Category Archives: Interesting Lives

Some life stories are too interesting not to tell.

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.  

Alas, poor Tycho…

Hey all, I had something completely new in the works for both the blog and podcast this week… owing to a few things happening in my day job (a pending corporate acquisition had me messing with my CV the other night. It had been years since I’d last dusted that particular file off)
I chose to run with a ’From the Vaults’ podcast episode instead.
So, this week, for you the readers, I’ve prepared a short bio of one of Denmark’s more interesting characters – and no it isn’t Lars Ulrich


One thing I can fairly confidently say in all my time on Earth; I may have gotten into a number of fights for dumb reasons, but I have never been in a duel with my cousin over mathematics. For one, my cousin Dave works with complex datasets for a living, so if he says I have the math wrong – I have the math wrong. For another, what kind of madman gets into a sword fight over maths anyway? 

Well, Tycho Brahe got into a sword fight over math with his cousin. It pales in comparison to many other Tales commonly told of the man. 

The eldest son of the mayor of Helsingborg, a young Tycho was abducted by his wealthy, eccentric uncle Jorgen. After a childhood spent living in a castle, uncle Jorgen sent him off to the University of Copenhagen to study law. Tycho observed a total eclipse of the Sun in 1560, and fell in love with Astronomy instead. He proved to be a prodigious astronomer. Early in his career he picked up Copernicus’ and Ptolemy’s astrological charts were grossly inaccurate, while observing movements between Saturn and Jupiter. While he himself would be one of the first astronomers to measure events to the second, both lots of charts were often days out. He made it his life’s goal to fix their errors. In 1566, aged 20, Tycho was touring Europe’s universities as a guest lecturer. On 10 December 1566 he was in Rostock, Saxony when he had his first quarrel with his third cousin – Manderup Parsberg. A quarrel over the nature of numbers quickly escalated, and the cousins nearly came to blows. 

The scene played out again on 27 December. The young men agreed to duel it out under the stars in a graveyard two days later. Brandishing swords the two nobles faced off against one another. Parsberg got the better of Brahe, leaving a deep gash in his forehead – and destroying the bridge of his nose. 

From Ridley Scott’s The Duellists, but you get the sense…

In an age before much which could be called plastic surgery, the astronomer spent the rest of his life gluing a prosthetic nose to his face every morning. Legend claimed his fake nose was made of gold and silver, though people now believe it was made of brass. The cousins would make amends. Parsberg became an ambassador to Scotland, playing a part in the return of Orkney to the Scots. On Brahe’s death, his obituaries branded Parsberg ‘the man who cut off Tycho Brahe’s nose’ – overshadowing the cousin’s diplomatic work. This made Parsberg furious.  

I could write of the time in 1572 when Tycho discovered a supernova in the constellation Cassiopeia. That a star could blow up so dramatically flew in the face of Aristotle’s theory that ‘celestial spheres’ rotated eternally at a fixed rate. This was a big deal – especially given he slightly preceded Galileo (who narrowly avoided a death sentence for insisting the sun rather than Earth, was the centre of our galaxy). He was also roughly contemporary with Giordano Bruno, a monk and scientist who ran afoul of the Vatican. Bruno was stripped naked, tied upside down to a stake and then set aflame in a public square – for (among other things) insisting the Milky Way is one of countless galaxies in the universe – and that many of these galaxies would have planets which sustained life. Aristotelean theory, you see, was upheld as seriously as biblical theory by the church. Looking critically into the sky at night could brand you a heretic. 

Luckily for Tycho, he had a patron and protector. A year prior to the supernova he approached King Frederick II of Denmark to fund an observatory. Frederick not only funded the observatory, he gave Tycho the isle of Hven, near Copenhagen, to build it on.   

Hven Observatory

Brahe laboured away, inventing new instruments to unravel the mysteries of the universe – one presumes by day. When night set in he parsed the heavens with these instruments, assisted in his work by his sister. If I knew more about maths I could explain his many discoveries – and might be capable of winning a maths duel – I can’t. I can say he fixed many of Copernicus’ errors, and discovered several comets. His work would influence others like Johannes Kepler and help destroy many of the bad Aristotelian theories the Catholic Church insisted were sacrosanct. 

Oh, and I should probably mention now, cause I have no idea how else to shoehorn this in –

as a youngster living in uncle Jorgen’s castle, Tycho had a pet moose. 

Some people state the animal was an elk, but all agree the animal was big, friendly and handsome, with impressive antlers. It followed young Tycho around just like a puppy. The moose was something of a dipsomaniac – being especially fond of local beer – and was regularly drunk. One night the poor animal was three sheets to the wind, and trying to negotiate a grand staircase. It lost it’s footing and took a tumble. Tycho’s beloved childhood friend had to be put down.    

Back to Hven and the observatory. In 1588 King Frederick II died, leaving his eleven year old son king in name only. For a while the true power behind the throne was one Christoffer Valkendorff. You may remember Christoffer as the cheapskate who under-equipped the fleet carrying Anne of Denmark to her husband, King James VI of Scotland in 1589. His cutting of corners was thought a contributing factor to Anne’s fleet nearly sinking in rough seas. Valkendorff avoided punishment by blaming a coven of witches for the near disaster. This in turn kicked off a witch hunting craze in Scotland, and later England which saw thousands of people executed. Where Frederick saw Brahe as a scientist, Valkendorff saw him as a dangerous heretic.   

