Category Archives: Best Laid plans….

Welcome to History’s plots and hoaxes

The Dog Days King

The Dog Days’ King Tales of History and Imagination

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Patreon: Puyi

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

I also put those four episodes up on YouTube in full, using iMovie on my tablet to make promo ads for the Patreon.


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

This episode can be found Here on Patreon

Hi all, today’s post is a short one. Today I want to share a Tale of the last Chinese Emperor, a man known simply as Puyi.

Puyi came to power just shy of his third birthday in 1908, after his predecessor – the Guangxu Emperor Zaitian died unexpectedly. Zaitian had around 2,000 times the normal level of arsenic in him, so we can guess the cause. Puyi himself was deposed following the Xinhai Revolution just four years later. The people wanted increased representation with less foreign encroachment – the crown wanted to sell the railways to overseas investors and rule with an iron fist- things escalated.

For most of his life, Puyi was kept like a bird in a gilded cage. Kept in luxury in palatial surroundings, but without the freedom to go where he chose. He was a cruel, capricious bird – who made the lives of the royal eunuchs miserable. For 12 days in July 1917 he was restored to the throne by the warlord Zhang Xun – but for the Tale’s sake let’s imagine him there – a prisoner of fate and circumstance. Somewhat nicer than he really was.

Puyi had a learned tutor named Reginald Johnston. Johnston was a diplomat who served as the last British commissioner of the treaty port of Weihaiwei, in the North of the country. Later in his life, Johnston wrote a book, Twilight in the Forbidden City, which was adapted into the movie The Last Emperor. Peter O’Toole played him on the big screen.

Johnston taught the captive emperor a great many things about the world outside – but the one thing which most enraptured Puyi was the telephone. We currently live in a world where new technology has a crazy fast uptake. In 2021, perhaps everyone’s grandma has a tablet or smartphone. In 1921 telephones were still largely an odd device owned by few– decades after it’s invention. It was still very much a shiny new toy. As with many teens, the last emperor insisted on getting the shiny new toy – to the consternation of his handlers.

“But, your majesty, the palace has never had a telephone before” they said. “Bringing in such Western technology will upset the celestial balance” they pleaded (I paraphrase), un-ironically – while surrounded by Swiss cuckoo clocks, under electric lightbulbs – down the hall from a grand piano. Puyi dug in his toes and fought like hell over this; a phone line was going in. So it was the last emperor ended his splendid isolation from the world.

But, what did he do with his new found freedom? Did he place diplomatic phone calls to world leaders? No. Enter into a romantic courtship with some forbidden love? Apparently not. Negotiate a book deal? Not a chance.

He spent his time making countless prank phone calls to other anyone else unlucky enough to also have a phone.

His pranks were hardly comedic gold. He took to ringing the Chinese Opera singer Yang Xiaolou and giggling uncontrollably when he answered. He regularly ordered expensive meals from restaurants, pretending to be other people, and sent them out – cash on delivery, to strangers houses. Though not a prank, he regularly called Reginald Johnston at all hours to ask a question or complain about something someone did in the palace to upset him. I really hoped for a ‘is your fridge running’ gag at the very least.

A few years later he used his phone to plot an escape, with the Dutch ambassador. Unfortunately for him, this plot was rumbled.

Emperor Puyi married in 1922. He was exiled to another gilded cage when the warlord Feng Yuxiang took over Beijing in 1924. From 1932 to 1945 he was the puppet ruler for the Japanese in a state named Manchukuo, largely Manchuria. Throughout the 2nd Sino-Japanese war and World War Two, he called for the people to support Japan. After the war spent time in jail for war crimes – and spent his final years living in an ordinary house in Communist Beijing with his sister.

In old age people commented he became humble, kind and considerate. I have no word on whether he had a phone installed in his sister’s place, or what he may have done with it.

Revenge of the Tallysticks

The Revenge of The Tally Sticks Tales of History and Imagination

This week I’m starting with a quick anecdote. Please bear with me, this is not going to be a regular thing. Nor is the general tone of this Tale regular. I thought I was making something short and a little strange, to give me extra time on the last couple of episodes for 2022 – a bit of a firebreak I guess. This episode took off on me as I laid pen to paper – taking on complexities I didn’t foresee. 

Anyway, I ask you give me time to set the scene on this one, and suspend disbelief on occasion. If this tale is not for you, no worries – we’ll be back to regular programming in two weeks’ time if you want to skip it. That said… 

I’m no animist, but there’s a dream I had years ago. Apparently it’s a dream that I can still clearly recall. In 2007 I worked for a call centre by day, as a kind of in-house investigator. By night I was a guitarist in a rock band that had a level of local buzz and a local following. The band never really broke through – and eventually split – later taking up other creative endeavours- like podcasting. In 2007 we were self funding an extended EP, and when money ran short – I took to hiring myself out as a studio player for our producer for more studio time. This was a fair piece of barter; I got to redo all the guitars on one track, our producer got to finish an EP she was working on. On having arrived home one night from a mix-down session that ran to 2 am, I fell into a deep sleep… to dream of, well, musical instruments. 

Ishtar playing The Studio 2004 - I’m somewhere to the left of the photo.
Ishtar at the Studio, 2004. Simone to the left, Mel middle, Jamie right…Dave somewhere in the background.

I was in a studio we’d borrowed for a day that was full of esoteric percussion and orchestral instruments. Amid their collection, a rather beat-up old cello with a string missing. At the session I picked the instrument up, and had a play – before deciding it wouldn’t add anything to the song. A scratch track on the instrument was subsequently cut. In my dream I picked the cello up, took a seat, and plucked at the strings till something musical came out. “Cello, it’s been a long day” I said. 

“It’s been a long life” The cello replied. “Once I was majestic, the tallest Maple on the block. When it rained, elk sheltered beneath my canopy. When the sun was out, robins perched upon me and sang like angels.”

“We had our own song too, you know? When the wind blew, we sang – and what a song it was!” 

Simone playing the Dog’s Bollix bar with a couple of acoustics and a mandolin.
Simone onstage with a mandolin at The Dog’s Bollix bar.

Three and a half hours later an alarm sounded, and I trundled off to work. “Funny dream” I thought. I recalled the last thing I’d read that week was an account of the Emperor Charlemagne and his vendetta against a tree, the Irminsul. Yeah, that’d be it – exhaustion plus Charlemagne equals dreams of talking cellos?   

In that spirit I invite you to suspend disbelief with me, and take a boat ride down the River Thames, England. The year is 43 AD, and we’re cruising the river in search of a suitable place for a fortress. Everywhere we look there are trees – a heavy covering of Weeping Willows rising up from the wetlands, then bowing down again to kiss the water. As day-trippers in modern times we appreciate the Acadian beauty of the scene. To a boatload of Roman Legionnaires sailing into parts unknown where – as far as they know – they could meet the same end as Varus’ legions in the Teutoburg forest (we’ll come back to that tale, eventually) – it must’ve been terrifying? This is not the tale of those Romans – They establish London, well, Londinium to use the name they did – and do many other things – we’re interested in those willow trees. We’ll return to London – and eventually those trees – in a minute. 

But first we need to discuss money.

In the episode on Martial Bourdin I stated time itself is a very real phenomenon, but how we measure it is nothing more than a standardised set of measures agreed upon by all. We do this in part because of precedence, and in part because it’s in the interests of those in power to do so. Sometimes it’ll be in the interests of society as a whole. We call this a noble myth, or a noble lie. Though the origins of money are somewhat murky, we can fairly safely say in it’s every iteration it has been a noble myth.

On to that origin story – nobody ever recorded the why’s and wherefores. There’s a tale that states money came about from necessity, as the earlier system of barter reached it’s limits. Once all our ancestors were nomadic hunter-gatherers, but the advent of the ice age pushed many of the animals they hunted towards places sure to still have food – fertile river valleys. Humans, still hunter-gatherers, followed their prey. Once in these enclaves, as land elsewhere became barren, our ancestors became territorial, claiming ownership over the land. From 10,000 years ago we began to domesticate certain animals as pets or beasts of burden. Many humans learned to farm the land for food and other supplies.

Around 4,000 years ago, at several places all at once, we invented the plough – creating massive surpluses, and freeing up 5/6 of the workforce to diversify. The working theory is that this diversification led to greater choice in how one swapped their surplus goods for other things – but it proved terribly inefficient. 

Say you made arrows and needed grain, but none of the hunters who use your arrows grew crops – and none of the farmers who have the grain need arrows anymore – then what do you do? Without a double coincidence of wants between the parties, it was hypothesised, barter failed. There a standardised proxy for goods seems sensible, right? Something quite rare, and durable enough to withhold being passed from one person to the next many times.  

Where this theory falls down, is there is some proof of barter in some places – but no proof found yet of a community who bartered, then ditched the practice for a system of money – let alone giving any reason for doing so for posterity. 

Somewhere along the line though, the idea of money of account – a token of standardised value – grew . Early methods included cowrie shells, and beads. The Mesopotamians (of modern day Iraq) invented the shekel somewhere around 2,150 BC. A silver coin which borrowed it’s name from a measurement of barley – approximately a weight of 11 grams – one can guess what it originally stood in proxy of. The shekel was used throughout much of the near east. Money was truly standardised, however by the Lydians (of modern day Turkey) around 1,000 BC. They had different coins, worth differing amounts. Their rulers even put their faces on the coins for the first time. In the late sixth century BC, their King Croesus, a man with a great love of his ample fortune, became a person of interest in Greece – as did those coins which bore his image. Croesus love of money, his meeting with the Athenian lawmaker Solon, and later run in with the Persians is of interest – but let’s shelve that too for another day – we’ve got too much ground to cover. From Lydia to Greece, to Rome and beyond you can sketch more or less unbroken lines to modern coinage.

Back in England, those Roman soldiers sailing down the Thames settled. They, of course were paid in coins. Over the course of the first century they brought destruction, conquering as far as what later became Hadrian’s wall (the wall itself built from 122AD) in the North of England. They also brought vast building and infrastructure projects – roads and canals, public buildings – built in stone and sometimes clad in marble. Groves of willow trees were felled to make way for a walled city which held 50,000 at it’s Roman era peak. There’s no word if the weeping willows wept at such carnage (stick with the plot device, it’ll make sense in the end). 

Weeping Willows on the Thames
Weeping Willows on the Thames

A section of the English public, then a pre-literate society, learned to read, write and count. The Roman presence opened up lines of trade with the empire in Europe, and as such, opportunity for some. They also brought money to a people completely unaccustomed to the concept. For a small percentage of elite Britons, the Roman presence brought great wealth, prestige, and nice things like costly villas to live in. For perhaps as much as 99% of Britons, however, life was a similar daily grind to before – where one mostly subsisted, and occasionally starved – but at least they had roads to travel along, and slightly nicer pottery?

