Category Archives: Crime & Punishment

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The Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle Incident

Content Warning: Discussion of rape occurs in this tale.

The Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle Incident Tales of History and Imagination

The weeks leading up to Labour Day weekend 1921 must’ve been quite the roller coaster for Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle. The comic icon had only just extended his million dollar a year contract with Paramount pictures – a contract which gave him creative and directorial control over his own movies. 

His humble beginnings nine years ago had to seem a lifetime ago. He first signed up to Keystone Studios for $3 a day, around half the wage of an average, unionised man at the time. Rewind further, to Roscoe’s 12 year old self – things were considerably more dire. Sent to live with his abusive drunkard of a father after his mother suddenly passed on; he found his dad had already moved on to the next town. Stuck at a hotel in a strange town, the youngster took any work he could. This included singing for his keep, before dear old dad showed up to collect him a year later. From singing for your supper to seven figures a year was quite the rise for the young comic. 

Of course, he put in the long hours in order to make that big money. He was contracted to make six movies a year. With his latest film, ‘Crazy to Marry’ out in cinemas, his friend the actor-director Fred Fishback booked a couple of rooms at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco, to celebrate. Plans were afoot for a much needed, absolutely booze-soaked getaway. Back to that roller coaster; fate almost intervened just days before – when Roscoe sat on an acid- soaked rag, while picking his car up from the mechanic. Suffering from second degree burns to both buttocks, Arbuckle cried off the getaway – but was enticed to go by Fishback. Fishback even bought his friend a rubber donut cushion to make sitting more bearable.

So the 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 continuing to keep up appearances – but we should pause for a moment to introduce Virginia Rappe. 

Virginia Rappe was born in 1891, to a solo mother – who died when Virginia was just 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. Her fame granting her a platform, she often shared her views women need not be confined to the typing pool, cooking or cleaning if they were, or chose to be, working people. She was also a vocal advocate for people dressing to suit themselves. 

Virginia moved to Los Angeles in 1917, in the hope of finding work in the movies. She found employment at Arbuckle’s old haunt – Keystone Studios. For a while, Rappe dated the director Henry Lehrman, and found plenty of work – even if most of it was bit parts. When the couple separated in 1921, work dried up. She was in a rut when her friend Al Semnacher suggested she needed to be seen out and about more. If you catch the attention of the right people, those people will remember why the loved you. Before you knew it, the work would be flowing in again.

Semnacher, Rappe, and a friend of Semnacher’s named Maude Delmont booked a suite at the Palace Hotel over the long weekend. 

On arrival at the Palace Hotel, a friend of Arbuckle’s noticed Rappe – and sent a message to Arbuckle’s pyjama party the model and sometime actress was in town. Arbuckle sent a message back – tell them drop by the Hotel St Francis. Though initially reluctant, Rappe showed up alone around midday. Clearly her kind of scene, she messaged Maude and Al to come join her. Al declined, but the two ladies joined in the fun of Arbuckle’s pyjama party.
A good time was had by all – At least till the day took a turn for the worse.  

Much of what happened is disputed; was actually vigorously disputed in several courtrooms after the fact. The following will get a little icky, trigger warning – we are about to discuss rape.

let’s jump into this tale.  

Around 3pm, the party was in full swing in room 1221. With the weight of several gin orange blossoms weighing heavy on her bladder, Virginia went to use the bathroom. Maude was in there with one of the men from the party. She yelled at Virginia to go find somewhere else to relieve herself. Feeling like she might literally burst, Rappe crossed the hallway to Arbuckle’s room – room 1219. Roscoe Arbuckle got up and – whether intentionally or incidentally we don’t know – followed her over. Once in his room, he locked the bedroom door behind him.
From here the accounts diverge. 

Arbuckle and Rappe were alone together in the room for around 30 minutes, before Rappe screamed out in great pain. Her screams were loud and disturbed enough to bring the party guests in room 1221 – Maude included – running to investigate. Several witnesses would initially claim she screamed “I am dying, I am dying”. Arbuckle called out to Maude “Get her dressed, and take her back to The Palace. She makes too much noise!” 

Virginia’s clothes were half torn off of her when witnesses entered the room. She bore several bruises. All this, surprisingly, would later be open to interpretation. 

Roscoe’s side of the story was he’d gone back to his room to change out of his pyjamas. When he got there, he found Rappe passed out on his bathroom floor. He claims he helped her up and placed her on bed to get some rest. Arbuckle claimed all of a sudden Rappe came to. She began screaming, and tore her own clothes off in a mad frenzy. He then called for Maude. Arbuckle claimed he was only trying to be a good host, and when Virginia went mad, he didn’t know what to do. 

Virginia’s side, as you shall see, is much harder to parse.

Maude Delmont took Virginia to another room – where she fell into a deep sleep. Virginia awoke around midnight in unbearable pain. Maude called a doctor, who shot Virginia full of morphine, inserted a catheter, then left. The doctor was convinced there was nothing seriously wrong with her. A little rest would fix her up. Dissatisfied with the first doctor – Maude called on a second doctor, who misdiagnosed Virginia with alcohol poisoning. In the following days, Virginia only got worse. She was in constant, writhing agony – and not showing any sign of improvement. It took three days for anyone to take her to a hospital.

Admitted to Wakefield Sanitarium on 7th September; Virginia was diagnosed with peritonitis, caused by a ruptured bladder. By 9th September, her kidneys packed in and Virginia passed away. 

In the meantime, Roscoe Arbuckle jumped a boat headed back towards Los Angeles. Having well and truly trashed the hotel rooms at the St Francis, the pyjama party snuck away the following day. He never enquired about Virginia’s health, and only learned of her death when L.A. Times reporters showed up at his mansion asking questions about the long weekend. They were far from the only ones looking to speak with him.   

On September 11th San Francisco district attorney Matthew Brady sent police officers to Los Angeles to arrest Roscoe Arbuckle. From the offset he refused to comply with the investigators. Arbuckle was arrested and charged with Virginia’s rape and murder. 

Before the case even made it to a courtroom, the court of opinion weighed in on the case. Protests sprang up outside cinemas showing Crazy to Marry. A riot broke out at one show in Wyoming. A group of cowboys shot the screen full of holes once Arbuckle entered the scene. The press were also vicious towards Roscoe Arbuckle – William Randolph Hearst’s papers especially.

Hearst had his own selfish reasons to go after Arbuckle’s employers. He felt Paramount pictures were mismanaging the career of his mistress – the actress Marion Davies. Besides personal reasons to stick it to Paramount, Hearst knew well the maxim, if it bleeds it leads. He’d later claim 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 – preceded the trial; much was made of Arbuckle’s wild orgies and flagrant disregard for the alcohol ban. Tales emerged claiming Arbuckle sexually abused other actresses on Keystone film sets. Several Christian groups called for Arbuckle to be lynched before the trial even began. District Attorney Brady himself was calling for the death penalty for the actor.

As with Olive Thomas’ passing, the Arbuckle case shone a spotlight on Hollywood. As Rappe’s ex Henry Lehrman summed Arbuckle up as ‘a vulgarian from the gutter,’ and stories continued to emerge of Arbuckle and his friends behaving badly – people asked who else was having boozy getaways behind closed doors, and wild orgies? This was still in the prohibition era after all. Paramount head Adolph Zukor, hoping to avoid the opening of a pandora’s box, fired Arbuckle a fortnight later and washed his hands of him. 

While fair to say Roscoe Arbuckle certainly appears a churlish, uncaring vulgarian; was there any evidence he actually raped Virginia Rappe?

The short answer, there was much less evidence than you may think – and disturbingly – by the end of the trials any such evidence would become a moot point. A rumour persisted that doctors were paid to incinerate Rappe’s internal organs – destroying any evidence against Arbuckle. However this was untrue – Rappe’s body was put through two autopsies. Both revealed a small number of bruises on one arm and thigh, but no evidence of a sexual assault. Others asked if Arbuckle might have accidentally killed Rappe by putting his 265 Lb weight directly on her bladder. Again, there was no evidence of this.

But Arbuckle tore her clothes off right? The police almost didn’t have the evidence of this. While questioning the party guests, San Francisco police discovered Virginia’s friend, Al Semnacher, had the clothes in question in his possession. Semnacher claimed he took them as he was always looking for rags to clean his car with. Most writers presume he intended to extort Arbuckle, or Paramount studio with the rags – but the police investigation stymied his scheme.

The trial kicked off on November 18th 1921. Pre-trial hearings determined Arbuckle would face manslaughter charges, rather than murder. This was serious enough, so Arbuckle hired a dream team of top lawyers, much like OJ Simpson would decades later.

The trial was shambolic. In their investigation, the police spoke with a number of partygoers who freely admitted to hearing Virginia screaming in pain. A few witnesses even claimed to hear her say ‘he hurt me,’ in relation to Arbuckle and ‘I am dying.’ When these people were called to give evidence, many of them had come down with a case of amnesia.

Maude Delmont, arguably Virginia’s only friend at the party, was never called to testify. Maude had put away between eight and ten glasses of whiskey in a little over two hours, which brought the acuity of her evidence into question. She was also awaiting her own day in court, facing bigamy charges. The prosecution felt if this was revealed, all her credibility would have gone out the window immediately. Al Semnacher, however did give evidence. His evidence laid the framework for Hollywood Babylon’s Kenneth Anger’s claim Arbuckle had a ‘Bottle Party’ at Rappe’s expense. Semnacher testified Arbuckle bragged to him how, while Rappe was out cold on the bed, he put a sharp piece of ice in her – well he kind of did. Semnacher, it appears was far too embarrassed to say the word – ‘snatch’ out loud – so he wrote the word on a piece of paper.  

The prosecution also brought forth a security guard who worked at Keystone studios while Arbuckle was there. The guard claimed Arbuckle was constantly trying to sneak into the ladies’ changing rooms. They also made much of both Rappe and Arbuckle’s fingerprints on the door at the Hotel St Francis.
The defence called on a nurse from Wakefield Sanitarium, who testified Rappe told her she had consensual sex with Arbuckle. A second nurse claimed she admitted to having ‘internal troubles’ for six weeks beforehand. The defence claimed Virginia Rappe also had past form when it came to tearing her own clothes off at parties while intoxicated. Virginia Rappe, when autopsied was noted to have several bruises on her – what say the defence? They explained away the bruises on the heavy jewellery she wore that night. 

At the first trial, Arbuckle gave evidence. He found her on the bathroom floor, after having vomited into his toilet. The bruises? At one point she fell off the bed. Arbuckle being the gentleman he was, picked her up, placing her back on his bed to recover. 

After some deliberation, the jury found 10 – 2 in Arbuckle’s favour – which was recorded as a hung jury. 

But the tale didn’t end there. The case was retried in January 1922, with the jury unable to come to a unanimous decision. More witnesses forgot potentially damning evidence – it seemed a wave of amnesia had settled over Hollywood at this time. However, one apparently solid witness was brought in. He was another studio security guard, who claimed Arbuckle paid him a lot of money for a key to the ladies’ changing rooms. This was hardly the smoking gun you’d think it would be. The defence revealed this same man was awaiting his own day in court – for sexually assaulting an eight year old child. More witnesses were found who could testify to seeing a drunken Virginia Rappe tearing her own clothes off at parties.

The jury eventually 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. This trial mostly played like the first two – forgetful, and untrustworthy witnesses and all. This time there was one big difference. The defence dream team went all in, trying to prove Virginia Rappe was not a virtuous woman. The mores of that time – and sadly another celebrity trial in April 2022 suggests plenty of people still hold similar views if an accused abuser is sufficiently charismatic – all but stated a woman lacking in virtue could not be considered rape-able. Essentially, how could you damage someone already broken beyond repair? The defence played on her alleged bladder problems, claiming it was proof she was a loose woman. They claimed that by the age of 30, the allegedly promiscuous Rappe had gone through four abortions. 

In the prosecution’s favour the public were well and truly convinced Arbuckle was a creep by this time. His films were banned in a number of cinemas. Maude Delmont was travelling the country fronting a wildly successful public speaking tour. She spoke volubly on the evils of the Hollywood film industry. The media continued to pile in too. By the time the third trial came along, the public had read seven solid months worth of exposes on wild Hollywood orgies, the extramarital love lives of their stars, and of course – of a certain murder. 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, or what he may have done. It took them five minutes to find him, unanimously, not guilty. 

All the same, whether a just finding or not – it would not resuscitate Arbuckle’s career. In spite of a number of high profile supporters backing him, he never worked in front of the camera again. Arbuckle found a little work treading the boards in Vaudeville. He was eventually allowed back behind the camera – so long as his work was credited to a Will B. Goodrich. Prior to the trial he was long separated from his wife, Minta Durfee. The couple had never split both for religious and good PR reasons – but following the media uncovering Arbuckle’s every indiscretion – Minta saw no reason to stay, and divorced the comic. Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle seemed broken in his final years, and shuffled on till he died suddenly of a heart attack aged 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. 

Other cases would arise. In 1923 Wallace Reid, a popular romantic lead would die while being weened off morphine in a hospital. Reid had injured himself in a crash a few years earlier, and become addicted to the stuff. The 1926 death of Latin Lover Rudolph Valentino would be shrouded in controversy. An exceptionally pretty man well loved by female moviegoers, he was accused of causing the feminisation of the American male. Some mocked him with homophobic slurs, commented on his jewellery and alleged he wore make up in public. Valentino’s open challenges to several of these commentators to meet him in the boxing ring went unanswered. Following his passing, rumours spread he was a beard for his lesbian wife, and that he himself had been having an affair with fellow Latin lover Ramon Navarro. Navarro, it turns out was gay, and his outing just outside of the scope of this tale ended his career as an actor.
And none of this is mentioning the elaborate show Polish actress Pola Negri put on at Valentino’s funeral.

In 1922, Audrey Munson, a former model turned actress attempted to commit suicide – it should be pointed out after a former landlord killed his wife in 1919 so he could be with Munson – who was none the wiser of his intent. But she was bundled in with all the others. Then in 1926, the pioneering film producer Thomas Ince died in mysterious circumstances while on a boat with, among others, Charlie Chaplin, William Randolph Hearst and Hearst’s mistress Marion Davies. Decades later it would be claimed, wrongly I believe, he was accidentally shot when he got between Chaplin and Hearst – but at the time it was just another odd story in the press.

