Hey all I’m starting this tale with a personal anecdote … cause why not start a tale with a personal anecdote. Growing up I was crazy for anything historical in nature, but especially mad for Forteana. It should be no surprise that when New Zealand finally got Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World, it was immediately my favourite show. I have an odd memory of watching Mysterious World one Sunday morning – sprawled out on a large cushion in front of the TV. The week’s episode was all about strange beasts found in the wild – from De Loy’s ape to dinosaurs, and more.
A Belgian former fighter pilot named Remy Van Lierde was giving an interview. In 1959 Van Lierde was flying helicopters in the Katanga region of the Belgian Congo, when he sighted a massive snake convoluting itself through the jungle. Estimating it’s length at close to 50 feet, a shocked Van Lierde turned the whirlybird round. He buzzed the giant several times, a passenger snapping photos of the monster; before it reared up ten feet into the air, in an attempt to strike them. Van Lierde estimated it’s head was a good three feet long, two feet wide.
“I wonder if anyone went looking for this snake” I say to my father, also watching. “Teddy Roosevelt put a cash prize up for anyone who could bring in a 50 foot snake…”
My dad replied it would be a shame if anyone killed it. The snake must have lived a long life to have become so large. It wasn’t bothering anyone. Any animal like that needs to be protected. Given my dad grew up around a forest, and regularly hunted as a kid, this surprised me. It seems wise commentary, both then and now.
Now, on to the topic at hand. Today’s tale is set on the Bagradas river, modern day Tunisia – the year 256 BC. Our protagonists, a legion of Roman soldiers.
At this time Rome was in the midst of a war with Carthage. Anyone who read Hannibal in Bithynia will know something of the Punic wars. It’s easy to get lost in the weeds on the Sicilian conflicts, but I need to fill in some background. In short – Ionian and Doric Greek colonizers arrived in Sicily in the 6th century BC. They were a destabilising influence on the island from the get go. Carthage (well the Phoenicians anyway) had bases on the island from the 9th century BC, and were the big kids on the block at the time. Over the decades the Doric Greeks built up a formidable city state at Syracuse, while Ionian city states remained small and disparate. Around 485 BC Syracuse made moves to take over the whole island, which led to the Ionian cities calling on Carthage for protection. Carthage obliged, and a series of wars raged till 306 BC, when the Syracusian tyrant Agathocles landed an army of 14,000 men in Africa; besieging Carthage itself. This was enough to make Carthage consider a peace treaty, though ultimately Agathocles lost the war.
One of the strategic cities in these wars was Messana, modern day Messina – a port city near the border with Italy. It passed back and forth a few times between Carthage and Syracuse. At one stage Agathocles hired a group of Italian mercenaries called the Mamertines to help him – but when Agathocles died, many of them stayed on as free agents – and decided to take Messana for themselves. They took the city, turning to piracy to pay the bills.
Syracuse called on King Pyrrhus of Epirus, a North-western Greek kingdom, for help with the Mamertines. The Mamertines, in turn called on Rome to back them. By the end of the Pyrrhic wars – which saw Rome briefly allied with Carthage – Rome had annexed Messana. The Romans made overtures to their former foe Syracuse about joining together to expel Carthage from Sicily. This sparked the Punic wars we are now eight years into in our tale proper.
The momentum of the war in Rome’s favour, they sent 15,000 men to North Africa, under the command of the consul Marcus Atillus Regulus. They hoped to deal a knock out blow to Carthage itself, as Syracuse had attempted in 306BC. Their plans were crushed when the Carthaginian army, commanded by a Spartan mercenary named Xanthippus, dealt the Romans a rare thrashing. Only 2,000 Romans survived the Carthaginian onslaught. Now all that has been said, let’s talk about dragons.
In 256 BC, Regulus army landed on a peninsula now called Cape Bon. From there they would make their was through wild terrain, and a few unfriendly villages – to avoid a suicidal head on assault on the capital. They pushed on to the Bagradas river, and set up camp. Several men were sent to get water, one soon back in a mad panic… a monster had crushed or eaten the others. A party of armed men were sent to investigate. They found an unbelievably large ‘serpens’ – more on that phrase in a second – which made quick work of these men also – either seizing the men in it’s jaws or smashing them with a crack of its long tail. The classical sources all agree the beast had no legs, though one describes it as having a torso, and propelling itself on it’s many rows of ribs. The author, Valerius Maximus, claimed the beast also had a discernible spine.
The giant animal stood it’s ground as more and more men arrived – continuing to lash out at them. The legionnaires were powerless, their spears bouncing off it’s scales. Regulus finally arrived, a ballista in tow. A ballista is a bolt thrower that looked something like a giant crossbow, predating more well known artillery like the trebuchet. A large stone was hurled at the beast, paralysing it. Once immobilised, the army moved in and stabbed the beast to death.
The stench of the dead creature was soon so overpowering Regulus had to relocate their base. He did send some men back the following day however to skin the animal. The, allegedly 120 foot long hide, was sent back to Rome – where it was marvelled over till it disappeared a century later. In the 2nd century AD, the Roman poet Sirius Italicus wrote an epic poem on the Punic wars, which makes mention of the battle with the serpens – a word which can denote either a snake or a dragon – with the more specific ‘Drakon’ – and the legend of a Roman army who battled a dragon coalesced.
While clearly not a bona fide dragon, there is every possibility the legion stumbled across a giant python. Though I wondered if they came across a gigantic crocodile – a couple of sources were adamant Roman soldiers of this era knew exactly what a croc looked like. Burmese pythons have been known to grow in excess of 25 feet, African rock pythons as long as 20 feet have been spotted in the wild by people considered reliable witnesses. Amazonian anacondas can get close to 30 feet in length. This is a long way from a monster – say 60 feet long – so as to leave 120 feet of skin behind. There are, however, a number of reports from other classical sources claiming encounters with giant snakes close to 40 feet in length. Fossils of the extinct Titanoboa from close to 60 million years ago bear witness to snakes which could grow close to the size of the Bagradas dragon.
a model of a titanoboa
Add to this, if the dragon was a largely water borne snake, in theory some of the limits set on terra firma by gravity on a body go out of the window – and animal size is more largely constrained by the amount of food available in their catchment.
I am extremely sceptical of the tale of the Bagradas Dragon, but a giant snake is plausible. It almost makes one shudder to think of the monsters potentially out there – unctuously coiling its powerful frame around some unfortunate prey…. and I guess I wish that monster well?
Today we join our tale right at it’s conclusion – the year 63 BC. The setting, the kingdom of Pontus – a once powerful Black Sea empire – now a region of Eastern Turkey. Mithridates VI Eupator paces the floor – if you’ll pardon my self plagiarism – like a caged Barbary Lion. Like Hannibal, Mithridates spent decades at war with Rome. Roman imperialism was the great evil of his time – an evil which must be stopped, whatever the cost. Now admittedly, nothing regarding Mithridates is ever cut and dried. The renowned freedom fighter was also a genocidal despot. A paranoid megalomaniac, raised to believe a series of comets and other omens marked him out as a messiah. Saviour of the East. King of Kings.
Legitimately tracing his lineage back to both Alexander the Great and Persian King of Kings, Cyrus the Great, he worshipped these men. He wanted nothing more than to emulate their conquests.
Mithridates grew up reading of all manner of legendary figures – and not just mythical tales of Amazonians, the Golden Fleece, and Prometheus’ punishment for bringing fire to Earth – all of which allegedly happened in his back yard. He idolised real figures; like Antiochus III of Syria; Attalus, the poison king of Pergamon; Aristonicus, the rebel leader of the ‘citizens of the sun’, who carried out a years long guerrilla war with Rome. He recalled Jugurtha, the Berber King of Numidia – who fought Rome, but was defeated and paraded in chains before thousands of jeering Romans.
Unquestionably he knew of Hannibal – who proved Rome could be beaten – but ultimately ended up in a room much like this – pacing, contemplating a poison vial – as he too, now was.
Mithridates was no Hannibal. For one he brought this on himself. The Roman, Pompey the Great marched into Asia to finish him – but judging him, if not dead then a spent force – left to conquer the Levant. He was free and clear so long as he kept out of Rome’s way. His own people, in the city of Pantikapaion, were the ones surrounding him. Baying for his blood. They refused to send more loved ones off to die in his wars. The latest plan – to cross the Italian alps like Hannibal – was the final straw. By day’s end, his son Pharnaces would be king.
Accompanied by his two youngest daughters, and bodyguard, Mithridates gave a sip of fast acting poison to each of the girls, then took the rest himself – and then….. Well we’ll come back to that.
Mithridates was born 135 BC, in Sinope, a wealthy port city on the edge of the Black Sea. Legend has it his birth coincided with a particularly bright comet passing through the sky – something many augurers read as an omen the child would be a great conquerer. He received the kind of classical education reserved for the wealthy – and showed a talent for botany and languages. He was also a gifted athlete – with a love of high risk pursuits.
In his teens his father, Mithridates V, died suddenly at a state banquet. Many suspected his mother, Laodice, of poisoning the king. The newly crowned Mithridates VI worried he’d meet the same fate as his father, so he ran away into the forests. Accompanied by an entourage, he travelled the length of his kingdom, meeting all the chieftains, the movers and shakers in the land. Many nights they slept under the stars, and hunted for their meals. They played the tourist, going to sites where Alexander, or Xenophon, or mythic heroes like Hercules did legendary things. Learning the lay of the land, and of the myriad cultures of the polyglot kingdom – he was off on the original ‘grand tour’.
At this time he became increasingly fixated on poisons and toxins – Pontus was full of things that could kill you – beyond his mother, and the obvious – like snakes and scorpions, even the ducks and honey in parts of his land were toxic enough to put you in a coma. Fearful of dying as his father had, he began a years long quest to develop an antidote to protect him from all poisons.
At around 23 years of age, he returned to Sinope. In his absence, Laodice made an alliance with Rome, and was living a rather sumptuous lifestyle while the people struggled under heavy Roman taxation. In this time Rome had alliances – or flat out conquered several states in the near east making them the overlords of what was then considered Asia. The Romans heavily taxed many of these places, and with bureaucrats and soldiers, came thousands of merchants looking for profit in the east. They were an insular lot, who thought themselves superior to the locals. They brought industrial levels of slavery with them – many of the slaves former citizens of the very places these Romans settled in. Mithridates, who notoriously hated the Romans, caught the zeitgeist and swept back into power. In what started as a bloodless revolution, he took the reigns and rescinded all agreements with Rome. He dealt with his father’s alleged murderers, got rid of Roman taxes – and the people rejoiced. On the home front he married his sister – something far more acceptable those days – and had a couple of kids together. They would fall out later, after his wife, also called Laodice, tried to kill him. Mithridates ordered her execution.
In 88 BC, Mithridates masterminded an incident which altered the course of his life – and had the follow through played out differently – would have changed world history to this day in ways we can only imagine. To this day it stands as one of history’s worst terrorist attacks. For months, Mithridates plotted with dozens of near eastern leaders to attack all Romans and other Italians in the region. The attack would occur simultaneously in dozens of cities – by thousands of locals. All Italians would be massacred. How he communicated with dozens of leaders is a mystery – suggestions include envoys with the orders tattooed on the backs of their heads, hidden under hair till they arrived – and instructions written on pigs’ bladders – carefully stuck to the insides of vases. More remarkably, of the thousands involved – no-one spilled the beans to Rome.