Of course the Romans also brought a time of peace. With as many as 50,000 legionnaires along Hadrian’s wall alone, elite Britons slept well in their villas at night – assured no Picts, Scots, Goths, Vandals, Saxons, Angles or Swabians could arrive and steal all their precious money. But this peace wouldn’t last forever. Rome disintegrated throughout the Fourth Century for numerous reasons, both within and without the kingdom. The supply of shiny new silver coins everyone had become accustomed to slowed to a trickle, as the Empire struggled to keep the lights on. Many of those soldiers England’s peace depended on were stationed to other parts of the empire, where trouble brewed for Rome. 

Londinium in the 2nd Century
Londinium in the 2nd Century

The English, knowing money didn’t grow on trees (not yet anyway), started to ‘clip’ their coins to make the money go further – cutting chunks of silver off existing coins to mint new ones. In 409 AD, England, feeling Rome had abdicated all their responsibility to them – Brexited from the Romans in a successful rebellion. Having ‘taken back their sovereignty’, the cashflow stopped completely. What’s more, without garrisons of troops to protect them, the Picts of the North descended with a vengeance upon them. 

Thriving cities and expensive villas were abandoned. Many wealthy Britons buried their beloved – though now dog-eared coinage in hoards. The land descended into an anarchy that would take hundreds of years to recover from. The willow trees took back much of London. When the wind blew, they sang a song of victory. When it rained, the red deer took shelter. When the moon was full, the wolves howled ominously. 

I am looking to plough too big a field if I described everything that happened in England in the following years. The chronicler the Venerable Bede stated attacks from the Picts and Scots worsened. An English warlord named Vortigern hired a mercenary army of Saxons from the north of modern day Germany to help them fight back. Unfortunately for Vortigern, the Saxons liked England so much, they returned with friends and took over the country. This could contain some truth – Britons were not allowed to use weapons under Roman occupation, so most lacked the skills to repel a professional army. We know the Saxons, Angles and Jutes established several kingdoms in England from the early 440s – and that some kind of widespread slaughter of Britons did take place. Barbarians rolled many other Roman colonies, and they subsequently adopted many Roman ways – but Germanic invaders in England took on around 30 Romano-Britonic words, and nothing else. Virtually everything else was allowed to disintegrate around them. 

This suggests several possible scenarios – none of which are pleasant for the original inhabitants of the land. Like the origin of money, the history of this time is incredibly murky, so we’ll move on.  

Vikings first showed up in 789, and made a big splash in 793, when they wrecked the monastery on the island of Lindisfarne. Anglo-Saxon England was divided up into at least a dozen kingdoms – at times dozens – ruled by all kinds – but we’re now straying a long way from the money, and the trees – so back to the topic.

Londinium was slowly re-populated, just shy of two centuries after it was abandoned. It would become Londonwik before it became known as London. Shepherds ventured out to the area now called Covent Garden. It seemed a nice place to keep sheep. Over time others would come, and the city would rebound – but to the willows this time must’ve seemed like paradise. Shepherds sheltered under them in the rain. When the stars shone bright, young lovers sung of love and longing like Chaucer’s Absolum to an unattainable Alisoun. One presumes the trees provided swelling harmonies. 

Coins returned to England under Offa, King of Mercia (his reign 757 – 796). The man brought back the silver penny. His coins were remarkable in some ways – often of a higher quality than anything being minted in mainland Europe at the time. Some carried Arabic writing on one side. Some carried the image of his wife, Cynethrith – making her the only Anglo-Saxon queen represented on money. An empire builder intent on bringing England under just one ruler, coinage was a kind of propaganda to the king – a way of big-noting himself and letting everyone know he was the new boss. Offa embraced that aspect of money. As did every subsequent king or queen after him. By the time of the Normans in the 11th Century, coins were well established – but wealth had gravitated upwards into the hands of a small, elite class.

A general shortage of ready cash among the populace, to pay taxes with, often proved troublesome to these English royals. Take Henry I, fourth son of William the Conqueror. On his father’s death he had to buy his own fiefdom in Normandy off his older brothers. In 1091 he was deposed of that kingdom by his brother Robert, and had to fight a costly war with him. By 1100 he was king of England, and Normandy – but was broke and facing multiple challenges to his crown. He desperately needed tax revenue… If only money grew on trees.

Well, it did, but not in the way you’re thinking – let’s put China and paper money to one side for now. The royals came up with a plan that, if those willows had emotions, they would have been shaking in terror over it.

Whole groves of weeping willows were press-ganged into finance. Henceforth their song would become less lullaby of the leaves, more a dull clatter as they banged up against one another. 

Henry I came up with an interesting way to keep receipts on taxes paid. Tax would be recorded on a Tally Stick, as you had an annual tax bill, but typically paid it in halves, twice a year. A tally stick was a piece of wood, usually willow, that was split in two – both parts marked with identical notches to denote just how much tax the person had paid. The payer kept the longer piece, known as the stock (where we get the word stocks from). The exchequer kept the shorter piece, known as the foil. Willow trees were perfect for use as tally sticks as their distinctive grain pattern meant you couldn’t easily substitute one stock with another foil. When it came time to confirm who had paid their taxes, both parts were joined back together. 

People realised if they were in need of money, they could often trade in their stocks for close to that sum of money – the new stockholder knew it was as good as guaranteed money come tax time. Jewellers often got into the business of buying tally sticks off the hard up, creating a secondary market. Henry II realised this also meant he could sell stocks to people for their future taxes at a slight discount, allowing for quick cash injections if money was needed to go fight a war. The stockholder could then sell the stock at a profit too on the secondary market. These tokens often spread far and wide in the kingdom – many times a long way away from the original taxpayer. 

On occasion however; a king, such as Charles II, might game the system. 

Having been restored to the throne in 1660 (his father Charles I having lost his head, with the Cromwells taking the reins for the interregnum), Charles agreed he would allow parliament to pay him a wage drawn from taxes – granting them the power to dole out his money and set taxes. Unfortunately for the monarch, a cluster of unfortunate things happened. First parliament were stingy, paying him less than expected, while keeping taxes static. Second, The Crown were limited in the printing of new money, due to a lack of bullion entering the country at the time. The Great Plague, followed by the Great Fire of London wiped out the King’s cash reserves, leading to him making deals with France (one publicly known, to send soldiers to help in their fight against the Dutch. The other a secret pact to expose he was actually Catholic, theoretically forcing the nation back to the old faith – which he did only on his deathbed). 

But this still wasn’t enough. 

In 1671, Charles was heavily in arrears on his payments to his army, navy, and debtors. He flooded the market, the jewellers particularly, with far cheaper tallies than usual. A buying frenzy on the secondary market, incredibly, pushed the value of the sticks up until their profit exceeded 10%. The debt came due a year later, and the stock holders came to the crown to collect their profits. The king couldn’t repay the debt – but he had a way out. Any debt agreement at the time with annual interest in excess of 6% was considered predatory lending. The usury laws then stated any such debt were null and void and to be promptly ignored by debtors. On these grounds, Charles refused to pay, crashing the value of tally sticks overnight. Many a jeweller went bankrupt, ending up in debtors prisons. 

Charles II
Charles II

So it is unsurprising Tally Sticks fell out of favour, as useful as they had once been. As a form of alternate currency, they limped on till 1826. I couldn’t tell you what their song was in those days but I imagine it was not terribly festive or uplifting. Certainly they no longer provided shelter, financially or otherwise to anyone. Brought no-one solace, or comfort. Increasingly they took up basement space in the Government’s treasury and collected dust. On 16th October 1834 it was decided our wooden heroes would be immolated. Rather than do something civic-minded, like have a large public bonfire – or kind, like giving the old tally sticks away to people to use as firewood in the coming winter – the palace’s clerk of works decided the sticks should be fed into two ovens beneath the House of Lords. Throughout the day, two full cartloads of sticks were gradually fed into the furnace. 

As the workday came to an end, with the basement floor actually hot to the touch, the workmen doused the flames and packed up for home. An hour later, the flames reignited. The wife of the doorkeeper rushed to the deputy housekeeper to advise the fire had not just re-animated – it was burning the entire building down, and threatened to spread to the rest of the palace. As the buildings went up in flame, renowned artists like J.M.W Turner crowded around outside, paint and easel at the ready. Turner painted several canvases of the ‘Great Fire of 1834’.

The Burning of the Houses of Parliament ?1834-5 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/D36235

As I said at the beginning, I’m no animist – I don’t believe plants and trees, rocks, stones or the great eternal blue sky (sorry Genghis Khan) have feelings, souls or sentience… but isn’t it a little fun to suspend disbelief for a second and imagine those sticks – once majestic and content down by the riverside. They sang in the breeze, till someone robbed them of their essential being. Press-ganged into service, they lost their voice. Used and abused by a man, who, quite frankly should have hugged every single tree he ever came into contact with (For a second time, I WILL come back to that story), they were branded villainous and untrustworthy. Left in a basement to moulder for years – they were ultimately robbed of a final chance to be of service to others. Don’t you just want to allow them one final act of revenge? As the painters captured the billowing smoke, and firemen fought a losing battle to contain the damage –
Well, I couldn’t tell you their final song – but it brought the house down.

The Wall Street Coup, Part Two

The Wall Street Coup Part Two Tales of History and Imagination

Hi all the following is Part Two of a Two Part Tale. Part One is Here

If I may, folks, I’d like to resume this Tale by doing something totally irresponsible. Before we come back to General Butler, I want to take us on a digression which has no great bearing on, or relation to our story.
Today we pick up the tale on a hot, balmy night in Miami, Florida – the time, 9.35pm, February 15th 1933. 

In Bayfront Park that night, a man stood in his open top car, and gave an impromptu speech to an enraptured crowd. As he concluded, stating this was his first time in Miami in seven years, but it would not be his last – it almost became just that. The sound of six gunshots pealed through the air, to the shock of all in attendance. 

In the crowd that night, an unemployed 32 year old brick-layer named Giuseppe ‘Joe’ Zangara. I imagine Joe looking rather flustered, having worked his way frantically through the crowd, looking for a single good vantage point – this is only my imagination at work. At only 5.1” tall, Zangara had to perch atop a bench, steadying himself against a Mrs Lillian Cross, 5.4”, standing in front of him. He leant over Mrs Cross’ right shoulder, aimed his 32 calibre pistol, and pulled the trigger, yelling 

“Too many people are starving!”