Then there was the baffling case of William Desmond Taylor. His story was the unravelling of Hollywood – and we’ll tackle it in a fortnight’s time, to bring this series to an end.


Railway War!

This week we’re riding the rails through Colorado. The date, February 26th 1878. 

Just before 7am, on a chilly winter day, two groups of men boarded a train from the bustling trading town of Pueblo headed for El Moro – a sleepy mining town near the New Mexico border. The men, both on urgent business, were all travelling for the same reason. Theirs was a small world where everyone at least knew of one another, though neither side had apparently met. Both knew what the other was planning – but apparently did their best to ignore other’s presence there. Soon they would be on opposite sides in a war and would know the other all too well. For now though the men took their seats in the carriage and, one presumes, concentrated on the task ahead.

That train, well one very like it anyway, was what all of this business was about. We’ll come back round to this scene. 

But first, as densely packed as this episode is, I needs must make a quick digression. From El Moro we briefly detour to a prison cell in Kommunarka, Russia, 17th September 1938. An academic named Nikolai Kondratiev has been sentenced to death, on the explicit orders of Stalin himself. In 1930 he’d fallen afoul of the authorities – who jailed him for eight years for his economic apostasy. While imprisoned he wrote five books on his theories. By days’ end Stalin will have him executed by firing squad. His dangerous idea that had so offended Uncle Joe? In a nutshell… 

Kondratiev believed capitalist economies, besides their smaller approximately six year long boom – bust waves, had longer, much bigger waves rolling along in the background. Every forty to sixty years an economy in recession from the previous long wave, would innovate by combining existing technologies in new and exciting ways. This technological innovation would create a new boom – and with it new ways of living, working and even thinking about the world. Often the start is a bit shaky, followed by a decades long trend of huge economic growth. Around halfway in, a jarring turning point occurs. From there we enter a decades long collapse which is often chaotic in nature. 

Ideas stagnate, hindered by the people who made a killing from the earlier innovations now deciding to play it safe with their money – principally by putting their money into the finance sector, where it is far less productive.

In a Kondratiev wave, this eventually leads to another big crash. My view, not Kondratiev’s but these decline periods often see the most insane behaviour from desperate entrepreneurs. This is followed by another burst of innovation which creates a boom, and new ways of living, working and thinking about the world. 

This concept riled up Stalin, who only liked economic theories that don’t claim capitalism mutated into new models. His world theory needed an end point where capitalism could no longer adapt – where the workers of the world would finally cast off their chains and take the means of production off the rich. 

The idea Nikolai Kondratiev died for received mixed reviews by economists. A number of well regarded economists took it up, but a greater number discarded it. One problem, you can broadly define these eras, but start and end dates can differ by several years depending on the theorist – It all seems a little fuzzy and unscientific. As a diagnostic tool economists could use to predict the future, Kondratiev waves are too sketchy for most.   

Looking backwards though, Kondratiev waves can occasionally be useful when trying to place a tale in it’s historical context – though all fairness to Mr Kondratiev, it does not explain why two  tycoons came down with a case of brain worms in the late 19th century.  

But anyway, for context – under most Kondratiev models, the first big wave kicks off in Britain some time between 1774 and 1790. The steam engine changed the world, but the factory was the star of the era.

Innovations in the steam engine allowed engines to be used to power a factory full of machines by one long drive shaft. Seven decades earlier, the first commercial steam engines drove pumps in coal mines, keeping mines safe from flooding. This was not just a repurposing of that old technology, a great deal of innovation had gone into to those engines. Steam powered factories led to cheaper production of goods, and more importantly, the development of tool making machinery – which itself drove further innovations. This all made use of other, earlier innovations such as Abraham Darby’s coking process which made the reliable production of iron an affordable alternative to brass. Iron goods could be churned out all day, so long as you had machine operators, and someone to keep the furnace topped up with coal. 

Boat canals appeared across the land to transport goods. This also changed the way we travelled, and how we thought of distance between towns. It changed the way we lived too. Large, industrial cities arose, while agricultural centres withered away. The poet Oliver Goldsmith bemoaned the disappearance of the labouring swain of his imagined Auburn village in his poem The Deserted Village – those folk hadn’t vanished – many of them now worked in dark, dingy factories. They lived in growing industrial centres. One innovation vastly changed how we lived our lives, and how we saw the world.   

In a break from Industrial Revolution models, which put their second wave decades later, the second Kondratiev wave kicked off around 1850 – 

It’s most valuable technology was being seriously developed in the 1820’s, but didn’t take centre stage till the middle of the century. What was this innovation? Someone took a steam engine, and made it drive an iron horse along iron rails. The locomotive would go on to change the world. We’re only really interested in the history of trains in the USA today so I’ll quickly mention the first train in the USA was named Tom Thumb, back in 1827. Tom Thumb had an underwhelming start – it raced against a horse and lost  – but the locomotive age did leave the station proper in 1850. 

Well, at least it did first along the Northern and east coast cities. Throughout the 1850s, several competing railroad barons laid 30,000 miles of track in the region. It was a messy, chaotic affair with many companies using their own track gauges – but adding this critical infrastructure kicked off an Industrial Revolution in the USA. Factories proliferated due to this infrastructure. 

As the century rolled on, Americans were told to go west to find their fortunes. There was huge opportunity in the supposedly uninhabited expanse presidents Thomas Jefferson bought from the French in 1803, and James Polk either bought off England, or mostly seized from Mexico in the mid 1840s. Of course there were already plenty of people on these lands, we’ll put a pin in that subject for now, and come back to some of those Native tribes at a later date. 

In the midst of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln launched the first of several Homestead Acts that gave people free land if they settled it and held onto it for five years. Gold strikes and other mineral windfalls like the California Gold Rush (1848-55) were pull factors that brought people in. Sometimes folk arrived due to push factors; like the thousands of Mennonites who fled Russian persecution in Russia and Ukraine in the late 1870s for the plains of Kansas. They brought a wheat seed with them, Turkey Red, which grew so successfully, Kansas soon produced 1/5 of all American wheat. In places like Wyoming, cattle barons made a killing – radically changing how Americans ate… but their ‘killings’ are another tale we’ll put a pin in for now. 

The railroads boomed post civil war, and played a major role in settling people out west, at least until it didn’t. Rail eventually connected the East and West coasts of America. A side note: the first attempt to do so, the Union Pacific Rail Road, was disastrous. Starting in 1862, the UPRR laid track in places that became inaccessible in winter. They conspicuously wasted a lot of money, and chose awful places for railroad towns along the way. Most of their picks became ghost towns within a couple of years of incorporating. Bringing this back to the Kondratiev wave – 1873 was the turning point of the second wave, and the Union Pacific played a big role.

The UPRR got caught paying off politicians. The scandal crashed the railroad, which took down a bank. The collapse of that one bank wiped out 40 more banks in turn. 5,000 businesses went broke in the wake of the Union Pacific crash. $250 million in 1873 dollars was wiped out almost overnight, leading to the Stock Market closing down for ten days in a row. Unemployment spiked at 14%. A quarter of the then 364 railway companies operating in the USA filed for bankruptcy. The Panic of 1873 was, to that date, the biggest economic downturn in American history. It would take the Great Depression of 1929 to overtake the Panic of 1873, which till then was dubbed The Great Depression. The ghost of the UPRR was resurrected by the diabolical figure of Railroad Baron Jay Gould. Waiting in the wings for his chance, he bought them out for a bargain basement price. 

I’d like to think The Panic was a lesson to the other railway barons on the importance of building railway towns that were worth a damn, in places where people wanted to live; and of not getting involved in questionable behaviour. We’re working our way towards the latter. Of the former, I should mention the railways were not just providers of infrastructure, they were one of the nations’ biggest groups of land developers. They bought land very cheaply – before the 1870s land was just given to them in ten mile square blocks. They built towns as they went, selling on properties for large profits. 

Which finally brings us to the men on a train to El Moro, Colorado. One party was a surveyor named Ray Morley, and A.A. Robinson, the chief engineer for the Atcheson Topeka and Santa Fe railroad. The other, the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad’s J.A. McMurtrie and his work crew.

The Rio Grande railway was the brainchild of General William Palmer – a Civil War hero who found peacetime work in the railroad industry. In 1871 he struck out on his own into the Colorado area – laying a smaller than average gauged, boutique track throughout the state. Palmer was not a terribly well-loved man, owing to having played hardball over which towns would and wouldn’t get trains following the Panic of 1873. This was keenly felt in Canyon City, who Palmer snubbed after they refused to pay him $1 million for a train line. Unlucky in love, General Palmer met and fell in love with the daughter of a Pennsylvanian politician named Mary Lincoln Mellon – known to friends as ‘Queenie.’ She accepted his marriage proposal just two weeks after they first met, but got cold feet and refused to move to some rustic frontier town. He built Queenie the town of Colorado Springs solely to woo her. Queenie married the General, and moved to Colorado Springs – but by all accounts, she hated it there. Their marriage slumped into lovelessness and infidelity. 

General Palmer was, in truth, married to his job – as an obsessive workaholic. This reflected in the culture of the Rio Grande.

The Santa Fe Railroad also started off as the pet project of a larger than life figure – in this case Cyrus Holliday, the first mayor of Topeka, Kansas. But over time, the Santa Fe became a faceless corporation, run by a board of investors in Boston. These board members were initially hands-on, but then the railroad developed the cattle town of Dodge. Dodge was most definitely not Colorado Springs, and soon devolved into the stereotypical Wild West town of western movies – full of saloons, gamblers, working girls and gun fights at high noon. The board decided they really didn’t want to know what was going on in Dodge, and handed all the day to day management over to a general manager. Plausible deniability seemed a good idea to the board. After several failed attempts to clean up Dodge, the town appointed Wild West legends Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson as deputies, calming Dodge down somewhat. 

Throughout the 1870s, a smart, decisive company man – though hardly a larger than life show pony – rose through the ranks of the Santa Fe. The board’s manager on the spot, and soon to be General Palmer’s nemesis was William Barstow Strong. The two men met for the first time in 1877, where Strong offered a decent sum of money to lease the Rio Grande off Palmer – making a lifelong enemy in the process. Strong may as well have asked to rent Queenie while he was at it, as far as Palmer was concerned. 

Though not much is documented about Strong’s personal life anyway – it seems reasonable to leave him simply a big cog in a bigger, faceless machine? 

Both companies had long term plans to push beyond the boundaries of the state – they even hoped to reach the West Coast one day; but both companies were badly hurt by the Panic of 1873. Their plan in the short term appeared to be to work on smaller projects. But, would it really hurt to send someone to look at a path into New Mexico, for future development? 

When it came to plotting out a trans-continental path via the Southwest there was really only one suitable path – to follow the old, treacherous Santa Fe trail, then cross the Raton Pass into New Mexico. This was a difficult path, with a hefty price tag to develop. In the early 1870s General Palmer sent an employee named William Bell out and about with a camera, including out to the Raton pass. At the time he had the area scoped out, and noted a possible route through. This was then put aside for other projects. In 1877 William Barstow Strong sent out Ray Morley, disguised as a Mexican shepherd to survey the pass. Morley did his best to stay incognito, although he got caught out by the owner of the pass, a man named ‘Uncle Dick’ Wooten. Morley and Wooten became friends – Wooten agreeing to sell Morley’s employers the land if they made an offer. Though Morley had been low key, word got out Strong was preparing to make for the pass. Palmer reacted by preparing to send McMurtrie out with a work crew. Neither faction could really afford to take this project on – but both felt they could not afford to miss out on the opportunity to the other. The two companies sent out spies to intercept the others’ messages, and determined to spring into action the moment it looked certain the other would do. So they piled onto a train to El Moro on a cold, snowy February morning. 

Now I should state the Raton Pass incident is only the prelude to our main event – but it does set the scene, and the pace. 

The train pulled up at El Moro in the dark, and the parties disembarked. McMurtrie looked at Morley, and judged the Santa Fe had no work crew – so figured he was free to get a good night’s sleep at the hotel. Little did he know A.A. Robinson had put together a crew from Trinidad, Colorado – another town with an axe to grind over General Palmer’s business practices. Morley, Robinson and the Trinidad crew took a carriage full of tools up to Uncle Dick Wooten’s house. It was after 10pm when they arrived, but Uncle Dick welcomed his friends in. Wooten was allegedly offered $50,000 for the pass, but bargained himself down to $25 a month for groceries until he, then his wife and finally his daughter passed on – and lifetime passes for the family, giving them unlimited travel on Santa Fe trains. Uncle Dick didn’t need the money.  

This stipend would increase over the years, and was up to $75 a month when his daughter passed on in 1930. 

Uncle Dick unearthed the first sod of ground at 2am, 27th February 1878, and the crew got to work laying track in all the key places, working by lamp light. 

In the morning a furious McMurtrie discovered they had been beaten to the punch. He wired the General, who told him to keep the crew there for now. Palmer had McMurtrie searching round for another, overlooked South-western pass, all to no avail, until April. It was then that another opportunity arose, and things went truly off the rails.

If one had ambitions to build a railroad track from Colorado out to the West coast, you could head Southwest to the Raton pass – or you could go west through an area called the California Gulch. This direction made a lot of sense in the 1860s – gold was found in Pueblo in 1859, causing a stampede of 10,000 prospectors to the area. In the following decade $2.5 million, around $100 million today, was extracted from the surrounding area. The area got picked clean of gold within a few years, and most of the prospectors left. A few hardy souls did stay on, with a new plan. Some believed large deposits of silver were out there. Unlike gold, silver usually lurks in dull grey veins below ground, never by itself, but alloyed to base metals. First, you need to dig it out, have someone examine the specimen for silver content –  then send that alloy to a smelter to extract the silver from the rest of the junk. In spite of silver being far more common than gold, it was also far more labour intensive to work.   

Silver had also fallen out of favour in past decades – the USA had a silver standard from the 1780s, based around the Spanish silver dollar – but it became neglected in the 1860s. Silver was then de-monetised during the Panic of 1873. In 1878, with money people looking for more ways to invest their cash in finance – (remember we’re now on the downward slope of the Kondratiev wave, where people do things like this) – the silver standard made a comeback via the Bland-Allison Act of February 1878. 

