Category Archives: Interesting Lives

Some life stories are too interesting not to tell.

A Short Tale in Honour of Transgender Awareness Week – 2022

A Few Short Tales on Trans Awareness Week 2022 Tales of History and Imagination


Edit: (Monday 21 November 2022) I put a script to bed during Transgender Awareness Week. My original intent was to highlight two points; first, trans people have existed forever (as opposed to garbage far-right takes that we’re an invention of ‘post-modernists’ or ‘cultural Marxists’, invented to undermine traditional society – and other similar dumb things often repeated by the Peterson’s and Shapiros of the world), and second – that Visibility matters.
This episode is not a be all and end all – it’s the first part in an ongoing series I’ll return to every late November, as Transgender Awareness Week rolls around.

The senseless murder of LGTBQ+ People in a gay bar in Colorado Springs over the weekend did make me rethink the scope of this subject – Did I need to write something more strident, more defiant? The more I thought about it though, the act of LGBTQ+ people even deigning to exist was enough to set a miserable, insecure sociopath off, to tragic effect.
If the ‘radical’ act of existing so offends some people, then maybe the following is enough?
My deepest condolences to the loved ones of those lost, and to those injured in the deplorable attack.

Today I’d like to start with a poem. 

“Father in heaven, who did miracles for our ancestors with fire and water,
You changed the fire of Chaldees so it would not burn hot,
You changed Dina in the womb of her mother to a girl,
You changed the staff to a snake before a million eyes,
You changed [Moses’] hand to [leprous] white
and the sea to dry land.
In the desert you turned rock to water,
hard flint to a fountain.
Who would then turn me from a man to woman?
Were I only to have merited this, being so graced by your goodness. . .”

Thus wrote Kalonymus Ben Kalonymus in ‘Even Bokhan’ (1322).

Kalonymus Ben Kalonymus was born to a well to do Jewish family in Arles, France in 1286. They – and I should say up front, as far as we know Kalonymus only ever presented as male to others, but given their poem, I don’t think it terribly disrespectful to use a gender neutral pronoun? 
So, they, Kalonymus became a scholar, receiving an extensive education in theology and philosophy. Kalonymus distinguished themself as a translator of many of the classical Greek and Roman works that were brought to Europe during the crusades. Their one true love, however, was satirical poetry. When it came to writing angry invectives on society, Kalonymus was said to be quite the pistol. 

Even Bokhan is apparently an angry invective, raging against the comparatively easy life Jewish girls had compared to the boys. Girls got to be the home makers. They got to play games. Boys only buried themselves dutifully in dusty old books, till they were old enough to go to work. They were burdened with all the responsibility, apparently – quoth Kalonymus…

“Woe to him who has male sons.
Upon them a heavy yoke has been placed,
restrictions and constraints.”

But it does not read quite that way to me. When you take tone into account, there is a genuine mood of sadness and resignation. Kalonymus writes on, begging God to transform themself into a woman, before stating

“If my Father in heaven has decreed upon me
and has maimed me with an immutable deformity,
then I do not wish to remove it.”

We don’t know enough about the satirist to offer any diagnosis on them. If we did I’m certainly no psychologist with expertise in trans health. The work is interesting though, as – whether it represented Kalonymus’ feelings of not – it is clearly a representation of gender dysphoria.
For centuries, this feeling of, to use Kalonymus’ words, feeling maimed and deformed is something millions of people have felt. Not all trans people feel gender dysphoria, but many do. It’s worth knowing The UCLA think tank The Williams Institute estimate 0.6% of the population is transgender. Extrapolated over human history this means many millions of trans people have existed; felt Kalonymus’ discomfort, and maybe begged their god to change them too. Kalonymus sees their condition as immutable, unchanging. Unlike many today, who have healthcare options, Kalonymus may feel powerless to the whims of a malevolent God they have been taught to love and worship.
Can I understand why such a figure might turn their depression outwards into writing angry invectives at society? Yes, we see people just like him still in this day and age.

Did Kalonymus have role models, should they choose to look for them? Many have been lost to the whims of history, but, yes. For one let’s discuss Eleanor Rykener.   

We really don’t know enough about Eleanor – but thanks to a set of court documents preserved on a vellum scroll in London, in 1395 – we know she existed, and get some little sense of her life. On Sunday 6th of December 1394 Eleanor was arrested by two officers while ‘laying with a man’ at an address in Cheapside. That part of town was well known for prostitution -as reflected in the names of the streets (trigger warning: rude words follow, please skip forward a little if need be). She was arrested on Soper Lane – a Soper a now antiquated slur for a homosexual man. This was not far from a Gropecunt Lane, a street name often used when brothels were nearby – and replicated in towns across England wherever there were brothels until the 16th century. 

Eleanor, and the gentleman – one John Britby, a former church Chaplain, were brought in and questioned before the Lord Mayor of London. From Eleanor’s testimony we discover she was assigned male at birth and upon moving to the city had, as much as one could at the time, transitioned. She took up work as a bar maid and a seamstress before turning to prostitution. For a while Eleanor moved to Oxford, and worked in a pub there. We don’t know why she returned to Cheapside, but do know as a sex worker she made better money than she could doing bar work. Eleanor returned to her pimp; a woman named Elizabeth Brouderer.
We don’t know anything really about Eleanor’s life outside of work – her hopes and dreams – but we know from her confession that in her work life she had a large clientele who included many men and women, included three knights of the realm, and both male and female clergy. She made good money from sex work, and – however one feels about sex work – it afforded her an authentic life Kalonymus could only ever dream of. 

The Lord Mayor of London carried out the interrogation personally, apparently to appear a ‘tough on crime’ mayor; however there is no evidence Eleanor was ever found guilty of, or sentenced for anything.  

Individual characters in this time are often footnotes. The remarkable, and for this tale’s sake I should point out cisgender, Margery Kempe had yet to drop her ground-breaking autobiography, though she was alive at the same time as Eleanor. Telling one’s own truth before Margery was not a thing people did. If you made it into a history book, typically you were some well off aristocrat, a general or perhaps a merchant with tales of faraway lands. Types later coined the ‘great men’ of history.

As such many early records of trans people are often archeological in nature – take, for example, a 5,000 year old trans skeleton dug up in Prague, Czech Republic. The bones show the effects of male levels of testosterone. The accoutrements code female. A tenth Century AD Viking grave in Birka, Sweden contained a possibly FTM (Female to Male) warrior buried with his weapons and masculine items. Iron Age burial plots in Hasanlu, Iran show evidence the people of that time observed a third gender, considered neither male nor female. In aboriginal cultures from Africa to the Americas, to the Pacific, to Asia many peoples were, on early contact with Europeans noted to be trans, or non-binary. All too often this was unremarkable to those peoples themselves – it’s just the way people were. The way they always have been. Trans people slip through the cracks of history far too often. 

But sometimes a movement, or an Emperor comes along – and they are harder to ignore. 

The polytheistic religions of the Near East allowed a space where trans people could be themselves – and play a role in society. The Gala, Mesopotamian priests from the 3rd Millennium BC were considered nominally male by their society, but presented as female. They wore womens’ clothing, and spoke and sang in a dialect reserved only for women. If the Galli, a Phrygian cult (from modern day Turkey) were not a continuation of the Gala, the Gala were certainly a template for them. The Galli worshipped Cybele, the mother of the Phrygian Gods. They lived as women, and were castrated on joining the sect, apparently as Cybele’s consort Attis had originally done.

One of the central icons of the religion was a black meteorite, kept in a temple in Phrygia. The Romans looted this meteorite while away, fighting against Carthage in the 2nd Punic war. In 204 BC, the meteorite, a statue of Cybele and a number of Galli priests were brought back to Rome. Cybele was quickly taken into the pantheon of Roman gods. Rome even added a national holiday for the deity, between April 4th -10th, where the statue of Cybele was paraded through the streets, flanked by Galli. 

A number of Romans, their gender expression forced underground by the stifling Roman culture, found a level of utility in this new religion, and became Galli. As with right wing reactionaries in our time, the ascension of the Galli was met with a moral panic fed by conservative fury. These people with their strange ways were turning the world all topsy-turvy, apparently. They were a whole order of terrible if you were to take the satirist Juvenal seriously – his second and fourth satires were particularly unkind to the Galli. All the same, the Galli remained out and proud until Rome adopted Christianity. In the Council of Nicaea, May to August 325 AD, a meeting set out many of the ground rules of Western Christianity, the first cab off the ranks was a prohibition on self castration among the clergy. 

Speaking of Rome – Varius Avitus Bassianus, is someone we should discuss. Born in Emesa (now Homs), Syria, a 14 year old Varius was promoted from high priest of a temple to Emperor of Rome, in 218 AD. Re-named Elagabalus, after her God Elah-Gabal (a variation of the god Baal) her reign wasn’t terribly long, or distinguished. Rather than invading the neighbours, Elagabalus spent most of her time throwing extravagant, hedonistic parties. At least one of those parties turned deadly, when a false ceiling fell away, deliberately dropping millions of rosebuds on the diners. Legend has it so many rosebuds fell on the diners, that people suffocated. Elagabalus executed generals and tried to enforce the worship Elah-Gabal as the state religion. She may have bigamously married a Greek athlete named Zoticus, and a charioteer named Heirocles, all the while visiting bars and picking up random men. Some of this may well be propaganda to excuse her assassination at the hands of her own guards just four years into her reign. 

What is certain, however – Elagabalus wore women’s clothing, wigs and make up; insisted on being addressed ‘My Lady’, and approached several Roman surgeons with promises of ample reward if they could develop a genital reassignment surgery for her. Elagabalus is not an ideal avatar for trans people everywhere – she strikes me as an awful person. However as emperor, she was probably the most high profile trans person in the ancient world. 

I have one final subject I’d like to discuss, while we’re in the Ancient world – a figure we’ve met before and never fully discussed. You may recall Hypsicratea as Mithridates VI of Pontus’ lover at the very end of his life. The Cimmerian warrior princess fought alongside the Emperor, escaping across the Caucasus with him to the Crimea. Rumours circulated on the emperor’s passing, the Cimmerian warrior princess had adopted the masculine name Hypsicrates, and lived the rest of his life as a man. 

In 2004, in the Black Sea city of Phanagoria, an epitaph was uncovered to a Hypsicrates, former wife of Mithridates. It once had a statue of the warrior set above it – but the statue was long gone by then. 

This is intriguing. we know Mithridates’ Hypsicratea was said to have been stereotypically masculine in appearance, and behaviour. Mithridates called her Hypsicrates. A Hypsicrates was among the slaves brought back from Pontus by the victorious Romans. This same Hypsicrates served Julius Caesar, until freed by Caesar sixteen years after Mithridates death in 47 BC. After this, we’re not sure what happened to him, but some scholars believe he later became a well-regarded military historian of the Near East – quoted by later writers like Josephus, but whose works have all been lost to the ravages of time. 

That tale makes for a tantalising what if, that leaves more questions than answers. If they are one and the same, was Hypsicrates/ea assigned male or female at birth? If so, did the change reflect a transitioning or de-transitioning? Were they essentially, before some so-called ‘cultural Marxist’ or ‘post modernist’ ever made a word for the phenomenon, non-binary? Sadly we’ll never know the specifics, but in the abstract isn’t it good to know he/she or they existed?

Oliver

Oliver (the Man in the Box)… Tales of History and Imagination

Hi all, this week is probably the second, and final unplanned episode. If you’re curious, the new day job is going fine. Trigger warning on this one, it gets gory at times.    

I have an image in my mind of Josiah Wilkinson, that may not be entirely accurate. More a whole scenario than an image, I imagine us transported back to some time – let’s for argument’s sake say 1818. We’re at an upmarket ale house a short ride from Harley Street, London and Wilkinson is holding court in a corner of the pub. As the beer flows the gentlemen pass judgment on German inventor Karl Von Drais
“damn fool invented a wooden horse, if you would believe it!”
a newly released, anonymous novel discussing wide ranging themes from the sublimity of nature to the dangers of an unfettered pursuit of knowledge, to ambition, to just what is the true nature of monstrosity?
“I dare say the chap who wrote that book is far too fond of the opium.
“Romantics they call em…Hmph”.

Perhaps conversation veered to the recent passing of Seymour Fleming, the scandalous Lady Worsley 

“I hear she had affairs with 27 men while wedded to that sot.”
”Yes, but the damn fool invited some of those men into his marital bed – who does that?”
“Sir Richard worse than sly, that’s who”
”Look up, dear – Bisset’s at the window!”
”that’s the one….. What’s that Oliver? What happened to that African slave boy Worsley bought in Turkey? You think he murdered and cannibalised him while in Moscow. Oliver that is preposterous, the man was a damn fool but he was no monster”

If writing this in longer-form, I’d start in 1612, and we’d stay there a while. At the time James I, one of our bad guys in the Pendle Witches saga, was the king of England and Scotland (and by extension Wales and Ireland). His son and heir apparent, Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales – a bright, capable young man – suddenly died of typhoid fever. His passing was a heavy blow for the nation – not least of all as the new heir apparent was the awkward, incompetent, less beloved younger brother, Charles. 