On an unspecified date in May 88 BC, thousands of people from all walks of life took up arms and turned on Rome. In Pergamon – Rome’s capital in Asia – Roman settlers fled to the Temple of Asclepius. In many cities, they fled to temples, believing the mobs would fear the wrath of the Gods. Mobs burst into the temples that day – in Pergamon executing all, up close and personal, with bows and arrows. In Ephesus, Romans took refuge in the Temple of Artemis. A similar scene played out, this time they were cut down with swords, knives, and sundry other weapons. In Adramyttion, they were forced into the sea and drowned. In Caunus, the large slave population gathered the Romans around the statue of their god Vesta, then methodically slaughtered then – starting with children, then moving to the women – then finally the men.
In Tralles, a mercantile town, local leaders didn’t want to get their hands dirty. They hired a Paphlagonian mercenary named Theophilus, and his gang to do the hit. They rode in to town looking something like a biker gang, herded the Romans into a temple, then painted the walls with their blood. And on it went. Genocidal acts in dozens of towns and cities, aided by local hatred for Rome. Somewhere in the order of 80,000 Romans were murdered that day.
Initially, things looked great for Mithridates. The massacre sparked an economic depression in Italy. Rome, already fighting the ‘social war’ with several Italian states, broke into a civil war proper – as the consul Lucius Cornelius Sulla made a play for dictator. The path was clear for Mithridates to take over all of Asia Minor. From there he would expel Rome from Greece. His army swept through the Turkish kingdoms of Bithynia, Phrygia, Ionia, Mysia, Lycia, Cappadocia… Many Greek city states welcomed him as a liberator, and flocked his side to help. Athens threw off the Roman yoke of oppression, led by the philosopher Athenion. Rome couldn’t retaliate – they already had too much going on. For a while Mithridates looked unstoppable. This all soon changed.
Rhodes was the first stumbling block. In the wake of Alexander the Great’s passing, the island nation became a respected military and trading power. In 305 BC they proved their toughness after Macedonia laid siege to the island. Rhodes hung in there as the Macedonians hit them with massive siege engines, 180 foot long battering rams.. you name it. Macedonia finally gave up, abandoning weapons and siege engines. Rhodes sold the abandoned gear for scrap, making enough to construct the Statue of Liberty sized Colossus of Rhodes with the proceeds.
When Mithridates besieged Rhodes in 88 BC, the colossus was long gone – it fell into the sea after an earthquake in the 260s BC. Rhodes’ tenacity, however, remained in spades.
Mithridates landed in the first wave – tasked with taking out the smaller towns and setting up a base. The people of Rhodes were all safely behind the capital’s defensive walls. The towns outside the walls razed, the fields cleared. With no home base, and only the supplies brought with them, they hunkered down and waited for the rest of the army to arrive. Very few of them would make it to Rhodes. First, his navy were caught in a violent storm, and several ships were lost. Next, Rhodes sent out their Admiral, Damogorus with a small but experienced fleet of much quicker biremes. They sunk several more Pontic vessels before departing.
Next Mithridates army ruined their assault on the city. The plan was a group sent into the hills to look for the navy would light a signal fire from a hilltop, when it was time to attack. Rhodes caught wind of this and lit a fire of their own. An ill-prepared army charged early, and were mown down. Then there was the Sambuca. A Sambuca is a large ramp, usually sailed up to defensive walls on the front of a ship, then lowered onto the wall. Soldiers then run up the ramp at the enemy. Mithridates Sambuca was an unwieldy contraption with catapults at it’s base, and so big it needed two ships to carry it. It collapsed under it’s own weight, taking the ships with it. Unceremoniously defeated, Mithridates turned tail and sailed for Pontus.
This incident set the tone for much of the Mithridatic Wars. While he commanded much larger armies – leadership was poor. They trapped themselves in indefensible places. They fought like 4th century BC Greek hoplites while 1st century BC wars were best fought like Roman legions. Rome, in the meantime, regained their footing under Sulla, who funded an expedition by raiding, first Roman – then Greek temples. Greece fell to Sulla in 86 BC, following the battles of Chaeronea and Orchomenus. A peace treaty was verbally agreed to in 85 BC, the treaty of Dardanos – Mithridates handed all his conquests back to Rome, or their original Roman puppet rulers. He gave up much of his navy to Rome, and incurred a massive fine. A second Mithridatic war soon followed. Lucius Licinius Murena, tasked with re-establishing Rome’s Asian territories started a war with Pontus in 83 BC. Mithridates was far better prepared, and this war ended inconclusively after Sulla ordered Murena out of Asia.
Mithridates had learned a lot from the first war – but he also made a powerful ally in his new son in law – Tigranes the Great, King of Armenia.
We’ll come to the third, and final war in a moment. Let’s talk about peace and the home front. In peace time the court of Mithridates was abundant in all things. Leading the festivities the King of Kings himself. On any given night there was a great feast. The entertainment could be anything from Greek plays, to sporting events to the hottest bands in the empire. Drinking and eating contests were frequent – ancient sources tell us no-one could out eat or out drink Mithridates. The king was in the midst of the merriment – often surrounded by his harem of beautiful women from across his kingdom. There was often a point in the evening when the feast took a darker turn.
Some unlucky prisoner would be brought forth, and forced to drink poison. All would look on as the human guinea pig died. Mithridates would then perform his party trick. A servant would pour him a glass of the same poison – and he would gleefully imbibe. Legend has it his years of paranoia he’d meet the same end as his father bore fruit. Over years of trial and error, having poisoned a great many criminals and prisoners of war – the Kings of kings – the Poison King, had developed an antidote to most poisons. Every day the king took a vial of his ‘mithridatium’ to fend off the poisoners. Though the recipe is now lost, some people believe the Romans did get their hands on it – and several Emperors took it daily. Theriac, a Greek supposed panacea which remained popular till the 19th century may well have been mithradatium. If there is anything most people know about Mithridates it is mithridatium – the British poet A.E. Housman writing in his epic poem, A Shropshire Lad.
There was a king reigned in the East: There, when kings will sit to feast, They get their fill before they think With poisoned meat and poisoned drink. He gathered all that springs to birth From the many-venomed earth; First a little, thence to more, He sampled all her killing store; And easy, smiling, seasoned sound, Sate the king when healths went round. They put arsenic in his meat And stared aghast to watch him eat; They poured strychnine in his cup And shook to see him drink it up: They shook, they stared as white’s their shirt: Them it was their poison hurt. —I tell the tale that I heard told. Mithridates, he died old.
Now, back to the Mithridatic wars. I couldn’t hope to cover this all in detail in the confines of a 20 minute episode – but here’s the main points. One thread that runs through Mithridates wars is his belief he should be the overlord of the neighbouring kingdom of Bithynia. Mithridates was once an ally of their King Nicomedes III. They fell out. After the first Mithridatic war, Bithynia was handed back to Rome’s puppet king Nicomedes IV – who died in 74 BC – leaving Bithynia to the Romans. Rome was tied up with an uprising in Spain, led by the rogue general Quintus Sertorius. This was all Mithridates needed to march an army into Bithynia, and reclaim the land. To add to the chaos, a Thracian slave called Spartacus led an uprising in Italy itself at around the same time. As often the case, the war played well for Mithridates, till Rome could afford to give him all their attention – then it turned ugly very quickly.
Several other nations, including his allies in Armenia, were drawn into this conflict. When the war began, Mithridates was in command of an army of 300,000 soldiers. The Roman generals were far too good for his army, however – and he would conclude with a band of a few thousand guerrilla fighters – engaged in hit and run surprise attacks on Rome. Tigranes’ empire would be brought to heel by Rome, for their part in the war. Hundreds of thousands of people would die. The Roman general Lucillus had control of Pontus, then lost control in 67 BC following the Battle of Zela. Rome responded by sending in Pompey the Great – fresh from victories against Sertorius in Spain, unfairly claiming victory over Spartacus, and cleaning up the growing piracy problem in the Mediterranean. Pompey proved too much for Mithridates and soon all the poison king had was a small band of fighters (including his new partner, a real life ‘Amazonian’, a Scythian warrior named Hypsicratea) … and a tiny kingdom of the Bosphorus – in modern day Crimea.In 66 BC Pompey pursued Mithridates to the foothills of the Caucasus mountains. Not expecting a man now in his late 60s to be capable of crossing the Caucasus, Pompey had a handful of ships cruising the edge of the Black Sea for the group. He then took his army to the Levant, to conquer new lands.
But survive he did. He crossed through the Scythian Keyhole, and marched into Pantikapaion. Unlike Hannibal, he could have lived the rest of his life in peace – but in 63 BC Mithridates started to plot another invasion. This time he’d assemble another army of tens of thousands of local sons, with a few Scythian and Sarmatian daughters – they would march till they reached the River Danube – then follow it down to the Italian Alps. He planned, once again, to emulate the great Hannibal. Little did he know the people would riot, and he’d be copying Hannibal in a completely different way.
To bring our tale full circle. Mithridates is in the tower. His daughters have passed on. Mithridates, on the other hand, paces the room – in the hope an increased heart rate will speed up the poison. He paces the room, sweaty, clammy, a little woozy – but it appears impervious to whatever toxin is racing through his system – be it arsenic, hellebore, hemlock, belladonna or the toxic ducks which swam in the Black Sea. Out of options, Mithridates turned to his bodyguard, Bituitus – and begged to be put to the sword. He knew his end would be many times worse if the angry mob got a hold of him. Within days, his body would be shipped to Pompey, just to let Rome know they won.
Sometimes a Tale concludes, and I’ve got some bit of insight, some moral. I’m not sure I really do here. Don’t mess with Imperial Rome? It goes without saying, though I think a lot of ‘barbarian’ peoples were morally right to resist – though through lack of firepower – or expertise, things were always going to end badly for them. If I had a full hour to tell this story, then maybe it’s all about omens, and not taking them too seriously (check out the ‘prelude’ I wrote to this tale a few weeks ago for an example). Maybe this is a tale of obsession, and knowing your stop loss point? Mithridates obsessive drive to be like his mightier ancestors, combined with an obsessive hatred of Rome led him to genocide, and a series of wars costing hundreds of thousands of lives. He lost everyone he loved. Obsession destroyed a great empire – only not the one he expected it to. Likewise his obsession to not die as his father did, ultimately, worked only too well.
Today’s tale is set in the city of Strasbourg – then part of the Holy Roman Empire – the date, mid July 1518. Frau Troffea, a local woman for whom there is little description of in the public domain – so I choose to picture her as a medieval Toni Basil – comes waltzing out of her home, down the streets of the city. Dancing to the beat of an unknown drummer, she spun and twisted, thrusting limbs akimbo in what at first seemed a dance of joy…. She shook and pirouetted till she collapsed out of sheer exhaustion. Not done yet, she dusted herself off, and continued to dance the night away – into the next day, and the next – till a week after striding out in public, she found herself joined by 34 other dancers – all moving and a grooving to the same silent reel. At this point it was clear to all the medieval flash-mob were having anything but a great time. Several dancers screamed for help – others appeared to be zoned out, in a trance.
