Category Archives: Interesting Lives

Some life stories are too interesting not to tell.

eden ahbez – Nature Boy (revisited).


Hey all I’m doing something a little different this episode. In the early days of the blog I wrote a piece on the Altamont Free Concert, December 6th 1969, where basically anything which could go wrong did go wrong. The show culminated with the killing of a young man named Meredith Hunter. This was one of those pieces I get to do sometimes where I started off thinking I understood what went down – and came out the other side with a radically different view on the day. I’ll save my thoughts on that – I will do a podcast episode on Altamont at some point. (Note, yes I did one in the disastrous ‘series 0’ but that no longer exists). 

Anyway a friend asked me, after I published the piece “If Altamont is kind of the end of the 60s as we imagine it – hippies and everything. When did the hippies begin?”

I had a bit of a look round, and it seemed to me, beyond the scene round the Red Dog Saloon in Virginia City Nevada, Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, or the Beatniks … well you can go back as far as you like and find people with a hippy vibe about them. Most messianic figures; Lao Tzu, Mazdak, Siddhartha Gautama, Epicurus, Pythagoras… Jesus, all had something of the hippy about them. 

Diogenes? History on Fire’s Daniele Bolelli had him pegged as the first punk rocker. I can see that, but I’m putting in my rival claim for the hippies. St Marius, the stonemason who established the country of San Marino? Yeah, I’d argue he must have had a similar spirit. The Merrymount community of 17th century Quincy Massachusetts? There’s a similarity. 

There’s one group I came across that endlessly fascinated me, however. They owe much to William Pester, the ‘Hermit of Palm Springs’ – a follower of Germany’s Lebensreform movement, and ‘Naturmenschen’ who settled into the American wilderness in 1916 – having fled from the German draft a decade earlier. Based largely in Laurel Canyon, Southern California – the Nature Boys bear more than a passing resemblance to the hippies of the 1960s. One Nature Boy in particular fascinates me, not least of all cause he wrote one of the most haunting songs ever. Right, let’s just jump into it… hit the music. 

This week’s tale begins with a man in a suit trekking through the wilderness calling out for someone at the top of his lungs. The year, 1947. There was a meeting very like this, but this specific part is largely a work of my imagination, a plot device to move the tale on. I, possibly wrongly imagine him middle aged, a little out of breath, and pissed off he’s ruined a nice pair of shoes on this errand.  His instructions, and I paraphrase “you’ll know him when you find him: he looks like Jesus. Oh he may be running round buck naked when you show up – he does that a lot”. The ‘man in the suit’, an employee of Capitol records, is trekking through the hills of Mount Lee, California; through Griffith Park. For weeks Capitol have been looking for this messianic-looking figure – one imagines no ruined loafers, angry mountain lions, or nudity is going to stop this mission. He’s looking for a man, a very strange, enchanted man. Today he’ll find him.

Our mystery man enters the tale following a Nat King Cole concert at California’s Lincoln Theater, earlier in 1947. Cole had yet to go solo, yet to break the colour barrier. As part of the Nat King Cole trio, the future crooner was still a proto R&B musician; a decent vocalist and incredible piano player. In attendance that night a long haired white man, also a piano player, who managed to blag his way into the after-party. 

At several points in the night, the man tried to catch Cole’s attention, but was rebuffed at every advance. As a last ditch effort, he handed his payload, a crumpled up piece of paper, to Cole’s valet. The valet subsequently handed it on to Cole’s manager, who eventually passed the paper on to Cole himself. It was a song, a very strange, enchanted song… Mystical, prototypical exotica, haunting and otherworldly. It struck Nat King Cole as something special. He started performing it in his live sets. His crowds, and you have to figure we are talking about a time when music was primarily made for dancing to, listening was secondary- well they listened … and they went crazy for it. 

The song was titled Nature Boy. Not unlike P.B. Shelley’s Ozymandias, the protagonist meets a wise traveller from a distant land. The men speak for some time, and the wise man the ‘Nature Boy’ gives him the following advice…

“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn, is just to love, and be loved in return”

Brooding and exotic, at once reminiscent of Dvorak and of Yiddish folk music. Hauntingly poetic, Nat King Cole knew he absolutely had to cut this track… but who was the mysterious, long haired writer? With all the copyright, and publishing red tape to go through to make the record, an all points bulletin was sent out to everyone who knew everyone in Hollywood. 

After some detective work they worked out the man was eden ahbez – deliberately in lower case (ahbez believed only two words should be capitalised – God and Infinity). ahbez was born George Alexander Aberle in 1908 to a Jewish father, Scottish mother,  and promptly abandoned in a Jewish orphanage in New York. Aged around 10 he was adopted by the McGrew family of Chanute, Kansas. As a young man he joined a dance band – I presume one of the swing orchestras which were in vogue at the time? – first as a pianist, then later a band leader. 

In 1941 he moved out to Los Angeles, where he found work as a pianist at a raw foods restaurant and supermarket in Laurel Canyon, The Eutropheon – a shop established in 1917 by John and Vera Richter. The Richters had come by their beliefs at John Harvey Kellogg’s Battle Creek Sanitarium; and were firm believers in the health benefits of eating only raw fruit and vegetables. The Eutropheon was a hub for many ‘alternative lifestyles’ in Laurel canyon, particularly the early bodybuilders, who had a gym nearby; socialists – the Richters themselves vocal supporters of senator, trade unionist, activist and 1912 socialist party presidential candidate Eugene Debs – and the Nature Boys. abhez soon gravitated towards the latter. 

Just hanging with a dog, a plate of raw snacks and singing cowboy Roy Rogers

A group of proto-hippies, living mostly in caves and very rustic cabins in the Palm Springs area; the Nature Boys followed the teachings of William Pester – the Hermit of Palm Springs. Pester himself a follower of a German 19th century back to nature movement called the ‘Naturmenschen’. They wore their hair long, and grew big, bushy beards. Whenever possible, they preferred to go nude, ate only raw fruit and vegetables, studied eastern spiritualism, and believed in the importance of casting off the restraints of the modern world for a simpler life, more aligned with nature. Pester would pass on in 1963, before his philosophy really took off in the ‘summer of love’. 

eden ahbez was, indirectly, an acolyte of Pester’s. He joined the movement in 1941 while Pester was in jail – he was accused, first of being a German spy in 1940, and when that didn’t stick, jailed for having sex with a minor, till 1946.

 Back to the man in a suit. I imagine him all out of breath, clutching a contract which now looks every bit as crumpled as the paper ahbez passed to Cole’s valet.  He eventually caught up with eden ahbez- clothed in a white toga, camping out under the first L in the Hollywood sign. Ahbez granted his permission to record the song, which though semi-autobiographical, he explained was also a tribute to William Pester. In August 1947 Nat King Cole cut the track. The finished product was incredible. Capitol, for all that effort, killed the track. It just didn’t jive with smooth pop crooner image they were creating for Nat King Cole. However, in 1948, fate threw a spanner in Capitol’s works. 

The American Federation of Musicians, led by James Petrillo, went on strike. Petrillo was a trumpeter who had become a music union organiser in 1920 – and president of the union in 1940. He’d called a strike which lasted the better part of two years in 1942, over recording royalties for session musicians – which ultimately was successful – and had some far reaching consequences. 


Sidebar: it was a factor in the demise of the big swing band era – alongside American entry into WW2 and rationing of the petrol needed to take a big band on tour in a bus etc. As such it was a building block in the creation of smaller groups – who would morph into rock and roll groups over time. It recast the singer as the band lead. Radio stations were forced to go outside their usual repertoire – leading to boom times for country and western, and R&B groups, among others. It also, sadly meant the first couple of years of bebop went unrecorded.


I guess the things which need to be understood about the 1942 – 44 strike: It started as the union recognised a musician got paid every time they performed live – but only once to record. Their work could then get played thousands of times on commercial radio stations, millions potentially on jukeboxes, or on record players in peoples’ homes – for which they would go completely unpaid. The strike secured a royalty of around 2.5% for the musicians.

James Petrillo addresses his union members.

The strike of 1948 – which ran for eleven months, was of a similar nature, but aimed squarely at broadcasters. The history of television is a Tale for another day, but this was timely – in 1947 television was an odd thing only a few thousand people were tuned into. From 1949 TV stations began to really proliferate – with the format really starting to take off in 1951. In both strikes record companies stockpiled massive amounts of music beforehand – and before the strike came to an end, had to release songs they had mothballed earlier. 

 Nature Boy was one such track, getting it’s release on March 29th 1948. It shot to number 1 with a bullet and stayed there for 7 weeks. It was just the crossover hit Nat King Cole needed, introducing him to white audiences. This was a mixed blessing, as it also brought him to the attention of racists who would burn crosses in his front yard – but it also elevated him to superstardom.

eden ahbez made around $20,000 in royalties, somewhere in the order of $200,000 by today’s standards.  He gave around half the money to friends; and likely lost the rest in 1951 – when a composer named Herman Yablokoff took him to court for plagiarism. He claimed ahbez stole his song “shvayg mayn harts” (hush my heart). ahbez stated the melody came to him “as if angels were singing it” while camping out in the mountains. Yablokoff replied the angels must have bought his record then. 

The song was later covered by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Rick Astley (yes he who is never going to give you up, let you down). George Benson laid down a funky take on the song. Marvin Gaye’s cover is ethereal. David Bowie recorded a solid version for the soundtrack to Moulin Rouge. Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga recorded a version – one could imagine ahbez’s shock, had he lived, to see Gaga in her meat dress – avowed raw food vegetarian that he was.

For some time eden ahbez was a celebrity. He released his own albums, which fit into the growing exotica genre popular with people who felt too old to love rock and roll, but too cool to keep buying Old Blue Eyes Sinatra’s records anymore. Journalists, just like my man in a suit, went out of their way to find and interview the messianic figure who scored the monster hit on his first try. In these interviews ahbez often extolled the virtues of living the Nature Boy lifestyle. eden ahbez, ahbe to his friends, lived a simple life, largely in accordance with nature till his death in a car crash in 1995. 

The great Pre-Raphaelite artist, iconoclast and writer William Morris, a man with somewhat hippy leanings himself once wrote.

“History has remembered the kings and warriors, because they have destroyed; art has remembered the people because they created”

Tales of Art and Imagination this week? Yeah, I’ll gladly take that. 

Nellie Bly: 10 Days in a Madhouse

“I would like the expert physicians who are condemning me for my action, which has proven their ability, to take a perfectly sane and healthy woman, shut her up and make her sit from 6 A. M. until 8 P. M. on straight-back benches, do not allow her to talk or move during these hours, give her no reading and let her know nothing of the world or its doings, give her bad food and harsh treatment, and see how long it will take to make her insane. Two months would make her a mental and physical wreck.”

Nellie Bly, ‘Ten Days in a Mad House’ (1887).


In 1885 an ‘anxious father’ of 5 unmarried daughters wrote a letter to the Pittsburgh Dispatch, desperate for advice – and worried how his girls would cope out in the big, bad world without men to look after them. Their columnist Erasmus Wilson replied in an editorial piece entitled ‘What girls are good for’.
According to Wilson, girls were not good for terribly much. In his diatribe Wilson decried working women as “A monstrosity”, stating the only place for a woman was in the home. He lambasted parents of working women for allowing them to enter the workforce, and suggested America should follow China’s 2 millennia long practice of (some) parents drowning female babies. If you imagine that even in 1885 such an exhibit of he-man woman hating misogyny would get some heat, you’d be correct. A mountain of letters of complaint to the editor came flooding in. One in particular, an anonymous piece signed “lonely orphan girl” stood out for it’s remarkably direct and persuasive use of language. The letter never got published, but so impressed managing editor George Madden that he wrote an open letter inviting the writer to come see him.

The next day, a 20 year old woman named Elizabeth Cochran – a former trainee teacher at Indiana Teacher’s college who dropped out to help her mother run a boarding house – arrived at the office. Madden offered her a job as a reporter, which she took unhesitatingly. Cochran took on the nom de plume Nellie Bly, a name she borrowed from a minstrel song written by the “Father of American Music” Stephen Foster.


Bly wrote for the Pittsburgh Dispatch for seven years, writing mostly on fashion, high society, gardening and the like… but she also covered the lives of working women, the poor of Pittsburgh, and for some time, official corruption and wealth inequality in Mexico. Looking for bigger opportunities, she moved to New York in 1887. That year she approached Joseph Pulitzer’s ‘The New York World’ (yes, that Pulitzer, of the prize… if you recall the mountebank Ignaz Trebitsch Lincoln also wrote for them on occasion) wanting to report on the lives of poor immigrants in the Big Apple. While the New York World was not at all interested in that story, they did have a challenging job for Nellie, if she felt she was up to the task- infiltrate the remote, secretive Blackwell Island insane asylum. As she would to a number of big challenges in her life, Bly took up the challenge without hesitstion.

Joseph Pulitzer.

