Category Archives: Crime & Punishment

From killer lawmen to likeable rogues and all kinds in between

Spencer Perceval

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bottle Conjuror


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Beyond the Archway…

Content Warning: This episode discusses Pseudocide – the act of faking one’s own death.
I also cut and slashed at this script considerably in the podcast editing process. I think some parts which still work here didn’t in that format this week.

This week we start with a brief detour to Waitakere, New Zealand – the city where I grew up. If telling a tale closer to my own time I might be speaking of a fiercely proud, growing, largely working class city that really boomed in the wake of World War Two. Postwar the country moved from a largely agrarian economy – one big old farm – to an increasingly industrial one. Suburban, quarter acre dreams flourished among the returning soldiers, as the back blocks of West Auckland grew into suburbia. Many of these burbs seemed a little soulless when compared to earlier villages, and suburban neurosis grew among the mothers particularly, who at least in the 1950s were still the homemakers, as a general rule – cue Pete Seeger’s ‘Little Boxes’  

But no, this tale is somewhat earlier – even if it too concentrates on dissatisfaction and inertia. In the 1840s European settlers arrived in Waitakere, some buying large blocks of land from the Maori, Ngati Whatua tribe. Our digression is seven decades after this, when a handful of small, rural settlements were in existence in West Auckland – largely surrounded by towering kauri forests. Intrepid souls came to log the Kauri trees, dig the kauri gum, and turn flax into rope. Over time orchards and wineries grew on land already denuded of Kauri. A brick works supplying a familiar red block first appeared in the 1860s – a few years after Crown Lynn pottery (first set up in Hobsonville in the 1850s- an area later known for it’s airforce base – but moving nearer the brick works in New Lynn in the 1920s)  

Kauri loggers in the Waitakere Ranges

Waitakere was quiet, largely rustic and enveloped in bush – the local word for local forest.

On those red bricks… It is 1910 and a couple of young kids are out exploring the mangrove swamps in a small, leaky rowboat. Mangroves like these are still there, though the creeks, streams and inlets – Huruhuru, Henderson’s, Oratia – and the rest were all much deeper then as a general rule. With little expectation of finding anything man-made, these two kids pushed on through twisting, convoluted waterways – till they stumbled upon an archway made of those red clay bricks. Someone had tunnelled into the shoreline – cutting a small harbour just beyond the arch. Beyond that, an orchard full of apple, plum and pear trees. Further tunnels were cut into the shore, containing store rooms for apples, a fairly rudimentary shack, and a library. 

Docked, a sea-worthy vessel named the Awatea. On board a man presumed dead for close to a decade. That man is a diversion from our main Tale – but he’s worthy of a little explanation. 

Henry Swan was born in Gateshead, England around 1856. Born to wealthy railroad investors, Henry wanted for nothing growing up. He studied law, and on graduation, went straight into partnership with the firm Arnott and Swan. From what little we know of him, he worked at Arnott & Swan till the mid 1890s – afterwards, with his wife Edith, packing up and moving to New Zealand.

I can’t say what he wanted out of New Zealand, but Devonport, on Auckland’s North Shore – even now a village with more than it’s share of Victorian English charm – wasn’t it. Henry became increasingly restless, and in 1901 bought the Awatea. In 1895, an American adventurer named Joshua Slocum set off on a record-breaking voyage in his own sloop – the Spray. A little over three years later he returned, becoming the first person to circumnavigate the world alone. His book, ‘Sailing alone Around the World’ – retold Slocum’s voyage. In 1901 this book was a popular new release. 

Henry Swan announced to Edith he was following in Slocum’s footsteps. Little did his friends or family know he’d quietly bought 69 acres of land near Henderson Creek. He sold all but 13 acres – which he kept for himself. 

While Henry’s friends and family all thought he was lost at sea, he was living the simple life.  He toiled in his orchard, cross-breeding fruit trees. He read his books. He swam in the creek. When word got out there was a hermit in the creek, numbers of curious visitors started to show up. Henry, it turns out, enjoyed their company. He made friends in the area and started to dig further into the embankments to make a wading pool where local kids could learn to swim. A fire and, later, flooding wrecked much of his orchard, library and shack in the 1920s. 

Henry Swan continued to live on his boat – beyond the brick archway – till his death in 1931, aged 75. Edith lived on till 1940, in Devonport, apparently none the wiser as to her husband’s fate. 

I mention Henry’s tale as, though the water is long gone, a portion of his arch remains along Central Park Drive. When I taught at a West Auckland high school I’d pass it most mornings. When I’ve explained the origin of Swan’s Arch to friends before, most were surprised and had never heard the Tale, though they knew the landmark… so to any curious Westies, there you go…  

But Henry Swan is also an example of pseudocide – the practice of faking one’s own death to begin anew. New Zealand has a few notable tales to tell on that subject.   

Take, for example, Grace Oakeshott. 