Joe Zangara may have succeeded in his assassination attempt, but for the fact Mrs Cross was all kinds of fierce. The first bullet passed so close to her it burned the side of her face, but she spun around and wrestled Zangara for the gun. This caused the remaining shots to veer off wildly. Five people near the car were struck by bullets, including mayor of Chicago Anton Cermak. Cermak died days later, with a bullet still in his lung.
Lillian got the better of Zangara, the furious crowd then piling in on him. The crowd were ready to tear him limb from limb, were it not for the speaker – President Elect Franklin Roosevelt – calling for the man to be handed to the police, to be dealt with through legal avenues.  

Roosevelt, Miami Feb 15 1933

The authorities did deal with Giuseppe Zangara. He was up before the courts, and sentenced to eighty years in prison. When Mayor Cermak passed, a subsequent murder charge was added. He was re-charged and found guilty of murder – spending just ten days on death row before he was executed, on March 20th 1933. 

When I first heard this tale, perhaps 20 years ago, the teller inferred Zangara was a stooge, a patsy; some unknowing schlub doing the dirty work for a cadre of shadowy elites. Subsequently I’ve heard others state he was from Calabria, Italy – close to Sicily – Therefore he must’ve been a Mafia tough, or possibly an anarchist. As far as anyone could gather, Zangara was none of those things. He was an angry, frustrated, and extremely unstable guy – sick and tired of struggling by on whatever work he could get. His meagre savings had waned in the depression, and the guy was doing it hard. One factor contributed to his actions; from the age of six he’d been in near constant agony from adhesions on his gall bladder. He lived the majority of his life suffering from crippling stomach pains. Joe Zangara was not a man who valued his own continued existence terribly highly when he tried to kill FDR.

We can safely assume MacGuire and his backers never went to Zangara to take care of their ‘Gold Standard’ problem – though I wonder what General Butler made of the incident with just a few months’ hindsight.

Back to Smedley Butler’s timeline. When we last saw Major General Butler, he’d met with Robert S. Clark; former soldier, multi-millionaire banker and heir to a sewing machine fortune. Clark attempted to bribe the general for his support, by offering to pay his mortgage for him. Clark was willing to spend half his fortune, if need be, to stop Roosevelt. Butler, took this badly, and all but threw Clark out of his house…but not before Clark made a phone call to his guy – Gerald MacGuire – to go with plan B. Plan B was to flood the American Legion (a prominent veterans’ group) with telegraphs demanding the leadership call for a return to the Gold Standard. This subsequently happened. 

Smedley Butler could well have expected the bankers would move on and look for another ex-general to do their bidding. 

To his surprise, Gerald MacGuire kept showing up to his public speeches. In Boston he offered to throw a banquet in his honour. He would pay him $1,000 to attend, and of course make a pro-Gold Standard speech. Butler declined. In October, he was preparing for a trip to Brooklyn, to deliver a speech in support of a former Marine running for political office. This speech was unannounced to the public, but MacGuire somehow knew all about that too. Days prior he dropped in on Butler asking if he could tag along. Butler told him no. MacGuire then offered to pay Butler $750 every time he just mentioned the Gold Standard in a positive way in a speech. 

This spooked the General – how did MacGuire even know about this engagement? Did he really have eyes and ears everywhere? It started to dawn on Butler this group may actually be extremely dangerous. He felt he should report them to someone – but also knew he didn’t yet know enough about their schemes to do so. If he went to authorities now, he’d come off looking like a lunatic.

As 1933 wrapped, big business were increasingly vocal in their hatred for President Roosevelt. Several moguls, and a growing number of editorialists in mainstream newspapers, began asking a question – Was FDR a secret communist? They increasingly painted a picture of a ‘creeping socialism’ – their new buzzword –  a stripping of Americanism by stealth. Roosevelt wasn’t there to save us from ruin, he was in the White House to kill the American Dream and capitalism itself. In November they collectively pearl-clutched as Roosevelt recognised the USSR as a legitimate confederation of states. When he announced no more American soldiers would be sent to South or Central America as muscle-men for big business, the moguls and business papers were livid. 

And what’s more, FDR’s recovery was slow and methodical. That Mussolini chap appeared to be working wonders at lightning speed. Unions? Forget about it! The man even reputedly had the trains running on time. Of course this was done with all the subtlety of a guy who runs over a child at 70 miles per hour, then doesn’t even stop to check on the victim. Hitler had been in power since January, and was of increasing interest to certain moguls. A wave of fascist organisations were taking over Europe at the time. Portugal in 1933. Austria and Bulgaria in 1934. Yugoslavia in 1935. Greece in 1936. Spain just prior to the Second World War. This is not mentioning the many nascent movements the Fascists supported into power later; from Slovakia to Vichy France, Romania to Norway. This flurry of action made this deplorable world view seemed fresh and exciting to many a Wall Street banker or industrial titan. 

Many wondered, what would it be like having their own Authoritarian strongman in the White House? 

On the upside, MacGuire disappeared suddenly. Butler later found out he was sent off on an all expenses paid mission to Europe – all paid for by the shadowy cabal. He learned this when he received a postcard from the Riviera in early 1934. MacGuire was in Berlin when he sent a second postcard in June.
Meanwhile, in July 1934, Fortune magazine – a favourite of the rich – added further evidence of the mood of the boardroom. They spent an entire issue, in excess of 120 pages, effusively praising Mussolini and Fascism. 

MacGuire returned in August, dropping by Butler’s on the 22nd. He told the General he was sent to investigate the role of former soldiers in the fascist movement, specifically their role in the formation of dictatorships. MacGuire wasn’t crazy for Mussolini, or Hitler – but was quite taken by the Croix de Feu in France. 

On 6th February 1934, France’s left wing Government came under attack – quite literally – from a confederation of Far Right groups. As a needed aside, MacGuire appears in the telling quite impressed by the Croix de Feu’s role – and I need to add context to his telling.

The French Government were under heavy financial pressure and in the process of enacting austerity measures, some of this in relation to American business interests calling in overseas debt following the stock market crash. The final straw was a series of financial scandals involving corrupt people with ties to politicians, and the final, final straw was the Stavisky Affair. 

Alexandre Stavisky was a conman and pawnshop owner who was on the run from the authorities after getting caught selling counterfeit bonds, and borrowing large sums of money against a collection of glass trinkets. He claimed the costume jewellery were emeralds formerly owned by the Empress of Germany. Just prior to February 6th, Stavisky showed up dead from an alleged self inflicted gunshot wound. Others claimed forensic evidence stated it wasn’t self-inflicted – unless Stavisky had arms long enough to drag across the floor as he walked. They pointed the finger at the Gendarmes who found his body. As with similar cases, ie. Jeffrey Epstein, it was revealed the fraudster had powerful friends. One friend, Prime Minister Camille Chautemps, was even said to have protected him.  The anti-Semitic far right were particularly livid that Chautemps would help Stavisky, a jew.

The Croix de Feu were a coalition of military veterans led by a Colonel Francois de la Roque. Anti-Semitic, right wing and staunchly pro business – they looked much like Fascists. They did support a woman’s right to vote, however, and the establishment of a minimum wage. They were also wary of the Germans in general, and of Hitler in particular. Historians have long argued whether they qualify as fascists, but certainly they were a very hateful far right group. 

It was their inaction that day that made them of interest – something that I don’t think comes across in MacGuire’s conversation with Butler. While other groups attempted on February 6th 1934 what similar groups tried in Washington DC on January 6th 2021 – de la Roque ordered his group to stay out of the attempted putsch. 

They peacefully protested in the South of Paris. The other groups failed in their coup without their considerable muscle. Soon after, feeling intense pressure from the public – Chautemps government resigned in disgrace. The Croix de Feu, having not disgraced themselves on February 6th, ended up in a position of influence over the right wing government who followed – although they had personally burnt bridges among the far right. 

MacGuire’s interpretation of the incident is somewhat different to mine. He saw their role on the day as far more active… Back to the narrative. 

MacGuire stated his organisation wanted to build something similar in America – a super-organisation of former soldiers they could use to seize power. Butler responded if they did such a thing he’d gather his own army together to fight them. MacGuire countered they had no plans to depose Roosevelt – they planned to convince him he needed to hire an ‘assistant president’ – a ‘Secretary of General Affairs’. The people would understand. Roosevelt was clearly unwell. If the people didn’t, the organisation would run a propaganda campaign. They were helpers, not usurpers. A sick, old man needed support. What’s more, the cabal wanted Smedley Butler to head the movement. 

He also planned to contact James Van Zandt, a veteran, future Republican politician and – as it turns out – the man who invited Butler to speak to the Bonus Army at the start of this tale, to seek his support. MacGuire was sure Butler’s friend would want a part of this.

Butler stated he had no intentions of carrying out a putsch. MacGuire told him he wouldn’t need to. Roosevelt would be so grateful for the help, he’d hand the reins over. He’d been grooming General Hugh Johnson for such a role already – but was finding the man far too indiscreet. FDR planned to fire him in the coming days. It turns out FDR did in fact fire Johnson soon after this conversation, and the man was loose-lipped – he took a job as a newspaper columnist, writing a slew of anti-Roosevelt hit-pieces. 

But how would one fund such a plot? MacGuire replied he now had access to a $3 Million budget. He could get hold of up to $300 million if needed. The Mogul J.P. Morgan was involved, as was Al Smith – yet another former Democratic Party presidential candidate, and a former Mayor of New York to boot. Smith was an associate of the powerful DuPont family. This shocked Butler, Smith was one of Roosevelt’s guys. 

MacGuire claimed Smith would soon break from the Roosevelt camp via an angry invective in the papers. He did just that soon after, joining The ‘American Liberty League’ – a shadowy organisation led by several former high ranking democrats – and top ranking business people from General Motors, DuPont and Sun Oil Company – among others. 

What’s more, if Butler chose to turn them down – well, he was their top pick in spite of J.P. Morgan lobbying for another contender – but he was not their only option. Their second choice was sure to back them. J.P. Morgan had rallied hard for General Douglas MacArthur. They expected MacArthur could be bought, not least of all, as his father-in-law – Edward Statesbury – was involved in their organisation. Hanford MacNider, a former leader of the American Legion was a distant third choice. MacGuire was going down to Miami. He planned to catch up with Butler once he returned. The meeting was over. 

(To the Podcast listeners: We’ll be back in a minute). 

Part Two:

The following month The American Liberty League – an anti-Roosevelt coalition of captains of business, bankers and former politicians launched, with a suspiciously familiar roster of members. Irenee DuPont, J.P. Morgan, Al Smith, MacGuire’s boss – a man named Colonel Grayson Murphy, – and of course sewing machine heir Robert Sterling Clark. 

It’s list of patrons included the families behind Pittsburgh Plate Glass, Andrew W Mellon Associates, Rockefeller Associates, General Motors and Sun Oil. J. Howard Pew, who later co-founded the John Birch Society, yet another founder. Al Smith and his buddy John J Raskob (a former Democratic Party member and businessman) were directors of the league. They quickly branded Roosevelt’s New Deal “Jewish Communism”, stating their opposition. In the South a “Southern Committee to Uphold the Constitution” a similarly-minded group, but with a focus on KKK ideology, also arose. 