On 22nd September 1887 Nellie Bly came up with a plan to get herself committed with the least amount of collateral damage. Under the guise of a young out of towner looking for work, she booked herself into a boarding house for working women, then began to act one part paranoid, one part clinically depressed, one part retrograde amnesiac. She, in turns, acted ‘mad’ till the boarding house owners called for two police officers to come over and take Nellie away. The police arrived and took her back to the station, then before the kindly Judge Duffy, who took some convincing to send Nellie to Bellevue hospital for examination. At Bellevue, Nellie easily convinced the doctors she was “positively demented” and beyond help, after a short examination by a couple of what then passed for expert doctors.

She was soon sent off to the asylum.

In her ten days in the asylum, she uncovered a litany of horrors and mistreatment. First there was the ubiquitous chill – Although the asylum was freezing cold (she references this several times including talk on seeing others skin going blue with the cold) the staff refused to turn on the heat or provide sufficient clothing to keep inmates warm. Second, the long hours of sitting around in a main room; unadorned and overcrowded, on backless benches (six people crammed onto five spaces) – where one dare not speak, or move around for fear of abuse from the staff. Third the food sounded absolutely Dickensian. Bly describes on their arrival to the island the sickening stench coming from one particular building,

We passed one low building, and the stench was so horrible that I was compelled to hold my breath….” This turned out to be the kitchen. Bly goes on stating she
“…smiled at the signboard at the end of the walk: “Visitors are not allowed on this road”. I don’t think the sign would be necessary if they once tried the road, especially on a warm day”.

She goes on to describe inedible food, soups which were little more than water, blackened (possibly moldy) bread, rancid butter.

The inmates were, also, not bathed enough. When they were, they bathed in ice cold water, were scrubbed by the same few flannels and were dried off with the same few towels – this included inmates with untreated sores. The inmates were also dressed in the same clothes for up to a month at a time.

Adding to the horrors, sleep for any decent length of time, was out of the question – the noise of the nurses moving up and down the hallways at night reverberated like they were in an echo chamber. If that didn’t wake you, then he nurses opening the door to look in – having to turn a heavy, noisy lock each time to do so, was bound to wake you up. Speaking of those doors, they were death traps, should a fire break out. All individually locked, with no safety to unlock all the rooms at once should an emergency occur, there would be no chance of getting anyone out alive if the worst happened.


That Bly comments that, in her opinion, many of the women incarcerated are as sane as herself one might choose to accept, or dismiss as they see fit. Certainly in some of her conversations it seems clear some of the inmates were suffering from, at most, depression or anxiety. Some you do question if they are suffering from anything besides the effects of being trapped in an asylum.

Bly mentions of a French inmate, Josephine Despreau, who appeared to have been locked up over a misunderstanding, and did not have enough English to defend herself. A Sarah Fishbaum, who was locked away by her husband, after she either flirted with or had an affair with another man. She mentions a German maid named Margaret, who was locked up after getting into a fight with co-workers who deliberately messed up a floor she had spent hours scrubbing. What’s also pretty obvious is both the unprofessionalism of the doctors (one gossiping with the nurse in front of Bly, asking if she had read the newspaper articles on Bly’s case), and of their great disinterest in helping, or even properly assessing their inmates.

The nurses are disturbing in other ways, Bly reporting of their propensity to act violently towards the inmates. She mentions one case where “an insane woman” was dropped off to the island, and the nurses greeted her with a beating. When a doctor noticed the inmate’s black eye, the nurses claimed the beating must have happened before the inmate arrived. Then there was the case of Mrs Cotter, to quote Bly

“One of the patients, Mrs Cotter, a pretty, delicate woman, one day thought she saw her husband coming up the walk. She left the line in which she was marching and ran to meet him. For this act she was sent to the Retreat. She afterward said:
“The remembrance of that is enough to make me mad. For crying the nurses beat me with a broom- handle and jumped on me, injuring me internally, so that I shall never get over it. Then they tied my hands and feet, and, throwing a sheet over my head, twisted it tightly around my throat, so I could not scream, and thus put me in a bath tub filled with cold water. They held me under until I gave up every hope and became senseless.”

After ten days she was rescued by her colleagues at the New York World. She recorded her experiences of Blackwell Island in a six part expose, which was compiled into a book, ‘Ten Days in a Mad House’. The uproar over the treatment of the inmates led to a grand jury investigation, which in turn led to an overhaul of the asylum.

Bly would go on to write several similar exposes in her career, taking down sweatshops, corruption in jails, and bribery from lobbyists; though perhaps today is best known for having taken on the challenge of following in the footsteps of Jules Verne’s Phileas Fogg (Around the World in Eighty Days, 1873). She documented her circumnavigation of the globe in just 72 days. Nellie Bly retired from journalism in 1895, after marrying the wealthy industrialist Robert Seaman. When Seaman died in 1903 she took the reins of his factory, but would return to journalism in 1920. Elizabeth Cochran, known to the world as Nellie Bly, star investigative reporter, died of pneumonia, January 27th 1922.

The Sin-Eater

Hey all, please count the following as week ten of this week’s ten week sprint. I’m taking a four week break, though the podcast will continue with two episodes ‘from the vaults’. I’m planning to be back straight after that with the next ten week sprint. 

This week, I’m keeping it short and sweet. 

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

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

When a sin-eater passes, who will break bread for them? Given Munslow’s passing saw the death, also, of a practice long frowned upon – my best guess is – nobody? When Richard Munslow passed, the act of sin-eating went to the grave with him. As a third generation atheist, a part of me thinks not a moment too soon. However, as someone with some level of empathy about me, I dread to think Munslow might have believed in his avocation. Did he spend his last hours terrified he was taking all of Shropshire’s collected sins to hell with him when he went? 

The practice of sin eating dates at least as far back as the early 17th century, mostly in Wales and the bordering English counties. If someone died before they could confess their sins, a sin-eater was called in. While the body lay in state, and family and friends gathered to drink – a pastry would be placed on the deceased’s chest or face, in the belief it could soak up all their sins. A sin-eater would then enter, and eat the pastry – reciting “I give easement and rest now to thee, dear man. Come not down the lanes or in our meadows. And for thy peace, I pawn my own soul. Amen.” The sin-eater, not unlike The Green Mile’s John Coffey, purged the dead of their sins – they believed at the cost of their own damnation. As much as Coffey strikes me as a stand in for Jesus (right down to the JC initials), it’s believed the practice grew out of a wish to emulate Christ.

For the families it gave them solace their relative would now ascend to heaven. The community at large could breathe easy some poor spirit would not be left to wander aimlessly forever – chain-rattling and scaring the villagers half to death. The sin-eater would barely eke out a living in the process.  

Sin-eating was a profession for only the poorest in the village. It was poorly paid, and it carried a heavy stigma with it. If one were a sin-eater, others considered you so toxic it was extremely bad luck to even look you in the eye. As a result, most sin-eaters lived in isolation from the rest of the village, on it’s outskirts. From what I can gather, most believed their acts both sent many a sinner to heaven, and destined themselves to burn in hell for eternity. It was also considered an act of heresy – and if caught, one could face punishment similar to that dished out to witches of the era. As a rule, most sin-eaters were criminals or alcoholics who had few other options available.  

Though the practice pretty much disappeared in the mid 19th century, Richard Munslow – a man who ate others sins, not for lack of money, but because he hated to see others suffer – continued to break bread with the deceased till early into the 20th century. Though I’m doubtful others passed on the favour for him, he was honoured by the people of Ratlinghope, Shropshire in 2010. His tombstone looking much the worse for wear after a century of neglect, Reverend Norman Morris collected £1,000 from the locals, and had his grave restored. 

Jack Parsons – Babalon’s Rocketeer (Part Two)


Hey all, this post is part two of the two part tale on the rocketeer Jack Parsons. If you’re picking up from here I recommend jumping in to part one first. If you’ve already read part one – welcome back. 

This week’s tale begins on the Pacific Island of Oahu; the time? – around 7.48 am Sunday morning, December 7th 1941. Much of the world was now engaged in a brutal, mechanised war – fought largely with the kind of deadly machines that chew up 60 million people, then spit out the bones. Oahu, by extension of the neutrality of the empire who annexed them in 1898, had no dog in this fight. All the same, today, they would be rocked from their peaceful slumber by a sneak attack by the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service. 353 Japanese aircraft strafed and bombed the naval base at Pearl Harbour for just 75 brutal minutes. The carnage was significant. All eight battleships on the base were damaged – four sunk. Three cruisers, three destroyers, a minelayer and 188 aircraft were either badly damaged, or destroyed completely. More importantly, 2403 Americans were murdered, a further 1178 wounded. Mitsuo Fuchida, the pilot who led the first wave, and ordered the second wave by uttering the words ‘Tora! Tora! Tora!’ Would soon report back they had destroyed the entire U.S. Pacific fleet. 

Seven and a half hours later, an official declaration of war – in the name of the Emperor Hirohito – ran on the front page of every Japanese newspaper. The declaration would be reprinted on all front pages, on the eighth of every month till Japan surrendered in September 1945. Across the Pacific, this horrific act galvanised the USA into action. President Franklin D Roosevelt appeared before congress to deliver his ‘…date which will live in infamy…’ speech. In a little over seven minutes, Roosevelt captured the mood of the nation – selling Congress on the urgency of entering this just war against the fascists. Within an hour, all but one dissenter – Jeannette Rankin, a lifelong Pacifist representative from Montana – voted to take the war to the Axis powers.      

Just like that the Suicide Squad became extremely busy – Aerojet extremely wealthy. While this can’t have sat well with many of them – the squad including a number of pacifists and communists – they were united in their hatred of fascism. Throughout 1942 they continued to labour in the Mojave desert, making increasingly powerful jet engines. The military needed a safe propulsion system powered by a solid fuel source. After dozens of prototypes Aerojet finally developed GALCIT-53, a rocket which fit the bill to a T. Liquid asphalt was used as a binding agent – Parsons’ idea, influenced by tales of ‘Greek Fire’ – a now lost weapon used by the Byzantine Empire which sounds something like Napalm. This was the game changer. The addition of asphalt to the mix allowed indefinite storage, mass production and usage in all weather conditions. Aerojet were now flat out producing rockets for the war effort. 

Alongside their recently hired lawyer and treasurer Andrew Haley, Jack Parsons became something of a spokesman for the group – often travelling the country to meet with the top brass. 

This sudden prosperity, and constant travel allowed Parsons’ other life – as a rising star in the Ordo Templi Orientis – to take off also. On one trip to New York, he met with Alesteir Crowley’s 2nd in charge, Karl Germer. As with his correspondence with Crowley himself, Parsons impressed Germer. He also made a point of dropping in on the Library of Congress’ Poet Laureate, Joseph Auslander, with copies of several of Crowley’s books, for the library’s collection. As a well connected man with an ability to sell a cult, it seems, Jack Parsons increased the membership of the O.T.O considerably. 

Unfortunately, for some of the longstanding members of the O.T.O, a lot of these newcomers were drawn in with promises of greater sexual freedom. While sex magick made up much of their practice – the sex should always be in support of their higher goals. Many of Parsons’ new acolytes seemed only interested in the sex, not the magick. On the face of it, few seemed to typify this as much as Jack and Helen Parsons themselves. Jack was now having an open affair with Helen’s seventeen year old sister Betty. In retaliation Helen began an affair with the leader, Wilfred Smith. The cult were generally supportive of this bed swapping, till Helen replaced Regina Kahle as the priestess in their masses. At this point, several members started complaining the O.T.O had become on giant swingers’ party. 

In June 1942 Jack used his new found wealth to rent (then later buy the lease for) a new home for the members of the Agape Lodge. He rented 1003 Orange Grove Avenue, a large American Craftsman styled mansion in the former Millionaires’ row. While now well off, the Stockmarket crash had cleaned out a lot of wealthy industrialists – and homes like 1003 Orange Grove – hereafter named ‘The Parsonage’, were going for a fraction of their former price. On June 9th the O.T.O moved into the mansion – Parsons setting up a home lab in the carriage house. With plenty of space to practice magick, a growing sense of community among those living at The Parsonage, and 25 acres of land to party on – the cult picked up 40 new members by the end of the year. Parsons even, slightly warily, introduced his colleagues at Caltech to the cult – putting on a largely secular party for the Winter equinox, at the Parsonage. 

At this time Crowley started bypassing Smith, asking Jack to lead a number of initiatives. Time poor from his commitments to the O.T.O, and often the worse for wear from long nights of drug, sex and alcohol fuelled parties; people at Aerojet started questioning Parsons’ fitness to work on the project. Where some had formerly accepted his interest in the occult as eccentricity – others started to show concern as Jack loudly chanted the ‘Hymn to Pan’ – in the manner of a Televangelist in full flight – at rocket tests. To complicate matters, the FBI formally opened an investigation into the O.T.O’s Agape lodge again. Someone reported them as a devil worshipping, black magic cult. Suspicion fell on Regina Kahle – now pushed to the side for Helen… or Grady McMurtry, a protege of Parsons, who some suspected as his wife first had affairs with Parsons and Smith – then left him. Grady would, as it turned out, eventually lead the O.T.O – while Regina distanced herself. 