In longer-form we’d definitely expound on Charles’ tumultuous reign. We could easily spend several episodes unravelling this. What we need to know, however, is he ran into conflict with parliament early on, never managing to come to a consensus with them. They clashed over religion (not as simple as Protestant vs Catholic, there were various factions vying for specific permutations of Protestantism from almost Catholic to full-on Puritanism to become a new state religion). They also clashed over failed attempts to bring Scotland and Ireland into line with the official religion. 

Charles and Parliament clashed over taxes, the long-held belief kings had a divine right to rule, over what rights a rapidly growing middle class should be granted, the perception the king was a warmonger – and of course George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham. 

Buckingham was reputedly a lover of Charles’ father, James. He later acted as Charles’ wingman in the clumsy attempted wooing of the Infanta Maria Anna of Spain. Villiers’ assassination in 1628 robbed the king of one of his trusted supporters very early on.

Having never been trained to rule till his early teens, he lacked the diplomatic skills to navigate in such an explosive time. While he could, and did dissolve parliament on occasion – a sitting Parliament remained a necessity. War with his continental neighbours constantly loomed. To levy the taxes needed to put an army together, Charles constitutionally needed a sitting parliament to sign off on taxes to pay the soldiers. 

By 1642 a frustrated Charles tried, and failed to prorogue parliament. Civil war soon erupted between crown and parliament. 

At 2pm, January 30 1649, a defeated Charles knelt before the executor’s block. We don’t know the identity of the executioner, but a 19th century exhumation shows they were an experienced axeman – the cut was extremely clean. Normally an executioner would hold the head aloft, proclaiming ‘Behold the head of a traitor’ to all in attendance. Possibly in an attempt to hide his identity, the axeman remained silent. The head was sown back on. His body prepared for burial at Windsor Castle. 

At his funeral a middle-aged parliamentarian, turned cavalry officer gazed down at the corpse. “It was a cruel necessity” he exclaimed. That man played a vital role in the execution, as the second signatory of twelve on the death warrant. That man – Oliver Cromwell – is our man in the box. 

Oliver Cromwell was born in 1599 to a gentrifying, middle class family. His grandfather made a small fortune from a brewery he established. The brewing side of the family married into the titled, but disgraced forebears of Thomas Cromwell – a chief advisor to King Henry VIII who faced the executioner’s axe after he fell foul of the king. Oliver studied at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, where he was introduced to Puritanical thought. In 1620 he married Elizabeth Bourchier – a young lady from an influential Puritan family. Her uncles helped the young Cromwell into politics, helping him win a parliamentary seat at Huntingdon in 1628. 

Cromwell wasn’t overtly religious till he slumped into a ‘dark night of the soul’ in his late 30s. 

From early adulthood on, Oliver Cromwell suffered bouts of severe depression. He was often bed ridden for days on end in a deep, blue funk. The root of his depression was surely more complex than the following, but the explanation we have is he was convinced he was a sinner in a land full of sinners, and destined to burn in hell for eternity. Oliver Cromwell had a complete nervous breakdown in 1638; a spiritual awakening shaking him out of it. Born again, he adopted the solipsistic goal of becoming ‘the greatest man in the kingdom’. 

If doing a longer-form piece on Cromwell, and again people could devote whole series to him – I’d detail how his radicalism made him an ideal fit amongst the parliamentarians who declared war on the Crown. How he turned out to be an extremely capable fighter, rising through the ranks as a cavalry man. How he was given the task of building their ‘New Model Army’. His decisive leadership in the battles of Marston Moor in 1644, Naseby in June 1645 and Langport in July 1645 were instrumental in the defeat of the king. As were his murderous raids on towns who remained loyal to the king. 

We most certainly would linger on his genocidal campaigns in both Scotland and Ireland following the king’s execution – particularly in Ireland where civilian deaths may have run in excess of half a million souls. He had 50,000 Irish sent off as indentured labourers to the colonies – essentially slaves by another name – expected to be worked to death on an American plantation. He dissolved the ‘rump parliament’; then the bare-bones parliament’ following King Charles execution. By 1653, feeling he had no other option if order was to be restored to the realm – Oliver Cromwell was declared Lord Protector of England – essentially a dictator for life. He instituted a network of Major Generals to enforce his regime. In an effort to save souls he banned joy in life; criminalising swearing, blasphemy, drunkenness and sex outside of marriage. 

Though he didn’t personally ban Christmas – the puritans in the ‘Long Parliament’ did that in 1647 – he oversaw a half-hearted attempt to enforce the law on Christmas 1655. 

Oliver Cromwell is a divisive figure in English history. Some see him as a heroic figure. Others think him a monster. I fall in the latter camp, and think his death of kidney failure on September 3 1658 no great loss for England. Now we’ve covered some background, let’s discuss his head.

On 29th May 1660; a day designated Oak Apple Day (if I need more downtime we’ll come back to that in a few weeks’ time), Charles’ son and namesake, now Charles II – re-entered London. The new king forgave many of his father’s enemies, but saw to it anyone responsible for his father’s death warrant were punished – whether dead or alive. 

On 30th January 1661, the anniversary of Charles I’s execution, Oliver Cromwell’s body was dragged through the streets of London, hung from a gallows, then decapitated. His head was pierced through with an iron spike. The spike then stuck on the end of a long pole, then was hoisted atop the Parliament buildings at Westminster Hall. A warning to future despots, his head was to remain there forever.
Oliver Cromwell’s head disappeared mysteriously on a stormy night in 1684. The pole snapping in the tempest, it was thrown across the courtyard. A guard found the head, and secreted it away to his own home. 

As soon as the missing head was noticed, authorities went into a mad panic, scrambling to find it. Although a large reward was offered for Cromwell’s head, the sentinel in possession of the head became increasingly worried he’d be accused of theft if he brought it in. He stored Oliver up his chimney – where it stayed till the guard passed on. There is a presumption he made his family aware of the ghastly house guest on his death bed.  

In 1710 Oliver Cromwell’s head went from cautionary tale to morbid curiosity. First it showed up in the London curiosity room of a Swiss calico trader named Claudius Du Puy. In amongst a cabinet full of rare coins and exotic herbs, the gnarly-looking head was a sight to behold for the many foreigners stopping by his museum. From there the head found itself in the possession of Samuel Russell, an actor who performed in London’s, Clare Market, from a stall. I cannot say if he ever soliloquised  “Alas poor Yorick!, I knew him, Horatio” while holding Mr Cromwell up for inspection. Oliver was, however, popular with passers by, having visited the meat market on the look out for a leg of lamb or cut of beef. Russell sold the head to one James Cox, who owned a museum but Cox chose to exhibit the head only to his close friends. He in turn sold it to the Hughes family – who owned a museum full of Cromwell memorabilia. They, in turn sold it to a surgeon named Josiah Wilkinson in 1814. 

The head became Wilkinson’s prized property. He had an oak box made to exhibit it, and took to bringing his friend Oliver with him to the local pub. One wonders what Cromwell would have thought at becoming the centre of attention in the midst of the boozing, swearing, laughing and – one hopes – blasphemy. When someone doubted the raggedy head’s provenance, Wilkinson took the head out, pointing to the wart above his left eye. One friend noted the head “A frightful skull it is, covered with it’s parched yellow skin like any other mummy and with it’s chestnut hair, eyebrows and beard in glorious preservation”

The head became of public interest again in the 1840s after proponent of the ‘Great Man’ theory of history Thomas Carlyle published a collection of Cromwell’s letters and speeches in 1845. This was helped on by the rise of the pseudo-science of phrenology, and the appearance of a rival Cromwell skull, exhibited at the Ashmolean. The rival skull was easily dismissed as a fake when it was shown to be in circulation in the 1670s, while Cromwell’s head was verifiably still on the pike as late as 1684. Efforts to confirm our head reached a reasonable level of certainty in 1930, when the new-fangled technology of the X Ray at least proved the head had been run through with an iron spike as described in the accounts of Cromwell’s mounting. 

In 1960, Dr. Horace Wilkinson, the original Dr Wilkinson’s great-grandson handed Cromwell’s head over to his old alma mater, Sidney Sussex College. On 25 March 1960, his head was finally laid to rest in an intimate ceremony, at an unspecified location within their chapel. 

The Sin Eater, Wizard of Mauritius & ‘Mr Good Day’ – Three Work Tales

The Sin-Eater, Wizard of Mauritius & Mr Good Day – Three Work Tales Tales of History and Imagination

Hi all, I’m starting a new role at my day job, and seeing it is something in a whole new field, with possible homework to do – I’m putting a couple of the more content heavy tales on hold till I’ve settled in. 

I was planning on podcasting a couple of older blog posts in the meantime; starting with The Sin Eater. The episode only ran six minutes long on it’s first recording, so I figured let’s do a trilogy today – some of this tale is old, most of it is new.

Today let’s talk about the things some people did for work.  

One- The Last Sin Eater.  

On occasion I’ve wondered about Richard Munslow’s funeral in 1906. When the Shropshire farmer – and practitioner of a lost art – died, aged 73, did the kin of his clients come to pay their respects? Was a gathering held afterwards, with food and drink? Did those assembled dare take a bite? I don’t ask to make fun of his passing – I do seriously wonder. 

There’s a riddle ‘When the undertaker dies, who buries the undertaker?’ The answer “whosoever undertakes to do so”

When a sin-eater passes, who will break bread for them? Given Munslow’s passing saw the death, also, of a practice long frowned upon – my best guess is no-one? When Richard Munslow passed, the act of sin-eating went to the grave with him. I’m a non-believer myself, and of course don’t believe Mr Munslow went to hell. I dread to think he might have believed in his avocation. Did he go to the grave terrified all of Shropshire’s collected sins would drag him to the other place when he crossed over? 

The practice of sin eating dates at least as far back as the early 17th century, mostly in Wales and the bordering English counties. If someone died before they could make a final confession, a sin-eater was called in. As the body lay in state, a pastry would be placed upon the deceased’s chest or face. Like a crouton swimming in a bowl of soup, the pastry would soak up the deceased’s misdeeds. The sin-eater then entered, and ate the pastry – reciting 

“I give easement and rest now to thee, dear man. Come not down the lanes or in our meadows. And for thy peace, I pawn my own soul. Amen.” 

Not unlike The Green Mile’s John Coffee, a literary stand in for Jesus (right down to the JC initials), it’s believed the practice grew out of a wish to emulate Christ.

The service gave families solace, knowing their relative would now ascend to heaven free of their baggage. The community at large could breathe easy some poor spirit would not be stuck in limbo to chain rattle – scaring others half to death on stormy, or foggy nights. 

For having scapegoated themselves, the sin-eater barely eked out a living.  

Sin-eating was a profession for only the poorest in the village. It paid little, and carried the heaviest of stigmas. Sin eaters regularly lived on the outskirts of the town or village, in semi-isolation. Often they made do in some abandoned, ramshackle old shed living a life scarcely better than a deceased sinner locked out of heaven. They were considered so toxic, to look a sin eater in the eye was said to bring a curse upon you. Sin Eating was also considered an act of heresy – and if caught, a practitioner could face punishment similar to a witch caught practicing witchcraft. As a rule, most sin-eaters were criminals or alcoholics who had few other options available than other than to turn to such work.  

Though the practice all but disappeared in the mid 19th century, Richard Munslow – a man who had a well-paying job, but hated to see others suffer – continued to break bread with the deceased till early into the 20th century. I’m doubtful others passed on the favour for him, though it is something that he was honoured by the people of Ratlinghope, Shropshire in 2010. His tombstone much the worse for wear after a century of neglect, Reverend Norman Morris collected £1,000 from locals, and had his grave restored to something more akin a man of his heroic stature.

Two- Mr Good Day…  

There’s a belief the Chinese philosopher, and by profession politician and teacher, Confucius once wrote “Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life”. This is a misnomer. For one, it doesn’t reflect his strict views on life (the man was a stickler for a rigid social order, and expected people to even wear specific items of clothing on specific days. If you were caught wearing Wednesday’s outfit on a Tuesday, you could be in deep trouble.) For another the quote doesn’t appear in the analects. It’s a nice quote however, whoever said it first. It is also something many never achieve. Workplace research shows in our own time only 23 percent of workers are actively engaged in their day job. Half of employees, on the other hand, are likely to be actively disengaged with their role. 

Joseph Charles of Berkeley, California was a man who found great joy in a job he loved.

 

Joseph Charles

What’s more he was appreciated for his hard work. The Mayor of Berkeley honoured him on his 85th birthday. The people named a tennis court in his honour. His gloves are on display in a museum. Even Walter Cronkite interviewed the man. 

Charles came to his best loved role later in life. Born in 1910, he was professional baseball player in the segregated ‘Negro leagues’ before moving to the Bay Area in the 1940s. Mr Charles worked much of his adult life in the dockyards. 

On October 6th 1962 he began the role he became best known for. Stepping out from his weatherboard home on the corner of Oregon Street and Martin Luther King Way (then Grove Street), he waved to every single motorist who drove past. As he waved he’d call out to motorists “Keep on smiling” and ‘Have a good day”. Joseph Charles took his post weekdays between 7.45 and 9.30 am, rain or shine, for the next thirty years – only retiring from the role, aged 82 in October 1992. 

Some motorists were initially suspicious of the Waving Man of Berkeley, or ‘Mr Good Day’ as some called him. Was the man some kind of communist out to spread Marxism under the guise of random kindness? Others wondered how long it would take him to cause an accident with his tom-foolery. Many, however, found him charming – and waved back, or beeped their horns. One day a man stopped to give him a pair of bright yellow gloves. These became the first pair of eighteen Charles would own in his tenure. Many of the estimated 4,500 people he waved to each day detoured just to see him in the morning. 