A lot of things suddenly happened as predicted. Butler got on the phone to warn James Van Zandt a cabal of fascist businessmen would be in touch with him. Van Zandt took heed. Next he considered travelling to Washington DC, to report the plotters. The more he thought about it, the more convinced he was the authorities would laugh him out of the building. 

In part one I glossed over the fact Butler was briefly Police Chief of Philadelphia. It’s quite a story in itself. The Philadelphia police were notoriously corrupt; in bed with gangsters and bootleggers. Butler was brought in to enforce prohibition, which he soon came to view as a stupid law in need of repeal. He cleaned up much police corruption. He also, as Foucault’s best boomerangs only can, brought in a militaristic style to policing, honed in Nicaragua and Haiti –  from which a thru line can be drawn directly to some of the worst aspects of American policing to this day. I left that out because I wanted you to like this man. We can admit he has a complex legacy right?

Anyway, while in Philadelphia he made several friends in the media. He approached his friend Tom O’Neil, an editor for the Philadelphia Record. O’Neil was shocked by the plot, and only too happy to lend him the talents of investigative reporter Paul Comly French. French started off by going through Butler’s own background with a fine-toothed comb. If the General was plotting to blackmail America’s moguls he would ferret it out. If he was correct some of America’s moguls were planning a takeover, they needed conclusive proof Smedley Butler was above board. 

In the meantime, Butler continued to speak on behalf of the soldiers – and challenge the practice of sending them abroad to fight and die for the further enrichment of big business.   

The midterm elections came and went. The American Liberty League did their best to hobble Roosevelt’s supporters – to little effect. The Democratic Party won by a landslide. 

Something else was happening in Washington DC. A reporter named John L. Spivak, who specialised in uncovering American fascists, anti-semites, racist Southern Sheriffs and other undesirables – caught word of a group of fascist businessman plotting to take over the White House. John McCormack and Samuel Dickstein of the McCormack-Dickstein committee, subsidiary of the House Un-American Activities Committee also picked up on the plot. They went straight to Smedley Butler to ask him what he knew. With proof from Paul Comly French that he was no traitor, he freely told them everything he knew. 

On November 20th 1934, Butler met with the McCormack-Dickstein Committee, giving a full rundown of the wooing of The American Liberty League. At the same time, an article by Paul Comly French ran in the New York Post and Philadelphia Record. It’s headline “$3,000,000 Bid for Fascist Army Bared”

Later that day French too gave evidence. He’d not just done his homework on Butler, but had met with MacGuire himself, on September 13th 1934. He presented himself as ‘Butler’s Personal Secretary’.MacGuire was rather more candid with French, stating they needed a ‘Man on a White Horse’ to lead the coup, and that man could only be Butler. They planned to arm a militia of half a million former soldiers through their connections at the Remington Arms Company – paying for the weapons with DuPont money. The money for the militia’s wages would be doled out from a National City Bank account by himself and attorney for J.P. Morgan, John W. Davis. 

French also mentioned MacGuire pursued two former leaders of The American Legion, who pledged their support for the putsch. Once successful they planned to register all persons in the USA, in an effort to “stop a lot of these Communists”. They planned to tackle unemployment by rounding up the unemployed in concentration camps and forcing them into slavery. 

MacGuire was then called in, and grilled. He denied everything. He was on a rather healthy $150 a week – a little over $3,000 a week adjusted for inflation to 2022, but he couldn’t explain away over $30,000 he’d spent in recent months. That figure would only grow. The Committee concluded their initial proceedings, finding it likely several of the USA’s wealthiest citizens were plotting to instigate a coup. They determined to dig further. The moguls denied this of course, and – with the support of their powerful media connections – publicly branded Smedley Butler a fantasist and lunatic. His testimony, they claimed, was a publicity stunt. 

A large number of senators and congressmen demanded the investigation must go further. Plans were made to subpoena sixteen people. The case was also referred to the Attorney General. MacGuire was called back and questioned further. His testimony was contradictory, showing him as a liar. Former leaders of the American Legion were called in, as was James Van Zandt – who corroborated Butler’s testimony. Further information emerged – If Smedley Butler refused, another potential ‘man on a white horse’ was Colonel Theodore Roosevelt jr. Theodore was shocked anyone would think he’d ever usurp his fourth cousin. Robert Sterling Clark was, rather conveniently, over in Paris and happy to refute Butler’s accusations – when he got home. 

But then on November 26th the committee released a statement it saw no reason for calling in a raft of business moguls or Generals. They reasoned testimony against them was largely hearsay. 

The hearings dragged on till January, all the while the corporate media did all they could to discredit Butler. Eventually Clark sent his lawyer to speak on his behalf – as he was still overseas. The lawyers answers as to why MacGuire was given a verified sum of $75,000 by Clark were unconvincing. In January 1935, Butler took to the airwaves on WCAU Philadelphia to tell his story to the American people directly.  At the end of the month Dickstein stated this investigation would go further.

The committee released their findings on February 15th 1935. They found there had been a plot to overthrow the president – but the newspapers buried the story. And no-one chose to take any further action. MacGuire, Clark, former presidential candidates, business moguls, bankers – they were all let off the hook. They could have, at the very least, prosecuted MacGuire for perjury – Even he walked. If there is any justice in his case, it may be that MacGuire would be dead within months, aged just 37, of a sudden case of pneumonia. 

The American Liberty League continued to fund a number of hostile fascist organisations till they disbanded in 1940. Roosevelt, found the mainstream press continued to push the “Creeping Socialism” line. He took to the radio as Smedley Butler had. His ‘Fireside Chats’ were extremely popular with the American people. It’s a trend that continues to this day – I’m watching New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern doing something similar on Instagram as I edit this piece.

For all the animosity of the super rich – they enjoyed a period of unprecedented wealth under New Deal politics – all the way up to the mid 1970s. Yes, they paid levels of tax many would now consider unbelievable – if you were earning in excess $200,000 a year (around $2.4 million today) 94c in every dollar over $200,000 went to the taxman. 

The ‘great acceleration’ this tax money fed, made for a true golden age for capitalism – as the American economy boomed like never before, and the world moved at an unrivalled pace – in every way imaginable. Wealth, technology, life expectancy, living standards, education – and also infuriatingly, oil consumption, pollution, deforestation and greenhouse gas production. 

As for our hero? Smedley Darlington Butler, one time muscleman for big business turned peace campaigner. One time oppressor of other nations in the name of American capitalism, turned America’s staunchest defender of democracy – against those same capitalists…. He died of cancer aged only 58, on July 21st 1940. Friends, family and former colleagues saw him off, and no doubt remembered him fondly but – like Lillian Cross – I don’t believe the extent of his courage was truly recognised in his own time. 

The Infernal Machine

The Infernal Machine Tales of History and Imagination


Trigger Warning, This Tale discusses gun violence. If an account of a mass shooting is likely to upset, it’s fine to give this one a miss. I’ll be back in a fortnight with a tale of Kenyan wildlife and other things.

This week’s Tale begins on the Boulevard du Temple; in Paris, France. The date, 28th July 1835. The Boulevard is a street many of us might feel we know, even if – like myself – you’ve never visited the City of Lights before. A man named Louis Daguerre pointed a new-fangled device out of a window in 1839, shooting down at ‘crime boulevard’ as the street was then known. In doing so he shot the first human – with a camera. The mirror image, known as a Daguerreotype, regularly makes it onto content-farm articles on early photography. Though ant-like, at least one person is discernible in the otherwise quiet street scene.

One must imagine the scene in July 1835 rather differently. The street was overflowing with soldiers in their best attire. This was the day King Louis Philippe I, a man not generally given to displays of pomp and wealth, inspected the Paris National Guard as they stood to attention. Two week’s after that more famous revolutionary date, July 14th, which commemorates the 1789  storming of Bastille prison – people were out in force to celebrate the July Revolution of 1830, which swept him into power over the rightful heir – His eleven year old 2nd cousin.     

At around midday the king was nearing 50 Boulevard du Temple with an entourage which included three of his sons and a collection of high-ranking officers. A sudden flash was seen from a third floor window, accompanied by a rain of gunfire. Tearing through the crowd, this rapid-fire burst of lead felled eighteen bystanders, badly injuring 22 more. Of the survivors, many were so badly wounded they required amputations. It’s intended target, the King, escaped with only a cut to the forehead. The assault ended just as drastically as it begun. The weapon responsible had partially backfired, injuring the assailant, who then fled the scene leaving a telltale trail of blood behind. 

The killer, a Corsican former soldier named Giuseppe Marco Fieschi – who served in the French army in Napoleon’s time. He went off to fight in Russia with the Grande Armee who had been so decimated by both weather and Russian counter attack. This must have been a truly harrowing, traumatic experience for anyone to live through. Post war, Fieschi signed up as a mercenary in the service of the former King of Naples. When an attempt to overthrow the current Neapolitan regime went badly, he fled to France as a refugee.

Soon after his arrival, he was arrested and jailed for ten years for cattle theft. Embittered, he became embroiled in revolutionary circles upon his release. With two other plotters, Fieschi built a weapon known as ‘The Infernal Machine’ for the sole purpose of killing Louis Philippe. It had twenty five barrels aligned side by side, all set on the same downward trajectory. Each was full of shot, and would fire simultaneously on a single trigger. While this sounds in effect vaguely like a machine gun – the infernal machine was a volley gun – capable of firing just the once before it needed re-loading. Volley guns could be found in use as early as the fifteenth century, but were rarely used – A cannon loaded with grapeshot could imitate a volley gun, while a volley gun couldn’t fire cannon balls. The name ‘the infernal machine’ says all you need to know, however. A year before the release of the first truly effective assault rifle, the Drayse needle gun, the world was still in the era of the blunderbuss and the musket. A gun which could kill or wound forty in the blink of an eye was absolutely hellish.   

Before we move on from this infernal machine, I should point out Fieschi was soon caught, his accomplices rounded up, and all were sent to the guillotine – another new-ish technology with a surprisingly long history of antecedents.

From one infernal machine to another.

The machine gun came about, believe it or not, with all the good intentions in the world. Richard Gatling built his Gatling gun, the first working machine gun – in the hope of saving lives. Gatling was a North Carolina native who mostly invented farming equipment. One day he read an article stating more soldiers died in war from disease than in battle. This left him aghast. He believed he could save millions of lives in the future if he could create a machine which let a few men do the work of several units. Gatling hoped this innovation would lead to less soldiers on the battlefield, and therefore less death. The Gatling gun debuted in 1862, in the midst on the extremely bloody American Civil War, where more – not less, soldiers were sent out to fight. The Gatling gun had a hand crank which powered it, so was still a way off from machine guns as we know them, but it was used to horrific effect in several wars from the 1860s till the turn of the century. It was used to gun down thousands of Zulu, Chinese, Japanese, Spaniards, Chilean, Native Americans and Filipino among others. A fully automated reloading mechanism would come along and it’s inventor, William Cantelo, would have even more blood on his hands…

Who?? You ask…

I’m being a little facetious- maybe? Let’s reset the stage. 