The bad publicity for the O.T.O would not go unnoticed by Crowley – who blamed Smith, not Parsons, for the publicity – and increasing number of free love acolytes. This was undoubtedly helped along by Helen Parsons’ pregnancy to Smith. Aleister Crowley, needing Wilfred Smith gone, came up with a novel plan to get rid of him.

In Crowley’s Liber 132, he stated he’d gone over Smith’s astrological chart again, and it was all rather impressive. Turns out Wilfred T Smith was a God. As it was hard to state which God, Crowley ordered him to tattoo ‘666’ on his forehead, then to go out into the desert to ponder on which God he was. Smith was told this may take a very long time. Smith flat out refused this suicide mission and resigned. Crowley and Karl Germer then poisoned the well, spreading a rumour that Smith left after being caught raping a newcomer. At around this time Parsons tried to resign, but Crowley convinced him to stay on. In the meantime, Aerojet continued their upwards trajectory – barely keeping to their order for 2,000 jet propulsion engines throughout 1943 – then an even bigger order for 1944. Parsons kept on, as tired and seedy-looking as ever. Still chanting the ‘Hymn to Pan’ at test flights. In 1944, they changed their name to the Jet Propulsion Lab. 

“…I am Pan! Io Pan! Io Pan Pan! Pan!
I am thy mate, I am thy man,
Goat of thy flock, I am gold, I am god,
Flesh to thy bone, flower to thy rod.
With hoofs of steel I race on the rocks
Through solstice stubborn to equinox.
And I rave; and I rape and I rip and I rend
Everlasting, world without end,
Mannikin, maiden, Maenad, man,
In the might of Pan.
Io Pan! Io Pan Pan! Pan! Io Pan
!”

Thus far we haven’t written nearly enough on Parsons’ connection to another group of people – Science Fiction fans. It bears a quick mention. 

Jack Parsons, like a lot of early rocketeers, was crazy for science fiction. From early on in his career, Parsons was regularly invited to speak at the Los Angeles Science Fiction League – a group of Sci Fi lovers who regularly met at Clifford Clinton’s Clifton’s Cafe (also aforementioned in this tale). As a regular visitor he became friendly with a number of members – some of whom became regular visitors to The Parsonage, some even followers. Jack Parsons was also good friends with a number of science fiction writers.

In March 1944, Astounding Science Fiction Magazine published a story called ‘Deadline’. Written by one Cleve Cartmill, a former newspaper reporter and accountant, it told the story of an alien commando trying to save their world from alien Nazis who had built a super bomb. The bomb in question was described in close detail – and bore a remarkable resemblance to the bomb being built by the, then top secret, Manhattan Project in the Los Alamos desert. How did a non-technical guy – who I should mention now was a regular visitor to O.T.O masses – know anything about uranium 235 bombs and the like? Authorities were very keen to find out. The story was eventually chalked up to coincidence, but it added more pages to the dossier on Parsons. 

In December 1944 the Jet Propulsion Lab sold 51% of it’s stock to the General Tire and Rubber Company. They had to, in order to grow to meet demand for their rockets. Most of the Suicide Squad were convinced by Andrew Haley to sell their shares. Jack sold his for $11,000 – before being summarily dismissed – the General Tire and Rubber Company didn’t want to keep an eccentric, chanting occultist on their team, regardless of how much he’d contributed to the project. Jack suddenly found himself at a loose end – just as the O.T.O saw a large drop off in membership. Needing more tenants to help pay the bills, Jack placed an ad in the paper, stating “…  only bohemians, artists, musicians, atheists, anarchists, or any other exotic types need to apply for rooms.” 

Enter Ron, in late 1945.

It could be very easy to get lost on the weeds over Ron, his could be a full Tale in his own right. He grew up on Naval bases, as a military brat and joined the navy as one of their worst sea captains in the war (at one point attacking an island in the mistaken belief he had found a submarine). Ron had lived a life of adventure, and was full of tall tales. He was also a prolific science fiction writer, with connections to Parsons through the Sci Fi circles. He soon became a well- loved guest at The Parsonage – especially so of Betty – Parsons’ de facto wife. It did not take long for Ron and Betty to start a sexual relationship, and for Betty to move out of Jack’s room, into Ron’s. Animosity grew between the two men.  

From December 1945, Jack Parsons more or less disappeared into his bedroom. All day long he could be heard chanting arcane rites, allegedly passed down from Elizabeth I’s astrologer John Dee – noisy, violent chants which had everyone in the Parsonage convinced Jack was trying to summon a demon to drag Ron down to hell. Over and over again, in frenetic two hour sessions, Jack would chant at his altar – in the background, Prokofiev’s 2nd Violin concerto on endless repeat on the record player – for months. Tenants at the Parsonage reported strange winds, light beams, and power cuts during the rituals. At some point in the ritual, Parsons sensed Ron may be a lightning rod for this energy he was tapping into – leading to his unwilling participation in the rituals. After a few weeks, where guests claimed to hear voices, and see spirits (one of whom looked like the Godlike Wilfred Smith (still very much alive) Jack and Ron ventured out, at sunset, into the Mojave desert. As one chanted, the other claimed to see visions – no doubt so he could just get home, to Parsons’ wife – the air changed. A massive weight fell off Parsons shoulders. The spell was cast. 

Jack Parsons wasn’t trying to summon a demon to kill Ron, he was trying to conjure a new wife. 

When the two men returned home, Marjorie Cameron – an artist also known as Candy – was waiting to meet the master of the house. She was looking for accommodation, and heard it was just the kind of place she was looking for. Parsons would later write to Crowley “I have my elemental”. 

Jack and Candy soon became an item. 

The following year was not uneventful, but to sum up quickly; Jack and Ron summoned another being – a Goddess Jack named ‘Babylon’, to keep Crowley company. Crowley changed the spelling to ‘Babalon’ for astrological reasons I don’t understand. The culture of the Parsonage, and of the O.T.O in general changed – suddenly becoming more aligned with the beatniks. Jack started to feel old, and a little square. He also missed his business – so he handed in his notice to the O.T.O, gave notice to the tenants of the Parsonage that he was selling the property – and moved into the Carriage House. He went into business with Ron and Betty. Their first plan was for Ron and Betty to travel to Miami with $20,000 of Jack’s money, to buy three yachts. The yachts would be transported back to California, to be sold for a profit. 

Unfortunately for Jack, Ron and Betty ran off with his money. They did buy a yacht – The Harpoon – and planned to sail off into the sunset together. After a magick invocation to the God Mars to stop the couple, Jack got on a plane to Miami and, through the courts – actually managed to stop them stealing all of his money. 

All the same, Ron bigamously married Betty (he abandoned, but never divorced his first wife during World War Two). After a failed attempt to re-write the rules of psychology – a system called dianetics – Ron ….. L. Ron Hubbard … formed his own, far more successful religion than Aleister Crowley’s. By 1953 he established The Church of Scientology. When asked about his time at The Parsonage, he’d claim the Navy sent him there to bust up the cult and rescue Betty Northrup. 

The post-war years were hard on Jack in other ways. At first he seemed content in his new role, a job at North American Aviation – and happy to put the O.T.O behind him. On October 19th 1946, now long divorced from Helen, and over Betty – he married Candy. Aware of the impediment a lack of any formal education posed, Jack took night courses in advanced mathematics. He wrote to Crowley, but Crowley was now lost to heroin addiction and would pass on in 1947. 

In 1948, however, the first rumblings of the Communist witch hunts began.

A number of members of the Suicide Squad were outed as members of the Communist party, and lost their security clearances. Jack was stripped of his clearance for attending a few meetings. He lost his job because of this. Candy left Jack, and moved to an artists’ commune in Mexico. At first, Jack took any odd jobs he could find, and in 1949, sued to get his security clearance back. He’d never been in the Communist party, why should he lose his livelihood over something he never was? He won his case, and was restored to his old job, with back-pay. A Pyrrhic victory, he’d subsequently be stripped of his clearance and let go, after a decision stating his connections to the O.T.O and Crowley made him undesirable. He found work setting up explosions for movie sets – and working for Howard Hughes. 

In 1950, Jack sent a proposal to the newly established state of Israel – to set up a rocket programme for the country. The Israelis were interested, and asked Parsons to work up some costings. In doing so, he leant on costings on similar projects he was working on for Hughes, and asked his secretary to type up his proposal for him. She panicked, contacting the FBI. Parsons was now under investigation for international espionage, and only drawing income by continuing to make squibs for Hollywood movies. Reporters started to dig into the ‘former sex cult on Orange Grove Avenue’ – and Parsons slumped into a depression. Hearing the news, Candy returned to Jack immediately. 

Which brings us, more or less full circle. By 1951 Jack Parsons was cleared of the espionage charges. Candy was back. He was getting enough work from Hollywood to keep a roof over his head. Knowing his security clearance was gone forever, Jack and Candy planned to sell up the Carriage House and move to Mexico. Stage one of the move was to clear a warehouse full of explosives he’d accumulated – and for now, at least – store them in his basement lab. He packed up his lab in the days before the move, and arranged for tenants to take over the Carriage House. 

On moving day, a final order came in from the movie makers in Tinseltown. We know you’re crossing the border, but could we bother you for one more job? All his equipment packed away, Jack Parsons prepared his final pyrotechnic display, in an old coffee mug.  

On June 17th 1952, at 5.08 pm, a deafening explosion caught the attention of the suburb of Pasadena. At it’s epicentre – the Carriage House once belonging to 1003 Orange Grove Avenue – a 37 year old man lay dying. Though an unheralded innovator, whose genius helped the allies win World War Two – and whose innovations would play a part in the winning of the space race – all talk was on the other part of his life. Some commented on the ‘sex cult’ on Orange Grove Avenue in the 1940s, and the alleged demonic rituals there. Others on his professional, and personal struggles after the war. ‘I heard his wife left him for a science fiction writer’. ‘Wasn’t he fired after spying for the Communists, or Israelis, or someone?’. Others looked to his battles with depression in his later years – claiming the explosion a suicide attempt. 

Those in the know, no doubt, knew Jack Parsons sweated a lot in the lab. Without his professional equipment, they supposed his hands slipped – dropping the mug. With a lab fuller than usual of dangerous chemicals, the resulting accident was far worse that it may have been. It is here – where we started this tale – that we leave our unlucky protagonist. 

Ok, one more thing. 

Out in space, 384,400 km from our planet is a large moon – orbiting Earth. As it moves in what scientists call a synchronous rotation, it never spins, and we only ever see one side of the moon. The side we don’t see is heavily pockmarked with craters. We know because rockets finally reached escape velocity. All manner of space craft have since photographed the so-called dark side. China, of all nations, finally landed a probe there in 2019. Some features are named for mythical figures like Apollo and Daedalus, others likely – at the very least semi-mythical figures like the Chinese inventor Wan Hu (who I may return to at some point). Others for scientists like J. Robert Oppenheimer, and Theodore Von Karman. On the far side of the moon is an impact crater, 40 km across – oval in shape. A little West- Northwest of Krylov, East of Moore. In 1972 it was named ‘Parsons’ in honour of Jack Parsons; arguably the true father of modern rocketry.  

Jack Parsons – Babalon’s Rocketeer (Part One)

Welcome folks. Sorry to do this to you – I really did want to start this tale out in the Mojave desert, following a magick man and his usurper. One chanting tribally to the God Pan, and the other pretending to see spirits so he could just go home – to the other’s wife… but we’ll come back round to that. The date is June 17, 1952. The location, the carriage house which formerly belonged to 1003 Orange Grove, Pasadena – a former stately mansion we’ll definitely talk about later. Pasadena was a neighbourhood in transition from a millionaires’ row of landed estates, to a collection of middle class ranch houses, condos and apartments. While the locals may have grown accustomed to the hubbub of diggers and graders, rollers and wrecking balls, at 5.08pm the neighbourhood would be shocked to attention by a soul shuddering explosion. 

At it’s epicentre, the basement lab in the carriage house – now a wreck of it’s former self. Two men and a woman, tenants, rush downstairs -surveying the damage and looking for the owner of the property – one Jack Parsons. After rifling through the debris they found him; horrifically wounded – he’d lost an arm. The remainder of his limbs are all badly broken. Most of the right side of his face is missing – yet he is still, barely, alive. An ambulance rushes to the scene, then tears off at break-neck speed with their patient. Parsons is treated at Huntington Memorial Hospital – where he would die 37 minutes after the explosion. Parsons’ wife Marjorie, aka Candy, couldn’t bring herself to view her husband in such a state. She would leave it to a friend to arrange the cremation. When Jack’s mother, Ruth, got the news of her son’s untimely passing – she took her own life by swallowing a bottle of barbiturates. 