This was the perfect time for a couple of dirt-poor prospectors to roll up to the general store in Leadville, Colorado. The legend has it these two men were looking for provisions and tools, and in lieu of actual money, promised the proprietor a third of whatever they found with those tools. The proprietor, one Horace Tabor not only took their offer, but threw in a bottle of whisky as well. 

The story goes these two prospectors drank as they walked into the wild, and when they became fall-down drunk, they … fell down drunk – and slept where they lay. The next morning, figuring this was as good a spot as any to start, they dug a hole – and a few feet down struck the biggest silver reserve in the USA to that date. They honoured their promise to Horace ‘Haw’ Tabor, who invested his windfall in other sites, soon becoming one of America’s richest men. Their discovery kicked off a silver rush, which saw the former ghost town population balloon enough for politicians to debate moving the state capital to Leadville. In the future Mayor Tabor would even build an impressive opera house in Leadville.

This was great news for General Palmer. Not only could he make a killing transporting all that alloy to the smelters – he knew there would be a rush of people relocating to Leadville. He stood to make a killing if he could extend his lines from Canyon City out to the mining town. They would have to build through a narrow pass through the high cliffs of the Royal Gorge, but the company plotted this out in 1872. The gorge gets so narrow at times only one track would be possible, and like the Raton pass it is the only way through – but the effort would be well worth it. He presumed Strong would be caught up in the Raton pass for some time – but all the same he quietly gave the orders to prepare for the California Gulch – and entered into confidential talks with the St Louis smelter about getting them connected to his network. 

The spy vs spy activity kicked off again. Both sides sent encrypted telegraphs to their backers, and did their best to intercept the other’s messages. 

On April 19th, Santa Fe chief engineer A.A. Robinson noticed J.A. McMurtrie and his crew – formerly skulking round El Moro since they lost the pass, were nowhere to be seen. He soon discovered they were packing up and waiting for a train to Canyon City, via Pueblo. William Barstow Strong ordered Robinson to do the same – but Palmer’s men refused to sell him a ticket. Strong contacted Ray Morley, then out of town on other business, to get out to Canyon City as soon as he can. Morley booked a private train to Pueblo, waiting for Palmer’s men stationed at the telegraph office to go out for lunch first. He got his train to Pueblo, where, unbeknownst to the enemy, he had a horse stabled. Some time back he’d bought a stallion named King William, cheaply from an English expatriate living in Colorado Springs. Morley galloped into the dark towards Canyon City. 

In the meantime McMurtrie and his gang were on the train, first to Pueblo, then after a changeover  on to Canyon City. On the way he discovered Morley was headed their way – and resolved this time not to rest. As soon as the men reached Canyon City they made for the Royal Pass – only to find Morley beat them to it again. He’d arrived on horseback, then rushed out to hire a work crew. As with the people of Trinidad, all he had to do was mention General Palmer’s name and volunteers lined up to stick it to the general. Morley’s crew had a half hour head start – but at this point there was enough room in the gorge to lay two tracks near one another. This time McMurtrie ordered his crew to start laying tracks alongside the Santa Fe. For now, the two sides slogged along less than a gunshot distant from one another.

The Royal Gorge war began in the law courts. General Palmer filed an injunction, claiming he’d laid claim to the Royal Gorge in 1872. Strong’s lawyers were prepared and countered Palmer never filed a proposed route with the land office, so the claims should go with them; having broke ground first. In the interim the judge ordered the Rio Grande to stop work immediately. J.A. McMurtrie ignored the order and was arrested. His arrest led to a fist fight between the Santa Fe and Rio Grande crews. Tensions escalated with Palmer’s crew cutting Strong’s telegraph lines -and vice versa. The management took to buying the opponent’s workers off them for exorbitant salaries. This all made for an awkward work atmosphere by day – as the two crews continued to build alongside one another. By night the two camps posted armed guards. The guard posts were close enough the guards regularly dared the other side to go on and take a shot. 

As everyone waited on the courts, General Palmer sent a gang up into the cliff tops several hundred feet above the lines. The men built a fort, and threw rocks down at the Santa Fe rails below, causing a landslide. Strong reciprocated, sending Morley up the other side with a gang. They built their own fort, and threw their own rocks at the Rio Grande tracks. Men in forts fired upon men in other forts and waited for things to escalate. 

When the courts came back with a decision, nobody was happy. Both companies were allowed to build their own line. When the gorge reached pinch points where only one line was possible – a gauge which accommodated both companies’ trains had to be used. General Palmer was apoplectic, and lodged an appeal. In the meantime, the state militia was sent in to keep the peace, and the gangs in the forts were ordered out. 

The ugliness continued. The Royal Gorge made up only twenty miles of the journey to Leadville. Once clear of the gorge, the advantage would be Palmer’s. The tracks to Canyon City were Rio Grande tracks, and he could slow the Santa Fe by refusing their cargo on his trains. This caused Strong to go to his backers for more money. He then threatened to build lines alongside every last mile of Rio Grande line. This would cost a fortune, but would have put an end to the Rio Grande. The Santa Fe had bigger trains running on regular sized tracks – so could carry more cargo. Their carriages were more spacious. Both men chased up more money from their backers. Some of that money went into hiring gunslingers for ‘security.’ 

At the time, a war wouldn’t seem altogether unreasonable to either Palmer or Strong. Across the border in Lincoln County, New Mexico, a war broke out between two business factions in July 1878. An Englishman named John Tunstall arrived from Santa Fe and opened a dry goods store in 1876. He threatened to break the monopoly of the Irish, Catholic businessmen then running the county. Tunstall’s 1878 murder kicked off a war that eventually led to the deaths of 23 men, and left dozens seriously injured – including legendary outlaw Billy the Kid. The Lincoln County War was too wild for the lawmen to rein in, and only ended when the army were deployed in 1881. Palmer and Strong knew they could ramp up to a couple of hundred men a side if needed, and if they did so no local sheriff or court could stop them.  

In the meantime the crews built onwards towards Leadville. General Palmer waited for his appeal to reach the Supreme Court. 

By October everyone was still tense. The Santa Fe, by far the wealthier corporation, stayed the course. General Palmer, on the other hand, was nearly broke. His share price had taken a tumble, and financial backers were now demanding he put an end to the feud. William Barstow Strong complicated matters by sending a message to the Rio Grande, offering again to lease the company off them for a thirty year term. Palmer fought the offer, but investors insisted the Rio Grande be leased to the Santa Fe. A figure was agreed upon. General Palmer insisted Strong pay the lease monthly. Strong agreed. Palmer also insisted the Rio Grande keep building towards Leadville. Once the lease ran out, he expected the Rio Grande would take those lines back. Strong agreed to let the Rio Grande continue – but no way would they keep the line to Leadville. 

Panicked, and looking to buy more time, Palmer rushed to Boston in November. He demanded a cash bond of $150,000 to cover any future damage to Rio Grande equipment. This was reluctantly agreed to, but the Santa Fe board told Palmer they would pay half now – the other half when he handed the keys over. Palmer continued to find ways to drag his feet – but this only tanked the stock price further. The investors had enough and demanded Palmer hand the keys over on December 1st 1878. He did so only at the stroke of midnight on December 14th. 

But General Palmer was not done yet. He refused to cash the Santa Fe’s monthly cheques. Palmer would claim the Santa Fe defaulted on their payments. He planned to tear the lease up and repossess the business. Strong responded by putting ticket prices up on all Rio Grande trains. Where the two had co-existing services, this drove business to the Santa Fe trains. Where the Santa Fe didn’t, in towns like El Moro – locals packed up and left in droves. This turned a number of settlements into ghost towns. Colorado newspapers, everywhere but in Canyon City, turned against the Santa Fe. Reporters branded them greedy and heartless. Many of the people of Colorado started to remember General Palmer fondly, and wished he could take his railway back off the Santa Fe. 

Meanwhile, dozens of men of violence loitered, waiting for orders. They drank, got ornery and continued to make locals nervous. Both lines continued towards Leadville.

The supreme court finding loomed, but General Palmer was at the end of his tether. He continued to discard the Santa Fe cheques, and sent his men out to hire an army of gunslingers to repossess his railway. Strong reciprocated by adding to his own army. A fortune was spent by both sides on hundreds of men, guns, and an armoury full of ammunition. Thuggish men like Bat Masterson and Doc Holliday awaited orders at several key locations. Tensions rose and a handful of gunfights broke out between the armies. Then on April 21st 1879, the Supreme Court announced their decision. They sided with the Rio Grande over ownership of the Royal Gorge line. But did this actually meant anything, given the Rio Grande was under Santa Fe control? The Supreme Court gave no opinion on that. In May the armies prepared for war. Strong went to the county clerk to call in the state militia, only to find the Rio Grande had kidnapped him. Again, the telegraph lines came down, cutting off communication with the outside world. On June 11th, General Palmer sent his army to repossess his property.

Palmer’s army closed in on all their stations. Strong’s men fought back, opening fire on the invaders – but as a rule, as soon as they were served legal papers to cease and desist – they laid down their guns and left. After several ugly stand offs, papers were eventually delivered to besieged Santa Fe gunmen.

In Pueblo things looked set to get really nasty – both armies had close to 100 men a side. The Santa Fe army, led by Bat Masterson, were holed up in a roundhouse used to move trains around. The armies exchanged gunfire with one another. Eventually J.A. McMurtrie’s men forced the door open, and men flooded in to take the roundhouse. Papers were served. 

And this is where I have to throw a Deus ex-machina into the mix – or should that be a diabolus ex-machina? A demon on a wire? The constant fighting left the Rio Grande drained of funding. William Barstow Strong still held a lease for their property, and would eventually send in his own people to repossess them back again. Not a lot of business is going on with the Rio Grande when their stations are packed with armed men looking for a fight. To pre-empt Strong, Palmer put the Rio Grande into receivership. He had a friend lined up to be the receiver – but the courts insisted on their own receiver who would refuse to be Palmer’s puppet. 

General William Palmer finally managed to tank his own railway. The Santa Fe looked on – as the diabolical figure of Jay Gould swooped in to pick over the carcass. 

Jay Gould was the King of the American Railway. In a world of larger than life figures, Gould was quiet and unassuming – but due to his terrifying ruthlessness – a formidable figure. He’d been watching the proceedings and decided the best tactic was to buy out Rio Grande shares once they hit rock bottom. With a controlling stake he called Palmer and Strong to his office to lay down the law. 

The Robber Baron’s terms were as follows. Both companies were to cease litigation immediately. The Santa Fe would hand all the Rio Grande’s tracks and equipment back to them free of charge. If they didn’t, Gould would reach into his considerably deeper pockets and build his own lines alongside Santa Fe lines. He would then run those rails as cheaply as was needed to put them out of business. The Rio Grande would get the line through the Royal Gorge, but have to pay the Santa Fe $1.4 million for their trouble. From here on in the Rio Grande would only build north of Pueblo, the Santa Fe south of Pueblo. Neither tycoon had a choice but to accept Gould’s terms of surrender. 

As a coda, somewhere in Leadville, in amongst the hired thugs awaiting orders – is a young man with a singular skill set. He’d come to Leadville with high hopes of finding silver, but ended up moving a lot of dirt around. When the tycoons sent men out to find gunslingers, he happily volunteered – as a skilled sharpshooter – what we’d now call a sniper. I’ve got a few Wild West tales to share over the following year – the next chapter will be much later in the year. This man will intersect with all of them. As a gun for hire he’ll murder dozens of men, before he faces his moment of truth …. But we’ve got a lot of ground to cover before we tell his tale. 

Mussolini’s Hat, and the rise of the Mob (Revisited)

Mussolini’s Hat – How the Mob Came to America Tales of History and Imagination

Hi all, we’ve got a little unfinished business from last fortnight’s episode, so I’m revisiting this older episode, and giving it a serious rewrite. Last fortnight we discussed the Black Hand organisations that pre-dated the Mafia. This time let’s look at how the Mob we’ve all come to know through the gangster films arrived in America.

But first, I do need to spend a couple of minutes on headwear.

There’s a popular myth that states the 35th President of the United States, John F Kennedy killed the hat.
Setting aside resurgences in hat wearing in recent years – and no we’re not talking about the Orange guy today … there is a kernel of truth to this. A quick glimpse of his inauguration, Jan 20th 1961, it’s noticeable Kennedy, Vice President Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon were all bareheaded- surrounded by a sea of top hats. People commented this was how the new guard rolled, and many men followed suit. Milliners complained this was the death knell of their profession, and hat shops did close across the nation.

But this was only part of the wider picture. Like that gross, Orange guy; Kennedy, Nixon and Johnson going hatless was more a symptom than a cause of change.

As early as 1923, newspaper articles reported a growing dislike of hat wearing among the young. World War Two also had a measurable impact on hat wearing. In one postwar survey by The Hat Research Foundation which asked the hatless why they no longer wore a hat – one in five respondents claimed some bullying officer yelling at them for not wearing their hat during wartime was the main factor. As civilians no-one was ordering them to wear a hat. 

Also, less people worked outdoors, so needed a hat less. Popular culture was full of singers with quiffed hair, all ducktails and pompadours. As the black power movement came to prominence, so too came the Afro; and then there were those four British kids with their mop tops who took the world by storm on February 9th, 1964.

There were, of course a slew of other reasons why hats became less popular. Car culture taking off in a big way post World War Two cut down exposure to the elements when going out to work, shop or play. Similarly, improvements in air conditioning in offices and other large buildings saw a decline in hat, scarf and glove use.

Finally I should mention hats are less of a cultural marker now. Pre-war, high powered moguls wore top hats, working men wore flat caps – this was a kind of uniform. With all the other factors in play, this element of hat wearing got lost a bit – other markers of social capital taking it’s place. In this day and age, I struggle to think of too many of our most wealthy and powerful wearing hats – well there is that Orange guy we won’t mention today and his signature red trucker caps… But again he is not the hat-wearing fascist we are talking about today.

But it is fair to say, once upon a time hats were taken far more seriously. Mess with a man’s hat and he may just throw down over it.