By the time the great dancing plague of 1518 was done with Strasbourg in mid August, around 400 people had danced themselves to death. The incident remains a matter of conjecture to this day, though medical experts have a pretty clear idea what caused this plague. More on that soon.
Dancing plagues were very much a medieval occurrence, though likely were that era’s manifestation of a mass hysteria incident – something we continue to see to this day in different forms. Strasbourg was one of several such incidents. The earliest accounts come from Christian preachers who were later canonized, and as such carry the usual distortions found in hagiographies. In one tale, from the 7th century, French Bishop Eligius became so incensed with a group of dancers disturbing the solemnity of the vigil before the feast of St Peter, he cursed the group to dance non-stop for a year. Legend has it, a year to the day these poor dancers gave out -most of them dropping dead of exhaustion. Another legend tells of the missionary Willibrord travelling through Waxweiler, Germany in the 8th century. He spotted a group of revelers dancing in a graveyard, and sociopathically cursed the group to dance forever. Three days later, he would be back in Waxweiler, where, after some begging and cajoling from the families of the dancers – he cured them of their dance fever.
On Christmas eve 1021, a large group of parishioners broke into an uncontrolled dance in the town of Bernburg. They continued till exhausted. Another early case involves a large group of children dancing their way from Erfurt, Germany to the neighboring town of Arnstadt – some 20 kilometers away. In 1278 in Maastricht, a group of 200 dancers congregated on a bridge over the river Meuse – dancing till the bridge gave way under them. The dancing plague, however wouldn’t go truly viral till the 1370s, when the phenomenon would occur in dozens of cities across Germany, Eastern France and the Netherlands. Villagers would dance as if in great joy, all the while screaming in pain and begging the clergy to cast the demon out of them.
Back in Strasbourg the authorities tried to make sense of the plague. In trying to come up with an explanation, they discovered Frau Troffea was ordered to do the housework by her husband just prior to breaking into dance. After flat-out refusing to clean the house, she hot-footed it out the house and down the road. Their best guess, based on this evidence, was in the heat of summer the townspeople were suffering from hot bloodedness. They needed to dance the sanguine infection out of their systems if they hoped to recover. The order was given to bring in musicians, and professional dancers from neighboring towns. Stages were built. The doors to the dance halls were thrown wide open. A massive dance party raged on for a month, till everyone was all danced out – and hundreds had died.
What could have caused such an incident?
In a 2009 article for the Lancet, historian John Waller suggested the dancers had descended into an altered state of mind. Having discounted ergot poisoning – Ergot is a fungus which gets into flour by growing on rye stalks, and can cause hallucinations and involuntary movements – he suggests a psychological cause. Strasbourg had been through a couple of particularly awful years. Recent harvests had been poor, leading to a leap in the cost of grain. The region was wracked with multiple diseases at the time also, from bubonic plague to leprosy to an outbreak of syphilis. Surrounded by doom and gloom, the town’s mass nervous breakdown took the form of a dance to the death. In the years since we have seen similar phenomena in ‘June Bug’ infections, mysterious poison gas bandits, Tanzanian laughing plagues, German Coca Cola ‘poisoning’s, an outbreak of Tourette’s-like symptoms in an upstate New York high school, spates of headaches, nausea and hearing damage among Americans in Havana Cuba, catatonic trances among refugees in Sweden – and so on. It is very likely we can add the dancing plagues of medieval Europe to the list of psychogenic, rather than physical – or even metaphysical – phenomena.
Warning! This week’s tale deals with death by misadventure, which some readers may find disturbing.
Today’s tale is set on a freezing cold morning, 57 metres above the ground, in Paris, France. The date February 4th 1912. Our subject, one unfortunate soul we’ll come to in a few minutes. Before I even begin this tale, I needs must take you all on a flight of fancy. Let’s go buzz a few historical rooftops.
Flight has been a near universal obsession in human societies, for almost as long as we’ve had myths. Just pick a culture and tales emerge. The Greeks had the Corinthian hero Bellerophon, who tamed and rode Pegasus, the winged horse. They also had Daedalus, the engineer held captive by King Minos. Daedalus built a magnificent pair of wings held together by wax, and managed to fly from Crete to Naples. His unfortunate son Icarus flew too high on his wings – finding out the hard way mortals should never fly too close to the sun. His wings melted, Icarus tumbled to his death below.
The Persians, whose Zoroastrian God Ahura Mazda is little more than a massive pair of wings attached to a humanoid torso, believed their mythical Shah, Kai Kawus built an eagle-powered throne – flying the contraption all the way to China. In Islam, Muhammad made a night flight from Mecca to Jerusalem and back on the winged steed Buraq. Maori legend tells of the demigod Tawhaki, who either climbed a giant vine or flew on a kite to the tenth level of Heaven. English lore tells of a King Bladud, the mythical 9th century BC father of Shakespeare’s King Lear. Having magically cured himself of leprosy in the town of Bath, Bladud built himself a giant pair of wings – then flew back to his ancestral homeland, Troy. He ran into some trouble – quite literally – when he slammed into the Trojan walls, dying from the blunt force trauma. Hindu, Sanskrit and Jain texts all mention Vimana – flying cities – in their folklore.
Given this obsession to soar like an eagle, it should not surprise anyone that our species did attempt to take to the skies. The earliest attempts seem nearly as mythological as the myths, though rarely as successful as a Daedalus or Kai Kawus.
In 559 AD Yuan Huangtou, captive son of the King of the Northern Wei (a Chinese kingdom) was forcibly tied to a giant kite from a tower. He survived the flight, but died a few years later of malnutrition, still a captive to the same kite flyers. In 875 AD the Andalusian polymath Abbas Ibn Firmas was said to have flown a few hundred yards in a glider of his own design. As the tale is told the contraption was something like a large pair of wings. Many writers with expertise in aviation consider this the first legitimate human flight in history, although it was not completely successful – when Firmas finally landed he landed badly, injuring himself. In the 11th Century, Eilmer of Malmesbury – a Benedictine monk with knowledge of Firmas’ flight – attempted the same, by jumping from the top of Malmesbury Abbey with some kind of glider attached. He survived the ordeal and appears to have glided 100 yards or more before crashing to the ground.
While a handful of polymaths, notably ‘Doctor Miribilis’ – Roger Bacon; and of course Leonardo Da Vinci hypothesized flying machines without ever building one, a handful of intrepid inventors did try their hand at a flying machine. Between Da Vinci in the 1480s and someone else we’ll mention soon in 1853, somewhere in the order of 50 flying machines were tested. All but a dozen badly injured or killed their pilots. A few may have glided some small distance – but for the most part don’t qualify as having achieved controlled flight.
Our Tale of History and Aviation takes a huge leap in 1799. This was the year an English Baronet named George Cayley enters the race. By working out the laws behind aerodynamics, he sketches a design for a glider which is capable of flight. After unsuccessfully politicking for a society for aerodynamics – and half a century of tweaks and adjustments, including an 1848 glider which flew like a kite with a 10 year old boy in it – Cayley successfully flew a glider across the moors in Scarborough. Technically, his coachman – unnamed to history – did, and was so terrified by the ordeal he handed in his notice that same day. Cayley, like fellow inventor William Henson, theorized a heavier than air machine could take to the air more successfully with a propeller, driven by an internal combustion engine – but both men were hamstrung by the limits of the technology available to them.
To make an already long story short, internal combustion engines appear in the mid 1860s. In the 1870s French inventor Alphonse Penaud makes a model plane with a propeller, and wind up torsion engine. It flies hundreds of feet before running out of steam. Clement Ader, another French inventor, makes a glider with a built in engine. Over the following 17 years he takes it up on a handful of ‘tethered’ flights – essentially getting it airborne but unable to fly anywhere due to the ropes. Felix Du Temple fails to launch a monoplane, pushing it down a ski ramp, in 1874. This was the first failed attempt to launch a powered airplane. Frenchman Victor Tatin made another model in 1879, with twin propellers and a tiny internal combustion engine. Tethered to a stick, it took off and flew in circles till it ran out of fuel. A host of other inventors – the Lilienthal brothers, John J Montgomery, Alexander Mozhaiski, even machine gun entrepreneur Hiram Maxim made machines that edged closer to powered flight. This continued till March 31st 1903, when a young farmer and inventor named Richard Pearse made a powered flight of several hundred metres. He made a second flight later that year, witnessed by half his rural village of Waitoki, New Zealand – this time staying aloft for a few kilometres, before crashing into a gorse bush.
Pearse was, of course, a dead end in the tale – all development flowed from the Wright Brothers successful flight at Kitty Hawk, December 17th 1903. Yes I’m ignoring other claimants like Gustave Whitehead and Alberto Santos-Dumont for exactly the same reason. Furthermore, the Timaru Herald dug up an interview with Pearse from 1911 which suggests his flight may have been after 1909 and at the earliest, just after a 1904 world’s fair- though Pearse was suffering from a debilitating mental illness at the time which would institutionalize him for the rest of his life – while many eyewitnesses knew exactly how old they were when they saw him fly. Orville and Wilbur Wright officially flew a motorized plane first, in December 1903. Others soon followed suit, and an industry was born.
By 1912 a new challenge emerged. If you’re sending increasing numbers of people into the sky, in machines apt to break down on occasion, what measures are in place to save those people? This is where our protagonist, Franz Reichelt comes into focus – balancing precariously on the edge of the 187 foot high first floor of the Eiffel Tower.
Franz Reichelt was born in Wegstädt, Bohemia (modern day Czech Republic) on 16th October 1878. Moving to Paris in 1898, he set up a dressmaking shop which catered largely to Austrian tourists on holiday in Paris. Unmarried, he lived alone in a 3rd floor apartment on rue Gaillon. In 1909 Reichelt found a new calling after a spate of aviation fatalities left him aghast – one presumes the September 1909 deaths of Eugene Lefebvre and Ferdinand Ferber (the 2nd & 3rd people to die in a powered aircraft, respectively). He decided a parachute must be developed to give these pioneers a fighting chance.
Parachutes were not an entirely new concept. ‘Professor of Technology’ Louis-Sébastien Lenormand coined the term in 1783 when he exhibited his first model – safely jumping from atop Montpelier Observatory. Lenormand envisioned the parachute as a safety device, for use in burning buildings. Others, including Andre-Jacques Garner, saw an alternate use in hot air ballooning (another way, of course for humans to fly, one I don’t have the column inches to explore today). Most of these devices were fixed (i.e. they could not fold away) and bulky, and as such of no great use to pilots.
In 1910 Aero-Club de France offered a reward of 5,000 francs to any inventor who could build a foldaway parachute which could be used from a plane. Reichelt quickly submitted his prototype wingsuit. Soon after the deaths of Lefebvre and Ferber, he made a suit with a canopy that – when opened – would unleash a pair of giant silk wings. He tested it by throwing tailors dummies out of a fifth floor window above his apartment. The initial tests were successful. When he took his wingsuit to the Aero-club, they turned Reichelt away. The judges believed the canopy too weak to withstand a jump from a plane. It didn’t help that the device weighed 70kg either. In 1911, the Aero-Club increased their prize to 10,000 francs, adding the stipulations the parachute must not weigh more than 25kg, and that the prize must be claimed within three years. Suddenly the race was on.
