hardened tough guys. they were also far better equipped than Ungern’s Army, and outnumbered them two to one. The two forces skirmished till they met in full force. June 11th, in the forest outside the town. Neumann destroyed Ungern’s army. Ungern abandoned the artillery and fled for the Mongolian border. The Reds invaded Mongolia June 28th, capturing Urga, leaving Ungern rudderless. The Bogd Khan welcomed the Reds as liberators – something he’d regret as they too, it turned out were sadistic murderers. 

Meanwhile Ungern marched eastwards with the remains of his army – through mountains, and snake filled swamps. He had convinced himself if he could get to the city of Verkhne-Udinsk, the White army and the Japanese would be waiting for him. As Ungern came across villages, the increasingly paranoid general ordered the villages looted – the people murdered. He couldn’t chance them being Communist spies. Subsequently they came across deserted village after deserted village. Word preceded him of people crammed into sheds, then set afire. On 31st July Ungern’s army clashed with the Red Army 7th Special detachment in one village. They won this battle, and massacred all the prisoners. 

When Ungern’s army got to Verkhne-Udinsk, the place was swarming with Red soldiers. On 4th August he fled back into Mongolia – Reds in pursuit. Only 500 of Ungern’s army survived this clash. 

Ungern’s Army had had enough. They wanted to leave for Manchuria, in the North of China. Manchu warlords were always on the lookout for battle-hardened mercenaries. Ungern insisted they cross the Gobi desert for Tibet. He still believed he could build a Pan-Asiatic army, and defeat the Reds. His men caved to his demands – but quietly plotted to murder him. 

A few days later, Ungern was leaving the fortune tellers tent, when the conspirators opened fire. Ungern hit the deck and crawled to safety. Keeping low, he scrambled to his horse and rode off into the hills. Several conspirators, now terrified he’d return, packed up and ran in the other direction – Straight into a division of Red soldiers.

Ungern returned that evening, ordering his army to up sticks and follow him across the Gobi. Screaming at the top of his lungs, he waved his pistol at the men. Ungern’s army refused to go.  Ungern mounted his horse and left.

He returned days later, speaking only to the Mongolians. As their living God of War and Bogd Gegen reincarnate, he ordered them to follow him. A Mongolian officer wrestled him to the ground, and had Ungern hogtied. He was left, bound, in an abandoned luggage train. Ungern’s Army dispersed – most going on to find work for one Chinese Warlord or another. The Red army found Ungern on 17th August, still in the train. As Russian newspapers filled with reports the dangerous outlaw had been captured: his army disbanded – Ungern was brought in for a show trial in the Russian city of Novosibirsk. After a summation of his war crimes – an unsanctioned invasion of a sovereign nation, several thousand acts of murder in often the most grotesque ways, the persecution of minorities and the execution of prisoners of war – Baron Roman von Ungern-Sternberg was executed by firing squad, 15th September 1921.

In truth the Bloody White Baron was not completely atypical of the time and place – in the chaos of the Russian Civil War, other monsters carried out monstrous acts – but this is not, exactly what I mean. His parallels with other despots, fascist or otherwise, make him interesting – yet far too common. Monsters like Ungern are often outsiders – sometimes wealthy but bona fide oddballs to polite society all the same. Sometimes, as in the case of Hitler, Napoleon or Ungern they are geographically on the edges of an empire. Their otherness lends them an air of authority to those who feel dispossessed, or left behind by a changing world. They’re often armed with a worldview well beyond the pail – laced with arcane spirituality, or dangerous conspiracy theories.

They ALWAYS speak of a lost golden age which never really existed – and have a simple plan to get back there. ‘We’ll make Mongolia Great Again’. ‘Believe me folks, we’ll win so much, you’ll soon be tired of winning’. You get the picture.
Wary of science and the modern, the Ungerns live in a post truth bubble. Truth always bends to their will – till one day it doesn’t. Always with that other, other in their back pocket to scapegoat. People will happily oblige – believing their violence is directed at those making their lives somehow less Great.

Always beware the Baron von Ungerns, and their death cults folks – those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities. 

