Category Archives: Forteana

Three Short Tales…

Hey folks the internet tells me you all like lists, so I thought I’d fill a gap in the schedule with a short list, of short tales. This week’s tale is a triptych – a little like the Francis Bacon piece I borrowed for the featured image today…

One – Pirates!

Our first tale takes place on a Merchant vessel, off the coast of Honduras in 1717. This was an unsettling time to be a sailor in the Caribbean – The War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714) was a great time to be a privateer, but the resolution of the conflict (Philip V was allowed to ascend to the throne, but ceded numerous territories to Britain, Savoy and Austria) left many said privateers out of work. Large numbers of British and American pirates flooded into the Caribbean, making easy pickings of the merchant ships sailing through the region.

Picture this, the crew of a merchant vessel is completely blindsided by pirates. In the early hours of morning a boarding party sidled up to them in a sloop. Before the crew could react all hellfire and thunder breaks loose – as large, heavily bearded men threw the sailors around like rag dolls, brandished swords in their faces and corralled the crew onto the quarter deck. The crew are then forced onto their knees, then poked and prodded. “Look at the noggin on that one” I imagine one pirate commenting – “he’d do you right Pete”. I get an image of Pete passing comment that he must be a smart man, big headed people always are, while he runs a length of twine around the man’s forehead. I recall another passing one of the men over. “Nah, far too threadbare. I do have standards, you know”. The crew beg the pirates for mercy,
“Please spare us, take anything you wish – we just want to make it home to our loved ones”

A particularly terrifying pirate steps forward, demanding “Who’s the captain?” This pirate is Benjamin Hornigold – an up and coming buccaneer with five ships and 350 men under his command. Among his men one Edward Teach – known to history as Blackbeard.

“Why, sir… I… I am. Please sir, as a good Christian I beg you, spare our lives” The captain responded, meekly.

“Well, captain. What size hat do you wear?”

The night before Hornigold and his crew were out carousing. A good time was had by all. The drinks flowed, and the men partied into the wee small hours – when it struck them as a smart thing to do to throw one’s hat into the air – on a moving ship – with a wind strong enough to send the hats scattering. From there the hats all sank to the bottom of Davy Jones’ locker. As daylight came, and the men worried that sailing on bareheaded would lead to disaster, a plan was hatched to steal all the hats from a merchant ship spotted in the distance.

The pirates took the hats they needed, and nothing else. They returned to their own ship and let the merchant ship return to their business.

Two – Mr. 380.

Though really not big on ‘Big History’, I’ve heard it said a student once asked the anthropologist Margaret Mead what she considered the first sign of civilization. Her answer? A broken femur which has healed. In my time I have read a sum total of three books on Big History, little specific to anthropology, so am in no way qualified to offer an opinion – but I think it is a great anecdote to open my next short Tale…. Which is definitely not Big History.

The Lombards were a tribe of Germanic people who conquered and ruled much of Italy from 568 AD, till they were conquered themselves in 774 AD by the Frankish king Charlemagne. They are of indeterminate origin – their own 8th century historians stating they were from Southern Scandinavia – but Roman historians in the 1st Century BC count them among the Suebi, a group which originated in the Elbe river region of modern Germany and the Czech Republic. Their name lives on in the Northern Italian region of Lombardy.

Over two seasons 1985-86 and 1991-92 a group of archeologists came across, then excavated a Lombard graveyard in Veneto, Northern Italy. They uncovered 164 bodies, buried between the 6th and 8th centuries AD. One is of particular interest to our next tale.

The man in tomb T US 380 is a man of mystery. Examination of his remains suggest he was a warrior – not uncommon for a Lombard male. At the time of his death he would have been somewhere between 40 and 50; for this time and place in history that was a reasonably good age to make it to. His grave was not filled with earthly treasures, or his favorite horse, or a team of slaves to serve him in the afterlife. By all accounts T US 380 was an average Joe – in all ways but one – Mr. 380 was missing his right hand, and part of his forearm. In place of the missing limb, it appears he had a knife attached to his stump.

No-one knows exactly how Mr. 380 lost his limb. It looks like it was removed in one heavy blow – though it could have been done in battle, or it could have been an amputation of a limb too badly damaged to heal itself. There is a possibility Mr. 380 had a hand cut off as punishment for theft – this was not unheard of among the Lombards. The stump showed signs of a callous built up, suggesting a (probably leather) device used to attach the blade. Signs of wear on the man’s teeth and shoulder suggest a daily routine of using his teeth, and spare hand, to fasten the prosthesis with laces.

In medieval times people generally didn’t survive amputations. If the blood loss didn’t kill you, the post amputation infection would likely finish the job. Margaret Mead’s rationale at the top of this tale – if a group takes care of it’s damaged members, cares for them, nurses them back to health – then that’s a civilized society. There is no question the Lombards were a civilization, but knowing their tough as nails, warrior reputation – Hardcore History’s Dan Carlin for one described them as like an Outlaw Biker gang – it is remarkable to think of the group of people who handled the tourniquet, who sewed him back together, and who nursed Mr. 380 through the inevitable days of normally deadly fevers.

Three – Doll Babies.

In November 1983 a wave of madness broke out across America, leading to a number of riots and physical altercations. The tale most often told took place in a Zayre department store in Wilkes- Barre, Pennsylvania. 1,000 Adults pushed, and punched, pulled hair and tussled with one another. Boxes flew across the store, shelves were sent sprawling over. Weapons may have been used on one another. Store manager William Shigo, surrounded by the melee grabbed a baseball bat, climbed atop the counter and yelled at the horde to leave immediately. His requests fell upon deaf ears as the assembled continued to beat the living daylights out of one another, hoping to defend their prized item. This scene played out at toy shops all across the United States that year. Of course opportunists swooped in, buying up stock then selling on the black market for huge mark ups. Some parents drove hundreds of miles looking for this elusive item. Others resorted to bribery. Zayre resorted to issuing tickets to lucky parents, then serving the lucky ones out back, but this hardly solved the problem. What was the cause of all this kerfuffle? This thing, a Cabbage Patch Kids doll… If I may offer an opinion, a doll as ugly as the behavior of the parents willing to beat another parent down to get one.

Legend has it the Cabbage Patch Kids started their lives as ‘Doll Babies’, developed by Martha Nelson Thomas of Louisville, Kentucky. Thomas was a folk artist, specializing in doll making. She developed her doll babies some time in the early 1970s, and would exhibit them at local art and crafts fairs in the area. Though running a business, she appears to have had no intention of ever selling in large numbers.

In 1976 she met a then 21 year old Xavier Roberts at a fair. Roberts, an aspiring artist living in Georgia convinced Thomas to let him sell some of her dolls in his state for a cut of the profits. The two would do business till 1978, when they had a falling out. It was at this point that it’s alleged Roberts stole Thomas’ idea, and began working towards scaling up the business. Martha would begin a protracted legal battle with Xavier in 1979.

In 1982 Roberts signed a contract with toy company Coleco to produce the re-branded ‘Cabbage Patch Kids’. While the agreement was to mass produce the dolls, they had two things working against them. 1. Production was always to be a little laborious – no two dolls were alike, from their appearance to the packaging which contained a personalized name for each of the dolls and 2. This angle contributed to the dolls becoming the most desired toy of Christmas 1983.

Martha Nelson Thomas would settle her $1 Million lawsuit against Xavier Roberts in 1984, out of court for an undisclosed sum. In the meantime Xavier Roberts continued to rake in much more money than that. There was now a 9 month waiting list for one of the dolls – and the price had skyrocketed from $30 to $150 per doll.

Repost: Spring Heeled Jack: The Terror of London.

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

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

  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge “The Devil’s Thoughts”

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

  • Alice Sebold, “The Lovely Bones”.

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

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

Public reports of the revenant went quiet for some time after this. Ghost sightings were not uncommon in London in the years preceeding. Sightings of the Hammersmith Ghost of 1803 they had spread like wildfire, but the ghost was only ever seen by a solitary witness. Spring Heeled Jack was witnessed by dozens on two occasions. This picture changed at a public meeting held by Lord Mayor of London Sir John Cowan on the 9th January 1838. On the agenda that night one tale which would soon grip the imagination of London, and the wider United Kingdom.

