Category Archives: Interesting Lives

Some life stories are too interesting not to tell.

The Miser of Marcham Park

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

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

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

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

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


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

“Ebenezer Lennox Scroggie
Mean Man
1792 – 1836.”


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

Charles Dickens.



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

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

a contemporary depiction of John Elwes.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Georgian Architecture.

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

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



A ’Time Machine’

Hi everyone, apologies for the drop off in new content… I’ve hit the wall, and needed a little time to get my mojo back. It’s all 9 to 5 stuff. My day job continues to keep me gainfully employed regardless of New Zealand’s recent four month lockdown – but the job is one that gets increasingly stressful as stress, anxiety, depression and boredom grows among the clientele. 

In short, sorry all I’m exhausted and needed a couple of weeks off.

The next proper blog post is a week away, so I figured – in the interim – I’d bundle a few of the following social media posts together. As you may know the blog still gets many more readers than the podcast gets listeners, so I trialled the following on my personal Facebook, over a Saturday. 

Wherever the play counter was at, I’d write a short tale about something that happened in that year. I’d close the post off with a call to action ‘share this episode’ or ‘go leave us a five star review’ etc. 

It did give the podcast a little bit of a bump.
It wasn’t entirely unsuccessful, though we didn’t get anywhere near modern history in the process.

1286. 

On 19th March 1286 Alexander III, king of Scotland took a moonlit ride to join his second wife, the then pregnant Queen Yolande. It was her birthday the next day. Alexander had been away on business and really wished to be with his wife to celebrate her special day if at all humanly possible. The weather was rough. His advisors told him to stay in Edinburgh for the night – but the king would have none of that. 

While travelling through the town of Kinghorn, in Fife, Alexander’s horse took a tumble down a steep, rocky embankment – killing him. 

Alexander’s only direct heir was his unborn daughter – who was miscarried, likely due to the shock of his sudden death. A constitutional crisis broke out. Alexander had three children from a previous marriage (he was married to the 10 year old daughter of Henry III of England aged 11 himself – they had 3 children together before she passed on)

All three heirs died a few years before Alexander, all having barely reached adulthood. 

Some called for his three year old grand-daughter Margaret, the ‘Maid of Norway’ to be brought to Scotland to be crowned. Others, most notably England’s King Edward ‘Longshanks’, wanted Edward’s buddy John Balliol on the throne – a man not well loved by the Scots. 

This led to a conflict which looked something vaguely like the movie Braveheart – which eventually led to the reign of Robert the Bruce, beginning in 1306. 

Moonlight rides can be dangerous – stay home with my podcast instead (link to an episode attached).

A Few Hours Later, 1314.

To tell the following I need to start in 1099 – with the fall of Jerusalem to a marauding pack of lunatics we now call the Crusaders. From this point in time, the holy city was open to Westerners, and pilgrims began to flock there. A great number of these folk travelled in small groups, with large sums of money, through hostile lands. Unsurprisingly, robberies and murders were commonplace. 

In 1118, a French knight named Hugues de Payens formed a company with just seven of this friends and family. Their purpose – to protect the pilgrims from bandits. The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and the Temple of Solomon, better known as the Knights Templar set up a headquarters at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Demand for their services soon grew, and the order would have as many as 20,000 employees working for them at their peak. 

Besides protection, the Knights Templar provided a form of banking, where one could leave a sum of money with them at the start of their journey. A promissory note was drawn, which could be cashed at the other end. This led to the knights offering other banking services – like cash loans to the rich and powerful. The crusades had run their course by the end of the 13th century. At this point, however, the Knights Templar were anything but poor fellow-soldiers. The organisation was worth one hell of a lot of money – and a number of unscrupulous rulers began to plot how to confiscate said wealth from them. 

Philip IV of France was known as Philip the Fair, a moniker which by modern usage seems laughable. He taxed churches, which seems fair I guess? Though he did so solely to line his own pockets. In 1303 the man had a pope kidnapped. Pope Boniface VIII was eventually released, but was said to have died from the trauma of the kidnapping soon after. 

On Friday October 13th 1307, a proposed origin for the Friday the 13th legend – Philip, heavily in debt to the Templars, had them declared heretics and arrested. 

Which brings us to 1314. 

In March 1314. After a lengthy investigation by Pope Clement V, the Knights Templar were disbanded. It’s leaders sentenced to death. On March 18th Geoffroi de Charney, Hugues de Peraud, Godefroi de Gonneville, and their Grand Master Jacques de Molay were led to a purpose built platform on a tiny island in the Seine, then burnt at the stake – just across the water from Notre Dame Cathedral. This horrific immolation was observed by the general populace – many of whom saw the execution as a day’s entertainment.  

A Quick Post at Lunch.

If you’re wondering, the tally on Tales the podcast is 1323, the year the remains of the Lighthouse of Alexandria finally fell into the sea… every click much appreciated… 

That Afternoon… 1345.

Hey everyone… what to choose? Around this time a lot could be said about royalty, and battles and such. The Hundred Years’ War is in full swing. Estonia is in the middle of an uprising against the Teutonic Knights who arrived in the Baltic in the late 12th Century (a lesser known Holy Crusade) and claimed these pagan lands for Jesus, the church, and of course themselves. These were the kinds of battles Roman von Ungern-Sternberg’s ancestors would have cut their teeth on (of course on the Teutonic Knights side). 

Let’s do one about everyday folk. 

In March in the city of Amsterdam, Catholics go on a Stille Omgang – a silent walk. This started because of the most unremarkable of ‘miracles’. 

On 15th March 1345, a man lay dying in his home in the city. A priest was called to administer last rights. One presumes confessions were taken, though I’ve no idea what the man confessed to. Last rites were given. The man was given a host – that round piece of consecrated bread Catholics take to represent the body of Christ, but the dying man vomited ‘Jesus’ back up – at which point the mangled host was tossed into the fire. 

The next day, the maid found the host atop the ashes – completely untouched by the fire – Oh what a miracle! she exclaimed. 

For the following two hundred years a march was held through the streets of Amsterdam. The partially masticated bread paraded through the streets inside of a wooden box – just as if it were the arc of the covenant. People marched behind, carrying banners celebrating the day a man died, and spat out the host in his dying gasps.

As the Netherlands fought for freedom from the oppressive (Catholic) Hapsburgs, Protestantism became the new state religion. Such pageantry was banned – however a silent walk took the place of the previous, carnivalesque romp through the city. 

The deceased’s former home is now a chapel.

The following Morning, 1456. 

Hey all, thanks for sharing and listening. The dial was at 1456 this morning. 

In 1456 the Ottoman Turks, now well entrenched in Constantinople/Istanbul were headed for the Balkans – and would make war with Albania that year. Skandebeg, king of Albania – who we should probably talk about one day (a future distant relative, Zog of Albania, has been on my to do list for years), sent the considerably larger army packing.

Halley’s Comet graced us with it’s light for several days. Sticking with the Ottomans, they had moved on towards Hungary and were besieging Belgrade when the comet appeared. Pope Callixtus III was certain the comet was an evil omen – but that with enough prayer that bad energy could be directed the Turks’ way. He gave orders to pray for misfortune for the Ottoman invaders. 

I’m going to put a pin in the comet for the future too…People lose their minds whenever it comes near us – even in far more enlightened times.

That same year Callixtus would re-affirm Portugal’s rights to plunder and enslave down Africa’s Western Coast. The Portuguese would also stumble upon the Cape Verde Islands in 1456 – a then uninhabited archipelago off the coast of West Africa. Antonio de Noli, the Genoese explorer sent out by King Afonso V of Portugal, was convinced he’d stumbled upon the ‘Fortunate Isles’ both Ptolemy and Pliny wrote about – where the Greek heroes who had lived especially noteworthy lives were to spend eternity. Decades later they would become a demarcation point between the places the Portuguese could plunder and enslave, and the places the Spanish could plunder and enslave – following the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494). 

Vlad the Impaler also became Prince of Wallachia in 1456 – after killing then current prince Vladislav II in hand to hand combat. Both men showed up to the battle with armies, but chose to settle their disagreements in a one on one fight. 

As you can see 1456 is quite an action-packed year. Thank you all for the shares, we’ll have to do this again sometime? 

Right, back soon as I can – Simone.

The Campden Wonder – The strange ‘murder’ of William Harrison

Today’s Tale begins on the night of 16th August 1660 in the town of Campden, Gloustershire. William Harrison – the 70 year old steward of Viscountess Campden – has left on a two mile walk to the town of Charringworth, but never returned. Sent to collect the rents for his ladyship, a job Harrison had done for some years (a well paying, but hazardous job) – he would have carried a considerable sum of money on the way home. Worried some ill has befallen her husband, Mrs. Harrison sent a servant, John Perry, out to look for his master. Neither man would return that night.

The next morning William’s son, Edward, set off for Charringworth. On his way he met Perry, who stated William never arrived at the town. This was hardly the case. Stopping at the village of Ebrington – halfway between the two towns – a man recorded only as Daniel stated William stopped to chat with him on his way home, then carried on his way. The two men detoured to the town of Paxford, where no-one had seen him, but someone had seen a hat, band and comb abandoned on the road back to Campden. Heading back towards home they found the items, and identified them as William’s.

