Hey all, as I’m dropping The Max Headroom Incident as the podcast episode – I’m yet again at a loose end for a blog post for the week. I broke ground on this post 28th September (New Zealand time) – the day it was announced John Hinckley, the man who attempted to kill Ronald Reagan, just to impress Jodie Foster, would be released from prison in 2022.
This did sway my choice of topic. Please don’t mistake my telling of this tale as having some political motive – perhaps taking a sly jab at Boris Johnson or such. I’m no fan of Boris by a long long way, but there is no such intent here.
I’m just sharing an obscure tale, on a couple of now obscure figures to pass a little time.
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.
This week’s tale is set in the Windy City – Chicago, Illinois. The time, a very specific 9.14pm on 22nd November 1987. The city’s sports fans are tuned into WGN TV’s Nine O’clock News as Dan Roen discuses the latest round in the Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions rivalry – (I’m told the two American Football teams have been at war with one another since 1930, having met 183 times at time of writing… on this day the Bears won 30 – 10). As select footage played from the game, the signal suddenly cut out – replaced by a bizarre, distorted pirate signal. In place of the hulking footballers, a man in a suit, wearing a familiar mask to trick or treaters that year. Bobbing up and down for joy, the figure stood in front of a sheet of corrugated iron, which rotated back and forth behind him. Before the intruder could say anything, one of the technicians at WGN TV wrestled control back from the hijackers, changing uplink frequencies. Back to a rather shocked Roen, in the studio…
“Well, if you’re wondering what’s happened – so am I” This would be the first of two bizarre incidents on Chicago television that night.
The second incident occurred at 11.15pm on PBS affiliate WTTW (channel 11). The channel was in the midst of Doctor Who’s Horror of Fang Rock serial (to the uninitiated, Doctor Who is a Sci-Fi show from the UK featuring a time travelling alien called The Doctor. From time to time The Doctor dies, and is reincarnated, with a new actor taking the lead. This episode featured fourth Doctor Tom Baker – Whovians reading this would hardly need me to tell them that – their knowledge tends towards the encyclopaedic). In the middle of a scene, an intrusion forced its way onto the airwaves.
Whereas the first invasion lasted a mere 25 seconds, this one would carry on for close to one and a half minutes. The intruder – a man with a rubber Max Headroom mask – would speak this time, though the signal would be highly distorted. Having disparaged sports caster Chuck Swirsky, sung a line from The Temptations 1966 hit ‘(I know) I’m Losing You’, hummed the theme for 1960s cartoon Clutch Cargo, waved around what looks like a rubber dildo, dropped the catchphrase from the new, New Coke ads the real Max Headroom fronted, and put on a welding glove stating ‘my brother has the other one on’ – the video cuts to ‘Max’, bare bottomed, stating ‘Oh no, they’re coming to get me’ before a woman with a fly swatter emerges to spank him. The intrusion then cuts out. It is quite an action-packed minute and a half.
That the hijackers chose Max Headroom to front their intrusion may carry political meaning, although it could just as likely have been a convenient disguise – Headroom masks were everywhere just the month before – a lot of people dressed as Max for Halloween. Max Headroom, the character seems the perfect avatar for the crime however.
The character had come about in 1985 as British TV station Channel 4 wanted to launch a music video program, a little like the shows on MTV. Rather than use a real life ‘Talking head’ they looked to create an AI – but that proving too expensive, they settled on adding prosthetics to the sharp-featured Matt Frewer. He was dressed in a shiny fibreglass jacket, filmed him in intense light in front of a computer generated background, and his voice was occasionally ‘glitched’ with pitch shifting and a digital ‘stutter’. The creators; George Stone, Annabel Jankel, and Rocky Morton then concocted an elaborate backstory to the character. This in turn spawned a weekly action show based around the character.
In a dystopian near future, run by large TV corporations, crusading reporter Edison Carter chases down a story that ‘blipverts’ – 3 second advertisements designed to keep people on the channel – are killing some of the audience. While uncovering the truth, Carter has an accident, leaving him comatose. His last memory, seeing a sign on a carpark entrance ‘Max Headroom 2.3 metres’. The Channel downloads his memories into an AI avatar to replace him – however the character (Headroom) is the opposite of the humble Carter. Max Headroom is the very image of an arrogant, swaggering news host. A movie, then several seasons of the action show were wonderfully subversive critiques of the evils of consumerism, politics and modern life in general. Carter and Headroom brilliantly antithetical characters, played like a modern Jekyll and Hyde. The edgy critique (which coincidentally had dealt with the takeover of a TV channel in one episode – a crime referred to as ‘zipping’ and carrying a death sentence), had gotten the show cancelled only a month prior to the Max Headroom incident. ‘Network 23’, in this case ABC television, were not amused.
While in real life, you can’t be executed for ‘zipping’ a channel – it is a serious crime all the same. The Federal Communications Commission were called in to investigate. The FBI joined the investigation soon after. If a perpetrator were to be caught, they could face a $100,000 fine, a year in jail – or both. After extensive investigation, and an interrogation of everyone the authorities believed had the skills to hack the network – they came up empty-handed. This doesn’t mean internet sleuths have given up on the mystery. One name often put forward is former punk rocker and indie filmmaker Eric Fournier. Fournier filmed a series of shorts in the 1990s around the fictional character Shaye St John – a former model who had to rebuild herself with prosthetics after a horrific train accident. A compilation of these quirky (or disturbing, depending on which side of the fence you sit) shorts was released on DVD in 2006, with an accompanying website which remained online till 2017. Many have commented on the similar sense of humour. Fournier cannot confirm or deny, having passed on 2010.
Another lead often discussed is an anonymous Reddit thread from 2010. The poster claimed he was part of the hacker community in the 1980s, when he met two brothers he called J and K. The poster was convinced the two were behind the hijacking, having bragged of a big caper just days before the intrusion. They were allegedly capable of carrying out the hijack, and Max’s character, inability to keep to a single topic for more than a few seconds, and general sense of humour seemed very like ‘J’. The thread, now archived, has an update from 2013 that the police located ‘J and K’ following the post, and were able to eliminate them from the list of suspects. To date no-one has been charged with the Max Headroom incident.
One may ask why was this prank taken so seriously? Sure, a number of viewers were upset by the intrusion – one commenting it felt like someone had thrown a brick through his window. The laws were only recently beefed up to deal with incidents like this in an effort to protect all manner of large networks. Imagine if you will, the hackers found a way into the power grid, traffic lights or air control systems at an airport. However, stunts like the Max Headroom incident can cause some real panic in their own right. While this incident, the 1986 ‘Captain Midnight’ protest (where satellite dish salesman John MacDougall took over HBO in protest of them blocking satellite dish owners from watching for free), or the 1987 intrusion into a soft-core porn film on the Playboy channel with bible verses, by an engineer for the Christian Broadcasting Network named Thomas Haynie are all almost comical, other examples are less so.
In 1966, a Russian hacker in the city of Kaluga made an on air announcement, that the USA had launched nuclear missiles at the USSR. A British hacker caused a mass panic among the gullible in 1977 when he hacked a Southern Television news bulletin in alien voice to announce himself as Vrillon, representative of the Ashtar Galactic Command. In Poland in 1985, four astronomers hacked their TV stations with messages in support of the ‘Solidarity’ labour movement, which would eventually overthrow their communist rulers. In 2006, Israel, then at war with Lebanon hacked Hezbollah’s Al Manar TV to broadcast anti Hezbollah propaganda.
Hey all, my voice is still very strained, very gravelly – unable to hold together while projecting for more than four words in a row. Were we talking ‘husky’ I’d just hit record, but we’re not… On the upside, I had NO VOICE at all a week ago, so I’m on the mend.
I’ll get to Mr Belzoni and his tomb-raiding ways as soon as is possible. Ditto Mr Otzi and his pre-historic cat and mouse game – for the Patreon feed.
In the meantime – I can write at least. Let’s blog something today. Yeah, I’m avoiding William Brydon and all those other obvious topics from the ‘graveyard of empires’ – best folk like me shush a little and let the folk who served in Afghanistan tell their stories, free of my noise I think….
The legend of Atlantis comes down to us from the Greek philosopher Plato in the 4th Century BC. Somewhere out beyond the pillars of Hercules (the Strait of Gibraltar), 9,000 years before the philosopher’s time, an island of favoured people lived. They lived morally, and extremely well till they discovered vice and all that other good stuff in life. These vice-loving Atlanteans developed an imperialistic attitude and made war with the people of the Mediterranean, conquering down to Egypt on one side – Italy on the other. Athens, of course fought back and expelled them – then Zeus – enraged with these interlopers – drowned Atlantis in a flurry of earthquakes and floods.
Plato’s student Aristotle was convinced Atlantis was a device dreamt up by Plato, so he could talk further on what made a good or bad society. Over time many others commandeered the Atlantis myth, dreaming up increasingly complex tales. Sir Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis gives a passing description of a modern recording studio – hundreds of years before we’d even record sound. Sir Thomas More’s Utopia described a land, thought to reflect some realities of living in a monastery – but to my eyes seems more aligned with democratic-socialism. The explorer Alexander von Humboldt was convinced Plato was writing about the Americas. Writer, politician and fringe theorist Ignatius Donnelly was the first to write Atlantis was a super-advanced prehistoric empire in the Southern Hemisphere. It’s people lived in a golden age, taught all the other peoples everything they know, and were so much better than the rest of us. He was, of course popular and influential with people like Helena Blavatsky and Rudolf Steiner.
A master race from a mystical land, with a mythical history one could leverage to rally discontented masses around – nothing bad could come of that, right?
Whatever the Graham Hancocks of the world have to say on the matter, however much some rocks off Bimini look like a formerly giant harbour wall, or how many pre-historic Britons did actually live on Doggerland – Atlantis was just a tall tale from a guy whose hobby horse was a fictional republic (a republic, by the way which looks terribly like a fascist state. If you haven’t read ‘Republic’ you may be in for a surprise).
But every once in a while, something happens in our real-life history which evokes Atlantis. Rather than bringing up Plato’s moral however, it often brings about the worst, pseudo-Atlantean behaviour in us.
Our Tale proper begins July 1831, in the waters southwest of the Sicilian coast. Fishermen, used to trawling these waters for their living are shocked to find the sea strewn with dead fish. Stranger still, their usual catch are not just dead, but appear to have been boiled alive. This didn’t bode well. Yes, something had saved them the bother of casting nets and lines – and technically these fish were edible – but they carried a stench of sulphur so heavy it could take you off your feet.
On July 10th the reason for the dead fish asserted itself, as a volcano thrust out of the sea. For several weeks lava flowed out of the mouth of the volcano. It sprawled outwards till it collided with the sea – where the sea hissed, and bubbled, and gave to it. It quickly settled into a substantial clod of solid land – just shy of a kilometre across, and 20 metres tall at it’s apex. Sicily, whose history we’ll zip through in a month’s time, were then under the rule of the French House of Bourbon. On a normal year they would’ve laid claim to this island immediately – but the island were dealing with a deadly cholera epidemic that was far more urgent than some new land. All the same, they did send Michele Fiorini, a customs official out to land on the live volcano on July 17, 1831. That way they could stake a claim to it.