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

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

Lord Mayor Cowan stated his doubts these assaults occured, but citizen after citizen testified to reports of terrified, scarred, fondled servants. Dozens of assaulted women from Kensington, to Hammersmith, to Ealing between October 1837 and January 1838. Later that day a reporter from The Times ran the story. This was subsequently picked up by newspapers across the United Kingdom on January 10th 1838. At this point dozens of letters flooded in to Lord Mayor Cowan’s office recounting frightened women, all stalked, spied upon or attacked by a shadowy, demonic figure. Several bore deep wounds from his claws. A few claimed the victim had gone into a ‘fit’ after. One report even claimed Spring Heeled Jack had scared a victim to death. Cowan remained sceptical, until a trusted friend came to him to report an assault on a servant in his employ by Spring Heeled Jack.

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

Two: It was a Dark and Stormy Night….

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eight days later he was to terrify another young lady – 18 year old Lucy Scales – on her way home from her brother’s house. Seconds after she stepped out onto the street, a blood curdling scream woke the neighbourhood. Locals rushed out to find Lucy sprawled out on the cobble stones. Spring Heeled Jack had sprung from the shadows. Lucy screamed, then fainted. Jack then ran off before an attack could occur.

Who is ‘W’?

Between these two incidents a third attempted assault happened. This one left a clue. On another dark and stormy night in Turner Street a man came knocking on a door, asking for the occupant by name – Mr Ashworth. A servant boy got up to answer. This night Spring Heeled Jack was a little too trigger happy. As the servant opened the door Jack threw off his cloak, exposing his demonic visage. The boy screamed, slamming the door in his face. Spring Heeled Jack then disappeared. The boy noticed something no other victim had. On his cloak a letter W was embroidered.

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

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

Aldershot Barracks.

In Aldershot, Surrey is an army barracks. Guarded around the clock by men with guns, the barracks held as many as 10,000 soilders at a time. In the spring of 1877 a tall, diabolical man who leapt buildings in a single bound began sneaking up on lone sentries in the dead of night; grabbing their faces while perched atop sentry boxes. Some guards broke down in a mad panic. A few managed to regain their senses and fire off a volley or two in his direction as he bounded away. He returned in the Autumn of 1877 to pull the same prank on a number of occasions.

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

Three: Mad Marquesses and Comic Books.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comic Books

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

The Alsop attack revisited.

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

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

Paint the Town Red.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A version of this tale was Episode three of Season one of the podcast. Click here to listen to the episode.

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

Repost: The Gombe Chimpanzee War

From 1974 to 1978 a vicious, sometimes cannibalistic war raged between two tribes in Gombe National Park,Tanzania. On one side was the Kasakela, the other side, the much larger Kahana tribe from the south of the region. They once were one large tribe, but a falling out in 1971 set the stage for this guerrilla war (as in the Spanish word for war – guerra – not the ape) The war would only end when a larger, foreign power stepped in, the Kalande. Our primary source for this tale comes from the primatologist, Dame Jane Goodall, the combatants our chimpanzee cousins.

Shakespeare once said uneasy lies the head that wears the crown, I have no doubt Humphrey knew this first-hand...

In late 1970 the united Kasakela – Kahana tribe were struck by a tragedy. Their leader, Leakey; a chimp well loved and respected by all, died. The mantle of leadership fell on the Kasakela elder Humphrey; a chimp loved by many, but lacking the innate sense of power to be respected by up and coming alphas. Two Kahana brothers, Hugh and Charley, saw Humphrey as weak and began lobbying for the top job themselves. After a series of violent clashes, the tribe split into two factions: Humphrey’s Kasakelas, and Hugh & Charlie’s Kahana.

Duke university anthropologist Joseph Feldblum later fed Jane Goodall’s notes into a computer, which showed a series of relationships – apparent politicing and escalations which looked all too human. Political tensions simmered between the factions, finally escalating to all out war in 1974.

On 7th January 1974, Gobi; a young Kahana male, was sitting in a tree in Kahana territory. While enjoying a feed, six male Kasakela surrounded him, beating Gobi to death in a vicious assault. Expert observers have read the Gobi assassination as an act of instrumental violence – a deliberate declaration of war on the Kahana. The six never ventured to this part of the park. Gobi often did. The assassins, it is believed, sought Gobi out that day with the express intent of sending a message to the Kahana.

What followed was four years of escalating attacks and counter attacks between Kahana and Kasakela. Male chimps were ambushed and beaten to death, females kidnapped and subsumed into the rival group. The series of attacks and ambushes had an eerily strategic nature to them – both sides gathered intelligence in observing enemy movements. Both sides coordinated their attacks. There appeared to be no happenstance. After four long, bloody years King Humphrey’s Kasakela won. The cost? a genocide. All the male Kahana were killed in the war. The Kasakela occupied Kahana territory, until the neighbouring superpower, the Kalande, stepped in. The Kalande forced King Humphrey out and re-established Kahana rule in the south of the park. The women and children of the Kahana would eventually re-populate the territory.

Of the war, Jane Goodall wrote…

“Often when I woke in the night, horrific pictures sprang unbidden to my mind – Satan [one of the apes], cupping his hand below Sniff’s chin to drink the blood that welled from a great wound on his face… Jomeo tearing a strip of skin from Dé’s thigh; Figan, charging and hitting, again and again, the stricken, quivering body of Goliath, one of his childhood heroes,” – (Through a Window: My Thirty Years with the Chimpanzees of Gombe.)

In spite of the occasional madness from the likes of Pliny the Elder, who believed cranes headed south in winter to fight an eternal war with the pygmy of Africa (surely a Tale for another day?); war had seemed a very human occupation for a long time. There were no written observations of such behaviour. Animals hunting in packs? sure. Animals conspiring to systematically eliminate an enemy tribe? This seemed a uniquely human trait. Subsequent observance of animal groups in the wild has since recast their lives as far more complex, far more ‘human’.

Originally published February 13th 2019 on the Tales of History and Imagination Facebook page. Edited 2020. Copyright 2019 Simone T. Whitlow

Charles Byrne’s longest show.

Hi all, for the following – extended run of blogs prior to season two of the podcast I did promise to keep away from plagues. This tale does discuss doctors, and premature death. If this is not your cup of tea right now I understand. Please scan through some of my other essays on the sidebar for a range of other topics – Simone.

Charles Byrne, it was fair to say, had not been feeling well for some time. At the age of twenty two, the Derry native had made – and lost – a tidy sum of money in London in quite a short space of time. When he had first arrived in 1782 people in the streets marveled as he walked along the street – occasionally casually reaching up to a lit gas lamp to light his pipe, or stooping to walk under a street sign. People may stare, but hell – when life gives you lemons what can you do other than make a little lemonade? Charles had come to the big smoke, first via Scotland– in the footsteps of fellow Irishman Patrick Cotter O’Brien – to make his fortune as a human exhibit. Someone to be looked up to, talked about, stared at – he was London’s hottest ticket in 1782.

Allegedly eight feet four inches – though in all likelihood maybe a little over seven foot seven – Charles was a sight to behold. Billed as ‘The Irish Giant’, Byrne charged 12 ½ p per person to see him, and in the early days of his act the pennies added up. Londoners were astounded by this real life colossus, who played night after night to packed out rooms. Charles Byrne was living comfortably for a short while – even making enough that he could make a few investments. At the age of 21 the sky was the limit for Charles Byrne, an acromegalic giant who began life an average sized kid, later going through a series of growth spurts. By 22 Charles was yesterday’s news. Work dried up. Byrne’s investments failed. Byrne began drinking. He moved to cheaper, less hospitable lodgings where his tuberculosis (he was a ‘lunger’) flared up. His condition caught the attention of the eminent surgeon John Hunter – a man responsible for much of what we know now of microbial diseases, bone growth, the lymphatic system, even artificial insemination. His work alongside Edward Jenner on smallpox began immunology. That day Hunter was not interested in curing Byrne, he offered to buy his body. Horrified and disgusted, Byrne threw Hunter out of his home. Though he would not leave a will, he made it very clear to his circle of friends his body was not to be put on display by some surgeon, museum or carnival barker. He had been gawked at, by necessity, by thousands of Londoners in his short life. He refused to let that be his eternal fate.

When Charles Byrne died on July 1st 1783 the anatomists swarmed Byrne’s home, in the words of a newspaper of the day “just as harpooners would an enormous whale”. A plan was made by his friends to push past them, retrieve his body from the funeral home, and take his coffin out to sea, in the seaside town of Margate. They would give Charles a burial at sea. This is exactly what they did.