While one may expect the sudden death of Jack Parsons to bring on a great mourning in the area – he was, after all a pioneering rocket scientist who helped win the war. Jet planes, missiles, the rockets which would travel to the moon all owe a massive debt to his genius. Platitudes gave way to gossip about his wildly occult lifestyle and speculations of suicide or even that he’d been killed by order of Howard Hughes. Stories began to emerge about the cult living at 1003 Orange Grove, the rituals and wild orgies. The Pasadena Independent would eulogise him thus

‘John W. Parsons, handsome 37-year-old rocket scientist killed Tuesday in a chemical explosion, was one of the founders of a weird semi-religious cult that flourished here about 10 years ago … Old police reports yesterday pictured the former Caltech professor as a man who led a double existence—a down-to-earth explosives expert who dabbled in intellectual necromancy. Possibly he was trying to reconcile fundamental human urges with the inhuman, Buck Rogers type of innovations that sprang from his test tubes.’

John Whiteside Parsons, Jack to his friends is a largely forgotten figure now – but I think his tale is worth sharing. For the next two episodes let’s discuss the mad world of Jack Parsons. 

Jack Parsons was born Marvel Parsons in 1914 to Ruth (née Whiteside) and Marvel Parsons snr. When young, Jack’s father would desert the family to join the army – where he would distinguish himself in battle, move up the ranks, remarry and settle down – only to have a nervous breakdown in middle age – following a medical misdiagnosis giving him just a day left to live. From abandonment as a baby to Marvel’s institutionalisation, the two would only meet once. In his youth both he and Ruth, were joined by Ruth’s wealthy parents – who moved up to Pasadena – buying a home for them all on Orange Grove. 

Jack was a smart and imaginative child. Home-schooled till the age of 12, he read voraciously. He was an especially big fan of Jules Verne, and of the new pulp fiction magazines like the Argosy All-Story Weekly and Amazing Stories. In amongst the ‘boys own adventure’ tales of cowboys, adventurers, detectives and firemen – the science fiction genre blossomed in these periodicals. Buck Rogers and John Carter of Mars, for one example, were launched in these magazines. Parsons became enamoured with sci fi – especially anything to do with rockets and travelling to other planets. When he finally entered the system for high school he struggled. Many of his peers found him odd, and mocked him for looking effeminate. He made at least one good, lifelong friend in this time however, Ed Forman, the mechanically minded son of an engineer. With Forman’s father’s help, the two teenagers began making their first rockets together. They were a long way from building anything powerful enough to leave the planet or power an aircraft – but it was a beginning. 

I should quickly point out that while we take rockets for granted now – a select few companies build rockets powerful enough to put astronauts, cosmonauts, and satellites in space. A handful of nations have caches of deadly intercontinental ballistic missiles with nuclear tips that could end the world. Any army or large militia might have an array of deadly rockets which now leave the German V2 for dead – some even have rocket seeking rockets to shoot those first rockets out of the sky. 

A jet engine is, to all intents and purposes, a rocket…In the 1920s and 30s, hardly anyone was developing rockets. 

Those who were, for the most part, were amateur enthusiasts – often, like young Parsons, hobbyists with a love of science fiction. As aforementioned on Tales, the Chinese had rudimentary rocket-like devices – fireworks which could shoot a bamboo spear at you – and the South Indian Kingdom of Mysore used war rockets in battle. In the wake of their four wars in the latter half of the 18th century, a number of European armies built and used war rockets – but the technology was discarded as they were wildly unreliable. Other artillery – such as cannons, improved with the greater choice of available materials resulting from the Industrial Revolution. Rockets had their 15 minutes of fame, and were so last century by the 1920s. 

The Congreve rocket system based on Mysorean rockets

The Russian Nikolai Kibalchich was a serious rocketeer; writing a treatise which set much of the groundwork for future rocketry – but his work would go nowhere in his time.He wrote his treatise in 1881, while awaiting execution for building the bombs used to kill Russian Tsar Alexander II. Robert Goddard was another serious rocketeer – but he was publicly mocked out of public life as a crank by the newspapers in 1918. 

Rocketry really was a brave new frontier in these days – the way clear for clever autodidacts like Parsons and Forman. 

To sum up the rest of Parsons’ teenage years – he got suspended from his high school, attended another, where he fit in much easier (now seen as a macho bad boy who left his last school after blowing up the toilets), and went on to a semester of college. His university studies were interrupted in the wake of the Stockmarket crash of 1929 – which left Parsons’ grandfather, Walter Whiteside, broke. Walter died in 1931. His part-time job at the Hercules Powder Company – where he was handling explosives and other chemicals – soon became a full time role. In the early 1930s Jack continued to work on making bigger and bigger rockets with Forman, and communicating with other rocketeers overseas – including the German VFR. The VFR, which included one Wernher Von Braun, went suspiciously silent a few years after the Nazis took power in 1933. He also met and fell in love with Helen Northrup. The couple would marry in 1935. 

To make sense of Parsons’ life, one could look at the separate elements first… and how those elements collided with one another disastrously later. For one, his professional life took off like a rocket from the mid 1930s. The California Institute of Technology would loom large. Caltech had gone from a private college with strong ties to the Universalist Church of America in the 1890s to a teaching hub staffed by, and churning out, some of the USA’s brightest minds, by Parsons’ time. They were well equipped, and a source of great expertise. They also had some notable guest speakers. In 1935 Parsons and Forman attended a public lecture at Caltech by visiting rocketeer Eugen Sanger. After the lecture they got talking to a PhD student named William Bollay, and pitched their plan to build a liquid propelled rocket. Bollay passed on their invitation to join them, but did introduce them to another student, Frank Malina, who was very interested in their plans. In 1935 Malina convinced his doctoral advisor, Theodore Von Karman, to let him construct a rocket engine for his doctorate. He would work alongside the autodidacts Parsons and Forman. 

In the following years the group would gain a lot of attention for their wild, noisy experiments on campus. After one August 1937 experiment went awry – first a chemical spill killed the lawn, then an engine backfire filled the GALCIT building with hydrogen tetroxide – causing all metal surfaces in the building to rust over night – they were sent out into the desert – the Arroyo Seco – to experiment. They also picked up the name ‘the suicide squad’. The suicide squad took on several inductees, and gained a reputation for their parties – where cannabis and alcohol was freely available. Self funded, Parsons and Malina wrote a sci fi movie script they hoped Hollywood would pick up. Hollywood paid no attention whatsoever to their film script. 

The work of the Suicide Squad, with it’s loud noises and flame belching engines got plenty of attention from the local press however. As did Parsons himself in 1938. He was called in as an expert witness in an attempted murder by car-bombing case; the victim a private investigator named Harry Raymond. The perpetrator a police officer called Earl Kynette. Click here for the post I wrote on this case last week. This case turned Jack Parsons into a respected expert overnight. His clear charisma shone a spotlight on their work. By this point they had secured some funding via the mysterious Mr Weld Arnold, and were joined by a Chinese mathematician named Qian Xuesen. 

In 1938 the Suicide Squad began making commercially viable rocket engines. They were also joined by a Jewish refugee named Sidney Weinbaum. Weinbaum introduced several members of the Suicide Squad to a secret Communist organisation. Some of the members, like Malina, joined the party. Parsons attended several meetings – ultimately deciding Communism wasn’t for him. He did find another group at around this time, who he came to view as a surrogate family. 

The Ordo Templi Orientis, O.T.O for short, was then an occultist organisation centred around Sex Magick, yes the K is intentional – and very important to the O.T.O apparently. Established in the early 1900s, the group was taken over and reorganised by British occultist Alesteir Crowley. Crowley deserves a Tale in his own right, and in the least will pop up from time to time in others’ tales. On Crowley’s 1913 takeover, the order took on Crowley’s tenets from his religion of Thelema.

A crude summary of Crowley’s ethics in regards Thelema follows. Their laws can be broken down to…

  1. ‘Do what thou wilt’ shall be the whole of the law – a call to follow one’s own path without restraint. 
  2. ‘Love is the law, love under will’ – Thelema is governed by love magick – but love is always subservient to one pursuing their ‘will’ – or true mission. 
  3. Every man and every woman is a star – in other words, if you follow your true path in life, you are like a star. Aloof from humanity. Shining brightly for all to see.    

As best as I can tell Crowley’s beliefs were highly individualistic, and eschewed many of the conventions everyday folk felt compelled to follow. Their rituals contained a lot of chanting with roots in earlier Hermetic thinkers. Much of it not too dissimilar to the Eastern traditions people like Helena Blavatsky tapped into. They believed free love and drugs could lift one above the mere mortals, reach higher levels of magick, and get one on their way to their true mission. Crowley’s teachings also made a lot of numerology, and astrology. Yes, their philosophy feels a little Ubermensch-y. There are also clear influences to be seen in later groups.. but hell, this post is already set to run into two episodes. That conversation can wait for another day. In 1915 Crowley set up the Agape Lodge in California – returning to Europe after World War One. In January 1939, Jack and Helen Parsons got an invite by John and Frances Baxter – a gay and lesbian brother, sister duo who had become good friends with the couple – to join them at the Agape Lodge. They went.

Jack was intrigued by the evening’s proceedings. The group performed Crowley’s ‘Gnostic Mass’. Afterwards, they mingled with the cult, including their leader, Wilfred Smith. The Parsons’ regularly attended O.T.O meetings. Although thoroughly infatuated with the group and their beliefs, the couple would take a little over a year to officially join up.

A group performing the Gnostic mass

In the meantime, Jack and Helen were joined by Helen’s half-sister Sara, also known as Betty. Betty was a minor, just 17 years old, when she moved in. This becomes important later. 

Also, in the meantime – as World War Two drew closer for the USA – the Suicide Squad approached the National Academy of Sciences committee on Army Air Corp research. If war broke out in the Pacific, the Air Force would suddenly need to land and launch big, heavy bombers from short landing strips on tiny islands. This would be difficult, unless they could speed the bombers up. What they needed was a ‘Jet propulsion system’ – that’s right jet planes. The suicide squad avoided the word ‘rocket’ for fear they would be labelled cranks and dismissed. The NAS committee thought they were anything but cranks – giving them the funds to develop these jet engines. After a number of tests run with mixed success – on one test a JATO engine blew up on re-entry, launching shrapnel everywhere. There were a couple of explosions on the ground. One time their test plane caught on fire – they eventually made a working model. Having ironed out all the bugs, the Suicide Squad suddenly had thousands of jet engines to make. Caltech was neither willing nor able to set up for industrial production – the Suicide Squad, now incorporated as Aerojet, went it alone.

A defence contract would come with all kinds of oversight. For one, the Suicide Squad and all those working for them would need security clearances. This meant the defence force going over their backgrounds with a fine toothed comb. The O.T.O had come to the attention of authorities in February 1939, when Anya Sosoyeva – a young dancer who had attended an O.T.O mass, was murdered on the grounds of Los Angeles City College. The O.T.O bore no responsibility for her killing, but reporters shone a light on the ‘sex cult’ living in the middle of an everyday neighbourhood. Wilfred Smith was at least afforded airtime to explain their philosophy, and masses to the public. 

Paul Seckler’s rampage was a whole other level of bad publicity, however. Paul and Phyllis Seckler were a couple who recently joined the O.T.O, having been recruited by Regina Kahle – a longstanding member who was Phyllis’ drama teacher. Phyllis would go on to become a high ranking Thelemite. Paul, who Parsons secured employment as a security guard at Caltech – would wind up serving a jail sentence. One night in 1942 he came out of a mass – possibly on a bad high, – convinced he needed to get away from an evil spirit. He hijacked a car, at gunpoint, from a young couple – and drove round the city till he came down. The connection to Parsons – now high up in the OTO, and having found Paul a job – did come to the attention of authorities. While he was not expelled from the company, the FBI was now looking closely at Jack Parsons and his sex magick cult. 

Sorry folks this one is going to run to two episodes. We’ll conclude the Tale of Jack Parsons next time. Next episode I’ll, probably, explain the misspelling of Babylon in the title while I’m at it – Simone    

Jack Parsons – a prelude

Hey all I don’t know how to tell this prelude without getting into a load of backstory. Thanks in advance for your forbearance.

To understand how Jack Parsons – our central figure in next week’s podcast episode – came to public prominence, it helps to know a little about Los Angeles in the 1930s and how it got there. Just three topics, each of which has had books written on it in their own right, will suffice. 

The Great Depression

First, let’s discuss the Great Depression. What I think you need to know is 1920 – 1929 was a boom time for the USA, in which the economy more than doubled in value. A part of the reason for this (I’m massively oversimplifying) was the Stockmarket on Wall Street, New York was allowed to operate with very little oversight. A lot of stock was, like the crash of 2008, criminally overpriced. A lot of practices, also per 2008, retroactively seen as criminally irresponsible. 

