Category Archives: Crime & Punishment

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The Pendle Witches (Part One)

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

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

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

A pedlar

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

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

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

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

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

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

But this all slowly changed in the late Middle Ages. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

The Strange Life, and Death of William Desmond Taylor

This third instalment in our pre-code, silent era Hollywood drama begins February 1st 1922. The setting? A posh bungalow at 404 B South Alvarado Street, Los Angeles – now a parking lot for a men’s clothing store,  but back then an enclave of Hollywood wealth and privilege. Around 7pm, the occupant – the acclaimed film director William Desmond Taylor – received a visit in the form of his close friend, the actress Mabel Normand. Taylor and Normand had known each other since 1920. During a turbulent time in Normand’s life the two had bonded over a shared love of books. Whether an item or not, Taylor was a rock to Normand – convincing the actress and party girl to check into a sanatorium when she hit rock bottom. Whether a cocaine habit, drinking like a fish, illness or a combination of all of the above were responsible, Normand was burnt out to the point where others feared she was not long for this earth. To compound matters, the recent death of Olive Thomas hit very close to home for her. William Desmond Taylor’s insistence she get some help and/or convalescence that Autumn probably saved her life. 

This night was a ‘school night’, a Wednesday with an early start for both the next day, so Mabel grabbed a book William promised to lend her. The couple had a few orange martinis. William shared the shocking news he had to bail his valet, Henry Peavey out of jail that morning – after Peavey was arrested for ‘lewd conduct’ in a public park the night before. At around 7.35pm Mabel bid William adieu, and left for home. 

Just before 8pm, Taylor’s neighbour Faith Cole McLean – a former actress married to actor Douglas MacLean – was knitting on her porch when a loud noise startled her. Peering across at Taylor’s bungalow, she caught sight of a short, stocky man dressed “Like my idea of a motion picture burglar”. The mysterious figure stealthily vanished into the night. 

At 7.30 the next morning, the peace at the Alvarado Court Apartment complex was disturbed by a rather shaken Henry Peavey. “Mr. Taylor is dead! Mr. Taylor is dead!” the valet screamed, as he ran from the premises. While looking for Taylor, Peavey discovered his boss face down and lifeless on the floor of his study. The police were called, but wouldn’t get there till a little after 8am. By this time a landlord, a couple of curious neighbours, and at least one employee of Paramount pictures had entered the property. The Paramount employee seized a wire basket full of letters. The body of the 49 year old director lay, face down in his office, in his own blood – while the assorted interlopers discussed if his cause of death was a haemorrhage of the stomach, as one suggested, or not. When the police turned the body over, they found Taylor was shot. The bullet pierced his lung, striking him in the neck on it’s way out. 

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

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

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

Mary Miles Minter

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

Mary did draw all manner of attention to herself however, in the wake of the killing. In Hollywood Babylon, Kenneth Anger stated Mary leaned into the coffin, and proclaimed to all in attendance the corpse of William whispered his undying love for her in her ear. While untrue, on being told of his death, she insisted someone transfuse her blood into William, in the hope he’d revive. She only abandoned this plan when taken to view his corpse, and it was all too apparent he was never coming back. 

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

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

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

A ’Gibson Girl’

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

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

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

Setting aside the rumours she too, now uncoupled from Sennett, was sleeping with William Desmond Taylor – cause … well, we’ll come to that in a second – A murder theory which was advanced was when Taylor convinced Normand to get medical help in the autumn of 1920, he also chased away a drug dealer who swore he’d get his revenge on Taylor. Hollywood gossip had it not only had William Desmond Taylor upset this one dealer – he was making noises he was going to expose all the dealers who supplied drugs to Normand. This is all supposition. Of course there were some dangerous characters around Hollywood at this time, including an LA Mafia run by Vito De Giorgio – which would soon be taken over by the heavily politically connected Albert Marco. 

Being exposed in the papers as a ‘drug fiend’, and of infidelity; failing health – and another incident a few years after Taylor’s murder soon put an end to her career. 

Sidebar: In 1924, Mabel Normand attended a party packed with various rich and famous people. On parking up, she ordered her driver to come get her at a specified time, and if she was too drunk and belligerent at this point, to drag her away. Her driver, Joe Kelly, attempted to do so – but before he could even get to Mabel, he got into an altercation with a millionaire oil exec and golfer named Courtland Dines. Dines struck Kelly with a bottle, Kelly responded by shooting Dines with Normand’s pistol three times, wounding him. Compounding matters, the driver turned out to be an escaped criminal named Horace Greer, who’d fled from a chain gang in San Francisco some time earlier. This scandal was the final nail in the coffin for Normand’s career. 

Before we move on with this Tale, I must point out much of the talk of William Desmond Taylor’s womanising, and even the speculation he’d been murdered by gangsters, was actually spin from Paramount pictures. They leaked Mary Miles Minter’s love letters, seized prior to police arriving at the scene of the murder. They also paid someone to break into the house after the fact, to leave Mary’s handkerchief. The studio made a sacrificial lamb of party girl Mabel Normand too. Strangely, they also started a rumour a large collection of lingerie was found in 49 year old bachelor Taylor’s home – something we’d take completely differently now, but was then taken as confirmation he was a ladies man. All this was to cover up something they saw as far more scandalous at the time. For starters, he’d been spotted at both opium dens and secretive gay nightclubs. The studio did their best to explain both away by stating he was researching  upcoming films. His back-story was far more complex than all that however. 

William Deane-Tanner was born 26th April 1872 to an aristocratic British family in County Carlow, Ireland. One of five children, he was brought up in a large, Georgian manor situated on 50 acres of land. William’s father, Thomas, was a retired army Major. His uncles and grandparents were surgeons and politicians. In his late teens, William left his life of luxury behind to work on a dude ranch in Kansas, USA. In his 20s he moved to New York, took up acting, and dated the daughter of a wealthy antiques broker and investor, Ethel May Hamilton. The couple met through acting circles, and would marry in 1901. A year later their daughter Ethel Daisy came along. William took up a job in his father in law’s 5th Avenue antique store. 

For reasons never publicly shared, it appears William was utterly miserable. He drank heavily and regularly cheated on his wife. He exhibited many of the warning signs of depression – or what may well have been episodes of dissociative amnesia. Often distant and unsatisfied with his lot, sometimes zoning out completely in the company of others, he mysteriously vanished 23rd October 1908. 

Little is known about his life prior to Hollywood, but it’s speculated he prospected for gold in Canada and the USA, before joining up with a troupe of travelling actors. In 1912 he re-emerged as William Desmond Taylor, in Hollywood. This was the year Ethel finally divorced William – though she hardly knew where he was till she and her daughter saw him acting in a film in 1918. None of this was known to the public at large until after his death. Few in Hollywood knew of his hidden past either. He was an actor for several studios, then pivoted to directing in 1914. In 1914 he also met the actress Neva Gerber – who had separated from, but not yet divorced from her husband. Taylor and Gerber were an item till 1919, but never married.  

By 1922 Taylor appears to have been in a relationship with a young man named George Hopkins. A set designer, he worked with Taylor on the film The Soul of Youth. A distraught Hopkins sat next to Mabel Normand at Taylor’s funeral. Several of the couple’s friends did confirm they were a couple after Taylor’s death – Hopkins being out and a behind the scenes person, he had nothing to lose by this revelation. More controversially, he was also likely the Paramount employee ordered to grab the basket of letters on the day of the murder. Hopkins went on to have a long career in Hollywood, designing sets till the mid 1970s, and winning four Oscars for his work. In 1980 his recollections of his time with Taylor heavily featured in a book about the man’s life. 

For one man to commit pseudocide – to fake one’s death – is one thing. William also had a brother, Denis. Denis was a former military man, who in 1903 moved to New York to be closer to William. For a while the brothers worked together in the antique store. He married Ada Brennan – a woman from a well to do family – and had three children with her. A ‘lunger’, he also gave Ada tuberculosis. On 25th August 1912, on his daughter’s fourth birthday, and while Ada was in a sanatorium, he disappeared just as William had. Soon after, William got in touch with Ada, and took to sending money to her and the children every month. Denis is believed to have been a bit part – a blacksmith – in one of Taylor’s early films. Though his whereabouts beyond this is pure speculation (anyone’s best guess is he died young, in obscurity either somewhere in the USA or Europe – most likely of consumption) – there has been speculation he became the mysterious Edward Sands.  

The allegedly lewd Henry Peavey was a fairly recent employee, having taken on cook and valet duties six months prior to the murder. He was a replacement for a guy called Edward Sands. Sands, like most everyone in this tale, was a phoney. Born Edward Snyder in Ohio, Sands was a teenage thief, turned sailor, turned member of the Coast Guard. Prior to working for Taylor, he’d deserted his post and shown up in Hollywood – one presumes to find fame and fortune on the silver screen, but I’ve never seen anyone state this explicitly. As Taylor’s cook and valet he affected a cockney accent, and the name we all know him by. 