Then four years later John Hunter exhibited a skeleton of an acromegalic giant, a little over seven feet seven tall. Hunter had managed to bribe a funeral home employee with £500, around £76,000 in 2020 money, to steal Byrne’s body and fill his coffin with rocks. For a little over 230 years Charles Byrne remained on display for all to see. In 2018 the Hunter museum closed, and people put forward the suggestion now was the time to lay Charles down in a coffin, take him out to Margate, and allow him his final wish. As far as I’m aware this has yet to happen.

Patrick Cotter O’Brien paid close attention to the fate of his countryman – and when he passed in 1806 he made sure he was buried under 12 feet of solid stone, so no one could snatch his remains. In 1906, 1972 and finally 1986 he would be temporarily dug up and his bones would be examined. At a verified eight foot one in middle age he is the first verifiable eight footer in history.

The remains of Patrick Cotter O’Brien in 1906.


What goes up must come down – sorry to begin a blog with an old cliché, but we all know there is some truth in the old chestnut. I’m currently writing this in COVID-19 lockdown from Auckland, New Zealand – the Hegemon of New Zealand cities. Currently we’re up – a boom town with much of the wealth, and the largest portion of the population. This will not always be so. Dunedin, at the other end of the country, was once the hegemon. Westport, a town with a current population of around 5 thousand once dwarfed Auckland. Things go up, things go down. I say this, Cleveland, hoping you don’t judge me a snob over city size for telling this tale. I mean no malice and I know what will eventually come to the City of Sails.
I am well aware at some point in the future the air will begin to seep out of Auckland’s balloon, and as the tumbleweeds roll along Queen Street unobstructed, a new hegemon will rise to take it’s place.

What goes up must come down.

Now that is something Cleveland, Ohio knows all too well. Established in 1796, and named after their founder Moses Cleaveland (president Grover Cleveland was a distant relative) – the settlement saw a population boom in the 1830s as the Eerie Canal was cut, allowing transit from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes. With access north to Canada, and not terribly far from the Mississippi river, south all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, Cleveland made a great trading post. Following the American Civil war Cleveland became a manufacturing centre – due to their close proximity to coal and iron ore deposits in neighbouring states. John D. Rockefeller established Standard Oil in Cleveland. Their steelworks, early adopters of the Bessemer process were on the rise in the late 1860s. The motor industry first started in Cleveland. Where there was industry there were jobs, and people flocked to Cleveland. What had started as a settlement of just seven people was, by 1913, calling themselves the ‘sixth city’ due to having the sixth largest population of any city in the USA. In 1926 Cleveland constructed the Terminal Tower, a 52 floor monster which was the 2nd largest building in the world upon completion.

The Great Depression slowed their rise upwards, but World War Two gave a boost to the economy. Cleveland was the USA‘s fifth biggest contributor to the war effort. Following the war their economy boomed and they had tagged themselves ‘the best location in the nation’. For a while their sports teams were very formidable – their baseball team won the 1948 world series, their hockey team topped the American hockey league, and their football team dominated for much of the 1950s. A Cleveland DJ named Alan Freed picked up on a convergence of trends across several styles of music and named it Rock and Roll. They had little to do in it’s invention, but Cleveland is forever linked to rock and roll music. Cleveland was on it’s way up, sports up, rock and roll was on the rise.
But what goes up, inevitably, must come down.

First industry waned. Restructuring of the international steel industry saw less business coming their way. Postwar changes to infrastructure (someday I’m going to take a shot at explaining Kondratieff waves, and the effects of long term economic waves on infrastructure – today is NOT that day however) – led to huge highways, and the rapid spread of the suburbs. Other cities, Detroit I’m looking at you, had become the centre of the motor industry – Motown certainly was up. The population of Cleveland shrunk as many of its citizens moved out for a home with a backyard, in a car built in another city. What was left behind however was industrial pollution, lots and lots of it. As the city descended the Cuyahoga river burst into flames, not once or twice – that would be bad enough – but 13 times! It’s last time, in June 1969 earning Cleveland the moniker ‘The Mistake by the Lake’. By 1986 the sixth city had become the 18th …. with an anchor. What could one do to raise morale, and maybe start bringing Cleveland back up?

The Cuyahoga river in flames.

Well……… What goes up?


On 5th December 1985, 84 years since Walt Disney was born and 30 years since Disneyland had been opened – 1 million helium balloons were released into the skies of Anaheim, California. There is news footage of the then Guinness world record release and it does look impressive – like a sea of floating jelly beans. The stunt must have been the hot topic around the water cooler the next day at the United Way of Cleveland – a non profit organization who runs charity fundraisers for needy causes. What can we do to promote Cleveland which we could turn into a money spinner – and symbolically suggests a rising from the ashes of the Cuyahoga river fire? That thing Disney just did – only bigger. United way soon committed $200,000 of their own money to the project, and hired Balloon Art by Treb, the company who organized the Disney launch. The plan was to take up an empty block next to Terminal Tower, building a three story high enclosure around the square plot – and to get 2,500 volunteers in to blow up the biodegradable balloons. The plan was to fill 2 million balloons and charge members of the public to sponsor the balloonfest at a cost of $1 for 2 balloons.

Throughout the day, and all through the night of September 26th 1986 the volunteers, mostly high school students, labored away filling balloons. Throughout the night they soldiered on, into the next day. On the 27th September a storm was setting in but they had come too far now to stop. At 1.50pm, with a little over 1.4 million balloons, the decision was made to loosen the giant net keeping all the balloons- free those colourful little spheroids, out into the universe – Cleveland’s commitment to rise again analogized in a cloud of coloured orbs. Off into the grim day they flew.

They flew aimlessly into traffic, causing multiple pile ups – motorists and vehicles alike crumpled by the impact. They flew out over the tarmac of the local airport – ceasing air traffic to and from the city until every last balloon was coralled. Some flew to Canada, washing up on their shores. Though biodegradable, marine and bird life tangled up and choked on them. On a horse ranch in Medina County Ohio, a stable of Arabian horses became spooked by the invading balloons, causing several stallions to trip and maim themselves. Their owner, Louise Nowakowski, sued Cleveland for $100,000 in damages.

Most disturbing of all, a fishing boat ran into trouble on the lake that day. The coast guard dispatched a rescue party, but when they arrived at the scene – where one would normally see two brightly coloured life jackets bobbing in the water, there were thousands and thousands of brightly coloured balloons obscurring the view. The two sailors bodies would wash up the following day. One of the widows would file suit against Cleveland for over $3 Million – later settling out of court for an undisclosed fee.

What had seemed such a fun publicity stunt quickly turned tragic. All up it cost the city of Cleveland millions more than it made. Balloonfest soon came to signify something altogether – that the rise up may be spectacular – but the inevitable fall is bumpy at best.

Coffee! – The Swedes battle for a good cup of Joe.

I really feel I should declare upfront, I am very much a fan of coffee. This no doubt sways my opinion of Sweden’s former monarch, Gustav III. I may have quietly raised a mug of Ethiopian coffee in quiet defiance to the mad king while writing this tale.

Coffee has been an elixir of life for many since the late 15th century – when a Sufi Imam from Yemen noticed how chipper a group of birds were, pecking away at coffee beans, on a trip to Ethiopia. He promptly brought the elixir back to Yemen, where it quickly became a tradition to pour a cup of hot Joe on the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday – so one story goes. Another tale has it the power of coffee was discovered in Ethiopia, by an Ethiopian herdsman called Kaldi. He noticed the goats who ate coffee beans had boundless energy, so he started eating them himself.

In the recent past, when’s YouTube channel ruled large swathes of the internet, their roving reporter Robert Evans (now of Behind the Bastards, Worst Year Ever and the It Could Happen Here series) explained how the Ethiopians used to ferment coffee beans throughout the day while out riding through their own body heat, for a cheap high at days’ end. It is must see viewing – Evans has several of Cracked’s staff tripping balls on various natural highs and having quite the party in the piece. One TED talk I watched a long time ago and now cannot find to properly reference the author (I particularly closely checked all of Malcolm Gladwell’s talks and, Gladwellian as it sounds I don’t think it was him) claimed – at a time when English water was too polluted to drink – the emergence of coffee houses saved the British Empire. Prior to coffee the everyday Briton sustained themselves on beer throughout the day. Coffee houses gave them both a clearer head and a place to mingle, where the ideas which powered the Industrial Revolution percolated as much as the Arabica beans themselves. I have no idea how true this is – it is an enticing thought though.