He’d only just published a book on his comets. His book on the supernova was close to completion. Brahe was a rising star in the academic world. At home, however, he was increasingly isolated. The crown wanted nothing more to do with him. Factions within the church plotted to strip the nobleman of his estates (Uncle Jorgen had by then died leading a naval battle against Sweden, leaving Tycho his title and fortune). More worryingly, locals worried he was practicing witchcraft on the island and began sharpening their pitch forks in preparation for a lynching. With calls to try him for heresy increasing, and an angry mob actually showing up at a house of his in Copenhagen, Tycho packed up his worldly possessions and left for the continent in 1597. He stayed with friends, and continued to examine the sky – and by 1599 had come under the patronage of Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II. He settled in Prague, Bohemia (modern day Czech Republic) and worked with people like Johannes Kepler to increase our understanding of the universe. 

A Supernova

I needs must mention his passing, it has become part of the legend of the man. On 13 October 1601, Tycho attended a royal banquet. He came down with a mystery illness that night, and died thirteen days later. One theory on his death was he had been poisoned, either by Kepler (who wanted to keep Brahe’s expensive sky measuring equipment – or by King Christian IV of Denmark.  The boy king was now in his early 20s, and bore great animosity towards Tycho, as he believed the astronomer had carried on an affair with his mother before his father’s passing. Subsequent exhumations have disproved the poison hypothesis. 

Kepler himself offers a clue. During the proceedings Tycho desperately needed to relieve himself, but dared not duck out to use the rest rooms in case if offended the Emperor. He held on till the night’s end, then found he could not relieve himself, no matter how hard he tried. It’s generally believed he died of infection following a burst bladder. 

In his final days he penned his own epitaph “He lived like a sage and died like a fool”. Though true I guess, I, for one, believe his life was one far too colourful, eccentric, groundbreaking and downright surreal to encapsulate him thus. 

Beyond the Archway…

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

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

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

Kauri loggers in the Waitakere Ranges

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take, for example, Grace Oakeshott. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A self portrait of Ron Jorgensen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rob Muldoon at a later date (see further down)

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

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

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

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

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

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

But to our pseudocide? 

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

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

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

A Ron Jorgensen painting of Kaikoura

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

… A Thousand Words?

Hey all, the podcast episode I’m running this week is from the back catalog of blog posts – so I have new, blog only content this week. Today we’re going to look at a couple of famous photos – cartooned of course (cause it’s what I do). If I’ve yet to get back to part two of Xenophon (this post was written over my lunch breaks back in January- early February) I will get back to it as soon as I have a couple of evenings free to finish that tale. It’s one of those tales where the broad strokes are fine – but many tiny details need going over carefully to avoid turning the piece into a shambles… It was a bad choice of quick filler material. 

Anyway, back to today – Though not the first to say it, an ad man named Fred Barnard popularised the phrase ‘A picture is worth a thousand words’ – let’s see if I can’t shed a little light on the following with a few less than that. 

One: I’m Going off the Rails on a Crazy Train….

Granville is a seaside resort town in Normandy, France. Founded by a vassal of England’s newly minted king, William the Conqueror in the 11th Century – the town played host to Vikings, English invaders, privateers and more besides in it’s history. By the 19th century it had a burgeoning wellness industry, and a train line to Paris. A quick Google search tells me a modern train will do the near 400 kilometre journey in around three hours for 20 Euros. On 22nd October 1895, the Granville to Paris Montparnasse express was expected to do the trip in a little over seven. On the 22nd steam locomotive no. 721 departed ‘The Monaco of the North’ with this expectation. Leaving dead on time at 8.45 am with six passenger coaches, three luggage vans and a coach full of mail, the train lost a few minutes here and there till it was in danger of being seriously late. 

Concerned with the dire consequences of a late arrival, the driver, a 19 year veteran of the company named Guillaume-Marie Pellerin, really put his foot on the gas – so to speak. The furnace running red hot, the train reached speeds in excess of sixty kilometres an hour. Now the train was humming along, maybe – just maybe if they held off on the brakes a little they’d reach Paris Montparnasse station by the allotted 3.55pm. 

When Pellerin did attempt to hit the brakes – the air brakes failed. Albert Mariette, the conductor, had an emergency brake he was supposed to hit in cases like this – but he was in his office buried under a stack of paperwork – blissfully unaware of the runaway train. At 4pm the train and all 131 passengers came flying into the station. The train made short work of the buffers, derailing then cruising across a 30 metre concourse. It then crashed through a sixty centimetre thick stone wall before tumbling ten metres to the Place de Rennes below.

Luckily for the passengers, their carriages were at the far end of the train – and remained safely inside the building. They were jarred about however, five passengers receiving minor injuries. 

On the sidewalk below,  Marie-Augustine Aguilard was less lucky. She was guarding her husband’s newspaper stand at the time of the derailment. Hubby was off to collect the evening edition in preparation for rush hour. Marie, no doubt was expecting nothing spectacular to happen in the interim. She was struck by a falling chunk of masonry and was sadly killed by the debris. 