While Taylor was away on business in 1921, Sands stole several of Taylor’s suits, his car and his cheque book, among other items. He’d bragged to Taylor’s driver he had information on him that ensured he wouldn’t get in trouble for his sudden behaviour – indicating his intent to bribe Taylor with said information. William fired both employees on his return. Six months later, he received a letter from Sands with a ticket from a pawn shop for one of the stolen items. The name on the ticket ‘William Deane-Tanner’

While it appears highly unlikely 45 year old Denis was in fact 27 year old Edward – whose spartan documentation does lead back to a troubled young man from Ohio – the rumour has persisted over the years that Sands was his brother. 

Edward Sands was working on Northern California on the day William was killed, but quit his job that same day. He too disappeared without a trace on the day of the murder – in spite of Paramount offering a huge cash reward in the hopes a manhunt would distract from all the other revelations suddenly leaking out everywhere. 

While the murder of William Desmond Taylor remains unsolved, there is one final suspect. We’ll come to them in a second. First however, it should be pointed out the uncovering of Mabel Normand’s alleged drug habit, the alleged love triangle, Mary’s alleged penchant for middle aged men, more fake identities than you can shake a stick at, pseudocides, wife abandonments, and the revelation two Hollywood creatives might just be in a loving, same sex relationship was the final nail in the coffin for Hollywood. Pressure from outraged members of the public led to film bannings across several states. Careers were ended. To placate these wowsers Will H Hays, a former high ranking Republican official who I hope to come back to next year for a completely different Tale, was appointed chairman of the MPPDA, an organisation established to ‘clean up’ Hollywood. 

Now, that final suspect. 

Margaret Gibson & William Desmond Taylor in The Kiss.

Margaret Gibson was an actress who worked with William Desmond Taylor for a short time at Vitagraph Pictures. She was on her way up from bit parts to a number of starring roles when, in 1917 she was arrested in a park, selling opium to passers by. She avoided prosecution, but the very public trial killed any hopes she had of becoming an A list celebrity. She continued to work, in much smaller roles, under several noms de plume – most notably Patricia Palmer. 

In 1923, Gibson was arrested and charged with participation in a blackmail and extortion ring, which may have taken millions of dollars from wealthy businessmen across America. A George W. Lasher, an electrical contractor, paid her over $1,100 to keep quiet about a violation of the Mann Act. I couldn’t find anything more specific, but Lasher possibly transported a minor over state lines for immoral purposes – this information subsequently falling into Gibson’s lap. She was also connected to two men who were jailed the week before for extorting $10,000 from an Ohio bank president named John Bushnell. 

Gibson again avoided jail, but languished in bit roles taken on under false names till 1929, when she suddenly packed up her belongings and moved to Singapore. She met and fell in love with an oil company exec, and appears to have lived a happy, crime free life with no intentions whatsoever of ever returning to the USA. She did return to LA in the early 1940s, after her husband was killed in a Japanese bombing raid. 

Gibson lived a frugal life from a widow’s pension – in humble accommodation – under the pseudonym Pat Lewis. She lived with just a cat called Rajah for company, let the hedges grow high and unkempt to keep people from looking in at her, and did her best to never leave the house – for fear of running into anyone who may know her. 

On 21st October 1964, Gibson had a heart attack. Sensing her time was up she called for a priest and confessed to the murder of William Desmond Taylor. Present at the time, a priest and Gibson’s next door neighbours. When this twist in the tale was finally revealed by the neighbours’ young son – now all grown up – he recalled she did give an explanation, but he was far to young to know who William Desmond Taylor was – let alone take in the intricacies of the murder.  

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

Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm?

Hey all let’s finish off the Hollywood Trilogy next week. For this week I was planning something more in keeping with Halloween. 

When I try to imagine the lives of Robert Hart, Thomas Willets, Bob Farmer and Fred Payne on, or around April 18th 1943, I get a picture in my mind’s eye of a particular type of literature. Four teenaged schoolboys from Stourbridge in the British Midlands, heading off on a boy’s own adventure into the woods. Rightly or wrongly, I want to imagine a scene out of Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me, or at a push, Dennis Potter’s Blue Remembered Hills – just a group of kids just being kids. Far too preoccupied with childhood politics, games and urban legend to think much on the backdrop of a world war. 

That weekend the Luftwaffe would, notably, bomb a church in Algiers – killing a group of nuns. Hitler would run into opposition from one of his own allies, Hungary’s Miklos Horthy, who refused to send 800,000 Hungarian Jews off to be killed in concentration camps. The Americans, acting on cracked Japanese codes, got wind of a plane carrying Japan’s Admiral Isoroka Yamamoto, flying over Bougainville Island, Papua New Guinea. Unsurprisingly, they took their revenge for Pearl Harbour on the Admiral – and shot him from the sky. 

Truthfully I don’t know what these kids were thinking on April 18th 1943. If they sang ‘Kiss Me Goodnight Sergeant Major’ or ‘Bless Em All’ as they rode into the woods. For that matter, If they were chased by an angry junkyard dog like Stephen King’s motley crew.  

I can tell you the four young lads were on a covert mission – to sneak into old Viscount Cobham’s land, Hagley woods – and steal themselves some birds eggs. 

The so- called Witch Elm

As they searched high and low for bird’s nests, the four boys came across the skeletal remains of an old Elm tree. Thinking a hollowed out tree just the place to find eggs, Bob Farmer clambered up, and peered over the edge. He found an old animal skull staring back up at him. Boys being boys, Farmer picked it up, to show the skull off to his friends. It was then that he noticed tufts of hair, a human mandible and the tiniest amount of human flesh still attached to the former noggin. In a mad panic, the boys took off for home. The gravity of their find dawned on them, but on the frantic trip home it also dawned on them they found the skull because they were illegally poaching on the lord of the manor’s land. A sound thrashing from angry parents is one thing, but a criminal record? The boys made a pact to keep their grisly find to themselves.  

But, as Shakespeare once wrote “Murder cannot be hid long… at length the truth will out”.  Tom Willets, the youngest of the boys, conscience got the better of him. He told his father of the skull. They went to the Worcestershire police, who entered Hagley woods the next day. Officers reached into the tree, and found more than just a skull. A near complete skeleton was stashed away in what would later become known as ‘The Witch Elm’. Her right hand was missing, but the bones would be found 13 paces away. A taffeta cloth had been shoved far down her throat. A cheap rolled gold wedding ring (where a thin strip of gold is bonded or fused to both sides of a base metal, usually brass or copper, to make inexpensive jewellery), some scraps of clothing, and a shoe. The victim’s remains were taken to Professor James Webster, a local pathologist of note. He noted our victim was a woman of between 35 and 40 years of age. She stood around five feet tall, had distinctively irregular lower teeth (also having had a tooth removed a year before her death) and had given birth at least once. She was placed in ‘the witch elm’ “While still warm”, was presumed to have died of asphyxiation – and had been in the tree since October 1941 or thereabouts. 

The police worked exhaustively to identify her. They tracked down the shoemakers in Northampton, and actually managed to track down all but six owners of that model of shoe. Six pairs sold at a market stall in Dudley, in the West Midlands, and the stall holders kept no records. They went through lists of missing persons but could not make a match. Her teeth were checked against dental records throughout the United Kingdom. All to no avail. They had a single record in the vicinity of Hagley wood 20 months before she was found, of a businessman and a school teacher calling in to report a woman screaming in the woods. Police were sent out at the time, but found nothing. That lead also led nowhere. 

Then, around Christmas 1943, several taunting notes appeared in the form of graffiti. First, ‘who put Luebella down the Wych- elm?’, then ‘Hagley wood Bella’ appeared on another wall, then the phrase ‘Who put Bella in the Wych-Elm?’ The graffiti was always done in chalk. Always in a similar hand, in letters around 3 inches high. The police presumed always at night, when there were no witnesses. Besides giving them a name to work with, it also shared more than had been released to the public about the murder. They re-ran their investigations looking for a Luebella, or Bella. They also looked into the graffiti, but – in an age without video surveillance – and when enforced blackouts until April 1945 gave the artist an inky blackness to work amongst – it shouldn’t be surprising they had no luck with either lead.

So who was Bella in the Wych Elm? We don’t know, and given her remains were lost, may never find out. Some fascinating theories have arisen over the years however. 


Margaret Murray was an Egyptologist and archeologist who taught at University College, London from 1894 till 1935. Because sexism saw more field work go to male counterparts, and then because the First World War broke out in 1914 – stopping field work altogether, Murray diversified – becoming an expert anthropologist and folklorist. Of note, she wrote a series of books on witchcraft, in the 1920s and 30s which later became codified into the modern Wicca movement. In 1945, she offered a possible explanation to the mystery. Was Bella murdered either by occultists, and/or was she a witch herself?