On what may well be my favorite episode of the podcast The Constant, ‘Shipwreckless’, Mark Chrisler points to how coffee houses like Lloyds of London morphed into insurance brokers for the marine trade, which, through lack of proper oversight coupled with an ability to make a killing -even when underwriting old death traps – led to the rise of the ‘coffin ships’ – overloaded, decrepit vessels sent out with no regard for the lives of those onboard. Another tale around coffee is how it apparently reached Europe. One tale states in the wake of the 1683 Siege of Vienna, Austria, as the Ottoman Turks retreated they left behind bags and bags of coffee beans. Not only did the siege of Vienna save Christendom apparently, it continues to save our mornings. The first Austrian coffee house did appear two years after the battle, but it is known coffee had been coming into Europe for quite some time before via Malta and Venice. Sebastian Major dissects numerous food myths which arose around the siege in an episode of Our Fake History.

We still have a week to fill in this schedule. I love coffee. Though the following tale is light on detail – Dates? Names? Pffft, who needs that stuff, History nerds? (Yes please!) – Let’s talk about King Gustav III anyway, and his hatred for the Jitter Juice.

Though Sweden is now the 6th biggest drinkers of coffee in the world, per capita – consuming the equivalent of 18 pounds weight of coffee a year – this was a hard won passion. Between 1756 and 1817 the Swedish Royal family would ban the drink on five occasions. Coffee was first imported to the country in 1674 (that’s right, almost a decade before the siege of Vienna apparently brought the bean to Europe) but remained very much a niche drink until the turn of the century. Coffee then suddenly reached a tipping point, and became extremely popular with all levels of Swedish society just after 1700. One might think an elixir of life such as coffee taking off, and in a lot of cases becoming a substitute for day drinking, would be a great boon for the ruling classes. It was a great socializer of people without the occasional ‘nose painting’ drunkenness can bring. It gave your people greater energy to get through the day and work hard. It warms you up in the cold, Northern climes. What’s not to love right?

Well, if you are to believe the King of Sweden, coffee made people jittery, rude, an altogether all too ‘French’. Such foreign-ness was not to be tolerated. It is far more likely the introduction of the foreign drink was hurting the domestic Swedish market for ale and mead, as day drinking gave way to the coffee houses. Though Sweden did not start brewing alcohol at industrial levels till the industrial revolution reorganized society into several large cities – necessitating larger scale production – they did have many local micro-breweries dotted all over the map. These small businesses suffered. In 1746, in an effort to relieve their suffering, the crown enacted a high import tax on coffee and tea. Did this harm coffee sales? Hardly.
The next stage was to convince the populace that to drink a hot cup of Java was to take your very life in your hands. Enter Physician to the Admiralty Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778). Linnaeus was a brilliant mind who did much for the proper classification of plants and animals – formalizing what we now call binomial nomenclature (a classification system giving all living things a double barreled, Latin name ie. Homo Sapiens for humans, Felis Domesticus for the common house cat). He identified a great many plants in Sweden and Lapland. He worked out wormwood could be used as anti-malarial medication to help fight malaria. He made a raft of small discoveries over the years, such as recommending the best wood to use for the butts of guns, and suggesting to Anders Celsius his newfangled temperature scale should have the freezing point at 0 and boiling point at 100, and not vice versa – and he was well rewarded for his efforts with titles. When the king wanted scientific proof that coffee was bad for you Linnaeus was happy to oblige. Having first tried and failed to find a way of growing coffee locally, then to substitute the Arabica bean with a local alternative, Linnaeus dutifully proclaimed coffee was dangerous, and possibly to blame for hemorrhoids, constipation, senility, even strokes and heart attacks. In spite of this Carl Linnaeus himself was a big coffee drinker.

Carl Linnaeus.

King Adolf Frederick would ascend to the throne in 1751, and would enact a number of bans on coffee in his lifetime – all largely ignored by the public at large, even though at first they risked the seizure of all their cups and saucers, then later, imprisonment. During one ban, in 1794 the first wave feminist, writer, academic, and mother of Mary Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft wrote of her travels through Sweden, and how even the coffee made in one’s home there outclassed the coffee in Britain’s finest coffee houses. Perhaps ironically Adolf Frederick would become known for his strange death. He died of indigestion in 1771 after a meal of kippers, lobster, caviar, sauerkraut – the not at all ‘French’ champagne – and FOURTEEN SERVINGS of a local dessert called Hetvagg. Not a single coffee was consumed.

King Adolf Frederick.

Which leads us to our, poorly researched and perhaps dubious tale. In 1771 Gustav III would rule Sweden, till his assassination in 1792. Somewhere in this timeframe he was alleged to have carried out the following experiment. Like his gluttonous father, Gustav hated coffee. He was determined, once and for all to prove it was nothing more than a slow-acting poison. The tale has it he took two prisoners who were on death row for murder – some texts claim they were identical twins, and while I won’t say this was bullshit I will say I think it statistically unlikely – and commuted their sentences to life terms on the proviso one would drink three pots of coffee every day till he died. The second prisoner had to drink the equivalent in tea. The sources all point out not only did the prisoners outlive Gustav – who was very unpopular with the nobles because, as their first absolutist ruler in some time following a run of figureheads, he was determined to mess with a lot of their civil liberties. He had also started a constitutionally illegal war with Russia while they were tied up in another war with the Ottoman Empire. He was shot in the hip at a masked ball on 13th March 1792, later dying of infection. The unnamed doctors supervising the experiment all died off before the, also unnamed subjects. At some unnamed point the tea drinker, now 83, passed on leaving the coffee drinker to enjoy his daily cups of mud in peace. Is this a true story? Who the hell knows. A number of publications, including the Smithsonian have all reported on it though.

Gustav III of Sweden, the man did not like his coffee.

The next time you happen to be sitting out in your courtyard, Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo up on your Kindle, Kobo, or even real book – it mentions coffee 92 times by the way – remember the right to drink coffee was hard won by the Swedes, that part of the tale at least is true.

Dorothy Martin’s Flying Saucer

“A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree, and he turns away. Show him facts and figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.”
Leon Festinger- ‘When Prophecy Fails’

“The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones.”
John Maynard Keynes – ‘The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money’.

Hi all welcome back to the blog. If you haven’t read last week’s blog on Sabbatai Zevi I’d suggest go check that out first. This week we’re headed in an arc back in that direction as the tale goes on.

Today we join our tale towards it’s climax, in a suburban home in Oak Park, Illinois. The time and date, 6pm on 21st December 1954. At the home that day are a dozen or so suburbanites who have become convinced the lady of the house has supernatural powers. They have been camped out at the house for several days now. Most have sacrificed greatly to be there. Nearly every article I’ve read states it is Christmas, and at 6pm our subjects are at the roadside singing Christmas carols – but the source material states otherwise – it is the 21st. Were they singing carols to the large number of onlookers anyway? Maybe. They were outside looking for the people from Clarion, for Sanada – but they head back into the house after a while. If Sanada can travel galaxies to find them, Sanada’s not going to have any great trouble finding 847 West School Street (address likely changed to protect the privacy of the lady in the house).

the ‘burbs’, did ‘847 West Street’ look a little like this?

The dozen or so people in the house are there because they believe tonight the world is going to end in a giant flood, and a spacecraft from the far off planet of Clarion is going to rescue them. Them alone, a select few. Outside there is a crowd of curious onlookers and reporters. Inside, amongst the believers, a small number of interlopers, led by a young psychology lecturer named Leon Festinger. The lady with the direct line to the aliens? Festinger identifies her as Mrs Marian Keech – in the years since she has been identified as Mrs Dorothy Martin. One must presume the other named figures in this tale are still under Noms de Plumes.

Dorothy Martin was a woman who believed in various forms of mysticism. From a young age she had been drawn to the Theosophical movement of Helena Blavatsky. This led to her studying a local offshoot which would go on to influence later New Age spiritualist movements, Guy and Edna Ballard’s ‘I AM’ movement. From there she discovered ‘Oahspe: A New Bible’, a spiritualist tome, allegedly written by ‘automatic writing’ (where the writer is merely the conduit for a supernatural force providing them the information) by John Newbrough in 1882. Finally she had recently discovered Scientology, and something about the writings of it’s sci-fi author founder L. Ron Hubbard just clicked with her.