The items hacked up and covered in blood, the two men scoured the neighboring fields for any sign of William. Whatever misfortune had befallen him, they hoped against hope to find him alive – taking cover among the crops, or hiding up a tree. Before long half the village of Campden came out to help, searching up hill and down dale for the rent collector. Their efforts were for naught. William Harrison was declared missing, presumed deceased.

On 18th August John Perry was brought before the Justice of the Peace, on suspicion of having murdered his master.

Under questioning Perry claimed he left home between 8 and 9 pm, stopping to speak with a William Reed on the way. He shared with Reed his fear of being on foot on that road so late at night, then turned back – telling Reed he would borrow Edward’s horse and ride to Charringworth. Perry arrived home and took a rest in the hen roost instead. At around midnight he ventured back out, on foot – but finding himself enveloped in heavy fog, he wandered till he got lost. Perry then went to sleep under a hedgerow. At daybreak the servant rushed to Charringworth – finding William had collected £23 in rent (around $4,666.00 USD in 2020) from Edward Plaisterer, and had stopped by, then left William Curtis’ home – though William hadn’t been there to greet him.

The Justice of the Peace asked Perry why he felt afraid to travel the road at 9pm, but not at midnight? Perry explained the moon was high above at midnight so he could see his surroundings better. Why did he return home and not check if his master was back – not once it turned out that night, as the men pressed him for answers, but three times – Perry answered he could see a light on in his chamber window, so he knew his master had not returned.

Perry was arrested, and taken to jail, where he was further interrogated. To his jailers he repeated his tale, but to one prisoner he told of seeing his master killed by a tinker, another that a servant of another well heeled Campdenite was the murderer. John Perry claimed William’s body was stashed in town, right under the noses of the searchers. When brought back before the Justice of the Peace and presented with this evidence Perry clamed William was murdered but he was not the killer. When asked who killed him, Perry pointed the finger at his own brother and mother.

Ever since Perry took up employment with the tax collector, his mother, Joan, and brother, Richard were on him to rob Harrison. The Perry’s were so poor and impoverished, while old William was lording it around, as rich as Croesus – all from the collection of rents. It was only just they ambushed him one night and lightened his pockets. Neither Harrison nor the Viscountess would miss the stolen money. Perry refused to be party to such a scheme. His family, however eventually wore him down – “what if you just told us at what time he collected the rents, and what routes he took? What’s the harm in that?” John Perry gave in, providing his kin with the route for the 16th. Perry claimed on the night of the murder he was sent out to look for his master. At a distance of ‘about a bow’s shoot from Campden Church he claimed he met Richard, who led him to the scene of William Harrison’s assault. With Joan guarding him, Harrison was splayed across the roadside asking his attackers spare his life. Richard responded by strangling the life out of him.

The Justice of the Peace gave the order to arrest Richard and Joan Perry immediately.

On August 25th 1660 Richard and Joan Perry were interrogated. They denied the charges, all the while John was in the room, constantly refuting their claims of innocence. Unfortunately for Richard he’d also been carrying a length of string at the time of his arrest. When he slyly tried to dump the string on his way to the Justice, it was assumed he was trying to hide the murder weapon. The three would all be tried twice for murder; the first trial inconclusive due to there being no body. On the second trial the following spring all three were found guilty and hanged from the gallows.

Had the story ended thus it wouldn’t have been terribly remarkable. Though rare, servants did occasionally knock off a master and decamp with the money. What makes this tale – often referred to as The Campden Wonder – is in 1662 William Harrison reappeared. Very much alive after all, he disembarked a ship from Lisbon, Portugal with quite the tale to tell.

Harrison claimed he made it to Charringworth on the 16th and did his rounds, but came back a little light. Many of the tenants were still out in the fields. All the same, having collected £231, he was on his way home when accosted by two highwaymen outside of Ebrington. He tried to fight the two men off with his cane, but his attackers drew swords, stabbing him in the thigh. Bound in irons, his pockets emptied, Harrison was taken to a house, then later a ship – where he was nursed back to health. Six weeks later, Harrison states he was sold to pirates from the Barbary Coast, and taken to The Ottoman Empire – modern day Turkey. One might ask why Turkish pirates would pay for a slave of Harrison’s age – he lied and told the pirates he was a doctor by trade. Harrison claims he was purchased as a slave by an 87 year old physician, who took pity on him as a fellow healer.

William Harrison claimed his master lived for close to two more years. On his master’s passing , he took his sole possession – a silver drinking bowl the doctor had given him – and pawned it for his passage home.

Much has been made in the years since as to the veracity of William Harrison’s tale. It is clear three innocent people were wrongly hanged. Everything else is up for interpretation. In the most likely scenario, William took the rent money and ran. He left his old life behind and jumped a ship for somewhere warmer, or more exciting , or where he simply planned to live out the rest of his days with a secret love – far, far away, where no-one knew them. Perhaps he lived the high life till the money ran out, or he fell out with his paramour, or he grew homesick. Had he travelled to Portugal, he would have arrived a little over a year after the nation declared a truce with neighboring Spain. The two nations having uneasily concluded a 20 year war for Portuguese independence.
In 1662 Portugal were inundated with soldiers, mostly Scottish veterans of Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army. Cromwell’s interregnum had been a military regime. At one point – the nation being split into 11 administrative regions, each run by it’s own ‘Major General’ – Britain was run by a military junta. Charles II, who took the throne the year Harrison disappeared, was quick to disband many units – and send many more out to help his allies abroad. You can’t help but wonder if the restoration of the king was a motive in William’s disappearance – or the arrival of a large number of his countrymen a reason to hot foot it back to his homeland?


But, of course it is possible he was kidnapped by a couple of ‘Knights of the Road’. Though highwaymen predated this era, the release of large numbers of soldiers from their commissions on Charles II’s return caused a boom in aggravated robberies along isolated roads at night. These men needed a wage, and in the absence of one, turned to crime – kicking off the golden age of the Highwayman. One still wonders, why all the effort to keep William alive, then to sell him to Ottoman pirates?

Some writers suggest Edward Harrison was behind the robbery. It’s been suggested Edward hatched a plot to kidnap his father, to get him out of the way. Once he was gone, Edward would be the man of the house, and may even pick up his father’s lucrative rent collection duties. If William was sent far enough away, surely the plot would never be uncovered? In the absence of a body, it must have seemed, no hapless helpers – say, the Perry family? – would ever be held responsible. His disappearance would just become another obscure mystery, waiting to be stumbled upon by history writers hundreds of years later?

This many years after the Campden Wonder I doubt we’ll ever know what really happened.

The Strange Life, and Death of William Desmond Taylor

This third instalment in our pre-code, silent era Hollywood drama begins February 1st 1922. The setting? A posh bungalow at 404 B South Alvarado Street, Los Angeles – now a parking lot for a men’s clothing store,  but back then an enclave of Hollywood wealth and privilege. Around 7pm, the occupant – the acclaimed film director William Desmond Taylor – received a visit in the form of his close friend, the actress Mabel Normand. Taylor and Normand had known each other since 1920. During a turbulent time in Normand’s life the two had bonded over a shared love of books. Whether an item or not, Taylor was a rock to Normand – convincing the actress and party girl to check into a sanatorium when she hit rock bottom. Whether a cocaine habit, drinking like a fish, illness or a combination of all of the above were responsible, Normand was burnt out to the point where others feared she was not long for this earth. To compound matters, the recent death of Olive Thomas hit very close to home for her. William Desmond Taylor’s insistence she get some help and/or convalescence that Autumn probably saved her life. 

This night was a ‘school night’, a Wednesday with an early start for both the next day, so Mabel grabbed a book William promised to lend her. The couple had a few orange martinis. William shared the shocking news he had to bail his valet, Henry Peavey out of jail that morning – after Peavey was arrested for ‘lewd conduct’ in a public park the night before. At around 7.35pm Mabel bid William adieu, and left for home. 

Just before 8pm, Taylor’s neighbour Faith Cole McLean – a former actress married to actor Douglas MacLean – was knitting on her porch when a loud noise startled her. Peering across at Taylor’s bungalow, she caught sight of a short, stocky man dressed “Like my idea of a motion picture burglar”. The mysterious figure stealthily vanished into the night. 

At 7.30 the next morning, the peace at the Alvarado Court Apartment complex was disturbed by a rather shaken Henry Peavey. “Mr. Taylor is dead! Mr. Taylor is dead!” the valet screamed, as he ran from the premises. While looking for Taylor, Peavey discovered his boss face down and lifeless on the floor of his study. The police were called, but wouldn’t get there till a little after 8am. By this time a landlord, a couple of curious neighbours, and at least one employee of Paramount pictures had entered the property. The Paramount employee seized a wire basket full of letters. The body of the 49 year old director lay, face down in his office, in his own blood – while the assorted interlopers discussed if his cause of death was a haemorrhage of the stomach, as one suggested, or not. When the police turned the body over, they found Taylor was shot. The bullet pierced his lung, striking him in the neck on it’s way out. 