Others were very interested in the new land. The world of 1831 was not terribly far removed from the world I wrote about in The Batavia some time back. Refrigeration in the home was still a long way off- so spices from the east, to mask decaying meat was a necessity. European sailors made dangerous, eight month voyages out to the East for spices, and a range of other goods. The Suez Canal, which did away with the need to nearly circumnavigate Africa, was still four decades away. At this point in our history, The sea ports of the Ottoman Empire were still a major player – where one could buy Eastern goods to one’s heart’s content. The sea lanes which took you to Modern day Turkey zipped past this new island. But there was one, age old problem – Pirates.
Piracy was a problem in the Mediterranean for longer than we’ve had written history. The latest batch of pirates, privateers from ‘the Barbary coast’ in the North of Africa. Barbary pirates, from places like Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli made a healthy living picking off European merchant ships – often with the backing of one or other European nation to pick off their rivals (doesn’t this still sound familiar in this day and age). In 1830, France invaded Algiers – citing the time their ruler, Hussein Dey struck the French Consul in the head with a fly whisk, as a fair provocation – slowing piracy considerably. The European powers had been through this all before. Spain, or the USA or someone would come in and clear out the pirates – but they would always return. If only there were a free clump of land to establish a naval base… Someone could rule the Mediterranean from there.
Enter Captain Sir Humphrey Fleming Senhouse, of the British navy. On word of a new island, he jumped onboard the cutter The Hind, and sailed out to the clod of earth. On August 3rd 1831, Senhouse disembarked with a British flag – naming it Graham Island, after the first lord of the Admiralty, Sir James Graham. This act of imperialistic brown nosing would later earn Senhouse his knighthood. Not long after, the island spewed more lava and grew to four square kilometres. It grew to 60 metres in height, and now had two lakes. Bravo Humphrey! One imagines King William IV saying. Sicily, plague or no plague, decided an island of this size is worth the fight, and sent out a couple of war ships. ‘Fair’s fair, we were here and named it after King Ferdinand while you lot were still out playing bowls’ I imagine them saying.
In the meantime, the French had shown up. Constant Prevost, a French geology professor just so happened to be in the area, with an artist to sketch the new island. Where Sicily named it Ferdinandea a week after it’s appearance, and the British Graham Island – Prevost named the clod Ile Julia, in an essay to the Société géologique de France. This was in honour of it’s July appearance. Now in the news, the public began to speculate. “What if this is the first of many islands to pop up, and next thing there is a mountain range from Sicily to Africa?” “What if this is Atlantis, rising from the waves?”. Unsurprisingly, the French also staked a claim.
Finally, enter Spain, cause what’s a colonisation without Conquistadors?
For five months the four European nations parked up warships offshore. Politicians made arguments to their successive governments, and to the general public through newspaper articles – all claiming themselves as the rightful claimant. Diplomats glared at one another and all involved wondered when the Cold War would go hot?
In the meantime, tourists arrived at this God-forsaken lump of basalt. They marvelled at it’s geography – ‘It has not one, but two lakes don’t you know?’ The house of Bourbon had plans drawn up for a holiday resort on the lakeside.
The world held their breath in anticipation of yet another ugly European war.
Then Ferdinandea/Graham Island/Ile Julia/whatever name the Spaniards had for the island sank back into the ocean as quickly as it had risen.
I’m fairly sure many a modern commentator had something to say on the ethics, practices and hubris of the time. How could one not allude to Zeus and his thunderbolts? As a species we’re so often the worst man! I’m completely unconvinced, were it to rise again – and it could – there wouldn’t be another race to claim the island. In 2000, Prince Carlo di Bourbon – one of two claimants to the vacated throne of The Two Kingdoms of Sicily – paid divers to make the six metre journey to the top of the island to plant a flag, and secure a plaque in the name of his bloodline.
OK, that’s all for today. I’ll get that podcast/blog post up as soon as my voice returns.
Warning! Today we talk of a monster, doing monstrous things amidst a crumbling empire.
Today’s tale begins in the Mongolian city of Urga – 1st February 1921. The city, home to Mongolia’s spiritual leader, the Bogd Khan; around 60,000 locals, traders, diplomats – and a private army of Chinese invaders from a little over a year before – has been on tenterhooks for months.
I really need to step back a little and explain those Chinese first… don’t I?
Mongolia was in a precarious way – to say the least. For well over a century, the former home of Genghis Khan was a vassal state to one or other of her more powerful neighbours – Russia and China. The failure of China in 1911 – Emperor Puyi deposed, their government giving way to several quarrelling warlords –
And Russia in 1917 – the Romanovs deposed by a democratic regime in vitro, but soon thrown into a civil war on Comrade Lenin’s return –
Left Mongolia free to hew their own path. They did so for a while, till it became clear no-one in power knew how to run an economy. Mongolia turned to China for help.
This put them under China’s orbit again … but it doesn’t quite explain their current situation. Two Chinese warlords, Xu Shuzheng and Duan Qirui were two of many to build their own army after the Emperor fell. In the First World War, Xu and Duan were allowed to keep their army – under the auspices of helping Britain and France. When someone needed someone to risk their lives and dig a trench near enemy lines, Xu and Duan’s army obliged. This was their main role in the war.
With the war over; their real plan – to seize a chunk of China for themselves, as Zhang Zuolin, the self appointed ‘King of the North-East’ had done – became too nakedly obvious. Xu and Duan were suddenly scrambling for an excuse to keep their militia.
Self rebranded the Bureau of Frontier Defence, they took to ‘monitoring’ the border with Mongolia. On October 23 1919, Duan and Xu rolled across the border with ten thousand troops in tow. They kidnapped the Bogd Khan, and posted armed guards everywhere. Through gunboat diplomacy they convinced the leadership it was in Mongolia’s best interests to put them in charge. Mongolia was now run from Maimaichen, the, now heavily fortified, Chinese enclave of Urga. Their new kings, two Chinese warlords who dared to dream big.
Xu and Duan might have remained in power for some time, but for the arrival of another army, in October 1920.
Baron Roman von Ungern-Sternberg was an ousted White Army General, who travelled to Urga to avoid a certain death. Like China, Russia had imploded. A vicious civil war which took up to nine million lives was still raging. Tens of thousands of soldiers of late fighting alongside one another, now bifurcated into the Communist Reds, and Royalist Whites. As a Russian cavalry officer, Ungern had fought with distinction on the Eastern Front – he was an untouchable killing machine at a section of the front which saw a 300% loss of life a year – before being jailed for violence against another officer while on leave. Needing dangerous men on the battlefield more than violent offenders in jail cells, Ungern was released and ultimately sent to the border towns of Siberia- to the wild and lawless places. His mission, to collect whatever Cossacks, Buryat, Mongolians, Tatars, Kipchaks and various other really tough guys he could find on the steppes – and build an army. So he did, and when things fell apart they, ultimately became HIS army.
For some time, Ungern ran a Fiefdom in the Dauria region – on the border of Siberia and Mongolia. He ruled with an iron fist, shaking down passing travellers, punishing wayward locals, and destroying any Reds who encroached onto his patch.
Roman von Ungern-Sternberg was soon famous across the nation for his cruelty, fearlessness, and extreme violence. If one spoke of ‘the bloody White Baron, everyone knew who they were talking about.
He was also a well known zealot, though the nature of his zealotry was complex, and totally self serving. For Ungern, the divine right of kings was everything. One does not unseat a monarch without facing the wrath of God – as a minor aristocrat whose ancestors were employed as enforcers in Estonia, this scans. Beneath that sat an unschooled religious underpinning- part Christianity, part Mongolian Buddhism – acquired either from his wandering in the nineteen-teens, or via an eccentric uncle who was a fervent spiritualist. Ungern saw himself as the latest in a long line of ancestors – crusaders, Teutonic Knights and Baltic pirates; who did well for themselves through violence, most often for a monarch.
Also of note, he was a vile anti-Semite whose army flew a swastika flag before the Nazis even adopted that symbol.
In Russia, as the Whites crumbled before the Reds, and it looked like Dauria would soon be overrun – Ungern wrote to the Bogd Khan asking permission to enter Mongolia. The captive Khan welcomed him, hoping the Buddhist warlord might rid his nation of their captors.
Back to February 1921. This wouldn’t be Xu and Duan’s first rodeo with Ungern. In October 1920, an exhausted Ungern, newly arrived, led his ragtag bunch in an attack on Maimaichen. The Chinese repelled them, but were horrified at their ferocity. Led by a tall, sinewy, wraith-like figure – horrifically scarred, and with shark-like eyes – this group moved swiftly – killing without a moment’s thought. Ungern particularly, in his blood red Mongolian silk jacket, made for an easy target – but it appeared bullets wouldn’t even touch him. After several suicidal charges, they left the defenders shaken – some wondering if they weren’t facing off against some supernatural force.
Ungern’s Army set up camp near the Kherlen river – living in tents as a 40 below zero winter set in. For months, Xu and Duan’s army looked up to the hills at night. Eerie signal fires lit every single night for one purpose – to remind them what was coming. This gnawed at them, till they took their frustrations out on the non-Chinese residents. Xu’s Army looted homes. They beat locals. One day they executed 50 Mongolian holy men. The other residents of Urga started looking up to the signal fires hopefully, this new army can’t be worse than the current lot?
Then, one night in February ….
Ungern had personally reconnoitred Maimaichen a month earlier – legend has it killing three guards on his way out with nothing more than a bamboo cane. This time they were well rested, and were coming at the city with a clear plan.
The hills lit up as if several thousand soldiers were carrying torches towards them. This was a distraction, and a massive overstatement of their numbers. Meanwhile, 500 men crept up to the edge of the city – and waited for the artillery to be moved into position. A panicked group of sentries spotted them, and fired upon them with machine guns. As bullets mostly whizzed just above their heads, Ungern’s Army broke into two flanks. One returned fire, while the other advanced, and vice versa.
They soon breached the Chinese defences and overran the town. In the clamour, the Bogd Khan’s personal zoo broke from their enclosures – stampeding wild animals adding to the chaos. The Bogd’s prize elephant would be found 100 miles away, days later. As Ungern’s Army swept Xu’s Army back; a contingent of Tibetan monks – lent Ungern by the Dalai Llama, stormed the Bogd Khan’s compound. Within minutes – fighting with swords and bows – these commando monks butchered most of the 150 jailers, and carried the Bogd Khan to safety.
As the sun rose, what was left of Xu’s Army took whatever vehicles they could, and fled Urga. Some were picked off by the men in the hills. A Pocket of resistance, who fled to the Russian quarter, fought against Ungern’s sabre wielding army with knives and meat cleavers. They were cut to shreds.