In 1911 Grant Morton, a 54 year old stuntman who made his career by jumping out of hot air balloons, made the world’s first skydive – jumping from a Wright Model B near Venice Beach, California. He made the jump with a ‘throw out’ type chute better suited to slower- moving craft, like hot air balloons. Californian balloonist Charles Broadwick and Russian inventor Gleb Kotelnikov were both making huge strides with knapsack parachute designs. It was likely Reichelt also felt pressured by fellow Frenchman Gaston Hervieu – who tested a number of dummies attached to chutes from the first floor of the Eiffel Tower in 1911. As Reichelt pared down his materials to make the 25kg cutoff, making a succession of failures – Hervieu threw a model from the tower, which landed softly below. Were the dummies responsible for this sudden run of bad luck? It appears twice in 1911 Franz Reichelt donned the suit himself, and leapt to the ground 30 feet below. On the first occasion he fell heavily into a pile of hay and walked away uninjured. On the second occasion he broke his leg.
All the while, he continuously petitioned authorities to allow him to test his dummies from the Eiffel tower also. He was now convinced the fault lay, not in the design, but the height he was testing the suit from. If he could get a few hundred feet higher, the chute was bound to work. This brings us to February 4th 1912. The temperature was at an icy zero Celsius. There was a wicked cross-wind. Franz Reichelt finally had permission to toss a dummy off the ledge, while assorted press milled around on the nearby Champ de Mars. Knowing the time had passed for dummies, today was make or break – and with an unyielding belief in his suit – Reichelt climbed the guardrail. For forty seconds he stared down. Failure meant certain death, but to succeed meant plaudits beyond his imagination. Just think of all the lives the wingsuit would save in the future. His name would be remembered for eternity. He would be 10,000 francs better off. So, here we go, Trois – Duex – Un……..
A body in free fall plummets at 9.8 metres per second, picking up a further 9.8 metres every second till it hits terminal velocity – for a human that’s a cruising speed of around 55 meters a second – 200 kilometres an hour. An online ‘splat calculator’ which factors in Reichelt’s 72kg frame estimates his fall time at 3.41 seconds – enough time for the poor man to realize his suit had failed miserably. Franz Reichelt fell like a stone, hitting the ground below with a dull, heavy thud. Film footage of the incident shows a group of men picking up his body, then casually measuring the sizeable crater he left beneath him. Needless to say Mr. Reichelt did not win the prize.
While it’s tempting, and indeed a little callous to think of Franz Reichelt’s Tale as little more than a Darwin award in the making – I feel obliged to point out his quixotic story is slightly more than that. Whether motivated out of a genuine need to help others (in this case saving pilots) or by that big paycheck, what’s for certain is he lived at the tail end of a time where some private citizen could invent the next big thing in the back of a shed. Right up till the postwar period, when the USA had a lot of money to throw at research into everything one could imagine – and an understanding if they wanted to keep hegemony, innovation hubs full of the newest, greatest things were necessary – lots of people a little like Franz Reichelt built much of our world from their sheds, spare rooms and kitchen tables. I desperately want to remember him as a pioneer more than a punchline, though I fear the tides of history are against me on this one.
Hey everyone, this was – almost – this year’s Christmas post. I just wasn’t feeling it this year. On first draft though inspiration struck. I present this as I think it still has some value right? – An actual Xmas post will drop on the 25th.
Hi all, Merry Christmas to you all. After reading the following you may well wonder why I’m not wishing everyone a hearty ‘Bah humbug’. You see, I’ve been wracking my brains for a suitable tale to tell this year – I didn’t even have a subject for this year’s Christmas day blog until I hit the first draft of this post. The following is a blog on things which happened Christmases past – and why none of the following made the cut. The actual Christmas blog will drop Christmas day.
One – The Stone of Destiny.
On Christmas eve 1950, four students from Glasgow, Scotland met at a Lyon’s Corner House in London – an open 24/7 complex full of pubs, foodcourts and barber shops – to plot the theft of the Stone of Destiny; sometimes referred to as the Stone of Scone. For lack of a reliable backstory to this artefact, it is worth mentioning a story from the bible. Jacob was on the run from his brother Esau – who was out to kill him for usurping him as his father’s favourite son. One night he laid his head on a rock, and had a vivid dream where he climbed a magical ladder to heaven. Up the top Jacob meets God, who tells him his progeny are destined to rule the world, but he best get busy spreading his seed far and wide. He would go on to have twelve children, who would each lead one of the twelve tribes of Israel. The rock he slept on would be blessed, declared a relic, and eventually taken into the temple of Jerusalem.
Forward to Scotland in the 1290s. The Scots believed the prophet Jeremiah, famous in the bible for authoring a few Old Testament books, and loudly predicting Babylon would invade Israel, to the disbelief of his leaders (he would be proved correct in 586 BCE) – secreted the rock away before the Babylonians attacked. Somehow, in spite of Jeremiah escaping to Egypt, they believe said rock made its way to Ireland. No one knows when exactly the Stone of Destiny appeared in Scotland, but it is assumed most, if not all Scottish Kings were crowned atop this mythical piece of rock, as legend has it the stone was on their soil by the mid 600s AD.
This is, at least until the Scots fell afoul of England’s King Edward I, known to historians as Edward Longshanks, among other names. Another sobriquet, The Hammer of the Scots. A constitutional crisis arose when Scottish King Alexander III and his three heirs all died within a few years of one another. With 14 rival claimants, Longshanks was called upon to decide who should be king. He picked John Baliol, sparking an insurrection. Most of the Scottish lords backed Robert de Brus – grandfather of future king Robert the Bruce (mentioned in another recent blog post). Drawn into the conflict, Longshanks just took over the nation of Scotland for himself – and following the 1296 Battle of Dunbar – stole the Stone of Destiny. The stone was incorporated into English ceremonies, insinuating any time an English monarch was crowned, they were de-facto named ruler of the Scots too.
The Bah Humbug moment?
Don’t get me wrong, Edward Longshanks is the kind of historical monster I could spend days on. I am also a sucker for any tale where the underdog – in this case the four students – succeed against the odds. Let’s not understate the importance of the removal of the stone from Westminster Abbey either. In 1950, less than 1% of Scots backed the politicians calling for devolution – a conscious uncoupling from the British Empire. The removal of the stone sparked a conversation which led to a number of referenda, where Scotland secured their own parliament, but fell short of completely devolving. The 1979 vote (to leave) had too few voters to count, the 2014 vote saw a narrow victory to the stay campaign.
Essentially though, the tale itself is a bit of an anti-climax. Ian Hamilton, Gavin Vernon, Kay Matheson and Alan Stuart worked out how long it took security to do their rounds, then just nicked the stone while the guard’s back was turned. The stone got accidentally broken in half on the journey – and buried in a field in Kent for a while – then dug up and secreted away to Arbroath Abbey, Scotland. It was found four months later, and returned to London. These four students did a miraculous thing, in my opinion – but every time I have tried to write this tale – the labyrinthine nature of the backstory just seems to rob the impact of their deed somewhat.
Two – How The Onedin Line Brought down a Despot.
The following is a tale I have carried around with me for decades. The Onedin line, to the uninitiated, was a British television show which ran from 1971 to 1980 in the UK. In New Zealand in the late 1980s and early 90s it’s majestic theme music greeted me as I arrived home from school. My mum often watched the repeats on a late afternoon timeslot, if not on night shift that day. My family came from a village across the river Mersey from Liverpool, where the show was set (though not filmed). I come from a family with an interest in history, and the Onedin Line touched on a number of historical events which would have affected the fictional shipping line. From Coffin Ships to The Atlantic slave trade, and beyond, the popular soap opera was an insight to the issues of the time. I don’t think I appreciated the show terribly at the time.
The Romanians, however, were on my mum’s side. Legend has it they loved the Onedin Line from the get go. They would not have a legitimate feed to the show for long however.
In the wake of the Second World War, Romania – who were a democratic monarchy till overrun by a fascist organisation early in the war – fell under the control of the USSR. From 1947 the nation would be ruled by a communist assembly. Also early in the regime, a young man named Nicolae Ceausescu began his climb to the top of the party. Ceausescu was a member of the Romanian communist party from before the war – having made a name for himself as a capable street fighter – and was in jail for the duration of the war for ‘anti-democratic behaviour’. From the mid 1960s Romania allowed their people a somewhat westernized lifestyle – to enjoy some television, theatre, music and art from the capitalist world – but in 1971 Ceausescu travelled to North Korea and China. He fell in love with their brand of communism, especially their unaccountable strongmen, and methods of propaganda. The then head of the state council, and future president came back with a 17 point plan, the ‘July Theses’. He banned all foreign television.
In the wake of the ban, fans of The Onedin Line found a workaround, in higher powered aerials which tuned in to feeds from nearby capitalist nations. They followed the saga of the Onedin family. No doubt they picked up many other shows as well, the news especially. As Ceausescu ruled as he saw fit, the people tuned in their sets, and rolled with it. They suffered through abortion and divorce bans which would flood their orphanages with children – (children subsequently sold off to well off foreigners) – and a poorly timed power grab for oil supremacy, which put the country in the poor house by the mid 80s. As austerity bit, all the while their own media selling a message everything was fine, the fans of Onedin saw news coverage of thawing relations between the Cold War rivals – Glasnost and Perestroika – ‘openness’ and ‘restructure’… and then, on 9th November 1989 – the fall of the Berlin Wall. Try as he might to deny it, the Onedin watchers saw it – they knew the world had changed, and the time was right to take to the streets to demand their freedom.
The revolution was quick. On Christmas Day 1989 Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife were tried for their despotism and personal enrichment in the face of massive poverty, and executed by firing squad.
The Bah Humbug Moment?
Besides it being not at all Christmas-y? The only evidence I could find that this ever happened is that a BBC television documentary was made in 1992, outlining the Onedin watcher’s role in the revolution. I am dead certain this is where I picked the tale up from in the first place. Could I find a copy of the actual doco? Not a chance. I may be awful when it comes to footnoting, but I always fact check. Sorry Onedin Line.
Three – Dodgy medieval kings reinforce their ‘divine right to rule’ via Christmas coronations.
Umm, yeah let’s just jump to the Bah Humbug Moment….
It is true medieval kings claimed their right to govern over a people was God’s will. According to the ‘divine right of kings’ doctrine, not only were they on the throne “By the grace of God” but their rule was preordained – the thuggish warlord who has just invaded your nation and sat himself down on the old bosses chair was all part of God’s plan from before you were born. Many saw Christmas – the day the apparent King of Kings was born in a little town called Bethlehem – as a portentous date to take the crown. If the warlord who now runs our land was crowned on such a holy day – they must be extra blessed by God right?
It’s true several high profile warlords ascended to the throne on this day. Charlemagne, king of the Franks was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 800 AD. Stephen I founded the Kingdom of Hungary in 1000 AD. The Danish warrior Sweyn Forkbeard is crowned King of England in 1013 AD – Sweyn would hold onto the position for a little over a month, before being deposed by Aethelred. Mieszko II of Poland was crowned Christmas 1025. As was Polish king Boleslaw II in 1076. William the Conqueror was crowned in 1066. Roger of Sicily – someone I have been fascinated with since reading Bertrand Russell’s thoughts on the man… but for whom I’ve yet to make the time to read up on – ditto, 1130. Add to this list King Baldwin I of Jerusalem, on 1100 AD.