The boom years of the 1920s saw unemployment drop from over 11% to just below 3%. While wealth distribution was still unequal (a portion of society had to borrow money to pay for the basics – their debts would play a role in the depression) – many people unaccustomed to having spare change suddenly had money to invest in stocks and bonds. Millions did. Much of the wealth of the 1920s also came from retail and manufacture. Working people – whose real annual earnings increased by 40% over the 1920s – bought more. Industry produced more, making more money for businesses and putting more money in the pockets of the employees. This was a virtuous cycle – till it suddenly wasn’t. 

Over the summer of 1929 wages stagnated. Domestic spending slowed down. Production would too, but not before there was a massive oversupply of domestic goods clogging up warehouses. The stock market powered on till August, hitting an all time high. By October it was clear Wall Street couldn’t save the nation. 24th October 1929 saw record numbers of people offloading overpriced shares – 12.9 million shares changing hands on ‘Black Thursday’ …. This was the record till 16 million shares were sold at a huge loss on Black Tuesday, 29th October 1929. This caused the economy to crash into a depression which took a decade to climb out of. 15 million people would lose their jobs. Those who still had jobs took huge pay cuts. Many had to borrow money to cover their basic costs. Ultimately half the banks in America failed as these loans fell delinquent. Foreclosures became endemic. Those shares everybody bought – most of them were worthless. 

The Dust Bowl.

A dust storm ca. 1935

Second, let’s discuss the Dust Bowl in equally brief terms. The USA was much smaller in 1800 than it was by the middle of the 19th century. First in 1803, France sold Louisiana, an 828,000 square mile block of land in the middle, to the USA. The French laid claim to the land in 1699, but lost it to Spain following the Seven Years War. Napoleon took the land back, but decided a quick sale to support his ongoing wars seemed prudent. Spain sold Florida to the USA in 1819. Third, the USA picked up their Western states in 1845, following a war with Mexico. Much could be made about the Civil War, or the Homestead act of 1862 – which gave any American squatting on 160 acres of new land for five years ownership of that land;

or Manifest Destiny and the power of New York newspaper editor Horace Greeley telling people to “…Go west young man”

What is important to know is not all of that land was fit to develop into farmland. Some of that land was downright dangerous. The land speculator and journalist Charles Dana Wilber would have none of that, stating in 1881

  “God speed the plow. … By this wonderful provision, which is only man’s mastery over nature, the clouds are dispensing copious rains … [the plow] is the instrument which separates civilization from savagery; and converts a desert into a farm or garden. … To be more concise, Rain follows the plow”

Believing ‘rain follows the plow’ – literally, if you dig it, rain will come – a great many people packed up their old lives and went West. Many settled on the Great Plains- coincidentally during an unusually wet half century that seemed to back Wilber’s claim. They plowed deep into the topsoil. All that long, pesky grass which held the land together – and held in moisture in dry periods, was cleared. Life was good on the Great Plains till 1930, when the rains didn’t come. 

First the land got dry and parched – crops died – then the dust storms came. With nothing holding the topsoil down – it was carried off; from farms in Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and the North of Texas. In 1935 alone, 850 million tons of topsoil blew away – some carried as far north as Chicago. Reports came in from naval vessels, hundreds of miles offshore, of being engulfed by giant dust storms. Around 3,500,000 Americans were displaced – half a million left homeless. Perhaps as many as 300,000 ‘Okies’, ‘Arkies’ and various others moved to California in the hope of a new start.  

A family of ‘Arkies’ displaced from Arkansas.

The Rise of the Los Angeles Mafia, and Growing Corruption at City Hall.

Up front I should say the mob were far from being the only shifty organisation active in LA at this time – but they were massive, connected, and growing. Doing what you ask? Let me tell you….

The L.A. Mob grew out of a number of ‘Black Hand’ style gangs in the early 1900s. These street gangs coalesced into a family, similar to those in New York, Chicago and elsewhere by the late Nineteen-teens – first under a friend of early New York mafiosi Giuseppe ‘The clutch hand’ Morello named Vito De Giorgio – then after his 1922 murder, under Albert Marco. It’s of note Marco became Capo, not through strong arming so much as through his connections to corrupt politicians in City Hall. Marco used his connections as a shield for a series of illegal gin joints throughout California during the Prohibition era. He would eventually push his luck too far, getting sentenced to jail on an assault charge, then deported back to Italy. Marco was briefly replaced by a man called Joseph ‘Iron Man’ Ardizzone, who disappeared without a trace in 1931. 

He was replaced by a man named Jack Dragna – who moved the LA Mob into the future.

Prohibition at an end, he redirected mob resources into brothels, illegal gambling establishments and pawn shops. In a Los Angeles suffering from both the Great Depression and an influx of refugees from the Great Plains, the thousands of mob establishments that popped up across California – and especially Los Angeles made a killing. As with his predecessors, Dragma operated in partnership with City Hall – with added muscle from the police force. Dragma had a particularly powerful ally however – the mayor of Los Angeles, Frank L. Shaw.

With the combined forces of the mayoralty, the police and the mafia against them – a small group of concerned citizens – the citizen independent vice investigating committee (CIVIC for short) stood against the wave of brothels, pawn shops and gambling dens. CIVIC was run by a business owner named Clifford Clinton.

Clinton owned a couple of eccentric looking cafeterias (one looked like a redwood forest was growing inside it) named after himself. During the Great Depression he practiced mutual aid with his customers – all bills passed to the customer stating their host would gladly accept what little they could pay if they were down on their luck – and failing that, they could eat for free. He was also a progressive, who provided de-segregated establishments. As a concerned citizen, he paid a private investigator to look into the illegal establishments in the city, then compiled a report, detailing the hundreds of brothels, thousands of bookies. They submitted the report to a grand jury – who refused to even look at it. 

Shaw and the mob retaliated swiftly, first upping Clinton’s rates on his two cafes. They blocked his paperwork to build a third cafeteria. Suddenly his shops were inundated with vexatious lawsuits from supposed customers, who slipped on his floors or alleged food poisoning. Surprise visits from health authorities became a regular occurrence. When this didn’t stop his crusade, things took a darker turn.  

In October 1937, a bomb was set off in the Clintons’ Los Feliz home. It appears the bomb was set to blow up the kitchen at around the time Clinton, just home and very much a creature of habit, would be making a late night snack. He was running late that night and neither he, or his family were hurt. Soon after Clinton received a phone call, stating the bomb was a warning, and worse would come if he didn’t back off. The police refused to investigate the crime – claiming he bombed his newly constructed Spanish villa himself, to drum up publicity. As fascinating a character as Clifford Clinton was, we more or less leave him here –

Clinton surveys the damage

Well ok, a little more on him. He signed up to fight in World War II. In his later years he ran for the mayoralty, coming second. Concerned with hunger in the Third World, he employed a Caltech lecturer to develop an affordable protein which could be rolled out cheaply to starving masses – and set up a non-profit organisation which offered aid in 60 developing nations. He’s well worth a Google search – a lot of L.A. publications have written on his life. 

Now, to Harry Raymond. Raymond is, in some ways a more complex character than Clinton. A former cop with alleged ties to the Mafia, he was police chief for 90 days in 1933 – before City Hall fired him for not bending to their will. He was hired by Clinton as a private investigator to connect all the dots in the CIVIC report. Months after the Los Feliz bombing, Raymond was now privately continuing his investigation, when someone tried to kill him. A car bomb exploded while Raymond was in the vehicle. He survived the blast, but was left with more than 100 shrapnel wounds. This time a huge amount of publicity occurs the police have to investigate. A police officer named Earl Kynette is charged with the attempted murder. Enter Jack Parsons.

The prosecution felt they needed to know exactly what kind of bomb was used in the attack on Raymond, so they approached Caltech for an explosives expert. Caltech referred them to a young contractor working with one of their graduate students to develop a rocket. He was an autodidact with only a few months’ worth of college education, but had become extremely knowledgeable while working for the Hercules powder company. Were the prosecutors concerned by his lack of qualifications they needn’t be. Before long Parsons worked out exactly which nitrocellulose based black powder was stuffed into the pipe bomb, and how it was triggered. Parsons got hold of a Chrysler, just like the car Raymond was sitting in, and set off an identical bomb … to near identical results.  

In spite of the danger to himself, Jack Parsons was an expert witness in the case. Impeccably dressed and charismatic, he captured a lot of attention from the press – but not least of all, because he showed up with a pipe bomb, just like the one used by Kynette. At least that’s what he wanted people to believe. The defence played up his lack of qualifications, and tried to trip him up with several technical questions – but he held up to the scrutiny admirably. Not only did his evidence swing the trial against Kynette, who was convicted of the car bombing – but his stunt with the replica car bomb captured the imagination of the press. First there were the headlines ‘Explosives expert makes bomb replica’ and ‘Caltech man tells of bombs’ – then articles questioning the legitimacy of Mayor Frank Shaw. People started to question if he had ordered the assassination attempt. Police and reporters started to dig away. They found a web of connections to organised crime, and corruption. Shaw was found to be using the police to bug his political rivals and spy on them. A movement arose, calling for Shaw’s recall. 

By the end of 1938 Frank L. Shaw became the first American mayor to be recalled from the job – and Jack Parsons … an important bit part in this tale (but the subject of next week’s podcast episode) was considered a bona fide expert – in spite of his lack of a formal education. 

Next week, let’s discuss Jack Parsons – pioneering rocket scientist, famed occultist ….. and spy?

Grace O’Malley, the Pirate Queen

Today’s tale starts with a meeting at Greenwich palace, a now demolished royal residence – the date, September 1593. The ‘fairy Queen’ of England, Elizabeth I, awaits the arrival of a rival monarch. The two queens have been at loggerheads since 1574; since Elizabeth laid claim to the other’s land. One wonders just what was going through Elizabeth’s mind, in anticipation of this meeting. It’s easy to write these two off as an odd couple, one cultured and erudite, the other a swashbuckling adventurer – a warlord from beyond the pale. But it is also very wrong to do so. Were you to judge these two ladies by their professions, they weren’t at all dissimilar. To borrow from Ralph Waldo Emerson – quote.

“Piracy and war gave place to trade, politics and letters; the war-lord to the law-lord; the privilege was kept, whilst the means of obtaining it were changed”

Elizabeth, of course, was very much the law lord. She didn’t need to engage in piracy and war herself. Earlier, rougher ancestors had been the warlord – thuggishly climbing the crooked ladder. From child of warlords, to law-lord, Elizabeth I had no need to murder, and plunder personally – but through her edicts, a lot of blood was on her hands. Our protagonist? Well, the daughter of a warlord, she too had taken on her father’s mantle. From a wild, feudal land which required her lordship to be an enforcer at times – she had far less time for banquets, pleasantries and dressing in posh frocks while someone painted your face with Venetian ceruse. She was lord, enforcer, protector and occasionally, conqueror.

And, of course, it would turn out they had considerably more in common besides. But more on that later.

On this day Queen Elizabeth I was to meet with Grace O’Malley, the pirate queen of Connaught.

Grace O’Malley, aka Grainne Mhaille, was born around 1530 to Eoghan and Maeve Mhaille – or ‘John and Margaret’. Eoghan was the lord of Umhaill, in Connaught – now County Cork – Ireland. As lord he gave protection to his locals, for which he taxed them; and earned as a privateer and occasional merchant. Much of the family’s wealth came from being men of violence.
In the West of Ireland, they were well beyond the pale – the Dublin region‘s outer border – controlled by England. In his lifetime though, Eoghan saw Elizabeth’s father – Henry VIII – take more and more Irish land – till he had enough land to crown himself King of Ireland in 1542. Grace grew up a witness to the aggressive imperialism of the English – and a few changes of monarch. Henry VIII died in 1547. His crown passed, first to his 9 year old son Edward VI, who died in 1553. From there it passed to Lady Jane Grey, a grasping cousin once removed, for nine days, before she was arrested and locked up in the tower of London. The crown then passed to Henry’s eldest daughter, Mary I, known as ‘Bloody Mary’ for her persecution of the protestants. When she died of ovarian or uterine cancer in 1558, the crown of both nations passed to Elizabeth.

Queen Elizabeth I


Grace’s rise to power is quite different from Elizabeth’s. Eoghan had an elder son from a previous relationship, Donal na Piopa. As he was the bastard son, the title was destined to pass to Grace. No doubt this suited Donal just fine. Far from a man of violence, Donal was a well liked musician who loved nothing more than a sing-along in a local tavern. Grace, on the other hand, lived for adventure. From childhood she wanted nothing more than to be a pirate like her father. Legend has it young Grace once plead to join the crew on a mercantile trip to Spain, only to be told her long hair would get caught in the ropes by Eoghan’s bemused sailors. She cut her hair off, embarrassing her father, but leaving no excuses. As it turned out, she was a natural. and from then on would regularly sail with her father, learning the art of piracy from a master.

Aged 16 Grace married Donal O’Flaherty, the son of another chieftain. They had their first child together within a year. Compare and contrast to Elizabeth: she may have found love- for one she was probably lovers with Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and son of the guy who put Lady Jane Grey on the throne for nine days – but she faced such a tangle of competing factions at the court, it was politically difficult, if not outright dangerous for Elizabeth to ever marry – at least without sparking an insurrection. Grace’s marriage was, of course, political – it was intended to be a consolidation of two feudal regions as the old chieftains passed.