Most locals loved the Waving Man – one child commenting to her mother “it’s like having a blessing bestowed on us every day we drive by”. In 1992 a stranger knocked on his door, stating

“You don’t know me, but my wife and I have been having a lot of problems and we’re thinking of getting a divorce. But after driving by your house every day and seeing your positive outlook on life, we’ve decided to give it another try.”

Like any superhero, Charles became the Waving Man after suffering a loss. A Filipino neighbour he regularly waved to packed up and returned to the Philippines one day without warning. He found he missed the interaction, so he started waving to everyone. His wife Flora at first thought he’d gone mad – but after the NBC Nightly News, CBS News with Walter Cronkite, Real People and Ripley’s Believe it or Not came knocking, Flora conceded he was at least helping make a world a better place for people, one wave at a time – mad or not. 

The people of Berkeley, California were distraught at losing their famed Waving Man, aged 92, on March 13 2002. 

Three – The Wizard of Mauritius

For a period of close to half a century in my own lifetime, New Zealand had it’s own wizard. Ian Brackenbury Channell arrived on our shores in 1974, having previously served in the RAF as an airman – and Australia’s Melbourne University as an official sociology lecturer and unofficial ‘cosmologer, living work of art and shaman.’ He stood atop a ladder in Christchurch’s city square to argue a contrarian viewpoint over whatever was topical that day. He trolled Ray Comfort, a New Zealand born, American televangelist. When he was not performing a rain dance in the middle of a drought, the Wizard regularly donned his velvet robes and entertained kids on Sunday morning television.  

The Wizard of New Zealand

The Wizard was honoured as a living work of art in 1982, promoted from Wizard of Christchurch to Wizard of New Zealand by Prime Minister Mike Moore in 1990, and was granted an annual stipend for his wizardry. In 2021, Ian Brackenbury Channell was told to hang up his magic robes by Christchurch city council after stating in a television interview 

“ I love women, I forgive them all the time, I’ve never struck one yet. Never strike a woman because they bruise too easily is the first thing, and they’ll tell the neighbours and their friends … and then you’re in big trouble.” 

It was not his finest hour.  

Of course, as colourful a character as the Wizard of New Zealand was, he was an entertainer cosplaying as John Dee. The Wizard of Mauritius on the other hand – he had mysterious powers which to this day may still defy explanation.

Etienne Bottineau, a man known as the Wizard of Mauritius, was believed to have an uncanny ability to detect ships headed towards the isle de France from distances greater than any spy glass could see. What’s more he could often guess the size and type of the vessel, and if the ship was sailing alone or in a flotilla. 

Etienne Bottineau

Bottineau was born in Anjou, France some time around 1740. As a young man he became enamoured with the sea, joining the navy as an engineer. Though records of his life and alleged abilities are sketchy, we know in 1762 he claimed he could sense incoming ships before they became visible. His claim, ships “…must produce a certain effect upon the atmosphere”. This isn’t a terribly descriptive explanation – though it appeared incoming ships somehow struck him with a wave of sensations and colours – perhaps similar to the way synesthete experiences seeing musical colours from different sounds? He tried to codify this talent, and sharpen it, by privately making predictions on arrivals. The results were dismal – something he put down to far too much noise in the signal. Too many boats were constantly coming and going in French waters. 

His talents lay dormant, and functionally useless, till he was assigned to the remote East African island of Mauritius – 700 miles to the east of Madagascar. Out in the splendid isolation of the island chain – then named Isle de France by the French – he could easily sense ships as far as 700 miles away. Was that colourful sensation a French battleship headed their way, or an East Indiaman sailing for the Bay of Bengal? Bottineau claimed to know exactly which it was, while others were still asking “what ship?” He honed his talents, intending to develop a teachable method he could monetise. He named the method ‘nauscopie’. After six months on the island he had fully mastered the art, and began to show others. 

People in charge possibly either saw him as dangerous or an annoyance, and sent him off to Madagascar for several years. When he returned to Mauritius, however, attitudes had changed and the people there viewed Bottineau as a living, breathing oracle. 

In 1780 Etienne Bottineau started collecting data, in the hope of selling nauscopie to the French government. Over the space of eight months he claimed to have made sixty two predictions, correctly predicting the course of 150 ships. He kept a log of his predictions – most of which took between two and four days to confirm. He set sail for home in 1784, with his evidence and a letter from the Governor of Mauritius, Francois de Souillac which concurred the man was indeed an oracle. He wrote Bottineau ‘…sees in native signs that indicate the presence of vessels, as we assert that fire in places where we see smoke”

On his arrival he was widely regarded as a conman or a fantasist. He did have one prominent sponsor however – in all round renaissance man Jean-Paul Marat. Of course the French Revolution erupted in 1789, and his patron Marat took to writing angry invectives which influenced many towards the reign of terror that followed. In 1793 a minor aristocrat named Charlotte Corday assassinated Marat as he bathed. Initially a supporter of the Giordins’ who wanted to abolish the monarchy, Corday was horrified by the September Massacres of 1792. More than 1,100 political prisoners were murdered in a mass lynching. She blamed Marat for the massacre. 

From Jean-Louis David’s The Death of Marat.

With his patron gone, Bottineau returned to sea. His evidence was sketchy at best, and his major backer – a man partially responsible for 40,000 murders – was increasingly more hinderance than help. He spent four years in Sri Lanka, and is believed to have passed on in Pondicherry, a French colony in India, in 1802.  

The Many Deaths of Glenn Miller

The Many Deaths of Glenn Miller Tales of History and Imagination



Glenn Miller was a trombonist, composer, band leader and late 1930s – early 40s musical icon whose work is utterly impenetrable to me. Not that I mean I can’t dissect it, and regurgitate some horrific approximation as background music (podcast listeners, much of the music this episode is stolen from Mr Miller) I mean in terms of, in the era of the swing orchestra full of heavy hitting bands led by people like Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton and Fletcher Henderson – all bands sure to get everyone up on the dance floor – 

It was the comparatively restrained, in my opinion, polite music of The Glenn Miller Orchestra that dominated the pop charts like nobody else. 
(Edit: in the process of putting this episode together I may have subsequently fallen for his polite music. This bears mention)

Culturally I don’t possess the touchstones to judge his music in any meaningful way. I can say, however, the man was a superstar. If you are to go by the 59 top ten records he released – or the seventeen number one Billboard or Hit Parade records he dropped between 1939 and 1943, he must’ve been a constant and well-loved presence on the radio. If you go by the hollering crowds on a 1939 Carnegie Hall concert I listened to while writing this Tale, crowds most certainly did cut a rug or two to his songs. Music charts change their names, what they measure, and how they measure it over time so you may not see his name alongside Elvis, The Beatles, Madonna or Drake for that matter – but the guy was a huge star in his time – as big as anyone. He even featured in a couple of Hollywood movies.

On 7th December 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour, Hawaii. The subsequent entry of the USA into World War Two changed everything for Miller. At 38 years of age, he was never going to be drafted into the armed forces, but he felt he needed to do whatever he could to help. Glenn Miller walked away from an income of between $15,000 and $20,000 a week (that’s upwards of $250,000 USD weekly in 2022) and enrolled in the army. His civilian band played their last show in Passaic, New Jersey on 27th September 1942 – before Captain (later Major) Miller left to head the then Army Air Force’s dance band. The superstar band leader was off to keep morale high among the troops, a service he carried out with distinction.

I’m leaving a lot of biography out, so the following is a quick rundown. Glen with one n is in fact his middle name – He was born Alton Glen Miller in 1904, in Clarinda, Iowa. When young his family moved to Nebraska, then Missouri, then Colorado. He paid for his first trombone by milking cows after school. Upon leaving high school, Glenn moved to LA to become a professional musician. He studied music with a man called Joseph Schillinger, who had developed a structured, mathematical system of music theory that I’m told takes years for an already capable musician to master. Before his big break, he cut his teeth playing with several bands and on sessions, as well as playing in the orchestra pits for a couple of Broadway musicals. He married his high school sweetheart Helen Burger in 1928; the couple were still married in 1944, where we rejoin the Tale proper. 

We pick up the tale on 15th December 1944. The location, an airstrip in Bedford, England. Glenn is due to board a plane to Paris, France – specifically a UC-64 Norseman – a single engined,  tough little craft designed to handle even arctic conditions. Paris had been liberated by the Allies on August 24th. The war in Europe would slog on till 9th May 1945, so a large number of soldiers stationed on the continent needed entertainment on Christmas Day. 

Miller was hitching a ride by convincing a friend, an American officer named Lt Colonel Norman Baessell, to let him jump in a spare seat. The flight contained just himself, Baessell and a 22 year old pilot, Flight Officer John Morgan. The rest of the band would arrive separately on a later, scheduled plane. Around midday, though an extremely cold, foggy winter day, the call was made it would be safe enough to make the flight that afternoon. This was in spite of the fact that several other flights that day had been cancelled on both sides of the English Channel. Hours later, the Norseman took off for Paris. No one on that flight was ever seen or heard from again. 

When a superstar disappears mysteriously, theories – some mad, some not – develop. Today we’re looking at some of the many possible deaths of Glenn Miller. 

One: The Secret Agent. 

Let’s start with one of the, probably, crazier suggestions. The Norseman did in fact land in Paris that day. The band were supposed to meet up with him on the 18th but 18th December came and went with no sign of their leader. His compatriots reported him missing, but he was not acknowledged as missing till December 24th – the day before the planned Christmas concert. This was done because he was a spy on a classified mission, and someone higher up was concealing the disappearance for as long as they could. 

Where was he exactly, and what was he doing? 

In this case, not so much spying as diplomacy. He had been secreted away to the front to meet with high ranking Nazis to discuss a peace treaty between the USA and Germany. Perhaps he said the wrong thing, or the Nazis also knew he was a spy all along, or someone just decided it was worth more to the war effort to capture the band leader than discuss peace?

What happened to him afterwards? I don’t know, maybe Hitler didn’t like his rendition of Lili Marlene, and immediately wished he’d snared Dame Vera Lynn instead? This theory usually ends with Major Miller, blindfolded, in front of a Nazi firing squad. 

Do I think this is likely? There is no evidence whatsoever that he was a spy. All manner of other plots have been revealed in the years since the war. One example, James Bond writer Ian Fleming discussed using famed occultist Aleister Crowley to ensnare deputy fuhrer Rudolf Hess – a man with heavily occult leanings. Before Crowley could be put to use, Hess took off in a plane for Scotland. Completely unsanctioned by Hitler, he hoped to make peace with Churchill. Hess was arrested, then brought back to London by an agent named Brinley Newton John – the father of Australian pop star Olivia Newton John. 

Another plan which leaked years after the fact was Winston Churchill’s Operation Unthinkable – a plan which would have seen the Allies finish the Nazis, then re-arm Germany to help them defeat the USSR. I imagine this plan being unveiled to a roomful of weary politicians to a chorus of ‘Good lord, Winston – have you lost your mind?’ Had he ever tried to implement it. 

Besides this, one only has to look at the Instrument of Surrender documents the UK, USA and USSR spent the first half of 1944 writing, then fine tuning. The document was a very clear statement of exactly what the Allies needed from Germany to accept their surrender. With the USA so adamant on terms of surrender – would they really go behind their allies backs, especially this close to the end of the war in Europe?

There is no evidence – and that which can be stated without evidence can be dismissed as easily.  This theory also runs contrary to good sense. 

Two: A Hail of Bombs…

On the morning of December 15th 1944 the RAF 149 squadron took to the skies on a mission to bomb the Siegen Railway yard in Germany. A dangerous task, the slower moving Lancaster bombers would be escorted by a bodyguard of smaller fighter planes on the mission. 138 Lancaster bombers took to the sky, flying towards their target. 

A Lancaster bomber

When it came time for the fighter planes to launch, it was decided the weather was too dangerous. This was a daylight bombing mission requiring precision. People would see them coming. If they could see them at a distance, the risk of being shot out of the sky increased considerably. Knowing they could take another run at the railway tomorrow, the bombers were called home. 

The Lancasters had flown out fully loaded with bombs – including many 4,000 lb blockbuster bombs – often referred to as cookies. It was extremely risky to land with these in the cargo bay. A long way from a convenient bombing range to offload their cargo, the order was to drop their payloads over the English Channel. This seemed risk free, only an idiot would be out in that weather. As one they dropped their cookies, creating one hell of a shock wave. 

In Avro Lancaster NF973, a navigator named Fred Shaw was looking into the fog beneath him when a lone UC64 Norseman appeared. Flipped upside-down, the plane suddenly took a nose-dive into the fog. Shaw did report the incident, as did two other airmen, but the RAF chose to do absolutely nothing. Really what could you do? Had a plane been hit by friendly fire there was little chance of finding survivors – especially in the middle of a war, in diabolically terrible weather that to venture out into would be putting others’ lives at risk.

Of course the weather was much improved the following day. The squadron flew back out, bombing the living daylights out of Siegen. You can buy prints online of the December 16th 1944 bombing, if you wish to see the damage a squadron full of blockbusters can do. There wasn’t much left of the site. 