In April 1954 Martin had begun trying to use automatic writing to speak with her deceased father, but found more than she was looking for. First it was just earthbound spirits, but she soon claimed she was getting ‘Astral messages’ from across the universe. First from the mysterious ‘Elder Brother’ then aliens from the planets Clarion (this seems to be a name which pops up with a few UFO believers in the 50s) and Cerus (based on the real dwarf planet Ceres in the Asteroid Belt maybe?). By mid April she was getting a lot of messages from a Clarion alien called Sanada. At first Sanada tells her they have regularly visited Earth. Word gets out among other spiritualist folk of the conversations. Martin gains a small following. On 23rd July 1954 Sanada states they will be flying past Lyons Field on 1st August. A dozen people go. No-one sees a spacecraft, but Dorothy and a number of others remember a strange man who stopped to speak with them. The man subsequently disappeared into thin air. While 7 of the 12 call bullshit on Dorothy at this point, the rest- thanks in part to the lecturer and former missionary ‘Dr. Thomas Armstrong’ and his wife – are convinced something strange happened. That man was strange. They all had a feeling something happened, but maybe someone wiped out their memory of it like Will Smith’s Men in Black do?

2nd August Sanada wrote. Yes, all of what Dr. Armstrong said. I was there. I wiped your minds. You saw the flying saucers. Sanada also warned Dorothy, for the first time, something bad was about to happen.

Without getting too tied up in the details – 15th August Sanada writes again, the bad thing is the Americas will be flooded after a flash of light. 27th August, the whole world will flood. Soon after they have a date – 21st December 1954. Dr. Armstrong went public with this information – sending notice to all the papers he could find. One paper, The Lake City Herald ran the story in a small article on their back page in late September. Prof. Festinger happened to be reading that day. Seeing this as an opportunity to observe what happens to a group when a strongly held belief gets obliterated – surely there is not going to be any great flood, let alone UFOs come the 21st – he devised a plan to infiltrate the group.

Now we have a lot to cover in this so I will buzz through the main points. In the months leading up to the night in question, they picked up a number of followers. There is ‘Fred Purden’, a student who had a falling out with his parents over Mrs Martin. He is so tied up in preparing for Armageddon he is about to flunk his whole year. There is ‘Laura Brooks’ who has given away all her belongings, cause who needs Earth stuff on Clarion, right? ‘Susan Heath’ a fanatic who has fallen out badly with her dorm-mate and has been banned by her college from proselyting there. As the day draws closer those who are working made a pact to give up their jobs. ‘Mark Post’ walked out of the hardware store. ‘Edna Post’ was running a daycare centre. She got an extremely judgmental look from the owners when she handed in her notice. ‘Bertha Blatsky’ packed in her job as a secretary. Dr. Armstrong is fired.

Now this is how the day played out.
10:00 AM. Dorothy gets a message. “At the hour of midnight you shall be put into parked cars and taken to a place where ye shall be put aboard a porch(UFO)”
That evening – the aforementioned media circus outside of the house. They wait, bored. Every hour on the hour Dorothy is supposed to be waiting for a message from Sanada.
11.15 PM. A message from Sanada telling them to get ready to leave, to put on their overcoats.
12.00 AM Nothing happens.
12.05 AM one of the followers notices one of the walls on the clock still says 11.55, they all decide it mustn’t be midnight yet.
12:10 AM. The UFOs send a message. Traffic must be killing them and it is taking longer than expected to get there.
12:15 AM the phone rings. It is not ET calling, but reporters. ‘What has happened?” ‘Have the aliens arrived yet?’

At 2 AM a younger follower leaves, stating his mum told him she would call the cops if he was not back by 2. Unshaken, the rest state this was probably a good thing, he had the least commitment anyway.
At 4 AM the first signs of doubt when one of the followers states they have turned their back on the world and burned every bridge they have, but this one. They feel they should leave but they have to stay, till the bitter end.
At 4:45 AM FINALLY!!! A new message from the aliens. They are no longer coming, but wanted to explain how big a thing these believers did tonight. Through their great faith they have saved the planet. Earth will no longer flood, and the people of Earth can thank them that humankind is now in God’s good graces.
5:00 AM, a P.S. from the aliens this news is “…to be released immediately to the newspapers.” They do, finding little tidbits along the way which fit with their narrative. ‘There were small earthquakes in Italy and California last night?… that must’ve been the start of the great disaster we averted’.

Now- at this point – I want to drop back in to the story on Sabbatai Zevi again, to add a little bit of context I conveniently left out last time.

Sabbatai Zevi claimed a number of times that the world was coming to an end, and he was there to usher in a new, golden age. From 1648, when he announced he was the son of God he began saying it. When he was thrown out of Smyrna, circa 1651, he had built up a reasonably large following – many of whom had sacrificed to follow his cause. A number sacrificed all the good things they had in Smyrna to follow him across Europe.
As he went from strength to strength a bit of a bandwagon effect happened. More people on board meant it seemed less a crazy thing to follow this heretic. Add to this the more people gave, the more justifications came as to why this guy was worth following. Tales arose of Sabbatai performing miracles. This drove the bandwagon effect, leading to more miracles and so forth.
By the time he came back to Smyrna to make his Jewish New Years speech (sorry I didn’t mention he went to Smyrna to make it) he was welcomed as a hero, a local boy made good, among the Jewish diaspora there. This built on top of his, already inflated, image.
This had a flow on effect. Across Europe Jewish populations began to party. The messiah was here, and he was going to defeat the Turks – then lead us back to Jerusalem. Many thousands of them packed up their belongings and began to make the pilgrimage to see the great Sabbatai Zevi.
In cities where trade was largely dependent on the Jewish community, like Amsterdam and Hamburg, the cities all but ground to a halt.
When he was arrested and taken to Adrianople, Muslim citizens mocked the Jews in the streets with chants of “Is he coming, Is he coming?” If they didn’t feel committed to this guy yet, this mockery sure pushed some over the edge. To almost all the Jews this guy was their guy. Thousands of Jews picketed outside his prison, demanding his release. The assassination plot may have been the last straw, but Sultan Mehmet IV was feeling immense pressure over this. The last thing he wanted was a civil war or a bloody insurrection. The Turks saw their best chance to get out of this mess bloodlessly was to try to trick Sabbatai Zevi into converting to Islam.

And, when he did, of course a number of these ‘donmeh’ would follow suit. The longer you are committed to something, the harder it is to accept hard truths about that thing, or person. Even if this runs contrary to everything you have previously stood for. Did the absurdity of their conversion matter? No, because when one is suffering from cognitive dissonance – the word was coined by Prof. Festinger by the way – you find a way of bending reality to reflect your ‘facts’. It is dangerous to think of the cognitively dissonant as dumb – they are smart enough to seize little bits and pieces and dissimulate them into a narrative which matches their preferred reality. The post truth society is not a new thing – it pops into existence numerous times over history.

To re-iterate Leon Festinger’s quote at the top of this piece. Someone with a conviction is a hard person to change. Tell them you disagree, and they turn away. Show them facts and figures and they question your sources. Appeal to logic and they fail to see your point.

Thanks for joining me, please remember to share this site – just one person who you know digs history does wonders. I’ll be back same time next week. – Simone

Podcast Episode 8: Mount Tambora, a Butterfly Effect in Four Acts (Acts III and IV)

This Tale is a script for an episode of the Tales of History and Imagination podcast. Click here for the episode

Looking back at the aftermath of the eruption, it had worldwide ramifications on crops, which led to famine and disease all over the globe. The deaths from starvation have been estimated at around a million, but when you add the death toll from disease, especially the cholera epidemic which spread much more freely because of the disaster – the death toll in the aftermath may be as high as 10 million. In China the unseasonable weather killed off large numbers of trees, crops, water buffalo, and people. Changes in weather patterns caused the Yangtze basin to flood. This does not seem one of the bigger floods the basin has had throughout history, but it certainly added to the misery of the year without a summer.