Take, for example, Lee Shelton. Shelton was a gambler, a gangster and a pimp whose sartorial eloquence was a sight to behold. On Christmas Day 1895, Shelton sauntered into St Louis’ Bill Curtis Saloon adorned in a black dress coat, a high collared yellow shirt beneath a red velvet waistcoat. He wore gray, striped slacks, pointy toed shoes, and jewellery aplenty. A cane with a glistening gold cap, and, most importantly, a white Stetson hat.
In the saloon that night, his rival – Billy Lyons. The two men put rivalries aside, and had a few drinks, till talk of politics got the better of them. First Shelton grabbed Lyons’ hat, caving it in, then Lyons grabbed Shelton’s Stetson. Lyons drew a knife, Shelton a gun.
Lyons’ murder by that bad man Stagger Lee became the stuff of legend – giving life to dozens of songs, prison toasts, poetry – and even a breed of badass movie anti-hero (think Youngblood Priest on Superfly, Richard Shaft or Jules in Pulp Fiction.)
However you feel about Stagger Lee, everyone understands you don’t mess with a man’s hat.

Then there was the great straw hat riot of 1922.

In 19th Century big city America it was understood, though rarely discussed – the straw boater hats that were wildly popular among young men at sporting events should never be seen in the big city. This unwritten law was relaxed at the turn of the twentieth century, but only for summer. New York’s stockbrokers, stevedores, and sanitarians? Could wear their boater hats until felt hat day, September 15th. After this, you needed to leave the straw hat at home. If you were seen wearing a straw hat, you risked it being knocked from your head and stamped flat in front of you.

This tradition got out of hand September 13th 1922, when a gang of youths got started two days early, in Lower Manhattan among the working class folk. This escalated into a series of running battles over several days. Reports were made of at least one gang with a pole with a nail on it to skewer any straw hats they saw. Several young gangsters were arrested, one victim lost an eye, and one presiding judge – suitably named Peter Hatting – made the call one has the right to wear a straw hat any damn time they like – even in January if they wished.

All of this is to say I’m working towards a tale of a massive overreaction with global, long lasting ramifications – which, strangely may have seemed a little less so to your average Joe on the street at the time.

Last fortnight we mentioned how the Island of Sicily was just the kind of place which breeds cells of local partisans with a deep distrust of authority. This was due to a merry-go-round of oppressive conquerors. The island was perfect for agriculture, was strategically important, and a beautiful place to live. From Roman times onwards a large number of mostly North African Berber slaves were brought in, setting the pace for all those working the land. I won’t rehash it all, if you haven’t yet please check out The Black Hand first. Hannibal in Bithynia and the blog post The Bagradas Dragon also fill in a lot of background on Sicily. I did particularly zero in on the reign of Charles I of Anjou – also king of Naples. In 1282, one of his soldiers raped and murdered a Sicilian woman, leading to a large number of cells of Sicilians rising up against the French, killing 4,000 of them, and expelling them from the land.

This was the first indication to the world at large there was anything like a Mafia in Sicily. These ‘Sicilian Vespers’ who may or may not have coined the phrase mafia there and then – were a collection of like-minded locals who banded together to oppose cruel behaviour and disrespect from the colonizers. From everything I’ve read I understand these groups to be more like a series of mutual aid societies than an army of criminal geniuses. Nor were they terribly interested in self determination at the time. The Norman rulers that preceded Charles, had done well for the nation, so were invited back.

These groups well preceded the War of the Sicilian Vespers, and continued well beyond that. They joined up with Giuseppe Garibaldi’s red shirts – an army 1,000 strong – when they landed in Sicily in 1860. 2,000 mafiosi fought alongside the red shirts, expelling the Bourbons. The Mafia were instrumental in the establishment of an Italian nation. By now this was the name these groups went by. They were families, run by capos. A popular play in Italy in 1863, ‘I Mafiusi de la Vicaria‘ introduced the phrases mafia and mafiosi to the common lexis of the rest of us. 

I also mentioned the power vacuum that arose in the 1870s onwards, and how this increase in violent crime, particularly of violent robberies by highwaymen, was our first indication the Mafia had turned to crime. Playing on both sides of the law, they became criminal and enforcer. A number of Capo also became extremely rich and powerful in this climate. These were generally not the guys fleeing to America – life was too good where they were.

Now, a small handful of bona fide Mafiosi did leave for America. Last episode we mentioned Giuseppe ‘The Clutch Hand’ Morello – the nephew of the Don of Corleone Sicily. He was charged with killing a man, so at some time between 1892 and 1894, he fled for the USA. His tale is worth a closer look some time, but suffice to say he set up a number of rackets in New York which would seem familiar to us now. His ruthlessness – He personally ordered more than 30 men stabbed to death, stripped naked then crammed into barrels – was excessive by Black Hand standards. Morello, later in his life, bought a pig farm – I’m sure everyone can imagine what happened there – and saw his family morph into the first of New York’s Five Families – The Gambino Family.

But back home you had the likes of Francesco Cuccia. Cuccia used his power and influence to become both mayor of the town of Piana dei Greci, and a mafia Kingpin, by the 1920s.

Unfortunately for Don Francesco, 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 ran the nation immediately following the disastrous reign of Emperor Maximilian. Benito was a staunch socialist himself, a renowned journalist and a 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. God was dead, which to Benito meant he was free to put his moral compass in a draw somewhere and do whatever the hell he felt like – so long as it furthered the cause.
The more he stared into the abyss, the more Mussolini became convinced liberalism and individualism had lead Italy down the wrong path. He dreamt of moulding Italy into a new society, based on an imagined Ancient Rome no less syllogistic than that Orange guy’s imaginary 1950s America.
Order, discipline and hierarchy were the words of the day. Extreme corporatism was essential – his belief the modern day plebeian needed to give their all, unquestioningly to their job was much admired by many American one percenters and British aristocrats at the time.
Ignoring anything beautiful about Italy’s past – Mussolini aspired to do one better than the poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, briefly Duce of the regency of Carnaro – a proto- fascist state which existed in Fiume, Dalmatia in 1920. Like his hero and role model, he saw Italy as an expansionist power, out to regain lands it once ruled over. Mussolini was also a deplorable, racist man, and though less specifically anti-Semitic than Hitler – his treatment of ethnic minorities set a standard for the early Nazis.

As any fascist, Mussolini’s phrase, Benito believed in extreme, unquestioning nationalism (so long as he was the guy in charge,) and in isolating and punishing any and all dissenters, all talk of equity, or any diversity. He insisted a woman’s place was in the kitchen, and the LGBTQI+ community’s place was on prison islands like San Domino, Lampedusa and Ustica. The arrest and forced relocation of gay and trans people was horrific, but in another way empowering for some people on these islands, as Mussolini unwittingly created spaces where you were free to be your authentic self, free of the shackles hetero-normativity (the prison guards aside) but that is a whole other story.

In short, the man stared too long into the abyss, and when the abyss stared back it saw an amoral ghoul with an insatiable Will to power.

Unfortunately for the world, his words found an audience, in the dissatisfied World War One veterans who coalesced round him as his ‘black shirts’. Many of these Black Shirts had fought in the Arditi, Italy’s elite troops, in World War 1 – and wore a distinctive fez hat we’ll all come to know, thanks to another man.

With a ludicrous promise to resurrect the Roman Empire – to make Italy Great again – Mussolini and 30,000 Black Shirt thugs marched on Rome in October 1922 – and demanded the government resign immediately and appoint him leader. Terrified, they did so.

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. With a two thirds ‘majority’ he was free to do whatever he wished. As an unimpeachable faux super-majority we went about enacting his cruel policies – but first – like another bloviating orange demagogue, he planned a series of public rallies throughout the nation. 

In May 1924 Benito Mussolini arrived in Piana dei Greci, with a large security detail in tow. 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 – how impudent to think a Mafioso could offer him protection. Cuccia, similarly felt insulted that Mussolini refused to dismiss his large police escort. The two men parted ways – each man plotting revenge for the perceived sleight. Cuccia was the first to up the ante, ordering all but a handful of villagers to stay away from the Piazza during Mussolini’s speech that day. Il Duce preached his gospel of hate to a group described as around 20 ‘village idiots.’ The large public square was otherwise deserted. This PR disaster might have been swept under the rug, were it not for another incident a few days’ later. 

Picture if you will another piazza, this time it is full of inquisitive villagers. There is a carnivalesque atmosphere, that buzz in the air you get when large groups gather for an event. Many of those people are dissatisfied with their lot in life – and probably not unlike the crazies echo show up to the other guy’s rallies… though I doubt Mussolini has a fedora wearing financial services manager whom the crowd are convinced is John F Kennedy Junior reborn.
But this place is the fertile ground Mussolini needs to plough if he hopes to declare himself dictator outright.
Picture if you will, Mussolini – the self styled strongman – in full regalia. On his head that trademark black fez- worn by the elite Arditi shock troops who follow him, and underpin his tough guy cred.

There’s a hushed silence, all eyes on Il Duce. Any moment now the tough guy is going to feed their rage and indignation. He will also give them answers – for they are the greatest people brought low by minorities, people who believe in kindness, and those who believe in rule for the people, by the people…

Il Duce clears his throat….. Just as some fleet-footed mafiosi skips past his wall of cops, hot foots it onto the podium, and swipes Mussolini’s hat from atop his head. 

In that moment the strongman is laid bare; left bare headed in front of the large crowd. His police escort are dumbstruck, as the mobster bolted out of the town square. I imagine a gasp of horror from the crowd, and whether some burst into peals of laughter – it was sufficient this ridiculous man felt impotent, stripped of his plumage. We’ve all seen something like this in our time, right? In 2019, if protesters had come out swinging at the racist British demagogue Tommy Robinson, bloodying his nose, it would have made him a man of action. Douse him in milkshake two days in a row, it just makes him look ridiculous. When racist Australian senator Fraser Anning showed up at a press conference to blame the Christchurch terror attacks on the Muslims who were murdered, a young man named Will Connolly took the wind out of his sails by pelting the senator with an egg. Needless to say, 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 by the murder of several prominent socialists, made the eradication of the Mafia a top priority. He gave a local thug and police officer named Cesare Mori the power to do whatever necessary to destroy the mob. 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. They couldn’t go outside without being harassed for some crime, alleged or otherwise. 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 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’. 

Picking up on last fortnight’s Tale – Don Vito Cascio Ferro, the suspected mastermind behind the murder of New York police officer Joseph Petrosino, was charged with an historic murder in June 1930. He got a trial, with an iron cage, as Iron Prefect Mori wanted to make an example of him. On the 69th charge to be laid against him in his lifetime, he was finally found guilty of something and sentenced to life imprisonment. The only words he uttered in his defence were “Gentlemen, as you have been unable to obtain proof of any of the numerous crimes I have committed, you have been reduced to condemning me for the only one I never committed.”

While in jail, he shared with others the only man he killed by his own hand was Joseph Petrosino – though he was one of a number of people who have done so over the years, and as such not taken seriously as the trigger man. His ultimate fate is murky, but there is a possibility he died of dehydration after the prison was cleared of everyone but him, in preparation for the Allied invasion of Sicily in 1943.

Mussolini’s purge did not bode well across the Atlantic. The USA were well on their way to contain the ‘Black Hand’ organisations who had been operating since the 1890s. The Provenzano’s of New Orleans, and the Morello’s of New York were still a problem – and it turn out, a sign of things to come. The Mafia did very well for themselves in the wake of the power vacuum left by the liberation of Sicily. By fleeing to a land with a similar power vacuum in it’s crime networks, they’d become bigger than U.S Steel by the 1960s.

The USA had tightened it’s borders via the National Origins act of 1924, and must’ve felt pretty sure Petrosino’s lists would protect them from any mobsters arriving at Paris Island – but gangsters snuck in regardless – mostly via the ferries which ran day-trippers back and forth from Cuba. 

To add to this, the USA gave the mob with the perfect pathway to massive growth and prosperity. 

On January 16th 1919, partially of the belief that such a law would help reduce poverty; and largely through the rallying of religious institutions, American politicians ratified the 18th Amendment. This banned 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 the 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 sending hard working civilians blackmail letters. 

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 a number of ‘Young Turks’, many refugees from Mussolini’s wrath, free to organise the Five Families we all know today when we think of the mob. 

The Black Hand

Hi everyone, today I thought we’d go to the opera. What you can hear in the background is Enrico Caruso’s Una Furtiva Lagrima – from Gaetano Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore. (Readers, if you’re adverse to hitting the play button on my podcasts, that’s okay… you can play the track here on YouTube.)

Let me pause myself a second so you can hear Caruso sing a little.

The first thing we should note – this was recorded in 1904. It sounds like a guy hollering into a horn to cut a groove into a wax disc, cause this is how records were made then. The first microphones didn’t appear till 1920 – and wouldn’t completely replace hollering into a horn till 1925. The second thing, to my ear at least – is that this Caruso kid could really sing. Signed up to the Gramophone company in 1904, Enrico Caruso became the first superstar of the recording age, and the first recording artist to make a million dollars. This was a far cry from his humble beginnings.    

Born 25th February 1873, in Naples Italy – Caruso grew up in a poor, though not terribly impoverished family. His early years as an artist were hard. There’s a promotional photo of Caruso wearing a sheet like a toga – not for Verdi’s Aida. His only shirt was at the laundromat being cleaned. In the 1890s Caruso took whatever gigs he could, till his big break came with a role in La Boheme at Milan’s La Scala. 

Caruso first played New York’s Metropolitan Opera House in 1903. He became a regular there for most of the rest of his life. Though he bought a fancy villa in Italy, he spent much of the rest of his life living out of an apartment at New York’s Knickerbocker Hotel.

On November 16th, 1906, Enrico Caruso got into a difficult situation while at the Central Park Zoo’s monkey house. It was alleged a lady was minding her own business when pinched on the bum. The situation escalated quickly. She protested she had been assaulted – Caruso, just a frantic, protested his innocence. The police arrived, arresting the opera singer. 

Thoroughly embarrassed, a tearful Caruso was bailed the following day.

The police officers would likely have judged him simply as an Italian – an ethnic group White America had yet to bestow whiteness upon. Though a number of Italians had settled in America, prospered and distinguished themselves, far too many white Americans were apt to treat Italian immigrants as a criminal class. Caruso was charged, his case going to trial.