While this alone was shocking news, it opened a Pandora’s box for Paramount, leaving them in a no-win situation, The ensuing scandals ended the careers of two actresses, and ushered in the Hollywood Production Code era, helmed by former Postmaster General Will H. Hays. This itself was a direct complication of the murder. The industry were now well aware the Christian conservatives who harangued politicians to ban alcohol would win their crusade to censor the industry. Taylor himself, a well thought of, articulate director with 60 films under his belt, was the man the film industry hoped to appoint chief censor when that day came. 

If hoping to tell this story as both a murder mystery and a continuation of the trilogy we have several aspects we need to tackle. The first of these is the alleged women in Taylor’s life. 

Mary Miles Minter was a young actress who started out as a child star, but in her late teens was repositioned as the next Mary Pickford (in other words, America’s sweetheart). Born Juliet Reilly in 1902, to an actress who went under the name Charlotte Shelby, Juliet got her first acting role aged five. Aged 10 she secured a touring theatre role which would’ve contravened child labour laws, so Charlotte borrowed her dead niece’s name and paperwork, and rechristened Juliet as cousin Mary – age 12. At 15, Mary worked with, allegedly had an affair with, and allegedly fell pregnant to her middle-aged director James Kirkwood Sr. Charlotte was alleged to have organised an abortion for her daughter. One would imagine her a far more protective mum after this. 

Mary Miles Minter

The next director she worked with was William Desmond Taylor. Taylor and Minter worked on four movies together between 1919 and 1920. Taylor was a big supporter of and advocate for Mary. Mary fell in love with Taylor, then in his mid 40s. She wrote him several love letters. A lace handkerchief with her initials was found at Taylor’s home – but more on that later. Though the newspapers would report the two were secretly an item, there is no evidence whatsoever to suggest Taylor reciprocated Minter’s feelings, nor that the two acted on Mary’s feelings. Some papers also speculated Taylor was dating both Mary and Charlotte at the same time – begging the question was Taylor killed by one or other spurned lady? Again, people in the know stated Charlotte and William detested one another. 

Mary did draw all manner of attention to herself however, in the wake of the killing. In Hollywood Babylon, Kenneth Anger stated Mary leaned into the coffin, and proclaimed to all in attendance the corpse of William whispered his undying love for her in her ear. While untrue, on being told of his death, she insisted someone transfuse her blood into William, in the hope he’d revive. She only abandoned this plan when taken to view his corpse, and it was all too apparent he was never coming back. 

The hullabaloo around Mary – the press disclosing several details about her which flew in the face of her carefully constructed, demure public image – eventually did her no favours. She made a handful of films following the murder, but was let go once her contract lapsed in 1923. Following the Whodunnit line, Charlotte was considered a suspect in William’s murder. The threesome line was followed up on and eventually dismissed. As was the real line, of their well known mutual dislike for one another. Speculation persisted that Charlotte, herself a gun owner, was the mysterious figure disguised to look like a movie burglar, seen on William’s porch by Faith McLean that night. At one point it looked like the police would charge Charlotte, but there just wasn’t enough evidence. 

Mabel Normand also came under scrutiny, for similar – yet very different reasons. 

Born in 1893, Normand became an actor aged 16, after briefly modelling for the illustrator Charles Dana Gibson. She soon caught the eye of Mack Sennett of Keystone studios – where Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle had got his start. A very capable physical comedian who could pull off dangerous pratfalls just as well as Arbuckle himself, she was something of a rarity in her time – and soon carved out a niche for herself that saw her regularly play opposite both Arbuckle and Charlie Chaplin. From joining Keystone in 1912, Normand acted alongside Arbuckle in 24 movies. 

A ’Gibson Girl’

Mabel had something of a wild, tempestuous, and sad life. Starting with wild, she was very much the party girl. She loved to party, drink heavily, and occasionally play dangerous pranks on her co-workers. When first the death of Olive Thomas, then the Arbuckle/Virginia Rappe scandals broke, she could empathise with both women. To be blackout drunk enough to drink poison, or to find oneself in a situation like Rappe did were things which could have happened to her at her most hedonistic (though it does bear a quick mention she believed her friend Arbuckle was innocent). 

She had also become an item with Mack Sennett, who may have been physically abusive to her. Just prior to their impending marriage, Mabel caught Mack in bed with another actress. She fought with the actress, and somehow got a heavy bump to her head that left her in a coma for weeks. 

There were rumours she was also a heavy cocaine user – something which could have led to her looking haggard and worn, as mentioned at the top of this tale. It could have just as easily been her childhood bout of tuberculosis coming back for her however. She would die, not terribly out of the frame of this tale – of consumption – in her mid 30s. 

Setting aside the rumours she too, now uncoupled from Sennett, was sleeping with William Desmond Taylor – cause … well, we’ll come to that in a second – A murder theory which was advanced was when Taylor convinced Normand to get medical help in the autumn of 1920, he also chased away a drug dealer who swore he’d get his revenge on Taylor. Hollywood gossip had it not only had William Desmond Taylor upset this one dealer – he was making noises he was going to expose all the dealers who supplied drugs to Normand. This is all supposition. Of course there were some dangerous characters around Hollywood at this time, including an LA Mafia run by Vito De Giorgio – which would soon be taken over by the heavily politically connected Albert Marco. 

Being exposed in the papers as a ‘drug fiend’, and of infidelity; failing health – and another incident a few years after Taylor’s murder soon put an end to her career. 

Sidebar: In 1924, Mabel Normand attended a party packed with various rich and famous people. On parking up, she ordered her driver to come get her at a specified time, and if she was too drunk and belligerent at this point, to drag her away. Her driver, Joe Kelly, attempted to do so – but before he could even get to Mabel, he got into an altercation with a millionaire oil exec and golfer named Courtland Dines. Dines struck Kelly with a bottle, Kelly responded by shooting Dines with Normand’s pistol three times, wounding him. Compounding matters, the driver turned out to be an escaped criminal named Horace Greer, who’d fled from a chain gang in San Francisco some time earlier. This scandal was the final nail in the coffin for Normand’s career. 

Before we move on with this Tale, I must point out much of the talk of William Desmond Taylor’s womanising, and even the speculation he’d been murdered by gangsters, was actually spin from Paramount pictures. They leaked Mary Miles Minter’s love letters, seized prior to police arriving at the scene of the murder. They also paid someone to break into the house after the fact, to leave Mary’s handkerchief. The studio made a sacrificial lamb of party girl Mabel Normand too. Strangely, they also started a rumour a large collection of lingerie was found in 49 year old bachelor Taylor’s home – something we’d take completely differently now, but was then taken as confirmation he was a ladies man. All this was to cover up something they saw as far more scandalous at the time. For starters, he’d been spotted at both opium dens and secretive gay nightclubs. The studio did their best to explain both away by stating he was researching  upcoming films. His back-story was far more complex than all that however. 

William Deane-Tanner was born 26th April 1872 to an aristocratic British family in County Carlow, Ireland. One of five children, he was brought up in a large, Georgian manor situated on 50 acres of land. William’s father, Thomas, was a retired army Major. His uncles and grandparents were surgeons and politicians. In his late teens, William left his life of luxury behind to work on a dude ranch in Kansas, USA. In his 20s he moved to New York, took up acting, and dated the daughter of a wealthy antiques broker and investor, Ethel May Hamilton. The couple met through acting circles, and would marry in 1901. A year later their daughter Ethel Daisy came along. William took up a job in his father in law’s 5th Avenue antique store. 

For reasons never publicly shared, it appears William was utterly miserable. He drank heavily and regularly cheated on his wife. He exhibited many of the warning signs of depression – or what may well have been episodes of dissociative amnesia. Often distant and unsatisfied with his lot, sometimes zoning out completely in the company of others, he mysteriously vanished 23rd October 1908. 

Little is known about his life prior to Hollywood, but it’s speculated he prospected for gold in Canada and the USA, before joining up with a troupe of travelling actors. In 1912 he re-emerged as William Desmond Taylor, in Hollywood. This was the year Ethel finally divorced William – though she hardly knew where he was till she and her daughter saw him acting in a film in 1918. None of this was known to the public at large until after his death. Few in Hollywood knew of his hidden past either. He was an actor for several studios, then pivoted to directing in 1914. In 1914 he also met the actress Neva Gerber – who had separated from, but not yet divorced from her husband. Taylor and Gerber were an item till 1919, but never married.  

By 1922 Taylor appears to have been in a relationship with a young man named George Hopkins. A set designer, he worked with Taylor on the film The Soul of Youth. A distraught Hopkins sat next to Mabel Normand at Taylor’s funeral. Several of the couple’s friends did confirm they were a couple after Taylor’s death – Hopkins being out and a behind the scenes person, he had nothing to lose by this revelation. More controversially, he was also likely the Paramount employee ordered to grab the basket of letters on the day of the murder. Hopkins went on to have a long career in Hollywood, designing sets till the mid 1970s, and winning four Oscars for his work. In 1980 his recollections of his time with Taylor heavily featured in a book about the man’s life. 