Update: Back July 28th

Hey all just a quick update – I hope everyone’s well out there. I’m back with some new content on July 28th. First up is a podcast/blog episode on the guy I dropped a few months back – Baron Roman von Ungern-Sternberg. 

In the first script – the one I binned – I played the Tale like Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. A western saga following groups of irredeemable bad men facing off against other irredeemable bad men … well, except the Wild West was in fact the Wild East – Russia’s untamed frontier. Beyond the comparison, nowhere did I put a tin badge on Ungern, or make him out to be – keeping with movie comparisons – Will Munny in Eastwood’s The Unforgiven. 

But, well you know, we’re conditioned to look at Westerns as binary – men in ‘white hats’ vs men in ‘black hats’. I didn’t wants to put a white hat on a monster, especially one who killed thousands of Chinese invaders (Xu and Duan’s army). Not at a time, especially when violence against Chinese is up in many places.   

So… my revised Ungern is a very different tale. Same facts, very clear perspective on what he was. Stripped of all that fun cowboy stuff. Yeah, maybe a little preachy at times – I am very careful to point out the guy is a monster, and should not be idolised. I’m hoping I’ve hit the right tone for it this time…

Now, on 28 July I’m dropping my first Patreon only bonus podcast also … It’s just the extended version of the ‘Puyi’ tale I told on my (for now abandoned) personal blog. I’ve set the Patreon to $2 US a month. If some of you wish to support the show, and can spare the change, I’d love to have you onboard. If not, again – I won’t be offended… I appreciate you all for taking the time to read my diatribes. 

But it does bring up a question. Most of the bonus episodes will be new material. I’m currently working through bonus tales on Ozti the Iceman, Jorgen Jorgensen (a man who fascinates me endlessly)… a wild tale on the last days of Idi Amin’s rule in Uganda. The beginnings of an on-again-off again series on Hollywood’s Hays Code and the scandals which led to it… 

Is there an appetite here for the blog posts of those episodes? If so, what feels a fair price (per month/year/episode?) for those pieces as ‘premium content’? 

Surely it has to be less than the podcast versions right? I’m providing less with a blog only post. 

I’d love your thoughts on that, if anyone has any to share. Either shout out on the social links, or the contact form on the About/Contact page… Or below. 

Now, all that said – From the 28th, till I’ve completed my proposed ‘Today in History’ videos, I’m going to be taking those ‘blog post only’ weeks off to work on those. I’m less active on social media than I’d like to be at the moment, and those pages are beginning to feel like nothing more than episode spam. Some people also just want some quick factoid or other from their pop-history sites. This, hopefully kills two birds with one stone. To give you a sense of time spent on those – I spend maybe 10 – 15 hours producing a podcast episode (on top of writing etc). The one minute Today in History pilot I made took me 20 minutes to record, mix and cobble together – so I’m hoping to have that project up and running in a few months’ time.    

I’ll be back soon – Simone. 

eden ahbez – Nature Boy (revisited).


Hey all I’m doing something a little different this episode. In the early days of the blog I wrote a piece on the Altamont Free Concert, December 6th 1969, where basically anything which could go wrong did go wrong. The show culminated with the killing of a young man named Meredith Hunter. This was one of those pieces I get to do sometimes where I started off thinking I understood what went down – and came out the other side with a radically different view on the day. I’ll save my thoughts on that – I will do a podcast episode on Altamont at some point. (Note, yes I did one in the disastrous ‘series 0’ but that no longer exists). 

Anyway a friend asked me, after I published the piece “If Altamont is kind of the end of the 60s as we imagine it – hippies and everything. When did the hippies begin?”

I had a bit of a look round, and it seemed to me, beyond the scene round the Red Dog Saloon in Virginia City Nevada, Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, or the Beatniks … well you can go back as far as you like and find people with a hippy vibe about them. Most messianic figures; Lao Tzu, Mazdak, Siddhartha Gautama, Epicurus, Pythagoras… Jesus, all had something of the hippy about them. 

Diogenes? History on Fire’s Daniele Bolelli had him pegged as the first punk rocker. I can see that, but I’m putting in my rival claim for the hippies. St Marius, the stonemason who established the country of San Marino? Yeah, I’d argue he must have had a similar spirit. The Merrymount community of 17th century Quincy Massachusetts? There’s a similarity. 