Grace Oakeshott was born in Hackney, England in 1872 to Elizabeth and James Cash. The Cash family were upwardly mobile, James making a good living selling stationery. They were also progressives who believed women deserved many of the same opportunities as men – education included. Because of this, Grace and her sisters did receive a good education -Grace going on to study at Cambridge University for a year in 1893. At this point Cambridge had begun admitting women, but not yet allowing them to gain any qualifications for their hard work (they could only sit an exam referred to as ‘a little go’ – and presumably tell people they gave university ‘a little go’). In the years following Cambridge, Grace became involved in activism. Briefly a teacher, she took a job as a factory inspector for the Women’s Industrial Council – a group concerned with women’s wages and workplace safety. Some time in the early 1890s she met and fell in love with Harold Oakeshott – a tea taster by day, socialist activist by night. The couple married in 1896. 

Though a tea taster, Harold was far from a teetotaller – unbeknownst to most who knew him, Harold was a raging alcoholic. This was very likely a big push factor in Grace’s disappearance. 

Walter, Harold and Grace – 1907. Sorry, every time I tried to cartoon this Grace’s face disappeared.

In 1899 Grace and Harold joined Grace’s brother on a sailing holiday. Also on the jaunt, a young medical student friend of Grace’s brother, named Walter Reeve. A good time was had by all, and afterwards all went back to their day to day drudgery. They repeated the holiday the following year, and the first signs appeared that Grace and Walter were fond of one another – one night as the two went for a moonlight boat ride. Harold missed the boat, having drunk himself into a stupor. Following this holiday, not only did Grace, Harold and Walter keep in touch, the three became inseparable….

… and nothing much of note happened till 1907. Walter graduated from medical school, and was looking for working opportunities in New Zealand. One view of New Zealand in 1907 was it was a burgeoning working class utopia. Some time in 1840 a carpenter named Samuel Parnell started the eight hour workday by refusing to work longer. This took off with other workers, becoming commonplace. 

In September 1893, owing to a lot of lobbying, women gained the right to vote in elections. Universal male suffrage didn’t even come to the UK till 1918 – New Zealand was there in 1879. 

While I don’t want to gloss over all manner of issues New Zealand had at the time, largely around treatment of Maori, and of Asian immigrants – it was seen as a workers paradise, where the proletariat had no need to doff one’s cap to their supposed betters. 

Back to Walter’s job opportunities, Grace’s unhappy marriage – and, well… poor old Harold. Grace had by then fallen in love with Walter. She wanted nothing more than to move to New Zealand too – but being now of a respected class – she counted H.G Wells and William Morris among her friends – she felt divorce was not an option. 

On August 27th 1907 Grace travelled to Brittany, France for a holiday. One day (for some reason I imagine it a stormy, inky dark night; the water frigid and crashing hard on the beach – but this was in summer, and I’ve never seen a report that states at what time of day she disappeared) Grace folded her clothes on the beach, went out for a swim – and was never seen again. 

Joan Reeve, on the other hand – newly wedded to Dr Walter Reeve, appears to have swum over to the next beach, got dressed, met up with her husband – and on 26th September boarded a ship, first to Australia, then New Zealand. Joan and Walter settled in Gisborne, New Zealand. They had three children together. Joan became involved in local activism, earning an MBE for her hard work. 

Joan Reeve, formerly Grace Oakeshott, died of multiple sclerosis, 11th December 1928.

My final case study, that of Ron Jorgensen, is altogether far murkier. To tell this Tale I needs must cover an infamous murder. But first, briefly back to the era of the Reeves. 

A self portrait of Ron Jorgensen

New Zealand were the first nation where women had the right to vote in democratic elections. One major reason for this was, since the 1880s there had been a big push to ban alcohol by the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement – headed by one Kate Sheppard. While some politicians pushed for the enfranchisement of women from the late 1870s primarily due to the influence of utilitarian thinkers like John Stuart Mill, there was also a faction swayed by an opposition to “the demon drink”. Others were likely populists who recognised women were a large potential voting base for them. 

When women won the right to vote in 1893, under prime minister (technically premier) Richard Seddon – a former pub landlord – prohibition did not naturally follow. 

In December 1917 the prohibitionists got a partial ban. A law passed which forced bars to close at 6pm.  This had a range of unexpected side-effects. First, the publicans were relieved by this law – as this meant an end to the meddling of the prohibitionists. Second, it caused the ‘Six O’Clock Swill’. Most drinkers finished work at five, rushed to their local, then tried to force an evening’s worth of booze down their necks in the space of an hour. One could guess how that often worked out. Third, it created opportunities for petty criminals to make easy money by setting up ‘sly grogs’ and ‘beer houses’ – after hours bars in suburban homes. 

For the following five decades the sly grogs operated, catering to ship and dock workers, beatniks, rugby league players, boxers, rich folk with a penchant for ‘slumming it’ and career criminals. These secretive clubs were, it turned out, also instrumental in embedding organised crime networks in New Zealand. Many connections were forged in the sly grogs. Many plots hatched. 