This tale restarts in the late 1870s. Neighbours of the Tower Inn, a Southampton pub, have wondered aloud for months the origin of an ungodly noise coming from the pub’s basement. The landlord, one William Cantelo, was a man of varied interests. The son of an Isle of Wight publican and brush maker, William studied engineering as a younger man. On arrival at the coastal town, he set up a foundry specialising in making boat propellers. He soon diversified, buying a pub. Besides his business interests he also found the time to play in the local brass band. An endless tinkerer, Cantelo set up a workshop in the tunnel beneath the pub. 

We already know what he was working on down there. Machine guns were the thing that year. Gatling invented his gun through poorly thought out humanitarian motives. A new-found drive among seven European nations to conquer and exploit the life out of Africa from around 1870, (kicking into high gear in 1885) was the main driver for many recent military innovations. The other side of that ledger, European armies had seen a marked drop in young men signing up for service after the Crimean War. This, more than anything, necessitated new methods of killing people at scale. After Gatling, Swedish inventor Thorstein Nordenfelt built a hand-cranked gun in 1873. William Gardner, an Ohio based former army captain built his Gardner Gun a year later. These weapons were a step in the right direction, but if someone could make something fully automatic – possibly loading the next bullet off the energy generated from the gun’s recoil? – that was the holy grail. 

Some time in 1880 it was said, William came up from his basement to announce he had finally solved that problem. He was the inventor of the world’s first true automatic machine gun. When some young chap faced off against a wall of angry locals waving their Assegai, Akrafena or Trumbash at them, that young man could rest assured that he had a Cantelo Gun, and they have not – as Hilaire Belloc might have said in a different future timeline. His two sons and daughter must also have been quietly overjoyed at the prospect of a decent night’s sleep, free of the rat-a-tat-tat from father’s infernal machine. It’s claimed soon after, William announced to his family he was going on a well-earned holiday. Given the same sources claim his sons helped him pack his gun for travel, it’s far more likely he left on a business trip – and hoped to find a buyer for the weapon. Little did his children know, but as he set off, this was the last time they would ever see him. 

Well, the last verified time in any case. He never returned home. His children did their best to find him, but were unsuccessful. They hired a private investigator, who confirmed William sailed to the USA, but could not trace him further. Their snowy-haired, bushy-bearded father was lost to them. 

Then, in 1882 a rather remarkable man man emigrated to the United Kingdom. Born in Sangerville, Maine in 1840, Hiram Maxim was quite the up and coming engineer. He created an asthma inhaler, a mouse trap, a curling iron for one’s hair, and steam pumps. He had a disputed claim to having really invented the electric light bulb. Years later, but before the Wright Brothers’ first flight in Kittyhawk, a prototype aeroplane he was working on broke free of it’s tethers and flew – though it’s a stretch to say it was a controlled flight. In 1885, he invented the world’s first automatic machine gun – the Maxim gun. One day Cantelo’s sons were reading the morning newspaper when an article on Maxim jumped out at them. “That’s father” one said, astonished at the photo of the snowy-haired, bushy-bearded man. 

What’s more, that gun of his – that infernal machine – was the spitting image of Cantelo’s weapon. 

The young men pursued Maxim in an effort to prove his ‘true’ identity. Maxim refused to give them the time of day. This culminated in an attempted ambush at Waterloo station in 1885 when the boys rushed towards him yelling ‘father’. Maxim hurriedly boarded his train. 

There is little to no doubt Cantelo and Maxim were different people. In a world full of snowy-haired, bushy-bearded people, and few cameras, both men did have some photos to compare one another. To my eyes the men look nothing alike, though Cantelo could almost be latter-day, bearded Roger Taylor of Queen in a ‘famous people are all ageless vampires’ meme. There is copious paperwork proving Maxim existed. The man also wrote an autobiography which discusses his earlier life in detail, which led to reporters speaking with people who knew him as a young man. 

What is interesting, perhaps, is the two men almost certainly met. Maxim was in Southampton in the 1870s. He viewed Cantelo’s boat propellers. Cantelo, it was said, was concerned Maxim would steal ideas from him. Also of interest, Maxim knew one thing the Cantelo children didn’t. While he was making guns and planes in the United Kingdom, a man claiming to be Maxim was travelling the USA – trying to sell a gun suspiciously like his Maxim gun to anyone who would see him. Was this William? One tiny piece of evidence located by a web sleuth in our time suggests it could be. The man may have had prior form – A William Cantelo, also of Southampton, faced charges of attempting to pass off counterfeit promissory notes in the mid 1870s. 

So, if Cantelo wasn’t Maxim, and murdered for his gun (a possibility) did he spend the rest of his life travelling the United States perpetrating various confidence tricks? If so we may get a glimpse of what his life might have been like much later in the year when we pick up the story of several other Infernal Machines, and one of history’s most dastardly scoundrels – A mysterious man known to friends as ‘Zed Zed’. 

Spencer Perceval

Trigger Warning: The following episode discusses gun violence – particularly the assassination of a head of state. Note for the readers, I’ll get a blog only post up tomorrow – It’s Matariki in New Zealand (Maori New Year) so I have a day off to write.

Today’s tale is set in foyer of the British House of Commons. The date, 11th May 1812. Parliament was particularly quiet that day, with only around sixty MPs in attendance. All the same, a handful of merchants were milling around the foyer, waiting to be called in by those assembled. In amongst them, a slight, unassuming man in his early 40s. Our mystery man, of late a regular observer, quietly entered the foyer, taking a seat by the fireplace. 

The reason for the hearings that day, in front of a committee of 60? Well, their contemporary, the Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz once said ‘war is a continuation of politics by other means’. It can go both ways, politics becoming another front in a war just as easily. In 1806, France – then ruled by Napoleon Bonaparte, slapped Britain with a trade embargo. Britain slapped back with an embargo of their own in 1807, hitting the USA while they were at it.  

By 1812, a number of merchants were loudly complaining the embargoes were costing them their livelihoods, and begged parliament to please consider them, before the lost the shirts off their backs. The house agreed to hear from a selection of affected traders and discuss the matter.

The hearings were supposed to begin at 4:30 pm, but all in sundry were waiting on one man, Spencer Perceval.

Spencer Perceval was a lawyer, who entered politics in his early 30s. A Tory he preferred the description “a friend of Mr Pitt” (William Pitt the younger). A devoted family man with 13 children, and an aversion to hunting, drinking or gambling, one imagines Mr Perceval something of an outsider among his party. He became Prime minister in 1809, and lead under trying times. The formerly ‘Mad King George’ III, it appeared again afflicted with his mystery illness. The Luddites protested the mechanisation of their former roles. The ‘Peninsula War’ against Bonaparte in the Iberian Peninsula ground on. Up to a million people would die before the fighting was done. If Spain were his Vietnam, his Bay of Pigs would be The Walcheran Expedition – a failed invasion of the French- controlled Netherlands. 

In an effort to aid their allies Austria, Britain landed 39,000 men on an island called Walcheran, now part of Zeeland. The Austrians had already been defeated and sent packing. The British were defeated, not by the French, but Walcheran fever – believed a mixture of two diseases (malaria and typhus). In the wake of 4,000 deaths to the disease, Britain ceded the island and left.   

Perceval was, among other issues, against granting greater rights and freedoms to British Catholics. He did, however, approve of the abolition of slavery. All in all he was an interesting guy, in charge in interesting times – and well liked in the house. 

Today, as was sometimes the case, he was running late. The sun was out, the prime minister was full of the joys of spring, and insisted on walking in to work that day. 

Back at the House of Commons, the examination had begun without the boss. James Stephen, MP for Grinstead was busy interrogating Robert Hamilton – a potter who claimed the embargo was threatening to send him to the poor house. 

At 5:15 Perceval arrived, quickening his pace towards the debating chamber. Removing his coat he glided through the lobby towards the door. Suddenly, as if out of nowhere, the stranger rose from his seat, drew a pistol and fired a shot straight into the prime minister’s chest. Perceval hit the floor, exclaiming “I am murdered”. The assassin was subdued and questioned – where he admitted his guilt, and told a tale of woe to the authorities. He was rather hastily tried two days’ later at the Old Bailey.

So, who was this mysterious assassin, and why kill the prime minister of Britain?

John Bellingham is something of a mysterious figure – though largely so down to poor record keeping. He is believed born in 1769, probably in Huntingdonshire, then brought up in London. He was taken on as an apprentice to a London jeweller – but by the age of 16 found himself on a ship bound for China. The ship, The Hartwell, struck trouble on this, maiden voyage. The captain came into conflict with the crew – who mutinied. Captain Edward Fiott captured the mutineers and made for the Cape Verde islands off modern day Mauritania to hand them over to authorities – but accidentally hit the desert island of Boa Vista – putting a stop to their mission. 

The crew of the Hartwell were rescued, and returned to England. 

The records are sketchy as to his whereabouts until the late 1790s. A man with the same name opened a tin factory in the mid 1790s which went bust soon afterwards. I’m personally extremely dubious that this was our guy. In 1798 Bellingham shows up as an accounts clerk working in London. Around 1800, he secured a role as an agent for an import-export business, and was sent to Arkhangelsk Russia – formerly Russia’s main trading port with Europe. His 1812 testimony states by 1804 he was a merchant in his own right, trading with the Russians. 

Whatever the path which led Bellingham to Arkhangelsk, he claims he was there in 1804, when accused of causing another merchant’s bankruptcy. Official documents put the incident two years earlier.  In 1802 a ship – more ‘coffin boat’ than sea-worthy vessel if the tale is to believed – named The Sojus wrecked while travelling from Russia to England. The ship was insured – allegedly over insured – through Lloyds of London. It was likely to have been overloaded and decrepit, and as such a win-win for the rival merchant. Get to England safely, you sell your goods, make your money and try your luck again next voyage. The ship sinks – for the low, low cost of a few hundred lives the merchant could care less about – the merchant gets their payout from the insurer. Davy Jones’ locker, more often than not, gets to keep the evidence. The merchant buys another broken down old vessel and gets to roll the dice again. 

The rise of the coffin ship in itself is a horrifying subject which widowed many sailors wives – and criminalised thousands of seamen who chose to breach contract when confronted with the hole-ridden old nag they were meant to sail on. We’ll save that for another day. 