Conductor Mariette was fined 25 francs for his part in the disaster. Driver Pellerin charged fifty francs and given a two month jail term he never had to serve. 

The photos taken at the time are now well and truly in the public domain, and have appeared the cover of a book on error analysis, record covers for American band Mr Big and Dutch band The Ex. A theme park in Brazil has recreated the scene in one of their buildings. Martin Scorsese recreated the crash in his 2011 film Hugo. 

Two: Migrant Mother… 

In past blog posts I’ve written briefly on the Dust Bowl. The short version of the story is at around the same time as the US economy slumped into the Great Depression, Mother Nature hit the folk living on the prairies with a double whammy. Convinced to move there by a shyster named Charles Dana Wilber, then to tear up the long grasses which held the land together in drought because – in Wilber’s words “…Rain follows the plow” – the unusual wet spell of the past few decades suddenly stopped in 1930. As crops died in the scorching heat, everything holding the topsoil in wilted – and when the winds got up – 850 million tons of topsoil blew away. There are reports from naval vessels hundreds of miles offshore getting pelted by these dust storms. 3,500,000 people were left homeless. 

Herbert Hoover was president when both the Great Depression and Dust Bowl struck, and though he had made a name for himself as an expert in disaster relief – coordinating widespread aid to starving Belgians in World War One, keeping food on the tables of the American public following their entry to the war – and handling the disaster response following ‘The Great Mississippi Flood’ of 1927…

(too long a digression. 1.5 million people were displaced. Hoover was lauded as a hero – his path to the White House at the following election assured. Many, many African Americans were horrifically treated in refugee camps but the press were ordered to keep a lid on that)

…Hoover’s response to the Great Depression and Dust Bowl was catastrophic. ‘Hoover towns’ full of refugees looking for work and accommodation popped up on the roads to California. Luckily Franklin D Roosevelt soon replaced Hoover, and brought a large bag of tricks with him to fix the country. Owing to FDR’s practice of giving his plans acronyms (WPA, CCC, CAW, NIRA), Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation was often referred to as ‘Alphabet Soup’. 

Roosevelt employed people in massive public works projects, building highways and other infrastructure. He created vast community education programmes providing work for teachers, and up-skilling for those left behind in the financial turmoil. He sent out sociologists tasked to work out who America was, and what they needed. He employed historians to capture oral history largely ignored – and in danger of being lost forever. People with recording devices captured the life experiences of the last of the former slaves, for one. 

Talented photographers like Dorothea Lange were sent out to chronicle the stories of the people displaced from the prairies in picture – among other arts projects. Before the Great Depression Ms Lange had been working as a portrait photographer, capturing formal, staged images of San Francisco’s rich and powerful. From 1933 she worked chronicling the lives of the Oakies, Arkies and other displaced souls for the Farm Security Administration (FSA). Owing to her ability to keenly observe others unobtrusively, she essentially invented documentary photography in the process. 

The photo she is best known for is Migrant Mother – shot in March 1936 among a group of destitute pea pickers. In the photo, a 32 year old woman stares anxiously into the future as three of her seven children lean on her – the childrens’ faces averted from the camera. To me this is a very humanising photo. For one the lady has oodles of dignity – as much, if not more so than any patrician Lange formerly portrayed. For another her desperation reaches out and touches you. For me it is quite a visceral photograph, which challenges me to put myself in the migrant mother’s shoes and ask what would I do if faced with such crushing poverty. 

Dear readers, meet Florence Owens Thompson. 

Florence was born 1st September 1903 to Cherokee parents in Indian Territory, Oklahoma. She grew up on a farm outside of Tahlequah. When young her father abandoned the family. Having served a three year prison sentence, he simply never returned.

Aged 17 she married a young man named Cleo Owens. They tied the knot on Valentines Day 1921 and moved to California, where Cleo found work in a lumber mill. In 1931, while Florence was pregnant with their sixth child, Cleo died of tuberculosis. From here Florence, always a worker anyway, suddenly found herself taking whatever work she could find to keep their heads above water. She started a relationship with a man named Jim Hill. The couple struggled with the bills – it was the Great Depression and they now had seven mouths to feed. They were coming back from picking beets when Dorothea Lange shot her in Nopomo, California. 

Her anxiety, likely well founded, was not what one would expect. The family were on their way to another valley to pick lettuce when their car broke down. As Jim walked towards the closest town for a replacement timing chain, Florence and the kids took cover among a camp of pea pickers. Struggling as they were, at least Jim and Florence had work at the time. Jim would return later with the parts, and a meal for the family – all of which would be met with an angry glare from the camp. 

The camp formed when over 2,500 people had showed up expecting work – only to find a hard, extremely cold rainstorm had killed all the crops. Thousands of desperate workers were suddenly stranded in Nopomo without work or pay. Dorothea never asked if Florence was one of the pea pickers, cause why wouldn’t she be? She was taking shelter in the camp after all. Lange, for her part later stated she was exhausted from a long journey to the camp. She normally spoke at length with her subjects. 