The trial was an absolute mess. First, the victim – an alleged Mrs Hannah Graham of 1756 Bathgate Avenue, the Bronx – refused to testify. What’s more she’d lied to the police about her name and address. The trial continued, regardless. 

The police stated Caruso was a serial sex pest, bringing forth two more women – one who remained veiled and anonymous throughout. Both women claimed to have been been sexually assaulted by the singer. 

The judge noted the witnesses, and police testimony were unreliable; but also stated he was compelled by law to find Caruso guilty. He was charged a $10 fine, then released. More than a century before the Me Too movement this amounted to an embarrassing incident for Caruso – though it did no significant harm to the singer’s career. 

I can’t say with any authority if Enrico Caruso enjoyed pinching womens’ bottoms or not. Nor can I say if his arrest provided the impetus for what followed – His arrest may have had nothing to do with it –  but Enrico Caruso received a terrifying letter soon after. 

The writer knew things Caruso might want to keep secret. It would cost him $2,000 to keep them quiet. Caruso paid. Days later a letter arrived demanding $5,000. The blackmailers threatened to hurt him if he didn’t pay. They would force him to drink undiluted lye water, which would burn his oesophageal tract and end his singing career. On the letter, random pictures which may have included daggers, skulls and their trademark – a black hand. Caruso was willing to pay at first, but a detective convinced him that if he paid, the blackmailers would keep coming back. 

The detective set a trap for the blackmailers – he’d impersonate Caruso and meet with the thugs himself. Two men, Antonio Misiano and Antonio Cincotto, arrived expecting a payday. Instead they copped a vicious beating from the detective. 

All the men involved in this plot, the singer, the cop and the standover men had one thing in common – all were Italian immigrants who had arrived in, or just before a wave of four million Italians coming to America. In 2021’s Mussolini’s Hat I discussed how the history of Sicily created an environment the Mafia could thrive in – and how one young mafiosi embarrassing Benito Mussolini in public led to a purge which set the scene for the Castellammarese War, and the American Mafia we all know. This week we’re going back to just before the Castellammarese War to view the mob from another angle. 

First, let’s recap some of that episode.

For thousands of years, Sicily was a place where a deep distrust of authority was advisable. It is a strategic point in the Mediterranean, close to trade routes, and an ideal base to fight Barbary pirates from. The environment also makes Sicily a perfect place to grow crops. This made the island highly sought after by invaders. This, in turn made the island a two tier society, where the lower rungs were often enslaved – and the upper rung were foreign invaders overly eager to enforce their authority. 

First it was Phoenicians, then concurrent Ionian and Doric Greek invaders; then Carthaginians, Mamertines, Romans, Northern barbarians. The Byzantines were there for a while, followed by Normans, Arabs, the Angevin French, Spaniards and Austrians. Many of the invaders treated the locals horrifically. To fight back, locals formed secret clans.

Typically these groups turned to guerrilla warfare whenever oppressed or whenever their honour was insulted. In 1282, the Norman king Manfred was deposed by the Angevin French, who soon drew the ire of the clans after a French soldier raped and killed a woman in Palermo. Her husband took vengeance on the soldier, which rapidly escalated into an all out war. The locals, known popularly as the Sicilian Vespers, killed 4,000 French, ousting them. Rather than declare freedom, they invited a relative of Manfred back. An unsubstantiated rumour arose that a slogan, “morte alla Francia Italia anela’ – (death to France is Italy’s cry,) went viral – then birthed the acronym MAFIA from it’s first letters. I’m dubious of this claim, but shadowy organisations conduct secret, shadowy business. It’s hard to disprove entirely.

The word mafioso – meaning an honourable man who lived by a code of honour, and who had a distrust of authority – came into parlance in the 19th century. By then the clans were already called families. Their boss, the capo di famiglia. In 1860 these families leant their considerable muscle to Giuseppe Garibaldi’s Red Shirts to rid Italy of the Spanish Bourbons. Free at last, mafiosi were initially given a great deal of power over Sicily. The removal of the oppressors led to a power vacuum and crime wave took off – perpetrated by non mafia and mafia alike. King Victor Emmanuel asked mafiosi to step in and police the island – putting them in the position of both lawmaker and criminal. Several Capo’s, now above the law, became very rich and powerful. 

In Mussolini’s Hat, we discussed how the Fascists clashed with the mafia. In 1925, after a mafiosi swiped the fez from his head, to peals of laughter from the crowd, Il Duce put a thug named Cesare Mori in charge of his war with the mob. Mori leaned on them until several heavy hitters fled to the USA. These fugitives established the vast criminal organisation we think of today. This week  we’re taking a couple of steps back. Our gangsters were something different altogether.

Those blackmailers became known as The Black Hand. This was originally a name which related to the act of blackmail itself, but over time became related to them personally. 

They were mostly unaffiliated thugs, or mobsters with a price on their head back home. The late 19th century Mafia Don were going nowhere themselves. Many had taken over the large agricultural estates abandoned by the Spanish. They were doing well out of local criminal rackets. Another element was they were often called in to arbitrate over conflicts – which led to a lot of people owing capo’s big favours. These favours were often called on to great effect when a mobster wanted to run for a political office. Francesco Cuccia, the capo, and mayor of Piana dei Greci is a prime example. Why risk all that in a move to the USA, when life was so good for them in Sicily? 

This was a small part of the picture of life in a free Sicily. Wealth gravitated upwards, and most Sicilians continued to struggle as they had under the old regime. 

In 1890, the USA opened their gates to newcomers from Europe. Many “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” to quote Emma Lazarus – arrived in search of the American dream. Four million Italians would be among them. Most were everyday folk looking for a better life. Some did extremely well – others less so. A small number, maybe a couple of thousand, were violent criminals willing to do what it took to succeed in America. No Sicilian Capo are believed to have sent envoys to set up shop – but plenty of small time mobsters saw great opportunities in replicating the Sicilian model. 

New Orleans had mobsters arrive early on, and became the first city to hold an investigation into Black Hand organisations. By 1890, two rival families were locked in a war for control of the city’s stevedore business. This may have flown under the radar, but on October 15th 1890, police chief David Hennessy – was gunned down by several men brandishing sawn off shotguns. Hennessy was ambushed walking home from work, and managed to return fire on his assassins, before being dropped. He lived just long enough to blame the Italians for his murder – but not name the killers. We think one side believed the chief was a dirty cop in cahoots with the other side, so they had him whacked to level out the playing field.  

As police harassed the Italian American community, and rounded up suspects – the media had a field day with tales of shadowy criminal organisations who take a blood oath, and commit horrific acts. Fear, then anger bubbled over in New Orleans. A long, messy murder trial of nine suspected assassins led to a series of mistrials – so an angry mob gathered outside the court house and lynched eleven Italians leaving the court house.

Across the country, from Chicago, to New York, to Philadelphia; independent Black Hand mafiosi groups operated with impunity – mostly against their own people. They sent threatening blackmail letters, and kidnapped children. From 1906, these Black Hand groups took to fire bombing Italian businesses who refused to pay them. Within Italian communities the Black Hand were prolific, but were a hazy rumour – at most – to other Americans. In 1903, this changed when a wealthy Italian contractor living in Brooklyn got a blackmail letter – but before we speak of him – I should introduce that detective who spoke with Caruso. 

Joseph Petrosino was born in Salerno, Italy in 1860. When young he lost his mother to a streetcar accident, and in 1873, he emigrated to New York with his father and brother. The family settled into a poor neighbourhood in Lower Manhattan, which had previously been almost exclusively Irish. Generations earlier, the Irish arrived in America, only to find themselves othered by white Anglo-Saxon protestants. They weren’t bestowed as white until they became useful as enforcers of the status quo in the police forces – Policing cities a new trend following the abolition of slavery. As interlopers on ‘Irish land,’ and considered definitely not of the status quo – Italians faced terrible harassment in the neighbourhood. Irish parents, often policemen, regularly set gangs of their own children out after the Italian kids. A young Petrosino learned to fight very well on his way home from school. 

He was also disadvantaged academically. He was an extremely bright kid, but spoke little English, so was put in a class with children much younger than himself. Petrosino got bored, and left school after graduating the sixth grade. He worked several jobs before a role came up as a rubbish collector. The sanitation department, odd as this may seem now, was then run by the police department. The young collector impressed enough cops to secure himself a position in the police force in 1883. At only 5.3” tall, an exception had to be made for his height, though as a powerfully built, barrel-chested guy – Petrosino otherwise fit in well. As a token Italian kid, on an Irish force, opportunities for promotion were non-existent. Petrocino spent his early years working as a beat cop, though clearly capable of a lot more. 

His big break came in 1895, when Theodore Roosevelt –  yet to run for Vice President, and at a loose end – took a job as police commissioner of New York. As commissioner, Roosevelt cleared out as many corrupt cops as he could find. In their place he promoted on merit. Petrosino had a great arrest record, was tough and resourceful – so was promoted to detective sergeant, the first Italian American to do so in America. 

Once a detective, Petrosino’s career took off. A workaholic, he went well over and above for the role. An innovator of undercover police work, he became a master of disguise. He allegedly carried the dossiers of thousands of known criminals in his head, and was notorious for collaring some fugitive or other in a bar, having recognised him while out on other business. Although he worked alone, his arrest rate was regularly higher than anyone else on the force. A glory-hound, he pursued notoriety for his arrests in the papers – As a tough cop whose arrests led to seventeen murder convictions in a year, a man who sent a hundred killers to the electric chair – he accrued an aura of invincibility about him. Criminals were terrified of Joe Petrosino. 

Of course he broke up a lot of Italian crime rackets – one big one involved criminals befriending new arrivals from the old country, taking out life insurance on them, then knocking them off for the insurance money. This press attention made him approachable to many Italians, who otherwise would have been wary of speaking to the police. 

This played a part in that case mentioned earlier. On 3rd August 1903, a wealthy contractor named Nicola Cappiello received a letter stating if he didn’t pay $2,000, the Black Hand would dynamite his house, and kill his family. He ignored the letter. Two days later, a second letter arrived. He was now as good as dead, but could still save his family if he paid the blackmailers. Days later, several groups of strange men arrived at his home. They informed Cappiello he had a $10,000 price on his head, but if he paid them $1,000, they could make the threat go away. Old friends appeared at his door to beg him to pay the money, accompanied by terrifying strangers. He gave in, and paid them – but then the blackmailers were soon back, now asking for $3,000. 

Exasperated, he turned to Petrosino for help. 

Petrosino was quick on this case, arresting the five men responsible. 

But this case was important for three reasons. First, it convinced Petrosino a network of blackmailers were forming into a crime family in New York – he would declare war on this family. Second, the story was picked up by the press, who reported the case far and wide. The Black hand were no longer a shadowy rumour – they were now a national threat. Third, possibly in relation to point two – the Black Hand threw themselves headlong into a years long crime spree – escalating their activities.  

The first wave consisted largely of dozens of child kidnappings in Italian neighbourhoods. With so many cases, Petrosino turned to the commissioner for help. He begged for his own squad – and was eventually given five men. His crew collectively were known as The Mysterious Six. Over the years, his crew – named The Italian Squad, would become around 40 strong. As press publicity around the ‘Black Hand Fever’ of the summer of 1904 spread, and onwards – some poor, young Italians turned to organised crime. The system was racist and stacked against them, why not climb the crooked ladder to success? 

One case of note to come across Petrosino’s desk was an early one – but it likely had ramifications on the end of his life. In April 1903, a man’s naked, nearly decapitated body was found stuffed inside a barrel on the East side. The victim was a counterfeiter named Benedetto Madonia. After investigation, the murder was tied back to a Sicilian man named Giuseppe Morello, and his gang – the 107th Street Mob. 

Morello, known as ‘The clutch hand’ for his right hand which resembled a lobster claw – was a bona fide mobster. The nephew of the Don of Corleone, Sicily, he likely fled Sicily to avoid a murder charge in 1892. A terrifyingly cold-blooded killer, he ran his business out of a bar on 107th Street, where he would order the deaths of anyone stupid enough to cross him. He personally was responsible for the deaths of dozens of men. He formed alliances with other heavy hitters, like the suave Ignacio ‘the Wolf’ Lupo – and his Morello family would eventually morph into the Gambino family – the first of New York’s Five bona fide Mafia families.

Madonia had crossed the Clutch hand while counterfeiting five dollar notes; so Morello likely ordered a heavy named Tomasso ‘The Ox’ Petto, to carry out the murder. A dozen men were arrested and charged, but all had to be let go when the trial turned into a circus. One of the mobsters, a man named Vito Casco Ferro, fled back to Sicily after the trial. He, it seems was responsible for the circus, when he swapped out one of the mobsters for an average Joe who looked a bit like him. The decoy was only revealed, to much clamour, on the trial date – when he produced evidence of his true identity. This brought the whole prosecution case into question. It’s been claimed Ferro carried a photograph of Petrosino on him for the rest of his life, in the hope one day he’d get to murder him. 

The war, meanwhile, raged between the Italian Squad and Black Hand groups. Thousands of Italian Americans in New York alone were blackmailed, had their children kidnapped or had their businesses firebombed, but things took a serious turn for the WASPs of New York in 1908 – when they started to send threatening letters to people outside the Italian American community. 

A panic ensued, which could easily have turned into another New Orleans incident. ‘White Hand’ groups of Italian Americans, tired of being branded criminals, came together to fight the Black Hand. In towns outside of New York, a few White Hand groups – and a gang of Pinkerton detectives in a place we’ll return to, had some luck with this method – but the White Hand soon ran out of steam. 

In 1907, another bona fide high ranking Mafiosi named Enrico Alfano showed up in New York. Having fled a murder charge in Sicily, he arrived as a crew member on the ship The California. By chance, Petrosino stumbled across the mobster while meeting with a journalist at a restaurant. Though alone, and outnumbered by the crew of mobsters with Alfano, Petrosino bellowed his name across the restaurant, before beating the living daylights out of the mobster. He arrested Alfano, who was then deported to Naples to face charges. This was not terribly unusual – by this stage Petrosino had arrested many men later deported in a similar manner. 