Torrential downpours throughout south and central Asia allowed localized cholera outbreaks to spread like wildfire – all the way from Bengal to Moscow. Europe was at the tail end of the Little Ice Age when Tambora exploded – and this still had massive effects, causing crop failures across the continent – from riots in Switzerland, protests in France, Germany and Ireland. Climate change refugees in Wales packed up their belongings en-masse and headed for the towns and cities of England looking for opportunities. The Irish, decades away from a worse famine still were hit heavily. Eight weeks of non-stop rain ruined crops, and led to a typhus epidemic across Ireland which took an estimated 100,000 lives. What crops did survive became costly commodities. Now oats were a favorite for horses – much needed for transport and agriculture at this time. Suddenly it became extremely costly to keep a horse. Many horses subsequently were put down.

In Germany post Tambora, necessity proved the mother of invention for a German Baron and civil servant named Karl Von Drais. Drais was a prolific inventor who tried his hand at numerous inventions including an early version of the typewriter. He also worked as a forestry official. A responsibility of his job was to go round the forest checking the tree stands- platforms from which hunters could shoot from – were still safe. One day while thinking about how long a distance it was to walk from tree stand to tree stand, Drais comes up with an idea.

Now, to say Karl Von Drais invented the bicycle is not entirely accurate. In 1790 or 91 a French aristocrat named Comte Mede de Sivrac was reputed to have made the first wooden horse. Named the Celerifere, then later the Velocifere, these vehicles were two wheeled contraptions with no steering wheel, and no pedals. This meant sitting along the crossbar and building up momentum by running like you were Fred Flintstone in his car, then picking your feet up as the bike got some momentum. To turn you had to pull a wheelie and place the wheel back down in the direction you hoped to go. These devices were very popular among a set of people who liked to have races down long, paved roads like the French Champs Elysees. Drais innovated on the velocifere, adding a turnable front wheel, a padded seat, and padded elbow rets allowing the rider to put more weight on the vehicle. His bike, first developed in 1817, and exhibited the following year was called the Laufmaschine, later the velocipede. On its first test Drais too the bike out on a 14 kilometer roundtrip ride, and made the journey in a little over an hour.

The laufmaschine was definitely a step in the right direction, but only had limited appeal. To develop a new technology is a great thing, but if the infrastructure is not quite there is can prove troublesome. Most of the roads at the time were unpaved, and deeply scarred by track marks for carriages. Riding a bike along the more worn roads was quite dangerous. Many figured it was safer to ride them along footpaths. It was safer for riders, but not so much for pedestrians. While the ‘dandy-horse’ enjoyed some initial popularity, safety concerns saw them banned from the USA to Britain, Germany, and parts of India, something we are now seeing in cities around the world with electric scooters. This did Baron Von Drais no favours, nor did his growing sense of empathy for the proletariat, leading to his denunciation of his title, growing rifts with society, and eventual death in poverty in Baden in 1851. Coincidentally two blocks down the road from a then six year old Carl Benz. Drais’ idea would be picked up however.

In 1839 a Scottish inventor named Kirkpatrick MacMillan is believed to have invented a mechanism allowing riders to pedal a velocipede, however the design did not take. In 1863 a French blacksmith called Ernest Michaux did away with Flintstones motion by adding a rotary crank with two pedals to the front wheel of a velocipede, creating the first modern bicycle. While these bikes were also popular at first – in 1868 in the USA it was noted a few coach makers began mass producing bikes, young students at Harvard and Yale universities fell in love with the bicycle, and riding schools popped up everywhere – the bike was still too cumbersome for most, and many cities were unwilling to lift their bans of the bicycle.

In 1871 British engineer James Starley innovated by creating a much faster, lighter, more efficient bicycle. Often referred to as the Ordinary – Starley had named it the Ariel – but better known, owing to it’s large front wheel and smaller back wheel as a penny farthing (in reference to the big penny and smaller farthing). Starley’s bicycle was a big step up, in more ways than one – and spurred a resurgence in the late 1870s.

The danger in taking a header, to tumble head first over the handlebars, still had many concerned. Various inventors worked to build a safety bike, which put the rider on two wheels of the same size, and moved the gears to the back wheel via a chain. James Starley’s nephew, John Kemp Starley finally broke the mold in 1885 with the Rover Safety bike – the great precursor of most of the bikes we ride today.

There is so much could be said about the bicycle. Perhaps that it allowed women a level of freedom of movement in western societies, which helped the first wave feminists- especially after the safety bike – coordinate better. Despite moral panics, men often claiming riding a bicycle could cause ‘bicycle face’ effectively something like telling a child not to pull faces in case the wind changes and they get stuck that way- the pioneering feminists took to their bikes, and won the right to vote, in some cases property rights, the right to their own earnings, run their own businesses and enter professions.
One could point out, bicycles led to employees being able to move further away from their places of employment – which in turn led to the rise of suburban living, and all the good and bad that entails. You could make a point that as bicycles became really popular in the 1880s, governments finally began throwing some serious money behind laying paved roads everywhere. The aforementioned Mr Benz’s invention, the motorcar only around the corner; and with the limitations of rail becoming apparent by this time bikes literally paved the way for the later automotive boom. One could point out a story of two brothers, bicycle builders by trade, using their expertise to create, and test an incredible flying machine at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina on December 17th 1903.
One could also point out another bicycle maker in New Zealand, 25 year old Richard Pearse, used his expertise to probably beat the Wright brothers to the punch, on March 31st 1903.

I am very wary of overselling the upside to Mount Tambora in this act – make no mistake all up over 10 million people died as a result of the eruption, and subsequent year without a summer – but it did create a need, and necessity being the mother of invention, we did step up. That one invention did help usher in important steps towards a more equal society, gave many freedom to roam, and helped usher in the transport innovations of the 20th century.

Act IV.

OK, let’s make this final act a short one. To borrow from the godmother of rock and roll, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, during the year without a summer there were strange things happening every day. During the long long winter Hungary had brown snow. Red snow fell, intermittently in the north of what is now Italy. To anyone in the vicinity of the recent Australian bushfires, including New Zealanders on 5th January 2020 when the sky turned an unbelievable amber hue – the sunsets were otherworldly in the year without a summer. In the North East of the USA, particularly around New England strange things were happening every day. Throughout spring and summer 1816 a ‘dry fog’ settled over much of the area, turning the sky red all day long. Wind wouldn’t move the fog on, nor would rain dampen it. On June 6th 1816 snow fell in Albany, New York and Dennysville, Maine – in the middle of what would usually be summer.
Frosts settled in the fields, particularly in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and upstate New York; ruining crops throughout the region, as early as May 1816. In July ice began to form in rivers and lakes in Pennsylvania. By August 1816 frosts were killing two thirds of corn crops as far south as Virginia – including recently retired president Thomas Jefferson’s plantation, Monticello. This upheaval was a major push factor leading to many farming families packing their lives into wagons and heading for pastures new.

In Norwich, Vermont the Smith family, previously from Sharon, Vermont and struggling as it was to maintain their 100 acre farm, were driven off the land due to crop failure. Mr Smith senior had set his stop loss point as a third year of ruined crops, and the year without a summer obliged. By March their apricot trees had been hit by a heavy frost, and all crops were wiped out. The Smiths headed for Palmyra, New York, a 300 mile journey in the middle of the summer snowstorms. One of the Smith family, Joseph Jr, hobbling all the way on crutches, due to a bone infection caught several years earlier.

Now I’m not going to explore this one too much further, as it has always been supposition the year without a summer had a massive impact on young Joseph, and the turn he would make a little later in life – just imagine if the world suddenly turned surreal, and if you were religiously inclined. Imagine maybe you weren’t terribly religious, but lived in a time when science could not explain the supposedly eschatological weather raging across the world – well something like the year without a summer my just provide you with your Damascene moment.

The Smith family made their way down to Palmyra, in the midst of an area which became known as the ‘Burned over district’ – a collection of towns in the west of the state, which became populated by many evacuees from New England whose farms had failed, and some of whom had divergent religious beliefs to begin with – and who became a hotbed in the years following for what came to be known as ‘the second great awakening – a radical, largely protestant religious revival in the area.

Joseph Smith was a little different from these groups. In the spring of 1820, Smith would later claim he was wandering through a place he would later name ‘the sacred grove’. He was wondering just which newfangled religious group he should join when he claims some great evil nearly overcame him – but literally Deus ex machina, God and Jesus flew down from the heavens to tell him not to join any of them, because they were all fakes. Of course in 1823 an angel called Moroni apparently flew down to tell him of a new bible he himself must bring into existence, via a golden book, a magical breastplate, and magic stones which had been buried in a hill near his home.