There’s one group I came across that endlessly fascinated me, however. They owe much to William Pester, the ‘Hermit of Palm Springs’ – a follower of Germany’s Lebensreform movement, and ‘Naturmenschen’ who settled into the American wilderness in 1916 – having fled from the German draft a decade earlier. Based largely in Laurel Canyon, Southern California – the Nature Boys bear more than a passing resemblance to the hippies of the 1960s. One Nature Boy in particular fascinates me, not least of all cause he wrote one of the most haunting songs ever. Right, let’s just jump into it… hit the music. 

This week’s tale begins with a man in a suit trekking through the wilderness calling out for someone at the top of his lungs. The year, 1947. There was a meeting very like this, but this specific part is largely a work of my imagination, a plot device to move the tale on. I, possibly wrongly imagine him middle aged, a little out of breath, and pissed off he’s ruined a nice pair of shoes on this errand.  His instructions, and I paraphrase “you’ll know him when you find him: he looks like Jesus. Oh he may be running round buck naked when you show up – he does that a lot”. The ‘man in the suit’, an employee of Capitol records, is trekking through the hills of Mount Lee, California; through Griffith Park. For weeks Capitol have been looking for this messianic-looking figure – one imagines no ruined loafers, angry mountain lions, or nudity is going to stop this mission. He’s looking for a man, a very strange, enchanted man. Today he’ll find him.

Our mystery man enters the tale following a Nat King Cole concert at California’s Lincoln Theater, earlier in 1947. Cole had yet to go solo, yet to break the colour barrier. As part of the Nat King Cole trio, the future crooner was still a proto R&B musician; a decent vocalist and incredible piano player. In attendance that night a long haired white man, also a piano player, who managed to blag his way into the after-party. 

At several points in the night, the man tried to catch Cole’s attention, but was rebuffed at every advance. As a last ditch effort, he handed his payload, a crumpled up piece of paper, to Cole’s valet. The valet subsequently handed it on to Cole’s manager, who eventually passed the paper on to Cole himself. It was a song, a very strange, enchanted song… Mystical, prototypical exotica, haunting and otherworldly. It struck Nat King Cole as something special. He started performing it in his live sets. His crowds, and you have to figure we are talking about a time when music was primarily made for dancing to, listening was secondary- well they listened … and they went crazy for it. 

The song was titled Nature Boy. Not unlike P.B. Shelley’s Ozymandias, the protagonist meets a wise traveller from a distant land. The men speak for some time, and the wise man the ‘Nature Boy’ gives him the following advice…

“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn, is just to love, and be loved in return”

Brooding and exotic, at once reminiscent of Dvorak and of Yiddish folk music. Hauntingly poetic, Nat King Cole knew he absolutely had to cut this track… but who was the mysterious, long haired writer? With all the copyright, and publishing red tape to go through to make the record, an all points bulletin was sent out to everyone who knew everyone in Hollywood. 

After some detective work they worked out the man was eden ahbez – deliberately in lower case (ahbez believed only two words should be capitalised – God and Infinity). ahbez was born George Alexander Aberle in 1908 to a Jewish father, Scottish mother,  and promptly abandoned in a Jewish orphanage in New York. Aged around 10 he was adopted by the McGrew family of Chanute, Kansas. As a young man he joined a dance band – I presume one of the swing orchestras which were in vogue at the time? – first as a pianist, then later a band leader. 

In 1941 he moved out to Los Angeles, where he found work as a pianist at a raw foods restaurant and supermarket in Laurel Canyon, The Eutropheon – a shop established in 1917 by John and Vera Richter. The Richters had come by their beliefs at John Harvey Kellogg’s Battle Creek Sanitarium; and were firm believers in the health benefits of eating only raw fruit and vegetables. The Eutropheon was a hub for many ‘alternative lifestyles’ in Laurel canyon, particularly the early bodybuilders, who had a gym nearby; socialists – the Richters themselves vocal supporters of senator, trade unionist, activist and 1912 socialist party presidential candidate Eugene Debs – and the Nature Boys. abhez soon gravitated towards the latter. 