For one man to commit pseudocide – to fake one’s death – is one thing. William also had a brother, Denis. Denis was a former military man, who in 1903 moved to New York to be closer to William. For a while the brothers worked together in the antique store. He married Ada Brennan – a woman from a well to do family – and had three children with her. A ‘lunger’, he also gave Ada tuberculosis. On 25th August 1912, on his daughter’s fourth birthday, and while Ada was in a sanatorium, he disappeared just as William had. Soon after, William got in touch with Ada, and took to sending money to her and the children every month. Denis is believed to have been a bit part – a blacksmith – in one of Taylor’s early films. Though his whereabouts beyond this is pure speculation (anyone’s best guess is he died young, in obscurity either somewhere in the USA or Europe – most likely of consumption) – there has been speculation he became the mysterious Edward Sands.  

The allegedly lewd Henry Peavey was a fairly recent employee, having taken on cook and valet duties six months prior to the murder. He was a replacement for a guy called Edward Sands. Sands, like most everyone in this tale, was a phoney. Born Edward Snyder in Ohio, Sands was a teenage thief, turned sailor, turned member of the Coast Guard. Prior to working for Taylor, he’d deserted his post and shown up in Hollywood – one presumes to find fame and fortune on the silver screen, but I’ve never seen anyone state this explicitly. As Taylor’s cook and valet he affected a cockney accent, and the name we all know him by. 

While Taylor was away on business in 1921, Sands stole several of Taylor’s suits, his car and his cheque book, among other items. He’d bragged to Taylor’s driver he had information on him that ensured he wouldn’t get in trouble for his sudden behaviour – indicating his intent to bribe Taylor with said information. William fired both employees on his return. Six months later, he received a letter from Sands with a ticket from a pawn shop for one of the stolen items. The name on the ticket ‘William Deane-Tanner’

While it appears highly unlikely 45 year old Denis was in fact 27 year old Edward – whose spartan documentation does lead back to a troubled young man from Ohio – the rumour has persisted over the years that Sands was his brother. 

Edward Sands was working on Northern California on the day William was killed, but quit his job that same day. He too disappeared without a trace on the day of the murder – in spite of Paramount offering a huge cash reward in the hopes a manhunt would distract from all the other revelations suddenly leaking out everywhere. 

While the murder of William Desmond Taylor remains unsolved, there is one final suspect. We’ll come to them in a second. First however, it should be pointed out the uncovering of Mabel Normand’s alleged drug habit, the alleged love triangle, Mary’s alleged penchant for middle aged men, more fake identities than you can shake a stick at, pseudocides, wife abandonments, and the revelation two Hollywood creatives might just be in a loving, same sex relationship was the final nail in the coffin for Hollywood. Pressure from outraged members of the public led to film bannings across several states. Careers were ended. To placate these wowsers Will H Hays, a former high ranking Republican official who I hope to come back to next year for a completely different Tale, was appointed chairman of the MPPDA, an organisation established to ‘clean up’ Hollywood. 

Now, that final suspect. 

Margaret Gibson & William Desmond Taylor in The Kiss.

Margaret Gibson was an actress who worked with William Desmond Taylor for a short time at Vitagraph Pictures. She was on her way up from bit parts to a number of starring roles when, in 1917 she was arrested in a park, selling opium to passers by. She avoided prosecution, but the very public trial killed any hopes she had of becoming an A list celebrity. She continued to work, in much smaller roles, under several noms de plume – most notably Patricia Palmer. 

In 1923, Gibson was arrested and charged with participation in a blackmail and extortion ring, which may have taken millions of dollars from wealthy businessmen across America. A George W. Lasher, an electrical contractor, paid her over $1,100 to keep quiet about a violation of the Mann Act. I couldn’t find anything more specific, but Lasher possibly transported a minor over state lines for immoral purposes – this information subsequently falling into Gibson’s lap. She was also connected to two men who were jailed the week before for extorting $10,000 from an Ohio bank president named John Bushnell. 

Gibson again avoided jail, but languished in bit roles taken on under false names till 1929, when she suddenly packed up her belongings and moved to Singapore. She met and fell in love with an oil company exec, and appears to have lived a happy, crime free life with no intentions whatsoever of ever returning to the USA. She did return to LA in the early 1940s, after her husband was killed in a Japanese bombing raid. 

Gibson lived a frugal life from a widow’s pension – in humble accommodation – under the pseudonym Pat Lewis. She lived with just a cat called Rajah for company, let the hedges grow high and unkempt to keep people from looking in at her, and did her best to never leave the house – for fear of running into anyone who may know her. 

On 21st October 1964, Gibson had a heart attack. Sensing her time was up she called for a priest and confessed to the murder of William Desmond Taylor. Present at the time, a priest and Gibson’s next door neighbours. When this twist in the tale was finally revealed by the neighbours’ young son – now all grown up – he recalled she did give an explanation, but he was far to young to know who William Desmond Taylor was – let alone take in the intricacies of the murder.  

Did William Desmond Taylor’s killer die in agony, sprawled out on the floor, much like he had? In all likelihood we’ll never know. 

What goes up…. The Ballad of Franz Reichelt


Warning! This week’s tale deals with death by misadventure, which some readers may find disturbing.

Today’s tale is set on a freezing cold morning, 57 metres above the ground, in Paris, France. The date February 4th 1912. Our subject, one unfortunate soul we’ll come to in a few minutes. Before I even begin this tale, I needs must take you all on a flight of fancy. Let’s go buzz a few historical rooftops.

Flight has been a near universal obsession in human societies, for almost as long as we’ve had myths. Just pick a culture and tales emerge. The Greeks had the Corinthian hero Bellerophon, who tamed and rode Pegasus, the winged horse. They also had Daedalus, the engineer held captive by King Minos. Daedalus built a magnificent pair of wings held together by wax, and managed to fly from Crete to Naples. His unfortunate son Icarus flew too high on his wings – finding out the hard way mortals should never fly too close to the sun. His wings melted, Icarus tumbled to his death below.

Icarus


The Persians, whose Zoroastrian God Ahura Mazda is little more than a massive pair of wings attached to a humanoid torso, believed their mythical Shah, Kai Kawus built an eagle-powered throne – flying the contraption all the way to China. In Islam, Muhammad made a night flight from Mecca to Jerusalem and back on the winged steed Buraq.
Maori legend tells of the demigod Tawhaki, who either climbed a giant vine or flew on a kite to the tenth level of Heaven. English lore tells of a King Bladud, the mythical 9th century BC father of Shakespeare’s King Lear. Having magically cured himself of leprosy in the town of Bath, Bladud built himself a giant pair of wings – then flew back to his ancestral homeland, Troy. He ran into some trouble – quite literally – when he slammed into the Trojan walls, dying from the blunt force trauma. Hindu, Sanskrit and Jain texts all mention Vimana – flying cities – in their folklore.


Given this obsession to soar like an eagle, it should not surprise anyone that our species did attempt to take to the skies. The earliest attempts seem nearly as mythological as the myths, though rarely as successful as a Daedalus or Kai Kawus.

In 559 AD Yuan Huangtou, captive son of the King of the Northern Wei (a Chinese kingdom) was forcibly tied to a giant kite from a tower. He survived the flight, but died a few years later of malnutrition, still a captive to the same kite flyers. In 875 AD the Andalusian polymath Abbas Ibn Firmas was said to have flown a few hundred yards in a glider of his own design. As the tale is told the contraption was something like a large pair of wings. Many writers with expertise in aviation consider this the first legitimate human flight in history, although it was not completely successful – when Firmas finally landed he landed badly, injuring himself.
In the 11th Century, Eilmer of Malmesbury – a Benedictine monk with knowledge of Firmas’ flight – attempted the same, by jumping from the top of Malmesbury Abbey with some kind of glider attached. He survived the ordeal and appears to have glided 100 yards or more before crashing to the ground.

While a handful of polymaths, notably ‘Doctor Miribilis’ – Roger Bacon; and of course Leonardo Da Vinci hypothesized flying machines without ever building one, a handful of intrepid inventors did try their hand at a flying machine. Between Da Vinci in the 1480s and someone else we’ll mention soon in 1853, somewhere in the order of 50 flying machines were tested. All but a dozen badly injured or killed their pilots. A few may have glided some small distance – but for the most part don’t qualify as having achieved controlled flight.


Our Tale of History and Aviation takes a huge leap in 1799. This was the year an English Baronet named George Cayley enters the race. By working out the laws behind aerodynamics, he sketches a design for a glider which is capable of flight. After unsuccessfully politicking for a society for aerodynamics – and half a century of tweaks and adjustments, including an 1848 glider which flew like a kite with a 10 year old boy in it – Cayley successfully flew a glider across the moors in Scarborough. Technically, his coachman – unnamed to history – did, and was so terrified by the ordeal he handed in his notice that same day. Cayley, like fellow inventor William Henson, theorized a heavier than air machine could take to the air more successfully with a propeller, driven by an internal combustion engine – but both men were hamstrung by the limits of the technology available to them.