The problem is it is a list, not a Tale. Often there is no mystery in their motives. It doesn’t even mark out a trend, as many more rulers weren’t crowned on Christmas. Does it have an arc? Any plot to speak of? Any kind of emotional payoff? No, it is a list. Yes I could have taken one of these sword wielding lunatics and spun a decent short biography on them? Oh yes, I could have – but maybe I have plans in the new year for a project along those grounds (hint, keep your eyes peeled on the social media accounts in, probably late January).
Would the piece have made for some useful pub quiz knowledge? Maybe, but probably no more than this none-piece. For the pub quizzers out there you may add one more to the list… kind of. King Clovis I of the Franks was not crowned on Christmas, but he was famously baptized into the Catholic faith in 508 AD.
Four – [Subject name redacted: Work in progress]
I do have one topic for a prospective Christmas story. It is a tale of human endurance, and breaking barriers. It’s a tale of how small acts can inspire massive paradigm shifts. Furthermore it is incredibly pertinent in this day and age. Where it falls over though…
Put simply, I ran out of time. This tale was taking me out into waters I don’t know terribly well, and need to put some time into studying. There is nothing terribly complex in the tale itself, but I am – embarrassingly – unschooled on the cast of characters, or the chronology of events following this juncture. I’ll probably need two weeks to get everything together on it – minimum. I’m hoping to return to this topic some time in 2021. I will also need to use my free monthly articles from various science journals fairly cannily too on this one, just FYI.
So there we go, sorry folks I feel like this week’s post is more lump of coal than stocking stuffer. I did discount several other topics. Washington crossing the Delaware felt like the cast were too well known for a blog mostly featuring obscure figures. I played round with West Point Military Academy’s Eggnog Riots for a little while, but I just wasn’t feeling it. I even revisited that famous soccer game on the Western Front, Christmas 1914. I felt the only thing I could add to the mix, ultimately, was to colourize, then cartoon some old black and white photographs.
I also toyed with the idea of writing on John Elwes, the probable real life inspiration for …. actually, no, he’s perfect.
Give me a couple of days folks. Don’t Google him, it’ll ruin everything! Post coming December 25th.
The following was originally released in four parts, on the Facebook page, in June 2019. I’ve heavily edited, & collated the piece into one blog post.
One: That Dick Cavett Interview…
Hi folks, I should say up front I thought I understood Altamont. In researching this Tale, I found out much of what I thought I knew was superficial, or wrong. I think it’s also worth spending a little time on the reason I came to revisit the infamous concert – old episodes of The Dick Cavett show on YouTube. As with episodes of What’s My Line? I’m a sucker for good, old television, and in 2019 I was regularly binge watching old interviews on The Dick Cavett show. Some clips (Segregationist Governor of Georgia Lester Maddox storming off for example) are historically important, others (Orson Welles, John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix) perhaps less so, but make great viewing for a pop culture junkie like myself.
The episode in question was filmed in 1972. The setting, backstage at Madison Square Garden. The Rolling Stones – last stateside as a band in December 1969 – had returned. Cavett is speaking with bassist Bill Wyman; and clearly has a question which must be asked.
Cavett “What’s running through your nervous system right now? Are you worried, are you scared? Do matinees give you the willies or anything?“
Wyman replies he’s just tired. Cavett asks would they play so many concerts so closely together in the future, Wyman replies they have done this many before. Cavett continues… “You’re still protected from the…” Wyman runs him off at the pass. He states he’s just a little tired this tour. Cavett “I wonder what’s happened on this tour that made it this way?” Wyman replies “Just the energy…“
Knowing when to pivot, Dick Cavett changes tack. He asks Bill Wyman if the age range in their audiences has changed. talks a little about Tom Jones and middle aged ladies. Is Bill a chain smoker? Would he go back to school if the Rolling Stones came to an end? who are all the children backstage? Bill Wyman relaxes into the conversation. Not yet done however… Cavett.
“Has there been anything on this trip that’s scared you, or any bad moments when you were worried that something was going to happen? ….. menacing…”
Wyman, after a drawn out, Freudian pause “No, just seeing the cops beat kids up scares me sometimes you know“
“Was there much of that this time?“
“Not as much as usual but we have seen it. They seem to grab guys out of the audience, take them out and they go through a whole thing on the way with sticks and it’s pretty rough you know, they don’t deserve it.“
Cavett asks if too much security is a problem, Wyman replies that sometimes they “get up front and cause trouble“
Dick Cavett moves in, he deindividuates asking about “the guys in the group” rather than “you” but all the same, he knows he’s landed the hook. Now is the time to reel his catch in.
“Do you guys in the group talk about Altamont ever, and what happened there, or has it faded?“
Bill Wyman answers.
“We talk about it yes, but, I’d sooner forget about it you know. It was just a very unfortunate thing. It was the last show of the tour and we all weren’t going to do it, it was just a live concert.. a free concert that was set up a few days before and – (long freudian pause) – I mean there was 300,000 people there, and there was only 30 people fighting. I mean almost all the audience never even saw it, didn’t even know what was going on you know?”
Yes he was minimizing “what was going on” He passed the responsibility for this last concert to some ‘other’, as they almost weren’t going to play that day. Honestly, from a business perspective I can get that too, you wouldn’t want “what was going on” to define your band – Just think for a second if Great White came to town would you want to go and see them? Now if you said yes, would you still want to go see them if a nationally syndicated reporter asked them to recall gig at the Station Night Club, Rhode Island, February 20th 2003, where malfunctioning pyrotechnics set fire to the club, killing 100 people and injuring 230 more? It puts me off.
What I can also see in Bill Wyman’s reply is he does still think of Altamont, and probably very much doesn’t want to think about it. There’s a look on his face that implies the day was the stuff of nightmares. Keith Richards also downplayed the incident, but rumours abound during the 1972 tour he carried a loaded 38 caliber pistol with him at all times, just in case “the security” -oh and we are not talking about the police – sought revenge.
The Altamont Speedway Free Festival, at Altamont Speedway Northern California, December 6th 1969, had other acts lined up. Santana, Jefferson Airplane, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young all on the bill. The Grateful Dead were meant to be the penultimate act, before the Rolling Stones helicoptered in to play their set, but they declined to play. The assault on Marty Balin was the final straw for them. Jerry Garcia, frontman of The Grateful Dead commented, in a British interview in 1970 that Woodstock and Altamont were “two sides of the same coin“.
“It’s like two ways that kind of expression can go of a huge number of people and no rules…One of the ways, obviously can go to a terrible bummer like Altamont, nd one of the other ways is to an immensely enjoyable scene like Woodstock. And they both had their extremes, but they were both, sort of characterized by this heaviness, this sort of historical heaviness“.
I get that to be honest, to my mind Woodstock, August 15- 18 1969 seemed the cultural zenith of the 60s counter-culture, peace and love movement. The poster, “3 days of peace and music” a bird perched on a guitar neck seems so apt. Altamont, then, had to be it’s nadir – a scene out of Dante’s Inferno “Abandon all hope ye who enter here”. It turns out this was not exactly the case.
Two: You Can’t Always Get What You Want
When one thinks big, open air concerts in the 60s, people generally think of a little thing called Woodstock – named after the town in Ulster, New York. Woodstock actually happened 43 miles (70 km) Southwest, on a 600 acre dairy farm in Bethel New York, but the advertising had already gone out, they quickly needed to find a new spot. Anyway Bethel doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. 32 acts performed at Woodstock. 400,000 people attended. Despite the occasional bursts of rain, people danced, got high – some involuntarily, they put flowers in their hair and got closer to nature. It took on the aura of the high point of the hippie counterculture movement.
Of course some of this is us looking through rose tinted glasses at the 3 day concert – held August 15 – 18, 1969. On the morning of the 16th, 17 year old Raymond Mizsak was accidentally run over by a tractor on its way to empty the port-a-loos. He died before he could be airlifted to a local hospital. Food was terribly scarce – were it not for a local company bringing in tonnes of Granola at the last minute there would have been nothing provided whatsoever. Back to the toilets, there was a ratio of 1 toilet to every 883 people. The traffic jam caused by the concert is still on record as one of the 10 worst traffic jams of all time. For all the peace and love there was a little violence – notably Pete Townshend of The Who beat up a stage invader with his guitar. Besides the death of Raymond Mizsak, two others died of drug overdoses.
In the aftermath, the people of Bethel got rid of the town supervisor at the next election. The people clearly stating the concert was their reason for punishing him in the polls. A couple of musicians who played the event were clearly buzzing from the experience however.
Soon after Woodstock, Jefferson Airplane’s Jorma Kaukonen and Spencer Dryden got together to plan a similar gig, on the West Coast this time. They decided to ask fellow Woodstock alumnus The Grateful Dead– and The Rolling Stones – arguably the second biggest band in the world behind The Beatles at the time, to be on the bill. Both bands signed on. The Stones likely did so because they were heavily criticized for the high ticket prices on their 1969 tour of the USA – and this was a free concert. They were also filming a documentary, and footage of a large, open air concert would look fantastic. The Grateful Dead? Well they were friends. They gigged incessantly, notching up over 2,300 concerts in their career. They played the two big, open air concerts of the 1960s – 1967’s Monterey Pop Festival and Woodstock, so it made sense to include them on the third.
With next to no planning time, the organizers scrambled to find a venue. San Jose State University (in California) had a large practice field that could be used to host large concerts, but the university were not interested in renting out the field. San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park was mooted, and sent out as the likely venue to the other acts on the bill. However there was a scheduling problem. On 6th December Kezar Stadium – located in a corner of the park – was booked for a football game between the San Francisco 49’ers and The Chicago Bears. (if you are wondering the 49ers beat the Bears 42 to 21). To have two large activities going in the park at the same time would be a logistical nightmare. Sears Point Raceway in Sonoma California looked promising but organizers ran into two problems. First, the owners wanted $300,000 up front, and they did not have the cash to spare. Second, the owners of the raceway were Filmways Inc – a film and TV production company, best known now as the creators of a much of CBS ‘rural’ content – Mister Ed, Petticoat Junction, The Beverley Hillbillies, and my personal favorite – Green Acres. Filmways wanted to film and distribute the concert – the Rolling Stones refused as they were intent on their own crew filming for their documentary Gimme Shelter.
On the 4th December 1969, Altamont Speedway, a motor racing track in Tracy, California was suggested. Running out of options, the organizers signed up to put on the concert at the poorly set up venue.
Three: A large visible space…
Hi all, this week let’s bake a disaster. What’s the recipe? First add a hazy, dusty day, hanging over a drab, colourless landscape. Picture Woodstock in your mind’s eye, out at Max Yasgur’s farm. It is lush and verdant, till the sky opens, then it turned terribly muddy – but there is still something very ‘age of Aquarius’ about it. People tuning in to mother nature, love, music and narcotics. If you were a young searcher looking for Rousseau’s hypothetical ‘State of nature’ before the world corrupted humanity, you could almost imagine it among those buzzed out, drenched, half naked kids, on that lush, green farm. Altamont was no Woodstock. Grace Slick, of Jefferson Airplane describing the atmosphere
“The vibes were bad, something was very peculiar, not particularly bad, just real peculiar. It was that kind of hazy, abrasive day.”