Florence had ten children in total in her life – Six to Cleo, three to Jim. I couldn’t tell you what happened to Jim, but she married a hospital administrator called George Thompson in 1952. Her life post World War Two was financially easier. Her children bought her a house in Modesto, California in the 1970s, but Florence chose to stay in the motor home she owned since moving to Modesto instead. She died 16th September 1983. 

Three: Lunch Atop a Skyscraper… 

Ok just a quick one to round off this post. Ever seen a photo of eleven daring men just hanging out atop the world like it was nothing? Ever wonder where this was? When this was? Who were the eleven men so willing to risk life and limb to build what was then a futuristic new world of concrete and steel? 

This may leave you with more questions than answers. 

First off the photograph is real – those men are perched 260 meters above the streets of New York. Yes, the apparent lack of safety concerns is real inasmuch as these folk are sitting there, without so much as a net or a safety harness to save them should they fall. The image was staged however, all part of a publicity shoot. Other photos taken that day showed men throwing a football round and pretending to take a nap. All up five people died in the construction of the complex – I can’t help but think if this is how these guys normally had lunch, the death toll would have been much higher? 

The building is New York’s RCA building, part of the complex known as the Rockefeller Centre. The date 20th September 1932.

The building project had it’s origins in 1928, when John D Rockefeller jr announced his plans to rejuvenate midtown New York with a shiny new entertainment precinct. His original plan was to build a new, modern building for the Metropolitan Opera, on land formerly owned by Colombia University. The Met liked the idea of a new headquarters, but were wary of making the move. To do so they first had to sell their old building – and however they planned the move, the interim period of occupying both properties at once would bankrupt them. While they crunched the numbers, Rockefeller dreamt bigger – why not build a vast complex taking up much of Fifth and Sixth Avenue? Eight Art Deco styled skyscrapers would be constructed – the Metropolitan Opera building to be replaced with a 50 story office block. 

One tenant who could afford to move in was the Radio Corporation of America (RCA). It was a girder on their building the men were shot on. 

At the time of the photo shoot, the RCA building was months from completion. The Rockefeller centre arranged publicity shots to be taken of real construction workers to generate buzz around the upcoming opening. The photoshoot appeared in The New York Herald Tribune 2nd October 1932. 

It took several decades to even identify the photographer – a man called Charles C. Ebbets. Ebbets was an actor in the 1920s, who took up residence behind a camera, eventually finding work as a photographer. He was also a keen wrestler, hunter, racing car driver, pilot and occasional wing walker. For a while, he was also the official staff photographer for world heavyweight boxing champ Jack Dempsey – if what little I could find on him is to be trusted? I can’t help but think his life is begging at the least a book, possibly a movie on his adventures? At the very least a man portraying Ebbets on a Dos Equus beer commercial stating ‘stay thirsty my friends’ is in order. He died in 1978, his estate claiming authorship of the photograph in 2003. Complicating matters, others have since claimed Ebbets was not the photographer after all, but a viable alternative has yet to be named. 

The eleven construction workers have been even harder to pin down.

First, there is a pub in Galway Ireland, with a copy of the photo hanging on a wall. On their copy a note from the alleged son of one of the men – who left Ireland for the USA in the 1920s. The note claims “This is my dad on the far left, and my uncle-in-law on the far right”. This lead was tracked back to a family in Boston USA in a 2012 documentary. The Boston lead stated the man with a bottle on the right was Sonny Glynn. On the far left was Matty O’Shaughnessy – both men were Irish immigrants. Since the documentary the third man from the left has been identified as Joseph Eckner. Joe Curtis is the man third from right. Gustav Popovic, a former lumberjack and carpenter from Slovakia is believed to be one of the men.  Late in 1932 Gustav sent a postcard to his wife Mariska with the photo on the front. He wrote “Don’t you worry, my dear Mariska, as you can see I’m still with bottle. Your Gusti”. Gusti and Mariska’s gravestone in Slovakia bears a copy of the photo. Like the long held claim that the man in the centre is Peter Rice, of Mohawk descent (it has often been said Mohawk tribesmen built the New York skyline) these are all likely identities but none of these men’s identities have been incontrovertibly determined. 

Njinga of Ndongo


Today’s tale is set in the African kingdom of Ndongo, modern day Angola – we touched upon this kingdom a few weeks back in the Tale of Henry ‘Box’ Brown. Today we’re taking a closer look at that strand. The year, 1622. Joao de Sousa, the Portuguese governor of Luanda prepares to meet with princess Njinga Mbandi, sister of king Ngola Mbandi, ruler of Ndongo. Their mission, to broker a peace after decades of on-again, off-again conflict.

Though allied with the neighbouring kingdom of Kongo from the late 1490s, Portugal’s first contact in Ndongo was in 1510. Initial contact was sporadic, but increasing demand for slaves to work Portugal’s Brazilian plantations – primarily – led to an increased presence in the region. In 1575, Paulo Dias de Novais – grandson of the explorer Bartolomeu Dias – set up a township on the Ndongo island of Luanda. Accompanied by 100 settler families, 400 soldiers, and a handful of Jesuit priests – Novais’ mission was to set up an enclave, exploit the silver mines of the native town of Cambambe, and to gain control of lands south of the Kwanza river. The jesuits were to convert as many locals as they could to Catholicism – having largely done so in Kongo decades earlier. Of course they were also there to look for slaving opportunities. 