In 1907, politicians gave the police a new tool to deal with Black Hand criminals and other mobsters. If an Italian criminal made it into the country, and it could be shown within three years of their arrival that they had a criminal record back home, the authorities could now deport them back to Italy.   

But while all of this was going on, threats continued to the rich wasps. Reports on, for example the stress induced death of Daniel B Wesson, the 81 year old heir to the Smith & Wesson fortune – ratcheted up fear among the general public. Police Commissioner Theodore A. Bingham was pressured to put an end to the Black Hand. Heavy media criticism was levelled against the Italian Squad, who, not that you’d know it,  were actually on a roll with their arrests. It had to be strange times for Petrosino, a lifelong bachelor who – it turns out had been secretly courting a young widow named Adelina Saulino for a decade. The couple married in 1908, had a child, and for a brief time enjoyed what is traditionally considered a ‘normal’ family life. 

In the meantime, Commissioner Bingham chased funding to create a secret team of top detectives to go out there and deal a killing blow to the Black Hand by any means necessary. The politicians at Tammany Hall refused to fund the scheme, but one wealthy patron – possibly a victim of black hand letters – paid for Bingham’s secret service. 

As 1908 rolled into 1909, Joseph Petrosino disappeared from public view. Some claimed he’d taken ill and had been bed-ridden for weeks. In the meantime, a 48 year old Jewish Italian merchant boarded a cruise ship bound for Italy.

That man, of course was Petrosino. He was the head of Bingham’s Secret Service – and on his way to Italy to meet with police commissioners, criminal archivists and confidential informants. Bingham’s plan was to send a man to collect the criminal histories of around a thousand known thugs, to make copies, then send the records back to New York. While there, Petrosino was also tasked with getting the names of all the serious criminals serving time in Italy, so immigration could have a watch list. Thirdly, he was to set up a spy network to observe the Italian Mafia. 

Things started out OK – but while still on mainland Italy, Commissioner Bingham let the cat out of the bag with a flippant comment to reporters that Petrosino could be in Sicily for all he knew. Though he was moving through the country using a series of nom de plumes, he was about to visit Palermo – his only backup a pistol. There were dozens of mobsters in the city who he had arrested, beaten up and seen convicted – any of whom might seek revenge. One of these criminals, Vito Casco Ferro, had risen through the ranks of the Sicilian Mafia. He was now Don Vito, boss of bosses. 

Don Vito rose through the ranks through his smarts, and a sense of brand awareness. He insisted on a level of customer service from his heavies while running protection rackets. His men were nice, respectful young men who offered protection against the other brutish thugs who would come looking for money if they weren’t there. Many locals felt if you have to pay someone, then the nice guys should be the ones to get paid. Many locals appeared to have genuine admiration for Don Vito.  

Which isn’t to say he couldn’t be brutal – he most certainly was to become a Mafia Don. In his lifetime he’d face over 60 charges, and only go away on the last charge – we’ll discuss that in a fortnight. 

Petrosino pushed on in his mission, in spite of the danger. He sensed things were due to turn very ugly, but had a job to complete. One night he wrote a letter back to Adelina stating something he would explain when he got home had left him deeply disturbed. He was feeling quite depressed, and couldn’t wait to return to America. We don’t know what upset him. He reached Palermo, and soon had criminal records transcribed for 350 criminals on his list. These were sent back to Bingham.  

Then March 12th 1909, things went horribly wrong. 

Joseph Petrosino had a busy day ahead – collecting records, meeting with Palermo’s top cop, then holding a mysterious rendezvous with a stranger. 

Petrosino seemed unaware that the night before a former member of the Morello gang sent a telegram to someone in New York about something. Nor would he have known two men he’d arrested in New York picked him out of a crowd, then met in a bar with two other gangsters. A group of people who later got amnesia briefly recalled their conversation about the detective. A young child had been tailing him around the city for days on behalf of someone. This detail had not escaped the eye of police detectives also charged with tailing Petrosino. 

Then there were those rumours Don Vito – who officially was out of town staying with a politician friend – was in Palermo. 

Truthfully, dozens of people only had to pick up an Italian newspaper to know he was there. His arrival made headline news. Besides that, other people just knew. Years later it was revealed on the day he sailed for Italy, Ignacio Lupo knew of his trip. Lupo was another one who had reasons to end Petrosino. He’d threatened the detective once, who showed up on the floor of one of his legitimate businesses, and beat him to a pulp in front of his staff. How he knew is pure speculation. The Italian Squad knew, and one of them may have spoken with someone? Perhaps Petrosino was seen boarding the ship by one of Lupo’s underlings? 

There were many criminals, and at least one politician, who wanted revenge. And whoever they were, two men followed Petrosino out of a restaurant that night – shots were exchanged – and Joseph Petrosino got the worst of it. Witnesses heard the shots, saw Petrosino fall, then saw the men running away. When the gravity of what they saw hit the witnesses … suddenly no-one saw a thing. 

Sicilian Police vigorously pursued several suspects in the murder of Joseph Petrosino and arrested over a hundred suspects – but silence pervaded. Petrosino’s body arrived back in New York to something akin to a state funeral. 250,000 people packed the streets to honour him – considerably more than President William McKinley or the actor Rudolph Valentino. Two of his colleagues risked life and limb to return to Sicily to help in the case. They were too bamboozled with it all – though they came home with several hundred more criminal records – but none the wiser as to who killed their boss. 

Nothing happened with those records for quite some time. Commissioner Bingham lost his job, and his replacement didn’t want to act too soon – giving Bingham any recognition whatsoever for work he’d begun. They did eventually pick up their game, to some real success against the Black Hand organisations – but by this point another threat was on the horizon. 

Next fortnight we’ll return to this – and look into that story a little. Mussolini’s Hat was done a long time back, and needs a serious revamp. Let’s shelve the episode I had planned for a few weeks and talk about the mob a little longer.   

The Dog Days King

The Dog Days’ King Tales of History and Imagination

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Patreon: The Salmesbury Witches

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

I also put those four episodes up on YouTube in full, using iMovie, so you can listen to the episodes.

If you’d like to support Tales and get your hands on extra content, it costs just $2 US a month (plus any applicable goods and services taxes your country may charge.)
This gives you access to one guaranteed episode a month on the first of each month. If you can help me exceed my first target of $500 a month, I’ll up that to two episodes a month. If we get over $1,000 I’ll add more stuff (specifics to be confirmed.)
The free channels (blog and podcast) will always be free of charge. I’ve got 23 blog posts, with 23 accompanying podcast episodes planned for 2023 via the free channels.

This episode can be found Here on Patreon

Jane Southworth, Jennet Bierley and Ellen Bierley stood in the dock, shackled and bound. The setting, the Lancaster Assizes, August 18th 1612 – where the Demdikes and Chattoxes were tried for witchcraft. Accused of wielding magic with malicious intent, the ladies are accused of murdering then eating a baby. Their accuser, a fourteen year old relative of the Bierleys named Grace Sowerbutts. Eating a baby was one thing, but ‘The Salmesbury Witches’ had the temerity to magically bully young Grace – and that was more than she could take.

For years Jennet, Aunt Ellen and their pal Jane made Grace’s life a living hell. They transformed into dogs to frighten her. Whenever feeling at ease, they psycho-kinetically seized her by her hair, levitated her above a hay bale – then unceremoniously dumped her atop the bundle. Some times they would fly her over a barn and threaten to leave her on the roof. One time the ladies hypnotised her into trying to drown herself. Grace was terrified, sooner or later, they would murder her.

Furthermore, there was that murder and cannibalism charge. Once, Grace claimed – the Salmesbury Witches took her to the house of a Thomas Walshman, his wife and their baby. The ladies snuck into the house and kidnapped the baby. Once free and clear, they sucked the baby’s blood. The young child was then returned. The witches departed. This was bad enough, but – the court heard the child passed on the following night. Days later Jennet and Ellen returned – removing the body from its grave. They then cooked and ate part of the body – the remainder being turned into a magical ointment used to shape shift.

Thomas Walshman took the stand, confirming he did indeed have a young child, recently passed.

Grace Sowerbutts, delivered her evidence – and was a shockingly effective witness. Even on an action-packed day full of outlandish tales of murder, a tale of brazen pedicide and cannibalism particularly chilled the gallery. As it turned out, the extremity of the crime actually saved the ladies. The people in the public gallery were so horrified, they demanded young Grace be recalled. They needed to hear every last detail of the heinous crime.

And when young Grace was recalled – she completely fell apart on cross examination.

Why falsely accuse family of witchcraft and murder? One word, revenge.

Lancaster County may have been thin on the ground of actual, bona fide witches, but there was no shortage of recusants in the area. England first turned Protestant in 1534 after King Henry VIII railroaded the Act of Supremacy into law. Increasingly frustrated with his marriage to Catherine of Aragon (the couple failed to make an heir together – something the King put down to God punishing him for marrying Catherine – who was originally betrothed to his deceased older brother Arthur) Henry tried to get a divorce, so he could marry Anne Boleyn – one of Catherine’s ladies in waiting. When the Pope refused to allow the divorce, the nation became Protestant overnight. Henry’s daughter Mary I reverted England back to Catholicism during her reign (1553- 58). Her persecution of Protestants earned her the nickname ‘Bloody Mary’. Elizabeth I reverted the kingdom back to Protestantism with the Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity in 1559.

The current King, James I, was Protestant. After a cabal of Catholic plotters attempted to blow him up in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, James rushed his own legislation through – The Popish Recusants Act of 1605. Catholics were barred from public office, were required to swear an oath of allegiance to the monarch, and risked the loss of up to a third of their land if they didn’t attend a Church of England sacrament at least once a year. In 1612 orders were sent out to all the justices of the peace in Lancashire to make lists of recusants in the area.

As such, many Catholics kept their religious affiliations secret. These recusants covertly attended underground churches, run by secretive priests. Jane Southworth’s uncle Christopher Thompson was one such priest.

Christopher and Jane Southworth belonged to an aristocratic recusant family in the region – the family Patriarch Sir John Southworth of Salmesbury Hall. Sir John was openly Catholic, and refused to denounce his faith. This led to multiple arrests and fines. The family were almost completely openly, or covertly Catholic – this included Christopher – a Jesuit preacher who assumed the surname Thompson and went off the grid in to avoid the authorities. Sir John’s son, the recently deceased John Jr was married to Jane. The couple made quite a scene when they walked away from Catholicism, and began attending Anglican masses. Infuriated, Sir John disinherited John jr.

As Grace was questioned in detail by a couple of justices of the peace, it became clear the charges, originally aimed at eight women – five of whom weren’t tried for lack of evidence – had come by way of Christopher. The defections of John jr and Jane led to further defections from Christopher Thompson’s church. To get revenge, and likely to discredit the apostates before he lost all his flock, Thompson groomed Grace in her outrageous lie.

Judge Sir Edward Bromley dismissed the case, finding Jane Southworth, Jennet and Ellen Bierley not guilty. His closing remarks “ God hath delivered you beyond expectation, I pray God you may use this mercy and favour well; and take heed you fall not hereafter: And so the court doth order that you shall be delivered“

From Patreon: Owney Madden

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

I also put those four episodes up on YouTube in full, using iMovie, so you can listen to the episodes.

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

This episode can be found Here on Patreon

Today’s tale begins April 24th 1965. The setting, Greenwood Cemetery in Hot Springs Arkansas.

One imagines the scene as the town come to pay their respects to one of the good guys. Owen Vincent Madden, had arrived in the town in 1936, in an effort to turn his poor health around in their famed healing waters. A wealthy businessman from Leeds, England – by way of New York – Owney fell in love with the relaxed pace of life in Hot Springs. Somewhere, the charming, middle aged bachelor fell for Agnes Demby – the 34 year old shop clerk and daughter of the postmaster. Though certain rumours persisted about the man, he soon became a pillar of the community. Owney Madden passed away of emphysema, aged 73, and many a gangster and civilian alike would mourn his passing.

I’ve seen it written in the weeks following his funeral, the people of Hot Springs would be surprised and horrified at news of the monster who walked among them. I’ve no doubt some were, but we are talking about Hot Springs – a then corrupt town, and known safe haven for gangsters on the lam. It was the place where US Attorney Thomas Dewey finally handcuffed the legendary mob boss Lucky Luciano – when he couldn’t do him for multiple acts of murder, Dewey got Luciano for his part ownership of a brothel. I believe a lot of locals were aware of his past, and it would be naive to say Owney either pulled the wool over all their eyes – or that in some form or another he didn’t have some racket or other going there. Naive as this is also going to sound, I also believe, he was also a much better man in his later years than he had been when in New York.

So who was this man? And what was this mysterious past which may have shocked some in the community? Let’s explore that today.

Owen Vincent Madden was born in Leeds, England on December 18th 1891, to an Irish family. The Maddens emigrated to New York in 1902, settling in the tough Irish American neighbourhood of Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan. With an over-abundance of street gangs in the neighbourhood, it was no surprise that by the age of 11, Madden was a member of a group known as the Gopher Gang. Even at this young age, Madden was well known as a handful – his favourite weapon, a length of lead pipe.

As he reached his teens, Madden ascended through the ranks, but nearly found his career derailed in his late teens. He killed William Henshaw, a store clerk who made a pass at a young woman he’d laid claim to. Though Henshaw’s murder took place in front of dozens of witnesses, Henshaw himself living just long enough to ID his killer – the collective amnesia of the witnesses was something to behold, and Madden walked without conviction.

Following his release, the Gopher Gang upped their violence game, taking over the protection rackets in other neighbourhoods and rubbing out rival street gangs. This was hardly all one way traffic. The Hudson Dusters were a rival gang, formed by an ex Gopher Gang member named Goo Goo Knox. On November 6th 1914, the Hudson Dusters ambushed several Gopher Gang members outside the Arbor Dance Hall. Three Gophers were killed, and Madden was shot anywhere between six and eleven times, depending on whose recollection you read. Madden survived, and sought revenge – which led to him being sentenced to 20 years at Sing Sing Prison before the year was out. By the end of 1914 both gangs would be disbanded in a wave of murders, drug overdoses and incarcerations.

When released in 1923, Owney found a different world waiting for him. Shaking down shopkeepers for protection money was so yesterday. The 1920s were all about bootlegging.