Next add a sprinkling of next to no preparation. With less than two days to prepare there are far too few toilets. A shortage of medical tents will prove very problematic as the day wears on also. At Woodstock there was no shortage of tents, something which came in handy in dealing with many cut feet and, allegedly, burnt eyeballs from tripping kids looking up at the sun. More on first aid later. The stage would prove a massive headache for organizers. It was far too low – just four feet off the ground, constructed in a dip owing to the slope of the racing track itself. The organizers had no security barriers to keep the concertgoers a safe distance away so a ball of string was run at chest height, in a line in front of the stage, to mark where the crowd should stop. Making up for the lack of barriers, the Hells Angels were stationed front and centre to keep the crowd back.
Now add security. The Hells Angels were hardly new to doing concert security, having worked many shows without incident. Altamont was a difficult gig for them for a number of reasons. First, their role was poorly defined. The Rolling Stones then tour manager, Sam Cutler, stating
“The only agreement there ever was…The Angels would make sure nobody tampered with the generators”.
They came to the concert with no idea just how much they would be required to do.
Second, they agreed to be paid in $500.00 worth of beer, to be provided on the day for them – around $3,400 now. Adding a large amount of alcohol to the mix would prove disasterous. Third, no provision was made for a safe place for the Hells Angels to park their bikes.
Add to the bowl an expectation 100,000 people would attend, sprinkle in 200,000 excess concertgoers. Stretched resources would suddenly be stretched beyond breaking point. One way in which this played out is The Hells Angels had to call in reinforcements. The reinforcements had nowhere to park their bikes but at the side of the stage – more on that later. Another way this led to disaster… well I should mention the final ingredient. Drugs and alcohol.
Drunken Hells Angels were one thing – no doubt their judgment was impaired by the beer; the drugs were far more concerning. Early in the day a large amount of LSD, laced with speed was passed through the crowd. The crowd was full of tripping fans, nothing new there, but the speed was giving many of them really bad trips. With far too few medical staff, treatment was slow – and the preferred treatment at the time – the anti-psychotic drug Thorazine – ran out early on in the day. Many a concert goer became strung out and increasingly paranoid in this hazy, dusty scene. Now mix ingredients thoroughly.
Santana were the first act up. They got through their set with no major incidents, in spite of growing tensions between the crowd and the Hells Angels. Jefferson Airplane had barely started when a flurry of violence broke out, out front. Rumour has it a concertgoer had knocked over one of the motorcycles at the side of the stage. The Hells Angels retaliated in a flurry of punches, then by bringing out pool cues, striking audience members. Vocalist Marty Balin jumped into the crowd to intervene, only to be knocked unconscious by a gang member.
Guitarist Paul Kantner grabbed a microphone and addressed the crowd. “Hey man, I’d like to mention that the Hell’s Angels just smashed Marty Balin in the face and knocked him out for a bit” Sarcastically he addressed the security “I’d like to thank you for that.”
A brooding- looking Hell’s Angel named Bill Fritsch – a former hippy, one time San Franciscan poet, one time left wing progressive, almost appeared in Kenneth Anger’s film ‘Lucifer Rising’, till his scene was cut AND associate of Charles Manson- grabs a microphone and fires back.
“Is this on? If you’re talking to me, I’m gonna talk to you.” Kantner: “I’m not talking to you, I’m talking to the people who hit my lead singer in the head.” Fritsch: “You’re talking to my people.” Kantner: “Right.”
All the while Hells Angels continued to trade blows with audience members in front of the stage.
Santana drummer Michael Shrieve reported back to the Grateful Dead what just happened, and the Dead decided they’d seen enough. They packed up and got out of there.
The fighting died down while country rock act the Flying Burrito Brothers played their set, but soon after violence erupted – and escalated. Where early in the day medics were de-escalating bad trips, they were now dealing with a number of seriously wounded concert goers- the injury of the day, fractured skulls. To paint the Hells Angels as the only ones dishing out violence is wrong. Denise Jewkes, singer for cult San Francisco rock band The Ace of Cups, in attendance as a fan, and six months pregnant, was treated for a fractured skull – her injury the result of someone in the crowd throwing an empty bottle. All the same, concertgoers who dared get close to the front were beaten senseless with pool cues and bike chains. A woman was at one point was dragged across the stage by her hair.
A young man in a lime green suit wandered off to his car, a Ford Mustang, and popped the boot, grabbing a 22 calibre Smith and Wesson revolver. He headed back to the show, feeling more secure for his six shooter.
As night set in a helicopter carrying the stars of the show, The Rolling Stones, arrived. Their start time was delayed by the late arrival of Dick Cavett’s (1972) guest Bill Wyman – he missed the copter. Out front it must’ve looked like a blood bath but the Stones were going out to play, regardless. The helicopter prepared to take off, now laden with members of Jefferson Airplane, ready to beat a hasty retreat. The Stones kicked off their set. The helicopter, now airborne, hovered for a second above the venue as a shaken Jefferson Airplane looked downwards. Journalist Joel Selvin describes the scene
“The pilot circled over the crowd for one last view of the stage. They looked down. The crowd in front of the stage spread apart before their eyes. A large, visible space opened and quickly closed up again. They watched as the mass of people spread apart and fused back together in a single seamless movement. They had no idea they had just witnessed the killing of Meredith Hunter”.
Four: The Ballad of Meredith Hunter.
At the Skyview memorial lawn cemetary in East Vallejo, California, there is a simple grave – lot 63, grave c. The plot holds a young man killed in December 1969, and as of 2006, when film maker Sam Green made a short documentary, titled Lot 63, Grave C, the plot remained unmarked. It was hardly as if the young man didn’t have loved ones left in the wake of his killing, but they didn’t have much money – and were so heart broken by his death they kept their distance. His mother, Alta May Anderson, had struggled her whole life with schizophrenia, and the killing sent her into a tailspin. For years after she turned to electro-convulsive therapy to manage her depression over her loss. After the killing she was a shell of her former self. His sister, Dixie, couldn’t bring herself to attend the murder case against her brother’s killer. She was heavily suspicious that when a white man is charged with killing a black man, the white man walks – a little on this later. She did not want to go through the pain of seeing this happen. A short, solidly built Hells Angel named Alan Passaro was tried for her brother’s murder, but would be acquitted.
It was Dixie who plead with her brother, 18 year old Meredith Hunter, not to go to the Altamont Free Festival that day. She was not worried about biker gangs so much as that it was on the rural edges of Alameda County – a place which seemed to her somewhat regressive in it’s racial views. Remember that it is 1969. To add a little context, just six years prior, President John F Kennedy had ordered the National Guard in to the University of Alabama to arrest, if need be, Alabama’s Governor George Wallace. Wallace was physically blocking the entrance of two black students around the same age as Hunter, who were there to complete their student registration to the all white college. Wallace was a hair’s breath from arrest when he backed down. Five years prior, in Mississippi, three civil rights activists were detained and murdered while travelling through the area and enrolling black people to vote. Perhaps most pertinent in a way, and please note I am pulling a small handful of examples from a very disturbing history here, this was 14 years since a young boy from Chicago – Emmett Till – was kidnapped and tortured to death for daring to speak to a white woman who worked in a store – again in Mississippi. The act of miscegenation, of mingling of the races for sexual reasons, was thought bad enough by some that even an attempt to miscegenate was an offence worthy of a lynching. The teller’s husband, Roy Bryant and his friend J.W. Milam brutally murdered Till, and – being two white men having killed a young black boy, were also acquitted. I stress this case as, at the time Hunter was dating a young white woman called Patti Bredenhoft.
Hunter did pay some heed to his sister, packing the Smith and Wesson revolver in the boot of his step-father’s Mustang. He drove over to Patti’s and the two drove off for the concert. As a child I had heard he was a pimp, and Patti one of his girls – this is untrue – he was an Arts student. I had also heard he was way more fearless than he should have been, as he was high on methamphetamine. The latter was true.
Picking up the tale from just after the Jefferson Airplane incident. The bikers flew through the crowd on their hogs, just whizzing past Hunter and Bredenhoft. The couple were nearby when violence erupted out front and singer Marty Balin was knocked unconscious. Patti had, at this point, had enough and returned to the car. Meredith wanted to hang around, and just prior to the Rolling Stones set decided he would go back in to catch them. The two had words, Meredith was the more forceful of the two. He grabbed his gun, and the two made their way back to the stage – what could go wrong?
Everything – everything could go wrong – and it happened very quickly. Why it unfolded is a subject to guesswork – following the incident, president of the Oakland chapter Ralph ‘Sonny’ Barger stated on KSAN Radio San Francisco
“When they (the concertgoers) started messing over our bikes they started it”
He went on to say their bikes represented their everything. Was this wave of violence caused because someone tipped a bike over? In any case the Rolling Stones had only just began their set when the group of Hell’s Angels at the front of the stage advanced, again on the crowd, like an Athenian phalanx. The crowd out front dispersed. Meredith Hunter had climbed atop a speaker cabinet at the side of the stage before the surge, perhaps feeling safer up there – but a Hell’s Angel grabbed him by the ear and threw him to the ground. Hunter back peddled as best he could, putting some distance between himself and his assailant. He drew his pistol and tried to back himself away from the bikers, when the heavy set Alan Passaro appeared on his left flank. Passaro grabbed his shooting hand, disarming him, then stabbed Hunter twice in the back. Hunter stumbled. Passaro followed him down, stabbing him all the way. A pack of five Hells Angels surrounded Hunter and laid into him.
Bredehoft struggled to stop one of the men, but was shrugged off. Hunter plead with them “I wasn’t going to shoot you” but the men continued to strike Hunter till he stopped moving. A young, brave bystander named Paul Cox did step up, doing his best to stop the assault, but was powerless. He eventually managed to get Meredith Hunter away from the scene of the beating, and to a medical tent. A helicopter was called for but he passed before it could arrive. Meredith Hunter was one of four fatalities that day, though the only one not to die as the result of an accident.
Post Altamont, the zeitgeist changed considerably. No doubt this incident was just one of several to shock the American public – the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, April 4 and June 5 1968 respectively, the images coming out of Indochina and rising death toll – less I suspect the 3 million dead Vietnamese and similar numbers in Cambodia and Laos – but an eventual death toll of 58 thousand Americans. and a high number of wounded – Politicians refer to the Dover test when accepting one too many coffins returns to Dover Airforce base, well the Dover test had come some time back. In August 1969 a hippie ‘family’ led by Charles Manson slaughtered Sharon Tate and the LaBiancas, in an attempt to start a race war in the USA. With the trial of the Chicago Seven around the corner (long story short they were anti-war protesters involved in a violent battle with Mayor Richard Daley’s police force outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention – edit. 2020. with the release of the film on Netflix maybe I should have- still should? write a post on them), and the acceptance of a number of cultural icons to the 27 club soon after, it felt a little like things had gone from Bob Dylan’s The times are a changing, to 10 years after’s I’d like to change the world, but I don’t know what to do… The hippie movement and flower power faded, and the 1970s would be much edgier.
Alan Passaro was charged with murder, and brought before a jury. The jury saw the film footage from the day, saw Passaro as a man who brought a knife to a gunfight and decided he had acted in self defence. Alan Passaro would, mysteriously drown in the Anderson Reservoir, Morgan Hill California in 1985 – a wad of cash totalling $10,000 on him at the time. He lays buried under an impressive gravestone, if the photo on Find a Grave is anything to go by.