Grace had two sons and a daughter with Donal, and retired from swashbuckling for a while. Her life was soon thrown into chaos – however – when Donal was killed fighting the neighboring Joyce clan over a disputed castle. A distraught Grace took revenge on the Joyces, invading the castle, on the shores of Lough Corrib, and ousting the clan. In spite of Grace‘s children, or immense talent as a military leader, Donal’s titles and land were taken from her, and passed to a male cousin of Donal’s. She returned to her family with a small militia in tow, and set up a base on nearby Clare Island. Grace O’Malley returned to piracy – something she later described to Elizabeth as ‘maintenance by land and sea’.



Grace’s following years were busy, and profitable. She grew her army to 200 fighters, who she put to work fighting both neighboring chieftains, and raiding towns along Scotland’s coast. She transported ‘Gallowglasses’, Scottish mercenaries, to Ireland when allied chieftains needed extra muscle in their blood feuds. Grace O’Malley was also involved in the resistance movement who were fighting further English encroachment on Irish lands. One story which makes it’s way to us – In 1565, a ship ran aground on nearby Achill Head, in a particularly wicked storm. Though the texts I read didn’t state if Grace was acting as a wrecker – having caused the wreck by leaving a horse near the rocks with a lantern around it’s neck (to fool the sailors into thinking they had entered a safe harbour) – or showed up as an opportunist – Grace was soon at the scene, looking to salvage whatever she could.
She found one Hugh De Lacey, shipwrecked sailor and son of a Wexford merchant. Grace took Hugh as a lover, but didn’t have him long. Hugh was murdered by the McMahon clan. Enraged, Grace took her bloody revenge on the McMahons, murdering the perpetrators and taking over their castle, Doona, on the coast of Erris. Twice unlucky in love, she was at least lucky in piracy – now controlling a choke point, from which she could control all passing ships – she was soon both extremely well known; and extremely wealthy.

Another tale tells how Grace chased one rival chieftain to a small island containing just a church, and a hermit. When the chieftain took refuge in the church, Grace besieged him, threatening to stay there till he starved to death if need be. The chief dug a tunnel to safety.

In another tale, Grace was returning from a raid one night – when she moored up for a breather at the town of Howth, near Dublin. Running low on provisions and in need of water, she called upon the local lord, St Lawrence Earl of Howth. Finding the castle gates locked, and sent packing by the porter with the message the Earl is dining and not to be disturbed – Grace left, dejected. On her way back to her ship, she come across the Earl’s grandson, and on a whim, kidnapped the boy. Days later, the distraught Earl arrived in Connaught- willing to pay any price for the boy’s return. Grace returned the child, not for money, but a promise the Earl would always leave his castle gates open to visitors. When he dined he was to always keep a chair free, for any passing travellers. His descendants continue this tradition to this day.

In 1566 she remarried, to the chieftain, Richard ‘Iron Dick’ – (he owned an ironworks, not for the other thing) – Bourke. While married to Bourke she continued to plunder and freeboot. They soon divorced, but did have a child together – known as Toby of the Ships, as he was born while Grace was at sea. The legend states a day after giving birth, their ship was boarded by Barbary pirates. These picaroons were shocked to find themselves greeted by an angry, half naked lady with a musket. It was bad enough they had the audacity to attack her ship at all, but interrupt her while she was breastfeeding? The interlopers fled for their lives.

1576

Grace O’Malley’s life, and the lives of the other chieftains, took a turn for the worse in 1576. While Henry VIII laid claim to Ireland in 1542, this was largely a nominal act. At the time, he was far too busy bringing Wales, newly acquired, to heel. Henry planned to turn his attentions to Scotland next, but a costly war with France broke out in 1544. Henry put his local ambitions on the back burner, then he died. Elizabeth I allowed English expansion, into Ireland – but only made it a necessity in the wake of a threatening letter from the pope in 1570. The letter, Pope Pius V’s ‘bull Regnans in Excelsis’ excommunicated the queen, and urged her peoples to overthrow her – a Protestant – for a God-fearing Catholic. The ’Bull’ was, essentially, a call to whack the queen.

Elizabeth I started to worry a Catholic nation like Spain could capture Ireland, use the country as a base of operations, then invade England. The court discussed this as early as 1565, as war raged between Spain, and the then breakaway state of the Netherlands. Many English mercenaries were involved in the ’80 years war’. For this alone, England was on the radar of the mighty Spanish empire. Not having the cash to mount an invasion of Ireland, Elizabeth allowed takeover by mass immigration. Many arrivals were just the kind of tough guys you want to repel a Spanish Invasion, but this also meant Ireland was also overrun by a whole new class of heavies, happy to run amok and seize whatever land they wanted. In 1569 England sent military Governor – Sir Edward Fitton- to Connaught. The chieftains opposed his arrival – imported thugs were one thing, an occupying force allegedly there to bring troublemakers in line seemed the bigger threat by far. Fitton had a counterpart in Munster, Sir John Perot. The governors made plans to carve up Grace’s kingdom.

Many chieftains resisted. The MacWilliam of Mayo (the chief of chiefs), the O’Flaherty’s, Richard Bourke, and the O’Malley’s included. The MacWilliam died in 1570, and much of Connaught was lost. In 1576, the chieftains all but defeated, English Lord Deputy, Sir Henry Sidney, arrived in Connaught to make them an offer they couldn’t refuse. Stop fighting. Pledge allegiance to the crown. Pay tax to the queen. Abide by English laws. Return the Gallowglasses to Scotland. Establish an Irish contingent of soldiers, just in case Spain attacks. If the chieftains did all this, they could keep their titles, and some of your land would be returned. Anyone who kept fighting would be erased.
Grace met with Henry Sidney In 1577, and pledged her allegiance to Elizabeth. She also spent some time speaking with Henry’s son, the poet Sir Philip Sidney. I couldn’t say what she thought of the poet, but Philip thought Grace a remarkable figure.

Almost immediately afterward, Grace broke the law, launching a raid on the Earl of Desmond, a rival chief who sold out early to the English. This raid went badly, and Grace was consequently jailed for 18 months. In 1581 both she and Richard Bourke officially pledged fealty to Elizabeth in a ceremony, and were rewarded with British titles. This may have been the end of our tale, but for the 1584 arrival of a new, and particularly sadistic governor. Sir Richard Bingham – yes the ancestor of both June’s You Choose contestant John Bingham, Lord Lucan – and the officer responsible for the charge of the Light Brigade. Richard Bingham was determined to eradicate all opposition whatsoever. He saw Grace O’Malley as especially dangerous.

The villianous Sir Richard Bingham.



Bingham first stripped Grace of her title. Bourke died in 1583, leaving Grace, technically, a widow. English law stripped widows of their titles in favour of their children. He then went after her children – murdering her eldest son Owen, and executing two of Richard Bourke’s sons from his previous marriage for treason. He then kidnapped her beloved youngest child, Toby of the ships. Bingham Finally had Grace arrested and charged with treason. Grace’s son in law offered himself up in Grace’s place, which Bingham allowed.

Seizing the opportunity, Grace O’Malley loaded up a ship, and sailed for London. She no longer had an army to fight Bingham – but she knew Bingham had a boss – a lady who, like her had made it to the top of the ladder in a system which heavily favoured men. They were of a similar age. For their warlord- law lord divide they must have experienced similar trials and tribulations. She might just be willing to talk queen to queen.

Which brings us back to that meeting at Greenwich palace, September 1593. We don’t know the specifics of their conversation, though we know Grace spoke no English, Elizabeth no Gaelic- so the two queens spoke at length in Latin. We know Grace arrived dressed up to the nines in a gown worthy of a queen, She caused a scandal when she refused to bow to Elizabeth, and a knife was found on her ‘for her protection’. Elizabeth’s court Was horrified when she took a lace handkerchief from a lady in waiting to blow her nose -then disposed of the handkerchief in a lit fireplace.

We know she convinced Elizabeth she was a loyal subject who was being terrorized by Bingham. He murdered her family, robbed her of her title, lands, even her extensive herd of cattle. She convincingly argued Bingham was stopping the pursuit of legitimate maritime business, and holding her son captive. Elizabeth sided with Grace, ordering Bingham to reinstate Grace’s lands and title – and release Toby of the ships immediately. Grace, now well into her 60s, did return to piracy – leading to further conflict with Sir Richard Bingham. Again Grace returned to see Queen Elizabeth, in 1595. This time Elizabeth removed Bingham from his post. This was far from a happily ever after for Connaught – Bingham eventually regained his title. Things would only go from bad to worse for the Irish. Grace O’Malley, However – a warrior pirate queen who lived by the sword lived to the ripe old age – for those times – of 72, and died of natural causes in 1603 – the same year that Elizabeth I passed on.

Mithridates – The Poison King of Pontus

Today we join our tale right at it’s conclusion – the year 63 BC. The setting, the kingdom of Pontus – a once powerful Black Sea empire – now a region of Eastern Turkey. Mithridates VI Eupator paces the floor – if you’ll pardon my self plagiarism – like a caged Barbary Lion. Like Hannibal, Mithridates spent decades at war with Rome. Roman imperialism was the great evil of his time – an evil which must be stopped, whatever the cost. Now admittedly, nothing regarding Mithridates is ever cut and dried. The renowned freedom fighter was also a genocidal despot. A paranoid megalomaniac, raised to believe a series of comets and other omens marked him out as a messiah. Saviour of the East. King of Kings. 

Legitimately tracing his lineage back to both Alexander the Great and Persian King of Kings, Cyrus the Great, he worshipped these men. He wanted nothing more than to emulate their conquests. 

Mithridates grew up reading of all manner of legendary figures – and not just mythical tales of Amazonians, the Golden Fleece, and Prometheus’ punishment for bringing fire to Earth – all of which allegedly happened in his back yard. He idolised real figures; like Antiochus III of Syria; Attalus, the poison king of Pergamon; Aristonicus, the rebel leader of the ‘citizens of the sun’, who  carried out a years long guerrilla war with Rome. He recalled Jugurtha, the Berber King of Numidia – who fought Rome, but was defeated and paraded in chains before thousands of jeering Romans.

Unquestionably he knew of Hannibal – who proved Rome could be beaten – but ultimately ended up in a room much like this – pacing, contemplating a poison vial – as he too, now was.  

Mithridates was no Hannibal. For one he brought this on himself. The Roman, Pompey the Great marched into Asia to finish him – but judging him, if not dead then a spent force – left to conquer the Levant. He was free and clear so long as he kept out of Rome’s way. His own people, in the city of Pantikapaion, were the ones surrounding him. Baying for his blood. They refused to send more loved ones off to die in his wars. The latest plan – to cross the Italian alps like Hannibal – was the final straw. By day’s end, his son Pharnaces would be king. 

Accompanied by his two youngest daughters, and bodyguard, Mithridates gave a sip of fast acting poison to each of the girls, then took the rest himself – and then….. Well we’ll come back to that.  

Mithridates was born 135 BC, in Sinope, a wealthy port city on the edge of the Black Sea. Legend has it his birth coincided with a particularly bright comet passing through the sky – something many augurers read as an omen the child would be a great conquerer. He received the kind of classical education reserved for the wealthy – and showed a talent for botany and languages. He was also a gifted athlete – with a love of high risk pursuits.

In his teens his father, Mithridates V, died suddenly at a state banquet. Many suspected his mother, Laodice, of poisoning the king. The newly crowned Mithridates VI worried he’d meet the same fate as his father, so he ran away into the forests. Accompanied by an entourage, he travelled the length of his kingdom, meeting all the chieftains, the movers and shakers in the land.  Many nights they slept under the stars, and hunted for their meals. They played the tourist, going to sites where Alexander, or Xenophon, or mythic heroes like Hercules did legendary things. Learning the lay of the land, and of the myriad cultures of the polyglot kingdom – he was off on the original ‘grand tour’. 

At this time he became increasingly fixated on poisons and toxins – Pontus was full of things that could kill you – beyond his mother, and the obvious – like snakes and scorpions, even the ducks and honey in parts of his land were toxic enough to put you in a coma. Fearful of dying as his father had, he began a years long quest to develop an antidote to protect him from all poisons. 

At around 23 years of age, he returned to Sinope. In his absence, Laodice made an alliance with Rome, and was living a rather sumptuous lifestyle while the people struggled under heavy Roman taxation. In this time Rome had alliances – or flat out conquered several states in the near east making them the overlords of what was then considered Asia.  The Romans heavily taxed many of these places, and with bureaucrats and soldiers, came thousands of merchants looking for profit in the east. They were an insular lot, who thought themselves superior to the locals. They brought industrial levels of slavery with them – many of the slaves former citizens of the very places these Romans settled in. Mithridates, who notoriously hated the Romans, caught the zeitgeist and swept back into power. In what started as a bloodless revolution, he took the reigns and rescinded all agreements with Rome. He dealt with his father’s alleged murderers, got rid of Roman taxes – and the people rejoiced. On the home front he married his sister – something far more acceptable those days – and had a couple of kids together. They would fall out later, after his wife, also called Laodice, tried to kill him. Mithridates ordered her execution.