At risk of more digressions than plot here, the practice of cutting off a felon’s right hand goes back to ancient Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) and Hammurabi’s Code. In what we’d recognise as a Talionic principle now (an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth – the punishment should somehow reflect the crime) taking away the hand used to rob someone seemed poetic the lawmaker. Throughout Europe in the Middle Ages, this practice grew into something far more macabre. If you were to cut the right hand from a criminal as they twisted on the gallows, you now had a ‘hand of glory’ in your possession. The hand of glory, once pickled to preserve it, was thought by some to have magical powers. If you were a thief yourself, you could use the hand to put sleeping occupants of a house into a deep sleep, while you rifled through their possessions. A hand of glory was also supposed to protect the possessor from evil spirits, and could even lead treasure hunters to long forgotten troves. That the hand was eventually discarded 13 paces from the body suggested an occult link to Murray – as did disposing of the body inside a tree. 

Some pre- Christian societies believed burying dead criminals inside trees trapped their spirits inside the tree – thus preventing their ghosts from seeking revenge. 

Her assertion was lent some weight in following years, by a murder 70 kilometres to the South East in Lower Quinton, on Valentines Day 1945. Charles Walton, a 74 year old local was murdered while out doing a day’s agricultural work. He was slashed and stabbed with his own scythe and pitch fork – the latter of which was used to pin him to the ground through his own cut throat. A lot of circumstantial evidence pointed towards his employer, Alfred Potter, being the killer – some suggesting Walton had loaned his boss money he couldn’t repay, as a motive. Others blamed Italian prisoners of war, kept in a facility of so minimum security, they were at ease to freely wander the town. 

In 1954, local papers reported on a killing in the town of Long Compton, 25 kilometres from Lower Quinton. This murder happened in 1875. The victim, an octogenarian woman named Ann Tennant. The papers reported she was suspected of witchcraft, and was similarly, ritualistically killed by being pinned to the ground by a pitchfork. 

Ann’s killer was a man named James Heywood, who is variously described as ‘simple-minded’ and a ‘village idiot’. Heywood spent the rest of his life in an asylum; a lone wolf who claimed he was intending to kill more witches if they ever let him out. This was overlooked by many in 1954, who branded both victims witches, and wondered aloud what kind of cabal of witch-hunters, Satanists or fellow witches were responsible for two executions, seven decades apart?

All this fed into the rumours of witchcraft, and occult rites surrounding Bella. Turbulent and uncertain times give birth to crazy beliefs, as people seek to find or invent a monster to hang their insecurity on – and this was no exception. On the witchcraft theory itself? Truthfully, while there is nothing to falsify this theory, there is absolutely no evidence for it either – and that which can be stated without evidence should be dismissed just as easily. 

Another possibility centres around a young man named Jack Mossop, and his enigmatic friend ‘Van Raalt’. 

Jack Mossop worked as a fitter, making plane parts – but had been a trainee RAF pilot, until a crash left him with serious head injuries. A troubled heavy drinker, who suffered debilitating headaches and regular nightmares, he’d grown distant from his wife Una. At 1am one morning, either in March or April 1941, Jack returned home in a terrible state. He was accompanied by drinking buddy, a Dutchman Una knew only as Van Raalt. Una had suspicions Van Raalt was a spy, as he never worked, but was always well off. Others stated he sold black market goods. 

On the night in question, both men were terribly shaken by something I suspect Una only ever hinted at to the police. 

They were drinking at the Lyttelton Arms, not far from Hagley wood with a woman only referred to as that ‘Dutch piece’. At some point in the night, Van Raalt and the Dutch piece got into an altercation, and the three left the pub – one presumes under duress from the publican. 

Jack allegedly told Una the three piled into Van Raalt’s rover. Van Raalt and Dutch piece in the back, Jack behind the wheel. The Dutch piece was out cold. Some way down the road Van Raalt told Jack to drive towards the woods. The two men then got out and carried Dutch piece to a hollowed out oak tree – placing her sleeping body inside the tree. 

At least this was the story she gave the police in 1953. 

She was long separated from Jack at this point. Furthermore, Jack was deceased. He became an even heavier drinker after after that night. His headaches and nightmares increased. He went to work less – but somehow seemed to have more money than ever in his pocket. Una was convinced he too must’ve been a spy. Emotionally distant, violent and moody – Jack increasingly turned to other women for comfort. Una left him in December 1941. 

After this, Jack Mossop’s behaviour became increasingly erratic – and in June 1942 he was committed to a mental health facility, where he died in August 1942, aged 29. His coroner’s report suggests he was suffering from something like the chronic traumatic encephalopathy punch drunk boxers and American football players often suffer from. 

A version of this Tale was leaked to the newspapers by a whistleblower in 1958. 

In this story however, the leaker – known in the papers as Quaestor – named Una ‘Anna’. Anna, allegedly spoke of a spy ring who were out to infiltrate the munitions factories dotted across the midlands. Bella was a Nazi spy and occultist named Clarabella. She’d parachuted in earlier in the year under the direction of Nazi intelligence, the Abwehr. Abwehr records released after the war suggest they did send a woman, code named ‘Clara’ into the West Midlands – but she failed to make contact and was presumed killed in action. 

If this were the case, ‘Clara’ would be far from the only Nazi spy to parachute into the United Kingdom in the war. Seventeen spies were caught entering the UK in 1941 alone. One worth brief consideration is Josef Jakobs. 

Josef Jakobs

Josef Jakobs was 43 years old at the time of his capture. Born in Luxembourg, he fought alongside the Germans in the First World War. When World War Two broke out, he was called up to fight, and served as an officer until it was discovered he’d spent four years in jail in Switzerland for selling fake gold. After this he was taken in by the Abwehr. 

On 31st January, Jakobs jumped from a German plane flying over Ramsey, Huntingdonshire – in the East of England. He broke his ankle when he landed, and was arrested the following day – hobbling along in his flying suit. Carrying £500, counterfeit ID, a radio transmitter and a German sausage. He’d brought attention to himself by firing his pistol in the air, as the pain of his ankle was too much for him to bear. The home guard arrested him, then handed him in to MI5.

Jakobs gave a voluntary statement to MI5, including an explanation of a photograph of a woman he had on him – a woman who was not his wife. The woman in the picture was his lover, a German cabaret singer and actress called Clara Bauerle. Bauerle was also a spy, and, according to Jakobs, was due to be dropped somewhere over the West Midlands, as she had worked there as a cabaret singer in the 1930s. Jakobs was court martialled as an enemy combatant, and executed by firing squad. He was the last man to be executed at the Tower of London. 

So that was it? Bella was a German cabaret singer and actress with occult leanings, sent in to help a German spy ring in an area heavy with munitions plants? For some as yet unexplained reason she had a falling out with her compatriots and was killed? For decades this was considered likely – but subsequently has come into disrepute. First, Clara was six feet tall. Second, her death certificate was unearthed in Germany in 2015. Clara died 16th December 1942, in a Berlin hospital from barbiturate poisoning.   

So where does this leave us? Currently with one lead. Although Bella’s skull has been lost over time, photos of it still exist. In 2018 Caroline Richardson, an artist who made a facial reconstruction of King Richard III took on Bella, creating an artist’s impression of her. There is always a possibility someone, at some time will be sorting through shoe boxes of old photos and put two and two together. Will the truth finally come out? Only time will tell. 

Quick sidebar for the New Zealanders: This Viscount Cobham, family name Lyttelton, had a son who became New Zealand’s 9th Governor General. As a member of the English cricket team he toured New Zealand in 1935. Charles Lyttelton served as Governor General from 1957 to 1962. His great grandfather George Lyttelton was head of the ‘Canterbury Association’ who planned the European settlement of Christchurch. There is a reason their name may ring a bell. Lyttelton Harbour and Hagley Park were both named in honour of Lord Cobham. 

Spring Heeled Jack: The Terror of London

One: Backward and Forward He Switched His Long Tail….

Over the hills and over the dale,
And he went over the plain,
And backward and forward he switched his long tail,
As a gentleman switches his cane.

  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge “The Devil’s Thoughts”

Murderers are not monsters, they’re men. And that’s the most frightening thing about them”.

  • Alice Sebold, “The Lovely Bones”.

In the wee small hours in October 1837 Londoner Mary Stevens was walking to her place of employment, a house in Lavender Hill where she worked as a servant. While passing through Clapham Common, a demonic- looking figure leapt out at her. Seizing her in a vice-like grip, he kissed her face frenetically. With claws, described by Stevens as “cold and clammy as those of a corpse” he then tore at her clothes. Screaming at the top of her lungs, Mary brought locals from nearby houses out onto the common. Startled, the ‘demon’ took of at a superhuman speed.

The following day the attacker reappeared, near Mary’s home in Battersea. Reports tell of a figure leaping from the shadows, directly into the path of a horse drawn carriage. The coachman swerved, crashing and badly injuring himself. Again locals came out of their houses, catching sight of the attacker – henceforth known as Spring Heeled Jack. Several men gave chase, but Jack ran off at great speed towards a 9 foot brick wall. The pursuers were astonished as the cackling monster cleared the wall in a single bound.