The six o’clock swill was still very much a thing on December 7th 1963 when Eric Lewis, a landlord, banged at the door of 115 Bassett Road, Remuera. He was there to collect the rent from the tenants. When no-one answered, Lewis dodged the growing pile of milk bottles, and unlocked the door. On cracking the front door the landlord was struck by the stench of two bodies on the turn. In the front bedroom the bodies of Kevin Speight, a 26 year old sailor and George ‘Knucklehead’ Walker, a 34 year old with a reputation as a gangland enforcer. Both men had been shot to death with a Reising sub machine gun – as unreliable a gun as you could hope for in the early 60s. This was evidenced by the fact only six bullets were found in the victims – it’s thought the gun jammed at this point. This didn’t stop the NZ Truth Newspaper framing the killing as our version of the St Valentine’s Day Massacre – their headline “Chicago Comes to Auckland”. 

Police soon ascertained the property was being used as a sly grog.

A few days after the killings, police were visited by future Prime Minister of New Zealand Rob Muldoon. With the politician, a chef who had a story to tell. The chef was visited at work, just after the killings, by an old friend named John Gillies. Gillies was a petty thief and occasional seaman who had recently been expelled from Australia. He was drunk and had a tale to insinuate.

Rob Muldoon at a later date (see further down)

As Gillies told it “one general sent another general a telegram – Grenades on the way…” The other general, naturally got machine guns. Some big trouble was on it’s way. The public would be shocked. The crook indicated his involvement in whatever happened. When the bodies were found, the chef put two and two together. 

Now, New Zealand was not a place full of machine gun murders. Some soldiers were believed to have come back from World War Two and held onto their guns in civilian life. It was said smuggling all manner of illicit goods into the country was not terribly difficult at the time. In 1934 a group of thieves stole a Vickers machine gun from a New Lynn church (where it was stored for a group of Territorials). The culprits were never caught – but in a country where murder was then a rarity, death by machine gun was unheard of. The gun, of course was public knowledge. That police found two disarmed grenades and a telegram threatening another Sly Grog owner, was not known outside of the investigation. 

After some effort by police the tale unravelled. In the weeks leading up to the murder, Gillies was badly beaten up trying to break up a domestic incident between a bouncer from a rival club in Anglesea Street, Ponsonby and the bouncer’s girlfriend. His ego as bruised as his body, Gillies swore revenge on the bouncer, Barry ‘Machine Gun’ Shaw (so named for mowing down other players on the rugby field as a younger man). Gillies found a friend of a friend who collected rare guns. This friend of a friend, the son of a wealthy clothing manufacturer, had a machine gun. 

As a quick sidebar, a teenaged John Banks – another unpleasant guy, who later became mayor of Auckland – saw the machine gun a week before the shooting. His family were underworld figures, and the tale has it Banks got to fire the gun in his back yard. 

When Gillies showed up at the Anglesea Street Sly Grog to machine gun machine gun, he found Shaw had taken the night off. With nothing else to do, he entered, bought a drink, and got talking to a couple of blokes there. They turned out to be the owners of the pub. The pub was run by an ageing sailor with a teenaged girlfriend named Gerry Wilby – and a hard-boiled crim named Ron Jorgensen. A few drinks in Gillies got his gun out, and someone there offered him a little work. Gillies and a second person would go to 115 Bassett Road and deal to Speight. The issue it seems, that led to Gillies being hired for a murder – Wilby – a man in his 60s only needed his seventeen year old girlfriend when on land. He was happy for her to see other men while he was away. When home however, he expected her to be all his. Mary, his girlfriend had fallen for Speight while Wilby was away. Likewise Speight had fallen in love with Mary and planned to take her from Wilby. This had led to the conflict, angry telegrams and threats of grenades – and eventually murder. After Jorgensen called the operator for driving instructions to Bassett road, two people left for the property. 

The police arrested Gillies and Jorgensen, and with some evidence pointing towards Gillies (not the gun itself – that apparently got thrown off the Auckland Harbour bridge), and not a lot of evidence towards Jorgensen – both men were convicted of the murder and given life sentences. 

But to our pseudocide? 

Ron Jorgensen became something of a celebrity while in prison. He learned to speak Maori and translated Maori language books into braille. He also learned to paint – proving extremely adept at it. His lawyer, Peter Williams …

(sidebar, not the news reader who hosted the episode of Mastermind I was in, this was another Peter Williams – kiwis of a certain age will remember the lawyer well)

…launched a campaign to release Jorgensen. Though the campaign got a lot of support, Jorgensen never got a retrial. He was released in the mid 1970s, but was soon returned after getting caught up in a drug ring.  