The township at Luanda was tolerated by Ndongo till 1579, when a member of Novais’ party met with the Ngola (king) of Ndongo to spill the beans on an alleged plot to take over their whole country. Understandably, the Ngola responded by expelling the Portuguese from Luanda. Novais would call on their Kongolese allies to back them in a war with Ndongo – and so it was a multi-generational war would rage in the nation. 

During the wars tens of thousands of captives, warrior and civilian alike, were shackled, stored in cages called barracoons, then shipped off to the new world – to be worked to death on a plantation. The adversaries fought to a stalemate in 1599,  but hostilities ramped up again in 1610, when Philip II of Portugal discovered Ndongo had large reserves of copper. Copper could be alloyed to make bronze cannons to one’s heart’s content – cannons which would prove very useful in their colonial pursuits. Forced into exile by a combined Portuguese/Imbangala force (the Imbangala were a rival tribe, newly arrived in the region who were happy to act as extra muscle for Portugal) – Ngola Mbandi called on his sister Njinga to broker a peace treaty. 

There’s a tale, I’m paraphrasing the following but the sources all depict something to this effect. Njinga arrives for negotiations in full indigenous attire – breaking with the practice of attending diplomatic meetings in western attire. Led to the meeting room she found de Sousa reclined in his chair – with a mat laid out on the floor for herself. Unperturbed, but knowing the importance of meeting eye to eye, she called for one of her ladies in waiting. The servant got down on her hands and knees – providing a seat for the princess. After some discussion – in Portuguese (Njinga spoke several languages), the governor and the princess concluded. 

“What about your chair?” Asked de Sousa, gesturing to the lady in waiting. 
“Keep her, I have many chairs in my home”

While I have no idea if the poor servant was left with these slave traders after all, I think the anecdote highlights the princesses shrewdness and tenacity. She was unwilling to be anything less than an equal of the governor. It’s also an insight she had a ruthless streak not dissimilar to the Portuguese. 

De Sousa, allegedly, saw Njinga as an impressive figure, and the two parties came to a peace agreement which saw Portugal agree to leave Ndongo, and recognise their nationhood. The cost? A trade agreement with Portugal, and the royals – Njinga included – would convert to Catholicism. The princess also took on the name Dona Anna de Sousa after her baptism – a name she would use in official correspondence from this point on. Life seemed to be returning to normal.

But then, in 1626, Portugal suddenly discarded the treaty. They resumed hostilities – pushing the Ndongo out of their lands. At this stage Ngola Mbandi had passed, in 1624 – the crown passing to Njinga. The Ndongo were slowly driven further inland. In 1631 they took refuge in the neighbouring kingdom of Matamba. 

Njinga was well acquainted with these neighbours. She was in exile there when Ngola Mbandi called on her to broker a peace with Portugal. When their father, the previous Ngola died, Mbandi had Njinga’s only child murdered, and Njinga sterilised before ordering her out. Both siblings were front runners for king – but neither had an outright claim to the throne as they were born to the king’s slave wives. Again in exile, Njinga was declared ruler of Matamba.

Imbangala warriors.

While away, the Portuguese put a puppet ruler on the throne of Ndongo, Ngola a Hari – soon baptized as Felipe de Sousa. In an effort to turn the people against Njinga, they spread sexist propaganda against the queen, stating a woman cannot be king. To counter Njinga symbolically ’became a man’, from what I can gather by taking on the title king – and ‘doing manly things’. 

If by ‘manly things’ the sources mean Njinga led zir (am switching to Spivak pronouns, when in doubt) army into battle on numerous occasions – this was nothing new. Njinga, formerly a warrior queen, was very much the warrior king too. Despite fighting an enemy whose numbers increased year to year, with a large technological advantage, Njinga’s Matamba stood their ground against Portugal. Then in 1641, the landscape changed over night, yet again.

The Dutch arrived in 1641, making quick work of defeating Portuguese forces at Luanda – setting up base on the island. As soon as news arrived in Matamba, Njinga sent a diplomatic envoy to the Dutch. With a new ally, the king of Matamba was soon winning major battles, like the 1644 battle of Ngoleme- and would besiege the new Portuguese capital, Masangano, in 1647. Portugal called on reinforcements from Brazil to save them. In the wake of the failed siege, Njinga retreated to Matamba – but then the guerrilla war against Portugal began. The Portuguese couldn’t take a walk outside without risk of a sneak attack against them. Matamba, alone again after 1648, would bolster their numbers by making alliances with other kingdoms – and by offering a safe haven to any and all escaped slaves in need of a new homeland. This gained the king a compliment of loyal troops in the battle. 

Finally, Portugal gave up. On 24th November 1657 they withdrew all claims to Ndongo. This doesn’t mean they gave up entirely on getting revenge on King Njinga, backing a number of assassination attempts against the monarch. 

Njinga Mbandi, Ngola of the kingdoms of Ndongo and Matamba would die in 1666, at an estimated age of around 80. The monarch would spend zir final years settling escaped slaves to the kingdoms. Njinga built on Matamba’s location as the ‘gateway to Central Africa’ to build a wealthy, mercantile nation. Legend has it ze also kept a harem of 50 – 60 men who would fight for the right to sleep with the monarch. In the morning, the unlucky concubine would be put to death. Needless to say Njinga was a highly troublesome character – but also an absolutely fascinating one.     