This Joseph Smith, fifth son of Joseph Smith Snr, charged over his life multiple times for dishonesty offences and disorderly behavior. The man who conspired to murder a Missouri Governor, and who would meet his own end being shot to death by an angry mob while held in jail for treason- would go on to create the Mormon church. Perhaps I have not dug deeply enough into the man’s writings to say Smith himself listed 1816 as an influence on his philosophical outlook, but one has to wonder. What can be said for certain is the resettlement caused by Mt Tambora in the Northeastern United States created an enclave of religious radicalism – from which the church of latter day saints emerged.

Ok folks that’s this episode. The podcast will be back in two months’ time, while I write the next season, get some incidental music for the show, and start promoting this season. In the meantime I have two months’ worth of weekly blogs scheduled to publish every Tuesday 10am New Zealand time at As always, thanks for tuning in. If you liked this episode please share with anyone you think will enjoy the show. Let’s get this channel growing. Music by New Zealand’s Ishtar. See you again soon.

This Tale is part two of a two part series. To read the rest of this story click here

The Vela Incident; why radioactive sheep matter.

For he who grew up tall and proud,
In the shadow of the mushroom cloud.
Convinced our voices can’t be heard,
We just wanna scream it louder and louder

Queen- Hammer to Fall.

Hi all just a quick blog between podcast episodes today. Before I jump into this topic I do feel I need to say the following – I know we have some younger readers who perhaps are too young to have experienced the existential dread some of us would have, around the threat of a nuclear holocaust. Yes, it is fair to say many of us have held our breath in recent years when a regional conflict between nuclear armed India and Pakistan looked like it could degrade into their fifth war with each other since 1947- and their first since they both acquired the bomb. Similarly, recent geo-political posturing from North Korea will have kept some awake at night, and no doubt, were you to wind the clock back to January 2003 – sixteen words from then US president George W Bush would have had some breaking out in a cold sweat, not least of all the public intellectual Christopher Hitchens – who pulled, for me, one of the saddest ‘heel turns’ I’ve personally witnessed – birthing Hitch the neocon.

“The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa”

On the back of this claim the US coalition of the willing invaded Iraq, only to find they had not bought yellowcake uranium from Niger after all. Digression aside, there was a time when mutually assured destruction was as terrifying to the masses as anthropogenic global warming is- and should be I should add- in 2020. I don’t think we have as a whole the same dread of the mushroom cloud as we did a generation ago. Given the way the following tale plays out, it really is remarkable how small a wave the following tale caused.
OK, let’s discuss the Vela Incident.

Our tale this week takes place 3am Oslo time, 22nd September 1979. Our location, somewhere just off the coast of Bouvet Island – a windswept, icy, completely inhospitable and therefore, uninhabited sub-Antarctic island – belonging to the Norwegians of all people. I couldn’t tell you off the top of my head why Norway annexed Bouvet island in 1927, but I can tell you if you head due south from Oslo nearly as far as Antarctica you would be staring at the high, rocky cliffs of the island. Bouvet Island is officially the most remote place on Earth, close to 1,600 kilometres from the nearest trade routes, and slightly further than that to inhabited land – South Africa and Tristan De Cuhna to the North, Antarctica to the South. In short, apart from the occasional check in on Norwegian weather stations, it really was no-one’s business being out there. Right on the witching hour on the 22nd, while the good folk of Norway – and by implication almost everyone else in that line of longitude were asleep, a massive double flash was detected from the direction of the island.

Now the reason we know there was a flash is that in 1963 most of the world agreed to a partial nuclear test ban, which stopped signatories from testing nuclear bombs above ground, in space or underwater. You could, and a number of countries did, test them by digging a very deep hole in the ground then igniting. One of the ways in which this ban was to be enforced was to launch a series of satellites equipped to monitor for nuclear activity – which included looking for the unique – and I mean unique, nothing else observed in nature has a fingerprint just like it – double flash of an above ground nuclear explosion. In the wee small hours Vela satellite 6911 spotted the flash. It was not the only way in which the incident was detected however. At the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico – nearly 10,500 kilometres to the Northeast a very fast moving ionospheric disturbance (think something akin to the plasma beam launched by the sun in a coronal mass ejection – see the article on the Carrington event. ) was detected. One of the US Navy’s SOSUS devices – a network of underwater sound recorders, picked up the heavy thud from the incident. The sound registered as far out as SOSUS devices off the coast of Prince Edward Island, Canada. For a time unusual levels of radiation, iodine 131, began to show up in the thyroids of Australian sheep – close to 10,000 kilometres to the east of the island. This all came out of the blue, and no-one was owning up to the incident. You might imagine this caused quite a panic among US intelligence – who deployed teams of intelligence officers and scientists to find out just what had happened. You might also be unsurprised to read the White House claimed the incident was a false reading, and classified most of the documents. We do however get a glimpse at what may have happened, via declassified documents available at former president Jimmy Carter’s presidential library- the president made notes, which have been declassified.

One of the Vela satellites.

The first thing we find is the data from Vela 6911 is not infallible – the satellite was 10 years old at that point and perhaps not as well calibrated as one might hope. The satellite in question should have been retired two years earlier. When scientists approached the suspected scene of the crime, radiation was not at the levels they expected to find either. The experts stated someone had tested a nuclear weapon in the area, but could not 100% preclude something else.
As to who could have been responsible? Well today we are aware of nine countries with a cache of nuclear arms – the USA, United Kingdom, Russia (the former Soviet states of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine all had nuclear weapons when the Iron Curtain fell a decade after this tale, but handed the weapons over to Russia), China, India, Pakistan, France, North Korea (who did not have nuclear weapons at the time) and Israel. A few other countries, namely Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey play host to a number of nuclear warheads for NATO also. Now two things I should point out – first Israel have never owned up to having a cache of nuclear weapons. A little more on this in a second. Second, South Africa were a part of this club too- officially not at the time- but definitely from the early 1980s, dismantling their weapons in 1991. From as early as 1961 South Africa began secretly enriching uranium (they have their own deposits) and in 1977 they built a testing site in the Kalahari desert in the Northwest of the country, up by Namibia and Botswana. Now before you say it must have been them, let’s throw a spanner in the works.

In 1977-78 it is now known South Africa were working in concert with Israel. We know they swapped 600 tonnes of uranium with Israel for thirty grams of tritium gas – an extremely rare isotope of hydrogen, which, though in of itself is relatively harmless (unless ingested) is used to help fuel a nuclear explosion. Tiny trace amounts can be found in the atmosphere, or can be generated by irradiating lithium in a nuclear reactor.
Now, my best guess is while it is tempting to point the finger at South Africa, I don’t believe you could point the finger solely at them. They did have a partnership with Israel at the time, and if it were just them – well they were on the outs with most of the Western nations at the time due to the horrors of their apartheid regime. They were pariahs, and all the more dangerous due to the level of connection to communist organisations in the black resistance groups at the time. If Israel were also involved, on the other hand – well, Jimmy Carter had only just completed brokering a peace deal between Israel and Egypt in 1978 at the Camp David peace accords – putting a stop to a long running feud between Israel and her neighbours (well not Palestine). To find they had been secretly building weapons of mass destruction would have upset the apple cart in a big way. This is purely speculation, but not just my speculation – and this would make sense. If absolutely nothing else it would have undone President Carter’s legacy. As it was his work at the Camp David peace accords would make up a major component in his Nobel peace prize in 2002 (if you are wondering, 1979’s prize went to Christopher Hitchens’ arch enemy Mother Teresa. In her acceptance speech she claimed the biggest threat in the world was the right to an abortion – in the year a mysterious, unidentified power covertly tested a nuclear weapon in the most remote place on Earth).

This week’s tale…. well it is recent history. Most of the documents are still classified. The jury is still out. Do we know what happened? Not definitively. Should we worry more about nuclear Armageddon? As much as I want to say no, something about radioactive sheep 10,000 kilometres away, almost in my own back yard from just one bomb… It makes me a little wary.
See you all next week for the latest podcast episode – Simone.

On the Trail of La Bete du Gevaudan

A slumber did my spirit seal;
I had no human fears:
She seemed a thing which could not feel
The touch of Earthly years.
No motion has she now, no force;
She neither hears nor sees;
Rolled round in Earth’s diurnal course,
With rocks, and stones, and trees.
William Wordsworth ‘A Slumber did my Spirit Seal’ – 1800.