Now, if the people of Urga were rooting for these newcomers, and hoping for freedom – for many the celebrations would be short lived. Ungern’s Army swept the city, murdering anyone they suspected of working for Xu. While they were at it, they killed any Russian immigrants with even tenuous links to the Reds. Anyone suspected of being an enemy of the new regime was put to death. Hangings were commonplace. The town market was turned into a giant bonfire – one poor boy was roasted alive in a baker’s oven.
Ungern then, true to form, ordered a pogrom on the Jews of Urga. Only then did he turn his attentions to finding what was left of General Xu’s army, and ridding all of Mongolia of their presence.
Inexplicably, the people of Urga – surrounded by evidence Ungern was a monster – welcomed him as a saviour figure, and a living god of war. On 22nd February 1921, in an ostentatious parade he reinstated the Bogd Khan as king – though he was now a puppet for Ungern himself. Ungern’s army reopened workplaces and public facilities. He had the city streets swept clean, till Urga shone. He instituted law and order in the city – even if punishment was cruel and unusual – lawbreakers being forced to perch on a roof top for weeks on end, or go out, naked and unarmed into the wild – where on at least one occasion the guilty parties were eaten by wolves. He floated a new currency, ‘Barons’ – currency tied to the Mexican peso with sheep, cows and camels on the notes. Urga, at ease, declared Ungern the reincarnation of the fifth Bogd Gegen- putting him on the same pedestal as the Bogd Khan himself.
Had he remained a relatively benevolent dictator, this Tale may have ended differently. It doesn’t. Like all megalomaniacs Ungern had dreams of ruling the world. In his case, he dreamt of reinstating all the cruel and feckless kings deposed in, and prior to the Great War. He planned to do this by rallying tens of thousands of like minds into a grand army, which would sweep Asia, then Russia – where he still hoped to reinstate Nicholas II’s brother Michael to the throne. From there they would invade the democratic nations of Europe. Behind this network of monarchs he imagined himself, the all powerful puppet master. Ungern sent out correspondence to a number of like minded warlords throughout the region.
This period of relative quiet also allowed Ungern time to get paranoid, and look for trouble where there was none. He established the ‘Bureau of Political Intelligence’ to purge Mongolia of dissidents, under the direction of the sexually sadistic Colonel Sipailov. Sipailov’s end game the sexual gratification he got out of torturing people to death, but also to go after the wealth of his victims. He deliberately targeted somewhere between 250 and 300 of Mongolia’s wealthiest citizens. His witch hunt led to an exodus of wealthy Mongolians, which in turn plunged the nation into an economic depression.
In mid 1921 the Red Army sent thousands of troops to Dauria, for a planned invasion of Mongolia. The Reds had offered the Chinese help when Ungern showed up in Mongolia in October 1920, but China were pretty sure then could handle them. At the time the Red Army had enough on their plate anyway- but the dust was starting to settle for them, and they could afford to spare the soldiers. At the same time Ungern was planning an invasion of Dauria. He consulted two fortune tellers – one of whom told him he had 130 days left to live, the other ‘130 steps’. Under the weight of the augurers, but convinced he was a supernatural force himself – Ungern prepared his army for the invasion.
On June 1st Ungern’s army crossed the border, and faced off against the Fifth Red army, 35th Division at the town of Kiatkha. Commanded by the Latvian Konstantin Neumann, the 35th division were also battle-hardened tough guys. they were also far better equipped than Ungern’s Army, and outnumbered them two to one. The two forces skirmished till they met in full force. June 11th, in the forest outside the town. Neumann destroyed Ungern’s army. Ungern abandoned the artillery and fled for the Mongolian border. The Reds invaded Mongolia June 28th, capturing Urga, leaving Ungern rudderless. The Bogd Khan welcomed the Reds as liberators – something he’d regret as they too, it turned out were sadistic murderers.
Meanwhile Ungern marched eastwards with the remains of his army – through mountains, and snake filled swamps. He had convinced himself if he could get to the city of Verkhne-Udinsk, the White army and the Japanese would be waiting for him. As Ungern came across villages, the increasingly paranoid general ordered the villages looted – the people murdered. He couldn’t chance them being Communist spies. Subsequently they came across deserted village after deserted village. Word preceded him of people crammed into sheds, then set afire. On 31st July Ungern’s army clashed with the Red Army 7th Special detachment in one village. They won this battle, and massacred all the prisoners.
When Ungern’s army got to Verkhne-Udinsk, the place was swarming with Red soldiers. On 4th August he fled back into Mongolia – Reds in pursuit. Only 500 of Ungern’s army survived this clash.
Ungern’s Army had had enough. They wanted to leave for Manchuria, in the North of China. Manchu warlords were always on the lookout for battle-hardened mercenaries. Ungern insisted they cross the Gobi desert for Tibet. He still believed he could build a Pan-Asiatic army, and defeat the Reds. His men caved to his demands – but quietly plotted to murder him.
A few days later, Ungern was leaving the fortune tellers tent, when the conspirators opened fire. Ungern hit the deck and crawled to safety. Keeping low, he scrambled to his horse and rode off into the hills. Several conspirators, now terrified he’d return, packed up and ran in the other direction – Straight into a division of Red soldiers.
Ungern returned that evening, ordering his army to up sticks and follow him across the Gobi. Screaming at the top of his lungs, he waved his pistol at the men. Ungern’s army refused to go. Ungern mounted his horse and left.
He returned days later, speaking only to the Mongolians. As their living God of War and Bogd Gegen reincarnate, he ordered them to follow him. A Mongolian officer wrestled him to the ground, and had Ungern hogtied. He was left, bound, in an abandoned luggage train. Ungern’s Army dispersed – most going on to find work for one Chinese Warlord or another. The Red army found Ungern on 17th August, still in the train. As Russian newspapers filled with reports the dangerous outlaw had been captured: his army disbanded – Ungern was brought in for a show trial in the Russian city of Novosibirsk. After a summation of his war crimes – an unsanctioned invasion of a sovereign nation, several thousand acts of murder in often the most grotesque ways, the persecution of minorities and the execution of prisoners of war – Baron Roman von Ungern-Sternberg was executed by firing squad, 15th September 1921.
In truth the Bloody White Baron was not completely atypical of the time and place – in the chaos of the Russian Civil War, other monsters carried out monstrous acts – but this is not, exactly what I mean. His parallels with other despots, fascist or otherwise, make him interesting – yet far too common. Monsters like Ungern are often outsiders – sometimes wealthy but bona fide oddballs to polite society all the same. Sometimes, as in the case of Hitler, Napoleon or Ungern they are geographically on the edges of an empire. Their otherness lends them an air of authority to those who feel dispossessed, or left behind by a changing world. They’re often armed with a worldview well beyond the pail – laced with arcane spirituality, or dangerous conspiracy theories.
They ALWAYS speak of a lost golden age which never really existed – and have a simple plan to get back there. ‘We’ll make Mongolia Great Again’. ‘Believe me folks, we’ll win so much, you’ll soon be tired of winning’. You get the picture. Wary of science and the modern, the Ungerns live in a post truth bubble. Truth always bends to their will – till one day it doesn’t. Always with that other, other in their back pocket to scapegoat. People will happily oblige – believing their violence is directed at those making their lives somehow less Great.
Always beware the Baron von Ungerns, and their death cults folks – those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.
The following is the Tale of the murder which occurred at 46 Lower Belgrave Street, Belgravia – on Thursday, 7th November 1974. It will be performed in four acts. Discretion is advised, this one is about to get messy, and bloody … and full of some really awful people.
Act One: The basement, in typical upstairs- downstairs fashion, where the kitchen is located. Enter a young, slender lady. She pauses to turn on the light. “Strange, the bulb must have blown” and continues towards the kettle. In near complete darkness she fills a kettle and prepares to make a cup of tea. Unbeknownst to her a tall figure, decked out all in somber dark grey, creeps toward her. Sure-footedly he moves closer and closer – till within striking distance. One imagines that feeling you get, when even in the darkest of rooms you know someone is staring at you; that unease when you hear another’s aspiration in the room. The hair stands up on the back of her neck, she spins on her heels at the last moment. Her eyes struggle to focus on her attacker’s silhouette. All too late. The killer unleashes a flurry of heavy blows with a lead pipe. He strikes the victim hard enough to crack her skull in several places. Hard enough to bend a solid lead pipe.
The victim crumples, dead on the floor. A blood filled floor in a blood soaked room. Zoom in for a close up of the attacker’s face, as he realises to his horror, he’s missed his target. He was there to kill the lady of the house. Instead, he’s bludgeoned the childrens’ nanny, Sandra Rivett.
It bears saying a little something about Sandra. Born in Australia in 1945, her family moved to Croydon when she was a toddler. She was a smart but un-academic kid, and left school to become a hairdresser. Her early adulthood had been bumpy. As a teen she got engaged, then pregnant to a builder, who left her. She fell into a deep depression and spent time in a mental health facility, while her parents adopted her son as their own. She married a sailor at 21, later falling out of love and separating. By 29, she was a nanny for posh people; something she excelled at. She’d met a young man named John Hankins. The couple spent Thursday nights together, leaving the lady of the house the job of making her own cup of tea that evening. I recall reading an article a decade ago that stated the couple changed nights that week as John was preparing to fly to Australia the following day. I couldn’t find this detail in any of the texts. That he was around for the police to question suggests this wasn’t the case.
From what I’ve read, Sandra may be the sole good person in this tale; so it bears to pause a second to mourn her loss. Alas poor Sandra….
As the killer stuffs Sandra’s body into a sack, and drags her to a hiding place under the stairwell, he is disturbed by the sound of footsteps from above. [The house lights fade to black.]
Act Two: A large estate in County Mayo, Ireland. Some time in the late 1840s.
I feel it safe to say, for his crimes – Richard John Bingham, known as John, or sometimes the wildly inappropriate appellation Lucky – or officially, the 7th Earl of Lucan – was still only the third most awful member of the family. His namesake, a several times great uncle, was a thug Elizabeth I sent to Ireland to enforce her rule. We’ve covered that murderous Richard Bingham in the Tale of Grace O’Malley. He governed Ireland with an iron fist and was given a large estate – which passed down his brother’s side when he died childless. The third Earl of Lucan, Field Marshall George Bingham, was in charge of even more square miles of land, and had 100,000 Irish tenants. During the Great Potato famine – a man-made disaster which caused the death or displacement of millions of Irish from 1845 – 1852 – George evicted several thousand tenants; not for non-payment – but because he wished to build himself a dairy farm. To do so he had an entire village demolished.
To add insult to injury; as a trustee of the local poorhouse, he locked the gates, turning the starving away to die by the thousands. Before he set off for the Crimean War, and in 1854 mistook an order – which led to the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade – he already had the blood of thousands of innocents on his hands.
Over time, the Bingham family got more likeable. They also became, by degrees, less wealthy. John Bingham’s parents, the 6th Earl and Countess Lucan could not have been more different than these earlier monsters. They were members of the Labour Party, who advocated for the aristocracy to be stripped of their privilege. John, it bears stating, was nothing at all like his parents.