A Ron Jorgensen painting of Kaikoura

He served his jail term until 1983, then was paroled to his father’s home in Kaikoura – a former whaling town on the other side of the country where you can now shoot whales – with a camera. I’ve never been there myself, so could not testify to the merits, or lack of for the town – Jorgensen hated being stuck with his father out in the sticks. He continued to paint, though never saw much back for his works. Paintings given away for a couple of beers have since gone on to make thousands of dollars at auction. 

Though generally tied to Kaikoura, he got approval to help his friend, property tycoon Bob Jones and his ‘New Zealand Party’, run for parliament. For a while he stayed in the city of Christchurch. Jones’ party failed to get into parliament, but stole enough right wing votes to knock Rob Muldoon’s National Party out of contention. Of course Muldoon wasn’t helping himself – his slurred, drunken announcement of a snap election summed up his final tilt for power – Muldoon’s run as prime minister was over. 

Soon after, Ron Jorgensen’s car was found down the bottom of a cliff, near the ocean. It was an odd scene in that no body was inside the vehicle. Had he been inside there was no chance he could have crawled away from the wreck – the car was so compacted in on itself. Up on the cliff there were no brake marks. 

It is believed Ron Jorgensen faked his own death by pushing the vehicle over the edge. He was never conclusively seen again. 

From here it gets murky. One theory has it, after ditching the car he boarded a boat, which took him out to another vessel headed for Australia. In the years since former friends and a prison guard have claimed to have seen Jorgensen in Perth, Western Australia. Another theory has it he went to Australia, but only after sharing information with police about a drug ring running out of Christchurch. This theory presumes he was using his time in Christchurch to do business with the drug ring. Soon after his disappearance, a large drug bust went down. Had Jorgensen turned informer, perhaps even set up this ring. Afterwards, did the police resettle him across the ditch? 

A third theory meets somewhere in the middle. Jorgensen faked his own death, and was on a boat out at sea when he was murdered and thrown overboard? Perhaps he was suspected of talking to police about the drug ring, and perhaps he had spoken to the police, necessitating his hurried attempt to escape? This is the theory many of his friends from the underworld believed. 

While I’d say the case of Ron Jorgensen is likely to never be solved I should sign off by pointing out sometimes the truth does out many years later. The disappearance of Grace Oakeshott was not uncovered till a century after she faked her own death. Joan Reeve’s great grand-daughter wrote a play about her great grandmother. This came to the attention of Jocelyn Robson, an academic based in England who specialises in the female activists of Grace’s time. Robson found society photos of Joan and put two and two together. Something similar could still happen in the case of Ron Jorgensen – stranger things have happened.  

Dr Sweet’s Defence

Doctor Sweet’s Defence Tales of History and Imagination

Content Warning: This week’s post briefly discusses a lynching and other horrific things…

Our Tale this week opens on an ugly siege. The date September 9th 1925. The location 2905 Garland Street, Detroit, Michigan. The eleven men and women inside the house have provoked the ire of the Waterworks Improvement Association – the offence? daring to move in to a ‘nice neighbourhood’. In spite of a police presence, the large mob gathered across the road at the school on the 8th. The mob had grown even larger on the second night. Truthfully the police are only there to say the police were in attendance – and that they tried their best. When ‘Improvement clubs’ or ‘Neighbourhood associations’ are established, the police usually watch impassively. When people are hurt or killed, or properties are razed to the ground, it’s astonishing how often they were dealing with something else – and were sadly facing in the wrong direction at the time. 

Inside, the new owner, his wife Gladys, two of his brothers – and a handful of friends. Heavily outnumbered, at least the besieged had guns and a large supply of ammo.

 Just after 11pm, the Waterworks Improvement Association made their move. Yelling and hollering, the mob descended upon the house – throwing rocks at the property. As two windows were smashed and the mob were getting too close to the property, the besieged fired a fusillade of gunfire into the rabble. A man in the crowd was felled. Panicked, the mob dispersed – A ten year old neighbour later describing how the streets were too narrow to contain their hurried retreat. 

Now, of course, the dozen police officers present did get involved – and arrested the eleven in the house immediately. 

The occupant was one Ossian Sweet – a 30 year old doctor, recently returned from Austria and France. The real reason for the violent reception from the Waterworks Improvement Association? Ossian, Gladys and their young child were all African Americans moving into a white neighbourhood. 

Born in 1895 in Bartow, Florida to working class parents, Ossian grew up well aware of the horrors of a system that continued to discriminate against black Americans. The brief Reconstruction era post US Civil War failed to bring lasting equality. Jim Crow era America reverted to a system apt to subjugate, criminalise, and on occasion – to execute members of a group it saw as either perpetual children or animals. Aged five, Sweet witnessed a horrific lynching while hiding behind a bush. The victim, a black man, was tied to a stake then burned alive in front of a rapturous crowd. As was often the case, onlookers took mementos from the killing – tearing pieces of burnt flesh from the body. Though I couldn’t tell you why this particular man was murdered – somewhere in the order of five thousand Americans – mostly black – were lynched in the Jim Crow era for anything from accusations of murder through to flirting with a white woman. 