To make an already long story short, internal combustion engines appear in the mid 1860s. In the 1870s French inventor Alphonse Penaud makes a model plane with a propeller, and wind up torsion engine. It flies hundreds of feet before running out of steam. Clement Ader, another French inventor, makes a glider with a built in engine. Over the following 17 years he takes it up on a handful of ‘tethered’ flights – essentially getting it airborne but unable to fly anywhere due to the ropes. Felix Du Temple fails to launch a monoplane, pushing it down a ski ramp, in 1874. This was the first failed attempt to launch a powered airplane. Frenchman Victor Tatin made another model in 1879, with twin propellers and a tiny internal combustion engine. Tethered to a stick, it took off and flew in circles till it ran out of fuel. A host of other inventors – the Lilienthal brothers, John J Montgomery, Alexander Mozhaiski, even machine gun entrepreneur Hiram Maxim made machines that edged closer to powered flight. This continued till March 31st 1903, when a young farmer and inventor named Richard Pearse made a powered flight of several hundred metres. He made a second flight later that year, witnessed by half his rural village of Waitoki, New Zealand – this time staying aloft for a few kilometres, before crashing into a gorse bush.


Pearse was, of course, a dead end in the tale – all development flowed from the Wright Brothers successful flight at Kitty Hawk, December 17th 1903. Yes I’m ignoring other claimants like Gustave Whitehead and Alberto Santos-Dumont for exactly the same reason. Furthermore, the Timaru Herald dug up an interview with Pearse from 1911 which suggests his flight may have been after 1909 and at the earliest, just after a 1904 world’s fair- though Pearse was suffering from a debilitating mental illness at the time which would institutionalize him for the rest of his life – while many eyewitnesses knew exactly how old they were when they saw him fly. Orville and Wilbur Wright officially flew a motorized plane first, in December 1903. Others soon followed suit, and an industry was born.

The Wright Brothers

By 1912 a new challenge emerged. If you’re sending increasing numbers of people into the sky,  in machines apt to break down on occasion, what measures are in place to save those people? This is where our protagonist, Franz Reichelt comes into focus – balancing precariously on the edge of the 187 foot high first floor of the Eiffel Tower.

Franz Reichelt was born in Wegstädt, Bohemia (modern day Czech Republic) on 16th October 1878. Moving to Paris in 1898, he set up a dressmaking shop which catered largely to Austrian tourists on holiday in Paris. Unmarried, he lived alone in a 3rd floor apartment on rue Gaillon. In 1909 Reichelt found a new calling after a spate of aviation fatalities left him aghast – one presumes the September 1909 deaths of Eugene Lefebvre and Ferdinand Ferber (the 2nd & 3rd people to die in a powered aircraft, respectively). He decided a parachute must be developed to give these pioneers a fighting chance.

Parachutes were not an entirely new concept. ‘Professor of Technology’ Louis-Sébastien Lenormand coined the term in 1783 when he exhibited his first model – safely jumping from atop Montpelier Observatory. Lenormand envisioned the parachute as a safety device, for use in burning buildings. Others, including Andre-Jacques Garner, saw an alternate use in hot air ballooning (another way, of course for humans to fly, one I don’t have the column inches to explore today). Most of these devices were fixed (i.e. they could not fold away) and bulky, and as such of no great use to pilots.

Lenormand parachutes to safety.

In 1910 Aero-Club de France offered a reward of 5,000 francs to any inventor who could build a foldaway parachute which could be used from a plane. Reichelt quickly submitted his prototype wingsuit. Soon after the deaths of Lefebvre and Ferber, he made a suit with a canopy that – when opened – would unleash a pair of giant silk wings. He tested it by throwing tailors dummies out of a fifth floor window above his apartment. The initial tests were successful. When he took his wingsuit to the Aero-club, they turned Reichelt away. The judges believed the canopy too weak to withstand a jump from a plane. It didn’t help that the device weighed 70kg either. In 1911, the Aero-Club increased their prize to 10,000 francs, adding the stipulations the parachute must not weigh more than 25kg, and that the prize must be claimed within three years. Suddenly the race was on.

In 1911 Grant Morton, a 54 year old stuntman who made his career by jumping out of hot air balloons, made the world’s first skydive – jumping from a Wright Model B near Venice Beach, California. He made the jump with a ‘throw out’ type chute better suited to slower- moving craft, like hot air balloons. Californian balloonist Charles Broadwick and Russian inventor Gleb Kotelnikov were both making huge strides with knapsack parachute designs. It was likely Reichelt also felt pressured by fellow Frenchman Gaston Hervieu – who tested a number of dummies attached to chutes from the first floor of the Eiffel Tower in 1911. As Reichelt pared down his materials to make the 25kg cutoff, making a succession of failures – Hervieu threw a model from the tower, which landed softly below. Were the dummies responsible for this sudden run of bad luck? It appears twice in 1911 Franz Reichelt donned the suit himself, and leapt to the ground 30 feet below. On the first occasion he fell heavily into a pile of hay and walked away uninjured. On the second occasion he broke his leg.

All the while, he continuously petitioned authorities to allow him to test his dummies from the Eiffel tower also. He was now convinced the fault lay, not in the design, but the height he was testing the suit from. If he could get a few hundred feet higher, the chute was bound to work. This brings us to February 4th 1912. The temperature was at an icy zero Celsius. There was a wicked cross-wind. Franz Reichelt finally had permission to toss a dummy off the ledge, while assorted press milled around on the nearby Champ de Mars.
Knowing the time had passed for dummies, today was make or break – and with an unyielding belief in his suit – Reichelt climbed the guardrail. For forty seconds he stared down. Failure meant certain death, but to succeed meant plaudits beyond his imagination. Just think of all the lives the wingsuit would save in the future. His name would be remembered for eternity. He would be 10,000 francs better off. So, here we go, Trois – Duex – Un……..


A body in free fall plummets at 9.8 metres per second, picking up a further 9.8 metres every second till it hits terminal velocity – for a human that’s a cruising speed of around 55 meters a second – 200 kilometres an hour. An online ‘splat calculator’ which factors in Reichelt’s 72kg frame estimates his fall time at 3.41 seconds – enough time for the poor man to realize his suit had failed miserably. Franz Reichelt fell like a stone, hitting the ground below with a dull, heavy thud. Film footage of the incident shows a group of men picking up his body, then casually measuring the sizeable crater he left beneath him. Needless to say Mr. Reichelt did not win the prize.

While it’s tempting, and indeed a little callous to think of Franz Reichelt’s Tale as little more than a Darwin award in the making – I feel obliged to point out his quixotic story is slightly more than that. Whether motivated out of a genuine need to help others (in this case saving pilots) or by that big paycheck, what’s for certain is he lived at the tail end of a time where some private citizen could invent the next big thing in the back of a shed. Right up till the postwar period, when the USA had a lot of money to throw at research into everything one could imagine – and an understanding if they wanted to keep hegemony, innovation hubs full of the newest, greatest things were necessary – lots of people a little like Franz Reichelt built much of our world from their sheds, spare rooms and kitchen tables. I desperately want to remember him as a pioneer more than a punchline, though I fear the tides of history are against me on this one.  

Olive Thomas – the poisoned chalice

This week’s Tale is part one of a four-part series on scandals of Hollywood’s Silent film era. It’s due to run on the non-podcast weeks.

When I think of Olive Thomas and her sojourn in Paris, a tiny part of me wonders how she found the ‘City of Light’? Did she and hubby Jack Pickford, (of the superstar acting family of the era, most notably including Mary Pickford) play tourist, wandering the expansive, well lit boulevards which were masterminded by Baron Haussmann. Did they stop along the way to take in statues, fountains and historic buildings? Did they ride in a hot air balloon or cruise the Seine river by pleasure boat? Make the pilgrimage to the Louvre – the former palace rebranded an art gallery in the 1790s, or view the splendour of the palace of Versailles?

Was Olive afflicted, as so many Asian tourists allegedly are, by ‘Paris Syndrome’? A sense of culture shock which leaves one with an intense feeling of ‘Meh-ness’ at Gay Paree? 

One thing I know for certain, both Olive and Jack did experience Paris’ vivid nightlife on the night of September 5th 1920. The couple drank, and partied, and arrived at their Hotel Ritz suite, presumably the worse for wear, around 3am on the 6th. Jack, it is said, went straight to bed. The couple had a flight booked for London that morning, and he needed a little shut eye. Olive, not yet ready to turn in, took to writing a letter to her mother back in the USA – at least until Jack shouted at her to turn the light off and come to bed. She turned out the light, and made her way in the dark to the bathroom. 

Seconds later Jack claimed to hear Olive shriek “Oh My God!” and collapse as if struck dead. The unfolding event would go down in the annals of Tinseltown as it’s first great scandal, and proof that sometimes, tragedy sells. Before I get into that too deeply I really should introduce the cast? 

Paris

Olive Thomas was born Olivia Duffy in Charleroi, Pennsylvania, October 20th 1894. She was sent to live with her grandparents at the age 12 when her father, James, was killed in a workplace accident. She left school aged 15, to work in a department store; and married Bernard Thomas, a train station clerk, in April 1911. By the age of 18 she’d left Bernard, moving to New York to make her fame and fortune. Her first big break came in 1914, when she won a beauty contest. 