As I state in the main episode (the original upload ran alongside Mussolini v The Mob) .. this will be a little meta…

‘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.’

Madden soon found employment as hired muscle for a bootlegger called Larry Fay. He arranged the import of whiskey from Canada, smuggled in the boots of American taxi cabs. Having learned the ropes, Madden set up a rival operation. Big Bill Dwyer was another rival bootlegger, who had several shipments hijacked from under his nose. Dwyer was then made an offer he could not refuse by Madden – to hand his whole business over – which he did.

Madden soon turned profits into ownership of several speakeasy’s – Most notably the Cotton Club.

In 1920, the former world heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson opened a supper club on the corner of 142nd Street and Lennox Avenue, Harlem. Johnson struggled to keep the club open during prohibition, and turned to Madden for a quick sale. Johnson remained, nominally, the owner of the re-branded Cotton Club – which took off under the guidance of the mobster. Though a largely segregated club, open to white patrons only unless the guest a celebrity like Langston Hughes or Paul Robeson (this was still the Jim Crow era), many of the greatest black performers of the era played there – from bandleaders like Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson and Chick Webb to featured singers and dancers like Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Lena Horne, The Mills Brothers, Billie Holliday, Bessie Smith, the Nicholas Brothers and the Dandridge Sisters.

The Cotton Club was well up there with The Savoy Ballroom as the hot tickets in town. It was always full of celebrities, had a fantastic range of alcohol available, and some of the greatest swing music ever.

It was here that Madden met, and for a while dated Mae West. He’d fund her first play, ‘Sex’ in 1927, when no-one else would. She would comment Owney was “Sweet, but oh so vicious”. He also took George Raft on as a driver. The stylish Raft would leverage his friendship with Madden to launch a career as a Hollywood actor.

By 1931, Madden had become extremely rich out of bootlegging, and various other criminal activities. After a brief stint back inside in 1932 – he’d caught the attention of authorities after putting a $50,000 price on the head of a gangster and child killer called Vincent ‘Mad Dog’ Coll – but went away for a minor parole violation – He turned his hand to promoting boxing matches. On June 14th 1934, Max Baer – a boxer of some renown, later the father of Max Baer jr, (Jethro in the TV show The Beverley Hillbillies)

Faced off against Primo Carnera – a two metre tall monster, called The Ambling Alp, who still holds the record of winning more fights by KO than any other world heavyweight champion.

The fight, was extremely one-sided, with Baer knocking Carnera down eleven times in eleven rounds. It’s long been speculated Madden fixed the bout to maximise gambling profits.

The mid 1930s were a time of relative peace – the Castellammarese War of 1930- 31 led to mafiosi setting up a ‘Commission’, which ensured some peace and stability – but Madden knew it wouldn’t last. The mafia were soon likely to muscle the likes of himself out of the market. He was feeling a little old, and suffered aches from his many gunshot wounds. Possibly with the blessing of Lucky Luciano and Frank Costello, he closed shop and retired to Hot Springs Arkansas. Some point out he may have been sent there by the Mob to set up a gambling house – it is notable soon after moving to town Madden paid for a wire service to be laid in the town, allowing bookies to get the horse racing results.

Whatever the case, he arrived in town, and sought out hydro treatment for his gunshot wounds. He met, and fell in love with Agnes Demby – who almost certainly knew her husband’s past life. Beneath the surface, Hot Springs was a corrupt place, with it’s fair share of illegal gambling and prostitution – their mayor Leo P. McLaughlin was later found to be controlling much of the trade. For 30 years Madden, at the very least gave the impression of living the life of a modest, legitimate businessman. His bar, The Southern Club, did well. Whether gone legit or not, he had many visits over the years from Frank Costello, Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky and Joe Adonis.

On the flip side, this Owen Madden was no longer a man of violence. He lived in a modest house with his wife. He was active in the community, and supported a number of local charities. He was a well known, and well liked figure, often seen round town – the trademark Fedora hat of the gangster replaced by the big, slouchy cap of the country gentleman. Whether completely clean or not, he was a remarkable figure for having gone into an idyllic semi-retirement when most of his contemporaries were either jailed or murdered.

From Patreon: Otzi

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

I also put those four episodes up on YouTube in full, using iMovie, so you can listen to the episodes.

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

This episode can be found Here on Patreon

This week’s bonus tale is a murder mystery, and will leave way more questions than answers. As we get going you’ll see why.

Our tale is set today in the distant, pre-historic past, somewhere on the border between modern day Austria and Italy. We can place the story somewhere in the ballpark of 5,300 years ago. Our protagonist, a man of about 45 years of age. Dark-eyed. Decked out in goatskin clothing topped off with a bearskin hat. Thought slight, weighing somewhere around 110 lbs and standing 5.2” to 5.3”, he was clearly engaged in physical labour his entire life and was all muscle. The high levels of arsenic found in his system suggest he may have been involved in metallurgy.

More advanced civilisations were already just into the Bronze Age at this stage. Arsenic could poison metallurgists when making arsenical bronze – where tin (then super rare) would be substituted for the toxin. Copper itself often has some level of arsenic in it, if taken from a less than pure source. While Central Europe was still at the end of the Stone Age, our man was found with a copper axe. We presume it is super rare.

He may have suffered from his heavily worn down teeth. He certainly had aches and pains, suffering from arthritis in his neck and hip. Furthermore, the mystery man lived with tapeworm in his belly. The condition of his hair and nails show extreme stress in the last four months of his life. One may ask, was this stress related to his eventual death. We can say his stress levels were enough to have made him very unwell in the months leading up to his murder. He was also nursing broken ribs at the time of his death, suggesting some time in the last few weeks of his life he’d come of second best in a fight, and been given quite a beating.

And there are a couple of other things we should mention – and will do as we go on.

Now, a little on the setting before we come back to the main tale. Just an FYI, we’re going to run a couple of scenarios today.

Parts of Europe became habitable to Homo sapiens as the ice sheets melted, between 26,500 and 19,000 years ago. A handful of us had hung around the edges of the Mediterranean from around 45,000 years ago. The Neanderthals, clearly much tougher than us, were living on the continent itself 300,000 to 600,000 years ago, and would either integrate with homo sapien invaders, or be killed by them when we finally arrived en masse. DNA records indicate a little bit of both – most Europeans are between 2 – 3% Neanderthal.

Around 8,000 years ago something looking like a city first sprang up in Europe, Lepenski Vir, in Serbia an early example. As people put down roots, these societies diversified – some taking specialised roles. These roles of course included people of violence – people who protected the towns and people who attacked other towns. The area in question was headed in that direction – people congregating in small villages close to water, and increasingly turning to farming wheat and barley for a living.

We believe, based on DNA tests, our mystery man may have lived around modern day Piedmont, Italy, near the Alps- at least a few articles claim some Piedmontese people alive today have DNA matching his. Isotope testing of his teeth suggest he lived just south of the Alps, in Italy. The Romans, millennia later, called the people living in this region Ligurians, stating they were culturally Celtic – but we know the area was overrun by Celts two and a half millennia after our man’s time. It doesn’t automatically stand that he was Celtic.

So, let’s run a few scenarios. All take place somewhere around 5,300 years ago. Based on berries found in his stomach found halfway up the mountain at a certain time of year, the earliest this could be is June, the latest August.

Our man, Otzi is the name we gave him, has been under great stress over the last four months. We don’t know exactly what has happened – whether it’s down to theft, love interests, village politics or any number of reasons, scenario one has it he’s come info conflict with someone else in the tribe, and a blood feud has developed. Probably living largely hand to mouth, he is unlikely to have been able to ‘take to the mattresses’ till the situation calms down. Sooner or later he has to return to his work – variously guessed at as specialist hunter, shepherd or metal prospector. One day Otzi heads off for work, and never comes back.

Pollen in his digestive tract, probably floating atop the water, suggests he was in the foothills before the attack happened. That he had a bag and a fanny pack full of tools, his copper axe, a net to trap birds with, and a box containing fire-lighting material. He also carried a short knife and a half-finished bow with him. Let’s come back to that bow, and his half finished quiver of arrows in a second.

Either in the valley, or perhaps even in his village, we know he was set upon by a gang. The blood of four other men would be found on his knife, few usable arrows and clothes. Their first clash, it appears, is up close and personal. An attacker went for Otzi with a knife – leaving a nasty defensive wound across his right palm. Clotting around the wound suggests his death was as much as three days after the initial attack. The knife-wielding attacker also manages to leave Otzi with several shallow cuts to the chest. Being met by a thug with a knife, Otzi fought for his life, and got himself out of that situation. He may have drawn the blood of his attackers now, or possibly later on – then ran back into the hills.

Scientists believe over the following three days, in a deadly game of cat and mouse, Otzi would ascend to around 8,000 feet – where the yew trees could be found – descend back into the valley, then head back up the mountain again – where he would die. One possible reason for heading up could be to grab a spar off a yew tree to make a bow and some arrows. Yew makes for excellent bows and Otzi’s half finished bow would have been a deadly weapon. Taller than him it would have had a pull weight of around 90 lbs – more than enough to take down an attacker from a distance. For three days his pursuers chased after him. Sometime in his final hours, Otzi had a large meal of Ibex meat. An hour later his attackers caught up with him. Clutching his knife he turned away and scrambled for the summit – only to be struck in the upper back with an arrow. This shot would have killed him, striking an artery. His attacker approached the body, dealing the killing blow to the Iceman – crushing his skull with a blunt object.

While it’s tempting to paint a picture of Otzi coming home from the mountains to find a band of marauders attacking his village, two inter-related points suggest to me he was killed by someone from inside the fold. First, his killer took back the shaft of the arrow, and second he didn’t pillage what must have been an extremely rare copper axe. If the posse were from another village, who there would be the wiser as to who this axe belonged to? – but if they were found with a murdered man’s axe on them in the same village – is this not strong evidence of their guilt? Similarly, if the body was found with a familiar-looking arrow in him, is that itself not a smoking gun – so to speak?

Second, there is a suggestion Otzi didn’t die alone, but had been involved in a war with a neighbouring tribe, possibly over disputed land. From the moment groups of people left hunting and gathering to domesticate animals and grow crops, a problem arose over the question of who owned that land. We were a long way from war as we know it – The Battle of Megiddo in 1479 BC is generally the first accepted war with armies – the two sides Egypt and the kingdom of Kadesh. Archeologists have found battle scenes with a couple of dozen dead on either side as early as 13.400 years ago in Jebel Sahara, Sudan – and increasingly since humans began farming around 12,000 years ago. Scientists base this claim on the blood on Otzi’s cape. It suggests he may have been carrying a wounded comrade shortly before his death. Perhaps the winners didn’t pillage because the situation didn’t allow for it. Where were the other bodies? One possibility is they were there, but as Otzi fell in a sheltered location, he was never taken along by the glacier. Never picked apart by the wolves and other predators.

A third possibility suggested is he was a human sacrifice. Some experts claim Otzi was himself a Celt, and was taken up into the mountains by the other villagers as a blood sacrifice to the Gods. The reason his expensive axe was left behind? It was a gift left for the Gods. Though the ancient celts left no written records, Roman writers such as Pliny the Elder claimed they committed large scale blood sacrifices, and even cannibalised the bodies of their enemies in war. If this is the case, one presumes Otzi did not go willingly to his death.

His Tale, as patchy as it is, may have gone completely forgotten were it not for two mountaineers coming across his body, high up in the Otzal Alps in September 1991. A confluence of increasingly hot summers, and a particularly wild Saharan windstorm which carried across the Mediterranean up into the Alps, where the sand freed him from his suspended animation.

As fascinating as Otzi is, tantalisingly so seeing we know so much about him – yet so little, I also find his discovery more than a little disturbing. As anthropogenic climate change kicks in only more Otzi’s will appear, such as Kwäday Dän Ts’ìnchi – “The Long Ago Person Found“ as named by the Inuit when a body emerged from the mountains of British Colombia in 1999, and unearthed tombs of Steppe people from the Altai Mountains – Scythian, Sarmations and many other besides. As our world teeters closer to ecological tipping points, the discoveries of these ice mummies may be a window into a past world – but their appearance also portends nothing good for the human race – to put it mildly.

Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm?

Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm? Tales of History and Imagination

When trying to imagine the lives of Robert Hart, Thomas Willets, Bob Farmer and Fred Payne on April 18th 1943, I get a certain picture in my mind’s eye. Four teenaged schoolboys from Stourbridge in the British Midlands, head off on an adventure into the woods – free from the encumbrances of adult supervision. I imagine something out of an Enid Blyton book, or perhaps a scene from Dennis Potter’s Blue Remembered Hills. An image of kids just being kids. Wrongly I suspect, I want to imagine those four kids too preoccupied with schoolyard politics, games, pop culture and urban legend – kid’s stuff – to think much on the backdrop of a world war. 

The adults that weekend perhaps read the Luftwaffe bombed a church in Algiers – killing a group of nuns. Hitler ran 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 Nazi concentration camps. The Americans, acting on cracked Japanese codes, targeted a plane carrying Japan’s Admiral Isoroka Yamamoto above Bougainville Island, Papua New Guinea. They took their revenge for his part in Pearl Harbour, shooting the Admiral out of the sky. 

Truthfully I don’t know what occupied these kids’ minds on April 18th 1943. If they sang ‘Bless em All’ as they rode into the forest… maybe singing the ‘other’ lyrics? (The ones likely to get me an adult rating on iTunes). For that matter if those kids themselves had family serving abroad in the war. I do know the boys were on a covert mission to steal whatever birds’ eggs they could from Viscount Cobham’s ancestral land – Hagley woods – and that the day would conclude more like a Stephen King novel for the young lads.    

The so- called Witch Elm

The boys searched high and low for bird’s nests, till they came across the skeletal remains of an old Elm tree. Bob Farmer clambered up, and peered over the edge, only to find an old animal skull staring back up at him. Farmer picked the skull up – presumably to make his friends jump a little – but as he did, he noticed tufts of hair, a human jaw bone and traces of human flesh still attached to it. In a mad panic, the boys ran for their bikes, and took off for home. The gravity of their find had dawned on them, but as they frantically pedalled home it also dawned on them they were illegally poaching on the lord of the manor’s land when they found the skull. A sound thrashing from angry parents was one thing, but would they risk a criminal record over the skull? I cannot say what else the boys may have been thinking – whether it felt to the boys like they’d just fallen into a gothic horror tale, spy novel, or crime procedural. It appears the boys were all spooked by the experience. Before they split from one another, they made a pact not to disclose their grisly find to anybody else.  