Public reports of the revenant went quiet for some time after this. Ghost sightings were not uncommon in London in the years preceeding. Sightings of the Hammersmith Ghost of 1803 they had spread like wildfire, and well, these things have a viral nature to them. There are things I need to talk about in regards that case I don’t want to divulge just yet – if you are reading this Tale prior to late 2021 (note: a post on the Hammersmith Ghost is coming!). Generally, though ‘spirits’ were normally seen by a sole figure, Spring Heeled Jack was witnessed by dozens on two occasions. According to newsmen, the perception of Spring Heeled Jack changed following a public meeting held by Lord Mayor of London Sir John Cowan on the 9th January 1838. His tale would soon grip the imagination of London, and the wider United Kingdom.

Lord Mayor Cowan reported to the onlookers he had received a complaint, in writing, from a source he only referred to as “a resident of Peckham” an excerpt below.

It appears that some individuals (of, as the writer believes, the highest ranks of life) have laid a wager with a mischievous and foolhardy companion, that he durst not take upon himself the task of visiting many of the villages near London in three different disguises—a ghost, a bear, and a devil; and moreover, that he will not enter a gentleman’s gardens for the purpose of alarming the inmates of the house. The wager has, however, been accepted, and the unmanly villain has succeeded in depriving seven ladies of their senses, two of whom are not likely to recover, but to become burdens to their families.
At one house the man rang the bell, and on the servant coming to open door, this worse than brute stood in no less dreadful figure than a spectre clad most perfectly. The consequence was that the poor girl immediately swooned, and has never from that moment been in her senses.
The affair has now been going on for some time, and, strange to say, the papers are still silent on the subject. The writer has reason to believe that they have the whole history at their finger-ends but, through interested motives, are induced to remain silent.”

Lord Mayor Cowan stated his doubts these assaults occured, but citizen after citizen testified to reports of terrified, scarred, or fondled servants. Dozens of assaulted women from Kensington, to Hammersmith, to Ealing between October 1837 and January 1838. Later that day a reporter from The Times ran the story. This was subsequently picked up by newspapers across the United Kingdom on January 10th 1838.

At this point dozens of letters flooded in to Lord Mayor Cowan’s office recounting frightened women, all stalked, spied upon or attacked by a shadowy, demonic figure. Several bore deep wounds from his claws. A few claimed the victim had gone into a ‘fit’ after. One report even claimed Spring Heeled Jack had scared a victim to death. Cowan remained sceptical, until a trusted friend came to him to report an assault on a servant in his employ by Spring Heeled Jack.


Sidebar: Admittedly the press were questionable in these times. Newspapers – due to tariffs placed on them, were largely the preserve of the wealthy before the 1860s, and as such published a lot of political news. Spring Heeled Jack broke at a time when Parliament was out, and papers were on the lookout for anything unusual to fill their pages. Also, reporters were paid, essentially, by the word. If you could pad out a piece with older reports, you would. Still, this does not necessarily explain the flood of letters to Lord Mayor Cowan.


Lord Mayor Sir John Cowan ordered police across the city to make a top priority to locate the revenant, and bring him to justice.

Two: It was a Dark and Stormy Night….

“It was a dark and stormy night, the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness. Through one of the obscurest quarters of London, and among haunts little loved by the gentlemen of the police, a man evidently of the lowest orders was wending his solitary way”
Edward Bulwer Lytton – Paul Clifford.

Ok, Let’s talk about Spring Heeled Jack’s two most famous attacks – the Alsop and Scales assaults.

On 20th February 1838 a stranger rang the bell at the Alsop residence, in the East London village of Old Ford. 18 year old Jane Alsop got up cautiously to see who had stopped by. While not terribly late at quarter to nine, it was – to borrow Lord Lytton’s phrase – a dark and stormy night. Old Ford was an isolated village. The Alsops were not used to visitors so late at night in the best of weather. Staring through the glass Jane could vaguely make out a tall, imposing, claoked figure. “What is the matter?” she enquired.

“I am a policeman. For God’s sake bring me a light, for we have caught Spring Heeled Jack here in the lane”.

Jane scrambled to fetch a candle for the officer. Back in a matter of seconds she handed the lit candle to the man. The stranger then dropped his cape, holding the candle under his face so as to cast himself in the most terrifying light. Jane Alsop stared in horror at the stranger. Tall. “Hideously ugly”. demonic, with glowing red eyes. He wore a helmet, a tight fitting, shiny suit, and had what appeared to be a lamp attached to his chest.

As Jane screamed, recoiling in horror, the attacker leapt forward – according to some media – exhaling a blue and white flame at her. Grabbing her by the neck and pinning her in a headlock, the assailant tore at Jane’s face and clothes with his clawed hands. Mustering all of her strength, she broke free of the attacker, and ran for the door. The assailant pulled her back by her hair, tearing tufts from her scalp. Jane’s younger sister Mary ran out to save her, but froze in fear at the man’s image. Her older sister, Sarah Hanson then entered the affray – shoving the attacker off of Jane, then dragging her sister to safety. She slammed the door in the attacker’s face.
Violently and frenetically, the assailant repeatedly struck at their door, as the Alsop family screamed from within for help. In an instant their attacker dispersed back into the dark, stormy night from whence he came.

Eight days later another young lady – 18 year old Lucy Scales – was spooked by Spring Heeled Jack on her way home from her brother’s house. Seconds after she stepped out onto the street, a blood curdling scream woke the neighbourhood. Locals rushed out to find Lucy sprawled out on the cobble stones. A shadowy man had lunged at her from the shadows. Lucy screamed, then fainted, and the man then ran off before anyone could catch sight of him.

Who is ‘W’?

Between these two incidents a third attempted assault happened. This one may have left a clue. On a dark night in Turner Street, a stranger came knocking. Asking for the occupant – a Mr Ashworth – by name, he was greeted by a servant boy. Spring Heeled Jack was a little too trigger happy this night. As the servant opened the door, Jack threw off his cloak, exposing his demonic visage. The boy screamed, and slammed the door in his face. The stranger then disappeared. The press would allege the boy noticed, for all his panic, something no other victim had. The letter W was embroidered on his cloak.

At this point in the tale the diabolical Jack exits London for the better part of three decades. In following years similar attacks occur all over the South of Britain. Historian and guru of all things Forteana, Mike Dash notes sightings from Warwickshire in the North to Devon in the South, Yarmouth in the East to Herefordshire in the West. These attacks bore all the hallmarks. Surprise an unsuspecting traveller at night. Grasp at them with clawed hands, often scarring the victim in the process. An escape familiar to watchers of parcour videos today perhaps; but seemingly superhuman… or supernatural, in their age. The attacker would leap over hedges, walls, even horse drawn carriages. The press would often portray the attacker as a tall, diabolical figure, with piercing, red eyes.

He briefly reappeared in London in 1872, to the distress of the Londoners – then again in 1877. The latter seems an odd choice of target for Spring Heeled Jack, to date a sex pest, mostly assaulting lone women. He picked what had to be the worst property in all of London to terrorize.

Aldershot Barracks.

In Aldershot, Surrey is an army barracks. Guarded around the clock by men with guns, the barracks held as many as 10,000 soilders at a time. In the spring of 1877 a tall, diabolical man who leapt buildings in a single bound began sneaking up on lone sentries in the dead of night; grabbing their faces while perched atop the sentry box. Some guards broke down in a mad panic. A few managed to regain their senses and fire off a volley or two in his direction as he bounded away. He returned in the Autumn of 1877 to pull the same prank on a number of occasions – suspiciously only after the order was given to not fire on the demon.

Later in 1877 he drew more gunfire, this time from the locals of Newport, as he leapt from rooftop to rooftop. Locals claim they hit him but Spring Heeled Jack shrugged it off and kept moving. He then disappears until his final reign of terror in 1904; this time way up north in Liverpool. After several night time attacks he was seen one final time, in daylight bounding through the streets. Legend has it he came to a building, leapt the 25 feet to its roof, then bounded away never to be seen again.

Three: Mad Marquesses and Comic Books.

He knew what those jubillant crowds did not know, but could have learned from books, that the plague bacillus never dies, or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for all the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.” Albert Camus- The Plague (translated by Stuart Gilbert)

So we’ll go no more a roving
So late into the night,
Though the heart be still as loving,
And the moon be still as bright.”

Lord Byron – So we’ll go no more a roving.

So, how to make sense of this tale? First I feel it’s safe to say the devil did not come to London. What is clear is in the earliest attacks, a very corporeal sexual predator was likely responsible. By 1877, when the Aldershot Barracks incidents occured, the Spring Heeled Jack character had taken on a more purely mischevious dimension. By 1904 Spring Heeled Jack had become a superhero in the minds of the public, whose ability to scale obstacles had expanded to clearing two storey buildings in a bound.