John ‘ Lucky’ Lucan, born 18th December 1934, got his first real glimpse of extreme wealth during World War Two. To keep the Bingham children safe, John, his two sisters and brother were sent to the USA to live with the wealthy Brady- Tucker family. Though homesick and depressed, Lucan got a sense of what living large truly looked like. Carll and Marcia Brady Tucker had incalculable wealth made from gambling less wealth on the stock market. Hardly a victim of the great crash, they owned stately homes across the country, and lived exuberantly.
Post war and back in Britain, John became deeply depressed – so the 6th Earl and Countess – in spite of their own feelings on posh schools – sent their son off to Eton. He was not a terribly capable student, but he learned two life skills. First, he acquired all the social capital needed to mix with fellow aristocrats. Second, he fell head over heels in love with gambling. In the days before casinos became legal (this happened in 1961) this meant running bets on the dogs and horses down to a local bookie. He was an awful student, but very popular with the other kids, as the school’s de facto bookie – collecting bets then shuttling them to the real bookies. Academia not for him, John Bingham left school to complete his national military service in 1953.
Completing officer training, the future Earl served two years in West Germany – where he frequented casinos on his leave, and got in a lot of card playing in with his fellow officers while on base. He strolled from peacetime service straight to a well-paying job in finance with the merchant bankers William Brandt’s sons & co. His started at £2,500 per annum – a small fortune in 1955 when you consider the average wage was around £10 a week, and £1,900 could buy you a brand new home. All the same, he gambled most of his salary away, and sent letters to his uncle – a venture capitalist – full of daydreams of having £2 million in the bank, a mansion and a yacht. Gambling was a significant element in his plan to get there. It also bears mention, he was also a trust fund baby with a further £10,000 a year to sustain him.
A colleague getting a promotion he felt he deserved was all Lucan needed to quit the job at Brandt’s, and rebrand himself as a ‘professional gambler’
Were one to ask ‘Lucky’ Lucan about his glamorous life post Brandt’s, no doubt he’d recall the time he won £26,000 at the table (incidentally just before he handed in his notice). Maybe several other nights where he came out ahead – of course ignoring all the times he lost the shirt off his back. He may share the time a film director commented he could be the next James Bond, and how he screen tested for a Shirley MacLaine movie in Paris. He may omit he never got the role cause he couldn’t act. His life was one giant, hedonistic party. There was gambling, soirées and jet setting. He won and lost more money in a single night, sometimes, than most people made in a year. He hung out with rich friends on Florida golf courses. He bought a power boat and raced it. Lucan was the fastest pilot on the water, till Mother Nature reminded him too fast sometimes leaves your boat at the bottom of the lake.
In 1963, he met Veronica Duncan, his friend Bill Shand Kydd’s 26 year old sister in law. The two hit it off, and married in November 1963. She promised never to change him, and his free-wheeling, gambling ways. He promised to never change. Veronica bore an heir, and a couple of spares, and cracks soon appeared in the marriage.
Veronica suffered terrible post-natal depression, something the Earl found quite insane – conveniently forgetting his own bouts of childhood ennui. Second, she didn’t fit in at the Earl’s new home away from home – the Clermont Club. Established in 1961 by his roguish pal John Aspinall, Lucan was a founding member of the club. He spent most of his life there. As his wife sat on the sidelines, clearly not mixing with his aristocratic clique; and looked increasingly bored to tears as he gambled every night till well after midnight – as she went through bouts of crippling depression, and fought back when he tried to institutionalise her –
after she jealously fought with another woman one night, and was rude and demanding to the help, and nagged him constantly over his degenerate gambling and emotionally distant ways – the Earl packed his bags. He left Veronica in January 1973.
Lord Lucan spent the following 18 months in a downwards spiral, running up huge debts all over town. He spread ugly rumours over his ‘crazy, bitch wife’ – to paraphrase, not necessarily quote, his lordship. He continued to try to have Veronica committed.
At one point Lucan applied for full custody of his kids. Before the hearing he kidnapped the children, something the judge looked poorly on. Full custody and hefty alimony were awarded to Veronica – so long as she had a nanny to help her raise the kids. No doubt his lordship would tell several nannies could not handle the crazy old ball and chain. There is no doubt Veronica was difficult. She seemed to have some mental health problems which couldn’t just be chalked up to being gaslighted and physically abused by her monster of a husband for a decade. There’s no doubt however, several nannies left due to Lucan’s tardiness in paying them – and due to the constant surveillance by either the private investigators he hired, or the Earl himself.
The Earl blamed his current financial hardships – owing significantly to increasingly reckless gambling, on Veronica. In late 1974, now £65,000 in debt and in the process of selling off the family art and silverware, Lord Lucan confided in a friend, Greville Howard, he’d thought of murdering Veronica. Murder her. Dump the body off his boat into the Solent river. People would think she went mad and ran away. Howard laughed the suggestion off, countering the children were better off with a bankrupt than a jailbird for a dad. In the weeks leading up to the murder, Lord Lucan took out a hefty life insurance policy on his wife.
Act Three: The Plumber’s Arms, a pub a few minutes’ walking distance from the Bingham residence.
It is around 9.50 pm on 7th November 1974. The low murmur of the pub is suddenly shocked into silence at the arrival of Veronica Bingham – badly beaten, and covered head to toe in blood.
45 minutes earlier, Veronica went downstairs to check on Sandra Rivett. She was very clear over the years that she never went into the basement, never saw Sandra – Sandra’s blood type found on the soles of her shoes and her clothes suggest she may have disturbed her husband in the basement rather than the cloakroom on the next floor up. What isn’t in question is she crossed paths with her husband – who beat her with a now bent piece of lead pipe. He split her head open, leaving wounds that would require 60 stitches, then tried to suffocate her by shoving his gloved fingers down her throat. Veronica stopped the attack by grabbing John by the balls and squeezing till he let go.
The two ventured upstairs, exhausted. Veronica did her best to convince John she’d say nothing. This could all be worked out. John was at a loss for his next step. When he went to get Veronica a flannel, she ran for the pub.
The police arrived, and a search was conducted for the Earl. Strangely, the Earl’s mother Kait showed up at the house some time after 11 pm for the children. The police searched high and low for Lord Lucan, but he was nowhere to be found.
Act Four: the part where I break the fourth wall….
Wait, I hear you ask, why am I even telling this tale? For that matter why spend the last couple of weeks reading books and articles on this man – who is clearly a complete loser? Oh boy, if you only knew the half of it – I’ve been fascinated with this story since I was 8 years old. Not that 8 year old me realised, but the public reaction to the case shines a light on some of the conditions which led to my family packing up everything and moving 12,000 miles to New Zealand in the early 1980s. The Lord Lucan incident is fascinating to many because it happened in the middle of a culture war that concluded with the introduction of Thatcherism in Britain, Reaganomics in the USA… and a few years later, Rogernomics in New Zealand. We moved halfway round the world to escape neoliberalism, with it’s inequalities and high unemployment, and it bloody well followed us! I’ll come back to this, but keep that thought in mind.
Lucan, a very distinctive-looking man anyone should have been able to pick out in a crowd, did quite the disappearing act. We know on the night of the murder he rang the doorbell of one Madeline Florman, a woman of Lucan’s class, who refused to answer her door so late at night. Madeline later got a phone call from a mysterious man believed to be Lucan. He also called his mother, twice. It’s believed he most likely called from his flat – though he left without much other than the clothes on his back. This includes leaving his passport, contacts books and guns behind. Driving a Ford Corsair lent him several days ago by one of his gambling buddies, a Michael Stoop, he then drove to his friends, Ian and Susan Maxwell- Scott. He covered the normally hour and a half drive in possibly under an hour. Ian, a fellow gambler who would himself be bankrupt in a year, was not in. Susan was. She let the Earl in, claiming not to notice any blood on him.
Bingham spun a tale of passing the house and seeing a burglar in there killing the nanny. He claimed to have fought with the burglar, wresting away the lead pipe. He then, was caught holding the murder weapon by Veronica, while the burglar snuck out the back. Lucan borrowed some writing paper, and wrote letters to Bill Shand Kydd and Stoop. The Stoop letters were possibly written at the seaside town of Newhaven, as they stated where he could find his car. I believe Susan would never have said a word to police were it not for Shand Kydd taking his letters – envelopes included – to the police. The letters were stamped from the town of Uckfield. The Maxwell-Scotts’ of the Clermont set lived there. It wasn’t hard to connect the dots. Susan then claimed Lucan left, taking a handful of her Valiums’ with him.
We know someone polished off a couple of bottles of Vodka in the Corsair – though not necessarily that night. There were suggestions that he jumped a ferry from Newhaven to France. Others questioned if he had his boat moored there – though many in Lucan’s circle denied he even had a boat at the time. In either case he should have been observed and recorded – and he wasn’t.
While police swept the area, finding the bones of several others in nearby grassland – including a judge who went missing in 1965 who I can find nowhere near enough information on – what became known as the Lucan Circle met at one of gambling kingpin John Aspinall’s homes. They maintained the meeting was to decide what to do if Lucky Lucan suddenly returned. Others suspect their meeting, on the 8th November, was to come up with a plan to get him out of the UK. While some in his wider circle did let things slip – Bill Shand Kydd always appeared helpful, and Greville Howard shared the murder anecdote with them – the police were to run into a great deal of obstruction from his friends. Many suggested he must have scuttled his boat in the river and drowned himself (when they admitted he still had a boat), others that he probably boarded a ferry for Calais and jumped – possibly into the propellers. Numerous interviewees either treated the police contemptuously, like servants, or avoided them altogether.
“Sure, we’ll speak to you, but after our ski trip to St Moritz, ok?”
Aspinall, the rogue gambler who had sold the Clermont to the Playboy Corporation prior to the murder seemed to be stringing the police, and media along. Giving interviews where he definitely didn’t know what happened to Lucky Lucan …. But if he did, of course he’d have helped his old chum. He’d tease reporters with rumours Lucan shot himself, then was fed to his zoo animals. In his last interview before his death he looked set to reveal the truth…. Then trailed off.
As mentioned earlier, Britain was in the midst of a depression which left many struggling on three day work weeks, as the price of everything shot through the roof. The class war at the time is too complex to break down in the middle of a 20 minute whodunnit, there was a lot going on – but what’s pertinent is while everyday Britons were doing it hard a story emerges of a do-nothing peer who murdered a nice working class woman. As details of his lifestyle, and spending habits, and the obstructiveness of his upper class friends were covered by the press, the story went viral. In short order thousands of sightings of Lord Lucan occurred all around the world. People wanted this posh bastard caught and brought to justice for his crimes. There would be the tiniest measure of justice, when a coroner’s court hearing on Sandra Rivett’s death found Richard John Bingham guilty of murder in absentia – only the 12th peer in 500 years to be declared a murderer.