In this case the crew survived the wreck and were rescued in their entirety. Lloyds refused to pay the merchant, and rightly or wrongly, Bellingham was accused of tipping the insurers off to the fraud.  He was ordered to recompense the rival merchant at a cost just shy of 5,000 roubles. He couldn’t pay, and served time. On release he travelled to St Petersburg, where he tried to have the governor of Arkhangelsk, General Van Brienan, impeached for having him wrongly jailed. This led to a further prison term. All up he spent six years in prison in Russia, before being released. 

Bellingham was suddenly homeless, left to beg for food on the streets of St Petersburg. He managed to successfully petition the Tsar to pay for his ticket back to England, and was repatriated in 1809. 

During his incarceration he was bankrupted by his creditors. Also during his incarceration, he reached out to the British Attorney General Lord Granville Leveson-Gower on multiple occasions to ask for help. Leveson-Gower contacted the governor of Arkhangelsk to request Bellingham be released. The governor convinced the attorney general Bellingham was guilty, so the crown left the Russians to it. 

On his return, Bellingham doggedly pursued the crown for reparations – and when that went nowhere, took to sitting in the gallery at the House of Commons with a pair of opera glasses. He was there to stalk Lord Leveson-Gower – who was the likely original target for assassination. In April 1812 he took his coat to a tailor, who he paid to make an inner pocket big enough to conceal his pistol. It’s a mystery as to why he shot Spencer Perceval instead that day, but is generally speculated he mistook the prime minister – himself a former attorney general as it turns out – for his intended target. 

Evidence was presented as to Bellingham’s insanity – for the most part in the form of his letters demanding reparations, and witnesses who claimed he told them he had a £100,000 payout coming, from which he’d buy a country estate in the west of the country. Bellingham chose to brush that away in his own defence, in the hope others would see he had a legitimate right to recompense – denied him by the authorities. On 13th May a jury of 12 men found him guilty of murder. The judge, Sir James Mansfield ordered him to hang. His body subsequently to be given to a medical school to be anatomised in front of trainee doctors. 

Curiously, some members of the public did believe John Bellingham was within his rights to murder a politician. Rene Martin-Pillet, a French author present at the execution later wrote of the mood of the crowd. Rather than the usual buzz which attended a hanging, the crowd was allegedly somber. Many in attendance felt Bellingham was the real victim, treated abysmally from his arrest in Russia, to his execution. Politicians weren’t listening to the people. This murder might just teach a few of them a little humility. 

Martin-Pillet wrote that a collection was taken for his widow, who suddenly found herself rich beyond her wildest dreams. 

John Bellingham’s skull is kept at the Pathology museum at Queen Mary University, in London. A distant relative of his, Baron Henry Bellingham, is a Tory politician who sits in the House of Lords. In 1997 Bellingham, not yet a Lord, lost his seat in the House of Commons to a Labour politician. A UKIP politician who split the right wing vote, caused the loss. The UKIP candidate was Roger Percival – a distant relative of former prime minister Spencer Perceval. In 2012 Baron Bellingham expressed shame and sorrow for the actions of his forbear in a poorly attended public ceremony, commemorating the 200th anniversary of the murder.  

 Spencer Perceval’s family were granted £50,000 in compensation by approval of both Houses of Parliament – to be paid out at £2,000 a year to his widow, Jane. 

Bearcat

Hey all I’m ‘taking a break’ for a month – well, more accurately going into writing and recording mode for a month. On the podcasts front I’m set to release two ‘from the vaults’ episodes – The Bagradas Dragon (blogged last year) and a heavily edited Carrington Event (from back in 2019 on the blog)… as well as a couple more re-uploaded versions of those early podcast episodes. 

I also have a couple of blog posts set to drop over this break. Like this post, all will be a little out of my usual wheelhouse. 

 Today’s tale picks up in the middle of the squared circle, Madison Square Garden – The date January 23rd 1984. Hossein Khosrow Ali Vaziri, a stockily built Iranian, Greco-Roman wrestler with an Olympic pedigree (both as competitor and coach) was knocking the living daylights out of Terry Bollea; a large, muscular man who once played bass guitar in a bar band. Perhaps unsurprisingly Hossein is dominating, sitting on top of a splayed out Bollea’s back in a submission move known as ‘The Camel Clutch’. Just 28 days prior he’d done the same to long time champion Bob Backlund, winning the World Championship belt. 26,292 people in attendance looked on in horror, as the heel looked set to take out another hero – a ‘face’ in backstage parlance.

Then Terry Bollea did what countless other professional wrestlers hadn’t before. He stood up, breaking the Camel Clutch. Hulking up with the other man still clinging to his back, he rallied, pounding Hossein into the turnbuckle. Bollea leapt over the supine man, crossing the ring and ricocheting back off the ropes before going airborne. Landing his signature ‘Atomic Leg-drop’, he went for the pin. One- two- three, and Terry Bollea, known to people everywhere as Hulk Hogan was crowned WWF champion. An ecstatic crowd – most of whom, one presumes, still believed Professional Wrestling to be real, were on their feet as The Hulkster left the arena victorious. His opponent, The Iron Sheik, skulked off, ignominiously defeated.

This isn’t to say some people weren’t aware Pro Wrestling was performance art – Rumours swirled around wrestling’s authenticity as early as 1934, when a match at Wrigley Field was advertised as a ‘shoot match’ – a bona fide punch up (as opposed to all the other ‘fake’ matches on the bill). Wrestling organisations did generally do their best to dispel these rumours however. Case in point, in December 1984, a wrestler named David ‘Dr D’ Schultz slapped 20/20 reporter John Stossel into the middle of next week, for implying wrestling was less than genuine. Whether ordered by WWF owner Vince McMahon or not, there was nothing fake in the way Dr D manhandled Stossel. He left Stossel with a ringing in his ears that lasted eight weeks. Nothing Kayfabe either about the $280,000 settlement to Stossel’s subsequent lawsuit. This is not about Dr D, the 1987 incident when the aforementioned Iron Sheik was pulled over by a state trooper with cocaine – and more shockingly, arch foe Hacksaw Jim Duggan in his car – or the time in 1989 when Vince McMahon gave evidence to politicians that wrestling was indeed acted more than competed – why pay additional taxes for hosting sporting events if you can avoid it? This is about the rumour which persists about this match, and another, earlier wrestler. 

Hulk Hogan v Iron Sheik was a choreographed move to replace an old-school favourite. Bob Backlund was the title holder and as such the face of the company, for in excess of 2,100 days – but he was not the kind of telegenic you need when the company owner wants to take over the world. There was just something Everyman-ish about Bob Backlund. Hulk Hogan, an alleged 6.7” musclebound superhero who ‘trained, said his prayers and took his vitamins’, was just the guy to helm the company under such circumstances. He could sell out arenas. Kids would love him. He was extremely merchandisable. 

At this time faces battled heels so Backlund needed to lose to Sheik so Hulk could take the belt and hold on to his newly acquired ‘face’ status. 

There’s a tale Verne Gagne, a longtime friend of the Iron Sheik (he’d given him a start in the business, as well as his name and gimmick) and rival wrestling promotion owner approached the Iron Sheik before the match. Legend has it Gagne offered the Sheik $100,000 to not just win the match, but break Hogan’s leg – thus stalling the upward trajectory of the WWF. 

Needless to say the Iron Sheik, a legitimate tough guy, could have beaten Hogan and taken the payday. He quite possibly could have twisted him into a human pretzel, breaking one appendage or other. He didn’t. One only presumes he was professional, and loyal to whoever was paying him – that is IF this conversation did in fact occur. Verne’s son Greg for one denies it ever happened. For now let’s presume it happened, it makes a useful plot device. What would’ve happened if the Iron Sheik disobeyed the McMahons, took the money, and decided he’d keep the title? The following compares apples to oranges somewhat (given the way WWE soon took off with Hogan as a figurehead), but it signals one way the McMahons might have solved the problem of a rogue champion. 

Edward ‘Bearcat’ Wright was more than a transitional wrestling champion, he was also the first African American to hold a world wrestling title belt. Born in 1932, Ed was the son of Ed ‘Bearcat’ Wright Senior – a professional boxer who, though never a world champion, did face a handful of top pugilists such as ‘Ambling Alp’ Primo Carnera, Max Baer and an aging Jack Dempsey. Edward jr, a tough, rangey, 6.6” tried his hand as a pro boxer – winning all eight of his matches before turning to professional wrestling in 1959. 

Bearcat was wrestling on the cusp of a change in pro wrestling. Prior to him black wrestlers fought other black wrestlers, white wrestlers wrestled whites, and never the twain shall meet. Jim Crow era segregation was still very much a thing. Rock and roll shows featuring black and white musicians together on the bill, playing to mixed crowds often ended in riots. As blogged some time back, Jesse Belvin, perhaps the greatest rock and roller you’ve never heard of may have died as a result of a show he played in Arkansas in 1960. Performing art or fighting art, Bearcat and others like Bobo Brazil, who fought white wrestlers, were groundbreaking. There were occasions where the old rules applied, such as Gary, Indiana. Bearcat broke ground by refusing to wrestle another black wrestler that night. Bearcat and Bobo both got massively over with the crowds. In other words crowds loved them. It was unsurprising both men were soon packaged as Faces. 

Bearcat soon found himself wearing the world championship belt, first in 1961, beating Killer Kowalski for the Big Time Pro Wrestling title. The title of interest to us, however, belonged to  Worldwide Wrestling Associates (WWA), a Hollywood based organisation then run by the LeBell brothers. 

Though professional wrestling is pre-determined (as opposed to outright fake, wrestlers often do take heavy bumps in the ring), it can often hold an odd, Coney Island mirror up to society. Because of this I suspect the World title match between Bearcat and Classy Freddie Blassie, on August 23rd 1963, was an attempt to cash in on the upcoming March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The top civil rights leaders marched with at least a quarter of a million supporters on the capital to demand the many civil and economic rights still denied them. Though organised by the ‘big six’ most of us remember best one particular leader. Dr Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech was then, still is breathtaking. At a time when many would marvel at Dr Kings eloquence, the WWA could smugly claim – you wanna see equality? Bearcat is our World champion.
Bearcat and Blassie did face off five days before the march, and Bearcat did get the better of Blassie – a well hated heel who in real life was so hated he was stabbed on 21 occasions by fans as he entered the ring; was once doused by an acid thrower; and lost vision in an eye after getting struck in the face by a hard-boiled egg. I can’t imagine the fans were anything but ecstatic at the win. 

Soon after the March on Washington, the WWA approached Bearcat to tell him his reign was set to be a short one. He was to drop the belt to another face named Edouard Carpentier – a stocky white man known as ‘The Flying Frenchman’. It was at this point Bearcat went on a very real winning streak, pinning all who stepped up against him. While none of the wrestlers WWA wanted to give the belt to stood a chance against Bearcat in a real fight, the organisation had one card yet to play. 