But, as anyone who’s ever picked up Shakespeare might tell you “Murder cannot be hid long… at length the truth will out”.  Tom Willets, the youngest of the boys, had an especially hard time dealing with the find, and told his father about the skull. They reported it to the Worcestershire police, who entered Hagley woods the following day. 

Officers reached into the tree, and finding much more than a skull. A near complete skeleton was laying inside ‘The Witch Elm’. Her right hand was missing, apparently amputated. The hand bones would be found 13 paces away from the tree as investigations continued. Taffeta cloth had been shoved a long way down her throat. Some scraps of clothing, and shoes were found. As was a rolled gold wedding ring – a thin strip of gold bonded or fused to the outside of a brass or copper base. It was a cheap alternative to a solid gold ring. 

The remains were taken to Professor James Webster, the local pathologist. The body was of a woman of between 35 and 40 years of age. She stood around five feet tall, had distinctively irregular lower teeth, including a tooth pulled a year before her death. She had given birth at least once. 

The body had been placed in ‘the witch elm’ “While still warm”, and she was presumed to have died of asphyxiation from the cloth shoved down her throat. She was put in the tree some time around October 1941. 

The police worked exhaustively to identify her. They identified her shoes, tracking down the shoemakers in Northampton, and all but six owners of that model of shoe. Six pairs were sold at a market stall in Dudley, in the West Midlands. The stall holders there kept no records. They scoured through lists of missing persons but were unable to make a match. The ‘Battle for Britain’, where German planes flew over British cities at night, bombing the hell out of the locals – had left no shortage of missing people. Most were presumed buried under the rubble somewhere. None of those people matched the lady. Her irregular teeth were checked against dental records throughout the United Kingdom. This too drew a blank.

There was a single incident in the vicinity of Hagley wood in late 1941 that seemed very promising. A businessman and a school teacher separately phoned the police to report a woman was screaming uncontrollably in the woods. Police were dispatched to the scene, but found nothing on arrival. That lead was re-opened, but led nowhere. 

Then, around Christmas 1943, several taunting notes appeared locally in the form of graffiti. They were written in chalk, all in a similar hand. The first one read, ‘who put Luebella down the Wych- elm?’. Soon after ‘Hagley Wood Bella’ appeared etched on a wall. Finally the phrase ‘Who put Bella in the Wych-Elm?’ Started to appear in the vicinity. Police presumed the graffiti was always done at night, as they were never able to locate a single witness to the act. An inky darkness owing to the wartime blackouts no doubt helped the mystery tagger. They rechecked their missing persons lists, looking specifically for a Luebella, or a Bella. They investigated the kinds of people known for defacing walls and obelisks – but could not get a break in this case.

So who was Bella in the Wych Elm? Today I can only offer a handful of theories on the case. 

Starting with Margaret Murray. Murray was an Egyptologist and archeologist who taught at University College, London from 1894 till 1935. Her career in active field work was hampered, first by most field work being given to her male counterparts; then later by the First World War. Murray diversified – becoming an expert folklorist, most notably writing a series of books on witchcraft that the modern Wicca movement based itself on. In 1945 she weighed in on the case – offering a possible explanation. Was Bella murdered by occultists? Was she in fact a witch herself?

Her reasoning was twofold – the amputated hand, and the tree. 

The following is far too vague for it’s own good, but to explain her reasoning. Several groups of people have had a funny thing with hands and thieves since at least as far back as the Mesopotamian lawmaker Hammurabi wrote his famous law code. With many punishments being like for like – an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth – the lawmaker stated if a thief took property with their hand, that hand should be cut off as punishment – hardly like for like, but you get the gist. This piece of ancient Talionic law morphed into something wildly different throughout parts of Medieval France. From there the idea spread throughout Europe. 

If you cut the left hand off a dying criminal as they twisted on the gallows – or if the criminal in question were a murderer, then whichever hand did the killing – you now had a ‘hand of glory’ in your possession. The hand of glory, once pickled, was believed to have magical powers. If you yourself were a thief, your mere possession of the hand rendered sleeping occupants of a house into a deep trance. You could rifle through their prized possessions without fear you too might end up on the gallows. A hand of glory presented to an attacker could freeze them. It also protected the possessor from evil spirits. Treasure hunters believed a hand of glory could also lead them to buried treasure troves. 

A hand of glory

That the hand was cut off was a clue to Murray. That it was eventually discarded 13 paces from the body suggested an occult link to the folklorist – as did the disposal of the body inside a tree. 

According to Murray several pre- Christian European societies believed burying dead criminals inside trees trapped their spirits inside the tree – preventing their ghosts from seeking revenge on the living. 

Her assertion was lent some weight by a murder in Lower Quinton, 40 miles South East of Hagley Wood, on Valentines Day 1945. 

Charles Walton, a local 74 year old was brutally murdered while out doing a day’s agricultural work. While doing some grounds keeping, he was slashed and stabbed with his own scythe. As he lay on the grass, bleeding out from a cut throat, he was then pinned to the ground through the throat with his own pitch fork. Circumstantial evidence pointed towards his employer, Alfred Potter, being the killer – as Walton was said to have loaned Potter a sum money he couldn’t afford to repay. Others placed the blame on Italian prisoners of war kept locally. The Italians having surrendered to the Allies in September 1943, the POWs were at ease to freely wander the town in the day. 

In 1954, local papers reported on another, similar killing. This murder in the town of Long Compton, fifteen miles from Lower Quinton. The murder happened back in 1875. The victim was an octogenarian named Ann Tennant. Newspapers reported locals whispered behind Tennant’s back that she was a witch. She too was killed, ritualistically in this case, by being pinned to the ground with a pitchfork. 

Ann’s killer was a man named James Heywood – a man variously described in the press as ‘simple-minded’ and a ‘village idiot’. Heywood was tried for murder, but spent the rest of his life in an asylum. He claimed he was a witch hunter, and would kill more witches ever let out – so authorities threw away the key, leaving him there. The press largely underplayed Heywood’s mental illness, and many wondered aloud what secret groups of witch-hunters, Satanists or witches had lived among them for at least the past seven decades?

All this fed back into Murray’s witchcraft theory. It was hardly the only theory, however. 

Another possibility centres around a troubled young man named Jack Mossop, and his enigmatic drinking buddy – a man known as ‘Van Raalte’. 

Jack Mossop was an engineer, employed making plane parts in a Banner Lane factory during the war. In 1937, prior to the war, he’d taken flying lessons, and was an air reserve. When asked by workmates why he was in a factory, rather than having aerial dogfights with Nazis, he claimed he’d crashed too many planes in RAF training, and suffered from a traumatic brain injury. This is often presented in Bella lore as fact, often cited as an explanation for his subsequent behaviour. There’s no evidence he was ever in the RAF, let alone invalidated out after a crash. It appears far more likely he had essential skills, so was unlikely to be called away to fight. 

It can neither be confirmed, not denied whether Mossop had crashed a plane while taking flying lessons – and certainly it would explain his subsequent descent. 

Mossop was a heavy drinker, who it appears, followed in the loutish footsteps of his father and uncles – known to locals as the ‘seven sods’ for their rowdy behaviour. It must be said, he wasn’t brought up by his father, but by the parents of the ‘Seven Sods’. His mother died of the Spanish Flu when he was six years old. He was subsequently brought up by his grandparents. Mossop was a bright child, and often suffered from debilitating headaches, and regular nightmares. As the war progressed, he grew increasingly distant from his wife Una. 

At 1am one morning, believed either in March or April 1941, Jack returned home to Una in a terrible state. He was accompanied by drinking buddy, a Dutchman Una knew only as Van Raalte (or Van Raalt). Una suspected Van Raalte was a spy, as the man never worked, but always had plenty of money. It’s since been suggested he was a local rogue, making his money by selling rationed goods on the ‘black market’. 

On the night in question, both men came in terribly shaken by an incident which may have haunted Jack for the rest of his life. 

After settling his nerves with another drink, Jack told Una the following. They had been drinking at the Lyttelton Arms, not far from Hagley wood with a woman he only referred to as that ‘Dutch piece’. At some point in the night, Van Raalte and the ‘Dutch piece’ possibly got into an altercation (Jack states simply she got ‘awkward’). The three then left the pub together. 

They piled into Van Raalte’s Rover, Jack in the driver’s seat, Van Raalt and ‘Dutch piece’ in the back. Something never properly explained happened in the back seat, and the woman ‘passed out’ slumping towards Jack. Van Raalt ordered Jack to drive towards the woods. The two men got out of the Rover, carrying the unconscious woman to a hollowed out oak tree in Hagley Wood. The two men placed her inside the tree. 

At least this was the story Una finally gave the police in 1953. 

Una was long separated from Jack at this point. Furthermore, Jack was long deceased. He became an even heavier drinker after after that night. His headaches and nightmares increased. He worked less – but if anything, his cashflow seemed to increase. Una was convinced Jack too was a spy. He became increasingly emotionally distant, violent and moody. While Jack may well have been seeing other women before the incident with the ‘Dutch Piece’ he was now increasingly turning to other women for comfort. A fed up Una had enough, and left him in December 1941. 

After Una left, Jack Mossop’s behaviour became noticeably erratic – and in June 1942, he was committed to a mental health facility. He died there in August 1942, aged 29. His coroner’s report has been read by some to that he was suffering from the chronic traumatic encephalopathy punch drunk boxers, professional wrestlers and American football players can often suffer from. My read, as a former investigator often employed to find next of kins of deceased customers with unclaimed insurance policies – ie. not a medical professional, but someone who has read many death certificates – His heavy drinking had badly damaged his heart. His kidneys were also shot. He more likely than not died of a stroke caused by the heart damage. 

This Tale was kept under wraps to the public at large, but leaked to the newspapers by a whistleblower, in 1958. That leaker, Anna of Claverley was Una. These articles told of a Nazi spy ring in the Midlands, who were out to infiltrate the many arms factories dotted across the region. Bella was, according to this telling, a Nazi spy and occultist known as ‘Clarabella’. She’d parachuted in earlier in 1941, under the direction of a Nazi intelligence service known as the Abwehr. Abwehr records released postwar state a woman, code named ‘Clara’ was parachuted into the West Midlands – but after she failed to make contact, they presumed her killed in action. ‘Clara’ was far from the only Nazi spy parachuted into the United Kingdom. Seventeen spies were caught entering the UK in 1941 alone. One worthy of discussion is Josef Jakobs.

Josef Jakobs

Josef Jakobs was 43 years old when he was captured in January 1941. Born in Luxembourg, he fought for Germany in the First World War. When World War Two broke out, he was called up to fight – serving as an officer until the Nazis discovered he’d spent four years in jail in Switzerland between the wars, for selling imitation gold as real. Surprisingly Nazi Germany felt this made him unfit to lead men into battle. This didn’t make him ineligible for a job as a spy.

On 31st January, Jakobs parachuted into Ramsey, Huntingdonshire – in the East of England. He landed badly, breaking his ankle. He was arrested the following day – hobbling along in his flying suit. He was carrying £500, a counterfeit ID, a radio transmitter, a photograph and a German sausage. He was caught after he fired his pistol into the air like a flare gun. The pain of his broken ankle had gotten too much for him to bear. The home guard arrested him, then handed him over to MI5.

Jakobs gave a voluntary statement to MI5. This included an explanation of the photograph of a woman he had on him – the woman was not his wife. The woman in the picture was his lover, a German cabaret singer and actress named Clara Bauerle. Bauerle was also a spy, and, according to Jakobs, was due to jump somewhere over the West Midlands. She knew people there. Bauerle was a cabaret singer in West Midlands clubs in the 1930s. Jakobs was court-martialled as an enemy combatant, and executed by firing squad on August 15th 1941. He was the last man to be executed at the Tower of London. 

So mystery solved? Bella was a German cabaret singer and actress – allegedly with occult leanings – parachuted in to sabotage weapons factories? Had she, for some unexplained reason, fallen out with her compatriots – who then killed her? For decades this was advanced as the most likely scenario. This theory imploded in 2015. 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? Use of DNA as with Australia’s Somerton Man case in Australia? Impossible in this case, as Bella’s remains went missing at an undisclosed point between her discovery and the advent of DNA testing. Currently there is one lead. Bella’s skull was photographed, and those photos do still exist. In 2018 Caroline Richardson, an artist who specialises in creating facial reconstructions of the long deceased created a portrait of Bella. It’s always possible someone, somewhere has a shoebox of old family photos. While these are often treasured items for the children, such ephemera often gets donated to museums by the grandkids’ generation. It’s not inconceivable a photo may surface – not out of the question someone will recognise it’s significance when it does. Who put Bella in the Wych Elm is a nice to know, and we may never know – but who she really was? That’s the question I’d really like answered. 

Quick sidebar especially for the New Zealanders: Viscount Cobham, family name Lyttelton, had a son who became New Zealand’s 9th Governor General. He was a member of the English cricket team, who toured New Zealand in 1935. Charles Lyttelton Cobham fell for our little part of the world while here. He served as Governor General, from 1957 to 1962. 

Governor General Cobham was a popular proxy for the crown. He established Outward Bound, a non-profit organisation who help struggling kids by providing them adventures designed to teach the kids they are capable of much more than they ever realised. He compiled a book of his speeches while in office, which sold well. All profits from the book were donated to Outward Bound.

The Lytteltons’ had deep ties to New Zealand. Charles’ great grandfather, George Lyttelton was head of the ‘Canterbury Association’ – who planned the European settlement of Christchurch. There is a reason several names in this tale may ring a bell. Lyttelton Harbour and Hagley Park were both named in honour of George, the elder Lord Cobham. 

The Wall Street Coup, Part Two

The Wall Street Coup Part Two Tales of History and Imagination

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

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

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

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

“Too many people are starving!”

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

Roosevelt, Miami Feb 15 1933

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part Two:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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