Ossian was living in a time of some positive change, however. His grandparents had been slaves, his parents laboured for wages. He would become a physician. The year he was born, Booker T Washington – the famed educator who founded the Tuskegee Institute – gave a speech known as the ‘Atlanta Compromise’. In the speech he called for young black people to take up vocational training in working class trades. He called for young intellectuals to stop agitating against the ‘Seperate but equal’ Jim Crow laws, and to step away from higher education or aspirations of political office. In return he called on the white community to get fully behind the up-skilling of the black community. His biggest rival, fellow educationalist W.E.B Du Bois called the compromise out, pointing out it would embed the black community forever as second class citizens in America. His rival plan – to ensure the ‘Talented Tenth’ – the smartest ten percent of black kids – got higher educations and entered the higher professions. 

Ossian and his brothers were of the ten percent. Aged 13 he was sent to live in Ohio, He studied at Wilberforce University – America’s first black university – in Ohio, before enrolling in medical school at Howard University, Washington DC. 

While in University, Ossian witnessed another horrific incident. A black man was pulled from a streetcar by a white mob, just blocks from his campus. Far from a one off, this was a small part of what became known as the ‘Red Summer’.  

The First World War breaking out in Europe was an economic boon for the Industrial cities in the North of the USA – something especially true of car manufacturers. While the Jeep was a whole world war away, armour plated vehicles – Ford Model T’s among them – were just flying off the production lines. There were barely enough men in the factories as it was, when the USA entered the war in 1917. To keep production lines going, factories sent recruiters into the South to find able-bodied men.

The ‘Great Migration’ a mass relocation north for tens of thousands of black Americans had begun a few years earlier, but this accelerated the process immensely. The African American population of Detroit, for example, grew twenty-fold between 1910 and 1930. While the First Great Migration brought hundreds of thousands of black Americans northwards – it also brought similar numbers of white southerners. Many of these new arrivals carried with them the white supremacist beliefs of the Ku Klux Klan. This led to a rise in white supremacist activity in the North (for example, the Detroit chapter of the KKK alone had 100,000 members – and even nearly got one of their own, Charles S. Bowles, elected as mayor). 

Yeah, these assholes…

Being uncertain times, formerly fringe ideas spread easily in the North – a wave of white supremacist violence towards black people in dozens of cities was the result. Whenever black people tried to band together for protection, they were branded – especially in the press – as Bolsheviks, or at least in league with communists and anarchists. A number of civil rights leaders were socialists, but this was rhetoric meant to scare everyday white people into backing the KKK. The Klan violence had everything to do with some white people objecting to working and living alongside black people, and little to do with ‘reds under the bed’. 

At least 250 black Americans were murdered, hundreds more injured in the Red Summer. Many more besides were left homeless in the wake of the riots. 

Dr Sweet moved to Detroit in 1921, setting up a practice in Black Bottom – an over-populated black neighbourhood. He met, and fell in love with Gladys Mitchell. The two married in 1923 – and for a while moved to Europe – where Ossian continued his studies. On their return – now with a young child – they sought out a home of their own. Time and again they were turned away from white, middle class homes in wealthier neighbourhoods. Though the North was not segregated in quite the same way as the South, local government bodies could enact all kinds of ordinances making it difficult for black people to buy in white neighbourhoods. Sellers would often raise the price for black buyers without consequence too. When the couple bought 2905 Garland Street in June 1925 – in a white working class neighbourhood – they grudgingly paid more than $18,500 for a property valued at only around $12,500 to a white buyer. 

As soon as word got out a black family were moving in – locals formed an ‘improvement association’ under the pretence they were meeting to discuss the neighbourhood’s water pipes. Plans were soon under way to do as numerous other ‘improvement associations’ had before them – to violently force the Sweets out, back into the overcrowded ‘black’ neighbourhoods. 

Now given all that’s been said so far, I’m wary of introducing a ‘white saviour’ figure to this tale – but I needs must introduce Clarence Darrow. Known as ‘the attorney for the damned’, Clarence Darrow really was a remarkable figure. Born in Ohio in 1857, Darrow came from a family of abolitionists and free thinkers – and very much carried on their tradition. I won’t say too much on him today (I’ll come back to Clarence for future Tales) but if you can imagine most stereotypical television geniuses of the last few decades – unkempt, non-conformist, too damn good at their job to be let go for their eccentricities – you’re in the right ballpark for Mr Darrow. His nickname says it all really – if Clarence Darrow couldn’t help you, nobody could. In the wake of the arrests, the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) held fundraisers in cities across the North – and secured the money to hire Darrow to defend the Sweet family and their co-defendants. 