Just hanging with a dog, a plate of raw snacks and singing cowboy Roy Rogers

A group of proto-hippies, living mostly in caves and very rustic cabins in the Palm Springs area; the Nature Boys followed the teachings of William Pester – the Hermit of Palm Springs. Pester himself a follower of a German 19th century back to nature movement called the ‘Naturmenschen’. They wore their hair long, and grew big, bushy beards. Whenever possible, they preferred to go nude, ate only raw fruit and vegetables, studied eastern spiritualism, and believed in the importance of casting off the restraints of the modern world for a simpler life, more aligned with nature. Pester would pass on in 1963, before his philosophy really took off in the ‘summer of love’. 

eden ahbez was, indirectly, an acolyte of Pester’s. He joined the movement in 1941 while Pester was in jail – he was accused, first of being a German spy in 1940, and when that didn’t stick, jailed for having sex with a minor, till 1946.

 Back to the man in a suit. I imagine him all out of breath, clutching a contract which now looks every bit as crumpled as the paper ahbez passed to Cole’s valet.  He eventually caught up with eden ahbez- clothed in a white toga, camping out under the first L in the Hollywood sign. Ahbez granted his permission to record the song, which though semi-autobiographical, he explained was also a tribute to William Pester. In August 1947 Nat King Cole cut the track. The finished product was incredible. Capitol, for all that effort, killed the track. It just didn’t jive with smooth pop crooner image they were creating for Nat King Cole. However, in 1948, fate threw a spanner in Capitol’s works. 

The American Federation of Musicians, led by James Petrillo, went on strike. Petrillo was a trumpeter who had become a music union organiser in 1920 – and president of the union in 1940. He’d called a strike which lasted the better part of two years in 1942, over recording royalties for session musicians – which ultimately was successful – and had some far reaching consequences. 


Sidebar: it was a factor in the demise of the big swing band era – alongside American entry into WW2 and rationing of the petrol needed to take a big band on tour in a bus etc. As such it was a building block in the creation of smaller groups – who would morph into rock and roll groups over time. It recast the singer as the band lead. Radio stations were forced to go outside their usual repertoire – leading to boom times for country and western, and R&B groups, among others. It also, sadly meant the first couple of years of bebop went unrecorded.


I guess the things which need to be understood about the 1942 – 44 strike: It started as the union recognised a musician got paid every time they performed live – but only once to record. Their work could then get played thousands of times on commercial radio stations, millions potentially on jukeboxes, or on record players in peoples’ homes – for which they would go completely unpaid. The strike secured a royalty of around 2.5% for the musicians.

James Petrillo addresses his union members.

The strike of 1948 – which ran for eleven months, was of a similar nature, but aimed squarely at broadcasters. The history of television is a Tale for another day, but this was timely – in 1947 television was an odd thing only a few thousand people were tuned into. From 1949 TV stations began to really proliferate – with the format really starting to take off in 1951. In both strikes record companies stockpiled massive amounts of music beforehand – and before the strike came to an end, had to release songs they had mothballed earlier. 

 Nature Boy was one such track, getting it’s release on March 29th 1948. It shot to number 1 with a bullet and stayed there for 7 weeks. It was just the crossover hit Nat King Cole needed, introducing him to white audiences. This was a mixed blessing, as it also brought him to the attention of racists who would burn crosses in his front yard – but it also elevated him to superstardom.

eden ahbez made around $20,000 in royalties, somewhere in the order of $200,000 by today’s standards.  He gave around half the money to friends; and likely lost the rest in 1951 – when a composer named Herman Yablokoff took him to court for plagiarism. He claimed ahbez stole his song “shvayg mayn harts” (hush my heart). ahbez stated the melody came to him “as if angels were singing it” while camping out in the mountains. Yablokoff replied the angels must have bought his record then. 

The song was later covered by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Rick Astley (yes he who is never going to give you up, let you down). George Benson laid down a funky take on the song. Marvin Gaye’s cover is ethereal. David Bowie recorded a solid version for the soundtrack to Moulin Rouge. Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga recorded a version – one could imagine ahbez’s shock, had he lived, to see Gaga in her meat dress – avowed raw food vegetarian that he was.