The LeBell brothers who ran the WWA included one ‘Judo’ Gene LeBell. LeBell was a former champion judoka, stunt man and genuinely extremely tough individual. As a pro wrestler he was a known shooter – a guy who could genuinely beat someone up in the wrestling ring. Legends around the man state on the set of the TV show The Green Hornet, LeBell beat Bruce Lee in a tussle – carrying him across the set in a fireman’s carry. His 1991 stoush with Steven Seagal on the set of the film Out for Justice led to LeBell (allegedly) choking the Aikido master out, making Seagal lose control of his bowels. Just days before a planned match between Bearcat and Classy Freddie Blassie, LeBell was in the ring to fight a very real boxer vs martial artist match against a fighter named Milo Savage. LeBell choked Savage into unconsciousness. 

Now the Savage match may have been an inspiration for the LeBells’ – Gene was supposed to face off against a boxer named Jim Beck, who had been bad-mouthing the Asian martial arts. At the last minute, he pulled a switcheroo, the higher ranked Savage stepping up unexpectedly. 

So, on December 13th 1963 Edward Bearcat Wright made his way to the arena in the expectation he would yet again face off against Classy Freddie Blassie, ignore all instructions, and pin the man in the middle of the ring. Instead he found himself facing off against a shadowy figure in a black mask. 

“Gene… is that you?” I imagine him asking, rather cautiously. Sensing something bad was about to happen, Bearcat exited the squared circle, refusing to re-enter. After being counted out, he was stripped of the title, which was subsequently passed to Flying Frenchman Carpentier. 

I’d like to be team Bearcat, and report this did not adversely affect his career – but of course it did. He found his future options restricted, and would – like many pro wrestlers sadly do – pass on young, at just fifty years of age. If it is of any consolation whatsoever he was inducted into the WWE hall of fame in 2017.   

The Mongols are Coming!

Hi there this is part two of what will probably be a three part tale. If you haven’t checked out The Cult of Hassan-i Sabbah first, click here. 

The Mongols are Coming! Tales of History and Imagination


To unravel this part of this tale, we needs must flash forward 96 years, then work back a ways. We left off in 1124. Hassan-i Sabbah, had built a fiercely autonomous state in the North of Persia. In doing so he arranged the blood-soaked murders of close to fifty high ranking Persians who called for his destruction. On his way out Hassan sued for peace in the only way he knew how – an assassin close to the Sultan stuck a dagger deep into the sultan’s floor, next to his bed while he slept. This was a reminder Hassan was in fact a friend – if the men were enemies the dagger would have been stuck elsewhere – and Hassan had eyes everywhere. A peace treaty was agreed on. We’ll return to this in a moment. 

What we need to know now is – just prior to where we pick up, another faction on the edge of the Caliphate had come to prominence. Founded in a city on the border of modern day Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan in 1079 – and originally a vassal state – the Kwarazmian Empire had grown into one of the biggest empires in history. It’s ruling family had ascended from slavery to freedom. By the mid twelfth century their aggressive expansion began. In 1198 the Kwarazmians reached their largest extent, ruling over much of Central Asia, Northern India, Pakistan, and Persia. Their ruler, Shah Ala al-Din Takish didn’t enjoy his empire for long, however. In 1200 a mouth abscess turned septic, killing him. Legend tells on his deathbed, Takish called his son and successor, Ala al-Din Muhammad to his chamber. 

I believe it myth-making but if true, Takish’s words were rather Karmic. Takish’s, alleged, final words to his son – were to the effect of “whatever you choose to do in life, you can do little wrong. The one thing you must never, ever do – is pick a fight with the barbarian hordes to the North-East of us”. 

It took Muhammad II of Kwarazym till 1218 to allegedly ignore this alleged advice, but, oh boy – that fight he picked changed the course of history dramatically. 

The Mongols, those Steppe barbarians, were an empire on the rise by 1218. We’ll be on that topic forever if I go into too much detail. In short – For centuries the Chinese empires had the measure of the Steppe people. Recognising how dangerous they were, they paid certain tribes protection money to leave them be – while helping foster inter-tribal rivalries amongst the others. The Mongols lived far North on the Steppe, on less fertile land. They enjoyed no Chinese largesse. Compared to other tribes, they were thought poor scavengers – mostly living off whatever marmots, rats and fish they could catch, and drinking a lot of fermented milk. Some time around 1162 a child was born to the tribe. He had a rough childhood which included the tribe abandoning his family for some time, and a time he was enslaved by his father’s enemies – but the boy proved tough and resourceful -and he secured patronage from a Steppe Warlord, Torghil, the Ong Khan – of the wealthy Kereyid tribe. 

Modern image of Mongol Yurts, or Ger.

This young man, then known as Temujin, fought for the Ong Khan against other tribes, such as the Merkid – who once kidnapped his wife (long story, we will come back to him in detail one day), Tayichiuds, Tatars and others. He grew to become a fantastic strategist and an inspirational leader through this endless warfare – but he also tired of it’s pointlessness. Through warcraft and diplomacy he put an end to the wars. By 1206 Temujin was rebranded Genghis Khan (pron. Chingis) – King of the Mongols. When, in 1218, he sent a peaceful trading envoy to Muhammad II of Kwarazym, he ran a prosperous empire – which controlled the Chinese Western Xia and Jin Dynasties, as well as the Qara Khitai – whose sprawling kingdom took in modern day Chinese, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tajik and Uzbek territory.

The records suggest the great Khan had no intent other than to trade with a powerful neighbour. Muhammad was convinced, however, that the trade delegation were spies – sent to reconnoiter his kingdom for a Mongol invasion. Muhammad ordered the envoys arrested, stole their goods, then disfigured the merchants’ faces. When news reached Genghis of their arrest, he sent a political envoy of three men to Kwarazym to de-fuse the situation. Muhammad had these men executed. At news of this insult, Genghis was apoplectic. He prepared his army for war. 

In March 1220, Muhammad II braced for what he thought was the entirety of Genghis’ army, coming via the roads one expected them to tread. Little did he realise he was watching the B team. Genghis was already within striking distance of the oasis city of Bukhara. He’d marched several thousand men for two thousand miles through the Kyzyl Kum desert – a vast, inhospitable hell-scape frequented by a handful of nomads, several Russian tortoise, and far too many six foot long monitor lizards. No one believed an army could survive in this desert, so no-one was looking out for them. 

The Bukharans must have been comforted a little by the fact they were inside a well stocked, well fortified city. Steppe barbarians, however deadly in battle, never carried siege engines. It is true Genghis and his men arrived with very little – they even lived off the meagre pickings of the desert so as not to be slowed down by a supply train. The Mongols took their time, however. They set up camp. They cut down a small forest to construct siege engines, ladders, trebuchets and catapults. They gave the people an ultimatum – open the city gates to us and we will treat you favourably. Fight and we will show you no mercy. 

Bukhara chose to defend their city. 

Well, at least they made a half- hearted effort to. After three days of raining hellfire and thunder upon the city, the bulk of the 20,000 defenders attempted to flee – though one source I read claimed they charged towards, not away from, the Mongols. Whatever the case they were butchered. The mongols then stormed the city. 

A large contingent of soldiers who didn’t charge or flee their attackers had set up in the citadel at the heart of the city. They managed to hold their attackers at bay for two weeks before Mongol siege engines broke them. 

The 280 wealthiest men in the city were rounded up and ordered to show Genghis’ men where they buried their treasure. The pillage, and eventual burning of the city began. Genghis, a man who was never known before to have actually entered a city (in his many battles, once won he’d leave it to his generals to handle the looting and burning), did enter Bukhara. He had a message for the survivors. 

“O People, know that you have committed great sins, and that the great ones among you have committed these sins. If you ask me what proof I have for these words, I say it is because I am the punishment of God. If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you.”

The punishment of God was upon the Caliphate, as city after city fell. Those who surrendered were made vassals of the Mongol empire. Those who put up a fight were wiped from the face of the earth. Muhammad II of Kwarazym fled to an island in the Caspian Sea, where he died of pleurisy weeks after his arrival. 

We’ll come to what this meant for the Assassins in a moment. Now back to where we left off. 

Bukhara would remain under Mongol rule till the 1920s, pictured the Emir of Bukhara Muhammad Alim Khan.

Peace was short-lived for the Ismaili. The Sultan Hassan-i Sabbah had so terrified died in 1126. His replacement, Sultan Sanjar, immediately sent an army into Assassin territory with orders to kill all Ismaili they came across. The Sultan was not particularly anti-Assassin, but he had a Vizier, Mu’in al-Din Kashi, who particularly detested them. The invasion failed in its ultimate objective, but did lead to the massacre of two villages – Tarz and Turaythith. The Assassins took revenge the way they best knew. 

On March 16, 1127, the Vizier called on two of his most trusted servants. The Sultan’s birthday was coming up and he needed to know which two of his prized horses should he gift him? The servants were, you guessed it, Assassins – who proceeded to murder the living daylights out of Mu’in al-Din Kashi. By 1129, the Ismaili actually gaining territory, Mahmud – the Sultan of Isfahan – called for peace. Regional rulers passed on leading to power vacuums in the regions surrounding the Ismaili – itself leading to civil conflicts among the Sunni. In 1139 the Caliph of Baghdad, himself embroiled in the war, was captured by a Sultan named Mas’ud. Moving his captive to the city of Maragha, it appears the Sultan had every intention of keeping the Caliph alive. No-one expected a group of Assassins would be capable of entering the compound and stabbing the Caliph to death. They were. They did, publicly celebrating the hit for a week afterwards. 

As a rule however, there were fewer assassinations under Hassan’s successor, Kiya Buzurgummid, who would have preferred a peaceful existence. He passed in 1138, passing the mantle to his son Muhammad. Muhammad’s reign saw just 14 assassinations, including another Caliph. Of interest, a Sultan named Da’ud, murdered in 1143. His death, it was claimed, was on behalf of the ruler of Mosul. It was also curious the killing was carried out, not by Persian assassins, but by Syrians. Under father, then son the Assassins were more concerned with governance of their own people. They also took to sending out missionaries to Syria, Georgia, and modern day Afghanistan. 

Waves of violence against the Ismaili continued from time to time however. In Rayy, the governor, a man named Abbas, launched a massacre of Ismaili in the city, afterwards proudly exhibiting a tower of skulls from the dead. Abbas was murdered by Sultan Mas’ud of the Caliph debacle before the assassins could come for him. For all this violence, the Persian Ismaili largely resisted the urge to assassinate. For a while they became a little boring, and respectable. 