In his development, Spring Heleed Jack had become a boogeyman; a scary tale you tell children to scare them into being home by curfew. He had also become a meme, in the sense evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins first used the term – an idea which replicated in a viral manner. Memes often take on many forms, but the stronger forms replicate while the weaker fall away. As a birthed concept the meme takes on a life outside it’s creator. Memes, just like Camus’s “peste” can have long, dormant periods where they hide “in cellars, trunks and bookshelves”. A Spring Heeled Jack type would have the strangest of re-emergences in Czechoslovakia in the years 1939- 1945. During World War 2 a folk tale of a Pérák, the spring man of Prague appeared – a tall, diabolical folk hero who could jump buildings in a single bound, and who harrassed the occupying Nazis in the city.

We’ll come back to the reality of Spring Heeled Jack in a second – and discuss who possibly assaulted a number of women from 1837 to 1838 – but it’s worth taking one quick digression

Comic Books

After the Aldershot Barracks incidents, in 1878 Spring Heeled Jack was immortalized in print, getting his own ‘Penny Dreadful’ – ‘Spring Heeled Jack the Terror of London’. The series of tales, written by George Augustus Sala put the figure of Spring Heeled Jack in an unusual position probably not to be said of any other person mentioned in Tales of History and Imagination. Alongside Hugo Hercules (1902), John Carter of Mars (1911), The Gray Seal (1914), Zorro (1919), The Shadow (1930), The Green Hornet and Kato (1931), Doc Savage (1933) Mandrake the Magician (1935), Doctor Occult (1935), The Clock (1936) and The Phantom (1936); Spring Heeled Jack has become a noted ante-cedant to Siegel and Shuster’s Superman.

The Alsop attack revisited.

Returning to the home invasion on the Alsop family on 20th February 1838 we do have a viable suspect, a man who was brought in, but let go because he could not have carried out the other attacks. He was identified leaving the crime scene by an acquaintance, and when caught still had Jane Alsop’s candle in his possession. The man in question was a carpenter named Thomas Millbank. He avoided prosecution on two grounds. First he had iron clad alibis for the other attacks, and second, because he was blackout drunk on the night of the Alsop attack. The Alsop family claimed, wrongly I believe, their attacker was stone-cold sober. He walked without a single charge.

Another man is believed to have been Spring Heeled Jack on several other occasions – a young nobleman known in high society as the mad marquess, Henry de La Poer Beresford, the 3rd Marquess of Waterford.

Paint the Town Red.

On 6th April 1837 the young Marquess, recently expelled from Oxford university for conduct unbecoming a gentleman, arrived at Melton Mowbray’s Thorpe end tollgate. He was heavily intoxicated and surrounded by an entourage of fellow young inebriates. When asked to pay the toll, the belligerent marquess attacked the tollkeeper. The bridge was recently painted, and tins of red paint and brushes were left nearby. Waterford’s entourage pinned the tollkeeper down, while the marquess painted him. A constable stepped in, only to be beaten, held down and painted also.

The drunken entourage rioted throughout the town, painting doors and walls, destroying flower pots and business signs as they went. They vandalized the post office, and tried to upturn a caravan. Several officers tried to stop the gang, but were, also, beaten and painted for their trouble. A constable finally collared one of the louts, Edward Reynard, and threw him into a jail cell. The next day a hungover Marquess bailed Reynard, paying many times the cost at the tollbridge to release his pal. They were all charged with several counts of common assault, paying £100 a piece.

This incident gave rise to the term ‘Paint the town red”, to describe a riotous night out on the town.

Not long after, the Marquess and his entourage caused an international incident in Norway. Waterford harassed a local woman, and was knocked unconscious by a local with a morningstar. He soon returned to London, just before Spring Heeled Jack first appeared. He remained in London till 1842, regularly making the news in his own name in several drunken, churlish incidents. In 1842 he married the socialite Louisa Stuart, and moved to Curraghmore House, Ireland. Whether he was a reformed man via marriage and behaved himself is debatable, but he avoided further charges and scandals till his death in 1859. The mad marquess died of a broken neck after being thrown by a horse.

The Marquess of Waterford was an athlete, and, at least till his last ride, an excellent horseman. His garments bore his family crest, a shield with a giant W on them. His entourage contained a skilled engineer who could have made spring-loaded shoes some believe Spring Heeled Jack must have used. High society long suspected him of being Spring Heeled Jack, and that the slew of attacks were revenge for perceived sleights at Moulton Mowbray, and the Norwegian incident.

Though hardly conclusive, Henry Beresford, 3rd Marquess of Waterford remains the prime suspect in the early Spring Heeled Jack assaults.

Originally posted 1st May 2019 on the Tales of History and Imagination Facebook page. Copyright 2019 Simone T. Whitlow. Edited by Simone, 2020. 2021.

’Fatty’ Arbuckle

Hey all this is our 2nd instalment on the scandals of Hollywood’s silent era. It stands alone, but if you want to, the prelude and part one (on Olive Thomas) can be found via the respective links. 

And yeah, this one gets pretty adult. I don’t say this often, but probably NSFW… 

The weeks leading up to Labour Day weekend 1921 must’ve been one hell of a roller coaster for Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle. The, in my mind at least, unlikely A lister, had just extended his million dollar a year contract with Paramount pictures – a contract which gave him creative and directorial control of his own movies – for another year. 

This must’ve seemed a lifetime ago from his humble beginnings nine years ago, when he signed up with Keystone Studios for a mere $3 a day. More so for 12 year old Roscoe – sent to live with his abusive drunkard of a father, who’d moved on from the hotel his mother shipped him to. The youngster sang for his keep at that hotel for a year, before dear old dad showed up for him. From singing for your supper to seven figures a year was quite the accomplishment for the young comic. 

Sidebar: To compare – the average unionised male in 1912 was on 70c an hour, double Arbuckle’s starting wage. By 1921 this had risen to $1.25 an hour; annually just over one 357th of Roscoe’s salary (an average working week then 44 hours).

Of course, he had to put in the long hours to make the big money. He was contracted to make six movies a year. With his latest, ‘Crazy to Marry’ out in cinemas, his friend and fellow actor-director Fred Fishback booked Arbuckle and his friends a couple of rooms and a suite at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco for a much needed (and absolutely booze-soaked) getaway. Fate almost intervened just days before, when Roscoe sat on an acid- soaked rag while picking his car up from the mechanic. Suffering second degree burns to both buttocks, Arbuckle cried off – but was enticed to go by Fishback, with a rubber donut cushion and the promise of a wild time. So it was actor and his entourage arrived at the St. Francis, September 5th 1921. More could be said about his penchant for wild nights out, or his marriage to the actress Minta Durfee – the couple long separated but keeping up appearances so as to avoid a scandal of all things – but we should pause to introduce Virginia Rappe. 

Virginia Rappe was born in 1891, to a solo mother – who died when Virginia was 11 years old. Subsequently brought up by her grandparents, Rappe moved out to pursue a career as a model at the age of 16. For some time she was extremely successful in the modelling world, becoming something akin to a supermodel. 

Rappe was also an entrepreneur and influencer with her own clothing line – and an advocate for women’s rights. Inasmuch as she often shared the view that women need not be confined to the typing pool, or cooking and cleaning, and that people should really dress to suit themselves. 

She moved to Los Angeles in 1917, looking for film work, and found employment at Arbuckle’s old haunt – Keystone Studios. Rappe dated the director Henry Lehrman, and found plenty of work – though admittedly mostly bit parts. The couple had split up by 1921, and the work stopped flowing in for her. Virginia’s friend Al Semnacher made the suggestion what she needed was to get out and about – be seen a little out in public. Maybe network a little. Semnacher, Rappe, and a friend of Semnacher’s named Maude Delmont booked a suite at the Palace Hotel for the weekend. 

On arrival at the Palace Hotel, Rappe was spotted by a friend of Arbuckle’s – who sent a message over to Arbuckle’s party the model and sometime actor was in town. Arbuckle sent a message back, inviting the trio to drop by the Hotel St Francis and have a few drinks with them. Rappe showed up by herself around midday, and soon messaged Maude and Al to come join her. The two ladies enthusiastically joined in the fun of Arbuckle’s ‘pyjama party’ and a good time was had by all – till the day took a darker turn.  

There are a number of occurrences not in dispute, so I’ll try to sum those up now. 

Around 3pm, the party in room 1221 in full swing, and with the weight of several gin orange blossoms on her bladder, Virginia went to use the bathroom. Maude was in there with one of the men, and told her to go find somewhere else to relieve herself. Desperate to go, she crossed the hallway to Arbuckle’s room – room 1219. Arbuckle followed her across, and locked the bedroom door behind him. Beyond this, accounts diverge. 

It appears Arbuckle and Rappe were alone together for around 30 minutes. It was soon that Rappe screamed in pain, causing other guests – Maude included – to run to room 1219 to investigate. Virginia may have called out “I am dying, I am dying”. Arbuckle almost certainly told Maude to “Get her dressed, and take her back to The Palace. She makes too much noise!” 

Virginia’s clothes were half torn off of her. This, unsurprisingly, would play a sizeable role in later proceedings. 