Like the many hundreds of the peerage who, in that timeframe had the blood of others on their hands – the 3rd Earl included – I doubt he ever got his just desserts.
Epilogue: But, what happened to Lord Lucan?
I’ll tell you what I know. A handful of tantalising clues point to some possibilities.
First, two stories emerged in the 1990s, the veracity of both are questionable, but are worth sharing. One came via a woman who claimed to be babysitting for the Maxwell-Scotts a few days after the murder. They were joined by a mysterious man wearing a blue suit which seemed borrowed. At around the same time, the son of the local taxi company owner in Uckfield told a story which seems to corroborate the anonymous babysitter. His father sent two cars out – one to Newhaven to pick up a pedestrian – not far from where the Corsair was found. The other, the man’s father himself – drove a man in a slightly oversized blue suit to the town of Headcorn – where the man’s father insinuated there was a private airfield. This witness only came forward after his father passed on, though his father relayed his suspicions to him in the mid 1980s.
Another clue, in 1980 David Hardy, an army buddy of Lucan’s died in a car crash. As police were going through his pockets to ascertain identity they found a booklet full of contacts – gifted to him in 1976. There was an entry for Lord Lucan, giving the address c/o- Hotel Les Ambassadeurs, Beira, Mozambique. This was one of several clues he’d fled to somewhere in Africa. Were he a battle-hardened soldier, and not some guy who did his training then played cards for two years this would be a great fit. Several African nations were casting off the chains of colonialism in this time – and there was plenty of work, both for left leaning mercenaries in resistance movements but also far right conservatives like Lucan, fighting to keep the status quo. Mozambique particularly was in the midst of ridding itself of Salazar and the Portuguese. Someone went through the guest books for the hotel, finding the surname ‘Maxwell-Scott’ in the guest book, back in 1975.
As early as 1976, a woman who knew Lucan from the Clermont club claimed to have seen him, now blond and clean shaven, in the Cafe Royale, Cape Town. In 1975, a Welsh GP claims to have spoken with a tearful Lucan in Mozambique. Roy Ranson, a detective who investigated the case, claimed Lucan established a clothing company in South Africa before moving to Botswana. In 2012, Shirley Robey, a former secretary to John Aspinall claimed she arranged flights to Kenya for Lucan’s children. The murderous peer never made contact with the kids – but watched from a distance. Lucan’s brother, Hugh gave an interview for a documentary several years ago where he was reputed to have told the reporters ‘off the record’ that Lucan died in 2004 – his body buried somewhere in Africa.
And yes, there have been numerous sightings. You name a place, I can find a claim. Goa, India? Turns out there was a similar-looking Englishman there, going by the name ‘Jungle Barry’. He is a folk singer named Barry Halpin. Las Vegas? Someone claimed he was a croupier there. Moscow? He was, allegedly working on a road gang. The Swiss Alps? This is where the Lucan Circle allegedly had Lucan assassinated, as he was insisting too loudly he wanted to return to Britain.
New Zealand? A farming family in Marton claimed in 2007 an Englishman living next door in the back of a Land Rover – with a pet possum and a goat called Camilla, no less – was the missing Earl. Scotland Yard sent detectives over, only to find he was an expat named Roger Woodgate. He’d left the UK for New Zealand in 1974 but was not the killer peer. As recently as January 2021, Sandra Rivett’s son Neil Berriman claimed he’d tracked Lord Lucan down to a large shared facility in Australia, where the Earl – now a housebound Buddhist on a waiting list for a major operation – has vociferously denied he is Neil’s mother’s killer.
Oh, and there is the other Australian Tale – but I’m saving that one for the Patreon only stream – the first post there should be up soon.
What happened to Lucky Lucan? We may never know, but I can’t help but suspect a clique of aristocrats took the answer to their graves.
Hey all, just a quick foreword. I’m not sure if I’ll be on track to release the Lord Lucan podcast episode exactly to schedule – besides small technical things like writing appropriate music (the man is/was a huge fan of Bach, which doesn’t reflect the era terribly well + from a technical standpoint is probably easier for me to approximate on an acoustic guitar (which takes longer for me to mic up properly and record) than on the tiny GarageBand keyboard on the iPad) I’m also two days off schedule as is. I’ll have the episode out as soon as humanly possible in any case.
In the meantime, a short Blog Only Tale this week. If going from this to John Bingham, arguably only the third worst person on his family tree – in spite of being a killer and massive loser (if you’re still alive John, and want to argue that fact, there is a comment box below) … to this tale, it may seem I’m consciously taking a swipe at the Hooray Henrys’ – I am.
It’s also a short Tale at a time when I’m a little time poor – unlike the deadbeat aristocracy of the 18th Century, many of whom it seems had but world and time to get sozzled on gin all day – and do dumb, cruel things to those they deemed beneath them.
Anyway, please enjoy.
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 taken up by a pub and a gunsmith’s, there seemed a bit 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, often highly critical of the ruling elite. In 2021 many of these plays; penned by the likes of Henry Carey, Henry Fielding and a man named ‘Maggoty’ Johnson, would seem painfully conservative – we are talking about Tory writers after all, with their now painfully conservative values – These writers, and indeed thinkers, were trailblazers at the time. They advocated for property rights for the middle classes, more say in government, championed individualism, and demanded the aristocracy give a free hand to the market, to grow and innovate (something thought unthinkable in England before the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688).
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 packed with paying customers, waiting in anticipation for this wonder. They waited, first patiently, then less so. The crowd would wait for several hours – staring at the empty stage – before the booing and calls for their money back started to shake the walls.
Samuel Foote, the manager of the theatre stepped out of the wings in an effort to calm the angry mob. As 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 seems to be the match which lit the fuse to the crowd’s sudden, violent explosion. A significant portion of the audience rushed the stage, and began smashing, looting and engaging in arson. In short order, the rioting crowd had all but demolished the Haymarket, completely gutting the theatre.
A bonfire was lit in the street by the mob, made from the smashed up benches. Lit by the torn down curtains.
All other write ups on the incident mention at least one aristocrat was in the mixed crowd that night, Prince William – Duke of Cumberland. The second son of King George II escaped more or less unhurt, but was stripped of a jewel encrusted sword, which has never been seen since.
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 was a no show after someone put a cork in the bottle and kidnapped the performer during rehearsals. 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” had put the night together.
Who was “Strange Man”? Academics’ 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; and philanthropist who established a foundling’s hospital for abandoned children – as well as having paid for the education of two prominent black Englishmen – the writer and composer Ignatius Sancho, and poet Francis Williams… Montagu is clearly a complex character. For our purposes, what’s worth knowing is he had a sense of humour which normally ran to dousing house guests in water and lacing their beds with itching powder.
He was rumoured to detest the rising middle classes, and it is said he staged the Bottle Conjuror hoax following a night drinking with other toffs. It’s said he made a bet enough Londoners would be stupid enough to believe a fully grown adult could climb into a quart bottle, that 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, would die in July of that year.
Would they have been met by a wall of silence, had authorities called on the toffs to turn on one of their own? Well, maybe let’s discuss that after the episode on Richard John Bingham, 7th Earl of Lucan.
(Originally titled The Deadly Sophxit of Count Konigsmarck and Princess Sophia Dorothea.)
Hi all the following tale is something I’ve had rattling round for a little while now. I have taken a few shots at writing it under the auspices of a whodunit, but I don’t think there’s any doubt who the murderers are. I then had another run – this time as a faux fairytale, an OG soap opera? I had a line from John Wilmott, Earl of Rochester kicking round in my head about his patron Charles II, and thought what about riffing off that; this is an example of what a crazy, swinging place Europe’s courts were in the late 17th Century after all… but I abandoned all of these.
Then Megxit happened; The Sussexes – Harry and Meghan – announced they were leaving ‘the firm’. In some quarters there was shock, and I understand there was an urgent family meeting. Harry didn’t get thrown into a cell in the Tower of London. There was no clandestine dash for the English channel (like the aforementioned Charles II after his defeat at the Battle of Worcester in 1651). No disguising himself as a servant. No hiding in oak trees for Harry. Public discourse re-centred on whether you wished them well, or thought them a pair of spoilt brats. This brought me back round to this tale again… Imagine you’re a deeply unhappy royal, but it is 1694. Does Sophxit play out any differently?
This tale begins on the evening of July 1st 1694. The setting, Hanover – a Germanic Duchy which would eventually be subsumed into a larger German nation, and whose first family would go on to be kind of a big deal. A handsome young man, aided only by moonlight, sails along the Leine river till he reaches the Leineschloss – the palatial riverside home of the duke and his family. He moors his boat, then cautiously enters the property. The man is Phillipp Christoph, Count Konigsmarck – an aristocratic German born Swede from a long line of mercenaries. His father had served King Gustav II Adolph in the 30 Years War, rising through the ranks to Field Marshall. Phillipp himself had fought the Turks for Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I. At this point in the tale however, he was under the employ of the Elector of Saxony. Tonight he’s been summoned to met his paramour – Sophia Dorothea, princess of Celle – the very unhappy wife of Duke Georg Ludwig.
Sophia, though surprised- she never summoned him – is ecstatic over his arrival. They haven’t seen each other for weeks. She is also a little perturbed and angered at ‘that woman’s’ gall. “Well, clearly she’s still spying on us” I imagine one saying “Never mind, in a day we’ll be out of this nightmare” the other may have replied. With rather less poetic license you can imagine the rest of their night – Konigsmarck had not come to play solitaire after all, nor Sophia to play old maid. I like to imagine Sophia enfolding the count in her arms as he left and whispering “keep safe, hell hath no fury and all” but that is a little anachronistic – Congreve would not publish ‘The Mourning Bride’ till 1697. This is the last time Sophia Dorothea would see Count Konigsmarck – in the following hours he would disappear from the face of the Earth, never to be seen again.
Joining ‘The Firm’.
To explain how Sophia Dorothea found herself in an unhappy marriage, I need to take us back a generation. The first fact worth knowing is there was no German nation in the modern sense until January 1871. People could be ethnically Germanic, but Germany was a collection of feudal states for most of it’s history. Until 1806, they were also overseen by a ‘Holy Roman Emperor’. From 1346 the Emperor was elected by a council from the Elector states – This is important to know later. The second fact is marriages of convenience were very much a thing in the 17th Century, particularly among the aristocrats. Third, this tale concerns two duchies, Brunswick- Celle and Brunswick- Luneberg, afterwards known simply as ‘Hanover’. These duchies were ruled over by two brothers. Fourth their leading citizens of the duchies wanted to see the two areas reunited one day. Now that is out of the way…
Sophia Dorothea’s father was a man named Duke Georg Wilhelm of Brunswick- Celle. Georg W had been engaged to a princess from the neighboring duchy of Rhineland Palatinate (her name was also Sophia, though she hardly gets a mention beyond this point), but he was desperate to stay a bachelor a little longer. He cancelled the engagement – passing her on to his brother, Ernst August, Duke of Brunswick Luneberg. The leading figures of Georg W’s duchy were furious, but when Georg signed a legal agreement stating he would never marry – and would pass his duchy to Ernst, (merging the duchies) on his death, all was forgiven. Georg was not exactly out of the firm, but was free to enjoy his newly acquired freedom. The problem was Cupid laid Georg W low after he crossed paths with the beautiful Frenchwoman Eleonore d’Olbreuse.