Then along came Muhammad’s son Hasan. 

Early on the heir-apparent made waves. He publicly preached the Assassins needed a return to the revolutionary ways of his namesake, gathering a small army of followers. Hasan was something of a Millenarian – he believed when the Millennium came, the messiah would return and reinstate the faithful in paradise. Muhammad, concerned these new extremists would undo all his hard work, had 250 of his son’s followers arrested and put to death as heretics. Muhammad passed in 1162, ushering in Hasan’s era. 

For two years Hasan behaved himself, then in the middle of Ramadan in 1164 he announced the Millennium was upon them. From now on they would pray with their backs to Mecca. He announced to his people end times were coming, the ‘hidden Imam’ had spoken to him and advised the Holy Law no longer applied to them. If you wish to break the fast, do so. Want a glass of wine? Go for it. Want a glass of wine while in prayer, and a band of musicians playing in the background to break the silence? Why not? They are the righteous, they are saved from sin. All those old rules no longer applied. 

If there were ever a time Assassins ate pork, as Christian monks reporting from Armenia – another place to be visited by Ismaili missionaries at this time – this might just be it. Hasan reinvented himself as a modern-day Imam and a messiah-like figure. To drive home his message everyone must enjoy their newfound freedom, he executed numerous Ismaili who were perfectly happy with the old ways. You better damn well be free – the boss commands it of you seemed the mood of the day. The party lasted till 9th January 1166, when Hasan’s brother-in-law, in true Assassin style, stabbed the Imam to death. The next leader, Muhammad II was altogether less controversial. 

He saw the rise of the  Kwarazym. A handful of assassinations happened in his time. Orthodoxy restored itself among the Ismaili. Muhammad died in 1210, passing the mantle to his son Jalal al-Din Hasan. Jalal was far more orthodox than any other Ismaili ruler – they were all Muslims and he wished to leave cultish practices and mountain fortresses behind him. He sent secret messages to the Caliph of Baghdad asking how he could bring the Ismaili back into the fold? His reign saw a return towards orthodoxy, and the burning of many of their more heretical texts. This did not mean the assassinations stopped – The Persian Assassins became a part of the machine, now killing on behalf of the Caliph of Baghdad. 

Soon word reached Persia of this new, unstoppable force in the East – Barbarian Animists who believed God WAS the eternal blue sky – the Tengri in their language. Jalal al-Din Hasan was the first Muslim leader to reach out to the Mongols – proposing they too could be friends. Jalal passed soon after, in 1221 – passing the leadership to his nine year old son Ala al-Din Muhammad. During his reign the Assassins picked up land lost by the rapidly crumbling Kwarazmian Empire, and sent missionaries off to India. Ala’s behaviour, in turns cruel and eccentric, or depressed and heavily intoxicated – led to his assassination in 1255. At this point others worried his erratic behaviour was drawing bad attention from the Mongols – and no-one wanted the ‘punishment of God’ banging at the fortress door. His son Rukn al-Din took over. 

Which leads us to the Assassin’s inevitable conflict with the Mongols. 

Back to the Mongol invasion. Under Genghis, the Mongol army conquered wherever they went. They methodically took over all the major Central Asian cities – Samarkand, Balkh, Marv and Nishapur all ceded to them sooner or later. Genghis also controlled East Persia by the time of his passing in 1227. Everything went on hold for a few years, as often happened when a Khan died. Leaders would return to Mongolia to mourn, then call a meeting – a Khuriltai – to decide a new leader. Genghis’ son Ogedei ascended to the position and ordered the invasion to continue in 1230. In 1238 what was left of the Kwarazmian empire, alongside the Assassins, sent out envoys as far afield as China and England begging for assistance. By 1240 most of Persia was under Mongol control, and the Great Khan turned towards Georgia, Armenia and Mesopotamia. 

Dying Khans slowed Mongol progress yet again. When Ogedei passed in 1241, Eastern Europe, Korea and the Assassins must have all breathed a huge sigh of relief at the sudden cessation of war. The following decades saw a few starts and stops. In 1246 the Assassins sent an envoy to the coronation of Ogedei’s son Guyuk – they were not warmly received. 

In 1253 The Great Khan was Genghis’ grandson Mongke. He gave orders to his brother Hulegu to capture the Near East as far as Egypt. Their first port of call was the Assassins. In Ala al-Din’s declining years, he chose to fight them – but on his passing, Rukn al-Din was quick to capitulate to the Mongol war machine.  But this wasn’t where his story ended. The Assassins were spread over dozens of mountain fortresses. Expert warriors as the Mongols now were, they knew some of these fortress required a year or longer to overthrow, a great deal of effort, and many lives. No one besides the Imam had really called it a day. Rukn al-Din was suddenly taken in as a valued employee of the Great Khan. His job, to visit every last mountain fortress and convince them to surrender. His reward, he and his family would be kept safe, in the lap of luxury – for now – 

and around 30 camels. 

I feel silly mentioning the camels, but its mentioned in every book on the Mongols I’ve read over the last decade or so – and two books I read on the Ismaili for this post. The Mongols must have presumed the Imam wanted them for breeding purposes – but it seems nothing brought more joy to his life than to watch two male camels in a knock em down, drag em out street fight. To each their own I guess…

Rukn al-Din was taken from castle to castle, convincing most to surrender. Between the camel fighting and capitulations he found time to marry a Mongol woman. As a few castles held out, the Imam’s value to the Khan came under question. Two fortresses, Lamasar and Girdkuh held out for a while. No longer of use, Rukn al-Din was murdered on his way back to Persia from the Great Khan. A small resistance movement hung around till the 1270s, at one point even re-taking Alamut castle, but the Assassins Cult was all but over in Persia. 

They, of course survived – thrived even – in Syria. They even found themselves in places as far afield as India. We’ll look at those Tales in two weeks’ time for the final part – The Old Man of the Mountain.  

The Bottle Conjuror


Today’s tale is set on the night of January 16th 1749; the setting, The Haymarket Theatre – on London’s West End. Originally built in 1720, on a site formerly occupied by a pub and a gunsmith’s, there was something of ‘the little theatre who could’ about the place. While the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden and Drury Lane Theatre put on grand, operatic blockbusters – the Haymarket became well known for staging satirical pieces – something akin to an indie movie today. These plays were often highly critical of the ruling elite.

In 2022 many of these plays; penned by the likes of Henry Carey, Henry Fielding and a man named ‘Maggoty’ Johnson seem conservative – we are talking about Tory writers after all, with their now painfully old-fashioned values. These writers were trailblazers at the time. In 1688 a Dutch bloke called William basically stole the throne from the unpopular James II. The ruling class chose to look the other way as the coup happened, on the understanding the new king would give them a freer rein than the previous guy. The move away from authoritarian rule led to a middle class movement demanding greater rights. They advocated for property rights, representation in government, championed individualism, and demanded the rights to trade and innovate free of royal injunctions and tariffs.

All very middle class stuff now, but in 1749 this was relatively progressive stuff.  

The Haymarket Theatre, with it’s – for then – radical ideas, found plenty of willing patrons in the growing middle classes. On January 16th 1749, the place was packed to the rafters – not for John Gay’s The Beggars Opera, or Fielding’s Rape Upon Rape – but for an illusionist. For weeks now, buzz had been building around the arrival of ‘The Bottle Conjuror’.

The easiest way to explain the Bottle Conjuror is to just paste the text of the advertisement, which ran in papers throughout January 1749, and let you all read it yourselves … so here goes. 

“At the New Theatre in the Hay-market, on Monday next, the 16th instant, to be seen, a person who performs the several most surprising things following, viz. 

first, he takes a common walking-cane from any of the spectators, and thereon plays the music of every instrument now in use, and likewise sings to surprising perfection. 

Secondly, he presents you with a common wine bottle, which any of the spectators may first examine; this bottle is placed on a table in the middle of the stage, and he (without any equivocation) goes into it in sight of all the spectators, and sings in it; during his stay in the bottle any person may handle it, and see plainly that it does not exceed a common tavern bottle.

Those on the stage or in the boxes may come in masked habits (if agreeable to them); and the performer (if desired) will inform them who they are.”

A singer and multi-instrumentalist, a mentalist with an ability to recognise you from behind a mask – and most importantly – a contortionist so skilled he could climb into a ‘common wine bottle’? How could anyone miss that? The Haymarket was abuzz with paying customers, gathered in anticipation for this wonder. They waited, first patiently, then less so. The crowd waited, in fact, for several hours – eyes affixed on empty stage – before booing and demands for a refund finally broke the silence.

Samuel Foote, the manager of the theatre stepped out from behind the curtain and attempted to calm the angry mob. Demands for a refund rose. Someone in the crowd shouted something to the effect that they’d pay double if this conjuror just climbed into a pint bottle. This comment, of all things, seems to be the match which lit the fuse to the crowd’s sudden, violent explosion. The audience rushed the stage, and smashed, looted and tore up anything they could get their hands on. One angry lunatic even set a small fire off. The angry mob destroyed the Haymarket Theatre.

A bonfire was lit in the street by the mob, fed by the debris from the riot. Lit by the torn down curtains.    

As much as the Haymarket was popular with the middle class, at least one aristocrat – Prince William, Duke of Cumberland – was present. The second son of King George II escaped more or less unhurt, but lost a jewel encrusted sword in the riot. The sword was never recovered. 

In the aftermath of the riot, several newspapers made light of the gullibility of the crowd. Some going as far to suggest – tongue in cheek – the act became a no show after someone put a cork in the bottle, kidnapping the performer at rehearsal. Suspicion for the hoax initially fell on theatre manager Samuel Foote, who legitimately appears to have had no part in it. A mysterious, shadowy figure described only as “a strange man” organised the event. 

Who was “Strange Man”? The best guess is John Montagu, the 2nd Duke of Montagu – a bored English peer with a love of ‘practical jokes’. A trained physician, former governor of the West Indies isles of Saint Lucia and Saint Vincent; he was also a philanthropist who established a foundling’s hospital for abandoned children. Montagu paid for the education of two prominent black Englishmen – the writer and composer Ignatius Sancho, and poet Francis Williams. It’s fair to say he was a complex character. For our purposes, it’s worth knowing is his sense of humour was less complex, typically running to dousing house guests in water and lacing their beds with itching powder.


He detested the middle classes, with their demands for greater freedom – and it is said he decided to stage the Bottle Conjuror hoax following a night drinking with other aristocrats. He allegedly bet his companions enough Londoners would be dumb enough to believe a fully grown adult could climb into a quart bottle, he could fill a theatre with them. The aristocracy being a law unto themselves in those days, no one ever charged the Duke – who, in any case, died in July of that year.  

Xenophon in Mesopotamia: Part One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Xenophon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cyrus sited his brother

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

But

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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