I could not find much on Patti Bredehoft. She did give a 2005 interview to The Sunday Times, where she claimed not to have made much of her life – and of course discussed her infamous second date with Meredith Hunter. FYI their first date was to see The Temptations.
The Hell’s Angels blamed the Rolling Stones for the outcome of the concert. Keith Richards may have been well advised to carry a gun with him on their 1972 tour, and perhaps Bill Wyman was wise not to say too much. The Hells Angels did hatch a plot to assassinate Mick Jagger in revenge. Their plan, to assemble a death squad, hire a boat, and sail to his house on Long Island. On the day of the assassination, a storm set in and a group of Hells Angels eventually made it back to dock, the worse for wear, and by all accounts lucky not to have drowned. They gave up on killing Mick after this. This story made it to the FBI via an informant in their organisation in 1985, and was made public knowledge in 2008 – Mick himself only found out how lucky he had been when the public did.
Which brings me round to Mick Jagger himself – could he do better than Bill Wyman, on that Dick Cavett interview, which started this cycle? In 1995 Rolling Stone Magazine’s Jann Wenner met with the Rolling Stone and asked the following.
“After the concert itself, when it became apparent that somebody got killed, how did you feel?”
“Well awful. I mean, just awful. You feel a responsibility. How could it all have been so silly and wrong? But I didn’t think of these things that you guys thought of, you in the press: this great loss of innocence, this cathartic end of the era… I didn’t think any of that. That particular burden didn’t weigh on my mind. It was more how awful it was to have had this experience and how awful it was for someone to get killed…”
This Tale is also Episode Four of Season One of the podcast. Click here to listen to the episode.
Originally posted in four part May – June 2019 on the Tales of History and Imagination Facebook page. Copyright 2019 Simone T. Whitlow
Content warning! This tale contains macabre, ghoulish subject matter – as one may expect on a Halloween Tale. Proceed with caution.
Taphophobia is the name given to the irrational fear of being buried alive; the word deriving from the Greek taphos (meaning grave or tomb) and phobos (fear). In 2020 it is accepted by most this IS an irrational fear – science and medicine has come along far enough to detect even the tiniest signs of life. For most our history however, this has not been the case. In 1895, J.C Ouseley, a physician of whom I could find little information but many citings, stated his belief that even at the end of the 19th century 2,700 English and Welsh were prematurely buried each year. Others countered this was an exaggeration – the real figure was only around 800 a year – only! Of course for most our history, life was determined by a heartbeat or signs of breathing. As it became possible to restart a stopped heart or lungs – mouth to mouth resuscitation was first used on drowning victims in France in 1740, and chest compression in the USA from 1903 – people in those states were re-categorized ‘unresponsive’. Proof of life focussed on brain death – something not defined in a modern sense till 1968.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone a great many poor souls were buried prematurely. Nor should it surprise anyone there are a few horrifying signs of folk who came to while six feet under, and fought desperately to escape entombment.
In July 1661, Lawrence Cawthorn was one such victim. A journeyman butcher, working at London’s Newgate Market; single, and without property – he lived at a Mrs Cook’s boarding house. When Cawthorn fell ill his landlord contrived to have him declared deceased as soon as possible. For one his ‘passing’ would free up a bed for a paying resident – an ailing Cawthorn hadn’t paid rent for a few days. Also, with no next of kin, Mrs Cook would inherit Cawthorn’s possessions – but only if he died in her premises. He must not be allowed to be taken to hospital. Three days after falling ill – sans condensation on the looking glass placed under his nose – Cawthorn was pronounced dead, and sent to the undertaker. As the last sod of earth was placed down, a tortured scream was heard from below. The undertakers dug down as frantically as they could, but it was all in vain. They cracked the coffin lid to find Lawrence Cawthorn passed. In his panic he had shredded his funeral shroud and beat his face to a pulp trying to head-butt the coffin open.
Alice Blunden of Basingstoke, buried in 1674, appears a luckier tale, till you hear her story in it’s entirety. Having overdosed on poppy water, an opiate developed by the polymath Nicholas Culpeper, Blunden was pronounced deceased – when in fact in a deep coma. Two days after her burial, a group of children playing in the graveyard heard her screams. The children would not tell anyone for a day, finally spilling the beans to their school headmaster – who alerted the undertaker. The undertaker Blunden out. She was still alive but in a bad way. Collapsing from the stress of her ordeal she was again pronounced dead – and re-buried. Again she came to, her screams alerting locals the following night, however this time she did pass on. When she was disinterred a bloodied and bruised Blunden was found inside – this time having left deep scratch marks on the inside of the coffin lid.
I have one final Tale to tell you all this Halloween; let’s discuss Hannah Beswick (1688 – 1758)– a Taphophobe from Birchin Bower, Lancashire.
Hannah was born to a wealthy family in Lancashire in 1688, and actually had good reason to fear premature burial. When young her brother John passed, or appeared to have passed on. At his funeral, just prior to the lowering of the top on the coffin, someone noticed John’s eyelids were fluttering, and called a stop to the burial. John was re-examined by family doctor Charles White, declared alive after all, and would make a full recovery. This experience left deep emotional scars in Hannah, and she insisted that when she passed efforts be made to keep her above ground long enough to confirm she really was dead. She approached doctor White, tasking him to ensure this happened.
Hannah would pass in 1758, and White would keep his word…. well kind of.. To preserve her body while out in the open, White – a man with a love of cabinets of curiosities – embalmed her. Having mummified her body through an experimental method he never recorded – but was sure to have killed her had she simply been in a coma – for one her blood was drained, her organs removed. Her body was then placed inside the frame of a grandfather clock.
Hannah’s will made it clear she was not to be buried until certain she was dead, but one would infer she was to be buried thereafter. For over a century her body would be kept by doctors, then Manchester Museum, while family members fought over her will (and hidden fortune, but that is a story for another day) – and Hannah Beswick, the Manchester Mummy would not be officially declared deceased, and interred till 22nd July 1868. Happy Halloween all. Stay safe when trick or treating. We’ll be back to a post a week next Tuesday.
Hi folks this week I am sharing a rather macabre tale. I should state up front, while this tale features a real, historical figure and his death, it could very well be a tall tale. Please proceed with caution dear reader. Take this with a grain of salt. Today’s tale revolves around the final moments of Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier (26 August 1743 – 8 May 1794), aristocrat, philanthropist, and father of modern chemistry.
Among his achievements, Lavoisier defined the properties of a number of elements and set the stage for the periodic table. He was partially responsible for the metric system of measurement. Lavoisier was a campaigner for social change, advocating for better street lights in Paris, an aqueduct to bring Parisians clean water, and for cleaner air – Lavoisier believed gun powder particularly was a pollutant and dangerous to people in ways beyond the obvious. He was a man who understood the importance of science in his, and future societies – founding two schools – the Lycee Lavoisier, and the Musée des Arts et Metiers.
Unfortunately Antoine Lavoisier also lived in the time of the French Revolution. His scientific and humanitarian work should have granted him immunity from mob justice, but he owned shares in The Ferme Générale – the company who collected taxes for the crown. With poverty and taxation driving forces behind the revolution, the last thing you wanted to be come the reign of terror was a tax collector, or profiteer from public taxes.
On 24th November 1793 Lavoisier was among a group of 28 citizens arrested for tax fraud. Found guilty, he was sentenced to be executed on 8th May 1794. Lavoisier allegedly begged for clemency due to his scientific accomplishments and public works, but the judge was alleged to have said “La revolution ńà pas besoin de savants” – the revolution does not need scholars. The revolution didn’t need stenographers either apparently, so we have to trust the eyewitness accounts …. but there is something of the spirit of the reign of terror in the judge’s comment is there not?
The method of execution would be the guillotine – a newfangled decapitation device proposed as a more humane alternative to the axe, by the physician and politician Joseph-Ignace Guillotin. It was designed by another French physician, Antoine Louis. It should be noted there were earlier machines of a similar type, the 16th century Halifax Gibbet the notable example. Under the shadow of the blade, legend has it, Antoine Lavoisier had one final experiment to carry out. The following, if true, seems absolutely horrific to me – just imagine all those thousands of victims of the guillotine, in the wake of their apparent demise.
Lavoisier’s final experiment sought to answer the question what happens to a human being after their head is separated from their body? The ultimate answer is clear, but does the shock of the blade instantly end them, or does a head look up in silent horror at it’s decapitated body for a time? History is full of urban legends on the subject, all easily dismissable. Mary Queen of Scots’ lips allegedly kept moving for fifteen minutes after her beheading. Today we might put that down to the last bursts of nerves and synapses, in her time people wondered what she was trying to tell them. Similarly it was claimed Sir Everard Digby, conspirator in the Gunpowder plot to kill Mary Queen of Scot’s son, James I, loudly proclaimed his innocence for some time after his noggin was cleft from his body. Antoine Lavoisier proposed to answer this question by blinking once a second for as long as he could.
On 8th May 1794, an assistant nearby to conduct his final experiment, Lavoisier kneeled down under the blade and steeled himself for the deadly impact. The blade fell. The assistant knelt down and began to count “Un- duex – trois – quatre… still blinking…. Sinq – six – sept – huit -nuef – dix. I have no idea if the assistant counted ‘Mississippi’s’ or not in between – onze Mississippi- douze Mississippi – treize Mississippi … but it is believed Lavoisier blinked up to 20 times before he expired. Whether there is any truth in this is anyone’s guess- though it seems far more likely than the account of Charlotte Corday, the assassin who stabbed the pro revolution polemicist Jean-Paul Marat while he took a bath. In the wake of her execution her cheeks allegedly flushed red with indignation. Cardiologists state a brain can survive four seconds without blood flow if decapitated from a standing position, and up to twelve seconds if reclined when the blade fell.
France would use the guillotine as a form of execution from 25th April 1792 to September 10 1977 – the final execution one Hamida Djandoubi, a Tunisian national who tortured and murdered his ex-girlfriend, Elisabeth Bousquet. They would officially abolish execution by guillotine in September 1981.
Hamida Djandoubi, the last person guilotined by the French.
Originally published 21st February 2019 on the Tales of History and Imagination Facebook. Copyright 2019 Simone T. Whitlow
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 picture 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.
Warning! This tale contains more shaggy dog tales. It also contains a description of the JFK assassination which might upset some people. Reader discretion is advised.
Today, dear readers, we pick up our Tale on Dorothy Kilgallen, on the morning of Friday 22nd November 1963. The location, the Hilton, Fort Worth Texas. President John Fitzgerald Kennedy and his entourage rolled in the night before on a five city, two day charm offensive on Texas. Several thousand well wishers mill around the hotel parking lot in the pouring rain, waiting to glimpse the president. JFK does not disappoint. venturing out in the rain -sans umbrella – he speaks to the crowd. He shakes hands, delivers a speech on the need to win the space, and arms races, then returns to the hotel to dry off. He has a planned speech to the Fort Worth chamber of commerce on the importance of staying prepared for war, inside the building. Some time that morning Kennedy reads the local paper – on the front page an article discussing his visit – local segregationists and John Birchers are accusing the president of treason. Some time that morning he made a phone call to former vice president John Nance Garner to wish him a happy 95th birthday. From there they boarded a plane to Love Field – Next stop Dallas.