Georg immediately knew they must marry and start a family. His own duchy and brother Ernst were unimpressed, so Georg W approached Leopold I, Holy Roman Emperor for permission to marry Eleonore. Leopold gave his blessing, but many years after the fact– at this stage Georg and Eleonore had a child, Sophia Dorothea, now 10 years old. There was a caveat to Leopold’s blessing – Georg W had a daughter, Ernst a son (Georg L) – the two cousins would marry, uniting the duchies. This suited all, but the two cousins themselves, who detested each other.
Complicating matters further, both Georg L and his father Ernst were openly having affairs outside of their marriages. Given what transpires it is worth mentioning Georg L’s double standards with affairs. The key fact to take on however is Ernst, Sophia’s uncle-stepdad, was involved with a lady named Countess Platen.
The Konigsmarck brothers. We’ll come back to this lot in a second, but first let’s discuss Count Konigsmarck. He has quite a fraught backstory too. Konigsmarck was brought up at court, and knew the rest of this cast well. Both he and his brother, Karl, were sent to England in their mid teens, around 1680. They were sent off to learn courtly skills and mingle, but both brothers soon got into trouble. Phillipp’s trouble involved losing huge sums of money through gambling. Karl’s trouble was on a whole other level. The two brothers began associating with several high society Britons- including Charles II. Karl had become smitten with Elizabeth Seymour, Duchess of Somerset. Elizabeth was – you guessed it – caught in a loveless, arranged marriage to a wealthy, cheating husband – the wealthy landowner and MP Thomas Thynne. On 12th February 1682, Thynne was travelling in a carriage through Pall Mall, when three men with pistols – Christopher Vratz, John Stern and George Borosky gunned him down. The three men were captured, and named Karl Konigsmarck as the man who hired them to make the hit. The assassins would hang, Karl walked free – but both young men were outcasts in England from this point on. Both returned to Europe and joined Leopold’s army. Karl would be killed in action fighting the Turks in Greece in 1686. As an aside, not long after Thomas Thynne’s murder, a poem circulated through London.
“Here lies Tom Thynne of Longleat Hall Who ne’er would have miscarried; Had he married the woman he slept withal Or slept with the woman he married.”
Let the Dangerous Liaisons begin. In 1688, after eight years service in the wars with the Turks, Phillipp Konigsmarck returned to the court of what was then Hanover. The ladies of the court fell for this dashing, young soldier. He became a close friend and confidant of Sophia Dorothea – a sympathetic ear who would keep tales of Sophia’s horrible husband, hideous uncle/stepdad, and terrifying mistress of uncle/stepdad – Countess Platen, confidential. Konigsmarck also began an ill advised affair with Countess Platen himself.
The young count soon realized; one, he had fallen in love with princess Sophia – and two, Countess Platen is a dangerous lunatic he should have never become involved with. He took on a new military commission and left Hanover, hoping the countess would forget about him.
On his return to the court in the spring of 1690 he began wooing the princess. The countess, meanwhile resumed her wooing of the count. When left unrequited she hired spies to follow the couple, and intercept their letters. By 1693 Countess Platen stopped even attempting to repair the broken seals on the couple’s love letters. Phillipp resumed his affair with the countess, hoping to placate her; at the very least to stop her from spilling the beans on them. Phillipp and Sophia make the decision to run away together; to start a new life elsewhere- far away from courtly life. This presented a problem for the two. Phillipp was lousy with money, and currently broke – he had not been working, while wooing two ladies. Sophia, upon marrying Georg L, ceded all her possessions to her husband.
Phillipp took a commission with the elector of Saxony, in Dresden in May 1694. Sophia sat tight and waited for Phillipp to make some money. 1st July, at the urging of a counterfeit letter, Phillipp returned to Hanover. Possibly aware it was a trap, Phillipp had saved a month’s worth of wages. Most of the court were away at their summer house at the time – Georg. L included. Tomorrow morning they would run away – and begin a new, happier life together. The following day Count Konigsmarck was nowhere to be found. A distraught Sophia Dorothea eventually hears the scuttlebutt from the markets “the witches of Dresden…” lured Phillipp away.
So…. what happened? Let’s work through the facts – and suppositions – of the case. There are at least five possibilities. It’s generally accepted the counterfeit letter came from the countess. She had spies watching the couple, who reported to her that the couple were planning to abscond the following day. It is established fact also that Countess Platen informed her other lover, the uncle/stepdad Ernst, of the two lovers’ plan. Ernst ordered four cavaliers to arrest Count Konigsmarck immediately. The four men caught him outside the palace, swords were drawn. When the men eventually faced trial they claimed the count had drawn his sword, a fight broke out, and the count got stabbed to death in the melee.
What happened to the body? Who the hell knows? That is the real mystery. The four suspects were never on record on this matter. One theory has his body thrown into the Leine river, or immolated, or buried on the property. There was excitement in 2016 when bones were dug up on the site, but DNA proved the bones belonged to five separate men (none Phillipp) and a selection of animals.
Possibility one is simple as this, manslaughter. Count Konigsmarck, the battle hardened soldier of fortune thought he could fight his way out of an awkward situation and the four men got the better of him. It was, at most, a case of manslaughter.
Two, when Ernst August sent the cavaliers out to stop Konigsmarck, did he give the order to murder him before the elopement uncovered his dalliances, causing him embarrassment? He may have wanted him out of the way for this reason. Besides personal embarrassment, Hanover had only just been appointed an elector state, who help choose the Holy Roman Emperor. A scandal involving their royals may have jeopardized that position.
Three, well that ‘hell hath no fury’ motive is also out there. Countess Platen was jealous, and involved in high level stalking behaviour. She had laid this trap for the couple, does it not make sense to go that one step further. Did she kill Count Konigsmarck, solipsisticly to say ‘if I can’t have him, no-one can’?
Four, did Georg Ludwig know of the affair, and order the assassination? An elopement certainly would have left him a cuckold. Working counter to this, Georg L seemed unaware of the affair till after the affair was exposed. As soon as he heard, he divorced Sophia Dorothea. He exiled her to house arrest in Ahlden Castle, another family possession. She was kept prisoner until her death 32 years later. Here’s my reason to doubt Georg as the mastermind – he divorced and imprisoned her six months after Count Konigsmarck disappeared. Perhaps Georg was an endlessly patient man? I doubt it.
Now, I want to put a fifth suspect on the table – I said I would not mention her again – but I need to in order to tie this to the Sussexes at the very least. Ernst August’s wife, Sophia the elder, scorned by Georg W, and in what one would imagine as unhappy a marriage as anyone else in this tale – Her husband was cheating on her with Countess Platen after all – well she had a dream.
Discontent with her lot in life, married to a petty duke of a tiny duchy, she daydreamed of a time when herself, or her son would run the larger archipelago to the north-west. This did not seem such a crazy daydream. Her grandfather had been James I of England. In 1685 Charles II died leaving 14 illegitimate children, but no heirs. The crown passed to his brother James II, who was deposed in the ‘Glorious Rebellion’ of 1688. This saw a joint rule by James II’s daughter Mary, and the Dutch Import William of Orange. The line of succession had gotten a little complicated of late, and Sophia the elder’s daydream was seeming less and less blue sky thinking, more a genuine possibility – just so long as a giant scandal didn’t break out about her cheating husband, cheating daughter in law, and surrounding rogues gallery. I can’t count her in, but I certainly can’t ignore she too has a motive.
By 1702 both Mary and William of Orange had died. The crown passed to Mary’s sister – Anne. Anne fell pregnant 18 times – and suffered six miscarriages, five stillbirths, and none of her remaining children lived beyond two years of age. When Anne died on August 1st 1714, the crown passed to one Georg Ludwig, of an obscure German duchy, henceforth known as George I of England, whose family sit on the throne of England to this day.
How do I feel about the Sussexes and Megxit? Well, I am glad for the couple that it is 2020, not 1694 – and I wish them well.
“A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree, and he turns away. Show him facts and figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.” Leon Festinger- ‘When Prophecy Fails’
“The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones.” John Maynard Keynes – ‘The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money’.
Hi all welcome back to the blog. If you haven’t read last week’s blog on Sabbatai Zevi I’d suggest go check that out first. This week we’re headed in an arc back in that direction as the tale goes on.
Today we join our tale towards it’s climax, at a suburban home in Oak Park, Illinois. The time and date, 6pm, 21st December 1954. A dozen or so suburbanites – just regular Americans really – gather round the lady of the house, convinced she has supernatural powers. They’ve been camped out at the house for several days now. Many have sacrificed everything to be there. Earlier in the day they may have sung Christmas carols on the lawn to onlookers. They stood outside for some time, gazing skyward, hoping their visitor from Clarion, Sanada, would just arrive already. Perhaps feeling the glare of the camera, they retreated inside. If Sanada can traverse galaxies, surely he’ll have no trouble finding 847 West School Street.
The dozen or so people in the house believe the world will end tonight, deluged by a giant flood. They are the select few to be saved by an alien race who have looked down on Earth for eons. Curious onlookers and reporters have been gathered outside all day, waiting to see what happens, when nothing happens after all. Inside, amongst the believers, a small group of interlopers, led by the psychology lecturer Leon Festinger. The lady with the direct line to the aliens? Festinger identifies her as Mrs Marian Keech – in the years since she has been identified as Mrs Dorothy Martin. One presumes the other named figures in this tale are Noms de Plumes also.
Dorothy Martin was a woman who believed in various forms of mysticism. From a young age she’d been drawn to the Theosophical movement of Helena Blavatsky. This led to her studying an American offshoot which would influence later New Age spiritualist movements, Guy and Edna Ballard’s ‘I AM’ movement. From there she discovered ‘Oahspe: A New Bible’, a spiritualist tome, allegedly written by ‘automatic writing’ (where the writer is merely the conduit for a supernatural force providing them the information) by John Newbrough in 1882. This finally led Dorothy to Scientology. Something about the writings of it’s sci-fi author founder L. Ron Hubbard just clicked with her.
In April 1954 Martin begun trying to use automatic writing to speak with her deceased father. She, allegedly, found more than she was looking for. First she claimed earthbound spirits were speaking through her, but she soon claimed she was receiving ‘Astral messages’ from across the universe. First the mysterious ‘Elder Brother’ spoke through her, then aliens from the planets Clarion and Cerus. By mid April she claimed she was in constant contact with a Clarion alien called Sanada.