Was Glenn Miller accidentally taken out by friendly fire? Possibly – although questions have been asked whether Miller’s plane could have been in this airspace at the same time. Outwardly it appears so, but a Miller family investigation suggested the Norseman would not have been in that airspace till at least 90 minutes after the bombs were offloaded. 

Three: The Brothel…

I don’t believe there is any serious evidence for the following theory, but it is often talked about – so here goes. The history of sex work in Paris would provide a wealth of material for anyone interested in the topic. In the thirteenth century King Louis IX tried to curb prostitution in the city by designating just nine streets where brothels were allowed. The crown followed his lead in allowing, but restricting the practice throughout the following centuries. By the 19th century brothels were known as ‘Maisons de Tolerance’. They were allowed to operate if ran by a female brothel owner, were discreet in the way they carried out business, and if they hung a red lantern in the window when they were open for business. This is from where the term red light district originates. When World War Two broke out, Paris alone had 117 such Maisons. 

Invading Nazis added to the number of brothels – in an extremely problematic way. Though I don’t believe this pertinent – I don’t know where else I’ll ever get a chance to share the following. In 1940, Reinhard Heydrich – easily one of the most sadistic men in history (he was the chief architect of the Holocaust) had a problem. I doubt that guy cared whatsoever for the victims if horny Nazis were raping their way through captured territory. He did, however want to ensure what still equated to rape was safe for his men. 

Three issues occupied his mind. First, if the men caught venereal diseases they might be taken off the battle field. Second, if left to their own devices with the native populations, several officers might have their heads turned by a modern day Mata Hari – some spy on a mission to seduce them. Thirdly, Heydrich in a ‘what Paul says about Peter tells us more about Paul than about Peter’ moment, was convinced if men were banned from sex entirely, they would all turn gay – something the party could not tolerate.  

So, a man considered a cruel, feckless monster even for a Nazi, hatched a plan to create a franchise of 500 brothels across occupied territory. Upwards of 34,000 girls and women were press ganged into sexual slavery. They were regularly tested for VD – the poor women taken away and shot if unfortunate enough to catch something. Pregnancy would be ‘treated’ the same way. The Nazis ran nineteen brothels in Paris during the war. 

I doubt it is alleged Glenn Miller was at a Nazi brothel. For one, a number of sex workers known to have slept with Nazis were kicked to death in the streets post-liberation. Others had their heads shaved and were paraded through the streets in the back of wagons. 

French women, heads shaved and paraded for collaborating with Nazis

But it has been alleged by some he arrived safely, then sought out the services of sex workers amongst the red light district. In the throes of passion he suffered a massive heart attack and died in the escort’s arms. Presented with this tragedy, the top military brass made the decision to hush up the incident. It was bad morale when they needed morale high. 

This claim started to circulate in English-language newspapers around 1997 after a Far-right German conspiracy theorist named Udo Ulfkotte wrote an article. He claimed he’d just stumbled across a classified US military document while writing a book on German post-war spies. As best as I can tell the alleged document itself has never been published, or verified anywhere – but a far-right grifter had a new book to sell, so any publicity is good publicity??

Beside this, what happened to Lt Colonel Baessell and Flight Officer Morgan? – Did they too drop dead of cardiac arrest at the same brothel? They are real, verifiable people who left loved ones behind. Their disappearance is an awkward spanner in the works for this theory. 

Four: Mechanical Failure

Sometimes mysteries have simple explanations. The weather was atrocious, so much so that flights were being cancelled everywhere. The Norseman was designed for this kind of weather, but, end of the day it was a single engine craft. Many aviation experts believe the answer is as simple as ice on the engine brought the craft down somewhere over the English Channel. 

Five: …….

I have one final theory to share. Do I place much trust in it? It struggles with the same issues as the spy and brothel theories – what happened to the pilot and the Lt Colonel? It is somewhat more believable by virtue of it coming from a family member. Let’s overlook the eerily prescient letter he wrote one of his two brothers on 12th December 1944 stating “barring a nosedive into the channel, I’ll be in Paris in a few days”. This could signify something, or just be one of those strange coincidences. We don’t know if it reflected something he regularly said to family when flying out – if so how can you weigh the one time he was right against the hundred he wasn’t? It does, however, lend a little weight to this final theory if taken on face value. 

Another letter, written to his younger brother Herb, did have his brother wondering if he covered up the true nature of his death for patriotic reasons. 

Glenn’s letter to Herb, written in mid 1944, stated he was having great difficulty breathing. He was feeling increasingly ill, and despite eating very well – losing a lot of weight. Others near the bandleader echoed this sentiment, particularly towards the end of his life. My eyes not being the greatest, and live photos of shows in September 1944 often being a little blurry, I think he had lost a noticeable amount of weight prior to his death. Glenn Miller was a smoker from a young age, and  some – Herb among them, have suspected he was dying of lung cancer. Their belief, he was secreted away to an Army hospital somewhere in Britain, where he was kept isolated from the other patients. For the sake of keeping up morale among the troops, he died, anonymous and alone in some hospital bed so a heroic narrative could be told to the public. 

Of course either way, had he died of cancer his family were nowhere near. The war, though months from an end was still being fiercely contested – The Battle of The Bulge kicked off in Belgium and France the day Miller was reported missing. It wasn’t terribly safe to travel to his bedside – but at least a final phone call to his family should have been possible otherwise? 

Of course, having disappeared on route to a mission – the Christmas show, he did die a hero, and was awarded a Bronze Star, posthumously. 

What happened to Alton Glen Miller, superstar band leader, trombonist, composer and war hero? Your guess is as good as mine, though I suspect the simplest answer the most likely.   

The Infernal Machine

The Infernal Machine Tales of History and Imagination


Trigger Warning, This Tale discusses gun violence. If an account of a mass shooting is likely to upset, it’s fine to give this one a miss. I’ll be back in a fortnight with a tale of Kenyan wildlife and other things.

This week’s Tale begins on the Boulevard du Temple; in Paris, France. The date, 28th July 1835. The Boulevard is a street many of us might feel we know, even if – like myself – you’ve never visited the City of Lights before. A man named Louis Daguerre pointed a new-fangled device out of a window in 1839, shooting down at ‘crime boulevard’ as the street was then known. In doing so he shot the first human – with a camera. The mirror image, known as a Daguerreotype, regularly makes it onto content-farm articles on early photography. Though ant-like, at least one person is discernible in the otherwise quiet street scene.

One must imagine the scene in July 1835 rather differently. The street was overflowing with soldiers in their best attire. This was the day King Louis Philippe I, a man not generally given to displays of pomp and wealth, inspected the Paris National Guard as they stood to attention. Two week’s after that more famous revolutionary date, July 14th, which commemorates the 1789  storming of Bastille prison – people were out in force to celebrate the July Revolution of 1830, which swept him into power over the rightful heir – His eleven year old 2nd cousin.     

At around midday the king was nearing 50 Boulevard du Temple with an entourage which included three of his sons and a collection of high-ranking officers. A sudden flash was seen from a third floor window, accompanied by a rain of gunfire. Tearing through the crowd, this rapid-fire burst of lead felled eighteen bystanders, badly injuring 22 more. Of the survivors, many were so badly wounded they required amputations. It’s intended target, the King, escaped with only a cut to the forehead. The assault ended just as drastically as it begun. The weapon responsible had partially backfired, injuring the assailant, who then fled the scene leaving a telltale trail of blood behind. 

The killer, a Corsican former soldier named Giuseppe Marco Fieschi – who served in the French army in Napoleon’s time. He went off to fight in Russia with the Grande Armee who had been so decimated by both weather and Russian counter attack. This must have been a truly harrowing, traumatic experience for anyone to live through. Post war, Fieschi signed up as a mercenary in the service of the former King of Naples. When an attempt to overthrow the current Neapolitan regime went badly, he fled to France as a refugee.

Soon after his arrival, he was arrested and jailed for ten years for cattle theft. Embittered, he became embroiled in revolutionary circles upon his release. With two other plotters, Fieschi built a weapon known as ‘The Infernal Machine’ for the sole purpose of killing Louis Philippe. It had twenty five barrels aligned side by side, all set on the same downward trajectory. Each was full of shot, and would fire simultaneously on a single trigger. While this sounds in effect vaguely like a machine gun – the infernal machine was a volley gun – capable of firing just the once before it needed re-loading. Volley guns could be found in use as early as the fifteenth century, but were rarely used – A cannon loaded with grapeshot could imitate a volley gun, while a volley gun couldn’t fire cannon balls. The name ‘the infernal machine’ says all you need to know, however. A year before the release of the first truly effective assault rifle, the Drayse needle gun, the world was still in the era of the blunderbuss and the musket. A gun which could kill or wound forty in the blink of an eye was absolutely hellish.   

Before we move on from this infernal machine, I should point out Fieschi was soon caught, his accomplices rounded up, and all were sent to the guillotine – another new-ish technology with a surprisingly long history of antecedents.

From one infernal machine to another.

The machine gun came about, believe it or not, with all the good intentions in the world. Richard Gatling built his Gatling gun, the first working machine gun – in the hope of saving lives. Gatling was a North Carolina native who mostly invented farming equipment. One day he read an article stating more soldiers died in war from disease than in battle. This left him aghast. He believed he could save millions of lives in the future if he could create a machine which let a few men do the work of several units. Gatling hoped this innovation would lead to less soldiers on the battlefield, and therefore less death. The Gatling gun debuted in 1862, in the midst on the extremely bloody American Civil War, where more – not less, soldiers were sent out to fight. The Gatling gun had a hand crank which powered it, so was still a way off from machine guns as we know them, but it was used to horrific effect in several wars from the 1860s till the turn of the century. It was used to gun down thousands of Zulu, Chinese, Japanese, Spaniards, Chilean, Native Americans and Filipino among others. A fully automated reloading mechanism would come along and it’s inventor, William Cantelo, would have even more blood on his hands…

Who?? You ask…

I’m being a little facetious- maybe? Let’s reset the stage. 

This tale restarts in the late 1870s. Neighbours of the Tower Inn, a Southampton pub, have wondered aloud for months the origin of an ungodly noise coming from the pub’s basement. The landlord, one William Cantelo, was a man of varied interests. The son of an Isle of Wight publican and brush maker, William studied engineering as a younger man. On arrival at the coastal town, he set up a foundry specialising in making boat propellers. He soon diversified, buying a pub. Besides his business interests he also found the time to play in the local brass band. An endless tinkerer, Cantelo set up a workshop in the tunnel beneath the pub. 

We already know what he was working on down there. Machine guns were the thing that year. Gatling invented his gun through poorly thought out humanitarian motives. A new-found drive among seven European nations to conquer and exploit the life out of Africa from around 1870, (kicking into high gear in 1885) was the main driver for many recent military innovations. The other side of that ledger, European armies had seen a marked drop in young men signing up for service after the Crimean War. This, more than anything, necessitated new methods of killing people at scale. After Gatling, Swedish inventor Thorstein Nordenfelt built a hand-cranked gun in 1873. William Gardner, an Ohio based former army captain built his Gardner Gun a year later. These weapons were a step in the right direction, but if someone could make something fully automatic – possibly loading the next bullet off the energy generated from the gun’s recoil? – that was the holy grail. 

Some time in 1880 it was said, William came up from his basement to announce he had finally solved that problem. He was the inventor of the world’s first true automatic machine gun. When some young chap faced off against a wall of angry locals waving their Assegai, Akrafena or Trumbash at them, that young man could rest assured that he had a Cantelo Gun, and they have not – as Hilaire Belloc might have said in a different future timeline. His two sons and daughter must also have been quietly overjoyed at the prospect of a decent night’s sleep, free of the rat-a-tat-tat from father’s infernal machine. It’s claimed soon after, William announced to his family he was going on a well-earned holiday. Given the same sources claim his sons helped him pack his gun for travel, it’s far more likely he left on a business trip – and hoped to find a buyer for the weapon. Little did his children know, but as he set off, this was the last time they would ever see him. 

Well, the last verified time in any case. He never returned home. His children did their best to find him, but were unsuccessful. They hired a private investigator, who confirmed William sailed to the USA, but could not trace him further. Their snowy-haired, bushy-bearded father was lost to them. 

Then, in 1882 a rather remarkable man man emigrated to the United Kingdom. Born in Sangerville, Maine in 1840, Hiram Maxim was quite the up and coming engineer. He created an asthma inhaler, a mouse trap, a curling iron for one’s hair, and steam pumps. He had a disputed claim to having really invented the electric light bulb. Years later, but before the Wright Brothers’ first flight in Kittyhawk, a prototype aeroplane he was working on broke free of it’s tethers and flew – though it’s a stretch to say it was a controlled flight. In 1885, he invented the world’s first automatic machine gun – the Maxim gun. One day Cantelo’s sons were reading the morning newspaper when an article on Maxim jumped out at them. “That’s father” one said, astonished at the photo of the snowy-haired, bushy-bearded man. 

What’s more, that gun of his – that infernal machine – was the spitting image of Cantelo’s weapon. 

The young men pursued Maxim in an effort to prove his ‘true’ identity. Maxim refused to give them the time of day. This culminated in an attempted ambush at Waterloo station in 1885 when the boys rushed towards him yelling ‘father’. Maxim hurriedly boarded his train. 