For some time eden ahbez was a celebrity. He released his own albums, which fit into the growing exotica genre popular with people who felt too old to love rock and roll, but too cool to keep buying Old Blue Eyes Sinatra’s records anymore. Journalists, just like my man in a suit, went out of their way to find and interview the messianic figure who scored the monster hit on his first try. In these interviews ahbez often extolled the virtues of living the Nature Boy lifestyle. eden ahbez, ahbe to his friends, lived a simple life, largely in accordance with nature till his death in a car crash in 1995. 

The great Pre-Raphaelite artist, iconoclast and writer William Morris, a man with somewhat hippy leanings himself once wrote.

“History has remembered the kings and warriors, because they have destroyed; art has remembered the people because they created”

Tales of Art and Imagination this week? Yeah, I’ll gladly take that. 

Nellie Bly: 10 Days in a Madhouse

“I would like the expert physicians who are condemning me for my action, which has proven their ability, to take a perfectly sane and healthy woman, shut her up and make her sit from 6 A. M. until 8 P. M. on straight-back benches, do not allow her to talk or move during these hours, give her no reading and let her know nothing of the world or its doings, give her bad food and harsh treatment, and see how long it will take to make her insane. Two months would make her a mental and physical wreck.”

Nellie Bly, ‘Ten Days in a Mad House’ (1887).


In 1885 an ‘anxious father’ of 5 unmarried daughters wrote a letter to the Pittsburgh Dispatch, desperate for advice – and worried how his girls would cope out in the big, bad world without men to look after them. Their columnist Erasmus Wilson replied in an editorial piece entitled ‘What girls are good for’.
According to Wilson, girls were not good for terribly much. In his diatribe Wilson decried working women as “A monstrosity”, stating the only place for a woman was in the home. He lambasted parents of working women for allowing them to enter the workforce, and suggested America should follow China’s 2 millennia long practice of (some) parents drowning female babies. If you imagine that even in 1885 such an exhibit of he-man woman hating misogyny would get some heat, you’d be correct. A mountain of letters of complaint to the editor came flooding in. One in particular, an anonymous piece signed “lonely orphan girl” stood out for it’s remarkably direct and persuasive use of language. The letter never got published, but so impressed managing editor George Madden that he wrote an open letter inviting the writer to come see him.

The next day, a 20 year old woman named Elizabeth Cochran – a former trainee teacher at Indiana Teacher’s college who dropped out to help her mother run a boarding house – arrived at the office. Madden offered her a job as a reporter, which she took unhesitatingly. Cochran took on the nom de plume Nellie Bly, a name she borrowed from a minstrel song written by the “Father of American Music” Stephen Foster.


Bly wrote for the Pittsburgh Dispatch for seven years, writing mostly on fashion, high society, gardening and the like… but she also covered the lives of working women, the poor of Pittsburgh, and for some time, official corruption and wealth inequality in Mexico. Looking for bigger opportunities, she moved to New York in 1887. That year she approached Joseph Pulitzer’s ‘The New York World’ (yes, that Pulitzer, of the prize… if you recall the mountebank Ignaz Trebitsch Lincoln also wrote for them on occasion) wanting to report on the lives of poor immigrants in the Big Apple. While the New York World was not at all interested in that story, they did have a challenging job for Nellie, if she felt she was up to the task- infiltrate the remote, secretive Blackwell Island insane asylum. As she would to a number of big challenges in her life, Bly took up the challenge without hesitstion.

Joseph Pulitzer.

On 22nd September 1887 Nellie Bly came up with a plan to get herself committed with the least amount of collateral damage. Under the guise of a young out of towner looking for work, she booked herself into a boarding house for working women, then began to act one part paranoid, one part clinically depressed, one part retrograde amnesiac. She, in turns, acted ‘mad’ till the boarding house owners called for two police officers to come over and take Nellie away. The police arrived and took her back to the station, then before the kindly Judge Duffy, who took some convincing to send Nellie to Bellevue hospital for examination. At Bellevue, Nellie easily convinced the doctors she was “positively demented” and beyond help, after a short examination by a couple of what then passed for expert doctors.