Clarence Darrow

Initially, all eleven accused were tried together. In a courtroom, in front of a dozen white men, Darrow argued not just that the Sweets were defending their property as the law allows them to – but that they were the victims of a system stacked against them due to the colour of their skin. In his autobiography he makes mention of the fact the prosecution called up to seventy five witnesses, who all claimed they were out on the street and saw the shooting – but claimed there was no large crowd of people – just let that sink in for a while. Darrow struggled to find witnesses, due to the neighbourhood closing ranks – but made easy work of the witnesses in cross examination. With the media firmly on the side of the white mob, as well as most of Detroit’s leading citizens, Darrow still secured a hung jury. 

When the case was retried – this time individually trying the Sweets (starting with Ossian’s brother Henry – the shooter, and at the time a university student), Darrow won the case – leading to the State’s attorney dropping the charges against the other defendants. 

Were this a movie, this is the point where the family live happily ever after. They are released immediately. Cut to scene of a party with some hot jazz playing on the gramophone. Perhaps the white saviour lawyer is there as the guest of honour… The neighbours have learnt the foolishness of their ways, and Dr Sweet is welcomed into the community as one of their own. This was, however, real life. Once arrested, the defendants were refused bail. In the dank, miserable jail cells, Gladys Sweet caught tuberculosis – and passed away soon after – but not before she inadvertently passed the disease to their child – who also died from consumption. Ossian Sweet resumed his medical practice, but never returned to 2905 Garland Street. He never really got over the incident, or the loss of his family. Ossian Sweet sold the house in the 1950s, and feeling all too world weary, took his own life in 1960. 

Though hardly the most uplifting tale, the story of Ossian Sweet is something that keeps coming back to me. Not to say he wasn’t a remarkable guy (to become a doctor requires a high level of smarts. To remain calm in the face of a raging mob incredible toughness), but I think that his experience was not uncommon makes it chilling to me. There is something of this also feels far too current for comfort.     

As a final word; Clarence Darrow appealed to the better nature of the jury when he said “To me this case is a cross section of human history; it involves the future, and the hope of some of us that the future shall be better than the past”.

While in the box, Ossian Sweet also made a statement,  
“I opened the door, I saw the mob and I realised I was facing the same mob that had hounded my people throughout our entire history. I was filled with a fear that only one could experience who knows the history and strivings of my race” 

February 2022 is Black History Month. As a pakeha (white) New Zealander I’m far from the best person to be telling tales like this. Luckily there’s no shortage of African American historians out there – shining a light on African American history in a way I could only dream of. I found this British site covering their own Black History Month (the practice started in the USA as a week only in 1926, the UK started observing the month in 1987) 

The American site, for African American History month is here, and has several other sites which observe the month in their about section.

Premium Content: The Salmesbury Witches

Hey all I’m taking the paywall off the next two Premium Tales. The podcast episode can be found on my Patreon.
Normally you can access the bonus scripts here for $1.00 a month, the podcast episodes for $2.00 (USD)


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“

The Pendle Witches (Part Two)

The Pendle Witches (Part Two) Tales of History and Imagination

This week, let me begin with a personal digression. For a little over a decade I rented a place my friends and I referred to as the ‘Beach House’. In a few ways it was what one imagines – a ramshackle old house in a neighbourhood with the word ‘Bay’ in the title. Sure enough you got sea breezes – and could smell the salt in the air out in the courtyard – that sea air was potent enough, by the way, that it rusted ordinary padlocks in nothing flat. Occasionally a passing seagull would drop a present on the roof of your car. Occasionally on a very quiet night you’d swear you could hear the waves lapping at the shore. The naming of the property was just some pompous, facetious, Hyacinth Bucket level nonsense though and we knew it. The worst house on a posh street, we were a long way from the beach. The house was on a stretch of road where our side slumped into a wooded hovel, hemmed in by trees – with never enough sunlight. The other side of the road, however, was occupied by business owners and executives. Their houses stood proud and tall on a hill. Stunning properties with the stunning sea views one expects of a real ‘beach house’. 

I mention this as Alizon’s grandmother, Old Demdike, lived in a property with the suitably witchy name, Malkin Tower. A cursory Google of the name brings up a beat up old tower atop a hilltop. Brooding, solitary and windswept, it looks precisely the kind of place a coven of witches might engage in malicious activity round a steaming cauldron. This however is a Victorian folly called Blacko Tower, built in Pendle Hill by a mill owner who, not unlike my former neighbours, wanted a million dollar view of the valley – some time around 1890. 

When I tell you Alizon’s interview with Justice Nowell went horrifically badly, and 10th April 1612, friends and family gathered at Malkin Tower to plan their next move – they met at an ordinary 17th century cottage. 

Which is precisely what happened. 