There is little to no doubt Cantelo and Maxim were different people. In a world full of snowy-haired, bushy-bearded people, and few cameras, both men did have some photos to compare one another. To my eyes the men look nothing alike, though Cantelo could almost be latter-day, bearded Roger Taylor of Queen in a ‘famous people are all ageless vampires’ meme. There is copious paperwork proving Maxim existed. The man also wrote an autobiography which discusses his earlier life in detail, which led to reporters speaking with people who knew him as a young man. 

What is interesting, perhaps, is the two men almost certainly met. Maxim was in Southampton in the 1870s. He viewed Cantelo’s boat propellers. Cantelo, it was said, was concerned Maxim would steal ideas from him. Also of interest, Maxim knew one thing the Cantelo children didn’t. While he was making guns and planes in the United Kingdom, a man claiming to be Maxim was travelling the USA – trying to sell a gun suspiciously like his Maxim gun to anyone who would see him. Was this William? One tiny piece of evidence located by a web sleuth in our time suggests it could be. The man may have had prior form – A William Cantelo, also of Southampton, faced charges of attempting to pass off counterfeit promissory notes in the mid 1870s. 

So, if Cantelo wasn’t Maxim, and murdered for his gun (a possibility) did he spend the rest of his life travelling the United States perpetrating various confidence tricks? If so we may get a glimpse of what his life might have been like much later in the year when we pick up the story of several other Infernal Machines, and one of history’s most dastardly scoundrels – A mysterious man known to friends as ‘Zed Zed’. 

The Georgia Guidestones

Edit: 8 July 2022 – Hi there I can see a lot of traffic coming to my blog/podcast looking for this post at the moment. The following piece was originally written, on the fly over a couple of hours in late November 2020. It’s not as in depth as I’d like it to be but I think it does cover what the Guidestones were.

Future readers, I bumped this back up the top of the feed in the wake of the unwarranted destruction of this fascinating structure, vandalised at a time when the American right wing was going through a Christian fundamentalist, and in some cases outright fascist phase. A blockhead named Kandiss Taylor had run to become Republican challenger for Governor in Georgia, promising to remove the Guidestones. A few days after she failed in her bid, some vandal attempted to blow them up, necessitating their removal.

Recent news reports about mysterious monoliths appearing as if out of nowhere, first in Utah, then in Piatra Neamt, Romania, then on a mountain in California has me thinking about an older tale in 2020 …. and of course 2001 A Space Odyssey, how do you not think A Space Odyssey with those things? The following tale is set in Georgia, USA – which of course has been on the minds of many folk of late too – for completely different reasons.

In July 1979 a man described in all the literature only as elegant and grey haired, wearing an expensive suit, walked into the offices of the Elberton granite finishing company, in Elbert County, Georgia. Meeting with company president Joe Fendley, he introduced himself as a representative of a “small group of loyal Americans” who wished to commission a remarkable monument. Said monument would be erected in the county, for the use – perhaps even the salvation of future generations. The man gave his name as R.C. Christian, possibly a bastardization of Rosicrucian – a secret society who claimed to hold all manner of occult and restricted knowledge, who almost certainly never existed in 1614 when pamphlets about them first circulated throughout Western Europe. Rosicrucian sects, however, soon willed themselves into being – grifters couldn’t pass up on that grift, seekers couldn’t pass up occult and esoteric knowledge. Sects exist to this day. Up front I should say I see little of their philosophy in the following tale.

Why did this group of R.C Christian, whoever they were, want to build their monument in Elbert County? According to Mr Christian, because their granite was amongst the best in the world.

The mysterious Mr Christian explained to Fendley his group had planned this monument for 20 years, and intended it – a set of guide stones with more than a passing resemblance to England’s Stonehenge – to be a guide to a future, post apocalyptic society. Living in the nuclear shadow of the Cold War era, where theories of mutually assured destruction could go out the window over a misunderstanding, an errant spy plane, or even a flock of geese – this may not have seemed completely mad. To me it still doesn’t entirely. The guide stones would be set up as a virtual Swiss army knife for the survivors of Elbert County. They would act as sundial, astrological calendar, compass, a kind of Rosetta Stone, and a set of moral instructions to future generations. It went without saying of course they must be built strong enough to withstand a catastrophic event.
To stand almost twice as high as the slabs in Stonehenge, and containing over 250,000 lbs of granite, this project presented quite the payday for Joe Fendley – however he was convinced R.C Christian must be some kind of nut. Apprehensive, Fendley quoted a price several times higher than he would otherwise have quoted. The stones required were several times larger than anything they had hewn before. There was so much technical knowledge required in this, and such precision they would, needs must, call on several experts. All kinds of special equipment would have to be brought in from out of state. Without batting an eyelid Christian agreed, and the two men shook on the deal.

R.C Christian then left, on Joe Fendley’s recommendation to meet Granite City Bank president Wyatt Martin – a banker he could trust to keep his details confidential. As it turns out, Wyatt is the only person in this tale who came to know the identity of Mr Christian. To date he has kept his word. I presume he is still alive, though would now be 90 years old. Martin confirmed to Fendley, Christian had the money to complete the project, and set up a labyrinthine payment system to obscure the client’s identity.

By October, Christian had bought five acres of land to build the guidestones on, and construction began. R.C. Christian stayed incognito during the process, but kept tabs on the build via numerous phone calls, letters and the occasional meeting with Mr Martin. Martin commented the letters came from different parts of the country every time, and were never postmarked from the same place twice. Christian often called from an airport lounge. The two men did, however, dine on several occasions, and kept in touch till a few days shy of September 11th 2001. Martin assumed Christian, now appearing in his 80s, had simply passed on.

Work started on the monument in late 1979, concluding March 22nd 1980. The flurry of work was met by a flurry of vocal concern the Devil had come down to Georgia and was setting up shop, accusations Fendley and Martin had concocted the whole scheme as a publicity stunt (both men took lie detector tests to prove otherwise), and an invasion of witches, who appropriated the site for their own purposes – and could be heard chanting as the company worked.

On completion it was a sight to behold. Six giant granite slabs stood a little over 16 feet high, and six feet wide, with a large capstone keeping them together. Slots in the edifice would mark out summer and winter solstices via the first beams of daylight. Another slot would beam the midday sun to a spot on a calendar, marking out the date. A modern day Decalogue, a ten commandments, was written out on different panels in English, Spanish, Swahili, Hindi, Hebrew, Arabic, Chinese and Russian, as well as four ancient languages – Babylonian, Classical Greek, Sanskrit and Egyptian hieroglyphs.
A short distance away from the monument proper, an explanatory tablet is laid in the ground. It is believed to have a time capsule buried beneath it, to be opened at an, as yet, undisclosed time. It bears a message which immediately brings forth Thomas Paine and the founding fathers.
“Let these be guidestones to an Age of Reason”

The ten commandments, or guidelines are as follows. They are fascinating, and disturbing in equal measure.

• Maintain humanity under 500,000,000 in perpetual balance with nature.
• Guide reproduction wisely — improving fitness and diversity.
• Unite humanity with a living new language.
• Rule passion — faith — tradition — and all things with tempered reason.
• Protect people and nations with fair laws and just courts.
• Let all nations rule internally resolving external disputes in a world court.
• Avoid petty laws and useless officials.
• Balance personal rights with social duties.
• Prize truth — beauty — love — seeking harmony with the infinite.
• Be not a cancer on the earth — Leave room for nature — Leave room for nature.

One cannot miss the eugenicist leanings of the first two guidelines. However one envisions a post-apocalyptic world population, it is hard not to presume we would build up again – and soon be overloading the planet through our numbers. One and two combined make it clear a culling of those of perceived lesser value would be called for. The call for diversity may suggest the author didn’t view the world through a white supremacist lens, perhaps an ableist or LGBTQI+ phobic one? Of course this may not have been the case – the US declaration of independence for example stated all men are born equal, yet contains the signatures of several slaveholders. Further clarification is needed.

Three and four call to dismiss many of the traditions of old, and to start anew. Build a new lingua franca, and dismiss many of the old ideas which have been holding society back. There are strains of secular humanism in this – something reflected in ideologies from LaVeyan Satanism, to a number of philosophers of the Age of Reason. Five and six have been taken as a call for a new world order – a one world government trope popular in many anti-Semitic conspiracy theories to this day. You cannot help recognize this may have reflected the world of 1980. In an effort to avoid further wars between France and Germany as much as to enrich the region, much of Western Europe had formed a European common market – and would soon forge a formal European Union of 28 nations via the Maastricht Treaty of 1993. The United Nations, similarly was meant to oversee the interests of all nations. These were two of many treaties and agreements moving the world towards something altogether more unified and interdependent. Besides economic reasons to do so, it was believed such arrangements made a third world war less likely.
7 and 8 don’t seem terribly out of place with a small c conservative, either then, or now.

Nine suggests a believer in deism – a belief in a higher power in the universe, but one which does not meddle, and is utterly disinterested in our moral lives. Again this suggests an author familiar with the writings of the founding fathers – many of whom expressed deist beliefs in their letters. Ten, clearly reflects environmentalism. It’s all quite a philosophical hodgepodge.

As one could imagine, such a list drew criticism from across the board. Alt right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones had the monument pegged as ‘Satanic’. After a coven of witches adopted the site, numerous Christian groups claimed much the same. In 1981 a UFO magazine called UFO Report claimed the true purpose of the monument would be revealed in 30 years’ time.

Mark Dice – a conservative pundit now more famous for demanding Starbucks put a T shirt on the topless siren on their logo, and for picking a fight with Korean pop groups – demanded the guidestones be “Smashed into a million pieces”, claiming they are proof of a New World Order in vitro. The Georgia Guidestones have been defaced a number of times by anti NWO protesters.

Which leads us to the question, who was R.C. Christian?



A few names have been put forward from the legendary plane hijacker ‘D.B. Cooper’, to an Iowa doctor named Herbert Kersten. A documentary that appeared online in 2015 indicates, at the very least, Kersten – whose 2005 obituary states he was a learned man and an environmentalist – at the very least owned an address Wyatt Martin mailed to. One name often suggested is television mogul Ted Turner. Turner was then living in neighbouring Atlanta, but had grown up in Savannah Georgia. He started his working life managing his father’s billboard company out of Macon, Georgia. At various points in his life he has expressed all points in the 10 guidelines. He has given to various causes, including $1 Billion to the United Nations, and $125 Million to his own foundation, concerned with ways of curbing population growth. He is also clearly concerned with end times, having a programme pre-prepared to announce the end of the world – in a vault – awaiting the announcement to press it’s all over.

As of the day of writing, neither the creator of the monoliths, or Georgia Guidestones has come forward.

The Childe of Hale – a Short Tale

The following is just a quick blog post I threw together this morning, needing something for the week – and having recently tied of a bunch of standby posts to planned podcast episodes for the 2023 season. 

In 1617 Gilbert Ireland, Sheriff of Lancashire, was presented before King James I of England. He’d made the journey south for a rather auspicious occasion. A loyal servant of the crown, Ireland – a wealthy landowner – was due to be knighted. One imagines him being ushered in to meet his majesty. At the main doors, a giant porter waved him and the other knights through – one imagines to a hushed sense of awe from the guests. The ceremony proceeded as one might expect – one after another those honoured took a knee, were tapped on the shoulder by the sword-wielding monarch, and were invited to ‘arise sir’. 

At some time that day it is thought Ireland sidled up the King and said something to the effect of “Jim, you think your porter’s a big man – you should check out my bodyguard back home. He’s head and shoulders above your boy. Strong as an ox too!” King James, clearly was intrigued.

Growing up in New Zealand as I did, but to parents from this region (myself born in a village called Eastham Village, across the Wirral from Liverpool – my father also from Eastham Village, my mother from Birkenhead) as a youngster I heard the tale of this big man, whose portrait hung in Speke Hall – home of the Ireland family. His name was John Middleton – though he came to be known as the Childe of Hale. 

Born in 1578, one legend has it the young John Middleton was an average kid. Of average size, intelligence and talents, he longed to be something more. The story I was told is one night he lay down beside the Humber Estuary between two lines he’d etched in the dirt. ‘God willing, in the morning I will be as tall as these lines are long’ he stated, before drifting off to sleep. I couldn’t find an origin for this tale, but did find a similar story from the diary of an 18th century traveller, stopping one night at Hale. Locals there claimed John did go to bed one night, wishing to be ‘the greatest man in England’. The next morning he woke up a giant. While clearly more than a little hagiographic – it does suggest at some stage he had an abnormally rapid growth spurt. 

Almost certainly true, the legend he was so tall, he slept with his feet hanging out the window of the cottage he rented off Gilbert Ireland. There was just one spot in his home where the Childe could stand upright – something tourists can confirm to this day. Not only is the thatched cottage still in existence, you can rent it out for a long weekend for £650 at time of writing. 

Not a lot can be said of John Middleton’s life. I know a ‘modern descendant’ of his was still living in his cottage in the 19th century, who himself was ‘well over six feet tall’. I know no specifics of his immediate family. The collection of parish records of all births, deaths and marriages was mandated in England in 1538, so that information should be available to anyone who cares to dig – had it survived long enough to be digitised. At some point in his life, his landlord took him on as a bodyguard. Given Ireland was employed as sheriff, which required him to collect rents, taxes, fines, to execute writs, guard prisoners and, on occasion, to gather juries and run a county court – he probably had his fair share of adventures. The one we do know of was the time King James I called Middleton and Ireland down to London in 1620. 