Roscoe would later claim he’d gone into his room to change out of his pyjamas, only to find Rappe passed out on his bathroom floor. Being a gentleman, he helped her to his bed. All of a sudden, she became hysterical. She began to scream, and tear her own clothes off. It was at this point he called for Maude – feeling rather put out for making the effort to be a good host to Rappe, and unsure what to do next. 

Maude Delmont took Virginia Rappe away, to another room – where she awoke around midnight, still in unbearable pain. Maude called a doctor, who shot Virginia full of morphine, inserted a catheter and left. The doctor’s opinion? Nothing much was wrong with her a little rest wouldn’t sort out. Dissatisfied with the first sawbones – Maude called a second doctor, who misdiagnosed Virginia with alcohol poisoning. Useless doctors aside,  no one took Virginia to a hospital for three whole days. The entire time she was in agony, and showing no signs of improvement. On admittance to the hospital, Virginia was diagnosed with peritonitis, caused by a ruptured bladder. Within a day, her kidneys would stop working. Virginia passed away. 

In the meanwhile, Roscoe Arbuckle had jumped on a boat back to Los Angeles. He’d left the following day, having well and truly trashed the hotel rooms at the St Francis. He doesn’t appear to have asked about Virginia, and first heard of her passing when L.A. Times reporters showed up at his mansion to question him about the weekend. They wouldn’t be the only people to come with questions.   

On September 11th San Francisco district attorney Matthew Brady sent San Francisco police officers to arrest Arbuckle. From the offset, Roscoe refused to comply with the investigators. Having carried out an investigation, Arbuckle was charged with murder. 

Before the case ever got to a courtroom, the court of opinion had their say on the Fatty Arbuckle case. All across America, his films were pulled from cinemas. At one show in Wyoming, a riot broke out. A group of cowboys in attendance, shot the screen full of holes with their side arms when Arbuckle appeared. The press were just as vicious – newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst particularly. Hearst had his own reasons to go after Arbuckle’s employers. He felt Paramount pictures were mismanaging the career of his mistress – the actress Marion Davies. Regardless of reason, Hearst stated the Arbuckle story sold better than the sinking of the Lusitania. While none of the ‘bottle party’ rumours – yes that means what you imagine it means – started at this time, there was much made of Arbuckle’s wild ‘orgies’, disregard for the alcohol ban, and stories aplenty of how Arbuckle used his size advantage to have his way with several young women on the set of a number of Keystone films. Several Christian groups called for Arbuckle to be executed before the trial could begin. 

The media circus shone a light on Hollywood, and got several people asking what else was going on in Tinseltown? Paramount, feeling the heat from the scandal, fired Arbuckle a fortnight after he was charged. 

Now would be a good time to pause a second. While people were baying for Fatty Arbuckle’s blood – D.A. Brady himself asked for the death penalty – and referring to him in terms such as a ‘vulgarian from the gutter…’, (Rappe’s ex Henry Lehrman summed him up thus) – was there any evidence he actually raped Virginia Rappe?

Well, this was fraught too – but no. Despite a rumour the doctors at the hospital tried to incinerate Rappe’s internal organs, destroying evidence – her body went through two autopsies. Both revealed a small number of bruises on one arm and thigh, but no sign of sexual assault. There was a question of whether her bladder burst because someone put a lot of weight on her, however. It was stated Arbuckle, all 265 lbs of him, effectively crushed Rappe to death while forcing himself on her.  

Oh, and another thing I should mention now, before we get on to the trials. When the police were questioning the party guests, they discovered something odd at Al Semnacher’s house. He had Virginia’s torn clothes in his possession. Semnacher claimed he took them for rags to clean his car with. Some suggest he had them in the hope of extorting Arbuckle, or the studio, but was stymied when the police opened an investigation.

The first trial opened November 18th 1921. Pre-trial hearings determined Arbuckle would be facing manslaughter charges, rather than murder – but that was serious enough for Arbuckle to hire a dream team of top lawyers. I won’t go deep on the trial – this was meant to be a five minute essay on the story, but police witnesses who initially claimed to have heard Rappe scream “I am dying” or even, as a few suggested “he’s hurt me” rescinded their claim. 

Maude Delmont, as per this and all future trials, was not called to testify. That she had put away between eight and ten glasses of whiskey in a little over two hours was one thing which brought her evidence into question – that she was awaiting her own day in court on bigamy charges was another entirely. Al Semnacher, on the other hand laid the framework for Kenneth Anger’s ‘Bottle Party’ claim. He testified Arbuckle bragged to him how, while Rappe was on the bed, he put a sharp piece of ice in her – and Semnacher had to write this down as he was far too embarrassed to say the word – ‘snatch’. 

The prosecution did manage to find a security guard working at Keystone studios, who claimed Arbuckle was always trying to get into the ladies’ changing rooms. They made much of both Rappe and Arbuckle’s fingerprints on the door. A nurse at the hospital testified Rappe stated she had consensual sex with Arbuckle. Another claimed she admitted to having ‘internal troubles’ for six weeks beforehand. The defence claimed Virginia Rappe also had past form for tearing her own clothes off at parties when intoxicated. They also explained away the bruises on the heavy jewellery she was wearing that night. 

At the first trial, Arbuckle gave evidence – his testimony as above. He found her on the bathroom floor, after having vomited in the toilet. The bruises? At one point she fell off the bed. Arbuckle being the gentleman he was, he put her back on the bed. 

After deliberations the jury found 10 – 2 in Arbuckle’s favour. 

But the tale didn’t end there. The case was retried in January 1922, the jury unable to come to an unanimous decision. More witnesses forgot whatever damning evidence they gave the first time. One apparently solid witness, a security guard who claimed Arbuckle bribed him for a key to the ladies’ changing rooms. This witness was shot down by the defence, who pointed out the man was facing charges himself, for sexually assaulting an eight year old. More witnesses were produced to testify Virginia Rappe liked to tear her clothes off when drunk. They claimed she was promiscuous. In spite of this the jury came in 10 – 2 again – but this time in favour of conviction. 

With two hung juries, the district attorney went for a third, and final try on 13th March 1922. It was much the same as the previous two, except this time the defence dream team went all in to prove Virginia Rappe was not a virtuous woman, and as per the mores of the time, not someone who could be raped. They played on her alleged bladder problems, and how she was a loose woman who had, by the age of 30, gone through four abortions. 

In the prosecution’s favour, public perception was now well and truly coloured by events. Arbuckle’s films were not just not showing anywhere – but were banned from being shown. Maude Delmont was touring the USA as a public speaker, lecturing on the evils of Hollywood. There had now been seven solid months of stories in the press about Hollywood orgies, of stars love lives, and of murders. 

Hollywood had gone from a plucky little startup, to the fourth biggest sector in the economy by this time – and some people were starting to worry about the moral effects these folk could have on America.

But Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle’s dream team were absolutely on point this time. By thoroughly branding Virginia Rappe a slut, it didn’t matter terribly to the jury what kind of person Arbuckle might have been. It took them five minutes to find him, unanimously, not guilty. 

I’m a little wary of trying to compare and contrast this tale to the happenings of the ‘Me Too’ era. I don’t believe he was a murderer, but suspect he may have been a creep who tried to take advantage of a drunken party guest. Truthfully, due to what looks like witness tampering, it is very hard to say. Some of the ethics of the day – certain people happy to ban the consumption of alcohol in bars. Many of those same people just as happy to walk away from a victim of a binge-drinking incident, the moment she becomes ‘problematic’ to them – well they are one of the unheralded villains of this tale, quite frankly.  Roscoe Arbuckle was likely a creepy guy. Maude Delmont, Al Semnacher, and those first two doctors were also all kinds of negligent for not getting Virginia the medical help she so clearly needed. 

On a personal level, the trial ruined Roscoe Arbuckle’s career. Sure, he had his supporters – Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton among them – but would never work in front of the camera again. Minta Durfee had no reason whatsoever to stay married to him, and the couple soon divorced. Arbuckle found a little work in Vaudeville, and eventually snuck back in to Hollywood – directing films under the nom de plume Will B. Goodrich. The actors he worked with commented he seemed a broken man, who more or less directed as if on autopilot. He’d die of a heart attack at the age of 46. 

The public perception of Hollywood was much changed for many also, in the wake of the trial. It lifted the curtain, revealing lives which were starkly different to the studio spin. This gave power to those anti drink wowsers who had gotten alcohol banned, and who had been eyeing Hollywood up ever since. 

Spencer Perceval

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. 

Willie the Wimp (and his Cadillac coffin)


Inspiration can come at you from so many ways. For me it sometimes comes in the form of a digression in a book that sticks in my head – I wonder why no-one has told THAT story, till I go chase down the rest of the tale. Sometimes something comes from a conversation you’ve had with someone else.