In 88 BC, Mithridates masterminded an incident which altered the course of his life – and had the follow through played out differently – would have changed world history to this day in ways we can only imagine. To this day it stands as one of history’s worst terrorist attacks. For months, Mithridates plotted with dozens of near eastern leaders to attack all Romans and other Italians in the region. The attack would occur simultaneously in dozens of cities – by thousands of locals. All Italians would be massacred. How he communicated with dozens of leaders is a mystery – suggestions include envoys with the orders tattooed on the backs of their heads, hidden under hair till they arrived – and instructions written on pigs’ bladders – carefully stuck to the insides of vases. More remarkably, of the thousands involved – no-one spilled the beans to Rome.  

The Temple of Artemis

On an unspecified date in May 88 BC, thousands of people from all walks of life took up arms and turned on Rome. In Pergamon – Rome’s capital in Asia – Roman settlers fled to the Temple of Asclepius. In many cities, they fled to temples, believing the mobs would fear the wrath of the Gods. Mobs burst into the temples that day – in Pergamon executing all, up close and personal, with bows and arrows. In Ephesus, Romans took refuge in the Temple of Artemis. A similar scene played out, this time they were cut down with swords, knives, and sundry other weapons. In Adramyttion, they were forced into the sea and drowned. In Caunus, the large slave population gathered the Romans around the statue of their god Vesta, then methodically slaughtered then – starting with children, then moving to the women – then finally the men. 

In Tralles, a mercantile town, local leaders didn’t want to get their hands dirty. They hired a Paphlagonian mercenary named Theophilus, and his gang to do the hit. They rode in to town looking something like a biker gang,  herded the Romans into a temple, then painted the walls with their blood. And on it went. Genocidal acts in dozens of towns and cities, aided by local hatred for Rome. Somewhere in the order of 80,000 Romans were murdered that day. 

Initially, things looked great for Mithridates. The massacre sparked an economic depression in Italy. Rome, already fighting the ‘social war’ with several Italian states, broke into a civil war proper – as the consul Lucius Cornelius Sulla made a play for dictator. The path was clear for Mithridates to take over all of Asia Minor. From there he would expel Rome from Greece. His army swept through the Turkish kingdoms of Bithynia, Phrygia, Ionia, Mysia, Lycia, Cappadocia… Many Greek city states welcomed him as a liberator, and flocked his side to help. Athens threw off the Roman yoke of oppression, led by the philosopher Athenion. Rome couldn’t retaliate – they already had too much going on. For a while Mithridates looked unstoppable. This all soon changed.    

Rhodes was the first stumbling block. In the wake of Alexander the Great’s passing, the island nation became a respected military and trading power. In 305 BC they proved their toughness after Macedonia laid siege to the island. Rhodes hung in there as the Macedonians hit them with massive siege engines, 180 foot long battering rams.. you name it. Macedonia finally gave up, abandoning weapons and siege engines. Rhodes sold the abandoned gear for scrap, making enough to construct the Statue of Liberty sized Colossus of Rhodes with the proceeds. 

When Mithridates besieged Rhodes in 88 BC, the colossus was long gone – it fell into the sea after an earthquake in the 260s BC. Rhodes’ tenacity, however, remained in spades.

 Mithridates landed in the first wave – tasked with taking out the smaller towns and setting up a base. The people of Rhodes were all safely behind the capital’s defensive walls. The towns outside the walls razed, the fields cleared. With no home base, and only the supplies brought with them, they hunkered down and waited for the rest of the army to arrive. Very few of them would make it to Rhodes. First, his navy were caught in a violent storm, and several ships were lost. Next, Rhodes sent out their Admiral, Damogorus with a small but experienced fleet of much quicker biremes. They sunk several more Pontic vessels before departing. 

Next Mithridates army ruined their assault on the city. The plan was a group sent into the hills to look for the navy would light a signal fire from a hilltop, when it was time to attack. Rhodes caught wind of this and lit a fire of their own. An ill-prepared army charged early, and were mown down. Then there was the Sambuca. A Sambuca is a large ramp, usually sailed up to defensive walls on the front of a ship, then lowered onto the wall. Soldiers then run up the ramp at the enemy. Mithridates Sambuca was an unwieldy contraption with catapults at it’s base, and so big it needed two ships to carry it. It collapsed under it’s own weight, taking the ships with it. Unceremoniously defeated, Mithridates turned tail and sailed for Pontus. 

A Sambuca

This incident set the tone for much of the Mithridatic Wars. While he commanded much larger armies – leadership was poor. They trapped themselves in indefensible places. They fought like 4th century BC Greek hoplites while 1st century BC wars were best fought like Roman legions. Rome, in the meantime, regained their footing under Sulla, who funded an expedition by raiding, first Roman – then Greek temples. Greece fell to Sulla in 86 BC, following the battles of Chaeronea and Orchomenus. A peace treaty was verbally agreed to in 85 BC, the treaty of Dardanos – Mithridates handed all his conquests back to Rome, or their original Roman puppet rulers. He gave up much of his navy to Rome, and incurred a massive fine. A second Mithridatic war soon followed. Lucius Licinius Murena, tasked with re-establishing Rome’s Asian territories started a war with Pontus in 83 BC. Mithridates was far better prepared, and this war ended inconclusively after Sulla ordered Murena out of Asia. 

Mithridates had learned a lot from the first war – but he also made a powerful ally in his new son in law – Tigranes the Great, King of Armenia. 

We’ll come to the third, and final war in a moment. Let’s talk about peace and the home front. In peace time the court of Mithridates was abundant in all things. Leading the festivities the King of Kings himself. On any given night there was a great feast. The entertainment could be anything from Greek plays, to sporting events to the hottest bands in the empire. Drinking and eating contests were frequent – ancient sources tell us no-one could out eat or out drink Mithridates. The king was in the midst of the merriment – often surrounded by his harem of beautiful women from across his kingdom. There was often a point in the evening when the feast took a darker turn. 

Some unlucky prisoner would be brought forth, and forced to drink poison. All would look on as the human guinea pig died. Mithridates would then perform his party trick. A servant would pour him a glass of the same poison – and he would gleefully imbibe. Legend has it his years of paranoia he’d meet the same end as his father bore fruit. Over years of trial and error, having poisoned a great many criminals and prisoners of war – the Kings of kings – the Poison King, had developed an antidote to most poisons. Every day the king took a vial of his ‘mithridatium’ to fend off the poisoners. Though the recipe is now lost, some people believe the Romans did get their hands on it – and several Emperors took it daily. Theriac, a Greek supposed panacea which remained popular till the 19th century may well have been mithradatium. If there is anything most people know about Mithridates it is mithridatium – the British poet A.E. Housman writing in his epic poem, A Shropshire Lad.

There was a king reigned in the East:
There, when kings will sit to feast,
They get their fill before they think
With poisoned meat and poisoned drink.
He gathered all that springs to birth
From the many-venomed earth;
First a little, thence to more,
He sampled all her killing store;
And easy, smiling, seasoned sound,
Sate the king when healths went round.
They put arsenic in his meat
And stared aghast to watch him eat;
They poured strychnine in his cup
And shook to see him drink it up:
They shook, they stared as white’s their shirt:
Them it was their poison hurt.
—I tell the tale that I heard told.
Mithridates, he died old.

Now, back to the Mithridatic wars. I couldn’t hope to cover this all in detail in the confines of a 20 minute episode – but here’s the main points. One thread that runs through Mithridates wars is his belief he should be the overlord of the neighbouring kingdom of Bithynia. Mithridates was once an ally of their King Nicomedes III. They fell out. After the first Mithridatic war, Bithynia was handed back to Rome’s puppet king Nicomedes IV – who died in 74 BC – leaving Bithynia to the Romans. Rome was tied up with an uprising in Spain, led by the rogue general Quintus Sertorius. This was all Mithridates needed to march an army into Bithynia, and reclaim the land. To add to the chaos, a Thracian slave called Spartacus led an uprising in Italy itself at around the same time. As often the case, the war played well for Mithridates, till Rome could afford to give him all their attention – then it turned ugly very quickly.

Several other nations, including his allies in Armenia, were drawn into this conflict. When the war began, Mithridates was in command of an army of 300,000 soldiers. The Roman generals were far too good for his army, however – and he would conclude with a band of a few thousand guerrilla fighters – engaged in hit and run surprise attacks on Rome. Tigranes’ empire would be brought to heel by Rome, for their part in the war. Hundreds of thousands of people would die. The Roman general Lucillus had control of Pontus, then lost control in 67 BC following the Battle of Zela. Rome responded by sending in Pompey the Great – fresh from victories against Sertorius in Spain, unfairly claiming victory over Spartacus, and cleaning up the growing piracy problem in the Mediterranean. Pompey proved too much for Mithridates and soon all the poison king had was a small band of fighters (including his new partner, a real life ‘Amazonian’, a Scythian warrior named Hypsicratea) … and a tiny kingdom of the Bosphorus – in modern day Crimea.In 66 BC Pompey pursued Mithridates to the foothills of the Caucasus mountains. Not expecting a man now in his late 60s to be capable of crossing the Caucasus, Pompey had a handful of ships cruising the edge of the Black Sea for the group. He then took his army to the Levant, to conquer new lands. 

But survive he did. He crossed through the Scythian Keyhole, and marched into Pantikapaion. Unlike Hannibal, he could have lived the rest of his life in peace – but in 63 BC Mithridates started to plot another invasion. This time he’d assemble another army of tens of thousands of local sons, with a few Scythian and Sarmatian daughters – they would march till they reached the River Danube – then follow it down to the Italian Alps. He planned, once again, to emulate the great Hannibal. Little did he know the people would riot, and he’d be copying Hannibal in a completely different way. 

To bring our tale full circle. Mithridates is in the tower. His daughters have passed on. Mithridates, on the other hand, paces the room – in the hope an increased heart rate will speed up the poison. He paces the room, sweaty, clammy, a little woozy – but it appears impervious to whatever toxin is racing through his system – be it arsenic, hellebore, hemlock, belladonna or the toxic ducks which swam in the Black Sea. Out of options, Mithridates turned to his bodyguard, Bituitus – and begged to be put to the sword. He knew his end would be many times worse if the angry mob got a hold of him. Within days, his body would be shipped to Pompey, just to let Rome know they won.  

Sometimes a Tale concludes, and I’ve got some bit of insight, some moral. I’m not sure I really do here. Don’t mess with Imperial Rome? It goes without saying, though I think a lot of ‘barbarian’ peoples were morally right to resist – though through lack of firepower – or expertise, things were always going to end badly for them. If I had a full hour to tell this story, then maybe it’s all about omens, and not taking them too seriously (check out the ‘prelude’ I wrote to this tale a few weeks ago for an example). Maybe this is a tale of obsession, and knowing your stop loss point? Mithridates obsessive drive to be like his mightier ancestors, combined with an obsessive hatred of Rome led him to genocide, and a series of wars costing hundreds of thousands of lives. He lost everyone he loved. Obsession destroyed a great empire – only not the one he expected it to. Likewise his obsession to not die as his father did, ultimately, worked only too well.  

Shen’s Magnificent Journey

Hi all, this programme differs from the show which was advertised. I spent the better part of three weeks, on and off, on the advertised show – an epic Western transposed to Central Asia in the 1920s. I researched, wrote, recorded a podcast episode – then went back to the script and rewrote to match exactly what I recorded for the blog. I was generally pretty happy. Then a mass shooting happened in Atlanta – which suddenly opened my eyes to the Sinophobic – generally Asia-phobic – spate of violence going on in the USA right now….

My concern with the piece – a glimpse into the life of Baron Roman von Ungern-Sternberg – a sociopathic warlord who became de facto ruler of Mongolia for a time in 1921 – is that he and his army were responsible for the mass slaughter of Chinese soldiers and civilians. 

While I reserve the right to post on some horrible history

I also reserve the right to pull the plug on something if I think 

  • It may upset people, especially if communities of those people are under attack by cretins looking for a whipping boy for the pandemic we are currently living through
  • There is a chance some fascist goon might get off on something I wrote and share it on a fascist goon message board, to emphasise a point I never made, nor agree with.. Laugh not, ‘Willie the Wimp’ went viral in the wake of George Floyd’s funeral. I had to set the post to private for weeks. 

Anyway, see ya later Ungern… we may come back to you some day.