I cannot say if he did in fact tower over James’ giant porter, though one imagines he did – The Childe definitely left an impact on the king. He wrestled the King’s champion wrestler, easily beating the man – breaking the wrestler’s thumb in the exchange. King James was so impressed, he awarded The Childe of Hale a £20 cash prize – which according to one online calculator was equivalent to an average 400 days wages for a skilled tradesman, and could have bought the Childe either two horses, ten cattle, 368 kilograms of wool or eleven quarters of wheat (I presume the calculator means the old definition of quarter i.e. a quarter of an imperial ton). 

On the way home, his companions either swindled him out of the entire sum, or outright robbed it off of him. Returning home destitute, John Middleton died three years later. 

The infamous diarist Samuel Pepys recalls a trip through Hale in his diaries. He was shown a life sized sketch of Middleton’s hand. He claimed “…from the corpus to the end of his middle finger was seventeen inches long. His palm 8 inches and 1/2 broad”. His grave was unearthed in 1768 by a schoolmaster and parish clerk noted as a ‘Mr Bushell’. He measured Middleton’s bones, estimating his height at 9.3”(2.82 metres). Bushell claimed his thigh bones alone were as long as an average man’s leg from hip to foot. If he were, in fact this tall, he would have been ten centimetres taller than the officially recognised tallest man in history, Alton Illinois’ Robert Wadlow – who stood at slightly over 8.11” at the time of his untimely death. 

Robert Wadlow, the officially recognized tallest man in history.

Sketches of both his hands, four portraits and a walking stick 5 feet 2 1/2 inches high remain as testament to the big man. A gravestone marks his resting place stating “Here Lyeth the Bodie of John Middleton, The Childe Nine Feet Three”. Modern day experts estimate his height at closer to 7.9”, still a gargantuan figure by anyone’s measurement.         

Bearcat

Hey all I’m ‘taking a break’ for a month – well, more accurately going into writing and recording mode for a month. On the podcasts front I’m set to release two ‘from the vaults’ episodes – The Bagradas Dragon (blogged last year) and a heavily edited Carrington Event (from back in 2019 on the blog)… as well as a couple more re-uploaded versions of those early podcast episodes. 

I also have a couple of blog posts set to drop over this break. Like this post, all will be a little out of my usual wheelhouse. 

 Today’s tale picks up in the middle of the squared circle, Madison Square Garden – The date January 23rd 1984. Hossein Khosrow Ali Vaziri, a stockily built Iranian, Greco-Roman wrestler with an Olympic pedigree (both as competitor and coach) was knocking the living daylights out of Terry Bollea; a large, muscular man who once played bass guitar in a bar band. Perhaps unsurprisingly Hossein is dominating, sitting on top of a splayed out Bollea’s back in a submission move known as ‘The Camel Clutch’. Just 28 days prior he’d done the same to long time champion Bob Backlund, winning the World Championship belt. 26,292 people in attendance looked on in horror, as the heel looked set to take out another hero – a ‘face’ in backstage parlance.

Then Terry Bollea did what countless other professional wrestlers hadn’t before. He stood up, breaking the Camel Clutch. Hulking up with the other man still clinging to his back, he rallied, pounding Hossein into the turnbuckle. Bollea leapt over the supine man, crossing the ring and ricocheting back off the ropes before going airborne. Landing his signature ‘Atomic Leg-drop’, he went for the pin. One- two- three, and Terry Bollea, known to people everywhere as Hulk Hogan was crowned WWF champion. An ecstatic crowd – most of whom, one presumes, still believed Professional Wrestling to be real, were on their feet as The Hulkster left the arena victorious. His opponent, The Iron Sheik, skulked off, ignominiously defeated.

This isn’t to say some people weren’t aware Pro Wrestling was performance art – Rumours swirled around wrestling’s authenticity as early as 1934, when a match at Wrigley Field was advertised as a ‘shoot match’ – a bona fide punch up (as opposed to all the other ‘fake’ matches on the bill). Wrestling organisations did generally do their best to dispel these rumours however. Case in point, in December 1984, a wrestler named David ‘Dr D’ Schultz slapped 20/20 reporter John Stossel into the middle of next week, for implying wrestling was less than genuine. Whether ordered by WWF owner Vince McMahon or not, there was nothing fake in the way Dr D manhandled Stossel. He left Stossel with a ringing in his ears that lasted eight weeks. Nothing Kayfabe either about the $280,000 settlement to Stossel’s subsequent lawsuit. This is not about Dr D, the 1987 incident when the aforementioned Iron Sheik was pulled over by a state trooper with cocaine – and more shockingly, arch foe Hacksaw Jim Duggan in his car – or the time in 1989 when Vince McMahon gave evidence to politicians that wrestling was indeed acted more than competed – why pay additional taxes for hosting sporting events if you can avoid it? This is about the rumour which persists about this match, and another, earlier wrestler. 

Hulk Hogan v Iron Sheik was a choreographed move to replace an old-school favourite. Bob Backlund was the title holder and as such the face of the company, for in excess of 2,100 days – but he was not the kind of telegenic you need when the company owner wants to take over the world. There was just something Everyman-ish about Bob Backlund. Hulk Hogan, an alleged 6.7” musclebound superhero who ‘trained, said his prayers and took his vitamins’, was just the guy to helm the company under such circumstances. He could sell out arenas. Kids would love him. He was extremely merchandisable. 

At this time faces battled heels so Backlund needed to lose to Sheik so Hulk could take the belt and hold on to his newly acquired ‘face’ status. 

There’s a tale Verne Gagne, a longtime friend of the Iron Sheik (he’d given him a start in the business, as well as his name and gimmick) and rival wrestling promotion owner approached the Iron Sheik before the match. Legend has it Gagne offered the Sheik $100,000 to not just win the match, but break Hogan’s leg – thus stalling the upward trajectory of the WWF. 

Needless to say the Iron Sheik, a legitimate tough guy, could have beaten Hogan and taken the payday. He quite possibly could have twisted him into a human pretzel, breaking one appendage or other. He didn’t. One only presumes he was professional, and loyal to whoever was paying him – that is IF this conversation did in fact occur. Verne’s son Greg for one denies it ever happened. For now let’s presume it happened, it makes a useful plot device. What would’ve happened if the Iron Sheik disobeyed the McMahons, took the money, and decided he’d keep the title? The following compares apples to oranges somewhat (given the way WWE soon took off with Hogan as a figurehead), but it signals one way the McMahons might have solved the problem of a rogue champion. 

Edward ‘Bearcat’ Wright was more than a transitional wrestling champion, he was also the first African American to hold a world wrestling title belt. Born in 1932, Ed was the son of Ed ‘Bearcat’ Wright Senior – a professional boxer who, though never a world champion, did face a handful of top pugilists such as ‘Ambling Alp’ Primo Carnera, Max Baer and an aging Jack Dempsey. Edward jr, a tough, rangey, 6.6” tried his hand as a pro boxer – winning all eight of his matches before turning to professional wrestling in 1959. 

Bearcat was wrestling on the cusp of a change in pro wrestling. Prior to him black wrestlers fought other black wrestlers, white wrestlers wrestled whites, and never the twain shall meet. Jim Crow era segregation was still very much a thing. Rock and roll shows featuring black and white musicians together on the bill, playing to mixed crowds often ended in riots. As blogged some time back, Jesse Belvin, perhaps the greatest rock and roller you’ve never heard of may have died as a result of a show he played in Arkansas in 1960. Performing art or fighting art, Bearcat and others like Bobo Brazil, who fought white wrestlers, were groundbreaking. There were occasions where the old rules applied, such as Gary, Indiana. Bearcat broke ground by refusing to wrestle another black wrestler that night. Bearcat and Bobo both got massively over with the crowds. In other words crowds loved them. It was unsurprising both men were soon packaged as Faces. 

Bearcat soon found himself wearing the world championship belt, first in 1961, beating Killer Kowalski for the Big Time Pro Wrestling title. The title of interest to us, however, belonged to  Worldwide Wrestling Associates (WWA), a Hollywood based organisation then run by the LeBell brothers. 

Though professional wrestling is pre-determined (as opposed to outright fake, wrestlers often do take heavy bumps in the ring), it can often hold an odd, Coney Island mirror up to society. Because of this I suspect the World title match between Bearcat and Classy Freddie Blassie, on August 23rd 1963, was an attempt to cash in on the upcoming March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The top civil rights leaders marched with at least a quarter of a million supporters on the capital to demand the many civil and economic rights still denied them. Though organised by the ‘big six’ most of us remember best one particular leader. Dr Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech was then, still is breathtaking. At a time when many would marvel at Dr Kings eloquence, the WWA could smugly claim – you wanna see equality? Bearcat is our World champion.
Bearcat and Blassie did face off five days before the march, and Bearcat did get the better of Blassie – a well hated heel who in real life was so hated he was stabbed on 21 occasions by fans as he entered the ring; was once doused by an acid thrower; and lost vision in an eye after getting struck in the face by a hard-boiled egg. I can’t imagine the fans were anything but ecstatic at the win. 

Soon after the March on Washington, the WWA approached Bearcat to tell him his reign was set to be a short one. He was to drop the belt to another face named Edouard Carpentier – a stocky white man known as ‘The Flying Frenchman’. It was at this point Bearcat went on a very real winning streak, pinning all who stepped up against him. While none of the wrestlers WWA wanted to give the belt to stood a chance against Bearcat in a real fight, the organisation had one card yet to play. 

The LeBell brothers who ran the WWA included one ‘Judo’ Gene LeBell. LeBell was a former champion judoka, stunt man and genuinely extremely tough individual. As a pro wrestler he was a known shooter – a guy who could genuinely beat someone up in the wrestling ring. Legends around the man state on the set of the TV show The Green Hornet, LeBell beat Bruce Lee in a tussle – carrying him across the set in a fireman’s carry. His 1991 stoush with Steven Seagal on the set of the film Out for Justice led to LeBell (allegedly) choking the Aikido master out, making Seagal lose control of his bowels. Just days before a planned match between Bearcat and Classy Freddie Blassie, LeBell was in the ring to fight a very real boxer vs martial artist match against a fighter named Milo Savage. LeBell choked Savage into unconsciousness. 

Now the Savage match may have been an inspiration for the LeBells’ – Gene was supposed to face off against a boxer named Jim Beck, who had been bad-mouthing the Asian martial arts. At the last minute, he pulled a switcheroo, the higher ranked Savage stepping up unexpectedly. 

So, on December 13th 1963 Edward Bearcat Wright made his way to the arena in the expectation he would yet again face off against Classy Freddie Blassie, ignore all instructions, and pin the man in the middle of the ring. Instead he found himself facing off against a shadowy figure in a black mask. 

“Gene… is that you?” I imagine him asking, rather cautiously. Sensing something bad was about to happen, Bearcat exited the squared circle, refusing to re-enter. After being counted out, he was stripped of the title, which was subsequently passed to Flying Frenchman Carpentier. 

I’d like to be team Bearcat, and report this did not adversely affect his career – but of course it did. He found his future options restricted, and would – like many pro wrestlers sadly do – pass on young, at just fifty years of age. If it is of any consolation whatsoever he was inducted into the WWE hall of fame in 2017.   

The Old Man of The Mountain

Hey all this is the third and final instalment on the Assassins. If you’re coming to this first, part one is here – part two here

The Old Man of The Mountain Tales of History and Imagination


I want to start this episode with a confession – when I say the Mongols brought our tale of the Persian Assassins to an end, in a sense they absolutely did. After the Mongols established the Ilkhanate, the Assassins ceased to be a powerful and shadowy force in the area. However the Cult of Hassan-i Sabbah survived – just quietly living their lives in the background. When Western academics arrived in Northern Persia in the 1810s they found the cult still in existence, centuries on from their last killings. In 1818 a young man named Hasan Ali Shah, who claimed ancestry back to the Prophet Muhammad and his wife Fatima was the sect’s leader. The Shah of Iran had recently granted him the title the Aga Khan. 

In 1838, rather unusually for Assassins at this stage, he led a failed revolt against the Shah and had to flee to Bombay, India. His story is convoluted – he gets involved on the British side of the first Anglo-Afghan war among other awful incidents. What is pertinent to this story however is while in India the Aga Khan tried to tax the Indian Ismaili – who flat out refused to pay him a rupee. They acknowledged their religion had come from his organisation, but they had long separated from the Persian Assassins, and owed him nothing. When this dispute came before the British run courts in the second half of the nineteenth century it was a shock to Western world in general the Assassins survived the Mongol hordes, and had spread so far. 

Speaking of spreading outside their boundaries – The first Ismaili missionaries crossed into Syria in Hassan-i Sabbah’s time – from the 1090s. Their experience was quite different from the Persians. 

For one, they found both a wide range of older beliefs still in existence, in the many isolated villages – this country was a potential goldmine for them. The first complication was the country was in the middle of a conflict with several armies of Turkish invaders. These Turks first come in from lands East of the Oxus river around 1064, and being very new recruits to Islam, held both very narrow and very ardent views on the religion. This marked them out as dangerous foes to the unorthodox Ismaili. By the mid 1090s the earlier, Seljuk rulers were fragmented. Their Sultan, a man named Tutush I, was killed in battle in 1095, and two of his sons formed rival states. 