Word spread among other spiritualists of her conversations with Sanada, and Martin gained a small following. On 23rd July 1954 Sanada stated they would fly past Lyons Field on 1st August. A dozen people went to see the aliens. No-one saw a spacecraft that day, but Dorothy and a number of others recalled a strange man who stopped to speak with them. The man subsequently disappeared into thin air. While seven attendees walked, now convinced Dorothy was a grifter, the others were swayed by lecturer and former missionary ‘Dr. Thomas Armstrong’ and his wife that something strange happened. ‘That man was odd. He must have been one of them. He must’ve wiped our memories of the spacecraft right?’
2nd August Sanada wrote through Dorothy, confirming the doctor’s hypothesis. He also warned Dorothy, for the first time, something bad was about to happen.
Sanada wrote though her again on the 15th August. There wou soon be a huge flash of light in the sky, followed by a flood which would engulf North and South America. On the 27th August, Sanada stated the whole world would flood. He provided a date – 21st December 1954. Dr. Armstrong sent notice of the revelation to as many newspapers as he could. One paper, The Lake City Herald ran the story in a small article on their back page in late September. Professor Festinger happened to be reading the Herald that day. Spotting an opportunity to study the effects on a group of a strongly held belief being obliterated – surely there couldn’t be a great flood, let alone UFOs on the 21st? – he devised a plan to infiltrate the group.
In the months leading up to 21st December, Dorothy picked up several new followers…. besides Professor Festinger and his assistants. There was ‘Fred Purden’, a student who fell out with his parents over joining the group. He is so tied up in preparing for Armageddon he will flunk his whole year. There is ‘Laura Brooks’, who has given away all her earthly belongings – cause who needs Earth stuff on Clarion, right? – is new. ‘Susan Heath’, a fanatic who has fallen out badly with her dorm-mate and been banned by her college from proselyting, another acolyte. As the day draws near those who work made a pact to hand in their notice. ‘Mark Post’ walked out of the hardware store. ‘Edna Post’ was running a daycare centre – the extremely judgmental look from her boss makes is abundantly clear she has no job to return to if Sanada doesn’t come. ‘Bertha Blatsky’ packed in her job as a secretary. Dr. Armstrong is fired.
21st December played out as follows.
10:00 AM. Dorothy gets a message. “At the hour of midnight you shall be put into parked cars and taken to a place where ye shall be put aboard a porch(UFO)” Dorothy is told, be prepared for a message every hour on the hour. Throughout the day members arrive, the press set up. Onlookers gather and some well wishers pop into the house to wish them well on their journey. There are no messages from Sanada.
11.15 PM. A message from Sanada finally comes. He tells them to put on their overcoats and prepare to leave. They will send another message when they were overhead. Followers remove any metal on them, including underwires in their bras and zips, as forewarned by the aliens.
12.00 AM Nothing happens. 12.05 AM one of the followers notices one of the clocks on the wall still says 11.55, they all decide it mustn’t be midnight yet after all. 12:10 AM. Sanada sends a message, something akin to traffic is hell, will be there as soon as we can. 12:15 AM the phone rings. It is not ET phoning, but reporters. ‘What has happened?” ‘Have the aliens arrived yet?’
At 2 AM a younger follower leaves, stating his mother told him she would call the cops if he wasn’t back by 2. Unshaken, the others state this is probably a good thing, he had the least commitment of the group anyway. At 4 AM the first seeds of doubt crop up. One of the followers bitterly comments they have given up everything, burned every bridge. They know they should leave but have nothing to return to. They have to stay, till the bitter end.
At 4:45 AM FINALLY!!! A new message from the aliens. They are no longer coming, but wanted to explain how big a thing these believers did tonight. Through their show of great faith they have saved the planet. Earth will no longer flood – the people of Earth can thank them alone that humankind is again in God’s good graces.
5:00 AM, a P.S. from the aliens. This news is “…to be released immediately to the newspapers.” They do, finding little tidbits along the way which fit with their narrative. ‘There were small earthquakes in Italy, and California that night… they were the first rumblings of the great disaster Dorothy and her followers averted.
At this point – I should drop back in to the story on Sabbatai Zevi, to add a little bit of context I conveniently left out last time.
Sabbatai Zevi claimed a number of times that the world was coming to an end, and he was there to usher in a new, golden age. In 1648, when he first announced he was the true messiah, he also claimed the world was coming to an end. When thrown out of Smyrna, circa 1651, he had built up a large following – many of whom had sacrificed everything to follow him. Many physically followed him across Europe.
Going from strength to strength, a bandwagon effect happened. More people on board made it less crazy to follow the heretic. Add to this the more people gave, the more justifications came explaining why you should follow him. Tales arose of Sabbatai performing miracles. The movement took on a life of it’s own. By the time he returned to Smyrna to make his Jewish New Years speech (sorry I didn’t mention he went to Smyrna to make it) he was welcomed as a hero, a local boy made good, among the Jewish diaspora there. This built on top of his, already inflated, image.
With flow on effect on top of flow on effect, across Europe Jewish populations began to party. The messiah had come. He was going to defeat the Turks – then lead us back to Jerusalem. Many thousands of them packed up their belongings and made the pilgrimage to see the great Sabbatai Zevi. In cities where trade was largely dependent on the Jewish community, like Amsterdam and Hamburg, they all but ground to a halt.
When he was arrested and taken to Adrianople, Muslim citizens mocked the Jews in the streets with chants of “Is he coming, Is he coming?” If they didn’t feel committed to this guy yet, this mockery sure pushed some over the edge. To almost all the Jews this guy was their guy. Thousands of Jews picketed outside his prison, demanding his release. The assassination plot may have been the last straw, but Sultan Mehmet IV was feeling immense pressure over this. The last thing he wanted was a civil war or a bloody insurrection. The Turks saw their best chance to get out of this mess bloodlessly was to try to trick Sabbatai Zevi into converting to Islam.
And, when he did, of course a number of these ‘donmeh’ would follow suit. The longer you are committed to something, the harder it is to accept hard truths about that thing, or person. Even if this runs contrary to everything you have previously stood for. Did the absurdity of their conversion matter? No, because when one is suffering from cognitive dissonance – the word was coined by Prof. Festinger by the way – you find a way of bending reality to reflect your ‘facts’. It is dangerous to think of the cognitively dissonant as dumb – they are smart enough to seize little bits and pieces and dissimulate them into a narrative which matches their preferred reality. The post truth society is not a new thing – it pops into existence numerous times over history. It never really leaves us.
To re-iterate Leon Festinger’s quote at the top of this piece. Someone with a conviction is a hard person to change. Tell them you disagree, and they turn away. Show them facts and figures and they question your sources. Appeal to logic and they fail to see your point.
If only there were a figure in recent memory who epitomized this phenomenon.
The year is 1666, the setting Adrianople in the Ottoman Empire – modern day Turkey. A middle aged preacher named Sabbatai Zevi, held captive since his arrival there, mulls over a difficult choice. Tomorrow he will be brought before the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet IV and be told to make a choice, a Monty Hall problem if ever there was one – though in his case there is no ‘behind one door there is a car, behind the other two doors, goats’ option. If only there were goats. Every door, it seems had a ravenous tiger behind it- well figuratively. For close to a decade Zevi, a rogue Kabbalist rabbi, has been claiming to be the true son of God, and messiah. It is his proselytizing which has got him into this mess. Tomorrow he must choose instant execution, a trial by arrows or the turban. Before we speak a little on how he chose, first we should tell the tale which brought him here.
Sabbatai Zevi was born in Smyrna, Ottoman Empire in late July or early August 1626. He was born to a Sephardic Jewish family; meaning his ancestors had been given a similar Monty Hall problem in Spain or Portugal, following the Alhambra decree of 1492. The Christian rulers, having finally ousted the Umayyad Muslims, then turned to the region’s Jewish citizens and offered them the chance to 1. Convert to Christianity and stay, 2. Remain Jewish but abandon their belongings and leave immediately or 3. Be executed. Sabbatai’s ancestors chose to remain Jewish, and moved to the other end of the Mediterranean.
Sabbatai was intensely religious, studying to become a Rabbi. In his studies he discovered a series of mystic Jewish texts called the Kabballah – you may recall this was the sect Madonna became enamored with in the early 2000s. While, by and large Jewish in their tenor, these texts were heretical as they claimed to give the practitioner a direct line to God. In 1648 Sabbatai claimed he had spoken with God, and God revealed he was Sabbatai’s true father. He had been born to lead the Jewish people back to the Holy Lands, thus bringing about the end of days, and eternal life hereafter. When it became clear to the Rabbinate of Smyrna that this charismatic young heretic was getting a following they sent him packing. Ultimately this would not stop him.
Over the next few years the charismatic Zevi gathered a large following among the Jews of Europe and the Middle East, known as the Sabbateans. Sabbatai was hardly the first claimant for the title Jewish messiah in history, and would not be the last. He did however have some backing in Christendom, for their own, eschatological reasons. As Zevi was building his following, increasing numbers of Christians – often referred to as Millenarians, believed the world was about to come to an end. The victory of Puritanism in the English Civil War- Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army deposing and executing Charles I in 1649 had been a sign. The next sign would be when the 10 lost tribes of Israel returned to the Holy Land. These Christians did not believe Sabbatai was the messiah, but thought his success would bring on the return of their messiah – so they got in behind him. Both groups believed 1666 would be the year it all happened.
On Jewish New Year 1665, Sabbatai Zevi made a public statement, surrounded by his followers. The messiah was ready to start the revolution. He would travel to Constantinople
“riding on a lion, with a seven headed dragon in its jaws”
His second in charge Nathan of Gaza upped the ante, stating Sabbatai would place the Sultan’s crown on his own head. Well…. Little did he know how prophetic that statement would be. The Ottomans caught wind of the speech, and kept a close watch for his arrival. On arrival Sabbatai Zevi was arrested. It seemed initially he would simply be left to rot in jail, but a few months after he was jailed, Sabbatai was caught trying to order a hit on a rival Jewish messiah from within prison. The Vizier of Adrianople, the Sultan’s top administrator in the city, had him brought before himself. This is when Zevi was given his choice.
Door one, the Vizier ceases all messing around with him, Sabbatai would be impaled. This, by the way is effectively what happens if he makes no choice at all.
Behind door two? Well, Sabbatai claims to be the messiah, and to have supernatural powers. Tomorrow he can prove it to the Sultan. Zevi is to stand before a company of archers while they empty their quivers into him. A son of God can surely stop all the arrows in mid air right?
Door three, since Sabbatai has shown such interest in the Sultan’s headwear, he will find one of the Sultan’s turbans laid out for him on a table. Put on the Sultan’s ‘crown’ accepting if you do you will be renouncing your claims to divinity, and your Jewish faith. In doing so you will be converting to Islam.
Well, maybe this option is more car than goat- or raging tiger. The turban comes with a fancy house, a big salary, and a job with very few duties. Before you scroll down, dear reader- first, what would you choose? In Zevi’s place are your beliefs worth dying for? Second how do you think he chose?