“The world was full of monsters, and they were all allowed to bite the innocent and the unwary”
Stephen King ‘Cujo’ – 1981.

Hi folks welcome back, and happy Halloween… Yes I know I have this tale scheduled to drop the day before. All the same put down that pumpkin knife for a while, grab a little Halloween candy and join me in this week’s Tale of History and Imagination.

The scene today, dear readers, is the former province of Gevaudan in South-Central France. The years between 1764 and 1767, just after the bloody, costly Seven Years War – a Proto World War if ever there was one – which had left deep scars in the psyche of many a European nation – France included- and left many a piggy bank bereft in its’ wake.

Gevaudan itself was an isolated, rugged, rural spot (the French Resistance made a stronghold there in World War 2 largely for this reason). The terrain was rough and mountainous. It’s terrain far too rocky to grow much in the way of crops. The locals eked out a living in the hills, tending to livestock – which meant, from a young age, the solitary job of wandering amongst your flock or herd, out in the elements – and keeping an eye out for any predators on the lookout for a free meal. Gevaudan was also surrounded by a vast forest; a dangerous and lawless place where, if a pack of wolves didn’t get you, a lurking outlaw, footpad or highwayman may just jump out and lighten your pockets somewhat. It was against this backdrop that La Bete du Gevaudan, the beast of Gevaudan, would come roaring into the public consciousness of the French.

Early in the summer of 1764 a young woman, whose name is never mentioned in the dozen texts I am working from, provided us with our first description of La Bete. She had been out in the fields with her cattle when a huge beast, unlike anything had seen before, came out of the forest. Far more interested in her than the cattle, the beast was the size of a calf; with an unusually broad chest, a flat head with a wide mouth full of canine teeth, and fiery eyes. It had something of a shaggy, reddish mane, with a dark line running the length of it’s spine. It scrambled towards her with a remarkable speed and dexterity. Our nameless young lady was saved by the fact she was standing behind a group of large bulls- who were unwilling to brook any aggression from this strange cryptid – and repeatedly charged La Bete, till he skulked off back into the forest. This incident was discarded as probably an attack by a wolf, until a short time later, 14 year old Jeanne Boulet was killed, her mutilated body found outside the village of Saint Etienne – de – Lugdares. A month later another victim, a similarly unnamed 15 year old girl killed near Puylaurent. She lived just long enough to give a description of the beast, which matched the first encounter. In September 1764 a young shepherd boy disappeared near the village of Laval. Partially eaten remains were found. This was followed by a spate of attacks on lone men and women tending to their animals. There was a general trend of horrible disfigurement, of gouging on the body, and of the beast going for the neck or head. Speculation at the sudden explosion of attacks led some to believe they were, in fact looking at two beasts. If there was a singular beast, then the speed in which it could traverse open land was beyond that of a wolf, in any case.

In January 1765 one Jacques Portefaix was attacked by the beast, while out with several friends. He managed to fight La Bete off with a pike, an act of bravery which would earn him royal accolades and a free education. He wasn’t the only person to fight off the beast successfully – In August 1765 a young girl, Marie Jeanne Valet, out for a walk with her sister, was attacked by the beast. Carrying a spear Marie squared up to the beast, and after an epic battle with the monster, sent it off with a nasty wound to it’s chest. I have not read of any royal plaudits or free education for Ms Valet, but there is a fantastic looking statue of her and the beast doing battle in Auvers, constructed in 1995 in honour of ‘The maid of Gevaudan’.

As mentioned above, in 1765 the spate of deaths in Gevaudan came to the attention of King Louis XV. Concerned if he did nothing there could be a mass panic, and perhaps also seeing some chance to redeem some honour for his military in the wake of a series of nasty defeats in the Seven Year War, he sent in the army, professional hunters, even his own Lieutenant of the hunt, Francoise Antoine. As terrified as the locals were of La Bete, they were disdainful of the soldiers and hunters, and did not go out of their way to make them feel welcome.

What followed was a prolonged mass slaughter. A large wolf being the likely suspect for the beast – although retroactively it was determined only around 5% of the attacks in the area from 1764-67 were by wolves – it was open season on any wolf spotted in the forest. Well over 100 wolves were massacred in this time. Some uncommonly large. But the killings continued by Le Bete. One noticeable difference between an ordinary wolf and La Bete was observed in this time too. Wolves generally dropped when you shot them, but on several occasions soldiers and hunters faced off against La Bete, fired, and the beast shook off the shot, scarpering back into the forest. While a number of mad suggestions were put forward, like it was some hybrid mastiff-wolf that one of the unhelpful locals had sent out in an armour of pig’s hide – for….. well…… reasons – you have to keep in mind this was the 1760s, and the first breach loading rifles and the like were a long way off – the legendary Prussian Dreyse Needle gun nearly 80 years off, the French Chassepot a whole century away. Guns had a maximum effective range of around 100 yards. An expert musketeer could maybe get off a shot every 20 seconds. We have to be a little careful when imagining the beast shaking off gunfire, not to imagine it being shot at by a modern hunting rifle.

There were a number of tales around the hunting of the beast. At one point Dragoon captain Jean-Baptiste Duhamel mustered 20,000 locals into a mass hunt, to canvass the area. He had no luck. Of course if Louis XV were attempting to avoid a mass panic, such hunts did quite the opposite, generating a great deal of press attention. In 1765 the King’s armourer, Francoise Antoine, claimed victory after bagging a 6 foot long wolf – whose body was sent back to the court. The attacks continued.

Finally a local hunter, Jean Chastel, bagged a large mystery animal. The animal was loaded up to be transported to Paris – but it went off on the way – the carcass which arrived at the other end had decomposed too much to identify at the other end. As a piece of random folklore, it was said Chastel killed the beast with a silver bullet – something which entered the werewolf myth thereafter. The attacks ceased after this. All in all 113 people had been killed by the beast of Gevaudan, a further 49 injured. 98 bodies had been partially eaten.

So, what was it exactly that Chastel killed?
A number of beasts have been suggested over the years, though there is a general consensus on one suspect I am told all the experts point to. So let’s get through the also-rans first. One suggestion made was the beast had been a hyena – my mind boggled at this a little, I must admit, but one video I found online by Trey The Explainer claims he found documentation of a striped hyena which had escaped a menagerie, and was shot in 1767, elsewhere in France. Does a hyena look like our beast? Well, check out the picture of the Nigerian hyena handler with one such beast below.

Other suggestions ran to a mutant bear, a wolf/dog hybrid, a large, trained dog ala Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles. One cryptid fan page I came across suggested the long extinct Mesonychid, again highly unlikely – but let’s just put a pin in this, one particular species of Mesonychid, was the massive Andrewsarchus – named after famed explorer Roy Chapman Andrews. Some time in the future I will come back to Mr Andrews, in relation to a certain action hero.. but I don’t have this locked in for any time soon. Now I think this can be dismissed fairly safely. As can talk of a serial killer. To quote Hitchens razor ‘that which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.’

Where the experts tend to agree is La Bete was a sub-adult lion. This would fit the description, size, speed. It’s behaviour. It’s imperviousness to 18th century guns. That it had yet to grow a full mane, you would not blame a group of unworldly rural folk, many, many decades away from television shows of any kind let alone Daktari and David Attenborough’s documentaries, a long, long way from photographs in National Geographic magazines – for not knowing what the beast was. Besides, if you hear hooves behind you on a street at night, do you think it will be a zebra? Of course not… You think it will be a horse. How a lion found itself in a forest in an isolated part of France is up for speculation. My best guess- if I were to take a shot at it – is it is related in some way to the war. You have a war raging for over a decade (yes I know the title Seven Years War is misleading), where Frenchmen are being transported all over the world. Had one of the soldiers picked up a fluffy little cub on the way, only to dump it when it got too big and dangerous to handle anymore? Alternately, had some formerly wealthy member of the gentry, finding they could no longer afford the upkeep on a private menagerie, dumped their animals in the most wild, desolate place they could find? There has long been speculation Britain’s ‘Beast of Bodmin Moor’ was similarly a panther, dumped after laws changed in the 1970’s, prohibiting private individuals from owning exotic pets. Whatever the case you can now say you have heard of La Bete de Gevaudan. Happy trick or treating folks.