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The Reverend Alessandro Valignano was a commanding presence in most any room he ever walked into – while I’m not one to buy into ‘great man’ theories of history, this guy was impressive. He obtained a doctorate in law aged 19, and after some unspecified trouble with the law for which he was jailed for a year, he pivoted to theology. By his mid 30s the Napolitano priest was sent out to supervise the conversion of non- Christian souls from Goa in India, to Japan. One reason he was allegedly so much larger than life, was he was literally larger than life. Valignano towered above anyone around him. Well, most people of his time anyway. So imagine this scene in 1581. Alessandro Valignano is in Kyoto, Japan – making his way through a busy street to their lodgings. The locals, not terribly used to seeing foreigners of any kind, crane their necks up in awe of the missionary. ….

While their eye might first be drawn to the Jesuit missionary, it’s the presence of his valet – well technically his bodyguard – who transfixes them. Bigger again. Powerfully built. His skin ‘as dark as charcoal’. The young man caught the imagination of onlookers, and scuttlebutt quickly spread throughout Kyoto of this living wonder. Soon locals clamoured to their lodgings to catch a glimpse of the man. Some even attempted to break down the front door. 

The impressively built, dark skinned man was a former African slave, who was believed to have been transported to India. Over there he secured his freedom, and found work as hired muscle for the Jesuits. Ethnically he was possibly from the Makua people of Mozambique, or the Habshi of Ethiopia. He may have belonged to the Dinka tribe of South Sudan – though if so he was enslaved young – He bore none of the facial tattoos the Dinka get at puberty. He was possibly named Yasufe, or Yisake – an Ethiopian variant of Isaac. We know him today as Yasuke. Word of the clamour soon reached the warlord – or Daimyo to use his proper title – Oda Nobunaga. Fascinated, he sent for the young man. Oda found him no less interesting in person. He enjoyed the man’s company. He was also quite the find – skilled with weapons and remarkably strong; people in Oda’s court commented he had the strength of ten men. The two men quickly became friends. By May 1581, Oda had taken Yasuke onboard his crew as a bodyguard. By 1582, Yasuke had become a Samurai. 

While this may sound like a rags to riches story – and to a degree it was – Yasuke’s new role came with high levels of risk to match the pay rise and room at court. 

From 1336 to 1573 Japan was ruled by the Ashikaga Shogunate. Their rule very much like a military dictatorship, the Shogun enforced absolute authority – with a Junta of 260 Generals, his Daimyo – providing the muscle. In the late 1460s a succession dispute broke out between two factions of the Ashikaga clan, which escalated into a civil war which ran for well over a century. Long suppressed grievances over land rights
eventually led to a massive realignment of society after 1600.

(Sidebar: much of the land in Japan had been handed out to the Shogun’s favourites back in the 800s – many of whom were Kyoto based Daimyo; who happily took rents, but were uncaring absentee landlords in return.)

Yasuke arrived in the midst of the Sengoku Period or ‘age of warring states’. The old Shogunate was gone. Decreasing numbers of Daimyo were at war with one another. At the same time, a new class – often headed by the former estate managers of deposed Daimyo – were on their way to becoming the new Daimyo. The country was in the midst of an all on all battle royale.

Oda himself may have been considered similarly new to the game. Coming from a relatively small land-owning family, he’d built an army of 30,000 men, and expanded his own holdings considerably. While still in his 30s he’d deposed the Shogun and several other Daimyo. He had also put down several Buddhist monasteries, who wielded great power themselves through religious influence and powerful armies of their own. Oda was the odds on favourite for the next Shogun. In an age where many sides were adopting muskets, then later field artillery in place of the traditional samurai sword, people started building western-influenced forts. Oda Nobunaga’s home at Adzuchi Castle was the biggest fort in the country at the time. In a time when tactics were modernising, he also just got it. 

We don’t know much specific about Yasuke’s time with the Daimyo. He took part in the battle of Tenmokuzan in 1582. Oda’s forces, in tandem Tokugawa Ieyasu’s army, faced off against Takeda Katsuyori’s army. When it was clear from the outset Takeda was outclassed, so he set fire to his own castle and fled into the mountains. Takeda had a mountain fortress he hoped to hide out in but an upstart officer refused to open the doors for him. With Oda and Tokugawa’s forces closing in, Takeda committed ritual seppuku – running himself through with his own sword. His army were slaughtered to the last man. Our African samurai played some unspecified role in this decisive battle. 

He was also present 21st June 1582 at the Honno-Ji incident. Once Takeda was removed, Oda planned a grand campaign to centralise all power under himself. The only clans holding out against him were the already weakened Mori, the Uesugi and Hojo clans. Barring acts of God or treachery, Oda would be the next Shogun. While Oda and Tokugawa took in their new gains following Tenmokuzan, he received a message from a general named Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Toyotomi had been sent out to finish the Mori, but the Mori were proving difficult. Toyotomi had besieged them at Takamatsu Castle by diverting a river, then surrounding the castle with floating siege engines from which they rained down arrows day and night – but the Mori hung in there. A reinforcement army six times the size of Toyotomi’s force was also on the move, with orders to crush them when they got there. Oda left for Honno-Ji temple, to plan his campaign. In the meantime he sent another general,  Akechi Mitsuhide, to rescue Toyotomi. 