At Love Field Mr. and Mrs. Kennedy greet more well wishers, before being ushered to the motorcade. The rain had stopped by now so the decision was made to remove the bubble top on the 1961 Lincoln Continental convertible John and Jackie, would travel in -with State Governor John Connally and his wife Nellie. For security’s sake it was suggested Kennedy keep the bubble top on, and to surround himself with secret service agents – but Kennedy insisted on as few barriers between himself and the people as possible. He was aware of the risk – US Ambassador to the United Nations Adlai Stevenson came very close to being attacked by a mob of conservatives (led by Edwin Walker, who we mention later) while giving a speech in Dallas only weeks earlier – but JFK had to balance safety with some accessibility if he hoped to win re-election.
The plan was to parade through the CBD, give a speech at the Trade Mart, then on to Austin – before staying the weekend at vice president Lyndon Johnson’s ranch. Just on 12.30 the motorcade arrived at Dealey Plaza, Dallas.
The incident which followed has been examined in minute detail by writers far more qualified than myself so, to sum up briefly –
On 12.29 the president’s limo turns onto Elm Street. A shot rings out, missing the motorcade. A car salesman named James Tague caught a minor injury to his cheek, either struck from a fragment of the bullet itself, or concrete gorged out of the sidewalk by the errant bullet. Seconds later, 12.30, a second bullet peeled out – this one strikes the president in the back, then hits Governor Connally. Much has been written on this ‘magic bullet’ – some suggesting a second shooter from the grassy knoll nearby, and claiming Kennedy was clearly struck from the front (film footage from garment manufacturer Abraham Zapruder shows Kennedy reflexively lifting his arm towards his throat, but medical experts counter this movement is an example of the ‘Thorburn position’ – a neurological reaction to spinal damage. For anyone interested, frames 225- 226 show the movement.) The third shot struck Kennedy in the back of the head. Within five minutes the president is admitted to Parkland Memorial Hospital as patient 24740. Within half an hour he would be pronounced dead.
At 12.45pm Lee Harvey Oswald left work at the Texas School Book Depository building, then enters and immediately leaves a bus, seven blocks from the building. The bus can’t move due to heavy traffic. He finds a cab back to his boarding house. Oswald changes his clothes, grabs his pistol, and leaves the premises. Earlier that morning Oswald had been with his mostly estranged wife Marina. They had been together the night before. He left his wedding ring and $170 cash on a table in the early hours that morning – a significant sum of money, considering he was paid $1.25 an hour at the School Book Depository. He then left for work.
Oswald was a former marine, diagnosed with a personality disorder as a child. He defected to the Soviet Union in 1959. While in Minsk, Belarus, he married Marina – the two were allowed to return to the USA in 1962 when Oswald managed to convince the US Embassy the boredom of the USSR had cured him of his communism. Unbeknownst to anyone at the time, Oswald had previously attempted to shoot a white segregationist politician named General Edwin Walker in his home on April 10th 1963. At the time of Kennedy’s assassination this was an unsolved crime with no solid leads.
At around 12.54pm veteran police officer J.D. Tippit is given instructions to keep his eyes peeled for a shooting suspect; a slender white male, approximately 5,10” tall, in his early 30s. In the Oak Cliff area of Dallas at 1.15pm Tippit comes across such a man, and is gunned down by him. The man of course, Oswald – flees on foot, stopping at a movie theater -where he would be arrested at around 2pm. The film, if anyone is wondering, a Korean war flick called War is Hell, narrated by real life war hero Audie Murphy. By day’s end Lyndon Johnson would be sworn in as president aboard Air Force One, flanked by his wife Lady Bird to his left, Jacqueline Kennedy to his right. Jackie still wore the pink Chanel suit that bore her husband’s blood stains, and brain matter, wanting the world to see what really happened in any little way she could. President Kennedy would be autopsied. Oswald would be interrogated and charged with the murders, first of officer Tippit, then the president.
Also this day, Jack Ruby – a local bar owner with ties to organized crime – would show up at the police station to ask policemen he knew about the assassin. Ruby would return on the 24th, shooting Oswald with a .38 pistol as officers led the assassin through the police station basement. Ruby would be charged and eventually sentenced to death for the murder of Oswald. His death sentence was later downgraded to a life sentence, however he was on borrowed time. Ruby had lung cancer and would die of a pulmonary embolism, a blockage of an artery of the lungs, on January 3rd 1967.
Dallas police were convinced they had their killer, and the killer of that killer. The FBI – now is as good a place as any to mention J. Edgar Hoover called Robert Kennedy on the night of the assassination to advise they had the killer, before Oswald was even charged – they closed their investigation in early December. President Lyndon Johnson established a commission, chaired by US Supreme Court chief justice Earl Warren on the 29th November. The Warren Commission’s role was to investigate the killing, and provide the grieving nation the definitive report on what happened.
Now we have covered the main facts of John F Kennedy’s murder, let’s turn our attention back to Dorothy.
Dorothy Kilgallen, herself grieving at the loss of her friend, was extremely skeptical of the initial findings. The most powerful man in the world is murdered in your city, in a decade which contained a number of high profile political assassinations and police were willing to write the killing off as the actions of a crazed loner? As a successful crime reporter, this story would have been irresistible to Dorothy regardless. As someone who knew, and adored the deceased, she felt the need to ensure justice was served. On November 29th 1963 she wrote, in relation to what she saw as an effort to sweep the case under the rug.
“The case is closed, is it? Well, I’d like to know how, in a big, smart town like Dallas, a man like Jack Ruby—owner of a strip tease honky tonk—can stroll in and out of police headquarters as if it was at a health club at a time when a small army of law enforcers is keeping a “tight security guard” on Oswald. Security! What a word for it.
I will not try to speak for the people of Dallas, but around here, the people I talk to really believe that a man has the right to be tried in court. When that right is taken away from any man by the incredible combination of a Jack Ruby and insufficient security, we feel chilled. Justice is a big rug. When you pull it out from under one man, a lot of others fall too. That is why so many people are saying there is “something queer” about the killing of Oswald, something strange about the way his case was handled, a great deal missing in the official account of his crime. The American people have just lost a beloved President. It is a dark chapter in our history, but we have the right to read every word of it. It cannot be kept locked in a file in Dallas.”
Dorothy Kilgallen, investigative journalist thus entered the affray.
So… What did Dorothy find out?
I’ll let you all make up your own minds if anything holds any value. To me most of what she published carries little weight. It does interest me however, that Dorothy was collecting notes for a book she was writing, Murder One, which would feature the assassination. She was planning to meet a mysterious informant in New Orleans she claimed was the key to the murder. All her notes relating to that chapter mysteriously vanished after her death.
One of her first observations related to Dallas police chief Jesse Curry. Curry, who was in the lead car of the motorcade, would state categorically he heard the shots ringing out from the School Book Depository. Kilgallen got copies of the police communications from the day, showing Curry noticed a group of men standing on the triple overpass – and when the first shot rang out, called for officers to get up there and see what was happening. This would harm Curry’s credibility, and cast doubt on the official narrative. Curry had already gone from hero to zero in short order after he allowed the press, and Jack Ruby, into the police station basement.
In late 1964 Dorothy began working with Mark Lane, an early JFK conspiracy theorist whose own work was yet to make much traction. Following Lane’s leads she published a number of articles which have entered the JFK conspiracy canon.
Lane pointed Dorothy to a local journalist named Thayer Waldo. Waldo was a reporter for the Fort Worth Star Telegram, who was present at the police station on both the 22nd and 24th November. On November 22 Waldo struck up a conversation with Jack Ruby – Ruby clearly wasn’t press and Waldo wondered what’s his line? At least until the Oswald murder. Curious, Waldo began digging, claiming to uncover something he felt put his own life at risk if he published it himself. He alleged eight days prior to the assassination, Oswald met Ruby at his Carousel Club. Also at the meeting, Bernard Weissman – a member of the alt right John Birch Society, and co-author of the pamphlet accusing Kennedy of treason; a shady character about we know only as a ‘Texan Oil Man’ – and veteran police officer J.D. Tippit. Waldo never stated what the men discussed. All the same, over the years the alleged meeting – had it even occurred – has been taken on as proof of a shadowy cabal plotting to kill the president.
The Warren Commission was also privy to this information, finding a link to Oswald and a G.W Tippit (of no connection to officer Tippit), and that Weissman claimed he’d never been to the Carousel club, when questioned. They placed no credence in the alleged meeting.
She would also claim to have discovered a police cover up with the murder weapon, stating they booked in a completely different weapon at the scene – which was replaced by Oswald’s rifle later. She publicly questioned, via another Lane lead, if Lee Harvey Oswald had even shot officer Tippit. She would report a tale Lane had been openly discussing also, of a witness to the Tippit shooting named Acquilla Clemens. Clemens claimed two men shot Tippit – neither of them Oswald.
In the months that followed, Dorothy wrote little publicly on the assassination. She was known to openly discuss her findings, and her mistrust of the Warren Commission with colleagues. One wonders how this played out with What’s My Line’s John Charles Daly? Not so much as he himself was a renowned reporter – but because he was married to Chief Justice Earl Warren’s daughter. Rumours persisted Dorothy had a connection on the Warren Commission who was leaking information to her, but there were no career defining leads. In this time she secured the only press interview given by Jack Ruby – but we have no idea what Ruby had to say – it was never published, and the notes disappeared when Dorothy passed. She became paranoid the FBI were tapping her phones. Around this time she began dating an ‘out of towner’. The consensus of writers on Kilgallen state her mystery man was an Ohio based film critic named Ron Potaky. The same writers all suspect, without any evidence I could come across, that Potaky was a CIA plant, and that the two met on the night Dorothy died.
In summary, Dorothy Kilgallen had conducted an investigation where, thus far, she found a few interesting connections – were they true. Much of her writing was guided by Mark Lane, who had a few well thought of supporters – most notably the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper (yes the same guy taken in by the fraudulent Hitler Diaries in 1983 – in the 1960s he was still taken very seriously). – but who was mostly thought a kook. She allegedly had notes from several leads which vanished. Importantly she did meet and interview Jack Ruby. There was also the man in New Orleans some believe she was killed over. I can’t claim he was just Jim Garrison – we don’t know who he was. He could have been Garrison, looking for an outlet for his conspiracy theories. The mystery man from New Orleans may legitimately have had some information that would lay bare a vast conspiracy to kill John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
Truthfully, the more I read into the Kilgallen case, the more I’m convinced she was tilting at windmills. There are details I’ve omitted in this tale, like the night she stood a few doors down from her townhouse, in the dark – husband Richard Kollmar peering out of a fifth story window with a broomstick for a gun – to prove Howard Brennan, the eyewitness who saw Oswald in a sixth floor window – in the cold light of day – could not have seen the killer…. or that ten other eyewitnesses to the Tippit killing identified Oswald as Tippit’s killer.
What does interest me however, is Dorothy Kilgallen’s death IS strange. She had received death threats prior to her death. Given some of the names who do appear in Kennedy assassination lore; the Mafia, the CIA, even Fidel Castro, was Dorothy silenced not even necessarily for something she found so much as for poking her nose into places where she may stumble into something equally dangerous?
Next week we’ll discuss the strange death of Dorothy Kilgallen – or at least why I find it strange and disturbing.