Short answer, Sabbatai Zevi was no martyr, he picked up the turban, adjusted it to make sure it wasn’t crooked, then went into the next room to say hello to Sultan Mehmet IV, his new boss.
Now there is a coda worth mentioning, as it relates to something in next week’s blog. I will explain it in that episode, but for now I mention it in passing. What happened to the Sabbateans? Surely there were mass suicides, riots, disavowals of the Messiah? Actually a large number of the followers also converted to Islam, adopting the name ‘the Donmeh’. Sects of donmeh are still around today.
Hey everyone, this was – almost – this year’s Christmas post. I just wasn’t feeling it this year. On first draft though inspiration struck. I present this as I think it still has some value right? – An actual Xmas post will drop on the 25th.
Hi all, Merry Christmas to you all. After reading the following you may well wonder why I’m not wishing everyone a hearty ‘Bah humbug’. You see, I’ve been wracking my brains for a suitable tale to tell this year – I didn’t even have a subject for this year’s Christmas day blog until I hit the first draft of this post. The following is a blog on things which happened Christmases past – and why none of the following made the cut. The actual Christmas blog will drop Christmas day.
One – The Stone of Destiny.
On Christmas eve 1950, four students from Glasgow, Scotland met at a Lyon’s Corner House in London – an open 24/7 complex full of pubs, foodcourts and barber shops – to plot the theft of the Stone of Destiny; sometimes referred to as the Stone of Scone. For lack of a reliable backstory to this artefact, it is worth mentioning a story from the bible. Jacob was on the run from his brother Esau – who was out to kill him for usurping him as his father’s favourite son. One night he laid his head on a rock, and had a vivid dream where he climbed a magical ladder to heaven. Up the top Jacob meets God, who tells him his progeny are destined to rule the world, but he best get busy spreading his seed far and wide. He would go on to have twelve children, who would each lead one of the twelve tribes of Israel. The rock he slept on would be blessed, declared a relic, and eventually taken into the temple of Jerusalem.
Forward to Scotland in the 1290s. The Scots believed the prophet Jeremiah, famous in the bible for authoring a few Old Testament books, and loudly predicting Babylon would invade Israel, to the disbelief of his leaders (he would be proved correct in 586 BCE) – secreted the rock away before the Babylonians attacked. Somehow, in spite of Jeremiah escaping to Egypt, they believe said rock made its way to Ireland. No one knows when exactly the Stone of Destiny appeared in Scotland, but it is assumed most, if not all Scottish Kings were crowned atop this mythical piece of rock, as legend has it the stone was on their soil by the mid 600s AD.
This is, at least until the Scots fell afoul of England’s King Edward I, known to historians as Edward Longshanks, among other names. Another sobriquet, The Hammer of the Scots. A constitutional crisis arose when Scottish King Alexander III and his three heirs all died within a few years of one another. With 14 rival claimants, Longshanks was called upon to decide who should be king. He picked John Baliol, sparking an insurrection. Most of the Scottish lords backed Robert de Brus – grandfather of future king Robert the Bruce (mentioned in another recent blog post). Drawn into the conflict, Longshanks just took over the nation of Scotland for himself – and following the 1296 Battle of Dunbar – stole the Stone of Destiny. The stone was incorporated into English ceremonies, insinuating any time an English monarch was crowned, they were de-facto named ruler of the Scots too.
The Bah Humbug moment?
Don’t get me wrong, Edward Longshanks is the kind of historical monster I could spend days on. I am also a sucker for any tale where the underdog – in this case the four students – succeed against the odds. Let’s not understate the importance of the removal of the stone from Westminster Abbey either. In 1950, less than 1% of Scots backed the politicians calling for devolution – a conscious uncoupling from the British Empire. The removal of the stone sparked a conversation which led to a number of referenda, where Scotland secured their own parliament, but fell short of completely devolving. The 1979 vote (to leave) had too few voters to count, the 2014 vote saw a narrow victory to the stay campaign.
Essentially though, the tale itself is a bit of an anti-climax. Ian Hamilton, Gavin Vernon, Kay Matheson and Alan Stuart worked out how long it took security to do their rounds, then just nicked the stone while the guard’s back was turned. The stone got accidentally broken in half on the journey – and buried in a field in Kent for a while – then dug up and secreted away to Arbroath Abbey, Scotland. It was found four months later, and returned to London. These four students did a miraculous thing, in my opinion – but every time I have tried to write this tale – the labyrinthine nature of the backstory just seems to rob the impact of their deed somewhat.
Two – How The Onedin Line Brought down a Despot.
The following is a tale I have carried around with me for decades. The Onedin line, to the uninitiated, was a British television show which ran from 1971 to 1980 in the UK. In New Zealand in the late 1980s and early 90s it’s majestic theme music greeted me as I arrived home from school. My mum often watched the repeats on a late afternoon timeslot, if not on night shift that day. My family came from a village across the river Mersey from Liverpool, where the show was set (though not filmed). I come from a family with an interest in history, and the Onedin Line touched on a number of historical events which would have affected the fictional shipping line. From Coffin Ships to The Atlantic slave trade, and beyond, the popular soap opera was an insight to the issues of the time. I don’t think I appreciated the show terribly at the time.
The Romanians, however, were on my mum’s side. Legend has it they loved the Onedin Line from the get go. They would not have a legitimate feed to the show for long however.
In the wake of the Second World War, Romania – who were a democratic monarchy till overrun by a fascist organisation early in the war – fell under the control of the USSR. From 1947 the nation would be ruled by a communist assembly. Also early in the regime, a young man named Nicolae Ceausescu began his climb to the top of the party. Ceausescu was a member of the Romanian communist party from before the war – having made a name for himself as a capable street fighter – and was in jail for the duration of the war for ‘anti-democratic behaviour’. From the mid 1960s Romania allowed their people a somewhat westernized lifestyle – to enjoy some television, theatre, music and art from the capitalist world – but in 1971 Ceausescu travelled to North Korea and China. He fell in love with their brand of communism, especially their unaccountable strongmen, and methods of propaganda. The then head of the state council, and future president came back with a 17 point plan, the ‘July Theses’. He banned all foreign television.
In the wake of the ban, fans of The Onedin Line found a workaround, in higher powered aerials which tuned in to feeds from nearby capitalist nations. They followed the saga of the Onedin family. No doubt they picked up many other shows as well, the news especially. As Ceausescu ruled as he saw fit, the people tuned in their sets, and rolled with it. They suffered through abortion and divorce bans which would flood their orphanages with children – (children subsequently sold off to well off foreigners) – and a poorly timed power grab for oil supremacy, which put the country in the poor house by the mid 80s. As austerity bit, all the while their own media selling a message everything was fine, the fans of Onedin saw news coverage of thawing relations between the Cold War rivals – Glasnost and Perestroika – ‘openness’ and ‘restructure’… and then, on 9th November 1989 – the fall of the Berlin Wall. Try as he might to deny it, the Onedin watchers saw it – they knew the world had changed, and the time was right to take to the streets to demand their freedom.
The revolution was quick. On Christmas Day 1989 Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife were tried for their despotism and personal enrichment in the face of massive poverty, and executed by firing squad.
The Bah Humbug Moment?
Besides it being not at all Christmas-y? The only evidence I could find that this ever happened is that a BBC television documentary was made in 1992, outlining the Onedin watcher’s role in the revolution. I am dead certain this is where I picked the tale up from in the first place. Could I find a copy of the actual doco? Not a chance. I may be awful when it comes to footnoting, but I always fact check. Sorry Onedin Line.
Three – Dodgy medieval kings reinforce their ‘divine right to rule’ via Christmas coronations.
Umm, yeah let’s just jump to the Bah Humbug Moment….
It is true medieval kings claimed their right to govern over a people was God’s will. According to the ‘divine right of kings’ doctrine, not only were they on the throne “By the grace of God” but their rule was preordained – the thuggish warlord who has just invaded your nation and sat himself down on the old bosses chair was all part of God’s plan from before you were born. Many saw Christmas – the day the apparent King of Kings was born in a little town called Bethlehem – as a portentous date to take the crown. If the warlord who now runs our land was crowned on such a holy day – they must be extra blessed by God right?
It’s true several high profile warlords ascended to the throne on this day. Charlemagne, king of the Franks was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 800 AD. Stephen I founded the Kingdom of Hungary in 1000 AD. The Danish warrior Sweyn Forkbeard is crowned King of England in 1013 AD – Sweyn would hold onto the position for a little over a month, before being deposed by Aethelred. Mieszko II of Poland was crowned Christmas 1025. As was Polish king Boleslaw II in 1076. William the Conqueror was crowned in 1066. Roger of Sicily – someone I have been fascinated with since reading Bertrand Russell’s thoughts on the man… but for whom I’ve yet to make the time to read up on – ditto, 1130. Add to this list King Baldwin I of Jerusalem, on 1100 AD.
The problem is it is a list, not a Tale. Often there is no mystery in their motives. It doesn’t even mark out a trend, as many more rulers weren’t crowned on Christmas. Does it have an arc? Any plot to speak of? Any kind of emotional payoff? No, it is a list. Yes I could have taken one of these sword wielding lunatics and spun a decent short biography on them? Oh yes, I could have – but maybe I have plans in the new year for a project along those grounds (hint, keep your eyes peeled on the social media accounts in, probably late January).
Would the piece have made for some useful pub quiz knowledge? Maybe, but probably no more than this none-piece. For the pub quizzers out there you may add one more to the list… kind of. King Clovis I of the Franks was not crowned on Christmas, but he was famously baptized into the Catholic faith in 508 AD.
Four – [Subject name redacted: Work in progress]
I do have one topic for a prospective Christmas story. It is a tale of human endurance, and breaking barriers. It’s a tale of how small acts can inspire massive paradigm shifts. Furthermore it is incredibly pertinent in this day and age. Where it falls over though…
Put simply, I ran out of time. This tale was taking me out into waters I don’t know terribly well, and need to put some time into studying. There is nothing terribly complex in the tale itself, but I am – embarrassingly – unschooled on the cast of characters, or the chronology of events following this juncture. I’ll probably need two weeks to get everything together on it – minimum. I’m hoping to return to this topic some time in 2021. I will also need to use my free monthly articles from various science journals fairly cannily too on this one, just FYI.
So there we go, sorry folks I feel like this week’s post is more lump of coal than stocking stuffer. I did discount several other topics. Washington crossing the Delaware felt like the cast were too well known for a blog mostly featuring obscure figures. I played round with West Point Military Academy’s Eggnog Riots for a little while, but I just wasn’t feeling it. I even revisited that famous soccer game on the Western Front, Christmas 1914. I felt the only thing I could add to the mix, ultimately, was to colourize, then cartoon some old black and white photographs.
I also toyed with the idea of writing on John Elwes, the probable real life inspiration for …. actually, no, he’s perfect.
Give me a couple of days folks. Don’t Google him, it’ll ruin everything! Post coming December 25th.