She was soon sent off to the asylum.

In her ten days in the asylum, she uncovered a litany of horrors and mistreatment. First there was the ubiquitous chill – Although the asylum was freezing cold (she references this several times including talk on seeing others skin going blue with the cold) the staff refused to turn on the heat or provide sufficient clothing to keep inmates warm. Second, the long hours of sitting around in a main room; unadorned and overcrowded, on backless benches (six people crammed onto five spaces) – where one dare not speak, or move around for fear of abuse from the staff. Third the food sounded absolutely Dickensian. Bly describes on their arrival to the island the sickening stench coming from one particular building,

We passed one low building, and the stench was so horrible that I was compelled to hold my breath….” This turned out to be the kitchen. Bly goes on stating she
“…smiled at the signboard at the end of the walk: “Visitors are not allowed on this road”. I don’t think the sign would be necessary if they once tried the road, especially on a warm day”.

She goes on to describe inedible food, soups which were little more than water, blackened (possibly moldy) bread, rancid butter.

The inmates were, also, not bathed enough. When they were, they bathed in ice cold water, were scrubbed by the same few flannels and were dried off with the same few towels – this included inmates with untreated sores. The inmates were also dressed in the same clothes for up to a month at a time.

Adding to the horrors, sleep for any decent length of time, was out of the question – the noise of the nurses moving up and down the hallways at night reverberated like they were in an echo chamber. If that didn’t wake you, then he nurses opening the door to look in – having to turn a heavy, noisy lock each time to do so, was bound to wake you up. Speaking of those doors, they were death traps, should a fire break out. All individually locked, with no safety to unlock all the rooms at once should an emergency occur, there would be no chance of getting anyone out alive if the worst happened.


That Bly comments that, in her opinion, many of the women incarcerated are as sane as herself one might choose to accept, or dismiss as they see fit. Certainly in some of her conversations it seems clear some of the inmates were suffering from, at most, depression or anxiety. Some you do question if they are suffering from anything besides the effects of being trapped in an asylum.

Bly mentions of a French inmate, Josephine Despreau, who appeared to have been locked up over a misunderstanding, and did not have enough English to defend herself. A Sarah Fishbaum, who was locked away by her husband, after she either flirted with or had an affair with another man. She mentions a German maid named Margaret, who was locked up after getting into a fight with co-workers who deliberately messed up a floor she had spent hours scrubbing. What’s also pretty obvious is both the unprofessionalism of the doctors (one gossiping with the nurse in front of Bly, asking if she had read the newspaper articles on Bly’s case), and of their great disinterest in helping, or even properly assessing their inmates.

The nurses are disturbing in other ways, Bly reporting of their propensity to act violently towards the inmates. She mentions one case where “an insane woman” was dropped off to the island, and the nurses greeted her with a beating. When a doctor noticed the inmate’s black eye, the nurses claimed the beating must have happened before the inmate arrived. Then there was the case of Mrs Cotter, to quote Bly

“One of the patients, Mrs Cotter, a pretty, delicate woman, one day thought she saw her husband coming up the walk. She left the line in which she was marching and ran to meet him. For this act she was sent to the Retreat. She afterward said:
“The remembrance of that is enough to make me mad. For crying the nurses beat me with a broom- handle and jumped on me, injuring me internally, so that I shall never get over it. Then they tied my hands and feet, and, throwing a sheet over my head, twisted it tightly around my throat, so I could not scream, and thus put me in a bath tub filled with cold water. They held me under until I gave up every hope and became senseless.”

After ten days she was rescued by her colleagues at the New York World. She recorded her experiences of Blackwell Island in a six part expose, which was compiled into a book, ‘Ten Days in a Mad House’. The uproar over the treatment of the inmates led to a grand jury investigation, which in turn led to an overhaul of the asylum.

Bly would go on to write several similar exposes in her career, taking down sweatshops, corruption in jails, and bribery from lobbyists; though perhaps today is best known for having taken on the challenge of following in the footsteps of Jules Verne’s Phileas Fogg (Around the World in Eighty Days, 1873). She documented her circumnavigation of the globe in just 72 days. Nellie Bly retired from journalism in 1895, after marrying the wealthy industrialist Robert Seaman. When Seaman died in 1903 she took the reins of his factory, but would return to journalism in 1920. Elizabeth Cochran, known to the world as Nellie Bly, star investigative reporter, died of pneumonia, January 27th 1922.