We left off last week with Alizon Device being interviewed by justice of the peace Nowell for bewitching a pedlar named John Law. Alizon broke immediately. As soon as Alizon confessed to selling her soul to the devil, and to hexing John Law, she’d unwittingly confessed to being part of a criminal organisation. Witches always belong to covens after all. Roger Nowell wanted to know who else belonged to the Coven? After some questioning Alizon claimed her grandmother once used witchcraft to kill a neighbour’s cow. When Nowell turned his attention to Alizon’s mother Elizabeth, she held up to the interrogation for longer, but eventually broke – admitting she’s seen a ‘witch’s teat’ – an odd lump from which a witches familiar, or even the Devil may suck a witches blood – on the grandmother Old Demdike.

James, who was thought of as ‘simple’ further dug Alizon’s grave, claiming she’d confessed to bewitching a child to him once. 

 Knowing they were in trouble, the women then attempted to divert attention from themselves, towards the Chattox family – the other clan of wise women in the village.   

The Chattoxes were, similarly, a matriarchy run by an ageing grandmother – who was also believed by locals to have supernatural powers. Their matriarch was Anne Whittle aka old Chattox. She had two daughters, Elizabeth and Anne Redfern. 

The two families had been at odds with one another for over a decade – after the Chattoxes broke into Malkin Tower in 1601 and stole clothes and oatmeal from the Demdikes. The Demdikes soon cornered Anne Redfearn’s husband, John, demanding a year’s supply of oatmeal, or they would retaliate. John agreed to their terms, and kept to his word, until he could no longer afford to pay them. Soon after John was struck with an illness and died. On his deathbed he accused the Demdikes of murder. 

Alizon shared a tale with Nowell, of Anne Whittle, the matriarch. Anne had gotten into an argument with a Higham village local named John Moore. Moore was telling people in the village Old Chattox had turned his ale sour. In retaliation Old Chattox allegedly murdered Moore’s young son using something like a clay voodoo doll. She went further. Old Chattox had killed four men she knew of, including her own father. For now Alizon was detained, Elizabeth and James released. Orders were sent to bring in Old Demdike and the Chattoxes. The two elders immediately confessed to selling their souls to the devil – and eventually, the other charges laid against them. Old Demdike, Old Chattox and Anne Redfearn were marched to the dungeon below the Assize court and chained to a wall, next to Alizon. They’d remain there till the trial.  

The gathering at Malkin Tower on Good Friday 1612 might have gone unnoticed, but for a stolen sheep. A large gathering required food – so James Device stole, then butchered a neighbour’s sheep. Gossip soon spread about the theft, and the meeting – and as gossip often does, it got exaggerated in the retelling. A strategy meeting soon became a black mass, full of demonic rituals – and of course plans to seek vengeance against the Justice of the Peace. As soon as word got back to Justice Nowell on 27th April, he arrested the remainder of the family, including nine year old Jennet Device. Eight more people; Elizabeth Device, James Device, Alice Nutter, Katherine Hewitt, John and Jane Bulcock, Alice Grey and Jennet Preston were charged with witchcraft and multiple acts of murder. 

A trial date of 17th August 1612 was set at the Lancaster Assizes for all but Old Demdike – who became ill in prison and died, and Jennet Preston.

Preston lived in York, and faced charges of murdering a man named Thomas Lister four years earlier. She had beaten an earlier accusation, of murdering a child by witchcraft, so was already known to the two judges, James Altham and Sir Edward Bromley. This time she was facing a dying man’s last words, and what then counted as post-mortem evidence. On his death bed, the nobleman Lister allegedly exclaimed 

“Jennet Preston lyes heauie vpon me, Preston’s wife lies heauie vpon me; helpe me, helpe me”
before he took his last breath. Preston was brought before his ‘corpse’. Lister’s body, it was said, condemned her by bleeding for all to see. In 1612 a bleeding corpse was seen less as a sign the patient may still be alive, more a sign they had crossed back to the land of the living to ensure their killer was punished. A bleeding corpse was thought a sign of the guilt of the person before the body. As discussed back in ‘Buried Alive’ it’s estimated hundreds of poor souls were buried alive every year in the UK alone. 
This malicious tale was uncovered in the wake of Jennet’s arrest, as the justices made local enquiries.

This was evidence enough for Altham and Bromley. Jennet Preston was tried 27th July 1612 in York, found guilty, and hanged on the 29th.  

It has to be said Altham and Bromley were the last two judges the Pendle witches wanted presiding over their case. James Altham was a true believer in witchcraft, Malleus Maleficarum, and Daemonologie. He detested witches, believing the only good witch was a dead witch. Bromley was far more level headed, but hated being stuck in the North of England. No doubt he tired of the numbers of recusants (secret Catholics who refused to convert to Protestantism) regularly paraded before him in the North. It was the lifestyle in the North that bored him. Bromley wanted a promotion, and a relocation down to London. Something shocking involving a coven of witches may well be a chance to impress King James. These Assizes were his ticket back to ‘civilisation’. 
The Pendle Witches got Bromley.