Sometimes the teenage you is looking through second hand cassettes in a 4 for $5 bin. You are planning to spend the afternoon hand writing a legible copy (I did not get my first computer till I was 22) of a university essay on Shakespeare’s ‘Measure for Measure’ from your completely illegible notes – and you may as well grab a seat in the AV lab, borrow a cassette player, and listen to a little music while you work. Among my picks that day was Stevie Ray Vaughan’s ‘Live Alive’, and on that album a cover song with a back story that has always fascinated me. I find the following quirky. I don’t intend any veiled commentary on society, no judgment or praise. I could make the point funerals are for the living, they often reflect the needs and wishes of those left behind, and why I think, most of the time that is OK – but I’ll leave it to you all to join any dots you see fit. I really just mean this as a quirky tale that found its way to me many moons ago.

Willie ‘Wimp’ Stokes jr. was a notorious figure among the underworld of Chicago’s South Side. Though at the time of his passing, Jet magazine listed him as a ‘flamboyant gambler’, and gamble he sure did – it would be reported later that he was a drug dealer working for his alleged kingpin father, William ‘Flukey’ Stokes. If one is thinking back to the Macks from my Christmas podcast, that is OK – I used a photo of Flukey to represent what a modern day mack looked like. One February night in 1984, Stokes Jr was gunned down on his way to a motel on the South Side. Though nowhere could I find any indication that anyone was arrested for the murder, it is to be noted the murder happened at a time when cheap crack cocaine was starting to flood the streets in many US cities, and a number of young gangsters were suddenly looking to elbow into the business – in spite of the few kingpins who had dominated the narcotics business for years. Stokes Jr, just 28 at the time, left a wife and five children behind.

William ‘Flukey’ Stokes snr.

Willie ‘the wimp’s father, Willie ‘Flukey’ Stokes, was also something of a flamboyant gambler – at least on his income tax forms he claimed most of his money came from gambling. He owned a pool hall – and was, at the time of his own death, reputed to be the owner of as many as 40 drug houses, employing around 200 people in his organization. Like his son he cut a flamboyant figure – silk suits, diamond rings with carat counts into the dozens – a taste for Cadillacs. Flukey, for all the damage his ‘gambling’ did in his community was beloved by most – he was well known in the neighborhood for acts of kindness to the elderly (bringing turkeys to pensioners) the poor (no strings attached financial assistance to many needy folk who approached him for help), and the unfortunate (helping re-house a family whose home had caught fire). All the same, at the time of his own death Stokes Snr was facing murder, conspiracy to murder and racketeering charges. He was also thought to be bringing in a million dollars a week from his drug houses.

So when Willie the wimp is gunned down, Flukey put on a funeral which caught the imagination of a number of journalists. There laid out in all his finery was the younger Willie – propped up at the wheel of a Cadillac coffin. Before Willie the wimp had been loaded into the coffin it had been taken to a local panel beaters, and had a genuine Cadillac front grille and boot added to it. Working front and tail lights were installed. A plastic windshield, a big floral steering wheel, a dashboard were added, as were four wheels to the chassis. All up it is believed the coffin, modelled after a 1984 Cadillac Seville, cost Stokes Snr around $7,000. It also had a vanity licence plate W.I.M.P. Willie himself was dressed in a hot pink three piece suit with a matching tie, a rather pimping looking hat, and a giant diamond ring just like his father wore. He went driving into the great unknown clutching what most newspapers report as a wad of $100 bills, and Flukey’s own biography claimed to be $1,000 notes.


When interviewed about the funeral Flukey advised “He (Wimp) had a brand new Cadillac every year for the past eight years or so… Furthermore, one year I was in debt and he sold his Cadillac to help me out, so I owed him one”. Willie the Wimp’s mother Jean added “I think he would have really liked it because that’s the way he was. He was flashy, and he believed in style”

Two years later Flukey Stokes would make the news again, after spending $200,000 on a lavish party to celebrate the 30th anniversary of his wedding to Jean. They hired the Staples Sisters and Chi-Lites to play, and Flukey threw $50 and $100 bills to the guests at one point in the night. It has always astonished me the party was held at the South Side motel where Willie the Wimp was gunned down. Not long after Flukey himself would be gunned down. Having just been acquitted of attempting to kill a rival drug boss, he was killed in a hit organized by his own bodyguard, on his way back from a night at the movies with his girlfriend.

One morning Texan musician and songwriter Bill Carter is reading the local paper, when an article grabs his attention. He shows it to his wife, and co-writer Ruth Ellsworth, commenting “This isn’t a column, it is a song”. That morning, on their two mile drive to the studio the songwriting partners have a song out of it, and cut the track that day. In the studio, Carter’s friend The Fabulous Thunderbirds Jimmy Vaughan, who lays down guitars on the track. Jimmy called his brother, blues legend Stevie Ray Vaughan that night, raving about how good a song Willie The Wimp (And His Cadillac Coffin) is. SRV agreed, adding the song to his live set. And that folks is that tale of Willie the Wimp Stokes.

Mussolini’s Hat, and the Rise of the Mob

There’s a popular myth that states the 35th President of the United States, John F Kennedy killed the hat.
Now there is a tiny kernel of truth to this. A quick glimpse of his inauguration, Jan 20th 1961, it’s noticeable he is – besides Vice President Lyndon Johnson and the man he beat for the job, Richard Nixon – surrounded by a sea of top hats. It was clear in the photo who the new stars, and who the old guard were. Milliners claimed this was the death knell – men everywhere chose to forgo headgear. Hat shops closed across the nation. Careful analysis does reveal a different picture. 

For one, newspaper articles from as early as 1923 show a growing disdain for hats among youth. Of particular note, World War Two had a measurable impact on hat wearing. The Hat Research Foundation (the very existence of a foundation looking into ‘hat research’ may suggest hats were already in trouble) surveyed male non-hat wearers across the USA to ask why they no longer wore a hat. Nineteen percent replied because some bullying drill sergeant yelled at them if they didn’t during the war. In civilian life they no longer had to put up with that kind of hectoring bullshit. 

The late 1940s and 1950s in general were a time when many could, and did, push back against established order and conventions. It was also a time when, for the USA at least, there was plenty of money, and lots of jobs to go round. Youth culture – this may seem strange to say now – was on the rise. I say ‘youth culture’, the term evolutionary psychologists used at the time to examine the lives of those not yet fully fledged adults, but not kids either – But from it’s coinage in 1944, the word ‘teenager’ is a far better fit for the point I’m trying to express. 

Let’s Sidebar this: The concept of the ‘teenager’ was one rooted firmly in marketing. High schoolers had new-found freedoms, coming from after school and weekend jobs. Technology was making huge leaps forward in every which direction at the time too. This led to the kids having their own money to buy their own radios, and record players for their bedrooms. A combination of the rise of the suburbs in the 1950s necessitating adult car ownership, and a sudden glut of new vehicles, as prewar car manufacturers returned to their original line of business – led to a teen car culture. Teens, with money in their pocket, bought up all the old cars.

 In short, as a new class of consumer; music, movies and fashion began reflecting their tastes in an effort to capture their money. The teenagers were now tastemakers – and they weren’t crazy about hats. Rock and roll is the thing this year Daddy-o. Did the rock and rollers wear hats? These new actors like Brando and James Dean? Frank Sinatra may have said “Cock your hats, angles are attitudes” once, but even he went bare headed on his own show in 1960 – when he welcomed the new King, Elvis Presley, back after his stint in the Army. Elvis of course had his magnificent quiff on display – a haircut which arose in the 50s, in defiance of the earlier ‘short back and sides’ of the past. It defied anyone to cover it with a stupid hat. 

And finally, it’s worth pointing out, hats of a certain kind were once popular because they denoted one of a certain social status. In recent years hats had become far more ubiquitous, diminishing that status. This is not to say when Gene Chandler donned a cape, top hat and cane to sing ‘The Duke of Earl’ in late 1961 people didn’t get the implication. In that garb he was Prince Charming “we’ll walk through my dukedom and a paradise we will share”. The fact remained, anyone could go buy a top hat and play the Duke of Earl – should they choose. 

In short, John F. Kennedy was, at most the final nail in the coffin of the hat makers. All this is to say the following tale may seem ridiculous now – I think in part that is because we’ve forgotten the importance of the hat in times past.

Today’s Tale doesn’t begin in an American milliner’s circa 1961, but in mid 19th Century Sicily. It will double back stateside before we’re done, however.


The Island of Sicily has always been exactly the kind of place which breeds cells of local partisans with a deep distrust of authority. In past blog posts, namely the episode on Hannibal and the blog post on the Bagradas Dragon, we’ve touched upon the way the island was invaded, then ruled by Phoenicians, Greeks, pirates, Carthaginians and Romans – but that is only the beginning. Byzantium invaded in the 6th century – The Byzantine Emperor Justinian using Sicily as a staging post to attempt a reconquest of the Western Roman Empire from the Ostrogoths. The Muslims invaded in the 9th Century, bringing lemon, pistachio and orange trees with them. The Vikings were next – in their ranks, one Harald Hardrada. The Normans invaded in the 11th century- and brought Count Roger I, and his son Roger II, the latter of whom may get his own Tale of History and Imagination one day. 