Over the following years, Olive parlayed her win into a lucrative entertainment career. The win opened doors for her as an artist’s model – her painted image featuring in several magazine advertisements. This, in turn led to a role in the Ziegfeld Follies – a flashy Broadway dance review which ran from 1907 to 1931 (then intermittently after) established after the model of Paris’ Folies Bergère by Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. She was soon dating the impresario, which in turn saw her move up the pecking order at the Follies. By 1916, Olive was appearing in films – and after she came to the attention of the film producer Thomas Ince in 1917 – she signed up to a six film a year contract with Triangle Pictures. She often played innocent, girl next door types.

Her real life was anything but girl next door – though that IS why they call it acting I guess? In 1916, while still involved with Ziegfeld, she met and fell in love with Jack Pickford – the only son of the Pickford acting family. Mary Pickford, his older sister, was as A list as one could be in those days. A film star since 7 years of age, she would be known as ‘America’s Sweetheart’. She’d win an Oscar, found Pickford-Fairbanks studios with second hubby Douglas Fairbanks, and become a founding member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Jack himself was a popular working actor playing ‘boy next door’ types. The couple secretly eloped in 1916.

Jack and Olive were heavy partiers, Jack especially. He was an extremely heavy drinker, and – according to Hollywood Babylon’s Kenneth Anger – reputedly a heroin addict. He was also far from a one woman man. It was rumoured he’d contracted syphilis, an STI for which there would be no effective known cure for till a US marine hospital trialled penicillin in 1943. As it was, it was reputed ‘Mr Syphilis’ as he was known in Hollywood circles – used mercury bi-chloride as an ointment on his syphilis sores as they arose. It’s worth mentioning now that mercury bi-chloride, first used to treat the condition in the mid 16th Century by Paracelsus – is highly dangerous if ingested. 

To take us through to September 6th… Olive continued to have a career – nothing Earth-shattering. She left Triangle for Selznick pictures for an eight picture a year deal. She had a string of moderately successful films, one of which – The Flapper – lent it’s name to the carefree party girls of the Roaring 20s. Something may have happened in the lead up to her and Jacks’ cruise to France however, as she was off their payroll by time the couple set sail in August 1920. Jack continued to party, drink, ingest drugs and play the field. In 1918 he created a scandal of his own when he – a Canadian born Canadian citizen volunteered for the American Navy to avoid being drafted into Canada’s armed forces and sent off to World War One. He volunteered knowing a number of sons of wealthy patricians were doing the same, then paying generous bribes to Naval brass to keep from getting sent off to fight. Jack was one of a number of these ‘slackers’ caught out, and named and shamed in the press. He avoided a dishonourable discharge, or criminal charges – but his image was tarnished, as was the wider Pickford families’ good name. 

Sidebar: It’s probably worth a quick mention Mary Pickford’s ‘good name’ could have done with a little more tarnishing, truthfully. Though she did participate in a lot of charity work, she was also a fan and supporter of Benito Mussolini, Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan – not exactly the nicest of people, to put it mildly. 

Mary Pickford, Hollywood pioneer and big fan of fascist dictators.

So it was the couple left by ship to Europe in mid August 1920 – Olive possibly let go of her contract. Jack still working, but down to one or two films a year at this point. 

And, here we rejoin the tragedy at the Ritz. Olive has collapsed – a bottle of poison at her side. Jack called for a doctor, and proceeded to force water and egg whites down Olive’s rapidly corroding throat to try to purge the dangerous substance. It’s not known if she took a tablet of Jack’s ointment (it usually came in tablet form) thinking it was a painkiller or a sleeping pill – or if she’d washed a pill down with a dissolved tablet left in a glass – thinking she was downing water. Mary Pickford would later claim an errant maid must’ve left some poison out after cleaning their room, in an effort to absolve Jack and save her family brand from further damage. A doctor would arrive, and pump Olive’s stomach three times, then – five hours after she collapsed – have her taken to the hospital. At this stage it was too late, Olive Thomas would pass on 10th September 1920.      

Not meaning to trivialise Olive’s tragedy, she’s just passed after all, but the waves in the wake of her passing were something to behold. The Pickfords immediately sprang into damage control mode. On the day Olive passed, Mary’s recently ex husband Owen Moore made a press announcement – hoping to stop the press muck-raking. He stated Olive was extremely unwell when the couple left for France – inferring she’d died of natural causes. Just a moderately successful 25 year old actress dying suddenly of a mystery illness we don’t feel the need to explain to you – nothing to see here folks. Please don’t poke around the Pickfords facade in their time of mourning. 

But poke around the press did. Stories emerged, whether true or not, of Olive’s night of Parisian debauchery. Was she hanging out in disreputable dens with the criminal underclass – where the entertainment ran from women bare knuckle brawling to darker-skinned men biting the heads off live rats? Did she drink rocket-fuel containing high amounts of ethanol? Were these seedy clubs being run “in defiance of police regulations” as one Ohio newspaper claimed?

Probably not. But American papers announced this in the tradition of Yellow journalism they were then so well known for. 

But then, there was the case of a Captain Spalding – a former American army captain sentenced to six months’ prison time at La Sante Prison in the week following Olive’s death. His crime? Organising cocaine-fuelled orgies. It was rumoured his little black book had Olive’s contacts in it. 

And then, the rumours of Jack’s syphilis emerged. Scuttlebutt circulated Olive must have contracted the disease from Jack, and in a moment of despondency – taken her own life. People started to blame Jack for her death. This was followed by another rumour – that Jack had taken a life insurance policy out on Olive – and some began to look askance at him now as a possible murderer. Questions arose about the way Jack avoided police questioning in the wake of Olive’s passing. This wouldn’t be helped any when Jack Pickford remarried, to a young Hollywood widow named Marilyn Miller. Marilyn herself would die young, though at that point she was recently divorced from Jack (turns out he was physically abusive to Marilyn) and on the operating table having surgery on her nasal passages. 

Public opinion soon fell behind Olive. She was the wholesome girl next door led astray by this family of dodgy Hollywood aristocrats. 15,000 mourners gathered outside her funeral. Her movies – all honesty I have no idea if she was any good as an actress, and best as I can tell next to nothing of her work survives – suddenly looked a whole lot better to the public. Her films, re-released all became blockbusters. 

When the wowsers who banned alcohol in America via tireless rallying for the 18th Amendment – followed by the Volstead Act found themselves at a loose end, Hollywood would become their next target. I won’t get into the various reasons behind this, not least of all that waspish killjoys were also racist killjoys who detested the number of Jewish folk involved in the movie industry – but for now it suffices to say the tragedy of Olive Thomas was an early parable trotted out by that crowd.  

While there is a lot of rumour and supposition in this Tale – it probably does bear to mention Jack Pickford, of who it was only ever rumoured he had syphilis – did return to Paris in late 1932. He collapsed as suddenly as Olive had, and died days later, January 3rd 1933. The cause of death, “progressive multiple neuritis which attacked all the nerve centres.” This could well have been caused by his alcoholism, but it’s worth pointing out it is often caused by syphilis also. 

Willie the Wimp (and his Cadillac coffin)


Inspiration can come at you from so many ways. For me it sometimes comes in the form of a digression in a book that sticks in my head – I wonder why no-one has told THAT story, till I go chase down the rest of the tale. Sometimes something comes from a conversation you’ve had with someone else.

Sometimes the teenage you is looking through second hand cassettes in a 4 for $5 bin. You are planning to spend the afternoon hand writing a legible copy (I did not get my first computer till I was 22) of a university essay on Shakespeare’s ‘Measure for Measure’ from your completely illegible notes – and you may as well grab a seat in the AV lab, borrow a cassette player, and listen to a little music while you work. Among my picks that day was Stevie Ray Vaughan’s ‘Live Alive’, and on that album a cover song with a back story that has always fascinated me. I find the following quirky. I don’t intend any veiled commentary on society, no judgment or praise. I could make the point funerals are for the living, they often reflect the needs and wishes of those left behind, and why I think, most of the time that is OK – but I’ll leave it to you all to join any dots you see fit. I really just mean this as a quirky tale that found its way to me many moons ago.

Willie ‘Wimp’ Stokes jr. was a notorious figure among the underworld of Chicago’s South Side. Though at the time of his passing, Jet magazine listed him as a ‘flamboyant gambler’, and gamble he sure did – it would be reported later that he was a drug dealer working for his alleged kingpin father, William ‘Flukey’ Stokes. If one is thinking back to the Macks from my Christmas podcast, that is OK – I used a photo of Flukey to represent what a modern day mack looked like. One February night in 1984, Stokes Jr was gunned down on his way to a motel on the South Side. Though nowhere could I find any indication that anyone was arrested for the murder, it is to be noted the murder happened at a time when cheap crack cocaine was starting to flood the streets in many US cities, and a number of young gangsters were suddenly looking to elbow into the business – in spite of the few kingpins who had dominated the narcotics business for years. Stokes Jr, just 28 at the time, left a wife and five children behind.

William ‘Flukey’ Stokes snr.