In my minds eye I can picture Michael Alphonsus Shen Fu-Tsung aboard that Portuguese vessel in 1682. The young man was headed off on the adventure of a lifetime. The 25 year old Chinese Mandarin, and convert to Christianity had been chosen largely for his fluency in Latin, but I’ve no doubt from what little I’ve read – that he was also the kind of personable young man everyone just took an instant liking to. I imagine him pacing the deck, his mind racing, his stomach a flutter- for today he sets sail for the ends of the earth. Sure China sent envoys to the edge of the Roman empire in Augustus’ time. Zheng He supposedly went everywhere, may have even ‘discovered’ the Americas decades before Columbus. Michael, however would be the first Chinese citizen to travel to Europe. He wasn’t just representing himself, but all Chinese – their culture, their long held beliefs – to many powerful people. Yes, I’m projecting here – putting myself in his shoes – but I don’t see how he couldn’t have been both excited and nervous as hell. 

However he felt, he set sail from Macau for Europe, in the company of the Flemish Jesuit Father Philippe Couplet. Two other men were to set sail with them, one – a poet and painter named Wu Li was deemed too old, at 50 to make the journey, and left behind in Macau. As an aside Wu would outlive Shen and Couplet by close to three decades. The other will be named somewhere, but no article writer I could find, found him interesting enough to name him. Their ship was wrecked near Batavia (now Jakarta) Indonesia. The unnamed man caught a boat back to China, while Shen and Couplet waited several months for another boat to take them to Europe. 

The men, I suppose you could say, were on a mission for God. Their ultimate destination was Rome – where Father Couplet hoped to convince Pope Innocent XI to rescind the order giving Portugal a monopoly on converting any foreigners unfortunate enough to be ‘discovered’ by a Christian explorer. Secondarily he hoped, in presenting a smart, well presented convert like Shen, he might gain approval to start giving Catholic masses in Chinese (currently they were limited to preaching in Latin – making for a very small net). He hoped Innocent would see Shen, Wu and the mystery third man as ideal candidates for the priesthood. They were unsuccessful in their mission. They would meet in 1685, and Innocent agreed to let the two men tour Europe for the next eight years, but beyond that I have no information about their meeting.  

What interests me about Shen’s tale is the other people he met. 

The two men arrived in the Netherlands in February 1683. From there they found themselves in the company of Louis XIV of France, at the palace of Versailles. The king spoke with Shen, who taught him how to use chopsticks. The Sun King found Shen an honourable enough man that he ordered all the fountains in the gardens of Versailles turned on – something normally only done when other royals came to visit.  Louis agreed to send a mission of scientists to China, and had an engraving made of Shen. Shen then sailed for Britain in 1687, where he met King James II, who commissioned a painting of him by Sir Godfrey Kneller – Kneller’s painting, which remains in the Royal collection is the reason most people seem to blog about Shen. While in London Michael Alphonsus Shen Fu-Tsung met with Thomas Hyde, the Orientalist and chief librarian at the Bodleian library. Shen went through all the Chinese books in their collection, if I’m reading the sources correctly explaining what each book was about – and even which way up they were. Shen made samples of Chinese script, and explained the Chinese calendar to Hyde, the latter giving future Sinologists, historians and scientists a common timeline to work from. 

Shen would leave Britain just prior to James II’s removal for William and Mary. He would take holy orders in 1690, and set sail for China soon after. Unfortunately he died of a fever off the coast of Mozambique, September 2nd 1691.      

Why am I sharing this Tale today? There is a poem by William Carlos Williams – The Red Wheelbarrow – 

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens

Setting aside it’s Oriental influence (though not a haiku, it feels very haiku-ish) I can’t help but tackle this tale the same way as the poem. Like Williams’ poem, the sources give us a simple picture of a moment in time. It is up to us to view it, and find significance in it. With the Red Wheelbarrow I could count the ways the barrow earns its keep, from labour saving device to shelter from the storm for the poor chickens, caught out in the rain. With Shen I could picture his joy in ‘discovering’ Europe, and it’s peoples. The many sights and sounds, the food and drink. Though China were in so many ways the ‘developed world’ at this stage, and Europe the back blocks – one could imagine the great joys of sightseeing. The pleasures of breaking bread with welcoming strangers. Perhaps a sense of elation at being seen as novel, fascinating and kind of exotic by an audience – not out to ‘other’ you – and genuinely riveted by the tales of your culture. 

Everything I read about Michael Alphonsus Shen Fu-Tsung, the first person from China to visit Europe, is he was met with kindness wherever he went. 

Am I giving a sneaky sermon today? A parable on mutual respect and being a good host… a timely reminder in the midst of this horrible, miserable time to not be a reactionary dickhead and scapegoat immigrants who bear as little responsibility for this pandemic as you do? Maybe. In this case we should all be the Sun King. Be magnanimous. Be welcoming. Don’t assault strangers cause we’re all going through an unpleasant year – and we all beat the virus when we all work together. 

I’ll be back in four weeks, with new Tales – both in blog and podcast form.  

The Tales Which Never Were ….

Hey all, this episode’s going to be a little different – the setting, a modern duplex in Auckland, New Zealand. Our subject, a rather worn out looking writer. Our protagonist has had a rough couple of weeks – First, the excruciating stomach pains which sent her to hospital. A battery of tests showed all the things the pain wasn’t. The pain went away. Our subject’s health concerns were not yet done, however. “Oh, on that other thing we were concerned about” the doctor asked, mysteriously omitting ‘the other thing’ – “those pills are still on offer”. “Yes” the writer replied “Let’s give them a go. Can’t hurt right?”. 

Six days later my blood pressure shot up to 170/110. It took four days for the pills to fully leave my system, and my blood pressure to return to normal.

This all led to a situation where I either had to dump this week’s blog post, or postpone the following week’s combined blog/podcast episode …. or I could go off script and share a couple of Tales I have intended to write, but have shelved for different reasons.   

This week, two Tales which never were … till they suddenly were after all. 

Little Julian.

I picture this tale opening with a couple of probation officers banging on rock and roll impresario Johnny Otis’ door, presumably at some ungodly hour. Otis is a fascinating man, though not the subject of this tale. It’s probably pertinent to state he started as a drummer in a swing orchestra, and became a club owner, talent scout, radio DJ, band leader and record producer extraordinaire. Throughout the 1950s most of Los Angeles best music had some connection back to Mr Otis. He was also a part owner in a chicken farm with a man who died fighting alongside Fidel Castro in Cuba, and lost two fingers in an accident while making chicken coops. Otis would later lend his voice, and pen to the civil rights movement, and front a church which was pro- multiculturalism, pro-LGBTQI+, and generally welcoming to all. 

Otis was also the son of Greek immigrants, who never felt accepted as ‘white’, but did feel great kinship with the African American community. He once stated “Genetically I’m pure Greek. Psychologically, environmentally, culturally, by choice, I’m a member of the black community” Most people just presumed he was a light-skinned black man. Though not directly related to our protagonist, this is kind of interesting… considering. 

So, back to the door knockers. Otis opens the door. The officers demand to know where they can find Ron Gregory. ‘Who?’ Asks Otis. ‘This guy’ an officer answers, thrusting forward a photograph of a young Chicano man singing and dancing among the crowd, on a crowded dance floor. 

“That’s Lil Julian Herrera!” Otis replied, perplexed. 

Little Julian Herrera was one of the first Chicano rock and roll stars to come out of East LA. Fronting his band, the Tigers, the young doo wop star was already making a name for himself, when discovered by Otis in 1956. In 1957 his ballad ‘Lonely, Lonely Nights’ seemed set to make Herrera rock and roll’s first Chicano superstar (this was just before Richie Valens broke through), when he was charged with rape. In the course of his trial, a number of skeletons – far less shocking things I must say than the rape of a young woman – came flying out of the closet.

His real name was Ronald Gregory. At the age of 11, or 13 (depending on the storyteller) Ronald, a Jewish kid of Hungarian extraction, ran away from his parents and hitch hiked from Massachusetts to Los Angeles. Somehow, he ended up getting taken in by the Herrera family of Boyle Heights, East LA. He appears to have found kinship with the Herreras, and Mexican American culture – and was reborn as Julian. 

Having served his time in prison, Julian was back on the mic by the early 60s – but things were never the same again. He cut several records, which bombed. Played a handful of shows, to increasingly smaller crowds. In 1963, he called on a friend – a sax player named Bernie Garcia – to say he was in some kind of trouble, and needed to get out of town in a hurry. He had some shows booked across the border in Tijuana Mexico. Did Bernie want to come with him? Bernie didn’t. 

This was the last anyone ever saw or heard of Little Julian Herrera. 

As much as I want to write more about Little Julian Herrera, there is precious little written about him. We know he was a runaway – but I’ve never seen a hint of anyone ever looking into the Gregory family. Were they good or terrible parents? What was the incident that spurred Ronald to hit the road? Did they look for their son? Did they reach out to him in prison?

Likewise I couldn’t find anything on the Herreras – much less why Julian stopped in Boyle Heights in the first place. The neighbourhood was a mix of Mexican, Japanese and Jewish Americans – Julian was Jewish. Was he en route to see his grandparents, an aunt and/or uncle? Did he know anyone in the Chicano community? 

One thing mentioned, those who knew Julian mentioned he never worked (he was 19 and a long time out of school at the time of the rape) and no-one really knew what he did in the daytime. Again this begs questions of just what he was doing with his days? Was he involved in organised crime? Was he already working up a third secret identity?

Did anyone have a motive to kill him? If no-one else one could imagine the family of the 17 year old girl he raped in Griffith Park had ample reason. There are apparently stories he was murdered in Elysian Park, or that he worked for many years in a gas station in National City, California under an assumed name … but no-one seems to have made any real headway so far. 

The Halifax Gibbet. 

Ok, let me break this one down. I had a plan for a short tale stylistically akin to Hannibal in Bithynia. The setting for this one, a clearing 500 yards from the border in the town of Halifax. The date, some time in the 1600s. A young man, caught stealing horse shoes from the blacksmith, has spent three days on display for all in the town stocks. This is only the beginning of punishment. This evening he will meet the fate first meted out to one John of Dalton in 1286. The tale would cut back and forth between the young man’s feelings of apprehension, the incidents in his life which brought him here. Musings on the prosperity, and inequality in this town – and the way in which this led to the aristocracy of the region to hold on to cruel, archaic laws – albeit enforced by a remarkable machine. 

The piece would intersperse with hints at the machine. Ultimately it would take up to 100 victims, 56 recorded cases from 1538 till Oliver Cromwell, of all people, put a stop to it. I would muse on there being nothing new completely without precursor. Edinburgh had it’s Maiden. Conrad, the young, attractive king of Swabia was rumoured to have met with a precursor in Italy. Chinese and Persian lore suggests something altogether earlier still. I would avoid dropping the famous device, or the man it is named after, which just gives away the game. 

I might drop another hint or two “Just imagine”, our young protagonist thought… “Imagine being Mary, Queen of Scots. They say their first attempt failed, and they had to go again… Isn’t one attempt barbaric enough?” At least this will be quick. But will it be painless? What if I find myself staring up into space, longing for the things I’ve lost?

Finally the young man is led, more accurately dragged, kicking and screaming to the machine. Up onto the stone base, then pinioned in place under two upright beams – four feet distant, 15 feet tall. At the top, a large axe head fitted to a heavy wooden block. The block held in suspension high above him by a length of rope threaded through a pulley. Guillotine, meet your ancestor, the Halifax Gibbet.

The Halifax Gibbet was a very real punishment faced by those living on the manor of Wakefield – of which Halifax was a part. An arcane law left over from the Anglo-Saxons, known as Infangthereof, gave the lord of the manor the right to try and execute anyone caught stealing more than 13 1/2p worth of goods. Most lords ceded this right over time. Most lords hung thieves. 

We don’t know how the Halifax Gibbet came about. We know John of Dalton was it’s first victim. We know the names of 51 other victims, and how many were proto- guillotined from 1538 till Cromwell put a stop to the practice in 1650. 

A replica stands today, bearing silent witness to someone’s cruelty, and ingenuity. 

Why was this tale abandoned? 

In short I see myself as a storyteller with a couple of History degrees. My Tales are historical, true as best we can tell, and usually told with a view of exploring some wider context … but if anyone asks me what I do – I’m a storyteller. History involves so much more around differing perspectives, historiography, much more work in amongst the primary sources than I usually do. I’m normally ok using a literary device, like the anonymous thief, so long as I’m clear he IS a device to get the story moving. 

But the day I sat down to write on the Gibbet I’d just finished a Smithsonian article by historian Mike Dash on how everyone now thinks Gavrillo Princip came across and murdered Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie by chance, as he stopped at a deli for a sandwich. For one, he’d be lucky to find a sandwich in Sarajevo in 1914 (people there ate other things entirely). For another it suggests chance, where it seems Princip was posted there deliberately – believing the motorcade could still travel that way. 

The sandwich idea came from a documentary, Days That Shook the World. The documentarians possibly got the idea, in turn, via a Brazilian novel about a 12 fingered secret agent who meets with Princip just prior to the assassination. This article gave me a little food for thought about such literary devices as the Gibbeted thief.

Touch wood, I’ll have next week’s Blog and Podcast simulcasting for you all… if not on Wednesday, then by week’s end – Simone.