The second complication was the European crusaders. The reasons the Europeans invaded are slightly more complex than my following explanation, but the major impetus was an escalation in fighting between the Byzantine Empire – the large, thriving empire in modern day Turkey which was once the Eastern wing of the Roman Empire, and the Seljuks. Both Turks and Seljuks were recent converts to Islam who arrived in the region from Transoxiana. In 1071 the Byzantines and Seljuks fought at the Battle of Manzikert. The Byzantines lost badly to the Seljuks. The far more agile Seljuk archers rode at them in waves, hitting then running till the Byzantine army wore down. One legend from this battle tells of a group in the centre of the battlefield, mostly comprised of  the elite Varangian Guard, were one of the last to fall. One bloodied, mud-caked man was captured and brought before Alp Arslan, the Seljuk leader. 

A Turkish statue of Alp Arslan

It turned out the man was Byzantine emperor Romanos IV. Alp Arslan threw the emperor to the ground, putting his boot on the man’s neck. 

“What would you do if I were brought to you as a prisoner?” He asked. 

Romanos replied he might kill the warlord, or perhaps march him through the streets of Constantinople for his subjects to jeer at.

Arslan replied his punishment would be considerably worse – he’d forgive the emperor and send him home. 

He, of course ransomed the Emperor back to the Byzantines for a crippling sum of money – you get nothing for free. When Romanos was returned, he discovered just how right Arslan was. An angry junta in the court quickly deposed Romanos, blinded him and sent him off to live the rest of his life in a monastery. 

His successor (one removed), Alexios Komnenos was spooked enough by the rapid Seljuk encroachment on their land, he wrote to the Pope to ask for help. In 1095 Pope Urban II kicked off the first of the crusades to the Holy Land. By 1097 the soldiers of the First Crusade had beaten the Seljuks at Nicaea, then swept clean through the Levant – establishing four Christian city states – Edessa, Antioch, Tripoli and Jerusalem. While this led to utter disarray among various Turkic, Shi’a and Sunni groups, a large number of Syrian locals gravitated towards the Ismaili – who they saw as their best hope against the invaders.

Also quite different, the Ismaili were largely performing without a safety net until 1131. It took them close to half a century to capture a mountain fortress, and were far more vulnerable to counter-attack than their Persian counterparts. 

But oh did they assassinate. 

Take for example the 1st May 1103 killing of Janah al-Dawla, ruler of Homs. A group of assassins ambushed him while praying in the mosque. A massive brawl broke out in which several of the ruler’s bodyguards and the assassins were stabbed to death. Or the attack on the Citadel of Afamiya. At the time the fortress was occupied by a warlord named Khalaf ibn Mula’ib. One day in 1106 six men showed up at the entrance with a horse, Frankish shield and armour. They claimed they had come across a crusader knight on their travels and murdered him. They were now here to pay tribute to the warlord, to gift him these belongings. They were welcomed in. In the following days they murdered the warlord and temporarily took over the citadel. As with many attempts to hold down a fortress in these early days, they were outnumbered and eventually lost the fortress. 

Another notable assassination – In 1113 the Persians sent the emir of Mosul to Syria with an army. They were there to fight against the Crusaders. The Assassins finished the emir off with their usual efficiency. Several other murders and attempts to secure a castle continued, at one point a ruler even knocking down an old castle to stop them from taking it. In 1124 the sect were successfully expelled from Aleppo. They continued on, in the shadows. In 1126, they killed a governor of Mosul. There is a story from that particular murder that a gang of eight Assassins carried out the deed. Seven were killed on the spot – and, unusually – one escaped. Days later that Assassin returned to his home village to find his hometown celebrating the kill – and him, as a martyr. His overjoyed grandmother was suddenly ashen at his return. Sinking into a deep depression she disowned the young man. 

In 1129 the Assassins successfully knifed another vizier, this time in Damascus – but this time a militia rose up, slaughtering thousands of Syrian Ismaili in retaliation. By 1131, however, they finally got a couple of toeholds by way of fortresses in the Harim mountains. While the Assassins were not in open conflict with the Crusaders – some Muslim writers even suggested the two forces were in allegiance with one another – they did profit from Crusaders being driven out of a handful of fortresses by the Turks. As soon as no one was looking, they swooped in. They spent the next two decades consolidating their power in the mountain regions. 

While one Assassin leader did ally with a Crusader, Raymond of Antioch, there were only two assassinations from this time. A revenge attack on a Muslim leader for the massacre of 1129, and in 1151 the murder of a Crusader, Count Raymond of Tripoli. 

In 1162, Rashid al-Din, a man later known as The Old Man of the Mountain, arrived in Syria via Alamut Castle. Just a young man of around 30, he was an up and coming star in the organisation. He was the son of a wealthy family from Basra who had trained in alchemy, and had been radicalised into the sect. The Hasan who briefly convinced the Persian Ismaili the end of the world was coming, so it’s fine to pray facing away from Mecca, with a glass of wine and minstrels serenading you, sent him. Rashid was in charge when Hasan ordered the sect to renounce Islamic law. Though Syrian records are hazy, it appears he fell in line with Persia on this. 

In these years the ruler of Aleppo sent an army after the Ismaili, who withstood the attack. It is from around this time that a legend arose of a garden of earthly delights behind their fortifications – where young men are brainwashed into martyrdom. Following this attack, Rashid put a lot of time and effort into making all their fortresses unbreakable – while building new castles throughout the mountains. Rashid al-Din became such a well loved, and capable leader that Assassins were actually sent from Alamut Castle to murder him, for fear he would usurp their authority. 

In the meantime, much of the Islamic Near East was coalescing behind a Sunni Kurdish general who came to be known as Saladin. He would rise from general to Sultan of a sprawling empire which took in parts of North Africa, Mesopotamia, Syria, Egypt and Yemen. Of his many victories, he led an army of 40,000 Muslims against a Crusader army of a similar size at the Battle of Hattin (1187). The Crusader army was exterminated to all but a handful of men; while Saladin’s forces lost but a handful of archers. This is to say the man was a respected leader and a more than formidable general. In a sense it was inevitable he would come into conflict with the Assassins. 

In 1181, Saladin wrote to the caliph of Mosul. He accused the caliph of underhanded behaviour in using Assassin forces against the Crusaders. His concern was not one iota for the Crusaders, but the rest of Islam as he feared the caliph was planning an attack on his empire. This was probably in truth a pretence to attack Mosul and bring the city under his sway. It also revealed a hidden animosity towards the cult. His animosity was not unfounded. 

In December 1174, while Saladin’s army was besieging the city of Aleppo, a letter was sent from the city to The Old Man of the Mountain. If they assassinated Saladin, the ruler of Aleppo would shower land and money down upon them. Soon after, a team of assassins breached Saladin’s camp and may have gotten away with the murder but for an emir who recognised the men. The Assassins struck down the emir, getting into a fight where many people, including themselves, were stabbed to death. Saladin survived the attempt on his life. Assassins tried again on 22nd May 1176. In this case a group of assassins, disguised as soldiers, got to the General – stabbing him several times. Saladin was wearing armour under his clothes and only received a handful of minor cuts. Several men were killed, however, while subduing the killers. 

These assaults unnerved the General, who made it a point of never letting someone he did not personally know, come within striking distance of him ever again. 

Saladin did lead an army against the Assassins in 1176, but had to call off the siege, due to an attack by Frankish crusaders elsewhere. After this point, for all his rhetoric, Saladin chose to tolerate the Assassins. 

There is a story which may explain this sudden tolerance. The tale has it Saladin also sent a letter to the Old Man of the Mountain, only to receive one in return. Saladin received the messenger, having him checked for knives. The messenger then stated he was to give the message to Saladin alone. The Sultan waived away most of his entourage except for two well-trusted guards, stating “Give your message”. 

“I have been ordered to deliver it only in private” the messenger insisted. 

The Sultan doubled down, stating if he wished, he should deliver Rashid al-Din’s reply, otherwise leave. 

“I regard these men as my own sons” he stated of his bodyguards. 

The messenger turned to the guards, and asked “If I ordered you in the name of my master to kill this Sultan, would you do so?” Both men drew their swords, replying in the affirmative. 

The messenger left, alongside the two bodyguards.   

Of course in the following years, assassinations of powerful rulers continued in Syria, especially the powers that be in Aleppo. 

And that time they killed a crusader king – The Marquis Conrad of Montferrat, King of Jerusalem, mentioned in part one of this series. Two Assassins disguised themselves as Christian monks, became friendly with the Bishop, and from there the King – and just bided their time till the opportunity presented itself, on 28th April 1192. Contrary to popular legend it appears – if Saladin’s chroniclers are to go by – both Assassins were captured alive, and under questioning broke, admitting they committed the murder on behalf of England’s King Richard the Lionheart. He wanted his nephew and protege Henry II of Champagne on the throne. As it turned out he did get his way, when Henry married Conrad’s widow and took the position. Other Islamic historians have claimed at this stage Saladin was friendly with The Assassins – and that he ordered the murder. Whatever the case, the assassination cleared Conrad, the most belligerent of the crusaders, off the battlefield. This left an opening for Richard and Saladin to sign a peace treaty soon after. This treaty recognised the lands of the Assassins – henceforth not to be attacked by either side. 

And this was how the Assassins of Syria achieved respectability – at least until the Mamluks disbanded them. 

There is one final tale I wish to tell, in this rather episodic Tale of History and Imagination. 

The Kipchaks were a tribe of nomadic Steppe people, coming from somewhere close to the Mongols. In the 1220s they got on the bad side of the Mongols, then fled to Eastern Europe hoping to find sanctuary. Some rulers, like King Bela IV of Hungary, did take in Kipchaks, and faced off against the Mongol hordes as a consequence. One can imagine how those defences played out against the near unstoppable power of a Mongol army. One tribe known as the Barli fled to Bulgaria. The Mongols pursued, retrieving thousands of Kipchaks, then selling them through the Crimean slave markets. In that haul, a giant, broad-faced young man we would come to know as Baybars.   

Baybars, then around 24 years of age, passed to the household of a powerful Egyptian. In 1247, his master got on the wrong side of the Egyptian Sultan, who had the master executed. He personally confiscated all his belongings, including his gigantic slave. In 1254, this largely Steppe born slave population – Mamluks by their terminology – gained freedom when given small state. They then proceeded to overthrow the Egyptian Sultan. Baybars took on the name we known him by now – meaning Great Panther, and the leadership of the nation. Mamluks would still be in charge of Egypt in the late 1790s when Napoleon Bonaparte landed there. 

The Mamluks came into conflict with the Assassins in the 1260s, after having taken control of Syria, and done the near impossible – They defeated the Mongols in battle at Ain Jalut in September that year. The Assassins accepted their authority and began paying a cash tribute to them. Baybars decided, however, they could not be allowed their independence. He saw them as a dangerous complication in his plan to unite the Near East, and eject the Mongols and Crusaders. In 1270 he deposed the Assassin chief, Najm al-Din, putting one of his own men in charge of the sect. Of course the sect sent Assassins to kill the Sultan. in 1271 two men tried, and failed, and were arrested. Najm al Din and his son Shams al-Din were arrested and taken to Cairo where the Sultan could keep a closer eye on them. The Assassins – no longer independent – continued for some years in the service of Baybars and his successors. Several high ranking crusaders were stabbed to death by unobtrusive men, who had simply blended into their courtly surroundings – till unexpectedly, clinically, they struck. 

By the Thirteenth Century the assassinations ended, and the Assassins sect faded into obscurity. 

Hey readers, I’m taking a month to prepare the next run of episodes – we’re not likely to hit anything quite this episodic again till the end of the year – when I hope to cover one of the most wicked individuals of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I’ve got a couple of well…. Odd blog posts to drop in the following month, quite frankly. Anyone up for some magic talismans and pro wrestling tales in June? 

Listeners, I’ve got a couple of ‘from the vaults’ blog posts I’ve recorded. 

In July we’ll jump into some tales – blog and podcast alike – of ghosts, mysterious disappearances, volley guns, pirates, range wars, man eaters and – well, we’ll come to those Emus. Congratulations Australia, I approve of your new Prime Minister. 

The Mongols are Coming!

Hi there this is part two of what will probably be a three part tale. If you haven’t checked out The Cult of Hassan-i Sabbah first, click here. 

The Mongols are Coming! Tales of History and Imagination


To unravel this part of this tale, we needs must flash forward 96 years, then work back a ways. We left off in 1124. Hassan-i Sabbah, had built a fiercely autonomous state in the North of Persia. In doing so he arranged the blood-soaked murders of close to fifty high ranking Persians who called for his destruction. On his way out Hassan sued for peace in the only way he knew how – an assassin close to the Sultan stuck a dagger deep into the sultan’s floor, next to his bed while he slept. This was a reminder Hassan was in fact a friend – if the men were enemies the dagger would have been stuck elsewhere – and Hassan had eyes everywhere. A peace treaty was agreed on. We’ll return to this in a moment. 