Willie ‘the wimp’s father, Willie ‘Flukey’ Stokes, was also something of a flamboyant gambler – at least on his income tax forms he claimed most of his money came from gambling. He owned a pool hall – and was, at the time of his own death, reputed to be the owner of as many as 40 drug houses, employing around 200 people in his organization. Like his son he cut a flamboyant figure – silk suits, diamond rings with carat counts into the dozens – a taste for Cadillacs. Flukey, for all the damage his ‘gambling’ did in his community was beloved by most – he was well known in the neighborhood for acts of kindness to the elderly (bringing turkeys to pensioners) the poor (no strings attached financial assistance to many needy folk who approached him for help), and the unfortunate (helping re-house a family whose home had caught fire). All the same, at the time of his own death Stokes Snr was facing murder, conspiracy to murder and racketeering charges. He was also thought to be bringing in a million dollars a week from his drug houses.

So when Willie the wimp is gunned down, Flukey put on a funeral which caught the imagination of a number of journalists. There laid out in all his finery was the younger Willie – propped up at the wheel of a Cadillac coffin. Before Willie the wimp had been loaded into the coffin it had been taken to a local panel beaters, and had a genuine Cadillac front grille and boot added to it. Working front and tail lights were installed. A plastic windshield, a big floral steering wheel, a dashboard were added, as were four wheels to the chassis. All up it is believed the coffin, modelled after a 1984 Cadillac Seville, cost Stokes Snr around $7,000. It also had a vanity licence plate W.I.M.P. Willie himself was dressed in a hot pink three piece suit with a matching tie, a rather pimping looking hat, and a giant diamond ring just like his father wore. He went driving into the great unknown clutching what most newspapers report as a wad of $100 bills, and Flukey’s own biography claimed to be $1,000 notes.


When interviewed about the funeral Flukey advised “He (Wimp) had a brand new Cadillac every year for the past eight years or so… Furthermore, one year I was in debt and he sold his Cadillac to help me out, so I owed him one”. Willie the Wimp’s mother Jean added “I think he would have really liked it because that’s the way he was. He was flashy, and he believed in style”

Two years later Flukey Stokes would make the news again, after spending $200,000 on a lavish party to celebrate the 30th anniversary of his wedding to Jean. They hired the Staples Sisters and Chi-Lites to play, and Flukey threw $50 and $100 bills to the guests at one point in the night. It has always astonished me the party was held at the South Side motel where Willie the Wimp was gunned down. Not long after Flukey himself would be gunned down. Having just been acquitted of attempting to kill a rival drug boss, he was killed in a hit organized by his own bodyguard, on his way back from a night at the movies with his girlfriend.

One morning Texan musician and songwriter Bill Carter is reading the local paper, when an article grabs his attention. He shows it to his wife, and co-writer Ruth Ellsworth, commenting “This isn’t a column, it is a song”. That morning, on their two mile drive to the studio the songwriting partners have a song out of it, and cut the track that day. In the studio, Carter’s friend The Fabulous Thunderbirds Jimmy Vaughan, who lays down guitars on the track. Jimmy called his brother, blues legend Stevie Ray Vaughan that night, raving about how good a song Willie The Wimp (And His Cadillac Coffin) is. SRV agreed, adding the song to his live set. And that folks is that tale of Willie the Wimp Stokes.

Prelude: Scandals of Hollywood’s Silent Era

Hey everyone, on in-between weeks (i.e. weeks I don’t publish a podcast episode) I’m resuming blog only posts. The plan will be to run several series on those weeks. 

The on-weeks will be completely unlinked to the series. The weeks I drop a podcast episode, the subject could be anything; maybe the time Kazakhstan imprisoned a bear for 15 years for mauling campers, or the tale of a Flemish man as tall as Andre the Giant, who turned pirate after the Hapsburgs murdered his family – or the American soldier of fortune who became an Afghan prince…. You come here often, you know the kinds of things. The alternating weeks, on the other hand, may run four or 5 posts on, say, Old Hollywood scandals – Yeah, let’s start with that.

This post is part one of a five part series on old Hollywood scandals, scheduled to run fortnightly, in between the podcast weeks.  

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Lying northwest of downtown Los Angeles, on a 80 square kilometre plot, Hollywood is a far cry from the community envisioned by it’s founding family. The district was first settled by Harvey Wilcox, a former shoe maker from New York via Kansas, and his wife Daeida. The couple set up a farm on the land, but finding farming wasn’t for them, drew up plans for a community. A Prohibitionist, Harvey wanted Hollywood (the name contributed by Daeida) to be a Christian neighbourhood, free of alcohol, gambling and prostitution. Harvey died four years after establishing the community, in 1891. Following her husband’s death, Daeida Wilcox Beveridge took an active role in the development of the district. From the short write up I found of her, Daeida’s focus was to build a place of beauty. She died in 1914, a few years after the first movie studios moved to Tinseltown. 

The first movie to be shot in Hollywood was all the way back in 1908. Directors Thomas Persons and Francis Boggs had filmed most of the ‘five act play’ in Chicago, but headed out to Hollywood to complete the silent film. More productions would follow in 1911, and by the early nineteen-teens, twenty production companies would be settled there. The large number of sunny days each year, and great light for filming in, combined with a diverse landscape and rapidly growing population (California on the whole was a rising agricultural and industrial area at the time) made Tinseltown the ideal place to film. 

An emergent film industry, (booming in part due to the USA enjoying a large economic upswing in the nineteen-teens up to the Great Depression) was a great thing for Hollywood, and Los Angeles in general. One could imagine Harvey Wilcox turning in his grave, however. With the film industry came all manner of scandal. By 1930 the industry would be bound to a set of standards, the Motion Picture Production Code – or the Hays Code as it was informally known. The code would be enforced by Will Hays, former postmaster general to one of the USA’s more scandal-ridden presidents himself, Warren Harding. The code would, in part, be felt necessary due to a number of high profile incidents involving Hollywood’s leading figures. As these figures were prevalent in the Silent Era their Tales are less well known these days – but I figured it might be fun to take a look at a few of them. 

Over the next four fortnights I intend to delve into the tales of Olive Thomas, William Desmond Taylor, Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, and the events surrounding the death of Thomas Ince. These four really are the tip of the iceberg, but make for interesting subjects due to the levels of ambiguity in their stories. I’ll possibly run through a handful of others and cover the Hays Code itself as an epilogue if you all dig this series.. Let me know in the comments as we progress.  

I’ll have a ‘regular’ blog post, podcast episode, and Patreon bonus episode next week – but we’ll break ground on this series the week following. 

Giovanni Batista Belzoni – Tomb Raider

Hi all welcome to this month’s YouChoose topic. Raiders of the Lost Ark, the first of the Indiana Jones films had just turned 40 the day I was scrambling for a topic – the film released June 12 1981. Influenced by the serial films of his youth – boys-own adventures with cliffhanger endings which played before the main feature – George Lucas began spitballing the idea in 1973. While the fictional characters are interesting – just look at the picture of Charlton Heston below, as the proto-Jones character Harry Steele in the 1954 film Secret of the Incas – that line of enquiry is possibly best saved for a Tales of Movies and Imagination? In 1973 Lucas worked with fellow writer and director Philip Kaufman to develop a script, The Adventures of Indiana Smith. They discussed real life figures with more than a passing resemblance to Indy. 

Today we’re going to take a brief look at one of these characters. 

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

These are the words of the British Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley – in his poem Ozymandias, published 1818. There’s no doubt Shelley had his own reasons for the piece – for one, it’s a not so subtle dig at the British Empire – perhaps a little smug in their defeat of Napoleon and rapidly accumulating a massive empire – ‘this guy thought he was pretty hot too’. It reflected a trend among the Romantic movement, and in Britain on the whole at the time. Orientalism, a fascination with the East, was very in vogue. Thirdly, Shelley was in competition with another poet named Horace Smith to write the best poem on Ozymandias. Smith’s poem, by the way, is mediocre by comparison.  

Finally, a giant stone bust – seven and a quarter tons of solid rock – 2.6 metres tall, over two wide had recently arrived in the UK. It had been uplifted from the Ramesseum mortuary temple; Thebes, Egypt. Like the poem, it was once part of a larger, 20 tonne statue before it broke in half, leaving it’s legs ‘two vast and trunk less legs of stone’. It’s subject, Ramesses II – a 19th Dynasty ruler of Egypt from 1279 to 1213 BCE.

 Considered Egypt’s greatest king, he ruled long, at the height of the country’s power. Ramesses II, it’s fair to say, had every right to sneer – to invite onlookers to view his empire and despair. The Greeks called him Ozymandias having misheard his full title. The giant bust, also known as the younger Memnon, stood in his tomb – one of a matching pair. 

As far as I can tell we don’t know how the statue broke in half, or how long it lay in the sand. It was broken when France invaded Egypt in 1798. They attempted to steal the bust themselves – but couldn’t work out how to move it to the River Nile. The younger Memnon lay in the sand, a long way inland for the duration of the Napoleonic wars – a hole in it’s chest testimonial to it’s mistreatment by Napoleon’s army. 

In 1815 an Italian giant landed in Egypt on a whole other matter, and on being asked, undertook to steal the statue for Britain. This man, Giovanni Batista Belzoni, is our Indiana Jones. 

Giovanni Battista Belzoni was born in Padua, modern day Italy – November 5th 1778. One of fourteen children, he trained to become a monk, then studied hydraulic engineering. His studies were interrupted by Napoleon’s invasion of the Papal States between 1796- 98. Possibly becoming embroiled in local politics, an order was made for his arrest – so he fled. Belzoni worked in the Netherlands as a barber – his father’s profession – till the Netherlands too became too dangerous. He then packed up and fled to Britain, in 1803.