Update: Downtime….

Hey all just a quick note today. I’m taking four weeks off publishing the blog posts so I can get ahead of other parts of this channel. In the meantime I’m hoping to get the podcast episodes back on Wednesdays.

I’m planning to record two already published blog posts to podcast this afternoon, once the neighbours have all put away their lawnmowers, and two further episodes for the next four week break (I’m sticking to my ten weeks on, four off schedule for now).

In the next block I’m going into Austrian pre-history, a convict king, some Mesopotamian history, circus strongmen, a murder mystery, and Benito Mussolini’s hat… among other things.

In the meantime, typewriters away! (I don’t really use a typewriter), microphones out! (I use an USB mic). The next two podcast episodes will be on Nellie Bly and eden ahbez.

The Sin-Eater

Hey all, please count the following as week ten of this week’s ten week sprint. I’m taking a four week break, though the podcast will continue with two episodes ‘from the vaults’. I’m planning to be back straight after that with the next ten week sprint. 

This week, I’m keeping it short and sweet. 

I’ve wondered on occasion about Richard Munslow’s funeral in 1906. When the Shropshire farmer – and practitioner of a lost art – died, aged 73, did family members of his clients pay their respects? Was there a gathering afterwards, with food and drink? Did the assembled dare take a bite? I don’t ask to make fun of his passing – I do seriously wonder. 

There’s a riddle ‘When the undertaker dies, who buries the undertaker?’ The answer “whosoever undertakes to do so”

When a sin-eater passes, who will break bread for them? Given Munslow’s passing saw the death, also, of a practice long frowned upon – my best guess is – nobody? When Richard Munslow passed, the act of sin-eating went to the grave with him. As a third generation atheist, a part of me thinks not a moment too soon. However, as someone with some level of empathy about me, I dread to think Munslow might have believed in his avocation. Did he spend his last hours terrified he was taking all of Shropshire’s collected sins to hell with him when he went? 

The practice of sin eating dates at least as far back as the early 17th century, mostly in Wales and the bordering English counties. If someone died before they could confess their sins, a sin-eater was called in. While the body lay in state, and family and friends gathered to drink – a pastry would be placed on the deceased’s chest or face, in the belief it could soak up all their sins. A sin-eater would then enter, and eat the pastry – reciting “I give easement and rest now to thee, dear man. Come not down the lanes or in our meadows. And for thy peace, I pawn my own soul. Amen.” The sin-eater, not unlike The Green Mile’s John Coffey, purged the dead of their sins – they believed at the cost of their own damnation. As much as Coffey strikes me as a stand in for Jesus (right down to the JC initials), it’s believed the practice grew out of a wish to emulate Christ.

For the families it gave them solace their relative would now ascend to heaven. The community at large could breathe easy some poor spirit would not be left to wander aimlessly forever – chain-rattling and scaring the villagers half to death. The sin-eater would barely eke out a living in the process.  

Sin-eating was a profession for only the poorest in the village. It was poorly paid, and it carried a heavy stigma with it. If one were a sin-eater, others considered you so toxic it was extremely bad luck to even look you in the eye. As a result, most sin-eaters lived in isolation from the rest of the village, on it’s outskirts. From what I can gather, most believed their acts both sent many a sinner to heaven, and destined themselves to burn in hell for eternity. It was also considered an act of heresy – and if caught, one could face punishment similar to that dished out to witches of the era. As a rule, most sin-eaters were criminals or alcoholics who had few other options available.  

Though the practice pretty much disappeared in the mid 19th century, Richard Munslow – a man who ate others sins, not for lack of money, but because he hated to see others suffer – continued to break bread with the deceased till early into the 20th century. Though I’m doubtful others passed on the favour for him, he was honoured by the people of Ratlinghope, Shropshire in 2010. His tombstone looking much the worse for wear after a century of neglect, Reverend Norman Morris collected £1,000 from the locals, and had his grave restored.