They were ruled for a while by the Holy Roman Empire, and the French duke Charles I of Anjou. The Spanish colonised them for some time – and finally the French House of Bourbon. This never ending cycle of colonisation by one group or another led to groups of partisans developing – with the aim of protecting the locals from the next corrupt or cruel invader, and generally harassing whoever was in charge at the time. 

In 1282, the Anjou French, having deposed Roger’s grandson Manfred – colonised, then proceeded to treat the locals appallingly. After a Sicilian woman was raped and murdered by a French soldier, The Sicilian Vespers rebelled, killing 4,000 French colonists in retribution. After a long war with the French, they could have won their independence, but chose to put another relative of the Rogers back on the Sicilian throne instead. There is a legend the phrase Morte Alla Francia Italia Anelia! – Death to the French is Italy’s cry arose at this time. The phrase later shortened to M.A.F.I.A. It is likely to be the origin of the term. 

Persisting through time, groups much like the Sicilian Vespers were always in the background. They were there to join up with Giuseppe Garibaldi’s red shirts – an army 1,000 strong – when they landed in Sicily in 1860, hoping to free Sicily from the Bourbons. 2,000 mafiosi lent them their muscle, and were instrumental in the establishment of an Italian nation. A popular play in Italy in 1863, ‘I Mafiusi de la Vicaria‘ introduced the phrases mafia and mafiosi to the common lexis. 

From the 1870s onwards a power vacuum arose in Sicily. This led to an increase in violent crime, particularly a spate of violent robberies by highwaymen. Though the mafia were responsible for much of this crime, they were called upon by the king of Italy to bring the bandits under control. This era legitimised Mafia power in Sicily, laid the foundations for what they became (criminal overlords) – and would lead to the likes of Francesco Cuccia – both mayor of the town of Piana dei Greci, and mafia Kingpin, by the 1920s.

The 1920s also saw the rise of the man known as Il Duce. Benito Mussolini was born in 1883, to socialist parents. He was named after Benito Juarez, the left-leaning president of Mexico who took over the nation following the disastrous reign of Emperor Maximilian (put a pin in that one). Benito himself was a staunch socialist, renowned journalist and public intellectual until he had a falling out with the left in 1914. He was reading a lot of Frederick Nietzsche – particularly Thus Spoke Zarathustra. To Mussolini God was dead, morality meaningless. Having fallen down that rabbit hole he was convinced he himself was the Ubermensch Italy needed to mold a new society.
Gone was any sense of egalitarianism, communal ownership and class warfare – replaced by a cruel, syllogistic, imperialistic, white supremacist style of ultra nationalism which came to be known as fascism.  

As a populist politician he got his foot in the door – backed largely by dissatisfied World War One veterans who coalesced round him as ‘black shirts’.

Promising to resurrect the Roman Empire, Mussolini and 30,000 Black Shirt thugs marched on Rome in October 1922 – demanding the government resign and appoint him leader. 

Fast-forward to 1924. Benito, a minority leader, stacked the cards in his favour via the Acerbo Law – which replaced proportional representation in elections with a system which ensured the party with the most votes got 2/3 of the votes by default. As his was now that leading minority, this law gave him carte blanche to rule as he saw fit. This made Il Duce impossible to vote out for the rest of his life. From there he went about dismantling democracy and doing away with his enemies – and, not unlike Donald Trump, planning a series of public rallies throughout the nation. 

In May 1924 Benito Mussolini arrived in Piana dei Greci, with a large security detail. His first port of call was a meeting with Mayor Francesco Cuccia. The two men made small talk till Cuccia leaned towards Il Duce and whispered in his ear

You are with me, you are under my protection. What do you need all these cops for?

Mussolini was taken aback by this, taking it as impudence he would need protection from a mafiosi. Cuccia felt insulted that Mussolini refused to dismiss his large police escort. The two men parted ways. Cuccia soon upped the ante, ordering all but a handful of villagers to stay away from the Piazza during Mussolini’s upcoming speech. Mussolini was left preaching to what is variously described as around 20 ‘village idiots’ in a largely empty public square. Now this PR disaster might have been swept under the rug, or at least isolated to him, were it not for another incident, in another Sicilian town a few days’ later. 

Picture if you will another piazza, this time full of inquisitive villagers. Sense the carnivalesque, that buzz in the air when large groups of people gather for an event. Many of those people are dissatisfied with their lot in life – there’s no agrarian land reform for these poor farmers, no socialism, no utilitarianism – not while under the yoke of the mafia overlords. This is just the fertile ground Mussolini needs to plough if he ever hopes to outright declare himself dictator. Imagine if you will, Mussolini – self styled Ubermensch, stepping out to address the awed crowd- in full regalia. Topped off with a trademark black fez- worn by himself of course, and the elite Arditi shock troops who distinguished themselves in the Great War. A number of Arditi, decked out in their black hats and black shirts, followed proto-fascist poet and fellow Ubermensch Gabriele D’Annunzio into the Croatian town of Fiume in 1919. They laid claim to the town in the name of something very much like the Fascist regime Mussolini is so intent on creating – but THAT is yet another Tale I must cover sometime in the future.

There’s a hushed silence, Il Duce prepares to work the crowd up into a hate-filled frenzy

Then, some fleet-footed mafiosi skips past his wall of cops, hot foots it up to the podium, and swipes Mussolini’s hat. 

Imagine the pathos, this alleged strongman left bare headed in front of the large crowd. The police left dumbstruck, as the mobster bolted out of the town square with his hat. I imagine the crowd bursting into peals of laughter as this ridiculous man is stripped of his plumage in front of everyone. This simple act is Emperor’s new clothes stuff. This is something equivalent to throwing a milkshake over, or cracking an egg on the head of a fascist today. Mussolini was furious.  

On 3rd January 1925, Benito Mussolini dropped all pretence that Italy was still a democracy. The fascist dictator, his hands already bloodied in the deaths of several prominent socialists, made the eradication of the Mafia a top priority. He gave a local police officer named Cesare Mori the power to do whatever necessary to destroy this age old society. Mussolini telegrammed Mori

 “Your Excellency has carte blanche, the authority of the State must absolutely, I repeat absolutely, be re-established in Sicily. Should the laws currently in effect hinder you, that will be no problem, we shall make new laws

Mori took this to heart, arresting hundreds of mafiosi for anything from associating with known criminals through to murder. Mayor Cuccia was an early arrest. Cuccia and his brother were both charged with the murder of two socialist activists a decade earlier and sentenced to lengthy prison terms without so much as a trial. Thousands of mobsters did get their day in court however, where they were displayed in iron cages for all to see. Under the Iron Prefect’s (as Mori came to be known) reign of terror, 1,200 mafiosi were jailed for a range of offences, real and imagined. A large number of liberals and leftists in Sicily were also jailed – as ‘suspected mafia’. 

This did not bode well across the Atlantic. The United States of America absolutely had some problems with criminal groups from Italy before Mussolini’s crackdowns. ‘Black Hand’ organisations, involved largely in shaking down members of their own community for protection money (most famously the opera singer Enrico Caruso) had been operating since the 1890s. The Provenzano’s of New Orleans, and the Morello’s of New York were leaving murdered opponents in discarded barrels for the public to stumble across well before this. Italian American detective Joseph Petrocino was sent to Sicily to investigate mob connections between the two countries in 1909. 

However, this mafia witch hunt undoubtedly escalated the growth of the mob in an unprecedented manner. The USA had tightened it’s borders via the National Origins act of 1924, but numerous gangsters snuck in regardless – the ferries which ran day-trippers back and forth from Cuba a favoured method. 

To add to this, the USA itself had provided the mob with the perfect pathway these mobsters needed to grow their organisations exponentially. 

On January 16th 1919, partially of the belief that such a law would help reduce poverty, and largely through the rallying of several religious institutions, American politicians ratified the 18th Amendment – effectively banning the production, importation, transportation and sale of alcohol in the country. The National Prohibition Act, better known as the Volstead Act was written to law in October 1919, giving law enforcement authority to enforce the liquor ban. As America was thirsty, and many otherwise law abiding Americans recognised this legislation as idiotic – organised criminal gangs suddenly had a large market to cater to, at considerably less risk than other illegal activities. 

This was a boom time for the likes of Joseph Bonanno – a 19 year old Sicilian kid who’d fled Mussolini’s purges and snuck into New York via Havana, Cuba. The nephew of the Don of Castellammare del Golfo, Sicily, he found a home in Salvatore Maranzano’s crime family. These rapidly gentrifying criminals would eventually expand to a point where they went to war with one another over their territories – the Castellammarese War of 1930- 31. A lot of the ‘moustache Pete’s’, the more old school mobsters who didn’t believe in doing business with Irish or Jewish gangsters, were wiped out. This left the so called ‘Young Turks’, Bonanno included, free to organise the Five Families we all know today when we think of the mob. 

Ungern’s Army

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Urga in 1921

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

Then, one night in February ….

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

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

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

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

The last Bogd Khan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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