Napoleon crosses the Alps- Jacques Louis David’s painting cartooned.

While in Britain, the powerfully built, 6 foot 7 tall Belzoni found work as a circus strongman – billed as The Great Belzoni, or sometimes The Patagonian Samson 

Sidebar: (Reports of Ferdinand Magellan’s alleged 1520 encounter with a tribe of giants up to ten feet tall, in Patagonia clearly still had some currency – will probably cover this Tale at length in the future). 

He met his future wife Sarah Bane, who would accompany him on many of his adventures. With the Napoleonic wars on the wane, he left England to resume his career as an engineer – travelling to Spain, then Malta – where he met the Ottoman admiral Ismael Gibraltar (b Ismael Djebel Akhdar, who achieved some degree of fame fighting for the Ottomans in the Greek war of independence). Gibraltar served the Egyptian Sultan Muhammad Ali – an Albanian mercenary who rose through Ottoman ranks – till he had the chance to make himself Sultan of Egypt. Ali was looking to improve irrigation in the fields. Belzoni knew how to build an efficient water wheel, so he made off for Egypt, accompanied by Mrs Belzoni and their servant – a young Irishman named James Curtain.

Belzoni as the Patagonian Samson.

The water wheel in a paragraph- Belzoni arrived, and built some kind of ‘crane with a water wheel’ . It was powered by oxen, and alleged to be four times more efficient than older methods. Ali was impressed by the demonstration … at least until he asked if men could power the wheel, rather than beasts of burden. A group of locals jumped on, with James Curtain – then suddenly let go – whether out of fear or bedevilment we don’t know. Curtain held on, and was thrown by the machine, breaking a leg. If you’re a little lost as to the specifics of this machine – me too. I couldn’t find a diagram for this machine. Belzoni himself, possibly protecting his intellectual property, doesn’t adequately explain it. Whatever this machine was, it was history – Ali wanted no part in the machine, seeing the injury as a bad omen.     

At a loose end, Giovanni took up an offer from the recently appointed British Consul General to Egypt, Henry Salt… There’s a giant statue in the desert, we’ve got a short window of time to grab it before rising waters make it impossible for another year. As the removal was to be done with Sultan Ali’s approval, he jumped at the opportunity.  

The Belzonis and their party left, by boat for Luxor, 30th June 1816. On arrival, 22nd July, Belzoni was blown away by the scene greeting him. He wrote

“It is absolutely impossible to imagine the scene displayed, without seeing it. The most sublime ideas, that can be formed from the most magnificent specimens of our present architecture, would give a very incorrect picture of these ruins… It appeared to me like entering a city of giants, who, after a long conflict, were all destroyed, leaving the ruins of their various temples the only proofs of their former existence” 

And so planning for the removal of the statue began. After viewing the bust within the temple he came up with a pretty basic plan. He brought 14 heavy duty poles with him, He built a cart eight of them. The other poles would be used under the cart as rollers. Using his knowledge of levers, Belzoni manipulated the statue onto the cart – then with a large crew of local men and some strong ropes, they would drag the cart through the sand till they reached the boat – a long, difficult trek, considering the weight they were pulling. The first few steps were no big deal. Finding a trustworthy crew would prove far more difficult.

On approaching the Cacheff of Erments, with his orders to collect 80 men to help him, Belzoni was stonewalled. The Cacheff would do his best of course, but all the men were very busy. Belzoni pointed out he’d spotted many men around town not engaged in work. The Cacheff claimed without help from the prophet Muhammad himself these men wouldn’t take on the task. The statue is too heavy to move naturally. Belzoni insisted he would go find men himself then. The Cacheff promised him a crew- who no-showed the following day. 

The following day, he got another promise, then went over the Cacheff’s head to ensure they showed – and yet another no-show. He finally got his crew, referred to as Fellahs, on the 27th. With his 80 Fellahs in tow, and the magic of physics – four carefully placed levers- he got the statue onto the cart. The Fellahs dragged the bust out of the temple – Belzoni smashing two columns that were in the way – something which would horrify modern archeologists. The statue’s slow journey to the edge of the Nile had begun. 

The 80 Fellahs were doing the heavy lifting, but Belzoni – not yet accustomed to the unforgiving environment – which could get to 50 degrees Celsius – soon became quite ill. He described the daytime heat as ‘inflamed’, the nighttime winds as hardly any better. The rocks around the Ramesseum were hot to the touch and radiating heat up at him. He was ill for days, barely sleeping, and unable to hold down food. By the third day, Giovanni couldn’t even stand, and sent the Fellahs home for the day. On the 30th they were back at it, moving the statue 150 yards. 

They ran into some trouble on the 31st, hitting a spot too sandy to move the statue through, so a change of course to rockier ground was made.

 By 2nd August the statue was close to the pick up point, though now in a danger zone. Every year the Nile flooded and would remain at it’s new height for several months. The statue would be deep under water if they didn’t move it from here quickly. If stuck here they would have to wait atill next year, and have to dig it out before they resumed. At the end of 5th August work stopped with the statue a day’s work from the safety of the banks – but only a few days from the coming flood. 

The next day no-one showed up to work. Word went round the Caimakan, another of the Sultan’s bureaucrats, ordered the Fellahs “not to work for the Christian dogs any longer”, according to Belzoni. Accompanied by a Turkish Janissary, Belzoni left for the town to confront the Caimakan. 

Loud voices soon escalated to the two men coming to blows. The heavily armed Caimakan drew his sword on Belzoni. Belzoni wrested the sword away from him and pinned the Caimakan against the wall, before he could go for his pistols. He shook the Caimakan violently till he begged him to stop, and admitted the stop work order came from the Cacheff. Belzoni immediately left for the Cacheff’s home, up river in Erments – Caimakan’s sword and pistols – in hand. 

His visit with the Cacheff was far more civil. It was just after sunset when he arrived, finding a room full of guests seated for a meal. The Cacheff invited Belzoni to join him. He claimed the men couldn’t be spared from the fields at this time of year. Belzoni countered he would go and get men from the next town to finish the job. The Cacheff would lose all the honour of moving the unmovable statue, to the neighbours who completed the task. Did he want to lose face like this? Whether this argument – or an understandable fear of the furious, heavily armed giant at his table won him over – Belzoni was given his Fellahs back. They would resume the following day. 

The boat ride home was eventful. The boatman nearly crashed the boat into some rocks, and Belzoni feared they would drown. The boatman regained control at the last minute and they proceeded back to the site. 

The Fellahs returned the next day, moving the statue into safe territory. Work was paused 9th August, when Belzoni was struck with vertigo and started bleeding profusely from his nose and mouth. They returned to work on 10th August and had the Younger Memnon safe, and ready for collection on 12th August 1816. 

This was hardly Giovanni Batista Belzoni’s only adventure in Egypt. While waiting for the boat to arrive, he travelled down river, looking for other treasures. Over the following three years, employed by Henry Salt, he raided a number of tombs – removing several large treasures.  Destroying several artefacts he deemed of less value in the process. This includes the mummies he crawled over in one tomb raid, which turned to dust beneath his weight. Belzoni commented their taste was less than pleasant. 

He was the first modern explorer to enter the burial tomb of the Pharaoh Khafre. He discovered to the tomb of Tutankhamen’s successor, a man known as Ay, of whom little is known – another later pharaoh chiselling his name off all monuments. In 1817 he completed a mammoth task of clearing many tonnes of sand from the blocked entranceway to the Temple of Abu Simbel. Belzoni wrote

“From what we could perceive at the first view, it was evidently a very large place, but our astonishment increased when we found it to be the most magnificent of temples, enriched with beautiful intaglios, painting, colossal figures…” He goes on to describe, as the first person to enter this temple in at least a thousand years, it’s scale and adornments – the ceiling 30 feet high, held up by pillars five feet thick. The walls covered in art depicting wars with their Southern neighbours. 

He entered the tomb of Ramesses I, the founder of the 19th dynasty. While on this mission he discovered the far more richly adorned tomb of Seti I, long buried under the sand and forgotten. In the tomb, besides all manner of treasures and a mummified bull, was an exquisite alabaster sarcophagus. Of course he stole this Egyptian treasure for his English boss – under the tacit approval of the Albanian warlord who declared himself Pharaoh..  

The Belzonis returned to Britain in 1819, where they exhibited some of their ill gotten gains. They became instant celebrities, who publicly lectured about their adventures, on a stage set out to look like an Egyptian tomb. In his show Belzoni would tell his tales of audacious engineering feats, conflicts with the locals, and grave robbing in unhealthy temperatures. He would perform stunts like unwrapping a real mummy for the crowd. Giovanni wrote a book on his adventures in Egypt and Nubia. Soon bored, however, he set off for Timbuktu. When Morocco refused him entry, he landed off the coast of Guinea, West Africa, with a plan to trek through Benin

Giovanni Batista Belzoni died December 3rd 1823 in Gwato, Benin – most likely of dysentery, though fellow adventurer Richard Francis Burton claimed he was robbed and murdered by locals. 

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.