On 17th August, the Pendle witches were brought before the court. For the most part it went as you might expect. Old Chattox was accused of the murder of Robert Nutter. She pled not guilty, then sat there as her earlier confession was read back at her. A boarder at her house, James Robinson was also called to confirm everyone believed her a witch. The verdict? Guilty. The developmentally challenged James had confessed all kinds of things for the family, including two murders among his own crimes. His confession was also read out in court. Nine year old Jennet Device was called to give evidence, and further damned her older brother. Likewise, a guilty verdict was returned. 

Anne Redfearn beat the charge of helping Old Chattox murder Robert Nutter – there was insufficient evidence. Unfortunately for her she was also charged with the murder of Robert’s father, Christopher. Though no evidence of this murder was presented, several witnesses were called to confirm Anne was a witch. This was enough for Bromley. Guilty, next!

Next was Jane and John Bulcock – guilty of murdering Jennet Deane, and of attending the Malkin Tower meeting. Again, they were damned by nine year old Jennet Device. She put them at Malkin Tower on the night, and that alone was good enough. Alice Nutter, the only defendant not to come from the peasant class, refused to make a statement beyond a pleading not guilty in the murder of Henry Mitton. She was found guilty. As was Katherine Hewitt. Both Hewitt and Alice Grey were accused by James Device of murdering a child named Anne Faulds. Based on nothing more than the testimony of a developmentally challenged young man, Katherine was found guilty, while Alice was let go – on the exact same evidence. 

Alizon was the only ‘witch’ to face an accuser in court. When told to look on John Law she broke down and reiterated her guilty plea. 

Alizon’s mother Elizabeth’s case was slightly more dramatic than the others. All along she maintained her innocence, but her life was literally in the hands of her nine year old daughter, Jennet. Whether Jennet had been coached (quite likely) or – as has been suggested was an imaginative kid who loved the all the attention the case brought her… of for that matter, as the folklore suggests – an unpopular kid whose head was suddenly turned by the attention she suddenly got
Whether she was aware of the implications of her star testimony – well, all of that’s all up for debate. What was absolutely certain, her testimony was damning. 

Elizabeth was accused of the murder of two men (James and John Robinson – one presumes a different James to the witness who damned Old Chattox). She was also accused of being an accomplice in the murder of Henry Mitton. As Jennet was brought forwards, Elizabeth lost all composure. She yelled and screamed hysterically at the young child – warning her to stop and tell the truth immediately before she damned the whole lot of them. For God’s sake child, think what you’re doing before you kill the lot of us! Elizabeth was restrained, then removed; kicking and screaming from the courtroom. Jennet proceeded to tell the court mummy had been a witch for some three of four years. She had a spirit familiar who took the form of a brown dog. The familiar was called Ball. Mummy had magical powers, and often spoke with Ball. (Ball of course spoke back). 

What did mummy and Ball discuss? Mummy asked Ball’s help many times to murder other villagers. 

Elizabeth Device was found guilty. The guilty were executed on August 20th 1612, by hanging. You may be pleased to know Sir Edward Bromley’s hard work didn’t go unnoticed by the King. Though it didn’t happen overnight, he did get his promotion, and moved to London in 1616. Jennet Device, of whom I’m not sure if she really deserved a comeuppance – well, at least if she were coached by unscrupulous adults – she too got her comeuppance.
In 1634 a 10 year old boy named Edmund Robinson accused Jennet of murdering a woman named Isabel Nutter. Again, the court took the testimony of a child as gospel, and Jennet was found guilty. Unlike her family, she was never hanged for her crime, but she did spend the rest of her natural life behind bars for the alleged crime. 

Witch trials continued in England till 1716. The last women executed for witchcraft was a Huntingdon woman named Mary Hicks, and her nine year old daughter Elizabeth. At that point in time few Britons believed in witchcraft anymore. All laws regarding witchcraft were finally repealed in 1735. By the end of Britain’s witch hunting era some 500 ’witches’ were executed in England, and 4,000 in Scotland. Close to 90% of the executed were women.
Several attempts have been made to pardon the Pendle Witches, recently in 1998 and 2018. Governments have refused to overturn the convictions, and at time of writing a petition is live, to be presented to Queen Elizabeth directly. At the time of recording this episode a petition had gone live to demand the Scottish parliament pardon all their executed witches. I, for one, believe it is well past time the victims of the witch hunts were acquitted.

The Pendle Witches (Part One)

The Pendle Witches (Part One) Tales of History and Imagination


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

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

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

A pedlar

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

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

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

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

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

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

But this all slowly changed in the late Middle Ages. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Campden Wonder – The ‘Murder’ of William Harrison Tales of History and Imagination


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

The Strange Life, and Death of William Desmond Taylor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mary Miles Minter

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

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

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

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

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

A ’Gibson Girl’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, that final suspect. 

Margaret Gibson & William Desmond Taylor in The Kiss.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm?

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

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

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

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

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

The so- called Witch Elm

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Josef Jakobs

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

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

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

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

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

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