Instead, Akechi sought the advice of several poets, asking them if he should double cross his master? Though his reasons for the double cross remain a mystery, the most likely reason was that he blamed the death of his mother on Oda. (She was a hostage of another Daimyo when Oda ordered an invasion. She was subsequently executed). Whatever the case he surprised Oda and his 30 bodyguards at Honno-Ji Temple, forcing him to commit seppuku. Akechi outnumbered him 13,000 to 30 so this was only ever going to end one way. Yasuke escaped, decapitating his old boss on the way out. Had Akechi gotten hold of Oda’s head, he could have used it to claim authority throughout Oda’s realm. 

Yasuke joined up with Oda’s eldest son Oda Nobutada at Nijo castle. They were soon besieged, and Akechi got the better of the younger Oda too. Nobutada also fell on his sword. While most of his fellow defenders were executed, Yasuke was spared. It’s believed Akechi saw him as little more than a trained animal. He was stripped of his weapons and armour, and sent back to the Jesuits. 

As the war dragged on, Toyotomi Hideyoshi made it through the siege of Takamatsu Castle. He sought revenge on Akechi Mitsuhide, easily defeating him. Akechi Mitsuhide fled, and met his end, not at the end of his own sword. Having blundered into a group of bandits – the highwaymen robbed and murdered him. Toyotomi Hideyoshi went on to become ‘the great unifier’, but Tokugawa Ieyasu became last man standing. On the murder of Oda, Tokugawa escaped with help from the legendary Hattori Hanzō and his Ninja warriors, Tokugawa returned home to Edo – modern day Tokyo. He allied himself with the great unifier, and fought alongside him. He became Shogun on Toyotomi’s death in 1598, and in 1600 established the Tokugawa Shogunate – ushering in the peaceful, largely isolationist Edo period, which lasted till 1868. 

But what of Yasuke? In short we know nothing of his life beyond this. There is speculation he may have been injured in the siege of Nijō castle, and died on being returned to the Jesuits, but this is mere speculation. I could just as reliably (though logically far less likely) claim he climbed aboard an ox, as the Chinese philosopher Lao Tsu was said to have hundreds of years earlier – then simply rode off into the sunset, looking for his next big adventure. The truth is he just disappeared from the annals of history. If he lived on a while, settled down and got married, or went on to protect a new missionary we have absolutely no clue. By this western music playing under (the podcast episode), you know I’d prefer that he rode off into the sunset. 

The Miser of Marcham Park

The Miser of Marcham Park Tales of History and Imagination


Hi all, welcome to the official 2020 Christmas Tale of History and Imagination. Merry Christmas all, I hope this post finds you all well. Today’s post begins in Canongate churchyard, Edinburgh, Scotland. The date is 1841. A young writer meanders through the graveyard, perusing the tales to be seen on the  markers. No doubt he looked on the resting place of the ‘Father of Economics’ Adam Smith. Smith’s tomb is substantial, but bears the simple engraving

Here are deposited the remains of Adam Smith, author of the Theorey (sic) of Moral Sentiments and Wealth of Nations.”

So much more could have surely been said about one of the great philosophers of his age; perhaps a novelist in this day and age might pause and wonder who was Smith’s one true unrequited love (he never married or had children, as evident in his spartan epitaph). “He uncovered the invisible hand that moves the market, but dismissed the hand of Cupid pulling at his heartstrings: Adam Smith, The Wealth of Romance”.  

He must have stopped to view the gravestone of the poet Robert Fergusson. A well-liked man about town whose works were starting to really gain some attention, Fergusson’s career was suddenly cut short after he took a suspicious tumble down a stairway. In spite of his protests, Fergusson was taken to hospital, where he would die of a head injury days later. His stone bears an epitaph from his friend Robert Burns.

No Sculptur’d marble nor pompous lay
No storied urn, nor animated bust,
This simple stone directs Pale Scotia’s way
To pour her sorrows o’er her poet’s dust”


It was, however, another gravestone entirely which caught the author’s imagination. A simple block of granite, inscribed

“Ebenezer Lennox Scroggie
Mean Man
1792 – 1836.”


The headstone made an impact on the writer, a 29 year old Charles Dickens. He is said to have wondered what kind of monster Mr. Scroggie must have been to have earned the appellation ‘Mean Man’, especially in an age full of mean men not remembered so. I don’t know if Dickens enquired about Scroggie, though we now know him to have been a rather hedonistic young man who matured into a successful vintner, whiskey maker and corn merchant. He was of note in 1822 for supplying the food for a royal visit to Edinburgh, and was the British Navy’s sole supplier of whiskey. It’s been suggested Dickens misread that day, that the grave actually said ‘Meal Man’, but we’ll never know. During a construction project in 1932, Scroggie’s grave marker was inexplicably lost. What is certain, as the tale percolated in Dickens’ mind Scroggie gave way to Scrooge, and one of the great characters of Victorian literature was born.  

Charles Dickens.