What we need to know now is – just prior to where we pick up, another faction on the edge of the Caliphate had come to prominence. Founded in a city on the border of modern day Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan in 1079 – and originally a vassal state – the Kwarazmian Empire had grown into one of the biggest empires in history. It’s ruling family had ascended from slavery to freedom. By the mid twelfth century their aggressive expansion began. In 1198 the Kwarazmians reached their largest extent, ruling over much of Central Asia, Northern India, Pakistan, and Persia. Their ruler, Shah Ala al-Din Takish didn’t enjoy his empire for long, however. In 1200 a mouth abscess turned septic, killing him. Legend tells on his deathbed, Takish called his son and successor, Ala al-Din Muhammad to his chamber. 

I believe it myth-making but if true, Takish’s words were rather Karmic. Takish’s, alleged, final words to his son – were to the effect of “whatever you choose to do in life, you can do little wrong. The one thing you must never, ever do – is pick a fight with the barbarian hordes to the North-East of us”. 

It took Muhammad II of Kwarazym till 1218 to allegedly ignore this alleged advice, but, oh boy – that fight he picked changed the course of history dramatically. 

The Mongols, those Steppe barbarians, were an empire on the rise by 1218. We’ll be on that topic forever if I go into too much detail. In short – For centuries the Chinese empires had the measure of the Steppe people. Recognising how dangerous they were, they paid certain tribes protection money to leave them be – while helping foster inter-tribal rivalries amongst the others. The Mongols lived far North on the Steppe, on less fertile land. They enjoyed no Chinese largesse. Compared to other tribes, they were thought poor scavengers – mostly living off whatever marmots, rats and fish they could catch, and drinking a lot of fermented milk. Some time around 1162 a child was born to the tribe. He had a rough childhood which included the tribe abandoning his family for some time, and a time he was enslaved by his father’s enemies – but the boy proved tough and resourceful -and he secured patronage from a Steppe Warlord, Torghil, the Ong Khan – of the wealthy Kereyid tribe. 

Modern image of Mongol Yurts, or Ger.

This young man, then known as Temujin, fought for the Ong Khan against other tribes, such as the Merkid – who once kidnapped his wife (long story, we will come back to him in detail one day), Tayichiuds, Tatars and others. He grew to become a fantastic strategist and an inspirational leader through this endless warfare – but he also tired of it’s pointlessness. Through warcraft and diplomacy he put an end to the wars. By 1206 Temujin was rebranded Genghis Khan (pron. Chingis) – King of the Mongols. When, in 1218, he sent a peaceful trading envoy to Muhammad II of Kwarazym, he ran a prosperous empire – which controlled the Chinese Western Xia and Jin Dynasties, as well as the Qara Khitai – whose sprawling kingdom took in modern day Chinese, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tajik and Uzbek territory.

The records suggest the great Khan had no intent other than to trade with a powerful neighbour. Muhammad was convinced, however, that the trade delegation were spies – sent to reconnoiter his kingdom for a Mongol invasion. Muhammad ordered the envoys arrested, stole their goods, then disfigured the merchants’ faces. When news reached Genghis of their arrest, he sent a political envoy of three men to Kwarazym to de-fuse the situation. Muhammad had these men executed. At news of this insult, Genghis was apoplectic. He prepared his army for war. 

In March 1220, Muhammad II braced for what he thought was the entirety of Genghis’ army, coming via the roads one expected them to tread. Little did he realise he was watching the B team. Genghis was already within striking distance of the oasis city of Bukhara. He’d marched several thousand men for two thousand miles through the Kyzyl Kum desert – a vast, inhospitable hell-scape frequented by a handful of nomads, several Russian tortoise, and far too many six foot long monitor lizards. No one believed an army could survive in this desert, so no-one was looking out for them. 

The Bukharans must have been comforted a little by the fact they were inside a well stocked, well fortified city. Steppe barbarians, however deadly in battle, never carried siege engines. It is true Genghis and his men arrived with very little – they even lived off the meagre pickings of the desert so as not to be slowed down by a supply train. The Mongols took their time, however. They set up camp. They cut down a small forest to construct siege engines, ladders, trebuchets and catapults. They gave the people an ultimatum – open the city gates to us and we will treat you favourably. Fight and we will show you no mercy. 

Bukhara chose to defend their city. 

Well, at least they made a half- hearted effort to. After three days of raining hellfire and thunder upon the city, the bulk of the 20,000 defenders attempted to flee – though one source I read claimed they charged towards, not away from, the Mongols. Whatever the case they were butchered. The mongols then stormed the city. 

A large contingent of soldiers who didn’t charge or flee their attackers had set up in the citadel at the heart of the city. They managed to hold their attackers at bay for two weeks before Mongol siege engines broke them. 

The 280 wealthiest men in the city were rounded up and ordered to show Genghis’ men where they buried their treasure. The pillage, and eventual burning of the city began. Genghis, a man who was never known before to have actually entered a city (in his many battles, once won he’d leave it to his generals to handle the looting and burning), did enter Bukhara. He had a message for the survivors. 

“O People, know that you have committed great sins, and that the great ones among you have committed these sins. If you ask me what proof I have for these words, I say it is because I am the punishment of God. If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you.”

The punishment of God was upon the Caliphate, as city after city fell. Those who surrendered were made vassals of the Mongol empire. Those who put up a fight were wiped from the face of the earth. Muhammad II of Kwarazym fled to an island in the Caspian Sea, where he died of pleurisy weeks after his arrival. 

We’ll come to what this meant for the Assassins in a moment. Now back to where we left off. 

Bukhara would remain under Mongol rule till the 1920s, pictured the Emir of Bukhara Muhammad Alim Khan.

Peace was short-lived for the Ismaili. The Sultan Hassan-i Sabbah had so terrified died in 1126. His replacement, Sultan Sanjar, immediately sent an army into Assassin territory with orders to kill all Ismaili they came across. The Sultan was not particularly anti-Assassin, but he had a Vizier, Mu’in al-Din Kashi, who particularly detested them. The invasion failed in its ultimate objective, but did lead to the massacre of two villages – Tarz and Turaythith. The Assassins took revenge the way they best knew. 

On March 16, 1127, the Vizier called on two of his most trusted servants. The Sultan’s birthday was coming up and he needed to know which two of his prized horses should he gift him? The servants were, you guessed it, Assassins – who proceeded to murder the living daylights out of Mu’in al-Din Kashi. By 1129, the Ismaili actually gaining territory, Mahmud – the Sultan of Isfahan – called for peace. Regional rulers passed on leading to power vacuums in the regions surrounding the Ismaili – itself leading to civil conflicts among the Sunni. In 1139 the Caliph of Baghdad, himself embroiled in the war, was captured by a Sultan named Mas’ud. Moving his captive to the city of Maragha, it appears the Sultan had every intention of keeping the Caliph alive. No-one expected a group of Assassins would be capable of entering the compound and stabbing the Caliph to death. They were. They did, publicly celebrating the hit for a week afterwards. 

As a rule however, there were fewer assassinations under Hassan’s successor, Kiya Buzurgummid, who would have preferred a peaceful existence. He passed in 1138, passing the mantle to his son Muhammad. Muhammad’s reign saw just 14 assassinations, including another Caliph. Of interest, a Sultan named Da’ud, murdered in 1143. His death, it was claimed, was on behalf of the ruler of Mosul. It was also curious the killing was carried out, not by Persian assassins, but by Syrians. Under father, then son the Assassins were more concerned with governance of their own people. They also took to sending out missionaries to Syria, Georgia, and modern day Afghanistan. 

Waves of violence against the Ismaili continued from time to time however. In Rayy, the governor, a man named Abbas, launched a massacre of Ismaili in the city, afterwards proudly exhibiting a tower of skulls from the dead. Abbas was murdered by Sultan Mas’ud of the Caliph debacle before the assassins could come for him. For all this violence, the Persian Ismaili largely resisted the urge to assassinate. For a while they became a little boring, and respectable. 

Then along came Muhammad’s son Hasan. 

Early on the heir-apparent made waves. He publicly preached the Assassins needed a return to the revolutionary ways of his namesake, gathering a small army of followers. Hasan was something of a Millenarian – he believed when the Millennium came, the messiah would return and reinstate the faithful in paradise. Muhammad, concerned these new extremists would undo all his hard work, had 250 of his son’s followers arrested and put to death as heretics. Muhammad passed in 1162, ushering in Hasan’s era. 

For two years Hasan behaved himself, then in the middle of Ramadan in 1164 he announced the Millennium was upon them. From now on they would pray with their backs to Mecca. He announced to his people end times were coming, the ‘hidden Imam’ had spoken to him and advised the Holy Law no longer applied to them. If you wish to break the fast, do so. Want a glass of wine? Go for it. Want a glass of wine while in prayer, and a band of musicians playing in the background to break the silence? Why not? They are the righteous, they are saved from sin. All those old rules no longer applied. 

If there were ever a time Assassins ate pork, as Christian monks reporting from Armenia – another place to be visited by Ismaili missionaries at this time – this might just be it. Hasan reinvented himself as a modern-day Imam and a messiah-like figure. To drive home his message everyone must enjoy their newfound freedom, he executed numerous Ismaili who were perfectly happy with the old ways. You better damn well be free – the boss commands it of you seemed the mood of the day. The party lasted till 9th January 1166, when Hasan’s brother-in-law, in true Assassin style, stabbed the Imam to death. The next leader, Muhammad II was altogether less controversial. 

He saw the rise of the  Kwarazym. A handful of assassinations happened in his time. Orthodoxy restored itself among the Ismaili. Muhammad died in 1210, passing the mantle to his son Jalal al-Din Hasan. Jalal was far more orthodox than any other Ismaili ruler – they were all Muslims and he wished to leave cultish practices and mountain fortresses behind him. He sent secret messages to the Caliph of Baghdad asking how he could bring the Ismaili back into the fold? His reign saw a return towards orthodoxy, and the burning of many of their more heretical texts. This did not mean the assassinations stopped – The Persian Assassins became a part of the machine, now killing on behalf of the Caliph of Baghdad. 

Soon word reached Persia of this new, unstoppable force in the East – Barbarian Animists who believed God WAS the eternal blue sky – the Tengri in their language. Jalal al-Din Hasan was the first Muslim leader to reach out to the Mongols – proposing they too could be friends. Jalal passed soon after, in 1221 – passing the leadership to his nine year old son Ala al-Din Muhammad. During his reign the Assassins picked up land lost by the rapidly crumbling Kwarazmian Empire, and sent missionaries off to India. Ala’s behaviour, in turns cruel and eccentric, or depressed and heavily intoxicated – led to his assassination in 1255. At this point others worried his erratic behaviour was drawing bad attention from the Mongols – and no-one wanted the ‘punishment of God’ banging at the fortress door. His son Rukn al-Din took over. 

Which leads us to the Assassin’s inevitable conflict with the Mongols. 

Back to the Mongol invasion. Under Genghis, the Mongol army conquered wherever they went. They methodically took over all the major Central Asian cities – Samarkand, Balkh, Marv and Nishapur all ceded to them sooner or later. Genghis also controlled East Persia by the time of his passing in 1227. Everything went on hold for a few years, as often happened when a Khan died. Leaders would return to Mongolia to mourn, then call a meeting – a Khuriltai – to decide a new leader. Genghis’ son Ogedei ascended to the position and ordered the invasion to continue in 1230. In 1238 what was left of the Kwarazmian empire, alongside the Assassins, sent out envoys as far afield as China and England begging for assistance. By 1240 most of Persia was under Mongol control, and the Great Khan turned towards Georgia, Armenia and Mesopotamia. 

Dying Khans slowed Mongol progress yet again. When Ogedei passed in 1241, Eastern Europe, Korea and the Assassins must have all breathed a huge sigh of relief at the sudden cessation of war. The following decades saw a few starts and stops. In 1246 the Assassins sent an envoy to the coronation of Ogedei’s son Guyuk – they were not warmly received. 

In 1253 The Great Khan was Genghis’ grandson Mongke. He gave orders to his brother Hulegu to capture the Near East as far as Egypt. Their first port of call was the Assassins. In Ala al-Din’s declining years, he chose to fight them – but on his passing, Rukn al-Din was quick to capitulate to the Mongol war machine.  But this wasn’t where his story ended. The Assassins were spread over dozens of mountain fortresses. Expert warriors as the Mongols now were, they knew some of these fortress required a year or longer to overthrow, a great deal of effort, and many lives. No one besides the Imam had really called it a day. Rukn al-Din was suddenly taken in as a valued employee of the Great Khan. His job, to visit every last mountain fortress and convince them to surrender. His reward, he and his family would be kept safe, in the lap of luxury – for now – 

and around 30 camels. 

I feel silly mentioning the camels, but its mentioned in every book on the Mongols I’ve read over the last decade or so – and two books I read on the Ismaili for this post. The Mongols must have presumed the Imam wanted them for breeding purposes – but it seems nothing brought more joy to his life than to watch two male camels in a knock em down, drag em out street fight. To each their own I guess…

Rukn al-Din was taken from castle to castle, convincing most to surrender. Between the camel fighting and capitulations he found time to marry a Mongol woman. As a few castles held out, the Imam’s value to the Khan came under question. Two fortresses, Lamasar and Girdkuh held out for a while. No longer of use, Rukn al-Din was murdered on his way back to Persia from the Great Khan. A small resistance movement hung around till the 1270s, at one point even re-taking Alamut castle, but the Assassins Cult was all but over in Persia. 

They, of course survived – thrived even – in Syria. They even found themselves in places as far afield as India. We’ll look at those Tales in two weeks’ time for the final part – The Old Man of the Mountain.