I’ll have a little more to say on Dickens’ 1843 novella ‘A Christmas Carol’ later, but first should address – if Ebenezer Scroggie lent his name to the character of Scrooge, but not his actual character, just who was the narrative source for the old miser? The answer most often given, John Elwes – member of Parliament for Berkshire.  

John Elwes was born John Meggot on 7th April 1714 to Robert and Amy Meggot (nee Elwes) in Southwark. Born to a wealthy, but extremely parsimonious family (it was said Amy accidentally starved herself to death over several years in an effort to save as many pennies as possible on the groceries), John found himself orphaned as a young boy, and in charge of a £100,000 fortune – just shy of $22 Million US now. As a result, he had a far more comfortable childhood than many of his peers. Having studied at Westminster School, John left on the Grand Tour – mixing with foreign aristocracy and making a name for himself as an excellent horseman. Tiring of the company of the likes of Voltaire, John returned to Britain, where he continued to live the high life.

a contemporary depiction of John Elwes.

His world view changed drastically however by the middle of the 18th century. As wealthy as John was, his ageing uncle, Baronet Harvey Elwes was considerably wealthier than he, and was a renowned cheapskate to boot. The Baronet had never married, nor fathered a child. The only heir to his £250,000 fortune was young John, pampered rich kid that he was. In all likelihood in an effort to win fortune and favor from uncle Harvey, John changed his ways – first changing his surname to Elwes, then adopting his uncle’s skinflint ways. When Harvey died in 1763, he left a further £250,000 to his nephew –  $53 Million, according to a University of Wyoming currency converter. For a reason never stated, John Elwes never went back to his freewheeling ways – instead choosing to live a lifestyle that would make a Hetty Green or John Paul Getty blush.

Let’s start with candles – probably the least of his sins as a tallow candle was both hideously expensive, and smelled awful when lit. Elwes was notorious for never using candles when moving around his stately home at night. He would much rather bang into the furniture and put his fate in the lap of the Gods when traversing stairs than waste an average weekly wage on several hours of candlelight. Most nights Elwes would also sit in the kitchen with the help, as they would insist on lighting a fire – and he refused to get a second fire going.

in fairness to John Elwes, speaking in terms of lumens of light, a modern LED is 500,000 times cheaper to run, per lumen than a tallow candle then was.


Worse, Elwes refused to fix a growing number of leaks in his roof. This was in spite of the fact the water getting into the house was starting to rot it out from under him, not to mention all the ruined antique furniture the leaks caused.

John Elwes always looked a mess. He wore the same suit for months on end, both day and night, till his clothes turned to rags. Wigs being popular in his day, he refused to buy one. His wig some worn out old rug salvaged after some passing pedestrian tossed it into his grounds. He would often refuse to catch a cab if raining, instead tromping through the deluge, then sitting round soaked at the other end, as he was also too cheap to dry his clothes in front of a fire. He kept food till it went moldy or putrid, and was well known for going out to meet friends – then taking a pancake and a hard boiled egg out of his jacket pocket, to avoid spending money at a restaurant or tavern.

One tale has it, one dark night while walking home, John Elwes took an awful tumble. A doctor was called to dress his injuries – deep gashes to both his legs. Elwes not only refused to let the doctor treat the second leg, he wagered the cost of his treatment on his untreated leg healing sooner. By chance it did, thus saving Elwes the cost of treatment – something he crowed about for some time.

In 1772, Elwes would be elected member of parliament for Berkshire, a job he’d hold for the following twelve years. A complete maverick who voted for whichever side pleased him that day, he drew derisive comments from other parliamentarians such as he could never be a turncoat as he only owned the one coat to start with. He eventually stepped down from the, then, unpaid job as it was costing him too much money to serve.

Georgian Architecture.

While John Elwes is widely considered the model for Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge, I think it is fair to point out in some ways he was far from a real life Ebenezer. Dickens’ Scrooge is shown on Christmas eve counting his money, while his employee Bob Cratchit froze in the ante room. For a start we know he never denied his help a fire for themselves. Scrooge is visited by his nephew Fred, then two charity collectors, all out after something from him – the men are met with an aggressive response – Fred himself sent packing with a ‘Bah! Humbug!’. Elwes WAS known to give to charity, and invest in the upgrade of parts of London. Much of the Georgian architecture present in London owes to his redevelopments. He may have never had one true, lost love such as Scrooge’s Belle – but he had relationships with at least two women, who bore him illegitimate heirs. Nor would he have let Bob Cratchit’s poor son, Tiny Tim, suffer unnecessarily – or been spoken about on his passing by his debtors as an unforgiving ogre. To others John Elwes was a very caring man, who often gave out loans knowing full well he’d never see the money back. He still passed on, finally in 1789, leaving a £500,000 fortune – $81 Million in 2020 money, but he did spend a lot in making others happy. His biographer Edward Topham summed him up, stating “To others, he lent much, to himself he denied everything”.

Given that, maybe on a normal year I’d suggest we all need to be a little more like the real life Scrooge – to find a little joy in giving – but, hell this has been anything but a normal year. Eat, drink and be merry I say – life’s too short not to. Take care out there, and a Merry Christmas all. “God Bless us! Every one” as Tiny Tim states in that, most famous of Christmas Tales.